M. J. Politis
“In or out?” Nathan Williams screamed out, his voice deep as James Earl Jones, his complexion twice as black.
“Huh?” the Gen-x drifter said from inside the doorway of the Last Chance Cafe, a rotting wooden fortress defiantly refusing to surrender to the elements.
“The wind. The bugs. They stay out there, I stay in here. That’s the deal I made with this goddamn desert. In or out?”
“Okay, in,” the drifter mumbled through a cynically indifferent frown.
Harry had been on the road for ten months, had used up at least twenty alias’ and all of his money. He was a 17 year old drop-out going on 50 faster than even he realized. Had it not been for the bus driver checking the toilets between stops, he would be in Las Vegas now, maybe even L.A. Younger Rapids, New Mexico, population 105, was the middle of nowhere, particularly to a kid whose images of the Old West were fed by Marlboro Billboards and Brat Pack Westerns.
The real west was a lot slower than in the movies. And a lot hotter-100 degrees and still mid-morning. And dry, too. The only thing Younger Rapids seemed to be flowing with was boredom and Harry hated boredom most of all. But it was a change from the terror that had followed him from New York to Seattle and a thousand other places in between.
Harry had been in exile from even “alternative” mainstream life since he turned fifteen, acquiring powerful enemies on both sides of the ever-shifting line of legality. There were basically three laws to this new life without rules. First, keep your dreams alive. Second, be honest. Third, fill your stomach whenever you can. Harry had learned these rules at a dangerously slow rate.
“What’ll you have?” Nathan asked.
“What do ya got?” The reflex response was abrupt, smartassed and challenged a comeback.
“Lobster Newburg, Eggs Benedict and filet mignon.” Nathan threw Harry a list of generic truckstop options, a faded menu with prices crossed out and jacked up ten times since it was printed in 1962.
On first glance, Harry was not Nathan’s kind of preferred customer. Though Harry didn’t look like he was carrying a knife or a gun, he carried a more powerful weapon-a mirror. When you looked into his eyes, you saw yourself, whoever you were. If anyone was a James Dean for the 90’s, without the paycheck, recognition or record contract, it was Harry. A 98 pound bag of tattoo-covered bones. Shabby hair which had been dyed more often than washed. Leather pants that reeked of sweat. And from behind the ten dollar sunglasses, the “look.”
No one was going to give Harry shit anymore, maybe because he had a lifetime of it already. His mother died in a “domestic incident” two years earlier. His father, a crooked ex-cop now legitimate and crafty enough to work both sides of the law, beat the manslaughter rap. Harry’s younger brother survived the domestic arguments and the physical abuse, only to end up in a string of mental hospitals. His sister had the good sense to leave home five years ago and the stubbornness not to let anyone know her whereabouts. There were many scores to be settled, and Harry made very powerful enemies after making some heavy-duty accusations. Still, he was determined to put things right no matter who got hurt. But biological sustenance would have to come first.
“To start, a glass of hot water. Shaken, not stirred. And without any roach piss in it.” All of the other ingredients were there. Catsup, mustard, crackers, salt, black pepper, and the red stuff in the dispenser used to try to make pizza with American cheese taste Italian for palates conditioned on the beans and bacon rodeo circuit.
Nathan returned the request with an uncompromising stare. He would have preferred a “please,” or even “if you have time,” but a quarter slammed on the table was enough compensation. “The minimum charge is usually two dollars. I’ll let you decide what you want and be back later.” Nathan laid it out.
“Yeah. Before the lunch rush.”
Nathan took the quarter. The Last Chance Cafe would be a paying customer only establishment as long as Nathaniel Hawthorn Williams was in charge. There hadn’t been any customers in for three days, but it was Nathan’s place to know that, not Harry’s.
With hot water and tea saucer in hand, Harry went to work concocting his own, yet-to-be-patented, recipe.
