From the edge of the swamp

Location: marengo, il, United States

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Lost and Found

Life is good. Sitting here listening to an old lost tape I just came across -- Sade, on her album called Diamond Life, while drinking a few Coronas. And yes, with a slice of lime, naturally.

Remember the first space shuttle explosion? Back then, I had a job with a union shop, and had been assigned as a union painter to help finish a new building down in Naperville, Illinois. Good pay for little work. We, the wife and I, had a nifty little Mercury, a red one, and I did the 45-minute commute daily listening to this new singer. She still has that effect on me. Goose-bumps, you understand.

Jazz is cool. Well, some of it, anyway, and hers does get to me down deep. What ever happened to her, I wonder? Did her brief brush with fame ruin her life?

Monday, March 28, 2005

Haiku for Guitar

Sharp pain nuisances
Tells me; fumbling, flats to fret
Sing secrets, you strings!

Monday, March 21, 2005


Vernal equinox
What are you up to, liar
Coming on so cold?

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Brass Rat

A man wanders into a dusty curio shop in a city by the sea. There he meets an ancient shopkeeper who invites him to browse, and he soon discovers a brass rat sitting alone upon a shelf.

"How much?" He inquires, as he picks up the object and examines it.

"Twenty dollar for brass rat.” The man says, bowing low.

“And twenty-thousand dollar for very mysterious story."

"Then I shall take the rat," He replies, and he pays and leaves with his acquisition.

After traveling a few blocks, he notices rats scampering on the sidewalk behind him. Live, large rats begin to pour forth from alleys, doorways and from gutters, and they begin following the man. Before much further, their amount reaches into the hundreds; and then thousands. Becoming at first fearful, he hurries his pace along, but the hoards only increase, along with his fright.

He suddenly finds himself trapped at the edge of a wharf, cut off by the tens of thousands of squeaking vermin, and in a desperate attempt to escape, and while still clutching his procured brass rat, he climbs to the top of a wooded pier post. Rats at the base then fight and bite at each other for their purchase on the pole.

He clings at the top and watches in horror as they begin scrambling his way, their countless beady eyes all focused on him.

The heavy brass rat then accidentally slips from the poor man’s grasp. It tumbles down across the backs of the undulating mound of teeming rodents, and then it falls into the sea with a loud splash.

In an instant, the horde next begins to surge over the edge of the wharf, plunging in after the brass rat. Stunned, he watches as thousands upon thousands take to the water and drown, and in mere minutes, all becomes still on the dock.

Later, he returns to the curio shop and its wizened shopkeeper. The bell over the door tinkles softly as he enters.

"You back for twenty-thousand dollar story, mister?"

"No. But I do want to know if you have any brass lawyers for sale."

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Nothing in Moderation

“There is currently a formula for success in the entertainment medium, that is -- beat it to death if it succeeds.”

Ernie Kovacs, his ever-present cigar in hand, pioneered television comedy. Had it not been for that genius wit, who would have ever hired the likes of a Steve Allen or a Johnny Carson, a Benny Hill or a David Letterman?

Somewhere around the third set, a fight broke out on the dancehall floor, but after catching an amused glint in the singer’s eyes, I just increased my volume and kept right on playing. Another picker, who had sat in with us as a guest guitarist for the evening, quietly unplugged his lead cord, and then just as quietly, him and his new guitar both vanished from the stage while chairs sailed through the air in front of the bandstand.

There is something about the heady atmosphere at the Red Dog Saloon. That, and maybe too many western movies, can make folk think chairs will break over the backs of others, but that is unreserved nonsense. So before the finale of our version of Under the Double Eagle, several bodies lay scattered about while the rest of the drunks tripped and stumbled around, still trying to get in a good lick or two. It never pays to insult another man’s wife at the Red Dog.

Afterwards, Don joined Paul at the vacant bar as I snapped all of the locks shut on my case up on the stage. Way in the back, a lone waitress and the bartender realigned tables and set up overturned chairs, while in the center of the room, a woman and an older man crawled around on hands and knees, searching for a lost contact. A slight haze lay over the dim-lit dance floor.

“Craziest night yet.”

