Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

Six Oysters Ahoy

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“He was a very valiant man who first adventured on the eating of oysters.”  King James VI and I

“I checked the weather report,” said Frank Glass.

“What did you find out?” asked Vera Glass.

“It’s going to be the same today as it was yesterday.”

“Is it going to rain all day?” asked Vera.

“You don’t need a weatherman for that,” said Frank, throwing a glance at the window.

A steady rain was falling outside the large front window of the cottage, down on the long sloping lawn of the Coastline Cottages, on the Gulf Shore Parkway, on the three houses on the other side of the road, and out to the horizon as far as they could see. The sky was dark over Doyle’s Cove. Broad surfboard-sized waves worked up the water. When Frank looked out the northwest-facing kitchen window, the sky, where the weather was coming from, was even darker.

“What should we do? It rained all day yesterday. I’m getting cabin fever.”

“We could play cards, read, and talk among ourselves. How about dinner and a show?”

“That sounds good, especially the part about dinner,” said Vera. “Where do you want to eat?”

“There’s a show opening tonight at the Victoria Theatre.”

“All right, but what about dinner?”

“We could eat at the Landmark, it’s right there.”

“I’ve always liked the Landmark,” said Vera. “Eugene is a great cook. They have the best meat pies.”

“Somebody told me he sold it and there are new owners,” said Frank.

“What? How can that be? Eugene and Olivier and Rachel are gone?”

The Sauve family tree had repurposed an old grocery store in Victoria into a café restaurant in the late 1980s, adding a deck, digging a basement for storage and coolers, and expanding their dining space several times. They were a perennial ‘Best Place to Eat on Prince Edward Island’ in the magazine Canadian Living.

“It’s now called the Landmark Oyster House.”

“I love oysters,” said Vera. “Let’s go.”

It was still raining when Frank and Vera drove up Church Hill Road and swung onto Route 6, through North Rustico to Route 13, through Hunter River and Kelly’s Cross. It was still raining when they pulled into the small seaside town of Victoria on the other side of Prince Edward Island, on the Northumberland Straight side, 45 minutes later. It rained on them as they rushed into the Landmark Oyster House.

There wasn’t a table to be had, but there were two seats at the bar.

“Look, we’re right in front of the oysters,” said Vera, as they sat down at the closed end of it. “I love this spot.”

Kieran Goodwin, the bartender, agreed, standing on the other side of the bar, on the other side of a large shallow stainless steel bin full of raw oysters on ice.

“Best seats in the house,” he said. “They were going to put the bar in the front room, but the dimensions didn’t work out.”

“Who’s they?” asked Frank.

Vera looked the chalkboard on the wall up and down. The names of the oysters on ice were written on the board. There were six of them, Valley Pearl, Sand Dune, Shipwreck, Blackberry Point, Lucky Limes, and Dukes. She looked down into the bin. She couldn’t make heads or tails of which were which. She knew raw oysters were alive, more-or-less.

She wondered, how could you tell?

“Greg and Marly Anderson,” said Kieran. “They own a wedding venue up the road.”  It is the Grand Victoria Wedding Events Venue, in a restored former 19th century church. “When this opportunity came up, when Eugene was looking to tone it down a bit, they decided to purchase it.”

“I worked at the Oyster House in Charlottetown shucking oysters for almost five years,” said Marly. “We heard that the family wanted to retire because they had been working at this restaurant for 29 years. We already felt a connection to this place and we are friends and neighbors with the family.”

“They’ve put their roots down in the community, are making their stand here,” said Kieran.

“I like what they’ve done in here, casual but upscale,” said Vera.

“It looks like the kitchen is more enclosed than it was,” observed Frank.

“Yeah, they did up a wall,” said Kieran. “When you used to walk in, you could peek right in.”

“I remember Eugene telling us once he learned all his cooking from his mom. Who does the cooking now?”

“Kaela Barnett is our chef.”

“We couldn’t do this without her,” said Greg Anderson.

“I’m thinking of doing oysters and a board,” said Vera.

“That’s a good choice,” said Kieran. “I recommend the large board. You get a bit of everything. I personally like getting some cheese.”

“Me, too.”

“Are you oyster connoisseurs?” asked Kieran.

“Not me,” said Frank. “I can’t remember the last time I ate an oyster.”

“I wish I was, but I love them,” said Vera. “We were on the island last year and went to the Merchantman in Charlottetown with Doug and Rachel, Eugene’s daughter. We had oysters and she went through all the ones we ate, explaining them to me.”

“Would you like something from the bar?” asked Kieran.

“I’ll take the Gahan on tap, the 1772 Pale Ale.”

“What wine goes with oysters?” asked Vera.

“We have a beautiful California chardonnay,” said Kieran. “It’s great with shellfish. I recommend it.”

“This is good, fruity,” said Vera, tasting it.

“We have six oysters,” said Kieran. “You could do one of each.”

“That’s what I’ll do,” said Vera.

“I think I’ll have the seafood chowder and some of the board,” said Frank.

“Oh, Frank, try one,” said Vera.

“Lucky Limes are my favorite,” said Kieran. “It’s a good medium oyster.”

“OK, I’ll try it,” said Frank, shrugging.

Kieran handed him a Lucky Lime.

“How do I eat this thing?” Frank asked Vera.

“Sometimes I chew it, sometimes I don’t,” she said.

“Some people like putting stuff on it, like horseradish, which kills the taste,” said Kieran. “But straight up is best. That’s how islanders do it, just shuck it.”

Frank looked down at the liquid-filled half shell.

“From the wide end,” said Kieran.

He slurped the oyster into his mouth and swallowed it.

“Now you’re a pro,” said Vera.

“That wasn’t bad,” said Frank. “How could you tell it was a Lucky Lime? They all look the same to me.”

“If you look at the chalkboard, it’s one through six. That’s one way.”

“Can you tell by looking at them?” asked Vera.

“I can tell by the shell,” said Kieran. “The ones that are more green, that means there’s more saltwater content. So this is a Sand Dune, quite briny. That one is almost straight salt water.” He pointed to an even darker greener shell.

“The Shipwreck, the name made me nervous to have it, but it was mild,” said Vera.

“It would be farther up the estuary, closer to fresh water.”

“Blackberry Point was very salty.”

“The Blackberry’s are from Malpeque, which is near Cavendish,” said Kieran. “The Sand Dune is from Surrey, down east, and the Lucky Limes are from New London Bay. Valley Pearl is from Pine Valley and the Dukes are from Ten Mile Creek.”

“I thought you were just making all this up,” said Frank.

“No, its like wine,” said Kieran.

“How did you get into the shellfish racket?” asked Frank.

“I graduated in business, traveled, lived in New Zealand and Australia, and then came back home, and worked in a bank as a financial advisor for six years, in Summerside and Charlottetown, but then I just got tired of working in a bank, and went back to school.”

“How did you find your way here, behind the bar?”

“I date Jamie, who is Marly’s sister.”

“Are those pickled carrots?” asked Vera, pointing at the charcuterie board in front of her.

“Yes, and you have raisin jam, too,” said Kieran.

“Chutney, stop the madness!” exclaimed Vera. “Oh, it’s strawberry jam. It just looks like chutney. It’s delicious.”

“We had raisin pie at a small diner in Hunter River the other day,” said Frank.

“The one by the side of the road, up from the Irving gas station?” asked Kieran.

“That’s the one,” said Frank. “The waitress told us she always thinks of raisin pie as funeral pie, because back in the day, if there was a funeral in the winter, women always made raisin pies for the reception after the memorial service, because raisins kept all year round.”

“Can I take my oyster shells with me?” asked Vera.

“Sure,” said Kieran. ”We can get a little bag for you.”

“You can really taste the sea eating oysters,” said Vera. “Blackberry Point was a little thin and too salty, but once you eat one, and you don’t like it, whoa, what are you going to do? Valley Pearl didn’t have a lot of flavor, but there was some good texture to it. Lucky Lime was very good. My favorite was Sand Dune. It had a strong ocean flavor, briny.”

“I’ve heard people say oysters are slimy, but the one I had, it didn’t seem that way,” said Frank. “I can see having oysters again.”

“Don’t people sometimes say the world is your oyster?” said Vera.

“Do you want dessert?” asked Kieran.

“Do you have carrot cake?”

“It’s made here.”

“We’ll split a slice of that, and two coffees, thanks.”

As Vera and Frank dug into their carrot cake, there was a commotion at the other end of the bar. Kieran, Jamie, and Marly were huddling over glowing screens.

