Archive for February, 2023
Requiem for Weezie
At the time, I had been sheriff for I believe 13 years. When Emilio deSantos, the previous sheriff, died, just collapsing in the street, I had been on the force four years. I knew not much about anything except pulling in drunks and racking up speeding tickets. The latter was a major source of our town’s “income.” After a short indefinite period, the town of Sanchez (not its true name, but what I will use here) named me sheriff by acclamation. That means most all the people thought, OK, whatever.
Now, those 13 years later, I was in the middle of a murder investigation that made no immediate sense.
Miguel deSantos, the former sheriff’s nephew by his father’s side, was a snide, miserable, shit-faced sunofabitch in the common conception, and I’d go along with that. His girlfriend, who might’ve been called his mistress or live-in, was dead on the floor with two bullets through her head. And I knew, with an inside certainty, that Miguel had not pulled the trigger.
Cecelia Armentos had come in to me the day after the killing and said that a masked man had broken in and emptied his revolver into the girlfriend (Weezie, yes, her name was Weezie)’s head.
I didn’t believe that for a minute, though I could see that Cecelia did. She was telling her truth; and somewhere out there was someone who had shot Weezie for reasons unknown.
The next day, as I unlocked the door to the office and wondered, as I always did, why the hell we ever kept it locked, I thought, So what’s next? And next didn’t have to do with Miguel or Cecelia, it had to do with what I’d picked up off the floor while investigating the killing.
I answered the phone which was ringing when I came in. It was a man who said he was Miguel’s lawyer. I responded a sort of howdy and nodded into the phone, a bad habit which does nobody on the other end any good. The lawyer blah-blahed at me for awhile and I kept nodding and maybe actually saying something. Then he mentioned a thing that threw my thoughts sideways.
“Are you in any way aware or would you be aware of his connection to Maryland?” In all my days I’d never heard a question phrased exactly like that.
“I don’t believe, ever, to my knowledge, that during my time here, I have heard the mention of Maryland in connection with the name of your client.” Two could play at this game.
“OK,” he said. Then followed a long pause. “Uh,” he extended, “I’ll be there to see you tomorrow,” and he hung up.
Well, I thought, that’s one for the road. But what I was thinking more about was the gleaning I’d taken from the floor. It was a piece of cookie or other pastry. I reached into my top desk drawer and retrieved it. It was improvident of me to have removed that item from the crime scene and not put it into evidence, but somehow I needed it near at hand. I looked at it, turned it over, put it back, closed the drawer and placed my fingers, twined together, behind my head.
I was staring up at the corner where the wall meets the ceiling when Emil comes in. Emil is my lone deputy. Not like the Lone Ranger, he’s just all I’ve got, and truth be told, there’s little enough to justify anything more. Emil’s, to my mind, a little simple but delightful. He can spin stories for half an hour that end up slap dead in the highway, then smile at you like the sunrise.
What else he can do that I’ve never seen otherwise is smell crime. I mean that for literal. His nose will twitch when something is as shouldn’t be. I find it unsettling but marvelously helpful. So though listening to his stories and expecting nothing much from one minute to the next, I stay with him. He’s never left me down and he’s never, to my knowledge, left anybody down.
Emil sat down and pulled out a sandwich from his right pocket, then from his left pocket pulled out the rest of his lunch, except for the drink, which he pulled out from inside his jacket. Every day he did this, and every day it grabbed at me because almost every time the drink was different. You would not believe, over the seven or is it eight years as my deputy, the number of different drinks he has pulled out of that jacket. That day it was one of those modern health-food drinks. Emil did not actually eat this early in the day, he just laid his lunch out on the desk for later.
“Emil,” I said, “there’s something I want you to sniff.” I took out the cookie piece and was about to hand it to him, but already his nose was twitching, so there was no need. I put it back in the drawer.
“Where’s it fit in?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know that,” he said, “just know it does.”
“So do I.”
“Dang!” As I said, he’s a little simple, so he impresses easy.
“Did it come from a man or did it come from a woman?” I ventured.
“It come from a box.”
“Naw, I mean who was using it?”
“I would say a woman.”
“Would it be Cecelia?”
So some woman had been holding or eating in the room near the time of the killing. Why would that have relevance?
I got in touch with the Maryland state police to see what they might of had on Miguel, though I had no direct knowledge of him having lived there. The Maryland state police found nothing immediate in their computer system but said they would get back after a more extensive search, which might take two days or three, unless I was in a hurry, in which case they could pull somebody off and put them on it full time, but I’d have to pay for that, or the town would. I said there was not that much of a hurry.
Raeborn DeBorn Ostelle III was my best friend then, which was why I was sitting with him in Mindy’s luncheonette later that day. He was having a mushroom omelet, his (and one of Mindy’s) extravagances, and we were sharing times. I shared most everything with Ray those days, though now sometimes I wish I hadn’t. He bit down hard onto his rye toast (I can’t stomach rye toast) and offered: “Eddy, if I didn’t know you better, I wouldn’t.”
“Know you better.”
“You are too. I think.”
“Fuck that,” and he took a bite of toast that for anyone else would’ve been too big to swallow. Ray is large.
“So what are you getting at?” I asked.
“I’m getting at as you don’t know where you’re going to. Why you think Miggle didn’t do it?” (Miggle was how everyone pronounced Miguel’s name, not out of anti-Mex prejudice but because nobody on God’s green earth could stomach that Miguel, like me and rye toast).
“I got my reasons,” I said, which was not fully accurate. I saw where this was headed, and as it was official business, I shouldn’t be sharing with Ray. I got up, paid my ticket and left. Only when I was in the parking lot, in front of Mindy’s, did I realize Ray was right. I was on the wrong track, but it was a different wrong track from what he was thinking. He saw a straight and narrow line on a trestle, but I saw a winding upgrade over a mountain.
That railroad metaphor, there’s good reason to choose it. After talking to the local state police, and because there was nothing immediate pressing, I went over to the Chestnut Steam Line, a source of tourist revenue (second only to those speed-trap tickets) and air pollution that chugs up Chestnut Mountain south of town. That’s where I do my extra-jurisdictional thinking.
Riding it is my what in psychology terms is called a focusing mechanism. The locomotive covers you with sound and ash and lingering smoke through the sides of the open car that cuts you right off from the rest of the world for the 35 or so minutes of the switchback ride up and down our small mountain. It’s the remnant of an old logging track that was then turned to removing coal, and when the coal died was left to rust until Clendon Felt resurrected it as a quaint leftover.
I sat on the slatted bench that runs along the side of the car and tried to array the facts of the case in my mind, but a piece of cookie is hardly a true fact, nor was Cecelia’s unlikely claim. Then out of nowhere I saw in my head a woman, long black hair, near to her waist, her back to me, a bag of some kind in her hand. She was laughing, and Weezie was laughing along with her, like they shared a common joke. She r(the woman) reached into the bag and removed a cookie and ate half of it. At that point the vision, if that, snapped out.
