Writing Calisthenics

AvatarA collection of short stories, essays, and exercises to keep my brain from rusting between larger works.

Marvin's Emergency

(Sorry for the absence, but I've been working on this guy for a couple months now.  I wanted to let this stew for a while, but I'd like comments and reviews.)


Long before the age of ten, Marvin knew he was supposed to feel awkward about searching through Tiger Beat in the Osco magazine stand, and he did.  As surreptitiously as any chunky ten year old with a right leg shorter than the left could be, he had walked by the rack: first in one direction to announce his presence to the magazines gathered there, and then again in the other with a furtive glance that would have said to all but the most astute observer, "Oh, hi.  I didn't see you there."
    The look was quick, but studied.  Osco was just over a mile from his house and as Marvin clumped down the sidewalk, past the store window reflections of a short boy dressed in husky black jeans and a polyester red shirt and that one special shoe with a sole like a rubber loaf of bread, he had practiced.  Marvin had a mental list of stores he'd pass on the way: Martinelli's Grocery, Industrial Hardware, Mr. Grecko's shoe repair, the barber shop, Rite Round record store.  He had picked a very specific object from each of their shop windows to act as a surrogate.  Since the thing he'd be looking for on the cover of Tiger Beat could appear in any number of forms, Marvin had made some rules for this game. 
    The items he chose would have to be specific enough to be instantly recognizable: it was a real face he was looking for after all.  The problem was, in the way of fan magazines throughout time, that face might show up in some helpful, recognizable context or it might be part of a fuzzy floating head, cut from a stock studio shot by an overworked intern with unsteady hands.  The items he chose would have to be ambiguous enough to represent the endless combinations he would have to deal with.  It occurred to Marvin that the searching part of such an exercise might be good practice for a fireman hunting for a small boy trapped in a collapsing warehouse with nothing but a description of the boy's clothing to guide him.  The dispassionate coolness he needed to maintain seemed useful only if the rescue was going to appear on TV.

