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By Ray Robertson
Santa Fe Writers ProjectCopyright © 2002 Ray Robertson
All rights reserved.
Chicken-legged Thomas Graham, all white flesh and thirteen years old, in the huddle, on one knee, giving out the signals, in charge.
Mid-signal call, Thomas puts his mouth to the earhole of the helmet next to him, helmet belonging to Gary "Fat Man" Jones, Thomas's best friend and sure-handed fullback. Whispers:
"Hear that? Hear the cheerleaders?"
"Jesus, Thomas, everybody's looking, finish calling the play."
"Listen. That's three-part harmony. They're doing three-part harmony."
"Forget the words, don't even listen to the words. Just listen to the harmony. Just listen to the music."
"Hey, Graham, what's the fucking play?"
"Uh, right ... 48 flanker split left, halfback off tackle right."
"On what, asshole?"
"Two. On two."
And on two the halfback plunges left just like he's supposed to behind a tackle blowing spit and exploding left and a pulling guard chomping down hard on his mouthpiece pulling hard left just like he's supposed to do too. Doesn't much matter, though. The quarterback forgot to give the halfback the ball.
And Thomas Graham, football tucked underneath his arm, runs the other way, runs alone right, runs for his life, runs right into a wall of half of Jackson Central High's opposition that afternoon, the All-Mississippi high-school runners-up of the year before, the Oxford Panthers.
Hit high, hit low, hit hard, loudly hit, the ball pops loose at first point of pounding contact and sputters uselessly out of bounds, Thomas's collarbone snapping in two in the process as easy as someone keeping time to a catchy tune snapping happy his fingers.
On his back, arms and legs splayed, the bars of his helmet stuffed full of home-field turf and with a mouth full of blood and broken teeth like Chicklets floating in warm red syrup: "Oh, that's pretty," Thomas says, the cheerleaders on the sideline hitting all the high notes now, really cheering their boys on.
"That is just so pretty," he says.
I MET THOMAS GRAHAM in a bank. He was withdrawing, I was depositing.
Fall hadn't managed to elbow out of its way yet all the humidity and baking haze of September lingering summer, but I'd decided to brave heatstroke anyway and broken out my buckskin jacket and slid into the friendly snug of my favourite pair of Levis. Impossible, I've always maintained, to be the best you can be when you're not wearing pants. Maybe this is northern prejudice, or maybe I'm just unnaturally sensitive about my legs. Anyway, there I was in my jacket and jeans.
And there was Thomas. In white cowboy boots and a red silk shirt with a little silver cross peeking out underneath, all topped off with a white jacket covered with a green sequined pot plant, a couple of sparkling acid cubes, and a pair of woman's breasts. The jacket glowed, I swear, and I'd had nothing stronger that morning than a cup of coffee. He was also the only other guy in the bank in blue jeans and with hair hanging down past his collar.
They'd given him some kind of form to get started on while he waited in line, and he was squinting and grinning at the thing like it was written in a language he couldn't quite understand but for some reason was getting quite a kick out of anyway. Probably high, I thought. He looked up at me from the piece of paper and blew a few brown strands of hair out of his eyes.
"Now that, sir, is one fine article of clothing," he said, lifting a long thin finger, pointing at my fringed jacket.
It took me a second to recover from the jolt of his southern accent. "There's a place over near Kensington Market," I said. "Good stuff. Cheap, too."
"Much obliged," he said. Using the pen he'd been given by the bank, he scribbled down what I'd just told him on the back of his hand. Information recorded, "Thomas Graham," he said, offering his hand.
"Pleased to meet you, Bill."
A blue-haired teller signalled that it was Thomas's turn at the counter. Thomas gave me a wink and loped right up. "Afternoon, ma'am," he said.
Later, after counting out my $23.50 monthy loan payment and signing my receipt, I noticed Thomas with the teller and some obviously important higher-up at the bank — he had to be important: he was balding and wearing an expensive suit — joking and laughing like old friends. At one point the man in the suit actually clasped Thomas by the shoulder to give him a paternal squeeze. My own teller sourly tore off her part of the carbon receipt and didn't thank me for being part of the Royal Bank family.
I had to walk right past him to escape the bank's partitioned maze, and Thomas turned away from the two behind the counter and put a hand on my arm. "Hey, Buckskin Bill," he said, "Uncle Owsley says thanks for the tip." He stuck out his hand. "See you around?"
"Sure," I said.
I smiled, shook his hand, and didn't open my fist until I was well down Avenue Road.
When I did: two tabs of Owsley acid. Everyone who prided himself on being in the know knew about Owsley Stanley, the mad chemist of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury. But here I was actually holding a couple of his legendary powder kegs.
Won't Christine be blown away? I thought. And wait until I tell her about the guy who gave them to me.
