Fear and Loathing on the Way to Galveston

A trip to the heart of the American Dream

The White Whale as captured by the author

I drove the 117 miles to Owensboro and arrived at Buddha’s in the early afternoon. This was the first leg of our journey to the heart of the American Dream. I gassed up the White Whale, a 2011 gas guzzling Nissan Maxima, the day before, and put together a road trip mix to listen to on our way down to Galveston. We were going to Galveston to recapture our past and rekindle a friendship that had cooled off over the years.

We had both been to Galveston before and though we had separate memories we were both eager to see her pretty sea wall, hear the sea wind blowing, and see her dark eyes glowing.  

I like to listen to the sounds of the 60s while on a road trip with nothing else on my mind but driving fast, grooving to the music, and avoiding the law if at all possible.

Daniel “Buddha” Hildenbrandt was one of my oldest friends and a spiritual adviser. He was also a teacher at the local community college. He taught communications and was fond of saying, “the main problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

We called him Buddha because of the pudgy nature of his physique. He just looked like a Buddha.

When I got to his place, we watched TV until about 5:30 pm when his daughter, Mara, arrived to fetch a key. After she left, we went out to get a bite to eat at Owensboro’s one and only Sushi place. I knew it was going to be a problem when I noticed the chefs behind the sushi bar were Mexican. I had the Hibachi Chicken. It was terrible.

We went back to Buddha’s place for drinks and more TV. I lucked into a Harold Pinter play on YouTube I’ve been wanting to see: “The Birthday Party,” starring Harold Pinter himself and Joan Plowright, in a BBC production. It was pretty good, but you have to be into Pinter to enjoy it. Buddha wasn’t so he went to bed to read while I watched the rest of the play.

The next day was Friday, October 2. I woke to the news that Donald Trump and Melania Trump both have contracted the coronavirus. Is that karma or what?

We are living in strange times. I was thinking of love in the time of Coronavirus. 1,000,000 dead and Donald Trump was still president. This was before the insurrection at the nation’s capital and Moscow had yet to declare war on Ukraine. The best was yet to come.

We packed and loaded the car. We had to make a pit stop in Evansville so Buddha could see his psychiatrist and check up on his meds. Apparently, I am traveling with a madman. That’s OK. We’re all as mad as hatters here. All the best people are.

We finally got on the road and headed west. I figured to push as far into Arkansas as I possibly could before stopping for the night. We made it to Hope, which was in the first ring of hell. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but it was getting there. We crossed the river Acheron into the abyss. The dreams weren’t broken down there, but they were definitely walking with a limp.

We checked into the Best Western Motel. The maskless clerk behind the desk kept asking us if we wanted one bed or two.

“Two beds, dammit!” Buddha muttered, shaking his shaggy head.

“Do we get a discount?” I asked. “AAA? AARP?”

“Yeah, I’ll give you a discount alright,” the clerk snapped.

“Well, what’s the rate?”

“$75.00 including tax. Do you want one bed or two?”

“Two beds, dammit!”

“OK! Can I see your credit card?”

“Any restaurants in the area?”

“You can Google them and they will deliver.”

“OK. What room?”

“105. Right around the corner.”

Buddha was already heading out the door on his way to the room on foot. I drove around. We unlocked the door and unloaded the car, then took a moment to get settled. Buddha went to get ice.

I Googled the restaurants in the area and found a Pizza Hut and a Dominos. I called both but got put on hold at both places. Well, what could you expect in a little town called Hope, deep in the Arkansas interior? Bill Clinton territory as it were. The town sucked just like Monica Lewinski. Finally, Dominos answered.

“I’ll have a medium Supreme delivered to room 105 at the Best Western Motel, please. When will you deliver it? One hour? Wow! Well, go ahead. We will just have to wait.”

While waiting for the pizza to arrive we made the drinks.

We had picked up some liquor a few exits back. We got separate liquors because Buddha always buys cheap booze and I can’t stand the whiskey he usually gets, so I get something a little better. Turns out he got Ezra Brooks and I got Jack Daniels.

“Well, hell, if I’d a known you were getting Ezra Brooks, I would have drunk your booze. Ezra Brooks ain’t bad!”

“No, you wouldn’t! You’re not drinking my booze! You just drink your Jack Daniels!”

“What the hell Buddha? You don’t think I would have replaced your whiskey? You mean to tell me you wouldn’t have shared?”

“I don’t want to have this conversation right now!”

“Why not?”

“Just don’t.”

“OK.”

We drove the rest of the way in silence.

Meanwhile, back in the motel room, we decided to watch a little TV while waiting for the pizza. It was 9 pm EST and 8 pm Central. Buddha grabbed the remote and engaged the “on” button. TV said, “No Signal.”

“Call the front desk and tell them the TV doesn’t work,” I said.

Buddha grabbed the phone, listened intently, punched the dial hooks repeatedly, looked up wild-eyed.

“No dial-tone! Motherfucker don’t work!”

“Call him on your cell phone.”

Buddha stared at the black desk set and started stabbing the numbers into his cell phone.

“Hello? Yeah, this is Buddha in room 105. The phone don’t work…. I’m calling you on my cell phone…. OK…OK…Ok. That’s not why I’m calling you. The TV don’t work either…OK…. OK…Ok.”

He hung up.

“What’d he say?”

“He said he would come down and try to reboot it himself.”

“Well OK then.”

So, we waited a few minutes, freshened our drinks, and munched on some smoked almonds. Pretty soon there was a knock at the front door.

Buddha let in the night clerk who again was maskless, but he was at least pretty friendly. He took the remote and began trying to reboot the TV.

About that time, we got another knock at the door. It was Dominos. Buddha answered the door. He paid for the pizza, $20.00 including tip.