    At Martinelli's the object was the Today's Special sign, freshly painted on white butcher paper that wrinkled and pulped under the bright green and red tempera paint.  It was the first store on his way, and as Marvin clip-clumped by, it was clear he had work to do.  His eyes latched onto the sign and his head pivoted like someone who was very, very serious about farm-fresh eggs at .50¢ a dozen.  He had been so successful in transferring his affections to his practice mark that he felt the same rush of inappropriate joy at the recognition of Today's Special as he did catching a glimpse of the real thing.  It had pulled him like a ski rope across the sidewalk and Marvin found himself correcting his path with clumsy steps to avoid the elder Mrs. Grabowski as she left Martinelli's with her stainless steel grocery pull-cart in tow.
    "God in heaven, Melvin," she said crossing herself.  "Always such a hurry!"
    "It's Marvin, Mrs. G. You ok?"
    Before she could respond, denim jackets, bell bottoms with spotless white Puma trainers peaking out from under their spangled flare, and the unmistakable plume of wintergreen from Skoal chewing tobacco appeared just behind her.
    "Hey, why don't you watch where yer goin' butthead?"
    "Yeah, Stompy.  You blind or just stupid?"
    The double-barreled assault had come from the Martinelli boys who buzzed around Mrs. Grabowski like angry fighter planes escorting a weary cargo plane.  Their mission: to see that the fragile Mrs. Grabowski made it off their father's property without breaking a hip.
    Marvin cupped his hand, squaring it off around the imaginary radio-phone he held to his mouth.  "Kkrsssh," into his hand, radio static clearing the airwaves.  "Rampart, this is Squad 51, we've got a situation here…"
     The younger of the Martinelli boys, James, taller by a hair and slighter than Marvin would ever be cuffed him on the back of his head as the older boy spat a wad of tobacco juice at Marvin's feet; supporting fire, suppression rounds.
    "Whaddya doin' doofus?"
    "Kkrsssh.  Rampart base, looks like we might need police backup."     
    Marvin raised his hand in a stop sign to the Martinelli brothers as he spoke, and shifted his weight to the shorter of his legs so his hip stuck awkwardly in the air.  The shear officiousness of the gesture made them pause.  "Fire department business Mister, please stay back," and then to Mrs. G. who had become a spectator as her grocery trip had changed from ordinary to theater: "You sure you're all right ma'am?"
    "You are strange boy, Melvin," she reached a hand to tousle his hair, and her weathered face cracked into a smile, "but good boy."
    "Yeah, he's strange all right."   The older Martinelli boy smirked, spat another wad of tobacco juice, and gave his younger brother a nudge.  The younger took the hint, and smiled.
    "Yeah," he socked Marvin in the meat of his raised arm.  "Weirdo."
    Marvin lowered his arm and rubbed it, "Just doin' my job ma'am."
    With astonishing quickness, Mrs. Grabowski smacked the younger Martinelli's hand down like a nun with a ruler.
    "Ow." James rubbed his hand.
    "You'll be nice or no quarter!  Not for you."
    There was a shuffle and dance as Marvin moved to the side, Mrs. Grabowski started forward, and the two escorts took up their vantage point at the rear.  The trio moved in the direction Marvin's hands directed them.
    "Kkrsssh.  Rampart, this is Squad 51," he said to their backs.  "We got an all clear on that situation, copy that Rampart?" and then in a slightly lower voice, "Kkrsssh.  Roger that Squad 51.  All clear.  Rampart out."
    As if in reply, Mrs. Grabowski raised her hand, a single finger pointed skyward as she trudged home.  "An actor Melvin!  You should be on the stage I tell your mother."
    The Martinelli boys turned their heads and sneered at him.  "Yeah, ya friggin' Melvin," said the older of the pair as the younger boy raised a different finger in agreement.  Marvin's arms lowered to his sides, his shoulders slid back in their slump, and his hip rolled like the slow wake of a freighter as he turned and headed back toward Osco.
    Next to Martinelli's was a narrow door, solid wood stained dark, a porthole window through which Marvin could see the stairs leading up to the family flat.  On the cement stoop a languid cat twitched its tail and gave a non-committal squeak as Marvin leaned over to scratch its head.  This position was awkward for Marvin and he braced himself against the brick and shifted his weight to his good leg to rub the cat.  The cat suddenly stood up and hissed at him as a rock skitched across the sidewalk.  Another rock plinked off the windshield of the old Plymouth just behind him.  He straightened himself and his joints complained fifty years prematurely, and he measured the effort against the way it felt to feel the cat's fur bunched under his fingers; the same way his own belly would collect in rolls over his belt.  He turned to see Mrs. Grabowski safely across the street and the younger Martinelli at the far corner, arm poised to lob another rock, drop it and cup his hands around his mouth.
    "Leave her alone ya Melvin!"
    Marvin sighed, added this to the measure, and turned again.  His pace didn't change as a third then forth rock skitched to a stop on the street and then the sidewalk behind him.  This pattern was old and wearisome.  There would be no pursuit.  Marvin would shuffle away; the cat would lay back down, its whoring self-interest fulfilled as the younger Martinelli boy scratched and cooed and inspected.
    The day was winding up.  Sun had cracked open the eastern sky and just up the block it threatened distress in its reflection from the motionless sign that hung over the entrance to the Industrial Hardware store.  It was time to focus again.  As Marvin crossed the street the store's windows crystallized in memory and he flipped through the panes, cards in a Rolodex, searching for the his next proxy. 
    Nails. 
    The thought popped into his head with the vague precision of memory: galvanized steel shafts, flat ridged heads with a rough texture he could feel in his fillings; jumbled together in a green and white box, stark without market appeal, printed with numbers and figures for the tradesman remembered by Marvin with the clarity of misheard lyrics.  He approached, conscious of his pace, enforcing casualness with each step.  He repeated the image of the nails over and over in his mind, imagining the finite but uncountable ways the encounter could go down. 
    In the first window a display of powder blue industrial uniform shirts nearly wrecked him before he had started.  Marvin caught himself mid-pivot as the shirts filled and knelt forward to deliver a distressed baby, then climbed hand-over-hand down a rope to rescue a boy from the angry and rumbling maw of a cave on the brink of collapse.  He fought the urge to look down and compare his unsettling and translucent arms to the sinewy, Apollonian brown arms of a hero that could fill that shirt.  As quick as realization, he pulled his head back to center, and enforced the discipline of his unnatural peripheral vision.
    In a twist as cruel as it was ironic, Marvin had been born with visual acuity nearly double that of the average person.  The same genetic mechanism that had shortened his leg, set fire to each joint, weakened his heart, and occasionally made breathing as difficult as sucking through a straw, had tortured him with a set of eyes that were bombarded with the reflected light of a world that most others would have to travel twice as far to see.  He saw in excruciating detail and with an expansive field of vision a world that held him in its periphery.
    Keeping his gaze nearly straight ahead he watched the Industrial Hardware's goods flow by as his head rolled in compensation for the awkward bob of his hip.  And then, there - in the first display past the double-door entrance: nails, stacked in a neat pyramid in front of the cardboard standee of the rawhide belted Industrial Hardware man.  An involuntary smile lit up his face and a warmth spread through him that, had he broken his discipline to look at his reflection in the shop window, would have shown as a rosy blush.  He had learned from Martinelli's.  This time he caught his thoughts climbing over themselves like kittens in a box, and in the youthful but paternal voice of the emergency fireman, reminded himself that "the first thing we have to do, Marvin, is remain calm."  
    His mark spotted, his emotions under control, he surveyed the doorway before he crossed - no need to repeat Martinelli's - then looked ahead, to the side and behind.  Cars zipped by on the street and men in unbreathing polyester pants and starched short sleeve shirts hurried by, slowing as they entered Marvin's orbit, then loosening their collars and speeding up again, taking the climbing sun's threat seriously.  Marvin let his gaze wander through the rest of the three-quarters of a block that Industrial Hardware covered. He inoculated himself with the looks of pity from the passers-by, diluting their force by absorbing them in the reflection of the shop window.  He repainted each look from pity to regret, layering them with transparent fantasies that winked in and out with each new item he passed: a coiled rope, the yellow and black flashlight, a cascading aluminum ladder, a navy blue work jacket, name badges customized on the premise just for you.
    Industrial Hardware was coming to an end and Marvin gathered his attention once more.  He would have his day and his hero would be proud.   Until then, these tests, this expansion and contraction were developing just the kind of focus he imagined a rescue worker would require.
