Monday, July 2, 2018

A July 4 Remembrance Of Chris Bunch


The following was written to mark the sad anniversary of the death of Chris Bunch, my friend and writing partner of over three decades. He died in the little town of Ilwaco, Washington on July 4, 2005. Although he'd been ill for some time, his death was sudden and unexpected.

A proud veteran of the Vietnam war, Chris always thought of himself as a soldier. Or "sojer," as he'd laconically put it. If he had to choose a day for his death, I suspect there could be no better than the date that marked the birth of the country he fought to defend.

He left behind his love of many years - Karen Eisenberg. As well as his sister - and my wife - Kathryn; his brother, Philip and mother, Elizabeth. He also left a score of books and over a hundred and fifty hours of screen dramas that millions of readers and viewers the world over have enjoyed to this day, and will enjoy long into the future. I was honored to have written many of those books and screen plays with him.

The fragments that follow are some of the memories I have of Chris:


I first met Chris in our senior year at high school. He was sitting in front of me in journalism class, a tall guy, with an oversized head and a buzz-saw haircut. I was a CIA-brat - a student vagabond - and I'd just transferred in from Hollywood High, by way of Kubasaki High School in Okinawa. In short, I was in sore need of friends.

I looked over his shoulder and saw that he was engrossed in a very odd-looking book, with weird symbols and illustrations. I whispered: "What're you reading?"

He glanced back at me, displaying a long, shovel-shaped face, and steely blue eyes. He shrugged and showed me the cover. The book was "The Encyclopedia Of Witchcraft And Demonology."

Damn, I thought. Now this has got to be one interesting guy.

I gave him a thumbs up and a grin. "Name's Cole," I said.

He nodded. "I'm Bunch." Then went back to his book.



Over the din of a rare LA monsoon, I could hear somebody pounding on my front door. I staggered out, grumbling because I had a fucking eight o'clock psych class and some sonofabitch was banging at my door at three a.m.

I opened it and found Chris standing there, sodden and just a little drunk. Chris said, "You gonna let me in, Cole? I got a bottle."

I took him to the kitchen so he could drip on linoleum instead of carpet. He passed me a pint of Peppermint Schnapps.

I looked at the label and said, "When did you start drinking this shit."

Chris shrugged. "Peppermint Schnapps goes good with rain.

Doubtful, I took a hit. Listened to the rain pounding the roof. He was right. It did "go good with rain." I took another hit and passed the bottle back.

I said, "What're you doing here? Last I heard you were an English major up at San Jose State."

Chris grunted and said, "Nothing but a bunch of stupid kids there. And the classes bored the snake snot out of me."

"They threw you out," I guessed.

Chris nodded, took a couple of swigs - passed the bottle back. "We had an understanding that I'd just leave and not come back."

"What happened?" I asked.

Chris sighed and said, "I broke up a frat house water balloon fight with a .45." Another sigh, then he added, "I guess I wanted to be a sojer more than a fucking college jerk."

Realization dawned. I said, "You joined up?"

Chris nodded. "I report next week.

I thought about that a second, then asked, "Tell your folks yet?"

He shook his head. "I was on my way there, but it started raining, then it got a little drunk out, so I thought I'd crash with you and sober up."

I finished off the Schnapps, then said, "This the only bottle?"

"No," he said. "I've got a couple spares in the car."



My Mother, Helen Cole

I hurt like hell - especially in the region of my gut. Also, there was something - or some things - sticking in my nostrils. Both my arms seemed weighted down. More pain, but not as bad as the business with my gut.

Then I started to remember and my heart gave a jump and I thought, "Aw, shit, shit, shit."

Somebody said my name and I opened my eyes. Things were blurry, but not so blurry that I couldn't recognize that big head, the buzz saw haircut, and shovel-shaped face."

"Why aren't you a blonde?" I asked Chris.

He said, "Lost my wig on the way down from Ord." This was Fort Ord outside of San Francisco where Chris was stationed.

I said, "You on leave?"

Chris shrugged. "Sort of." He went on: "I asked for emergency leave, they said no fucking way unless you were my brother. I said I was going anyway, so the sergeant busted me a grade, then gave me a pass."

"Thanks," I said. I didn't know what else to say.

Chris said, "No sweat. I re-upped for Vietnam, so they'll probably make me sergeant when I get back."

The pain was starting to return - bad - so I mashed the button for the nurse.

