On his twenty-ninth birthday, Clifford threw moderation to the wind and tied the knot with his Skagway High sweetheart, Linda Marie. The daughter of a Ketchikan gillnetter, Linda Marie was studying to become a marine biologist. After the honeymoon — a road trip to the Whitehorse Moosehide Gala – Colt .45 shut her old man’s liver down and she inherited his boat and permit.
Husband-and-wife gillnetting partners are not uncommon in Southeast Alaska and the experience customarily becomes a matrimonial trial by fire: the couple either emerges forged in steel, or one tests the amphibious Mammalian Instinct of the other. During their second summer, Linda Marie used the pike on Cliff in the Taku Inlet and waited a full minute before tossing him the life preserver. Her husband’s transformation into Captain Ahab on the high sea may have had something to do with this and, though he never called his wife Stubb or Bucky while at command, his “wench,” as he called her, left him for another woman and filed for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilably irreconcilable differences. The other woman was Sharon, the washboard player in their off-season Skiffle trio which dissolved before they had an opportunity to do the Prairie Home Companion. Linda Marie and Sharon became fishing partners and moved to Petersburg.
The second irreconcilable difference was Clifford’s father, Ole Kilmer, Juneau’s self-proclaimed liquor baron and city council chair.
A monolithic, hyperkenetic Swede, Ole had cut his teeth as a Minnesota door-to-door salesman for a silk-stocking company who motto was, “We sock the men and hose the women.” After the war, he had emigrated north to seek his fortune, and soon became an Alaskan renaissance man: a logger, a big game guide, and seat-of-his-pants bush pilot. He ran into his better half, Dorothy, a Juneau elementary school teacher, at a potlatch. Their love child, Clifford, was born exactly seven months later in their cabin. By this time, Ole had a Smirnoff monkey on his back, was prone to palpitations and tachycardia when lubed and, after crashing his Piper Cub on the bay one last time, he bought the Stag Saloon – aka The Stagger Inn — with his insurance pay-off to keep his Elk’s Club and the Indians shitfaced and frisky for the next three decades.
Ole, to the right of Hitler politically, was never bashful about airing his views around his excitable daughter-in-law. Finally, for Linda Marie’s birthday – though he had never before acknowledged it – Cliff’s old man installed a hood ornament on her PETA-stickered VW: the head of the trophy bull moose he had just bagged.
But this wasn’t the final straw on her marriage’s back. That, the third and most insurmountable irreconcilable difference, was Clifford’s first disastrous off-season business launched with Linda Marie’s grubstake.
The revolutionary enterprise was called: “Love Gaiters, Inc.” Love Gaiters were skinless skin Korean Kimono condoms with a buckskin box of Cliff’s own design. Inspired by his father’s own youthful silk stocking line for socking men and hosing women, Cliff distributed samples to outfitter and auto parts stores.
Even after her husband received orders from a Pep Boys in Anchorage and an Army & Navy in Fairbanks, Linda Marie remained unconvinced that this was truly where the rubber-met-the-road,” as he insisted, and their ticket out of the purgatory of gillnetting. Nor did Cliff succeed in persuading her to invest her inheritance in his brainstorm with his evangelist arguments. In the history of male contraception dominated by macho Ramses, Sheiks, and Trojans, he told her, the Gaiter was truly the first softer, tenderer rubber for the sensitive modern man such as himself. It galled him no end that Linda Marie, who refused to take the pill, insisted he use Gaiters, seeming horrified at the prospect of giving the Kilmer clan offspring it so desperately needed.
It galled him even more when his best friend and Sancho Panza – Victor Bell, the great American novelist, currently marooned fifteen hundred miles south in Sodom and Gomorrah, aka The City of Angels — also refused to invest seed capital in his commercial juggernaut.
“Where’s your fuckin faith? Your vision?” Cliff demanded of Victor who himself was fruitlessly looking for investors in his own nearly completed masterpiece at the time. “My cock mocs are gonna revolutionize dickwear, Jack.” The entrepreneur and fisher of men called everybody “Jack,” including his wife.
“It’s just a fucking name, Jack,” corrected Victor, who himself had never used latex except after first wife’s first abortion. “And it sucks.”
“It’s a concept!” insisted Clifford who was offering him the first IPO charter membership for a mere ten grand, though Vic was about to sell a kidney to support his own carnivorous creative monkey. “Jesus fuck. I’m throwing deep on this. Don’t you get it? What’s the biggest problem on the planet? Population control. It’s concepts that fucking drive society!”
“Right,” conceded Vic. “Model T, the steam engine, E=mc2…. Gaitors.”
“Fucking philistine,” said Cliff. “Just don’t come crying to me when Larry and Hef throw in on this.”
“Righto, Iffy.” Vic called Cliff “Iffy” because everything in Cliff’s world was subjunctive, conditional, dependent on grace, if not direct divine intervention. In short, Iffy. Except to him.
Cliff received no Ifs Ands or Buts from Playboy or Hustler headquarters. But, even after being shot down by his old man, Ole, as well, Clifford remained “bullish,” as he called it, about his invention. “The light at the end of the tunnel is small but intense,” he wrote Vic in one of his regular updates from the northern front.
