The first time Slick Taylor told me I’d been sent to him by God, I should have known enough to bolt. But instead, seated with a musician who was legendary for all the wrong reasons, plus his abrasive manager, in an only-in-LA-setting, a Westside Mexican restaurant helmed by a French chef and catering to an upscale, almost entirely gringo crowd, I continued to speak — or should I say pontificate — about what could, or should, be done to rehabilitate a shattered image and thereby increase the ability to bring in revenue. Continue reading
It had been a torrential night. The drinking had gotten out of hand to where our buzzes were delightful and we talked over nonsensical matters with luster and humor. But there was that chemistry of ours, the one that changed when we drank together. And it spun out of control that night.
Gale found a button to push, and exploited it. I argued over it with flaring pride. She egged me on, needling me – even physically with her fingernail – until we burst and our fight was intense, though never loud. And she persisted like no other woman I’d ever known; she knew how to lead me to the gaping trap where I would fall into the hole in the ground and sting with assaulted pride. She knew me well. Then I grabbed her forearm and held it tightly. I could feel my fingers pressing so that the bruises would come in a days. She grabbed my hair but it was too short, so then my ear. Suddenly I released her, realizing my foolishness. But she kept her hold on me until I raised my forearm like a karate block and moved away with headiness that said you are a man and dangerous now. Continue reading
Martin Rollins thought he had performed well as the opening act for Nickel Creek, but a local journalist cut him to shreds in a review the next day. He called his music notable for technical proficiency but for nothing else. “No tone, no dynamic, no melodic qualities,” he had written, “just a lot of speedy runs and dexterous strumming, which grows dull after five minutes. Thank God Rollins was only opening the show and was not the feature performer”—that despite the fact that the audience had liked him, Nickel Creek had lavishly praised him afterwards and wanted to check their concert itinerary to see if he could open for them again. But when he got an email from Talia Metzger, it erased all the consternation from his mind. He read it over and over, unable to believe what he saw on the small screen of his iPhone.
“Martin, this in Talia. Remember me? Just kidding. I wonder if we can see each other. I’m in town for a friend’s wedding. Repost. I’d love to see you.”
Sitting at an outdoor table at Starbucks, feeling the cool breezes blow on him, he quickly replied.
“Talia! How could I forget you? Let me know where we can get together. Martin.”
The reply came instantaneously.
“How about Wealthy Bakery at 3:00? By the way, I thought that guy who did the review in The Press was a real asshole.”
He texted a reply: “So did I. 3:00 at WB is good. I’ll see you there.”
She wrote back: “OK.”
He sat back in the wrought iron chair. Noticing his coffee, he took a sip. He had not seen Talia Metzger in ten years. They had dated and been lovers in high school. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever known. Their physical relationship was at once the oddest and the sweetest he had ever experienced. Talia was deaf.
His thoughts went back. They had sat next to each other in chemistry class and were lab partners. Despite her disability, her parents had mainstreamed her in regular school. She did well as a student. She was beautiful and accomplished. And she had taken a fancy to him.
Her mother was Israeli, her father American. Martin had been on the tennis team with her brother. She had a grown sister who lived in Tel Aviv and worked for the Israeli government.
He finished his coffee. He had a performance scheduled tonight and had to practice. He went back to his motel room, got out his guitar, and began to play. He had a lot of trouble concentrating on the pieces he needed to work on as memories of the two years they had been together flooded his mind.
At first their communications were smiles and looks. He was uncomfortable around because he did not know how to relate to her because she could not hear him. He did not want to be condescending, wanted to treat her as he would treat anyone else, but she was not like anyone else he had met. She could speak, but her speech was imperfect because she could not hear what she was saying. She did not talk a lot to him, he noticed, even when they were working on an experiment in class as lab partners. Gesture and facial expressions conveyed what she wanted to say to him (though he noticed she talked quite a bit to the instructor and the other students). The two of them developed a whole vocabulary of non-verbal markers. Occasionally she scribbled notes, but mostly they used their bodies to talk rather than using their voices.
Sometimes he reflected on a quote he had heard—he thought it might have been Isaac Stern who said it. “It’s not the black notes on the page that are the most important thing. It’s the white space in between them.” This was usually interpreted to mean timing is everything in music performance, and this was probably what the author of the statement meant. But for Martin, the quote underscored the recognition of silence as important—in music and communication, and particularly in the way he spoke with Talia. They spoke with silence, at least with silence of words. Their sharing, like the white spaces in music, created a beauty more than the precision of sound could ever manufacture.
Her parents were not enthused about their friendship. Martin came from a religiously mixed home. His father was a non-practicing Jew. His mother was a communicant of the Orthodox Church. To eliminate the chance of religious conflict, they had kept a religiously neutral home. He smiled to remember how they celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah—his family would be festive for a whole month. He went to his mother’s church on Orthodox Easter (a week later than Protestant and Catholics celebrated it) and occasionally went to synagogue on Holy Days. Religion did not become an issue in their home until his older brother and younger sister opted for Judaism and became regular worshippers and Sabbath-keepers.
This bothered his mother, who said she did not want him going to synagogue anymore and exerted low-level pressure on him to be baptized Orthodox. He responded by refusing to attend services at either house of worship. Word of his lack of faith got back to Talia’s parents through his brother and sister, who attended their synagogue.
The first time she invited him over he sensed her parents’ iciness. He watched Talia as she and her mother and father spoke in sign language and realized they were in a heated argument over him. Her folks realized after a while that he could read their daughter’s expressions, backed off, and were cordial. At school the next day her face told him she was mortified and afraid he might close up to her. He assured her—non-verbally—that this would not be. She passed him a note. “Come to my place tonight. OK?” He nodded to tell her he would.
That was the night he first made love to her.
He turned his concentration to his guitar and used all his self-discipline to think only of his music. After a fruitful practice, he checked the time, showered, and changed clothes. He got in his car and headed for Wealthy Bakery, a bakery and coffee bar. It had not been open when the two of them were in high school.
He had come to her house that night so many years ago with a bouquet of flowers for her—and partially as a peace offering to her parents, whom he thought might apologize to him for their behavior yesterday. They were not there. She met him at the door. She had on a white long-sleeved blouse and shorts. Her eyes widened with pleasure when he gave her the flowers. She laid them on the table and threw her arms around him. He felt her strength, warmth, and softness and hazarded a kiss. She did not push him away but responded. She led him over to the sofa. They sat down and made out.
Talia Metzger won the prize of the most beautiful woman he had ever known. Tall and lithe, she combined the strength of an athlete (she ran track) and the gentle shape of a beautiful seventeen year-old. He had seen her run and had marveled at her body—the very way her body was put together and moved suggested grace. She could not hear the starting gun but could feel its vibration. Martin would marvel as she sprinted off the starting line with the grace of a gazelle and the ferocity of a jaguar. She excelled as one of the school’s top women runners. When she wore miniskirts or shorts to class he had trouble keeping his eyes off her legs. As they kissed, she touched him gently. It was then that he first realized the dynamic of silence in their relationship.
He turned into the Wealthy Bakery parking lot. He had realized back then she was not merely touching him but expressing herself—her touch told him her passion, her emotion, the outpouring of love she felt him. He also realized how much sound and speech went into passion. Talia gasped as they kissed, but no words, no sound, no groans or languid noises that expressed arousal, came from her throat. Her expressions of these things came from her fingers, her lips, her tongue, and her cheeks as she rubbed them against his.
His hands went to her breasts—too quickly, he thought. He took them away but she took his wrists and guided them back. He unbuttoned two buttons on her blouse then stopped, again thinking he was going too quickly. She reached down, unbuttoned the rest of them, and pulled her tucked-in shirt out of her shorts. He reached back and unhooked her bra. She had the loveliest breasts he had ever looked on or touched. Pear-shaped, not large but not small, delicate but full (like the rest of her body), sweet, exquisite melons with small, pale nipples, they compelled his touch. He caressed and squeezed them. The feel of her hands on him grew more intense. She did not nod but he could read her large brown eyes. They stood. She cocked her head toward the stairs.
Martin had started early with women. Sometimes he wondered if he really had got laid by a randy older cousin at age fifteen (she was eighteen). He had never lacked since then. Talia was a virgin. He remembered her shedding the shorts, dark blue panties, unbuttoning the long sleeves of her cotton blouse and throwing that and her unhooked orange bra to the floor. He marveled at how her slender thighs joined her upper body and her pubic mound rose from her opening and curved through a light tuft of hair to her flat stomach. She told him by her gaze that she was a virgin and he made sure he was gentle with her. She gasped when he pushed into her and bled a little, but he felt her quickly leave her pain and respond to him. The peculiar beauty of loving her was birthed.
As with kissing—much more than with kissing—sex was verbal. He had not thought about this much before his first time with Talia. You talked in the lead-up. The woman said yes. You commented all the way through. How many discourses had he heard in bed (or elsewhere) locked together with the different women he had loved? O my God, O that feels good, Slowly, slowly, Let it go—and the groans, squeals, the articulations of pleasure? When his lovers got their joy, they shouted and moaned. When an orgasm came, God and Jesus were frequently evoked. One girl he slept with would yell, Sweetness! A Muslim girl from India had shouted, Name of the Prophet! And women cooed, murmured and spoke softly in the afterglow.
Talia, of course, could not speak. This in itself would make loving her unique enough. What pierced him to the core, however, was the way she did the same things other women did but did it without voice.
She touched him. She rubbed her face against him and licked his neck and chin. She raised and lowered her body, not just in the way women did to maximize pleasure, but to speak, to respond, to communicate her ecstasy. It startled him that he could understand what she said without words, with the word of her body and the vocabulary of her movements.
Her orgasm came silently—at least as far as words went. She stiffened, of course, arched and shook as the spasm ran through her. No shout or declaration came, but her expression vividly enunciated the joy that tore through her. She seized two handfuls of flesh on his back and held them, then sank down when the surge of pleasure had passed through her and ended.
When this happened, it startled Martin so much he stopped for a moment but then went on, holding her tightly, thrusting deep and hard, finally coming to his own pleasure. She would not hear him shout, he thought, though she might feel the vibration of his voice. But she would feel his body. She would read and understand all that his physical frame said in a way no one else could—the language of the body, the language she primarily knew.
He locked his car and went inside. He saw her at the table, reading a book, looking lovelier in her maturity than she had looked at seventeen and eighteen, the years the two of them had dated.
She stood when she saw him. He gazed just a moment. Talia had lost the youthful, girlish lines but retained the graceful strength he remembered. Her eyes shone with love, her face radiating not just emotion but the silence that spoke to him and that he realized, with a surge of poignancy, he could still understand.
He put his arms around her. Recollection flooded his heart as he felt her strength, her softness, the communicating energy flowing out of her. Since they were in a public place neither wanted to make a show of affection. They pulled apart. She leaned forward and gave him a sisterly kiss on the lips. He sat down and took her hands. She pushed a yellow pad of paper toward him. In her even handwriting he saw, “So happy” and a heart drawn next to it.
The natural thing would be to talk, but Martin did not return her written greeting. He squeezed her hands. At least for a while, he thought, it would be like it was before. They would speak with silences and with their surfaces and motions of their bodies.
Talia understood. They went over and ordered drinks. She did talk to the barista. Martin noted how much her speech had improved since they were together. She spoke as articulately as anyone who could hear. A tiny bit of slurring punctuated a word now and then, but he doubted the clerk suspected Talia might be deaf. When the barista asked her if she wanted room for cream in her coffee, she could read his lips enough to tell him no. Back at their table, they drank and shared, though neither of them spoke.
Through his travels as a musician, he had occasionally heard about Talia. Magazines ran articles on her. She had a webpage and was on Facebook. She went to Brandeis and then earned a business degree at the London School of Economics. While there she began dating a Brit she married two years after graduating. They had two children. Talia ran a small investment firm and managed a chain of charter schools in Indiana and Ohio. She was active in organizations that provided support and education for deaf children and their families in the United States, Canada, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. More than once he had seen profiles in magazines by journalists presenting her in the incessantly attractive role of a woman who had overcome a handicap and succeeded admirably. Besides that, she was pretty (he noted how good she looked in the short blue dress she had on). He rejoiced at how well she had done. Such journalistic affirmations annoyed him because they focused on what she lacked and how she had not allowed this to hinder her. He had known what she did have—on how her lack of hearing had birthed in her an ability that, when he entered it, seemed nothing short of miraculous. It was the ability to communicate and to express herself without words. No one knew of it because they did not assume it even existed. Now he was entering it once again.
As they drank, the melding of their spirits took place once more. In high school he had tried to explain to a buddy of his how they communicated. “Oh, the Vulcan mind meld, like Mr. Spock does on Star Trek,” his friend had quipped. Martin dropped him as a friend. When he and Talia had been dating a year, her father had said one evening at their home when Talia went inside to change to a bathing suit (they had a pool), “Do you enjoying fucking my youngest child, Mr. Rollins?” Martin reacted with appropriate shock. Talia’s father laughed. “Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to beat you up or cut off your balls. In fact, I’m glad she started out with someone who is considerate and seems to be a gentleman. I do wish, though, you were a little bit more like David or like Leah.”
David and Leah were his brother and sister. Martin felt she should answer.
“If we’re being frank,” he said, “yes, sir, I do like fucking her. I like it a lot. I am a blessed man. I may become more like my sister, but David seems to be transforming to a fanatic.”
“Can I tell him you said that?”
“I’ve told him as much myself.”
“I admire him for his zeal.”
That was the only time they discussed the matter. Talia returned with her mother at that moment, both of them decked out in next-to-nothing bikinis, her mother looking very good even with her forty-eight years and three children. Martin, Talia and her father and mother swam, ate by the poolside, and talked cordially until past midnight.
As Martin sat in Wealthy Bakery, he sensed the difference in her now that she was a married woman and had children. The energy she exuded felt different. It was not singular. He experienced it now as a mixture, more complex and mysterious, like blended wine, with nuances he had not known in her before. He knew, too, as they sat close and held hands, she was pleased at the progress of his career as a musician. For an hour, as people came and went, as the baristas prepared drinks and people bought coffee and talked, the two of them remembered. They understood. Finally, she stroked his wrist in a way that said she had to go. He nodded and kissed her. She pressed a small envelope in his hand. When she had gone out the door he opened the letter that looked like a thank you card you get from giving a gift at a wedding or graduation.
“I’m staying at City Flats Hotel. If you come at eleven tonight after your concert, it will be okay. We can be together again. Love, Talia.”
Martin folded the note and placed it in his pocket.
Their senior year, their relationship began to waver. It was not family pressure and not the question of Martin’s religious commitments. It was something he had never imagined, when they first met, would cause trouble and ultimately split them apart. A simple condition undid them: Talia could not hear his music.
The realization that this was a problem came gradually. It came silently as well, as all their understandings of one another did. Martin had begun to play guitar at age eleven. He never particularly enjoyed classical style but continued taking lessons until he was in high school. His sophomore year, he discovered fingerstyle guitar: guitar playing that used classical technique on a steel-string folk guitar. He listened to John Fahey, Chris Proctor, Pat Donahue, and a host of other artists who played that style. He began to learn it himself. In a year he had mastered open tunings and the fast techniques of the artists he admired. Martin found himself in demand at receptions and outdoor weddings. He played supper clubs and coffee bars that wanted ambiance music. He did blues and played venues that promoted music in that style. As he played and practiced, as his skill developed to a high level, he entertained thoughts of trying to make it as a professional musician.
Talia, of course, could not hear what he played.
She was puzzled at what to do about this. He knew there were ways the deaf enjoyed music—people stood and signed the lyrics to songs while colored lights represented the cadence and harmonies of a composition. Talia did not seem interested in this. Genuine to herself, she simply excluded music from her life and found beauty in areas of art she could see or touch. As the conviction that he would pursue a career as a guitarist grew stronger, he felt the strain of it on their relationship. It was, simply, an area they could not share. That they could not share it raised debate and the necessity of Talia talking to him or typing out messages as they attempted to reconcile the issue. They failed to reconcile and ended up splitting. One day they both simply understood it would not work. They agreed on this, their silent mode of understanding one another coming into play again. They made love one last time in her room when her family had gone away. She nodded good-bye to him. He kissed her on the forehead and drove away into the night.
A few days later he was sitting in the Kava House in East Town when Talia’s father burst in. Martin thought for a moment he meant to start a fight because he had seduced and then dumped his daughter, but he sat down, a worried look on his face, and said he wanted to talk. His manner and tone of voice were conciliatory. He said Talia had told them they had split. She was heartbroken.
“I hope,” he said, brushing his hair back with one hand, “it was not something I said or Tzipora said. I know I might have been a little hard on you at times, but we both like you, Martin, and we were very disappointed that you and Talia broke up.”
For the sake of their parents, he and Talia had dinner at her home with them. Martin remembered how difficult it was and how being with Talia again only confirmed it was over. She went to Brandeis; he went on the road to establish himself as a musician. He reflected upon it as one of those things in life that wrench your soul but you have to endure. Now she wanted to see him again.
He felt waves of deep emotion but had a show that night. He again summoned his discipline to get ready. Starting out as a musician had been tough and lean. Now he had a reputation as one of the top guitarists in fingerstyle, attracted good crowds for concerts, and had solid sales of his CDs and teaching tapes.
And the performance went well. The auditorium sold out. He did his standard numbers, some vocals, and some new compositions. It was hard to get Talia off his mind, but he drew on the ability he had developed over the years to blot out distractions and let the music take him. He felt the adulation of the audience and felt the creative flow that must be released for a successful performance. At the end, he did two encores, talked with fans, signed CDs, and then drove downtown to City Flats. He found a parking place on Ionia Street and walked to the hotel. She had left word for the people at the front desk to admit him. He rode the elevator up to the fourth floor and knocked. The door opened immediately. He knew she had not heard his knocking but knew the time and knew his habit of punctuality (“Musicians are always on time,” he had often quipped to her). He came inside. She closed the door and threw her arms around him. She had on a light blue robe.
He had not kissed her with a lover’s kiss in ten years. The innocent eagerness of her lips took him back. Nothing had changed—their bodies, yes, were older, but that was not a limiting factor. She kissed him with hunger and abandon. The silence (he did her faint gasping) made him exclaim his—exclaim it with speech that did not use verbal utterance.
Talia pulled him into a luxurious bedroom filled with a plush bed, the curtains closed tight. He undid the rope of her kimono-style robe, pulled it off her shoulders, and let it fall to the floor. Once more he saw her beauty of her body, still trim from athletics (he had read that she still ran and played sports). Once more he marveled at how she was put together—how her body fit, how graceful and complimentary were the proportions of her physical frame. He saw her beautiful breasts, the strong shoulders and flat stomach, powerful thighs and graceful intimate parts, the long legs. Apportioned like a statue of Artemis or Daphne, her physical frame communicated strength, elegance, and femininity. He felt her arms, her breasts against him, her hands quick and adroit to remove his clothing.
No words—like where the Bible said heaven heavens declared the glory of God but without speech or language. Once again, he heard the utterances of her body, the elocution of her touch, her nakedness the tone of what she said, her touch the sentences and phrases. After so many years, he knew the magic, the miracle of it once again.
They sank into the bed. Their lovemaking was quiet and full, enveloping them in its rapture, in the work of grace only the two of them knew. He gripped her and felt the writhing, smelled the scents, knew the little movements, the touch of fingers and of her face that spoke.
She was a married now. He was violating the seventh commandment. He knew, though—she told him—her husband loved her but did not understand her. She loved him but he could not reach one spot in her heart. It sat like an empty room, sending tiny impulses of discord into her soul. Only he could fill that empty space. Only the love he offered to her could complete and make her spirit whole. She told him this. She told him with her body.
When they were finished they lay side by side—silence, but no silence as their selves interchanged, as the sorcery of their relationship worked its spell.
Martin realized something else. She understood his music now. Though she could not hear, she knew it. Before she had not known it, and this was the thing that had split them up.
She ran her left hand over his shoulders to say “Yes” to the thought that had just passed through his mind. In their high school days, when they became lovers, when they fell in love and established their bond, he had just begun his endeavor to make it as a musician. He had only played as a performer for a year or so. The passion for music had not yet taken full root in him and he had not at that point fully committed himself to becoming an artist who lived by his music. She could feel and sense it now. It possessed him to the degree that she could know it. The thing that had pulled them apart no longer existed. They could be together again. No barriers interdicted their love.
All the same, he knew it would be a liaison, an affair. He would see her now and then. She would be able to get his performance schedule from his website. She would notify him when they could rendezvous. She could not sacrifice her marriage, her career, or her reputation for him. He could not interrupt his career for the emotional turmoil that marrying her would bring. It would be a different sort of beauty, and all the more so for its secrecy.
They lay in bed together, arms around each other, speaking with silence, their words more sure than any he had known before.
In this heat little was possible. I sat on my couch with all the windows and doors open so that the houseflies could do as they pleased. They wandered here and there. My skin was sticky, even after I went and rinsed off at the sink. Here at the beach this heat was unfathomable, though every year in August or September it returned, that humidity, the stale hovering oven heat that told us by the beach that we weren’t special like we assumed. It would come from God knows where, then crawl all the way to the coast, hardly a breeze, with me on the couch breathing like I’d just walked up a steep hill.
It would be better at dusk. I looked out my screen door again to check on the level of the sun. It worked its way down in an arrogant fashion, like a guy who had what you wanted and made you wait on purpose. It was like that – the heat – and I wanted so badly for it to be over. But evening would bring us happiness. We would fill it with a good meal, with drinks, with relaxation through light conversation and laughter. It would be a fine night.
Footsteps stomped up the stairs, and suddenly as if she’d leaped the last three steps Gale was at the warped screen door, pulling it open in a huff.
“Hank! You’ve got to come help.”
“For what?” I said.
“A boy. He’s passed out.”
“In the alley. Over by the trash cans,” she said and thumped down the stairs.
I knew it was serious because Gale hadn’t waited for a response. I slipped barefoot into my tennis shoes and instantly was regretful. I could already feel the hot moistness between my toes. I stumbled down the stairs, holding the dirty railing as I went, and it made me think of the gook on a car’s engine. The low sun was directly in my eyes, blocking my way. I managed down the steps without bothering my knees, and hurried to the alley.
“Hank!” she called after me.
When I got to them there was a boy, maybe twelve, lying on his side near a row of trashcans. His face was wet with sweat, his mid-length hair stuck to his face.
“Is he breathing?” I said.
“Yes, I checked.” Gale was kneeling at his side. She looked up at me for guidance. I shrugged for response. Then she got frenzied. “Well, c’mon Hank! What do we do?”
She stood up and we switched positions, me kneeling so that my joints popped and it was a mixture of relief and fear of the unknown. There were Gale’s eyes, searching, waiting. Then I realized. It was up to me. Gale was a sharp person, better than most I knew, but she looked to me in times of danger. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because I was a man. Maybe it was because we were a team. I’d never thought to ask.
“Give us some space,” I said warily, touching the boy’s shoulder and turning him to me.
“Careful, his neck might be injured,” she said.
I gave her an annoyed look because she shouldn’t have thrown me in the driver’s seat if she still wanted to drive. It frazzled me and I lost my place.
“I’m being careful,” I said sternly. I let go of the boy’s shoulder and leaned in closer. “He’s breathing.”
“I know, I already checked.”
My hand felt his forehead. He was hot as hell. That was when I turned and looked up to the sky, as though in question. We were all sweating. My shirt was a peel on my torso, and when I turned it caught, so I twisted my body until it gave with a slither.
“Get on the phone. Call 9-1-1,” I said instinctively. “Wait. His eyes are open.”
“I’ll go,” Gale said as she went.
The boy moaned. Then from far down the alley there was the sound of youthful voices. I looked up and there were four boys running toward us shouting, “Dane! Dane!”
“Son, are you okay?” I said to the boy.
“Me?” he said curiously.
Now the noise of the boys’ shouting was booming, low and high voices shrieking. Suddenly, they were upon us, the boys panting and huffing with their hands on their knees.
“Is he okay?” one boy said to me.
“Is he?” another said.
“I’m not sure,” I said. They looked at me curiously, as though I were a fraud. Then I put some gusto into my voice, “He needs a doctor. My gal is on the phone calling 9-1-1. Is this your friend?”
“That’s Dane,” a third boy said.
“This happened to him once after a soccer game,” the final boy said, and his tone seemed to imply that he was desperate to be heard, not so much by me, but the other boys. “I saw it happen. But he was okay. He just got exhausted because he was so hot.” He looked at the other boys with growing confidence. “He was overheated.”
“Makes sense,” I said. Then I looked upstairs, listening for the sound of Gale. I heard nothing so I shouted, “Gale! Bring some water for the kid to drink!”
“Okay!” she answered.
Dane turned on his back and stared up at us, his eyeballs moving, though his head stayed still. And then, strangely, as if a switch had flipped, his face changed with the slightest narrowing of his eyes. His cheekbones rose so that his mouth became a smile. The boys exhaled as though Dane had pulled one over on them. They guffawed, “Dang, Dane!” and shuffled around the perimeter, returning to conversation about the game they had been playing.
“What were you kids doing outside in the heat anyhow?” I asked.
“We were playing a game. We were chasing him,” the kid who liked to talk said. “Dane’s out of bounds.” And then accusingly to Dane, “You lose.”
“Forget your damn game!” I shouted, and they snickered and looked at each other.
Gale came with the water and I sat Dane up to let him drink. He sipped tentatively at first, and then realizing it was fine, began gulping the water. When he was finished I took the glass and handed it back to Gale. The talkative boy stepped forward to inspect his friend’s condition. Dane cocked his head back and scowled at the intrusion so that the boy flinched and backed away.
“You call 9-1-1?” I said to Gale.
“They should be on their way,” she said, and then with familiarity, “You know how they are.”
I nodded then looked Dane over again.
“How do you feel?” I said.
“Okay,” Dane said.
“He’s okay,” a boy said.
I jerked my face to the four of them. I said, “This isn’t normal when a person passes out. You get that?”
They nodded silently, some shrugging.
“I wasn’t passed out,” Dane said.
“What do you mean?” I said, and then to Gale, “I thought you said he was passed out!” And then back to Dane, “You were awake the whole time?”
“I had to stop and rest.”
“Because I was tired.”
I looked at the boys and they were quiet, awaiting my response. I exhaled a heavy puff of air.
“Mister, he don’t need to go to the hospital,” a kid said. “If you want, we can take him home.”
“C’mon, Dane,” another said, “Let’s go to your house.”
“There’s Gatorade at my house,” a third boy said, and the fourth’s eyes widened with temptation.
I looked to Gale just as she had looked to me before. There was that silent exchange. I thought she might cry. What the hell was eating her?
“Stupid cops. They’ve got no business taking their candy ass time,” I said and the boys snickered again.
I got Dane to his feet and he seemed fine. Kids were a miracle. I was envious at their youthfulness. I was envious of many things that they wouldn’t understand until much later.
“Brush it off,” a kid said like they were in a baseball game.
“Yeah, Dane. You’re all right.”
“Enough with the cheerleader crap,” I said to the lot of them. “Give Dane room to walk. Now you get him on one side and you get him on the other, and you boys make sure he can walk. If he gets shaky you grab his arms and hold him up.”
I gave a last look up the alley. Then Gale walked to the street. We all waited for her to get there. She looked up and down then shook her head at me.
“Okay, now be careful. You’re sure you weren’t unconscious at all?”
“No. I was just catching my breath,” Dane said with assurance. He brushed himself off and led his pals toward the street. As they walked he said suddenly, “And I’m not out of bounds!” bursting to a sprint.
They chased after him, cackling, and were gone in an instant. Gale looked at me and shrugged. I put up my hands and did the same. She walked sideways with her eyes still hovering where they had turned and gone. So I moved toward her until we met halfway.
“I thought he’d passed out,” Gale said somewhat apologetically, walking to the spot near the trashcans where she had found Dane. She inspected it thoroughly, as though there might be some explanation waiting to be found.
“It’s kids messing around,” I said to her. “I’m sure we were the same way.”
Gale lingered there for a spell, the worry on her face eventually calming to neutrality. She came back to me and we stood face to face in the alley. A long silence passed, that mute conversation flowing through us like a short wave. And then she said, “Maybe the police are busy with the heat.”
“Hell, I’d damn near forgotten about the heat,” I said and chuckled, feeling the texture of my wilted collar.
“Such a scorcher,” Gale said and her eyes rose to the sky where an orange flame was now burning and beautiful.
I looked to the place where the kids had turned and gone out of sight. Gale followed suit, then gave a distinct sigh. We were quiet again, and this time the muted communication between us was awkward. I knew she was thinking about children.
“You think it’ll be as hot tomorrow?” I said, at a loss. Whenever we got on the subject of kids, and the fact that she couldn’t have them, I got awkward with nothing to say.
“That’s a dumb question,” she said dismissively.
When she turned to me, her eyes were listless, and I could feel her mind light years away from mine. There would be no meshing this time, so I nodded and put my hands in my pockets.
Gale made her way toward the stairs like time was of no importance. I stayed put, watching as she made her way up them.
I looked again to where the kids had disappeared, and then to the place in the alley where Dane had lain in exhaustion. I was irritated. Those kids had derailed my night.
One at a time the server at the Hookah Lounge placed three smoldering charcoals on top of the perforated foil that covered the bowl of the water pipe which was filled with mint-flavored tobacco. Carefully, then, he took several long draws on the pipe to get it started then put on a clean mouthpiece.
“Enjoy, gentlemen,” he said, with a slight bow, after setting the mouthpiece in a glass bowl in the middle of the small brass table occupied by the three tire salesmen.
“Who wants to go first?” Arnett asked, leaning forward in his cushioned chair.
Norville winked at Gartland, knowing Arnett liked to go first in just about everything.
“After you, Robb.”
He nodded along with Gartland.
After taking a sip of water, Arnett set the mouthpiece between his soup-cooler lips and inhaled slowly, savoring every bit of the tangy smoke. Then, aware from his previous visit to the lounge that it was considered impolite to pass the pipe to another person, he set it back in the bowl when he was through and leaned back and crossed his arms. As he did before, listening to the seductive Arabic music playing through the speaker above the front door, he imagined he was in Beirut or Damascus, somewhere far removed from the familiar shopping mall that was only a few blocks from the store where he and his friends worked.
“Oh, look,” Norville said, staring at the television attached to the wall behind the espresso bar, “there’s been another sighting of that coyote.”
Gartland groaned audibly as he reached for the water pipe. “There seems to be a sighting reported every few hours.”
Arnett looked up at the television whose sound was off so it didn’t interfere with the music. “I bet there’s more than one of them.”
“Not according to the sheriff,” Norville said quickly.
He disagreed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a couple at least.”
“If that’s so, no wonder they are having so much trouble getting this thing taken care of.”
“The folks they hire these days in the sheriff’s office are lucky to find their way home at night, let alone some wild animal on the loose,” Gartland cracked.
“Oh, I don’t believe that’s why they haven’t killed the coyote yet,” Norville remarked after returning the pipe to the glass bowl.
“It’s just not a priority for the sheriff,” he contended. “I have no doubt if the coyote was loose in the Emerald District, say, it would have been killed by now. But he really isn’t that much concerned about what goes on in the east corridor of town.”
Gartland smiled, aware that the Emerald District was one of the areas where the sheriff garnered a great deal of support in the last election.
“So what you’re implying is that it’s up to us to kill the coyote,” Arnett said, sitting up in his chair. “Is that right?”
“I suppose we can wait for the sheriff to get around to it but by then a lot of damage probably will have occurred.”
“I understand a number of cats and dogs already have been attacked.”
“Lord knows, this critter has to be killed before it goes after some person because, if I’m not mistaken, coyotes sometimes carry rabies.”
Gartland exhaled a faint ribbon of smoke. “Remember last year, just before Thanksgiving, when that drug dealer released those pitbulls in the Emerald? The sheriff rounded them up in a couple of days.”
“More like a couple of hours, if memory serves,” Norville remarked.
“That’s not going to happen here. That’s for sure. He’ll take his own sweet time just as he always does when it involves something at this end of town.”
“We all have a rifle or two in our closets,” Arnett interjected. “I suppose we could go after it ourselves.”
“I wasn’t suggesting we do it,” Norville said hastily. “I just pointed out that it’s more likely someone in this end of town is going to kill it before the sheriff does.”
“Then why not us?”
Norville, frowning, glared at Arnett. “Because the only thing we’ve ever shot are jack rabbits and birds. That’s why.”
“We could do it, though,” he insisted.
“Maybe you could, Robb, but not me.”
“Or me,” Gartland added before he inhaled another mouthful of smoke.
“About ten o’clock last night a man walking in Cedar Hills claimed he saw the coyote race across a footbridge,” the reporter on the radio announced. “Deputies were dispatched at once but the animal was not found.”
Arnett, relieved, leaned back from the kitchen table, smiling to himself. It’s still out there, he thought, still waiting for him to come and kill it.
After the weather report, which called for rain all weekend, he turned down the volume on the radio and resumed cleaning his father’s hunting rifle. Scattered across the table were a roll of paper towels, some cotton patches, a bore brush, a cleaning rod, and a can of Remington oil. A stub of a cigar burned in the ashtray on a corner of the table.
As expected, his friends didn’t waver from what they said the other night at the lounge so he would have to go after the coyote on his own. He didn’t mind, though, almost preferred it because he wouldn’t have to share any of the accolades that were bound to come after he killed the animal. Maybe, for once in his life, he would be seen as someone who could accomplish something significant instead of one of those people who only wished he could do such a thing.
Seemingly, ever since his younger sister died six years ago, he had lost the trust of many members of his family, particularly his father, who no longer acted as if he could rely on him. As her only brother, it was his responsibility to look after Jenny, and he believed he always did the three summers they worked together as grooms at a riding stable across the river where a friend of their father’s was a longtime trainer. But then early one morning that third summer, shortly after they arrived at the stable, a stallion broke out of its stall, and as it charged through the barn, Jenny tried to stop it and got kicked in the face. She died in a matter of minutes from the severe trauma she suffered to her head. He was only a step or two from her when the accident occurred so some in their family felt he should have protected her. He didn’t know what he could have done, really, the horse stormed by so quickly, but that sentiment was shared by a lot of people who believed he had let her down. That was preposterous, he knew, absolutely preposterous. No one at the stable that morning thought he was in anyway responsible for her death.
At times, he almost wished he had been the one kicked by the horse but he wasn’t and would just have to accept that some people never would think he did enough for his sister. They were wrong, dead wrong, but he doubted if he could ever change their minds. But maybe, just maybe, if he shot the coyote, they would have a better opinion of him.
It was so early it was pitch dark out but Arnett wanted to get started as soon as possible so he was surprised to see Ignatius, who lived in the apartment below his, already in the parking lot.
“You’re up bright and early this morning,” he said as he unlocked the back door of his panel truck.
“A little too early,” he admitted. “I’m still half asleep.”
“Quail season hasn’t opened yet, has it?” he asked, noticing the rifle tucked under his arm.
“Not that I know of.”
“You going to a shooting range then?”
He shook his head. “I thought I’d see if I could find that coyote that’s causing all the ruckus around here.”
“You and plenty of others, I gather, from a report I heard on the news last night.”
Arnett opened his trunk. “I reckon one of us ought to get it this weekend then.”
“Where are you going?”
“Yeah, that’s the last place where I heard it was seen,” he said. “Well, I wish you luck.”
“Thanks. I’ll need it.”
Because of the earliness of the hour he scarcely encountered any traffic on the drive out to the large stretch of wilderness in the east corridor of town that was owned by the county. For as long as he could remember, people in and out of government had discussed developing Cedar Hills into an eighteen hole golf course, maybe even a football stadium, but nothing ever came of the discussions so a couple of years ago it was designated by the county as a migratory bird sanctuary. He parked near the footbridge at the north end of the refuge because that was where the person was walking who spotted the coyote the other evening. A few other vehicles also were parked there so he assumed he would not be the only one looking for the creature this morning.
Occasionally in the summer, when the temperature rose into the nineties, his family would seek refuge in the shade of all the trees in the sanctuary and have a picnic beside one of the ponds. He and his sister would often skip rocks across the linoleum smooth water, always competing to see whose rock went the farthest before sinking, but most of all he remembered the games of hide and seek they played with friends their parents let them bring along on the outings. She always found the best hiding places, managing to blend in wherever she was, and seldom lost a game. The few times he beat her, he suspected she let him win because she didn’t want him to get too dejected. Since her death, he had visited the sanctuary only a few times, and whenever he did, he imagined she was still hiding there somewhere, refusing to show herself until he spotted her.
The day was every bit as dreary as forecast. It rained steadily throughout the drive to the sanctuary but, almost as soon as he got out of his car, it intensified, the drops noisily pelting him like pellets of ice. He had on an orange felt hunting hat so he would not be mistaken for the coyote but quickly realized that the hat would not keep its shape very long in the heavy downpour so he took it off and put on a dark blue baseball cap that was waterproof.
Not really having any idea where the coyote might be, if it was even still here, he decided to follow the narrow creek that passed under the footbridge and headed west, the rifle cradled in the crook of his left elbow. He moved cautiously, not wanting to step on anything that might alert the animal of his presence. “Walk as if you’re in a house full of people sound asleep and you don’t want to wake them,” his father told him the first time he took him quail hunting. The ground was flat for nearly a mile then began to rise, and soon he could feel the strain in the back of his legs but he trudged on, knowing it was too soon to take a break. He passed through a field of Scotch broom, through prickly hedges that were needle sharp. He passed a boulder the size of his car and another the size of a tractor. Above him herons circled, even a falcon appeared briefly between the limbs of a towering tree.
He proceeded at such a deliberate pace that he almost felt as if he were half asleep. So, before he started up another rise, he removed his cap and lifted his face to the rain. It stung like a dozen slaps but it jolted him awake and he continued on, one step at a time through the muddy ground.
Suddenly, off to his right somewhere, he heard what sounded like a rifle shot.
“Oh, Lord,” he sighed, halting at once.
Intently he listened for another shot, a voice, but all he heard was the pelting rain. Perhaps what he heard before wasn’t a shot at all but only a branch snapped by the wind. Lord, he hoped so, because he didn’t want anyone else to kill the coyote. It was his prey, he believed, and his alone.
“Jesus, man,” a voice above Arnett snarled as he approached a blackberry vine, “I almost plugged you.”
Startled, he looked up and saw a grizzled figure in a camouflage jacket and hat perched in the neck of an oak tree. A rifle rested on the top of his left shoulder. “Thank God you didn’t.”
“Don’t thank Him,” he snorted. “Thank me. I might have more yesterdays in my life than tomorrows but my vision is still good.”
“I didn’t even see you.”
The hunter grinned, revealing a badly chipped front tooth. “That’s the point, isn’t it? Otherwise why would I have my bony butt up in this tree?”
“You here for the coyote?”
He nodded. “There’s nothing else worth shooting in this goddamn swamp.”
“Have you seen any sign of it?”
“Nah, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s even still around here. I figure I’ll stay up in this tree another hour or two then call it a day.”
“I’d wish you luck but I want to shoot it myself.”
“Believe me, if it comes by here, I have no doubt I’ll kill it. As I said, my eyes are sharp as ever. Otherwise it’s all yours, friend.”
Breathing hard, Arnett slumped against the side of a tree and looked at his wrist watch. It was nearly ten o’clock, and still he had not come across the coyote. He wondered if it wasn’t here any longer, as the guy in the tree speculated, if maybe it was never here at all and the person who claimed to have seen it was mistaken.
“Damn,” he groaned to himself, as he fished a cigarette out of his pocket.
He started to reach for a match when he saw the pair of pale yellow eyes staring at him from behind a manzanita shrub. Immediately his pulse quickened, and the cigarette dropped out of his mouth.
