The Guardian of Miskey
Milt is bound for a camp site in New Hampshire, Pawtuckaway, which was named by the Pennacook Indians, part of the Merrimack River Wabanaki. Pawtuckaway was “the place of the big buck,” meaning, more likely, deer, than negotiable currency. Milt is a full professor at Marsh College, lately New York University (NYU), and a close friend of the narrator, a lecturer. Milt has ventured into his seventies, and waits for the third member of the party in a “funny car,” at the curb; it is a rehabilitated nineteen seventies’ Malibu coupe with a gold Landau roof. The motor is idling; the professor is idling, too, and quaffs a doughnut, creme-filled. Joe, a Marsh undergrad professor, who has safely confided in texts to Milt the recent medical prognosis of the narrator, who has terminal heart disease. Joe appears presently, grasping the straps of a purple knapsack, a careful display of “psycho-delic nonconformity,” the narrator’s phrase, a general description of Joe’s manner, and compensation for his congenital propensity of putting hyphens, and other things, habitually in the wrong place. He suspects it is a condition, and stopped long ago reading Joe’s letters, not because the narrator is a caricature academic, or a snob, but explicable because, like a special teams’ punt receiver, the misplaced hyphens cause him out-of-bounds, and life is short and now, perhaps, shorter. He does scoff 45-RPM gift disks, which Joe finds in his famous perusals of vintage music at flea markets in Brooklyn, and Florida. Joe wears an Oregon Ducks cap.
Milt dubs the camp site a M.A.S.H., a “mobile army surgical hospital,” and Joe, who is already troubled trying to copy-and-paste his images of the weekend excursions, frowns, because a M.A.S.H., first of all, isn’t one of these images, and secondly because he views M.A.S.H. to be utterly common, and not personalized, so, after stowing the knapsack in the back seat of the Malibu, prevails upon Milt to reconnoiter. The troupe will consistently plead this weekend, as they do all camping weekends, for one or another to reappraise a theory. They are preparing to meet the narrator at the site in Pawtuckaway, and settle on the sobriquet “Crypt Kicker-five,” although there are only three; such is academia on holiday. They know the narrator will greet Milt, Joe, and the looming sunset, with musings from Bobby Pickett’s ditty, “The Monster Mash,” and commence the usual frenzied search of the Malibu for the laboriously-hidden moonshine; whiskey does not require a sentinel, like the narrator, who can no longer drink, but often commands a champion.Milt is bound for a camp site in New Hampshire, Pawtuckaway, which was named by the Pennacook Indians, part of the Merrimack River Wabanaki. Pawtuckaway was “the place of the big buck,” meaning, more likely, deer, than negotiable currency. Milt is a full professor at Marsh College, lately New York University (NYU), and a close friend of the narrator, a lecturer. Milt has ventured into his seventies, and waits for the third member of the party in a “funny car,” at the curb; it is a rehabilitated nineteen seventies’ Malibu coupe with a gold Landau roof. The motor is idling; the professor is idling, too, and quaffs a doughnut, creme-filled. Joe, a Marsh undergrad professor, who has safely confided in texts to Milt the recent medical prognosis of the narrator, who has terminal heart disease. Joe appears presently, grasping the straps of a purple knapsack, a careful display of “psycho-delic nonconformity,” the narrator’s phrase, a general description of Joe’s manner, and compensation for his congenital propensity of putting hyphens, and other things, habitually in the wrong place. He suspects it is a condition, and stopped long ago reading Joe’s letters, not because the narrator is a caricature academic, or a snob, but explicable because, like a special teams’ punt receiver, the misplaced hyphens cause him out-of-bounds, and life is short and now, perhaps, shorter. He does scoff 45-RPM gift disks, which Joe finds in his famous perusals of vintage music at flea markets in Brooklyn, and Florida. Joe wears an Oregon Ducks cap.the big buck,” meaning, more likely, deer, than negotiable currency. Milt is a full professor at Marsh College, lately New York University (NYU), and a close friend of the narrator, a lecturer. Milt has ventured into his seventies, and waits for the third member of the party in a “funny car,” at the curb; it is a rehabilitated nineteen seventies’ Malibu coupe with a gold Landau roof. The motor is idling; the professor is idling, too, and quaffs a doughnut, creme-filled. Joe, a Marsh undergrad professor, who has safely confided in texts to Milt the recent medical prognosis of the narrator, who has terminal heart disease. Joe appears presently, grasping the straps of a purple knapsack, a careful display of “psycho-delic nonconformity,” the narrator’s phrase, a general description of Joe’s manner, and compensation for his congenital propensity of putting hyphens, and other things, habitually in the wrong place. He suspects it is a condition, and stopped long ago reading Joe’s letters, not because the narrator is a caricature academic, or a snob, but explicable because, like a special teams’ punt receiver, the misplaced hyphens cause him out-of-bounds, and life is short and now, perhaps, shorter. He does scoff 45-RPM gift disks, which Joe finds in his famous perusals of vintage music at flea markets in Brooklyn, and Florida. Joe wears an Oregon Ducks cap.
