The Man in the Mask

He never asked me my name, where I was from, what I do for a living. He took me at face value, simply accepted me for who I presented myself to be. I met him in a little bar at the corner of Avenida 20 de Noviembre where it runs into the Zocolo, just across the street from the National Palace. I was a hombre de Chicago on vacation. He was anyone you wanted him to be, nondescript other than for the t-shirt he wore, Che Vive! emblazoned across the chest.

I was waiting for my wife, busy blistering the Amex Card two neighborhoods south at the fashionable Polonca area, shopping on Calle Presidente Masaryk where the stores were upper- crust and featured catwalk knockoffs rather than the arts and crafts of the Bazaar Sabado, where I said goodbye after bearing up for as long as a bored husband had to endure before being dismissed with a kiss and a plan to meet later at the hotel.

He was idling away the time as well, waiting for the start of a protest demanding greater democracy and rights for indigenous Indians scheduled in front of the old cathedral on the northern side of the square. The importance of his role in the event I learned later that afternoon.

Ordinarily, the Zocolo is a lively place where outdoor stalls selling everything from shoe polish to comals for frying tortillas compete for space with gawking tourists, strolling couples, Indian dancers, and long lines of families wanting to baptize their new babies. But this day was different; the impending demonstration had created a somber air of expectation that put a chill on frivolity as compelling as the October dampness defying the mid-morning sun. There was serious anarchy in the air, revolucion, ghosts of heroes past. The mood in the bar reflected the scene outside, the two us teetering on our stools, self-consciously sipping tequilas in lieu of black coffee.

That I was there was even more out of the ordinary, the trauma of 9/11, only weeks in the past having left most Americans too paranoid to leave their hometown, never mind go gringo south of the border. But our trip to Mexico had been planned and paid for months in advance when my Medicare card arrived along with my 65th birthday. “See Mexico” was at the top of the bucket list and we decided to keep our reservations despite the country’s apprehension. So the man in the Che Guevara t-shirt and I started to talk, strangers breaking the ice with the usual idle gossip that quickly grew more buoyant.

My new acquaintance had a plainspoken way about him that encouraged confidence, and I found myself responding freely, the anonymity of the encounter emboldening me. I didn’t hold back when he asked, curiously, “Le gusta Bush?”

I had been cautioned about talking politics, particularly to strangers, and until then, had made it a point to tip-toe around any conversation involving George W. or Vincente Fox, excluding a sarcastic comparison of their fancy hand-tooled cowboy boots which may have added to their height but did little to validate their People Magazine faux images as hard working vaqueros.

Perhaps it was the tequilas before noon that unhinged my semi-borracho tongue. “No! El es el presidente mas malo in la historia de los estados.” The unexpected vehemence of my reply was a surprise but obviously didn’t displease him. He took a surreptitious look around the bar, pulled his stool closer to mine, and launched into a litany not normally found on the course notes of a political science teacher interested in keeping his ass from being hauled in front of a PTA lynch mob.

“Democracy is bullshit,” he began. “In your country’s schools, you’re taught ‘Of the people, by the people, and for the people, but that’s… how do you say it literally, excrement del toro. In America,” he continued, “so-called democracy is a political system that serves only the minority of the people who seek power.” His passion grew in intensity, ranging from a denunciation of Wall Street to a condemnation of “an immoral society that feeds scraps to a helpless underprivileged stratum of society while gorging itself on arbitrage that produces illicit profits for the top one half of one percent of the population.” If his logic was short of impeccable, his fervor was undeniable. “Who will fight for the rights of the forgotten people?” he trumpeted. “¿Quién lucha por los derechos de los indios?”

“I will!” I shouted spontaneously, intuitively anticipating my part in the rebellious call and response chant that soon would ricochet off the ancient buildings surrounding the city’s sacred plaza.

I paid for another round of Jimador Blanco, tuition for a lesson in regime brutality that began in Chiapas in the early nineties, where the flamboyant Subcomandante Marcos – poet-philosopher, pipe-smoking, ski mask-wearing champion of the downtrodden – had mobilized the Zapatista National Liberation Army to petition for the rights of the Indians. It was there, in the village of Acteal, where a group of paramilitaries tied to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) attacked a prayer meeting and massacred 45 villagers, including children as young as two months old. The resultant outrage made the headlines for the customary fifteen minutes of attention, curiosity over the identity of the mysterious Marcos overriding the movement’s desperate struggle for human rights. It took four years of agitation to cloak the Zapatistas in semi-respectability and force the reluctant regime of newly elected Vincente Fox to pay lip service to the continuing abuse of the region’s indigenous peoples.

The afternoon’s demonstration about to take place in the Zocolo was the culmination of a month-long, bus caravan tour of Mexico to call attention to the region’s desperate need for roads, health clinics, schools and electrification projects in the mountainous backcountry where the descendents of the Mayans lived.

My empathy for the movement and unexpected familiarity with the 1994 free-trade agreement that had driven prices for corn and beans brutally low for the farmers in Oaxaca, surprised and impressed my new amigo. (I smugly neglected to mention I was parroting the reporting in the NY Times, delivered to my home every morning). “The indigenous people are living in an abysmally precarious state, with virtually nothing that we would call a humane, dignified, modern developed life,” I held forth from the soap box, speechifying in a slurred Spanglish.

My friend slapped me on the back in approval and set off on another flight of impassioned rhetoric. The goal, he posited, was to push mainstream politicians to the left rather than trying to consolidate rebel territory or improve agricultural output. His idea was to recruit unionists, radicals, and community groups to carry out “a national leftist, anti-capitalist program leading to a new constitution, which is another way of saying a new agreement for a new society.”

Suddenly I blurted like an awed groupie, “You are Marcos!”

The realization as to whom I was talking left me bowed in deference to the rebel leader, a heroic Emiliano Zapata resurrected to lead his people anew. I was sure this was the man the government had identified in 1995 as Rafael Sebastian Guillen, a former university instructor with no history of a traffic ticket, never mind incendiary rabble rousing and a call to outright sedition.

“Not that big a fish,” he laughed, steering me away from questions about his personal life and whether he was, in fact, the movement’s military leader, not its “assistant commander,” as he had maintained.

Outside the bar, hundreds of people began to pour out of the Metro station located at the northeast corner of the square. The demonstration would soon begin. If he was the mysterious Marcos, I would never truly know; it was time to join the crowd.

As we exited the bar, my friend transformed before my eyes, a Marvel Comics plotline, from mild-mannered everyman to bigger-than-life superhero, his mien more determined, his stature altered – how can a man suddenly grow several inches taller? – his eyes holding bystanders in thrall like laser beams from a sniper’s range finder. Soon they would glow just as brightly from behind the black ski mask he pulled out of his backpack. Impulsively, he stopped and turned to me.

“You are a natural born revolutionary, un luchador por los pobres, a fighter for the poor.” His words were marching orders. Grasping me by the shoulders, he commanded, “Speak for the downtrodden, mi viejo guerrero, my old warrior. Speak for the people without voices!”

The photograph that appeared on the front page of the newspaper El Reforma documented what occurred next. You can see me on the platform in front of the cathedral standing next to the man who might or might not have been Marcos. I am leading the chant that is turning the crowd into an army of righteous libertarians: El poder al pueble (power to the people). Larga vida a Marcos (long live Marcos)! The picture in the newspaper was taken from some distance away but clearly I stood out as a leader among the swarm of dissenters exhorting the crowd. I too seem to have grown several inches taller.

I met my wife at the hotel in the late afternoon, a battered jeep dropping me off at the Nikko amidst a chorus of “Vaya con dios viejo guerrero (Go with god old warrior).”

“Where were you?” my wife asked, askance. “You look like a steamroller flattened you.”

“It did,” I replied.

The fading light, filtered by the city’s smog, poured softly into the elegant suite. A tall glass of water poured from a chilled bottle of Vilas del Turbon helped do away with the last of the morning’s binge. I took a relaxing hot shower, hid my mask in the laundry bag, and dressed for dinner without further explanation.

“Mr. Whitney, your three o’clock is here.”

The corner office I still retain on the top floor of Lake Forest’s tallest office building is an impressive place to do business. The clients who come in to negotiate multi-million dollar policies insuring seasonal inventories, half-built condominiums, and over-hyped entrepreneurial schemes are reassured by the cherry wood conference table and Herman Miller chairs that speak to the success of Pierce Whitney II and Associates. I was the third generation Whitney to run the business, arriving promptly at nine each morning impeccably dressed in Marc Shale suits and given to colorful Hermes ties on the brink of affectation, my feigned smile hiding a enduring bitterness at having been selected for the job. I can’t deny I had a choice; I knew full well the difference between living the good life and being a good man.

On Christmas Eves past, I was a member of the church volunteers serving dinner to the homeless. My heart was opened wholly, flooded in love for my fellow man. I saw past the layers of grime, the toothless grins as served and server joined in grace. In return for two hours of selflessness, I received a sense of bliss that money could not buy.

After high school I had decided to become an artist, defying my father’s anger by applying to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago rather than the “more selective” Amherst College, where father and grandfather did little to enhance the school’s academic reputation but led the Lord Jeffs to consecutive “little three” football titles versus arch rivals Williams and Wesleyan.

Upon graduating, I joined the army rather than face the family’s disdain for my “useless” BFA and spent eighteen months slogging up the Korean peninsula, exposed to a world where privilege meant bringing up the rear while on patrol instead of taking the point and facing the prospect of stepping on a Soviet POMZ fragmentation bomb or one of our own M14 anti-personnel mines the army scattered around the country like cow patties.

When I returned home, I rented an apartment in Chicago for six months of silk sheets, mai tais, and Hong Kong steaks at Jimmy Wong’s, front row tables for the Myrna Loy show at the Blackstone Theater, and a membership in the Drake Hotel’s private Club International.

When my father finally stepped in and forced me to confront a future expelled from the trust fund I had come to know and love, my argument for “artistic expression” and a small studio on South Halsted Street had lost its luster. The sirens sang their songs. The opulent reminders of what money could buy, a Pate Philippe watch, a summer traveling around Europe, a fire engine red MG-TD, proved irresistible

On cue, my appointment paused in front of the row of photographs hung conspicuously on the wall of my office, the autographed glossies of Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney and similarly smug and thin-lipped mainstays of the Grand Old Party speaking to the firm’s insouciant disregard for clientele lacking the appropriate blue blood or greenbacks. Updated from the original black and whites of my father posing proudly with Ford and Reagan – his autographed photo of Richard Nixon banished to the back of the file case after Watergate – the gallery follows my receding hairline to the most recent eight-by-ten of a golf foursome with an obviously sloshed Mike Ditka, 10th district Representative Mark Kirk, and former governor Big Jim Thompson. The yellowing photograph that appeared on the front page of the Reforma is not to be seen, not even behind the ficus tree in the corner of the office, where a gag shot of me on the cover of Mad Magazine raised quizzical uplifted eyebrows among Lake County’s ruling class elite.