The smell of the pizza filled the room.

“Wow, if you are getting pizza, I’m getting hungry.” This from the maskless night clerk.

“You want a slice?” I asked.

“No. No.”

The clerk didn’t have any luck getting the TV to work either.

“Let’s see, the TV don’t work, and the phone don’t work. Don’t you think we should get another discount?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ll give you another discount. I’ll give it to you right now.”

And with that, he left.

Buddha and I just looked at each other and shrugged. Then we devoured the pizza.

A little later on that night, the night clerk showed up with our receipt which included our discounts. All in all, an $85.00 room ended up costing us $65.00. Not bad.

We got up early the next morning and hit the road again right after breakfast. It was around Texarkana when the drugs started kicking in. It was only a matter of time before we would see the bats.

As soon as we crossed the Texas state line the environment seemed to change. The horizon stretched out further, the roads became wider, and the countryside a lot brighter. You could see further in all directions. There were also a lot of Trump signs. We were definitely in Trump country. If there ever was time to be traveling armed, this was it.

Donald Trump. The 45th president of the United States of America was nothing more than a screaming hyena, a barking dog, a snake oil salesman, and a carnival barker. But he held a death grip on American politics for four years, and even though he was impeached twice and lost a fair and free election he still has a death grip on the GOP and a large number of the electorate. One-third of the country thinks the election was stolen and that Joe Biden is not the legitimate president. What a mess! But I digress.

There we were, driving along US Highway 59 with an open road in front of us and Ruby and the Romantics blaring on the radio and I couldn’t help but think that here we are, 20 years into the next century. I remember the 60s as being a beacon of hope when the culture hit a high watermark. If you look back and squint your eyes just right, you can almost see where the crest of the wave finally broke and rolled back. It’s been downhill pretty much ever since.

Next stop: Galveston!

Psycho Blue Boots in the 3rd

Travels with Aunt Renie

Photo by the Author

Aunt Renie came to Louisville, Kentucky for a visit. It was in the spring of the year and nearing Derby Day, so I decided to take her out to Churchill Downs to watch the horses run.

We drove to south Louisville where the track is located and parked the car a few blocks away and walked the remaining distance to the track entrance. Aunt Renie is pretty spry for an old lady.

We were both able to get in for the admission price of only $1.00 as we were both senior citizens. Louisville likes to encourage its seniors to go to the track. We made our way through the throng of horseracing fans to a booth where they sell racing forms. I bought one and stuck it in my pocket. Then we walked out to the track and sat in the sun on hard benches and studied the form to make our picks.

We studied the racing form and saw that there was a field of eight horses for the next race. Aunt Renie had never been to a racetrack before so I had to teach her how to handicap the race. I am not an expert myself but here’s how I do it. The first thing I do is to study the form for the information listed about the horses for that particular race. First of all, I look for names I like. Something that clicks. Then, I look at the stats on that horse. Who is the trainer, who is the jockey, how much weight does the horse carry, how many races did the horse win this year, and last, what are the odds?

I take all these things into consideration and make a selection. I picked what looked like a winner: Psycho Blue Boots, the number 5 horse in the 3rd race. I suggested to Aunt Renie that we bet $10.00 to win on the 5 horse. If it won, we would split the winnings. She agreed.

I pushed my way through the crowd to the parimutuel window and placed my bet.

“$10.00 to win on the 5 horse in the 3rd race,” I said. The teller smiled, took my money, and punched my ticket.

The race was about to begin as was indicated by the trumpet call to the gate.  I hurried back to where Aunt Renie was sitting and showed her our ticket. Just then the announcer announced, “They’re off!” And the race began.

“On the lead was Solient Green, on the outside Golden Band. On the rail was Shiftless Joe followed by Psycho Blue Boots. Royal Pain was moving up to fourth place, Psycho Blue Boots makes a sudden move…They are in the turn, Royal Pain is in third. Psycho Blue Boots moving up on the outside…now moving in…in the stretch Psycho Blue Boots takes the lead…at the wire…Psycho Blue Boots wins by nose!”

The crowd goes wild. I go wild Aunt Renie goes wild. We are winners!

We won enough on the race we were able to celebrate at one of Louisville’s most prestigious steak houses, Jack Fry’s. We had quite a day at the races and a nice meal to boot.

The next morning, I took Aunt Renie to the airport where she resumed her travels.

Next stop, Amsterdam!

My Life as a Man

A Well-Known Seducer of College Girls

Image courtesy of Goodreads

My Life as a Man, a novel written by Philip Roth, comes from Roth’s middle period, after Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, but before American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain.  Roth has written some 30 odd books, not all of them odd but some pretty strange, and he is possibly America’s best writer, if not one of the most prolific. Beats me why he never won the Nobel, for he was surely deserving. 

I’ve read most of his later works and all of his earlier works and I am slowly catching up on his middle period. I don’t profess to be an expert on Roth, but I certainly like his writing I and return to him over and over again.

This book, My Life as a Man, is a story within a story, or two stories within a story, then Peter Tarnopol’s (narrator) true story. It concerns his marriage to Maureen Tarnopol who tricked him into marrying him and has become his arch-enemy. Maureen, in their divorce proceedings, described him as, “…a well-known seducer of college girls.”

Peter Tarnopol is a promising young writer who is also a college professor who teaches creative writing. He occasionally gets involved with his young students who become grist for his mill. He teaches literature and creative writing at The University of Wisconsin and Hofstra College on Long Island. He was a patient of Dr. Otto Spielvogel, a Manhattan psychoanalyst, from 1962-1967. Spielvogel considered Peter Tarnopol to be among the nation’s top young narcissists in the arts.