There it is, he realized, not more than fifteen feet away from him.
His heart was in his throat. And for nearly a minute he didn’t budge a muscle, afraid if he did he might spook the animal. But he knew he had to retrieve his rifle, which he had set across a stump beside his left foot, if he hoped to get off a decent shot. He almost wished the coyote would start to move away but it remained as still as he was, its eyes as lifeless as tacks. Ever so slowly, while still staring at the lemon-colored eyes, he reached for his rifle and, just as he was about to pick it up, the animal darted out from behind the shrub and raced past him and disappeared in some fireweed.
“Goddamn!” he shrieked.
To his amazement, it wasn’t the coyote but a reddish brown fox and, in frustration, he fired a shot at it and missed.
Minutes later, maneuvering down a narrow slope, he stumbled on a tree root and fell to his knees. His pants were caked in mud, his hands too, and as he got up he suspected he must have looked like someone who had fallen through a chimney and was covered in soot. He smiled. Certainly he didn’t look like a person others were likely to embrace in celebration. Not at all, he thought, continuing down the slope. But he knew his appearance really didn’t matter if he killed the coyote. He could look like a scarecrow and people would still want to shake his hand and have their pictures taken with him. And maybe his perceived failure to protect his sister would finally be forgiven by those who still held him partly responsible for her death, if not forgotten.
He truly hoped so, mindful of the convicted arsonist last spring who rescued an elderly man and woman from an overturned car. Many in the neighborhood who remembered that, as a youngster, Metheny set an abandoned warehouse on fire congratulated him for saving the couple, including Arnett who had gone to high school with one of his younger brothers.
“You must feel as if you’re back,” he remembered asking him one evening.
“In the good graces of the community?”
He shrugged. “Some folks will never forgive me for what I did but a few might after they see I am really not such an awful person. I don’t know. I wish I could say I don’t care but I do very much.”
So did he, Arnett thought, climbing over a cracked tree.
Around half past one, when Arnett returned to his car, his hands were shaking he was so cold and he had to steady one hand with another in order to insert the key into the lock to open the door. Immediately he turned on the heater, full blast, and toweled off his face and hair. He was soaked down to his socks and decided to warm up a little before he headed back to his apartment.
He had not found the coyote, hadn’t come across any trace of it, and was terribly discouraged. He wasn’t really sure if it was in the sanctuary, but if it was, he realized he wasn’t going to find it. Not today, anyway, because it was just too miserable out so he decided to stop looking before he caught pneumonia. Tomorrow, though, he would be back, maybe with some cold cuts from the butcher shop to use as bait. He didn’t intend to sit up in some tree but he might set up a blind near the creek and wait for the animal to come after the meat.
“Seduction is every bit as important as marksmanship,” his father told him time and again when they hunted.
He had never killed anything larger than a jack rabbit but was confident he wouldn’t have a problem killing the coyote after all the trouble it had caused. Briefly he looked at his drenched face in the rearview mirror, remembering when one of the trainers at the stable asked if he wanted to shoot the horse that killed his sister. He did, certainly, but he knew Jenny wouldn’t have wanted him to because she hated to see any harm come to the horses at the riding stable. She was the sort of considerate person who would stop whenever she saw a dead squirrel in the road and bury it. So he declined and asked that the horse not be killed. It was a decision that disappointed the trainer who he was sure thought less of him because of it, probably considered him weak and irresponsible. And it was a decision that he came to regret five months later when the horse kicked another groom, severely fracturing her hip, and was put down at once. The trainer didn’t ask for his approval then, didn’t say anything, just looked at him with what almost seemed contempt. His attitude would be much different, Arnett believed, after he took down the coyote, much, much different. He would see he wasn’t the weakling he thought he was but someone capable of doing something important and necessary.
His hands still shivering a little, he turned on the ignition, put the car in gear, and got back on the road.
Ignatius, removing a small crate from the back of his panel truck, smiled when Arnett pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex. “You get it?” he asked as soon as Arnett climbed out of his car.
Wearily he shook his head. “Didn’t even see it.”
“Well, someone did, and I thought it might be you.”
“The coyote’s dead?”
“That’s what was reported on the radio not more than half an hour ago.”
His shoulders slumped in disappointment. “I’ll be damned. I thought for sure I was going to be the one to get it.”
“It’s too bad you weren’t.”
“Where was it shot?”
“Somewhere at this end of town.”
“Out in Cedar Hills?” he pressed him.
“I don’t recall but I don’t believe so.”
“There must be more than one loose because I’m sure one’s in the hills.”
“I thought you didn’t see any sign of it.”
“I didn’t but I just have a feeling it’s there somewhere.”
His eyes narrowed. “You do?”
“I do. I definitely do.”
Despite the skepticism of his neighbor, he went to the butcher shop that evening and purchased three pounds of ground beef. Still convinced the coyote he was after remained at large, he returned to Cedar Hills early the next morning and hiked deep into the sanctuary. The rain wasn’t as intense as it was yesterday but it was just as cold and blustery. After he found a place that provided some cover, he set out the meat and waited for the elusive coyote to appear. It didn’t, though, but he wasn’t discouraged and planned to return to the hills next weekend, and, if necessary, the following weekend and however many after that until he found the animal. He was so confident he would kill it he could almost see the smiles on the faces of the people in his part of town and hear the compliments they surely would extend to him for his accomplishment.
At first, I thought Dan’s death would blow through the house like a storm: a day’s worth of rage and tears—two at most—and then the grief would be gone. Lots of things rolled off my tough old bunch; why not this?
But I sold them short. You’d think I’d know not to by now.
Stacy was mad for weeks. She’d shake her small white head and say, “I guess that’s it,” screw her face up in a pout, and look at big Paula, who—on cue—would say the same thing. Paula would pout then too.
Julia wept all the time. “I mith Dan tho much,” she told me most days, her blurred face red and wet. “I loved him.”
“I know,” I’d say, shocked that she still knew who he was…and who he’d been. “He loved you too.”
Carter said much the same thing each night. “Dan—was—a—dear…Dan—was—a—dear—friend—to—us—all,” he’d start and stop at least twice. “And—he—liked—us—a—whole—lot…I—liked…I—liked—him—a—whole—lot—too.”
“That’s nice of you to say,” I’d note as I passed Carter his meds. “I’m sure he knows that.”
Keith just sat and stared, more out of it than I’d seen him since he came. No jumps; no fits. Just blank eyes and a fierce need to sit in the same spot on the couch.
Lisa made the most noise, but I’d planned for that: I taught her to hug Julia when the sobs came, so that they both had a friend’s touch to turn to. Of course, Lisa would have liked my touch, but Julia seemed pleased to stand in for me.
And Kate…Kate lost her spark. It was hard to watch. She still bossed us—up and down and left and right and back and forth—but there was no grit in it. Dan—when his head was clear—had been her Dan. “Old Dan,” she’d called him, “old Dan, my old Dan. He’s my Dan, Charles. Where’s my Dan?” She’d wait for him to come home, just like she had when we could still trust him to leave the house. “I knew you’d be back!” she’d yell when you came through the door, hope etched across her face…and then she’d see who it was, fall back into her hunch, and give you a task. “The trash stinks, Charles. Take it out, why don’t ya?”
I did my best to help them through it. When Stacy’s face set in a pout, or Julia broke down, or Kate had her hopes dashed once more, I donned my mask and found the right words: “He’s with his dad, now; he’ll like that,” or, “You’re a good friend. He’ll miss you too.” Most times it worked for them.
But not for me.
It hit me worst at night, when the house was still and my shift was close to done. The job was…calm now. No one called me Fuck (in place of Chuck); no one talked up the Cubs; no one threw their pills in my face; no one asked me to watch John Wayne films with them; no one told the cops I was a “Jap spy up to no good;” no one asked me if I liked birds; no one told me they would “do for me” if they got the chance.
So yeah…I missed him too. We all did. Our door—the door to the street, the door whose hue marked us as “that house”—was still blue…but for months it felt black.
And that was our gift to him.
Mr. Massicot was not pleased when they tore down the old woodshop next door, even though it had been unoccupied the last four years. The woodshop stood, had stood, on a double sized lot of which it occupied about a third, the rest covered by low shrubs, tall grasses and the occasional slender tree, not exactly an English ornamental garden, but green and peaceful to the eyes.
A retired private school history teacher – American to the Civil war, Ancient to the fall of Rome, European to the fall of Napoleon – Mr. Massicot believed that what had gone before inevitably presaged what was to come, and every time a large lot was cleared in Carbury townhouses followed. And as he said to his wife, Illona, not only did this mean months of construction dust and disturbance, a minimum of four sets of neighbors where previously there had been none plus a minimum of four additional cars, but, “You never know what kind of people are going to move in.”
Tall, slump shouldered, liver spots on his bald head, Mr. Massicot had been a second string first baseman in college and still carried an athlete’s bulk, though not his athlete’s grace of movement. Illona Massicot, on the other hand, once willowy, had thinned out with age so that in her short sleeved top and summer shorts she seemed all elbows, knees and shins. They had married rather late for children, and she had continued over the years as a university librarian, which was just as well with Mr. Massicot given what teachers’ salaries were. She said, “People who can afford to buy townhouses in Carbury these days are likely to meet your standards of respectability, Alexander.”
Mr. Massicot thought Illona had been a little tart with him lately and he didn’t like it one bit. “Money is no guarantee of respectability, Illona. Look at your drunken, adulterous cousin Claudia.”
“Well,” she said. “Poor Claudia.”
Since Carbury, a comfortable college town, was a desirable alternative to its even more expensive neighbor Cambridge, Mr. Massicot had the sour satisfaction of being right about the fate of the double lot. Soon after the debris of the woodshop was carted off bulldozers cleared the shrubbery and trees, foundation digging commenced, and the irritation of noisy construction got under way. By summer this resulted in a pair of paired townhouses with noxious green siding, senseless gables, random porches and decks – the two sets separated by a wide blacktopped driveway to garages and front doors. From their living room and his study upstairs Mr. Massicot could look straight along the drive and into the small yards behind each townhouse, so that when they all sold out and the new people moved in, he had a perfect perch from which to assess them.
Four couples, all in their late twenties to early thirties, all white, middle class, nothing wrong with that of course, yet they all annoyed Mr. Massicot to one degree or another. “What do you think of the new people?” he asked his wife.
“They seem nice enough. They mind their own business, certainly.”
“They’re completely self-involved. No sense of neighborhood at all. They don’t even talk to one another.”
“They don’t seem to be doing any harm.”
“They don’t do any good.”
“I guess that’s true of any number of people.”
Mr. Massicot didn’t know the names of the new neighbors so after a few weeks, he named them himself:
The Lawn People, a thin, mousey pair with a baby in arms and a toddler that squawked like a hungry grackle. They seemed to spend all their time watering the lawn, mowing the lawn, edging the lawn, planting flowers, pulling up weeds, rolling balls on the lawn for the toddler, and otherwise frolicking as if they thought they were fauns and nymphs
The Boozers, a chunky woman and a big bellied man who were always on their little porch in wicker chairs drinking alone or with friends so that their white wicker table ended the night loaded with empty bottles and the porch looked like a cheap barroom.
The TV People. Mr. Massicot didn’t in fact know what these individuals looked like because all he could ever see was their shadowy forms and beyond them the continually shifting colors and shapes on their gigantic TV which, ridiculously, was on at all hours of the night and day.
But the ones who annoyed Mr. Massicot the most were The Shoppers. Another pair around thirty, he was thick legged in those multi-pocket shorts that came down below his knees, square headed with a buzz cut; she was athletically built with short cut hair and muscular calves and they always seemed to be indulging in one sort of sport or another, the two of them on bicycles, or attaching their bikes to their SUV or tying two kayaks to the top of it, or loading it with coolers and duffle bags and driving off and disappearing for days on end.
“Don’t they work? How can they afford their mortgage?”
“Maybe they work from home, Alexander. Or even from wherever they go off to. Not everyone has to go into an office these days. It’s called computer commuting.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of it. The perfect method to promote irresponsibility and laziness.”
Yet what really disgusted Mr. Massicot was that every day – every day they were home, that is – he saw them carrying cartons or handle bags with the logos of pricey stores from their SUV to the house, or a large delivery truck stopped at the sidewalk and men wheeled obviously heavy cartons down the driveway on a dolly, or the UPS or Fed Ex driver, or even the mailman, left a box on their front stoop.
“Look at them,” he’d say seeing the couple coming home. “Three bags and two boxes this time. How extravagant can you get?”
“Well,” Illona would say, “They’re in a new home. There are things they must need.”
“Need. Nobody needs so much stuff that they get deliveries every day. They’re just indulging themselves. They must be up to their eyeballs in debt and their credit cards must be full up.”
“We’ve always bought what we needed.”
“Yes, but wisely and with moderation. That’s why we’re enjoying a comfortable retirement.”
Mr. Massicot didn’t spend all his time disapproving of the neighbors. If Illona in retirement had her gardening, her daily walk with a woman friend, her gourmet cooking and her 18th century English novels, Mr. Massicot had his project. He greatly admired the Roman historian Sallust and the way he used his two great works – War With Catiline (a conspiracy to take over Rome), and Jugurthan War (Romans against Numidians) – to deplore the moral and political decline of Rome (even though Sallust himself had accumulated his wealth by oppression and extortion as governor of a Roman province). However, Mr. Massicot had never found what he considered a satisfactory translation of the historian, and despite his rusty Latin had set out to do one that truly captured the compressed, pithy style that made him so effective.
The project had sputtered through his last years of teaching, an unhappy and disappointing period for Mr. Massicot who knew that he failed to reach his students, all of them totally uninterested in history, disrespectful, always playing with their phones, writing nearly illiterate papers, giving incoherent oral reports, simply not caring if they flunked. It was with relief that he finally retired, taking his silver goodbye bowl and his pension and settling in to a regular schedule of translation, which he entered on a computer connected to a printer, but not to the internet.
For ideas he could have used the Loeb Library edition of Sallust with its translation on the facing page, but then it wouldn’t really be his own work, a form of cheating actually. Instead he stayed strictly with the Latin text, a classic grammar, and a giant dictionary, methodically conning definitions, conjugations, declensions, idiomatic expressions. At times he’d read over finished sections and polish a phrase or a sentence. He found himself tiring more easily than he liked, age threatening his ability to finish, but despite slow progress, these were the most satisfying hours of his present life.
When he was having difficulty with a passage, struggling to find the trenchant English to match the concise Latin, he would get up from his six drawer teacher’s desk and shuffle about the office in his slippers, touching a book on the built-in bookcase, sliding a file cabinet drawer open and closed, flipping the printed pages of what he’d so far completed, stopping to look out one window and the other, then he’d shuffle back to the desk and enter what he’d finally worked out.
This particular day, Illona out shopping somewhere, Mr. Massicot was laboring over the half sentence “quin defessis et exsanguibus qui plus posset imperium atque libertatem extorqueret.”
His first rough translation read, “but when they’d been worn out and exhausted someone more powerful would take the power away from them and also their liberty.”
Of course “worn out and exhausted” was redundant as was powerful and power, and “power” was of course really more specific than just command, more like rule or dominion in this case. And “take away” was rather a weak expression of extorqueret. Altogether unsatisfactory.
He leaned himself out of his desk chair and made his contemplative circuit of the study, ending up at the window overlooking the townhouses, where in front of the one owned by the shoppers, he saw a white van with the side door open and three men in blue coveralls and baseball caps, rather warms outfits for late summer, one putting a computer in though the open door, one stepping to the side to let the third, coming out of the townhouse with a CD player, get by him.
At first Mr. Massicot thought the couple was moving out, but nobody used such a small truck to move a house, and besides, the shoppers had been gone all week; he’d seen them set their kayaks on top of the SUV and load their bikes inside, so wouldn’t they be there to supervise the move? No, the likelihood was that just as he’d said, they’d overspent their credit cards and couldn’t pay what they owed, and these men were repossessing everything they were in default of. It would be a hard lesson learned.
Two of the men came out with a flat screen TV which they slid into the van, and Mr. Massicot, losing interest was about to get back to his translation, when the third man came out of the townhouse holding a dark suit on a hanger against his body as if to demonstrate that it fit him. The taller of the other two said something to him, perhaps disapproving, because the third flung the suit into the van with what Mr. Massicot saw as an angry gesture, spun around and went back into the townhouse, emerging shortly with a small speaker under each arm, and Mr. Massicot finally understood that the men were in fact stealing all the easily moved, costly contents of the townhouse, which apparently wasn’t meant to include that suit.
He’d never seen the like, though of course he’d read about it and seen television reports. The men were remarkably businesslike: both unhurried seeming and swift, much more efficient than any moving men he’d ever encountered. Mr. Massicot wondered how they’d gained entry – he supposed one of them must also have lock picking skills. It occurred to him that he should dial 911. However, he deliberately didn’t have a phone in the study, nor was there one in the bedroom. Illona had a smart phone that she put by her bedside at night, and he himself had what they called a flip phone that was very convenient when he was out, if otherwise uninteresting. But that was downstairs as was the house phone, and he almost had the phrase he was looking for. Anyway, the shoppers shouldn’t have gone away and left their precious purchases unattended so often. Obviously the thieves hadn’t been fooled by their house lights on timers. Mr. Massicot went back to his desk to try the phase, but it had slipped away while he let himself be distracted.
The next couple of days Mr. Massicot couldn’t help glancing out the window now and then as if expecting to see the same white van and the same thieves, perhaps at another of the townhouses. What he saw was the quiet strip of blacktop in the sun, the green yards, anywhere from one to five parked cars, the woman with the baby strapped to her chest pushing the toddler filled carriage toward the sidewalk, the mailman, normality.
But on the third day he saw the couple, their SUV with the kayaks on top, and two uniformed police officers, one talking to the pair, the other taking notes. Obviously the two had returned from their outdoor adventures and found their townhouse stripped of every electrical toy, and a suit as well, though possibly they didn’t know that yet. The athletic looking wife was the one talking, upset, gesturing with her hand as if counting off each stolen object. The square headed husband was tight lipped, his balled fists by his thighs, slowly and repeatedly shaking his head. For a moment Mr. Massicot felt a kind of non-specific discomfort, the rough equivalent to almost remembering something from an uncongenial dream. Then the couple and the police went into the townhouse, and Mr. Massicot went back to his translation.
Mid-afternoon that same day, Mr. Massicot in the kitchen after his daily nap cutting a piece of chocolate cake to go with his coffee, when Illona came into the room saying, “Oh, Alexander, what an awful thing. The Kerns’ house was broken into, all their valuable things were stolen. Their TV, stereo, everything, even their microwave oven.”
“Terry and Amber. Our new next door neighbors.”
“Oh, yes. I saw.”
“What do you mean, you saw?”
“They were like superior moving men, except the only things they were moving were electrical.”
“You mean you saw them while they were doing it?”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”
“Did you call the police? Wait, no, you didn’t, did you?”
“It was none of my business, and I was busy.”
“But that’s totally irresponsible. How could you do that?”
“Well, there’s no law that you have to report a crime, you know. Anyway, it serves them right.”
“Serves them right for what? My god, Alexander, that’s mean. You’re mean. You’ve always been mean.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“No. No. I mean it. What you call running a tight ship is just being mean. What you call feeling irritable is just being mean. What you call always making the hard decisions is just being mean. You’re a mean old man, Alexander, and you’ve always been mean.”
“Illona, you’re just getting hysterical over nothing.”
“I’m not hysterical, and it’s not nothing. You’ll see.”
Mr. Massicot wasn’t pleased. Illona had on occasion gotten mad at him, more lately to be sure, but that was normal, husbands and wives couldn’t always agree. But this was extreme and unpleasant. As well, he was offended by the threat in her voice, but before he could make her calm her down and explain what “you’ll see” meant, she turned her back on him and left the kitchen. He refused to pursue her.
About an hour later, Mr. Massicot was in the living room reading Our Mutual Friend. Generally he read history, rarely fiction, but he made an exception for Dickens whose oeuvre he went through chronologically from Boz to Drood. Liking them for their complicated plots, rich descriptions, Dickens’s touching affection for his strange and warped characters; and of course for the historical element, which was a kind of vivid companion to Mayhew’s London Labor and London Poor.
Illona, for her part, was presently going through Richardson’s Clarissa, 1500 pages, a million words, some infinite number of volumes. As a rule, they sat together there on matching wing chairs across the faded blue Tabirz rug, every now and then one reading a passage aloud for the other’s enjoyment, but Mr. Massicot noted that the volume Illona had reached was absent from the little drum table beside her chair. She’d probably taken herself off in her huff and retreated with the book to the bedroom. She’d get over it, she always did, especially when she was making a mountain out of a mole hill. After all, if he was so mean why had she married him and stayed with him all these years. Surely she’d understood all along that he only wanted to see things done right.
The doorbell surprised him. He couldn’t imagine who would be stopping by unannounced at this hour; friends always called first, and the days when a paperboy rang to collect and be tipped were long gone. He hoped it wasn’t some religious fanatic; he wasn’t in the mood although at other times he never minded twitting them for a few minutes before they gave up and went away. He looked up at the ceiling in the direction of the bedroom, waited another while, but when the doorbell rang again, he bookmarked his page and set the book on the drum table beside his chair.
Through the sidelight he saw a uniformed police officer, someone obviously a veteran of the force, tall with a pot belly, grey sideburns below his cap, and glasses sitting on a pointed, investigatory nose. He had a small notebook in one hand, a pen in the other. “Blast!” said Mr. Massicot, then opened the door. “Good afternoon, officer. Though it’s nearly evening isn’t it?”
“Are you Alexander Massicot?”
“Yes. Yes I am. What can I do for you, officer?”
“It’s about the robbery next door, Mr. Massicot. Your wife called the station and said you’d seen it while it was taking place. Can you tell me exactly what you saw?” He clicked the ball point pen and raised his notebook ready to write.
For a minute Mr. Massicot could hardly breathe, as though the weight of his wife’s betrayal was crushing his lungs. He put a hand against the door jamb to steady himself, at the same time trying to look as if he was being casual. The officer was staring at him with that particular, just waiting non-expression that all policemen must have learned as part of their academy training. Finally Mr. Massicot was able to speak. “I’m afraid my wife exaggerates, officer. I might have seen someone leaving. A white van pulling out of the driveway,”
“Your wife said you saw individuals taking electronics out of the building.” Flat voiced, un-accusatory, factual, hard as a police baton to the chest.
“I don’t know where she got that idea, officer. Perhaps she confused what the neighbors said with what I said later. A white van. Leaving the driveway. That’s what I saw. I didn’t even know there was robbery.”
“I see. You didn’t happen to catch the plate number, did you?”
Mr. Massicot shook his head. “It might have been a Massachusetts plate. I think.”
“You mean to say that’s all you can tell me?”
“That’s all I know.”
The officer lowered his head a little and stared at Mr. Massicot. He frowned. “I see. Well then.” He unclicked the ball point. “I guess that’s it. Thanks for your help.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help. But I could only tell you what I saw.”
“Uh huh. Well. Have a good day now.”
Mr. Massicot was almost dizzy with indignation and disbelief at Illona’s disloyalty. When he turned to go upstairs and confront her, the hallway going past the living room and dining room along to the kitchen had the gray porous look of an underground tunnel he’d seen years ago in the Roman Coliseum, an illusion that passed when he started up the stairs, slowly as always given the chronic ache in his knees and ankles.
Illona was on the bed, propped up against two pillows, her rolling reading tray across her lap with the Richardson tome aslant on the ledge at the bottom. Mr. Massicot said, “How could you do that to me?”
Illona took off her reading glasses and just turned her head to look at him. “Do what, Alexander?”
“Do what, Illona! Call the police and put me on the spot like that. I just had a police officer here interrogating me. It was very unpleasant.”
“Well, you did see the robbery, didn’t you? Did you tell the officer what you saw?”
“Yes, I told him, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that wives don’t betray their husbands. They don’t make trouble for them. It’s criminal.”
Illona laughed. “Well, as Al Jolson, I think it was, used to say, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’ From now on, any time you do something untoward, Alexander, I’m going to do my best to thwart you. Any time you say something gratuitously mean, I’m going to set you straight. Whatever it takes. You brought this on yourself, so just be warned and watch your step because I’ll be watching you.”
Mr. Massicot stood there immobilized and breathless. That his wife would conspire with the police was bad enough, but that she would be overtly planning to fight him at every turn was something for which he was completely unprepared. This just wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. There was simply no precedent for it.
I was nine the first time Tommy gave me butterflies. Mother had just made welts so big on my sister Jackie’s and my behinds that I thought neither of us would be able to wear a bathing suit the whole rest of summer. Her face turned pink as a pomegranate when she saw our soggy, wet crescent moons of mud scattered across her freshly washed kitchen floor–our footprints–from a sneak-attack water war launched on us by the boys.
My hair didn’t even have time to unclump out of the earthwormy tendrils before I started rolling clothes inside of my Barbie pink sleeping bag. I was ready to stomp down the street to what would be my new home.
By the time I got to Tommy’s house, I expected the battle scene to seem like a distant memory. The balloons that had popped on our bodies and left their skins flailed across the ground would have been scooped into a pile, ready to be placed into a big, black trash bag and tossed out with the rest of Thursday’s refuse. Instead, as I climbed the slats nailed crookedly into the trunk of the tree–something surprising to know was the craftsmanship of Mr. Alamonti–I could see pieces of exploded rubber hanging everywhere. And the floorboards of the treehouse were still so soaked that they were swollen. It was as though they should have squished with every step that I took like a cushiony sponge.
Still, I sprawled my sleeping bag wide over the floor, keeping my clothes on top, neatly piled into the corner. I ran my hands quickly over the fabric, causing ripples and waves in it until it was a perfect rectangle. I knew I had to stay there; it was the only place I felt safe.
The moment it became straight and even, I heard creaking coming from just below the trap door. It had to be Tommy. He was never quiet when he approached, whether he was sniggering, or hiccuping, or chewing on some candy that he’d stolen from a neighbor kid; he’d never learned to be sneaky.
He stopped two rungs from the top, his messy tuft of sun-bleached hair peeking just above the floorboards.
“Who goes there!?”
I didn’t realize I’d made the floorboards squeak when I moved to set my rump on the balls of my feet, squatting so he couldn’t see the handprint that I knew was sticking out the bottom of my shorts.
“Get up here, you nimrod!” I whispered so loudly the whole neighborhood should have heard, but lucky for me, the birds were tweeting wildly that day.
“Whitney!?” His naked feet finished climbing fast, and he pulled himself fully into the treehouse.
He was only in his blue swim trunks, his stomach and legs stained green and brown from sliding into puddles the boys had created in the grass. His cheeks were kissed pink by the sun, and so was the tip of his nose. His eyes were sparkly and green, contrasting intensely with his newly reddening skin.
“What’re you doing here?” He slanted his body, pressing his back against the window-frame of the treehouse, leaning and folding his arms across his chest as he smiled at me. He was starting to realize that his quickly growing, nine-year-old body was becoming too tall for the ceiling so he always adjusted his position accordingly.
I pulled my feet forward and out from under my butt and tucked them under my knees to sit Indian style, then interlaced my fingers in my lap.
“I’m moving in to the treehouse,” I told him.
He hugged his stomach, pinching his own skin, hunching himself forward, and laughed.
“I. Am. Not. Joking.” I said this slowly, wanting to make sure that he got every word, but he continued to laugh. “I am moving in whether you like it or not.” I unfolded my hands and put them on my hips. “You can come in here if you want, but I’m gonna make one thing clear: I’m the boss of this house now, and nothing’s gonna happen in this place, or even in this yard, if I don’t want it to, even if that means not growing up.” I kept watching his face; it didn’t seem like he understood the level of trust that I was putting in him, the level of protection I felt when I was with him.
He stuck his tongue in his cheek and swelled it up like a Blow-Pop.
“Whatever you say, Whit. Whatever you say.” He let me stay.
I should have made him pinky promise that day that nothing would ever be forced upon me in the treehouse, but I didn’t. The fact that he let me stay until my mom called all of the parents in the neighborhood and then marched door to door searching for me gave me enough faith that I should just be able to trust him. Sometimes, it’s easy to confuse protection for love, the kind that gives you butterflies.
And that wasn’t the last time he protected me either. Growing up, he would tell people to leave me alone on those days that girls would qualify as “bad” when there’s nothing more wrong than a hair out of place or a slip of the mascara wand. He protected me when we’d walk home from football games and it was rainy and I didn’t have my umbrella, sheltering me under his sweatshirt, taking the brunt of the wind and hail for me.
Then, there was the time when I dated one of his friends, Zack. Our relationship lasted for the first three years of high school. Even though Tommy had always been around–and don’t get me wrong, was something special–we’d always said, even during Zack’s and my relationship, that we were too good of friends to ever try dating.
By the time Zack and I fell apart, though, Tommy found me huddled in the corner of his treehouse, a bruise shadowing the left side of my jaw. I’d told Zack at a party that I didn’t like the way he acted when he drank, the way he pushed me up against walls, the way he shoved his tongue into my mouth, the way he didn’t want to use a condom, the way he always thought he was sober enough to drive.
Tommy sided with me and stopped talking to Zack; he helped me to break all ties with him, freeing me from the situation. He helped to make me stronger.
We sat in his treehouse on New Years Eve just before we both turned 19 while our parents were in his house watching the ball drop. We were both listing all the things we were looking for in a potential mate.
“I want someone who can make me laugh,” I said, watching him pull the hairs that hung over his forehead forward over and over again, as if his fingers were a flat-iron.
“And I want someone who knows what she wants, who knows how to stand up for herself.” He was still staring at the hair between his fingers.
“And I want someone who is understanding that you don’t push someone into something they don’t want to do.”
“I’d never do that.” He let go of his hair and gazed at me, smiling. He was rocking back and forth on his knees.
“If we ever dated, you’d have to understand that we couldn’t get physical until both of us are ready,” I started.
“Of course,” he responded before I even finished.
“I mean it,” I continued. “We’d both have to be ready to do anything before we did it, even things we’ve done before. If not, we’ll ruin everything we have.”
“Of course.” He was scooting closer to me, as if he was about to kiss me.
I pressed my hand to his chest, keeping him at an arm’s distance. “So, we’ll discuss things before taking things to another level physically, you know, like sex?”
“Of course,” he said, again. His understanding made the butterflies flap their wings even harder.
A year later, when we celebrated our anniversary, he told me that he had big plans for Valentine’s Day. He told me not to even try planning anything because he wanted to make it magical.
My heels clip-clopped to his house between patches of ice that hadn’t melted off of the sidewalk yet. I wrapped my thin, leather jacket tightly around my waist, hugging myself, trying to shield my body from the cold. Thank God he only lives five houses down, I thought.
But as soon as I got to the driveway and saw a bobbing glow reflecting off the trees and house coming from the backyard, I knew I was severely underdressed for the occasion. Heels and a cocktail dress with a fashion jacket are by no means the right attire for a bonfire. I didn’t realize that a night at home was what he had in mind when he told me to wear my sexiest outfit, something he could show me off in at a dance club.
As soon as I realized there was a fire on my boyfriend’s patio, I froze in my tracks. I let go of my jacket, feeling my hands begin to tremble as I thought about my sister, Jackie, and how her friend, Brian, had committed suicide by lighting himself on fire a few weeks back. Seeing the flickering light, I wondered if I was in the wrong place, if I should have been with my sister instead. The typically level-headed girl had been doing things that were so out of character for her, I’d started growing afraid that she might do something crazy on a whim to try to ease her pain, maybe something irreversible. Seeing that fire made me paranoid that I never do really know what’s going on in other people’s heads.
But if I’ve learned anything from the relationships I’ve been in, you take care of your “personal” business on your own time. If a man is expecting you, it’s best not to keep him waiting.
So, I took a deep breath, letting the bitter February air sting my lungs, and ran my ever-shaking hands over my clothes to smooth them out one last time before heading for the stone walkway that snaked between the pine trees hugging the sides of the two-story house.
Rock salt glittered and crunched beneath my feet, and for a moment, I was reminded of all the little gestures he’d done that would be so telling of how well he knew me: leaving a straw by my cup when we would sip lemonade because sugar hurt my teeth, though he never asked why; always leaving a flashlight in the treehouse for those times when I needed a place just to get away. And now, he knew that in seeing that glow, I wouldn’t even bother with walking to the front door; there wasn’t any salt leading that way.
By the time I got to the back of the house, the bright orange firelight was pulsing, leaving the lawn furniture, the treehouse, Tommy, and everything else in the backyard as nothing more than a negative, their images just shadows on the shivering background.
My feet scraped against the patio, and Tommy whipped his head around, and jolted, as if he’d been caught in the middle of some act I wasn’t supposed to see, his hair sticking up awkwardly in all directions. The only other time I’d seen him behave like this was when he was drawing on a make-your-own puzzle kit to ask me to senior prom, right after Zack and I broke up. He peeked over the back of the love-seat, letting only his squinted eyes pop above the top as he hid a huge grin behind the wicker.
I ran my shaking hands over my outfit again, tugging at the fabric, hoping I could get it to lie flatter. And as I saw Tommy leaping over the lawn furniture like a track runner’s hurdles, I suddenly felt lucky that it was so cold. I knew the minute that our bodies embraced he would feel my shaking and want to know the reason for it; I didn’t have any excuse good enough for him. Since Brian’s death, he’d become clingy and needy, always wanting proof that I loved him. It wasn’t like him; it scared me. But telling him that he’d been worrying me lately would leave him less than thrilled.
He strutted toward me with his arms outstretched and called my name slowly, dreamily, as though we hadn’t seen each other in years. In reality, we hadn’t seen each other in maybe twenty-four hours. His fingers were splayed wide, which could have seemed magical, like maybe an ice skater gliding to their partner, ready to pick them up and twirl them in the air, but with everything else that was surrounding us, he appeared more like a scarecrow.
My eyes darted all around him as I smiled, patting my hair.
“You’re beautiful!” he said and wrapped his arms lightly around my waist before pulling me close to kiss me, gently, a peck. It was almost romantic. He even blushed, and his eyes glittered when he pulled away. It was the face of someone in love. For a second, I believed that maybe I actually was beautiful.
I pushed his body off of mine, though, thinking about the way my bones must feel pressing against his body, or whether I’d brushed my teeth well enough to get the smell of regurgitated food off my breath. I’d hid it for this long, but still, you couldn’t ever be too careful. And those kinds of things always make me nervous.
“What’s all this?” I asked him, quickly. I used my arm to reach underneath his and lift it off my body, then shoved it farther away.
I swept my arm in a broad arc, and as if my hand had the ability to paint things technicolor, I noticed how the backyard was actually arranged for the evening. The love-seat was scooted close to the fire, with the outdoor coffee table right in front of it, a bottle of champagne chilling in a recycled margarine container sitting on its top. The shrubs that sat in ceramic pots on either side of the fire pit were wrapped in flickering, white Christmas lights. And the fire was so bright, glowing hot with a stack of logs piled way too high to burn out even within the next couple of hours.
“What do you mean?” He stepped to my side, turning around to admire what he perceived to be a masterpiece. He again set his hand on my body and slid it down until it rested at the small of my back. “Don’t you like it?”
“Well, it’s a little much, dontchya think? I mean, all of this really wasn’t necessary.” I rolled my shoulders back, realizing that for the first time since I’d known him, practically my entire life, I was uncomfortable with him touching me.
“Nothing’s too much for my girl.” I didn’t even have to look at him to know that he was staring at me with that dopey, crooked grin that he always wore when he said something that he thought was going to make me blush.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of the champagne bottle, though. Did he even think about the memories alcohol and a man might bring back for me?
He pushed gently on my back, nudging me toward the love-seat and the fire pit, giving me less than a choice but to sit down.
“Don’t you like it?” he asked as he cozied up next to me.
I patted my hair, feeling the blond locks still tethered neatly into the braid, and smiled, avoiding eye contact. I really didn’t like any of it, so I didn’t answer the question. Instead, I changed the subject.
“I guess I just don’t understand what you think we’re going to be doing right here for several hours.” I used both of my hands to point at the ground, as if he wouldn’t understand which “here” I was talking about. But I regretted it the very instant that I saw both hands trembling in mid-air, their shadows bouncing helplessly against my body.
He assumed I was cold and scooted his body closer to mine, so close that our hips touched. He stroked his hand up and down my side and pulled my head onto his shoulder.
“You leave that to me,” he said. He ran his tongue over his chapping lips. “I’ve got the whole night planned.” He leaned us both back in the seat, the way we would’ve sat when we were cuddling up to watch a movie. He ran his tongue over his lips again and sucked his teeth. “Listen, we’re gonna start the night off by sitting down here, enjoying the fire–us, the stars, a little champagne, and a toast to a relationship that knowns no boundaries.” His arm was moving in small circles, slowly, like a fortune teller.
The champagne bottle was burning itself into my eyes, its round head throbbing in the glowing background, taunting me, laughing at me.
“Then,” he went on, “once we’re nice and toasty down here, I thought you might spend the night.” He squeezed me tighter to him, raising his eyebrows. “I’ve cleaned the treehouse and made it more private. Do you see the paper-towel I stapled in the window?” His fingertips touched the back of my head, and I gazed upward, seeing a flowered sheet blowing in the wind. “I even zipped my G.I. Joe and Transformers sleeping bags together, so if you get cold–which with me here I don’t see how you’d even have an excuse–we could lie together in them.” I swallowed hard, realizing that since we started dating I rarely even came to his house when his parents weren’t home; I didn’t know what gave him the idea that I’d spend the night.
His hand was making mini pirouettes in my hair, and I knew he had that glassy, glittery, magical look in his eyes that he would get when he imagined something big. I realized that my butterflies were flapping so hard that I was getting nauseous now; the idea that sometimes people confuse lust for love frightened me.
“But why do all of this now? What if I’m not ready to do all of this now?” And the roar of the fire seemed to quiet into nothing more than pops as little sparks shot off of the pieces of golden, glowing wood. My voice seemed way too loud for this backyard.
He laughed as he spoke, but found nothing about what I said funny. “It’s Valentine’s Day, Whit. And my parents are out of town. That’s why we are going to do this now.”
I lifted my head off of his shoulder. He wasn’t understanding what I was saying, just like he didn’t understand that I didn’t appreciate being compared to movie stars, or how he didn’t understand that having my waist squeezed and prodded at in his attempt at tickling wasn’t something that I found funny. He didn’t understand that sex in a backyard wasn’t something I found romantic and wanted to do. He didn’t understand that I was still struggling with being physical with him because it really would change the friendship that we’d had before we got romantic.
“But why start with the champagne and the fires and the sleepovers now?” I turned my body to face him without even realizing it. “Why not when we’re both ready?”
He straightened his back to sit up tall. His eyebrows crawled toward each other, leaving his forehead wrinkly and his eyes squinty, but instead of keeping his eyes on me, he glanced down at the sleeves of his shirt and started rolling them to the center of his forearms. He shook his head hard, his hair fluttering back and forth.
“You never can seem to make up your mind. You tell me you want a romantic date, so I deliver and you’re not happy with it. Every time you tell me you want something and I try to give you it, you just can’t be happy.” He kept shaking his head. His tone dropped as he spoke again. “And I shouldn’t even need to mention that it’s not like it’s your first time.” Sometimes it’s easy to confuse a person’s present relationship with their past ones.
I opened and closed my mouth repeatedly as I reached for his arm, noticing that for the first time all night it was his hands that were shaking instead of mine, so instead I pulled mine back. I scooted away from him and rested my elbows on my knees, allowing the heat of the fire to lick my face, the pops happening in quick succession as the sparks shot off of the wood like fireflies. But when I rubbed my hands over my face, frustrated, I couldn’t tell if the heat on my skin was from the fire or my face flushing from the irritation I was feeling.
