Blaise called himself a full-time alchemist and part-time composer, but as far as I knew, he couldn’t figure an A from a G on a banjo, probably couldn’t play a goddamn throat warbler or a kazoo. No one ever heard him play a note, and no one ever saw a score he’d written, not until after he was taken out. He told us that he was a studio composer for the commercials we saw on television, but wouldn’t tell us which commercial jingles were the ones he composed, and so, even though he seemed to have some cash from those alleged commercials of his, and didn’t have to work like us, we suspicioned. He told us that the jingles paid the bills while he performed alchemical experiments and composed serious music, that one day he would only experiment and create art. One of those guys who thinks art can replace work. Asshole. We loved him. We loved him because he tried to do shit we couldn’t even think about doing, because we were too concerned about doing shit that actually mattered. Like eating, for fuck’s sake.
Blaise is still alive, but he shouldn’t be. His alchemy consisted of searching for a formula that would solve a problem he’d never tell anyone about. When he met Cyndi, he didn’t know that she’d been running all over the neighborhood telling everyone that she was getting the hell out of Oakland, that she was going to get pregnant and marry a scientist, in that order. She wanted her ticket out, and every day all she heard in school was that science was where the bucks were, and so a scientist she sought, even though she couldn’t tell a scientist from a bartender. She had no idea that alchemy was an art long abandoned and dead, a relic of the Renaissance. So when Blaise moved to town—he wasn’t one of us, but instead a Southern Californian who grew up living on a hill—and he’d been to a community college in L.A. for two years, the only guy in the neighborhood, excepting Shapiro, who’d ever set foot in a real college and not just a union hall training course or cop school or refer/a-c camp. So why’s he in Oakland? Because his aunt died and left him the house. On 62nd Avenue, right in the heart of the ghetto, much to his surprise. He used to come up from L.A. summers when he was a kid and the hood was white, and that’s what he remembered, not the ornamental-iron cage with fried chicken bones on the lawn and junkies on the run from the cops hopping his fence every night like Olympic hurdlers.
When Blaise moved to the neighborhood someone told Cyndi that he was an alchemist, and she asked what an alchemist was. A scientist, is what she was told, and then Cyndi went after Blaise balls out and titties turned upward. When Blaise met all the guys at Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, he told us he was getting married and he bought us drinks, and then he stood there smiling and telling us about how this woman, his love, his angel, his mythological Celtic goddess, made him shoot his wad five times the first night he spent boning her. Pregnant, we all thought. She milked him, and now he’s had it, the poor son of a bitch. We all knew better than to go near Cyndi, and she’d at one time or another howled at most of our windows—those of us who had good union jobs—late at night and begged us for our dicks. She even called Ed the Jew and whispered to him, “Please, Eddie, please come fuck me. I’m so wet. Please fuck me, Eddie.” And Ed the Jew, the ugliest of all of us, well, he was married to a beautiful sad woman, long dark hair and eyes that were older than the world, and he treated her like shit, threatening her all the time that he’d throw her out on her ass, telling her that she was lucky, bitch, that anyone would have her. And she believed him, even though any of us would have taken her in a flat second. Ed the Jew went and screwed old howler Cyndi, not telling her—like he told us afterward—that his pecker shoots blanks, and so there was no way she was going to catch him in her baby making snatch.
It wasn’t long before Cyndi decided that she didn’t like scientists after all, particularly scientists who are composers as well, and least of all those of the genus Blaise variety. Blaise was an Italian—Catholic, that is—and so of course he married her when, a few weeks after the five orgasm evening, she announced the arrival of the swelling zygote in her quim. Blaise owned the dead aunt’s house, making him initially double desirable—a landowner—and making him an honorary citizen and another among the whitey minority, and therefore hated and fair and obligatory game for the blacks and Mexicans. Blaise became a local celebrity at Dick’s, showing up at six in the morning when we were having our pre-work vodkas, except Blaise didn’t leave. He’d still be there at noon when we came for our mid-day picker-upper. The baby was almost due, and Cyndi was going out of her mind because she didn’t want to live in Oakland—as if any of us wanted to live in Oakland, for fuck’s sake. Why’d I marry a nerdy goofball scientist if I was just going to have to live in this shithole! But Blaise’s science, she had discovered, wasn’t the science you see on the TV, the Berkeley or Harvard dude in the white smock making a killing designing weapons that melt the eyeballs of billions of gooks and turn their bones into interstellar dust, then coming home to his swanky house with a dock and a rowboat in which he stored a ukulele that he’d play her love songs on while he paddled around at sunset. No, Blaise’s alchemy consisted of a little shed he’d built in the backyard, an ice-chest filled with cheap vodka that came in plastic bottles, a stack of paper, some pens, a port-a-potty so he didn’t have to ever come out, and a door that locked from the inside so no one could bother him, especially his new bride. What he was working on? None of us knew, and when we’d ask him, he’d just say, “Yes.” We’d push him, we’d buy him drinks, we’d try to get him drunker but he’d just smile, even when his head was hanging, and he’d say, “Yes.” He was kind of fucked up, come to think of it.
The day after the baby was born, the blacks and Mexicans welcomed Blaise to the neighborhood, Oakland fashion, the Mexicans stopping their low-rider in front of Blaise and Cyndi’s house, parked, and a black dude was walking past on the sidewalk and they opened fire, zip guns and pistols, the black dude a mess of meat strewn all over the yard and guts and blood splattered on the house’s windows and porch. That wasn’t the bad part, though, not for Blaise. The bad part, he told us, was that Cyndi really hated him after the “multi-cultural exchange,” as he called it. Cyndi hated him because when the bullets started flying, when they came through the front of the house and peppered the walls, Blaise grabbed the baby out of Cyndi’s hands and dove, protecting himself and the baby, while Cyndi, in some kind of chick state of shock, just stood there, motionless. She just stood there and most of the bullets missed her, but one didn’t. It went through a butt-cheek and lodged right in her asshole. She screamed, “They shot my ass! They shot my ass!” and Blaise laughed. He couldn’t help it, he told us, it was just so fucking funny, at the time. Even at the hospital, when she came out of the anesthesia and asked Blaise if she was okay, if she’d live, Blaise laughed even then, and he said, “You had a bullet stuck in your asshole, but someday you’ll shit just fine again.” Cyndi never forgave him, didn’t forgive him for not helping her out of harm’s way, didn’t forgive him for laughing when she got shot in the ass, and sure as shit never forgave him for making that crack about being able to shit fine again someday. And the more pissed off she got at him, the less he gave a fuck. She’d be hobbling around complaining about her asshole, and he’d tell her that someday he’d have the money to buy her a bionic asshole, one that would be able to shoot a turd three hundred yards with the accuracy to pop a Mexican square between the eyes.
Blaise went to work harder than ever at his alchemy, or his composing, or whatever the fuck he was up to, locking himself away in his shed for weeks at a time, never coming out except to sneak some food or dump his port-a-potty along the fence in the backyard, making a dash back into the shed before Cyndi could catch him. She was still too fat from the baby and hobbling too much from her injured asshole to start screwing around on Blaise—Ed the Jew told us he wouldn’t even fuck her anymore, not without her asshole, because Cyndi’s asshole, Ed the Jew assured us, was exactly fifty-one percent of what was interesting about Cyndi—and so what she’d do was stand in the backyard holding the baby in the air and yelling at Blaise, calling him every name she could think of, screeching, “This is your baby! Your baby, you motherfucker! Some fucking father you are!” And one time she even wedged a two-by-four under Blaise’s shack and tipped it over when he was inside.
She left him. She left him and took his baby, took his baby away, took away his child. They do that, our women. She left him, took the baby, and told him he was a very bad father, pointing and wagging her finger at him like she was scolding a naughty child, which, of course, is the worst thing you can tell or do to one of us. Christ, we know we’re bad men, no one knows that better than us. Hell, we know we’re bad human beings, but what we hope, what we want, is to make some goddamn babies and raise them better than we’ve been raised. We want to make up for our shittiness by producing people, kids, that are better than us, that have it better, that get the toys we did not get, desserts after every fucking meal.
