“It’s All Political Now”

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JJ and Carl, reconciled, waiting to bake the bagels.

They stood behind the bagel shop, Carl smoking and talking, JJ looking across at the empty skate park bathed in yellowish street light. The trees were mostly bare of leaves now and the scene looked bereft and jaundiced, some long suspected inner disease finally showing itself on the surface.

“It’s all political now,” Carl said. “Everything. You can’t even stand in line at CVS without thinking, ‘Did he vote for him?’ ‘Did she?’ It’s like trying to spot vampires in daylight. And you know they’re ashamed.”

“They’re not monsters.”

“But the results will be monstrous.”

“They’re just people. People are angry.”

“Yeah. They want simple answers for a complex world. They want what they think was promised them without realizing they grew up in a relatively peaceful time in our nation’s history of blood and mayhem. Post WWII. Then post Cold War. But the rest of the world doesn’t care. The rich don’t care about the American Dream for everybody else. They’ll allow the average Joe just enough to have an Xbox or flat screen or some shitty pickup truck. But they’ll keep the rest and convince those ignorant suckers that they care about making America great. News flash: America’s never been great for a lot of people.”

“You’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this,” JJ said with a smile. “I suspect the last baker didn’t do a lot of listening.”

“Yeah well, he was limited. He could talk about online gaming and that’s about it. I don’t even know what that is. I may be a baker but I read Marx, I read Thoreau, I read Rousseau. This shit going on today? It thrives on ignorance.”

JJ looked at the empty skate park and thought back to summer nights when there were kids skating out there until after dark with their languid movements and sudden bursts of energy required for their tricks. They wore wool hats, even in the heat. It all seemd pretty simple. Enjoy yourself, do your work, think about places to go and how to get there.

“How’s Anne?”

“It’s good at home,” Carl said. “But, y’know what? I think she voted for him. She says she didn’t, but I think…I think she shows the signs. She wants people to pay.”

“Hmm.”

“You’re not surprised?”

JJ thought of Tess and Cody and the keystone cops desperation of their scheme to get their ranch back. “Nothing surprises me.”

“Nothing?”

“It’s a blessing and a curse.”

They heard the oven buzzer go off through the closed back door. Preheating was done, baking temperature had been reached, 550 degrees.

“It’s time,” Carl said.

“194 dozen?”

“No dude, we’re booming. 222 dozen these days.”

“This is going to hurt,” JJ said.

“It’ll come back to you. Muscle memory. Your body remembers the old patterns.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

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Care Taking and Taking Leave

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Back east, Lila and Carl, JJ’s best friends in the world, were shacked up in JJ’s farm house, care taking, and failing to care for each other.

“I think we’re done here,” Lila said. “If you can’t even say how you feel.”

“Now I see why he ran away from you over and over and over,” Carl said. “All this processing!” He sat at the table with his head in his hands, massaging his temples, trying to knead something away.

“Who said he was the one? You think it’s easy being around that erratic drunk?” Lila stood in the kitchen doorway, blocking passage to the rest of the house. “I just want to know what the hell we’re doing here?”

“Care taking,” Carl said. “Place holding.”

“Taking care of what? Holding who’s place?”

“Purgatory,” Carl muttered.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“I just want some clarity,” Lila said. “I mean, we’re in his house, he’s away, probably in trouble, and your wife wants you back.”

“There’s no going back. Not after this.”

“After this, what?”

“This…this…What the hell is this?”

“That’s what I want to know!”

They were silent, Carl looking at the table top, trying to divine some message from the wood grain and swirls. Lila stared right through the hunched form of Carl, trying to figure out what had happened these past couple months. It seemed so right in the summer. Right, but wrong, like one more drink on a Tuesday night. Or buying something big and unneeded on credit. The worst part? She couldn’t stop thinking (worrying!) about JJ. Of course, they were living in his house so there were reminders everywhere. But, he had that look the last time she saw him, that dead-eyed autopilot doomed look, like a suicide bomber tying up loose ends before the mission.

“It’s time for you to go home,” she said.

It was heavier now, the silence. The crackle had gone out of the air and the next thing that was said would change everything.

“I know,” Carl said. “I know.” He looked up and grinned at her. “I always knew this was just…”

“Temporary,” Lila said.

“And wrong,” Carl said. “He’s a complete piece of shit sometimes, and maybe we needed to do this, to punish him.”

“But we love him.”

“You love him. I’m just the friend who shacked up with his girlfriend.”

“Is that what this was? Our way of punishing him?”

“Well, after we scratched the itch. After all, we moved into his house!”

“To care take.”

Carl got up and put out his hand. Lila looked at it then laughed and embraced him. They parted and Carl looked at the floor. “Listen, I’ll look after this place so don’t worry.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, since you’re going to Colorado. Don’t worry about JJ’s house.”

Going to Colorado? Lila thought it and knew it was true. What else was there to do?

