Here’s a chapter from my novel, Wassermann Gardens, which will be available in a couple of weeks as an e-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and two dozen other sites. Hope you enjoy it.
The food situation had become critical. There was enough left, at one meal per day, to feed the islanders for three more days. Marlowe made a half-hearted attempt to convince some of the men that it was necessary to reduce the ration to a half meal per day, but nobody would agree and he gave it up. Even Kline thought it was a meaningless gesture.
“You really think it’ll make a difference.” He had been drinking heavily in the days after Vukovic’s death, joining Druliner in putting a serious dent in the supply of Island Lemonade. “Another couple of days won’t mean shit to anybody. If the helicopter doesn’t show up real soon, we’re all fucked.”
“Well, we’ve got to do something,’ Marlowe said, stubbornly.
“We’ve got to do something,” Kline mimicked, in a singsong voice. He was drunk, hungry and surly. “You’re becoming a real pain in the ass, you know that?”
“Okay, you two dumb asses just sit here and feel sorry for yourselves and I’ll…”
“What are you going to do? Have you got some sort of plan? Are you going to pull off a miracle and feed everybody with fish we can’t catch and bread we don’t have?”
Marlowe couldn’t think of anything to say, a rejoinder that would make them come around to his way of thinking. He knew that something had to be done, but he had no idea of what that would be. They couldn’t just sit and wait for the helicopter to come and make everything better. Yet, that’s exactly what they were doing.
When Marlowe left Druliner’s hootch, he felt helpless. He walked slowly toward the cliffs, drawn by the sound of the ocean. He found a boulder, sat on it and stared out to sea for a long time.
He thought about his first days on the island, when he was drugged, confused and frightened. His mind refused to accept the fact that instead of going home, after his tour of duty in Vietnam, he had been declared Missing in Action and quarantined on an island in the middle of nowhere for the rest of his natural life. Almost as difficult to accept was the fact that his body was carrying a sexually transmitted disease that was incurable and so contagious that his very existence was deemed an unacceptable danger to mankind.
Marlowe didn’t know how he had survived those first days. Many men didn’t. The suicide rate of new arrivals was very high. Marlowe had come close to killing himself several times. He remembered spending hours at the edge of a cliff, trying to work up the nerve to take the leap.
He also remembered the moment that everything changed. He was sitting on his cot early one morning, after a sleepless, anguished night, when Lester Cooper, a tall, thin man with a huge Afro and a bushy beard, walked into his hootch.
“Hey, man,” Lester said, cheerfully. “You doing anything right now?”
Marlowe didn’t answer. He hadn’t spoken more than 10 words in the weeks he had been on the island. The older islanders tended to avoid newcomers until they showed they would survive the initial shock of arrival. Nobody wanted to invest time or emotion into befriending someone who might be dead in a week.
“I’m talking to you, brother.”
“What do you want?
“I asked if you was doing anything.”
“Does it look like I’m doing anything?”
“No. Looks like you got some time on your hands. That’s good, because I need some help.”
“Help with what?”
“Digging shit holes.”
While Marlowe was sitting on the boulder, listening to the crashing surf and thinking about the past, he saw a familiar figure in the distance. It was Walking Bob, on his endless circuit of the island. Marlowe couldn’t help but smile at the sight of the gaunt, insane man who spent his days and nights just walking. He wondered if Bob was aware of the food situation, or of anything else that happened on the island. The man was so single-minded, so focused on his walking that Marlowe doubted if anything penetrated his wasted brain, other than his next footfall.
As Walking Bob drew nearer, Marlowe saw that he had developed a noticeable limp. It didn’t seem to impede Bob’s progress, but Marlowe felt a pang of concern. The only thing Bob did was walk. If something happened and he couldn’t walk, then what else was there for him?
When Walking Bob came within earshot, Marlowe called out to him, saying the only words that would elicit a response from the mad man.
“Hey, Bob, nice day for a walk.”
Walking Bob replied the same way he always did. “Moving target, baby.”
When Bob limped by, Marlowe returned to his memories. He recalled following Lester out to the latrine area, located on a hill just above the cluster of hootches where most of the islanders lived. The latrine was a trench, about four feet deep and 20 feet long. Several planks spanned the trench and the planks had holes cut into them so the men could sit in some comfort while taking care of their business. A sagging canvas awning had been rigged up above the planks to provide protection from the monsoon rains.
“What we’ve got to do,” Lester explained, “is dig another trench behind this one. We can fill in the old one with the dirt we dig out from the new one.”
