He sank back into the soft cushion of the chair. It felt great. It was expensive, to be sure, close to three hundred dollars, but worth every penny. Jenny and he had picked it out for his birthday. The old chair had hurt his back. He admired the leather of the arms. It seemed that he spent at least half his day, night really, working in his upstairs office preparing for class or basketball practice; it was an investment.
As he fired up the computer, he closed his eyes for a second, and quickly found himself back in kindergarten class when he was five years old sitting at table by himself with a small carton of milk and half eaten graham cracker sitting in front of him. He looked around the room and saw all of his classmates sleeping on their blankets. It was nap time, and he was being punished for not drinking his milk. Mrs. Johns was pretending to do class work, but he knew she was secretly sending him mind messages ordering him to drink his milk.
With his eyes closed and firmly committed to the traumatic emotion trapped in the memory he didn’t see or hear Jenny enter the room until she was standing there by the desk and cleared her throat.
“Danny, I don’t love you anymore, and I know I never will again.” She wasn’t angry. The words came out all matter of fact like, and it was only the fact that she kept blinking her eyes that betrayed the fact that she wasn’t talking about something mundane.
“I told you two months ago that I’d give us a chance. I did and now I realize I deserve better. I need someone stronger than you Danny, a lot stronger.”
He was speechless. He could see his reflection in one of the pictures hanging on the wall. He looked like a fish out of water his mouth moving and nothing coming out. Finally his eyes flooded and the words tumbled out, “I didn’t….I didn’t want….I didn’t mean to hurt any….anybody.”
She gave a ghastly smile looking like a cruel guard telling a prisoner a joke, “I know that, Danny. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change anything whether you meant to hurt me or not. It’s just that I’m been thinking, and have come to the conclusion that I deserve someone better.”
From that point on, he didn’t listen. It was all a blur anyway. It was true that she had told him two months ago that she was unhappy. She had even left for a couple of days before returning and giving him the conditions. She told him that they would try for two months to change things for the better. He’d been on his best behavior ever since walking on eggshells.
On his birthday, they’d gone out together and bought the chair, he’d sensed a change for the better. Jenny herself had even made the suggestion that they opt for the more expensive model considering how much work he did on the computer. They’d even driven over to the coast and had a nice dinner at Finnegan’s that night and had walked on the beach for a while before making the drive home.
That night, she’d laughed at his jokes and even smiled when he remembered his first birthday after they were married when they were so poor that she had put a candle in bowl of Taco Bell beans and he had blown it out. He could even see her eyes mist up in the moonlight as he recounted that when she had asked him what he had wished for, he answered her with a kiss and the words, “That on our thirtieth anniversary, we walk along Seine in Paris with our grandchildren asleep back at the hotel.”
He was given hope on the ride home by the fact that she had slid over in the seat and sat near him.
Her last words as she stood at the door of his upstairs office, “You’ll find somebody else. You’re still young enough and if you drop ten-twelve pounds, you’re still pretty handsome. Some lucky woman will come along and snatch you right up.”
With that she gently closed the door, and he heard her footsteps padding down the stairs. He had never felt so all alone in his entire life. He looked out of the window at the school where he worked across the street from their house. The aisles were empty. It was a Sunday. He thought to himself that if you had to inhabit a cold, empty universe, this was the chair to do it in.
He closed his eyes and once again found himself back in kindergarten. All of the kids were awake and looking at him all strange. He thought he heard Mrs. Johns say, “I told you to drink your milk, Danny. I told you.”
He stood up and knocked the milk off the table with a sweep of his arm. “I wasn’t trying to hurt nobody, Teacher. I just hate the taste of milk.”
"Ma? I told you not to do that."
"Not to double cards in the discard pile, or put down two cards to a run. It makes it too easy. Someone would only need one card to pick up?"
"I had to."
"You have nine other cards; you didn't have to."
"Are you saying I'm stupid. I'm 89 years old. I'd like to see you play Rummy when you're 89."
"Ma, I didn't say that. I said that it is not a good move."
She didn't answer, just gave me a look that half said, "Keep talking and I'll kick your ass," but also half said, "I just want to die sometimes. I'm so tired of everything about living."
I didn't respond to the look.We have had that conversation way too many times lately. I'd usually tell her not to talk like that, and she'd ask me why not. Then I'd come up with something to tell her. Sometimes though, it takes me while to think of a good reason. I don't mean because I didn't want her around, or think that life ain't worth living, or nothing like that, but sometimes I'd get so down myself and need my own reassuring. At such moments, I would resort to keeping it simple and say, "Just don't say stuff like that. It. upsets me, and besides it's not a Christian thing to do. We'd miss you."
She'd always stop and think about the Christian thing before she'd answer, "Sure you would. I'll be gone before you know it."
I really do admire old people; I think of them as People of the Weed. There's a story that comes with that title. Once I was in a pretty bad place after my wife left me. I'd admit that I was a little bit off and skirting dangerously close to the edge of things. Everything I saw was looking new and wondrous. I could see the artistic merit in shadows and trees and even in old abandoned cars. That was what tipped me off that I was a little off kilter. I was driving down the back way into Bakersfield to go to scout a couple of basketball games at the college when I came to a stop sign by a railroad track outside of Shafter. The wind was blowing pretty good and there was a little two foot weed growing by the side of the road. The wind would blow it down and when the wind died down, the weed would just pop right back into its original position. It impressed me how that little weed displayed so much character. A lot of people who I knew would have collapsed on the first gust and lay there until someone or something came along and helped them to their feet. Not that weed. It was wordlessly saying, "Fuck you, Gravity! Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!" I know there are more than a few people who would have translated the silent conversation into something more like the weed was actually saying, "Ha ha! You can't keep me down! I'm Indefatigable!" But I was in mood that day, and resorted to the more poetic reading of the event. Just so you know, I don't want to be crude. I know better. Life just pushes my buttons sometimes and brings the Southside out of me.
Old people are pretty amazing though. We keep getting up from the ground in spite of all the stuff that tells us to just lay there and stay down. We void our bowels and wipe our asses everyday knowing full well that if we were anywhere near as divine as we like to pretend we are, we wouldn't have to do stuff like that. We'd shit pastel colored marshmallows that smelled like daffodils and roses and piss out lemonade and Vodka Crannies.
"Damn it, Ma! Quit doing that! You're just handing him points."
"I had to do it. He would've played anyway no matter what I threw down."
Usually I wouldn't bring things to a boiling point. I'd just grin and bear it knowing that nothing was ever going to change. She'd put her card down, frown when my brother picked up all the cards in the discard pile, and then stare out of the window into the dark. I don't know what she looks at when she does that, but I know, it ain't here and it ain't now. Sometimes she'd say something, and we'd have to guess where she was going and then guess some more to help supply the missing context to the story. On other occasions, she would snap out of a reverie and interject a question about what we we were talking about after one of us had just spent ten minutes making a point. It's hard at such moments not to just say, "Nothing." But she would get hurt and reply, "OK" with a sad look in her eye.
I often bring food, sometimes just snacks and sodas and play a music on my phone in an effort to spice up things a little. Whatever I would think about while I played the cards would often be predicated on what music I had picked to play. If I wanted her to respond, I'd pick some old Hank Williams, Patsy Cline or George Jones. She would still stare down our cards like a old mother eagle searching a grassy field for prey, but she would also tap her foot and sometimes absentmindedly join in the chorus. Sometimes we would all join in, and that would be pretty cool even though it never sounded anywhere as good as we pretended. Other times I would listen to someone like Al Stewart and remember the mix-tape I made from his albums and listened to everyday on my way to and from Fresno State. You don't find much music nowadays that you could listen to over ten times with wanting to poke your ears out whenever it came on. Al Stewart's music is, I mean, was, different though. He had a series of albums beginning with Past, Present, and Future that were so lyrically beautiful and meaningful that they would always take me into a different headspace. John Prine was like that too, and Bob Dylan. Elvis Costello could do it too. We often listen his song Allison and the hair always stands up on the back of my head when he pleads with the girl, "Sometimes, I wish, I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say."
"What did you say?"
"We were just talking something about a speech the president gave to today."
"Does he even know what he's talking about?"
"Some people say yes. Some say no."
"I don't think he does. What about you, Steve?"
Before he would answer, she would generally toss something like a three on top of a three. There would be another three at the top of pile, and Steve would greedily scoop up the cards and lay down a couple of trips.
She always knew I was mad and would say, "I had to. I didn't have a choice"
"Ma, you threw the third three down."
"I can't see I tell you. Hell, I'm 89 years old."
I can't help thinking sometimes though that she does it to annoy me. I've told her several times, it is not good strategy, and that the worse thing in Rummy is not splitting a pair, but in helping your opponent harvest the bounty of the discard pile. She doesn't care; to her the pairs in her hand represents certainty, and that's the one thing she wants more than anything else including winning.
Our little game has certainly evolved in the almost two years we have been playing. It started out as just a way to pass time with her while she was in lockdown. It's become so much more. We can not miss a day without noticing the affect upon her face, the greater spaces between her words, and added bitterness and mistrust in her attitude.
The game has assumed more of an existential nature. We sometimes sit in silence figuring out odds in our head and looking as grim as those three witches at the beginning of Macbeth who gloomily stir their caldron. I wonder when I think on what that metaphor says about us, if any of those decrepit ladies were thinking of the past while they stirred, about sunny days when they were younger and still hopeful.
We play now in order to survive and to show our little weed dance of our own. Where we once played with no concern over who won and recklessly discarded cards on rash impulse, we now take our time and slowly deliberate figuring out what the odds were that our opponents will play on what we discard. At least my brother and I do. Ma keeps her game simple, clings to pairs and two card runs with the tenacity of a wolverine. A lot of times, the strategy allows her to go out quickly and catch my brother and I with a lot of points. She wins her share of the games too, especially on those days when she doesn't give away all of her cards.
Sometimes I listen to Miles Davis in the background, and in between playing my hand, I'll imagine that we're playing cards on the tenth floor balcony of a Manhattan high rise with the sounds of the city rising from the streets and the music coming from a neighbor's open window. I'll think about all of the different possibilities of the setting and get lost and start nodding my head to the music. Out of the corner of my eye, I'll notice her looking my way, waiting until she can't handle it any more and have to say something.
"What are you doing, Danny? Who are you talking to?"
"I'm not talking to anyone, Ma. I'm just listening to the music."
"What is that stuff anyway?"
