COLUMN 113, JANUARY 1, 2005
(Copyright © 2005 The Blacklisted Journalist)
A SHEEP IS A GIFT
[Born in England, Max Blagg has lived in NYC since 1971. He has published four books of poetry, most recently Pink Instrument (Lumen Editions/Boston) and the forthcoming What Love sees in the Distance. He has performed widely in and out of NYC, at the Kitchen, Guggenheim Museum, Jackie 60, St Marks Church, Bowery Poetry Club etc. Blagg has collaborated on artist books with Donald Sultan, James Brown, and Jack Pierson, among others. He is the co-editor of the art/lit magazine Bald Ego, and co-host of the show Bald Ego Online on WPS1.org Art Radio.
The following is from Blagg's1001 Nights, A book of stories.]
Arturo the Spanish painter, was on
a mission to prove that all women were whores at heart, based on some unfinished
business with his own mother, about which he released sporadic details, usually
when drunk---she had once fondled or fucked him or refused to fuck him. Or she
fucked his father. She wasn't his real mother, his real mom was a prostitute.
Some of his stories were so
classically Freudian---or fraudulent---that one suspected he had made them up or
read them on the wall of a toilet. To confirm his theory of the holy whore,
opening her legs for anyone even when she was already spoken for, he preferred
women who were already attached to a man. He put more effort into these
seductions than into his art, though he was very good at both.
And Alex, he wanted to be a writer
but he spent most of his time in bars, drinking and making drinks. Safely
ensconced behind three yards of booze-soaked mahogany, strutting and preening on
his little stage, playing many parts: good cop, bad cop, confidant and father
confessor, bullshit artist par excellence. He was known for the potency of his
Monkeystunners and Yellow Dragons. His regulars loved to watch him building a
chilled martini, expertly spicing a Bloody Mary, whitening a Russian. He was
Lord of the Cups, the Master Decanter, orchestrator of inebriation, foreman in
charge of the general derangement of the senses.
Ladies drank free all night
wherever he worked. He put up with all manner of aggravation and abuse, 12 hours
a night, four nights a week. He detested the people he worked for and despised
most of the clientele, these surly inhabitants of a mean dystopia who so eagerly
swilled down his beakers of liquid lightning. But the money was good, all cash
all the time. He lived by the motto of Jackie Gleason:
"I had it I spent it, it went "
was coming. The rent was due.
A pile of chocolate colored powder lay on the table by the back window of the
loft that Alex shared with Arturo. The loft was an old machine shop with solid
concrete floors and ceiling, soundproof, bullet proof. A life-size mannequin
with brightly painted lips and nails hung from a chain in the center of the
space. Photographs, newspaper clippings, magazine and manuscript pages were
randomly pinned and taped to the walls. A Selectric typewriter stood on a table
fashioned from the graffitoed marble wall of a toilet stall, lying flat on an
iron frame. There was a crude bathroom in one corner and a dirty white stove
that looked incapable of boiling a kettle. Arturo's easel and painting
materials stood next to a huge rectangular canvas tent suspended by ropes from
Beside the easel was a large cage
containing an Amazon parrot named Veronica, even though it was thought to be a
male. Veronica had a limited vocabulary consisting mainly of Spanish
swearwords--- "cabrone, chinga tu madre, pendejo?---which it repeated
loudly and harshly until a silk cloth was laid over the cage and the bird became
The powder on the table looked and
tasted like chocolate, or cocoa. It was mescaline, allegedly, but nobody ever
checked the provenance of these substances. The occupants of the loft simply
ingested them and hoped for the best. Alex was doubtful this stuff would get him
high but in the absence of cocaine he sniffed a couple of lines anyway.
