All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a free-lance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio.

The Last Splatter

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“What in the hell am I doing?” Jackson Pollack asked himself, surveying the rise of the road, driving up too fast toward the top of it for what was on the other side. He couldn’t dope it out. He was driving like a crazy man, like what all the analysts he had ever gone to always told him he wasn’t.

Not crazy, not exactly.

One of them had said, “You’re just in search of a nervous breakdown.” He didn’t tell that one about 1938. It didn’t matter. He knew he was raw. That’s why the work worked. He wasn’t a nutcase because he saw psychiatrists. But, in the last five minutes he had twice caught himself steering the car at the soft shoulder.

He was the second best driver in Springs, next to Harry Cullum, who had told him he was second best on a late afternoon one day in mid-winter when the two of them were having beers at Jungle Pete’s. “You’ll have the last laugh, just wait and see, Jack,” he said, clapping him on the back.

“Maybe not on the road, but you’ll get ‘er done.”

Jackson Pollock’s convertible didn’t have seat belts, although Harry, the best driver in town, had outfitted his own family car with lap belts. He told everyone it was for his wife’s sake. “In stock car racing we never used seat belts if there wasn’t a roll bar, suicide if you do,” said Harry.

The girl in the middle of the front seat, between Ruth and him, was screaming. “Stop the car, let me out, let me out!” He wasn’t going to stop the car, he knew that, but he had a bad feeling. It was a clear, starry night, splashed dark, hot and muggy. The road felt spongy.

The car was an Olds 88, a big open air carriage.

He got his first convertible, a Cadillac, when his action paintings had started to get some action, after Life Magazine put him on the cover almost exactly seven years ago. It was his boast of success. They said he was the shining new phenomenon of American art. When 1950 got good and done, the next month Art News published a list of the best exhibitions of the year. The top three shows belonged to him. It wasn’t bad for somebody who never graduated from high school.

Even though he used to throw his car keys in bushes when he was getting drunk at parties, he had smashed the Caddy into a tree.

Action painting, he thought, and snorted, spraying spit on the steering wheel. What critics didn’t know wasn’t worth a pot to piss in.  “If people would just look at my paintings, I don’t think they would have any trouble enjoying them. It’s like looking at a bed of flowers, you don’t tear your hair out over what it means.” He had meant it when he said it. He’d say it again, too.

Who needs a critic to find out what is, or isn’t art. Most of them, if they saw him walking on water, crossing the Hudson River at Canal Street, would scribble something about him not being able to swim. The only time he met Man Ray, at the Cedar Tavern when the man was finally on his way back to Paris, he told Jackson, “All critics should be assassinated.”

Lee called his work all over painting because he got it all over the flat canvas nailed down on the floor, the hard floor, his boots and jeans and hands. Bugs and bits of litter and blackened shag from his cigarettes fell into the paint.

“Is Jackson Pollock the greatest living painter in the United States?” is what Life Magazine blew the balloon up with, headlining the story, and a picture of him, slouching against a wall with a smoke dangling from his mouth, and a couple of pictures of his paintings. He looked good, like he didn’t have a care in the world, didn’t give a damn, like he had the world by the balls. Now was different. He hadn’t made a painting in more than a year. He felt washed up.

He wasn’t sure he had anything to say anymore.

“She started to scream,” said Clement Greenberg. “He took it out on this pathetic girl by going even faster. Then he lost control on the curve. The screaming is what did the killing, finally.”

What was her name? He chewed it over in his mind, sliding a glance sideways at her. He couldn’t remember. They were on the Fireplace Road in East Hampton, not far from home. It couldn’t be more than a mile. Not much of a home anymore, anyway. Lee was in Paris with her friends. She had said she was coming back, but he wasn’t sure. He wanted her back, but it had all gone to hell.

Hell-bent in his Olds with two broads in the car and his wife in Europe wasn’t going to get it done, wasn’t going to get it back. He had to get back on track. Maybe the last analyst he’d seen was right, maybe there was something gumming up the works. He was going to try a new approach, he’d said, called hypnotherapy.

He was a new downtown brain doctor. “It’s not hypnosis, at least not how most people think of it,” said Dr. Sam Baird. “We’re not going to try to alter or correct your behavior. We’ll try to seed some ideas, sure, but we’ll talk those out before we go ahead.”

He told Lee he was going to get clear with Dr. Baird. “He isn’t full of old-time shit,” he said.

If any of his neighbors saw him staggering his car down the road they would laugh and say it was like his paintings. Most of them still thought he was nuts, even though they didn’t say so anymore to his face, now that he was in museums and galleries. When he was a nobody they looked down on him like he was a nobody.

“I could see right away he wasn’t from here,” said Frank Dayton. “I asked a fellow later who he was. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s just a crazy artist.’”

“To some goody-goody people he was a bum, just someone to laugh at,” said Sid Miller. “They didn’t think much of his work, didn’t think he was doing anything.”

“Folks said he painted with a broom,” said Ed Cook. “Near everybody made jokes about his paintings, never thought they’d amount to anything.”

“To hell with them,” he said to Ruth sitting close next to him. She was a looker, that’s for sure, the juice he needed to get him going again. He had gone dead inside. He knew he had. She was the kind of girl who could crank him up. What’s-her-name in the back seat kept screaming.

“What?” asked Ruth, loud, twisting towards him.

“To hell with them,” he muttered to himself. “What do they know?”

“Slow down a little bit, the car’s a little out of control, take it easy,” she said.

The joke was on them. When he was painting, standing over a canvas, it was when he was most in control. It was when he didn’t have any doubts about himself or what he was doing. He knew exactly what he was doing. He had told anybody interested in listening, I can control the flow of paint. There is no accident.

“He picked up can and paint brush and started to move around the canvas,” said Hans Namuth. “It was as if he suddenly realized the painting was not finished, His movements, slow at first, gradually became faster and more dance like as he flung black, white and rust-colored paint onto the canvas. He completely forgot that Lee and I were there. Finally, he said, ‘This is it.’”

I work from the inside out. That’s when I’m in the painting, in the middle of life, but outside of it at the same time, when I can see the whole picture. Someone said my pictures don’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was. It was a fine compliment. Only he didn’t know it.

He was good driving his Olds, too, even when he was as drunk as could be, which was what he was now. “He came in for his eye-opener, a double, about 10:30 before train time,” said Al Cavagnaro. “Start your day the way he did sometimes, you’d be in the same fix he was. If you said he was half bagged up, you’d be about right.”

Doc Klein had said it was OK for him to drink and drive. He said trees never hit cars except in self-defense. “Stay on the road,” said Doc Klein, a big man laughing a big laugh.

“Goddamn right, I always stay on the road,” said Jackson Pollack. “Except when I’m pulling into Al’s or Pete’s, then I get off the road. Besides, there’s no trees in those parking lots.”

“It was continual, almost nightly drunken large parties,” said Patsy Southgate. “Everyone was totally drunk all the time and driving around in cars.”

He wasn’t driving right, though. He was driving wrong. The screaming girl grabbing his right arm was right. He liked to drive. But, tonight, instead of fluid with the steering wheel, like he was with free-flowing paint out of a can, he was clumsy, crazy clumsy, as though he was at cross-purposes. Herky jerky. The quiet precise gestures he used to stream paint from a stick when he was working were usually the same when he drove his car. Tonight they were too big around, whiplash gestures, like they had a life of their own.

“He had to be moving fast, 85 to 90, anyway,” said Harry Cullum. “There was one hell of a crown where the town tar road begins at the beginning of the left curve. Jeez, I almost lost my car a couple of times there when I was a kid, but finally you smarten up and ride that crown, the one they fixed after Pollock got killed.”

“My version of Jackson’s death is he died of drink and the Town of East Hampton Highway Department,” said Wayne Barker.

It was three years ago, the first week of November, when he had come down the crown of the road like a stick of dynamite. He came back from the city on Friday, on the train. It snowed all morning and it was still snowing at the end of the day when he found his car in the lot, brushing a foot of snow off his windows with his hands, rubbing the cold out of them in front of the car’s dashboard heating vent. When he finally got on the road to Springs he was one of a handful of cars. The storm was blowing off the ocean. The car trembled whenever the road flattened out and he was sideways to the coastal wind.

“I crawled up there, could barely see, and stopped when I saw the pile of snow,” he told Lee that night at home, the windows in their sash frames rattling in the 75 MPH gusts. “There was a snowdrift, five feet, six feet high, down the other side blocking the way. I backed up a little, to where my rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road, and hit the gas as hard as I could. I went as fast as I could, hit the snow head on, everything went white, everything disappeared, no color, just white. By the time I came out the other side the Olds was barely moving.”

They laughed about it all night, over dinner, and later in bed again, curling close together under a mound of blankets.

The girl beside him was still screaming. How long could she keep it up? She was driving him nuts. He was driving wrong, all wrong. There was a reason. He knew it, but he also thought, how could there be a reason? What was it? Where was it? He knew it was right there, right at the edge of the front of his brain. It was like the images behind the abstractions in his paintings, right there. But when he tried hard to think of why he was driving wrong his brain hurt like a next morning’s hangover before getting his hands on some hair of the dog.

He had a hangover all the time now, more than five years worth, but it wasn’t from gin, it was from having rocketed to fame, putting everything he had into it, until he didn’t have anymore, and he quit pouring liquid paint cold turkey. It was all over. After that he couldn’t make a painting that anybody wanted.  When he did his black paintings on unprimed canvas, he couldn’t give them away. Even his fame couldn’t prime the pump. Nobody thought it was any good.

“An artist is a person who has invented an artist,” Rosie burst out one night near the tail end of a long night of poker and drinking.

Rosenberg always thought he was right, Jackson thought. He got it wrong on the train, though, the day we were riding into the city together. When I told him the canvas was an arena, I meant it like it was a living thing, not a dead thing, not slugging it out in the ring. He thought I somehow meant it literally, even though both of us were dead sober at the time, and the next thing I knew I was an action painter.

At least he got it right at the card game.

Not like Hans.

When Lee brought her teacher, Hans Hoffman, over to meet him, he saw the sour look on the great man’s face right away. Hans was a neat freak, everything in it’s place, clean and orderly. His own studio was a mess. There wasn’t a sign of a still life or a life model anywhere.

“You do not work from nature,” said Hans. “You work by heart, not from nature This is no good, you will repeat yourself.”

“I am nature,” said Jackson Pollack.

There wasn’t a drop of daylight left in the sky or anywhere on the other side of his windshield. It surprised the hell out of him when he got to the curve at the dip, where the concrete stopped and town’s blacktop started, and he suddenly veered off the road, aiming for the trees. The car skidded in the sand. He let it slide, its big front end dead set on the big oak tree to their left.

Skidding in the dirt off the road didn’t surprise him. Besides, he was going too fast. He was going fast, that’s all. The girl next to him stopped screaming. She slowed down. She was squeezing a small pillow in her hands with all her might. His hands felt dry and relaxed on the steering wheel. He didn’t squeeze the steering wheel even when he smashed into the tree head-on.

