Jake and Lil walked around the corner to the local 7-Eleven for a quick soda. Along the way, Jake was reminded of when he used to walk his sister to the corner Arab liquor store to buy sweets and chips. She was only 10 then and the Elders demanded this duty of him. He did not mind except that she would always question him as to why Nate and his other neighborhood friends made fun of his escort duty. Jake often asked her which boy had the hots for her. Her only response was for him to mind his own business because any boy with balls enough to like her soon faced a rude awakening when she would punk him out and take his lunch money. That was what boys were for, she'd say, to separate them from their money. Jake did not know it then but it was the start of Lil's philosophy on how to handle men, including him.

The protection he envisioned himself providing her during those excursions to the store made him feel proud. Lil seemed to look up to him and said so at various times. But whenever Jake failed to have enough money upon arriving there to provide for her needs, she never hesitated from lambasting him with surly commentary regarding his manhood. Nothing had changed over the years except the expert skill she exhibited in cutting his manly pride down to the nub.

It was a grayish, overcast day and the chill in the air foreshadowed the coolness of their relations. Jake told her he didn't think taking her assignment bode well for him. His nerves were raw and he knew this. He tired of the strain inflicted whenever his assigned investigation led him into the inner workings of people's dysfunctional lives. The seedy, dirty underside of what folks did to them and each other under the cover of darkness brought out the worst in them and Jake. Revealing lies, secrets and betrayals were the damnable harvest by which Jake paid his bills. At times, as with the case involving Alicia, there was another price to pay. His faith in human goodness became as frail as the level of respect which others felt towards him. Especially true, Jake knew when the result of his encounters ended in death and destruction. Jake was tired and Lil knew it. She rather liked him that way; it made him vulnerable to her wishes.

Jake was far too tired to argue. Besides, he thought, he needed the money in a bad way.

Jake asked Lil for an advance on the new assignment in order to cover operating expenses. She, of course, refused knowing full well the burning fury this would ignite. Jake couldn't stand working on a job without being prepared with needed resources. Killing two birds with one stone, Lil would get the set-up of Jake she needed Jake for and piss him off at the same time. Jake, in her plans, was not supposed to succeed; his failure, in fact, ensured that her own devious goals were met. If the poor boy snapped under the pressure, then so be it. It wouldn't surprise anyone she knew.

But Jake had other plans. This time, he thought, he wouldn't be the brunt of bungling-jokes. This time, he knew, the last laugh would be on him. He was going to solve the puzzle of Lil's missing files, find the insurance money, block his sister's efforts to frame him and get credit for a job well done without losing his sanity. Well, it was an ambitious goal anyway, he thought. Now if the Elders would just get off his back and….

The Man Who Would Be King...

I hated daydreaming but I often did at my partner Max's diner. I sat at my table near the picture window overlooking the street and stared into my empty cup remembering those times and the people who lived them.

His name was Lear Tuning. But everyone called the burger king. Most folks and his beleaguered family simply called him 'King.' Now, with another Thanksgiving approaching, King wanted to do something special. He was excited by the idea that this was the last turkey day of the 20th century.

Being in a particularly festive mood, King had chosen this holiday to re-unite with his family. Of course, this reunion he had in mind was far from being either uncomplicated or mutually desired by his family. But King, being the obtuse dreamer that he was, stubbornly proceeded with his plans and ignored all the bad omens and naysayer types.

Some say King was a foolish old man; alone, sickly and caught up with re-living exaggerated past glories. I might've agreed with them but, after a King's invitation to accompany him to his daughter's funeral, my opinion began to change. Having known King mostly by my patronage of his popular "Soul Food Diner," which was located in the Chatham district of Chicago's South Side, I'd only been privy to the public side of the man. But what took place over the 72 hours surrounding this turkey day changed forever how I understood King, the nature of family bonds and, eventually, my own descent into old age. I would never again look at individual power and powerlessness with naive innocence again.

From that time onward, every time I saw a lonely old man struggling to maintain dignity, the fearful words "but by the grace of God go I" would ricochet through my mind like a wayward bullet. Being a middle-aged, divorced reporter once, I had toyed with story ideas concerning the issue of how society cares for the elderly. So, when King gave me the invite, I jumped at the chance.

He told me to pick him up at his southeast side apartment, located on South Jeffery Boulevard near 75th St. at around 9 a.m. on Wednesday. That morning, as I cruised down 75th St., I was struck by the sight of wayward souls wandering up an down the 'stroll.'

Drunks, sat on the ground outside the multitude of booze stores and young boys encircled pay phones as if guarding the occasional female druggie, who was busy frantically trying to con some fool on the phone for a loan to pay off her ransom for overnight drug debts to local gang-bangers. Homeless, young and old, folks were pushing shopping carts filled with discarded beer cans to market.

The scenes made me wince and wonder about the madness of their lives. Pulling up to King's dilapidated apartment building, I was struck by the number of burglar bars, tossed garbage bags and the dirt filled yard it presented. The broken windows abounded on the face of the heap. As I entered the hall, after King had buzzed me in, an exploding aroma of stale urine, marijuana and booze made me choke. I nearly tripped over a rat carcass and an empty 40-ounce as I climbed the creaking stairway leading to King's home on the second floor.

It wasn't easy trying to knock on a door encased in an eight foot, padlocked burglar gate. I wasn't sure he'd heard my knocks, what with the floor rocking form the bass-driven boom sounds of gangster-rap filling the hallway from some unknown apartment.

King eventually unlocked the multitude of security contraptions and allowed me to enter into what could best be described as a one-room wonder. The metallic clang of his walker seemed to keep up with the beat of what sounded like Nancy Wilson's "Guess Who I Saw Today," coming out of the cheap radio on his kitchen table, seated conveniently next to last night's Kentucky Fried Chicken box.

"Hey sport, let me bleed the ol' lizard and I'll be ready to fly," sang out King as he headed for his closet-sized toilet.

I was struck by how orderly all of the items in his home were placed. Every inch of the room served some vital purpose, as if empty space was taboo. Even the four walls were covered with pictures. It made me think of a Catholic shrine. Civic citations, war memorials and yellowed news clippings all seemed to attest to King's past laurels. But, they also told of a man living in the past. They spoke of one who was fading away into the twilight zone of obsolete existence.

I glanced up into my own reflection, cast off of a slightly cracked mirror with an unpolished surface. A cold chill ran over me as I thought about "The Lady from Shallot." Apparently, I'd broken up King's game of Solitaire. I mused on whether he would have won. I wondered how anybody really wins at a game you, ironically, only play with yourself.

King was a bit of a paradox. Here was a man who reputedly had been sitting on a small fortune. A man who profited handsomely off of the profits made from his diner. Yet, he lived like an old pauper; alone, forgotten and discarded.

The phone rang. King hollered out "pick that up, will you kid?"

A raspy, female voice answered as I said "Hi. This is the Tuning home; may I help you?"

"Yeah, is my old man there? If he is, tell him to hurry his tired butt up and don't forget about the fifty bucks he promised me." Before I could respond, the lady hung up the phone.

I gave King the message as he came back into the room. He simply grunted and grumbled, "She ain't getting a crying dime from me. Let's head out Sport." We headed for the Bleak's Funeral Home, over on 76th and Cottage Grove Avenue. For some reason, my mind lingered on pondering why it seemed to me that so many of our folks liked to be buried by Bleaks. Before being dropped into the ground for all eternity, I wondered where my two kids from my failed marriage would plant me, if at all. They could always just have my dead butt incinerated.

The blaring tirade howled like bloodhounds baling at the harvest moon. The shrill sirens sad song penetrated the coolness of Chicago's moonlit lakefront sky. Sparkling stars twinkled as though existence itself seemed to sigh off and on. Desperately, the ravaged occupants of Fire Ambulance 6229 fervently sighed their silent prayers for mercy.

For Jake Strange, time seemed to unravel. His mauled and twisted fingers tightened their futile grip around the limp and quivering handhold of the middle-aged lady fighting for her life as she lay strapped upon the gurney. Only the fury of her spontaneous convulsions, which caused the snaking IV tubing to twirl like jump ropes, made him believe life within still dwelled. Jake's belief dwindled, drifting away like silken strands of grey smoke into the fire lit orange sky over a green mountain forest.

