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The Old Man and the Boy

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“INCOMING!” yelled Stevie Resnick.

I looked up just in time to see 3 or 4 fat brown paper bags come hurtling down at us from above. Laughing, we covered our heads and scattered out of their way. The bags smashed down harmlessly, bursting at the seams and splattering shit all over the sidewalk, like scat bombs in an X-rated cartoon.

In the past, all Old Man Gouck would do was stick his compact, red-faced head with its bristly crewcut of white hair out from his window and curse at us, his dark eyes radiating anger we could feel five floors below. 

“You goddamn kids! Shut the hell up, you damn brats!”

But lately, he’d escalated his war against us, loading paper bags with his own excrement. The first time he’d actually caught us unawares, and Donald Brotman got pelted. It was disgusting, the way the slime ran down his shoulder and bare arm.

After that, whenever we played in front of the building, we assigned a Gouck spotter, one of us whose task was to keep an eagle eye on the old grouch’s window.

That day had been Stevie’s turn. He’d done his job well; no one was slimed. But the sidewalk was a fecal mess. We’d have to wait for rain to wash it away, or for Norris, our building’s black super, to hose it down.

So we decided to play across the street, in the park.

“What an asshole,” muttered Donald.

“Yeah, what an athhole,” lisped Bobby Alexander. He was a bit of a sissy. But this was the 1950s, when young boys didn’t yet know about the vagaries of human sexuality, like they do today. So even though Bobby preferred Mah Jong to stickball, and tended to avoid our more strenuous adventures, we liked him well enough, and let him hang out with us.

We were waiting for the light to change when Big Paul said, “That old fool’ll get his.” The rest of the afternoon, we spent throwing a football around. Except, that is, for Bobby, who just watched.

Old Gouck lived alone. He was a mysterious geezer; I can’t ever recall seeing him outside his apartment, although I suppose he must have left it from time to time.

This was in the South Bronx during the post-World War II years of the Fifties, when our Dads — ex-GIs, now factory and office workers — were impregnating our Moms at a prodigious rate, with the result that Baby Boom kids like us were being manufactured like cans of soup in a Campbell’s factory.

I had a million friends I’d known since we were toddlers. Despite the reputation for violence the South Bronx subsequently acquired, in those days it was peaceful, except for the occasional Gouck attack. On summer evenings, the old Grandmas set up beach chairs on the sidewalk and gossiped, their Russian-Yiddish accents salting the warm, sultry air. Our Dads sat on the front stoop and talked about the Yankees, proprietarily if they won, sullenly if they didn’t — the Stadium was only three blocks away, and I can still hear the roar of the crowd when, on a hot August night, Mantle sent one into the bleachers. After our Moms finished cleaning up the supper dishes, they too came downstairs, wrapped in shawls, sometimes knitting for still more babies on the way. And we kids played on the sidewalk, pitching pennies or playing hide-and-seek behind the parked Buicks and Chevvies that lined the tenemented streets for mile after mile after mile, all the way up to Westchester, and beyond.

Young boys love mysteries, and to old Mr. Gouck were attributed many tales that intrigued us. Ours was a crowded, gossipy neighborhood, where stories were told and retold over and over, all the while growing in outlandishness, like in an old-fashioned game of Telegraph. Gouck had been, it was said, a spy; a private eye; an assassin; a soldier of fortune; an inventor; a scientist; a Nazi. Somewhere during the course of his exotic travels, we heard, he had come into a fortune in gold, or money, or precious jewels, which he kept hidden in his apartment. The specifics changed over time, depending on who was telling the story.

My friends had their own theories. Stevie Resnick claimed the fortune consisted of thousand-dollar bills, stuffed into the mattress of his bed. Donald Brotman said Gouck had coffee cans filled with diamonds and rubies and sapphires. From Norris, who lived in a flat in the rear of the basement, we learned Gouck had a king’s ransom in gold coins he kept in a wooden chest.

We fantasized from time to time about getting into his apartment and helping ourselves to the booty. But Gouck was always there, and we didn’t know how to get in, or what we would do if we did and he came raging at us. So it remained a fantasy.

One Spring day — we were 9 years old, and it was during a warm Easter break — Bobby Alexander, Big Paul, Stevie Resnick, Donald Brotman and I were playing Boxball in front of the building. I remember how the little cabbage caterpillars were hanging by the hundreds from fluttery silver threads that dangled from the branches of the mimosa trees. 

Now, Boxball could be quite a noisy sport. Two players faced off across two big sidewalk squares, trying to hit a nickle with a bouncy, ham-colored Spalding hand ball. The play-by-play is fast and furious, and if you throw in 3 or 4 other boys, screaming from the sidelines, you can imagine the ruckus that can be raised.

So it was usually Boxball that got us in trouble with Mr. Gouck.

But that day there were no Gouck alerts. It took a while for this to sink in, but then Stevie said, “Hey, y’know what?”

“What?” Bobby asked.

“No Gouck.” 

“Yeah!” buck-toothed Donald agreed. “He’s usually yelling at us by now.”

“Or throwing doody,” Bobby said. He still used baby words like that: doody, poop your pants, pee-pee.  

We played a little more and I think we were probably noisier than usual. After a while, bored, we sat on the front stoop, chewing bubble gum and talking.

“Maybe Gouck’s dead,” Big Paul suggested. We all shuddered and giggled at the thought of old people dropping dead in their apartments, their bodies rotting away until the smell forced someone to call the cops.

“Yeah!” Donald cried. “He’s probably on the floor, with ants crawling up his nose.”

“Eew,” said Bobby, the most squeamish among us.

“And rats eating his ears,” Donald went on, enjoying the attention. “And worms–”

All of us cracked up, even Bobby. The picture of old dead Gouck seemed suddenly the funniest thing in the world.

“I wonder who’ll get his treasure,” said Stevie, eyes bulging behind coke-bottle glasses.

