1. BOOZE AND FROGSKINS
Goddammit, but they wouldn’t leave him alone. Charlie stood in the bathroom, looking at his wrinkled, ruddy, burn-scarred face in the mirror over the sink, and mumbled to himself. His daughter Anne was listening to the rock-and-roll crap again, and his wife Joline…well, she didn’t have to say anything, goddamn her.
But she’s right, he said to the mirror, you are a selfish sonovabitch. Then he ran his large hands through his thinning gray hair. Satisfied, he opened the bathroom door and stepped into the kitchen, which was next to the bathroom. It was a 1930’s railroad apartment.
Joline sat at the newly purchased red Formica table and glared at him.
“I’ll be back later,” Charlie muttered, avoiding her eyes, and walked stiffly out of the apartment into the hallway.
“You’re a selfish sonovabitch,” Joline shouted after him. “Go ahead then and get drunk, let your daughters know what they have for a father…”
Charlie started coughing halfway down the hallway stairs, but he didn’t stop to rest until he was outside. The street stank of garbage because collection had been reduced to once a week, thanks to the new Republican mayor. It was one of those warm Indian summer days in late October; somewhere in the ’50s, although it seemed warmer than that. But even with his jacket on, Charlie was cold…he was always cold. He didn’t know how he was going to get through another hard winter.
He stopped near the edge of his building, which was a red brick six-family, and started hacking again, coughing and wheezing and spitting up that whitish-yellow phlegm. Then the spell was over, and he took a deep breath. He hadn’t even needed his asthma inhaler. He still had the tickle in the back of his throat, but that would stay with him all winter. It was the dry air, Joline had always said. The dry air…
Anyway, he wouldn’t cough anymore for a while, he told himself as he lit a non-filtered cigarette. He watched the neighbor lady across the street bundle her baby into a carriage. She lived with her bastard child and Hell’s Angel boyfriend in a tiny ground floor apartment next to an empty bar. The boyfriend wasn’t a bad sort: big, fat, and always smiling through crooked teeth. He called his girlfriend “Momma”, which was what Charlie called Joline.
Suddenly, Charlie started to cough again, and he let his cigarette drop to the ground. The emphysema was worse this year: that’s what kept him from holding down a decent job.
But fuck the emphysema, he thought when he stopped coughing. He felt in his pocket for another cigarette. Fuck everything. He had fought in the goddamned war.
He had a right to get drunk.
* * *
Charlie always kept a bottle of wine and a few cans of beer hidden in the cellar below Nathan Isaacs’ office. He had a key to the office, which was on the ground floor of an anvil-shaped brick building; the office was situated next to a small bookstore. On the window of the office door was painted in large block letters and in the lower left hand corner was painted in much smaller letters: BEST REALTY, LTD. Although Nathan liked to keep up the pretense that he was still in practice, he had retired to Florida, both physically and spiritually. His son Stephen took care of his upstate income properties, which supported the whole family. Charlie was certain that Nathan had salted away enough money for himself and didn’t need the income from the properties. But the old man took a good share of it for himself, nevertheless.
NATHAN ISAACS, ESQ.
As Charlie paused in the narrow, crowded office before going down into the cellar, he remembered the old days when Nathan had four other lawyers working for him, and his offices had taken up the entire second floor, which Nathan had converted into furnished rooms for middle-income transients. But instead of letting Charlie have the work, he had brought in “professionals” to convert the offices into furnished rooms. After all the money I’ve saved the sonovabitch, Charlie thought, the humiliation still grinding away at him.
Nathan could afford to hire “professionals”…he could afford to let them overcharge him, the Jew bastard!
Now Charlie didn’t have anything against Jewish people. His best friend Avram Kanckle was Jewish, and Charlie had grown up with him. Avram became a millionaire. But goddamn, Charlie had been a good friend to Nathan. He deserved better than this. Nathan had promised him that he’d never have to worry about money. Well, Nathan was even tight with his own son.
