N a p a l m H e a l t h S p a : R e p o r t 2 0 1 2
ON A DIFFERENT ROAD
By the time we left Milwaukee nobody was on speaking terms. The tension between Ti Jean and McMurphy - both legendary literary figures, one “real,” the other, the invention of Deboree’s demented imagination, had reached a fever pitch. There was me, the two of them and a hired driver who had the good sense to stay out of it. We were headed for St. Louis in a brand spanking new Mercury Montego station wagon, the kind with the fake wood on the side.
Ti Jean was riding shotgun, chain-smoking Camels, one right after the next. In a fit of frustration he’d flick the butts out the window and watch them bounce off the black asphalt and explode in a ball of orange sparks while Mc Murphy sat behind the driver sipping coffee black, slowly eating a donut that was wrapped around his index finger while occasionally mumbling to himself. I couldn’t tell if he thought he was being cool or acting cute.
The purpose of our trip, which I nearly forgot in all this mayhem, was to attend my Aunt Hortense’s funeral. The old girl finally had called it quits, after a slow dance with cancer for the last few years and was being laid to rest in some nicely manicured Jewish cemetery. I was her favorite nephew. Actually, I was her only nephew but she loved me like the son she never had. She had four daughters - more about them later.
Anyway, I was hoping ol’ Aunt Hortense was gonna leave me more than just an antique chair or a moth eaten quilt and then we’d high tail it down to New Orleans and blow the bundle on bourbon and oysters. That is if these two heroes hadn’t killed each other by then.
The squabble began sometime after midnight at Ma Fischer’s, an all night diner on the East Side, run by the Greeks. Ti Jean ordered a T-bone steak while McMurphy was having breakfast, eggs over easy, fried potatoes and rye toast. The problem is you just can’t trust McMurphy. He’s fuckin’ nuts! He’ll do anything Deboree tells him to.
Deboree has got it wired pretty good these days, down on his farm in Oregon, collecting fat royalty checks from book sales and the play and movie rights to Cuckoo’s Nest, and it’s all thanks to McMurphy.
So the minute Ti Jean’s steak arrives, McMurphy says to him, “I guess you’ll be needin’ a little steak sauce on that one pal. It looks mighty grizzly if ya know what I mean. Better quick stab it with your fork. I think it’s still quiverin’.” With that McMurphy grabs the A1, unscrews the cap and starts spanking the bottom of the bottle like he’s punishing a bad baby. Nothin’s comin’ out and McMurphy’s getting frustrated. So what do you think Deboree makes him do? He starts jerking that bottle around until sauce is flying everywhere - all over the table and walls ‘til everybody in the joint is laughing like the studio audience of I Love Lucy.
McMurphy finally gets a-hold of himself and pours the rest of the sauce nice and thick over Ti Jean’s steak. Ti Jean looks down at his lap and sees a galaxy of big brown globs of steak sauce splattered all over his nice, new chinos that he got for free from doing those Gap commercials and just flips his lid! He picks up the ashtray, which was overflowing with a pile of disgusting butts and upends it on McMurphy’s eggs. Then he takes his mug of steaming hot coffee and dumps it in McMurphy’s lap. With that the two of them are down on the floor, brawling. Everybody starts to crowd around them, shouting at McMurphy to pulverize him. Ti Jean is on top. He’s got Mc Murphy by the throat, slamming his head against the floor.
Deboree is letting Ti Jean have his fun for a minute, relaxing back at the farm, smoking a big fat spliff while watching reruns of McHale’s Navy on Nick at Night. Any minute now he’ll hoist himself out of his Lazy Boy and go to the kitchen and fix himself a turkey sandwich on rye with Russian. He knows it’s only a matter of time before McMurphy goes ape-shit and pounds that Ivy League halfback turned “Voice of a Generation” into the grimy linoleum floor. He returns to the fridge for another cold Heineken and sits down at his typewriter to give McMurphy the green light to kick Ti Jean’s ass. But just before he does, that big scary waitress, the one with the “Pay or Die” button and legs like an Edwardian piano, starts kicking McMurphy in the head. Now he’s already crazy enough! He don’t need anymore help. With that McMurphy springs to his feet and all hell breaks loose.