    Mr. Grecko's shoe repair shop was next.  It would be too easy, and Marvin felt heavier at the thought of it.  He tried to make it challenging, but he'd seen it from every imaginable attitude: framed in the window of his father's Oldsmobile as they shot across the street to park against traffic; screaming, crying, begging, literally dragging his feet behind him as his mother absolved herself of guilt and scraped his knees along the sidewalk, welshing on the bribe of cooperation still wet and crusting chocolate and cream on his lips; resigned, excited, hopeful, and defeated.  The corner shop was a memory of scent, indelible and precise even when unnamed: freshly tanned leathers; carnauba wax; mink oil; machine oil; rawhide strip laces; cedar and undistinguished wood; cigarette smoke aged in thick layers, a fresh cloud hovering just above head's height; the clinging, mossy smell of labor drenched sweat and old man.
    Marvin had picked out the iron black and speckled rust anvil of the child's size 8 shoe, right foot, too quickly and was surprised at the depth of his disappointment.  He missed the quickening in his belly of unexpected discovery, and felt none of the thrill of recognition.  This proxy was too heavy, parasitic, too fat like a tick fed on his difference to make the transition to an object of admiration.  It was, and forever would be nothing more than it already was. 
    He passed the open doorway and learned instinct made him hesitate before he waved.  Mr. Grecko sat just inside, his legs straddling a spindly shoe anvil fastened to the top of an ancient tree stump with bent and clutching nails.  There was genuine affection for the old man whose rheumy eyes would dampen even further during the torturous fittings that ratcheted down the leather stays of Marvin's shoes and threatened to break bone as they lifted, strapped down, curved, and forced his feet and legs towards normal.  There was never pity in those eyes, but resolve, even redemption in the punishment he'd inflict on Marvin with cruel shoes crafted by his own hand to the podiatrist's exacting specifications.
    "Morning, Mr. Grecko."
    "Who's that there?"  Mr. Grecko set down his cobbler's mallet, and tipped his thick glasses down on his nose.  He took a drag from the cigarette that rarely left his hand and raised the other, tanned and inflexible like a hide over his brow.  He looked up and for a moment felt the expectant thrill of one who believes in miracles as his own boy, grown down to ten or eleven from his twenty-seven years appeared in silhouette at his door.  Disappointment turned to annoyance turned to recognition turned to thrill again, now muted somewhat with the elasticity of substitution.
    "Who is that?  Is that my Marvin?"
    "Yeah.  It's me Mr. Grecko." 
    The old man's face crinkled into a smile, spare, as if a closely guarded secret.  "Out on another rescue mission, m'boy?  C'mon in, come 'ere, come 'ere, come 'ere."  He waved him in, leaned over, and produced a jar of candy, beckoning a wary cat to a saucer of milk.  "Mary Jane?"
    Seasons, not economy, dictated the contents of the glass jar under the sales counter (an embarrassment of rough cut pine, piebald stained with brown shoe polish and the same fat nails that held stump to anvil, bent in the same way, curled like viper's teeth, threatening loose clothes.)  Good 'n Plentys like fall days would start crisply sweet and end with the surprising and pleasant strength of licorice.  Charleston Chews through the crispest days of winter where they chilled to a snap in the glass jar that spent store hours adrift in the snow piled in the entranceway.  February was candy hearts.  Spring brought unpredictable jelly beans by the handful, booby-trapped with dreadful purple and wintergreen.  Early summer was fruit jellies, Swedish fish, Dots, and juju-bees.  But the sweltering days of city summer were Mary Janes: sweet, salty, and sticky in a way that made it difficult to talk.
    "Thanks."  Marvin rocked his way into the store.  Once past the threshold he felt a resigned and cautious happiness, as if his voluntary entrance was a confession that would make the inevitable sentence lighter.
    "Come 'ere boy,"  Mr. Grecko pulled over a steel and plastic chair with a rabbit's tail of stuffing peeking out of a crack of shiny green vinyl that pinched the back of your legs as you stood up.  "Have a sit down.  Lemme see your shoes."
    Marvin threw the wrapper from the Mary Jane onto the pile with the rest that formed an orbit around the stump, and popped the candy in his mouth.  He sat down and chewed.
    "Lemme see, lemme see."  He took a drag of his cigarette and laid it in one of the charred notches that circled the stump like the petals of a dying daisy.  Mr. Grecko turned in his seat and Marvin lifted his right foot into his lap.  There was tenderness and affection and ownership in the way he turned Marvin's foot from side to side, rubbed the leather, tugged at the laces, examined the platform sole.  It was never clear if Marvin was its object or the shoe.
    "You been takin' good care," Mr. Grecko's voice was as gravelly and flat as the rocks he picked from the sole of the shoe.  Marvin responded to the question and the compliment.
    "Yup."
    Mr. Grecko reached behind him and dragged around a brown steel tackle box.  It left a trail as it parted cigarette butts and ashes, leather scraps, thread, and candy wrappers.  It seemed to Marvin that the entire store was arranged in an orbit around the gaunt little man.  Marvin was Haley's comet, returning periodically, reluctantly bending to his pull, gathering his energies before sling-shotting on his way.  Mr. Grecko pulled a blackened cloth, a tin of polish, and a horsehair brush from the tackle box.
    "Sit with me for a minute, won't you boy?"  He took a drag from his cigarette and brushed street and dirt clumps from the shoe.  "Can't have my fireman flunking inspection for dirty shoes, can we?"
    The firm hold of Mr. Grecko's hand, the brush pressing and tickling through the leather shrunk the radius of his orbit.
    "You heard from Lawrence, Mr. G?"
    The brush strokes got faster, and then stopped altogether.  Mr. Grecko picked up the cloth and with fumbling, yellowed fingers, pried loose the lid of the tin of polish.  He daubed the cloth in the inky wax and rubbed in slow, intentional circles.
    "I got a card.  Father's Day, it was."
    "That's nice of him."  Marvin chewed in silence for minute as Mr. Grecko rubbed.  "Where'd he get that card?  They got a store or something there?"
    Mr. Grecko stopped rubbing and looked out the window.  He kept the store open every day in some clumsy penance for his son, and as a welcome excuse to avoid the embarrassment of buying that Greyhound ticket south to Joliet.  He had no idea what life was like for his son in prison and relied on impressions left from Depression era movies that turned from comical to sinister when overlaid with little Larry's face.  There were black and white striped overalls, a matching brimless hat, and an iron ball and chain locked to his ankle and secured with a skeleton key that hung from a yard bull's key chain.  Clumsy Laurel and Hardy antics became gritty and real pain as iron anklets wore their edges smooth on skin tanned to leather by blood and heat and sweat.
    "I made my dad a card for Father's Day.  We made 'em in Sunday school."
    "That's what my boy did, too."  He started rubbing again, smoothing the wax in tired circles.  "He made me a card."
    "That was real nice.  I bet that made you feel good.  Or better maybe."
    Mr. Grecko tossed the cloth back in the tackle box and wiped his hands on his apron.  "I guess it did at that."  He sighed and reached down for his buffing cloth.  By the time he had righted himself, he had brightened though, and flourished the cloth with a crack.  "You ready?" 
    Marvin grinned as Mr. Grecko took a final drag and crushed out his cigarette under the toe of his shoe.  "Run boy!" he said with mock seriousness.  Marvin pushed hard against the chair and Mr. Grecko pulled the buffing cloth tight.  He snapped the cloth back and forth across the shoe with a vigor that made the skin on his neck waggle.  He worked on one side of the shoe that would slip just a bit at a time, and just as he sensed Marvin finding his rhythm and leaning into his tug, he'd quick and switch to the other side.  Marvin's grin became a giggle but his mind was nimble and serious as he leapt from foothold to foothold, dodging the crushing timbers that fell in flames around him.  When the old cobbler sensed his footholds becoming surer, he'd switch up completely, whip the cloth behind his foot, and pull forward as he polished the heel.  But today Marvin was ready for him and he let out a shout of delight as he caught his foot rising from the chair.  The floor charred then crumbled just behind him and now collapsing tiles nipped at his heels as he bounded towards the door.  By the time they stopped, the heavy, unbalanced shoe had been polished to an even gloss, and if only for a moment, it had become a gift to them both.
    Mr. Grecko patted him on the leg and Marvin dropped his foot to the floor. They shared an uneasy embarrassment trying to force the moment with Marvin's good leg, and in the end, the gloss on the left shoe was even, but lackluster.  He patted him again and as Marvin lowered his foot to the floor, Mr. Grecko gripped Marvin's knees with knobby knuckled fingers and leaned forward.
    "You do good things, boy.  You do good things."
    And to compliment and command Marvin nodded his head. 
    "Yup."
    Mr. Grecko patted his knees, scooched back his chair, and offered the jar again.  "One for the road?"
    "Can I have two?"
    The cobbler smiled.  From the way he looked above Marvin's head — the way his dusty eyes fixed at some point just outside the shop window — Marvin sensed it wasn't really for him, but this was a day for surrogate affection after all, and he accepted his role and smiled a son's smile in return.
    "Two then."
    Marvin stood with his rewards, unwrapped one into the pile, and stuffed the other into his pocket where it would tickle his attention until he'd eaten it too.
    "You going then?"
    "Yes sir.  Just up to the Oscos."
    Mr. Grecko pushed his glasses back on top of his head and the shop snapped out of focus around him.  One more piece of parenting for the figure that grew vague as it turned toward the door: "Mind that sun, boy.  It's gonna be a hot one."
    "Okay."
    And just outside the door, "Kkrsssh.  Rampart, this is Squad 51.  Situation is stable.  We're clear."
   