It shook me up. I may talk of Emil’s nose, but I’m not one to have visions. That’s for clairvoyants, people like Edgar Cayce, if you can believe them. Getting off the ride, a family with three kids, two boys and a girl, got off with me, and they were laughing just like the woman and Weezie. So maybe it was just an outside noise interfering with my head. If so, waste of a good ride, though I had otherwise enjoyed it.
Ray was waiting at the office when I got back to shoot the shit, and I told him in extent about my “vision.” He leaned across the desk with his chin stuck out and stared up at me. Ray, as I said, is large, but he likes to get his head below you when he talks about anything he thinks is important. “You’re nuttier than a fuckin’ fruitcake, you’re a fuckin’ goddam flake,” he said and pushed himself down still closer to the desk.
There’s an instinct, if you will, that I’ve got that somehow reads people. Right then, I felt a change in Ray, a change that both started and was complete at the same moment. We, I saw, were through as friends, he had writ me off. We wouldn’t another time be sharing time at Mindy’s, except on the rare occasion of an accidental meeting. That had never happened to me, that I had lost a friend who just switched off like a light. He didn’t explain and I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to know, and asking would not have done no good. He just got up and left.
That was a sad day.
The lawyer, the next morning, was a small bald man with a small mustache atop a small mouth. The effect was of an almost hairless mouse. I wondered where Miguel could come up with such an ineffectual-looking person to protect his interests. If I was on a jury, I would think this man had escaped from behind a dry goods counter after getting caught dipping in the till.
“Lester Jenkins,” he said, holding out a thin, small hand. I took it, but instead of my name I said, “That information from Maryland should be in here soon.”
I figured he’d put his foot in it on the phone and saw he couldn’t pull it out again without losing at least his sock.
“Now,” I said, pointing to my obvious guest seat and returning to my own, “I should tell you that your client, Miguel, is somebody that’s about as hated as a human being can get and not catch fire from how people look at him. I say that because you should know what you’ll be up against in the way of prejudice. Most would expect her to shoot him, not the other way round.”
“You’re making an assumption. It is only alleged –”
I shook my head. “Nothing is nowise alleged. We don’t have a gun or evidence, nothing to do forensics on except the bullets, which won’t help unless we get the gun. We have, in fact, a statement that the crime was committed by another person, unknown.”
Mr. Mouse, as I was coming to think of him, was one surprised individual. I expected him to raise his paws and chitter, but he just opened his eyes wide.
“Nil, nothing, nada.”
“Then how can he be a suspect?”
“He is a suspect because this was his girlfriend, killed in his apartment, and he is a nasty piece of work. It’s commonly believed, for instance, that when his parents died in their car crash he held a two-day party because of the insurance money coming his way. That’s not true, but that sort of common story tends to prejudice people.”
“Good Lord.” He tapped his small fingers on his small knees. He was sitting in the very chair Ray, my now former friend, had sat in, filling it to overflowing. This man floated in it like an unmoored boat. He might have been something Ray left behind.
When the lawyer had left and Emil had not yet returned (which he did not have to do unless he had something active to report), I had the urge to reach into my drawer and eat that cookie/biscuit – not to destroy evidence, but because I was hungry for something sweet. I resisted. Then, since with Emil it was nowhere mandated that I be in my office at any given time, I went home.
Home is a three-room apartment above Hillary’s beauty salon, which she just signs “Hillary’s,” because in this small a town you know what something is without the need for telling. It was a cheap place to live, and I don’t much care where I hang my hat. I don’t have anybody to live with me, and I don’t much care about that either. Perhaps I should. Almost certainly I should.
There I sat on my couch and watched a forensic show on TV. These various shows fascinate me both as a law enforcement officer and a human being, though what they present is just another way of expressing human behavior, but presented in a clean (if often bumbling) manner that leaves my head open to thinking. Like does the Chestnut Steam Line.
There aren’t that many things I care about. Ray was one of them, and his behavior left me bewildered. He’d often before put me down for being an idiot, but with a sneering forbearance because that’s how you treat friends if you aren’t overtly humorous, as Ray is not. This time he’d cut me off as surely as if he’d taken out his Bowie knife and run a line between us on the desk. Whatever I had said or indicated had made it irrevocable.
Such sorrow swept over me, in the confines of my little bedroom, that I could’ve wept, had I been the type. Instead, I hung my head and sipped my daily jigger of scotch. I put my hand on the phone, preparing to make a call, but realized that I had no idea who it was I wanted to talk to. I was trying to reach somebody from somewhere far beyond. That’s what went through my head.
The next morning Emil come in slightly early, which he did now and then. He handed me the paper from Edgegrove (also not the name of the town with the newspaper), which had a somewhat detailed article on the killing, an odd thing because they had not spoken to me and I know – because he would’ve asked me first – not to Emil either. The article was fairly accurate, though it cast still more suspicion than merited on Miguel.
Mr. Mouse (I shall call him Lester from here on) would be by later – he’d been out canvassing or whatever lawyers do in these cases – and I was peculiarly anxious to see him. There was something I was missing with him but couldn’t lay my finger on.
I called to Maryland. They had found nothing so far, would get back to me when they could.
I pulled out a cigar. I lit it but didn’t put it to my mouth, held it in front of me to see if the smoke would tell me anything, like an ancient sign given to an oracle. When told me nothing, I put it in my mouth and inhaled. I shouldn’t of. There was something impure and awful on this cigar that damned near eviscerated my nasal passages. Perhaps a mouse had pissed on it (we have those, despite the exterminator). I put it out, threw it out, and resumed my attempted relaxation in my wheelie chair.
Four or so days after the “event” (the death by shooting of Weezie), nothing had moved the case one way or another. Lester was now a regular inhabitant of my office, and I was becoming pleased to see him. There was a brightness to his eyes this time that made me sit up straight.
I asked him, What’s up?
“I have talked to Cecelia Armentos,” he said.
“She told me what I presume she told you, that a masked man entered and shot Woozie – Weezie?”
I nodded again. “But it’s not so.”
He looked perplexed but to his credit did not reply.
“No masked man did what she said,” I continued to him.
“How can you say that with such certainty?”
I cleared my throat and tried to think how to say what came next.
“Here it is, as I see it. Cecelia says – this is what she told you? – that the masked person (if fully masked one couldn’t say it was a man) ran in and without further exposition shot Weezie in the head. Well, you look on the floor where she was found, there are two bullet holes, from which we retrieved the spent bullets. In the floorboards. So she was shot lying down. Now also, Cecelia says they – he, she – continued firing. There are only two bullets down there, in the floor, and none in the walls or elsewhere. So it didn’t happen as she said. I’m not saying somebody couldn’t of come in with a mask on and killed Weezie, but not the way Cecelia said. Therefore something else happened. And I can’t tell you exactly how I know Miguel didn’t do it. It’s a type of knowledge that just is – like that windowsill, you can’t do anything but point to it. But that doesn’t mean you don’t anyway have to wield your lawyerly ways. Miguel’d be sent to the electric chair and then to hell and beyond if the people here had their way.”
