by John Vorhaus
“Shut up! At the end of the day, can you not just shut the hell up?”
He grinds a knee into my back and jams both guns against my head.
“Here’s the deal, Poole, final terms: Speak again and I will blow your brains through this floor. What do you think about that?”
I say nothing.
“No? Nothing to add to the conversation? No clever observations? No bon mots? Good. Let’s see how long you can hold it.”
Well, how long can I hold it?
Trouble is, the longer I stay silent, the more unstable the situation becomes, and unstable situations with guns have to make you nervous. Plus, this guy can be talked to. I know that. Chilling him out and keeping him chilled out have already saved my ass more than once. But now he’s taken away my weapon, because how can my mouth save my ass when the next word I utter will end me?
Unless the next word is waffles.
Waffles? It’s true, unbelievable but true. The word that can save my life is waffles. I don’t even have to speak it, only mouth it.
But I don’t rush into it, because this is another egg I can’t unbreak, and if it goes wrong, then that’s game over for Poole. Just a minute ago, I’d said that I wouldn’t mind dying – the boast that got these two guns to my head in the first place. But is it true?
Can I save myself?
Dare I risk it?
No time to dither.
The situation is unstable.
But all it takes is a word…
1. The Low Spark
I turned off the ceiling light and placed my trusty Koss Pro 4aa headphones over my ears. In an instant their thick foam cushions cancelled out the horrible gacky sounds of Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” coming from a stereo down the hall.
Disco, God help us. How fast did that catch on?
I lifted the smoked plastic lid of my manual play Pioneer turntable and carefully cued up Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” I cranked the volume on my Nikko 5050 receiver, lay back on my narrow bed and fired up a joint. Not for the first time – more like like every time – I tried to penetrate the lyrics of the song.
We were children once, playing with toys
and the thing that you’re hearing is only the sound
of the low spark of high heeled boys
What’s a high heeled boy anyway? What’s a low spark? A quiet revolution, maybe? Something that sneaks up on you and messes with you and you don’t even know. That’s what I need, I thought. I need to be lit by a low spark.
My roommate came in, Donny (occasional Donald, never Don) Dawkins. He turned on the light and stood over me wearing an expression of harsh disapproval. He was thickset: not fat, but chunky; what we used to call husky when I was a kid. A struggle of muttonchops framed his round face, along with an enormous Jewfro. He loved that big nimbus, thought it made him look cool beyond cool.
I thought it made him look like Angela Davis.
I lifted one ear cup and said, “What?”
He wagged his finger at me sternly. “Alexander Poole, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, you are not to smoke marijuana in this room we share,” he paused, then added as I knew he would, “without sharing.” He plucked the remaining half a joint from my ashtray and lit it up, then went to my stereo. “What are we listening to? Wait, let me guess. Traffic?” He briskly unjacked my headphones and listened for a second to place the song. “I knew it. You are in such a rut. You’ve played this record every day since we got back to school. Let’s play some Led Zep.”
“And listen to Robert Plant screaming like he fell off a cliff? No, thank you.”
“Have it your way, but enough of this.” He lifted the turntable lid and pawed the tonearm off the LP.
“Hey, be careful with that.”
“Relax, Audio Joe, I know how to handle a record.” This he convincingly disproved by jamming the record into its sleeve and racking it among my LPs in some completely random place. He examined my albums with familiar disdain. “God, you have some lame taste.” I wasn’t insulted by this. That was just Dawk, how he was. He pulled out Countdown to Ecstasy and said with exaggerated relief, “Ah, Steely Dan, at last a band that doesn’t completely blow. You know they’re named after a dildo, right?”
“Which you only mention every time you say Steely Dan.”
“True. I beat a dead horse. By the way, speaking of dildos – ”
“Were we speaking of dildos?”
“Son, we don’t speak nearly enough about dildos. You know what I just figured out about them? What they represent?”
“No, tell me. What do dildos represent?”
“Horny women. For every dildo sold, there’s a women out there somewhere who wants to have sex. All we have to do is find them and convince them we’re better than a dildo.”
“Son,” I told Donny, “you’re going to have some trouble with that.”
“I’m telling you, this is big news. All this time we’ve been thinking of banging as something we want to do but chicks don’t. The dildos tell us we’re wrong.”
“’The dildos tell us we’re wrong,’ I could see that on a tee shirt.”
“And it would totally sell. But the question is, what are we to do with this monumental news? I will tell you: We are to take it out, son. This information, we are to take it to the world. To, specifically, the Rat, where I’m told there’s a honking blues band playing right now.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was planning to study.”
