BLACK PAR 64
“Daisy Van Dyke is a moron!” said one actor to another outside of the Prowly Cat Playhouse. The two were costumed as soldiers in craft foam breastplates and tight stockings.
“No, she isn’t!” I interrupted, throwing my songwriter’s note-book at them. I had come to escort Daisy home from her play practice, and she was still inside the theater. “You can’t insult my sister like that!”
“Sure I can!” the first actor fired back. “She won’t learn her lines,” he said. “Our whole production has to come to a standstill while she plays with her hair and mumbles into an eggplant.”
“What eggplant?” I asked.
“The one on the prop table,” the second actor said. “She can’t remember her lines, so she asks an eggplant to refresh her memory.”
“What? She wouldn’t do that! Daisy doesn’t like vegetables.” “She’s a moron,” the first actor reminded me.
“Daisy’s a temperamental artist, you reptile!” my buddy, Wilton, cut in. He had come along as he often did when I ran errands. “That means she’s a genius! All the Van Dykes are.” Wilton was good at coming to our defense.
“She’s a prima donna, that’s what she is! And if she doesn’t get her act together in two weeks’ time, we’ll all be screwed!” said the first actor.
“She’ll have her act together!” I said.
“That’s right, she’ll be excellent, so don’t worry about it!” Wilton
When they left, the actors stepped on my lyrics and took turns ruffling Wilton’s hair. They lunged at one another with their fake swords, fencing their way out of the Prowly Cat parking lot and into an old grove of eucalyptus trees.
“I know those guys, Oriel,” Wilton said, picking up my lyrics and wiping them on his mechanic’s shirt. “The tall one with all the teeth is named Kip. He graduated last year. He was on the flossing team. The other guy—the reptile—I forget his name.”
“So they’re in high school?” I asked.
“Yeah, they’ll be sophomores. I guess we’ll have to see them at Wigston in the fall.”
“I suppose so,” I said, not wanting to think about it. I was ready to go home, and I wondered where Daisy was and why she hadn’t come out.
“They’ll probably give us a hard time.” “Why? Because we’re freshmen?” I asked.
“Why? Because we’re freshmen?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “because I called him a vertebrate.”
After a few minutes it began to drizzle, and Wilton and I gave up waiting for Daisy. We stomped through puddles before going our separate ways.
Walking home, I could have taken a shortcut through the eucalyptus too, but I wanted to go the long way down Rocky Road to Gravel Street. I wanted to go that way so I would have more time to think about things, before being told to bleach my tea mug or dump the crumbs out of the toaster. I wanted to think about summer and what I was going to do with my time off. But mainly, I wanted to think about songwriting.
You see, I always knew what I wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t a secret to me as it was for some kids. I wanted to put my mind—my whole heart—into creating something. Something that would express the essence of why I lived. My mother says we Van Dykes have a proclivity toward expressing ourselves, and I’m no exception. But it isn’t easy: it takes practice—a lot of practice. And guts. Guts that, in my case, I have to muster every time I fall off a stage, forget a song lyric, or break a string!
Anyway, walking down Gravel that soggy June afternoon, passing the same houses and storefronts I’d passed every day of my life for the last fourteen years, made me wonder if those dreams would ever be realized. I lost hope in my future and felt a profound sense of disappointment.
At first, I figured it was those actors who insulted Daisy that led me to feel that way, but then I knew the feeling went deeper than that. It had been gnawing in the back of my mind for much longer. I swung open our gate and looked back at the road I had just traveled. What could it be? I wondered. What makes me feel like a failure before I even try to succeed? I knew. It was my hometown of Milford—Milford Orange, sweet and familiar—nestled in smelly cat piss eucalyptus, and hunkered beneath an ominous and ever-present cloud. A town whose pervading blackness was inescapable.
Milford, who was limitless and confined, enviable and unpleasant all at once.
It was a town that would hold me back if I let it, and—though I couldn’t have known it and wouldn’t have believed it at the time—it would inspire a mystery that would wreck my summer and ruin my reputation.