    Outside, away from the shade of the shop, the air had thickened.  Marvin quickened his pace to cross the street but before long his lungs burned and his chest felt compressed.  He stopped on the other side of the street and paused until the heaviness lifted.  He pawed at the sweat on his forehead with the meat of his hand. 
    The sparkly sound of girls laughing lifted his head.  There were three of them, identical in their differences, delicately painted Russian dolls, each one slightly grander than the next.  An angry, grateful, jaundiced longing gripped Marvin by the balls and tugged, hard.  He knew them.  Everyone knew them.  Everyone knew those three, and not the way everyone knew him.     
    The tallest of the dolls waved and he looked away. Marvin was grabbed by an impulse to cup his hand into a microphone and call for backup, but he pummeled it until it bled and his head twitched from the blows.  More giggling.
    "Hey Marvin!"
    The tallest doll was also the prettiest, and he gripped the stoplight, his misery evident in his attempt to look casual.  The other two had leaned their heads together and giggled behind their hands.  He tried to look anywhere else, but once again his cursed vision poured detail into his brain that pulled him in, helpless.  From across the street he could see the golden glint of hair that shimmered on her thighs; the texture of white terry-cloth shorts so squeaky it made his teeth hurt, and underneath, the pinch of girl flesh where her underwear clinched and cupped her butt into a ripe plum.  Sequined purses spelled out their names: Jenny on hers, Cathy on the other blonde's and Julie on the red-head's.  A lightning strike of jealousy burned through Marvin as he looked at the tiny koala bear clipped to Jenny's strap which pressed against her girlish breast through the fabric of her tube-top.  The glossy wetness of her lips made his mouth water.
    His hip hurt. He shifted his weight onto his short leg and managed a feeble wave that barely left his wrist.  He immediately regretted the engagement.  He chided himself for not keeping his head down, for not at least attempting to hide behind the pole.
    With dreaded clarity, Marvin could see Jenny glance at her constabulary of no-good with a look that said "watch this."
    "Love the new shoes."
    They had seen him leaving Grecko's.  Marvin was suddenly aware of just how hot it had gotten.  An ember of sweat scorched as it blazed its way down his brow.  His cheeks flushed first, and sweat or something awfully like it started to burn in his eyes.  All of the things he knew he was not raced by, sirens blaring, flashing lights glaring, obscuring the vision of himself that he struggled to hold together.
    "No,” His voice was weak.
    Jenny cupped a hand to her ear.
    "God, you are such a dork.  Did you actually say something?"  More giggling.
    Heat rose and swirled in dangerous eddies and the "No!" he shouted back was so loud and fevered that the smaller dolls seemed as startled as he was.  Jenny was unfazed.
    "You did talk to us."  She turned to her girls, "Did you tell him he could talk to us?  I don't remember anyone saying he could talk to us.  Do you?"  They shook their heads, but Cathy tugged Jenny's purse strap.     
    "C'mon, let's go." 
    Jenny yanked her purse away and Marvin had to squint as sun rattled off the sequins and singed his eyes.  The hairs on the back of his neck seemed to lean away from the conflagration as he felt a backdraft building.
    "Look spazz, you don't _get_ to talk to me.  I don't know who you think you are in that — " she waggled her hand in a circle, " — gigantic fat head of yours…"
    Marvin's head snapped up.
    "What, you don't think everybody don't know about your stupid little fireman thing?  Walking around talkin' to yourself like a crazy person?  Well listen up gimpy, you're never gonna be no fireman.  You're never gonna be anything!  You're just a gimpy fat nothin'!"
    There was no pause.  There was no hesitation.  Goodness lay in piles of thick gray ash on the floor of his stomach.
    "Shut up you bitch!"
    His chest welled up and his eyes filled with quenching water the moment the words left his lips, but even so, he could see with hawk-like clarity as the red rushed to Jenny's cheeks and her jaw went slack.  The other two slid back a step.  She opened her mouth to reply when a voice from behind yelled out.
    "Marvin!  That's enough!"  Mr. Grecko strode out of his store, cobbler's hammer in hand.  "And you girls!  Shame on you!"  The hammer was over his head and he brought it down, slicing the air in an arc.  "What kind of monsters are you?"  He was Thor, and he pointed his hammer in furious accusation.  "Go home!  Go home and tell your fathers what kind of demons they've raised."
    Marvin burst into sobs as the girls turned and slinked quietly eastward into the narrowing shadows.  Mr. Grecko started across the street.
    "Marvin."
    Marvin turned his back to the old man, unwilling to share this pain that was uniquely and imperfectly his.  He started walking again.  "I'm sorry."
    "Boy, wait.  Wait."
    Marvin kept walking.  "I'm sorry," he said as he pawed at his eyes, "Sorry."
    Mr. Grecko stopped in the street and watched and prayed for them both before turning and walking back to his store.
   
