Saturday, June 30, 2012

TSBOD Chapter 1 -- Bootleg


Bootleg is the first chapter of The Second Book Of Deak, which is the second novel in The Deak trilogy, which is the fictional autobiography of international rock superstar Deak.  I completed the first novel in the late nineties.  That one is called simply, The Deak.  You can read more about it and a few sample chapters by following this link to my website.  While The Deak is played mostly for comedy, the back story necessary to understanding Bootleg is pretty simple and tragic:  Deak married Podi when they were both twenty, and within a year their son Isaac was born.  Podi fronted her own successful band called The Belle Blossoms.  Their home was in New Orleans, and one night while Podi was at home with Isaac, Deak cheated on Podi with Charise, The Belle Blossoms bass player.  The adulterer slinked home to find his wife cradling the body of their baby in her arms, another victim of SIDS.  She recognized the trace of Charise's perfume lingering on Deak, and humiliated him before leaving him.  Distraught, Deak seeks relief in alcohol and comfort from his hobo friends who dwell on the bank of the Mississippi river.  Bootleg opens in the cemetery, where Deak is saying goodbye to his freshly buried son.

Chapter One
Bootleg

The afternoon evolved into twilight, which quickly declined into night.  Still, I sat there beside the footstone, sobbing and suffering.  Everything was gone—my Podi and our Isaac…my whole family—and suddenly I was alone…miserable, wretched and pining…an abject pauper in spirit….. 
It was the dark night of a new moon.  The few stars visible through the black shroud were quickly obscured by swirling storm clouds, which were like an impenetrable shroud of death.  It covered me like a blanket, clung to me like a second skin, smothered me with terror, and suffocated me with fear.  I dreaded what it portended.
I experienced the revelation that I had reached a crossroad in my life.  Since the path I most desired, to backtrack and change the past, did not appear, I became angry with the Fates, and violently cursed them.  That ineffable moment was simply bizarre, and when confronted with the choice between left into the light and right into the night, I trembled and went wrong.  I got to my knees, crawled across the ground, and with my hands pressed into the fresh dirt covering the coffin of my precious Isaac, I leaned forward and kissed his tiny marker, and broke into sobs over him one last time.  In that same instant the death clouds above burst and pelted me with bullets of acid rain.  I jumped to my feet, shook my fists skyward at the confusion, and unleashed a primal scream.   With the determined resolve born of passion I walked over to my guitar and calmly stomped it into splinters.  Then, without turning my head (though stifling sniffles and tears), I walked out of the cemetery and into a bar, where I took a glass of vodka, then another, and another, and another…until I was sitting on a stool in Cosimo’s, where I bumped into Arthur, my old friend who had formerly managed a number of Bourbon Street bands (see chapter 34).  And just as we had that night we hung out shortly after Isaac’s birth, we filled a couple of bags with beer, food and tobacco and went to hang out with the homeless drunks by the riverside.  But unlike that first night, this time when Arthur left at sunrise, I did not accompany him, but stayed there boozing with my new friends.
We were many and varied—the denizens of the riverbank—and came and went daily, but we all had one thing in common:  we had been seduced by the mesmerizing spell of alcohol.  Whether by addiction, escape or passion, we were a brotherhood in the bottle.  And we were in New Orleans, where every moment was an open spigot pouring party.
During the weeks that I lived at the water’s edge I met veterans of war and has-been musicians; broken-hearted losers and lovable bums.  I met all manner of man who for one reason or another succumbs to the false charms of liquor.  And not only was I among their number, I became one of their leaders. 
The first guy there I truly befriended was Shank the fisherman.  When Arthur had first brought me there, and then again the time I stayed, Shank was sitting on a stump at water’s edge with a fishing pole propped between his legs, a cigarette in one hand and a can of beer in the other.
So at the break of the day following Isaac’s memorial, I staggered over to him with a spilling bottle of vodka and plopped myself beside.  “Sooo….” I slurred.  “Who are you?”
He turned to me with friendly smile and extended hand, and said:  “I’m Shank.  Who are you?”
“My name is Deacon, but my friends just call me Deak,” I answered.
“You’re Deak!” he cried.  “All right!  I knew I recognized you!”
He whipped out a harmonica, and tooted and sang, Down By The Riverside.

