These are the warriors, peacemakers and wild cards that trudge onward in the Long Vietnam of My Soul.
Basilio Boullosa, volunteer and grunt, born in Baltimore, 1959. Divorced father of a young daughter. An artist who works in oils and makes his living painting pictures of crabs and fish on the side of seafood trucks.
“He tells me that my dress reminds him of the sunflowers his grandmother used to grow in her backyard until the summer she passed away "right there," and he points through the window . . .”
Grandpop, decorated veteran, born in Galicia, Spain in 1904. Widower. Arrived in Baltimore during the Roaring ‘20s as a merchant seaman. Jumped ship and stayed. Retired Bethlehem Steel shipyard worker, helped build a fleet of Liberty Ships that ferried cargo to the Allies. This story shadows the last months of his life.
“Grandpop shrugged his shoulders; shook his head—what do I know of painting?”
Nieves Boullosa Caldas, grenade thrower, born Galicia, Spain, 1965. Granddaughter of Grandpop’s youngest brother. Raised in the ancestral family village in the Chapela region of Galicia. Traveled to Baltimore to meet the American Boullosas, become a great painter and beat her heroin addiction.
Basilio and Grandpop waited by the rotary phone on the kitchen wall all day, waiting for Nieves to call from the airport. Instead, she left a happy cabbie at the curb outside the house, a fat tip exchanged for info on the closest corner where dope was sold, the number of his pager scrawled across her left palm.
Elisabeth (Darlene) O’Neil, burn unit nurse, born in Baltimore, 1969. Lives across the alley from Grandpop and Basilio. Unhappy wife of a rigid, domineering Catholic and the mother of two young children. Eager – almost frantic – to shed every inhibition. In the thrall of Nieves – as is Basilio – and believes it to be love.
Elisabeth’s husband banged on the kitchen door with his fist hard enough to make loose the screws in the hinges.
“Do you know where they are?”
“I wish I did,” said Basilio.
“I bet you do asshole.”
Miss Bonnie, manager, enlisted men’s club, born in Baltimore, 1929. Owner and proprietor of Miss Bonnie’s Elvis Bar, unofficial clubhouse of Basilio and his gang of artists, laborers, librarians and kindergarten teachers. Bonnie’s saloon stands at the corner of Fleet and Port streets about three miles west of Grandpop’s rowhouse on South Macon Street.
No one spoke until Miss Bonnie - deep in an easy chair at the back of the bar, savoring a voice that came to visit but not to stay - noticed Basilio and Nieves step through the door on August 16, 1989.
"Why darlin’," said Bonnie, putting down a movie magazine. "I was wondering if my boyfriend was gonna remember me on the saddest day of the year.”
David “Footlong” Franks, bugler, believed to be 50 but lies about his age. Composer of church bell and tugboat symphonies. The only man in Baltimore – as defined by neighborhoods east of President Street, south of Patterson Park, north of the harbor and west of Dundalk – to have romanced more women than Basilio.
Footlong worked with an oceanographer, dead poets such as John Keats, and those unfortunate people who called his phone by mistake. He sought the expertise of sound engineers, other poets, lovers, visual artists, at least one tug boat company, and even the drunken patrons at Miss Bonnie’s who he recorded as they fought in the alley.
Herman Hettleman, deserter, born in Baltimore, 1955. Sculptor and painter. Close friend of Basilio and habitué of Miss Bonnie’s. Loved Baltimore the way a schoolboy loves his pie only to abandon it in middle age.
I left when my dog died. Crying on the steps, 102 degrees at 10 a.m. and one more mutant – why this guy, why that moment, I don’t know cuz I seen it a million times. One more retard eating shit out of a box and dropping the trash on the sidewalk as casually as wiping his ass . . . it was leave Baltimore or kill somebody.
To read Chapters 1 to 9: