The Fiction of Robert Charest

PEPPERCORN CAFE

PEPPERCORN CAFE is a semi-autobiographical literary fantasy blending pure fiction with very real experiences inspired by my life living in several US cities and writing novels while supporting myself bartending and serving in a variety of establishments from Bourbon Street to midtown Manhattan, where Peppercorn Cafe is set in the imaginary JJ's Place.  The novel is complete, has been drafted twice, and is ready for publication.

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Chapter 1         The Manhattan Plan
Chapter 2         JJ’s Place
Chapter 3         Playing An Ace
Chapter 4         Dead Wood
Chapter 5         Commando
Chapter 6         Exorcism
Chapter 7         Writer Bob
Chapter 8         The Squeegee Sharpener
Chapter 9         The Jesus Novel
Chapter 10       Brotherhood of Bob
Chapter 11       Cell Phones
Chapter 12       Dante’s Inferno
Chapter 13       Five Thousand Books In Five Pages
Chapter 14       Inferno Revisited
Chapter 15       Dear
Canada
Chapter 16       The Double Cross Clone
Chapter 17       The Dictionary Wars
Chapter 18       Shop Talk
Chapter 19       The Dentist
Chapter 20       Heaps of Rejection
Chapter 21       Paris and Lekeitio
Chapter 22       The Chocolate Bust
Chapter 23       Plan B is for Book
Chapter 24       Plan C is for Café
Chapter 25       Of Mice and Snakes
Chapter 26       Grier’s Loft Finds a Home
Chapter 27       The Shakespeare Rejection Letters
Chapter 28       Little Inspirations
Chapter 29       The Curtain Rises and Falls

 

 

Chapter 1

The Manhattan Plan

 

In May of 2000 I moved to Manhattan. 

The plan was simple.  I was going to load several manuscripts of my novels into a backpack along with some clothes, take the five hundred dollars I had saved, ride Metro North from New Haven to Grand Central, find a job working in a bar or restaurant, and a place to live, and start networking.  I’d been trying to sell my books for years, and thought it would improve my chances if I could meet with an editor or agent and pitch myself in person.  Since most of the ones I’d been contacting were in New York City, and that I’d visited countless times, absolutely loved the place and had long dreamed of living there; and that I had nowhere else particular that I needed to be at the time, I chose that to be the next destination in my fate.

The previous eighteen months had been a whirlwind ride through life.  The day after Christmas in 1998, my friend Ben and I packed up his Volkswagen van and drove from New Haven to New Orleans for New Year’s, then into Mexico.  Eventually, Ben flipped out on psychotropic drugs, our friendship ended when he scattered my things across the sand one psychedelic morning, and I ventured off alone.  I hung out and doodled around with one of my novels on the Caribbean beaches for a few weeks before managing to catch a flight to New York, and traveled thence back to New Haven, where I randomly landed in the arms of a gorgeous blonde.  I stayed with her and wrote for a few more months, then was out of her arms and back to New Orleans, where I had fantasized about living since my visit earlier in the year.  I landed a gig on Bourbon Street and attended the never ending party for a few months.  The drink and the gambling were enough reason, but as the summer heat approached I bowed and slipped out of town.  I got into a car with a couple friends and drove back to New Haven to ponder the Manhattan plan.

I had been there a couple of days doing so, and was strolling downtown one day when my friend Allison happened by.  I was going for coffee at my favorite café, and she joined me.  She explained that she was driving into New York City that afternoon to buy photography equipment, and invited me along.  I naturally went.  The shop was on west Fourteenth.  When we reached it she told me she was going to be at least half an hour.  I had noticed a bookstore in the basement two fronts down, and told her I’d be there.  Dickensian is the best word I can draw to mind to describe it.  It was below the sidewalk, dark and musty.  There were books everywhere, piled on makeshift tables and stuffed into the bookshelves.  I wandered aimlessly, staring in awe at all the volumes.  Then my eyes finally settled on one…NONE BUT A BLOCKHEAD, by Larry L. King.  He is most well known as the author of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.  The title quote is from Samuel Johnson, who said, “None but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money.”

The book was an autobiography about the Mr. King’s life as a writer, and I mysteriously opened it at random to the page where he and his wife had decided to move to New York City to establish his career as a writer. 

The next book I picked up was called THE WESTERN CANON, by Harold Bloom.  I was familiar with the noted academic from the years I had lived around Yale.  The book was somewhat of a history of western literature.  I read the introduction, and was sublimely thrilled to read that the three books Harold would take to his hypothetical ‘desert island’ were my same three:  The King James Bible, The Complete Shakespeare and Don Quixote (all of which were composed during the same twenty year period, 1592-1613, by the way).  Bloom had a lifetime in academia and I was barely turned thirty. 

Those were the only two books I touched in the store, and the little bits I read at random in each seemed bizarrely auspicious and more than coincidence.  I was filled with elation and affirmation:  my destiny was bound to New York City.  I went back to New Haven, packed my sack and boarded the train to Manhattan without reservation.   At Grand Central I rented a locker and stowed my pack, then stepped into the city.  There was bustle and buzz and people everywhere.  I had no direction nor destination, and simply started walking.

Some time well after dark I was aimlessly rambling the Village when I stopped to listen to a busker with her guitar.  There were a few people gathered around, and I had been standing there for a few minutes when I glanced over my shoulder and did a double take.  I was face to face with Duke.  At once we threw ourselves into each other’s arms and started whooping it up.

I had known Duke for about a decade.  He and I were both born in the same small town, and our fathers were both were truckers—there is no way they didn’t know each other.  Duke and I frequented the same New Haven café, where we met and became friends.  He was as harmless a man as I’ve ever met, and certainly had his own drummer.  He had suffered a severe head trauma in a motorcycle accident when he was eighteen, and his thoughts and concentration perpetually wandered.  One of the most defining incidents I recall about him was that on the morning President Clinton came to New Haven for his twenty year Yale Law School reunion, the local police unlawfully picked Duke up off the street a couple of hours before Clinton’s arrival, and detained him until after Clinton left town.  At one point I had left New Haven and moved to Austin.  While strolling the streets there one afternoon I casually bumped into Duke.  Very surprised by this unexpected encounter, I asked him what he was doing in Austin.  He explained that he and his girlfriend Joelle had just moved there.  Her family hailed from Austin, and she and Duke were staying with them and she was enrolled at the University of Texas law school.  As it happened, her family’s home was three blocks from my apartment, so Duke and I met for coffee every couple weeks.  That went on for about a year, until I moved out of Austin and we again lost contact with each other.  Then when I was bartending on Bourbon Street just months before, I saw him again.  It was Mardi Gras, and he passed by my bar in a huge crowd of revelers.  I ran out and greeted him in the street.  He just said:  “Hey Bob!” and continued dancing on his way. 

But the meeting on the street in Manhattan was the most odd, because we were neither keeping nor losing touch with each other, and this was now the fourth city in which we’d randomly crossed paths.  So once our celebration calmed down and we got to talking I learned that he and Joelle were married, she was pregnant with their first child, and they were living in Queens, where she had gotten a job with a law firm.  He explained that their living quarters were too tight to even offer me the floor, but gave me his number and told me to give him a call once I got settled.  We agreed that there was something very cosmic about our friendship, then went our ways into the night. 

The continuing coincidental encounters with Duke further convinced me that I was exactly where I belonged, and I vigorously beat the bricks for miles.  Some time after midnight I sat down in a small park.  I was absolutely clueless as to where I was going, and growing tired.  There was a copy of the past Sunday’s New York Times beneath the bench, so I positioned myself below a street lamp and read by its light.  I first perused the classifieds for jobs and living accommodations, then delved into the rest of the paper.  Somewhere around three or four I stretched out on the bench, spread the sections of the paper over my body and dozed off beneath a blanket of newsprint.


Chapter 2

JJ’s Place

 

I was awakened by the dawning day and the accompanying early traffic.  After a few more hours of wandering I found a four by eight cubicle in a transient hotel bordering the East River.  My wallet was already hemorrhaging, and I had to find work pronto.  Writer by providence, I was a barman by profession, and so every morning scrutinized the classifieds then traipsed far and wide between Soho and Central Park.  After two weeks my luck had consisted of nought but stone faces and closed doors.  I had reached my last day of hope of living in New York City--I was going to make one final foray into the bars and restaurants, then bust my last twenty bucks, tuck my tail between my legs and take a late train back to New Haven. 

That night I was around walking around Greenwich Village and saw a place called Bleecker Street Bar, which I had never noticed before.  I contemplated going in, but decided instead to go back to the hotel and rest up for my last day on the job hunt.  Then I noticed some guys playing darts in the back, and changed my mind on a whim.  I went in, ordered a beer and asked the bartender if there were any house darts I could use.  He handed me a bottle and a cigar box filled with assorted dart parts.  The only three that matched were el cheapos, but from what I could tell they had never been used, and therefore were very sharp.  I got onto a board and was unbeatable.    After five wins they were lined up to challenge me. I dispensed with this guy named Brad twice; he just threw up his arms and bought me a beer.  After eleven games I retired undefeated for the evening.  Just then Brad wandered out of the back room and said to no one in particular:  “That was really weird.  I just met a guy whose father is named Stephen King, but is not THE Stephen King, so I told him my father was Larry King, but not THE Larry King.”

“Is your father Larry L. King, who wrote a book called None But A Blockhead?” I asked. 

His jaw hit the floor.  “How could you possibly know that?” he replied. 

I told him about my coincidental visit to the bookstore just a couple weeks before, and he explained that he’d only ever met four or five people who knew who his father was, and that I was the only one he’d met who knew anything about NONE BUT A BLOCKHEAD.  We were simply awed.  While continuing to shake our heads he gave me his father’s number and address in D.C., and asked me to call and razz him about their football rivalry. I never did, and never saw Brad again, but I did leave the bar aglow with wondrous amazement.  How could it possibly mean anything but that I was meant to be in New York City?

I got up early the next morning, fresh and ready to greet the day that I knew would be so kind to me.  My cheerful optimism soured to frustration as I spent it in and out of twenty places with nought but twenty more: ‘thank you, but no thanks.’  By five thirty I was despondent, and had all but given up.  I was flowing along in the throng on twenty third street when the day blew me a kiss and my life changed in a moment.  I glanced down to see that I had stepped on a five dollar bill.  I snatched it up in elation.  It was a sign.

A few years before in my Jesus novel I had written a short parable in which a five dollar bill was symbolic of the blessings of God.   The very next day I had literally gotten down to my last dollar in the world, and was walking around New Haven thinking that I’d really like to go out and have a couple of beers that evening, to decompress and unwind from the incessant writing I’d been doing morning, noon and night for weeks on end.  I wandered up to the café where I’d penned my parable the previous afternoon, and there on the ground outside the front door was a five dollar bill.  I was thunderstruck.  It was an awesome ‘coincidence’ that quintupled my worldly wealth in an instant, and as I pondered what to do with it the answer came easily--I went out that night with some friends and enjoyed the two beers that were my wish.  They were as delicious as anything I’ve ever tasted.

In the several years since I’d found literally dozens of five dollar bills in some of the strangest places.  Whenever I was with a friend or a companion they were the beneficiary of my find, and the fivers just kept coming back to me like manna   So as I stood there alone on 23rd Street, I offered up a prayer of gratitude to God then surveyed my surroundings.  There were scampering people and screaming traffic in every direction.  I was overwhelmed.  I looked to my left and saw that I was standing in the doorway of JJ’s Pub.  I recalled the first fiver I had found, and being just as frazzled and frustrated as I had been on that day, decided to spend this one in that same way.

I entered JJ’s and took up a stool at the bar.  The place was quiet, and the bartender greeted me immediately.  He shook my hand and said, “Welcome, friend, I’m Walt.  What’s your name and what can I do for you?”

He was about fifty, with thick dark hair greased back, and a shock of gray that protruded back from the center of his forehead.  He had a wry grin and crow’s feet that winked at you.

“Bob,” I replied.  I humbly laid my fin on the bar.  “It’s been a rough couple weeks, and this is all I have.  I need the most bang for the buck, including a tip for you.”

He eyed me hard, then lifted a green bottle from the top shelf, filled a snifter and set it before me, with a glass of ice water behind.  He didn’t touch my money.  “So, why so down on your luck?” he asked.

“I’m not down on my luck,” I answered, “I’m just wondering where it is.  This is likely my last night in New York.”

“Likely?” he repeated after me.  “That doesn’t sound like a tourist talking.”

“I’m not,” I answered.

“How long have you lived here?” he asked.

“Two week,” I answered.  He scrunched his brow in confusion.  I thought about it for a moment, then decided to play it low.  “I do some writing, but came to the city with too little money and no real plan.”  I didn’t want to talk about myself, and was uncomfortable under his gaze, and so decided to taste the liquor he’d served me.  It tickled its way down my throat like a warm massage.  I went flush, and was enervated cap a pie.  I stared back at him.  “What is that?” I asked with great admiration.

“My Scottish cousin’s home-stilled single malt, fifteen year old port wood finish,” he answered.

“It’s…freaking…incredible….” was my breathless reply.

His attention was deflected from me by a new customer.

I took another sip of the scotch, rolled it over my tongue while gently shaking my head, then took a look around me.  The architecture of the space was all wood adorned by brass.  The bar was a burnished mahogany twelve stool half horshoe.  There was a huge, beautiful painting of three women playing billiards behind the bar, and ten cocktail tables between it and the forty or so table dining room.  In the back were two dartboards, a pool table, and a couple of weathered booths.  That moment there were five patrons in the place, including me.

Walt wandered back in my direction.  “Thank you again for the drink…I needed it.”

