Jack Posner, licensed clinical psychologist, PhD. from Berkeley, serviced corporate lawyers and stock and bond traders from his private plant-filled smoke-free office on the fourth floor of the Paulsen Building downtown. He consoled guilty consciences with a phrase he muttered under his breath for his own benefit as well as his clientele’s: EVERYTHING’S O.K., GO BACK TO WORK, over and over, like a Vedic hymn, until even he was fooled by it.
Jack lived with his wife of eighteen years, Alice, and their four teenage children, three girls and a boy, in a five-bedroom Tudor style house on the Republic South Hill. All four of their children attended private school, St. George’s on the north end of town. The Posner’s had had enough experience with the public school system—Alice currently as a Special Ed. Teacher and Jack, in the past, as a school psychologist—to know better than trust their children to that mob of personalities that brought all learning and intellectual discourse down to its lowest denominator.
When the Posners moved into their South Hill home, it was under the assumption that the gentrification-wave, which had prompted them into buying, would continue. But within six months, the South Hill Gentrification Plan had been scrapped when popular unrest over “Zoning Law Commies” and “Stalinist Government Interference” swept the one-term progressive mayor and all her “gestapo cronies” out of office. Within a year, the entire half-block of individual family homes across the street had been bought by an out-of-town developer and converted to low-rent high-density housing: all painted the same ghastly antiseptic gray. The same story could be told of block upon tragic block of beautiful turn-of-the-century houses around them—all apartments now. The scars from this collapse were everywhere: a backyard gazebo left windowless here, a rosewood trellis rose-less there, a child’s Lincoln Log jungle gym left unsanded and only half-assembled. All this ruin in the wake of retreating middle-class progressives! Leaving self-declared gentrification warriors such as Jack high and dry amidst the growing squalor.
It was 9 pm., a Tuesday night, and Jack had the house to himself. His beautiful dutiful daughters—13, 14 and 16, respectfully—were off at some slumber party arranged by their school. His twelve-year old son, Jack, Jr., was off in vapor land upstairs: the eerie blue and green glow off the hardwood floor under his door so intense Jack didn’t even think of knocking. And his wife—the wonderful bubbly Mrs. of the House, his dear Alice (scheduled to arise with the dead at five the next morning for her commute)—had nearly closed their bedroom door on his fingers when he’d leaned suggestively against the frame and propositioned her.
“Yikes!” Jack had yelped, jumping back into the hall.
The Brando routine had always worked so well in the past.
Back in the living room, Jack poured two fingers of Hennessey, and then sat back down on his leather couch to pout. He was feeling exceedingly sorry for himself, and relishing every minute of it. Holding his snifter towards his face (to better see his red-gold goatee off the glass), Jack toasted himself out loud:
“To Herr Doctor! To dear old dear old Dad! Our captain! Who we love and cherish—one and all! Hip-hip hooray!”
This was Jack’s playpen, his sanctuary and Captain’s Tower. It was removed from the bulk of the house at the far west end, jutting halfway out into the front yard—a large turret, really, with big bay windows facing north, south and west.
It was filled with Jack’s favorite curios and collectibles. Kwakiutl Indian masks and dishes. Peruvian textiles. Tlingit cedar baskets. On top of Jack’s mahogany china cabinet (which matched his mahogany coffee table and mahogany bookshelves), were a half-dozen African drums Jack used for his weekend Men’s Encounter groups (ala Robert Bly). There was a photograph of Jack and Alice holding a POWER TO THE PEOPLE placard at a People’s Park rally: Jack bare-chested and wearing a beard that reached almost as far down as his surfer blonde hair, Alice wearing a halter-top and love beads that reached to her navel. Another photograph of Jack hugging then-SDS President Tom Hayden. A NIXON’S THE ONE campaign pencil circa 1961. Ticket stubs from a Beatles concert set in a glass frame.
What Jack really wanted right now (besides a good lay) was to break into that batch of India Pale Ale he had brewing in the basement. He’d topped off the carboy off with a handful of oak chips to give the ale that authentic oak barrel taste. But the beer had been bottled only three days ago, and it would be a good week before carbonation kicked in.
Sinking an inch or two deeper into the warmed leather (and a sentence or two deeper in the Harper’s Lewis Lapham article he’d been trying to finish for the last hour), Jack was about to bag it and flip on C.O.P.S. with his TV remote when he remembered.