Arturo decided to pass on the
chocolate. He would wait until they met Maya at the bar. She always had
something. They walked out into the December
evening. By the time they had reached Chambers Street, Alex looked at Arturo and
realized that this chocolate wasn't Cadbury's. A vein was throbbing in
Arturo's forehead like a snake under parchment. He looked as beautiful as a
Caravaggio, still halfway innocent somewhere deep down in a storm cellar under
this tornado of drugs and booze that continued to engulf them both on a daily
basis, this constant self-administered medication for the sickness in their
A silvery glow like Saint Elmo's
fire was running along the edges of the buildings that arched way up into a blue
velvet sky, soft and luscious, a massive breathing canopy above their heads.
They reached Canal Street and stood
there for some time as the traffic roared by. Alex studied the signs imprinted
in the tarmac that changed their shape with each passing truck, trying to decode
their hidden meanings. The stoplight glowed red. Each time they were about to
step out into the street a fresh wave of traffic came surging up, highbeams
crisscrossing like searchlights at a border
Then Alex saw the dog. Not the
little black shadow dog that followed him around when he was depressed, but a
fair-sized cream colored mutt, probably a lab mix, he thought as he observed its
muzzle through the magnifying lens of mescaline. Words fizzled and sparked in
Was Labrador part of the dominion of Canada?
Dominion was a nice word.
Were labs bred in laboratories?
Alex looked over at Arturo who was
waiting with Aztec patience to cross the street. He didn't have the answer.
The dog skittered through the traffic and by some miracle gained the north side
Just as suddenly it swiveled around
on big puppy paws and lurched back into the roadway. There was a screech of
brakes and a bang. A panel truck had caught the dog square in the head and
killed it instantly.
'they killed my dog!"Alex thought as his stomach bounced into his throat, then he remembered he
didn't have a dog.
The driver got out and dragged the dog unceremoniously to the side of the road. They took advantage of this brief delay to cross the street, studying the animal in the gutter as they passed
A long sensual streak of a go-go dancer, Maya had Jersey stamped all over her
Unmoved by this small
tragedy, The two of them then walked on, around the corner to La Cornue, the
little bar on Grand Street where Arturo had arranged to meet Maya, his current
Maya was a long sensual
streak of go-go dancer, Jersey stamped all over her, beautiful cornflower blue
eyes already going blank from endlessly exposing her meat joy beauty to the
salacious gaze of the neckless geeks who ogled her from the sidelines of the
luck-free bars she worked in.
She didn't like what her
beauty had brought her and had begun to acquire scars, tattoos, any kind of
imperfection to spoil and conceal whatever it was that made men stare and click
their teeth and call out to her in the street.
The bar was packed. Alex looked
around. Animal planet. Badgers and pigs and geese crowded the tables. Two
hippotami were squeezed into a booth. Low mooing and the whinnying of horses
occasionally penetrated the wall of music and noise. Maya was already there, serene among the animals. Two minutes
after they had sat down a man in a business suit approached their table. He had
a donkeyish look about him.
"Why the long face?? Alex said,
but the man ignored him and began jabbering to Maya. It was obvious they had
some kind of history---he was probably one of her lovesick johns. His bland,
expensive suit marked him as a toiler in the pits of Wall Street. He was one of
the capitalist pigs they loved to hate, ordinary men who made vast amounts of
money by some mysterious sleight of hand, by standing around the stock exchange
and shouting at each other all day.
The man briefly turned his
attention to Arturo.
"Oh, you're an artist," Alex
heard him say, "well you must be starving, let me buy you a drink."
Arturo's lack of fluency in
English frequently enraged him, and Alex shared his frustration as the
condescending donkeyman monopolized Maya with his tales of high finance. This
arrogant interloper needed to be straightened out, and a good punch in the face
seemed too obvious. Alex, mellow yet judgmental, suddenly remembered the dog. He
saw a balance, with the dog in one scale and the donkey in the other, cancelling
each other out. Justice would be served. Just desserts.
'the desserts in here are
not very good," he said to the donkey, "but
I've got something for you, something special. Don't go anywhere."