I couldn’t help letting out an audible sigh before I spoke. “I don’t know what to say. I mean, this isn’t what I asked for, Tom.” I held my hands out in front of my face as if I was holding a platter. “I mean, come on, we’re twenty years old. We’re not thirty trying to rekindle some dying relationship. We’ve been together a year. We don’t need to rush things and spoil them; we don’t need to grow up this quickly. Our relationship has plenty of life ahead of it and lots of time to develop. There is absolutely no reason to do things before both of us are ready and destroy it in the process.”
He ran his fingers through his hair, making the roots a shade darker than the rest of his ashy, blond hair. It was standing on end even more now than it had been before. The strands were sticking up every which way.
Tommy scooted toward me, our knees knocking against one another so hard that I expected them to clink. He wrapped his hands around my wrists, forcing my elbows up off of my knees and my whole body back into the armrest. Bits of foam sprayed from between clenched teeth as he began to talk.
“I don’t get what you don’t see about how I was trying to do something nice for you, that I was just trying to show you that maybe I could see us being together forever. I was hoping you could show me that you really feel the same way back tonight. Instead, you have to make tonight miserable, just like always.” His grip tightened around me, and I could feel fingerprint bruises starting to form, dotting up my arm. I tried to push back against his weight, but he kept pushing, kept squeezing. “Who are you to talk about growing up too fast when you’ve already done all this before? Who are you to talk about growing up too fast when none of us know how much time we’ve got left? Who are you to push me away when all I’ve ever tried to do is make you happy?” Veins bulged in his neck, and his eyes flickered like the lights that were wrapped so tightly around the potted shrubs.
My hands balled into bony fists, partially from the pain of his squeezing and partially from anger at him for hiding that he’d been this miserable; we’d never fought like this before and he’d never brought up wanting more, physically. Tears welled in my eyes.
“I don’t know what kind of world you live in, but in my world, hurting someone doesn’t make them happy,” I said. And like that, his grip on my wrists suddenly loosened, his fingers spread apart, his hands still shaking. He surveyed them incredulously. The nails had been chewed away so far that they were red.
He swallowed so hard that his Adam’s apple bounced before he tried to speak.
“Whit…” he said.
But I stood up. “I need to go.” My ankles wobbled from the unevenness of the salt sticking to the soles of my shoes. I watched the way he stared at his hands. We shared the disbelief that he was capable of doing that with those normally beautiful hands, the ones that always seemed to be protecting. “I really ought to be with my sister right now,” I said. “She’s taking this whole Brian thing really hard.”
And as I started to walk away, I could hear my shoes and the wind and the fire popping and the sound of my breath as I hyperventilated. Tommy mumbled something that I wished I would have heard that night, that he was taking Brian’s death hard, too. I think most of us on the block were, but I knew I had to bottle it up for the sake of my sister; I needed her to feel some sense of normalcy somewhere.
The last loud thing that Tommy said to me was that he had something for me. He ran toward me again, and it was as though we’d rewound to the beginning of the evening. He wrapped his arm around the small of my back again and pulled a sloppily made valentine out of his shirt pocket–crayon, glitter, and an uneven heart all under the words “I love you!”
I held it between two fingers as I let my hand fall to my side. I stared into his eyes, searching for the person that I’d thought I’d known all that time. I realized then that this wasn’t the first time I’d been in his backyard with angry handprints on my skin from someone that I thought I could trust, that I loved and thought should love me enough not to hurt me.
The day I claimed the treehouse as my new home after mother punished Jackie and me, and the night I stood up to Zack at the party, sure Tommy had been sweet to me, but I still ended up in the same position I was in now, hugging myself for comfort. And now, I was running away from this yard with handprints.
I swallowed hard, still searching his eyes for the right words to say. The only ones that could come out of my mouth were, “I really hope this card isn’t the last good thing I can remember about you.”
I dragged my feet toward the stone walkway, wanting the salt off my shoes, and sad that this place no longer felt safe. Tommy stared at me, not moving anymore than to shift his arms to hug himself.
I felt the valentine vibrating as the wind blew against it, but this time I didn’t feel cold. I didn’t feel like wrapping my jacket around my waist. There weren’t butterflies knocking against my insides anymore. Instead, I felt as if I had actually done something right, and, maybe, this time I knew better than to run back to that treehouse.
Girls from the church youth group I led were taken from their home by Child Protective Services with a police escort, their step father yelling and threatening violence. They called a few hours later. With no foster parenting prep classes, no reading over the rules, no official designation, my introduction to foster care was strangely perfunctory. Social workers brought the kids late at night, checked a few things (like the number of beds), 911 was written on a scrap of paper by the phone, and my husband and I signed a form. The children stood in a home they’d never seen before with wide eyes, searching to find any harmful secrets that might lurk. If their own home isn’t safe, how could this one be? They hoped that what little trust they had in me held true.
Foster parents must promise to keep all information about their foster children private. Social workers, teachers, doctors and anyone else who works with the child are also bound by privacy laws. The National Resource Center for Child Welfare Data & Technology attempts to help professionals negotiate between the laws and the need to share information. They concede, “Child welfare professionals face a daunting array of privacy, confidentiality, and security rules. Too often, the answer to the question, ‘May I share this vital information with a colleague who is also working with this family?’ is a frustrated shrug and an exasperated, ‘Better not, just to be safe.’” (http://www.nrccwdt.org/2011/12/privacy-protectio)
It’s clear that these laws were put into place by well-meaning individuals who seem to have never been a foster parent. Want to know if the child sleeping under your roof has AIDS? Sorry, that’s private. Want to find a foster family where a child previously lived so they can have continuity of care? Sorry, that’s private. All information is on a need to know basis. There is no conclusion about who needs to know, until you’ve been charged for sharing without cause.
The only time Child Protective Services (CPS) can publically release information about a child is after a fatality or near-fatality. And even in those cases it is not mandatory: “The State is not required to provide the information to the public unless requested.”(http://www.acf.hhs.gov/cwpm/programs/cb/laws_policies/laws/cwpm/policy_dsp.jsp?citID=68) How does anyone know to request the information if the case is confidential?
The consequences of this veil of secrecy over the care of the most needy children is expressed well by Jim Newton of the LA Times on March 8, 2011: “Their fates are controlled by officials who take them from their homes, assign them to new ones and reunite them with parents who brutalized them — all in secret.” (http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/08/opinion/la-oe-newton-column-foster-care-20110308)
With her baggy leather purse flopping at her arm like a broken limb, the mother moved in broad strokes, sweeping up her timid son. She covered him in gregarious sorrow and tears in front of all the other foster kids waiting for their parent visits or therapy appointments in that stained room. He didn’t want to come, but she lured him with a long awaited birthday present. Watching her cry over him like a lover I wondered where the gift was, hoping that her tears weren’t just show.
She started in with crazy stories and unrealistic promises as the social worker stood behind me, out of the reach of her mucus and grief. As she spoke her bloodshot eyes plead with me to believe her and I answered, “Okay,” and “I understand,” without conviction. I believed her for as long as she could see my eyes.
Walking away with her son at my side I told him I was sorry. He knows more of the world, filled with anguish and tribulation, than 9 years can hold. He brushed away silent tears and said he would never visit her again.
I met Erica at church. She had an adorable one year old daughter who toddled into mischief. Erica and her boyfriend were married at church in a simple ceremony. A week later they were baptized. I was asked by the church to visit Erica every month, to be her friend and assess their needs.
The first month I took a coloring book and crayons (washable) along with a large package of diapers. Erica didn’t sit still, she got up to pull chicken out of the empty freezer, explaining that her husband hadn’t worked much because business had been slow at the car wash. They were grateful for their illegal sub-let: a gay couple that fought nearly constantly and chipped in for food. The baby headed for the stairs so Erica turned on the big screen TV to distract her and I sat on the drooping couch covered with a sheet.
Erica had been in nursing school a little over 6 months, I asked how classes were going. She couldn’t afford gas money or childcare, so she hadn’t been to school in the last week. She talked big- that her husband would get a second job, she would get a night job, and they would move into a house, where she would have room for her 5 kids. Four lived with her mom now, something must have happened between the birth of her 4th and 5th children.
When a mom with kids in the foster care system gives birth to another child it’s like a do-over. Child Protective Services assumes normalcy until they find evidence to the contrary. That evidence can be drugs in the bloodstream of the mother at the baby’s birth or in the worst cases, later, when it’s too late.
Erica hated that her Mom cared for her children because her son has ADHD and her mom lost her temper often. She vacillated between gratitude for her mom’s care of her children and anger. The money her mom got from the state for taking care of Erica’s kids was more money than her husband made at the car wash. If she got the kids back, there would be no payments for her.
She never said how she lost custody.
The county jail is inaccessible by stroller. There is a wide set of steep steps leading to a set of darkly tinted glass doors high above street level. The advantage is that a passersby can’t gawk in the windows. The problem is taking an uncooperative two-year-old boy inside. Buckled into a stroller his protests would be of little consequence, the stairs eliminate that possibility. Instead, I throw his diaper bag over one shoulder, my purse over the other and heavy laden lean down to unbuckle the stroller straps restraining him. He bursts out of his seat and I grab his mittened hand. It takes a tight grip to hold onto him through the layers of knit.
With the other hand I hold the stroller and push the button with my foot to collapse it. I fold it to a manageable size and drag it behind me while lifting Bobby up each of the steep stairs to the glass doors. I can’t open the door, my hands are full. Standing there physically overwhelmed with burdens, mental burdens also stop me. I am walking into a jail. This two year old boy who was delivered to us at 4 am (filthy and grasping his only possession, a plastic red car) is now ordered by the court to visit his father in jail. His father is charged with child endangerment. He left his diapered son alone in their inner city apartment so long that the neighbors called the police after they couldn’t take his screaming any longer.
There must be a shift change, because through the dark glass doors I can see rows of guards coming towards me smiling. They hold the door open for me and I try to catch someone’s eye, to show them by my clear conscience that I don’t belong here.
Sitting on the row of plastic seats that look like leftovers from a 60’s era airport, I see that the only other white girl in the waiting area is with smeared mascara and ratted hair, rambling incoherently into a phone. My tawny skinned foster son pushes his red car across the floor, laughing when it crashes against the cement walls. When he runs his wiry black mop of hair bounces into his eyes. He comes over to eat Cheerios on my lap and an African American grandmother sitting next to me asks if his daddy is inside.
I say, “Yes, but I’m his foster mom.”
Her smile vanishes and she scoots to a chair further from me.
The guard at the desk calls Bobby’s name. I grasp his hand again and walk him up to the metal detectors. I bribe Bobby with more Cheerios so he’ll happily pass through with the social worker. After he’s beyond the solid metal door and is in the belly of the jail with his father I don’t know what to do. I choose walking the winter streets over the cold shoulder of that grandmother.
Marcy calls me because she left Bobby with a social worker at the jail and is now in that situation that I was in over a year ago – at the jail with time and no friends. I quickly realize that she’s on that border between tears and tantrum that is common for compassionate souls dedicated to nobodies’ children.
“This is ridiculous! This child has spent most of his life in foster care because of this man’s choices, yet here we are again, a 4 year old sentenced to spend time in jail because of who his father is!”
Marcy quit her job to be Bobby’s mom. She and her husband are providing foster care for him with the intention of adoption. He went to their home after being in legal limbo with us for six months. They are waiting for the courts to grant the coveted TPR: Termination of Parental Rights.
We say TPR because it isn’t the courts that really terminate the parents. They made the decision themselves years ago, courts just make it a legal fact.
The first time I went to the gym with Bobby the childcare was full, so I walked over to the older woman in charge, and asked if I could leave him for an hour, even though he wasn’t legally a member of my family. She smiled and gave an overwhelming, “Yes!” He ran off to bang trucks together and watch Dora. The woman kept talking to me. I wish I had walked away because what she said next will not leave me. It remains like an unhealed scab on my brain. I try to pick it off and make it go away, even though I bleed, but it comes back and stays.
“One tiny foster girl my neighbor took in had two broken legs. Her father raped her until he broke them.” She demonstrated with a crude thrusting motion.
Years later my head fills with bile and tears to write it.
I found a blogger who’s been a foster mom for more than 5 years. In that time she’s given birth to 2 daughters and will soon have a third. She and her husband also foster parent Becca, who just started kindergarten, has been with their family for more than a year and has Leukemia. When she came to their home she had no hair and a long list of doctor appointments and medications.
In the current system, the goal of foster care is always reunification with birth parents. Until the moment that the parent’s rights are legally terminated it is the focus of everyone involved in the case. Except for the most severe cases, children who are in foster care visit their birth parents regularly as part of a reunification plan.
Becca’s birth father doesn’t show up to her doctor appointments, as the judge ordered him to do as part of the reunification plan. Becca still goes to visits with him where they might eat ice cream or go to the playground. The social worker doesn’t share information with the foster parents about the other things Becca’s parents should be doing to work towards reunification. They did ask if they would be willing to take in Becca’s little sister too, on a long term basis. (Long term basis hints at adoption, or at least the agonizing legal process of sorting out parental rights.) That is how you know things aren’t going according to plan for reunification.
Becca still visits her father each week. Now her little sister joins them.
Nine year old Vinnie came to stay with us for a week, which turned into a month. Whenever possible siblings are placed in the same foster home, but Vinnie fought with his brother so violently that his previous foster mom refused to house both of them. She’d been fostering for 15 years and was spotlighted in the foster agency newsletter the same month we got Vinnie. Over the years foster kids had gotten more violent, she said. There had never been a child that scared her, until Vinnie.
A month later Vinnie cried and gave every member of our family hugs when we gave him belated birthday gifts, wrapped with bright paper and curled ribbon. That same week he told his friends at school that he hated his new foster family and wanted to kill himself. After investigating the comments his social worker assured me that it was a misunderstanding, Vinnie was not suicidal. After he left our home I heard rumors that he was institutionalized for attempting suicide.
Vinnie’s previous foster mom told me that the school nurse called Child Protective Services over her concerns about his home life for two years before he was finally removed from his drug addicted mother’s care.
Excerpt from “The Nobodies” by Eduardo Galeano
“Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream
of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will
suddenly rain down on them- will rain down in buckets. But
good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter
how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is
tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or
start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The
nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits,
dying through life, screwed every which way.”
Before we became official foster parents my husband and I saw commercials on TV pleading, “You don’t have to be perfect to be a foster parent.” We felt strongly that homes like ours were needed. Foster parenting blogs and web sites also begged the sane and competent to step to the plate, out of traditional roles and into parenting a stranger. We had a taste of it with the girls from church so knew this would be hard. So we said then.
Hard isn’t a word I use much anymore. It’s a stupid little word, four little letters insignificant against all the meaning packed behind it. Difficult is better, I’s surround too many F’s and a crossed T brings up the rear. The base sound of the big D fights with the C in the middle, ending with the sharp LT. “Hard” makes it sound as if it can be broken through, like ice crusted on a street puddle. “Difficult” is complicated, like the thick ridged winter crust of an arctic lake, and goes on long enough to arouse fears that it’ll never end. That’s how this problem of endangered children feels, never ending.
Laws and rules have been made, with strict lines and solid parameters. But these are people, worn down round the edges- soft babies pitted against poverty and ignorance, accidental parents with addictions and mental illness flowing through the curves of their viens, and disheartened teenagers scoured by the mean streets until their soft child palms clinch into hard fists. These things don’t fit the image we have of America, where the huddled masses come to breathe free, not to be suffocated by the cold shoulder of secrecy and the hard lines of policy.
When I signed the paperwork to become a foster parent I signed a confidentiality agreement. I’m breaking it by writing this. It could ruin my hopes for a career in social work – a great irony considering “Social workers help people overcome problems and make their lives better.” (Bureau of Labor Statistics, bls.gov) Very few people listen to children; they have little voices that don’t vote. They are nobodies in the eyes of politicians, lawmakers, and power players – people with the resources to help them.
While picking up my foster kids from their inner city school I saw a large woman walking a small boy home. They stopped as she stooped to tie his shoe. As we walked past them the little boy stared vacantly at me. His mother, with her back to me while she tied the small shoe, released a train of profanities that burned a trail from my ears to my heart. The destination of the singeing words was her son. The cause- an untied shoe.
I thought about putting a stop to it, pointing out that an untied shoe is hardly cause for verbal abuse. Then I looked down at my foster kids and remembered that in some homes children get the worst of everything. Concerned for how the boy would be treated if I embarrassed his mom, with burning eyes I put my head down, took my foster daughter’s hand and kept walking.
“Chanel Number Five?” said Jerry. He and his brother, David, had entered the store at Fifth Avenue and were making their way toward the center of the ground floor. They had expected to find one perfume station in the department store; instead there were half a dozen, each with its own sales people, each designed and lighted differently. Jerry recited what was in front of them. “Lancôme. Estee Lauder. Elizabeth Arden. Bobbi Brown. Who he? Or she?”
“You’re the one who lives here,” David said. To Jerry’s ears it sounded like an accusation. “Remember Catherine Deneuve selling Chanel Number Five on television? ’He knows what you want.’” The commercial had been shown more than thirty years earlier, before David had leaned happily into European exile.
“Chanel isn’t Mom’s style,” Jerry said. “She’d never open it.”
“You don’t know Mom very well, do you?” said David. “Somehow I still see her more than you do.” Jerry knew it was true. Arlene lived in Los Angeles with her third husband; Jerry lived with his family some thirty miles north of New York City, in Westchester, and visited Los Angeles as infrequently as possible. Whenever David came back to the States, he took the trouble to go to both coasts. “Let’s try over here,” David said, leading Jerry to an amber-lighted L’Oreal counter.
The sales clerk behind the counter had cinnamon-colored skin, her black hair tied back with a violet ribbon, and large eyes so dark they were almost black, too. The eyes tracked the brothers as they approached the counter, then professionally looked away. The clerk seemed to be busying herself with flowers in a vase behind her.
“Stop leering,” said Jerry.
“Leering is good,” David said. “If we weren’t leering, she wouldn’t be doing her job.”
“I’m not leering.”
The brothers stood over the counter.
“Hello, gentlemen,” David said, playing ventriloquist to the clerk’s dummy. “Would you like to sample some perfume?”
“You’re makin’ my job easy,” the clerk said. Brooklyn or Bronx, Jerry thought. “You’re brothers, I can tell,” the clerk said.
“Cousins,” David half-sang, “Identical cousins!”
“Cousins? Are you serious?”
“It’s the theme song to The Patty Duke Show,” Jerry said.
“I’m not familiar with that show,” the clerk said.
David and Jerry looked at each other. With each passing year, they felt increasingly ancient, superfluous.
“The show was on when we were kids,” Jerry said. “Patty Duke was an actress.”
“Isn’t she still?” said David. He turned to the clerk almost apologetically. “I’m not up on American obituaries. I’m based abroad,” David said.
“He’s in Lapland,” Jerry said. “Where reindeer come from.”
“Oh, like there’s such a thing as reindeer!” the clerk said, smiling prettily.
You’re confusing reindeer with Santa Claus, Jerry thought, but he didn’t say it.
“I live in Norway,” David said. “It’s where the Liberal party is reactionary, and the Conservative party is relatively liberal.”
“Are you in politics?”
“Politics? No no. Music. I’m the manager of Oslo Filharmonien, a very old orchestra. Maybe it’s just a different kind of politics.”
“You were correct earlier,” Jerry said to the clerk. “This is my younger, taller, handsomer brother.”
“Aw, I’m sure you have good qualities, too,” the clerk said, holding two tiny bottles, each tweezed between thumb and forefinger. “Would you like to sample some perfume? For your wives?” Each brother wore a wedding band; the clerk was glancing at David’s left hand, Jerry noticed, though not at his.
“For our mother’s birthday,” David said.
“She must be a great lady,” the clerk said, her eyes flashing at David.
“Oh, she is,” David said. “Even if my brother here doesn’t think so.”
“Of course she’s great,” Jerry said. “I just don’t necessarily have the same relationship you have with her.”
“Aren’t you the guy who refers to her as Miss Passive-Aggressive of Nineteen Fifty-eight?”
“I said that once.”
“Why don’t I show you a couple of things she might like,” said the clerk, unscrewing the brass-colored cap to one of the bottles.
David said to Jerry, “You shouldn’t talk about Mom that way.”
Jerry said, “You’re behaving like that Marine in Hail the Conquering Hero, the self-appointed defender of mothers everywhere.”
“No. I’m defending my mother,” David said. “And the character’s name was Bugsy. He was fixated on mothers because he wasn’t lucky enough to have one himself. You’re the film professor. You should know these things.”
“Bugsy was a little off,” Jerry said.
“No, he wasn’t.”
“See the movie again. He was wacked out. He kept threatening Eddie Bracken.”
“Sir?” said the clerk, offering her antelope wrist to David. “Shall I tell you about this one?”
David leaned over the counter and sniffed her wrist. “Mmm, yes! This is fantastic!”
“Lanvin. Our very best.” The clerk glanced at Jerry. “Would you like to try, sir?”
Jerry could remember the first time someone called him sir without irony. He had the window seat on a Peter Pan bus traveling from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York to the bus station in Springfield, Massachusetts. A soldier stopped in the aisle, poised to stow his gear in the overhead rack. “Is this seat taken, sir?” said the soldier. Jerry was twenty-four and felt, for the first time, middle-aged. And that had been decades ago. “I must defer to my brother and his taste,” Jerry said. “Or do I mean sensibility?”
“Mom always liked you best!” said David.
“You guys don’t need perfume,” the clerk said, retracting her wrist, “you need a referee.”
“He’s doing Tom Smothers,” Jerry said.
“Tom’s mothers?” the clerk said. “Should I know who they are?”
“Please. One more sample?” said David, who reached across the counter for her wrist and tugged. Her resistance surprised him, and so it surprised Jerry—that’s how he would remember it later, anyway—and the push-pull tension caused the open perfume bottle to topple from the countertop and crack on the floor.
“Wow, that is strong!” said Jerry, the fumes rising to his nostrils.
The clerk muttered, “Fuck,” and strained to press something on the underside of the counter. She came around the display case and knelt to examine the mess, one knee emerging from beneath her skirt.
“Let me help you,” David said, hovering over her.
“Hold it there, sir!”
The brothers froze. An enormous man in a gray suit approached them. The suit itself looked like it was on steroids. The man’s skin was as coppery as the clerk’s, but shiny on his shaved head. His eyes were so unrevealing that he might as well have been wearing sunglasses. An earpiece was clipped to his ear, a plastic nametag pinned to the breast pocket of the suit. He held his arms slightly away from his body—a gunslinger without a gunbelt.
“There’s glass all over the floor,” David said, his elegant hands displaying the glittery, aromatic puddle.
“Just back away from her, sir!”
David stood up straight and took an exaggerated, giant step back. Jerry noticed that they had drawn a group of onlookers who were pretending, New York-style, not to look, tacitly implying that confrontations like this were merely part of the cityscape. Up close, Jerry could read the gray-suited man’s nametag: Arroyo. Satisfied the brothers would not move, the man turned his broad back on them. David shrugged quizzically at Jerry. After half a minute, Mr. Arroyo put a finger to his earpiece. He seemed to be speaking to the air.
“This is Arroyo, Loss Prevention.”
Jerry turned to David. “He’s in Loss Prevention.”
“Can he tell us how to prevent loss of testosterone?”
“Loss of face, maybe.”
“We’re in Fragrance and headed upstairs,” Mr. Arroyo said.
“Think he has handcuffs?” David whispered.
“Sidney Poitier cuffed to Tony Curtis! The Defiant Ones!”
“Come with me, please,” Mr. Arroyo said. It took Jerry a moment to realize that he was speaking to the brothers and not to someone in his earpiece. Jerry threw an apologetic glance to the perfume clerk, who looked up at him neutrally, neither pleased nor upset. Mr. Arroyo led the brothers to an unmarked elevator at the western end of the store that was separated from the passenger elevators. Following him down the aisle was like a perp walk with mood lighting and no catcalls, just some curious faces and the sound of Muzak. Mr. Arroyo pressed the button for the elevator without ever taking his eyes off his detainees. Jerry could hear the rumble of the old elevator descending from a floor or two above.
“Are we in trouble?”
“Hoo, boy, are we in trouble!”
“Gentlemen,” Mr. Arroyo said when the elevator door opened. Jerry went in, followed by David, then by Mr. Arroyo, who let the door close behind him. The elevator began to lift. Mr. Arroyo did not turn around to face front but kept his eyes on the brothers.
“Wasn’t this a Candid Camera episode?” said David.
“We saw that episode at Grandma Elsie’s, didn’t we? On her black and white TV.”
“The show was in black and white, Einstein,” said David. “Elsie had a color TV.”
The elevator cables hummed. As he often did while riding in an elevator, Jerry imagined the cables snapping, the car dropping suddenly.
“Are you staring at my feet?” said David.
“I’m not, I swear,” Jerry said.
“Yes you are! You’re staring at my goddam feet!”
“Gentlemen,” Mr Arroyo warned.
“Salinger,” Jerry explained. “‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish.’ After that scene, he goes into his hotel room and blows his brains out.”
The Loss Prevention officer narrowed his eyes. The elevator stopped; the door opened; Mr. Arroyo stepped aside so the brothers could exit. They found themselves in a long, narrow room, painted in a color somewhere between gunmetal gray and boys’ nursery blue, given over to security. At the moment a techno-rock version of “The Shadow of Your Smile” was piped in from somewhere near the ceiling. Braced against one wall was a large rack with shelves tipped slightly down, as if to display invisible shoes. The opposite wall space was empty, except for two paintings that must have been made more than a century earlier. One was of a man with slicked-down hair, ice-blue eyes and thin lips. The other was of a man with wispy hair and muttonchops and a monocle. Against a third wall stood a console of monitors showing various parts of the store.
“I had an apartment like this once,” Jerry said.
“Your identification, please, gentlemen.”
Jerry reached for his New York State driver’s license.
“I only have a passport,” David said.
“That’s acceptable,” Mr. Arroyo said. He took Jerry’s license and David’s passport and looked at them. After a few seconds he glanced up at their owners, from one to the other, as if confirming their identities. “Wait here,” he said. He stepped back into the elevator, which closed again. The brothers could hear it move.
“He didn’t say please that time.”
“He’ll be sorry,” David said.
They looked around the room. “Man, they got everything bolted down!”
“They don’t want you stealing anything.”
With only the techno-rock playing above them, the brothers’ paranoia wafted about the room like cigarette smoke in search of a vent.
“You ought to film this,” David said.
“Those days are over,” Jerry said. “I’ve become just another parasite of the arts.”
“Then what am I? I spend all my time making reservations, procuring music stands and folding chairs in Prague, arranging for a piano to be tuned in Seoul.”
“But you’re a real composer.”
“Because once every five years I write down a few notes? At least you still pick up a camera.”
“Eh, they’re home movies. And teaching film at a community college does not make me a filmmaker.” Jerry glanced at the video console. “All that stuff is being recorded for security.”
The brothers took a few steps closer. One screen showed two women fingering dresses, one of them lifting the hem of each dress to find a price tag. Another screen showed the escalators, patrons going up past patrons coming down. Jerry’s cell phone rang. He looked at the readout.
“Take it,” David said. There was nowhere to go to give Jerry privacy, so David bent farther over the monitors, as if to pay closer attention to each screen.
“Yeah, honey, we did find one. But we’re being detained. . . . David was a bad boy. . . . We were both bad, I guess. Call it a mishap. . . . No, I don’t think so.” Out of habit, Jerry put the phone to his chest and said to David, “She wants to know if we need a lawyer.”
“I can always use a lawyer,” David said.
“Christ, I’m already in the doghouse, now she thinks we’re going to jail.” Jerry put the phone back to his mouth and said to Helen, “No, don’t call him yet. If we get taken to Riker’s, you can visit us tomorrow.”
“Tell her to bring an iron file,” David said.
“David sends his love,” Jerry said to Helen and clicked off.
“Trouble in paradise?” said David.
“Helen sends love back.”
“Well, she’s a nice woman.”
“Uh oh, Here we go.”
“What? Didn’t I just say she was nice?”
“Davey, it’s no secret you don’t like my wife.” For years Jerry had experienced it as part of David’s superiority, and it kept him off balance. Jerry liked David’s wife, Astrid, well enough. Astrid designed sleek furniture, was dazzling to look at, and didn’t seem to care one way or another how Jerry perceived her.
“Not true. I figure Helen doesn’t have much interest in me. I don’t take it personally. You once said yourself she became a children’s librarian because she’s more interested in children than in grownups.”
“I said she was more interested in children’s books.”
“Okay, I guess that’s what you said. So why are you in the doghouse?”
“Last weekend I said something I shouldn’t have about Girls.”
“Maybe because you called them girls instead of women,” David said.
“Come into the twenty-first century. Girls is a television program, created by and starring Lena Dunham.”
“I’ve never heard of Lena Dunham. Lena Olin? Oh, yeah!” David glanced again at a monitor. “Jer, you’ve really got to take a look at this.”
Jerry went to his brother’s side. A camera was fixed on a bench—it seemed to be outside a ladies’ room—where a woman of pale complexion and stringy hair sat breastfeeding a baby.
“That kid is slurping away!” said David. “That’s right out of the London street scenes of Hogarth, you know, where the breastfeeding mothers all look drunk.”
“I’m thinking Fouquet’s Virgin and Child,” Jerry said. “Now that’s a painting!”
“Except the Virgin isn’t actually breastfeeding. Look over here.” David pointed to another monitor. “This guy’s wearing half the store.”
“And he’s walking right out! Jesus! Should we tell Mr. Arroyo?”
As if on cue, the elevator door opened again. The brothers hopped away from the console as if they’d been caught looking at pornography.
“Anything interesting?” Mr. Arroyo asked.
“Nothing out of the ordinary, Mr. Arroyo,” Jerry said. “Not that I know what the ordinary would be.” He could feel his brother throwing him a look, though he wasn’t sure why. Should he have told the Loss Prevention officer about the shirt thief? A line came to him from his all-time favorite movie—I don’t eat cheese for no cops—but he wasn’t about to say it right now.
Mr. Arroyo produced Jerry’s New York State driver’s license and David’s American passport. “I am returning these to you, gentlemen. Ms. Perez has made no complaint against you.”
The brothers looked at each other. “I’m sorry I made her so nervous,” David said.
“The store would like you to pay for the breakage, however.”
“Of course. How much is it?”
“They’ll have to tell you downstairs. Please come with me.”
They followed Mr. Arroyo back to the elevator. “The fellows on the wall?” said David as they entered. “Founders of the store?”
“Honestly, I have no idea,” Mr. Arroyo said.
Jerry said, “The hairy brother was preferred by the father. The other one pretended to be the hairy one so he could get the old man’s blessing.” The elevator door closed on them. The three men descended. “Used an animal skin. The hairy brother sold his birthright to the unhairy brother.”
“What’s a birthright?” said David. Mr. Arroyo smirked. “What? I never knew!”
“I can’t tell if you’re mocking Genesis or you’re both just uneducated,” Mr. Arroyo said.
“Oh, the latter,” Jerry said. “I often don’t know what I’m talking about.”
The elevator stopped on the ground floor. Mr. Arroyo led them out by placing one meaty hand in the middle of Jerry’s back. Yet it was a light touch: Jerry could barely feel it. “You get a lot of shoplifters, Mr. Arroyo?” he asked.
“Some of them get away?”
“I guess shoplifters aren’t the most violent types.”
“You could say that. Except for the ones who hit you with a ball-peen hammer or try to slash you with a box cutter or a switchblade.”
“Jesus!” said Jerry. “How do you handle it?”
“He’s a security expert,” David said. “He can handle anybody.”
“I have some training,” Mr. Arroyo said. “We’re walking this way, gentlemen.”
Several steps ahead of the brothers, Mr. Arroyo navigated the narrow center aisle. Passing the L’Oreal counter, Jerry did not see Ms. Perez; the broken glass had been cleaned up, but the powerful fragrance remained. David turned to Jerry and whispered, “You keep insisting on using the man’s name. Is that an American thing?”
“Is what an American thing?” whispered Jerry. “He’s wearing a name tag.”
“Do you refuse to consider the name tag a badge of class identity? Security guards. Waitresses. Bank tellers. They’re all there to serve you. And they don’t call you by name.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Jerry moaned. “Many of them already know my name. And yours.”
“Gentlemen, say hello to Ms. Bostic,” Mr. Arroyo said, stopping to present a woman who appeared on the other side of a counter. She seemed a beguiling mix of African-American, red-hair and freckles.
“Hello,” Jerry said.
David put up his hand close to, but not quite touching, the Prevention Loss officer and said, “One quick question, if you don’t mind.” Then he added, “Mr. Arroyo.” Almost imperceptibly, Mr. Arroyo nodded his shaved head. “Did Ms. Perez say anything? About us, I mean?”
Mr. Arroyo did not smile with his mouth, but he did with his eyes. “She said, “Son hombres suaves antiguas.”
“Suave?” said David. “What’s that again?”
“If it’s not in Norwegian, French, or English,” Jerry said, “my brother won’t understand.”
“She said you’re a couple of harmless old geezers,” Mr. Arroyo translated.
“Well, that puts it in perspective, doesn’t it?” said Jerry.
“These are the gentlemen making restitution,” Mr. Arroyo said to Ms. Bostic. He retreated from the counter and was soon moving toward the store’s entrance.
“With tax, the perfume’s cost is one hundred and thirty-seven dollars and forty-six cents,” Ms. Bostic, all business, said.
Jerry extracted a wallet from his inside jacket pocket. “I have a Diners Club card here somewhere.”
David pulled a tiny Scandinavian purse from his outside jacket pocket and unzipped it. “Forget that! I’ve got Mastercharge!”
“We accept VISA, Mastercard, and American Express,” Ms. Bostic said.
David snapped a card on the counter in front of her. “It’s VISA, as you can see.” Annoyed, Ms. Bostic inspected the card, then swiped it through her machine.
“Why couldn’t you just hand her the card?” said Jerry.
“I’m paying, aren’t I?”
“Well, thank you, Mr. Rockefeller!”
“Marjorie Main! She played a bag lady in some movie that takes place in New York.”
“It was Bette Davis. We saw the movie with Dad, summer of sixty-three or -four.”
“But you can’t remember the title.”
“You’re thinking of A Pocketful of Miracles,” Ms. Bostic said, handing David’s credit card back to him, along with a receipt for the perfume.
“Hey, a cinephile hiding in plain sight!” said Jerry.
“Don’t tell anyone,” Ms. Bostic said, focusing on her computerized cash register.
Lacking an invitation to linger, the brothers headed for the exit. Jerry got a glimpse of Mr. Arroyo, one hand clasping his opposing wrist; although Mr. Arroyo seemed to be looking right back at him, there was no recognition. Jerry was aware they were passing through the merchandise detectors, and he half-expected an alarm to go off, even though neither brother was taking anything away from the store. They stepped onto Fifth Avenue but, for the moment, stood back from the swarm of pedestrians.
“Well, that was fun,” Jerry said. “Should we try Saks?”
“Anyplace that doesn’t have fifty American flags hanging over the door,” David said.
Jerry looked up. “Funny, I never noticed those.”
“Of course you wouldn’t. You take them for granted.”
The brothers began to walk south on the avenue, neither of them certain where they were going.
“I am famished,” David said.
“There’re a couple of Irish bars, one on Madison, one right off it.”
“I’m Irish bar’d out this trip. What else?”
Jerry said, “There’s also pretty good Korean a few blocks down. We could order oyster pancakes and have ‘em shipped to California, never mind the overpriced perfume.”
“Mom told me the best birthday present she could have is for us to get along.”
“Yeah, well, maybe next year,” Jerry said. “Speaking of The Defiant Ones, remember the ending? Sidney Poitier cradling Tony Curtis and singing the blues?”
“Bowlin’ gree-een!” sang David.
About 7 a.m. on a warm Saturday morning in July, 1990, I slipped out of my bedroom and into the hall, relieved I hadn’t woken my wife, Linda. I knew she’d rise shortly, and then I’d have an hour or less to get our three sons fed, dressed, and out of the house before she started screaming at us to leave. She’d been like this ever since we’d moved into this house the previous month and she’d claimed the extra room as her studio for her fledgling landscape architecture business. A large drafting board covered with new graph paper, rulers, rubber guides, and other paraphernalia dominated this converted-garage room, and the boys and I knew we’d be instantly eviscerated if we ever dared to cross the threshold.
No sound came from Ben’s bedroom—our three-year-old son was the most talented at sleeping in—but I heard strains of “Tiger Sharks” coming from Mathew’s bedroom, and when I cracked the door open, my sons Matt, 8, and Josh, 6, sat on Matt’s bed watching the program with rapt attention. They were pleased to see me, but Josh frowned, knowing his cartoon time would last only until I returned with a box of donuts purchased from the shop a few minutes away in downtown Castro Valley, a small, unincorporated township near San Francisco and Oakland. However, Matt’s face grew animated.
“Making a donut run?” he asked.
“Yep, wanna come?” I said.
Matt smiled, leapt down from his bed with a thump, and snatched up a pair of sandals. I winced at the noise, hoping it hadn’t woken Linda, but I was happy. Sometimes Matt was just as much of a tube zombie as Josh, but on days like today, he really wanted to hang with Dad.
When we entered the donut shop, we received a satisfying blast of warm, moist, sugary air. The middle-aged Chinese woman at the counter named Faith smiled and said, “Hello, Mr. Long! One dozen like usual?” She reached for a large pink box.
“Want to pick ‘em, Matt?” I said. “Get a couple of maple ones for your mom, then pick out what you and your brothers like.”
Matt pressed his face against the glass. “What are those?” he said.
I followed his gaze. “Bear claws,” I said.
“Are they real?”
“No, they’re a pastry, like donuts.”
“Can we get some and eat them here?—we could buy some milk.” His face was bright with excitement. I pictured Linda standing by the bed, hearing the low-volume TV, and jerking the belt of her bathrobe into an angry knot. The clock was definitely ticking now. I felt my usual Saturday morning spike of anxiety. Still, the little guy had given up his cartoons to hang with me.
“Sure,” I said. “Grab us two milks, and I’ll pick everything out. We have to hurry, though.”
Matt almost knocked over a chair in his rush to the milk refrigerator.
We sat at a bright yellow table near the window. While Matt snarfed down his bear claw between gulps of milk, I nibbled mine and glanced at the front page of The Daily Review. Russia had recently become a sovereign state within the Soviet Union, and a headline predicted the entire Soviet Union was headed toward dissolution.
“Donut Man!” Matt and I yelled as we burst through the front door of our house. This was the only moment we were allowed to make noise. Linda was showered and dressed, her shoulder-length blonde hair combed but damp. She shot me a warning glance—my time was almost up. Ben was on the move, and Linda had unplugged Josh from the tube. Everybody was hungry. I poured glasses of milk, and the five of us stood over the pink box on the kitchen counter, devouring donuts, almost as if we were predators and prey in Africa sharing an uneasy truce while lapping water from the only stream within miles.
As soon as we were sated, I rushed to dress the boys. Except for some crooked buttons I could fix later, Matt and Josh were fully clad. This allowed me to focus on Ben. He was easy enough to clothe, but finding his sneakers was another matter. Ben subscribed to the Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer philosophy that no shoe was a good shoe. He would fling them into distant corners the moment we returned home from the outside world. I conducted a quick survey of the living room, the play room, and Ben’s bedroom. No Keds. My anxiety spiked again. We had T-minus two minutes to vacate the premises before Linda’s screaming commenced. I deputized Matt and Josh to help me, and they found Ben’s tennis shoes in Matt’s bed, where Ben had taken them off to watch TV the previous day. As soon as they made this discovery, Matt and Josh shot out of the front door, quickly followed by yours truly carrying Ben in one arm and his sneakers in the other.