“How much d’ya figure it’s worth, anyhow?” Donald said, addressing his question to Big Paul. Big Paul was our leader, the best athlete, the strongest and handsomest, the most daring, the boy with the dazzling smile you wanted to like you the best.

Big Paul ran a freckled hand through his thick wavy red hair. “Dunno,” he reflected. “A lot. Maybe a million.”

“A million!” oohed Bobby, his eyes widening. “That’th tho muth moolah.”

“I bet that’s more than your Dad makes in a year!” said Donald to Bobby, whose father was a chiropractor, and whom we figured was the richest of all our Dads.

“You think he has relatives?” said Stevie.

“Old man Gouck?” said Big Paul. “Nah. You ever seen anyone visiting him?”

We all agreed we hadn’t.

“The only person I ever saw visit him,” I said, “was Rudy.” Rudy was the young Italian guy with the greasy pompadour of black hair who worked as a soda jerk in Feldman’s drug store, and also ran errands for the other stores on the block: Lehrer’s grocery, Fox tailor, Lee Chinese laundry, Dave’s butcher shop.

“Let’s ask him!” Big Paul said. We ran around the corner and piled into Feldman’s drug store, where, just as we’d expected, Rudy was behind the counter. He was a handsome, juvenile delinquent-looking guy who looked like Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. Like Sal, Rudy carried a pack of Camel cigarettes rolled up in the short sleeve of his white T-shirt. On his veiny left bicep he had a tattoo of a slinky mermaid coiled on an anchor. I was quite attracted to Rudy, and I liked the way his white soda jerk’s pants fit so snug around his hips, but this was many years before I’d sorted all that out.

The store owner’s wife, Mrs. Feldman, a short, wrinkled old bag with heavy makeup, who always suspected us of shoplifting (which we did frequently), gave us a disapproving look when we came running in, five loud, troublesome kids she (who famously had no children) obviously despised. We took our seats at the counter.

“What’ll it be, boys?” Rudy asked.

“Cherry coke.” “Cherry coke.” “Root beer.” “Egg cream.” “Me too.”

“What’s a Me Too?” Rudy cracked.

Rudy started to mix everything up when Big Paul said, “Hey Rudy, you ever deliver anything to old man Gouck?”

Rudy was loudly squirting seltzer from the machine. “Gouck? The old guy in–?”

“5-B,” Big Paul said.

“Oh, sure, sure,” Rudy said. “Lotsa times.”

“What kinda stuff?” Donald asked, although this was beside the point.

“What kinda stuff? Oh, I dunno. Groceries from Lehrer’s, meat from Dave’s. He’s a lousy tipper.”

“You go in?” I asked.

“Inside his apartment? Sure.” Rudy set down the glasses on little paper doilies in front of us on the marble counter.

“What was it like?” asked Big Paul. We all started slurping our drinks noisily through straws, seeing who could make the most obnoxious sounds. Mrs. Feldman give us a dirty look.

“What was it like?” Rudy had a way of repeating questions before answering them. “I dunno. Just regular-like, I guess. Kinda hot. He keeps the heat way up, even in summer.”

We took this in. I don’t know if we were all thinking the same thought at that moment, but I was, and I was reasonably sure Big Paul was, too, for I knew how his mind worked.

“You ever see anything strange?” I ventured, in my best imitation of Sergeant Joe Friday interrogating a suspect on Dragnet.

“What d’ya mean, strange?” Rudy asked.

“Like, valuable?”

Big Paul shot me a look. “Oh, somebody said he had all these, uhh, paintings,” I said.

“Paintings? I don’t think so,” Rudy said, wiping down the counter. “On the walls? Maybe a calendar.”

We finished our sodas, paid the dime apiece, and left. I shoplifted a Spalding ball on the way out.

We crossed the street and went up into the park on the sloping east side, leaning back on our elbows on the soft green grass. This was one of our favorite places to just talk things through and plan our next adventure.

“Hey, Bobby, did you know you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose but you can’t pick your friend’s nose?” said Big Paul. 

“Speaking of boogers how about this?” Donald said, turning toward Big Paul and flicking a finger at him. Big Paul flinched, and everybody laughed.

The conversation drifted in this harmless way for some time. I knew we were eventually going to return to the subject of Gouck, but I was in no hurry to rush things. These moments with my pals, in the sweet luxury of a warm afternoon with no school, were among my favorites. I was aware of their specialness, of the pure pleasure of making them last as long as you could.

The bees were droning, and the bright yellow forsythia was in bloom. My thoughts leaped ahead to summer and three blissful hot months of hanging out with my buddies, and just being able to be a kid with no responsibilities, until the school year started again.

We lapsed into silence. Bobby Alexander gave a little snort. Big Paul, the wise guy, looked at us, put his finger to his lips, and mimed “Shhh.” He wriggled over to where Bobby was, flat on his back on the grass, asleep. Big Paul leaned over him, hocked his throat, and drooled a string of phlegm onto Bobby’s fly.

“Hey Bobby!” he called out, shaking him by the shoulder. “Bobby! Wake up! You peed your pants!”

We all cracked up. Bobby blushed, but he was used to being the butt of our jokes, and we liked him all the more for the fact that he could take it and laugh along with us.

It was Big Paul who first mentioned Gouck.

“Maybe he’s not dead, after all,” Big Paul said. We all knew who “he” was.

“What do you mean?” Stevie said. “If he’s not dead, then why’s he so quiet?”

“Maybe he’s gone,” Big Paul suggested.

“He never goes anyplace,” Donald objected. “He’s got no friends or family.”

“How do you know he doesn’t?” I asked.

“How do you know he does?” Donald shot back.

“Didn’t you thay he doethn’t?” Bobby asked Big Paul.

“I think,” Paul said, “he went away for a while. I think he’s got relatives in the country, maybe Jersey, and they invited him to stay with them.”

We considered the possibilities. If he’d gone to visit relatives, or was dead, either way, he couldn’t protect his apartment.

