E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (№ 3 in the Atari 2600 Poems Series)

I gave you a quarter
You should have called someone who cared
Instead, you just wandered
As though you were drunk
Falling down into black hole
After black hole
After black hole
One depression after another
You couldn’t get out of

And to think it only took
Five weeks
To make you this way

It’s official:
You are simply a catastrophic failure
Unwilling to be controlled
Unwilling to be counted upon
Unwilling to be a contributing factor
Toward easing the burden rate

There are garbage dumps out in New Mexico
We will bury you in

And encase you in cement

You had the quarter

Don’t you wish you had just phoned home?


* * * * *

Zachary Houle lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where he works for the federal government as an Information Officer and is also an Associate Music Reviews editor for PopMatters.com, a pop culture webzine that reaches 1.2 million unique visitors a month. He also contributes regular book and music reviews to PopMatters. Houle has been awarded a $4,000 emerging artist grant from the City of Ottawa to write fiction, and was a Pushcart Prize nominee for a novella that appeared in Midnight Mind. His fiction or poetry has also appeared in places such as Broken Pencil, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, Kiss Machine, The Danforth Review, Girls with Insurance, Thieves Jargon, Friction magazine, Megaera, and many others. His poem “Ode to the Long Lost Mini-Pops Album” was published in the book anthology In Our Own Words, Vol. 7 (MW Enterprises, 2007).

His contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

The Races

Mutt said his father was helping him make a race car.

‘It’s something we can do together,’ he told my twin brother Tommy and I while walking to school one Wednesday.  It wasn’t the first time we had heard him say something about his father that sounded rehearsed.  His voice would take a tone like a parent’s, as if he was trying to convince himself.

For a moment neither of us said anything, because he mentioned Mr. Ploughman only rarely.  We looked at each other but did not communicate anything that way, as we sometimes did.  Even though he lived four doors down from us, we had only seen Mutt’s father once, the year before, on the day our sister Katie was born.  He’d been more like a frightening vision that day, seated in the shadowy living room with a drink in his hand, ignoring us.  We’d come away with unknowable feelings – more questions than answers.

‘What for?’ I asked, to fill the silence.

‘The Pinewood Derby,’ Mutt declared proudly, ‘on December 10.’

My heart sank.  I looked at Tommy again.

—Oh crap.

—Not again.

—I hate it when he talks about the scouts!

—Me too.

The “Pinewood Derby” was an event for the Cub Scouts.  Tommy and I weren’t in the Cub Scouts, but most of our friends were, so we were jealous.  We had been forbidden to join by my parents because they didn’t feel that we were concentrating on our school work enough.  Of course my older brother Kevin had been allowed to join before us. His grades were top shelf.  Tommy and I both struggled in school.

This made the Cub Scouts a target for our mutual vitriol.  Every time there was an event in the afternoon or evening, all the boys would wear the uniform to school on that day to remind everyone that they were scouts.  There may not be words to describe how greatly I coveted that uniform.  The dark navy blue shirt, the yellow handkerchief around the neck with the metal cub-head clasp, the patches for meritorious achievements.  After all, it was a uniform.  It said you were a member of something – a club, a boys’ organization, a league of like-minded pals.

In  the Pinewood Derby, the scouts got to race tiny cars against one another on a specially-made track.  Each scout was assigned the task of building and painting their own car out of wood, with the help of an adult.  Tommy and I remembered three years before when our Dad had helped Kevin build his car, an aesthetic insult that Kevin had inexplicably painted orange with black stripes, and given the random number of 17.   That car lost every heat it ever ran.

From that experience, we learned the huge lesson that even Kevin didn’t do everything to perfection.  But what I remembered more was that I was burning to reach the day when I could build a car of my own with Dad, and then race it.

This is why Mutt’s comment had made me so upset.  I had forgotten about the Derby, because Kevin wasn’t in the scouts anymore (he’d gotten bored of it) and I had deliberately cast it out of my mind.

Somehow, I managed to reply:  ‘Oh. Well. That’s not too far away.’

‘A couple weeks,’ Mutt said.

‘Should be fun,’ Tommy said, in a thoroughly unconvincing tone.

‘Sure wish you guys could go,’ said Mutt.  For once, it sounded like he meant it.

‘Yeah,’ I said.

We crossed the street at the corner with the assistance of Pietro, the crossing guard, an elderly Italian man whose face looked like one of those parchments from ancient Egypt we saw in filmstrips at school.  We were learning about things that came from before the birth of Jesus.  Pietro looked like one of those.  He smiled at us and said nothing.

I felt a little guilty that I had been so angry at Mutt, now that he had said he wanted us to be there.  So I asked him how far along they’d come with their car.

‘Pretty far,’ Mutt bragged, a flash of pride illuminating his face.  ‘I’m sanding it now.  Then we have to paint it, and add wheels last.  But get this: my Dad is also helping me build a practice track!  So I can test it out before we get to the Derby!  Isn’t that great?’

‘Wow,’ Tommy said, curiosity overcoming other feelings.  ‘I didn’t even know your father could build stuff.’

‘I didn’t either,’ Mutt said.

 * * *

I was awakened by a low rumbling noise, rising from the depths of the house.  Chains, gears, wheels–the machines of the dream world.

Darkness flooded the room.  I flipped over in my bed and squinted at the Casio alarm clock, carefully positioned on the stool next to my head.  5:47 a.m.  In three minutes that irritating little contraption would blare to life, worse than a drill sergeant.

Then a second noise, this time a heavy thump, sounded off from below.

‘Crap,’ I said.

Unfortunately, now I understood what was happening.  The low rumbling noise had been our garage door.  My father had yanked it up.  The truth fell hard upon me:  a new day had arrived.  I had to get moving.  If I did not, the old man would be up to make sure, and I didn’t want to suffer through that.

I dragged numb-dead legs out from underneath the blanket and tossed them over the side.  The air was cold.  I could feel the impending winter in my bones.

The red second hand of the Casio swept along indifferently.  With more force than I knew I had, I whapped the little lip on the top of the clock shut.

The sound of steady breathing, not mine, encroached upon the silence.  Tommy lay next to me in his bed, dead asleep.  I looked around and found a rolled up sock I had worn the previous day.  I plucked it off the floor and floated a light pass towards Tommy’ head.  Terry Bradshaw could not have applied a sweeter touch.  The sock unrolled in flight, and draped across his face.

‘Mwwf,’ he said.

‘Wake up, Tommy.’

‘No,’ he muttered.

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  Sundays meant the route took two times as long because the papers weighed about a hundred pounds each.  Then we had to go to Mass at nine.  By the time you got home from all of that it was about 10:30, and the day was practically half over.

Tommy made a wild suffering noise, like a baboon having a baby.  The sock slid over his nose and mouth.  ‘Whasthis?……aaagh……jerkoff!!’ He hurled the smelly sock across the room.  I had managed to get him going on the wrong side of the bed too.  When that happened, we usually spent the morning insulting each other, or pounding each other’s arms with our fists.

I beat Tommy downstairs by a mile, and started looking for the Sunday shoes, brand-new, that my mother had just bought the week before at Thom McAn.  I rooted through the notorious shoe pile by the front door.  My mother said shoes actually grew there.  Everyone seemed to dump their shoes in the same place when they came inside the door.  Whenever we were seen walking by the pile, she would order us to pick them up. So you had to find creative ways and odd times to enter the house.

Lo and behold:  the new shoes were there.  I yanked them out of the pile like twin Excaliburs.  As I wrenched them onto my feet, Tommy came trudging down, dragging a brown leather belt.  ‘Come on,’ I prodded, pulling my winter coat out of the closet.  We both knew what would happen if we took too long.

Tommy dug his shoes from the pile.  By this time the integrity of the mound had been compromised, and they were spread all over the place.  He folded himself into a sitting position on the stairs.  ‘This sucks,’ he announced.

I mumbled agreement, pulling on gloves.  Stumbling down the hall, I opened the door leading into the garage.  A blast of cold air assaulted me.  My dad was re-stacking newspapers at the front of the driveway.

‘Come on, men!’ he hissed, successfully applying force to the words, somehow, without waking anyone.  ‘Let’s get this show on the road!’

I watched Dad working fervently, full of energy.  That was his way.  The earlier the hour, the harder he seemed to work.  He was trying to keep the ‘guts’ of the newspaper on top of his stack from sliding out onto the driveway.  That’s what we called all of the junk they put in the middle of the paper:  coupons, catalogs, Parade magazine.  His stack was leaning a bit, and the guts kept sliding back out.  Finally he grabbed the whole top paper and reversed its position on the stack.