“Think nothing of it, kid.  You’re quite welcome.”

“This is a beautiful space,” I remarked. “Do you do much business?”

He wore a garishly large diamond studded gold watch.  He looked down at it for a long pause, as much admiring as utilizing it.  “Five minutes or so, right about six.”

Almost on cue, several servers appeared out of nowhere and took up their stations, the people began pouring in, and dinner was under way.  I took small, savory sips of the scotch, and got lost in a reverie.  My maternal grandfather, Harley Murdock, was from Scotland, and a few years earlier I had hitchhiked up the east coast through Edinburgh to Inverness, then back down the west coast along the lochs and to Glasgow.  They are an incredibly friendly people living in an otherworldly beautiful land.  I wondered whence my grandfather had hailed, and in what humble house in what small village Walt’s cousin was brewing his magical Scottish elixir.

Then the growing bustle of the restaurant brought me back to my barstool.  Walt was right in front of me mixing a couple of drinks.  “Hey Walt,” I said.  “When you get a sec, can I see a menu?”

“A menu?” he replied.  He looked at me crosswise and locked his gaze onto mine.  Without breaking it he took two steps back, set the drinks on the service bar, grabbed a menu, reluctantly handed it to me with wary, hairy eyeball reservation, and said:  “I thought you said that was yer only five bucks?”

Suddenly understanding his perception, I hastened with an explanation.  “Believe me, it is.  I’m not at all hungry, just curious what’s bringing all the people in.”  His eyes softened, though continued to penetrate, expecting a better answer.  “I’m a bright kid,” I said, “I wouldn’t ruin your cousin’s scotch with food.”

He broke a hint of a smile that silently said he was satisfied, and returned to the business at the bar.  I opened the menu and memorized it.  It was the standard pub fare of burgers, soups, salads and sandwiches that I had served for so many years, so I knew it already. 

As I sat there studying the menu, I felt the presence of a man take up the stool beside me, and his deep, simple voice said:  “I recommend the JJ reuben.”  I had just read the description, which made it sound delectable—a black bean burger heaped with sauerkraut and swiss on toasted rye, drizzled with russian dressing, and served with curly fries and a kosher dill.

“I’ve already eaten today,” I replied, “I’m just shopping for tomorrow…I hope.”

“Well, come back and try it, you won’t go wrong.”

He was a large man, though not obese.   I was over six feet, and he had me by several easy inches.  His black, wiry hair was thin, though it covered his whole scalp, and his face was wizened with wrinkles.  His most distinctive feature was his missing left front tooth, which lent a mystique to his visage.  Without a word Walt served him a drink, whereby I inferred that they were familiar.  Then he started making small talk with me.  He spoke in plain language, about the weather, the state of the city and the mayor and other nonesuch.  I prompted him along with nods of agreement, brief observations and other chit chat.  He was actually quite engaging, and I content to listen. 

He was positioned between me and the front door, and at one point, over his shoulder, I noticed two young women come in and take up the far corner cocktail table.  I caught the brunette’s eye for the briefest moment, and a quick smile. 

The restaurant was at the height of its rush, and the two waitresses serving the cocktail lounge were harried and flustered.  Almost five minutes after their sitting down I noted that the two young ladies were still unattended.  They were fidgeting and rolling their eyes at the lack of service, and seemed to be contemplating leaving.  My toothless neighbor at the bar was busy analyzing the Yankees.  I had a thought to do something, then decided to carry it through.  I excused myself and went over to the women.

“Hi ladies, my name is Bob.  What would you like to drink?”

My cutting through the lounge to the women had caused a slight stir, and subsequent stares--several people were watching me, including Walt.

The blonde said:  “Are you buying?”

The beautiful brunette apologetically added:  “Are you our waiter?”

“Uh, well, I just help out here, but I’ll take care of you.  What would you like?”

The blonde said:  “Two cosmopolitans.”

The brunette added:  “And two glasses of water with lemon, if it’s no bother.”

“Would you like to see menus?” I asked.

The blonde said:  “Yeah, we’re starving!”

The beautiful brunette just smiled.

I went straight to Walt, who looked at me quizzically when I said, “They need two cosmopolitans, two lemon waters and two menus.”

“Are you buying?” he asked.

“All I have is that five,” I replied.  “If you want to start a tab, I’ll take care of them and cash them out with you.  They were being ignored, and were about to walk out.”

Without another word he laid the drinks and two menus on the bar.  I expertly balanced everything on my abnormally huge hands, and delivered it to the lovely girls.  The blonde took a huge gulp of her cosmopolitan while the beautiful brunette politely thanked me. 

“Do you want a minute to look over the menu?” I asked.

The blonde said:  “Oh no, we know what we want.  I want JJ’s reuben.  But instead of the black bean burger, I want the lamb patty.  And I want untoasted white bread instead of rye, and American cheese instead of swiss.  Instead of the sauerkraut I want two pickles, and I like my curly fries extra crispy, with a sprinkle of parmesan and a dash of basil.  Manuela in the kitchen knows how I like it.  Oh, and don’t forget a side of mayo.”

The beautiful brunette said:  “I’d like the Caesar salad, as is.”

“As you like it,” I replied.  I went straight to Walt and relayed the order without having written down a word.  I told him to let me know if he needed anything else, then returned to my seat at the bar.

“That was right hospitable of you,” said the guy whose Yankee babble I had left.

“It was an instinct,” I replied; “they were about to leave.  I like this place, and I especially like that brunette.”  Already halfway through the snifter of Walt’s cousin’s scotch, I treated myself to another generous gulp.  I was trying to be casual, but I could not take my eyes off the brunette.  A couple minutes later Walt whistled to get my attention, and pointed to the two dishes of food that had been brought from the kitchen.  I picked up the plates and served the ladies. 

The blonde said:  “I’m sorry Bob, but I forgot to mention that I’m on a special diet, and that on Thursdays I’m supposed to substitute my carb rich fries with greens and low fat vinaigrette.  And…oh, I’m sorry…nevermind.  Would you bring us two more cosmopolitans…please?”

The beautiful brunette softly said:  “Thanks again, Bob.”

I brought them two more cosmopolitans, and with the highest degree of professional courtesy my restraint could summon, a plate of greens with low fat vinaigrette to the blonde, who said:  “Thanks Bob, you’re great…really.”

The beautiful brunette just melted me with her smile.

Mine widened, and I just about stumbled back to my stool; I was completely taken by her beauty.  I re-entered the conversation with the big guy like I had never left it.  He was a buff for the trivia and history of Manhattan, explained that the entire city water supply was inspected by a middle-aged woman in Queens whose nose had an uncanny sense for bacteria, and that in the nineteenth century there was a forced evacuation of twenty seven villages to the north to create the reservoir needed for the city water supply.  He told me that and more about New York, but my eyes were fixed on the girls.

Finally, the blonde signaled to me that they were ready for their check, which Walt tallied and gave to me to deliver.  It was fifty dollars.  “Thanks for coming by, I’m glad you enjoyed everything, and come again,” I said with a smile, then returned to my barstool.

A few moments later the blonde handed me the check and the cash, and said:  “Thanks B-O-B!”

The beautiful brunette lightly touched my hand and said:  “Everything was great, hank you very much.  I’m Sarne and she’s Jennifer, we hope to see you again.”

I watched them leave, then turned and handed the money to Walt, who was standing right in front of me.  He counted it, and said:  “They left you a twenty dollar tip?”

I was flattered, then replied, “No, they left you a twenty dollar tip.  It was your table.”

He was clearly pleased.  He dropped the twenty into his tip bucket, rang the bell, grabbed the green bottle, came over to me and said:  “Drink up.”

I did, and he refilled my snifter to the top. 

Then the big guy said to me:  “So your name is Bob, eh?”

“It is.”

“What do you do, Bob?” he asked.

“I’m a novelist,” I explained.  “Two weeks ago I was living in New Haven.  I’ve been frustrated for years trying to get published, so I stuffed my manuscripts into a backpack and decided to move here, with the hope of meeting some editors or agents in person.”

“There are quite a few literary types who frequent this bar.”

“Well, unless they show up tonight, I won’t be meeting them.”

“Why is that?” he asked.

“Because I haven’t found any work, and I only have enough money to get me back to New Haven.”

“What do you do for work?”

“Bar and restaurant.  I’ve been in the business since I was a kid, and I think this is the only place in Manhattan that I haven’t applied to.”

He swiveled on his stool to face me, extended his hand and said:  “I’m the JJ in JJ’s Pub.  You have a job here if you want one.”

I was dumbfounded.  “Really?  I…I don’t know what to say…sure, of course!”

“I was watching you closely.  The way I see it, you just saved me several thousand dollars.   If they left here irate they’d go badmouthing JJ’s all over the city, and I can only imagine how many people two beautiful women come into contact with.  But you took excellent care of them, and in doing so, took care of me.  Can you be here Sunday at five…in the morning?”

Five in the morning? I thought.  “Yeah, of course,” I replied, knowing I could easily back out.

“Good, we’ll set you up on the schedule then, Bob.”  He said something to Walt, finished his drink, shook my hand again and left.

I finished the second snifter of scotch, and a third while chatting with a couple of nondescript strangers.  About nine I stood up, thanked Walt profusely and took my leave.

“Hey Bob,” he said.  “You forgot this.”  He slid my five dollar bill back across the bar.  “We’ll see you Sunday at five.”

I stepped outside and stared closely at the façade.   It was a simple doorway overhung with a carved wooden sign--JJ’S PUB.  There was another sign beside the door:  OPEN AT FIVE PM--Almost every day.

I wandered into the crowded night wondering what to do.  Sunday morning at five am?  What was that all about? And I couldn’t get Sarne out of my mind.

I almost floated the twenty blocks back downtown to my hovel.  I was kicking along Fourth Street in a dream when I noticed the Bleecker Street Bar.  I still had the fiver so I stopped in.  Since there was no one playing darts, I wandered into the back room to the pool tables.  A younger guy named Gopal immediately introduced himself and offered me a beer and a game of pool.  I was bursting with my story, and told him about my writing and my recent move to New York, and the sudden and fortuitous turn my life had just taken.  His father was a math professor at NYU and he was a graduate and a very highly paid banker.  He said he had something I could use, and reached for his wallet.  I thought he was getting an editor’s name and phone number, or his own business card.  Instead, he removed fifty British pounds and handed them to me.  He very nonchalantly explained that it was from work and wouldn’t go missing from anyone.  He filled my glass and raised a toast.

“That is a generous gift,” I answered.  I put the money into my right pocket, and removed my five from the left and placed it in his hand.  “This is from me to you, my friend.  Spend it wisely.” 

I told him about the Jesus novel, and why five dollar bills rained on my life.  I could see in his expression that he understood the significance.  We shot another game, finished the beer, then went our ways into the night and never spoke again.  I slowly made my way back to the hotel and crawled into my dirty bed.  By noon I had to pay another week’s rent or check out.

 


Chapter 3

Playing an Ace

 

I awoke with sunlight beaming on my face—I had forgotten to draw the curtain.  It was exactly five am.  I paused to take account of the way my life was unfolding, then dressed and walked into the early morning city.

With the twenty I had left and the seventy the bank gave me for Gopal’s fifty quid, I was still sixty shy of a week’s rent.  I had to resort to my ace.  I had sworn not to pull it unless absolutely necessary, but the time had come to pay a visit to Greg.  He was an old friend I’d known from college.  We had studied English together, and were the only two in our department to be awarded honors.  His was for his thesis on Shakespeare’s use of the Fool in King Lear, and mine for Melville’s treatment of Job in Moby Dick.  Furthermore, we were the only two at our university’s academic awards ceremony in street clothes—neither of us planned to attend graduation, wherefore we had not bought caps and gowns.  As we sat next to each other on stage squirming, our years of acquaintance bonded in a moment.

Following school we both took up residence in New Haven, and ran into each other frequently.  Greg’s first endeavor upon finishing college was reading the Bible.  So was mine.  We were simultaneously aglow with the Holy Ghost, and whenever we got together it was to excitedly share insights into passages of Scripture we’d discovered.  I’ll never forget him telling me about Enoch.  ‘And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.’

A decade later we were still in touch, and he was living in New York with his wife and two children on Eighth Street.  He was a mightily gifted and inspired guitarist who’d landed a management deal, and was playing out and recording while waiting for his break.  He knew of my coming to the city, and made it clear that if I needed anything, including money, to call on him.  I HATE to borrow money, and RARELY do, but I ALWAYS pay it back, so we were both comfortable with it when I knocked on his door at nine and asked for sixty bucks.  I explained my circumstance, and promised that I’d have it back in a week.  He gave me a hug, slipped me the money, and softly said, “No problem Bob.  You’re a brother.”

I ate breakfast with he and his family, then started walking back toward the Village to pay my rent.  As I turned onto Seventh Avenue a gust of wind hit me stiff in the face.  I braced myself and walked into it.  There was nobody ahead of me anywhere on the block.  I was looking at the ground when a twenty blew by me.  I stomped it.  Then came another, and a third.  I looked in every inch of every direction, but there were sixty bucks and no more.

I was simply euphoric.

I went back and knocked on Greg’s door.

“Here’s you’re money back,” I said, handing it to him.  He was confused.  “This is unbelievable,” I explained.  “I just found it blowing along Seventh Avenue, five minutes ago.”

He stared into my face.  “You amaze me, Bob,” he said.  “Why don’t you hang on to it so you have something to live on?  I’m not worried about it.”

“Neither am I,” I replied.  “I’ll be fine.  That’s why I’d rather give you the money now and save the favor for another day.”

“Cool.  Stop by and see us any time,” he said.  “For where two or three are gathered together unto my name….”