As usual, Roth draws from his own life and previous fiction and writes about what he knows best.

It is a rollicking satire teetering on the edge of tragedy as Roth brilliantly tells the tale of his marriage and his many peccadillos.

Roth writes in an attempt to make art out of his calamitous life and to spin gold out of straw. Is it him or his characters, or is it Memorex? You be the judge. For him, (Tarnopol), “…writing is a vain attempt to get myself to feel like something other than a foreigner being held against his will in a hostile and alien country.”

For Philip Roth, life is a Kafkaesque nightmare whereupon the dreamer ruminates on the possibility of being transformed into a gigantic cockroach. Upon awakening, he heeds the advice of Gustave Flaubert who suggests leading a regular and orderly life and being violent and original in his writing. This is a lesson Philip Roth seems to have taken to heart.

Coming up For Air

Book Review

So, I’ve read my first book of 2022: George Orwell’s, Coming up for Air, and boy, was it a ride! One has to look beyond Orwell’s most famous books, 1984 and Animal Farm, and get into the weeds with some of his lesser-known works to find the real Orwell.  This book has been described as an account of a man trying to recapture the lost innocence of his childhood. My main takeaway is that the more things change the more they stay the same. But it is more complicated than that of course. It is more like: you can never go home again.

George Bowling is being smothered in a middle-class existence, mired in a loveless marriage on the eve of WWII.  He takes a week off and travels to his hometown in Lower Binfield, only to discover that it is no longer there. It has been completely engulfed by urban sprawl.

I love the first line of the novel, “The idea really came to me the day I got I got my new false teeth.” The idea to travel back to his childhood home of Lower Binfield, that is.

George Bowling was the product of shop keepers who struggled to keep their business alive as he describes in this passage: “It’s a fact that very few shopkeepers in those days actually ended in the workhouse. With any luck, you died with a few pounds still your own. It was a race between death and bankruptcy, and, thank God, death got Father first, and mother too.”

He details the banal middle-class existence as only Orwell can, interweaving some heavy commentary on the horrors of war and the disgusting nature of human beings they can sometime exhibit as this example of a discussion of the Boer War between two of George Bowling’s relatives readily shows: “…surely he couldn’t think it right for these here Boers to throw babies in the air and catch them on their bayonets, even if they were only, nigger babies?” “Uncle Ezekiel just laughed in his face. Father had it all wrong! It wasn’t the Boers who threw the babies in the air, it was the British soldiers!”

In this book, Orwell refers to several wars, The Boer War, WWI, and the pending WWII. More on war: “It was unspeakably meaningless, that time in 1918. Here I was sitting beside the stove in an army hut …when a few hundred miles away in France the guns were roaring and droves of wretched children, wetting their bags with fright, were being driven into the machine gun barrage like you’d shoot small coke into a furnace. …It was a lunatic’s dream….if the war didn’t kill you, it was bound to start you thinking.”

There was a scene in Lower Binfield, when Geroge went back to visit, where an RAF bomber making a practice run accidentally drops a bomb on the village killing three people. Thinking it was the Germans and expecting a second bomb to drop Orwell describes the following surreal scene: “And then I saw an extraordinary sight. At the other end of the market-place the High Street rises a little. And down this little hill, a herd of pigs was galloping, a sort of huge flood of pig-faces. The next moment, of course, I saw what it was. It wasn’t pigs at all, it was only the schoolchildren in their gas masks.”

George Bowling’s visit to Lower Binfield taught him one thing: “It’s all going to happen. All the things you’ve got in the back of your mind, the things you’re terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a nightmare or only happen in foreign countries. The bombs, the food-queues, the rubber truncheons, the barbed wire, the coloured shirts, the slogans, the enormous faces, the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. It’s all going to happen. I know it -at any rate – I knew it then. There’s no escape. Fight against it if you like, or look the other way and pretend not to notice, or grab your spanner and rush out to do a bit of face-smashing along with the others. But there’s no way out. It’s just something that’s got to happen.”

Lest you think it was all doom and gloom, not so. There was quite a lot of humor injected into the novel. Dark humor. This novel, is, after all, satire.

Gringo Land

Photo by the author

I was sitting at a sidewalk table at a café in front of a large window, sipping my whisky and soda. I could watch the passersby on their way home. It was late and everyone had left the café except for me. A tree sat a few feet from me in a large round pot casting a shadow over the empty table sitting next to it. There was enough light to read by. I liked to sit late at night in this café and read and drink my whiskey and soda in peace. It was quiet now that all the other customers had left. There only remained two waiters, one old like me and the other young. The younger one seemed impatient to go home. Probably had a wife to go home to. That was not the case for me nor I suspect for the other waiter.

I noticed out in the street a young man and a pretty girl walking briskly by. I was entranced by the beauty of the girl and I was envious of the young man who was with her.

I signaled the waiter for another drink.

The younger waiter sauntered over.

“What will you have?”

“Another whisky and soda.”

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough, senor?”

I just looked at him. He went away to fetch the drink.

The two waiters were huddled together at a table near the door. They were whispering. Probably talking about me I thought. Probably want me to go. Well, I’m not ready to go.

The waiter went to the bar and poured a shot of bourbon into a tumbler of ice and spritzed it with soda water. He carried the drink outside to where I was sitting. He placed the drink in front of me and said, “Why don’t you just fuck off, old man?”

He probably thought I couldn’t hear what he was saying as I am practically deaf. But I hear well enough in a quiet environment.

The waiter went back into the café and sat down with his workmate. They began whispering again. Probably think I’m drunk and need to leave, I thought. Oh, well, I’ll stay a little longer and have one more for the road. 

I like this place. It is clean, well-lighted, and quiet.

I motioned to the waiters for another drink.

