Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain Chapter 3
After spending the day inside the U-Rent Storage shed, my brother Bill and I drove northwest into Cavalry, then to the east side of Cavalry where the graffiti was densest. At first, all that spray painting looked like vandalism. As I got used to it, I realized it gave a bright splash of color to the otherwise drab neighborhood, and that once you got past the prejudice against defacing public property it really wasn't all that bad. Of course, I never said this to anyone.
Amidst that graffiti was a spotless red brick building, its owner having been more persistent than the neighborhood taggers. Not that the building, the Howling Lobster, was free of spray paint. Inside, Bill and I sat at a table under a six-foot-high cartoon spray-painted on the wall. The cartoon depicted a chef about to dump a live lobster into a pot of boiling water on a gas stove. The lobster was saying to the chef, "Just because it's your job, doesn't make it right."
It felt good to be in the Lobster because the memories were good. Our band had held its first gig to support the A.L.F. here four years ago, and our spirit had grown along with the Lobster's crowd of regulars. Now, our concerts were the lifeblood of the A.L.F.'s operating budget.
Bill, twenty-six years old, looked like a young President Clinton with shoulder-length blonde hair. Tonight he wore a religious medallion draped around his neck, which he held away from his chest, watching it unwind on its chain. There was always a restless energy about his movements.
I was bombing in beer nuts and expostulating on topics of cosmic significance, such as how fresh the nuts tasted. I drank water, though alcohol was free. I hoped this would build character, a quality I couldn't afford to pass up, whatever the price. I'd recently turned twenty-seven, and I figured it was now or never on the question of character.
Bill and I talked softly and laughed about how lucky we'd been last night with "Diversion A." To distract the police, Bill had run up and down side streets, rocking parked cars and triggering alarms.
"They almost caught me," he said, "when I stopped to listen to one alarmed car talk to me. It kept saying in a whiny voice, 'I've been tampered with.' Cops tore around the corner and I had to dive through an ice-covered hedge and share a mulberry bush with a hoot owl."
My brother was exaggerating, as he frequently did, creating the image he was slightly crazier than he really was. Crazy or not, his dedication to the A.L.F. continued to surprise me. His strong religious beliefs did not fall in line with the beliefs of animal-rights activists. Deep into God, he believed things that people have difficulty believing even in Salt Lake City. Yet somehow his loyalty to family superseded his loyalty to self. His internal struggle surfaced only occasionally. Although, sometimes without warning.
Bill tilted his head slightly to see past my left shoulder. I shifted enough to follow his gaze. Threading his way toward us, around a small nativity scene and through the crowd, was the owner of the Lobster, Richard Tipton. An accomplished jazz pianist, Richard joined us onstage at our request.
From a distance, he looked like an overweight Bill Cosby. But up close he had the run-over look of a man who was struggling to make ends meet. He had been my father's best friend and they'd played together in a jazz band in Indiana more than two decades ago. Richard would have been like a father to me, if it weren't for the fact he was like a father to so many others.
I didn't like what I saw trailing Richard--a huge bald-headed monster whose face bore shiny white scar tissue that looked as hard as marble. When they reached our table, Richard put his arm around the monster, who smiled as though he'd been scratched behind the ears.
"This is Chas Blat," Richard said. "New bouncer, longtime friend."
Bill and I stood as Richard introduced us. "Chas, meet the Baker brothers. Bill, who always wears a religious medallion, and Clark, who always wears an ear-to-ear grin." He slapped Chas's shoulder. "Between you and me, son, both adornments make me suspect they're up to something. Besides, that is, being members of my favorite rock band, Fluke."
"I've heard of Fluke," Chas said. "Aren't you 'The rock band with the big heart'?"
"That was before the shock absorbers on our van wore out," I said. "Now we're 'The rock band with the bad kidneys.'"
Chas laughed. "I've heard good things about your comedy, too."
"Thanks." I stuck out my hand. Chas offered a warm handshake that seemed to commit him to liking you.
Richard asked, "Any new songs tonight?"
"One," Bill said. "Dudley will give you the music." Dudley, our drummer, wrote most of our songs; songs that made you remember, with a chill, that great feeling of the first month of falling in love.
"Terrific." Richard moved behind the bar and motioned us to sit down.
I sat and held my breath. I had no idea how much Chas weighed, but I was surprised when he sat on a chair and the legs didn't snap.
Richard returned with two plates of pastries, slid one in front of us and headed backstage with the other. Chas offered Bill and me first choice. We shook our heads.
"You sure?" Chas stuffed one into his mouth. And it was gone. "They're great. Really light and flaky."