Now that was unusual to see among Jewish people…
Charlie went down the cellar stairs, past the bathroom and the metal shower stall he had installed. It had been his idea to build a furnished room at the other end of the cellar, which had windows. The added income would help pay Nathan’s expensive winter heating bills. But the fire marshal had told Nathan’s son that the room couldn’t be inhabited unless a fire wall was built around the old converted furnace. Well, Charlie had offered to build the goddamned wall, but Stephen demurred, saying, as he always did, “to wait until we get some money in.” Like father like son.
The cellar, which was filled with oddments, plumbing accessories, sheets of wallboard and marlite and paneling, old desks, chairs, couches, office equipment, cardboard files, bed frames, and moldering mattresses, consisted of six rooms. With the exception of the furnished room, bathroom, and furnace area, the cellar was filled with all the junk Charlie had collected for the firm over the years. Charlie boasted that he could find a use for everything, such as the boxes of used carpet squares at the foot of the stairs, and thereby save…and make…money.
But fuck that. Let them pay a premium rate now, Charlie thought. He’d keep his ideas to himself.
He passed the cubby where breaker-switches lined the low-ceilinged wall; it looked like the control room of a space-ship in an old 50’s movie. Charlie noticed that one of the black breaker toggles had snapped to the off position, breaking the neat double row, and he switched it back on: someone was using too many appliances upstairs. Then he checked the furnace. It was hissing away cozily, but he made sure there was enough water in the boiler because the automatic feed didn’t work. A new mechanism would cost over two hundred dollars, and Charlie had advised Nathan and Stephen that a new one would foul-up just as this one did. So they paid him to check the water-level. It was the least they could do, the bastards, he told himself.
Then he retrieved his already opened bottle of sauterne, which he had hidden in the drawer of a desk with three legs, which, in turn, was hidden behind a section of sheet-rock that had been water-damaged and was curved and bent, as if it were kneeling. He’d have to get rid of all this stuff one day, he told himself, before the whole fucking building goes up in smoke.
Nathan would like that…he’d make some more money.
He suddenly felt guilty for harboring such thoughts…after all, Stephen always tried to do right by him. Taking a sip of wine, he apologized to Stephen, as if Stephen was sitting right there with him in the furnace room. He raised his bottle and then spilled a few drops on the floor in Nathan’s honor. “And to you, too, Nathan. You’re a cheap Jew-bastard, but I love you. That’s more than you’ve ever done for me.”
He got up and paced back and forth in the crowded cellar hallway, maneuvering around the piles of junk. He looked into his work room, with its shelves neatly filled with jars and tins of nails and screws and bolts and washers. There were several five-gallon drums of paint along one wall. Arrayed upon his workbench were the various tools that he had bought for the company. He had always thought of himself as part of the company, as if somehow he too were an owner. When Nathan used to go off on business trips or vacations, Charlie was always the one in charge. He would sit at the desk and make the decisions and handle the money. He did the same thing now for Stephen. He could still handle anything that came up. But he had to pay rent just like any other tenant.
Goddamn, if Nathan shouldn’t have at least given me a rent-free apartment. In the old days I didn’t pay any rent…and there were always the bonuses.
But where the hell else could he work “off the books” and still keep the paltry allowance Social Services gave him to support his family?
Goddamn, every five minutes his daughters had to buy something else. They were like little birds, their mouths always open, and every day, every hour, they had to get dressed up in a different color. No, Daddy, I can’t wear those slacks anymore because nobody’s wearing bellbottoms, they’re out of style, Daddy, you can understand that, can’t you?
Charlie mimicked his daughter’s voice in a gravelly falsetto, and talked earnestly to the green couch that Stephen had stored in the cellar until such time as he could afford a larger house. Well, that sonovabitch will get his larger house, Charlie thought, and what the hell will I leave to my family? Diddleyshit, that’s what!
Charlie was almost sixty-six, and his wife was only in her late forties. He’d shown everyone that he still had the stuff, the jizzum; and now he had to somehow support his late-born children.