OKAY, JUST A LITTLE background music: Toronto, 1965 in particular.
For anyone starting to let his hair grow long and wanting to hear some good music and maybe even check out some of that free-love action you'd read about going down in places like California, that would basically mean Yorkville, just north of Bloor Street. No more than three blocks in all, Yorkville was our very own city within a city, every street, alley, and low-rent hippie-converted building bursting with the sounds of loud music and the sweet smell of incense and overflowing with like-minded friendly, freaky faces. There was the Inn on the Parking Lot, the Riverboat, the Mynah Bird, the Penny Farthing — coffee shops and folk clubs, basically — where you could listen to Joni Mitchell and Ian and Sylvia and a million others no one has ever heard of since. Everyone drank lots of coffee and smoked plenty of cigarettes and you could play chess outside if the weather was nice and there was pot if you wanted it and all the girls, it seemed, were eighteen years old and tall and thin with the kindest eyes and long dark hair and none of them wore bras even if there really wasn't all that much love going on, free or otherwise.
But maybe that was just me. As a University of Toronto second-year dropout of no fixed major working part-time at a second-hand bookstore with no guitar-strumming ability of my own, I wasn't on anybody's love-to-love-you-baby list. At least not until Christine showed up one day at Making Waves.
The Making Waves Bookstore wasn't much more than the entire first floor of a paint-peeling Victorian house near the corner of Brunswick and Harbord crammed to the walls with the owner, Kelorn Simpson's, own book collection, most of it accumulated over twenty years of academic gypsydom. Kelorn was a fifty-something psychedelicized Ph.D. in English literature with a framed degree from Oxford and dual portraits of Virginia Woolf and Timothy Leary hanging over the front counter to prove it. She was also near-messianic in her need to educate, physically and otherwise, the young female undergraduates who would drift into the bookstore from the university just a few blocks away, as well as reluctant as hell to sell any of her books. Which is how I started working for her in the first place.
After she saw how disappointed I was when she barely even looked at the cardboard box I brought by full of an entire semester's worth of practically new books, and then how pissed off I became when she wouldn't sell me her City Lights Pocket Book copy of Howl (a cute girl in black leotards with jet-black hair and no makeup in my Modern American Poetry class told me to read it when I'd asked her out to a Varsity Blues hockey game; she also declined my invitation to the hockey game), Kelorn made me take off my coat and gloves, poured me a cup of mint tea, asked why I needed money so badly that I wanted to sell all my books, and why I wanted to read Allen Ginsberg.
After I told her about the cute girl with the jet-black hair and how I'd dropped out of U of T a few months before and how the bank was calling in my loan and how I'd have to move back in with my parents in Etobicoke soon if I didn't get a job, Kelorn asked me if I wanted to work at the bookstore.
"Doing what?" I asked.
"You want to pay me to do nothing."
"Practically nothing," she said. "Open and close up when I'm busy. Brew a pot of tea now and then. Help out the customers."
"But you don't sell anything. How am I supposed to help out the customers?"
Kelorn set down her cup of tea on the counter. "You're not buying anything and I'm offering to help you, aren't I?"
"So when people come in you want me to offer them jobs working here?"
Leaning a heavy arm on the countertop, the massive collection of beads, religious medallions, and junk jewellery hanging around her neck set swinging and crashing against each other as she shifted her weight, "I thought you said you needed a job," she said. At an even six feet and with a figure that now — thirty years on and my own 28-inch waist as much a memory as my 8-track collection — can be charitably called Rubenesque, Kelorn, I came to find out, had a way of stopping the talking when there just wasn't anything worth left to say.
I told her I'd take the job. Told her thanks.
On my way out the door she called out my name and fluttered the copy of Howl across the room. "An advance against your salary," she said.
I put the book in my pocket and said thanks again.
"And one more thing, Bill?" she said.
"Beatnik girls don't go to hockey games."
Days at the bookstore, nights prowling around Yorkville, and my hair grew longer and winter into spring. I'd stare outside at the leaves bursting their buds while upstairs Samantha or Roxanne or Gretchen, the very same girls who wouldn't have given me a second look across the room in Introduction to Philosophy 101, writhed away under Kelorn's experienced hands before shuffling downstairs from her top-floor apartment wearing freshly fucked-flushed faces and carrying Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death, the building blocks of Kelorn's very own Great Books course.
But I managed to keep up on the rent on my room and shared bath on Huron Street near the university and not fall too far behind on my bank loan, and even when I couldn't afford to or didn't feel like getting high, the music around the clubs was usually good and the girls, if unattainable, even more beautiful than the summer before. And the guitars chimed away while we all waited around for what was going to happen next.
