Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Sully Straightjacket's Third Mini Freakout

...than a pile of iguana.


"Do I exist?" Sully Not-yet-called-Straightjacket asked. 

His traveling companion, Plastic-Moustache Mortimer Tall, shook his head, as if trying to free swimming hole water from his ear. "What?"

"Just - just tell me I exist," Sully No-Nickname-Yet said, as the two of them shuffled along the rails from east to west down the old Santa Fe mainline on the outskirts of Topeka, one chilly April morning in 1935, rousing tiny clouds of frosty brown dust as they trudged.

Plastic-Moustache Mortimer Tall needed a moment to formulate a response - one that would clearly demonstrate that of course he was listening to Sully, but at the same time would fall short of full engagement. As per usual, this delicate balancing act manifested itself as a second "What?"

Sully stopped and turned to Mortimer with a look of profoundly lost helplessness. "Do I exist? Am I even here? Just tell me I'm real."

"Oh, Lord," Mortimer groaned. "You're real, you're real. You're as real as my moustache. Simmer down."

"Gasp!" Sully gasped. He had an annoying habit of saying the sound he needed to emit. "Your moustache is as fake as the New Deal! Look at it - it's plastic! Oh, surely I am not here. I'm but a vapor. A thought passing through your head, without a place to be or an ounce of realness. Oh, this is bad."

Mortimer took Sully by his ratty hobo shoulders. "What's this about, buddy? Look at me. What's eating you?"

Sully looked his friend in the eye for a nanosecond, then turned his attention to the ground, then the sky, then the ground again. "I just... don't feel real, is all. Since the world went to hell, I ain't hardly seen another living soul, apart from you and the occasional cop - chasing us across this wasteland of jobless, homeless depression. Nothing else. Just us and some tormentors. I kinda feel like maybe I ain't real, no more. Like, I ain't even here. Maybe like a ghost or something..."

"Oh, for Pete's sake - you're here and you exist and all that. We just left Topeka. We had an honest-to-God meal, last night at St. Thomas Church. Remember that? Gravy all over top of the whole dish?"

Sully licked his lips. "That was something. Still. Could've been a dream - some kind of phantasm that a ghost would remember..."

"You're not a ghost. You're not dead. You're real," Mortimer grumbled, trying not to lecture his anxious hobo friend. "We're hoboes, Sul. Have been since November '29, when you lost your job at the Ford plant and I quit for insubordination at Sears & Roebuck. That was a half-decade ago, and since then we've stolen train rides and walked and run I'd say ten thousand miles or more - from town to town and job to job, just keeping to ourselves and surviving."

Sully moped. "I'm a ghost," he sighed.

"You're NOT a ghost! But you keep this up, and you're gonna be!"

"Oh don't get sore, Mort. I'm just having a hard time, again. When we started out on the road, I knew the world was gonna end for a while, but I kinda thought, you know, maybe a few months. Next thing I know, it's a year, then two. The world's still done for. I walk through it with you like a feeble little dust bunny..."

"Dust bunny?"

"Yeah. Like a ghost made of dirt." Sully looked at Mortimer, who appeared to be stifling a laugh. "What?"

"You were nuts before this started, weren't you?"

"Oh, and how! I was loonier than a pile of green iguanas."

Mortimer, his laughter now successfully stifled, blinked slowly at Sully, as he once again searched for the appropriate response. "How loony is a pile of green iguanas, pal?"

"You don't want to know. Boy howdy, they can get up to some shenanigans."

"You don't say. So, for the uninitiated, like me - what kind of shenanigans can a loony pile of green iguanas get up to?"

A wry smile slowly worked its way across Sully Soon-To-Be-Nicknamed-Straightjacket's face. "Well, for starters, they rigged the election in favor of Hoover. Then, they invented Prohibition, and Fascism, and Suffrage, and automobiles - all on dares - just for fun. They're bonkers, I tell you."

"Ah. I see. And you are loonier than they are?" Mortimer said.

"Yep."

"Yeah, okay. You exist, Sully Straightjacket. You're the realest fella I know."

