Friday, January 19, 2024

 

HISTORY ACCORDING TO THE VICTORS

 

The cable news networks have a camera station set up inside the capitol building in Washington D.C. Reporters stand in front of the cameras, microphones in hand, and report the latest happenings from the House and Senate. In the background stands a white marble statue of Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest, who in 1673, accompanied by Louis Jolliet, laid eyes upon the mighty Mississippi. The engraving on the base of the statue reads:

 


WISCONSIN’S TRIBUTE

_____

JAMES MARQUETTE   S.J.,

WHO, WITH LOUIS JOLIET

DISCOVERED THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER

AT PRAIRIE DU CHEIN, WIS.

JUNE 17, 1673

 


Imagine the dialogue at that historic moment. Maybe it went something like this:

 

Marquette: Oh joy, oh rapture! Jolliet, look at this magnificent river. Such power, such potential!

Jolliet: Praise be to God, the creator!

Marquette: [Speaking to his guide and interpreter, a Sioux known as Many Tongues LeBeau] LeBeau, ask our native friends if they are familiar with this mighty stream.

LeBeau: [Speaking to Proud Eagle, a chief of the Menomonee tribe] Chief, the white devil wants to know if you are ‘familiar’ with the river.

Eagle: Is this white mans' humor? Are we ‘familiar’? Our people have lived on this river since time began. Tell him we were here while his ancestors lived in caves and ran from the giant lizards.

LeBeau: [To Marquette] He says he’s never before seen these waters.

Marquette: But how can that be?

LeBeau: There is a legend of a great flood where only a handful of beasts survived. Native people stay far away, on the other side of yonder ridge.

Marquette: Did you hear that, Jolliet? We are the first to stand on this ground.

Jolliet: Praise the Lord!

Marquette: Ask him how far—in legend—the river extends.

LeBeau: He wants to know how far the river runs.

Eagle: It begins upstream at a lake we call Itaska and extends far down river to where it empties into a vast open sea. By canoe, a brave would take a hundred suns to reach the sea.

LeBeau: [to Marquette] He says he has no idea.

Marquette: It appears to be navigable. Think of the commerce, think of the trade, think of great cities rising on its banks! Ask him if legend has given this mighty torrent a name.

LeBeau: What do you folks call the river?

Eagle: We call it Misi-ziibi. It means Big River.

LeBeau: Big River? That’s the best you’ve got?

Eagle: It sounds better when you say Misi-ziibi.

LeBeau: The chief says it is called Misi-ziibi, which means ‘Mother of all waters, flowing swiftly to the heavenly sea’.

Marquette: Oh rapture! Oh joy! Jolliet, we have discovered the Mississippi. I will call it ‘River of the Immaculate Conception’.

Jolliet: Halleluiah!

Eagle: These people are crazy. Why are they so worked up?

LeBeau: They think they discovered the river.

Eagle: Sheesh… Tell him there were other white devils, way down river, who were here in the time of my great great grandfather.

LeBeau: Father Marquette, the chief congratulates you and your friend, Monsieur Jolliet, on this grand discovery.

 

So it is written. So let it be carved in stone. Back to Wolf Blitzer in the studio…

_____


 

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Lone Rat

 

It was a quiet January morning and Homer Bumwell was hard at work in his palatial office. His massive desk held four large flat-screen monitors, one tuned to CNN, the other three focused on company business. As President and COO of YahYouBetcha, the fastest growing online gambling operation in the U.S., he took great pleasure in keeping track of the betting action on the company’s many platforms. With the NCAA championship game on the horizon and the Super Bowl just a few weeks away, the gamblers were out in force. Thank God for cloud computing and infinite capacity, he thought. Go ahead, suckers, bet to your hearts’ content.

The monitor tuned to CNN was on the far-right side of the desk, the sound muted, the banner at the base of the screen scrolling news that included the words “active shooter” and “Iowa.” Bumwell paid no attention.

There was a polite knock on his door and Bettsy Lovelady, his secretary, popped her head in. “Good morning, Mr. Bumwell. Mr. Zipper is here to see you.”

Homer checked his Rolex. “Great, right on time. Send him in.”

The door opened wide and Hardy Zipper, Vice President of Business Development, walked briskly into the office, his right hand extended to shake hands with the boss. “Mr. Bumwell, thanks for seeing me on short notice. How are you, sir?”

“Never better, Hardy, never better.” They shook hands firmly. “Let’s use my conference table so these damn monitors won’t be in the way.” They walked to the large mahogany table surrounded by comfortable leather chairs. The floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on a placid lake where the occasional trout broke the surface to slurp up an insect. Bumwell sat at the head of the table while Zipper took a chair to his right. “Now, what’s on your mind, Hardy? Why did you insist on meeting first thing this morning?”

“I have an idea to run by you, sir. I think you’re gonna love it. It has great growth potential and, quite frankly, it’s based on a gift that just keeps giving.”

“Hmm…well you certainly have my attention, Hardy. Let’s hear it.”

“Okay, so you know how our volume drops off after the Super Bowl. Football fans are the best there is and they can’t get enough action. But after the Super Bowl, things get quiet. Our revenue takes a dive. March Madness is a nice bump, and the NBA is pretty solid, but nothing makes up for the football action. And we all know baseball is a dud. Very few gamblers want to bet on baseball.”

“Okay, I’m with you so far.”

“My idea could fill the gap between football seasons and I think you are going to agree it has significant growth potential.”

“I’m listening.” Bumwell glanced at his watch. Get to the damn point, Hardy. I don’t have all day.