He’s stands there, huffing and puffing, all hunched over like Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man. His eyes are ricocheting around in their sockets when he suddenly sets his sights on the desert carousel swirling in circles like some edible psychedelic merry-go-round.
I’m watching the whole thing go down, begging Deboree to show some mercy. But Deboree can’t help himself. He’s as crazy as McMurphy, always finding plenty of trouble for the poor guy to get into. If you ask me, I think he exploits him for his own gain, like some kind of literary pimp. He puts McMurphy out on the street, to do all the dirty work while he’s got it cushy back home with his wife and the cows and his typewriter.
By this time, George, the owner of the joint, has a firm grip on the Louisville Slugger he keeps behind the counter for such occasions. He’s almost as crazy as McMurphy with his Greek temper. George is about to cold conk McMurphy; whose got his paws on a big fluffy key lime pie with the intent of shoving it in Ti Jean’s face, when he slips on some orange Jell-O that McMurphy must of spilled while diggin’ around for his surprise weapon. Poor George goes crashing, bat first into the desert case. Chunks of glass and chocolate éclairs go flying everywhere. Suddenly the thing topples over and crashes down, smashing into a thousand pieces.
The old Greek is lying face down, motionless on the floor. Is that blood all over his face or a big red glob of cherry pie? Everybody stands motionless, waiting breathlessly as McMurphy bends over him. Gently he rolls the old man over on his back and with a big index finger swipes a blob of red goo off his face and sticks it in his mouth and then smacks his lips. Looking up at the ceiling for a moment of reckoning, a big smile sweeps across his face, “Ahh… Just like the kind George Washington’s mother used to bake!” he declares.
A moment later the four of us bolt out the door and pile into the Montego. Just as we pull out of the parking lot, one of the waitresses comes running out the door behind us screaming “He’s dead! You killed him! Murder! Murder!”
“Step on it!” Ti Jean hollers as we run every light on Farwell Avenue before hopping onto route 94 and head south towards Chicago. “Hey don’t look at me!” McMurphy says, taking a bite of that damn donut around his finger. “It ain’t my fault. Ol’ Casey fell on his ass and struck out all by himself!”
It was stone quiet in the car for the next couple of hours. Everybody was tense, constantly on the lookout for the cops. We made it down to St. Louis in record timing and stopped in the parking lot of another diner. It was a cold gray winter morning. Even the sun didn’t feel like getting out of bed.
“Anybody for coffee? Or maybe a jelly donut?” McMurphy prods. “No more diners for me!” Ti Jean snapped. “I’ll just wait in the car.” McMurphy goes traipsing into the diner and orders Belgian waffles and orange juice.
Once he returns we head over to the cemetery. We’re late of course and the service has already begun. All at once everybody glances up to take a look at us - a sorry bunch in rumpled clothes, caked with steak sauce and eggs and in need of a shave.
Then it happens - right in the middle of the rabbi’s eulogy. McMurphy stood up, cleared his throat and said, “Mind if I add a little somethin’?” But before anybody could protest he continues. “Now really folks, what’s everybody got to be so glum about? Hortense was a sweet old lady. She had a good life, a loving husband, Bob, a champion of nuclear physics and four lovely daughters. It’s a lot more than most of us can say for ourselves. Now ain’t that the truth Johnny?” he says, fixing a wild glare on me. “Life is short. Life is sweet. Wash your hands before you eat!” He starts to sing, then brakes into a little dance ala Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof. “And speaking of eating, I just love Jew food! Bagels and lox, chicken soup and knishes! Shit, I’d even eat some gefilte fish! Oh give me a little knish dahling!” he says landing his hand firmly on my Cousin Amy’s ass. She slaps him hard across the face as he takes her in his arms and leans her back like the backwoods Casanova he is. Just as he’s about to try and slide his tongue down her throat, Ti Jean tackles them both and the whole family surrounds them, kicking and screaming. “Is this your idea of a joke?” My Uncle Robert says, confronting me, his bald head turning beet red, ready to explode. “Now just get the hell out of here and take your sick friends with you. And find another place to celebrate Passover next year! I have no nephew!”