“We gotta get in there,” Big Paul said.

There. It was uttered. I’d known it in Feldman’s, nursing my egg cream, but I knew it had to be Big Paul who said it, because he was our ringleader. Nobody could refuse the suggestion of an adventure if it came from Big Paul. 

“How’re you gonna do that?” Stevie said, not convinced. “I bet he double-locks his door. All old people do.”

“Maybe he keepth hith keyth under the doormat,” Bobby said helpfully.

“No, you doofus,” said Big Paul. “We don’t need keys. We can get in from the fire escape.”

“Ithn’t that dangerouth?” Bobby frowned.

I didn’t exactly disagree. Gouck’s fire escape was 70 feet above the concrete sidewalk. The railings were low, and there were spaces between the metal bars big enough for a pet — or a child — to fall through. Mom and Dad had raised me with few rules, but one of them was never, ever, under any circumstances go onto a fire escape, and I had accepted that advice unquestioningly. What Big Paul was now suggesting sent a chill up and down my spine.

“Ellen Marcus lives right above him in 6-B, right?” Big Paul was talking fast now. “We can wait until her parents are gone, then she lets us in, and we climb down from her fire escape to his.”

“We’d have to do it at night, so no one sees us,” I said. My desire to please Big Paul was stronger even than my fear.

“Right. And even if he locks his window, I know how to open it.” Big Paul explained how a Puerto Rican kid at school had showed him how to jimmy open a window with a carpenter’s file, which Paul’s Dad just happened to have.

So we made our pact. Standing in a circle in the deepening twilight, we held out our hands, palms down, and stacking them one on the other, solemnly agreed to do it as soon as an arrangement could be made with Ellen Marcus — break into Gouck’s apartment, and steal his treasure.

* * *

It was my job to talk Ellen into it, but that wasn’t hard. She was a pal. We’d used to spend time together when we were younger, 6 or 7, her mom dropping her off at our apartment, or my mom bringing me to hers. Ellen got me into dolls and what we would later think of as role-playing. She was a little crazy, a tomboy who was always up for anything. 

Turned out her parents were going out that Saturday evening, and since Ellen was mature for her age, they didn’t mind leaving her by herself. It was I Love Lucy and Gunsmoke night, and her parents knew she’d be glued to the T.V.

We guys met up in the lobby, then raced up the stairs to the sixth floor and her door. I rang the bell. Ellen opened it instantly, dressed in sneakers, blue jeans and a dark brown Micky Mouse sweatshirt. Her face was flushed with excitement, and her eyes had a feverish glow. She carried a big silver flashlight.

“What’s that for?” Big Paul asked.

“For when we sneak in,” Ellen said. “So we don’t have to turn on the lights.”

“Who said you could come?” Big Paul said. 

“I thought–”

“No girls!” Big Paul said. I thought Bobby Alexander looked a little scared, and he was real quiet, too. Donald seemed frightened, but determined not to show it. Stevie Resnick, who always was the first of us to cry if something didn’t break his way, was excited. “Lemme go first!” he clamored.

“You can follow me,” said Big Paul, as if there’d ever be any question about who led. He took the file from his back pocket and passed it around. It was about a foot long and ridged on both sides, with the edge narrowed to a sharp chisel.

We’d taken the precaution of wearing dark clothes to minimize the danger of anyone spotting us on the fire escape. Now, as Ellen led us single-file to the kitchen through the foyer, we seemed like something out of a war movie, Stalag 17, maybe, soldier spies behind enemy lines. My breathing was sharp and rapid, like I’d been holding my breath underwater. I was uneasy, yes, just a little. But I wanted to please Big Paul, and to show him that I was the bravest of us all, besides himself.

When we got to the kitchen, Ellen opened the window. Big Paul kind of shoved her aside. He looked out, and up, and then down. I felt the breeze come in, cool and moist.   

Big Paul turned back around and faced us. Keeping his voice to a whisper, he said, “All right, here’s the plan. Me, Stevie and Donald go down first, in that order. Kenny, you follow us, but just halfway; stay on the stairs, to keep watch.”

“Aw, Paul,” I protested. I didn’t want to bring up the rear, I wanted in on the action.

But he ignored me. “Bobby, you stay up here with Ellen.”

“I wanna go too!” Ellen objected. “It’s my flashlight and my fire escape.”

“Don’t be a doofus,” Big Paul said. “I said no girls. Besides, you have to stay up here in case your Mom calls.”

“She won’t!” Ellen insisted.

Big Paul was having none of that. “How do you know? She might. If you don’t answer, she’ll think something’s wrong.”

This was so logical, Ellen could think of nothing to say.

Big Paul lifted one leg, hoisted it over the sill, and with a silent leap was gone, like a raven into the night. Then it was Stevie Resnick’s turn.

He hesitated.

“Hey Stevie.” I heard Big Paul hiss after a while.

“It’s your turn,” Donald said to him, uncertainly.

“I don’t wanna go,” Stevie whined. “My Dad’ll kill me.”

“RESNICK!” Big Paul was whisper-hollering from the night. 

Stevie Resnick is such a pussy, I thought.

“I’ll take your place,” I told him. I nudged beside Donald and leaned out the window and said, “Psst, Paul.”

“Who’s that? Kenny?”

“Stevie chickened out. How ‘bout if I take his place?”

There was a moment of silence. Donald, Stevie, Bobby, Ellen and I looked around at each other. Then Big Paul said, “All right, but make it fast. Sheesh!”

I armed myself up over the sill and onto the fire escape, trying not to look all the way down to the street. I could see Big Paul below me, halfway down the ladder that led to the fifth floor and Gouck’s window. Big Paul was staring up at me, his eyes glinting where the moonlight hit them.

Big Paul climbed silently the rest of the way down, followed by me and then Donald. He crouched by the window, spreading both hands on it, one under the top sash, the other on the middle pane. He gave the window an upward tug, and it slid open.

“Guess we won’t need that file,” he grinned.