“See you at dinner time,” Linda said as she closed the front door behind us and slipped on the chain.
You can never go home again, I thought, echoing Thomas Wolfe. At least not until dusk’s long shadows.
We piled into my blue Ford Ranger pick-up. Matt rode shotgun, and Josh and Ben sat in the jump seats in the rear.
“Where to, guys?” I said.
They all answered at once, “The Pirates!”
I drove us to Lake Chabot, a beautiful jade body of water surrounded by woods and hiking trails occupying 300 acres. I was ever-thankful this majestic and peaceful setting lay only fifteen minutes from our house.
As we stepped out of the truck, a warm breeze carrying a pleasant floral scent—jasmine?–caressed our faces. We began our walk. The sun was hot, but live oak trees shaded much of the path. We marched resolutely to the half-mile marker, which was just beyond a grove of shady and fragrant bay trees, then descended a side path leading to the water’s edge. Within a minute of hiking along the shore, we came to the boys’ favorite place to play, The Pirates. The boys loved the movie Swiss Family Robinson, and this was the spot where they could best enter that world. While my adult eyes saw the remains of a teenage party, complete with a burned out campfire and a scattered variety of empty beer cans and bottles, my sons saw the remnants of a recently abandoned pirate campsite.
“Dad, were the pirates just here?” Matt said.
“I think they left at dawn, so they’ve only been gone a couple of hours,” I said. I pointed to the small island about half a mile from shore. “That’s where they hide during the day, and they’ve got their pirate ship hidden on the other side of the island so we can’t see it.”
“Have you ever seen it?” Josh asked.
“Just a couple of times, once at sunset and once at dawn.”
The boys examined the island carefully, looking for movement in the woods and signs of the Jolly Roger flapping through the treetops.
“Do the pirates like skipping stones?” said Matt, skipping a stone across the water. It bounced five times.
“It’s one of their favorite activities,” I said. “Particularly when they’re full of rum.”
Matt continued to skip stones, which inspired Ben to pick up the largest rocks he could find and plop them into the water to see how big a splash he could make. Meanwhile, Josh, the engineer in the family, became fascinated with a fishing pole holder constructed out of niched branches and fishing line. Over the next half hour, he would take it apart and reassemble it. I watched the boys as they played, making sure they were safe and not getting too wet, since going home for dry clothes was not an option.
While they played, I thought about how I’d met their mother at Virginia Tech our freshman year in 1975. I first noticed her in my English class, where I thought she was a pretty blonde with a nice smile who seemed down-to-earth, unlike many of the stuck-up good-looking and popular girls who’d attended my high school. We shared two classes, ate in the same dining hall, and lived in adjoining dorms. We kept crossing paths. At one point, I learned Linda enjoyed Fleetwood Mac. I liked them too, and my cousin Jeff, who lived in my dorm, owned all of their albums, so I invited Linda to my room on a Saturday night for a Fleetwood Mac fest. She accepted, we sipped cheap red wine while we listened, and I kissed her after I escorted her back to her dorm.
She seemed surprised but pleased. “We’ll see about that,” she said as the door closed behind her.
Christmas break followed almost immediately, and we exchanged silly postcards. We both had long-distance lovers with whom we’d rendezvous over the holiday, but those romances hadn’t been going very well, and we knew our kiss was the start of something special.
However, when we returned to school, Linda was solemn. She’d had sex with her boyfriend over the holiday without birth control, and she was terrified she was pregnant. She told me this as we stood in the courtyard between our dorms one evening when the temperature was in the teens and the wind whipped wildly about us. I held her for hours, comforting her, and when we finally parted, we were in love.
A loud splash startled me out of my thoughts. At first, I was terrified one of the boys had fallen into the lake. However, I quickly surmised Ben had dropped an unusually large rock into the water. His brown corduroy jumper was wet from the splash, and I pulled him onto my lap so he could dry in the sun. He asked me a long stream of questions about pirates, and I told him everything I knew or could make up. Matt concentrated on digging miniature channels from the lake inland, and Josh had the fishing pole holder apart and was laying out the pieces in an orderly manner.
I hoped Josh felt okay. The previous weekend, his best friend, Seth, had thrown a birthday party and failed to invite Josh, instead inviting a group of older boys he wanted to impress, and they had attended because Seth was the only child of indulgent parents, and he had the coolest toys in town. Linda and I had been upset and angry when we learned of this treachery, but here’s the difference: while I quietly seethed, Linda phoned Seth’s mother and screamed at her. Every now and then, it was handy having a banshee in the family.
While I tend to characterize Linda as a banshee, witch, succubus, or other evil creature, I also recognize she was deeply unhappy, and I remind myself to feel compassion for her. Even as she destroyed virtually everything in her path, she was desperately searching for inner peace. After we divorced–two years following the events of this story–she earned a Ph. D. in spirituality. When that didn’t bring her calm and contentment, she went to Nepal on a spiritual quest. I don’t know if she ever found the tranquility she sought. A sad thought is she might have avoided a lifetime of misery by simply consulting a psychiatrist, which she refused to do. At the time of our divorce, her doctor brother and nurse mother told me they suspected she had a chemical imbalance in her brain.
Anyway, back to my concern for Josh. He looked like he’d regained his high spirits—just a few days earlier, when the trash truck made an unusually deafening noise in front of our house, Josh ran up to me and said, “Daddy, the trash truck just crashed into your Ranger!” Of course, I ran to the front picture window only to be confronted by my unscathed pick up and three wildly giggling boys. I was so grateful I was surrounded by these happy little guys in a marriage that had begun to scare the hell out of me.
After Josh reconstructed the fishing pole holder, I noticed the boys’ interest in their play waning. I suggested we hike a little farther along the shoreline. At first the boys weren’t keen on this idea, but I piqued their interest by pointing at the hut-like brown-and-gray thatches of cattails around us.
“See these huts?” I said. “Witches live in them, and they’ll come out and eat us if we aren’t sneaky and quiet as we hike past.”
Suddenly, everybody was up for a hike along the witch trail. Matt picked up a cattail.
“This is a kitty protector,” he said. “If it meows, we know there’s a witch in the hut.”
“Kiddy protector or kitty protector?” Josh asked.
“Kitty protector, as in cats,” Matt said.
We each picked up a cattail, and we quickly navigated the next half-mile of witch huts, quietly rushing past any that elicited a “meow.”
At the end of the witch trail, our kitty protectors suddenly turned into swords, and we fought one another valiantly until we each held the useless nub of our hilt.
“You guys ready to do something else?” I said.
The boys nodded, shouting out a variety of destinations common on Saturdays: Village Toys, Toys R Us, Crush Comics, Play It Again Video, Burger King, the Oakland Museum, and the Oakland Zoo. They left out the more mundane activities, like picking up my shined shoes or dry cleaning, but they were always good sports about even these dull ventures.
We ascended a path leading to the main hiking trail and headed back toward the truck. We proceeded without incident until the boys asked if they could sit in the last bit of shade before the parking lot to cool off for a few minutes. I assented. Ben immediately took off his shoes. I watched him with a sharp eye, making sure his sneakers didn’t disappear into a clump of poison oak. When it was time to move on, I helped Ben back into his shoes. While I was thus engaged, Matt decided to conduct a gravity experiment. He rolled a large rock off the edge of the trail down the embankment leading to the lake’s edge, curious to see how fast the rock could travel and whether it could make it all the way into the water.
I cringed, then thought, oh well, probably no harm done. Just then, we heard a loud clank and a scream as the rock smashed into the base of an aluminum chair occupied by a fisherman. The man, who was about sixty, sprang out of his chair, threw his white cap into the dirt, and charged up the long flight of oak stairs leading from the shoreline to where we stood on the main trail.
“I’ll teach that little son of a bitch to scare the shit out me!” the man yelled, his blue Hawaiian shirt and formerly combed-over gray hair flapping in the breeze.
Matt stared at the approaching man, terrified. “Dad, I’m sorry,” he said. “It was an accident!”
“He’s just a little kid,” I shouted at the angry fisherman. “It was an accident, and he’s sorry.”
“Sorry’s not going to cut it,” the man yelled back from halfway up the stairs. “He’s going to pay!”
“Dad, what should we do?” asked Matt in a paroxysm of anxiety.
I quickly assessed the situation. Should we do the right thing and stay and apologize to the enraged fisherman? My mind and body screamed, No! I didn’t like that the man was swearing, I didn’t like that he’d already rejected the possibility of an apology, and he sounded as if he intended to strike Mathew. Having received many severe spankings as a child, I was not about to let this happen to Matt. Also, I’m an introvert, and I get tongue-tied when an angry person is yelling at me, so I didn’t think I could talk the man out of his fury.
“Run!” I shouted. I snatched Ben up into my arms and ran as fast as I could; Matt and Josh streaked down the trail well ahead me, almost as if they were twin versions of The Flash, one of Matt’s comic book heroes.
Although we glanced back a few times, we didn’t look carefully behind us until we arrived at the truck. I quickly locked the boys inside and turned to see if the angry fisherman was rapidly approaching, but there was no sign of him. He’d been noticeably overweight, he’d probably been winded by his charge up the stairs, and the boys and I had just sprinted a quarter mile flat-out.
I took my place behind the steering wheel, buckled up, and said, “Who wants ice cream?”
“I do!” everyone shouted.
Usually making a pilgrimage to Loards Ice Cream in Castro Village, our town’s main (and almost only) shopping center on Castro Valley Boulevard, was a sacred afternoon activity reserved for family Sundays. If Linda learned we’d visited on a Saturday without her, we all risked losing major body parts—all she’d have to do was cruise down the Boulevard on an errand and spot the Ranger. Also, her best friend Susan’s daughter, Emily, worked here—we’d tried to sit in her busy section when we arrived, but she gave us a sad smile and gestured for us to sit in a less crowded area served by a cute red-headed teenage waitress. So word of our transgression might get back Linda, but I was willing to take this chance.
We were shaken from our experience with the angry fisherman, and I figured we could use a shot of sugar and endorphins to steady our nerves. Besides, it was too early for lunch, but we were about to crash from our donuts. Out of the many positive experiences I arranged for my sons on our Saturdays out, I confess teaching them good nutrition was not one of them.
Speaking of those donuts, it occurs to me now that I ate them in a similar manner to Wonderland’s Alice drinking from the bottle of magic potion that shrank her to a tiny size. The donuts allowed me to revisit my own childhood so I could best relate to my boys and keep them pleasantly occupied, since we had nowhere to go if we got bored.
Although many of our town’s citizens mindlessly flocked to Baskin- Robbins, we knew Loards had been producing some of the best ice cream in the Bay Area for decades, and we loyally stuck to our brand. I wanted my boys to become gentlemen of discerning taste.
We were soon gorging ourselves on ice cream fit for the gods. While the boys ate simple or crazy flavors like strawberry or bubblegum, I indulged in the mighty Fudge-Anna, a combination hot fudge sundae and banana split. I was thirty-three, trim, and didn’t yet have to worry about what I ate.
I was very proud the boys said please and thank you to our server, whose name was Kate. I once read that a woman on her first dinner date should decide whether to grant a second date based partially on how well her date treats the waitress. If he treats her well, that’s probably how he’ll continue to treat his date. If he treats her poorly, that’s probably how he’ll treat his date in six months. Even then, I was confident my boys would earn second dates.
As we consumed our ice cream, I realized moments like these with my boys were the happiest of my life, and maybe being kicked out of the house served the higher purpose of allowing me to spend Saturdays exclusively having fun and bonding with my sons. I was glad Linda wasn’t with us. Her sour presence would have added an element of tension that would have ruined our wonderful, guys-only enjoyment.
I didn’t know it then, but Linda would have a mental breakdown sixteen months later on Thanksgiving Day. After that, she was in a constant state of rage alternating with bouts of suicidal depression. The boys and I endured this situation as long as we could. Six months later, I filed for divorce, and Linda moved out. Our boys’ Saturdays continued long beyond Linda’s evil reign.
After the divorce, the boys and I spent Saturday nights watching Indiana Jones or Star Wars movies while eating pizza with root beer float chasers, our menu reflecting the same junk food fare over which we’d bonded. At one point, I asked Josh how he felt about our new circumstances. His answer warmed my heart.
He said, “Well, I think we’re all going to learn a lot, and we’re going to have some great bachelor parties!”
But let us return to the main action. As we finished our ice cream, Emily’s mother, Susan, came into the shop to deliver her daughter’s lunch. She worked as a dispatcher for the Oakland Police Department, and Linda shared her jaded view of the world. Susan spotted us immediately and came over to our table. We are so dead, I thought as I stood up to greet her. But she looked at me with deep sympathy.
“You guys still doing your Saturday thing?” she asked. I could see she knew Linda had kicked us out of the house. We said yes. She leaned so she could whisper into my ear.
“Is Linda still riding her bike insane distances?” she said in a low voice.
“Yes.” It was true. Almost daily, Linda wheeled the Specialized carbon-frame racing bike I’d given her for Christmas out to the street, where she’d take off on 50- or 100-mile rides without a word.
“Be careful. I think she’s going crazy. My sister did the same thing right before she cracked up, only she was obsessed with running.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” I said. On the surface, Susan’s suggestion surprised me, but a deeper part of me recognized the truth of her words. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, I thought, but my main mission is to protect the boys.
Susan smiled and stroked my back in a way Linda hadn’t touched me in months.
After Loards, the boys and I walked across the now-blazing parking lot to Village Toys, which was run by two brothers, one of them a father himself, who loved children. I always relaxed when we entered the store because the brothers doted on the boys as if they were young millionaires with the potential to buy anything they desired. In fact, when I asked the brothers if I could go next door to Jordan Books for five minutes, they said they’d be happy to watch the boys.
At Jordan books, I selected a Ross Macdonald detective novel entitled The Chill. At that time, I read about a novel a week. I was unhappy at home and work—I was employed by a dishonest and unethical management consulting firm– so books and the boys were my primary means of escape and pleasure. As for Linda, every night after dinner, she locked herself in the bathroom while she soaked in a hot bath, and then she later holed up in our bedroom with a closed door to read and avoid the boys and me in a mini-version of the exile she imposed on us on Saturdays.
When I put my book on the counter to pay, the fetching brunette cashier in her mid-twenties smiled and said, “Nice T-shirt!”
I wore a white cotton T emblazoned with the orange image of The Thing, my favorite Marvel comic book hero. “Thanks,” I said. “I guess some kids never grow up.”
“I like a man who still has some boy in him,” she said with a brightness of eye that went well beyond routine store clerk courtesy. “Did you know the Rowell Ranch Rodeo is next weekend?”
“No,” I said. “But it sounds fun.”
“It’s really great,” she said. “And they have a chili bake-off with some of the best chili you’ll ever eat. Would you like to meet me there?”
My spirit started to soar, only to be anchored firmly by a sudden tightening in my stomach. This is what it feels like to be offered a fresh start on love when you’re deeply unhappy in it.
I held up my wedding ring finger. “I can’t tell you how much I’d like to go,” I said. “But I can’t.”
My face must have telegraphed pain or sorrow because the clerk, whose nametag read “Trisha,” came around the counter and gave me a hug that had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with comfort. On one hand, this kind-hearted embrace felt wonderful, but it also saddened me because it wasn’t coming from Linda.
Back at Village Toys, the boys lined up the merchandise they wanted on the cashier’s counter: two LEGO sets for Matt and Josh, and a firefighter-themed Duplo kit for Ben. Although I’m not very mechanical, my sons only desired toys they could construct. Perhaps Matt and Ben shared some of Josh’s engineering ability, perhaps it was reassuring for the boys to build something with their hands while they were enveloped in a disintegrating marriage, or perhaps they simply were displaying their high levels of creativity.
Next, we went a few doors down to Play It Again Video, the first and only video store in town, which was run by a family of handsome and beautiful blondes who loved working together as a family at this new, high-sales business. After examining every video in the crowed store, we selected the original Star Wars movie, along with Swiss Family Robinson. After we’d rented these movies a thousand times, I finally wised up and bought copies. As a side note, Play It Again met a sad fate when Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came to town: the happy blonde family quickly sold out to an Indian gentleman, the store gave up half its floor space to another store, and it opened up a small corner room filled with pornographic movies. A year later, Play It Again no longer existed.
During the second year of my relationship with Linda, she screamed at me for the first time. We cooked a meal in her off-campus apartment, and I was in charge of slicing and sautéing a green pepper. In high school, I spent three years cooking at Pizza Hut, so I definitely knew my way around the vegetable in question. However, as I finished slicing, Linda yelled at me, “What are you doing? That’s not how you slice a green pepper!” Her face was heart-attack red, and her eyes filled with fury. Mental illness, I correctly diagnosed. Flee now while you still can! And then a stream of counter-thoughts rushed through my mind—maybe she had a really bad day, maybe she’s having her period, she’s never done anything like this before, maybe I should give her another chance…. At the time, I didn’t know where these thoughts originated.
Now I’m certain they came from a weak part of my psyche riddled with low self-esteem resulting from the harsh punishments my brother and I endured as children. We’d been raised by seemingly loving parents who nevertheless frequently transformed into ogres and beat the childhood innocence out of us, so marrying a witch or banshee wasn’t that much of a stretch. I had a very high tolerance for abuse, which was familiar, and, foolishly, I decided to stick it out rather than flee. Of course, all of these decisions were subconscious. So I stayed with Linda. The result was fifteen years of often unhappy marriage and the birth of three wonderful sons.
From Play It Again Video, we drove down Castro Valley Boulevard a few blocks to Crush Comics, which stood next door to the Chabot Cinema. Matt excitedly picked up the latest issues of several series of Spider-man comics. I was pleased I’d turned at least one of my sons into a comic fanatic, not because I wanted Matt to be like me, but because I wanted him to experience the same deep pleasure I had. I flipped through the favorite comics of my youth: The Amazing Spider-man, The Fantastic Four, and The Incredible Hulk. Just seeing these familiar heroes brought happiness to my heart.
Josh and Ben explored the store with less interest. Josh eventually picked out an Invincible Iron Man, and Ben selected a Tales from the Crypt. The first time I bought comics for the boys, I thought Linda was going to rip my lungs out, but eventually even she recognized the pleasure they gave the boys, especially Matt. She even bought Matt a pile of comics once when he was ill. As we moved through this quiet, joyful room toward the cash register and clerk, I realized how much this little shop nourished the spirit of boys of all ages.
After Crush Comics, we refueled at Burger King, then drove west on I-580 to the Oakland Zoo. Back then, the zoological park was a beat-up, old-school enterprise with bars and cement enclosures. However, a patron donated a large sum of money the zoo spent wisely, and it seemed like every time we visited, another animal had been liberated into a new roomy and natural habitat. After we arrived, the boys begged me to go on the Sky Ride with them. The Sky Ride consisted of plastic benches hooked up to a pulley that enabled passengers to view the animals from above their enclosures.
This was the last thing I wanted to do; I was afraid of heights, and the Sky Ride didn’t have any flooring to anchor our feet, and the thin aluminum safety bar across our laps felt like I could bend it into a pretzel Superman-style if I gripped it too hard. Also, the plastic seats were slippery, and I worried we would slide right out from beneath the bar. In addition–I don’t know whose bright idea this was– the Sky Ride traveled directly above the open lion and tiger exhibits. One simple slip and you were literally dead meat. As I looked at my sons’ pleading faces, I thought, come on, don’t disappoint these guys, how scary could it be?
So I succumbed and bought four tickets. As soon as we squeezed into our bench, it swung wildly as Matt and Josh squirmed to find comfortable positions and Ben pulled at his shoelaces.
“Don’t move,” I said in a panicked voice. “Stay still.”
“You scared, Dad?” said Josh, pumping his legs like he was on a swing.
The bench spun with a strong jerking motion. The tigers below watched with keen interest.
I was soon drenched in sweat, and our seat suddenly grew wet and slippery. I jammed my butt into the curve of the bench and willed myself not to slide out. This was like a nightmare I sometimes had where I let myself fall from a tremendous height because I could no longer bear the fear of falling. Somehow we made it back safely, despite our sweaty squirming. As soon as we docked, I hurried the boys toward the men’s room—and not because they were the ones who needed it.
We spent a long time in front of the savannah containing giraffes, eland, and a wide variety of African birds. The boys gawked at the strange shape of the giraffes, and they laughed in wonder when the sound of approaching dinner inspired several of the creatures to run with a surreal gait toward one of their high feeding baskets.
Of course, we visited the monkeys and chimps—Jane Goodall was conducting a study of chimps in captivity there because of their outstanding natural habitat enclosure. And we flinched at the fierce and fury-eyed baboons who charged any spectator who accidently met their hostile glare.
As we toured the zoo, I lived in the moment as much as my sons. Looking back, however, I recognize two thoughts flickered in the back of my mind. The first one was about the progression of our day. We first visited the site of evil pirates and witches, who were now no longer a threat; then we’d entered the fantasy world of superheroes where evil was almost always vanquished by good, and now we were contentedly observing the natural world as it was, a world of tremendous fascination and adventure. We had temporarily purged the evil from our lives and were living in a state of grace.
The second thought was about my father. He never would have spent a day like this with my brother and me, although he occasionally took us on walks through the neighborhood, flew kites with us, and terrorized us as a sea monster at the swimming pool. Basically, he engaged us in activities he enjoyed, but he never showed an interest in entering our world.
My father has many times told my brother and me he’s nowhere near the father we are to our sons. He’s right. Interestingly, my dad’s father delighted in taking us boys fishing so he could share this great, manly pleasure with us. These outings were short-lived, though, because our grandfather fell on ice soon after he retired, and he injured his legs, which had to be amputated because poor circulation prevented them from healing.
We saved the elephants for last. As we plopped down on a bench facing their enclosure, a zoo keeper with a red face and walrus mustache finished filling up a large hole with water from a hose. While he threw apples into the makeshift pool and coaxed the elephants to swim to retrieve them, he recited a long string of facts. For example, these awe-inspiring creatures have 150,000 muscles in their trunks, and they can use this appendage to suck up to 15 quarts of water at a time, which they then squirt into their mouths. Also, he said, elephants can hear with their ears, trunks, and feet. In addition, these captivating mammals are believed to have the same level of intelligence as dolphins and non-human primates, and they can feel grief, make music, show compassion and kindness, mother one another’s infants, play, use tools, and recognize themselves in mirrors.
When some of the elephants exited the pool, they used their trunks to throw dirt on their backs.
“Dad, what are they doing?” Ben asked.
“Putting on sunscreen,” I said.
The boys giggled.
The zoo keeper continued to lecture, but we tuned him out and focused solely on the elephants as the great, gray, wrinkly creatures with the small dark eyes and long eyelashes and formidable, floppy ears shaped like the African continent bobbed and swayed in the hot July afternoon. Perhaps the boys’ minds wandered briefly to Babar, one of their favorite books about an anthropomorphized elephant, just as mine may have flashed briefly upon the proverbial elephant in the room at home, but our thoughts quickly returned to the magnificent elephants and our simple but immense male joy.
What I liked about the very early morning, during the gray misty fog, was the fragility of the newborn day. There was daintiness in the air. I stepped over the moist welcome mat with the feeling that something was about to be broken, or that something had just happened, not so much a calamity but the calm after complete disappointment. They were out there, waking and finding their morning routines. For them it was the same as every other day. They crept out of bed slowly, realizing what was happening. They shuffled across the wood floor, opened the door, walked on the icy tile, ran the water, brushed, started the shower, their feet squeaking on the porcelain tub as the streaming hot water woke them and reminded them it was necessary. This was what they had to do. This was their side of things. My side was different. The silence lingered each morning in my neighborhood. Most of my neighbors were retired, many still asleep. Even those awake went quietly about their morning chores as if it were Christmas morning and no one should be bothered or awakened from that sweet blissful sleep that gave many the feeling of calm and peace. But soon enough the mist would dissipate and the light of day would show and before long the blanket of morning would give me the signal that it was time.
I began hearing the sounds of everyday life, the sound of a dog’s leash, cars accelerating, voices, and the bass of a television. I made a fried egg, mashed the soft yolk and dipped my toast into it. I drank a large glass of water, every drop, and it was a struggle. Then I walked along the wood floor, to the icy tile, rinsed my face, brushed and spit, tapped the brush twice on the side of the sink, disrobed and got into bed, holding on to the daintiness and remembering the images of the peaceful morning which had just passed.
When I awoke it was late afternoon, and the sun was already turning a golden hue. I had slept through the high sun and the warmth. The coolness of the ocean breeze picked up the more the sun tanned. I wanted to go outside, to sit somewhere and have a conversation with a friend. It was an urge that arose on occasion, and when it did I generally called the same person. But he was in a different place now and I knew better. Though I hated to premeditate matters, I knew what would happen, that we would meet over a drink and proceed to talk about our very different lives. He would get tired after a few cocktails and tell me he had to work in the morning. I would tell him I was just getting started, and of course, he would laugh. He always laughed at me. I knew it wasn’t mockery. It was our humorous clashing of personalities.
“At this age and you’re still a night owl,” Noble said, touching a lip to his glass before sipping the scotch carefully.
“It’s worse lately,” I said.
“Oh? How so?”
“It’s later now. Now, it gets bright before I sleep.”
“But why? You aren’t tired?” he said with the same understanding that hadn’t changed in twenty years.
“I’m usually drunk.”
“You shouldn’t joke. It’ll mess up your life,” he said and tapped his sternum.
I sat back with a sigh. It was still no use. But I tried every time we met. It was funny to me. The recent years, Noble didn’t wait for my explanations, though truthfully I had few. He just made a dismissive comment like “It’ll mess up your life” and let the subject go. We were grown men, Noble with a wife and a child already in high school. I was alone, with no children.
“How’s that nice house of yours?” I said.
“What is it? You getting foreclosed on?” I said with a mixture of worry and twisted elation.
“No. That’s not it,” Noble said and downed the rest of his scotch. Then he pointed at me with two fingers. He knew I hated that. He said, “You don’t get it, do you?”
“Don’t patronize me. I’m not your damn daughter.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to patronize you,” he said as if he had a history with the word. “I’m saying it’s just a house.”
“Oh really?” I said and lifted my eyebrows. “Well okay.” I knew he didn’t want to be flattered. I knew he wanted to feel so high and mighty that something so nice as a two million dollar house couldn’t be something to be proud of. It was just another worry added to the pile. It was just a possession.
But there was something in his eyes that told me he wouldn’t leave even though he set his credit card on the table.
“What else?” I said and confronted his eyes with mine.
“Oh, Hank…” he said with an exhale of total frustration. “I screwed up.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“That is the face of a man who’s screwed up on his wife.”
“I did,” Noble said and nodded his head like a man on the guilty stand. And then I’d thought about it. I’d never actually seen a man on the stand nod his head. I’d only seen it in the movies. I hadn’t experienced many things first hand.
There was a pause when Noble couldn’t look at me. His eyes were listless, downcast at something on the floor, and then at a woman on the other side of the restaurant. His mouth smacked of dryness. With a somber lift of his chin he looked toward the bar where the waiter was chatting with a customer.
“Jimmy!” Noble shouted as though he were aching.
I was roused in a strange way. I’d never see Noble so deflated. Sure, I’d seen him distressed. I’d even seen him cry once after his mother died. But this time in the restaurant he was different. He ripped off a piece of the cold, hard bread Jimmy had left in case we got hungry for a tidbit. As he chewed, his eyes found me with a face of sudden disgust.
“The bread that bad?” I joked.
Jimmy rushed to the table and said, “Sorry guys,” motioning back to the bar, “but that one is on my jock.” We all looked at the bar where a forty-something woman drank a martini, her hair died platinum blonde, her skin tanned and leathery.
Noble’s eyes lit up, but not with excitement. They were taken aback.
“Give us another round,” I said and Jimmy left.
We watched him pass her with a trailing hand to caress her back. She turned and ate it up. Noble turned his entire upper body and watched.
“What’s the matter, your wife holding out on you? You look like a sixteen year old at the pool.”
“I screwed up, Hank,” Noble said and turned to me. Now he was fiddling with the bread crust.
And then I knew. Jimmy brought back the drinks and Noble wouldn’t look at him.
“You want me to run the card?” Jimmy asked.
“Just leave it and give us some time, for Christ’s sake,” Noble said at his bread crust.
Jimmy chuckled at the outburst. I nodded and smiled so that he would leave.
“When did it happen?” I asked with a gentle tone.
“Oh for Christ’s sake, who cares?” Noble said and slapped the white tablecloth as if a fly weren’t dead yet.
“Okay. So what now? You going to tell her?”
He looked at me, worried.
“You don’t think I should, do you?”
“Well…” I said and downed half my drink with a gulp.
“Jesus, you haven’t lost a step,” he said and smiled minutely as that was all he could muster.
“Don’t tell her.”
“I know, right?” he said and sat back, exhaling relief, assured for the time being. “If I don’t say anything, before long it’ll be gone and I won’t think about it any more.”
“That’s one way to look at it. Or, you’ll never stop thinking about it, and sooner or later you’ll cave and tell her.”
“Why do you think that?”
“I don’t. I’m just saying what a lot of men do.”
“Let’s not get into that,” I said like he’d brought up the score to the Chargers game. “Look, how are you right now? Can you deal?”
“I think so.” And then the change came, “Yes, absolutely.”
“Then let it go.” I got firmer, “You want to mess up all those years of marriage, a daughter in high school, a two million dollar house? Not to mention however much you’ve got in your portfolio. You want a gigantic headache? Well okay. Go on and tell her,” I said and suddenly something occurred to me. “Say, you aren’t still carrying on with the other one?”
Noble paused and looked away, then at his drink. He slowly picked it up and brought it to his lips. He didn’t drink. It stayed at his bottom lip a while until he put it down. I watched the beads of moisture on his cocktail glass.
“You should’ve gotten it neat,” I said motioning to his scotch. “At your pace you’re going to water it down to filtered water with a scotch garnish.”
“Who cares?” Noble said, and moved closer with both elbows on the table.
“Relax,” I said. “Sit back and drink your single malt Kool-Aid.”
“So you think it’s okay that I don’t tell her?”
“About what? About the one timer or about the fact that you’re still at it?”
“Is it that obvious?”
I shook my head. Then I downed the rest of my drink. Jimmy saw me do it and came over.
“Another one, Hank?” he said.
“No. Not this time. Run his card,” I said and handed it to him.
Jimmy came back promptly and set the checkbook in front of Noble who was far off in his land of infidelity.
“I’m going now,” I said and got on my jacket. “You stay here and think about it. And stay away from the bar.”
Noble continued staring at his bread crust, while fingering his sweating glass. I stood up with a bit of a struggle. Damn joints. I went back to the truck and drove home slowly so that cars passed me and I could see their ominous figures condescend me as they picked up speed, whooshing in front of me. My mind was calm, and glad. I would go home and start up the real drinking. I felt badly for my friend. It was a harsh time. If he wanted to meet again for drinks I would do it. I sat at the small table in my kitchen and set my whiskey glass atop the newspaper I used for a placemat. After a while I glanced out the window. The lights of my neighbors’ apartments were going out. A fireplace nearby had extinguished so that the smell of charred wood crept in through the crack of my window. They were all retiring for the night. Conversely, I was just beginning to feel the alertness, that light-headed perk that told me I was at midday. In my unlit apartment, the television flashed its varying colors at the white wall and I watched the flashing exchange rather than the television itself.
My telephone rang. I answered it knowing it would be him. I listened carefully and nodded accordingly as though he were in the room. I waited when he paused, and then he went on telling me what he wanted me to tell him. Another anxious pause arrived.
“It’ll mess up your life,” I said, and though it may have sounded like I was being cute, mimicking him, it was quite the opposite. And there was really no more to say, so I hung up.
As expected, the telephone rang again.
He had to do it alone just as I was doing it now. He had to search deep and either admit or deny it. We were far apart in that regard. I knew, and had known for some time. It had been painful at first, but now it was acceptance and numbness most of the time. Occasionally it was like a lonely dog staring at me with the eyes of hope. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing. So I bent over and carefully unhitched it from the socket.
“Don’t do anything until you hear from me,” Jeremy says, kissing me hard on the lips before he gets on the bus. There are two hundred bottles of very expensive nail polish in his black wheeled briefcase, and we’re praying this works. My stomach hurts already.
It’s a hot afternoon in Pittsburgh, and humid because it’s always humid. There’s nothing for me to do but slog back to Frankie’s apartment, sit in front of the AC window unit, take some antacids, and hope Frankie doesn’t come home early.
If he never comes home that would be okay, but I’ve never believed in miracles. At least ones that happen when you need them. I like being able to count on things and Jeremy is usually like that, predictable, until just a few days ago. That’s when he took all our furniture back to the Salvation Army and said we were splitting town.
Jeremy loves being a manicurist, a career you wouldn’t expect of him since he’s a bit ratty. He wears button-down shirts we buy at Goodwill and has a black mustache that looks like a dead caterpillar taped above his upper lip. Jeremy thinks it makes him distinguished, but that’s another one of the dreams I’m too polite to shatter. Protecting dreams should be part of everyone’s marriage vows. His first wife was so honest that it left him a nervous wreck, but we were both married to control freaks in our previous lives.
I stayed with my husband long enough to make him seven years’ worth of dinners and listen to seven years’ worth of work gripes. He paid my cosmetology school tuition in return, then I grabbed the suitcase I’d packed three years earlier. If I’d learned anything from my mother it was to have a suitcase ready to go. At the same time, I can put up with a lot discomfort in return for certainty, which explains why I’ve stayed at the nail salon for this long.
Jeremy has more of a problem with our boss than me. She doesn’t like much of anybody, but she hates his guts, yells at him for doing sloppy work even when a client’s nails are perfect.
“Those cuticles were not up to par,” she said last week, towering over him in her flat-foot orthopedic shoes and Kewpie doll makeup. Our boss bitches about everyone, so the rest of us manicurists crowded Jeremy during lunch and reminded him that she’s a tyrant.
“Don’t you worry, honey,” said Clara, the oldest and calmest nail technician. “She’s blowing off steam. Your work is so good it could be framed.”
Jeremy strangled a smile. I beamed at Clara because my husband needs support from people other than me. I’m not exactly tired of propping up his weak ego, but I worry he doesn’t believe my hugs.
When Frankie comes home early from his job at the copy shop, I’m not happy and not surprised. He’s more Jeremy’s friend than mine, and I think he has eyes for me. Frankie is a big guy, Jeremy says he used to wrestle in high school, but that muscle has turned to fat.
“Want a beer?” Frankie says, patting me on the shoulder. I swear he looks for any excuse to get close to me, and can break a sweat by walking five paces to the refrigerator. Frankie gets two beers and opens both of them. Maybe I’m imagining his advances, but I like to be on the safe side, which means away from him.
“I’m going to the store,” I say, grabbing my purse and cell phone and vaulting out the door. I need to walk off nervous energy.
Don’t do anything until you hear from me, Jeremy said, but how long will that take? It’s been five hours. I’m worried the police found him and he’s at the station in one of those interrogation rooms with his wheeled briefcase and a few hundred bottles of nail polish and a bright light shining in his face as a burly cop with a Brooklyn accent asks him to explain The Meaning of This.
It was a dumb risk. I wanted to tell him we should grab our stuff and the nail polish and split. We both have a suitcase full of clothes to our names, because Jeremy says in our new life we’ll buy new things. I should have sold the polish instead of him. I look more put-together, but I have his self-esteem to consider, and it was stomped on by his ex too many times. I couldn’t stand to brush him aside and see that look on his face like he’s going to cry. He never cries in front of me, but his eyebrows crinkle pathetically and he gets an expression that says Why can’t I do anything right?
Everyone asks why Jeremy started doing nails, wondering if he’s a pervert with a foot fetish, but his mom had him give her pedicures when he was a kid. His dad had split, and she never remarried. I told Jeremy that was a good decision on her part. He shrugged. His mom was a bank teller and wanted her hands and feet to look good because she wore a lot of sandals. Jeremy had a knack for fine work, and those years of training made him a precise nail artist and a good listener. That’s what his clients tell me.
To them, nail technicians only exist in the salon, a space outside their world. We don’t know the people they’re talking about, so we take our client’s side whether she’s discussing marital problems or kid problems or co-worker problems. We give her that sympathetic smile suggesting she’s right. We learn a hell of a lot about our clients’ personal lives, too much at times, but we get better tips for offering that sympathetic ear. A manicure is like therapy, except my clients emerge with great-looking hands.
Jeremy gets better tips than anyone at the salon, but after our last paycheck bounced he said that was it.
“We’re getting away from that bitch,” he said a week ago after we racked up one hundred dollars in late fees for bounced checks. Our boss said it was our fault for not having enough money in our accounts. I would have waited for a third check not to clear before I skipped town, but I can’t think about just me anymore.
I wish I knew what Clara and the other nail technicians said when they walked into the salon today and found Jeremy and I cleaned out our booths last night. I don’t know how long it’ll take my boss to discover we took three boxes of nail polish. We just got in a new shipment, and it could be a month before she notices the bottles are gone. Or she might have called the police this morning.
“We can sell it for a lot to the right people,” Jeremy said last night when we loaded the boxes in the back of his car. He knows how to sound like a nail polish spokesman since so many of them come into the shop. Jeremy even made up business cards on his computer and had them printed on card stock at the local copy shop at three in the morning.
But there must have been a snag. The cops are on to him. Why the hell did I let him talk me into this? I love him, of course I love him, though he falls to panic at the word “no,” like it’s a bad flashback from his first marriage. But what do I risk to keep him smiling?
I walk to the food co-op, want to buy cookies that are allegedly healthy, but before I skirt in the door I see a fat guy in a blue button-down shirt and straw hat sitting behind a card table. He wags a finger in my direction.
“C’mere,” he says.
I do because I’m curious. He grabs my hand. I pull it away.
“What the hell?” I say.
“I’m going to read your palm,” he says.
“I don’t believe in that stuff,” I say.
“I didn’t say I was going to tell you something you should believe,” he says.
“How much?” I say. Panhandlers can get aggressive, give a service then demand money.
“Free,” he says, “unless you want to get me a coffee.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“When did we start the interview? Can’t a man do what he wants in retirement?”
I hold out my hand. It’s half the size of his. He touches the back of my palm, brings it close to his face, and wrinkles his nose.
“Relationship troubles,” he says.
I roll my eyes. “You could say that to anyone.”
“I’m saying it to you. And money problems.”
“And I had a dog I loved when I was six,” I say.
“No you didn’t, you had a cat.”
I look at him with my head cocked.
“I’m reading your palm,” he says. “See?”
I relax my hand a little.
“You’ve never been in trouble with the law but you’re worried about it,” he says. “There will be a career change in the future. A career change and a move. But not the move you expect.”
“What kind of move?” I say.
“An unexpected one. Your palm doesn’t reveal too much. Kind of like you.” He lets go of my hand.
“That’s it?” I say.
“What else do you want for free?” he says.
I walk to the coffee shop next door and order two cups of the house blend to go.
“Thanks,” he says when I hand him the coffee.
“Don’t mention it,” I say.
“I knew you were going to say that,” he says.
I pace back to Frankie’s apartment and mutter a mantra for nail polish sales success.
This will work. This will work. This will work.
We have a shoebox full of thank-you notes from our clients, transcripts and certificates from cosmetology school, and copies of our bounced checks for anyone who wants to know why we had to leave the old salon.
This will work. This will work. This will work.
We can sit down and give someone a demo manicure. Jeremy is especially good at detail work, painting little hearts and flowers.
Thiswillwork. Thiswillwork. Thiswillwork.
There are no messages on my cell phone. I can’t call him. He said if something went wrong, that might be best… Dammit.
Jeremy said our boss owed us those three boxes of nail polish for grief and harassment and late fees. At eleven o’clock last night that seemed like a logical idea. She never apologized for the bounced checks, either.