"Hang in there Jake," hollered the young Asian driver as his head twisted away from the windshield, "we're almost there."

"Look, don't start with that obligatory supportive crap with me right now," Jake spat back; grimacing from yet another lump on his head caused by the buffeting roller coaster ride through the pot-marked obstacle course known as Chicago's Lakeshore Drive. "Just make sure we get there in one piece or else you'll be checkin' out what the undertow is like down at the North Avenue beach!" He looked down at his twisted wife's body, covered with smatterings of crimson stains and slimy mucous she had coughed up along the way.

"Jake…Jake" cried Jake's stricken wife Rochelle, "where are you…I can't see you."

"I am here…I am Here…" he screamed, choking back his sorrow-drenched anger; "why the hell did I let this happen…it's all her fault…I shoulda' kept her butt the hell away from you…for the baby's sake too."

"Don't blame your sis for this, baby" she whispered, "God sho' don't like ugly and we shouldn't judge…" Suddenly, without warning, Rochelle's chest stopped it's frantic heaving as she tried to gulp in oxygen. Her eyes closed and hand fell limp.

"Mr. Strange, was she talking about your sister, Miss Lilith," offered the other ambulance attendant as she pumped and pressed the AMBU-Bag driven air into his wife's mouth. "I thought I saw her on Oprah's show a couple of weeks ago, getting that Business Woman of the Year award. She's my idol…she got it goin' on…"

No reply came from Jake. His water-filled eyes gazed emptily at the young medic's innocence; her sea-blue contacts, which didn't go with her ebony-black skin, negated the skeptical smirk that lurked at the corner of her overly glossed red lips. Yet, it was just like all the other times, he mused silently.

They always sided with Lilith…always it's me who plays the patsy to my saintly sister's mischief. And now this…

The park across the street from the office reminded Jake of his early times when diving and leaping after 16-inch Clinchers were the greatest expressions of athletic art his 6'0" frame could perform. He relished returning to the simplicity of that era, before the tribulations of surviving the mean streets had taken total priority. He found himself staring incessantly over there behind the baseball diamonds; eyes gliding along the green rolling hills just beyond the tree-lined fishing lagoon where the Park District routinely placed Farmed-Catfish for the catching. Jake was like that; always wanting something just beyond his grasp.

Finding himself at the door to the office building, he hesitated. Sighing briefly, his head lowered and stare peered into the normalized posture of subservience that seemed to get him through the day whenever he ventured into the presence of the boss lady herself. That was how it was working for his sister, he knew, albeit, he didn't like it.

The job came with the territory, not the other way around.

Entering the office, Jake was never astonished to find various levels of disarray left over the last day of work prior. The office girls never had it together for very long with keeping things organized. Often, fast food generated garbage strewn about, files and notes were everywhere. Searches of epic proportion were normal whenever boss lady had lost yet another memo placed into her possession. All too often, Jake took the brunt of blame for unfound documents lost while in her or the other office girl's possession.

Not being in much of a mood for the usual petty banter of office gossip about who screwed who or who wanted to shyster whom out of what, Jake determinedly crawled up under the nearest rock he could find and waited for the day to hurry up and end. He knew, however, soon the often incompetent clerical workers would begin their search for someone to bail them out with information or directions on what to do and how to do it. They didn't like going to the boss lady; she always had a plethora of acid-tongued wisecracks at the ready. Jake knew he was never immune and all too often was the primary target of these public scoldings. She liked it like that and he knew that may have been the only reason for his being there.

Today was different. Jake was fed up and suffering from a miserable hang over after having spent most of the night at Northwestern Hospital's emergency room. He showed up on this day looking for something more specific than a days pay for a good days work. Lost in the shadows of mourning Rochelle's death, he needed answers and perhaps the condolence of family support. Neither would be found and he sensed the futility of his desire. Boss lady wasn't cut from that kind of mold. There would be no sympathy found. What he would find, however, was a new assignment.

Lilith Strange, Jake's sister, called him into her excuse for an executive suite. It was a place that reminded him of her front living room where she lived, a kind of sanctuary far removed from the accessibility of the open office. She would hide there whenever bill collectors, conned ex-employees and disgruntled clients came looking for whatever payments or services she'd promised to deliver them.

Babylon Strange, Jake's niece and boss lady's heir apparent, had just finished a brief discussion of how to get rid of Jake. Both agreed Jake would not be needed around very shortly. He had served his purpose and provided them a scapegoat for when the business needed to go belly up. That's what fools were for, they cackled; laughing at the ease with which they suckered Jake into returning home under the guise of helping to stabilize both their business and family lives. Often, they talked rather openly about their wishes that Jake would just simply disappear or go to jail and be out of their hair.

The latest contract to cross her desk involved tracking down Ken, an old childhood friend they both knew. Jake's fingers trembled. He remembered Ken was B.B.'s younger brother. B.B. and his kid's mother, Alicia, were lovers at one time. Jake and B.B. had fought over her once.

Apparently, he'd gotten into trouble years earlier and torched one of Lilith's girlfriends garment factory. The insurance company and the law had their way with him but now there remained the issue of what was done with the insurance money; a question only Ken could answer. It seemed Lilith's girlfriend died mysteriously of food poisoning soon after the incident. Rumor had it she and Lilith had conspired to split the loot. Jake wasn't surprised.

What did rattle him was the way boss lady had treated Rochelle's death. She seemed almost aversive to the news and yet, unsurprised. Jake knew that Rochelle had begun to share his disdain for boss lady's office antics and tiresome verbal lashings. Arguments had erupted between she and her boss while rumors grew about an under-the- table agreement the two worked up giving Rochelle a share of the company's executive power and benefits.

Jake listened from the basement near the heating duct as the conversation in Sis' office drolled on. His interest peaked as his name was mentioned by Babylon. She spoke to Sis' about why she'd even brought him back; with him being such a cat-housing, drunken nut case. He was always unable to keep a job and usually not very reliable. Sis replied that he was useful in a lot of ways. His usefulness, she said, wasn't very endearing to him, however.

She'd use him up like a hungry wolf used a cheap steak. He'd be a good source of cheap labor. Where else could she find someone to cut the lawn, take out the garbage, chauffer, her and the kids or baby-sit? Where could she find services at that cut-rate for writing business proposals, managing the front office, conducting investigations and being a guard dog at a cost of next to nothing? Beside, she said, with the skimming off of corporate profits and the cooking of the books, who else would be a better patsy to take the blame for the rampant incompetence causing it all.

As well, she said, it was what he deserved for abandoning the family and running off the way he did years ago. He needed to pay for that, according to her, and she was going to make sure that he did exactly that.

Babylon Strange replied, "Yeah, give him that assignment and watch him fry."

Silently, Jake closed the heating vent and his eyes as well. He'd thought his return would make up for the missing years; that perhaps he was forgiven and needed. Now, even though he knew better, his feelings remained the same.

Rochelle's death, maybe it wasn't an accident, Jake wondered aloud. He remembered her being introduced to him at the office several months ago. Even then, Jake had wondered to what degree Sis was involved. His suspicions grew as Rochelle got real cozy with him. He wondered if Sis hadn't orchestrated the whole affair. He had felt used and disrespected by the idea but desperate and lonely enough to accept whatever it meant to him. Maybe, he thought, he could turn these sinister manipulations by Sis into his private life into something pure, meaningful and of merit in its own right. And he almost did just that but evil has a way of marking what it creates. In the end, he thought, he still owed Rochelle the authenticity of what he felt in his heart beyond the deceit that spawned their meeting. He was real with her and, to the end; he'd told her what he suspected. At the end, he thought, maybe she could appreciate that.

No matter, he mused, she didn't deserve to get used that way just because she was so desperate to succeed in his sister's eyes. Neither, he thought, did he.

Before Jake left the basement he turned and reopened the vent. Babylon was asking Sis if she'd placed all the financial and investigative files in her office prior to Ken's meeting with the boss lady.

Jake wondered, why him? He was known for doing mob torch jobs and running insurance scams. Members of Jake's family had long suspected Ken was Sis' right hand man when her car had come up missing and found torched years ago. Jake left the basement perplexed.

Jake took the case but not before she and boss lady broke off into a heated exchange over Jake's hang over. Seems she didn't have any sympathy that his woman had died the night before.

