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Excerpt from Thomas Sparrow’s crime noir Northwoods Standoff.

Available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. Also available directly through the publisher. Contact bluestone@duluthmn.com

I woke up late the next afternoon and suffered through a lonely Christmas Eve. At dusk I opened a can of tuna and scooped it out with a few Wheat Thins. Happy Holidays. Then came Christmas morning, and I knew Santa had passed me by. Looked out the window of my bedroom at the gray morning sky and wondered what the fuck it was all about. Tried to fall back asleep but my head was spinning in counterpoint to the spasms in my gut. At dark I drove twenty minutes to the nearest convenience store and picked up another can of tuna, a fresh bag of chips and some macaroni and cheese for Christmas dinner. Glory Hallelujah.

Around nine, with tuna on my breath, I drove by Dotty’s Tavern. Finding it closed, I turned around in the parking lot and headed back home. Halfway up my driveway, I saw bouncing headlights coming toward me. Roy’s hulking Pontiac. My headlights flashed on his bad teeth and wicked grin. I wasn’t so sure I wanted company.

Seeing my truck, he stopped, threw his shifter in reverse and backed up to the house. He parked facing out and I rolled in next to him. Standing there with his door open, eyes bright and excited, yellow interior lights reflecting off his red parka with fur-trimmed hood, he said, “Let’s go ice fishing.”

I was too burned out to argue. Plus, it seemed like I had my first real friend in my new life. If I could only remember to call myself by the right name.

I went into the house and changed into my warmest stuff: Carhartt bibs, down jacket and Sorel insulated boots. Roy sat in the kitchen and rolled joints. Before we left I grabbed the last six-pack of Bud from the yellowing Kelvinator refrigerator.

We drove about thirty minutes through the blackness to a little road leading to a small lake. Up high in the clear sky, shining down on a little shack about twenty yards from shore, was a three-quarters moon. The new snow looked bright and soft and peaceful.

“We going after muskies here, Roy?”

“Nah, gotta go a little further for them. Here we might get a northern or some panfish. Maybe even a bass.”

After trudging through the shallow snow to the small wooden shack, we sat on canvas chairs in the glow of a Coleman heater and bounced tiny jigs tipped with minnows, using the bottom halves of old fiberglass spinning rods. The beer, the smoke and one of Madison’s rock stations coming out of a little one-speaker radio made the night a beautiful thing. In between catching four crappies, six bluegills, one perch and a three-pound northern pike that flopped around on the ice while we laughed hysterically, we talked a lot. More correctly, Roy talked a lot. I learned more about Roy Hollinday than he did about Randy Slade.

Roy said the name Hollinday came from his mother and was originally Hole-in-the-Day in the native tongue. Roy’s mother was a Chippewa Indian who had raised him alone after his French Canadian father ran off with a white woman when Roy was four. This arrangement lasted until eighth grade when Roy, experimenting with a bow and arrow that he and his friends had fashioned out of a willow branch and some fishing line, had the misfortune of shooting another kid in the ear.

As Roy put it: “Four white kids and one skin… and who do you think shoots someone with a bow and arrow? We had an old, broken arrow with a nail stuck in the end, and everybody was betting me that I couldn’t hit Charlie McMillan, who was about seventy yards away. I never thought I’d hit him, but I drew back that flimsy bow and let fly and the goddamn thing came down and stuck poor Charlie right in the fucking flap of his ear. You should’ve heard the screams. Charlie took off running and screaming like Apaches were attacking Silver Bay.”

Roy was placed in a reform school where his name was changed to a more-white sounding Hollinday. Adding injury to insult, there were constant attempts by the staff to beat him into submission and “change his attitude.”

Years later, in high school, Roy finally rebelled against the years of conditioning, punched a teacher in the nose and was expelled. According to Roy, the baseball coach/history teacher used to take great pleasure in saying Roy’s entire name—Roy Rogers Hollinday—in front of the class, often remarking how unusual it was for an Indian to be named after a movie cowboy, as they were always killing Indians. Roy took exception to this disrespect and after school did a John Wayne on the instructor.

Shortly thereafter, Roy left northern Minnesota and joined the Marines.  About said duty, spent mostly as a military policeman in Korea, he wouldn’t speak, only saying, with a haunted look in his eye while squeezing furiously on a red rubber ball, that he’d “done some things over there….”

Mustering out, he enrolled in journalism school at the U of Wisconsin on the G.I. Bill, where he “smoked a lot of reefer and fucked a lot of white girls.” A few years later, after discovering that the local TV stations were bending over backwards to hire “people whose skin wasn’t white,” he jumped at the opportunity.

