Rasputin would have died. Had that barely mortal man endured my life, he would have died before he was 21. I have surpassed the age he achieved before his corpse was dumped from a bridge into an ice hole in the Malaya Nevka River after a plethora of attempts by his assassins at the Yusupov palace. I have been beaten, stabbed, crushed, burned, impaled, bled nearly to death a few times, hunted, tortured, poisoned (several times), maimed, shot (more than once, by several people), electrocuted, nearly drowned, struck by lightning, trapped, left for dead, hit by a car, run over by a jet helicopter, dropped naked into the ocean, enticed into jumping off a ship, escaped a murderous psychopath, hit in a head on collision by a much larger vehicle, help prisoner, held hostage, gotten caught up in a bank robbery, and have also been, unceremoniously, dumped, struck, and shot in/on the head. Rasputin only had to suffer a few of these things, albeit not all of these things happened to me in one night. If I watched a movie of my life, I would walk out during the first few minutes as I wouldn’t find the premise plausible. Imagine if Walter Mitty actually did the things he dreamed about. Well I do many of the things I dream about. I am a chameleon. I become an instant expert as a situation demands. I adapt, improvise, and act. I am Doc Watson without Wyatt Earp. I’m Huckleberry Finn when there was never a Tom Sawyer.
My sister remembers our childhood as a bad time. I remember we had a great one! So, apparently, does my brother. True enough, my parents idea of punishment was fairly abusive, but many wonderful things happened to me in my childhood. As I have listed above, many ugly things have happened or been done to me. I have also experienced beautiful things and done great things. My life is, and has been, as wonderful as my childhood was. Wonderful can mean simply inspiring wonder. Don’t we all wonder about the horror and the tragic? The most terrible things never fail to make me wonder. Think of that the next time you tell someone to have a wonderful day, or when someone says that to you. My life has been full of wonder and surprise.
Above I listed some unbelievable things. They all happened, and it would take several books to explain them all. But I will explain some… later. Many aren’t as bad as they sound, some are worse. For example being caught up in a bank robbery was fun. Being impaled is much worse than you could ever imagine.
Jumping off of a ship. That was fun. True, the first time my feet got a bit stuck in the sand at the bottom . The next time I kicked out as I entered the water to avoid that. The other dozen or so times were as great as the second. Then they made me stop climbing back up the mooring ropes and from jumping from the deck rail. So I had to be content to sit at the pool and drink more Bloody Marys. They were on special of the day. Later I would be ripped off trying to buy pot (live and learn), lay a motorcycle down in a curve, sit under a palm tree on the back seat of a car (with no car around it), and drink my first six pack of Heinekens outside of Mama Lily’s Roadside bar. Mama Lily’s was a wonderful little cinder-block roadhouse with a refrigerator in the corner. The roadside bar was my kind of place. And Mama Lily was my kind of woman! She was big, black, and had a beautiful smile. She spoke with the lilting British West Indies accent in a manner that only such a woman could. She served me beers and told me stories after the last sip was gone, to give me time to sober up before I rode off on my bike. Years later I looked for her, but found Maddy instead.
I been sittin’ in the sun, drinkin’ my rum, and hangin’ out on Cable beach. See that woman over there? With her nose in the air? I know that she’s a Georgia Peach. See that lady in green? She’s the finest I’ve seen…But I wonder if she is aware… I like her in her shorts, and her clothes of all sorts, But I know she wears no underwear. – R Dynt’s Pyryts
When I arrived at Bay Street for the third time in my life, it was like a new land which I had a map of, etched into my corpus callosum by my two childhood trips to Nassau. According to what I know, the corpus callosum facilitates communication between the two hemispheres of the forebrain. It was etched precisely there by my experiences, I think, to be directly accessible to my right and left brain, allowing access with equal ease and rapidity by either my creative or analytical mind, as situations would dictate. I had become a man, by age, at this point. Nassau had become a dingy old whore who maintained enough practiced experience and guile to seduce the naive and the horny drunk, young and old. Peanut’s Taylor’s Drum Beat Club had long since deteriorated from rum Beat to simply r u Beat, by sign, and aptly symbolic I found it to be. Still, the Island Show revue kept time like my dad on his mail route. I could imagine the Official US quartz clock in Boulder, Colorado keeping time by every beat of the drums and each stride of Hampton Roop’s abandoned son.
I wasn’t thinking of these things when I walked out of the sun, through the daytime darkened and deafened lounge to the beach-side locals only bar in back. I walked in and met Maddy, the bartender I was supposed to look up when I reached (in local dialect). Like one of Raker’s many stray dogs he fed daily, Maddy had too much mouth.
I must explain, at this point, why I was supposed to look her up, and how impossible it was for me to do so. I was riding the six AM bus southward from Encinitas to the Airport situated between Mission Bay and Downtown San Diego. It was joked that the very architecture of a building was altered, taking off a corner to allow for the low flight path approach to the airport from the south. As I rode the bus for what was to be the last time for many years to come, I noticed a friendly face from UCSD, my school, sitting across from me. He was a genteel guy, too proper for his age by far, and graced with the unmistakable accent of the BWI (British West Indies). His name was Damien, and he was, unbeknownst to me, from Nassau. Before I was able to even put name to his face, he smiled and asked “So where are you going today, Bill?”
“Further than you might imagine.” I replied. He nodded to my large internal frame backpack and attached tent and sleeping bag, my tape player with tape case, and an antique leather suitcase. I realized that it didn’t take much of an imagination or even much intelligence or attention to detail to figure that I wasn’t on my usual commute down the coast route to campus in La Jolla. Damien simply smiled and patiently waited for me to respond further.
“I’m flying to Nassau today! ” I announced with a somewhat affected enthusiasm. I was not really happy to be leaving. I was not happy leaving Encinitas, UCSD, or California. But I had dug myself into a hole in a painted corner, and the only way I saw to get out was to blow a hole through the wall and run like hell. The details of the reasons for my self imposed exile can wait for a future time. At this time, suffice to say Damien recognized a man on the run. His expression did not portray this. Quite aside, I saw an expression of elation on his face I had never seen on him before or since. His colonial reserve had been totally stripped away.
“Den you mus fine the lady Maddy when you reach! We atten da Cath o lic shule ta gedder!” he blurted, his proper BWI Queen’s English had devolved into Nassau patois. “I don ave er street an number or ow ta ring er wit me, doe,” he continued, now seemingly a bit ashamed “Cann-i touch wit you laata ta give you ta er?” he asked with hope.
“I’m not sure Damien…” I continued “…maybe…maybe you could give me your number and I could call you at home when I reach Miami.” This brought a satisfied nod of agreement and he scribbled his number and name on the back of an unused Blue Book and tore off the corner and handed it to me.
“You know, that will knock points off of your exam score.” I joked, indicating the now defaced Blue Book. He smiled broadly at my attempt at humor.
“Thank you, I will call you this afternoon during my layover in Miami.” I replied, half-heartedly.
Damien regained his composure and verbal acumen “You must wait until evening, I am afraid, for I do have an examination this afternoon, and I will not return on the bus home until after eight o’clock tonight.” I realized I would be in Nassau and well in my cups by then, but I shook my head in agreement, feeling a bit sad inside at my hollow acknowledgment. Damien shook my hand as he got off at the Revelle Campus stop atop La Jolla Shores Drive. “Enjoy your stay in my hometown, I wish I could go with you!” It was then that I realized homesickness and the unexpected mention of home had crumbled that reserve handed down by the British who had colonized The Bahamian Islands, Jamaica, and many of the islands of the Caribbean. I was under the hot Nassau sun by 5pm. I did not remember my morning with Damien at all upon my arrival. The slip of blue book was in a pocket of the backpack.
Maddy was not wholly unattractive, but I took an instant dislike to her. She had a smooth, lightly tanned face and wore a slight bit of well applied makeup. Some light mascara, a hint of translucent ruby lipstick, and maybe a bit of blush. Perhaps it was from a bit too much sun the day before, as she seemed to be an inside worker in the day. I fancied that she got it from picnicking on the beach with family or friends the weekend before. My pleasant little daydream ended and I continued to survey her as I walked to the bar. She wore a quarter karat diamond stud in the side of her left nostril long before it was fashionable or even socially acceptable outside of punk culture or the lands where it was a cultural tradition for centuries.
I said I took an instant dislike to her. It would be more truthfully accurate to say that she acquired an almost instant dislike of me. Looking back, with my bartender hindsight, she must have pegged me as a problem customer from the time I sat down on a high top stool at the heavily lacquered, well worn bar. Perhaps it was the way I sat down as if I were one of the few day regulars in a strictly-for-tourists-at-night-only bar which was in day reserved for natives by an unposted sign. Maybe it was because I made the ill advised choice of sitting at the end of the bar frequented and currently occupied by Kirk Pitt, a regular native mooch, small time drug dealer, and con man who made a meager living by ripping off cruise boat tourists. Most likely though, it was my drink order that started her unvarnished green flamed hatred of me to ignite. Any bartender who has served me, from the BWI to Oregon, Hartford to Coronado, or in the heartland bars of Memphis, Dallas, or Reno, inevitably remembers me by my drink of choice and the way I order it. If they have ever held my custom.
I knew she despised me once I answered her unenthusiastic traditional query of “What would you like to drink?”
“First, I would like a light.” I said, looking down as I unwrapped a cigar.
Maddy went to pull a draft from the tap in a footed beer glass.
I interrupted her with a garbled, yet loud “Not a Lite, a light!” I motioned to fresh cigar now in my mouth.
She paused hand on tap, beer beginning to dribble slowly into the glass, then stopping. She cast a disparaging eye my way to see me with a fresh Royal Jamaican cigar clenched between my teeth.
Before she could respond, Kirk had slid to the next stool from his “end of bar” habitat, lit a match, and placed it to the end of my cigar. I accepted the light and paused, for effect, before allowing the smoke, and my drink order to roll out of my mouth. “I’d like a Long Island Iced Tea, short on the gin with the extra half shot in rum, light on the sweet and sour. Shake and strain it and pour it straight up, if you please.”
Maddy raised one eyebrow while lowering the other. She performed another feat of facial gymnastic maneuvering by glowering at me with her attentive eye and looking straight through me with the other. She brought the bottom of the footed glass down to the surface of the tender’s island bar sharply enough for it’s report to draw the attention of everyone in the sparsely populated bar. “So, you’re gonna shoot five shots at once, to start?” she challenged.
The hot, close air of the bar was still reverberating from her beer glass gunshot, however everything but the air, her, and me were frozen for a second by the unexpected sudden drama in the lazy, hazy afternoon. I was aware that the scene had drawn the attention of every drinking soul in the bar. The flies had all landed or been grounded by the shock wave caused by the collision of molecules rebounding and cascading off the walls from the initial contact of glass to lacquered hardwood. Even the flies knocked to the ground didn’t dare twitch a leg toward the ceiling.
I played to the newly formed audience “No, on second thought, make it a double…” I paused for her to measure a jigger of gin, Gilbey’s, and continued ” and no cheap well spirits, make it top shelf all the way…darlin’.” She slung the silver double sided cup and spilled the semi-shot skyward. “So that will be 10 shots. Use Grand Marnier instead of Cointreau or cheap triple sec.” I let waft out of my mouth, with a roll of smoke. She poured methodically, mixed mechanically, rapidly and efficiently, devoid of outward emotion, then shook in such a manner that her shake did not even bounce a breast. Not that she had much to shake aside from the stainless shaker…with the possible exception of her ass. The breasts did bob slightly as she proffered, with a strange sort of curtsy, a slightly tinted concoction in a water glass that resembled slightly rusty water. I eyed the glass of nearly unadulterated 80 proof alcohol with a wary weather eye.
“How’s that?” she piped with a perceptibly perky swipe of sarcasm.
“At least a splash of cola is traditional… and a wedge of lemon for garnish” I indicated the rust water and naked glass rim. “It is SUPPOSED to at least resemble iced tea visually, thus the name!” I smoked the words out as I wondered if brown rum, gold tequila, or melting ice cubes of muddy water had imparted the odd coloration. Damn it, I didn’t notice if she used silver or gold of either! Matty gave a dutiful splash of cola and garnished the glass. I squeezed the lime slice that had been substituted for a lemon wedge, saving that battle for the future, and shot the glass. I allowed it to drop to the table on the leeward side of the the bar as hard as I could allow gravity to take it and without breaking. Now that the opening salvo of the battle was accomplished, the bar again settled into a low drone of still, hot air. Meanwhile, we each were reloading. The air between us seemed to become clear, and we each each appeared to the other closer and clearer than the actual distance would accord. This was no fog of war. This was the extreme clarity of snipers, picking at each other in non-critical spots. Nothing dared break the line of sight between us. Even the air seemed as if it was afraid of being caught in the crossfire. So it began.
I felt a little flip-flop in my stomach that wasn’t from the drink, and a bite which most certainly was. The rust water drink didn’t remotely resemble iced tea, and had a smooth, but considerable burn. The heat rose from my belly, creeping up my body to my face. I could feel crimson creeping with it and I felt suddenly self-conscious. My face must have betrayed the taste of the high proof drink and cigar smoke mingling in the back of my throat. I turned my head to look at Maddy out of corner of my eye and spotted her eyes looking back, and it hit me. “Oh hell!” My mouth dropped open in unexpected revelation and a bit of smoke rolled out and started to tickle at my nose. I felt, and obliged, a violent urge to turn my face away from view. This was quite fortunate for me, because the bite, the acrid and antiseptic taste in my throat, the blush, and trickle of smoke in my nose combined to elicit an explosive sneeze. I managed to make myself presentable with a bar napkin long enough to gain my unsteady feet and I headed toward a small hall with two unmarked doors.
I walked on rubbery legs into the door on the right, and was happy to find the bathroom had a urinal. Maybe it was the jet lag I was feeling. In a dingy mirror and the light of a forty watt bulb, I combed my hair and smiled as I looked at my reflection. I looked good to myself, and this was a good thing. It hadn’t always been the case. I had spent ample periods of time debasing my body in the past, but my recent athleticism wore well. My skin was tan and I was lean and smooth like a swimmer. My eyes were the saturated light azure of the Caribbean, most of the time, and they casually glanced into a woman’s soul. I checked them, and other than a few tell-tale red lines that would ripen into a copy of a roadmap of Georgia by the end of the night, they were as blue as usual. My hair was still a bit short cropped from the military and sun bleached platinum on dirty blonde. I wore a pair of desert fatigues and a white tank top t-shirt with a garish floral print shirt unbuttoned over it. The term wasn’t used back then much, maybe by bodybuilders, but I guess I had a six pack under the damp shirt. Just a few hours in Nassau, I remembered. it always felt damp here unless one was inside with air conditioning. My legs were long but with muscular thighs and calves from years of cycling. I always have had the bubble butt. I had muscular arms and chest as well. I was cut, but not overly bulky, a result of being “Mr. Pushup” in my company in boot camp, and from swimming. I got the pectoral muscles and arms happily, from thousands of pushups – punishment for smiling in ranks. No matter what god awful military training we were doing, I couldn’t help but smile. I smiled everywhere I went.
“Luke, you look pretty damn good”. I said to myself in the mirror. I allowed a silly little smile cross my face. That of a kid at the fair, riding the double Ferris wheel or a frisky girl. I laughed because there had, over the last few minutes, grown legends about my true identity. One was that I was a mass murderer named Luke. Kirk had told me of, and probably perpetrated this story. As I was in Nassau on my own in a decidedly seedy establishment, I did nothing to dispel such growing myths. I had recently heard the name mentioned behind my back in low, whispered tones. I flinched and half turned when I did, as if recognizing my mass murderer moniker only to, as observers would later note, catch myself at the last moment.
“ You have screwed yourself.” I laughed to my reflection. I continued talking to myself about my predicament. I must have spent five minutes going over it and how I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend, or even a friend. A toilet flushed and a medium built native man came out and washed his hands. I went and washed my hands. I looked down at them in embarrassment not wanting to start conversation. I looked up to the mirror and inadvertently made eye contact with his reflection. He was Jerome, the cab driver who had picked me up at the airport.