Jake stormed off into a tirade about how and why boss lady had engineered their relationship, paid Rochelle to keep him content and quiet about Sis' secret dealings, and then tried to destroy the relationship by concocting sordid stories on Jake's twisted past and his luridly lustful transgressions. Jake didn't like being reminded about the breakdown he'd suffered after the last assignment from Sis; the one that almost ended his life. Why did he have to think about Alicia right now, he thought? Jake stormed out of the office.

Jake winced as he remembered meeting Rochelle at the hospital.

AND FOR THE FATHER…NOTHING

Jake wanted only to forget. But, in the end, he only wanted to remember. It was what they all wanted in a way; from Jake, a simple solitary thing or perhaps, a task. This thing that they sought after reflected not only what they had taken from Jake but also what he had given in return. It was an enigma; Jake always gave but what was the dark thing he would receive with each given gift?

Was it pieces of the essence establishing who he was; fundamental bits of that which he could not retain nor utilize to save himself, secrets of his soul and maybe answers to his survival. He never knew how to stop giving nor they how to end the taking. They would go on taking; pilfering Jake's psyche until nothing was left to give by Jake nor to possess by them.

Each gift given and received was a reflection symbolic of what we all are, in our minds eye as we gaze upon all others and in some way, what we thought we should have been. Each action revealing more of the nature of our relationships with ourselves and of the emptiness defined by that which is denied cognizance to our mind's eye. It is the truth about why we allow those we love to do what they do to us. It is also the reality of what we do to those we love.

Jake wanted to regain lost honor, respect, trust and in some sense, be relieved of his guilt for having been seen as an abject failure by his family and Sis in particular. He longed for the remembrance of a long ago time when Sis would hold his hand before crossing the street, trusting him to protect and guide her in the face of a dangerous world. Jake wanted to redeem the ghostly specter of lost greatness and competency.

But what did she want of Jake? He was not sure but at times it seemed sordid. Glimpses of a terrible truth became apparent as she wanted Jake to be strong in ways he could not be and perhaps, never was. She wanted his strength as a provider, a shield and panacea for her soul-sickened ills and for him to be the object of her angst, her wrath and finally her vengeance. She needed a martyr and manipulating Jake just might conveniently produce one.

Jake's daughter wanted none of those things. She wanted the silence of his absence. A silence that ensured absolute freedom from a paternal-caused embarrassment that comes with the territory when you're the adult child of an alcoholic with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Jake's pain inflicted by her would be a kind of payment, an acknowledgement of his lost and abandoned fatherhood. She symbolized the extraction of this pound of flesh by her persistent refusals to give in to Jake's frequent requests that she send him a photo of she, the grandkids and her mother, whom Jake still loved.

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?

Chirping away like a mockingbird's song of longing, Jake's cell phone heralded it's message. He glanced non-chalantly at the glowing LED screen indicated the caller's I.D. It was Sis. An involuntary shudder and frown gripped him, causing his stubble marked face to fill with the chagrin of another bad family encounter. He needed a shave, he thought and also a haircut. Too bad, he mused, Sis was still playing hide the sausage with his paychecks.

Jake asked her what was up. Sis replied she wanted to know whether the funeral for Rochelle would keep him dorm handling the new case she and assigned him to earlier. Jake was miffed by her insensitivity and asked her, in the high-pitched tone he always used whenever his emotions were on the edge, if she thought the lack of pay contributed to the absence of pre-natal care he could not afford to provide Rochelle. Did she think, he said, as he downed a squig of cheap white wine, he had anyway to pay for a decent funeral without income?

Sis became sinister. In reply, she hissed that Jake needed to focus on taking care of his own personal business on his own time. She said she did not feel the need to put up with his distractions right now. His lousy money would come soon enough, she whispered, whenever business picked up and at no time sooner.

Jake took another long squig of wine and tried to remember a time when he and Sis got along better. Strange, he thought, he could not summon the memories like he used to. His mind felt sluggish lately, even when he was as sober as a judge.

Stranger still, Jake wondered within himself why she did not 'feel' like his sister anymore, deep inside his soul. It was as if an unfilled pit had been dug; as though he, quipped, perhaps something deeply rooted had been snatched out of its fertile soul.

This was the thing which, more than ever, Sis gave to him lately; whenever they would cross paths. But, for this thing, what did she get in return? The answer came unrepentantly in the message carried by Jake's buddy, Nate.

Sis left Nate a message on his cell phone, Nate said. She wanted to kick Jake's butt…in Bid Whist. She wanted them to get together for the latest Strange card game.

So, that was it, Jake thought, grimacing as he did whenever something was up his behind. Cut-throat Bid it was then.

STRANGE DAYS AHEAD

Strange custom dictated a gathering of family and so-called friends, usually at the bar or at Sis' house. This was where, habit had it, all ended around the dining room table deeply engaged in the life and death struggle of winning and losing at Bid.

Friendships, marriages, lasting liaisons and solid partnerships were created, bolstered or destroyed during these magnificently epic duels of lying and cheating. More so, Bid also involved savvy out-maneuvering and a deft strategic mind that used bluffing like a Japanese Samurai wielding the Bushido blade.

The only rule to be obeyed was if you attended this gathering you had to fight. Albeit, verbal, emotional, psychological, symbolic and physical; the throat-cutting was on and no one took any prisoners. Fools were routinely debased and heroic conquest, at any cost, would involve just how well you could call out your opponents cheating or rule-breaking ways.

This was an absolute necessity, especially playing with Sis, because they were all prone to slipping ace's off the bottom of the deck or signaling plays to each other by talking across the board. There was rampant reneging and brutal fights over who would be forced to give up their books as the penalty if caught. No one willingly gave up their hard-won books nor did anyone easily acquiesce when caught unimaginatively peeking at their opponents hand or their partners for that matter, while going to the kitchen for a beer. Nothing was sacred as the brutal banter of insults, rumor-mongering and interrogations carried on, adding to the exquisite ambience of such a graceful affair.

Jake's in the Hospital again…

As if we were on opposing ends of some distant planet, she and I sat at the dayroom lunch-table blithely gazing into the thin air hovering just out of reach of our mutual stares. She was as beautiful a young woman as I had seen.

Lovely and vibrant she was as I found myself fascinated and yet intrigued by her sense of wit and avid displays of intellect. Her twenty-something voice reminded me of the tales of Ulysses and the Odyssey; with its songs of the sirens that drew men to their watery graves on the salty Aegean Sea.

We spoke in low, searching tones, careful not to rudely offend one another's sense of decency and privacy. Caring not to disturb the beautiful simplicity of the moment we shared, we spoke and nodded as if being aware of a secret only we could share; a common perspective no one else could understand. Yet, somehow her presence inspired me to reveal the innermost sanctum of my hopes, desires and dreams for the future.

Now and again, I glanced up at the occasional ward nurse spying upon how well or badly the patient-student nurse interactions were going in the day area. Like fish in an aquarium, we all pretended no one would be neither observing nor writing about our behaviors. We could keep some semblance of normalcy to our actions. They weren't watching us and we weren't being watched; not really, we would pretend.

The low murmur of telephones ringing and hospital workers chatting saturated the air and mixed in, strangely, with the aseptic smells of rubbing alcohol and ointment that always beset life on the ward. The dayroom TV droned on as CNN correspondents dished out news flashes to the half-dozen or so patients who blankly stared at the floor, either unaware or uncaring of any reality other than that which existed inside their own tormented minds. With a practiced clinical detachment, she peered at all of this with undaunted expressions reflecting only the mildest of personal interest. Her comrades appeared wary and pensive but she only seemed doggedly courageous in the face of periodic verbal splurges by hallucinating patients attempting to tell her of their crazy voices inside their heads.

Rushing in and darting about were the staff nurses either abandoning ship or diving on board the unit as the chaos known as shift change emerged into being. Neither she nor I were moved as this tempest of activity swirled around our table like an oasis in the eye of the storm. She made the world outside of our sphere melt away and become as meaningless as a falling crystal raindrop splattering a whitecap ocean wave.

Her eyes extolled me to remain inspired in my writing as I yearned to contribute all that lay within my soul for a better humanity. I was driven to want to be a better man as I listened with eager ears to her words, her tales of life from whence she came.