    Marvin's mouth was ashen and he could feel the grit and dust that had accumulated there abrade the sweaty folds of his neck.  The funk of failure and humiliation clung to him like smoke.  It was a steamy, lethargic block before Marvin realized it had been a test, and he had failed.  He could feel that face, those brown eyes looking at him with sadness and disappointment.
    There were always fires.  With every step there was smoldering fire in his joints.  There was Mr. Martinelli who stood by as an unwitting windbreak for the matchstick flare-ups of the Martinelli boys, and Mr. Grecko's junkyard fire that would never be extinguished.  Marvin was learning to handle all of them.  But this time, it had started in his own belly and the simmering lie of hope had burned the rule book to cinders; he had breached the fire line and made it personal; he'd been burned and he'd boiled over.
    Another block went by as he de-briefed himself.  He replayed the scene over and over, analyzing, scrutinizing every second of the encounter.  With each iteration came distance, and with distance came understanding, and with understanding came strategy and a new preparedness.  Finally, when each mistake had been cracked open and every drop of knowledge squeezed from it, came forgiveness.

    Marvin looked up to see that he'd walked past his target, and clip-clumped past the crusted barber pole that had stopped turning long before his first haircut.  Inside, seated as his only customer, Mr. Belchek waved from the chair underneath the languorous ceiling fan.  Marvin would often sit in fear under these slowly spinning blades, secretly wishing them to turn faster so the vulgar clumps of dust and hair that accumulated on their leading edges wouldn't fall and drop on his head.   
    Marvin stopped.  He had no more room for embarrassment today so instead of waving back, he ignored Mr. Belchek, paused theatrically, wrinkled his brow, and rubbed his chin as if remembering something with great difficulty.  He pivoted around, his short leg making him buck and sway with the inelegance of a slowly turning horse, and started back the way he came. 
    Mr. Belchek raised his head just off his chair to watch the inevitable oddness.  Moments later he saw Marvin approach again, his eyes straight ahead, his face tight in concentration until he approached the sun-bleached poster in the window.  Some days, Mr. Belchek thought about taking the poster down, and always there was a vague tickle in the back of his mind that felt like something important depended on it being where it was.  Its color had faded and all that remained on the yellowed paper were black outline drawings and a draftsman's lettering naming haircuts that had followed the Edsel into the oblivion of America's 60's.  But as he looked out the window, Marvin's concentration shattered and his face exploded into an arrival-gate grin that made Mr. Belchek remember why the poster stayed.  Marvin disappeared into silhouette behind the poster and then, in the inches between poster and door frame, Mr. Belchek saw a pie-shaped head and the blurred fingers of a frantically triumphant wave.  He stood up, waved back and smiled.  Long after Marvin's shadow had faded through the last pane of storefront glass, Mr. Belchek turned his chair so he could see the silver-framed picture next to the register, sat down, and smiled some more.

    The empty storefront between the barber shop and the record store was relief as Marvin relaxed, slowed, and watched the distorted reflections of cars and people lumber down the avenue through the paper-backed windows.  The morning's long shadows, shriveled by the sun, had pulled up tight against the buildings across the street.  Marvin was mostly alone here in the heat, and the looks of passers-by from the other side of the street danced and shimmied in the heat waves and bounced off the window, harmless, and fell to the ground.  There were no differences here.  There was nothing to mark one pane as different or somehow more exciting or more lame than another.  Uniform waxy brown paper covered each window to just above Marvin's head and he drew lazy trails that rose and fell in gentle waves in the dust that had settled there.