"It's called Jazz, ma. "
"Jazz? What's the name of the song?"
"It's called 'The Wind Just Blew My Ass Over and I Got to Get Up Again'.
"Stupid name for a song."
"Tell me about it."
I love my mom and it pains me greatly to watch as she deteriorates ever rapidly. I know that each game could be our last and that adds an added layer of importance. I can't remember the last time I walked out of a class at Mark Twain Elementary. I can't remember the last time walked out of the candy store on the south side of Corcoran never to return. Hell, I don't remember the last day my wife and I cohabited in the house I still live in. Something tells me though, I'll remember the last Rummy hand that my brother and my mom ever play and maybe just simply because I know that it will occur a hell of a lot more recently than those other events. But, prolly not.
Mom just wants and needs the company and a break from watching gameshows. I no longer know what Steve wants, he often talks about traveling, sometimes even to Mars. I, myself, just don't want to die within a mile of the place where I first entered the world (Corcoran Hospital I can see it's roof from my living room). I know that'd be a real waste of time and effort.
But for right now, I would settle for Mom not pairing up the cards in the discard pile, or expressing her desire to not exist at all.
Apparently, the old man was talking to the wind. He stood out there by the entrance sign to SR- 47 talking to no one in particular, and he was always there, six days a week sometimes seven. He was a tall, lanky man with a distinguished mop of white hair and piercing blue eyes. If you gave him a shave and slapped a suit and tie on him, he could easily have passed for a minister or a college professor which he had been at one time.
Everybody in town knew him as Mr. Jim and sometimes That Old Crazy Mr. Jim. His real name was Jameson. They didn't start calling him Mr. Jim until he started hanging out by the highway. Some even remembered a time when he used to teach middle school English and Reading at the junior high on the north end of town. He also coached basketball and that was what originally got him on at the Junior College in Belle Vista. When the school first started up a Women's basketball team back in the late 70s, Mr. Jim was hired to coach them. He went back and obtained a doctorate in literature and started teaching at the school.
Everybody in town knew him as the guy who stood out by the side of the highway talking to the cars that were turning off of East Main to gain access to the highway. Some would sit at the stoplight, roll down their windows and listen too. Most people were kind and waved to him, and he always waved back and smiled. He had to have noticed though how many times the people in the front seats of those cars would shake their heads and laugh as they drove away.
Lindberg Carlyle was sitting in the Bluebird Cafe with his buddy Carlos Rios and looking out the window at Mr. Jim. Before him was large plate containing eggs over easy, trail potatoes, four pieces of thick cut Applewood bacon, and according to the sign outside the cafe, the best damn biscuits and gravy in town. It wasn't much of a claim because it was also the only breakfast joint in Concord. A sign outside of town about a half mile east of where Mr. Jim was declaiming said that Concord was the Cotton Capital of World, or at least did until some jokers crossed out the word cotton and replaced it with Asshole. It might not have been factually correct, but everybody in the small town knew that Concord did possess more than its requisite share of walking talking sphincter muscles.
"Goober?" Lindberg addressed the owner of the Bluebird, who was standing at the cash register trying to figure out how to work the new machine that had been installed just an hour before.
"Damn it, Lin, I done told you a thousand times not to call me that shit. My name is Curtis, as you well know, but you can call me Mr. Jones. Carlos can call me Curt, but you can't. You lost that privilege for that Goober nonsense."
"Screw you Mr. Goober Jones, I can't help it you came out your mom looking like that George Lindsay dude that played Goober on the Andy Griffith show. Seem to me, you should be mad at your mom. You make her call you Mr. Jones?"
Curtis Jones just rolled his eyes and reached up and rubbed his furrowed brow a few times before he answered, "If I wasn't so busy trying to figure out how to work this damn thing, I'd get Tiny over there and eject your ass bodily from this fine dining establishment. What is it that you want?"
Lindberg looked at Carlos with an incredulous look, "I don't know you can call this shit hole an establishment much less fine dining. I saw a maggot puking in the alley yesterday, and if them damn biscuits you always bragging on were any heavier you could sell them as anchors. Hell, I just wanted to ask you if you remember Mr. Jim being a teacher?"
Carlos paid no attention to all the bickering because his two friends had been at it almost continually for forty some odd years. He just sat back, drank his coffee which was surreptitiously mixed with a little rum and chuckled as the verbal banter got progressively worse. There were times that he interjected when he thought a line had been crossed. Both men trusted his judgement and would dial the tone of the conversation back accordingly. The only time he would really get riled up enough to join in was when they started needling on his beloved Cowboys.
Carlos looked out the window, "I had him in English and Reading back in junior high. I remember we read Old Yeller. He always read that last chapter where the boy shot the dog out loud and all the girls would start crying."
Curt quit tinkering with the register and went somewhere into the past for a second, "Shit, I cried too. I loved that damned book. Hell, I even got the movie on CD." He walked over and poured himself a cup of coffee then came around the counter, motioned Lindberg to move over and sat down beside him. "He was good teacher too. I was there in that Literature class at the college when he took on that kid and got fired for it."
"I was just sitting here checking him out. He sure puts a lot into that talking stuff. Is he just nuts or what? I heard they fired him because he cussed out some kid class. Somebody told me he been out there ever since."
Carlos sat up a little straighter in his seat, "Mr. Jameson cuss, hell no! He always talked like a gentleman even to us kids. I heard that kid said something bad to him."
"Like I said, I was there. That kid was one of them smart assed hippy kids who thought he knew everything. He was always saying stupid shit back to Mr. Jameson. He was the one that started calling him Mr. Jim. They got into a verbal argument trading insults one day and Mr. Jameson was using quotations from literature and was rolling over this dude because all the dude said was stupid shit like Abby Hoffman quotes and stuff like that. I remember that the kid said something particularly stupid like 'What me worry?' and nobody laughed. Mr. Jameson countered with 'Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.' The whole class started laughing, and the kid got embarrassed and real mad. He walked up to the front of the class and said something under his breath. Mr Jameson stretched him out with one punch."
"That was Plato, He always used to use that one on smart assed kids. He loved that verbal jousting. I had him in college too, and you could always take him on in class as long as you showed some creativity. We loved it too and came out of that year with shit load of literary putdowns. If I remember right, part of the reason they fired him was because we used to have these verbal battles every Friday, and you had to use only literary putdowns. He almost cried when Leslie Lopez told Mike Wilcox, 'You are simply a hole in the air.'"
"That's right! I remember that's what it was. That kid was being an ass and saying stupid shit to the girls."
"Well, what did that kid say that got him punched in the nose?"
Carlos and Curt looked at each other and shrugged. Carlos answered, "No-one ever knew? As far as I know, he never told anyone. But he didn't start acting all weird when they fired him. It was only after his wife died. I remember because my mom and I went to the funeral and the next day he was out there."
They all turned and looked out of the window. The one by one, they returned their focus back to the inside of the cafe.
After a while, Lindberg spoke, "You know what? Let me out Goob...Curtis. I'm going to go ask him."
Curtis got up, "I don't know if that's a good idea, Lin. I don't see no reason to bother a lonely old man."
"I didn't say I was going to bother him. I just want to talk to him. Solve this here mystery. Tell me you don't want to know what he said."
The two friends sat there curious and watched as he made his way across the parking lot and then crossed the street. They sat transfixed as he stuck out his hand toward the old man. The old man looked at it for a bit then slowly reached out his own and took it. They talked for about five minutes before the two inside the cafe turned and faced each other with widened eyes because Lindberg and Mr. Jim started walking back toward the cafe.
It was a windy day and Mr. Jim's hair was a bit mussed when he came through the door. He stopped and combed it with his fingers before walking toward the table.
They both stood as he approached. Then they offered him their own hands. He shook their hands but cut them both short when started to introduce themselves.
"Curtis Jones and, if I'm not mistaken, you're the Carlos Rios who once silenced a saucy young wench named Violetta Vinson with the quip from Chaucer, 'I wolde I had thy coillons in myn hond. . .Lat kutte hem of.'"
Carlos was stunned, "You remember that, Mr. Jameson?"
"Classic, totally inappropriate, but classic. I would have given you an A in class for that quote alone. She was such an annoying, aggressive young lady, much like her abominable friend Mr. Clark."
The old man took the inside of the booth and Lindberg slid in beside him. Carlos sat back down and Curtis went to fetch their old teacher a cup of hot coffee. Returning, he sat the cup down in front of the old man along with four containers of Hazelnut creamers. They watch silently as he fixed his coffee and took a sip.
"Mr. Carlyle here told me that you gentlemen want to know what that Randall Clark said that made me to react so violently. That's a secret that I've kept for almost forty years."
Carlos started to say, "You don't have to..."
Mr. Jim raised a hand and stopped him, "I think it's been long enough don't you? Randall died last year of a heart attack. He was a businessman, divorced several times, and when he died, he died alone. I went to see him in the hospital. He challenged me again. As I got up to leave, he said, 'I shall laugh my bitter laugh.' Before I got to the door, I turned and told him, 'To show resentment at a reproach is to acknowledge that one may have deserved it.' I should have just left, but I couldn't help myself. What he told me that day was really quite reprehensible, and I've been carrying it around for quite a long time."
In unison, "Which was?"
"Let me be clear, Randall was very angry. I could see the rage in his eyes. He came up leaned over and said in a very low voice, 'The personification of the devil as symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the ...." I hit him before he could finish. You see, he was quoting Hitler from Mein Kampf. You see, he knew my wife Ana was Jewish. Her parents were both murdered by the Nazis, several other fellow members as well."
Lindberg beat his friends to the punch, "Why didn't you say something. I mean don't you think they would have understood?"
There was a faraway look in the old man's eyes, " I promised Ana I wouldn't. She was the most compassionate human being I've ever known. She felt that he was angry and just speaking out of his rage. She hated the thought of ruining a young man's life by getting him branded as being a closet Nazi. We always followed his life and watched him sink lower and lower. She admonished me often for taking pleasure in his misfortune."
It was Carlos's turn, "Yeah, but it ruined your life, your career too."
The old man shrugged, "I loved her more than anything in the world, including my career. I'll tell you something no-one else knows about Ana. She escaped the round up of the Jews from Holland. Her and her older cousin were sneaking toward the harbor of a small coastal village where a boat was waiting when they were stopped by a young German soldier, hardly more than a boy. Nathan, her cousin, killed the soldier. They were worried about bringing retribution down upon the whole village, so they put his body on the boat and dumped it in the ocean. Ana worried that the young man wasn't a real Nazi and was just a boy playing soldier. She also worried that dumping his body at sea prevented him from having the proper funerary rites. In her mind, she conflated the two, Randall Clark and the boy soldier. When she was dying, she was very worried about that, afraid that we had taken on some kind of generational curse. I promised her on her deathbed; I swore to her that I would make amends. It was only way that I could comfort her."