“Did your electronics go haywire?” asked Frank when Kieran brought them coffee.

“The microwave in the basement tripped the breaker. We hardly ever use it, except to melt butter sometimes. It’s weird, it’s been working until now. We have a thing that magnifies our wi-fi signal. We just found out it’s on the same circuit.”

“My mother was a pastry chef,” said Vera. ”She didn’t use microwaves much, but whenever she did, she always said, ‘I’m going to nuke it now!’”

Frank and Vera used their forks on the last crumbs of their cake and finished their coffee. Frank checked the time on his iPhone. “Time to go, sweetheart,” he said. They paid the bill and stood to go.

“Enjoy the show, hope to see you again,” Kieran said as Frank and Vera walked out of the Oyster House.

“It’s raining and sunny at the same time,” said Frank as they dashed across the street to the Victoria Theatre, yellow slanting sunlight leading the way.

“That’s PEI for you,” said Vera. “By the way, what are we seeing?”

“Where You Are.”

“I know where we are,” said Vera.

“That’s the name of the show,” said Frank.

“Aha, I see,” said Vera.

“Hustle it up, we’re almost late.”

They went up the steps into the theater, got their programs, and sat down. Vera tucked the bag of shells under her seat. “Wherever you are, there you are, oyster boys and girls,” she thought, making sure they were safe and sound.

“How could you even tell?” she wondered, as the lights went down and the show started.

Photograph by Vanessa Staskus

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

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Chips on the Spaldeen

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“It’s really a good day for it,” said Dwight Eisenhower, smiling broadly.

It was going to be his first full round of golf since June. He’d had a heart attack last year. Then when summer rounded itself into shape, he needed surgery for ileitis. The past week had been filled to the brim with the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Even though he had been unopposed, no need for a stampede, there had been some hard campaigning to drop Dick Nixon from the ticket, to no avail.

Ike was president because it was his duty. Richard Nixon wanted to be president. He wanted it for himself.

“Any man who wants to be president is either an egomaniac or crazy,” thought President Eisenhower.

The Negro singer Nat King Cole had spoken at the Cow Palace yesterday, the last day of the convention, to some jeers. Ike made it happen, no matter the carping about it. He knew he had to give in on the Vice-President, who was a hard-line anti-Communist, who the rank-and-file supported with cheers. But he knew he didn’t have to give in to Jim Crow. He could take the high road and leave the contrivances to Tricky Dick.

They drove up to Pebble Beach before the convention ended, before the Nixon’s could invite him to dinner. Richard Nixon’s father was seriously ill, besides, and Ike urged him to go before it was too late. There were three cars full of Secret Service fore and aft. Charlie Taylor, who’d been at it for years, was in one of the cars.

One night when Ike was having trouble opening his safe, and asked for help, his agents told him safecracking wasn’t part of their training. Ike was beside himself until Charlie Taylor got the cranky combination to give with no problem.

“I won’t know whether to trust you, or not, after this,” said Ike, glancing at Charlie.

He was driven to his golf outing in a black Lincoln Cosmopolitan. It was one of ten presidential touring cars. They all had extra headroom to accommodate the tall silk hat he wore on formal occasions. The cars were almost 20 feet long, V8’s with Hydra-Matic transmissions, and heavily armored, weighing in at close to ten thousand pounds. One of them was a convertible, a 1950 model built for Harry Truman. It had been fitted with a Plexiglas top since then.

Ike called it the Bubble-top. Charlie Taylor called it a pain-in-the-ass. Mamie didn’t like sitting under a dome, but she put up with it.

It was a high blue sky day, sunny, dotted with seaside clouds.

“It’s a pleasure, Mr. President,” said Turk Archdeacon, his caddy.

“Why, that’s fine,” said President Eisenhower.

Turk had been caddying at Cypress Point since he was nine-years-old, almost 40 years since. He and Ike walked to the practice tee. It was a cool morning. Ike started whacking balls out into the distance. He played with Bobby Jones woods with the official five-star general insignia engraved on the heads. At the putting green he lined up three balls down on the ground 20-some feet away from the cup.

He sank all three.

“I should quit right there,” he laughed.

He’d been practicing on a green on the White House grounds, and been hitting wedges, irons, and 3-woods, sometimes hitting balls over the south fence. Whenever he did, he sent his valet to retrieve them.

The squirrels that prowled the lawn dug up his putting green, burying acorns nuts hardtack. They left small craters behind. One morning he finally had enough. “The next time you see one of those goddamned squirrels go near my putting green, take a gun and shoot it!” The Secret Service asked the groundskeepers to trap the squirrels, instead, and release them in a park somewhere far away.

In a week August would be come and gone.  He would be 66-years-old soon.  “I’m saving that rocker for the day when I feel as old as I really am,” he said, pointing to the rocker in the Oval Office. More days now than not, he felt like that day was drawing close.

His birthday was on October 14th. CBS was planning a “Person to Person” style TV show the night before. Eddie Fisher was going to sing ‘Counting Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.’  Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel were going to sing ‘Down Among the Sheltering Palms.’ Nat King Cole, with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, was singing ‘It’s Just a Little Street Where Old Friends Meet.’

He was looking forward to it.

In six weeks he would be throwing out the first pitch for the first game of the World Series. There were five or six teams in the hunt, although the New York Yankees looked like a lock at least to get there. If he were a betting man, which he was, he would be putting his money on the Bronx Bombers.

He liked Cypress Point because it was set in coastal dunes, wandered into the Del Monte forest during the front nine, and then reemerged on the rocky Pacific coastline. The 15th, 16th, and 17th holes played right along the ocean. He’d played golf on many courses around the world.

This was one of the best of them.

On the other coast it was hot and humid in Hell’s Kitchen. It was in the 90s and stagnant. The heat was trapping the humidity in the air. Dottie was playing stickball in the street.

The street wasn’t West 56th.  Her father had told her to never play stickball on their own street. The fronts and windows of buildings were ruled home runs. Stan didn’t want any broken windows near where they lived. Dottie and her friends always played on West 55th or West 57th.  A boy bigger than her had once teased her about it, pushing her to the ground.

“You always do everything your old man tells you to do?” he said, curling his lip, looking down and straddling her.

She still had the stickball broom handle in her hands. Looking up from the gutter she whacked him as hard as she could across the shins. When the boy’s father showed up at their apartment that night to complain, her father threw the man out, dragging him down the stairs by his collar, threatening him and his son and any of their neighbors with harm if they ever laid hands on his daughter again.

“You did the right thing Dottie,” he said. “If somebody says something rotten to you, be a lady about it. But if somebody pushes you, or grabs you, or hits you, you hit them back as hard as you can. You always do that. That’s so they won’t push you down again.”

“OK, dad,” she said.

It was a good day for stickball. Eight kids had shown up, they had made their teams, and Willy, her friend from Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School, had brought a new pinky ball. It wasn’t a Pensy, either. It was the cream of the crop, a Spalding Hi-Bounce.

“Spaldeen!”

They drew a square rectangle with chalk on the brick wall at the back of a vacant lot on West 55th to represent the strike zone. The buildings on both sides were the foul lines. They chalked first and third base on the building walls and second base was a manhole on the sidewalk. If the ball hit any of the buildings across the street, it was a home run. If it hit a window they would run like hell. If it hit a roof it was a home run-and-a-half.

“There ain’t no runs-and-a-half,” a snot-nosed kid from Chelsea, visiting his cousins, sneered.

“If you’re going to play stickball on West 55th, you better learn Hell’s Kitchen rules,” gibed Willy.

Dottie was batter up. She smacked a hot grounder, but it was caught on the first bounce, and she was out. Willy got as far as third base, but three strikes and you’re out finished their inning. By the time they came back up in the second inning they were behind by five runs.

Dwight Eisenhower looked out at the par-5 10th hole. He had taken off his tan sweater, but still had a white cap on his head. Seven months ago Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, living legend professionals, had taken on Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward, amateurs, but talented and skillful, in a friendly foursome at Cypress Point.

The same 10th hole turned out to be the key to unlocking the contest.

“I bet they can beat anybody,” said San Francisco car dealer Eddie Lowery about the two amateurs, who were his employees. He was talking to fellow millionaire George Coleman. The bet and the match were on.

Harvie Ward was a two-time U.S. Amateur champion. Three months later Ken Venturi came within one stroke of winning the Masters. The cypress-strewn rolling dunes of the course on the wind-swept coast, the deep ravines, knee-deep grass, sand on all sides of the fairways, weren’t redoubtable, not to them.