Chris said, "If you were gonna get yourself shot up, Cole, you should have joined the Army with me."

I didn't say anything - the nurse was pumping some miracle juice into the tube leading into my arm.

Chris said, "They said you got hit three times."

I said, "I zagged when I should have zigged."

Chris said, "The paper said you put the asshole through a window."

"It was a patio door," I said.

Chris said, "Good thinking. Not so far to fall."

I closed my eyes a second as the miracle juice cut in.

Chris said, "They said you held the son of a bitch until the cops came."

I didn't reply. Didn't see any reason to. Then I thought of something.

I said, "The surgeon took my belly button." I started to laugh, but it hurt.

Chris said, "Not to worry. They bolted your ass on pretty good."

I smiled, then started to fade away.

Chris said, "Carol and your brothers are with my mom and dad. They'll take care of them until your aunt flies in." Carol was my first wife. My brothers were Charles, 12; Drew, 8; and David, 3. My aunt was the late Rita Schour who raised Drew and David, along with own daughter, Mary. 

It made me feel better. I said, "Tell them… thanks."

I started to fade again. And from somewhere far away, I heard him say:

"Sorry about your mom, Al."

I said, "Yeah."

Then - "Yeah."

And I was gone.



When Chris was in Vietnam I was working at a weekly newspaper in Alhambra. It was just the beginning days of the war protests and everybody was arguing. Kids were demonstrating and politicians were bloviating. Meanwhile, the cops had expanded their tear gassing and bludgeoning of Civil Rights marchers to include Peace Activists and the world was a very confused and nasty place.

I wrote a column about it - laying out both sides of the debate. Then said with the country so divided that our guys in Vietnam must be conflicted as well. And it was not safe to be in enemy territory wondering who was right and who was wrong. I said my best friend was there now, and I hoped he wouldn't hesitate.

I said, "Forget the debate, Chris. If you have to shoot - Shoot."

A month or so went by. The newspaper I worked for sent free newspapers to GIs whose hometowns were in our circulation area. I'd included Chris on the list.

One day a battered letter arrived. It was from Chris. I opened it and the stink of the jungle rose up. I'd lived in areas with jungle so I knew that stink well.

Inside was a newspaper clipping - crumpled and green with mold.

I took it out.

It was a copy of the column.

And across it - in Chris' crazy, left-handed scrawl - was the word:



It was two thirty in the morning. I knew this not because I'd looked at the clock on the nightstand, but because of the very fact that I'd just fought my way free of a nightmare and had rolled out of bed.

It had been two thirty in the morning when the intruder with the gun had come into our home and ever since then I always wake up from a nightmare at exactly that time. In days past, I'd get up and read a book until I fell asleep on the couch. These days - thanks to Kathryn - I clamp on a pair of headphones and listen to an Audiobook. And when I fall asleep it's in bed with Kathryn beside me - where I belong.

But this was way back in the book-and-couch days and so I automatically picked up the paperback on the nighstand and stumbled out into the living room.

Before I could flick on the light, I heard someone grunt and I saw a dark figure shoot up from the couch. It gave me a start, but then I remembered and turned on the overhead light.

It was Chris, getting up from the floor where, after coming off the couch, he'd dropped to one knee - bringing up a .45 to cover whoeverthefuck had entered his sleeping area. Next to the couch was an upside down ashtray and a knocked over can of Budweiser.

Chris looked at the mess, made a face and said, "I'll get some paper towels."

He went into the kitchen and called back softly, "Want a beer?"

I said sure and pretty soon he came out with a roll of paper towels, a six-pack and a Church Key. (What we called a beer opener in the days before pop tops and screw caps. It was sharp on one end for beer cans and flat on the other for the bottled variety.)

While he cleaned up, I opened the beers. Chris was just out of the Army and after a combat tour in Vietnam he was more than a little edgy. Hence the beer and the .45 beside the couch. (He would sleep with a gun close at hand the rest of his life, moving it from the floor to under his pillow in later years out of deference to the ladies.)

Chris was staying with us (my then wife, Carol, and my brother, Charles, now 14) until he found an apartment. He'd just gone to work for McGraw Hill as an architectural reporter and was so bored that while in his cups he talked of gathering every copy of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead he could find in the building - then, piling them up and making "a big fucking fire."

"There must be a couple of hundred of them," he'd said. "That's all they read. The Fucking Fountainhead. That, and maybe, None Dare Call It Treason. Never knew architects were such Fascist Piggies."

