Sunday Scribblings #198: The Good Old Days
Loss of his member’s standing rendered Louie, mercifully, without too much memory of his long-eared meadow-romping proclivities. He retired to bouts of solitaire, browsing of tools more practical than sexual at Harry’s Hardware, and running commentary on the running commentary of his wife and sister-in-law in their daily descent into soap opera hell. Meta-commentary notwithstanding, he failed to see what was obvious to the two women—that he, too, was as hopelessly addicted as they.
“Plain as the mole on my ass,” said Mary, to his initial, and obligatory, protestations. What male among us has not felt compelled to deny our adulterous loves—be they for money, drink, other women, or, as in Louie’s declining state, the congenitally twisted affairs of Anytown, USA?
“I suppose you have a mole, too, to which this is all so plain?” said Louie to his sister-in-law Martha. Louie’s tongue was the sole remaining organ not rendered sexually harmless by cancer. Long gone was the leer, but not so the hot sauce.
“As if you didn’t know,” said Mary, the conquering martyr still enjoying the spoils of her mythical familial betrayal. Louie could only wish he had enjoyed the marital crimes for which he had been indicted. Martha, her leg throbbing yet again, could only wish that her husband George were not so enamored of the only house he’d ever lived in—where he had in fact been born. So eager was he to move into his two-story womb, he’d vacated his mother’s, before the taxi arrived to carry her downtown to the Nix Hospital.
Martha offered as lame an objection as her throbbing leg. “Mary, you know full well—”
“Full well is precisely what I do not know, sister,” said Mary in a manner that can only be reckoned as blood sport.
And so went the daily soap opera, both on and off screen.
Brother George, in addition to prowling for fruit vendors with the exact same fervor that his older brother had once prowled for women, had made his second obsession the resurrection of Louie’s Lazarus body. He tapped his litany out like a metronome rhythm behind his brother’s insatiable thirst for conquering King Sol.
“One word, Louie, one word. Fruit,” said George, adding, “Red five on black six.”
Louie minded the intrusion to his game every bit as much as the intrusion to his body’s protracted demise. “Fruit is for the living, George.”
“And what is my brother, if not living!!!” thundered George, given to Sunday exhortation when met with Louie’s willingness to go quietly into the night, etc. In hopes of suborning today’s sermon, Louie did not move the red five.
“I am not living, I am squatting. I gave up paying rent on this shell when they took the lung out.”
“My God, man, then grow another one! Thus saith the Professor!” In this, George was treading very thin ice. Professor Ehret, for all his deranged interest in fruit, was still at heart an empiricist. His program for health was, after all, rational fasting. He would make no such claim for the miraculous regeneration of organs. In that bit of heresy, George stood entirely alone.
Louie sighed and moved the red five after all.
“There, you see,” said the younger brother.
“I do know what I’m talking about. Now come.”
“Over to the Pig Stand on Broadway. I found a new vendor.”
“For fruit, you idiot! He uses a corner of the parking lot. Forget the black six, you’ve lost anyway.”
Louie took the additional two minutes to prove his brother’s prediction correct, a prediction that in no way prepared the way for George’s more ludicrous ones. Louie’s decision to accompany his brother on his walk was based on an unaccustomed and sudden desire for fresh air, and the prospect of buying and eating a foot long hot dog while Brother George dickered for fruit.
Mrs. Jones the widow was showing her usual bit of thigh as she sat on her front porch knitting and teasing the loins of several generations of passing boys. World War II was long over, but Mrs. Jones was still doing her part for the war effort by forgoing the obligatory nylon stockings of the dowdy. George sniffed his customary disapproval as they passed her yard, but Louie could still only marvel at the loveliness of a pair of legs far into their eighth decade, at least six of which had rendered him awed and speechless. Only now that all hope of congress with the widow was gone had he found the words to be congenial.
“Afternoon, Ava,” said Louie. “Out for some fruit. Can we bring you back something sweet?”
“No thanks, Lou. I believe I’ve got all I can handle, as it is.”
Louie laughed heartily. It felt good in his one lung and remaining ventricles. He sometimes felt that for Ava Jones’ smile and words on a bright hot sunny south Texas day, he just might grow a new lung. Waving as he passed on, he said, “I’ve no doubt you do, Ava. No doubt you do.” Then, purely for the discomfort of his snuffling puritan brother, he added, “Maybe I’ll come by and help you handle it later.”