Paul shook his head as he tilted his glass and finished the last of his Seven-up, and then grinned at Don while crunching a mouth full of ice. The lanky red-head then hunched over his drink and surveyed the scene.

“What ever happened to that friend of yours that was playing with us?”

Don laughed.

“I guess he took off early.”

Doug and I carried his drums and my rig out to the emptied parking lot before taking a seat beside the others inside for a final drink. On the way home, I drove with the radio blaring Memphis, while Doug, still in the mood, leaned forward and beat along on the dashboard with both hands. It was good to have my energetic friend along for the drive.

He had more rhythm and more talent than the law should allow. I’d known him since the fifth grade, from earlier days when I joined our school's music class to escape boring history. Doug owned a simple snare drum with a stand. Another girl in the class played flute. The third kid tried his best to play a clarinet while I sat quiet and watched the trio for the rest of the year.

Playing the trumpet sounded like a good idea to me, and since the dashing instructor dated my older sister, he allowed me to sit in until my instrument arrived.

It never did. I kept forgetting to tell him I had never owned a trumpet, nor that I had no intentions of ever ordering one. A nice arrangement that was.

Then at sixteen, I heard Marty Robbins crooning out El Paso for the first time, but most of all, I heard the sounds of his sweet guitar.

And now here we both are, Marines, and playing gigs on weekends out in the middle of the vast Mojave.

Two-lane desert blacktop, and many miles lay before us. Tappity-tap-tap, he goes.

Her home is on the south side

Suddenly Doug froze. And then he leaned close to the windshield to stare out for a split-second before yelling a frantic,


I narrowly missed hitting an arm-waving man who stood in the center of my lane, but by dodging him, we avoided hitting an overturned car that lay right behind him.

We skidded to a halt by a second vehicle, its taillights hidden from view by the first one.

Doug turned to look back over his shoulder while I backed slowly to the wreck. Far behind us down the road, another set of headlights twinkled. Doug rolled his window down as we approached the man. One of the last customers to leave the saloon, and now in a bit more sober state, stood next to the black, upside-down convertible.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“I don’t know, guys. I just got here before you two.”

Leaving our car, we three began looking around while Don and Paul pulled up and stopped. Paul came running with the medical bag he always kept close by. Being a Navy corpsman did have its perks.

But after some milling around, we determined no one was either inside or up under the car, so we fanned out and began searching. Then from over the hill of a bordering sand dune, Paul called out,

“I found him!”

As we rushed up the knoll, two men appeared at the crest, one supporting the other. Paul had an arm around the man’s waist, and held one of his hands as they both stumbled in the sand. The elder man appeared to be very confused.

“Wha’ th’ hell happened?”

Drunk as a skunk. No blood in sight. Not a scratch on him, apparently. Paul had him sit down at the shoulder, and in the glare of headlights, checked him over.

“You hurt anywhere, fellow?”

He looked up at Paul with disgust.

“Hell no! An’ who the blazes are you, anyway?”

Paul prodded around and felt while the man sat weaving with sad eyes, trying to focus on a busted cigar he held up in one hand.

“Alls I was tryin’ to do was light this thing.”

Paul had him raise each arm, testing for sprains or broken bones.

“An’ I remember thinking’ about that Ernie Kovacs, an’ then I looked up at the stars.”

The gentleman waved one arm up at the night sky. Paul glanced up at our crowd, and to the brilliant heavens beyond.

“An’ I was rememberin’ how the man died in a car wreck.” And he sobbed.

Paul patted his shoulder as he stood up, holding his unused bag in the other hand.

“Yeah, pop. He was probably trying to light his cigar.”

In His Natural State

It must have been eighty-nine degrees
Coming on an hour before noon
Trash caught up in weeds
Out behind the Seven-Eleven
Down in Ralph’s basement.

When they both stopped by just to say
To Ralph and his lovely lady
Between all the shots of JD
And some cold beers
“Good luck with moving to Florida, pal.”

But did Jed really need to moon those two girls
Sitting out front in their dark car
Minding their own business?
And then have to demand to be let in
That one guy’s front door?