“Okay, here it is. We build a site to bet on the next mass shooting.”

“What? You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“I kid you not, sir. We could lay out a sweet menu of betting options for our clients. Like, how many days until the next ‘active shooter’ event.”

“I don’t know, Hardy, they happen so often now.”

“Or covering the spread on how many victims.”

“Hmm…that’s interesting.” Homer drummed his fingers on the conference table.

“How ’bout the shooter’s weapon of choice?”

“Nah, ninety percent of ’em use that frickin’ AR-15.”

“But we could give long odds on something other than an AR-15. And how ’bout this—the venue. Is it a school, a church, a synagogue, a shopping mall, a dance hall? Think of the possibilities, sir. The list is endless.”

“I’m startin’ to feel you, Hardy. How about the shooter’s choice of social media? Did he post his manifesto on FaceBook, Instagram, Truth Social, or whatever—”

“And don’t forget the potential parlays, like ‘I’ll take more than ten victims, at a school, and YouTube for social media.’”

“By God, Hardy, I think you’ve got something.”

“Our tech crew could put up a site in no time, including an app for the iPhone junkies.” Hardy was grinning ear-to-ear.

“You got that right. But what can we call it? How ’bout ‘Lone Wolf’. These whack jobs typically act alone.”

“Sir, that’s an insult to wolves. I’m thinking we call it ‘Lone Rat’. How does that grab you?”

“I love it! ‘Lone Rat’ it is. Okay, okay…let’s slow down a little. We want to do this right. Let’s call a meeting of the management team to brainstorm ideas. Then we can meet with the statisticians and odds-makers to make sure they can handicap this shit. After that, we’ll call in the tech geeks and get the ball rolling. Oh, and in the meantime, I’d better run it by legal. We need to make sure any exposure won’t break the bank.” Homer leaned back in his chair, smiling. “Hardy Zipper…”

“Yes, sir?”

“You are one hell of a guy! No wonder I pay you the big bucks. The ball’s in your court, Zip. Now get the hell out of here and get to work.” Zipper was halfway to the door when Bumwell jumped to his feet. “Wait a minute! Here’s another one: they could bet the over-under on how many senators and congressmen will offer thoughts and prayers.”

“Brilliant, Chief! I’ll add it to the list.” Zipper closed the door behind him.

Bumwell returned to his desk. On the monitor tuned to CNN, the Sheriff of Dallas County Iowa stood in front of a bank of microphones, about to convene a press briefing in a town called Perry.

_____

 

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

 Author's note: The review that follows was posted in January 2020. I'm reposting it here in memory of Charlene Imhoff Dividson who passed away December 18, 2023. That's her in the picture below, second from the right--beautiful, talented, and a dear, sweet friend. Rest in peace, Sis.


Remember When…

By C.W. Spooner

“Sly walks in and says, ‘Does anybody sing harmony or are y’all going to sing melody?’”

-          Charlene Imhoff Davidson

That was the In the Beginning moment for a doo-wop group that came to be known as the Viscaynes, six kids from Vallejo, California. “Sly” was Sylvester Stewart, known in his community as a musical prodigy. Guitar, keyboards, horns—was there an instrument he could not play? And there was the voice that could hit the sweet high notes when they were needed.

Frank Arellano and Charlene Imhoff had a group and showed up for talent contests. That’s where they first heard Sly, a classmate, Vallejo High Class of ’61. Frank asked for help to “get our harmonies together,” and Sly said “sure.” The group grew to six members, including Charlie and Verne Gebhardt and Maria “Ria” Boldway. They began to meet in the Gebhardts' rec room, equipped with a piano and encouragement from Charlie and Verne’s parents. Along the way, Mike Stevens joined to play piano. They’d stay in that room for hours.

All that practice paid off and they began to win talent competitions. In the spring of 1961, they auditioned for the Dick Stewart Dance Party, the San Francisco equivalent of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. They were accepted. The television appearance and talent show wins led to recording sessions in San Francisco where they cut a series of 45-RPM sides, including “Yellow Moon.” That tune became a hit in the Bay Area, reaching number 16 on radio station KYA’s Top 60 chart.

This backstory is meant to call your attention to a reissue of those venerable tracks recorded in 1961. It is titled The Viscaynes & Friends, and it’s available on MP3, CD or vinyl. Amazon delivered my CD a few days ago and I’ve been spinning it ever since. Songs like "You've Forgotten Me," "A Long Time Alone," and "Heavenly Angel" take me back to a simpler, brighter time when absolutely everything was possible. My only complaint is that two of my favorites are missing: “Stop What You’re Doing,” and “I Guess I’ll Be,” both featuring Charlene’s clarion voice. You’ll have to go to YouTube to hear those two.

As we know, Sly went on to fame and fortune as the star of Sly and the Family Stone. But fame and fortune cuts both ways, especially in the music business. Sly has seen some very hard times, but the latest word is that things are a little better. Will there be a happy ending? Let’s hope so.

None of that dims the legacy of the recordings that will live forever with the release of The Viscaynes & Friends. There is a quotation in the liner notes that captures the pure joy of the ride home from a recording session. It could be attributed to any member of the group, because their collective memory is as tightly woven as their harmony:

“We did not come home until five o’clock, six o’clock in the morning, because we recorded all night. Coming home, it was the coolest image ever. I close my eyes and I can see it, all seven of us, in Mike Stevens’s dad’s convertible. We are coming across the Bay Bridge, and the sun is coming up, with the top down, singing to the top of our lungs. It was the coolest thing ever.”