“I love those kids,” he said to the couch. “God knows I do. But I can’t afford all the shit they want, I just can’t afford it.” He turned to a cardboard box that had once housed a large appliance and said, “And I’m not buying another shitbox of a used car that’ll fall apart an hour after I’ve paid for it. If I’m going to get out and do something with my life, I need a truck.” He turned toward the furnace, as if speaking to an old and trusted friend. “But they won’t listen…Joline certainly won’t listen. Once that woman gets something into her head there’s no talking her out of it. But she’s not getting her way this time. I’m not buying another car, and that’s final. There’s just no money. And I won’t go into debt for it.”
As if in response, the furnace roared into life.
Charlie felt tipsy from the few swigs of wine. Lately, just the smell of booze seemed to make him drunk. Joline belittled him for getting “shitfaced” on a glass of beer, but it was because of the medicine he had to take for his emphysema, he supposed. In the old days, he could drink anygodamnbody under the table!
But that was long ago when his arms were the size of most people’s legs, and he had a chest like a bull…
Suddenly a voice asked, “Do you always talk to the furnace and these broken pieces of furniture, my friend?”
Charlie jumped and turned toward the furnished room where the voice came from. He made out the figure of a man in the shadows. “Who the hell are you?” Charlie demanded. In the wan light he could see that the man had a shock of white hair that was long enough to be a woman’s.
“Myself, I often talk to the rocks,” the man said, chuckling.
“Goddammit, who the hell are you, this is private property.” Charlie took a step forward and reached above his head to pull the chain of a light bulb fixture. In the sudden bright light Charlie immediately fixed upon the man’s deeply lined, craggy brown face. That face looked like the earth itself, as if it were baked and cracked; and Charlie thought for an instant that he was looking at some indecipherable road map of the man’s past. He was wearing a woolen shirt over a white T-shirt that was torn at the neck, faded dungarees, worn boots, and a vest with lines of bright beads worked in geometrical patterns. “I meant no harm,” the man said, extending his hand.
But Charlie wasn’t going to shake hands with this overaged hippie until he found out exactly what he was doing here. Probably a goddamned tramp—he’d had trouble several years ago in his own building, what with the damn kids sneaking into the cellar and setting up house so they could fuck their brains out and smoke their pot.
The man lowered his hand and said, “I rented the furnished room down here.” He turned his head slightly, indicating that he meant the room behind him, which Charlie had remodeled.
“Well, that room is not for rent, so you can just—”
“You’re Charlie Saris, aren’t you? The landlord told me I’d be meeting you. You’re in charge of all the maintenance, right?”
“That’s right,” Charlie said, unmollified.
“I know all about the fire wall business,” the man said. “The landlord told me all about it when he rented the room to me. At first he told me I couldn’t rent it until the spring, when you turn the furnace off. But I told him I just needed a place to lay my head, and that if there’s any trouble at all, I’ll pick up and move the hell out and he can keep any leftover rent. It was a gentleman’s agreement.”
“Come on and have a drink in my room,” the man said. “Nobody should have to drink alone and talk to himself.”
“I wasn’t talking to myself,” Charlie insisted, embarrassed. “I’ve got work to do, and I’m going to check all this out with Mr. Isaacs. This is all very irregular.” But it’s just the sort of thing that Stephen—or his father, for that matter—would do, Charlie told himself. Neither one could bear to give up a dollar.
“My name’s John.” Again he extended his hand to Charlie.
This man doesn’t take no for an answer, Charlie thought. He shook hands with John and asked, “You got a last name?” John looked almost Asian, but that wasn’t quite right: Charlie had seen enough gooks during the war. God forgive me, he thought, for his son was married to a little Vietnamese girl, and he, Charlie, was a grandfather, and sonovabitch if he shouldn’t be struck dead by lightning for even thinking such a word.
But goddammit, the man did have that pushed-in kind of face. Maybe he was part Negro, or Phillippino…
“The name on my driver’s license says ‘John Stone’.”
Charlie laughed and said, “With a name like that I can understand why you talk to rocks.” Then he followed John into the furnished room, which measured about nine by twelve. There were high, narrow windows on one wall, a stairway leading to the street above, a single bed, a desk and chair, and a curtained closet that Charlie had built. The ceiling squares were old and cracked and torn, but Charlie had tacked up the sagging ones and then painted the ceiling white, just as he had painted the floral-papered walls. It had certainly not cost Nathan or Stephen anything much for materials.
