Fall 2021

Patently Falsetto

by Jerome Berglund

Testicles on an abstinent were as useless as tits on a bull, lipstick on a spinster.

“Take ‘em,” Franz had said. They were riddled with cancer anyhow. He would just have to sing castrato.

In the parlance of a few decades thereafter, he might be referred to as voluntarily celibate. But in these late eighties, he was simply a certified bachelor, resigned widower, androgynous senior citizen.

The door creaked noisily as the boy entered the dusty old saloon, and a little bell overhead issued its familiar jingle. The barkeep looked up from polishing a beer stein, squinted to make the young man out through the gloom, raised a quizzical eyebrow before returning to what he was doing.

The lad strode past the bar, as confidently as he could reasonably manage, striving to stand uprightly as possible, to puff his chest out and not telegraph the giddy anxiousness he was exuding inside, prevent its showing through anywhere, upon the surface of his aloof, cool as a cucumber demeanor. How successful he was at maintaining this ruse was another matter. 

Billy felt like some dashing young hero of the stage or screen, perhaps one of those capable sheriffs from the dime-store Westerns he so voraciously devoured, with every waking moment he could steal away or spare from his chores and schoolwork. By contrast, that would make the man he had come here to see, in the back of the tavern, the quintessential black hat in the story, fittingly. You could not find a better varmint, a more villainous ne’er-do-well rogue, across the whole of Wastings’ city limits. 

Franz was the name this particular blackguard answered to, had been christened by his Swede father in Elbow lake before the 20th century ever dawned. He was ninety-eight years young, if you can believe it, though he didn’t look a day over ninety-seven.

The boy well knew he could find the old codger hereabouts, around this time. Mondays through Fridays, so long as there was no snow on the ground, Franz could be counted upon to make the two-mile trek, on foot, to this, the only local gin-joint in Wastings’ vicinity, though he himself never imbibed there. Between one and two in the afternoon he would, however, enjoy treating himself to an ice-cold glass of milk or two, in the company of townsfolk and neighbors, whom he never exchanged more than the odd pleasantry with, yet whom he was comforted by being in proximity to. 

His departed wife of many years, had preceded him into the great thereafter, had by comparison evinced a distinct partiality for highballs brimming with potent spirits. How she had made it up that staircase every night, without stumbling over her nightgown near the top, tumbling back down to the ground floor, and in the process breaking every brittle bone in her body, had always been something of a mystery and small miracle, by his estimation, which Franz thanked their lucky stars for daily, attributed to some guardian angel watching over them. 

Overzealous pharmacists further complicated matters by prescribing a conflicting regimen of pep pills to wake her up and sleeping meds to lull her into slumber in the evenings. Suffice to say, his wife had found herself tugged hither and thither constantly, through no fault of her own, and he was convinced this had been no small contributor towards advancing the certain timetable of mortality, ushering her into that premature demise earlier than truly necessary. 

He attributed his own admirable health and longevity to a regimen of teetotalling and brisk exercise, consequently. Crosstown pilgrimages took him some time to manage, however, so that in their performance he became a conspicuously familiar figure in the public eye, ambling along with his walker so slowly and determinedly, taking very careful steps as his physicians had instructed him to, raising his feet methodically one at a time and planting each one precisely in place, ensuring it was firmly situated before he transferred any weight onto it. 

On Saturdays he remained indoors, listening to baseball games on a transistor radio. Sundays he attended church service, sang in the men’s choir, with a voice which was perhaps soft, but all agreed also undeniably angelic in its way—particularly since the operation. But this particular time, on a weekday, the boy knew where to find old Franz, and had hence sought him out, like an outlaw whose bounty he intended to collect upon. 

And so, indeed, some showdown between these two was about to occur, it seemed. The few barflies scattered throughout the establishment could sense the resultant unmistakable tension palpably, in their intuitive ways. They glanced up as the young man advanced, over hands of cards, cribbage boards, sports pages, through pitchers’ foam, with exaggeratedly flat affect, that brand of studied nonchalance which conceals considerable interest and diversion.

The boy approached the high-top table along the back wall, behind which Franz characteristically resided during his customary periods of brief residence, and paused as imposingly and dramatically as possible before addressing the man. Billy took a deep breath, fortifying himself whilst imagining what a gallant figure he must cut right about now. Then he spoke: “I come to take you down, old-timer. If you’re man enough.”

Franz was watching golf, on a fuzzy television set mounted above the wall of liqueurs. Though he undoubtedly must have seen the boy drawing near, he had not yet deigned to look directly at him, or unglue his eyes from the images flickering across the screen so imperatively. The old man blinked twice, languidly, as a tortoise might, then ever so slowly shifted his attention over towards the lad. Franz apprised him unhurriedly, looked the youth over without any great apparent interest, exhibited perhaps a hint of amusement after doing so. He eyed the boy’s hands, unmistakably: like the rest of him, they appeared decidedly wanting, was the aged gentleman’s evident assessment.

“Money talks, bullshit walks,” Franz murmured, almost to himself. His voice had a melodious quality, and an unnervingly high-pitch to it, the boy always thought. 

