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Chapter Twenty-Five

"Horatio's Alley"




    The first time - I stirred to an un-oiled wheel on pop's porta-bar as he pushed it toward the study. The second, third, and fourth times I was nearly asleep, a nervous giggling highlighted the raucous commotion coming from their far end of the long hall. Fortunate for dad, Bitsey was either engrossed with Darwin's anatomy or dead-to-the-world.
    Three times, upon a casual inspection of the word-processing going on in the overheated office, I found a pile of Jitterlin dwindling on the cluttered desktop between the dutiful duo. Coleen - in various stages of undress, goose-pimples, and perspiration - guzzled bulk champagne right from the portable spigot while dad made do with high-priced mineral water and chilled beet borscht. Occasionally, dad would incoherently dictate some unstructured trifle and the blonde bachelorette would hunt-and-peck it into the keyboard. Ever increasingly, her peekaboo bouncing bra became feathered with folded fivers.

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     About ten in the morning, their end of the house finally got quiet and I dozed off with Dreidel on the coffee table. At noon, a clattering-about woke me. I hiked with Moses toward the kitchen and spotted Bitsey spoon-feeding her monkey. Wanting to make peace for the holidays, I marched right in and asked little sis if she'd taught Darwin any new tricks.
    Scratching her blonde crew-cut, my sibling snidely remarked. "No, but I bet that cane and patch of yours are some kind of cute trick to get the folks to feel sorry for you, David."
    While sis reminded me to pick mom up at the airport, I noticed the paperback laying on the table between her and Darwin: Preparing for Your Next Sex Change Operation.
    After a close shave and cool shower, I made my way outdoors for some fresh air and a short tour of the grounds. As soon as I stepped onto the pavement, SECURITY advised me in no uncertain terms that pedestrians were not allowed in the streets or on the yards of the members. There were no sidewalks, so I followed the storm drain out of the confines.
    If the reader wonders how a standard-sized, dark-haired Jew like myself came to inherit a six-foot, blonde-haired little sister, wonder no further. The truth is, when I was about five, I had an artsy fourteen year-old second cousin named Lolita who got in trouble down in New Orleans. After Lollie gave illegitimate birth, she turned the child over to my Aunt Yetta and left for Paris, never to be heard from again. Aunt Yetta, an unmarried and underpaid urban school teacher, eagerly transferred the blonde babe into my parent's suburban care. Purposely, mom and dad brought Bitsey up insecure, to depend on and worship them as only a slave could. She was never allowed to live anywhere but under their roof and tutelage. In the summer months, she now took care of their winter residence; in the winter, vice versa. Bitsey was about the only one in the world who didn't know she hadn't dropped from mother's womb. My little sister wasn't even legally adopted, but it never made any difference to me; I even saved her life once upon a time - never to be thanked.

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     At a dilapidated shop down the road from the rear gate of Mockingbird Estates, I bought a couple little gifts for my niece and nephew. On the way back to the house, retired pop cruised up beside me in his company car, a brand new spic-and-span Continental, and asked what I was up to.
    I told him I could use a lift back to the house. "My legs and back are killing me."
    Dad, bloodshot eyes bulging, conveyed his condolences. "Sorry, I'm late for my golf game on TV. It took me longer than I thought to check Coleen into the emergency room at City Hospital. Hang in there, son." Smiling devilishly, dear dad motored up his window and sailed off without me, as usual.
    Stumbling back to the house behind Dreidel, I rinsed the suburban grime off my hands and face and went to fetch mother.
    As soon as she shuffled into the terminal, she told me how she'd won $6,000 in Sun City - and gave me a $2 chip for the holidays. On the way back to her so-called estate, she took too much Nullium and nodded out.

    A few hours past sundown, the four of us piled into the canoe for the one block drive to the clubhouse, the Mock Mound. On the way, I received a final briefing from mummy - not to make fun of my older sister's limp.
    Casually, mother informed me that Victoria had some sort of muscle disease. "So don't tease her, at least not around us. We don't need the aggravation."