Finally, when Pep Boys threatened to cancel their order due to Gaiter production delays, Iffy did what any bullish entrepreneur would do: he wrote his Korean rubber packagers a $30,000 check – Linda Marie’s inheritance. Miraculously, the couple had a joint account and no prenup. Ever the optimist in spite of his history of Hindenburgs, Iffy, expecting a Gaiter feeding frenzy, was confident he would soon deposit three hundred grand before his better half was any the wiser.
Meantime, hedging his bets, he continued to lobby visionary investors. Finally he landed the big cahoona: the chief of the Sitka fire department himself, one of Ole’s old drinking buddies. But just when the fireman was about to wire Clifford the Gaiter funds at a mafia rate, he got busted for arson. His picturesque seaport hamlet had been suffering a rash of blazes, the chief had always been Johnny on the spot, and when the police had arrived at the last burn they’d stumbled on him with gas cans. In drag. The next day, the Juneau Herald reported that the Sitka fire chief was being blackmailed by one of his gay deputies, a transvestite himself, who was trying to raise capital for a sex change.
Linda Marie filed for divorce, demanding a $30,000 balloon alimony, plus interest. Clifford made a generous counter-offer: the 49,950 Love Gaiters he had left, plus 200 promotional LG tee shirts, plus a 51% share in his latex empire. Declining the rubbers, tees, and shares, Linda Marie secured a court order, garnishing her ex’s nonexistent wages.
Clifford blamed the LG debacle on Little Raven and her avenging shaman forefathers. Raven, otherwise known to white men as Bernice, was a full-blooded Tlinket. And she’d been Clifford’s first wife. Bernice descended from a long-line of holy men, or so she had told Cliff. Initially, he had taken the claim for yet another example of her impressive line of bullshit.
He’d met her at the Stagger. Clifford was 25 and still a virgin though, by then, he’d been the bar band frontman for two years. Bernie, 18, had been around the block more than once, and was tearing up the dance floor solo to Cliff’s unbridled version of “Wild Thing.” During the band break, the liquor baron’s son found himself at a corner table with the shamans’ daughter, knocking down Everclear screwdrivers. They retired to his Isuzu camper at the KOA campground: here Clifford lost his cherry and, very nearly, all his vertebrae, to his first groupie.
Raven told him they were “made to be.” Clifford couldn’t disagree. As coincidence would have it, he had recently been adopted by her tribe at the Alaskan Native Brotherhood Hall in Auke Bay. Ole – as head of the town council and of the school board too – had hired the ANB council chief, Joseph, as head coach of the high school basketball team and, in gratitude, Coach Joe, had insisted on adopting his son into the tribe. The liquor baron had supplied the firewater for his son’s adoption ceremony, the ANB supplied everything else. The all-night initiation climaxed at 4 a.m. when Coach Joe – in a grizzly mask and raven blanket over his Adidas jogging sit – rubbed a William McKinley on Clifford’s forehead while chanting his new tribal name: S’ugeidée. In Tlinkit, it meant “little beaver.” Joe told his new adoptive son that the money message plus the handle would afford him boundless riches and good luck. With that, the initiate, who had consumed more than a fifth of his real father’s Wild Turkey, puked and passed out.
So Little Raven felt she and S’ugeidée Jr. were meant to be not only because he sang “Wild Thing” and “Satisfaction” like a warrior on Amanita Muscaria, but because they were brother and sister. Then, when she got pregnant, she was sure she’d found her soulmate.
But Clifford wasn’t so sure. First, because Bernice was the size of an Seahawks lineman, so it would be impossible to know if she were knocked up even in the third trimester. And, second, because Bernice scared him. They’d only been an item for several months and she’d already threatened to kill several other Totem groupies who had eyed her man during his Saturday night stage apotheosis. Clifford became somewhat more concerned when Raven, an old-fashioned girl in spite of her excesses, told him she couldn’t bear his child out of wedlock.
Then one sunny summer night after another round of Everclear courage and two bowls of his better half’s killer pot, Cliff found himself at the foot of Mendenhall glacier with Best Man Vic at his left, the Raven at his right, and Coach Joe again presiding. The wedding party donned Chilkat blankets accessorized with animal parts. Joe, in his bear bonnet, flung seeds in the four directions as he wailed what sounded like a Leonard Cohen tune in Arabic, the ice floe harmonizing with its subterranean drums and apocalyptical cellos.
The next morning, the groom awakened with a skull-shrinking hangover in the shell of his Izuzu 4 x 4, on the blow-up queen beside his bride. Vic, who was firefighting on Baranof that summer, was in narcolepsy in the North Face beside the honeymoon suite. The groom had promised Raven that he would secure their white man’s marriage license and drum up a justice of the peace bright and early. So, without waking her, he slipped out of his truck and rousted the Best Man inside his tent. An hour later, the groom and Best Man, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, were on the ferry south.
Vic disembarked north of Bolivia, in Petersburg, and returned to Dante’s inferno on the fireline.