I highly recommend this album. Put it on, close your eyes, feel the wind in your hair, and watch the sunrise over the East Bay hills.

_____

PS: This release of the "Complete Recordings 1961 - 1962" came out later and included Charlene singing lead on "Stop What You're Doing" and "I Guess I'll Be." 


_____


Friday, December 1, 2023

 Quick Eddie

 Part 2 of 2

Things were going like clockwork that Saturday night. There had been some guys who wanted to try their luck and ended up donating lots of money. Pete was sipping beer and going to his flask and getting louder and louder. And finally, everybody was out but Eddie and the money was all in. Pete tanked a few shots and Eddie won the big pot. The beauty part was watching Pete just barely miss a critical shot or two. Pete was a master.

“I’ve got five hundred dollars …” Pete went into his big speech. And sure enough, a bunch of guys came to Eddie and said they’d back him, and for him to kick Pete’s ass. The final game was moving along with Eddie about to miss a critical shot by a fraction when he heard Pete curse under his breath.

“Jeezus, Mary and Joseph!” Pete looked like somebody had punched him in the gut.

“What is it?” Eddie stood next to Pete at the ball return.

“The house manager is up there talking to a guy that looks familiar. I think I saw him in Walnut Creek when we were there last month. Oh, shit! It is him. We’ve been made.”

Eddie looked up and saw the manager in earnest conversation with a tall, thin man wearing a plaid jacket. The manager stepped out from the counter and began to talk to one of the men who’d put money on Eddie.

“Okay, kid, we’ve got to run for it,” Pete said. “Head across the lanes to the pit area and out the back door. My car is out there. You run for the bus station and I’ll take the car. They’ll follow me and I can lose ’em. We’ll hook up later in Frisco. Go!”

With that, Eddie took off across the darkened, empty lanes, heading for the back of the house, skipping over the ball returns and trying not to trip in the gutters. Pete was right behind him, change and keys jangling in his pants, huffin’ and puffin’, his big belly bouncing along. They blasted through the back door and Pete headed for his car. Eddie sprinted around the building and across Sonoma Boulevard to the bus station. He peered through the plate-glass window of the station and saw Pete tear out of the parking lot and onto Sonoma, heading for Highway 40 and the bridge. Sure enough, a group came charging out the back door and jumped into two cars. They sped off after Pete.

He waited a few minutes to let his heart rate return to normal, then he went to a ticket window and bought a one-way ticket on the next bus scheduled to leave. It was heading to Oakland and he knew he could get home to San Francisco from there. He boarded the bus and sank down in his seat. He didn’t begin to breathe easy until the bus had crossed the Carquinez Bridge. He glanced down at his feet and realized he was still wearing his bowling shoes. His ball, his bag, his street shoes, and his jacket were all back at the Vallejo Bowl. And his suitcase was sitting with the desk clerk at the Casa De.

He made it back to San Francisco the next day. Later he heard that Pete was back in town and they arranged to meet. Pete had ditched the posse by heading off Highway 40, through Crockett and down past Port Costa. It was all pretty funny and they had a good laugh over their adventure. Except for one thing: Eddie couldn’t go back to Vallejo and he didn’t know what to do about Jodie. It wasn’t long before his dilemma was resolved. On December 7, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. A week later, Eddie enlisted and shipped out for basic training at Fort Ord, near Monterey. He never saw Jodie again.

Eddie called Don over to settle his bill. When the young man returned with his change, he had a question waiting for him: “Donnie, why doesn’t a rooster have hands?”

“Don’t know, Eddie.” Don could see it coming again.

“Because chickens don’t have tits.” He let it sink in, then let loose his best Pete Pannel laugh and got up to leave. “I’ll be coming through from time to time. See you later, kid.”

“Not if I see you first,” Don mumbled under his breath.

Eddie started for the door, then stopped and stared at an empty booth in the corner. He hoped Jodie got everything she wanted: art school, a career, a great guy, a bunch of little green-eyed kids, and happily ever after. She was a great kid and nobody deserved it more than her. She deserved better than Quick Eddie Clark.

***

The door swung open and a well-dressed woman with flowing brown hair walked briskly into the Ritz. She waved to several of the regulars at the bar and they called out her name in greeting.

“Whoa, who is that?” one of the barflies asked his friend. “What a knockout!”

“Forget it, man. The lady is all class and she’s way out of your league.”

Don exchanged smiles with the woman as she sat down at the bar. He scooped ice cubes into a tall glass, dropped in a wedge of lime and filled the glass with club soda. He placed the drink on a coaster in front of his new customer.

“How’s it goin’, Mom?”

“Good, honey. How’s your day?”

“Not bad. Hey, you wouldn’t believe the guy I just had in here. What a piece of work! Oh, yeah…answer this: why doesn’t a rooster have hands?”

_____


Wednesday, November 29, 2023

 

Quick Eddie

 Part 1 of 2

From Children of Vallejo

 

The sun was breaking through a thick gray overcast and it looked like it could turn into a decent afternoon. Eddie Clark drove across the Carquinez Bridge, then took the Sonoma Boulevard exit and headed toward downtown Vallejo. He had time to kill before heading on to Napa. In fact, he had all Sunday afternoon and evening. His meeting wasn’t scheduled until the next day. He had recently moved back to San Francisco and been assigned a territory that extended into the North Bay.