“Another whiskey and soda, amigo.”

“No,” the young waiter said. “You’re done. Time to go.”

“Another!” I insisted.

“We are closing now.” He began to wipe the table clean with his towel.

I slowly stood up, looked at the bill he had unceremoniously laid on the table.  I pulled some cash from my pocket and paid the bill, leaving a modest tip.

I walked down the street away from the café slowly, a bit unsteady on my feet. I could feel the eyes of the two waiters burning a hole in my back. I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I didn’t want to face my dark room and the empty bed. One more drink, I thought. There must be someplace open tonight. Only thing was, they would unlikely be as clean and well-lighted or as nice as this last one was. I didn’t want any music. No, I really wasn’t in much of a mood to listen to any music. And I didn’t really want to stand in front of a bar. What was it I wanted? Not much. Just a clean, quiet, well-lighted place.

I came to a bar that was open. It had red and white walls on the outside with an American flag hanging on one side of the entrance and a Mexican flag hanging on the other. There was music pouring out the door from a sound system hidden somewhere within the recesses of the tiny bar. Not really my kind of place, but I was thirsty, so I stumbled there inside.

There was a gentleman sitting on a barstool in the middle of the bar. A couple was sitting at a table towards the back. I went in and sat a couple of stools down from the guy at the bar.

“What would you like to drink?” asked the barmaid.

“Do you have any bourbon?” I asked.

“Si, we have Jim Beam.”

“OK. I’ll have that.”

She poured the drink and marked it on the bottle then set it down in front of me and went back to her perch she was sitting on. She was talking to the other guy, but he turned around and included me in the conversation.

“Hey! Where are you from?” he asked.

“From the States,” I answered.

“Well, I figured that. Where in the States?”

“Kentucky.”

He nodded his head. “I’m from Oregon. You been here before?”

“Yeah, I live here now.”

“A lot of ex-pats here, that’s for sure! I guess that’s why they call it “Gringo Land.”

He laughed. He had a bottle of beer sitting in front of him and a shot of tequila. He downed the tequila and chased it with a slug of beer.

The barmaid looked over in my direction and said, “Do you want to play a game?”

“What kind of a game?”

“It’s called 21. You roll the dice. There are three winners. One who calls the shot. One who pays, and one who drinks the shot. Do you want to play?”

“Sure, why not? Let’s play!”

So, we took turns rolling six or seven dice out onto the bar from a leather cup. Each time the barmaid counted the tops of the dice. I won the first roll so I called the shot.

“What shot do you want?” she asked, pointing to the bottles of tequila behind the bar.

“What are you drinking?”

She pointed to a bottle.

“OK. That’s what I want.”

She poured out a shot and set it on the bar in front of us. We rolled some more. First the guy from Oregon, then the barmaid. At the end of the game, the Oregon guy drank and paid for the shot I called. We all laughed and he left.

In the meantime, the other couple had left and there were only the two of us left in the bar. The barmaid and me. She walked over to where I was sitting.

She was dark and sloe-eyed with long black hair flowing over her shoulders. She was wearing a green plaid shirt with several of the top buttons undone, exposing her ample breasts.

“What’s your name, Gringo?” She smiled broadly.

“Phil,” I answered. “What’s yours?”

“Anna. At least that’s what I put on my Facebook page. You want another shot?”

“No thanks,” I said and then I left.  Now, I will go home. I will lie in my bed and try to fall asleep.  I will think of Anna and what it would be like to be with her. I am probably not the only one in town who has trouble sleeping at night, I thought to myself. Maybe I will dream of Anna. Maybe tomorrow I will find someplace to read. Maybe a quiet, clean, well-lighted place where I can sit and read in peace.

Fatal Attraction

Editors note: This is a story that I have previously published which I have rewritten and revised. I hope you enjoy it.

A few months ago, I had the good fortune to move to Old Louisville. As fate would have it, I moved into an apartment building on Third Street just four houses down from a house I used to live in as a young man during the turbulent ’70s. As a matter of fact, my family actually owned that building and sold it in 1993.

Fast forward to the present.

My friend Victoria was looking for an apartment and I have long been encouraging her to look in Old Louisville. It was a very interesting place to live with a lot of old Victorian Mansions which have been subdivided into apartments. And there was Central Park nearby.

One day she was over at my place and we went out apartment hunting together. She had several picked out over on Fourth Street to look at. It was raining so we took our umbrellas.

We walked down Hill Street over to Fourth and as we were about to round the corner, I noticed a “For Rent” sign in the front yard of a house that I had long admired. I called it the House of Lions and Pineapples. It was a beautiful three-story red brick Victorian with two stone lions and pineapples sitting outside the black wrought iron gate.

I said, “Why don’t you give them a call?”

She did and we were able to see it right then. They had just put it on the market and were in the process of cleaning it and painting it when we went in. Victoria fell in love with it immediately and I did too.

After looking at a couple of other places in the area Victoria decided that the house of pineapples and lions was the one for her, so we called the owner and asked for a meeting. Sure, come on over they said. They lived on Third Street, just a few doors down from where I am living now. They gave us their address and we headed over there.

“Hey! Wait a minute! What’s that address again,” I asked Victoria. “1461? Why I used to live in that house back in the ’70s.  As a matter of fact, my family owned that very building back then!”

When we got there and knocked on the door, a little old lady, round and short, answered the door. She was all smiles. I introduced myself and told her I used to live in this building back in the ’70s and wasn’t it ironic that we were here?

“Oh, did you know Dr. Bell?”

 “Why yes! I am his son!”

We sat down and had a nice talk. Joe and his wife Arden bought the house in 1993 from my parents. At that time, I was part-owner of the house myself and received some of the proceeds from the sale. Arden gave us a tour of the house.

