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Chapter Five

"Last Missouri Exit"


    The highway flickered and swayed with continual fencing, ascending milemarkers, and blatant billboards. I already felt lethargic from too much garlic chicken, Oolong tea, and unsolved mysteries. After filling my tank in Wright City, I downed a couple papercups of instant coffee and returned to the interstate. A glimpse of the Empire Express would have stirred my adrenalin, but it wasn't meant to be.
    By the time I rolled onto the elliptical drive around my parents' country club billet in the St. Louis suburbs, I was barely conscious. Their overbright security lights only deepened my daze as I parked in back and mademy way round front.
    On the storm-shuttered veranda, buried in a brown plastic planter of fiberglass rocks and ceramic tulips, I found mother's secret ring of keys for all three dead bolts in dad's metal-clad door. He'd be beside himself if he knew of the spousal breach in his security system.

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     Now I needed to know his SIN (Security Index Number); I sure didn't want to wake anyone up and get into an argument, not after spending a pleasant evening with good people.
    The hi-tech alarmpad probably required four digits, and I knew dad's favorites were 0, 3, and 6. So I tried 0000, 3333, and 6666; to no avail. My dad was coy, not dumb, and liked to act cute. Calculating what six hundred and sixty-six was to the base 6, I came up with 3030 and punched it in.
    The control station beeped hospitably, and, considering the late hour and my lame leg, I stepped boldly across father's cast-iron threshold and into the marble/velvet vestibule. Hurriedly, I limped through the gaudy foyer, past an ornate sitting room, and stashed my bag of chicken snacks in the ebony-and-ivory bread box on the butcher block in mother's designer kitchen.
    Lumbering straight into the den, I dropped on the family's favorite TV sofa, which perpetually reeked of dirty ammonia and dried hair spray. Since my sleep still hadn't completely adjusted sans medication, I hoped I wouldn't have a nightmare. I tissued my sticky left brow, so as not to bloodstain mother's sofa. Deciding it was too late to wonder what Menachem really meant by jumpstarting my Ohla, I cleared my throat, quietly.

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     After a soft prayer for Judy, I said the Sh'ma and dropped off to dream.

    In twilight, I crawl alone, over a vast wasteland where silence is total, save for my own moans and the hissing of unseen reptiles. A bag of unleavened bread drags from my frayed belt as I desperately penetrate the gray cinders that lay everywhere. Indeed, a good day to fry.
    As I glance up at the full moon which now hangs scarlet, my pace falters. My moans deepen, and just when I can't go any farther, the ground shudders.
    Rolling onto my blistered back, I see lightning form in the black void above. Spangles of electricity branch into a purple tree of fire and streak to the west, igniting the horizon with a single, blue-white stroke, bursting into a bright yellow-whiteness.
    Easily, I lift myself from the hot ash and stretch my cramped muscles. Far ahead, toward the now-daylit horizon, I see a magnificent vision. Suspended between a pair of glistening, crossed flagpoles, a giant placard hangs in golden sunlight, against a clear blue western sky.
    Lifting my sachel, I go for a better look, moving steadily, oblivious to the devastation which tried my soul, not to mention my flesh. My breathing deepens and my pace quickens as I realize that my arrival at this special place is no accident.
    As I get closer, the large flags still appear to be perched upon the horizon. The banners' white and gold linens still stream their lower edges below what I took to be the horizonline. Squinting in the heat which still threatens me, I wonder if it's only an illusion, if there really is no bright skyline afterall.
    Determined to uncover the truth for myself, I press onward, the hot ash beneath my heels turning to cool, soft sand between my toes. My mind is relaxed as the hissing of snakes turns to the singing of birds; and the scowl melts from my brow as the stench of death yields to the fresh green fragrance of life.
    From an elevated dune, I finally unmask the truth of this vision, not an illusion at all. Gold and white flags do undeniably fly, one from each of two giant, crossed poles of platinum. Each cantilevered flagstaff measures well over forty feet long, anchored into its own pond. One pond reflects white light, the other gold: a pair of fluid welcome mats to the abundant green world at my feet.

