Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Monday, May 30, 2011
Something about it caught my attention. I don't know what, exactly, but I pulled the car off of the road and trekked into the meadow, carrying my camera bag and tripod.
I set down the bag and looked out. Yes. The angles of the mountains and hills, the boulder-strewn field and the hairpin turn, the textured-but-not-quite stormy clouds – they all seemed just right. I pulled out my camera and turned it on, caught up in the excitement of what I would do with this vista.
I don't know how long I was there, waiting for just the right light, just the right arrangement of clouds, moving first left, then right, then forward, then back, all the while experimenting with combinations of settings to get the exposure just right. I do know I noticed that enough time had passed that I wouldn't make it to my sister's for dinner. The thoughts of familial acrimony and broken promises along with the recriminations that would come after missing the meal that was supposed to be a mutual agreement to stop placing blame and put our arguments behind us vanished as I worked.
After… I don't know, hours I suppose… of thoughtful preparation I snapped a couple pictures, confident that they were just right, and headed home, realizing that I was late enough now that dinner would be over by the time I got there, so there was no point on continuing on.
At home I hurried to my computer and downloaded the pictures. They were sharp, beautifully exposed and yet for some reason they simply didn't excite me. I played with some adjustments briefly, but then gave it up as a wasted effort and deleted them all.
I suppose there's a moral there, if you look for it.
He cast his gaze around the landscape; the spectacular peaks they had just passed between loomed high above to the south. He could see the ribbon of road they'd come down snaking up the grassy hillside, then beyond the green into the slate grey above the growth line and then finally, the last visible trace of the road vanished into the white snow far above. He turned slowly, his eyes following the road descending the steep alpine slope. He could still hear the echoes of their argument in the car...her accusation, there: right as they passed that sign. His non-denial response, there: in the shadow of that giant boulder. The part where they yelled over each other, there, screeching around that turn, there. He'd come almost all the way back around by now, looking down, down the slope, down the hillside to the road where it hairpinned left, where their car sat in the middle of the road still. He could see the doors standing open, the headlights still on. The crumpled fender, the body on the grass thirty or forty feet ahead. The bicycle twenty feet beyond that, crumpled into an abstract tangle of tubes and spokes and slender rubber tires.
His gaze remained there for a minute, two, then he looked down at Rachel.
"Hey," he said, "Shut the hell up."
Shawn decided to jump ahead so he kind of set up a precedent. I decided to jump backward to the Going Home topic as my first post, because of the resonance with today… Tucker
The combination of sunny and cold was something I'd grown up with but long since become unaccustomed to. The air was that dry, brittle cold that cuts through warm clothing and made my dress pants seem to provide no warmth at all. The realization that it wasn't even very cold by Indiana standards for January should probably have made me thankful, but the possibility of greater discomfort provided little consolation. In a couple of hours the warmth of the sun would make being outside more tolerable, but the sun was too low on the horizon to provide any appreciable warmth and hadn't even driven away the frost that crunched underfoot. I'd forgotten that, the sound of frozen grass crunching underfoot.
The cold colored every aspect of the morning. Our pace, which should have seemed both reverential and considerate of the age of many of our party, instead seemed glacial and agonizing; a brisk walk would have at least warmed my freezing legs. Avoiding the desire to trot and the overwhelming urges to let my teeth chatter or to let my arms and legs tremble violently drove most thoughts from my mind. The only thing I could really think of was how wrong the blue skies and fluffy clouds and the crisp, clean air seemed. A lifetime of movie and comic book clichés made it seem like the monochrome image of dark overcast, dreary rain and a sea of black umbrellas were the proper thing. Instead our Sunday-clothes-clad group trudged through the morning sunshine and frosty cold with the only the silent and solemn pace in common with those clichés.
At the graveside, next to the flag-draped coffin, waited three elderly men dressed in dark suits and VFW hats, holding rifles at port arms. They gave my mother a grim smile and nodded slightly to her, but otherwise remained unmoving. It made me ashamed of being so concerned about my comfort, seeing them standing there, uncomplaining and unshivering, clutching rifles in hands knobbed by arthritis.