Cecelia Armentos is small and young and insubstantial. She’d blow over in an average wind. She is as short as Lester but less in her place. When she came into the office this second time, I sat at my desk trying to look attentive, but I’d already heard what I thought she had fully to say. So I was “zoned out” for the first minutes, but then she said something that made my ears prick up.
“What lady?” I asked.
“That come in.”
“A lady came in the room? At Miguel’s? You didn’t say that before.”
“I didn’t think on it then. It just come to me. I was fuzzy before.” Cecelia, to my mind, had a long time been fuzzy.
“All right, now, this lady.”
“She was bringing something, I think, for Weezie or it could of been Miguel, it was… was, it….”
That’s when something occurred to me so damned obvious I felt like a schoolboy.
“Wait, wait. Cecelia, look up from the floor there, look me in the eyes. You were on something, weren’t you? You and Weezie were high, which is why so little comes back to you.”
She not only looked up but shook her head with a disconcerting vehemence. I believed what followed.
“No sir, no we wasn’t. I wasn’t, it could of been with Weezie, but I didn’t see her take nothing. I don’t even know – didn’t – know Weezie much, we wasn’t friends nowise, I’d just gone over for…” Then that look come again like before.
“You don’t know why? Or remember? Why you went there?”
“And you also don’t remember what that woman, that lady had and if maybe she gave it to Weezie?”
I sat back and scratched my head, another bad habit. “I don’t know what to make of you, Cecelia.”
“But you come here to tell me about the lady?”
“Yes sir. Mostly. And to say I can’t remember either much about the man who shot her. I mean, I seen him do it, but I didn’t see him come in, I don’t know where he come from or who with the mask on or how he left from there. And I wouldn’t of known him without the mask, is what it seems like, wouldn’t of known what he looked like. See?”
I maybe sighed. “Cecelia, I don’t see much. Does this happen other times, how you can’t remember why you’ve come into where you are and what happens after?”
“No sir. I don’t think so. It scares me.”
“Scares me too,” I said.
That afternoon I met with Lester Jenkins at Mindy’s for a late lunch. He came in looking a mite lost and continued like that, pushing small talk and also pushing his vegetables around the plate in circles with his fork.
“Something rankling you?” I asked.
His shoulders slumped (to say, they slumped more) and he worked his lips. “It’s quite, very strange to come into a situation where everybody hates my client and everybody is ready to condemn him except the man who has the most to gain from it – you. I haven’t spoken yet to a single person except yourself who believes Miguel isn’t guilty.”
“He’s got those alibis,” I said.
“That have about the substance of a spiderweb in a tornado. He was seen in two different places, the Rancho El Dorado and Higston’s pool hall, three quarters of an hour apart and neither of them at a time certifiably within the period when the murder was committed. And you can imagine what would happen if I put Cecelia on the stand.”
I thought for a moment before replying. “Why are you telling me this? Are you working some kind of professional approach?”
“Because,” he said, “you’re the only one defending him, which means you know something, of whatever sort, that will help my client. You haven’t told me what that is. I’m becoming desperate, so I’m ‘spilling the beans’ to gain your favor.”
He looked at me with his funny mousy smile and I just busted out laughing. I laughed so loud that Mindy poked her head out from behind the counter. Then I calmed down. This was, after all, a serious case.
“Have you ever heard,” I asked, “of total knowledge?”
Not surprisingly, he looked perplexed.
“The thing I mean is the… let us say… the immediate incorporation of close to all that can be known about a specific incident, which is seen altogether as a complete unit without being able, at the time, to separate out the parts, but having within the overall certainty that those later parts that you see clearly, and those earlier parts that will reveal themselves later, will glom together as true and fully complementary?”
“We lawyers try not to veer into mysticism.” The corners of his mouth had tightened.
“Well, sheriffs don’t either. You seen that Orson Welles movie, A Touch of Evil? About the sheriff, a real bastard, who can somehow apprehend things that he cannot explain or justify, so he falsifies evidence to reach a greater or higher truth?”
“Now, it isn’t because I’m too a sheriff, but that’s something I recognize. I’ve had it develop over time, and I have to tell you, even if you can’t believe, that it’s there in this case. Something that I can’t define can see things that aren’t right, that aren’t correct, about the situation as it appears to stand, and can shift these wrong pieces into a meaningful whole. And that whole excludes the culpability of Miguel deSantos.”
During a long silence that followed, Lester finished off his vegetables.
“A combination of experience and unconscious analytical ability,” he said finally.
“Sounds about right.”
This time he smiled with what I took as comprehension, and I knew I’d not only underestimated the man in the past, but done him a royal disservice.
We argued politely about the check and I left him pay because it seemed the proper course.
Later, at home, I walked through my rooms, back and forth and back again. I sipped cautiously at my relaxing single jigger of scotch. Cautiously, because if I drank it too fast I’d want another and start the downslide. I don’t think I’m a full-blown alcoholic, because back along the trail I’d stopped where it would have wrecked my life. Something inside of me said no you don’t, fool, and I listened. But under tension I do have the temptation. Giving in would be something I would surely regret.
So. I couldn’t figure why I had, on the one hand, come clean with Lester as to the apparently absurd basis of my assumptions. Maybe because behind the guise of a lawyer, he was more a human being than most of us get to be. On the other hand, I wondered why I had not come still cleaner.
For there is nothing all that mystical about this “total comprehension.” I don’t have a special spiritual power, it’a just a damned good sense of detail, and how details fit together. I tend to think I get it from my mother, who sewed a lot, making clothes, some of which she sold, and when you’re sewing, there a hell of a lot you’ve got to keep track of, as I noted watching her. For example, I knew more of the facts and relationships in this case than most anyone else.
Miguel’s uncle Emilio, sheriff before me – if you hadn’t been in the office on a daily basis you wouldn’t of known much about him, because he was closer to the chest than an inside straight. His brother Ernesto, Miguel’s father, had been dragging the family’s name into the Slough of Despond since he was old enough to impregnate young women, which he did with abandon.
Older brother Emilio had, to his mind, been given charge of Ernesto when their parents would have no more of Ernesto. Emilio believed in family above all else – except public order – but he was vexed by his brother every day of his life. Before Ernesto’s perhaps fortuitous auto fatality, he had become what in a previous era would have been termed a brigand, terrorizing unmonitored roads and bedeviling travelers. Wanted posters of his unappealing countenance had been plastered in post offices and the occasional bar. Miguel had hung one on his apartment wall in admiration – attached not by tape or stick pins, but by nails pounded three inches deep into the studs. It served for Miguel as would a religious icon for a believer.
So. One thing I noticed while I surveilled the murder scene was that the poster of Ernesto had been ripped down. It might have come loose in the scuffle, but I saw no indication of a scuffle, and it was pulled straight down onto the floor without wrinkles or rumples from being stepped on. So it had been deliberately pulled loose. And in no way would Miguel have unleashed such a desecration to his outlaw father.
This observation formed part of a conclusion, but only after my discussion with Lester, did it strike me why the cookie/pastry had so taken my attention. It was not because of the edible’s composition, but that it had been found about a foot clear of the wall from where the poster had dropped. So, it had to have been dropped there after the poster was pulled down or it would have been stepped on. Therefore, likely left by the killer. Those observations, taken together, had excluded Miguel as the killer in my mind.
