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Moving Queen Susanna Cole's tassel aside, I looked at her senior picture - so pure, innocent, and loving. On the opposite page, my mug shot showed a lopsided smile from muscles that started to act up even before I first sat next to Susanna in Language Arts and Social Studies.
She made me feel so alive that year that it was almost fun to go to school. We talked and joked through two classes a day. The new cafeteria wasn't finished yet, so sandwiches were delivered to the room and we dined together too. Our desks were alphabetically next to one another. She was so smart that even with our messing around, she earned all A's. I couldn't let her think that her future husband was a dummy, so I did good too (in Social Studies, anywho).
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Our relationship turned out to be no more than a case of classroom friendliness, for her. Indeed, when I got my driver's license two days after my sixteenth birthday, on August 18, 1961, I called for my first post-pubic date. She politely refused me, then and several times thereafter.
I hoped a Varsity Letter might get her to go out with me, but I wasn't a natural athlete. There wasn't much I could do to improve my inherent coordination, but there was a lot I could do to increase my strength.
B-a-a-a-r-r-e-l-y could I bench press 70 pounds one repetition when I started my tri-weekly iron pumping. Eleven months later, I was able to clean and press 160 pounds ten times, no sweat. After securing a place on the second string of Coach Mathew's wrestling team, I wore my Varsity Letter proudly. Needless to say, Susanna still used the same tired excuses.
I asked her to the Junior Prom five months in advance, only to have her tell me that it was so far in the future that I might want to take someone else by then. When I called back a couple weeks before the Prom, she said she was sorry but she'd accepted another offer, figuring I had probably changed my mind.
I built a four-engined Go Kart and circulated Kodachromes of it around the school, jockeyed a Cushman Eagle into the cafeteria, and dropped the rearend of my '49 Chevy in front of her house, repeatedly. I hoped to impress her with machismo and daring, thus winning her affection, but failed miserably.
Sure, I'd had my share of other disappointments, but accepted them as part of life. But this. How frustrating it was to want something so bad that you were willing to do anything, but there was nothing you really could do.
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I held no grudge. I even asked my hotrod friends to vote for Susanna Cole when she ran for Cheerleader and Senior Prom Queen (unless they wanted everyone in the school to know how bad I'd shutdown their brand new cars with my hopped-up old Fleetline Deluxe). My love for Susanna was lofty, pure, not fleeting passion.
Swallowing a big piece of unchewed sausage, I gagged and suddenly remembered that Susanna did have a younger step-sister who was part Native American. I thought of Morningflesh but quickly discounted the astronomical improbability of it all.
I never craved Susanna in the physical sense, not even to kiss. I imagined only a spiritual togetherness - until a dream I had the night before graduation. Prior to that night, I always dreamt of Susanna laughing, singing, dancing, on a picnic in the meadow.
Friday night before graduation, after repairing the Super 8 projector for the Mockingbird Boys and watching the beginning of "Bottom Banana," I dreamt that I leaped over the Cole's white picket fence and climbed a ladder to the pink porch beside Susanna's open window. I coughed and she awoke. Ripping off my shirt, I declared my intent. "I'm yours forever, Susanna."
Slipping out from under pink satin sheets, she strolled toward the window, semi-nude in garter belt, hose, g-string and cut-out bra (all lace and lavender).
Shocked, I felt sinful, but not too sinful to reiterate myself. "Sweet Susanna, it's me, David."
Sashaying over to the window, she laid her soft hand on my naked shoulder and said that I looked magnificent without a shirt. "I had no idea you were so macho. Climb on in and we'll fornicate until dawn, Mr. Bottom Banana."
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I entered all right, however the remainder of our contrived evening must remain in shadow. In the brightness of morning, I felt horrible for having craved Susanna's flesh, if only in dream.
At graduation, I had trouble facing her. Nevertheless, while we waited in line to pick up our diplomas, I took a deep breath, looked her straight in the eyes, then thought to myself. Susanna dear, if you don't marry me, you'll never marry anyone.
She seemed to read my mind. "David, that's so selfish, so heartless."