I stood there in my green winter coat, plaid shirt, corduroy slacks and Sunday shoes. My unbrushed hair was sticking straight up.  I was more or less ready to go.

Dad laughed at my miserable appearance.  ‘Come on, Terry.  Don’t look so glum!’ he offered.  ‘Finish stacking these for me while I back the car up, will ya?  These things are like cinder blocks today.  Where’s your brother?’

‘Putting on his shoes.’

‘Judas priest!  What’s he using – his elbows?!  If he ever does make it out, tell him to help you.  I’m gonna back it up.’

‘All right,’ I muttered.

Tommy and I had been delivering The Newark Star-Ledger for two years.  On weekdays all we had to do was pile up the papers in the pull-cart we had purchased the year prior and drag them around from door to door.  On Sundays, however, it would have taken all day to haul those bricks around.  So we loaded up the Sunday Ledgers into the back of my parents’ station wagon, and Dad drove them along the route while we plucked them out.

The ruby brake lights glided steadily towards me as Dad slowly backed the car.  It looked like the Millennium Falcon being sucked into the Death Star in Star Wars.  Dad edged it, very slowly, right up to where the stack of papers had fallen over again.

‘Shit,’ I said, mainly because I was out of earshot.

Tommy finally wandered out of the house while I was straightening the stack again, his own navy blue winter coat zipped up, but without gloves.

‘Took you long enough,’ I said.

‘Shut up.’

My Dad came around the back of the car.  ‘Keep your voices down,’ he said.  ‘Let’s not wake up your mother.  No one wants that.  Hey, morning, Tommy!  Look alive!  Give Terry a hand … it’s almost 6:15.  We’ve got to deliver the news.’

Dad walked over to where Tommy stood, looking as though the whole unfeeling world had toppled over on him.  He chuckled and slapped him on the shoulder.  ‘You guys are two of a kind.  It’s not so bad.’

Tommy said nothing.  He bent over and started to help with the papers.  We couldn’t tell which guts came from what paper, so we just shoved them in wherever.

Dad lowered the back door of our old Chevrolet station wagon and we started piling them in the back according to our established system.  Five stacks across the back of the car with five to six papers each, since we had a total of 28 customers. On some occasions, our ‘manager’, a high school dropout named “Bronco,” would short us a few papers.  But on this Sunday he had gotten it right.

The station wagon chugged painfully.  It was suffering through its last few years of slow, cancerous death.  I watched as the exhaust pipe coughed out gray smoke, feeling like I might puke myself.

‘We’re burning daylight here,’ Dad urged us yet again.

The weak light was beginning to breach the defenses of the wood line across the street.  I yawned so widely that I thought my head was trying to turn inside out.  Then I noticed Tommy was already sitting in front.

I should have called shotgun when I had the chance.

* * * * *

I was dallying down the left-hand curb of Magnolia Lane with two massive Ledgers, one under each arm.  We were on the homestretch, and I was finally beginning to feel human.  All I had left to do was stuff one of the papers in between the Jacksons’ storm door and front door, hurl the last one onto the Perrys’ front stoop, and I’d be finished.  Every customer had their own preference about where they wanted to find their paper.  When you first began a route, those specifics were important to get down, but after a while you did it by rote, like prayer.

It was Tommy’s job to cover the even numbers on the right side.   He had fallen behind somewhere.  I had last seen him coming out of the Johnsons’ driveway several houses back.

At the end of the road, where Magnolia dumped back into Orchard, Dad pulled up to the stop sign and put the car in park.  This is how our method worked.  As we cut through successive front yards to get to the next subscriber, Dad would pull the station wagon forward.  That way, when we unloaded the papers we were carrying, he’d be waiting there with the rest.

I labored up the Perrys’ driveway and tossed the paper on their doorstep like a flounder.  It landed with the open end facing away, and the inertia caused all of the guts to slide right out again.  Every week we spent half of the time trying to keep that crud inside the paper, but nothing ever worked.

After gathering all the stray guts and stuffing the paper yet again, I headed towards the idling car.  It languished there like a sleeping rhinoceros.  Dad saw me coming.  I saw him prepping for the race.

With the car in neutral, he began to rev the engine.  The brake lights flickered like flames.  I knew he had his foot stamped on the pedal, just waiting to release it.  I could feel him staring me down in the rearview mirror.  I grinned and picked up my speed.

‘Tommy!’ I yelled over my shoulder.  ‘Where are you?’

‘The Branskys,’ I heard him holler in reply from somewhere behind, probably waking up the elderly couple that lived there.  He was still a good ways up the street.  A few moments later he emerged, closer than I thought, shuffling down the driveway of house #10, the last customer.

We heard the station wagon’s engine growl.  The gauntlet had been chucked.

‘You ready?’ I asked, lifting an eyebrow.


We turned in unison and bolted towards the car.

I don’t know how this weekly ritual started.  Maybe my father had done something similar as a kid.  Yet he insisted that this father never gave him rides anywhere.  If Grandpa Meegan had been around, I might have verified that with him, but he had died right before my family moved to River Heights.

This was the contest:  every Sunday, whenever we’d finish up delivering the last papers, Tommy and I would race Dad home – him in the car, us on foot.  The rule was that he was not allowed to accelerate.  He could only let the car coast in neutral, because turning onto Orchard Street and then onto Arbor to get to our house was entirely downhill.  All he was allowed to do was release the brakes and hit the gas one time to get the car moving.

The station wagon, battle-tank that it was, started out painfully slow, of course.  But it always picked up a great head of steam at the end, barreling like Hell’s locomotive through the sleepy suburb.  Dad would have to stomp on the brakes by the time he got to our driveway, in order to avoid flattening my Mom’s smaller Toyota into scrap metal or busting through the garage door.

In the two years we had been racing, we had never once beaten the station wagon.  It passed us every time on Arbor Street, and Dad would honk and yell at us as he floated by.  The car was just too big and the hill too steep: it was probably a matter of cold physics.  Yet week after week, we could never resist the impulse to try again, like Charlie Brown.  The result was always the same.

* * *

Stumbling and tripping over one another, like a couple of maniacs unbound, Tommy and I tore down Magnolia Street.  Just before reaching the car, we cut quickly through the side yard of the house on the corner.  We dashed through a spot of brilliant sunlight that had powered its way through the trees.  For a brief moment I felt its glorious warmth.  Tommy pulled ahead of me by a few strides, like John the apostle on the way to the empty tomb.  The dew from the damp grass soaked my shoes.

Tommy hollered something at me over his shoulder.  All I heard was the word ‘slow’, but I got the message.  We reached the end of Orchard Street, but then had to halt, because Arbor Street was a much busier road.  Tommy had to allow a red pickup to roll by at what seemed like the slowest possible speed.  When I caught up I fake-tackled him.

‘Idiot!’ he hollered.

‘Caught short of the goal line by Mean Joe Greene!’ I screamed.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the station wagon slowly gathering momentum.  That familiar sensation seeped into my bones: we were going to lose.  Even though it happened every time, it always felt like someone had dumped ice down my shirt.

The driver of the pickup evidently had never seen two boys standing by the road before.  He crawled by to take a closer look.  We glared back.

When the truck finally passed, we crossed and started sprinting down the hill with all our might.  I knew I might stumble over my own feet and smash onto the hard black sidewalk at any moment.  I’d probably rip my pants and get creamed by my mother, if not by the fall.  But I didn’t care.  I was caught up in a desperate race against something I knew I could not outrun, like the climax of a terrifying dream.

I was almost past Mr. Crowders’ house, next door to ours, when the station wagon’s horn went off like an air-raid siren.  It was always so terribly loud–enough to wake up the entire neighborhood.  Tommy and I couldn’t even talk in the morning; but it was okay for my Dad to trumpet victory over his sons throughout the neighborhood.

Tommy and I pretended to concentrate on the finish line.  We ran like we still believed we could win.  But the station wagon rolled unfeelingly past us.  Dad knew we were looking.  He waved his hand back and forth out the open window, and I heard him crying out, as he turned the car into the driveway, ‘Someday!  Someday!’

* * *

Early on in the following week we saw Mutt often, mainly in school, but the subject of the race car did not come up again.  This was true even on Tuesday, when the Cub Scouts were having one of their weekly meetings.  Mutt came in wearing his over-sized blue shirt and the neck kerchief proudly, but knew better than to talk to me about it.  It was bad enough to see him and all the others dressed in their uniforms.  In Mutt’s case it looked like someone had taken a ventriloquist’s dummy and dressed them up to join the scouts.