“I'm gonna lay down my heavy load
Down by the riverside…
Down by the riverside…
Down by the riverside…
I’m gonna lay down my heavy load,
Down by the riverside.

I ain't gonna study war no more
Down by the riverside…
I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside…
I'm gonna lay down my travelin' shoes
Down by the riverside…
I'm gonna lay down my gun and belt
Down by the riverside…
I'm gonna put on my long white robe
Down by the riverside…
I'm gonna put on my starry crown
Down by the riverside….”

Just as he was fading out I picked up, and sang:  “I’m gonna leave all my sorrows here, down by the riverside…Don’t want to spend my tomorrows here, down by the riverside…down by the riverside….”
Our rendition of the standard was beautiful, and the friendship sealed with a handshake.  Then Shank said:  “So, what troubles lead you into the fold?”
I had been waiting all night for someone to open that gate of my mouth, and darted through with a lightning tongue.  I berated him with my babble about Podi and Isaac for fifteen of his patient minutes before I suddenly halted my egocentric self and inquired about him.  “And what brought you here?” I asked.
“No troubles,” he nonchalantly replied.  “I’m just waiting to catch a particular catfish, and I’m not going to leave here until I do.”  He sipped whiskey from a filthy brown bottle, which he then handed to me.  “Well, maybe I want a wife, family and house, like you had…but I haven’t found my woman yet, and there’s a certain catfish I need to land first.”
“Moby Dick?” I facetiously asked.
“No, I just call it Fat Cat.  It’s a hundred pound channel cat I saw with my eyes right here six months ago, and I’m going to sit here pinning mudsuckers and nightcrawlers to my hook until she bites, then I am going to eat her, and share her with my friends.  Peace, my brother.”
He slapped my hand, cast his line back into the water and sipped a beer.  I went to meet some of the others. 
There was Chuck Barry—not THE Chuck Berry—but a carefree white fiddle player from San Antonio.  There were O’Malley and Liffey, the wandering Scots, and Abdul O’Doul, one the world’s few muslim Irishman.  There was Riley the sailor.  There were Zak, Arne, Covino and Woodman, who had run out of money on a road trip and were mingling with the locals till they had enough jack to refuel their van and go.  There was Callahan, who sang the Dada Song, and Big L, who had ostensibly been driven mad by his computer.
But with the high times came dry times, and so it was that after a full fortnight fat on the hog we crashed and burned, and for whatever mysterious reason, went a couple of days without food nor drink, and without the slightest motivation to walk the two blocks into the city.  It was the middle of August, and the broiling humidity was oppressive.  It was all we could do to haul ourselves into the water and then back out to flop onto the bank.  Night fell heavily.  The moon was full, but obscured by thick clouds, and six of us—myself, Shank, Callahan and Woodman laid there dreaming aloud of drinks and crawdads.  We had just resigned ourselves to a night without either and achieved a peaceable reverie when a gaunt man, all shadow and bone, appeared behind us.  I couldn’t tell if he was real or a craving induced hallucination, but he inspired a shiver that iced my blood.  He was a madman.  He leaped around menacingly, and taunted us with his sinister song.

When your booze is gone
And you’re all alone,
Watch out for Monkey Jones.
All shadow and bones,
You’ll shiver when he moans…
Here comes Monkey Jones.

