Karl and the Kooltones
by J S Quelch
Oak Tree Press
Ebook ISBN: B00RM8LTF8
Print ISBN: 978-1-61009-154-1
[ Contemporary Erotica, MF ]
Karl is a cynical, melodramatic, mildly paranoid, professional-engineer-cum-musician in the throes of a midlife crisis. Growing up on a farm in the post Woodstock Midwest, coming of age in The City as Disco rose and Punk fell, passing his prime in The Suburbs as a family guy and director of the band Karl and Kooltones, music is the common thread of Karl’s journey.
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…oke up this morning and I got myself a beer!” rousted Karl at 5:15 this Thursday morning. The tinny, treble laden, classic rock alarm blared from the 1970’s vintage clock radio, a pre-LED model featuring numbered cards that flipped around a horizontal shaft like a Rolodex to show the time. A row of thin vertical dials controlled the AM radio. All were housed in a black plastic casing the size of a White Owl Cigar box. Square channels, maybe an eighth inch deep and wide, ran parallel across the top of the casing.
“Well I woke up this morning a….” rolling his wiry, 6’2” frame over on the roll out bed in the dingy studio apartment, he lightly tapped the snooze button and laid there staring at the clock radio. Perched on the crude, pinewood night stand he hand built as a 4-H project, also 1970’s vintage, he wondered in that half-awake-half-asleep mind set what purpose those channels had. Ventilation and dissipation of excessive heat generated by moving parts of the clock shaft? Protection for the mighty AM radio speaker? A form of antennae that transmitted subliminal messages in the night from The Man to control the dreams of Tax Payers, convincing them to pay up without dissent?
The channels became an interest when he was changing the roll out bed sheets, pouring the blue stuff in the toilet to hide the yellowish brown build up, and hand swipe dusting in preparation for a gal visitor in the unlikely event the Craig’s List date panned out. He noticed the hand swipe only cleaned the tops of the channels. They came out black and polished, like new. The channel troughs were unaffected, still the light, gray-tan color of dust, lint, and cigarette ashes stuck to coffee and personal lubricant drips.
Through bleary eyes from the edge of the bed, the top of the clock radio looked like a bowling alley for dust mites in The City of Tiny Lights. Only a damp bit of paper towel wrapped around a straightened paper clip or toothpick could polish the lanes. He could spend years watching layers of crud collect on a clock radio before thinking about fabricating a special tool much less using one, but most people didn’t have that high a threshold for dirt. Multinational Corporations intentionally incorporated flaws, making products prematurely undesirable, knowing lazy consumers would toss them in the trash and buy the latest model rather than live with the filth or go through the hassle of a proper cleaning. They were turning The US of A into The Throwaway Society he tried so hard not to be part of, though sometimes it was impossible. Consider the Dinnerware Conspiracy.
Through effective marketing in 1920’s vintage womens’ magazines, Ladies Home Companion, The American Home Monthly, Hostess and the like, The China Manufacturing Conglomerate convinced mothers that newlywed daughters needed at least twelve place settings of fancy dinnerware to establish proper, respectable households. The Conglomerate deliberately manufactured the china to favor form over function, to look dazzling in the finishing school trained hands of Society Gals that could easily afford the hefty price tag for fragile, elaborately hand painted cups, saucers, and plates to daintily sip Ceylon tea and nibble water cress sandwiches. In the hands of those outside Society, the people that needed sturdy, utilitarian dinnerware to cut tendons and gristle off bottom round steaks, the china crumbled. It couldn’t be used daily, so special hutches and cabinets were purchased to protect it between special occasions, all for the benefit of the Conglomerate and their cohorts, Advertisers, Department Store Wedding Registrars, and The Cabinet Makers Union.