“There am I in the midst,” I said, completing the scripture we both so loved.  “And you come see me at JJ’s.”

After paying my rent I had forty hours, and no dollars, till I was expected at the restaurant, so I tucked my miniature New Testament into my back pocket and wandered for miles and miles throughout the city, both exploring and finding quiet places to read.

I did not sleep at all Saturday night, and approached JJ’s with some trepidation on Sunday morning at five.  It was Memorial Day weekend; I couldn’t begin imagine why he wanted me there at that hour.  I was immediately relieved to see the lights on and people inside.  I sucked a deep breath and ventured in.

I could see about seven or eight people all scrubbing, painting, cleaning and mopping.  JJ was right inside the front door, sanding a bench.  He immediately stood up and greeted me.  “Bob, great to see you.  Welcome to cleaning day at JJ’s.  Give yourself a tour of the restaurant, have some coffee, and find something to do.”  He shook my hand, flashed his holey smile, and returned to his work.  I said hello and introduced myself to a couple of people, then noticed Walt polishing brass.  I went over and said good morning.

“Welcome aboard, Bob,” he said.  “Go find something to clean.  The sooner we’re finished, the sooner we depart.  It’s good to see you.”

I showed myself around the back, at the kitchen, dry storage, the walk-in cooler and the office.  Then I wandered back out front.  I could feel the eyes upon me, and especially JJ and Walt’s.  I went behind the bar…where I wanted to be.  It was clean enough, but I noticed shards of glass and shmutz at the bottom of the two beer coolers, so I emptied them out and scrubbed them down.  Then I pulled the entire bar apart and spiffed it up with sandpaper and lacquer. 

About seven thirty JJ inspected every corner of the restaurant, and announced:  “Great job everyone.  Thank you.  Put everything away and meet me out front in five minutes, I’m bringing the van around.”

Five minutes later I was boarded, and seated next to Walt.  JJ took the wheel and drove us out of the city.  We crossed the George Washington Bridge onto I-95 into Connecticut.

Walt tapped my wrist.  “So what do you think, kid?”

“I’m clueless.”

“Let me fill you in.  The Sunday before Memorial Day is JJ’s cleaning day.  We learned early on that the whole city is out of town and we get no business on twenty third.  The first year he decided to close he had a couple of cankers on the staff that he wanted to bid good riddance.  He scheduled them to be at the bar at five am Sunday, with no explanation, and when they didn’t show, they were gone.  The next year he did the same thing, but we all got together to give the restaurant the scrub down.  There were three more dissidents on the schedule he wanted out, and they never appeared again.”

I didn’t know what to say until I finally mumbled, “So where do I fit in?”

“Your timing couldn’t have been better,” Walt replied.  “Two people came off the schedule today.”

“Ah,” I said with a nod, then looked out the window at the passing countryside.  I was feeling very, very good.  Walt tapped my wrist again.  “JJ asked me to give you this—an advance on your pay.”  He discreetly slipped me two hundred dollars in tens and twenties.  “We know you’re down on your luck…but on your way up.  Take it; give it back when you can.”

He sensed my reluctance, and shoved it into my palm. 

“So where are we headed?” I asked.

“To Margaret’s home in Milford, in Connecticut.  She’s JJ’s mom.  She lives on the water, and throws a beach party every Memorial Sunday.  It’s always a great time, believe me.”

“I know Milford,” I replied.  “I’m from New Haven; it’s two towns over.”

Half an hour later we were off the highway and into the neighborhoods of Milford.  It was about nine.  Looking out my window I saw literally dozens of yard sales in progress. 

“What’s with all the tag sales?” I asked Walt.

“It’s a Milford tradition,” he replied.  “Every Memorial weekend they swap nickels and crap into each other’s garages, then pack up and go to their picnics and barbecues in the afternoon.”

A moment later we pulled up beside a beach house and alighted from the van.  Beside myself there were eight people—they were the heart and soul of JJ’s staff, and as I got to know them all quite well, in retrospect I find it meet to here introduce them into the story.  There were JJ and Walt, of course.   And there was Bixby, a proudly gay struggling actor who aspired to Broadway.  He went to auditions by day, and waited tables at JJ’s by night.  He was a flamboyant character who had starred in a couple of failed off Broadway shows.  He had been with JJ for six years.  There was Josie, a lovely, petite, outgoing middle-aged woman.  She had worked for JJ for ten years, and was the dining room manager.  There was Fred, aka Fernando.  He was an elder black man who washed dishes and did some prep work.  He had a flask hidden on the dishtable, which Walt kept filled.  He was one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.  He was always smiling and whistling…had a bottomless repository of jokes…and an uncanny penchant for pithy wisdom at the perfect moment.  He had worked for JJ for fifteen years, from the day the doors opened for business.  There was Lindsay, a demure, attractive college girl who was studying journalism at NYU.  She had worked for JJ for two months.  There was Cheple, JJ’s nephew.  He was a good-looking guy in his late twenties, a manic soul grasping for self-discovery whose aspirations varied between taking up the cloth and preaching Scripture to racing stock cars.  And finally there was Manuela Marcella, the head chef and kitchen manager.  She was a Venezuelan beauty in her mid thirties, and a mystery to me.  Her mother was native and her father Italian, and she was a classically trained four star French chef who’d been whipping up JJ’s pub grub for five years.

Margaret hurried out to greet us.  She embraced her son and reached up to kiss his cheeks.  Then she did the same to Cheple and Walt. 

“Madge,” Walt said, returning her kiss, “it’s always a pleasure to see you.”

“Come, come inside, everyone!” she beseeched.  “Breakfast is ready and awaits.”

She bustled indoors with everyone in tow.  I was last in line, and paused behind and beheld.  The sun was up in the east, and the sand beneath my feet.  There were reeds in the ground and salt in the air.  I swallowed a deep breath, then broke file and quietly went off alone.  I doffed my shoes and socks, trudged across the soft sand and put my feet in the tide.  The water lapped up and licked my toes.  I was at ease, and at peace, and feeling very blessed, and drifted away in a reverie of the sea. Then a hermit crab nibbled my toe, which returned my mind to the shore and prompted me to go into the house, where everyone was socializing and enjoying Margaret’s breakfast.

She came right to me and made welcome.  “Bob!  Join us.  Help yourself.”

“How do you prefer to be addressed?” I asked.

“However you feel comfortable,” she replied.

 “Madge,” I said, “do you have a knife or scissors I can use for a minute?”

I had been wearing the same black slacks every day for almost a month.  They had become disgusting to me; they clung to my legs like a moldy second skin.  There was a pause in the room at my request, then Madge grasped me by the wrist and said:  “Come with me, dear.”  I was her captive audience on a tour of the beautiful home of which she was so rightly proud.  She brought me through every room with the cheerful haste that stemmed from her vivacity, and showcased her antiques and furniture while telling me the stories about them.  At the furthest reach of the second floor we finally arrived in her sewing room, where she plucked shears from a drawer, held them out to me, and said:  “Why do you need scissors?”

“Well, I’ve only known JJ and Walt since Thursday, and just met the others this morning, but I’ve been wearing these pants since April, and if I’m going to spend the day at the beach, I’d like to cut them off and go about in comfort.”

She handed me the scissors and left, saying that she’d see me back downstairs.  I made short work of my pants, and a few moments later returned to the kitchen, where Madge was cleaning up.  The others had already finished eating and spread themselves along the beach.  She noted that I had missed breakfast, and so made a pot of tea, warmed a couple of muffins, and insisted that I sit down with her.  As we were chatting, JJ came through the sliding glass doors.   “Where’s the wood for the bonfire?” he asked.

“Billy couldn’t make it with the wood,” she answered.  “He had to go to Schenectady to bail out Willy.”

“Well, what are we going to burn?” JJ wondered aloud.  “We have to have a fire.  How about all that crap out in the garage?”

“You will not touch a stick of that furniture, John Jonah,” she scolded.  “And it is not crap.”

I had an idea.  “Hey Madge, is that your pickup truck out front?”

“It is,” she replied.

“Can I borrow it for a couple of hours?”

“You may.”

“Dig a pit,” I said to JJ.  “I think I know where to get some fuel for the flames.”


 

Chapter 4

Dead Wood

 

“That’s not writing, that’s typing.”  --  Truman Capote

 

Madge fetched the keys, took me out front, explained the idiosyncrasies of the clutch and the brakes to me, then sent me off.  I pulled the truck up in front of the first yard sale I saw.  I glanced over the antiques and the junk, then found what I sought—three huge boxes of books.  They were marked ten cents apiece.  I gave them a cursory but insightful inspection.  There was a nicely embossed hardcover edition of Bocaccio’s DECAMERON, and a well-thumbed paperback of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL.  There were also a few nice looking children’s books.  The rest were trash.  The woman running the sale came over to me, and asked if she could help.

“How much for the lot?” I asked.

“You want them all?” she rejoined in surprise.

“All three boxes.”

She couldn’t conceal her delight.  “Five dollars,” she answered.  “And there’s two more boxes in the garage that I’ll throw in.  I’m glad to be rid of them.”  So I paid her, loaded the three boxes into Madge’s truck, then she led me into the garage for the other two.  We hauled them out and I quickly sorted through them.  They too were trash, but for a beautiful two volume set of Thomas Malory’s LE MORT D’ARTHUR.  I dumped two boxes into the bed of Madge’s truck.  Into one empty box I placed the Dickens, Bocaccio and Malory books, and the children’s books into the other.  Then I went on my way two doors down to the next tag sale.

They had seven huge boxes which they let go to me for ten bucks.  They too were relieved to be rid of them.  I sifted through them and found three BIBLES and Goethe’s THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER.  They went into the good book box, and the rest into the musty heap.

I was twenty minutes out and Madge’s truck was already overloaded, so I returned to her house and backed it onto the beach.  Most everyone came over to me.

“What’s all this?” JJ asked.

“Dead wood for the bonfire,” I replied.  “Give me a hand unloading these and I’ll be right back with more.  Just don’t touch the two boxes in the back.”

JJ, Bix and Cheple helped me heave the books into the sand and I went out on another run. 

Thirty bucks and three tag sales later I had the truck bulging again, and had added THE AENEID, Milton’s PARADISE LOST, a collection of Robert Herrick’s poems and George Orwell’s 1984 to the good book box.  The rest were fit for the fire.

I returned to Madge’s and drove the second load onto the beach.  The others were busy digging a pit; they hastened to help me unload.  While thus engaged, JJ took me aside.  “I know what you heard inside the house, and I’d appreciate your keeping it to yourself.”

I shook my head, sincerely baffled.  “What did I hear?”

“John Jonah,” he replied.  “My real name.  No one knows it, and they keep trying to pry it out of me; I prefer JJ, and to keep it that way.”

“Safe with me,” I assured.  “Let me go gather some more printed logs.”

Word went out quickly in the neighborhood, and there were stacks of boxes awaiting me on each block.  I was out for two hours and returned with five more loads, so that we had a ten foot mountain of books heaped on the beach.  Then I went out for the seventh time, and returned with my boxes of keepers.  I found dozens of BIBLES: in Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian and German; I found a Vulgate, a parallel New Testament in Greek and English, an Oxford revised standard version with Apocrypha, a Gideon Bible, and several King James, which I prefer.  They were the crown jewels, and I set them aside in their own box, along with the copy of the Q’uran I had uncovered.  (I also found The Book of Mormon, and the New International Version of the Bible, to which the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Adventists refer, and which expurgates forty four scriptures.  While I didn’t want to destroy those, neither did I want to circulate them, the one being nonsense and the other being a specious, interpretive translation of the Bible, so I wrapped them in brown paper and hid them behind a wall in Madge’s garage.)

I had also rescued William Kennedy Toole’s A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, Frank McCourt’s ANGELA’S ASHES, Jon Krakauer’ INTO THE WILD and INTO THIN AIR and Woody Allen’s hilarious trilogy SIDE EFFECTS, GETTING EVEN and WITHOUT FEATHERS.  I had copies of Aristotle and Socrates, Suetonius’ THE TWELVE CAESARS, a ten tome Dostoevsky set, Doyle’s complete Sherlock Holmes, the collected stories of Poe, and the prized thirty seven volume Signet Classic annotated Shakespeare with their beautiful cover sketches by Milton Glaser.

I also filled four boxes with children’s picture and chapter books.  I was not versed in them, wherefore not fit to be their judge, and decided to find someone more knowledgeable for the task.  I did, however, find four treasures from my childhood, which I set aside for myself:  Norton Juster’s THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, Jean Merrill’s THE PUSHCART WAR, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT, and John Christopher’s Tripod trilogy, THE WHITE MOUNTAINS, THE CITY OF GOLD AND LEAD and THE POOL OF FIRE.

Madge looked in the back of the pickup truck at the eight boxes of books lying there.  “Don’t you think we have enough already?” she asked.

“These aren’t for the fire,” I replied.  “These are the good ones.”

“Well leave them there for now and come have some food and drink.” 

“I will,” I answered, picking up two of the boxes, “but I want to bring these out back.”  She helped me with a small box and led me to the back of the house.  We set them down out of the way and joined the others at the picnic table, upon which were piled grilled meats, salads and corn on the cob, and where my new co-workers were lined up filling their plates.  I got behind Bix.  “Burning books, eh?” he remarked with a clear intonation of disapproval.

“Someone’s got to do it,” I replied.  I could sense everyone eyeing me with extreme curiosity.

“I took a seat at one of the tables.  JJ immediately sat down beside.  He held two glasses of beer, one of which he put in my hand.  “Saludte,” he said, tapping my glass. I put it to my lips, drained it to the bottom, then let out with the ‘ahhhhhh’ of delectation. 