The queer figure jigged about my head incessantly repeating those lyrics in a strange and sinister melody.  Suddenly the clouds overhead parted, revealing the full moon.  At the same moment fog rolled in off the river.  Then I heard a low, gravelly voice command:  “Monkey Jones, be gone!  Get out of here now, d’ya hear?”
I looked up and saw a strange figure approaching.  He was of diminutive stature, with a heavy beard and a thick head of long hair.  He had a pronounced limp in his right leg, and below that same knee I could see dazzling jewels sparkling in the moonlight.  His right calf seemed three times the size of the left.
Shank sat up and triumphantly said:  “All right!  Bootleg is here!  Monkey Jones is history, and we’re all set!”
“Bootleg?  Who’s that?” I asked.
“Him,” Shank whispered, pointing to the approaching man.  “Watch this.”
There followed a surreal confrontation.  Monkey Jones cowered.  Bootleg stalked and towered, waving the pinky and index finger of his left hand in Monkey Jones’ face, jabbing the air and growling:  “Bafongol to the bogey man!  Take the onus, take it and go!”

Monkey Jones meekly yelped once and melted into the shadows whence he had emerged.  Bootleg then hobbled over to us, seated himself on a rock by the embers of what had been our fire, and flipped a silver latch on the side of his knee.  His hollow wooden leg popped open, and he removed a magnum bottle of a clear liquid that splintered the moonlight like a prism.  I was mesmerized with curiosity and desire.  He got up and spread a few fresh pieces of wood on the coals, and splashed them with several drops of the liquid, which brought the fire blazing back to life.    Then he tipped the bottle and took a draught before passing it to me.
I was both bold and timid.  I seized the bottle, then hesitated to drink.  “What is it?” I asked. 
“Grapa,” he answered.  “Go ahead, I made it myself.  It’s an Italian drink, fermented from what’s left of the grapes when they’ve finished making the wine.”
I filled my mouth, swished it around, then eased it down my gullet.  It was a strong liquor, and a warm glow radiated throughout my body, to the tips of my fingers and toes, and to the very follicles in my scalp.  I gazed at the moon while my body embraced the spirit.  Then Shank took the bottle, swigged and passed it, and in moments we were gathered around the fire chatting and drinking, with spirits greatly raised.
Bootleg was quite the character.  He had the gift of gab, and kept us entertained with both his stories and jokes, and his witty repartee.  As we jabbered I studied his prosthetic by the light of the fire and the moon.  It was more a magnificent sculpture than a replacement leg.  It was made of teak, and burnished to reveal the very essence and soul of the wood.  There were dozens of pearls, garnets, rubies and emeralds inlaid with silver and gold.  There was fur trim around the top, a huge diamond in the tip, and a glinting silver spur.  It was a more beautiful a boot than I had ever imagined could exist, and my hypnotized eyes were riveted to its glory. 
The bottle quickly emptied into our bellies, and upon its conclusion, Duppy, Joop, Callahan and Shank drifted into contented drunken slumbers.  But Bootleg and I were not yet satisfied, and sat staring at each other and the fire, with the others snoring around us.  Our eyes locked, burning not only with the grapa, but with a bond we knew had been forged a million years before, and that had finally brought us together in that moment.
Then Bootleg said:  “Hey buddy, you still thirsty?”
All I wanted was another drink, and all I could do was to nod my head.
“I got a little something else—my special reserve,” he said.  He opened his boot again, pulled out a little glass and put in the empty grapa bottle.  He then buckled the boot back up, held the glass down by the heel, and opened the spur. It was also a tiny tap.  A thin stream of golden liqueur filled the little glass.  He offered it to me.  I sipped half then handed it back.  The feeling that suffused my flesh transcended drunkenness--it was intoxicatingly divine.  I had never experienced such euphoria in my life.  “What is that?” I finally asked.  I had never tasted anything like it, and was completely perplexed and befuddled.
“Church wine,” he answered.  “I’m friends with a priest, and he gives it to me.  He’s a compassionate man, and he knows it kills my pain like nothing else in this world, and so he smuggles me out about a pint a month.  It’s what they drink as the blood of Christ when taking communion.”
“You’re still in pain?” I stupidly asked.
“It’s called phantom pain, Louie,” he replied, “and it haunts me every moment of every day.  It’s like the leg is always there yet constantly being torn away.”
Emboldened by the drink, I decided to push him.  “How did you lose it, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I don’t mind,” he replied.  He refilled the glass from the spur, grimaced, swallowed his mouthful and handed it to me.  “The Crippler stole it.”
I drank my half greedily, and responded to him as if speaking from a dream.  “The Crippler?  Who is that?”
“Polio,” he replied.  “You probably don’t know much about it because you were born after Salk discovered the vaccine which spared you.  It’s a degenerating muscular disease, and for decades it ravaged the country, maiming and killing like a mad tornado.   I got it drinking from a mud puddle when I was two.  I probably passed the bug along to all my friends.  We the afflicted spent our childhoods in iron lungs and on crutches, and as outcasts from the untouched.  I—“  He caught himself, and then got lost in a mournful thought.  Then he tapped the hollow boot with a knuckle, and said:  “But knock wood, one friend lost both legs, another lost both arms, and four died, so I could be worse.”
I suddenly felt guilty that I had always taken my perfect health for granted, and apologized.  “No need to apologize, buddy,” he continued.  “God said two things about me:  that he made me ‘in his own image,’ and that ‘I am what I am.’  So notwithstanding the missing kicker, I still am whole.  But we have a bigger problem right now.”
“What’s that?” I dumbly asked.
“The leg is empty and I’m still thirsty.  How much money you got?” he bluntly replied.