Then followed a run of a couple years as an on-air personality where he became somewhat of a local celebrity known for his provocative stories as well as his womanizing. The bottom fell out of his little dreamland when the old temper flared up again and he punched out the station manager for cracking too many Indian jokes.

Now he was a lone wolf, who no longer thought much of reservations or big cities and was happy out here living off the land and staying away from trouble and troubling people.

That night he talked fervently about the ancient wisdom of his people and how he’d recently gained much knowledge of the “old ways.” Occasionally he’d refer, with much vitriol, to a group of people he called “the Locusts,” how they were growing in numbers in the cities but couldn’t get to him out here—at least not yet.

It seemed that “living off the land,”—at least like Roy was doing—was suiting him very well. Except for the need of some dental work, it looked like he was doing all right.

I never did say very much about Randy Slade or John Flint or Keith Waverly, my trinity of aliases. Just mentioned that I was originally from Minneapolis and was out here living off an insurance settlement for a damaged leg I’d suffered as a result of a car accident. Trying to find myself, after the accident and a terrible divorce, you know, just drinking and getting high…  Someday I have to find a job…. 

The day after the ice-fishing excursion I was feeling a little off. Dana’s return was looming on the morrow like an erotic brass ring, the carrot in front of the horny horse. I was sitting around stewing when Roy called from the bar. It was around ten o’clock and he said he wanted to come over, had a present for me. I begged off, told him I was going back home to Minnesota for a while over the holidays and needed to rest.

He wouldn’t have any of it. Hearing I was leaving only made him insist all the harder. Finally I gave in. I was too wired to sleep, anyway. In a few minutes I heard Roy’s glass packs rumbling. I stubbed out my Marlboro aside the pile of butts in the green plastic ashtray.

Roy came in alone, except for a big badboy between his lips and a case of Budweiser in his hands. “I got you a going-away present,” he said, setting the cardboard case down on the kitchen table. “The girls said they’d be here in a few minutes, but I have my doubts. Asshole Donny Ralston walked in right after you left and the two of them glommed onto him like flies on a turd. Those two are crank sluts and Donny usually has the trash, so I wasn’t going to argue with the likes of that.”

“Who’s Donny Ralston? He make Purina?”

Ignoring my feeble attempt at humor: “He’s the ’skin with the ponytail that you had the pleasure of encountering the other night.”

“No shit. He’s the candy man, eh?  People do a lot of speed around these parts?” I was curious.

“Half these assholes couldn’t survive without their speed. Used to be just white cross, but Ralston learned how to make meth and he’s introduced the product to the people. Around here they drink to get through the long winter nights, and then they do the crank to get through the long workday, and then they do it all over again. Some guys work for days straight without sleeping and then crash for days. About half of’em eventually disappear into the city, only to have new ones roll in. You’ll never get rid of speed out here, as long as the guys are prisoners of the system and their own ignorance.

“And it’s nice to see you’re not one of them, Randy. This house here had a couple of genuine, high-volume speed freaks living in it before you came along. They both ended up getting busted, she for stealing drugs from the hospital where she worked, and he for stealing from the old people at the nursing home where he worked.”

“Sounds like a real lovely pair—must be some bad vibes leftover in this place,” I said.

“That’s what I’m here to help you with, my friend. I’m here to impart some of my primitive mystical powers upon you and your dwelling. I will have it all cleaned up for you in no time. But first you must swallow this.”

He extended his hand in my direction. His closed fist seemed to grow bigger as it came to a stop in front of my eyes, turned over, and opened up like a large brown flower, revealing a pill the color of red clay and about the size of an aspirin.

“No, man, thanks, but I’m too fucked-up as it is. I don’t want to be taking any goddamn pills. I need to drive to Minnesota tomorrow.”

“No, no, my friend, you’re are unjustly excited, don’t be alarmed. This is sacred mescaline that I acquired from some skins in South Dakota. They know some chemistry wizard makes this stuff. It will have you feeling great, I promise. Your body and your mind will get everything they need when you ride with Juan Mescalito, my friend.”

“You trying to lay that Carlos Castenada shit on me?”

“Who?  What shit?” His eyes flashed red.

“You know, that writer—from Mexico I think—he writes about the same kind of shit. Tripping out on plants—Juan Mescalito and everything.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Oh.”

What the hell, I thought. What could it hurt?  I could always wait another day. The thought made my stomach churn.

I pulled back the top of the beer case and lifted out a bottle, flicked off the top with a church key I kept on the kitchen table. Took a long swig of lukewarm suds and accepted the tablet from a grinning Roy, who was still dutifully standing there with his hand out.

“That’s better, he said.