“Oh, was that before or after you listened to Low Farts for the jillionth time?”
“Shut up,” I said. “What’s the band?”
“Coincidentally, they’re called the Dildos.”
We jabbered back and forth for a moment, but the conclusion was foregone. I grabbed a sweatshirt and headed out into the night. You do that sometimes, just be a cork bobbing on the Sea of Dawkins. Interesting things can happen. Drunk things at least.
The search for the low spark could wait.
The dorm we lived in, Ira Lemke Hall, had been co-ed for a couple of years now, and I’d already learned that it’s not the nudity parade you might think. You get to watch a girl brush her teeth, big deal. That said, as Dawk and I walked out, we both looked back, as we both naturally would, for the girl who lived in a certain single on the second floor had been known to entertain gentlemen with the shade not drawn.
“No Layla,” sighed Dawk.
“No Layla,” I agreed.
We had no idea what her real name was. To us she would always be Layla, a rare, exotic bird we could label but never hope to catch.
In the topography of Cort College, where outlying hills of the Connecticut Berkshires turned everything into a gully or ridge, it often seemed like every building on campus was uphill from everywhere, even coming back. In the case of the Rathskeller, or Rat, in the basement of the James Cort Union, or U, it was true. But the night had some bite to it and the uphill grind felt good.
The U was built into a hillside, and had the oddity of two ground-floor entrances, one on the west side, facing Memorial Plaza, and the other around back, two levels down. As we crossed the plaza we saw a scruffy dude standing there playing guitar and singing “Proud Mary.” He wore a beat leather cowboy hat, jeans and a pretty thin jacket. He played well enough and tried to put some soul into it, but you could tell he was mostly just cold. A German Shepherd lay at his feet, looking equally dolefully unwarm.
“Seen that guy before?” I asked Dawk after we passed.
“Weird he’s not playing for money.”
“Maybe it’s art.”
Dawk shrugged. “Cover art?”
We went inside, crossed to the back stairs, and dropped down to the Rat, near the back entrance. You always knew you were getting there before you got there, for the smell of stale beer and brutal cleanser never failed to greet you from below.
We got a pitcher and occupied a corner booth. This was the key to value at the Rat: think pitchers. The other key was Haffenreffer, the house beer and consistently cheaper than anything else. It tasted like pony sweat, but if you pounded it fast enough, eventually it would catch up to you.
I knew it had caught up to Dawk when he burst out of a contemplative silence with a loud, “Here’s one!”
“Here’s one what?”
“A thing. A thing I think I thought up. Listen,” he said intently, “boobytrap spelled backward is partyboob.”
“That is amazing,” I said. “I’m speechless at the amazingness of that.”
“As well you should be. Now you do one.”
“What? What are you talking about? I can’t just ‘do one.’ I’d have to be a freak like you.”
“As you like. But I don’t think the Beatles sat around all day saying, ‘Ooh, blimey, I can’t just do a bleedin’ song.’” He pouted out his lower lip. “’I don’t know ‘ow.’”
“Okay, first, that’s a terrible Liverpool accent. Never do that where people can hear.”
“You said first. What’s second?”
“What second? There’s no second. Shut up.”
I guess the ‘Reffer had caught up to me, too.
Dawkins sighed. “Still, though, that’d be cool.”
“To be the Beatles of something. You should do that.”
“Be the Beatles of something. You’d be good at it.” He waved vaguely at our empty pitcher. “Start with that. Be the Beatles of that.”
I picked up the pitcher and headed for the bar. It wasn’t a long trip, but long enough to think a few things through.
So how do you get to be the Beatles of something anyhow? Can you even think about it if you’re stuck up here in the Berkshires (or Buttshires or Berserkshires, as Cort kids call them)? So easy not to. When winter comes down, maybe all you want to do is stay in. Do your homework, play some cards, drink some, smoke some, go to classes, go to concerts, hang out. Next thing you know it’s summer and you have nothing to show for your year. Understimulated, that’s what I was. And I let myself get away with it.
This girl from Upper Volta changed all that. She was a counselor at my same summer camp, on exchange, and she flat couldn’t believe some of the classes I’d taken freshman year. “Sex in Cinema?” she asked, incredulous. In her country, the chance to sit down with a book, any book, in any sort of school setting, was almost unheard of. “And you waste on Sex in Cinema,” she said. “If were mine, this opportunity, I would not waste.”
Thank you, buzz kill.
I spent half the rest of the summer freaking out over My Wasted Life and the other half trying to get into the girl from Upper Volta’s shorts, with limited success. Back home in late August I stayed up late in my family’s copious New Jersey nest, mulling this very business. I wrote poetry into it: mawkish, self-conscious; it had to be destroyed, and it was. But she got under my skin, that girl. She made me want something to show for my time. She made me want the low spark.
