I was sitting in the Arena Bar and Grill in Simi Valley the other night listening to the most amazing cover band I have ever heard. There were four dudes in this band; three of them were kind of on the young side, I mean if you consider being just on the under side of forty being young. I do. The bassist though looked liked he'd died and been brought back to life on more than one occasion. I don't say he was old and wrinkled looking, but that dude made Keith Richards look like he'd been using skin care products all his life and not the cheap shit either. Old or not, that sumofagun could sure play his bass guitar. He handled that thing as smoothly as John Travolta handled Karen Lynn Gorney on the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever.
As good as the band was, and it was very good, it still took several songs before I relaxed enough to let go and start enjoying the music. That led me to thinking about how tightly wound I've become since the devil-may-care days of my youth. And that made me start thinking of all the hard, painful realities I've been dealing with the last few years, and that, in turn, led to the realization that life in general sure can be a cold-hearted bitch. The large room was full of people of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities. The occasion was meant to raise money to help the family of a young mother who passed away from liver disease a couple of weeks before. Everybody appeared to be enjoying the music, but it was still easy to see the tale-tell signs and erosion of hope in their eyes, and the sadness etched on their scarred bodies. There was a beautiful black-haired woman in a short, skintight black dress who was working very hard to cover-up the extra pounds she carried around her middle, a hard-looking biker dude with tattoos all over his neck and cold, ball-bearing eyes, and a bleached blonde matronly looking woman with one side of her head shaved and tatted, wearing a dress much too short for a lady of her age and girth. The only ones there who appeared unscathed by life's vicissitudes were the children out dancing on the dance floor, happy, yet slightly apprehensive from trying to comprehend all of the antics of their elders.
Earlier that morning, I forcefully reminded about my mother's passing. Someone had broken out a Capri-Sun drink in a little plastic pouch, and it reminded me of the apple-sauce packets that we kept in her refrigerator to feed her as she lay dying. She passed away last April, and I'd been hiding from the memory of those bleak days like a kid playing hide-and-go-seek for money. But suddenly, the image of her laying in bed struggling to hang on to what little bit of life she had left hit me right between the eyes like a sucker punch. It took some serious and frantic gymnastics with the TV remote before I found a college football game interesting enough to distract me.
For over two years, the small park in the center of Corcoran has been taken over by the homeless. I go back and forth between anger and empathy over the sad state of affairs. It seems like every street corner in the certain sections of Hanford, Visalia, Tulare and Fresno have been taken over by people with cardboard signs expressing their hunger and/or desire for alcohol and drugs. We, the supposedly average citizens, become immersed in a culture of death and dying. In California, we got ourselves a Governor who wants to make our once beautiful state into the abortion capital of the United States. I don't think he believes in any of the reasons that people put forth to argue for abortion as much as he wants to use the issue for his own political purposes. The politics of the issue have taken over to the point that neither side can see there is a lot of things that can be done to mitigate the myriad tragedies of unwanted pregnancies that people could agree upon without compromising any their own beliefs.
I believe the whole thing, the divisiveness over the abortion issue, the homelessness, the transgender issues, in fact, everything that polarizes society, is both political and purposeful. I think that they want it to be that way. They do not wish us to ever come together and view our willingness to resolve issues by talking them out as a danger to their hold on power. Who are they? The people who benefit most from the current state of affairs. The rest of us are left to our own devices to make do as best we can. I'm still slightly unconvinced about the whole Covid narrative, but firmly believe that there was absolutely no reason to rip the hems off of the social garment. Since when has it ever been a good idea to tear society apart in the face of major existential threat? Yet, that is exactly what happened. Instead of tightening things up or battening down the hatches, we emptied out the jails at the same time we defunded the police, we created sanctuaries for the homeless in every public space to serve as a constant reminder about the hopelessness of life. We legalized drugs and ended cash bail, releasing criminals back on the street almost as quickly as they committed their crimes. Our Governors wrested control of the states from out of the hands of our duly elected officials and put us all in jail for our own good, or so they said. It has become a major social faux-pas to mourn the loss of free speech which now apparently exists only for the benefit of the people who advance one side of the narrative, or who have little or no common sense.
It's a scary place this modern world, full of scary people and stupid ideas, bloated like a parking lot full of dead cows in the summer sun, floating around with all the grandiose pomposity of the Hindenburg. The stench of decomposition fills the air and the babblers, singing like a choir composed of cartoon squirrels, tell us that the aroma is just that expensive perfume that one Kardashian girl wears to cover up the perspiration she is profusely sweating because one day, she knows with all the certainty of death and taxes, there will be a time when a little boy points at her as she exits a limo, who will say, "But Mama, she's not wearing any clothes," and the whole world will suddenly awaken from its narcoleptic slumber and see her and her siblings for who and what they really are.
Solutions? I have none, just to try to get as close as I can to some sort of truth and live life where I cause no pain. That's hard to do nowadays because everyone is so sensitive and entitled, a hell of a lot more entitled than we used to be. They taken away our right to laugh at shit, and that's the biggest loss of all because if you can't laugh at life, all it leaves you is the tragedy.
Nope, I don't know what the answer is. I just know that whatever this shit is, ain't it.
Last night, I was coming home from a tournament in Stockton, and we stopped near Manteca to eat at an In-n-Out. Five young men entered and there's no other way of saying it, they looked pretty silly. One was swearing a T-shirt wrapped around his head and a black face mask. Another had a halloween mask of a killer clown sitting on top of his head like a hat. Three of the five wore their pants below their ass and belted across their thighs, holding them up with one hand when they walked. You could tell they thought they were the shit. They looked at everybody around them with cool disdain, pointing and laughing at different groups of people. They played with their food and made a big mess on the floor by throwing fries all over the place. One of them went to the soda machine and, walking back to his seat trying to balance his tray while holding his pants up with one hand, looked at me like I was already feeding the worms.
"Yeah, I might be heading in that direction," I thought to my myself, "but I'll take that rather than be as foolish as you look, or to listen to your music and act the way you act, or to even think the thoughts that you think."
A lot of people might think it's rude to prejudge these youths on their appearance, but it wasn't just their appearance, it was their whole demeanor, their actions, the way they laughed like hyenas as they made the mess on the floor and just left it. And besides that, I wasn't just judging from a distance, I knew exactly what was going on inside their head because, at one time in my life, I was one of those boys, and most of my guy friends were too.
I screwed shit up. It hurts a lot when I think how stupid I was, and I can't linger on it for very long because it is way too depressing. I wish so much that there had been someone back then, anyone, who could have slapped the living shit out of me and reached through that thick fog of stupidity and set me on a better path, but there wasn't. I looked. I kept waiting for someone to save me from myself, and in the absence of that person, I turned to other less worthy, people like John Lennon, or Jimi Hendrix for example. At one time on my life, I even thought that people like Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman, and Mario Salvo had something important to say. That is before I finally figured out what ignorant putzes they were.
How do I know that they were putzes? That's easy. For one thing, they presented everything they said as if it were the Gospel truth when it wasn't. You know like Lebron James thinking he's an expert on Sino-American relations just because a lot of his personal wealth originates in China. Or like President Biden talking about HIS policies when he's just doing what he is told. I learned one important lesson during the Covid Dark Ages and that was that these multi-millionaire celebrities who derive their wealth from the diversionary industries (read sports/entertainment) should just keep their traps shut when serious issues are being discussed. If you take lots of money to distract people from dealing with the idea of how the concept of infinity effects our relationship with the universe, then you have absolutely nothing to say that we need to hear when that same universe starts pressing in our reality, you have nothing we need to hear. I understand the need to make a living, or even the need to attract a beautiful/handsome mate, live in a nice, big house and have an occasional meal at a great restaurant. I don't begrudge people any of that. But I do dislike people who do things using the stage at the Oscars to tell me how to think. If you want to tell me something then climb down the mountain to the valley where I live and quit shaking your jewels from the mountain tops. Do it like Gandhi, Jesus, or Dr. King did it. You'd have a lot more credibility with skin in the game. I believe that there's a special place in hell that Dante never dreamt about for people like Mr. Kimmel and them so-called ladies on The View.
My parents tried to be good role models, but the culture of the time was overwhelming. It was like getting caught in a riptide in an ocean of sewage. That outgoing current is even stronger than it was back then, and a lot of the kids nowadays have even less of a fundamental foundation to fall back on than we did. Hell, most of my friends could name more than a few of Ten Commandments. I don't think that's true of a lot of these kids nowadays.
Recently, I went to a funeral of my wife's childhood's best friend. A lot of my old friends were there and we looked, no, not looked, we are old. We look like our great-aunts and uncles used to look when we attended funerals when we were young. I was thinking of our memories and how crazy we acted, and how much we loved sharing those old stories about when we were younger and crazier and obsessed with doing crazy things. Life does that to us. It's a way of saying, do what you gotta do, Life. I ain't afraid. But that's the thing, we are afraid and spend most of our life trying to hide that fact. One of my friends told me, "Old age ain't for sissies." That's a true statement too, but life, no matter what age, ain't for sissies. It's hard and it's often tragic, and I can understand why the young try to thumb their noses at the fact. I'm guilty of the same thing when I don't allow thoughts about my forseeable future to stampede me into worrying all of time about disappearing into the mists of infinity. At my age, even getting out of bed in the morning is an act of defiance.
The thing that upsets me the most though is knowing how much better my life could have been had I lived it from the start lined up with the truth and with the understanding that doing the right thing is always better than being stupid no matter what the culture says. What an example I could and should have been, how much better a father I would have been, and how much more I could have helped the people all around me.
I know that I'm not the smartest bulb in the room, and never had been. I am just smart enough to know how much I don't know, and I'll accept that as always being better than thinking I know it all.
But, I also know, I could given those boys some great advice that could have helped them a lot had they been willing to listen.
But that always the problem, the young never have liked listening to the old. Maybe that's because we do complain a lot.
"Time is the cellmate who sodomizes us all."
"What's that, Pop?" Tall, dark-haired and tatted, Ronnie Greenway entered the room carrying a fresh pot of coffee in one hand and handful of Hazelnut creamers in the other."
"You heard me."
"Yeah, I heard you, but I don't know what you're getting at. Time sodomizes us; what's your point?"
Noah Greenway, an aging, white-haired, blue-eyed man wearing black horn-rimmed glasses and dressed in a blue work shirt, white sox, and some faded blue jeans, was sitting in a large, comfortable brown leather reading chair. He was reading a new hard-back book when his t-shirt and blue jean clad son entered the room, so he closed the book and placed it on a battered oak coffee table that had seen its share of use. He carefully stirred a couple of Hazelnut creamers into his coffee and took a sip before answering, "Just thinking out loud. I've been reading this new book where the author is arguing that the continued use of the narrative arc in the writing of novels is an outmoded, unnecessary, and limiting device. She offered up a list of other formats such as meandering, radial, or fractal that she thinks would serve just as well. It made me think that she's missing the point about the importance of the time element involved which led to the metaphor I just used."