Sweet Mary Jane.
Or, as officially coded in his DSM-IV Bible (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—Fourth Edition):
Jack tossed his Harper’s across the room. Take that, Lapham! Three nights in a row he’d gotten no further than the full-page layout of Barbara Streisand in black-velvet on the opposing page. Lapham had gotten so full of doom and gloom in his old age! His DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE tone: mixed in with drivel about oligarchies and prison states and the coming of fascism to Amerika. Fascism? In America? Please, Mr. Lapham. Give it a break.
It was in a gram-sized baggie at the back of the freezer, beneath Jack’s Ben & Jerry’s Rainforest Crunch ice cream. A Jekyll-and-Hyde grin already on his face, Jack shut all the Venetian blinds in the living room, then tip-toed into the kitchen in an exaggerated fashion, wrinkling his nose and rubbing his paws together.
“Yesss!” Jack whispered aloud, digging out his gram-sized treasure from the pint of Ben and Jerry’s it was buried beneath. He had scored the pot last Saturday night at the El Sombrero Restaurant from Jerry Ailing, their guitar-playing waiter, one of the owner’s sons. When Jack inquired about the THC-content, Jerry had simply winked and whispered into Jack’s ear, “One hit, Jack. And you’re history.” Then, smiling, Jerry had stuffed Jack’s healthy tip down the sound hole of his guitar and moved on to serenade the next table.
Even before Jack opened the baggie, he could see that Jerry had given him the straight dope. A fine sticky mold of spider-eyed dust on the dried green bud, plenty of red sensemellian hairs. And when he broke the seal—Viola!—a wonderful skunky aroma: a lot like the Fuggle hops Jack had used on his Indian Pale Ale. And right there in front of the kitchen sink—beneath the overhanging garlic bulbs and red chili peppers and fluorescent light—Jack stuffed the bowl of his trusty jade pipe and lit up.
Then he whirled a full 180-degrees in his Eddie Bauer wool stockinged feet, out of the kitchen, back into the living room. The blinds. On the kitchen window. The fucking blinds. He’d forgotten to close them before lighting up. Left them wide fucking open! And one of his new neighbors from the tenements across the street—the one with a can of bear bait hanging from the big elm in his front yard—had been looking in on him. He’d seen everything! Or could have. Impossible to tell. The neighbor had been standing so still at the edge of his unlit porch, half-veiled behind the faded Old Glory he kept on a flagpole yearlong. If it weren’t for the red glow of his cigarette, Jack wouldn’t have spotted the man at all.
Jack plopped back down on the couch, heart beating double time because of the huge hit and all the excitement.
What to do?
What to do?
What to do?
Releasing the last of the sweet smoke from his lungs, Jack realized there was only one alternative.
Packing a fresh bowl, Jack raised his pipe to the little Appalachia cropping up across the street.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden shore…”
Jack’s new neighbors. Country people from depressed logging and farming communities of eastern Washington and north Idaho and Montana. Laid off Boeing and Kaiser Aluminum workers (some one-time subordinates of the very corporate managers and executives Jack consoled). When the new zoning laws were dropped, they poured in by the truckload, toting relics from their shattered lives with them. Broken washers and dryers. Woodstoves. Farm implements. All stacked in the open air of their front yards. Cars and trucks parked helter-skelter up and down the block like a chain of wrecked train cars. People coming and going all hours of the night and day. Drug deals. Midnight gun trades. Toddlers left unattended in parked vehicles for hours on end. Battered women running from their own tenement to a neighbor’s at three in the morning: half-dressed and howling at the top of their lungs. All of it like something out of a bad Zola novel.
Yet, in spite of his personal distaste for their behaviors, Jack really thought he felt for these poor desperate souls. In spite of the fact that his property value had dropped tens of thousands of dollars overnight. In spite of having to dismantle his SONITROL Home Security Alarm System when the teenage children of these new neighbors repeatedly set off the system as a prank. In spite of all this, Jack went out of his way to be kind to them. He offered contacts to Social Service agencies when they asked for them. He took a second job jump-starting their vehicles throughout the winter. He left throwaway furniture and used tires and toasters lying around his own yard and on his porch for them to come by and appropriate at night: a practice Jack referred to among friends as Direct Goodwill Services. He even looked the other way when the young neighbor boys flirted with his daughters: thinking it necessary to allow his girls some exposure to the “classes.” After all, who were these poor souls but the Joad’s of the 90’s. The same Joad’s Jack and his radical ‘60s friends had failed to include in their call to action. The same Joads they’d lost to Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and the Reagan Revolution of the ‘80s.