Lester waited for Marlowe to say something. When he didn’t respond, Lester continued. “I can understand if you don’t want to do it. It ain’t what you call glamorous work. But somebody’s got to dig a new one. This here old one is just overflowing and nasty. It smells so bad that it takes all the pleasure out of a good shit. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy a good shit in the morning.”
Without further conversation, Lester grabbed a shovel and began digging. He dug at a leisurely but efficient rate for about 10 minutes, before stopping to remove his tee-shirt, which was already showing sweat stains from the early morning heat. Then he took a smoke break, sitting on the grassy slope and basking in the sunshine. When he finished, he flicked away the butt, then, looked at Marlowe.
“Well, my man, what are you going to do?”
Much later, Marlowe realized what Lester had actually asked him. The question was asked in such an offhand manner that its importance didn’t register in his mind for several years. What Lester really asked was, “Do you want to live or die?”
Marlowe’s first impulse was to go back to his hootch. He didn’t want to be around people, didn’t want to talk to anyone. He didn’t even want to be alive. He felt dirty, unclean in the biblical sense. Like a wounded animal, he just wanted to return to his den and lie down in darkness.
When he still didn’t answer, Lester got up, dusted his hands, and grabbed the shovel. “Guess I’ll have to dig this shit hole by my own self.”
Marlowe was going to turn around and leave, but found he couldn’t take that first step. It was not in his nature to walk away when there was work to be done. His sense of responsibility battled with his need to hide away and wallow in misery. In the end, his devotion to duty overcame his personal needs. He decided to give Lester a hand digging the shit hole.
It took three days for the two men to dig the new latrine. They worked at an easy but steady pace, taking frequent water and smoke breaks. They didn’t talk much, Marlowe preferring to concentrate on the work. Lester, however, kept up a steady line of chatter, making odd, humorous comments or singing snatches of songs. At one point Lester decided that Marlowe was pushing the pace beyond his liking. “Slow down, brother. Ain’t no buried treasure here, we just digging a shit hole.” Marlowe laughed for the first time since he arrived on the island.
When they broke for lunch, Marlowe accompanied Lester to the supply shed, where they rummaged through the pile of C-Rations for something to eat. Lester picked up two cans and held them out for Marlowe to see.
“What does these say, brother? My eyes is going bad.”
“Beef stew and sliced pears in syrup”
“Good, long as it ain’t scrambled eggs or that nasty spaghetti.”
As they sat in the shade of the supply shed wall, eating their lunches, Lester asked, “You coming back tomorrow?”
“Yeah, might as well finish the job.”
“Glad to hear it. I’ll be here, too, but I’ll be a little late.”
“I got a schedule to keep.”
“What kind of schedule?”
“Tomorrow’s the day I go and check on my boys.”
That night, Marlowe slept well for the first time since arriving on the island. The next morning he was stiff and sore, but was back at the trench and digging at sunrise. A few of the islanders came by to watch Marlowe work. Some introduced themselves and made small talk. A couple of them even lent a hand, digging for a while before finding other things to do. Just before lunch, a scrawny, heavily-bearded man ran up to the trench, grabbed a shovel and began tossing dirt back in the hole that Marlowe had been excavating.
“Hey, what the fuck are you doing!”
The man giggled and kept shoveling dirt back in the trench. Marlowe realized the man was crazy and tossed a rock at him, being careful not to actually hit him. “Go on, get the fuck out of here!”
When Lester returned from “checking on his boys” and saw that Marlowe was still hard at work, stripped to the waist, sweating and streaked with dirt, he nodded in satisfaction.
“We’ll have this particular shit hole dug in no time,” he said, grabbing a shovel and jumping into the trench. “Be able to shit like gentlemen when we get it done.”
That’s how Marlowe learned to live. Lester showed him the way. He would play the horrible hand he had been dealt. He would take on responsibility. He would do the island’s necessary work, create a routine for himself, keep to a schedule and stay busy. He would be what he had once been, someone to rely on, a man who could be trusted to do his duty.
When Lester, eyesight gone and unable to do the work that kept him sane, went for a swim and never returned, Marlowe took over his chores. Every three days, he made a circuit of the island, checking on Lester’s “boys,” who were the island’s hermits, making sure they were still alive. His routine included checking the water pipes, tending to the guide ropes, helping repair the ramshackle hootches by filling sandbags and patching canvas tarps. He scavenged for driftwood on the beach in the afternoons and in the evenings used it for firewood to prepare hot meals. He made his own supply of liquor from canned fruit, although he eventually turned that chore over to Druliner, who showed more of an aptitude for the job. In the evenings he played cards or had a few drinks of Island Lemonade to help him sleep. He considered it a good day when he had worked hard enough to be tired and exhausted at the end of it.
