Her first words to me were, “NUH-uh!”
And my moniker, preceded by “Mister,”
And a self-assured presumption that
The little-sister idiom “NUH-uh!”
Would stock IMPORT in my universe,
And that the wily honorific, “Mister,”
Would warm my cockles
With conjectured, chaste
Reflections of scrubbed-cheek guile,
Me and my old fart,
Pot-belly, gen-gap ways…
Well, they did, eventually.
Days become years,
Little sister blooms into big sister,
And then into the flows of womanhood:
Forms and echoes and gestures
So sweet they remind us old farts
Of what never really goes away…
The caroms of the very young
Submit to the antics of youth;
The misery of her first hangover
Etched into her face a gray portrait
Of how she will look when she is eighty.
Never again, never again…
But the young never stay old for long,
And they never master a theme
On the first pass. Party brute!
Careful examination of any person
Reveals the form of their development.
Knowledge knobs and deficiency-wells
Jut and maw.
Spires, passions, ridges, hard-won lessons,
Furrows of ignorance…
The warp of their gestalt
Is quite unique, quite real.
Rare in the young gestalt,
Amongst the bumps and curves
And skids of knowledge
(That us old farts
Took in stride ages ago,
That the young can’t get the hang of,
Like baby monkeys fishing for termites
With a stick)
One observes a sense of purpose.
She has found one: Sports Therapy!
(Whatever that is)
It fits inside her existence like a skeleton,
Defining shape, imparting form,
Setting healthy limits to frenetic motion.
All is delineated by this passion,
From the jockness of her boyfriend
To the opalescence of her eyes,
From her chipper disposition
To the firmness of her butt…
The young are clandestine
And do not share their commerce
With old farts, who watch rheumy
From a distance, now and again sage,
Often yearning for what
they once were,
But no longer understand.
The young are inaccessible.
Two generations cannot occupy
The same path at the same time;
Gen-gap is a natural law,
Like gravity and pathos.
The bumps and seams of experience
That defines a generation’s wisdom
Must be as unique as the atoms of its metal,
Or all would cease for lack of purpose.
Some young early attain the age of reason
And meld with us old farts in that
Venn coincidence of acuity
Vital to all generations,
A mutual denial of the inscrutable,
An affirmation of the mutual.
No proof is possible, but it is nevertheless
True that the wisdom of each contributing
Generation is perfectly, splendidly equal,
Precisely proportional, flawlessly apposite.
This is a matter of profound disbelief
In the older generation,
And hapless frustration in the younger.
At times her wisdom is so marvelously vulgar
That she blushes to her breasts
And hides her face in a towel.
But manifest innocence is a perfect breastplate,
And a pure heart washes a dirty mouth.
She refers to me as a “MOM,” which means “Mean Old Man.”
That is her real gift,
A fabulous facility for slicing through
The bullshit and cobwebs that
jaundice the terrain of this ol’ fart
To intermittently afflict those about me.
She don’t play those games. She calls me
MOM when I’m a MOM so I know I’m
Being a MOM.
But she sometimes shares a soft hugging breast
(As some women do)
In celebration of the occasional warmth
I manage to display.
Sagacity in the young
Should be heralded abroad,
Like a royal birth…
So, in the mirror of her leaving
My heart turns once, a rolling pang,
And an amused tear climbs from one eye,
Left for right, and flees into my shave,
A diffusing balm for a sweet loss.
We share a common bonfire, she and I,
Me out here, an ol’ fart,
She over there, a quick squirrel
Cavorting without a cage
For rapturous young purposes,
And I smile, even as I pray
That she does not set her brush afire.
It’s a matter of timing, you see,
Whether one survives. Survival is
Related to whether one zigs, or zags,
Or pirouettes perfectly, or just
Hunkers down at
Exactly the right instant
You take Jimbo, for instance.
Thirty-five years ago a pack of cigarettes
Cost eleven cents in the Ship’s Store
That’s a buck ten a carton,
Any brand you like.
Lucky Strike was the favorite,
Short, sweet, harsh.
Pall Mall was a coffin nail,
Second only to king Camel â€“
Shredded bullshit â€“
Smoked only by the bravest.
No one smoked filter tips,
Which were for pussies;
They did not serve up that one
Sweet, raw cut of tobacco
Which you could spit out
Cool as Bogart.
Winstons were acceptable,
Even though they were filtered.
I don’t know why.
Maybe because Winston-Salem is in Carolina,
In the South,
Where everybody smokes.
Menthols (Kool, Salem)
Were for pimps and benny-boys.
The US Navy expected us to smoke.
Boys are manlike,
Susceptible to man things,
Which the Navy knows.