“Take care,” Carl said and headed out the door, back towards his wife and home. “Let me know when you’re gone and I’ll come get my things.”

            “I will,” she said and went to find her laptop to book a flight to Denver. “It’ll be soon.”

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1

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Carl caught up with them in the Berkshires. Lila wanted to see some art and JJ, not crazy about art, just wanted a change of scenery. They went from the mountains of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to the old people and snobby New Yorkers in Williamstown. JJ watched them with growing ire.

“Yeah, we’ve been staying at JJ’s,” Carl said.

JJ tuned in to the catch-up-on-the-news chatter. “Both of you?”

“Yeah. She’s house sitting for you right now.”

“So, you’re back together?” Lila, JJ noticed, seemed less than thrilled by the news of Anne’s return into Carl’s life. Or, she was less than thrilled by Carl’s apparent happiness over this development.

“The change of scenery helps. Who knows when the novelty wears off? But the sex…” Here Carl pounded his fist into his other hand, repeatedly. “Let’s just say that my cup runneth over.”

“We can do without the visuals,” Lila said.

“Are you guys in my bed,” JJ asked.

“Speaking of visuals,” Carl said. “This Whistler’s Mother is completely overrated. It’s just a painting of his old mother. Why all the hubbub?”

Lila said, “The image has been co-opted throughout the years as an example of the good old American values of hearth and home.”

“And stern old ladies,” Carl said.

“They used it to sell war bonds! It’s a good example of, once you put it out there, it’s not yours anymore.”

“Meaning, it doesn’t matter what the artist meant, or didn’t mean. Shit, it could just be a very good painting of his mother. But, once it’s out there, it’s open season for interpretation.”

“And he insisted it meant nothing,” Lila said. “It was just a painting of his mother and should be appreciated as such.”

“Poor naïve Whistler,” Carl said.

“Right?”

JJ had slipped back into the antechamber with the painting. He wanted another look for himself and couldn’t stand art talk. Lila took one art history class years ago and she was a goddamn expert. And Carl. Carl would hold forth on any topic like he wasn’t a bagel baker with a shitty marriage. JJ stood behind some people seated on a bench and beheld Whistler’s Mother. There was a certain…dignity? Austerity? He didn’t know the word but there was a power there. What made a painting into art? Why do some paintings make the leap and some remain flat and lifeless? JJ didn’t know. But, this Whistler’s Mother felt like art. He took his phone out and got a couple pictures before a guard appeared at his elbow.

“Sir, no pictures,” she said and touched his camera arm. Simultaneously, an older guard standing near the painting added to the whole room, “No pictures allowed, folks.”

Several people glanced at JJ and looked away as if not wanting to stare at a facial deformity. They were too polite to cluck their tongues but they didn’t need to. The room was thick with the disapproval of this uncouth nincompoop. Whistler’s Mother just sat there, placidly disappointed, like a sour parent whose kid has taken up facial piercings. JJ slunk away to the hall.

“I got a picture of her,” he said to Lila and Carl.

“You can’t do that,” Lila said. “That’s like stealing.”

“I think it’s bad for the painting,” Carl said.

JJ walked past and kept going down the hall. He felt like a heel, sick with exposure to the world of nature and people. His closest friends, his girlfriend(!), were conspiring with museum guards to make him raw and frustrated. Inviting Carl had been a bad idea. The trip itself had been a bad idea. They couldn’t even get out of New England! Not even two months into his grand road trip across the USA and he felt like guzzling a quart of Jack Daniels. His mouth watered and he froze. A new determination came to life in his gut and head. He stared into the distance as people moved around him like they moved around a pillar. Then he turned back, poker-faced, to subtly speed their departure. Cooperation, for the time being, was crucial to his new plan.

“Let’s get a suite at the nicest place in town. With the lottery money,” he said, to stop the polite protests.

“I thought you were mad,” Lila said.

“Nope,” JJ said. “I just want to get out of here.”

“Agreed,” Carl said.

They all smiled and linked arms, the best of friends, and headed to the parking lot.

Whistler’s Mother? She couldn’t care less.

Change in the Weather

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Carl paced from room to room, checking the views from each window. Thunderstorms were coming. First, murmurings from the west, then rumblings and a cool breeze promising a break in the oppressive humidity. It was the first cool breeze in a week. There was no air conditioning in JJ’s farmhouse. “That guy”, Carl thought as he paced and sweated. “Too good for an air conditioner.”

Carl was house sitting for JJ. Or, hiding from Anne, his wife. Or, taking a break from her. Or, giving Anne a break from him, and not for the first time.

The breeze picked up and Carl watched the sky. There were clouds up there he had never seen before, moving in odd ways. Heavy sporadic raindrops blown from the storm proper hit the windows and roof. This was going to be a whopper. A direct hit, he thought. He made the rounds and closed the windows. Then he went onto the porch.