Regretting not having anticipated this sooner, cursing his own shabby comportment, the boy fished in his pocket and proffered a silver dollar, slapped it down upon the table. The old man eyed the Susan B. Anthony minting respectfully, its gleam reflecting light from the tube’s cathode rays, which sparkled across his milky retinas. Franz examined this coin, the only tender he would accept, which the youth had painstakingly scrimped together, comprising four weeks’ twenty-five cent allowance allotments. It represented untold dishes washed, leaves raked, leaky trash bags carted out to the receptacle and dragged down to the curb. Had he been less frugal and monomaniacal, it might have procured him perhaps three or four Hershey’s bars at the local grocer. At last, the ancient codger nodded respectfully. 

The obligatory conditions had been met, all provisos fulfilled. Now they could proceed with the wager. From beneath the table Franz lifted his right arm, placed an elbow on the surface of the tabletop, undid the cufflink and rolled his dress shirt down to expose what lay beneath… Though he endeavored to hide it, the boy’s eyes always bulged somewhat flagrantly when he glimpsed the old man’s arms for the first time, on any given day. He had seen them before, many times, but was still in awe of the things. 

These days, the only time Franz ever allowed townsfolk a glimpse at these appendages, was in performance of feats of strength, such as were about to occur today. He seemed almost embarrassed at their freakish size and proportions, thus kept them ever tucked away, behind baggy sleeves or secreted beneath tabletops and pews, as much as he could feasibly manage. From a distance, therefore, at first glance Franz looked like your average sarcopenic fogey, shriveled and emaciated, shrunken and feeble. But then out came one of those arms. 

He had the biceps of a circus strongman, a lumberjack, a blacksmith. Perhaps good genes factored into this apportionment, to a certain degree. But it was mostly the result of his establishing the first creamery in Wastings nearly a century previous, subsequently spending decades lugging around tubs of milk, squeezing udders, scooping ice cream, most prominently hefting day-in day-out—as though they were bails of hay—those hundred-pound slabs of ice which were so essential to keeping his merchandise in good condition, preventing its spoilage. That all had made him something of an extraordinary specimen, in this particular regard. He looked almost simian, though, when he went tooling down the sidewalk, hobbling across town on his walker, handled with those massive arms, even sheathed and camouflaged behind the bulkiest of clothing. And when they were truly unveiled, like a naked blade brandished in the open air, boy did it make for something altogether spectacularly rattling, particularly for a boy of this tender age. He might have quivered in his shoes, just a little. 

Franz cracked his knuckles ostentatiously, did some calisthenic exercises with his fingers to stave off the arthritis. At last he indicated he was ready. The youth climbed up onto the stool, gripped hands with the old man, and planted his elbow alongside his opponent’s on the table. He glared at the elderly muscle-man with hatred and envy, said a silent prayer, steeled himself.

“One,” Franz began the counting down, as was their ritual. His middle name was Ferdinand, which the boy would not have grasped the significance of, was indeed named after that mustachioed archduke of Austria, whose assassination catalyzed the first world war. 

“Two,” the boy picked it up, a few drops of fear sweat beginning to glisten across his forehead. 

Three!” they said together. The young boy’s arm hit the table with a thunderous clatter, rattling his teeth and bruising his knuckles. Franz lost his grip, releasing the young man’s tender digits from a vice-like grasp. The boy withdrew his hand instinctively, as though from the jaws of a lion. He rubbed it gently, scowling up at his elder with eyes of daggers. It was vain to argue any shenanigan had been perpetrated, elbow locked or joints braced. Billy had objectively succumbed, lost the match fair and square, been bested once again by this damnable old coot who didn’t seem to care in the slightest one way or the other. It was indescribably galling.  

“This isn’t over…” the boy vowed fiercely, through clenched teeth. “You haven’t heard the last of me!” As the words were leaving his mouth, the youth became dimly cognizant, aware that Franz could not actually hear a word he said; the aid the elderly man’s daughter had paid an arm and a leg for, molded precisely to his ear canal’s specifications, helped none whatsoever with this. Consequently, the old duff had taught himself to read lips, though. 

“You know where to find me,” Franz muttered matter-of-factly, staring past the boy into the distance, Zen-like. Pretending to glance over his shoulder as he wiped a few errant tears welling up from his eyes, chubby little hands balled into fists, the boy went tearing out of there in a huff, amidst a scattering of hoots and the jeers and catcalls, from the few regulars in evidence. 

They were familiar with this time-honored spectacle. He and Franz had tussled many times, apparently; so often that by now their skirmishes were beginning to assume an almost rehearsed, scripted quality to them, reminiscent of gladiator duels, or their more contemporary cousin Greco-Roman wrestling. Pegging the face and heel, which among them was the David and who represented the Goliath, however, was a subject of some debate. Individual determinations and leanings were invariably correlated to the evaluator’s age, generation, and social status.  The lad was also his great-grandson, incidentally, but neither was so impolitic as to ever mention it. Franz reached out a gnarled, trembling hand, and slowly scooped the silver dollar off the table. He slid the coin into a trouser pocket, then took a long gulp of milk thirstily. Finally, his swollen arm vanished beneath the table again, and Franz turned back to the muted golf game on the television above the bar with a thoughtful expression.

Jerome Berglund graduated from the cinema-television production program at the University of Southern California. He worked in film and TV for many years in California, and currently resides in Minnesota.  He has had poems published twice in Abstract Magazine, and a play he wrote will be printed in the Spring edition of Assure Press’ Iris Literary Journal.  His fine art photography is currently on display at the Pause Gallery in New York.

Fall 2021