Eddie had not been in Vallejo in nearly twenty-five years, since November of 1941, and he wanted to check out some places he remembered. He approached the downtown area not knowing how much might have changed. Then he saw the old Vallejo Bowl, still standing at the corner of York and Sonoma. A little up the block and across the street was the Greyhound Bus station. Things had been cleaned up and painted, but at least these two landmarks were standing. The scene of the crime, Eddie said to himself.

He continued across Georgia Street, the main drag of town, and up the hill to the Casa De Vallejo hotel at the corner of Sonoma and Capitol. By God, it was still there too, and looked to be in pretty good shape. As he passed the front of the hotel, he saw the coffee shop inside the lobby on the street level. That’s where he’d met Jodie.

Eddie turned left onto Capitol and found a place to park at the curb. Just down the hill from the hotel was a bar, now called the Ritz. He pushed open the door and went inside. It was dark, but he could tell there had been changes—probably remodeled many times over the years. There were a handful of patrons sitting at the bar or in booths along the wall. He sat at the bar and waited for the bartender to approach.

“Hi, what can I get for you?” The bartender was a young man and Eddie wondered for a moment if he was old enough to serve drinks.

            “Gimme a draft,” Eddie replied, letting his eyes take in the interior as they adjusted to the light. The bartender returned and set his beer down on a coaster. Eddie extended his hand across the bar. “Name’s Eddie. Eddie Clark.”

The young man shook his hand. “Hi, I’m Don.” Don sized-up the middle-aged man sitting across from him: slick hair, slick clothes, too much jewelry. Had to be some kind of salesman. Or a pimp.

“Donnie, tell me something, when is a woman like a good draft beer?” Eddie smirked a little, waiting for the answer.

“Don’t know,” Don replied. He could tell a punch line was coming.

“When she’s got a good head and goes down easy.”

Eddie let the line sink in then let loose a laugh that was way too loud. Don laughed too, then glanced away, a little embarrassed. He moved away to help another customer at the bar.

Eddie sat at the bar and nursed his beer. He was in no hurry today. He picked up a copy of the Vallejo Times-Herald and thumbed through to the movie section. He noted that The Hustler was back in the theaters again. Great flick, he thought. Fast Eddie Felson, Minnesota Fats. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. Eddie laughed out loud. That’s what he needed when he was hustling in bowling alleys, a good nickname. How about Quick Eddie? Quick Eddie Clark. He wondered how many people knew there were hustlers in bowling, just like pool, and lots of other games. Any game where you could get somebody to put down a bet, there you’d find hustlers making a living.

He remembered the sweet little hustle he and Pete had going back in ’41. Pete Pannel! What a guy, may he rest in peace. Pete was thirty years older than Eddie, big and barrel-chested with his stomach hanging over his belt. Bigger than life, that was Pete. Eddie could still hear Pete’s voice booming through a bowling establishment, challenging anybody to bowl him for money. Then he’d bust out with that huge laugh of his.

Eddie recalled how Pete could hold a sixteen-pound bowling ball on his palm, let it roll down his forearm, pop it up in the air with his biceps and catch it in his hand. He saw a lot of guys wreck their arms trying to match that stunt. Pete was a powerful man, and a great bowler. He taught Eddie everything he knew about the game—angles, lane conditions, how to find the groove, how to adjust—but especially how to get into the other man’s head. Pete was a master at that. He knew just where to stick the needle.

Bowling was a different game then. Lane conditions were rough, the pins were heavy, lots of variables to consider. You had to “hit ’em to get ’em” in those days. Not like today, with these plastic-coated pins flying around like ping pong balls. Hell, in the thirties and forties, if a bowler could average 180, he was damn good. Now guys are carrying 210, 220 averages like it was nothing. It’s a damn circus.

Eddie looked around and he thought about Jodie. They used to come in here for a drink. God, she was a doll! Auburn hair, beautiful little figure, and light, light green eyes. Those eyes: that’s what did it to you. What a doll.

He and Pete were working their hustle down at the Vallejo Bowl when he met Jodie. He remembered how their little game used to work. They’d pick a bowling establishment in one of the smaller towns, well outside of Frisco. In any good house, when the league bowlers wrapped up around midnight, the pot games would start. A bunch of guys would get a couple of lanes, hire a pin setter and a scorekeeper, throw a few dollars in the pot, then bowl winner-take-all.

There was nothing like it after midnight in a good house, all the lights turned off except for the lanes where the action was taking place. The bowlers, all kind of nervous and jumpy, messing around with their gear. And there’d be a few people watching, enjoying the action, maybe waiting to jump in when the stakes got high enough. Eddie focused the picture in his mind, right down to the sign on the wall saying, “No Gambling On These Premises.” It was a beautiful thing to see.

Well, the games would go on and the stakes would go up. Pretty soon, guys would be tapped out and it would come down to a couple of bowlers. Finally, all the money would go in the pot, and somebody would walk away a little richer. By that time, the sun might be coming up.

Eddie had seen men lose their paychecks. They’d put up anything—rings, watches, golf clubs, pink slips—to stay in the action, sure that in the very next game, they’d come out on top. It was sad to watch sometimes. Unless you had an edge and knew you’d be the winner. He never found a bowler in any one of the small towns they worked—Orinda, Walnut Creek, Pacheco, Fairfield—who could beat him when all the money was in. Hell, this was Eddie’s job! These other Joes had to put in fifty or sixty hours a week on a damn shipyard or some other gig.