Clifford sailed on to Seattle where he hoped to get plastic surgery and new fingerprints.
The inventor had not secured either one by the time his Juneau scouts reported that his native bride had blown town with a North Slope steamfitter. He returned north incognito and, after a brief recon, determined that the mother of his child-to-be had indeed blown Dodge. The coast was clear. Except his Isuzu had four flats and new bodywork that seemed to have been done by a Kodiak on cocaine. But she still fired up. So he drove her over to the post office to collect his back mail. He had only one letter waiting for him. It bore no return addresses and began: “You fucking yellow-bellied cocksucker…”
His former better half informed him that she had had an abortion.
Her Dear John concluded: “You’re gonna fucking wish your mother had one too!”
All’s fair in love and war, thought Cliff.
Except his ex’s tone disturbed him. He couldn’t get it out of his head that her parting line was not an idle threat, but a Raven curse. He became all the more concerned when his adoptive father, Coach Joe himself, refused to even make eye contact with him when they crossed paths. He felt that the riches and good fortune the basketball coach had promised him had been rescinded, if not completely reversed, by the Tlingit gods. After all, he had been an accessory in the murder of their unborn child, and his too.
“When the gun is loaded, somebody always gets hurt,” Vic told him when returning from the fire lines. “I told you you should have used latex. Besides, she probably wasn’t even pregnant.”
“But what if she was,” moaned Clifford. “What if she…” He couldn’t even get it out.
“Chummed your kid – little Cliff?” his Best Man finished for him. “It probably made a Killer out in Gastineau happy.”
Rumor had it that Planned Parenthood dumped directly into the orca feeding ground.
“May God strike you down,” said Cliff.
“Because He’s a lifer?” said Vic. Then he broke into his favorite Dylan: “God said to Abraham, go kill me a son. Abe said, What? God said, You can do what you want to But, the next time you see Me you better run — out on Highway 61.”
“Yeah, but He was just fucking bluffing,” protested Iffy.
“Bluffing ? How about the Flood? Sodom? Jericho? He abort any kids there?” demanded Victor, a biblical scholar in his own right.
“How can you think the way you do, and not shoot yourself?”
“It’s not always easy,” conceded Vic.
“Well, I’m getting a vasectomy,” concluded Cliff.
“You’re the last of your line,” Vic reminded him. “What would your old man say? Besides, you wouldn’t be able to testify.”
“Swear by your balls. Your testes. Abe, Moses, Jacob – all the old patriarchs and prophets – they grabbed the family jewels and pledged on their honor and their next seven generations. “Test,” “testify,” “testament” – truth all goes back to your gonads. Get a vasectomy, God’ll never fucking trust you again.”
“Where’s that leave bitches, for Chrissakes?”
“With kids instead of balls obviously.”
“You make up all this crazy shit as you go along, Jack?”
Though he was on the phone from Sodom, the writer – who at that time was writing what he called “The New Old Testament” – put his right hand on his balls, and solemnly swore, “As God is my witness.”
So, instead of de-testifying and pre-empting another generation of the damned, Clifford invented the Love Gaiter. And he blamed its failure on the Raven curse.
In order to repay his second wife her thirty grand, he tended bar at Ole’s watering hole for $12 an hour, plus tips. Otherwise, he gigged on weekends. Singing Dylan and Pearls Before Swine covers, he passed the hat to shitfaced Tlingits, and off-the-wagon Jesus freaks and Bahai’s of whom there were not a few in the capital of Alaska when Arctic hysteria set in around Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile, convincing himself that there was a statute of limitations on his curses by both ex’s, Clifford doubled-down on his other creative extravaganzas. Far from discouraging him, the Gaiter debacle stoked his fires in bold new directions.
Hardly had his rubbers gone belly-up, than he patented two brainstorms in quick succession: The Magic Orb and the Tenz Tuner. The first was a neon holographic glo-globe capable, theoretically, of transmitting live NASA satellite photos of earth to a homeowner’s living room. Cliff sent prototypes to several Apollo astronauts, plus the Guggenheim Foundation.
Waiting for R&D capital to roll in, he turned his attention to his Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Tuner. The pocket size, battery-operated unit shot ionic impulses into ailing acupuncture points, rejuvenating them while at the same time, as he explained to Victor, “musically tuning them into harmonic conversion.” Since he still had just a few bugs to work out on the Tenz, he was offering his Sancho a 50-50 arrangement for providing all the seed capital.
“Seek professional help, If,” said Vic who had just inherited enough stock from his tycoon grandfather to avoid selling plasma and to finish yet another War and Peace in LA.
“This could cut Western medicine a completely new asshole,” declared Cliff. He’d made a transition from the hedonistic (rubbers) to the humanitarian (sonic dildos), and even his partner in improbability didn’t appreciate it. “We’re talking Nobel shit here!”
“I wouldn’t pack your bags for Stockholm, yet,” Vic told him. “Go back to the Wizard.”