That picture of “the crazy masked guys,” as my wife described it, was as closeted as my donation to the Obama campaign.

What would my masked friend have thought of me had he seen me at work in my fancy office, hob-nobbing with the cake eaters while the price of tortillas became ever more onerous? What would he think of my mini-mansion in Lake Forest, one of the most affluent communities in the United States, with a Latino population of 0.87% – the town’s manicured lawns and well-trimmed shrubs providing explanation for 174 undocumented Mexican families living within three blocks of each other on the side of town abutting the Metra train switch yard and sanitation plant? Would he choke on the cynicism of practicing Spanish with Mariano Ochoa, he of the Ochoa Landscaping Company, the contractor that mows our lawn every Saturday morning for twenty-five US dollars paid in cash, no receipt necessary? I wonder if he has softened his observations about the viability of democracy considering the election miracle of 2008.

As for me, the secret fire of radicalism I concealed even as I partied with the Young Republicans and turned my back to the plantation politics of privileged Wasp friends has been extinguished. I never blew my cover. I never clinked my glass and stood tall to speak to the rights of the underclass, the disenfranchised, America’s own downtrodden indios. It’s too late now for the impassioned speech. When beliefs and feelings are kept hidden, out of the light they become more quarrelsome than well argued, wizened by their betrayal, rendered lifeless by having been left unspoken.

I see my reflection in the mirror of the office’s restroom. I am wearing a mask more opaque than the blackest wool ski mask of Marcos himself.

Posted in Originals Stories from: LOVE, LUST, SHAME, REGRET... and Harold

Truce

The background buzz told him the phone had been lifted from the cradle.

“Hello. Ronnie Burns, please.”

An awkward silence on the other end of the line spoke to the misgivings Henry had felt as he dialed the lone “Burns, R.” listed in the Cleveland White Pages web site. “My name is Henry Horowitz,” he hastened to explain. “I was in Korea with Ronnie Burns. We were in the same unit, he was my friend…”

The response was abrupt, “You got da wrong number, bro. Nobody here ever been to Koo Ree Ah.” With that, the phone went dead.

Henry tried to picture the gruff-voiced man who answered his call, imagining him holding the receiver at arm’s length, wary of the unidentified white man’s voice. The image was blurred by the cataracts of time. He was too late; sixty years too late.

Henry had last seen Ronnie Burns in September 1953, when the two soldiers were at Fort Dix, New Jersey, waiting to be mustered out of the army after enduring the final two years of the Korean War stand-off, the truce negotiations still in progress when they left for home. A corporal in the 60th Explosives Ordinance Disposal Squad, Burnsie, as he was called, had spent his days tramping the shell-torn countryside hunting for unexploded, still-lethal grenades and mortar shells that he blew up with butter-bar sized sticks of Comp-4 explosive, an accelerant so unstable a half dozen of his sapper comrades were killed or maimed in the previous year while using it. Patriotism had little to do with his reason for enlisting. After graduating from high school his full time occupation was hanging around the street corner, one stumble away from falling into the life he had promised his mother he would avoid. Facing the choice of khaki’s and fatigues or the orange jumpsuit worn by the inmates of the county work farm he showed up at the recruiting office without regard or knowledge of the perils that straddled the 38th parallel.

Private Henry Horowitz was the detachment’s bespectacled clerk typist. While Burns and the squad were in the field he spent his days reading loaners from the base library’s 100 Best Novels list, making it to number 87, The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett, before his tour of duty expired. An apathetic draftee with little chance of landing a job from any of the corporations reluctant to hire graduates facing a two year stint in the military, he had exchanged his master’s degree from the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business for a private’s stripe and a monumentally boring desk job that kept him from harm’s way as long as the daily reports he typed made their way past the regiment’s Inspector General’s office without error or comment.

The two conscripts were oddities in a squad of good ole boys with heavily slurred accents who had enlisted in the army for God and country. Burnsie the Negra and Horowitz the Jew boy, as their rowdy bunkmates from the tobacco and cotton farms of the Deep South dubbed them, sought support and sanity each from the other and tolerated their contemptible nicknames with a nod to prudence and survival. Belying their disparate backgrounds, the grandsons of shetl dwellers and sharecroppers had more in common than generally thought. They became close friends, battling boredom as the truce slowly gelled into a permanent standoff. By the time they were eligible for discharge and transferred to Fort Dix for their final days as warriors in Uncle Sam’s brigades they had become inseparable.

It took one night in neighboring Wrightstown, however, to remind the men that the U.S. of A. was more Kansas than Oz. Although too many Negro soldiers had died in Korea to permit the bars and dancehalls lining the entrance to the base to advertise their prejudices publicly, it was clear that Ronnie and Henry were not a welcomed twosome in the predominately all-black or all-white joints that served shots of Lord Calvert with beer chasers from a half hour before reveille until 4am.

A squat, stewpot non-com talking trash from the corner of his mouth, jostled Henry. “This ain’t Korea, why you hangin’ out with that coon?” Henry clenched his fists, anticipating the hate-spewed blood libel bullshit he had dealt with so often, “Jew boy fagot. Nigger loving kike…”

Burnsie saw a similar malevolence in the narrowed eyes of the crackers firing their boom boxes like howitzers, blasting twanging country music to drown out the 140-decibel blues riffs being lobbed in a deadly artillery battle of cultures and contempt. ‘Nigger’ was the least of the slurs hurled his way. If not for the fortunate appearance of a pair of brawny MPs their encounter with the heavy boozing peckerwoods was a sneer away from turning violent.

The following evening, Ronnie offered up a tentative suggestion. “Hey, Henry, watta ya say, shall we hit the post canteen tonight rather than go into town? It’s up to you. I’ll go if you wanna.”

If Ronnie was waiting for an answer that went something like, Bet yer ass we’re going, we got as much right to hang out in those local joints as any goddamn cracker, it was not forthcoming. Henry immediately echoed the idea. “Why put up with shit from a bunch of bigoted assholes?” was his response, the relief in his voice evident.

That night the friends drank insipid 2-point-2 beer at the post canteen and continued their long-running gin game at the sparsely attended USO club tucked behind the post commissary. They continued to trade war stories and punch lines, but both knew something in their relationship was not quite the same. Unable or unwilling to define their discomfort, they simply didn’t talk about it. At their discharge ceremony, they hugged, promised to stay in touch, and vowed they would be friends forever. Sixty years passed before Henry picked up the phone to call his army buddy.

The letter from the local Elks Club had taken Henry by surprise. He guessed they had found his name on an archived list of Korean War veterans and cross-matched it with residents of Chicago. He was invited to take part in a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of “the forgotten conflict,” a description that Henry had done nothing to refute since his discharge (neither his grandchildren nor his former colleagues knew he was a veteran). The observance was scheduled to take place at the fraternal order’s magnificent, domed monument on Cannon Drive, an architectural wonder built in the late twenties to honor the fallen heroes of the War to End All Wars.

Taken aback by the rush of emotions set free by the unexpected invitation, Henry retrieved a dusty box of mementos from the condo’s basement storage area and pored through the black and white photographs from half a lifetime earlier. On the back of the snapshot of him and Ronnie holding their discharge papers was a scrawled caption, Burnsie the Negra and Henry the Jew boy.

When compared to most of his acquaintances and associates, Henry was well in front when tallying his relationships with people of color. During his bachelor days in there were forays deep into the pre-dawn hours with the tawny-skinned actress who lived down the hall, hopping a taxi to East 64th and Cottage Grove to hear Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing Club, the smoky room comfortably colorblind, dozens of interracial couples grooving on the jazz. He had enrolled his kids in a multi-racial magnet school and taken on the formidable task of restructuring the city’s lone minority-owned ice cream company working with a bare bones staff in a shabby office across the street from a dilapidated crack house. Awarded a plaque at the company’s annual dinner For Meritorious and Outstanding Service to the African-American community, Henry joked he “felt like a scoop of vanilla in a tub of chocolate.”

The impressive list of liberal credentials, however, did nothing to ease the discomfort he experienced as he stared at the faded photograph. A wave of guilt swept over him. Why hadn’t he kept in touch with his friend? It was a question that forced its way into his consciousness with every handshake from a congenial black colleague and every inspiring speech from the former community worker from Chicago who had accomplished the impossible. And it remained unanswered.

The invitation from the Elks stayed on Henry’s desk for several days before he responded. He decided he would not attend. The waist size on his old uniform had not changed, but something else did not fit right. On July 27, the anniversary of the 1953 truce, Harold followed the Mapquest directions to the south side’s Kennedy Park and stood quietly in front of the city’s sole monument to the Korean War, dedicated in 1988, thirty-five years after the truce was signed and shockingly, the country’s first memorial to those who served and died in the war against the red menace. He was the site’s only visitor. Staring in solitude at the modest granite headstone, he drifted back in time to the barren outpost of Panmunjom where life was stripped to its essentials: survive as best as one could and do not piss into the wind. It was easy to be Ronnie’s friend when they were in Korea. They were in the shit together, drawn even tighter when the Bubbas stumbled in from a night of booze and paid sex, sucking fumes from a dope bowl that could turn a Southern Baptist into a White Knight of the Confederacy faster than shit off a shovel.

It was different stateside. Back home, if Henry dressed right and said the right things he could pass through the gate of the white picket fence on Main Street, America. That was not the case for Ronnie Burns. His road led to a dead end. When he and Henry were mustered out of the army, only twenty percent of America’s Negro population was registered to vote and it had been eighty-two years since civil rights legislation had been passed. Henry felt deeply for his disadvantaged friend. But back in the states, he and Ronnie lived in dissimilar ecosystems. The races mixed at their peril.

Yes, he was performing good deeds; making it a point to live in an integrated condominium with a mail list that read like a United Nations directory, but at heart, his commitment came with the undermining subtext, Hey, look at me. Aren’t I a tolerant fellow? Some of my best friends are black, in case you didn’t know. Perhaps he was being too harsh on himself. But standing in front of the neglected monument in a corner of the weed-strewn park, Henry could not let himself off the hook. He wished he had been able to talk with Ronnie. There was so much he wanted to say to his friend.