I reach the steps to Frankie’s apartment but can’t go up. That’s why I march back to the card table and say to the old guy, “What else can you tell me?”
“So you believe me.” He smiles.
“Not really. I want another reading so I can come back and say you were wrong.”
“And if you don’t come back, I was right,” he says.
“Maybe.” I hold out my hand. “What’s there?”
“Daisies,” he says.
“Daisies?” I say.
“I hate daisies.”
“They’re a perfectly respectable flower,” he says. “But later you can return and tell me how wrong daises were.”
“I thought you were never wrong,” I say.
“That’s right,” he says.
I buy another cup of coffee, walk back outside, stand next to the guy at his card table, and take out my cell phone. No messages.
“Waiting for a call?” he says.
“I want to hear what you tell other people,” I say.
“There will be children, voyages, and mysterious strangers.”
My phone rings. I stare at it. My phone rings again. It sounds like a normal phone ringing. I don’t like anything fancy.
“Are you going to get that?” says the palm reader.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I might let it go to voice mail.”
“Daisies,” he says. “It’s all daisies.”
My mother brought me daisies in the hospital after I broke my leg falling out of a tree. She said my stepfather picked out the flowers. I’ve hated daisies ever since. I knew she was lying because my stepfather never spoke to me, just yelled at her.
He was as predictable as a summer storm, sometimes loving, but other times hard and volatile. He broke dishes and vases and my mother’s finger while I stayed in my bedroom and plotted my escape. I got out of the house as quickly as possible, found a crappy job and married a crappy guy (though it took me a couple years to figure that out). While my husband was controlling, he was predictably so. Every night he wanted to have dinner and bitch about work and get the laundry list of what I’d done all day and see the receipts from the money I’d spent. But he gave me money, which made me a willing prisoner for seven years until I built enough of my own life to say, “Screw you.”
And now my future is locked in a suitcase of nail polish.
My phone rings a third time. A fourth. A fifth. Then it’s silent.
“Know why I read palms?” the guy says. “People want to know the future. If I tell them a future, they’re happier.”
“What if you tell them the future is going to suck?”
“Then they can get ready for that,” he says. “Life isn’t daisies all the time.”
“Guess not,” I say. My phone rings again.
I turn it off and walk back down the sidewalk, but I’m not going to Frankie’s. I’m going to the salon to explain the whole sordid story. How Jeremy went off the deep end last night and convinced me to come to the store with him and clean out our work stations. He spent all day today trying to convince me to move to Louisville, while I tried to convince him to go back to our jobs. He left without me and we’re officially broken up and he can go to hell.
My boss will believe any story about Jeremy, no matter how pathetic, because she hates his guts. She’ll be glad to have me back because she needs good nail technicians and knows I’m one of the best, even if she won’t admit it. She’ll spend all week badmouthing Jeremy, because she loves a good target.
I’ll stay with Clara because she has couch space, room for every niece or nephew or cousin who passes through town, so I doubt she’ll object to putting up a co-worker. Maybe I’ll tell her parts of the real story eventually, but I want to hear from Jeremy, know that he sold the nail polish and found a new job and an apartment and a few other things we can count on. When all that’s over, I’ll find the palm reader again and give him some answers.
The library of the new millennium seems schizophrenic – with an array of sounds, smells and scenarios bizarre and strange; in contrast, the grand old book repository of my youth was sedate and serene. Times change. Society changes. Cities change. Today’s library system is large, expensive and is usually a big part of downtown and Any City USA’s outside burghs, hamlets and environs. There seems to be nearly as many branch libraries in most of our big cities as there are sections of the city. My home of Jacksonville, Fla., while being a major U.S. city, is actually made up of a lot of little places like Murray Hill, Paxon, Five Points, Cedar River, Ortega, Riverside, and a seeming couple of hundred other cozy little corners. It seems like each one of these little burghs of J-ville has its own branch library, too. Go back about four years: as I walked past the long pillars in front of the Eudora Welty Public Library’s front I saw how my then home of Jackson, Mississippi’s main branch public library operates after dark. Three or four homeless men were bedding down for the night in the shrubs. They were haggard, dirty and unkempt icons of an age of throngs of homeless, destitute downtowners. They are part of the new urban “human” blight the city’s Chamber of Commerce does not want to see in or around such a literary facility. In their humble, non-political life of being pariahs – individuals many would like to see denigrated to being totally invisible – their quandary is making a profound impact on today’s library and how it fits into the American socio-political fabric.
During these new-age days, it’s in vogue for the new library to look like a mural out of South Central Los Angeles. Sometimes such graffiti is being contracted by a locally distinguished artist. A fresco, friendly and frolicking, is usually the main branch’s urban look – sort of body art for the big building by way of a tattooed brick and stone covering mural. Sometimes, it is just plain old dirty street kid graffiti, though. Public Libraries on the East Coast, West Coast and in between are going to court over the homeless using the library as a living room, dining room or bedroom. Some groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, say it’s unjust to set into place odor policies or loitering mandates. And the ACLU also deems it unlawful to set stricter guidelines for borrowing library materials in regard to the homeless. Treatment of the homeless is one of the most salient and controversial of all matters facing the American Public Library today. However, my question is a little more far-reaching and deeply rooted: I’d like to know exactly what purpose the American Public Library has in modern society. In the first place, why is it the public library’s role to take care of homeless people? Exactly what decree or authority has deemed our public libraries as daycare centers for homeless folks? Why can’t it be the local convenient shop or deep discount store? Why can’t it be the local marina or auto plant? Even our churches don’t have the responsibility of caring for the homeless during daylight hours.
According to the Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, the tough Seattle winter of 2006-2007 has forced even the toughest homeless people into shelters. “We’ve already been open more days this season than the whole [season] last year or the year before,” said Al Poole, director of homeless intervention for Seattle’s Human Services Department. (Roe, Green)
Eastside Seattle shelters are few and they fill up rapidly during deep freeze temps. With temperatures dipping into the low teens many days, it’s out of human necessity that people get inside, and out of the cold Pacific Northwest cold. Poole said Seattle officials are asking workers at Seattle Center, Seattle public libraries and homeless day centers to “relax the rules a little bit and just be more welcoming to homeless people” seeking a warm haven during daylight hours. (Roe, Green). Accounts of this winter’s harshness echo the same concerns. Homeless people wandering around libraries and more or less “taking up space” in them isn’t such a great fit, however. Homeless people can be disruptive, destructive and sometimes frightening; especially to children whose first impression at the library may now include a jarring memory of a Uriah Heep character (seemingly torn from the pages of David Copperfield. It’s an unsettling sight, holding hands with Mom, in the children’s book section near the water fountain).
Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th U.S. President
I have a different view of libraries today. Although I really enjoy some of the conveniences and free perks of the modern American public library, I also feel an intellectual tip to Sophia, ancient goddess of knowledge, is amiss. As a child, I knew what that role of the local branch library had – it was for learning and becoming one of the learned. But public libraries today seem to take on so many roles. Strangely, they seem not multi-dimensional, but exhibit a stranger dilemma of having multiple personalities. Not only does the modern library have sights, but smells and sounds, too. Switch to 2003: I’m entering the Jackson/Hinds Public Library system’s H.Q. — the Eudora Welty Library on State Street, just off downtown Jackson, Miss. It’s a damp January day in the Deep South. I was living up the street a few miles northward in the Fondren District back then. I spent a good deal of time at the main library in this city of great writers. And I remember those days distinctly – the first thing I remember is catching a whiff of decaying, wet paper as I opened the front doors and entered – the odor was about the same smell as clammy, wet mush. The wet Mississippi winters were when this smell was the worst – it was usually too cold to rain, too warm to snow. What came down was very big, cold drops. Inside, the nice, comfy warmth made me forget the immediately previous environment – now, it’s probably raining cold drizzle.
In the summer, the quiet, cool and calm inside this library, named after one of Mississippi’s most celebrated serious fiction writers, almost cries out to the luxury and easy side of life, too. The library has the most comfortable chairs in all of central Mississippi. The banker and lawyer downtown would love the same seat during their workdays! Like all large flagship libraries, the Eudora Welty library is a great place to do research, read or study. Funny, though, it’s also a good place to run, play or hide from society. For those who still stroke their intellectual nerves, I guess the library’s still good for mental gymnastics, for finding an obscure plume for one’s publishing hat or for the avid reader, just having tons of great books surrounding scholarship and academic integrities in all directions, at all times. The Welty Library has an enviable collection of works by Deep South writers, particularly Mississippi writers. It also has a rare book room that celebrates The South’s great influence to the world of World Literature.
Maybe it’s just time to read the writing on the wall. In some of our major cities, the downtown library is a white elephant and has been publicly targeted in big news circles as a money pit. But any politician knows that you can’t sink too much money into an institution the public views as being as omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. The flagship library downtown is also a flagship-of-buildings. If there’s a place that has become all things to all people, it’s today’s public library. To change with all other venues of entertainment, these once stodgy old buildings had to have bright murals on their outsides, coupled with even brighter art on the inside. They had to become one-stop shops not only for the scholar and the avid reader, but also, for the sometimes reader, the never-reading teenage freak, the computer geek and even the homeless generic. I must admit I love the modern-day public library. It’s really all things to all people but sadly, on the flip side, the intellectual side of these hallowed walls has been denigrated with a seemingly hollow homage to pop culture.
Community branch libraries have become hangouts for middle school kids in the late afternoon. The little small-town library I knew, once – decades ago – seemed to be a quiet place. A book dropping into the return shoot rang all over. Now it’s muffled by sometimes loud laughter, constant computer clicking and banjo and guitar music coming from the basement immediately below, where the daily music show is going on. . . .When I was a kid, some thin spinster wearing drab Victorian garb, a bobby bun and a permanent scowl would never be reluctant to tell the noisy brats at the center table to pipe down. And if her commands were not observed, she’d evict the guilty for the day. But today, mum’s the word at our community “book house.” A lowly aid is always reluctant to whisper “be quiet.” What’s worse, when it comes time to order books, some community minded do-gooders want their version of the First Amendment upheld, which oftentimes equates to a book banning session. What used to be the only building in town with real First Amendment toughness has become a whimpering wimp that is a follower, not a leader. Try to find a book with any real contemptible grit at a little branch library (except for the endeared Classics, of course). For the most part, coffee books, process-analysis how-to’s and a legion of self-help digests are shelved there. I love the assortment of DVDs, CDs and about anything and everything that is media or multimedia. . . .The library is my video store and it’s become my record mart.
Yes, if there’s a building in your town that represents the politically correct to the tee, it’s the local library. It’s really a fun place to be, most days. And though the public computer usage can bring internet surfing for hours, the great works of Fyodor Dostoevsky are gone; and so is the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A few of the major works of the American big three (Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald) may be shelved somewhere in the fiction section but where is a complete works collection of more contemporary greats like Tom Wolfe, John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut? How quickly does the modern public librarian forget. . . .The library boards must discuss for hours, maybe even days, the pros and cons of shelving anything that might be considered even slightly “controversial.” I learned long ago in English Composition that anything worth its weight in words had to be controversial.
Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.
- Alfred Whitney, Essays on Education
And now back to my central thesis: what is the American Public Library of today? It seems to be a mixed bag, much like my likes and dislikes of the former book repository. It’s now a place to get a cheap, great-tasting latte, a free video just out on disk and some old Tom Petty albums I never bought in the 80s. The perks and freebies are impressive. Anyone starving for knowledge – particularly in the pop culture area – is too lazy to walk a few blocks to their local branch library.
Walk though any branch library between two and three-thirty on a fall, winter or spring day. The little book-storing facility sounds more like the halls of a junior high school in the late afternoon. At some branches, hundreds of kids gather for good times and a much needed recess period that they don’t get at junior high anymore. Or take the main branch at a half hour before closing (when the comfortably at-home homeless don’t want to be thrown out to the elements of nature’s heat or cold). The walls ring inside like urban convenient stores! The libraries I knew decades ago were so quiet they screamed. Now, I find myself wanting to scream for quiet in the same halls! I’m trying not being negative here. In fact, this article has gone through dozens of drafts. The first was nothing more than horrid condemnation of our public library system in America. But as the rejections from literary e-zines, academic journals and even some of the premier commercial mags came back in droves, my critique became less critical and more of a balanced story. I really love our libraries today – they are not just educational, but very entertaining, user friendly and more comfortable than plush living rooms! At the same time, however, I’m concerned that our future generations will not utilize these wonderful knowledge and wisdom incubators. Some of the greatest books ever written have fallen prey to the crude political and societal “upholders of decency and morality.” What’s missing is the thing that’s always made America great – a freedom of expression, of press and of belief. And the America that once was, the America that the world relied on as a stalwart and wonderful Big Brother, is all but dwarfed by the ignorance of the right-wing religious do-gooder and the leftist soccer mom from hell. Our hold on the world as an intellectual master, a seasoned teacher and overall fixer is waning. Our insistence on never settling for #2 suddenly sees our public school children intellectually falling behind some Third World and developing countries.
The library is not to blame for this downward spiraling mess, but it’s part of the affliction. My concern is if we’re looking to find a place to house the homeless during the day, we’re missing room and moneys for building the book collections and the hard-to-find research tools that were once only available at the public library. Hard-to-find books, videos, microfilm, microfiche, and rare book collections seem to be taking a secondary place to a fancy living room-style atmosphere.
Flash back to the downtown flagship book ship: Another homeless man shaves in front of the mirror, slicks back his hair and asks me for a cigarette. Today I’m sitting in the “home” flagship downtown library of Jacksonville, Fla.’s, very large library system. The Jacksonville Public Library System is a large and expensive one – with seemingly same numbers of buildings as inner-city convenience stores and gas marts.
I’m working on a computer. In front of me are some folks who are sitting on very comfortable, plush chairs staring out the large windows while it rains. It rarely rains whole days in Florida. But that day it was an all-day soaker. Some are enjoying the aesthetics of nature, sitting comfortably in a large enclave that serves as a living room. A man and his two young daughters chat on the couch. There’s a stately looking elderly gentleman who could be an overdressed homeless man or a retired millionaire. And a young woman is breastfeeding an infant quietly and discreetly in the corner. This is a comforting scene, yet its unsettling because I feel the local book repository of old has become a great place to sit and watch rain drip down very large panes of glass. The ultra-modern furniture inside is outdone only by the most avant-garde of new architecture outside.
A controversial hotbed of the creature comforts found in public libraries of today has Seattle, Wash., as its setting. The New York Times called the Seattle Central Library “Pure bling-bling: a $165 million, 11-story glass-and-metal “big rock candy mountain of a building.” (Jamieson) Seattle Post Intelligencer Columnist Robert L. Jamieson Jr., in a May 21, 2004 article, said he “hung out” with some of the homeless who frequented the library for a little while that spring. One of Jamieson’s acquaintances paused in front of a photo of a large, shiny sink in a bathroom of the new library, set to open in late May 2004. “His eyes get big,” Jamieson writes.
“You can put your feet in that sink and take soap and scrub your toes down,” the columnist reported the homeless man telling him.
“When you are homeless your feet can really stink,” the homeless man added. “There are only certain spots around town where you can get clean, where you don’t have to go to shelters and deal with perverts – or where you might pick up a foot fungus,” the homeless man said.
Then, the man was informed by Jamieson that the library will soon have a “Living Room” — a cozy area of long couches and a coffee bar.
“Living room?” the homeless man answers. “Isn’t that something?”
It’s something, all right. Jamieson’s observation: “For a man who has eyeballed homelessness the cushy new public building can make a guy feel right at home — too much so, if you ask me.”
I don’t want to marginalize the homelessness-in-America issue. It’s actually as salient a problem as the future of the American library. But I’m amazed that we’ve turned our public libraries into a dumping ground to take care of societal problems other institutions avoid; while it’s as hip, pop and slick as the newest industrial rock CD or chick lit book. Some say the library has been changing its face. I say the library of today is facing disgrace. It’s a place of quiet, serenity and safety – a good place to take long winter naps in the cold and long summer naps in the heat. Yes, all’s very nice and cozy somewhere in back of the elevators just behind the oversized reference works and the maps. And all that is shelved and borrowed is pretty, politically correct and screened. Even public library’s computer systems censor what is deemed “obscene.” In most matters, this is synonymous with pornography but the actual act of libraries screening for “decency and morality” makes me unsettled. What happens when all that is not moral is censored? More is fed to the flames, history has shown us. The library’s prime real estate, too, where both the urban planner and the community conscious real estate agent want it to be – downtown. Yet, businesses aren’t required to accommodate the homeless. Most businesses have some semblance of independence but when it comes to ideas, things turn to the censor and extremist. Yes, our downtown libraries have become good places for in-between times; and this means reading between the lines is not allowed. All is perfectly clear as family conscious Wal-Mart and Arby’s.
The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.
- Oscar Wilde
The Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force is criticizing American public libraries for adopting punitive policies in which to punish the poverty-stricken homeless populace. At the Salt Lake City Library, a civility campaign has been set in place to “teach the homeless, children and others how to behave” according to a report by the Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force. This group also cites that in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., odor policies have been initiated which also target the homeless. Homeless people go to the library, the bus depot, malls and other public places because there aren’t other shelters for them.
In Wichita, Kansas, there is legislation pending that would make it illegal to set up temporary living quarters (like tents) on public property. But some claim it’s already all-too-easy for police to arrest homeless people for loitering, being in city parks after hours or for creating a disturbance. (Schubin)
Some people cannot help being homeless and destitute. Why should they be punished in libraries for a set of circumstances beyond their control? Why can’t society be compassionate enough to take real action to eradicate homelessness? Get to the real issue and not the problem of keeping society’s pariah populace happy, comfortable and well rested. Surely, pointing the city’s homeless is a scapegoat, but who makes the library system the responsible party for homelessness and day-care for unruly children and teenagers?
I’m no stranger to libraries. Even today, I spend a good deal of time at these wonderful places and have done so for much of my adult life. In the past few years I’ve not only written, but have published (primarily online in literary e-zines) tens of thousands of words and scores of pieces – poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and some oddball lit-art that I don’t know how to categorize or compartmentalize. Virtually all my work over the past decade has been written on public computers at public libraries in Jackson, Miss., and Jacksonville, Fla. I’ve been to a throng of libraries. Whenever I have interviewed for a job out of state or visited a strange city, I almost always spend some time at the library. Just like corporate communism and censorship, all is uniform. There’s a place for everything and everything has its place. If some weirdo writes a book that questions evolution, the place for that new book may indeed be the dumpster. The writings on the wall aren’t read like they used to be. It’s odd to see America’s great repositories of knowledge and papers becoming nothing more than cyber cafes with coffee rooms and a place to buy a snack and work on a wireless laptop. Perhaps no cappuccino and espresso bars have been carved into the walls yet, but wait a decade (or probably, even less) and the American Public Library will surely catch up with the times. It might even win the whole race. Though poetry may be thin and research and scholarly work may be waning, there’s more than enough selection of current pulp fiction, glitzy and multicolored-covered, to give Quentin Terrantino enough satiric ammo to go at it hard with Pulp Fiction II, Pulp Fiction III, IV and V and beyond….. Most journals aren’t the journals that once dominated the library shelf. No, little is judged, “refereed” or rejected anymore with our change of research from expensive, printed academic journals to on-line e-zines and journal collections. The Internet, meantime, has a lot of the same negatives as the Wild West. It’s the easiest place to get away with slander, libel and blackmail. A hateful spouse can find a gun for hire on Craig’s List, and though some are caught in doing this, others surely must succeed in cleaning up the garbage and wreckage in their lives. Ask, Yahoo! Metacrawler, Dogpile or Google give cyber fiber of expert voices.
Expert voices? In a day and age of utter hypocrisy, where pornography feeds the ugly bellies of Internet’ hungry advertising and commerce engines; where does truth fit in? Even self-proclaimed “defenders of truth” who fight to ban books are actually killing the real reason we have a First Amendment. New books are judged by their popularity as seen on the New York Times Bestsellers List, not by a review from the MLA. Controversial classics may not be burned or banned, but simply are not reordered after their pages are worn and these dog-eared editions go to the library book sale in the spring. Literature is being replaced by “convenient, pretty typing experiments.” Funding for libraries is going by the wayside, too. If ideas cannot be burned or ignored, they are starved. The research tools we now find in print at the library were probably outdated ten or fifteen years ago. And while many reference directories are electronically available, where is the funding for research coming from? The Internet? The government? In a clever and cunning way, research – particularly in the humanities – is being killed with electronics and electricity. It takes money to put out research. Finally, you’re probably saying, “what a hypocrite. A writer who is only found on the ‘Net is slamming his publisher. The ‘Net is used by the poor poet, but it’s more popular as a place to play glitzy games, build a nifty My Space page and listen to free music (but earphones must be worn at all times, thank you. And when the library’s use as a free Web surfing provider goes by the wayside, put the chains up and cover the door. Yes, it once was a grand ol’ institution, but now it has a big sign in front that reads:
CLOSED FOR GOOD.
Long before I met my eventual husband, I met television. When I was a child my father didn’t let my sister and I watch television because he thought that watching it would turn us into idiots and, although I haven’t read the stats on that, there may be some foundational truth there. Poor Daddy. He forgot the first rule of childhood, which is: that which is forbidden is, ipso facto, precious.
Whenever I could, I watched as much television as possible and by the time I was 12 and babysitting at night, I could pretty much watch anything. I watched a lot of old movies. My favorite one was the 1949 black-and-white version of Little Women, starring June Alyson as “Jo.” I was an avid reader but it never occurred to me to read that book. I’m sure I would have been disappointed. Peter Lawford was the handsomest “Laurie” imaginable, in spite of having a girl’s name.
Without doubt, the deepest connection I made with that film, (other than Beth’s death, which I haven’t fully recovered from yet), was with the Christmas scene. It had been a very hard year for Marmee and the girls. Father was away fighting in the Civil War (Union side) and they didn’t know when they would see him again, or even if he was still alive. Beth was sick, but not yet dead. They were poor and it was cold. Everything about that Christmas could easily have gone another way. Snowflakes the size of ping pong balls drifted down as slowly as feathers tossed by angels on high and they had to make all their presents themselves. But by dint of sheer will and brute effort Marmee and the girls decided they would make Christmas and somehow, bravely, keep their spirits up. The icing on the cake was that Papa, or whatever they called him, miraculously made it home on Christmas Eve just as they were starting to celebrate so that Marmee and the girls had the best Christmas ever. As the camera pulled away from that brightly lit scene into the cold, snowy darkness I always teared up. There was something ineluctably beautiful about that family together, the magic of the Christmas tree, their determination to keep each other’s spirits up by faking good spirits themselves, the odd, perfect grace of all of them being home together on that special night for what turns out to be the last time ever ; the triumph of human love over the reckless, bloody, indifferent hands of fate, all of it, touched me deeply. I wanted to crawl into that scene, into a corner by the tree, wearing a worn but still perfectly lovely muslin dress and braiding my long chestnut colored hair up in braids and be that unobtrusive fifth sister silently darning or knitting or stringing berries or just…belonging there.
My family had holidays together all the time and we, too, had triumphed over a couple of tough things, but real life can never compare with the movies. That’s why we watch movies, because they are not real.
As much as old movies, what I liked to watch on television was shows about families: My Three Sons, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Menace, any one I could find. Without realizing it, I was subconsciously casting my next family, straight off the feed.
My parents were working class Jews who had emigrated from New York to L.A.. Their parents had been starvation class immigrants from Eastern Europe who got sent over to Ellis Island by themselves around the time they stopped teething. All alone. In the cold. It didn’t make for great parenting skills, even a second generation out, and they did not resemble at all the white Anglo-Saxon middle class families on tv.
For one thing the Cleavers and the Robert Young guys and all the others always seemed to be really happy. And not just happy, cheerful. They were inexorably polite to one another. They were even nice to all the working class people around them – the milkman, the repairman, the postman, the …well, all the men. Even when they got mad, well not mad, just irritated, they were always able to talk things through. Cooler heads, which were actually their heads but now cooler, would make good decisions based on certainty and feelings of communal worth.
By now, all this stuff has been hashed to bits by feminists, sociologists, media watchers, psychologists, even writers. Obviously, these early 60s sit-coms were just walking clichés. I got that now. Honest, I do.
But I didn’t then. I wanted those parents who never got mad. I wanted those large, well-ventilated houses on broad, tree-lined streets with like-minded people who never faced death, or crime, or cars that didn’t work, or poverty or disability or even weight control issues. I wanted a tall, slender WASP mommy who would wear pearls and heels while vacuuming. I wanted to belong to that phony perfect world And I knew that I didn’t.
But my husband, when I met him, a Mr. William Dennis “Denny” Stock looked like he very well might. He was tall and slim and had blue eyes and an adorable little nose.
On our first date he asked me about my family, and he filled me in a little bit about his.
He was from someplace called ‘Virginia’ and he had three brothers and his family were Christian. Goyim. They owned a house in a little town that had been where it was and what it was since the American Revolution. Until a few years past he’d had a Grandfather who doted on the boys and gave them candy (CANDY?!?!?) as a snack when they walked to his house after school. Grandpa had dinner with the family every night after he played a game of chess with Danny’s Dad, Bill. Bill was an executive at a Sears Department store and his mother didn’t have to work, ever. She cooked dinner for them almost every night and they had dessert and they were allowed to drink Pepsi as an ordinary beverage. She kept crates of Pepsi on the kitchen floor (and this was long before Costco) and they were allowed to just go and get one, any time, to drink along with their Twinkies. Of course, she always had a few sixes of Diet Pepsi for herself, because she was always, needlessly, on a diet.
All of this seemed almost profligately extravagant to me from every point of view. By the time I met Denny all of my Grandparents and replacement Grandparents were long dead. They had only come over for dinner on holidays, anyways, and none of them had ever played chess. I only met my paternal Grandfather once. He came out for my father’s funeral when I was 16 and he wept like a baby even though he had abandoned my father when he was 6 and had resisted all of my father’s very good efforts to try and know him. My paternal Grandmother was, I guess the word for it is, ‘deranged’. She hadn’t been much help, ever, and even though my father died of cancer of the liver, she said that my mother had killed him. So…..
Also – who gets to eat candy? We got to legitimately eat it exactly twice a year – on Halloween Night and during Hannukah. The rest of the year we had to sneak it from friends or buy it after school from the corner store and eat it before we got home. My mother, who fought overweight her entire life, would never have considered buying anything like Twinkies for the house. She didn’t even think it was an actual food, let alone a separate food group. And, Diet or not, we never had soda in the house. Soda wasn’t something you actually drank, it was a weird symbolic thing you served at barbecues and parties but not anything we associated with, like, thirst.
We also ate dinners as a family every night, just the four of us, and my mother cooked wonderful things from whatever meats she could afford – bean and barley soup, stewed chicken, salmon croquettes, flanken (don’t ask), vegetables, a fresh salad every night (true, with iceberg lettuce but that’s because it was the only lettuce that had been invented yet). My father was an early health nut who thought there was more nutritional value in cardboard than in white bread, a finding supported by science just a few years later, so we never had that. Dessert in our house might be a couple of cookies, and even that wasn’t a daily thing.
Of course my family didn’t celebrate Christmas. We are Jews. I have had the hardest time over the years trying to explain this to people and to be honest, I don’t think Denny actually believed me on that first date. I guess it’s just unbelievable.
After a few more shared reminiscences (I asked Denny what some of the ceremonial foods in his family were and he said that a good argument could be made for Cheez Whiz), he told me was that no matter where they were or what they were doing, on Christmas all his brothers came home. He said that his Mother was like a mamma bear and she wanted all her cubs around her.
More than anything, that was what sucked me in. The idea of that stability, that love and warmth and that family all wanting to be together with one another was very seductive. Listening to Danny talk about his family’s Christmases, I connected with my deep childhood yearning to one day find myself in that brightly-lit, homey Christmas scene with Marmee and the girls and, even though Danny was delivering a significantly different narrative, I think that while listening to him that first night, part of me decided that if I ever got chance, I would do just that.
He described Christmas morning in detail, how they would call his older brother Phil up and he would rush over from his nearby suburb and they would open stockings while they waited. Phil’s wife Cheryl never came because she was a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t believe in giving or getting Christmas presents, but Denny’s mom, Wendy, would give Cheryl presents, such as bedroom slippers, “for the house” anyways.
The menu for Christmas Eve, Christmas Morning and Christmas night was exactly the same every year and it sounded great to me. It was a veritable taref extravaganza. Wendy not only cooked oysters, she cooked them in cream, on the same day that they had both ham and quiche with bacon. Plus, they had pies, mincemeat pies. Apparently, she was quite a baker – Christmas cookies and fudge and toffee and banana bread.
He had me at hello.
As they say, the course of true love never did run smoothly and it took a while for us to get it together, but long before we exchanged vows, or rings, or registry lists, or, more importantly, before I went home with Denny for Christmas, I got a chance to meet his parents
The first time I met them they were out on vacation, even though it wasn’t summer or anything. They had flown out to Los Angeles to visit Denny and to have fun. They were big on having fun and that, too, was odd to me. My family went on vacations to the mountains or camping with other families or with relatives, but they brought the children, of course. They brought everyone. They wanted to show us something or they wanted to be in nature. Or we traveled to see family, to go to a wedding, or to a bar mitzvah. Or we went somewhere educational and did educational activities. But we never took a vacation just to have “fun.”
What is “fun,” anyways, I remember wondering. Is it like a party? Does it involve (fingers crossed), expensive champagne? Any champagne? Cocaine? Pot?
Denny’s youngest brother, Brian, was in middle school at that time, but he wasn’t with them. He wasn’t, I guess, part of the fun. Denny had told me that his parents were third generation Christian Scientists and the entire religion at that point was only about 150 years old so that was impressive. They didn’t, he said, drink or smoke, or even have caffeine. Except for the endless pots of coffee they brewed eleven hours a day, and of course, the Pepsi, but that didn’t count. I didn’t quite get why, but I was such a neophyte on Protestantism that I didn’t question it.
They were staying in a fun hotel in Hollywood not far from a famous Japanese restaurant with a fabulous view and blue drinks with little umbrellas. We picked them up at their hotel and Wendy, who was very attractive and slender and blonde, chatted gaily with us as she put the final touches on her cute outfit, primped her champagne blond flip, fixed her bright red lipstick and gave, first her own reflection and then us, a fairly dazzling smile. She was dressed in all red, white and blue with a big red/white/blue scarf around her shoulders and gold kissing-dragon hoop earrings and pearl necklaces and a fancy gold watch. She looked like a dream. In fact, she looked like my dream. She was camera perfect and ready to join the Baxters in some sunny sitcom heaven.
At brunch, the first thing she and Bill did when we got the restaurant was to order up a big pitcher of sangria because, she explained, they had been drinking that with friends nowadays, back home, and it wasn’t really alcoholic. I knew all about sangria and I was delighted because I was very nervous about meeting them and I’ve always considered alcohol to be a great social lubricant. It hasn’t always functioned as such for me, in fact au contraire, but in this case it didn’t matter. What I didn’t understand that morning, or for decades following that morning, was that it didn’t matter at all what I said or did or drank or didn’t drink because I didn’t matter. I wasn’t real. I was that nice looking young woman sent out from karmic central casting to play the role of Denny’s girlfriend at brunch that morning.
They were both very polite and convivial and Bill had a sweet, silly sense of humor and looked just like a TV Dad. We were all pretty much three sheets to the wind but we could be because the alcohol in sangria didn’t exist and, you know…like that.
The next day Danny and his parents went to Disneyland. I may have had to work. Even if I didn’t have to work, I doubt that I would have gone there with them. I don’t generally enjoy amusement parks. I am not amused. I had worked for years as a tour guide for professional French groups and a day at Disneyland had been part of the tour. It was ghastly. The French couldn’t get over how bad the food was. They were furious that there was no alcohol served in the park at the time. All the tour guides knew that you could take the Monorail to the Disneyland hotel and spend the entire day drinking at the bar, which is what every self-respecting tour guide in the region did, but it was kind of like an omerta thing and none of us ever broke the code.
I don’t remember the rest of that visit, it was brief, they had other places to go, but apparently I passed inspection or so I thought, and I didn’t see them again for over a year and by that time Denny and I had moved in together and actually fallen in love.
In between, Danny and I had our first Christmas together as a couple, my first Christmas, period. I mean I always had friends who celebrated Christmas, I went to parties, I decorated trees, I shopped for, wrapped, gave and received Christmas presents, I got Christmas bonuses and watched Christmas movies. In elementary school I learned many, many Christmas carols and performed them. But I had personally never “celebrated” Christmas because….okay…here goes: Not Everyone Celebrates Christmas. They just don’t. It’s great fun, good shopping, it’s all good. But there are people whose entire lives do not stop and on December 24th and resume again on December 26th. It is not a universal rite.
But for Denny and his family, it is. To be fair, Wendy and Bill were still at least occasional church-goers at that time. However, as anyone who hasn’t spent much of the last century under a rock knows, Christmas in America, whether on television or in what some call “real life” bears only a vague, remote connection with the birth of Jesus Christ.
Denny holds no religious beliefs. He is an absolute atheist and he already was when I met him. But he does believe in Christmas. Absolutely.
That year we shopped for our first Christmas tree together as a couple. I didn’t know the routine so I thought that you just went to a supermarket parking lot and grabbed a tree. That might be okay for Jews, or for the poor, but for Denny’s family that would not do. He told me that his family always got the biggest, tallest Christmas tree they could find. Even if it had to be cut quite a bit just to fit in the room. Even if it had to be delivered by a truck because the family station wagon roof wasn’t long enough. It had to be fresh, it had to be green, it had to be expensive, and it had to be huge. A few times the whole family had driven out to the country to saw one down, a la Chevy Chase, but now they just went together to special Christmas tree lots near their town and Mom would pick out the tree. Why Mom, you ask? Why not everyone? Or, er, at least Mom and Dad?
These are naïve questions of a sort that a Christmas neophyte neither deserves nor could ever understand the answer to, so none were proffered.
In the absence of “Mom,” Denny picked out the tree himself, with me watching. It took me more than a few years to understand that my suggestions, or even pointing to a tree or row of trees, was extremely unwelcome. There was a standard of excellence to all this, but I didn’t know what it was. I did know that I was supposed to admire the choice and help load the tree onto the roof of the car, tie it down, and carry it up the narrow stairs to our flat once Denny picked it out. Buying the Christmas tree always seemed, and still does, to make my normally good natured husband very crabby and nasty. For the first few years I thought it was because he was homesick. Later, I learned from a friend that her parents always had a Christmas tree fight when she was a child. Nu? You don’t like that tree, get a different tree! But then again, what do I know?
So, we got the tree and put it in the bay window of our flat on Wilton Place in Los Angeles and it looked so green and beautiful that I did not want to put anything on it. Again, that kind of stinking thinking was worse than even the troglodyte hypothetical 4th child at a Seder might present. Of course we had to decorate it.
True to my own Christmas fantasy I suggested that we string popcorn and cranberries and make orange pomanders and put tiny candles on the branches like in Marmee’s house, but those suggestions were roundly, immediately, mocked and eliminated. We needed to buy stuff. Lots of stuff – bulbs, lights, ornaments, tinsel, all that we, (at my home, not Marmee’s), would have categorized as chazzerei, which is a cute Yiddish way to say “garbage.” But I was down with it. I couldn’t wait. I went out to the drugstore and bought boxes and boxes of bulbs. I had a color scheme. Unfortunately, it was the color scheme of Hannukah, blue and silver, but I swear I didn’t do it on purpose, I just liked the way it looked.
Danny didn’t even consider it. For one thing all the bulbs were the same size, medium. He wanted them to be all different sizes and colors. He also had a plan for how the lights were to be wrapped around. It was a simple plan and yet one which he still, all these years later, is convinced that no one without a PhD in christmasbulbology could possibly hope to understand. This is his burden, putting on the lights, and it is, I guess, an onerous one. However, once that is accomplished, just as in our first year together, we can begin to decorate the tree and I get to help, although I apparently need both supervision and critical feedback.
That first year, Danny and I didn’t plan on spending Christmas itself together. He was flying back East to spend it with his family, and I was staying at home in L.A. which was good because I could take care of his dog, Odie. I could also drive him to the airport and pick him up. Except that the day before he was to leave, I became very sick with the worst flu I ever had, before or since. I was waiting at an audition when I suddenly ran an extremely high fever. I got so hot so fast that I was flushed and weak and dizzy and the casting agent’s secretary, (and they’re not known for being hypsensitive) sent me home in a taxi although she really wanted to send me to the Emergency Room. When I got home, Denny helped me up the stairs and into bed and then he finished packing and took a cab to the airport in the early morning hours.
I was really very sick. Maybe not as sick as Beth was in my dream Christmas but not significantly better, either. I slept for most of the next 10 days. I got my neighbor to walk Odie and my mother came over every day to feed me and make sure I was still breathing, and friends called to see if I needed anything. But not Denny. He called once, briefly, to make sure that Odie was okay. He was, he said, having a wonderful time.
The next year I went back East with him for Christmas. I had no idea what to bring as presents so I just got everyone a little something I thought they might like. Denny said that his Mom liked Christmas mugs so I went to Pottery Barn and bought her some, the nicest ones I could find.
That morning we left in great spirits, however, as the flight went on, Denny became increasingly more anxious. He wasn’t afraid of flying so I wondered what was making him so tense. He was bringing his girlfriend home to spend Christmas, his favorite holiday, with his family.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, at first, nothing. In those pre-9/11 days, people could come up to the gate to meet passengers and Denny’s Dad came right in and helped us with our bags. Bill was such a sweet guy, always very warm and welcoming. Later he told me that he had seen me first in the crowd and that I had looked so worried to make a good impression that he wanted to reassure me. In fact I was very anxious that Denny’s family wouldn’t like me, that I wouldn’t fit in, but it seemed like as soon as the plane landed, Denny became completely unavailable to me so I had no one to run those doubts by.
The town where Denny grew up is a lovely mid-Atlantic place. Although they were bare, there were oak trees everywhere and Denny’s family lived on the corner of a cul-de-sac on a hill surrounded by woods. It was probably a typical middle-class suburb but it seemed much more beautiful to me. It was the first time I saw electric candles in windows and some of the houses looked colonial and had tasteful, subdued wreathes and lights as decoration, completely dissimilar to the kind I was used to back home in California where gigantic plastic Frosty the Snowmen often vied on the same small lots with Santa-fied Mickey Mouses and, of course, fluorescent creches.
The Stock home was very pretty. Wendy had furnished it in early-American style. All the furniture was maple and there were Currier & Ives prints on the wall and pewter knick-knacks all around, and every single inch of the four bedrooms, three bathrooms, large family room, extra room (for the dogs), staircase, kitchen and dining room was covered with Christmas decorations – small golden trees, lights, figurines, bulbs, Santas, reindeer, teddy bears and elves. It must have taken days, if not weeks to do. But none of it compared to the Christmas tree in the capacious family room downstairs.
The tree looked like Marmee’s tree on steroids. The room it was in was a furnished basement nearly the length of the entire house but it was dwarfed by the tree which took up all of one corner and protruded out at least a good ten feet. In addition to all the usual decorations there were many figurines – angels, porcelain toys, little Santas, tiny wooden trains and sleds and figurines and houses, brass trumpets, silver bells – some of which looked like they had been in the family for years. Underneath, where presents would eventually go (if Santa came!) were many, many, many stuffed animals, all wearing Christmas togs.
I was mesmerized. Little by little I felt myself moving closer to that elusive perfect Christmas of my dreams.
It was an exceptionally cold winter that year. No one expected snow but there it was, all over the ground, and it wasn’t going anywhere. I was delighted. However, I had neither snow boots nor a hat, nor anything close to what one wears back East during a cold winter.
