corner of the building had an overhang that shaded from the drizzle. Smell
of salt from the sea a few blocks east. Whacker went into the all night
deli for a box of European cigarettes. Two different color car service
wrecks raced for a fare at the end of the strip. Tires squiggied wet on
dark asphalt. Not many people out. Last club closed an hour ago. Homeless
shopping carts parked under dirty palms. Pigeons, heads under wings, roosted
in the soffit ledge above. She held the top of her hat when she careened
her neck to see them. A fine falling mist in the hazy halogen lamp.
"You're not tired yet?" She asked Whacker
when he came out pulling at the foil seal of the cigarette box, shoulders
hunched, staying close to the building.
"Skin cleanser," he said. Leaned his face
out into the sprinkle.
"What time is it?" She made sure the strands
of her hair fell from the sides of the hat as she wanted it, saw herself
in the mirror that evening, when the sun had just set. Putting the hat
on still in her bra and panties, swirling around on the wood floor of
the small apartment. She remembered thinking: "So this is being free,
this is doing what you wanted."
"Ionic disbursement," Whacker traced his
finger along the length of the cigarette before he put it in his mouth.
He took out the lighter and extended it, twirled it around. Every smoke
had to be a magic trick "We exist in ionic time. Clocks are part of the
human conspiracy to confine the soul." He clicked the lighter. "The flame.
See the ions in the air falling helplessly into the fire. Radical, electrically
charged atoms-the coolness of the unseeable plane, my love." He slowly
moved the lighter to the end of the cigarette centered between his pursed
lips. Inhaled, then blew a cloud of blue smoke where the lighter had been.
"The ions are now part of the clouds I create."
It sounded better in the clubs. Pounding
bass thumping from bulkhead speakers, packed tight with the others on
the dance floor, twirling lights, colors of purple and magenta brush stroked
across the chilly, expressionless faces of the others. She was part of
this, wasn't she now? She had done it, duct-taped the boxes and carried
them herself to her hatchback. Her father wouldn't help-so what-she would
find herself-wear the hats she wanted and stay up for days, have fun,
be on her own, create.
Whacker was absorbed in his puffing. He
didn't look as young as he said he was in this light, probably ten years
or more older than she-not the two or three he had said. Nor did Whacker
know as many influential people as he said he did, that first day she
meet him, when he stopped to help her tote her boxes from the sidewalk
up the two flights of stairs to her new place.
"I am the ticket, the pass card, the key,
the code." Whacker had said, inspecting the apartment, stopping abruptly,
pivoting to see the view from the window, a sweeping slow drag of his
leg as he moved to the kitchenette. Turned on the faucet into the sink
and swept his hand along the three foot counter-top. "Coolness, my love,
cannot be defined, but just is." He clapped his hands and snapped his
fingers over the boxes on the floor. "Settle yourself. I'll return when
you're ready to become part of the in."
"The in?" she had said, laughing. She had
never seen a person like this Whacker where she came from.
"In, my love, in, out. You must possess
the essence to be part of the in people." He touched her cheek. "Don't
worry, you have potential." He had paused before he left that day, cocked
his head to the side to see the writing in black marker on a sealed carton.
She hadn't been sure if it was an approving
hum, or an admonishment, something that would separate her. The box Whacker
had noticed was filled with her grandmother's hats. Attic dust still permeated
the fabrics and dusted the pinned feathers and stitched beads. She had
a half moon hat with a trail of russet pheasant feathers. A chiffon blue
with a white veil and a cluster of pearl. There were ordinary church hats
used in the thirties and then the forties now turned strange and foreign.
"Well, are you going to walk me back to
my place," she said. Whacker blew smoke rings up toward the pigeons. The
rain slanted across the dry line closer to the building.
Whacker ripped the cigarette from his mouth
and turned to her. She thought he was about to slap her face. But then
he smiled and took a exaggerated side-step from under the soffit onto
the sidewalk. He extended his arm, pointed. "To the beach, my love. We'll
observe how the rain and the waves join in perfect union."