Mutt’s real name was Matthew.  We called him “Mutt” because he was minuscule in both height and weight.  Also he had been born with slight deformities in both forearms that made the bones slightly crooked and shorter than normal.  This impeded his development in sports, except no one had told him that, so he acted like he was the greatest in every game even though he could barely throw.   Kevin said once that he was that way because his mother smoked a lot, but he got in big trouble for it.   Either way, Mutt always had a chip on his shoulder, as if trying to compensate for what he had been cheated out of.

We would have been jealous of the other boys anyway, but my jealousy swirled like a mental hurricane whenever Mutt had something I didn’t, or seemed to be making out better than Tommy and I.  Part of me secretly believed that I was superior to Mutt; that I actually deserved better.  I didn’t acknowledge the feeling, let alone ask myself what it might have been founded upon.

I wondered how Mutt and his dad were faring, and would have loved to have seen the car in progress, but I certainly was not going to ask about it.  Truthfully, Tommy and I were just as curious to find out how things were going between Mutt and his father.  We had been astounded to hear Mutt say that Mr. Ploughman was helping him build it in the first place.  I had gotten the impression that Mutt was just as surprised as we were.

This fascinated me, because I could not conceive of a life where my father did not help when I needed him.  Every week my father had no other purpose than to help us deliver the Sunday papers.  If anything was clear to us, it was that he enjoyed that ritual far more than we did.  So what was Mr. Ploughman’s purpose, if not to go to work (we did not know if he had a job or not), or not to help Mutt get along in life?

By the middle of the week, I was nearly desperate to think of a way I could ask him about it without having to talk about the Pinewood Derby, which was less than a week away.  But I never got the chance.

Mutt acted normally from Monday until Wednesday, but was inexplicably absent from school on Thursday, and again on Friday.  We had seen this before.  There would be sudden absences for anywhere from one to three school days with no explanation.  We knew that most of these absences had nothing to do with illness, because we would see Mutt later in the supermarket or outside his house.  It had something to do with the Ploughman family–how they all got along and what they had to do to get by.  We knew this by the way Mutt would shrug off questions when he returned.  He’d look away, or shift his feet, and often would do or say something stupid to distract your attention.

Friday afternoon found us walking home from school, throwing suspicious glances down Arbor Street at the entrance to Mutt’s driveway, and speculating about what was going on in the house.

‘Maybe Mutt’s parents let him stay home so they could work all day on the car,’ Tommy said, without conviction.  He booted an empty can of Miller High Life along the sidewalk.

‘No way,’ I scowled, looking at Tommy like the idiot he’d suddenly become.  ‘Come on.  Even Mutt’s parents wouldn’t let him do that.’  I pushed him away and kicked the can myself.

‘How do you know?’

Good question.  I really didn’t know.  But it seemed inconceivable.  Also, whenever Mutt came back before, it never seemed like he’d been home because his parents had offered him a few days’ reprieve.  It was clear that whatever he’d been doing, even though he hid this from most people, he would rather have been at school.

‘I don’t.  But you can tell it’s not that.’

Tommy nodded. ‘Yeah, you’re probably right.  I don’t know.  I guess maybe we’ll find out on Monday.’

We were approaching the crossing guard.  Tommy kicked the beer can with force.  It skidded out into the middle of the street and was immediately flattened by a passing UPS truck.

On Friday nights my mother often didn’t feel like cooking, so it had become ‘Pizza Night’ in our house.  Especially during Lent.  That was certainly okay with Tommy and I.

Early that evening, Dad walked into the family room with car keys jangling to find us sprawled on the couch, watching a rerun of The Jeffersons after the rigors of the school week.  I didn’t even know Dad had come home.  Out of instinct, both of us straightened, as if we were caught in the act of something.

‘Hi Dad,’ we said in unison.

‘Hi guys.’ He was still in his work clothes:  rolled up shirtsleeves, no tie, collar unbuttoned.  His formidable six-foot, two inch frame obscured the open doorway.  I could feel him staring at us, thinking his unknowable thoughts.

‘Pizza Night, lads,’ he said, continuing to jiggle the keys.  ‘You want to go with me to get the grub?’

‘Sure,’ we said, or one of us said it.  Dad would often ask someone if they wanted to go with him on such nights, even though it only took about ten minutes.  It seemed to be his way of re-connecting with us at the end of the long week.  Sometimes he asked Kevin, if he was around; other times he’d ask only one of us, not both.

We grabbed our coats and stepped out into the darkened evening to a dive-bombing temperature and a sharp, clear sky not yet punctured by stars.  We took my mother’s tiny Toyota.  I grabbed shotgun so Tommy was forced to the back seat.

As soon as we got in the car and Dad backed out, he startled us by bringing up Mutt and his family.

‘I read about your friend Matthew’s father.  Or what is it you guys call him?’

I felt Tommy’s eyes poring into my head.  I swiveled around.

—What is he talking about?

—I don’t know.

—Did something bad happen?

—I don’t know!

‘Mutt,’ I said.

Dad chuckled.  ‘Mutt.  That’s right.  Boy, that’s kind of funny.’

I smiled.

‘Dad, what do you mean you “read about” Mutt’s father?’ Tommy interrupted.  We had no idea was he was talking about.

‘Didn’t he say anything to you?’

‘He hasn’t been in school,’ I said.


‘Dad, what do you mean?  What happened?!’

‘I’ll tell you,’ he said, slowing down for a red light.  He turned a bit to face Tommy.  ‘But you’re going to be surprised.  There was an article in the paper this morning.  Apparently he’s gone missing.  Or, he skipped town.’

I was astonished.  Missing?!  It sounded like something out of a movie.  Missing, or gone.  One was an accident, one was intentional.

‘I can see you guys are shocked.  I was damned surprised myself.  I’ll have to show you the article.’

Downtown River Heights surrounded us.  It only consisted of a few main streets, a couple of pitiful strip malls, a movie theater, a library, a post office, St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, gas stations.  The sidewalks were blank owing to the frosty air, but there were plenty of cars at the Foodtown.  And at The Back Alley, the town’s cheesy watering hole, for that matter.  But I was not paying much attention to these things.  My brain was struggling to process the information it had received.

‘What happened, Dad?’ I asked.

‘It seems that he got into a car accident.  But while he was being questioned by the police, he flew the coop.  You can read the article at home.  I don’t remember everything it says.’

‘I wonder if he killed somebody,’ Tommy thought aloud.

‘I doubt that, Tommy.  The paper probably would have said so.’

Or maybe he hurt someone, I thought.  Then I thought of Mutt.  And his race car.

‘Here we go,’ Dad said, pulling into the pizza joint.  ‘You guys stay here.’  He got out of the car and went in.

‘Do you think he’s really gone?’ Tommy asked me.

‘I have no idea.’

‘Guess that’s why we haven’t seen Mutt.’

‘Do you think he went with him?’

‘I don’t know anything.  I haven’t seen him in the past two days.  Do you?’

‘I don’t think he did.  It sounds like just his father took off.’

‘Why would he do that?’

‘Especially if he had just hit somebody or busted his car.’

There didn’t seem to be much use in talking about it more. But it felt to me that the news somehow expanded, or maybe confirmed, a feeling that I was already nursing about Mutt, his father, and the race car.  Since he had first mentioned the week before that his Dad was helping him, he’d brought it up a number of times, with the requisite predictions of a stunning victory.  But even I could tell that his pride didn’t have much to do with the car or the race.  It had more to do with the fact that he was teaming up with his old man.

Now, the races would come and the races would go, but there would be no victory for Mutt’s joint creation with his father, and there’d be no victory for a Meegan brother either.  We were linked uncomfortably with Mutt in a kind of fraternity: those who had lost the race before it even started.

My Dad returned and we drove home in silence.  The pizza smells rushed against our senses like successive waves on the coast of ‘the auld country’, as my Dad sometimes liked to say.  My hunger rose Godzilla-style from the depths of that sea and threatened to consume everything.  But even that failed to dispel the strange melancholy that had spread through my insides like creeping fog on a ragged shore.

* * *

Shortly after we got home we all sat around the table.  Kevin materialized when the pizza showed up.  Katie made a brief appearance in a zipped-up sleeper to receive my father’s kiss before being whisked to bed.  My Dad slapped a folded newspaper section in front of Tommy and I.  A small headline jumped out:


I plucked the paper off the table.  ‘Let me see it,’ Tommy protested.  Instead, I read the article aloud:

A local man whose vehicle was struck by an elderly motorist unexpectedly Tuesday evening eluded the police after they arrived to investigate, witnesses said.  Fifty-one-year-old James Ploughman, an unemployed industrial machinist, did not appear to be at fault for the collision, but behaved ‘strangely’ and seemed ‘distracted’ when questioned by police.  The other motorist, 82-year-old Mavis Bodnar, suffered minor neck injuries, and was taken to Overlook Hospital for treatment.