In homage to this fallen man’s proud history of living in her side of the world, a world that gloried in wet slick flesh and no covers on a bright hot sunny south Texas day, Mrs. Ava Jones blushed—blushed for all the world to see, this fresh peach of a woman who had blushed for none of the generations of weekend grease monkeys who had parked and worked on their cars in adoration of her miraculous thighs, all with dreams of inclusion, though none with their dreams fulfilled. Mrs. Ava Jones was just the right amount of cover for a woman whose heart and soul had long been in the able hands of Felicity Major—yes, the Felicity Major, Queen of the 1954 Battle of Flowers Parade—up in her mansion on Grayson Street. Separate houses was their one concession to the prejudices of the times, most notably those of Felicity’s now addled father, Dr. Alfred Major, the renowned alienist to San Antonio’s wealthy and wrecked families. No amount of analysis at the hands of Wilhelm Reich himself had been sufficient to crack the heavy armature about Dr. Major’s cold and sterile heart. His daughter, on the other hand, had compassion enough for the both of them, nursing him through his dementia as he stunk up a back room in her home while shitting on himself and his blankets.
“I don’t know how you can speak to that woman,” said George when they turned the block heading toward Broadway.
“I don’t know how you can’t,” said Lou. “Talk about peaches. There’s fruit for you, brother! What, by the way, is Professor Ehret’s philosophy on sex? Is that deranged look on his face the result of too much or too little? I know the answer in your case, George—”
“As in all things, moderation is the key.”
“I hardly call virginity moderation, George. You might want to write the Professor for a clarification—”
“I should think my daughter Claire is proof enough that I am no—”
“You know, George, I always found the story of the Virgin Birth a might too much for my taste. Mother Mary, by all accounts, was way too much a looker for Joseph to have kept his diddling to himself. Not that I blame them, mind you. Now you and Martha, however: I know the squeaky springs on that bed of yours upstairs and I haven’t heard them jumping since you and I were kids. Anyone wants to lay bets for immaculate conception, George, I’d say you’re the man.”
There was no doubt, nor need there have been, that Claire was, in fact, spawned by one of the few sperm George had sent swimming in Martha’s waters years ago, but Louie’s tirade was near enough the truth in alluding to George and Martha’s mutual state of nuptial neglect. Rather than refute his brother’s allegations, George chose to walk the rest of the way to his vendor in silence, a silence all the more suited to Louie’s pondering just what it was that Mrs. Ava Jones had more than enough of.
Innocente Vargas was entirely unworthy of his name, which was in fact as hot as the stolen fruit he purveyed on the corner of Broadway and Vine. Local police officers, had they shown a preference for vegetarian fare over their free meals at Art Chumley’s Pig Stand, would have recognized Innocente as Mike Finn, a longtime petty thief now given to robbing the likes of George in only vaguely more legitimate ways. Organic produce is what his sign said, though through what transformation it became organic after stealing it from his brother-in-law’s chemically fertilized farm in the Rio Grande valley, God only knew. Sympathetic readers needn’t worry over the apparent losses incurred by Mr. Vargas nee Finn’s brother-in-law, who was himself entirely aware of the Innocente procurement program, in fact was curious if he might follow suit and expand the market for chemically-enhanced organic produce in other unsuspecting parts of the state. Mike Finn was for the moment a useful pest that could at any time be rendered as easily harmless as the billions of vermin so rendered by the valley magnate’s decidedly inorganic fetish.
Mike Finn, though Irish by name, was sufficiently Cherokee and Italian as to be passably Latino at the corner of Broadway and Vine. It was assuredly not a piece of legerdemain he would have attempted on a street corner in west side San Antonio. At the corner of Broadway and Vine, his customers could take the added pleasure in noting “why, that Innocente, he speaks English damn near as good as I do.”
“George, mi amigo, I see you’ve brought along another soon to be satisfied customer.”
George was in fact trying to put a subtle distance between himself and Louie, as the latter was lavishly squirting ketchup on the dog he had promised himself from Art Chumley’s take-out window.