When Cyndi left, Blaise lost it. He sold the house and moved into a stucco apartment building that used to be a shitty motel just two doors down. He sold all his stuff. I bought his silverware. Louie, the bartender at Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, bought his velvet Elvis. “She told me I’m a bad father. She took my baby. She took my baby,” and that’s all we ever heard before he stopped coming to Dick’s. “She took my baby,” he’d say. “My flesh and blood, my progeny, my raison d’etre, my soul. My child is going to be raised by that harpy.” When he stopped making forays into public, we’d send recon teams to check up on him, and Blaise would just be sitting in the little apartment he’d rented watching CNN, mesmerized, bottle of vodka in one hand and a cigar in the other. There was no furniture in his apartment, not a scrap, just a TV on the floor and a boom-box that played the classical station even while the TV was blaring. No food in the fridge. Not even beer. No dishes. A bar of soap in the bathroom, but no towels, no washrags. What was weird, though, was the floor of his bathroom. It was lined with row after row of bleach bottles, and each time anyone pissed or shat in his toilet, he’d dump in a bottle of bleach. That was one clean fucking toilet.
Everything that happened on the news was a sign from the gods for Blaise. A tornado would rip through some dipshit trailer park in Texas and Blaise would know, I mean he’d know, that the government was conducting secret weather-manipulating experiments that would eventually culminate in a cataclysmic weapon that would shear renegade neighborhoods from the map. Some carpet-pilot in the Middle East would mumble about Allah and then blow himself up in the market square in Jerusalem, and Blaise would have visions of angels warring in the heavens. A species of toad would go extinct in the rain forests of Brazil and Blaise would calculate the precise hour of mankind’s final breath. If a sandstorm in Egypt burned a whisker off the Sphinx, a curse had been unleashed and punishment was coming, the wrath of ancient demons rolling across the planet in a wave of sulphurous fire.
Yeah, yeah. We’d seen this kind of shit before, so none of us was all too worried. It was a stage we all went through once in a while. That’s just the way things work. Louie, the bartender, was used to us having the occasional vision of doom. “It’s just the scaries,” Louie would say. “We all get them, the scaries. But eventually the scaries go away.” And he’d help whoever’d fallen off their stool, prop him back up at the bar, and pour him another cocktail. The scaries? No problem. That’s why God invented booze.
We’d seen it all before, but we’d never seen a complete flipout, not Blaise-style. His ravings about gods and goddesses, his references to stuff we didn’t know shit about, his high-falutin cosmopolitical geoconspiratorial goop—well, we chalked it up to all that education he’d got himself at his fancy community college, all the crap he’d been served by his goofball hippie professors with more degrees than common sense. Hell, Blaise didn’t sound any more out there than the nutcases you could hear at any rally, in any bar, on any street corner in Berkeley, the Bay Area’s no-man’s hive of screwed up whacked-out pot-head acid-freaked zombies with degrees that were good for nothing but rolling their joints and wiping their educated assholes.
Blaise had always talked like one of them, big words and ideas not that we couldn’t understand, but that we didn’t give a shit about. When he flipped out, when he started up his own personal Church of Incomprehensible Bullshit, when he started sounding like he’d been sucking on an exhaust pipe, we still checked up on him. But when he went over the edge, when he lost it utterly and went beyond what any of us had ever seen, we said fuckit. What’s the point? Not only was he was gone into Berkeley land, sailing away on some fumes none of us wanted to inhale, but instead of just floating away, he made a spectacle of himself, and even though we tried to bring him back down to earth, nothing we tried could tether him. He was gone.
At first, there were merely Blaise sightings. Someone would spot him wandering the neighborhood, shaking his fist at the sky and ranting lines from Shakespeare or the Bible or some shit like that. Glenn said he spotted Blaise one time on the top of the bleachers at Castlemont High School, a piece of re-bar ten feet long in his hand and pointed like a lightning rod, and it was raining and Blaise was laughing so loud Glenn could feel the laughter rumble his feet as if a train were going past. When Tony Polizzi spotted Blaise, Blaise was face down in the gutter on 98th street, right in the heart of the darkest of Oakland dark. Not that this was a big deal, someone face down in the gutter. Hell, we’d all been there. But on that street? Where the nearest white man was miles away and where even in daylight the blacks would gut you at a stoplight if your work truck’s door was unlocked? What the fuck was Blaise doing there, anyway? Polizzi shoved Blaise into his truck and started back toward Dick’s, where people would take care of Blaise and Louie would pour him one of his fancy expensive vodkas, but when Polizzi got to the corner of 98th and East 14th Street, while the truck was moving, Blaise unlocked the door and tumbled himself out onto the street, rolling. Polizzi stopped his truck, but by then Blaise was off and running, howling and reciting some of that college shit of his, disappearing over barbed wire and into dark. After the Incident of 98th Street, we agreed to send Shylock Shapiro to Blaise’s empty apartment to check up on him, because Shapiro was the only one of us who’d been to college, some fancy Jew college in New York City, and because Blaise was obviously not right, and Shapiro wasn’t right either, and maybe they’d have some kind of college boy fucked up simpatico shit going on. Shapiro could hear music playing through Blaise’s door, some kind of classical shit, but it wasn’t quiet like classical music. Instead, it was loud, as if Blaise had hired an entire symphony orchestra and all two hundred musicians were right there in Blaise’s apartment. Who listens to classical shit like that? Only a madman. Shapiro knocked and knocked, beat on that door, and a black chick came out into the hallway and said, “You go, boy. Shut that crazy-ass honky motherfuck the motherfuck up. He crazy. And shit.” And Shapiro beat on that door, and finally Blaise answered and his eye was leaking blood, blood streaming down his cheek and neck and staining his shirt, not fast bleeding but a steady leak like a brake line or better yet like a transmission line, the red fluid oozing in visible pulses. Blaise held a bottle of vodka. He held it out to Shapiro, uncapped. “Have a drink, good sir?” he said. What had Blaise done? He’d jabbed his eye with an ice pick—Shapiro saw it on the floor, bloody—and when Shapiro took him to the hospital, dragged him there, actually, all Blaise did was rant about some dude named Glouster, about Oedipus, about how “mine eyes seeth not the evil of the world.”
After the Incident of the Eyeball, we knew things had gotten out of hand, so we sent Owen Jorgensen after Blaise. Jorgensen was a retired Navy SEAL, and he was a serious person, Jorgensen. He worked for the Concrete Wall Sawing guys, demo—demolition. He loved blowing shit up, anything. Fourth of July he’d bring out all the stuff he’d swiped when he got discharged, his footlocker filled with sticks of dynamite and plastic explosives and detonators and all kinds of other goodies that made a statement, and he’d dance in the alley and we’d drink beers and duck for cover and laugh hysterical when he blasted a tricycle into the air or blew a crater into the asphalt. Buildings, though, buildings were his favorites, tearing them into rubble. There’d been half a dozen houses filled with Mexican gangs that’d been mysteriously blown to smithereens since Jorgensen retired and came home to the neighborhood. None of us minded one bit, because those scumbags were nothing but trouble anyway, pothead lowrider fucks. Jorgensen was the Concrete Wall Sawing explosives man, doing what he loved best, destroying. “It’s better to destroy than to create,” he’d say. “And the effects are more permanent and more sublime. Eternal.” Every time one of us had a problem, every time someone at Dick’s got fucked over by his boss, every time someone’s wife was fucking some Mexican or San Francisco lawyer faggot, Jorgensen would practically beg us to let him take care of the problem. “Address,” Jorgensen would say, and he’d put on his sunglasses and stare at us through them, expressionless. And we knew the psycho was absolutely serious, that if we would just give him that address, our problem would be solved, and solved utterly—utterly and without repercussions. And we loved him, and he loved us all, Jorgensen. He loved us, and he’d do anything for us, and he’d be able to take care of our problems without getting caught, because that’s what he’d done for a living. We needed someone tougher and smarter than us to get Blaise straightened out, and Jorgensen was the man for the Blaise problem. He’d been asking us to send him all along, telling us that he could take care of this shit, but we’d not wanted to send him, for obvious reasons. Now, though, now it was time for Jorgensen, and so we let him loose on Blaise.