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     When I asked what Victoria's prognosis was, mom said she had no idea. "If she wanted us to know, she'd tell us."
    Dad agreed. "Victoria is mature enough to know your mother and I have more important things to worry about."
    Abruptly, the car lurched to one side, then squealed to a halt. Hubcap parts, chrome ornaments, and plastic bolts bounced everywhere under the street light.
    Dad had trashed mom's glitzy hog. "Dammit, too bad I wasn't driving my Braggs Lincoln. That no good whore's brake lights weren't even working! Why the hell do they let non-members drive on the grounds?"
    My patchless eye had seen it all. "Dad, you ran down Ronald Frump's Imperial in his own driveway."
    Momma Kay said I was talking nonsense. "Isn't that right, Ray?"
    Hustling out of the car, dad tossed a brick through the Imperial's back window and hurried back into the crippled Caddy.
    Leaving the mess for someone else to clean up, he sped toward the club, claiming Ron's car was left in neutral. "The damn thing rolled into me. You all saw it."
    As we lurched to a stop under the club's canopy, pop clued us in on why he tossed the brick through the Imperial's window. "Now the Frumps'll think juvenile delinquents done it. Pretty smart of your old man, huh son?"
    When I brought up the fact that Ron and Imelda Frump were two of his and mother's best friends, dad responded calmly. "A man has no friends when it comes to business. A lesson you've obviously never learned, David my boy."
    The Mock Mound was a sprawling single-story facility with a hump in the middle, looking from the outside more like a malignant suburban funeral home than a haunt for fun and friends. Inside, the lobby appeared a three-dimensional fold-out from the typical coffee-table designer's magazine. Dutifully, Dreidel, Moses, and I followed our telluric family into the dining room - a cold giant of a room that smacked more of a discount furniture warehouse than a bourgeoisie biscuit-bucket.

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     We found the Phillip "Flip" Mars family already seated at a big maple table in front of the communal jewelry case, better known as HORATIO'S ALLEY (so etched into its frosted glass facade).
    It was good to see Victoria, my niece Kimmble, and nephew Marshall, the graduate-to-be. After I gave my older sister a hug, she immediately began smoothing Dreidel's feathers and told me that her husband, Flip, was away from the table, doing a business deal in the Bird's Nest. I sat between her and Kimmble, as far away from mom, pop, and little sis as possible.
    Tickling Dreidel's proboscis, Victoria told me I looked great. "But why the cane and eye patch?"
    "It's just a temporary irritation of some sort." So I said, but when she informed me of her own mysterious neuro-muscular affliction, I confessed someone had given me a diagnosis of MS. "Maybe you should have your doctor check out the possibility you might have the same thing, Victoria." I didn't mention that no treatment was yet available.
    Repeatedly, my adolescent niece tugged on my shirt, trying to tell me her latest jokes and involve me in her current gags. I overheard dignified Marshall, outfitted in a three-piece Wall Street suit (complete with fob and watch), conversing with my dear dad, his Grandfather Daniels, about "the long and short term international money market parameters."
    Presently, proudly hoisting a silver goblet of flaming brandy, Victoria rose to the occasion, asking everyone to join in her toast. "To the holidays of yesterday, the timely gathering today, and the unmorrowed hope for the future."

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     Only Kimmble and I stood with big sis, whose long, flowing gown was not unlike that one adorning the Statue of Liberty. Being born a day or two after the so-called good war was concluded, I'd always felt a special, microhistoric kinship with sister Victoria who arrived on the first Independence Day of World War II. It was our common claim to familial fame, I thought.
    After offering my own toast to world peace, which went largely unnoticed except by Victoria and Kimmble, I drank some brandy and sat back down, grumbling to myself. Why should I care what happens to the majority of the assholes in the world? They never gave a damn what happened to me. Yeah, I guess my time in the sun was over when I finished out my second term as president in junior high. If I wrote a book everybody would probably be too bust to read it. Most likely, the only further kudos I could expect would be at my funeral.
    Rousting me from self-pity, Victoria related how her eldest son, Jason, was still in Columbia for a belated final in Journalism. "He's chosen a demanding, proud career, David."
    Callous Bitsey chimed in to condemn. "Writing is something that people too impotent to make the news themselves pursue."
    Marshall agreed. "I label the free press a propagandist waste of resources with little monetary feedback - the only justifiable reason for anything in life."
    And dad said it was a waste of his hard-earned tuition money. "Shit, he'll probably never be able to pay half the interest on the loan I made him."
    I made a light-hearted suggestion. "Dad, when Jason graduates, you can have your name printed on the diploma, in parenthesis below his."

