For the entire trip from Quincy, Massachusetts to Logan International, not a word was spoken between my father and me. Dad listened as usual to the Dow Jones Report on a special station that only seven-series BMWs can hear. He pulled into the departure area, popped the trunk, and hopped out quickly, lest we actually say something to each other—one last chance to inflict a wound or two.
He retrieved my duffel bag from the trunk, then he threw it at me, knowing I’d boggle the catch. I cooperated, of course. The bag bounced off my fingers and wedged-in under the tailpipe. I crawled beneath the bumper to drag it out. Way to go, Dad.
“Well… Good luck, Sport,” my father said.
“Thank you, Sir,” I replied.
Sport is a placeholder word my father uses when we’re in mixed company and he doesn’t want to say: dumb ass, douche bag, or, God forbid, Tom, which is my name. Of course, the corollary to all this is: Sir is my placeholder for: you sonofabitch.
“You want me to call when I get to Uncle Jerry’s?” I asked.
My father smiled that old familiar rictus grin of his, the one where his teeth look like piano keys, though his eyes remain fixed. “That’s a joke, right?” he said.
“I guess so,” I replied. As bad as it was with my father (my mother was smart, by the way; she left both of us when I was eight), and despite the fact that I was used to being thrown out of the house, it still stung. “Well, I guess this is it, then,” I said, assuming we’d have the obligatory guy-to-guy slap on the back. Nope, not that either. Dad stood there one last frozen moment, smiling and appraising. It looked like he was trying to remember exactly where he’d gone wrong in rearing me. He broke the spell with these parting words, “Well, I’m double-parked.”
I looked at the car. He’d left his flashers on to count off the seconds that he’d have to stand there. “Well, try not to fuck-up too bad,” he said, opening the car door. This was probably as close as he was able to come to an affectionate adieu.
“Words to live by,” I said as I watched Dad’s big silver Bimmer slither out into traffic. He cut in front of a Yellow Cab, just about got rammed, flipped off the cabbie, and then disappeared into the mist. Vintage Dadness.
The flight from Logan to Newark was uneventful, and strange as this may sound, I found myself thinking about my father. I envisioned him returning to the house, grinning and gleefully rubbing his hands together like some Dickensian scoundrel, planning what fun he would have now that he had the house to himself again. Fuck you very much.
In Newark, I ran into a snag. My immediate goal was to find the Falcon Air-Taxi Service, which supposedly connects NewarkAirport to scenic Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Apparently, Falcon Air isn’t large enough to rate an actual kiosk inside the terminal and so I ended up doing two frantic laps around the building until I finally stopped at a Hertz booth and asked the guy where the hell Falcon Air was. It was like something out of a Woody Allen movie. The guy at the counter went right to the histrionics. “You’re actually going to fly Falcon Air?” he gasped/simpered/giggled.
“That’s the plan,” I replied.
“Well… Good luck! Hope you’ve got insurance!”
“Thanks,” I said and I glared deeply at him.
I discovered that Falcon Air’s headquarters was actually on the flight line, behind a row of Dumpsters, to be specific. I found a door labeled “authorized personnel only” and stepped outside into an ocean of turbulence that smelled of jet fuel and threatened to deafen me. I jammed my fingers in my ears as a 767 waddled by and I felt as if any moment someone with a badge and a yellow slicker was going to run over and scream, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
Beats the crap outta me! Where’s Fucking Falcon Air? I was going to reply. But no one yelled, and in my wandering, I finally spied an aluminum shed that was lurking behind a crooked row of blue Dumpsters. Falcon Air was stenciled in black upon an old fuselage, while six yellow puddle-jumpers were cinched down to the macadam, presumably so that they wouldn’t blow away in the event that some real airplane went by.
I stepped into the shed, put down my attaché, and was informed that Barney, who was the pilot du jour, would be with me any minute. “Barney’s getting a doughnut,” the guy explained, as if that should put my mind at ease. I suppose doughnuts are the accepted brain food for the complex task of avoiding what were probably seventy or eighty airliners jockeying above my head. Not to sweat.
I sauntered down the row and found #3 stenciled in white on the macadam. I waited. Minutes ticked by and finally a heavy-set man in grimy oil-stained khakis and a Hawaiian shirt sauntered up from behind the Dumpsters. Judging by his nose, he had either been snorting cocaine or eating a powdered doughnut. I was hoping for the latter, of course.
“Nice to meet you, Barney,” I said sticking my hand out, and smiling cheerfully. My logic here was that it was probably going to be a long trip and there’d only be the two of us—something to do with the instinct to survive. He looked at my hand, trying to figure out what was going on, and then extended his hand. His handshake was surprisingly limp. Not gay limp exactly, just limp-limp. It was like shaking hands with the Pillsbury Doughboy.