“If you have taken to Maddy you most surely have screwed yourself,” He said. “Her family owns the Drum Beat Club and more. None of us have a shot with her. As for a tourist, that will never be. You won’t be beatin’ that pussy tonight, or ever!” , He offered with a sympathetic look. “You are a rare bird to be trowin’ sparks wit Matddy at all. She would make a motion and we’d be tossin you tru the door for any hungry tief or dog. She is all biz-i-nezz at work. She is a strict and smart lady. She goes to University, in California, in the States. She won’t pass small talk or spend a second of the day on a customer looking at her like a man looks at a woman. The men here are not her equal. She is out of our league, my friend,” he finished. I walked out the door before him, and he followed. He introduced himself once more, as Jerome, the owner of a cycle rental concession. Jerome walked from the short hall toward the haggard looking security guard in a disheveled uniform by the door. The suit wore the old man loosely as it seemed to occupy the stool beside a dim desk lamp at a small podium by the door. It manged to stay nearly upright, despite, rather than thru any force of will to oppose gravity inherent in its occupant. I came to know this man as Raker, and he was Jerome’s rum soaked father. I parted company with him to veer toward my original table.
I returned to my seat and sat facing Maddy and the bar.. My drinking glass was gone and a fresh napkin was in its place. I looked toward the bar, above it, at glasses hung upside down. Above that I saw bleached out conch shells, a net, musical instruments, Island Show props and Caribbean pirate paraphernalia. I was still feeling giddy and felt too shy to look directly at Maddy. I saw Kirk at the end of the bar with his hand holding a strap of my camera bag. Maddy was holding the other strap and looking through pictures I had taken in California. Now I felt a little like the normal riders feel from the first big drop on the double ferris wheel. I caught Mddty’s eye and I indicated for her to come over. I hadn’t given Kirk permission to touch my camera bag and I kicked myself in hindsight for carelessly leaving it behind. She seemed to know this, as she jerked the strap from Kirk’s hand, put the pictures away, and walked the camera bag to my table.
I decided to take a different tack with Maddy. “May I please have an ice water and a lime?” I asked in my most contrite tone. It was her time to blush. She obviously was embarrassed a bit at being caught going through my pictures, especially since Kirk offered them up. I briefly forgot there was a tasteful nude of me and my old girlfriend, Denise, in the bag. It was shot at sunset at a west coast beach with palm trees in the background. Denise and I were hugging, facing each other nude, and kissing. Even though she long ago used and discarded me, that picture still looks hot to me. We both had perfect tan lines, perfect asses, and perfect hair. I saw that picture on the top of the stack in the bag. I realized that not only was that picture in there, but it was last picture Maddy saw. I looked and saw her eyes looking down at the picture still.
Maddy smiled genuinely at me for the first time, with her face and eyes. My stomach butterfly-flipped and my heart beat hard in my chest. I was hit hard and I had so wanted a summer of casual sex and no commitment. I felt like I had been struck by lightning and shaken by thunder. The heat rose in me like a Santa Ana wind coming off the Southern California desert. Meeting her gaze was like a meeting a bullet with another bullet. I saw everything in her eyes. A lonely light skinned girl excluded as a child. A bright sassy teen in a Catholic School in Nassau trying to live a normal life (and failing miserably). Her coming from a family of means while trying to blend in with the many that came from nothing. A bohemian student smelling of patchouli and clove cigarettes, drinking wine at the campus pub, and going to sit ins at the plaza amid the same anonymous multitude I had. But the most striking thing I saw in her eyes was her emotion, unexpectedly knocking her dizzy. I felt her cold but vulnerable heart walled in and protected deep in a fortress of stone. She had been hurt before to be so frozen. I felt that heart warm some, and sparkle a bit to life.
t had hit her- the “Oh hell” feeling. I could see it in her eyes and she saw it in mine. We were both giggling like teenagers at the impact of the shared realization. We derided ourselves for our shared moment of tenderness. We were both jaded and heartbroken, still on an emotional leash to a partner who played with us like an old Raggedy Anne doll. We had both come back to Nassau to put the same physical distance between us and those users who tossed us on a shelf to pine for the infrequent times when they would pick us up again.
Our eyes were locked and we were beyond the point of an awkward silence. It was quiet again. It seemed like our electromagnetic pheromone driven energy had taken on a life of its own, feeding on the emotions of those gathered at The Drum Beat Club. After a few eternal seconds, Maddy pulled out a chair and neatly placed my camera bag there, zipping it closed. She reached across the table and grazed my hand gently. It sent a current up my arm.
Maddy broke the spell momentarily “ I am sorry for looking at you pictures while you were away… It’s just Kirk. He is a bad influence, unwelcome news, and it would be best to stay away from him.” She then solicited me “Was that a water with lemon you wanted?” I nodded my head, shaking away cobwebs. My whole body had fading pins and needles. The rush had subsided but there was still a bit of raw thrill. I didn’t even mind that she had substituted “lemon” for “lime” in my request.
Maddy wheeled to walk away then turned and bent to my ear. “Nice body… really nice ass…” She whispered. She turned away again to hide the spreading blush on her cheeks. Her cheeks were rosy when she returned with the water and, surprisingly, a lime. Apparently the gliding walk of hers had brought her mind back into rhythm and sharp focus. Maddy put down a new napkin and placed the water on it. She smiled and again gave a curtsy that made her breasts bounce. I noticed this time there was no sarcasm or condescension. I noticed too that the breasts were bigger than I had first judged. Matty had small ribs, so she was probably about a 32C or D. I admired her as she did her best catwalk back to the bar. I looked down at the napkin and there was a moonlit beach drawn on it and signed “Maddy” . Below that in block letters was one word: “LATER!” I smiled broadly and sipped my lime garnished water. For the rest of my time in Nassau, I alternated my iced teas with water and a lime.
Two glasses of water with lime later, I was picked up bodily, and carried from the bar across the terrace, and dumped unceremoniously onto the beach, face first in the sand. Apparently, I grossly misinterpreted the meaning of the note on the napkin, now neatly folded in my shirt pocket, as wildly as I had the look in Maddy’s eyes.