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     A shit-eatin' grin came to dad's small mouth. "About time you had a good idea, son. But why not above and not in..."
    Kimmble stopped our exchange by asking popsicle to get the music changed. "That funeral stuff sounds all the same, grampa."
    Dad yelled out to our windsor-knotted waiter. "Reuben Boy, play our favorite tape. You know the one - Bachtoven's Dirge in B Minor." Bowing, Reuben Boy trotted off in reverse toward the opposite side of the dance floor and pop bubbled. "Wait until you hear the tonal quality of this tape, son. I copied it myself on Braggs' new Doby duplication equipment."
    As a dismal melody filled the mirrored void, purist pop, arms folded on his chest, peered up at the low-vaulted ceiling like he was ready for interment. Shortly, the waiter (quite tall for a fully grown Jew or Gentile) returned to serve oversized ladles of orange sherbert.
    Robotically, Reuben Boy made the familiar announcement. "To refresh our tired palates, my members."
    As the festive evening moved along, it became apparent that this place in the St. Louis suburbs was simply another barely disguised, urban Goose Room. Instead of tuxedos, three-piece business suits were the uniform of the patrons. Gelterstain replaced Schtärling as the head honcho. Lanky Shine Boys, in lieu of little Jockey Boys, poured chicken bouillon in the stead of not-so-sparkling mineral water.
    Eventually, Flip returned from the BIRD'S NEST cocktail lounge to boast about his latest investment in a product called Quazine. "It's guaranteed to render all industrial waste colorless, odorless, and tasteless - within twenty seconds."
    I told my brother-in-law that I was proud of him. "The world can use your Quazine to neutralize all the poison in our polluted waters. Well done."

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     Flip chuckled. "Oh no, David, Quazine doesn't clean anything up. It just makes it tasteless, odorless, and colorless. You can't see it, but it's still there."
    I said that, if anything, his product would encourage our continued pollution. "What about our children, Flip?"
    Flip huffed. "Their old man deserves to make a buck, don't he?"
    Victoria tugged on my sleeve, so I changed the subject to the nearby jewel case. "Marshall, what's the story on Horatio's Alley here?"
    My youngest nephew, impatiently checking his watch fob, described how the members donate their jewels to the translucent display case. "Once a year, Ronald Frump, Treasurer of the Lincoln School System, buses blind kids into Missouri from an East St. Louis orphange in Illinois - to look at the jewels. Members receive a federal tax deduction for donating their jewels to a museum, and buy them back the next year for a penny apiece - then repeat the process."
    Alas and furthermore, in lieu of the Empire Banck Card, I discovered the manner of legal tender in the vicinity of the Mock Mound to be colorful certificates of Negotiable Mediteranean Petroleum Securities - cranked out en masse on a hi-tech laser printer owned by none other than Dr. Rudolph Capol's step-daughter. Obviously, my parents and associates hailed from a different mold than that chosen by God for real Jews who were to deliver His message.
    On the other hand, the Goose Room's skimpy servings of exotic fare did give way to glutonous mounds of more common edibles. In place of Twin Gooselettes, there was the Full Mock Malaise - a mighty heap of German potato salad mixed with large honey-coated chunks of corned beef and swirled with cranberry-creamed borscht.
    After downing a Double Malaise, dad farted loudly and sniffed the air like a sick bloodhound, then tried to blame the acrid stinker on everybody but himself. I didn't laugh.