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     As the flags flap in the swirling breeze, I look up, upon the rough-hewn placard bracing their crossed poles and its warm message:
    Such a boldly simple greeting for so beautifully grand a setting. My fever's broken, but my senses must still be confused, because the flags, less than twenty feet apart, blow in opposite directions. They fly outward, from the center. How?
    From nowhere and everywhere, a heavenly female voice beckons. "The WINDS OF TIME blow in all directions, for in all directions you will find the LAND OF MILK AND HONEY. Welcome Home, David. Leave all worldly needs behind and enter your promised paradise."
    Dropping my burden, I ask the wind how to enter the valley.
    The illusive voice answers. "Disrobe and drop into our cleansing stream."
    Loosening my trousers, I look down again, but see no stream, or hostess.
    The soft voice invites with the sound of truth. "Trust me - trust the land and jump."
    A heavenly woman steps from behind a golden bush. Her eyes reflect trust, and I easily decide. It is far better to die with trust in my heart than to live with fear in my soul. I jump.
    While I free-fall, a friendly wind nudges me under the edge of the overhang and I catch sight of a stream just an instant before splashing into its coolness.

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     On soft waves of light, I swim, the overhang cloaking the dusk I've left behind. Endless sunshine spreads before me as my hostess pushes through a tower of golden wheat, then kneels on the fertile bank.
    She reaches out and repeats her welcome home wish. "This is your Land of Milk and Honey, and I am Fela, mother of Sola and Sidra, sisters of all life. Leave your fears and pains at the bottom of our stream and come with me."
    Splashing towards the wonderful lady, I tell her I fear nothing, I feel no pain.
    Pulling me up the bank, she speaks gently. "As it should be."
    I squeeze her hand and smile, for it feels like I've known this special soul for thousands of years. She returns my smile.
    Arm in arm, we walk towards a peach tree that's grown in the image of a big heart. The soil presses softly beneath my blistered feet, and her oiled flesh soothes my scorched skin as our bodies brush lightly.
    Stepping into the dappled shade of a flowering branch, I wonder if she could be Fela, the woman Menachem mentioned.
    She stops and turns to me. "Yes, I'm Fela, of the same crew as Ména."
    Smiling serenely, she sits fluidly, her long auburn tresses falling against the tree as a cushion for our backs. I sit beside her and we rest against one another, our backs pressing the smoothened trunk. We respire in easy unison.
    After a quiet time, my hostess looks to our right, pointing to an endless cloister of deep green hills and valleys which thrive under a bold, golden sun. "The VINEYARDS OF PEACE grow fertile. Are you thirsty?"
    But I don't reply, for I now see only that sunlight which plays upon her polished flesh. She turns to me and I look away quickly.

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     She beseeched me. "Don't turn away. We have no secrets here. Be our bodies athletic or lame, full or slim, we display them proudly as we do our spirits. We celebrate the symbiotic glory of both, lest either be tainted by neglect or gluttony."
    Upon her bare body, I look once more, at her holy, womanly physique whose image now floats on the delicate breeze of this timeless dreamscape.
    She issues a loving warning. "Never partake of a feast for which you hold no explicit invite and lasting interest."
    I nod and smile. In silence, we press against one another and rest for a short while.
    Then she beckons. "Come. I'll show you your endless domain, this Promised Land." She stands with unmeasured grace.
    Lifting my hand to her hour-glass hip, I tell her I'm not ready, I'm still tired and confused. "Let me have some time to rest first."
    She sits back down and speaks easily. "As you wish."
    Pressing my hand to her bosom, she hangs her head over my face. Her hair spills all over me and her silken fingers smooth my cheeks, then brush my eyelids closed.
    She whispers. "When you awake, you will know my daughters. Together, we shall journey to FREEDOM SOUND. There, we will fish and bathe before Ména and Suma join us."
    My lids open again.
    Fela's eyes smile as only an angel's can and she makes me a promise. "When our long journey is done, we will nap along the RAINBOW OF SOULS."
    Easily, my eyes reclose, as her long ringlets of heavenly hair flutter on the shadows and lap at my blistered chest.


   Coughing, I awoke and reached for the carved ivory lighter on the magazine table.

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     My parents didn't like me to smoke in their precious house, but I lit up anyway. I legitimized the act as civil disobedience, since I never would have started to smoke in the first place if it hadn't been for my unjustified incarceration by the treacherous Liz Lump.
    I cringed at the very thought of the geriatric dominatrix and her alcoholic advocate, the gynecologic Doktor Capol (whom both my parents continued to patronize). Then I remembered my recent agreement with Judy and stubbed the cancer stick out. I tried to sleep for another couple hours, but fell amid lonely nightmares of fruitless toil and meaningless pain. No return to any promised horizon.
    Not too many hours later, a pre-dawn incandescence lightened the plush carpeting beside the couch. Clam-colored golf sandals stomped to my side, and I looked up, past the bloated belly, to the artificially-bronzed face of my father. The sartorial gooseberry endured, geometrically groomed, in a razor-creased business suit. Nibbling on a chunk of chicken, he looked childish and innocent, as usual.
    Through a smog of discount cologne and over-ironed laundry starch, he barked. "Get up and quit aggravating me!"
    When I asked what he meant, he said he wanted me to leave right away so I could get mother's Cadillac down to Florida in time to pick them up at the Palm Beach Airport on Tuesday.
    He demanded I be there at 9AM sharp. "Or should I get someone from Braggs to do it instead?"

