The Dead Pool

memoriamSomewhere near the middle of the Academy Awards ceremony the organizers air a segment called “In Memoriam” in which a few dozen select members who have died in the previous 12 months are featured in a montage of film clips and other footage. It’s usually the highlight of the evening for me – a fascinating few minutes to recollect a broad swath of film history.

For this year’s segment, the Academy will have more than 100 deceased members to choose from, and therein lies opportunity for speculation and controversy. Some august body of Academy grey-beards must winnow down a huge list of worthy people to a subset consisting of what movie fans would consider the most influential in the business, trying to balance between famous actors and behind-the-scenes editors, hairdressers and choreographers. Still, some recognizable actors fail to make the short list, causing outcries of “snub,” implying the Academy purposefully chose to insult someone rather than striving to stay within a 3 minute envelope of air-time. This happened in 2010 when Farrah Fawcett was omitted. The reason given: she was more of a TV actress and should be honored during the Emmy’s instead (the Academy subsequently apologized to Fawcett’s family.) And last year, Andy Griffith and Larry Hagman were the chosen snubs. I suppose some would write off Griffith as primarily a TV personality like Farrah, suggesting they never saw his triumphant performance in 1957’s A Face in the Crowd.

It seems that calling out the “In Memoriam” snubs is the newest Academy Awards sport, joining snarky takes on the gowns worn by the women in attendance. I recall listening to a rant on the radio last Fall by Adam Klugman decrying the omission of his father Jack Klugman from an In Memoriam segment during the Emmys. “I think it’s criminal,” said Adam Klugman in an interview with The Associated Press. “My dad was at the inception of television and helped build it in the early days.” It further pissed off son of Klugman that dead “Glee” star Cory Montieth was included. “It’s an insult and it really seems typical of this youth-centric culture that has an extremely short attention span and panders to only a very narrow demographic,” the boy exclaimed.

Who knows what will happen at this year’s award show, but I’m willing to stake bus fare that these people will make the montage:

Shirley Temple
Peter O’Toole
Jim Gandolfini
Annette Funicello
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Jonathan Winters
Esther Williams
Dennis Farina
Eileen Brennan
Elmore Leonard
Bryan Forbes
Ray Harryhausen
Jean Stapleton
Maximillian Schell
Fay Kanin
Milo O’Shea
Ray Dolby
Roger Ebert (Not an Academy member, yet I believe an exception would be made given the complaints of “snub” after Gene Siskel was left out.)

The Academy saves the best for last. Jimmy Stewart, Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Billy Wilder and Liz Taylor wrapped up the montage in years past. My money is on Peter O’Toole this year for the closing honor.

Next Week: Oscar Predictions

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(Speaker of the) House Rules

cryA couple days ago the 535-member Vaudeville troupe known as “Congress” voted to raise the debt ceiling of the United States – a ridiculous process not endured by any other nation in the world except Denmark which has an almost unreachable limit. Not that huge U.S. debt is such a great thing, but raising the debt limit merely authorizes the Treasury to pay for things Congress already appropriated. If the U.S. must play charades with a debt limit, then it should be raised before Congress spends money, not after. This arcane, useless law provides a platform for a lot of grandstanding, and every time the limit comes close to being breached, the economy gets fucked. The whole thing is a goddamned embarrassment.

Anyway, prior to the most recent vote to increase the limit, there was a thing called the “Boehner Rule” (pronounced BOH-ner for fun), named after Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio. In short, the rule states that there must be dollar-for-dollar spending cuts for every dollar raised in the debt ceiling. That didn’t happen this time, which calls into question the wisdom of naming a rule after yourself, then breaking it. Boehner also broke the “Hastert Rule,” another Speaker of the House declaration named after Dennis Hastert. It states that all legislation must garner a majority of the majority to be passed. That didn’t happen either. The vote to raise the ceiling was 221 to 201 in favor, but only 12 percent of the voting Republicans (the majority party) went for it.

Maybe it’s time to ditch these pompous rules which are promoted as though they are on the same plane as a mathematical formulation like l’Hôpital’s Rule, Cramer’s Conjecture, Euler’s Formula, or the Pareto Principle. The concepts embodied by “The Boehner Rule,” “The Hastert Rule” and “The Bush Doctrine” are too simple-minded to be dignified with a lofty title.

Still, given the venality of politicians, I can only imagine more, not fewer, rules are in the offing.

The Rangel Rule (Named after NY Congressman Charlie Rangel.)
Forgetting to pay property taxes on Caribbean condos may not disqualify members of Congress from re-election by an adoring constituency.

Corollary to the Rangel Rule
Same shit goes for forgetting about illegally occupying too many rent-controlled apartments in Manhattan.

Lemma to the Corollary to the Rangel Rule
Illegally using the House of Representatives parking garage as free storage space? Fuck you. See the original Rule.

The Vitter Conjecture (Named after LA Senator David Vitter.)
All legislation must comport with “Family Values,” and “Madam” may be considered a member of the Family.

The Waxman Rule (Named after CA Congressman Henry Waxman.)
Neither domestic nor military spending may exceed the size of Waxman’s nostrils.
waxman
The Romney Doctrine (Named after former governor of MA, Mitt Romney.)
But first be a corporation who needs corporations…

The Pelosi Principal (Named after CA Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.)
Any decrease in the debt ceiling must be offset by an increase of equal value of Botox.
pelosi

The Ayn Rand Paul Law (Named jointly after Author Ayn Rand and KY Senator Rand Paul.)
Three laws must be repealed for every one repealed.

The Cruz Conjecture (Named after TX Senator Ted Cruz.)
41 > 60

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Mad Men Showcase Stupid White Men

whitemanI infrequently watch television, but when I do I’m invariably assaulted by a truly irritating commercial for Crestor, AstraZeneca’s monster $7 billion cholesterol drug. Relying on a disturbing pattern that has become cemented across the TV commercial spectrum, the Crestor ad features a dumpy white man behaving like a puerile imbecile upon learning that Crestor – apparently his favorite home team drug – outperformed some competitor. As a serious black actor portraying a doctor on the television extols the virtues of the product, the white man hops around the living room while his wife and kid roll their eyes. You have to wonder how such an asshole came to be married to a normal-looking woman, let alone figured out how to father a son. (Or maybe the infinitely more well-adjusted kid was adopted.)


Crestor

For some reason, the men and women of Madison Avenue have latched onto an insulting marketing tactic that portrays white men as foolish dolts. It’s undeniable that humorous ads tend to be remembered longer which is the whole point – but I have to believe these ads risk alienating a big slice of the intended market. I’d rather slough along through life with a cholesterol level of 400 than take a chance that consuming Crestor would turn me into a freaking jerk.

I note that other demographics are rarely the object of such baldfaced derision (at least not in the past 30 years). Imagine if the Crestor ad featured a black husband moon-walking like a jive-ass clown while a respectable, middle-aged white guy played doctor. Or if the wife was portrayed as an Edith Bunker-ish dingbat. Outrage would ensue, and the offended would prevail in not only having the commercial banned, but in extracting a groveling apology from the chief marketing officer.

Here are a few additional samples of “Morons on Parade”:

An early example includes this Tostitos ad in which a goofy guy tries to insinuate himself into a gaggle of gorgeous women at a party. This lowly human scum believes he has permission to actually speak to the girls by virtue of his possession of a salty snack. The chicks go for the Tostitos (naturally) but as for goof-boy: “get out of here.” For some reason there wasn’t a similar ad showing a homely girl getting the combined diss from five studly men.


Tostitos

What kind of jerk talks to an insurance salesman in the middle of the night in the dark? And in such a fashion as to be mistaken for making horny talk with a breathy representative of the phone-sex industry. After the man’s harpy wife grabs the phone from his hands, instead of telling her to cease and desist, he stands there like a chastened schoolboy.


State Farm

Liberty Mutual wants to be perceived as the caring insurance company, recognizing that people are “only human” and prone to make mistakes. This ad consists of several brief vignettes of minor calamities:
- A white man forgets to put his car in park and chases it as it rolls down a hill, as if that has any hope of success
- A haircut-impaired white man beats on a ketchup bottle like a caveman until he blasts a red glop onto his lunch companion
- A white man drops an air-conditioner from his third-floor apartment onto the roof of a parked car
- A white man falls flat on his ass, hamburgers flying, after he walks headstrong into a closed screen door
- A man’s foot is shown crashing through the ceiling
- A dorky white man dressed like Poindexter from “Revenge of the Nerds” splashes a milk shake all over himself when he forgets to put a lid on the blender
- A white man drives his car into the garage, forgetting he has two bicycles strapped to the roof.
Oh yeah, a woman has her car door torn off its hinges by a passing pick-up truck, but there’s little doubt that calamity was the fault of a careless white male driver.


Liberty Mutual

Discover Card forgives people when they forget to pay their credit card bill on time – especially if the reason for the lapse is that a childish white man bought a puppy instead of making a bank deposit. Mr. Irresponsible is shown carrying the puppy down the stairs, presumably unaware that animals urinate and defecate. The best entry in the comments section for the Discover ad: “I hate this commercial, but I love the fact that everyone else hates it too.”


Discover Card

A white guy flips over a sexy, attractive female…plumber? OK, I don’t buy the “Flashdancer” conceit, but it’s marketing. The white guy desperately wants to meet the plumber, so he tries to plug up his Kohler toilet. He’s shown throwing all form of flotsam and jetsam down the shitter, but everything goes down. He just can’t seem to plug up the Kohler toilet! More to the point, he also just can’t seem to come up with a better, more mature way to introduce himself to Jo the Plumber. Finally, he’s shown pouring dog food into the toilet just as his wife/girlfriend stumbles upon his bizarre behavior. Which begs the question: suppose he succeeded in plugging the toilet, thus contriving a reason to call Jo – what was supposed to happen next? A menage a trois in the bathroom in ankle-deep sewage?


Kohler

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Where Have All the Odd Times Gone?

photo8My great-aunt – born at the turn of the 20th century, a woman who might have been dubbed a “spinster” when that term still had currency – was a world-traveler and voracious reader and collector of books. After she died, her last will and testament afforded a local convent the first right of refusal of her vast library. The nuns picked out the best of the lot, no doubt intent on selling the booty and turning the proceeds over to the leadership of the diocese who knew best how to spend the loot. What remained after the spheniscidine vultures had snapped up their allotment was a mostly tattered assortment of odd volumes packed up in a few dozen liquor boxes that my father grudgingly lugged home. Luckily, the nuns were unschooled in literature and arcana because those liquor boxes contained a few real treasures. A beautiful set of three mid-19th century volumes of birds, reptiles and mammals complete with stunning colored etchings, several bound volumes of National Geographic magazines from the 1920s and ‘30s, the complete Stoddard’s Lectures, and a Gutenberg Bible. Ok, no bible – but better still, a signed, first edition of Robert Ripley’s “Big Book of Believe it or Not.”

Of all the leftover books we retrieved from my great-aunt’s musty flat, Ripley’s “Big Book” was my favorite, the one I read cover to cover over and over, the book I reached for first before visiting the bathroom. I memorized all the tales – mostly observations of mutant humans and bizarre behavior centered about the Far East – and the mind-twisting number puzzles, peculiar word origins and historical trivia. Did you know a butterfly was once called a flutter-by? That the oldest man in the bible – Methuselah – died before his father? That a cryptic letter containing just this series of letters – OPQRST – led to the successful recovery of a prisoner of war? That Pennsylvania was not named after William Penn?

As much as I reveled in these odd pieces of trivia, the stuff of “Big Book” that riveted me most of all were the voyeuristic drawings of the poor, hideously deformed people Ripley stumbled across in his many years journeying to more than 150 countries (at a time when most American’s stayed within 50 miles of their birthplace.) The Chinaman with four pupils in his eyes, the construction worker who survived a crowbar pierced through his skull, the blind man who read Braille with his tongue, the woman with two-foot long feet, the drunk who ate a sack of Portland cement, the acetic who every day stared at the sun long after his eyes were seared into glassy marbles – these were the stories I ate up.
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rip3

How Ripley came to be a world traveler, author of several adventure books, and founder of a still-operating “freak” show exhibit called the Odditorium is meticulously documented in the recent biography “A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley” by Neal Thompson (Crown Archetype, 2013). As a boy Ripley was a talented sketch artist who eventually snagged a job as a cartoonist for a local newspaper. At a time before the technology of photography was solid enough to faithfully capture high-speed athletics, Ripley was employed to draw the action to accompany stories covering the games. Such were the quality and liveliness of his drawings that Ripley parlayed his stint into becoming a syndicated cartoonist. He distinguished himself from others of his ilk by searching out and sketching amazing tales of off-the-wall athleticism: a man who hopped the 100 yard dash in 11 seconds, another who skipped rope 11,810 times, an armless golfer who broke 100 on an 18 hole course. It was these stories of unusual and “unbelievable” human prowess that brought in the readers – and this was in the days when newspapers were king. No competition from radio or TV for the attention of the public, Movietone newsreels being the only visual outlet for goings-on around the world. A man who could attract loyal readership to a newspaper syndicate was highly regarded – and highly compensated. At his peak Ripley commanded salaries during the Depression that would satisfy most people today – before adjusting for inflation.