As we took our positions by the coffin, I glanced at the headstone and had to suppress a laugh. I remembered when my mother and father had bought the plot and the headstone. It had been delivered with "19__" carved where it would show year of their deaths. My mother had been unwilling to die in the twentieth century to make their job easier and had insisted they remove it. Dad and I had laughed at her outrage then. Now the "1995" carved by his name made the humor seem more sardonic than it had at the time.
The minister read the twenty-third Psalm, my father's favorite, and some other scripture I don't recall, no doubt assuring us of a divine reward and our eventual reunion. I wasn't really paying attention. I don't recall whether he said any other words before turning to face the honor guard.
Taps was watery and slightly off-key, but moving in the way it always is. As the old men fired their three volleys, the sun had risen enough that its heat was making a fine steam rise from the melting frost and from the shoulders of their dark suits. The weight of the rifles made them tremble slightly, but they fired precisely in unison and held a long count between rounds. It was only as they lower their rifles and moved to the coffin that their age began to show in their gait and in the the effort it took to remain precise in the practiced ritual of folding the flag. As one of them walked to us, a white-gloved hand above the flag and another below it, I was surprised when he offered it, not to my mother, but to me. I looked at my elder sisters, expecting them to disapprove at this surprise, but the looks on their faces told me that it had been discussed in advance.
As I met the eyes of the aging soldier the moisture there showed the significance this act had for him. I realized that in many ways, despite all that had happened in his life, my father was most defined by that time when he was risking his life in Pacific. I realized that even though he rarely talked about it, that time nearly a decade before I was born when my father struggled alongside men who fought and died as part of the "Greatest Generation" was very much the core of who both he and this man handing me the flag were. I recalled the last serious discussion we'd had, when Dad told me that in those final days of Viet Nam, when it was a race between my draft number and the end of the draft, he had hoped that if I was called I would go to Canada and refuse to serve. And as I took the flag, I realized just how complex and confusing being a patriot can be.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
He was all flash, the picnic was put together by the grocery store deli. He had misquoted the poem, and he did not know any others aside form the usual dirty limericks. The rose wilted. The wedding never happened, although he got free place to live while he was finishing his novel. Turns out finishing his novel meant fucking the drugstore clerk, the mail carrier, the neighbor and her sister. She had only caught him the one time, with the obstetrics nurse, ("Come on baby you know you are the one I love, but six weeks is too long for me to go without getting some.") She did not want their daughter growing up with a doormat as a role model, so she killed him. She rolled him out of the trunk of her car on that road, the one less traveled by,and that has made all the difference.
I'm still going to post something about the picture, but, Margaret and I were just discussing this event and some other "True crime" stories so I'm jumping ahead just a bit....
I suspect there's been a number of cases where people have wished me harm, only once have I had a gun put in my face and my life threatened. Oddly, it was a rather calm situation.
I had recently moved to Pittsburgh - the seedier part as it happens - from Denmark, Ohio. Denmark consisted of a general store and a church. Pittsburgh was considerably larger. I was a country bumpkin and a naïf. I don't recall that I expected the best of people or went into any situation fearless and in fact probably quite the contrary on both counts. I was intimidated by everything and trusted no one. But that's different than knowing how to look out for trouble; how to read people; knowing how to spot those that mean you harm. That would come later and I suspect has served me well since.
Anyhow, north side of Pittsburgh at night. I was returning to my apartment from making a call at a payphone as two men approached me. The asked if I had change for a $10 so I looked down briefly as I pulled the $11 form my pocket and when I looked up there was a pistol in my mouth. They took the cash, my wallet and searched my pockets. Then they ran.
I assume I was scared at the time but thinking back I really don't recall anything other than surprise. Maybe it was over too fast for fear to even register. I walked back to my apartment and told my roommate. The next morning I walked down to the police station to report the crime.
I recall the officer taking the report was pretty up front about the fact they really couldn't do anything but I wasn't expecting they could. The one thing that struck me though was that he said something to the effect of, "So it was two black men". I don't recall mentioning they were black. They were, but I hadn't mentioned that and remember thinking it unfair that he would jump to that conclusion. Now in all fairness it was an almost entirely black community so if only by law of averages chances are it would be two black men. Still, it impressed me as an unwarranted stereotype at the time. On a related note, I was 18 and had never known a black man. All I had to go on were negative stereotypes promoted by an all-white rural world. Still, it seemed unfair.