It took them a while to figure out what he meant. They all seemed to grasp it at the same time. It was Curtis who voiced their combined astonishment, "But...Why out there standing by the highway talking to yourself?"
"I didn't at first know what else to do? It had to be something of substance. I loved literature, and I had lost my ability to give voice to that love, so it had to be something that involved the voice. I read passages from my favorite books to the cars that passed by. It's kind of like I was hoping that the words latch on to the passing vehicles and spread like airborne seeds. I've done it for fifteen years. I know that it sounds pretty crazy."
"I rolled my window down at the stop sign this morning. You were saying something like, 'We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinions than our own.' I was going to look it up when I got home."
Carlos answered before the old man could, "Damn, Lin, that's Marcus Aurelius." Then added half kidding, "Don't you know anything?" He turned to the old man, "Mr. Jameson, I'm just going to be blunt. People think you're nuts, Mr. Jameson. Doesn't that bother you at all?
He waited a while before answering And the friends waited patiently to hear what he was going to say. Finally, he sternly muttered, "Frankly, my Dear, I don't give a damn."
After several seconds, Lindberg broke the silence by laughing, "Hey, wait a damn minute..."
A few days later it snowed in Concord, a rare occasion. The people who passed by the Bluebird Cafe that morning didn't notice much other than their usual concerns as they carried their well bundled children off to school, or made their way toward work wrapped up in the anticipatory thoughts about what their day would be. Chances are they didn't notice Lindberg Carlyle pulling up to the stop sign in front of the cafe and looking past the fogged windows to see a tall, white-haired gentleman drinking coffee in the third booth from the end and conversing with the proprietor of said cafe who had stopped midway through drying off a just washed coffee mug. And chances are none of them noticed the car pulling away from the stop sign with Mr. Carlyle flashing just the hint of a smile.
"Her arched look could slam a door from across a room, and more than a few dreams had died at its command."
Yep, it was that kind of morning. I had been reading a description of the English iconoclast Jessica Mitford and the author had placed great emphasis on her singular ability to arch an eyebrow and wither somebody's heart with just a glance. I resolved to make use of that idea somewhere, and when I woke up in morning, I put the quote above in the 'to be used later' section of my journal.
I shared my morning coffee with Carl Jung. He was writing about a dream he had where he was placed into a supplicant position requiring him to touch his head to the floor. He made a strong effort but could not close the last millimeter. In his interpretation, the inability to touch the floor explained man's relationship with God, the willingness to go so far but always holding something back. Without it, he said, there would not have been a need for book of Job, or for Christ to enter the world.
It gave me some food for thought. So much of what is going on in this crazy world carries the same import of the incidents talked about in the scriptures, only we are far too stupid to understand this simple fact, and too given over to the belief that what we say and do is somewhat meaningless. I never liked using the word stupid when I was in the classroom, but the word does seem to perfectly describe the condition of being intentionally ignorant.
Jung was a compassionate thinker too, but he used the phrase maliciously stupid to describe such a state. God forgive me, but I can't help but think that there is a certain maliciousness involved both in mankind's inability to perceive the truth and in our unwillingness to believe that our lives even matter.
I see Shakespeare's fingers all over this current script, and it looks a lot like he's ripping off Faustus and Oedipus the King. I think that he's also been watching some Tarantino movies and possibly The Sopranos on TV. Who knows, maybe Sophocles and Goethe are also collaborating on this project.
In other words, nothing nowadays seems to make any sense at all. I try to keep my hopes up and remember the time that me and my brother Tim brought Tinkerbell back to life by believing with all our hearts. But then I remember reading in a history book that World War One made absolutely no f-ing sense at all either.
I was so shocked that the historian had written the F word that I ran and got a highlighter out of my desk drawer. When I got back to the book, the word was gone. I still remember it though, and that phrase has stuck with me, and I often use it to describe situations like what this old-people-seeking-missile of a virus has created.
To take my mind off of such thoughts I decided to ride my bike around my hometown while listening to Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. It's a trick that I often use in an effort to try to trick the Universe into yielding up some of its secrets.
When I got down to the road by the park where all the squatters are, he was singing about a book of poems that she(?) had given him where,
"Every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul."
And I knew that it was his way of telling me to pay close attention to my surroundings. That there was something afoot here that most people weren't catching.
As I rode along, my mind often twisted back into the past when I was young and rode my bike along these same paths, and it was like realizing that no time had really elapsed between then and now. When I was looking at these streets through those younger eyes, I was also seeing them as I do now without realizing that it was so, the time between being the illusion.
When I got down to the road in front of the church that used to be the Nazarene church, the song was A Simple Twist of Fate with lyrics that said,
He woke up, the room was bare
He didn't see her anywhere
He told himself he didn't care
Pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside
To which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate."
Dylan, and especially this album, talks to me, and these words reminded me of my wife's leaving. He wrote them to describe his own heartbreak when his wife left. Pushing the window open wide and feeling the void enter the room, damn, what a soul sucking image. The location where I was when I heard them served to remind me that even churches change over time. You wouldn't think so, but they do.
What few simple twists of fate could have brought about my wife still waking up beside me in the morning and/or the Nazarenes still holding services on the corner of Letts and Hall? I'm left with the distinct impression that those should have been the choices that were made, yet weren't.
He next compounded the feeling of guilt and confusion from those bad decisions with some words from You're a Big Girl Now,
"I'm going out of my mind, oh, oh
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we've been apart."
I don't know about the people who once attended the Nazarene church. I knew some back in the day, but most of them have long since died. I do know that every now and then that corkscrew is applied to a soft spot in my heart to remind me of the importance of making better choices.
Then minutes later, as I made my way up Letts toward home, Idiot Wind comes on, and this time, it's Job himself telling the story.
"You hurt the ones that I love best
And cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch
Flies buzzing around your eyes
Blood on your saddle."
Prophetic lines if there ever were prophetic lines. While listening, I can't help but to think that truth remains the truth in spite of all the savage, maliciously stupid people we now have shouting nonsense to the winds. I don't wish anyone ill, but there will be a certain grim satisfaction knowing that them flies will one day buzz around their vacant eyes, at the bottom of a ditch too, and right next to blood stained saddle. He doesn't explicitly say that the horse ran off, but it's implied.
But Dylan doesn't just leave things there. He admonishes the rest of us too. He once said he couldn't find a place to break this song off, that the words and images just kept coming, many insanely beautiful, trenchant, and addressed to our materialistic side,
What's good is bad, what's bad is good
You'll find out when you reach the top
You're on the bottom."
Or else, frighteningly apocalyptic,
"The priest wore black on the seventh day
And sat stone-faced while the building burned."
It is the chorus though where he warns all not to go back to a world of worshipping movie stars and athletes and tells us that we need to take our politicians out to the woodshed in order to remind them they need to work for us and not the opposite. The song's title Idiot Wind seems to perfectly describe our current news media and makes me wonder if it will be all the people who pay them, follow them, or enable them who will eventually wind up seeing/not seeing the buzzing flies and that empty saddle.
There is a message of hope at the end of the album too, but it's words are also juxtaposed against the bleakness of a world where true wisdom has fallen beneath the cushions of the sofa with our pocket change and popcorn seeds where we watch and measure our lives away as time spent between commercial breaks.
The repeated chorus of Shelter From the Storm reminds us that true wisdom only results in recognizing our situations and surroundings for what they really are, biblical settings and events where God is always negotiating for our lives and our salvation or damnation,
"Suddenly I turned around
And she was standing there
With silver bracelets on her wrists
And flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully
and took my crown of thorns
'Come in,' she said, 'I'll give ya
shelter from the storm.'"
Returning from my journey, I realized that yes, there is such a thing as malicious stupidity. Covid-19 is its cousin and apathy its twin. I also know that there is a stern, austere beauty attached to my hometown. You have to squint sometimes to see it, or else mentally go backwards in time to when you can remember in a soft, fuzzy, glow what it looked like before you missed the opportunities offered up by a few simple twists of fate and made your own series of bad choices.
But given the choice of staying inside again and listening to the children of the corn argue about what our options are, it's well worth the effort to rediscover.
"Look, Dee Dee! Danny got his hand on her boob!"
It was my buddy Ray-Ray who was talking. We were laughing really hard at something on the TV when he turned around and saw where my hand had accidentally meandered and just up and blurted it out. Surprised, I looked down and, sure enough, my right hand was resting comfortably on my girlfriend Donna's boob. You'd think I might have taken a second to register just how nice her rack looked in the pink sweater she was wearing, but I didn't. Instead, I was mortified and immediately straightened up and brought my arm back around to the front in support of a two-handed gesture of contrition.
"It was an accident. I was laughing at the TV and didn't even notice what was going on." I looked at my green-eyed, red-headed girlfriend Donna, and saw that she was embarrassed but laughing, and her best friend, a slender blonde named Dee Dee was laughing pretty hard too. "I honestly didn't mean anything by it; I mean wasn't trying to be sneaky or anything like that."
I often wondered about the effect of that last statement. The whole incident blew over pretty quickly, and I spent the last part of the night with my hands securely resting in my lap. We were watching TV at Donna's grandma's house after church, and her grandma was supposedly sleeping behind the closed-door of her bedroom. When Ray-Ray and I were leaving later that night, I turned around and I saw Donna looking out the window with a look that I took for regret. A few weeks later, she broke up with me, and I heard from Dee-Dee in a sort of a roundabout way, that it wasn't because I was making moves on her, but because I wasn't making them fast enough. She started dating another guy pretty much right away, and I always presumed it was because he was making the right moves at a right pace.
I mean, I was pretty much conflicted the whole time I was with her. Number one because she was my first real girl-friend and because I was pretty damn clueless about how all that stuff worked, and number two because she was daughter of the Reverend Baker Jones the preacher of Resurrection Church where my family attended. Reverend. Jones was a square-jawed, straight shooting, ex-marine and a bit of a fire and brimstone spouting crazy man on Sunday. He frightened me quite a bit. That church had lot of preachers while I was there, and I wouldn't give you ten cents on the dollar for most of them, but Baker J. Jones wasn't as hypocritical as most of them. I mean, he walked it like he talked it and put in the good work visiting people in their homes and when they were dying in the hospital.