John sat down on the bed, which was covered with a beautiful star pattern quilt. He reached under the bed and pulled out a bottle of inexpensive Scotch. “Glasses on the desk.”
Charlie sat down in the chair beside the desk. He couldn’t help but notice a rather large worn pouch trimmed with leather fringe on the desk; beside it was an Indian-style wooden pipe with a red stone bowl.
“I’ve known some Indian people,” Charlie said.
“That so,” John replied noncommittally.
“You’re not from anywhere around here, are you?”
“Originally from South Dakota,” John said. “But I live just about anywhere now.” He chuckled.
“I mentioned knowing Indian people because of the pipe on the desk here,” Charlie said, feeling uncomfortable…and curious.
“That’s a social pipe,” John said. “Supposed to be smoked with friends, it isn’t a holy pipe. That’s put away in the bag there.”
“Ah,” Charlie said, wondering if John was going to ask him to smoke the pipe. Might do him some good, smoking the peace pipe. But when John didn’t say anything further, Charlie asked, “What do you smoke in them. Tobacco or something else?”
“I thought you said you know about Indian people,” John said, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “I don’t smoke dope in them, if that’s what you mean.”
“No, that’s not what I meant.”
“Maybe you were thinking of kinnickinnick. Indian tobacco. That’s what you probably meant.”
“Sounds familiar, but it’s been a long time, as I said.”
“No, I smoke Bull Durham nowadays,” John said. “Hard to get real Indian tobacco. In fact, it’s hard to get Durham anymore, most of the stores don’t sell it. Just that cheap-shit chewing tobacco. I’ll tell you what I do like, though, I like a good cigar.”
Charlie nodded, although cigar smoke made him gag. “I guess you don’t smoke the pipes much then,” he said, hinting.
“I won’t smoke the sacred pipe when I’m drinking,” John said. “And I don’t even feel right about smoking the social pipe.” He finished his drink and poured another round. “I’m all wrong when I drink, like somebody who walks around backward all the time. I’ve got no business with anything holy, can you understand what I mean?”
Charlie nodded. “Goddamn straight, I understand.”
John started laughing; it was a good, infectious laugh, and Charlie caught it easily. “And, man, I’ve been wrong for a good long time.”
“Hallelujah,” Charlie said. “Here’s to being shitfaced wrong.” They made a toast, and Charlie found himself talking about Joline and the kids and his whole goddamned life—about the three service stations he owned in Los Angeles when he was thirty-one years old, about his women and cars and the beautiful Lady Lorelei, a sailboat he had won in a crap game. “…I had a friend who owned the service station across the highway from mine, and we used to save our money until we each had a thousand dollars, and then we’d buy food and booze and take three or four girls out on the Lorelei and just stay on the water until the supplies were gone. Those days are gone…Jesus, are they.
“But, Jesus Christ, you know I can’t really blame Joline or the kids. They don’t want any more than they ought to have. They’ve got to have decent clothes, for Chrissakes. And we needed a new kitchen table, the leg kept falling off the old one. When I think of how I blew everything I had on fast broads and slow horses…and now I’m struggling just to buy my little girl a dress or buy a fucking second-hand pick-up truck. It just don’t make sense…Well, my old Momma used to say ‘there ain’t no such thing as a second chance.’ She sure was right about that.”
“You know what my father used to call dollar bills?” John asked.
“Green frogskins…when I left the family to see what the world looked like, he called me a fat-taker, a white man, one who chases the green frogskin. He was right, too, I suppose, although I think I was more interested in rodeo riding, pretty girls, and getting drunk; and I needed the frogskins to get the last two.”
“Are you trying to tell me that Indians don’t need money?” Charlie asked. He didn’t like slurs about white people…or any people, for that matter.
“No…most do.” John said something under his breath that Charlie couldn’t hear, and there was an ugly tension in the air.
They drank in silence. Charlie listened to the cars swooshing by. An argument started outside The Trot Line, one of the neighborhood bars; and a woman was shouting and swearing at her husband who answered her back word for word as if he were an echo. Then everything was quiet again, and Charlie wondered about what kind of an argument he was going to get into with Joline when he came home. Christ, if he tried mimicking Joline, she would bite off his goddamn leg!