Ronnie recognized the voice instantly. It was as if time had suddenly reeled backwards to the tremulous goodbye at the Fort Dix bus station. Why hadn’t he responded the way his thumping heart had cried out? Henry, how great to hear from you! It’s been way too long, my friend. I missed you! Instead, he had held the receiver in his hand as if it were an itinerant laborer’s grub hoe. He couldn’t believe the sound of his own voice, talking ghetto street jive that made him sound like some illiterate gangsta punk: Yo, you got da wrong number, bro. What the hell was that all about? What had kept him from acknowledging his friend’s call?

Ronnie felt the stares drilling into the back of his head as he and Henry walked past the neon lit joints lining both sides of Wrightstown’s Main Street, the painted center line of the blacktop road a de facto Mason-Dixon Line crossed only by naïve recruits unaware that desegregation ended at the main gate of the sprawling army post. Would it be any different if they met in Chicago, perhaps with their wives and kids in tow, the ebonies and the ivories seated in some restaurant, conversing, laughing, and passing the bread basket without a tsk tsk or uplifted eyebrow? Had the world really changed?

When Ronnie arrived home in the fall of 1953, his view of the world beyond the Cuyahoga River had not expanded despite his tour in Korea and brief stay at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he made the rite of passage from disinclined draftee to reluctant soldier. He had learned quickly that the seven Army core values – loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage – was bullshit stuffed in an Eisenhower jacket. Inside the base with a couple of stripes on your arm, you might be giving a white boy an order, but outside the gate, you were back on the takin’ side, and don’t you forget it. Still, when Ronnie arrived home Cleveland offered a glimmer of the good life for its Negro residents. The Cleveland Browns ruled professional football, the population had grown to just under a million, and the city was advertising itself as “the best location in the nation.” Ronnie enrolled in the Academy of Court Reporting & Technology but wasn’t much good at it, and after several months of growing a substantial butt, he decided to sit on it behind the wheel of a Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority bus. He stayed out of trouble, married his high school girlfriend, had two daughters, and when the city’s white population took flight, he took advantage of the GI Bill and got an FHA mortgage for a tidy house in the Collinwood neighborhood down the block from the former home of the famous, Grammy award-winning accordion player Frankie Yankovic. In all that time, he couldn’t recall a single interaction with a white person other than small talk while making change for passengers boarding his bus as it circled the downtown business area at the end of his run. Ronnie’s life was detached but comfortable, until six nights of hell in July 1966 wrenched him abruptly from his complacency.

The race riots that erupted in Cleveland’s predominately black Hough neighborhood were a reflection of the conditions in big cities all across America: lost jobs; shrinking tax bases; unmet social needs; Police departments resistant to integration – only 165 of Cleveland’s 2,200 police officers were black. The result was a reeking potion of poverty, unemployment, and crime, a mix more volatile than the explosives Ronnie once detonated. And the black folks were not having it. Whitey was going to bleed.

For Ronnie, the concept of civil rights for blacks equal to those for whites was an idealist’s dream. Now the dream was echoing across America. Black Power was proving to be more than rhetoric from the pulpit. King’s assassination, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and the forced integration of schools were the tectonic plates of a shifting American landscape. Ronnie Burns couldn’t anticipate the personal impact of the 1968 Supreme Court ruling prohibiting interracial marriage is unconstitutional until his oldest daughter married a fair-haired mathematics teacher who was both color-blind and very much in love.

The years passed. Oil and waste on the surface set the Cuyahoga River on fire. Cleveland was dubbed the “mistake on the lake.” A succession of mayors alternately blundered and depleted the city’s resources. The chronicle of Ronnie Burns – he hadn’t been called “Burnsie” from the day he and Henry Horowitz had exchanged their last goodbyes – ebbed and flowed with the city’s fortunes. After twenty-five years driving a city bus, Ronnie took his pension, a vacation lasting all of two weeks and a part-time job driving a school bus for the Cleveland Municipal School District.

With his kids grown and out of the house, Ronnie and his wife had taken the trips they talked about for years. Wherever they traveled, they stayed at the Holiday Inn, feeling that African-Americans were welcomed there. Not infrequently, in the lobby or seated at the continental breakfast, white guests acknowledged them with a friendly hello, or “lovely day, isn’t it” and on one occasion, a kindly older man stepped aside to let his wife exit the elevator ahead of him. But for the most part, they stayed by themselves, careful to appear congenial, careful to avoid doing anything that might get them in any kind of trouble. They went to New York but scurried back one day earlier, feeling uncomfortable in the crush of people. They liked Washington, DC, where Ronnie spent half a day at the Korean War Memorial, the granite statues depicting a squad of soldiers on patrol, the figures so lifelike that Ronnie was overrun with memories he had kept buried for decades. Henry was very much on his mind. Serving in Korea, they were more than friends, more like brothers, really, each carrying one half of the pup tent they would button together and share, embraced in sleep like a spooning couple to keep out the bitter cold. We are in the shit together, brother, Burnsie the Negra and Henry the Jew boy. And then they were back home, and it was Ronnie Burns and Henry Horowitz, on opposite sides of the road. He had never admitted to anyone – perhaps not to himself most tellingly – how much it hurt.

Perhaps that’s why he answered the phone the way he did. The world had changed. Samsung and Hyundai had added their brand names to the list of global monoliths. But he was the same man, softened by time to an extent, but wary of the pain… so very tired of the pain. There was too much he could not say to his friend.

Posted in Originals Stories from: LOVE, LUST, SHAME, REGRET... and Harold

The Toxicology Report

toxicologyThat’s him! I’m absolutely certain of it, that’s him.

Kenny Booth was not one to create drama. He avoided scenes and seldom made them. When he first spied the gangling, seventy-something man standing among the men assembled in the reception room he remained impassive, his double take imperceptible. The Groucho Marx swivel was not in his repertoire or his personality. He simply blinked, his brain recording the re-scan of a high-tech facial recognition program, pixels and hues compared to archived files from a seldom accessed vault of unpleasant memories.

If not impossible, it was at the very least, highly improbably. He had not seen the man now standing less than two strides and a handshake of welcome from the name tag on his fleece pullover in… he calculated using his fingers to count off the decades… seventy years.

Abruptly, the time capsule he was preparing to board was derailed by the tug on his arm. “Kenny, let’s go, the men are waiting to start the weekend.” Jolted into the present he quieted a faint tremor of palsy and braced himself to face the expectant stares of the men assembled for the first Sharing Circle of the Begin Anew weekend workshop

Kenny made his way to the front of the room, returning the embraces of the eager participants with flashes of his legendary, hypnotic smile, relying on the years of training and his tenure as a revered elder in the organization to contain his agitation. As if on cue the room quieted.

“Tonight, we will be embarking on a great journey.” Kenneth Booth, PhD, the self-assured sage, the model of authenticity, the man other men aspired to be, began his opening remarks. “Along the way we will encounter formidable blocks standing in our path… and wondrous passageways to grand ballrooms, once shuttered tight and now flooded in the light of new found joy. Tonight we are embarking on the journey from the head to the heart.”

Kenny listened to the echo of his words, embarrassed by the florid prose, wondering if the staff noticed the oratorical flourishes that worked to suppress his unease, the hyperbole masking a mixture of shame, rage, pride and suppressed screams for revenge. If they knew the agony this man had caused him!

It was time for his trademark tactic – some called it artifice – when he made eye contact with each man in turn, a riveting look that said, we are connected, you are safe, be with me, speak your truth. Slowly he moved around the circle; he could not avoid the unavoidable any longer.

For the first time in more than seventy years, after a thousand manic dreams of vengeance and unspeakable thoughts of inflicting the cruelest of tortures on the villain who haunted his life, Kenny looked into the eyes of Angus Aspins.

There was not a flicker of recognition. The pale eyes that absorbed his gaze were expressionless.

Kenny felt a flush burn his cheeks and a flutter of nausea at the pit of his stomach. He struggled to calm himself, covering his agitation by mouthing phrases from a script reduced to rote by endless repetition. “When we look into our hearts, we are surrounded in pastel shades, the air saturated with the scent of exotic flowers, celestial music playing hymns of grace, for it is love that resides at the core of who we are.”

Suddenly, Kenny paused, catching the staff off-guard. They began to grow uneasy as the pause turned awkward. The intensity and air of irrepressible optimism that had always characterized their leader shifted before their eyes into uncertainty and confusion. Suddenly he turned to the room, his body language almost confrontational, his words tumbling out of his mouth, evangelical in their passion. “Forgiveness is the light that we must follow to find the path to redemption. Revenge will not work. Revenge is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die. It will eat at you and destroy you.”

Abruptly, the Kenneth Booth of a hundred workshops reappeared to face the startled men, his anguished glint of rage too brief to be registered as he returned to the homily that trumpeted the rewards of replacing cynicism with compassion. In a few moments the departure from the familiar outline was attributed to the soaring eloquence of their leader simply adding more nuance to the themes of the weekend.

All seemed normal as the evening’s program got underway. The staff that Kenny had assembled after several years of training separated the men into small groups where the themes of the weekend would be explored within an intimate Sharing Circle. It was a format that Dr. Kenneth Booth had developed and perfected.

The first part of the workshop directed the men to articulate ‘the Crux Question’ that had prompted them to attend the weekend. Typically, the ‘I’m-here-because’ responses were a litany of unfulfilled marriages, job dissatisfactions and repressed aspirations. In the small group meetings that followed, Heart Work Sessions as they were called, the men would examine the source of their discomfort and envision their life in the future as they examined the steps of the Ladder of Transformation: ‘the probe,’ ‘the purge,’ ‘the preview’ and ‘the pledge.’

As the architect of the celebrated program Kenny was justifiably proud. Initially reluctant to accept the accolades that soon accumulated, he grew to enjoy the brightening spotlight as awareness and recognition of his program spread. He was praised for embodying the program, and was often quoted, “We teach by modeling, not instructing,” a quote that quickly became wide spread.

Back in his room, the evening’s program concluded, Kenneth Booth, the guru and venerable wise man, was not a model of serenity and self-love. The emotions he had stifled throughout the day exploded in a corrosive mixture of adult disgrace and childhood shame. It seemed impossible that he could be tormented by a pre-adolescent event so inconsequential in the scheme of his life it wouldn’t warrant a footnote in his biography. Yet seventy-five years later the disgrace that in his eyes forfeited all his many accomplishments, would not leave him. He put his tongue against the false tooth in the front of his lower jaw, re-imagining the empty hole that was there after that fateful day when his childhood ended.