“I bet it looks a lot different now than it did then,” she said.

Yep, it sure did!

So, there we were. My friend Victoria was about to rent an apartment from a couple who owned the house I used to live in when I was a kid but was sold to them in 1993, the same year she was born. What kind of alignment of the planets was necessary to bring us to this point? By what chance occurrences was Victoria destined to cross my path and rent this apartment in the building of the lions and pineapples?

It put me in mind of a story I once heard when I was living in Philadelphia.

It seems there was this college professor living in my building, The Marine Club Apartments, who sent his servant to the Italian Market for supplies.  In a very little while, the servant came back, shaking and trembling. It was clear he had been greatly disturbed by something that had happened at the market.

He said, “Mister Coffer, sir, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd. I turned to look to see who it was and I saw it was Death staring me in the face.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. I ran from the market and came back here. Mister Coffer, will you please lend me your car so that I can ride away from this city and avoid my fate?  I will go across the river to Salem and there, Death will not find me.” 

The college professor gave him the keys to his Mustang, and the servant rode away as fast as the car could drive, not without leaving a stretch of burning black rubber behind him as he peeled out of the parking garage. Later that day the professor went down to the Italian Market and he saw Death standing in the crowd and he went over and asked her, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant this morning when you saw him?”

“That was not a threatening gesture,” she said, “I was just surprised to see him in here in Philly, as I had an appointment with him tonight in Salem.”

Thomas Wolfe wrote in his book, Look Homeward Angel, “Through chance, we are each a ghost to all the others, and our only reality; through chance, the huge hinge of the world, and a grain of dust; the stone that starts an avalanche, the pebble whose concentric circle widen across the seas.”

Although chance may have something to do with our lives and though we might make a move this way or that we are still bound like an ant on a leaf rushing down a river to the sea. And there is precious little we can do about it but enjoy the ride.

Victoria rented the apartment and she is living there now one block away in the building of the lions and pineapples. And if you squint your eyes and hold your mouth in a certain way you can almost see the flapping wings of the butterfly in the rainforest that made it all possible.

Hell or High Water

Photo credit: Christopher Fryer

My young friend Victoria had been wanting to take me to this speakeasy she knew about downtown for the longest. We had our chance to go the other night so we went. The only thing is you can’t just show up, you have to be invited. So, Victoria went through the necessary machinations to secure the invite and we showed up on time in our finest costumes for the occasion.

We walked through the unprepossessing door from an alley off Main Street, then entered a small cubbyhole of a space manned by two standing gentlemen and a woman who was seated at a desk in front of a locked door that was located directly behind them.

“Papers, please.”

We showed our IDs to the woman. She found our names on the roster which was resting on the desk and handed us back our IDs. She slightly nodded to the gentleman guarding the door. He swung it wide and we stepped through the doorway to the top of a sharply declining stairwell.

As we made our way down the steep stairway, I couldn’t help but notice the atmosphere changing with each step. The air seemed to grow denser as if perfumed by some unknown censer. The lighting changed gradually and it seemed to give off a soft reddish glow. The temperature was getting colder by degrees the lower we went. At the bottom of the steps, we were greeted by our smiling host. In the background, we could hear the music playing and I swear I could hear the strains of “Put on a Happy Face.”

“Step this way please.”

We followed our host past a long and rather ornate wooden bar into the inner sanctum of Hell or High Water to our assigned seating.  We arrived at a small round glass-topped table flanked by two high-backed leather chairs. He placed two drink menus in front of us and said, “Your server will be with you shortly.”

We looked the menu over and tried to decide what specialty cocktail to order. When the server came over, I decided to ask for a recommendation.

“Do you like the smell of smoke and leather?” he asked.

 I allowed as I did.

“Well then, I recommend Sparks Fly.”

I took a look at that on the menu and saw that it contained Mezcal, Cardamaro, Benedictine, Crème de Cacao, and Gun Powder Proof Rum.  Sounded like an explosive concoction.

“Ok. I’ll try that.”

Victoria had the Devil’s Advocate, which was fitting.

I looked behind me at the room and on the back wall was a gigantic bookcase filled with books. The lighting was extremely dim and the music hushed.

As we sat sipping our drinks and soaking up the atmosphere, I was searching my head for something unfoolish to say.  Victoria is such a good listener I wanted to come up with a good story that would put her in awe and elicit her rapt attention. She was my best audience.

I thought about a book that I had been reading and there was a particularly good scene in it I wanted to share with her about a logic problem. Victoria liked logic problems.

“I say, have you heard about the Monty Hall problem?”

She shook her pretty head no. Her eyes fairly glistened in the low light.

“Well, there’s this book I’m reading called, Sweet Tooth. It’s by Ian McEwan. A very clever piece about a female British spy in the 70s. In one of the chapters the protagonist, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume), and her lover/writer/friend Tom Haley were having dinner in their favorite seafood restaurant in Brighton and Tom says, ‘I’m always telling you stories about poems and novels but you never tell me anything about math. It’s time you did. Something counterintuitive, paradoxical.’

“Serena thought for a while.”

‘Well, there was this one story making the rounds at Cambridge while I was there. It’s called the Monty Hall Problem.’

I took a sip of my drink and paused for emphasis. Then I went on telling Victoria about the Monty Hall problem in the book.

 “So, let me tell it to you as best as I remember it. I think you will like it.”

“It seems there are three boxes. Two are empty and one holds a fabulous prize like an all-expense-paid vacation to some exotic place on earth. You have to choose which one you think it might be in. You choose box number one. The host, Monty Hall, who knows what’s inside each box, opens another box. Say, box number three. It’s empty. He then says to you, ‘Do you want to choose box number two or stick with box number one?’