Big Paul hoisted himself in. I did the same, and then Donald. It was immensely hot inside, like an oven, and the air stank of old grease and rotting meat. I heard the buzzing of flies.

“Phew,” said Big Paul.

We stood there getting our bearings, breathing in the fresh night air that spilled in from the open window. 

“Kenny, you stay here. Donald, c’mon with me.” Big Paul and Donald disappeared through the door, leaving me alone in the kitchen.

There was just enough light to be able to make things out, and as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see more. A Formica table with some dishes and cups. A crust of toast on a plate, an opened tub of margarine. A framed picture of a haloed Jesus on the wall. There was a big empty can of Savarin coffee on a counter, but it contained only pennies, not diamonds or emeralds.

The sink was filled with pots and pans, and the faucet was dripping, making slow, metronomic plonks where the drops fell into an over-flowing saucer. On the white-tiled counter, black spots moved in random, rapid zig-zags.

Cockroaches! Startled, I involuntarily jumped back, and felt my heart tighten in my chest.

“Kenny!” It was Big Paul, in the next room.

I turned and ran out of the kitchen, toward a circle of yellow light that was bobbing up and down and side to side.

In the living room, Big Paul was shining the flashlight on a wooden chest the size of my Grandma’s dowry trunk, the one with the silks and satins she’d brought over from Russia. Donald stood beside him, still and silent as a wax dummy.

Big Paul was smiling in triumph. “I bet this is it!” he gasped.

Visions of gold bullion filled my mind. Like every other boy, I’d grown up on pirate stories. I’d seen Treasure Island — in fact, with Big Paul and Stevie Resnick — at the Earl Theatre, just the summer before. I remembered the scene where young Jim Hawkins opens the chest on the beach, and his eyes flare at the cache of gold coins gleaming under the tropical sun. And then, how his excitement turns to horror when a shadow passes over, throwing the coins and himself into darkness: Long John Silver, with one eye and a murderous, toothless grin.

But the chest was locked. Big Paul worked at it with his file, chinking at the sides, trying to pry it open, stabbing the hasp with the point of the chisel. All to no avail. After a few moments, he stopped, to get his breath, and figure out what to do next.

“Hey, where are you guys?”

It was Ellen’s voice, from the kitchen.

“Kenny? Paul?” Bobby Alexander, too.

“Shit!” Big Paul muttered. The others filed into the living room. Even Stevie Resnick had come. We were in a huddle standing around Big Paul, who was down on his knees on the carpet. He had put the flashlight on the chest top, so that the light shone from under, making his face look skeletal and demonic.

“Why’d you guys come down?” he said. He was upset. “I thought I told you to stay upstairs.”

“We wanted to be part of the fun,” Ellen explained.

I looked at Big Paul. Suddenly, something didn’t feel right. 

“I’m going back up,” I said, and started to turn to the kitchen, when I heard a click that was so loud it shattered the night like the crack of a bullet.

We all froze.

“Someone’s at the door,” Stevie Resnick whispered, in a voice that was barely more than a breath.

More clicking sounds, metal on metal.

Suddenly all hell broke loose. The six of us rushed toward the kitchen. It was every kid for himself, with me in the lead, then Big Paul bypassing me, shoving me out of his way. We were a wild clutter of bodies, elbows, knees, all scrambling toward the kitchen window, like some ungainly creature with twelve legs and twelve arms and a single desire: to escape.

Big Paul and I were at the window. He punched me hard in the bicep, so I let him go first. Then as fast as I could I leaped out onto the fire escape and, clutching the metal stairs, began hauling myself up. Behind me I heard the other kids, but I really didn’t see anything, just was aware of them fear-filled and moving fast, in a welter of sobs and gasps and shouts. I heard someone cry out and then it trailed off and away, and I figured it was Stevie Resnick, losing it as usual. Then I was back at Ellen’s kitchen window.

I scampered up onto the sill — Big Paul was there, and he pulled me in. I took my place next to him as, one by one, the others climbed through: Donald Brotman, his sides heaving like he was going to throw up, Ellen, wild-eyed and laughing like a madwoman, Stevie Resnick, his eyes moist and red. He no longer had on his coke-bottle glasses.

We all stood there breathing heavy for a moment. Then Big Paul said, “Where’s Bobby?”

Then we heard a scream. It was an unearthly, high-pitched howl, like the cry of a victim about to be torn alive in a monster movie. But we were in no movie. The scream was coming from outside, from down below, in the street. “He’s bleeding!” the voice wailed. “Help! Police! Someone call an ambulance!”

* * *

I remember, from this vantage point so many decades later, some indelible images: The howl of the sirens, the flashing red and blue lights of the police cars, the big white ambulance pulling up in a squeal of tires. We kids had rushed down to the street immediately upon realizing that Bobby must have fallen off the fire escape.

A policeman interviewed me. His name was Sergeant Crawley (funny how the name, so irrelevant, sticks in my memory). My parents were out front by then, too, along with what seemed like hundreds of people. The block was mobbed with activity: flashing lights, sobs, loudspeakers, hushed whispers, crackly police radios, parents calling their children’s names, frightened kids looking for their moms and dads.

I knew I was in big trouble but there was nothing I could do about it. Mom took me by the wrist and told me to come upstairs with her and Dad now and go to bed, we’d talk about it in the morning. I said, Just a second. I wanted to say ‘bye to Big Paul, and wriggled my hand free and darted away before either of them could stop me. I’d seen him over by the mimosa tree on the corner, talking with a cop, Big Paul looking not so big after all, but frightened and deflated. Somehow I couldn’t let go of the night and everything that had occurred in it without one final assurance from Big Paul. Or maybe it was I who finally wanted to reassure him.