“Guinness….” I said with deep satisfaction.  “My favorite; and it’s never tasted so good.”

“It’s my favorite too,” he said, “but I’m not sure I like it that much.”

“I’ve just spent hours in the sun inhaling the dust and must of ill-conceived and badly written novels, and I’m parched,” I explained.

He laughed heartily, set his glass down and shortly returned with another for me.  “So, what would you like to do for work in my restaurant?”

“Whatever you need,” I replied.  “I’m broke.  I’d be best behind the bar, and would love to go there, but I’ll do high dusting, chop onions and take out the trash if that’s what you need.”

He smiled, clinked my glass again, and said:  “We’ll fit you in.”

We paused and sipped our beers together.

“Books, huh?” he said into the silence.  “I’d have never thought of it.  What’s the idea?”

“I bought myself a book collection and I’m cleaning it up.  As I see it, there are heavenly books, great books, good books, bad books, stupid books and books conceived in evil.  The latter three pervert impressionable minds, which inspire weaker souls to perpetrate all manners of ill and crime against society and themselves.  They are also dumbing down our artistic culture, to which I, as a writer, take personal offense.”

“But burning books, something doesn’t feel right about it,”  JJ said.  “I remember seeing an inscription at the Holocaust museum from the Jewish German poet Heine, who said:  ‘where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people.’”

“Let me ask you this,” I said.  “There is a racist bomb making manual thinly disguised as a novel that inspired Tim McVeigh to maim and murder hundreds, including mommies and babies in Oklahoma City.  Hitler’s Mein Kampf led to the senseless slaughter of countless millions.  If you were holding those two books in your hands right now, would you read them and pass them along to friends with a recommendation, either for their qualities or their historical significance?  These copies belong to me, and I choose to burn them.”

“Touché,” he replied.

As the sun set in the twilight, we cleaned up our mess, freshened our drinks and made a circle around the heap of books in the bonfire pit, which they looked upon with great wariness.  I had stacked the books upon kindling made up of loose driftwood and busted furniture I had scavenged from the sales.  JJ handed me a box of wooden matches and said:  “I think you should light it, Bob.  No one else seems to be stepping forward.”  I looked around at their shadowy faces, then struck a match and flipped it in.  The timid blue flames crawled around the edges, and the books slowly began to ignite.

Lindsay was standing to my left, and as the fire gradually took hold, asked me:  “Isn’t in sinful to burn books?”

“Good books, yes, but bad books corrupt.  I know every word therein, let Fahrenheit 451 reduce this sophist nonsense to cinders.  It’s rot and poison to malleable minds.”

“I still don’t agree with it,” she answered.

I had a copy of Cervantes’ DON QUIXOTE in one of my boxes nearby.  I got it and gave it to her, and said:  “Read chapter six, ‘The Inquisition in the Library.’  Then I think you’ll better understand my living homage.”

To my surprise she took the book straight into the house.  She returned ten minutes later and offered it back to me. 

“Keep it and read it,” I said. “It’s awesome.”

“Thank you, I will,” she replied and set it out of the way on a picnic table.  “That chapter was great, but you can’t possibly have read all these books.”

“Enough to know they’re firewood.”  The blaze was beginning to crackle.

“Well, I still think you should read at least twenty five pages of a book before giving up.  I can’t see how you’ve possibly done that with all these.”

“I can sometimes tell in the first five pages, the first paragraph, the first sentence or with the back cover blurb.  This past Christmas my sister bought me a novel, that to her seemed funny by the back cover and that she thought I might like.  I sat down and started to read and it is surely one of the stupidest books ever written.  It begins with an academic burying what he considered to be the manuscript of his failed novel in the woods in Maine.  Some time later a bear digs it up, reads it, decides it has literary merit, and to takes it to New York.  Along the way the bear stumbles across an empty jam jar with the label partially scratched off, leaving only the words Hal Jam.  He adopts that as his nom de plume, goes to New York City and gets it published and becomes a literary sensation….”

“The Bear Went Over The Mountain!” she cried.  “Burn it now!  I read it to the end, and it only gets more unbelievably worse and worse and worse.  That novel wasted hours of my life on the subway that I can never have back, and I resent it!”

I egged her on.  “Who’s in charge of quality control at the publisher?  Hang ‘em by their broken eyeballs then demand a refund!”

“I did!” she cried.  “I actually wrote the publisher and complained for tricking me into buying it, and I still refuse to purchase anything they sell.”

I had come across a copy of the very novel in my travels that afternoon.  I had set aside for a particularly special moment, and that time had come.  I placed it in her hand.

She looked at it with contempt, then flung it into the embers, shouting:  “The Bear Went Over The Mountain, take your place in this fiery fountain!”

There was a stutter of laughter, then an ill eased hush crept over us all.  Bix finally broke the silence.  “I don’t know about everyone else, but this fire isn’t warming, it’s unsettling.  You’re destroying books.”

“I’m not destroying books, only my copies of them.  All these still exist; these pages are merely delivery units, and this my collection to do with as I wont.  You may have any of these that you like, and if you really want to read one that’s already burnt, you’ll remember the name and get your own copy.  Do you see this life of Napoleon?  Here’s what I think of it.”  I tossed it into the fire.  “There’s plenty more at the public library, go read it whenever you like.”

“I noticed all the Bibles,” Bix said.  “Jesus gave a parable about how the Enemy sowed weeds among the wheat, and rather than risk harming the good wheat by trying to root out the bad, he advised letting them grow to maturity.  ‘By their fruits you will know them….’”

“Indeed he did,” I replied.  “I can find it in a moment.”  I grabbed one of the Bibles and leafed through it.  “Here it is.  Matthew thirteen, thirty.”  I read it aloud.  “‘Let them both grow together until the harvest:  and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them:  but gather the wheat into my barn.’”  I set the Bible open to the verse on the picnic table near my boxes of books.  “This is my wheat, feel free to eat.  And these are my tares, take all that you care!”  I grabbed a box of books and dumped it high up.  They crackled, snapped, popped, then mysteriously exploded.  The mound finally fully engulfed in flame and roared above our heads. 

I grabbed my full glass of Guinness and tilted it down my throat.  It suffused and emboldened me.  I snatched a random book off the pile waiting to be burned, and read the back cover aloud.  “’A serial killer is on the prowl in Akron.  His mother holds the key to the pattern of his killings, or is she carefully picking out his victims?’”  I tossed it onto the inferno, crying, “Jane Hatterson’s Rat And Louse, welcome to your brand new house!  And here’s another,” I continued, grabbing another book and reading the back cover blurb.  ‘With impeccable research and virtually irrefutable proof, Mr. Von Riche postulates that the earth was populated by an alien race, the Vogols, to breed an army to use in their eternal battle against the Denvardians.  He also proves that Jesus was black and lived in Africa.’  Eric von Riche’s The Truth About The Earth, let this fire reveal your true worth!”

“I read that one, and I’ll drink to that,” Madge said.  “In fact, let’s all have a drink.”  She handed out the glasses of cognac that she’d gotten distracted from pouring.

Then Josie picked up a book, and said, “Hey, I actually read this one.  What rubbish.  It’s a romance about a socialite who seduces powerful men all over Europe and dumps their babies in orphanages.  Then in a moment of desperation and remorse she writes to all the fathers to tell them where to look for their children before committing suicide.”  She tossed it into the flames.  “ Maeve Planchet’s The Abandoned Socialite, let your dreck vanish into the night!”

“Cheers everyone!” JJ said, raising his glass.  Intoxicated by the liquor and the spell of the blaze, everyone toasted and joined in the fun, picking up books, tearing them apart and hurling them onto the fire—the literary funeral pyre fueled by its own immolation—with gusto and clever rhymes.  It turned into a rollicking good time of fun and bonding.

I had noticed the neighbors on either side watching our goings on from their beaches.  The one on the left was a shadow lurking in the reeds, and the one to the right standing openly in the moonlight.  I casually wandered over to the latter and introduced myself.  His name was Jackson Wilbert.

“Why are you burning all the books?” he asked.

“Because they are toxic, and polluting our culture.”

“The fire seems to be dying down,” he remarked.

“It has been burning for hours, and we’ve gone through seven truckloads.  I do wish we had some more, as the party’s going strong.”

“Well, I’ve overheard some of the epithets, and have to agree on most counts.  I may be able to help you out,” he remarked.  “Come take a look if you like.”

I thought for a moment, then followed him to his house.  He threw up the garage door, and there before us were wall to wall books, at least fifty boxes.  It was so full in fact, that there was no room either to walk in or out.  “You can burn them all,” he offered.  “That should get you through the night.”

“That would be great,” I responded, “but I’ll have to go through every one, however briefly.  I refuse to burn good books.”

“That won’t be necessary,” he explained.  “It’s already been done.  Come inside, I’ll show you.”

He led me into the house, through the front sitting room, which contained a piano piled with reams of sheet music, and on into the library.  Three walls contained shelves loaded with hundreds of volumes.  They varied widely in content and matter, but from what I could see, they all had one thing in common—they were good.  They ranged from centuries old classics, Boswell’s LIFE OF JOHNSON, an extensive collection of Shakespeare, TRISTRAM AND SHANDY, Jonathan Swift’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, ROBINSON CARUSOE, PILGRIM’S PROGRESS and on into nineteenth century literature, including extensive collections of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Melville and Twain.  One wall was devoted to history books, and the third to contemporary writers he admired, most of whom I did not recognize.

I also noticed a typewriter and a pile of manuscript pages on his desk.  “What are those, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I’ve dabbled in a couple of novels,” he explained.  “They’re works in progress…perhaps I’ll tell you about them sometime.  Let’s go back to the garage.”

He went on to explain that the books in the garage had belonged to his deceased wife; and though he loved her dearly, she’d had the worst taste in books.  He had removed every worthy book from the boxes, and since she had been cremated, it seemed only fitting that her books follow her thusly into the afterlife.  So we each grabbed a box of romance novels, hauled them over to Madge’s and returned the smoldering embers of bad writers past to their blazing glory. 

I introduced Jackson to everyone.  He and Madge were already well acquainted; she handed him a snifter and refilled mine, then like a parade of ants raiding a picnic we hauled the boxes of Jackson’s books to the fire.  The party went all night, and we all had a ball.

The last book burned just as the sun was nudging the firmament.  “Let’s say we call it a day, a night…and a day, and a great success,” JJ said.  Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the neighbor to Madge’s left skulk out of the reeds and into his house.

“Before we retire, there’s something I’d like to do,” I said.

“Of course, absolutely,” they responded.

I led them to the picnic table where I had stashed the good books.  “I love books more than you’ll ever know.  They are my passion.  They are ancient lands, foreign cultures, the philosophies, religions, the past and the future, the experiences, minds and hearts of others.  I’ve only gotten to know you all this night, but I’d like to give you each a book, one I hope is appropriate to what I’ve learned about you.  I first went to JJ, and presented him with a beautiful hardbound version of Richard Burton’s translation of THE ARABIAN NIGHTS.  “I chose this based on my first impressions of you…it doesn’t get any better.”  Then I went to Bix and proffered Victor Hugo’s LES MISERABLES.  “I think you’d do well to read the story that inspired the Broadway sensation you aspire to star in.”  Then I went to Walt and handed him Melville’s MOBY DICK.  “Since you mentioned your years as a sailor, here is the greatest tale of the sea ever written.”  I then went to Josie and handed her ROMEO AND JULIET.  “Since you were so fond of throwing bad romance stories into the fire, I thought I’d give you a good one.”  I then went to Cheple and presented him with Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  “I really haven’t been able to get a good read on you, but this is a fantastic novel.”  At last I went to Madge and presented her with an exquisitely embossed oversize family BIBLE.  It was dated 1809, and inscribed with births, marriages and deaths.  “I know nothing of your faith, and by no means am trying to foist mine upon you, but I thought this would look perfect in your bookcase.”

With the book between us, she hugged me, kissed both my cheeks, and announced, “God bless you, Bob!”

I thanked her, then went to the picnic table where Lindsay had left DON QUIXOTE.  I took it and started toward her, then paused to admire her beauty, so stunning in the freshening light.  I regained my step and placed it in her hands.  “We discussed this already.”

“You know I’m going to read it,” she said, clutching it.  “And thank you for turning me on,” she added with innuendo.  Her smile raised my body temperature by degrees.

I was now empty-handed, and turned to see Jackson looking at me with a somewhat sad, left out expression.  I made straight for him and extended my hand.  He took it and I pulled myself closer to his ear.  “I do have a book for you, but unfortunately it’s not here.  It is something I would be most pleased if you would read.  I’ll keep it on hand at JJ’s and you can pick it up at your leisure, or I can have JJ give it to Madge to give to you.”

“It was great to meet you,” he replied, “and thanks for bringing me to the party, it was a most welcome diversion.  I’ll come by the bar and get your book, but right now I’ve got to get some rest; I’ve got golf at eleven.  I’m a four handicap, you know.”

He then went and graciously said good day to everyone before repairing to his home.

Madge led us inside and showed us to our beds.  Mine was on the second floor with a window overlooking the water.  I had only been laying there for a few minutes when I heard a tremendous squawking of birds, and sat up and looked out and beheld the strangest sight.  It was Madge’s neighbor to the left, the one who had spent all night watching us from his reeds.  His shape by day identically matched his shadowy silhouette; there was no doubt it was him.  He was poking the smoldering remnants of our bonfire with a stick, and occasionally picking bits out.  I was close enough to recognize them as charred book covers.  I watched him gather about fifteen; then something spooked him, and he hastily slunk back to his house and disappeared indoors.