I was off guard and totally unprepared for such a response, and stupidly answered, “Uh, none.  Not a nickel.”
“Then you’d better start limbering up your fingers, cuz we’re gonna have to play some blues for booze.”
“I don’t get you,” I slurred.
He stood up, hobbled over to me, grasped one side of my head with his left hand and lightly slapped the other with his right.  “We’re going to play a few songs for the tourists and partiers, pass the hat, and as soon as we have a handful of rags, we’ll go somewhere for a few more drinks.  I know where we can get a hold of a guitar and a bass.  Come on now.”
He grasped my hand and yanked me to my feet.  I came to life like a sinner at the resurrection.  I suddenly no longer craved liquor, but only to play the guitar again.  We were just about to set out for the French Quarter—I walking and Bootleg hobbling--when the faint music of a harmonica drifted out of the dusky morning mists and into our ears.  We both turned and saw Shank lightly puffing on his harp. 
Then he said, “I heard every word, and y’all ain’t going anywhere without me.”
He set aside his fishing pole, came over to us, threw one arm around me, the other around Bootleg, squeezed us to his heart, and The Nightcrawlers were born.
We three wandered up the six blocks to Bourbon Street.  Bootleg seemed to know everyone we passed along the way.  He acknowledged a greeting or shook a hand at every step, and stopped to have a dozen conversations.  At last he brought us to a bar called Tropical Joe’s, where he knew just about everyone, including Joe the owner, who immediately treated us to cocktails. 
After a few minutes of chit chat Tropical Joe looked at us expectantly and said:  “Well?”
“Well what?” we replied.
“The first round was on the house, but you’ve got to sing for the rest, so get to it!”
The house band’s instruments were there onstage, so I strapped into the guitar, Bootleg had to mount a little stool so he could reach the neck of the double bass, Shank lubed up his harp and we showered Bourbon Street with a short set of simple blues standards.  Though we generated a certain chemistry playing together, we were far from tight—booze and blues don’t always mix.  Nonetheless, we brought in a few patrons for Tropical Joe, earned enough in the hat to drink a river of margaritas, and, most importantly, The Nightcrawlers were able to say they’d had a successful debut.
During the months of my bender I tried several times to sober up, but found that none of the pains in my heart had yet relented, and so always proceeded to get even drunker than before.  While before and since alcohol generally accentuated my happy nature, during those dark days it largely transformed me into a mean, nasty monster.  And the beast it unleashed knew nothing of love and loyalty to friends, nor of kindness and courtesy toward strangers, it only knew Deak slaking his insatiable thirst.
And my descent into the abyss of perpetual inebriation resulted in my frequently finding cuts and bruises on myself, with no recollection of how I’d acquired them.  On numerous occasions I woke up in strange places and strange beds, on and under benches, and once in a pile of leaves.  Twice I came to wearing clothing I didn’t recognize, and once thirty miles away in Metarie, across Lake Pontchartrain.  And at some point almost every day I’d feel as if someone had sawed off the top of my skull, basted my brain with iodine, then secured it back in place with fifty wood screws.
Throughout the bender I did manage to maintain playing with The Nightcrawlers a couple nights a week.  Our repertoire consisted almost solely of standards—“Built For Comfort,” “I Got a Woman,” “Kansas City,” “Money,” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” among many more.  We also worked up one trademark original, Bootleg’s ranting “Monkey Jones.”
I really don’t recall many specific details of those Bourbon Street performances—until the last couple.  My hasty downward spiral into the bottom of the pit began one morning when I awoke on a park bench in a rum fog so dense that I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or awake.  Oddly, it turned out to be a little of both.  The dream was that The Nightcrawlers and I were performing “Monkey Jones” on Bourbon Street.  The reality was that a recording of the song was actually pouring from a nearby radio.  I shook my head to confirm that I was awake—or rather, that I had crossed that threshold from drunkenness to hangover—then tracked the song to its source.  The sound quality was excellent, but I couldn’t understand where a recording of “Monkey Jones” had come from.  Then, when the song ended and I heard applause, I recognized it as one of our Bourbon Street performances.  I was mystified by the song’s existence as a recording, but had only been pondering that for a moment when the deejay announced the next song, the latest release from The Belle Blossoms, a surefire hit called “Adios, Loser.”  It was Podi’s musical stab into my rent heart, and it stung like Cleopatra’s asp. 