The ass was so entranced
with Maya he didn't even hear.
Alex left the bar and retraced his
steps to Canal Street. There was the dog, still lying in the gutter. It was
smiling, as if he'd come to rescue it from this undignified place. It was a
medium size lab, maybe part Alsatian, obviously not fully grown---its paws were
huge. Alex grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and walked back toward the bar.
A question flitted through his head. Why did it not seem unusual to be carrying
a dead dog along West Broadway?
"Ah, don't worry about
it? the drug answered as he reached the bar and pushed his way back inside,
the dog swinging slightly as it hung from his fist. There was a scream from one
table, a glass smashed on the floor. The stirrings of pandemonium. The bartender
shouted, "You can't bring a dead dog in here, "
That seemed to make sense,
but was it really dead, or only sleeping? Why take a dead dog into a bar? He
couldn't think of the answer to that question either, it was obscure as a zen
koan, or the first line of a joke.
you take the dead dog into the bar?now he remembered, he was giving it
to the insolent donkey talking to Maya.
He approached the table and gently
laid the dog across the broker's feet. The man looked human again, and
stunned. Maya was smiling. She loved trouble. A trickle of blood from the
dog's head leaked onto the man's shoes. The bartender, who knew Alex, had
come out from behind the bar.
"Alex, what the fuck are you
doing? Why did you bring that fucking dog in here??
"I don't know," Alex
replied, and he truly didn't.
It had seemed the perfect
response when he was listening to the man braying away, but now it seemed not
necessarily wrong but somehow out of synch. Endorphins were scattering like
roaches in his brain. Right, wrong, right, wrong, each time he tried to decide,
the focus shifted. He hadn't meant to interfere with anyone's night out, he
was just pissed at this donkey.
The bartender began to pick the dog
up and bloody drool spilled from its mouth. He dropped it and gagged, then ran
into the bathroom to puke. Obviously he had never spent time in an abbattoir.
The broker seemed too
astonished to move, even though the dog had dropped back onto his feet.
"It's okay Tom," Alex
yelled at the bartender through the toilet door, "I'll take the dog out."
PAUSE. "Where's his leash??
Then he excused himself
to the broker and hefted the dog again, feeling almost cheerful. He had
something to do. For a moment he wished he were somewhere else and the dog was
still alive, but that was the past, this was now, it was better and it was
The crowd, already jittery, parted
like the Red Sea as he walked back outside with the bleeding corpse. Further
down Grand Street a dumpster was stationed outside a building under renovation.
Alex swung the dog back and forth to gain momentum and then tossed it underhand
into the dumpster. Blood sprayed around as it flew through the air and fell
out of sight with a dull thud. That last demo job had certainly built up
But he couldn't shake a nagging
sense of unease, the idea that something foolish had transpired without his
knowledge. It caused little bursts of heated embarrassment that were quickly
dispersed by the soothing action of the mescaline.
A small cluster of people had
followed at a distance and were looking at him. Each one had a little purple colored halo above their heads.
What the hell were they staring at? They stood there quietly. Was he acting
drunk? He didn't feel drunk. What the fuck were they looking at? Arturo
suddenly appeared at his side.
"What happened?" He
seemed incredulous too.
"Oh she 's inside.
She's talking to the guy, he's really upset.."
'she's inside? She's
staying?? Alex said, astonished that she wasn't with them, outraged at her
infidelity to the cause---whatever their cause was---after such a grand gesture
on her behalf.
"Yeah, come on, we
should get out of here before
Rachid shows up. I heard the waitress on the phone to him."
Rachid, the owner of La
Cornue, was a notoriously moody Arab of Berber origin.
In his current state of
cultural schizophrenia Alex felt no sense of urgency or danger. They walked up
the street a few blocks to another bar where they knew the night manager. Jimmy
Furlong, known as 8 to the Mile, who looked like Art Garfunkel might have if he
had taken a lot of acid. Jimmy greeted them effusively and seemed unfazed by the
fact that Alex's hands were covered in blood.