Of course, I still could not account for Cecelia’s masked intruder, but that had made no sense from the beginning. On the other hand (or a third or a fourth hand), there was the woman she’d initially forgotten. I didn’t know Cecelia well enough to untangle her mind, but there was someone who might be could act as a guide.
Dr. Madden was the medical do-all for the town. He didn’t perform operations and the like, but pretty much every other difficulty of the body fell to him, at least initially, while emergencies were ambulanced to the regional hospital. And respected as a person in a position of medical authority, he was usually the first (and often the continuing) stop for problems of the mind as well as the body.
I don’t like being cagey in performing my professional duties (which is a fat-headed way of saying I don’t like to lie or to push at people when they have good reason not to want to be pushed at), but sometimes you have to hold back your personal reservations to do your job. So I set up a time with Dr. Madden, even though it made me itchy.
We bullshat amiably for maybe 20 minutes, then I got to it.
“You treat Cecelia Armentos, I suppose?”
“I do, certainly. Is she in some kind of trouble?”
“I wouldn’t say trouble, I wouldn’t say she’s… in anything.”
I shuffled my internal feet to sneak in sideways. “I know you have your patient privacy and all, but are there things you can say yes or no to if asked in a general way about a particular patient?”
“A general way?” Dr. Madden can take a step back to look rarefied when he wants to.
“All right. What I need to know, and I’m hoping you can comment on it in general, is whether Cecelia tends to… whether she can… selectively forget things?”
“Hmm, ha. Whether her mind goes blank at times?”
“Yes, uh huh.”
“No, I can’t answer that. Directly.”
“Except you just sort of did.”
I leaned forward and clasped my hands on his desk. “Here’s where I’m going with this. If you were called as, say, an expert witness in a criminal trial, most likely by the prosecution, and you were asked, being the personal doctor most likely to know, if she could first be misremembering a scene when she was describing it, then also later completely forget an equally important and, let’s say compelling, image from the same scene, which memory would later come back to her, would her situation be far enough outside the range of normal memory as to be remarkable?”
“Have you been taking convolution lessons?”
“I’m trying to be general about, uh, a specific situation. Without asking or giving away too much.”
“You’ve succeeded in not only giving away nothing but removing any possible context for whatever the hell you’re getting at.”
“If that was true you’d be laughing at me, but you’re not laughing, so you get my drift, and you can go ahead and not answer if you think that’s the absolutely proper response.”
Dr. Madden steepled his hands with the ends of his fingers on the tip of his nose. “Cecelia is a… strange girl. I don’t mean that in a negative way, in any negative way. Her brain may have certain anomalies that could lead to the sort of mis-remembering or mis-identification of memories that you seem to be indicating. I wouldn’t want to go further than that. Certainly not hallucinations. ‘Scramblings’ might be the best call to it. I shouldn’t have said this much, but, the fact is, I trust that you would not ask me about a patient if you did not think the answer was of vital significance. But I can’t, won’t say more.” Keeping his fingertips together, he spread his palms and blew air through them.
By saying less than he knew he had said more than he could be quoted as saying.
Back home, I tried to straighten out the Cecelia mess:
The vaunted masked man was probably not a real memory, but why was it there in her head?
The woman, because of what Emil and I felt (smelt) from the cookie, likely was real, but for some reason had been suppressed by Cecelia until it popped up again.
What did I have here? A conflation, maybe – Cecelia putting a mask on a figure to hide it from herself, then the memory comes back, unmasked, because…
That was the thing, really… the because of it all.
A good two weeks after the shooting, I’m in my apartment, in the evening, thinking or doing something like thinking, and there’s a rap on the door, I mean a rap, not a knock, which I recognize. And that rap is exactly the least I would have expected. Because it’s Ray, who I thought sure I’d never hear from again, much less a visit.
Of course I open the door and he’s standing there, but there’s not a bit of friendship, more an angry slap from his face. And he just bangs in, if I hadn’t of stepped aside he would of stomped me into the floor (he’s big enough).
Every bit of the day had been confusion, and just when the confusion looked like it was possibly going in the right direction, there’s this.
“I gotta talk to you,” Ray said.
“Looks like it,” I agreed.
He stood in the room, not sitting down, and blew a snort. “Why were you telling me that vision stuff, what you said you’d seen in your head?”
“I thought you’d like to hear it, had me puzzled.”
“You thought I’d like to hear it? You had no right.”
“What’s right or wrong with it?” I asked, genuinely off about where he was going.
“Because it’s mine!”
Something half-way clicked, I admit, but not near enough to make a full connection. “It’s from your head?”
“It’s from my family.”
That brought the rest of the connection.
I haven’t mentioned, so far, that when I told Ray about what had passed on the ride up Chestnut Mountain, I’d gone into detail about the woman’s face I’d experienced, and most especially her eyes, because you don’t (I don’t) see eyes like that more than a time or two in your life. Here in my room, with Ray, I remembered that I’d seen eyes like that once before, and they had been in the face of Ray’s wife, now longtime ex. So why wouldn’t such an important detail come forth when first telling it to Ray?
I said as much to him in my room and apologized, but I could see in his look (as I’d seen the other morning) that it would change nothing.
“No, goddam her and goddam you,” he bashed at me, “it’s not her, it’s my daughter,”
Though we’d talked through the years, he’d mentioned his daughter maybe a half dozen times, and then in a way made me think he’d broken all contact, which saddened me.
“How’s that?” I asked, “Why would you think I was talking about your daughter?”
“You said what her hair is, the deep brown almost black, halfway to her waist, the way the ends curl up. Why would you say all that about some almighty figment in your head?”
“I was describing. It was part of the picture.”
“You said it to me!”
True, but what the hell? “Look here Ray, I’ve never seen your daughter, wouldn’t know her from Adam, I mean Eve, how could I have her in my head to talk about or even dream up?”
He paused at this point and seemed to consider, but what he considered wasn’t half enough. “Go fuck yourself,” he said, “up the ass.”
“Stop it, Ray,” but he didn’t either stop or continue, he just left, and that’s the last time I saw him except, as previously mentioned, in Mindy’s, where we each made a point of sitting as far from the other as was possible in her confined space. (Mindy, just once, looked at me when Ray and I were at opposite ends, me at the counter, him at the farthest table – looked at me, swiveled her head to Ray, looked back at me, eyes wide. I shook my head; she never made that ask-look again.)
So, back home, alone, I had new questions about what was going on in Miguel’s apartment. Not only:
Was the woman in my vision the woman Cecelia had seen (who might be the murderer), but
Was that woman by some godforsaken chance Ray’s daughter?
I saw even less likelihood of Ray or his family being involved than I did of Miguel, but if there was any one eerie possibility in Ray’s behavior, could he just maybe believe his daughter was tied in?
I slept fitfully that night, which is unusual with me, and called Cecelia in to see me in the morning.