You wouldn’t think so
But that’s the way it is
And I wouldn’t think so
But that is how he was

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

I Hate This Place

After Donald sat down at the makeshift desk, he squirmed in his seat, tugging at both knees of his sweaty utility trousers. Nothing like a case of jungle rot to ruin your day, he thought.

Damn procedures. Zero-seven-forty, feels like a hundred in the shade, and already the captain is yelling his crazy ideas down the hill. When will the madman ever stop? And these reports due in an hour.

Every flat surface available had the acronym IHTP scrawled on it. Up the pole in the middle of the tent. Written in grease pencil on the sides of every file cabinet. A felt-tip pen worked well on the canvas flaps, and the CO had even found a can of red paint to help voice his opinion. He used a stick for a brush to scribble out the letters on the back of his jeep, and dared anyone to touch it.

“I Hate This Place”

Worse than that, he began adding to it. Only Donald, being the highest ranking sergeant, ever dared to ask.

“I hate this place….MAM?”

“More and more,” Everett snapped back.

Days later, one particular new line caught his eye.



“More and more every day that goes by.”

The Marine captain, who Donald addressed as Ev in private, got wild ideas. At the end of the day, when things cooled down some, and as long as the troops weren’t around making pests out of themselves, they would both take a couple of folding chairs and sit in the shade near the crest of the hill overlooking the valley. Donald always carried the chairs out, being the junior man, while Ev followed, cuddling a bottle of Southern Comfort to his chest, along with two plastic coffee cups.

Captain Everett poured his cup half-full, set it on the ground, and then leaned forward to fill the other one before storing the bottle in his lap.

Then the man held up his cup in contempt at the building down below. It housed the brigade commander and his staff.

“Just look at that son-of-a-bitch down there!”

Donald followed the captain’s gaze.

“You know what I think I’m going to do?”

Three choppers disappeared over the far ridge behind the two men before he spoke again, but the man hardly moved as he glared down at the rooftop.

“What’s that, Ev?”

He motioned back over his shoulder.

“I’ll get me a big-ass blinking neon sign that reads Ev’s Place, and mount that mother up on the top of our tent.”

He took a quick gulp of the sweet, warm drink.

“Shit, I’m talking like letters four feet high, and bright red or maybe a blue. Then I’ll have a switch installed right by my desk, and every time that bastard looks up this way, I’ll flip it on and off a few times. That ought to piss him off good.”

Donald thought about State-side. Some crazy people he had left back there, but nothing like those he had met here in Nam, that’s for damn sure.

Just last week a new lieutenant walked around bragging to him about the deep foxhole he dug.

“No one is catching me off-guard, and I’m sure not aiming to get a purple heart on this tour.”

The first sound of in-coming, the officer panicked and dove in head-first, and to the delight of everyone around, broke both arms.

Donald snorted.

“Yeah, that should fix him alright. He’ll send your sorry ass home as a private, too.”

Ev stared down the hill as the sun went low.

“I hate this place.”

A Haiku for Déjà Vu

A white cotton sock
Lays on the floor, and then stirs
Hamster eyes peek out

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


I drink coffee, which is made mostly from water. I seldom, if ever, drink the pure stuff. That fact can drive healthy people nuts. Oh well. Some things never change.

Water is incredible stuff. Unlike us humans, the mass amount never varies. It is able to magically change into three distinct forms, while we continually come and go, but the finite amount of water molecules present on planet Earth is unchanging.

Here is a creepy thought; whatever bit I have consumed over my lifespan has been recycled more times than I would like to imagine, and most likely, was drank by others before I arrived.

Yech, you say? Well, some things just never change.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Such and So

I once had a such and so
And everywhere we’d go
The such would fuss
And the so did twitter
They could put on quite a show

The such came full of mischief
The so acted way too loud
Running rings
All around the room
Doing what was not allowed

They both were full of whimsy
With their twists and fancy tricks
Coming up
With schemes and dreams
Impressing mostly chicks

Then the such went down to Texas
Which left us in a lurch
And the so met a fem
So the so and so
Got married in a church

Monday, March 07, 2005

First Monday in March

Today the state of Illinois (which wasn’t around in 1778, but does have a large Polish population), celebrates Casimir Pulaski Day. The 32 year-old man died aboard a ship at sea from a thigh wound he received from a stray cannonball, way back during the Revolutionary War.