When we climbed in, the airplane bobbed up and down like we were getting in a rowboat. Barney slammed the door and it popped back open. He slammed it again and then the window popped open. My GOD! How many omens was it going to take to abort this flight? He reached over and secured it as if he did this sort of thing every day.
I won’t bore you with the gory details of how we actually got up in the air. Suffice it to say, planes whose accent color is silver duct tape, carry a somewhat lower priority than, say a 747. And I hereby proclaim that I will never again fly anything with fewer than four engines or more than 20% duct tape.
The ride across New Jersey was bouncy and noisy. When I looked down at the highways, it seemed as if the cars were going faster than we were. Then I saw the Delaware River reflecting silver and gray as we drifted into Pennsylvania. In the sunlight the waves looked like a million trout swimming in perfect harmony. Immediately afterward, we began our descent toward DoylestownAirport. That has such a nice ring to it: descending to DoylestownAirport. In reality, it felt as if God were clobbering us with huge invisible pillows.
“Dat’s just a little turbulence,” Barney explained. Bullshit, Barney! That’s God and He’s pissed off…most likely at you!
On the last turn, just as we were lining up with the runway, the plastic window decided to fly open once again. Barney yanked it shut with one hand while attempting to keep the aircraft from crashing with the other. He looked back and asked me to help hold the window shut. And since I didn’t particularly want to die at that moment, I did so, although I was recalculating his tip way down from my customary 18 percent. We landed, not once, not twice, but three times, if you want to call ‘impacting-the-ground’ landing.
After an anticlimactic taxi back to the airport, I spied my uncle through the yellowed plastic window. He was waving madly at me from behind a chain-link fence. It was such an extreme juxtaposition from the icy send-off my father had given me that it looked goofy, as if my uncle were doing calisthenics, or maybe Tai chi. Not wanting to appear ungracious and being utterly at his mercy, I waved back with equal alacrity.
While my father is the president of a large bank in Boston, my Uncle Jerry is, well, I don’t want to sound like any more of a pompous snot-ass (Dad’s terms) than I already am. But in point of truth, my Uncle Jerry drives an automobile whose primary patina is rust, while a bent coat hanger serves to bring in the radio stations. He lives in a bungalow and sells VacuumKing vacuum cleaners to put food and beer on the table. At least he did four years ago when I first visited him. My recollections are a bit sketchy. He was, or is, a rather cheerful, jolly fellow, and beefy as I remember. To my father’s starched-collar, six-foot four-inch frame, Uncle Jerry had to be everything of five-six, though judging by his refrigerator-like chest and his hairy hands and arms, there’s no doubt about would win a fight between them.
“Heyyy Uncle Jerry!” I yelled, trying to forget every polysyllabic word I knew. I didn’t have time to put down my bag. Uncle Jerry picked me up, bag and all. He squeezed me as if he were a bear, and I was a paper bag full of pork chops. For a moment, we just looked at each other with me wavering in the air, unable to breathe, and him grinning up at me, red-faced and sweating.
“How’s my bestest-little-whacko nephew in the universe?” he asked. I could tell from his eyes that this was intended as some form of compliment.
“Fine,” I replied, though the sheer number of mistakes he had made in that one sentence was astonishing. For one thing, I am a good six inches taller than he is; so little whacko seems hardly appropriate. Secondly, I’m his only little whacko nephew. Bestest…well, not everyone was fortunate enough to go to an expensive prep school and nearly Ivy League college, and so we’ll skip that one. And the whacko part. Well, that’s just ludicrous.
When he set me back down, we did a little sparing and then he insisted on carrying my duffel bag to the car for me. I would have preferred carrying it myself. It’s not like I’m Prince Charles or anything. I’m just a regular guy.
“You got rid of the Dodge,” I said, noticing the lack of rust and coat hanger.
“Yeah,” my uncle agreed, “Rosie finally bit the big one.”
“Sorry to hear.”
“Yeah, well. I took her in to Ziggy’s to have her inspected, and she never came out. Ziggy said her body had rusted completely off the frame, sorta like a cancer. He said that one day I woulda hit the brakes and WHAM, I’d be sittin’ on the concrete and watchin’ Rosie in the rearview.’”
“I didn’t know they could do that,” I answered, cramming my duffel bag in the back seat. There were white cardboard boxes everywhere all with VacuumKing Corp. printed on them in blue letters, and a distinctive plastic/metal smell of the new models, which I remembered from last time.
I assumed we were going to go straight back to Uncle Jerry’s house, but we didn’t. We drove down Route 202 instead, with my uncle describing in great detail the sales he had made that week. The way he explained it, it seemed like most of his sales were tied in some way to his performance in the sack rather than to the sucking power of the VacuumKing. This set me to wondering exactly what the criteria were for being a successful door-to-door salesman.