I was moving toward him when I felt cobwebby stickiness all over my face and something burned my eyes. I’d walked right into the caterpillars hanging on their silk threads from the mimosa tree, like tiny insect bombs. Bringing both hands to my face, I tried to brush the stuff away, clawing at my lids, scraping my cheeks, spitting. When I could see again, Big Paul was gone. The medics were loading a gurney into the back of the ambulance, the lifeless body on it covered with a bloody sheet.

I turned around and went back to my parents. We took a crowded, silent elevator up to the third floor and our apartment, where I sank into a dreamless sleep.

* * *

Bobby Alexander’s parents moved out of the building shortly after that, and we never heard from them again. We did learn what had happened to old man Gouck, though.

It turned out he’d been dead after all, of an apparent heart attack or stroke, stretched out on his bed, in the very next room from where we kids had been. Norris had been alerted by Dave, the butcher, and Mr. Lehrer, the grocer, that the old man hadn’t bought any food for more than a week. Norris had gone up to 5-B to inquire. He’d knocked on the door a couple times — this must have been right before we came through Gouck’s window. When there was no answer, Norris had taken the elevator back down to his basement apartment, where he kept the extra keys to everyone’s units. Meanwhile, we had snuck in.

Then Norris came back up and put the key in the lock. The sound that had spooked us had been him jiggling with the dead bolt. While we were scampering back down the fire escape, and Bobby was falling off it, Norris was discovering Gouck’s body.

So there were two dead people that night, one old, one young.

* * *

I never saw Donald Brotman again after we both went to college, although I heard he moved to Buffalo and became a pharmacist. Ellen Marcus married young, had kids, and died of a brain hemorrhage when she was only 34. Big Paul, after a tryout for a Yankee’s Double-A team, settled for teaching gym at a high school in New Rochelle; I heard from him a few years ago. He was retired, living in Boca Raton, and playing a lot of golf. Stevie Resnick was the most successful of us, a bigtime tax lawyer who, it turned out, once represented Donald Trump. I have thought, too, and tenderly, of Bobby Alexander, of a life cut short for no other reason than his earnest desire to be one of the boys.

We never found out if Gouck’s treasure really existed. Sometime after that awful night, a white box truck double-parked in front of the building, and two beefy men with a hand cart loaded it up with everything from Gouck’s apartment. When they drove away, they took with them the mystery.

As for me, I went on to my career as a wine writer. But I never forgot Gouck and Bobby. They, or their ghosts, have followed me through the decades, the young boy looking for his place in life, and the old man who just wanted peace.

* * *


A visit from Trump-loving cousins

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Cousin Justin and his wife, Elaney, were driving up from Tulsa to stay with us for three days, now that the pandemic was easing. We hadn’t seen them for ten years. Justin was retired from his mid-management job at a pharmaceutical company. Elaney had been a schoolteacher before marrying Justin—the second marriage for both—after which she worked at Wal-Mart for a while. They enjoyed a comfortable retirement in Tulsa; Justin played a lot of golf and Elaney contented herself with baking and crocheting.

Hazel and I had the extra bedroom, now that the kids were gone, so they could stay there. We figured we’d show them San Francisco’s famous sights, drive across the Golden Gate to the Marin Headlands, and go down Highway 1 to Princeton and Santa Cruz. Elaney had never been to the Bay Area and wanted to see everything.

Their flight was right on time. We met them at SFO’s Terminal 2. Justin was grayer than I remembered, while Elaney had gained a lot of weight. “Oh, God,” Hazel whispered when they hove into view. “Don’t say anything.”

Neither wore a mask, although mask-wearing was still required at the airport. I’d heard from another cousin that Justin and Elaney thought that masks were unnecessary and that the shutdowns had been unwarranted, but then, they lived in Oklahoma, one of the reddest states in the country, and Justin had always tended to veer Republican. Hazel and I had decided we’d do our best to steer away from politics during their visit.

It was sunny and warm at SFO, but on the drive back to Pacifica the fog closed in, as usual, and the temperature fell by a good 15 degrees. Elaney was fascinated. “Ah jus’ cain’t believe it!” she said, in her Sooner State accent. “Why, y’all must have a heckuva time figurin’ out what to wear!” We all laughed. “The weather’s one of the things we love about the Bay Area,” Hazel said. “It’s so diverse.”

Justin was looking out the window. We’d left the freeway and were driving up to Skyline Boulevard through suburban neighborhoods. Many of the houses still had Biden-Harris signs in their yards, left over from last year’s election. “Guess we’re in Blue Country,” Justin mused.

Hazel, who was in the front passenger side, and I glanced at each other. “Anyone want to listen to a CD?” she chirped. “We have Beatles, Carole King, Kenny Loggins…”

“Got any Christian music?” Elaney asked. I almost braked the car, I was so taken aback. Hazel seemed to be struggling to find something to say. We were all Jewish. Justin, like me, had been bar mitzvah. We knew that Elaney wasn’t Jewish when Justin married her, but the subject of her religious beliefs had never surfaced. We’re liberals; it doesn’t matter what religion you practice, as long as the marriage is based on love.

“Umm,” Hazel muttered, rifling through the CD box. “I don’t think so.”

Justin changed the subject. “People out here still wearing those masks?”

“They are,” I replied, as we turned west on Sharp Park Road, headed down the hill toward the sea. “Even though the Bay Area has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, second only to Seattle, I believe. But people are still wearing masks.”

“Why” Elaney asked.

This time it was Hazel’s turn to answer. “Well, I think for a couple reasons. One, the variants are out there, and people still aren’t sure about them. Also, it’s common courtesy to wear a mask, even if you’ve had both shots. Have you guys had your shots?”

I flinched. Hazel didn’t really have to ask that question at that time.

“’Course not,” Elaney said. “It’s all fake. I mean, the virus and all.”

Justin picked up the theme. “That’s what I don’t get. This Fauci—who’s a real socialist looney—convinced everybody to be paranoid about COVID. I mean, people die all the time. More people die of the flu every year than supposedly died of COVID, but we don’t shut the country down every time somebody gets the flu.”

A heavy quiet filled the car.