The last federal fort to be built in America, Fort Pulaski, which was named in his honor, is located in Savannah, Georgia. Designed to defend our soil against those pesky Spanish armadas, the citadel never saw action until the Civil War, and then, only briefly. Under siege by a newly-invented rifle cannon located three miles away, the fort wisely surrendered.

Happy day.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The Tornado of ‘74

Blackie had skin like worn out shoe leather, along with a heart as tough as nails, so I disliked his ugly character from the start. The man looked ageless to my eyes of thirty-one years, and for some odd reason he put me in mind of a hobo or some unwashed vagrant that wandered in, looking for easy work.

Bobby hired him right off. And of course Bobby would; all of those storm-damaged roofs in the fashionable Dallas suburb made him awful hungry for insurance jobs. He had me and Steve, plus the two brothers from down at Cedar Creek. Them two alone could run a roof in a day, where us two were still learning the trade, so I never saw any reason to hire on Blackie, but for charity. Bobby did have a soft heart, but the older man was useless as a roofer, from what I saw.

I caught him one afternoon, drunk and straddling the ridge, pissing right off the end of the roof in broad daylight, shaking his fist and cussing at all the little kids playing down below. Bobby just laughed it off, hearing about it later, listening with that helpless sort of look in his eyes. Well, he paid me good wages and all, but still.

The whole crew took off in two cars and ran down to a Seven-eleven to get drinks one day. Dallas gets hot during the summers, and the lot of us had been at it since sunrise. All except Bobby; he usually worked an hour or two before leaving to go scout for new jobs, so he missed out on this deal. Roy and his brother took Blackie with them, and me and Steve took his El Camino, and we all pulled up at the same time and parked side by side.

Blackie unfolded himself out of the back seat of Roy’s old beater sedan moaning and bitching about something while we all slammed our doors and headed on inside. I went and stood in line behind Steve to order me one of those big Slurpee drinks, while Roy and Dale headed for the cold sodas in the rear. I looked and seen Blackie standing over in one aisle, searching around for something, and then here he comes, carrying two items.

“What you got there, Blackie?”

He grinned, which showed he had no teeth, and then he held up the things. Two large-sized bottles of vanilla extract. What in the world?

“What you want with them?”

The man behind the counter spoke up and asked me what flavor I wanted about then, so I turned back around to wait while he filled a giant cup with some blue slush.

Me and Steve went on outside after we paid, and we stood there by the front door, leaning on the bagged ice container and waiting for the rest of the guys.

Blackie came staggering out in a few minutes, and right away he pitched the first brown bottle in a trash can, but it missed his mark. He bent over to pick it up when Steve half-laughed, giving Blackie an incredulous look.

“Man, you drink that stuff?”

Neither one of us was saints, I’ll grant you this, but that was the first and only time I ever seen me a real-life vanilla-o.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


“His name is Clifton, but we call him Willy.”

And that, my friends, is how I first introduced the new man to my older sister. Why she thought it so amusing, I never understood, but than again, she always tried to act a lot smarter than me.

I mean, the term made perfect sense. Plus he asked me to call him that, and since his last name matched it lyrically, well, there I was.

And so to me, he became Willy Williams.

Dad hired Willy to help us out over the summer. He managed to get a huge contract with the high school to service scores of typewriters belonging to the typing class, along with several other schools from near-by towns, so we were going to need him.

In his early twenties, he acted more like a big clown when dad wasn’t around, so him and me got on pretty well most all of the time.

But right off the bat, he started messing with me and telling tall tales. We each sat at our separate workbenches, stripping down typewriters to ready for cleaning, when I asked him where he lived, and he said over in Lockney.

“You know where that’s at?” And he gave me a quizzical look.

“Yeah,” I said. It was just a little no-amount town not far from here.

“Well, I am famous over there.”

“What for?” He reached for the radio to turn the volume up a little, right as a song ended. He always kept it loud after dad left on his morning service calls, but he motioned toward the song as it trailed off.