Like all media outlets competing for eyeballs, Ripley’s employers at Hearst needed him to continue the production of cartoons depicting strange and exotic escapades – stupid athletic tricks weren’t enough. So they sent him out to the four corners and across the seven seas to seek out the weird and wonderful. To wander the world – especially China – was Ripley’s most cherished avocation.

You don’t need to read Thompson’s book to recognize that Ripley possessed a kind-of macabre interest in the human “freak.” (In fact, you only should read the book if you want to dive extremely deep into Ripley’s whole life from start to finish). Just check out his numerous volumes of drawings and the legacy of his early 20th century Odditoriums. Often he seemed more interested in shocking viewers with ever more grotesque discoveries than in educating them on the curiosities of far-flung cultures. Still, if you imagine yourself isolated in rural Nebraska or Utah or Iowa in the 1930s wary of driving more than a few dozen miles in your un-roadworthy Model T with tyres made from rubber trees, reading one of Ripley’s reports complete with first-hand sketches from Siam or Transjordan or Ceylon would have been exhilarating.

Today, in a world of YouTube and always-on cameras, virtually nothing comes as a shock anymore – which I find saddening. The inability to be astounded has ruined it for me.
iggy
A man with a forked tongue covered completely in green tattoos so that he resembles an iguana? Run of the mill. A guy eats 413 biscuits in one sitting at Red Lobster and it barely makes news (even when he flops into a coma afterwards). Ripley writes of an Indian swami who could lift a 40 lb bag of snakes with his eyeballs. What about a guy who hoists more than 100lbs with his nutsack? Boring, right?
rip1

Ripley’s time of wide-eyed wonder has disappeared, and all we’re left with is jaded ennui.

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Publish, then Perish?

jdA couple weeks ago, film director Quentin Tarantino learned from his agent that his screenplay, “The Hateful Eight” had been leaked. He rightfully threw a fit, laid down some surmised accusations (actors Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen, producer Reggie Hudlin), and promised to shelve the project – at least to the extent that “The Hateful Eight” would not be his next picture as once planned. (Sidebar: just today more news has come out suggesting Tarantino will do the film after some substantial rewrite) As reported in Deadline Hollywood, Tarantino said, “I’m very, very depressed. I finished a script, a first draft, and I didn’t mean to shoot it until next winter, a year from now. I gave it to six people, and apparently it’s gotten out today.”

This news followed on the heels of the revelation in November that three unpublished short stories by J.D. Salinger had been made public against Salinger’s wishes (he stipulated that certain materials not be published until 2061 – 50 years after his death – although it is not clear whether the three leaked stories were among the trove of writings considered for eventual publication.)

(UPDATED 2/5/14 – Apparently even a Pope cannot escape the treachery of his confidants, as this story in the NYT reveals: Entrusted to Burn John Paul II’s Notes, Cardinal Publishes Them Instead. )

If you consider the sentiment of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Salinger’s seminal “The Catcher in the Rye,” you may conclude Salinger despised voyeuristic types – the “dopes” who would read unauthorized stuff from a writer who might prefer to write for himself: “I swear to God, if I were a piano player or an actor or something and all those dopes thought I was terrific, I’d hate it. I wouldn’t even want them to clap for me. People always clap for the wrong things. If I were a piano player, I’d play it in the goddam closet.”

Although conflicted about the ethics of reading material intended to remain unread, I decided to download the screenplay as well as Salinger’s trio of stories: “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” “Birthday Boy,” and “Paula.” I don’t countenance the practice of releasing privileged content (in Tarantino’s case it’s a draft screenplay under development; in Salinger’s case he may not have considered the stories to be of high enough quality to see the light of day) but once material becomes available, it seems inconsequential whether or not it is read. How much additional harm does the author suffer for each unauthorized perusal?

Holden Caulfield makes a brief appearance in “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” the best of the three unauthorized shorts – a story about Kenneth, a headstrong 12-year-old boy narrated by his brother, a writer named Vincent. The tale is full of rich imagery, and the handful of characters are well-developed inside of 15 pages. Kenneth wears a baseball glove on which he’s written lines of poetry he enjoys reading when nothing much is happening on the ball field. Blake, Keats, Coleridge. Vincent notes, “They weren’t such hilarious lines quoted by a kid with the severest kind of heart trouble.” A kid with the severest kind of heart trouble who yearns to swim in a turbulent ocean that beckons him. “Birthday Boy” introduces Ray, an ill young man who’s just turned 22. Salinger provides just a hint of the reason for Ray’s presence in a hospital, as well as the source of friction between him and his girlfriend. “Paula” is just a strange tale of insanity that didn’t hold up for me (but what do I know.)

Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” is quintessential Quentin – a character study set in the snowy West shortly after the Civil War that involves deception, treachery, ultra-violence, and the word “nigger” at least 50 times. A bounty hunter and his female prisoner are traveling by stagecoach just ahead of an enormous blizzard when they happen upon a black man wearing a Union army officer’s uniform. He too is a bounty hunter in possession of three frozen stiffs worth $8,000. His horse died which is the reason he needs a ride, and subsequently convinces the other bounty hunter to let him and his dead booty aboard. They come to an agreement that each will protect the other’s financial interests.

Soon enough they come across another man on the trail – the future sheriff of Red Rock, the town that is their destination. His horse also bought the farm, and he needs a ride. Once aboard we learn this lawman is a died-in-the-wool Confederate which turns close quarters with the black bounty hunter tense. When the three men, one woman and the stagecoach driver arrive at Millie’s Haberdashery outside of Red Rock, they discover an unexpected situation: Millie and her husband ain’t there, but several strangers are: a cowboy, a hangman, an old Confederate General, and a French caretaker. The story then morphs into something akin to Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” with the white bounty hunter querying the odd collection of guests on their backgrounds and motivations, Hercule Poirot-like, trying to determine whether anyone might be thinking of interfering with his pursuit of bounty money. Convenient to the plot is the fact that just about every character seems to be familiar with one or more of the other characters, even though things take place in the socially-constricted mid-19th century hinterlands of the Wild West. The white bounty hunter knows of the sheriff’s father, the black bounty hunter fought in a battle against the general, the general knows the sheriff.

After each character’s background is established, and interpersonal relationships are formed as a result, the story flashes back to when the strangers first arrived at Millie’s, and reveals the nastiness they engineered upon poor Millie and her husband. We learn that the men are there to free the female prisoner from incarceration. The story flashes forward to where it left off and proceeds to the blood-soaked climax.

Like so many of Tarantino’s movies, this one culminates in a crazy free-for-all shoot-out where just about everybody dies a horrible death. Think “Django Unchained,” “Kill Bill” and “Inglorious Basterds.” By now, Tarantino must feel the pressure to deliver ever more gory spectacles lest his hard-core fans wallow in disappointment.
bloody

The writing in “The Hateful Eight” is evocative and the scene descriptions creative and strongly visual as you would expect of any decent script. One particularly powerful scene involves the black bounty hunter taunting the old Confederate General with details of the death of his son – details the old man shouldn’t know and would never have wanted to hear. If the film ultimately goes forward intact, that scene will stand out as one of the more brutal in the Tarantino oeuvre, which is saying a lot.

RIP PSH

Philip Seymour Hoffman died the other day at the age of 46. I remember first seeing him perform in the 1996 movie “Hard Eight” along with noted character actor Philip Baker Hall, and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. With so many players using their full three names, I often confused the bunch. The two Philips – Hoffman and Hall – also appeared together in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Boogie Nights,” and “Magnolia” further exacerbating the confusion. Soon enough though, Hoffman would distinguish himself such that no one would ever mistake him for another actor.

Although more famous for his work in film, including a Best Actor Oscar for his role in “Capote,” Hoffman was also an accomplished stage actor. I saw him in 2000’s revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West” at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York. The spare stage was set in the middle of the floor surrounded by the seats like a boxing arena. Which seemed appropriate for this two-man play.

The play centers on estranged brothers – one a screenwriter (Austin), the other a drifter (Lee) – who meet up after two years of no contact. The characters are basically complete opposites. The night I saw the play, Hoffman was in the role of Austin, a docile man who tends toward subservience to his older brother, played by John C. Reilly. The director of the play arranged it so Hoffman and Reilly exchanged roles every other performance – a novel concept which undoubtedly challenged both actors. Both received Tony nominations that year.

The last time I saw Hoffman was just the other day on a Turner Classic Movies special “And the Oscar Goes To…” He commented on the great honor of snagging an Oscar for “Capote” – and he looked like shit. Someone who didn’t know better would peg his age north of 60. The transformation from a pudgy kid to a haggard-looking geezer over just 15 years is on a par with that of Orson Welles.
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Dedicated actors often tear themselves physically and mentally to get into a character – few more thoroughly than Hoffman. He paid for it, and so did his fans ultimately.

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Dead Yet?

Picture1Every now and then, while watching TV or scanning a magazine, we come across a quasi-famous, once-notable, vaguely familiar person who has been out of the public eye for years or decades, and ask ourselves – is he or she still alive? The extended absence from the limelight has left a void of publicity. Sometimes we conflate such people with others which serves to confuse their mortal status. “Is Dick Sargent dead? Or am I thinking of Dick York?” (Answer: both are dead.)

Here is a list for you to peruse, and test your recollection (no peeking on Wikipedia). Answers at the bottom.

bilit
Fred Biletnikoff – Football Hall of Famer from my home town of Erie, Pa. Wide receiver for Oakland Raiders in the 1960s and 70s

borgnine
Ernest Borgnine – Oscar winning actor, most famous for his roles in “Marty” and “From Here to Eternity.” Or for some people, their fondest memories might be the wacky “McHale’s Navy”.

breathed
Berke Breathed – Odd-ball creator of the much-admired and now defunct comic strip “Bloom County”.

brewer
Gay Brewer – PGA golfer who won the 1967 Masters.

casey
Sean Casey – Also known as KC, leader of the soporific disco band KC and the Sunshine Band.

chakiris
George Chakiris – Actor best (only?) known for his role as Bernardo in the film version of “West Side Story,” for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

cyd
Cyd Charisse – Long-legged dancer cast in numerous seductive roles. Best performance: dancing with Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain”.

collins
Michael Collins – Member of the Apollo 11 mission who didn’t get to be among the first men who walked on the moon. He had to stay behind in the capsule and keep the coffee maker running.

davis
Ann B. Davis – Winner of back-to-back daytime Emmy’s in the 1950s but best known as the wise-cracking mediator for the blended family known as the “Brady Bunch”.

dino
Dino De Laurentiis – Renowned Italian film producer. Some of his movies: “La Strada,” “Serpico,” “Barbarella,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Death Wish”.

dempsey
Tom Dempsey – Half-armed, club-footed place kicker for the New Orleans Saints who kicked a 63-yard (!) field goal in 1970 to beat the Detroit Lions with no time left.

diller
Phyllis Diller – Fright-wigged comedienne who dressed in wildly patterned outfits and mocked her appearance. A regular on such shows as “Laugh-In” and “The Tonight Show,” Diller was famous for her self-deprecating jokes.

garver
Kathy Garver – Actress who played “Cissy” on the treacly 1960s television series “Family Affair” with Brian Keith.

greene
Graham Greene – Not the author of “The Quiet American,” but the Canadian-born actor who played an Indian named Kicking Bird in Kevin Costner’s 1990 epic “Dances With Wolves,” among numerous type-cast roles as an American Indian in lesser-known movies.

hamilton
Murray Hamilton – Character actor who appeared in countless films. Probably his most recognizable roles were the Mayor of Amity in “Jaws” and Mr. Robinson in “The Graduate.” Coincidentally, Richard Dreyfus was in both movies as well.

jones
Shirley Jones – Probably best known as the mother of the irritating Partridge Family, but prior to her TV career had performed in film musicals “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” and “The Music Man,” She also bagged an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1960′s “Elmer Gantry”.

karras
Alex Karras – Pro footballer for the Detroit Lions turned movie actor, best known as Mongo in 1974′s “Blazing Saddles”.