I remained planted face down in the sand, drunken and dazed, for a while… After a minute or so, a loud babble of laughs, cat calls, and shouts erupted from the crowd of men on the patio. There was Kirk, Jerome, Raker, One legged Boop, his sometimes prostitute wife, Shaaree, and several others.
“What the fuck are you laughing at?” I blurted, more than a bit embarrassed. I felt the crimson spread up my face to my ears. I was mad, humiliated, and blushing in rage.
“You, you silly ass white boy”! They all seemed to shout in unison. ” Jerome says you have surely screwed yourself, and we believe. Maddy told us to toss the bum in the safari hat! Go back across to the New Olympia and go to bed. Do not come back to the Drum Beat. If you must, go to the Piano Bar for your time here.”
“Sorry, I don’t know where that is.” I answered, bewildered and a bit more than a little intimidated.
This got a fresh round of hoops and hollers. “Come with us, silly ass white boy… Art, Bill, Luke, whatever you call yourself!” With that I was raised up by the crowd, and buffeted on their sudden human high tide rolling me across the beach and Bay Street, to an open courtyard across the street. I could barely make out, in grungy old letters “Piano Bar” in inch high letters above the door. At least I found out, later, that the restrooms were marked, though somewhat cryptically as “sharps” and “flats”.
“Really went all out on advertising. didn’t they?” I asked as I headed toward the door, and had an arm bar my entry. It was Jerome. He said “Look mon, I am your friend, you just do not know it yet. Wait here, I will get you a beer and we shall talk.”
I obliged, there on the patio next to the New Olympia Hotel, my lodgings for my three day package. If it was the New Olympia, I’ would hate to see the dive the Old Olympia must have been. I bet the new one was built in the 30s or 40s, and of while stone or concrete block, stone and plaster. It had aged worse than the ramshackle wood framed Drum Beat Club. Jerome returned with a Heineken, reminding me of Mama Lily’s Roadside Bar out by Cable Beach. It was a small hint at my memory from my second trip to Nassau and my first 6 pack of Heinekens.
He gave it to me and toasted “To business…” he said, and we toasted. “Your bags came from the airport. They are in the front foyer closet at the New Olympia.” he motioned to the wall it shared with the Piano Bar. A set of stairs went up, outside, to a door on the second floor. Jerome sent Kirk up there to get me a cup of fire engine, a mix of tomato paste, corned beef, and hot yellow Caribbean peppers. After that cleared up my senses, he said “Now we talk business.” Kirk leaned in to eavesdrop, and Jerome shooed him to go get a cup of Bruised Conch Salad at the Duncan Donuts shop a block away. The fire engine was to sober me up. The conch, to get Kirt out of earshot. We drank deeper into the lightening morning, until God’s flashlight cleared the horizon.
That morning, before the cruise ships docked, I showed up at Raker and Jerome’s motorbike rental concession, as I had agreed in my talk with Jerome. There was a running bike for me, in his dad’s hands, and Jerome was on one of his own. I followed him to the docks. I grabbed my first redneck tourist off the boat. Many bike renters, all native and black, were vying for every tourist in very aggressive manners. I used my “radio announcer without a mike or megaphone voice”… The one I got from my dad. I bellowed at all tourists gathered. “Stay away from all these niggers chasing you. I am one of you, the only one you should trust. These other guys will get you going to their lot, then take you on a back road, rob you, and slit your throat and rob you.”
Before the other bikers got a customer, I had a fat pale man from Oklahoma in a floral shirt and plaid bermuda shorts on the back of my bike. We headed past the Drum Beat, took a left turn by the New Olympia, and the bike struggled with the tourist’s weight up the hill, toward the ghetto district, stopping a few doors short of the mom and pop residential liquor store in a house. Here was Raker’s lot. I dumped the tourist with Raker so he could rent a bike, collected my $10, and headed back to the boat. By noon, all the bikes on the lot were gone from Jerome and I ferrying customers from the dock to the lot. Jerome had Raker topped off my tank.
“See you tomorrow, if not sooner, at the Piano Bar. Stay away from the Drum Beat and steer clear of Maddie. You need to lay low from her if you are going to overstay your three days. You must not go back there for at least three days… Wait until I say, then you may return.” Jerome advised. I drove off to enjoy the beautiful Caribbean afternoon. That night I had some bruised conch salad from ”Duncan’s”. Raker, Jerome, and others, shook their heads and laughed.
“You really like the stuff, do you? You gonna have so much lead in your pencil, it’s gonna break off when you go to write with it!” Raker laughed, bringing peals of laughter echoing and bouncing off the low walled courtyard, like a tide rolling up into a bay, and then decaying into a choppy chaos, crashing in on itself.
Kirk chimed in “Who bets a bottle of rum he never uses Maddy for the paper he writes on with that lead pencil?” Then he held two fingers up a short distance apart. Big laughs. I smacked my Safari hat off Kirk’s head, then grabbed his hands and spread them apart.
“More like this, you rock head.” The laugh that followed was bigger! I continued ” Kirk, you have too much mouth!”,` parroting Raker’s voice and patois. This brought an even larger laugh from the crowd, especially Raker
This is what lie several yards from the sand I was ceremoniously dumped into. I soon learned to dive nearby for my new favorite food (and source of tourist money, in shells), conch. They look like green lumps on the ocean floor before being cleaned with a wire brush. To remove the white meat, good for eating raw or cooked properly, you must first use a hammer or rock to sharply rap on the part of the shell where the foot attaches to the shell. Then you reach inside, pull out the meat, cut off the eyes, foot, and anything black. Raw, it is best in thin slices, but I like it’s natural thickness. I compare it to a thick burger without the dripping fat
Paul, Grady, The Jims, Jerry, and the Hanks
“Oh, Ol’ Columbo, his balls hung to the groundo…Navigatin’, aggravatin’ son of a bitch Columbo. The cabin boy, the cabin boy, that dirty little nipper, he lined his ass with broken glass and circumcised the skipper!”- From Columbo , a “standard” sung by Paul, the fat man.