After dumping the trash, Chris came back and we drank cold beer together. He said, "I guess we're both pretty edgy. Me from Vietnam… and you from - you know."

I said, "Yeah, but do you hear voices?

He thought a minute, then said, "Sure, but I don't answer, so it works out okay."

I said, "But, Bunch - warm beer next to your bed? British beer, fine. But warm American beer? Jesus, how can you stomach it?"

Chris said, "You get used to it. The VC kept interdicting our ice supply on Highway 13. Atrocity committing sons of bitches."

We sat in silence a little longer, then Chris said, "Got a hit the other day from the War Resistor's League."

I said, "I hear J. Edgar calls them Draft Dodger's Anonymous."

Chris snorted. "Bullshit. He doesn't have that good of a sense of humor."

"Even so," I said. "The FBI has their eye on them."

"So what?" Chris said. He drank more beer. "Look, my unit took three hundred percent fucking casualties. All the guys I came over with were either sent home in bodybags or with pieces missing. All gone. Every swinging dick. Then replaced two times over. Pretty soon I was the Old Fucking Man at age 25. I have to tell you, Cole, I got real tired of taking kids out into the jungle to get killed."

I nodded. He'd said this before. It was what motivated him to hit up Stars And Stripes, who took him on as an Army combat reporter and photographer during his last days in Vietnam.

He said, "Fuck a bunch of draft dodgers. After eight years in the Army, I know the damn ropes. I can teach kids how to get out of the draft legally. Won't make me feel better for the kids I got killed, but it'd be a start, you know?"

I said I did.

Chris said, "Another thing. I heard there was a job opening at the LA Free Press." The LA Free Press was the largest and most successful of the hundreds of Underground Newspapers starting up in those days."

"They pay like shit," I warned.

Chris laughed. "So does McGraw Hill," he said. "Plus," he added, "no fucking Ayn Rand."

And then we finished our beers and went back bed.



I pulled into the parking lot of Chris' apartment building in my 1960 Ford Galaxy. It was in decent shape for being ten years old, but after Chris and I had taken it over some bad ass roads in the Los Padres Mountains the automatic transmission had become confused. When you wanted to go forward, you had to put it in Reverse. And when you wanted to back up, you put it in Drive.

Chris was in his carport painting what I took to be the front door of an apartment unit. His buzzsaw haircut was long gone, replaced by a pretty respectable mane. He also sported a handlebar mustache and wore a fatigue jacket with the sleeves cut off, jeans and well-worn motorcycle boots.

I exited the car - not forgetting the case of beer - and wandered over. Sure enough, he was indeed at work on an apartment door. Except, instead of paint, he was coating the thing with thick layers of clear shellac.

I said, "If that were wood-grained, maybe the shellac would make it look better. But, it's a shitty apartment building red or orange, or Whatnot. And the shellac is just making it look like an even shittier apartment building red or orange, or Whatnot."

Chris stood back from his work. "Look closer," he instructed, reaching over to get a beer from the case I'd set on the tarmac.

I looked closer. To my surprise, I saw a crudely-drawn penis attached to a set of testicles. Next to it was a little caricature of a bearded man. And beneath that was somebody's scrawled signature.

I said, "What the hell? Looks like Men's Room graffiti." Then I asked, "That your front door?"

Chris said, "It is."

I said, "I know this is a stupid question - but, why aren't you covering it up with red paint or something? Shellac just makes it stand out more."

Chris said, "It's like this. Last night, Bukowski came by." (He was speaking of Charles Bukowski the underground poet and writer who would later acquire international cult status, but in those days he was an unknown. Chris, who was by now editor of The Oracle - a counter-culture newspaper - was among the few who published his stuff.)

"Chuck was drunk like he always is," Chris went on, "And he fell in lust with Big Carol." (Big Carol was Chris' girlfriend at the time - a tall, luscious blond and an ace photographer who would soon land a prestigious job at the LA Times.)

I said, "Everybody falls in lust with Big Carol."

Chris nodded. "Yeah, except Chuck insisted he was going kick my ass and take her away from me. Then he was going to - and I quote - 'Fuck her on your fucking bed, you fuck-ass peddler of fucking hippie propaganda.'"

"So you threw him out?" I supposed. Chris was big, but so what? Bukowski was so ravaged by alcohol and other substances he couldn't have licked a ten-year old even in a rare moment of sobriety.