The accident occurred when Bodnar, a resident of Saltbrook Meadows long-term care facility, took her vehicle out unauthorized, and ran through a stop sign located at Pine Street and Passaic Avenue.  Her vehicle struck the right front bumper of Ploughman’s Oldsmobile as he was passing through the intersection.

Witnesses say that Ploughman did stop and exit his vehicle to see to Bodnar.  Noting her condition, he waited until police arrived.  But Ploughman appeared anxious and elusive when they began to question him.

According to Joel Duvell, 33, an eye-witness, ‘the police asked him to wait while they filled out some forms and questioned the woman.  He didn’t want to do that.  He kept saying he wouldn’t press charges and that he would take care of his car himself.’

Ploughman ‘was obviously impatient to leave’, one officer stated.  He apparently became such a distraction that the police instructed him to sit in his car and wait while they radioed for medical assistance.  They said they would question him once they had attended to Bodnar.

When Ploughman returned to his car, he ‘bolted’, Duvell said, departing the scene.

River Heights police had not taken Ploughman’s vehicle information and were unable to comment on his whereabouts at press time.  Ploughman lives in River Heights with his wife and one son, but did not return to his home and is now listed as ‘missing’.  He is not wanted in connection with any criminal charges.  Police declined to speculate on whether any alcohol or drugs were involved.

Duvell described Ploughman’s behavior as ‘bizarre’.  ‘I don’t know where the guy was going,’ he said, ‘but he wanted to get there pretty badly.’

 I laid the newspaper down on the table.  Tommy stared at me.  The pizza cooled.

‘What an idiot,’ said Kevin.

‘Kevin,’ my father said.  ‘Come on.’

‘Well, why would he just take off like that?’

‘Obviously, the man is having difficulties. You have no idea what they might be.’

I swallowed. I couldn’t understand what I had read.  No wonder Mutt was weird.  His father was …. I didn’t know what.  It seemed unreal and sad and frightening at the same time.

‘How’s Mutt going to race his car now?’ asked Tommy.

‘He’s not,’ I replied.

* * *

Two days later, Sunday morning, was the day I should have won the race.  In fact, there are times when I think I should just count it as a win.  It would have been, under normal circumstances.

It was early December already, but the temperature hovered above the freezing mark; the sky was overcast.  Dad got us moving along with the brick-laying procedure of loading up the Sunday Star-Ledgers.  I was feeling better rested and more alert than usual.

In spite of the tiresome ritual of the morning papers and the obligatory attendance of Mass at St. Francis de Sales, I loved Sundays, especially during the fall and winter.  After Mass, as soon as twelve o’clock hit, the news shows went off and the football came on.  Tommy, Kevin and I were all big fans.  It was only a matter of time before we’d spill out the doors and start tossing around the pigskin while the leaves cascaded slowly down from the boughs or the snow flurries began to sift like flour from the gunmetal sky.

Tommy and I rolled through the paper route, tag-teaming along either side of the road.  Papers were tossed perfectly into position with no spillage of guts.  The station wagon would roll into view just as we were emerging from one driveway to grab another armful.  It was the sort of morning where everything was clicking, and we were finishing in what seemed to be record time.

I found myself at the end of the route, where I experienced a sudden burst of inspiration.  I don’t know what prompted the thought.  But the moment the paper slapped onto the Perrys’ front porch and the sound ricocheted off of the façade of the house across the street like gunfire, it occurred to me how to beat Dad in the race.  It was simple.  It had to be done independently of Tommy.

Swiveling on the front walk, I bolted across the grass as fast as I could and stumbled, arms flailing, onto Magnolia Street.  It was about 7:10 a.m. and the skies were only just beginning to brighten.  I did not wait for Tommy.  He would have to catch up.  Where was it written that we had to do everything together?

Pale light was gradually describing shapes from shadows.  I heard a holler behind me and I knew Tommy had seen what I was doing.  The station wagon was waiting at the stop sign.  I saw Dad look into the rear view mirror, then crumple a newspaper and fling it aside.  He yanked the gear shift on the side of the steering wheel and revved the engine once.  I cut through the yard on my left and barreled towards Arbor Street.  I was past him already, and he hadn’t even switched gears.

Behind me I knew Tommy was running with all he had.  I thought he might be able to catch me at Arbor Street, or maybe even on the way downhill.  He was going to be angry as hell if I won the race without him.  But it wasn’t my fault he hadn’t figured out how to win.  I thought Dad might accuse me of cheating, but in my mind I was being clever.  If I won, I thought, it was because I deserved to.

When I got to Arbor Street, it was as if the town had been evacuated.  No cars were visible, and no one was out walking their dog or jogging.  This filled me with all the more elation.  It was destiny!  Brisk wind rushed towards me in what seemed like great, sweeping gales due to my extraordinary speed.  I’m sure I bellowed a victory cry the likes of which had not been heard since the age of the Vikings.  I made it across Arbor Street and began the final leg of the race.  It seemed victory was mine.

Then I made the mistake of looking over my shoulder, and saw two things careening after me, as if I was Adam and God was chasing me out of Paradise.  One was Tommy, about thirty paces behind, and howling mad.  The other was the station wagon.  The car was just rounding out after the turn.  I could see Dad’s form hunched over the wheel, urging on the old jalopy like a wild hitch.  I experienced a sudden rush of panic, the white-blinding fear that overwhelms the hunted.  I turned back.  All that mattered was reaching the driveway.

Just as I was about to pluck the sweet fruit of victory from the vine, I noticed something that nearly brought me to a complete stop.  Just like that, I forgot everything.  In the stillness of the early morning, at the end of a driveway up ahead, something was moving slowly in labored progress. It was not our driveway, but a few houses down Arbor Street from ours.

At first, I could not tell what the tiny moving form was.  It looked like a small dog or other creature was pushing a heavy object, a crate or a box, towards the curb.  The apparent weight of the box and the slight incline of the driveway made this task a challenge for the under-sized thing.  Then I realized it was Mutt’s house.  I stopped entirely.

At that moment, the station wagon rolled by.  Dad pounded on the horn and waved his arms wildly, gleeful that I hadn’t beaten him even with my best jump ever.

Tommy stumbled up behind me, out of breath. ‘Terry!  You had him!  Why did you—?’

‘Look,’ I said, my eyes fixated on Mutt’s driveway.

Tommy looked down the street.

‘Hey. It’s Mutt.  What’s he doing?’

He was straining to push a large cardboard box, at such a low angle that I thought his elbows were going to scrape the ground.  He wore a dark brown coat and a hat.  There, in the early dawn when I didn’t think he’d even be awake, the tiny friend we hadn’t seen for three days was, apparently, determined to put something out for the garbage men.  Tommy and I were still a couple hundred yards away up Arbor Street.

He never saw us.  It was clear from his demeanor, even at a distance, that he would not turn or look around.  I’d seen this from Mutt before, too.  He shoved the box with the same determination he had in backyard sports games, the will of someone out to prove he’d been underestimated.  He muscled that box all the way to the end of the driveway.

Tommy and I watched in silence, dumbstruck, as he straightened himself, stared momentarily into the box, then turned and walked back with his head down.

Our own house appeared on the left.  Dad had pulled into the driveway.  He stepped out of the car and went into the garage

Tommy was looking at me.

—What’s he doing?

—Let’s go.

—You want to go down there?

—Yeah.  Let’s find out what’s in the box.

—We can’t do that.

—Yes we can.

Nothing was going to prevent me from discovering what had gotten Mutt out here so early.  I knew I would have to be quick about it.  It seemed risky.  But something about the way Mutt had struggled to shove the object up the paved tarmac made me want to investigate all the same.

So I walked right past our house, and Tommy followed, casting a nervous glance over his shoulder. Dad was still in the garage.  Or maybe he had already gone inside.

A soundlessness had again fallen over the sleeping street.  Still no cars went by.  Light from an afflicted winter sun permeated the houses and the trees.  Tommy, cautious about my idea, was a few steps behind.

As I came closer to the box, I was fixated only the objects within it.  There were jagged fragments of what looked like kindling sticking out of the top.  The box itself was a nondescript, cardboard container that said ALLIED VAN LINES on the side.

It was not until I was almost on top of it that I finally understood what the wood pieces were.  I stopped short and gasped.  Tommy stopped next to me.  A turtle dove wailed, high on a distant branch.  We stared down through tiny puffs of breath we both were expelling into the graveyard air.  Mutt’s house loomed next to us, silent and imposing like a forbidden fortress or a dark ship.  No one came out.