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up there, Innocente. My brother Louie is a hopelessly addicted carnivore. As you can see.”
“Your brother! Can’t say as I see the resemblance, but welcome,” said Mr. Finn-Vargas, extending a small trash bag for Louie’s used ketchup packets. “Like my daddy always said,” a man Mike Finn had in fact never known, “it takes all kinds of vores to make up this great planet of ours—that’s right, carnivores, omnivores and, uh— ”
“Vegevores?” said Louie, extending his unencumbered hand to shake. He nudged his brother with the offending bitten end of his dog. “I like this man already, George. Almost feel as if I’ve seen you before, Innocente. You always been in fruit?”
Historical inquiries and customers’ feelings of déjà vu were only two of many reasons Innocente Finn reserved for wearing sunglasses, even on the cloudiest of days. Mike Vargas understandably did not keep records on his past “customers”—a term he applied to those with whom he’d had more involuntary transactions as well—but had he done so, his ledger would have shown an entry some sixteen years ago for one Louis B. Nigel. Green wallet, no credit cards, eighty bucks in cash, pictures of kids and grandkids, one of lovely Mary, and, tucked inside a seam so even Mike Finn did not find it before throwing the garish green wallet in a garbage can at the downtown library, a tastefully but nonetheless decidedly nude picture of Cassie Waits, for a brief time waitress at the Menger Hotel coffeeshop and, even more briefly, though by no means casually, the apple of one red-socked trumpeter’s eye. Despite the understandable expectations afforded by her name, Cassie Waits was in no mood to stick around and see if Louie ever intended to make good on his stock assurances that he was “this close” to leaving a marriage that had long gone bad. For most of his conspiring dalliers, that statement had the reassurance of just the opposite meaning, but Cassie Waits was not so inclined. She was looking for a mate, and she found herself falling hard for the old coot (so hard as to let him take his damned picture), and she knew full well in her lovely and long bones that her man in red socks was not going anywhere but home to South New Braunfels Avenue. Midland is where she landed, with a husband short on Louie’s infernal charisma, but much longer on the millions from tending his oil fields. As to the fate of her picture, it remains in the oblivious back pocket of the downtown library custodian who saw no reason to report finding such a godawful looking wallet with pictures of a bunch of smiling white people.
“Always been in fruit, all my life. I was practically born in my daddy’s peach orchard,” said lying Mike, smiling innocently. Feeling his own bit of déjà vu, he decided to hurriedly push on. “So, what can I do for you boys this fine day?”
“Peaches!” said George. “All I can carry! Load my brother up with a bunch of those gorgeous avocados.”
Louie finished off his dog and took the paper towel Mike passed him. “Thank you, my good man. You know, Innocente, my brother George here claims that with all the fruit and vegetables he eats, his shit no longer stinks. What do you think about that?”
Momentarily forgetting just who his buying customer was (not to mention his current landlord), Mike Finn laughed and said, “If that was true, then why ain’t we all living in pig sties?”
Had Mike Finn’s chemically-enhanced peaches not looked and tasted better than any in his vegevorian span of months, George, ordinarily prone to easy offense, might have walked off in a huff. But Innocente Vargas knew he’d hooked his big fish when brother George forked over an extra ten dollars to his tab, saying, “By God, Innocente, we need more of you and what you’ve got, and if it means paying more to get it, then I’m all for it.”
Recovering from his business lapse, Mike Finn smiled and heaped another bag of peaches into George’s arms. “Gracias, amigo. Vaya con dios, George. Next time up, I promise you the best cucumbers you ever tasted.” Taste was debatable, but just that morning, Mike had located a field of cukes that looked ripe for the picking. “You boys need me to call you a cab or something? You know, George, you look a little pale, my friend.”
“Never felt better in my life, Innocente! Nothing your peaches can’t cure,” said George, despite feeling suddenly quite dizzy.
Louie, noting his brother’s color change, was not impressed with his attempts at bravado.
“Hey, George, maybe just a cup of coffee here at Art’s, before we head back.”
“Nothing of the kind, Louie. You know I’ve been off caffeine for months now.”
“Glass of water—”
“Lou! I’m fine!” said George, his head throbbing. “Innocente, thank you very much. Have a good day.” With that farewell, he headed off down Vine for South New Braunfels.
