’Til Death do us part

BookSmart Tulsa wonderboy Jeff Martin (in glasses) and B’Nai Emunah Rabbi Marc Fitzerman (glasses, beard). Photo courtesy Literary Death Match

Todd Zuniga’s Literary Death Match came to town and I was lucky to be among the four combatants. The rules of engagement: Two writers square off and read for seven minutes each, of which one advances to round two. Then, two more. I read in the second, versus ultimate winner Sloan Davis of Nimrod, the Tulsa-based lit journal. Don’t let the fact that I didn’t win annoy you — you know I love my fans, a most loyal and trustworthy lot — or that the winner of this particular face-off won by besting the Tulsa World’s Cary Aspinwall in a game of, yes, musical chairs.

Anyway, we packed B’Nai Emunah Synagogue and had a blast. Here’s the text I read, for what it’s worth.

JUNE 8, 1974


And the sky began to do what the TV said it would. The thunderhead came on strong, impregnating the humid afternoon, slipping in under the dusk. The big one that dropped out of it was a monster, with a tail and an evil breath.


The big one blew in on a Saturday—my parents’ bowling night. Sheridan Lanes, smoking Winstons and rolling for S&H Green stamps.



In our backyard that made do as a baseball diamond—with a hedgerow separating the first-base line from the Broken Arrow Expressway, and a deranged neighbor collie that slobbered on homerun balls—there was a cellar. A cylindrical, steel tank, 8 feet across and 10 feet deep. The lid was slightly domed and baby blue. We’d open it every now and then just to see if anything deadly had crawled in.


At first glance, you’d think a flying saucer had landed there and gotten stuck. And if you happened by when my dad had us in the backyard shaving our heads, you’d swear aliens had landed.



Ours was a happening little street that offered cheap thrills in the days prior to cable TV. Boys peddled Huffies, girls cartwheeled on Bermuda lawns, and parents strolled sidewalks just because. Everybody knew everybody. Like T.J., whose dad could get a Gremlin up on two wheels around a sharp turn. And Mr. Henry, who tried to drive home one unhappy hour from The Bounty, our corner bar, only to end up wrapping his Polara around a utility pole at the first curve.


Across this street lived John Rahilly. Rahilly claimed to be a direct descendant of Michael Joseph O’Rahilly—the great Irish Republican martyred in the Easter Rising of 1916—who HIMSELF claimed to be head o’ the clan, and changed his name to simply THE O’Rahilly to stake his claim.


In Rahilly’s own clan were two towering blondes named Bobbie and Michelle. Bobbie was the oldest and beyond me. I pictured her whenever I heard Janis Joplin sing “Me and Bobby McGee.”


Michelle, younger and fairer, had a high, greasy forehead and Marcia Brady hair. Her long, skinny legs were the color of peanut butter. I obsessed over them that summer, the way I’d obsessed in the summer of ’71 over the elusive Vida Blue rookie card. And in ’72 at the massacre of the Israelis at the Munich games.


When the McDonald’s opened at 21st and Sheridan, just before the oil embargo, Bobbie drove me there in her blue convertible. Michelle rode shotgun. I took a backseat, sank deep into the white vinyl and watched all the blonde hair blow around. We drove through the drive-thru and drank Coca-Colas on crushed ice.



When the time came to go to the cellar, it was my father who called the shot. He lived with an exaggerated fear of cottonmouths, drug dealers and spring storms. But I feared the cellar more than the sky. Spiders hid there, spinning webs in the shadows.


“Get in,” my dad said, lifting the lid. “I’m gonna go get Rahilly.”


I followed my little brother down the spiral steps of the cellar. The first drops of rain began to splat. The sky was heavy and hot, and felt lower and closer than it had ever been. Closer than the clothes on my back.


“Squeeze in,” he said. “It’s gonna be a full house.”