 

Chapter 5

Commando

 

Madge aroused us just a couple hours later.  It was late in the morning, and time to return to the city; JJ’s opened at five.  But first we had to take care of the mountain of ash.  Walt suggested the sea, so we grabbed a couple spades, loaded up the empty boxes and dumped them into Long Island Sound.  What little was left we buried in the sand.

As we were gathering ourselves to leave, I found myself faced with a dilemma:  what to do with the books I wanted to keep.  There was no way they’d fit in my four by eight room, so when a convenient moment presented itself, I took Madge aside.

“I don’t have any place for these books right yet,” I explained.

“Don’t worry dear,” she replied, “they’ll be safe here.”

“And I don’t want the children’s books, I just didn’t feel comfortably burning them,” I added.

“I’ll take them round the library and elementary school.  I’ll find them good homes.”

So with many hugs and kisses and thanks, we boarded the van and hit the highway.

 “Where do you live that you can’t fit in a couple boxes of books?” JJ asked me.

“In the Riverside,” I answered with some embarrassment.

“Isn’t that a transient hotel?” he asked.

I nodded.  “I’m afraid I’m stuck there till I save enough cash to get out.  That’s why I’m so anxious to get to work.”

“Well, I’ve got a full staff today, but I’ll get you started tomorrow.  In the meantime, stop by and we’ll talk things over a couple pints of Guinness.  I’ll be there all night.”

“Thanks, I’ll be in.”

On account of our short sleep the van was soon filled with the sounds of snoring, and the ride back to the city virtually devoid of conversation.  We pulled up in front of JJ’s about two, unloaded and went our ways.  I had spent most of the money Walt gave me on the books, but I did have a few dollars left, and so stopped and bought myself some decent looking clothes at a vintage store.  Then I returned to the squalor of my room and napped (as best I could with all the strange noises and shouting going on around me).  I woke up about seven, showered, donned my new digs and walked up to JJ’s, arriving about eight.

JJ was sitting at the bar, and I took up the stool beside him.  “Howdo Bob?” he asked, then called for Walt to bring me a Guinness.  Walt set it before me and shook my hand.

I toasted them both.  “I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve already done, and for bringing me aboard.  I’d be slumming around friends’ couches in New Haven otherwise.  You won’t regret it.”

“I know I won’t, or I wouldn’t have done it,” he replied.

“So, why me?” I bluntly asked.

“I know a good man when I meet one.  I came to New York twenty years ago much like you, with little money and knowing no one.  Thanks to the trust and generosity of some good strangers, I got the breaks I needed, and here I am now with a thriving business and dozens of friends.  Consider this my way of giving back by paying forward.”

“Well, you’ve found a grateful beneficiary.  You know, something similar happened to me when I went to Spain a couple years ago.  Hopefully this will have a better outcome.”

“What happened?” he asked.

“I found up myself in Lekeitio, a Basque fishing village on the north coast.  I befriended a couple locals in a bar, they introduced me to their friends, and within two weeks they had offered me work on the tuna boats and an apartment rent free for three months.”

“So what did you do?” he asked.

“I thought long and hard, then came home.”

“Why?”

“Because I was anxious to try again to start my writing career.  Since nothing’s happened with it to this day, I often regret my decision.”

“Sounds like it could have been an adventure.”

“It was, and it would have been, but done is done, and here I am.”

“Well, here’s what I have in mind for you,” he said, changing the subject.  “Come in tomorrow night and I’ll have Josie train you on the floor; then come in Wednesday and I’ll have Walt train you on the bar.  You can work Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday if you like.”

“There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”

We finished our glasses and Walt brought us two more.

“So what’s life like in the Riverside?” he asked.

“Disgusting,” I replied.  “It’s no place for anyone who fears confined spaces, or bugs, or germs, or filth.  If I stretch myself head to toe and arms wide I’m within an inch of every wall.”

“Hmmm,” he pondered.

“What’s up?” I finally asked.

“I own the four apartments upstairs.  In three of them I have wonderful tenants who’ve been there for years.  You couldn’t wish for better people.  But I have this diabolical monster holed up in the fourth.  He calls himself DJ Ray G—he’s a pimp, dealer, thief, and all around lowlife. He’s often up all night disturbing my other tenants.  I’ve been trying to think of a way to get him out for two years.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that the apartment is rent-controlled.  He was on the lease with his aunt, and when she died, it reverted to him.  He’s always two months behind on what he owes, and always manages to pay me the day before I can start eviction proceedings.  He’s got a rap sheet that reads like a phone book, and he slips like an eel through every charge.  However, the judges have made it clear that if he comes before the bench again for any reason whatsoever, all previous charges will be brought to bear, and he will be sent away for a long time.”

“How do you know all that?” I asked.

“A lot of off duty cops hang out around here.  DJ Ray G knows it too, and keeps a low profile in his comings and goings.  In fact, there he is now,” he said, directing my attention toward the front window.  He was a mean-looking tough.  His head was shaved, revealing a tattoo of a skull on his scalp.  His scowl brought out the veins on his neck.  He wore a tank top, which fully revealed the sleeves of tattoos along both arms.  He strutted like someone looking out for a fight.  He glanced each way over his shoulders then went up the stairs.

“You know…” JJ said ponderously, “if we could get him out of here, we could get you out of the Riverside.”

The idea held great appeal, and I immediately began scheming.  Over a couple more beers, inspiration dawned.  “Let’s just scare him out,” I suddenly said.

“Scare out who?” JJ replied.

“DJ Ray G,” I answered.

“Scare him out?  Of where?  How?”

“The apartment, with a commando raid.”

“I don’t get you.” 

“Well, it would be an operation, and would take some gonads, but what if we….”

I explained my plan, which excited him.  “Let’s do it tonight and have done with the punk bastard!”  he growled.   “Hey Bix, come over here.”

Bix came right up, affected a goofy voice, and said, “What’s up, boss?”

“Are you still friends with that costume person on Broadway?”

“Of course,” he replied.  “She’s there right now.”

“Could you get me a couple sets of army fatigues and some face paint tonight?”

“Easily,” Bix replied.  “I could make a call and be back with them in an hour or so.”

“Good, then go do it now,” JJ said.  He pulled out his billfold and handed Bix a fifty.  “Bob’s taking over your tables—this will cover your cab fare.  Bob, those three tables in the window are Bix’s; finish them up and give Bix the tips.”  Then he went to a man at the end of the bar, and said, “Hey Marty, can I talk to you for a moment?”

It had been my idea, and now I was confused.  But I went with the flow and finished up Bix’s tables. 

For lack of business JJ closed up at midnight.  He went upstairs came back down and reported that there was loud music and a couple of girls’ voices emanating from DJ Ray G’s apartment.  Moments later Bix returned with two sets of fatigues and a box of war paints.  JJ handed one uniform to me, the other to Bix, and said:  “Put them on.”

“I donned mine, but Bix was reluctant.  “What’s going on?” he asked.

“You want to be an actor,” JJ said, “so get ready to play a soldier.”

Bix quickly put on his fatigues.  Then JJ oiled our faces with camouflage, and explained, “Marty is an old friend of mine, NYPD.  He went on duty at eleven.  He’ll be standing outside the door backing you up.”

I had one last thought, and said to JJ, “Do you have any sharp darts I can take up with me?”

He glanced over at the dartboards, then produced three from behind the bar, lightly tapped their tips, then handed them to me.  “These could draw blood.”

Marty showed up, in uniform, and we went into action.  We stealthily crept up the stairs to DJ Ray G’s apartment.  Marty took his position against the wall beside, and Bix and I faced the door.  On three we kicked it down.  Ray was seated on a ratty couch with a girl on each arm.  There was drug paraphernalia on the coffee table before them.  I immediately drilled one dart deep into his right bicep, and another into his left.

“Who the hell are you?  What do you want?” he shouted.  “Motherfucker, that hurts!  What the—mother!” he cried, pulling out one of the darts.  I stood three feet away with the third poised and aimed at his heart.

“You two get out of here now!” Bix demanded of the girls.  They gathered what they could and rushed out.  Marty appeared in the doorway with his gun drawn on Ray.  “Flinch and you die,” he said.  Ironically, the dart buried in Ray’s left arm was twitching involuntarily.  “Well, well,” Marty said, inspecting the premises.  At every moment Marty’s gun and my dart were trained on Ray’s chest, who by judging by the rank smell, had defecated.  Marty rifled the bureau drawers and dropped guns and drugs onto a chair.

I had gotten so into the character of soldier that I had become one.  I looked DJ Ray G in the eye, and said, “It seems to me you have three choices, but really only one.  You can resist and die, you can face the judge and go to jail, or you can vacate now never to return.  Three…two…one…”

He rushed to the door in a flash.  Marty halted him there.  “Consider this a restraining order, you scum:  if you ever set foot within a block of this place, it will be the last step you ever take.  Trained eyes are everywhere.”

DJ Ray G pulled the dart from his left arm, dropped it on the floor and flew down the stairs like his feet were winged and afire.  We watched out the window as he sprinted up 23rd Street.  We laughed nervously, as much in jubilation as relief.  Then we went back downstairs and rejoined JJ.

 

Chapter 6

Exorcism

 

Marty returned to his beat, and we three decompressed from the event over a couple of a beers.  At two in the morning I walked the thirty blocks to my hovel.  Along the way I found a five dollar bill in front of an Asian Deli.  It seemed that my time had perhaps finally come.

I awoke about noon, and took a few blank pages and the fiver I had found to a nearby café.  I treated myself to a couple of cappuccinos and sat there for several hours writing about what was happening to me.  It was portending to be the continuation of a rich and strange tale.

I returned to my room, donned my work clothes and reported to the restaurant a few minutes early.  When I entered JJ was standing at the host stand.  He was eager to see me and had been awaiting my arrival. 

“Would you bring us two beers please, Walt?” JJ asked.  He handed me one, sipped the other, and said: “Come with me.”

He led me out of the bar and straight up the stairs to DJ Ray G’s apartment.  The door was still on the floor in splinters, just as Bix and I had left it. 

“Come on in,” he said, taking the lead.  “I want to show you something.”

I followed and looked around at the apartment.  It was disgusting—there were dirty dishes and clothes and garbage everywhere, and it reeked an ungodly stench.

“Over here,” he said, directing my attention to the bookcase in the corner.  From my scattered memory I recalled seeing it the night before filled with bizarre trinkets and junk.  But it had been emptied of all that, and beautifully filled with the books I had left at Madge’s.  “I went to visit Mom this morning, and brought them back for you.”

I wanted to say that I was speechless, but was, and so couldn’t.

“The place is yours,” JJ said.

“What about Ray?”

“He defaulted for nonpayment of rent as of noon today.  The papers were filed this afternoon, and he’s evicted.  I’ve taken measures he’ll never return again anyway.  I’m offering it to you first.”

“Taken.”

“Deal,” he said, squeezing my hand.  “Here’s what I have in mind.  You clean out, fix up and paint, and the first month’s free.  After that I’m as fair a landlord as you’ll find.”

“That sounds like a bargain,” I answered.

“Now finish your Guinness and get downstairs,” he said.  “I need to get you trained and working.”

I spent the evening hanging out with Josie.  She introduced me to a few of the regulars, explained their quirks, and taught me the routine of the restaurant.  She was married for twenty five years and still in love with her high school sweetheart, and they had three teenage girls.  Her husband, Hendrick, owned a florist shop in Queens.  She crafted pottery in her spare time, and had always dreamed of writing children’s books.  She was extremely friendly and funny, and well-preserved.

I stayed till the end of the night, and helped close down every corner of the restaurant.  I introduced myself to the guys in the kitchen and helped them scrub the grills and the hood, and to change the oil in the fryolators.  Then I went out front and helped Josie set the tables.  Then I went behind the bar and hand-washed all of Walt’s glassware, and dragged his rubber mats into the alley and sprayed them down.  Then Fred and I hauled three heavy buckets of trash out to the dumpster.  My motives were not sycophantic: I felt the truest sense of belonging, of having found the perfect match for my place and time. 

When all was done I returned to the bar, where JJ poured me a Guinness.  “So what do you know about the history of the city?” he asked.

“That the Dutch got the island from the Native Americans for about twenty four bucks in beads then named it New Amsterdam,” I answered. 

He corrected me.  “The actual price was sixty guilders in Dutch money, which at the time were worth about seven hundred bucks.  This is good stuff to know if you’re going to be a bartender here.  People love to hear it, and you’ll impress the tip out of them.  Grand Central Station covers four square blocks and can hold about one hundred trains and fifteen thousand people.  The main waiting room of Penn Station was modeled after the ancient Roman baths of Caracalla.”   The beer lubricated his tongue, and he got rolling.  He went on to tell me that and that at the time of their construction the two towers of the Brooklyn Bridge were the largest manmade objects in North America, weighing one hundred twenty million pounds apiece, and that the four massive suspension cables each contain more than thirty five hundred miles of steel wire.  And then that the Erie Canal is a channel forty feet wide, twelve feet deep and three hundred fifty miles long that connects Manhattan to the heartland by way of the Great Lakes.  Nine thousand men worked on it over eight years, and they actually completed it on budget and three years early.  I was truly fascinated, but was also very fatigued from the long shift, and so after two quick beers worth of historical trivia, and the promise that I would soon be borrowing and reading a pertaining history from the world famous New York Public Library (which opened its seventy five miles of shelves in 1911), I took my leave.  On my way out the door JJ said, “Hey, here’s the key to the downstairs door.  No worries about DJ Ray, I changed the lock today.  I’m replacing the door to the apartment in the morning.”

