The Rebirth of Ira Masters

by Peter Mark Richman


I went outside in the garden this morning and fed the two kittens just before I left-a combination of regular and non-fat milk and some left-over chicken dinner. I had built this rather makeshift "cat-house" out of scrap plywood and plastic somewhat reluctantly to please my daughter. I had painted it a lively green and even constructed a purposeless chimney on the roof. Well, actually it does serve a purpose. You can look in at the top and see what the kittens are doing. My daughter was thrilled with my efforts and the kittens must have been too, because they haven't wandered off. I suppose they're too young or too loyal. Loyal to what, I don't know, except my daughter's dogged regularity of service, which has been absent these past three lonely weeks.
I must say I started out being displeased at having the responsibility of feeding them daily, hoping, in a way, that they would go elsewhere for the attention they wish and deserve. But after three days of them not budging, and a meager diet of leftovers, assorted bugs, grasshoppers and one tiny field mouse, my heart softened. They had won me over. That kind of innocent persistence to survive and remain in their "cat-house" deserved some reward. From then on-it was cans of scrumptious cat food and vitamins too!
I think I even noticed a shift in cat personality. The white one let me stroke him this morning and he purred. I wonder if I needed his response more than he needed mine?
My family's yearly visit to my in-laws seemed endless.
Thankfully, my gracious neighbor across the street will take on the feeding chores while I am away.
I turned on the lamp light in the living room next to the green sofa, and the small light in the kitchen, and the one on the dresser next to the mirror in the master bedroom. They say that with the lights on you keep the burglars away. I'm not sure about that but hopeful thinking is better than nothing. I glanced at myself in the mirror and in the half-light, and thought that I looked tired and a little strange. The moustache under my nose looked reddish and peculiar. I'm not quite used to it and it startled me to see myself so suddenly. Who is that man there, looking at me so sternly?
I switched on the table light in the baby's bedroom. The play pen was folded, and the pad rested against the queen-size guest bed temporarily occupied by my seven year old. That's an awfully big bed for such a small boy I thought, but he wasn't there, and the quietness of the room saddened me. I crossed into my oldest boy's room to make one last check and flipped the light switch. The voice that greeted me brought tears to my eyes; a warm and sweet adolescent voice on a tape recorder, activated electronically by the heat of the overhead light bulb:
"Hello Dad... how are you? I hope you're not too lonely all by yourself in your lonely house. I hope you're okay. The weather here in Albany is beautiful and the water is great. I wish you were here... I miss you a lot..."
A kind and considerate act for a thirteen-year-old to make-and planned so perfectly. He knew I would wander from room to room. What fine deeds will be done with such gifted and sensitive qualities? In these days of the pill, wholesale abortion, and misguided vasectomies, I still remain hopefully optimistic that our salvation cannot possibly be vested with the visionless exponants of "Population Zero."
The cab driver that transported me to my flight was a verbal type who asked me a lot of questions that I couldn't answer about Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he was from. Why he thought I would know the answers, I have no idea.
I happened to say that I was going to Albany, New York, and Albany is close to Pittsfield and Pittsfield is close to the "Shaker" community that used to be and isn't anymore, but is now being restored. The "Shakers", who shook with God's power when they prayed used to make fabulous and unique wood furniture and other serviceable things back in the 1840's. They even invented the clothespin and the first primitive washing machine-but of course that all stopped. They were dedicated to celibacy. The cab driver thought he knew all about the Shakers, but he didn't know why they shook and why they stopped screwing. When I tried to explain the facts as I knew them he became argumentative-he couldn't believe that a whole group of people would stop having sex just because their church told them to-so I let it drop.
At thirty-one thousand feet, Wichita, Kansas doesn't look like much below the pulled cotton clouds-abstract squares and triangles and twisted veins of rivers and highways. So much turmoil-down below and everywhere, but you would never know it up here.
My thoughts, jumping around... forward... back... yesterday... a week ago... this morning....
I am strapped in, detached... only the steady droan of the 747's engines.
There is a young girl sitting next to me deeply pensive and so fidgety, her foot keeps brushing my white pants. She fingers a color photograph I glance at surreptitiously. She and her blonde boy friend are hugging each other on a white porch somewhere in California. I had seen him kiss her tenderly before she boarded, waving his reassurance as she moved away. He wasn't leaving Los Angeles and flying to Chicago as we were, but I'm sure she wished that he were-the tears still wet on her cheeks.
