Playing on the Black Keys
“Where do you want the skyrockets, front or back?” Cubby Miles asked, his voice still groggy from getting up so early.
Sam Harper gazed at the silhouette of the old Waco biplane against a purple ribbon of morning light. On the horizon, a thin calligraphy of gold outlined each cloud. “I don’t think it’s going to make a lot of difference, do you?” he said, keeping his voice deadpan.
Cubby peered down at the twelve Acme bags filled to overflowing, six with skyrockets and cherry bombs, the other bags filled with Roman candles, M-80s and other assorted fireworks. They looked like sacks of old-fashioned candy.
“I don’t understand how you can joke at a time like this,” Cubby said, keeping his eyes diverted. Though it was too dark to see Sam’s eyes directly, it would have been impossible to look at him anyway. “You can call this off, you know. You can go home and crawl back in bed with Delta. You can…”
Sam hoisted the last bag into the front seat of the Waco. It looked like he’d just stocked up for the week from Acme. “I think I’m aware of that,” Sam said. He pushed the sacks down toward the floor so they wouldn’t fly out when he took off. “Look, Cub, the reason I asked you to help me out was… I know you understand about not wanting to put people through a bunch of shit, not wanting them to suffer.” Gigi, Sam’s Boston terrier, was already up on the wing, shivering and wondering why they were all up so early.
“I do,” Cubby answered. He stopped. “Okay, you’re right. What else? How can I help?”
Sam automatically reached down and picked Gigi up. He blew warmth into her ears and tossed her gently into the back seat of the Waco. She took up her usual post standing on the leather cushion and guarding the old biplane from any intruders. “Actually, there’s not a lot to do now. But afterwards… I do have a couple of pearls of wisdom for you. And a couple of requests.”
Cubby smiled in the darkness. It was comforting hearing his boss’s old voice, the old arrogance, the over-controlling nature, even if it was for the last time. “I’m listening.”
“Well, as far as the pearls of wisdom go, and this isn’t going to come as any surprise, I think you gotta try to lighten up on your restaurant critiques for the paper. You have one of the most refined palates in BucksCounty. But that’s the thing. This is BucksCounty, not Manhattan or LA. Most of these restaurants are just trying to squeak by. And when you rip them a new one…” Sam let his voice trail off for effect.
“Done. Nothing under two napkin rings unless…”
“Unless the ambulance comes and carts you off to DoylestownHospital.”
“Okay. What else?”
“Watch over Delta as much as you can. She’s… She’s gonna tend to get more serious. She’ll probably be depressed for a while. Possibly as much as a year. But after that, she should be all right.”
Cubby shook his head sadly.
“Nothing. What else?”
“Peter. I’m not sure there’s much you can do with him. He’s so goddamned pompous. But if you can keep after him, keep trying to make him stop and smell the roses, and most of all, keep trying to kill the bug that’s up his ass. I know, it’s gonna be a long haul.”
“He’s never listened to you,” Cubby said.
“That’s true,” Sam admitted. “But that’s probably because I’m his father. If you could think of him as an asteroid, you might be able to nudge him a little, maybe keep him from slamming head-on into life all the time. I’m not asking for miracles, Cub. All you can do is try.”
In the back seat of the Waco, Gigi whined as if to say, When are we taking off?
Sam and Cubby looked at her at the same time. “You’re taking her with you?” Cubby asked.
“Aw damn, I forgot.” Sam leaned up over the fuselage and gently lifted her out of the cockpit. She was instantly wiggling and licking. The sun had risen another inch off the horizon and the light was no longer purple but pink. Cubby watched Sam’s face, the stubble of his beard, and the wetness where Gigi was licking him. She seemed suddenly obsessed with licking around his eyes and Sam handed her to Cubby.
Sam wiped away the wetness and chuckled. “I’ve always had a pretty good set of barriers, at least where people are concerned. But Gigi always managed to get through. She can see right through the bullshit. Get her out of here before I get all…” He stopped himself and inhaled the morning air deeply. “I do believe it’s time.”
Sam gave Cubby a quick hug and a back-slap. He gave Gigi a last kiss on her nose, and then climbed up into the cockpit and by rote began slipping into his harness and parachute.