The Vera Wang china, that used to be stockpiled in the walnut-veneered hutch in the corner of the apartment, was the only wedding gift salvaged from his second divorce. Jane wanted nothing to do with the china when they split, but his third wife, Ruby, used to bring it out when Mother came over for Thanksgiving dinner. When Ruby died, he regressed back into College Bachelor Habits, reusing or rinsing daily-use cups and plates without soap, licking or pants-swiping silverware, and putting it all back in the cupboard as clean enough. If the food was sticky, or dried on after being left on the living room coffee table when he passed out drunk on the couch, he piled the dishes in the sink. When the cupboards were depleted of the daily-use dinnerware and the sink was full, he mined the china stockpile in the hutch.
In June he was down to a couple salad plates, the gravy boat, a serving spoon, drinking water with lips pressed to the bathroom faucet, and a teetering pile of filthy dishes so rank he moved the coffee maker to the bathroom, ate out at George Webb’s, and only entered the kitchen to rotate the beer inventory. He was going to move the refrigerator out of the kitchen too, but he yanked the power cord so hard it ripped the outlet off the wall. It was all he could do to duct tape the mess back together without the landlord finding out.
The condition was still tolerable in July. The fruit fly population was under control, liberally sprayed air freshener disguised the smell from within, sauerkraut continually stewing in the apartment next door covered it from without, but come the dog days of August, when the neighbors from The Old Country went on vacation and the sauerkraut cookery shut down, the landlord’s complaints got insistent. The hallway outside the apartment stank like a dumpster behind a French Whorehouse, and he couldn’t deny the flies weren’t coming from under his door.
Rather than risking a confrontation, he snapped on a pair of blue latex gloves from the first aid kit and jammed the vile dishes, maggots and all, into a wash basket lined with sections of the Sunday paper so decaying remnants didn’t spill or smear on his last clean shirt. Giving the hallway and stairs a quick scan for neighbors, confirming the coast was clear, he did The Harlem Shuffle out the back door to the dumpster behind St. Vincent De Paul, three alley blocks north. After another quick scan of the alley and another clear coast, he deposited the dishes and wash basket in the dumpster, casually strolled around the side of building, and went in through the out door to purchase replacements.
St. Vincent had a wide array of slightly used dinnerware, and he found four place settings made of high quality, unbreakable Melamine for double nickels on the dime. Off white with blue decorative trim, the plates matched the 1970’s vintage placemats he made for Mother, another 4-H project she returned to him after he bought his first house. With plates that matched the place mats, Mother could enjoy eating his Thanksgiving dinners, and she wouldn’t have ammunition to deride his lack of color coordination skills. St. Vincent’s was happy because they had ten bucks to donate to the Sisters of the Mercy Mission of Burma. He disposed a nasty pile of bug infested dishes that were a constant reminder of Jane, and was glad to be rid of both. All parties were winners.
“…ourbon, one shot, and one beer!” and a slide guitar solo stolen from Elmore James stolen from Blind Willie McTell woke him at 5:24. He hit the snooze again, harder this time. A little hair of the dog sounded tempting. Like many mornings since Ruby died, he was sporting a decent hangover compounded by greasy spoon fare ingested on the way home from the tavern. Turning off his mind, relaxing, and floating downstream into semi-consciousness tinged with Old Milwaukee, chili dog, and onion ring tasting heartburn swallowed back with gelatinous saliva, he twisted toward the wall in a fetal position with the pillow over his head and the sweat stained sheets wrapped between his legs. The hip throbbed beneath him. He almost collapsed in pain walking home last night.
The injury occurred decades ago on the drive home from a white water canoeing trip Up North with a gang of old high school buddies. It was more of a liquor fest and a flirtation with drowning than an adrenaline fueled adventure communing with nature on the river. When the multi-car caravan stopped a second time to let his buddy Ralph out to ralph on the shoulder of the gravel road, all the other guys got out to ridicule him, and a belly bucking contest broke out.
Belly bucking was the country version of slam dancing crossed with Sumo wrestling. Running head long, yelling profanities at the top of the lungs, jumping belly first into the other contestant, the winner knocked the other contestant over, or knocked the wind out of him. The operable words, belly first, ran through his mind as he was blindsided in the back. Falling to the ground on his side with the offending bucker’s full weight on top of him, something tore or chipped off the hip, giving him the pain he stoically endured since.