kehoe
Jack Kehoe – Familiar-faced character actor whose name no one knows. Played Joe Erie, Robert Redford’s side-kick in “The Sting”.

montana
Lenny Montana – One-time professional wrestler (the fake kind) Montana was cast as Mafia goon Luca Brasi in “The Godfather”. His death scene is still hauntingly realistic.

preston
Billy Preston – R&B and Soul musician, sometimes referred to as the “fifth Beatle” for his keyboard work on the albums “Abbey Road” and “Let it Be” as well as for his calming influence during contentious recording sessions. Possibly the best Afro in history.

salinger
JD Salinger – Reclusive author of “Catcher in the Rye”.

sculleyjpg
John Sculley – Apple founder Steve Jobs recruited Sculley from Pepsi in 1983 to lead the upstart personal computer company. When friction between Jobs and Sculley peaked shortly afterwards, Sculley engineered a boardroom coup that resulted in Jobs ouster.

sharif
Omar Sharif – Dashing film star of such epics as “Dr. Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia”.

stanton
Harry Dean Stanton – Dogfaced character actor in about ten thousand movies, many of them quirky. Just a sampling: “The Godfather Part II,” “Alien,” “Repo Man,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Green Mile,” and “Paris, Texas”.

stevens
Stella Stevens – Born Estelle Eggleston, Stevens started her career as a model, and was featured as Playboy’s Playmate of the month for January 1960. She later turned her sexy image toward films. I think my favorite is her role as a former hooker in “Poseidon Adventure” where following the capsize of the ship struts around wearing only F-me pumps and a man’s shirt.

stone
Sylvester (Sly) Stone – Frontman for the influential funk band Sly and the Family Stone.

tork
Peter Tork – Not another “fifth Beatle” but a member of the manufactured 1960s band, The Monkees. Tork played the dimwit of the band which was ginned up by TV producers to perform a comedy show inspired by the seminal Beatles movie, “Help”. It’s a popular misconception that Tork couldn’t play an instrument, actually having proficiency in keyboards, bass guitar, banjo and harpsichord.

trufaut
Francois Truffaut – Famous French film director of such considered masterpieces as “The 400 Blows,” “Jules and Jim,” “Fahrenheit 451,” and “The Wild Child”.

updike
John Updike – Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several novels, including the “Rabbit” quatrain featuring everyman character Rabbit Angstrom.

warren
Leslie Ann Warren – Nominated for several Golden Globes and an Oscar, Warren started her career as an accomplished ballet dancer, then movied to TV and movies in the early 1960s. Blessed with sultry eyes and a sexy smile, Warren starred in mostly lesser-known fare. I met her once on a flight from LA to New York in the 90s, and she was truly engaging and subtly beautiful.

The Dead (Get a mirror)

list

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Cards and Movies

jayOf all the forms of magic, I find sleight of hand to be the most entertaining and elegant. Cris Angel performs some very elaborate and mind-boggling illusions as does David Blaine, but I can’t help thinking that many of the big visual stunts – walking on water, levitating, slamming someone’s cell phone inside a beer bottle, separating a woman into two halves – come off with the participation of shills. Nothing against the illusion, but involving actors who feign awe at the magic while playing an intimate role in its execution necessarily diminishes the experience.

That is never a concern with real sleight of hand. Manipulation of ordinary objects such as playing cards, coins and balls in the close proximity of uninvolved onlookers is a true art form that demands the highest levels of dexterity and confidence, an ability to deceive, and gift for narrative. And a lot of practice. I mean a lot. To get a sense of the art form and its history, check out the revealing if slightly uneven documentary, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. Ricky Jay is probably the foremost living practitioner of sleight of hand, and his demonstrations and history-telling in the movie are truly fascinating.

I first came across a long-haired Ricky Jay in the late 1970s on HBO specials when a good deal of his repertoire involved throwing cards. I lost track of him until he showed up as a poker-playing con-man in David Mamet’s 1987 psychological thriller “House of Games.” In addition to being a marvel with card manipulation, Ricky – now paunchier and less-hirsuit – showed he was also a passable actor (at least under the direction of Mamet and the staccato dialog of his tight screenplay.) One of my favorite scenes in “House of Games” is when the gang of con-men baits a trap in the form of a high-stakes poker game for uptight female psychiatrist Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse). After a long night of poker, the action comes to a showdown between a hard-boiled Ricky Jay and a well-dressed bookie named Mike (Joe Mantegna).

Margaret doesn’t realize that Mike and Ricky are on the same team, so when Ricky’s club flush beats Mike’s trip aces, she finds herself in a pickle of the gang’s design. But nothing is as it seems – watch the movie to find out what happens next.

Anyway, card games have been used often in the movies as an entertaining device to establish the essence of the characters – are they venal, manipulative, foolish, idealistic, vengeful, greedy, desperate? – as well as the relationships between characters. High-stakes confrontations across the felt? A natural for the movies.

Here are a few of those that left a memory for me:

The Sting
Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) is just aching to take down evil gangster Doyle Lonegan – or was it Liniman? – in a brace game of five card draw. The whole plot of the movie depends on it. And Gondorff delivers. After running roughshod all night over the hifalutin gamblers on the 20th Century Limited out of New York City, Gondorff finds himself in a final showdown with Lonegan (Robert Shaw) for maximum stakes. Just the situation he’s been waiting for; but Lonegan has stacked the deck against him. No matter. Gondorff anticipates Lonegan’s parry and somehow turns four threes into four jacks. The look of incredulity and then panic on the face of Lonegan’s henchman – the guy who stacked the deck – is marvelous.

Honeymoon in Vegas
This rather contrived and moronic movie centers around a Dickhead (Nicolas Cage) who gets in over his head in a high-stakes poker game with a smarmy wax-museum piece called Tommy Korman (James Caan). Anyone in the audience see that Dickhead (Ok – Jack Singer) is being conned – even as he sits on a straight flush. Tommy is betting hard into Jack’s “unbeatable” hand, but Jack lacks money to call. So he offers an unusual wager: a weekend with his new wife Betsy (Sarah Jessica Parker) and all her deliciousness. Tommy accepts. Jack lays downs a straight flush to the jack. And (non)surprise – Tommy lays one down straight to the queen. Later on, back at the hotel room, Jack and his wife have a difficult conversation. “Do you know what a straight flush is? It’s like… unbeatable.” says Jackie boy. Betsy remarks, “‘Like unbeatable’ is not unbeatable.”

Cool Hand Luke
After severing a bunch parking meters, a drunken Luke is expeditiously incarcerated for vandalism in a southern-fried prison where he and his fellow convicts are assembled regularly into a chain-gang that whacks weeds and slings gravel along dusty roads amid the sopping-wet humidity of the Mississippi afternoons. As the log-line for the movie aptly says, “A man refuses to conform to life in a rural prison.” Whether it involves eating 50 hard-boiled eggs, tricking an escape, or playing poker – Luke is always cool. In a game of five card stud where a dollar is a huge bet, Luke continually kicks a buck against another con who has a pair of sevens showing. Although Luke has nothing more than a king on the table, he successfully bluffs out a guy with an ace, and after some back and forth, he bluffs out the man with “the Savannahs.” Dragline, a lifer played by George Kennedy who won an Oscar for his portrayal, flips over Luke’s hand to reveal … nothing. As Luke says drolly, “Sometimes, nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”

Choose Me
This quirky movie boasts a cast of misfits and curious characters, the biggest being Mickey (Keith Carradine). He is introduced as a possible psychiatric patient who seems to have a host of credentials: poetry professor, professional photographer, spy, truck mechanic in East Germany. But are they real or just a figment of Mickey’s active imagination? He’s also quite the ladies’ man. He makes a move on saucy Pearl (Rae Dawn Chong) who helps him get into a high stakes poker game – where her jealous husband Zach happens to be among the players. Mickey raises big against Zach who consults his astrologer for advice on calling the bet. Upon glimpsing Zach’s hand the astrologer exclaims, “No! Not with the moon in Pluto.” Zach folds, Mickey rakes, and a relationship between the men is established.

Cincinnati Kid
The Cincinnati Kid (Steve McQueen) is a young poker savant who captures the attention and interest of an older card shark named Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson). There’s the expected machismo and philandering, and the ending is rather contrived (see the clip below). But my favorite scene is a poker game dealt by a brassy dame called Lady Fingers (60 year-old Joan Blondell). This is a high-stakes game yet as Lady Fingers deals, the audience can see the faces of the cards as they fly off the deck several inches above the table. Comical. Hard to imagine a pro like director Norman Jewison let that slide.

Casino
Like a one-trick pony, Joe Pesci clones his “Goodfellas” character to become Nicky Santoro in Martin Scorcese’s blockbuster “Casino.” The performance he gave in “Goodfellas” when he beat the shit out of a wise-ass Mafia made-man is revived in “Casino” in the famous pen-stabbing scene. Almost identical. That same sarcastic fury comes later in the movie when Nicky can’t catch a card at the blackjack table. The abuse he heaps upon the weary dealer who continues to give him face cards (aka. “paints”) is withering – and it’s especially hilarious when Nicky angrily throws a card at the dealer and it sticks to his shirt.

21
I read Ben Mezrich’s book, “Bringing Down the House,” the true story about a crew of MIT students under the tutelage of a math professor who implement a combination of meticulous card value assessment and costume chicanery to win big at Vegas blackjack. The movie based on “Bringing Down the House” – “21″ – bears virtually no resemblance to the story in the book. It’s a contrived mess that makes virtually no sense. Still, the allure of high-stakes card games helps keep the audience quasi-interested. The part I find most fascinating though is the egregious continuity error in the beginning of the film where Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) demonstrates the gist of counting cards. First some of the cards are face up. Then the same cards are face down. Then some go missing. Jesus. I guess that was a metaphor for the entire mess called “21.”

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A Taste of Bitcoins

kirk3A thing is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. My father told me this when I was about nine or ten. I had expressed amazement upon learning that a sports collector had paid $1,000 for a baseball card, commenting that no card was worth that much money. He begged to differ, if not share my amazement that a person would part with what was more than a month’s pay for a middle-class American at a time when a pack of baseball cards cost a quarter. I came to understand that the final arbiter of the value of anything ultimately is the mutual agreement arrived at between a seller and a buyer. Be it a bottle of ketchup, an apartment in Greenwich Village, a Kandinsky oil, an ounce of gold, black tulips, or even the currency of a sovereign nation for that matter.

And that goes for Bitcoins as well – the in-silico form of money that has captured the interest of investors, retailers and money-launderers.

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At first look, the concept might seem ridiculous: a currency that comes into existence through computational “mining” backed by no country or international bank which is transferred from buyer to seller completely in the ether. But on further inspection, Bitcoin more closely resembles traditional money than it differs. Millions of people today collect salaries and social security payments directly into a checking account from which they pay for goods and services the same way they got the money – electronically as a bunch of bits and bytes. Of course, people can turn the numbers in their accounts into physical dollar bills, but what are they except fancy pieces of paper boasting fine portraits of dead luminaries. As long as someone is willing to accept dollars in an exchange, the bills have value – and as soon as the mutual trust vanishes, so does the value. Just ask anyone who held Confederate notes or Weimar-era Deutschmarks (assuming such people have been cryogenically preserved).

Getting back to Bitcoins: the thing I find most fascinating about them is how they come to exist in the first place. As I mentioned, Bitcoins are created by computational mining – the virtual equivalent of digging in the ground for silver or panning streams for gold. They’re out there – someone just has to find them. And by find, I mean solve some very complex mathematical problems.

Essentially, miners for Bitcoins try to tackle difficult mathematical problems using cryptography and other computational methods. Success results in the creation of a thing called a block; the block contains evidence that the miner has actually solved the problem which is confirmed by a consensus. The design of the program is such that the work needed to generate fake Bitcoins is harder than it is to genuinely mine them – kind of like the approach the US Treasury takes to discourage counterfeiting.

The difficulty of the problems to be solved is adjusted up or down depending on how quickly new Bitcoins are generated. This ensures that the market doesn’t suffer a glut or shortage of currency. Also, the total universe of the number of Bitcoins is capped at 21 million – and the number of them mined every four years in the future will be half the amount that were mined in the prior four years so that the discovery process slowly asymptotically approaches the cap but never reaches it. The idea is that like with a finite commodity such as gold the more that is discovered the harder it will be to find additional lode. Maybe this protects the currency from being devalued as happens when more and more dollars are printed. Maybe it means that the size of a Bitcoin-backed economy is artificially constrained, as when the US operated under a gold standard.