I asked her how well she could describe the sometimes forgotten woman, and it seemed to hurt her head to dig out that image, but what she said about it dovetailed pretty closely with my vision and with what Ray had said of his daughter, though all three were verbal description without photographic verification; so maybe it was too easy to read as matching details what in another situation would be seen as only close correspondences.
Near the end with Cecelia, I asked her, “Did you say the woman came in the room before or after the masked man?”
“Oh. I think before. Did I say before before, I mean the time when I said it?”
“I’d have to look at my notes” (not a true statement, as I had a solid mental notebook on the matter, and I could tell you right then, she had not specifically said “before” or “after”).
“You didn’t remember the masked man coming in the room or when and how he left, you said. But you remember the woman coming in. Did you see how she left?”
“No. I thought I said that before. The notes?”
“I’ll check them.”
When I next got together with Lester, I explained how the masked man and the woman might be fusing into one character with Cecelia, and that whatever he tried to get from her as a friendly witness would be shot to smithereens by whichever lawyer the DA dredged up. I felt bad for Lester being stuck with one hell of a rotten case. I mean Cecelia could say Miguel wasn’t there, but who would make sense of her, and those unfortunately overlapping alibis didn’t do a damned thing to make Miguel look innocent.
Of course I shouldn’t of been getting that close to Lester, as discussing the case with a possible defendant’s lawyer isn’t the duty of a law enforcement officer. Not sure if it’s an ethical breach, but felt like it. Still, I needed to talk to somebody, and who else, with Ray out of the friendship picture?
Speaking of the D.A., he was the one had to bring charges, and left to his own devices he would’ve rung up Miguel in a minute – aching to do it – but he had to fight against me saying I didn’t think Miguel was guilty of anything but being Miguel (his greatest sin).
The D.A. is August Lenning, and he and I have a mutual lack of attraction. He has a legal degree, of course, which he waves around verbally any chance he can, but what he knows best is how to get elected, though that’s easy enough in a county with this little crime (for which I do take some credit but don’t blab about). I knew he’d make the call on Miguel at some point, no matter what I said or how loud I said it. That was part of the reason for talking so much to Lester, because I didn’t trust Augie (who hates being called that) to play it fair.
After talking with Lester it also hit me that I’d missed something so damned obvious. It was that riding on the steam train I didn’t have any kind of special vision; my subconscious or whatever was telling me that I knew something, and that that something had a form (the form of a long-haired woman) which I should have recognized. Not the woman herself, see, but where she stood within it all.
So now I had to track down that “what’s-behind the woman image” aspect. While cogitating in my wheelie chair, which I like to propel around the limits of my office with my feet, I tried to recall any prompt that could have brought that image on, and I saw after a bit the even more damned fool I’d been. That vision image was much like, though not completely the same as, the lady who sold the tickets for the Chestnut Steam Line, a face I’d witnessed maybe 15 minutes before riding, but become so accustomed to that it didn’t register after I handed over my $3.50 (the price had gone up a dollar that year, because Clendon Felt, who owned the line, was getting grabby).
Now, supposing the image could be a face I’d seen numerous times and just minutes before, did that blow its connection to Weezie’s killing right out of the water? You might think so, but it did not, because it made me wonder, was Cecelia also making an almost-recreation of someone she’d seen but had no need to recall immediately to mind? (Of course, that didn’t say anything about why her reconstruction and mine would be so closely aligned.)
I went to see Cecelia, who is old enough, about 25 or 26, to be living on her own but is still with her parents because, actually, she may never be up to living alone, and asked her, in what I hope was my most casual sheriff’s manner, if she had encountered anyone recently that the stranger in the apartment might have resembled.
She at first said No, then thought again and said there was somebody a taxi dropped off near the courthouse (which is also our city hall) who acted a little confused about where she was and asked what was probably directions of someone (Cecelia wasn’t clear on who). Similar long dark hair and leanness, in other words, as the shooter, but of course not the same person. It was the off-season for tourists (the steam train made only the one morning run in those months, mostly to keep it in condition, or I think its innards would rust), so a visitor by taxi could be considered novel.
“How do juries deal with the idea of coincidences, in your experience?” I asked Lester next day.
“They are the bane of a defense attorney. ‘Your client was seen walking down the street in the vicinity of the robbery not ten minutes before it took place,’ this in a major city where a hundred people might pass that spot over a 40-second period. You make that point to the jury, but that correspondence in time and place waves a red flag..”
“How about the coincidence of people said to look remarkably the same by independent witnesses but without any likelihood of this being so?”
“Eye-witness ID has been proven almost totally worthless but is used by prosecutors time and again with chilling effect. Surely you must have seen this happen?”
I have, certainly, and I was off-base in bringing up jury reactions, but I was trying to understand what the idea of “coincidence” could mean when dealing with the coordination of mental states, and had no idea where to start. Again, I had no business going over such wanderings with the (possible) defendant’s lawyer, but I felt both hemmed in and ignorant concerning an important determinant.
“What’s your personal take on coincidence?” I asked, dodging the issue a bit.
Lester picked up a french fry like it was as foreign as its name. I never did see anyone eat in public with such studied attention to every bite. “I suppose you’re talking about the difference between our work, yours and mine, and real life. I’ve watched several of those police procedural shows, and in at least two of them, the cop, the policeman heading the investigation, says something of the order, ‘I don’t believe in coincidence,’ or even, ’There’s no such thing as coincidence,’ which is so much macho nonsense. It’s macho even if a woman says it. Coincidence is everywhere, often unrecognized. It’s a coincidence that we’re here together – not this lunch meeting, which you organized, but that this case has drawn us together for no inherent reason. Goodness, the food is delicious.”
It was – we were at Mindy’s, of course. I agreed with him and mentioned that Mindy’s cook, Andrea, was noted for miles up and down Rt. 86. Then it hit me – not again! Andrea is a tall, lean woman with long dark hair that curls at the end (she ties it back while cooking). Where are the dead-straight blondes when you need them to flout coincidence?
(You might be wondering, what did Weezie look like? Brown hair, yes, but short, trimmed behind her ears, so no idea if it curled, and on the heavyset side. Not fat – if we’re allowed to say that anymore – but solid… comfy? Not a good-looking woman, something I could tell even with two bullets through her head.)
I haven’t told you yet how I solved the case. That’s in part because I didn’t solve it (it mostly solved itself), but more because it isn’t exactly solved. It’s explained – or could be said explained.
It started with my learning that Emilio (Miguel’s uncle, my predecessor as sheriff, remember?) had a son. I hadn’t known that before, had no reason or desire to know such a thing, but it came through on an addendum report from Maryland and was likely what Lester had been suggesting initially about a connection. It would have been helpful if Lester had given me more guidance, but I guess he thought it best that I make the discovery myself. I’ve never asked him about that. I will some time.
Anyway, I wired a request (I still use the term “wired,” though I’m doing it all wireless online) for more info on the son. His name was Emilio Jr. (highly original, but it’s not my place to suggest how anyone should name a child). Did he have a record? Not a blemish. But he was considered – I could see, circumscribally or tangentially – a badass, not a bad badass, more a somewhat badass. But what told me more, though I didn’t immediately realize it, was that he was “fairly tall” and skinny.
