Excerpt from Today, Oh Boy – in the Principal’s Office

photograph by Joseph Szabo

A loud electronic crackling.  The red light of the intercom has flashed on. Never a good sign.  Every class has one, a rectangular speaker box mounted somewhere on the wall.  Another crackle. 

Speakerbox: (crackle) Miss Turlock, Principal Pushcart. Is Alex Jensen in your class?

Miss Turlock: (looking up at the intercom, addressing it as if a person) No sir. It was my understanding that he was there with you.

Speakerbox: Who told you that?

Miss Turlock: Althea Anderson.

Speakerbox: By any chance is Rusty Boykin in your class?

Miss Turlock (still looking up, still addressing the intercom): Yes sir. He’s sitting right here working on a drawing.

Speakerbox: Send him to me. Stat!

Miss Turlock: Yes sir.

Speakerbox: (crackle)

All pencils, brushes, kneading hands have halted. Rusty’s on his feet, a look of panic stamped on his freckled face. James Hopper glances at Althea, who is frowning. Rusty casts a rueful glance at his crude rendering of the digestive tract lying next to his open Biology II notebook with its hurried, smudged, barely decipherable and misspelled anatomical terms. Then he looks up and encounters Miss Turlock’s sympathetic, blunt, open features. 

“Run along, Rusty. You can leave your things here for now. “

“Okay,” he says, oblivious to the students’ staring faces, oblivious to the clay torsos, oblivious to the smell of paint, oblivious to the splattered tile, oblivious to the silence.  He’s pushing open the door and stepping into the cool autumn air, oblivious to the yellow disc of morning sun suspended above distant loblolly pines. He’s deep, deep, deep inside the auditory darkness of a cave of dread where an echoing voice catalogs his various crimes and misdemeanors: smoking marijuana; drinking beer; mocking (though behind their backs) administrators, teachers, students, the Mighty Green Wave, Congressmen, Senators, Vice Presidents, Presidents, television shows, movies, Judeo-Christian Deities; purchasing and hiding Playboy magazines as visual aids in acts of self-pollution; masterminding a high stakes scheme to run away from home; receiving stolen goods in accordance with the above-mentioned scheme; not living up to his potential . . .

As an elementary student, if he had been called to the office, Rusty might have feared that someone in his family had died or that he was being summoned to receive an award, but his name in conjunction with the initials AJ can only mean trouble. He’s forgotten his signature walk, the freak flag flop, and leans forward, head down, oblivious to the pebbly paving beneath his high-top Converse All-Stars.  In the thin cavity of his chest, his heart pounds like timpani as he reaches for the cold handle of the main building’s outer double doors. The hall is virtually void, the only sound clacking heels, out of sight, dopplering into the distance.  His hand shaking, he grips the handle of the glass doors of the administrative offices, pulling outward. 

In the bright florescent light of the outer administrative office, he recognizes immediately that the employees are in an everyday mode. No one has died. No uniformed policeman with badge, billyclub, and handcuffs glowers in a corner waiting for him. Rusty clears his dry throat and approaches Miss Cartwright sitting at a desk next to Principal Pushcart’s door. As he nears her desk, a tiny pink bubble puffs out from her lips, then pops.

 “Mizz Cartwright,” he says, his voice unsteady, “I think Principal Pushcart wants to see me.”

“Now that’s an interesting shirt,” she says coyly, snapping the gum. “Where’d you get that?”  She’s dressed in a yellow alpaca V-neck sweater and a kelly green skirt, the official school colors.                 

Rusty had forgotten all about his shirt, a new acquisition, part of a service station uniform with the name “Buddy” stitched in an oval on its breast. It’s sure to exacerbate whatever vitriol’s brewing in Pushcart. Rusty realizes he’s left his Mr. Zig Zag denim jacket back in the art room, which is probably a good thing.

 “Uh, I got it from Buddy.”

  “Good ol’ Buddy,” she says smiling. “Mr. Pushcart and Mrs. Laban are expecting you.”

  She gets up and cracks open the door. “Mr. Boykin is here,” she says into the crack.

  The muffled bark of a drill sergeant.

  “Go on in,” she says.

The door creaks open squeakily like a coffin lid in a Christopher Lee movie. Sitting, leaning forward with his palms down on the surface of his desk, Principal Pushcart looks as if he might be on the verge of doing a hundred or so push-ups. Sitting across from him, looking over her shoulder, a frowning Mrs. Laban pumps her crossed leg like crazy.

“Yes, sir?”  

“Have a seat, son.”

