an excerpt from my latest release
|It's the week before spring break, and after pawing out the crumpled napkin from my sports jacket pocket, I wind my way across town to the coordinates scribbled upon it. Am not exactly astounded to discover it's an apartment complex, and a fairly typical one for this age bracket - low budget enough to appeal to the college crowd, just barely respectable enough so as not to horrify the parents. It goes without saying that only a certain temperament of landlord is able to tolerate the day-trading aspects of this market, between the roommates and the partying. But any fears I held about this venture are instantly obliterated. The units in question form a neat circle around this small grassy plot with trees, and before I've even parked in one of the slots alongside it, the precise coordinates of Tom Bowman's residence are obvious without consulting my cheat sheet. A long line extends from some third floor apartment, trailing straight down the flimsy (could they possibly be plastic?) cream colored exterior steps, straight except for the pair of landings this giant, many legged beast lumbers across, that is. Those gathered - young, mostly, though not exclusively by any means – are an animated bunch, too, chatting to their neighbors in the queue, or shouting to someone much further removed.
I exit my vehicle and approach the activity. Slow of foot, as I'm not sure what my next move will be, I grin and cross the paved circle, staring at the spectacle skyward. And it's only upon drawing closer that I realize there's another line, closer to the building itself, streaming down the staircase at a much more industrious clip. These folks, all business, are toting plates full of some at present undefined food in one hand, and more often than not a red Solo cup in the other. Unaware of my surroundings, I stand gaping openmouthed in the lawn, bewildered as I gaze up at this spectacle. And thus have forgotten all about plotting where to go from here, when it's decided for me anyway.
"Ha ha! Nice!" I hear the voice call out from above, though its origin is not immediately obvious, "you picked a good time to show!"
The voice belongs to Tom Bowman, of course, and I finally spot him, just a head poking over the top rail, that and one hand clutching what looks like a cast iron frying pan. Appraising the current state of this enterprise himself, I gather, albeit from the superior vantage point of a third floor walkway, and with a personal stake in the matter. Or so I am guessing. He definitely seems at a glance in much sunnier spirits than our initial encounter, which lends credence to his possible involvement in whatever racket this is.
Shouting something about "executive privilege, folks, executive privilege!" Tom manages to encourage my assent in between the two lines, up the stairs, and signal those in both that they should afford me passage, without yet moving from that walkway himself. It's interesting to note he has technically not yet said anything all that amazing, or funny, or remarkable, or even notably intelligent, on either of the occasions I have met him. Still, you can somehow readily sense these traits below the surface - confidence, no doubt, charisma when he's in the mood, who knows what else. The line itself offers proof of a drawing power, true, whether or not it's entirely his doing, but it's obvious that, as I make my way up the steps, from the goofy, intrigued grins turning in my direction as I pass, the constituents of this queue are fascinated that I rate a VIP entrance…just as the longing, doe eyed gazes from females (and likely some of the males, truth be known) closer to Tom indicate that he must, indeed, represent some sort of legend around these parts.
"Heh heh heh, nice, nice," he claps me on the back and reiterates, in a tone reminiscent of a grizzled sergeant of multiple desert campaigns - all that's missing is the cigar clamped between his teeth.
In this fashion he escorts me into the well-kept but surprisingly small apartment. The line continues to snake within, naturally, leading to a breakfast bar of sorts separating kitchen from living room, though currently in use as an ersatz restaurant counter. The fare, as if the spices wafting through the room weren't explication enough, I'm soon told is Americanized Mexican, for this is the latest iteration of a semi regular tradition: Taco Townhouse. Held, as always, on the most alliterative day of the week for them.
Do campus authorities turn a blind eye to these shenanigans? And what's the over/under on law enforcement eventually getting involved? Should the landlord rightfully request a piece of the action, or is he receiving such monetary recompense already? These are but a handful of the many questions swirling through my head, compounded by the sight of this shorter, wavy blonde character soon introduced to me as Benny Fordham, shaking hands, chatting nonstop, and collecting money in exchange for the plates kids are picking up from the counter, as well as the beer he is pumping from a keg.
"Aren't you worried about the, eh, legal ramifications?" I eventually blurt out. Tom and I are standing in a narrow free space between the back of one couch, the turnaround lane beside the counter, and the keg where Benny's pumping.
"Well actually not at all," Tom beams, waving to a pair of couples holding up their plates as they smile and give a thumbs up before exiting the place, as he somehow also nods to these two other girls in line and shakes the hand of some guy moving in the opposite direction, "or yes and no. I mean, yeah, I suppose if someone wanted to get really shitty about it, we'd be fucked. But basically you'll notice there's this big ass bowl of St. Patrick's Day beads by the door…"
"St. Patrick's Day beads?"