The Wizard was Clifford’s Seattle shiatsu-man, Yatsu Nambu. For more than a decade, the doctor had been chasing and defusing what he called his patient’s physical and metaphysical “weather systems” – his tornadoes, his hurricanes, his squalls. The eye of Cliff’s storm was what Yatsu called Bamboo Spine, otherwise known to rheumatologists as Ankylosing Spondylitis. An arthritic condition that froze up the pelvis and backbone, AS ran in Cliff’s mother, Dorothy’s, side of the family. He’d started freezing and contracting at age twelve. Dorothy had taken him to scores of specialists in the Lower 48, with little luck. By the time he turned 30, he’d grown three inches shorter – to 5’6” – and he walked with a crooked, crablike scuttle. By this time, having abandoned conventional treatment, he was going alternative. Thus Yatsu. And thus Cliff’s Tenz invention based on the Wizard’s acupressure therapy targeting not so much his patient’s congealed camel spine as those weather systems that beat against it, much like the icy, relentless rains of Juneau.
Yatsu had long recommended that his patient move to a less paralyzing climate below the 47th parallel. But Cliff couldn’t cut the umbilicus to his place of nativity much as he loathed it. Instead, he began taking annual “Lourdes pilgrimages,” as he called them, to L.A. to thaw out his vertebrae while crashing with Victor. According to the novelist’s own diagnosis, his friend’s AS had originally been triggered by penis envy of his priapic father, Ole — after all, he’d been diagnosed at puberty, when his gonads supposedly dropped – and all he required for remission was a simple affirmation of his manhood. In short, he just needed to get laid. But If found consummation impossible, even in Sodom and Gomorrah.
At last, Victor drove the cripple to the Chicken Ranch in Vegas, a junket that turned out to be both business and pleasure. In a last gasp effort to unload his 49,950 Love Gaiters, Cliff tried to interest the Chicken CFO in a package deal. Seeing a man in need, the CFO relieved Cliff of the 100-brick sampler he came with, and knocked fifty-percent off a teenage runaway from Sparks by the name of Nikki. She quite nearly broke Clifford’s spine. He proposed matrimony to her right there. But Nikki told him she wasn’t ready to sacrifice her career for family just yet.
On the next pilgrimage south, the minstrel inventor met his guru: the 92- year-old matriarch of the Alexander Technique, Marj Barstow. Marj was the successor of Alexander himself, the 19th century Shakespearean orator who conquered stage fright and free-range anxiety by loosening his “Primary Control Point” – the eureka joint where spine met skull, and body married soul. During a week in Malibu, the old lady taught an SRO crowd of thespian spine and headcases how to undo their killer HEPDOGS — Habitual Patterns of Directive Guidance – by means of PCP tweaking. After a successful session, Cliff and his fellow students experienced what Alexandrians called “Global Expansion.” Which translated, If told Vic, in supernatural bowel movements.
In an attempt to galvanize his gains and expand yet further, Cliff became a dabbler in every New Age panacea available in the Lower 48. He tried Pilates, he tried Primal, he tried Alive Polarity. But not all of it released his PCP. The Orcas Island Forest rangers rescued him from hypothermia 24 hours into a shaman vision quest. His acid and opium weekend with his Texas AS penpal was cut short with a visit to the Austin Memorial ER for a Thorazine rescue due to what he called “my hair-trigger head.”
At last, Clifford discovered his Bible: Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness. In it, the activist author, also an AS sufferer, described his remission from the disease by means of a unique self-therapy: laughs. Belly laughs. Sphincter-puckering, lung-busting screamers. Hearing only hopeless words from his doctors, Cousins sat himself down to the Marx Brothers on TV; after a year of “Duck Feathers” and “Animal Crackers” reruns, he was symptom-free. Clifford became a Cousins’ laughter evangelist. Only he had no use for the Marx brothers, Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges or any of the other banana peel vaudevillians. In fact, there weren’t too many comedians he cottoned to, except Pryor and Kinison.
The only person who really depressurized Cliff’s coccyx was Victor. Not because the writer was particularly amusing, but God’s golden showers on his own Promethean ambitions seemed even more gratuitous and unrelenting than what befell Iffy and invariably delivered him to hysteria. So he phoned Victor regularly for therapeutic reasons – to hear about his most recent humiliations in Gomorrah. And, coincidentally, the novelist called the inventor for much the same reason in Galilee. In fact, each might have cut his loses and shot himself years before if not for the vicarious buzz and spiritual relief each got from the other’s Job-like hardships.
As for their professional purgatories and romantic waterloos, neither was inclined to entertain the outrageous notion that they were in any way self-inflicted. “God only tortures His favorites,” Vic told Cliff after the Love Gaiter debacle and divorce.
“There better be a goddamn a good reason!” said Cliff who didn’t understand that the observation didn’t apply to him.
“Just look what He did to His own son,” asserted Vic pointed.
“That was for salvation, Jack.”
“Salvation? From what?”
“Fuck if I know. But it sounds good. Jesus Christ. We gotta have something to look forward to.”