When we asked Jorgensen to take care of Blaise’s problem, of course the first thing Jorgensen thought was that we were putting a hit on Blaise’s ex, Cyndi. “About damned time,” Jorgensen said. He took his sunglasses from the pocket of his pea-coat and put them on. Jorgensen said, “Address.” Then he smiled. No, we said, it’s not his ex, it’s Blaise. Jorgensen stopped smiling. “Look,” he said, “Blaise isn’t my best buddy in the world, but he’s a buddy. I drink vodka with him right here in this bar. I have no problem with bitch ex’s, or with their new lover-boys, but I draw a line. No one I drink with is a potential target.” We were relieved to hear this, and I bought a round for everyone, and we drank together, us and Jorgensen.
We took turns telling Jorgensen what we knew of the Blaise situation. I said, “Blaise bleaches the toilet after every piss and every turd, a gallon of bleach for every pint of piss.” Shapiro told of the Incident of the Eyeball, Polizzi recounted the 98th Street Occurrence. Glenn explained the Castlemont High Bleachers Improper Laughter Event.
Jorgensen shook his head. “Every time?” Jorgensen said.
Jorgensen said, “Something must be done.”
Jorgensen told us that he’d do it right. He told us that first he’d cover the necessary intelligence, find out everything he could about the target. He led us outside to his F-150 and opened his tool boxes. They were filled with all kinds of stuff, boxes of ammo, pistols, disassembled automatic weapons, Tommy-gun shotgun cartridges to make streetsweepers with, plastic explosives and detonators we’d seen him fart around with every Fourth of July, sticks of dynamite. He pulled a cammie combat vest from the top of the pile and put it on. He checked it—pistols strapped to the inside, knives in a dozen pockets, metal Chinese stars that looked like they could mow down a telephone pole, grenades.
He told us about the stuff. “Knee pads,” he said. “For CQB, Close Quarters Battle. A Super Lite bullet proof vest, Classified, you tell, you die.” He looked at us. We nodded. We understood. “First-aid kit for self-surgery, claymores, frag-grenades, Blackhawk assault vest, 40mm grenade launcher. A Surefire flash light with visible laser sight mechanism—hey, put the red dot on what you want to kill, maim, or destroy. Pop goes the weasel!”
“But Jorgensen,” I said. “We just want you to take care of him.”
Jorgensen jerked his head toward me. He stared. His eyes twitched. “You,” he said. He looked at all of us. “You, my friends, are sending me on a mission. Do you understand.”
I said, “We understand, but.”
“But nothing,” Jorgensen said. “You are sending me on a mission. On a mission a man must be prepared. If you shits understood this basic principle of survival, if Blaise understood this most elementary aspect of the nature of the way things work, he wouldn’t need me. And neither would you.”
We looked at the ground.
“Any more dumb-ass comments?” Jorgensen said. “No? Good. Now,” he said, and he continued. “Multiban-inter/intra team radio specific for spec-ops coms known as the an/prc-148, alternatively as the ‘lash’ which is the unit mounted around the neck and larynx throat-operated mike, the MSHR encrypted coms unit. I can whisper and my team will hear me like the voice of God. Flotation flak jacket configured as a raid vest with D-rings mag-pouches and accessory pouches strategically located. An LBV, Load Bearing Vest, will carry from 125 to 200 pounds of equipment. I carry one whole hell lot of shit.”
And on and on he went.
He tossed a grenade at Shapiro, the wimpiest of all of us. “Don’t drop that flash-banger,” Jorgensen said. He looked at Shapiro serious behind those sunglasses of his. He lifted a box and opened it and it was filled with electronic equipment. “Wiretaps,” he said, “to discern the nature of his communications and the possible effects of hostile incoming, namely, The Ex.” He lifted another box and opened it. “Night vision,” he said, patting the goggles with love. “An AN/PVS-7 and the new AN/PVS-21 see-through NVG, strobe light. If the target leaves under cover of darkness, tracking him will be as easy as trailing a semi.” From the same box he pulled a mini radar looking thing. “Ears,” he said. “His mutterings will be known.” He looked at Shapiro. “I’m counting on you to translate that college boy bullshit. I’ll provide tapes, you transcribe them, and then they must be destroyed. Audio recordings, unlike video impressions, are illegal unless proper consent is secured. That’s the law.”
It wasn’t quite what we wanted of Jorgensen. All we really wanted was for Jorgensen to gather up some of Blaise’s remains and stop Blaise from destroying himself, scare the living shit out of him enough to make him stop acting stupid over a cunt and her deviously conceived progeny, because though we’d all been down, and were sure to go down again, we’d not seen anyone down as far as Blaise without rubbing himself out, shooting himself or gutting himself or drinking himself to death or just plain losing the will to live and letting his heart stop beating. Fucking alto, amigo. No mas, adios. We just wanted Jorgensen to slap some fucking sense into Blaise. Sure, Blaise was kind of weird, fucked up in ways we didn’t really understand, way out there because of all his college and books and big goddamn words. But Blaise was one of us, and anytime one of us went down, in a way we all did, we all dropped yet another rung down into the shitpile of life, and although none of us ever entertained any hopes of climbing any higher out of the shitpile, none of us for damn fuck’s sake wanted to go any fucking lower. We were all way to close to the bottom, and we knew it. Lose Blaise, and the next thing you know you can’t even afford Olympia beer. Lose Blaise, like we’d already lost Mike, Earl, P.J., George, Andrew, Joey Corollo, Clyde Lee, Bill Ware, Antonio—shit, lose Blaise, and it would take a lot of beers to get over it. Blaise wasn’t even bad off. He still had some money coming in from his jingles, Blaise. He’d been to college. He was nowhere near the bottom. He scrubbed toilets not because he had to, but because he wanted to, for fuck’s sake.
We didn’t see or hear from either Blaise or Jorgensen for about two weeks, but one day, Jorgensen walked into Dick’s with a bunch of rolls of paper tucked beneath his arms. He was wearing his sunglasses and his combat vest. He looked bigger than he usually did. Really big. His chest looked like a 55 gallon oil drum, full. He was a big son of a bitch, for some reason. “Non-regulars,” he said. “Out,” he said. “Now.” Jorgensen looked at the new guy. The new guy left. I finished his scotch. Hell, it was some of that expensive shit Louie keeps only for show. No sense in wasting that stuff.
Jorgensen said, “Clear the bar.” What, we said. “Clear. A clean bar is necessary.” And we took our beers and drinks and cleared the way. He set the scrolls on the bar and began unrolling them, grabbing cocktail glasses to hold the paper down. We sidled up to the bar to see what was the what. Blueprints, is what. Schematics. Detailed studies of all Blaise’s comings and goings, of every movement he’d made in the past two weeks. Arrows, dotted lines, stick figures, special symbols, skulls and crossbones, Spy-v-Spy little black bombs sparkling and ready to explode, color-coded indexed dated timed and stamped, notary-public. He’d coded a legend at the bottom of each scroll as if each were an atlas. “The life of Blaise,” Jorgensen said.
“Blaise is a consistent person,” Jorgensen said. “Every day he does the same things at the same times in the same ways. As far as targets go, he gives any professional a hard dick. O-four hundred hours, Blaise leans out of bed, left hand on the floor followed by left foot and then right hand and foot, resulting in a four-point position resembling either a baby or a soldier, depending on one’s perspective and personal opinion. Soldier, in my opinion.” He gave us that look of his. He said, “Soldier.”