“I’m so over kids, and dusty classrooms,” Milt proclaims, at Pawtuckaway, and casually espies the moonshine whiskey, or “miskey,” as it becomes called, and the narrator advises Milt the miskey should help him “heal from too much flying at the Sun, like Daedalus, and repair the last binary vessels of the brain.” Joe did not really understand, but knew no one ever understands anyone else, and how this was the essential point of a camp site colloquy, to speak, but never listen, and just exercise the verve of one’s voice; the victor is the man who is existentially lighter, or, in default, the most hoarse.
The clarity of easy wind, trees, and lake views invited romance, or, thinking better of it, rhetoric, but Joe preempted the narrator. He quips, about him, and Milt’s M.A.S.H. visage: “For my monster from his slab began to rise / And suddenly to my surprise …”
MILT (nodding): “He did the Mash / It was a graveyard smash.”
JOE: “It caught on in a flash.” (He will reiterate the Pickett classic, until it becomes terribly annoying.)
Milt (warning): But if you keep it up, I’ll sing “Gimme Dat Ding” for three days. (He won’t.)
The confrere is very well-dressed, and he is also well-spoken, but not, necessarily, well-met, despite the true esteem of his occupation. It’s like a Western, and the narrator is not completely surprised by his arrival. He is a black figure, or the outline of a solid, black figure, – solid, that is, for a dense cloud, with clear lines, the lines of human form; it is an image, certainly, and his own. The fellow gestures capably; it is striking how well he gestures, not with grace but agility and finesse, it is the sort of figure one might find leaning at a street light, with a demeanor not especially different than a conductor of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. He was truthfully expecting him, far too matter-of-factually; and the cohort was timely, prompt, ahead of schedule, like a headache, or the driver of a med taxi having already stopped for all the other patients; his eyes could not be seen, because he was all black; but if one could see them, – and it was definitely not the narrator’s goal, – he might have been flagged, – friendily, knowingly, say, with a wink or a special blink, and a greeting just for him, by manner of introduction, or to remind him, “I’m Death.”
As we’ve said, this was what the narrator expected, wondering only if Death was mobile, but not how Death might gain transportation, and the daydream, perhaps, concluded, as he shook his head, which is to say, he ignored him, and began to follow Joe’s seminal portrayal of another episode from The Twilight Zone. They intended to prod his nerves. He needed the camping trip, however. Life had become the episodes of Survivor. He squinted in his New York, Coney Island flat, summoning more courage, to see if the butler-type gent was a talisman. He was due a talisman; aren’t we all? This confrere was noir, and no match for color television. None could see him, and Death refused to converse, which diminished his experience. “I’ll be here,” Death said, and it was all Death had said, too mundanely. It was five-foot nine, an awkward tourist, one might say, and self-possessed. He felt, in the purview of Death, quintessentially alone, seeking mothballs, like an old man’s tux. He did not care to be rude: Death would wait for him, Death could hang. And how grand. It didn’t like people’s gazes; it was less visible in more light; not a chameleon, a changeling, perhaps; Death was, in fact, just like Rod Serling. He was reminded of Milt, who liked to say, about most anything, “This is more information than I require.”
He wrote about the apparition, and he wrote about John of God, patron saint of congestive heart failure, his disease, and he read Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (1894), and contrasted all of these new specters, the phantasms, as part of a well-medicated rehabilitation, weighed against the giant billboards of his life’s Silk Roads, but, a man, seldom mentioned them. He had put his palms flat against the window sill, and finally glanced at the figure, at Death, as if to amuse his new friend, and asked,“Have we met?”
But it wasn’t funny, and Death never replied; he knew, and often said, “eternity is a very long time.” Death didn’t chuckle at the question, not congenially, as one might chuckle, and as he expected, in his mind, with his eyes nearly meeting the eyes of Death. He knew Death probably never chuckled, and somehow there was a mental image of Joe at Pawtuckaway, – it was the day Joe hauled in a Dalmatian bikini with his fishing line, –and Death, gazing at him, did not waver.