Louie shrugged his shoulders, shook hands with the still mysteriously familiar Mr. Vargas, and took after George. With one lung and half a heart, the prospect of catching up was tenuous at best, but Louie felt urged on by a resolve he’d seldom felt for his brother—for years now he had been the victim of everyone’s attentions.
He turned the corner onto their street just in time to see George collapse—into the arms of Ava Jones as she came flying off her porch to catch him. As he ran (hobbled) up the block, he was reminded of Michelangelo’s Pieta, this vision of his fallen brother across Ava’s lap. All lasciviousness was gone, though he did wish for a moment that the man in her arms was he, such was the tenderness of her hold upon George as she sat down in her lawn and stroked his temples. It was that tenderness, not sex, that struck Louie as he huffed his way up to them. George’s eyes were closed, his breathing labored, and he was moaning in a way Louie had not heard for years, not since the last of his children were infants, more the morning whimper of a hungry baby.
“How is he,” said Louie, whispering into the stillness of the afternoon.
“Not good, Lou,” said Ava. “The keys to my car are right there on the porch.”
“Oh, Ava, I couldn’t impose—”
“Get them, Lou! We haven’t got a lot of time.”
“Shouldn’t we call an ambulance?”
“We definitely don’t have that kind of time. Get the keys, Lou.”
“The girls will—”
“Lou. Keys. Now!!”
It had been years since Louie had been behind the wheel of his old VW bug. It had been since never that he had driven the likes of the old fifties Thunderbird that Ava drove. Pulling out onto Broadway, heading for Santa Rosa, he was frightened for all their lives, not just his brother’s, but Ava was adamant in staying with George in the back seat.
“Just pull the car right out into the middle of the road, Lou. No one will want to get near you in this boat.”
Something about Ava’s voice, her calm, the soft white leather of the seat beneath him, the smell of gardenia that he reckoned must be her scent—all this conspired to evoke a quiet confidence that Louie had not felt for a long long time, the kind of calm he used to feel whenever he stood for one of his solos down on the Riverwalk at Happy’s. Soft breeze off the river on his back, catching the eye of one of the regulars, blowing tunes with a grace that had nothing to do with the charade of red socks, waitress give and take, not even wet slick afternoon flesh—sounds from his horn he first used to think not even God could blow, until later he realized, as the humility of experience set in, that it was God Himself who was blowing. Ava’s quiet steady voice was the breeze all over again on the back of his neck. In that moment of recognition, his hands took the wheel with a confidence he had never felt in a car even one quarter the size of Ava’s, and he knew George would be fine, he would be fine, and the lovely Mrs. Ava Jones would be fine, too. He navigated the streets of downtown San Antonio like a riverboat captain, strains of an old slippery Dizzy Gillespie solo playing in his head. By the time Mary and Martha made it down to join him at the Emergency Room, he felt like a prophet for the calm that had descended upon him. George was already coming round, the nurse reported—would Martha like to join him? Louie kissed his sister-in-law on the cheek and then took his own Mary in his arms. In all their forty years together he thought she had never looked lovelier.
George and Martha spent the night at the hospital, while Mary and Louie spent the night out on the town, dinner at Mi Tierra, drinks at the Menger, long night at Happy’s in front of a band that honored Louie like he had returned a conquering hero.
Next day on the cab ride home, George, once again in the pink, told the driver to pull into the Pig Stand parking lot.
“Looks like your friend Innocente’s gone for the day,” said Louie. “His sign says, Gone Fishing.”
“I could give a damn about that man’s fruit!” bellowed George, squeezing Martha in a way until yesterday he had reserved only for fruit, a squeeze that did not go unnoticed by the car’s three other passengers, nor, as it happened later that afternoon, by the springs on the second floor bed. “All yesterday on my death ride in the lap of luxury and the beautiful Mrs. Ava Jones, all I could think of was, boy, could I go for some meat. Vegevore no more, my brother! Driver, to the window, my good man! This old hound has in mind a good dog for lunch!”
The grace of God—river breeze, a kind woman’s touch, even, for some, a good old foot-long tube of meat.
As for Mr. Innocente Vargas—well, the moral is a sobering one. Not all of the men in blue disdain a good peach.
Labels: they and mrs. mrs jones