It was clear the destruction was Mutt’s work.  He hadn’t been lying about the race track.  From the number of shattered pieces in the box – the thin wooden dowels that had been intended to elevate certain sections of the track above others; the chipped, gouged lengths of the track itself; and the painstakingly crafted little curbs on either side of each section to prevent the cars from slipping off the side – we could tell that Mutt’s father had been making something special.

But the track had been decimated.  Not only were the segments broken in many places, but they had been mercilessly hacked apart by something sharp, such as a hatchet or even an axe.  Huge gashes, ruts, and scratches had been pounded into every piece.  Portions of track that had been melded together with glue had been smashed by a foot or a hammer.  Splinters jutted everywhere from compound fractures.

I couldn’t go any closer.  But Tommy had suddenly lost his qualms.  He leaned over the box.  His eyes spotted something.  Glancing first at the house, he reached into the thicket of broken-boned sorrow and pulled out a small, battered race car.  It had no wheels.  It was crudely shaped, and had been painted a strange maroon color.

The car looked as if it had been chewed on by a Tyrannosaurus.  It was riddled with gouges, cuts and pounded-in nails.  Round, sunken hammerhead imprints pocked its surface like craters on the moon.

Along the side of the car, still legible, a silver paint-pen had been used to inscribe the words MATT’S PHANTOM.  Tommy held it up to show me.  I stared dumbly.  Then he tossed the car back into the box. It hit one of the shattered pieces and bounced onto the driveway.  Neither of us moved to pick it up.

‘Wow,’ Tommy said.

We turned and began walking silently up the hill.  A dark river of shame streamed through my blood and spilled bitterness onto my tongue.  The cold air gripped my cheeks like an elderly hand.

As I walked, I lifted my eyes.  At the end of our driveway, though it seemed like a long way off, our father stood, waiting for Tommy and I to come home.

* * * * *

Jude J. Lovell received an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in 2001 and his writing has appeared in Touchstone, Rock & Sling, America, St. Austin Review, Paste, The Other Journal andAmerican Chronicle.  He is also currently writing a book about Herman Melville.

His other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Describing Circles

ut of the front door
and down a landscaped path that is a mere spoke in the wheel of Causton, Massachusetts, Audrey steps lightly until she reaches Main Street. The road is puffs of exhaust and grainy tarmac. It winds down a soft slope towards the center of town, then curls in first one, then two concentric circles which, from above, resemble a snail-shell spiral. Soft and snug in the middle of the spiral is Audrey’s school.

Her lunchbox rattles its daily soundtrack inside her rucksack. In her hands she carries a big cloth bag, almost half as high as she is, that contains her class project. She is careful not to press too firmly on the sides of the bag with her fingertips.

Finally, weeks into April, the snow that stood taller than her has melted at the edge of the sidewalk, although Spring rain has yet to wash away the dirt, twigs, and salt that were buried beneath it. She treads lightly and feels the soft edges of stones and soil underneath the soles of her tennis shoes. The slope is long and wide up here, but soon it dips swiftly into Causton proper, and soon after that it begins its first wide arc into the beginning of the spiral. Audrey leans against the contours of the hill as she reaches the dip in the sidewalk.


On her right and across the street is the Harrison Theater, proud of its age, stucco crumbling at the corners where once there were faux turrets. The crenellation is still visible, though, and it is these red-brick right angles that she has always pointed out to her mother, mostly on long weekend walks through town.

“It’s even older than I am,” Mom would say.

The shops become more densely packed after she crosses the intersection of Maple Street and Main Street, and Audrey peers into the windows on her left. There is a cafe, usually frequented by adults whose occupations require reflective vests. The antique shop next door to it is run by Mrs. Kingsley, a friend of her mother’s. And then there are the places she can’t see into: windows obscured by creepy mannequins wearing dresses and sun-hats, or by a series of rectangular images of houses with meaningless dollar amounts hanging over them.

The street is now curving more sharply to the left. In the summers there’s a festival on this part of Main Street. They move the cars and motorcycles that are now parked in the morning light, and stalls along the sides of the street rest in the shade of large oak trees. She has a bumblebee necklace at home that her parents bought her last summer at just such a stall. Audrey preferred the stalls to the obscure stores up and down the middle of Main Street.


From above, she is a mere speck moving along the spiral. The first soft curl of the road finishes, and as the second circle begins, it nearly meets the large dip in the landscape that Audrey just crossed. If she had wanted to, she could have slid between buildings and across parking spots to this exact point as she came down the hill and into town.

The second circle in the spiral is different. There are some houses, mostly timber beams that lead up to the upside-down V of a roof, but also some more with red bricks and flat tops. If she had her own house, she would build crenellated turrets on top, flat roof or no.

She speeds up as she passes the church. Across the street, the clock face on its spire tells her that she will soon be late for school. Next to it is a park, empty but with patches of ice still lying in shaded spots; it is the negative space that makes up for the Catholic grandeur next door. Audrey has never been into to the church—they are not Catholic—but she wonders what the planes and spikes that pepper the outside of the building might look like from the inside.

“There are lots of different things people believe,” her father had always told her. “Some people like churches. Some people like to climb mountains or play music instead.” She still doesn’t really know what this means.


This second arc is narrower and shorter. Audrey is nearing her destination. Some of her friends live down here. There are shorter, newer houses, and shop-fronts selling services. The dry-cleaner always smells like fabric softener, and Audrey takes in a deep breath and holds it, her eyes closed, until she has passed the store two doors down, Causton’s butcher. She has seen the gristly carcasses that dangle behind its glass windows, and would rather not see them again.

Eventually, she comes to the center of the spiral. The baseball field is to one side of the school buildings, which are set back into a large green field. Taking the path all the way through the field until she reaches the playground, she spots a few stragglers playing catch. Holding tight onto her bag, Audrey climbs the stone steps, and goes inside.

In room 27C, Audrey reaches her seat and slips her rucksack off her back, letting it clatter quickly into silence beneath her desk. She places the cloth bag on the wooden table top and pulls out a neat construction made of plastic, wire, wood, paint, and tiny figurines held in place by expertly placed drops of glue. Its rectangular base is painted green and labeled Causton, Massachusetts. At its center, a coil of grey that winds in two concentric circles like a snail-shell spiral, is labeled with the words Main St.

There are flat roofs and pointed ones, die-cast metal cars pilfered from her brother’s old toy box, and trees that, in a previous life, were pipe cleaners and glossy green plastic. The contours are right, for she measured them and her mother used complicated math to figure out how deep the dip in the street ought to be for this miniature diorama. Painted expertly by Audrey and her father, the tiny people are stiff, still, but perfect.

At the top of the spiral is the only inaccuracy Audrey permitted. Set back from Main Street and along the spoke that led from the tarmac world back to the warmth and quiet of her parents, is her house, and at each corner, proud and solid, a series of right-angled crenellations that formed miniature, perfect turrets.

* * * * *

DLR likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. He is editor and cofounder of Dr/ Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, and his other Snake-Oil can be found here.

A Hen, a Lion, a Passenger & a Pachyderm • Part 2 of 2

If you missed the first part of
“A Hen, a Lion, a Passenger & a Pachyderm,”
go back to  Part I.

giant was coming down the grassy slope.  I was riveted to the cold ground.  I wanted to escape but I couldn’t stand.  I turned my torso back around quickly to see if anyone else was observing his approach, but the number of kids had diminished even more by that point, and Sandra was still talking to the boys with her back to me.

Twisting back around so that I faced awkwardly up the slope again, I got a better view of the approaching figure.  He was like no stranger I had ever encountered.  Immensely tall, much more so than my father; he had to have been over six feet.  This man was very thin and seemed almost rubbery, to judge by his delicate, loping strides down the incline.

What he was wearing greatly contributed to how slender and how high his form seemed to reach.  On top of his narrow head was a vertical, black, stovetop hat.  For the moment I thought the man was Abraham Lincoln; after all, this was Illinois.  But that impression changed after I could see the man’s face a few moments later.

He also wore a body-length, tattered brown overcoat, cut like a suit jacket towards the top, but slowly broadening out towards the bottom like a dress.  The hem was ringed with a mangy-looking fringe of what appeared to be some sort of animal fur.  This coat extended all the way down to the man’s ankles, and billowed loosely around his feet as he walked, over black shoes that tapered to an almost sharp point.

The closer the man came to me the odder he looked.  I saw that he wore a brightly colored vest underneath the coat, with rainbow stripes running lengthwise, buttoned up neatly; below that was a lavender shirt, believe it or not, with ruffles leading straight up to his cleanly shaven but chicken-like neck.  He looked both dapper and utterly ridiculous at the same time.