So, Eddie would go into a town first, start hanging around the lanes and getting into the pot games. After a couple of days, he’d have a reputation built up. He was good and none of these small-town guys could touch him. Then Pete would blow in on the weekend and start shooting off his mouth about how nobody could beat him for money. The hometown boys would find Eddie and the match would be on. Of course, nobody knew they were connected. So, Eddie would win a few, and Pete would win a few, and there would be other bowlers that would be in for a while, until they tapped out. Finally, Pete would start talking up the stakes until the pot got nice and big. He’d be drinking beer and going to his bag for a silver flask he carried, and he’d be nipping at that flask and getting louder all the time. There wasn’t anything in the flask but water. He’d scare off everybody but Eddie, and finally, all the money was in. Pete would make a few mistakes and Eddie would win. Then it was time for Pete’s big speech.

“I’ve got five hundred dollars says you can’t beat me again,” Pete would bellow, and he’d flash a roll of bills.

“Hell, I don’t have that kind of money,” Eddie would say.

“What’s the matter, kid? Tell him, guys. No guts no glory!” Pete was something when he got going.

Eddie would flash some anger then: “You old fart, I’ve been beating your ass all morning, and I can keep on beating your ass. I just don’t have that kind of money.”

Five hundred dollars was a fortune in those days. But sure enough, somebody in the crowd would offer to put up the stakes for Eddie. It could be a bunch of guys going in together, or it could be the manager of the house. They wanted to see Eddie beat this loudmouth drunk and make a little money in the process.

Then the game would start and Eddie would miss a shot or two and suddenly, Pete was the winner. And that was it. They were careful not to be too greedy. After the big finale, it was time to make an exit. Eddie would tell the men who put up their money he’d be back that night with a new stake, and they’d all get their money back. He’d challenge Pete to show up and try to take him again. Of course, Pete would accept, at the top of his lungs. What a guy, Pete!

They’d leave separately and Eddie would beat it back to wherever he was staying and grab his suitcase. Pete would be waiting for him in the car when he came out, and they were gone. It was a sweet hustle, and they worked it through a bunch of small towns during the summer and fall of 1941.

That’s what brought them to Vallejo that November. And that’s when he met Jodie. Eddie checked into the Casa De Vallejo—everybody called it the “Casa Dee”—then walked downstairs to the coffee shop. Jodie was working behind the counter. They were about the same age, mid-twenties, and they hit it off right away. Her shift was over around 2:00 PM, and he asked her if she’d like to catch a movie. He had lots of time to kill before he went to work around midnight.

They saw a movie that first afternoon, then had dinner together with a nice bottle of wine and ended up back in his room at the Casa De. They made love until it was time for him to head for the Vallejo Bowl, just down the street. Just like that, he thought. She was a beauty.

He saw Jodie the next day, then the next, and the day after that. He was really getting to know her. She wanted to go to college to study art and was working hard, saving her money. Her father didn’t think girls should go to college, so she got no help there. She was about as nice a girl as Eddie had ever met, and smart too.

Eddie remembered his room at the hotel, looking out on Sonoma Boulevard, with the neon light from the hotel sign turning everything kind of a rose color inside, and he and Jodie snuggling and laughing after making love. There was an old steam radiator near the window for heat and they’d turn it up to take the chill out of the room. Jodie would put her underwear on the radiator to warm up a little before getting dressed. God, what a girl!

            Well, Pete rolled into Vallejo on Saturday and they were all set to do their thing that night. Eddie checked out of his room Saturday morning and left his bag with the desk clerk. His cover story with Jodie was that he sold bowling equipment, and that he had to move on to his next customer. He made plans to come back and see her in about a week. He wasn’t sure how he would work that out with Pete, but he knew he wanted to see Jodie again.

            First, there was business to take care of.

_____

Coming soon: Part 2. What happens to Eddie and Jody? Don't miss the conclusion of "Quick Eddie."

_____


 

 

Friday, October 13, 2023

 And Spare Them Not

 Part 2 of 2

 

 Max walked into Gordy’s Club, a working-class bar not far from the office building where he’d reported to work for thirty years. He took a seat at the bar, ordered a beer, and waited for Combs to arrive. It was mid-afternoon and the place was nearly empty. He didn’t expect to see anyone he knew, not until after quitting time.

Roy Combs walked in and stood near the door, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He was about six feet tall with a solid build. He wore rumpled slacks and a short-sleeved shirt that revealed powerful forearms. His hair was cut high and tight, military style, and his expression was that of a pissed-off football coach. He saw Max and nodded toward a booth against the wall. The men shook hands, exchanged awkward small talk, then Max got down to business.

“So, what’s up, Roy?”

“Okay, here’s the deal, Max. We are gonna need you to testify.”

“What? You’re shitting me. I told you I won’t do that. You want me to get my family killed?”

“We don’t have any choice. The judge threw out Sonny’s confession.”

“How the hell did that happen?”

“Sonny’s got some young hotshot lawyer. They claimed the confession was coerced. The judge ruled in their favor. It’s out.”

“Wait a minute…you video tape those things, don’t you? You have it all on tape.”

Combs looked away, agitated. “We don’t have a tape. The camera malfunctioned.”

“Malfunctioned? Malfunctioned my ass! What did you do, Roy? You didn’t tape it. You didn’t even try—”

“Let it go, Max—”

“You beat it out of him!”

Combs glared at Max, eyes blazing. “That little motherfucker spit in my face! Spit in my face, Max, and called me a faggot. You’re damn right I beat it out of him.”

“And this is what I fought for in Vietnam? Life, liberty, the Constitution, the American Way? So that you can beat confessions out of gangbangers?”