Stories of an existence far from any I had remotely experienced. I, the middle-aged black son of a desperately poor ghetto family and she, the youthful white daughter of a well established upper-middle class professional. I, the homeless and depressed patient of a VA psychiatric ward and she, a struggling co-ed from a nearby university nursing school, seemed to create a vibrant chemistry as though we had known each other for years. .

Somehow we found common ground in the telling of our story; the symphony of the words we wove as we reached out to one another in a warm display of our mutual humanity. At last, I thought, a Kindred spirit had come as a God-sent muse to fan my flames of creative thought. She made me feel like a mentor; I wanted to teach her. Like a brother, I wanted to fight for her. Like a Father, I wanted to protect her. And like a friend, I wanted to share with her my life.

For her, I would write forever. And life suddenly became worth living again, if only for a moment as she let the dancing rays of golden sunshine caress her eyes and crown her with the hope that comes with youth.

Jake sat in the park and smoked for a while. His hands were shaking and his lips parched. His ancestor's were calling to him, telling him tales of woe from the archives of Strange history.

Jake met his friend Nate at Pacchio's, the local watering hole near the job. They'd shared a long history together with both having served during the Viet Nam War. Growing up together on the same block made it easy for Jake to talk about how often they had commonly ran across the same crowds, social activities and women.

Nate had warned Jake about how easily he'd fallen for Rochelle. Nate did not like the fact that Jake allowed her to often speak to him in tones which reminded Nate of the way Sis addressed Jake. It rang of disrespect born from family and friends knowing far too much of the others secrets; too much sharing of the same stomping grounds.

After Jake's first marriage failed, it was Nate who saw him through the twisted times Jake had of the boozing until he nearly died. Not to mention the emotional breakdowns and career failures that ensued. Only Nate understood why Jake had left town in order to get himself straightened out at the behest of his mother. Only Nate at first openly accepted Jake back with open arms some years later.

Nate himself was something of an enigma however. He was known to be a bit of a fool, a class clown, an ever-dreaming romantic and an insufferable lush who was always ready to be the proverbial soft-touch. He was a cheats best friend and an easy mark. Everyone knew one thing for sure though. Nate was smart and never gave someone bad advice. He just never followed it himself.

It was Nate who advised Sis, while Jake was gone, when her husband had died as a result of a suspicious coronary. Some folks said he died like an old mule that had been broken and rode into the ground by its owner.

The way Sis broke him down was legendary, by some accounts, but still she suffered at his passing. Nate consoled her and allowed what was left of her conscience to mend by letting her rationalize the poor guy's weakness for her. Never give a sucker an even break, she'd say, especially a man. At times Nate felt sorry for her.

It was a kind of sympathy you'd feel for the cat after it had eaten all the mice in the house; no longer able to realize its desire to satiate its need to torture and kill at will. Both Jake and Nate knew very early on that this quality of predation probably became Sis' greatest assets in starting and surviving the business world.

But it was the extremes she manifested, that she embraced which left a bad taste in their mouths and all those who not scared enough to ignore her bad behaviors. Now the bad taste in Jake's mouth was shared by Nate. Nate knew Jake felt responsible for his sister, especially after all the elders and passed on. As kids, he watched Jake raise sis and observed Sis growing dependence and adulation for Jake. Nate also saw how much things soured after the parents died. Yeah, Nate could smell a love-hate relationship anywhere.

Grandma used to stay up with Jake and sis on those lazy summer days back in the late 1980's. Often, she sat with her fragile 5'1" 70 year old frame curled up in grandfather's old recliner. Near the front room's big window, she would stare out onto the hazy grey concrete of our Chicago South Side ghetto street and tell about the fate which befell one of our family's legends…

Jake recalled how he'd done the same with his kids, after they were grown, when they wanted to know about their mother, Alicia.

"Crap B.B., you didn't have to cut me for real, purred my ex-kitten. "He was falling for the set-up."

"Look," he sneered "I don't give a rat's ass right now. I don't like this it stinks it's Foul-tastin'. Can't we just leave here and take off for Mexico like you promised?"

What? And let his stupid butt figure out that we were the ones behind his mother's killing? I may have pulled the trigger on the old bag, but you stood by and didn't stop me.

"Yeah but I know him. He'd never stop tracking me down."

"Tracking you down? Hell, he's been on my butt for weeks now."

"But, I've got more to lose than you. I've got a real fine-butt man now. He's rich and clean as the driven snow. If he knew anything about all this past, crap, I'd lose everything and be back in the hood, trapped like a rat. No way, baby; I need you to finish him off."

BB's eyes stared at me with a look of confusion I'd never seen before. It was my only chance as he put the gun barrel to my head. My eyes blinked violently, as the trigger cocked and sang "C-l-i-i-c-k."

"Hell BB," I begged "you fell for her crap the same as I did years ago."

"What do ya' mean?"

"She needs for you to kill me. You're the only witness to her drug-dealing and my ma's murder. Once you've bumped me off, how long do you think she'll let you live?"

He didn't stop pushing the barrel into my temple. Then his eyes, which had glowed with vengeful fire, now turned sullen and grey. He turned like a beaten down, junkyard dog. He walked towards Alicia, his outstretched hands begging as if for a morsel of mercy for a broken heart.

"No baby" she crooned, "he's playing you like a piano. Go on and blast his butt."

But BB didn't stop advancing towards her. I watched with morbid fascination, as Alicia grabbed under her satin gown and snatched out a pearl-handled .32 automatic. For an instant, BB turned his head and looked me straight in the eyes like a fear-frozen running back. Then he tossed his gun to me. I caught BB's .38 special just as Alicia fired a bullet into his throat. Blood shot out and splattered into her eyes. I rolled behind an empty ash can and emptied the pistol into the mother of my two kids.

I lay there for a long time as the rain kept pouring down onto Stagg Field. Streams of crimson water ran past my shaking hands. Hands that still clutched the deadly instrument which destroyed my dreams.

You loved me once. I wish you had never left me for BB... Damn BB, now you've, saved my life twice.

My assignment was complete and I'd succeeded in a business of my own. I found truth in my hollow victory. Somehow, as I glanced at the rain-soaked field that symbolized both BB's and my own boyhood dreams of valor and honor, the lie was better than the truth

Jake woke up dripping beads of sweat. He bolted upright, almost falling off the worn old couch with no legs in his darkened living room, knocking over the last of his cheap white wine. He was alone again; unlucky in love, he thought. The melodies danced around, floating inside his head. He began humming:

"She Turns my Pages….She's so Outrageous…I'm Just a Prisoner, Only a Prisoner…I'm Just a Prisoner of Your Love…"

He recalled when the sun arose on that bright and cold wintry morning last December. The sensation of icy winds blowing under the door scraped at his toes as they slammed onto the tawdry motel room floor. The stench of last weeks pizza still filled the darkened room. As though the smothering aura of a desperate man's bum's luck descended like a cloud of fog. He felt a choking feeling as he a carefully fired a well-aimed gym-shoe at the beckoning alarm clock. It was half past eleven and time for work. If he fully intended to pay another weeks rent at that poor man's excuse for a decent place to live he had better go, he mused. He felt he was trapped just as surely as the sun rises in the east. As if he were some surly-butted grizzly bear with his bloody paw stuck within the jagged blood drenched jaws of a northwest trapper's bear-trap, he moaned piteously his un-witnessed laments. Tossing and turning in the broken bed, no relief came from his torment. Another bad night's sleep had passed. The nightmares relentlessly hounded him once more. For the last three nights there would be no relief form the guilt, shame and the certain knowledge his days were numbered. There's no rest for the damned; no peace for the condemned. Disaster's only a breath away and I can smell it. And he knew this as he scrambled sluggishly out of bed. Quietly, he looked at his woman lying seductively next to him. She was curled up like a small kitten, entranced with the selfish joy of its own existence. Things had not been going that entirely well for the two of them since he hurriedly moved in with her several weeks ago, out of that flea-infested motel. Like a man who overstayed his welcome, the party seemed to be over and he had nowhere else to go. The calendar on the wall above the fake brass bed-railings bore witness to how long it had been since his last time out in the sunlight. He was a prisoner, self-sentenced to house arrest of unknown length.