As he approached, I found the courage to look up. When I did I encountered a face that could only be described as hatchet-shaped.  It was like watching the blade-like hull of a warship drift brazenly into your personal space.  Except for the man’s wild, jet-black, curled moustache, which one usually didn’t find underneath a ship’s figurehead.  He had long, thin lips, which the moustache did not obscure, that when I first saw them were flattened broadly in a wide, inviting grin.

Time seemed to suspend, and the surrounding noises stopped, or maybe they all merged somehow into one steady tone, a chord, ringing out over everything.  Yet I could also hear the wind, the ever-present wind, the perpetual rush of air.  The giant-man seemed to descend the hill in three to four long, bow-legged strides.  Suddenly he was standing right in front of me, still seated on the grassy slope, looking up the long, absurdly draped flagpole of him.  The man bent down at the waist, his ship’s-prow nose and the bridge above it carving its way to the point that I almost thought it would ram into mine.  It stopped just short, so that the man could inquire:

Boy, have you seen an elephant nearby?

A wizard, I thought.  A magician.  The only possible explanation for who this man could be.  My throat froze and my vocal chords flat-out vanished.  I stared up at him.  He waited.  The man had wrinkled skin, parchment-like, but his eyes were the most unusual green-blue shade I had ever seen. They bore deeply into my own and dragged up from within me a memory, some moment when I had seen the exact same color.  Then it came to me.  A few months earlier my family had spent two days at a hotel right alongside Lake Michigan.  This man’s eyes were the exact same color as the water, the way it looked from our hotel balcony.  My mom had called Sandra and I out to look at it as the sun was falling one night.

The man still waited for my answer.  I tried to remember what he had asked.  My voice suddenly returned, sort of.

I’m not supposed to talk to people like you.

You’ve never met a person like me, said the man, leaning back to an upright stance.  His voice was dry and wistful.  He sounded old, but it was hard to tell exactly how old he might have been.

People I don’t know, I said.

Yes, but we do it anyway, don’t we.  Your sister’s doing it.

Yeah, but she’s not supposed to.

Don’t you want to know how I know she is your sister?  Aren’t you curious?  The man dragged out that last word to twice its length, again drawing his face nearer to mine.

I didn’t know what to say, so I shrugged.

The man leaned back again, standing upright.

Hmmm, he said.  I think you are a more inquisitive boy than that.  I hope you’re a more inquisitive boy than that.  I’ve just startled you, is all.  You haven’t seen me before.

I shook my head.

Yet I’ve been around for so long – right here in Chicago.  A really, really long time.

Again I couldn’t think of a reply.  I felt like I had been there a long time too.  But I was pretty sure he was talking about longer.

How long? I asked.

Too long.

Who are you?

Just a passenger.

But … but … what’s your name?

Oh, you know, said the man.  How about Passenger.  James T. Passenger.  I’m at your service.

He suddenly reached up, plucked the stovetop hat off his cylindrical skull, and executed a long, graceful bow.  It seemed like a gesture he had done before, perhaps lots of times.

Oh.  Okay.  Well … I’m …

Not to worry, boy. I know who you are.  Which is good, because I always will.  More importantly, you will know me.  There won’t be another day in your life when you don’t.

I was not sure what was happening, for I felt intrigued and confused at the same time.  I did the only thing I could think, which was to twist around and look for my mother.  But she wasn’t there.

Ah.  Thanks for reminding me, said the man.  She’s not done yet, boy.  But there’s not much time.  So, have you seen one or not?  He stepped down next to me, on the side of the hill.

What was going to happen?  For some reason, although I didn’t want to, I turned slowly to look at his face, where I found his eyes boring directly into mine once again.

Seen what? I almost whispered.

An elephant.  A huge, white elephant.

Around us, the remaining kids kept right on playing.  Sandra had finally moved away from, or more likely had been dismissed by, the older boys.  I could recognize her bunched-over brooding from five miles off.  She wasn’t even facing away from us anymore, but she was in her own world.  She didn’t see either one of us on the hill.

I haven’t seen any elephants, I said.  I don’t think they live around here.  But I did see a lion.

I never did know why I said that.  I knew the man wasn’t talking about an artificial elephant.  That seemed clear.  Yet, for whatever odd reason, he terrified me in the exact same way that lion did.  I never felt in physical peril that day.  It was a terror more difficult to name, or to explain away.  Like a dreadful anticipation of something you think may be coming, but you just aren’t sure of.  Something that could happen, that maybe should have happened, but by some inconceivable calculus of chance and conditions, hasn’t happened yet.

In any case, as soon as I said that, the man’s lake-eyes widened, and for a moment that water, or at least the color of it, seemed to flood out over everything in the world.  But then he was in front of me, dry, his face near to mine yet again, asking me a question in one forceful, elongated word:


I pointed past his upper arm to an area behind him, towards where that lion held its empty court, waiting patiently for victims. But I wouldn’t look at it.  For my fear of that lion, and of James T. Passenger, had reached their apex, together, at that very moment.  Whatever is happening here, I thought, it doesn’t include me, it has nothing to do with me.

But of course it had everything to do with me.

ext thing I knew, I was trying to make a getaway.  I had my back turned to Passenger.  In another instant I would have taken off at a sprint, forgetting my sister.  But I was too slow, and the stranger’s long hand with its talon-like fingers outstretched had grabbed the hood of my Bears jacket.  The very same way Sandra had!  Could it be possible that she had cooked this guy up somehow, elaborately, to bump me off?  If so, at the very least, Sandra was more inventive than I had previously given her credit for.

Are you sure you have not seen an elephant? asked the stranger.

The iron-like grip guided me backwards, until I took the not-very-subtle hint and turned around.  He stepped to one side, and there was the lion, the fountain, mostly at a profile to where we were standing.  But that was not all I saw.  Reaching out of the lion’s wide open jaws – slowly, waving around in the air, as though feeling for something not seen – was a massive white trunk.  An elephant’s trunk.

knew it, he was saying.  Suddenly his hand felt protective on my shoulder.  Like a father’s.

As soon as I set eyes on you from the window of that train, I knew it.  I don’t know how I knew, but there was something about you that told me instantly that you would be able to see.  That you are one of those who can perceive what so many cannot.

I stared at the elephant’s trunk, just waving around, from inside the drinking fountain.  How could that be?  How many times had I stuck my own head into those same jaws?  Had I ever seen a hole, a tunnel … a passage?  No.  But my eyes were seeing, obviously, what this man’s were.

Yet, the other kids, the adults walking by … no one was making any noise, or saying anything.  No one acted like the trunk was even visible!  Let alone the weird-looking man towering over the innocent five-year-old on the side of the hill!

I could not remove my eyes from that waving appendage.  Now that the shock of seeing it had sunk in a little, I wondered what the thing was doing, why it was sticking up out of there in the first place.

I felt the man grab both of my shoulders, so he could gently turn me away from that wildest of visions and talk to me face-to-face, mano a mano

Boy, he said, leaning over so he could look at me closely once again, his eyes twinkling with a rejuvenated energy and excitement I hadn’t seen there before.  You have no idea how long I’ve waited for this.  How long I have searched for it!

What is that thing? I asked.

An elephant.  As I’ve been saying.  I finally tracked it down.  Or it tracked me down.

What’s it doing?

Looking for me.  Its job is to carry me across.

Across what?

I will try to tell you, he said.

ou may not understand all of this now, but that’s okay.

A long time ago, there were a lot of people around here that were like me.  There was, right here in this city, a great big gathering of people from all over the world, with all kinds of events and exhibits, entertainments, tents, carnival rides, crazy inventions, food stands, even wild animals.  People came from near and far to represent their culture, their experiences, to see how other people lived, and, most importantly, to share stories.  It was glorious.  It lasted for weeks.  So many people gathered together at once, interacting, teaching one another.  Like school, but more fun.

Along the way, while all this was happening, something took place. Something amazing!  With so many people visiting it at once, so many cross-currents of stories, so much energy and information and memories together at one huge event, the city of Chicago created its own great big imaginary world – its own place that people could visit in their minds, in their hearts.  It’s a little hard to explain.  It’s as though everyone in the city combined their ideas and creativity together and came up with another, separate place.  Then they put a lot of things in that place: all kinds of people and animals and fantastic machines and vehicles.  I am one of them – a man, yes, but built out of the memories, ideas, and imaginings of a million different people.  That’s why I seem so oddly assembled.

I stared at him, completely dumbfounded.  Yes, I was having a tough time understanding.  But then again, somewhere inside of me – this is a feeling I can remember so clearly, and that I have tried to recreate for my entire life – there was a small light glowing, gathering heat, trying to catch fire.  In a way that I could not grasp, what he was saying made perfect sense.