“One pack of mustard. Two hits of catsup. Pepper. Crackers aged a year past their expiration date. And two handfuls of sugar ’cause life is so fuckin’ sweet when you’re on the road. I’ll call this one, artificial tomato surprise ala-”
Harry took out his worn-down two-inch pencil, grabbed a napkin and turned to his host. “What’s your name?”
“‘Sir’, to you.”
“Okay. Artificial tomato surprise ala ‘Sir’.”
Nathan found himself softening. “You writing a book?”
“How to survive on the road on nothin’ a day. It’s gonna be a real money maker. But I gotta get some paper, and a publisher, and find a few million broke people who can pay three bucks a copy first. Details.”
“So, you have a purpose. A dream,” Nathan commented with admiration and envy.
“No. I got a family. One member I’m gonna see dead, or put away for good this time. And two others who I’m gonna find, then bring to Missoula, Montana. Or someplace else that’s got animals, mountains and a blues bar in case I get homesick.”
As Nathan cleaned the grill for the third time that morning, he noticed something intense in Harry’s eyes. Something different, maybe. He knew enough not to ask anymore details. He took out some frozen fries, the curly kind reserved for paying customers, two generous slabs of ham and three grade AA eggs.
“Nathan,” he said. “My name is Nathan. If I’m gonna be made famous, might as well get the name right.”
“Nate. How ’bout Nate?” Harry countered with the reflex insensitivity he used so often to defend himself against kind words from people he didn’t yet trust.
“Nathan. My name is Nathan. and the breakfast special this morning is bacon, eggs and fries. Five dollar value, special price today, two bucks.”
“I’m puttin’ down ‘Nate’. It’s my fuckin’ book. I’m gonna get rich my way and I’ll call this recipe whatever I fuckin’ want. Tomato-mustard-burnout’s-delight ala Nate.”
“You sound like you got ‘youthful enthusiasm’. And you sound like you got some history behind you. You’re probably a hungry motherfucker, too.”
Harry reached into his pocket. A better find than he thought. “I got two quarters, three dimes and a Canadian Loonie worth a dollar if we were in Vancouver. Ya know…where all you 60’s burnouts used to hang out. A cool place, ’til you all turned into losers or money gougers.”
Nathan’s black face turned beet red. “Breakfast special is two-fifty.”
“You said it was two bucks.”
“Price went up. Inflation.”
No one was going to give Nathaniel Williams the “get a life” speech and get away with it. Nathan’s hero in Vietnam was Jim Brown; his role model upon his return home to Watts was Martin Luther King; and his reality for the last decade, Al Bundy.
Harry proudly gulped down his burn-out delight ala Nate, but his stomach churned and he was still light headed. “Light headed people make lots of mistakes and go weird real fast,” he thought, remembering how chronic hunger was the first step downward on the spiral downward to getting your throat cut in an alley or doing it yourself.
“So, Nathaniel, if I kiss your ass and tell you how great the 60’s were, and how fuckin’ great a job you guys did for us, and how all us white guys really wanna get tight with you ‘brothers’, I get the breakfast special for a buck?”
“Three dollars.” Nathan held firm.
Harry listened to his churning stomach again, then glanced down at a crucifix around his neck. The religious significance meant nothing. The fact that his mother gave it to him did. Harry ripped it off. His mother was dead anyway, as were his dreams of making something out of his life on his own terms. He emptied the last of his change and good luck on the table.
“The fuckin’ three dollar breakfast special and your best house wine.”
Nathan laid down the breakfast special, then a bottle of Lysol.
“Is this a fuckin’ joke Nate?”
“No. Right now it’s a statement of fact.” Nathan gave back the crucifix, then the money. He turned away, too painfully aware of his own dead-ended existence to offer any explanations, or life lessons.
Harry looked at the Lysol bottle, inverted a dust-stained glass, poured a generous portion, then lifted it up to his lips. As predicted, it caught Nathan’s attention.
“You don’t think I’ll do it,” Harry said.
From Nathan, silence and a blank stare.
“Tell you what, Nathan. If I drink this ammonia-scented house wine, you give me a hundred bucks.”