The chaise-lounge was intentionally uncomfortable, purposely meant to prevent anyone from remaining on the shore of the lake, but he was tired, and weary of his fatigue, not weak, but alone once Milt and Joe had acquired a canoe, and a hearty slug of moonshine; whiskey, “M.W.,” or, eventually, to all, “miskey,” originally Milt’s phrase. Milt and Joe predictably submerged the canoe, and then, recovering it from the lake, with a stumbling push, proved its seaworthiness, and rewarded it with a Coleman full of Bud. Heart failure was a decent excuse to become the guardian of miskey; the declining chakras of his body could filter just about half the normal flow of blood, this was his problem, long-story-short. The narrator reasoned, with half the normal effort, all could be well, a sort of perfect equilibrium: A burgeoning V-8 weeks ago, he was a now strapping V-4, and could live happily, if less dynamically. Mead’s stages of death were plain to other people, but not to him; the progressive disease was the milieu of shock, one, blurry landscape. He tried to resist the kind of logic feared by Dr. Rhys, his cardiologist, who refused to allow his patients to play doctor.
He was free of it now, alas, and with friends, who had an excuse for moonshine in the wild. They embarked the weekend after his release to New Hampshire, a “semi-monthly escape,” and his cohorts urgently sought the gory details. It ended one sort of camp, a makeshift Coney dungeon in the bath, the camp of thin air, and its comforts, and began adjusting to another, this natural hideaway from the workaday world. Joe cringed, emerging through the window of the car, and issued a cheer: “Live Free, or Die!” And from the car, they glared, and the two of them searched for the stock of “miskey.”
A camp fire grew within a square, cement blocks of a pit at the site of Pawtuckaway, and it chased the cold weather from the air. Joe had asked him, at length, “Well, what happened?”
Joe (with Milt, in the canoe): He said they said it was a virus.
Milt: Well then, they don’t know. (Pause.) You know, heart patients always seem to just jump back into the game.
Joe: Yup. They just stop having sex. A fair price.
Milt (sips miskey): Drink slow. This stuff will kill you.
Joe: Where do you get it, anyway?
Milt: FedEx. They like me.
Joe: They give you free booze.
Milt: Don’t tell anyone, that’s all. My brother runs a still in the Blue Ridge mountains of Tennessee. He overnights it. I think I’m his only customer.
(The narrator gargles the miskey like a mouthwash, at the camp, and tips the cap, drizzling the rest into the gray sand, and waits for the heart’s burn. He couldn’t drink any, but takes just a taste.)
Milt: You know, this is twenty years.
Joe: All from the same hometown. You were a high school teacher then.
Milt: Working on my dissertation.
Joe: Who could refuse the cavalier whiskey, the truly eye-catching canoes, the roaring campfires, the useful wisdom and rare advice? The prospect of meeting young women.
Milt: Plato’s Cave. And there are no wiser men.
Joe: I scoured the grate, by the way. It’s clean.
Milt: Good. We’ll have the prime rib.
Joe: I thought I saw that.
H.L. Tauri extended a hand to Yon Raulyn, his second man, Tune, and Mare Ligeia. They looked at his hand like it was a filet of under-cooked salmon, and they all frowned at about the same moment. Mare greeted Tauri, “Aqua Velva Man.”
He remarked, “I boosted the cologne from a warehouse. That’s a good price. Problem?” He called Mare Ligeia “Legs,” simply because it outraged her, and for no other reason. It didn’t offend her this time. It amused her.
Tune was a man of business. “What happened to the Pepper.”
Yon asked, “Pepper?”