Two things happened as soon as he got out there. The air raid siren went off from the center of town and a car appeared, headlights on, speeding up the road from town. “That looks like my car,” he thought. As it pulled into JJ’s driveway, he realized it was his car, with his estranged wife in the drivers seat.

“Tornado warning!” Anne yelled as she hopped out.

She ran from the car as the rain picked up and Carl looked again at the sky as the siren droned from town. A section of the sky had separated from the brooding clouds above and was rotating slowly over the town. The edges of this huge rotation were tinted yellow like jaundice, boding illness and breakdown. “We’re fucked,” Carl thought.

They watched together as the funnel formed from dust rising up into the turning cloud, not so much touching down as taking shape between ground and sky. The twister came toward the mountain. Carl could see individual pieces of debris being pulled up into the funnel; branches, shrubs, and flat flipping panels of wood or cardboard. And, was that a Little Tykes kiddie car? “Cellar,” he yelled.

The tornado never hit the farm, moving up and over the mountain about a quarter mile to the south. (The swath would be visible for years). Carl and Anne sat in the dirt-floor basement, side-by-side on a couple of lawn chairs, holding hands and listening.

“You were worried about me,” Carl said.

“You asshole,” Anne said. “I was scared.”

“Scared enough to come find me?”

“Sad when you put it that way.”

They were quiet, straining to hear upstairs. There was some wind, but the house was not ripped away. There would be no Wizard of Oz hallucination or destructive aftermath.

“So, can I come back home?”

“Why don’t we live here for awhile?”

“At JJ’s?”

“Why not. A change of scenery. Aren’t they gone for awhile?”

“You know him. Could be another week. Or, a year.”

A pause as they listened. Silence.

“You know, if this was a novel, we’d fuck right now,” she said. “Narrow escape. Hearts pumping.”

“This is no novel, that’s for sure. But let’s fuck anyway.”

So they went upstairs to JJ’s bedroom with the storm moving off , the sky having turned from yellow to green, and sirens coming from the town below. They opened the windows. The humidity was gone and it was just nice to be naked in bed with someone you loved and hated, as a cool breeze came through the room.

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That’s That

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“This is perfect,” Carl said. “A door closes and God opens a window.”

“So,” JJ said. “She’s serious this time.”  They spoke of Anne, Carl’s lukewarm wife.

“Who knows, who knows? She’s seriously fed up. The usual shit. No ambition, no money, look what those people have, why can’t we have that. Same old shit. It’ll blow over.”

They were in JJ’s farm house, in the midst of camping gear strewn all over the living room and kitchen. Tents, sleeping bags, pots and pans, spatula, propane, clothes, boots, lantern, flashlight, batteries, rope, Cracker Jacks, toilet paper…

“Well, you can stay here until we get back. Or she takes you back.”

“I could come with you,” Carl said. “I mean, can I come?”

“No.”

“Can I meet you somewhere? Like for a weekend?”

JJ thought of the three of them, Carl, JJ, and Lila, all in a tent together, and disgust rose in his gut, unlatching an old trap door to a cellar in his mind. Cobwebs of jealousy and resentment. He suspected Carl and Lila had been together once or twice. In fact, he knew it. It didn’t bother him day-to-day, but still, it was there like a blemish on an otherwise jolly photo of three amigos. The eye was drawn to that blemish and it could never not be seen. “I don’t think so,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Carl took that in. “Y’know, I know a few things about life. I wouldn’t be a friend if I didn’t bring this up.”

There was a hardening in JJ’s chest, familiar and automatic since his parents or teachers called him out on something. Stealing his sister’s babysitting money or breaking a school window with a thrown apple, it didn’t matter if it was justified or not. His jaw tightened. You’re not the boss of me.

“It seems to me like you’re running from something,” Carl started. “You can’t escape yourself. You can’t outrun yourself. Wherever you go, you’ll be sure to find yourself there. You can run all your life, but not go anywhere…”

Carl droned on. Deep down, under the growing layers of resistance and resentment, the swamp of guilt bubbled. Down there, JJ knew Carl was trying to help him, that maybe he was right. But, this was Carl, kicked out by his wife, still an overnight bagel baker. Carl, the fucking philosopher. Nobody tells me what to do.

“Enough!” JJ said, louder than he intended. “Just, enough.”

“All right, all right.”

“I’m sorry, but just stop with all that. I’m not some invalid. I need to live.”

“I’m just worried about you, man. You’re like my brother.”

The guilt swamp bubbled and the anger was swallowed in the morass. How can you hate and love someone in the same moment? JJ sighed. “I know, me too. I feel the same way. But, I have to move, man. I have to get moving.”

“But, that restlessness. It’s not a good thing. That’s all I’m saying.”

Why wouldn’t he just let it go?

You think you’re better than me?

“Thanks, I guess,” JJ said through clenched teeth. “But I’m going away with Lila. You can’t come. But, you’re welcome to stay here while your marriage is broken.”

“And that’s that?”

“That’s that.”