She hadn't noticed the stains on the seat
of his pants. His hair looked too greasy, the back of his neck dirty.
How did he have money for cigarettes if he left his wallet at home, she
thought. She had paid the covers for the clubs.
"I don't think so," she said. She pulled
at the brim of her hat and looked down the street toward the shortest
route to her apartment.
"We can get there along the beach, just
the same." Whacker hadn't turned, arm still out. "Don't be such a fucking
bore." Then he added, softer, "My love."
She took a step in the opposite direction
alone, until she saw a group of teenagers a few blocks ahead. Heard the
noise of them knocking over garbage cans as they approached.
"Let's go, go then." She went ahead of
Whacker toward the beach, tried to keep a few steps ahead of him so he
wouldn't try to come behind her like he did in the club. She had been
on the second story balcony looking down on the dance floor, leaning on
the railing, the colored lights, the freedom. See Daddy, she had thought,
I can do this, I will do this. Whacker had put his arms around her, pressing
up tight against her. He hadn't resisted when she pushed away. Hid his
actions by saying he was excited to have bumped into someone interested
in seeing her hat designs. But he never wanted to talk about the subject
Whacker trailed behind her until they got
to the Promenade, a winding asphalt strip that separated the wide sand
beach by a knee-high coral rock wall. A swath of darkness, no lights filtering
from anywhere, a curtain of light rain so thick she couldn't see the expression
of Whacker's face until he stepped close to her. She smelt his cigarette
"Do you hear it?" he asked.
She had been listening to the random echo
of crashing garbage cans that seemed to follow.
"Ocean, my love, the waves are subjugating
to the rain." He reached for her hand. She pulled away. "Oh, come on,
lighten-up. Don't be so uncool."
Both turned when they heard the rumble
of a wire street trash container thrown into the main road fifty feet
behind them. He reached for her hand again and this time she held on.
Stepped over the coral wall together and went quickly through the soggy
sand toward the waterline.
"Predators also come out when the ion count
She couldn't see if they were coming. Whacker
was walking faster, pulling her to keep stride. She saw something ahead;
it was a stand of coconut palm. He let her hand go and sat, his back against
a coarse trunk. He patted the ground next to him.
"Let's keep going," she was breathing heavy,
looking behind. "We go to the next lifeguard chair and that's where we
can cut back to get to my street."
He didn't answer. Took out the box of cigarettes,
carefully extracted one, deliberately placed the filtered tip into the
middle of his lips. Then the lighter.
"Don't," she said. Got to her knees and
grabbed his hand before he could strike it. She looked into his eyes.
"They'll see us."
A smile slowly came to Whacker's face.
The cigarette tumbled away from his lips. Why doesn't he seem concerned
she thought, knowing what she heard about youth gangs in the area? In
the shadows and rain she hadn't seen his free hand rise up and touch her
on the back of the neck. She felt her hat shift slightly when he touched
the ends of her hair. Why wasn't she getting up to run?
"Shhh," he said. Their faces inches apart.
Her heart pounded. With the hand she still held he moved it toward her.
The lighter dropped into the sand. Within a moment he had his fingers
through the space behind the buttons of her blouse. He pinched and pulled
softly at the tip of her nipple. "Shhh. They're close. Don't turn, don't
"A young woman oughtn't be going to a strange
city alone." She could hear her father's voice, him shaking his head,
standing on the top of the wooden steps as he had been that day, her hatchback
packed, ready to go. She had just wanted to kiss her father on the cheek
and tell him it would be all right. She had even carried the portfolio
of drawings she made. Maybe he would see how good they were, how important
this was to her. "Foolish way to go about it," her father had said.
"This one," she had taken the drawings
out anyway, laid them in the grass so he could see them clearly from up
above. "Saucer hat: light blue, studded with rhinestones that are surrounded
with daises of beige with plastic curled centers and smaller matching
rhinestones. It also has a blue velvet ribbon that hangs off the back."
