Butternut Squash

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.

Alexander Pope, “Essay on Criticism”

Looking at simple things in a cosmic way is the work of a poet. Accordingly, Thaddeus Edelstein made a point of keeping his eyes open. He wouldn’t want to miss the world in a grain of sand or heaven in a wild flower.

On the event of his twenty-ninth birthday, he was riding his bicycle, penless as a monkey, when a completely fresh idea found words and lodged itself in his throat. There was a fiver in his pocket at the time and a big beef with extra sauce in a white paper bag about to be abandoned under a heat lamp at Buzzy’s. This wasn’t the culmination of a lesson he’d only vaguely known he was learning, but needed to know for his life, like a baby picking up language. It was one of those ideas he’d always known and never realized until one day he hopped a curb and…Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury…SHAZAM! There is such a brief window for these kind of things, at least for Thaddeus. If he didn’t hock this loogie down on paper, and quick, it would devolve and be digested, so he let his legs do the pedaling and focused his eyes on noticing only the details he needed in order to make it back home with minimal interruption. When he came across a girl, though, with spiked hair, a “Touch Me I’m Sick” t-shirt and torn purple fishnet thigh-highs tucked into her black Converse hi-tops standing in front of Al’s Packaged Liquor on L Street, and caught love beckoning from deep in the forest of her dark brown eyes, that was the last time he saw his idea alive.

“You a cop?” she asked.
“I’m a poet,” he replied.
“You have to tell me if I ask,” she said. “It’s the law, I hope you know.”
“The only law I follow is this: Passion never reasons.”
“That’s great, really. I mean, can you get us a keg?”
“Who’s us?”

The girl pointed toward the corner where three skin-headed punks were leaning on a pin-striped van. Thaddeus had only moved to Southie a month ago, and already he’d seen several guys getting busted buying for underage kids in front of Al’s, but those bums all did it wrong and deserved to get caught. First off, they took the kids’ money right there in front of the store, in broad daylight, basically advertising their crime. Then, just in case nobody noticed that, they buy a fifth of cheap crap like Old Crow or blackberry schnapps – their original errand, no doubt – and a keg of Bass. Come on, the guy at Al’s knows the score. Thaddeus could get away with buying a keg. Anyway, he thought, who can argue with a thunderbolt? “There’s a party at Devil’s Pit tonight,” she told him.

He had no plans that night beyond his big beef and probably renting a porno flick, so he figured what the hell, locked up his bike to a fence and took a walk around the corner with the girl to collect money and sort out details. A barrel of Bud, simple as that. They had a tap already, so there would be no need to rent one. The girl told Thaddeus that her name was Helen, and that she was a junior at the local high school. Despite her rough exterior and bad posture, Thaddeus found Helen to be quite attractive. There was a certain flirtatious aspect to her behavior, too, especially in the way she chewed her gum and blew bubbles that popped and splattered all over those pouty lips, that led him to believe she might be interested in him for more than his legal age.

Her friends by the van were chucking lit cigarettes at each other and Minor Threat was cranking out of the windows; they were alright in Thaddeus’s book. It was his opinion that kids between the ages of 17 and 24 should all either have shaved heads or hair down to their asses. That’s the age to be a rock star, or at least look like one. Anything more moderate demonstrated a lack of indiscretion he believed too sad to embody at so fraught an age. And if you can listen to Minor Threat’s version of the Monkey’s song, Steppin’ Stone, without wanting to flick cigarettes at your friends, then Thaddeus didn’t know you.

As they pulled away from Al’s with the keg, Helen thanked Thaddeus with a toot of a pinkish gray powder that she’d tapped onto the webbing between her thumb and forefinger. The skin around her fingernails was all chewed up, an observation Thaddeus could make neither heads nor tails of, but noted in case he was ever to write about this night. He’d never snorted a drug before, but then again he’d never really been offered. There was a burning sensation in his sinus area, immediately followed by a tingling down and around his anus, after which he thought he saw his idea again, darting around a corner. He closed his eyes and chased the sucker down. By the time he had it in a corner, the idea had morphed into another, this one of a sexual nature and still considered illegal in several states. Helen did a toot of her own, then grabbed Thaddeus by the back of his head and bit his upper lip hard enough to make it bleed.

When she shoved him away she was laughing. “He has a hard-on,” she screamed.

“Hey buddy,” one of the guys said, “how’d you like to go to fucking jail and get ass-raped by Mike Tyson for buying alcohol for a minor?”

“Um, I wouldn’t,” Thaddeus replied.

“Then you’re going to have to do us another favor.”

Everyone was laughing, as they had been all along, except now they were laughing at him and to Thaddeus the tone had gone completely sinister. Suddenly, these guys didn’t look like the fun-loving punks Thaddeus had taken them for just ten minutes ago. Even Helen didn’t look very friendly anymore. She looked like the kind of girl who’ll sleep with a guy just to spread some nasty disease. “Hey, didn’t you read my t-shirt?” she would say. Still, he was ten years older than any of them. He could outthink them. He was certain that he could wiggle out of going to jail, too. The worst thing that would happen is that he might have to pay a fine. What concerned him more was what else these punks had in mind. When the van stopped for a light, Thaddeus tried to break out the back door, but they must have locked it after loading in the keg.

“Don’t make us hurt you already,” someone said, hurling a cigarette at Thaddeus’s face and connecting with a blinding array of sparks. Whether it was the drug making things difficult or their identical tattoos and puckered brows, it was hard for Thaddeus to tell his tormentors apart. “What would Robert Frost do?” he asked himself.

The next time the van stopped, Thaddeus scrambled and clawed his way out of the front door. He took a few punches in the nads and his t-shirt got torn off in the going, and then conked his head sort of bad when he finally spilled out onto the street, but none of this registered too hard through the adrenaline.

“Wait! Wait!” he heard Helen yelling. “We were just fucking kidding!”

Maybe so, Thaddeus thought. Still, maybe not. He booked it home, triple-locked the door, pounded beers and wrote haiku by candlelight for hours until passing out.

In the early morning on day two of year twenty-nine, a battered and bruised Thaddeus Edelstein walked down L Street to retrieve his bicycle and try again for that big beef. His bike, unfortunately, had been brutally murdered overnight. The wheels were tacoed, the seat sliced open, the frame done in by what must have been a sledgehammer. He walked on to Buzzy’s, only to find that they had closed three hours ago and wouldn’t be reopening for another four. It began to rain, and as he backed away from the doors, pulling the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head, Thaddeus shivered twice, hard, then tore the hood off, turned his face to the sky and broke out laughing. “Don’t cry, Mom! Are you watching? This is going to be the most interesting year of my life!”

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