I then asked Victoria what she would do. She says it doesn’t make any difference because you have a fifty-fifty chance either way.

“Not true,” I say. “If you switch you have a two in three chance of winning. If you stick you only have a one in three.”

“No. that can’t be. If you have two boxes remaining, it’s a fifty-fifty chance.”

“I know that’s what it seems like, but if you do the math that’s not right. It’s sort of a paradox. It’s really about re-evaluating your decisions as you get new information. Monty filters your choice by opening one of the boxes. You now have new information. You know the fabulous vacation is not in box number three. This changes the odds.”

Victoria sat back in her leather chair and stared into the middle distance. I saw in her face the slow signs of recognition as she grappled with the problem and gradually came to understand the solution with the new information, I had supplied to her.

“Oh! Now I get it. I don’t know why I didn’t at first.”

“That’s because it’s counterintuitive. Most people don’t at first. By the way. Tom didn’t get it at first either. Now here’s the kicker, getting back to the book. Tom takes this math problem and decides to incorporate it into one of his short stories.”

The server came over and asked us if we’d like another drink.

I nodded my assent and said, “Yes, but I think I’ll have something more traditional this time. Do you have Old Forester?”

“Yes.”

“Good! Well then, I’ll have an Old Forester and soda. Club soda.”

“And for the lady?”

Victoria says she’ll have a rum and coke.

The server gives a slight bow and disappears back into the gloaming.

“So,” I say. “Getting back to the book. Tom and Serena spend the rest of the weekend together back at Tom’s apartment. He claims to have had an epiphany and now totally understands the solution to the Monty Hall problem, although at first, he insisted just like you, that there was only a fifty-fifty chance the prize was in box number one or two. Serena gave him another way of looking at it. She said what if there were a million boxes? And you choose box six hundred thousand? Monty opens all the other boxes except box number ninety-seven. Now the only closed boxes are yours and ninety-seven. What are the odds now?  Tom still insists fifty-fifty. ‘No! It’s a million to one against it being in your box.  And an almost certainty it’s in the other! Finally, he gets it. 

“So, they go back to the apartment, and Tom thanks her for the idea and starts writing a story about the problem. He calls it, ‘The Adultery Probability.’ They make love, eat leftovers and on Sunday afternoon Tom escorts Serena to the train station. She takes the next train back to London.

“Monday morning, she is back at her job at MI-5. Tom doesn’t know she is a spy and is responsible for his newfound fortune of being awarded a financial grant so that he doesn’t have to work and instead can concentrate on his writing. This is the ‘dirty little secret’ that is hanging over Serena’s head and stands between them like the sword of Damocles as she tries to figure out how and when to tell him about it.

“Three days go by and Serena gets a manuscript in the post. It’s Tom’s story. He has attached a note: ‘Did I get this right?’ She reads it before going to work and is horrified to learn that alas, he did not get it right.”

I can see Victoria is getting a little bit restive. Must be her ADHD kicking in again, I thought.

“Do you want to walk around a bit and explore,” I ask Victoria?

“Sure,” she says. Victoria is always up for a little adventure.

“We’ll continue on with the story when we get back to the table.”

So, we pushed our chairs back and grabbed our drinks, and went for a little trek about the place. We were sitting in the Library Room which was two stories tall and opened up to the ceiling. Up a flight of stairs, there were two other rooms and a mezzanine looking over the downstairs portion of the library. Off to either side of the mezzanine were the two other two rooms, the boudoir Room and the Fumoir Room, only there was no smoking in the Fumoir Room. What went on in the Boudoir room, I wasn’t certain. Each room was richly appointed with distinctive features of the period offering its occupants intimacy and privacy.

Downstairs, in the bar area, there were lounges made of richly upholstered plush red velvet with lamplight gently streaming over each one. I had the feeling that I could sink down into that velvet lining and disappear forever. We stood there transfixed for a while, hypnotized by the ambiance. We snapped out of our reverie and headed back to our table in the library.

We sat back down and a little silence ensued as we thought about what we had just witnessed.

“Don’t you just hate that?” Victoria asked.

“What?”

“That awkward silence when no one has anything to say?”

“Oh that. No, I don’t mind. Sometimes it’s good to just sit and think about things for a while and something naturally will come up of its own accord.”

“Well, I tell you what. Why don’t you tell me the rest of that story?”

“Good idea.” I raise my drink to her and say, “Here’s looking at you kid.”

She smiles back and touches her glass to mine as I resume the story.

“Now, where was I? Oh yes! Serena has just read Tom’s story and discovered to her horror that Tom indeed did not get the problem right. His story went something like this. A London architect suspects his wife of fooling around. One day, when he has time on his hands, he follows her to a sleazy hotel in Brighton. He spies her in the lobby with a man. They obtain a key from the desk clerk and head up the stairs. Terry, the architect, stealthily enters the hotel and follows them up the stairs, staying out of sight. They reach the fourth floor and Terry can hear a door open and close, but he can’t see which one. When he arrives on the floor, he can see there are only three rooms, 401, 402, and 403. His plan is to wait until the couple is in bed together then break into the room and catch them in flagrante delicto. Only one problem. Which room are they in?

“Terry listens for a sound but hears nothing. Time passes. He needs to make a choice. He chooses door 401 because it’s closest. He steps back to make a run for the door when the door to 403 opens and an Indian couple with a baby comes out of the room.  They smile at Terry and go down the steps.

“He figures he has a one-in-three chance his wife was in room 401. This means that until now there was a two-in-three chance she’s in either 402 or 403. Now that he knows 403 is empty there must be a two in three chance, she’s in 402. Only a fool would stay with his first choice, for the laws of probability are immutable. He makes his run and crashes through the door of 402 and catches the couple in mid-stroke. He gives the chap a slap across the chops and makes a hasty retreat out the door and heads for London to file for divorce.

