"Her arched look could slam a door from across a room, and more than a few dreams had died at its command."
Yep, it was that kind of morning. I had been reading a description of the English iconoclast Jessica Mitford and the author had placed great emphasis on her singular ability to arch an eyebrow and wither somebody's heart with just a glance. I resolved to make use of that idea somewhere, and when I woke up in morning, I put the quote above in the 'to be used later' section of my journal.
I shared my morning coffee with Carl Jung. He was writing about a dream he had where he was placed into a supplicant position requiring him to touch his head to the floor. He made a strong effort but could not close the last millimeter. In his interpretation, the inability to touch the floor explained man's relationship with God, the willingness to go so far but always holding something back. Without it, he said, there would not have been a need for book of Job, or for Christ to enter the world.
It gave me some food for thought. So much of what is going on in this crazy world carries the same import of the incidents talked about in the scriptures, only we are far too stupid to understand this simple fact, and too given over to the belief that what we say and do is somewhat meaningless. I never liked using the word stupid when I was in the classroom, but the word does seem to perfectly describe the condition of being intentionally ignorant.
Jung was a compassionate thinker too, but he used the phrase maliciously stupid to describe such a state. God forgive me, but I can't help but think that there is a certain maliciousness involved both in mankind's inability to perceive the truth and in our unwillingness to believe that our lives even matter.
I see Shakespeare's fingers all over this current script, and it looks a lot like he's ripping off Faustus and Oedipus the King. I think that he's also been watching some Tarantino movies and possibly The Sopranos on TV. Who knows, maybe Sophocles and Goethe are also collaborating on this project.
In other words, nothing nowadays seems to make any sense at all. I try to keep my hopes up and remember the time that me and my brother Tim brought Tinkerbell back to life by believing with all our hearts. But then I remember reading in a history book that World War One made absolutely no f-ing sense at all either.
I was so shocked that the historian had written the F word that I ran and got a highlighter out of my desk drawer. When I got back to the book, the word was gone. I still remember it though, and that phrase has stuck with me, and I often use it to describe situations like what this old-people-seeking-missile of a virus has created.
To take my mind off of such thoughts I decided to ride my bike around my hometown while listening to Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. It's a trick that I often use in an effort to try to trick the Universe into yielding up some of its secrets.
When I got down to the road by the park where all the squatters are, he was singing about a book of poems that she(?) had given him where,
"Every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul."
And I knew that it was his way of telling me to pay close attention to my surroundings. That there was something afoot here that most people weren't catching.
As I rode along, my mind often twisted back into the past when I was young and rode my bike along these same paths, and it was like realizing that no time had really elapsed between then and now. When I was looking at these streets through those younger eyes, I was also seeing them as I do now without realizing that it was so, the time between being the illusion.
When I got down to the road in front of the church that used to be the Nazarene church, the song was A Simple Twist of Fate with lyrics that said,
He woke up, the room was bare
He didn't see her anywhere
He told himself he didn't care
Pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside
To which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate."
Dylan, and especially this album, talks to me, and these words reminded me of my wife's leaving. He wrote them to describe his own heartbreak when his wife left. Pushing the window open wide and feeling the void enter the room, damn, what a soul sucking image. The location where I was when I heard them served to remind me that even churches change over time. You wouldn't think so, but they do.
What few simple twists of fate could have brought about my wife still waking up beside me in the morning and/or the Nazarenes still holding services on the corner of Letts and Hall? I'm left with the distinct impression that those should have been the choices that were made, yet weren't.
He next compounded the feeling of guilt and confusion from those bad decisions with some words from You're a Big Girl Now,
"I'm going out of my mind, oh, oh
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we've been apart."
I don't know about the people who once attended the Nazarene church. I knew some back in the day, but most of them have long since died. I do know that every now and then that corkscrew is applied to a soft spot in my heart to remind me of the importance of making better choices.