Her father just shook his head.
"And this is a 1950's black wool with animal
print trim and animal print on the inside." Her eyes had started to get
moist. "And this one is made of blue satin with a cut-out design so the
women's hair becomes the top of the hat. This," she couldn't stop, "this
one has black and white fabric with sequins, tulle and chord. A black
ostrich plume and jet ornaments adorn. And this," she had begun to cry,
"a straw hat with a pastel green top and natural straw trim. These are
drawings of multi-colored pastel flowers with leaves around the band."
It was the same hat she was wearing then,
Whacker's fingers rolling her nipples. Her eyes filled with tears that
tasted the same as they did the day she left.
"Shhh, stay still, they're getting closer.
Become one with my shield of ions."
She let him kiss her neck, leaning her
head back, looking up into the dark sky. Suddenly, the rain began to fall
heavier. She heard shouts, cursing, and then the voices trailed off as
the gang of teens ran back toward the street. She laid on the mound of
sand around the base of the coconut palm, drained from the surge of fear.
She let him undo her belt buckle and lower the zipper to her pants. She
saw the palm fronds blowing and whipping from the tip of the stems. She
thought of a fabric that could do that, a way to make a design sketch
capture that-the tarring away, though still holding on. Salt-tainted rain
dripping off the long velvet green leaves. It all became a thick line
of charcoal pencil drawn on a clean sheet of paper. She tensed when she
felt the thicker fabric at her panty crotch being pulled aside.
"You can do this," Whacker said. "My love."
"I know I can, but do I want to."
A gust of wind came up and tried to steal
her hat from her head. But she grabbed it, tugged it down tight. Held
on with both hands. She saw her father shaking his head, the temperature
gauge needle touching the danger line of her hatchback during the long,
solitary road trip to the beach. She heard all the voices that said it
was a foolish thing, a waste of a dream, an aspiration with no pay-off.
And then she laughed.
"My hat," she said, "I don't want to ruin
For whatever else she might lose along
the way, Whacker transformed into a soothing collision of liquid and solid,
finally, luckily in his ion exchange he had been trying to score from
day one -- and her, the rain, the beach sands soggy, shifting -- she would
not give up her designs, the charcoal pencil strokes now moving through
The house was the same. The
trees and shrubs were now huge and concealed the exterior, as my father
had always planned. The house was not deteriorated, but it was on the
edge. The sidewalk was cracked and raised, lifted by roots. The asphalt
of the driveway spotted with sunken puddles. There were razor-sharp outlines
of light from the row of glass panels on the main garage door. The windows
had been blackened with contact paper. I went passed the house, down the
narrow path next to the driveway, and opened the side door.
"Jim!" a gigantic fat man came toward me. It wasn't until he grabbed me
by my shoulders did I realize it was my brother, Paul. He was as slim
as I was when I last saw him.
"Paul," I said, "Jesus, what happened?" I couldn't believe his hugeness;
big round abdomen and wide flabby arms. He must've been five hundred pounds
if an ounce.
"And you, you're missing some parts." He patted my back and led me to
the others, sitting around a folding table, each fatter than the next.
"Let me introduce you to the officers of the organization and members
of the band."
"The Vice President, Harold Messers, bass." They each stood or stepped
forward to shake my hand. "Tom Barinsky, Treasurer, keyboard. Miss Mary,
Coordinator, percussion. And the Secretary, Cathy Hancock, lead vocals.
This is my long lost brother, Jim. Hadn't seen him in nine years."
"Ten," I said. "But what's this organization? A band?"
"Didn't you see the sign outside?" Harold said, sweat rolling down his
"No, I didn't see it."
"G.T.Y.B.C.A., that's the name of our group. It stands for, GO TILL YOU
BUST CLUB OF AMERICA," said Paul.
I wanted to ask if he serious, waited for a poke in the ribs, some clue
that he was Paul, the brother I grew up with.