Denny’s brothers came home and I met them one by one. They were all sweet and friendly, if a bit reserved. They spent most of the day out with friends but we all had dinner together every night.
Denny and I spent most of the days before Christmas hanging out with Denny’s mom. Whenever we went out, shopping, Denny and his mom would sit in the front of the Lincoln in their full-length down coats, chatting away happily and listening to the kind of canned Christmas music one hears in malls and elevators. For some reason, the heat only reached the front of the car and I sat in the back shivering in my Los Angeles-weight winter coat. Every once in a while Denny would look back and ask me if I was alright (sweet) and I would say, “actually, it’s really cold back here” and they would turn the heat up for several minutes, after which Wendy would say, “Oh, it’s much too hot” and they would turn it back down.
That first Christmas Wendy didn’t actually speak directly to me, except once. She had gone to France with a few girlfriends the previous Fall, rented a car and had a splendid time. Wendy had always wanted to travel and over the next decades she and Bill did quite a bit of it, but this was her first trip to Europe and going to Paris had been a lifelong dream. I think Denny must have told her that I lived in France for two years and that I spoke perfect French. By the time he told her that, my French, which had never been perfect, was barely even passable but it sounded okay in restaurants, which is the only place he’d heard me use it. I had spent two years in France but I had done it the cheapest way possible. I went to a California State College and they had a Junior Year Abroad program and I declared myself a French major in order to go. I stayed a second year by reapplying for the same loan/grant that had gotten me there the first year and spent much of the next five years paying back that loan. In the midst of talking about her wonderful trip, she turned to me and said: “You know, I had to wait until I was over 50 to go to Paris. I didn’t get to just go whenever I wanted to, like you did,” and then went back to describing what sounded like a really good time.
Now, while it’s true that television has failed me over the years in some fairly important ways, in this one way, not standing up for myself with Denny’s mother, I completely failed myself. I was to do it again many times in the future. I think I expected Denny to stand up for me in some way, to correct his mom or to smile at me or to somehow indicate that he was the reason I found myself sitting in that kitchen listening to that story, because we were together. But he never did. I guess he never knew how to and, sadly, neither did I.
Wendy liked to talk and she entertained her family with lighthearted anecdotes of her daily tribulations with the folly of the world. She had slender, long-fingered hands and wore fake oval nails in shocking pink which she waved about in big arcs or used to pick maniacally at the tablecloth. She had a lilting chortle of a laugh that just made one want to join in. But it was hard to, because these follies always involved Wendy’s gentle triumph over one of two different categories of people: 1) people who were ‘funny looking’ – this included poor people, fat people, ‘colored people’, ‘orientals’ and Mexicans; and, 2) people who had a funny religion – this covered every Christian denomination except hers. (Jews didn’t even make it into that food chain until the following Christmas and Muslims not until several years later.) And her family, including my anti-racist, liberal boyfriend listened in rapt delight. It was like they were under some kind of dark enchantment.
Wendy was very obviously the “star” of the Stock family. Denny and his brothers competed with each other childishly for her attention and approval, and she adored that. But there was no contest. Denny looked like her and it was apparent to everyone that he was her favorite.
You know…there are few human situations which cannot be made considerably worse by soaking them in alcohol, fumigating them in marijuana, quickening them with cocaine, covering them with sugar, dousing them in flour and frying them in the hot fat of dashed expectations, unvoiced resentments, faulty memory and botched communications, and this one was certainly no exception.
Everything that was already wrong with me – eating too much, drinking too much, smoking too much, talking too much and, on occasion, being snide and sarcastic — became much, much wronger and there was nothing I could do to stop it. The more left out and isolated I felt, the more worthy of dislike I became. Especially to myself, and I was the only one actually looking.
Christmas for the Stocks was the unquestioned apotheosis of the year and the concomitant traditions were iron-bound. After dinner each night the Stocks played various board games together, which was great fun. They seemed rather intense about winning, especially Wendy, but I just thought that’s what people did. Whenever we had holidays at my house, we always had people in, aunt and uncles, cousins, old friends The Stock family Christmas seemed to be for the nuclear family only. Phil was married, but his wife didn’t come. Friends did not come over. There was no extended family. Neighbors didn’t stop by. The phone did not ring. Christmas was an island in time for them; an island in stopped time.
But here’s the thing, it was also an island in time for me: it was an island frozen not only in time, but on film. Christmas for me, that is Christmas at Marmee’s house, was stopped in that moment in pre-adolescence when my deep yearnings for love and connection and meaning and life all coalesced around a celluloid fantasy of what I thought ‘normal’ families and ‘real’ Americans and even actual history was. Wendy and I had both been dazzled by a whirlpool of make believe Christmases. But, while both our visions may have been firmly rooted in televiseable hype, we were clearly not looking at the same movie. I don’t think Wendy’s movie ever included any additional cast members. It was a closed set.
That first Christmas, and for several others to come, I was the only outsider. Mom, Dad and the kids. And me. Just like Marmee and the sisters and finally Father, and, finally, me.
Except that in Marmee’s house, as I visualized it, we all loved each other and we were having a really good time. In Marmee’s house, Christmas brought out what was best in everyone – kindness and generosity and the ability to be there for another human being. In Wendy’s house, I was so anxious to be liked and so apprehensive about my sequential and unstoppable and inexplicable faux pas that it took me a while to see that everyone else was also anxious. There was a frantic, almost driven quality to those days before Christmas as if we couldn’t listen to enough Christmas music, talk enough about Christmases past, eat enough sweets, play enough games, have enough fun or be happy enough. I felt so uneasy that I did not at first notice that everyone around me was uneasy as well. My anxiety was because I wanted to fit in, to please them, to maybe earn a little approval, maybe even a little, you know, love. What was causing theirs?
There were some calm moments. Christmas Eve was exactly as Denny had described it and as we stood over the beautifully set table and lifted our glasses of cranberry juice for a toast (an homage to the years in which the Stocks didn’t drink alcohol, at least in front of their children), I felt a moment of peace. There was genuine affection around that table and I basked in the warmth of this tight-knit family and the specialness of a family Christmas Eve, something I had never experienced before. Except, you know, on television.
The next morning, like children, Denny and I woke up early and crept downstairs to see if Santa had come. This was against the rules, the procedure was to go upstairs, have coffee and sweet rolls and wait until Phil, sans wife, came to open stockings. There was a special deliciousness to doing it, for me, because Denny and I were doing it together. Denny and I already had some history of doing forbidden things together so this was, for the first time in days, familiar territory for me.
Denny and I met when we were both in our late twenties. We shared, and still do, a somewhat overdeveloped sense of irony. No one, to my knowledge, has ever accused either of us of being mature beyond our years. We made bad jokes, laughed at bad movies, broke more than a few bad laws on a regular basis and reveled in the harmless, renegade adventures of each other and our friends. We both considered gainful employment, outside the professional theater, to be something of a scam and it took us years to actually rework that concept. I had been an actress in Hollywood for several years by that time and I have to say that I’d seen a few things that, while they didn’t make me cynical, probably made me harder to shock than some of my peers.
But when Denny and I opened the pre-fab door to the finished basement family room that morning, the sight of that tree actually made my jaw drop. It was overwhelming. Nearly the entire floor was covered with presents. All those days we had been out with Wendy, Bill had been in his study wrapping and taping and labeling and ribonning. I couldn’t believe that all these presents were for only six people. It looked like what I imagined a Unicef tree might look like if presents had been collected for, say, the entire population of Uganda.
Wendy must have spent the previous weeks and months shopping every single day for her family. The presents beneath that tree represented not only a substantial financial outlay but also hundreds upon hundreds of hours shopping and choosing and comparing and deciding and schlepping and organizing and storing away. It was, by any standard, a prodigious piece of work.
And here is another way in which television failed me. I had watched hundreds and hundreds of hours of Christmas specials, and seen Little Women more times than I could count. None of that prepared me for the typical Stock Christmas. Santa hadn’t only visited the Stocks, he’d set up a FoxConn installation there. The specials on TV always had families being reunited and poor kids getting that one special little toy that they really, really wanted. I could not imagine anyone wanting the amount of stuff that lay beneath that tree, for any reason. These were middle class people who could easily buy themselves anything they wanted or needed, and they did. What could possibly be in these packages that would warrant not only the expense but the sheer excess?
There are rituals involved in almost all repeated human interactions, but some rituals are more opaque than others. The Christmas rituals I saw on television were very easily discerned. Anyone could have learned them from a few cartoon specials, and everybody did. In America, everyone knows about wassail and caroling and Christmas trees and Santa. They may not know that a Russian Jewish immigrant named Irving Berlin (nee Israel Balin) wrote the song “White Christmas” but they know the song, the wistfulness, the movie. We’ve all seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” and many, many others like it. Most of us enjoy getting presents and most families have a certain ritual about how they present them. Still, I was as baffled by that first look at the Stock family Christmas tree as I have ever been.
We silently slipped back upstairs to have coffee and open stockings. Bill and Wendy made stockings for the kids every year, even when they were in their 40s, but they didn’t have stockings themselves. Wendy had been kind enough to include some things for me in Denny’s stocking – girlie things, hair knickknacks, gum, nail polish, a magazine and the boys all quickly tore through their stockings and pronounced themselves ready to go downstairs.
A hush fell over us all as we went into the family room, a collective “aaahhh” of reassured happiness was heard as the family saw what they expected to see. Everyone took their place around the presents: Wendy, Denny, Tim and Brian and on the opposite banquette, Phil. I was given a seat on the distaff side of Phil and that is exactly where I sat, on Christmas morning, for the next 10 years.
The Stock family procedure was for Wendy to indicate to Bill who was to get a present, in rotation, in order to be fair. Bill would find one for that person and we would all watch them open it and react. Later, when there were wives and children, the children might be given a small gift first, but then they had to wait their turn again. The brothers gave each other presents, small ones, and they gifted their parents, but by far the largest group of presents were from Wendy and Bill to their kids. Some of these said “from Mom and Dad” and some of them were from “Santa” although I never figured out what the criteria was there.
Every year Wendy would be concerned that somebody’s present had gotten lost in a cupboard somewhere and that the amount of presents might be uneven and also that Bill might have mislabeled a present. Every year she said in mock sheepishness that she had tried to “be good” about not shopping too much, but that obviously she had failed. Everyone smiled at that. How could there ever be too much?
The Stocks gave each other things they had asked for, but they also got lots of surprises. For example, a person might have asked for ski gloves and they would get ski gloves and also skis, ski pants, ski hats, ski goggles, a book (later a DVD) about skiing, a sweater, another sweater, a pair of pants, two sets of socks, TV trays, a frying pan, scarves, shirts, pajamas, a box of candy and, very often, a joke present like a wooden bass that flapped its tail or a snow scraper fashioned like a Yeti claw, and then we all knew that our household would get one as well. For girls, which at that time was just me, potpourri, pot holders, scented candles, bubble bath and of course a sweater, a cute top, a house robe, slippers, funny socks, another sweater, hand lotion, gloves, a pretty tray, tout quoi! There were a lot of presents. The boys would open each present, nod at it and look up and say “thanks.” Phil was never very happy with whatever his presents were and that always made Wendy rather cross but that, too, was part of the routine. Every year Bill would get Wendy something she had asked for, a toaster oven or a casserole or a throw rug, and whatever it was, it was never exactly what she wanted and every single year Wendy would turn to Denny and say: “You know, I should have asked you to get it,” because apparently while Denny lived at home he always shopped for Wendy’s present from Bill. Later, I would shop for Wendy’s Christmas gifts and also Wendy’s birthday gifts and she would smile her sweetest, warmest smile and tell Denny that he “always knew what to get her.”
That year Denny and his parents gave me several presents: a watch, a chenille bathrobe, lovely hair combs. All I gave them were some things for the house – a hurricane lamp, some fancy jam, the Christmas mugs. I gave Denny a beautifully bound book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and he and Phil joked that he had given me all these nice presents and I had only given him some dumb book. Now, I realize that was a way to make me feel included, and also that sometimes men joke in ways that women don’t, but after that year my husband and I didn’t exchange Christmas gifts again for many years, mostly because we were broke, and that suited me just fine.
We started opening presents at around 9:00 a.m., broke for snacks (and alcohol) at around 11:00, and by 2:00 it was all over but the shouting. It was an exhausting routine and no one looked very happy about it. We had a self-serve sandwich lunch and thanked one another and then everyone went to their rooms to put their things away, or went for a walk, or took a nap.
A warm, empty silence would then flood the house and in the decade or so that I went home with Denny for Christmas this was always one of my favorite moments. The worst, and the best, was now over. Little by little we could all return to ourselves and our ordinary lives and by that time each year my ordinary life looked enticingly seductive. I couldn’t wait to get home.
On the plane ride home Denny and I spoke little. We were tired and hung over and we had both thought horrible things about one another in the space of the eight or so days. At least I had. I was disappointed in myself and in Denny and in our relationship and in Christmas. My parents stopped giving my sister and me gifts for Hannukah by the time we went to college. Instead they cut us a check, which is what we both needed and suddenly, instead of seeming drab and minimalist, this looked like a huge advance in civic culture. My mother’s directness and secularism and my father’s genuine effort to try and live an authentic life now elevated them in my regard onto spiritual heights neither one of them would have appreciated. I wasn’t making comparisons, there were none to be made. My lifelong longing to be someone I was not and to be someplace where I did not belong had finally backfired on me and I had brought it all on myself. It turned out that my father was right, television had rendered me senseless.
However, if television has taught me anything, and it has, that thing is resilience.
My real Christmas miracle was that Denny and I recovered from that Christmas and continued to do so for the next decade until I finally, at the urging of friends, therapists and what little common sense God or DNA gave me, refused to go back East for Christmas. Soon afterwards the other brothers and their wives did the same.
In between, Denny and I grew up and had children and got better jobs and all that stuff. We worked hard to understand and value our differences and when we couldn’t, to accept them. It hasn’t been a television journey.
But every year, we celebrate Hannukah together. We both appreciate the quiet beauty of bright candles on a dark winter night. And, of course, we continue to have Christmas and trim trees and play games and wrap presents and go crazy trying to make everything perfect.
And some years, in the mad afterglow of Christmas day, as our friends and family gather with us around our smaller, gorgeous tree, I tear up a little thinking of all that we have gained and lost over these many years, and I find myself listening for the faint snort of horses and sleigh bells wending their way to us through the warm California snow.
* * *
On his twenty-ninth birthday, Clifford threw moderation to the wind and tied the knot with his Skagway High sweetheart, Linda Marie. The daughter of a Ketchikan gillnetter, Linda Marie was studying to become a marine biologist. After the honeymoon — a road trip to the Whitehorse Moosehide Gala – Colt .45 shut her old man’s liver down and she inherited his boat and permit.
Husband-and-wife gillnetting partners are not uncommon in Southeast Alaska and the experience customarily becomes a matrimonial trial by fire: the couple either emerges forged in steel, or one tests the amphibious Mammalian Instinct of the other. During their second summer, Linda Marie used the pike on Cliff in the Taku Inlet and waited a full minute before tossing him the life preserver. Her husband’s transformation into Captain Ahab on the high sea may have had something to do with this and, though he never called his wife Stubb or Bucky while at command, his “wench,” as he called her, left him for another woman and filed for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilably irreconcilable differences. The other woman was Sharon, the washboard player in their off-season Skiffle trio which dissolved before they had an opportunity to do the Prairie Home Companion. Linda Marie and Sharon became fishing partners and moved to Petersburg.
The second irreconcilable difference was Clifford’s father, Ole Kilmer, Juneau’s self-proclaimed liquor baron and city council chair.
A monolithic, hyperkenetic Swede, Ole had cut his teeth as a Minnesota door-to-door salesman for a silk-stocking company who motto was, “We sock the men and hose the women.” After the war, he had emigrated north to seek his fortune, and soon became an Alaskan renaissance man: a logger, a big game guide, and seat-of-his-pants bush pilot. He ran into his better half, Dorothy, a Juneau elementary school teacher, at a potlatch. Their love child, Clifford, was born exactly seven months later in their cabin. By this time, Ole had a Smirnoff monkey on his back, was prone to palpitations and tachycardia when lubed and, after crashing his Piper Cub on the bay one last time, he bought the Stag Saloon – aka The Stagger Inn — with his insurance pay-off to keep his Elk’s Club and the Indians shitfaced and frisky for the next three decades.
Ole, to the right of Hitler politically, was never bashful about airing his views around his excitable daughter-in-law. Finally, for Linda Marie’s birthday – though he had never before acknowledged it – Cliff’s old man installed a hood ornament on her PETA-stickered VW: the head of the trophy bull moose he had just bagged.
But this wasn’t the final straw on her marriage’s back. That, the third and most insurmountable irreconcilable difference, was Clifford’s first disastrous off-season business launched with Linda Marie’s grubstake.
The revolutionary enterprise was called: “Love Gaiters, Inc.” Love Gaiters were skinless skin Korean Kimono condoms with a buckskin box of Cliff’s own design. Inspired by his father’s own youthful silk stocking line for socking men and hosing women, Cliff distributed samples to outfitter and auto parts stores.
Even after her husband received orders from a Pep Boys in Anchorage and an Army & Navy in Fairbanks, Linda Marie remained unconvinced that this was truly where the rubber-met-the-road,” as he insisted, and their ticket out of the purgatory of gillnetting. Nor did Cliff succeed in persuading her to invest her inheritance in his brainstorm with his evangelist arguments. In the history of male contraception dominated by macho Ramses, Sheiks, and Trojans, he told her, the Gaiter was truly the first softer, tenderer rubber for the sensitive modern man such as himself. It galled him no end that Linda Marie, who refused to take the pill, insisted he use Gaiters, seeming horrified at the prospect of giving the Kilmer clan offspring it so desperately needed.
It galled him even more when his best friend and Sancho Panza – Victor Bell, the great American novelist, currently marooned fifteen hundred miles south in Sodom and Gomorrah, aka The City of Angels — also refused to invest seed capital in his commercial juggernaut.
“Where’s your fuckin faith? Your vision?” Cliff demanded of Victor who himself was fruitlessly looking for investors in his own nearly completed masterpiece at the time. “My cock mocs are gonna revolutionize dickwear, Jack.” The entrepreneur and fisher of men called everybody “Jack,” including his wife.
“It’s just a fucking name, Jack,” corrected Victor, who himself had never used latex except after first wife’s first abortion. “And it sucks.”
“It’s a concept!” insisted Clifford who was offering him the first IPO charter membership for a mere ten grand, though Vic was about to sell a kidney to support his own carnivorous creative monkey. “Jesus fuck. I’m throwing deep on this. Don’t you get it? What’s the biggest problem on the planet? Population control. It’s concepts that fucking drive society!”
“Right,” conceded Vic. “Model T, the steam engine, E=mc2…. Gaitors.”
“Fucking philistine,” said Cliff. “Just don’t come crying to me when Larry and Hef throw in on this.”
“Righto, Iffy.” Vic called Cliff “Iffy” because everything in Cliff’s world was subjunctive, conditional, dependent on grace, if not direct divine intervention. In short, Iffy. Except to him.
Cliff received no Ifs Ands or Buts from Playboy or Hustler headquarters. But, even after being shot down by his old man, Ole, as well, Clifford remained “bullish,” as he called it, about his invention. “The light at the end of the tunnel is small but intense,” he wrote Vic in one of his regular updates from the northern front.
Finally, when Pep Boys threatened to cancel their order due to Gaiter production delays, Iffy did what any bullish entrepreneur would do: he wrote his Korean rubber packagers a $30,000 check – Linda Marie’s inheritance. Miraculously, the couple had a joint account and no prenup. Ever the optimist in spite of his history of Hindenburgs, Iffy, expecting a Gaiter feeding frenzy, was confident he would soon deposit three hundred grand before his better half was any the wiser.
Meantime, hedging his bets, he continued to lobby visionary investors. Finally he landed the big cahoona: the chief of the Sitka fire department himself, one of Ole’s old drinking buddies. But just when the fireman was about to wire Clifford the Gaiter funds at a mafia rate, he got busted for arson. His picturesque seaport hamlet had been suffering a rash of blazes, the chief had always been Johnny on the spot, and when the police had arrived at the last burn they’d stumbled on him with gas cans. In drag. The next day, the Juneau Herald reported that the Sitka fire chief was being blackmailed by one of his gay deputies, a transvestite himself, who was trying to raise capital for a sex change.
Linda Marie filed for divorce, demanding a $30,000 balloon alimony, plus interest. Clifford made a generous counter-offer: the 49,950 Love Gaiters he had left, plus 200 promotional LG tee shirts, plus a 51% share in his latex empire. Declining the rubbers, tees, and shares, Linda Marie secured a court order, garnishing her ex’s nonexistent wages.
Clifford blamed the LG debacle on Little Raven and her avenging shaman forefathers. Raven, otherwise known to white men as Bernice, was a full-blooded Tlinket. And she’d been Clifford’s first wife. Bernice descended from a long-line of holy men, or so she had told Cliff. Initially, he had taken the claim for yet another example of her impressive line of bullshit.
He’d met her at the Stagger. Clifford was 25 and still a virgin though, by then, he’d been the bar band frontman for two years. Bernie, 18, had been around the block more than once, and was tearing up the dance floor solo to Cliff’s unbridled version of “Wild Thing.” During the band break, the liquor baron’s son found himself at a corner table with the shamans’ daughter, knocking down Everclear screwdrivers. They retired to his Isuzu camper at the KOA campground: here Clifford lost his cherry and, very nearly, all his vertebrae, to his first groupie.
Raven told him they were “made to be.” Clifford couldn’t disagree. As coincidence would have it, he had recently been adopted by her tribe at the Alaskan Native Brotherhood Hall in Auke Bay. Ole – as head of the town council and of the school board too – had hired the ANB council chief, Joseph, as head coach of the high school basketball team and, in gratitude, Coach Joe, had insisted on adopting his son into the tribe. The liquor baron had supplied the firewater for his son’s adoption ceremony, the ANB supplied everything else. The all-night initiation climaxed at 4 a.m. when Coach Joe – in a grizzly mask and raven blanket over his Adidas jogging sit – rubbed a William McKinley on Clifford’s forehead while chanting his new tribal name: S’ugeidée. In Tlinkit, it meant “little beaver.” Joe told his new adoptive son that the money message plus the handle would afford him boundless riches and good luck. With that, the initiate, who had consumed more than a fifth of his real father’s Wild Turkey, puked and passed out.
So Little Raven felt she and S’ugeidée Jr. were meant to be not only because he sang “Wild Thing” and “Satisfaction” like a warrior on Amanita Muscaria, but because they were brother and sister. Then, when she got pregnant, she was sure she’d found her soulmate.
But Clifford wasn’t so sure. First, because Bernice was the size of an Seahawks lineman, so it would be impossible to know if she were knocked up even in the third trimester. And, second, because Bernice scared him. They’d only been an item for several months and she’d already threatened to kill several other Totem groupies who had eyed her man during his Saturday night stage apotheosis. Clifford became somewhat more concerned when Raven, an old-fashioned girl in spite of her excesses, told him she couldn’t bear his child out of wedlock.
Then one sunny summer night after another round of Everclear courage and two bowls of his better half’s killer pot, Cliff found himself at the foot of Mendenhall glacier with Best Man Vic at his left, the Raven at his right, and Coach Joe again presiding. The wedding party donned Chilkat blankets accessorized with animal parts. Joe, in his bear bonnet, flung seeds in the four directions as he wailed what sounded like a Leonard Cohen tune in Arabic, the ice floe harmonizing with its subterranean drums and apocalyptical cellos.
The next morning, the groom awakened with a skull-shrinking hangover in the shell of his Izuzu 4 x 4, on the blow-up queen beside his bride. Vic, who was firefighting on Baranof that summer, was in narcolepsy in the North Face beside the honeymoon suite. The groom had promised Raven that he would secure their white man’s marriage license and drum up a justice of the peace bright and early. So, without waking her, he slipped out of his truck and rousted the Best Man inside his tent. An hour later, the groom and Best Man, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, were on the ferry south.
Vic disembarked north of Bolivia, in Petersburg, and returned to Dante’s inferno on the fireline.
Clifford sailed on to Seattle where he hoped to get plastic surgery and new fingerprints.
The inventor had not secured either one by the time his Juneau scouts reported that his native bride had blown town with a North Slope steamfitter. He returned north incognito and, after a brief recon, determined that the mother of his child-to-be had indeed blown Dodge. The coast was clear. Except his Isuzu had four flats and new bodywork that seemed to have been done by a Kodiak on cocaine. But she still fired up. So he drove her over to the post office to collect his back mail. He had only one letter waiting for him. It bore no return addresses and began: “You fucking yellow-bellied cocksucker…”
His former better half informed him that she had had an abortion.
Her Dear John concluded: “You’re gonna fucking wish your mother had one too!”
All’s fair in love and war, thought Cliff.
Except his ex’s tone disturbed him. He couldn’t get it out of his head that her parting line was not an idle threat, but a Raven curse. He became all the more concerned when his adoptive father, Coach Joe himself, refused to even make eye contact with him when they crossed paths. He felt that the riches and good fortune the basketball coach had promised him had been rescinded, if not completely reversed, by the Tlingit gods. After all, he had been an accessory in the murder of their unborn child, and his too.
“When the gun is loaded, somebody always gets hurt,” Vic told him when returning from the fire lines. “I told you you should have used latex. Besides, she probably wasn’t even pregnant.”
“But what if she was,” moaned Clifford. “What if she…” He couldn’t even get it out.
“Chummed your kid – little Cliff?” his Best Man finished for him. “It probably made a Killer out in Gastineau happy.”
Rumor had it that Planned Parenthood dumped directly into the orca feeding ground.
“May God strike you down,” said Cliff.
“Because He’s a lifer?” said Vic. Then he broke into his favorite Dylan: “God said to Abraham, go kill me a son. Abe said, What? God said, You can do what you want to But, the next time you see Me you better run — out on Highway 61.”
“Yeah, but He was just fucking bluffing,” protested Iffy.
“Bluffing ? How about the Flood? Sodom? Jericho? He abort any kids there?” demanded Victor, a biblical scholar in his own right.
“How can you think the way you do, and not shoot yourself?”
“It’s not always easy,” conceded Vic.
“Well, I’m getting a vasectomy,” concluded Cliff.
“You’re the last of your line,” Vic reminded him. “What would your old man say? Besides, you wouldn’t be able to testify.”
“Swear by your balls. Your testes. Abe, Moses, Jacob – all the old patriarchs and prophets – they grabbed the family jewels and pledged on their honor and their next seven generations. “Test,” “testify,” “testament” – truth all goes back to your gonads. Get a vasectomy, God’ll never fucking trust you again.”
“Where’s that leave bitches, for Chrissakes?”
“With kids instead of balls obviously.”
“You make up all this crazy shit as you go along, Jack?”
Though he was on the phone from Sodom, the writer – who at that time was writing what he called “The New Old Testament” – put his right hand on his balls, and solemnly swore, “As God is my witness.”
So, instead of de-testifying and pre-empting another generation of the damned, Clifford invented the Love Gaiter. And he blamed its failure on the Raven curse.
In order to repay his second wife her thirty grand, he tended bar at Ole’s watering hole for $12 an hour, plus tips. Otherwise, he gigged on weekends. Singing Dylan and Pearls Before Swine covers, he passed the hat to shitfaced Tlingits, and off-the-wagon Jesus freaks and Bahai’s of whom there were not a few in the capital of Alaska when Arctic hysteria set in around Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile, convincing himself that there was a statute of limitations on his curses by both ex’s, Clifford doubled-down on his other creative extravaganzas. Far from discouraging him, the Gaiter debacle stoked his fires in bold new directions.
Hardly had his rubbers gone belly-up, than he patented two brainstorms in quick succession: The Magic Orb and the Tenz Tuner. The first was a neon holographic glo-globe capable, theoretically, of transmitting live NASA satellite photos of earth to a homeowner’s living room. Cliff sent prototypes to several Apollo astronauts, plus the Guggenheim Foundation.
Waiting for R&D capital to roll in, he turned his attention to his Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Tuner. The pocket size, battery-operated unit shot ionic impulses into ailing acupuncture points, rejuvenating them while at the same time, as he explained to Victor, “musically tuning them into harmonic conversion.” Since he still had just a few bugs to work out on the Tenz, he was offering his Sancho a 50-50 arrangement for providing all the seed capital.
“Seek professional help, If,” said Vic who had just inherited enough stock from his tycoon grandfather to avoid selling plasma and to finish yet another War and Peace in LA.
“This could cut Western medicine a completely new asshole,” declared Cliff. He’d made a transition from the hedonistic (rubbers) to the humanitarian (sonic dildos), and even his partner in improbability didn’t appreciate it. “We’re talking Nobel shit here!”
“I wouldn’t pack your bags for Stockholm, yet,” Vic told him. “Go back to the Wizard.”
The Wizard was Clifford’s Seattle shiatsu-man, Yatsu Nambu. For more than a decade, the doctor had been chasing and defusing what he called his patient’s physical and metaphysical “weather systems” – his tornadoes, his hurricanes, his squalls. The eye of Cliff’s storm was what Yatsu called Bamboo Spine, otherwise known to rheumatologists as Ankylosing Spondylitis. An arthritic condition that froze up the pelvis and backbone, AS ran in Cliff’s mother, Dorothy’s, side of the family. He’d started freezing and contracting at age twelve. Dorothy had taken him to scores of specialists in the Lower 48, with little luck. By the time he turned 30, he’d grown three inches shorter – to 5’6” – and he walked with a crooked, crablike scuttle. By this time, having abandoned conventional treatment, he was going alternative. Thus Yatsu. And thus Cliff’s Tenz invention based on the Wizard’s acupressure therapy targeting not so much his patient’s congealed camel spine as those weather systems that beat against it, much like the icy, relentless rains of Juneau.
Yatsu had long recommended that his patient move to a less paralyzing climate below the 47th parallel. But Cliff couldn’t cut the umbilicus to his place of nativity much as he loathed it. Instead, he began taking annual “Lourdes pilgrimages,” as he called them, to L.A. to thaw out his vertebrae while crashing with Victor. According to the novelist’s own diagnosis, his friend’s AS had originally been triggered by penis envy of his priapic father, Ole — after all, he’d been diagnosed at puberty, when his gonads supposedly dropped – and all he required for remission was a simple affirmation of his manhood. In short, he just needed to get laid. But If found consummation impossible, even in Sodom and Gomorrah.
At last, Victor drove the cripple to the Chicken Ranch in Vegas, a junket that turned out to be both business and pleasure. In a last gasp effort to unload his 49,950 Love Gaiters, Cliff tried to interest the Chicken CFO in a package deal. Seeing a man in need, the CFO relieved Cliff of the 100-brick sampler he came with, and knocked fifty-percent off a teenage runaway from Sparks by the name of Nikki. She quite nearly broke Clifford’s spine. He proposed matrimony to her right there. But Nikki told him she wasn’t ready to sacrifice her career for family just yet.
On the next pilgrimage south, the minstrel inventor met his guru: the 92- year-old matriarch of the Alexander Technique, Marj Barstow. Marj was the successor of Alexander himself, the 19th century Shakespearean orator who conquered stage fright and free-range anxiety by loosening his “Primary Control Point” – the eureka joint where spine met skull, and body married soul. During a week in Malibu, the old lady taught an SRO crowd of thespian spine and headcases how to undo their killer HEPDOGS — Habitual Patterns of Directive Guidance – by means of PCP tweaking. After a successful session, Cliff and his fellow students experienced what Alexandrians called “Global Expansion.” Which translated, If told Vic, in supernatural bowel movements.
In an attempt to galvanize his gains and expand yet further, Cliff became a dabbler in every New Age panacea available in the Lower 48. He tried Pilates, he tried Primal, he tried Alive Polarity. But not all of it released his PCP. The Orcas Island Forest rangers rescued him from hypothermia 24 hours into a shaman vision quest. His acid and opium weekend with his Texas AS penpal was cut short with a visit to the Austin Memorial ER for a Thorazine rescue due to what he called “my hair-trigger head.”
At last, Clifford discovered his Bible: Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness. In it, the activist author, also an AS sufferer, described his remission from the disease by means of a unique self-therapy: laughs. Belly laughs. Sphincter-puckering, lung-busting screamers. Hearing only hopeless words from his doctors, Cousins sat himself down to the Marx Brothers on TV; after a year of “Duck Feathers” and “Animal Crackers” reruns, he was symptom-free. Clifford became a Cousins’ laughter evangelist. Only he had no use for the Marx brothers, Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges or any of the other banana peel vaudevillians. In fact, there weren’t too many comedians he cottoned to, except Pryor and Kinison.
The only person who really depressurized Cliff’s coccyx was Victor. Not because the writer was particularly amusing, but God’s golden showers on his own Promethean ambitions seemed even more gratuitous and unrelenting than what befell Iffy and invariably delivered him to hysteria. So he phoned Victor regularly for therapeutic reasons – to hear about his most recent humiliations in Gomorrah. And, coincidentally, the novelist called the inventor for much the same reason in Galilee. In fact, each might have cut his loses and shot himself years before if not for the vicarious buzz and spiritual relief each got from the other’s Job-like hardships.
As for their professional purgatories and romantic waterloos, neither was inclined to entertain the outrageous notion that they were in any way self-inflicted. “God only tortures His favorites,” Vic told Cliff after the Love Gaiter debacle and divorce.
“There better be a goddamn a good reason!” said Cliff who didn’t understand that the observation didn’t apply to him.
“Just look what He did to His own son,” asserted Vic pointed.
“That was for salvation, Jack.”
“Salvation? From what?”
“Fuck if I know. But it sounds good. Jesus Christ. We gotta have something to look forward to.”
Vic didn’t hear from Cliff again until that Christmas. From Seattle. General. A team of specialists had just bored out his esophagus with balloons. “I had hoses stuck 3 feet up and down my nose, a scope shoved down my throat,” he wrote in his holiday missive. “My E was bloated 3X the diameter but barely letting any food down. And my nurse was a dead ringer for Raven!”
On a diet of Gerber’s baby food and protein shakes, If went down to his Buchenwald bikini weight of 108 in the hospital. Returning to Juneau from his deep throating, he followed up with Victor on his Clifford Unlimited stationary: “I may be in for a spell of travail unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.” He spoke of “my Quixotic endeavors,” and how his “mother of invention” was no longer “aglow.” As for his future prospects, “I’m girding myself for a letdown,” he concluded.
Then he signed off with his usual “Yers in Vitro.”
At this point, If still owed his ex the thirty G’s, the IRS five times that, plus untold sums to every financial kamikaze who had invested in his schemes. He continued to work at the Stagger as what he called “my old man’s field nigger”; his only other income was his state oil royalty check – given annually to every Alaskan, man, woman, and child – of $2,300. All of which was instantly swallowed up by his creditors.
But, worst of all, his “mojo,” as he called it – his muse – had run dry.
Not just his invention mojo but, most devastatingly, his musical mojo. His rock and roll mojo. More than an entrepreneur and inventor, Clifford, above all, considered himself a rock and roller. Like his trinity – Lennon, Morrison, and Hendrix – he had been obsessive about his discipline from an early age. He considered it the only true freedom in human life otherwise governed by robotic routine and soul-shriveling conformity.
“Glorious anarchy,” he called it.
Indeed, rock and roll was the only lubricant, besides laughter, which released the tourniquet on Cliff’s spine and delivered him to true Global Expansion. A brief but full-throttle Voodoo Child thrash on his Strat was usually enough to carry him to Jimi’s outskirts of infinity. “Stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of my hand,” was still enough to stand what was left of the hoary hairs on his neck. He was fond of salting his rap with the Erotic Politician’s “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.” But his greatest liturgy was from the Eggman: “Yellow mellow custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye.”
Clifford was also fond of quoting Bono, “All I got is three chords, a red guitar, and the truth,” adding “two outta three ain’t bad.” After more than three decades on the planet, he was the first to admit that he was the still working on the last item, and that Bono was a wanker and a fraud. But, after his mojo ran dry, he seemed to lose interest even in that item. Or maybe he felt like he’d had too much truth. Or maybe he felt like his other hero, Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine: “I don’t want to escape from reality, I want reality to escape from me.” Anyway, he stopped working on his White Album which he had been threatening for years, he stopped playing open mic at the Stagger, and he told Victor that he would throw his guitars into the sea.
The novelist, no stranger to mojo loss himself, told If he had only two alternatives now: to perform ceremonial Seppuku or to be reborn. The first was a non-starter since of course Clifford had no self-discipline, not to mention gonads. Which left him with the second.
And, proving that there was indeed divine providence, even for a devout agnostic such as Clifford, he met his immaculate rebirth mother soon after his global Linda Lovelace esophagus expansion.
Gloria was sixty-one years of age. She could not keep her dog – a diesel mechanic at the mill — on the porch. So she came into The Stagger unchaperoned one night with the purpose of playing somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs on the jukebox while doing Cuervo shooters. By the end of the evening, to the accompaniment of Waylon and Willie, Clifford was pouring Gloria doubles on the house while she told him about her scum-of-the-earth lesser half and he told her about his Rocky Mountain oyster eating ex in Petersburg. Cliff had taken a monastic vow of poverty, celibacy, and obedience since the split; Gloria had joined the Juneau “Women Aglow” group which, according to their mission statement, “served Jesus as His bride.” Clifford told her this made the Savior a polygamist and, by extension, his Father an accessory. After serial tequilas that night, Gloria saw the reason of this and began casting moon eyes on Jesus’ unlikely pinch hitter.
In fact, Clifford looked more like one of the Lord’s outpatients. In a letter to Victor, he had once described himself as “somewhere between a leper and Charles Atlas.” He had cavernous cheeks, a chiseled jaw, a voluptuous Jagger mouth, jumpy sky blue eyes, and patchy gray wisps at his temple. His wire-rim spectacles lent him a professorial look and, due to his seized neck bone, he peered at you either above the rims, out of the corner of his eye, or with his head cocked like an arthritic gull. Tenderly fingering the purple gulleys on either side of his forehead, Gloria asked about them. He told her that they were from the forceps. Having resisted being born, Cliff had forced the pediatrician to drag him out of his exhausted mother with a stainless lobster claw on either side of his gelatinous skull.
“I think you’re cute,” Gloria told him. She was a retired beautician. It was closing time. She and the inventor had the bar all to themselves now, except for the two narcoleptic Indians under it.
“Wanna see my etchings,” inquired Clifford. Back at his crib he had a full portfolio of the blueprints for his magical Orb and the rest of his oeuvre, not to mention surrealist Dada studies for his debut album cover.
“I knew you were an artist,” said Gloria. Then she retired to the Ladies to freshen up. The beautician looked like Dolly Parton, except more well endowed. She weighed in at about two-twenty.
If’s crib was located next door to the Stagger. Victor, who had crashed there on his sojourns north, called it “The Burrow,” after Kafka’s story about the habitation of a mole-man. Cliff had converted the backroom of his old man’s booze warehouse into the suite. It was a labyrinth of tunnels between teetering piles old rock lps, Popular Mechanics, Hustlers, Rolling Stones, guitars, dead amps, prototypes for his countless inventions, plus his laundry. On one wall stood Hendrix in his eyeball vest and electric tangerine fur scarf; on another, Einstein, freak flag flying, rode his Schwinn in the Princeton parking lot; on a third, Little Boy lit up Hiroshima. And, in the epicenter of the Burrow, was a queen-sized bed that looked like it had been salvaged from a Calcutta Motel 6.
A normal mortal wouldn’t enter Clifford’s suite in a Three-Mile island suit. But Gloria just took it all in with the sweep of an eye, threw off of her anorak, and said: “Wow.”
It was then that Iffy, after his romantic Hindenburgs of the past, realized he had found his sweet mother of mercy. His Beatrice.