“Serena thinks about this story all day long after she gets to work. It was a good story but it was flawed. It couldn’t stand as written. It didn’t make sense. The Indian couple coming out of room 403 did not tip the balance in favor of 402. Their emergence was random while Monty’s choice was not. He knows what is in each box. If Terry had chosen room 403 the Indian couple could not magically transfer themselves to another room so they could come out another door. After they come out of 403 Terry’s wife was just as likely to be in 402 or 401.

“Serena didn’t think she could just tell Tom the story didn’t work, rather she felt she had to fix it. She had an idea how. Tom could re-write the story and make it work. First, she had to get rid of the Indian couple. Then as Terry takes a few steps back to run at the door to room 401, he overhears two housekeepers talking on the landing below. One says, ‘I’ll just pop upstairs and do one of the two empty rooms.’ The other says, ‘Be careful, that couple are in their usual room.’  

“Terry quickly re-figures the odds and decides to stand in front of room 401 forcing the housekeeper to go into one of the other two rooms. She knows where the couple is. Whatever room she chooses, Terry will move to the other door, doubling his chances. And that is exactly what happens. The housekeeper goes into 403. Terry makes his move and crashes into 402 and voila, there they are!”

“And there you have it. The rest of the story!”

I finished my drink and the server came over and asked if I wanted another but I said no I’d had enough. Victoria declined as well. We spent the rest of the evening in pleasant conversation as is our usual custom and we were well-positioned to engage in another one of our favorite pastimes, that of observing other customers and making up stories about their lives. We found this to be very amusing. Oh, I know, we were perfectly awful, but it was fun.

Later I got to thinking about that evening and thought it would be fun to reconstruct it as a story. I thought the parallels between the two couples were interesting. Similar, but slightly different. Sort of like an alternate universe. There was magic in the invention. You take a little from here and a little from there and you take all the parts and put them together to form a comprehensive whole, synergized and harmonized. Sort of like a stew cooked by chefs to create something new and delicious. A story within a story, like the windmills of your mind. We had fun that night. And I vowed we would come back someday, no matter what it took. Come hell or high water.

The Old Hermit

 Sitting alone and his dorm room, Kenny Wayne was trying to figure it all out. He was a young college student and he wasn’t at all sure what he wanted to do with his life or how he might become successful in the future. He had a part time job in a local pub serving beer and cheeseburgers. But he knew he wanted much more than that. He reasoned to himself that if he always knew the right time to begin a new project and if he knew the right people to listen to and if he always knew the most important thing to do, he might have some reasonable chance of success.

So, he set about to find the answers to those three questions. He began by talking to his friends and people he worked with and some of his customers. He then talked to school guidance counselors and some of his teachers that he trusted and respected. He talked to family members. He asked them all the same three questions.

One business associate told him that to know the right time for every action one must draw up a detailed plan for everything that needed to be done and schedule it on a calendar. Then execute the plan. In other words, plan your work and work your plan he said.

A guidance counselor told him it was impossible to know beforehand the right time for every action. But if you were always mindful of what needed to be done you will know automatically what to do next.

Still others said it was impossible for one man to decide the right time for every action. He should therefore surround himself with the best possible advisors to help him decide.

But others said some things could not wait to be decided by a committee. They needed to be decided at once. But to make the best possible decision it would be necessary to know what was going to happen in the future. What he needed was a fortuneteller or a crystal ball.

There were similar concerns about the second question. Who were the right people to surround himself with and to listen to? Some said he most needed his friends, others said he needed counselors and psychologists and still others said family members.

The third question: What was the most important occupation? Some of his friends said that the most important occupation was science. His sister told him to go into plastics. Others said business, some said arts and still others said spiritual development was the way to go.

After listening to all this advice, Kenny still couldn’t make up his mind. He decided to consult an individual that he had heard about who lived on the outskirts of town. He lived all alone and had the reputation of being a wise man.

The old hermit lived in a forest. Kenny Wayne drove his battered old pickup truck out to see him. It took him about a half an hour driving along the interstate highway to get there. He went alone wearing simple clothes. He parked his truck at the base of a hill and hiked the rest of the way up a steep and narrow trail. The hermit lived deep in the woods.

When Kenny Wayne reached the cabin where the hermit lived, he saw him outside in a field just to the rear the cabin digging in the dirt. Kenny approached the hermit who noticed him but kept on digging. The hermit was skinny and smallish, and each time he stuck his shovel into the dirt and turned it over he grunted.

Kenny walked up to him and said: “Howdy! Mighty hot day today, ain’t it?” The hermit kept on digging. “I came out here to ask you for some advice. I’ve heard you are a wise man and I was hoping you could answer some questions for me.”

The hermit looked up and leaned against his shovel. He had a blank look on his face.

“How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time? Who are the people I most need in my life and who should I listen to? What are the most important things that I need to do in life?”

The hermit listened but did not answer. He spat tobacco juice on the ground and kept on digging.

“You look like you could use a hand. Here, let me take that shovel from you and do a little work.”

“Thanks!” said the hermit. He handed the shovel to Kenny and sat down on the ground.

When he had dug two rows, Kenny stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit again gave no answer, but rose, stretched out his hand for the shovel.

But Kenny did not give him the shovel, he continued to dig. An hour passed, then another. The sun began to sink behind the trees, and it grew darker. Kenny at last stuck the shovel into the earth.

“I came looking for some answers. If you cannot or will not answer me just tell me and I will be on my way.

Just then then they heard a gunshot.

