Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #2, Spring & Summer 1998]

Sugar Road
(An excerpt from a work in progress)

Rod Clark

It was too early for serious thinking, and Robert decided to put the mystery on hold until the coffee kicked in. He rose and poured himself an excellent cup of the Nigerian coffee that Marjorie had brought over the night before as a gift. That woman was a treasure. He had just taken a first fortifying sip, and was mentally mapping out his day when the phone rang again. This time it was his old friend the prankster.

"The pigeons have landed, man -- I mean right on the fucking roof. Are you on the roof for this one, or what?"

These guys down at the theater were a stitch, thought Robert. Never a dull moment.

"I dunno, man," he said, with melodramatic caution. "I'm a ground-floor man in the morning. I like to play it safe."

There was silence on the line for a moment.

"Can you make it part way up the staircase?"

"I think I could make it up five stairs, man -- if it's a quality staircase. Are you telling me this is a quality staircase?"

"You've gotta do ten stairs man -- you can't do less than ten. Quality staircase -- hell, this goes up to the roof, and higher than the chimney!"

Once again the voice had sterling sincerity and earnestness, with no trace of the savage, dark humor that must, surely had to lie below the surface.

"I'll think about it, man."

"NOW man! I've gotta -- " Robert hung up the phone. It rang again almost immediately. The same voice. A little angry. A little tense.

"You piss me off, man!"

Robert felt a flash of anger. Who was this jerk? "Screw you, asshole! You think you're tough? You think you're clever? You want to play mind games on my phone line and not identify yourself?"

"You know who I am and you know I could do something about your attitude!" came the bitter reply.

"No, you couldn't," Robert explained, regaining his composure as his adrenaline receded. "That's not your style. Anyone who would pull this kind of crap on me over the phone is too cowardly and too stupid to deal with me face to face. You're the kind of jerk who has to hide under a stone."

"Man -- if I didn't know you were playing with me, I'd be really pissed off! Are you telling me you can't talk now or what?" The tone was one Robert had not expected. It possessed uncertainty, stress, an inner puzzlement that sounded as deep as his own. But that, of course, was simply part of the game the man was playing.

"The tulips are blooming in Lompoc," Robert boomed, in a deep, theatrical voice.

"WHAT?" The man on the line seemed genuinely astonished, but still he didn't give the game away. This guy was good. Robert's voice deepened.

"I said the tulips are blooming in Lompoc."

"Yeah -- whatever, man. Call me when you get it together."

* * *

The line went dead, and for the hundredth time since his bust, Robert tried to guess who the mystery caller he had labeled the "prankster" might be. Was it an actor? Someone he knew? He drank his coffee and reviewed the facts.

These days, a lot of pot and coke dealers on Madison's east side used codes to talk on the phone all the time on the kind of stupid, but entertaining theory that if the line were tapped, the code could conceal or obscure the fact that illegal activity was underway. It was bullshit, but sometimes you could use it to impress less experienced dealers or high-end clients with your "grip" on the game. So you might say for example, "Do you want me to just bring over a bottle, or do you want me to bring over the whole four pack?" (Meaning: do you want an ounce of grass, or are you up for a quarter pound?) The more flamboyant operators would have colorful codes to match. If you were lucky they would keep off your phone line, but now in the eighties, while cruising up State Street downtown, or even Willy St. on the near east side, you might pass a guy in sunglasses saying something into a pay phone like: "I told you man-I don't want to see four monkeys at the zoo. I want to see three monleys at the zoo and maybe a couple of peacocks! Less feathers this time, ok? ...Come off it man, you know what I mean..." Sometimes when people were stoned, people forgot what they were talking about, and deals -- even big deals -- got screwed up real bad from all that cool and cleverness.

After he got busted, Robert and some of his friends made up imaginary codes and used them on his line. If the line was tapped, and they assumed it was, it must have driven someone in law enforcement crazy. Sure it was a dumb game to play, but in the wake of the dull horror of Robert's bust and all that had followed it, it made for a sort of surreal telephone theater that helped to soften the Kafka-like existence of going cold turkey, and dealing with the efforts of the local vice squad to put him back in jail. A few months previously, word of the telephone games reached Joel Gersmann, artistic director of Madison's experimental Broom Street Theater, who had expressed interest in having Robert help write a scene for a play Broom Street Theater called "Tell Norman Hello," in which two dealers were stoned and forgot which code they were using and tried to invent a new one -- without, of course, resorting to normal English. Finally they were forced to get together in person, and invent a phrase that meant "I'm too high to talk right now." The seller was a tulip enthusiast -- so the phrase for saying that you were too high to talk was "The tulips are blooming in Lompoc," Lompoc being the tulip capital of Holland, a place of bright and beautiful gardens half a world away.