Ben Hogan won the day on the 10th when he rolled in a wedge shot for a 3. The eagle and 27 birdies testified to the unfriendliness of the match. The drinks at the bar rubber-stamped the camaraderie afterwards.

Ike was playing with Harry Hunt, the president of Cypress Point, Sam Morse, a one-time football star who had developed Pebble Beach, and John McCone, a businessman who had been the undersecretary of the Air Force. Dwight Eisenhower was partnered with Harry Hunt. They were playing a dollar-dollar-dollar Nassau bet. It was even-steven at the halfway mark, even though Ike had stunk up the 8th hole.

“Where is it?” he had asked getting there, looking for the green across the dogleg.

He sliced his tee shot into sand. When he got to it he hit it less than ten feet further on. Then he hit it fat, the Ben Hogan ball soaring twenty feet, and falling into somebody’s heel print.

“I’ve had it, pick it up,” he said.

“Having a little trouble?” asked Sam Morse.

“Not a little,” said Ike, “but a lot.”

“All right, all right, let’s pick it up, let’s get some roofies,” yelled Willy, urging his team on. “But chips on the ball. I mean it.”

He meant that if his new Spaldeen was roofed, and couldn’t be found, everyone would chip in to pay for a new ball.

Hal came up to the plate, wagged the broom handle menacingly, and planted his high-top rubber-soled Keds firmly in the unravelling asphalt. They were new and felt like everyday’s-a-Saturday shoes. His batted ball hit the side wall at third base where the wall met the ground and bounced back to home plate in a high slow arc.

“It’s a Hindoo,” he shouted.

“No, that ain’t a do-over, foul ball, so it’s a strike,” shouted back Dave Carter, who everyone called Rusty because his hair was red.

“What do you know?”

“I know what I gotta know.”

“Go see where you gotta go,” said Hal.

“No, you stop wasting my time,” said Rusty. “It was a foul ball.”

“Ah, go play stoopball,” shouted Hal.

Stoopball was throwing a pinky against the steps of a stoop, and then catching it, either on the fly or on a bounce. Catching the ball was worth 10 points. Catching a pointer on the fly was worth 100 points. A pointer was when the ball hit the edge of a step and flew back like a line drive, threatening to take your eye out. When you played stoopball you played against yourself.

“You got a lotta skeeve wichoo,” Rusty shouted back at Hal.

“All right, already, strike one,” said Willy, finally.

He knew Rusty would never give in. He was a weisenheimer, besides, someone you had to keep your eyes on, or your Spaldeen might grow legs. It wasn’t that Rusty was a thief. He just kept his nickels in his pocket. Willy had heard he was such a tight-wad he still had his communion money from two years ago.

Rusty had been born in Philadelphia. That was his problem.

Hal hit a cheap, a slow roller, but when Rusty let his guard down, reaching leisurely down for the Spaldeen, it went between his legs, and the next second Hal was standing at first base, smirking.

“Comeback stickball,” he whispered to himself.

Eleven batters later Dottie’s team was on the plus side of the scoreboard, nine to five.

On the tee of the 17th hole Ike lined up his shot. Sea lions on the rocks below him barked. “It’s hard to hit a shot and listen to those seals at the same time,” he said, but not so either of the Secret Service agents with them could hear him.

Dwight Eisenhower was accustomed to having guards around him, during the campaign in North Africa, and later as commander of the Allied Army in Europe. The Nazis had tried to kill him several times. Secret Service agents near his person nearly every minute of the day was like a second skin. He knew what it took to save his skin. When he moved into the White House he didn’t mingle mindlessly, shake hands in crowds, or do anything foolish.

“Protecting Ike works like clockwork,” said agent Gerald Blaine.

Mamie Eisenhower gave her agents nicknames. One, who was a good dancer, was “Twinkletoes.” He asked Mamie to keep it between themselves. Some of the agents called her “Mom.”

“You don’t have to worry about me, but don’t let anything happen to my grandchildren,” Ike told Secret Service chief U. E. Baughman.

The Diaper Detail guarded the four kids. Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the presidential retreat in Maryland from Shangri-La to Camp David in 1953. “Shangri-La is just a little fancy for a Kansas farm boy,” he said. He renamed it in honor of his 5-year-old grandson, David.

When Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union leader, visited the retreat he said the name sounded like a place where “stray dogs were sent to die.”

Ike looked for the fairway on the 18th  hole.

“Where do we aim here?” he asked.

“Keep it away from the left,” said Harry Hunt. There was a stand of pine trees on the left. “That’s the Iron Curtain. You’ll never get through that stuff.”

Ike laughed and hit a long drive. His next shot was a 4-iron and he nailed it onto the green, 20 feet short of the pin.

In 1954 eighty people were convicted of threatening the president, and sent to prison or locked away as madmen. In 1955 nearly two thousand credible threats were made against Dwight Eisenhower’s life. The year before, the Russian KGB officer Peter Deryabin, after defecting, told the CIA about a plot to kill the president in 1952.

“We were preparing an operation to assassinate Eisenhower during his visit to Korea in order to create panic among the Americans and win the war in Korea.”

Shortly after Mother’s Day the Secret Service investigated a threat to plant two boxes of explosives at a baseball park where the president was planning on taking in a game. Whenever he played golf, stern-faced men with good eyesight and high-powered guns took up vantage points on hills, surveying the course with telescopic sights. Other agents, dressed in golf clothes, carried .351 rifles in their golf bags as they tagged along. In the parking lots the “Queen Mary,” an outfitted armored car, was the rolling command center.

“Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise, terror, sabotage, assassination,” Adolf Hitler had said not many years before. “This is the war of the future.”

Dwight Eisenhower and the Allied Army derailed the Nazi night train. No one was going to take him by surprise. He was planning on sitting in his rocking chair one day, rocking back and forth, watching over his grandchildren.

The woman sitting on the stoop across the street watched Dottie and her friends walk away down the sidewalk, their stickball game over, one of them bouncing his pinky, all of them talking happily.

“We killed them, just killed them,” said Willy.

“We sure did,” said Hal.

“What a game!” said Dottie.

“Yeah, first we were down, came back big, you put some Chinese on that ball between Rusty’s legs, they slipped ahead, and then we score fourteen just like that, and it’s all over.”

“Did you see Rusty, the putz, pulling that long face?” asked Hal.

“Oh, he’ll be back, he loves stickball,” said Dottie.

Dwight Eisenhower had served in the armed forces from one end of his adult life to the other. After he retired he was dean at Columbia, and then president. He was still the president and, he was sure, he was going to defeat Adlai Stevenson better than he had four years ago.

Dottie was so glad her team had won.

Even though he’d commanded millions of men in the last war, Ike thought war was rarely worth going to war for. He hated it. “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

They had scrapped for every run. It was worth it. She didn’t mind losing once in awhile, but she liked winning better.

“Didn’t you once say that we are going to have peace even if we have to fight for it?” asked Harry Hunt.

“When we have to, but always remember, the most terrible job in the world is to be a second lieutenant leading a platoon when you’re on the battlefield. There‘s no glory in battle worth the blood it costs. When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it themselves.”

Dottie stripped off her hot sweaty clothes, rubbed down with a cool sponge, and put on a fresh pair of shorts and a t-shirt.

The Cold War wasn’t as hot as it had been ever since Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality earlier in the year, as well as admitting the Man of Steel’s crimes, the crimes committed against Mother Russia. A door had been cracked open. Ike had long thought war settles nothing, even when it’s all over. He was afraid of the arms race, the march towards a nuclear catastrophe.

“You just can’t have that kind of war,” he had told his inner circle. “There aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”

Dottie put her stick bat away in a corner near her bedroom window. In the summer she loved her friends, no matter what team they were on, and stickball more than anything in the world. She even liked Rusty a little bit when it was sunny and warm.

“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative” is what he had written and wanted to say at the Cow Palace, but didn’t, not with Dick Nixon and the Red Scare and the military hand-in-hand with industry. He wanted to call it what it was, a military-industrial complex that was always crying “fire” in a crowded theater.

But he couldn’t, at least not until after he was re-elected.

In the meantime, he planned on speaking softly and carrying a big stick, even if it was only a long shaft wood driver, the biggest club he had in his bag.