Whatever the hell that was.
I climbed onto a stool and clacked my empty pitcher down on the bar. “I seek purpose,” I announced to the bartender with some ceremony. “But I’ll settle for a pitcher of beer.”
This earned a snerk from the girl sitting next to me. I turned to her and said, “What?”
“Nothing,” she said. “It was just funny.”
And that began Melanie, or Mel, which lasted a breathless three weeks, and then fell apart over this: Mel’s gonna be her own gal. That’s her rule, she’s decided, and no one’s moving her off it. Besides which, this bombshell – she’s pretty much sure she doesn’t like boys anymore.
The breakup happened in the dining hall, during dining. I was talking about the upcoming Mott The Hoople show, riffing on the strangeness of bands’ names. “Moby Grape. Vanilla Fudge. And what the hell’s a Hoople?”
She interrupted me abruptly, saying, “I’m not going to that show with you, Poole.”
“Why not? What are you, some kind of Hoople hater?”
“No; we won’t be dating by then.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m breaking up with you now.”
“It doesn’t make sense. We don’t make sense.” That sounded like something Mel would say. Because the thing about Mel was – the decidedly admirable thing – she was just so level-headed. The whole brief time we were together I couldn’t get over how together she was. She didn’t have to be entertained. She could hang out, just sit in a room and read or do sketches. She wasn’t wide-eyed. She was solid. And philosophical. But she hated distractions, and had determined that, nice as I was, that’s what I was. Consequently, we were ended. She figured it was better to tell me now before our Motts got all Hoopled. “Don’t take it too hard, Poole. Everything beautiful dies. We can still be friends.”
“Can we still fool around?”
“Oh, my God, are you really asking me that?”
“Well, why not? It’s been pretty great. At least I think it has.”
“Want me to sing your praises? I will.”
I thought about our lovemaking for a moment. In truth, Mel was the first regular partner I’d had, and compared to the harried fumbles that came before, well… “Well, for one thing, you’re very matter-of-fact.”
Mel cracked up laughing. “Oh, man, this is rich. Keep it up, bub, I’m going to enjoy being your ex.”
“Never mind, forget I brought it up.”
“No, no, go ahead. Sell me on matter-of-fact.”
“Well, you’re just…you’re not self-conscious, you know? You do what you want. You don’t play games. You make sex work.”
“Not like that. I mean function, work well. I’ve been with plenty of women who don’t.”
“Well, a few. Plus me, I don’t do sex well at all.”
“You’re getting the hang of it. You have a promising future.”
“Just not with you,” I said, hangdog.
“Well, there you go. I didn’t know that. I’ve never been broken up with before, not by someone I’m sleeping with. I don’t know the rules for exes. I do know what I want.”
“See you naked again.”
Melanie sighed. “Okay, Poole, here’s the real news.” That’s when she told me the thing about guys, about maybe being over them.
“How are you over guys?” I asked. Holy smoke, did I do that? Was I worse than a dildo?
“I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“I get it, I see. I have to tell you my dirty sexy secrets but you don’t have to share yours?”
Mel blinked. “No,” she said. “No, you’re right, that’s not fair. Okay, here’s the size of it. I always was a sexual girl. I wasn’t interested in boys, exactly, I just wanted my itch scratched. Boys were handy, boys were eager, and frankly the thought of girls never really crossed my mind. It wouldn’t, not where I grew up.” She paused for a moment, then went on. “So, I’ve been with boys. I’ve been with a couple of men. I didn’t like the men, they wanted to take control. The night you and I met, I made out with a girl for the first time.”
“At the Rat?”
“In the bathroom. In a stall. It was exciting. I wanted to go with her, but it seemed like such a radical change. I thought I’d give boys one last chance.”
“Which I blew.”
She took my hand. “You were fine. You’re a sweet dude, dude. You know how to be good to a person.”
“Great,” I said ruefully. “The man can show a lady a good time.”
“Not lady. Person. You’re good when you’re real, Alex. I think I would call it your strength.”
“So now what am I? Someone’s knight in shining armor?”
“No, man, someone’s lover. Real lover. You’ll find her. Just look for someone as real as you.”
“And I’m really looking forward to being your friend, but let’s not let the sex weird us out, huh? If we can do that, I think we’ll be okay.”
Just at that moment Dawkins blew in. He and Mel had become chums in these weeks. “What’s kickin’, kittens?” he asked.