"Did you come up with that on your own just now?
"Just popped in my head right when I said it. I'm surprised you can't see the light bulb still suspended over my head."
"Cool. So, I take it you don't agree?"
"No, I don't. Listen to this, while she's referencing the elements of fiction she says 'character, plot, place, etc.' Notice what she did there?"
"She failed to mention time as being part of the setting."
"Exactly. That tells me she knows."
"Knows what? That time is a cellmate that sodomizes us all? Who is it that drops the soap in the shower in that deal?"
"Don't get smart, asshole. It tells me she know the weakness of her argument. Setting is always getting the short shrift in fiction, always placed in the background and treated like a stage prop. In reality, time is the principal element that propels the story forward creating the tension and need for the arc. Most people have a tendency to ignore the fact that it is time located in a particular place that determines the meaning of the story. Everything in material existence has a beginning a middle and an end. Hell, even the act of reading a novel follows the narrative arc, as does cooking eggs or drinking coffee. The examples she gives to support her argument sound about as interesting as a travelogue."
Ronnie placed a blue porcelain plate loaded with bacon and scrambled eggs down on the coffee table in front of his father then went and sat down in a green easy chair at the western end of the table. "I think she's just trying to say it makes no sense in placing limitations on an art form, I mean, there's always other options; why just choose one. Seems that I remember that it was always you pushing the idea of transcendence on us and reminding us that time as we know it is actually a human construct."
"So is literature, a human construct I mean. I pushed it on you and your siblingss because society does a horrible job of helping us understand our relationship with an infinite universe. I understand, Son that time is a human construct, and infinity is the ultimate reality. You can do a lot of different things to change the form of a novel, you can meander, you can spiral it out, you can divide shit up, but you can't get away from the fact that we come into this world, we live, and we die."
"Yeah but, Dad, remember what you always say about eternity and the infinite universe. Our lives are seemingly little more than flyspecks on God's gigantic home movie screen."
Noah chuckled, "Goddamn this is good bacon. Where did you get it, Caldwell's?"
"No, Lawsons. It's a new place over there on Vine and Bellrose."
"It's great. I'll have to try that place. You can read the newspaper through a piece of Lawson's bacon." He took another sip of coffee before he continued, "No son, that's a very good point you make. And if that's what she really means, she's on to something. It would definitely change how we relate to world if we all thought in terms of the infinite, but we don't think in those terms. We can't, at least not for long. As we are now, it would freeze our brains or fracture our consciousness into a thousand pieces. It's what Christ was talking about when he mentioned the impossibility of pouring new wine into old bottles. Besides, all those alternate forms she mentions also take place in time. These alternate forms she's talking about, if that is what she's doing, would also be contained in the narrative arc. In fact, the story of how to obtain a more inclusive visions of reality is itself guided by the narrative arc."
"Well for one thing, it is what climactic moment of a story actually represents, the sudden epiphany, the sudden and all encompassing transformation of the hero. Narrative at its most primal story is the recognition of mankind's true condition, understanding of our real place in the infinite universe is what the ultimate climax represents. That's why in most movies it is usually accompanied by lightning storms, windows breaking, bullets, screaming, or car crashes, things that represent the shattering of the old, pre-illumined Ego. I believe that literature is secretly a ritual created to convey the idea of the Great Myth mass audience beneath the prying eyes of the Church. The irony of the author's position, is if she did managed to convince people of the truth of her argument, she would be actually be getting rid of the very ritual that kept that myth alive."
"Yeah, Pop, but we're not in the Dark ages anymore. I don't know if you noticed or not, the Church has lost its stranglehold on our consciousness."
The comment made the old man almost project the drink of coffee he was taking out of is nose, "Man, I call bullshit on that one! The Church's grip has morphed into the prison constructed of cold hard rationality, a rationality that for some reason prefers we forget the reality of the infinite. These empirically driven scientists are the new inquisitors, thinking that'll someday they'll be able to explain infinity by studying a small piece of it."
The young man shrugged. "Yeah, whatever, Pop. I'm not going to argue with you. Not to change the subject, but do you remember that time you sent Hannah a framed copy of Howl for her birthday? I thought homegirl was going to blow a gasket."
"I thought she was never going to speak to me again. I also remember the time when she came in my study without knocking and caught me reading from a book of Bukowski's poems. Hannah takes after her mom, I guess. Your mother wouldn't even let me have a copy of Henry Miller in the house. I had to hide them in a cardboard box in the attic behind a framed poster of Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg."
"Miller? The Beats? You and mom both taught the Classics, Pop. Do you really like that stuff?"
"I appreciate beauty of a well turned phrase wherever it comes from; listen to this. I wrote it down; it's from Bukowski, '
'There's so many days
when living stops and pulls up and sits
like a train upon the rails.'
Ronnie nodded, "That is pretty good. The way I see it is Mom spent a lot of years mastering the knowledge needed to get her doctorate, and she didn't appreciate people like Miller, Ginsberg and Bukowski coming along and ripping the ground out from it all with all that stream of consciousness and free verse stuff."
The old man stood and went and a took cigar out of a humidor on the bookshelf behind him. He offered one to his son who declined. He performed the ritual of lighting it and returned to his seat puffing on the cigar.
"Yeah, but she loved James Joyce." He shook his sadly. "There was no figuring what was going on inside that woman's head. That's why we divorced. Ronnie, do you remember when Sophie and I got into that big argument the last time?"
"Yeah, I remember she didn't talk to you for quite a while. What was that all about."
"Talk to me, hell, she didn't even invite me to the ceremony when she got her Masters, and it was all over her masters project. It was a multi-media presentation about Medusa, and knowing your sister, I knew she was going to make it into a feminist statement, and I warned her that she should not do that."
"I told her the Greeks would not understand. To them mythology was the way they consider the whole enchilada. They wouldn't dare to profane mythology trying to use it to make political arguments. What I didn't know that she was almost done with the project and that her advisors had loved it."
"I don't know, Pop. It seems like you can make anything fit into a political argument these days."
"Doesn't make it right though. Besides, I don't think that was the real issue. I think she was hell bent on making a point about the evils of the Patriarchy, and I don't think she believed it was fair of her to attack the Patriarchy and not attack her own patriarch. She threw me under the bus in the presentation and didn't want me to be there to see it."
"Shit. That's fucked up. I mean unless it was her relationship with you where she gathered the power of her argument. Do you know that for sure?"
The old man nodded. "Yeah, she also blamed me for killing your mother."
"Killing mom? Mom had brain cancer. How the fuck does she blame you for that?"
The old man shrugged, "How the hell should I know? I'm just an old man, make that a foolish old man who has never been able to fathom in the least all of the mysteries of womanhood. I loved your mother with all my heart, yet never understood her in the least. Your sister cared for her as she was dying and listened to all her complaints but lacked my ability to decode what her mother was really saying."
He looked at his son's mouth hanging open and knew he would have to explain things further, "Your mother wanted me to more like the man her father and her brothers were. She wanted a lawn mowing, furniture fixing, house painting, pick-up driving, bitch slapping, hard drinking, poker playing, God-fearing, bonafide HE man, and I wasn't none of that."
"Mom? You're saying that my mother, the classic loving professor of English literature, secretly desired a Stanley Kowalski to come in and slap her around some?"
"That's where the decoding comes in, Son. Your mother wanted to move to a cabin in the mountains where we could sit around a fire, ski in the winters, and have picnics at the lake in the summers."
"And, what's wrong with that?"
"Nothing, besides the fact that none of the rest of us wanted that life. We're all book people, theater goers, movie critic types. Besides it's not what she really wanted at all."
"I'm confused, Pop."
"What she really wanted was for someone to take the burden of dealing with the decline of her parents off of her shoulders. She was the baby of the family and they left it up to her. She couldn't really blame it on her siblings, so her anger fell on me."
"Well, why does Hanna think that it was your fault?"
"Well, for one thing, I could have been lot more helpful. I should have helped her more. I was having my own crisis of identity. She kept comparing me to her father and her brothers, and I kept agreeing that I didn't come off looking too good in that comparison. Hell, I never believed I measured up to my own dad."
"Pop, Grandpa Moses and Grandpa Joe neither one of them had an eighth grade education. You earned a PhD at one of the most renowned universities in the world. You teach at one of the most elite universities in the world. What you are talking about is like comparing apples to oranges. That's absurd reasoning."
"Yeah, that's what I try to tell myself, but when I'm all alone at night, left with the memories of the those last few years, a voice keeps saying, 'Not apples and oranges, Mano y Mano. Your grandpas were men of action. Men who were not afraid of bleeding when blood was the required medium of exchange."
"You are way too hard on yourself, Dad. All we can do is try and do our best. You guys are okay now aren't you? I mean, she had some kind things to say about that last review you published."
"Yeah. As long as I keep my mouth shut about certain things. If a father gave up on the relationship with his children every time one of them broke his heart, he'd end up a lonely old fart."
"Or like Mom."
The old man frowned and wiped a wisp of his long gray hair behind his ear, looked up at his son and almost whispered, "Exactly."
The conversation halted for a moment. The son watched as the old man's eyes drifted off into the past. His father had told him once that the saddest moment of his life was when his wife was crying over something that one of the girls had said and for the first time in their relationship, he couldn't make her smile, couldn't pull her out of the sadness. "I knew then I'd lost my magic," he'd told his son, "and I knew she was over me too."
The need to brush his ash off into the large, black marble ash tray brought his father back into the room. "Everything we know is false because we judge it without any true understanding of the Cosmos."
"I don't know, Pop. I remember what you said about Vogelin and the idea of Metaxy, for any artistic creation to stand the test of time it must reference the transcendent nature of the universe. I assume that's true of life as well."
"Don't be vague, such as?"
"Say for the sake argument, painting the Mona Lisa, composing 23rd Piano Sonata in F Major, recording Shelter from the Storm,, Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus, Jung's Modern Man in Search of a Soul, building a house from scratch, running trucking company, teaching the young how to understand what Dante was saying, need I go on?"
"Smart ass. I noticed you left out Fred Gibson's Old Yeller."
Ronnie smiled, "Don't make fun of Gibson, Pop. You know that's my favorite book. Well, tell me, what are you going to write about that lady and her book?"
"I already told you."
"Time is the cellmate that sodomizes us all."
"I like it. Especially the way you use the prison cell as the part of the setting, but you still didn't answer who it was that dropped the soap."
"If you're trying to get me to say that it was God's soap, you're wasting you time."
This story is somewhat based on a true event that I always wanted to tell but was afraid it would depict the neighborhood I grew up in a bad light. I love that old neighborhood. It was such a great place to grow up, full of wonderful, strangely unique individuals, a great bunch of friends, and a whole lot of things that a kid should and shouldn't do. I never had any real problems back then; those type of problems didn't begin until I crossed over Branson Avenue and started going to junior high school on the other side of town.