“Don’t throw the Constitution at me, old man. I served in Desert Storm. I put my life on the line against Saddam’s Elite Guard. Don’t play ‘holier than thou’ with me.”

The bartender called in their direction, telling them to keep it down or take it outside. They glared at each other, both of them breathing hard, their fists clenched on the table. Combs broke the silence.

“Look, we’ve still got the gun. And we’ve got your testimony. The DA says he can get a conviction.” He paused for few seconds. “One more thing…with the confession thrown out, they set bail. Sonny and the other two are out on the street.”

Max felt sick, as though he could vomit his beer right there on the table. He wanted to break the longneck bottle over Combs’s head. “And what if I won’t testify?”

“Come on, Max. We have your statement. We can subpoena you, treat you as a hostile witness, force you to tell the truth. Or go to jail for perjury.”

Max had no way of knowing if this was true. He stared at Combs for a long time. “You knew this all along, didn’t you? That you’d force me to testify. You lying bastard! And how long before Sonny finds out that I’m a witness?”

“I don’t know. It’s in the DA’s hands. It’s called discovery. They have to let the defense know all the evidence against him.”

“And what will you do to protect my family?”

“We’ll do what we can, increase patrols in your neighborhood—”

“Increase patrols? That’s it? That’s all you got?”

“Hey, it’s all we can afford. Our budget is cut to the bone—”

Max bolted out of the booth and headed for the door and the parking lot. He sat in his car for a long time, his head resting on the steering wheel, fighting for composure. He was still there when Roy Combs left the bar.

***

It was the same dream, over and over again, through all the years since Vietnam. Max stood on a muddy jungle road and watched the flamethrower reach out and ignite a hut. The flames leapt into the sky, black smoke billowed upward, one hut after another. Women and children streamed down the road, carrying a few meager possessions, the children crying, the women wailing. No men. Where were the men? All dead, fuel for the inferno? Or in the jungle, watching, waiting?

This is what it had come to in a country where you couldn’t separate the friendlies from the hostiles, where the guy next to you died at the hands of a child with an assault rifle, where you looked into the eyes of the people you were fighting for and saw that sick, twisted mixture of fear and hatred. Why? Because you were destroying their country with napalm and agent orange and carpet bombs and your flamethrowers from hell.

The same dream, over and over, until tonight. Tonight one of the children on the road turned toward him and held out a plate of cookies. It was Ellie.

Max usually jolted awake from this dream drenched in sweat, his breath coming in great gasps. But tonight was different. Tonight he could only lie there and cry. He was awake for a long time then, trying to push the images and the questions out of his mind. How could he answer for the things he had done, and how was he different from Sonny? Who was that brilliant general who said, “Unfortunately, we had to destroy the village in order to save it”? And how many villages had they saved? He refused to remember; he would not count them. And so the dream would come again and again.

***

The District Attorney’s office called to let Max know the trial date had been set. Jury selection would begin in two weeks. They would meet beforehand to go over his testimony and prepare him for cross examination. It had taken sixteen months to reach this point, the wheels of justice grinding away, slow but relentless.

Max was ready, at least as ready as he could be, and he felt an eerie calm now that decisions had been made and set in motion. His daughter and granddaughter were settled with family in Minnesota, two thousand miles away. His house was nearly empty, everything he owned donated or sold on this thing his daughter showed him called Craig’s List. There were a few pots, pans, and utensils in the kitchen, his meager wardrobe in the bedroom closet, his recliner in the living room, along with a framed portrait of Stella on the fireplace mantle. His footsteps echoed as he walked through the house.

He filled his days with routine. Two mornings a week, he attended minyan at the synagogue where he’d been a member since the mid-seventies, and he observed Yahrzeit and attended services to say Kaddish for his parents and for Stella. He read voraciously, went to lunch at favorite cafés, and stopped by Gordy’s for a cold beer or two. And of course, there was his beloved garden. This year’s crop of tomatoes had been exceptional, even by Max’s standards. He’d given away so many that he was sure the neighbors were sick of tomatoes. Some of the rest he’d turned into soup and stocked his freezer with plastic containers filled with the red-orange liquid.

He had sold his bed, and now he slept in the La-Z-Boy. Among the stack of books next to his chair was Stella’s dog-eared volume of TanakhThe Holy Scriptures. In Deuteronomy 25:19, he had underlined these words: “…you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Do not forget it!” And in I Samuel 15:3: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not…” Amalek, who attacked from the rear, plundered the sick and the weak, and murdered women and children.

Max would not forget.

Propped against the wall, just behind the chair, was his Winchester 11-87. The twelve-gauge shotgun was a relic of his days as an avid duck and pheasant hunter. Max had given up the sport when most of his hunting buddies either died or moved away. Now the well-maintained 11-87 stood loaded and ready, one shell in the chamber, four in the magazine. With the trial date set, he was sure they were coming for him.

***

The night they came, Max was wide awake. Since the call from the DA’s office, he’d developed the habit of setting an alarm for a little after 2:00 a.m. when the bars closed, figuring they would get a load on before heading his way.

The old black Honda Civic with the faded paint job and bright chrome wheels rolled slowly past the house, circled the block and rolled by again. Car doors slammed, Max’s signal. He turned the recliner sideways and positioned himself behind it, one knee on the floor, the shotgun resting on the arm of the chair.