Sully signed contentedly, and resumed walking westward. "Good. Thanks, pal."

Friday, March 27, 2020

Socially Distant: Lonely Heiney Alan Meister's Life In Black & White

Grafton. Neither words nor pictures can do it justice.

It is a rare and wonderful thing to have the opportunity to interview an actual, living hobo, for obvious reasons - not the least of which is the stories they possess. I prefer to share these using the hobo's own words, but Lonely Heiney Alan Meister's interview answers were so riddled with profanity and other offensive language (don't ask), I thought it best that I paraphrase liberally. 

To wit:  He "found" a camera - a Woldemar Beier model Ia with only the first shot of film exposed - in Grafton, West Virginia. Paraphrasing: Grafton looks like a diseased colon turned inside-out, and it smells about the same, but the B and O hotel sure looked nice. Between 1933 and 1944 he shot the 11 remaining frames of a 12-exposure 35mm roll.

I hear her voice, in the morning hours she calls me...
The second shot - smoky greatness in the mountains surrounding Clingman's Dome, Tennessee. Up there, I was never more alone - or farther from the rails. Don't get me wrong - I liked people. I only walked alone because I was sure I still carried the Spanish flu that killed my folks (Well, my mother. My father fell off the sidewalk.) in 1918.

Wait. What?
Frame #3: A pelican - possibly in Florida or Georgia. I don't know. Somewhere on the Gulf Coast. Near Biloxi, maybe? That bird was NOT at peace with my proximity. But I threw him a fish from some fellow's bucket, and he followed me halfway to Birmingham.

Cows.

More cows.

Okay. Kind of a lot of cows.
What's with all the cows, says I. The fuzzy cows were in Winchester, Virginia in 1934. The black steer is near Leesburg, the same year. The dairy cows are outside of Dickerson, Maryland, 1935. What? I went through kind of a cow phase.

What happened... to the trees...

Ah. Logging railroad. Got it.
The images of a hillside nearly stripped of trees, and a shay locomotive told me all I needed to know, but I asked anyway. Bald Knob, West Virginia, he said (minus seven expletives). They cut down trees not even planted yet. I loved watching those shays churn their way up those hills, but the destruction made me sad.

More cows. Okay. Back on track...

Woodland cows. Why not?
Near good ol' Harrisonburg, Virginia, I think. Them cows didn't seem to mind the floodwaters, none, but boy howdy they didn't want their picture took. Those heifers in the woods next to the N&W in Shenandoah Junction [West Virginia] didn't mind me or the train. I spent the rest of my days aspiring to that kind of coolness.

Appalachian prison... oh what the hell???
Next: Alcatraz. What? So I went to San Fran. Lots of hoboes did. I don't have to answer to you!
 
How long did you have this camera, man?
Is that a modern RF tag on that there longhorn, I ask. Texas, he whispered, as if recalling a sighting of the great white buffalo. Texas. I walked alone, because I listened to the doctors. I would be damned before I'd pass that flu on to some other kid's parents. So I walked alone. Saw a lot of whiz-bang stuff. Took a few pictures. Kept on walkin' and had a pretty good life. I don't know much, but I know I got to this here bed without makin' anything worse.

That must count for somethin'...

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Wise Men Candles, And Other Needful Things

It's as good as the real thing!

August 2019. Nearly-eighteen-year-old Olivia Jane "OJ" Black was touring the local thrift stores with her mother one last time before heading off to college out of state. The first two shops they visited had failed to impress, but the third - recently renamed "Mister Darque's Needful Things" - showed promise. After a couple of minutes, she had already found two one-dollar skirts and a vintage photograph of the Brooklyn bridge for fifty cents.

"Olivia!" Mrs. Black called  to her daughter from the far corner of the store, causing her to cringe - not at the public Mom-ing, but at being called by her vile, bourgeois given name instead of her preferred Obsidian Jade. She made a show of just how hard she was ignoring her mother.

"OJ - they have U2 shirts!"

"Which ones?" she asked, as disinterestedly as humanly possible.