One of our neighbors back then had been a snake-handling preacher in Alabama before moving out west. Obie Dunworth was still kind of a preacher I guess, but he had toned it down quite a bit. He told my dad that that the snake fondling racket didn't play out too well in California. Obie had the same type of build as the guy who played Daniel Boone's side kick in the old TV show starring Fess Parker, skinny legs but kind of bulging in the belly area. He belted his pants way up high right across his belly button, made it look like the equator, dividing the bulge into two equal parts like it did. One day, I was outside bouncing a tennis ball off the back wall of the house, and he called me over to the back fence where he had two small wooden sheds both about 10 feet by 10 feet, one red and one blue, in the southeast corner of his yard about twelve feet apart forming an area where he couldn't be seen from the road. My dad parked his big, white Chevy 3/4 ton truck back in the north east corner of our yard, so standing next to the fence made me kind of hard to see too.
"Mornin there, Danny, Come on over here, son; I got something I want to show you. I sent my grand-son Donnie to go fetch it out my truck."
"Morning, Mr. Dunworth. Ya know I been meaning to ask you a question about them snakes you used to handle back there in Alabama. How come they didn't bite you when you picked them up?"
He looked at me like the last thing he wanted to do was talk about them snakes; I could tell he was a little nervous about something, but he decided to humor me.
"That was the whole point of it, sonny boy. You reach down in that there box and pick one or two of them snakes up, and if they didn't sink them fangs in ya, it meant you were being protected by the Holy Spirit."
"That's what was puzzling me. Let's say, you didn't reach down in that box, well, the snake couldn't have bit you either, doesn't that mean you was being protected before you reached down in there."
His face squeezed up together and his eyes got real narrow like he was mad at me for something. Fortunately for me, his grandson Donnie, who all the kids called Donnie Dumbass because he was more than just ordinary dumb, came around the corner of the garage struggling to carry a big card box full of something.
I kept looking at him waiting for my answer, so Mr. Dunworth finally said, 'Yes, I guess it does, but it's the temptin of the devil that's impotent in the sitchiation; you givin Ol Luke a chance to hurt ya, and God said no, you can't hurt none of my chiren." I guess the answer satisfied him cause he quit talking and went and fetched that box off a Donnie, brought it over to the fence and held it up high enough for me to look inside and see the contents. He then told Donnie to go tell his grandma to cook breakfast for him. Donnie didn't seem happy about it but scurried away anyway because he knew his grandpa would backhand his ass if he didn't.
"That there's what they call a whole case of Ripple wine, boy. It's good stuff.Twenty four unopened bottles of it. I heard tell that you kids love this stuff, and I'm willing to part with for only a dolla on the bottle."
I looked over the fence and sure enough there 24 green bottles staring back at me. He was right too, us young really did like that stuff because it was cheap, and you could pass it around and drink it right out the bottle. I fished around in my pockets to see what I had on me, "I only got $12, Mr. Dunworth, cash money. That way I won't have to go see if I could get a loan from my daddy."
There's was no way my Dad was going to give me $12 to buy wine over the back fence, and Mr. Dunworth knew it, but he also knew that he didn't want my Dad, who was a deacon in the Holier Than Thou Children of the Savior Baptist Church, to know anything about the transaction that was going on. I guess that was because it was like they was in some kind of competition or something. (My dad's church really didn't have that name either. My friend Richard put that adjective on the front because every-time we asked a grown-up a theological question, the answer came back at us with lecture about how morally superior we Southern Baptists were compared to other Christian sects.)
Like I said, Mr. Dunworth had given up his snake handling ways by then and joined the plainly named but still stylistically outrageous 6th Street Baptist Church. They not only talked in tongues there but put it out on the loudspeaker so the whole neighborhood could hear the chatter which was being backed up by two guitars, a drum set, a trumpet and a saxophone. It sounded kind of like if John Coltrane and Miles Davis were improvising a call to prayer using a passel of starving cats for the chorus.
Obie wasn't real happy bout my counter offer, but he thought about it for a minute before blurting, "Give me that $12, boy. I reckon it didn't cost me nuthin in the first place, and $12 is $12." I handed him a wad of crumpled bills, and he handed me the box over the top of fence. It was pretty unwieldy at first, and I almost dropped the box before I got a handle on how to deal with the load. As I toted it to where my car was and popped the trunk open, I was softly singing the song Ripple by the Grateful Dead,
"Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men."
I made sure my mom wasn't looking out the window, put the box in my trunk and slammed it shut.
I went back behind the house to toss the tennis ball some more. I know that some the neighborhood adult's used to look at me like I was crazy because I was still tossing that tennis ball and pretending I was playing baseball, but it was my stress relief. From the time I was small, I'd be out there pretending to be a San Francisco Giant. Sometimes I would be Juan Marichal with that high leg kick, sometimes I'd be Gaylord Perry throwing knuckleballs, and sometimes I'd be my hero Willie Mays making a throw from center field. It was pure escapism, and it always helped me to forget my troubles for a while.
I was in the middle of my wind-up when I heard someone singing over the fence in a wobbly voice that kind of sounded like whoever it was had been crying.
"Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, we shall come rejoicing bringing in the sheaves."
I went to investigate, looked over the fence and there was Donnie Dumbass, Obie's grandson, pants to his ankles, squatting and taking a crap behind his grandpa's garage. I tried to avert my eyes real quickly and get out of there, but it was too late."
"Hey, Danny! I want to ask you somethin."
I only looked enough to see the top of his head, "What you want to ask me, Donnie?"
"How bout selling me them bottles back?"
I laughed, "What are you, dude, ten? Twelve?"
"I'm twelve, but that don't mean nothing. I can handle myself."
"It's a big no, Donnie. I ain't selling no wine to no kid!"
"Come on, Danny. I thought you was a cool cat."
"I am. But I'm too cool to get caught selling alcohol to a minor."
Suddenly, his head appeared above the fence. He walked toward the fence buttoning up his pants. His eyes were red liked he had been crying about something. I figured his Grandpa had hit him for something. Donnie always looked like a shabbier, hillbilly version of that dude on the Mad magazine covers. He had big grin which revealed a mouth full of yellow teeth that had clearly never been introduced to a toothbrush.
"We got ourselves a deal, Danny?" He stuck his hand over the fence.
"Get yo damn hand out my face, boy! Did you even wipe your ass?"
"I sure did! Look, I used that old sock over there."
I swear to God, I tried my best not to look, but before I could stop myself I stole a glance over the fence, and sure enough, there was one of those white athletic tube socks with the two red rings on top sitting in the middle of a huge pile of Donny Dumbass shit.
Later that night, my friend Golly-Gee had a party at his parent's house. The parents were gone to Pismo for the week-end and he had invited a few people over. I took the case of wine bottles and, sure enough it made me into the bonafide hero of the evening. Golly and I went outside by the fire-pit to smoke a joint, and it was there I told him about the incident with Donnie.
"Damn it all-to-hell, Danny Wilson, I could've went my whole life without that damn image in my head! Now, I'll never be able to get it out of there. Why in God's holy name did you tell me that?"
"Sorry, man. It was just much too big a thing for me to keep it to myself."
"Don't forget, you told me when you caught your cousin Rascal masturbating in your daddy's tool shed.
I knew Golly pretty well, and I knew he was going to make the point that it wasn't a fair trade, but right before he started, he stopped cold, threw up his hands, and blurted, "All right. we're even. But understand, this wipes the slate clean, and don't ever tell me nuthin like this ever again."
I was going to say okay, but there was something else I had to get off my chest. "Golly, I don't know how to say this, but there's more to the story." I paused to get my thoughts in order before I told him, "I told ya, I didn't look for more than a second, but in that briefest of moments when I peeked over that fence, it sure looked like Donnie had a golden halo around his head."
Golly, a tall, thin young man with long, brown hair, looked at me with his face all screwed up like he had just bit into a lemon. The look told me that he suspected that I was smoking some of that stronger stuff like our friend Rambo Jones had broke out when he got back from his trip to Arkansas the previous summer.
"Golly, I swear on your Granny's mustache I ain't lying. It was there. A circular golden glow, and there's more to the story. When I saw that one, dingy white sox sitting on that top of that ugly little pile of excrement, I had myself a moment."
"Yeah, an epiphany, a sudden flash of intuition."
"I know what an epiphany is, Danny. Remember I had one myself when I finally got Donna Knowles to show me her breasts. It was a feeling so strong I sank down to my knees and started singing Hallelujah."
"That ain't nothing near what I'm talking bout. That's a whole different thing, remember when Donna walked into church that day and Preacher Preacher started stuttering?"
"Do I! My Grandma thought he was talking in tongues and jumped out in the aisle and started dancing. My God, I thought I was gonna pee my pants."
After laughing till my ribs hurt, I regained my composure and went on telling the rest of the story. "I swear, Golly, I suddenly understood the relationship of the event of Donny sitting there in a squatting position to the totality of the infinite universe. Not only that, I suddenly knew that no matter whatever had happened in all of previous history of the human race, me looking over that fence and seeing Donnie squatting there was destined to happen."
"Let me get this straight. You saying that if somehow, one of Donnie's direct paternal ancestors had got eaten by a bear during his family's passage over the Cumberland Gap, you would've still looked over that fence and saw him squatting there."
I nodded without saying a word and handed him the joint. He took a big hit, coughed a few times, and handed it back."
He kept on, "You saying that if Donnie's great, great, great grandma had fell off a cliff into the freezing water of a lake in Alaska where none of Donnie's family has ever been, and you had somehow managed to get yourself unto a airplane with engine problems and had to parachute out over the Andes Mountains, that you would have somehow ended up floating down just into time to see Donnie squatting out behind that garage."
Golly looked me strangely for minute, then he uttered the phrase that had given him his nickname, "Well golly gee, Danny. I guess I could see it, but let's keep it just between you and me. I don't think most of the people round here would understand in the least, ya know what I mean?
"Well, I was thinking bout telling Preacher Preacher."
"That's what I mean, especially don't say nuthin to Preacher Preacher. He'll bring it up in church. That fool been lookin for somethin to latch onto to restore his general reputation ever since that stutterin incident."
"Maybe it needs to be brought up though, I mean seeing that is all wrapped up in the bigger picture of things and all."
Golly just shook his head, "No. You just going to have to trust me on this one, Danny."
And so I did. I wrapped that memory up in a plastic bag, and poked a few holes in so that it could breathe, placed it in a styrofoam cooler, put a complete copy of Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough on top of it and hid it in the furthest corner of the deepest basement level of my subconscious. (It had a lot company down there. There was coffee can with the memory of when I peed my pants in my first grade classroom, a shoe box containing the memory of me joining in with a bunch of boys and teasing Barbara Lee till she cried, and a blue, locked, tin-metal box with the memory of when I broke down and cried as Julie Prime was breaking up with me.)