The car broke every bone in its chassis when it hit the tree. Jackson Pollack was catapulted over the windshield and into the woods. The mangled car flipped over, tossing Ruth to the side. When the Olds landed upside down, crushing the framework of the windshield, the girl with the pillow in her hands suddenly stopped gripping it. The car horn blared, stuck. Gasoline poured out of the punctured gas tank. The taillights blinked on and off and on and off.

“I’m going to be one of my paintings in a second,” thought Jackson Pollack in mid-air, halfway to the future, rocketing his way to forever. “I’m going to splatter all over. I’m going to be in nature, be nature, finally, once and for all.” He hit a tree. When he landed with a hard thud, however, he landed on soft ground, except for a just barely jutting out of the ground lump of granite rock. It was mottled with luminous moss. His neck hit the rock like a falling star.

He lay there like a broken tree branch, shoeless, his arms and legs haphazard.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider your support of the writing by clicking here to donate. 

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

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The A-side of Mermaid Avenue

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After bacon and eggs and toast and coffee, Ike and Mamie Eisenhower walked out of the big two-story house on the long quiet street and shook hands with Joel Carlson and his wife. “Thanks for having us,” said Dwight Eisenhower. They had spent the night in the guest bedroom. At the end of the driveway a man waited with three ballerina dolls in his arms.

Ike lit a cigarette.

“John Krajicek, from Ames,” a Secret Service man in a dark suit said.

The man holding the three dolls gave them to Mamie Eisenhower.

“Thank you so much,” she said, squeezing his arm.

John Krajiceks’s face lit up.

“It is my pleasure,” he said.

The President and Mrs. Eisenhower were in Boone, Iowa, on Friday, September 21st. Today was the last day of summer. Tomorrow was the first day of fall. It was a clear crisp morning.

Once in their car they were driven to 718 Carroll Street, to the house Mamie had been born in sixty years earlier. Mrs. Beatrice Smiley, Mrs. Myrtle Douglas, and Mrs. Awilda Stranberg, all dressed up, all in a bundle, all waiting breathlessly, greeted them on the front porch. They presented Mamie with a photograph of the stone and memorial plaque that had recently been placed on the lawn of her birthplace.

Mamie was slightly unnerved by the God’s acre look of it.

Looking down at the plaque, after reading the inscription, Ike noticed a shiny penny in the freshly mowed grass.

“See a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck,” he thought.

He picked it up.

Adlai Stevenson was coming to nearby Newton tomorrow to give a speech about farm problems. “We’ve got the ‘Truth Squad’ ready,” Joel Carlson had said over breakfast. Ike rolled the penny between his fingers in his pocket.

Vicki, Bettina, and Dottie plunked down their fifteen cents apiece at the NYCTA booth and walked down the stairs. Dottie stopped to look at a yellow sign trimmed in red on the wall at the entrance to the tunnel.

“Please cooperate. When in doubt, ask any employee. Help keep the subways clean. Use receptacles for paper. Do not rush – Let ‘em off first. Move away from doors. Keep to the right on stairways. Try to shop between 10 and 4. Always be courteous.”

“Run!” she suddenly shouted, running up the platform. “It’s one of those air-conditioned cars!”

Two months earlier the transit system had rolled out the first experimental air-conditioned cars on the East Side IRT line. They were fitted with deodorizers and filters and piped-in soft music. The temperature was maintained in the mid-70s. Signs on every third window said “Air Conditioned Car – Please Keep Windows Closed.”

They were taking the IND line across the river to Brooklyn, across Gravesend, to the end of the line. When they got off the train they walked, crossed Mermaid Avenue, and hoofed it to Coney Island Beach and Boardwalk.

Dottie felt light as lemonade.

They stopped at the Sodamat at West 15thStreet as they strolled on the Boardwalk.

“Good Drinks Served Right – Skee Ball 5 cents.”

There were prize games, hammer games, rifle ranges, freak shows, and fortune-tellers on Coney Island.

“Look, they have waffles,” said Dottie, pointing to a sign on the front of a counter behind which a man in a white jacket and soda jerk cap was making waffles.

“I thought you wanted a Nathan’s,” said Vicki.

“I do, but later,” said Dottie.

“Did you know hot dogs were invented right here on Coney Island, almost one hundred years ago?” asked Bettina.

“Not so fast, how could Nathan have done that?” asked Dottie.

“It wasn’t Nathan, it was Charley Feltman, who used to boil sausages on a small charcoal stove inside his wagon and then slip them into a roll. He called them red hots at first, but later changed it to hot dogs.”

“How about some ball hop before we eat?” asked Vicki, pointing into the arcade behind the food counter.

“My game is stickball,” said Dottie. “Skee ball is for sissies. They don’t even play stickball here. They play coop-ball. That’s for jellyfish, too.”

“Do you only play stickball?” asked Vicki.

“Oh, no, we play ringolevio and skelly, too, although some kids call it scummy top, even though I don’t know why. Skelly is fun, but all you’ve got are your chalk and the squares and your caps. Ringolevio is way more fun, we run all over, and there’s a jail, and jailbreaks, and everything. Chain chain, double chain, no break away!”

It was a few minutes before eleven when the Eisenhower’s arrived at the National Field Days and Plowing Matches near Colfax. In the past two days he had traveled hundreds of miles through central Iowa, made speeches, informal talks, shook hands, waved and flashed his smile to more than 300,00 people, half of them on Walnut Street in Des Moines, eight and nine deep, on both sides of the street.

Gangs of schoolchildren ran alongside his limousine and kids on bicycles rode behind his police motorcycle escorts.

“There’s never been anything like this here before,” said Governor Leo Hoegh, whistling through his teeth in awe and admiration.

Four years earlier, when Harry Truman had campaigned in Iowa, he got sick and tired of hearing “We Like Ike!” from hecklers. “Why don’t you shut up and you might learn something,” he retorted at one stop, veering from his prepared speech. Instead, he became the target of eggs and tomatoes.

As they drove up the dirt road off Highway 6 to the entrance of the Field Days, Dwight Eisenhower glanced at the cardboard signs at the side of the road. He wasn’t the challenger anymore. He was the incumbent. He was the man in office with a record to defend.

“10-cent corn  – the same as 1932.”

1932 was the year 24 years ago when Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in that year’s presidential race, more than three years into the Great Depression.

“Ike Promised 100 Per Cent Parity 1952. Didn’t Happen. What Promise – 1956?”

“Ike’s Peace Like Neville Chamberlain’s Peace.”

At the entrance a short round man held up a loosely lettered sign on the end of a broom.

“Adlai and Estes, The Bestest.”

“That was the best waffle I ever had,” said Dottie.

“You had two of them,” said Vicki.

“She’s a growing girl,” said Bettina.

“Those were the best two waffle I ever had,” said Dottie.

“Where to now?” asked Bettina.

“I want to jump off the Eiffel Tower!” exclaimed Dottie.

The Parachute Jump at Steeplechase Park had been built for the 1939 World’s Fair and afterwards moved to Coney Island. It stood 250 feet high, was open-frame, and everyone called it the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn. Twelve cantilevered steel arms sprouted from the top of the tower, eleven of them supporting a two-person canvas seat and a parachute. The riders were belted down, hoisted to the top, then released into a freefall, caught by the parachute, and floated to the ground. Shock absorbers were built into the seats, just in case.

“I’m not going up on that thing,” said Bettina.

“Do you remember the parachute wedding?” Vicki asked Bettina.

“No, I never have heard of it.”

“The couple got married up there. The minister was in the seat next to them and the whole wedding party was on the rest of the seats. When the ceremony was over the married couple parachuted down first, and everyone else followed them, except for the minister. The cables on his seat got tangled and he was up there for more than five hours before firemen could get him down. The tower is right on the ocean, and it got windy, and he was sick as a dog by the time they got him on the ground.”

“That cinches it,” said Bettina.

“You and me both, sister,” said Vicki.

“Mr. President,” said Herb Plambeck. “I’d like to introduce our twenty seven Champion Plowmen and our one and only Champion Plow Woman, Mrs. Pauline Blankenship.”

Ike shook hands with them, taking Pauline Blankenship’s lightly in his. He shook hands with Frank Mendell, chairman of the National Contour Plowing Match, and Dale Hall, chairman of the National Level Land Plowing Match. In the Lunch Tent he met Kay Butler, Queen of the Furrow, and ate sitting between Mamie and Governor Hoegh.

Mrs. Jet Adams supervised the dozen ladies serving lunch. Mamie waved her over.

“You’re doing a wonderful job,” she said.

After lunch Senator B. B. Hickenlooper introduced President Eisenhower to the crowd after introducing himself at length.

“Most of you know me, and I’m sure have voted for me often,” he said.

There was a wave of good-natured laughter.

“For those of you who don’t know me, and aren’t sure how to pronounce my name, my friends just call me Hick.”

There was another wave of laughter, larger and louder.

“When I was child, my mother sent me to the drug store to get a nickel’s worth of asafetida for her asthma. The druggist just gave it me without writing it out, because he didn’t want to have to write out my full name, Bourke Blakemore Hickenlooper. “

“Just take this home to your mother, Hick,” said the druggist.

Bourke B. Hickenlooper had been a senator since 1944. He wore black frame glasses beneath a pinkish bald pate and was one of the most conservative and isolationist members in the United States Senate. He hadn’t lost an election since as lieutenant governor of Iowa almost twenty years ago he had made headlines by saving a Cedar Rapids woman from drowning in the Cedar River.

She later told her friends she hadn’t needed saving, but that her savior had insisted.

President Eisenhower’s speech was broadcast live on local TV and radio. He stayed local, steering away from anything contentious, the bland leading the bland. After the address he presented trophies and scrolls to the champion plowmen and champion plow woman.

Henry Steenhock, the owner of the land where the Field Days were held, didn’t think much of the speech.

“I like Ike, but I don’t think I’ll vote for him, even though I’ve been a Republican all my life,” he said. “Flexible price supports have got to go. We’re not looking for a handout, but we deserve price protection. Other businesses are subsidized. Ezra Benson? He’s got to go. Vice-President Nixon? I don’t like his attitude – period. Estes Kefauver, he’s like I am, straight-forward.”

Henry Steenbock always called corn a cash crop and a spade a spade.

“Why do they call it Coney Island?” asked Dottie.

“It’s because of the Dutch,” said Bettina. “When they were here, maybe 300 years ago, there were lots of rabbits in the dunes, so they called it Konijnen Eiland, which means Rabbit Island, which became Coney Island after the English took over.”

“How did they take over?”

“Somebody always takes over,” said Bettina.

“Why does somebody always take over?”

“It’s the way of the world, child,” said Bettina.

“I want to go on the Wonder Wheel,” said Dottie.