Then minutes later, as I made my way up Letts toward home, Idiot Wind comes on, and this time, it's Job himself telling the story.
"You hurt the ones that I love best
And cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch
Flies buzzing around your eyes
Blood on your saddle."
Prophetic lines if there ever were prophetic lines. While listening, I can't help but to think that truth remains the truth in spite of all the savage, maliciously stupid people we now have shouting nonsense to the winds. I don't wish anyone ill, but there will be a certain grim satisfaction knowing that them flies will one day buzz around their vacant eyes, at the bottom of a ditch too, and right next to blood stained saddle. He doesn't explicitly say that the horse ran off, but it's implied.
But Dylan doesn't just leave things there. He admonishes the rest of us too. He once said he couldn't find a place to break this song off, that the words and images just kept coming, many insanely beautiful, trenchant, and addressed to our materialistic side,
What's good is bad, what's bad is good
You'll find out when you reach the top
You're on the bottom."
Or else, frighteningly apocalyptic,
"The priest wore black on the seventh day
And sat stone-faced while the building burned."
It is the chorus though where he warns all not to go back to a world of worshipping movie stars and athletes and tells us that we need to take our politicians out to the woodshed in order to remind them they need to work for us and not the opposite. The song's title Idiot Wind seems to perfectly describe our current news media and makes me wonder if it will be all the people who pay them, follow them, or enable them who will eventually wind up seeing/not seeing the buzzing flies and that empty saddle.
There is a message of hope at the end of the album too, but it's words are also juxtaposed against the bleakness of a world where true wisdom has fallen beneath the cushions of the sofa with our pocket change and popcorn seeds where we watch and measure our lives away as time spent between commercial breaks.
The repeated chorus of Shelter From the Storm reminds us that true wisdom only results in recognizing our situations and surroundings for what they really are, biblical settings and events where God is always negotiating for our lives and our salvation or damnation,
"Suddenly I turned around
And she was standing there
With silver bracelets on her wrists
And flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully
and took my crown of thorns
'Come in,' she said, 'I'll give ya
shelter from the storm.'"
Returning from my journey, I realized that yes, there is such a thing as malicious stupidity. Covid-19 is its cousin and apathy its twin. I also know that there is a stern, austere beauty attached to my hometown. You have to squint sometimes to see it, or else mentally go backwards in time to when you can remember in a soft, fuzzy, glow what it looked like before you missed the opportunities offered up by a few simple twists of fate and made your own series of bad choices.
But given the choice of staying inside again and listening to the children of the corn argue about what our options are, it's well worth the effort to rediscover.
"Look, Dee Dee! Danny got his hand on her boob!"
It was my buddy Ray-Ray who was talking. We were laughing real hard at something on the TV when he turned around and saw where my hand had accidentally meandered and just up and blurted it out. Surprised, I looked down and, sure enough, my right hand was resting comfortably on my girlfriend Donna's boob. You'd think I might have took a second to to register just how nice her rack looked in the pink sweater she was wearing, but I didn't. Instead, I was mortified and immediately straightened up and brought my arm back around to the front in support of a two-handed gesture of contrition.
"It was an accident. I was laughing at the TV and didn't even notice what was going on." I looked at my green-eyed, red-headed girlfriend Donna, and saw that she was embarrassed but laughing, and her best friend, a slender blonde named Dee Dee was laughing pretty hard too. "I honestly didn't mean anything by it; I mean wasn't trying to be sneaky or anything like that."
I often wondered about the effect of that last statement. The whole incident blew over pretty quickly, and I spent the last part of the night with my hands securely resting in my lap. We were watching TV at Donna's grandma's house after church, and her grandma was supposedly sleeping behind the closed-door of her bedroom. When Ray-Ray and I were leaving later that night, I turned around and I saw Donna looking out the window with a look that I took for regret. A few weeks later, she broke up with me, and I heard from Dee-Dee in a sort of a round about way, that it wasn't because I was making moves on her, but because I wasn't making them fast enough. She started dating another guy pretty much right away, and I always presumed it was because he was making the right moves at a right pace.
