The alley had a curve, which was uncommon for Chicago. The City’s grid of right angles and diagonals had no tolerance for curves between the blocks. On the left side, at the west end, someone had painted part of the brick alley wall black. Even during the day this anti-artistry exaggerated the shadow in the alley. At night, the blue light bulb above the tavern service entrance produced a two color ghastliness to the goings in in the narrow darkness. The sounds of slurring menace and breaking bottles devolved into echoes against the curving bricks. The fire escapes above, brushed blue by the tavern bulb, hung silently, intermittently hiding a spectator, or a cop, reviewing the parade of undesirables below.
Continuing the expeditions of Jeff MacNelly, James Kilpatrick, and Eugene McCarthy, with apologies.
The Special Envoy
Steeped in protocol and realpolitik, the Special Envoy occupies a very specialized niche in the Bestiary. Rumpled and travel weary, the SE is a uniquely nomadic professional pol, barely staying in one place long enough to complete the task of saber-rattling, or peacemaking, or whatever its charge happens to be. Pockets stuffed with language instruction books and odd currencies, the creature can declare “We are nearing a breakthrough!” in almost any language before hailing a cab to the airport. En route to meet its master, the SE is likely to dash off killer communiques to interested parties, including its publicist, while chatting over secure lines with underworld contacts interested in propping up some nascent regime. Its eagerness to fly has made its position secure in the age of Skype, for the SE has always relayed that its results were reliant on face time, not FaceTime. Even when merely in residence at a think tank (in between assignments) or on holiday (summers in Gstaad or on the Baltic Sea), the Special Envoy is always on the grid, racking up contacts and frequent flyer miles in spades. The creature is truly international, though rarely seen in the U.S., save for brief roosts at Camp David, or, in intemperate times, CIA headquarters in Langley.
She was a cat, and an electric eel, a shapeshifter with magnetic, iridescent skin. She walked on high heels as if she wore sneakers, and was as elegant in jackboots as glass slippers. She moved into a room and moved the room. She could sing, boy, could she sing, like the bells of St. Mary’s on Christmas Eve and she synced with the music of her mind all day and all night so that every step, bend, lean, was heart-rhythmic. She had money, it seemed, some or just enough, she was beholden to no one, her own singular self, a prophet let loose from a god that had died and left her to minister on her own terms. She didn’t have a halo but she sometimes glittered.
And all the while, she was hiding behind her made up face, afraid, or unwilling, or just not bothering to show anyone the underneath. The girding of her persona was both organic and manufactured, a hybrid of desire and experience. An architecture and facade that she built and tended to everyday. A functional space that worked beautifully. Craft and curb appeal. Now as I see her working her way through a crowded bar, she turns and meets my stare and I feel a vital heat. Her being radiates along the tendrils of face paint that spread from her eyes like solar flares. She is all fire and music now, the syncopated conflagration threatening to tear us both down, but she will survive, because she built herself to survive this. The silly interludes of this and all other vignettes do not diminish her. She will disappear one day into the stardust, unchanged and unchanging into eternity.
He was a half-millionaire once, or damn near that, though he didn’t know it, because he was asleep when it came and went. After the seventh race at Aqueduct, a Friday triumph, a big score on the biggest bet he’d ever made, he partied out. Really out. He didn’t know that he was padding his bankroll considerably with the late games on the west coast that he’d bet earlier. He would’ve liked to see that number – the amount he was up, that fat number bisected by a comma, scribbled, as was his habit, on the gray pad next to the phone. But he was out, unmoving and oblivious to the pendulum of his fortunes. He didn’t see the sun come up or the afternoon linger the next day. Passed out cold until the sun sank low, he didn’t know that he lost a succession of Saturday football games, on bets he’d made the night before when he was flush with cash and courage, in epic fashion. But, for a time after San Diego State won in a blow out, and before Syracuse lost the next day on a late interception, he was rich.
A couple of days later, when his head cleared and he did the awful math, he stared at the figures for time through a veil of cigarette smoke. The collector came by on Wednesday, and he must have seen the confused look on his quarry’s puss. “Money comes, and it goes, ” he said as he poured shots into dusty rock glasses “as do all of us lost souls.”