Two figures walked across his front lawn, up to the low shrubs that grew in front of the living room window. One of them carried a heavy tool with a long handle. They peered in through the window, and then, unable to see anything or anyone, they went to the front porch. A sledgehammer blasted the wooden door frame to pieces, splitting the stillness. The door swung open and the two men moved into the room.

“Oh, Maxie…old ma-an…where are you?” The man in the lead called out in a sing-song voice. The one behind him laughed softly.

Max squeezed the trigger and the shotgun blast rocked the room. The first man flew back against the wall and crumpled to the floor. A new shell was in the chamber and Max pulled the trigger again. He saw a series of muzzle flashes and braced for the shock and burn of the bullets heading his way. The shock and burn never happened. The slugs slammed into the wall behind him. Both men were down on the floor, moving, but just barely. Max stood up and walked the few steps across the room. The second one through the door, the one who had returned fire, was Sonny—Amalek himself.

Max waited, the shotgun ready. Would someone from the Civic come running to provide backup? But then came the sound of the engine racing as the car sped away. He looked at the bloody mess on the wall and at his feet. Should he fire one more shell into the chest of each man? No need. They were no longer moving.

He placed the shotgun on the recliner and went through the kitchen and into the garage. He retrieved a five-gallon can and brought it into the house. He would douse the bodies and the walls with gasoline until the can was empty, then stand back and toss a match into the room. The little wood frame house would be saved, just like all those huts and all those villages in Vietnam.

Instead, he stood motionless, staring at Stella’s portrait on the mantle, tears clouding his eyes.

He set the can on the floor, pulled his cell phone from his pocket and dialed 911. The dispatcher led him through a series of questions, confirming his name and address, and the fact that two men had been shot while breaking into his home.

“I’m sending the sheriff and an ambulance, Mr. Silver.”

The ambulance wasn’t necessary, but he didn’t argue. “Okay…and you should notify Sheriff’s Detective Roy Combs. This is his case.”

Max traced the bullet holes in the wall with his finger as he spoke to the woman on the phone. He thought about Minnesota and his daughter and granddaughter. He could not wait to be with them. Several questions played in his mind. It was late September now: were the leaves there starting to turn color? Would they need to purchase new clothes for the Minnesota winter? And what varieties of tomato grew there?

Sirens grew ever louder as the call ended.

_____

Note: Elvira Campos of North Highlands, California, was shot and killed as she sat in the front room of her home on May 18, 2013. She was ten years old. This tale of vengeance is for her.

_____


Thursday, October 12, 2023

And Spare Them Not

 Part 1 of 2

 from Like a Flower in the Field

  

Max Silver loved the little piece of ground he called his tomato patch. Situated in one corner of his backyard, it wasn’t much more than eight feet wide by twelve feet long, but the production every year amazed him. Maybe it was the late morning and early afternoon sun, or the yards and yards of steer manure he worked into the soil every year. Whatever it was, from June through October the fruit just kept coming. He loved passing out lunch bags filled with ripe tomatoes to his neighbors, and they seemed to enjoy them as much as he did. Hey, Max, they would say, how are those tomatoes coming? One neighbor, the house just across the street, would turn the ripe fruit into salsa and share several jars every season.

Today he was busy nipping and pruning and staking his thriving plants. It was late May and soon the blossoms would turn into small green globes, and if left unsupported, the weight would be too much for the vines to bear. The sun was nearly down on this warm May day and he started to think about the cold beer waiting for him in the fridge. His daughter and granddaughter were at the movies and wouldn’t be home until well after dark. He’d be on his own for dinner tonight.

Max had lived in the little wood frame house in a northern suburb of Sacramento for thirty years. He and his wife Stella poured lots of love and care into the place, even as the neighborhood began to decline. When Stella lost her battle with cancer eight years ago, he carried on, even though the house was empty without her. Then his daughter Marnie went through a divorce, and five years ago, Marnie and his granddaughter Jessica moved in to fill a part of the gaping hole in his life. Now all that love and care flowed in their direction.

He was gathering his tools when he heard two sharp cracks and the faint sound of glass breaking. Then two more cracks. Max was a hunter and Vietnam veteran; he knew it was gunfire. He dropped his tools and hurried to the gate at the side of the house. As he reached for the latch, he looked through the gate, and then froze.

A young man wearing a hooded sweatshirt crossed the street, headed toward a car parked at the curb, a gun in his right hand down at his side. Max could see his face clearly. He knew this boy: a neighborhood tough named Sonny. Years earlier, he had played on a Little League team Max had coached. Sonny was a handful then, difficult to control, impossible to teach, an all-around nasty little kid. And now he’d graduated to firearms. The young man climbed into the car and the wheels screeched as it tore away from the curb.

Max left the gate and backtracked to his patio. He kicked off his shoes as he entered the house and hurried to the front room. The drapes were open and through the large window he saw the house across the street and four round holes—the four shots he’d heard—in the living room window. Now he heard screams and shouts emanating from the home.

The screams and shouts continued and neighbors along the block came out on their porches to see what was happening. Sirens pierced the gathering dusk. Something tragic was unfolding and Max was a terrified witness.

***

The neighborhood swarmed with law enforcement. A half-dozen patrol cars clogged the street and yellow crime scene tape stretched along the perimeter of the lot across the way. Uniformed and plain-clothes officers moved about. Down the block, behind a set of barricades, television trucks and their crews stood by. Max sat in his La-Z-Boy recliner against the back wall of his living room. The house was dark. No one looking in the window could see him sitting there.