“You’re not gonna need those today,” Cubby called up.
Sam looked down. “Yeah, you’re right. But it’s like buckling your seatbelt. I can’t fly without ‘em.”
In the morning air, Sam called out, “Clear,” in his best voice. The Waco’s engine cranked slowly, then faster, and coughed to life in a puff of blue smoke. The colors of the old Waco were just beginning to show now. Reds and golds were always the last to show in dim light and the Waco was Ferrari-red with black-and-yellow flames painted on the cowling. The name of the newspaper, his newspaper, The Carver’s Mill Patriot, was scrolled flamboyantly across the fuselage.
At the far end of the runway, Sam did his run-up exactly as he always had: left magneto, right magneto. He wiggled the stick and tickled the rudder pedals with his feet. When he went to full-power, Gigi whined and broke away from Cubby’s arms. Sam saw the flicker of black and white racing across the grass toward him. Fortunately it was too late. He was already rolling down the runway.
The Eyes Have It
(Two months earlier)
The geographical nerve center of The Carver’s Mill Patriot was, coincidentally, the second floor of Samuel Harper’s old barn, complete with barn swallows, spiders, and the occasional field mouse. It was a nice barn, not quite old or rustic enough to be an Eric Sloane barn, not enough woodpecker holes or tattered shingles. However, what it lacked in holes, it made up for in other things.
The second-floor windows overlooked three picturesque ponds in a clearing in otherwise deep woods. The second floor of the barn was a headquarters of sorts, but it was also an observation post. At least once a day someone would call out when a deer, raccoon, fox, or a flock of wild turkeys wandered in. The heartbeat of the paper would slow for a few minutes. Sam’s wife, Delta, would get out her binoculars, though most of the time the creatures were within spitting distance. Sam and the other men would turn into little kids, throwing paper jets at the raccoons or making gobble noises at the turkeys. The ultimate compliment was when they gobbled back.
On that particular morning, a grey heron had chanced to land in the wrong pond, the little one close to the house, which was off limits because it contained large koi, which Sam and Delta had actually spent money on. Despite Delta’s objections, Cubby, the Patriot’s food critic and fashion editor, Sam, the editor-in-chief, op-ed editor and cartoonist, and Ronnie Talbot, the PhotoShop guru, went instantly into battle mode. It was a scenario which had played out before.
In slow motion, Sam slid the window up closest to the pond and gestured like a general as Cubby fished around in the bin next to the fax machine where they kept the skyrockets. Like a well-seasoned soldier, Ronnie assembled the rocket launcher which they’d fabricated from two cardboard mailing tubes and the parts off a plastic bottle. Within seconds Sam located the heron in the crosshairs, which Ronnie had made from paper clips and a toilet paper tube.
“Try aiming a little higher,” Ronnie whispered. “You tend to shoot low.”
“I know,” Sam said, adjusting his fingers on the plastic bottle rocket grips.
“Last time you got the Chrysler,” Delta said. “There’s a scorch mark on the side-view mirror.”
“It’ll come off with 409,” Sam said, gesturing for someone to light the fuse behind him. Ronnie lit it with the tip of his cigarette and backed away. And then they all backed away. A half-second later there was a deafening ROOORURSH! Grey smoke gushed across the room as the projectile rocketed out the window and began a spiraling arch down toward the koi pond. It was a photographic moment that would have done CNN proud.
The heron seemed familiar with the sound and was already flapping wildly, trying to gain altitude as the rocket exploded in fireballs of red and gold. Frogs jumped. The marsh grasses on the opposite bank caught fire, and Sam, Cubby, and Ronnie high-fived in the middle of what was now a completely smoke-filled room.
Delta peered out the window watching the heron trying to negotiate up through the smoke, oaks, and maples. It seemed confused and barely made it into clear air space. “I should turn you three into the SPCA,” she said, her voice half-serious.
“What about the koi?” Sam protested. “If we hadn’t taken action, one of those sweet pregnant mommy koi would have been eviscerated on the pointy bill of that bird, her eggs drizzling helplessly down her derriere. Where’s your empathy?”
“You are so full of crap,” Delta said.