There was a reverence in Jorgensen’s voice I’d not before heard. It was as if he were way too commiserate with psycho Blaise. Jorgensen understood something about Blaise that we didn’t, and I could tell the rest of the guys felt as funny about it as I did. Somehow I felt really small, like some fucking dwarf that didn’t understand the world of great men.
“Purification,” Jorgensen said. “He crawls to the toilet, vomits, then pours a gallon of Clorox bleach into the toilet and scrubs with his hands, wiping the random splatters with bleach soaked toilet tissue, Charmin. After clearing of the stomach, emptying of the intestines and bladder, followed by Clorox and toilet tissue spot check. Sweat, the color and texture of cooled bacon grease, oozes slowly from temples, brow, neck, armpits, and groin.”
“Jorgensen,” I said.
“O-four thirteen, to the kitchen, clad in boxer shorts, plain white and uncannily sanitary. Open freezer. Withdraw Absolut vodka bottle, 1.75 liter, four gulps, Adam’s apple clicking once per gulp. Cap rescrewed, bottle reinstalled.”
“Jorgensen,” I said. “We don’t need all the details.”
He gave me another one of those looks of his.
I think I might have sighed or something like that, an outsuck of breath or a shoulder-slump of desperation or resignation. “Jorgensen.”
He, though, he, Jorgensen, he gave me a look like no one’s ever given me before or since, a look not of disappointment or sadness, no, a look of some kind of shock or disappointment or incomprehension. It was as if I’d said something or done something utterly unutterable, something so wrong that no human being, and certainly no one at Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge would ever say, something so bad that somehow Jorgensen’s faith, his belief in humanity, had been shaken, had been rended and ripped and torn and shredded and stomped upon. It was as if I’d told Owen Jorgensen that his work didn’t matter, and there’s nothing worse you can tell a man who’s having a beer at Dick’s.
“You know,” Jorgensen said. “You know, details.” He told Louie to bring him a glass of bottled water.
“Not a beer?” Louie said.
“A soldier,” he said, “a man,” he said, “does not compromise his clarity,” Jorgensen said.
“Water,” Jorgensen said.
“Water,” Shapiro said.
Jorgensen cut Shapiro a look.
“What?” Shapiro said. “What? What? What.”
Jorgensen bowed his head as if in prayer, then slowly raised it. He looked creepy, like someone truly serious. His head looked fucking huge. He took off his cap. He’d shaved it. His skull looked like someone had pounded it with a ball-peen hammer. You could see dents and craters. Fucked up, that head of his.
“You boys have called on me,” Jorgensen said. “And do you know why? Why is this. Why is because I know the difference between that which is clear and that which is not, and these two things can be predetermined by he who nourishes clarity. Know the other,” Jorgensen said. “Know yourself, and victory will not be at risk. Know the ground, know the conditions of nature. The victory will be utter. If we know the face of the enemy. If you intend to win the war, it is proper to continue fighting. If loss is imminent, it is prudent to quit. If you do not know—well gentlemen, if you don’t know, you’re fucked.”
Jorgensen took a sip of water. “I never fight,” Jorgensen said, “if I don’t know. In order to know, one must gather, one must ingest, one must become details.”
He looked around the room. “Details,” he said. “Details, gentlemen. If you’d paid heed to details, you wouldn’t be here with the likes of me. Fuckup motherfuckers.”
Someone bought Jorgensen a drink.
Jorgensen pushed the drink aside and took another sip of his water. “To continue,” he said. “The target then returns to his bedroom, attires himself in unfashionable straight-legged jeans, Puritan label—Wal-Mart—and denim button-up shirt. Florsheim wing-tips, black. Returns to refrigerator, four more generous gulps of Absolut vodka. He then makes phone calls. It is these phone calls that pose the most interesting question concerning the target and his behavior.”
Jorgensen reached into his ruck-sack and pulled out a small plastic box. Inside were a dozen cassette tapes, each labeled. He handed the tapes to Shapiro. “A transcript, accompanied by a translation of his psycho-babble. By seventeen hundred hours. Return the tapes to me so that I can destroy them with acid.”
Jorgensen looked at us hard. “The case of Blaise is perhaps more serious and sinister than any of us had suspected. This is not merely a matter of Clorox.”
“He’s that fucked up?”
“You guys remember the Chavez girls?”
We remembered. They were two of the sexiest girls in Oakland, and no one we knew had ever gotten to screw them. They were legendary. When one of them came into the Mohawk station, everybody fought for the chance to fill their tank, to, as we’d say, give them the hose. Their cars always left with the air pressure exactly on target, the oil, water, transmission oil, brake fluid, and windshield wipers checked. We’d be readjusting our dicks for an hour after one of them came in. About six months before the case of Blaise someone had killed both of them, raped them, chopped their heads off, and, according to Eddie Martino the cop, each of them had their hands and tongues cut off. It was pretty nasty. Cutting off heads is one thing, but cutting off tongues and hands, that’s another. That shit don’t make the papers.
“Blaise may be the killer,” Jorgensen said.
We laughed and tipped one. Blaise? Right. Blaise might have been a nut case, but he was one pussy-ass Southern California wimp. There was no way Blaise cut a girl’s tongue out. No way.
“His phone calls,” Jorgensen said, “are to the coroner, the police, the morgue, the cemetery, the Chavez parents, and the girls’ friends. In that order, every day. He wants all the details, and he’s writing them down, copiously and with method. The tapes will tell.”
Jorgensen directed us to his scrolls, and he told us the rest, indicating Blaise’s movements with his finger moving along carefully drawn and color-coded lines on the schematic. Every day Blaise would leave his apartment and walk to Cyndi’s house across town, a seven mile trek, and he’d just sit on the curb across the street staring, sometimes crying when he caught a glimpse of the kid. Then he’d pull a little notebook out of his pocket and retrace the steps of the Chavez girls’ last day alive, starting at their parents’ house, going to their boyfriends’ houses, on to Castlemont High, from class to class and Blaise would walk the halls—he’d convinced the guards that he was on the school board—and then to the Mac’s Lounge where they’d had lunch together, back to school, to the football field where they’d had cheerleader practice.
Jorgensen paused. He knitted his brow and said, “Here the target deviates from the Chavez girls’ last day. He drives to Medeiros Liquors and purchases a liter of Absolut, opens the bottle, takes four gulps, caps the bottle and places it in the trunk of his car. He then resumes the day of the girls—to their boyfriends’ houses, each in turn, as the target could not be in two places at once.” At nightfall, Blaise would sit in front of the house until the time when they’d gone on their dates, Lucy and her boy to Skyline Boulevard to make out with a view of Oakland and San Francisco spreading out like a miracle and looking beautiful instead of ugly, Maria and her boy to the San Leandro Marina, the Oakland dumps to one side, San Mateo across the water of the bay, Tony Lema landfill golf course behind them, the smell of methane rising like a fog as they fucked in the car. And Blaise went to each place, squatted and with his chin cupped in his hands, staring, crying. The Chavez girls met up a midnight in Berkeley to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and after the show they went to the bathroom and that was the last time anybody saw them, except the guy who killed them. So every night Blaise would go to the theater, and the nights The Rocky Horror Picture Show wasn’t playing, he’d watch whatever was, then go into the ladies’ restroom at the exact time the Chavez girls would have.
We shook our heads. We drank.
“The ladies’ restroom excursions are not the fucked up part, nor are they the most incriminating,” Jorgensen said. “What’s fucked up is this. After the target emerges from the ladies’ room, he gets into his car and drives to Mountain View Cemetery, locates the graves of the Chavez girls—section one hundred sixty-six, row forty-five, lot thirteen, Lucy, and fourteen, Maria—and he lies down, alternately, for one hour sixteen to one hour twenty-two minutes, on their graves. After which he returns home and drinks most of the bottle of Absolut purchased during the day, leaving enough to drink in the morning, the ritual of which I have conveyed.”
“Fuck,” someone said.