"What's this, the Scottish
play?? Jimmy asked, deadpan, and Alex laughed. Everything seemed alright
again. Again. An echo. Again.
"You better clean up,?
said Jimmy and directed him downstairs to the prep kitchen, out of sight of the
customers ruminating at the tables.
Alex washed the dog's
blood off his hands and walked back up the stairs. Maybe this wasn't a good thing after all.
"What color am I now, Alex??
Jimmy said, his massive afro throwing off sparks, as he handed them each a shot
of Jack Daniels. "Do you want something to eat??
They both shook their heads no. The
burgers here were notorious.
To alleviate the endless boredom of his job seating people and obsequiously serving them meat and beer, always struggling to maintain a veneer of respect and civility, Furlong spent long hours
in his tiny music studio, making
tapes that juxtaposed wildly disparate musical styles, tapes which often drove
people screaming from the bar. The sound track now segu'd from Dear Prudence
to a kind of militant Arab music, interspersed with what might have been the
sound of camels mating. For Alex it had a terrible poignancy. Several diners
raised their heads in alarm, trying to pinpoint the source of this cacophony.
Alex suddenly got up from his
"I gotta go home."
He pushed the unfinished
drink over to Arturo, who poured it into his own glass.
"Yeah, you should go
home. I'm going to wait here for Maya."
Jimmy and Arturo watched through the plate glass window as Alex walked out, looked around and then began walking south on West Broadway. The deserted street stretched away for miles, a long tunnel framed by empty loft buildings. He walked down the tubular, submarine alley until he noticed a crowd of people milling around the corner of Grand Street. As he approached somebody turned around and yelled:
'that's him, that's
the guy who killed the dog!"
Another voice took up the cry, then somebody screamed up the street:
"Rachid, he's here!"
The crowd opened up to
reveal the owner of La Cornue, Rachid, a tiny ball of malevolence in an oversize
leather jacket, rapidly approaching, brandishing a chef's knife as long as his
Alex felt oddly relaxed,
like this was happening somewhere else, or that he was somewhere else,
not on this street corner with violence about to ventilate the tranquil fabric
of the night.
The crowd clustered around
them, hoping for bloodshed.
"Yeah he killed a dog."
"He killed his
'took it in the bar."
'threw a dead dog on the
"Hit some guy with a dead
Alex ignored these random
samplings of information. They belonged in another movie. He focussed his
wavering attention on Rachid.
"Rachid, you appear like
a mirage out of the desert. That jacket looks good on you."
"You! It was YOU who
bring the dog? What the fuck wrong with you, bring a fucking dead dog in my
restaurant? You were my friend, my customer!"
Oh, not the fucking dog
again. Why was it hounding him. The stupidity of his pun sent him into
convulsions of laughter that abated as quickly as they had begun. He tried to
change the subject.
"Hey, Rachid, do you have
a license for that jacket?
"Why the fuck you bring
that dog in my bar. A dog is bad luck."
"Why is a dog bad
"IT is fucking bad luck,
listen to me. A sheep is a gift. A dog is bad luck."
"A sheep? Well, there
weren't any sheep around, it was late. . .PAUSE. . .it was that fucking
donkey, he killed my dog, one thing led to another."
"What donkey? That was
your dog? How did that guy kill it? He's my good customer! You fucking liar!
What the dog name??
What was the name of the
dog? Alex had no idea.
"I don't remember, but
it had a mother and father."
'they killed my puppy!"Alex suddenly said, and burst into real tears, which lasted for seconds,
followed by a gale of laughter.
The streetlights were
pulsing in time with his breathing, ready to guffaw, the buildings were
tittering, or sobbing, he couldn't tell, there was such a fine line between
happiness and grief.
Rachid stepped forward.