Suddenly there was a sharp rapping at the door, which was the outside entrance to John’s room. The knocking was persistent.
“You wanna get that?” Charlie asked.
“Shush,” John said, holding his finger to his lips.
“Well, it won’t fucking stop.”
“Yes, it will,” John whispered. “I know who it is.”
“John Stone,” shouted a voice, “I know you’re down there. It’s Sam, and I need to talk to you.” After a pause, the pounding started again. “Damn you, John, answer the goddamn door!”
Charlie looked at John, but John put his finger to his lips again.
“I’m vision-questing Saturday,” the voice said. “And I need you there. You promised me that, remember? Damn you!”
Charlie could hear cleats clattering against pavement when the man finally walked away.
“You see,” John said, taking another drink, “I told you it would stop.”
“Who was it?”
“A friend of mine.”
“What’d he want?” Charlie asked tentatively, knowing it was none of his business.
“Poor bastard has to vision-quest, just like he said. The spirits told him to do three days.”
After a time, Charlie asked, “What’s this…vision-quest?”
John laughed and said, “It’s sitting naked with no booze or food on top of a hill and either freezing or sweating your ass off...It’s what crazy fucking Indians do when they’re not chasing frogskins.”
“What?” Charlie asked.
John’s tone and mood seemed to change suddenly. “It’s sort of an Indian bar mitzvah…a coming-of-age, except traditional people usually vision-quest more than once in their lives. They do it when the spirits tell them to…or when they get lost and need to find themselves again. You vision-quest to find your name—your real name. You learn what you’re supposed to do with your life, according to the wishes of the Creator. You find out where you come from. You talk to the spirits—or maybe they’ll kill you. It’s dangerous to have those kind of visions because they’re real. They can come back and bite you. But it’s only up on the hill that you find out who you really are.”
“So what’s he need you for?” Charlie asked.
John laughed. “To tell him what he saw.” Then John put his glass on the floor and fell fast asleep on the bed, leaving Charlie to his thoughts and questions and memories and the street noise above. He thought about his daughter Stephie, who took after him. She was brash and sweet and big-boned like her mother, but she had Charlie’s wildness. It was in the eyes, those cool gray defiant eyes. But she was a good girl, and she was his girl. When her appendix burst, and she almost died from peritonitis, she called for Charlie, and he lay beside her every day and night on the hospital bed that smelled like witch-hazel and combat-sweat. He could smell witch-hazel and sweat right now—the very same acrid, sour odor—as he nodded forward into stupor…into alcohol dreams and peace pipe visions; but he was wide awake and on his way home an hour later.
* * *
Joline didn’t argue with Charlie when he got home. She had his favorite dinner on the table: shrimp chow mein. The chow mein came out of one of those large cans, and Charlie had bought a bag of frozen shrimp, the tiny ones, on sale at the supermarket last month. He preferred soft foods, as he had no teeth. He kept his dentures in a drawer under his socks. Although he looked nice with teeth, the damned things never did fit; and he wasn’t going to be uncomfortable just to look pretty.
He ate like a trencherman, which he often did when he had been drinking. Joline made small talk, and had evidently told the children to stay out of his way because there was no rock-and-roll noise or pimply boyfriends wandering around, raiding the icebox, looking for handouts.
Charlie apologized to Joline for the harsh way he had spoken to her earlier and swore that he wasn’t going on a binge. He had had a few beers, and that was it. Then he lay down on the couch and watched television. Joline joined him after cleaning up the kitchen, and they made love quietly right there under the blanket, and the children weren’t the wiser.
He was gentle and tender and comforting. He was old enough to be her father, and strong enough to satisfy her; but he wouldn’t leave the couch to come to bed with her afterward. He was choking again, and the wine and food had made him nauseated. He slept fitfully, coughing, breaking out in cold sweat, and dreamed about vision-questing on a hill.
But when he woke up, wheezing in the morning darkness, he couldn’t remember the dream.
Copyright © 2000 by Jack Dann