The best way to control a man
Is to control his vices.
Why else would they stock the Ship’s Store
With smokes less than cost,
Or perpetuate a myth as salty as the “Smoking Lamp,”
Or slip four-butt mini-packs
Into each and every C-rat carton in the Fleet?
Smokes were General Issue,
Like Beans and Weenies, and Fruit Cocktail,
And Undersized Asswipe.
The Navy wanted us to smoke
So we smoked.
We were good at it, too.
I knew one Texas boy who could blow
A humongous smoke ring clear across the compartment,
Then, with the same lungful,
Blow a second smoke ring right
Through the middle of the first one!
He was held in high regard.
A bosun striker with buck teeth
Could blow SQUARE smoke rings!
(Two dimensional ones, of course,
Not cubes; Not even a bosun’s mate
Is THAT clever).
Every hand smoked his own style.
Some smoked fast â€“ hot boxing, we called it.
Others lipped ’em, wetting the mouth end with their spit
And making it hard to bum a drag
If you were squeamish.
No one held his cigarette like a damned Civilian,
Between his fingers, hot end up.
Sailors learn early to cup the burning coal
In the palm of the hand
To shield it from the spray and the wind
And the eyes of the lookout.
Everyone smoked while the eagle shit,
Except the college boys,
Who never amounted to much anyway.
If you ran out, you bummed:
“Borrow a smoke?”
“Got a fag?”
“Bum a weed?
“Gimme a nail!”
“Catch you payday,”
“Chief owes me 7 for 5,”
“Man, I’m havin’ a nicotine fit!”
If they had jacked the price up to
Ten bucks a butt, we
Would still have smoked, because
That’s what the Navy wanted us to do,
And that’s what we did.
Even if they had passed a reg against smoking,
We would still have smoked –
Bootlegged them, or growed our own,
(Like the applejack we brewed
In the paint locker),
Or smoked broom straws or worn out swabsâ€¦
The skipper didn’t like the look of cigarette packs
Rolled up in our skivvie shirt sleeves, like James Dean,
Or in our dungaree shirt pockets,
Or in the breast pocket of our dress blues.
Petty officers would dress us down
And Shore Patrol would stop us on the street.
So we carried our cigarettes in our socks,
Where they sometimes got sweaty
If we didn’t carry them in one of those
Plastic cigarette case things that
No self-respecting Bosun’s Mate would use,
Only Cooks and Steward’s Mates
And other bottom feeders.
One time in the South China Sea in 1962,
When Laos erupted the first time,
Me and my mates were chipping paint
Around the Main Deck cloverleafs,
Sweating in the 120-degree sun,
Laboring hard and loving/hating it.
A tenderhearted OOD passed the word
“Now Hear This: The Smoking Lamp is Lighted!”
Bless you, sir.
I reached in my socks for my pack of
Genuine, Unfiltered, King Size, Coffin Nail,
Lung-searing, God Bless You Pall Malls
(The same as Jimbo smoked).
You guessed it:
They were soaked clear through from
The sweat running down
From my balls into my shoes,
Sogging my smokes on the way by.
In polite society, my shipmates might have
Declined my kind offer of a refreshing smoke,
But not in the South China Sea,
Not on that ol’ tub of a ship,
Not in that heat, and
Not at that time.
Nobody didn’t smoke ’em clear down
To the fingertips.
I guess it must have been the right thing to do, too,
Because, so far as I know, not one of us
Who smoked those ball-sweat butts
That day ever caught cancer.
Jimbo was discharged from the Navy in that same year
And I never even met him until 23 years later
When we’d both been out of the Navy so long we
Almost weren’t sailors anymore.
If Jimbo had joined the Navy maybe one year later
Than he did, he might â€“ just might – have got stationed
On that same ol’ crock tub as I was on.
He might have been my shipmate,
Chipping paint off the cloverleafs
Right beside me,
And he might â€“ just might â€“
Have smoked one of those ball-sweat Pall Malls
That day, and maybe he
Wouldn’t be dead now of lung cancer.
It’s all a matter of timing, you see.
The day that Billy died, I stole his last beer.
Angela brought word on Monday morning that Billy’s patrol car was found the night before, greasy side up in a dry irrigation ditch, with Billy in full uniform, blue and dead and cold.
“They think he was drunk.” Angela’s voice was flat. “The back of his unit was littered with Budweiser cans.”
Her face looked gray in the fluorescent light.
“How’s Helen doing?” I asked. Helen was Billy’s wife.
“Okay, I guess. The Sheriff and the Captain are at their home with her now.”