Vic didn’t hear from Cliff again until that Christmas. From Seattle. General. A team of specialists had just bored out his esophagus with balloons. “I had hoses stuck 3 feet up and down my nose, a scope shoved down my throat,” he wrote in his holiday missive. “My E was bloated 3X the diameter but barely letting any food down. And my nurse was a dead ringer for Raven!”
On a diet of Gerber’s baby food and protein shakes, If went down to his Buchenwald bikini weight of 108 in the hospital. Returning to Juneau from his deep throating, he followed up with Victor on his Clifford Unlimited stationary: “I may be in for a spell of travail unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.” He spoke of “my Quixotic endeavors,” and how his “mother of invention” was no longer “aglow.” As for his future prospects, “I’m girding myself for a letdown,” he concluded.
Then he signed off with his usual “Yers in Vitro.”
At this point, If still owed his ex the thirty G’s, the IRS five times that, plus untold sums to every financial kamikaze who had invested in his schemes. He continued to work at the Stagger as what he called “my old man’s field nigger”; his only other income was his state oil royalty check – given annually to every Alaskan, man, woman, and child – of $2,300. All of which was instantly swallowed up by his creditors.
But, worst of all, his “mojo,” as he called it – his muse – had run dry.
Not just his invention mojo but, most devastatingly, his musical mojo. His rock and roll mojo. More than an entrepreneur and inventor, Clifford, above all, considered himself a rock and roller. Like his trinity – Lennon, Morrison, and Hendrix – he had been obsessive about his discipline from an early age. He considered it the only true freedom in human life otherwise governed by robotic routine and soul-shriveling conformity.
“Glorious anarchy,” he called it.
Indeed, rock and roll was the only lubricant, besides laughter, which released the tourniquet on Cliff’s spine and delivered him to true Global Expansion. A brief but full-throttle Voodoo Child thrash on his Strat was usually enough to carry him to Jimi’s outskirts of infinity. “Stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of my hand,” was still enough to stand what was left of the hoary hairs on his neck. He was fond of salting his rap with the Erotic Politician’s “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.” But his greatest liturgy was from the Eggman: “Yellow mellow custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye.”
Clifford was also fond of quoting Bono, “All I got is three chords, a red guitar, and the truth,” adding “two outta three ain’t bad.” After more than three decades on the planet, he was the first to admit that he was the still working on the last item, and that Bono was a wanker and a fraud. But, after his mojo ran dry, he seemed to lose interest even in that item. Or maybe he felt like he’d had too much truth. Or maybe he felt like his other hero, Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine: “I don’t want to escape from reality, I want reality to escape from me.” Anyway, he stopped working on his White Album which he had been threatening for years, he stopped playing open mic at the Stagger, and he told Victor that he would throw his guitars into the sea.
The novelist, no stranger to mojo loss himself, told If he had only two alternatives now: to perform ceremonial Seppuku or to be reborn. The first was a non-starter since of course Clifford had no self-discipline, not to mention gonads. Which left him with the second.
And, proving that there was indeed divine providence, even for a devout agnostic such as Clifford, he met his immaculate rebirth mother soon after his global Linda Lovelace esophagus expansion.
Gloria was sixty-one years of age. She could not keep her dog – a diesel mechanic at the mill — on the porch. So she came into The Stagger unchaperoned one night with the purpose of playing somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs on the jukebox while doing Cuervo shooters. By the end of the evening, to the accompaniment of Waylon and Willie, Clifford was pouring Gloria doubles on the house while she told him about her scum-of-the-earth lesser half and he told her about his Rocky Mountain oyster eating ex in Petersburg. Cliff had taken a monastic vow of poverty, celibacy, and obedience since the split; Gloria had joined the Juneau “Women Aglow” group which, according to their mission statement, “served Jesus as His bride.” Clifford told her this made the Savior a polygamist and, by extension, his Father an accessory. After serial tequilas that night, Gloria saw the reason of this and began casting moon eyes on Jesus’ unlikely pinch hitter.
In fact, Clifford looked more like one of the Lord’s outpatients. In a letter to Victor, he had once described himself as “somewhere between a leper and Charles Atlas.” He had cavernous cheeks, a chiseled jaw, a voluptuous Jagger mouth, jumpy sky blue eyes, and patchy gray wisps at his temple. His wire-rim spectacles lent him a professorial look and, due to his seized neck bone, he peered at you either above the rims, out of the corner of his eye, or with his head cocked like an arthritic gull. Tenderly fingering the purple gulleys on either side of his forehead, Gloria asked about them. He told her that they were from the forceps. Having resisted being born, Cliff had forced the pediatrician to drag him out of his exhausted mother with a stainless lobster claw on either side of his gelatinous skull.
“I think you’re cute,” Gloria told him. She was a retired beautician. It was closing time. She and the inventor had the bar all to themselves now, except for the two narcoleptic Indians under it.
“Wanna see my etchings,” inquired Clifford. Back at his crib he had a full portfolio of the blueprints for his magical Orb and the rest of his oeuvre, not to mention surrealist Dada studies for his debut album cover.
