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What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear

Fiction By F.T. Rea

Jan. 24, 1991: Bright sunlight lit up the thin coating of freezing rain that had painted the city the evening before. In the crisp air, Roscoe Swift, a slender middle-aged man, a freelance artist/writer, walked at a careful but purposeful pace on the tricky sidewalk.

The ice-clad trees along the street were dazzling, as seen through Swift's trusty Ray-Bans. The woolly winter jacket his girlfriend, Sally, had given him for Christmas felt good.

Since the freelancer couldn’t concentrate on his reading of the morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, he left half a mug of black coffee and a dozing cat on his desk to walk to the post office. He hoped the overdue check from a magazine publisher was waiting in his post office box.

Anxiously, Swift opened the box with his key. It was empty. He shrugged. An empty box had its upside, too -- there were no cut-off notices in it. With his last 20 bucks in his pocket, the freelancer hummed a favorite Fats Domino tune, “Ain’t That a Shame,” as he headed home.

By the end of the workday Roscoe's task was to finish an 800-word OpEd piece, with an accompanying illustration, and drop it all off on an editor’s desk in Scott's Addition. With the drum beat for war in the air he wanted to focus on the inevitable unintended consequences of any war. Yet, with the clock ticking on his deadline he was still at a loss for an angle.

The country was still mired in an economic recession. The national debt was skyrocketing. War with Iraq was looming, it seemed all but inevitable. Pondering what demons might be spawned by an all-out war in Iraq -- only to be discovered down the road -- he detoured a couple of blocks, to pick up a Washington Post and a fresh cup of coffee.

Approaching the 7-Eleven store Roscoe noticed a lone panhandler standing off to the left of the front doors. The tall man was thin and frail. He wore a lightweight denim jacket with a hooded sweatshirt underneath. Snot was frozen in his mustache. The whites of his heavy-lidded eyes were an unhealthy shade of pink.

When Roscoe had run the Fan City Cinema, in the '70s, he had determined his policy should be to never in any way encourage panhandlers to hang around on the sidewalk in the neighborhood surrounding the theater. The rigid policy had lingered well after the comfortable job had faded into the mists.

On this cold day it wasn’t easy for Roscoe to avert his eye from the poor soul’s trembling outstretched hand. Not hearing the desperate man’s hoarse plea for food money was impossible. When there are always so many lives to be saved in our midst, Roscoe wondered, why do we have to go to the Middle East to save lives?

Inside the busy store Roscoe poured a large coffee. Fretting profusely, he snapped the cup’s lid in place. It was one of those times when the little Roscoe with horns was standing on one of his shoulders, while his opposite, the one with the halo, was on the other; both were offering counsel.

Roscoe's policy caved in seconds later. Still, he decided to give the freeloader food, rather than hand over cash to perhaps finance a bottle of sweet wine. It might change my luck, he thought as he smiled.

Trying to max out the bang-for-the-buck aspect of his gesture, Roscoe settled on a king-sized hot dog, with plenty of free stuff on it -- mustard, chopped onions, relish, jalapeno peppers, chili and some gooey cheese-like product. Not wanting to push it too far, he passed on the ketchup and mayonnaise.

Outside the store, Roscoe found the starving panhandler had vanished.

So, the crestfallen philanthropist took the meal-on-a-bun with him as he walked, softly singing a Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth.” With his strides matching the beat he kept to the sunny street, to avoid the sidewalk in the shade.
There’s somethin’ happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Tellin’ me I gotta beware.
I think it’s time we stop, children, what's that sound,
Everybody look, what's going down.
A line from that song’s last verse -- “paranoia strikes deep” -- suddenly snapped an idea for the OpEd into place, which launched an instant mini-mania. A block closer to home an image for the illustration occurred to him. The freelancer picked up his pace and began whistling a jazzy version of “For What It’s Worth.”

Back in his office/studio space, rather than waste money, he tore into the feast he had prepared for a beggar. The food scared, or perhaps offended the cat, who fled. Between sloppy bites the artist wiped his hands off and sketched furiously to rough out a cartoon of Saddam Hussein as the provocative Tar Baby of the Uncle Remus story, inviting America into a war.

About an hour later the heartburn started. Eventually, it got brutal. Roscoe pressed on. He wrote about the way propaganda always works to sell war -- every war -- as glorious and essential to the everyday people, who risk their lives. That while the wealthy, who rarely take a genuine risk on anything, urge the patriots on and count their profits.

Thinking of the war in Vietnam that thinned his generation out, he wrote:
After the war the veterans were largely ignored, even scorned.
Roscoe lamented the popular culture having gone wrong, so there was no longer a place for anti-war protest songs. He wrote:
Where are today’s non-conformists? Today's questioners of authority?
The freelancer turned in his work at 4:50 p.m.

An hour later his sour and noisy stomach began to calm down during his second happy hour beer at the Bamboo Cafe.

When he recounted the tale of the stuffed frankfurter and the inspiration of the Buffalo Springfield song, Roscoe made it seem funny enough to friends gathered around the elbow of the marble bar. They laughed. Since the bar's owner had agreed to hold his tab for a day or two, Swift bought a round of beers and joked about his empty mailbox.

Sally showed up with a smile. She joined Roscoe's small audience that chuckled and groaned when he finished off with, “Sometimes it's a thin line that separates heartburn and inspiration ... for what it’s worth.”

* * *

All rights reserved by the author. "What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear" along with its accompanying 
illustration are part of a series of stories called Detached.


This post first appeared on SLANTblog, please read the originial post: here

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