When there was a job to do, whether it was taking a body to Easy Street or digging shit holes, Marlowe was always the first to step up and lend a hand. He took pride in his willingness to work, in his fidelity to duty. His identity, his sanity, his continued existence were all wrapped up in an image he had created simply to survive.
That’s why the present food crisis was so frustrating. For the first time in years he felt completely defeated. All the mechanisms that he had built to help him survive were of no use now. He realized that his schedules, his routines, his willingness to assume responsibility, his need to work, his obsession with keeping busy, were all foolish delusions. The bitter truth was that Marlowe, and all the islanders, were totally reliant on forces beyond their control for their very existence. The islanders couldn’t even feed themselves. It was a cold, hard fact and there was absolutely nothing that Marlowe could do about it.
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It’s Sunday morning, which means I’m reading Rolando — only in The Third City!
Rolando’s our Saturday blogger, and his stuff about working in an emergency room and growing up Puerto Rican in Chicago is some of the darkest, funniest shit around. If you don’t know about him — you should!
Anyway, I’m reading his post — Narcs Bowling Forty Ounces – about the time two asshole narcs were hassling him and his friends. And I come to the following line…
“`You mother fuckers are out here drinking in the middle of the night, looking to get shot by some other assholes,’ the tall narc said.”
Immediately, I get on the horn.
“Hey, Milo,” I say.
That would be Milo – as in my intrepid partner in this blogging enterprise.
Something you should know about us. I’m a terrible speller and he’s a great one. I’m not sure why that is — it just is.
And if there’s one thing that Milo’s taught me about spelling it is this — motherfucker is one word!
Now, back to our conversation…
Me `n Milo discussing linguistics…
“Did you read Rolando yesterday?” I ask.
“You mean, the one about the narcs? Yeah, that’s some funny shit.”
“I know, but did you catch the spelling error?”
“What spelling error?”
“The one where he spelled motherfucker as two words.”
“Damn, Benny. How many times do I gotta tell you — motherfucker is one word.”
You know, like I made the mistake. Instead of pointing it out to him.
I switch topics.
“Milo, why is motherfucker spelled as one word?”
“Ah, Benny — that’s one of the great linguistic questions of our time.”
“And the answer?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what the fuck good are you?”
“The thing is – most obscenities are one word.”
“Think about it. Dipshit, fuckface, numbnuts, shithead, dumbass — all one word.”
I pause to consider the enormity of what I don’t know.
“Is an obscenity ever two words?” I ask.
“Not that I know of. Oh, occasionally, they’ll hyphenate some bullshit. Like son-of-a-bitch. But other than that — one word.”
I pause to consider the enormity of Milo’s brilliance.
“Hey, Milo, while we’re at it — what does numbnuts even mean?”
“How the fuck should I know. For that matter, what does dipshit mean?”
“Milo, if you don’t know, who does?”
“Benny, if you’re looking for linguistic guidance, I can’t help you. I’m just a barely literate motherfucker from Gary, Indiana.”
“Can I quote you?”
“Yeah, but if you do, make sure you spell it as one word.”
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Mischief runs in my family’s genes. For some reason, there’s this underlying compulsion that exists in our nature that always has us trying to execute the perfect prank. The more shocking the prank, the better. It goes back at least three generations.
Take for example my grandma, my dad’s mom–we call her Lela.
When I was 10, she was visiting us and my parents decided that she would share our room. Me and my brother shared bunk beds. I slept on the top and my brother slept on the bottom. While she stayed with us, my brother slept on the floor and she slept on his bunk.
One night before we went to bed, we were laying in our beds, talking about something.
My brother had already fallen asleep and my grandmother was telling me a story.
All of a sudden, mid sentence, she stopped talking. I waited a few seconds for her to continue with the story.
So I waited some more.
So I sat up in bed and leaned over the side to look down at my grandma.
She was laying there, with her eyes closed, motionless.
“Lela,” I called down to her.
“Lela, are you ok?”
She didn’t respond. Hell, she didn’t even move. It was too dark to tell, but from where I was, it looked like she wasn’t even breathing.
Fear started to set in as the most horrific of thoughts started formulating in my head: “Was Lela dead?”
A knot formed in my stomach and throat as I quickly jumped off my bunk and moved in closer to look at her face.
She looked dead….
I wanted to scream for my parents but I couldn’t. Fear left me mute. All I could manage was a faint and trembling: “Lela, are you ok?”
‘Oh my God,’ I thought, ‘Lela is dead.’
I was almost in tears when she jumped up and let out a loud scream. I screamed like a frightened school girl and jumped back, stunned and terrified by my grandma’s passing and her miraculous resurrection.
