Circles. Or, in this case, an oval. How ‘bout that. Coming full oval. Better than a circle. Winding up right back where you started, only a little loopily – just the kind of idea that was intriguing Skipper these days. He pulled his Harley into the parking lot of a Denny’s and wrote in his pocket-sized notebook, Comin’Full Oval. Debated whether or not he should explicate with a line or two – make a good song title – so that a month from now when he happened upon it again – coming full circle – he would know what the hell he’d meant.
The road sign a few miles back read 88 miles to Chattanooga, which was the fifth stop on the bottom, that is, southern, half of the oval taking him from Cave Creek, Arizona, the rinky dink little cowboy town just north of Phoenix, to Clifton, New Jersey, and back again, the outgoing points being Las Cruces, Austin, Shreveport, Chattanooga, Harrisburg and the returning ones Sandusky, Iowa City, Lincoln, Nebraska, Laramie, and Provo, returning him some 12 days later to his home in Cave Creek.
The purpose of the trip was twofold: first, to visit his parents and siblings, whom he hadn’t seen now in eighteen years, in Clifton, the town he grew up in; and, second, to see if he could locate his daughter from his first marriage in the upscale town of Lower Merion outside of Philadelphia. He was feeling flush, footloose, freer than he had in years. Although sales of his third CD were lackluster, the seventh cut, Still Lookin’4 U, was moving up the charts as a single.
He shoved the notebook into the back pocket of his Wranglers and roared back onto the highway. He arrived at his parent’s neat, little two-story clapboard house on Arlen Street toward the end of the day and was astonished to see a white sheet inscribed with large black painted letters declaiming WELCOME BACK SKIPPER duct-taped to the lintel over the front door. He smiled embarrassedly to himself as he trooped up the front steps, for the banner exhibited more exuberance for their third-born son than his parents had displayed on all previous birthdays and Christmases combined.
As planned, Skipper retrieved the back door key from under the front door mat. He stepped into the kitchen, a full-grown man now in cowboy boots that added over three inches to his six foot two inch frame. No one was home. The house, small to begin with, felt miniature now, as if he could don it and carry it on his shoulders, like a leather jacket. He found himself tiptoeing across the warn linoleum floor, as if his regular stride would rattle plates, break glasses, knock bowls off counters. A whole smorgasbord of newspaper clippings adorned the refrigerator on the far side of the room. As Skipper got closer, he recognized the headlines. Skipper Haskew To Sing At Atrium; Haskew Duets With Hank Williams, Jr.; Nelson, Lovitt, Haskew On Paladium Bill.
He went upstairs, took off his boots, and lay down on the single bed against the wall of the bedroom he’d shared with his middle brother. His feet dangled over the edge, but he was used to that, and almost instantly fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
He was awakened by the sensation of warm drops of water raining down on his face. Was he pissing himself? Had he come in his sleep? He sat up with a start. The lights were on. It was dark outside. And his brother Jim was standing in the doorway, dousing him with a water pistol. Skipper flashed on a memory of some twenty odd years ago, waking up to find the very same brother’s penis in his face, pissing in his eyes, his nostrils, his mouth, the boy laughing so hard that the stream was jerking this way and that, soiling his pillow, the blankets, the walls as well as his visage.
“Get up, Hollywood, ya big fuckin’ star!” Jim chortled with a sort of manufactured good cheer. Tucking the water pistol under his belt like a mobster, he strode toward Skipper, his arms outstretched. Skipper was struck at how his brother had aged, hair thinning, crow’s feet, face fleshy. He pushed himself to his feet and pulled Jim into his arms, the two men pounding one another on the back. How little I feel for this man, thought Skipper.
“Let me look at ya, ya big fuckin’ cowboy,” Jim said in his thick Jersey accent. He held Skipper at arm’s length, and Skipper detected a flicker of admiration, of deference, that he’d never before seen in his brother’s eyes.
Downstairs, the whole family had gathered, his mother, father, eldest brother, his mother’s sister, the sister’s husband and two of their three children and one of those children’s wives and two kids, his father’s two brothers and their wives. Skipper had somehow assumed his mother would be making her well-loved ribs and baked beans for dinner, but Jim had reserved the back room at Solare’s in Hackensack.
