From April 25th, 2013
“Beer, billiards and neighbors…Arboreal mentals…Whole lotta framin’ goin’ on…Frank Sinatra as Tony Rome as Frank Sinatra…Arboreal mentals, revisited”
It is a fine thing and some might say an art form to obtain things through leisure, luck and laziness. Thus I own a pool table. It was cleverly grifted by a college friend of mine, from a fraternity house, years and years and years ago. The fraternity had decided because the felt was ripped and the bumpers were coming off and the wood was peeling that the whole table was no good so they moved it out to their front lawn to rot, and what with the rain and the exposure it was turned into a muddy, water-logged monstrosity. My buddy, clever fiend that he is, successfully appraised that the slate itself was perfect and so he went to the fraternity president and brokered a deal. He offered to take the pool table off of their hands (it was an eyesore, after all, and the president was forced to admit there were no contingency plans for its ultimate removal off the property). My friend cast himself as the thoughtful altruist who would give it a good home. He only insisted that the house pay for the moving expenses (no small fee), to which the fraternity readily agreed. Two weeks later, in our rented house a few miles off campus, after a pretty standard restoration of sanding, staining and re-felting, the thing looked brand new. More importantly, we had something to congregate and drink around, a cynosure of spirited competition, a centerpiece for socializing, a perfect implement of procrastination.
Word gets around a neighborhood fast when such a diversion arrives, and as such we had many neighbors who frequently dropped by to offer to shoot a few games and chew the fat, gossip and pontificate, whatever. We, as the splendid dawdlers that we were and continued to be, could hardly ever refuse. So long as we were home there was an open door policy and billiard play would continue for as long as needed, often late into the night. It was considered common courtesy for the neighbors to drop by with an intoxicant of some kind and as long as the beer was there, the games were afoot. As the years went by and my roommates moved on to bigger cities in which living spaces were somewhat restricted, I was left with the table, like the last man standing in a tontine. I maintained a kind of squatter’s rights over it just by living in houses that could fit it. Much time has passed and although I am a little more picky about who comes over and at what hour, I still welcome the occasional neighbor, with the requisite six-pack and we rack em up and shoot em down, all conversation topics welcome.
The night was a murky one. The air was thick with the humidity of some recent rain and the mist crept by the front window like a procession of wispy phantoms. Alone, I decided to brush up on my nine-ball. I put on some Warren Zevon, lined up the cue ball and cracked the diamond-shaped cluster apart. I was in no mood for the television, as usual. It was a particularly grueling couple of weeks as two inbred bums from Chechnya tried to blow up the whole Boston Marathon, succeeding in killing two women and a child and someone in Texas packed 1,000 times the normal amount of ammonium nitrate into a fertilizer plant and blew it to kingdom come.
The week was an explosive one, to say the least. I’ve always loved Boston. It’s a great town. There is a saying in Boston, very succinct, and that is don’t fuck with Boston. Which proved to be right on the money as three days after the sabotage the FBI and Boston authorities had the two dismal derelicts responsible (allegedly, that most warped of words) and on the run. Two brothers from Chechnya, having been identified, almost immediately had some supporters advocating their innocence, insisting they were framed, which is further evidence you can convince anybody anywhere at anytime of anything. I’m not saying that in the history of law enforcement an anonymous revolver hasn’t been dropped near the body of a bullet-riddled fugitive, but this one is a stretch. Not only did the police have to frame them by walking them through the Boston marathon crowd with the identical bomb-laden back packs, but they also had to frame them for a convenience store robbery, gunning down an officer, carjacking a man, and then, and this one’s tricky, frame them for fleeing in a high speed chase in which they were framed for throwing bombs at the police while trying to escape. That’s a lotta framin’.
I had made it through two simulated pool games when there was a knock on my door. It was Valerie, a single mother who lives up the block. She had just put her son to bed and was feeling a bit restless. Realizing she had some beer in the fridge and seeing my car in the driveway, she dropped by to play a few rounds of pool. A pleasant woman, haunted by conspiracy theories, Valerie had been upset about the recent upheaval across the country. But there was something else that was troubling her. It was something she had heard, recently, a story not-unlike the kind of urban legend of murderous gang members who drive around with the headlights off, and who target the cars that flash their beams at them. This was one about a spate of free-roaming mentals, recently escaped from some hospital that climb into trees and, when they sense the opportunity, will jump out on an unsuspecting pedestrian, wet their index fingers in their lunatic saliva (that is always abundantly present in their mouths) and stick the wet finger into the ear of the person they have just landed on. It happened to a friend’s friend of hers whose eardrum was permanently damaged because, Valerie insisted, the parasites in a mental’s drool are carnivorous and eat away at the brain, which is one of the reasons those two brothers in Boston went crazy. Although, she said, “that’s the type of thing you won’t hear about in the news.”
We shot five games. I took the first two and Valerie cleaned up in the last three, hitting her stride and taking advantage of my fatigue. She left while still ahead. I watched her mosey up the road to her house and I fell back on the couch and went through my library of classic movies, if only to have something to focus on while I finished my beer.
I ended up watching an old Frank Sinatra movie in which he plays “Tony Rome, Private Eye.” He drinks gin, slaps people around, screws Jill St. John (Bond girl from “Diamonds Are Forever”) and then takes off on his boat, which basically means Frank is just playing Frank in a film, using another name. I think once in the movie there is some character that actually messes up, addressing the Tony Rome character as Frank. He says, “Hey Frank,” and Frank just says, “Yeah whattaya want? We ain’t doin a second take. The folks know it’s me. Print it, baby. We gotta be at Cirro’s by midnight.”
I drank another beer and kept watching. The piece seemed slapped together, a bit far-fetched in its silliness, but I’ve always been a sucker for a detective movie and Frank has never let me down in a film, not even Cannonball Run II. Suddenly, my phone rang. It was Valerie, my neighbor.