So we sat at the table and drank beers—at least I did—and smoked from Roy’s pipe. The girls never showed, just as Roy had predicted. When the mescaline started kicking in I no longer cared. My mind soared towards the infinite. I understood time. There was no need to worry about the future or fret about the past, because things happen when they will. I became serene and invigorated, relaxed and energized. Roy’s face seemed to change color. A pulsating aura of red and green and blue surrounded him in alternating layers. He began to speak in a voice much deeper than normal that seemed to come from the center of the earth.

As an accompaniment, the sweet low sound of electric blues floated in from the living room, courtesy of a Chicago FM station. Warm air blew from the registers and the lights grew dim. My head got heavy as Roy began to move about the room, weaving a most fascinating and mind-blowing tale. A strange and absorbing saga that took me places I’d never been, made me feel things I’d never felt. The whole thing seemed like a dance. A crazy, shaman-like Native American dance with an eerie background of black blues and British blues-rock.

Sometimes Roy was a marine, down on the floor doing push-ups and extolling the virtues of physical fitness. The next moment he was a twelve-year-old kid, seeing his life collapse around him and watching the white man take over his destiny. Often, he was a glib and intelligent television reporter from Madison, reciting with charm and confidence his conquests and experiences in the city. But most often, the narrator that winter’s evening was a slightly feral, slightly mad creature.

In my dilated pupils, he ceased being Roy Rogers Hollinday and became a warrior/shaman. Maybe it was the French Canadian in him fueling the fire of the mescaline, as he tried to explain it, but I wasn’t convinced. Something bigger was taking place. I was lost in the cosmos. I was a student in front of the teacher.

I held him in my gaze and felt strange rumblings inside me, as his eyes sunk deeper in his head and turned momentarily empty, like marbles or an animal’s eyes. At one point, he glided way over to the edge of the living room in one effortless motion. After a pause he turned back to talk and his tone was more serious, more emphatic.

I was ready to believe just about anything.

He moved in so close I could smell the marijuana on his breath. He began to recite, in a rhythm that seemed to fit perfectly with whatever song was drifting out of the tuner, his warning. Standing above me, body pulsating, he looked into my eyes.

“I can see it in you, Randy Slade, and feel it in your spirit. You are one of us. You are simpatico of a dying breed; a breed I call the Primitive Mystic.  A breed that is both ancient and evolved at the same time. There are things you feel and know that you keep secret from the world. I can feel it in you. I sense it like I sense the pulse of the earth.  One does not need to be Native American to know the pulse of the earth.  Many blacks have the ability in their blood, but they’ve been living too long in the cities, away from their homeland. Here, in North America, most have lost their connection to the earth.

“There are others, white men such as you, who feel like we do. Men that observe all around them the slow but steady destruction of all that is wild and sacred. You feel the pain in your soul, but know not from where it comes. You seek to drown it in alcohol or run from it with hard drugs. But the white man’s powders and potions never give lasting relief and lead to death and destruction. At the very least, the mind and spirit become weakened.”

To which, I shakily responded:  “I’ve seen you drink rum and cokes, and a few beers once in a while. What about that? And you smoke a ton of fucking pot.”

“A few drinks never hurt a French Canadian, Randy,” Roy said, suddenly looking perfectly normal and straight. “Got to give the devil his due. Some drugs help you see and feel, while others put a cloak over you. A shroud, perhaps… take away your senses. Have you ever seen me drunk?”

“No, I guess not. But still….” My longtime toxic ways were hurting my brain. I tried to choke back the knowledge but couldn’t.

Dark and brooding electric guitar came creeping in from the living room and Roy slipped back into character, eyes glowing like a wolf in the firelight. “Listen to me now, very carefully,” he said, “it’s getting late.”  Jimmy Page’s axe growled and spit. “We are at a dangerous time in the history of the world, especially in North America. The very same forces that nearly wiped out the Indian nation and then enslaved us to their culture are stronger now than ever. The spirits of the blue-belly soldiers and the Indian killers and the buffalo butchers are all coming back together again for one final push at world domination.” A guitar howled and moaned. “Today they are cops, generals, corporate greedheads and right-wing Jesus freaks duping the common working man into being their unwitting foot-soldiers. A lot of ’skins have been made into fertilizer because of Jesus, we all can attest to that.”

He paused for breath, looked toward the heavens and then came back into the kitchen. He sat down on the kitchen counter, feet dangling above the cracked blue linoleum.