“Melanie just told me she’s queer,” I said, then covered my mouth, mortified. “Was I not supposed to say that?”
“No, that’s you keeping it real,” said Mel. “And the technical term is lesbian, not queer.”
Dawkins nodded and said solemnly, “Like Alice B. Toklas.”
Mel slapped his head. “That’s all you’ve got? That’s the sum total of your knowledge on the subject of homosexuality? Dude, at least give me Stonewall.” She read his blank stare. “No? Okay, here’s your homework: Go read Alan Ginsburg and report back.”
“Hey, you’re not my teacher.”
“We’re all each other’s teachers, bub. Haven’t you figured that out?”
2. Re-Grand Opening
I want to say this about Mel: She knew a thing or two about sex. Not everything, obviously, including where she stood, up to a point. That I happened to be that point was something I decided to take as a blessing, because now I too knew a thing or two about sex. Anyway, she made her choice and I couldn’t hold it against her.
So Saturday, November 2, 1974, found me reasonably mentally fit as I wandered around downtown Greenville, Connecticut, a backwater berg of no known note apart from having been home to Cort College these hundred years. It was a typical autumn day in southern New England, just cold and raw enough to call for my prized Poolian possession, a genuine army surplus coat with my own name – Poole – serendipitously stenciled on the pocket flap.
I had made my way to Waxx Traxx, a record store so woefully behind the times they were still flogging There Goes Rhymin’ Simon as a current release. Finding no new music to get excited about, I bought a Rolling Stone magazine with Evel Knievel on the cover and walked back out onto Canal Street, the angle-parked main drag vestige of Greenville’s past.
A few doors down a bright banner hung over a storefront, lettered with the words Re-Grand Opening, which, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make look right. Two big Peavey amps pumped Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” all over Canal Street. I recognized the store as Hill’s Hi-Fi, but you’d never hear Cream coming out of Hill’s. They were more of an Andy Williams joint, hawking the sort of big living room consoles your parents might buy, with built-in TV, speakers and a vile automatic record changer to violate your vinyl. Not cool. Not stereo at all.
Not there anymore. Not like it was. The hokey old hand-painted window treatments were gone, replaced with posters for all the top audio brands: Bose, Akai, Bang & Olufsen; JBL’s well-known Blown Away Guy sitting deep in his armchair, blasted by speakers so big and loud they blew his hair back.
A sign near the door read Campus Reps Wanted. No, really? In my experience, Greenville merchants treated Cort kids like lepers, like when you walked in it was assumed you were going to boost something. Now they’re looking for reps? What’s this, the Twilight Zone?
The store next door was a tailor shop of some kind, and the seamstress had stepped outside to glower at the racket coming from Hill’s. I guess Cream wasn’t quite to her taste.
But it sure was to mine.
I went in. The place had been completely revamped. All the crappy old consoles were gone, along with the 1950s fixtures and noisy ceiling fans. Everything was new and modern, ultra high tech, with charcoal carpet, black lacquer shelves and track lighting. In back I could see a small listening room with a couch and glass coffee table. Wow. When did Hill’s become this?
While the salesman was helping his customer, a pretty, skinny girl in a velour poncho and low-rise jeans, I checked out the stuff in the display case. Phono cartridges, needles, anti-static vinyl cleaning kits, a goodly selection. And blank tape, man, cases and cases of the good stuff, CrO2s, all brands, including the excellent BASF from Germany. I had been ordering cassettes through the Lafayette catalog but their prices sucked and they didn’t have BASF. If the prices on these babies were anywhere near decent, this was real news.
The salesman noticed me and called down the counter, “Be with you in a sec, sport. I’m just doing this lady.” The way he said “doing” made the girl react and look up, and she found him waiting with a wink. When he put her change in her hand, he lingered on her fingers until she got flustered and pulled them away. It was a fairly wolfish thing to do and I couldn’t tell if she minded or not. Both, it seemed. Her face was flushed as she walked out, but she was smiling, too. The salesman leered after her as he came around the counter to greet me.
I will tell you how I feel about leisure suits: I’m not a fan. This guy almost sold it, though. White web belt, elephant bells, chukka boots – it shouldn’t have worked but it did. He had kind of a feathered mod haircut, and wore blue-tinted glasses with wire frames. All in all, he looked pretty cool, although maybe a tad too trying-too-hard. “Now then,” he said. “What can I do you for, my man?”
“Nothing. I was just looking. I didn’t know you were here.”
“Well, here we are. You into stereo?”
“Let me ask you a question. If you pumped full gain on a Marantz 2270 through a pair of small Panasonics, what kind of sound do you think you’d get?”