“All I got is forty-two.” Nathan put his money on the table. “And a check for the rest.”
No one had taken Harry up on the bet before. “You don’t think I’ll do it Nathan?” He took off his shades, intense eyes behind them.
Nathan smiled. “You drink it fast, they take you to the morgue. You drink it slow, they take you to the mental hospital. You don’t wanna be dead, kid. And I know you’re not insane. Crazy, maybe, even visionary, but not insane. And those assholes in the rubber room motel don’t know or wanna know, the difference between insane, crazy and visionary.”
Nathan’s logic was correct. But Harry’s list of options was dwindling fast. He had fallen far behind on his timetable of settling the score with his father and reuniting his sister and brother in Montana. Each time he got up to take another step, life pushed him back another three. The harder he tried, the bleaker the prospect for any of his dreams.
“What’s wrong with taking a one way visit to the morgue?” Harry intervened. “I jammed with some good bands. No payin’ gigs. Not yet. But I’m a good harp player. Carried lead guitar too, when Big Elmo got drunk and barfed his guts out in the alley for the second set at the Golden Dollar. The crowd didn’t even notice that he was gone. Dying’s not so bad. How could I pass up a chance to jam with Hendrix, Morrison, even Jerry Garcia? A hell of a lot more bitchin’ time on that side of the line than this one. Give me one real reason why I shouldn’t take myself out now instead of dying slowly like the rest of you.”
Nathan remained silent. Harry became desperate.
“Come on. Tell me one good reason why I shouldn’t fuckin’ off myself, right now!”
From out of a dark corner of the room, a voice crisp as a New England autumn day-“Because the bastards will have won.”
His back was hunched and twisted, but he walked with steady, bold strides. His shoulder-length hair was gray, combed back over the top of large bald spot. His jacket was corduroy, leather patches on the sleeves. Around his stubby neck, a blue bandanna, held in place by a Harvard fraternity ring. On his feet, traditional Apache moccasins beaded in the manner of the Navajo. His face was baked tight and dry by the sun, his eyes corral blue and wide open. If the light hit him straight on, he looked like a well-seasoned multicultural guerrilla warrior in his forties. In shadows, he seemed to be an eighty year-old ghost.
“Professor!!!” Nathan screamed out, apprehensively. “I thought you were still with them Hopi Indians.”
“They’re called First Nations People now. Not Indian,” Harry countered.
“When you’re as old as I am, and as old as those Hopi are, they’re Indians.” Nathan volleyed back.
The Professor sat down, trying to not let on that he still felt some pain when changing positions. Sitting was always more painful than standing for him, but his table was empty and it was appropriate to watch what would happen from a sitting position this time.
“Indian?” Harry blasted out. “How would you like it if I called you Nigger?”
“I don’t give a goddamn what the fuck you called me, as long as there’s some respect behind it!!!” The button was pushed, the wave of missiles released. “I been called Coon, Nigger, Darkie, Spook and a thousand other names that you young fucks ain’t even heard of. Of course, when you ‘rediscover’ them, they’ll be ‘cool’ again. A real ‘with it’, ‘hip’ kinda language. You motherfuckers want to invent your own generation, invent your own fuckin’ language, Motherfucker!!!”
“A loser and Nigger calling me a motherfucker? What the fuck is that?!! No one calls me a motherfucker!!!”
Nathan knew nothing about the reverence with which Harry held his deceased mother, but it was no excuse. Harry wouldn’t be dissed like that. Personal honor demanded satisfaction, or blood.
“Motherfucker,” the Professor quietly interjected, realizing that the next step would involve more than just injured egos on the floor. “A man who has had intercourse with his wife after having already had one child, or an individual who has had carnal involvement with a woman with children from a previous marriage.”
“Huh?” Harry replied.
“Motherfucker,” the Professor said firmly, totally in control of himself and the situation. “The strict definition of the term. The way that I am sure that me Negroid friend, Mister Williams, meant it.”
“Yeah,” Nathan replied, eyes still angrily fixed on Harry throat. “You’re a real politician, Professor.”