I don't really know why I thought that Donna was any different from any of the other girls that I was trying to get my paws on back in those early days of my misspent youth. I mean I didn't have nothing against wrestling with a female or trying to cop a feel in general, but I must have thought that her upbringing might have made her a bit more disdainful of such activity. If so, I thought wrong. I've since known quite a few preacher's daughters, and, if anything, they were just as curious about that stuff as most girls and probably more so. There was the idea always lurking in the back of my mind that the good Rev. Jones being a minister and all might be able to summon up a great deal more of the wrath of Jehovah than the average irate father. I didn't really want to find out. My parents went to his church, and that created a whole set of problems in and of itself. I just remember that I thought it was in the best interests of everyone concerned to take things kind of slow.
"Damn it, Ray-Ray, I had my hand on her boob and you pull that shit. What's the hell wrong with you?"
"I'm sorry Danny. I just turned around and saw your hand there and it just came out. Sides, I thought you said it was accidental."
"It was accidental, you dumb ass, but I was still on second base! It doesn’t matter if you hit a double, stole the damn base or got there on a throwing error. You're still sitting on second when the dust clears!"
"I said I was sorry, dude. I didn't mean to do it. Won't happen again."
"Damn right it won't. I brought you with me thinking you'd take care of Dee-Dee, and you hardly talked to her all night."
"Shit, I'd had better luck talking to the cow in that stupid picture on the wall. That girl's way too stuck on herself."
"No she ain't. That's all false bravado, dude. She's putting on with that attitude. All you got to do is come in, act confident and take over. That's what she really wants, someone to tell her how things are."
We stopped at the street light at the intersection of Hill and Lessing; it was where our paths diverged with his heading east on Hill and mine continuing south on Lessing.
"You think so?" He shook his head. "I don't. I think she's got her mind set on Anthony. I've seen her looking at him in church. She sometimes forgets that she's staring at him until your dad hits that loud part of Washed in The Blood, then she wakes up and looks around to see if anybody saw her looking at him."
"In the meanwhile, you forget that you're staring at her."
Ray blushed, then laughed and shook his head, "Yeah. Well, screw you, Danny Wilson. Hey, tell me something. Why don't sit up front with Donna during church?"
"She has to sit up front with her mother and dad. I have my own place in the back. I've been sitting in that pew in the northwest corner ever since I started going to church. If Donna wants to sit with me, she's welcome to come back there anytime."
He laughed again, "Man, if she was my girl, I'd sit up front with her. You're an idiot!"
"Yeah, but I ain't an idiot sitting up front where I ain't got no business. Man got to know his place in the world, Ray-Ray. Even when it comes to where he sits in church." Ray shook his head and waved and then disappeared in the darkness of Hill Street still mumbling something about me being an idiot, and I started the long walk home with the thought of my hand resting on the softness of a pink sweater clouding my mind.
I always sat in the back of church for good reason. For one thing, I wanted some cushion for all the crazy stuff that happened up front. One time, I sat there with my jaw hitting the floor as the deacon and a preacher got in a fist fight over some doctrinal dispute. On another occasion, an alcoholic husband of one of the Sunday school teachers interrupted the services by insisting he be saved. He was pretty drunk and stumbling around, and his wife tried everything she could do to get him to sit down and be quiet, but he wasn't having any of it. He wanted saved and he wanted saved right then! The preacher we had back then decided to appease the drunk man and staged a mock salvation. It didn't go over too good with the rest of the congregation though who took that stuff seriously and didn't want to waste a perfectly good salvation on someone who was appeared to be too drunk to appreciate it.
Mainly, I sat back there though because I inherently knew the value of having an escape route marked out, just in case, you know, if something crazy happened. I don't know how or why I was thinking that church was someplace I needed to be on guard, but that's exactly what I was thinking.
One day, during altar call, the congregation suddenly realized that there were only two people in the whole church who hadn't been saved, that being me and my younger brother Terry. We caught on to it a little late, as we normally shut down our focus on the service and started thinking about what we were going to do once we got out of church about that time. Terry was sitting on the inside of the pew right next to the aisle, and they were on him before he even saw them coming. Before he knew what had happened, they had surrounded him. My mom was up front banging away on the piano pretending she didn't see what was going on. I took advantage of the confusion and slid behind the crowd and acted like I needed to go to the bathroom. Once inside, I locked the door and hid in there until I heard the people leaving church. When I finally go the nerve to go outside, I spotted Terry standing by himself.
He looked at me kind of shell shocked, "Where the hell were you?"
"They had you surrounded; there was nothing I could do, so I took advantage of the confusion and snuck out and hid in the bathroom. What happened?"
"I reckon I kind of got saved I guess?"
"I didn't have much of a choice. The preacher got me by the hands and kind of dragged me. Brother Bramley was pushing me from behind."
"Did you feel anything?"
"You mean like magic or stuff?"
"Not really. I was just kind of relieved when they let me go and let me go back to sit down. You know they'll come after you next time, don't ya?"
"That's the way I got it figured."
And that's exactly the way that it played out too. When we got ready to leave for church the following Sunday, I told Mom that I wasn't feeling well and thought that I'd stay home. She didn't say anything but went back inside the house and got Pop's belt and stepped out on the front porch holding it in her right hand. She stood there until I went and got in the car and then she tossed the belt inside and shut the door. I was on my toes all through the preaching part. Ray-Ray had been teasing me all through our Sunday School class how they were going to drag me up to the altar. I pretended that I needed to go to the bathroom at the rear of the church, locked the door, and climbed out the window and went and sat on the curb in front of the church and smoked a cigarette I'd pilfered from my mom's pack of Kents to calm my nerves. When I got back to the class, there was a note on my chair from Donna. "What are you planning to do, Danny?" She had drawn a big red heart on the page. I just looked up and smiled at her and shrugged my shoulders.
Everything started out like normal, but as it started getting closer to noon, I started noticing that people kept stealing glances in my direction. Then my mom got up and made her way toward the piano which was the sign that passing the collection plates was about to happen which would be closely followed by the playing of Just as I Am and the altar call. The two deacons passed the plates as usual, but, this time, Brother Geary handed his plate to Brother Bramley and went and stood at the back by the swinging doors that led to the foyer where the outer doors were.
When the plates were handed over the preacher, my mom kicked into the altar call music and suddenly everyone in the church turned in my direction including my brother Terry and Ray-Ray. I hadn't even sat down yet from the offering, and I just waited as everybody began to slowly move toward the back where I was. Terry was laughing at me. I let them all get back almost to the final pew before I made my move. Then I quickly slid around the pew gliding like a halfback back to the rear of the church and started heading toward the door. Brother Greery made like he was going to stop me at first, but I balled up my right fist and he saw it. I guess he didn't want to get in fist fight with a kid, so at the last second, he stepped back and let me pass. I pushed open the swinging doors and was out.
There was a potluck luncheon scheduled after services, so I didn't talk to Terry until later. He told me that after I left, they milled around and looked kind of stupid for a while. They didn't seem to know what else to do, so they made like they were going to try and take him back up there to the front, but he just sat down and dared them to try. Eventually, mom quit playing the song, and they all wandered back to their seats and sat down.
I walked home by myself thinking about things the whole way. When I first got out of that church, I was feeling pretty cocky and a little bit proud of the way I had stood up for myself. As I walked though, a little doubt started to creep in. What if I just missed my opportunity to get right with Jesus? I often wondered why Jesus never talked to me the way them other people said he talked to them. I mentally made a list of all the stuff I'd been doing wrong with a special focus on the things that I had been doing wrong in and around the church. I mean how stupid could I be to fantasize about Donna's pink sweater right there in the house of God? Hell, her daddy was preaching at me while I was doing it! When I reached the time that I spiked the punch at one of the potlucks, I couldn't think of anything of anything else, so I stopped and I apologized to God for me being such a dumb ass. I would've even got down on my knees and prayed too, but I was in the middle of the intersection of Bradshaw and Stratton streets and people out watering their yards and tending to their gardens would have thought I was crazy, so I just asked for forgiveness as I walked along.
My Dad was working that Sunday but was home for lunch and was sitting on the sofa eating off the coffee table and watching TV. I came in the door and slunk over and sat down in his chair.
"Dad. When you got saved, did Jesus actually talk to you?"
"Why? What happened?" I explained everything to him including the thing with hand accidentally falling on Donna's boob.
"Mom's gonna kill me. I decided that I wasn't going up there just because they wanted me too. Jesus ain't told me nothing yet. I mean he's made me feel guilty a time or two, but he ain't talked directly at me yet. I ain't going to pretend that he did just because it makes other people happy. I don't think that's right."
Pop took a drink of this sweet tea and wiped his mouth off on the back of his hand. "Well, don't worry about it, Son. When Jesus wants to talk to you, he will. You might be thinking though that he's gonna come at you talking English and all."
"What? Jesus don't talk English?" I was confused this was something I hadn't even thought about.
He laughed. "I mean he talks it, but it ain't his primary tongue. You gotta remember he was from a different time and place. I don't even think English people talked English back then."
"Well, how'd he talk to you?"
Before he answered, he went and put his dishes in the kitchen sink and poured himself another glass of tea, "When I got saved, Danny, I really needed for him to set me on a new course. I was drinking way too much and fighting with your mom all of the time. What it really amounted to was I was worried about money and paying bills, and I wasn't happy at work and came home and took it out on her. I surely needed an adjustment to my way of thinking. One night, your mom and your Aunt Lola went out hunting for me and your Uncle Andy. They found us playing cards at the Four Roses and came in there like their damn tails were on fire and started making a big scene. Hell, your mama was hitting me on the back of my head while I was trying to bet. Me and Andy got up and were coming out the back to the alley where your aunt's car was parked. I'll tell ya, I was mad enough to do your mama some serious harm. All the frustration and resentment that was building up in me just came pouring out, and I was going out there to put this woman in her damned place." He paused at that moment, and I could see his eyes start drifting back in time.
"What happened then, Pop?"