“…ight Special, shine its light on me.” 5:33. Snooze time was officially over. He detested radio station KROQ, the disc jockey, and the crew of lackeys breaking on cue into gales of feigned laughter after every inane comment. The senseless banter, and twenty song play list of rock dinosaurs that hadn’t changed since he moved to this radio wasteland twenty years ago, were the only things grating enough to get him out of bed every morning.
Letting the music play, he threw off the pillow and sheet and popped out of bed with more enthusiasm than he felt. Leaning on the night stand until the massive head rush passed, he commenced the morning routine with one super size cup of coffee, two Tylenols, a cold water face wash, a piece of gum, and a generous splash of Drakkar. He called it the old Pakistani Shower Technique, something the drummer of his current band, Karl and the Kooltones taught him. Mahmood’s exotic odor of Drakkar blended with garam masala, clove cigarettes, and dingle berries missed by the bidet hand swipe was irresistible to the gals, though it could’ve just been the fact Mahmood was a drummer. Drummers always had good luck with the gals. The Drakkar never attracted gals to him, but it did mask the hangover stench from coworkers at The Office.
Checking his face in the mirror, he scraped zits out of that space between his nostrils and the Fu Man Chu moustache he figured made him look rugged and handsome, like the Marlboro Man pre-lung cancer, and plucked out a stray nose hair. He only shaved the peppery five o’clock shadow when it got scraggly and itchy. Today wasn’t one of those days.
The search and sniff tests for clothes started in the closet. It wasn’t totally empty, but it was the middle of summer and too warm to wear the sweaters and jackets hanging there. The dresser was empty except for the Sunday Go To Meeting Suit he wore to weddings and funerals, and the two shirts Mother gave him on his forty-second birthday five years ago. He hated the lavender and cow-shit-yellow colors of the shirts, and only kept them because Mother asked to see them every time she made one of her rare visits. The rest of the wardrobe was strewn about the apartment in piles, hanging from the guitar stand and hutch, or still packed in the travel bag smelling like fish from the last excursion.
Pile 1 was contaminated by clothes worn to the tavern last night, so he went directly to Pile 2. The khaki slacks took the brunt of a saucy meatball drop at lunch last week. The Oxford only took splatters, so the shirt would do. At the bottom of Pile 3, he finally found his old blue jeans. They smelled faintly of oil and gasoline, but weren’t too wrinkled, and matched the Oxford. He’d have to go Commando again. It was one thing wearing shirts for two or three cycles, but reusing underwear was another. Maybe he’d talk his neighbor down the hall into using her washing machine this weekend and save him a trip to the Laundromat. It’d cost him a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of Carlo Rossi Rhine wine, and a couple hours listening to her go on about ungrateful kids that never visited or called, and the dead spouse she missed so desperately, but those were things they had in common. He could sympathize with her all night.
“…like to be the bad man, to be the” he half-sang-half-belched along with the clock radio. He considered doing a St. Vincent’s upgrade to an LED clock with an FM radio, but this clock radio was no ordinary piece of electronics. It was a gift from Grandpa when he was in grade school. He followed his favorite baseball team through a World Series lost in a Game 7 heartbreaker with it, got the news John Lennon was shot, and listened to innumerable hours of music from all corners of The US of A, Manitoba and Ontario scanning the late night airways from his lonely teenage bedroom. There were as many memories associated with that clock radio as there were layers of dust collected in its channel troughs. It served him well, and so had the accompanying night stand these last thirty-five plus years.
“…hind blue eyes,” the alarm went off for good. Slipping on the Red Wing shoes, donning the Panama hat, he put fresh water and Fruit Rounds in the hermit crab tank before heading out the door. He didn’t spend extra money on real Fruit Loops. That was another Multinational Corporation Conspiracy he didn’t want to think about this early in the morning, and Robert, John Paul, and Jimmy didn’t seem to notice. A fourth crab, Johnny B, died at an early age from eating too many fermented coconut shavings. He’d tried other pets, dogs, a turtle, and he married into a cat once, but his cleaning phobia resulted in more dog mines in the back yard and tootsie rolls in the cat box than the wives or neighbors could handle. Other than The Twins, that lived with Jane and had no use for their old man unless they needed cash, the crabs were the closest thing he had to a family.