So what came of this? Well, I did in fact get my wallet back. Someone found it and dropped it in a mailbox and it was returned to me. I started carrying a punch knife in a Velcro quick release I made and added to the inside of my coat. I would like to point out I never had to use it but came petty close once when two friends and I put ourselves in a really stupid and dangerous situation (another story not for public consumption). Also, I learned to survive in the city. I learned what to look for and what to avoid. I learned how to walk and how to hold yourself. How to make eye contact and act casual even when you feel like running for your life. As a related skill, how to have a pleasant exchange with the cops when you know you're breaking at least 2 or 3 laws.
Mostly though I discovered something rather unexpected about myself. I learned I had it within me not to hold others responsible for the actions of people of a like color. I know this is stupefying obvious to anyone with half a brain and conscience to match, but, I was 18. I was from a rural farming community. It was worth $11.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Everything smelled like apple cider and fruitcake. Rum punch sat on the counter, and my four brothers and two sisters were already gathered around, smiling and imbibing. Cheeks were pink with good cheer and booze, the talk was light and full of laughter - once again, I just stood and stared. Someone pressed a glass into my hand, and standing, I smiled automatically and said "Cheers!" to much clapping. I'd been away for much too long, I felt out of place, but I still tossed back the punch. Then I mumbled something about putting my bags away and headed for my old room. It hadn't changed much - the little room in the attic with just enough room for a twin bed and a desk. As the youngest, I was the only child who hadn't had to share, but I got the tiniest room in exchange. It was only fair. I plunked down on my bed for a minute, looking around. Not luxurious, but by my current standards, plenty nice enough. Mom had left a holiday card on the pillow - it said something seasonally appropriate, of course. Nothing was ever out of place with my parents. I tucked it back under the pillow, then after sitting a moment longer, I retrieved it and started making a paper airplane out of it. After testing it's flight characteristics a few times, I left it on the floor and went back downstairs.
Everyone cheered again when I came back down, and someone had refilled my glass. I took it again, but this time didn't drink.
"How was Africa?", my oldest brother asked, beaming.
"Um - it was great. Medical Teams International did a great job of placing us wherever there was the most need. I really enjoyed it."
Mom and Dad nodded in approval, and Dad held out his glass in commendation of my work. "We're so proud of you, honey!", Mom piped in, wiping a tear from her eye. Dad put his arm around her waist, blinking his own tears away as he smiled even wider.
I looked around again, smelling the food, hearing the CD of classic Christmas tunes wafting from the living room. Seeing the smiles, the tidiness, the lack of humanity everywhere. The faces looking at me, waiting for me to re-prescribe those meds that kept them from going off the deep end....Africa had been a relief to me.
Tom Wolfe was wrong - you CAN go home again. But you shouldn't.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
The houses drift by unseen. The toys in the yards, the minivans in the driveways - he sees none of them; they are nothing to him. His mind is singularly focused on his house.
He turns onto his street. His house is there on the right glowing like a beacon in the night but he drives past it and parks at the back of the lot at the neighborhood pool several houses beyond. He remains motionless in the driver's seat for several minutes willing calm on the raging fire in his chest. When he moves it is with quick confidence; he gathers his tools and slides smoothly from the van and turns to walk along the path that runs through the woods behind the houses. A minute later he is there.
The house. His house. Those within, his servants - his slaves. Every object in the house, every molecule of air, every dust mote - his. The fire in his chest threatens to burst free but he wills it quiet. He selects the glass cutter and moves to the patio door.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone
They say you can't go home again, and as it happens, in my case anyhow, they are right. It was as though someone had unpinned the town from this time and place as if to apply the metaphor in a literal sense. There was no going back as there was no "there" there anymore.
I sat looking through the windshield of my car at fallow fields running off to the horizon. There was a bank there. And just down the street the county courthouse and coffee shop just beyond that. Now, not even a road sign broke the empty vista of dead fields and fence posts. I turned off the engine with the car pulled off to the side of the road safely out of the way of any...traffic. There was no traffic. I could see down the road for miles in both directions and there was not a car in sight. In fact, I couldn't recall when I had last seen a car on my way here. Or when I had seen the last house or farm.