“You say politician like it’s a dirty word, Nathan,” the Professor volleyed back. Then, turning to Harry, “What’s wrong with politicians? A politician just prevented a fight between you and Mister Motherfucker, which would have ended up with one of you badly injured and the other most probably in jail.”
Nathan backed off. As usual, the Professor was right and, as usual, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to gloat over it.
“Politicians are assholes,” Harry interjected. His rage now focused on a world bigger than the Last Chance Cafe.
“Politicians are assholes, true enough,” the Professor conceded with a swell of guilt behind his calm, seasoned eyes. “You sound like you’ve had bad history with politicians.”
“They put good people in jail and let motherfuckers walk.”
“So, young man-”
“No one calls me ‘young man’, either.”
“I have to call you something.”
“Harry, okay? My name is Harry,” he said after a long pause.
“So, Harry. Politicians are assholes. And the people who vote for them?”
“So, Harry, you’ve affirmed to us that you are not a motherfucker, you hate assholes, and you don’t look like a moron. What are you?”
“A human being, okay? Not a neo-hippie, not a Beverly Hills 90210-666 wannabe, not a squeejy hipster living on welfare, not an alternative-grunge-counter fuckin’ revolutionary, or any other label you assholes wanna put on me. I’m just trying to make something good happen in a shit world that you assholes and morons let happen. That ‘revolution’ in the 60’s was a scam. The same assholes are in charge. The Illuminati still call the shots . You just made it worse by making them look more ‘concerned’. Still one percent on the top, all the rest of us on the bottom. Then they try to sell us fuckin’ bumper stickers for cars owned by the bank or the repo man. ‘Don’t ask what your community can do for you, ask what you can do for your fucking community.'”
Harry threw two bites of breakfast special down his throat. It would be a long distance between stops. He grabbed the Lysol bottle, the pillowcases he used as a knapsack, and stormed out the door.
“Harry,” the Professor interrupted, “it’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.'”
There was something different about the voice, a different tone, quality and a haunting source. Like something out of a Twilight Zone movie, for Harry. Complete with the door being closed in front of him by Nathan, punctuated by an ominous look in the black gatekeeper’s eyes.
The Professor rose. “It should have been ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country, my fellow citizens of the world!!!'” The delivery was that of a seasoned Broadway actor, not a New Mexican expatriate burn-out or loser. He continued, “It was an inaugural speech. I was being elected to the office of President of the United States. I couldn’t let on that I was being elected President of the Free World.”
Harry looked to Nathan for an answer. Some explanation…something that made sense of what seemed to be a time warp.
Nathan’s reply was more frightening than any Twilight Zone episode. “You say you want to make a difference, Harry. You say you’re the last rugged individualist of your generation. Talk to the Professor. Only way out of this place is through him.”
Before further explanation could be given with eyes or words, Nathan bolt-locked the front door, pulled the shades down and put a “Closed” sign in the window.
Harry turned. Nathan set the Professor’s table for two. “Professor, two bottle of Coke, tacos, chili sauce, and cigars.”
“Cuban cigars, Nathan?”
“From your friend, Professor.”
The Professor’s face turned solemn as he unwrapped it. “Cuba still makes the best cigars in the world. Fidel has done well for himself, and has done a lot of good things in Cuba. Free health care for everyone. One hundred percent literacy rate. Nathan, remember when you had that surgery done? The Cuban doctor was the guy who got you fixed up.”
“All things considered, I’d give Fidel an A-minus. Off the record. A pain-in-the-ass, internationally-speaking. But at least he still has a laboratory to conduct his revolutionary experiments. and I-”
“Professor,” Nathan interrupted, “If you sit Harry at this table, promise him what you promised the others, then you do your own cooking, cleaning and ass-saving.”
Nathan was firm. But the Professor had stepped over the line, honor was at stake.
“Harry’s hungry, Nathan. I’ll talk, he’ll listen. Harry can make up his own mind”
A mixture of emotions battled for control of Nathan’s mind. The winner was anger. Nathan threw down his apron, grabbed his keys and the gym bag containing all that he considered valuable or necessary.