“I think we’re up for that,” said Vicki.

The Wonder Wheel at Luna Park was a Ferris wheel and a Chute-the Chutes and a slow-moving roller coaster all in one. It was once called Dip-the-Dip. Some of the cars were stationary, but more than less of them moved back and forth along tracks between a big outer wheel and a smaller inner wheel as the Wonder Wheel rotated.

They walked past an eight-foot high neon sign spelling out “Wonder Wheel.” Through the middle of the sign was an arrow blinking and pointing to the ride.

“Thrills.”

Dottie sat between Vicki and Bettina in one of the sliding cars.

“You can see Manhattan,” said Vicki when it was their turn at the top of the 150-foot-tall wheel and it stopped for a few seconds.

“Look, you can see the Rockaway,” said Bettina.

“It takes you low and it takes you high,” said Vicki.

“When you reach the top it’s like you can touch the sky,” said Dottie. “You can see the whole world.”

“One minute you’re on top, the next minute you’re on the bottom,” said Bettina. “I say, stay in your seat, it’s going to get bumpy, enjoy the ride.”

“Top of the world, ma, top of the world,” said Vicki like a crazy person, bulging her eyeballs and throwing her arms up.

Bettina laughed.

“Isn’t that crazy? One day he’s Yankee Doodle Dandy and the next day he’s a mama’s boy mad dog killer.”

The Wonder Wheel shuddered and started down again.

Dwight Eisenhower and his wife were at the Des Moines Municipal Airport by mid-afternoon for their flight back to Washington D. C. He greeted and answered questions from more than a hundred Iowa weekly newspaper editors, met with two- dozen Iowa Republican Party officials, and was escorted to the Columbine by sixteen Eagle Scouts formed as an Honor Guard.

Inside the plane an aide sat down opposite him.

“Mr. President we have a report that Anastasio Somoza, the president of Nicaragua, has been shot today.”

“Is it serious?”

“The report wasn’t entirely clear, but it said, yes, serious, shot in the chest, point-blank, it might be life-threatening.”

“Where have they taken him?”

“He’s been taken to the Panama Canal Zone hospital.”

“Good, best place for him. He may be a son of a bitch, but Tacho’s our son of a bitch, so tell them to do everything they can to save him.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Who shot him?”

“A poet.”

“Are you serious? A poet?”

“A poet, yes, sir, a local writer and musician, played violin in a band. He was shot dead, riddled, on the spot.”

“I’ll be damned, a poet with a pistol, mightier than the pen.”

The Columbine touched down at 9:35, taxied to the MATS Terminal, and the Eisenhower’s were in bed by 10:45. The next day Ike stayed in the Mansion all day while it steadily rained, only seeing the Secretary of State for a few minutes. Ike and Mamie attended the Sunday morning service at the National Presbyterian Church, and like the day before spent the rest of the day in the Mansion. Sunday night some of ‘The Gang’ came to dinner at the White House, over drinks planning their next stag trip to the Eisenhower Cabin at the Augusta National Golf Club.

When he was there, which was as often as possible, Ike worked mornings in the three-story seven-bedroom cabin, played golf with his friends in the afternoon, and bridge after dinner. His friends weren’t his friends at the card table, except his partner, and then not always even him.

“How was the Iowa trip?” one of them asked.

“The same as all the others, except it didn’t rain, and the food was better,” said Ike. “I shook a lot of hands, made speeches to the faithful, and got out the vote.”

Dottie peeked over the front edge of the front car down at the track of the Cyclone as the train creaked up to the top of the lift hill, where it was going to curve over the rails and hurtle down. Vicki and Bettina were in the car behind her and Dottie was with her new friend, Ronald, a boy her age whose parents had stayed behind on the platform.

The Cyclone roller coaster was in Astroland at the corner of Surf Avenue and West 10thStreet, almost 2700 feet long, with six fan turns and twelve drops. The lift hill was 85 feet high. Six years earlier a man who hadn’t spoken in fourteen years, riding the Cyclone for the first time, screamed while going down the first drop.

“I feel sick,” he muttered when the train returned to the station, and dropped to the ground in a dead faint after realizing he had spoken.

“I have a friend who counts the seconds until the ride is over,” said Ronnie.

“Why does he do that?”

“He can’t stand it.”

“What’s the point of riding it in the first place?”

“I duuno,” said Ronnie. “Every time I ask if he wants to go with me, he says, sure, as soon as I’ve lost my mind, but he always goes anyway.”

“The Cyclone is for when you want to be so scared and so thrilled all at the same time. Maybe he should stick to the merry-go-round.”

“Yeah,” said Ronnie. “You don’t want to ride the roller coaster when you’ve got diarrhea.”

“No way,” said Dottie, making sure their buzz bar was locked in place.

“Did you hear about that girl who got hit in the face by a pigeon and broke her nose going down this hill?” asked Ronnie.

“No!” said Dottie.

“It was alright,” he said. “She had some Kleenex and just stuffed it up her nose nostrils to keep the blood out of her eyes.”

“Yikes!” said Dottie, as the Cyclone shimmied shook roared down the other side of the lift hill. “I don’t have any Kleenex.”

They laughed up and down the trick hill, leaned into the banked turns that twisted and tipped the train, ducked beneath the headchoppers, and inside of two minutes pulled into the station where everyone clambered off.

“My legs feel like fried bacon,” said Ronnie.

“Yeah, that was the mostest fun,” said Dottie.

“Bye.”

“Bye to you, too.”

“That was sketchy,” said Vicki.

“Shoot low, they’re sending Shetlands,” said Bettina. “Did you feel that tower sway when we got to the top?”

“Yes, you bet I did.”

“I’m hungry,” said Dottie.

“You’re always hungry,” said Bettina. “Doesn’t Stan feed you?

“So am I,” said Vicki.

“How about a red hot at Nathan’s?” suggested Bettina.

“Yippee ki yay!” exclaimed Dottie.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider your support of the writing by clicking here to donate. 

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Kill Me Again

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Most people, unlike cats and their legendary nine lives, only die once when they pass away. There’s no going back for a do-over. The art of living well and the art of dying well are often thought to be the same thing. Kim Fowler is not most people. She lives well, but doesn’t die well, although if she were a cat she would be down to six lives and counting.

She is the founder and owner of YAS Yoga and Spinning Fitness Centers, with multiple locations in Costa Mesa, Venice, and Los Angeles, California. The first center opened in 2001 and featured the first fitness program wedding yoga and certified spinning. “Both together are an amazing combination of yin-yang,” she said.

Ms. Fowler’s Yoga for Athletes melds elements of Iyengar and Ashtanga practice to enhance athletic performance and reduce the risk of injuries. YAS classes are typically 30 minutes of indoor cycling followed by 30 minutes of yoga. “It helps you go deeper into and benefit more from each pose,” she said.

She is a successful innovator, teacher, and businesswoman. She is a resourceful yogi, and one tough cookie, too. She has learned to roll with the punches, literally.

In the early 1980s she was competing in a bicycle road race outside Dallas, Texas, when a car smashed into her. She rolled over the front of her bike.

“I bent the handlebar of my bike with my face.”

As late as 2013 there were close to a half million emergency room visits because of bicycle-related injuries and almost 900 bikers died. Texas is one of the deadliest states in America in which to ride a bicycle, ranking only behind Florida.

After recovering she worked with a physical therapist, a woman who happened to be an Inyengar Yoga instructor on the side. “She gave me yoga poses to help me.” A near death experience turned into a far and wide life experience.

“I guess yoga found me,” she said.

Whether it’s exercise or meditation, yoga is about trying to apprehend the inner being, what in the Yoga Sutras is called drastuh. It’s a burning away of what in the end doesn’t matter. Eternity isn’t something that happens after anybody dies. It’s happening all the time to everybody.

Kim Fowler was raised in an impoverished South Jersey neighborhood, the eldest of five children. “I grew up extremely poor. We didn’t have food or heat. My father had a bad car accident when I was young and ended up with 88 stitches in his face. He never pulled out of it. He became an alcoholic, didn’t work, and left us to fend for ourselves.” She had to make her own way.

Sometimes the freedom to be yourself comes from old-fashioned gumption.

After putting herself through school and earning a degree from Boston University she enrolled in law school. In her final year, in the middle of her final semester, she was diagnosed with a rapidly growing tumor the size of a golf ball in her brain.

“I had a bright career in front of me,” she said. Lawyers get a bad rap. Some people even believe most of the trouble with laws is lawyers. “No one wanted an attorney that had a brain tumor.“

Her doctors told her the problem was inoperable. “We could try to get it out,” one of the team of doctors told her. “But, you will lose your speech and sight. You probably won’t make it past thirty.”

Life can be rocketed into a new orbit by a doctor dispensing bad news from a clipboard in a bland voice. “I’m in my last year of law school!” she exclaimed. “This isn’t an option for me.” Once diagnosed, she had to decide whether or not to listen to their medical advice.

“I’m not going to let this happen to me,” she decided. “There’s got to be something else, something different.” She called a friend who helped her check herself out of the hospital. “Nurses and doctors were screaming. If I would have listened to them I would be dead by now.”

Dead again.

She refused, however, to give up the spirit and buy the farm.

“It’s mind over matter,” said Kim. She began training for and taking part in endurance contests. She ran marathons, rode all-day races on her bicycle, and finally progressed to triathlons. “Someone telling me I was going to die caused me to go the whole other route and become a pro triathlete.”

She also made making it on the mat a habit. “Practicing yoga while battling cancer taught me the importance of balancing strength with flexibility. Focusing on my breath helped me stay centered.”

She gradually recovered. “It was hard, but I was full of piss and vinegar at the time.”

Although doctors are often crucial, recovery is more often brought about not by them, but by the person in danger. In many respects we heal ourselves, by means of our thought and breath, and sheer will.

After graduating from South Texas College of Law she stayed in Houston, going to work for a law firm. In 1990 she moved overseas, practicing international business law in Monaco. Five years later, back in the United States, she joined Winning Combination, a health and wellness business, as their Chief Operating Officer.

Then one day she went hiking.

The Mt. Charleston Wilderness Area in Nevada is gnarly, riven by narrow slot canyons, and laced with steep hillsides. The mountain is called Sky Island because of its elevation and isolation. While free climbing she slipped on a patch of ice, lost her balance, and fell more than twenty feet. She landed on an old tree stump.

The stump stayed rooted. She took the brunt of the encounter.

She cracked several ribs, punctured a lung, and severely lacerated a kidney. “I’ve been through worse,” she thought. She was a half-hour away from the closest medical help. She dragged herself off the stump. ”I knew I had to get to the hospital. It was mind over matter and I just did it.”

The kidney on the side that had taken the blow from the fall was leaking urine and blood into surrounding tissue. At the hospital she was told it had to be removed.

“No,” she said.