She was right. I never realized how heartless I could be - or how devious. After the diploma ceremony, I clipped the tassel off my cap with Mark Moonie's switchblade and spoke to Susanna for the first time that day, outloud, offering to snip the tassel off her cap. "They say it'll bring you true love and eternal happiness, Susanna. If you tape it in your yearbook over your own picture."
She smiled and thanked me. "I'm glad to see you don't harbor ill feelings, David."
I snipped her tassel. But I palmed it and gave her mine. So she took my tassel, thinking it was hers, and closed it in her yearbook, permanently sandwiched between her picture and mine (alphabetically in the centers of facing pages).
Some years later, facing a tour in South Vietnam that never came about, I wrote the poem but didn't mail it. I gave it and Susanna's address to a buddy in case I never got back to the States, which I did. He didn't.
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Taking a swig from a jug of discontinued root beer I'd gotten from Biff, I wondered whether Susanna had really read my mind about never getting married. I had heard that she still wasn't married fifteen years after graduation. I finished my Sabbath brunch and wondered why. She was so beautiful, kind, intelligent, fun to be with. Tossing my empty cans into the furnace closet with my living room furniture, I hoped I hadn't unwittingly put a cosmic curse on innocent Susanna.
I also hoped that her Ohla might have been in love with me even though her Pohla wasn't - just as the damn meter man disconnected my power and lights for a second time.
Pissed to the limit, I decided not to withhold a single detail from the legaletarians (or the free press, for that matter). If there was but one ray of justice left in the universe, I selfishly wished it would shine on me for a few days in the sun. In broad daylight, I crept to the bathroom for an ice cold shower.
On the eve of the civil deposition and my own appointment with justice, I was a bit nervous, about as bad as a reformed stripper in synagogue. Leo knew me on a professional level, but had no idea how many boneheads hid their skeletons in my closet. After videotaping the stress-deposition of an editor suing his newspaper for assigning too much paperwork, I sat in the waiting room with my gunny sack of equipment, wondering how Lawyer Leonard (who was on the newspaper's side) would react to my medical story. Would he throw his arms up and tell me to hit the road? "Hey cry baby, this sort of thing happens to everyone! Don't waste my valuable time!"
I could have used some nicotine, but inhaled the aroma of lawbooks instead. I hadn't smoked since that night more than a month before, in the truckstop with Baghdad, when I bummed a Camel from burnt-out Domino.
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Before my stay at the Form, I never smoked in my life. Glancing around Leo's waiting room, I checked whether there were any bars or metal grating on the port-like windows and remembered how I rolled cigarettes for fellow patient/clients.
The local chapter of the Missouri Lion's Club donated Esquire boot-polish and Bull Durham cigarette kits to help us while away our already drug-reduced waking hours. After wrapping papers around pointless pencils, I tediously filled the resulting tubes, bit by bit, carefully slipping off the finished product. The smoke looked store-bought, and everybody who got one complimented and thanked me (as best they could in their dazed condition). When a kind alcoholic named JR taught me the trick of progressive inhalation, 'compulsive smoker' was added to my rap sheet.
Months later, in the relative freedom of 'Rehab,' JR also introduced me to the virgin-delinquent, Kathy. Yom Kippur was long gone and Christmas Eve had come. Most Rehabers went home for the holidays, but my family had prior commitments in Vegas. Only four of us remained in Rehab over the holidays and we were walking through a dank utility tunnel, headed for the annual double feature put on for the entire Formington clientele. JR's hairy girlfriend Beuhlia was a cute country chick, except for bleached porkchop sideburns. She held a Dixie cup in her nicotined hand as JR filled it with Aqua Velva and Vitalis (Season's Greetings gifts from the Salvation Army).
JR swore the greasy sludge that floated to the top was at least 6.4% alcohol. Beuhlia gargled first to make sure, then gulped it down. JR repeated the process for himself as young Kathy dug into her overtight britches and wrestled out a twisted joint of marijuana.
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Inhaling deeply, she stared up at the water-pipes hung from the low ceiling of the 'Tunnel of Love' and sighed euphorically. "Sometimes I feel so high, I want to forget all my troubles and soar off the water tower."