“President Trump was right,” Elaney volunteered. “The Chinese Flu was introduced to hurt America. Everybody knew it then, but the antifa atheists and big international money hoaxed people into it. And look what happened. Gonna take decades for the U.S. to get back on its feet.”

We hit Highway 1 and swung south toward our house. I knew that Hazel was thinking the same thing as I: It’s going to be a long three days.


The Last Democrat in South Carolina

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Part 2

Back in New Ellenton cousin Willie gave me heck. “Reverend Dennison sure likes you a lot!” he giggled, as we trudged our way through the slush of Lee Meadow heading up to the school. We was gonna meet some of our friends there and then do who knows what.

“I bet you gonna be doin’ the Holy Rollin’ by the time he done with you,” Willie teased.

“Now don’t you be actin’ so superior like,” I replied. “He just want to help me pray.”

That was on Friday. Two days later I told momma I was gonna take my bike and go to Jackson, and when she asked why, I explained that Rev. Dennison had told me he wanted me to pray with him. Momma knew who Rev. Dennison was. The grapevine in that rural part of the state is pretty good. Momma was, like I said, religious in her own right, but she’d heard that Rev. Dennison was “one of those,” which is how the ladies of the Second Methodist Baptist Church referred to Pentecostals, whom they regarded as just a little too eccentric to be proper Christians. She was quiet for a moment, eying me the way I knew so well: the left eyebrow arched higher than the right, her lips tight and disapproving.

“You sure you want to go?”

“Well, momma, I said I would, and besides, Auntie Esmina wants me to.” The eyebrow remained arched; momma was not a big fan of Esmina Hunke.

“All right. But don’t you dawdle, and you be back here by three or your poppa’s gonna be angry with you. We eat proper at four.”

I can’t say I really wanted to go see Rev. Dennison, but I also can’t say I didn’t. After all, he’d singled me out, not Willie, not even Uncle Mitch. That was sort of special recognition, I guessed, and besides, there’d been something about Rev. Dennison I liked. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe it was his hair that went over his collar. All the other adult men in the area kept their hair close cropped. Some of the younger ones, who’d been in the world war or Korea, even had what we called buzz cuts. It was unusual for a grown man to let his hair grow out. (Ten years later, mine would be halfway down my back, but that’s another story.)

Rev. Dennison had told me to go up to the rear of the church, where there were two little steps leading up from a muddy yard that led to a screen door. I rattled on the screen and a second later he opened it. He was wearing what looked like pajamas, which surprised me because he was supposed to preach. He must have seen the surprise on my face, because he looked down at himself, then back up to me, and laughed. “Oh, I canceled the service,” he said, almost apologetically. “Weather’s too bad. Didn’t want to make folks come out in this slush and mud. I don’t think our Lord will mind.

“But come on in, Bertram, make yourself at home.” He was allowed use of the small apartment at the rear of the church, which had a tiny kitchen and a Murphy bed, as well as a T.V. set. An old wooden dresser with a mirror stood by the wall. I wiped off the mud on my boots on the mud scraper and then Rev. Dennison told me to sit down on the couch. “You wanna watch T.V. or something?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. Rev. Dennison said he was just scrambling up some eggs and hash browns and would I like a plate. I’d already had breakfast, but the trip from New Ellenton—about ten miles—had made me hungry again, and besides, I was growing like a weed in those days and always seemed to be famished.

As he stood at the little stove and cooked the eggs, his back to me, Rev. Dennison kept up a steady pace of conversation. “I recall bein’ your age, Bert. You prefer Bert, or Bertram? Okay, Bert it is. I couldn’t wait to grow up and start going out with the young ladies. Know what I mean?” He turned around and winked at me, then back to the eggs and taters. “There was this one gal, Katharine Ann, we called her Katie-A. She was a beauty. Only eleven, but she was already fillin’ out. My oh my, yes, she was a special little gal. You got yourself a sweetie?”

“No, sir.” I replied.

“Well, that’s all right. Plenty of time for that. But I bet you think about it, don’t ya?”

I squirmed a little. “Well, to tell you the truth, sir, there is a girl I kind of fancy. Her name’s Betty Lou, you might know her daddy, he’s the deputy sheriff.”

“Betty Lou,” Rev. Dennison repeated, tasting the words in his mouth as though it were the eggs we were about to eat. “All right, Bert, grab yourself a plate from over there by the sink and let’s dig in.”

We ate away. Rev. Dennison turned on the T.V. but the reception was terrible, just a bunch of gray static and wavy lines, so he gave up. “I need to put up some kind of antenna but I never get around to it,” he said, absent-mindedly. Then: “You’re an athletic kind of boy, ain’t ya?”

That caught me kind of by surprise. “A little bit, sir.”

“What’s your sport? Or sports, as it may be.”

“Well, sir, I like fishin’, and ice skatin’ when Crockpot Creek is all froze, and baseball in the summertime.”

“What’s your position?”

“Third base, mainly, but sometimes I pitch.”

“Ah, pitchin’,” he said. “Pitcher’s gotta be in prime shape. You lift any weights?”

“Sir?”

“You know, barbells, dumbbells, that kind of thing? At the gym?”

“No, sir. We aint—uhh, don’t got no gym in New Ellenton.”

“That’s a shame. A damn shame. We have a couple in Aiken. Myself, I worked out a lot at the Y.M.C.A. Great place for a young man to meet other men. Pool, Turkish bath, dry sauna. Meet some mighty nice folk there.”

I didn’t know how to reply to that. I didn’t even know what a Turkish bath was. So we was silent for a couple seconds.

“Tell you what. I got some weights over in that there closet. Just a couple of five-pound bells, but I like to have ‘em around. Let me show you how to use ‘em.”