Sam looked at her, his eyes genuinely disappointed. “Nice talk for the…God Editor of The Carver’s Mill Patriot.”
Cubby opened his mouth to speak, but then thought the better of it. “You’d asked me to remind you about the time. I have most of the ads roughed out. We have about four-plus pages’ worth. I can stretch it to five if I have to, but I still don’t have anything from you or Delta. I can only do so much by myself.”
Delta shrugged at Cubby as if to say, I’m supposed to function on Cubby time? “How many actual words do you need?” she said instead.
This was an old battle and Cubby weighed out how far he could go without truly annoying the boss’s wife as well as the gal who wrote his paycheck every week. “What I really need is twenty column-inches. More if you can.”
“Column-inches does not compute,” Delta said.
Cubby gave one of his gay patient smirks and sighed. “Three pages single-space of your handwriting should do it. But if you can pump it up a little…”
Considering that the original purpose of the top floor of the barn had been to house five hundred bales of Pennsylvania hay, a delicate and peculiar balance of power had come to be at the Patriot. Although Sam was the obvious boss, with his name emblazoned at the top of the Patriot’s masthead, it could be argued that it was Delta who really ran the show. This was partly because she wrote all the checks and handled all the paperwork, and partly because, when the chips fell, she was the one who managed Sam, or at least steered him in the direction he needed to go.
Then there was Cubby, who was much better at chiding people and getting things done on a moment-by-moment basis.
Ronnie was at the bottom of the pecking-order and seemed quite happy to be there. At that particular moment, he was engrossed at the computer, cleaning up Sam’s cartoon for the next edition. PhotoShop was his weapon of choice and he could make anything look like anything with a few swipes of a mouse. In Ronnie’s world, chickens drove tractors and drank tequila. Cows sprouted fangs and dragon’s wings. Skinny people could instantly become whales and the dead were easily resurrected and sentenced to walk the earth once more.
This morning, however, Ronnie’s task was more difficult. He was trying to make one of Sam’s cartoons funnier than it had any hope of becoming. It was a sight-gag of a TV quiz show. The contestant on the left was Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair with oxygen tanks and tubes going everywhere. On the other side was The Rain Man, who seemed preoccupied with counting the hairs on his knuckles. Between them squatted a giant fishbowl filled with jelly beans. The moderator’s line was: “And now…for thirty-four trillion dollars…How many jelly beans?” On the left side of the cartoon, Hawking leaned into the microphone and mumbled, “Trebek! You son of a bitch!”
“When ya got a minute, boss,” Ronnie called behind him.
From the far side of the room, Sam was over like the proverbial rifle bullet, standing behind Ronnie and trying to make sense of the computer screen. There were so many computer windows open and shoved around, that it resembled his own desk. “You’re the only person on the planet who can have a messy computer monitor,” Sam said.
Ronnie clicked away some windows and stared at the screen awaiting Sam’s editorializing.
“Like I always tell you,” Sam said, “it’s a shame that to tell a good joke, you have to dissect it. But that’s part of the deal. I think we’re ninety-percent there. It needs some more shading and I think the ‘You son of a bitch’ is a little too sharp. Let’s make it more tentative. How ‘bout, ‘You son of a…’”
As he spoke, Ronnie erased words and began adding shadows.
Delta quietly joined Sam at the computer. “This is going to need vetting,” she said under her breath.
“It’s a cartoon,” Sam said.
“Two weeks after this comes out, we’ll be getting three registered letters: one from Mr. Hawking’s attorney, one from Alex Trebek’s, and the third one from either Dustin Hoffman or the Rain Man. Take your pick.”
Ronnie’s fingers drummed softly on the keyboard. He already knew what the outcome was going to be. “Ya know, I could just save this for now.”
Sam turned Delta around and glared at her. “Whatever happened to my sweet, innocent, and charming lovely wife?”
“You should thank me. We just dodged a bullet…three bullets as a matter of fact. Remember your Kubota cartoon?” She looked into Sam’s eyes and batted hers.
Sam nodded. “Okay, done. But you’re gonna have to write another…five cubic megatons of your God column to make up for it.”