They sat around an enormous table, an oval, all sixteen of them with Skipper at one end and his eldest brother Hank at the other. Skipper was flanked by his parents. The sound system was playing the second of Skipper’s three CDs, which included Why Am I Always Cold in Arizona, the most popular of the more than fifty songs he’d recorded to date. Back in ’82 it had climbed all the way to number seven on the Cashbox C & W chart.
There were large platters of antipasto sitting on the table when they arrived, and shortly after they sat down two waiters began bringing in salad and minestrone.
After soup and salad, the waiters appeared with platters of chicken scarpariello, veal saltimbocca, linguini and sautéed spinach with garlic. Skipper kept thinking how the world had changed, everyone eating out these days, no mamas triumphantly preparing large meals at home.
While he was stuffing a forkful of pasta into his mouth, his cousin Roberta arrived at his side to tell him how much she was enjoying Just Markin’ Time, his third CD. It astonished Skipper that she was even aware of it, since its sales were weak and it had already begun disappearing from the stores.
Roberta wanted to know if her daughter Amy, 17 and an aspiring pop singer, could drop by the house and perform a few songs for him – not right away, of course, but in a few days, when he’d had time to get acclimated. Skipper smiled and nodded his assent, thinking to himself, as if there were something he could do for her.
At a few minutes after ten o’clock, the party began to break up. The relatives Skipper barely knew and hardly remembered came up and hugged him good-bye, congratulating him on his success as a country and western singer. His Uncle Danny said, “If you asked me if somebody from Clifton would ever have his songs on WTEX, I woulda said, what’re you out of your fuckin’ mind!” He grabbed Skipper in a bear hug and kissed him on both cheeks. When Skipper finally extricated himself, one of the two waiters handed him a bill for $475, tip included. He looked around the private room, which was now starkly empty, the last of his immediate family having disappeared into the front room.
When they got into their respective beds that night, Jim said, “Just like the old days, huh, kid.”
“Yeah,” said Skipper.
“That was some party you threw tonight, bro.”
“Up for a little dooby?”
“Nah, too sleepy. It was a long ride.” Skipper turned off the light on the night table.
“Come on, you had that big nap.”
“Tomorrow night. ‘Night, Jim.”
“Thought you cowboys are supposed to be so tough.”
“We’ll light up tomorrow. Promise.”
“You big pussy.” He turned out his lamp, and moments later Skipper heard him begin to snore. He waited a few minutes, then tiptoed into the bathroom and dressed in the same clothes he had worn that night. Grabbing his knapsack, and holding his boots in his hands, he walked out of the room and down into the kitchen. He wrote a note to his parents: Thank you for a wonderful evening. Made the mistake of checking my answering machine and turns out I have a gig in Philadelphia tomorrow night. Love always, Skipper.
He felt oddly weepy as he reread his words and was surprised at the depth of longing he felt for his mother. He had a premonition that he would never see her again – not because he feared she would be dead soon, but because he felt too used to ever come back home again.
When he passed Boonton he felt himself nodding off and pulled into the food court just before Exit 11A. He bought two large coffees and sat in the rear most booth. He hadn’t finished half of the first cup when he fell fully asleep, sliding down onto the bench of the booth and lying there with his boots sticking out. Several minutes later a worker came by and jostled him gently. “Hey, mister,” he said, “they don’t want you sleeping in here.”
When he pulled back out onto the Turnpike, it was raining. He rode slowly, his pants and jacket becoming soaked along the way. Whenever he felt sleep overcoming him, he pulled off onto the shoulder and rested his head on the handlebars. Once, a state trooper woke him to see if everything was okay. He was pleased, and a little surprised, at the gentleness of the trooper’s manner.
By the time daybreak came, he was in the outskirts of Philadelphia. He stopped at a diner for breakfast. He washed up in the men’s room, shocked at how disheveled he looked, his face unshaven, the rings under his eyes dark and pronounced. He pulled a fresh cowboy shirt out of his knapsack in the hopes that it would freshen his appearance. Over flapjacks and sausages, he studied the letter his first wife, Rachel Blechner, had sent him now over three years ago. It included a photo of a young girl in a gym suit holding a field hockey stick. She had braces and a lush head of dirty blond hair, similar in thickness and color to his own.