You see a connection here? Every one of the dark-haired-woman examples that had popped up had been tall and… lean. Well, leaning toward the skinny. Now is “fairly tall” for a man the same is “tall” for a woman? I would previously not have thought so, but I think women are getting taller these days. Just a personal observation.
When I did receive a picture of Emilio Jr., I could see, should a wig be placed on the undistinguished cropped head, that it could echo my “vision.” And if so, possibly Cecelia’s reading of the visitor taxiing to the town. That’s all a stretch, I admit, but right then I would have accepted the stretch of the world’s most potent rubber band to get any idea behind this killing.
Why might I assume the killer to have been a man dressed as woman in a wig? I didn’t assume; it was initially a passing idea that became later solidified given the outlines of all those dark-haired “women.” That, combined with the prevalence of almost nothing else making any goddamned sense. You take what’s available at the time, and in this case it proved, if not true according to law, at least likely enough to act on.
To get to the core of it.
Why would Emilio Jr. want to visit Miguel? (Or Weezie?) I would not have wanted to spook Emilio to ask until the need arose, and Miguel just shrugged when I questioned him, never having met Emilio that he could recall. When I showed Emilio’s photo to Cecelia (with some trepidation), she thought it could maybe have been the male version of the person she saw arriving in town. As for the woman later at the apartment, she wasn’t clear what her face looked like.
This was one fucked up family (pardon me), the deSantoses. A good branch and a bad branch? Could be, but it felt too simple. There were suggestions that my predecessor might not have been the presumed epitome of law enforcement. People had got off that likely shouldn’t have; others had been slammed sideways for minor infractions. I’ve tried to avoid this kind of selective enforcement, but let me tell you, removing personality and influence from law enforcement just isn’t possible in practice; it’s an ideal you do the best you can with. Still, I think Emilio Sr. had, if not a dark side, a twilight outlook at times.
OK, to go back a few steps. The elder Emilio was stuck with responsibility for a truth-be-told rotten younger sibling. Talk about that had to have been passed on to his son in greater or lesser degree. So Ernesto, Miguel’s father, had to have been seen as more than an embarrassment – a piece of trash in the parlance.
But would that sit all those years in the back of junior’s head? Honestly, I think so. I can’t trace his every movement over the time period that led to Weezie’s execution, but I know what his car was – not the registration but the model, a rattly tan Camaro – and it was in the area before the killing, or one clearly like it.
Which all leads me to think I know how it played out, as a form of delayed or displaced revenge.
Emilio Jr. had grown up with an ever-blossoming hatred of this uncle who had made his father’s life a continuing purgatory. You get on toward middle age, old steam rises up like a displaced cloud or sometimes a sea monster you’ve suspected but not previously acknowledged. What he might of learned about Miguel I couldn’t say, but he decided he had to have retribution. When he drove on to Sanchez, he had with him a gun. As a Second Amendment and NRA supporter I could say that didn’t matter, but as a law officer considering the result, there should have been a way to stop someone with his kind of reproach in mind.
When he arrived at Miguel’s apartment, reconfigured as a woman, I don’t think he had decided on execution. Seeing Weezie and Cecelia there to receive him in Miguel’s name, he would likely have left, until he looked across at the wall and saw the wanted poster of Ernesto.
Imagine what such an image, here placed in reverence, would do to someone raised on hatred of that exact person? Not sure I can. He exploded like a grenade, ripped it down, the poster. What then did Weezie do, being the apartment’s only immediate “inhabitant”? She threw that cookie at him. Which precipitated the rest. Emilio had no original intent against Weezie. She was just an unfortunately involved witness to something of no relevance to the wider world.
Why was she shot through the head, lying down? Maybe she tripped? Maybe he slammed her down in anger? I’ve never found an explanation and don’t expect to. And I don’t much care about the particulars. You have to have justice, even if you can’t identify what it is, even if it so often goes astray. We’re battered by reality. But those bullets in the floor convicted Emilio Jr.
I’m blasted now, smeared in my room by cheap whiskey I said I’d given up, badly typing a rendition of what I think happened and preparing to transfer it to a thumb drive, then erasing any evidence of it from my hard drive because… There should be no evidence. One poor (innocent as much as anything) woman died on a riddled wooden floor. She could have been anybody or, more likely, nobody. What does it mean to live until tomorrow, when she didn’t?
I’ll not go farther into what put Emilio where I think he belonged, in prison (though someone else or myself on other nights might think otherwise). Any of us could be incarcerated for what we think or what we might have done. And I’m in no way sure that the reality of doing is that much worse than the nagging push of unrealized possibility. We’re all guilty or no one is.
You don’t need to read this. I wouldn’t in your shoes (Doc Martins?).
Ray has left me friendless, or almost so. I wish I knew what he thought I had seen or found about his daughter. That may be the strangest leftover from all this crap. Losing a friend of 20+ years without explanation is a mighty burden.
How much are we each burdened? Most of us less so than we think, and those totally burdened, who live through it and die, we never hear from them. My one vast relief is Lester. He is as much a friend as I could expect, more than likely I deserve, maybe as much (though I doubt it) as Ray could have been.
A thumb drive. Who’s going to listen?
# # # #
On blogs, fuels, mass murderers and bad jokes
Why don’t I write a random blog, instead of these equally disconnected bits of emailed rubbish?
1) “Blog” may be the ugliest word ever invented. OK, possibly “mucilage,” with its evocation of snot-as-glue.
But how can anyone seriously churn out a “blog”? “Dear, the cat just heaved a huge blog on the rug, could you clean it up?”
The word evolved by accident, of course – it’s short for “weblog,” and I don’t suppose you’d want it to have gone in the opposite direction, so you could gambol verbally through your “webl” while discussing politics over Napoleon brandy.
2) These ruminations started as a spontaneous reaction to personal happenings in my life that I wanted to share with friends – or at least nodding acquaintances. I was going on about ridiculous surgeries and washed-out bridges, with no interest in wafting my sentiments into the big wide world.
I find a real different mentality between sharing my flotsam with friends and tossing my internal trash onto the Internet highway. If I did start a blog, I suppose inviting all of you along as Original Members (and offering you a gift of dried fish) might promote the same warm feeling.
Or maybe not.
The upper classes and businessmen of 19th-century England traded something quite close to email. Each had numerous servants – one to bring tea, one to trim the roses, another to buff the horse – among whom was the Dedicated Messenger. This lackey would scamper across the countryside taking hand-written missives in all directions and returning with cleverly calligraphed answers.
As the century progressed and the British postal service expanded, the mail came to be delivered in “important” areas three and four times daily; notes, like gnats, would flit back and forth between London and the moneyed estates.
* * *
Our major source of home heat up here is our wood stove. The originating material is cheap (when bought from a local supplier) or free (when harvested from the cellulose entities of our woods). Since burning wood involves no fossil fuels, we are environmentally conscious good guys!