At that exact moment, the left lens of Sam’s eyeglasses chose to pop out of its frame. It fell into Ronnie’s curly oily hair and lay there like a glass egg in a hallucinogenic nest. Sam delicately picked it out and gazed at it. “Is there an autoclave around here?” He looked at Delta. “So much for my four-hundred dollar Porsche Carrera eyeglass frames.”
Delta looked at him. “But they make you look…”
Sam jerked up his hand like a cop. “Choose your next words carefully, my love.”
Delta gave her first smile of the day. Her smiles, though rare, said a lot. “Dapper.”
“Dapper,” Sam repeated. “Thank you so very much. I can always count on you to bolster my already flagging and malnourished ego.”
Across the room, Cubby shrieked in histrionic laughter.
“And a little less frolicking from the fruitcake section,” Sam said. “You, my friend, could be replaced by a…” He hesitated, trying to think of something witty.
“Oh, I love it when you start a joke, and can’t finish it,” Cubby called from behind his partition.
Sam jammed what was left of his eyeglasses into his shirt pocket. “And on that happy note, I’m heading on over to Mark’s and see if he can pop this lens back in. With just one lens, I feel like I just toked-up.”
Carver’s Mill wasn’t so much a town as an area, and a wealthy and eclectic little area at that. Set in Bucks County, PA, known for its writers, musicians, and artists, Carver’s Mill was a crucible, throwing the newly wealthy up against the locals, whose wealth had come from owning the land before it was valuable.
To add to the eclecticism, it was only ten minutes from New Hope, a historically powerful magnet for people who couldn’t get along in the other forty-nine states. It made for interesting fender benders and small talk in the Friday-night lines at Wa-Wa and Acme.
Fortunately for Sam, his modest ten-acre hunk of scenic BucksCounty was close to everything, but hidden away in a small forest that the rest of the world had forgotten. If you blinked, you missed the turn off, and Sam had made sure it stayed that way.
As the crow flies, Mark Sundstrom’s eyeglass shop, which he had cleverly named, The Eyes Have It! was only a mile from Sam’s house. But as the car drove, it took twelve minutes to get there. Sam idled into the narrow parking space and slammed the door behind him.
He decided he’d wear the wounded Porsche Carrera’s into the shop and see how long it took Mark to notice what was wrong.
At the counter, Sam stood at attention, waiting for Mark to come out of his little cubicle. When he finally got off the phone and did come out, Sam was still standing at attention. “What’s wrong with this picture?” Sam asked, his voice even testier than usual.
Mark grinned. “Well, in the first place, where’s Delta? I thought you two were joined at the hip, and you know how I love to see Delta.”
Sam blinked at him through the glasses. “I could, of course, kill you right where you stand.”
“Okay, let’s see now… What else? Oops… It’s Sam the Cyclops. Those aren’t your Carrera’s are they?” Mark came out from behind the counter, cleaning his own glasses to get a better look. “Uh oh,” he said upon closer inspection.
Sam took the glasses off and handed them to Mark. “Ya know, if this was actually a Porsche, I’d be leaving a trail of expensive little parts behind me.”
Mark ignored the comment.
“Remember those first frames I brought in?”
Mark made a face. “Yes, the ones you got at the flea market. You looked like Bozo the Clown.”
“Yeah but… The point being, they never broke. Delta finally destroyed them. I have a feeling it was on purpose.”
“That’s true love, Sam. She only wants the best for you.”
“Yeah, right. Can you fix ‘em while I wait?”
“For you, my friend, anything.”
“And can you put a little Loctite on the screw? This is the third time this month.”
“I can. It might void your Porsche warranty though.” He waited for the laugh but none was forthcoming. “That’s a joke, Sam.” In less time than it had taken to banter, Mark had the lens back in its frame and the glasses rubbed down with the special cloth he kept in his shirt pocket. “Here— now you can see the nose hairs on gnats. Or, if Delta’s wearing one of those skimpy semi-transparent blouses…”
“Ya know, you really push it right to the limit, don’t you?”
Mark raised his eyebrows. “Moi?”
“I just might have to change my…” He hesitated a moment, thinking. “I can never get it straight. You’re an actual doctor, right? You don’t just rook people, selling expensive frames.”