The question brought him back. "We get out there in the back of the place, and I'm really pissed by this time. Your Aunt Lola and your Uncle Andy are off on the side arguing, and your mama is standing there in the middle of the alley with her hands on her hip snapping her head back and forth like a crazy damn chicken. I'm fixing to light into her ass when I looked over toward the car and in the back window, I see you and your brother Glenn looking scared as hell in the back seat. Suddenly, this strong electrical like feeling came over me and a voice on the inside of me told me that instead of making a fool out of myself, I should count all my blessings and be happy. I can't explain how it felt other than that it was like a rush of electricity and I really felt changed. Nothing phony about it. I mean from the inside out."
"Nothing like that's ever happened to me. I'm supposed to fake it what?
He kind of chuckled and grinned at me, "Naw, nothing like that, son. I guess it depends a lot on what you really want out of life."
That statement stopped me dead in my tracks. I had never in my life one time had ever asked myself what I really wanted out of being alive. I didn't know what to say. I thought about it a bit, tried to answer but my mouth wasn't working real well, then I'd stop and think a bit some more, and then I'd try again. Finally, I just said the first thing that I could think of, "I think I just want to know as much of what is true as I can without going crazy."
Pop looked puzzled, "True? Crazy? What makes you think of something like that?"
"You know like them Hitler people killing all them other people. That's part of what truth is, the good with the bad, stuff like that."
"Damn, Boy. That's pretty deep. I never really put much thought into truth having a bad side too. I just figured that what was true was true and lies were lies and that way of thinking about it. You gave me something to think about. I got to get back to work. You gonna be okay? Your mama'll be home directly."
"Pop, can you help me with Mom? You know put a good word in for me? Tell her what I said?" I smiled shamelessly but it didn't work. He just shrugged.
"No, I told her I'd let her take care of this church going business." The thought of what he was telling me made him think back on something that happened before, and he added, "We was fighting bout something at the time. Kept her from yelling at me. I said I wouldn't interfere unless she really started screwing things up."
I looked at him incredulously. It must have made him nervous because after a while, he shrugged his shoulders and added, "Hell, boy, I didn't know I was going to start going to church at the time."
I kept looking at him for a while before asking, "What am I supposed to do about them mobbing up on me?"
What he said then surprised me, "Well, son, I think I'd keep sitting in the back row next to the door. I mean at least until I got big enough to punch Baker Jones on the nose." When I looked stunned by the answer, he continued, "When you're getting bullied by a crowd, always take out the leader first. Most people got no heart for fighting. They just go along for the excitement."
"But it's in Church."
"Churches are a good thing, no, make that a great thing, Son, but never go around thinking that they ain't people in them that don't need punched in the nose from time to time."
I thought about what he said and then confessed, "Dad, I'm doing a lot of stupid stuff, and I don't even know why. Jesus's silence on the matter has me more than a little bit worried about if I'm destined for a roasting."
Pop just laughed and reached out and rubbed my head just as Terry and my mom pulled up into our driveway coming in from church.
Terry burst out of car almost before it came to a complete stop. "Danny, you should have seen it. Brother Bramley was getting on Brother Greery about not stopping you from going out the door, and, all of a sudden, they start fighting out in front of the church. Next thing you know, their wives are kicking each other and pulling each other's hair, and Sister Geary snatched the wig off of Sister Bramley and was waving it up in the air. Then Ray-Ray said something smart about you being the cause of the whole mess and Donna hauled off and kicked him right square in his nuts. He was rolling around on the sidewalk crying like a baby. I'm telling you should have seen it!"
I looked over at Mom as she came around the car. She stopped for moment and took her white gloves off and placed them in her purse. Then she came over to where I was sitting. I'd tensed up thinking she'd be mad, and was very relieved when she wasn't. She gently pulled me up and put her arms around me and asked me if I was okay. When I said I was, she whispered in my ear, "I talked to Reverend Jones. They won't be doing that anymore."
Later that night, I pulled the covers over my head and talked to Jesus, man to man like and explained that I really wasn't trying to be mean; it just came out that way. I said that I would promise I would change, but I knew that I was just getting the hang of this puberty thing and figured that I would probably be crossing some lines, so that I thought I'd better hold off on the promising. I did say though that I never wanted to hurt anyone, and I told him that I'd seriously try to do better.
I waited for an answer for a while but fell asleep before it came.
It’s been more than fifty years since I fell asleep that night, slightly disappointed in that he hadn’t answered my prayer, but at the same time kind of relieved that I didn’t wake-up and find him hovering over me and showing me the scars from the scourging and the holes in the palms of his hand. The constant feeling that I was missing something has never left me though, not for one second of my entire life. I must admit that I understand the sense of defiance and grievance that Cain must have felt when he stood on the road outside the gates of Eden with a knapsack on his back and his thumb up in the air. “I have to find myself,” he must have muttered to the crows circling overhead. All of my life, I’ve tried my best to cover up that gigantic acne flair-up in the middle of my forehead that I discovered shortly after the onset of puberty.
Carl Jung wrote about his inability, while down on his knees, to lower his head the final inch and place it upon the floor into a position of total obeisance. I understand what he was saying. It is the same feeling often expressed in literature where the young protagonist is left to his own devices to deal with the threats of extinction and existence while his father is gallivanting around on a cattle drive, off saving conquering Troy, or fighting his way across a war ravish Europe. That final inch that turns into a stiff-necked pride is mankind’s lot in life, we can’t help but blame God for suffering of our loved ones and because of that, our own suffering.
I am often reminded of Mark Twain’s sentiments on arriving in Heaven only to discover that every pompous asshole you hated in life was in the welcoming party while all your friends are smoking cigars and playing poker with water-proof cards down in the cauldrons of hell. I know that that’s a simplistic notion, but one that I developed honestly from the people whom I trusted placing simplistic people in charge of my religious development. I wouldn’t last two days in place like the concept of heaven that those people held, a place of golden streets with mansions with white picket fences; it wouldn’t take two days in place like that before I was out looking for a bottle of Glenlivet, or trying to find Wolfman Jack on the radio.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of infinity lately. It seems to me that all of our problems are caused by humanity’s failure to understand that at some point in our life we have to come to grips with our fundamental relationship with that paradigm busting concept. It’s opened up my eyes to a lot of things including how well Jesus’s words seem to be saying that same thing.
I went through a great deal of suffering when my ex-wife died within six months of my father’s passing, and I also developed a bad case of Tinnitus the night she passed away. I was severely depressed, a depression made worse by the lack of sleep and the fact I also was blessed at that time with that one situation that every teacher ultimately fears, a classroom full of unmanageable kids and the arbitration of people with the emotional intelligence of Pontius Pilate.
I got up this morning and Jesus was waiting downstairs making coffee. He handed me a cup with the Hazelnut creamer mixed just the way I liked it.
“You look like you need this.”
“Thanks,” I took a sip before I sat down on the couch. I relaxed my shoulders and took a centering breath, “Why? Why now?”
It was his turn to take a sip, “You remember how Andy took Opie out on the porch and talked to him, or how Mr. Cleaver would always sit Beaver down in the living room, how Robert Young talked to Buddy, or even how Mr. Coates showed up right when Travis was burying Old Yeller and told Travis that he shouldn’t let his sadness dominate his world view?”
“Well, that was me.”
“Not to be disrespectful or nothing, but... well, you ain’t ever made me coffee before. Like I said, why now?”
“Your Jennie used to make the coffee in the morning, didn’t she?” He waited till I nodded before continuing, “Well, that was me too.”
He sat down his cup on the coffee table and I saw the obvious hole in his left hand. The skin around it was still angry red like it had been made earlier that morning. “I still don’t understand. I been waiting for this moment since I was… well, since that night after I ran out of the church.”
He smiled slightly before he answered, “What did them fathers always do?”
I didn’t hesitate a moment before I answered, “Well, nothing really. They would just calm the kid down and give him some advice in such a way so that he could figure out himself which way to go.”
“I’ve been there all along, Danny. You remember when you suddenly grasped the meaning of Moses parting the Red Sea? You were at work digging a ditch with a dragline when it happened.”
The statement surprised me. “I will never forget that day! It changed my life. I felt an actual electrical current running through my body when I grasped the meaning. I couldn’t sit still; I walked around that machine for a better part of an hour! That moment led me into going back to school and becoming a teacher.”
“That particular truth has been around since before the beginning of time. You, on the other hand, had just reached the point in your life of where you could understand it.”
The realization of what he was saying took the wind out of me. “You?”
He didn’t answer this time, just smiled and took another drink of coffee. “Man, I love the taste of Hazelnut creamer. You’ve looked a little lost lately, Danny. More so than usual.”
It was at that exact moment when I first thought about leaving her. I had set up a romantic getaway at San Simeon which had included a late night tour of the Castle and a candlelit dinner. Our room even had a personal hot tub. Jenny, on the other hand, had decided to choose the week-end not to talk to me at all. If I asked her a direct question about something simple like if it was raining outside, she would answer, but other than that, zilch. During the dinner, she hadn't said a word to me at all.
We were on our way back home to the valley and had reached the junction to turn onto the highway by San Luis and head east. She had looked out of the passenger side window the whole time, just like she had been doing on the way over. This was where I had swallowed my pride sixteen years before and just kept driving. Jenny left me about six months later, but not after repeating the behavior one other time after we had been looking for houses in Belle Vista all morning. We were stopped at red light after looking at a house we had both liked. She was staring out of the window again.
"I liked the patio best and the upstair rooms. I can use one for my office, you can do whatever you want with the . . . . ," that was when I then noticed that she wasn't even listening.
She suddenly turned toward me, brushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes and said, "Of course you do know that I don't love you anymore, Danny and never will again."
It was my second chance to do something, but once again I froze. It felt as if the ground had dropped out below me and as though I was floating in the exact center of an unfeeling universe. My throat constricted, and I felt sad enough, given a choice, to check out completely. There were other things involved, louder things, things that crashed and wailed, but I knew deep down that this was one of the moments on which the future hinged, the facing down of the monster, and instead of rushing forward sword in hand, I froze up inside, pissed my pants, let the monster bar the way, and turned a retreated with my tail between my legs. I tried to explain to her once about the freezing up inside, the inability to talk, and the feeling that every word we said in such moments contained nuclear capabilities, able to annihilate our existence as a family. I tried to explain how my older brother had watched transfixed as my parents had fought tooth and nail. She never understood. Maybe she shouldn't have; maybe it was for me to understand.
This time though I didn't waver. I knew what was coming and had Googled directions to the Greyhound station. Jenny was so lost in her thoughts she didn't even notice until I pulled up to the station and shut the car off. I opened the door, got out, and got my suitcase out of the trunk. I came back and threw the keys onto the front seat.