We were late in our Chicago landing. I had to run like hell to gate K-l. Airline connections are a nightmare to miss. I couldn't bear to sit around O'Hare Airport getting heartburn from drinking too much coffee, making "explanation" phone calls, and then not getting on the next scheduled flight because it was over-booked! There is nothing more wasteful than time lost between connections, depriving you of the time you need just to catch up-with your waiting loved ones....
The perspiration seemed cool under my arms as I made a mad dash down the crowded terminal corridor. People parted and turned to look at this possessed, sport jacketed sprinter with a small flight bag tucked under his arm like a football....
Victory or defeat can hang in a suspended moment....
I remembered what it felt like. I remembered... and it was such a long time ago. I was only seventeen... it was the last play of the game... no more time left... it was me or nothing!
There would be no other chance!
I remembered. I could still feel it, the strain in my legs... the weariness... so hard to churn them, to lift my cleats out of the muddy, rain-soaked field as I frantically charged to the goal line... so distant, so unreachable in those last few seconds...
The screams of the surging thousands reverberating in my ears... two, three, yards to go... and one last defensive back sliding in from my left out of nowhere... my legs, like lead as he slashed hard across my gimpy left knee with a crushing impact!
We toppled and sloshed and slid over the pool of muck and mud at the goal line... and then, over the goal line!
I was over the goal line!
And holding the football as tight to me as I could, I twisted my aching neck to see the referee with two arms raised. Touchdown!
The cannon boomed!
Holy shit! I had scored!
We've won! We've won!
I couldn't move. Something made me just lie there in the mud, like a pig in a pen, soaking up the jubilant roar of the home team crowd-some sense of the theatrical and the dramatic. It was a moment of grandeur, a moment designed for a monarch. A treasured remembrance in a fleeting moment of time in my lost youth-never to be equalled-or as deeply felt in any subsequent accomplishment as an adult.
We touched down at the Albany runway with more than the necessary speed it seemed to me, and I felt my heart jump and my muscles tighten. The reversal of the engines startled me even more. Why can't they be more careful? My god, I haven't seen my family in three weeks! It would be a dreadfully strident note to end on after three thousand miles.
Oh, God... are they ever going to stop this damn monstrous thing? How many tons of breaking power are needed to halt its hurtling motion and at what distance? Energy, speed, and distance is an equation from college physics, I think, but the formula's use at this time escapes me. What did that stewardess say about emergency exits? I know there is a proper preparation for death, but I'm sure it has nothing to do with physical and mathematical principles....
They were all there-my family, spread out before me in a happy, arm waving tableau-my seven year old eating a popsicle. I saw my daughter running toward me, her long hair curled around her smiling, radiant face. We hugged hard. She had grown up in these three interminable weeks. I wonder if I have changed as much to her. My moustache is longer and it certainly ages me.
"I'm going on an over-night sleepout, Daddy." She gushed."I hope you don't mind... is it okay? I won't see you until Tuesday."
Did I really have a choice? My beautiful wife pressed against me and trembled slightly as I kissed her, her shining eyes comforting me deeply. She handed me the baby. I nuzzled his sweet, delicious neck with a sloppy smooch. Long distance phone conversations are such a poor substitute for flesh and blood. Voice minus body equals zero-a principle unanimously approved by the scientific community.
My eldest son, standing behind my wife, took my hand grinning widely. Then, with an affectionate squeeze he wrapped his strong, young arms around my shoulders. We kissed unashamedly and laughed at our mutual response.
"Your moustache looks real red, Dad." He said. "Your father had red hair, didn't he?"
"Yeah, when he was young... but it was mostly white on top."
"I'm glad you're here, Dad. I sure missed you a lot."
"I missed you too, son. I went into your room... I heard the recording. That was very thoughtful of you... and it really got me."
"It did?"
I nodded. He chuckled softly as the seven year old tugged at my jacket, then tilted his head up for a kiss and offered me a popsicle taste too. I had a short lick as we all made our way to the baggage area arm in arm.
"Delicious!... delicious!" I said.
It was all so delicious.



"You want another Burrito, kid?" Nessa heard someone say.
She wiped her eyes again before turning around. The young man she saw was sporting a moustache, a thick one, and it hung more than slightly over his upper lip. He was carrying two burritos, a milkshake container, and a clump of white napkins, several of which fluttered away like stray kites. He deposited his food on the table and sat down next to her, smiling.
"How about another burrito? I been watching you, sitting over here by yourself, and I bet you'd feel a lot better if you ate another burrito. Here, take one of these. I bought two." He extended his hand with the bulky food enclosed, graciously peeling back the orange waxy paper.
"No, thanks," she said shyly.
"No? Well, how about a chocolate milkshake or a coke?"