For ten minutes, Chas talked about the delights of pastries, pies, and pizzas, the way men at sea talk about women. He remembered people by what they liked to eat, cities by his favorite restaurants. He was a nice man who'd been places and eaten things. He tucked pastry number three into his mouth.
"Where'd you work before today?" I asked.
He swallowed. "Just got out of prison. Almost died there."
Bill's eyebrows shot up. "Died? How?"
"Boredom. Food was tasteless. All starches." He selected a bear claw and balanced it tenderly. "Funny, though. Now that I'm out of prison, starches are all I can afford. You have any idea what it's like, being an ex-con, having to go around begging people to hire you?"
"We're rock musicians," I said. "We know all about it."
Chas snorted, his colossal white dome bobbing.
Bill leaned forward. "So why were you in prison?"
Chas choked down the pastry and lowered his eyes to a stack of pamphlets on the table.
"What are those?"
Bill wasn't the type to let his question go unanswered, but I, having no desire to upset the enormous man, reached for the stack of pamphlets, grabbed the conversational ball and threw it the hell into center field.
"Just some information about organizations we encourage our audience to support."
Bill's mouth was still agape at the nerve of me hijacking the conversation. He wouldn't have looked more surprised had I stabbed him with a fork.
"That's a list of cosmetic companies who don't use animals to test their products anymore. And the ones that still do, like the Terrig and Laurel corporations."
"How do they test cosmetics on animals--put rouge and lipstick on a pig, take it to a bar, and see if anyone asks it to dance?" Chas paused, seemingly for a laugh.
While I might laugh at deathbed pranks, stuff found wadded up in napkins, or even old reruns of "Three's Company," animal testing is one of two subjects I don't find humor in. The other is my ex-wife.
"More than twenty million animals die every year in the U.S. to test products such as nail polish, floor wax, and drain cleaners." I opened a pamphlet and pushed it to Chas.
He started reading, then pointed to a name under the heading "Products Killing Animals."
"Hey, I used this shampoo for a while." He rubbed his large bald head. "That was the year my hair fell out. You think the animals they tested it on died of embarrassment?"
"They died from the incredible pain of having shampoo forced down their throats without anesthetics."
Chas blinked rapidly.
"The animals suffer convulsions and paralysis," I said, "and bleed from their eyes, nose, and mouth."
Chas looked as if he'd bitten into a Quarter-Pounder and found an ear.
"How'd you get into cosmetics and animals? How'd you even find out what goes on?"
I wasn't sure I should tell him. I tilted my empty glass to buy time. Why not, though. He was Richard's longtime friend . . .
My brother looked Chas square in the eye. I suspected he was readying to again press Chas about why he'd gone to prison. Bill began, "Why were you--"
"Eight years ago," I interrupted, and Bill's eyebrows went up like a drawbridge opening, probably because I had never interrupted him before, and he knew I'd been counting on this distinction to get me into heaven at a later date.
Chas's eyes gleamed bright with attention.
"My sister," I continued, "having no idea the cosmetic industry used animals for testing, took a summer job at Terrig Lab as a clinical technician. At first, it didn't look too bad. She trained dogs in the lab to run on a treadmill. Then she found out these dogs were bombarded with massive doses of radiation, and they ran only because electric shocks were applied. Shock intensity was increased until the dogs died. The experiment proved nothing but continued thanks to funding from our tax dollars. Corky was so sickened by the unnecessary cruelty that she got in touch with an organization that rescued animals."
"It must be my speech impediment," Chas said. "I try to ask how you got involved, and darned if I don't ask how your sister got involved by mistake. Let me give it another shot. How did you get involved?"
Bill began tapping his shoe against the leg of the table.
I cleared my throat. "The Animal Liberation Front asked Corky not to quit her job, they needed her on the inside. But Corky understood that if anything happened to the lab, as its newest employee she would be a suspect. So, the night of the liberation she invited three fellow technicians to her apartment for dinner."
When Chas nodded, I realized I was explaining the importance of an alibi to an ex-con.
"She was also worried about her lab key. What if the A.L.F. didn't return it before she had to go to work? Someone might guess she'd lent it out, which might make her a suspect, alibi or no alibi. So she asked me, as a favor, to handle the key. I was supposed to just open the lab door. A thirty-second involvement. But when I saw the team needed help, I followed them inside."
Seeing that scene in my mind, I closed my eyes.
When I opened them, Chas was waiting patiently.
"Tell me," he said softly.