There is an empty chair next to Mrs. Laban, a wooden chair, upholstered in some sort of dark green leather-like synthetic something-or-other, the kind of fabric (maybe fabric) that sticks to the back of your thighs when you’re wearing shorts in the summer. Principal Pushcart removes his right palm from the desk like some gangster in an old movie and positions it palm-up, sweeping it in a downward motion towards the chair as he nods his head in mock gentility. Across his pink scalp strands of brownish gray flimsily stretch to feebly hide his encroaching baldness. Rusty, dropping into the chair, sighs audibly in tune with the upholstery, which also sighs.

 “Now, Blanton,” he says, using Rusty’s baptismal nomenclature. “I want you to promise to tell me the truth.” The intonation isn’t all that unfriendly.

 “Yes sir,” Rusty says automatically. He’s a terribly inept liar anyway. 

 “You know,” Pushcart says, “that AJ was dismissed from homeroom to come to my office.”

 This is an easy one. “Yes sir, I was in homeroom this morning.”

 “Tell me. What did you think of the events of this morning?”

 “Think, sir? I’m not sure I thought anything.”

 “You didn’t think it was funny?”

 “I wasn’t paying all that much attention. I was sort of preoccupied. I have this really big Anatomy test today.” He looks over at Mrs. Laban for encouragement, but her features have hardened into a Madame Tussaud’s mask of unalterable unhappiness: Lucretia Borgia displeased with the consistency of her soft-boiled egg.

“Did you know that AJ hadn’t come to the office?”

 “No, sir.  Not till the announcement over the intercom.”

  “Any idea where he’s at?”

Rusty successfully stifles the impulse to say, “Behind the preposition.”

  “I dunno,” he says instead.  “Home, I’d guess. His daddy’s office maybe. I dunno.”

  Pushcart can see the little son-of-a-bitch is telling the truth. “Son,” he says, “are you aware that you’re out of dress code?”

  “It wouldn’t surprise me. I guess my hair might be.”

  “Where’s your pride, son?”

Rusty doesn’t begin to know how to answer this.  A trick question?  Of course, he possesses pride, that doom-laden quality that they talk about in English class every year, the moral failing that forces Antigone to break the burial edict, Ahab to pursue the great white whale, Macbeth to go all Charlie Manson on his kinsman Duncan.  

“I dunno, sir,” he says. “Yes and no. You know Alexander Pope called pride ‘the never-failing vice of fools.”’

As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he wants them back.  



“What did you say?”

“I meant sometimes pride can be a bad thing, so I was hesitant to admit I had some.”

“Well, Mr. Philosopher, I’m sending you home to get a haircut and to change that shirt. The dress code is rules, son. Not suggestions. Rules. When you look presentable, you come back here to report to me before you resume your education here at Summerville High. Consider it a suspension. Zeroes on all work missed.”  

“Yes, sir,” Rusty says. 

“I suggest you hurry.”

“Yes sir.”

 When he’s out the door, Paul looks over at Eula Lynne and asks, “What period is his anatomy test?”


 “Well, then,” he chuckles. “I wish him God’s speed.”

“That secretary of yours is almost as bad as the kids. Out there chewing gum.  I don’t know about that, Paul.  It sets a bad example. . . ”

Poolroom except from “Today, Oh Boy”

Here’s a very short excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Today, Oh Boy.[1]

An accident in the chemistry lab the period before lunch at Summerville High School on a Monday in October of 1970 has required that the entire student body be released early. Ollie Wyborn, a brainy, super rational, and dutiful transplant from the north who has yet become acclimated to the ways of the South, is on an errand to fetch poolroom hotdogs for three girls who have offered to give him a ride home. Ollie has a crush on one of the girls, Jill Birdsong. For weeks he’s been trying to summon the courage to ask to the homecoming dance, though he’s never been on a date and doesn’t know how to dance.

Like his parents, Ollie is a Doubting Thomas. To him, fire and brimstone are natural phenomena, not the elements of an infernal furnace. Yet when Ollie steps into the smoky gloom of the pool hall, he finds himself thinking of illustrations he’s seen of Hell. It smells weird in here, sour and sweet, body odor mixed with fryer grease, stale beer, and cigarette smoke.  Some of these people look damaged. Now he understands why girls won’t come inside.