“For that song. That’s me that sang it.”

I never liked country music till Willy come around. All he listened to, after dad took off, was KLLL down in Lubbock, so after hearing it awhile it grew on me.

“I never heard that one before.”

“What? You never heard of Hank Williams?”

I couldn’t stand Hank Williams. I listened to him yodel over dad’s car radio for as long as I could remember, and I always hated the nasal sounds he made, but I had never seen the man before either.

“I thought your real name was Clifton.”

Willy shook his head like I was retarded, and he reached for his long screwdriver.

“That’s me alright.” He said, and he gave the screwdriver a twist to pop off a side plate of a Royal, one of the school machines him and me unloaded out of dad’s panel truck an hour ago.

“Can’t use my real name when making records, you know. But the word got out in Lockney somehow.”

I undid the set screws in a platen on my machine and cut him a look of doubt.

He kept a studied eye on the machine, and then looked over at me.

“You don’t believe me, do you?”

I didn’t say anything. He laid the tool down, leaned over and took out his billfold.

“Look, take your bicycle and ride down to Pete’s and ask him for a copy of Honky Tonk Blues.”

He handed me a dollar so I took off flying, glad to get out of the shop.

A half-hour later I handed him a .45 record with the name Hank Williams on both sides, so I believed what he said, even if he wouldn’t sing either one of the songs out loud right then.

“Got to have my band to back me up, don’t you know.”

A milk truck came by every day at eleven, and Willy loved chocolate milk even more than I did. He’d buy a quart, so I would too, but he would always finish his before I was half-done. One day he pitched the empty carton in the trash and looked over at me to where I was chugging away, trying to keep up. When I threw my carton in on top of his, he squinted his eyes.

“You full?”

I burped and nodded.

“Think you could drink another?”

I just shook my head.

“I tell you what.”

He reached for his wallet again, pulled out another dollar, and then handed me a large empty tumbler.

“Go back there and fill this up with water.”

“What for?”

“Go head and you’ll see.”

I returned from the bathroom and set it on his desk. He laid the dollar beside it and looked up at me, all serious.

“If you can drink that glass full of water, I’ll give you this dollar.”

Well, I did it. It took a while, but I managed to choke down the last swallow, and after I did, I reached for the dollar bill. Willy grabbed it, stuck it in his pocket and grinned.

“You drank it empty, so you lose.”

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Dam Burglar

Not far from the little town, the landscape began to take on a varied appearance. Fences started cropping up, separating road from grazing pasture lands. Gently rolling hills, dotted with sparse clumps of prickly pear and Spanish dagger pulled my face close to the window of the station wagon. Outside, I watched as occasional stands of mesquite trees began adding light-green colors to prevailing earth tones; all of these breaking the tiresome spell of the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains that lays over most of the Texas panhandle scenery.

After a while the hills became more pronounced and much more interesting as different shapes and textures began to appear, and then suddenly, the road ahead of us dropped into a long curve. Then on either side, where engineers from the past cut deep into the ancient bedrock, layer upon layer of tan and red formations of prehistoric sea beds flashed by while we hurled to the bottom of a wide gorge, speeding on to Burson Lake.

There was still a way to go, but the miles of hills and jagged valleys further on seemed to fly by as we drew ever closer to the canyon resort.

Dad slowed down after another hour to make the final turn off the main highway. Even with the scorching heat outside, everyone began rolling up windows for the last ten miles of the trip. I swung around and lay facing the rear to stare out the back. There behind us, a swirl of red dust billowed up, and I began to taste it deep in my throat.

After a while of staring at the cloud, I moved up to the middle seat and plopped down between the two girls. Leaning forward, we all waited to see the final steep hill coming up soon. Dad eventually slowed his speed to a crawl, and then in one breath-catching moment, the drop-off was before us. As the car stopped at the crest, an eddy of airborne dust momentarily enveloped the hood.

By this time, the pervasive powder burned the inside of my nose, coated my lips and covered us all. While dad surveyed the incline for traffic and put the car in low gear, I rubbed my fingertips together, feeling its dry silkiness. I thought about a cool swim. Then, as the nose of the car began to tilt sharply downward, a slice of the lake came into view.