Kim Fowler was, again, determined to go her own way. It took her a year to recover. The Winning Combination let her go long before year’s end. “I lost my job as COO.” Getting fired can be like a bomb going off. It can also be a way to get on with your life. You only get to make one mistake with bombs. Firing Ms. Fowler was the Winning Combination’s mistake, although for her it turned out to be liberating.

“When I was rehabbing I would go from a yoga class on one side of town to a spin class on the other,” she said. “I was very frustrated. I thought, why doesn’t someone put this together and open up a yoga and spinning studio?”

That someone turned out to be her.

She opened the first of her yoga and spinning studios in Venice, California. The day she opened the doors her new business began to fail. “We had opposite energies coming together.” Spinners were looking for an intense cardiovascular workout and yogis were looking for a workout to calm them down.

What do you do if your business plan isn’t working? “In my case I regrouped and changed, fast.” She created a new kind of yoga to fit the spinners and sold the yoga crowd on the complementary benefits of spinning. “It was the best thing I could have done.” She was designated a Nike Yoga Athlete by the athletic and fitness company two years later.

Winning acceptance in the yoga world, however, was another matter.

“I got blasted by the yoga community when I first did it because it wasn’t ‘real yoga’, rather my own style,” said Kim.

It was a matter of building a better mousetrap.

The concept of zen on wheels made it into Yoga Journal, the world’s largest mass circulation yoga magazine, “Spin and yoga have merged into a killer one-hour class, created by Los Angeles-based yoga instructor Kimberly Fowler. It’s cropping up across the country.” It named the now better mousetrap one of the hottest fitness trends of 2014.

Since then Ms. Fowler has expanded her brand, moving beyond company-owned locations, and franchising her fitness regimen. “Indoor cycling gives you the best cardio training and yoga provides the best stretching, relaxation, and peace of mind to prepare you for the challenges of life,“ said Hugo Auler, new owner of the franchised YAS Fitness Center in Manhattan Beach, California.

Resurrecting her life led to resurrecting her career, and led to finding her business partner, too. Sherri Rosen is her partner in life, as well. “We were set up on a blind date just a few months after I opened YAS,” said Kim. “We are still together.”

“I’ve stayed in an operator’s mode,” said Ms. Rosen, former vice president of a fashion company. “Kimberly is the visionary. It is amazing what she has accomplished.”

Even though Kim Fowler has gone from cutting edge to business-savvy, even though she has transformed her business model to an investor approach, and even though she has gone corporate, she still lives in her sweats.

“I basically live in workout clothes,” she said. “I only wear green, gray, black, and white. Well, with a smattering of skulls.” She is the designer of an apparel line whose tag line is “Two parts functional, one part bad ass.”

Kim Fowler continues to see her doctor once in a while. “I went and he looked at me like I was a freak when he realized I’d been off medication for 20 years, like I shouldn’t have the life I have. The mind is pretty phenomenal when it comes to its power over the body.”

At the end of exercise sequences on the yoga mat something called corpse pose is traditionally practiced. It’s the easiest and hardest pose. It’s easy because all you have to do is lay on your back with your eyes closed for 5 to 15 minutes. It’s hard because who wants to lie on their back like a dead person, doing nothing, for 5 to 15 minutes.

Corpse pose is about letting go. But, it’s not about zoning out or taking a nap. Even though it’s about letting go, it’s a pose meant to foster connection and clarity, or awareness. Many people struggle with it, however, and some classes look like popcorn popping the minute class ends and corpse pose is announced.

Other people have no problem with it. Kim Fowler is one of them. It keeps her in touch with life. “It’s a different awareness of your body,” she said. “I think for stress it’s amazing. Nothing’s better.”

She knows when to lie down and when to get back up. There are no surprises waiting for her in corpse pose. She’s been there before.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider your support of the writing by clicking here to donate. 

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Feet to the Fire

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The first summer Doug McKinney joined the staff at the Landmark Café in Victoria, on the south shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, he joined at the bottom. He was a busboy. One of the first times he cleaned a table in the newer back dining room of the restaurant, he miscalculated the ceiling.

“I was clearing a mussel dish off a table, stood straight up, and hit my head,” he said. “It was like somebody hitting you right on the top of your head. I blacked out for a second.”

Doug is slightly taller than six feet eight inches. The ceiling is slightly shorter than six feet six inches. Something had to give.

He didn’t make the same mistake twice, although there were several more close calls. Almost knocking yourself out one time is often the charm, never mind any more times.

“I’ve always been the kind of person, if I don’t know how to do something, I’m going to ask, or I’m just going to go ahead and do it. Maybe I do it right. Maybe I do it wrong. If I do it wrong, I’ll probably only do it wrong once.”

An only child, Doug grew up on the eastern end of the island, near Montague. The small town is known as “Montague the Beautiful” for its river, tree-lined streets, and heritage homes. His father was a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer. In 1993 his dad was struck by a fatal heart attack. The boy was 7-years-old.

The 33-year-old man has a tattoo on his chest honoring his father.

The following year his mother and he moved to Charlottetown, the capitol city of the province.

“The RCMP relocated them, bought them a house,” said Rachel Sauve, Doug’s fiancée.

“They are good for that,” said Doug. “I went from living in a rural community to a brand new suburb. My mom spoiled me a lot, for sure. There were lots of kids my own age. I was playing sports, basketball, and we had more than two TV channels.”

By the time he was 15 he was growing more and playing more basketball. He spent early mornings and late evenings at hoops. You can’t do it by loafing around. Practice makes it happen, not just wanting it to happen, and his growth spurt, which can’t be taught, took him up a notch.

As much as basketball was becoming his life, life and death came knocking.

“I was playing in the Canada Games in 2001 when my mother was diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “I came back home, and even though she had only been given until Christmas, she made it until April.”

An inking honoring his mother joined his father’s tattoo on his chest.

“When I lost her, I put more emphasis on basketball.” Not yet grown up, he had to grow up on his own. It was get up stand up for yourself on your own two feet. He treated every day on the hardwood like every day was his last day draining a jump shot.

“Basketball was developed to meet a need,” said James Naismith, the inventor of the game.

Doug played basketball at university and professionally until he was thirty. A graduate of Charlottetown Rural High School, he played five seasons with the UPEI Panthers. Later he played internationally in Lebanon, and after returning to Prince Edward Island, played four seasons with the Island Storm of Canada’s National Basketball League.

He had his ups and downs fast breaking crashing the boards shooting floaters, like every player, since even the superstars barely shoot 50% for the season, but he knew how to recognize his mistakes, learn from them, and then forget them. He never let an opponent try harder than he did.

”It’s basically grown men who do this for a job,” he said when trying out for the Island Storm in 2011. “Everybody is strong, everybody is athletic. I just try to play hard, sweat as much as I can every day, show that I’m willing to work.” Going nose to nose with grown men means proving yourself every day.

He was named to the NBL All-Star Second Team the 2012 – 2113 season.

When his team needed him to score, he scored. During game seven of the NBL Canada Finals in 2014 he went 7 of 8 from the field, 4 of 4 from the 3-point line, threw in an assist, a steal, and three rebounds, and set a playoff record that still stands for most points scored in the fewest minutes.

Basketball is a team game, to the extent that even the best basketball players, like Michael Jordan and LeBron James, could never have won multiple championships without solid teams around them. Doug McKinney’s pro career as a power forward was solid on getting it done.

Ask not what your teammates can do for you. Ask what you can do for your teammates. Make the extra pass.

After retiring from the pro game he has continued to work with the sport. Last year he was the Minor Basketball Advisor for Basketball Prince Edward Island, helping players and coaches of grassroots programs in PEI communities.

In the meantime, he re-connected with Rachel Sauve.

“We first met in 2002-or-so,” she said. “I was dating one of Doug’s teammates at UPEI.”

Years later they ran into each other at Baba’s Lounge in Charlottetown.

“One of my Storm teammates texted me that he was there, and even though I usually never went there, I went,” said Doug. “I saw her, she gave me a big hug, we hung out for a little bit, and after I left I couldn’t stop thinking about her.”

“I don’t think either of us were looking for a relationship, but we didn’t want to pass it up,” said Rachel. ”We both are islanders and want to be here.”

“I think we both knew there was something other than the fact that I’m really tall and she’s definitely shorter, something special about our energy together,” said Doug.

Rachel was working at the Landmark Café, her family’s homemade soup signature quiche traditional meat pies hot-off-the-press seafood all made fresh daily sit-down in the heart of their small town. The produce is local organic and they make their own salad dressings. Her father, Eugene, and mother, Julia, had staked out the restaurant, several times expanded since, excavating a new basement for storage and coolers, building new dining rooms, and adding an outdoor deck, twenty nine years earlier in what had once been Annie Craig’s Grocery Store and Post Office, kitty corner from the Victoria Playhouse.

“As kids my brother and I were always helping, doing stuff at the restaurant, washing dishes, running to the freezers for ice cream,” said Rachel.

Her father’s entrepreneurship rubbed off on her.

“I sat out front at a picnic table and sold stuff,” she said. “ I was 11, 12-years-old.”

She sold wood figurines, creating faces and outfits for them. She sold bootleg Anne of Green Gables straw hats with red braids. She sold wax jewelry that she and a friend designed and molded out of leftover wax from the café.

“We had a problem with it, though, because the wax would melt in the sun. We put it in boxes so it wouldn’t start melting until the tourists had left the village.”

The family has worked together at the Landmark from the word go.

Shortly after Doug and Rachel had gone from an encounter to a thing together, the restaurant posted a “Help Wanted” for the summer season sign.

Once Doug got the parameters of the back dining room’s ceiling right, he went from busboy to server to integral part of the roster, picking up vittles in the morning, working long into the night cleaning up and closing down.

“It goes back to growing up and playing on teams,” he said. “I’ve played on good ones. I’ve played on bad ones. I’ve always prided myself on being a team player. The Landmark is the kind of place, you’re either going to swim or you’re going to sink.”

“You either do the dance or you don’t do the dance,” said Rachel.

Working for a family business is a dynamic unlike other work. Your mom and dad or grandparents started it from scratch and you’re never going to be one of the founding fathers. Sometimes it’s one big happy family at the dinner table, but sometimes it’s like the Mafia. Whatever the big cheese says is what goes, and you have to come to grips with it.

Doug spent four years at the Landmark Café.

“I was actually the tallest server east of Montreal,” said Doug. “I didn’t want to just serve anywhere, except the Landmark.”

Their lives took a turn toward the end of last winter when they came to a fork in the road and took it. They had just come back to Prince Edward Island from several weeks in Cuba. “That was our last hurrah before the summer,” said Rachel. But once at home, instead of going back to work at the Landmark Café, Doug and Rachel took jobs with Fairholm Inn and Properties.

The collection of archetypal inns in downtown Charlottetown, including the eponymous Fairholm Inn, the Hillhurst Inn, and the Cranford House, share the same grounds, gardens, and outdoor fire-pit. The Fairholm Inn is a National Historic Site, originally a large family home built in 1838 for Thomas Haviland, a many times mayor of the capitol city.