“I knew you were an artist,” said Gloria. Then she retired to the Ladies to freshen up. The beautician looked like Dolly Parton, except more well endowed. She weighed in at about two-twenty.
If’s crib was located next door to the Stagger. Victor, who had crashed there on his sojourns north, called it “The Burrow,” after Kafka’s story about the habitation of a mole-man. Cliff had converted the backroom of his old man’s booze warehouse into the suite. It was a labyrinth of tunnels between teetering piles old rock lps, Popular Mechanics, Hustlers, Rolling Stones, guitars, dead amps, prototypes for his countless inventions, plus his laundry. On one wall stood Hendrix in his eyeball vest and electric tangerine fur scarf; on another, Einstein, freak flag flying, rode his Schwinn in the Princeton parking lot; on a third, Little Boy lit up Hiroshima. And, in the epicenter of the Burrow, was a queen-sized bed that looked like it had been salvaged from a Calcutta Motel 6.
A normal mortal wouldn’t enter Clifford’s suite in a Three-Mile island suit. But Gloria just took it all in with the sweep of an eye, threw off of her anorak, and said: “Wow.”
It was then that Iffy, after his romantic Hindenburgs of the past, realized he had found his sweet mother of mercy. His Beatrice.
He dropped a dime on Victor the very next morning, describing in detail how he and the beautician had consummated in the Burrow; how, together, they had experienced true Alexandrian Global Expansion; and how, by dawn, Clifford awoke reborn “babbling and weeping.”
“Like to tell you ‘bout my baby,” he sang. “You know she comes around just about midnight. G-L-O-R-I-A!”
“How old is she?” demanded Victor, already suspicious.
“She’s a mature woman,” allowed Cliff. “First I’ve ever met.”
Though nothing about him ever came as a surprise anymore, Victor had no idea his friend was boinking somebody’s dirigible grandmother. Clifford called her “Rubenesque.”
“You mean she’s fucking fat?” Victor pressed on.
“Nothing like a little meat on the bone,” said Cliff. Linda Marie had been bulimic. “Oughta try it with a real woman sometime, Jack.”
The inventor and his beautician had a two-year “thrash,” as he referred to it. Gloria was the only woman he had ever been with who didn’t fake orgasms, even on the rare occasion when she was sober. He didn’t have to use Gaiters either because his old lady had long ago reached menopause. “I don’t know why they call it men-o-pause,” he told Victor. “She’s a card-carrying nymphomaniac.”
Gloria was also supportive. She attended every one of Cliff’s renewed open-mic gigs. For his birthday, she bought him a Gibson Hummingbird with her husband, Otis’s, mechanic money. And she also helped resurrect his invention career with the launch his latest business extravaganza: The Chocolate Totem.
The shop, located just down the street from the Stagger, sold handcrafted Belgian bars stamped with spirit animals– — the otter, the eagle, the killer whale. Clifford was determined to see the enterprise through hell or highwater. Both arrived at the shop one day in the person of Gloria’s eldest son, Westley. The twenty-five-year-old logger told the entrepreneur that if he didn’t break if off with his mother and refund her seed capital, he was going to find his nuts in the chocolate molds.
As coincidence would have it, by that time Clifford’s old man was also meddling in his affairs. Months before, Ole had told his son to break off with Gloria, before he dishonored himself and the Kilmer name itself. His prodigal son agreed. But then he had opened the Totem with her. So Ole fired him from the Stagger. When his only boy still refused to dissolve his partnership with the retired beautician, Ole threatened to have him shut down for health code violations. Clifford remained unmoved. At that, Ole – an AA charter member – fell off the wagon. Days later, he showed up at the Burrow bleeding from his eyes. And crying. In all his life, Cliff had never seen his father cry. Ole told him he’d had fling with Gloria himself and that when he’d broken it off, she’d threatened to blow the whistle on him to his wife and go after his son. Cliff knew his father to be many things – but a liar he was not, even after a seventy-two hour bender.
“I’m a Revenge Fuck!” he told his best friend that night over the phone, almost in tears himself.
“It’ better than a Pity,” Vic reminded him helpfully.
The bachelors had long since IDed the Four Fundamental Fucks. They were, from the Y perspective (in order of X preference): the Guilty, the Pity, the Revenge, and the Necro. How can you tell if your wife is dead? The sex is the same but the dishes pile up. The Necro referred to this conjugal truism. Both chaste gentlemen were Necro vets.
“Maybe I’d have better luck if I were gay,” said Cliff.
“Doubtful, Iffy,” said Vic. “Why don’t you just cut Mr. Happy off?”
Desire is the root of all suffering, said the Buddha. But If, a lapsed Congregationalist, still clung to the freeloader idea of a no-downpayment deliverance on layaway. So Victor regularly reminded him how Jesus had recommended his disciples become “eunuchs for the Kingdom of heaven.”
Keeping his crank all the same, Clifford fled the Last Frontier, Gloria, and the Totem, again seeking succor in the Lower 48. But this time the junket was on his father’s dime. Ole set his son up with an apartment in Seattle, a dating allowance, plus a shrink to undue whatever Gloria had done. Then, body and mind restored, Clifford would return home to gillnet with his father and bartend on the weekends as he had been doing for years.
