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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