Yet, in my mind's eye, though distant and vague like as fading dream I could recall details. Details of my town now strangely gone. The A&P stood there and the Stop and Shop just down the street. A gas station here and another across the street. Over there there was a...a, store of some sort. Furniture maybe? Not sure. And over there, just past the town square was a movie theater. It closed when I was a pretty young but I remember seeing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid there and some other movie. I think there were soldiers in it. And there was a drug store with a an old time soda fountain somewhere. Somehow the details escape me but I know there was a parade every year and something about covered bridges.
The wind blows through the fields and the cattails rock back and forth like drunks on stilts. My town is gone. Metaphorically and it would seem literally as well. Somehow, after I moved away it was buried beneath more pressing and immediate matters and drifted off into the recesses of my mind and life and now, now it's gone all together. I guess it's true what they say.
Monday, May 23, 2011
We lived in a pretty big house, sure, but we had a pretty big family, too. All of the children shared rooms: The Boys had the log room (with its own bathroom!), the older ones shared spaces in the basement. Mary, Lisa and I had our bedroom upstairs over the garage. Triple decker bunk bed and all. So, as you imagine, private space was at a premium. In the summer, not so bad. We lived next to woods that went from Fairbanks to the North pole with just a few bears and moose in the way. You could get away in a "fort" and get some quiet brain space. In the long cold dark Alaskan winter though, it was a bit harder.
Then I found that you could climb the pantry shelves. And under the stairs down to the basement there was a huge "shelf" about 10 feet up and only accessible by a ladder OR THOSE SHELVES!. It had a light with a pull string! It only held xmas decorations and luggage so there was room for a limber tween to climb up, stretch out a leg and arm, get on the shelf and re-arrange the boxes to make a private little space with the light blocked from showing where you were. Swipe some cookies or an apple, grab a book, squirrel up those lovely shelves and voila!instant quiet reading space. No sisters, no brothers, no parents, not even a cat. You were the cat - in your own up-high lurking space, warmed by the basement heater and the lightbulb, just a little dusty but NO spiderwebs. I don't know to this day why someone else hadn't claimed that space yet but I'm just happy they didn't. And more happy that my parents either didn't know or didn't mind.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Friday, May 20, 2011
My friends sit on the shelf. They are my friends, and they sit beside me. Brown bear sits beside me and the book sits beside me too. They're my friends.
Sometimes we don't sit on the shelf. Sometimes we lay around the room all over the place and we don't go there but the boy puts us there. We stay there until the woman comes, and she is cross and she puts us back on the shelf, because that is where we go.
I like the shelf. It is high and I can see all my friends in the room, even the ones who don't sit with me on the shelf. I can see the dog on the dresser and the small man on the small table beside the bed. I can see the bear who lays on the bed. They are my friends.
One time a new friend came. He was new and there was a lot of excitement because he was new and nobody knew who he was and nobody knew if he would be our friend. We were afraid of him for a while, but then he became our friend and now nobody is afraid of him anymore. One time he went away for a long time but then he didn't come back. I miss him.
There are others who come sometimes and put us where we don't go. They make us move around for some time but then they go away and they leave us where they were and we lay there. I don't like when they leave us where we don't go. I go on the shelf.
A music box, key long lost.
A faded picture. It it of his grandfather? Father? Himself? He couldn't remember anymore.
101 Knock-Knock jokes. A tin soilder. A paper fortune teller. Old bubblegum wrappers. He felt as though he should find some significance in the things he found, but none came.
A faded baseball. A love note. A picture of Elvis. He doesn't know why he felt compelled to pull in the step-ladder from the garage and investigate the old shelf high on his bedroom wall, but he did. Turning over the dusty trinkets between his wizened and liver-spotted hands, he searched for some reason as to why he would have such a strange assortment of things kept up on an out of sight shelf.
"Dad, what are you doing?" He turned, confused, and replied.
"I can't remember."