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     I sat up and told him to relax, that I'd leave as soon as I got cleaned up.
    It didn't make him too happy. "Well I want you to leave right now!" He staggering away like a hog who missed his last turn in the mudhole. "I should have known better than to ask you to do something for me. I should have asked one of my good buddies at Braggs or a couple of the Mockingbird Boys to do it for me."
    Trying to keep my eyes open and deal with this man's chosen reality, I struggled to my feet and called to him, as politely as possible.
    He stopped, stooped, and rejaculated. "Yeah!?" Then he jerked back around like a crippled lion who wished he could still pounce and showed his pearly dentures. "What's wrong?? Huh??"
    I told him there was nothing wrong. "But maybe you should go ahead and have one of your friends do it for you. I'd better head back to Kansas and get my video business going again."
    His madeup face turned mauve. "I don't want to inconvenience my good buddies and I don't want to have to rent a car when I get down there." His beady black eyes opened wide as they could. "I asked you for a little favor. Is that such a big deal?"
    "Not if you don't give me such a rough time."
    He popped a couple horse-sized pills before responding. "D, do, don't you tell me what to do! Yo, you never used to talk to me like this when Rudie was your doctor."
    Calmly, I told him I wasn't his little boy anymore, or his employee. "I'm your son."
    He looked confused. "Dammit then, get the hell out of my house and leave me and your poor mother alone!"
    As he vanished into the master suite, I yawned and made my way toward the kitchen.

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     I'd loved and worshiped dear dad so much for so long. He never talked to me when I was young; his time was reserved for business matters, so he told me. Then he convinced me the only reason I survived at all was because of his conviction to see I receive the proper medical care.
    So, for two decades on drugs, I believed whatever he told me. He told me to think of him as my savior, and he told it to me with subtle charisma, the same charisma he'd abused to claw his way to the top of the corporate ladder at Braggs and the social register at the Mock Club.
    Gasping at my past stupidity, I took a collector beer mug from the beechwood rack beside the triple-wide refrigerator. This was my first visit to St. Louis since getting out of the hospital. I'd never before noticed how strong the antiseptic, metallic odor was that hung in mom's designer kitchen (which she rarely used except to show-off to friends).
    Filling my mug with iced club soda from the beverage dispenser attached to the porta-bar, I noticed my father had cannibalized my chicken snacks, leaving me the torn bag and twisted crust. I threw the remnants in the compactor, splashed charcoal-filtered tap water on my face, and wandered into the dining room.
    Here was an enormous room which my parents used only on that rare Thanksgiving when they happened to be in town and could make sure no one scratched the furniture. Inhaling the grim aroma of built-up furniture polish and stale breath mints, I caught sight of a dented silver cup in a mahogany china cabinet.
    It was my baby cup. Carefully, I opened the glass door, picked it up and decided it was a lucky thing I didn't know how hard growing up would get.
    Displayed nearby, I examined three high school diplomas: second cousin Bitsey's, older sister Victoria's, and my own. They would have been stashed in my father's junk closet if it wasn't for their polished leather bindings that all matched.

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     In the lower left corner of the sideboard, the plastic ornament from my Bar Mitzvah cake was on less-than-proud display. The hardship and the razzing I had to endure because they forgot to enroll me in Hebrew School couldn't be put on public display beside it. I could overlook my parents not taking the time to help me be a Cub Scout; I could compensate for their failure to teach me things like the washing of hands before dinner, proper use of the toilet seat, frequency of bathing and changing of underwear. But no manmade enclosure in the world could hold the emptiness I felt the day my father, because of a business buffet, didn't show up to see me off at the airport, when I was slated for a tour in Vietnam. I marked it up as something wrong with me, some inherent character flaw which I couldn't detect but prevented my parents from treating me like a human being.
    In retrospect, maybe there really was some obscure explanation for their actions, I hoped. Anyhow, hip-deep in self-pity, I returned the cup to the shelf, took my diploma, and drifted into the living room. If I'd done something to earn the baby cup, I would have taken it too.
    Standing on the buffed slate threshold of the so-called living room, I wondered why I even associated with my parents and decided not to, once I completed this one last chore. I'd drive their car to Florida; then we were finished.
    Back to my unauthorized inspection of the premises, family members weren't usually allowed in this, the living room, either. It was reserved exclusively for distinguished guests at cocktail functions.
    Clutching my diploma, I wondered why my parents even bothered to have children. Was it just the thing every couple did in the '40s, like owning a two-bedroom tract house with a flathead Ford in the driveway and a tomato garden out back?