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     When mother unsealed a tiny clear vial of yellow snuff (presumably ground Nullium), I struggled to my feet with Moses, asking Victoria and Kimmble to take a constitutional with me. Dreidel swooped to my shoulder as they gladly joined me for an inspection of the refurbished room.
    The floor of the dining area was covered with foam rubber, in a swirl pattern of random earthtones. Victoria told me it was standard carpet pad that the builders passed off as the latest thing in modern decor. The dance floor was pockmarked concrete, heavily waxed; while the ceiling was aluminum-faced insulation peppered with what appeared to be medicine cabinet mirrors. Someone had obviously unloaded their construction surplus as designer decor. Braggs?
    The mismatched furniture puzzled me. Each and every lamp, painting, and pillar had a phenolic nameplate announcing who the item had been donated in memory of. Something phoney was going on; either that, or all my parents' friends were walking dead.
    Nailed to the rotating walnut organ beside the harp, I noticed a placard: Donated in Memory of Dr. Rudolph Capol III. To beat all, on the tape deck, I found the engraved obit: Donated in Memory of Ray L. and Kay N. Daniels.
    Indeed, Victoria said none of them were dead, walking or otherwise. "It's some sort of tax dodge, just like the rest of their lives. One big tax dodge."
    I was relieved. "At least I won't be denied the pleasure of disciplining Dr. Capol myself."
    Kimmble jabbed me in the ribs. "That's the spirit, Uncle David. You got my vote."
    Victoria, pointing toward the portable rotating stage, whispered. "That pretty girl at the harp, next to the organ - she's the daughter of that High School girlfriend of yours who would never go out with you. Wasn't her name Susanna Cole?"

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     I couldn't beleive it. "That's Susanna's daughter? I saw her performing at the Goose Room in Kansas City just two nights ago."
    Swallowing deeply, Victoria informed me that my would-be Queen had never married, that she left town right after Edith was born and nobody knew who the child's father was. "Susanna's father, Dr. Otto Cole, is the High School Principal and he raised Eddy with some help from her aunt. She's graduating with Marshall tomorrow."
    As the recorded music receded, Eddy tilted her harp in our direction and waved as she spoke into the mike. "I want to dedicate this tune to Captain D, who traveled all the way from Kansas City to be with us tonight."
    Needless to say, Kimmble and Victoria were the only ones who applauded the dedication. When Victoria asked why Eddy called me Captain D, I said it was probably because I looked like a pirate. "With this patch and this bird and cane."
    Vigorously, Kimmble shook my hand as if we'd never met before. "How about some free fish and chips, Captain D?!?"
    My big sister smiled and we headed back towards the Daniels' table as Eddy made the melody to "LITTLE SURFER DAUGHTER."
    Victoria, who still served as a counselor at Lincoln High, told me how the youngest Cole never mentioned her mother. "Eddy thinks the world of her Aunt Morningstar, though."
    I stopped in my tracks. "Aunt Morningstar?"
    Victoria smoothed Kimmble's hair. "That's right - Susanna's half-sister, Joanna, who helped raise Eddy. Just a couple years ago, she moved to Hope, Arizona, and started to call herself Morningstar."

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     Kimmble, tugging at my belt loop, said she'd had enough of the smalltalk and asked if I'd loan her money for college if my boat came in by then. "Grampa Ray says he's only paying for the boys. He says education is no good for a girl."
    Before we got too close to the table to talk freely, I suggested to Kimmble that she send her grampa's address to the National Organization of Women.
    Kimmble grabbed ahold of Moses' hook. "Why's that, Uncle David?"
    I smiled innocently. "So they can send him a letter bomb."
    "Like I said, Captain, you got my vote, twice." She jabbed me twice and skipped over to the table.
    Victoria said she couldn't believe dad didn't think women should be educated. "He probably thinks it makes us dangerous."
    I told my older sister that when I was forced to spend hours with dad every Sunday down in his darkroom, the only advice he ever gave me was that I should always try to get as much sex as I could. "He said your date might act like she doesn't want to, but she really does, and the harder you try, the more she'll respect you."
    After a deep sigh, Victoria said that at least he said something to me, that neither he or mother said a word to her the entire time she was growing up. Victoria claimed the older he got, the more selfish he became. "When I had my first seizure, David, and was rushed to the emergency room, he and mom had just left for New Orleans to make some big retirement deal. They didn't even come home to visit me in the hospital; they just kept floating around the Gulf on the Braggs yacht."
    I tried to smile. "Since mom and dad ignored us both, at least we know the deficiency is theirs, not ours. But they sure have a lot of business friends."