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Lights Out at the Lighthouse

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“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got, ‘till it’s gone.”  Joni Mitchell

Starting early in April, lights start coming back on in stores inns restaurants and businesses of all kinds on the Outer Cape. Hiring ramps up for cooks, waiters, waitresses, cashiers, retail associates, merchandisers, front desk agents, landscaping, cleaning services, and even at local airports parking and fueling aircraft.

Even though snowfall is uncommon on Cape Cod, whatever there is of it melts as the weather suddenly gets warmer. Purple-blue hyacinths and bright yellow daffodils start to open. In Wellfleet, where almost everything closes down for the winter, almost everything opens up again in the spring.

Except when it doesn’t.

Early in April Joe Wanco and his family, wife Laura and daughters Michelle and Jodie, made it known that their iconic Lighthouse Restaurant in a mid-19th century building in the middle of town on Main Street would not be opening for the season spring summer and fall.

“After many years, many employees, many building renovations, many blueberry muffins, pints of beer, and Boston sports championships, it has been decided it is in the best interest of the family that we no longer operate as a business. This is not a decision made overnight or without extensive consideration. Forty years is a long time and even longer in restaurant years.”

“Oh, man, this is sad,” said Molly MacGregor.

“This is worse than closing down Town Hall,” said Steve Curley.

“I want to scream, NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” screamed Heidi Gertsen-Scheck.

Forty years in the dining room trade is like four hundred in dog years. It’s a challenge. If you like falling pushing jumping off the deep end, watering holes are for you.

Even if your menu is coherent and priced appropriately, and the tables are set nice and neat, and the ambience is what your customers like, if the customer service goes sour, customers will remember. Even if management is on top of orders, sales goals, and labor costs, if they don’t notice nobody is asking for slimehead fillets, and don’t take it off the menu, they’re stuck with a freezer full of slimehead. Even if the grub is outstanding, the staff trained and ready to go, if you’re slow marketing your restaurant, you end up with a half-empty restaurant.

“You’ve had a great run,” said Jim Clarke, who owned the Lighthouse from 1968 to 1978. “I still have memories and nightmares from those years. I wish I had a nickel for all the muffins I made.”

The Lighthouse was a local seafood eatery, with arguably the best oyster stew between Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, a local sports bar and grill where the Patriots Red Sox Celtics ruled the roost on the flat screens, and a local dive bar with two dollar cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Cape Cod bands livening up the joint year after year.

“Main Street won’t be the same,” said Donna Adams McCaffery.

“You guys have been a bedrock of this community,” said Sam Greene.

“We started almost every vacation in Wellfleet at the Lighthouse, starting in 1989 when my now husband met my family there for our vacation-starting breakfast,” said Laura Kaspar Wardwell.

Six American presidents came and went, while another has been out to lunch, in the time since the Wanco’s landed on Main Street. Townspeople and tourists grew up with the Lighthouse. Some were born and had to find out for themselves.

“I grew up with stories about the Lighthouse before I even knew what it was,” said Amy St. John Ramsdell.

“Our five children grew up having breakfast at the Lighthouse every Sunday after mass,” said Jodi Lyn Deitsch-Malcynsky. “Your family was always inviting and gracious and fun! Our summers in Wellfleet will be forever changed.”

“I remember parking my bicycle out front and coming in for a Cherry Coke or hot chocolate,” said Matt Frazier, years before he became their trash hauler and recycler. “An extra special thank-you for always treating our crew with snacks and beverages during and after Oyster Festival.”

The menu wasn’t the biggest buffet catalogue in the world, and the prices weren’t an arm and a leg, even though the plates were chock-full, but the always hot food was more than good, often very good.

“The best scallops in the world, as good as Digby, Nova Scotia,” said a man from Boston. “What’s more to say?”

“I can’t say enough about the Cod Ruben,” said a man from Westfield. “They have a great selection of beer. The service is awesome.”

“They happened to have lobster dinners on a special, super fresh and tender,” said a woman from Worthington. “They were the best lobster dinners we had all summer.”

The Lighthouse was the only restaurant on the Outer Cape without a front door, two side doors, and plenty of windows to sit at and watch the world go by. “Here’s to missing the big picture,” one man said to another, sitting at the bar one September morning, over hearty breakfasts and Bloody Mary’s, their backs to the window. The bar sat about a dozen and the front room and side room tables sat forty or fifty. The floors are hardwood. There is a large skylight in the beamed tilted ceiling of the side dining room. It isn’t a small place, but it isn’t a big place, either.  It was always lively and got even more lively at night.

“When I was younger it was our breakfast place,” said John Denninger. “As I grew older it was my place to get a drink. When I decided to move here you made it feel like home. I could not have found a better place to hang out.”

A red and white replica of the red and white Nauset lighthouse sits straight and true on the flat roof of the front room. “The lighthouse does great service, yet it is the slave of those who trim the lamps,” observed the writer Alice Rollins. It doesn’t go looking for passing ships in the night. It just stands there with the big bright light on. Lighthouses are always lighthouses in somebody’s storm.

The Wanco’s came from northern New Jersey in the late 1970s. They partnered with a friend of theirs in the restaurant “to have their hand at a small business in a seaside town in an expression of their own American dream.”  Their partner retired ten years ago, but the Wanco’s kept the lights on, carrying on. “It left just our family to provide a watering hole, meeting place, warm meal, cold beer, loud music, local gossip, friendly banter, and a smiling face.”

Besides everything else, who wants to lose a smiling face?

“Ah, Jaysus,” said Jenifer Good. “It’s too much!”

Owning and operating a restaurant isn’t the same as going to work. It’s more like work. Many people start work by checking their e-mails. So do many restaurateurs. Many people check their e-mails all day. Most restaurateurs don’t. They don’t have time. There are too many other things to do.

After they’ve turned on the lights and checked their mail in the morning they do a walk-through of the restaurant, note what needs to be cleaned repaired replaced, start receiving orders, start food production, say hello to arriving cooks and staff, last minute scrambles because someone is sick hungover missing, breakfast service, take a break, lunch pre-shift, lunch service, move on to more food production, staff meal, dinner pre-shift, dinner service, clean up, wipe down, go over the day’s receipts, stay on top of staffing for tomorrow, and fit in balancing the checkbook, making payroll, checking inventory against reality, making a list of purveyors to talk to, and finally, turning off the lights.

All of this without swearing overly much at staff customers passersby loved ones.

Not that working at the Lighthouse wasn’t a happening, an exploit. “Working there was always an adventure,” said John Dwyer.

“My first waitressing job 40 years ago,” said Gina Menza. “I was terrible, but you kept me on. Some crazy memories living upstairs, sitting on the roof to watch the parade, and sneaking into the drive-in rolled up in a carpet in the back of the van.”

“Living in the upstairs apartment to working at the Lighthouse for my first job, smashing my head into the tables while running from the kitchen to the dining room, creamy dill salad and the best pickles on the planet, working down in the bakery, and years later to many post-shift beers,“ said Jacqueline Stagg.

“My most fun job,” said Kelly Moore. “Endless pre-games and endgames, situations, life lessons with Pill Bill, meltdowns, bike stealings and returnings, hurricane parties, skinny dipping team meetings, Wall of Shame, family breakfasts, jam sessions, chats with Thomas, high society, beer pong tournaments, roof top nights, off-season regulars, Mexican meltdowns with Slammo, and mista sista kissa.”

Communities are built around their city halls, schools, and businesses. Even though the Outer Cape is known for its guidebook attractions, sun and sand whale watching galleries seafood summer theater, Provincetown, the Cape Cod Rail Trail, and the National Seashore, its essence is in its smaller neighborhoods and places.

“They were the center beacon of our town,” said Chris Eize of the Sacred Mounds. “When we became the house band, we became part of the Lighthouse.”

Most bands that ever played at the Lighthouse played in a place where the music making was consistently better than it should have sounded, resonating better than the written notes, and from Funktapuss to the Sacred Mounds they always lit up the venue.

“The Super Scenics always had a blast playing there with our gracious hosts the Mounds and the Lighthouse” said Jeff Jahnke, “Thanks and cheers!”

“We got to know Michelle and Jodie on an intimate level of trust, honest communication, and friendship,” said Chris, the frontman of the Mounds. “I loved how Jodie didn’t really have a filter, and you knew exactly what she was thinking, because she would tell you, whether you liked it or not. We enjoyed the after-show drinks and reflections with Michelle, and that openness will live on with appreciation and fondness.”

There is always a lot of camaraderie in restaurants, everyone working closely together, all around the chuck wagon.