In its heyday, Milford Orange was a train stop on a lumber route that ran from Somersault City north to the Calamity River. It was an almost pretty place, sitting in a perpetual mist on the edge of an inky estuary, hemmed in by a seventy-one-thousand-acre after-forest of dense redwood, bay, oak, madrone, and pine.
Milford straddled an irritable bit of geology known as the “It’s Not Your Fault.” That fault was responsible for the significant, and famously destructive “Great Tumbler” of 1928, an earthquake so massive it was felt one hundred miles in every direction, and so powerful it sank the entire Milford Orange street alphabet after Eye into the estuary.
In the eighty-four years since it sank, bits of the old town belched forth from the mud and oozed into the imaginations of plundering treasure hunters, natural disaster enthusiasts, and amateur archaeologists. Electric chairs, microscopes, and doorknobs were only a few of the artifacts to be pulled from the slime.
You never knew what you would find. Oystermen might as easily have dug up a glass eye as an oyster. My brother, Crispin, found an artificial leg that moved in three parts. And I used to have a pretty extensive collection of false teeth before I donated them to Mr. and Mrs. Witley’s Historical Society for further research. Once I pulled out a typewriter that was missing the letter u, but I threw it back since u was an important letter I knew I would miss dreadfully.
Not much of Milford Orange was rebuilt after the Great Tumbler. Some of the wooden sidewalks were hoisted back and hammered down, but the train station and most of the tracks were gone. There were some houses left—saltboxes with pepper plants and Queen Anne-style cottages. We lived in many of them, thanks to my mother Aurora’s love of rescuing and redecorating fixer-uppers. Along with their gabled roofs, bay windows, and gingerbread trims, many of our former cottages were adorned with decorative window boxes still stuffed with the faded, plastic bouquets my mother had planted.
In recent years, our family lived beyond the For Sale sign at the end of Gravel Street, where my mother had completed the artful resurrection of three corroded but architecturally intriguing train cars.
If you were Sir Francis Drake, the Elizabethan explorer, you were lost enough to have ended up in the twenty-first century, and you recently had parked your Pelican in the estuary to go out for a plunder, you might have ended up in Milford. After a couple of days rambling in the after-forest in your leather breeches and lacy ruff, you might have stopped dead in the middle of A Street, removed your hat, scratched your head, and wondered where on earth you were.
For a moment, you might have thought you were off center, off course, or having a peculiar dream. Or you might have pinched your cheeks, checked your compass, and spun your globe. Then, to identify your location precisely, you might have unrolled your biggest map—the one with the coffee stain—all the way out. You might have dropped down to have a closer look. And while you were closer-looking, you might have (again) removed your hat, scratched your head, and let the scarlet feather tickle your chin.
But, if after that closer look you still could not find where you were, you might, in your desperation, have ventured to ask a passing stranger—someone carrying a guitar case, and going somewhere in a rushed and purposeful manner—for directions.
If there was a long pause before you heard a response, it was probably because I didn’t think you were talking to me at first. Or, I might have been thinking, Jeez, what’s this guy doing on his knees in the middle of the street? And when I realized it was you and said, “Sir Francis, please! Get out of the street, or you’ll get hit,” maybe you wouldn’t know to look behind you to see if a car was coming, since they didn’t have cars in Elizabethan England. You might have thought you were about to be hit by something from above.
Anyway, I forgot where I was going with this. Oh, yeah—Milford Orange was not on everyone’s map. It was a small town that was a pass-through for people on their way to somewhere else. It had one of every business necessary for a town of its size and nothing extra: one grocery, one bank, one scooter repair, and one post office. There was one bus stop, one landfill (which was mostly the estuary), and one coffee shop.
My mother’s shop, The Tasty World of White, sold mayonnaise.
Next door to us, The Continental Shelf carried early editions of Melville’s Moby Dick, Dickens’s David Copperfield, and Copperfield’s The Man Who Threw His Back Out Trying to Clean Under the Refrigerator Without Bending His Knees.
Sable and Hog’s was where my dad picked up his oil paints, brushes, and other art supplies. If I broke a guitar string, Dan Wingel could sell me another. Dan ran the ukulele kiosk in front of his dad’s hardware store, and also sold guitar parts on the side.