Their discussion ranged widely; it was decided ultimately the pepper had been lost, fallen somehow into Alley 13, discovered by a Hispanic boy, and it was probably cataloged, and stored by the police. Yon, and Tune quickly boarded their pod to diject for reconnaissance of a more promising mission: The Diamond Planet. None of it compelled the interest of Slack, Yon’s companion, or his wife, Crocodilia, on the voyage. Both crocs were stylishly black. The wife, who Mare had dubbed Crocodilia, was older than Slack, the male, who enjoyed most excursions menacing the lanes of the Laniakea freeway, as they avoided the upper deck of the pod. The Slack couple kept mainly below, in the storage area, engaging in crocodylus acutus; that is, and after a series of head-taps, Slack, upon the tile of the pod floor, acquired the favors of Crocodilia, who arched her tail, and made Slack shiver. They rubbed each other’s snouts, culminating in a usual sort of rolling-about. They were adult reptilia, “consenting crocs,” Yon had observed, about it, and both were well into their fifties. D.W., the dire wolf, for this sort of reasoning, called Sawbones “qwerty.” The dire wolf remained at home on Laz Taxa, wary of the excursion; the pod was shortly in the throes of the orbit of Saturn, in the Milky Way, and a daunting meteor belt. The pod’s hard walls ruffled Tune, the navigator, and the crew, tossing all of them against it, and to each side of the “canoe,” and Yon was actually slightly-bruised about the head. The pod had been pelted by space debris. Yon glared at the rocks, but was undeterred from his trek to the İo, the gateway to Bootes Void, and then past The Ponds, for the pulsar known as the Diamond Planet; each time the windshield was struck, and didn’t literally crater, Yon raised a fist in the air, proclaimed, “diamonds, diamonds, and more diamonds,” rather valiantly, impressing few. Slack sidled to the top floor, eventually, watched the pillory of junk, and the corners of his mouth widened to a smirk.
Lecturing in the Arts was doleful in the public mind, the Arts was an accessory, a possible app in modernity. Time began delivering the widening gyre in, or about the nineteen-eightees, just as the narrator was choosing the Arts for a career. He rubbed the reflex of his depression, in a lounge-chair. The Arts were like Blockbuster, the movie rental store, and Blockbuster, once widely-popular, had closed, except via the internet.
Milt (at the camp fire): Education is about educating the scientists, and the people who are serious about technology. We’re a hand bag.
N: Remember when we duked it out?
Joe: Slug for slug.
N: Science was a skeleton in people’s closet. Never let it out.
Milt: Yeah. It would self-destruct. Up and down, with the scientific method. It was easy, predictable. Then it started making money.
Joe: It was a real battle. And we always won.
Milt (to narrator): How did you wind up in the Arts?
N (reflecting): I still yearn for the seventies, the eighties. But you have to let it go. My parents were reverse snowbirds. They spent summers in Florida, from the first chirp of June. It’s very similar. That’s when it’s hot in Florida, and, in New York, in the winter, the snow.
Milt: Hemingway lived in Florida in the summer.
Joe: So did Truman.
N: My grandmother used to have a radio shaped like a gorilla. She ferried past Lady Liberty to the New York shirt factories every day. Know what I mean? She plunked the radio down at her station, worked ten, fifteen hours. My father was a foreman. Life was speeding up the line. Every day was a tightrope. His father served in Switzerland in the first world war. He loved it.
Milt: You got it from the chalkboards – who was it, your father, grandfather?
N: Grandfather. He was a big promoter of education, but it wasn’t about manufacturing. That was fine. He just wanted to know things. He spent hours reading the outdoor chalkboards of the big newspapers in the city. They would put breaking news on chalkboards in the front window of the newspaper offices. The first web page. He couldn’t get over how news about Switzerland, for instance, was available, and how some people could get it, and make a living at it. It was like the leaflets they dropped from airplanes in the war.
Joe: Then what?
N: The old man died on the floor of the factory. Tuberculosis. It was supposed to have been cured, but no. (Pause.) And well, it’s not all good. (Laughs.) My grandfather passed of venereal disease. He never told anyone, just me. ‘Less is more, boy,’ he said. ‘Less is more.’
Milt (chortling): A paradox.
N: No one ever mentioned it. If they did, it was always with a straight face. It undermined the possibility of America. Freedom, what freedom could do for people.
Milt: Did you have other relatives?
N: No siblings, a boatload of cousins in lower Manhattan. I was an early defector from the family holiday gatherings. I can’t tell you much. The old man wanted to be a vagabond, but his father raised the bar too far. He’d say, ‘The Army wouldn’t take me, because your grandfather talked too much.’ I stocked canned goods one summer, washed floors in a Catholic grammar school; three summers before college, I was a recreation assistant for the city, which was a big deal, they said. I was supervisor of the soccer gear we loaned to youth in the Bronx. I could work for the city, a great career. No one wanted the job, as it turned out, because none of the kids returned the gear, and you were responsible. I wound up on a clean-up crew, assigned to Coney Island. It seemed like a dreamy place. Degree at NYU. Masters. I could do anything.
Joe: Not a chance.