"Well, I more or less gently pushed him out," Chris said. "I like him. And I like his shit. I'm gonna publish a special issue featuring his poetry next week."

I pointed at the defaced door. "He did that?"

"He did," Chris said. "He yelled and cursed, then went silent and we heard scratching at the door. Then there was more yelling and cursing and he went away."

I traded Chris a full beer for his empty while I waited for him to go on.

He said, "The landlady came by this morning for the rent and when she saw it she had fucking conniptions. Pounded on our door until I came out. And she's yelling - what the hell is this all about, you hippie bums?

"And I think real fast and then tell her - Don't you know? Why this drawing is by none other than Charles Bukowski, an incredible artist. All the gallery owners say his work will be worth thousands of dollars some day.

"Then I show her the signature, and say, 'And, we're in luck. He's even signed it. Why, this door is a fabulous piece of art. Can't you see that?'"

Impressed by his quick thinking, I said, "And she believed you?"

Chris nodded. "Not only that, but I agreed that instead of exchanging it for a new door to keep for myself, that I'd preserve Chuck's Brilliance with shellac and give it to her in lieu of this month's rent."

"No shit?" I said.

Chris finished off his beer.

"No shit," he said. and went back to work on the door.



It was one hell of a party.

This was usually the case at Chris' house in Laurel Canyon when he was the self-described "worst PR man in the history of Rock And Roll."

I forget who he worked for, but it was the biggest in the business and they had a new client list with all the top names. But, their reps were all suit and tie Doris Day and Pat Boone types, which wouldn't do to handle the likes of The Byrds, or The Turtles, or Frank Zappa, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or Emerson, Lake & Palmer - all of whom lived in Laurel Canyon in those days. (Oh, yeah, so did famed SF writers like Norman Spinrad and Harlan Ellison.)

Anyway, the party was going full blast when I got there. The house was packed with musicians, artists, writers, bikers and whoever else wandered in.

Chris spotted me and waved me into the kitchen. I thought it was to get a beer, but while I was fishing around in a big tub of ice for a Budweiser, he said, "Wait'll you fucking see, Cole."

I turned, beer in hand, noting that his eyes were dancing with excitement. I said, "Okay, what should I fucking see?"

To my amazement, Chris unhooked his belt and pulled it out from the loops. I took a step back. What the…?

To my relief, Chris unhooked what I took to be the buckle of his belt, and dropped the leather portion on a table.

"Take a look at this," he said, handing it over.

The thing was silver and very heavy. I hefted it.

"Is this pure silver?"

"About a pound's worth," Chris said. "But, never mind the silver. Look at that sucker."

I looked again. I wasn't sure what the thing was, but then it gradually came into vague focus. Some kind of animal? Perched on what? Tracks, like a tractor? And cannons? Were those cannons?

"I give up," I said.

Chris made a face. Damn, I was being slow tonight. He said, "Can't you see? That's an armadillo, crouched on top of a World War II tank."

And that's when it dawned. "The cover of the new Emerson, Lake & Palmer album?" I said.

"Tarkus," Chris said, confirming my guess by naming the new album. It was heavily anti-war and controversial in the straight world mostly occupied in those days by conservative music critics. It was also damned good.

Chris had become pretty tight with the group, and they'd let him produce one of the songs that ended up on the album.

I forget the exact details, but I think the belt buckle had been made for one of the group's members - maybe it was Carl Palmer. Anyway, they were so pleased with the help they'd gotten from Chris - not just with the work on the album, but his efforts to hype them - that they'd given it to him as a gift.

"Now, is that fucking cool, or what?" Chris said, fixing the buckle back onto the belt and running it through the loops again.

I admitted that it was. I said, "But, if you keep taking it off like that, people might get the wrong idea."

Chris snorted. "If they do, I'll whack 'em with the fucking buckle."

(Postscript: Chris' younger brother, Philip, has the belt now - silver armadillo-on-a-tank buckle and all.)



It was the summer of 1972, or 1973, when I got a call from Chris to meet him down on PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) where he was going to do a shoot.

I was working at the Outlook in Santa Monica then. The newspaper's two-story building sat practically on the bluffs overlooking PCH so it only took a minute to get down the hill in my little Austin American and meet him by the Jonathan Club. (The old rich man's beach club that infamously refused to admit Jews and other minorities. When Groucho Marx was asked his opinion of this policy, he famously replied: "But my wife isn't Jewish… so will they let my son go into the water up to his knees?")