“The restaurant business, even in the most stable of markets is, frankly, exhausting,” said Joe Wanco. “It’s an ever-consuming extra member of the family. There are no restful nights, even with the help of your favorite tequila.”

It is a consuming undertaking because of the long hours and hard work, most of it on your feet, and the competition inherent in the undertaking. The restaurant business is massive, with more than one million restaurants coast to coast. The chances of making it even one year are slim. Most eateries close in their first twelve months. Three of four close in the next three to five years. Making it four decades is Bunyanesque.

“The Wanco family put their heart and soul into their work,” said Chris Eize. Staying the course means staying steadfast. “Wow, 40 years, that’s awesome,” said Katie Edmond.

“You and your oyster stew are going to be greatly missed,” said Rob Cushing.

“Joe and Laura, enjoy your well-deserved retirement,” said Virginia Paine Davis. “You have served the town well.”

It works both ways, coming and going, since Main Street in Wellfleet is not a one-way street.

“We are eternally grateful for the many years of support from our loyal clientele, especially our year-round community,” said the Wanco family, signing off.

“Good luck, cuz,” said Joyce Buccino Fabiano to the leave-taking.

“We sure are going to miss you all,” said Mike Deltano.

“But how will I ever find my children now when I get to Wellfleet?” asked Judy Sherlock. “Look for them at the library?”

The Wanco’s were the Lighthouse keepers for a long time. The lights of our favorite places go on and off, but every now and then they need a new minder as time spins on its axis. What Main Street needs now is a new barkeep to fire up the lanterns again at the local public house, like the Garden State transplants did forty-some light years ago.

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

Under the Gun

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“Al in all, it was all just bricks in the wall.”  Pink Floyd

For half a century, from 1916 until 1966, when Charles Whitman, an ex-Marine, shot and killed 16 people, injuring 31 others, shooting from atop an observation deck at the University of Texas at Austin, there were just 25 public mass shootings in which four-or-more people were killed. The young ex-soldier redefined homegrown massacres. He brought to bear a Remington 700, a .35-caliber Remington, a M1 carbine, a Sears semi-automatic shotgun, a .357 Magnum, a Luger, a .25-caliber pistol, and a big knife.

During the rampage a police sharpshooter in a small plane circling the 27-story building was repeatedly driven back by return fire. The first person killed was the eight-month-old not-yet-born baby of an 18-year-old pregnant student leaving the Student Union. She was shot in the abdomen.

Finally, two policemen stormed the observation deck, one firing his revolver, but missing, and the other killing Charles Whitman instantly with two blasts from his shotgun. The policeman with the revolver emptied his gun into the body at point-blank range, to make sure. He ran to the parapet yelling, “I got him, I got him.” He was almost shot himself by the police on the ground, who didn’t at first realize he wasn’t the shooter.

It remains to this day one of the deadliest mass shootings in the United States.

In the 1980s, the FBI defined mass shootings as four-or-more people (not including the mass murderer) being killed in a single incident, typically in a single location. Since 1966 there have been thousands of them. Before 1966 there was a mass shooting about once every one hundred weeks, There is today a mass shooting about once every day.

Between 1999 and 2013 there were 31 mass murders per year on average. In 2015 there were 220 days of mass shootings and only 145 with none. In the first ten months of 2018 there were 307 mass shootings, almost as many as there were days.

It doesn’t bode well for 2019, with the White House still occupied by a crazy person, the National Rifle Association still staffed by crazy people, and millions of crazy Americans still armed to the teeth. The NRA, with reasoning crooked as a corkscrew, has re-interpreted the 2ndAmendment to suit their agenda. They and their supporters equate their success with goodness.

It doesn’t matter that rightness ends where a gun barrel begins.

There are more guns than people in the country, by far. There are almost 400 million guns in the USA. There are 12 million guns in Canada. There are 3 million guns in England. There a fewer than half-a-million guns in Japan. US citizens own 40% of all the guns in the world, more than the next 25 countries combined.

Until last year yoga studios seemed immune to the violence. Who ever saw a security guard at the front door of a yoga studio? At least, until last November, when Scott Beierle walked into Hot Yoga in Tallahassee, Florida, and shot to death Nancy Van Vessem, a physician and faculty member at Florida State University, and Maura Binkley, a student at the same university.

Maura Binkley’s father said his daughter had planned on becoming a teacher. “She truly lived a life really devoted to peace, love, and caring for others,” said Jeff Binkley. She didn’t live long. She was 21-years-old.

It doesn’t take long to go packing in Florida. There is no waiting period to buy an assault rifle. In Iowa no one needs a license to sell guns online. If you plan on selling lemonade, however, even if you’re a 7-year-old and your storefront is your front yard, you need both a food license and a business permit. In Texas, if you want to sell guns, go right on ahead, partner. It is the most heavily armed state in the country.

But, if you want to cut hair in Texas, you have to log 1,500 hours at hairdressing school. Scissors don’t kill people, people do.

Buying a gun almost anywhere in the United States is easier than getting a license to drive, filling out your tax return, or talking to tech support. It’s harder to pay off student debt, which typically takes about 21 years, than it is to buy a gun, which typically takes about 10 minutes. Anyone can walk into a gun store, pass a background check in record time, and get your gun. In some states no one has to even do that. They can buy a gun from a private seller or online, no background check required.

The United States has gone gun crazy. It’s not just mass shootings, either. In 2016, there were 15 people murdered with a handgun in Japan, 26 in England, 130 in Canada, and 11,004 in the USA.

Mass shootings have happened at casinos, nightclubs, hotels, military bases, music festivals, libraries, factories, airports, malls, courthouses, sorority houses, apartment buildings, Waffle Houses, backyard parties, Planned Parenthood clinics, movie theaters, churches, synagogues, the Empire State Building, nursing homes, baseball fields, grade schools, high schools, community colleges, and universities.

In Dangerfield, Texas, a man walked into a church and killed 5 people and wounded 10 others after members of the congregation had earlier declined to be character witnesses for him at a trial.

Besides the mortally shot, four others were wounded at Hot Yoga, a neighborhood studio, and one, a young man who, among others, fought back against the murderer, was pistol-whipped.

“Several people inside fought back, and tried to not only save themselves but other people,” said Police Chief Michael DeLeo. “It’s a testament to the courage of people who don’t just turn and run.”

One of them was shot nine times.

The shooting spree broke out on a Friday night as the yoga class was starting. Scott Beierle pretended to be a student, but then pulled a semi-automatic handgun from his duffle bag and started shooting anyone and everyone in sight without warning.

When the gunfire momentarily stopped, Joshua Quick took action.

“I don’t know if it jammed, or what,” he said. “So I used that opportunity to hit him over the head. I picked up the only thing nearby to hit him with, which was a vacuum cleaner, and I hit him on the head.” The shooter was staggered, but recovered his footing, and pummeled Joshua Quick on the forehead and nose with his gun. The yoga student fell to the floor, bleeding, but got back up

“I jumped up as quickly as I could, ran back, and the next thing I know I’m grabbing a broom, you know, anything I can, and I hit him again.”

“Thanks to him,” said Daniela Albalat, who was shot in the thigh, “I was able to rush out the door, slipping and bleeding. I want to thank that guy from the bottom of my heart because he saved my life.”

Joshua Quick did what the Dalai Lama would have done, except the Dali Lama would have gone heavy. Arguably one of the most peaceable men on the planet, when asked by a child at the Educating Heart Summit in Oregon what he would do if someone came to his school with a gun, he replied without hesitation, ”If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.”

By then, three minutes after the first 911 call, sirens were wailing and the police were showing up at Hot Yoga. Scott Beierle cleared the gun’s chamber, turned it on himself, and shot himself dead and straight to hell.

He lived in Deltona, Florida, about 250 miles from Tallahassee, and had no apparent prior connection with the yoga studio or anyone he gunned down. He had lately been a substitute teacher at the Volusia County Schools, even though he had a bachelor’s degree from Binghamton University in New York and a master’s degree in public administration from Florida State University. He had been arrested several times for battery for groping women on the FSU campus.

“He just gave off a psychopathic vibe, like someone crazy,” said Samantha Mikolajczyk, who had him as a teacher when she was in eighth grade.

He was fired for unprofessional conduct, which meant he had been inappropriately touching teenage female students. Five months later he checked into a Tallahassee motel, and on November 2, 2018, walked into the Tallahassee yoga studio he didn’t know anything about, and started shooting people he didn’t know anything about, except that some of them were women.