Firing up the red Taurus station wagon to join the race to The Office with all the other lemmings, he fired up a cigarette and threw the empty pack on top of the debris pile accumulating in the back seat. The car hadn’t been cleaned since the car pool ended, except for changing out the Coke can ash tray he used in lieu of the car’s ash tray where he stored spare change. The Car Pool Guys were all about the environmental benefits, reducing carbon foot prints and the like, and he was all about minimizing participation in Big Oil’s Alternative Fuel Research Conspiracy, but they mutually agreed to drive their separate ways after one of then put a foot through the floor mat covering the rust hole behind the driver seat and wrecked a shoe and a pair of pants.
The Taurus was brand new off the showroom floor when he purchased it thirteen years ago. Now, rust was having it’s way with the undercarriage and fenders, there were cigarette and doobie burns holes in the seats, and the vinyl interior was cracked like the silt bottom of a river backwater exposed and baked in the sun during the Dog Days of August. He carried a spray bottle of wiper fluid under the seat and sprayed it on the windshield through the driver’s side window when the road spray got thick so he didn’t have to fix the broken wiper fluid pump. He didn’t change oil, just added more every few weeks to replace what continuously dripped from the crank case. He lived with the inconveniences because none of the afflictions affected operation at highway speeds. It was the tires worn down to the steel belts, the howling wheel bearing he drowned out by turning up the AM radio, and the disconnected rear defrost wiring he’d have to look at before winter set in. Lying under the car doing repairs in the slush of the parking lot was not a chore he relished.
Unless the car died and left him stranded on the highway with a major problem he couldn’t fix himself, he never set foot in a mechanic’s garage. The Auto Industry and Mechanics Union scared uniformed gals into preventive maintenance and repairs they didn’t need. Better replace that dual quasi dink knob or there’s a chance of hurtling into the ditch and killing the children. Don’t want kill the children do you? Didn’t think so. We’ll change the blinker fluid while we’re at it too. Jane could go in for an oil change and come back with a five hundred dollar bill believing she got the deal of the century. No price was too high to protect her babies and buy her peace of mind. It was the same with their first house.
Pushing The Twins’ double stroller through the State Fair Commerce Building to load up on free key chains, pencils, and can coolers after loading up on Pronto Pups and beer, Jane and a savvy huckster suckered him into buying an automatic fire sprinkling and home security system for an incredibly low, fair only price, payable in seventy-two easy installments. A hundred years ago the house might’ve been a very fine house. When they moved in, the house and its contents weren’t worth that much protection. He figured the only contents of value were his guns, his weed smoking paraphernalia, and his guitar equipment, all locked up in the basement cedar closet since The Twins were born. Jane figured the furniture Great Great Grandma carried for six months in a leaky boat escaping The Great Potato Famine was precious, and displayed it in one of their three bedrooms like a pioneer museum diorama. Look but don’t touch too much or even think about sitting on it. He told Jane if she found someone gullible enough to buy that rickety old crap she should take the money and run. Fire or burglary would be a blessing in his opinion, but none of that mattered now. It was all gone with her.
Merging left into the right lane of The Interstate, he switched the car to cruise control, switched his mind to glide, and embarked on the twenty mile, three cigarette journey from the apartment in The Suburbs to The Office in The City. He knew every curve, pothole, and Department of Transportation sign marking exits, mileage, and rest areas between Exits 259 and 235 like the back of his hand, but ignored the mélange of billboards posted by the Marketing Consortium to peripherally persuade drivers to attend the local technical college, turn the radio dial to KROQ, or turn off on the next exit to eat a greasy burger at McDonald’s.