Billy once gave Angela and me a ride back to the crime lab in his squad car after our crime scene van broke down, stranding us at a homicide scene, surrounded by low lifes. I crouched in the caged rear seat among the crumpled beer cans, while Angela perched on the front seat with her feet straddling the beer cooler that was strapped to the front passenger side floorboard.
“You’re going to get busted for deuce, Billy,” Angela said.
He just grinned. “I drive better drunk than sober.”
And it seemed to be true. I knew from past experience that Billy had drunk at least two six-packs of Bud, but his driving was so smooth it was almost silky. He drove the speed limit, stopped carefully for all stop signs, red lights, and pedestrians, never neglected to signal a turn, was never impulsive, and he threaded effortlessly through traffic with that uncanny ease possessed only by the best race drivers, chauffeurs, and cops.
As far as I know, Billy never got a ticket, never had a traffic accident, and was never arrested.
But his prodigious capacity for beer was legendary and the common feeling throughout the police community was that it was merely a matter of time before Billy’s penchant for drinking and driving caught up with him.
“Sooner or later, he’s going to put his unit in a ditch,” was how Angela put it.
“C’mon, Angela, lighten up. All he drinks is beer.”
“You can be an alcoholic on beer as easy as on hard liquor,” was her reply, “especially when you’re driving.”
I couldn’t argue with her.
Four years before, I had drawn the task of supplying the beverages at a birthday party for Billy and Angela. The party was being thrown during a Friday lunch hour in the Crime Lab library, the only room in the lab big enough to hold the combined employees of the Crime Lab and the Identification Bureau.
The fact that Billy and Angela were coincidentally born on the same day had for years been a source of exasperation for Angela, and of mischievous opportunity for Billy. For Angela, it meant that her birthday was inextricably tied to Billy and his beer. Every birthday party was a combined celebration complete with beer, shared birthday cakes, beer, dual birthday cards, beer, gifts and, of course, plenty of beer.
Just once Angela wanted her birthday to wind up as something other than a beer bash, so that year she engineered things so that the party was during working hours, when no alcohol was permitted in Sheriff’s Department facilities.
The morning of the party, I bought two six-packs each of Coke, 7-up, Dr. Pepper, and Diet-Pepsi, dumped them into my big old blue foam ice chest that I had brought from home, and covered the sodas with four bags of party ice to cool them down. I slipped the 12-ounce can of Budweiser beer from my coat pocket and carefully shoved it down through the ice and the soda cans to rest in the exact center at the bottom of the ice chest.
The party was in full swing when Billy and Angela arrived. Technicians, cops, and secretaries were scattered in groups, eating taco salad and spaghetti, swapping department gossip, sipping sodas. The usual freeloaders from other units were helping themselves to the usual free grub.
Billy smiled and helloed his way across the well-wishing room, his gold badge gleaming on his neat khaki uniform shirt. I watched from across the room as he opened the ice chest. He hesitated, frowning down at the ice, as if there was something unusual about it. Suddenly, he bent and thrust his hand through the cracked ice, reaching to the bottom, and, without the slightest fumbling, pulled the Budweiser can out of the ice, hoisting it into clear view. He beamed, and the room, as if on cue, burst into laughter.
Angela laughed, too.
“Happy birthday, Billy!” She called over the merriment.
He laughed. “Thanks. I’ll drink it later.”
But he never did.
Billy never mentioned the beer again, but the next day it was on the shelf above his desk, beside his photograph of Helen. It remained there until the day he died.
I left my office, heading for the elevators, then down to the basement to the Identification Bureau and Billy’s office. I slipped inside and, with silent apologies to Helen, took the Budweiser from the shelf and slipped it into my coat pocket. I left as quietly as I had come.
The next three days were grim, with members of other units, secretaries, deputies, and officers from neighboring agencies dropping by to express their shock and sorrow at Billy’s demise. The coroner declared the cause of death as cardiac arrest brought on by coronary disease, compounded, no doubt, by half a lifetime of donuts, smoking, lack of exercise, job stress, and, of course, too much beer. Billy’s blood alcohol level at autopsy was 0.22 percent, over twice the legal limit for driving.
On one occasion, about a year before his death, Billy was working with Angela in the Crime Lab, using a bright green-colored female mannequin to reconstruct and photograph the sequence of gunshots through the body of a murder victim. The mannequin was very realistic, having been cast from the body mold of a real live, curvaceous young woman. The mannequin had beautifully shaped hips and buttocks, a narrow waist, flat abdomen, and perfectly proportioned breasts. The effect was so perfect that even slight dimples and a faint silhouette of pubic hair were visible. The only flaw was that the dummy had no head, legs, or arms. It looked like a woman in graceful pose, (neck curved, arms raised, legs slightly bent), was suddenly frozen in place and had her head and limbs chopped off.