I didn't ever think about the incident until one dark, stormy Halloween night when I was attending Columbia University working on my Masters in Literature. I was home alone in my apartment reading a book about the French Revolution and was perusing this passage about the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. Marat was a vicious rascal, and as radical as they come, someone who kept pushing the violence of the revolution. The author described him as having green tinged, scabrous skin (Marat suffered from a skin condition) and having a croaking, frog-like voice. It was said Marat would squat down on the banks of the Paris sewers while hiding from the authorities. He would later be assassinated by a beautiful young lady name Charlotte Corday and his death immortalized in the famous painting by the artist Jacques-Louis David.
The image of a toad-like Marat squatting down by the sewer opened the door to the basement room where my deepest memories were stored and the squatting Donnie Dunworth suddenly made an unbidden appearance in my room. I tried to nip things in the bud by closing the book and picking up another one and reading something else, but by some strange synchronous power, I opened up the page to an illustration of the Aztec earth goddess Tlaltcuhtli who was often depicted as having a squatting, toad-like body, crocodile skin, and a mouth full of razor sharp teeth.
It just so happened, at that time, I was also working on a graphic arts project where I was supposed to create a graphic image that could be commercialized. I suddenly had another epiphany. An image of a golden frog wearing a gold crown encrusted with rubies and emeralds surrounded by a halo appeared in my head. The motto of Alfred E. Neuman, "What me worry?" was written on a banner below the image. I immediately went over to where my computer was sitting on the kitchen table and created a mock-up of the image after changing the words from the Mad Magazine motto to "No Worries".
To make a long story short, the next morning, I printed up 100 blue t-shirts with the image and took them to a local flea mart. I sold out that first batch in under three hours. Thus, the idea for Gold Frog Industries was born. I copyrighted the image and printed it on everything you could print an image on, often changing the slogan to different sayings. I was smart and sold out right before the idea reached a point of over-saturation and walked away with a cool five million dollars. I also hired a bunch of college students to go out to all the flea marts in the area and buy up all the shirts that people sold knowing that sometime in the not-to-distance future there would be a market for the retro t-shirts.
Ten years later, I went back to Concord for my mother's funeral. Me and Golly got together and went to buy some beer at the local Seven-Eleven. By some strange circumstance in the universal ordering of events, as we pulled into the parking lot, we saw Donnie Dunworth squatting by the rear of a old, rusty blue Honda changing a tire. The passenger windows were down and a couple dirty looking little boys were hanging out watching their daddy work on changing the tire.
It took Donny a while to recognize me, but when he did, he quickly stood up and held out his hand while I approached. When he looked at his hand and saw how dirty it was, he pulled out a red rag from his back pocket and wiped it and held it out again. "Danny Wilson! Damn, man! I seen you since you moved out of your mama's house to go to school."
I grasped his hand and shook it vigorously. "Donny Dunworth, as I live and breathe. How you been dude?"
"Well, as you can see, I'm still here. I'm working at the mill over Hartford. They pay more than these cheap bastards in Concord. Hey, these two little heathens here are my boys, Obie and Obert. Hey boys. This here the neighbor I told you about, Mr. Danny Wilson."
"Hi boys. How come you ain't out here helping your daddy."
The boys both grinned and biggest one said shyly, "Daddy said we ain't big enough, Mr. Wilson."
The boys cheeks were covered in grime, but they were cute little fellers. "You keep growing and you'll be big enough before you know it."
We went in a got the beer, and when we came back outside, I handed it Golly who went and put it in the car. I called Donnie over to where I was and shook his hand and quietly passed him a fifty dollar bill.
He looked at the money and looked around, "What's that for, Danny."
"I figured I owe you for that case of wine. It was yours, wasn't it?"
Donnie's eyes widened, "How the hell did you know that. I never told no one. My neighbor, you remember Mrs. Jones? Well, she got saved one Sunday and swore off drinking. She gave me that case of wine and told me to get rid of it. I hid it in my daddy's tool shed. I was going to give it to mama for her birthday, but Grandpa found it and stole it."
"It took me a while, but I figured it out. You never told nobody?"
Donny laughed so hard his shoulders shook, " Hell, Danny you knew my Grandpa."
"I sure did. I reckon if I had to replace that case of Ripple in today's dollars it would cost me at least fifty dollars. So, you take that money, and we'll call it square, all right?"
Donny didn't say nothing, just smiled and raised his chin and nodded and turned to go back to his tire changing. Danny started walking back toward his car. When he opened his door and slid in behind the wheel, Golly nodded towards the doorway they had just exited and Danny turned and saw Donny leading the two boys into the store.
"You gave that fool some money, didn't you?"
Danny just smiled wryly
"All I had in my pocket was a fifty dollar bill."
Golly mulled things over for a moment, "How come you didn't give him more money. Hell, I know you got at least a $1,000 in your wallet right now. I mean, him copping that squat gave you that damn idea."
"Just watch." After they sat in silence for a moment, they saw Donnie and the boys come out the door and both of them kids were struggling to sip out of a 32 ounce soda using one arm and holding a couple packs of little chocolate donuts in the other. "I'll do something for them boys later. There's some people you just can't hand a thousand dollars. It' ll hurt'em more than do 'em good."
"And Donny's one of them."
Danny smiled again, "Top of the list."
Danny Wilson was thinking while he drove.
"That was sure nice of her," his friend Trey said while pointing to a nice looking blonde lady getting out of a car. Danny kept on driving trying to pay no attention to his friend, but five minutes later Trey spoke again, "Look at that one. Tell me that wasn't nice of her." Danny still didn't react. Then as he turned onto Eleventh Avenue, the road that would take them most of the way back to Concord, Trey pointed toward a pretty, young woman in a bright blue dress and high heels sashaying across a crosswalk, "Now, wasn't that nice of her?"
"Would you shut the hell up with that shit? Don't even make sense. Trey. She didn't do anything for you. She's just walking across the street."
"That's what I mean. She didn't have to do that."
"Cross the street. At this moment. Did you see the legs on her? She didn't have to choose this very day and very moment as we're turning down this very street to show us them long, beautiful stems of hers. I'm just expressing my gratitude. I decided that there's just not enough gratitude and thankfulness in this grim little world of ours, and from here on out I'm going to do my best to change all that."
Danny took his right hand off the wheel and face palmed, "Damn, you're an idiot! I never knew till this moment how big an idiot you are."
His friend responded with a grin. Danny looked at him unsmiling but at the same time thinking just how much friend looked like Dennis Wilson the drummer for The Beach Boys. Sitting there with his tousled blonde hair, half-buttoned blue work shirt and faded bell bottom jeans, Trey was very close to being spitting image of the musician, only better looking.
"Trey, women don't even want that shit. These are the 1970s remember, not the Fifties. We're not cavemen anymore."
Trey guffawed loudly, "Danny, you ain't even paying attention to the times. You're like one of them damn horses where they put the things on the side of their eyes where they can't see. You drive down this road with your eyes focused on that fucking white-line and never see all the beauty this world has to offer. Also, it hurts me very much that you compare what I'm doing to being caveman."
"I didn't say I thought that. I said women nowadays think that way."
"Not the ones I know. Tell me you didn't notice that little extra side to side motion that she put into that walk when she saw us?"
"Nope. I sure didn't. I'm done treating women like all they're good for is screwing. There's a new wind blowing through the land and you better get behind it else it will blow you over."
"Well, there you go, friend. I'm not one who ever thought that way about a woman. I love 'em all. I love beautiful things, and women are beautiful things. It surprises me that you didn't know that, and that new wind metaphor, I think I threw up in the back of my mouth a little."
When they got into Concord, Danny nosed his cherried out 67 blue Impala into his driveway, and as they exited the car, a tall, lanky, well tanned brunette in short cut-offs and a yellow halter top was gliding by on a skateboard down the sidewalk on the other side of the street.
"That was so very nice..."
Danny held up his palm, stopping his friend in mid sentence.
Trey only laughed, "You know Danny, your problem is that you're an emotionally constipated human being."
The two had been best friends since the earliest days of their childhood. Danny's first memory, in fact, was of the time he attended Trey's third birthday party. Trey's mom decided it would be a good idea to turn the lights off in the room and surprise her son when he came in. The lights went off and when Trey entered, and the lights went back on, every body jumped up and yelled Happy Birthday and Trey got so scared he started crying. When anyone questioned Danny's memory about the incident, he'd tell them, "I distinctly remember thinking, "It's a birthday party dumb ass, nothing to cry about."
Danny knew his friend loved beauty, and not just women. Trey loved life in general, and Danny didn't know anyone with as near as much zest for living. Trey had been surrounded by girls all of his life. His dad had deserted his mom before Trey was even born. He had been raised by his mom, grandma and aunts. He would no more think of hurting a female than he would killing someone. Danny's other friends were not near as kind. Around them the talk was about the grisly details and conquests and the notches in your bedpost. They collected underwear, Trey collected life-long friends.
That's not to say Trey couldn't be a pain in the ass when he took the notion. Danny knew him better than anyone else and knew when that 100 watt smile was being used as a mask. Trey's Achille's heel was his hidden feelings toward his absent father. There were many times, albeit brief moments where Trey would descend into darkness and do very stupid, harmful things. Once, they had gone to a party in another town where Danny knew a girl, and Danny had gone outside with her to talk. Things were going well when suddenly the lights went out, and they heard screaming coming from inside the house. When they entered, the lights suddenly came back on, and there was Trey standing on top of a large, oak dining room table pissing in the punchbowl. Needless to say, they were both escorted from the premises. Trey was actually tossed out into the yard by a couple of very large young men.
"What the hell's got into you, asshole! Those were nice people. Who pisses into punchbowls?"
Trey was acting uncommonly serious, "You shouldn't have left me alone with them, Danny. They were seriously creeping me out, man."
"What the hell you talking about. Them were nice people. They weren't like most of our friends who drink and eat everything in sight and end up fighting and breaking all the furniture. Amy said some of them were even from her church!"
"That's what I'm talking about! The music! This tall, bald guy with glasses came out with a Peter, Paul, and Mary album. He told all them people how great it was. He was playing this one song Leaving on Jet Plane over and over. They were all nodding their head and saying how great it was, and he was about to play it for the fifth time and I had to tell him if he played that damn record again I'd shove it up his ass sideways. He did, and he made a point about looking at me as he put it on. Then all them nice people turned vicious and started snarling and started coming after me."
Danny shook his head sadly. The party had been in the country and they were driving back toward Concord. The car's low beams illuminated the road before them, and it was kind of foggy so you could only see a little bit in front of you and almost nothing to the sides. He was feeling pretty disappointed as he had really liked the girl. She was unlike most of the girls he knew and went to parties with, she didn't even cuss.
"Damn it Trey! You always do this shit. I like Amy a lot. She might have been the one to save me from myself."
"What the hell you talking about, Danny? Save you from yourself?"
Danny looked at his friend, looked back at the road for a minute, and then looked back at him again. "You know what I'm talking about. I ain't never had a real girl friend, never had a relationship last more than a month. I really liked Amy. That might have went somewhere."
"Who says you can't go back and apologize. Where's the sin in having a bi-polar friend?"