Seventy-five years later and he still lusted for revenge! He wanted to inflict pain, more than pain, agony, bamboo splints under the nails, needles in the eyes, head in a vise agony! It was all so stupid, so infantile, so unlike the man he was, yet no matter how hard he tried to release the feelings, he could not. He could not unhook; could not be finished with it; could not forgive and release and free himself. He preached love and compassion; he actually lived with love and compassion. But the incident – the childish, insignificant, laughable, trivial, completely petty incident – had taken residence in his entrails and would not let go.

Kenny knew he was behaving irrationally. To be this obsessed with a childhood event that took place so long ago was borderline pathological never mind downright pathetic. He had analyzed his feelings a thousand times. A street kid bubbling over with bravado he had marched through the misgivings of an unregulated upbringing with bluster, a sharp wit and a quick temper. He was often in scraps with the neighborhood kids and won them all. If he doubted himself he pushed the feeling down and amped up the pugnacious bristle that kept him king of the hill. What had happened to the eleven year old street rat was absolutely non-consequential by any adult measurement. “Kid stuff,” he reprimanded himself time and time again.

He remembered every detail. It started when he was horsing around in the park with a kid named Myron Balsam. Their playful bragging had turned into a shoving match of escalating pushes and punches. It was not much of a fight; in truth, both of them were half hearted about the affair and Kenny quickly had gotten the best of Mike, straddling him on the grass. He was waiting for him to give up when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

Kenny turned around… and never was the same again. The sucker punch came from an older boy he recognized from a couple of grades ahead of his. Angus Aspins was his name. He had never been particularly menacing as far as Kenny could recall, and he appeared more surprised than malevolent at what he had done. Obviously he was a friend of Myron’s come to his aid.

Kenny registered the situation, engraved the details in his mind, and went into shock. He was frozen in time; no feelings; no pain; no reaction at all… until his tongue found the space where the top half of his lower front tooth used to be.

Aspins seemed to loom over him, at least a foot taller with long, sinewy arms. Fighting him was not an option, but nevertheless the question was, what to do in response? Thoughts raced through his mind. Charge him, tackle him, bite him, kick him, pick up a rock and bash him with it! But Kenny was immobilized. He kept feeling that empty space in his lower front teeth, and he simply could not move. He stood there: bewildered, disbelieving and humiliated.

The moment of retaliation passed. Myron picked himself up. Angus and he got on their bikes and rode off. Left behind, Kenny burned with shame. I’m a coward, goddamit, a pansy coward he thought to himself.

His mother and father were there when he got home. He told them what happened and revealed his broken front tooth. His mother began to cry and reached out to hug her son. Kenny’s father, however, ushered her away and grabbed him by the scruff of the shirt. Where does this Aspins kid live, he demanded. He was furious, beside himself in anger.

His father’s rage added to Kenny’s shame. It was clear, compared to his father he was a wimp, a weakling, a momma’s boy. “Where does he live!” his father insisted, fury unabated.

Kenny didn’t know where Aspins lived, but did remember where the Balsam’s house was located. We’re going there, his father raged, grabbing Kenny by the arm and pulling him to the car. At Myron’s house they found Angus in the back yard. Kenny’s father jumped out of out of the car, leapt over the fence and grabbed Angus by the neck. Did you hit my son? he screamed, and before Angus could answer he slapped him hard across the face and threw him to the ground.

A few minutes after they returned home the phone rang. Kenny’s father answered.

“Yeah, this is Samuel Booth.”

“You’re god damn right I did.”

“Any time, pal, any time.”

“If you think you can, c’mon, give it a try, because I’ll be right here. Just c’mon over, shithead, you know where I live.”

Nobody came over. Kenny went to his room and stayed there without responding when his older brother yelled that supper was ready. He didn’t answer when his sister Janet timidly knocked on the door and asked if he would like to play with her. He was not the same boy for a long time afterwards; maybe never again.

So many decades later, Kenny once again was closeted in his room. Face down on the bed, Kenneth Booth, the senior leader of an esteemed and respected organization would have been unrecognizable to his closest associates. The childhood wound that should have healed had seeped into the suffering component of his brain. He had spent his life disproving his father’s dismissive characterization, flagellating himself with a cat-of-nine-tails of synonyms for the perfect description of his small, weak spirit in the face of adversity: craven, gutless, lily-livered, chickenhearted, cowardly, spineless, yellow pusillanimous mama’s boy.

For all his accomplishments Kenny could not keep his father’s message locked away in the dungeon of his brain’s neural region. Seeing his childhood nemesis had triggered a floodtide of anxiety and fear. And a screaming desire for revenge.

The moon light seeping through the window was sufficient to see the outline of Angus Aspins’ body under the hotel blanket. Stealthily, Kenny tip-toed to the bedside of his bête noire. The steak knife he had slipped into his jacket pocket after dinner melded into his hand. He held the point under his adversary’s Adam’s apple, a sinister grin curling his upper lip. He nudged Aspins awake, waited for the eyes to register his face, and plunged the knife…

Kenny sat up abruptly, then fell back to the pillow, a debilitating queasiness sweeping over him. It was as if his fetid memory of an event that had been moldering for seventy years had escaped its crypt and invaded his body. He felt faint and began to twitch uncontrollably. The fervor of vengeful dreams that lusted for fiery justice burned and seared his skin raw. He felt his pounding pulse race wildly out of sync with a quickening metronome of guttural, panting gasps struggling for breath.

The next morning, for the first time anyone can remember, Kenneth Booth, the paragon of a disciplined life, was not on time for morning tai chi. Nor did he appear for breakfast, an occurrence that was inconceivable to the team of therapists and social workers who had partnered with the great man for decades.

The staff member sent to fetch their leader returned ashen faced, in obvious shock as he attempted to put into words the ghastly scene that greeted him as he opened the unlocked door to Kenny’s room.

Stuttering, wide-eyed with dismay, incredulous, barely coherent he blurted the grisly reality, “He’s dead.”

Months later the final Coroner’s report was vague and inconclusive. For the lay person the cause of death as revealed by the toxicology analysis was ‘poisoned,’ although no evidence of any drug overdose, medication misuse or toxins of any description were found.

Ultimately the official death-trigger was listed as hypercapnia, acute respiratory failure due to a low amount of oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. Puzzled by the absence of any lethal drugs at the scene, the coroner pondered the lack of the common etiologies such as neuromuscular disease, chest wall abnormalities, and severe airway disorders related to asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“What was it that caused Kenneth Booth to increase the rate and depth of his breathing to the extent that he literally suffocated from the CO2 levels in his blood?” he asked hypothetically.

Posted in Originals Stories from: LOVE, LUST, SHAME, REGRET... and Harold

Justin Nixon

nametagThe faceless bureaucrat sitting behind the gray, nondescript desk endemic to a thousand interrogation rooms made no effort to conceal his indifference. “Simply state your name and start talking.”

The recording device is the size of a pack of cigarettes, a technological marvel. But he feels disrespected by its anonymity, as if the importance of his words does not merit the more imposing reel-to-reel tape recorders of the detective novels and noir spy thrillers. There is no microphone mounted on a stand pointed in his direction; only a tiny hole in the recorder, barely perceptible, would swallow the statement he must deliver. He struggles to organize his thoughts, to dispel the Slavic despair that grips him. The doppelganger reflected in the plate glass window of the cubicle is of an ashen faced, dispirited man shorn of affect.

I am less than a ghost, he thinks to himself, beyond invisible, lacking even the aura that stirs the restless sleeper to look up, to sense the presence of something phantasmal. I possess not even that limited chimera of the imagination. I am nothing. I am unseen.

He cringes at the cruelty of his portrayal. He was not always thus. A trace of indignation makes its way into the genetic fatalism of his silent monologue. I must wait until the endocrinologists, fluids engineers, specialists in maternal-fetal medicine, wholesale grocers and hawkers of software spray the porcelain tiles with vomit, shit and phlegm. Then I am sought after. Then I have a name. It is written in block letters on a cellophane nametag pinned to the breast pocket of my coveralls. It is not my actual given name. Bronislaw Szymkiewicz is impossible for the tongues of populations not indigenous to the steppes of Eastern Europe. In the exhibit halls of McCormick Place, where I work as a janitor when the big conventions are in town, I am simply “TRASH.”

He senses that the low level bureaucrat testing the volume of the recorder will be merely watching the needle flirt with the red zone, not actually listening.   Still, his words are to be transcribed. That is something to consider; there will be a record of what transpired, evidence of his existence. A blinking green light on the recorder begins to flash.

The hospital in Warsaw where Szymkiewicz worked as a respected radiologist specializing in positron emission tomography was not the front line of Solidarność, the Solidarity movement that withstood persecution and imposition of martial law to challenge the dominance of the Communist Party. Szymkiewicz, although restrained by position and prudence, silently applauded the fiery speeches of Lech Walesa that were rallying the country’s unions into a formidable political force. A child in 1956 when the liberal régime of Wladyslaw Gomulka gave the country its first sip of political independence, he had savored a second serving of autonomy during his teens when self-government asserted itself in the 1970s under Edward Gierek. By the time Walesa eventually won the presidency in 1990, the radiologist’s appetite for personal freedom had become full blown.

Five years later, both Bronislaw Szymkiewicz and the disillusioned populace at large were still waiting for the transition from communism to capitalism to produce the higher standard of living that had been promised. In the 1995 elections Solidarity received only 4.9% of the votes and in the decade that followed, Szymkiewicz’s life followed the country’s trajectory from high hopes to minimum expectations. His job became mired in routine, the analog technology in the hospital’s cash-starved lab lagging well behind the discrete signals of the digitally driven west. His marriage, childless and increasingly bloodless, wended its way to mutual indifference and divorce. In 2003 when the country’s bureaucratic constraints were loosened by Poland’s long-awaited membership in the European Union, the fifty year old Szymkiewicz turned his back to the past, applied for a six-month tourist visa and boarded a LOT flight to the land of the free and home of the brave.

Initially, he stayed with a cousin in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, his taste for political freedom amplified by boisterous conversations around the dinner table and astonishment at the seemingly uncensored ten o’clock newscasts and Sunday morning talk shows that he watched diligently. He was fascinated in particular by the panelists appearing each week on public television, their unruly, opposing arguments standing out in stark contrast to the government run, party line newscasts on the Telewizja Polska channel. Often the exchanges spilled over to the local bars and public baths where generations of Poles sought air after grueling ten-hour shifts in the anthracite coal mines that Swiss-cheesed the surrounding Allegheny Mountains. After six weeks of too much vodka and too little sleep, he met a middle-aged woman who worked as a nurse at the local VA medical center. They had a lot in common, his background as a radiologist standing out from the soot-smudged work histories of her former beaus. When the VA offered her a promotion if she would transfer to the hospital in Chicago, the smitten Bronislaw helped load the Ryder and offered to share the drive and the rent on a small but tidy apartment on West Milwaukee Avenue, where an active Polonia thrived.