There’s a cacophony of too-loud raucous voices with those strange vowel-rich inflections –  Whatyousaybo, a greeting sounding more like Swahili than English. An older man with sergeant stripes on his uniform talks to and rocks a pinball machine plastered with curvaceous cartoon women. Lights blink on and off – ding ding ding ding ding.  The metal ball rolls up the incline but now down again.  Flippers flip.  Up the incline and down again. Beneath the ding, ding ding ding dinging, the din of clacking pool balls, laughter, blended conversations. Recorded music blares from a jukebox, a familiar song spelling out a girl’s name: G-L-O-R-I-A. Someone hollers “Rack!,” and a young black boy around ten or so, scurries past Ollie with a wooden triangle in is hand.

About fifteen red swivel stools line a bar/lunch counter, every stool occupied by a male. There’s that old, grizzled character with a white cane and seeing-eye German shepherd, the Old Blind Man Ollie’s seen a couple of times at football games. Next to him in paint-splattered overalls sits a middle-aged fellow with a cigarette dangling from his mouth moving up and down as he talks. Others, all strangers, push their way between the stools to get a server’s attention.

Ollie might as well be in Mozambique as far as knowing the etiquette involved with ordering. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern. Only two people taking and cooking orders for twenty.  They should have a line where customers receive numbers like in a deli instead of this dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest. Ollie spots four guys wearing SHS shop overalls sitting adjacent to one another, so he decides to lean between two of them to place his order.

Who this is here sticking his head here?  Gotdamn round ol’ timey hippie glasses.

“Excuse me, excuse me.”

Ain’t his turn sumbitch. Gotdamn round ol’ timey hippie glasses.

Ollie tries to make eye contact with the older server.  Why the dimness?  Behind the bar a tin sign in fading red capital letters warns NO PROFANITY. There are carved coconut head monkey faces staring vacant-eyed from shelves next to a large jar of rubberized eggs suspended in a murky solution, also prints of dogs smoking cigarettes and playing poker.

“Well, X-cuse you,” a shop boy growls.

“Sorry, but it’s crowded in here.”

“Kiss my ass, Yankee.”

Circumspection.  Circum = around; spec = to look, as in spectacles.

Looking down the bar, Ollie sees a perhaps more convenient place to order, not as close to the door.

He thinks maybe he could dance to this song.  G-L-O-R- eye-eye-eye-eye A!

  J-I-Double L   B-I-R-D-S-O-N-G    

 Jukebox:     Knock on my door

                        Come in my room

                        Make me feel alright . . . 

[1] You can read other excerpts here and here.

My Very Brief Membership in Carlos Castaneda’s Church of the Shamanistic Upward Flight of Liberation


Peyote consumption, dear readers, was the central ritual of the religion I practiced for at least 12 hours.  Yes, for the first time ever, I publicly acknowledge that for a day-and-a-half, I was a member of  Carlos Castaneda’s Church of the Shamanistic Upward Flight of Liberation.

It’s a long story, one ill-suited for this genre.  Perhaps an epic poem would be too grandiose, but certainly a blog post in no way could do justice to the hero’s journey Johnny Dryer and I took across this great country of ours in search of Carlos Castaneda.

However, now, that I’ve let it out, I guess I do owe my reader(s) a bare bones narrative.

LA street

LA circa 1973

In the spring of ’73 my good friend Johnny Dryer and I decided that after a harrowing semester of cutting classes, attending keg parties, and watching pretentious foreign films, that we deserved a sabbatical, so we skipped the spring semester to hitch across the country to California to see if we could find the famous anthropologist/would-be shaman Carlos Castaneda, who recently had slipped out of public view and moved into a large house somewhere in L.A.

I’ll spare you the details of the memorable rides we hitched, e.g., our sitting in the back of rig of an eighteen-wheeler with a trucker’s wife (Janelle) as we witnessed the driver go through can after can of the Old Milwaukee he had stowed in a cooler on the passenger’s side.  (After finishing a beer, he would smash the can with the palm of his hand as if it were a Dixie Cup and fling it out of the window, sometimes while passing slow-moving vehicles at night on the downslope of foothills). [1]

Or the time we were picked up by a bus transporting a professional female roller derby team.

Let’s just say that it was a cross continental zig zag that took us from Tijuana to Denver but that eventually we arrived at the City of Angels alive but thinner.

I have to give Johnny 100% of the credit (and the blame) for not only turning me on to the mind-expanding philosophy of Carlos Castaneda and his mentor Don Juan, but also for the brilliant detective work in our eventual successful tracking down Castaneda’s house (Think The Big Sleep meets Easy Rider).  No, by the time we hit L.A., I was one lovesick puppy, moping around like a latter-day Troilus, missing my beloved girlfriend, Cressida  Debbie.  Johnny is the protagonist of this tale, I merely the comic morose sidekick.