Doug and Rachel are the Jack and Jill of all trades at Fairholm.

“I do the front desk, maintenance work, a little bit of everything,” said Doug.

“They wanted me to learn how to edit websites,” sad Rachel. “Now I know how to edit websites.”

“After Rachel got hired, they needed more help on their team, and thought I could help them out,” said Doug.

“He’s been building cabinets there,” said Rachel.

“It’s awesome working together,” said Doug “We’ve found that even when we’re not working, we go golfing together, go places on the island, have adventures.”

Fairholm Properties schedules most of their days off at the same time.

“It’s evolved into us realizing we work well together. After five years we’re at a spot where we’re trying to figure out our next life,” said Rachel.

“Our next play,” said Doug. “I’m adding stuff to my tool belt, but at the same time, we want to work for ourselves.”

“It might be a tabletop, food truck, catering, something,” said Rachel. “We’re lucky on this island. We have the best local seafood and meat. I can’t see myself being out of that line of work. My dad taught me. All my cooking skills are from him. I’ve got his cooking style in my blood.”

Her father and his Landmark Café have long made the list in the independent guide ‘Where to Eat in Canada’. He is known for his fusion of Asian, Cajun, and native PEI foods, and was once known as a pioneer for his never fried and healthy fare. He is still known for his tasty healthy never fried fare.

Doug’s mother had been a manager at Myron’s in Charlottetown, which was one of eastern Canada’s biggest and most popular sports bar restaurant nightclub concert venues of its time.

“I grew up in the industry without even realizing it,” said Doug.

There isn’t much needed to make your life. It’s all within you, in your way of thinking, in knowing what you want. Being an entrepreneur is a mindset. What it takes is taking the plunge, putting everything you’ve got into being your own boss, exploiting your opportunities when you get them.

It’s jumping off the Confederation Bridge to catch a flying fish. You might go splat in the Northumberland Straight. It will test your risk aversion, but it is, at least, one way to start swimming. You might, on the other hand, land in the fish market, show you’re worth your salt, because you saw something and built your wings on the way down.

No risk no reward.

“We have ideas for our own food venue,” said Rachel, “We’re not chefs, but we’re both great cooks.”

“We eat like kings at home,” said Doug.

“I want the lifestyle, the lifestyle I’ve been living all my life,” said Rachel.

“I’ve gotten to love it, too,” said Doug. “Grind all summer and then find summer somewhere else.”

“I’m not going to sit at a desk,” said Rachel. “That’s not going to happen.”

Whatever does happen, the two of them are undeniably hand to the plow. When they were with the Landmark Café they often worked seven days a week, twelve and fourteen hours a day, most of those hours on their feet. Restaurant work is hard enough, but seasonal restaurant work is getting down to business, not a moment to lose.

“We know many people in the food industry on the island, and some of them want us to work for them, but we want to have our own thing,” said Rachel.

Although raising capital is always a problem for new ventures, especially those related to food enterprises, Rachel Sauve and Doug McKinney are willing to work steadfast persevering to achieve their ends.

“I’m not too good to wash dishes, to do whatever it takes,“ said Doug. “There are a lot of opportunities to capitalize on the food scene on Prince Edward Island in the summertime.”

“When I do a post-up of something we’re cooking at home at night, and I see the reaction, I know it’s something I should be doing,” said Rachel. “We’re trying to mold our future.”

Rachel and Doug may be on a small team at the moment, since it is only the two of them on the roster, far from first place in the standings, but they are on one another’s side, both of them no ifs buts or maybes, their minds made up to make it happen.

“That’s the difference maker,” said Doug. “When you know what you want, you can make a difference.”

Everything’s on the front burner, pots and pans, the kitchen sink, plans goals around the corner, their feet to the bright side of the fire.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider your support of the writing by clicking here to donate. 

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Walking Tall

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“Waiting for an invitation to arrive, goin’ to a party where no one’s still alive.” Dead Man’s Party, Oingo Boingo  

Barron Cannon laughed and made loop de loops at the side of his head with his index finger.

“Orange Julius has a screw loose,” he said. “But, since he’s at the top, he can take his crazy visions and turn them into reality. He’s like a saint from the Dark Ages who ate a moldy loaf of rye and saw God. It makes you wonder, am I or they round the bend?” He made a fist, raised his thumb, extended two fingers parallel to each other, and blew on the fingers. “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

Smoke signals and mirrors. Lipstick sour looks lapel flag pins and soapboxes in the halls of power. Men and women in ten thousand dollar suits slowing down when they see a mirror.

We were sitting in the only place there are any chairs in Barron’s small neighborhood yoga studio, at the front by the windows facing the parking lot. The Quiet Mind is on Clifton Boulevard on the Lakewood side of West 117th Street. Across the street is Cleveland, Ohio. He was drinking homemade Kombucha out of a Starbucks travel mug and I was drinking McCafe drive-thru coffee.

Barron had an Apple laptop in his lap. He was updating a Facebook post he had made offering yoga classes in return for turning in your guns. I chewed on my pencil. He was making like Wyatt Earp.

In 1881, when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were running things in Tombstone, you could bring your gun into town, but you couldn’t keep it while in town. You had to check it into the sheriff’s office. There was stricter gun control in the Wild West than there is today. Nowadays in Tombstone, Arizona, anyone can carry a Ruger semi-automatic pistol in a fancy holster on his rattlesnake belt. There is no Wyatt Earp anymore with a Colt Peacemaker telling you to stash your gun in the sheriff’s office for the duration.

Barron Cannon’s amnesty program was in response to the massacre of 26 churchgoers in a small Texas town on November 5th, on a suddenly not quiet Sunday morning. President Donald Trump, kowtowing to the gun lobby, said after the shooting, “I think that mental health is your problem here.”

“I mean, when I say a loose screw, he signed a bill that Congress, the Republicans, the lunatics running the asylum, earlier in the year voted through that made it easier for crazy people to buy guns legally. I should probably say mentally ill, but if you’re buying six-shooters for protection, you’re crazier than the mentally ill. The horse is out of the barn. It’s blasting time, AR-15’s all around!”

Barron was working both sides of the street, as is his wont, but he had a point. One of Donald Trump’s first reactions in the White House was to roll back an Obama-era law that made it harder for people with mental illnesses to buy firearms. He made it easier, no trouble, a piece of cake.

“It is the height of hypocrisy for President Trump – who called the latest tragic mass shooting ‘a mental health problem at the highest level’ – to have rolled back a rule specifically designed to prevent some gun violence deaths,” said Senator Richard Blumental of Connecticut.

“Blaming mental health is a tactic straight out of the gun lobby’s playbook,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the gun control group started by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011, along with 18 other people, at a constituent meeting in Arizona.

“Maybe it’s more like crazy as a fox,” I said.

“The United States used to be a safe place, but not anymore. This year it ranked 114th on the Global Peace Index. It ranks lower every year. We’re edging towards Iraq and Syria. Maybe the Republicans are right. Maybe what we need are more not less guns.”

“Nope, wrong,” he said.

Barron Cannon can be abrupt high-hat holier-than-thou. He is not a sensitive, bias-free, politically correct man. Even though he has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Philosophy and is in his early 30s, he often behaves and speaks as though he grew up in the 1930s. He is as blunt barefaced austere as anybody from back in the Depression.

Barron Cannon is, however, hardly ever depressed. He says happiness doesn’t depend on the external, but rather on our mental attitude. The free flow yoga he teaches is as much about mental health as it is about physical health.

“The reason the United States is getting more dangerous is because there are more and more guns, not less,” he said. “Canada, Japan, and Australia are some of the safest places to live in the world, while here it’s every man for himself and God against all. Conservative Christians have more guns than anybody else.”

An American is 300 times more likely to be killed by a gun than a Japanese.

“There are hardly any guns in those countries,” he said. “All the guns are here.”

“They can’t all be here,” I said.

“Right you are, Jocko,” he said. My name isn’t Jocko, but Barron often fixes nicknames to people, like Shorty for a tall man and Train Track for someone wearing braces. His nickname for himself is Dazzy.

All of the White House men have had nicknames, from Father of the Country to Give ‘Em Hell Harry to No Drama Obama. Barron’s nickname for Donald Trump is Orange Julius.

“Not all the guns in the world are here, just most of them. There are fewer than 5% of the people on the planet here in the USA, but we have almost 50% of the guns in the world. Nobody messes with us. The Senate and the House, and now Trump World, they have their noses snagged in the NRA money clip. It stinks, but they can’t smell anything beyond the stench of fresh new one hundred dollar bills.”

A gun buyback program is a program to purchase privately owned guns, reducing how many guns there are in general among the general population. In 2003 and again in 2009 Brazil bought and destroyed more than a million guns. Firearm related mortality was reduced.

Gun amnesty programs involve handing in guns you shouldn’t have without being prosecuted for having them. In July 2017 Australia announced a national firearms amnesty. Anyone with an illegal firearm could turn it over to the police. Otherwise, they faced a quarter-million dollar fine. More than 50,000 guns were turned in.

In 1996 a gunman killed 35 tourists in Australia. It was the worst mass murder in the country’s history. By the end of the year, led by a conservative Prime Minister, sweeping gun control laws were put in place. A buyback resulted in more than 600,000 semi-automatic weapons being destroyed. There hasn’t been a mass shooting in Australia since.

In this country, more men, women, and children have been killed by gunfire in the past 50 years than have been killed on all the battlefields in all the wars America has ever fought. Gun control laws in the United States are, in general, laughable.

“I have a very strict gun control policy,” said Clint Eastwood, play acting being a bounty hunter dressed up as a rodeo clown in the caper movie “Pink Cadillac”.

“If there’s a gun around, I want to be in control of it.”

That is the state of gun control in the United States.

After the Las Vegas bloodbath on the night of October 1st in which 59 people were killed and more than 500 injured by a lone gunman with an army squad kettle of semi-automatic weapons fitted with bump stocks, Malcom Turnbull, the current Australian Prime Minister, said the politics of gun ownership in America was “almost beyond comprehension.”

He pointed out the intractable problem guns pose in the United States.

“There is a ferociously strong political lobby and the National Rifle Association, and millions of Americans who own guns and cherish their constitutional right to bear arms, But, of course, the right to bear arms was an 18th century concept, long before automatic weapons were even thought of, let alone invented.”

Americans are crazy about their guns. They often claim they need them for home security, which begs the question, how many enemies do they have? However, they rarely, if ever, go to home security trade shows and conventions. They go to gun trade shows and conventions, swap meets online purveyors private sellers, no background checks required. They love their guns.

What’s crazy is that after Sandy Hook, where 20 children and 6 teachers were killed in an elementary school, nothing changed, except that more guns have been sold in the past five years. It has become the new normal to massacre concertgoers, churchgoers, and kids going to school.