“I really didn’t know him,” said his neighbor, Rachel Rodriguez. “He was quiet. He was like a loner.”

He was an amateur musician who posted his songs online. One was “American Whore.” Another was “Homicidal Impulse.” In “American Massacre” he sang, “If I cannot find a decent female to live with, I will find many indecent females to die with. I find that if I cannot make a living, then I will turn, to be successful, I will make a killing.”

Mass murderers are all different, except almost all of them are men. They have their reasons for doing what they do, although none of them are good reasons, and many, if not all, mass murderers suffer from baseline mental problems. Mental health is not compatible with murdering people.

Although they and their reasons are variable, the one constant among them is the semi-automatic firearms they deploy. None of them carries a musket. None of them carries a Colt six-shooter. They bring their AR-15’s. They bring the blessing and imprimatur of the NRA and our self-serving rulers, the NRA that has successfully lobbied one Congress after another for decades to severely limit research by the Centers for Disease Control into gun-related violence

A few days after a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in March 2018, then House Speaker Paul Ryan said his ruling Republican Party planned on keeping restrictions on gun research in place. “We don’t just knee-jerk before we have all the facts and the data,” said the longtime opponent of gun measures.

As long as his kneecaps aren’t getting popped, he’s not going to knee-jerk it.

“We are saddened and angered by the senseless shooting at Hot Yoga Tallahassee,” said Tasha Eichenseher, Yoga Journal’s brand director. “Studios are sacred places where we go for self-care and to feel safe.”

After Sandy Hook and Tree of Life Synagogue and First Baptist Church, it is doubtful there are any sacred places left. It is undoubtedly true there are no safe places left. If even Fort Hood, the biggest active-duty armored army base in the United States, couldn’t prevent Nidal Hasan, an Army major and psychiatrist, from going postal and fatally shooting 13 soldiers, while wounding more than 30 others, it’s doubtful there is safe and secure anywhere.

“It was only a matter of time that gun violence would touch our community,” said Amy Ippoliti, co-founder of 90 Monkeys. “This should be a battle cry to take up the charge. The only way to change gun violence is through policy and politics. If you think yoga isn’t about politics, you need to think again.”

“You have a whole generation with this being more and more normal,” said Jeff Binkley. “That cannot happen.”

Nevertheless, as long as the crazy people we elect to rule in our state and national legislatures, and the crazy people we elect to our state and national capital houses, are the same wallet-stuffing vote-stuffing people allied with gun manufacturers and Second Amendment propagandists, gun-reform legislation and public-health funding are not going to happen.

They don’t give it a second thought.

President Trump performs by way of Twitter to the grass roots that believe they need their guns to make it in this world. They put their faith in his Punch and Judy show even though his grass roots were watered at a thousand country clubs where a thousand gun manufacturers dine and drink and play 18 holes. The security guards carry guns, since Orange Julius no more believes in responsible gun rights than he believes in the Constitution.

Two-and-a-half centuries later we don’t live in 1780s buildings anymore, we don’t travel in 1780s horse and buggies anymore, and we don’t turn on the lights with 1780s whale oil anymore. We don’t read one-page pamphlets and the penny press anymore. We don’t use 1780s medicine, like arsenic and leeches, anymore. There is no reason why a 1780s amendment to the Constitution, written to enable a militia, should enable mass murderers to buy whatever guns whenever and wherever they want.

But, that’s the world we have made and the world we live in.

Coming Soon! to a neighborhood near you. Maybe even your own neighborhood. Maybe even your own backyard.

Gun Crazy!

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

 

 

 

 

Soul Music

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“I’ve always been obsessed by weddings,” said Marsha Weeks. “I used to buy wedding magazines when I was 7-years-old and dream about planning a wedding.”

Most kids don’t grow up to be the firemen and rock stars, much less heroes and explorers, they dreamt about becoming. It’s less than 1 out of 30. It’s a long shot when it comes to becoming a hero, or even a wedding planner. The rest of children, because of ups and downs, twists and turns, turn out becoming and doing something else, mechanics, working in stores, teachers, and doctors.

Marsha Weeks grew up in Fredericton, a small rural community in western Queens County on Prince Edward Island. The province is Canada’s smallest, made up of only three counties, as well as the most rural. It is the only province without a metropolis. Most islanders live in country and small town areas.

After graduating from high school she moved west, almost three thousand miles west, enrolling at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. She stayed for ten years. “I did hospitality management, managed restaurants,” she said. When she moved back to PEI she worked in hotels in Charlottetown, the capital, then went into sales and marketing at the Stanley Bridge Resort, not far from where she grew up.

“I now work for the Children’s Wish Foundation,” she said. She is a wish coordinator. “We grant wishes to children from the ages of 3 to 17 who have been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses.” Founded in 1983, the charitable organization has chapters in every province and territory of Canada. It has granted more than 25,000 wishes. The most popular ones include travel and meeting celebrities.

Super heroes are splashed across the pages of comic books and IMAX screens, battling super villains and saving the world. Real heroes are usually real people helping another real person. She helps kids hitch their wagons to a shooting star.

She also helps grown-ups get hitched to their sweethearts. Since returning to Prince Edward Island, she has become a licensed marriage commissioner and officiant. Dreaming about weddings and watching re-runs of “Say Yes to the Dress” has finally paid off.

“The provincial government started licensing it in 2006, because there was a demand for same-sex marriages,” said Marsha. “There was the church, too, which doesn’t allow marriages outside of the church. A priest wouldn’t be allowed to marry somebody on the beach.”

When 90 people flew to the island last summer for the wedding of Matthew MacDonald, a PEI native, and Katie Shaver, they landed at a wedding officiated by Marsha Weeks staged on a red cliff overlooking the Northumberland Straight.

“It was important to us to showcase the island and have a real east coast feel,” said Katie. “We were blessed with perfect weather, a quintessential late summer PEI day!”

Although you have to take the birds and bees into consideration, as well as inclement weather and the buffet table surviving the wind, nothing beats getting married outdoors. Unless you mistake the lay of the land and your car gets marooned. “Someone from Ontario coming to a wedding here decided to drive over the dunes on to Cavendish Beach,” said Marsha. “They got stuck in the sand and had to be towed out.”

In any event, the flowers are already there – pink and purple lupins line the fields, roads, and ditches in June and July – and your photos will look great.

Almost 900 marriage certificates were issued in the province in 2018, according to PEI Vital Statistics, nearly 400 of them going to couples with a relationship to the island, but not necessarily living there. The Marriage Act was simplified in 2016, allowing people off-island to marry with passports, doing away with the need for birth certificates. There are almost one hundred marriage commissioners licensed to conduct a legal marriage ceremony.

Marsha Weeks is one of the busiest of them. On a summer day last year she officiated five weddings on a Saturday. She didn’t wait for all the traffic lights in all directions to go green before getting going.

“I started at Cavendish, a destination wedding, went to Fox Meadows Golf Course, a farmer’s field in Brookfield, to the woods at Clinton Hills, and ended up on a back road on the Trout River, at a private residence.”

For once, she hired somebody to drive her. “I didn’t want to risk being late, and I wanted to be able to give them as much attention as I could,’ she said. “I didn’t want to just jump out in time for their ‘I do’s’”

It isn’t only traditional wedding season bells, either.

“I recently officiated a large wedding in western PEI,” she said. “The bride and groom chose to incorporate their children with a sand ceremony to symbolize the blending of their two families into one, and presented the children with necklaces as their own special gifts. It was a reflection on how important one big happy family meant to the couple.

“That same day I officiated a small intimate wedding in Charlottetown. The bride and groom couldn’t keep their eyes off of each other for even a second, and as they exchanged their vows, their love for each other radiated. It was honestly beautiful.”

Most people, as recently as ten years ago, used to get married in a church. Nowadays most people get married in a civil ceremony. “I think it’s going to continue that way,” said fellow commissioner Marlo Dodge. “You can get married wherever you want, whenever you want. You can tailor the ceremony to the way you want.”

As long as you include the legal parts, you can write your own ceremony.

Not many people, however, write their own music. There are scores of wedding ceremony songs, from the traditional to the modern. “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles is still popular, as are Josh Groban’s “The Prayer” and “Fairytale” by Enya. “The Wedding March” by Felix Mendelssohn has stayed a Top 10 on the soul music charts since it was first played in 1858 as a recessional for a royal wedding.

