Michael Largo
Three Stories

Exotic Hat

     The 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. "Hats. Hmmm."
      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 again-only dance.
      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 breath.
      "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 is high."
      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 move."
      "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 it."
      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 her body.

Garage Band

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 face.

"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 said.

"Go till you bust," smiled Tom, going to a keg of beer and filling a quart size mug.

"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 done.

"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 chores.

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, are revolutionary."

"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 I knew.

"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 microphone.

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 turned purple.

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."

Papa's Gun

     The 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 outside.
      "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 canvas satchel.
      "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.