The Double Ferriswheel
The weathered midway flags were unfurled in front of the freak sideshows at the West Virginia State Fair. The faded canvases with grotesque caricatures of the freaks and three headed thalidomide babies awaited the barker’s calls (She walks, she talks, she crawls on her belly like a reptile! Step right up folks, for just one dollar you can see the greatest assortment of freaks ever assembled under canvas…) the next day when the fair opened to the public. Pictured were Jerry, the Wild Man from Borneo, The Lobsterman, and Paul the Singing Fat Man, among the portrayals of deformed children. One of the outdated panels showed the rendering of a morbidly obese man seated in a chair, playing a guitar. His rolls of fat enveloped the body of the guitar and his beef steer haunch sized right arm covered nearly the entire body of the instrument as his ham hock hand was in mid strum, The other meaty paw held the neck and stubby fingers held down strings of the chord he was playing.
This much of the illustration was true to life, even if Paul himself was the exception among freaks portrayed in that he was even more freakish in his rotundity in person: he surpassed in oddity the illustration of himself, something none of the other freaks did. No other freak came close to meeting the exaggerated portrayals of themselves while he alone exceeded his. Over his image, a blaze of red letters announced “Paul, the Singing Fat Man” Below it simply had his stats, presumably from the day, years earlier, that some carny artist had committed his image to canvas. “729 ¼ pounds!”
It was my third year at the fair with my father, brother, and Ray Robertson, the lucky friend of the year who got to accompany us. It was our second year in the coveted corner campsite in the carnie tent village behind the midway. It was mid-August, 1971 in Lewisburg West Virginia and the air smelled of heat, dust, and malt liquor as we unloaded the U-Haul trailer. Every year, Jivin’ Jack from the Chicken Shack made his annual pilgrimage to Lewisburg from Jeffersonville Virginia over a network of back-roads. Behind his white 1964 Chevy Station wagon, he towed an ever-larger U-Haul trailer of his wares. For two weeks of the year, my father went from his blue collar job as a civil servant to his vacation avocation of bartender and restaurateur to the carnies and con man supreme at night and hawker of sno-cones, sticky apples, floss (cotton candy), and Coca Colas to the patrons of the fair, especially the race track crowd and Grand Stand audiences by sweltering day.
I could tell it was going to be one of those Hot August Night s that Neil Diamond sang about on the 8-track tape player a few years later in my mother’s new, blue, seventy-two, Malibu. I had lain in the back of the wagon from Jeffersonville, past Bluestone Dam, and well into the West Virginia countryside towing a 1/24 scale plastic car between the wagon’s tailgate and the U-Haul for most of the way, until it finally succumbed to the wear of the asphalt and lost it’s wheels. The homemade roll bar only served to delay the inevitable collapse of its roof to abrasion from the rough pavement on one-too-many rollovers. This year the car, or at least what was left of it, had survived the entire trip. Originally we had used stock toy cars towed on kite string. Then the contest was to see whose car would last the longest before disintegrating or breaking loose to join the assorted broken and discarded trash along the byways. The year before, we had used blasting wire stolen from the construction site of the new 19/460 bypass around Jeffersonville to reinforce the toy cars. We also used it as the line with which we towed the toys behind the wagon. Earlier in the summer, we used the same brightly colored wires to wrap our bicycle spokes, making bright triangles of alternating colors. We had used the unattended bulldozers at twilight to sculpt our own signature grades into the median while we learned the art of operating construction machinery. This self-taught foray into excavation and newly modified cars had proved an overwhelming success, and this year we had refined techniques.
The bearings in the 231 straight-six engine heralded our arrival at the fairground. We passed our corner, the northwest one, and entered on a “Fair President’s VIP Guest Pass” as we had the year before. Carnies, freaks, and truck drivers alike turned to the low whirring sound, knowing from years past that this sound announced the arrival of Jivin’ Jack and the Official Carnie Traveling Outdoor Saloon. I helped my brother and Ray Robertson, “lucky” guest and indentured servant to Jivin’ Jack and Hoop Whittaker for the coming two weeks, to remove the tents and camping gear from the back of the U-Haul. Jack would begin the tent set-up and then, seated in a canvas director’s chair, and direct the erection of the tent, and the set-up of the saloon. Once the tent, chairs, tarps, awnings, and assorted camping gear were unloaded, it was time to remove the wares. The sound of exploding quart Cola-Bottles had died away…usually only one or two only exploded after arrival.
Jack would begin preparation for the fair in early August. He would use Blue Ribbon malt to begin making his “homebrew” malt liquor in a large open crock covered with a sheep skin or chamois cloth held on by a large rubber band which was made to hold ceramic molds together in my mother’s shop. We would sneak ladles of the fermenting brew at night for almost a week as it brewed. For months before, we had collected Coca-Cola bottles. Only the thick-glassed quart bottles could withstand the pressure of the bumpy ride to Lewisburg filled with still-fermenting orange colored brew, and not all of them made the trip intact. We would wash these bottles in soap and water after the Coke was gone and store them in the cool freezer room in one of the outbuildings on at our house. As the bottling day approached, we would boil the bottles in large Dutch ovens or whatever great pan we could find, all four eyes of the Kenmore stoves, upstairs and down, would glow wild cherry red bringing pots of water to a boil. The glass bottles would clink together for at least fifteen minutes in the roiling, boiling bath. After all, Jack’s bootleg had to be sanitary. In the last days before departure, we would fill these bottles with a ladle and funnel, and then cap them loosely, to allow for expansion. Every day, we would crack open the previous day’s vintage to breathe for a short time before re-sealing them. The last dregs of the crock would be drained and drunk fresh after Jack’s last letter or card was delivered before his vacation started. Jack would allow us a pint or two each, behind Peggy’s back, as payment for a job well done.