I wanted to go upstairs and fall asleep right then, but DJ Ray G’s bed was more disgusting than my own, so I reluctantly forced myself to head back to the Riverside, where I spent half a sleepless night twisting in my hovel.  The guy on the other side of the parchment of a wall hacked up his lungs incessantly, there was a huge row in the hall that required the police to quell, someone pounded on my door demanding to speak to Javier, and all the while I restlessly lay awake dreaming of the midtown apartment awaiting me.

At four o’clock I could take it no more.  I packed up and checked out of the Riverside forever.  I lugged my pounds of manuscripts and meager possessions the thirty blocks crosstown to JJ’s.

I warily approached the busted out door of DJ Ray G’s apartment.  It was eerie and evil in the early morning dark.  I imagined that he was there awaiting to plunge a vengeful knife into my heart, which was thumping.  I quickly flicked on the light and cautiously looked in; I was alone, and immensely relieved.  I set my pack down and started looking around.  The first thing I noticed was the overpowering stench; I was gagging, it was so hard to breathe.  I opened all the windows, and looking out one noticed JJ’s dumpster directly below in the alley.  I went downstairs and flipped up the top.  I returned to the apartment and started going through Ray’s effects.  He was a weird and scary dude.  In the corner was an altar adorned with photos of Napoleon, Hitler, Ku Klux Klan rallies and cross burnings.  There must have been thirty half burnt candles and thirty pounds of melted wax mounded around.  There was a box of wooden matches lying there, so I lit one of the candles, burned all the photos, then tossed the whole thing out the window and into the dumpster.  The place began smelling better already.

I went to the sink, which was piled with grimy dishes and pots.  I pondered scrubbing and keeping them as my own, but when I found two headless rats in the heap I hurled the whole lot out the window into the dumpster, and scoured the sink.  That done, I went to his bureau.  I opened the bottom of the three drawers first.   It was filled with pages and books of racist literature, anarchy and bomb making manuals, and a copy of Mein Kampf that was imprinted with the signature Rommel.  I rooted around and found a metal trash can in the bathroom.  I brought it out, filled it with the racist literature and books and dropped in a match.  When the bucket was full of ash, I threw it out the window into the dumpster, where it landed with a thunk.  At that moment I realized that I wanted nothing to do with anything related to DJ Ray, and so began heaving everything out the window. 

The clothes and lamps and small furniture were the easy part, the bigger things were more difficult to manage.  The mattress stank like the bowels of hell, and I had to fold it three ways to fit it through the window, and then to huff and puff to stuff it out.

Once the place was empty but for the couch, the bureau, and my beautiful bookcase, I began pacing and pondering how to rid every inch of space of every last trace of DJ Ray G’s evil wicked presence, and how I would make it my own.  While thus occupied I realized that the carpet I was treading upon was filthy.  It had to go.  I fetched a utility knife and started ripping it up and cutting it into pieces.  I had gotten about halfway across the room when I reached the couch.  When I pushed it to the side I noticed something peculiar—a small flap cut into the carpet.  I lifted it up and saw the smaller wooden trap door beneath, with a pentagram and swastika burned into it.  The sight made me shudder.  I touched it gingerly, then opened it up.

Beneath was a hole in the floor.  I shined a flashlight and saw therein three pistols, a huge bag of crack, another huge bag filled with cash, and a strange metal hatchet ornately detailed with demonic designs.  I’m terrified of guns and so warily nudged the pistols aside, as if but their slightest touch was poisonous.  Then I removed the bag of money, which contained thousands of dollars.  I slipped ten fifties in my back pocket, replaced the cover and continued shredding the carpet.  Once I had landed every fiber of it in the dumpster, I stopped and looked around.  It had been laid over a wooden floor that if sanded, buffed and varnished would look stunning.

I thought about taking a break and leaning against a wall with one of my books, but I was fired up and anxious to accomplish more; however, it seemed like there was nothing more I could do without tools and supplies…then I recalled the hatchet in the floor.  I lifted the dreaded trap door a second time and removed the implement and hacked the couch and bureau into pieces fit for the window, which I then tossed out. 

All that remained was the bookcase.  I carefully removed all the books and stacked them in the corner.  Then I laid the bookcase on its back, the easier to chop into pieces.  I raised the hatchet and poised to lower the first blow, but it didn’t feel right.  The bookcase was an exquisite piece, and had looked even moreso when filled with my collection of books.  It seemed to be different, but EVERYTHING Ray had to go.  My arm was cocked and I was about to let the blade fly when I was interrupted.

JJ had entered, and was towering over me.  “What on earth are you doing?”  he asked, not in anger, but wonderment.  I dropped the hatchet and stood up.   I explained the circumstances of the night, all that I had done, and how I was endeavoring to expunge the apartment of every last vestige of DJ Ray G.  “I don’t know where Ray has gone, but he won’t be coming back,” JJ said.  “He’s dead.”

“Dead?  How?” I mumbled in confusion.

“He sought out and crossed Marty on his beat, and confronted him.  Marty took two bullets, one grazed each arm; Ray took one in the heart.”

“How’s Marty?” I asked in disbelief.

“He’s at Belleview being treated, but he’ll be fine.  He’s the toughest man I’ve ever known.  I’m sure he’ll be in tonight.  I understand what you’re up to, but please don’t destroy the bookcase; it’s a family piece, my great grandfather made it in 1900.”  Then he noticed the pentagram, and remarked, “What the hell is that?”

“I discovered it while cutting up the carpet,” I replied.  “Look inside.”

He ripped the trapdoor off its hinges and threw it out the window.  Then he kneeled down and removed the contents.  The three guns, the bag of crack and the sack of cash exuded evil lying there on the floor.

“What are we going to do?” I asked.

“Well, since this won’t be needed as evidence against Ray, let’s get rid of it.”  He dumped the drugs into the toilet and flushed them down.

“I’ve got to tell you,” I said, “I’m really uncomfortable around guns.  My father made me fire one when I was twelve, and I’ve never touched another since.”

“We’re on the same page,” he replied.  He expertly emptied the chambers of their munitions, put the bullets and the guns into the empty crack bag, and tossed it into the dumpster.

“What about the cash?” I asked.

“First, let’s count it.”  We did, and it amounted to about thirty thousand dollars.  “I’ll tell you what,” he said.  “You hold onto it for now, but don’t spend a nickel without consulting me.”  He removed and pocketed two one hundred dollar bills and said, “This squares us on what you owe me.”  Then he put the money back in the hole in the floor.  “Let’s get rid of this crap, the truck should be here to empty the dumpster in fifteen minutes or so.”

We heaved the remnants of Ray’s bureau and couch out the window.  As soon as we were done, JJ said, “By the way, where did you get the hatchet?”

“It was in the hole.”

He picked it up, leaned out the window, and flung it into the trash.  As if on cue, the garbage truck backed into the alley, lifted and emptied the dumpster into its hold.  I stuck my head out the window and watched it drive away, silently bidding good riddance.  Then we righted the bookcase and arranged the books back in. 

“I’ll have a new door hung this afternoon,” JJ said.  “Then we can discuss how you’d like to fix it up.  You’re on the bar with Walt at five.”

“I’ll be there.”

We shook hands and he left.  A couple hours later I walked down to eighteenth street and knocked on Greg’s door.  “Come on,” I said, “I’m taking you and Marie and the kids out for lunch.”

“Okay, sure,” he replied.  He gathered his family and we went to a little pizza joint around the corner, where we had a visit.  After I paid the check with one of the fifties, I took Greg outside and handed him the other nine. 

“You don’t owe me any money,” he said incredulously.  “You never borrowed it, remember?”

“I seem to have stumbled into a great situation,” I answered.  “And without having you here I’d be back in New Haven sleeping on Rich’s floor with three bucks in my pocket.  Just take it; you and I know the Lord and his blessings, and how what you give comes back five and tenfold.”

“I can’t believe you just said that,” he said with a slight look of amazement on his face.  “I’ve been rehearsing with a new band, and last night we finally decided on our name.  Tenfold.”

“Then take it as a sign,” I replied.  I tucked the fifties into his shirt pocket.  “I just moved into an apartment above JJ’s; if you want to hang out or need a favor, that’s where you’ll find me.”

 

Chapter 7

Writer Bob

 

I returned to my apartment.  A new door had been hung, and was unlocked.  My apartment!  I let the words echo and bounce around my mind.  It was my apartment.  Mine.  I couldn’t believe it…the sun was shining in my soul.   After years of wandering around the country and the world I had finally found my own little piece of heaven, and right in the heart of Manhattan.

I opened the door and emotion immediately washed over me.  There was a beautiful writing desk beside the window and a futon in the corner covered with pillows and a blanket.  There was also a box filled with cleaning supplies, brushes and a couple cans of paint.  A small square piece of wood covered the hole in the floor.

I didn’t know whether to start working on the apartment or man the desk and write, and so did a little of both.  At four thirty I got into uniform—a sharp black shirt and new jeans—and went downstairs to train with Walt behind the bar.  He showed me around and how it was set up, and we opened the doors at five.  Our first guest was Marty, who took up his favorite stool.

Walt went right to him and gingerly extended his hand.  “How are you feeling, my friend?”

Marty grasped his hand hard, like a steep banister, and replied:  “I’ll be fine.  I need a few days rest, but I’ve been in worse pain before.”

“That’s good to hear,” Walt answered.  He then took me aside, and explained that Marty had quit the drink a decade ago, and either sipped cranberry and club soda or black coffee.  He was never to be given a tab, and always left a five dollar tip.

“You serve him,” Walt said to me.  “You do have to get to know the regulars.”

“Will do,” I replied, and went over to Marty.   “I want you to know that I’m very grateful for what you did, and thankful that you’re all right.  Cranberry or coffee?”

“Cranberry, please,” he answered.  “I have to rest, and don’t need to get jacked up on caffeine.” 

I fixed and served him his drink.  “Thank you again,” I said.  “You don’t know what this means to me.”

He lifted his cranberry soda toward me in toast.  “JJ and I go back many years, so if he’s taken a shine to you, that’s all I need to know.  I hope you make good use of the apartment.”

“I will,” I replied, “and I already have.”

“So the word is that you’re a writer,” he said.  “What do you write?”

“Novels,” I replied.

“A novelist, eh?  What do you write about?”

“I’ve written about everything from cocaine to Christ,” I answered.  “It would take quite a while to explain them all.”

“So pick one and tell me about it.”

“Well, I wrote a romantic comedy set in a haunted London mansion called Tarby Manor,” I explained.  “It’s about two ghosts, Ned and Nell, who were married in life and are in purgatory for accidentally killing each other.  They’ve been trapped for a couple of centuries and have really come to detest each other before the novel even begins.”

“Five years with one wife was enough marriage for me,” he answered.  “It was like signing a bad contract in which your friend gets your woman and half your money, and you end up with one less friend and a heart full of pain.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

“At least I caught her cheating only a couple of years in, and before we had any kids.  What angered me the most was that they thought they could get away with doing it right under my nose.”

“I’ve learned that cheaters can get tripped up at any time,” I said.  “Whatever a man does in secret God can shout from the rooftops.  I should tell you the story about Ben and Guillermina.  It would blow your mind how he got caught cheating on her.”

“Tell the story,” he urged.  “I always love to hear about cads busted for their crimes.”

“It’s really some pretty astounding stuff,” I explained.  “But it will take a minute to tell.”

He looked down at his watch, and said:  “You’ve got several before the bar fills up.”  Then he put me on the spot.  “Hey Walt,” he called.  “Come over here.  Bob’s going to tell a story.  Let’s see what he’s got.”

With my audience of two attentive, I took a sip of water and began.  “A couple of years ago I was living in New Haven and working on my books.  My best buddy at the time, Ben, taught Spanish at Yale.  He had a girlfriend in the department, Guillermina, who was from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and who also taught underclass Spanish.  As the summer approached they made plans to drive to Mexico in Ben’s Volkswagen van, and urged me to meet them somewhere along the way.  I’d never been to Mexico, but I took his advice and booked a flight to Cancun.  Ben told me to travel from there two hours south to the village of Tulum and to hang out on the beach for a couple weeks, and that there was a very good chance they’d meet up with me there.  After two weeks they never showed, and my feet got itchy, so I changed my plans, got a visa and went to Guatemala.

“I spent a few days around Tikal, the city of stone in the jungle that was the capital of the Mayan empire, then a week each in Guatemala City and Antigua.  From there I went north to Panahajel, a mountain village on the shore of Lake Atitlan.  The bus dropped me off on Saturday afternoon, and I quickly befriended a couple of hippies from San Francisco.  A few hours later they invited me to a party, and off we went down a side road.  There were no streetlights—but for the main drag they had all been shut down to conserve power—and we were walking by the light of the waxing moon.  We had gone about a quarter mile when I almost bumped into someone coming the other way in the dark.  We looked at each other, and I was face to face with Guillermina.  We were in shock, and stared speechless at each other. ‘Guillermina!  Oh my God!’ I finally cried.  “What are you doing here?  Where is Ben?’  ‘You just walked by him!’ she cried back at me.  ‘What are you doing here?’

“I turned around to see Ben walking in the dark toting a bottle of rum in one hand and a bottle of coke in the other.  After a joyous reunion there in the dark, we all went to the party together, had a few drinks and recounted our trips in continual disbelief that we had found each other out in the jungle.  The next morning we rented adjacent rooms in a hotel and spent a week together in Panahajel.” 

“That’s incredible,” Marty said.

“That is incredible,” Walt repeated.

Just then JJ joined us.  “Greetings, gentlemen.  How do?” he asked.

“Writer Bob just told us an amazing story,” Marty said.  “You have to tell it to JJ.”

“Actually, I haven’t finished,” I replied.  “I did tell you my story was about an unfaithful lover getting caught, remember?”