"Our membership is up to twelve hundred," said Miss Mary, sitting on a
stool with her dress up to her crotch. "You've turned the garage into
a studio," I said.
"We're in the process of shooting a music video right now," Harold said.
"Harold's a good photographer, too. Perhaps you've seen that poster?"
Paul pointed to a framed poster of a very fat woman in teddy lingerie
hanging on the wall, a Gibson guitar hanging from her neck. "Sold ten
thousand copies of that poster."
"That's something," I said. "People are realizing that in this present
society, with all its pressure, there is only one way to live," Cathy
"Go till you bust," smiled Tom, going to a keg of beer and filling a quart
"Get a mug for Jim. I'd like to make a toast to his return." Paul waddled
to the keg and filled mugs for everyone.
Miss Mary was eating mouthfuls of Hershey's candy kisses. She added each
silver wrapper to a larger ball.
"How long did it take you to make that?" I asked.
She couldn't talk with a mouthful of chocolate bulging her cheeks. When
she spoke, a line of brown saliva ran down her chin. "One week." The silver
candy-foil ball was the size of a grapefruit.
They all stood around me in a circle. Each hoisting a large mug equi-distance
from their mouths.
"In order to make the toast significant," smiled Cathy. Her head was alarmingly
small in comparison to her body. "One must consume the entire portion
of ale in a single lift of the mug."
"All right, everyone ready?" Paul said. "To my brother, Jim, to whom I
offer a ball busting welcome."
They began gulping. I lowered it after a mouthful but none of the others
slowed or hesitated. Harold finished first, letting out a loud belch.
A second later he let go an even louder ass-clap, stomped his foot and
laughed. This caused Miss Mary and Cathy to stop with a spitting fit of
laughter, spraying everywhere. Tom and Paul persisted until they were
"Three out of six," said Harold. "No good. We got to do it again."
I stood awkwardly in the converted garage, and tried to recognize some
aspect of it from my youth. The far corner was the place where the box
with wiffle, stick-ball and baseball bats had been kept, there our bicycles,
skate boards, pogo-stick. That wall had the tools, the rakes, snow shovels,
dandelion forks -- everything for our strictly enforced schedule of weekend
I watched them drink more, and eat pizzas from a full size oven. Paul
explained he purchased the oven from the pizza-palor in town when it renovated.
They discussed how beer and pizza was the best combination to achieve
a truly bloated feeling, increasing the stomach's capacity, allowing more
to be eaten the next day. Cathy showed me a plaque with the group's manifesto
and explained how they were really a band of revolutionaries, going against
everything society wanted people to believe.
"Our movement revolts against the corrupt establishments of medicine,
religion, fashion, and the media. In the future, we may very well be considered
founders of a newly evolved race." She read from the plaque: "We, the
obese, declare a new nation, in which the body becomes the organ for excess,
feeding on the best that life has to offer. The lyrics of our songs, man,
"Cathy, please, don't get so dramatic," Paul said, leading me to a chair
where we talked alone.
Again, I waited, hoping he would give me something to recognize the brother
"The organization earned over fifty thousand dollars last year, through
memberships, poster and book sales, and by sponsoring eating contests."
I tried to recognize the face I had once known, now shrunken into the
middle of his head. He never once asked about my hand or where I had been
since I last saw him. But the mention of money, how much he earned, reminded
me of how our father had unknowingly pitted Paul and I against each other.
Our childhood had been one long-running competition-who had the highest
grades, the most hits in Little League, who picked the most dandelions,
which of the two brothers grew the most inches in the previous year. As
he was telling me about his plan to open a movie theater chain that had
sofas instead of seats, I noticed that he finally looked at the stub at
the end of my left arm.
"You still running that diving school in the islands?"
"I wrote Dad about this," I said. I gripped my good hand around the stub.
"Even though he lives upstairs
we don't talk much. He mostly stays in his room since Mom passed."
"I was drinking too much when
this happened. My judgement was cloudy. I developed an allergy to the
stuff. It was my fault, I was reckless."