Rev. Dennison proceeded to teach me bicep curls and tricep curls. “Whenever you work a muscle, you gotta work the opposite muscle, or you get unbalanced. See?” He did ten quick curls in both directions. “Now you try it. Take off your shirt, Bert, and stand there in front of the mirror and watch your muscles as you work ‘em.” As I watched my bicep tense and bulge, then relax, Rev. Dennison kept talking. “You see, God wants us to have perfect bodies. He gave us perfect bodies when we was born—well, most us, anyhow. But too many men let it go to pot, what with all their beer guzzlin’ and bacon eatin’ and such, ‘til by the time they’re thirty they got these great big bellies. It’s an affront to our Creator.” I thought of poppa.

“Keep on doin’ it, Bert,” Rev. Dennison instructed. My arm was getting tired. As I strained, Rev. Dennison put his hands on my arm, lightly, just enough for me to feel his fingertips on my aching bicep. It was warm and strong. “See? You gotta do it until it starts to hurt. No pain, no gain.”

An hour flew by, maybe more. Then I told Rev. Dennison I had to go home because we ate Sunday dinner early.

“Sure, sure, Bert,” he said. “That’s a good boy. You be careful, lots of slush and ice out there. Two weeks time, you come back now, y’hear? We gonna work on your lower body.”

It wasn’t until I reached Jackson, halfway home, that it occurred to me we hadn’t prayed at all.


The Last Democrat in South Carolina

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Part 1

Crockpot Holler is just a bend in the woods in southwestern South Carolina, hard by Crockpot Creek. Its 457 souls live mostly along Route 278, a two-lane blacktop that winds along the Georgia border from Bluffton up to New Ellenton, which is where I’m from. I never would have had any reason to go to Crockpot Holler if it hadn’t been for Willie Hunke.

You see, Willie was my cousin, on my mom’s side. He was from Jackson, just a toad hop from New Ellenton; his mom, Essie, my mom’s sister, had married a farmer, Mitch Hunke, who had a little auto repair shop in his garage. He also grew alfalfa and corn in the summer and Christmas trees for the holiday season. Willie and me was best friends from the time we was babies. I used to help Uncle Mitch harvest the Christmas trees. He’d pay me $5 a day, a lot of money for a 12-year old kid in 1958. Mitch was originally from Crockpot Holler.

Now, long before I ever went to Crockpot Holler, I’d heard it referred to as “Crackpot Holler.” That was what the kids in Jackson and New Ellenton called it. You see, Crockpot Holler was famous for its Pentecostals. Now there was a bunch of holy rollers fit to be tied! We had some pretty good Christians in New Ellenton and my mom, Winona, read the Bible a lot, but she never whirled and spun like a dervish the way the Pentecostals was supposed to in Crockpot Holler. So one cold December day, when the snow was piling up in the Blue Ridge and the wind ripped right through you, Mitch told Willie and me to hop into his old Chevy pickup because we was driving down to Crockpot Holler to visit his momma, Willie’s grandma, Esmina.

The three of us squeezed into the front seat. Route 278 was a mess, with slush and patches of black ice, and Mitch almost went off the road two or three times, but we made it to Esmina’s little house. The old lady came out to meet us, wrapped in a black shawl that had seen better days. Snowflakes flicked through the air and dotted the shawl. I knew she was a widow for a long time; her husband, Floyd, had died during the War, in a place called Iwo Jima. Mitch was her only child.

We went into Esmina’s house, where a hot wood fire was burning in the old potbelly stove. Esmina invited us to take off our boots and coats, which we hung on hooks by the front door, and then she said she had oatmeal cookies and coffee for us, but first, she wanted us to know, we would pray. As she was talking, I noticed someone in the parlor, a tall, middle-aged guy with black hair parted in the middle that swept below his neck over his collar and a black suit that made him look like a scarecrow.

The man was Reverend Dennison. Esmina explained that the Reverend had recently arrived in Crockpot Holler from Aiken, which was a big city by our standards—population 30,000. He had come to Crockpot Holler, she said, because the Lord had whispered to him that’s where his ministry lay. “And I knew,” Esmina told us, smiling, looking at Rev. Dennison as though he were her own flesh and blood, “as soon as I set eyes on him that he was a holy man God sent to us, praise Jesus.”

Rev. Dennison beamed. “Well, howdy, boys, nice to meet y’all. Y’all set to open your hearts and talk to Jesus?” Now, I knew that Mitch wasn’t big on that old time religion. In fact, I’d heard him call the place of his birth “Crackpot Holler.” Neither was I, nor Willie. But this was Mitch’s momma, and he had that respect for her that even the roughest, toughest southern men have for their mothers. So we gathered in a little circle near the stove, got down on our knees, took hands, and waited for Rev. Dennison to begin.

There wasn’t too much fire and brimstone; I expect he held that for Sunday mornings. Afterwards, we sat down at Esmina’s little table, with its cracked formica top and stained plastic doilies, and Esmina served everybody up their coffee and cookies. Rev. Dennison seemed especially interested in me.

“Well, there, young man—Bertram, you say, right? Now what grade would y’all be in school?”

I wasn’t used to being questioned by preachers. I expect I muttered something under my breath. Esmina said, “Bertram, speak up. We can’t hardly hear you.”

“I’m in seventh grade, sir.” Rev. Dennison took that in. “Seventh grade. Well, I’ll be. That sorta puts you right in the middle of bein’ a boy and a man, don’t it.” He looked right at me, and that’s when I noticed his eyes were blue, like a robin’s egg you find in the woods that dropped down out of the nest. “You got right with the Lord, boy?”

No one said anything but I could hear Willie chewing on his cookie and Uncle Mitch slurping his coffee. I didn’t know what to say so I kept my mouth shut. “I asked you, you got right with the Lord, Bert?” Esmina was looking at me in such a way as to make me feel I had to answer the question, but I didn’t know what to say.

“I don’t know, sir.”

“You don’t know? You don’t know if you right with our Lord and Savior? Well, Bert, how long’s it gonna take before you know? Because you’re gonna be a man soon—I ‘spect you already are in some respects—and every man’s gotta know if he’s right with his Lord and Savior, ‘cuz that’s what it’s all about. Am I right, Brother Mitchell?”