"The guy who pissed in their punch and broke that jet plane record in a thousand pieces said it. That's who said it."
And with that statement, the real Trey suddenly came roaring back. "That's where you're wrong Danny! You can go back and apologize. People in this world always act offended. I mean, they love to be offended, but deep down they love their outrage more. It wakes them from their slumber, most of them are little sleep-walking zombies who'll tear you to bits for waking 'em up while secretly loving the fact that you did. You could waltz back into that house tonight and have them folks eating out of your hand if you wanted."
"You my friend are crazy, and you are a real pain in the ass sometimes."
Trey was serious again, " Yeah, but I guarantee that you will miss me when I'm gone. You will miss me more than you ever missed anybody else."
"How you figure?"
"People can say what they want about me, but at least I ain't boring."
"That's what you're most proud of, Trey, not being boring?"
Trey stared at his friend defiantly, "Damn, right it is. That's the biggest sin there is. Don't bore God, or he'll go to sleep on you." Five minutes of silence later, Trey almost whispered, "My dad took off on a jet plane. Made my mom drive him to the airport in Freeport while she was pregnant."
Danny never did go back to the girl's house that night. The girl later married a member of her church, and they had a couple of kids. She divorced her husband because he liked to beat on her while quoting scripture. Danny met her at bar after the divorce, and she told how much she had laughed at Trey's antics when she was alone that night, "I really lived a sheltered life, I admit it. I had never saw anything quite like it. My dad was gone that night and when I told him what had happened he nearly choked to death from laughing. He hated that bald-headed neighbor"
Later that night, Danny thought about the time they had gone to a bar in Bel Vista that a lot of people avoided because it was frequented by a bunch of weight lifters called the "Facedown Crew". They liked to show off their muscles, drink, and fight, in that exact order. Danny didn't like the place for that reason, but Trey wanted to go in there because the waitresses were cute. "There's a whole wall full of cue sticks in there. Just grab one and start swinging."
They sat across the room from the weight-lifters. A very pretty, young Mexican woman with beautiful brown eyes took their drink order and Trey flirted with her. After she had brought their drinks, she went across the room to deal with the weight-lifters. It was pretty obvious, even from where Trey and Danny were sitting, that one of them, the biggest and meanest looking one was crossing the line with the waitress. She was doing her best to ignore his advances while pushing his pawing hands away. His friends were laughing and encouraging him.
All he said to Danny was follow me, and Danny had no choice but follow. Trey darted across the room and stood right in front of the huge, muscle bound dude and actually reached out and pulled the girl from his grasp. The man quickly rose up like an angry Grizzly bear. One of his friends was standing next to Trey holding a pool stick in one hand and beer in the other. Trey ripped the pool stick from his hand and in one motion drove the thick end as hard as he could into the giant's testicles. The guy beside Trey started toward him, but Trey quickly pivoted and smacked him in the head with the stick. The giant collapsed to the floor grabbing his balls with both hands, and the other guy slowly put his beer down on the table and grabbed his head with his left hand while backing away. The other three men just stood there looking stupid unwilling to drop their machismo routine but also unwilling to see what a pool stick wielded by a maniacal samurai tasted like.
Trey looked to see if the girl was okay then tossed the stick on the pool table, he spoke to the three hesitant guys "Big muscles, little dicks, you should be ashamed." Then he wheeled about and pointed at the bouncer who was just sitting down at the bar doing nothing as the waitress was being harassed, "You should ashamed the most. You're being paid to protect her. You're a lousy employee on top of things."
They were several miles down the road before Trey broke the silence in the darkened car, his face bathed in a soft white glow of the dashboard lights. "I'm glad you were standing behind me Danny. We couldn't be friends otherwise."
"Well, you didn't really give me much time to think about it, and I didn't do much of anything, but you know I got your back."
"That's not what I meant. Anyone who'll sit and watch a woman or a child being abused and not do nothing about, ain't much of a man."
Trey did some jail time over the incident, six months for disturbing the peace. He ended up marrying the waitress and they moved to San Diego. They five kids and both of them went back to school and ended up starting a home construction company. It was Danny's godson who called him about the wreck.
On his knees, Danny reached out and brushed away the red and golden leaves from the green grass before him. When he was satisfied with the job he slowly stood up and stretched his aching back. He reached down and picked up the dark green bottle of twelve year old Glenlivit that he had brought special for the occasion, took a long swig, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, capped the bottle and sat it back down beside him. Then he fished a half-finished joint out of his pocket and relit it. He choked because he wasn't used to smoking anymore. He coughed for more than two minutes before he got his breath back then snubbed the joint out and left it lying on the head stone.
Amy was waiting in the car. Danny was thinking as he walked back to the car, "That was sure nice of her."
Danny Wilson slammed on the brakes so hard it snapped his head backwards. The red bike and its rider had suddenly swooshed in front of his car from out of nowhere. He was driving one of those new Hyundais that made a beeping noise to warn him right before he hit something, but the girl on the bike had run the stop sign on the corner so quickly he barely had time to stop before running her over. He started to scream out an angry obscenity, but before the word had completely escaped his lips he noticed who the bike rider was and stopped before putting the final syllable on the word.
It was Shrek, not the cartoon character, but a local female who had huge shoulders and looked a lot like the cartoon character. He had always felt pity for her because of the way the kids of town constantly teased her about her looks. From kindergarten into high school it got so bad that she finally dropped out of school midway through her sophomore year. Her dad, who loved her dearly did his best to protect and mitigate her suffering, passed away that year and left her alone with her mother, a lady whose elegant presence seemed to exist only in order to draw a stark contrast between her own grace and her daughter's outward appearance. Ironically, the girl's real name was Grace, and she had none. Her mother proceeded to die of cancer and left the girl completely alone just in time to face the onset of adulthood. She had to be in her late twenties, but for some reason, Danny always thought of her as a tormented young girl even though he didn't use the name.
He sat in the middle of the street for a moment and watched her as she coaxed her bike up onto the curb that outlined the community park. She never even looked back once. He had almost killed her, but she didn't seem to have even noticed, or maybe she just didn't care. He watched he as she guided her bike toward the path that led through the park and then proceeded on his way
The little park she had entered, a small clump of trees and grass with a few brightly painted benches, was officially named the James Margosian Community Park after the businessman who had erected most of the buildings on Main Street. It was a one block square oasis located right in the center of the town. Now, most of the townspeople called it No Man's Land because during the Covid shutdowns it had been overrun with homeless and looked more like a bomb shattered war zone than a park. A multitude of multicolored tents, surrounded by red shopping carts, broken furniture, bicycle parts, and piles and piles of trash dotted a landscape populated by a small community of society's misfits, discards and refugees. They were mainly drug addicts and alcolholics, but also included some drug dealers, sneak thieves, and a few who were just emotionally broken casualties of existence. Most of these inhabitants weren't local people and came from other places where they had been given some money and a train ticket to Concord, where according to the rumor that had somehow gotten around the hospitable townspeople were sitting at the train station with big grins waiting to receive them all with open arms and baskets full of goodies. They usually come from the larger cities of California where the populace had voted in a bunch of maggots in shiny shoes who professed to care so much, yet devised a solution to a homeless crisis that involved catch them as they were leaving a jail or courthouse and putting them on a train to Concord.
When Danny arrived at the Olympia Restaurant where he ate breakfast everyday, he assumed his seat in a window booth from which he could observe the goings on in the park, and as Carmela, in Danny's opinion the greatest waitress in the entire world, brought him his coffee with Hazelnut creamer and a glass of ice water and took his usual order, he could see the girl dismount the red bike, put the kickstand down, and slowly make her way toward a slovenly blue and white tent in middle of the eastern side of the park next to Van Buren Street. Relying on the information he had received from a member of the local constabulary, he knew that was the tent that belonged to a hard case meth dealer who had somehow found his way to Concord from a courthouse in the Los Angeles area.
Watching the girl enter the tent made him feel sad, but not sad enough to forgo his daily routine. He sat there with a large coffee cup in one hand and an opened copy of Rollo May's The Courage to Create in the other. He had started the book right before he had showered and shaved. It was his habit to rise at 6:00 AM and sit outside and read for an hour. He was struck by a passage where May, referring to what existentialists call the anxiety of nothingness, said, "We are called upon to do something new, to confront the no man's land, to push into the forest where there are no well worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us." On the following page, he had read the passage he had been mulling over when the the girl had suddenly appeared across his path, "People attain worth and dignity by the multitude of decisions they make from day to day. These decisions require courage - it is essential to our being."
From his perch inside the restaurant, Danny could not see what went on inside the blue tent; he did see the girl hesitate slightly before she ducked inside, but he had no way of knowing how fearful she was of having to confront the Dealer who reminded her of the villain of the Mel Gipson movie where the bad guy chases the hero across a dangerous jungle landscape. He couldn't know that she summoned up her courage from looking at the transaction as if she were participating in some ancient ritual where the worshipper had to confront the God or Goddess of Death in order to achieve some kind of salvation. Danny was munching on his bacon as the Dealer looked into eyes as dead as stone and yet detected their beseeching intent. Danny was wiping his lips on a napkin as the Dealer's eyes guided the girl to her knees on a ugly, dirty, small tan rug before him. He also could never know that the thoughts inside the Dealer's head as the girl abased herself were of the night he consummated his marriage with his beautiful, young wife who had died in a car accident on Interstate Five just one year into their marriage.
When she finished, she stood up and anxiously watched as the dealer leaned over to his left, took a .45 automatic pistol from off the top of a small locked green metal box. He unlocked the box with a key that hung from a chain around his neck, reached in and picked up a small glass vial and tossed it to her, and then without a word, back-handed gestured for her to leave. She stumbled over the lip of the tent and was outside before she paused to examine the contents of the vial. It wasn't much, only a few small pieces; she hoped it would be enough to do the job.
The people inside the restaurant were very lucky they didn't have to witness the skin and bone hideousness of the exchange. Danny had turned his thoughts instead to something else he had read that morning in a book about the great Russian thinkers, it had something to do with Tolstoy's view of history, "We are part of a larger scheme of things than we can understand. We ourselves live in this whole and by it, and are wise only in the measure to which we make our peace with it. For until and less we do so, we shall protest and suffer in vain, and make sorry fools of ourselves into the bargain." He liked the passage because it reenforced one of his own thoughts, something that he had arrived at the day before while he was driving on the road home from Bel Vista and suddenly realized that problem with the human race was that it no longer understood that it occupied a space in an infinite universe where every fragment of being, every personal incident, and every moment in our shared history was connected in some strange, hidden way to an infinite variety of possibilities, perspectives and interpretations. Most likely, he thought, humanity had never understood this relationship with the infinite at all
He paid his bill and walked outside after stopping to talk to a few of the regulars, and while stretching, looked across the street and saw the girl exit the tent, pause to look at something in her hand and mount her bike. She left the park heading south towards the outskirts where she lived alone in the house her mother left her. Stopping at the stop sign on Main Street, she impatiently waited for the traffic to clear. She looked over toward him but quickly averted her eyes back to the traffic. For a single second, in one of the greater mysteries of life, they had both thought the exact same thing at the exact same time, and that was maybe that it would have been better for her if he had not braked in time. Danny didn't like the thought at all, in fact, it made him angry, and he quickly shook it from his head, but the girl was more comfortable with it and only let it go because of her hurry to get home. The last car cleared and she started pedaling south finally disappearing behind the convenience store across the street.