A sell-out, in fact. My pal Alan’s family from down the street joined us—all six of them—to make 10. We crammed in there like pencils in a cup and waited for my dad to bring back Rahilly and company, which’d make 14.


Earlier in the day, my dad had said to Rahilly, “If it gets rough, y’all come on over and get in that cellar.” Rahilly was clipping his grass and sipping brown liquor from a sweaty highball balanced on a porch rail. “Me and Jack’ll be all right,” Rahilly said, raising his glass in the afternoon haze.


My dad said, “Yeah, well, if it starts to blow, you get your ass over there—and I don’t mean maybe. And leave Jack here. We’re kind of tight already.”


Like a snare drum. In lieu of a seat on the short bench, I slid in under the stairs for a view. Thunder groaned in the spongy sky. When my dad climbed in minus Rahilly, I saw swells.



They talk about the sound, and predictably so. But nobody ever rhapsodizes the light. I got only a brief glimpse of it but that was plenty. It was a bilious green—vomit green—like the contents of Linda Blair’s lunchbox. A swollen kind of light about to combust, as if a light bulb could grow too hot and explode its wattage into a trillion shards of paper-thin glassy skin. And it smelled—the electric smell of the leaden earth about to be upturned.


My dad took his seat atop the stairs and reached heavenward.


“What about Rahilly?” I asked.


“He’s on his own!” he said, pulling down the lid.


Now shut out, I pictured Rahilly lounging in his cheap lawnchair, sipping whiskey and admiring the freshly clipped fruits of his labor. I imagined the mimosa that adorned the lawn now bent and crippled in the wind, and the lawnchair twisted in knots. And I listened for Rahilly and his bottle blowing to the seven winds.



The pressure was building inside the tank, an exhaustion of air and anxiety. It occurred to me that we might be stuck in there awhile, and that we should have brought pillows and board games, Chicken-in-a-Biskit and Shasta pop.


This was the mother of them, all right. Bodies and splinters lay in her wake. She’d eaten Drumright for lunch, and the dinner hour was nigh. The cellar was dank with sweat and silence and from its floor we all looked up at my dad, wondering NOW what.


Then the lid began to pogo up and down. From a mad gust or a Poltergeist, who could say. “She’s here!” yelled my dad, holding fast to the metal door barely tethered to the fury.


His biceps bulged like eggs in a boa’s belly. He let got with one hand just long enough to shove his glasses back up on his nose. Then he buckled down, throwing his weight into it. And again, a violent heaving on the door that threatened to rip it from its rusty hinges. My god, the inconvenience of it all!


Rain slapped and thunder boomed. Lightning began to lash and stars of static friction crackled all around. In the pause that separated them came a voice screaming scattershot in the squall:


“I SAID …” it said. “OPEN THAT GAW-DAMN DOOR!!!”


My dad pushed up on the handle and there stood Rahilly, wet with bourbon and rain and tears of vengeance. His thinning red hair clung to his forehead and raindrops ran down the inside of his eyeglasses. Two hard nipples poked through a threadbare V-neck. Soggy mats of chest hair peaked through. He looked dug up, a zombie of the waterlogged earth.


My dad threw open the door. Rain cascaded, baptizing us in the last-gasp hiss that preceded the unhinged flood. Rahilly all but leapt into our midst, his family in tow. I looked up to see a summer sky gone from gill-green to matt-black, like a bruise flowering under a blouse.



Safe and fairly sound, Rahilly let forth his wrath, damning the rain and skewering the meteorologist. Michelle had moved in under the stairs next to me—a telltale gift from the gods. Her racing-stripe windbreaker clung to her arms like shrink-wrap on a pork tender. We huddled close, close enough for me to smell her and think to myself—but not aloud!—that Michelle rhymed with smell.


I wrapped her two LLs around my tongue, closed my eyes, and licked the rain off my lips. Then, a head-sucking rush, of the air vaporizing and the anvil clanging. And right on time, the bitch appeared.

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