In any event, I think the Bitcoin experiment parallels nicely to an episode of the original Star Trek called “A Taste of Armageddon” which aired on February 23, 1967 (aka. Stardate 3192.1). The story opens with Capt. Kirk and team preparing to negotiate a treaty between two warring planets. Ignoring warnings to stay away, they beam down to planet Eminiar which has been fighting neighboring Vendikar for hundreds of years. Right after arriving in the capital, Kirk is informed by an ambassador that the city has just taken a thermo-nuclear hit from Vendikar that has killed over a half-million inhabitants. Kirk is perplexed in the absence of any evidence of devastation. Mr. Spock and his omniscient tricorder confirm that no explosion has occurred in the capital.

The ambassador explains: years earlier the two planets, in the interest of sparing infrastructure from destruction, renounced the deployment of actual weapons in favor of waging war with computer simulations. The planets launch complex mathematical problems at one another, and if one side fails to solve they must eliminate the equivalent number of civilians who would have otherwise been annihilated had the attack been undertaken with a real weapon. The computers calculate the casualty count based on the complexity of the problem – sounds a lot like the Bitcoin algorithm. Affected civilians are required to assemble at a local disintegration center where they line up for … well, disintegration. Kirk is appalled; Spock kind of digs the logic of it. I liked the story even though it ends like so many Star Trek episodes: Kirk threatens to blow everyone up unless they get their shit together and just all get along, which the Eminiarians and Vendikarites do inside of five minutes (even though they couldn’t come to that point in the past three centuries.)

Bitcoins and simulated Armageddon – friend or foe? It’s early – let’s see what the year brings as cyber-miners burn trillions of computer cycles and untold megawatts searching for the elusive, made-up currency. I guess it’s no more ridiculous than companies that bore a mile-deep hole in the ground to extract gold that is melted into ingots and warehoused for eternity in a Fort in Kentucky.

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All Photos (c) 2014
Major Terata Publications

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In a word: “Screed”

newcoulterMy favorite splenetic xenophobe, Lou Dobbs, has a new book out. So does former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. And like virtually every book penned by political pundits these have one-word titles. I suppose the publishers’ thinking is that a choice, in-your-face “concept” word can simultaneously rally the believers and enrage the other side. Or maybe it’s a variant of the old word association game where the subject matter is instantly understood. George Bush … moron. Alex Rodriguez … Roids. Bill Clinton … cumstain. Al Sharpton … Tawana. Papa John Pizza … cardboard.

Dobbs’s new addition to the already clogged category of political screeds is called “Upheaval” and the cover depicts Screwy Louie smirking in front of a chalkboard, drawing some meaningless arrows and circles. Inside is an attack on the half-assed establishment Republicans who by ignoring the wisdom of the omniscient Tea Party faithful allowed a complete failure like Obama to win reelection with 65,915,796 votes.
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No doubt, Lou will sell a ton of books by virtue of his privilege to promote them through his TV show – not unlike Bill O’Reilly who Fox News chairman Roger Ailes once called “a book salesman with a TV show.”

Gates’s new kiss-and-tell book is titled “Duty” – which I suspect members of the Obama administration refer to as “Doody”. Too eager to wait for his boss to go back to civilian status before taking a dump on his head, Gates pulls one of the more slimy tactics in punditry: briefly acknowledging the subject’s well-meaning integrity before pulling out the long knives and eviscerating the man’s appalling ineptitude.
doody
Gates praises Obama as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats. Then he quickly kicks him in the balls for being a pussy by not fighting the Taliban for another 100 years in Afghanistan. Later on in the book, Gates calls VP Joe Biden “a man of integrity,” but then immediately questions his judgment. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Four decades of being wrong? So that’s the secret to keeping your seat in Congress. (Sidebar: I never understood why a Democrat president would select a Republican to be SECDEF [Clinton – William Perry, Obama – Gates]; it merely serves to reinforce the widely-held belief that Dems are lame on defense and require supervision by an iron-sacked Republican to manage USA security for them. Stupid.)

Anyway, the single word title thing seems to be the vogue for political books. Consider these stellar examples of best-selling punditry: Glenn Beck – “Cowards”, Rachel Maddow –“Drift”, Robert Reich – “Reason”, Juan Williams – “Enough”. But the undisputed queen of one-word wonders has to be Ann Coulter, author of “Slander”, “Treason”, “Godless”, “Guilty” and “Demonic.” Wow – she should take charge of the committee to reform the list of the seven deadly sins.

Given the trend, I expect some of these books to come to market in the next 18 months:

“Flatulence” by Chris Christie. Energy policy from the 2016 presidential hopeful.
“Priapism” by Anthony Weiner. Congress is hard, Twitter is hard, Weiner is hard.
“Frotting” by Jim McGreevy. Politics rubs the former Jersey governor the right way.
“Anencephaly” by Michelle Malkin. An exercise to prove a book can be written by a person with no brain.
“Helmet” by Nancy Grace. Her majesty’s take on capital offense hairdos.
“Addled” by Jon Voight. ACORN! Saul Alinsky! Jeremiah Wright! ACORN! Jeremi— Uh, um, who took my soup? I want my soup back.
“Cunt” – The unauthorized autobiography of Ann Coulter as told by her vagina.

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Big Pharma Scrabble

scrabMy cousin Oxymandias (not his real name) works at GlaxoSmithKline as a pharmaceutical salesman, better known as a drug rep. Most days he could also be called a delivery boy for Panera Bread. You see, Oxymandias has a big quota and a large territory, and his continued employment depends on doctors prescribing the drugs he represents (his main product: Advair, a remedy for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.) And to gain access to the doctors he must influence, Oxymandias has to endear himself to them and their staffs regularly and often by bringing bagels, cream cheese, coffee and tea, compliments of GSK. This approach to marketing, promoting and selling drugs always seemed smarmy to me – amounting to little more than a transparent albeit cheap bribe to the doctor for 3 minutes out of his or her busy schedule to hear yet another pitch on why Advair should be prescribed liberally to anyone who has ever coughed. (Sidebar: Following a real bribery scandal in China, GSK recently announced they would no longer pay doctors to promote its products, nor would they tie compensation of sales representatives to the number of prescriptions doctors write. How the decision affects Oxymandias remains to be seen, but he’s sweating out the likelihood of getting the axe.)

Although a bag of breakfast products seems a negligible expense, the long-standing strategy of Big Pharma to spend nearly as much on marketing drugs as it does on R&D to develop them strikes me as a misplaced priority. The industry spent $4B in 2010 on advertising to convince people to ask their doctors if XYZ drug is right for them, and another $27B (6x the ad budget) to influence doctors to indulge the inquiries of patients demanding the miracle cures they saw on TV. How much of this commerce is completely misplaced? How many healthy people who watch a Big Pharma commercial immediately feel the symptoms of actors paid to portray ordinary people suffering from an esoteric malady? With the price of drugs growing to ridiculous heights (an annual supply of the cancer drug Gleevec wholesales for $76,740 in the U.S.) should pharmaceutical companies spend millions to convince middle-aged men that they must take a daily pill so as to be ready on a moment’s notice to bang their wives or girlfriends?

And why does the name of virtually every drug contain an X, Y, Z or a V?

I suspect the purpose of these exotic-sounding contrived names is a marketing ploy to impart the illusion that the drug is some kind of supernatural conjuring of artificially-engineered molecules developed on 23rd century supercomputers. Aspirin, Tums, Absorbine Jr., Preparation H; these names exude the crackerbarrel charm of a 1900s elixir – capable of delivering ephemeral comfort to life’s ordinary aches and pains, but clearly not up to the task of vanquishing the complex diseases of a modern world. By bestowing names on drugs that sound like alien invaders from outer space, pharmaceutical companies seek to coerce people into believing they’re otherworldly, infallible cures.

Now imagine if these drug names were allowed in a Scrabble competition.

Pharma

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Ten. The Thrilling Conclusion.

Cary awoke from a languid and luxurious dream in which he made love to his first girlfriend, rewound to a time when he was 19 years old and she was a virginal 16. The girlfriend was nearly as tall as Cary once was in real life, a trait of subtle eroticism that Cary ranked nearly as high as the dimples in the small of her back. In his dream, details of the love-making seemed so real – hues and shades, moans and shrieks, even the aromas of sex. Cary was reminded of the first episode of the TV show Star Trek – “The Menagerie” – in which the vegetative Captain Pike was permitted by the aliens to experience in his mind an illusive life as real as real life. Cary regretted waking up. Why couldn’t he fall into a permanent fantasy dream state instead of lying immobile yet fully conscious of all his morbid surroundings, unable to communicate?

Cary was no longer stationed in the Neuro ICU. He now idled away in a semi-private room, his condition stabilized to that of a robust house plant. As long as he was watered daily there was no reason to believe he should ever die. Each day dragged on as every day before it. With the exception of Lee and Sage, Cary’s visitors dwindled to barely one or two a month which suited him fine. Whenever a visiting business colleague made a side trip to the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, he (it was always a male colleague) would speak perfunctory small talk for a minute then fiddle with a BlackBerry until the lack of a strong signal and the smell of urine compelled an abrupt exit. Of course, no visitor was aware that Cary could see and hear them, and so they interacted with him as they would a caged hamster. Truth be told, it made no sense to Cary why anyone would bother to visit. He postulated that the visits were to assuage guilt or to atone for sins lest God foist Cary’s predicament upon them as well. Maybe the visits were made out of simple morbid curiosity?

Lately, Cary was more lethargic than ever before. He sincerely hoped he was experiencing the beginnings of a mercy killing initiated by a sympathetic orderly and carried out with toxic chemicals, slowly and methodically. If this were true, Cary wished his body to be disposed of as soon as he died so that no one could conduct an inquiry that might cause trouble for the orderly – his guardian angel-of-death. But, as anyone could plainly see Cary had not executed a living will; there was no way now to prevent some invasive probing of his corpse should the circumstances of his death appeared even a wee bit odd. Fuck it all. Eyelids heavy but forever open, Cary tried desperately to fall back into that wonderful dream with his tall, forever-16-year old girlfriend. Oh, to press his flesh against her supple body and stroke her long, straight hair that smelled of patchouli and lavender; to intertwine his restored swimmer’s legs with hers; to bury himself deeply in the declivity of her femininity. Cary was almost there when he heard someone enter his room. The way the person shuffled slowly, each sliding step accompanied by the squeak of tiny wheels suggested he or she was neither a regular visitor or member of the hospital staff. Cary caught a whiff of urine.

“I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you, sir,” announced the stranger. “My name is Billy Rubin. I know you can hear me, and see me too when I get close to the bed.”

If he were capable, Cary would have bolted upright. Immediately an avalanche of thoughts ran through Cary’s mind leaving a wake of dissonance and confusion. Is this a dream and have I lost the ability to distinguish it from reality? Did someone run a test on me that revealed my cognition? Is this Rubin guy trying out a new therapy on me? Or is some fucking orderly busting my balls in a gambit to elicit some laughs from his buddies? Ever the pessimist Cary landed on the ball-buster explanation – over time, orderlies assigned to the vegetable wing lose the ability to distinguish their human charges from fish in a bowl.

“Mr. Hayes – sorry, I noticed your name outside the door – I was at that train wreck last year. I used to work at the golf course, Dinsmore, when the train hit your car. I saw what happened and heard what you said.”

This was no ball-busting orderly. This guy knew something and Cary was decidedly interested in what he had to say. Train wreck? I said something?

Cary had lain motionless in a hospital bed for so long – sores stinking, feeding tubes threaded down his throat (and later embedded directly into his abdomen) – hoping each and every 86,400-second day that someone would step forward and say directly to his face, “This is why you’re here in this shitty condition.” At no time had any of his family, friends, co-workers and care-givers revealed the circumstances that led him to Valhalla, other than the time Sage briefly mentioned a vague car accident. Maybe they had said something before he “woke up” but since then, nothing. How gypped he felt being confined to hell-on-a-mattress without an inkling of what devastation had been visited upon him. Cary considered the possibility that his visitor possessed a special ability endowed by God – Nah. What God? – to communicate with people like himself, all input and no output. People essentially dead but denied a better place in hell.

Billy shuffled up to the side of the bed to enter into Cary’s narrow field of vision. Cary saw a man with yellowish skin who looked like he could be 60 years old or a hundred, pulling along an IV bag mounted on a hook on wheels. “I got the cirrhosis of the liver.” He said ‘srosis’ as if running the syllables together might lessen the seriousness of the condition. “That’s why my skin’s so damn yellow. I had half my liver removed last week. I’m in a room on the floor right above you. Don’t look good for me though – I really need a new liver but I’m way down on the list.” Cary could not get over how yellow Billy was. It was surreal – like he was a cartoon character. Cary had never before laid eyes on someone in such an advanced stage of liver breakdown.