    By the time Marvin reached the blue and white neon sign over the door of Rite Round Records, he had bored of his practice and just wanted to be there now.  But Rite Round had its own gravitational field.  With its purple curtains that stopped tightly wound little men with their tightly wound little minds from peering inside and the reflective tinting film on the glass front door, it oozed mystery.  It had been less than a year since Rite Round had moved into the space that used to be the Dairy Go Round ice cream shop and cafe.  To Marvin, the transformation had seemed magical, and he marveled at the oh-so adultness of the album covers and black lights, glass pipes, and posters; all of them as grown-up and curious as the curly brown hairs that had sprung from his crotch and under his arms like lone stalks of corn in a field of beans.  The walls still smelled of grilled burgers and deep fryers, and yet, the Formica topped lunch counter now had headphones where place mats had been, and the countertop jukeboxes would let you select the latest hits at each listening station.  Outside, the Dairy Go Round sign had grown up too.  The unintentionally ironic smiling cow had been painted over in black with white concentric circles to look like a vinyl LP.  The words "Dairy Go" had been replaced with the brighter and bolder "Rite", and the whole assembly was slashed skyward with run-away script that read "Records!"
    Marvin gave a grunt at the step up to the door, stopped in front of the reflective glass, and stuffed his hands in his pockets.  He took them out and put them on his hips - thumbs forward first, then rearward - studied his reflection, then shoved a single hand back in his pocket.  Still not satisfied, he let his shoulders slide forward like the ailerons of a lumbering jet until he achieved the right attitude.  When the crinkle of timid confidence finally reached the corners of his eyes, he made his entrance with reluctance, saddened as the the facade crumbled under the shaky foundation of his awkward gate.
    "Marvinovski, my man.  Lookin' tight there.  Lookin' tight.  What's the haps?"
    Marvin had never stood behind the counter at Rite Round Records.  If he had, we would have been surprised, a little embarrassed — and after some thought — a little pleased to see just how well he could see through the reflective window tinting on the door from that angle.
    "What's happenin' Mr. Cart-ter?"
    Carter smiled and stuck out his hand, palm up.  Marvin slipped him some skin.  "Whatcha up to, bud?" 
    As Marvin waited for his eyes to adjust he could feel the beads of sweat on his forehead chill and then evaporate in the ice conditioned air.  They left behind gritty snail tracks of salt on his skin and he pawed at them with his hand.   
    "Hey," said Carter, "I got the new Santana spinning on K7 back there.  Wanna give it a listen?"
    "Nah.  I just stopped to see if my Steely Dan came in yet."
    "Little man and his Steely Dan.  Lemme look."  Carter turned to the cardboard box of alphabetized albums, tapes, 8-tracks, and 45s behind the counter, and leafed through them looking for Marvin's name.  "Sorry bud.  Don't see it here.  Got some Brothers Gibb if you have any interest."
    "Disco sucks."  It slipped from Marvin's lips as easily as a "Hail Mary". 
    The store's only other customer looked up from the cancerously expanding section.  "Hey!"
    "No offense, Bobby," Carter threw the apology into the garish corner as a businessman, but to Marvin, he nodded his head in mock solemnity, and stuck his hand out for some more skin.  "Fuckin'-a right, my man.  The death of music as we know it."
    Marvin slapped his hand, and fought the grin that tried to escape.  "When you think it'll be here?"
    "Thursday or next Tuesday.  I've got your number here.  You want me to just call when it's in?"
    "No, that's okay.  My mom doesn't like …"
    "Steely Dan …" they finished together.  "… right," continued Carter.  "Forgot the mother-unit don't groove on the madrigal magicians from the east."  And an afterthought: "I wonder if she figured out what a Steely Dan is?"
    "Is?  What do you mean?  What's a Steely Dan?"
    "Never you mind, little man."  Carter cupped hands into pulsing headphones around his ears.  "That information is not relevant to the delectable tunes of which your ears will soon partake."
    Marvin gave a sparkling soda laugh.  "I mean…" Marvin pulled it in, shoved his hands in his pockets, and nodded his head instead.  "That's cool."  He turned to go.  "I don't know if I'll make it Thursday so maybe see ya Tuesday."
    Carter flashed his fingers in a 'V'.  "Peace little man."
    "Thanks Carter."
    "Ah crap, I just remembered."  Marvin paused and turned.  "I got a court thing Tuesday.  My mom's gonna watch the place for me."
    "Oh.  Okay.  I guess I'll catch you next time."
    "Sounds like a plan.  Later days, my man."
    "Bye."
   