Adios, Loser

In the beginning, I’ll admit, you were winning,
When you had me on your arm,
The world was your pearl when I was your girl,
When I was your sweet lucky charm.

But now it’s all over,
You’ve plucked not one…not two…not three…
But all four leaves from the clover,
And instead of singing “Hola lover,”
I’m screaming “Adios, loser!”

Adios, loser!  Adios, loser!
Adios, adios, adios, loser!
Now you’re the beggar, while I’m the chooser.
I’m the shining star, and you the wretched boozer.
You had a princess, but you misused her,
And changed your prince’s robe for a pauper’s rags,
Adios, loser!

And as if predetermined by Fate, the moment the song finished playing I espied Ricky and Podi across the street, walking together with their fingers interlocked.  My heart sank and burned, and from that instant events unfolded in rapid succession to the explosive culmination that same evening on Bourbon Street.  First I guzzled a pint of vodka and got a good buzz working.  Then a quick stroll around the French Quarter revealed to me that a bootleg tape of one of The Nightcrawlers shows had been pressed and released and was selling like proverbial hotcakes.  My anger, compounded, escalated.  I spent the day pissed off at Ricky for his betrayal, furious with the scoundrel who’d had the audacity to record and release a Nightcrawlers show without my authority, mad at life and the world for nothing but reasons of my own making, all the while chugging the booze that was fueling the bomb.
However, there was a calm before the storm.  Just after sunset I stumbled down to the riverside, where Shank, Bootleg and some of the others were sitting around a campfire passing a couple of bottles.  I had barely slurred ‘hello’ to everyone when Shank’s fishing line snapped taut and the pole flew into the water.  “That’s her!” he cried as he dove in after it.    “I’ve got her!” 
We jumped in to help, but he waved us off, saying that it was a fight he needed to wage alone; and after a momentous, two hour struggle that left him sweaty and exhausted, with palms striped with string burns and lacerations, he had successfully landed the approximately one hundred pound channel catfish that he’d so aptly nicknamed Fat Cat.  I was happy for him, but while our comrades cheered and congratulated and raised toasts to his conquest, I sat sullenly in the background, slowly sipping myself into an oblivious stupor.
The great fish was greatly admired, and through Shank’s impassioned recounting of the struggle to land it, apotheosized into legend.  Then there was a brief discussion as to what next, whether to take it to a taxidermist or to simply eat it, which determination was made by Shank when he plainly said:  “Well, since I’ve got no use for trophies, much less a place to display them….”
And so the fish was gutted and filleted, marinated in some wine, wrapped in some seaweed and an old blanket and thrust into the embers, and at midnight the legendary fish became a mere feast for ten drunks with the munchies.  I had a couple of nibbles out of respect for Shank, but my anger at Ricky and Podi, and the rogue who’d pirated a Nightcrawlers show, had festered to a height that killed all appetite, leaving only the unquenchable thirst for the liquor that was fueling my rage.