For a while, the man continued, all of us, the creations of this city’s imagining, lived here, together. Adjacent to your world, but accessible to nearly everyone.  Over time, though, something terrible took place.  Other human events occurred, awful ones, which tore people’s minds away from the stories they’d created.  There were wars, great crime waves, fires, bouts of destructive weather, political battles.  It all led to one simple but devastating tragedy: the city began to forget.  It became disconnected from its own experience.  It lost its stories.

Those of us who were living in that sideshow world, the alternate place, became separated, and gradually began to fade into nothing, one by one.  There was a great agony of confusion.  We no longer belonged anywhere.  We wandered for years in darkness, looking for each other.  We tried to reach people in your world, talk to you, but it was as though no one could see or hear us anymore.

You folks changed.  Everyone began to look and act differently.  Only rarely would someone be able to see us at all.  But by then so much time had passed and so many other events had happened that our world had been dismantled, disbanded.  Some of us were still alive, still around, but there was no longer one place for us to go.

Along the way, I heard somewhere, I don’t remember where, rumblings that a new place had been created for those of us who were still left.  Whether it was created by the same people, their children and grandchildren, or by one singular imagination that had not been around here before, I have never known.  I’m hoping to find out – today, in fact.

There were rumors among my kind, those of us who could still be found, of a creature, a carrier – a white elephant.  If you could find the elephant, it would carry you into that new place.  There you could find out who was responsible for the place and why it had been created.

Thus, I began to search for the elephant, so that it could carry me there.  Only the white elephant knew where to find the passage through.  I hunted high and low for years and years.  And now, through you, I have found it.

ime to go, he said.

Can I go with you?

No.  It’s not the place for you.  But you can visit.  In fact, you will need to.  However, you will have to find your own passage.  You have a lot of searching and exploring to do.

Will I need the white elephant?

I don’t know the answer to that.

Will I ever see you again?

What do you think?

With that, the stranger turned on his heel and started off towards the lion.  The wind threw leaves at his ankles and danced with the fringe of his overcoat. I watched his back as he walked away.  Suddenly, he turned around.

One more thing.  Someday, I don’t know when, you will discover the courage to tell this story.  As soon as you do, I tell you now, someone will be there to say it isn’t true.  Don’t believe it.  You know better.

He turned again and walked off.

When he got to the fountain, with the white trunk still flailing around, he positioned himself directly in front of the lion’s open maw.  Out of nowhere, leaden clouds rumbled thickly overhead.  He did not touch the trunk, but it seemed to sense his presence.  He leaned forward at the waist one more time and whispered something.

Then, very deliberately, he looked at me one final time.  The elephant’s trunk slowly, painstakingly, encircled the man’s waist.  The stranger removed the stovetop hat and tipped it in my direction.  I held up my hand.

Next, in one shocking, rapid motion, defying everything I understood to be possible, the trunk simply whisked the man into the lion’s jaws.  All of him.  The hat, clutched in his long fingers, vanished last.

ast year, when I was having a hard time, I acted against my better judgment and told this story aloud for the first time, to my former therapist.  She listened closely, then nodded with a curt smile.

Well, she said.

Well what?

There’s only one explanation for that.

Really. What is it?

Well, naturally.  Your father was studying L.S.D.?  Obviously you got into it somehow.  Tell me, did he bring it home often?  How long was he a junkie?

I feel sorry for her, truthfully.  For such people will never understand.  And it’s so simple.  Unless you are willing to pursue the world within the wonder, the wonder within the world will never pursue you.

A Hen, a Lion, a Passenger & a Pachyderm • Part 1 of 2

lthough I have lived in a number of other places
, my life began in the city of Chicago, in the shadow of elevated trains.   My family left there when I was still young, and I have not returned often, so it feels inauthentic to identify myself as a Chicagoan.  Yet, while a tree’s branches may sprawl out high and far, its roots stay put.  So perhaps my trunk still remains, cooling in that same shadow.

Also, both of my parents were raised there.  When asked, Where are you from? their answer is unambiguous.  They were married in 1965 and set themselves up in an apartment on the west side in 1966, just as my big sister Sandra was born.  I came along in 1970.  Then, in 1977, we moved away.

So, am I from Chicago or not?  The question seems important, because Chicago, as I have seen, is no typical American city.  It is situated over another place, a kind of reservoir, like the mossy stones of an ancient well.  I want to know if I can claim some of that magic history.  Perhaps telling the story now, as I have done only once before, will reveal the answer.

y mother used to take my sister and me on walks through the neighborhood around where we lived, west of the city.  I know all those streets in my memory.  They were arranged in perfect squares, lined with sidewalks, street lamps of gothic black metal, and huge oak and elm trees along either side that were old enough for their boughs to form church-like ribs over the procession of cars underneath.

Indeed, the whole neighborhood has a cathedral aspect to me in remembrance.  The sun would lance in downward shafts through those branches in bursts of illumination, as through stained glass.  Each time you rounded a corner to walk up another straight-edged avenue it felt as though you were approaching a mystery.

She’d spent her entire life there, my mother, and she loved those streets with all her heart, all her mind, and all her soul.  But even then I think she knew that she would soon depart from them and not return again but as a visitor.  It seems in my memory as though we were walking every single day, the three of us, but that cannot be accurate. Sandra would have been in school a lot of the time. Yet it seems like there were thousands of those walks – like it was all we did.

Of course I have a father, but didn’t see much of him:  he was at work all the time.  I knew by then that he was a scientist. I remember being so proud of that, without even fully grasping what it meant.  I knew he had to make heavy use of his brain, and it was funny to mention that because the human brain was his subject.  You have to use your brain to learn about your brain, he would say.  What I had no notion of at the time, of course, but found out decades later, was that he was a research chemist, and during those years he was involved in a massive grant-funded study on the effects of L.S.D. on human cognitive processes.

He worked at the University of Chicago.  The word I would use to describe him during that time is not Tall or Warm or Stern or even Intimidating.  The word I would use is Gone.

ctober, 1975.  I think all we needed that day was milk.  I don’t think it was a Saturday, yet Sandra was with us, so who knows. It might have been Columbus Day.  It might have been one of those ‘teacher meetings’ days, where the parent doesn’t realize it’s coming up and finds themselves at home with all their children and no plan.

Either way my mother had resolved to take a walk with the two of us.  Within walking distance of our house was a corner convenience store, and it was towards this destination that we set off.  It wasn’t a cold day, but in Chicago, autumn afternoons are chilly and windy enough to require some sort of parka.  I didn’t need a lot of encouragement to wear my Bears jacket with the hood.

I never paid much attention to Sandra, but for whatever reason I remember that day she had two barrettes in her long and straight brown hair, parted down the middle.  The barrettes had these red ribbons with colorful beads on them hanging down on either side.

My mother had thick, brown hair, wavy, cut to about shoulder length.  She had always been slight of frame, short, but her body seemed to exude energy; she was one of those rather small women that seem to compensate for their lack of physical presence with superhuman tirelessness.  She flounced along those concrete sidewalks at a clip I couldn’t keep up with.

The one thing I can visualize most clearly in hindsight is the poncho she wore.  She kept it for years, but at that time it was new.  My father had gone on a business trip to Mexico that year, and he had brought her home this handmade garment that she seemed to adore.  It had Technicolor autumn tones – red, brown, orange, yellow – in a wild tangle of crooked stripes.  The poncho seemed wonderfully suited for that time of the year, draped over my mother’s frame to repel the strafing winds.  It was like she had the season itself thrown protectively over her shoulders.

We set off briskly, and I settled into my well-worn retinue of hurdling the cracks in the sidewalk, beaning the lampposts with small stones, and picking up sticks in an infinite quest to locate the perfect sword.  Sandra ambled ahead, at pains to put space between herself and her pipsqueak brother.  My mother was jabbering, asking questions.

She spent a great deal of time with us already, but these walks seemed to be the times when she would make a concentrated effort to genuinely connect with us.  Of course, at that time, it wasn’t her I longed to connect with, it was my father. She seemed to know that this wouldn’t happen, and perhaps the conversation she was always trying to engage us in was intended to distract us.

What are you going to do with it when you find it? she asked that day.

Find what?

The right stick.

I’m not looking for the right stick.  I’m looking for a sword.

When you find the right sword, then.  What will you do with it?

Stab me, probably, Sandra offered from ahead.

I dunno.  Whack things.  It’s just a game I like to play sometimes.

How are things going with Miss Richlick?  She shifted the subject, agonizingly, to my kindergarten teacher.