Tapping the ashes from his spent pipe, Jack tiptoed back to the kitchen: this time for his pint of Rainforest Crunch ice cream. There was precious little he enjoyed more than stealing away to the fridge for a late night orgy over a rock solid pint of B & J: digging into its creamy marbled surface with a strong-handled tablespoon like a miner over nuggets of gold, grunting and groaning over his work like the world’s happiest idiot.
Jack stopped shoveling his face. His neighbor, the one with the bear bait and Old Glory, was still outside. He’d moved off the porch, and with the help of another neighbor, was dragging something from the rear of tenement to where his Dodge pickup was parked on the front lawn, engine idling. An elk. A big beautiful bull. The two men were obviously laboring, their breath coming out on the icy air in rapid steamy puffs. Though not a hunter himself, Jack knew that mid-February was not a time associated with elk hunting. He figured that the men had been storing the carcass in one of the sheet metal storage lockers back of the tenements, until they found a buyer. Watching them struggle to hoist the animal’s hindquarters over the open tailgate, Jack wondered if they’d gotten more than they’d bargained for when they’d poached this animal. The elk was too heavy, too awkward for just the two of them. Spitting out his steaming plug of tobacco, the first neighbor rushed back indoors. While his partner stood holding the elk’s head up on the tailgate, Jack thought: Jesus Christ, they’ll be coming for me next. When things get desperate enough, they’ll be knocking on my goddamn door.
He jumped back from the window, accidentally knocking his spoon to the kitchen floor. He stared in disbelief at the sight of ice cream melting onto the clean linoleum. Good Christ, he was fucked up! That crazy Ailing kid wasn’t kidding. The room was pulsing. The furnace under the kitchen floor sounded like a midnight freight train. He hadn’t been this fried in years; hadn’t had these kind of paranoid thoughts about the rise of the underclass since his Berzerkely days.
Wetting a rag at the kitchen sink for the floor, Jack saw that things were moving along across the street. His neighbor had brought out one of his boys, and with the extra pair of hands they’d finally managed to hoist the elk in the rear of the pickup. They were covering the carcass with a blue tarp when Jack heard a loud FWOP! from the basement.
The distinct sound of glass breaking.
Jack dropped what he was doing and rushed out to the living room, wired as a Scotch terrier at the approach of a newspaper carrier, ears twitching. He began to speculate whether he’d only imagined this sound when
These just seconds apart.
Louder than the first.
And definitely coming from the basement.
“Holy crap!” Jack whispered aloud.
And Jack knew the perpetrators were THE SAME LITTLE SONS OF BITCHES WHO’D SCREWED WITH HIS SONITROL!
Jack grabbed a fire poker; then, grinning, letting out a short stoner’s guffaw in spite of himself, replaced the poker with the empty Galliano bottle he kept atop the fireplace mantle.
“All right, little rabbits. Here comes Mr. McGregor!”
Jack crept close to the stairwell wall to silence he descent. He covered his Cheshire Cat grin with a free hand to keep himself from laughing out loud again. He’d known all along it might come to this. He’d imagined this scenario a hundred times. These teenage delinquents were so impulsive nowadays. Everyone Jack knew in the field—social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists alike—agreed. Conscience-less-ness was cool like never before! Jack knew Alice would wring his neck for not calling 911 first. But the prospect of seeing the panicky look on the little shits’ faces was too damn tempting!
Jack hesitated at the bottom of the stairs. Again, he began to question whether he really had heard these sounds. Then, creeping into the darkened family room, he heard two more. No doubt about it. Breaking glass. But coming not from the family room, as he’d first imagined, but the laundry. Further on.
Jack tightened his grip on the Galliano. He stumbled over a pair of roller blades, bumped into the pool table and startled himself when the balls clacked together. Damn it! Why had he smoked that second bowl before waiting to measure the effect of the first? He felt lost in the dark holds of a ship. Lost in the bowels of his own goddamn house!