Usually we would finish them after a day of blackberry picking and lawn mowing, sitting on the second floor porch or on the roof outside my mother’s ceramics shop. We would often share our good fortune with those friends not privileged enough to go on the year’s trip. Maybe one of the dozen or so neighborhood boys who made our house home in the summer would join in our party the night before departure. That might, on any given year, include the Blackfoot Brothers… Robby and Tommy, Larry Horn and Dwight Hill (and rarely, his twin brother Dewy), The Carver Brothers… Jimmy (Francis) and Bruce, Ray Robertson, Weasel Allman, Chucky Ball, and perhaps the local hell raiser Lonnie Mitchem (If he wasn’t in Juvie lock-up). This year was Ray’s second year helping bottle and traveling as honored guest. Larry, the oldest of the group along with the Hill Brothers, was lamenting not being able to go, having his place usurped by Ray the previous year. Robby was still trying to convince Jack to let him come along for the first time, and Weasel probably hadn’t yet made his first travel with the Traveling Saloon to The Show.
The Show. That was the magical phrase. Our entry to every ride, sideshow, and grandstand concert, our ticket to all of the fair’s delights for a young Bradburyian boy, was to simply state “I’m with The Show” while wearing this year’s (or a previous year’s) Kenn-Penn uniform T-shirt. As the fair wound on, we need not even wear the shirt. We had taken to riding our 20-inch Schwinn and homemade bicycles around town in the previous year’s blue and white lined shirts ( Kenn-Penn was the carnie company that ran the summer circuit from Richmond to Lewisburg to Canton Ohio, the last state fair of the season before the carnies all caravanned southward to Circus Town in Florida for the winter), streaking down the Avenue, or one of the steep hills of Pine, Tower, or Locust Street, or even the long winding “suicide hill” that ran from Uptown Jeffersonville to meet Jeffersonville Avenue at the Carline Community of Shake Rag. With our shirts, we bragged about our upcoming adventure, the true tanned boys of summer were announcing another legend was to be made, like the years before. “I’m with The Show” was my ticket that year to being bumped by one of Dolly Parton’s boobs, backstage after a concert.
Charlie Morris was about to make his fiftieth straight appearance at the fair. Jivin’ Jack could count his trips in the dozens. This must have been my brother Hampton’s sixth trip, having gone with Jack, and taken Larry for a couple of years. We would often meet up with Chip Roth or a girl like Sammy Williams from Jeffersonville, taking up tickets at the gate of the fairgrounds. We’d all conjecture about which other fair regulars we would see on that night before the big journey. Perhaps we would see Gentleman Jim Rossitter. We had met Gentleman Jim some year before when he arrived at tent the first day as we unpacked. He was an elderly, refined alcoholic in a disheveled suit, shaking from DT’s and salivating at the smell of fresh alcohol. He bought the first quart of Jack’s homebrew sold that year, before we could even set up camp. Jack recognized a fellow alcoholic in dire need, and had me crawl across the gear to fetch a bottle of his magical elixir. One hour later, Gentleman Jim lay prostrated on the center double yellow line on the Grand Strand approach to the fair’s main gate. I do not know the percentage of alcohol in Jack’s concoction, but it far exceeded the three-two Low-Test Beers that were sold in West Virginia in those years.
Jack had always supplemented his bar of homebrew, moonshine, Harvest Moon corn liquor, and Jim Beam with cases of six-four Virginia High Test Pabst Blue Ribbon Tall Boys. Maybe we would see Jim Baldwin, operator of the double ferris wheel (The Famous Double Wheel). Where are you, now, Jim Baldwin?), The Show’s main attraction, or the local high school girl Lucy Smithfield or her friend from Ocean City Maryland, Patsy Kennedy. Of all our loves and conquests of the fair, Lucy and Patsy were the only ones who showed year after year. Maybe we would see John Kelley, owner of the animal show, with fresh monkey scratches on his arms. If so, likely it would be the first night he tied one on and wondered back to the animals to take liberties with a Shetland pony. These were our once-a-year friends, who would live in our memories for the rest of our lives, shining as brightly as the fireworks in the sky at eleven pm on opening night. The trails of the fireworks dying embers came to symbolize, for me, the synaptic connections that held the pathway to the memories of these notable personalities of The Show.
On this arrival day, I went to check out the Midway as it was being erected. I passed the back of the first freak show tent and noticed the smell of decaying, headless snake corpses mingling with the sawdust, moldering canvas, and fresh lumber smells wafting from the Midway. Jerry, the Wild Man from Borneo emerged cursing and slung another recently deceased serpent into a rusty fifty-five gallon trash barrel. Jerry would become one of my father’s customers by nightfall. Now he was disposing of the last venomous snake that had bitten him, in the manner of those that had taken the ill-fated bite before. He would bite off their heads and sling them in the general direction of the trash barrel. Jerry had long sense grown immune to their venom.