Billy continued, “I know you’re gonna believe what I’m about to tell you, because you have a special ability like I do. Everyone thinks you can’t see or hear, but you can. And I can see and hear things too – stuff far away from me, like I was right there even though I’m somewhere else.” Billy explained the lightning strike that induced his special skill, and recited a couple of mundane examples. Cary wished Billy would get to the accident.

“I’m sorry,” Billy said, looking down at the floor, “let me get to the accident. I heard the train roaring down the tracks faster than usual, then a huge crashing sound, then a long screech.” Billy imitated the onomatopoeiac sound: “Eeeeeeeech!” Cary mentally shook his head.

“I figured it had to be a train hitting a car at that unguarded crossing. Me and lots of people complained about that crossing for years, but you know the government. They never do a goddamned thing to fix a problem until a disaster occurs. Then they spend a hundred times more money than it would’ve cost to fix it in the first place.” Billy shuffled away for a moment and returned with a chair. He sat down heavily, like he had just dropped a bag of bricks.

“Wow. I feel like shit.” Billy exhaled hard and Cary smelled urine again. “Anyway, I got over to that crash scene fast. I was the first person there, y’know, not counting the Amtrak passengers. Cops and ambulances showed up right after I did. They wouldn’t let me get close. I helped them find a person who was thrown out of the car. I guess at first they thought there was just one person involved because that’s all they saw sitting there in the car.”

Cary was even more grateful now that Sage had come away from the wreck unhurt considering that she had been thrown out of the car. Thrown out of the car as a gargantuan locomotive dragged it along railroad tracks. Before hearing Billy Rubin tell it Cary assumed the accident involved another car, and that Sage happened to be on the lucky side of the collision.

Billy continued, “The cops made me leave, so I drove back up to the clubhouse. And as soon as I got there a helicopter flew over the golf course. I saw them take away a young girl. I guessed it was your daughter. Turns out the passenger that got thrown out of the car was in really bad shape, but you were miraculously fine – just a couple of bruises and scratches.”

“Wh–wh–what?” At first confused, Cary became indignant. He formed the mental question, “What the fuck is this? A sick joke?”

“No.” Billy said quietly. “I saw it just like I said. I have this strange ability from getting struck by lightning. I saw the medics take you to one of the cars on the train, and you were just sitting alone.”

Suddenly Cary recalled some of the scenario Billy just described – seated alone in the café car, his mind going crazy thinking of young, precious Sage and her mangled body.

“I saw you in that café car, all alone, in shock and sadness,” continued Billy, “and I heard you say these very words: ‘I would give anything in the world to change places with her right now…anything.’” Billy looked in Cary’s eyes. “That’s a quote – I swear.”

Cary’s brain raced.

With tears brimming, Billy added, “As the helicopter flew back over the course toward the hospital, I saw you on the gurney. Just like you are now.”

Cary wanted to let out a deep breath but could never do so as long as the ventilator operated. But relief came anyway. He felt tortured no more. Cary had indeed done something glorious after all. He had been a noble Viking warrior, slain in battle. A glorious warrior chosen by the Valkyries. It all made sense now. Another Valhalla awaited him.

Billy shuffled toward the door with his squeaky IV rig just as a steady clarion beep signaled flat-line.

The End.

(c) 2013. Major Terata Publications

——————

Some of the locations and other topics referenced in the story.

mills
The Mills Mansion

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Olana

beekman
The Beekman Arms

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The Beekman Arms: Oldest Inn in America

Beekman Arms Oldest Hotel In America Rhinebeck
By the Fireplace inside the Beekman Arms

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Dinsmore Golf Course

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The Concord Hotel c.1950s

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The Concord “Monster” Golf Course

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Album cover from Machito’s appearance at the Concord Hotel

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Amtrak 234

rhine
Rhinecliff Train Station

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Ruins of Bannerman Castle

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Billy Casper in his prime

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The Taconic Parkway

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Spuyten Duyvil

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Westchester Medical Center, Valhalla

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“Ride of the Valkyries”

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“Apocalypse Now”

lunar
Declaration of Lunar Ownership

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The inspiration for a character’s name

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Nine. Billy has a Vision Like No Other.

After disgorging the five suits who had abandoned the idled Amtrak train for a ride to the Dinsmore Golf Course clubhouse with hopes of getting to Manhattan before the end of the business day via alternative transport, Billy Rubin swung his John Deere utility vehicle around to the path leading back to the 15th green. He still had a hole waiting there to be relocated. Just then from the east a helicopter swooped directly overhead and across the golf course, stopping Billy in his tracks. He watched it hover in the distance over the crash site before slowly descending behind the curtain of trees. Even after the helicopter disappeared from sight, by virtue of his clairvoyant gift, Billy continued to “see” it. His bizarre ability to “see” events unfold from afar, the ability he acquired after being struck by lightning, afforded Billy the opportunity to witness the pilot maneuver the helicopter down between the tight rows of trees lining the tracks.

He “saw” the rescue personnel recoil from the dust and bits of gravel kicked up by the whirling chopper blades as the pilot touched down. And with reluctance he “saw” a body strapped to a gurney, head clamped into a padded restraint, face concealed by gauze and bandages, an IV bag hanging on a hook, sheets splotched with blood. Billy assumed the sorry person strapped to the gurney was the accident victim to whom he earlier directed Trooper O’Brien; a victim in extremely critical condition having been thrown from the Saab into the bushes, both legs clipped off in a violent confrontation with Amtrak 234.

The struggling ambulance crew horsed the gurney across the tracks in front of the menacing locomotive. From their strategic locations near the carnage, TV reporters who had been broadcasting live all morning about “the tragedy” and the unforgivable lack of safety devices installed at the intersection of the tracks and the lane, directed their cameramen to capture the medical team loading the gurney onto the helicopter. A female reporter breathlessly updated her audience: “Behind me this medevac helicopter will shortly transport the mangled victim of this morning’s tragic accident between a high-speed Amtrak train and an automobile to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla.”

The rotor began to spin the blades faster as the helicopter pilot prepared to take to the air. The reporter, increasing the volume of her voice to compete against the elevated noise, shouted, “At this moment we’ve been told that the victim is still alive but in critical condition.” She placed a finger in her ear and ducked down like everyone does when a helicopter takes off or lands, as if she would be decapitated otherwise despite the fact the blades were a good fifteen feet above her head. “The name of the victim is being withheld pending notification of the family. As we’ve been reporting this morning, another passenger in the car survived the crash, apparently without sustaining any serious injuries. A remarkable and positive outcome to an otherwise totally tragic event.”

Billy “observed” the whole commotion as if he were seated in a box seat high above the crash site. He “watched” a local policeman marking down measurements on a notepad while several State police talked and laughed among themselves, and a half-dozen TV crews each jockeying for the premier position offering the most lurid background possible. Billy “saw” the ambulance team load the accident victim onto the helicopter, and the helicopter lifting off from the gravel access road, rising with trepidation as it passed uncomfortably close to the overhanging tree limbs and thick power lines. Upon clearing the treetops, the helicopter dipped slightly as the pilot transitioned from the vertical to the horizontal, making his way back east across Dinsmore Golf Course flying just a couple hundred feet above the undulating fairways. It appeared to Billy as though the pilot was preparing to strafe the clubhouse which reminded him of an iconic scene in Apocalypse Now and called to mind the gripping music that accompanied the attack on Vietnamese villagers: Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

When the chopper disappeared behind the ridge, Billy’s attention was summarily drawn back to the crash site where by virtue of his ability he could “see” a person no one else at the site could: the passenger who had escaped the wreck with barely a scratch, sitting somberly in a state of shock inside the café car of Amtrak 234, away from prying reporters and morbidly curious onlookers.

And what Billy “heard” the passenger say and the consequence of that statement would forever be seared in Billy’s memory.

Next. Part Ten. The Thrilling Conclusion to “Amtrak 234.”

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Eight. Billy Rubin Visits the Crash Site.

Rubbing his spasmodic lower abdomen, Billy race-walked toward a stand of trees behind Dinsmore Golf Course’s 15th green but he didn’t make it in time, and soiled himself. The volume accumulated in his baggy pants would have defied the flow of the flush had he gone to the bathroom back at the clubhouse, as he now knew he should have done. Any normal person would be crestfallen if they shit their pants, but Billy had long ago transcended whatever shame was associated with losing control of bodily functions. He was a lush, and he acknowledged it. Embraced it even. Lushes shit their pants. Lushes puke on things. That’s the way it was.

Billy stripped off his trousers, threw the stained shorts into the woods, looked about tentatively before wiping himself off with a rag torn from the ball washer, and pulled his trousers back on over his bare ass. After taking extra special care to zip up, he ambled sheepishly back to the green where the hole borer was still screwed into the ground awaiting extraction. Just as Billy grabbed the handles in preparation to yank out the borer he was startled by the near-simultaneous sounds of a train blasting its horn, a hard impact, steel crumpling, glass shattering and a screech of metal-on-metal that lasted for nearly a minute. He knew immediately the cacophony indicated a collision involving an auto and the Amtrak train he “saw” departing the Rhinecliff station moments earlier. And he knew exactly where the accident had occurred: the only grade crossing along the Amtrak route absent warning lights and automatic gates. Billy had crossed the tracks there many times although not in a dozen years.

The rutted lane passed by the Mills Mansion, terminating at a secluded spot along the Hudson River where Billy used to deliver beer and liquor to under-aged kids who worked at the golf course during summer breaks. Some of the teens waited tables or worked the prep line in the grill room; others hosed down golf carts and refilled ball washers with soapy water. On the weekends the kids would pool their money and place a booze order with Billy – the usual fare: Colt 45, Bacardi, Smirnoff, Yago Sangria – leaving him with enough cash to buy something for himself. At that time, Billy was downing a bottle to a bottle-and-a-half of vodka a day plus a six-pack. The deals with the under-agers allowed Billy to fund a couple days of imbibing. One summer, Billy bought liquor for the teenaged son of a doctor who played nine at Dinsmore every Wednesday afternoon with two other MDs and a pharmaceutical rep. The kid traded Quaaludes stolen from his father’s office for the liquor. And when the ‘ludes became increasingly difficult to steal, the doctor’s son made drugs-for-liquor deals using amphetamines and Valium as the new currency.

Punished by his addictions, Billy’s body aged 40 years over the course of 15. His hair turned white and thinned down to a few greasy strands across his crown; his nose came to resemble a scrotum, mottled with purplish veins; plaque on Billy’s remaining teeth grew thick, and glistened like Miracle Whip. And Billy’s skin, which appeared reptilian from the extended time spent in the sun, took on a yellowish tint like a Crayola crayon labeled “maize.” In the more recent years Billy had backed off somewhat from consuming the massive quantities of drink at the zenith, but he still met the definition of a problem drinker. He had begun to recognize the insidious social impact of his condition. Billy nearly lost his job (and his freedom) when the golfing doctor discovered the Quaalude-for-liquor connection, deciding after virulent threats not to press charges. And Billy was saddened and ashamed at the pariah status he had attained at the Beekman Arms and other local establishments where he had ruined the ambiance with his drunken antics. He harbored no doubts that the frequent pains in his side stemmed from severe damage to his bottle-scarred liver, but he could not and did not want to stop drinking completely. Drinking had become so woven into the fabric of his daily life, an activity so necessary for life to be normal, that Billy could hardly imagine slogging through an entire day without alcohol.

But at this moment alcohol was not on his mind.

Billy climbed into the John Deere and sped off across the fairway at the vehicle’s top speed of 15 mph, driving around a fence marking “out-of-bounds” onto the county road running parallel to the golf course. He turned onto the rutted lane, and as he approached the unguarded crossing he spotted a sea of sparkling glass. It wasn’t until he got to the fateful crossing that he could take in the full effect of the collision: the Amtrak train idling on the tracks flanked by automobile detritus about 1,000 yards to the south. (Having spent so much of his life around the links, Billy calibrated distances in terms of golf holes; the train appeared to be about two par 5’s away.) As Billy drove the Deere alongside the tracks on the bumpy gravel access road, rakes, a weed-whacker and a garden hose flew out the back. He had to swerve often to avoid striking pieces of the car. When he glimpsed what appeared to be a severed bloody limb in a ditch, he abruptly steered his shocked wide eyes forward and continued on.