A steam pipe hissed and we hurried towards the yuletide showings of "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE!" We sat through it twice. No one told us that double-feature meant the same movie twice - and once we checked in we couldn't check out.
In a short time, at this warehouse where Lump sent me, I was introduced to caffiene, nicotine, marijuana, and juvenile delinquency, not to mention homicide and suicide.
I managed to abstain from JR's increasingly desperate chemical concoctions, but it took a dinner in Kingdom City to finally get me to quit smoking.
The hunger for revenge still burnt in my gut as I sat sandwiched between floor-to-ceiling, mahogany-and-crystal cases of antique lawbooks.
Leo's terse secretary, Delilah, must have noticed my disdain with the past. "Ice water might help."
Before I could thank her for the concern, a little bronze sailboat on her desk buzzed and Leo's heavy metal voice rang from within. "Ms. Sampson, please show Video Daniels the way to my cabin."
The pithy lady rose quickly. "On the double, L.L. I'll bring V.D. back." Repeatedly smoothing her peekaboo business skirt several times, she led me to Leo's rear office.
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Behind a boat-like desk, Leo picked up yellow pencil and legal pad while we exchanged pleasantries like we hadn't seen one another for months (though I'd videotaped a deposition with him as the co-star less than half an hour before).
Leo flipped a page of his desk calender and asked if my case had anything to do with my cane.
I told him that it didn't, not directly, then summarized my complaint. "Because of medical abuse, I missed two decades of life."
Getting up from his padded desk, Leo walked over and sat in the polished oak chair beside me. "Tell me about it."
Carefully, I unfolded the brittle pages that were stashed in my center console all summer and handed them to the young Ivy Leagual. Crossing his legs, adjusting his canary-yellow polo shirt, and unbuttoning his navy-blue blazer, he began to read in earnest. So big deal if he was a little eccentric.
Picking up the nearest yachting magazine, I pretended to read. My heart wasn't in it, though, and the distant growl of urban lawn tractors reminded me of my years in Olivette, Missouri.
It was the beginning of the summer after seventh grade. I'd been mowing lawns all spring with a push mower and Mark Moonie made me a deal I couldn't refuse. Mark's stepfather figured their lawn didn't need to be mowed any more since his lawyer/wife ran away with her legal partner, so Mark offered me their riding mower for fifty bucks, payable before school started in the fall.
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Everyone else in the neighborhood charged two dollars per lawn (with trimming). I undercut them at a dollar a yard (without trimming), and used my dual-engine riding mower to knock out four lawns a day, six days a week. Before midsummer, Mark was paid off and I'd earned $150 to boot.
I'd seen an advertisement in Popular Mechanix and sent for a Pirsig Bikemotor on the rider/demonstrator plan. The ad said to allow ninety days for delivery; so when I mailed a money order for $70, I braced myself for a long wait. Three days after ordering it, though, the weekend before school started, my Freedom Machine arrived. Ripping open the box with my bare hands, I took several deep breaths as I scrutinized the magnificent contraption, then nearly passed out in pre-pubescent ecstasy.
Half an hour later, the 2 HP monster was mounted on the front forks of my sister Victoria's American Flyer. Presently, I began consuming several balloon tires a month circumnavigating the neighborhood.
I'd come of age, in the mechanical sense. I overhauled my single-lunged powerhouse every Saturday night, whether it needed fixing or not. More often than not, it did. I never referred to the bikemotor's maintenance manual, The Pirsig Riders' Bible. It seemed like I'd been born with innate knowledge of the inner workings of the sensitive two-stroke.
Owning the only bikemotor on the block was one of the few benefits of having parents who didn't care what you did, as long as you didn't cramp their climb. One early November Sunday, I headed out of the neighborhood to cross the Veterans Bridge, to get a look at the mighty Mississippi from a vantage not afforded Mark Twain in his younger years. Thus I hoped to become an explorer of the highest pubescent order. But my gas line ruptured and I was barely able to pedal home in time to get a couple hours sleep before school on Monday.
My parents didn't ask where I was or what I was doing. Taking additional advantage of their inattention, three Sundays later, in ankle-deep snow, I got as far as Jefferson Barracks Cemetery. The City Police took me and my machine into protective custody and carted us back to the suburbs.