“I figured you’re hungry,” Uncle Jerry said, pulling into a space behind an old Victorian house. The sign out front was carved in gleaming gold filigree, The Brittany Inn. I didn’t remember it. The last time I had visited Uncle Jerry we had gone to a sleazy little bar called, Sammy’s, or Sammy’s Place, or something with Sammy in it.
Stepping inside, I inhaled the stale beer and frying oil mixed with the distinctive aroma of early American urinal. For a second, I thought I was back at Delta Sig. I sniffed again. “Sammy’s Place?”
Uncle Jerry was still holding the door. “You got it,” he grinned. “Only the name’s been changed to protect the innocent. That and the prices went up.”
It was dark inside, like every other bar in the universe. Brailing my way behind my uncle, my feet kept crunching on things…crunchy things. “Cockroaches?” I whispered with foggy memories of Sammy’s beginning to reappear in my mind.
“Naah. Peanut shells,” Uncle Jerry corrected.
We plopped down on worn burgundy leatherette stools and I looked around. I don’t know who decided that duck decoys and road signs are the ne plus ultra for classing-up bars. Personally, I prefer the satisfying buzz and flicker of an old-fashioned beer sign. It’s more honest. What are they selling…ducks? No, beer.
Behind an outrageously carved wooden bar that looked like it should be playing honky-tonk music, stood a girl…woman? (I’ve always been bad at judging ages) in a skin-tight skirt and a revealing white silk blouse. She was filling mugs, two at a time, and in between, she was punching numbers into a little computer strapped on her hip. Upon closer inspection, she appeared pretty, though quite pale, like a creature that never sees the light of day. In the dim light she looked like a bedraggled anorexic chicken. She dealt out two coasters then assumed her position, leaning on one hip. “What can I get you gentlemen?” she asked without looking at either of us.
“A beer or a kiss,” my uncle replied. It sounded like something he said often.
Way to go, Uncle Jerry! You’d have done great at Delta Sig!
Our anorexic chicken-waitress didn’t even bother to look up, but the disdain on her face was obvious. The skin between her penciled-in eyebrows was all pinched together. This was a tight-ass if ever there was one. “We have Michelob, Heineken, and Amstel Lite,” she said.
“I’ll have a Heiny,” Uncle Jerry said, “and one of those big taco thingies.”
“Nacho royale,” the waitress corrected. I think the Heiny put her off a little. But to show my uncle that my heart was in the right place, I bellied up and ordered a Heiny as well. The effect was instantaneous. Ms. Chicken legs realized she was dealing with not one, but two knuckle draggers. C’est la vie. Then just as she was disappearing into the kitchen, another woman bustled through the swinging doors, quite the opposite of the first. This one was bosomy and resembled a poster of Sophia Loren, only with more mascara, more hair, and much more bosom. She looked over and sang out, “Jerrrry!” as if it were some kind of mating call.
“Baaaby!” Uncle Jerry returned in the same key, and in a swirl of silk and the strong scent of Shalimar, she floated over. She stopped to appraise my uncle, just out of range of his bear-like grip. It looked like something out of West Side Story only with Maria’s mother and Tony’s father playing the parts. Before I could pop another peanut, they had morphed together and were slow-dancing. The music was old and blaring and if they hadn’t had their clothes on, I swear they’d have been making babies.
Hold me, hold me, never let me go until you’ve told me told me.
What I want to know and then just hold me, hold me… dum dee dum dee dum….
Out of respect and a certain amount of embarrassment, I looked away. Beside the kitchen doors, chicken gal was watching it all. I gave a surreptitious shrug in her direction to distance myself from the whole thing, but to no avail. The Heiny had permanently typecast me, correctly so, I suppose.
The next thing I knew, Uncle Jerry was crooning in the woman’s ear and caressing her backside as if he were buying musk melons at Genuardis. They swayed together with Uncle Jerry’s hand firmly planted on her ass. I guess they knew each other pretty well.
“Teresa,” my uncle said, finally with sleepy eyes and lipstick all over the side of his face, “I want you to meet my nephew, Tom Bacon. Tommy’s smart as a whip. He’s what ya call, encyclopedia smart. He’s also a wise-ass,” he said with no animosity. It was a little strange to have the totality of my existence summed up so succinctly in one sentence. “But then…who isn’t?” he asked with equal grace. “What do you think? Ain’t he a looker?”