Then, five weeks ago, the prankster began to call -- using unfamiliar codes -- and persistently calling back even when Robert hung up on him. Of course, now and then an undercover police officer would call the apartment, looking for drugs, pretending to be someone Robert had once met at a party -- hoping to catch a junkie going cold turkey in a moment of weakness. But undercovers doing cold calls couldn't use a code because no prior relationship, and hence no code existed. So the prankster with the imaginary code was almost certainly not a policeman. Not their sort of mind game at all. But who then? Caller ID inevitably pointed to pay phones throughout downtown and the East side. Robert needed to maintain his current phone number for probation and business reasons. What then was he to do? When the prankster called, Robert did not recognize the voice of a friend -- but why would a stranger ply him with a mystery code? At first, he had simply hung up, but now, gradually he would hold short conversations with the prankster -- replying to queries in code with his skill for parroting and word manipulation, much in the way that he responded to tapes in Spanish lab back in college when he had other things on his mind, reordering the words and grammar as he responded without bothering to identify the vocabulary. Why did he play with the prankster? Perhaps because he enjoyed pushing the mind games back on the perpetrator: tormenting the tormenter. There was a weird satisfaction in unsettling or disturbing the prankster -- as he evidently had this morning. Hey -- when you tried to use words on Robert Scott as a weapon, you deserved everything you had coming, and if you didn't like it, you could always leave him alone.

He had a theory his would-be tormentor was an actor. One of the borderline derelicts that had infested the cast of "Tell Norman Hello," all of whom he had met at the cast party five weeks ago, and several of whom had seemed offended when he had refused to share joints. Gersmann, no charmer himself in the human relations department, had sworn never to work with any of that cast again. "Drunks and Junkies!" teetotaler Gersmann had roared to Robert -- forgetting for a moment, and not for the first time, that he was talking to one of the worst, or at least a person who had been one of the worst and was trying to get better. After this morning's "prankster" call, Robert was no longer certain he had been talking to an actor. But if not an actor -- who? With an effort he suppressed his irritation. This was probably exactly the sort of torment the prankster intended to create. Ah well, he would find out who it was, sooner or later. A lot of crazy people seemed to be calling him these days.

Robert stumbled to his feet and pulled on his jeans in the cluttered room that served as his bedroom/study, and office, poured himself another cup of coffee and carried it over to his desk, an old hollow core door thrown over two filing cabinets. Taking a fortifying sip, he flipped on the hack-enhanced Radio Shack computer, and began to plan his day. As he reviewed his work calendar onscreen, the coffee began to clarify his thoughts, and he began to focus on his strategy for economic recovery. He had already spent the advance for the ghost draft of chapter six of Horace Wheeley's biography, and there would be no more water from that well until the draft was done. Then there was that fifty bucks John Lehman had promised him to write those little paragraphs describing plastic swans and ceramic dwarves for that upstate yard decorating catalog. "Step away from mundane reality, and savor the flavor of fairy land in the intimacy of your own backyard with these enchanting little folk and their maintenance-free toadstools..." Was this at all convincing? Did people actually buy crap like this? Did the irony come too close to the surface, and render "darkness visible"? He shuddered. The job was a pain in the butt, but something would have to be done about that copy before it went to John, or he could kiss that fifty good bye. Hmmm...

Finally he decided it was time for a break. The pink plastic swans were paddling magnificently across the page, and his temporary defeat of the "prankster" had put him in a mildly buoyant mood. He poured himself another cup of Nigerian from the vintage Mr. Coffee, put some Herbie Nichols on the vintage stereo and wandered out into the kitchen where the sun through the back window filtered through the Catalpa leaves, playing small morning games on the yellow plastic table top. He grabbed himself a slightly stale pan dulce from the fridge, took out a yellow legal pad and pen, and went out the old screen door to sit on the crumbling back porch, where the birds were holding breakfast conversation. With quick strokes of his Bic, he began to map out the parameters of Chapter Six of "Furnishing God's Mansion," the inspirational autobiography of discount furniture magnate Horace B. Wheeley, who had first seen the holy ghost at the age of ten on the shining surface of his father's alfalfa silo. Alas! Like ghosts, ghost writers never got credit for their work, and were often paid little or late. What the hell, it beat factory work.

He was in the stimulating depths of his third cup of coffee, and drafting the denouement of young Wheeley's dramatic conversation with the archangel Gabriel beside the grain elevator (a scene of which Broom Street would have been proud) when the residue of last night's drinking, which the strong coffee had thus far quelled, began to creep up on him along with the depression that came with it. With the morbid sensitivity afforded by a slight hangover, he felt, rather than heard the arrival of the morning mail -- the step on the stair and click of the mailbox sending a minute, subtle set of vibrations that echoed through the cardboard thin walls of the fragile house that had surely been built for a tropical climate, and would be barely liveable later today in the moist furnace of late July with just a few fans and an old air conditioner sputtering in the office window, but utterly insufferable in the Wisconsin winter that loomed just a few frighteningly short months ahead. More bills undoubtedly, and junk mail promising him millions. With luck, there might be money. Leaving Gabriel and a few phantom swans to drift dispiritedly in the backyard shade, he went out to the creaky front porch where dying lilacs still curled over the gray rail -- and a decaying couch looked over the empty parking lot of Alfie's bar and grill. As he reached to open the mailbox that hung on by the door, he heard fast crunching footsteps coming toward him over the parking lot gravel.


Rod Clark is a life-long Wisconsin resident. A professional writer and media-consultant, he is also the editor of Rosebud, a national magazine for people who enjoy good writing.

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