Her mother double-checked the two old t-shirts she was holding. "'Unforgettable Fire,' and 'Achtung Baby.'"

OJ sighed and shook her head. "I told you - if it's not 'Boy' or 'October,' I'm not interested."

Mrs. Black sighed back. "Sweetie, 'Achtung Baby' was already a year old when you were born. Come to think of it, you might have been conceived to 'Achtung Baby.'"

"Shush!" OJ shushed, hastily navigating the racks of old stuff, trying to get close enough to her mother that they could at least lower their voices. 

"Hey - Cabaret Voltaire - this one's pretty obscure," Mrs. Black said, holding up a faded t-shirt. "Ooh - and look at this! Ebn-Ozn! Have you heard of them?"

Pffft - Have I heard of Ebn-Ozn... OJ stopped. "Wait. That's MY CabVolt shirt!"

"No one ever called them that, sweetie."

"Shush! That's like, MY actual shirt, Mom. I sold it at the yard sale, last month - to this weirdly sorta cool older dude... Wait..." She stood tall and scanned the store carefully. "Oh, hellz no."

"What?"

"Hang on..." OJ stalked across the shop to a large table loaded with junk, sitting beneath a hand-lettered sign that read, "CURIOSITY SHOPPE." She stood and stared, agape, as her hands unconsciously balled into furiously trembling fists at the ends of her arms. "That fucker!"

"Whoa! Language!" Mrs. Black admonished. "What's the matter with you?"

OJ wheeled to face her mother, holding up an eleven-by-fourteen piece of metal with faux-rusted edges and adorned with a neon-ringed clock and two poorly-drawn and discolored parrots. "Look! It's Danny's old Key Largo Club bar sign thingy. I sold it to that guy at the yard sale! And there's his autographed 'Yar's Revenge' Atari cartridge and palm tree lights - and aren't those Dad's Howard Sprague napkin rings?"

"Did we sell the napkin rings? I told your father not to put those out. They were a wedding gift from my Russian great-aunt Yuyu."

"And if that Pants Corral box contains so much as one of my trilobites..."

Behind Mrs. Black, a man cleared his throat. "Can I help you-- oh, hey. It's you - the goth girl from the yard sale. Um, hi? OJ, was it?"

Goth girl? OJ tried to play it cool, but she failed to keep her eyes from rolling - way, way back, behind her purple-cloaked lids - and she shook her head, ever so slightly. "Simply thrilled to see you again, Darkness - sorry, Mister O'Hauntington. Where ever did you find these treasures - and what did I tell you about calling me goth?"

The man, thirtyish, wearing jeans and a white polo shirt with the store's name embroidered on its pocket, stifled a smile. "It's 'Darqueness,' with a Q-U-E instead of a K, and I apologize about the goth thing, but I don't know what else to call it."

OJ blinked at him with spectacular slowness. "I said it with a Q-U-E, old-timer. Clean out your ears. And it's Post-goth," she declared, coating the words in a thick layer of and-you-are-a-useless-moron-for-not-knowing-this.

"Of course," he said with an affected contrition. "My bad. So, how's Klaus Nomi?"

"Chill, as always."

The shopkeeper laughed. "Well, yeah - lizards are chill-blooded, right?"

OJ frowned, momentarily devastated to have never thought to refer to her pet as chill-blooded. "Yeah. Now, about all this great stuff you're selling..."   

"Wait. How do you two know each other," Mrs. Black interjected, struggling to keep up. "How does he know your lizard's name?"

"Yard sale," OJ said.

"But - your lizard lives in your bedroom." Mrs. Black regarded the man with suspicion.

"Calm down, Mother. Klaus Nomi had gotten out, and Darqueness here tried to buy him from me. Pretty much the only thing on my table that he didn't buy."

"It's actually Brian," the man said, extending a hand to OJ's mom, "Brian Helton. I just opened this store, and yes - I do shop a lot of yard sales for conversation pieces to sell here - something to differentiate my place from all the other thrift joints in town."