"I don't want anything more, thank you."
"Okay... if that's the way you want it. I hope you don't mind me sitting down at the same table with you. I just hate to eat alone, ya know. It's a real drag... you know what I mean?"
He attacked his meal voraciously. Nessa watched him, not knowing whether to go or stay and too numb to care what she did.
"Hey... wow... hmmmm... this is real good. It's true what that sign says... they do make the best burritos in the valley!"
He sipped on the milkshake straw but decided the liquid was too thick for that, so he threw the straw on the table and grinned at Nessa.
"Hey... wow this is like glue! They must put a lot of ice cream in there... or maybe... just glue! Ha ha!"
He was amused with himself. Then he paused and eyed Nessa intently.
"What are you so serious about, kid? I been watching you, and you are really heavy... you know what I mean? I was standing back there at the counter, ordering my stuff, and I saw you crying, and I said to myself, this kid has got something buggin' her... and since I never like to eat alone, if I can help it, I'm gonna see if she'd like some company. Maybe I can lighten her up."
The burrito sauce rolled down his hand as he went for another mouthful. His tongue licked at the oily stream as he chewed hungrily.
Then he picked up the milkshake carton and brought it to his lips, carefully lifting his long moustache hairs at the same time to provide a clear passageway. Nessa was fascinated by the procedure and found herself questioning the curly-haired stranger in the leather jacket.
"Do you always do that?" she asked.
"Pull the hairs back to drink?"
"No, not always. Sometimes I just let it slop all over... but since I'm sittin' with a lady, I like to show her my best side."
Nessa smiled, the tension broken.
"Hey, you've got a nice smile. A real nice smile. You ought to do that more often..."
"Thank you," Nessa said. "You work around here? I mean, do you come here a lot?" As she spoke, she noticed the scar on his cheek and the grey-green eyes.
"I don't come here at all. I was just passing by. You know where Disneyland is? Well, that's where I come from... near Disneyland. In fact, I used to work there until I got laid off. You know those big animals that walk around and greet the people and do dances and things? Well, that's what I used to do. I was a white duck... and I had this little dance step I had worked out that all the people used to enjoy. Then my boss decided I should turn in my duck outfit and go work in the parking lot directing cars!
"Hell, I didn't want to park no cars... you know what I mean? Anybody can park cars. Any stupid ass can park cars but it takes somebody special to do a dance in a duck outfit, with all that weight on top of you. You see, you're about eight feet tall when you got the duck outfit on, and you just try and do a dance! If you don't know what you're doin'... I mean, you can fall flat on your ass faster than a firecracker cracks!"
Nessa fingered the gold identification bracelet on her left wrist as she watched the young man tear the paper away from his second burrito. She wondered what it would feel like to have eight feet of a white duck weighing down on her.
"Well, what did you do?" she asked, "I mean... did you quit?"
"Well, not right away. I went out to the parking department and went through the motions for a couple of days. I thought I'd give it a shot, you know what I mean?"
Another inch of food disappeared from his hand and his jaws churned vigorously in accommodation. Nessa's curiosity was piqued. She found him interesting and fun to listen to, and for the first time all day, she wasn't thinking about herself or what had happened that morning in the car.
"Did you stay there long?" she asked.
His head shook slowly, and his voice suddenly sounded bitter. "No... I didn't stay there long... no sir... I wasn't there long at all! I wasn't gonna hang around with a bunch of morons five days a week and every other weekend, workin' my ass off directing traffic! That's not my idea of how to be creatively engaged... you know what I mean? I got more important things to do with my life."
Suddenly, he smiled again and looked piercingly at Nessa, "What's your name... do you mind telling me?"
"Nessa Allen... what's yours?" she said without hesitation.
"My name's Maxwell... Maxwell Nardino," he said, wiping the hairs of his moustache. "I never use Maxwell, though... it's too faggy sounding... so just call me Max."
The traffic roared by on Sherman Way, and in the distance, the purr of a helicopter partially muted the sounds of the flapping flags that were festooned above the picnic table where they sat.
He continued, "What were you crying about? Do you feel like telling me?"
Nessa wasn't sure, so she made an "I don't know" gesture.
"Did you lose your job, too? Or did your boyfriend go stupid for somebody else?"
Nessa was amazed that he had taken her for a working girl with a steady boyfriend, so she immediately decided not to dispel that illusion by talking about car pools and junior high school, of all things. She self-consciously smoothed her hair and wanted desperately to look at herself in her compact mirror to verify the newly acquired maturity, but she resisted the impulse. She just smiled as she spoke, adopting a casual off-handed delivery that seemed to suit the occasion.