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I told Second Lieutenant Bourget that I didn't understand. "If you were a French Policeman and Lindbergh had landed the Spirit of St. Louis in Paris without a French flying license, would you have called his older sister?"
Young Bourget said that Lucky Lindy wasn't twelve years old. "And this isn't Flanders Field, small fry."
I kept quiet about the Flanders Field faux pas and patiently waited to be handed over to Victoria. My parents were in Aruba for Thanksgiving.
"Bang! BANG!! - Bang! BANG!!" A double-gavelled legal clock banged out the fourth hour of the afternoon and brought me back to the here and now. Clearing his rhythmatic larnyx, Leo reached over and set my papers on the bow of his awesome oak desk, USS JUSTICE.
His eyes teared; he wasn't pretending when he said that my medical story was unbelievably tragic. "David, the only thing I could imagine to be more tragic would be if we were unable to get compensation for you on a monumental scale."
I tried to humor the heavy moment. "I'll settle for a little less than monumental - while I'm still alive." I assured him that I wasn't trying to get anything for nothing. "I wouldn't even be suing if I were completely able-bodied and could make up for a few of those years."
Leo said that he knew that. "But I'm strictly a Kansas attorney. A case of this historic magnitude will require a specialist in Missouri Law. I'll have Delilah schedule an appointment for you with an honorable friend of mine who happens to be licensed with the Missouri Bar, Rabbi Scott Green."
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I thanked Leo and grabbed Moses. On the way out, shapely Ms. Sampson promised to give me a buzz after she confirmed my appointment with young Green. As I lugged my equipment out onto the parking lot, I saw the grease-spotted ragtop, the Shitlermobile, roll slowly away.
Nonchalantly, I slid into my Chevy and cautiously entered the flow of downtown traffic. I didn't see anyone following me, but I was certain it had been the Shitler.
Optimistic that fairness would be served, I pushed my way through KCK's rush hour traffic, but was in no hurry to return to my backroom cloister. Deciding to avoid the bumper-to-bumper mayhem, I swerved lazily off the highway into Veterans Park - hoping my boat was about to come in.
In the dappled shade of an oak tree, I took off the sports coat I'd worn for the video deposition and stretched out in the autumn breeze. I decided to wait until dusk before continuing south to Poor Richard's. Maybe I'd even stop at the Goodtimes Grill later on. Non-alcoholic Goodtimes in Merriam was a real dive. But my V.I.P. card would get me plenty of free food and I could shoot a couple games of eightball without having to worry about distraught drunks and angry coke peddlers.
With my folded sports coat perched on an exposed root for a pillow, I took an easy breath. Lifting circular dust trails around a nearby lake, a couple ATV's chased each other and reminded me of the first time I'd gone in search of a promised land. I met Mr. Sam and his sweet nieces instead.
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I'd just been discharged from the Marine Corps and the Beach Boys' California was my destination. Aboard a hybrid Suzuki X-6 Hustler that I'd bought with my separation pay, I headed west from St. Louis. Despite a tank that only held fifty miles of premium fuel and cut-off handlebars that vibrated horribly, I made Texas the first day.
Rolled up in a plastic blanket beside the bike that night, I grabbed a few winks but was rudely interrupted by giant red ants. The next afternoon, somewhere past Amarillo, it began to rain, but I rode anyway. Eventually, when my limbs numbed from the high-velocity downpour, I sought refuge in a rural launderette. A crowd of chatty housewifes in patched pedal-pushers populated the establishment. While the Mammas and the Pappas floated from the communal radio with "CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'", a toothless waif called Angel propositioned me in the bathroom for four dimes and two nickels - and I knew it was time to move on.
Soon as the sun slipped out from under the clouds, the two-lane highway to Flagstaff showed itself smooth, gently curving and tan in color, totally at home with the beautiful earthtones it was carefully carved into. The sculptured slopes slid by in friendly hues of green, brown, grey, and orange. With the clear blue sky smudged with white clouds above, it seemed like I was sitting on a puffy pillow in a private museum watching Mother Nature display her finest works.