Concerned about the impending expiration of his tourist visa he visited the city’s Polish consulate where he hoped a sympathetic bureaucracy would look kindly at his impressive professional resume and assist him in landing a job and becoming eligible for the coveted Green Card he would need to extend his stay. As he approached the consulate a chauffeur driven, late model black Mercedes sedan rolled to a stop, the coifed blond passenger stepping by him without a glance. Suddenly, perhaps for the first time since arriving in America, Bronislaw Szymkiewicz felt oddly unsettled, beyond the routine awkwardness of a newly arrived traveler, his Slavic forehead and solid jaw suddenly blown out of proportion; his rough fabric, square shouldered suit jacket more than a style gaffe; but the costume of the immigrant butt of a Polish joke. His confidence evaporated as he approached the upscale Lake Shore Drive location, the elegant Beaux-Arts style building more in keeping with the blue-blood Gold Coast neighborhood than the unadorned white and red of the new Polish flag that hung limply over the threshold.

The blinking green light on the recorder turned to a stoplight red, matching the crimson spreading across the mottled face of the officer in charge of the interview. Stifling his irritation he looked up at the ashen faced man sitting motionless across from him. “Do you need a glass of water?” he asked. “No? Okay then, let’s start again.” He pressed the record button on the recorder. “What is your name?” the officer asked.

Szymkiewicz remained silent, as if considering a question of immense philosophical importance. What is your name? He repeats the question silently, vacillating between two orders of truth. In Gdansk, where I am from, my name was seen frequently. And respected. Doctors in the top ranking of the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education knew me as Senior Technician Szymkiewicz. I was a radiologist who took the pictures used in diagnosing the most serious of illnesses. I was much in demand, for I possessed considerable expertise, having stared over the shoulders of many doctors hiding behind pomposity and obfuscation as they read the film, pointing to the cancers, pondering how to deliver the news to their frightened patients. I knew the script by heart. Often, I remained in the room when the specialists left, explaining in simple words the truth of the matter. I was not a doctor, but I was looked up to, valued for what I knew, the job I performed, the truth of the words I delivered with sympathy.

Szymkiewicz senses rather than sees the clock on the wall. He knows it will not move until his words flutter across the invisible microphone staring at him with an immutable, blinking eye. He searches for the story waiting to be told.

When Bronislaw exited the stately mansion that was his country’s home away from home he left behind the naivety of his smiling passport photograph and confronted the limited options outlined by the junior level diplomat who poured coffee and reality during their abbreviated but straightforward interview. There would be no Green Card, no transfer of credentials to make him eligible for a page on LinkedIn.com. On the bus ride home he nursed his worsening migraine and weighed his alternatives. He could leave before his visa expired and return to the life he had left behind in Poland, his future and his passion for life atrophying in tandem. Or he could stay and become part of Chicago’s Polish community, an economic and cultural entity that existed as a country unto itself. He didn’t want to return home. He had discovered that the streets in America were not paved in Zlotys but unlike the cobblestone roads of his country, the absence of dog shit could not be overlooked. He was an accomplished man. Bronislaw Szymkiewicz would find a way!

When his visa ran out, Bronislaw was indifferent to the consequences, joining the tens of thousands of his countrymen who made up a Polish Diaspora numbering only slightly less than the entire population of Warsaw. Lacking papers, a job in a hospital was unattainable, but he was a capable handyman and quickly found work off the books with a busy contractor who sent him home every two weeks with a brown envelope stuffed with cash.

As the weeks turned to months, Bronislaw sank into the pacifying comfort of the Barcalounger he had purchased at Costco and scarcely noticed the tedium of his life in Poland slowly reemerging. His earlier outrage over the policies of the Bush presidency receded into indifference, the absence of passion creeping into the shared bedroom where talk of a future with the woman he had fallen for so ardently, was an occurrence of the past.  Ironically, the longer his stay within sight of the skyscrapers of America’s third largest city, the deeper his immersion within the boundaries of the Polish neighborhood where he lived. The eagerness that once drove him to search out the bootleg CDs of Tarantino and Scorsese and frequent the jazz clubs where scratchy records of John Coltrane shared the juke box with old Melomani covers of Jelly Roll Morton and W.C. Handy, waned. He lost interest in attending the celebrated museums and theaters that drew visitors by the millions; he scoffed at the idea of paying good money for tapas and sushi and prix fixe menus. Occasionally he took the bus to Toyota Park in Bridgeview to watch a soccer game. When a friend suggested they hit the clubs on Archer Street, he took one look at the crowd of twenty-something’s and fled without taking off his coat. He spoke Polish more frequently than English, lacked a driver’s license, carried no health insurance and increasingly found solace in boarding house portions of pierogi, kielbasy, kotlet schabowy, szarlotka, and sugared paczki devoured without concern for cutlery or gastronomic order.

In October 2008, the stock market began its historic collapse. Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the Polish daily news, reported the occurrence, but Szykiewicz, who read the story on lunch break from his job laying hardwood flooring at a Lincoln Park townhouse, made little of the article. Two months later, a few days before Christmas, he was laid off.  Briefly he considered returning to Poland, but inertia abetted his decision to remain in Chicago. It came as no surprise when Bronislaw and his girlfriend had a quiet conversation with a conclusion that both had come to before either started talking. (“You have transitioned from charming expatriate to a late sleeper needing a shave and repeating tired anecdotes about shady coalitions of communist spies and radical Catholic priests,” she had chided).

In need of employment but decades older than the swarms of laborers gathered daily in front of the Home Depot clamoring for day work, he managed a living doing odd carpentry and handyman chores, undercutting the prevailing wage rate in order to get hired. When a chance conversation provided a lead to a janitor’s job opening at McCormick Place, he overlooked his pang of conscience and contacted the low-level mobster who served the immigrant community with an impressive inventory of counterfeit documents that fooled no one but provided employers the cover necessary to plead innocent should a rare visit by the local Homeland Security agent ever occur. Since candidates for custodial work cleaning up the jetsam of conventioneers were in short supply it was not surprising when the supervisor doing the interviewing gave only a superficial glance at the Social Security card presented as proof of identity by the applicant with the unpronounceable name. Happy to have the weekly salary, initially Szykiewicz was indifferent to the demeaning nature of his work cleaning the cavernous convention center. For years he had made speeches about the plight of the laboring class; now in his mind’s eye he was validating his rhetoric, a true believer in the egalitarian society.   He wavered for a brief moment only, despairing at the hopelessness of his plight when the one-piece jump suit that served as his uniform reminded him of the starched lab coat he wore during his shifts at the Szpital Dziecitka Jezus (Infant Jesus Hospital) in Warsaw.

“It’s a mindless job, but there is nobility in menial labor, is there not?” Bronislaw explained to the few remaining friends who occasionally met him for dinner at the Red Apple buffet on Milwaukee Avenue. But as the weeks turned to months, it became more difficult for Szykiewicz to numb himself from his bleak situation. His mood turned sullen. He bristled as “Hey you,” became the familiar address as he walked the center’s busy corridors pushing his broom and bucket. Bronislaw Szykiewicz the esteemed Radiologist was no more. He was Szykiewicz the Janitor.

The tone of his harangues grew rancorous, his political views more shrill and radicalized. Absent the optimism that spoke to possibilities and better days, his discourses denounced the elites who held the poor in thrall, spiraling into militant rants that drove his listeners to slowly drift away. But for his rancor, there was no alternative. His once monthly calls to relatives back in Poland confirmed the decline of the mother country; matka Polska was emersed in economic woes, the once proud Polish eagle declawed and earthbound by debt and political incompetence.

The stuffed cabbage and mielony Polish burger he regularly ordered gave way to shots and beer chasers. Eventually, he stopped going out, his indignant feelings too intense to mask. “America discriminates against the working man,” he complained bitterly, employing the slogans and rallying cries of his youthful days shouting the watchwords that had echoed through the streets of Gdansk.

Over time his resentment subsided into a numbed acceptance of his situation. He came home from work and sat around in boxer shorts, watching movies late into the night, tossing in his bed in an unending, exhausting stage-one REM. Several times his supervisor chided him for neglecting to shave. Self-respect dissolved into self-loathing. Isolated, anesthetized by his plight, the once proud Bronislaw Szykiewicz sunk into anonymity, residing in limbo. Barely cognizant of the changing seasons, he scarcely noticed the posting on the company bulletin board advising the janitorial crew to prepare for the opening of the convention hosted by the Radiological Society of North America.

Szykiewicz raised his head, startling the bored interviewer who had yet to elicit his charge’s name, never mind the statement it was his job to record. What is it that you want me to admit to, his eyes asked the inquisitor? You have all the information, the police report, the testimony of witnesses. To you, I’m nothing more than a fraud. A thief. But what did I steal? You found no watch, no wallet, nothing of value. What was I so desperate to have?

Szykiewicz knows the answer to his question. But it is not to be found in the bleak interrogation room. He turns his back to the cajoling officer.

The crowd in front of the iCRco booth was intrigued by the digital imaging manufacturer’s presentation of their new, computed radiography model, the Dual Bay CR7200. In the jostling for position – the buxom model hired by the company to spiel the crowd was particularly attractive – one of the conventioneers inadvertently lost his badge. Szymkiewicz, sweeping the area after the session, found it under a table of brochures and workshop invitations.

An official looking stamp beneath the colorful logo announced boldly, ALL ACCESS PASS, followed by an impressive list of speakers and seminars with schedule times. Szymkiewicz smoothed the wrinkled ribbon and held the badge over the chest pocket of his soiled jumpsuit. He looked around at the high tech exhibits lining the aisle, the state-of-the-art machines promising miracles of modern science. He remembered his early years at the university when his future had a similar vision, the memories as jolting to his brain as the electric currents emanating from the MRI machines on display.

The next day he didn’t punch in for work. Instead, wearing his one and only suit, the badge he found pinned prominently on the lapel, he walked by his supervisor as a clean-shaven conventioneer, Edward Slutsky of Cleveland General Hospital.

The day passed in a whirl of activity. Szymkiewicz noted the advances in the technology, yet found with pleasure how much knowledge he retained from earlier days. Company representatives working the booths talked with him without suspicion, each sales pitch adding to his confidence. At lunch, he joined a table of technicians and participated without problem in the anecdotal sidebars and business chatter. A busboy he vaguely recognized from the employee locker room came over to clear the table and Bronislaw helped him by stacking the plates. Speechless, the restaurant worker gave him a grateful smile.