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     Victoria's face saddened for the first time as she told me why our parents were so well-liked by the boys at the office. "Braggs was owned and operated by Jews before dad took over. Now it's all Gentile. What we Jews achieved after millenia of suffering, dad traded away over a game of afternoon golf."
    When I told my wise sister that I'd never realized that before, she could see I too was saddened to no end and told me to cheer up. "I've seen you smile more in the last twenty minutes than in the whole twenty years before, David. Stay strong."
    As we sat down, she petted Dreidel and whispered for me to see if I could talk some sense into Marshall's head. She said he was real smart at school, but all he thought about was money. "He won't listen to me, David. Flip, one of dad's disciples, has made me out to be just another dumb broad."
    I said I'd try and handed out my gifts. Reluctantly, Marshall thanked me for a small book of holiday poetry, while Kimmble was ecstatic when she saw the little dreidel I'd bought for her. She hugged me and gave me a gift from the whole Mars family - a personal-sized bottle of Chaz cologne.
    Splashing plenty of the cryptic potion on, I told Kimmble it was the favorite of an old friend of mine - just as Eddy began a magical rendition of "GOOD LIBATIONS." I couldn't help but wonder why Susanna had abandoned her, and why Morningstar hadn't even said hello to her in the Goose Room.

    After dinner, pop had Reuben Boy set up a projector and subjected us to a long slide show of Sun City. When it ended, pop smiled. "Aren't my slides of Sun City, Idaho, just great?"
    I pointed out that Sun City wasn't in Idaho. "It's in South Africa. An oasis for the wealthy in a desert of poverty."

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     Flustered, dad asked how they were supposed to know they weren't in Idaho since they flew in and had no reason to leave the reserve. "Dammit, son, I have no sympathy for the peons. The only reason anyone's not wealthy is because they don't want to be."
    I told the old fathead he was ignorant. "Why don't you sing along with your funeral parlor music you love so much?"
    When he said he couldn't sing, I asked if he'd ever taken lessons. Adjusting one of his hearing aids, he said he had, in grammer school. "But I just didn't have the knack for it, son. So kill me."
    I told him that wasn't necessary, yet. "But maybe the majority of humanity just doesn't have the knack to earn big bucks like you. They contribute to society in ways your hi-tech numbers haven't been designed to measure."
    Stirring from stupor, mother Kay told me to hush. "What twisted logic you continue to use, David. But I guess it's no use trying to straighten you out at this late date. What a pity. All our efforts wasted."
    As mom slipped back into her daze, Victoria discreetly asked if I'd give Marshall a ride down to his graduation party at Busch Stadium and maybe knock some sense into his head. "You can use Bitsey's car. I heard dad trashed mom's and you rode in on a moped."
    Eavesdropper Marshall snarled that it wasn't a graduation party he was going to. "It's a pre-grad orgy."
    As Eddy began to sing "THE WAY WE ARE," a key chain hit me in the side of the face - courtesy of Bitsey.
    Li'l sis babbled that Victoria had talked her into letting me use her new car to take Marshall to his party. "But you better not put a single scratch on my CVX if you know what's good for you, big brother." As I put the keys in my pocket, Bitsey ordered me to be careful. "It's a powerful sports car."