It took her half the morning to look this miserable, and even with the arabesque of her updo and her aquiline neck, she felt low. “Chin up,” her mother would say, and she found herself doing so reflexively, even when she wasn’t looking in the mirror, or remembering her mother’s foreboding voice. Life was like walking head on into a sleet storm, and sometimes you have to look up to look ahead. The ice pellets sting the eye, and makeup runs down the face, but one must persevere.
Last night was the lonely last act of an awful day, and the morning only grudgingly broke under dark and laden skies. She had gotten used to the lack of sleep, but the aimlessness that often followed just made her feel worse, like the sick and the tired begetting something greater, perpetuating stagnation like a Soviet economy; an ennui so possessed of Catholic values that it cannot stop reproducing.
Still, it was chin up, and as she lifted her head she saw the sign that passed her by on a flatbed. Go Back to Bed, it said. Some ad for a mattress maker. It had started to drizzle, and inspiration does not always ask the grandest things of us. She turned around and headed back home.
There’s a metalhead spraying smut on the Cadillacs parked out front. It’s too cold for the doorman to be out there watching. He looks the other way anyway, and the coat check girl has turned his head tonight.
Inside it’s hot hot. Or that’s the name of the song, or the dance that the girls are doing in a line under the neon moon they’ve hung from the ceiling. The percussion mix on this tune sounds like a bucket of loose staples, or a marching band, depending on how much you are partying tonight. Everyone’s partying hard, cold weather, you know, so I guess it’s the marching band. Still, I hear the staples.
Halfway through the song a fight breaks out in a corner of the dance floor. Everyone keeps dancing, only a few move aside, just enough to evade the falling bodies as the boxing morphs into wrestling. The bouncer has to leave the coat check counter to intervene, and he is not happy. He pops one of the guys and slits his nose. Blood on a white shirt, a Japanese flag. A bartender hops the bar with a rag and wipes the floor. Charlie, the DJ, seeing all of this, edges up the volume leading into the chorus, recapturing everyone’s attention until the hook hits – he floors it, volume to 11, fire the confetti cannon. Euforia. Strobes, massive sound, free bodies under a neon moon. Neon moves.
Continuing the expeditions of Jeff MacNelly, James Kilpatrick, and Eugene McCarthy, with apologies.
The Deficit Hawk
When new legislators once came to Washington they were often found scanning the skies above them, on the lookout for the Deficit Hawks. Coincidentally the purposeful people’s defender and the scourge of the ambitious drafter of bills, the Deficit Hawk preyed upon the dreams of taxers and spenders. Many a newbie found that the policies he or she campaigned on were rendered untenable by the sharp pencil talons of the DH. Dozens became one term legislators after having to face a re-election constituency without any enacted bills to account for the time in the public trough. the Deficit Hawks had become the police force for the governmental bottom line.
Alas, the once the sharp sighted cops have now gone blind. The political evolutionary cycle has taken a toll and selection has deemed the eyesight of the DH superfluous. Indeed, after the GOP gave up its affectation with the entire DH species, the creature’s gifts were ignored, and unused, creating a situation ripe for sensory atrophy. Like a deep sea fish, or subterranean crawler, the need for keen eyesight ebbed away over time, and now one sees new legislators ignoring the skies and instead staring downward at their smartphones.
“I’m not like my brother,” he muttered, “I don’t sing when I’m drunk.” In fact, he didn’t sing at all, and he didn’t drink much, certainly not enough to get drunk, not since those days in his twenties when he tried to keep up with their father. His eyes squinted when he thought of it, from pain referred through the ages, the recollected burning of shiners. Their father always wanted to fight when they were drinking, not fight everyone, mind you, or anyone in particular, excepting him, his kid that was trying to be his drinking buddy, the one closest to his cocked fist. They were cold, he remembered, the father’s hands when they landed. Somehow cold, possibly from the succession of beer bottles and rock glasses they held prior to commencement of fisticuffs. That split second freeze on his eyes and the punches connected, before the residual burn and swelling amidst the dizzying fall to the floor. What moments! Like the spray of a rushing stream before it takes one under and down, down into the familiar, the darkness, the escape. Oblivious to the father blows and the father epithets and father spittle raining upon the shirt already damp with whiskey.
Their father was dead before the kid brother took up drinking like the old man. Long fearing for him, the big brother steered his sibling away from violence, instead teaching him to sing.