“I just got back to my house and I swear I saw some guy climb into my tree, the big magnolia at the edge of the front yard, next to the hedgerow.”
“Come on, Valerie, you’ve got yourself worked up. It’s foggy and your mind is playing tricks on you.”
“He had something huge strapped to his back. Like a machine gun. I have a son who is sleeping. I’m terrified.”
“Jesus, I’ll be right there.”
I grabbed my big flashlight and walked up the block, skeptical, curious, brash, a little drunk, all packed in a warped little ball of taut expectation. It occurred to me I hadn’t brought a weapon. But what weapon would be useful in such a unique situation, when someone is coming at you from directly overhead? I realized that I was very much in need of a Kaiser helmet, the kind with that big metal spike coming out of the top, and wondered where I could get one at this time of night. That helmet had always seemed ridiculous to me, but now it made sense. Not only did the German army want to take over the world they also knew the danger of mentals jumping out of trees and had taken steps to protect themselves. That would be a shakeup for an emergency room staff. A guy comes walking in with another man impaled on his head, draped over his shoulders and arms.
“Yes, I’ve got a serious crick in my neck, and this poor retard above me ain’t doing so well either.”
I got to Valerie’s front yard and walked across to the tree in question. I could see Valerie’s big eyes through her front window. I waved. The tree itself was a beautiful, sturdy, striated mass of thick twisted branches, cloaked in crisp, glossy leaves and budding magnolia flowers. I decided it would be difficult to scale the first six feet. The branches were too thick. I shined the flashlight up toward the top, but the thickness of the branches, the haze of the night, and the shroud of the leaves prevented me from seeing anything over the first ten feet. Valerie crept out of her house and sidled up next to me.
“He must be way up top.”
“I don’t care how crazy you are,” I said. “Nobody is going to jump out at somebody from the top of that tree. That’s suicide for them. They’d hit twenty branches on the way down.”
Then another neighbor arrived, Gordon, with his dog, Laddie. Gordon preferred nocturnal strolls with his dog. Everybody in the neighborhood knew this and felt safer because of it, since Gordon was a retired police officer and Laddie a mastiff and as such I don’t think Gordon was ever concerned about brooking any riffraff at any hour. Laddie ran up to the tree, sniffed around it, sat and looked straight up and gave a bit of a growl.
“Someone’s in the tree,” said Gordon.
“They climb to the top to meditate then they slowly descend when they’ve harnessed all their craziness,” said Valerie.
I called up to ask if anybody was in the tree. After a few seconds of hesitation, a voice, anonymous high above said “yes”, and not to mind him, he’d be out of there in no time. I told Valerie as much, feeling the need to mediate even though she was standing right next to me and could hear him just as well as I could.
“What are you doing up there?” Valerie called.
“Do you hear a guitar?” I whispered to Gordon, Valerie, and Laddie, for that matter.
“Is this the owner of yonder house I’m addressing?” said the voice.
“Yes,” said Valerie.
“Your shingles seem to be a little warped on the far end of your roof. I’d be careful about water damage.”
I shrugged. Not only did he not sound deranged, he was actually quite helpful. Again the sound of guitar strings being plucked rang through the air, tentatively, like the instrument was being tuned. Then there was a woman’s voice.
“Sorry to bother you guys,” said a woman’s voice. “He’ll be done in a second.”
“Do you think they are… you know…?” said Gordon, puzzled.
“Hold the phone,” I said.
I crawled through the hedge and popped out to the other side, and from this vantage point the whole situation became very clear. A woman was leaning against the railing of her second story porch, giggling, while about fifteen feet away a man, barely visible in the tree (I could see the neck of the guitar) started to pick through a song. The song was familiar but the playing was a bit shaky. I cut him some slack, though. He was balancing himself in a tree. I pulled myself back through the hedge and clicked my flashlight off. I asked Valerie if the huge weapon she had seen could’ve been a guitar.
“I recognize the song,” said Valerie.
“It’s that song from that guy that used to screw Bowie,” said Gordon.
“No, the one from New York.”
The song was “Perfect Day”, and although the intricacies of the song were lost in the altitude, it sounded like he had modified the verses to fit his relationship with the woman being serenaded. When the song was over we applauded. Overhead, we were thanked. I asked if he took requests.
“What do you got?” the voice said from above.
“What’s that smells like fish? by Blind Boy Fuller.”
“Mark!” Valerie snapped. “Behave.”
“I’m here to help,” I said. “I defy anyone to tell me otherwise.”
Eventually the man came down from the tree, pausing before he jumped down because of Laddie. Gordon pulled the huge dog back. The man’s acoustic guitar was strapped to his back, and we got the whole story. He had gotten back from a business trip early and had decided to surprise his girlfriend for their one-year anniversary. He said the tree was perfect for a serenade, and he wasn’t even sure it was on Valerie’s property. He apologized for trespassing. Valerie, overwhelmed with the romantic sensibilities, waved him off.
“You didn’t happen to see any mental patients up there, on your way up or down,” I said.
“No,” said the man. “Although there was an owl with a fancy necklace that grumbled at me before taking off into the distance.”
I nodded. Valerie had tears in her eyes with notions of the man’s chivalry, his romantic ambition, his ability to scale trees and play guitar. He thanked us for understanding and disappeared into the night. Gordon and Laddie continued their midnight stroll. Valerie went inside her house to sit by the window, I supposed, to wait for the man, the anonymous dreamer, to come to her window and play her a song. I fancied myself a bit of a Tony Rome, case closed. I swaggered back to my house, thinking that if life imitated art, Jill St. John would be draped across my couch and she would’ve been, had I named my dog Jill St. John.
More alembics to come.