"Yeah, you know, green plastic beads, with, like, a shamrock in the middle?...anyway so the deal is technically this is a fundraiser, and they're buying these beads, and just so happen to get a free plate of food for showing up. Plus we're throwing in beer because we're all friends here and everything. As long as we donate x percentage to the Family Harmony Association Of America, nobody cares. It's for a good cause."
I will eventually learn to stop asking questions. But not today and not before wondering, aloud, "but aren't you worried about the cops shaking down, say, a couple hundred underage kids wandering around with beer?"
"Are you kidding me? This is a college campus. They block off the streets on football gamedays for that very scenario. I mean, yeah, they could get a burr up their ass or something, but like you said, that would be the equivalent of bringing a shotgun to a mosquito infestation. They know better than to even waste their time."
I'm too overwhelmed to entertain further argument, and am even eventually roped in to assisting in the kitchen, though I cannot say how. One minute I’m just behind the trenches pitching in, and that’s that. I do recall that in following him around such swarms and obstacles, onto this next locale, I have an opportunity to observe the casual ease with which he conducts himself. Moving with a briskness that is somehow slouching and swaggering at once, impatient to get on with the next big thing. And I think that others just naturally pick up on these qualities. It’s presumably from this cauldron of magic that Tom Bowman draws his powers, enables him to hold those around him in such a mesmerized state.
To his credit, though, he is not just some finger snapping figurehead, he pitches in as well, in something of a roving instructor role, bouncing from station to station. Occasionally he relieves Benny at the beer keg, and sometimes one or both are also helping on the cooking and/or plating end, but mostly it's me in there, along with three others. Two of them are slightly scary looking carnie types, in their late twenties or early thirties, I'm guessing, with pock marked skin, tattoos and scars battling for supremacy over most visible skin, you name it, the kind of haunted eyes which hint at drug problems past or present or both. But the third is a meek, totally normal looking kid in round, wire framed glasses, neatly shorn brown hair, and a collared, long sleeved blue and black plaid shirt which he covers with a white cloth apron while quietly running the show in this kitchen. Someone else eventually addresses him as Brad, though I don't quite catch the last name.
The kitchen is a cozy, cylindrical affair, ten by five maybe with just enough room for one person to slide in between the appliances, sink, and counters which line the two longer sides of its interior. Yet there’s one other strange detail I don't remember encountering or for that matter hearing about, in any kitchen, ever. Flanking both sides of the sink, two to a side, the four upper wooden cupboards extend outward to an incongruous length and depth, to the extent they reach the counter and cover all but maybe a three inch strip of it. And the reason for this, it soon becomes apparent, is that these cupboards all house multiple dishwasher racks full of clean dishes - when one wash cycle is finished, rather than bothering to unload it, they just slide the entire rack into a vacated cupboard. There's another rack inside the machine itself, of course, for loading dirties onto, and then a couple more spares leaning inside the cabinet underneath the sink.
"Oh that, yeah, heh heh. That was my idea," Tom chuckles, when a break in the action permits me to ask. And then as if telepathic, scanning the next question formulating in my head - or, more likely, because he's been asked the same countless times - adds, "I mean yeah, sure, maybe we should have asked the landlord first. Maybe it's kind of unusual for renters to remodel a kitchen like this. But is this not an improvement? I mean, these extensions we've added make them brand new cabinets, practically. So is the guy really gonna care? Who would complain about that?"
Whether predating this taco experiment or made necessary by it, I'm not sure, but at any rate this does speed up our turnaround times. And the handiwork is fairly incongruous, doesn't even look all that bad unless you examine closely. You could even argue it makes a certain bit of wackily perfect sense. Although precisely the kind of invention only a lazy college kid would think was cool - or maybe that for which, as with so many other innovations, lazy college kids are the joyful early adapters. And only once it catches on with enough people elsewhere does this become the norm.
Hours later the carnies are dispatched and the apartment is mostly empty, aside from a trio of girls I'm never formally introduced to, who laugh and talk loudly over an already blaring television in the living room - fruity, crushed ice drinks are involved, for the blender never stops churning - while I find myself seated at a small round table, in the dining area just barely large enough to hold it, while Tom, Benny and Brad finalize their take for the day.
"Seventeen. A little over seventeen," Brad eventually announces, having been entrusted with the actual tallying of the piles and assembling figures on a scrap of paper.
"Seventeen?" Tom questions, pausing mid swing - he had been pacing around with a random golf club for hours, taking practice hacks every now and again, and now sits smacking it into the open palm of his free hand.
"Yeah. A little over," Brad confirms.
"What's your ROI on this enterprise?" I ask with a chuckle, "how much do you have invested?"
Tom begins to smirk, I’m almost positive, before grimacing instead and glancing over at Benny. “Our expense,” he half declares and half asks, “pretty minimal, wouldn't you say, there, Benny boy?"