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     Whatever the reason for their multiplication, in these two rooms my mother did fully exercise her compulsive obsession for perfect order. The sacred chamber felt as lifeless as I did when dropped at Formington. Instead of smelling from the Form's moldy meatloaf, though, mother's living room smelled like a new car showroom and sparkled like the glazed cover of an interior decorator's magazine. Here, a shred of paper was taboo; lint and fingerprints verboten.
    Traversing the mohair broadloom, I felt like I was walking on a bed of deflated tennis balls. Sadly, I paused beside a black piano which no one had the slightest idea how to play. It faced a pink satin sofa no family member ever sat on, over which hung a collectible oil painting of an overcolored and underfed nude no one ever noticed, except to crack chauvinist jokes about.
    Fishing a tissue from my back pocket, I blew my nose and stared down at the long, low-slung sofa. Recently, I'd asked for a $200 loan to purchase a new couch for my somewhat stark apartment, to make my denullification a little more bearable. My parents balked. Mother directed me to find a used recliner at a garage sale for $30 and have the bill sent to Braggs Construction.
    She knew nothing of finance, high or otherwise. My father saw to that. As with most her peers, my mother had never been gainfully employed a single day in her life, but was always quick to condemn me if I missed an hour at Braggs.
    Turning from the juggernaut of a sofa, I concluded that I was the one at fault, for thinking they owed me something. Some financial help to get back on my feet and salvage the days I had left was an expense they could easily afford, but preferred to ignore. If, perchance, I requested money for psychiatric medication, however, their coffers would spring wide open with generosity.
    Quickly, I limped upstairs to the smoke-mirrored guest bath - before my father reappeared. While I shaved and showered, I whistled, in a vain attempt to divert my mind from the subject of parental ignorance and neglect.

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     En route to the laundry room, wrapped in an over-washed beach towel from SUN CITY, I came upon a secondary vestibule and stopped in my tracks. At this place, Dad's well-documented lending library of pornographic skin flicks was neatly displayed. A laptop computer was mounted on a velvet wall perch between two of six bookcases. One of pop's protégées at the office had programmed the computer to keep track of his ever-expanding inventory of smut.
    As I unplugged the computer which was supposed to always be left on, I glanced at the explicit stills glued to the blonde leather bindings. Occasionally, I had unwittingly watched a film or video with my father's office buddies and boys from the club, as they gulped high balls, made bestial slurs, and boasted of adulterous adventures beyond belief. My stomach soured as I thought about the losers - The Mockingbird Boys (as they referred to their reckless crew even after a few of the braver wives joined their viewing ranks). How they loved to crack sick jokes about the dominated and violated.
    I staggered into the laundry room and got dressed. Using the chrome base of a steam iron as a somewhat distorted mirror, I combed my wet hair into place and filled a grocery bag with clean jeans and t-shirts, purposely left behind the previous 4th of July. Swiftly, I limped out into the backyard, across the grey asphalt, to my car.
    Tossing my diploma onto the backseat, I rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and headed for the rear entrance to the estate. Mom had stashed her domestic's keys in the lava rock of an electric barbecue pit my father used when he wanted to rough it on Labor day. The keys allowed easy access to the heated triplex garage.

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     Baked motor oil and vaporized battery acid first singed, then clogged my nostrils, as I perused the concrete bunker. One tiled parking space was for mom's Cadillac, a second for dad's company-owned Continental (even though he was supposedly retired), and the third was for his golf cart and pilfered accouterments. After stowing my clothes and shaving bag in the Seville, I searched patiently through an old toolbox behind dad's emergency generator set. An extra big soldering gun showed itself, exactly what the doctor ordered, and I slipped back through the laundry room, into the house, to do society a favor.
    Fifteen minutes later I was ready for a month of chasing fun in the Florida sun. As I started the antiseptic roadster (which sounded and smelled like a vacuum cleaner), I hoped it would be half as easy to make up for my past quixotic transgressions as it had been to erase pop's porno tapes with an industrial-grade electromagnet.
    This was the first time I'd ever driven their canoe and it lurched from the garage as I jumped on the gas, rocketing rearward and out into the dreary daylight that hung over the elitest Mock Estates like a black hood over the Marquis de Sade's aborted head. Shifting from reverse into drive, I left behind two identical strips of smoking rubber. Obviously, the Seville had posi-traction, not to mention overrated fuel injection.
    As I motored briskly for the highway, hoping to beat the morning rush, memories of Milk and Honey dissolved to worn yellow lines, pot holes, honking horns, and a horribly kinky talk show host.
Ten minutes later, I turned onto the highway ramp, queued up some mellow oldies on the super-tech radio, and quickly settled into the pace of the road; taking U.S. 40 East toward Illinois before turning south to Florida.
    As if I weren't bitter enough, I became even more so when I saw the usual bodycount of slaughtered mammals littering the eroded shoulder. Fighting the urge to smoke, I pushed through the suburbs toward downtown. Still saddened by the dead dogs, my speed must have been too slow to suit my followers. Horns honked and headlights flashed as purportedly mature men and women cursed me and forced me onward.