“None,” I said. “That amp would blow those speakers to smithereens.”
The salesman smiled and repeated, “My man.” He gave me some skin. “Wayne Collins.”
“Poole,” he said. “That’s crazy, you know, my mother’s maiden name is Poole.”
“Is that right?”
“Tell me, Poole, what are you rockin’ right now?”
“You mean what system?” He nodded. “Well, a Teac tape deck. A Nikko receiver. Pioneer turntable.”
“Which Teac?” he asked with some urgency.
“Well, that’s a piece of shit, that’s got to go. You can keep the receiver for now – that Nikko’s a workhorse – we’ll see about the turntable later. What speakers?”
I said, “Harman Kardon,” and he furrowed his brow. “Is that a problem?”
“One thing at a time. Let me show you something over here.”
He guided me to a selection of cassette decks, all high-end, all completely gorgeous. I eyed them greedily and said, “These are great.”
“Oh, yeah, beautiful machines, all the latest brands. Onkyo, Sanyo, Aiwa. Sexy Japanese names. You’ve seen their ads, yeah?”
“Yeah. Know how expensive those ads are?”
“Crazy expensive. That’s why these cost so much.” He gave them a dismissive wave and led me to the next shelf over. “Now these decks here, they’re just as good, often they’re made in the very same factory, but they don’t cost nearly as much. Why? No sexy name andno money wasted on ads. But this one…” He indicated a deck that didn’t have a brand name, just a tiny logo of three lower-case letters: xyz. “This one here kicks your tired old Teac’s ass.”
He went to press play, but gestured for me to do it instead. “Light touch,” he whispered. I barely tapped the play button and down it went on a smoothly damped solenoid.
“Nice,” I said.
“Good ol’ xyz.”
He drew me back a step and positioned me between two column-style loudspeakers, also xyzs. As I listened to the Eagles’ “Take it Easy,” it became clear to me that for the thousand times I’d heard the song, I’d never really heard it before. So clean, so crisp, every note sharp and clear, distinct, carved out and served up in slices.
“Amazing separation,” I said.
“You ain’t heard nothing yet,” said Wayne. “Come on in back.” He led me into the listening room and blew me away with Houses of the Holy.
“Wow,” I said. “I’ve never heard Led Zeppelin sound this good. Or even good.”
“Thanks,” said Wayne. “You know, I designed this room myself.”
“You’re kidding. You bought Hill’s?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Not me, man. But it did get bought. The whole chain, all over everywhere. I’m just doing the re-grand opening.”
“Is that correct? Re-grand opening? I thought it was grand re-opening.”
“Grammatically, maybe, but…caught your eye, didn’t it? Anyway, when I’m done here I’ll leave it to some other poor schlep to run this store, and move on to the next one.”
“What a cool job. You’re like a commando. You parachute in.”
“That’s right, I’m SWAT, baby. Stereo weapons and tactics. So what about you? Are you a Cort kid or a townie?”
“Cort kid. You know about that?”
“Oh, me and Greenville go way back. Believe it or not, I actually worked in this very store ten years ago. Yeah, I know all about the never ending town-gown feud, but don’t worry: to me you’re cool.” He sniffed. “Can I tell you something, Poole? I’ve got a problem with the xyzs.”
“What problem? They’re fantastic.”
“Yeah, I know. But my boss doesn’t like it when I push ‘em. He says it makes the other brands look bad, pisses off their distributors. Which is a shame because the xyz people, they like me a lot. They give me the best goods at the best price. I could sell you a whole xyz system – turntable, speakers, receiver, tape deck – for under three hundred bucks.”
“That’s incredible,” I said. “That’s such a good deal.”
“How much you think Cort kids would pay?”
“Four hundred, easy. Maybe more.”
“Okay, good. Now, suppose I gave you the territory. Cort College, all yours, exclusively. You spread the word about the brand, find people who appreciate its quality. I sell you a system for three or so. You sell it to whoever for whatever. It’s a win-win situation. Your friends get a terrific deal on great sound, and you make a few bucks. What do you think?”
“You want me to be a stereo salesman?”
“Not salesman. Campus rep. It’s why you came in, isn’t it? I assumed you saw my sign.”
“No, yeah, maybe, I don’t know. I guess.”
“That’s some decisive shit you’ve got going there, Poole. Maybe you’re not right for this.”
“No, I am. I think I could be.”
“Okay, we’ll give it a go. But remember, this is strictly through you. Nobody hears the words Hill’s Hi-Fi.”
“Understood,” I said.
And just like that I was a stereo salesman. Sorry, campus rep.