As if by some offstage cue, Teresa Tinari began to float closer to me. With her swirl of scarves it reminded me of those jellyfish that float innocuously in the ocean, spineless and beautiful, only to sting their prey from out of nowhere. She approached closer. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my uncle watching and grinning, and then without any warning, her mouth locked down upon mine with the softest lips I have ever felt. It only lasted a moment but then—Holy crap! What the hell was that? Her tongue? I had just been Frenched by Uncle Jerry’s girlfriend…mixed emotions to say the least. It felt like my mother was kissing me, from what I remember of her, but the tongue was definitely something new, particularly from someone at least twice my age. It wasn’t bad actually, just wet and soft and gushy, though gushy in a nice way. Hard to explain. She pulled back, grinning from ear to ear, and then she pulled me in again, though this time the target wasn’t her mouth, but her breasts. For a frantic moment it was impossible to breathe, just lots of breast in my face, and up my nose in the smell of Shalimar and the taste of sweat. I guess there are worse ways you can go. When she finally released me, she giggled. “You’re a chip off the old block, aren’t you?” I was about to answer but she said, “Naughty boy, you should never French on your first kiss. That is very, very…”
I remember blubbering something. “But…but…” I think I said, but it was too late.
“Just say, nice to meet you, Mrs. Tinari,” my uncle said, and idiot that I am, I repeated it.
The next time she appeared, Mrs. Tinari had a large plate perched on her fingertips balanced against two mugs in her other hand. She put them down and seemed now to be ignoring my uncle completely. She shoved a beer in my direction, chose a large perfect nacho, loaded it up with guacamole, and began steering it toward my mouth. I’ve only really seen this technique on baby food commercials, and I was in quandary whether it was more childish to open my mouth or keep it closed. At the last moment, my mouth betrayed me. Hangar number three—open wide.
“Do you like to eat?” she asked as I tried to swallow a mound of guacamole as large as a golf ball. (I nodded.) “That’s good,” she continued. “A man should have big appetites, big HUGE appetites.” All I could see right then was the image of my uncle and this woman thrashing around on a bed, feathers flying, snorting, groping, tits and asses…body fluids everywhere. I knew my uncle was up to the task. I wasn’t so sure about myself.
“So. What are you?” she asked, coming right to the point.
“What am I?”
“You still in school?”
I told her that I had just graduated from Franklin and MarshallCollege (magna cum).
“It’s out in Lancaster,” I added, “mostly pre-med or pre-law.”
“Oooooh. So I’m talking to a future doctor?”
I had to think for a moment. This would have been an easy blow-off, but there was something about having Uncle Jerry close by that was compelling me to tell the truth. “Not really,” I replied. “I didn’t do so hot in P-chem.” Actually, I didn’t do that well in any chemistry, which is kind of strange. By all rights I should be really good at chemistry and biology.
“I see. Soooo…a lawyer?”
I could feel her eyes focusing in on me. I kept my head down and stared at the shrinking mound of guacamole. “Actually I did pretty well in the pre-law courses.”
I smiled. “Extremely well, as a matter of fact. But…I’m afraid I don’t have enough of the killer instinct to be a lawyer. I also didn’t have what you’d call scintillating scores on the L-Sats. You’d think acing-out prelaw would guarantee you a good L-Sat.”
“I see. Sooo then… What do you do? What are you good at?”
I’m not accustomed to being asked such pointed questions…only from Dad, and I’m always on the alert for that. The profs at F&M and at prep school were always so politely oblique with those kinds of questions. Thomas, do you feel yourself more in resonance with the arts or the sciences?
“Well, if pressed to the wall, I’d have to say I like them equally,” I would reply and that always seemed to be an acceptable answer. Questions like, “What do you do? What are you good at?” seemed crass by comparison. Too many nacho vapors were wafting in amongst the peanut shells. “The thing I really like to do is draw cartoons,” I said. A couple of heartbeats went by. No one ever knows what to say. I wouldn’t know what to say either. What kind of pencils do you use? Do you like Snoopy or Garfield better?
“Oh,” she said. “You got any on you?”
I was licking my lips, thinking of a witty retort when a thought occurred to me. I withdrew my gold Cross-pen that my father had given me several Christmases ago as a stocking stuffer, and began inking in something that was still drifting around in my mind. My modus operandi in my cartooning is heavily focused on scale…very small scale to be precise, with an entire series fitting very neatly on a small corner of a page. A magnifying glass is de rigueur, though I have to say with a modicum of pride, that I can accomplish these little beauties without so much as a squint. I finished the sketch and pushed it across the bar.
“I can’t see anything,” Mrs. Tinari said squinting and trying to hold the corner of the napkin close to the candle before us. My uncle huddled in, put on his glasses, and couldn’t read it either. I was about to say, “That’s the point!” when Mrs. Tinari slipped on her reading glasses and set more seriously to the task of deciphering my hen-scratch. A moment later, she reared back and laughed like a longshoreman. She had seen my cartoon, a tiny little man with what looked like monstrous earmuffs, being smothered to death by a set of bodacious tatas.