"I uh... had an argument with a girl I know. She, uh... always has to have her own way... and I just got tired of doing everything she wanted to do, and never what I wanted to do."
The more Nessa talked, the easier it was for her to lie. She enjoyed the surge of power her fiction generated. It was a totally new experience for her and she decided to play the role for all it was worth.
"I mean, we were best friends, and all that... and I still like her an awful lot. I guess that's why it really bothers me so much. But there comes a time when people who care for one another have to be more... more considerate of each other's feelings... I mean..."
Nessa was really sailing now. "If, for instance... Winifred, that's her name, Winifred... if she wants to play a record by Barbra Streisand or something, and I want to listen to James Taylor, we always have to listen to Barbra Streisand first! And by the time that whole album is finished, she doesn't want to listen to James Taylor anymore, even though she agreed to it. Now, she wants to go to a movie, or to Farrell's for ice cream... and if I don't do what she wants, she gets all drippy, and says she has a headache, or some other pain. She makes me sick!"
Max listened sympathetically, occasionally glancing at his watch. "Hey, listen. Anybody with a name like Winifred doesn't deserve to have a friend like you... that's a pisser!" he laughed.
"Well, I call her Winnie for short... she was named after her great grandmother," Nessa explained, pleased with this touch. "And that's another thing. Just last week she wanted me to start calling her 'Wynne', and I just couldn't remember Wynne that quickly, so we had a big fight about that!"
The young man laughed heartily. "Maxwell and Winifred... they're both a couple of stinkers. They sound like the king and queen of Turdsville! I never use Maxwell. I don't know why I even told it to you. I guess I thought it would make you laugh."
"Oh, I don't think Maxwell is such a funny name. It's kind of nice," she assured him. "It sounds like an important person."
"Yeah?" He thought about that. "Maybe you're right... but I used to get a lot of wise ass comments about it when I was in school, so I stopped using it. Say, do you go to school? I mean, shouldn't you be in class or something?" He studied her a second, then asked, "How old are you? Do you mind telling me? You don't have to... I mean, you must be about sixteen or seventeen, huh?"
Nessa was pleased she had left her books in Mr. Horvath's office. Junior high book covers would have been a dead giveaway. She moistened her lips and announced, "I'll be seventeen in April." She waited for his reaction, tickled by her own bravado.
"Yeah, that's what I figured you to be. Where do you go to school?"
"I go to Taft High, but I got out of class today. I uh... I said I had to go visit a relative who just had a serious nose operation. They're good about things like that. The school, I mean."
"Did you go?" he wanted to know, taking a comb out of his tightly cut denim jeans.
"No," she said, "I didn't go. I made it all up. I just felt like going to Topanga Plaza." Nessa smiled mischievously.
"Hey, that's cool," he said, combing his hair. "You want me to take you? I got my bug parked over there in front of Standard Shoes. Whad'ya say?"
Nessa looked from Max to his car, then back to Max again. The prospect of getting in a car with a perfect stranger scared her. She immediately thought of all the warnings her parents had issued on the subject and the consequences that might ensue. She was aware of all that, but there was an excitement, too, that stimulated her, and took precedence over the common sense instilled in her since childhood. She was finding it difficult to refuse.
"Uh, I don't know. I don't even know you," she protested, half-heartedly.
"Whad'ya mean, you don't know me? I'm Max, and you're Nessa... right?" he said, pulling on his ear and grinning engagingly.
"That's right... but I mean... we just met about twenty minutes ago," she said, reaching into her bag.
"No, you're wrong. We met thirty-five minutes ago, and I never make a mistake when it comes to telling the time on the big hands of my Swiss-made watch," he said, as he pushed forward his wrist, displaying the time-piece. "It's been thirty-five minutes, and that's enough time to get to know anybody! Come on! I've got a tape deck in the bug. You can listen to James Taylor, or Frank Sinatra, or anybody you like. You just push it in, flip the switch, turn it up, and sit back and relax. Eight track stereo... beautiful!"
"I don't like Frank Sinatra," Nessa said, studying herself in the small mirror of her compact.
"Well, then don't listen to him," he said, getting up.
"Do you have Carole King?" she asked, afraid he might leave without asking her again.
"Yeah," he answered. "I've got all the latest Carole King... cost me five bucks apiece. She's terrific... but I still like Sinatra. Are you coming?" His white teeth glistening in the sunlight when he smiled made him look particularly handsome.
Nessa answered quickly this time. "Okay," she said, and quickly stood up. Out of habit, she began clearing the refuse from the table,
"Come on... leave all that crap!" he said.


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