He bristled with anticipation at the prospect of spending time getting acquainted with what sounded like a decent women. He was ending his long social drought. At least so it seemed at the time. With the eastern Ohio sun glaring thru his window, she continued to tell him of her life, her past loves and all that she hoped for in the future.

Her voice was raspy in a sultry way. She spoke of how hard it was to find a decent dating companion who shared her love for film, quiet evenings at home and good conversation. He agreed with her and spoke of his many failed attempts meeting new and compatible partners. He spoke of the blind dates from hell I'd so often managed to find himself a party to. As tales of the acid-tongued, male-bashing women who seemed to take great delight in displaying their skills at verbally abusing any man unlucky enough to be nearby flowed forth from his memories, she seemed eager to agree and offer like stories of her own disappointments.

It appeared that he'd finally been fortunate in having found a compatible other. That was how they met. Now, he felt himself reaching for her with a desperation he had never known. His hands shook and his head ached but still his eyes could not tear themselves away from her. She turned and threw his mail into his face without a word. Her lips pursed and her eyes gleamed.

"What was that for," he shouted. "You ain't' got no reason for treating me that way."

"If you don't like, then leave butthole."

"And go where? I gave up everything I had to be with you. All my bridges have been burned to a crisp and ya' know it. I thought you loved me; why can't you just treat me that way?"

"You get treated just the way you deserve," she sneered. "What makes you think you should get anything better? If your butt hadn't decided to play cat-daddy to that two-bit skeezer and her crumb-snatching brood, ya' might've been gettin' a better cup of tea here. Instead, your gonna get yourself killed just bein' stuck on stupid."

Entering Pacchio's from that sun-blasted trail road, my eyes squinted in vain as I attempted to adjust my sight. The dark, shaded lounge embraced me with wisps of cool air and empty, black tables. I sauntered towards the left end of the bar, past three
or four rough-looking brutes hee-hawing over shots of whiskey, and was careful not to disturb the lone couple seated at a table dead center. The woman had the noticeable
makings of a whore and seemed to be conducting her kind of business.

I couldn't see her right hand which was reaching under the table towards her companion's lap. She looked to be about thirty-nine but the short, butch haircut made her streaks of silvery hair lend her the appearance of one much older. Still, she didn't look too bad and was well built although a little busty. She stared at me like a hungry lioness and licked her lips. I snarled back and patted my weapon as I sat at the bar. I better keep an eye on the hidden hand.

"What'll you have Jake," said the crimson-haired bartender as if I couldn't afford the cost.
"Shut up and bring me a bottle of whiskey, you old fart."

"Damn, I like it when you get nasty, Jake. You back on the booze again?"
"So what of it? Just take my money and keep pouring Samantha. Its not the first time I snuck out for squig of red eye."
"Yeah, I know. What brings you down my way today ebony eyes?"
"Flattery will get your balls chopped off. I'm supposed to meet somebody. Anybody asking for me?"

Sam bent low over the bar. "I've never seen those two at the table before now, if you catch my drift. But, Big Baby Bertha, down there at the other end of the bar; she sure does like your long black …."
Before Sam could finish, the bruiser-chick who leered at me coming in had left her buddy and was zeroing in my way with all the grace of a drunken wildebeest in heat. Around her eyes were the tell-tale red ring signifying a hype who'd recently bought a hit of whatever the going high was. I knew, seeing the ring, his intent meant trouble. For him, not for me.

"That's a great butt you got on ya'," the bruiser slobbered out as fresh drool dripped out of the corner of her drug-cracked lips. "How much for a peek at the other reverse end of that pelvis, baby. I bet you just got paid and..."

The bruiser stopped just long enough to peek down at the needle-sharp stiletto tip I was poking into her left breast. I was boiling because I hated sleeze-balls like her. They reminded me of my ex-buddies back in the Army.
"And you'd feel really good about paying for this bottle of red eye in front of me, right?"
"Look baby, I don't want no trouble. I just thought..."
"Thought with what, you butt-wipe? Now pay for my drink and leave me a tip for letting you get near me. But, before you go back to your buddy, I'll whisper in your ear so you can save face with your buddy looking at you. So, if you don't go right now, kiss your future for breast-feeding kids goodbye."

As Jake waited for his meeting with his cabbie buddy, Mason Lee James, a woman came towards his end of the bar. It was as if he'd seen a ghost. It was Peggy from his old writing days. They often used to speak about poetry, art and searching for the truth. Usually it was while they were getting drunk.

It was not always a good truth but often very necessary. For when shame and pain reared up to assault this thing they protected between them, only the truth of their feelings for one another prevailed and conquered. Well, not always.

Jake recalled what happened between them.

But, it was this singular realty of their emotions that remained their personal mountain to climb. Not unlike the fearfully dual nature of the front door being both exit and entrance, both of these lovers wanted one another as much as they feared their commitment. They needed each other yet despised that need, as a weakness in the armor of independent survival each was so accustomed to over the long and lonely years of broken solitude.

"You more afraid of me leaving or that I might stay; which one is it?"

"Both of them."

Weeks before this time they were at the crossroads, with which they now found themselves confronted by. She was stricken with a long series of ailments that rendered her sickly and agitated. It had produced a severe strain on that fragile construct that was the early foundation for what they had together. Neither of them anticipated the others reactions or expectations for dealing with the other under these circumstances.

"It ain't' fair that while I think you should become more open and receptive to help you feel the opposite way," she said.

She bolted upright in bed and folded her legs beneath her like some wise-butted yogi dispensing ancient wisdom. Their values began to reveal themselves as not being so different by definition but alien by the method of how they would be expressed within their relations. Under the heat of battle one person will strike out while another flees. So it was with them. The beauty of it all would lie in the fact that if they survived then change would be inevitable.

The sound of a Sunday morning's rainstorm draped his ears like the Shroud of Turin upon His corpse. The rat-a-tat-tat of the grayish raindrops upon the too small kitchen window seemed to fit his current mood. Curious, he watched with morbid fascination as another stream of roaches marched across the dining room table. Lumbering, they strode on towards another sector of this vast domain that they ruled despite his woman's futile attempts to exterminate the pests. The house belonged to them both. Or did it? He didn't really mind the vermin. They were a temporary inconvenience he thought often she had promised to try and get up in the morning instead of the afternoon from last nights latest episode of booze and weed.

She told him she'd see about taking him to pick up his impounded car and out to get cigarettes and maybe a beer since he had been behaving so well lately. Especially because he didn't pressure her about going out and ruining yet another paycheck on cheap women and partying like a drunken sailor. But like so many other times he again realized just like the day before that she was losing interest in keeping him around

The handwriting was indeed on the wall and he could smell the scent of her rising irritation. It abounded whenever they passed each other in the apartment. The strange phone calls where no one would answer didn't help matters much, especially when she picked up the calls.

Yet, he loved her and wondered too many times if she really felt the same way despite her saying so. Another fair-weather romance he told himself. He kept tensing his back as if waiting for the knife of another broke-down relationship to sink into his back.

He watched with morbid curiosity as her eyelids fluttered like a wayward butterfly as she refused again to respond to all questions put to her. Her brow furrowed and the eyebrows narrowed together silently upon the repeated request for an answer. She glanced away and focused her attention on barren wall. Each wall was a stark reminder that no pictures nor decorations would ever make up for a place devoid of loving care. It was a feeding ground and a lair for this tigress to consume him like the mark that he was.

She fed upon his butt and treated him like the short-lived, one-use commodity he'd become to her. Together they provided a home that served them both not too unlike the mythical Flying Dutchman Ghost ship acted as the stygian domain of sailors forever damned to wander the high seas searching for peace. Like those specters, he too was damned and didn't quite know what to do about it.

He craned his thin neck trying to attract her attention; striving to maintain eye contact. Perhaps, he quipped, he could will the passion he still felt within his soul back into her black heart. He prayed within his mind that a spark of love still existed. So, once more he asked her that question. She turned towards him, grinning from ear to ear, exuding a cunning slyness that made him shiver.

"The question is," she spoke with that strangely nasal, erratic tone. It reminded him of a world weary teacher fetidly trying to pound an innocuous lesson into a clueless student. "…well do you love me?"