“I don’t see how it could top that,” Marty said, “but go on.”

“You’ll see,” I replied.  I quickly repeated the first part of the story for JJ’s benefit, then continued.  “After a week in Panahajel they headed south to Guatemala City, where Ben was dropping Guillermina at the airport.  She was heading home to Buenos Aires to spend a month with her family before the fall semester.  He invited me to join them, but I didn’t want to go back the way I had just come, so I set out west after Ben and I had agreed to meet in Tulum two weeks later.  This time he was there when I arrived, and was bursting with a story.  He had been camped on the beach for about a week, and had met Gema, a gorgeous young girl from Barcelona, Spain, with whom he’d had a fling, and who had just left.  Ben loved using his multilingualism to pick up on foreign chicks.

We hung out there for about ten days, then he drove back here to Manhattan actually, where he was from, and I flew home.  A couple weeks later he and Guillermina and I were reunited in New Haven at the start of the fall semester.  About the very first thing Guillermina had asked Ben was if he had been faithful to her for the month they were apart.  He repeatedly replied with the lie that he had.  At length she believed him, or at least said she did, and consented to let him move in with her, as he had nowhere else to go.

The weeks rolled into autumn, and Ben received a couple of love letters from Gema.  He kept them buried in his book bag, which was with him at almost all times.  One weekend in November, Guillermina went to New York City to spend a few days with some girlfriends who were visiting from Spain.  One of the girlfriends said to Guillermina that it was the strangest thing, that she had a friend whose friend Gema had been in Tulum, Mexico in August, where she hooked up with a guy named Ben who taught Spanish at Yale.  Guillermina was furious, and once back in New Haven Guillermina put the snoop on, found Gema’s letters, confronted Ben with the truth and threw him out of her house.  And that is how a guy from New York City who taught Spanish at Yale got caught cheating on his South American girlfriend with a European woman in Central America, and wound up living out of his van in November in New Haven.”

 “That’s really quite a story,” Marty said.

“That is something you should write about,” JJ added.

“I’m sure it will find its way into one of my books someday,” I answered.

Marty flipped a fiver onto the bar.  ‘It’s time for me to get out of here—I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my arms are burning right now.”

JJ too got up.  Just then the front door opened; two people came in, followed by three more, followed by another two….

“Here comes the crush,” JJ said, “and I’m in the kitchen tonight.  It’s show time gentlemen.”


Chapter 8

 The Squeegee Sharpener

The dinner rush subsided into a pretty quiet night, and I was in my apartment and out of uniform by one.  I committed the Ben and Guillermina story to paper, then put down my pen and picked up a sponge and spent a few hours scrubbing and painting the apartment.  By six AM, except for the floors, it looked like a brand new spread. 

I was in New York, everything I had dreamed of was quickly falling into place, and it was time to get to work.  I sat down at the desk and penned the following letter.

 

Dear Editor,

I am the author of several novels and story collections.  Among them are:  NEW CLEAR DAYS, the story of Jeshua, a modern day prophet who preaches an environmental message of love for the Earth, and performs miracles and healings in nature, and who is mistaken by multitudes to be the Second Coming of Christ;  LORENZO’S FAT HEAD, the story of a museum guard who gets addicted to cocaine and becomes involved in an operation to smuggle the drug through the museum inside hollow statues; TARBY MANOR, a romantic comedy set in a haunted mansion, where Ned and Nell Tarby are married ghosts trapped in purgatory for inadvertently killing each other three centuries earlier; THE DEAK, a comical autobiography of the greatest rock star who ever lived; and BOB IS THE MACHINE, a series of short stories wherein I create a character, then introduce myself to the character as his creator, thereby entering myself into the narrative, with both wacky and meaningful results.

Additionally, I have written several other longer works of fiction which I’ll be happy to describe in detail should this query pique your interest.  I can prepare any of the above titles for submission, and as you see by my address here in Manhattan, I am able to deliver any requested materials in person.  Thank you very much for your time, and I look forward to your response. 

                                                                 

Very truly yours,                                                                

Robert Charest

I finished drafting the letter about nine, then took the hundred bucks I’d made the night before and went out to get some supplies.  I bought a ream of nice stationary, a box of envelopes, several books of stamps, and the latest edition of the book containing the names and addresses of publishing industry editors and literary agents.  I returned home ready to spend the day preparing and sending off query letters.

When I reached the apartment I found JJ there—with the phone man. 

“If you leave someone else will use it,” JJ said, “but I want a phone in here and I want it in my name.  Your new number is Johnson, Kennedy, Lincoln, five five five five.”

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  Not only did I have a Manhattan address, but now also a local phone number.  I managed to type up letters to the seven editors and agents who seemed most likely to appreciate the content and style of my fiction.  After enclosing self addressed stamped envelopes, I sealed and carried them to the mailbox on the corner, and with a tremendous feeling of optimistic confidence, dropped them in.  I imagined them spreading throughout the city, then boomeranging back to my door filled with good news, or even better, a phone call.

In the meantime, I was behind the bar a few minutes before five.  The rush came in, cleared out, and we were cleaned up by nine.  About then Manuela came out of the kitchen and over to me where I stood behind the bar.  Even covered in her stained chef’s whites she looked dynamite.  While pouring herself a glass of juice, she casually said to me:  “I need you to do me a favor, Bob.”

“Name it,” I answered.

“I need you to go to Luigi’s and get the squeegee sharpener,” she said.  “It’s the pizza place two blocks down on the right.”

I was confused.  “A squeegee sharpener?  What’s that?”

“It’s just a little tool,” she explained.  “They’re really hard to get a hold of, and we don’t use it very often, so we share one with a few other restaurants in the neighborhood.  Louie picked it up from us about a month ago.”   I had never heard of such an implement, but I was eager to please, and so kept my skepticism to myself.  I shed my apron and started toward the door.  “Take your time but hurry up,” she joked.  We can’t finish closing the kitchen until we do the squeegees, and we all want to get out of here tonight.”

“I can go two blocks and back in fifteen minutes,” I said.  “I’ll see you then.”

I got there in a jiff, and a well-dressed young guy was awaiting me.  “You must be Bob,” he said. 

“I am,” I replied.

He introduced himself.  “I’m Louie Saccabocco.  My family owns this restaurant.  Manuela called and told me you were coming.  I hate to make you come all the way over here for nothing, but Dana from The Cemetery Gates came for it a couple weeks ago.  It’s five blocks from here.”

“All right, cool,” I said.  “Let me get going.” 

He led me out to the sidewalk, pointed the way and shook my hand.  “Stop by for a slice any time.”

I hastened my step and headed off.  The Cemetery Gates was an enormous theme restaurant.  Even considering the late hour there was a long line outside waiting to get in.  Using my ‘credentials’ I managed to squeeze through the front and to the hostess stand, where I was greeted by several cute girls with pretty smiles.  “I’m looking for Dana,” I said to one of them.

“Are you Bob from JJ’s?” she asked me.

“I am,” I confirmed.

“Louie Saccabocco called and said you were coming.  Dana’s the manager you need to see.  She’s in the pantry on the third floor.  You can show yourself up.”

I went and boarded the glass elevator.  The restaurant was three stories high, and I could see it all from my vantage.  The décor was horror memorabilia from film and broadway, retired costumes of villains and monsters and prop implements of torture and such.  The bathroom doors were fake bookcases.  There were game trophy heads mounted on the walls, and actors dressed as vampires, ghouls, and werewolves entertaining the guests.  There was a show in progress, a dramatic enactment of Dr. Frankenstein quickening his monster, and I had to wait for its conclusion and the lights to come up before I could make my way to the pantry.  I walked in, and was told by one of the servers hurrying by me that Dana had just gone to the kitchen, which was in the basement.  I sighed, turned around and headed back down.  I reached the kitchen, where twenty cooks and bussers and dishwashers were frantically busy everywhere.  I found Dana on the expo line calling out orders and plating food.  She briefly introduced herself, then hastily explained that Vic from Caterina’s on 3rd and 19th had come for the squeegee sharpener a few days earlier.  “I’d love to chat and get to know you,” she said, “but as you can see….”

I had wanted to call JJ’s and explain why I was running late, but everyone at The Cemetery Gates was so busy that I neither wanted to bother anyone nor to tie up the phone, so I left and found my way to Caterina’s, which took another fifteen minutes.  I went inside and located Vic.  He told me that Gerry from The Lava Lounge had come by and borrowed it that very evening, not two hours before.  Because he was on the phone he couldn’t talk to me, and neither could I call JJ’s.  I was frustrated and getting flustered, but went off into the night in the direction of The Lava Lounge.  I walked in and Leon the bartender introduced himself and told me to have a seat.

He went into the kitchen and returned momentarily followed by another man, who approached me with his hand extended.  “Bob from JJ’s, I’m Gerry Lozarbo.  It’s very nice to meet you,” he said.  I could see a couple of faces pressed against the window in the kitchen door looking at me with anticipation.  “I have it right here,” he said.  He reached behind his back, and with a histrionic flourish handed me…a fork. 

I’d been had, and I could feel my face bristle hot and red as laughter erupted all around me.  And while the goose chase had stretched on for almost two hours, the worst was still to come:  I had to show my face back at JJ’s.  Leon and Gerry accompanied me there, and while still giggling explained that it was an initiation rite that the area restaurants had been in cahoots on for years.  They were always borrowing cups of sugar from each other, and this was the way for the new guy to get to know the people and the lay of the land.

I was the butt, and as we approached JJ’s I recalled a line from Moby Dick:  ‘If any one man…afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way.’  I took it like a man, and walked in wearing a grin, and with my chin up, and holding the fork out front of me as though it were divining my way.  Between my coworkers, and JJ’s patrons, and Louie, Dana and Vic, and a couple of friends they’d brought along, there were about thirty people waiting to laugh at me, and howl they did, like wolves at the moon. 

“I’ll take that!” Manuela said, snatching the fork from my hand.  She rubbed it in her fingers.  “This one’s dull, you’ll need to get a sharper one off one of the tables.  These guys brought all the squeegees from their restaurants, they’re out in the alley.  And when you’re finished with those, drain the hot water from the coffeemaker and get a couple buckets of steam from the basement then join us for a beer!”

Following that drinks were poured, and it turned into an impromptu party where I was the informal guest of honor, and where I met many new friends and acquaintances.


Chapter 9

The Jesus Novel

 

The next night Walt was off so I opened the bar alone.  Marty came in right at five.  “I can’t stop thinking about those stories about your friend Ben,” he said.  “The odds for either are astronomical.  The parlay for both would be incalculable.”

“It boggles my mind to this day,” I replied.  “It will forever.”

I shook his hand and brought him a coffee. 

“Tell me another one,” he said.  “If you’ve got more like those, I can’t begin to imagine.  I’ve kind of been hoping all day that you do.”

I laughed.  “Yeah, there’s more.  I actually wrote one down last night.”

“Let’s have it,” he encouraged, tapping his fingers.

“It’s kind of long, and I’d hate to get started on it, then have to leave you hanging to mind the bar,” I answered.  “It’s what happened to me while I was writing my Jesus novel.  I did type it up; it’s upstairs on my desk.”

“Go get it,” he urged.  “You’ll be back in two minutes, I can watch the bar.”

I ran up and returned with five pages.  I started mixing drinks while he read the following.

 

When I was a senior in college I began to receive glimmers of a longer story about the Second Coming of Christ.  After graduation I spent a year writing several hundred pages.  Then I reached the point where I could go no further until I had read the Bible, and so put the draft in a drawer and opened the Bible to page one.  Several hours a day and eight months later, I reached the gospels.  Just about that time, on August 16, 1989, there was a lunar eclipse.  As I was then working on a piece of fiction about the moon, I very much wanted to see it, and was looking forward to it for three days.  The sky was hazy that night, so I mounted my bicycle and rode into the country hoping it would be clearer away from the city lights.  It was very dark, and I had gone about three miles when I hit something on the road and vaulted over the handlebars and landed face first on a large rock.  I was knocked unconscious and awoke surrounded by paramedics and policemen.  I had a broken bone in my shoulder, road rash on my face, and a gash on my forehead which required several sutures to close.  After healing for a couple of months the scar shaped into a perfect crescent moon, about which time I had reached Revelation in my reading of the Bible.  “And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, saying, hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.”

Filled with the Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit, I was ready to revisit my Jesus novel, which I had decided to call New Clear Days.  The novel is the story of a latter day prophet Jeshua, who preaches on behalf of Mother Earth and performs miracles in Nature.  He is mistaken by masses to be the Second Coming of Christ, which he denies unto his death upon a cross.  I worked on my book in public every day, and was asked by countless friends and strangers how I’d gotten the moon on my forehead.  So much so that I began to ponder about another passage in Revelation, chapter 14:  ‘And I looked:  and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads…and which were redeemed from the earth.”  Wouldn’t it be an extraordinary blessing, I thought, to be among those chosen one hundred forty-four thousand?

Several weeks passed and I reached a point in New Clear Days where I wanted to include a brief parable.  The story required that I have one of the twelve disciples be keeping a dirty secret, so I went through the twelve and when I saw the name Andrew, recalled an old acquaintance, Andrew N, who I had known about five years before.  He was a freeloading thief that had attached himself to some friends of mine.  He never worked, lived at home, and on the rare occasions he had any money, it was five dollars he had gotten from one of his parents.  The next day I went to The Daily Caffe and penned several pages which contained the following passage.