When he arrived home, he thought about watching some football but decided against it and went and sat down on the sofa and stuck his nose back into a book. This time the book was titled Acid Dreams and was about how the American government had been responsible for creating the 60s culture by promoting the use of LSD. He had just finished another book entitled Weird Scenes in the Canyon where the author inferred that the government had also been behind the creation of the youth culture of the period. The book detailed how the top musical acts of the 60s had a strange relationship with the intelligence community and the top musicians of the era had all suddenly gravitated to Laurel Canyon on the outskirts of Los Angeles and established a small but very influential colony of artists centered around a secret movie studio ran by the government. The Sharon Tate murders occurred directly across the canyon from the studio.
He couldn't focus on the reading as his thoughts kept going back to the girl. He felt guilty about entertaining the thought that she might have been better off if he had hit her with the car. It was such an unwarranted assumption that her life was devoid of meaning because of how much she had to suffer. He thought, "Fuck, I've suffered too and I don't want to die." The thought occurred to him that he had never seen her smile. From that his thoughts drifted to the night that his ex-wife Jenny had honed her words so sharply that they ripped through the flesh and bone and filleted his heart as expertly as Sushi chef sliced raw fish. "Life is fucking hard," he whispered.
Unbeknownst to Danny, the girl was still thinking about the incident too. She sat and wondered about why she was so unconcerned with the idea of being obliterated by an automobile, and yet would go to such extreme efforts to gets her hands on some Meth to make herself dissolve for a few moments. She was sitting in a comfortable brown EZ chair with a glass pipe in her left hand and a blue Bic lighter in her right, and with every comforting puff of the pipe she remembered the day when she was a child and had fallen off her bike and ran into the house and jumped into her father's lap as he sat in the same chair, and he sang to her and rocked her back and forth until her tears dried. She also remembered her mother's focus had never left the crossword puzzle she was working on.
About noon, Danny's oldest daughter called to tell him that she couldn't go to lunch with him that day because she was going to work at food pantry handing out groceries to the poor people of Freeport, a city about a mile north of Concord. She told him that if he wanted, he could go with her. He thought about things for a moment then lied and told her he was going to watch a football game with friends.
Early the next morning, he went uptown to buy some Gatorade. Entering the store, he looked to his left and saw the girl selecting a water bottle from one of the iceboxes in the rear of the store. As she came forward, they met in the middle of an aisle, and he had to turn slightly to let her get by him. She didn't look at him, but he said, "Hi, Grace." She took a step past him and paused for a moment like she couldn't believe that someone had spoken to her, then kept going. Danny went to the icebox and pretended to decide what color Gatorade he wanted. The girl was going out the door when he went back to the front to pay. He pulled out a twenty dollar bill and sat it on the counter.
"I'm sorry." The girl had stopped halfway out and turned back to apologize, "You know, about yesterday."
"No biggie, " he shrugged and smiled weakly, "Glad you're okay."
As the cashier rang him up, he looked out the window behind the resister and saw the girl riding toward the park. She almost got hit crossing Main.
"You okay, Sir?"
He turned and looked at the Cashier who held his change in her outstretched hand.
Confused, he touched his cheek, and it was wet. He wiped his fingers on his shirt, took the change, stuffed it in his pocket, and walked out of the store.
I have been in a severe writing funk ever since Covid hit the scene. Before that I was fairly vomiting out words at a pace equal to the water flowing in a rapidly moving river. I was kind of delusional at the time, suffering from some heavy personal losses and a few emotional setbacks. There's a lot of things I don't particularly do well anymore which shouldn't be too surprising considering that I recently reached my seventh decade on this wobbly little planet, and as the Grateful Dead used to say, "What a long strange trip its been!"
This morning I bought a book entitled One True Sentence based on the famous statement by Ernest Hemingway where he explained that his writing process was based on trying to create one true sentence and taking it from there. The premise of the book was to ask several writers and academics their favorite sentence from Hemingway's works. I love books that delve in the mystery and magic of great writing. I bought this one also because I know that I need a good kick in the ass, nudge in the right direction, or solid nod of the head to get my own juices flowing again.
I've decided to go through some my old stuff and look for the sentences that I'm most amazed that I came with; there are a few.
From- A Forward Looking Boy
One night I was walking home south on Estes looking up at a big full moon and feeling about as sad as a young man could possibly feel; I stopped beneath a streetlight to stare up at the moon for a moment; it really was a glorious sight, but I felt like I was dragging my feet instead of walking, and my poor heart felt like a small sack of cement that I was carrying around for the hell of it.
Hemingway was famous for his simple style, a poetic way of writing prose where a few words mean so much more than you would think possible. He also wrote complex sentences that did the same. I wrote this sentence about a time where an era (the 60's) was coming to an end. My roommate got busted for selling weed, and the girl that I was in love with told me that she didn't love me. I walked home to my parents house one night, and I came the tiniest little intersection in Corcoran. There was a huge full moon poised directly over the street light. I was only about a block from home but stopped to look at the moon and have a Carl Sandburg moment in the middle of the road less traveled. It was beautiful moment despite the sadness that I was feeling. I hate trite similes. The one about my heart was spot on.
From - Roadkill Lines the Road to Heaven
Road 36 that leads east and then north out of Corcoran is dangerous for dogs; I know this because of the two dead canines I've seen lying moldering on the side of the road within a few hundred yards of each other, forgotten pets whose only value now is to remind those who pass by of both the transitory nature of existence and the lethal character of four wheel vehicles moving at high speeds.
Another complex sentence, I include this one because it reminds me of the time when I could pull things out of nowhere merely by being observant. I would drive to practice in Visalia everyday and notice things, and by notice I mean seeing how ordinary things often carried a lot more meaning than we suppose. I was border line crazy a lot of the time, so I saw a lot of things that were hidden behind the billboards and peeking out of the shadows, and I paid a pretty hefty price for being able to use such things for inspiration.
From - The Lazarus Letters
“Dad’s dead; I was giving him a shower, and he collapsed; I picked him up, he looked up at me and died.”
The thing that Hemingway meant about writing one true sentence is that you had to write something that conveys the pure truth. A lot of people don't understand that Fiction is largely biographical and should, in most cases, be more truthful than isolated facts. I would call it transcendent truth, the kind of truth that everybody shares. A lot of Hemingway's work was based on his own experiences in WWI and in the pre-World War II period in Europe. At the deepest part of my battle with depression, I wrote a short, stream of conscious novel entitled The Lazarus Letters. Rereading it, I found that it was largely autobiographical. If you are going to write good fiction, it needs above all other things to be based on truth. The sentence above was spoken on the phone by my older brother as I was coming to pick up my father to take him to the doctor. Detailing how you found out your father had died is about as truthful as you can get.
From - The Holy Wars
"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 put these words in my dad's mouth in a short story I wrote to convey my problematic experiences with organized religion. For one thing, nearly every time I went to church on Sunday, I found my self lusting after the preacher's daughter, my girlfriend at the time. Dad never actually said them but he was a lot less pompous and holier-than-thou than most religious people I knew. My first experiences with Church was a lot less spiritually smooth than it should have been, and I mainly came away with the idea that there's a lot more hypocrites in this world than there generally needs to be, and a lot more than you would suppose sing hymns on Sunday mornings. I'm kind of glad that I came by my spiritually the hard way though. It seems to stick to your ribs a lot better when you have to test out everything you learn to see how it stacks up against observable realities. And I ain't saying that because I trust scientists any more than I would trust a Baptist preacher, or a car salesman for that matter.
From - Old Dudes Fishing
"That old thing drove like a tank."
I wrote this sentimental story about three old friends and the cold, hard reality of inevitable change. One of the friends is forced because of age related illness to go and live with his son's family in the Bay Area and the other two are force to confront the bleakness of their own future. This was the last sentence of the story, and I set it up when the main character remembers the night that his life-long neighbor and friend's dad died and the three of them sat up all night in the bed of an old Chevy truck talking about life. He never mentions the truck out loud, but his friend knew him so well that he throws this line out before he leaves to go home. The incident that inspired the telepathic conversation was real. Me and a friend sat on a ditch bank drinking beer the night his dad died from cancer. It's a simple line but the message it conveys is very deep and very real.
From - Fathers and Sons
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.
This is the most painful sentence I've ever written. I had just read a passage from Harold Bloom that mentioned that he thought that most of Jane Austin's heroines basically settled for comfort and safety rather than true love. It was only after I thought about it for a while that I first understood what true love really meant, and several years too late to save my marriage. In my defense, I never had anyone to teach me the lessons I needed to understand the true nature of things. I was a just punk kid when I found a girl who was willing to overlook all my shortcomings and take a chance with me. Every thing I knew about love came from TV commercials and Frankie Avalon movies. I didn't know squat about love. I don't think my dad did either. If he did, he sure didn't share it with me and any brothers. He was exceptionally loyal to mom, and loved her in his own, self-taught way. so my brothers and I learned to be loyal too. But that wasn't ever enough.
Danny Wilson kept fiddling with his tie as he watched the people filling into the gymnasium. He had coached close to four hundred basketball games in this very room and had never once been as nervous as he was on this night. He was seated up at the dais right next to George Haller, his principal and long-time friend. He looked over to where Haller stood bent over Superintendent Michael's table. He felt a twinge of disgust at the image. Superintendent Michaels was both a pompous ass and a first class douche.
Danny thought to himself that his mom would have been impressed to see how many people turned out for his retirement dinner, and then that thought segued into the realization that he had last seen his mother alive at another dinner just six months before this night. It was at Thanksgiving and this year, it was just the two of them. Glen, his older brother, had dinner at his son's, and Scot, the youngest by two years, lived in Arkansas with his second wife. Danny's two daughters had dinner in Santa Barbara at his youngest daughter's house. He would have been there too, but his mom was sick and embarrassed by her incontinence and rarely left her house. He rememberer that they had gotten into an argument that night.
"All that I'm saying is that a man your age needs some female companionship. You want to end up all alone like me?"
"Why do we always have to have this conversation, Ma? If I wanted to date somebody, I would."
The stare she gave him made her look so much like a bald eagle, that it almost made him smile. "Pshaw! You just waiting around for Jennie to come back, and she's dead. She ain't ever coming back. You need to move on with your life, Son."
He lied. "I ain't waiting for Jenny, Ma. I know she's gone. I just ............. I just a.............what would happen to you if I started dating."
She snapped at him, "Don't you dare try to put this on me, Danny Wilson!"