Chris and a group of bikers were gathered in a parking lot near the club. Besides the bikes - all choppers - there were a couple of large open-bed trucks. Supervised by Chris, two guys were rolling a big Harley Shovelhead off one of the trucks.

In those days Chris was the editor of Chopper Magazine, and the "shoot" he was talking about was for the cover of the next issue. The fabulously chopped Harley - complete with a tricked out candy-apple red peanut gas tank - was no doubt the subject of that cover.

When Chris spotted me he said, "Hope you aren't looking for a beer, because the yard arm's down until after the shoot."

was looking for a beer - what the hell did he think I drove all the way down the hill for? But, I manfully said, "I can wait."

Somebody straddled the Shovelhead, kicked it over, and it roared into life . Then he leaned it on the kickstand and got off.

Chris grinned. "Don't you love that sound? Pure Harley Fucking Davidson. If the Japanese ever figure out how to pipe that sound into their Rice Burners the American market will go tits up."

But, before I could think he'd maybe gone all soft on me he added, "Too bad they leak oil worse than a pigeon with the shits. See a garage with a 30-Weight-stained floor and you know a Hog lives there."

Chris gave the nod to a big biker, who'd traded his originals for more Citizen-like leather jacket and jeans. He climbed aboard the Shovelhead and sat there looking uncomfortable in his Civvies and newly trimmed beard.

I said, "Shit, is that Friendly Fred?"

Chris said it was. Friendly Fred used to be known as "Attitude Fred," but he was so nasty that his biker brothers - bad asses all - tossed him out of the club. A year or so later he returned, swearing he was a changed man, and they took him back.

So, now he was Friendly Fred, but even with his kinder and gentler nature he usually looked way more felonious. Chris had obviously told him that he didn't want a Most Wanted look for the cover. If the magazine had been Easy Rider - another publication Chris worked for - it would have been different. Except, maybe Chris would have traded the biker dude for a Chick in nothing but a skimpy bikini and strategically placed "Property Of" Tats.

(Chris had once dated Jennifer Gan, a very sexy B-Movie actress who was starring in a Roger Corman biker movie - Naked Angels. One of the many pictures he took of her for a magazine spread ended up - literally - as the inspiration for the movie's poster.)

My friend was in full work mode now, camera out and shooting pictures. He moved around the bike and Friendly Fred a few times, getting different angles - favoring those with a beach and rolling Pacific background. Then he stopped and walked back to me while reloading.

"You follow in your car, Cole," he said. "And when I've got enough, we'll stop some place handy and buy a case on my expense account. We can put it in your trunk."

So, that's why he'd called. He needed somebody to play Gunga Din, but with beer. I shrugged, What the hell, got into the little Austin, goosed it into life, and waited.

Chris had on an old bomber's jacket with lots of pockets, which he was stuffing full of film cartridges. He draped two cameras around his neck, but I knew he'd mainly use his motor-drive Nikon which he'd bought at the PX back in his Vietnam bush-humping days. He'd saved his Army pay for months to make the price of that Nikon and he loved it almost as much as the Bonneville Triumph he'd bought with his mustering-out wages. (The rest went for a couple of cases of Ancient Ancient Age Bourbon, which we'd disposed of long ago.)

Another biker throttled over to where Chris stood and he climbed on behind him. It was a nice 4-cylinder Honda chopper, if I recall correctly. Property of the same chop shop that had turned an ugly full dresser Harley into a thing of such rare beauty that it had been chosen to grace the cover of Chopper Magazine.

Except, hold on - Chris wasn't sitting facing the guy's back like an ordinary passenger.

He was turned the other way!

Facing out!

I mean, for crying out loud, don't you get it? He was riding fucking backwards! His boot tips curled around the passenger pegs to keep from falling off.

I wanted to jump out and shout, Bunch, wait! Are you fucking nuts! You're gonna get killed! Then your mom's gonna kill me because I'm here and I didn't…

But it was too late. Chris signaled and his bike pulled away, the shovelhead chopper carrying Friendly Fred following. Some other bikes pulled in behind them and so there was nothing to do but join this weird-ass convoy and think nothing but "Please, God" thoughts just as hard as I could.

We headed down PCH, Chris blazing away with his motordrive. Running through rolls of film. Changing them while in full flight.