I mean, I was pretty much conflicted the whole time I was with her. Number one because she was my first real girl-friend and because I was pretty damn clueless about how all that stuff worked, and number two because she was daughter of the Reverend Baker Jones the preacher of Resurrection Church where my family attended. Reverend. Jones was a square-jawed, straight shooting, ex-marine and a bit of a fire and brimstone spouting crazy man on Sunday. He frightened me quite a bit. That church had lot of preachers while I was there, and I wouldn't give you ten cents on the dollar for most of them, but Baker J. Jones wasn't as hypocritical as most of them. I mean, he walked it like he talked it and put in the good work visiting people in their homes and when they were dying in the hospital.
I don't really know why I thought that Donna was any different from any of the other girls that I was trying to get my paws on back in those early days of my misspent youth. I mean I didn't have nothing against wrestling with a female or trying to cop a feel in general, but I must have thought that her upbringing might have made her a bit more disdainful of such activity. If so, I thought wrong. I've since known quite a few preacher's daughters, and, if anything, they were just as curious about that stuff as most girls and probably more so. There was the idea always lurking in the back of my mind that the good Rev. Jones being a minister and all might be able to summon up a great deal more of the wrath of Jehovah than the average irate father. I didn't really want to find out. My parents went to his church, and that created a whole set of problems in and of itself. I just remember that I thought it was in the best interests of everyone concerned to take things kind of slow.
"Damn it Ray-Ray, I had my hand on her boob and you pull that shit. What's the hell wrong with you?"
"I'm sorry Danny. I just turned around and saw your hand there and it just came out. Sides, I thought you said it was accidental."
"It was accidental, you dumb ass, but I was still on second base. It don't matter if you hit a double, stole the damn base or got there on a throwing error. You're still sitting on second when the dust clears!"
"I said I was sorry, dude. I didn't mean to do it. Won't happen again."
"Damn right it won't. I brought you with me thinking you'd take care of Dee-Dee, and you hardly talked to her all night."
"Shit, I'd had better luck talking to the cow in that stupid picture on the wall. That girl's way too stuck on herself."
"No she ain't. That's all false bravado, dude. She's putting on with that attitude. All you got to do is come in, act confident and take over. That's what she really wants, someone to tell her how things are."
We stopped at the street light at the intersection of Hill and Lessing; it was where our paths diverged with his heading east on Hill and mine continuing south on Lessing.
"You think so?" He shook his head. "I don't. I think she's got her mind set on Anthony. I've seen her looking at him in church. She sometimes forgets that she's staring at him until your dad hits that loud part of Washed in The Blood, then she wakes up and looks around to see if anybody saw her looking at him."
"In the meanwhile, you forget that you're staring at her."
Ray blushed, then laughed and shook his head, "Yeah. Well, screw you, Danny Wilson. Hey, tell me something. Why don't sit up front with Donna during church."
"She has to sit up front with her mother and dad. I have my own place in the back. I've been sitting in that pew in the northwest corner ever since I started going to church. If Donna wants to sit with me, she's welcome to come back there anytime."
He laughed again, "Man, if she was my girl, I'd sit up front with her. You're an idiot!"
"Yeah, but I ain't an idiot sitting up front where I ain't got no business. Man got to know his place in the world, Ray-Ray, even when it comes to where he sits in church." Ray shook his head and waved and then disappeared in the darkness of Hill Street still mumbling something about me being an idiot, and I started the long walk home with the thought of my hand resting on the softness of a pink sweater clouding my mind.