After everyone had stuffed themselves with catfish and laid belly up for an hour or so, Bootleg suggested we go up to Bourbon Street and kick out a few tunes.  I was incoherent verging on blackout, but recall thinking a jam might help to sublimate my anger, and so staggered along with them.  The next thing I remember was standing at Tropical Joe’s looking at the instruments.  Then the strangest thing happened, an occurrence that set the chain of events in motion.  Bootleg had left the room without my noticing, just a moment before I excused myself from Shank to go to the bathroom.  When I came out of the john I heard some strange noises in the hallway behind the stage.  I stuck my head around the corner, discreetly peered through a gap in some slats, and saw Bootleg loading two microphones and a recorder into the hollow of his prosthesis.  I was infuriated around the moon and back, and almost confronted him on the spot, but for some reason refrained and went back to Shank to await Bootleg’s return so we could begin the jam session.  He came out a few moments later, and we set up and started the performance.  That night may have been the worst guitar I’ve ever played.  Between my extreme intoxication, and my intentionally not wanting to produce quality music for Bootleg’s bootleg, I stunk up the joint.  The people that didn’t boo or hiss gave me funny looks as they walked on by.  Then I noticed Podi and Ricky in the distance, arm in arm, pointing at me and sniggering.  I proceeded to scramble the tuning nuts and to ferociously pound the guitar—discordant would have sounded ordered compared to the noise that I produced.  Then Bootleg tapped my shoulder and said:  “What the hell’s the matter with you tonight?”
While his tone was one of genuine concern, I heard only what I wanted, which was a pissed off and antagonistic someone confronting me.  “What’s the matter?” I slurred.  “What the matter?  I’ll show you what’s the matter!”
I unstrapped the guitar, grasped the neck with both hands, cranked it behind my back and swung it with all my might.  The solid body guitar crashed squarely into his wooden leg—the guitar cracked in half and his leg splintered into fifty pieces.  The tape recorder and microphones spilled onto the sidewalk a moment before Bootleg landed up them with a crunching thud.  
“That’ll teach you to steal my music!” I screeched at the top of my lungs.
I had not disabled him, however; I had enraged him, much like throwing mud on a hen, water on a cat, or wagging a dog.  After letting out a blood chilling howl of anguish, he hoisted himself up onto his good leg, hopped three steps towards me, and in one motion clamped my throat, thrust me backwards and landed on my chest, knocking me windless.  His eyes were two blazing infernos of rage, and I could see that I’d fractured the tip of the small piece of fibia that remained extended below his kneecap.  He yelled—not screamed—at me, and his words were punctuated with the droplets of spittle that speckled my face.
“You arrogant, egotistical, reeking piece of crap!  The music is ours, not yours; and the money from the tape is going to help some of my less fortunate friends with polio, since our government thinks it’s more important to know the effects of outer space on pregnant vermin than to care for a cripple here on earth.  I didn’t realize you needed the money on top of your millions…next time I’ll be more considerate!”
The last thing I remember through the haze is his fist rapidly growing large before crushing my face.





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