 

Without another word Jeshua began walking through the street, and most of the thousands followed.  At length we came upon a beggar, who asked Jeshua for some money.  He turned to us twelve, and asked us to give him all the money that we had.  There were none among us with a cent, however, except for Andrew, who gave him a five dollar bill, to his own shame.  Jeshua placed it in the pouch on his robe, then removed it again, handing it over to the grateful beggar.  At the end of the same block another man asked Jeshua for money, and he produced another five dollar bill from his pouch.  Seeing this another woman approached him, who also received five dollars.

Then he turned to the crowd and said:  “For God is like a man of infinite wealth:  he gives it away generously, but only to those who ask; if you will not ask, you will not receive.”                        

 

Riding home that afternoon I had a five dollar bill in my wallet, which was my last money, and I decided to spend it on food.  I was locking my bicycle near the store when Andrew N. came strolling by--I had not seen him in three years!  It was an astonishing coincidence, yet only the beginning.  The next afternoon I was walking downtown with one dollar in my pocket that I planned to spend on coffee so I could sit in the cafe and write.  I was thinking that I would like to go out for a couple of beers that night, to unwind my mind a bit; I had no cash, but distinctly remember saying to myself:  ‘Perhaps I'll find some money on the ground, since I've always had good luck in that regard.’  I meandered aimlessly for an hour before turning my tracks toward The Daily Caffe, and when I reached that destination, there on the sidewalk, before the front door, was a five dollar bill, not twenty feet from where I had sat the day before and wrote the parable. 

Over the next few months, while living a remarkable stream of coincidence, including finding several more five dollar bills, I finished that draft of New Clear Days.  One Tuesday night, while preparing to write the final chapter, I was seized with the urge to clean my room, and the last part of the task was to sort out my cassette tapes, which were in disarray everywhere.  The very last tape in the pile was so old that I hardly recognized it.  I played it, and heard a recording of myself strumming the guitar with a female singing silly lyrics in accompaniment.  After several minutes I finally recognized her voice:  it was Betsy Spivak, who I had dated five years before.  I hadn't listened to the tape since we recorded it.  Five minutes later I was in my bed praying to God with all my heart, asking Him to bring a woman into my life.  I had grown lonely while writing the book, and was craving female company.  My prayer was intense.

The next afternoon I was sitting in The Daily Caffe with some friends.  It was a rainy May day, so the cafe was crowded, and the only free table the small one to my right.  That was shortly occupied by a pretty girl, and we started chatting.  Her name was Betsy Sulavik.  Two days later I wrote the last page of New Clear Days in the afternoon and went on my first date with Betsy that night.

Our rapport was remarkable—she articulated it the best when she said, “Oh my God!  We’re a perfect fit.”  And the awesome coincidences continued occurring when we were together—I found two five dollar bills with her.  But what was meant to be was also meant to not be, and when we broke up a few months later, I was devastated.

The night I knew it was over with Betsy, I went out to a couple parties and got absurdly drunk, and was in no condition to ride my bicycle three miles home.  In the dead of night I wandered onto the New Haven green and plopped down against a tree.  It was not the safest place to be at that hour.  I had been there several minutes when I noticed the silhouette of a rather imposing black man towering over me.  "Hey man!  Are you all right?" he asked.

"Yeah, I just can't get home.  I'm too drunk to ride my bicycle, and I have to work there at eleven."  I pointed to The Greenery, a restaurant across the street.

"I knew you needed help.  I could tell from a distance that you are blessed.  I knew the moment I looked at you."

His name was Andre.  I stood up, and we spontaneously burst into a euphoric celebration of the Lord there on the green.  I felt joy like David carrying the ark into Zion.  We whooped and hollered and sang Hosanna.

Then I told him the story of Betsy, and how I had prayed for her to come into my life. His face suddenly dropped.  He shook his head and yelled:  "You did what?  You prayed for a woman?  A woman?  A WOMAN!  Man!  I am disappointed with you!  You asked God to bring you a woman; I cannot believe you did that."

"But--"

"You don't pray for women, they come and go like the wind.  When you pray, YOU PRAY FOR WISDOM!  I don't believe you used your gift to get a woman.  A woman!  Don't look at me like that, you sit quiet and listen.  You are here to seek understanding, and when you pray to God you ask for wisdom.  Everything on earth comes when it comes, but wisdom comes only of the Lord!" 

I was humiliated by his chide, but all the wiser.  At length he asked me about my bike.  I pointed out where it was locked to the fence that surrounded the green.  “Believe it or not, that’s my car right next to it,” he said.  “Come on, let’s go.”  He put my bike in his trunk and drove me home.

When I awoke in my bed, I thanked God with all my heart for conveying me there. My own bed had never felt so comfortable, and I was in continuous disbelief to be lying in it.  I reached the restaurant on time, and when I collected the money from my first table, I glanced down and saw GOD LOVES YOU written on the top bill. 

The following evening, Sunday, I was sitting at my desk, staring blankly at my typewriter, pens, pages and books, none of which I touched.  At length, and suddenly, I grabbed a Bible, and opened it at random to Proverbs 9.  ‘WISDOM hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars; she hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table...’  The entire chapter is essentially a psalm about wisdom, and the most striking verse was number 8, which described Andre and me:  ‘Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee:  rebuke a wise man and he will love thee.’  I closed and randomly opened the Bible a second time, to 1 Kings 10:6-7:  ‘And she (the Queen of Sheba) said to the king (Solomon), It was a true report that I heard in mine own land of thy acts and of thy wisdom.  Howbeit I believed not the words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it:  and, behold, the half was not told me:  thy wisdom and prosperity exceedeth the fame which I heard.’ 

 

I noticed that JJ had joined him, and started reading the pages as Marty finished them.  As JJ finished the last words of my story, we started to get a little busy, and he jumped beside me behind the bar, as we had planned, to assist me with the dinner rush.

“You wrote that?” he said.

“I lived it,” I responded.

“But you wrote New Clear Days?”

“That’s my Jesus novel,” I answered.

“Then I’m glad to have you working beside me instead of across the street,” he said.

I smiled and said, “Yeah, mon.  I’m glad to know you too.”

After closing the bar I brought a beer upstairs, sat down at my desk, leaned back and closed my eyes.  I hadn’t thought about Betsy in a long time.  I paused to reminisce, and wished her well.    Then I started to pray.  I had seen quite a few attractive women come through the bar on the few nights I’d worked, but I didn’t dare to ask….

 


Chapter 10

Brotherhood of Bob

 

The last two people I had served that night were a younger couple at the bar, who like so many before them, entertained themselves with my name.  They said:  “Hey!  What about Bob?  Did you know that Bob is a palindrome, spell it backwards and it’s the same?  What do you call a guy with no arms and no legs floating in the water?”  And on and on they went, repeating all the old jokes people make about my name.  But the name is a great thing, regal and charming, and I hereby swear, if I live to be one hundred and have ten sons, thirty grandsons, sixty great-grandsons and other little ones kicking around, if it is in my power, they will all be named Bob.  The name is a blessing in life.

When I was little the other children called me Roberto, Roberta, Ploppert, Berta Laberta, Booby, Robbie and Bobby.  And as I got older it became more of the same, plus Mr. Cob, Bobster, Boborama, Heybobarebop, Cherrybomber, and the legendary Bobby Cobby.  In college I was Bobbo and Bobo, and Bob to rhyme with Job, Bobster and the Bobber.  At one work place I was called Cosmic Bob because I was often daydreaming. 

I spent many years living in New Haven, and over that time found friends in a wide range of circles.  Four were coincidentally also named Bob.  We bumped into each other all over town, though most frequently at the cafe, and it was quite common to see any two, and occasionally three of us taking coffee together.  But there was one cosmic and comical occasion when the stars aligned five of us seated around the same table—and only we five--all named Bob.  There was Bob Grant, the painter and collage artist; he and I spent hundreds of hours wandering into numerous adventures, and his outrageous, wrongful arrest for public drinking inspired my series of stories called The Bomber, about the selfsame apprehending officer.  There was Bob (aka Bop) Tweedie, guitarist, singer and aspiring actor extraordinaire, who after several years in New Haven moved to the Big Apple to make or find his break.    There was Robert "BadBob" Therrien who created and marketed the very successful line of Screaming Man tee shirts (they are brilliant designs, and I saw strangers wearing them on several occasions when I lived in New Orleans); he was also an accomplished rock guitarist and singer, with half a dozen fine albums to his credit.  There was Bob Beardsell, whom we endearingly referred to as Boston Bob, on account of his heritage and accent.   We slacked and played golf together, and made a half-assed though whole-hearted effort to start a business together, and squandered endless hours in the Daily Caffe.  And finally there was me, Writer Bob.  All four of those friends helped sustain me through periods of despondence and poverty, and what more can I say than thank you Bob.

Another night while bartending in Texas I met a most affable fellow named Bob.  He and his girlfriend Gloria were regulars, and we became friendly.  One night I was about town with some friends, and we stopped by our neighborhood pub, where I bumped into Bob.  All the tables were full, and he invited us to take his and Gloria’s seats, as they were just getting ready to leave.  We squeezed in and had a quick beer with them.  That afternoon I had been dabbling with this very essay about my name, and all the friends I have named Bob, and so I told him about it.

"Well I can tell you something funny about Bobs," he said.  "My name is Bob Brown, and my best friend in high school was Bob Green.  You can imagine the jokes we heard about that."

"That’s pretty crazy," I said, "They called me Bobby Cobby through high school.  They used to say it with a silly, guttural voice:  Hey Bobby Cobby!"

"That's funny," Bob chuckled.  "They call me Cobbo Bobbo.”

"He just loves Cabo San Lucas," Gloria explained. 

Bob and I smiled at each other.  "Touche, Bob," we said and slapped hands.

One final point that seems meet to mention here.  At one bar I worked someone heard my laugh, which is thunderous and booming, and started calling me Evil Bob.  It was odd, as I don’t feel like there’s any evil in me, but a few others chimed in and it stuck for a while so I played along.  It quickly grew to annoy me, however, and so behind my tolerant smiles, I was shouting at them inside my head.  WHY DO YOU CALL ME EVIL, YOU GODLESS IGNORAMUSES?  MOST OF YOU WOULDN’T KNOW JESUS IF YOU SAW HIM, AND WOULDN’T CARE IF YOU DID.

So like my own personal Shakespearean fool, Evil Bob is my voice of truth.

It manifests into this narrative something like this: 

Using a towel, I brought a very hot plate to a table, and served it to the woman with the warning to be careful.  She immediately grasped it and scorched her finger tips. 

DID I STUTTER, YOU CHOCOLATE-COVERED DIPSTICK?  I TOLD YOU IT WAS PIPING HOT! Evil Bob yelled.

“Ma’am,” I began, “I did tell you—“

“I know you said something,” she answered, soaking her fingers in her ice water.  “It’s my own fault.”

 

I brought the pages downstairs to show Marty, or JJ, and to see what might happen.  As Marty read them one of my earliest and my greatest boss ever popped into my mind—Bob Fuchs.  He owned a fabulous neighborhood joint called Archie Moore’s in New Haven.  The street address was 188 1/2 Willow.  It was a low overhead, high profit operation that jammed nearly every night.  Bob also owned the house it had been built into, and the second floor was a playpen loft, a place full of pillows, music and booze.  He was a most engaging, charming guy, and just so cool…cool…cool.  He was very average looking, but had a smile and a way with the ladies, and an endless supply of them partying upstairs every night.

A few months after I started there, playboy Bob married Rebecca.  They never appeared to be in love.  There was a rumor that I never confirmed, that the union was financially motivated.  Just a couple months after the wedding, Bob came into the restaurant one Monday morning more than a little perturbed.  He had taken the train to New York for the weekend, ostensibly on business, and he explained the rest.  “Rebecca found condoms in my briefcase this morning.  I told her that a salesman who came in wanting to install condom dispensers in the bathrooms left them as a sample.  Jim, you’ve got to get them installed today.”  With two phone calls and within two hours, they were hung in both rest rooms.  He’ll get razzed forever about that one.”

“I’ll bet,” Marty said.

I looked up and recognized someone coming in the door, and made my way around the bar saying:  “No way!  No way, no way, no way!”  I ran to and embraced him, and said:  “I cannot believe that you of all people just walked in.”  I brought him directly to Marty, and introduced him.  “This is my friend Bob Grant, the Bob Grant you just read about in that chapter.  We haven’t seen each other in five years.”

“What an incredible coincidence,” Marty said.  “That is remarkable.”

“You always did have the strangest coincidences in your life, Bobby,” Bob said to me.  “So I’m never surprised to see you anywhere.”  He was so laidback and low key that you’d hardly know   “Actually, was walking by yesterday and thought I saw you, and today decided to come in.”

“Are you and Teresa still married?” I asked.

“Yeah, seven years,” he answered. 

Back in the day Bob and I had been part time drinking buddies, though at the time of this story he’d been sober for years.  One fine evening at an elegant art opening reception, Bob met Teresa, the Spanish professor from Barcelona who was teaching in Manhattan.  He was drunk, he proposed to her within thirty minutes of meeting, she started thinking seriously about it, and within a year they were hitched. 

“We still live in Washington Heights.  We just had our first baby last year; his name is Isaac.  Oh, here’s one for your book,” Bob said.  “When we settled upon his name, Isaac Art Grant, I gave his middle name in honor of my friend Art, who was dying of AIDS.  When I visited Art to tell him of Isaac’s middle name, I explained that Isaac had been born with a sixth toe on his left foot.  Art just looked at me in amazement and without a word he removed his left shoe and sock and showed me his six toed foot.  The extra toes were identical.”

People started coming in and I had to get to work.  He chatted with Marty for a few minutes, then said goodbye, saying that he knew where to find me and that he’d surely see me somewhere soon.  I didn’t know if I would see him in five days or ever again.