He dropped a dime on Victor the very next morning, describing in detail how he and the beautician had consummated in the Burrow; how, together, they had experienced true Alexandrian Global Expansion; and how, by dawn, Clifford awoke reborn “babbling and weeping.”
“Like to tell you ‘bout my baby,” he sang. “You know she comes around just about midnight. G-L-O-R-I-A!”
“How old is she?” demanded Victor, already suspicious.
“She’s a mature woman,” allowed Cliff. “First I’ve ever met.”
Though nothing about him ever came as a surprise anymore, Victor had no idea his friend was boinking somebody’s dirigible grandmother. Clifford called her “Rubenesque.”
“You mean she’s fucking fat?” Victor pressed on.
“Nothing like a little meat on the bone,” said Cliff. Linda Marie had been bulimic. “Oughta try it with a real woman sometime, Jack.”
The inventor and his beautician had a two-year “thrash,” as he referred to it. Gloria was the only woman he had ever been with who didn’t fake orgasms, even on the rare occasion when she was sober. He didn’t have to use Gaiters either because his old lady had long ago reached menopause. “I don’t know why they call it men-o-pause,” he told Victor. “She’s a card-carrying nymphomaniac.”
Gloria was also supportive. She attended every one of Cliff’s renewed open-mic gigs. For his birthday, she bought him a Gibson Hummingbird with her husband, Otis’s, mechanic money. And she also helped resurrect his invention career with the launch his latest business extravaganza: The Chocolate Totem.
The shop, located just down the street from the Stagger, sold handcrafted Belgian bars stamped with spirit animals– — the otter, the eagle, the killer whale. Clifford was determined to see the enterprise through hell or highwater. Both arrived at the shop one day in the person of Gloria’s eldest son, Westley. The twenty-five-year-old logger told the entrepreneur that if he didn’t break if off with his mother and refund her seed capital, he was going to find his nuts in the chocolate molds.
As coincidence would have it, by that time Clifford’s old man was also meddling in his affairs. Months before, Ole had told his son to break off with Gloria, before he dishonored himself and the Kilmer name itself. His prodigal son agreed. But then he had opened the Totem with her. So Ole fired him from the Stagger. When his only boy still refused to dissolve his partnership with the retired beautician, Ole threatened to have him shut down for health code violations. Clifford remained unmoved. At that, Ole – an AA charter member – fell off the wagon. Days later, he showed up at the Burrow bleeding from his eyes. And crying. In all his life, Cliff had never seen his father cry. Ole told him he’d had fling with Gloria himself and that when he’d broken it off, she’d threatened to blow the whistle on him to his wife and go after his son. Cliff knew his father to be many things – but a liar he was not, even after a seventy-two hour bender.
“I’m a Revenge Fuck!” he told his best friend that night over the phone, almost in tears himself.
“It’ better than a Pity,” Vic reminded him helpfully.
The bachelors had long since IDed the Four Fundamental Fucks. They were, from the Y perspective (in order of X preference): the Guilty, the Pity, the Revenge, and the Necro. How can you tell if your wife is dead? The sex is the same but the dishes pile up. The Necro referred to this conjugal truism. Both chaste gentlemen were Necro vets.
“Maybe I’d have better luck if I were gay,” said Cliff.
“Doubtful, Iffy,” said Vic. “Why don’t you just cut Mr. Happy off?”
Desire is the root of all suffering, said the Buddha. But If, a lapsed Congregationalist, still clung to the freeloader idea of a no-downpayment deliverance on layaway. So Victor regularly reminded him how Jesus had recommended his disciples become “eunuchs for the Kingdom of heaven.”
Keeping his crank all the same, Clifford fled the Last Frontier, Gloria, and the Totem, again seeking succor in the Lower 48. But this time the junket was on his father’s dime. Ole set his son up with an apartment in Seattle, a dating allowance, plus a shrink to undue whatever Gloria had done. Then, body and mind restored, Clifford would return home to gillnet with his father and bartend on the weekends as he had been doing for years.
Cliff’s Seattle shrink came recommended by his parents’ pastor at the Northern Light United Church. His name was Weinstein and he used an eclectic I’m OK, You’re OK / Purpose Driven Life approach to wellness. He got right down to brass tacks with his new patient at their first sit-down.
“What makes Clifford Clifford, Cliff?”
“How do you feel about yourself? You like yourself?”
“Yeah… Sorta. I guess. You know… I mean, shit. It varies.”
“OK, but generally. Does Clifford like Clifford? On a scale of 1 to 10.”
The inventor drew a long sigh. “Fuck. Jesus Christ. Lately?… 2 and a half. Maybe 3.”
His shrink smiled benevolently. “That’s honest. Good. Now, what do you think it would take to goose that up to maybe a 6 or 7?”
“Keira Knightley. The Nobel. Cyanide,” replied the patient matter-of-factly.
“Humor. Great medicine,” allowed the doctor. “Funny, though, comedians are some of the most miserable people. Why? Because they don’t like themselves.”
“Let’s hope they don’t fuckin start,” muttered the patient.
“You’re going to be a tough nut to crack – this’ll be fun! ” continued Weinstein. “You may not like it, but we’re going to have you up to a 10. How’s that sound?”
If rolled his eyes, pleading the 5th, then looked at his watch again.
“See – you like 3,” concluded the doctor. “You like feeling bad. It’s all you think you deserve. It’s your security blanket of helplessness and inadequacy. For next time, I want you to think about that.”
At the next appointment, the patient had no answers but, as he had feared, his shrink had more questions. “What have you ever done for another human being, Clifford?”
The entrepreneur, at a loss initially, managed to wrest a few humble examples from the days before his marriages. But, with each example, Weinstein would cut him off, “No, that was for you, my friend. I want to know what you’ve done for others.” Then he went into a rap about how a narcissist could only stop thinking about his small problems by thinking about the bigger ones of others. In short, that he could only help himself by helping others. And, in so doing, start feeling better about himself.
“Does he serve hip boots with that kumbaya bullshit?” Victor asked during the next long-distance debriefing. “What the fuck has he ever done for anybody for under three hundred bucks an hour?”
“Spoken like a true narcissist, Your Grace,” said Clifford, already a humanitarian convert. He called Victor Your Grace, Your Highness, and Your Lordship, due to the writer’s incorrigible misanthropy and megalomania. But as far as his Grace was concerned, Iffy’s life was just a series of petty disasters followed by cloud-partings, and this was just the latest.
“What the fuck have you done for anybody other than yourself, Your Lordship?” Cliff demanded.
“Not shoot them,” replied Victor.
“You call that philanthropy?”
“I call it euthanasia.”
As far as Victor was concerned, doing unto others was the most thankless job on the planet. Not to mention hazardous to your health. “Just look at Christ, for chrissakes – if he came back, you think he’d re-up for Calvary?” he demanded. “Martin Luther King –march back to Memphis? Mother Teresa – another cakewalk in Calcutta?”
“You are the fucking anti-Christ,” Clifford told him, not for the first time. “Why the hell do I even associate with you?”
His shrink hooked Clifford up with the Washington Youth Initiative. As an “activity therapist,” the inventor was paid $7.75 hourly to take WYI wards out to malls and movies for “respite and socialization.” His first kid was Charlie, 17, known to his parents as Chugger due to his habit of locomoting on all fours while thundering like a train engine. Chugger had CP. Moreover, according to Clifford, all his “circuits” were fried. For six months, he took Chugger out for two-legged constitutionals around Pioneer Square. With a delirious grin, the young man advanced with a Forrest Gump determination, forcing his arthritic consort to run interference, throwing himself in his path lest Chugger collide with other pedestrians, telephone poles, and shop fronts. After bi-weekly practice, Chugger had become a power walker and his mentor had sustained a fractured rib, a sprained ankle, and a knee hematoma.
Clifford did not fare so well with his second WYI ward, Howard the Hugger, code-named “Viper.” Howard — a 250-pound Haida with fetal alcohol syndrome — was known as Hugger due to his habit of embracing others, especially strangers, especially those who made the mistake of trying to flee him. He also had a potty mouth and was inclined to pleasure himself in public. In spite of his sunny, even ebullient, disposition, he had once tried to strangle his mother when she had attempted to interfere with his favorite pastime.
But Clifford’s mentorship of the Hugger went without misadventure. At first. Then one afternoon at the Northgate Mall, after an X-Men movie, Howard affectionately tackled a black usherette. Momentarily, the couple was on the floor in what appeared to be a WWF smackdown. Unaware that her suitor was a lover, not a fighter, the usherette flogged the Hugger with her mag flashlight, while doing a full-throated Aretha Franklin aria. Joining the fray, Clifford jumped on his back and proceeded to rodeo the hunk of burning love. Then the Hugger cried, “Viper!” The WYI chief of staff had warned Cliff about the code red word, saying that if Howard uttered it, all bets were off.
Tossing the arthritic off his back and into popcorn dispenser, the Hugger staggered into the mall, bowling down shoppers, as he continued to shrill, “Viper!”
His chaperone, pursued by a group of curiosity seekers, caught up with the young man out in the mall parking lot. Here, the Hugger had locked himself inside the Chrysler Cordoba which Ole had lent Clifford for his Seattle sabbatical, and was busy redecorating the interior. As his ward tore off the turn signal lever, then the windshield visors, Cliff implored,
“Howard, open up! It’s OK. Fuck. Open UP. Easy, buddy. Jesus FUCK!”
The town car was Ole’s pride and joy. The Hugger was now kicking in the dash and the Bose quad system, while tooling its Corinthian leather with the jagged edge of the turn signal.
Retiring from humanitarian work in the untamed lower 48, Clifford limped Ole’s customized Cordoba up the Alaska Highway, back to civilization.
He found the town of his nativity much the same as he had left it almost a year before. Only his chocolate emporium was shuttered. And his Beatrice was gone.
According to Ole, soon after Clifford’s departure, Gloria had divorced Otis and moved south to the village of Kake. Here she had opened a tattoo parlor and a new chapter of Women Aglow. What Ole didn’t mention were the many letters she had written to his son which he had not forwarded, but burned.
Clifford’s Seattle sabbatical and his mano-a-manos with Chugger and the Hugger had done nothing for his psyche, and less for his bamboo spine or his narrowing throat. Had it not been for the weekly ministrations of Yatsu the Wizard, and his pursuit of his patient’s merciless weather systems, Cliff might have been in an iron lung, or in full gravitational collapse.
But, miraculously, he had returned north with new purpose. He was now determined to cast off his former worldly distractions and quixotic schemes. Like Jonah, he had emerged from the whale undigested, faith restored, and with a mission. After two decades in the belly of the beast, he’d paid his dues and was ready to play the blues. Here at home, under the celestial spots of St. Elmo’s Fire, he would at last fully embrace his true cure, his true muse, his first and true wild mistress: rock and roll.
“We got something to fucking sing about. Not like these punks today,” he told Victor, back in the Burrow and caressing his guitars longing to savagely weep.
In Seattle he had seen the Melvins, the Pixies, and Nirvana’s last gigs. Kurt had just euthanized himself in his greenhouse with or without a hand from his better half, the omnivorous Ms. Love.
“Twenty-seven,” continued Cliff, “– what the fuck did Cobain know? Rinky dink God for putting me on this earth, being very privileged. Death in mind. Nurse!’ Please. Teenage angst paid off well, is all that whiney fucker got right!”
“You’re just jealous, Iffy,” Victor told him. But he agreed of course. Even before the punk revolution, the friends had concluded that rock and roll had become a wasteland inhabited by two non-evolving species: dinosaurs who were filthy rich and on creative life support, and X’ers who were also filthy rich but hadn’t done any living, and tried to pass of wailing, thrashing, and the destruction of perfectly good musical equipment as intensity.
“Nobody’s fucking dangerous anymore!” continued Clifford. He never tired of quoting “Like a Rolling Stone” re the essence of a dangerous man: When you ain’t got nothin, you got nothin to lose. “Everybody’s got a jingle, but nobody’s got a song – much less a message!” he wept.
Victor had never argued that with him either. The greatest cultural force of postmodern times was in real need of a transfusion from new but seasoned blood. “So what’s your message, If?” he inquired, not for the first time.
“Life, Your Highness. Motherfucking in-your-face-up-your-ass real life.”
“Punchy. That’ll cut Zimmerman a new asshole.”
“You wanna bust my balls, or you wanna grow some, get your ass up here, and we make history?”
There were no halfway measures for Clifford: either you picked yourself up, dusted yourself off, and threw the Hail Mary and made history, or you went down trying. Actually, Vic, a psychedelic guitar auteur no less than master of post-modern literature, was of the same mind.
“OK, say we start a band,” he allowed. “Hypothetically. What about bread – before we hit the charts?”
Cliff was already one step ahead. “Fishing. I got a line on another gillneter. It’s a steal. They’re making 80K a season out there — three days a week!”
They would become fishers of men and of mermaids. They would sing tales of brave Ulysses, naked ears tortured. To Victor, this actually sounded better than embarking on another Under the Volcano or Finnegan’s Wake.
“So, what would we call ourselves?” the writer went on. “Hypothetically.”
The inventor took a moment to ponder it, then said: “I’ve got just the name.”
His partner in madness had been afraid of that. “What?”
“I’m channeling it from the universe,” said Cliff, as if just now experiencing true Global Expansion. Actually, it had occurred to him after rodeoing the Hugger and during his last debriefing with his shrink about The Purpose Driven Life.
“Channeling — like Joan of Arc?” inquired Vic.
“Without the stake,” said Cliff.
Then he whispered the name like a prayer. A benediction.
Suddenly, after these many years in the penitential fires, both impossible men at last knew who they were on this their low road, slouching to the lost Jerusalem.
“Can anyone give me an example of irony in Oedipus the King?”
In the back, where he thinks I can’t see him, the P.E. major in ripped jeans and a t-shirt touting some brand of Tequila texts his girlfriend. The girl to his left checks her iPhone for messages. The kid to her left studies the label on his bottle of Coke Zero.
“OK . . . Can anyone list the types of irony?”
Blank stares. John, the tanned stud-muffin in the third row searches his Facebook page on his laptop. He thinks he’s fooled me into believing he’s taking notes. His buddy rests his head on one arm and doodles in his notebook. The girl behind him sits, cross legged, with arms defiantly across her chest. She glares with a look that says, “Like, I don’t want to be here.”
“Can anyone give me a definition of irony?”
Silence, if you don’t count the sound coming from the mouth of Tattoo-girl—I think her name is Ashleigh—as she chews gum while picking at her LA-style fingernails.
The student-athlete in the third row dozes. Suddenly his head snaps back, his eyes open momentarily, he looks around to see if anyone caught him, then shifts to a more comfortable position and nods off again. Student-athlete, that’s an example of an oxymoron boys and girls. Like jumbo shrimp, congressional ethics, country music, cafeteria food, living wage, and happily married. That last one’s a hoot, ain’t it? But I’d like a definition of irony. Anyone. Anyone at all.
“OK, can anybody give me an example of irony?”
“OK, let me give you a hint. How about . . . at a ceremony celebrating the rehabilitation of seals after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, at an average cost of $80,000 per seal, two seals were released back into the wild only to be eaten within a minute by a killer whale?”
“Ew, that’s sick,” says Tattoo-girl.
Finally a hand goes up. The sophomore psychology major—Joseph is it? Or Jordan? Something with a ‘J’—sitting over by the window:
“Yes,” I say with a hint of enthusiasm in my voice and a glimmer of hope in my heart.
“Like, when a fire station like burns down,” he says, smiling.
Very funny. You better hope your little brother doesn’t play with matches.
“Like, when a cardiologist suffers a heart attack,” says the biology major in the third row.
Like, when you were in the tenth grade and didn’t know the difference between a dangling preposition and a dangling testicle.
“OK. That’s a start. That works. Any other examples of irony?” I ask, hoping to somehow guide the discussion back to Oedipus.
Silence. Blank stares.
Another hand goes up. The business major in the back corner:
“Like, Bill Gates never graduated from college but, like, he’s worth fifty billion dollars.”
“OK. Good.” Bill Gates was born with intelligence, had a keen business sense, taught himself computer programming, and had a work ethic that allowed him to beat out his competitors. He didn’t need a college education. You’ll probably need a college education and a father as rich as Bill Gates to succeed.
“Any other examples of irony?” I ask. Besides the fact that this university accepted most of you.
“Like, when an English professor misspells a word he’s written on the whiteboard,” says the communication major, smiling.
Smirks and smiles from the groundlings. OK, I deserved that. I tried to explain that faux pas away by claiming that I can’t write, lecture and spell ‘accommodation’ all at the same time. Too many ‘C’s and ‘M’s to keep track of this late on a Friday afternoon. Relax. Take a deep breath. Smile. Do the math. This is a sophomore-level English class. Thirty students with one reason for being here. Three credits. Except for the girl in the front row, these are not English majors. It’s late April, Spring is in the air, three weeks left in the semester. They’d rather be somewhere hot and noisy with a cold beer in one hand and a warm body in the other.
“Yes, the height of irony,” I confess. And inexcusable. I smile.
Another hand goes up. The history major over by the door:
“Sorry. Yes, James.”
“Like, when John Hinckley shoots at Ronald Regan, misses and hits the bullet-proof window of his limo. The bullet ricochets and hits the president in the chest.”
“That’s an example of poetic justice,” says the other history major in the class. Slight titters, then a slow slide back into their individual academic comas. Several blank faces suggest that they don’t know who Ronald Regan was.
“Any other examples of irony,”
I give up.
“OK. Let me list a few types of irony on the board,” and hope I don’t misspell any words. I turn and write:
Verbal irony – a gap between what is stated and what is really meant, which often has the opposite meaning. For example using “his humble abode” to describe a millionaire’s mansion. Also called sarcasm.
Dramatic irony – when the audience is aware of facts that the characters are not. When the reader understands more about what is happening in a story than the character who is telling the story does. For example, Shakespeare’s Othello trusts Iago, but the audience knows better.
Situational irony – a discrepancy between what actually happens and what readers expect will happen.
For example, like the discrepancy between the grade you actually receive in this class and the grade you expect to get.
“Now, can anyone give an example of dramatic or situational irony in Oedipus?”
The elementary education majors in the front row all dutifully take notes but say nothing.
“There are other types of irony, for example, historical irony. What we now refer to as ‘World War I’ was originally called ‘The War to End All Wars,’ or ‘The Great War’.”
“And then there are ironic similes.”
“Clear as mud,” I say as half a dozen stare out into the spring afternoon. The elementary ed major by the window smiles and waves to the squirrel sitting on a branch outside the window.
Clear as mud, like this lecture.
I look out the window and see students tossing a football around the quad. Laughter and hoots waft in. Music blares from car radios in the student parking lot across the street.
Silence. I sigh. Once more …
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
“When Oedipus was first performed circa 428 B.C.E., Greek audiences knew the myth of Oedipus, the myth upon which the play is based. The audience knew what Oedipus didn’t, that he had killed his father and married his mother. Based on the definitions I’ve written on the board, can anyone tell me what type of irony this is, that is, the audience knows but Oedipus doesn’t?”
I glance at the clock. Twenty minutes left.
One more try.
“How about another example. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when King Duncan sees Inverness, the home and castle belonging to Macbeth, he says, ‘This castle has a pleasant seat’— meaning site. Banquo adds, ‘The air is delicate.’ Knowing what happens later that night, what type of irony would you say these remarks are examples of?”
“The irony here is that Duncan is unwittingly entering his death chamber.”
“What kind of irony is this? Anyone? Anyone at all.”
I sigh, take off my glasses, plant my skinny old ass on the desk, glance out the window then turn back to the class. “OK, let’s try again. Another definition of irony is the discrepancy between appearance and reality.” Like, this appears to be a college class but in reality . . . “The discrepancy between ignorance and knowledge,” I add.
I continue: “The incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” I expected a class of students eager to learn. Silly me. How long have I been at this? How many decades? Maybe it’s time to retire. Maybe it’s me. “I’d write that on the board but I don’t know how to spell ‘incongruity.’” Smiles. Even the texting P.E. major looks up and smirks.
I sigh, look down at the floor, run my fingers through my gray hair, look out the window at the squirrel sitting on the tree branch looking in; What do you think, my furry-assed little friend? I find it ironic that you seemed more interested in this discussion than my students. What do you say we call it a day and retire to my favorite watering hole next town over? I’m buying. What’ll you have? A Pink Squirrel? Ha, ha ha! But I digress.
“OK, let me give you another example of irony, the difference between what might be expected and what actually happens.”
Stud-muffin chuckles softly at something in Facebook.
“When young men go off to war, what is one expectation?” I ask.
“Like, someone might get killed or messed up,” says the math major by the window.
“Yes,” I reply, “That would be a reasonable expectation based on history. In war people die.”
I’ve got stud-muffin’s attention. Tattoo-girl wonders, What’s this have to do with Oedipus?
“What if I told you I once advised a good friend to go off to war in order to save his life? Would that be an example of irony? Going off to war to save your life?”
“Like, that would be fucked up,” says stud-muffin, frowning.
“Why would you, like, do that?” asks the history major.
I smile. Now I have their attention, or at least most of them. The student-athlete continues to nap and nod. This may not have a lot to do with Oedipus, but maybe I can bridge that gap between ignorance and knowledge. Maybe not.
“I have a good friend who’s in the Army Reserve. We were in the Regular Army once, stationed together in some shithole Army base down south. He was a platoon leader in my company. We’ve known each other for over twenty years now and have followed each other’s lives for all that time. He lives in another state so we only get together every other year or so, but we keep in touch. We both have wives and families and jobs. We’re both in education. He’s a school administrator and I’m . . . here.” I smile.
“To put it simply, I married well, he didn’t. After fifteen years of marriage he discovered his wife was having an affair with her boss. Had been for some time. He was devastated. Unlike some people, he believed that marriage was for life and he trusted his wife to keep her marriage vows. In Othello, the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful but Othello thinks she’s strayed. That’s an example of what kind of irony?”
“Like I said, when he found out, he was devastated to the point that one night he drank a quart of Scotch and downed a bottle of pills. He recovered physically but not emotionally.”
Stud-muffin closes his laptop.
“His wife threw him out of their house, the home they’d lived in for almost fifteen years and raised three children. He began to drink heavily and it affected his work. His boss took him aside and said he understood what he’d been going through but that he had to pull himself together. My friend began to see a change in his three children. They were angry and began to ask questions. They told him they thought this breakup was his fault. He despaired, drank even more, missed work, contemplated suicide again. I know all this because we talked and emailed each other back and forth.”
The P.E. major stops texting.
“One day he emails me that he’s thinking of volunteering for duty in Iraq. He asks me if he should go. I ask myself, does he want to commit suicide by war? What should I tell this friend of mine? ‘No, stay home? You have children to think of. Stay home, you’re not in your right head now?’ I wanted to ask him, ‘How will you function in the state you’re in? Will you cause the deaths of fellow soldiers because your head’s not in the game?’”
The student athlete wakes up.
“He’s a Lieutenant Colonel in military intelligence—an oxymoron if there ever was one—so he wouldn’t be kicking in any doors. He wouldn’t be driving a Hummer down the Baghdad to Basra highway hunting for IEDs. He told me the position would be with an MI unit that collects, collates, and interprets intelligence and then briefs units that move around the countryside searching for insurgents or guarding convoys. Still . . .”
The math major shifts in his chair.
“He told me the unit would be stationed at Balad, a former Iraqi Air Force base now used as a headquarters for coalition forces. I thought about it for awhile and wondered what to say to this friend of mine, a junior officer who once served under me and who occasionally still looked to me for guidance. I thought back to my tour in a war zone in a previous century, in another part of the world. I was only nineteen at the time, no wife or children, thought it was all a game, this war, a big adventure, at least until the green tracers started cracking over my head, my vehicle hit a mine, my friends started dying. There were others, many others, who sat fat and happy—safe, they thought—behind the wire in basecamp, who died during mortar and rocket attacks. Others died in accidents. What do I say to him, I asked myself? Young men die in war. Some suffer horrible wounds. Some suffer life-long damage that can’t be readily seen but comes back to haunt these young men years afterward. What do I tell my friend?”
The student with the bottle of Coke Zero, no longer staring at the label, shifts in his chair.
“Well, and this is where the irony comes in, I told my friend he should volunteer for the tour of duty in Iraq. You may be wondering how I, someone who has seen war first hand, could advise my friend to go off to war? A moral dilemma some might call it. And ironic.”
I shift position on the desk.
“It’s true, men die in war. Or at least there’s a chance of dying. But I was sure that if my friend didn’t go to Iraq he would die here, at home. He would die of grief at not being with his three children. He would die in an automobile crash after a night of drinking, or suffer irreparable damage to his internal organs from long-term alcohol abuse. Or he would get a DUI and be fired from his job. Or he would try to do himself in again. He was inconsolable. I knew it was only a matter of time. He was a weightlifter, a former football player, and in many ways, a strong man, but he was unable to deal with this breakup of his marriage and the possible estrangement from his children. He cried when he told me how much he missed seeing them off to bed at night and off to school in the morning. I was sure he would die one way or another if he stayed home, so I told him he should go to Iraq. I did the math and came to the conclusion that his odds at surviving were better in a war zone.”
Questioning looks from some. A shifting in chairs. Nobody’s staring out the window now. Nobody’s checking emails or texting.
“Can you see the irony in advising someone, a friend, to go off to war in order to save his life?”
“What if he dies?” asks the girl with the iPhone.
“Well, nobody wants to die, but we’re all going to die someday. If given a choice—and this question went through my mind at the time—how would I want to die? By my own hand? In a car crash? A drunk, unemployed, hated by my children, alone? Or in uniform, given a hero’s welcome back home, mourned by all, remembered by co-workers, maybe even a building or road named after me.”
“What difference does that make? Dead is dead,” says psych major.
“You’re right, but I advised my friend to go off to war because I thought he had a better chance of surviving in a war zone. Can you understand my choice, but more importantly—and this is the point to the story—can you appreciate the irony?”
Silence. A shifting in seats.
“Did you see The Hurt Locker?” asks one of the history majors.
“Yes, but my friend isn’t in EOD, he’s in MI and would be working in a fortified bunker,” I replied.
“Running away from your problems to solve them. That’s counter-intuitive,” says one of the education majors in the front row.
“And ironic,” I say, trying to work the discussion back to Oedipus.
“What happened to him?” asks the girl who had been glaring at me in defiance.
I smile. “He survived.”
Smiles from several others.
“He survived and after twelve months in Iraq came home healthy, sober, clear-headed, and with a medal for a job well done. While he was there he worked twelve-hour days, lifted weights, and dried out. More importantly, he got away from his wife. He kept in touch with his children via cell phone, letters, and two R&R trips back home. He and his kids—with the help of counseling—came to an understanding. He stopped feeling sorry for himself and got his life together.”
“And his ex-wife was dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job,” I add.
“That’s called irony,” says stud-muffin.
“No that’s called payback. That bitch got what she deserved,” says Tattoo-girl.
“In short, the war saved his life. That ladies and gents, is irony,” I say. “Now, can anyone give me an example of irony in Oedipus the King?”
In retirement, you’re supposed to do those things you’ve always wanted to do. Whether I like it or not, money, at least for me, is no longer a factor. Even with money out of the picture, it’s not that easy. Just yesterday my agent said to me, “I always knew I was destined to accomplish great things. When I’m able to get you gigs, I know I’ve accomplished the impossible.” Then, in what’s become a ritual for us, he screws up his face and says, “Philosophy?”
I start to explain that what I lecture on is not just philosophy, but the confluence of philosophy, religion, and science; however, with his desk calendar already out, he’s telling me to write down the date, time and location of my next lecture, and how much compensation, which is generally rather meager, he’s been able to cajole from my newest employer.
He does not fit the stereotype I had of a booking agent. I pictured her as female, maternal, twenty years younger than I, with incredible attention to detail. My agent is male, brusque, condescending in a bantering way, and incredibly short on assignment details.
He does manage to get me bookings, however, something I’ve been entirely inept at doing myself. He finds me lecture slots at philosophical societies, education retreats, churches, synagogues, community centers, and some universities. When he can’t find gigs for me, and even when he can, he does not hesitate to point out that my subject area is not exactly in demand, and my background in the corporate world actually casts suspicion on my expertise in this academic area.
Mostly, my audiences are appreciative. Occasionally, after a lecture, some express disdain masquerading as surprise that I don’t have a doctorate. During the question and answer period, others try to poke holes in my scientific theories. So far, no one has hurled rotten fruit.
My most popular lecture is one I call Correlations. I draw connections between ancient beliefs and modern scientific thought. For example, there is a correlation between the ancient Judaic belief in monotheism and the modern scientific tenet that the laws of nature are constant throughout the universe. Scientists did not really accept the universality of nature’s laws until the early 20th century. True, the ancients were superstitious. Those in authority had a predilection for harassing or disposing of those who claimed established beliefs were all screwed up. But the ancients were not dumb.
Another correlation is between the biblical Genesis account and the current scientific relationship between the illogical quantum world and the logical macro world. God created the universe from chaos. Living beings convert quantum mechanics into logical determinism. Most of the attendees at my lectures don’t buy into quantum mechanics. They believe in the time-honored wisdom that my tush can’t be in two places at the same time. Well, if I went on a crash diet, and reduced my tush to the size of an electron, it could be in two places at the same time.
My most unpopular talk is one I call Comparative Realities. I’m afraid that in this one I come off as a demotivational speaker. What we adjudge to be reality is an exquisite hoax. We regard it as reality because it’s head and shoulders in believability above other sensory images we experience, such as dreams, hallucinations, and visions. I suppose you can throw in theories like parallel universes. Closer to home are entities that we don’t see clearly – institutions that start out with their purpose in life being serving the public good, then replace this goal with one of staying alive and growing more powerful. They subsequently imprison and exploit the very cells that created the institution. Complicating this whole picture is that valid philosophical beliefs such as solipsism and nihilism are treated with disdain because they are just too depressing. The problem with what we perceive as reality, confirmed by our own adaption and the verification by others with DNA similar to our own, is that reality does not exist the way we experience it. Our technology provides quite a different picture. Seemingly impermeable structures such as steel walls are mostly space. The atom has been compared to a football stadium, with the nucleus resting on the 50-yard-line and the electron cloud revolving at the level of the outer rim of the stadium. You see a red car coming down the street; if your vision were much more acute, it would not be a red car at all. It would be all different colors, a melange of various frequencies of light, bouncing off waves of energy in motion. We abstract out a red car.
Then we have the whole area of quantum weirdness. The religious belief is that God created the universe from chaos. In our prime reality, man creates a world of macro logic from quantum weirdness. Man creates the universe in his mind.
* * *
I met her at a meeting of the American Society for Contemporary Philosophy at the Wintergreen Resort, near Charlottesville, Virginia. This is not the society founded by Benjamin Franklin. It’s a smaller organization, slightly more offbeat. I saw her standing at the side of the room. The lecturer preferred this small, downstairs meeting room to the auditorium in which I spoke. “A more intimate setting,” he told me. “Militates against violent ideological clashes.” This was the evening lecture. Someone left the door to the patio open. You could hear the crickets outside.
She’s a good-looking woman, perhaps in her mid-fifties. About 5 foot 7, trim figure, dark hair. Glasses with thin frames the color of champagne. She’s dressed completely in white, which was unusual for this audience: white blouse, and white shorts. It reminds me of summer camp, where all-white was the formal dress code. In the question and answer period, she posed a very perceptive question.
My Comparative Realities lecture was the following morning. After my talk, she waited patiently in front of the lectern while a woman berated me for my agnosticism. “Actually,” I said, “I’m a little to the right of agnosticism. It’s these 20 or so constants, like the outcroppings of a mathematical model. If any one of them is altered, the universe doesn’t work. I have to wonder where those constants came from.”
The woman was not assuaged, but looked up and saw someone else waiting. “Just wanted to let you know my thoughts,” she said, as she walked away.
The next questioner approaches. The name badge says Linda Melton, Washington, D.C.
“Thanks for rescuing me,” I say
She’s dressed more formally than the evening before: black pants suit, and green silk blouse.
“It’s not much of a rescue,” she says. “I wanted to tell you that I disagreed with virtually everything you said, but liked the way you said it.”
“Do you teach philosophy?”
“Not even close,” she replies. “I run an abused women’s shelter in D.C. But I majored in philosophy in college.”
Afterwards, I get her email address from the attendance roster. One week later I send her a note saying that I’m giving my Correlations talk in Alexandria next week, and was wondering if she’d like to attend. I feel confident she’ll like this talk better than the last one. She responds saying she will try to be there.
The Holiday Inn in Alexandria is not as upscale as most of my venues in hotels. I’ve always liked it, however, because it doesn’t look like other Holiday Inns. Either by sound business acumen or uncompromising standards from the city’s planners, the chain built a hotel that really blends in with the red-brick motif of the surrounding area.
I have the 7:30 P.M lecture. It seems to go well. After the last question, there’s a smattering of applause.
I’m hunched over, detaching my laptop from the video projector.
“You were right,” she says, standing in front of me. “I liked this talk a lot better than the previous one.
She’s wearing a light blue dress, straps over the shoulders, perfect for an evening lecture and perhaps dinner afterwards in Alexandria. No glasses this time. A light tinge of lipstick.
“I’m famished,” I tell her. “Would you like to join me for a bite to eat. I know a very nice place on King St.”
She hesitates. “Well, just for dessert for me. I ate before I came here.”
I’ve eaten at the Grecian Gardens before. The food is very good, the atmosphere quiet, and the tables aren’t all scrunched together. I particularly like the gleaming white archways that separate the two main dining areas, and the dining areas from the kitchen. There are plenty of customers tonight, but you don’t have to strain to hear what your companion is saying.
I order the vegetarian moussaka and she chooses the large Greek salad. We decide on saganaki as the appetizer. As usual, the flaming saganaki draws oohs and aahs, along with cries of “Opa” from the other customers.
“Does your wife ever attend your lectures?” she asks quietly.
“Well, she used to. The problem is I have a very limited repertoire.”
“And your sons?”
“Same situation. We’re a geographically dispersed family. They have their own lives and families now.”
“You know a lot about my family,” I say.
She smiles. “A girl has to do her homework before she goes to dinner with someone who’s a solipsist and a nihilist.”
“But I told you,” I exclaim. “I’m neither of those.” She looks around and puts a finger to her lips. I lower my voice. “I’m not even an existentialist.”
I have the feeling she’s putting me on, and I reacted clumsily. “I have to admit,” I say, “that I didn’t do my homework on you.”
“It’s nothing spectacular. I’m the director of an abused women’s shelter, which is why I’m in D.C. I majored in philosophy in college, which is why I attend these lectures. And I’m divorced, with two grown children.”
She seems anxious to change the subject. “You mentioned your limited repertoire. But there have to be more than two subjects.”
“Unfortunately not. But I’m working on a third. My agent feels I need something more sociologically relevant.” I realize I don’t like the direction in which this is going.
“What’s it on?”
“Fidelity. Or, more precisely, infidelity.”
Her expression brightens. “I get it,” she says. “I’m a research subject.”
“Oh, no, not at all.”
She leans forward and looks me in the eye. “Then why did you ask me out to dinner?”
“You ask very perceptive questions.”
She frowns, turning her attention to her salad.
“And how far along are you on this new lecture?” she asks.
“It’s still in the embryonic stage.”
“Does it have a title?”
“I was thinking of ‘Semper Infidelis’”
“I like it. And have you established the criteria for infidelity?”
“No!” she exclaims, pounding her fist on the table. She looks to see if any heads have turned our way. None have. The customers at the Grecian Corner are more interested in flaming saganaki than in conversational outbursts.
“If you talked to the women I counsel,” she says, with quiet determination, “I think you’d have a different opinion.”
“It’s not my opinion. It’s a cultural standard.”
“In which country?”
“That’s a very good question,” I say. “It’s a cultural standard in the U.S. France, for example, has a very different standard. Cultural relativism. Spouses, mostly men, can have affairs as long as the media doesn’t stir up indignation. In the U.S., Arnold has a penchant for groping, but Maria can live with that. However, when penetration, and the results of penetration become known, acceptance grinds to a halt.”
“I still don’t agree with that,” she says firmly. “Is that as far as you’ve gotten?”
“I’ve established some conditions conducive to infidelity. So far I’ve got seven, and the list is still growing. The ones I have are power, opportunity, attraction, need for a relief-valve, pervasiveness of the practice, delusions of concealment, and the prophecies of mothers of teenage sons.”
She laughs. “I’m interested in all of those, but you’ve got to explain the last one to me.”
“Well, in its most common occurrence, the teenage son is miserable because the high-school cheerleader he likes won’t go out with him. She’s interested only in the quarterback on the football team. His mother tries to console him by saying someday the girls will all be running after him.”
She’s still smiling. “But my prediction to my son came true,” she asserts. “When he got to college, the girls wouldn’t leave him alone.”
I shrug my shoulders. “Well, that could cause later problems. Or waiting for it to happen could cause later problems.”
“And you?” she asks. “I’ll bet you were quite the catch in college.”
“Never happened,” I reply. Sorry, Mom.
How many years ago? Twenty-five? I’m on assignment at the Centrex subsidiary in Paris. There is some degree of power. The compensation is great. It’s an American company. Practically all of the software development is done in the U.S. The Europeans are anxious for technical expertise, and are willing to pay for it.
Among our closest friends are the Anderssons. He’s Danish, and she’s from the Netherlands. His real name is Torben, but he likes to be called Tommy. He’s big, smart, and athletic. They have four beautiful, blond kids. He loves everything about the U.S. – the expanse, music, jeans, language. They live near us, and we socialize quite a bit.
There’s a small cafeteria on the ground floor of the building in which we work. The food is quite good. Almost everyone in our industry center goes there for lunch. Tommy and I place our trays on the silver tubing that leads past the glass-enclosed food displays. I don’t like one of the servers. She’s tall, willowy, and grumpy. Attractive, though. Anyone who looks good in a hairnet has to be attractive.
“What do you want?” she asks curtly, in clipped English, as I study the offerings. “Hurry up, there are people waiting.”
I make my selection, and start toward the register.
“Tommy, how are you!” I look back. Her whole face brightens. She’s smiling broadly.
“What was that all about?” I ask, as we make our way toward an empty table.
“It’s nothing,” Tommy says. “I took her skiing last weekend.”
That evening we get together with the Anderssons. They have a huge home in the so-called American section. When we visited them during our househunting trip, my first reaction was one of envy. I’ve got to find a rental that at least is close to this – even if we have to strain our international service budget a bit. If my wife Marilyn felt the same, she didn’t let on.
Tommy’s wife Annika and I are sitting on a billowy, green sofa at the end of their combination living and dining room. It’s a huge room, running the full length of the house, with a white marble floor. If you pushed all the furniture against the walls and near the large picture window overlooking the back yard, you could use the room as a dance floor. Tommy is in the kitchen fixing drinks. The kids are supposedly playing downstairs. It’s a little too quiet down there, so Marilyn is checking on them.
Annika is soft-spoken with a pleasant smile.
“He’s strayed, you know,” she says, placing her hand on my arm. It’s as if she’s not sure whether I know, but it’s best to get it out in the open. “But,” she adds, “he came back to the fold.”
Well, not completely. But I say nothing. Power? Yes, at least relative to our jobs in the States. With the International Service Allowance and the other perks, our salaries are quadruple what we made in the States. We’re making decisions that are usually made at much higher managerial levels back home. Opportunity – definitely. Attraction? She’s more physically appealing than Annika. Need for a relief valve? Absolutely. It’s a glamorous life – we’re forever traveling all over Europe for different meetings, but we do work hard. Pervasiveness of the practice? It’s all over the place. While the husbands lead this glamorous, fast-paced life, the wives get stuck with the nitty-gritty of the cultural transition: getting the kids in school, running the household, shopping for groceries in a foreign language. Separations, even divorces, are common. Wife takes the kids and returns to the states, while the husband carries on – both with the job and the affair. Delusions of concealment? Probably not. She found out once. Prophecies of mothers with teenage sons? Never asked Tommy about that.