Although McMurphy has been nothing but trouble I’ve got to admit I respect the man’s style. He’s second only to the Marx Brothers when it comes to livening up a public function. And he’s only one guy, although he’s got the help of that twisted mastermind Deboree writing his lines for him.
By the time we reached New Orleans everybody was best friends again. The minute we hit the French Quarter, Ti Jean and his ol’ buddy McMurph hopped out on the corner of Decatur for a mug of steaming coffee at Kaldi’s, leaving me with Prince Charming to park the car. He seemed to know the neighborhood pretty well. He hung a left and headed down Esplanade and immediately found a spot. Without a word he climbed out of the Montego, pulled his hat down over his eyes and lit a cigarette, exhaling a big cloud of smoke; nice and slow, like he’s got all the time in the world and no particular place to go.
Looking around I noticed something going on down at the end of the block. There were drums pounding and thought I saw flames suddenly erupt above a small crowd of people. Outside a Thai restaurant, a pair of lesbian vampires were doing some kind of exotic dragon dance. Dressed in scarlet and gold gowns they circled each other, waving swords and seductively spitting fire in each other’s direction. Suddenly I caught the glint of their fangs, long and sharp and gleaming in the firelight. A moment later a young black woman sitting on the sidewalk playing the drums, reached up and handed me a pair of bongos. The dancers began to bump and grind faster and harder as the drums drove them into an orgasmic frenzy.
After the hoodoo hoedown was over the lovely Negress, appropriately named Angel, asked me where I was headed. I told her I wasn’t sure as I’d lost my friends. She assured me they’d be fine and offered to show me around town. We wound up grabbing a cab down to the Treme. The first joint we stopped in, Trombone Shorty’s, was packed. I was the only white guy in the place until a young, soon-to-be-famous gay crooner Rufus Wainwright arrived. We both watched in slack-jawed awe as a sixteen year old kid blew a hot piercing trumpet solo that nailed us both to the wall. A few minutes later across the street at Joe’s Cozy Corner, a zaftig mama in her sixties belted out a lascivious blues number that had every man in the joint shouting and howling, no matter his age.
Angel and I climbed the stairs to her little bungalow. She lit a candle and sat on the kitchen table. Pulling me against her tightly, she wrapped her legs around me and we began to kiss. Slipping her hand around my waist, she grabbed my crotch and quickly unzipped my fly. Taking out my hard throbbing cock she began to gobble it up. I couldn’t believe it, as I looked down at her beautiful face in the candlelight. Her red glistening lips wrapped around me, driving me out of my goddamn mind. As I began to moan she reached over and switched on the radio so the neighbors wouldn’t hear what was going on. “I read the news today oh boy,” John Lennon sang. And from that moment we were swept into the swirling atmosphere of the “A Day In The Life.” The tune reached the bridge, where McCartney sings “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head,” she pushed me down into a chair, then turned around, pulled her panties down and hiked her skirt over the gorgeous full moon of her ass. The song just kept building and building while we fucked our brains out. “I’d love to turn you on,” John sang, while the strings spiraled into a sonic tornado until we all climaxed together, me, this wild girl I’d just met on the streets of the French Quarter just a few hours ago and the Fab Four. The piano chord that triumphantly ends the song poured out of the radio and bounced off the walls as we both fell over onto the kitchen table, laughing, moaning, spent.
“Oh that’s really corny!” McMurphy scoffed. “You expect me to believe that shit? Sounds like somebody’s writing your lines for you or somethin’.” I’d found the two of them hunched over a table, at Kaldi’s downing another mug of coffee in hopes of clearing away last night’s wreckage. McMurphy said he’d had enough of his psychic slavery to Deboree and decided to hitch back to Oregon and demand his freedom. He wanted Deboree to cut him loose once and for all and leave him out all future scripts. He just couldn’t stand the agony any more, knowing that no matter how beautiful life got Deboree was sure to fuck it up again and the inevitability of it all was just wearing him out. He just wanted it to be all over and let the legend do the legwork.
