Last issue we ran a series of short pieces by Bill McGowan — one of the managers of Dyslexia Books — about his friend Ali Akbar who had recently passed on to the great barroom in the sky. As expected, our readers responded very positively to the work, so now we’re intending to milk him for all he’s worth.
In this issue of La Cuadra, Bill has given us three more stories to consider. The first is another recollection about Ali. The second is about an occurrence in a Chicago bar back when Bill was living there in the early 1980s. The final story is about a friend of ours who passed through town several times in the past five years named Shanghai Pearce. Shanghai, as predicted in the last story in this series, has left the auditorium and we can only hope that he and Ali have teamed up and are making them laugh in the hereafter.
Each of these stories are well-crafted and clear — yet intriguingly complex. They gently ask the reader to be exposed over some perilous cultural and moral expanses. And they pay off beautifully.
Thanks again, Bill. Keep on writing!
The Red Suit
I had the benefit of hearing this story twice. Ali told it to me once, and then I got to hear him tell it to an unknown couple that we invited to sit at our table in some bar a few years later. I realized with the second telling that Ali had refined this story over the years to achieve maximum effect.
“After I got back from ‘Nam, I went back home to Rock Hill, South Carolina. I couldn’t stand it. It seemed so small to me after having been in Vietnam and then San Francisco. I was getting on the nerves of my family and they were sure botherin’ me. I couldn’t relate to anyone, even my old high-school buddies. And I realized it wasn’t going to be easy with the women either.
“I had this uncle that was only about fifteen years older than me that lived up in New Jersey. I’d always looked up to him. He had a reputation as a real ladies’ man. My mother suggested I go visit him for a while. That sounded like a great idea to me! He invited me up there to stay with him.
“Hey, Uncle Joe was living good. He had a decent job, money in his pocket, many women. He was a dresser. He knew just about everyone in town. He took me around to all of his haunts and even found me a part-time job. I was tryin’ to model myself on him, learning the way; I always had the jive.
“At this time he was livin’ with a really hot babe. Man, Jessie was sharp! One day I got home from work around six in the evening. I was dead tired. No one was home, so I decided to lie down on my uncle’s bed. I was tired of always sleeping on the couch. I figured I’d get up as soon as someone came home.
“I fell asleep. When Jessie came home she went to the bathroom, and then came straight into the bedroom thinking it was my uncle in there. I woke up when she laid down next to me with next to nothin’ on. It was dark. It was crazy, but I couldn’t resist just goin’ with the flow. Well, we were playing around and I was just about to go IN there when the front door opened.
“My uncle called out, ‘Hey, where is everybody?’
“The gig was up!
“She jumped up, turned the light on, and said, ‘What the fuck are you doin in the bed, Horace?’”
(Horace was his given name. He took Ali Akbar later, when he converted to Islam.)
“Man, she was pissed. She started screamin’ at me, and then she went out to my uncle complainin’ about what I’d done to her.
“My uncle called me out gruffly, ‘Horace, get your ass out here!’
“I got my clothes on, and came out to the living room.
“He laid into me. I tried to apologize and say it was just an accident. The whole time she was still yellin’ at me and telling my uncle he needed to kick me out of the house.
“‘Horace, you heard her. Man, you got to go. And NOW!’
“I gathered up my clothes and stuff and packed them in my bag. I didn’t have much. I walked out, saying I was sorry again. I didn’t know where the hell to go, so I just walked down the block to a little tavern we always went to.
“I was well on my way to my sixth or seventh drink when my uncle walked in. Man, I jumped up. I was real nervous. He walked up to me.
“‘Uncle Joe, I’m real sorry about what happened,’ I said.
“I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t hit me. He was a big man! He surprised the hell out of me when he walked up and put his big arm around my shoulder.
“Laughing, he said, ‘Oh Horace, don’t worry about that. I just had to kick you out because she was so mad. I’ve called your Auntie; you can stay with her a few days. Then you can come back to my place after Jessie calms down.’
“‘Boy,’ he added, ‘I can’t believe you pulled that stunt! Let me buy you a drink.’
“That’s the way my uncle was. He taught me a lot.
“After a few months up there, I had a little money in my pocket. I had my own apartment then. I knew I needed some good clothes. My uncle dressed well, and I saw the effect that had on everyone, particularly the ladies. So I went to this men’s clothing shop in the ’hood and I bought a nice suit. Fitted! Red! That night I hit the clubs in my suit and a nice hat too. Wow! I felt like the MAN. I could feel the effect immediately. It gave me confidence, and I played it for all it was worth.
“The first time my uncle saw me in the suit, I think he was a little jealous. You know, he was a little older, and here was this young upstart that he had helped gettin’ all of the attention. Still, he was cordial to me. And, you know, I was always glad to see him.
“I hung out up there in Jersey for a year or two. Even stayed for a while in New York City. But eventually, I ran out of jobs and money, and decided to go back home to Rock Hill. That was disappointing, to say the least. I was even more disconnected than before. I couldn’t find work. I was living at home. The scene there was sooo small-town. I’ll never forget, and maybe never forgive, that my mother at this time suggested I try to get a job on a garbage truck! A garbage truck!!! Whoa, that’s what she thought I should aspire to?
“After about six months in Rock Hill, I thought I might as well go back to San Francisco. When I was stationed there, it was the most exciting place I’d ever lived. I pulled together enough bread to catch a bus out there. I was big-time broke but, you know, I found my way. I was livin’ over in Oakland where it was cheap, and makin’ my way over to the City as often as I could.
“Before long, I started picking up a little dough sellin’ weed, and pretty soon I’d built up a clientele.
“One day I was standing on my corner where I knew some people would find me. I had the weed in my pocket.
“Suddenly a cop car pulled up and they jumped out. They asked me to empty my pockets and there it was. There was no gettin’ out of it. They arrested me and put me in the back of the car. I was had. There was no point in arguing. I was goin’ in.
“A white cop was driving. His partner was black. They weren’t bad; weren’t mean to me at all. I was sittin’ back there, kinda calm. I asked them, ‘Hey, you got me fair and square. But what I can’t figure is how you knew to pick ME up.
“They looked at each other and smiled. The black cop turned to me and said, ‘We got a tip!’
“‘What tip?’ I asked.
“They looked at each other again, smiling. The black cop turned to me again, and almost laughin’ said, ‘The nigger in the red suit gots the dope!’
“Even I had to laugh at that!”