"What are you doing, Danny Wilson? What's this?"
"You haven't said a fucking word me this whole trip. Now you want to suddenly ask questions. I ain't driving home with you. There's the keys. I'll take my chances on the bus."
Her face went from a state of confusion to one of outrage in single moment when she realized what I was doing. " Oh so now, you want to be a big man, and show me how tough you are. Now, instead of doing..."
I cut her off. I knew from the all the arguments that we had later what she would say. "NO. Don't say a fucking word. You lost that privilege when you decided to treat me this way. I don't want to hear shit about our relationship, what you think I do wrong, nothing! You don't treat people the way you treated me this weekend."
I walked into the station, and by the time I bought the ticket, she was gone.
"Well, how did that make you feel, her being gone?"
"In truth, not that great. She was gone, and it was over, just like that. I felt better because I had made the stand. I had said what I should've said before. I just felt like I didn't deserve better. I can convince myself that when I got home, she would have been more inclined to treat me like a human being. For some reason, I believe that it was the only chance that we could have worked things out. She understood better than I did why I needed to fight back. I mean, once I had gotten past the idea that every word I wanted to say back then weighed like a ton. You're sure that this is not going to change anything, I mean, my daughters aren't going to disappear or anything like that?"
Doctor Laurel took off her glasses and laughed, "No. This was for you alone, to give you a sense of closure. Our technology allows us to recreate such moments virtually. The thought behind it is this is a process that allows people like yourself to repair psychic damage, those who suffer from some form of trauma to make some corrections. Our founder was a Japanese bio-geneticist who proved that the humans can alter their genetic make-up by doing right things and learning how to deal with traumatic situations. How do you feel about it now that you experienced your first correction?"
"It's been cathartic. I mean it felt so real, and I have been waiting to say those words ever since that day. When you've been fighting depression as long as I have, you just know when the moments were that you did the worst thing that you could have done."
"Great. It says that you have two more treatments scheduled for today."
"Well, I know of hundreds of such moments; it was a hard decision, but I believe I've picked three that were pivotal in making me into who and what I am today."
"Well, are you ready? We can start on the second one right away. Sit back and close your eyes and count backwards from ten, please." My eyes were closed and I heard the song You're Still a Young Man by Tower of Power playing. Then I heard a voice that I hadn't heard in over thirty years. It was cold and deadly and sounded like a hiss.
"Shit, you just don't seem to be listening to me, Danny. I don't exactly understand these things myself. All, I do know for sure is that I sincerely don't want to stay with you anymore."
"Sincerely, huh? Just last Friday you told me that you were in love with me, Jocelyn. Just last Friday. I haven't even seen you since that night."
I recognized the scene immediately. It was the moment right before I cried, a single tear escaping and sliding down my cheek. I knew its effect immediately. She had been talking and listening to me before, but upon seeing the tear, she swiftly checked out and after several moments, laughed to herself, opened the door, got out of the car.
We were parked and sitting around the corner from her house. We were mostly in the dark shadow of her neighbor's tall wooden fence, but the light from the street light on the opposite corner seeped through the front windshield and fell on her face. She had never been more beautiful.
Jocelyn had been lying to me about her ability to get out of the house for about a week. She had been calling me everyday for weeks and then, suddenly, every time I tried calling her she had an excuse or just didn't answer. On the night in question, I had gone to a party and when I walked up to the house, I saw her sitting in the living room talking to another guy. It was awkward as hell when I went in, and she tried to make it less awkward by saying that she needed a ride home and was just going to call me to ask me if I would take her home.
I knew better to let that tear drop. For thirty years I had practiced what I should do next. I started the car up which surprised her.
"What are you doing?" she asked as we pulled away from the curb.
"I'm taking you back where I picked you up. I know where this shit is going. I know you and how you like to get guys to fall in head-over- hills in love with you and then break their hearts. I thought about taking you outside of town and dropping you off and making you walk home in the dark, but I decided against it. That's what my friends would do, but I ain't that kind of guy. I'll take you back to Randy's and drop you off."
"Why would you fucking do something so stupid, Danny! This is insane."
"Maybe, but I know where this is headed, Joss. You're going to walk in the house, and I ain't never going to get the chance to tell that I know who you really are, and how you hurt the ones who fall in love with you to try and get back at someone else."
"That's crazy. Who exactly am I trying to get back at, Danny?"
I just shrugged, "I don't know, your drunk ass parents maybe, your step-dad, or how about that Dad you never see? Thing is I don't care. I don't want to spend the next thirty years knowing I didn't kick your ass out of my car when I had the chance. I don't want to have your ghost hanging over every relationship I'll have going forward."
I pulled up in front of house where I had picked her up. This time she was incredulous and asking herself how it was possible for someone like me to resist her.
I reached across her and opened the door.
"Danny. . . . .."
I drove off. She stood there and watched with a stunned expression. When I turned the corner it was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
The third experience had happened a long time before. I was in the second grade in fact. My friends and I were at recess and a guy I knew named Markie Rodriguez had a taken a Popsicle stick and touched this homely looking girl with it, and we played cootie tag with the stick the rest of the period. When the bell rang, we all ran to class. I was the last one and I looked back and saw the girl, red-haired, freckled face Barbara Lewis sobbing with her head buried in her arms while she leaned up against the drainage gutter coming down from the corner of the next wing of buildings. It had been raining earlier and water was running out of the bottom of the gutter.
I instantly understood the cruelness involved. I kept watching till the teacher told me to take my seat. Years later I was hanging around with this girl Teresa who was Barbara's best friend, and I got to know Barbara one night, and discovered that she was a sweet person with a very funny personality. She was homely as ever but possessed a smile and a sense of humor that easily made one forget about her shortcomings in the looks department. I had always wanted to apologize for what happened when we were in elementary school, but never found the time or way or the courage.
I eventually quit hanging out with her friend when her friend started going out with another guy, and I never talked to Barbara after that night. A few months, later she was killed in a traffic accident on her way to junior college. Every so often, that image of her crying up against the rain gutter reappears and prevents me from truly believing that I am a decent person. I have this problem; I carry around so much guilt and shame that most times I don't feel worthy of forgiveness. A person can't function very well that way.
I didn't ask the doctor to place me back into the moment where I could have walked over and gave her hug and walked her back to class or even in the moment where I could have prevented it from happening. Our reactions to events like that are the tests that define us, mythic moments that create the bricks of our existence. Preventing it would make me seem heroic, and I wasn't shooting for heroic. I knew what. I needed most was both the remorse and the repentance.
Teresa, a slender blonde with beautiful green eyes was milling about the kitchen fussing and talking. She seemed nervous about something. We found out later, she was trying to capture the attention of this guy she had met the night before. He worked at this store on Main Street, "I'm going to run down to the store and get some more cokes. You guys stay here, and I'll be right back."
She left Barbara and I sitting there at the blue linoleum covered counter that divided the living area with its gold-green shag carpet of her apartment from the rusty red tiles of a Spanish style kitchen. Barbara was leaning up against the wall beneath a small, framed, autographed portrait of Tommy Bolin. There was an awkward silence for a moment before I asked,"How's school going, Barb?"
"I love it. It's pretty hard but kind of fun too. I'm going to be a nurse, Danny. Ain't that funny? Maybe someday you'll come into the doctor and I'll have to give you a shot." She laughed at the thought.
"How about if Mark Rodriguez came in for the shot?"
She stopped laughing immediately. "Now, why would you say that?"
I explained to her how I had seen her crying that day, and how ever since, I wanted to tell her I was sorry but never had the nerve nor the courage.
"I've so, fucking sorry, Barb. I have been so fucking sorry for such a long time, ever since I saw you there and realized how cruel it was."
She was quiet for a moment and looked at me suspiciously. She looked away and spoke in barely more than a whisper, "I hated that fucker. Mark, I mean, for the longest time. He always had it in for me and made my life miserable. It's weird. Last year I was doing some internship stuff, and he was one of the patients. He died last week all alone, all by himself. He shared the roomed with this other guy, but the guy died the day before he did. I mean it bothers me to think that the he had spent the last night of his life thinking about the death of that other guy. Mark recognized me right away, and he apologized. He confessed that he took the misery of his own life out on mine. He told me that his dad used to beat him and his mom would just sit and watch and not say anything. I can remember once seeing his dad beat the shit out of him in front of the school. It was tight after he had did that stuff with the popsicle stick. I laughed. I smiled all that day thinking that God had answered my prayers for revenge. Mark told me he came to school looking for someone to abuse and that there wasn't anything personal about it."
"You forgave him?"
"Yeah, I mean ... it hurt me a lot, but I needed to get past it. Look at me; I ain't never going to be physically beautiful. I had to learn to accept myself for who and what I was and not to define myself by someone else's judgements. I even apologized to him because I had gotten such joy from watching his dad whip him. I was visiting him when he died. And now, here we are and you say this. What? Are you wanting forgiveness too? There you got it, now what, Danny Wilson?"
"Naw. I mean I'll take all the forgiveness I can get, and I'd be glad for your forgiveness, Barb, if that's what this really is, but what I was needing more is learning how to forgive myself, and the only way I could get that was to face you and tell you I was sorry, and how you didn't deserve none of that."
She smiled a little, "Well, it would have been a lot nicer if you had done it back then."
"I know. I'm real sorry about that too."
"Well, Danny, I'm glad you resisted the urge to warn her about the wreck. It could have done a great deal of damage to the program. We have to constantly warn participants that they are not there to change the fabric of reality, or to alter fate. Barbara Lewis was destined to die in a car wreck in the fall of 1970.
"I know. I wasn't there to change her future but my own. Still."
"I know. But what would be the point of living a life if all we are going to do is edit it later. Here, we only work on unpacking trauma related issues. The great fabric of reality always weaves itself into the forms it needs to express. "
"That's nice. Hindu?"
"No. Just something I came up with on my own. Egyptian, more or less."
When Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson's nipple in front of millions of Super Bowl viewers, I could see where things were heading with the NFL It was about as accidental as the later event with the Latin bombshell Shakira putting her crotch right on the camera lens and shaking it as if she were having a seizure.
I thought about writing a movie script that night, one about the childhood joys of playing football on a playground in the coolness of a sunlit Saturday morning in Autumn. I thought that America needed that story. I still do. I don't think that I have ever been as consistently happy as I was on one of those mornings after catching a pass or even running the football across an imaginary plane proscribed by the end of classroom on one side and the fourth fence pole from the road on the other. Joy is too weak a word for that feeling. I felt good about myself, about my choice of friends, and about how we lived our lives, and it has been approximately the exact time from one of those moments till now, since I could honestly say that.