Then we came to that long curving stretch that snakes along the Pacific Ocean and the sky was blue, the waves were high and there was almost no traffic whatsoever.

And then we started going faster.

And faster.

And faster still.

And, then Jesus, we were going so fast the little Austin felt like she was coming off the ground and I had to back the hell off before she took flight into yon ditch. The one with the big telephone pole poking out of it.

My last view of Chris was of him sitting backward on the Honda chopper, wind whipping his face. Camera aimed like a gun. Firing away. And the only thing holding him on were his boot tips, straining against the pegs.

Later I learned that Chris and the others had pegged out at 100-Plus mph before ending the shoot. I found them a couple of bends of the road later, pulled over onto the gravel, laughing and congratulating each other for surviving yet another of Bunch's damn-fool camera stunts.

I stayed in the Austin while they all yakked, waiting for my heart to fully understand that we were done now and it was okay to beat at a nice, normal rhythm. Chris sent his guys back to where the pickups waited then hopped into the car beside me.

For a minute, I couldn't speak. I just looked at him - grinning at me like crazy. Eyes glittering with adrenaline and pure joy.

Finally, I said, "Bunch, I am so glad you are fucking alive, because now I can kill your ass for scaring me like that."

Chris laughed, then said, "Is there a liquor store around here?"

I sighed. Turned back to the wheel.

"Just up around the next bend," I said. "Across from the Malibu sheriff's station."



The Sunday after my thirty-third birthday, a ringing phone brought me out of the front yard - where I'd been playing with the kids - into the little Hermosa Beach cottage where we lived.

I was slave to that phone - the plight of city editors the world over. Usually it was nothing but a bored cop shop duty officer fucking with the local press, but sometimes it was a passenger jet pancaking into Santa Bay; and once, in the middle of the night, it had been the LAPD shootout with the SLA, the gang that had kidnapped Patty Hearst.

(Critics say there were more bullets fired by the cops than all the wars the U.S. has ever fought. An exaggeration, to be sure, but when my hearing deserted me a few years ago, I blamed it on that night.)

This time, however, it wasn't the cops. It was Chris. He said, "We gotta talk."

 "Okay," I said. "But you'd better not come here. And I'd better not go there."

 Chris said, "Where do you want to meet?"

 I suggested The Bay 90's - a Manhattan Beach restaurant I'd worked at years before. It was always quiet on a Sunday afternoon.

 He agreed, we set a time, and I took a shower, donned fresh clothes, and climbed into the Cherokee Jeep I was driving at the time. It was new, looked great, but proved to be a lemon. Why, oh why, hadn't I bought a nice, reliable Toyota Land Cruiser?

 If you think I'm being (a) unpatriotic, and (b) unfairly maligning the Cherokee, you should know that the model year I owned had a tendency to flip itself into permanent 4-Wheel Drive. The only way to make it quit - and this I learned after many calls to many Jeep mechanics - was to find the little Alan Wrench taped to the bottom of the glove compartment. In the back of said glove compartment was a small, deep hole. You poked the Alan Wrench into that hole and turned it. Then you put the Cherokee into reverse and backed up in an S pattern until the 4-Wheel drive let go. This never worked the first try.

Anyway, I got into the Cherokee - prayed to the Gods of 4-Wheel Drive - and made it without incident to the Bay 90's.

 If you are wondering why Chris and I had to meet on neutral ground, it was because a couple of weeks before we'd had big damned fight. Actually, his first wife and my first wife got into a dispute and we - damned fool males that we were - stuck our noses into it.

In short, until Chris called we hadn't been on speaking terms.

 Once in the restaurant I stopped to stick my head into the kitchen and say hello to Angelo - the Mexican chef who had broken me into the restaurant game years before. (His recipe for Angelo Stew - the ultimate hangover cure - is the dish the Eternal Emperor cooks for Sten in The Court Of A Thousand Suns)

I was early, so Chris wasn't there yet. There was just me, the bartender, Skip, and a barfly in the corner nearest the back exit. Don't get the wrong idea - the Bay 90's was a nice place, so the barfly was of the inoffensive, aerospace stalled middle-management variety. In short, a guy who had reason to drink, but wore a nice jacket and tie to do the business.

I got a Scotch, exchanged pleasantries with Skip, and a few minutes later Chris came in. He stuck a haunch on the bar stool beside me. Our hellos were strained, so we had a couple of hits off our drinks before we started.