As Billy approached the crash site the pandemonium revealed itself. Passengers on board Amtrak 234 craned their necks to observe the activity through scratched windows, the women covering their mouths with their hands, the men standing shakily with their hands in their pockets. The Amtrak conductors stumbled around outside the train lacking apparent direction. One conductor listening to a voice on a walkie-talkie turned toward a clutch of passengers who had disembarked and shouted loudly, “Everyone back away! Get the fuck away from the train! We have to back – will you fucking move? We have to back up the train!” Billy recognized the agitated man with the walkie-talkie to be the conductor he “saw” minutes earlier – the one who barred the cat-owner from boarding in Rhinecliff.

The engineer of Amtrak 234 blew the horn and moved the train back about ten yards so as to disconnect from the remains of the Saab that were wedged beneath the locomotive. Billy and the others looked down the tracks in unison upon hearing the siren wails of the first responders. The New York State Police got to work managing access to the wreck site, knowing that without strict control the multitude of ambulance drivers, fire crews, local police, press people and gawkers would create a Gordian knot of gridlock on the narrow gravel path. Billy pulled the Deere to the side as an ambulance approached, escorted by a State cop. From his vantage point, Billy had a partially obstructed view of the crumpled vehicle; the passenger compartment was all that remained. Engine, wheels, roof, trunk – all had been shed over the 1,000 yard span leading back to the crossing. He was quite certain that whoever was driving the car had been killed instantly, pieces of his or her corpse strewn among fenders and bumpers and drive train. Then Billy overheard a conductor advise the trooper that a person remained strapped into the only intact seat left, alive and remarkably lucid. With his view obscured Billy shuffled closer to get a better look, but his jockeying was interrupted by a very intimidating State cop whose imposing figure was amplified by the forward-slanting Smoky-Bear hat atop his crew-cut block of a head. Just to look upon at the trooper’s chiseled face was enough to bring a grown man to tears. “Get back, sir,” he instructed Billy in an even tone exhibiting professionalism and respect. It was also clear from the tone that resistance was futile. Still, Billy felt the need to speak up.

“Uh, Officer, I uh”
“Sir, I don’t want to have to tell you again. Get back on the train, now.”
“I wasn’t on the train, officer. I came over from the golf course. I think there might have been more than one person in the vehicle.” Billy said “vee-HICK-el” as that’s how every real cop on TV said it.
“How do you know that?”
“I was driving my cart along the path here and I thought I saw–” Billy gulped slightly “–a leg or arm, y’know, back along the tracks about 500 yards.”
“What’s your name, sir.”
“Billy Rubin, I work at the–”

The cop motioned to a colleague to come over; he said a few words to him.

“Mr. Rubin, please take Trooper O’Brien here to the location where you think you saw a body part.” Billy and Trooper O’Brien got into the John Deere and proceeded north. Billy began to worry that maybe what he saw was a dead animal, or something that was never alive to begin with. The cops would consider him an addled jerk who wasted valuable time. Then Billy felt horrible for hoping to be vindicated by finding a human body part after all.

O’Brien abruptly hopped from the moving cart, apparently spying something of interest. The cop tilted his head onto his shoulder and spoke into a microphone pinned to his shirt. “I’ve got a limb, here, looks like part of a leg.” O’Brien walked into some high grass and bushes, using his feet to bend aside the thick foliage. Billy stayed back in the cart. Suddenly the cop stopped bushwhacking, and bent down out of sight. A second later he stood upright and shouted into his shoulder, “I’ve got a victim here! Barely alive! 500 yards north – look for my signal!” O’Brien stepped sprightly from out of the weeds onto the gravel path and waved his arms frantically. Billy saw several officials stationed by the locomotive scrambling into an ambulance and taking off at high speed in reverse as there was insufficient room on the narrow path to turn the vehicle around. Trooper O’Brien thanked Billy for his help and told him to leave the scene.

By this time a number of resigned passengers were walking away from the site of the catastrophe, some carrying luggage, some vainly pulling wheeled suitcases that refused to roll on gravel. As Billy prepared to take off in the John Deere a man in a suit offered him $10 to drive him to the nearest public building. Another passenger made the same offer and soon Billy – richer by the equivalent of three bottles of cheap vodka – was transporting five expensively-dressed NYC professionals willing to sit atop wet bags of fertilizer rather than to schlep across the rolling fairways of Dinsmore Golf Course all the way to the clubhouse high on the far hill.

Next. Part Nine. Billy has a Vision Like No Other.

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Seven. Amtrak 234 Meets Cary Hayes.

Cary backed his car out of the Mills Mansion visitor parking lot and drove down the narrow, ill-maintained driveway made up almost entirely of asphalt patches applied over the decades. Cary marveled at how a state with the largest tax burden per capita in America could do such a poor job. At least his convertible Saab absorbed the potholes and hummocks well.

Sage fingered her kalimba-like cell-phone, replying in quiet concentration to a backlog of text messages. Cary flipped on the radio to NPR just as the brief “Word for the Wise” program came on. He had taken an etymology course in high school and became fascinated with how often the roots of words hid in plain sight. Today the word for the wise was “marmalade,” which as the female radio host noted derived from a Portuguese word meaning “quince,” and not as some people believed from “Marie malade” – French for “sick Mary” – because Mary Queen of Scots supposedly consumed marmalade to cure headaches. Cary preferred to believe the debunked etymology; it seemed too good not to be true.

Sage was now making a call on her cell-phone, conversing quite animatedly. She half-whispered something about “ink.” The mention caught Cary’s attention and rekindled his fear that Sage might one day get a tattoo. Or worse – that she was secretly sporting one already. Cary cringed at the concept of a big, garish “tramp-stamp” permanently etched above his innocent young daughter’s butt-crack, or a lascivious image indelibly applied to an even more intimate body part. He quickly dispatched the thought; too gruesome to contemplate. Cary settled back into the anodyne news report on NPR as he absent-mindedly drove through a serpentine passage blasted out of the rock 100 years ago, one that intersected at an obtuse angle with another passage for a single railroad track.

“Crap!” barked Sage out of the blue. Cary, startled, looked over at her. “I lost the sig–” Cary didn’t hear the rest of the word, and maybe Sage didn’t utter it, for at that precise moment Cary had driven onto the unguarded tracks into the path of Amtrak train 234, high-balling at 70 mph.

090273-black-paint-splatter-icon-signs-z-roadsign47

The engineer would testify much later that he had properly blown the horn – two long, one short, one long – as required in advance of crossing the road, but doubts were raised on cross-examination as several passengers on board recalled otherwise. A spokesperson for Amtrak was quoted saying, “Signals mean different things at different places. We don’t yet know if there was confusion or a distraction.” Perhaps Cary and the engineer responsible for Amtrak 234 had broken a number of laws that morning, but one law stood unflaunted: F = ma. Force equals mass times acceleration – or per Isaac Newton: “Mutationem motus proportionalem esse vi motrici impressae, et fieri secundum lineam rectam qua vis illa imprimitur.”

The train continued nearly a half mile after striking Cary and Sage before coming to a stop, during which time the Saab – pinned to the nose of the engine – jettisoned most of its parts list along both sides of the rails. The convertible ragtop was the least prepared to endure the collision, ripping clean off within seconds. By contrast, the 120-ton locomotive would require little more than a dab of paint.

Dozing passengers were abruptly wakened by the cacophony of the screeching brakes and crunching metal. They watched out the windows in horror as pieces of the auto flew off into the adjacent woods. Frantic 911 calls went out from dozens of cell phones. A few jaded commuters grumbled about yet another delay.

Within just ten minutes the first of more than 100 law enforcement personnel, firemen, ambulance crews and newscasters arrived on the scene. It was a toss-up as to whether officials from the NTSB and their tape-measures and clipboards would beat the injury lawyers to the crash site.

Next. Part Eight. Billy Rubin Visits the Crash Site.

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Six. Sage Shoots Mills Mansion.

Three Hudson River mansions on Sage’s list – Olana, Clermont and Wilderstein – were in the can. Over two weekends, assisted by the chauffeur services of her father Cary, Sage had finished shooting photos of the first set of ten stately mansions for her school term project. Everything was on schedule.

As a teenager, Cary grew interested in photography and when he turned 17 he moved on from a cheap Kodak camera to his first SLR: a Mamiya-Sekor outfitted with a screw mount lens. With the help of a friend from school, Cary learned how to work black-and-white chemistry. Cary believed all the greatest photography ever produced was black-and-white. He shot so many images that he began rolling his own canisters from a bulk reel of Tri-X 400 ASA film. Like an anal-retentive accountant, Cary filed his negatives in a binder – each plastic page accompanied by an annotated contact sheet. He shot pictures at dusk and at dawn and during dark thunderstorms when the light was optimally ominous. He submitted his work to local contest and won a few “blue-ribbons” – not unlike his rural friends who snagged a similar accolade for showcasing a sheeny-coated heifer. Cary’s interest in photography continued unabated into adulthood; over the objections of his new wife Lee who wanted to finish the basement for a family room, Cary instead constructed a well-outfitted darkroom instead.

As a purist, Cary questioned the first generation of digital photography, uncertain whether it could ever rival the quality produced by film and wet chemicals. Deep down, he hoped digital would never surpass film, but as a student of science Cary suspected the technological hurdles were inevitably surmountable. When Sage was about seven, Cary succumbed and bought a digital camera, and no sooner had he popped it from the clam-shell packaging that he discovered the wonders of pixels. How liberating it was to take photos without having to consider whether a particular shot might be a waste of film. And the software that came with the camera enabled Cary to produce results that would have taken hours to achieve in his darkroom. He continued to do wet chemistry for a while – out of guilt perhaps for contemplating abandonment of a centuries-old process that had served so many so well – but within months, Cary dismantled the dark room and hired a contractor to build out the family room Lee wanted.

Cary’s experience with digital was so positive that he happily handed over the camera to Sage to mess around with. She took to photography wholeheartedly and quickly exhibited a flair for composition. Soon Sage was shooting hundreds of photos at a time, choosing interesting and sometimes challenging subjects, and often speaking of becoming a photo-journalist. She envisioned traveling to troubled and exotic parts of the world to capture images destined for publication in the pages of The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic.

On this day, Sage and Cary were en route in Cary’s Saab 9000 to the Mills Mansion in Staatsburg, the fourth mansion on the list that also included the Vanderbilt and FDR estates in Hyde Park, Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie, Boscobel in Garrison, J.D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit in Sleepy Hollow, and Lyndhurst and Washington Irving’s Sunnyside, both in Tarrytown. To date, Sage felt her best work had been done at Olana, the home of Frederic Edwin Church, a leading artist of Hudson River School of landscape painting. Church owned a significant property offering panoramic views over the Hudson River, the Catskill Mountains and the Taconic Hills. Original plans to build a Victorian house on the summit gave way to a radical change after Church came back from an extended visit to the Middle East. Church was taken by the Moorish architecture and sought to incorporate it into the design of his future house, named Olana which in Arabic means “our place on high.” The plans for Olana came directly from Church who collaborated with famed Central Park architect, Calvert Vaux. Olana was visually stunning with its stylized windows, tessellating tile patterns, rich colors of green, brown, yellow, purple, ochre and salmon, and metallic adornments. Photographers and painters for decades found Olana a compelling subject, as did Sage.

In contrast, the Mills Mansion was a boxy example of Greek-revival architecture, conservative and staid when compared to the flamboyance and eccentricity of Olana. In a contrived TV commercial, Mills Mansion would be Microsoft and Olana would be Apple. As one of the lesser known estates along the Hudson, the Mills Mansion attracted few visitors, which made it much easier to do a timeless photo shoot, absent cars, landscape equipment, and obese tourists in shorts and fanny packs. Cary and Sage arrived at the site around 7:30 in the morning as Sage wanted to capture a westward view of the mansion overlooking the morning fog rising from the nearby Hudson River. She planned to shoot for about an hour, after which Cary would drive her to school. On this bright, crisp September morning, the Mills Mansion was extremely flattered by the rich sunlight streaking through century-old oaks and elms. The marble front looked the color of curry. It was as if the building were trying desperately to compete for Sage’s affection against its showy, up-river rival Olana. Sage took several dozen photos, each stored within a microscopic area of the camera’s memory card, from positions all around the building, wrapping up the shoot from a spot down by the edge of the Hudson.

Cary had already wandered down to the spot by the river’s edge. As a Pisces he possessed a mysterious life-long fascination with bodies of water drawing him to rivers, lakes, streams, oceans, ponds, canals. Water had a magnetic pull on Cary. Sometimes he’d loll for hours mesmerized by the seductive movement of windswept waves and wakes left behind boats like an event horizon. Sometimes when visiting sites along the Hudson Cary would remain long enough to observe the currents of the estuarial body of water change directions; logs and ice floes moving past south toward the Atlantic Ocean might reappear later propelled by the tide back north toward the Adirondack Mountains.