Cliff’s Seattle shrink came recommended by his parents’ pastor at the Northern Light United Church. His name was Weinstein and he used an eclectic I’m OK, You’re OK / Purpose Driven Life approach to wellness. He got right down to brass tacks with his new patient at their first sit-down.
“What makes Clifford Clifford, Cliff?”
“How do you feel about yourself? You like yourself?”
“Yeah… Sorta. I guess. You know… I mean, shit. It varies.”
“OK, but generally. Does Clifford like Clifford? On a scale of 1 to 10.”
The inventor drew a long sigh. “Fuck. Jesus Christ. Lately?… 2 and a half. Maybe 3.”
His shrink smiled benevolently. “That’s honest. Good. Now, what do you think it would take to goose that up to maybe a 6 or 7?”
“Keira Knightley. The Nobel. Cyanide,” replied the patient matter-of-factly.
“Humor. Great medicine,” allowed the doctor. “Funny, though, comedians are some of the most miserable people. Why? Because they don’t like themselves.”
“Let’s hope they don’t fuckin start,” muttered the patient.
“You’re going to be a tough nut to crack – this’ll be fun! ” continued Weinstein. “You may not like it, but we’re going to have you up to a 10. How’s that sound?”
If rolled his eyes, pleading the 5th, then looked at his watch again.
“See – you like 3,” concluded the doctor. “You like feeling bad. It’s all you think you deserve. It’s your security blanket of helplessness and inadequacy. For next time, I want you to think about that.”
At the next appointment, the patient had no answers but, as he had feared, his shrink had more questions. “What have you ever done for another human being, Clifford?”
The entrepreneur, at a loss initially, managed to wrest a few humble examples from the days before his marriages. But, with each example, Weinstein would cut him off, “No, that was for you, my friend. I want to know what you’ve done for others.” Then he went into a rap about how a narcissist could only stop thinking about his small problems by thinking about the bigger ones of others. In short, that he could only help himself by helping others. And, in so doing, start feeling better about himself.
“Does he serve hip boots with that kumbaya bullshit?” Victor asked during the next long-distance debriefing. “What the fuck has he ever done for anybody for under three hundred bucks an hour?”
“Spoken like a true narcissist, Your Grace,” said Clifford, already a humanitarian convert. He called Victor Your Grace, Your Highness, and Your Lordship, due to the writer’s incorrigible misanthropy and megalomania. But as far as his Grace was concerned, Iffy’s life was just a series of petty disasters followed by cloud-partings, and this was just the latest.
“What the fuck have you done for anybody other than yourself, Your Lordship?” Cliff demanded.
“Not shoot them,” replied Victor.
“You call that philanthropy?”
“I call it euthanasia.”
As far as Victor was concerned, doing unto others was the most thankless job on the planet. Not to mention hazardous to your health. “Just look at Christ, for chrissakes – if he came back, you think he’d re-up for Calvary?” he demanded. “Martin Luther King –march back to Memphis? Mother Teresa – another cakewalk in Calcutta?”
“You are the fucking anti-Christ,” Clifford told him, not for the first time. “Why the hell do I even associate with you?”
His shrink hooked Clifford up with the Washington Youth Initiative. As an “activity therapist,” the inventor was paid $7.75 hourly to take WYI wards out to malls and movies for “respite and socialization.” His first kid was Charlie, 17, known to his parents as Chugger due to his habit of locomoting on all fours while thundering like a train engine. Chugger had CP. Moreover, according to Clifford, all his “circuits” were fried. For six months, he took Chugger out for two-legged constitutionals around Pioneer Square. With a delirious grin, the young man advanced with a Forrest Gump determination, forcing his arthritic consort to run interference, throwing himself in his path lest Chugger collide with other pedestrians, telephone poles, and shop fronts. After bi-weekly practice, Chugger had become a power walker and his mentor had sustained a fractured rib, a sprained ankle, and a knee hematoma.
Clifford did not fare so well with his second WYI ward, Howard the Hugger, code-named “Viper.” Howard — a 250-pound Haida with fetal alcohol syndrome — was known as Hugger due to his habit of embracing others, especially strangers, especially those who made the mistake of trying to flee him. He also had a potty mouth and was inclined to pleasure himself in public. In spite of his sunny, even ebullient, disposition, he had once tried to strangle his mother when she had attempted to interfere with his favorite pastime.
But Clifford’s mentorship of the Hugger went without misadventure. At first. Then one afternoon at the Northgate Mall, after an X-Men movie, Howard affectionately tackled a black usherette. Momentarily, the couple was on the floor in what appeared to be a WWF smackdown. Unaware that her suitor was a lover, not a fighter, the usherette flogged the Hugger with her mag flashlight, while doing a full-throated Aretha Franklin aria. Joining the fray, Clifford jumped on his back and proceeded to rodeo the hunk of burning love. Then the Hugger cried, “Viper!” The WYI chief of staff had warned Cliff about the code red word, saying that if Howard uttered it, all bets were off.