Paul looked up when Miss Mary
hit a tambourine against her thigh. He winked, and motioned for me to
look toward the plywood stage set on cinder blocks. "There's big money
in music videos. And we got the hook. No band sounds or looks like us."
Harold was eyeing through
the lens of the video camera positioned on a tripod. "OK, the scene is
you guys are just working in an office, chained to your regulated miserably
confined lives, when Tom there comes in and recruits you all for the band."
Miss Mary opened the top few
buttons of her blouse. "Then we crank into the song, 'Stuff It'!"
She struck the tambourine
again. Tom, clothed in a business suit, and a bigger man than Paul, came
behind Mary and reached down to grab her breasts. Cathy came into the
scene and took off her black rimmed glasses, looking shocked. Slowly,
she too, removed her clothes, revealing a biker's leather outfit. Harold
yelled directions for them to face the camera and to add feeling, before
he managed to join them on the stage. The action was designed for Tom
to take on both women, rolling over the desk and onto the floor. Then
they all got up with the guitars, went to the keyboard, harmonized into
The song had a simple melody
and wasn't that bad, Cathy, leading, had a soft, folksy kind of sound.
But it was uncomfortable to see them strain to move their bodies. It was
fat, rolls and rolls of it, boulders of flesh meeting. Paul's face had
I was drawn away during their
third take. It was obvious Paul was not going to talk alone with me again.
I looked around the garage, before I left, remembering how it was years
ago. My father's workbench was where the keg and stand for the mugs was
placed. Paul had done some job in completely sealing the front doors with
paneling and dark paper over the windows, sound-proof rugs hanging from
the walls. Paul hadn't looked at me in the eyes when he spoke. I never
really knew my brother, although we shared the same bedroom for seventeen
years. He didn't want to talk about my accident, or the reasons for my
long absence from returning home. He seemed relieved when I stood and
waved good-bye, mouthing words he couldn't hear over the music. I had
asked him if our father was home, if he thought our old man would want
to see me. But he just waved.
That would be the last time
I saw my brother. I received a few bulletins from the club but never with
a personal note of any kind. I saw their music video once, late at night.
The production quality was not sleek enough to compete. The band idea
fizzled-out. Years later Paul had a heart attack during a national competition
the club had organized. I saw the coverage in one of the tabloids lying
around in the rec-room of this half-way house. The magazine showed a picture
of Paul sitting behind a mountain of doughnuts with his mouth wide opened.
The caption read: "231 jelly doughnuts...his last record." He appeared
twice as large from when I last saw him. The club seemed to capture some
good tongue-in-cheek media coverage, ignoring the real sadness of such
a concept-but who the hell was I to judge. The small article said that
Paul had suddenly collapsed into the bin of doughnuts. Attempts by doctors,
required to be present at the competition, were fruitless and failed to
revive the rotund founder of this growing club. Stealing a line from T.S.
Eliot, the article said he went out with a bang, not a whimper.
When I left the rec-room of
this fourth half-way house in three years, toting the recovery literature
I could not seem to get a handle on, I remembered the day I saw Paul and
his garage band. After he waved to me the last time I had gone outside
and leaned against the wall of the garage, next to the garden hose we
used to wash our father's car with every Sunday. I had decided not to
go into the house to see my father. I wrote a few times, but never received
a reply. I felt like I had just emerged from another time warp, some wild-hair
tangent of thought, not too different than my own. We were, my brother
and I, competitors-what was it my father use to say?
He would show us his medals
from the war, a story time when all the chores outlined were checked off
from the list. It's not his fault-none of this is.
"I got great hopes for my
sons. Both you boys will march to the top of whatever you choose to do.
Success. Never give up. Just like when I was landing on enemy beach heads.
Don't ever forget--It is better to die, than surrender."
scratching he heard in the night was a twig snapped in half and hanging
awkwardly from the place of shadows under the soffit. Moved against the
top square pane of the kitchen window. Mary was still in bed upstairs.