“Harry, the Nathaniel Williams express leaves one way for points civilized in a minute and a half. Fare is a civil tongue and tight lips about anything you saw here. All Aboard.”
Nathan left out the back door and revved up a 1979 Buick. The 450,000 mile engine didn’t want to turn over, but finally yielded to Nathan’s determination.
On the Professor’s face, pain. He had burnt out Nathan in all the ways that fire-driven eccentrics and revolutionaries burn out their closest friends and comrades. The Revolution the Professor still fought for was too global, too intense for most people. And, to the Professor’s disappointment, Nathan was one of those people. Or maybe Nathan preferred to live on the world’s terms than to die on a suicide mission that the Professor had been talking about, “off the record” for the last four years.
“Sixty seconds…All Aboard!,” Nathan screamed out.
The Professor put a quarter in the juke box. Coming over it, “My Way”, the Elvis Original.
“It doesn’t get played much these days,” the Professor commented. “Not too many of us rugged individualists left, right, Harry?”
Harry knew that he had been tested since his arrival and, through no fault or credit, that he had passed with flying colors. He knew that he was being manipulated. He would be a dead man if he stayed, a coward to the Cause if he left.
“Forty-five seconds, or it’s your funeral, Harry. Last Call.” Nathan was the kind of person who kept his word. He never joked about matters of life and death, particularly where innocent bystanders were involved.
“Just one question, Professor,” Harry asked.
“My friends call me Jack, Harry.”
“Jack,” Harry said sarcastically, “what about Dallas? You’re supposed to be, like, ya know, dead.”
“There was a rumor in 1970 that Paul McCartney was dead.”
“Which was true. ‘Wings’ sucked.”
“Life sucks, Harry. To the unenlightened eye, the rules are fixed.”
“No shit, Sherlock. No one’s listening. Haven’t you heard that?”
“Which is why we have to yell louder!! LOUDER!!!” The Professor’s mind tunneled into a volcanic reservoir of molten lava, hot enough to set ten thousand worlds on fire.
“Last Call. All aboard, Harry,” Nathan screamed out. “You wanna die young or grow old? Your call. Ten seconds.”
Seeing the Professor drifting off into a world of his own, Harry decided to rejoin the one on the less colorful side of the rainbow. The back door was open, trap door to reality, pathetic as it was.
“One more question, Harry,” The Professor said by way of a request this time. “All great dramas begin with a coincidence that life contrives-”
“‘Makes up’, Harry. Life makes up only a few accidental meetings. You look like you’re one of those accidents.”
“Fuck you, ‘Jack’. I got a family to try to bring together and a score to settle in the real world. You fight dragons up in the fuckin’ sky with some other schmuck.”
“I suppose I could get a schmuck to wipe out Carlos Marcello. Harry Diamantis,” the Professor said. “Harry, isn’t that Greek?”
Harry froze in his hole-ridden runners. He looked at his pillowcases. Like a moron, he had left his surname on the tag.
“My mother was Irish.”
“And the Marcello organization isn’t dead. Neither is the Illuminati.”
The Professor smiled. “I believe in a ‘what’s in it for us’ world, Harry. Cooperation is the highest form of self-interest. I see an opportunity for both of us here.”
Harry was silent. The Professor knew more that he should have. Or was he bullshitting? The Professor seemed to be a master at bullshit and, for all Harry’s tough talk, he was an easy mark for bullshitters. Still, it was a bullshit world and better to have a great bullshitter on your side than go it alone-maybe.
Nathan’s car zoomed off. Harry felt a lump in his throat.
“I’ll take that as a yes, Harry?” the Professor asked.
Harry turned around, staring the old man square in the eye. “I know what I want. What the fuck do you want?”
“To ask one more question, Harry, for now?”
“Lift up your starboard hand.”
Harry put on his best poker face and raised his left hand.
The Professor smiled. “Close enough.”