Tossing the arthritic off his back and into popcorn dispenser, the Hugger staggered into the mall, bowling down shoppers, as he continued to shrill, “Viper!”
His chaperone, pursued by a group of curiosity seekers, caught up with the young man out in the mall parking lot. Here, the Hugger had locked himself inside the Chrysler Cordoba which Ole had lent Clifford for his Seattle sabbatical, and was busy redecorating the interior. As his ward tore off the turn signal lever, then the windshield visors, Cliff implored,
“Howard, open up! It’s OK. Fuck. Open UP. Easy, buddy. Jesus FUCK!”
The town car was Ole’s pride and joy. The Hugger was now kicking in the dash and the Bose quad system, while tooling its Corinthian leather with the jagged edge of the turn signal.
Retiring from humanitarian work in the untamed lower 48, Clifford limped Ole’s customized Cordoba up the Alaska Highway, back to civilization.
He found the town of his nativity much the same as he had left it almost a year before. Only his chocolate emporium was shuttered. And his Beatrice was gone.
According to Ole, soon after Clifford’s departure, Gloria had divorced Otis and moved south to the village of Kake. Here she had opened a tattoo parlor and a new chapter of Women Aglow. What Ole didn’t mention were the many letters she had written to his son which he had not forwarded, but burned.
Clifford’s Seattle sabbatical and his mano-a-manos with Chugger and the Hugger had done nothing for his psyche, and less for his bamboo spine or his narrowing throat. Had it not been for the weekly ministrations of Yatsu the Wizard, and his pursuit of his patient’s merciless weather systems, Cliff might have been in an iron lung, or in full gravitational collapse.
But, miraculously, he had returned north with new purpose. He was now determined to cast off his former worldly distractions and quixotic schemes. Like Jonah, he had emerged from the whale undigested, faith restored, and with a mission. After two decades in the belly of the beast, he’d paid his dues and was ready to play the blues. Here at home, under the celestial spots of St. Elmo’s Fire, he would at last fully embrace his true cure, his true muse, his first and true wild mistress: rock and roll.
“We got something to fucking sing about. Not like these punks today,” he told Victor, back in the Burrow and caressing his guitars longing to savagely weep.
In Seattle he had seen the Melvins, the Pixies, and Nirvana’s last gigs. Kurt had just euthanized himself in his greenhouse with or without a hand from his better half, the omnivorous Ms. Love.
“Twenty-seven,” continued Cliff, “– what the fuck did Cobain know? Rinky dink God for putting me on this earth, being very privileged. Death in mind. Nurse!’ Please. Teenage angst paid off well, is all that whiney fucker got right!”
“You’re just jealous, Iffy,” Victor told him. But he agreed of course. Even before the punk revolution, the friends had concluded that rock and roll had become a wasteland inhabited by two non-evolving species: dinosaurs who were filthy rich and on creative life support, and X’ers who were also filthy rich but hadn’t done any living, and tried to pass of wailing, thrashing, and the destruction of perfectly good musical equipment as intensity.
“Nobody’s fucking dangerous anymore!” continued Clifford. He never tired of quoting “Like a Rolling Stone” re the essence of a dangerous man: When you ain’t got nothin, you got nothin to lose. “Everybody’s got a jingle, but nobody’s got a song – much less a message!” he wept.
Victor had never argued that with him either. The greatest cultural force of postmodern times was in real need of a transfusion from new but seasoned blood. “So what’s your message, If?” he inquired, not for the first time.
“Life, Your Highness. Motherfucking in-your-face-up-your-ass real life.”
“Punchy. That’ll cut Zimmerman a new asshole.”
“You wanna bust my balls, or you wanna grow some, get your ass up here, and we make history?”
There were no halfway measures for Clifford: either you picked yourself up, dusted yourself off, and threw the Hail Mary and made history, or you went down trying. Actually, Vic, a psychedelic guitar auteur no less than master of post-modern literature, was of the same mind.
“OK, say we start a band,” he allowed. “Hypothetically. What about bread – before we hit the charts?”
Cliff was already one step ahead. “Fishing. I got a line on another gillneter. It’s a steal. They’re making 80K a season out there — three days a week!”
They would become fishers of men and of mermaids. They would sing tales of brave Ulysses, naked ears tortured. To Victor, this actually sounded better than embarking on another Under the Volcano or Finnegan’s Wake.
“So, what would we call ourselves?” the writer went on. “Hypothetically.”
The inventor took a moment to ponder it, then said: “I’ve got just the name.”
His partner in madness had been afraid of that. “What?”
“I’m channeling it from the universe,” said Cliff, as if just now experiencing true Global Expansion. Actually, it had occurred to him after rodeoing the Hugger and during his last debriefing with his shrink about The Purpose Driven Life.
“Channeling — like Joan of Arc?” inquired Vic.
“Without the stake,” said Cliff.
Then he whispered the name like a prayer. A benediction.
Suddenly, after these many years in the penitential fires, both impossible men at last knew who they were on this their low road, slouching to the lost Jerusalem.