There was an address printed at the top of the letter: 339 Birchwood Place, Lower Merion, Pa 07898. Skipper asked the waitress directions to Lower Merion, and she called over the manager who wrote them down on a piece of paper. “What’re you doing in Lower Merion?” he asked.
And Skipper answered, “I have relatives there.”
The manager looked at him skeptically.
Skipper rode past 339 Birchwood Place ever so slowly. It was on a cul de sac, and when he got to the bulb at the end of the block he turned around and rode past it again, a large, white turn-of-the-century colonial with black-painted shutters. To Skipper’s eye, the house looked pretty and warm. Squelching an impulse to ring the doorbell, he revved his engine loudly, sped to the end of the block, and made a right turn.
Pulling into a Shell station, Skipper filled his tank with gas. He asked the attendant where he would find the nearest grammar school, then parked outside the school’s fenced-in athletic field. At a few minutes past eleven, dozens of children in gym uniforms spilled out of the school, and Skipper got off his bike and moved close to the fence. Wondering if he would recognize her, his eye was caught by a tall, slender girl with a field hockey stick suddenly bursting out of the pack of kids and yelling for somebody to pass her the ball. Skipper instantly recognized himself in the child’s face. He was spellbound. She was pretty, no, beautiful. And clearly a leader, as the other girls, all of them shorter and less graceful, trotted clumsily after her. He felt his hands shaking as he put them on the fence, straining to get closer, to see her more clearly. He wanted to wave, to call out her name, Lily, but was afraid he would frighten her. When the children were called back into the school, he was almost glad. The pleasure of seeing her was too intense. He noticed that she fell into step next to a tiny, mousy girl wearing horn-rimmed glasses. The two were holding hands. Skipper’s heart swelled with pride that his child, a winner, stunning, pursued by all, was befriending someone obviously far less popular than herself.
The children disappeared. The schoolyard was empty. The sky darkened. Skipper was conflicted. He wanted to be back home in Cave Creek, yet he did not want to head out just yet. Lily had left him wanting more. He sat on his bike, put his feet up on the handlebars, leaned back against his knapsack, put on his Walkman, and smoked a Marlboro. Toward afternoon he would station himself at the front of the school and watch Lily get onto a school bus or perhaps into Rachel’s car.
Once again he was jostled awake by someone in law enforcement, a member of the Lower Merion police force, this time much more roughly than the last. He has his gun out.
“Come on, buddy, you’re under arrest.”
“What the fuck for?” Skipper was numb, his body still screaming for more sleep.
“Watch your language, pal.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Some lady called in. Says you’re stationed out here, ogling the little girls.”
“One of ‘ems my daughter.”
The cop looked Skipper up and down. “Right.”
“Lily Blechner. You can look it up.”
“Sorry, buddy. Someone’s filed a complaint, gotta bring you in.”
At the police station, they fingerprinted Skipper and checked out his license. They called Rachel, Lily’s mother, and asked her to come down and identify Skipper.
They brought Skipper out of his holding cell, clapped handcuffs on him, and marched him into the front room for Rachel’s inspection. It was mortifying. She laughed when saw him.
“Oh, my God, look at you, you look great. A real cowboy.”
They released him, and Rachel drove him out to his big Harley, still parked on the side of the road next to the schoolyard. She wanted him to follow her home to meet Lily in person, to introduce him to her new husband, “Baldy,” she said, to catch up, to apologize for letting her parents rip her and the child away from him. But the impulse to get back home was too fierce within him. When he bent forward to kiss Rachel on the cheek, she shifted her lips to right in front of him. She kissed him hard for a few seconds. But when he felt a flicker of desire begin to rise, he pulled away. He could feel her eyes upon him as he started his motorcycle, put it into gear, and roared down the road in the rapidly descending darkness.


At 11:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nobody who writes this well can be a total failure. Go ahead and sleep til 4:00 a.m.


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