“Aren’t mass murderers crazy?” I asked.

“Nope, no matter what Orange Julius says,” said Barron Cannon. “It’s about one in five who are delusional or psychotic. Neither the Orlando nightclub shooter nor the Las Vegas killer had any apparent mental illnesses, unless you believe shooting people in and of itself is a mental illness. What they were was angry and disgruntled.”

“That’s not what the White House says,” I said.

“I know, but that’s what the Department of Justice says, which knows better than Orange Julius, who only knows blowhard bluster on Twitter. Most mass murderers are injustice collectors with gun collections. When you have a paranoid streak, that’s a personal problem. When you have a paranoid streak and a boatload of guns, then that becomes everybody’s problem. That’s what Orange Julius doesn’t want to talk about. ”

The NRA and gun enthusiasts are fond of saying guns don’t kill people, people kill people. They oppose regulations protecting American citizens from crazy malevolent gun violence. They never talk about Jayne Mansfield or Tylenol, since it would make everybody dizzy at NRA headquarters.

In 1967, when the Hollywood sexpot Jayne Mansfield rear-ended a tractor-trailer, ramming her car underneath it and dying as a result, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration immediately made it mandatory for all semi- truck trailers to be fitted with under-ride bars. In 1982, when 7 people in Chicago died from poisoned Tylenol, federal anti-tampering laws were immediately put in place. Bottles of everything medical have been hellishly hard to open ever since.

Between 1968 and 2015 the total deaths caused by firearms in the United States were 1,516,863. Getting shot is an immediate experience, since bullets travel on average 1,7000 MPH. Since 1968 it has gotten easier, not harder, to buy all the bigger badder faster-blasting guns you want. The pace of writing common sense gun laws has stayed at ZERO MPH.

“When it come to guns everyone’s got their reason, the 2nd Amendment, target shooting, recreation, whatever that means, hunting, and personal protection,” said Barron. “The NRA and Orange Julius gush about the 2nd Amendment as an argument against gun control, but almost no one cares about that.”

The Gallup Poll consistently shows that about 5% of people who own guns cite the amendment as their reason.

“Personal safety is the reason most people own a gun,” he said.

The Gallup Poll has always shown that protecting themselves has been, by a wide margin, the number one reason people buy guns.

Whenever there is a mass murder, like the recent mass murders in Las Vegas and Texas, support for stricter gun laws spikes. After a month-or-so, even though more than 80% of Americans consider gun violence a big problem, interest fades until the next mass murder. In the meantime, Congress and the White House do nothing, except mouth platitudes about their thoughts and prayers being with the dead the wounded and their families.

They never actually get off their NRA-bought-and-paid-for bottoms and buy into 21st century gun control. “It’s time for Congress to get off its ass and do something,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. The chances of that happening are close to ZERO.

“Sometimes the notion that American society is inherently violent is floated as a reason there’s so much gun violence,” said Barron. ”Or it’s video games or racism or poverty. Conservative Christians say Satan is to blame. Orange Julius and Congress spearhead the notion that only crazy people are mass murderers. They propagate it being a nut case problem, not a gun problem.”

He looked down at his laptop and finished editing his Facebook post. When Barron Cannon has a great notion it’s best to wait him out.

“That’s all wrong,” he said. “It’s essentially about the astronomical number of guns in this country. That’s the problem. The other problem is that no wise man ever took a handgun to a gunfight. The times change and technology changes. You always take bigger and better ordinance.”

The more guns the more shooting.

“Yemen and Serbia have the next-highest rate of gun ownership in the world, next to the United States,” said Barron. “The United States has the highest rate of mass shootings in the world. It’s Boot Hill all over again, writ large.”

In the United States the homicide rate is 33 per million people, greater than any other developed country in the world. In Canada it is 0.7 per million. You are 50 times more likely to be shot and killed on the American side of Niagara Falls than you are on the Canadian side.

When the front door opened both Barron Cannon and I looked up. The tall young man stopped in the doorway, the late morning light silhouetting him. He had a Glock “Safe Action” Sig Sauer stuffed into the waistband of his black Levi’s.

Ohio is an open carry state.

“What can we do for you, partner?” asked Barron.

“Are you the outfit that’s doing the gun amnesty?”

“Sure are.”

“Well, this is what I’ve got for you,” said the lanky stranger. He pointed down at the bulge in his pants. “I can’t shoot straight, anyways.” He tugged the gun out of his waistband and handed it butt first to Barron.

“It’s not loaded.”

“That’s neighborly of you.”

“So I get 20 yoga classes for it?”

“That’s right,” said Barron. He flipped open his laptop. “Let’s get you signed up.”

Afterwards, after we had delivered the Glock to the Lakewood Police Department, during lunch at Melt Bar and Grill up the street, over a whiskey on ice in a lowball glass that I insisted Barron buy me to settle my nerves, I asked him if he thought his gun amnesty program would make any difference.

“There’s no energy in death,” he said. “There’s only life energy. If the White House and Congress won’t pull the trigger on gun control, then what we need is more breath control. That’s where yoga comes in. You can learn to be breathless without getting the breath knocked out of you by a bullet.”

Mao Zedong, the Communist Chinese dictator, was notorious for saying, “In order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.”

“He’s long gone,” said Barron. “Good riddance. I say it’s necessary to take up yoga.”

“I’ll drink to that,” I said.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider your support of the writing by clicking here to donate. 

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Let ‘Er Rip

louise-et-Jonathan

“J’aurais quelque chose a dire.”  Barachois

The Sterling Women’s Institute is the Stanley Bridge Hall on the corner of Route 6 and Rattenbury Road on the north-central coast of Prince Edward Island. The small town of Stanley Bridge spreads out in all directions.

A new traffic circle at the old intersection keeps the traffic moving. On one corner is the Race Trac gas station and farther down is the farmer’s market. Where the road flattens out at the river is the actual bridge that kids spend the summer jumping off down into the channel flowing out to the New London Bay.

The Women’s Institute is a yellow two-story clapboard building with white trim and a fair-sized deck. From the vantage of the front deck is a solitary house across the street, a cropland spread out wide and long, and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a quiet building on rising ground, except when six nights a week ceilidhs fill the hall with Irish Scottish Acadian fiddles guitars pianos and step dancing.

The hall holds close to 150 if every seat and bench along the side is taken. The night the Arsenault Trio – Helene Arsenault Bergeron, Jonathan Arsenault, and his mother Louise Arsenault – joined by Gary Chipman, played their first show of the summer in Stanley Bridge on a Wednesday night, there were upwards of a hundred ready to go.

“It’s great to see you all, thanks for coming,” said Marsha Weeks, the host of the show.

“All set?” asked Gary Chipman.

“All set,” said Louise Arsenault.

Ceilidhs are concerts, but more like musical gatherings, often staged at small halls in the Canadian Maritimes. Not so long ago, and sometimes even today, they were more along the lines of a kitchen party, a kind of jam session at home with the neighbors. Whoever could play a fiddle or a guitar or belt out a song at the top of their lungs would inevitably find themselves in the kitchen with everyone else. When it was the middle of January a case of beer might be close at hand in the snow just outside one of the windows.

The word itself comes from the Old Irish for companion.

“On long, dark winter nights it is still the custom in small villages for friends to collect in a house,” Donald Mackenzie wrote explaining ceilidhs more than a hundred years ago. “Some sing old songs set to old music or new music composed in the manner of the old.”

The music at Prince Edward Island ceilidhs is alert animate full of life, mainly jigs and reels, with a mix of waltzes and country songs. There are occasional vignettes about life on the island, some island humor, and stories about islanders making the music. Most of the shows are set in community centers, churches, town halls, and Lion’s clubs.

The Arsenault Trio ripped into the ‘Acadian Reel’, an Evangeline Region tune in the Cape Breton style played in 4/4 time, in other words, on the fast side. From kitchen parties to laser-lit techno dance floors, the same rhythm pattern is part and parcel of the carousing. The signature style of Acadian fiddling is down home rhythmic drive with sawstroke syncopation, sometimes called shuffles.

“When you do the shuffle,” said Louise Arsenault, “it’s like two up bows in a row. That was dad’s style.”

The Evangeline Region of PEI is the land west of Summerside, from Miscouche to Mont Carmel to Abrams Village. Flags in blue, white, and red with a single gold star fly from front porches and front yards. Mailboxes are painted in the Acadian colors. The annual Agricultural Exhibition and Acadian Festival features boot throwing, horse pulling, and a big music and dance party at the end.

The communities are about co-operatives, farming and fishing, vittles and fiddling.

“Where’s everybody from?” Marsha asked the crowd.

Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Ohio, Florida, and Australia were some of the answers.

“Massachusetts,” a man called out.

“Whatever you said,” said Marsha. “I can’t pronounce that.”

“Wellington,” another man called out.

Several in the audience, probably all from Prince Edward Island, laughed. Wellington is a small town on PEI. It is home to the head office of College Acadie as well as the Bottle Houses, which are three fantasy-like buildings made of approximately 30,000 recycled glass bottles.

Most of the year islanders have the island to themselves. In the summer ten times as many people as live on PEI visit there for a week-or-two.

“They gave it 150% and we could feel it down to our tappin’ toes,” said a man from Amherst, Massachusetts.

The Aussies in the audience thought it was an “all there bonzer” show.

“The energy was amazing,” said a woman from New South Wales, Australia. “We all clapped and stamped our feet.”

Gary Chipman announced he was going to sing a song.

“I’ve been told I have a great voice, but that I’m going to ruin it by singing,” he said. Still and all, he has been singing for many years. He sang ‘Prince Edward Island Is Heaven To Me’, a country song penned in 1951 by Hal Lone Pine and recorded with his Lone Pine Mountaineers.  

“The air is so pure, and the people so gay, Prince Edward Island, I’m coming to stay, there’s swimming and hunting and fishing galore, the sun shines so bright on its long golden shore, a touch of God’s great hand this island must be, Prince Edward Island is heaven to me.”

“Yes, sir!” somebody rang out at the end of the song.

Somebody else called out a request for the ‘Arkansas Traveler’.

“It was some hot day today,” said Louise Arsenault. “You can go from your fur coat to your bikini just like that here on this island.” A few days earlier it had rained eighteen hours straight and never reached fifty degrees. The day of the show it was a breezy sunny 74 degrees.

“Arkansas Traveler!”

“Has anybody got a drink in his car?” asked Gary Chipman, to keep his singing voice well-oiled. He told a joke about a young woman in a tight skirt trying to board a bus.

“Arkansas Traveler!”

The ‘Arkansas Traveler’ is a plantation fiddle tune, a quick reel, from the early 19th century, one of the most famous of American fiddle tunes. Back in the day it was a barn raiser, meant to tear the audience up. The band tore into it, followed by ‘The Maid Behind the Bar’ and ‘Farmer’s Daughter’.