"Thirty irradiated dogs lay inside a small corral. Some were partially dissected and still alive. The rest were dead. I helped carry the living dogs outside into a van. They decided to leave the dead dogs behind. When I was locking the lab door, movement drew me to the shadows and to what I was pretty sure was a dead English sheepdog. I went back inside and checked for a pulse. None.
"But I thought I heard crying. I stood motionless. Again, I sensed the sheepdog was moving. I rechecked his pulse. None. Then I noticed a small dog nobody had seen because his fur was just like the dead dog's he was snuggled against.
"I tried coaxing the live dog to go with me, but he wouldn't leave his friend. When I tried to move him, he bared his teeth and growled. Outside, the van's engine roared to life. I pleaded with the small dog to come with me. The headlights of the van flashed on. I lifted the dead sheepdog. 'Come on, fella,' I said, 'you're coming home with me.' I carried the dead dog outside, hoping the live dog would follow. I didn't know it then, but the live dog was blind from exposure to radiation. Navigating by smell and sound, he followed his friend and jumped into the van, where he rested his head on the body."
"Did he make it?" Chas asked.
"He could, in fact, bite your leg right now."
Chas slowly moved his eyes downward. My blind dog, Hoover, was asleep under the table. I scratched him behind the ears and he flapped his tail against the floor.
Hoover is a shaggy dog, the kind a child with a minimum knowledge of anatomy could draw, no details required--a shaggy dog that isn't a particular kind of shaggy dog. When I stopped scratching him, he put his head back down. I dropped a beer nut on the floor and Hoover vacuumed it up.
Chas watched Hoover a minute longer, then turned his attention to the literature on the table.
"You stick this stuff on car windshields?"
"No. We put the pamphlets by the door, and drop the leaflets from a radio-controlled model helicopter we hover over the audience."
"Smokes, aren't those gizmos noisy?"
"Not with the new turbine engine technology."
"If you want me to, I'll hand out leaflets between flights."
"Thanks, but if we hand 'em out, people act put-upon. If we drop 'em from the air, people actually dive to snag them." I shrugged, failing in yet another attempt to understand human nature.
All at once the background noise died away. Richard peered from behind the jukebox holding a plug in one hand and waving an empty pastry plate with his other.
"On in ten!"
Like Pavlov's dog, my adrenaline began to flow.
Chas excused himself and stood. His chair sighed with relief.
With Hoover following us very closely, Bill and I followed the light of a red EXIT sign down the hall and turned left into the dressing room.
Illuminated by a single bulb, the dressing room was an all-purpose room where breaks were taken between sets and brooms and mops were stored. Scattered on the walls were posters featuring rock greats. Alice Cooper, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin were pale yellow, faded, and peeling.
Ann Berlin was relaxing on a folding chair and changing the reed in her saxophone. Tonight, instead of wearing the dark camouflage clothes she'd worn as an operative the previous night, her athletic body was graciously displayed in a sparkling green gown. I'd only ever seen her dressed in those two extremes, camouflaged or alluring, which made it hard for me to picture her as a lawyer.
James "Dudley" Mack, our drummer, was tapping a rhythm with his fingers on an Igloo cooler and making Ann laugh. I used to envy Dudley for his social skills. He was everything I was too cautious to be: moody, emotional, full of rage, love and enthusiasm.
But I no longer envied him. Long ago I'd decided certain social skills were beyond me, and now I stood silently enjoying his lively banter, with no more comprehension of its creation than a sea gull staring at the space shuttle.
Yet, inside Dudley was a subtle sadness. With strong chiseled features, he was a living caricature of Dudley Do-Right, and actively pursued by women. But he hadn't dated anyone since graduating with a biology degree from the University of Massachusetts--at which time the only girl he'd ever loved, my sister Corky, broke up with him. Ever since that heartbreak, eight years ago, he'd avoided other women and spent his free time studying the behavior of ducks while volunteering at the Boston Aquarium.
Bill slid a trashcan aside with his foot and stepped in front of me.
"Be careful of what you say to Chas. He was doing a little digging, don't you think?"
"Don't worry," I said. "Any friend of a good man like Richard is probably a good man, too."
"You really believe that?"
I thought I did, until I said it out loud.
While I was taking the compulsory eight-count, my brother was smiling benignly, leaning on a mop.
"Something isn't right about that guy," he said. "Know what I mean?"
"Sure do. He requested Muskrat Love."
"Go ahead, joke away." Bill fingered a broken mop handle, giving some evidence of intentions to reverse its direction and turn me into a Clark-kabob.
I gazed dolefully into the eyes of Janis Joplin.
A knock came on the dressing room door.
"On in two!"