Jack paused outside the laundry room door. It occurred to him how easy it would be to enter via the laundry room window by simply stepping atop the washing machine and dryer. It was funny how he hadn’t heard any voices outside: no nervous snickering or cussing. No shadows stumbling around in the juniper bushes. Maybe the vandals had gotten wind and scattered. Maybe they’d chickened out. Then, just when Jack thought the worse was over, four more:
FWOP-FWOP-FWOP-FWOP! rapid-fire succession, loud as gun blasts.
Jack threw open the door, flipped on the fluorescent lights. The first thing he noticed wasn’t the intact window just back of the washer and dryer, nor the green glass strewn across the concrete floor, no the yellow foam dribbling from the ceiling and walls. It was the stench, putrid as rotten eggs.
Jack’s homebrew. The bottles had been stacked in a far corner. Those not already exploded were tipped over on top of each other like fallen bowling pins. Mostly it was the bottoms that had blown out. But some had burst into a dozen murderous pieces. One of these went off now as Jack stood in the center on the wreckage, his jaw hanging on one hinge.
Jack ducked as a piece of glass shrapnel whizzed past his ear.
Alice appeared in the doorway in her terrible purple bathrobe. Hair disheveled, eyes puffy with sleep.
“Jack! Jack!” she shouted, tying the front of her robe. “What in the name of God is going on down here? Why are you just standing there? Do something for
Both ducked as another bottle blew.
“Damn it, Jack!”
Alice grabbed an old sleeping bag and covered the 40-odd remaining bottles,but not before one scuttled out, spitting and sputtering round and round the floor like a misfired firework. Jack chased after the bottle with a hand towel, slipped and fell on the slick concrete.
“Never mind!” Alice shouted, when Jack leapt to retrieve the still fuming bottle. “Help me! Here!”
Jack spun back around and came to Alice’s aid: both of them lying lengthwise along opposite ends of the sleeping bag, crawling together on hands and knees, securing the sleeping bag with bricks and bicycles. Anything at hand. When one of Alice’s long legs came out from her robe, Jack grabbed hold. Smiling devilishly, he began to wrestle Alice for it.
“Idiot!” Alice screamed, kicking Jack off of her with a heel to his head. “Pig!”
When Jack continued to smile his most bemused, Buddha-like smile, Alice hit the roof.
“Oh, you son of a bitch! Stoned!”
Alice stormed out of the room. She reappeared a moment later, just long enough to throw a mop and bucket in Jack’s direction.
“Clean it up!” Alice shouted, yanking the knot on her robe tight. “You jackass!”
And stormed right back out, black hair flying out behind her like a horse’s mane, this time to attend to Jack, Jr., at the top of the basement stairs now, calling out:
“Mom? Mom? What’s going on? What’s that smell? Where’s Dad?”
Dad was on his hands and knees again, re-securing the sleeping bag, snarling at his wife and no-good progeny from the depths of his soul. And it was then—as two more bottles spun out beneath his cover—that the answer came to Jack. It came to him with that flash of epiphany Newton must have experienced with his apple; Richard Milhouse Nixon when he learned that the Washington Post had a copy of the Watergate Tapes.
Of course! A rare occurrence, to be sure. But how else explain it? He’d done everything as he’d always done: by the book. He’d soaked all his equipment in bleach solution. He’d kept all brewing temperatures in the suggested range. Yet in spite of all his controls of the various organic and inorganic substances—all his careful science—these WILD YEASTS had gotten into the mix. They slipped past the manufacturer’s inspection gates and infected the good yeasts with their disease, caused them to riot and ferment in dangerous ways, spoiled and rotted the whole damn batch!
Jack stumbled to the window, jerked it open, and breathed deep the icy air. He searched up and down the block for his neighbor with the pickup and bull elk. How long? Jack thought. How long before these too begin to riot and ferment? For a moment, Jack thought he spotted something . . . then saw it was just his neighbor’s flag flapping. The neighborhood was eerily quiet: no doors slamming, no police cruisers patrolling the block, no women crying into the night. Just the blue death-like flicker of TV lights shining from the long row of tenements windows.
Lifting a rag from the laundry room floor—one of his children’s old cloth diapers– Jack reached outside the window with it and began to wave it slowly back and forth, back and forth in the midnight dark, wondering if anyone anywhere in the whole wide world would even care.
Banner Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=430014