She shook his hand tentatively. "Pam Black, nice to meet you. But, what was all that 'Darkness O'Monsterman' business?"

"I, um, I'm not sure where that came from. OJ said her name was Obsidian Jade, and I panicked..."

Mrs. Black smiled and put up a stop-sign hand. "Say no more. She has that effect on people. Been that way ever since we brought her home from the orphanage."

"Mother..."

"I'm going to go look for some tops for you, sweetie. You can stay here and catch up with Mr. Darkly and pick out some conversation pieces for your dorm. Buy back those napkin rings, would you?" She wandered off into a maze of clothing racks.

"Ugh," OJ growled, watching her mother depart. She turned back to the shop dude. "Okay, first - the Howard Sprague napkin rings--"

"On the house," he said quickly. "I didn't know they were priceless family heirlooms."

She tried to conceal her disappointment at not having the opportunity to demand exactly that. "Oh. Okay. Thank you." She scanned the table of oddities. "Trilobites all gone?"

He shrugged. "They ran away. I found one in my car, but the rest are gone. I'm not proud of that."

OJ shook her head disapprovingly "Not sure you're worthy of that Q-U-E, there, Dark."

"I know."

"How much for the Jolt Cola can?"

"It's free, but you have to take all of them. The rest are in the back."

"How many are there?"

"Three hundred and six. You want 'em?"

 
The rest are in the back...

"Nope. This Play-doh bust of Schneider from 'One Day At A Time' intrigues me. The mustache is so, so black."

"It's signed by the artist," Thrift store guy offered. "I mean, it's illegible and no one knows who it is, but still. Signed!"

OJ shrugged and put it back on the table. "Meh. You really think you'll get ten dollars for this tabletop Pac-Man game?"

"Probably not. How about five? It still works. Might be a good ice-breaker for a dorm room."

"Nah. We know Pac-Man, but we don't remember Pac-Man...
 

"You seem to remember 'One Day At A Time...'"

"Shush," she shushed. "How much for the diorama of Nixon signing his resignation? And why is Earl Butz in it? I guarantee you, Earl Butz was NOT in the room for that."

Darqueness O'Hauntington thought better of responding with more than a shrug. "Two bucks? Anything else?"

"How much you want for the foot-long Casio keyboard-slash-calculator thingy? I'm taking calculus, and--"

"Don't take calculus."

"What?"

"What are you going to major in?"

"I'm leaning toward business, with an English minor - or vice-versa. I want to improve the world's business writing. It's so boring..."

"Don't take calculus," he repeated. "Five bucks for the Casio."    

"Done," she said. "What about this crossword puzzle book? All the puzzles are already filled in - who would want this - and for a hundred bucks?"

Brian Helton (if that was his real name) brightened. "If you look closely, you'll see that every puzzle has been filled in with words that fit in the spaces, but don't match the clues."

"No way. Who did that - Rain Man?" She took the book and studied one of the puzzles. "Holy shit. I can't imagine having that kind of time on my hands... Wait. The words across the top line go together. 'He turned to vapor and...'" she read.

"Start with the first puzzle," he said. "Read each puzzle in order, first across, then down. It's a novel - kind of a romantic comedy about vampires working the night shift in an insurance company call center. It's not very good, but you have to admit..."

"Who did this? It's genius!" she enthused, momentarily losing all of her darkness. "I'll take it! I only have fifty bucks left, though. Do you do, like, layaway or whatever?"

"I did this," he said with a proud smile, "and as you're the first person it has ever impressed, I want you to have it. It's a gift."

"Oh my God, Darqueness - thank you SO much! I love it!"

A few minutes later, as Darqueness rang up their purchases, OJ turned to her mother and declared that when she finished college, she was going to marry Brian.

"Excuse me?" Brian and Mrs. Black chorused.

"Four years," OJ said to Brian with a wink. "I'll come back and take you away from all this."

"That's sweet," he said, "But I'm married."

"Are you, though?"

"Yes. Happily."

"Are you, though..."

"No. But I am twenty-eight," he offered.

She smiled and blew him a kiss. "I'll be back," she whispered.