Jonathan Arsenault played ‘Cottonwood’ on his guitar. In the second half of the show he played ‘Jerry’s Breakdown’. Written by Jerry Reed, a Nashville guitarist and country singer, the song is played finger-style on guitar in a similar way to the banjo.

“It’s a wicked hard tune to play, but Jonathan makes it look easy,” said Gary.

“When I was a boy, mom bought a little guitar at a flea market,” said Jonathan. “That was her only guitar back then. She sat me at a table, put the fiddle in her lap, and played a set. I learned to flat top pick from my mom, from the fiddle, since she didn’t have a second guitar to show me what a fret was.”

Step dancing is a part of most, if not all, ceilidhs on Prince Edward Island.

“Louise and I are from Acadian backgrounds,” said Helene Arsenault Bergeron. “We grew up with fathers playing the fiddle. In those days they didn’t have a lot of accompaniment, so they accompanied themselves with their feet. That way they always had their accompanists with them.”

She and Louise Arsenault stepped to the front of the stage.

“When you hear that every day, you learn how to play and dance and you don’t even remember learning it. We saw our fathers, aunts and uncles, and grandfathers, and it was just kind of always there, and so we’re going to do a dance for you now.”

The dancing was sparkling high-spirited swashbuckling.

“I was waiting all night for that,” said Jonathan.

Step dancing descends from traditional Irish dancing. Tap dancing is a modern form of it. It is a looser form. The arms move along with the feet. Step dancers keep their upper bodies still with their arms at their sides, except when they don’t, when they’re fiddling at the same time.

Creating your own melody by using your feet is challenging enough, but fiddling a reel at the same time as step dancing like the Arsenault’s do is gnarly, time to sit up and take notice. Louise and Helene do it like a walk in the park, no matter the large front tap on one of Helene’s shoes secured with black electrical tape.

Louise grew up down the road from Helene and Albert Arsenault, who she would later collaborate with in a roots music band. Her father, Alyre Gallant, played music, too. “I grew up in a musical family,” she said. “My father played the fiddle and my mother played the pump organ. I started playing when I was seven. I learned a lot of tunes from my dad.”

At a time in the 1960s when few Prince County girls picked up the fiddle, her father jigged tunes when she was a girl so she could find them on her instrument.

The first half of the show ended with a series of reels. “Whoop, whoop,” someone in the audience shouted. Someone else stamped their feet. It was getting dark on the other side of the windows. It was still fired up inside the hall.

The second half opened the same way as the first half, with the ‘Acadian Reel’. The song is the work of Eddy Arsenault, a carpenter and fisherman and one of the hands-down best fiddlers on PEI for more than 70 years. Helene Bergeron’s father, he blended local Acadian fiddling with the Scottish approach.

“Is this a new tune,” asked Marie Gallant Arsenault the first time she heard the song a few minutes after its composition. “It is lively.”

“Yes, it is,” said Eddy Arsenault. “What are we going to call it?”

“That sounds right like Acadian music,” said Marie. “Why don’t you call it the Acadian Reel?”

The name stuck.

Even though Eddy Arsenault wrote it, it’s the kind of song that was never new and never gets old.

Gary Chipman strolled into ‘You Are My Sunshine’, inviting everyone to join in, which many did, some of their voices uncommonly good.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray, you’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.”

After Gary put his guitar down to the side, Helene stepped around her piano to the front of the stage, and brought some perspective to the sunshine song that had brought a warm glow to the hall.

“Louise and I used to be in a band called Barachois,” she said.

Helene Arsenault Bergeron got her start as a fledgling in a barn putting on step dancing shows set to old records scratching out fiddle tunes. She watched her elders. “The kitchen parties we had at my grandfather’s and at our house, everybody was always jumping up to dance because the fiddling, the music was so lively.” By her 30s she was one of the best step dancers on Prince Edward Island. She took up the piano, taking on the Cape Breton style, with lift, syncopated, marked by step dancing rhythms.

“Jonathan would come on tour with us when he was a small boy, and he just loved this song we’re going to do for you. Some of the older generation, they used to compose songs as a way of keeping track of local events. It’s a song about an old maid, an old girl, whose neighbor, a young girl, asks for advice about getting married, but the old girl is disillusioned, so it’s not a very encouraging song.”

Louise threw her head back and laughed zestfully full-mouthed.

“It’s called ‘The Family Song’,” said Helene.

Later in the summer Gary might tell a joke about a RCMP officer who calls his station from a crime scene.

“I have an interesting case here,” he says. “A woman shot her husband for stepping on the floor she just mopped.”

“Have you arrested her?” asks his sergeant.

“No, not yet, the floor’s still wet.”

After more hoedowning by the band, Helene and Louise brought two chairs to the center front of the stage.

“Helene and I are going to do a sit down dance,” said Louise. “It’s not because we’re lazy. We can dance standing, we can dance sitting, so here we go!”

Their arms at their sides, their hands gripping the sides of their seats, able-bodied, their feet a breakdown blur, seeming to never leave the floor no matter the tapping, they chair danced up a storm.

Marsha Weeks walked out from the wings with her fiddle.

“You know it’s a great show when the host comes back on stage,” said Jonathan.

Gary, who taught Marsha how to play, picked up his fiddle, as did Helene and Louise.

Gary Chipman has been playing the fiddle since he was five-years-old. He says it was “about a hundred years ago.” Later in life he picked up the guitar and vocals, when “Elvis Presley and the boys came along and the fiddle was out.” With the revival of PEI fiddling in the 1990s, he rosined up his bow again. He earned a degree in clinical psychology, but says it “only made me a smarter fiddle player.”

A hundred years later he concedes, “I’m going to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.”

They played an arrangement on four fiddles of the ‘Tennessee Waltz’, a tune from the 1940s whose lyrics were first written down on the back of a matchbox and whose music by Pee Wee King remains sad and lively to this day, tracing a man and a woman turning around and around a dance floor.

“I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz, when an old friend I happened to see, I introduced her to my loved one, and while they were dancing, my friend stole my sweetheart from me.”

Although they had been letting it rip all along, at the last Gary and the Arsenault’s let it rip. “We’re going to end with the fastest tune of the night, I’m pretty sure,” said Marsha. They dove headlong into an instrumental version of the ‘Orange Blossom Special’.

Laisse les aller!

The tune is for raising high the roof beam. It is sometimes just called ‘The Special’ and is known as the fiddle player’s national anthem. For a long time fiddle players needed to know how to play that one song before being able to join any bluegrass band.

“It is a vehicle to exhibit the fiddler’s pyrotechnic virtuosity,” wrote Norm Cohen in his book about railroads in folksongs. “It is guaranteed to bring the blood of all but the most jaded listeners to a quick, rolling boil.”

No one at the Stanley Bridge ceilidh was left jaded as the last notes of the ‘The Special’ steamed away into the night.

“She’s the fastest train on the line, it’s that Orange Blossom Special, rollin’ down the seaboard line.”

The show ended with hootin’ and hollerin’ and a big round of applause.

“If you had a great time, please tell everybody at your cottage and campgrounds,” said Marsha as the lights came up. “If you didn’t have a good time, you can just see Gary in the kitchen after the show.”

It wouldn’t be a kitchen party if something lively wasn’t going on in the kitchen.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider your support of the writing by clicking here to donate. 

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Do-Dah Man

Christopher Eize   

“Keep truckin’, like the do-dah man, together, more or less in line, just keep truckin’ on.”  Grateful Dead

Before there was the Sacred Mounds, before there was Christoph Eize, before there was a server at Moby Dick’s on Route 6 in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, who knows all the lyrics to all the Sacred Mounds songs, there was Christopher Manulla.

“I don’t even know all the lyrics myself,” said Christopher Manulla, aka Christoph Eize, the singer songwriter lead man on the guitar of the band.

The Sacred Mounds are an eclectic go-your-own-way group as well known on Cape Cod as they are little known elsewhere, even though they have toured the East Coast, Rocky Mountain High, and Ireland.

“They are out of sight,” said Tony Pasquale on his ‘Helltown City Limits’ show on Provincetown’s radio station WOMR. When they are in sight, they are an original undertaking, an agile funky soul-spirited sometime psychedelic sound, sonic on the move, cosmic funny, hardly a cover to be heard, at heart all their own songs from start to finish.

They aren’t live copycats of the Billboard Top 100 Golden Oldies, not when Christoph Eize has more than three hundred songs of his own in his scrapbook.

“You are one hell of a prolific songwriter,” said Tony Pasquale, interviewing Christopher, and Luke Massouh, the drummer, anchor of the band. “You have a ton of stuff.”

“I have to tell myself, no more new songs,” said Christopher. “I’ve got thirty or forty in my head I’m still trying to get a grasp on.”

If time moves in one direction, and memory in another, a question begs an answer. Where is the Moby Dick man on Route 6 going with his storehouse of verse and chorus? Maybe there’s nothing to be all-over about. Like Aeschylus said so far back nobody remembers, “Memory is the mother of all wisdom.”

“When we first saw the Sacred Mounds we were astonished to see such a good band at a small club,” wrote Brian Tarcy in Cape Cod Wave Magazine. “It is as if Neil Young joined the Grateful Dead and incorporated a little bit of jazz. It is quite an original.”

”Am I a man that you recognize – when you see me, I’m a dreamer, and I’ll be what I want to be.”

“The original music being made on Cape Cod, if you take the time to look, will astonish you,” added Brian Tarcy.

Many musicians and bands on Cape Cod, from Crooked Coast to The Ticks to the Incredible Casuals, are originals because, like Yogi Berra said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. Even when they play covers, it’s often songs few have ever heard of. The Ticks say they only know their own songs. There’s no original sin on the sleeveless arm-shaped peninsula. Since they are writing and singing from the inside out, they can’t help being for real first hand prototypal.

Just like every natural pearl from every wild oyster is an original.

Before and after he morphs into Christoph Eize of Sacred Mounds, his alter ego on stage, Christopher Manulla was and still is Wellfleet’s Deputy Shellfish Constable. The Shellfish Department manages the town’s oysters, quahogs, clams, and bay scallops within a three-mile limit, issues permits, promotes crustacea and mollusk propagation, and monitors water quality.

The old whaling town on the seashore on the Outer Cape is a federal no-discharge area, clean as a whistle.

“It’s a complex job, mixing some law enforcement with public education, keeping tabs on our three-acre farm, talking to fishermen every day,” said Christopher. “There’s a little bit of psychology and therapy involved with that. It’s a 90% wake up happy going to work kind of job.”

Except for when he first came to the fair land on the seaboard.

After getting a degree in Park Management and Recreation, he was working at a nature center. On his way to a wedding, at his girlfriend’s friend’s grandmother’s daughter’s house, he was introduced to someone who at the end of the day offered him a job in Cape Cod with the Wellfleet Shellfish Department. However, the work was only part-time.