Benny, who is leaned back in his chair with an actual lit cigar, blinking as he stares inward at some imaginary point above the table, joins the real world long enough to concur. He flashes a dark, cryptic smile and flicks his gaze in my direction momentarily, says, "yeah, man, pretty fuckin minimal." Chipping in with a mighty involved assist, he and Tom both, but mostly Benny, had been separating the bills into piles for Brad to sweep through and tally, and Benny is perhaps still preoccupied with this count, double checking each standing mountain in his head. The cigar smoke, while ordinarily off-putting, is welcome here in that it's blasting away the cheap Mexican restaurant smell.
"Oh, but wait, wasn't there some charity angle? How does that work?"
"Weeeeeelll yyyyes there is a charity angle, a charitable cause we like to support, and currently that is like I said the uh, Family Harmony Association Of America," Tom replies, and strokes his goatee while explaining these finer points to me, "so yeah, with a rake of just over seventeen you figure, after expenses and services rendered and whatnot, paying various folks for their time even as we are truly blessed to have some fine volunteer hands pitching in…eh, we'll probably end up cutting them a check for two and some change."
"And the rest?"
"The rest we split three ways. Brad here usually puts up a fight," Tom taunts, and we both flash our eyes over in that direction, where the figure in question, with his metal frame glasses and collared shirt, his mousy brown hair a staticky looking bowl cut, does appear mighty conservative in general and whiter than a clean home team jersey, "but in the end we can always talk him into it. Simon and Edgar have already been taken care of, so, we'll probably call it an even fifteen and divvy that up between us. Nice even number. Then everyone can do whatever needs to be done with their share."
They apparently consider my services charity work as well, and that's fine. I didn't lend a hand expecting compensation, and don't mention it. Instead offer only a short, final question, asking if by this he means paying expenses.
"Yeah," Benny instead responds, lighting up with a broad smile from the depths of his low seated position, "that's it. Expenses."
In the name of brevity, it's probably best to omit the conversational loops taken for the next hour, how we arrive upon this road trip. All I know is that it's 11:30pm and I'm dreading the forty some miles home, the alarm that will sound in about six hours. Talk has remained mildly compelling throughout, as Tom paces the apartment expounding on various topics, opening windows, fiddling with his Zippo lighter, putting it to use on cigarettes - both his and Benny's - and joking with the girls. The other two remain foils of sorts, Benny saying little aside from his mumbled wisecracks, Brad picking his lip and barely offering anything at all. The ladies - a Kristen, a Tiffany, and a Hillary, if I'm not mistaken - do occasionally pause en route to the blender, and they're all variations of short, skinny, bubbly types of varying hair color, pale as you would expect an Ohioan in April, friendly and chatty but not terribly interested in our little dining room powwow. And things become a lot quieter in their neck of the hardwood floor, anyway, when I catch glimpses of a water bong being passed around the couches. Tom it goes without saying isn't immune to their charms, though even in partaking during the course of his travels, the pot doesn't seem to diminish his energy the least, an energy that is apparently somewhat legendary in these circles.
"Fuck it, man, we should just drive to Florida," Benny offers.
"Eh, I mean, yeah that could be cool and all, but that's such a clichéd thing to do at this point," Tom demurs, "I would almost be inclined to checking out Alabama or something, which does have surprisingly good beaches."
"How would we get there, anyway?" Brad questions.
"Well, I mean, you do have a car, Bradley, heh heh," Tom says, and as he happens to be standing right there anyway, squeezes one of his friend's shoulders, adds, "in fact you are the only one among us who does have a car at the moment."
"Yeah, but that's my parents' car, and I'm pretty sure they're not gonna just let…plus I've got that paper to write. I probably shouldn't go anywhere."
"Of course you're going somewhere! It's spring break! What kind of lunatic assigns a paper due the first day back anyway! Besides, you can write it during our travels or something. I'll drive."
"You'll drive?" Brad offers, which seems just as likely a stall tactic, to divert further discussion of his going anywhere, than genuine surprise.
"Sure. Screw it. What the hell. Straight shot down 75, we can be somewhere in fifteen hours. I've done it before, driven the entire thing nonstop. Both ways, even. We only stopped for gas and drive through restaurants, kept right on cruising."
"Bullshit," Benny challenges, "I mean, granted, I've only known you since Greenlee, but come on."
"He doesn't sleep, though!" Brad says, eyes plainly coming alive to recount this legend, "even back home. Everybody kinda knew it."
"Be that as it may, I'm gonna play the my fuckin ass challenge card."
"You want Miami? South Beach? It's a little bit further, but we can do Miami. I'll bet you everything you just made today that I can do that, even, in one shot. Stopping only for gas and drive thru."
Benny ponders this proposal at length, staring down at the table, the piles of cash assembled still. "Mmm, I don't know, man," he mumbles, "that might just be barely possible. If we're gonna bet, let's bet on somethin juicier. What's the longest you've ever stayed awake?"