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     I retorted. "No, it isn't, Bitsey. It's an under..."
    But Victoria nudged me; so I shut up and listened to Edith weave her music. Closing my uncovered eye, I visualized how Susanna looked at the same tender age.
    Suddenly, a cruel voice came over the speakers. "Take it off, Edna. Take it all off, you myopic little virgin." Looking toward the page phone next to the men's room, I could see it was Capol.
    As Kimmble tossed me Moses and I headed for the bastard, pops cried out. "Don't cause a stink, son."
    Kimmble cheered. "Punch his lights out, Uncle David."
    Not wanting to scare the rat away, I limped casually across the sticky dance floor. As I approached Capol, the drunken asshole's hand slipped the speed control lever for the rotating mini-stage all the way up. Eddy, spinning around frantically, finally fell from her pedestal.
    Then Capol blasphemed again. "Take it off, you hot little number. So I can make an examination to see if you're as tight and wet as all the Shine Boys say y..."
    Cramming the tongue of his tie into his alcoholic mouth, I pulled the speed lever back down, shook his hand for my parents' benefit, and dragged the maniacal misfit into the crapper, The Mock Pit. After stabbing him in the groin with my cane, I dragged him cross the polished shithouse, over to the slop sink.
    Setting the limp prick down on the pneumatic squeegee, I offered him a deal. "Stop feeding drugs to my parents - and maybe I'll sue you for less than forty million bucks."
    As Capol bobbed his aryan head, I pulled the lever - to seal our deal. When the squeegee clamped his gonads, Rudie convulsed and his alligator wallet dropped to the well-scrubbed floor. Picking it up, I found a very interesting Kodachrome inside.

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     I held the old photo to Capol's cherry-red face. "Who are these three walleyed kids standing between you and lovely Lump?"
    Getting no answer, I folded the picture into my pocket and settled for satisfaction. I kicked Arzt Capol over into the urinal and took an overdue leak. "You're lucky my father told me not to cause a stink."
    With one big question, I marched back out onto the ballroom. As Edith began "THE MARINE CORPS HYMN," I made my way quickly to the table.
    My naive father said it was good to see I'd made up with Rudie and buried the hatchet. "Where is he now, son?"
    I sat down to explain. "The good doctor had a pressing engagement. Then he decided to shower."
    Belching cheap liquor, pops face turned rasberry. "Son, I've heard that tune that little girl's playing before."
    Standing back up, I told him I honestly didn't think so. "That's the Marine Corps Hymn."
    Eyes glazed, dad glanced at mom. "Kay, don't we know someone who used to be in the Marine?"
    I cleared the matter up. "No, I don't think so."
    When I displayed the chummy photo of Capol and Lump and said I didn't know they were such good friends, mom fanned herself nervously. "They're kissin' cousins, David."
    "And who are these three kids, mother?"
    Mom got perplexed, so pop spoke up. "That's a real old picture of the Schicklgruber triplets, their refugee foster children." Then perplexion came to pop's complexion too. "That Marine Hymn sure sounds like a funeral march - don't it, son?"

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     I explained it was a Hymn of Hope. "Unless, of course, you were a Nip in the forties, a Chink in the fifties, a Gook in the sixties, a Saddamite in the nineties - or just downright evil thereafter." That off my chest, I waited patiently while Marshall slipped into his mohair coat.
    Stomping over, Bitsey snarled in my ear not to dare get a speck of dirt on her new suede trenchcoat in the backseat. "Or I'll kill you, brother."
    My sweet niece handed me Moses and I gave her a kiss, then turned to her mother. "Godspeed, Victoria."
    Walking as tall as I could over to the fire exit, I paused long enough to hear Edith render my favorite verse, the second - "And when we get to Heaven, we'll find the streets are guarded by United States Marines."
    If the Margot Morningstar I loved, who pretended to be Rhonda Singer at Puberty Park; if she was really Joanna, Susanna's sister - then Donna Singer must have been my unrequited Queen. Wondering where Susanna was and what her guise was now, I saluted the angelic singer who repeated the prophetic second verse - "...and when we get to Heaven..."
    Dreidel fluttered to my shoulder as I splashed on more Chaz and led Marshall out into the cool night, thanking God that no one would ever own the free evening air - not if myself or a few good Gyrines had anything to say about it.

end chap 25



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