Arnie Lofton passed away this week. He was my neighbor back then. In my mind's eye, he would have been the center of the story. He was the best pure athlete that I've personally known. I've watched sports ever since Arnie and his family moved next door to us back when all the neighborhood kids attended Mark Twain Elementary School. It was him who brought sports into our neighborhood. He had a football, and he knew the basics and the rules to all the games. He showed us, the kids who lived on the southern ends of all streets like Letts, Estes, and Van Dorsten, how to play. His dad Hank used to sit out on the porch and listen to Giant games in the evening, and that more than anything else is why I hate the Dodgers.
I've coached basketball for thirty-five years. I've been around some truly amazing athletes. The reason why I would say that Arnie was the best pure athlete of all those who I have known was his love of the game. As far as I know, he never played a single sport in high school and was never corrupted by a win-at-all cost mentality that so much of our sporting culture espouses either overtly or otherwise. He liked to win, don't get me wrong, but he loved playing even more.
He was the one who showed us how to play basketball, and he had great corner jumper which, for my money, is the hardest shot to make, and he didn't panic when you rushed at him, and with a simple flick of his wrists, he'd get you up in the air and drive by you talking smack all the while. I always thought he could have played pro-baseball had he desired. He had such a great swing and did everything on the diamond so naturally.
But it was in football, as a pocket passer, where he became the Legend of the Southside. His huddle presence was direct, "Gilbert, you go long. Carlyle, you cut across the middle. Adrian, you wait over on the left as a safety valve. Harold, you snap the ball and block." As simple as it gets, but the complexity, and the thing that made it beautiful was that Gilbert Martinez was the fastest human being who ever ran in a pair of street shoes, and no matter how fast he ran, Arnie would put the ball exactly in the one place where it needed to be. I don't think I ever saw Gilbert stretch to make a catch. He would run as if he were being chased by demons, hold his hands in front of him slightly below shoulder level and the ball would land there as if by magic.
Yes, I said, "as if by magic." Humans make mistakes, it's the most fundamental rule of our existence. We screw shit up. That's what we do best. Legends, on the other hand, defy rules, they find ways to circumvent logical explanations. The guys who I grew up with will all tell you that Arnie Lofton's deep passes were the most perfect thing we've ever seen, and the most consistent. I mean Albert Einstein could have plotted the velocity of the pass (VOP) and calculated Gilbert's rate of speed (ROS) and then drew an X in the sky five feet from the ground and about twenty yards from the front leg of the swing set where the ball should end up, and that damn ball would end up there every time. (Or at least enough times to convince us that we were seeing something special.)
The Sixties hit our neighborhood pretty hard. I am ashamed when I look back and see the role I played in leading some of my friends astray. We bit hard at the lure that the movies, magazines, and the music they dangled in front of us using our budding sexuality to tempt us unto paths that led us away from the innocence and the ball fields of our youth. As far as I know, Arnie and his friends stayed true and never got caught up in that culture. I took the rest and left.
Our paths diverged, but we often combined our efforts in adult leagues later, and Arnie was always the "great equalizer". We would lead us, a ragtag bunch of misfits into battle, and provided us with moments that we will talk about with reverence all of our lives. He gave us hope that we could be better than we were.
It took me several years to overcome the damage that the Sixties inflicted upon my life. It hinged on the discovery at some point where I could no longer avoid the fact that everything bad that ever happened to me was the result of my own bad choices. A lot of people never understand that the future changes the past. Looking backwards from a higher ground changes how you should remember things and makes you realize how much that you got wrong as you were going through them.
Justin Timberlake has a lot of fans. He is considered by most to be a legendary performer. To me, he is always going to be one of the douches who corrupted football. He willingly participated in the halftime event that told the world that this is how things are and are going to be from his point on. I've always believed that it was more of a staged ritual than an accident.
A few years ago, I ran into Arnie's best friend, one day at the Kings Drive-in, and he told me about this project that him and Arnie were working on rehabbing a living space for a handicapped friend. That's some salt-of-the earth shit right there, and that night as I thought about it, I realized that I had never in my life done anything as altruistic as that for anyone.
I got into coaching because I wanted the kids like me to avoid the all the mistakes I made. I wanted them to understand that you shouldn't depend on others to select your heroes for you and to allow them to use those heroes to sell you a false reality. Most real heroes never make the paper, they live right next door to you; they fix your cars at a reasonable rate, they teach you how to read; they make your breakfast, or pay for the food. They never get close enough to someone like Janet Jackson to unbutton her blouse in front of people, and left with the decision would ultimately think, "Actually, that's probably not such a good idea."
And being in such close proximity, it should allow us to tell them that we appreciate how they inspire us.
I ran into Arnie one time much later in life and tried to tell him. He just shook it off.
I've been trying for the last few months to write a story. Yet, this is one of the only times in that period that I've actually sat down to write. Problem is, ideas no longer come to me with the fluidity that they once came when I went a little crazy. I mean there was a time when I could see a dead dog lying in the middle in the road and come home and write something about what it meant in relation to the human condition. I was admittedly living on the borderline; it was in the time right after my father and ex-wife died within a few months of each other. It was a time when I was first afflicted with tinnitus and didn't get a good night's sleep for months. It got to a point where I was spending way much too much time living in my subconscious and rarely venturing out into the material world.
I wrote a story about being amphibious and able to keep my eyes above the water while the rest of me remained below the surface. I wrote another one about being someone who kept poking his head above the grave to see what was going on, too afraid to come out. It wasn't a fun time in my life, and writing was how I tread water. There was never a shortage of ideas then, as everything seem to be alive, craving attention. and sending out signals that read, "Hey you! Pay fucking attention to me. I deserve some respect!"
I no longer feel like that. I mean I still feel like all the small things that we constantly ignore are important and therefore deserving of our attention, but in a different, somewhat healthier way. I don't know if it was the lockdown, the paradigm destroying, mythic summer of 2020, or just the fact that I'm getting old so quickly, but seems to me that I've lost a whole lot during this time, and I need to regain some of it, to glean through the rubble and keep what's important and discard the fakery, and since it also seems like I've been inhabiting the overgrown, ruins of a lost civilization ever since my wife left me, I need this new life to begin with a proper foundation. My first incarnation was never based on fact; it suffered greatly because of it, and sputtered and never seem to overcome the fact that it was built on so much self-delusion.
In truth, it was almost impossible for someone like me to be genuine back then because the world around me was so loud and never made much sense. There is so much absurdity in life that at times it makes it all seem like some weird tragedy mixed with elements of fantasy, but also always contains the essence of truth in our every moment and situation, our freewill being that faculty within us that allows us to decide how we choose to interpret the narrative flow like we are just movie critics. We either grease the wheels, or we mine for truth; make no mistake, we all do one or the other, and usually come up with a mixture of both.
Christ said that he despises lukewarm people; and for someone who usually spoke in parables, he made this one thing very, very clear. "I'll spit you out of my mouth," he said. I think he was saying what's the point of spinning your wheels. If you only go in half ass all of the time, you are never going to get anyplace in life, or ever acquire any of the things needed to develop a understanding of what it really means, and if you choose to approach truth-seeking with an unfocused mind, you will always travel in circles and never, ever come close to finding that magical place in back of the wardrobe.
Searching for truth though is lot like hitting yourself in the head with a mallet. Every time you raise a new barricade, build a wall, create a levee, or stumble upon a new belief that offers up some certainty, you soon find new information that either tumbles it down like an adobe house in 7.0 earthquake or maybe reduces it to the substance of a windblown ash. Ingesting too much truth at once is like taking an iron pill on an empty stomach. It makes you gag and burns your vocal cords.
It's hard too. The effort to grasp reality can cause internal bleeding, lots of anxiety and perpetual confusion, it makes you walk around in a cloud of dust that partially obscures the world like the Pigpen character in the Peanuts cartoons. but what else is there really to do? I have this story in my head about a guy who reads both War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov and finishes both on the same day. He puts down the books and for a brief moment allows himself to concentrate on reducing both to the single theme of "Life is a Shit Storm; buy a raincoat and forgive everybody as it was never meant to be personal." And as the guy concentrates, a friend rushes in a says, "Hey I got a video of two fish fucking. Want to watch it?"
"Sure. I'm not doing anything important."
It's kind of understandable though, most of us can't focus on that theme too long. It's too perplexing and grisly, and you can't really dance to it. Instead, most of us would rather close our eyes and listen to the Kardashian sisters debate Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg on the merits of Marilyn Monroe's wardrobe knowing full how much of a waste of time and total dodge that would be.
I was having trouble thinking what to write about. Then tonight I saw a new movie called North Hollywood, and it was a good movie. The scene where Vince Vaughn as the father has a Come-to-Jesus meeting with his son made me almost cry because of how well it documented the great missing conversation I never had with my dad. Well written, well acted, and well filmed, it reminded me of all the feelings that I've kept repressed for most of my life. It also reminded me that the things worth writing about are the things we keep below the surface. The movie reminded me that it is best to be as truthful as possible and say things instead of boiling them in a pot with all the other resentful shit. There is a whole warehouse of memorable scenes in each of our lives that we remember only because of how outside of the box they played out, or because they made us pout, but, like a scene from a Tarantino movie, they don't ultimately mean crap. The only ones that are important are disguised, buried, or placed into darkness where they smolder and burn, big vibrating boulders embedded in our psychic landscapes; they never go away, no matter how much we wish they would.
Mining such ore for inspiration is hard. You have rise early when you want to sleep in. It requires learning how to kill, gut, and skin zombies, how to face down the fear of spiders and snakes, and worst of all, it requires that final, cathartic, ground-shaking, freedom inducing facedown, while standing in front of your mother's bathroom mirror, locked eye-to-eye with the glowing image of who you were really meant to be. It inevitably leads to a moment in time when we are forced to quit deluding ourself and have to come to grips with a whole bunch of terrible truths, the stuff that we hid and pretended didn't matter, the lies we've invented since childhood to cover up the fact that we knew the answer to the ultimate question well before we even knew how to phrase it. The failure of not trying is way too horrible to even contemplate.