“Yes,” Jorgensen said. “Fuck.”
“The fuck,” someone said.
“The fuck,” Jorgensen agreed.
“What the fuck,” someone said.
“I’m not the only professional on this case,” Jorgensen said. “The FBI and the local authorities are both very interested. Very interested indeed. Do you know how difficult it is to tap a wire that is already tapped? Do you know? Do you? No,” Jorgensen said. “No you don’t.”
“Fuck,” someone said.
“The target has an alibi. The night of the Chavez double murder, he was in the hospital with his wife, who had a bullet lodged in her anus. However, the anus alibi may be a cover for the crime. At least that is the suspicion of the law enforcement agencies interested in the case. They suspect.”
Jorgensen pointed to his maps, took a pencil from one of his vest pockets, and drew an X over Blaise’s apartment. “The target must be silenced,” Jorgensen said. “He may be silenced through removal, relocation, or means more sure.” Jorgensen said, “In any event, the target must be silenced. Promptly, and permanently. For the sake of the neighborhood. For the sake of Blaise the Suffering Soldier.”
He slammed his water back like it was a shot of Beam. “This briefing has concluded,” he said.
He snapped his sunglasses to his face, rolled up his scrolls, and marched on out of Dick’s. He had to turn sideways to walk out the door, so big were his shoulders, and so much equipment he bore beneath his vest.
We didn’t see Jorgensen for two more weeks, and so we figured that nothing had changed, or would. At Dick’s things stayed the same. I kept playing Cumbias and Rancheras and Merengue with Los Asesinos at the Mexican nightclubs and weddings and quinceaneras and parties while working days as a laborer, my most recent gig running the tar mop on commercial roofs, warehouses mostly, nasty rusted oversized corrugated tin sheds, sweating my ass off in the crude oil steam, actually getting to like the smell.
The day Jorgensen resurfaced was not a good day. Louie, the bartender, had discovered that not only had some chick he’d banged twenty years before given him a child, but that she’d popped out a set of triplets. Three boys, now men, and they all hated him, because all the mother had done for twenty years, twenty pissed off Italian Catholic years, is train them, train them to hate the motherfucker who fucked her and left her pregnant in the Bronx, where Louie was from, left her knocked up in a roach infested walk-up, and then blew out of town to California, where all the pretty people lived. Louie the deadbeat, Louie the louse, Louie the no-child-support no-Christmas-present no-christening-card no-graduation-present no-college-fund no-count piece of human shit. The triplets had come in at lunchtime, and Louie didn’t know at first who they were, and then the awful fact began to dawn on him, the fact that there were three, that he’d knocked up a Maria and she’d had not one child but triplets. They’d come into Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge and bought a bottle of whiskey, bought the whole bottle, and told Louie they wanted three shotglasses. Louie looked at them, the three of them, huge Bronx men dressed in black tee shirts, muscles bulging, black Ben Davis work pants and even the baggy Ben’s weren’t enough to hide the huge thighs—these sons of bitches looked like they’d been working out their entire lives just for this meeting—and speaking in the old neighborhood accent and sounding exactly like him, looking exactly like him, four Louies at the bar all looking at each other, three Louies looking at Louie like they were going to kill him, talking about their deadbeat motherfucker father and how they were going to take care of his sorry ass, and just how they were going to do it, in great detail. They nailed that bottle, and they left Louie a c-note for a tip. The last tip Louie thought he was ever going to get, and he was sure that’s what the triplets had intended him to think. Louie was not in good shape. His hands shook when he poured our beers. And then, to ice it, Jorgensen walked in, and Jorgensen was excited, something we all thought impossible for Jorgensen, the levelest head of us all. His face was painted green and black. He was wearing his sunglasses. Sweat dripped down his face and smeared his warpaint. He had a big manila folder in his hand. He looked very serious.
“Hey Louie,” Carlo Mendez said. “Hey, the scaries always go away.”
Dave Campos said, “A triple-shot for Louie!”
Jorgensen looked at Campos and Mendez with contempt. He said, “Non-regulars, out.”
No one moved.
“Now,” Jorgensen said. And he meant it truly. Something was up. Something was very wrong.
The non-regulars were women. One of them ugly, the other a two o’clock special, suitable after a long night.
“Don’t send out the beautiful ladies,” Shapiro said.
Jorgensen said, “I will tell your tales first.” He said, “Would you like that, Shylock?”
Shapiro turned to the women. “You have to leave,” he said.
He tried to get the non-ugly’s phone number while he was helping her on with her sweater, but she’d have none of it. “Assholes,” she said as she stood. The porker was cool about the expulsion. She acted like it happened all the time.
Jorgensen said, “The mission is complete.”
He killed Blaise, what I thought. He tried to reason with the crazed alchemist composer, a struggle ensued because Blaise doesn’t have the common sense of a turnip, and Blaise lashed out, and Jorgensen, trained to react and to kill before being killed, Jorgensen whipped out some knife or pistol or grenade and stuffed it down crazy Blaise’s throat and that was that, end of Blaise. And now Jorgensen was human. Jorgensen needed help because he’d murdered someone without the sanction of the U.S. of A. Jorgensen never understood that you don’t get medals for killing people unless you’re killing people you don’t know and who’ve never done a fucking thing to you. Half of us had either killed someone, had someone killed, or had someone in the family do one or the other.
“Blaise is gone,” Jorgensen said. “He will no longer be a concern.”
He took off his sunglasses, and he looked at us, and the look was one of shame.
“I have failed,” he said.
If I hadn’t have known better, known it was sweat trickling from his forehead, I’d have sworn I saw a tear.
He set the manila folder down on the bar and sat on a stool. The Raiders were not winning, Louie was all messed up, Shapiro’s wife had given him “one year’s notice,” told him that if he didn’t shape up and start making more money like a man, if he didn’t give her a real home, she was going to dump him. “And then she went shopping,” Shapiro said, “bought a bunch of expensive organic vegetables and fruits. Do you know how much that stuff costs?” It was shaping up to be a pretty rotten day.
“Jack Daniels,” Jorgensen said, and we all knew that something was seriously wrong. No one ever ordered stuff like that except non-regulars. Why buy that stuff when Beam gets you just as drunk and costs half as much? Sure, you get a hangover, but you get a hangover from anything. Hell, if you haven’t had much to eat, you can even get a hangover from beer if you drink a few twelvers.
Louie lined him up. Jorgensen tossed it back. “Another,” he said. Louie poured. Jorgensen drank. “Bottle,” Jorgensen said. Louie slid the bottle in front of him. Jorgensen drank.
We just watched him, sat quiet and sipping. We knew eventually, when he’d had enough, he’d cue us in to the score.
Jorgensen drunk is not a good thing, usually. It doesn’t happen often, because Jorgensen doesn’t like the mop-up work afterwards, retracing his steps and fixing the shit he’s fucked up, making all those phone calls. That can be some real work. Sure, when there’s women and when he’s happy, he’s a good drunk, like anyone is when he’s got a woman wants to go home with him. But when he’s going to go home alone, and when he’s not happy to start with, and when he gets drunk, and especially when someone messes with him, then, then Jorgensen drunk is not a good thing. He’s pretty quick with those knives of his, Jorgensen. He could be just sitting there at his stool, calm as ditch water, and if he’s had enough to drink, and if someone crosses one of his lines—and still no one is quite sure of what those lines are—they shift around all the time—once Polizzi ended up with a broken finger for putting cream in his coffee—if someone crosses the line the next thing you know Jorgensen has one of us on the ground, three or four knives in his hands, one of them at our throat.
“I was posted in the park, approximately two hundred yards from the residence of the target,” Jorgensen said. “In a redwood tree.”
And he told us what happened. “Feds,” Jorgensen said. “Stupid fuck started making house calls at the homes of kidnapped girls. Kidnapping, federal. Not good.”