The effect was erotic.
Angela caught Billy eyeing the striking figure of the naked mannequin. “Do you like her?” she asked. “Why don’t you find a real one?”
Billy eyed the mannequin. “You know, if you cut that neck off level so I could put my beer up there, she’d be the perfect woman.”
The day before the funeral, Angela and I visited Billy at the Grace Funeral Chapel and Shelter of Eternal Repose. He was laid out in a maple casket, in full dress uniform, on white satin quilting. His hair was perfectly combed, mustache carefully trimmed, eyes closed, peaceful, asleep. His khaki uniform shirt held a perfect military press and the gold star on his left breast gleamed in the colored floodlights. His hands were folded together over his abdomen.
We looked down at the casket in silence. The vaulted chapel felt chilled. It had a faint stale odor, like a beer hall, and it seemed to be filled with a vast hollow ache.
I watched Angela looking down at Billy, saying nothing, impassive. She turned and walked out without looking back. As I signed the guest book, I looked for her name, but I did not see it.
When the last visitor was gone, I closed the chapel doors and turned the deadbolt. When I was sure I wouldn’t be disturbed, I pulled out the 35mm camera I used to take photographs of homicide scenes, and I snapped several pictures of Billy in his fine wooden coffin, his immaculate uniform, and his manicured sleep. His hands were cold and his fingers were stiff. After years of experience examining dead persons in various states of damage, decomposition, and chaos, the sight of clean, cold, unblemished death was unnerving; I half-expected Billy to open his eyes, rise up, and ask for a beer.
“So long, Billy,” I said. “Have one for me.”
The funeral was a colossal affair, with several thousand police officers from all over the state paying their traditional respects in their various dress uniforms, black mourning bands across their badges. The motorcade from the Grace Chapel to the cemetery shut down cross-town traffic, and police cars were parked bumper-to-bumper, four-abreast, stretching for a quarter-mile along the cemetery road.
Angela and I stood near the canopy that shaded the gravesite, enduring the drone of the minister, the heat, the anguish of Billy’s family.
The honor guard, seven deputy sheriffs in brilliant full dress uniform, shoes and badges gleaming, rifles ported, white gloves like flags of truce, rendered the traditional twenty-one gun salute. Three volleys of seven rounds, the shots crashing in unison. The shrill of bagpipes droned through the assembly, a strange and borrowed skirl from another culture, and seven police helicopters from five visiting agencies winged over in the missing man formation, another treasured and purloined ritual. Then the clarion call of taps, the bugler positioned on a nearby mound, turned away from the ceremony, like he was helping Billy on his way.
I turned to Angela, with her grim eyes and gray lips. “You look like shit,” I told her.
Nine months later was Billy and Angela’s birthday again, this time on a Saturday. I called Angela and asked her to meet me at Billy’s grave at seven p.m., just her and me.
“Let’s hoist a cold one for Billy,” I said.
Angela was there when I arrived. She was standing with her hands folded in front, looking down at the marker with Billy’s uniformed portrait etched in bronze, a tribute from the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. The cemetery was empty and quiet, and the evening was warm and smelled of iris and hops.
“What did you have in mind?” she asked.
I removed the paper wrapper from the framed, eight-by-ten photograph of Billy that I had taken the day before he was buried. I propped it upright on the grass beside the grave, straightened, and pulled the Budweiser from my jacket pocket and popped the tab. The distinctive, familiar click-pop of the tab seemed to echo from a thousand gravestones.
“Here’s to you, Billy. Have a cold one on us.” I tipped the can and drank a swig of the beer. It was slightly stale from the years on the shelf.
Angela took the beer can from my hand, raised it to her lips, and sipped, grimacing at the taste. She handed it back to me and I poured the rest of the can over the gravestone. The spattering of the beer sounded like someone peeing.
We stood together, looking at the photograph of Billy in his uniform and his coffin. “The Budweiser is a nice touch,” said Angela. “But don’t you think the mannequin is a bit much?”
“What would Billy think?” I asked.
A millennium hence the Lord tours his dominions,
Querying, probing, pondering opinions
Harvested from hearts He esteems
Well, regarding vital matters: the sprouting of seeds,
The colors of comets, the assessment of mortal deeds…
Turning then, it seems,
To consult a merry soul, He listens closely
to counsel well rooted in a lifetime of service, while mostly
All of heaven patiently lingers.
Weighing advice reverently tendered,
The Lord tarries, laughs at pithy accounts rendered
Parcel to sage fare, then fingers
Lovingly the soul, and carries on his way.
May He grant that I am there on that day.