I love good movies and books because they move me in ways that few things can; they help illuminate the darkness, and in many ways are the very voice of God. I am going to try and write some stories about wrestling with such truth, stories about breaking chains, climbing out of quicksand, and fleeing from the past, stories about betrayal and moral failings. I'm going to try and write about how love makes life worth living, but at the same time, is capable of a wounding greater than a knife with a serrated blade.
My marriage ended badly; I ain't gonna lie, but I often find myself adding things to the litany of reasons why things went so very wrong. I still loved her, and I like to think that in most respects, she still loved me.
I recently purchased a book entitled The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Reread by Harold Bloom the eminent Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and noted Literary critic who passed away in 2019 at the age of eighty-nine. It cost me thirty-five dollars, and let me tell you that every speck of my deceased father Bill White ( who also plays the Ghost of the Dust Bowl Past in my family's version of the Dickens's Christmas classic) contained in my DNA was screaming, "Are you out of your fucking mind?"
I calmly answered in reply, "Dad, it's 516 pages long? Do you know how much effort goes into writing anything that long? Besides, it contains Bloom's take on forty-eight of the world's great novels. That's like getting an entire university course in Literature for only thirty-five bucks plus taxes." That silenced the screams; my dad, who was forced by economic necessity to quit school after the eighth grade, was always respectful of education, or book learning as he called it.
I was reading Bloom's review on Jane Austen's Emma when I ran across his amazing insight on the fictional after lives of Austen's famous feminine protagonists. What he mentioned was his doubts about whether they were truly happy after marrying the man of their so-called dreams. He points out the fact that they always seemed to settle for the best man at hand and not the one who would cause their bosoms to heave, whatever the hell that means. (Just joking. I think I know. In fact I think I've done it a few times.)
I was kind of a bad boy at one time, or at least pretended to be one. I tried to live according to the masculine ethos that was called for in those days. I smoked Marlboros before I entered junior high, and, because I didn't have a horse, I rode a bike with high handle bars with the cigarette pack rolled up in my t-shirt sleeve, and with a pair of dark green aviator sunglasses and a sneer.
I continued to project this facade right up until about a year after my wife had plucked me from the herds of other self-projecting young mustangs stampeding down the streets of Corcoran, which we all know was the center of the whole damn universe back then, as least as far as its inhabitants were concerned. I also said fuck a lot, I still do. It meant I was rebellious once. I don't know what it means now as I try not to think too hard about it.
She chose me because of the way I looked in those damned sunglasses. She actually said, "I really like the way those glasses look on you." So, I wore them to the breakfast table, mowing the yard, in the shower and even tried to come up with some justification to wear them to bed at night. (Remember this was long before the night she told me that I wouldn't half bad if I took off a few pounds, back when the bloom was still on the rose, so to speak.)
She really chose me because I had some potential, I was kind of funny, somewhat intelligent, not completely hideous to look at, and, hidden somewhere deep inside, I had a streak of kindness. She brought out the kindness part out of me as I had hidden it so long I forgot about it. She blew the dust off of it and shined it up and placed in on the coffee table where others could see it. I was never as much a narcissistic dick as I was back during the sixties and early seventies when the media and American culture seemed to demand that I be one.
Basically, she settled for the security and the lesser evil as did Elizabeth Bennett and those other Austen women. I did too. I mean she wasn't Olivia Hussey, the actress who played Juliette in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliette, but she was pretty, sweet, funny, and pretty hot looking in her white bikini. Mainly, she picked me and in those days, that was the ultimate of aphrodisiacs to the male ego. It was also the thing that hurt the most when it was over, when I had to come to terms with the fact that she no longer picked me.
What Harold Bloom noted that made me wince a little was the knowledge that in life we too often settle for what we think is the best deal that our situation allows. It's kind of like depending on our credit history to decide what car or house we want to buy. And a lot of time, things actually turns out for the best and becomes the thing that the universe itself would offer us if we paid all of our bills, gave a lot of money toward charity, relentlessly gave of ourself and went to work smiling the whole while.
We don't often know this though at the time; we always want to believe that the grass is greener somewhere. What I also didn't know was that because of this "settling" thing I was also under an obligation to recreate the world anew for her every morning, to fill her heart with wonder and amazement, to never let her for moment doubt the beauty and power of her own imagination, and mainly to prove to her that at all times she was the very epicenter of our universe, not only of my individual world, but of the part of the universe that we created together.
Damn, I wish I had read Bloom way back when before I had settled into the ruts of domesticity (hell, the book might even have been a lot cheaper then). Better yet, I wish my dad had read it in the seventh grade, and his father before him.
I know grief. He and I are on a first name basis, his is George. We are always talking about some weird shit or the other.
"Hey, George. How you doing today?"
He always shrugs first thing. It drives me nuts. He always looks at me all serious like Jason Robards looked in All The President's Men. He shrugs, then attempts a sad ass smile that ends up looking like he just bit through the sugar coating of dog turd. He then raises his hand up sideways and shakes it twice and says, "Meh."
He stands behind me when I shave, frowning like I'm doing something wrong. He is the single most, stupid ass, lying, conniving, piece of shit, sorry excuse I know, and in this pandemic era where your willingness to lie can make you the leader of the free world, that's setting the bar pretty fucking high. But I can't ever seem to break it off our relationship because every so often he reveals the truth in ways that no-one else can.
This morning I got up and started reading Joan Didion's novel Play It as It Lays which one critic described as being a ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s. The book is about the main character's relation with her own grief. She gets up in the morning and relentlessly drives the highways around Southern California in search of things to make her forget the fact that her mother died alone in a car wreck and was partially devoured by coyotes before they discovered her body. The main character was partying with a rich boyfriend when it happened.
I've done that, not the rich boy friend partying, but the relentless driving. My father, and my wife had died and God punished my failures as a husband by giving me tinnitus, a classroom full of kids lacking self-control, and a sense of hopelessness that often resembled a tear-stained photograph of a harsh Martian landscape.
That's the thing. Grief always hangs out with these two wormy little fucks named Guilt and Self-Loathing. They always show up late and ring the door bell and wave around an empty bottle of Champagne and say let's party while they're standing there in your doorway, but the moment you let them in, they gang up on you and make you feel like shit.
One summer, I drove from Tehachapi to Merced along the eastern edge of the valley, sometimes with my mom in tow, trying to keep from thinking too much, always hoping that what I discovered on such journeys would be so new and important that it would wipe away the bloody footprints and chalk outlines of the past. The road trips never did help that much, but the demands of the unknown road ahead sometimes kept me from staring too hard at the image in the rear-view mirror.
This morning I got up feeling more than a little discouraged. I read the book I mentioned for an hour and only put it down when the insanity of the main character's outlook on her grief filled life started sounding suspiciously like my own. I went to get another book from the back seat of my car and I found a funeral announcement from a funeral I had recently attended and spoken at. I saw the date under the picture; she was barely 30 years old and was known throughout our small community as someone who had decided to fill her short life with as much love, live, and purpose as she could muster. I think of her like one of those movie characters who put way too much stuff in their suitcase, then have to sit on it to try to make it shut. Her attitude was summed up in the term Beast Mode.
I saw her smiling in the picture and got pissed off at myself for feeling down just because I pretend to have the luxury to waste my time that way. I went in the house and did a sink full of dishes, cleaned my toilet bowl, and washed and vacuumed my car, things I had been neglecting to do. It helped. Doing the things you need to do are often just as vital as love and laughter. Feeling sorry your self is not.
I read now with the same urgency like I once drove across the valley floor in an endless search of shit that I can use to blot out the memories of my shortcomings, flaws, and moral lapses. Someday, I would like to get to the point in the story where on some lost, desert highway I come face to face with a long gray haired, bearded, shabby looking stranger drinking water from a burlap covered glass jug, smoking a Salem. Someone who looks and sounds a lot like Sam Eliot.
I would pull over and park on the other side of the road, look over at my mom and tell her I needed to talk to this fella, and I would be right back. Then I would get out and slow strut to where he sat on a rock covered with a red and blue Navajo blanket, and I would say,
"What can you tell me, man? I read a lot of books and traveled miles and miles both inside and out, fought off demons, and bled real blood. I've come so far to talk to you. I wouldn't even have even known which way to come, but I saw the mark you made on that stop sign back at the four corners. I could really need use some help, Man. Not knowing is driving me crazy."
The man would look me over, take a long drag off his Salem, exhale the smoke making it form a series of concentric rings and then take a drink from his jug, and I would notice that it looked like water coming out of the bottle's mouth, but turned into a dark, red wine as it seeped out of the corners of his mouth. He would burp and mumble, "That's some good shit," and drag his sleeve over his mouth to wipe it. Then he would tell me, "You got every thing you need in that there car, son, your mama, some good books, and a tank of gas. I can only assume you got a CD player playing Kind of Blue and a good GPS app?" I would look at him like of course and on cue Mile's coolest riff from Freddie Freeloader would float out of the car's open windows.
At this point, I would get mad, It would develop slowly as I checked off all of the shortcomings of the unresolved situation, and truth be told, the anger was really being fed by a sense of frustration, the kind that comes from knowing that I was no closer to any kind of permanent understanding than I was when I first started asking why. I would stare at the stranger with great disappointment, both hands open, facing upwards and outstretched and hanging in the air, a gesture of irrational, disbelief, "That's it? After all that driving down dust, deserts roads? Swimming in rivers of ice? All the searching, the thinking, the arguments and face slaps? The saliva on the front of the shoes? After the dark thoughts, the reading, the rereading, the situational compromises? That's it? That's really all you got to offer?"
He chuckled as he pulled a strand of long white hair behind his right ear, then pointed his finger at me and smiled with a big, ass goofy grin. "One other thing; son, you gotta get rid of those three little assholes you've been hanging with a lot."
"You know, Grief and his buddies."
"But how? How do I do that?"
He reached down on the other side of the rock and pulled up a dust covered, white painted board. He blew the dust off and handed it to me, "Hang this sign over your door."
I looked at the sign; it had a big picture of the sun rising carved in the wood and colored red and yellow. And in big blue letters, it said, "No Grief Allowed Here. Get Your Sorry Ass to Stepping!"
I would look at the sign, think about it a bit, and after a while I would arrive at a unique understanding. I would suddenly realize that it was the Monday after Easter Sunday. That would be enough to send me into a short trance-like state as I tried to place the realization into some category where I could process it, and I would smile and nod at the guy, looking somewhat like a lunatic, I would look back to check the anxiety level of my mom, turn back, grab the sign with both hands, and run quickly back to the car, carrying the sign, eager to show it to my mom.