He cleaned off the table, threw away the paper plates, and bagged the left overs and placed them in his mom's fridge. He kissed his mother on her cheek when he left. Getting in his car, he looked back, and she was still sitting in the doorway in her wheelchair. He honked his horn, blew her a kiss and waved goodbye. The next day, after school let out, he returned to her house to get some left-overs. She didn't answer the door, and he knew right away what he find when he walked into her room.
A loud noise in the back of the auditorium snapped him back to the moment, and he looked up and saw a tall, blonde entering the room. It was the captain Julie Whitlock and most of the members of 1994 State Championship team. They were honored guests and were quickly escorted to one of the front tables. They took turns waving to Danny as they as they were seated.
George Haller walked over to where he sat, "Almost time, Coach. You doing ok?"
Danny nodded and then asked, "What did Michaels have to say?"
George made sure no one was listening before he answered, "Same shit, different day. I sure would like to punch that miserable bastard in his face." Then he hurried away, scurrying over to the table where Board member Susie Archuleta and her husband Jim were sitting with County Supervisor Janie Serna and her significant other.
Julie Whitlock was radiant looking as usual, the perfect image of a strong, confident woman. It made Danny remember another time when she didn't look so great or so strong. Her parents had divorced her Freshman year, and her mother pretty much abandoned her. She lived with her father Leo who had never gotten over the divorce. He spent most of his time at the Rosewood Bar and Grill, leaving Julie to make out on her own. One day, she came home after practice and found her father lying in a bathtub half filled with bloody water and with most of his brains plastered against the bathroom wall. Danny was the first person she called, and he called the ambulance and hurried right over and found her sitting outside on the porch, trembling in the cold night air. He had somehow known to grab a blanket and wrapped her up in it and held her until the ambulance arrived.
Jenny and him were still together back then, and Julie's mother was more than happy to sign the papers that allowed Julie to come stay with Danny and his family. His girls loved it; Julie was like their big sister. He smiled as he remembered all of the times they would drive as a family to go watch Julie when she played on scholarship for Medford State.
He remembered that Jenny and his marital problems didn't manifest until after Julie left for college. He had come home from practice one day to find Jenny out back by the pool drinking a margarita in the November fog. Out of the blue, at least to him, she announced that she didn't love him anymore and was leaving. Later, while cleaning out her closet, he found the want ads section from the local paper. Jenny had been looking a apartment for a while. He looked at the date and did the math. It was right after her dad had died.
Danny instantly knew something was up when George had called him into his office a little over two weeks ago because George had never called him into his office in all of their years of working together. He came in nervously and sat down in the big, comfortable red leather chair in front of George's desk. George was on the phone, so he waited. When George got done, he hung up the phone and looked at Danny and tried to talk. It took him more than a couple attempts before he could get words out. Finally, he said, "I ain't gonna shit you, Danny. Those numb-nuts across the fence are forcing me to try to get you to resign."
He was surprised he kept his composure so well despite the fact that he felt that he had been punched in the gut.
"And what if I don't feel like retiring? I love my job. I'm good at it, and you know it."
"I do. I've always said that you're the best damn literature teacher in the whole state, but you know the drill. Same way they forced Riddenour out last year. You know as well as I do, that Sam should have been teaching Chemistry at the university level. Didn't matter to them. They only knew that they could hire three young hot shots for what they were paying him. Don't matter if they could teach or not. Michaels only sees the bottom line. They already plan to kill off the both the Honors and Literature classes. You don't go along and they'll have you teaching remedial English to worse behaved kids in the whole school, and there's nothing I can do about it."
Danny leaned back in his chair and took a measured breath before answering, "The saddest thing George, is that there was a time when you would have fought them like a lion protecting his young."
George's shoulders collapsed, "I know, but that was back before Carmen took most of everything I owned. With her behind me, I could have took on the world. Now? Hell, I've been a principal for over thirty years, and I'm living in a trailer house on the outskirts of town."
It looked like George was getting ready to cry,"Give me the damn papers, George. I don't want to work for these assholes anyways." As he signed the papers, he added, "You do know that you're probably next."
George gave his friend a sad smile, shrugged and whispered, "I know."
Danny suddenly found himself wishing that Jenny was still alive to see this. She always believed that his coaching was just a hobby. She never understood how much it meant to him. In his mind, he was a coach. It was a role that he had been born to play. She treated basketball like it was another woman and never understood that there never was any other woman as far as Danny was concerned. He loved Jenny with all his heart while knowing that he could never make her happy. Her dad dying had taken away her ability to laugh and smile.
He had been driving home after a game one night and heard two guys on the radio talking about a company who could get your Alexis to speak to you in the voice of a departed loved one. When he got home, He went and opened a desk drawer in his office and took out a small white box containing Jenny's last cell phone. He knew that if he called her on that phone, he could hear her voice on the answering machine. The phone was dead and there was no charger in the box, so he placed the phone back in the box and returned it to the drawer.
Jenny died a year and half before his mom, sandwiched between the death of his father the year before and his mother's death the day after Thanksgiving. She had gotten brain cancer right after leaving him and fought a very valiant fight before succumbing to the disease. He had gone to see her in the hospital and held her hand as she filled him in on all of her struggles. She had cried the moment he entered the room, and later one the nurses who cared for her during hospice told him that Jenny had always talked about him and said that she knew he loved her, but he never knew how to say it.
The dinner went remarkably well. He had prepared a speech earlier in the day where he planned to expose Superintendent Michaels for the ass that he was. Julie Whitlock's speech though had spoiled the plan. When she was finished talking there wasn't a dry eye in the room, including Danny's, and the fiery rage contained in his speech had been condensed down to a small puddle of sadness and frustration.
The Archer family were the last ones to speak before Danny's own remarks. He had taught every member of the family for three generations. Conrad Archer, the grandfather, told the assembled crowd how much he appreciated being able to trust a school system that had such high quality veteran teachers like Sam Ridenour and Danny Wilson. As the crowd rose to their feet when the man of the hour was introduced, Danny sought out Sam Ridenour's eyes and the two long-time colleagues shared a knowing smile.
It took several for the applause to die down enough for Danny to start talking. In lieu of the angry speech he had written, he spoke simple words straight from his heart. He almost broke down a few times but kept together pretty well. He closed out his own remarks by saying how much he loved what he did and that given the choice he would do it all again. It was kind of noticeable afterwards that he hugged nearly everybody in the room except for one table.
The crowd rose to its feet again when he ended. While he smiled and looked out across the room he remembered that while searching for some triple A batteries that morning, he had found Jenny's cell phone charger. He got the phone out of the drawer and plugged it in right before he walked out the house to go to the dinner.
He drank four stiff Scotch and waters before he worked up the nerve to call her number. "Hello. This is Jenny. Sorry, I can't come to the phone right now. Please leave your name and number and I promise, I'll get right back to you as soon as I can. Or, you can just leave a message if you prefer. God Bless you."
When the beeper sounded and before he could even think about what to say, he started crying and the words flowed out like water from a busted dam, "Hi Jenny. It's Danny. I love you and I miss you so much................... If you can hear me, please come home."
We all have memories that we bury a lot deeper than most; memories that we can almost not bear to deal with and wish we could completely forget. Mine usually involve episodes of abject humiliation or hurting someone who didn't deserve to be hurt.
One such memory involved a girl in elementary school who had the great misfortune to be born unattractive. Children can be brutal to those who don't fit the standards of what they believe is normal. One day at morning recess, a boy in our class touched her sweater with a popsicle stick and started playing cootie tag with the stick the rest of the recess period. When the bell rang, I was walking into class, and I looked back to see the girl bunched up between the rain gutter and the wall with her arm across her face crying. It made me feel terrible, I wanted to go comfort her, but the teacher asked me to find my desk, and torn between obeying and helping the girl, I opted for the seat.
To make things worse, I got to know the girl in high school, and she was a very sweet person. I wanted to apologize but she was always a happy person, and I never felt right about reminding her of the painful memory. She died right after high school and it still bothers me that I never said I was sorry. As painful as it is, the memory has also served me well and kept me from doing or saying a lot of stupid, hurtful things, serving as a constant reminder to be careful of the consequences of careless or hurtful thoughts and actions.
I was driving home from Visalia recently and the memory popped into my head. I don't know what triggered it, but I know I was feeling a blue and little confused about life. My mom passed away recently, and I was the one who found her and took her pulse to make sure she was dead. I was having trouble getting the image of day out of my head where my beloved mother was curled up in her bed looking like a cantaloupe rind that had been left out in the sun.
The event that caused the memory happened over sixty years ago, but I remember it with great clarity. This time I began to think about all the memories I've had like that and how that they're all clearly remembered in great detail despite my efforts to keep them buried. Something dawned on me that should have been very obvious from the start. Those events were lessons, poignant moments full of powerfully charged emotions designed to teach lessons about how to live. No amount of dull lecturing, hypocritical sermonizing or pedantic preaching could ever have driven home that lesson with such authority as the experience of living through it.
Our lives are designed to teach us what we need to know. This is an important realization because nowadays, everyone seems to think that they have to right to badger everyone else on how to live life. Yet, we are totally unique and therefore these lessons are carefully designed to fit our individual needs, and, just like the tests we take in school, there are no guarantees that we have learned the material that we were supposed to learn, there's always the threat and consequences of failure, and there will always be the need to learn more and to retest.
I began to think of what that type of failure meant and one of Jesus's parables popped into my head. It was the Parable of the Talents wherein a master leaves and gives each of his three servants 100 talents of gold. When he returns, he summons each of the servants. One had buried the gold and simply gave the master back the initial 100 talents. This made the master angry, and sent the ungrateful servant forth. The second servant had loaned out half the gold and buried the other half. He showed the master a fifty percent return. The master grew angry again and sent this servant out. The third servant loaned out all the gold and gave back a 100 percent return. This servant received the master's thanks and blessing.
I didn't fully understand this parable until I read a book called the The Divine Code of Life by a Japanese Nobel Prize winning bio-geneticist named Dr. Kazuo Murakami. The good doctor states that it is possible to alter our DNA for the better by things like positive thinking, possessing a sense of wonder, and being driven by curiosity. This also implies that we are hardwired to be the best that we can be. If we are hard-wired to be the best, then that probably is what we are supposed to be doing with our lives. The Parable of the Talents seems to say the exact same thing.
It appears that all of the obstacles that life places before us, are moments where we are constantly being tested with by the question, "What are you doing with the Master's gold?" No one else can answer that question for us, nor can they take away the obstacles without presenting us with another set of decisions equally as urgent. We are meant to make our own decisions, and learn our own lessons from those decisions. The politicians, priests, and others who want to the remove these decisions are merely tempting us to bury the gold.
I was driving by our local park not too long ago and made an offhand comment about the tent city that the homeless have created there. My companion at the time gave me a disapproving look and said something that reminded me of the girl crying. I replied that it was was a point well taken, but for some reason, I also uttered the words, "Yeah, but you can't absolve them of their sin."