“I told him, I’m not going to move to Cape Cod for 19 hours a week. That’s crazy. He told me he’d get me full-time sooner than later. I got the job, but then found out the guy didn’t even work for the town. It was like Great Expectations.”

It took him four years to get steady real time full time.

“I just had to hold out. The Grateful Dead taught me how to survive on absolutely nothing, on peanut butter and jelly and pasta.”

In an earlier life Christopher Manulla grew up in Thomaston, Connecticut.

“That’s where I spent my growing pain years, until my parents bought my grandfather’s old place in New Hartford.” The new family home was a half hour north of his birthplace.

“It was a beautiful area.”

“Like a dream I drive on past, the spots where my childhood roamed, like a field seed blowing.”

His father, Randy, worked for the Hartford Courant, the local newspaper, and his mother, Virginia, taught grade school.

“She taught for forty years,” said Christopher.

In his spare time his father sang with Liederkranz, a German choral group, and his mother was in the Thomaston Ladies Choral Group. “Their singing was an influence on me, even though their semi-annual concerts weren’t exactly what a young kid wants to go see. Even still, I could always pick out their voices.”

Singing in a choir or choral group is a kind of therapy bought for a song. There’s a lot of harmony. It’s a sound raising high the roof beams that can heal the heart. It’s healthier than bending an elbow all evening or slouching in front of the boob tube that’s now the dazzling flat screen.

“In the end, for me, singing has become a way of releasing energy, a method of healing.”

By the time he got to 6thgrade he was playing the trombone and being fast-forwarded into the high school band. He quit in the 8thgrade. “At that point I could read and understand music, but the music I was being introduced to was boring. No jazz, or anything. That would have been great.”

“If you quit now, you’re going to lose everything,” his teacher told him.

“If I’m meant to play music, I’ll find it again,” he told his teacher.

He lay low in high school, at least until his senior year. “They were cloudy times,” he said. “I was very shy, until my senior year, when I started to get a little nuts and spread my wings.”

He bought a guitar. He graduated from high school. He attended Northwestern Connecticut Community College, on and off, finally earning his sheepskin eight years later. “I laugh at that, but it was fun. I spent most of my time at school playing chess and having conversations with psychology professors about how the brain works.”

In the meantime, he became a Deadhead, joining the fans of the Grateful Dead, followers who from the mid-70s traveled to see as many of the band’s shows and venues as they could. It was following a siren call. It was 1994 and he was twenty years old.

Jerry Garcia had a year-and-a-half left to live.

‘Dead Freaks Unite! Who are you? Where are you? How are you?’ was the catchphrase of the blues folk country rock jazz psychadelia hippie subculture counterculture movement.

“I’m feelin’ so confused, well, it’s hard, so hard to let it go.”

“I didn’t like my life at that moment. It was a leap of faith. I went with a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, and fifty bucks in my hand,” said Christopher. “I didn’t even know much about the Grateful Dead, but I felt like it was a calling. It was an adventure and I survived most happily for a whole tour.”

He and the friend who had made bold with him worked side jobs. He joined the Falafel Mafia, feeding the faithful from a food truck, the crew sometimes passing a deep-fried doughnut of ground chickpeas along when somebody asked to ‘kick down a kind falafel’, which meant a free falafel.

“It was inspirational for the music, for sure,” he said. ”The music was healing, dancing, and clearing the cobwebs of your mind away.”

Fronting the Sacred Mounds he mainly plays guitar.

“I don’t know theory anymore, I don’t know scales, like my school teacher said would happen. I call it playing blind. I’ve been doing mostly acoustic since 2006.”

His guitars are Martin’s from C. F. Martin & Company, established in 1833, known for their steel-string acoustic models, and led to this day by the great-great-great-grandson of the founding father. If melody imposes continuity, Martin’s are a kind of continuity you can always come back to. They don’t need any history lessons.

“I once got two guitar lessons,” said Christopher.

“You’ll learn faster by yourself,” the instructor said after the second lesson. “I will just keep you behind.”

“He kicked me out.”

When Christopher left Connecticut behind and moved to Wellfleet nearly twenty years ago, at the tail end of the summer season, he moved into a small spare room. He later moved on up, to an apartment of his own.

“It was the size of three pick-up trucks put together,” he said. “It was horrible. It was rough.”

“Remember what I say, why erase the truth, when it already happened?”

He still lives in Wellfleet, his adopted hometown, in a house with a studio attachment, living quarters more than sufferable.

“It is great.”

The Sacred Mounds – the duo of Christoph Eize and Luke Massouh – were almost a sacred mound themselves before they got off the ground. Christopher was in Hobo Village, a local band, playing at a restaurant where Luke was the bar manager. The band’s mandolin player and Luke got into it.

“I only heard his side of the story, so I thought Luke was an asshole,” said Christopher. “After that, every time we played that restaurant, we had it so that he wouldn’t be working that night. We were being assholes, too, I guess.”

One weekend, invited to shuck oysters and croon for a party in New Hampshire, he was surprised to see Luke there. Unbeknown, he had been invited, likewise. It’s a small world when it’s a turn of the cards. They got to talking over cold ones and crustaceans.

“Broken hearts are for assholes,” said Luke about the brouhaha.

“He used a Frank Zappa reference,” said Christopher. It put him in good stead. Christopher not only cites the Grateful Dead, but Chopin, Neil Young, and Frank Zappa as influences on his music making. ”I found out he didn’t mean any harm, was funny and intelligent, a good guy.”

He also found out Luke Massouh played drums.

“I threw songs at him and he played them as perfect as you can, hearing them for the first time.”

They have been the Sacred Mounds ever since.

Finding a bandmate on the 70-mile headland is no mean feat. Even though there is an abundance of talent on Cape Cod, there is a scarcity of people, especially in the off-season. “It’s like Jamaica four months of the year and like Russia the rest of the year,” said John Beninghof of Falmouth’s Old Silver Band.

It’s the sound of silence on the streets in the winter, muffled, chilled to the bone, nearly empty shore towns. Seawater freezes in the goose-bumpy sand dunes.

“This place turns into a ghost town,” said Christopher. “When I first came to Cape Cod I was pretty much a recluse. I didn’t mind being alone. Mostly everything is closed, but we find ways to socialize. Nobody can hide anything, anyway, because people here find out quick what you do. It’s when they don’t that rumors fly.”

Staying the course is no mean feat, either. The duo has been making music together – abetted by Matt Brundett, Jonathan Huge, Floyd Kellogg, and Kevin O’Rourke – for eight years running. “We’re basically two people, playing together, traveling, doing all sorts of fun adventures in the music world.“

They spend their summers on Cape Cod. “We’re the crew that doesn’t leave port,” said Christopher. “Everyone comes here, so instead of touring, we just drive five minutes and get paid, probably five times what we would on tour.” The lawnmower stays broken most of the summer. ”We used to beg to play, but now more often than not we get asked.”

If Christopher Manulla is the long arm of shellfish laws and regulations, on stage Christoph Eize learned his lessons by trial and error. “In the beginning it was scary.” Some performers suffer stage fright, sweating up a storm, blubbering midway through performances, stopping dead, their minds gone blank.

“You’ve got to learn through the falters,” he said.

He learned to get up on stage just the damp side of stone cold sober.

“You learn about what not to do, one of them being don’t be too crazy loud and don’t drink too much. I once early on watched eighty people leave the room. As my ego and heart were being destroyed, I realized it was a huge lesson about not being sloppy.”

“I was singin’ all day, thinkin’ about it all night, when things went wrong, when things went right.”

Sloppy is like a cafeteria tray of fast and loose food nobody cares about. Who wants to listen to an amateur missing the target? Better the professional who is ready to ready-aim-fire.

“I’m confident in our music and I’m confident with the band,” said Christopher. “Being on stage wasn’t always my safety place, but now it’s the most comfortable place for me to be. The minute it starts, I’m erupted with as much energy as possible. It’s a high, even sober.”

Some of his favorite stages are at the Lighthouse, the Harvest Gallery Wine Bar, and the small intimate stage under an old disco ball at the Beachcomber bar club restaurant on top of a dune as fat as a duck on Cahoon Hollow Beach. “It’s for people who figured out it was really cool to make it up into God’s country in Wellfleet,’ said Todd LeBart, one of the owners.

Last summer, as summer was breaking out of its shell on the Memorial Day weekend, and the Incredible Casuals, in some respects the house band, were finishing their first gig at the Beachcomber, Chandler Travis of the band was having a good time.

“That’s my job,” said Chandler. “God, what a great job.”

“Always our favorite summer night party,” said Christopher.

“I think it is fair to say that your life will not be complete until you have witnessed the sheer brilliance demonstrated by the Sacred Mounds,” said Chris Blood, the man who engineers the music at the nearby Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro.

Although nothing beats seeing them live, the alternative is the new recording ‘Mirror’ by the Sacred Mounds, featuring Christoph Eize and Luke Massouh and Floyd Kellogg on bass guitar, the latter recording and mixing the work, as well.

“In the beginning I wrote poetry and put music to it,” said Christopher. “Then I wrote music and added the words. Now I hit record, play what comes out, I kind of black out, and the next thing you know, there’s a song, pure from the source.”

It’s a short step from the sacred to the profane. One day at Wellfleet’s town dump, the Transfer Station and Recycling Center, dropping off trash, Christopher was beckoned to the nearby Swap Shop.

“Check this out,” said the man who had waved him over. “A CD changer.”

“What am I supposed to do with that?” he asked. “Horrible sound. Everyone’s doing MP3’s, anyway. Besides, I’m thinking of going back to vinyl.”

He checked himself.

“Do I sound like a grandpa now?”

‘Mirror’ is available as a CD, or download, and streams on Bandcamp. It is not available on vinyl. It is available straight from the horse’s mouth all summer long on Cape Cod.

Whether Christopher Manulla is old-fashioned or new-fashioned, plugged in or a grandpa, quiet or gabby, is an open question. “When I first meet people I’m kind of shy stand-offish. When I get to know you, you can’t shut me up.” Whether he is able to shift seamlessly from shellfish constable to musical mastermind is not open for question.

“If neo-pagan, psychedelic, shamanistic fuzz is your thing, look no further than the new Sacred Mounds album,” said Tony Pasquale, aka Tony Scungilli, on WOMR-FM. “Chock full of rock ‘em sock ‘em hooks and sonic soma. It will realign your karma.”

It’s like balancing your tires for the long strange trip ahead.

The getting it done side of the coin of karma is dharma. If karma is the good or bad payoff resulting from good or bad actions, dharma is the choices we make. Making wrong choices, or adharma, leads to bad karma. Making right choices, right action known as dharma, leads to good karma.

What downbeat side or highlight of karma does realignment lead you to if you cue up the rock ‘em sock ‘em of the Sacred Mounds? It’s hard to say. The only way to find out is to get to the starting time of the do-dah man’s show and truck on down to the finish line.

Photograph by Tony Pasquale

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider your support of the writing by clicking here to donate. 

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.