Dawk thought it was pretty funny, and wasted no time calling me a suit-and-tie guy and a sellout. I told him it was nothing like that. I’d put up some fliers, maybe go door to door in the dorms. No suit. No tie. Just a way to turn spare hours into loose change. Besides, if everyone’s my teacher, why shouldn’t I learn how to sell hi-fi?
Melanie saw it a different way. She was dating a girl now, and busy with classes, so she didn’t have much time to hang out. But we met the following Wednesday at the Magic Onion, a greasy little snack bar upstairs at the U, where you could score hot soup on a cold day and bad coffee anytime at all. When I told her about the xyzs, all she said was, “It sounds like a hustle to me.”
“What? You’re crazy.”
“A brand no one’s heard of? At prices too good to be true?”
“That’s overhead, low overhead.”
“Is that right?”
“It’s not a hustle. I heard the components. They sound great.”
“Yeah, because no one can make a stereo sound good in a stereo store.”
“Come on, Mel,” I said.
She must have heard something in my voice, because she backed off a bit. “Whatever, bub. I hope you sell a million zizzits or whatever.”
But she still tsked, and when she did, I said, “What? What is it?”
“I don’t know. It’s just…sales, dude? Is that really what you want to do with your life?”
“Mel,” I said, “it’s just a gig. It won’t distract me when something better comes along. How’s your girlfriend, by the way?”
She said coldly, “That was dickish.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. But you hurt my feelings.”
“You called me a sales dude.”
“See? That’s my point. You know the job sucks.”
“It doesn’t suck. And it won’t define me.”
“And it’s not a hustle, don’t forget.”
“And it’s not a hustle.”
Mel got up to go. “You’re lucky I like you, Poole.” She left, and I sat mulling for a bit. You sell a decent product at a decent price to people who want it and can afford it, I thought, that’s not a hustle, that’s just sales. And by the way, what’s so bad about sales? I had, I decided, nothing to apologize for, not to Mel or anyone.
Just the same, when I Xeroxed up fliers that Friday, I handed them out in dorms other than hers.
I started out way up-campus in Francoeur Hall, where I posted my flier on the dorm bulletin board and started knocking on doors.
Within fifteen minutes I was profoundly depressed.
Most everyone I talked to either already owned a stereo or didn’t want one. Pretty soon I started to feel like a jerk for intruding on strangers, disturbing their studies, trying to convince them that they needed something they hadn’t given two thoughts to before I showed up.
Then I made my first sale, to some kid with big birthday money and not a clue about hi-fi, and that made me feel good. The kid needed good gear and there I was to fix him up. Not the low spark, perhaps, but not nothing. I was performing a service at least.
I admit it didn’t occur to me that my service would extend to delivering the gear, but for that I just commandeered Donnie’s car, a green-on-other-green 1965 Dodge Dart Swinger with a coat hanger aerial and an ironically intended NIXON sticker, pasted upside down on the rear bumper to read NOXIN. “I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am,” was the motto of the car known formally as Jean-Paul Dartre and informally as the Sphincter. Since I didn’t drive a manual transmission, I had to commandeer Donnie as well, but that was no problem. I just bribed him with weed.
We loaded the components into the car and delivered them back on campus. Funny thing, though, when I was setting up the kid’s system (didn’t realize I’d have to do that, too) I noticed that the tape deck wasn’t exactly the model Wayne had shown me in the store. It didn’t have those sweet solenoid controls for one thing, and for another it looked, I don’t know, kind of ticky-tack. I thought there must be some kind of mistake, so afterward I had Dawk drive me back to Hill’s to ask.
Wayne was just closing up shop for the day. When I told him about the deck, he said, “Oh, that, yeah. That was a lat-qual call.”
“A what now?” asked Dawkins.
“A judgment to substitute a product of lateral quality,” he in a sense recited. “Equal quality. Lat-qual. Just as good, but different.”
“But it’s not what he bought,” I said.
“Maybe it’s better.”
“It looked kind of cheesy.”
“Alex, Alex, listen to me: The work you’re doing now, it’s a craft. There’s nuance to it, lots of stuff you haven’t heard about yet. You Cort kids, you’re book smart, but not always people smart.” He got a faraway look in his eye, as if struck by an idea. “You know what?” he said, “You just closed your first deal, and that calls for a celebration. My treat.”
He headed off down Canal Street and we fell in beside him. When I saw where he was headed, though, to a dive called the Gunnison Inn, I pulled up short. “We can’t go in there,” I said.
“Why not?” asked Wayne. “You’re legal, right? Drinking age, eighteen?”