He filled his mug with black coffee, put on a plaid wool jacket and went
"This is nothing," he said.
He did not expect it to be so cold. Leaves
on the ground wet. He saw the broken twig from the stoop. It was a large
oak tree, the deep grooves in the bark burgundy. He had not planned to
do anything about it, the twig, the main branches getting too close again.
He would do it when it warmed. He sought things to stay busy. It had gotten
bad that way, since he couldn't work the way he had. The coffee was still
warm when he looked through the window of the back door and saw the typewriter
on the worktable.
"It's not the same," he said.
It had been a good place, this valley,
this house, and then it had been not so good sometimes, but that was because
of other things and not because of him, not being able to work, finish
something that made any sense. He knew this was not like before and would
not pass into something better as it had done. He should've known that
tree was the sound that kept him up. There was the echo of rifle shots
in the Spanish foothills and then he was lying on a board on a calm, pale
sea off the rocky coast of Cuba. It was more than restlessness, that twig.
He had told Dan not to cut down any trees when he rode with Dan up in
his truck and showed him the land he bought with a good view of the north
range in a stand of hardwoods.
"You'll have to fall some," Dan had said.
He didn't like building up this far, off a generator. "I'm getting too
old for hand saws and dowels."
"You'll do all right," the man had told
Dan. Dan always shook his head at it before he took on another job. "Build
it like the one you did for the Malcomb's. No different, except have a
bigger window in the dining room, because that will be a good place to
work from in the morning. It will be a clean, even light facing this way."
He turned to the mountain where white pines made a blue-green collar before
the craggy summit.
"Where you want to set the house?" He kicked
leaves aside and picked up a rock. "Mark the four corners," Dan had said.
"Stop shaking your head," the man smiled.
He liked Dan, a man that didn't say more than he needed to, and sometimes
not even then. He had paced out to the short side of a red oak.
"Got to fell that one your leaning on."
"But it's so damn pretty." The man picked
up the last rock he had used as a boundary and moved it over a foot. "When
she grows it'll make nice shade over the kitchen. Here, I'll set up an
account at the mill. I'll be back next spring, be in Africa all winter."
The man took out a check. "Got your sons still pounding nails?"
"Them, and plenty of men riding the trains
these days to help set the trusses." Dan went to one of the rocks and
eyed down the line. "That tree will have to go. No question if I'm going
to get any equipment up here. But I'll build around the others."
"Leave a good size stump to it, though.
Make a good place to sit, cut wood on."
The man went to the stump Dan had left
thirty years ago and set down his mug of coffee on it. He hadn't thought
about Dan, gone nearly ten years. His truck had gotten caught in a blizzard,
it was said. His sons found him three days later. No one knew how he managed
to pull the trigger of the shotgun with his hands and feet so frostbitten.
He heard the back door open. It was Mary.
She held the neckline of her quilted robe. She fixed at her hair. "You
want eggs and toast?" She looked at his slippers, pajama draws and his
wool jacket. She knew he'll come in when he was ready and that telling
him it was too cold to be outside dressed like that would only make him
stay out longer.
"The branch was a nail on a blackboard
all night," he said to her.
"I didn't hear it," she said. She'd grill
some bacon. The smell would get him in.
"I'll saw it off while you cook," he said,
already going to the shed.
But he wasn't thinking about getting the
buzzsaw. He wanted to get the shotgun he kept out there, wrapped in a
"That was a good idea you had, Dan, snowed
in the way you were. Of no good use even if you did get out."
The man unwrapped the shotgun, a fine over
and under barrel Remington. He wiped it down with a rag. It had always
been the one he hoped he'd be able to get a hold of when the time came.
It was turning into a clear day. A rich
aroma rising from the wet leaves. Mary cooking. She'd be all right; enough
manuscripts, clearly marked and boxed to pass posthumous standards.
He sat on the stump, took a sip of black
coffee. It was strong, the way he used to like it. The taste of it hid
the carbon of the barrels when he put both of them in his mouth.