Jorgensen said he was perched in the redwood, binoculars trained on Blaise, when he saw the vans and unmarkeds silently coast to stops to either side of Blaise’s, engines turned off, vehicles in neutral, stealth mode. Two SWAT teams in full combat gear and two carloads of CO’s emptied onto the street and fanned out, surrounding Blaise’s apartment building. The exterior units used ropes to scale the walls, the interior units poised at the rear and front entrances. Then they stormed, crashing through Blaise’s door and windows. They trained their weapons on Blaise, smashed his face down on his manuscript, manacled his wrists and ankles, and carried him down the stairs, depositing him in the back seat of one of the unmarked cars. Blaise was limp, as if he hadn’t a muscle in his body, and he didn’t say a word. Jorgensen said he even thought he saw Blaise smile.
Jorgensen looked at me. “T-Bird, I give you the remains of Blaise.” And he handed me the manila folder. It was Blaise’s symphony, scored, eighty pages, stopped mid-phrase in the ninth movement. “Is it any good, or is it as insane as Blaise is?”
Everybody knew I played trumpet in the Mexican bands around the Bay Area, and they thought I was pretty damn good, too. But I knew I was just a first-rate second-rate player, good enough to sound badass at a wedding or in a bar, but far from being good enough to play with the pros. There are some things about creating art that cannot be learned, that either you got or you don’t. And I knew I didn’t. And on the construction sites, I worked harder and with more seriousness, because I knew that I wasn’t a trumpet player because of gift, but because of inclination. My gift was that I could labor for sixteen hours straight, keep up with the best of the Mexicans, and not pass out. My gift was that I was born to build pyramids.
So the score? I couldn’t read that motherfucker. I could read treble clef, and only in the key of B-flat, the key of the trumpet, which meant that I could read music written for tenor sax and for trumpet, and that’s it, no mas. All that other shit, the key of E-flat, the key of what the fuck ever, bass clef, pentatonic this and mixolydian that, it was all a foreign tongue to me. I couldn’t even play chopsticks on a piano without fucking it up, and plenty of times I’d tried. Some guys, they can look at a score and actually hear the music, hear all the instruments playing, hear what the piece would sound like in a concert hall. They can look at the notes on the page scattered all over the place like some spattering of ink drops, they can see the mess and their brains instantaneously translate the gibberish secret code into a hundred and twenty musicians moaning a note, moving through a phrase, swelling to a crescendo, banging the muse. Not me.
So here’s this score in front of me, and all the guys are there, Campos, Polizzi, Shapiro, Jorgensen, Louie. To make things even more fucked up, Pop, my father Pop, walked in. And Pop was a real musician. He’d played in the Oakland Symphony. He could play “Carnival of Venice,” and he knew his way around the ivories. He wasn’t a bar bum, Pop. He walked in and his arms were slick with grease and motor oil and his knuckles were bleeding from banging around under the hood of some fucked up Plymouth or Rambler. Pop walked in and saw the bunch of us sitting there in confused gloom and he said, “What the fuck?”
“Blaise,” I said.
“That bitch,” he said. “What now?”
“He’s in jail,” I said.
Pop looked at Jorgensen. “Well?” Pop said. “I thought you were his friend.”
Jorgensen, steroid pumped Navy SEAL wide as a lube bay solid as a girder Jorgensen, he broke down. He choked, and then he sobbed, and his eyes glazed and got water. We looked away, but Pop didn’t. Pop stared at him. He gave him that look that none of us ever want to get, that look that says, You’re a piece of shit, asshole, and you know what? You, amigo, are not a man to be counted on. You are someone I will not call when the hour is late and the situation is critical. Fucked. You, fuckup, are on the B list.
“Well?” Pop said.
“You want me to kill myself now?” Jorgensen said. “I’ll fucking do it,” he said. “I will.” And he flipped out some big knife from somewhere in his vest and held it at his gut. “I don’t care. Just give me the nod.”
“Hold off, Hoss,” Pop said.
“Pop,” I said. “Jorg tried his best. The feds got Blaise. He’s gone. Adios motherfucker gone, bye-bye,” I said. I said, “But he left this.” And I handed Pop Blaise’s score.
We all looked at Pop, watched him flip through the pages, watched the expression on his face. He first looked at the pages with scrutiny, brows knit. He pulled a Roi-Tan from his coveralls and lit it and puffed on hard. Then he raised his eyebrows, and he looked at us over his plastic Clark Kent black-rimmed glasses, looked at us like he’d heard something we’d said but wasn’t sure exactly what it was, like he was checking on us, looked at us as if we’d done something questionable and a bit on the shady side.
He took his time. We drank some cocktails. It was getting on in the day. Louie’s triplets walked in.
“Out,” Jorgensen said.
“They stay,” Louie said.
Jorgensen gave Louie the look.
“They’re my sons,” Louie said.
They looked mean as shit. Two of them were packing. They ordered cocktails, and Ed the Jew paid. Then he bought a round for the house, un Ed-like. Since cheap-ass Ed the Jew bought a round, so did Shapiro, not to be out-Jewed by The Jew. And since the Jews were buying, shit, all the Catholic WOPs and the Portugees and Danish Jorg and Heinz-57 me, we all bought rounds, and hell, we each had a dozen drinks lined up and Louie’s boys kind of liked that and so did we.
We were getting pretty jolly. The triplets joshed at Louie.
“Fucked our mama and left,” they said. “Made some triplets. Triple shot. Think you have one big-ass dick, don’t you?”
“You little wops haven’t seen a dick till you’ve seen mine, boys,” Louie said. “You think you got dicks like your daddy? Triplets. Each one a third of Big Papa.”
Louie slammed one back—he was drinking his girlie Crown Royals—and then he said, “So let’s see them, boys. Let’s see.”
And Louie asked them if their dicks were as big as his, his big dick triplet-making Italian baby-maker. “You think you’re the only kids I have out there? I’ve probably made fifty or sixty of them.”
The triplets stood up, all three of them and all at once and they dropped their pants and even though they all looked exactly the same in every way we could tell, drawers down they didn’t, and everybody started chanting, “Louie, Louie, Louie,” and Campos chanted a little too enthusiastically and when he saw us look at him he toned that shit down is what he did. We don’t need none of that shit at Dick’s, not even when we’re drunk. We chanted “Louie Louie Louie” until finally he stood on the bar and dropped his drawers and flopped it out, and holy shit. No question about Louie, no way. It was so big we probably all wanted to see him bone a woman we knew. He said, “That puppy’s how you make triplets, boys,” and we cheered and the triplets looked sheepy at first and then they looked really proud. They wanted to buy us drinks, and we let them.
Pop said, “Trumpet.”
“What,” I said.
“You got your horn?”
“In my car,” I said.
“My drink,” I said. “After.”
“Get it,” Pop said, and he meant now.
When I walked outside my eyes blinded white. It was near sunset and the fog had coozed in and the white air was electric. Birds flipped and flitted through the mist like dark ashes. You could hear the trains. You could hear their whistles and their wheels grinding on the iron rails, the crunch and slide of metal on metal. Somewhere a pile-driver slammed rhythmic and sure against concrete, breaking a foundation. Something burned. You couldn’t make out the writing on the billboards on the other side of the street, but you could see the beer bottles and the bikinis and big fake splendid shiny tits. You could see happy white-toothed paper faces. Warning buoys sounded low and plaintive, and they sounded more like they’d lure sailors than avert them, cause sure as shit I’d go toward them instead of away from them, so beautiful and home did they sound. Come home, T-Bird, they called. Come home. On the Nimitz Freeway the semis slicked across the asphalt and circulated the air, and birds and crickets and frogs—frogs in Oakland?—even frogs belched a song in the drape of fog. Oakland is at its best, at its most beautiful, when you can only see twenty feet of it. Oakland is the most beautiful place on the planet, because I’m the one in it, and I, folks, I am a tuning fork over the asshole of beauty. Every note the city makes is tested by me, tuned by me, translated by me. It’s why I’m alive, and it’s why Oakland is alive. And I see it, the beauty, everywhere, in the dandelions on the lawn being poisoned by the suburban lawn fanatic, in the rust on the wall of the warehouse graffitied by the home boys, in the dead duck hanging by the neck in the Chinese grocery, in the fat roll of the retard Martinez boy who sacks my groceries at Pete’s Market in the hood, in the drool that hangs perpetually from the dwarf Tony Costello’s chin because his brain is so fucked up that he can’t even breathe without his sister alongside him saying in, out, in Tony, out Tony, in Tony, out.