Thursday, May 19, 2011
As he slides the frozen plastic tray out of the box and folds back one corner of the foil his phone rings. He lets it ring while he puts the dinner in the microwave and punches in the time, then picks up the phone off the counter and hits the button to answer.
He stands resigned while a small tinny voice sings on the other end of the line; finally the voice stops and he says,
"Hi Mom, thanks."
The voice speaks for a long while as he stands, flipping through the mail. Junk, junk, bill, junk.
"No, nothing special. Had to work a little late. How's Dad?"
The voice begins again and he stares distractedly out the kitchen window for a time, then replies,
"Do you need me to call the doctor's office again?"
As she continues speaking the microwave beeps ready and he takes out the dinner - steaming in some spots, still cold in others - and places it on a plate. He grabs a fork out of a drawer filled with a loose assortment of utensils and picks up the beer bottle with two fingers while holding the plate with the same hand, and walks a couple of steps to his chair. He puts the plate and the bottle on the side table and switches the phone to his other hand.
"Okay Mom, listen, I have to go...thanks for calling. Yeah...yeah, I love you too. I will. Thanks. Bye."
He sits down in the chair and opens his beer. He picks up the remote, turns the tv on, and starts to flip through the channels.
Christmas break was just an opportunity to work more - celebrating my birthday, or Christmas, seemed like an exhausting waste of time. I had homework to do, money to earn, and no energy for decorating the house or even sharing a beer.
So on my 30th birthday, I got to celebrate by waiting tables until almost midnight, then walked home through the snow, too tired to even share a shift drink with my coworkers at the restaurant. In fact, I hadn't even told anyone it was my birthday.
The house was dark when I walked up, which made me faintly angry. Granted, my boyfriend was often thoughtless, but if he was out with friends on MY birthday, he could have at least told me. I could see Christmas trees twinkling in other houses up and down the street, and again, I felt irritated at the boyfriend's lack of initiative - I loved Christmas, but why did I always have to get the tree? This year, it was just out of the question. I'm sure I sighed, standing outside my front window in the dark. It was depressing. What a way to start a new decade in my life.
I walked into the dark kitchen, dropped my things on a chair, and was getting ready to walk into the dark living room when I heard the boyfriend say "Honey-?"
Puzzled, I cocked my head, wondering why he was sitting in the living room in the dark. Then the lights came on, but not the usual lights. Christmas lights of every shape and color and were strung extragantly over every surface of the huge living room - the walls, beams, staircase, bookshelves, and best of all, a Christmas tree! A room full of friends was suddenly illuminated in every color of the rainbow. Birthday gifts were piled under the tree. My mouth fell open in wonder, and tears filled my eye just as the word "Surprise!" filled my ears.
Best birthday ever.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Ok, I have to make a confession. Posting the Best Birthday topic was totally self-serving on my part. Some of you have already heard this story, but, as it's one of my favorites I'm telling it again.
We had moved back to the northwest just a short while before my 40th birthday. About the only person here Margaret knew at the time was our friend Rhonda. So they went out for drinks. With several of Rhonda's friends.
The next day I received an email from Rhonda. She explained something to the effect of, "Shawn, Margaret explained that for your 40th birthday you were hoping to have a threesome and since I'm trying to get pregnant she approached me about it. While I really like you guys and all I'm afraid this would have a negative impact on our friendship so I'm going to have to pass." I should point out that I was reading this at work, in a shared office space. And that I have a really good poker face. I was however mortified.
How in hell was I going to look Rhonda in the face the next time we got together? Could we all just brush it off as something said under the influence of one too many Manhattans and move on? Yeah actually, probably so. Then another email. This one was from one of Rhonda's friends whom I had met also over drinks a couple of weeks earlier. She too was turning me down for a threesome and was equally understanding of the situation and equally apologetic. By the time the third email arrived I was nearly in tears from trying not to laugh out loud and have to explain myself to my new coworkers. Over the next couple of days I received more mails each an escalation in lewd, lascivious and explicit scenarios from women, men and at least one married couple. And each turning me down for a threesome. Pretty sure I had tears running down my face by the end.
With the first email or two I was stunned Margaret would even think to propose such a thing. By the end I was humbled at her depth of deviousness to orchestrate such a plan. Best birthday gift ever.