Kenny Wayne turned around and saw a large bearded man come running out of the woods. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood was flowing from under them. When he reached the patch of ground where Kenny was standing, he fell to the ground, moaning and writhing in pain. Kenny and the hermit undid the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. Kenny washed it as best he could with a jug of water from the cabin, and used a towel as a compress to stanch the bleeding. But the blood would not stop flowing, and Kenny had to remove the towel that was soaked with blood and apply another one. Finally, the blood stopped flowing.

“Hold on there, partner, stay with me!” Kenny cradled the man in his arms.

 Meanwhile the sun went down and it had become completely dark. Kenny and the hermit carried the wounded man into the cabin and laid him on the bed.

Kenny looked at the hermit. “If he doesn’t get medical attention soon, he will die. Do you get cell phone service up here?”

“Young man, I don’t have a cell phone. As you can see, I don’t even have electricity.”

He then struck a match and lit a candle.

“Well, I’m going to try anyway.”

Kenny took out his cell phone and dialed 911. To his pleasant surprise the phone worked.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

Kenny Wayne gave the particulars and described where they were located. They were going to have to life flight the wounded man out on a helicopter. The helicopter couldn’t land so the EMT’s had to fasten the man to a basket and the helicopter crew pulled him up on a cable.

While they were waiting for the EMTs to arrive Kenny asked the man what had happened.

“We were stalking you,” he said. “We were going to rob and kill you when you came back down the trail but you were up here all day so we came up the hill to attack you up here. On my way up I tripped and fell and my gun went off and I shot myself in the abdomen. You saved my life. Can you ever forgive me?”

Soon they heard the sound of the helicopter over head as the rotor blades whirred about and the helicopter stayed in a fixed position over the cabin. Just then the EMTs arrived. Kenny got out of their way so they could do their work. By the time they got the man stabilized and secured on onto the basket Kenny was so exhausted, he sat down on the floor with his back against the wall and promptly fell asleep. He slept through the night.

When he awoke in the morning, he was a bit disoriented and it took him a while to realize where he was. He went outside to look for the hermit. Before leaving he wanted another crack at the hermit to see if he could answer his questions. The hermit was in his garden planting seeds in the earth that had been dug the day before.

“One last time, will you answer my questions, old man?”

“You already have your answers,” said the hermit.

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you see? If you had not had compassion for me yesterday by digging those rows for me, that man would have attacked you on your way down the trail and possibly killed you. So, the most important time was when you were digging the rows. I was the most important person to be with, and to help me was the most thing for you to do. Later, when that man ran up to us, the most important time was when you were helping him. If you had not bandaged his wound and stopped the bleeding he would surely have died. So, in that case he was the most important person to be with, and what you did for him was the most important thing to do. So, the answers to your questions are simple: the most important time is now. The most important person is the person who you are with. And the most important thing to do is to be good to that person. That is your main purpose in life and the secret to success.”

Marriage Story

Version 2

Eloise woke early on a Saturday morning. The bedroom was filled with light and the sheer curtains hanging over the large windows danced lightly in the cool breeze. She sat straight up in bed and stretched her arms out overhead, twisted her body to the left and let out a pleasant sigh as she yawned trying to wake her body up. She could smell the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.

Fred, her husband, had gotten up earlier and went downstairs to make the coffee. This made Eloise happy. She got out of bed and put on her white silk dressing gown and went downstairs to meet the day. She was lighthearted and there was a spring in her step as she walked down the steps. On the way down she noticed the pictures of Brigid, her daughter, in a series from when she was a little girl until she was grown. These pictures were hung on the wall in stages as one descended the stairs and told the life story of little girl who grew into a beautiful woman. It had been her wedding day just a few short days ago and she was now on her honeymoon with her new husband, Bob. The newlyweds traveled to Paris right after they got married. Eloise could not be happier. She felt like it was a good match and that Bob and Brigid were a good fit together.

After coffee, Eloise decided to go out into her garden and pull weeds. It was situated in the backyard of their spacious house next to the pool. The house was a two-story Colonial located in a subdivision in the east part of town. The rooms were light and airy and filled with beautiful furniture. They had lived there the whole time Brigid was growing up. Now that she was gone Eloise would have to find more ways to spend her time. She couldn’t help but being happy for her though and a great feeling of pride rose in her bosom as she gazed out over her flowers.

Marriage Story

Version One

Fred descended the stairs in the gloom of the early morning and headed to the kitchen for his first cup of coffee. The ancient wooden steps creaked under each of his footfalls as he traversed the stairs. He walked slowly through the dark hallway into the living room to pick up the morning paper so he would have something to read with his coffee. He noticed the tattered tapestries hanging from the dark gray walls which perfectly matched his mood for the day. He has been living in an atmosphere of sorrow ever since the day his only daughter, Melissande, left home with that guy from the carnival, Lukas.

Once in the kitchen Fred opened a tin of expresso coffee and filled the filter basket. The window of the kitchen looked out over a dull and deadly terrain. Viewed from the outside the window looked like a vacant eye. There was a large tree in the center of the yard which was still hidden in shadows. It had been struck by lightning a few years back and was in a steady state of dying. There was a malodorous fragrance wafting inside through the open window from the slate colored pond that smelled like decaying organic matter. Fred closed the window, nearly gagging as he did so. 

As he drank his coffee Fred looked around. A lot needed to be done he thought. This kitchen is a mess. The dishes have piled up in the sink ever since she left begging to be washed. There were crumbs on the counters and in the corners the linoleum was starting to curl up. Oh well, he said to himself. I’ll get started tomorrow. Maybe she’ll stop by for a visit someday this week.

Fred sighed and drank his coffee.  Then he put his head down on his arms resting on the table and you could see his shoulders gently rise and fall.