The fog curled and settled like some grandmother’s heartfelt Christian blessing. My navy surplus stationwagon was dewed and looked like it’d just had a new Maaco job and had been waxed, and I breathed. I breathed deep and true and splendid and full.
I’m not being corny, and I’m not being ironic. Our beauty, our beauty in my neighborhood is in this: the world, asshole, is only what you can see of it. When you can see only very little, you see it better, you see it more true. We’re cloaked in a shroud of fog in Oakland we are, smothered. And we can’t see the next street corner. And so we examine what we can see, and we know it. We know the cracks on our sidewalks. We know who lives in what apartment, and we know the other senses—we know what it smells like when we pass the Borges house, when we walk past the GE plant. And even if the shit we see is shit other people would think is ugly, it’s just because outsiders are used to the shit they think is beautiful and don’t realize the ugliness of their own spreads, the ugliness of their maids, their gardeners, their plumbers, us. But since we are us, we can see beautiful shit they cannot see. We can see the beauty in a well-made fence, a properly poured driveway, a pregnant and fat and sad Mexican thirteen year old angel, a well demolished building. We, we who live in the ugly, we know beauty that doesn’t get into the art history books. We know what beauty is, and that’s what we got that the fancy fucks don’t. And when I stood outside Dick’s, fetching the family trumpet, which I’d been debasing, honoring, by playing in Mexican nightclubs and at bars when heretofore it had been played in symphony halls around the world by Grandpop Murphy and by Pop, been played before royalty and fancy ass rich fucks, when I stood outside it came to me that my place, my home, my Oakland, my Dick’s filled with drunken maniacal loyal and good men, my place on this planet was a good place, a good place that even though rough and harsh and miserable and awful was nonetheless a place more divine that any god the slaves could have imagined. My Oakland was mine, and it was Louie’s, and Jorgensen’s, and Shapiro’s, and the Oakland of ever other Oaklander that mattered, and we worked and we worked and in Oakland we would die and we would die beautifully and fulfilled, having done everything we were to do.
When I walked back inside, I couldn’t see a thing except the bar lights, neon. The guys were quiet, working on their drinks.
“Give me the horn,” Pop said.
He oiled up the valves and he looked at me as if I’d just handed him a turd. “You ever polish this thing?” he said. “You ever grease the fucking slides? You ever empty the fucking spit-valves? You ever fucking play it?”
I looked at the ground his barstool rested on. “Day job,” I said.
“Day job what?”
“Day job keeps me busy.”
Pop shook his head slow and with a combination of sadness, loathing, and repulsion. Nobody worth a shit ever let his day job get in the way of what he was really all about. Day job. If you can’t do what you want after work, then the awful truth is you don’t want anything. Drink a goddamn beer, fuck your depressed fat wife, and sleep the good hours away, slob.
Louie poured me another Scotch, and Pop flipped through Blaise’s folder once more, studying certain pages, whipping through others. Pop drank water. Jorgensen sat staring at himself in the mirror behind the bar, looking at himself through the bottles and post-it notes. The triplets were pretty hammered now, and they giggled like girls. The phone rang and no one picked it up. A wife, probably. They do that, even though they know where the hell we are. Shapiro and Ed the Jew were talking about money. No shit. That’s all they ever talked about, as if they’d invented it. Otherwise, they hated each other, called each other kikes and Shylocks and fuckwads. But when they were both at Dick’s, they talked cash, even though neither of them really had any. Otherwise, they’d be drinking somewhere else and not hanging out with us. Some non-regulars walked in. Jorgensen didn’t notice. They walked back out.
“Percussion is important,” Pop said. “In this piece.”
“Who else here reads?”
I said I didn’t know.
“Any of you morons read music,” Pop said.
One of the triplets did. So did Ed the Jew and Shapiro. Jorgensen said he was a mean drummer, played in the military band before he wised up to the action and became a SEAL. Weapons make their own sweet tune, he said.
Pop said, “Make yourselves useful.”
“I can play the trumpet line,” I said.
Pop sneered at me. “The trumpet line?” he said. “How about the other lines? How about when the melody is violin or steel drum or oboe? How about when all the trumpet does is punctuate? How about then?”
Tires squealed and someone screamed loud enough outside to make everyone look at the door.
“Jazz,” Pop said.
“Sorry,” I said. And I was.
Pop gathered us around, and he made us rehearse, telling us what lines to read. The triplet used a spoon and a half-full water glass. Ed the Jew and Shapiro, they volunteered to play the call-drink bottles with their porcelain fountain pens, lining up the bottles in ascending order of volume like beautiful and expensive booze marimbas or xylophones. Pop told Jorgensen to use coffee cans and tomato cans and a barstool, beat upon by a spoon, but Jorg said no fucking way, he was all about the body, and would only use his hands and fingers and fists against his body, and Pop said sure without missing a beat.
“How about me?” I said.
“You turn pages.”
I said, “Give me a break.”
Pop said, “No one else here can read music. Someone who knows how to read music has to turn the pages.” He said, “And I’m playing horn.”
Louie poured the musicians another round. We drank it. Pop said it was time. And we played.
It was the most strange and beautiful and horrible depressing thing any of us had ever heard. We smiled, even though we thought we didn’t want to. Sometimes sad shit does that to you. I’ll never figure out why the fuck why.
It started out with just the Jews clinking away on their marimba/xylophone booze bottles, fast and frantic, some kind of jungle melody, running up and down the bottles, the notes jumping across each other, not chromatic but instead in thirds and fourths and sixths and octaves, low-high high-low, clinking and the notes banging against the mirrors and against the linoleum floor, an echo but not a deep one, an instantaneous echo that collided against the notes and created a shrill harmony like the way sometimes the sound of a jackhammer meshes with the sound of the traffic, the traffic like clean grease, grease that’s never been working against a ball-bearing, working like that pure grease and oiling every rattle of the hammer, grating but natural, fluid, the way things should be. Then, while the Jews were playing, and they were truly playing, those Jews, playing as if they were telling us the parts of Exodus that we never hear about in the Bible, telling us about the angst and joy of Biblical Hebrew party-your-ass-off drinking and fucking and praying to a God that had the power to wipe out the Gentiles with a breath and would, while the Jews were summoning up their ancient Jew-god of vengeance and justice, the triplet WOP Italian Catholic joined in, and he wanted to show that even though his dick wasn’t as big as Papa’s, his soul was bigger, and because Louie had abandoned him and fucked him over and made him a bastard forever, he might not have had as big a dick but he had bigger balls, a bigger soul, a soul that would sing for eternity and that would redeem. That little shit played a water-glass like he was knocking on the doors of heaven, and he was going to be let in, he was.
When Jorgensen’s part came in—and it would have been the tympani—Jorg peeled off his vest and his shirt and his pants and he stood there in his military issue tightie-whities. None of us had ever seen him in anything but a long sleeved shirt, protective cover since he worked as not only an assassin but a steel-worker, welding, showered by sparks and flame, Vulcan at his forge. First of all, he was one big sonofabitch, but we’d all seen big motherfuckers before. I’d worked with a construction worker just out of Quentin, a black dude named Fish, who was three hundred fifty pounds of iron, veins bulging through his skin like cables. Hell, Rich Kuam, who didn’t come around much around anymore because he’d finally met a hooker he liked and married her and now he was in some kind of domestic lockup, Kuam was big enough to carry a hooker on each shoulder, and we’d seen him walk into Dick’s plenty of times like that. Kuam would save his money up instead of going out on dates, and twice a year he’d drive up to the Mustang Ranch just outside of Reno and he’d get two hotties, bring them back to Oakland for the whole week, and they’d play house. He never shared. Was never broke. He always had something to look forward to. He was always happy. Kuam, he had the right fucking idea.