It was as if her question superceded both the reality and the absence of a love that should have been there between them. A love, which he knew, would always remain unrequited.

Before he could go on any further, she gave her chilling overture.

"You better love me."

Suddenly, he knew it didn't matter to her whether or not love was returned. Worse, he knew no matter what, this was as good as it would ever get. The paradox lived. Love turning to hate, promise to sorrow and cognition to confusion.

As Reality Shifted: Mason Lee

Lust burned at them in a way beyond explanation. It was a look like no other; each of them staring into the soul of the other as if searching for a truth already known. They were afraid and fearless at the same time.

They knew, yet wanted to know what they were going to do to each other. It wasn't going to be about anything nice. It stank of a destiny from which neither would ever escape.

"How can you stand it? You reek of good deeds."

"Only reason you keep me around is cause' even your tramp butt gotta have at least one friend…"

"Ya' made one lousy error. Just like the crooked punk that ya' are, ya' banked too much on an honest man's honesty."

The hammer dropped. It was too late for them to fix it. Love was dead, shot down like a horse thief in the night. Once more, that sick, churning in the pit of his stomach gnawed away…reminding him of eating a smelly and luscious Jew-Town polish sausage that sat out too long in the sun.

He knew the boss had just spoken to Rochelle on the day he was off work from another hang-over. Increasingly, she had taken on the composure of a striking serpent; often treating him as though he we're some mildly amusing, yet bothersome weakling.

Now she'd began to speak to him in tones reserved for jailhouse peons. She often found herself slipping up and making references to whether or not he'd blown it all chasing cheapies back at the hang out with his old buddies. It all smelled of a double-cross. Suddenly, she and the boss were real cozy at the office, spending more time just shooting the breeze. Days before the two acted like they couldn't stand one another.

Whose fault was it Rochelle had flown the coop. That's how he ended up with Brenda James. Had he lost it…that old magic he had come to depend on with the girls in the world. His buddy once told him he'd lost his rap. Now, he wondered…what would happened to Mason Lee James.

I'm a victim of my own duality, good and bad. I couldn't live it; the dishonor. I remember that; deciding to end it all. My shame for myself seemed a new level of pain in the annals of human experience…an agony knowing no boundary. But what of the Lord's plans for me. What is it He would have me to do?

A bright glimmer of cold and golden sunlight shone through the narrow kitchen window as she stood by the stove. To her left, the steady rush of water gushed forth from the twisted faucet of the sink. The smell of freshly percolated tea permeated the room as she tossed a spoon she had used for stirring her tea onto the cracked porcelain of the counter.

She turned towards Jake, moving her 5'6" svelte ebony frame gracefully, but her eyes quickly refused to settle upon his. It was morning and they had just gone through another night tossing and turning in an effort to avoid physical contact with one another in bed. He sat on the metal card table chair next to the antique oak dining room table and stared at the cell phone that blinked its green on light. He knew yet another call, probably form a bill collector had come through. It was another call he wouldn't take. He had no answer for their questions.

One trap was as good as the next. He reveled in being the prey; always to be wanted, always needed; for the feeding. And so did she.

The call came around midnight just after she had finished her shift. She hadn't yet pulled her coat off and rushed towards the phone. The house was dark and empty. Beer cans littered the dining room table as roaches scurried for cover away from this invader.

"Hello, is this Ms. James?"

"Yes it is."

"This is the police department. Does a Mason Lee live at that address?"

"Yes, is he alright because I haven't seen him for a while?"

"I regret to inform you that he is dead. We found his body in a motel room on the Upper East Side. Apparently he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. We'll need for you to come downtown and make a statement after identifying the remains."

"Oh my God?"

"I'm sorry ma'am; are you going to be alright?"

"Yes officer, I'll be just fine now."

She hung up the phone and took off her coat. Opening the refrigerator door, she snatched out a 24-ounce beer and took a long slug. The doorbell startled her for a moment. She went to the door and opened it, returning to her seat at the table near her brew.

"Well come on in and put your things in the back. Just move his old crap out of the way; he don't need it anymore. Your money is on the table."

She smirked as the Mason Lee's girl and her toddlers came in. The envelope holding his insurance papers fell onto the table out of her coat pocket while she searched for her cigarette pack.

Lights flashed in and out, off and on at first brightly and then dimmer. Pounding and throbbing within his head ceased as the bittersweet taste of sugary metal filled his mouth. Like a day-mare's visions overlap the stark reality of the sunlit day, Jake's vision attacks, which were at first linked to chronic migraine, stopped him cold in his tracks. He knew this time all three of 'The Elders' would descend upon him with whatever 'Strange' wisdom he could understand. For quite often, their messages were deeply mixed in with metaphorical allusions and analogies to his past and current adversities. But always they'd urge him to do better and maintain the family's legacies.

Jake felt as if they wanted him to start off the discussions, so he obliged. He asked why it seemed to be so hard for him to get along with everyone when all he wanted to do was to bring together the family and for all to live in peace. The Big Three all laughed in unison before they broke out into an all too familiar argument about why they never did seem to fully agree on anything when they lived. So, they asked Jake, why did it seem so important that he need his current clan to do so? Jake had no answer but there was a curious reply.

Because no one seems to be listening or treating each other fairly, he thought. Why on earth did it had to wind up this way; you know with all the family fighting, ripping each other off, turning their backs on one another? Didn't he prove how much he needed his family by rushing to the aid of his beloved sister, after she convinced him to put aside their differences? Didn't he give up a great opportunity to start over and mend his errant ways there in Wisconsin after leaving during the Strange property wars a year ago.

So what, Pa said. You should never had to come back; you were supposed to find a better way to prevent having to leave in the first place. Seemed to Jake that there was a misunderstanding in the family. Nobody remembered the old days when he did all the sacrificing; all the right moves for the future of the Strange's. You're only as good as your last win it seemed.

OUR THING

Not too unlike the ancient Mafioso model; Jake's family structure was imbedded in a profound dysfunction. For him, the role of current head of the clan came his way as a direct result of the deaths of the last elders which included his grandparents and mother.

Jake's self-imposed exile for close to ten years did not endear him to the rest of the clan. Thus, upon his elicited return, caused by the familial infighting over who would retain probate rights of inheritance for the remaining property, there was much dissent and residual disdain. No one relished his role as head of the family nor did many of the clan respect the role or him. Instinctively, Jake often responded to the rivaling clan members by invoking his wisdom and preferences as clan head. However, most of the clan simply either dismissed him or rebuked these attempts by Jake to settle their differences. Sis, on the other hand, would actively challenge his role and never missed any opportunities to supplant his position by undercutting his status; usually by publicly debasing his stature or setting him up to fail at various tasks and revealing those failures at timely moments for all to see. When combined with acutely critical verbal attacks on his competency as both clan head and as a human being, the effect on Jake's self-confidence and his public integrity was lethal. In other words, Jake's persona was shown as a bumbling idiot and Sis' wasted no time in using this to solidify her image as the long-suffering sibling who always had to save him and the clan from their screw-ups. For all intents, she was viewed as the one true 'Strange Queen.' It was to this end that the dreaded Bid Whist games served her purpose.

Most of the family was only half-related, with all sharing the same mothers but different mothers. Very inconsistent bonds were based upon what you had done for the other lately. A matriarchal power-base perverted by the men into an upside down, misogynistic philosophy of living ruled. Children in this system were treated (not too unlike the model that existed as a result of the relationship Ma' Strange had with her parents) as unfortunate by-products of past indiscretions. In effect, they were viewed as lustful mistakes of the women's lapses in judgment; a period of time the 'ooops…I did it again' excuse-making for their giving in to banal desires.

The Peter Pan/Cinderella-like syndrome was alive and well. Dreamy, reality-be-damned versions of TV-fed family life expectations constituted and informed the ever-present depressive and hyper-critical milieu that all of the Strange's lived with.

The number one family custom involved rape and exile. This practice involved the casting out (by hook or crook-even if meant you had to call the cops and frame someone) of labeled undesirables occurred usually after that poor bloke had served his purpose and was no longer needed.

Also of note was the barbaric practice of Strange cannibalism. Here, the game of 'last one to the table gets ate' translated into an 'If you snooze, you lose; there's only two kinds of soldiers…the quick and the dead' mentality. Thus was the establishment in Chicago society of Strange ethics and morality.