Marsha started making soul music on her own when she moved back to Prince Edward Island.

She had gotten the hang of the pump organ as a tot sitting at her grandmother’s side. “One of the fondest memories I have growing up is of her playing hymns. She loved playing for herself. I’m like that. I get something out of it on the inside.” She started taking fiddle lessons six years ago from Gary Chipman.

“Someone recommended him,” she said.

She couldn’t have tied the bowstring knot with anybody better. Gary Chipman learned to play the fiddle when he was 5-years-old. His father, a well-known Charlottetown-area fiddler, taught him his first tunes. By the 1960s he was often featured at local dance halls. He toured with Stompin’ Tom Connors and is well known for his down east Don Messer style of fiddling.

“The Cape Breton style is rhythmic, with Scottish cuts,” said Marsha. ”The down east style is melodic, it flows, it’s a lot faster.”

If Don Messer played with little ornamentation and great assurance, Gary Chipman plays with expressiveness and great assurance.

“I was taking lessons from him, but I had not heard him play,” said Marsha. She heard him one afternoon at Remembrance Day. “I couldn’t see the stage, but I could hear a person playing. That is amazing, I thought. Who is playing that fiddle?”

It was her music teacher. She had only ever heard him play scales. She didn’t know he had played on the folk musical TV variety show “Don Messer’s Jubilee” when he was still a lad. “My chest swelled so much I thought it would burst, it was so exciting,” said Gary. The half-hour show at the time was second in viewership only to “Hockey Night in Canada.”

“These are the good old days, today,” said Gary. “I’m going to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.”

“Musicians don’t retire,” said Louis Armstrong. “They only stop when there’s no more music in them.”

“The Don Messer show was near and dear to a lot of people in Atlantic Canada,” said Marsha. ”When they cancelled it, there was a huge protest. Not riots, but a huge uproar.”

Since brainstorming is the marriage of ideas, Marsha put on her thinking cap. She went to the beach on the national seashore. She went for a walk by herself. She went home and took a hot shower. It’s where some people do their best thinking. Warm water helps increase dopamine flow to the brain. She let her thoughts take center stage.

“I’ve always had an element of promotions and event planning in my career. His natural ability to play music, my entrepreneurial spirit, it was a kind of natural fusion, and I decided I wanted to organize a show.”

They put together a performance, and then did another, and then ”it kind of blossomed after that.” They spent two seasons doing shows at Avonlea Village and two seasons after that at Stanley Bridge. In between they took a Don Messer show on the road.

Avonlea Village is in Cavendish, on the north-central coast, the small town Lucy Maud Montgomery called Avonlea in “Anne of Green Gables.” It is a re-creation of the 19thcentury town, merging purpose-built with heritage buildings. The Women’s Institute in Stanley Bridge is 4 miles up the main drag on Route 6. There are ceilidhs at the community hall six days a week in the summer.

“The Stanley Bridge hall has such a soul,” said Marsha.

Two years ago Gary Chipman spent summer nights there playing with Keelin Wedge, a hairpin turns wizard on the fiddle, and Kevin Chaisson. Last year he played Mondays with the Chaisson Family Trio and Wednesdays with the Arsenault Trio. Jordan Chowden, a world-class step-dancer, made the stage boards go percussive. The Chaisson’s from Bear River have deep roots in PEI’s music scene They are part of the spearhead keeping traditional fiddling alive and well on the island.

Marsha hosted the shows, joining in when the opportunity arose, although keeping up with the Arsenault’s was no mean feat.

“Their liveliness is amazing,” she said. “If we were playing ‘St Anne’s Reel,’ they definitely add more notes to it. They put their own spin on everything. It’s their Acadian style and it’s fast.”

Before the shows Marsha does all of the social media, organizes the schedule, takes notes during rehearsals, and types up the play list in capital letters. She makes sure the doors of the hall are open, the lights are on, and the soundboard is right on.  “I’m always so proud to hand them their play list, although by the end of the night they might have done a few songs on the page,” she said. “It’s just the way it is. Most of the time it works.”

During the shows Marsha is the emcee and stage manager. “Everybody likes the sound of their instruments through the monitors a certain way. They’ve got to have water. Gary has to have his guitar on his right side, or else he gets all tangled up.”

She is also the timekeeper. “It seems like I’m the boss of it, but that’s only because they never think to look at the clock. They would keep going all night. Gary is the biggest offender. I don’t necessarily want the music to stop, either, but I’m the one who knows the show has to end at 9:30.”

Marsha’s own fiddle has become an extension of herself. “I understand now what I was missing,” she said. “It’s a part of me, a part of who I am. It’s a part of what makes myself me. You don’t have to be the best. You just have to feel it.”

It’s her own soul music.

“I don’t think of it as a genre. It’s more of a feeling,” explained Louis Kevin Celestin, a Montreal DJ and partner in the hip hop duo the Celestics, explaining soul music.

“Don Messer was my idol when I was a kid,” said Gary. “I thought his band was the best type in the world.  I had the dream of doing my own tribute show.”

The dream came true in 2015 when he did a tribute show at Winsloe United Church, on the road between Oyster Bed Bridge and Charlottetown. Gary’s daughter was in the band and the Charlotte Twirlers, a square dance group, hoofed it up.

Two years later Marsha and Gary took “A PEI Salute to the Music of Don Messer and His Islanders” farther down the road. They took the Messer-style toe-tapping jigs and reels to National Fiddling Day in Charlottetown and the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside. They took the show to Harvey, New Brunswick, Don Messer’s hometown.

“It’s of real sentimental importance to me, having tried to emulate the sounds of Don Messer for my entire fiddling career,” said Gary.

“The older the fiddle, the sweeter the sound,” is what they say.

In September 2017 they took the show to Walter’s Dinner Theatre in Bright, Ontario. “I don’t even know where Bright is, but we’ll find it,” said Gary. When they found it they sold out all the nine shows they did during their week’s run at the watering hole and show hall.

“Gary plays old tunes in new ways,” said Marsha. “He’s the real deal. He puts his own twist on things.”

Sometimes Marsha puts her own twist on weddings. Sometimes stepping up to the altar and step dancing happen all on the same day. Sometimes somebody’s first dance is in the center aisle at the Stanley Bridge community hall, to the soul music of three or four island fiddlers serenading you.

“There were the two moms, the couple, their son, and me,” said Marsha. “It was an intimate wedding.”

The couple from Alberta had come especially to PEI the middle of last summer to get married. “I try to personalize it. I want them to have an amazing experience when they’re making their forever promises to each other.” There’s a forever kind of happiness in making a commitment. The first event many couples plan together is their wedding. There’s nothing unfun about it, either.

“Marsha brought a genuine joyful vibe that is priceless. We felt she was truly happy for us. We are so glad we chose her to officiate our ceremony. That joy is something one can’t pay for.“

Even though the climate is more mild than it should be thanks to the warm water out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, summer is short and winter is long on Prince Edward Island. It starts to snow in November and lasts until April. Harbors can be frozen solid into May.

“I’m a bit of an old soul,” she said. “I work full-time, but in the winter I slow down, recharge. I write, do projects, and plan for the spring. I practice my fiddle. I practice every day.”

Winter is when wishes get organized and saved up for the heyday of springtime.

“If I could just do weddings and fiddles all the time, it would be my perfect life,” said Marsha Weeks, springing a smile.

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Rachel Gets a Ring

Rachel and Doug

Although it may be there are either no coincidences or everything is a coincidence, it is certainly the case that everyone in some small or large way is shaped by happenstance. One thing doesn’t work out while the other one does.

“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous” is how Albert Einstein put it.

“I was out with a group of friends,” said Doug McKinney. “Another friend that I played basketball with back in the day texted me he was at Baba’s Lounge. Although I never went there, I went that one time, and connected with Rachel.”

Baba is a word that comes from Persian. It is a Middle Eastern expression of fondness, like darling. It’s like “My Darling Clementine” in a pahlavi instead of a cowboy hat.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question, darlin’?”

“Where I come from, that’s a term of endearment, partner.”

“We’re on the same page, then.”

“No, we connected at the game,” said Rachel.

Doug McKinney was a power forward for the Island Storm of the Canadian National Basketball League for four years, once on the All-Star team, and to this day holds the playoff record for most points scored in the fewest minutes, when he couldn’t miss in the seventh game of the 2014 NBL Finals.

“I didn’t see you at the game,” said Doug.

“I thought you were just skipping over me, but I saw you, and I wrote you.”