Then Chris said, "I'm sorry for my 51 percent."

I said, "And I'm sorry for my 51 percent."

We shook hands. Drained our drinks, ordered more and swore that in the future we'd let women work things out themselves without our (unwelcome) interference.

And that was the end of it.

Skip came over with our drinks. I introduced him to Chris and then Skip chuckled and said, "You know, when I saw you, the first thing I remembered was that night you fell off the stairs."

I laughed and when Chris displayed a puzzled grin, Skip explained. He indicated a short stairway that led up to the restaurant's second level, which looked out over the scene below. It was mainly for cocktails and big groups of diners. On weekend nights there was a Honky-tonk piano player to regale the crowd.

Skip said, "One night Al, here, started down those stairs with a big damned tray of dishes and glasses. He was carrying it waiter style - over his head and one-handed."

Chris nodded. He got the picture.

Skip said, "I just happened to be looking that way at the time. And Al caught his heel, or something, and fell down that whole flight of stairs. Tray and all."

Skip broke off to laugh at the memory. Me joining in and Chris getting a chuckle too.

Then Skip said - "But, you know what?"

Chris shook his head. He didn't.

"I'll tell you," Skip said. "It was the damndest thing. Old Al, here, landed at the bottom of the stairs on his back. Tray still held over his head with one hand. And he didn't break one dish, or spill one drop. And we all just stared a minute, then, I turned and rang this bell."

Skip demonstrated, turning and banging the old fire bell that hung over the bar.

"The whole place stood up and applauded," Skip said.

Chris got a laugh at that. "Cole always was fast on his feet," he said.

Skip said, "In this case, it wasn't Feet he was fast on. It was All Ass - all the way down the stairs."

We had another good laugh over that, finished our drinks, and got two more. Then Skip asked if I could hold the fort a second. He had to get more ice.

"If you need me for anything," he said, "just reach over the bar and smack the bell."

I said no problem, and he took off, leaving us and the barfly alone.

After a minute, Chris observed, "You turned thirty three last week."

I said I had.

Chris said, "I'll be catching up with you in a few weeks."

I agreed this was so. My birthday was November 19. His was December 22.

Chris said, "You know, when we first met we both swore we were going to write books some day. Hell, whenever we get together, what we mostly talk about is the books we're going to write one of these days. And now, we're thirty three fucking years old and 'One Of These Days' still hasn't come around."

I agreed and said, "It's been bugging me, too. I like being a newsman. Hell, I love being a newsman. But, the only reason I got into the newspaper business is because that's how Hemingway started. Stupidly, I figured I'd do the same."

Chris said, "Same with me. Although, I'm not straight press like you, I enjoy the shit out of what I'm doing. And I get paid for writing magazine stuff and so maybe that's why I've been delaying getting down to the serious shit."

"You know we both take a stab at it every once in awhile," I pointed out. "But you get tired after slinging words around all day. Too tired to come home and start in again on something you only have hopes of getting paid for."

"There it is," Chris said.

A long silence. Then, I said, "I'm going to have to shit or get off the pot pretty soon. I've been getting hits from some big papers. A buddy at the Philadelphia Inquirer has been after me to come on over. Says they're winning Pulitzers right and left there. The thing is, if I'm going to stay in newspapers, it's time to make that kind of move. If not…"

I let the rest trail off.

Chris said, "I was thinking - maybe we could team up."

I looked at him - interested.

Chris said, "You know, if it was the two of us - getting together after work every day - then you could guilt-trip me if I tried to sluff off. And I could guilt-trip you right back for the same reason."

I thought about it and could see nothing wrong with the notion. I'd known Chris since high school. And, except for rare instances, we got along famously. Knew how each other thought. Mostly shared a common view of life. And most important of all - we were both superior writers. Hell, we were World Class Writers, were we not? And we both knew it and if we didn't do something pretty soon, we'd regret it the rest of our lives.

I said, "It's a deal."

Chris said, "We split everything fifty percent. Right?"

I said, "Right."

And Chris said, "If we get into an argument about the writing, whoever feels the strongest about it gets a 51 percent vote. No questions asked. Right?"

"Right," I said.

"When do you want to start?" Chris said.

"How about tomorrow?" I said.

"Deal," Chris said, sticking out a hand.

We shook. Clinked glasses. And polished off our drinks.

I knew we'd need another to really seal the deal.

So, I leaned over the bar and gave that fire bell a whack.


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