A life-giving blue jewel glistened beyond the banks of the dirt road as Otho stretched out his arm, bracing himself against the dashboard. We in the back seat looked on as mother gave out her usual gasp, and father began inching his way down the grade and around a curve to a parking area below.

A man setting out dip nets waved to us as dad drove across the lot. Dad headed for the small grocery store for our first stop. To our right sat a small aluminum house trailer which the owners called home; to the left, a long row of low-set rental cabins. Typically, only a few vehicles were around.

Inside the tiny market, and seated amid a display of fishing gear, surrounded by shelves of canned goods and picnic supplies, a woman gave us a cheery greeting from behind her jam-packed counter. A tall ice chest in one corner displayed framed photographs of fishermen and their catches on top, and in several spots around the wall, mounted fish hung on oval boards.

A few minutes later, her husband stepped inside. While the adults exchanged handshakes and hugs, we took off for some quick exploring of this place we knew so well.

Taking another dirt road that continued on past the cabins, we followed a curve that led down another slight hill. Cut from the bank of high red cliffs towering to our left, it took us around to a dam that spanned the narrow canyon.

The earthen embankment dropped off sharply to the bottom of the canyon floor on one side, and held back the deep, chilled waters of the lake on the other.

Crossing the dam, and passing by a leveled area where several brush arbor structures set close to the rim of the canyon, we continued on a rough path leading around the lake. Clambering over huge boulders, we headed for a cave of sorts. Carved by weather from sandstone cliffs, the recess offered us a cool, shaded perch to sit and view the lake below. Spread about in the dirt at our feet, scat lay mixed with bones and skulls of small creatures. Then seeing our car making its way across the dam and approaching the arbors, we ran back to the campsite to help.

For the remainder of the day, after a meal of hot dogs and beans, the girls and myself took turns paddling an aluminum boat up into the far reaches of the canyon, and then when that got old, we scaled cliffs for awhile. In the heat of the afternoon, we returned to slip on bathing suits. Then leaping off of a fishing dock, we swam out to a floating platform moored a short distance away, and there the dust washed off at last.

As the evening cooled and turned to dark, we gathered around our campfire, sitting close to ward off chills. Otho came over to sit with us after he made a suspicious visit to his trouser bag. He had suspended it earlier from a lower branch up in the roof of our brush arbor.

Mother clucked her tongue at the sight of the ridiculous thing, and she tried to get him to use a suitcase at the beginning of the trip, but dad just laughed at the sight of the two-legged bag, and he packed it in the car against her protests.

Knotted at the cuffs, and tied secure at the waist with a rope, the pants contained all of his clothes for the weekend, plus, I was sure, a bottle or two of whiskey.

As he went to sit down, he stumbled and fell into place beside me. I held my knees and stared into the flames, trying not to notice.

An occasional voice or a burst of laughter floated across the lake, coming from unseen occupants of the distant cabins, while mother and Otho argued back and forth. He made several more trips back into the shadows as embers snapped and mother fumed. I laid back against my bedroll and enjoyed the multitude of stars overhead as the night wound down.

I woke up when I first heard the yelp, and wondered. Just a wisp of smoke rose from the pile of coals while mother got up and began shining a flashlight around.

“What is it?”

She looked worried.

“I don’t know, but Otho is gone.”

His bedroll lay on the ground, empty.

I heard dad inside the back of the station wagon, demanding to know what was the racket about. The girls stirred but stayed under their blankets.

Mom aimed the light toward the black shape of the arbor. The long legs of Otho’s trousers were gone too.

She walked over to shine the torch over the bank and down into the black canyon when his face suddenly appeared in the spotlight. A trickle of blood ran down from his scalp, and his thick glasses sat cock-eyed as he clambered over the edge and stood up weaving.

“Son of a bitch!”

“Otho! What happened?”

She sat him down at the picnic table. While I held the light, she began wiping his face as he talked. He seemed insulted, having to explain, and talked a little too loud as usual.

“I got up and saw my pants hanging there in the dark, and thought it was a damn burglar so I tackled him.”