“But McMurph,” I said, “you’re already a legend. Deboree went and killed you off at the end of “Cuckoo’s Nest.” Don’t you remember when the big chief suffocated you with that pillow?” He looked at me kind of slow and dumbfounded, like a grizzly bear full of bourbon. “Oh yeah, now I remember,” McMurphy grumbled and seemed to grow very sad. He stood up and sauntered off towards the door and just as he stepped through the threshold, he vanished. We got up to run after him, but he was gone. We searched up and down the streets and alleys for a while to no avail. Ol’ McMurphy was gone!
“Now what did you go and do that for? Remindin’ a fella that he’s dead? Just how low can you go? Man, if anybody ever said something like that to me why I’d…” Ti Jean suddenly stopped, realizing he’d perhaps said too much. He furrowed his eyebrows and glared at me sharply. As we turned the corner onto Esplanade Ti Jean abruptly changed the subject. “Uh, say partner where we headed? I mean, one of these days I gotta stop in and check on my mother. But I can’t seem to remember if I left her in Florida or Massachusetts.”
“Don’t make any difference to me. He’s driving,” I said pointing at our strange chauffeur, who was busy washing down a fistful of M&M’s with a cup of hot black coffee.
“Saint Petersburg partner and step on it!” Ti Jean commanded as we climbed back into the car. That was the first time we ever heard our driver make a sound. A small, flutey laugh escaped his lips. We thought for a moment that he might’ve asked what happened to McMurphy. But he never said a word, just that little laugh of his which seriously creeped us out.
Just outside of West Helena, Arkansas, Ti Jean says to the driver, “Hey Buddy, you think we could make a stop down at Roaring Fork so I can pay a debt I owe? Riding down Highway 19 Ti Jean suddenly gets an eye of Old Man River. “The mighty Mississipp! Hold it right here!” Ti Jean hollers, tearing off his jacket and running straight for the water as if possessed. I thought maybe he’d sit down on its banks and take off his old work boots and sink his tired, stinky feet in its cool soothing mud but he never did anything half way. Ti Jean had a genuine enthusiasm for life. The guy could get deliriously happy over the smallest things. Offer him a cigarette or heat up can of beans and you get a hearty slap on your back that’s enough to bust your lungs. Give him a dog-eared book of Blake’s poetry or a faded old flannel shirt you bought at the Salvation Army for his birthday and he’ll near squeeze you to death with a bear hug. Of course it could go the other way in a minute. Too much booze and guilt and regret and he’s suddenly staring into the onyx of the endless night sky wondering if life was worth living anyway.
But now that crazy son of a bitch has gone and plunged head first into the muddy water. He’s doing the backstroke whoopin’ and hollerin’ splashing while singing, “If the river was whisky and I was a diving duck…” when suddenly, as that old spiritual goes God starts to “trouble the water.” Ti Jean, uptight Catholic as he was, no matter how the hippies regaled him, wasn’t the type to strip down to his skivvies in broad daylight, so into the drink he went fully clothed when before he knew it the empty pockets of his old blue jeans and steel-toed Red Wings began filling up with water and like that dumb drunk duck he swam to the bottom and never came up. And just like that Ti Jean was gone without a trace. There was no use going in after him, unless I too was looking to cross that River of Jordan.
So I sat down on the banks of that river while it churned with blood, whisky and tears and did just what he’d want me to. I meditated, exhaling long breaths (as the tears rolled down my face) envisioning the savage and terrifying Mahakala, the Tibetan deity who scares death to death. And as I chanted the Prajna Paramita heart sutra I swore I heard Ti Jean laugh, howling loud and free, like a coyote somewhere in the great distance of the Golden Eternity.
There was nothing else to do but get back in the car. The driver was waiting for me.