As I wondered at the beauty before me, my engine burbled to a stop.
Changing the carburetor jets for thin air, I noticed several broken spokes splayed around the rear wheel. Painfully, I counted. They only amounted to one-third of the total, but by the time I got to Flagstaff, I was beginning to wobble.
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After I paid the local bike shop for respoking, I was almost half broke. Less than two days into my search, I decided I'd nearly, but not quite, reached the point of no return.
The scenery no longer exhilarated as I penetrated; it threatened. That evening, the darkness descended like a cheap plastic blanket, affording no haven from the chill. A big black-and-gold sign at Kingman suggested I visit Hoover Dam on my way to Las Vegas. Below it was a homemade cardboard sign with black letters: Kosher Hotdogs 'n Gas!
Licking my quivering chops, I made a hard right turn for an unscheduled stop in Vegas. Weaving through a maze of cliffs, I decided to gamble my remaining money on one hand of blackjack. If I lost, I could sell my bike and take a bus back to St. Louis.
The craggy cliffs glowed in floodlight as I approached what I still called Boulder Dam from the road above. The clean, cold giant of an engineering marvel was brightly lighted, but not a soul was in sight.
The eerie hum of the million-volt transformers seemed to speak through the night. "We can run on our own, forever. Man may perish, but we shall survive as testament to his short-sighted endeavors."
So much technology; so little life. My gas reserve emptied and I coasted in neutral to a tiny hot dog stand beside the concrete monolith. The concession was closed. Hungry, I looked up at the large menu which dangled from the roof. Kosher Hotdogs weren't listed, and I tried not to dwell on the pastel picture of a footlong chili dog with cheese, onion, and salsa - a real humdinger of a Coney Island.
A sweet voice came from the shadows. "Hey Captain Suzuki, what's the story?"
A glorious girl emerged from the darkness, and I admitted that I was out of gas.
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She untied her apron. "So whatcha want me to do? Pour some cheese, onion, and salsa in your racin' tank?"
I told her thanks anyway, and we laughed a little.
She said that she just closed the eatery. "But I guess you can suck some motionlotion from my little sister's tank as soon as she gets here. My stage name's Donna Singer."
As I gave her my name and shook her warm hand, her smiling eyes reminded me of Susanna Cole.
Donna draped her apron over my tool bag and pulled off a purple, tie-dyed sweatshirt. She explained that she and her sister were on summer vacation, putting on a Pom-Pom seminar at a nearby community college. Then she twirled lightly in tight California shorts, bobby sox, sneakers, and cashmere halter top, all lavender (no garter belt though).
I asked what she and her sister would be studying when school resumed in the fall.
She said that she was into the performing arts and her little sister was pursuing a career in law enforcement. "There's the younger half of the Singer Sisters right now!"
A dusty Nash Rambler with dented Missouri registration sputtered across the dam and onto the little rock lot. The powder-blue station wagon sat idling, sans mufflers, as Donna jogged over to it and talked with the dark-haired driver.
Donna yelled out that Rhonda said to go ahead and help myself. "But don't take too much, David. She's close to empty too."
I got a coil of neoprene hose from my bag and introduced myself to Rhonda. Five minutes later, I was ready to go with a full quart of go-juice (as rambunctious Rhonda called it).
While Donna skipped rope over to the Nash, her voice echoed off the canyon walls. "How 'bout it, David? You wanna follow us to Puberty Park?"
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I kicked my engine hard, but it misfired. "Puberty Park??"
As Donna crawled into the Rambler, Rhonda screamed at me. "Hey Pistonhead, you know the place. The Big Top on the way down to Sin City."
I yelled back that, sure, I'd follow them to the place. "But I need to find a gas station first."
Donna shouted that Puberty Park's owner was their uncle and he had his own pump. "And his people cook up the best Kosher Hotdogs 'tween here and the Clark County line."
I gave her a thumbs-up and my motor sprang to life. Empty belly growling, I pulled behind the battered Nash and followed it out of the rock-carved impasse - onto a zigzagging dirt road to God only knew where.
end chap 12
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