Well… wait a minute: The latest studies out of England, where wood stoves are prevalent in most cities (especially London), have elucidated, with convincing evidence, that wood smoke is remarkably toxic, both indoors and out – actually, the most locally polluting heat source known.
Outdoors, smoke spews like an avenging mist. Indoors – every time you open the stove to restock, plus leakage in exhaust pipes, etc. – it’s been tied to wheezing in children, and such problems of the elderly as heart disease and dementia (“Martha, did I just eat the poker?”).
The worst of it for us is, we’ll go right along burning wood, because we like it and it makes us feel that we’re taking an active part in ensuring our comfort, rather than twiddling a thermostat dial while watching reality TV.
And now, ah yes, gas stoves, the other comfort heating device coming under the ax. It’s clear that burning natural gas releases PFAS (and probably PISH-TOSH). This stuff is definitely bad, micro particles that attack your lungs like mini-spelunkers, responsible (at least in part) for about a third of childhood asthma. Not only that, but even when turned off the fuckers leak benzene.
OK, how do they manage that, and whose fault is it? If something is properly turned off, why is it leaking anything? Isn’t there just maybe a design problem here?
A lot of people (including chefs) have preferred gas to electric stoves because the heat can be reduced or increased with immediate effect, without the residual heat of coils burning your eggs or wasting energy that later dissipates into the room.
Now, according to accounts of many uses (including some of our friends), the newer electric induction stovetops avoid such heat waste and lack of control – and out-perform gas stoves.
Our current stove, actually, is propane, and I don’t know if it’s better or worse than natural gas. Growing up in Philly, before a change to natural gas in the ’50s, the city produced “manufactured gas,” derived from coal; the resulting solid product was coke – which we used for central heating in our courtyard house on 37th St.
So, should we ditch our gas stoves in a frenzy of healthful disinvestment? Absolutely! Take all those vile clunkers right down to the landfill. Can’t create more than, say, 50 million tons of unrecyclable trash.
* * *
Unsolicited musical comment:
Blow blow blow your nose
Gently done your face,
Warily, warily, warily, warily
Life is a disgrace.
And another one, provided by Cat Stevens’ doppelgänger:
Morning has broken,
Because it wasn’t made very well,
Blackbird has spoken,
But I couldn’t understand a fucking thing it said.
* * *
Have you noticed a shift in the profile of mass shooters these days? Still a fair number of the usual teen gang types and young loners, but now also a wide range of guys in their 50s and 60s killing people at random and offing their entire families.
Plus, Jim Knipfel has noted an upsurge in the ranks of Asia mass killers in the U.S.
As Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody’s tryin’ to get inta the act!”
* * *
Two Russians were walking down the road. One had a reticulated python, the other did not.
The one who had the reticulated python asked the one who did not: “Why do you not have a reticulated python?”
The other asked: “A what?”
The first explained: “A reticulated python: the largest of recent snakes, featuring scales in a reticulated pattern, like that of a net you would use to catch fish.”
The other began to snigger: “What a silly name for a snake.”
Both Russians then became convulsed in laughter. The snake, who could not comprehend the reason for their hilarity, nonetheless doubled up in sympathetic mirth. This caused him to constrict his muscles and squish his owner like a stomped on knish.
The second Russian and the reticulated python chuckled over the incident for several days.
A Modern Coon Hunt
Judging from the shiny covers of some of our leading magazines, as well as a few articles inside, we are now living in the age of the synthetic fur coat.
The synthetic fur coat, aside from the property of catching fire easily and possibly cremating the wearer before her time, has all the advantages of natural fur, combined with lower weight, lower cost and a flavor apparently distasteful to moths. Its differences from the real thing, as I understand it, can seldom be detected except by an experienced furrier, and even more seldom by one’s social equals – an altogether admirable bit of luxury that has little negative effect on the ecosystem, or whatever it is out there.
I was speaking of this to my friend Arthur just eleven days ago – I remember the exact span of time because it was Friday the 13th, and for some reason I nearly always find myself talking to Arthur on Friday the 13th.
Arthur agreed with me wholeheartedly. He seemed to think, however, that the public was being duped.
“Why, Arthur?” I asked. “Why do you think the public is being duped?”
“Because,” said Arthur as he tidied his mustache, “to look at those articles you would think that all sorts of scientists had been spending years perfecting the synthetic fur coat. Well, that just is not so. All you need is to arrange a synthetic animal hunt and bring back a few pelts. Nothing simpler in the world.”
“Arthur,” I said, “look me in the eye – the left one. Do you mean to tell me that you just hunt down synthetic animals and skin them for the market?” I feared that Arthur was having no small amount of fun at my expense.
“Oh, I can’t speak for all synthetic animals, but I’ll vouch for raccoons. Herbert and I went on a synthetic coon hunt last week, and don’t think we didn’t make a handsome profit. A couple synthetic hides buy plenty of watercress.” Arthur sat staring at his toes. He never wears shoes.
“Now listen, Arthur,” I said scoffingly, “the next thing you will say is that you hunt with synthetic coon dogs.”
“For sure,” he said, wiggling his toes for emphasis. “Herbert has the best synthetic coon dogs east of the Pecos. Old Mike has some stitches missing here and there, but I bet he could track a synthetic coon through a Turkish bath.”
I pondered Arthur’s statements while he polished his toenails with pumice. He has had more varied and peculiar experiences that anyone else I know, so I am more than a little reticent to outright dismiss anything he says. Finally, I spoke coolly and tactfully. “Arthur,” I said, “you are a damned liar.”
Arthur, having had similar words put to him on at least twenty-seven occasions to my certain knowledge, was unperturbed. “If you would be interested,” he said, “Herbert and I plan to go out again next weekend. You can join us if you like, but be sure your rifle’s in top shape. Those coons are fast as all hell on their synthetic feet.” He stood up, pulled on his yak-skin gloves, and left.
I had been hunting armadillos in the local woods for some years, but I must admit that I had never been to the sector where Arthur led me. He claimed it was one of only three habitats in the continental United States where synthetic coons congregated in good numbers – the other two being the Walla Walla, Washington, Wallaby Preserve and an obscure bit of parkland in the slums of Chicago. The Chicagoans catch the synthetic coons to get beer money so they don’t have to sell their copper plumbing.
Herbert, whom I detest, brought his synthetic coon dogs as promised. I saw nothing to distinguish them from the common breed until they began scratching, which kicked up quite a lot of fine white dust. “That’s their stuffing,” Arthur explained. “Sometimes, when they have a bad case of fleas, they get pretty thin from losing so much stuffing.”
“Synthetic fleas?” I asked.
“Don’t be preposterous,” said Arthur.
We tramped through the woods for several hours, seeing only the common fare – rabbits, squirrels, sheep, platypus, mongeese, that sort of thing. With my keen hunter’s instinct, I wanted to nail everything in sight, but Arthur warned me: “Synthetic coons scare real easy. If you go shooting all over the place, they’ll stay at home in their packing crates.”
Herbert didn’t say anything. He scratched Old Mike behind he ears to raise dust and laughed at my ignorance.