I try not to judge in that regard but believe it's a fair assumption to think you might be doing something seriously wrong to end up living in a tent in a park in Corcoran. The people in the park seem to have more or less given up on life. I do know that life has a tendency to pound on people. As I have aged, I have come to see that it can also be a constant parade of the disappointed, the dying, and the dead, and that even the most fortunate of us has to wipe his/her own ass and learn to deal the lessons from all of our buried memories and with the deep grief that comes with knowing that all of our friends and love-ones will one day pass away. Looking at it like this, anyone who manages to remain upright into their old age is a truly special, battle tested human being deserving of our respect.
I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien left a message in The Hobbit on how to think about the current homeless situation. Tolkien knew a lot about a lot of things. I mean you don't get put in charge of an entire section of the Oxford English Dictionary without being somewhat wiser than the rest of us.
There is a character named Bombur in the troupe that sets out on the heroic quest of confronting the dragon Smaug who sits upon a gigantic horde of gold. Bombur is an obese, clumsy, always complaining dwarf who causes the group a lot of problems because of his size and appetites. When the group enters into the Mirkwood Forest, a dark and foreboding place, they are warned explicitly by Gandalf the Wizard not to leave the path for any reason. In the middle of the forest however, Bombur falls into an enchanted stream causing him to fall asleep and the rest of the party are forced to take turns carrying him. They grow increasingly hungry and become ever more frustrated by their plight as the path seems to go on forever. The longer the journey continues, the more they resent the dead weight that Bombur has become. He eventually awakens but continues to whine about their plight. One night they hear elves feasting and celebrating in the darkness off the path, and it is Bombur's arguments combined with their hunger and frustration that convinces them to leave the path where they are immediately captured and imprisoned by the suspicious elves.
I was just driving along that night when for no particular reason, I suddenly thought about the numbers involved in the Parable of the Talents. Two thirds of the servants failed the test. I converted the fraction into decimals, two-thirds equals .666, the number mentioned in reference to the Anti-Christ. I don't think that this an accident or coincidental in the least. The message of parable seems to say that true sin lies in not trying to be our best. It seems to say that the majority of humans do not receive the blessings of God because we aren't fully engaging in utilizing the gifts that were bestowed upon us at birth.
There is another hidden number in the parable. The Egyptians believed that a person's chances in the after life depended on his/her spirit (KA), represented by a feather, being weighed on a scale. If the feather weighed one tiny bit on the positive (spiritual) side, their salvation was assured. The number represented by the fifty percent return of the second servant seems to say the same thing. It would be too hard for most people to achieve perfection, but doing right more times than you do wrong seems to be the important concept. Something evenly divided can not be said to be one thing or the other.
At the end of The Hobbit, it turns out the members of the quest, lucked out in getting captured by the elves. Their escape out of the dungeons of the Elf castle proved to be the only way out of the forest after all. Bombur was a big pain in ass, but he was also one of a band of brothers, a fellow traveler, and leaving him behind was not considered as an option. Had they done so, it would also have resulted in the failure of them all. It was in their willingness to deal with all of his short comings that saved their mission in the end. The purpose of the individual efforts of the hero is to transform into the best individual that they can possibly be, then to return home to raise the level of their community and to inspire others to do the same.
I don't think that turning our parks and public spaces into hovels and junkyards is the answer to the homeless problem, but neither is abandoning them to their own devices. The salvation of the human race just might depend on our willingness to discover what we need to learn about our self, to figure out how to fashion our life around those lessons, and to teach others the true value of hidden gold.
I instantly stopped what I was doing, looked up at the ceiling and said, "Mom, if you're up there watching me don't pay no never mind to this shit, just know that I'm a little bit freaking nuts." I paused for a moment looked down at the floor and added, "You knew me better than almost anybody else and all you ever saw was, well, what you wanted to see.. . . Yeah, I'm nuts. But as you probably figured out, most the rest of us down here are too."
I don't even try to pretend that I don't talk to myself a lot. I live by myself and spend most of my life alone. Usually, when I do talk to myself though, it's because I'm cursing at myself for doing something really stupid like walking downstairs and opening the front door to get a cup of coffee when I know for a damn fact that the kitchen where the coffee pot sits was just a few steps to the right of where I started, and no stairs involved. It's either something like that, or else when the universe doing something really sketchy or amazing and I want to take the time to acknowledge it and to make sure I remember. Let me give you an example. I'll be watching a movie and hear a line, like the line Warren Beaty's character in the offbeat western McCabe and Mrs. Miller utters to himself as he leaves his confrontation with the three cold blooded killers who have come to kill him. Muttering, he briefly digresses from the conversation he's having with himself to justify his actions and starts talking to the absent Constance Miller (Julie Christie), the prostitute he loves, about how hard he has tried to let her how he feels about her, and he says, "Just one time you could be sweet without no money around?" He is face to face with the prospect of his impending death, and all he can think about is his failure to tell the woman how he truly feels. The deadly situation has made him aware what he's missed the most in his life is true love.
When I run across stuff like that I get so moved sometimes that I feel like crying, and sometimes I do. Usually, I'll just blurt something out like, "Damn it, Robert Altman. That was so pretty. That was so freaking nice." I'll sit there for a second and think of the scene as if it was an arrow aimed directly at my heart from somewhere deep in the universe. Then I'll recall the memory of when I failed my wife when she wanted to hear me say those words and I all I could say to her was, "Don't you know when I run down those stairs and greet you outside before you even get out of the car, don't you know what that means?" Unable to bear that memory for long, I'll quickly change the channel and put on something like Ninety Day Fiancé but only for as long as it takes for me to forget the still quivering arrow sticking out of my heart.
Now that mom's dead, I bet you that I'll probably start saying something like, "Did you catch that one, Mom. That was fuc...I mean that was pretty dang beautiful don't ya think?"
This morning, I was dancing around in the kitchen in my underwear, waving my arms around like a stoned hippy listening to a Grateful Dead jam. I just gotten a chipped coffee cup out of the cupboard and filled it with hazelnut coffee when the Holy Spirit reached out and grabbed hold of me and I started moving like a monkey on crack, waving the cup in my right hand above my head. When Jerry Garcia really started gettin it, I started gettin it too. My eyes were closed tight and for a moment I was back in time in front of the stage of the Mountain Air concert in Angel's Camp a few days before I started my teaching career. Suddenly, I lost my balance and bumped up against the counter and dropped the cup shattering it and spilling its contents on the floor. My first reaction was to look around to see who was watching. I looked and it caused me to laugh and reminded me that my mom was dead. I decided to give her a head's up on how things were here down below.
When I was a lot younger, there was this spot in our neighbor Mr. Miranda's yard, a shady little clearing between some trees. There was also a pasture to the north of the clearing bordered on the east by a small canal; not one of those dirt packed ditches that surround Corcoran but a small grass covered stream like something out of a story where a girl who looked like Shirley Temple could sit in the sun on the bank, talking to her lamb, and tossing flower petals into the clear flowing water. My friends and I used to gather there in that clearing and talk, play and argue.
"Who made you boss, Danny? Why can't we just play army like regular kids?"
"Who said I was boss? I just thought it would be fun to play three hundred Spartans?"
"There's only six of us dumbass! How we gonna do that if we can't even have the Spartans. How we gonna do that?"
"Imagination, George. It's a little thing called imagination. We could pretend there's six hundred of us. Marvin's house over there could be where the Persians are gathering their forces, and then they'll start coming at us through the drive way over there and we're here defending the pass and keeping all them from getting into Greece proper." I pointed at the neighborhood on the other side of Mr. Miranda's pasture fence.
George and the others looked and tried to make the connection between the run down houses on the other side of the street to the glory of ancient Athens.
"Nah, I'm going home watch cartoons. You coming Dean?"
People can say whatever they want, but they can't say that I lacked imagination. It was what got me through the rough patches, I could always imagine something else. I had the intuition even back then there was always something more to the story. How could there not be; we exist in an infinity, and that has to mean that there has to be an infinite amount of perspectives on everything. The worst thing I can imagine is to be trapped in life with only one way of looking at things.
Like my mom.
Don't get me wrong. I love the woman and will always revere her memory and cherish the fact that she was my mother. I am referencing though the fact that the trauma of her youthful experiences gave her one script to read, one narrative, and one outlook. I'm not saying it was a bad script, but it only had one ending and you could see it coming from the opening chapter. Her father dying in the middle of World War II when she was only ten years old was the dominant factor in how her life played out. Back then there were no therapists around to tell her how to deal with the overwhelming grief she must have felt. So she carried around inside of her for the rest of her days and passed it down to her boys without even knowing that she did.
She loved reading stories about the survivors of the Holocaust. Her favorite writer was the British novelist Catherine Cookson who wrote stories about young women placed in untenable situations who overcame obstacles with sheer determination and the simple act of moving forward one footstep at a time. Mom was an empath of the highest order and deeply felt compassion for all those who suffered. She sent money most of her life to orphanages and needy seniors. She would have made a great teacher but settled for teaching Sunday school, and it was the job she loved the most.
That settling for less was the hallmark of both of my parents. My Dad was her perfect mate because he too had suffered severe early trauma. They both could have made so much more out of their lives but preferred security above risk. Because of them, I learned to understand the hidden effects of trauma and its influence in shaping life long after the events that caused it. It helped me to understand my parents and appreciate the struggles of my students, friends and neighbors in ways I would never have discovered on my own. It also helped me to develop a greater understanding of my own foolish behavior.
Mom would ask my brother Steve and I almost daily, in reference to some celebrity or politician's infamous behavior, "Don't they believe in God," or "Don't they know that someday they'll have to stand before God?" And nightly her troubled sleep would always erase the memory of the conversation we'd had on that very subject the day before and she would ask the same question again the following day.
Sometimes tired, I would just shrug my shoulders and answer, "No, Mom. They don't." She would always look at me incredulously as if to ask how could anyone not believe in God. I would just shrug again.
There's another great line in McCabe and Mrs. Miller delivered by Warren Beatty, "If a frog had wings, it wouldn't bump its ass so much." It's not near as ascetically pleasing as the other quote, but it captures the essence of the character John McCabe who desperately wants to accomplish something with his life in order to elevate his stature and prospects and especially look good in the eyes of Mrs. Miller, but everything he achieves or builds is tainted by its proximity to the horseshit and the mud of life in the West in the late nineteenth century. One cynical critic opined that McCabe's lover even preferred the opium pipe to his romantic advances. I don't think that was true. Rather, I think the real problem was that he could never outright tell her that he loved her. Constance Miller's heart was encased in a very large glacier and only those words delivered simply and with passion might have had a chance to begin the thaw.
I don't know why people don't believe in God, and I've thought about it a lot. It greatly puzzles me why anyone would want to believe that our life on this earthly plane has no meaning. I also think that the simple understanding that there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye would put some wings on the frog and actually allow us to not bump our ass so much.
That's gotta be worth something, right Ma?