Then she started laughing. I mean laughing so hard her tears were coming out. She laughed like it was the funniest thing she had ever seen. There I was, cowering on the floor, terrified because she had just played dead and scared the crap out of me, and she thought it was funny.
I got so mad that I jumped back on my bunk and pulled the sheets over my head and turned towards the wall.
I could still hear her giggling to her self for at least another 10 minutes before I fell asleep.
The next morning at breakfast she looked across the table at me and flashed me a mischievous smile.
I was still mad and I’m pretty sure I gave her a scowl.
She laughed as she went stiff, wrapped both her hands around her neck, stuck out her tongue, closed her eyes and played dead.
I was so angry that all I could manage to do was scream at her: “That’s not funny, Lela.”
She was in tears as she told my parents and my brother what happened the night before.
It took a while, but as I got older, and my very own mischievous nature began to develop, I grew to appreciate the mastery and artfulness it took to recognize and execute that prank.
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These pictures are from the 1970′s.
All photos © Jon Randolph
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As The Third City’s theater critic–hey, somebody’s got to do the job–I finally got around to seeing the absolutely sensational production of Two Train’s Running at the Goodman Theater.
There’s a billion reasons to see it, not the least of which is that the characters speak as though they were free-verse poets.
I think we can all agree–August Wilson is a play-writing genius!
Another reason to see it is that it brings Chester Gregory back to the Chicago stage. He’s what theater geeks call a triple threat–the man can sing, dance and act.
Years ago, Chester played the lead role in the Jackie Wilson show at the Black Ensemble Theater, a show I saw…
Actually, I saw it so many times that I lost count of how many times I saw it.
There’s that opening moment when het hits the stage like a bolt of electricity–in his shimmering yellow jacket–and sings: “Baby, tell me once again, uh-huh: Am I the man?”
Those elderly ladies from the church groups bused in for the Sunday matinee were screaming like teeny boppers.
Hell, I might have been screaming like a teeny bopper. But don’t let that get around.
A few years back, Chester moved on to fame and fortune in New York City, playing big roles in such Broadway hits as Hairspray, Dream Girls and Sister Act.
So it’s a big deal that he’s come home to play in the Goodman production.
Talking about Chester gives me an excuse to tell one of my favorite anecdotes–that goes back more than ten years, to when my youngest daughter was in sixth grade.
I was chatting with Dane, one of her grammar-school classmates, who’d just moved to Chicago from Gary, Indiana.
Incapable of having a conversation without turning it into a trivia contest, I asked…
“For ten trivia points, who’s the most famous person to come out of Gary?”
I figured he’d say Michael Jackson.
Instead, he gave it a quick thought and said: “Chester Gregory!”
Folks, I just about fell out of my chair.
I didn’t know if I was more shocked that he didn’t say Michael Jackson or that he knew about Chester, who was then just making his name in Chicago.
Dane went on to explain that, back in Gary, he had attended the Emerson School for Visual and Performing Arts, Chester’s alma mater.
And at Emerson–Chester, not Michael Jackson, was the man!
So don’t get it twisted.
In any event, make sure you see the show, everybody.
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This week is my first Spring Break from graduate school, and I’m considering it my first “Adult Spring Break”. While some of my fellow grad students are traveling or spending extra time with their significant other, since I am in the 3% of people in my class who is single, I am going to work during the day and coming home at night to sit on the couch and either do something productive, unproductive, or just zone out. Usually it is a combination of the three.
One of these riveting nights was spent creating an Instagram for my dog. This means a half hour brainstorming on what her handle should be, another 15 minutes choosing a profile picture for her. This is then followed by a discussion on what her “bio” should be, and then of course we have to decide on what her first posted photo is. Cute? Funny? Sleepy? Mad? We settle on a cute one and keep the caption simple since we’ve already spent time in our lives that we can’t get back creating this Instagram.
Since the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, I will admit that I’ve posted a photo or video to her account every day since we created it. I also have spent an unforgivable amount of time looking for new dog accounts to follow.
I’ve already said too much.
Not to worry, therapists who are now critically analyzing this and previous blog posts, I have also managed to do some other things that’re less worrisome for a seemingly social 26 year old.
Well, now that I think about it I’ve made dinner one night, did some knitting on the scarf I may never finish, watched the Bulls, binge watched Netflix, and argued with Anika about the lighting for a “dog photo shoot”. These things may not be worse than putting all energy otherwise asserted towards learning about Early Childhood Education into creating a successful dog instagram, but they sure as hell aren’t better.
Where do I go from here?
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