Sage sat down quietly to the right of and slightly behind Cary, out of his line of sight, trying not to interrupt his moment of solitude, but she startled him anyway.

“Oh! Hi, hon,” blurted Cary. “How did you make out? Did you get all the shots you wanted?”

“Yeah. I don’t like this building as much as the other ones though. It’s like, whoever made it didn’t wanted people to feel, y’know cozy or something. It kinda reminds me of where the president lives, y’know the capitol, or like the Lincoln Memorial.”

Cary was pretty sure Sage was smarter than she sounded. Her grades were solid enough, but he was convinced that standards had dropped precipitously since the days when he attended school. Sage was taking honors courses that seemed to Cary to be far less difficult than the bonehead regulars classes that members of the football team opted for a generation ago. Still, he had to admit that Sage was engaged in a fairly rigorous photo-essay project at the same age as Cary was when his assignment was to write a brief paper about the time community leaders in his hometown of Geneva, Ohio announced with great fanfare their so-called “Declaration of Lunar Ownership.” For some reason, the town elders had laid claim to the moon.

Cary could hear the groan of a tugboat engine growing louder, and soon he saw the prow of a barge emerge from behind a stand of trees on the river’s edge. The tugboat was pushing the barge upriver, the captain maneuvering the hulking steel block between buoys to remain within the narrow lane dredged from the relatively shallow Hudson. Cary wasn’t a nautical buff, but he found it relaxing and satisfying to watch big ships ply the river. Sage looked up from her camera and took notice of a hand on deck wearing a yellow slicker.

“I had a weird dream last night with this yellow man in it”, she said without looking at Cary. “I kept trying to go into some building and he wouldn’t let me. It was really weird.”

“Hmm. You mean he had yellow skin?”

“I think so, or maybe his clothes were yellow, I can’t remember exactly. He kept standing in front of the door and said I couldn’t go in. Not today anyway.”

“It probably means something,” Cary replied, assured that it didn’t mean a thing. “You know, maybe you want something but can’t get it. Like you’re searching for something. I’m always having dreams where I just can’t get someplace. I was walking and walking but never getting where I wanted to go.”

Sage’s cell phone started playing a tinny-sounding song, an alarm indicating the time was now 8:30. “Dad, can we go now? I really have to be in home room by quarter to nine, and I have a bunch of texts I didn’t even get to answer yet.”

“OK. OK. Jesus, text messages.” Cary stood up a bit too quickly and experienced an unsettling moment of vertigo. He noticed his back was wet from the dew on the grass. “I remember what a big deal it was when our grade-school teacher let us listen to the radio to hear a NASA liftoff, or the World Series,” Cary noted, recalling a time when World Series baseball games were played during the day. He struggled to imagine what it would have been like if every student possessed a wifi-connected device in the classroom – no one would have learned a damn thing, that’s for sure. And cheating? Forget about it.

Sage said nothing. She simply manipulated the small black cell-phone with her thumbs, both moving in a coordinated fashion as though she were playing an African kalimba. Sage was several steps ahead of Cary. The pair trudged up the hill, around the mansion, past the wheelchair access lift that kind of spoiled the front view, back to the Saab. Sage packed her camera case in the skimpy back seat along with the 12 pounds of books stuffed in her backpack.

Next. Part Seven. Amtrak 234 meets Cary Hayes.

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Five. Meet Amtrak 234.

Amtrak train number 234 was finally ready to leave the Rhinecliff station at 8:31 – forty minutes late which meant it was right on schedule. A hybrid of public and private enterprise, Amtrak had suffered years of government neglect in the management of its budget coupled with an asinine business model that forced highly-profitable routes to subsidize losers that snaked through the empty states and districts of powerful, partisan Congressmen. The train could have left the station a few minutes earlier but one of the conductors had engaged in an argument with a New York City-bound passenger attempting to board with a cat. The cat was ensconced discretely in a carrying bag, the kind with a meshed side, but the conductor would have none of it. No animals allowed on board (except of course the venerable seeing-eye dog). Lengthening the delay, a fellow rider came to the defense of the cat owner and his contraband, but relented when the conductor threatened to bar her as well. After September 11, relenting was the only sensible choice when dealing with an official representative of the National Transportation complex. The woman figured there was no sense having her name etched onto a permanent terrorist watch list – suffering pat-downs and potential cavity searches henceforth – over the defense of a cat’s right to travel by rail.

With two blasts of the horn, Amtrak 234 pulled out of the station leaving behind another irate customer, this one with his cat in the bag, and his bag by the river. After departing Rhinecliff, the daily Amtrak 234 run continues non-stop along the east bank of the mighty and scenic Hudson River (if fallen trees, freight trains and bureaucracy stay out of its way) to New York’s Penn Station, traveling 100 miles in 100 minutes. For all of Amtrak’s aggravations, the region’s frequent commuters preferred riding a train to driving a car into the City. In fact, it was not unusual in times of inclement weather for a driver en route to New York City to advance perhaps 20 miles in that same 100 minutes. Once Amtrak trains get to Poughkeepsie they share the track with the Metropolitan Transit Authority which has priority, forcing Amtrak onto sidetracks whenever there is contention for the rails – but until then, Amtrak 234 would highball for the next 15 miles. The track courses through narrow lanes blasted out of ancient granite outcrops, and across causeways over tidal basins. It runs next to the former estates of Industrial Age barons and early 20th Century titans – Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morses, Roosevelts. Passengers sitting on the starboard side have excellent views of West Point and the Palisades, and may see a decommissioned lighthouse or the ruins of an island castle. If they knew when to look, passengers could catch a glimpse of Sing Sing prison. After Amtrak relocated its New York City terminal from the elegant Grand Central to the architectural abomination of Pennsylvania Station, trains crossed into Manhattan over the Spuyten Duyvil, a waterway separating it from the Bronx. Some people believed the name “Spuyten Duyvil” derived from the Dutch for “Devil’s Whirlpool” which certainly seemed reasonable, especially when the estuarial tides ebbed and flowed. Others believed the name came from a story by Washington Irving about a Dutchman who, during the British attack on New Amsterdam promised to swim through the turbulence “en spijt den Duyvil” – in spite of the Devil.

Amtrak 234 was moving at top speed as it roared through a rock cut, the Mills Mansion to the west, Dinsmore Golf Course to the East. The engineer knew he would likely be directed to slow or even stop south of Poughkeepsie in deference to the MTA trains sharing the tracks. And the incident with the cat owner had added to the delay accumulated since leaving Albany. Prior to reaching Poughkeepsie would offer the last opportunity to make up some lost time, so the engineer amped up the throttle – “balling the jack” in railroad parlance.

This stretch of track runs through a largely-uninhabited swath of publicly owned land. Most of the access roads to destinations hugging the banks of the Hudson pass over or under the tracks, but there was one narrow lane that snaked toward the Mills Mansion, crossing the tracks at grade, a simple sign stating “RR” planted at the intersection. Which was not entirely unusual; at the time, there were approximately 150,000 public grade railroad crossings in the United States, of which only 35,500 had gates and 25,000 had flashing lights. As for the number of wig-wags in place, the National Transportation Safety Board could only guess.

Next. Part Six. Sage Shoots Mills Mansion.

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Four. Billy Acquires an Amazing Gift

As the assistant to Dinsmore Golf Course’s greenskeeper, Billy Rubin’s first job of the morning was to relocate the holes, a task that entailed traveling in a noisy John Deere utility vehicle around to each of the 18 greens and boring a new hole with a special auguring tool. But before Billy could begin his assignment he had to check the sheet indicating into which quadrant of the greens the new holes were to be bored. And before he could check the sheet, he had to consume the contents of a 24 ounce bottle of Olde English Malt.

As if performing a hair transplant operation, Billy would extract a six inch cylindrical core of closely-cropped grass and packed soil from the green, forming a new hole, and then he’d tamp it into the existing hole, capping it off. The boring action reminded Billy of pulling the cork on a bottle of wine, and that image got him thinking of drinking. Truthfully, it didn’t take much to get Billy thinking of drinking. From the moment he rose from the tilted army cot until he returned to the golf cart garage at night, Billy contemplated the circumstances by which he would imbibe his next drink.

Just as Billy was about to head out onto the course a foursome of golfers approached him. The first golfer, a chunky man with slick-backed hair the color of Cordovan, greeted Billy, remarking, “Hey, I haven’t seen you at the Beekman lately. Don’t you go out anymore?” He glanced toward his companions with an ever-so-sly grin. The golfer was referring to the Beekman Arms, a Federal style establishment located in the heart of Rhinebeck that billed itself as the “Oldest Inn in America.” The Beekman Arms bar certainly looked like it belonged in the oldest inn in America: poorly lit, dark wood, low ceilings and hand-hewn wide-board floors. Because of irregularities in the manufacture of the boards, women in high-heels could become temporarily shoeless after jamming two inches of spike into spaces between the boards. The anteroom of the bar boasted a huge fireplace.

Billy swallowed a burp before responding on his recent absence, “Uh, no, uh, I’ve been busy, y’know, working extra hours.” In fact, Billy had been barred from the Beekman Arms after throwing up in front of 20 tourists – “leaf-peepers” – from Kentucky who came to enjoy the fall foliage in the nearby Berkshire Mountains. As it happened, some mischievous Dinsmore golfers led by Cordovan-hair bought him innumerable rounds of incompatible spirits like Cognac, Sambuca and Limoncello which he used to wash down bowl after bowl of nuts and trail mix set out on the bar. Knowing he had gone beyond the point of no return, Billy wobbled toward the exit, getting as far as the roaring fireplace before puking a gusher. Some of the vomit splashed onto the Timberlands of a few shocked leaf-peepers. The rest of it puddled up on the hot stones of the fireplace where it began to sizzle like an omelet.

“I gotta get going fellas.”

“OK, Bill. You let us know if you want to go out sometime,” responded the golfer. A big grin split his face. “I’m buying.”

Billy set out in the John Deere for the 15th green, the farthest from the clubhouse. It is on this green that golfers seem to find themselves when a summer thunderstorm strikes – stranded the maximum distance from the parking lot. Today, however, there would be no storm; the skies were 9/11 crisp and clear. On days like this Billy would often recall a quite different day years prior when a vicious storm blew across the Catskill Mountains into the Hudson Valley. Billy was raking a sandtrap when he spotted the likes of Armageddon on the horizon. Just before bolting for the nearest shelter he felt his hair stand up, swelled with static electricity. Then Billy felt a violent jolt as though someone had struck the soles of his feet with a two-by-four. And not some economy-grade pine board from Home Depot, but a length of sturdy, unforgiving hardwood. A golfer and another greens-keeper died that day from the lightning strike, but Billy survived. He stood up shakily, a wisp of acrid smoke rising from his head.

He didn’t know it at the time but the immense power dissipated by that rogue bolt changed Billy in a most strange way. Shortly after his encounter with the lightning strike, Billy began to experience the ability – vaguely at first, stronger later – to visualize events happening despite his being nowhere near them as they unfolded. It was not déjà vu, nor did he have premonitions of the future. It was simply an ability to “see” current events as they happened to someone else, somewhere else, as though his brain were wired to a nearby surveillance camera. The first such occurrence came a few days after the lightning strike when a golfer reported to Billy that a twosome ahead of him had driven their golf cart across the third green. Billy responded that he had already reprimanded the offenders – two tattoed twenty-something punks in sneakers and cutoff jeans – although he could not explain how he knew what they had done. The third green was not visible from the greenskeeper’s garage. Nonetheless, Billy quite vividly “saw” it happen. The two punks at first denied driving across the green, then demanded to know how the fuck Billy could know it. As they tore out of the parking lot, Billy too wondered how the fuck he could know it.

Billy soon discovered that if he concentrated on a person or a place, he might be able to intrude like an invisible interloper, a fly on the wall, unable to affect anything but capable nonetheless to observe events. It was not a skill Billy tried to exploit and although he considered it a kind of gift, he was not always thrilled to possess the ability. Not all the visions were pleasant. One time, Billy “saw” a golfer taking a runny shit against a tree by the 17th tee. Another time he “saw” the grill room cook masturbating in the produce cooler, a porn magazine splayed open on a case of iceberg lettuce. After that nauseating vision, Billy refused to eat anything from the kitchen that came with mayonnaise.