At a seminar presenting new advances in computed radiography, the enlivened Szymkiewicz was further emboldened. During the Q&A session, he raised his hand to ask the presenter a question. A floor monitor ran over with a microphone, eyed the conventioneer’s badge pinned to Szymkiewicz’s lapel and announced, “Question from Edward Slutsky, attending from Cleveland General Hospital.”

Instantly an outraged voice rang out, “Hey, I’m Edward Slutsky. Who the hell is that guy?”

The paddy wagon ride from the west building of McCormick Center to the detention center at the United States Citizen and Immigration Service at 101 West Congress Parkway was a blur. The spark that had momentarily restored Bronislaw Szymkiewicz to wholeness was extinguished.

The bleak walls of the interrogation room amplified the growing impatience of the job weary immigration officer. He pulled his chair closer to the desk and confronted Szymkiewicz. “For the last time, what is your name!” he demanded, his voice more menacing that questioning.

Resigned to the inevitability of the interview, and to his fate, Bronislaw Szymkiewicz swallowed a final gasp of defiance and turned to his interrogator. You keep bullying me to learn who I am, but you care nothing about me. Is the essence of the man who wears the badge on his jacket any different if it reads Doctor or Custodian? Who do you see when you look at me? Can you look inside, past my worn jacket and stained shirt? What is my name, you ask. In Polish, muttering under his breath, he answered, “Jestem nikim, I am no one.”

“What was that… what did you say?”

Bronislaw raised his voice, Jestem nikim, “I am no one.”   Then, louder still, Jestem nikim, “I am no one,” he shouted, Jestem nikim, “I am no one!”

Satisfied, the officer labeled a padded envelope “Justin Nixon,” attached a Polaroid picture and pointed to the tiny hole in the recorder.

Szymkiewicz would not know the consequences of his mangled answer for several months.

The envelope made its way to office of assistant to the Deputy Commissioner for Midwestern Immigration landing on top of a thick file labeled “Status Pending.” A Stickem note affixed to the file read, “Transcript recorded by one Justin Nixon, an illegal immigrant being considered for deportation after posing as a citizen and overstaying his temporary visa.” When the deputy was in the middle of page three, the telephone rang. Without reading the remaining pages, he tossed the statement into the out box after annotating it with a large, pre-inked rubber stamp marked “Immigration Violation.”

For the next three months the mangled phonetic name, Jestem Nikim, i.e., Justin Nixon, submerged Szymkiewicz within the bureaucratic organism. Only a crippling cough that brought him to the infirmary and caused widespread confusion among the medical personnel searching for his medical records, rescued him from oblivion. Restored to the roll call, the guards found it easier to refer to him by serial number. To the Mexicans, Nigerians, and assorted Latinos waiting disposition of their cases, he was known as the Old Polock, taking his place alongside the A-Rab, the Greek, and Rusky One and Rusky Two, a pair of fair-skinned brothers from Ukraine who staved off confrontation with an unlimited supply of cigarettes noteworthy for their lack of a tax stamp.

A deluge of paperwork preceded Szymkiewicz through a dozen court rooms. A year passed from the time he recorded his statement to the day the immigration judge issued the adjudication of removability that ordered Szymkiewicz to be deported back to Poland, the aisle seat on the flight from Chicago to Warsaw paid for courtesy of the federal government. For the ride to the International Terminal at O’Hare he was given the suit he wore on the day he was apprehended, the attendee’s badge from the Radiological Society convention still attached. Impassive initially, he protested only when a Transportation Security Administration officer escorted him to a waiting room.

“This way, Mr. Slutsky.”

His voice swelled with indignation. “Nie, nie ja,” No, not me,” he demurred, ripping off the badge and throwing it to the floor.

Moments later, the public address system blared its loud vibrato: “Bronislaw Szymkiewicz to Gate B-14. The tone-less voice echoed throughout the terminal, the sequence of vowels reverberating in march-step, Bro-nis-law Zim-key-vitz to Gate B14, please.”

Szymkiewicz was stunned by the announcement vibrating in the air for all to hear, hundreds of people, important people, cocking their ears to register the name, pausing to sift the syllables, running the hard and soft consonants through their data base of friends, relatives and business associates. He waited for several beats, as if to affirm what he heard. There it was again, unmistakable, HIS name, “Bronislaw Szymkiewizc to Gate B14.”

He jumped to his feet. “That’s me!” he shouted, To ja! “That’s me!”

Posted in Originals Stories from: LOVE, LUST, SHAME, REGRET... and Harold

Fish Story

O6I4K60How did this affair get started? she wondered, looking at the man lying next to her, surprised by the skinny shanks and a wrinkled pot belly she hadn’t noticed three weeks ago when they first met. She remembered eying him in the lobby of the Illinois Valley Community Center while waiting for the charter bus to arrive, an older gent but still suave in a Calvin Klein vest and RayBan sunglasses. He doesn’t look too bad for a guy from the senior center, she had thought to herself, considering that the half dozen other men taking the Museums of Chicago tour were barely ambulatory, wore plaid pants with striped shirts and smelled like a cross between the bottom of an ashtray and a freshly opened sardine tin. And to be truthful, she had been the one to open the door to the flirtation that began when he boarded the bus, her smile the invitation for him to plop into the adjoining seat. And she had to admit, when he remarked on how much energy she had, her sassy reply made sure he knew she was not a gal pushing a walker in shapeless orthopedic shoes; she let him know there still was a hormone or two circulating in that old bod of hers.

Did seventy-three-year-old women have affairs? She felt the heat of the blush that covered her cheeks. The women that Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts wrote about had quixotic assignations, dreamy-eyed trysts. The exotic heroines baring their supple bosoms in the pages of a Barbara Cartland romance novel wouldn’t be caught dead in the flannel gown she was wearing. Lying in bed with her breasts considerably less than perky, she wondered if he had noticed the spider veins on her calves and those damn liver spots on the back of her hands.

How would she describe the awkward lovemaking with the man sprawled across her bed gently snoring? Her shyness had kept her passion in check, and when he fizzled midway in their hesitant lovemaking the climax of her daydreams was still a ways off. But as far as she was concerned, that was just fine. The fireworks were missing but he was sweet and gentle and didn’t hide behind the bluster and blame-game she remembered all too well.

It had been a long time since she had lain naked next to a man. Towards the end of her passionless marriage her husband was more like a lump in the mattress than a lover. She hadn’t thought about being intimate in years, until the day of the tour, when suddenly she was a desirable woman again, with a man sitting next to her giving her the kind of goose bumps she hadn’t felt for what seemed an eternity.

The group of seniors, most of them small-town folks from down-state Illinois, had wandered over to the Waters of the Worlds tanks at the Shedd Aquarium, pausing to listen as the guide talked about Old Granddad, the museum’s long-lived Australian lungfish.   It was all she could do not to laugh out loud as the earnest young ichthyologist described the fish that had been on display since arriving for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. “He hangs out like a sunken log on the bottom of his habitat, so our aquarists have to monitor his respiration and eating.”

The description matches Al to a tee, she had giggled.

“Scientists think lungfish might be the missing link between fish and amphibians,” the escort continued. “Its tubby silhouette has not evolved much, if at all, in the 100 million years it’s been around. When the water is low, the lungfish swims to the surface and gulps in air through its mouth.”

Sure sounds like Al sitting on the couch watching television, she thought, grimacing, thinking about the hundreds of weekends stuck at home when the highlight of an endless Sunday watching football was getting up at half-time to see what was in the refrigerator.

Now here she was, three weeks later, having had sex with a man from the senior center, a man she hardly knew. She wasn’t surprised by her timidity. With Al, for the last couple of years when they actually lived together as husband and wife, it was mostly about him, straining fruitlessly to make something out of nothing. He took Viagra a couple of times, but his face turned so red and his heart beat so fast he was more afraid of dying than looking foolish trying to coax his wilted Willie to al dente. The medics who took him to the hospital suffering from pains in the chest didn’t even snicker; they had handled similar calls dozens of times. It wasn’t exactly cloud nine for her, either. She was too old fashioned to voice her own disappointment but truthfully hadn’t been aroused since watching Jeff Bridges make love to Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys. And no matter how hard she tried to respond, poor Al was left struggling with performance anxieties that kept him moody for days on end.

Her lover (surprisingly, she liked the sound of that) was stirring. Was there a set of rules covering the awkward moment when the harsh light of day turned cute little freckles into ugly brown liver spots? Would he take one look at her and bolt? And what were her feelings? Did she want him to stay? She thought of the time they had spent together since that lovely day in the big city. Turns out they liked a lot of the same things; and each other. He was easy to be with, didn’t have to “be right” all the time. Maybe it was because they both had been around the block a few times and had pretty much decided that who they had become at this time in their lives was who they would be, without any need to embellish the story.

Fact is, she had been on her own for more than ten years and had done quite well, thank you very much. When Al was diagnosed, she had the foresight to enroll in the community college and study for the real estate exam. By the time he died, she was making a decent living, paying the bills, helping the kids with their college tuition, and doing pretty good in the market to boot. So this fellow lying next to her, she might want him to stick around and be the companion that made life more enjoyable but she sure as heck didn’t need him to take care of her! The intensity of her avowal embarrassed her. For all her bravado she realized she was afraid that when he awoke that he would see her for the crone she was and scoot out the door before he took time to tie his shoes. Perhaps the better strategy would be to drop the other shoe herself rather than dread when it would fall.

She watched him yawn lazily, then sit up with a start, bemused but uncertain, his eyes searching for assurance that everything was okay. She realized with a bit of a shock, a pleasurable revelation she was quick to note, He’s feeling as awkward as I am.   Her qualms eased, she took a deep breath and dove off the cliff.

“Hello, sleepyhead,” she teased. “Would you like some tea?”

 

How did this affair get started? he wondered, looking at the pudgy, gray haired woman lying next to him, surprised by the Caesarian scar on her belly and the crow’s feet under her eyes that he hadn’t noticed until this moment. He remembered when he first met her three weeks ago, charming in a knee length skirt that hit the mark between too girly and too trendy, just the right choice for a woman of a certain age who knew there was nothing worse than looking like you stayed too long at the farm. Hard to believe she’s a gal from the senior center, he had thought to himself, eyeing the bus full of widows and divorcées wearing shapeless slacks with elastic waistbands and smelling vaguely like the lilac scented sachet bags his ex-wife kept in her underwear drawer.   He had made it a point to sit next to her, noticing with surprise the nervous stammer as he introduced himself. She was lively and smart, but he was a cautious man and one messy divorce was enough. He was adamant about steering clear of divorcées and widows, yet he couldn’t help but be aware of the faint stirring in his mid-rise briefs as he slid into the aisle seat.