“OK, technically we can start there.”

“I wrote him, I haven’t seen you in years, I hope you’re OK.”

“When I saw her at Baba’s she gave me a big hug, we hung out for a little bit, and when I left, I couldn’t stop thinking about her afterwards.”

They had first met more than ten years earlier, when Doug was playing for the University of Prince Edward Panthers, and Rachel was dating one of his teammates, even though Doug was Best Male Athlete of the Year at the school in 2007.

“I was always a big fan of Doug’s, a great guy, sweet,” said Rachel.

In the years since Doug had finished his college career, played internationally, and was in his third season with the Island Storm. Rachel had gone to school in Toronto, lived in Hawaii, and moved back to Prince Edward Island. In the meantime, she traveled, to the USA, the Caribbean, and Europe.

She and her friend Emma, whose family operates the Chocolate Factory across the street from the Landmark Café, in Victoria, their hometown on the south shore of Prince Edward Island, piled into a 1992 Buick with Emma’s nearly 200-pound Newfoundland dog, Rupert, and drove across and back the range of Canada.

Newfies are black dogs who don’t necessarily eat too much, don’t necessarily need large houses to live in, but do sprawl across back seats, and do, by necessity, often drool. They are dogs who save babies from drowning and need baby wipes.

“It took months, a crazy road trip, came home, moved to Ontario, came back, did some more traveling, and every summer worked at the Landmark,” said Rachel.

The popular eatery, featured in the guidebook ‘Where to Eat in Canada,’ is seasonal, opening in May and closing in October. The Landmark Café was her father and mother’s brainchild 29 years ago. Rachel and her brother have worked there nearly every summer since they came of age, and even before that.

Doug went the length and breadth of Prince Edward Island during his walk of life with the Island Storm.

“I got to see more of the island on that team than living here my whole life,” he said. “Going to schools, all these little communities, we’re talking to kids, promoting literacy, all kinds of community stuff.” Even though PEI is the smallest of the Canadian provinces, there are more than 70 municipalities spread out over 2200 square miles, most of them separated by big tracts of farmland. There are only two pocket-sized cities on the island. It is mainly a rural landscape.

It wasn’t long after their chance encounter at Babas’s Lounge that Rachel and Doug became a twosome.

“I don’t think either of us were looking for a relationship, but we didn’t want to pass it up,” said Rachel.

“There was something special about our energy together,” said Doug. “I never felt that energy before.”

The summer after retiring from pro ball he got involved with skills training at several basketball camps. He helped out at the Landmark Café, too. “Doug was finishing up with the Storm and it was time to start work at the restaurant,” said Rachel. He bussed tables, later on learning to serve. Seasonal work on PEI means being busy as a bee.

“You could have a day off, but you felt guilty because everyone else was there working so hard,” said Rachel.

“We didn’t see each other a whole lot, but then it just came together,” said Doug.

“It evolved into us realizing we worked well with one another,” said Rachel. ”It’s been almost five years working at different things together, and so we’re at a spot where we’re trying to figure out our next life.”

“Our next play,” said Doug.

“Our next thing,” said Rachel.

“Working side by side,” said Doug.

“We do well together,” said Rachel. ”We’re very open with each other. Even if I feel embarrassed, I know I can go talk to Doug about anything. When we worked at the restaurant, I was almost his boss. He can take it.”

There’s no needing to take it when you’re on the same wavelength.

Getting in sync at the Landmark Café was one thing. Hiking the Camino was another.

“That definitely brought us closer together,” said Rachel.

The Camino de Santiago, sometimes known as the Way of Saint James, is a network of paths passages roads in northwestern Spain all leading to the shrine of the saint. In the Middle Ages it was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages. Even today hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way to the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela. Some do it for penance or as a spiritual retreat from modern life. Some hikers walk the route for the challenge. The full length of the trek takes about a month.

If things go haywire there’s always the traditional queimada, which is a local ritual used to fight off evil spirits by drinking a smoking concoction brewed somewhere out of sight, although planning on a day of R & R after the cultural experience is advisable.

“Doing the 800 kilometers of the Camino brought us closer,” said Doug. “There’s the physical stress, dealing with it, of the two of you walking 30 kilometers a day with backpacks, side by side.”

It’s one day at a time on the Camino. It can get hot dusty tiresome. Your partner can start getting on your nerves.

“There are a lot of couples, they say, I can’t imagine working with him,” said Rachel.

“I can’t imagine going to two separate jobs, being separate forty hours a week,” said Doug.

“It gives me anxiety,” said Rachel.

“I just wouldn’t be comfortable,” said Doug.

“I definitely feel safe when Doug’s around,” said Rachel. “In many ways, the more the years go on, the more you want to be together. We can look at each other and we know what the look means. It’s just fun to have, if you’re in that fun busy relationship. It can be great.”

A fun busy loving relationship may not make the world go around, but it makes the ride worthwhile.

After three years working elbow-to-elbow at the family restaurant, in the past year they both found a new path, going to work for Fairholm Properties, which operates high-end inns and lodgings in Charlottetown. They rent an apartment downtown in the capitol city, a few minutes from their jobs. “In the wintertime, it’s storming outside, you can walk just about anywhere,” said Doug.

The next step was walking to the jewelry store.

Like Socrates said, “If you find a good wife, you’ll be happy. If not, you’ll become a philosopher.” Who wants to be a down at the mouth philosopher? After all, Socrates ended up drinking hemlock. Better to ask your better half to pop the top of a Ghahan Sir John A’s honey wheat ale. It pours a refreshing golden color with a white head and it’s not poisonous.

“I know my future is something colorful, something hands-on, something bright, with Doug next to me,” said Rachel.

When you’re hands-on you’re a big part of whatever you’re doing, jumping right in, not taking it for granted, seeing it through from beginning to end. It’s taking the present into your own hands, getting your hands dirty, not handing anything off to anybody else. It’s a show of hands.

Doug showed his hand the October before last.

“I didn’t know where we were going to get engaged, although I knew it was going to be in St. Andrews,” he said.

St. Andrews, at the far western end of New Brunswick, is a small town on the southern tip of a triangle-shaped peninsula in the Passamaquoddy Bay. Many of the original buildings from the 18th century have been restored and are still in place. It is a National Historic Site, although whose history is open to question. Many of the homes were dismantled and floated across the border to the town by disgruntled Loyalists from Maine at the end of the American Revolutionary War, where they were reassembled.

“It’s literally on the USA border,” said Doug.

Crossing borders was more seat-of-your-pants once upon a time. Nobody asked for your passport. Everybody wasn’t forever talking about another brick in the wall. You could bring your whole house with you, not just your RV.

“It is beautiful there,” said Rachel. “Whenever we see a botanical garden, we go to it. When we visit family in New York City, we always go.” Although born and reared on PEI, Rachel’s mother is from NYC and her father is from Montreal.

They had lunch in the café at the Kingsbrae Garden.

“The chef happened to be from PEI,” said Rachel.

The Kingsbrae Garden is a 27-acre former family estate turned horticultural oasis of nearly three thousand perennials, shrubs, and trees. It is a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. There are peacocks, pygmy goats, and ponds, a cedar maze, and a trail through an old-growth forest. Doug and Rachel walked the gardens after lunch.

They spotted a giant Adirondack chair, the kind of oversized chair that makes grown-ups look like kids. They stopped in front of the great big chair.

“Oh, yeah,” said Rachel. “Whenever we see one of those big chairs, we get a picture of us sitting on it.”

When they slid off the seat, Doug asked her if she had dropped something when she got off the chair.

“She didn’t actually drop anything,” said Doug. He didn’t tell her it had fallen far. Rather, it was right there. You don’t want to cast your chance too far when you have the chance.

“It was all just a ploy to get her to turn around.”

“I looked and looked, and when I looked back at him he was on his knee.”

Doug was on his knee next to a giant pumpkin beside the chair on a sunny October afternoon, the day after Columbus Day, proposing a new world, proposing marriage.

”It made us at eye level,” said Rachel.

“How long do you want to be loved? Is forever enough?” is how the Dixie Chicks sing it.

She said yes when she saw the ring, the two of them seeing eye-to-eye in the garden.

“I’m pumped for the rest of our adventures,” said Rachel.

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The Last Splatter

4755909_orig

“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.

Gravity had been the heaven-sent hand that gave life to the paint and flotsam that dripped splashed flowed down onto his canvasses. Gravity was now the hand that dealt him a death blow.

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

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