Do you like her?

Yeah.  She’s nice.

Do you still like the reading unit?

Yeah.  I got in trouble for reading ahead two chapters.

Well, not every child in the class reads as well as you do.

I just wanted to know what would happen next.

Don’t we all.

t was called The White Hen.  I never knew why, and didn’t become aware until later that it was a chain and that more of them existed elsewhere.  I thought there was only one, and that the name was a tangled mystery for me personally to unravel.  But I never did.

I can still see that white silhouetted figure on the sign rising high above the corner, like some kind of sentry at the gates of the world of wild fowl.  It was painted in profile, facing towards its left, my right, over the top of the store towards the back.  It seemed to guide the visitor towards the door.  This struck me as a proud hen, and otherwise I never would have had much occasion to consider whether a hen had anything to be proud about.  In fact I would never have taken hens into any consideration whatsoever.  I hadn’t even known what a hen was before we started going to that store.

The White Hen faced a busy avenue, snarled with traffic no matter what time of day.  But behind it was a different story.  There was a small parking lot with a dumpster, and behind that, my all-time favorite spot: a playground.  These days I get the feeling that every park is an elaborately engineered, exorbitant affair – with six or seven big lakes, a fitness trail, volleyball and tennis courts, lawn bowling lanes, parking for pregnant mothers, a place to land a helicopter, and so on.  Back in the 70s, they seemed to be stuffed in wherever they would fit.  All you really needed was a set of monkey bars, a couple of swings, and a slide or two.

This park, which I considered my own personal stomping grounds – even though it was always overrun with kids, sometimes tough ones – had the essentials, as well as a tether ball pole, some of those metal horses mounted on thick springs that you could buck back and forth on, a see-saw, a steel merry-go-round that creaked agreeably as you rode it in circles, and a drinking fountain.

I can’t bring this park back from the annals of my memory without mentioning the steep grass hill behind it, the kind you could roll or sled down, as long as you didn’t climb all the way to the top.  Because what was on top of the hill was definitely off-limits for children.  My father had told me once to stay away from the tracks of the El train because of something called the third rail.  If you stepped on that particular rail you would get zapped by a massive bolt of electricity, like lightning, and probably die.  This is why as long as we had been coming to this park I never really went close to the top.  However, like most small boys, I never got tired of the spectacle of big metal cars whizzing by at dangerous speeds.  They were a large part of why I loved that park in the first place.

I never knew what my mother did in there, aside from buying whatever it was we’d come for. But she always gave me time to play.  Parental oversight, even though we were living on the outskirts of the third largest city in America, was a little more relaxed then.  When my sister was with us she would keep an eye on me until my mom came back, but in an extremely half-ass manner.  Even if we didn’t have Sandra, my mom still sent me back there to run around.  It wasn’t fenced in or anything, and God only knows who was coming through that park or what transactions were going down.  Yet nothing untoward ever happened.  To me, it was just a place to play, with an El train stop on top of the hill.

From time to time a train would come to a screeching halt and disgorge a stream of weary-looking passengers, men and women with shopping bags and briefcases, dressed in nursing outfits, hard hats, suits and ties.  They all seemed to get off in a hangdog manner and trudge off towards their separate homes without saying anything to anyone.  It seemed to me like the exact opposite of the way in which my friends and I disembarked from the school bus.  It amounted to a none-too-subtle discouragement from ever reaching the age of adulthood.

On the day I’m talking about – in one sense, the only one from my Chicago days worth remembering – we were dispatched to the back of the store as usual, and Sandra, none too pleased with anything, especially the prospect of baby-sitting for me, grabbed my hood, yanked my neck and head back abusively, and growled, Don’t. Go. Anywhere.

I wriggled free from her grasp.  Release me, tyrant! I shouted, using a line I had come across in a book.  Hadn’t she figured out yet that there was nowhere else I wanted to go?  Sometimes Sandra was just plain dumb. 

She then set out to separate herself from me, showing me her back, her long hair, and the clicking beads.  I watched her go without misgivings.  She’d post herself on a bench somewhere if she couldn’t find kids her age, and I was free to explore.

I’ll admit that I was, and still am, a bit of a loner.  Being by myself has never been troublesome.  I ignored the other kids.  They usually seemed iffy anyway, and as far as I was concerned, there were better things to do than to get amoeba’d into one of those globules of city kids.

The reason why I loved going to that park behind The White Hen in the first place, though of course I could not have explained it at the time, was that it was an ideal grounds for both my body and my mind to run around simultaneously.  Even back then, I loved having the space and time to let both of them romp around uninhibited.  The playground seemed to provide the right backdrop for creativity and imagination to take over the helm of my existence.

There were countless props and triggers in the park that could inspire make-believe scenarios. The monkey bars were a castle; the metal horses my cavalry; the tetherball tower a monolith; the sloping grass hill the untamed landscape that fell within my realm; the El train a cosmic transport, or a huge metal serpent, or a dragon; the disembarking passengers invading hordes.

And then there was the lion.

knew in the bottom of my gut, from the first moment I set eyes on it, that there was something else to it.  It wasn’t only an artificial lion, and it certainly wasn’t just a drinking fountain.  Over the years I have wondered whose brainchild it was to make a large plastic or fiberglass lion’s head, paint it red for some reason with a brown mane and yellow eyes, and plop it over the top of a standard-issue city drinking fountain.  So that in order to take a drink you had to stomp on a foot pedal sticking out from the base of the lion’s neck like an arrow, and then shove your head into the beast’s jaws.  Oh, and if you were going to do it at all, you may as well make it the fiercest, meanest-looking fake lion imaginable, with oversized white teeth bearing down on the vulnerable flesh of a young child’s neck, and an aspect of eternal malice on its painted face.

Because today I have small children myself, I know that at the age of five, or thereabouts, they’re big enough to read and explore and go to kindergarten and all of that, but they’re still young enough to have unrestrained terrors.  That lion, for me, was one of those.  It was located to one side, fortunately, isolated in a kind of imaginary ring of doom, as though it had wandered in off of some killing plain in the realm I’d created and decided to station itself there to watch.  One day, I was sure that the thing would simply come alive and attack, even though it was only a head and neck; it would attack disembodied, thereby making the inevitable about ten times scarier.

I kept to the right side, avoiding the beast on my far left.  I didn’t want to even look at it unless I had to.  Eventually it might come to the point where I would require a drink, but I found that if I didn’t go too crazy in the time I had, especially during the fall, I could get by without one.

I don’t entirely remember what I did first.  In my memory I see only a smattering of other kids there.  Sandra, near the swings, had engaged in conversation with three boys that seemed older.  I think I sat for a while on the creaky merry-go-round, the cold metal no doubt freezing my buttcheeks right through the corduroys.

Owing to my semi-contemplative side, I was capable of occupying myself longer than most kids simply by finding a quiet but interesting place to sit and mull things over.  I don’t know if this made me an introvert or anti-social or what.  To me it just means I like to look and listen and think.  It doesn’t feel anti-anything.

Whatever you call it, this quality was as true of me at age five as it will be at fifty-five.  That’s why it’s no surprise that I ended up seated about halfway up the sloping grass hill, towards the El stop, looking down at the park with my back towards the rails.  The hill was steep enough that it gave you a kind of towering perspective, at least to my perception, and that was agreeable.  It spoon-fed the imaginative process I so loved to engage:

Here sits the King, high on his Judgment Seat, surveying the breadth of his lands, when suddenly—

The lunatic screech of metallic brakes behind and above me shattered whatever waking dream I was having.  I had my elbows on my knees, and was painstakingly pulling apart a dead maple leaf that crumbled to flakes in my chapped and grimy fingers when the train arrived.  For some reason I hesitated before looking over my shoulder.  I figured the train was disgorging passengers into the autumn gusts, a displacement of moody people from one corner of the city to the next, like some depressing riff on cross-pollination.  Yet I remained fixated on the destruction of the maple leaf.  I can still see that desiccated thing in my fingertips, piffling away to nothing.

Then I heard the whistle blast, screaming out across the city, as the cars slowly propelled themselves forward, blue sparks crackling between wires, steel wheels grinding on the rails.  No longer able to hold back, I turned around.  I watched the train pulling away, but instead of the usual stream of melancholy workers heading towards parking lots or sidewalks, chased by the wind, I saw only one figure: a very tall man.  He was not walking away.  Standing on the top of the slope, somehow on my side of the tracks, he was staring straight down at me.

Once the train was completely gone, the man stepped off in my direction down the hill.

Part 2 of “A Hen, a Lion, a Passenger & a Pachyderm” is coming up tomorrow.