“It’s not that,” I said. “The Gunnison’s a townie joint.”
“So Cort kids get hassled in there.”
“Yeah, well, working stiffs don’t,” said Wayne. “And that’s what you are now.” He threw his arms around us both and guided us inside. “Come on, ladies, no one’s getting hassled on my watch.”
It was just past five, and a thin after-work crowd sat in a lonely row at the bar, drinking shots and beers and paying no attention to the Hartford Whalers on TV. The place reeked of cigarettes and dishwater, but no one seemed the least inclined to harsh their mellow over us. They were stuck in the gloom, frozen, like statues. No, gargoyles.
Donnie and I found a four-top while Wayne went off to make a quick phone call. He came back with beer, long-neck Carling Black Labels. “First sale,” said Wayne. We toasted like the Three Musketeers. “You know why we do that?” he asked. “Clink bottles and such?”
“Superstition?” asked Dawk.
“No. It’s a sign of goodwill. Like shaking hands shows a stranger that you’re unarmed, when you touch bottles it’s as if to say, ‘I could, but choose not to, bash you over the head with this.’”
“Really?” asked Dawk.
Wayne fixed Dawk with his most sincere gaze. “Really,” he said. Then, a second later, he added, “Or not.”
“Wait? Which is it?”
“Why, it’s the truth. Or something I make sound like the truth. One or the other. Because, see, this is what I’m saying. This is the nuance. Master the nuance and you master the craft. In the case of the lat-call qual – ” He laughed self-consciously. “That’s hard to say. Maybe I should call it something else.”
“You made that up?” I asked. “It sounded official.”
“What, you mean like company policy or something? ‘In thus and such a circumstance you are authorized to make a lat-qual call’?”
“That’s nuance. The way I make it sound important is what makes it sound important. Then nobody questions it.”
“Like self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“Exactly. Now you got it, man. You got the nuance.” I wasn’t entirely sure I did. “Dudes,” Wayne continued, “I’ll tell you a secret: If you can’t be right, be loud. If you’re loud enough long enough, you’ll appear to be right.”
“What, just by shouting your opinion?” asked Donnie.
“Stating it with conviction, yeah. Backing it up with authority. Fake authority if you have to. You guys write term papers?”
“Ugh, yes,” said Dawk.
“What’s the worst part?”
“Counting the words.”
Wayne said, “For me it was research. Such a waste of time, scouring the library to find scholarly authorities whose points of view matched mine. Bullshit, right? So I started making it up.”
“Quotes, sources, authors, books, the whole nine yards. Fake footnotes, fake bibliography. Never got caught, not once.”
“That’s pretty ballsy,” I said.
“Not really,” said Wayne. “I ‘stated with conviction,’ so no one had any doubt. Which brings us back to nuance.” He turned to Dawk and asked, “What was your name again?”
“No shit? My mother’s maiden name is Dawkins.”
“No it isn’t,” I said. “You told me it was Poole.”
“I did. And how did that make you feel?”
“I don’t know, like we had some kind of connection?”
“Exactamundo. And that’s what called nuance.”
“It’s kind of called lying,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
“If you want to look at it through that narrow a filter. But let me ask you this: When you’re out trying to sell a stereo, what stands in your way?”
“All kinds of stuff. They don’t have the dough. Their parents won’t let them. They already have one and don’t need a new one.”
“They think they don’t need a new one. And if you tell ‘em they do, are you lying or just voicing a different opinion?”
“Opinion, I guess.”
“Opinion indeed. Look, guys, sales is nothing more than persuading someone that your opinion is right. But so is a lot of life. Getting a job. Getting a raise. If you want to sleep with a girl, but she doesn’t want to sleep with you, that’s a difference of opinion. How you navigate that difference determines whether or not you get laid.”
Wayne was feeling pretty up himself just then, and I guess he had reason to, because what he said made a perverse sort of sense, at least if you wanted to justify lying. The situation changed in a hurry, though, when a barrel-chested voice boomed, “Hello, Wayne,” and we all looked up to see this incredible mountain of a man, easily 6’3” or 6’4”, and easily filling to capacity his XXXL overalls. He had a big pumpkin head, jug handle ears and Popeye forearms, minus the anchor tattoos. When he clapped his massive hand around Wayne’s neck, it looked about as welcome there as a boa boa.
“Hey, Mouse,” said Wayne in a voice that sounded like it didn’t want trouble. “This here is Alex and Don. Alex, Don, this is Mouse.”
“Donnie,” said Donnie. “Not Don.”
Mouse looked us over. “Cort kids?” he asked.
“We go to Cort, yeah.”