We did at last get to meet the Master, the Manson-lite entourage that surrounded him, and found him to be a very short, charismatic narcissist whose megalomania didn’t quite jive with the shamanistic attributes that Don Juan projected in The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.

And though I fully expected for my initiation to the sacrament of peyote to ignite spirit-spawned visions of totemistic reality (an albino aardvark, say, speaking truths to me in an ancient Yaqui tongue that I could mysteriously understand), the truth is that I became paranoid and dared not open my mouth for fear that I might sound as idiotic as the rest of drug-crazed groupies surrounding Carlos.

peyote sofa

From left to right, yours truly, Johnny Dreyer, unknown dude, unknown chick, Carlos unknown chick, unknown dude having a bad trip.

Perhaps Gringo idiots like us co-opting sincere Native American religious rites and transforming them into New Age bacchanalia played a role in the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision to bar Native religions from using peyote, a sacred plant that had been part of their ceremonies for centuries; nevertheless, Oregon v. Smith represents a bone fide assault against an individual’s right freely to practice religion, a decision reached by a majority of conservative justices, who later would claim it’s okay for Hobby Lobby not to provide employees with birth control because it contradicted the owners’ religious beliefs.

It’s enough to drive you to drugs.

[1] Hat tip, Furman Langley. Please note, reader, that this post is classified as fiction.

An Old Manuscript Resurfaces

Last night I was talking to my wife Caroline about the experience of having written a pre-word-processing novel in my late twenties. I told her how the idea of the story had come to me and how the narrative had almost effortlessly unspooled from my imagination.

It was 1980, and I had managed to get an agent, who shopped it around, but to no avail.  Eventually the agent mailed the manuscript back with a letter from Viking claiming I had talent, but the book was a downer. Perhaps to show me she was no slacker, the agent mentioned that she had received other, less-charitable rejections.

I casually mentioned to Caroline that I still had the manuscript somewhere in my study, which surprised her, and she asked me to go upstairs to see if I could find it.  I eventually located it in the back of a file cabinet.

I hadn’t looked at it in thirty-five years and expected to be totally embarrassed, but as I started reading, I thought to myself, “Some of this ain’t half bad.”

For example, I think the excerpt below captures fairly well that awful feeling when something you’ve done has seemingly ruined your life forever.

In the wee hours, the narrator, fifteen-year-old Kenny Stevenson, has been deposited home by the police after his girlfriend nearly drowned in a hot tub during an unsupervised party.  He has awakened in his room the next afternoon.  His hectoring mother, a difficult woman even on a good day, has just burst in and denigrated him in raw angry hurtful language.  Overwhelmed, broken, in considerable physical pain, he screams an obscenity back at her.

I couldn’t believe I had said it, but I had — had hollered the words at pointblank range, — and as soon as the they hit her, she started screaming and crying and punching me all over my face with her fists. I was getting ready to start crying, too, not because the punches hurt any more than my body already hurt, but because there was nothing left to do. Finally, she quit and ran out of the room sobbing, slamming the door real hard.

I could hear the sobbing disappearing down the hall, so I scrunched a pillow over my head so I couldn’t hear or see.  It felt like my body was getting ready to out-sob hers, and I was gonna let it.  I was looking forward to letting it out.  I moved the pillow out of the way, opened my mouth, ready to gush tears all over the place, but the only thing that came out was a sort of foghorn honk.  It sounded horrible, like a rhinoceros call or something, like an eighty-year-old Tarzan’s pathetic holler.  I honked it four times, and with each honk, I felt the rhinos stampeding in my head, trampling down everything that used to be.  It was like everything that used to be had been washed away in vomit.  Now I was actually trying to cry like a baby, but my body wouldn’t let me. All I could do is let out a jungle honk, and then there was silence, except for the sound of my panting.

Even though the air-conditioner was on, I must have left the window open to throw up sometime during the night.  Eventually, my panting slackened, which turned into silence, and silence gave way to cars swishing in the street.  Or was that the wind rustling through the trees? I made myself get up.  It wasn’t easy, but I did it and went over to the window and squatted down beside it. I pulled the shade back, and the light stabbed my eyes. For a second or two, yellow blobs  floated right in front of me, but as my eyes gradually got used to the light, the blobs faded away, and I could see the world outside tending to business as usual – people in cars going somewhere, Mrs. Ayers walking down to her mailbox, Hambone in the shade shooing flies with his tail.

I would’ve traded places with any of them – even Mrs. Ayers. At least their lives, no matter how boring, were the same as they had been yesterday.  Mine had changed, changed for good, and all of a sudden, I knew what I had to do.

I had to split.