“That’s right, Sam. I rook them at both ends, with the frames and with the check-up. Speaking of which, how long has it been?”
Sam waved him away.
“Is your eyesight okay? You can see everything clearly, near and far? Nothing’s shifted?”
Sam wrinkled his nose. “Hard to tell. Lately everything’s blurry. I have a blurry life.”
“It’ll take ten minutes, fifteen max. I promise. Did you know that your eyes use up thirty percent of your energy?”
Sam stopped to consider. “Fifteen minutes, and then I walk. I’m holding you to it.”
Inside the darkened cubicle where Dr. Mark Sundstrom did his examinations, his demeanor changed fractionally. His voice became softer and more reasonable. The joking dropped to zero.
“When we’re in here,” Sam said, “it sounds like your I.Q. is higher, maybe fifty points or so. I think I like you better in here.”
“I’m not sure how to take that,” Mark said, his demeanor preoccupied now. He flicked off the overhead lights and turned on a projector. “I guess it depends on what the baseline is. You ready?”
“Does it matter if I cheat?”
“You’re only cheating yourself, Sam. A month from now, you’ll just be coming in for another prescription.”
Sam read off eight minutes’ worth of glowing alphabet soup. C, Z, E, U, T, F, M s. It was followed up with the usual, “Does the right or left look clearer? …How ‘bout now? What about this?” Sam tried to keep up.
Eventually Mark flipped on the lights. “Your distance vision has deteriorated a little, just a point though. Do you notice the stop signs looking a little fuzzy?”
“I don’t know. Maybe,” Sam admitted.
Mark turned off the screen. “It’s your call. You’re not dangerous or anything. If you find yourself getting headaches though, you might consider getting some new lenses.”
“Porsche lenses of course,”
Mark allowed himself a smile. “Actually, they just make the frames. Or if you want, Lamborghini is coming out with frames…much better than Porsche. You’ll be able to read your editorials in a flash.”
“That’s the goal at the Patriot,” Sam said. “Screw the accuracy. We want speed!”
Mark wheeled out a complicated-looking device that emitted a purple light. “And now, here’s the easy part. All you have to do is look straight ahead, shut up, and don’t move your eye, okay?”
Up close, Sam could smell Mark’s breath. He’d been drinking Starbuck’s coffee recently, one of those creamy coffees with a complicated name. “How are we doing?” Sam asked.
Mark said nothing. “Okay. Now the other eye. Let’s try it again.”
“How are we doing?”
“Patience, my friend.” Mark stood up and retrieved a small digital camera from the shelf. He snapped it onto the back end of the apparatus. “I just want to get a better picture,” he said and redid the test, this time shooting digital images of both eyes. When it was done, he turned on the lights and they both blinked at the brightness.
Mark looked at his old friend and frowned. “Okay…” He hesitated another moment. “Look, I know you way too well, Sam. It’s not a big deal, but knowing you, if I say anything at all, you’re gonna blow it out of proportion.”
“Okay, now, see what I mean? I want you to stop that. Seriously.” Mark hesitated again, trying to choose his words carefully.
“You’re making me nervous by being careful,” Sam said. “Just say what you’re gonna say.”
“Okay. It’s probably nothing, but when I checked your eyes, your blood vessels were engorged. I took a look at your optic nerve head which comes into the back of the eye from the brain. It’s supposed to have a little depression in the center. Yours is a little swollen. It’s actually convex, not concave. It’s called papilledema or choked disk. Not a big deal, but you should get it looked at.”
“So what does that mean? Am I’m going blind?”
“No. Actually your eyes are fine.”
“It’s a symptom of pressure on the optic nerve. It’s probably nothing, but there are a couple of things that it could be, and we both need to know what’s going on back there. I tell you what. I’m going to call over to DoylestownHospital…only because I know how you go straight past rational to totally insane.”
Sam’s eyes had changed slightly. “Yeah, okay. Let’s call over to Doylestown,” he repeated. But then his eyes returned to their old nasty look. “Okay then… Since you’re a real doctor, you’ve got that confidentiality thing, right?”
“That’s right. And I see where you’re going. Delta…the Christian Science… She will hear, absolutely nothing from me. I promise.”