Ann set down her saxophone and walked over to me. In a silky voice she said, "You're not limping. Your leg okay?"
"Much better, thanks." I stuffed a fistful of Cracker Jacks into my mouth.
"I wish you wouldn't eat those."
"Murrouph." I swallowed and held the box out to her. "Sorry. Did you want them? You could just say no, you don't have to make that kind of face at me."
Her fingers touched my hand. A whisper touch, there and gone.
"Haven't you eaten enough?"
I looked into the box and smiled at her. "No. The box isn't empty."
Again, someone pounded on the door. Hoover's ears thrust out to the sides in a way that seemed to signal both alarm and curiosity. He waddled toward the sound. I stepped over the trashcan and opened the door to my sister standing squarely in the door frame.
"What are you doing here?" I asked. There had to be a problem for her to leave the makeshift animal hospital, especially since it was getting late and tomorrow was a school day. Herding third graders took energy.
"I know you're about ready to go on," she said. "But when your set's over, meet me at the bar. I'll have a Cavalry Charger waiting for you."
That worried me. The last time I had a drink I ended up staggering around the room holding my head, screaming, "Get this thing off me." She knew that.
"I'll have one ready for you," she said, confirming my worries. Something was wrong.
The other band members filtered past us. Dudley stopped next to Corky.
"The adoption papers are ready. Just sign them and you can walk me home."
Corky continued looking at me, ignoring Dudley. If she expected him to give up, though, she had badly underestimated him.
Dudley backed off toward the stage.
"I'm housebroken, had all my shots, and don't bark at night. Unless you want me to."
Dudley had teased Corky for so many years I wondered if she knew how much Dudley still loved her. Or if she felt love was perilous. Or if she simply was uncomfortable around someone whose natural enthusiasm had once propelled him out of a car to dance with a tollbooth attendant.
Bill handed me my guitar. I watched the departing backs of the other band members. I understood why Corky was keeping bad news from us until later. The first set established the tone of the evening.
She nodded at me, eyes wide, and drifted into the crowd.
I could guess the gist of her concern. A lot of planning was going into the liberation of rabbits from Laurel in six days. She'd probably hit a snag.
"Let's go." Hoover stood up, wagged his tail, and we scrambled onstage together. He took his spot on a throw rug that I put in the same place each night so he could find it.
I looked across the dance floor, past several rows of tables, to where Corky stood in front of the cartoon chef, rocklike in the river of people flowing past her. Although she was directly between the chef and his pot, he didn't seem to notice her.
Corky is attractive but she doesn't do much to enhance her appearance. Tonight, her long dark hair looked as if it had been yanked on for a week by her third-grade class, and her clothes didn't make a statement except a general one of disinterest. Dudley's obsession with her puzzled me. Was he interested in her solely because she was the only woman he couldn't have? And did she ignore him because she understood his obsession?
The lights came up and the crowd noise went down as if they were wired to the same switch. Onstage, Richard was highlighted by a single blue spotlight.
"Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, there are bands that aren't very good, there are bands that are pretty good, and every once in a while a band surfaces that is so good it transcends the very definition of rock 'n' roll. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you--a pretty good band."
A crack of applause split through the laughter as Richard took his place behind the bank of keyboards. The blue spotlight swung to Dudley, outlining his drums. As he kept a steady beat on the toms he leaned toward his mike.
"Heard the joke about the guy who goes to Africa? Gets off the plane and the first sound he hears is tribal drums. He turns to a native, 'What's with the drums?' The native says, 'Very bad if drums stop.' The guy gets to his hotel and the drums are still pounding. He asks the bellhop, 'What's with the drums?' The bellhop replies, 'Very bad if drums stop.' Later, he's walking through town when suddenly the drums stop. The guy turns to a lady near him and asks, 'Now what happens?' The lady says, 'Very bad. Now comes the bass solo.'"
The audience rocked with laughter.
Bill's bass guitar and the tribal rhythm of Dudley's drumsticks launched us into Raw Youth's "Tame Yourself."
If you are weaker, I will eat you
If you are smaller, I will defeat you
King of all I see
I will proudly wear your memory
What separates me from the wildest beast?
It is greed and vanity
And the bigger brain, oh the shame, the shame.
Bill and Richard traded leads. Staccato arpeggios burst out, ricocheted back and forth and into lightning riffs, like speeding bullets, making me feel as though I were caught in some sort of a crossfire.
When I looked to where Corky had been standing, there was only a man dancing, large enough to have consumed her whole, staring blankly into infinity, rotating his butt like he was stirring the cartoon lobster pot with it. As he stirred, something in my stomach seemed to slither and coil.