As a curious matter of note, there was an absence of religion within the family edicts laid down by 'The Elders'. Their upbringing of the original brood and the subsequent embracing of highly religious ethical dogma by specific clan members and their kids was puzzling. Enigmatic standards and principles, as well as a highly peculiar Strange logic came into being. These became a part of the clan's twisted familial customs. One such example involved the edicts that not only did familiarity breed contempt but no one ever called the other even if tragic news about the clan existed.

Hence, if someone had died or was gravely ill, nobody said anything to the rest. "I didn't tell em' cause' keeping it from them was for their own good," usually served as the rationale, especially if it was Sis who kept the lid on family news. At times she'd simply say they should have kept in contact anyway if they wanted to know something.

Another odd thing was the Strange custom of 'baby-snatching.' This was a time-honored ritual, honed to perfection by Granny Strange and passed down by Ma. These methods were executed during the epic 'whose child is it anyway wars' at the 'time of the beginning' when Strange's were making their mark upon the land they had settled back in the ghetto. It was a kind of Darwinian 'Origin of Species' for oddballs and Strange-folk alike.

What the alluring green light which emanated from the lighthouse pier was to Fitzgerald's Gatsby, the ownership of property, yours preferably, was to the clan members. It created the Strange 'taste for others blood.' A macabre taste for the 'blood of the martyrs' was a delectable morsel especially it was Strange blood. For the closer the bond between them, the better the taste and the more irresistible the compulsion to let it flow was for them. With this fact in mind, the old adage of why tigers eat their young was not wasted nor cast upon deaf ears when it came to the adoption of Strange mentality.

The concept of skeletons in your closet took on mammoth proportions with this brood. Parents' birthdays were but one example where information was considered a state secret and violations of that policy was punishable by death. No one was ever acknowledged when they asked about where the elders hailed from, the names or identities of whom their respective fathers were and the birth information of various uncles, cousins, etc.

Life with this clan of the cave bear parody was truly interesting, that was if you liked gallows-humor. The 'economy of the non-burial rules' were born of the Strange women's refusals to pay for burial costs and funeral expenses. Also, it embodied the symbolic power one had if you kept the ashes of loved ones at your house and not anyone else's domain. Especially, not at Jakes. Of course, they'd have to ignore clan member's last wished not to be cremated and burnt to a crisp; like what happened to Grandpa Strange in spite of his death-bed admonitions and pleas that they not pull the plug on him. Then again, no one was really ready to take care of him or the other Strange sick and infirmed at their homes. That was what public aid nursing homes and the potter's field was for. Ahh yes, Déjà vu' and Que Sera' Sera'…

And much like strange kids who were afraid that someone would steal away their 'joy,' both paranoia and territoriality engendered themselves to how the Strange's lived daily.

The less that domain truly belonged to you, the more these denizens of twisted logic would lay claim and absorb the delusionary beliefs of becoming empowered by their imagined ownership. In effect, kinfolk who had never visited each other's homes would and did throw their weight around by assuming command over a home not their own.

The arrival of Strange clan and associates for the Bid game resembled newsreel clips of the infamous Mafia clandestine meet at that lodge up in the Catskill's of New York State that got raided by the feds under J. Edgar Hoover, who was eager to impress the nation by acknowledging that there indeed was a Mafia in the first place. As the event had now been agreed upon to be held at the neutral site of Pacchio's, in order to keep down the family in-fighting over who ran what at who's house, many of those in attendance would also had gone by the funeral home at Bleaks down the road to pay respect and visitation for Jake's deceased wife, Rochelle. It was tradition, as with many Chicago pub-orientated gatherings, to drink heavily after wakes and funerals. Maybe it was a Black-Italia-Irish thing or something.

Of course, Jake had very little to do with picking the location. Oh, he voiced his opinion but as usual, his view was both overlooked and scoffed at. It was always helpful that the Strange's considered Jake and Nate, among others, uniquely piteous fools who needed all the guidance those folks like Sis could provide.

In the game of Bid, at or above 'six-on' and at or below 'six-in' were the win versus lose parameters. Your score per hand was determined by what you'd 'bid' (i.e. the predicted number of books that you and your partner implicitly agreed on; as this also was dependent on which of you won the bid. Winning the bid was done by determining which bid and the higher value. In effect, the power structure of bids (also factored by whether you had won or lost the bid) was illustrated, as an example, by a bid that went in at six-upstairs (or high) being defeated by either a six-low (downstairs) or a six-no (no trump with the card hierarchy to be stated prior to getting your kitty). In that case also, the six-no reigns supreme and creates the converse game situation where your opponents need only win two books out of the total twelve plays in each hand in order to 'set' you. Being set would cause whatever your bid was to become a negative value (i.e. set back).

The kitty, a set of six (usually) cards dealt by the dealer during the course of issuing the player's cards, was to be viewed only after the winning bid was determined. Its view only occurred by turning over the six cards for all to see, unless the winning bid was a no trump. In the case of no-trump, then only that bid winner would see the kitty. Prior to looking at the kitty, that person with the winning bid must state what they determine as the card suit to serve as trump cards; cards which carry priority over all other three suits and if played automatically board themselves (i.e. cannot be picked up as if they had been put down as a mistake).

The basic strategy for kitty use was to retain those cards that would 'strengthen' your bid to win. One way was to keep all trumps found, keep all aces and keep any Jokers while building up your suits to create a 'run-down' of sequentially hi or low cards. It was wise to get as close as possible to becoming two-suited. This would allow you and maybe your partner to 'cut out' suits played that you didn't have with trumps. Whenever needed, as with those times should lead to your partners strength cards and must follow suit of cards played by the other players. That strategy works well if you had noted the opponents lack of suits or winning cards that you and your buddy do not have.

A good hand, properly laid down, would produce the creme'-dela'-creme' of Bid Whist; the dreaded 'Boston'. Laying and playing down the proverbial 'ROAD MAP TO BOSTON' was a highly exact yet, aesthetic artistry. It was culminated, after several table-jarring and trash-talking winning plays, with a high-fiving, booty-shaking revelry only seen during pro-sports, game winning performance celebrations. One reason was that the Boston virtually ensured winning the game-set and always counted as double in the point counting scheme. Therefore, if you were six-in and got a Boston, you'd now be six-on instead of even board (as a normal bid win of say six hi or low would've given you). The Boston also meant that you had won a bid of seven and therefore every book (13) that existed. In effect, your enemies cannot win one book.

Jake Gets...

Jake accepted, by and large, everyone's treatment of him. He did this for lack of any effective response to the daily assaults on his self-esteem and character. However, Nate did not appreciate this overt distaste for the man that most of their mutual acquaintances thought Jake to be. For sure, Nate disliked them all but managed rather well to subdue his contempt. Jake, unfortunately, had never acquired that talent. Soon, this too would change.

Nate asked Jake "Why is it that you always seem to blow off the disrespect your Sis and everybody else throws at you?"

Jake ignored his old friend, or at least seemed to anyway. But, his mind never4 let what was said get in the way of a quiet and internal response.

How the hell should I know…I'm still trying to figure out why folks just don't let the past go…they're probably too comfortable with that image of me…the old screw-up with the feeble mind…Mr. nice-guy with the hide as thin as air…It's pissing me off but soon, my day will come…

"Come on Jake, get them there folks off your back," Nate hollered, "cause you only get treated like you let people treat you."

"Yeah, I know," Jake mumbled. His bent head was noticeable in its lowered posture.

"Let's change the tune a little ol' buddy; how's that new case turning out for ya'?"

Jake's countenance visibly brightened as he responded "I found out something interesting the other day Nate. Seems Rochelle made out a memo which shows that Sis' had been corresponding with some insurance company. She'd been trying to get info on what the payoff would be if her business got burned to the ground due to unknown causes."

"Ya got to be kiddin' Jake. We both know what kinda' game that is with her. She's gonna mess around and get somebody killed. Ya better make sure it ain't you player."

Jake thought about what Nate said for awhile before he responded "Thing about her conniving butt is, why would she get me involved in it anyway. She's gotta know that Phyllis Lothario is gonna be the primary insurance investigator for anything connected with her claim. She was before on that car incident and she told me if anything like that cropped up again, she'd be back with a vengeance."