So when Jorg took off his shirt we were impressed but not shocked. What startled was that he was covered, I mean covered, with tattoos. No skin showed that wasn’t inked. And you could tell that there were tattoos under his shorts, too. All the way up to his neck, down to his wrists, his entire feet, excepting toenails.
There was nothing trendy about Jorgensen’s tattoos. They were all battle scenes, kills. None of that skull and crossbones dragon big-tittied women Celtic weave scorpion cartoon character Harley Davidson horseshit. Jorgensen’s tattoos were of himself, Jorg in the jungle breaking a drug lord’s guard’s neck barehanded, Jorg in a high-rise scoping a suit-wearing diplomat in the high-rise across the street, Jorg on his belly in the sand taking out a sheik with some kind of telescope machine gun rifle, Jorg in D.C., the capitol in the distance, slitting the throat of a businessman right there on the mall, a crowd strolling past oblivious, Jorg in scuba gear attaching a mine to a yacht, the water clear and the fish sparkling with color. Hundreds of tattoos Jorg had. We were glad he was our friend.
His tympani part came, and Jorg was not only the best killer we’d ever known, but as he stood there in his underwear, his hands became a blur, open-palmed at first, high notes slap-clapping cupped-hand against his inner thighs, he showed us that in that military band he must have been one hell of a drummer. Then his hands flashed faster and higher, he tightening the cup of his hand and moving down his leg along his calves, pop-pop, pip, booming like grenades and gattling gunfire.
This was all preamble, prelude, the background noise of some Los Angeles Oakland Sacramento San Diego Compton San Francisco Los Banos static of Blaise’s mind. The frenzy and rhythm of Blaise’s deliberate suck-ass life—and all of our lives suck because we want them to—the nicotine and narcotic haze of vodka and bliss, of hopes unfulfilled and a baby ripped from his womb and umbilical chord trailing along the asphalt a bloody line purpled with vein and white with curd as he watched the bitch-driven car slide away and gone and gone forever-fucking-ever and more and more permanent and ongoing, perpetual, done: the frenzy of Blaise’s life he’d claim unwanted but desired sure, the mess that was his life scratched onto the symphonic page, and us playing it, just the preamble, the backdrop so far.
And I turned those pages, what I did. I turned them and with each turned page I felt my heart speed. My heart sped and raced and the reason it went fast like that was because I liked the music. Yeah, right. The reason it sped is because I was jealous. I was jealous and envious and I wanted to kill Blaise but I didn’t need to worry about that because if the feds didn’t kill Blaise they’d medicate him out of the voting pool, the fucks. It sucked, in a way, to be turning the pages for Blaise, for Pop, for Jorg and the Jews and the triplet. They were playing something, and I was spectating, somehow onlooking the place from where I’d sprung, somehow watching my Oakland instead of being part of it. I’d always felt this way, as if I somehow did not belong here, as if somehow even though Oakland was the only thing I knew, nonetheless I was not of Oakland. And this fucked me up sure. Fucked me up in ways that I don’t think I can even explain here, here where I’m telling everything I think because I truly don’t give a shit about your opinion of me, you fuck. I never felt part of Oakland because at the same time as I felt like I was way too smart to be bred of this shithole, and I knew I lived in a shithole, at the same time I could never live up to what was good about my Oakland, the Oakland of Pop and Grandpop Murphy, the Oakland of Shapiro and the retard Martinez, the Oakland that no matter what was my home. Here they were all playing, and I was turning pages. That was what I was doing, and even though the other guys might not have been noticing it, not with their brains numbed as mine was, I was noticing it, like I noticed everything else. Didn’t anyone else see what I saw? No, they didn’t. They didn’t because they were living in this life and not some life that doesn’t exist. Like mine. I was the guy who turned the pages everyone else in Oakland played. I turned the pages and they played.
And then Pop played. The line didn’t sound like the line of a trumpet, and I looked at the score and saw it wasn’t. He was playing the flute’s riff, whistling plaintive through the percussive jackhammer airgun glim and scint. Pop played and more air came through the horn than note, a high note above the clink, a stream of precious metal, a wiggle cutting through sound like something sharp and narrow and tinsel through a vibrating wall of iron, of steel, of glass and girder and rail and air-compressored ripp-raff gunite wall, shimmering. His airy note cut through the near ecstatic whip of the triplets the Jews our Jorg and the clinking drinks and his note fluffed and sounding like a chapped lip bled. It bled into the air, spirit.
The fucker. He knew, and I didn’t. He knew without having to think about it, without having to write about it.
He played, and I listened, not only to Pop but to all of them, even to the New York boy, and listening a wash of contentment came over me like the cum of a woman, gush. It was not my job to participate in this. It was not my job to be this. It was my job—and this job had been conferred on me by powers distant and serious—it was my job to understand this, and to make you understand it. Do you get it?
Get this: we were at Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, Oakland, California, warehouses surrounding our bar, docks in the distance, cranes groaning back and forth across tracks and dropping ISO’s from ships to trains that would take them to trucks and to your fucking grocery store. We were at Dick’s and our friend Blaise, our friend, had been lost, and he’d left us something. He’d lost his baby, his wife, his perspective, his will, but unlike you, he’d left us something behind, something of substance, not just some photo album or his great-grandmother’s fucking China. No, Blaise had not left us a trust fund or a painting by a famous son of a bitch worth bucks. What Blaise had left us something was all there was of him, what obsessed him, the reason he was willing, maybe eager, to lose that kid and that wife. What kind of man is this? This is the kind of man I want to call late at night, when I know no one else will answer the phone. This is the kind of man I want to get hammered with. This is the kind of man I want to be.
And get this: for us, this might have been the most beautiful moment in the history of the world. This moment kicked ass. None of us would ever forget it. I for goddamn sure fuck haven’t.
Pop, bearded greased coveralled Pop, his note was not just what there was of that symphony of Blaise’s, of ours. No. There was more, and there was more beauty and more disdain. Blaise had it nailed, hammered to the subfloor. He somehow knew us better that we did. He knew, rich jingle-ad shit, he knew something about us that all of us suspected, that all of us might have been able to say in a drunk moment. He knew it, and we’d never said it. Not to ourselves or to anyone else. But Blaise was saying it, and he was saying it without words, without all the bullshit innuendo of language. He was saying it through music, something we all of us knew nothing about but that we all understood, that all the miserable company that was humanity knew inherently, with instinct and surety and certitude, rattling around in our gonads. We felt pretty damned good. Like we were part of something we didn’t deserve and that we absolutely did. And Pop, he played well.
They didn’t make it through the symphony. Jorgensen started getting a little crazy, beating on his back and the soles of his feet, and he scrambled some phrases and couldn’t focus on the sheet music and find his place again. He’d been doing some weird shit anyway, not really reading the music but instead playing his own version of Blaise’s symphony. And Pop’s lip was giving out because it had been a long time since he’d played a horn. I couldn’t even remember the last time.
I closed the score. Louie poured a round of shots. Blaise’s Absolut. We lifted a drink in toast, but none of us clinked glasses. We didn’t say anything. We didn’t look at each other. We drank.
About the author: Eric Miles Williamson is author of 3 novels, 2 books of criticism, and a short story collection. He grew up on 62nd Avenue in Oakland. He was named by France’s Transfuge magazine one of the 12 Great Authors of the World, and he has won dozens of awards both in America and abroad.
Artwork: B Ellis Williams is a poet, visual artist, spiritual counselor, occasional philosopher, aspiring psychopomp, and priest-in-training. He holds an MFA in poetry from St. Mary’s College of California, and presently studies and resides at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.