If you happened to die in Milford Orange, you might end up in The Solvent Soul Cemetery on Eye Street. The cemetery’s focal point was an upright rowboat decorated with abalone shells. Inside the rowboat was a praying angel with soggy notes, melted candles, and plastic flowers at her feet—fake, like the ones in our old window boxes. The message carved into the wooden bench opposite the boat read: “Forgive Us, Life: Our Solvent Souls.” Whenever I read that message or heard the phrase “solvent souls,” I imagined our souls smelled like paint thinner.
Next to the cemetery, the Solvent Soul Career Center was a white clapboard, New England-style church with a cupola, a bell, and a rowboat for a cross. Since it was close to the estuary, it sank to one side and its plumbing was backed up due to the high water table. But it was always, hands together, the best place to go to find out what you didn’t want to do with your life.
If you had the nerve to stand in the middle of A Street, like Sir Francis Drake, unafraid of being hit by the #2 bus from Jackpot, you could pull a spyglass from an opening in your slashed doublet; wipe the dried, inky sediment off its brass and leather; hold it up to your pirate’s eye (the one without the patch); and bring it from fuzzy into focus. What you would see—at the farthest end, where A Street meets Rocky Road—would be a fine, red, two-story example of the American Gothic style of architecture. It would have steep gables, pointed windows, vertical board and batten siding, and a large wraparound smoker’s porch. Above the door would be a large green sign that read: “The Rickety Box.”
The Rickety Box, owned by Mr. I.M.Rickety, was part cozy coffee shop and part music venue. It featured Mr. Rickety himself playing the Irish whistle on Friday and Saturday nights, and me, introducing my most recent song compositions while accompanying myself on guitar, on Thursdays.
Mr. Rickety was a world-class musician, and like a Chinese Crested dog he was hairless, except for an incidental collection of sweetly airy strands that he responsibly kenneled with a plastic milk tie. He had toured the world with many of the great Somersault City bands of the 1960s, and was the featured whistler on the album The Strawberry Stops Here by The Wonderfall Fruit Stand—a faded copy of which hung crookedly above the Sterling Brewer.
If you were a customer of the Rickety Box, you were immediately struck, not by a fist, or by a screen door on a lightning hinge, but by the rich, estuary-like aroma of brackish espresso, complicated by hints of sour rag and flaky fishmeal. Fishmeal was the basis of the no-longer-funny “Call me Fishmeal” declaration we all got tired of hearing. The walls featured artwork by local photographers, painters, and sculptors. Many of the paintings were three-dimensional and incorporated natural elements from the estuary and after-forest, such as raccoon whiskers, Steller’s jay feathers, clam- shells, and banana slug eyestalks. My mother found these natural elements disgusting, and she was not afraid to say so.
“My God, Innis, eyestalks? Really? That isn’t art, it’s nature! It’s bad enough you’ve got fish, but who can enjoy their foam with slimy yellow antennae staring at them?”
“I think slime is subjective, Mom,” I would say, trying to soften her critique.
“No, it isn’t, Oriel. Slime is slime. It’s not art. And it belongs where you can’t see it, and it can’t see you!”
My mother, Aurora, was an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, with cobalt green, after-forest eyes and medium length, burnt sienna hair. Her gently teased coif dropped to a slight flip at her neckline as the result of a series of fat rollers she positioned there every night. Her style was what I would call “vintage equestrian,” though admittedly I’d never seen her go anywhere near a horse. That meant a tweed show coat and knee-patch breeches neatly tucked into tall dress boots. Her helmet and little whip were optional, and reserved for formal occasions.
Outside, on the Rickety smoker’s porch and fixed to the board and batten siding, was a bronze plaque that read: Standing Firm Since 1880. It referred to the structure and not to the coffee shop, and was added by Mr. Rickety for the benefit of anyone who might have wondered.
Besides being a great lover of fish, Mr. Rickety was tall, and a lover of never having to get a ladder for anything. He could reach and change a lightbulb on the ceiling with his bare hand. It was a skill he was proud of. But, if you happened to be sitting on the edge of the stage uncoiling cords—as I often was—you might have discovered something additionally impressive about Mr. Rickety.