Uncle Mitch put down his coffee cup. “That’s right, Reverend,” he replied, without, I thought, much conviction. I noticed Willie out the corner of my eye. He was delighted it was me, not himself, that was being picked on.

“Tell you what,” Rev. Dennison said. “You live in New Ellenton, right? Why, that’s not too far from Jackson, and you know every two weeks I travel up there for some preachin’ at the old church, right there on 278. Tell you what, next Sunday I want you to come, and we’ll spend some time afterwards, jes the two of us, talking about gettin’ saved and repentin’ your sins and all that. All right, now, let’s enjoy these fine cookies that dear Esmina baked herself, God bless her.”

And that’s how it started.


The Day After Election Day

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An Anticipatory Memoir

I went to bed at 2:30 a.m. the night of Election Day—actually, the morning after Election Day. I’d spent the night glued to the T.V. (MSNBC, occasionally flipping to CNN). By 10 p.m. Tuesday night, Brian Williams made it official: NBC news analysts were calling the election for Biden. Moreover, they were predicting the Blue Tsunami that had been widely expected.

I might have gone to bed then. But memories of the 2016 election kept me up. Was this real? Had the American people finally come to their senses? With a few glasses of red wine inside my belly, I was getting sleepy. I actually had reached for the remote and was going to switch it off and stumble to bed when the BREAKING NEWS red alert flashed on. Rachel Maddow this time: Trump had tweeted. It was after 1 a.m. Eastern time. My T.V. screen put up his tweet. “DEMOCRATS TRYING TO STEAL ELECTION!!! I WILL NOT ALLOW THEM!!! GET READY FOR A FIGHT!!!”

Well, if that wasn’t enough to bring me fully awake, I don’t know what would have been. Maybe a 7.2 magnitude on the Hayward Fault. Trump had evidently taken to twitter in a frenzy; the tweets were coming faster than MSNBC could put them up. I went to @RealDonaldTrump but couldn’t get in: the screen simply froze. I suppose a billion people or more were trying to find out what he was saying.

“I HAVE ORDERED NATIONAL GUARD TO SEIZE POLLING STATIONS!!!” MSNBC aired another of his onscreen tweets. And “TO MY WONDERFUL SUPPORTERS!!! LOCK AND LOAD!!!” The MSNBC hosts were now getting frantic. Rachel: “We’re not sure what to make of this, folks.” Brian Williams: “The election results evidently have caught the attention of the President, although we can’t be sure what he has in mind.” Steve Schmidt, a guest panelist, knew. “I don’t mean to sound the alarm”—

–“Yes, you do!” Rachel interjected—

–“But it looks like Trump is not going to accept the results of this election. He’s calling on his armed supporters to get ready for their marching orders. This evil sociopath looks like he’s fomenting an armed rebellion.”

I poured myself a steadying glass of cognac. This was going to be a long night.

At 2:27 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 4, Rachel and Brian Williams, both looking haggard and frightened, went off the air, replaced by Lawrence O’Donnell and Joy Reid. “We still have no idea what’s happening out there,” Lawrence said. Added Joy, “We have correspondents across the country. We’re finding stuff out as it happens. Stay with us.” But I just couldn’t. As I said, I went to bed at 2:30 a.m.–collapsed into bed is more like it—but after fitful, crazy dreams I didn’t remember, I awoke at 6:05 a.m. Rushed to the T.V. and turned it on.

Still Joy and Lawrence, now joined by Steve Kornacki, who was at the Big Board. “To call this a Blue Wave or Tsunami is putting it mildly,” he accounced excitedly. “Look at the red states that flipped blue: Pennsylvania. Ohio. Michigan. Wisconsin. Florida. Arizona. Georgia. Biden is ahead in Texas, although our election analysts are still calling that race too close to call. Huge Democratic victories for the Senate in swing states. There’s no doubt about it, Joy and Lawrence, this is turning into a rout of Republicans of historic proportions.”

Suddenly, more BREAKING NEWS. It was 9:20 a.m. in Washington, D.C., where NBC now turned for a Bill Barr announcement. Live, from his desk in the U.S. Department of Justice, the Attorney-General told the American people that “We are actively challenging the results of this election, which has been compromised by massive fraud, especially in mail-in voting, where it is likely that millions of fraudulent ballots were submitted.” There were no journalists to ask Barr any followup questions. “President Trump has asked me to assure the American people that he has no intention of submitting to a fake election. The President himself will address the American people later today from the Oval Office.”

The screen switched back to Joy Reid. “Wow,” she said, shaking her head. “Just wow.” “What we’re seeing,” Lawrence O”Donnell said, “is a coup.” Suddenly, more BREAKING NEWS: Joe Biden was speaking live, from what appeared to be his study or living room. “We Democrats have won this election in a landslide, as the American people have decisively rejected the anarchy and insanity of a rogue regime. Sadly, the current occupant of the White House is unable to accept the reality that he, through his criminality and incompetence, has brought upon himself. I urge the American people to be prepared to resist Trump’s attempt to undo the result of a legitimate election.” Exactly how he expected the people to resist, Biden did not say.

And so, as I write these words mid-morning here in California on the day after Election Day, the country has been thrown into absolute chaos—even as the number of infected Americans exceeds 15 million and deaths are mounting. The streets outside are strangely empty: I suppose everyone else is glued to their T.V. sets. A few minutes ago, CNN reported that “a mob of gun-toting Trump supporters” attacked the State House in Jackson, Mississippi, claiming to have seized control of that state and established a new Confederate State for Trump. And I just got an email alert from the Oakland City Manager stating that protestors have planned a huge march and rally to begin today at noon.

Gus looks up at me with wide eyes from his little bed. He knows something’s up. He can always feel these things. I nuzzle him. “It’s okay, pups,” I say soothingly. “Everything’s cool.” If only I could convince myself.


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