N: Yeah, all of a sudden, the bachelors of science were the big men on campus, prosperous, sought-after by everyone, and we were burying our heads in our hands, terrified of just graduating. It was like, what? They got thirty-K to start, all of them. The bought condos, foreign cars, in cash. We wouldn’t see thirty-grand in our lifetime. A house? Who could ever afford one? The world continues after the night clubs, and smoking weed? Nah. It’ll never happen. The worst part of college was Bee Gee-Free Weekends. Now Ronald Reagan! Wha-at?
Can I get my crew job back?
Milt: Long, long winding Silk Roads. Nowhere, and going nowhere.
N: I stayed in school. I’d be like the ivy, growing on the walls.
Joe: Worked for ivy.
Joe: Milt won’t go near a hospital. He thinks once he goes into one, they’ll never let him out.
Milt: I’ve got twenty years on both you!
Milt: What is it like?
N: It’s about drugs. Not the sixties’ kind.
N: I never did drugs, never crossed their path in school. Nothing. Not like this. But I didn’t keep up with it. I’d never have a problem, you know. It was like going to the dentist. Who ever does after age fifteen?
Milt: You let it go too far.
N: I took vitamins. That’s it. Now I have to take a dozen medications, every day, to keep the trains running on time. I’ve got – blood thinners, cholesterol med, a pill for fluids, pills to lower my blood pressure. I’m like a bleeping machine. An antihistamine; potassium. I’m a potassium machine. If I had a banana, I think I’d croak. No narcotics, no pain-killers. It’s a strange world.
Joe: They must have given you a pain killer.
N: In the hospital, the lowest dose they could find. They like – Tylenol. The first thing the doctors, the specialist, will tell you: we don’t proscribe any kind of narcotic. How about Advil, or a niceTylenol.
Milt: I’ll never go inside a hospital. Never find me in one.
Joe (gestures): See.
N (reflectively): You kind of lose the thrill, the thrill of possibility. That’s the worst part.
Milt: It goes away. It goes away – anyway.
Joe: What do you mean?
Milt: Never mind, Joe.
N: I did discover the marvel of morphine. That was strange. They gave me a double-shot in the E.R.. I guess they do things about pain, but as little as possible. They’re aware of it. I went home the last time after the morphine, and I spent hours and hours rocking in the rocking chair, feeling great, a proverbial loose cannon. Way, way too loose. There was tramadol, ‘tram,’ which is a narcotic. I pleaded with the staff at Brooklyn Med for tram, a pain-killer, for hours. Finally one of the doctors prescribed it. I think it was a dis, like ‘please, go away. We don’t do narcotics.’ Trams would solve the problem, the mortal pain, in the extremities, and it did, eventually; the insomnia. I couldn’t sleep for months, because of the cough. I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t know why. But if I jumped up, well, the coughing stopped. All I knew. What I didn’t know was the fluid not being processed by heart, as usual, had gone into the lungs. The trams made me too dozy. I finally understood what they were worried about, – the ‘Big Sleep.’
N: I realized the power of these medications. There was a pill for the metabolism, forget what it’s called. It was an audible, like, the doctor said, ‘let’s try it for a few days, and see.’ When I stopped taking it, it was like, ‘hey, I can see in a straight line.’ And that’s just one of them. Imagine a dozen medications coursing through your system.
N: One of the volunteers for the wing at Brooklyn Med drew a circle with her finger one day around the cocktail of meds, and noticed one was usually given to a horse. ‘Horse pill,’ she says. ‘Who’s your vet?’ But I start to get better. I was even getting used to the nicotine patch. I gained, and lost forty pounds. All the same. Blood was circulating, and not clotting. I’m a V-4. I remember noticing a nurse, outside, at a window, and wondering, ‘Why does she keeps looking at me’; and I realized, – ‘oh, this is intensive care.’ Son of a gun.
Milt: Intensive care.
N: The blood flow is slow, almost apologetic, but the pills are winning the battle. It’s a brook, not a river. I remember the nurse came into the room, and opened a window. I could see to Brooklyn; the ‘delicious breath of rain was in the air.’ ◊
¤ Juke Box ¤
Theme, (Episode): “Helplessly Hoping,” CROSBY STILLS NASH | playlist, “Flea Markets, Nos. 1-50,” a myopic vaile (No. 33).
“The Echo By Seas” is one of three works by SODA TOM.
(“The Story of An Hour,” by Kate Chopin, pdf, available in Credits, courtesy of Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.)
“The Echo By Seas,” by Soda Tom, Vol. II of III.
Copyright (C) 2018, 2017, ff., by the author.
All Rights Reserved.
Created by Soda Tom