“As surely and as effectively as a swarm of locusts, they are preparing to denude the earth of all we hold sacred. The railroad barons and the mining companies are back together with the politicians who looked the other way the last time while their pockets were being filled with blood money. These are reptiles. You have the Reptiles leading the Locusts, and the Cockroaches there to feed on the remains. The cycle is starting all over again. You need look no farther than the president this country just elected in a landslide vote. Reagon used to play an Indian-killing soldier in the movies, for fuck sake. Now he’s waving his flag for all to see. This man will rally the Locusts for one last run at whatever is left out there to consume. They’ll cut down the forests and dam up the rivers and poison the air trying to satisfy their insatiable appetites. And it will be done so smoothly that few will notice until it is too late. Those that speak out will be effectively silenced.”

He stopped talking long enough to pull out a bud from a black, plastic film can and tap it into his reddish stone pipe. He fetched a stick match from the box above the stove and struck it with a quick slash up the thigh of his black jeans. His body seemed to vibrate as he drew on the pipe and handed it to me. My hand shook as I took it. Pressure was building from within. The pipe died and Roy fetched another match. He flicked the tip with his thumbnail and the room turned red and yellow. Smoke went up like a snake.

“You see, Randy, by not participating in their world, by not being a part of the locust swarm in any little way that you can, is at least doing something. You set an example for others by your non-compliance. Strong young men like you and I, however, can make a much broader statement.  We can make a lot of money and spend it on the underground. Local law enforcement must be shown the light, on a personal basis, because the Locusts will use money and influence to twist the laws in their favor. The lawyer is their weapon, and the law schools are churning them out like M-1’s for World War II. We might even have to kick some old-fashioned ass, from time to time.”

He went into a boxer’s stance, throwing jabs and hooks and bobbing and weaving. I puffed on the pipe. Each hit torqued up the mescaline and sent colored pinwheels dancing in front of my eyes.

Roy was grinning widely, not hiding his rotten tooth. For a brief flash, he looked like Keith Richards. And then suddenly, he turned calm and normal, almost flat.

“And that my friend is all I’ve got for you for tonight,” he said finally.  “You need time to digest what you’ve heard. Something to think about when you go back home to Minnesota. Something, to lively up your family’s dinner table, perhaps. I believe that the longer you think about it, the more you will find it ringing true down deep in your primitive soul. I believe you will eventually realize this, and for the first time in a long time, lose the discomfort that sits on your shoulders like a yoke. Consider tonight my Christmas gift to you.” He bowed slightly and walked over to his parka, where it hung from the back of a kitchen chair. “Enjoy your time with your people, and I’ll see you when you get back.” Putting on his jacket, “If you want, I can stop by and check out the house for you while you’re gone.”

Before I had a chance to answer, the door was open and he was going through it. I got up and walked to the door and heard the engine rumble to life, saw the lights come on. As the little cherry stars of his taillights faded past the bend and into the dark skinny trees, steel-gray light was coming over the trees.

Sunrise—and I hadn’t even slept yet. It was clear that Dana would have to wait a few more hours.

I was surprised how easy and painless the decision was.

I picked up the beer bottles in my kitchen as the sun came up, then went upstairs and soaked in the tub. Later, after toweling off, I looked at myself in the full-length mirror mounted on the bedroom door. My body seemed wild and beast-like, as if there was hair growing where there wasn’t. A primal strength inside me was closer to the surface than ever.

I dressed in sweatpants and a thick wool sweater, went downstairs and cooked a little oatmeal and ate it at the table, looking out the window at the gray dawn. The warm porridges brought me down enough to feel like sleeping. It was about ten a.m. when I hit the bed and fell asleep instantly.

I dreamed I was walking through an Indian burial ground at dusk.  Suddenly it turned into a cemetery like one in those classic horror movies, with ground fog, headstones and mausoleums.  It grew dark but I could still see clearly.  I walked until I came to a freshly dug grave that was yet unfilled.  The gravestone read: Keith Waverly. He Stood for Nothing and Died for Nothing.

My gut sank with sadness. I walked on. Soon I came to a small stream running along the edge of a forest. It was daylight again and the air was warm. Birds sang their songs to the morning sun and insects glided through the sweet air, felt about a hundred years ago. I knelt at the bank of the gurgling brook and watched the trout dart in and out of the shadows, wishing I had a pole and a can of worms. Extremely contented, I leaned back against a tree trunk and fell asleep.

I awoke for real. I was in my bed. The metallic-blue sky filled the bedroom window. It was three in the afternoon and the light was already on the wane. With a tired and very relaxed mind I dressed in a slacks and sweater combo, cooked some eggs and packed all my good clothes in my leather suitcase. I made sure to put plenty of cash in the bag before I put on my good boots and leather jacket and drove into Madison.

(End of excerpt)

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