    Marvin opened the door into a blast wave of sunshine, heat, and humidity that made him shade his eyes.  He sneezed, twice, then started back up the block.  In the short feet from the record store to the corner, the cool had faded from his shirt and it now stuck to his back with a glaze of sweat.  The block from the corner to the Jewel and Osco parking lot was empty, and his belly started to tickle with the anticipation of meeting a forbidden friend as he approached his destination.  The parking lot was almost empty so it was easy to prepare answers to match questions each familiar car represented. 
    Marvin had nearly talked himself into turning back twice before he'd reached the door.  He would experience this same feeling many more times in his life.  Soon, it would be at this same store when he buys his first jar of acne cream.  Years after that, an anonymous mile to the west with a shame that eventually fades, when he buys first Playboy, then later Penthouse.  Once more after a period that only feels like a lifetime, back at the Osco pharmacy counter, peppered with a diffident pride while quietly asking for condoms.  And a real lifetime later when embarrassment returns like a forgotten talent, as an old man in a crisply ironed uniform that asks for a salve to soothe the burning when he sits.
    Marvin went in through the Jewel entrance, around the grocery carts, and once inside the Osco, headed straight to the back.  He was concentrating hard now, and the rows of makeup slid by, irrelevant.  He made his way past the aisle break, then through shelves of hair care products.  His head was down as he rounded the corner at the end of the store, and he slid past the white smocks at the pharmacy counter, past the gold smocks stocking shelves from a cart.  One day they would know his name, but for now he enjoyed his anonymity as "that boy with the short leg."
    At the third aisle, he turned, his head straight ahead.  He willed focus into his peripheral vision and slowly walked by the magazine rack.  His pace slowed as he passed the last of the magazines, processing.  Past the aisle break, he picked up a Payday bar, turned it over to the ingredients list, and reviewed what he'd seen.  He had a fix on the teen magazines, with 16 and Tiger Beat out front.  Marvin glanced up and down the aisle, set the Payday down, and headed back to the rack.  This time as he passed he turned his head just a bit and looked with a casual cool practiced in the Blind Faith and Roxy Music sections of Rite Round.  He hit the end of the rack and fought back disappointment. 
    He wasn't there.  Of course there was Donny and Marie: there was always Donny and Marie.  Vince Van Patten with his chipmunk-cheek smile and sullen Lief Garret where there too.  Susan Dey.  David Cassidy.  Even the Williams twins, Andy and David.  There was mortification in the familiarity of these pop idol faces like knowing the lyrics to a Paul Anka tune, and yet the only one that mattered wasn't there.
    Marvin looked up the short end of the aisle, down the long, and with a humph of exasperation, abandoned pretense.  He walked back to the teen idol section and braced himself against the rack.  He dug and shuffled through the splay of magazines with his free hand, finding nothing.  Marvin stopped, his head fell forward and his shoulders tensed as he wondered how any magazine of any importance at all could ever be published without at least one article about Randy.  Couldn't they see that this was more than an actor?  That this was more than a TV show?  It was technical.  It was real information that might one day save lives.  No one was ever going be rescued by a plaid painted school bus, or some sappy love song …
    He had missed it.  Right there, in the same powder blue as Linda Blair's dress: "Randy and Kev!  Emergency problems!"  Marvin snatched the Tiger Beat and tore through the pages looking for the article.  The picture of Johnny Gage greeted him with a toothsome smile and the big brother affection of his little boy crush relaxed into his every fold like warmed syrup.  A bright lunula of t-shirt snuck under his blue uniform to contrast against his long brown arm.  The shock of wavy black hair had Marvin touching his own dusty crewcut and thinking again that he should grow it out.  He scanned the article about trouble on the set with minimal interest, but the sidebar made him grab the magazine by the collar and shake it. 
    "See!  This is important!"
    Shocked by his outburst, Marvin looked up at the pharmacy counter in time to see a pepper-haired white smock turn away with a smile.  He shut the magazine.  "Randy's Ten 'Emergency' Tips (Have You Got What It Takes To Save A Life?)" would have to wait.  He turned back to the rack, passed over the feeble and derivative Cracked for this month's issue of Mad, and stuck the Tiger Beat inside.  Marvin played over the bolded titles of the ten tips in his mind as he made his way to the register: "Lighting Strikes", "CPR For Pets", "Seatbelts Can Save Your Life".     
    He paused at the end cap, uncomfortable, and shifted from one leg to the other until the register cleared.
    "Hello young man.  Just this?"
    Marvin flushed and imagined a fire hose of sweat pouring into his eyes. 
    "Um, this too."
    He slid the Tiger Beat out just enough so the price was visible.  The cashier would have none of it though and she dragged the magazine out, picked it up, and looked at the cover.
    "C'mon, lemme see."
    Marvin went into a paralysis of embarrassment that thawed just enough for him to snatch the magazine back when the cashier winked at him and asked if he thought Marie was cute.
    "I just read the articles," he said, convinced his face was as crimson as his shirt.
    "That's exactly what my boyfriend says!"
    This confused and scared Marvin more than reassured him, and he put the Tiger Beat back on the counter, slid Mad on top, and tapped their edges into a single publication.
    "How much?"
    "$1.28, honey."
    Marvin paid in coins and pocketed the change.  "I don't need a bag, thanks."  He slid the Tiger Beat into the center fold of Mad, ignored the cashier's final wink, and headed out the door.  The heat had escalated, but as he cleared the parking lot on his way home, he felt mostly relief.  He crossed the street with purpose, walked past Rite Round without a glance, and made it as far as the awning on the empty storefront before he stopped in its shade. 
    Marvin struggled to the ground, and with his guilty pleasure hidden, pulled up his legs to read.  Cars zipped by on the street, and buffeted the pages with dusty waves of heat.  Even as the cool of the shaded cement locked his joints in place, his hands had sweat the pages into wrinkly pulp.
    Marvin savored each word as though the actor himself had written it just for him.  He read the ten tips once, and then again, pausing between each one to look at the picture of the man who played Johnny Gage.  Actor and character merged into a single heroic figure - his friend, his Randy.  With every pause, Marvin starred as the wiry fireman's sidekick. He taught Marvin each of the ten lessons and showed him off proud for his quick thinking and cool temperament.  They crawled together under a thick cloud of smoke while Marvin soothed the crying baby, wrapped in a wet blanket and tucked under the fireman's arm.  He tested for electrical current with the back of his hand as Randy nodded in satisfied approval.  They sheltered in a ravine when lightning struck in the open field near the pond where the two had been fishing.
    He read them once more and then forced himself to read the main article, "Emergency Problems!", which, as if written to match his deflated expectations, was an anemic expose on a shortage of emergency and fire rescue vehicles because of the wildfires that raged in Southern California.  Marvin folded the Tiger Beat in half and shoved it between his back and the empty storefront door and picked up Mad.  The heat was making him impatient now and he skipped and skimmed for his favorites: "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions", and "Spy vs. Spy" where he pretended to practice his Morse code though he knew the dots and dashes in the by-line spelled out "by Prohias".  He carefully folded the back cover and turned a gentlemanly duel into a gun-toting Richard Nixon.  Marvin giggled as he folded and unfolded the page, tired of it, and smoothed the creases flat.  He opened to the center fold and placed the Tiger Beat back in its protective jacket.
    As he stood, Marvin's hips struggled against him like a stubborn child.  They fought him as he pulled his legs up and rocked his weight forward onto the balls of his feet.  They complained as he turned at the waist and grabbed the door handle to pull himself up.  They pinched him as he leaned down to pick up his magazines.  It was nearly fifty steps down the street before they realized they wouldn't be getting their way and quieted down.
    Cars buzzed by now like wasps agitated by the scorching sun.  Marvin felt accomplished and contemplative in spite of the heat, and gazed mostly at his shoes.  He would look up periodically for the odd obstacle, absorb the street as an impression, make a map, and continue on.  He floated this way past the barber shop, past Mr. Grecko's shoe repair, and half-way through Industrial Hardware before he saw the younger Martinelli boy, James. 
    James sat on the stoop next to his father's store, flicking a yo-yo across the sidewalk and letting it dance there for just a moment.  Convinced of victory this time, his twitching-tailed cat would leap in pursuit, until, with a snap of his wrist, James would bring the yo-yo back home.  The cat would meow and James would laugh, chucking the cat under the chin or behind its ear, or rubbing his nose into its neck. 
    In moments Marvin had worked through scenarios.  He looked around for the older Martinelli boy and in his absence worked through more possibilities.  Entertained, and with no older brother to egg him on, Marvin thought his odds looked pretty good.  By the time he had passed the midpoint of Industrial Hardware, Marvin had calculated that he'd be able to pass through Martinelli territory with little more than a few unpleasant remarks.  He slowed down and tried on his most non-threatening face until it was comfortable and able to cushion the blows.