Okay, now what? Should he simply walk out there and tell the deputies what he had seen? And if he did, what then? His home and family would become the next targets. It would be like hanging a bullseye on his front room window: shoot here. His cell phone rang, startling him so that he jumped in the chair. It was his daughter Marnie.

“Dad, what’s going on? We can’t get into the neighborhood. There’s a line of cars here on Maple Street and I see a sheriff’s roadblock up ahead.”

“There was a shooting—”

“A what?”

“A shooting. Across the street at the Preston’s house.”

“Oh my God! Was anyone hurt?”

“I don’t know yet. Look, don’t come home. Don’t even try to get in here. Take Jessica and go to Aunt Millie’s.”

“But we don’t have any clothes or—”

“It’s not safe here, Marnie.” He could not hide the tremor in his voice. “Go to Aunt Millie’s. I’ll pack a bag and get some things to you tomorrow.”

“But, Dad—”

Max stifled her protests and ended the call.

The activity out on the street continued and Max wondered what had happened and why. The Prestons were good neighbors, never a problem. Their little girl, Ellie, was ten years old, the same age as his granddaughter. The two girls played together constantly, walked to school together, shared birthdays. Ellie was a sweet and friendly child, round-faced and chubby, always smiling. She’s the one who delivered the fresh salsa the Prestons made from his tomatoes, and she helped her mother bake cookies for the Silvers at holiday time. Ellie had an older brother—Max couldn’t remember his name. Was he the target? Gangs and drugs were a reality in the neighborhood. Could it be gangbangers in some kind of turf battle? If so, Max was not getting involved. Let them go right ahead and thin out the herd.

His hands shook as he called his sister’s number. Before he could tell her that Marnie and Jessica were on their way, she interrupted him.

“Max, are you watching the news?”

“What? No. No I’m not—”

“There’s a report about a shooting in your neighborhood. My God, Max, someone shot a little girl.”

 “What?”

“A ten-year-old girl, Max. Someone shot her in the back of the head while she was sitting on the couch watching television. She’s dead.”

Millie continued, recapping the news report. Max could hardly breathe. Oh my God! Ellie? They shot Ellie! Oh God. The animals, the goddamn animals. A little girl…a sweet innocent little girl.

Max ended the call with Millie after making her promise to keep Marnie and Jessica safe. He would bring clothes and toothbrushes and whatever they needed tomorrow. As he put down the phone, that telltale taste rose in the back of his mouth. He hurried to the bathroom to toss the contents of his stomach, though all he could produce was bile. He rinsed his mouth and splashed water in his face. His friends often told him he resembled the actor, Charles Bronson. When he looked in the mirror now, he saw a frightened old man.

***

Max parked near the phone booth adjacent to the convenience store. He turned the business card over and over in his hand. The detective had handed it to him that morning at the close of the conversation at Max’s front door. No, he had seen nothing, heard nothing. He’d been in his garden out back. No, no one else was home at the time. His daughter and granddaughter had been away at a movie.

All the while, Max scanned the street behind the officer. Who was watching, timing the length of the conversation? Just give me your damn card and get off my porch! That’s what he wanted to say. And then the detective was gone, the door closed with Max leaning hard against it, his heart racing.

Now here he was, ready to call from a payphone, certainly not from his cell that could be easily traced. He punched in the number and listened to it ring, again and again. An operator answered and he asked for Detective Roy Combs. She patched him through to Combs’s mobile number.

“Hello, this is Detective Combs. Hello?”

Max held a folded handkerchief over the mouthpiece. “Yeah, I may have—” He stopped and began again. “I have information about the shooting on Chestnut Lane.”

“Okay, let me get my notebook. Now, sir, what is your name?”

“Before I say anything, I need to know…can you protect my family, my home? You’ve seen what these animals will do.”

“Sir, I can’t promise anything until you tell me what you know.”

Max slammed the phone into its cradle, then picked it up and slammed it again and again. Sonofabitch, sonofabitch! They can’t protect you, they won’t protect you. He climbed back into his car and drove around aimlessly, looking for a way out, but there were no options. Max had to tell Combs what he saw, who he saw leaving the scene with a gun in his hand. He couldn’t let Sonny get away with it. He pulled into a service station and parked near a phone booth. Again, the operator patched him through.

“Detective Combs speaking. Who is calling, please?”

“Look, just tell me you’ll try to protect my family. That’s all I’m asking.”

“Okay, sir, this is Mr. Silver, right? Max Silver? You live across the street from the Prestons. I spoke to you this morning. I recognize your voice, Mr. Silver.”

Max’s heart pounded out of his chest again. He started to hang up, but what good would that do? “Is there somewhere we can meet? Not at my house. Not in the neighborhood.”

They settled on a small café a few blocks away. Max hung up the phone and then used the handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He would tell Combs what he had seen. But he would not testify in open court, if it came to that. No way in hell would he testify.

 ***

Sonny had been easy to find, along with the two bangers who’d been with him that night. The three of them were being held without bail pending trial. It turned out Sonny had confessed, which was good news for Max. Roy Combs assured him he would not have to testify. They had the confession, they had the murder weapon, and the District Attorney was planning to seek the death penalty. Ellie was dead; no way to change that fact. Even though the death penalty was a joke in California, at least her killer and his pals would be going away for a long time. Max hoped to see life return to normal—or near-normal—on Chestnut Lane.

So why did Combs want to meet with him now? Were there new developments in the case? Max checked his watch. He did not want to be late for the meeting.

_____

Coming soon: Part 2. What news does Roy Combs have for Max? And how will it change his life? Don’t miss the conclusion.

_____