Beneath the pinched grunt and winded groan, the red-faced rattle and purple-popped vein, and beneath the gentle rise of his Hawaiian shirt on the exposed half-globe of his belly, was an eight-inch scar where California should have been. The scar—I imagined—was the anatomical representation of It’s Not Your Fault as seen from the air by Sir Hubert Wilkins, the famous Australian aviator and aerial photographer on his way over Mr. Rickety after leaving the South Pole.
“Whew, that’s better, isn’t it?” Mr. Rickety would say, marveled by the achievement of changing another lightbulb.
“Yes, it is better,” I would answer, watching as he massaged his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” he declared, as if certain the few footsteps he had spared not getting a ladder were worth a torn rotator cuff any day.
“There are times, Oriel, when we willingly suffer discomfort to confound the status quo. My distaste for ladders is a small thing, but I believe we define our dignity in such small ways. When the world says we can’t, we say we can—with a firm and deeply rooted determination.”
“Why—because, in the absence of accolades, staying steadfast is its own reward.”
As rewarded and steadfast as Mr. Rickety was, the same could not be said for his furniture.
Around the room of the Rickety Box were wobbly tables, with legs of varying heights. Some were made stable with little makeshift wads of paper while others were simply too far gone to repair. If you found yourself sitting at one of the rickety tables, you were probably sitting in a rickety chair as well. If you were particularly unfortunate, you would soon find yourself on the floor.
At the farthest point in the room—as far from the front door as you could get—was a stage that was nothing more than eight crates with a couple of pieces of plywood over the top. If you stood onstage—as I did every Thursday night—you would be standing in the blue glow of a single black Par 64 spotlight (re-bulbed in a ladderless fashion by Mr. Rickety). The cracked blue filter was clamped to a rigid pole that hung cockeyed three feet from the ceiling. It was flicked on and off by a switch near the kitchen when Mr. Rickety decided it was time for the show to begin. The large sofa with coffee, cigarette, and suspicious stains I imagined were urine was directly opposite the stage. It was usually the first seat to be filled on a music night, and it was where my family sat, though its cushions were deflated to such an extent that my parents often had to ask for assistance to climb out.
The house PA system—proudly run by my buddy, Wilton—sporadically popped, shocked, and squealed.
Mr. Rickety’s giant fish tank stood next to the cream and sugar table and was often the recipient of discarded debris. Mr. Rickety, Wilton, and I were always fishing out the napkins, sugar packets, and stir sticks my mother threw in. It was not that she didn’t care about the digestive limitations of blue tangs or true percula clowns; it just meant that on a Thursday night her attention was focused elsewhere.
As the Milford Orange promoter of all things Van Dyke, she made certain every customer, friend, and visiting historical figure was greeted graciously, and was handed a copy of my CD for consideration. She encouraged people to take a seat, and warned them the place would fill up fast—whether it did or not. She reminded them that I had written all the songs myself, both words and music, and that I was planning a career in music though it was hard to “make it” in that business.
She rearranged the seats, put Reserved signs on the tables, and even lit little candles for a more intimate ambiance. She brought a cardboard cash box loaded with small change from the shop and a manual credit card imprinter to swoosh a card if necessary.
But most of all, Thursday night at The Rickety Box was an opportunity for my mother to get hobnobby with our neighbors. Particularly if Balthazar Bloominshine and his husband, Filbert Rathbone, showed up.
Balthazar Bloominshine was a bear of a thespian with a thick beard and sparkly, umber eyes. He had been my mother’s acting coach at the Prowly Cat Playhouse, and was more recently a mentor to my younger sister, Daisy, whom he considered his prize protégée. His husband, Filbert, was not bearish at all; he was bookish, and according to Balthazar, he was brilliant! Filbert was a little man whose eyes turned to slits when he smiled. His red, ladies’ bifocals hung from a filigreed gold chain and rose to sharp points at his temples. The points were peppered with rhinestones, and they gave him a feline expression. He rarely spoke, except to nod, and to make a humming sound whenever Balthazar said something wistful:
“Aurora, I’ve just been thinking of little Daisy in our last production,” Balth said.