Today, on this beautiful morning as Billy prepared to bore a new hole into the 15th green, a northbound Amtrak train running on tracks along the Hudson River just a few hundred yards from the golf course, blew its ear-splitting horn. Suddenly, compelled by the intrusion of the speeding train, Billy “saw” an Amtrak conductor arguing with a would-be passenger at the Rhinecliff Station, the next stop on the scheduled run from New York to Albany. Disinterested in becoming distracted with the vision, Billy promptly got back to the task at hand – boring a new hole for the 15th green just as a powerful urge to take a shit snuck up on him.

Next. Part Five. Meet Amtrak 234

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Three. Meet Billy Rubin.

Billy Rubin awoke groggily on a clear crisp summer morning following another fitful night sprawled out on an uncomfortable utilitarian army cot set between rows of motorized EZGO golf carts, each one tethered by a thick umbilical cord to an electric battery charging system. The front legs of the army cot were folded under, enabling Billy to sleep on a slant so the accumulated acid in his stomach would stay put for the evening. With a habit of drinking distilled spirits boasting proofs exceeding 100 – and doing so right up to the moment he crashed on the cot – Billy was a victim of acid reflux disease. Truthfully, it was more like a self-inflicted wound than a disease. After several disturbing incidents in which he involuntarily bolted upright out of a dead sleep caused by the rush of vomit up his esophagus – sometimes inhaling some of it his lungs – Billy decided he would no longer lay horizontally like a normal person.

For thirty years Billy had worked as the sole assistant to the greenskeeper at the Dinsmore Golf Course, a public state-run facility that was once the private property of three wealthy 19th Century Industrial Age families. Today Dinsmore attracted the once-in-a-while golfer – the kind who wears sneakers, backward-facing baseball caps and wife-beaters. Unlike at trophy courses in the Northeast such as Winged Foot, Baltusrol and Shinnecock where meticulous greenskeepers lovingly comb parallel swirls in the sandtraps, taking care of a course like Dinsmore mostly involved repair and preventative operations. Insufficient staff and budget ensured the course was less than immaculate. At several spots on the golf course red traffic cones sat in gaping woodchuck holes to warn against the accidentally severed Achilles tendon and prevent lawsuits against New York State.

Billy harbored no secret desire to tend a course that might have once hosted a US Open or a PGA championship, nor did he envy the uniformed crew-members riding state-of-the-art mowers down fabled fairways of golf’s major contests. He admired Dinsmore, the third-oldest golf course in America, because it presented a sense of what the sport was like at a time when golf clubs had fanciful names like mashie and niblick. When a 200 yard drive was exceptional. Well before the development of massive earth-moving equipment capable of reshaping the landscape to conform with an architect’s rendition of hills and swales. A century later Dinsmore remained anachronistically in total harmony with the land upon which it had been laid out.

Baruch Rubin was born in 1948 to elderly Jewish parents who in the autumn of life had given up hope of having children. The Rubin’s lived in the heart of the Borscht Belt – Fallsburg – not far from the Concord Hotel. Now a hollow shell waiting vainly for redemption through legalized casino gambling, looking for a savior in some never-before-heard-of Indian tribe, the Concord was in the 1950s a fabulous destination owned by a different kind of tribe that operated the resort for urban Jews who traveled the 90 miles from New York City to enjoy kosher food, fun-n-games and top name entertainment. Young Baruch and his parents accompanied by aunts and uncles and cousins would on special occasions spend a day at the Concord. The old ladies had their nails done while a Yiddish-speaking magician entertained them with sleight-of-hand. The old men played cards and smoked White Owls. Unsupervised, Baruch would wander from the main grounds and amble up the hill to visit the “Monster,” the resort’s championship golf course. The 7,650 yard course posed a devilish challenge of watery hazards, narrow fairways, and ancient trees that sent errant drives deep into the woods.

It was on one of these family outings that Baruch met up with Billy Casper who was putting on the Monster’s massive practice green. Casper had recently won the US Open that June at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck. Casper is a ghost to most golf fans born after 1980, but he enjoyed a top flight career, winning the US Open again in 1966 over Arnold Palmer in a playoff. He was getting ready to play in a charity golf event arranged by Jimmy Demaret, the golf pro at the Concord, and no slouch himself, having amassed a string of professional golf wins, including three Masters – a feat matched to this day by only a handful of players.

Baruch, a shy boy facing an imminent bar-mitzvah, mustered the courage to ask Casper for an autograph. Baruch didn’t think to bring something to autograph, so Casper reached for his wallet, pulled out a crisp $5 bill, and signed it warmly, “to Barook.” Right away, Baruch called himself “Billy,” and insisted everyobe around him do so as well. Billy Rubin admired the style of Casper and his contemporaries – Orville Moody, Gay Brewer, Miller Barber, and many others with first names no longer bestowed upon boys. They smoked on the course and drank deep into the evenings, grabbing a few hours of sleep prior to their morning tee times, sometimes half-running to the tee box following a cursory warm up. Some professional golfers even hung around for the weekend at the clubhouse bar if they missed the cut, something unheard of on today’s tour. As a flabby child unfit by the standards of the time to play the sports preferred by his peers, and having no Jewish athletes to idolize, Billy most closely identified with golfers of the sixties who spurned exercise and clean living.

Billy tried to take up the game of golf in his teens, found he lacked the fundamentals of that intricate, elusive motion called the “perfect golf swing”, and gave it up. He moved away from Fallsburg to pursue a degree at Ohio State University, arranged and paid for by his father who believed putting some distance between Billy and his insular Jewish community would broaden his opportunities. Other than acquiring a taste for pork and suffering some fraternity hazing, Billy’s opportunities did not broaden. By January that year, he was back in Fallsburg. Eager to earn some cash, Billy answered a classified ad seeking summer-only help maintaining the Concord’s 2,000 acres of property. After a few weeks of mowing the grass around the pool and shuffleboard courts, Billy was reassigned to work on the Monster. With time, he became friendly with the members and many of the hifalutin guests. He had his picture taken with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Sam Snead, Machito and Tony Bennett. By the time he was posing with the likes of Burt Convy and Dick van Patten, the world had changed. It was now less expensive and time-consuming to fly to eternally sunny Orlando than it was to drive up potholed Route 17 to the graying, deteriorating Jewish Alps. The number of visitors to Monticello and surrounding communities plummeted, Monticello Raceway became a ghost town, and the Concord tightened its belt. Billy was laid off. He started to spend time at the Trotter Bar, becoming well-acquainted with such luminaries as Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and Johnny Walker. Soon he was sloughing off most of his unemployment check on booze, trodding a path toward out-and-out alcoholism.

In 1976, a childhood friend of Billy’s, Ehud Cohen, later known as Edward Cowan, died in Rhinebeck, NY – a tony village of antique shops and historic buildings. Billy and some of his remaining extended family traveled upstate to attend Cowan’s funeral. After the Catholic funeral ceremony – for Cowan had converted while living in Philadelphia – Billy read an ad in the paper looking for an assistant greenskeeper at Dinsmore Golf Course, a short drive from Rhinebeck and not out of the way on the trip back to Fallsburg. He stopped in, recited his credentials and won the position.

Next. Part Four. Billy Acquires an Amazing Gift

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Two. Cary Hayes has a dream.

Cary awoke from a sublimely realistic dream, encouraged that the images conjured within his broken brain might provide much-needed insight into that fateful day his normal life ended and the journey to Valhalla began. He wanted so badly to believe his dreams might unlock critical memories otherwise inaccessible to him when in a conscious state. Oh, how Cary hoped the dream, as realistic as the buzzing fluorescent light above his head he was forced to endure each day, could provide a clue to the provenance of the accident that had torn him asunder. Like all dreams, this one was particularly obtuse. Characters inhabiting the dream appeared to be composites of various people Cary knew from the distant past, including friends from high school and college he had not encountered for almost 30 years.

As if Lewis Carroll had scripted the dream, action jumped from place to place, starting with Cary and Sage ambling up broad, imposing steps hewn of white granite into what looked to be a museum or an embassy. The stately building was fabricated from dense, colorfully-veined stones cut from a rich quarry. Each massive block had been meticulously hand-cut and set closely against its neighbors such that not even a razor blade could be forced into the seams between any two. The weather in the dream was crisp and clear. Once inside the building Cary and Sage stood in a grand entry foyer, gawking at the high ceiling and the walls of deeply-burnished wood. Colorful tapestries hung from ceiling to floor.

Dozens of passageways led off in all directions from the foyer to other rooms which in turn led to hundreds of others. It was as though the building contained an infinity of duplicates of itself, like a Beaux-Arts Mandelbrot Set. After wandering for some time from room to room, Cary and Sage exited the building through a door marked with the number 540. After passing through the door, father and daughter stood among strangers in an elevator car that moved briskly in both vertical and horizontal directions, switching abruptly between the two vectors. When the elevator doors finally parted, Cary, alone, walked out onto a vast expanse of lush green lawn and looked up at a crystal-clear azure sky like that on September 11, 2001.

September 11, 2001. Aka. Nine-eleven. Cary was in a conference room that day discussing a new product with far-flung business colleagues, some occupying conference rooms in other cities, some “flex-working” at home, multitasking between email and eBay. A half-hour into the call someone on the phone interrupted to report a breaking news item about a plane striking the World Trade Center in New York City. Certainly a small, private plane, reported the confident TV newscaster, aware that a collision by a commercial airliner was all but impossible in a jet-age of computer-instructed aircraft. After all, as the government desperately argued later, no one had ever imagined that fanatic suicidal hijackers would purposely fly a plane into a building. Cary watched the stunning news unfold on a TV monitor in his company’s lunchroom, struggling to parse the image of a single, smoldering World Trade Center tower following the demise of the fatally-gashed South Tower. It was as if the lone North Tower were a Siamese twin who knows his own death is imminent because the sibling to whom he’s been tethered since birth has just passed away. For all of 28 minutes and 31 seconds, the world looked upon not the Twin Towers, but a single structure, once denounced as an architectural outrage, but now seen as a noble, mortally-wounded warrior fighting to stay erect as long as possible so its thousands of occupants – the charges entrusted to it – might escape a horrid death.

Cary had never previously analyzed his dreams in order to unshroud mystery or peer into a possible future, but in his current condition he was desperate to receive some form of revelation. On the strength of the unusual dream Cary allowed himself to be convinced that whatever incident had consigned him to a hospital bed had happened on a sunny, late-summer day. Maybe even on another September 11.

Thirteen year-old Sage visited her father a few times a week after school and sometimes on the weekends, describing to him what she had learned in Oceanography or Biodiversity or some other course of study that didn’t exist when Cary went to school. Sometimes Cary’s precocious daughter would sit for hours interacting with her iMac laptop or texting friends on her impossibly thin iPhone. Cary wondered whether the name of every device Sage owned started with an “i” – and if he still had legs, he would kick himself for not having invested in Apple when they were at rock bottom before catapulting to one of the world’s most valuable companies. Watching his daughter fiddle with the devices, Cary started to question whether these fantastic technologies that enabled everyone to join in on a vast, virtual social network might instead encourage isolation. An isolation that would only further the need to immerse oneself in the network. People seemed lonelier, and compensated for it by sinking deeper into virtual reality.

On her visit today – the day after Cary experienced his dream – Sage seemed to be in a more serious mood than in visits past. She had not brought along the laptop or the iPhone. Instead, she spoke directly to Cary as though she believed he could really process information. Sage noted that after six months since her father’s accident, she wanted now to move ahead and complete the photo-essay project for school that had been interrupted that fateful day. Sage recalled for Cary that her assignment involved shooting photos of all the major mansions along the Hudson River, adding that she felt ready now to go back again to the Mills Mansion in Staatsburg to retake the shots that were lost in the accident which destroyed her camera and practically every moving part of Cary’s Saab. The car was broken into a million pieces, she said, adding that no one at the time believed a human being could survive such a horrific accident. How strange it seemed to Sage that she escaped the accident with just a few bruises while Cary had wound up legless and in locked in a coma. “I know you’re going to wake up someday soon, Dad, I’m sure of it. And you’re gonna drive again, too. We’ll get you a car with a special steering wheel.”

Cary was overwhelmed by the revelation of the circumstances, at last, of how he had gotten here. He was satisfied to finally grasp a thread of information: an automobile accident made sense, although Cary did not remember being at the Mills Mansion. Soon Cary’s thoughts moved on to the reality that precious Sage had been involved with him in a terrible accident. He was troubled that the violence of it all would have a lasting effect on Sage, but ultimately Cary was relieved daily knowing she was healthy and in one piece.

Cary was consoled to have learned to some degree the provenance of the events that led to his fateful condition. He didn’t yet know the answer to the haunting question, “why me?” – but for now, he felt oddly relieved.

Next. Part Three. Meet Billy Rubin.

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