The aquarium was the first stop on the tour’s itinerary. Half- bored, he had been ambling without direction from exhibit to exhibit when he overheard one of the museum guides talking about an aquatic geezer of a fish called Old Granddad. It was the fattest fish he had ever seen, slippery scales covered in brownish patches, droopy eyelids, slithering unperturbed along the weeds and reeds at the bottom of the tank. What struck him was the staying power of the fish, put in that tank the same year he was born. He might have seen it decades ago when he was a kid in short pants and Buster Browns, and today it was still alive and kicking, so to speak, using his stubby muscular fins to walk underwater like the land animal some scientists think his species might have become. Suddenly, unexpectedly, it hit him: Sonofagun, if that old fish is still hanging in there doing its thing, why should call it quits just because I’m not quite the man I used to be!

More to the point, what kind of man was he now, he wondered. Did he have what it takes to prompt the desirable lady from the bus to give him a second look? When he was at the top of his game, he had all the moves, all the pick-up lines: Did the sun come up, or did you just smile at me? After he married, he quickly became bored with the routine. His mind wandered to the first time he left the reservation, the peccadillo that led to one affair after another.

It was all so easy…

 

The impromptu conversation with the curvaceous thirty-something woman sitting next to the window on the late afternoon flight to New York set his neurotransmitters vibrating so intensely he was hard pressed to exchange the witty dialogue mandatory for chance encounters and impending dalliances. As luck would have it they were staying at the same hotel, the possibilities of that happenstance causing the both of them to eye each other like fruit flies sucking the same juicy peach. She made a point to tell him she was engaged. He was quick to congratulate her, replying that he was married, the message being, Don’t worry, honey, I won’t tell. It’s safe. Whatever happens is between you and me. The charade was on schedule.

They shared a cab from LaGuardia, checked in at the hotel, and made their surreptitious calls to boyfriend and wife: “Hi sweetheart. The flight was uneventful. I’m having dinner and going to bed early. Love you. Call you in the morning.”

The martini before dinner was serotonin and dopamine with a jigger of gin. He casually suggested they skip desert and go to the hotel. “Yes, let’s do,” she said, her bedroom whisper barely audible, champa flower and patchouli searing his chemosensory organs.

In the hours that followed, they were sex pots on boil, greedily devouring the forbidden fruit, liberated by the anything-goes recklessness of the one-night stand. In the morning, they had juice and coffee and kissed each other goodbye like suburban Republicans riding different carpools to their separate offices. He went to his meeting, slept soundly on the flight home and arrived at the family manse without guilt or regret.

That was then. Now…

 

Years had passed since he was the big man in the big office drawing down the big salary. Now he lived on a budget and carefully managed a fixed income. He used to jog a couple of miles every morning and show off a Speedo as he strutted along the beach. Now he had an expanding pot and took three Advil before he got dressed. At one time, he had a beauty queen wife and an address book of friends. Now he was divorced, lived alone, and went to the senior center so he wouldn’t start talking to himself. In his prime, he was fearless, traveled to all corners of the world; he was bold; gregarious and persuasive. Now he was leery of anything new, pretending to possess a confidence that had deserted him. He had always enjoyed sex, never lacked a woman if he felt the urge, and fancied himself a more than capable lover. Now he had an expert’s knowledge of how a penile vacuum pump causes the corpora cavernosa to swell – though he never could bring himself to purchase the gadget – and was so anxious about not performing up to snuff that he had just about given up on the idea it would ever happen again.

Until he met the woman on the bus, and saw the old fish still swimming, still alive.

He pulled the covers up to his chin to hide his discomfit. After a thousand nights fantasizing about the big event, the real thing didn’t play out quite like he imagined it. He had been nervous, too quick on the trigger, fumbling around rather than cocksure. (Despite his anxiety, he smiled at the choice of words.) But it was okay; better than okay. His partner’s sweet shyness had made it understandable that the first time would be awkward; that he needed a little help in doing what used to come naturally. Yes, it had been less than perfect but there were gratifying, tender feelings of intimacy to more than compensate.

It was time to face the music, to face her. He sat up, dropping the blanket and his defenses. He felt happy when he was with this lovely woman. They had a lot in common. Perhaps she felt the same way.

Apparently she had been up for a while. He liked the flannel gown she was wearing; it matched the mood he was in, feeling comfortable and cozy. When their eyes met, he did not turn away. Look inside me, I have nothing to hide, they said. Gratefully, he accepted the invitation.

“Tea would be nice,” he answered.

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Posted in Originals Stories from: LOVE, LUST, SHAME, REGRET... and Harold

The Cordovan Shoes

shoesFor a brief moment, an instant before the Boeing 737 touched down at Philadelphia’s International Airport, seventy-eight-year-old Harold Levine recalled, more accurately relived with vivid exactitude the feelings that accompanied him sixty years earlier as he arrived at the city where he would begin his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. Harold had stored the chronicles of those halcyon days in the file drawers of a half dozen highly paid therapists, so he was caught unaware by the clarity of the memories his psychiatrist archivists had labeled: “The past – interesting but no longer useful.” Reluctant to let go of the moment, Harold sank into the curve of the upholstered aisle seat and considered the surprisingly sharp recollection that had poked its way into his consciousness.

A yellowing snapshot forgotten in a shoebox long since relegated to the basement storage room is in the viewfinder of his father’s Brownie. Eighteen-year-old Harold is grinning foolishly, showing off the Twiddle Dee dink he would wear from the start of school until Christmas vacation, barring a victory over Cornell at the annual Thanksgiving Day football game, a triumph that would lop a month off the hazing ritual.

“It’s my college yarmulke,” he jokes as his dad takes the picture of his smirking son in the silly cap.

The afternoon is drawing to an end. Harold hugs his mother goodbye. For a brief moment, it is kindergarten redux. But oddly, it is his father who has the salt in his eyes. Wiping away his tears, he kisses his sun (his father’s favorite homophone), mumbles a final goodbye and they’re gone. And Harold is on his own, optimistic, excited, the world his oyster.

The jolt of the landing gear on the unyielding tarmac snapped Harold upright, but he remained pensive. Harold wondered if his roommate from his momentous freshman year would be at the reunion. They were an unlikely pair, Harold, the street kid from the Bronx, the liquor salesman’s boy, and Jon Holm, Jr., scion of the South, son of an undertaker, reaffirming his intention to manage the family-owned funeral parlor by going to classes in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie, a wardrobe rehearsal for his role as aide de camp to the angel of death. The absurdity of their friendship delighted them both; they had gone away to college to experience new phenomena, and surely there was no occurrence more improbable. Harold smiled at the memory. He couldn’t wait to catch up with that good ole boy.

Harold and Jon are wolfing down malts in a booth at Sophomore Sols, the beeps, bongs, and bells of the pinball machines in the back of the long, narrow storefront competing with the jukeboxes blasting endless repetitions of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?,” “Mr. Touchdown, USA,” and Teresa Brewer singing a mind-numbing syncopated rag, “Music, Music, Music.”

A hundred and one new chums – boys from the dorms, nodding acquaintances from lecture halls and classrooms, teammates from the informal ball games played on the quad lawn, classmates identifiable by their preposterous freshman caps – crowd by, instantly acknowledged with boisterous shouts, leers, grimaces, punches on the arm, whacks on the rump, the good natured jargon that singles them out from the upperclassmen. In their dorm are boys with Roman numerals following their names and initials preceding them; they hobnob with Southerners, New Englanders and Midwesterners, adding their peculiar pitch, tone, and rhythm to a harmony of drawls, twangs, brogues, howdys, and y’alls. For those first, glorious weeks before fraternity rushing splinters the class into factions representing the worst in snobbery, pretentiousness and vanity, it doesn’t matter where you are from, who your parents are, what prep school you attended, and wonder of wonders, if your nose has a hook, bump, or acute nasolabial angle of Jewish descent.

As Harold followed Elaine out of the emptying plane, he felt a pinch on the heel of his foot, the sock bunching up or the first sign of an imminent blister. Harold dismissed the warning; he had worn the same 8½ D shoe size ever since his junior year in high school and rarely had problems with his feet. He wiggled his toes and looked down at the mahogany colored, cordovan shoes he had put on earlier that morning. On a whim, he had resurrected them from the back of the floor-to-ceiling shoe rack he had installed when he moved in with Elaine. He hadn’t worn them in years, not since his freshman year at Penn, when he bought them as part of his transformation from street rat to college boy, replacing the Thom McCann blue suede shoes that singled him out as a schmuck first class during that first day of fraternity rushing. He had saved them all these years, shoetrees and Mink Oil preserving the leather as they nested in one packing carton to another, accompanying Harold along his journey from underclassman to Old Guard alumnus. On a whim, Harold had decided to wear them to the reunion, polishing the horsehide to a boot camp shine.

Harold is quick to understand that the costume often defines the actor. For his role as Ivy Leaguer he exchanges his double-breasted, brown serge suit and clip-on yellow bowtie for a blue button-down shirt, gray flannel pants and red and blue rep tie. Dressed for the part, he takes on the persona of a graduate of Choate by way of Old Westbury. He learns to talk without moving his jaw, becomes a pen pal to a girl at Smith, and to a large extent assumes that the world owes him the same perks of power, affluence, and obeisance as any scion of the Pew family. It’s a harmless sham, and he has fun playing the part, except when the real heir to the Sun Oil fortune talks to him like he just stepped into a pile of dog shit and the girl from Smith asks if he prefers a Presbyterian or Episcopal service. His charade notwithstanding, Harold has genuine affection for the authentic symbols of the university. Coming from a history that stops at the Ellis Island seawall, he reveres the campus traditions, the stone faced sculptured busts and commemorative plaques on ivy-covered cornerstones. He takes courses in accounting, economics, finance, marketing, statistics, and transportation and wears a jacket and tie to class to replicate the office environment of the corporate workplace. He addresses his instructors as “Mister” and learns the consequence of handing in a paper past the deadline.

“Would this be tolerated by your superior at IBM?” Harold knows that he has about as much chance of landing a job at IBM as becoming Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, but he gets the point.

“Were you and your roommate Jon in the same fraternity?” Elaine asked while they waited for their luggage.