“Humm,” hummed Filbert.
“I confess, I wondered whether the role of The Mad Rasputin was too dark, too degenerate, too depraved for our little girl.”
“Humm, Humm,” he hummed again.
“But then I saw something in her I don’t often see in fledglings—”.
“A sensitivity, a depth, an affinité pour l’étrange, if you will.
And then I knew—”
“What did you know?” my mother asked.
“I knew she was perfect! And Aurora,” Balthazar added with a goading half smile, “she has that rare gift for silence when her fellow actors are speaking. Quite the opposite of you when you played Minutia in The Philosopher’s Daughter all those years ago.
Do you remember? You were spirited and capricious, and all over everyone else’s lines. But in your own captivating way, Aurora, you were mercurially—magnificent.” A tiny tear coagulated in his right eye when he said the word magnificent.
My mother seemed to go for a deep swim in that tear for what seemed like five minutes, then suddenly, she resurfaced and said to me in a whisper, “Oriel, say hello to Balth and Filbert, and thank them for the compliment they just gave us.”
“I think they were complimenting you and Daisy, Mom,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, swimming again.
I looked at my watch and noticed it was two minutes to nine. The blue light began to flicker, and I had yet to tune my guitar or tape my set list to the stage.
“Don’t forget to brush your hair before you go on,” she said, not looking at me. “Daisy should be here any minute.” Then she turned and added, “Army boots again, dear? Surely you have more sophisticated shoes?”
As I left my family to climb the stage for that night’s performance, my dad, Rollin—who sometimes had even less to say than Filbert Rathbone—wiggled his eyebrows at me, which was his way of wishing me good luck.
After a piercing squeal from the PA and a couple of quick check-checks to see if my mic worked, I nodded to Wilton that I was ready to begin. Mr. Rickety dimmed the lights and hushed the room. The cool blue of the black Par 64 seemed brighter than before, and I had to squint a little. As I approached the mic—in my army boots, my hair still a mess—and tentatively strummed the opening chord to my best opening song, the Mad Rasputin stood beside her shadow. A phantom near the flickering fish tank. Presumably waiting for the perfect moment to take her rickety Rasputin seat.
It seems that light has broken Through the dismal grey
From hell’s illuminated bastion, I survey
The silent sea of sadness Where I’m cast away
My writer’s pen to pilgrim When I’d sooner stay
Far and away Far and away . . .
If a Thursday night’s performance with my family in attendance left anyone feeling fuddled on a Friday morning, out the back door from The Rickety Box—on Dirt Street—Dr. Ochre Sansodor provided talking therapy from a well-ventilated consulting room. She also offered complimentary walking sticks whittled into the frowning faces of the greatest psychoanalysts of the twentieth century. They were cool, and it was no secret in Milford Orange that we Van Dykes collected them.
* * *
If this brief introduction to Milford Orange were to end here, on this page, you might think it was a town populated by mostly pleasant people who painted pictures, wrote songs, read books, ran shops, acted in plays, and played whistles. You might have concluded it was an almost-pretty place and nothing more. And unless you were a treasure hunter or a sixteenth-century English explorer, you might have been content to drive through without stopping, your kayak roped to the roof of your Mini on your way up north to the Calamity River. And if you took a picture of Milford Orange to remember you had just driven through, you might have happily held your camera out the window and captured it in a smear. But if that smeary Milford was all you knew, you would have missed the real story, the mystery that was Milford.
Yes, Milford Orange was an almost-pretty place, and there was nothing really terribly wrong with it. I guess you could say the only thing the matter with Milford—if you didn’t count the alphabet after Eye that was still in the estuary; or, the fact that it sat directly on It’s Not Your Fault and was the epicenter of the Great Tumbler of 1928; or, that its only typewriter was missing the letter u—the only thing the matter with Milford was the big, leaky, boarded-up building full of rats and bats and miles of tangled drainpipes taking up two square blocks in the center of town.
Juvenile fiction ages 12 and up.