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     When an androgynous nyuppie in a Toyota convertible gave me heshes neutered finger, I shouted some profanity at humanity, pulled away from the onslaught, and swerved into the center lane. As my foot pushed toward the oilpan, the fuel injectors squealed like homesick angels and the transmission dropped into passing gear.
    Suddenly, an inconspicuous black and white sign announced: St. Louis City Limits. As it flashed by, the green suburban summer turned quickly to an urban-gray oven.
    Bouncing across several poorly maintained inner-city viaducts, I caught sight of Eero's rather clever Gateway Arch - which some claimed to belong rightfully in Kansas City. I recalled how the Egyptians had left the Great Pyramid, the Greeks the Parthenon, and the Romans the Colosseum. Would our endowment to eternity be a pair of burnished blobs that were once the catenary limbs of the Gateway Arch? Or, by some divine intervention, would the so-called Cold War melt into the past as quickly as it froze our future?
    With the thrashing wind my sole audience, I sighed. "Whatever happens, God help us leave a bit of our collective soul behind."
    Then, out of the blue, a giant green sign boldly promised: LAST MISSOURI EXIT.
    Indeed, I hoped misery was a passing thing as the car rose on a gradual slab of pavement and old man river showed himself. The mighty Mississippi looked so wide and big for a little kid like Huck Finn to have tamed. Surely, though, that was a good and simple way of life, floating on a fictional raft with an old pan of fried fish, jug of cider, corncob pipe, and not a care in the world.
    Wishing I were Huck, Tom, Puddn'head, or maybe even The Boss, I quickly realized this was the 20th century and I was on a bridge hundreds of feet above well-polluted waters. The steel span widened as I thought how convenient it would be to turn back the hands of time. To when? Certainly not to the century of Samuel Clemens and its non-fictional slaughter of both Native Americans and Bison.

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     I poked at the Caddie's state-of-our-art music system and came up with a symbolic blast from the more recent past. "BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS" filtered through the digital tuner as my speed increased, as I tried to leave the urban miasma behind. Glancing down at a giant drain pipe spitting industrial excrement into the waters of the second greatest river in the world, I slowed and opened the sunroof, cautiously optimistic that the pain of the past was behind me, losing ground.
    But then the heavy stench of death hit me hard. I yanked the last tissue from my shaving bag and shielded my nose from the stink of the Illinois stockyards. Quickly closing the windows and sunroof, I flipped on the air conditioner and wished my own fresh start would somehow coincide with good news for all.
    However, as I considered the slaughtered cattle, my olfactory lobe flared and my optimism faltered. What a methodical, cold-blooded way to die. Was I being too idealistic? Did the cattle know this was their lot in life; on some subconscious level had they come to accept it? Surely, they hadn't been born just to be slaughtered, broiled, and eaten.
    Did all animals and plants exist only to be digested by some so-called higher, but merely more fit, species? What about humankind? Who was going to eat us? Who or what was going to use us in their gas tank after we rot in the ground for a thousand millenia? What was life all about?

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     Not knowing the answers was no big deal; wondering if there were any was unbearable. Humankind's cavalier speciesism has certainly been very selfish, I thought pompously, as I left the bridge on the Illinois side. Veering south, I tried not to recall what our predecessors did to those of their own species, the kidnapped Africans. And, of course, what hitler and his followers did to the Gypsies, Russians, and Jews, and what old Joe stalin did to anyone he didn't like. Inhaling deeply, I tried not to dwell on the countless other examples of monumental hate which I was too doped up to notice for so many years.
    Instead, I remembered what Rabbi Stewart told Hal L. when he complained that the meatloaf at Formington was moldy. The Orthodox Rabbi told him to be patient - that, according to the Original Testament, people would no longer crave meat during the Messianic era, that the butchering of animals was only a temporary concession to people's baser instincts.

end chap 5


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