There’s a job category here we don’t have in the States: International Assignment Representative. For our industry center, these roles are filled by three local French women, all in their early twenties, and members of the human resources department. They act as surrogate secretaries/wives. They handle medical reimbursement, arranging for car registration, making airline reservations, assisting in shopping for appliances, and overseeing reimbursement under the light-fixtures compensation plan. This plan came into being when one assignee managed to convince human resources that the company should reimburse for the purchase of new light fixtures for the home. These young women are very competent in what they do.
I get the sexy one. Her name is Gabrielle. She’s also my mixed doubles tennis partner. We’re playing a match against another industry center on beautiful, Har-Tru courts. Everyone here still wears all white at a tennis match. Gabrielle and I lose the first set, and are down a break in the second. I hit a ball that’s close but called out. “You called that out?” I ask the male opponent. He just looks at me. “Could you check the mark?” I ask. It seems that’s just not done here in a mixed doubles match. He studies me. His partner eyes me with disdain. Gabrielle looks at me with surprise. “You thought that was in?” he finally asks. “I did,” I reply. “Why don’t you just check the mark?” “Play it good,” he says to his partner, turning and throwing a ball to her. Gabrielle and I go on to win the match.
When Gabrielle wears a miniskirt, heads turn. Even when she walks by with a mid-length skirt, heads turn. At work there’s a Christmas party in the break room. All the chairs are up against the walls. They’re all occupied. Some people, holding their drinks, are talking in the center of the room. Everyone is feeling pretty convivial. Gabrielle enters, wearing a miniskirt. She sees me and smiles hello. I don’t get up. “Hi,” I say, nodding my head. I look around. Not an empty chair in sight. “Why don’t you sit on my lap?” She does, putting her arms around my neck and resting her head on my shoulder. Some heads turn and smile, but others pay no attention. This is a festive occasion. I can feel Gabrielle’s breath and hair on my neck. “You don’t want to get involved, do you?” she whispers. The directness of the question takes me by surprise. Can’t I have a little time to think it over? I can feel my face reddening. “No,” I reply. “I guess not.”
Power? Yes. Opportunity ? Yes. Attraction? That’s a tough one. Definitely a sexual attraction. If it’s not a total attraction, does it count as fidelity? Overall I’m more attracted to our French secretary. She’s pretty, flirtatious, married, loves things American, and draws a distinct line against anything more than flirtation. Need for a relief valve? Absolutely. Pervasiveness of the practice? It’s all over the place. Delusions of concealment? None. Not a chance of concealment. Prophecies of mothers with teenage sons? Sorry again, Mom. Not enough volume.
I pay the bill, and Linda and I leave the restaurant. The night air has gotten chillier. I help Linda on with her sweater.
“Did you drive here?” I ask.
“I’m not that masochistic. I took a cab.”
“There are always taxis in front of the Holiday Inn,” I say. “I’d like to take you home, but I have the early lecture slot tomorrow morning.”
We walk in silence toward the Holiday Inn.
“I’d like to see you again,” I say quietly.
She stops and looks me in the eye.
“I mean,” I tell her, “when, if ever, I finish this next lecture.”
“I don’t understand you,” she says firmly. “Do you have an open marriage?”
“No. I believe it’s quite closed.”
“But your problem is your wife doesn’t really understand you.”
“I think she understands me quite well.”
“Tell me this. Does she invite individual men out to dinner?”
“Actually, she does. She’s a vice president of a public relations firm.”
We continue walking, neither of us saying a word.
“You know,” I say quietly, “I don’t see what the problem is with our just being friends. It doesn’t mean we have to leap into bed together.”
She stops again. This time she’s angry.
“You may be surprised to know,” she says, “that some of my clients are quite sophisticated. I warn them against situations exactly like this.”
We reach the Holiday Inn. There’s a taxi waiting by the entrance. I open the door to the back seat and watch her get in.
“I don’t suppose I’ll see you again,” I say.
The summary should probably be applied in all cases. Power? I suppose so. It could be the teacher/student relationship. Opportunity ? Yes. Attraction? Definitely – a total attraction. Need for a relief valve? I don’t think so. Not any more. Pervasiveness of the practice? No idea. You can’t make a judgment based on Philip Roth novels. Delusions of concealment? Maybe a few. I could be better at that than I used to be. Prophecies of mothers with teenage sons? Unfulfilled, and going backwards.
“That’s not necessarily true,” she says, closing the car door.
I didn’t pay much attention to the little things: strangers, antics, and matters of triviality. I saw straight ahead. I saw whatever was necessary. Expending further energy would require a matter of significance. And that was what kept me safe each time I walked home from work with a load of cash in my pockets. Tips varied by the shift, but one thing stayed constant, my wariness when carrying hundreds of dollars in my pockets. It wasn’t that my neighborhood was unsafe; in actuality it was fairly laid back with little thievery. But I was no longer as young and strong. It was a growing concern. I was able to come to terms with that much. There was the thought of carrying a knife, but I had decided against it, and eventually, regretted it.
As I had mentioned, I was usually focused on my destination – home – and didn’t gawk at pointless matters. But I’d had a particularly good night at work, the boost in money exhilarating me, shrinking a host financial worries and clearing the mind with optimism. An out of state businessman had left me a hundred dollar tip. I’d relished in the bill’s newness, its crispy shine like contemporary art in a museum. It was so fine I hated to fold it. And I refused to put it in my wallet. It felt smooth and lovely between my fingers. Sure, it was only a hundred dollars, but it wasn’t about the amount. There was something wonderful about new money, its odor, crispness, and detail. I looked at new clothes in the same manner, hard-edged, smooth, unsoiled and rigid, far from wrinkled and worn.
With winter’s cold ocean breeze blowing at my side I walked briskly, my hands stuffed in my pockets massaging the c-note with my left hand, and my wallet with my right, my habitual thumb pressing at the center of it. The wind at my right cheek was icy, and a thin tube of cold air flowed into my ear canal causing the stir and then the ache. I kept my head down and walked with purpose, the crunching of runaway sand under my shoes.
A speeding car screeched the corner ahead, stopping me abruptly. I slid and took a knee to the concrete. My lower back hitched; it was a close call, but strangely no pain this time. As I regained balance, my focus shifted to embarrassment and whether anyone had seen me. But there was no one except for a woman far ahead. She was busy scurrying to her destination. I took a moment to watch. Her hurried pace made her buttocks shake and jiggle and I rejoiced in our differences, man and woman. Her walk was intense. I suppose that’s why I never saw it coming.
The thump came dramatically, like a hammer at the side of my neck. It was like a power outage when the lights and television and appliances all fail with one click, and then darkness. I was stunned. My first reaction was to close my eyes and go down to a squat. What had it been? The violent crash was echoing, my neck throbbing, as the pain was a crawling explosion, like molten lava that oozes patiently in its torment. I held my neck, eyes still closed, waiting for whatever the unknown might bring. Would there be more? A shot of this magnitude formed paralysis. While I was a bold man, this action had floored me, and expecting another blow I tightened up, hunching over and turning my back in a cowering fashion. But nothing came. Then a hand pushed me at the side of the head, like my brother used to do when we were young, my body keeling over like a statue, with my hand searching for pavement and the other fumbling at my pocket grasping in desperation. My brain said act fast. It said this is trouble.
It was one man. My eyes were open now, staring at the grainy concrete, waiting. I hated that – the waiting. But I couldn’t stop it. I did absolutely nothing to retaliate. My daze was steady, debilitated. I felt a wormy hand wriggle in my front pocket, first the left at my keys, and then the right with success. The lump that was my wallet slipped away, and the sound of quiet became deafening. There was his breathing, the crunching of the sand under his shuffling shoes, and his fingers mangling the wallet, probing, until the crinkle of cash was in his hand. I reached for his ankle, my fingers moving up his pants as I dug my nails into him the best I could. Then came the kick to my gut so that I fell back. He kicked again, and once more harder than before and I knew he’d meant to break me.
Then he fled, with my wallet still in hand. He ran like the kids we used to ridicule in grade school that lacked athleticism. He ran like the fearful. I lay on my side for a spell, and then eased up to a seat, holding my ribs, the warped burn of my neck throbbing. I sat comatose, filled with stunned reflection.
After I’d gotten home and made the necessary calls to cancel credit cards, my mind settled for a moment, and then it began to whir in shock. I poured the whiskey and sat back, staring at the television. There was jazz on the stereo competing with the television, and eventually I listened to neither. The scenario repeated in my head, the sight of the woman, and the mugger getting his hands inside my pockets. He’d knocked me good in the neck. It was swollen, blotched red. My ribs hurt like hell. I gently prodded and poked and was fairly sure none were broken. I took a swallow of whiskey and felt the burn coat my throat. And my neck and ribs called out to my throat in camaraderie. I shook my head at them all.
The mugger had gotten my wallet, but I had held the hundred-dollar bill tightly in my left hand during the assault. Once he had struck me my left hand instinctively clutched the bill, crumbling it tightly into my palm with slight of hand the same as when there were two of us working the bar and a patron secretly handed me a tip for just me to keep. I could hold a bill crumpled in my palm for an hour if need be. I could pour drinks and go on with my business just the same.
Sadly, the hundred meant nothing to me now. It was just money. Worse, it was a memento, and every time I looked at it the memory stung me.
There was no way I could work the next day. As much as it pained me to give away my shift, I did, with sourness filling me. I sat on my deck and watched the sunset. I’d been living near the sea for years, so the actual sun setting no longer carried a magical hypnosis the same as years past, when I was as green as the tourists that flocked to San Diego. Instead I was transfixed on the aftermath, the color scheme of the sky and clouds when the sun was below sea level. Tonight it was layered like feathers, fuzzy strips of pink and blue reminding me of sherbet ice cream or a young bruise, with palm trees blotted like ink over the sky. This was the time when I found meditation. Crisp quiet hovered over my neighborhood save the occasional passing car.
The night moved quickly after darkness set in, as I was face first into a bottle of whiskey. I had gone to the grocery store and spent the hundred dollars as though it were stolen, like I had skimmed it over the bar and stuffed it criminally into my pocket. It felt like that, tainted, and I wanted nothing to do with it. So I bought as much whiskey as possible. With the remainder I bought beef jerky, a nutritional consolation as my appetite was still meager, a lingering aftermath of the sting. The evening ended early and suddenly, from a hundred miles an hour to a complete halt.
After lying in pain the next morning, I bucked up and went to work. The restaurant staff was buzzing when I got there. I fought off the barrage of inquiries over the welt on my neck and the way I cringed over my aching ribs when bending over to wash a glass. Initially, they’d asked and I’d answered politely, later, more matter of fact, and toward the end, rudely so they’d finally leave it alone. It didn’t help matters that my lower back was aching as well. But this was a career injury; I’d suffered through the long years bending over to scoop ice and picking up bottles from the speed rack. It was a slight motion, like bending to fill out a form at a low counter, but I didn’t have the luxury of leaning on my forearm as I wrote. Here, my hands were always preoccupied: holding the cup while scooping ice into it, pouring a shot from the bottle while filling with tonic and soda or whatever the customer needed to water down their drink, holding and passing the drink while I placed a straw or garnish in it. My hands were busy; as a result there was no place to lean. The only consolation was below my knees where I’d installed foam padding over the hard steel speed rack at my shins. Here I could lean minimally. But it still wreaked havoc on my lower back, as I would keep erect while working.
“What you need is a big, sharp buck knife! That’s what you need,” Bob, a regular, shouted.
“Easy there,” I said, my hands motioning downward.
“Oh?” he said and turned around in his stool, giving the restaurant a once over. “There’s hardly anyone here!”
“For Christ’s sake, keep your voice down…pathetic lush,” Al said, and Bob stuck his tongue out. They were pals. I’d never seen one in the restaurant without the other.
“I don’t need a knife,” I said in order to calm them. “What I need is a night in the sack with a beautiful rich woman.”
“A cougar!” Bob shouted, and the two tables in the dining room turned to look.
“For Christ’s sake,” Al said. “He didn’t say a middle-aged girl. He just said a girl.”
“That’s the spirit! What you need…is to get your knob shined.”
This made Al break with laughter and soon we were all laughing. Wanda, a waitress, walked by and gave me the stink eye. But she was always bent out of shape so I ignored her.
Then a couple entered the restaurant. The man was short, with a vague familiarity to him. And then I saw the woman, gorgeous, with big eyes and flowing hair. The man glanced at us, but not enough to make eye contact. He spoke lowly to the hostess and she led them to their table. They walked past the length of the bar, and as the woman passed there was something about her, that beautiful figure, my mind searching, and then they were almost at the table and I knew it was the woman from the other night when I got mugged.
“That’s got nothing to do with it! It’s about how you react to the situation,” Bob said and motioned to me. “He needs to be ready next time. Get a big buck knife and gut the son of a bitch before he gets his wallet!”
“Bob, really,” Al said.
“No! This is my friend. I’m going to look out for him. I’m not going to…think when he has to go and get hit again…” and Bob’s eyes closed as his head bowed forward in a momentary lapse of focus, “that it’ll happen to my friend.”
“Bob, you’re drunk,” I said, but my attention was on the couple sitting at the corner table. Was it her? Same lengthy brown hair, and wonderful body frame. Then she got up and hurried to the bathroom. Her rear shook and shivered and I was sure. The images came back at me with a flurry and I was mesmerized by the memory, ignoring the chatter of Bob and Al behind me. Then she returned to the table.
Wanda approached them and the man spoke sourly. She went to the POS system and put in the order. The paper ticket came up on my bar printer and it read: Ketel One Martini Up, Glenfiddich rocks DOUBLE. I thought about it, though nothing came to memory, and then made the drinks.
“You recognize them?” I said to Wanda.
“They’ve been in before. Not often. The woman’s nice, but the guy’s a prick.”
“Tips for shit. Can’t hold his liquor to save his life. I wouldn’t have known him if it wasn’t for those crazy thick eyebrows and the rude way he ordered. If I were smart I’d put cleaning solution in his scotch,” she said and chuckled. But Wanda was a gutless threat, always bluffing. She placed the drinks on the tray carefully and balanced it with a lift. She was young, maybe late twenties, and very jaded. Like me, she had been in the industry too long.
“Easy now,” I said. “Give them a chance. It’s a whole new day.”
“Give me a break,” she said and walked away.
It was deep into the dinner hour and the dining room was slow. There were only four tables aside from the couple at the corner table. But my bar was steady. Bob and Al were still there. Another couple, much older was fawning over one another at the far end.
At the stools nearest the entrance were four college girls, out of their element, asking the price of every drink, and whining at each other over the inadequacies of their boyfriends and their cell phones.
“And where are your boyfriends?” Bob said over the cackling of the girls. Fortunately the girls paid no attention, and eventually, Al calmed him down. Al told him he recognized them, knew two of their fathers, big lawyer types. I added that their college educations were hardly a measuring stick for their actual intelligence, or lack thereof.
But they were having fun. In fact everyone in the bar and restaurant seemed to be fairing well except for the couple at the corner table. The man was on his fifth double, the woman her fourth drink. I couldn’t hear them speak but watched their facial expressions and gesticulations with a sharp eye. It translated to indiscretions and unease in my opinion. Her face often narrowed to incredulousness, as though she couldn’t grasp what he was saying. And the man threw his hands out in two ways: like he was tossing water out of a sinking boat, and chopping lettuce on a cutting board.
“Hank, give us a round!” Bob called over.
Wanda gave me a look that told me to cut Bob off. I gave Wanda a look that told her she didn’t know shit about how to hook a big tip out of a rich fish.
“Be right there,” I said, still facing Wanda, and eyeing the corner table. “How about them?” I said regarding the couple. “Getting out of hand?”
“They’re just fighting. I stay away and wait until he motions me over. Did you hear the guy snap his fingers at me?” she said and shook her head. “I swear one of these days…”
“Pays the bills,” I said and walked the other way.
Soon after, the old couple left quietly, leaving me more money than I had expected. But I reasoned it was because of love, the newness of it, and his wanting to show her he wasn’t cheap. Men were like that; first dates early in the relationship they often over-tipped in order to prove money was a menial thing, that it could be thrown around here and there, even as a generous tip to a bartender who had poured them only two glasses of wine. As for the four college girls, they were quite the opposite. They’d run separate charges on their credit cards, all of which averaged five percent tips. But they’d pleased the hell out of Bob and Al who normally wouldn’t have stayed so late. It had been a nice outside-the-candy-store-window experience for them. The girls left laughing over their hurried lives and youthful common ground. It had been a fine time. And I smiled and bid them well with a lying face that was thankful.
It was near closing time. Now it was Bob, Al, myself, and the couple at the corner table. Wanda said she was done waiting for the couple and wanted to transfer them to me. I told her to ask them to pay. She declined and quickly finished her side work, tipping me out, and waving a lifeless hand as she passed us at the bar and went out the door with an unlit cigarette ready in her hand.
“Set us up again,” Bob said with a drawl, his head sinking backward so that the lights above irked him every time he blinked.
“Not me,” Al said, fingering his ear canal. “Got a full load tomorrow.”
“You’re a goddamn dentist! All you gotta do is…All you gotta do is clean!”
“Easy now,” I said. “It’s tedious work.”
“I’ll say,” Al said and his face froze stunned as though he’d been slapped.
“You want to close out?” I said to Bob, hoping to feed a subliminal message to his drowning brain.
They were good and drunk, and I didn’t have the energy to baby-sit them. My body was sore as hell. It needed a couch and a gallon of booze.
“Close us out,” Al said, coming to life again, and reaching into his back pocket.
“Leave it!” Bob said and tossed his credit card on the bar. “Save it for a goddamn…tooth whitening seminar.”
As I ran his card, there was a flicker of commotion at the corner table so that the woman got up in a huff and yanked her handbag out of the grasp of the man. She clacked her awkward heels to the bathroom where the door shut violently. The man got up as if to chase her but saw me and sat down. With the credit card and receipt in my hand I watched the man wallow in his seat, pushing a hand through his hair like he might pull it out. He was too drunk and self-pitying to notice me any more. Then he seemed to remember something and slammed the table with both hands. The silverware jumped and the martini glass, fortunately empty, fell on its side.
I gave Bob the charge receipt. He was surprisingly quick in signing. Al got him by the shoulder and they were merry as they stumbled off the stools, the wooden legs squealing against the floor. Al waved a hand in thanks as they made their way out. It was ten o’clock and the restaurant was now closed. I got the check for the couple at the corner table, placed it in a checkbook, and approached the man with pain flaring at my lower back.
“Closing up shop,” I said, and the man wavered his head upward, his eyes trying to find recognition. After a moment, he made an impish lift of his thick eyebrows.
“One more,” he said.
“No more. Sorry. We’re closed.”
The table had been Wanda’s in the first place, so it was bonus. I didn’t care how much or how little this man was going to tip me. I just wanted them out.
“Fine,” he said and got out his wallet with a deep search of his coat pocket.
He pulled out a fine brown wallet, worn, but exceptional in quality. My eyes narrowed and focused intently. There was a dark blotch in the center from the grease of a finger that had forgotten its oiliness. And there was a deep scuff on the tip, a yellowed gash from a thumbnail that had grown too long. Both markings had come as a result of drunken nights, in my home.
I swiped the wallet from his hand and took a step back, frantically searching its contents. And I kept moving backward, with my head bent down as though there might be a blow coming. It was reflex, as the memory of being swatted in the neck flashed at me and I was fearful. Neither my identification nor my credit cards were there. But there deep in the side pocket was a folded ticket stub from a movie I’d seen months ago. And then the adrenaline shot came.
“What the hell is this?” I said. There was little cash and I wondered how much of it was mine, grabbing it and stuffing it into my pocket.
“Gimme that,” the man said, annoyed, though not yet realizing what was happening.
“Where’d you get this?” I said.
“That’s mine. Gimme it.”
“This isn’t your damn wallet. This is my wallet.”
Now I was taking out his credit cards and tossing them to the ground.
“What kind of moron takes a guy’s wallet and then uses it as his own?” I said. Then realizing, I bent over and picked up his credit cards. “I’ll be right back.”
“Hey. Come back’ere with my…wallet.”
I ran a credit card for the amount of the bill. Then I got my pen, and with shaking hand wrote $500 in the tip column. I used Frederick’s swipe card in order to approve the large tip. Then I closed the check to be sure the amount would clear, and it did. Instantly, vindication budded. I went to the man at the corner table and placed the checkbook in front of him.
“Sign it,” I said.
“What’ta hell is this?” he said.
“Sign it,” I said sternly.
“After you sign.”
And he scratched his name in a wild motion, not looking at the tip or total. When he was done he held the pen up to me like I was his daddy.
The woman returned while diddling with her cell phone. She grew wary of my presence, standing stiff at the table’s edge.
“Honey, what’s going on?” She clutched her handbag closely.
“I knew I recognized him,” I said to her. “You were walking down the street last night. This street out front. I saw you. Someone bashed me on the neck and stole my wallet.” Then I held up the wallet.
“That’s mine,” the man said, snatching at the air with a lethargic hand.
“You shut your mouth before I crack your goddamn skull,” I said with intense focus, staring him down like a dog. “You sit there and pray I don’t call the cops.”
Frederick appeared from the kitchen. He was concerned.
“Go lock the front door,” I told him. “I’m serious, Fred.”
He went and locked it.
“So you’re saying my boyfriend stole your wallet? Are you serious? Why would he steal your wallet?” she said to me like I was a poor peasant.
“Your boyfriend jumped out of the bushes and bashed me. How else would he have my wallet?”
“Maybe you have the same type of wallet!” she said as the intensity of the matter was now absorbed. She was anxious and complaining, “Just because you have the same type of wallet doesn’t mean–”
“Stop!” I cut in. “It’s the same wallet. It’s my wallet. You see this? An oil stain from me sticking my damn thumb on it. That’s what this is. You see that scuff here? That’s from my thumbnail, same thumb. I did this. You don’t believe me? Then I’ll call the cops.”
This backed her up. She sat down on the chair in contemplation. Then she looked at her boyfriend who was wilting in his seat.
“How can you be sure it was him that did it? Maybe he found the wallet on the sidewalk where you got mugged?”
“I recognize him,” I said dead-eyeing her.
“Well, sure, now you do.”
“I don’t care what you think. I’ll bet you two went out the other night and tied one on like tonight. I’ll bet you fought then too. I’ll bet he doesn’t even remember most of it. Maybe he does.”
“So what are you saying? Are you waiting for the cops? Is that why you locked us in?”
My body was still trembling. Half of me was glad the man was so drunk he was incapacitated, but the other half of me wished it were only the two of us, and not his woman there, so I could take him in the back and bash his head properly. But that was irrational thinking. It was how the naïve reacted. I wasn’t a kid any more. I knew better than to stir a pot that would only catch up to me later. Now I believed it was more appropriate to take the sting of unfortunate circumstances and move forward in spite of them.
“I’ve run his credit card for the amount of the check. I put in five hundred dollars for a tip.”
She took a breath inward.
“That’s mine to keep. He stole my wallet with hundreds of dollars in it. Those were my tips from the other night. I worked for those goddamn tips. But he took them. So I’ll take five hundred and when his credit card company calls, if they call, he’ll say it’s fine. He’ll do that because I’ve got all this on him. And whenever I want, I can call the cops and turn him in.”
“No you can’t,” she said. “You have no proof it was my boyfriend that hit you and stole your money.” She was petting his hair now, standing over him and holding him like a child.
“Oh really?” I said and smiled so that my cheeks quivered with nervousness. “Check his ankle. Lift up his pants and under his sock look at his ankle.”
“I have no idea. Just look.”
“I have no idea…” she repeated, shaking her head as she lifted his right pant leg and lowered the sock. There was a gash, dried with dark blood, and two smaller gashes near it.
“My fingernails,” I said, and went to her and put my fingers in her face so that she pulled her head back to focus. “Blood. See that underneath the nails? I couldn’t get it all out. Now I’m glad I didn’t.”
She looked down, and after a reflective moment, at me in concession.
“Now what?” she said.
“I already closed the charge receipt. I take the five hundred and put it in my pocket. I keep my wallet. And I’ll keep his I.D. You can have the credit cards and such. Because I’m no thief.”
I knew the whole blood under the nails thing was a stretch. There were no witnesses to the mugging, and no sane cop was going to spend time and energy trying to prove an old bartender in stinking rich La Jolla had gotten jumped. But I’d watched enough television, as I knew she had. We were a society of duped television lovers. We believed what we saw, and we were lesser for it.
The man was passed out, face down on the tabletop, his pant leg still up over his knee and the sock down at his ankle.
“Fred, call a cab,” I said to him at the kitchen door. He nodded and disappeared behind it. Then he came back and said, “I’ll just hail one. It’ll be faster.” He unlocked the door and went outside.
“I’m sorry,” she said listlessly. “I had no idea.”
“We’ll forget this ever happened,” I said. “I’ve got my wallet back, and the money he owes me. The extra money is for my injuries.” I bent over to show her my neck, and then pulled my shirt out so she could see my bruised ribs. “See this? And this? He did this. People get drunk and fight and do stupid things. If you want to do stupid things you should do them to each other, not a guy minding his business watching a beautiful girl walk up the street.”
“What?” she said.
“Never you mind.”
Frederick came in and motioned that the cab had arrived. The woman tried to wake her boyfriend. Frederick tried to help. So I cocked back and slapped the man violently across the back of the head so that he wobbled it in confusion. Frederick was young and strong and I was glad. He lifted the man and carried him out while the woman walked along the other side with the tip of his elbow in her hand in support. Within minutes, the taxi sped off down the street.
“What the hell was that all about?” Frederick asked.
I stood at the register, my back to him, while doing my cash out.
“Never you mind.”
“But Hank. The owners…”
“It’s all right here,” I said, pointing to the video surveillance cameras, “And here,” and I held up my hand, the fingernails of dried blood out for him to see.
“I don’t get it,” he said.
“They don’t pay you enough to be a chef and manager at the same time, Fred,” I said. And then my lower back started and I cringed and held the counter so that the sharp pain would pass. “And they don’t pay me enough to wreck my goddamn back.”
“So what do we do?” he said and I could hear him lighting a cigarette. “What do we do, Hank?”
“Go pour yourself one,” I said and finally turned, motioning to the bottles on the bar. “I need you to open the safe. I’ve got a cash-due. There isn’t enough in my register to pull out this tip.”
I smiled big and ridiculously.
Afterward, when the lights were down and the place grew cold I apologized to Frederick for the rude way had I ordered him around. He patted me on the shoulder, still marveling over the coincidence of my recent events. I poured the tequila into our glasses. We sat at the same corner table where the couple had been, drinking until our heads began to swivel and sag. The aches in my neck and ribs were gone. It was only the soreness in my back that lingered. But that was the job. I expected this. Though every now and again there were deep concerns, where I would go and what I would do when real old age set in and my body was no longer capable. But they passed, as did the night.
It’s mid-October and I’m bundled up, wearing long sleeves that cap the tops of my hands, a normal thing for me. Ever since I started doing outreach with teens, I’ve become even more self-conscious about the scars that run down my wrists from cutting, and the tattoos that remind me about the journey I’ve made. I still feel edgy when they notice them, when they ask questions, so I hide them.
I’ve got a notebook with a list of things I want to make sure I say, and a note that says: “Smile!” It’s my first day as the lead writing instructor with a new outreach group: Teens Together. They are the only non-incarcerated writing group of teens who work with Storycatchers Theatre, a not for profit organization whose mission statement is to prepare young people to make thoughtful life choices through writing, producing, and performing original musical theatre inspired by personal stories. I remember how inspired I was after I first started telling stories from my life creatively, how inspired I felt about living, and how I felt like I had accomplished something. I take a deep breath, hoping I’ll be able to make it through the day.
I study the room, reminding myself that I am in a place that I call home. I remind myself that I learned how to teach a class of students in this very room. “I know how to teach,” I tell myself. But it doesn’t matter that I’m in the same room I have several classes in on the 12th floor of Columbia College Chicago: a chalk board lining one wall, windows on another; deskless chairs scattered around the room now arranged into a semi-circle; coat hooks that I’ve only seen used once or twice. These common things are only so much comfort, and I feel my first finger start to rub the skin around my thumb nail, wanting to peel the skin that sits around it, something I can’t help but do when I get agitated or nervous.
Within minutes of my arrival, my program manager Hillary arrives. She wears calmness; she comes in smiling, her strawberry hair tucked behind her ears, eyebrows raised, “Ready?” she asks. I nod, even though I’m not.
And soon, kids start filtering in. A tall black boy with a bald head who’s wearing dark jeans and a worn sweater bolts to Hillary and gives her a hug. His voice is full and warm, deep.
A shorter black boy with a mohawk comes in. He runs straight to Michael and speaks in a tongue I don’t quite understand. I later learn that it’s a language they’d made up the previous summer. Michael’s already, apparently, grabbed a contract for this boy, and Hillary explains that this is Jermaine, a boy who isn’t in high school just yet, which is not something that Storycatchers does very often–all the participants in Teens Together are usually in grades 9 through 12. Her extensive knowledge of these teens makes me nervous that I will mix them up or not win them over in the same ways. She manages to hold it together so well, and that’s something I only wish I knew how to do.
Soon, a calmness creeps over me when two kids that I’d taught in another teen outreach program–After School Matters, or ASM for short–arrive, Christian and Alex. They are both chubby and latino, but from different families. Alex is a senior in high school, but being very short, she tends to hang out with the younger crowd. A prime example of this would be later in the year when Alex invites Christian, a sophomore, to her senior prom as her date.
Behind them are some other kids I don’t know, who Hillary identifies as Michael’s girlfriend Myia and a new girl who Hillary had already met, Tazhaniq. Myia is tiny and dark skinned, with sleek black hair and a thin, muscular, dancer’s body. Tazhaniq is a full-figured girl, with braids, and baggie clothes.
We have only one white student. He stares at his hands, fingers interlocked in his lap.
“And this is Danny,” Hillary tells me. “We’re so happy to have him back. This is his second year in the writing program with us, and when the play is done, I’m sure this will be his third time in Summer Theatre Ensemble. He’s grown to be quite the actor.” She nudges me in the arm, smiling.
All I see is a tuft of light brown hair.
“Hi, Danny. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Miss Aimee.” I reach my hand out toward him, but he’s so folded into himself, I feel I need to pull my hand back. It’s hard to offer any of myself. It’s even worse because I know Hillary will let me know anything I’ve done wrong or right at the end of the day. That’s her job as program manager. I’m trying so hard not to have a list of wrong.
He doesn’t look up.
Hillary says, “Think Clint Eastwood, Danny, and introduce yourself to Miss Aimee.” I don’t know what this means, or why she would suggest Clint Eastwood, but I think I see the rims of his glasses creeping up for a moment. I’m wrong. It is still only the top of his head, that mound of light brown hair.
Before Teens Together had started, Hillary told me that there were several teens who would be returning from the summer program. She warned me, “Some of them are extremely outspoken, loud, and wild. They’ll say things that will surprise you. But all of them are amazingly gifted, talented young people.” There were no words within that warning about anyone paralyzed with shyness. There were no words about a teen who would appear as though he would rather die than look an adult in the eyes. And on my first day, this is what I came face to face with.
Once all of the teens arrive, we have them go around the circle, say their names, ages, and what school they attend. We also want them to discuss how they heard about the program and why they joined or what they hoped to get out of it.
“I’m Tazhaniq and I’m a Junior at Fenger. I heard about this program when Miss Hillary visited my school. It sounded cool that we’d be doing acting and writing. I really like both, and think I have talent in both, but I’d like to see my talent blossom.”
We fly around the circle until we land on Danny.
“Danny, who are you? Tell us about yourself,” I ask.
He glances over the tops of his glasses at me, blue eyes big and frightened.
His mouth opens and he drops his hands to the sides of his legs in the chair. They are balled into fists and he fingers the nails on his thumbs.
A breath comes out of his mouth.
“Danny.” His voice is so quiet that it is difficult to tell whether I actually hear him speak or wish I hear it.
He hears Hillary’s voice and his head tilts up. He faces her, looks her in the eyes. “Tell everyone your name so they can hear you.” I want to learn to master the magic she has with this boy.
He clears his throat, but still barely loud enough to hear, he says, “My name is Danny and I go to Lincoln Park High School. I am sixteen. I like the way this program helps you make friends and helps you build confidence?” His tenor, and what could be full voice, curves up at the end of the sentence.
I feel my lips curl into a smile.
Danny isn’t just one of those kids who is shy the first day. He is a kid that every time you have a first day with him, it’s like the first time you meet him all over again. The shyness comes back. Heck, Danny is the kind of kid that day four you need to remind him that he knows you; he can joke around with you; he can be loud! He isn’t one of those kids that will just open up after his parents leave the room. This is a kid who is terrified of everyone. He is terrified to speak in public. He is terrified of what people think. He is terrified to share his voice.
I don’t smile because I am happy that he’s paralyzed with shyness. I smile because in a lot of ways Danny reminds me of me. My first days at Columbia were after a major bout of depression and I became tremendously introverted. (And no, this is not me diagnosing Danny with depression. I don’t know enough about him in the moment to do that, and what I’ll learn over the course of these next couple of years working with him will show me that he is an extraordinarily happy kid.) I couldn’t look people in the eyes. I couldn’t speak without shaking. And I hated the sound of my own voice. I was terrified of people and their reactions to me. I was terrified of what people would think when I spoke. I was terrified of people hearing my story. I was terrified of hearing my own story. But, I learned how to use that nervous energy as excitement. And I want Danny to be as excited to come to program as I would be every Saturday. And even though this first day, I’m nervous too, his shyness makes me commit to a goal, and it makes me less afraid that I’m going to mess up, or worse break a kid.
We read aloud in session every week, and I’d been told that over the summer, Danny was given a soliloquy to perform. They had him research Clint Eastwood–which I began to assume was a choice made because of his love for TV and watching it with his entire family, including his parents–in order to figure out different ways of delivering the lines. Anytime Hillary coached him to “Think Clint Eastwood!” his face would change, eyes would glaze over, and he would become enveloped in some kind of act.
As a writing teacher, however, I wasn’t trying to find an actor. I was trying to find the writer. And as someone who this kid might someday see as a mentor, I wanted to find Danny!
I’d manipulate coachings while having him read, trying to play with the information I had about him in order to get him to have more fun, open up. I felt I owed it to him to help break him out of his shell, to let him find a comfortable space within the group to build his voice. I owed it to the teachers who had helped do that for me. I needed to knock away my nervousness and listen to all of my mentors’ advice. “What does he need right now? Say those words to him.”
“You’re an actor, right Danny?” I said when it was his turn to read, and posed my hand in front of me, like any and every Shakespearean actor I had ever seen. He nodded at me. “Okay great! So, go ahead and address it as a letter across the semi-circle. And when you do that, exaggerate your voice. Allow it to carry to the very back of the theatre in your mind. Think about the way you deliver lines on stage, your favorite character you’ve played. Give that much energy to the reading.” All the while, I moved my hand in a big circle, emphasizing just how much space I hoped he’d fill. My arcs grew wider and wider, and my focus stopped being on whether or not my sleeve would slide up my arm and the teens would see my tattoos and my scars, but instead on the theatre I was trying to create in Danny’s mind.
He bit his bottom lip, and then nodded again.
“Dear Myia,” he was still whispering. He’d chosen a girl, which was out of his comfort zone, but Myia was someone he was already close with from having participated in Summer Theatre Ensemble the last year.
“Let’s see that actor come out! Get that volume way up!” My voice was so loud I wanted to plug my ears. My hand was out in front of my body, twisting radio knobs I was imagining on him.
The kids stared at me.
“What are you doing?” one of them asked. Christian remembered my coachings from ASM, and he chuckled, removing his football-player hands from the pockets on his sweatshirt and putting them over his mouth. Those few months without the coachings seemed like a long void, and brought the amusing quality back for him.
“She’s turning up his volume.”
The rest of the kids wrinkled their foreheads.
“She told him to get his volume up and she started turning a knob. See it.” As a returning student, he’d picked up on my lingo, that writing teacher language I’d used with him all summer.
Danny’s breathy, gasping laugh erupted. He pulled the book up in front of his face, lifted his feet off the ground, knees high in the air, and then slammed them down as he reset the book in his lap. “You’re turning my volume button!?” It was the first time I really heard his voice, deep and full, much too big for that lanky kid’s body, I thought. I laughed along with them, realizing that for the first time I was smiling without really thinking about it.
“Listen to your voice. Now keep that volume way up. Read that story, and listen to your voice as you tell it to all of us.”
By the time all of the teens were turning in their final drafts of their stories for the anthology in the middle of the year, Danny had started exploring some personal material–a relationship with a girl where there may, or may not, have been an attraction. He wrote about the way the weather seemed to change whenever they were together.
“How do you see her, Danny? How does she make this boy feel? How does her being there change things?” I would sit in front of him, watching the way his face would illuminate when he would start to write. Sometimes, I would even sit next to him when we had the privilege of getting time in the computer lab, and have him tell me everything he saw in his head when he thought about her.
He wrote about how he couldn’t even feel the coldness or the snow. He wrote about how they would spend every moment at school together. He also wrote about how he started to watch new TV shows, ones he wasn’t really interested in so that they would have even more to talk about. Soon, a new side of Danny was being explored. This was a relationship he had developed in the Drama Department at Lincoln Park High School, and we started to see the humor he had hidden inside.
I forgot about myself. I only cared about the things that this ensemble of teens had to say. And soon, he started telling me without me having to ask.
I am asked to take a role as an instructor with the Summer Theatre Ensemble, even though I don’t know much about theatre, and I’ve never been a part of this program before, but I accept the opportunity. In fact, I’m excited about it. We encourage the kids to take the project from beginning to end, to see the arc of their project.
- Write Creative Non-Fiction stories.
- Rewrite them until they are of publishable quality.
- Find the common themes and perform them as a staged reading.
- Understand the growth of the staged reading and develop it into a musical.
- Perform the musical.
As a first time staff member, I am learning this process with the kids. And as a staff member who facilitated writing the musical and their “writing guide” I have no choice but to be excited to have a role in the summer. I want to see how the kids react to seeing it come full circle.
Danny applies for his third summer with Summer Theatre Ensemble, and he is accepted. He is one of four writers to take things all of the way to the end.
I’m more confident in giving jobs to the teens and figuring out what a day is supposed to look like. I am more confident in running a bigger group, and believing that everyone will get home safely and happily. And the more confident I become in myself, the more I realize that a lot of teaching can be hands off, that some of the kids grow on their own if they have the right nurturing.
I play a role in helping decide how the teens audition and who is cast for what. The girls are competitive in what they audition for. Every girl wants to be one of the main female characters. The boys, on the other hand, are more self-deprecating and place themselves in smaller roles for the audition.
The Artistic Director and I both see tremendous growth in Danny. “Let’s see him in the role of Carlos,” she says. Carlos is one of the biggest roles. He is the character that changes the most. He has a ton of lines, a solo, and a rap.
Danny stands on a box during the audition and loudly delivers lines. His body seems to have filled out in the four short weeks between Teens Together ending and Summer Theatre Ensemble’s start. He holds his shoulders back while he delivers lines, and his tenor voice now seems appropriately full for his body. It isn’t long before he’s in front of audiences of at least 70, singing, challenging himself to be loud, and rapping over the music. Danny makes eye contact with every person in the audience. On the last day, he tells me, “I think I found my volume knob. It’s up now.”