“My sister dated a Cort kid.” He cracked his knuckles expressively. “That ended.” Then he rapped Wayne on the top of his head, kind of a humiliating gesture that Wayne suffered in unhappy silence. “Tonight, yeah, asshole?”
“I don’t think it can be tonight.”
Mouse bent down and brought his mouth close to Wayne’s ear. I thought he might bite it off. “Kip says tonight.”
Wayne stared at the table top. “I’ll do what I can.”
“Yeah you will.” Mouse stood up. He feinted a fist at Dawk’s face and Dawk almost flinched off his chair. “Cort kids,” chuckled Mouse. He lumbered out of the bar, causing seismic disturbance.
No one said anything for a while. We just sipped our beers. At last Dawkins said, “That’s quite a big fellow. I suppose he got his name from his size. Ironic intent and all that?”
“No,” said Wayne distractedly. “He once ate a mouse.”
“Is this more nuance?” I asked.
“No, it’s true. He ate a mouse. A live one. On a dare. Then he kicked the shit out of the guy who dared him.”
“Who was that?” asked Dawk. “Kip?”
“No. Not Kip.”
“Well, who’s Kip?”
“Not your concern.” Wayne stood up, looking pretty stressed. “And be glad for that.” All his airs about craft and authority seemed to have been moused right out of him. “I have to go.”
He left. And then it was just the two of us, drinking in a townie bar like a couple of regular raggies – that’s what townies call themselves, but if you’re a Cort kid who says it, watch out. In the event, no one bothered us with our beers, or even our boldly bought second round.
For sure there’s this big rivalry or disdain between townies and us, one that goes way back, but there in the Gunnison I got that probably most townies didn’t give a rat’s ass about us. Too busy with their shots and beers, you know? Too busy living their lives. Still, Cort kids got hassled and messed with generally, that’s a fact.
I took a matchbook on the way out: red, with a drawing of a drunk clinging to a lamppost. My big Townie treasure. I stuck it in the pocket of my army jacket and felt some percent cool.
We dropped in on Mel. She was now keeping company with this Kim, a waiflike wonder with dark, sad eyes who sat on a futon in Mel’s apartment and said little. We told Mel of our grand adventure in the Gunnison and speculated avidly about what mysterioso business could bring together a hipster like Wayne and a mayonnaise badass like Mouse.
“It’s probably drugs,” offered Dawk. “What else could it be?”
“It could be other things,” I said. “Stolen stereo? Wayne’s a stereo guy.”
“What do you care?” interjected Mel.
“It’s their concern, man, not yours. Leave it alone.”
Dawk said truculently, “What’s your problem, man?”
“You,” she said. “You two. The way you’re getting off on this. You’re all agog because you think shit’s going down.”
“Shit is going down,” Dawkins said. “It’s interesting.”
“Because it’s going down.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“Christ, Mel,” said Dawk, “if Columbus had your attitude, he’d never have left Spain, and we’d all still be living in wigwams.”
“Your ignorance astounds me, fool.”
“Yeah? Well, for your information, the world doesn’t end at Campus East Gate. And townies don’t bite.” He snatched up his coat. “You coming, Poole?”
“I’ll be along.”
“Suit yourself.” He took off. I thought Mel was being unnecessarily harsh, but also she was right. We were agog; anyway, I was.
Mel, meanwhile, must’ve felt bad about going off on Dawk, for she said to me, “Guess I struck a nerve, huh?”
“We were just horsing around,” I said. “It’s fun to speculate.”
Mel looked at me and said sternly, “Poole, man, don’t be distracted by this.”
“What do you mean?”
“I see that light in your eye. You think this is exciting, this is that ‘real life’ you’re looking for.”
“I suppose. I admit it has my attention.”
“Well, that’s bullshit. You’ve got to stick your nose out of this right now. It’s bad enough you’re a salesman, now you want to be a thug?”
“I never said I wanted to be a thug.”
“I should hope not. You’re so much better than that.” She kissed my nose. “Go tell Donald I’m sorry. And stay out of trouble, you goof.” I guess that was my cue to leave, and also Kim’s cue to stand up and embrace Mel from behind. Mel turned to kiss her as they shut the door, and the sight of that unexpectedly floored me. I felt an ache I could barely contain, a desperate desire to be, like them, not alone.
Look, I knew Wayne was skeevy – you’d have to be a moron not to – but skeevy or not, wasn’t he still worth a look-see? And so what if he was a distraction? Couldn’t I use a distraction just then?
I felt like I could.
I walked myself into the night.
Poole’s Paradise is available now exclusively through Amazon.com.