Harold turned to his wife, taken aback by her question. “Elaine, I went to college in the early fifties,” he replied indulgently. “Fraternities were segregated. There were no Jews in Delta Tau Delta, no sweethearts of Sigma Chi named Esther or Leah. If you were Jewish you could join a Jewish fraternity and that was it.” He continued, “Everybody knew Penn had a quota system. If it wasn’t for the Wharton school, there wouldn’t have been ten Jews in the whole damn place.”

“But you and Jon were good friends, weren’t you?” she persisted. “You just said you were excited about seeing him again.”

Harold thought for a moment. “We were good friends.” He paused, “At least in the beginning.”

The friendships and social equality of the freshmen quadrangle becomes a field of anxiety, wrought with envy and small-mindedness as a surfeit of apprehensive hopefuls compete for the tap on the shoulder that will separate the insiders from the “independents,” a snide, mean-spirited synonym for klutz, unwanted, not good enough. Each night, Harold and Jon preen, splashing on Aqua Velva and screwing on fixed smiles as they practice small talk with the Greek brothers who hold their fate in limbo.

Each fraternity house has a profile the supplicants try to match, flaunting or concealing a lengthy list of descriptive adjectives corresponding to the desired paragon: Protestant, Catholic or Jewish; jock, brain or socialite; prep school, public school, or from the Bronx; old money, new money, or no money. About a third of the class will be picked to pledge. An equal number will be blackballed. The remainder will maintain a defiant attitude held from the beginning of the process and throughout their undergraduate years: piss on you!

Eager and determined to be one of the chosen ones, Harold shunts his egalitarian views aside. He wants to be a fraternity man, to live in a fraternity house, wear a fraternity pin with the Greek letters spelled out in white pearls, to keep forever the secret of the brotherhood’s finger-locked handshake. In his mind, he has a preposterous Roaring Twenties image of himself wearing a raccoon coat and strumming a ukulele as dozens of co-eds dance the Black Bottom, the Shimmy, and the Varsity Drag.

Harold is wise enough to set his sights on the attainable, avoiding the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations. It takes but a few minutes at the ZBT house to determine that his public school, middleclass background is not the pedigree required. “What school did you say you went to?” These boys are like gentiles!   He has never seen so many nose jobs in one room. Sigma Alpha Mu is a popular house, and they offer up one of the few Jewish athletes on campus, posed prominently in his varsity sweater as the potential brothers make their way through the welcome line.

“Say, did you know that last summer we won the intramural softball championship?”

Harold is not exactly given the bum’s rush but gets the feeling he is not the catch of the day. He fares better at the Alpha Epsilon Pi house. One of the brothers there is a boy from his hometown! He embraces Harold like a long-lost relative and introduces him to all the big shots in charge of the rush committee. Harold is grateful for the chance encounter and welcomes the attention. He makes sure not to trip over his best foot forward as he’s hustled from brother to brother, a smiling beneficiary of their non-stop snow job.

“Oh yeah, we have great parties here, but we keep up a good grade point average.” Harold likes these guys and is exultant when he gets the thumbs-up as he leaves.

When Harold and his roommate are accepted as pledges they guzzle six-packs from the State Store to celebrate their new status as fledgling Greeks, elated at being accepted, included, approved, CHOSEN as worthy of the select few. It doesn’t take long to become sloshed. Jon is curious about “them Jewish houses,” and Harold tells him he’s pledging Zeta Laida Shiksa. Jon says he’s joining Ada Mada Pie.

Convulsed with laughter, Harold screams back, “Don’t forget I Felta Thigh.”

It’s a great evening; the beer bash is a good way to cover up their uneasiness at what lies ahead. The next day, they start having their meals at the fraternity house, giving up the table at the student union where they had eaten dinner together since the first day of freshmen orientation.

Elaine’s curiosity about her husband’s college years was short-lived. In the taxi to town, she kept her head buried in the book she had been reading since taking off from O’Hare, but ultimately her innate good nature overrode the lingering, peevish reluctance to accompany her husband to an event she had zero interest in attending. Clearly, Harold’s wide-eyed request that she join him had not allowed for a refusal that would have put a moat in the center of their king-sized bed. Restraining herself from reminding him of the lousy time he had endured at his sixtieth high school reunion, she had listened patiently as he conjured up a weekend of endless bonhomie with old pals, sharing memories about the good old days at the good old U of P.

“Thanks for coming with me, honey,” Harold said, nudging his wife. “This should be fun.”

Harold was grumpy. The flight home, delayed an hour by pouring rain that slowed Philadelphia to a crawl, was crowded, hot, and stomach-churning turbulent.   The headache he had managed to subdue with an illicit Vioxx saved from his previous year’s hernia post-op had reappeared along with the sour stomach and stabs of dizzying vertigo made worse by the lurches of the storm-tossed Boeing.   Harold didn’t hide his ill-temper but was careful not to complain to Elaine sitting stoically across the aisle, anticipating her “I told you so” reproach. What made matters worse, the blisters on both of his heels had broken, oozing a sticky wetness into the gauze pads he had taped behind his ankles in an effort to reduce the excruciating pain he felt with every step. He stared straight ahead, avoiding Elaine, avoiding the chubby businessman in the center seat whose glare of disapproval had not dissuaded him from removing his ruined shoes, the backs hacked off like makeshift clogs salvaged from the dumpster by an artful vagrant.   Harold tilted his seat back, pretending not to hear the protest of the lady sitting behind him, and closed his eyes.

It wasn’t the weekend he thought it would be. There was nothing left of the old campus that capricious memory had mapped so clearly. The fraternity house had been razed, an Institute for Advanced Macroeconomics in its place. The trolley tracks that ran past Sophomore Sols were paved over, the busy street now a meandering lane to a cloister of modern dorms and a cutesy mall with a faux Gothic façade. At the entrance to the quadrangle where the freshman dorms were located a guardhouse worthy of a maximum-security prison barred his way pending picture ID and reason for visit. The cafeteria where he and Jon and their exuberant classmates met each night for hot coffee and fresh gossip was now a food court, the extruded plastic signs of a dozen franchises offering food to match.

Harold had run into Jon at the class tent.

“Hey, Jon, it’s me, Harold Levine. Howya doing, roomy?” Harold had exulted, reaching out to hug his friend.

It took only an instant to squelch his enthusiasm. Clearly Jon, circa 2010, was not the type for hugs and high-spirited stories that started out with, “Hot damn, remember when…” In point of fact, Jon’s memories of the good old days had left him lamenting the admission of women into the Wharton School and grumbling about the number of Asians and blacks that had infested the campus.

“Infested?” Harold had exclaimed, his appalled look signaling the start of confrontation not typically observed among jovial alumni celebrating Homecoming Day. Their conversation scratched the sore spots of evangelical right and liberal left: the war in Afghanistan, the foreign policy of the American Israel Political Action Committee, the inheritance tax, private school vouchers and the influence of the NRA. The two men were separated when “fucking bigot” and “unpatriotic bastard” became the talking points of the argument in question.

Harold was determined not to let the disappointing afternoon taint the evening’s festivities. The class dinner was scheduled as the highlight of the weekend and he was looking forward to mingling with friends he hadn’t seen for decades, particularly since the banquet was being held at the Union League Club. As he told Elaine with more than a trace of malice in his voice, “When I was an undergrad, the only way I could have gotten into the club was through the back door as a dishwasher.”

After a nap and a shower, Harold dressed for the event, an uneventful routine until he tried to fit his college days Florsheims over his raw, red heels. Harold yelped in pain; the stiff, horsehide cordovans could not have been more painful if the backs were serrated. He couldn’t walk, never mind dancing and gad-flying his way around the banquet hall. With no time left to find an open shoe store, Harold called the concierge and asked for a sharp knife.

Minutes later the man was at the door accompanied by two burly bell caps and a concerned look on his face that said, “Sir, you can kill yourself if you wish, but not at the Union League.” Noticeably relieved after learning how Harold planned to use the blade, he returned fifteen minutes later, the shoes, now backless, transformed into makeshift sandals still spit-shined from the laces to the toes. Harold contemplated an evening sidling about the room with his back to the wall.

Tucking his aching feet under the table, Harold looked around the circular ten-top and estimated that he and Elaine were sitting next to about two billion dollars of net worth, two face-lifts, and two trophy brides.   Fifteen minutes into the conversation, he decided he wouldn’t trade his life with anyone there. It wasn’t as if the scion of the family cosmetics company was uninteresting or the single largest shareholder of the world’s biggest REIT was boring; it was the one-chord harmony of their chorus: “Did you see the WSJ this morning? Obama has got to ease off his human rights demands or bond markets will feel it in the ass.”

Harold did not engage. He was offended by the selfishness existent in a solar system where the world orbits around a stock portfolio, but conscious of the occasion and the afternoon’s fiasco, he kept his thoughts to himself. Midway through the dinner, the president of the university announced lavishly generous multi-million donations from each of the men, the ten-digit grants to be used by the School of Social Service for an ongoing outreach to the city’s poor and undereducated.

Harold re-examined his compatriots seated around the table, the chair emeritus of a global electronics conglomerate and the leading rainmaker of the country’s most prestigious law firm rounding out the quintet. It came to him that each man was successful for the same reason: they had a goal and they strove to achieve it, going from point A to point B, no stops in-between. Everything in their lives contributed to the ultimate conclusion: the right wives, the right in-laws, the right politics, even the right rehab centers. Harold, on the other hand, had bounced around like the pinball swatted by the blind wizard’s flailing flippers. He had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory a dozen times (on purpose, expostulated his cadre of therapists, “impending disaster is a wonderful way to make you feel alive”). He felt deflated. But as the evening came to a close, the most extraordinary event took place: the four honored members of the Wharton School Hall of Fame embraced him with warm hugs, firm handshakes, and heartfelt parting words of admiration. Harold was floored by their deference.

“God, I envy you, Harold. What an exciting life you’ve led, not like my boring existence,” was the joint theme.

Harold would contemplate the irony on the flight home.

Back in Chicago in the weeks that followed, Harold recited the affirmations of his Tuesday evening men’s group, reeled off aphorisms from a dozen paperback iterations of Chicken Soup for the Soul and visualized the mottos from his favorite Success motivation posters: “Live in the moment,” “Be here now,” “As long as you’re here, you might as well show up.” He knew them all; he believed them all.

Harold put a fresh band aid on the heel of his bruised foot and laughed wryly, if the shoe doesn’t fit, why wear it? He thought to himself.

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Posted in Originals Stories from: LOVE, LUST, SHAME, REGRET... and Harold