"Phyllis! Come on Jake, not…"

"Yeah, my ex-wife."

Jake drowned away his discontent with another shot of booze. The pit of his stomach rumbled like an old bear disturbed out of its sleep. It wasn't from hunger, he thought.

I've got trouble putting the pieces together. There was something I can't remember…something about Phyllis and…

"Sis wanted me to meet her at the office right before the Bid Whist game gets started. But I got this call right before you came in and everything's different now. If anything happens to me call this number." Jake handed a phone number over to Nate.

"Whose is it, Jake?"

"If I don't make it to the game tonight, call that number and tell whoever answers that I'm sailing to Byzantium…you got that?"

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Don't worry about it….they'll know what to do?"

"Jake, don't go getting yourself in more trouble than you can handle. Sure Sis thinks you're just a bloomin' idiot that she can treat any way she wants; but it ain't worth the price of revenge. God don't like ugly…Let Him handle it. You just stay safe…"

"Not to cut you off," Jake responded with a half-hearted grin "but, seems to me you never take your own advice. Just the other day, you wouldn't listen to me when I told you that girl Sis fixed you up with wasn't any good for ya'. Now she's got your butt in court trying to get her hooks into your disability checks. Not to mention that she tried to fool you into believing you were the father of some other guy's baby in her gut."

"Maybe you're right, Jake. For a minute, I forgot. I'm just as bad as you for not taking my own advice, much less yours.

A startlingly pretty woman with the legs of a race horse strode over toward them. Nate glanced her way and his face went ashen. Jake saw his expression before he turned around.

"Damn, we must've talked you up, Phyllis. Long time, no see; how's things cookin' up in the 'Big Apple' lately?

"Nate, shut the hell up you scrub," Phyllis Lothario sneered with a misty gleam in her amber brown eyes. "If you're real nice to me, I might just let you drink with me and Jake. What do you say ex-lover-man, felling a little frisky or what?"

Jake stared at her with his shot glass half-way to his lips. For a hot second, he thought, he didn't remember who she was. In a way, he mused, he might've been better off.

"Hey baby, what cool breeze blew you our way? Ya' shoulda' called me so I could fix myself up a little," Jake replied. Nate watched his face with the intensity of an execution witness waiting for the switch to fall.

"Didn't you get my fax?" Phyllis slid her sculpted rear end past Nate's face. Jake almost laughed at Nate's expression as her scent drifted across the bar table like the aroma of baked cookies in the oven. Damn, Jake thought, she's wearing Lancôme; just like the old days.

"Why are you here; you must want to torture me some more, ehh?"

"Hey Jake, quit fooling around. If we can't trust Nate, then who's left?" Nate looked puzzled.

"Alright, might as well let him in on it. So, are you on for tonight's game at Sis'?"

"Shoot Jakey-Pooh, wouldn't miss it for the world. I cannot wait to see the look on her face when you walk in for the game. Especially since she would've figured you for dead by then. Here, you need to take this." Phyllis handed Jake a small package wrapped in postal paper.

"Are these the tapes of her, Rochelle and Ken from the motel?"

"Yes, and the pictures you took from the surveillance we set up are there as well. All you need to do now is to make sure Nate gets the call during the game, right after you kick her ass to win the Bid game."

"She'll be so upset, she'll never second-guess her impulse to get to the office for the Ken-payoff. She'll do anything to finish you off then and she knows Ken wouldn't finish the torch job on the office without getting the payment up front."

"So, that's it," Nate said.

"Yeah," said Jake "Sis' own compulsion to taste my blood, cheat Phyllis' insurance company and micro-manage her own arson scheme to cover-up her involvement in Rochelle's death will be irresistible."

"What about Ken, though?" said Phyllis.

Nate intervened, "Hell, anybody knows that Sis can't resist double-crossing any man alive. Besides, she'll never allow Ken to tell anyone about her and Rochelle."

Phyllis asked "What do you mean, Nate?"

Jake fielded the question and answered "Sis' ahs always been super-secretive about liking the taste of fish."

"You mean…"

"Yeah, Phyllis, Sis' has been one of those, what ya' call 'Killer Dykes' for a while now. She just doesn't think nobody knows, especially me. I found one of her love letters to Rochelle right before she died. When I confronted Rochelle about it, she told me about the plot she was hatching with Ken and how I was involved. Phyllis told me over the phone about the life insurance policy Sis had taken out on me. Then I found out about the business' 'Double-Indemnity' clause for destruction by fire if the cause could be linked to a criminal action by a disgruntled employee."

"Damn, Jake. That means she was setting you up when she first approached you to come back home and help her out," said Nate.

""And what's more Nate," said Phyllis, "it kinda' makes you wonder about all those stories on how her first husband died."

"Only one thing though, Phyllis," said Nate. "What happened to make you suddenly stop blaming Jake for the days you two were married. Seems I recall that the last time you were together, you almost wanted to shoot the old boy."

"Jake, do you want to tell Nate what I know," Phyllis said as her amber globes became glistened with tears.

"Look Nate, you're my best friend and maybe my only one. I got my test results after I finally went in for a check-up on why I'm having so much trouble in my head. I was gonna tell ya' but…"

"Damn," said Nate "you've got that thing your Grandpa had, don't ya"

"It's called Alzheimer's, Nate. And when it's mixed with a healthy dose of dementia; well, I ain't got long to remember you and Phyllis."

"Or anything anymore," Phyllis mumbled. "It's not right Jake; why should you have to always be the one to get screwed. It really wasn't you're fault so much that things didn't go right. Your heart was in the right place...people took advantage of you being a nice guy…they played you like a fool til' you finally began living the role most comfortable for everyone but yourself; always trying to please. Your bitterness must be deep, Jake because you didn't deserve the way all of us treated you. You've always been good to us all."

Jake stared up into the ceiling fan with a strange, wistful expression. Nate looked and thought Jake's look reminded him of that empty-blackboard look; that blissful, newborn infants stare which signaled an ignorant innocence.

"You know Phyllis," Nate remarked "it's kinda' ironic because Jake drank and drugged his troubles away trying to rid himself of bitter memories…especially of you. Finally, Jake's gonna get his due and everyone will come to respect him. Maybe they'll even remember themselves how much he's loved by us all; especially after they found it so convenient to forget that while everybody mistreated him. Now, while we're all feeling the guilt of remembering what we did to Jake...there will never be another chance at our redemption…he'll never comprehend how we've come to love him."

Phyllis spoke. "Because Jake got what he wanted…to forget. I wonder if when memories leave you; do you still dream?"

Road to BOSTON

Nate arrived for the game at Pacchio's. A crowd had gathered as word of the session spread throughout the neighborhood. Jake was always good for a few laughs, most agreed, whenever Sis spanked that rear.

Sis almost swallowed her tongue at his entrance. Nate was already there sitting at the north end of the card table with his back to the bar's jukebox. Ohio, who word had it became very 'special' to Sis,' sat on the west end of the table. Sis sat directly across from her, so Jake took the only seat left at the southern end.

Cards were pulled from the spanking new deck to see who'd deal first. Jake won and dispatched with the deal with the precision of a doomed bullfighter facing his worst nightmare.

Jake picked up his hand and took a brief look at Nate's face for any sign of gloom or joy. There was no joy to be found. In Jake's hand was the jack, ten, seven, four, three and two of hearts. For clubs he found the king, seven and three. Spades gave him the six; diamonds the deuce and then a pleasant surprise in the little joker.

Ohio's hand was as follows: Hearts- K-8; clubs-8-6-2; spades-8-7-2; diamonds-K-7-6-5; with no joker.

Nate's hand was: Hearts-9-5-6; clubs-J-5; spades-A-Q-9-3; diamonds-10-9-4; with no joker.

Sis' hand was: Hearts-none; clubs-A-Q-9-4-3; spades-5-4; diamonds-A-Q-J-8-3; Joker-big.

The first bid went to the west side of the table, left of the dealer, Nate. Ohio bid a four no-trump. Nate responded with a pass. Sis' bid a five-uptown. Jake finished the bidding round by taking out Sis' bid with a five-low and then came (called) in Hearts. Sis was steamed and frowned.