After crossing the river, he pulled off on Exit 235, slowed to hit the beginning of the first green traffic signal and hung a left. Speeding up to hit the end of the second green signal, he hung another left, crossed the railroad tracks, and doubled back along the river to the free parking spot under the bridge. The bridge provided a roof over the car during winter so window scraping and shoveling weren’t necessary to get back on the highway should it snow when he was in The Office. It also shielded the car from summer rains, but not from the steady rain of pigeon shit dropped from the bridge’s steel girder perches stationed perfectly over the curb line. Other than fouling the door handles, he figured the whitish black blobs drying, staining, and eating away the car’s paint job worked to his advantage. No self respecting car thief would steal a car that looked like that.
Chest high, blue stem prairie grass growing around the bridge’s footings screened him from the street so he could piss on the wall without being seen by passing cars. All that coffee couldn’t hold until he got to The Office. It was a long walk, and he’d be damned if he’d pay to park closer after The Transfer from The Satellite Office where free parking was in a lot fifty feet from the front door. He accepted The Transfer because it was supposed to result in a promotion and a raise, but it turned out to be a lateral move. The job was new but the pay was the same as it was so long ago, and paying for parking was a cold shot to his bottom line. That’d teach him to push so hard for advancement. He never should’ve caved into Jane’s nagging or trusted his boss.
Closing his eyes and letting it all hang out on the grassy embankment, it felt like he was back on The Fishing Trip for a few brief moments, not tied here to The City. He couldn’t close his eyes long though. The parking enforcement cops, or Parkos as he not so fondly called them, had a knack for showing up at the right place at the wrong time, and he didn’t need another indecent exposure rap on his record.
Most days Parkos were scarce, a sporadic cruiser passing through here and there. At the beginning of the month, there was a Parko for every three Parkers. They were so thick you’d figure The Governor himself was parked down there, but they were gathering en masse to sweep through the marsh grass and cottonwood trees growing between the river and the tracks, to forcibly remove squatters using The Night Stick Technique. Some squatters held their ground and took their licks as they broke down makeshift shelters and stuffed meager belongings into worn back packs. Others ran like their hair was on fire and their asses were catching, zig zagging through the underbrush at top speed, like the chase scene from the first Planet of the Apes movie, without the horses or talking gorillas.
He figured they were harmless hobos, sleeping under the stars, moving on from town to town. Dirty low down gangs of roving criminals lived in ghettos of other cities. Not here. Not on His River. Hobos didn’t have to ride the rails and camp along the mosquito infested marshes and algae slicked back water that smelled of sulfuric swamp gas, dead fish, and barge exhaust. They didn’t have to sleep under tarps or walk in duct taped boots. They chose to live like that for fun and adventure. All they needed hung from their harpoons in their dirty red bandanas. That was the glamorous portrait of hobos Mother painted for him during the Halloweens of his youth anyway, as she smeared his skin with charcoal and dressed him in ratty sneakers, half tucked in flannel shirts too small for Grandpa, a pork pie hat with a red cigar band, and blue jeans he shredded by riding a skateboard on his belly and dragging his knees down the garage apron.
The last year of his trick or treating career, walking the tracks from Town back to The Farm with a candy filled pillow case hanging from a hockey stick over his shoulder, he figured he was old enough to catch the train that woke him every midnight with its lonesome whistle, and have an adventure of his own. Four consecutive nights after Halloween he snuck out his bedroom window after Grandpa fell asleep and went down to the tracks with his pillow case on a stick, now filled with sandwiches, his stuffed Fozzy Bear, and a Scooby Doo thermos full of Kool Aid. Waiting for the Double E that would be hauling over a hundred open top box cars full of ore pellets from the Iron Range to smelting factories on the East Coast, he figured he’d make it to the Mother’s apartment by dawn, but by 10:30 each night, he was overcome by that sleepy-sickly-trippy feeling and was back in bed before it arrived. On the fifth night, he launched his coffee habit, and was wide awake and buzzing when the whistle blew and the banjo signal started swinging.
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