    At first, Marvin wasn't sure what he was seeing.  The cat was getting better at the game.  It would come back to the stoop and crouch, its head near its front paws, its hind quarters in the air, the quarter-tip of its tail twitching in anticipation of the next throw.  With the slightest hint of a toss now it would rocket from stoop, nearly catching the yo-yo in mid-flight.
    When the yo-yo cut loose from James' finger and shot between the parked cars and into the street, Marvin's first thought was "what an odd thing to do."  He watched the tabby launch itself from the stoop at the loose yo-yo, and shortly after thought "that hardly seems safe."  But when James jumped to his feet and screamed "NO!", and the tires of the car screeched and swerved and filled the air with the bitter smell of melting rubber, the pieces fell into place.
    It's been said that the difference between a warrior and everyone else is the direction in which they run when they hear the sound of gunfire.  In a moment that the burning in Marvin's belly would pleasure him with repeating so many times over the years, it became clear what had happened, and an odd sense of calm settled over him.  A plan formed, irrelevant details fell away, and he ran.  His weight slowed him down, and that variable considered, he resolved to change it, shoved it from his mind, and later lost twenty pounds before summer had ended.  The sweat pouring into his eyes and the uneven gallop from his short leg were unchangeable and discarded just as quickly.
    He ran and his lungs shrunk and burned with the effort.  Clear the scene.  The words popped into his mind as he realized Jimmy had not emerged from between the parked cars.  He could hear him crying now even as other traffic screeched and swerved around the car that had come to a halt.  Gotta clear the scene, he thought.  On Emergency they were always clearing the scene.
    "Jimmy!  You gotta.  Get up!"
    He stopped by the cars, panting.  He bent over, his chest heaving, elbows on his thighs, sweat pooling on the sidewalk.  The magazines fell from his hand.
    "Jimmy.  You.  Gotta get.  Out."
    James was on his knees, the lifeless cat in his hands.  "They killed my cat."
    "No one.  Can see you.  We gotta.  Clear the scene."
    The woman who had hit the cat was getting out of her car, her door open into oncoming traffic.  Car horns blared and more tires squealed as they negotiated the single lane gap left on the thoroughfare.  Marvin leaned down and picked up the cat, limp, but soft and warm.  It could have been sleeping were it not for the vacuum of movement where the rise and fall of its chest should have been.  Marvin stepped backwards from between the cars, and James followed, eyes swollen, arms outstretched.  There was no blood, no shattered tangle of limbs, just that deceptive stillness that looks like motion when the eye sees what it wants.
    You do good things boy. 
    The cobbler's words came back, this time unmistakable as a command. 
    You do good things boy.
    Again and again the words repeated, each time transforming fiction to fact, trivia to knowledge, pain to strength, until it hit Marvin so quickly, he gasped aloud.  Marvin dropped to the ground, to his hands and knees and scrambled for his magazines.
    "Move!  Move!" he yelled to James who stood unmoving, in shock.  Marvin grabbed the Tiger Beat and tore through the pages.  When he got to the page he ran a finger down the list.
    "It's here!"  Marvin ripped out the page with Randy's Ten Emergency Tips and shoved it at James.
    "Number seven!  Read it to me!"  He stuffed the page in his hands.  "Jimmy, we haven't got much time.  Read it to me."
    Marvin had already turned to the cat and laid her on her back.  "Read it!"
    James sniffled.  "What is this?  What are you doing?"
    "Jimmy, please!  Just read it."
    "Um, okay.  Number seven.  'Did you know you can use the…'"
    "Skip ahead! Just read the steps!"
    "Okay, okay.  'Step one.  Cup one hand around the animal's nose and mouth.'"
    Marvin already had his hand around the cat's mouth.  "The next one!"
    "Step two.  Breathe shallow breaths into the animal’s mouth.  Remember, your lungs are much bigger…'"
    Marvin huffed through the cat's nose and its tiny lungs filled then emptied.  He did this twice more.  "How many times?"
    "It doesn't say!  Wait, here!  Step four.  Every four breaths compress the animal's chest.  Use two or three fingers for smaller pets, or a whole hand for larger ones."
    Marvin put his palm over the cat's chest where he imagined its heart would be and pushed, hard.  Then again.  "How many times?  Does it say?"
    "No.  That's it.  That's all it says."
    Marvin started to panic.  He pushed once more then bent down to start breathing again, when suddenly the cat coughed.  Its eyes and mouth flew open, its chest filled, and it screamed as if its tail had been stepped on. 
    "Harrison!"  James yelled, and burst into uncontrollable sobs.  Harrison the cat breathed twice quickly, hissed, and scratched Marvin on the cheek.  The cat flipped over, shook his head, and bolted up onto the stoop.  The woman from the car had made it through traffic and knelt down in front of James.  He folded into her arms as she stroked his hair.  Marvin walked over to check on Harrison, but the cat lifted a paw and hissed whenever he approached.  Marvin smiled.  Mr. Martinelli appeared at the entrance to the grocery store, a broom in hand.
    "What's going on out here?"
    The woman stood up and pulled Mr. Martinelli to the side.  She pointed to the cat, and then to James who had walked to the stoop and buried his face in the nape of Harrison's neck, and finally to Marvin who had struggled to his feet and was brushing the dirt from his pants.  She took a pen and a pad of paper from her purse and started writing, gesturing to the street and back to the cat while Mr. Martinelli nodded.
    Marvin stood on the curb and watched.  He felt wealthy, and full, and a little tired.  Each time the woman turned and smiled at him he accepted the smile with a humble and newfound _fait accompli_.  Like the cone from a Monterey pine, the trial of fire had dropped a seed in the bed of Marvin's imagination, and it had taken root in the fertile ground immediately.  He could do good.  He would do good.  He turned, and quietly headed home.
    "Marvin, wait up."  It was James.  In one arm he cradled Harrison who lay calmly forgetting, in the opposite hand Marvin's Mad magazine.  On top of a smiling Alfred E. Neuman was Tiger Beat, and between its pages, ripped but carefully smoothed, instructions to save a life.  "Here.  You forgot these."
    James' eyes were still red and a puffy.  Marvin looked for a reason to justify the blush rising in his cheeks, but he found only an embarrassment that matched his own, and something that seemed like gratitude.  Marvin took the magazines and tucked the Tiger Beat underneath.
    "You want me to get you a bag?"  James threw a glance back to the store over his shoulder.  "I could just run in, it wouldn't be a second."
    "No, that's okay."  Marvin turned to go once more.
    "Oh.  All right."  James watched him walk away, and somewhere near that place that every child knows, the point where distance gives deniability, he stroked Harrison's fur and said "Thanks."

3 comments:

July 20, 2010 at 3:00 PM Dan said...

The fact that you don't get paid to do that is almost criminal. The characters might as well have been standing right next to me as I read the story.

Great job, Mark!

July 20, 2010 at 9:03 PM Unknown said...

It started with a golf clap and worked it's way up to a huge thumbs up. Very well done.

September 3, 2010 at 5:49 PM Perplexio said...

I really enjoyed this one.

Oh and Bozwell... Isn't "golf clap" what Tiger Woods caught from sleeping around too much?

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