There was electricity in the air, and it drew me like a drug. I had already sampled alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana by then, but none held the raw thrill of electrical stimulation, for me. Not only did I sing the body electric, I was the body electric. And tattooed Jerry was the Illustrated Man to me. As I headed toward the scale model electric kiddies train tracks, I skipped over the large black cables that conducted the 220-volt current needed to power the Midway attractions. I took no notice of the few puddles that dotted the asphalt, gravel, and dirt of the Midway main, side, and back tracks. I stepped in a puddle that held the junction of two cables and was jolted by the full force of two hundred and twenty volts coursing through my body at god knows what amperage. Usually, 220 jumps out and grabs you and doesn’t let go. It knocked me to the ground and sent me rolling almost under a coin toss booth. I slammed against the beater board hard enough to rattle the glassware still shrouded by the canvas flaps.
It was a sudden and thrilling wake up from my road weariness. I had gone out to “stretch my legs” after the cramped ride. The electrical current accomplished that immediately. I got up, pondering whether to return to camp, when I spied the locomotive car of the train rounding the glinting metal dual rails. This year a reproduction of a diesel locomotive had replaced the failed steam engine and coal car of years past. In my excitement, I scuffed my feet along the ground to slow my approach to the train. Just then, I felt a 16 penny nail puncture the arch of my foot and lodge in the bone of my heel. I cursed the pain, and myself for not returning to camp before injuring myself. I had always been the most accident prone of the adventurous group of Avenue Boys. I sat on the ground and tried to remove the nail. Only about a quarter inch of the two-inch nail protruded at a slight angle from the bottom of my foot. I tried to pull it out, to no avail. I stood up on my good foot and limped back though the Midway, grimacing to each odd face I saw. I passed Jim Baldwin, now demoted to the Saturn Six. I guess he had left customers hurling up corndogs, Cherry Coke, and popcorn half digested while he took a thirty-minute drink once too often. I took the path between the hall of mirrors and the freak tent and passed Jerry, the Illustrated Wild Man from Borneo as I went from the back of Freak Row over a gravel road toward our recently erected tent. Hampton and Ray were beside of the U-Haul, taking a break and sharing a joint. My dad, under the awning of the tent, was ensconced in his director’s chair facing toward me, already in his cups. I hobbled up to him, raised my foot, and presented the offending nail. He grasped the head of the nail in a vice-like forefinger and thumb grip from his tremendous bear paw, and pulled it out with ease.
The blood flowed freely and pulsed out deep scarlet with each accelerated heartbeat. I found a white linen towel from the Veterans Hospital and wrapped my foot to staunch the flow of blood. I could taste the rusty taste of blood mingling with the sharp, sour taste of electricity that lingered on my tongue. I had bitten my lip with my overly large permanent front teeth. This was the inauspicious start to my most memorable fair.
That night, Paul the Fat Man joined the cast of memorable characters in my vault of a brain. He came accompanied by two teenaged helpers. After testing one of our chairs, he slowly settled into it. A helper handed him his guitar case and was shooed away. My dad handed him a quart of homebrew and he pulled a mighty draught, finishing it in one drink. He unlatched the guitar case and drew out an acoustic guitar showing years of wear and sweat stains on it’s back. He began to strum, taking time to turn the tuning knobs between his meaty finger and thumb. I had no model to compare him with in my experience, but I estimated that he weighed over nine hundred pounds, well more than advertised. He began to sing Columbo as he continued to strum and tune. This bawdy, pornographic shanty was just his traditional warm-up and was oft requested that night between the songs of his regular repertoire.
By midnight, Jerry and the Lobster Man (Lobster Boy), Grady Styles Jr., Jim Baldwin, and Gentleman Jim Rossitter had joined the company crowding Jivin’ Jack’s Outdoor Saloon and Grill. Fresh pickled eggs and liquor by the shot were bought and consumed at a voracious pace. A large black man named Hank, hands large enough to hold a large watermelon in each, was cooking fried potatoes and onions for all paying customers who cared for some. Jack was telling stories each time Paul would take a break to drink and blot at the rivulets of sweat that rolled across his forehead and down the back of his oxen-like neck. Jack’s deep baritone lowered and trailed off as Paul’s deeper baritone began a low, serious monologue. He was beginning his main concert draw, The Life Story of Hank Williams, Sr., complete with song and accompanying music. His gravelly patter picked up and his voice rose to a great bellow as he began to sing the first song after the long introduction to the man and music that was Bo Cephus. He sang and strummed his way through a dozen or more of Hank’s classics, pausing in between to dab sweat, drink, and then continue his narrative between songs.
As I watched I could imagine that, like in “The Illustrated Man“, the whole story played out graphically in the multi-colored ink on the body and limbs of Jerry, the Wild Man from Borneo. It was well past two am, before he told his story of Hank’s overdose on the way to a show in West Virginia. All voices were hushed as he tearfully told of how Hank’s chauffeur, upon finding him dead in the back seat, had sacrificed himself by crashing into a tree in an effort to save Hank’s reputation as a hard drinking, hard living, man of music. The whole freakish audience rose to their feet, (besides the Lobster Man) as the waiting audience in the concert hall was said to have done, and sang along with the finale, I Saw the Light. There was not a dry eye among men as the last strains of the spiritual echoed in the night. Paul’s helpers, back from a night of carousing, helped him from our now-broken chair. The next night they brought a plain, steel chair that took four grown men, including Jack and Hank, to pull free from the ground. Nearly thirty years later, the song brought tears to my eyes as my father’s casket was carried from the Adria Advent Church to a waiting black hearse. I thought that cold March day in two thousand and one about Paul, The Jims, Jerry and the Hanks. And it made me cry some more.
The Lobster Man, Grady Styles, Jr., confessed to murdering the fiancee of his 3rd wife’s daughter and got probation because “Prisons weren’t meant to hold me.” He was a cruel alcoholic. He remarried his first wife, and after more abuse, she and his son hired a 17 year old carnie to shoot him four times in the head.