When I'd go back home to Etobicoke to visit, my mother would plead with me to cut my hair and my father would read aloud from the pulpit of his easy chair any one of an increasing number of editorials starting to show up in the Toronto Daily Star or Toronto Telegram about "the moral decay of our young" and "the pied pipers of popular music leading our younger generation headfirst into the hazards of political anarchy and sexual promiscuity" and I'd play right along, as if I'd just come back from a six-hour orgy and was way too tired to go into it, couldn't even be bothered to defend me and all my raging pagan friends.
Truth was, though, never having to go to the barber any more and hearing some good tunes and getting high once in a while aside, when, I wondered, was some of that moral decay going to come my way?
I wasn't then and am not now what you'd call a big reader. The hundreds of spines I must have cracked over the counter of Making Waves and the book-crammed cases lining the walls of this Tilbury farmhouse were and are liars both, making everybody and even myself sometimes think I just might be someone who knows something about something. But, then as now, I simply like the feel of being close to so much dedicated conviction and craft, surrounded at every turn by walls and walls of clean black type. Maybe because mine was the first generation to get plunked down in front of the TV whenever mum wanted a quick and easy kiddy-break, eyelids begin to hang heavy and attention span flickers before too many pages manage to get turned.
Or maybe I just wasn't intended to be one of those who know or think or feel too much, my place the place of steady but plain beat-keeping. But sitting here tonight, a lazy yellow lab by the name of Monty sleeping on the kitchen floor at my feet, maybe a mere metronome is not the worst thing a person can be. Because flip the coin of too much and the other side always comes up too little. Always.
But the next best thing to actually knowing what you're talking about is memorizing a few good lines and trotting them out at just the right moment. Like when Christine came into the store for the first time wanting to buy one of Kelorn's recently acquired treasures, a Viking first edition of Kerouac's On the Road.
"You're telling me you've got to ask the owner for permission to sell me this book?" she said.
"I'm saying I can ask her when she gets back if she wants to sell it, but I don't think she will."
"Come outside with me for a second," she said, opening the shop door, tinkling its bell. Seeing me hesitate behind the desk, "C'mon," she said.
It was only the first week of April and we both had our hands buried in the pockets of our jeans. But the afternoon sun was warm on my face and the air was beginning to smell more and more like a full-out blooming was only waiting for the right moment to spring.
"What does that say up there?" she said, pointing at the sign over the door to the shop.
"Okay, I get your point, but I've still got to —"
"No. What does that sign say?"
"Making Waves Bookstore."
"Exactly," she said, pulling the pen out of my shirt pocket and scribbling something on a piece of paper she'd taken out of her beaded shoulder bag. "Stores sell things. This is a store. Therefore, the owner will sell me the book. Here's my number. Get her to call me with a price."
She stuck the pen back in my pocket, flashed me a peace sign, and departed down Harbord. Wonderfully long, at least my five-foot-ten, and handsome more than merely pretty with a Yorkville-unfashionable stubbly bald head and strong, sharp features and intense brown eyes, I was glad Kelorn wasn't there.
"Why do you want the Kerouac?" I called out after her.
She turned around.
Hesitating only a moment, "Because," she said, "the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of —"
"— of everything at the same time," I took over, finishing Kerouac's sentence for her, "the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn."
The girl smiled. Impressed or maybe only amused, I wasn't sure. But she smiled.
"You give me a call, too," she said. "I'm playing a gig at the Bohemian Embassy tomorrow night and you can come by my place before if you feel like it and, you know, whatever."
I said maybe I would, okay, maybe, yeah, and put her number in my pocket and the Kerouac under the counter and made myself a fresh pot of mint tea. I liked the sound of whatever. Whatever, I thought, just might be what I'd been looking for.
And time cannot mist out this. How, from the next day's first but not last furious fucking, to how Christine, moments after completion of the inaugural act, took a drink of water from a glass on the floor beside her mattress and leaned over as if to post-coital kiss but, instead, patiently passed cool water from her mouth to mine, everything she did in bed — to me, to herself, to us — seemed wholly holy natural, yet, at the same time, shatteringly erotic, every hungry gesticulation body-stirring earthy. And later, after her solo acoustic act between poetry readings at the Bohemian Embassy, all night long all that I didn't know yet about all the things a man and woman stoked by a little hash and a lot of just-met lust can do to and for one another.
But you've flipped through the magazines and seen a late-night cable movie or two, and even if it feels like it at the time, no two people ever invent sex, so no need here to blather on and on about what went where and who wailed what. But to this day, never again like that. Never. Aching muscles, for instance, where I didn't even know I had any. And coming to work straight from spending the night at her place and within an hour having to go and jerk off in the bathroom because Christine getting herself off with her nimble fingers while straddling me backward all I could see, hear, taste, smell. Et cetera, et cetera, all known positions and speeds.
Excerpted from Moody Food by Ray Robertson. Copyright © 2002 Ray Robertson. Excerpted by permission of Santa Fe Writers Project.
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