Alex wondered idly if he
would be used for bayonet practice, but he didn't really care, the chocolate
had so euthanized his feelings. He was trying to clear the cluttered deck of his
medulla and launch a coherent sentence.
"It? was?nothing. . .personal?it
"You bring Bad luck with
you fucking dog! Stay the fuck out of my restaurant, next time I kill you."
"Oh okay, but". .
.PAUSE. . .'the dog is the real victim here??
Rachid, enraged by these non
sequiturs, stepped forward as if to stab Alex. He feinted but didn't strike.
But his swordplay deluded Alex into
thinking he had been stabbed. He felt the blade pierce his thigh and his balls
seemed to seek refuge inside his body, a strangely sexual feeling.
The shock of having his
testicles go into hibernation almost sobered him up, and then the mescaline came
coursing back in, lifting him up into the blue air of the evening. Ying yang,
his string sang. He looked down at his leg far below.
There wasn't a mark on it.
"You nearly cut the mustard ! The samurai from Marrakech! You fucking loony!?
"What is loony? Next time
I cut you good motherfucker!"
Alex was suddenly furious that he
had been tricked, not cut. It was just as bad somehow. He considered decking
this pint size kamikaze, but Rachid had too many assistants, all more than ready
to stomp him into the sidewalk.
He really wanted to
explain, except now he had
forgotten why he had taken the dog in the bar, if indeed he had.
Everyone stood there for a
couple of minutes, the night humming like a giant machine all around them, then
Rachid turned and began to walk away, the backup team following him. A
collective sigh of disappointment issued from the crowd. The show was over and
there was no blood on the blade.
Alex was relieved to see
him go, because he might well flip out, like the natives occasionally did in
Tangier, running amok in the souk and killing all the tourists. Maybe Rachid
remembered that Alex had inadvertently saved his life a couple of weeks earlier,
when he had intervened in a confrontation between the Berber and his bartender
late one night outside La Cornue. That time Rachid was wielding two
butcher knives, facing off against a coldblooded psychopath named Willy Gilman.
Willy, a popular but temperamental bartender, had apparently and not too
discreetly pissed in the ice instead of using the bathroom during the late rush.
Willy would have broken Rachid's neck and then claimed to have been hugging
him, or stabbed him and said he was trying to give him back his knife.
Even with two knives, Rachid was liable to get badly hurt. Alex, feeling
the brotherly love generated by a combination of bourbon and quaaludes, had
foolishly stepped in and tried to talk the two men out of a knife fight. Willy,
after politely asking Alex to get out of the way, suddenly picked him up like a
toy and hurled him about ten feet into the stacked bags of garbage that the
busboy had just put out on the sidewalk.
This sudden flight of Alex
through the night air was so astonishingly comical to the crowd of onlookers
that it also precipitated a storm of laughter in both participants, and suddenly
the duel seemed preposterous. Just like that, everyone was friends again. The
crowd went back inside, where Willy served the free drinks that Rachid provided
for what was left of the night. Rachid also insisted on buying the leather
jacket Alex was wearing, even though it was far too large for the tiny Berber.
Alex, who'd just
shoplifted the jacket at canal jean, happily accepted the 200 dollars Rachid
offered, and later walked home drunk and freezing in his shirtsleeves.
Now, two blocks and two
weeks from where that friendly sale had taken place, Rachid stopped, removed the
jacket and began to hack at it with the butcher knife, stabbing it repeatedly.
After he had murdered the coat he threw it at Alex and stomped off with his
little band of Thuggees in the direction of his bar. The crowd melted away.
"My tailor can fix
that," Alex yelled after the retreating figures and burst into manic laughter
once again, alone on the sidewalk, safe in the gelatinous clutches of mother
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THE MOVIE WAS FICTION. THE TRUE STORY IS STRANGER THAN FICTION: FOR MOST OF HIS SHORT BUT SPECTACULAR LIFE, BOBBY DARIN UNKNOWINGLY LIVED A LIE
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