I was about to give the whole thing up as a bad deal when Old Mike went bounding off, emitting high-pitched canned barks. Arthur pointed and whispered, “He’s found one.”
I followed his finger and there, scampering up a tree, was a small coon, black mask and all.
“How can you tell it from a real one?” I asked.
“You never find real and synthetic coons in the same sector,” said Arthur as Herbert laughed at my ignorance. “They have different ecological niches. Besides, synthetic coons are social outcastes.”
Arthur raised his shiny rifle and sighted carefully. He got his shoot off cleanly, and a large white cloud exploded in the tree branches the coon had run to. We raced to the base of the tree and there, in several pieces, lay the remains of the synthetic raccoon.
“Good lord, you’ve destroyed the poor animal,” I said, looking at the scattered results. Herbert laughed at my ignorance.
“Don’t worry,” said Arthur, “it just split its seams. Synthetic coons aren’t as well put together as the real ones.” He picked up the bits of hide and shook them vigorously, loosing the last shreds of stuffing. The hunt had proved to be a simple operation with no complications, except when Arthur stepped on one of the shattered glass eyes and cut his foot.
We had a pretty good day altogether, I’ll have to admit. Arthur and I bagged a clean dozen coons between us. Herbert spent most of the time gathering fungus to decorate his living room. The one useful thing he did, though, was to offer to sell the pelts to one of his friends, who happened to be a fence: For some reason, which Arthur could never properly explain, the trade in synthetic raccoons is illegal.
He thinks this may be the real reason the public is being duped.
# # # # #
[I wrote the original version of this story in my mid teens, when I hoped to become the
next Robert Benchley. Oh, just look him up! His “essay” on curing hiccups is one of the three or four funniest bits of humor in the English language.]
Sutuff to think about (or not)
I’m surprised that psychologists or psycholinguists (are there such people, those who bludgeon you to death with words?) haven’t studied – at least as I’ve read – “waiter/ress-speak” (and for crap sake don’t call them “servers”; a server is a piece of electronic shunting equipment). Such job-related argo reflects the changes in values and temperament of society far more accurately than the sonorous piffling of TV “experts,” solidified inside their plaster personae.
Examples for consideration:
• When did “let me get that out of your way” become a universal comment made while hauling your plate from the table, though that plate is causing you, the eater, no physical or psychic discomfort?
• Aren’t you tempted, when your waitress asks, “Is everything OK?” to answer, “The meal and service are excellent, but the world at large is a gigantic crap heap”?
• Why did restaurateurs decide that we should know our “server’s” name? I guess it’s to make the “experience” more personal, but I find it an intrusion assumption. Years back, the anonymous waitress greeted you with a simple, “What would you like to drink?” or better yet, “Hi, hon, what can I getcha?” then left you alone to eat, except to check if you wanted anything else. Now, as they present or remove your dish, they describe their every move, as though you couldn’t conceivably understand why they were removing your salad dish.
This kind of social language change has been accelerated of late through social media, but it has always happened through simple societal drift. My question is, what triggers such changes? Do changes in the verbal behavior of provider groups – waiters, cashiers, train conductors – reflect top-down imposition by overlords, or sideways assimilation from peers? Or some independent form of social evolution?
Street argot has always been peculiar to time and place, but I’m talking about those easy, repetitious give-and-take situations:
How rapidly do small, empty bits of phrase get passed along as if they have meaning?
Do they spring from a real need or what a society at the moment thinks people want to hear?
Austrian author Robert Musil, writing in the 1920s and ’30s, set his monumental four-volume novel The Man Without Qualities in 1913. One section, in English translation “The Like of It Now Happens,” suggests that all of modern life (at least by 1913) had become a reality show: We live less by personal development and expression than as a reflection of what we believe reality to be, dictated by the complex of noise surrounding us.
* * *
Continuing (tangentially) with the idea of evolving group terms, my classes at St. Thomas More high school in West Philly (a Catholic school later terminated, with the building sold to the Black Muslims, praise the Lord!) were divided according to the students’ class standings. So, freshmen were in classes D1 through D5; seniors A1 through A5. The 1s were the “brains,” the 5s dragged their knuckles and drank from cess pools.
I was in the 1s. The Italians in my class (the school’s ethnic majority) talked blithely about going on “nigger hunts” on Saturday nights. I don’t think they were all madly aggressive; I’d guess they didn’t do that much harm, only made life fairly miserable for those not like them – as we all do. But one thing always pops up in my memory: In all other contexts, they referred to Blacks as “mools.”
Initially, I had no idea where this expression came from. When I finally asked, turns out it’s from an Italian word for “eggplant,” moolinyan (which makes a certain… unfortunate sense). The other day, looking it up online, I found that moolinyan is not a country-wide word for eggplant, but a regional version from Sicily and Calabria (southern Italy).
The definition did note that moolinyan was U.S. slang for Blacks, but “originating in the ’60s.” C’mon, I can tell you personally that it wasWest Philly-common in the ’50s. And my enlightened classmates never used the whole word; it was always “mools.”
I guess we’re all better off when we abuse our antagonists in a language they’re unlikely to understand (and also, not hunt them on Saturday night).
* * *
Changing the subject with a lurch, have you ever perchance run across this example of the ancient Hindu concept of time? Here ’tis.
A bird flies above a towering mountain once each year, dangling a scrap of silken cloth from its beak.
As it transverses the mountain, the cloth’s trailing edge loosena minute particles of soil and rock.
This annual excursion continues throughout the ages, until, eventually, the bird wears the mountain even with the surrounding plain.
That length of time represents one day in the life of Brahma. Such a concept of time far overwhelms the current cosmological estimate of the life of the universe – roughly 13+ billion years.
By contrast, in the West we tout a jealous God who got up one celestial morning saying, “Think I’ll make me a universe,” and did so in six days, around 4004 BC.
Is it any wonder that we, belated westerners with our intense focus on immediate solutions, make a royal hash of solving problems?
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Numbers – quantities – are in my family genes. I count things, obsessively. How many steps in the process of feeding the dog? How many days until I next post one of these annoyances to you?
My big brother Rod kept a tape measure in his pocket at all times. He measured everything (including his future wife, on first meeting her: “I don’t think you’re even five feet tall”; she wasn’t). In the New Jersey pine barrens, he caught snakes, measured them, then loosed them back into their habitat.
I grew up with almost no idea how things worked. I didn’t take machinery apart; I knew, instinctively, that I’d never be able to put it back together. Radio tubes fascinated me because radio programs fascinated me, not because of how the tubes did what they did (whatever that was).
But the love of science, in the guise of numbers, must have lurked there all along, waiting in the wings. In recent years, it has moved onstage. When the wind is blowing in the right direction, I think about trying to re-learn calculus. Almost every day I try to unravel how my brain works. And when I see mention of an octa- or nonagenarian who has garnered a college degree while on the edge of oblivion, I wonder (not seriously) – what about a Ph.D. before I die?
Then I wonder, how about a nice, fat, tentacalicious squid for dinner?