I always sat in the back of church for good reason. For one thing, I wanted some cushion for all the crazy stuff that happened up front. One time, I sat there with my jaw hitting the floor as the deacon and a preacher got in a fist fight over some doctrinal dispute. On another occasion, an alcoholic husband of one of the Sunday school teachers interrupted the services by insisting he be saved. He was pretty drunk and stumbling around, and his wife tried everything she could do to get him to sit down and be quiet, but he wasn't having any of it. He wanted saved and he wanted saved right then! The preacher we had back then decided to appease the drunk man and staged a mock salvation. It didn't go over too good with the rest of the congregation though who took that stuff seriously and didn't want to waste a perfectly good salvation on someone who was appeared to be too drunk to appreciate it.
Mainly, I sat back there though because I inherently knew the value of having an escape route marked out, just in case, you know, if something crazy happened. I don't know how or why I was thinking that church was someplace I needed to be on guard, but that's exactly what I was thinking.
One day, during altar call, the congregation suddenly realized that there were only two people in the whole church who hadn't been saved, that being me and my younger brother Terry. We caught on to it a little late, as we normally shut down our focus on the service and started thinking about what we were going to do once we got out of church about that time. Terry was sitting on the inside of the pew right next to the aisle, and they were on him before he even saw them coming. Before he knew what had happened, they had surrounded him. My mom was up front banging away on the piano pretending she didn't see what was going on. I took advantage of the confusion and slid behind the crowd and acted like I needed to go to the bathroom. Once inside, I locked the door and hid in there until I heard the people leaving church. When I finally go the nerve to go outside, I spotted Terry standing by himself.
He looked at me kind of shell shocked, "Where the hell were you?"
"They had you surrounded; there was nothing I could do, so I took advantage of the confusion and snuck out and hid in the bathroom. What happened?"
"I reckon I kind of got saved I guess?"
"I didn't have much of a choice. The preacher got me by the hands and kind of dragged me. Brother Bramley was pushing me from behind."
"Did you feel anything?"
"You mean like magic or stuff?"
"Not really. I was just kind of relieved when they let me go and let me go back to sit down. You know they'll come after you next time, don't ya?"
"That's the way I got it figured."
And that's exactly the way that it played out too. When we got ready to leave for church the following Sunday, I told Mom that I wasn't feeling well and thought that I'd stay home. She didn't say anything but went back inside the house and got Pop's belt and stepped out on the front porch holding it in her right hand. She stood there until I went and got in the car and then she tossed the belt inside and shut the door. I was on my toes all through the preaching part. Ray-Ray had been teasing me all through our Sunday School class how they were going to drag me up to the altar. I pretended that I needed to go to the bathroom at the rear of the church, locked the door, and climbed out the window and went and sat on the curb in front of the church and smoked a cigarette I'd pilfered from my mom's pack of Kents to calm my nerves. When I got back to the class, there was a note on my chair from Donna. "What are you planning to do, Danny?" She had drawn a big red heart on the page. I just looked up and smiled at her and shrugged my shoulders.
Everything started out like normal, but as it started getting closer to noon, I started noticing that people kept stealing glances in my direction. Then my mom got up and made her way toward the piano which was the sign that passing the collection plates was about to happen which would be closely followed by the playing of Just as I Am and the altar call. The two deacons passed the plates as usual, but, this time, Brother Geary handed his plate to Brother Bramley and went and stood at the back by the swinging doors that led to the foyer where the outer doors were.
When the plates were handed over the preacher, my mom kicked into the altar call music and suddenly everyone in the church turned in my direction including my brother Terry and Ray-Ray. I hadn't even sat down yet from the offering, and I just waited as everybody began to slowly move toward the back where I was. Terry was laughing at me. I let them all get back almost to the final pew before I made my move. Then I quickly slid around the pew gliding like a halfback back to the rear of the church and started heading toward the door. Brother Greery made like he was going to stop me at first, but I balled up my right fist and he saw it. I guess he didn't want to get in fist fight with a kid, so at the last second, he stepped back and let me pass. I pushed open the swinging doors and was out.
There was a potluck luncheon scheduled after services, so I didn't talk to Terry until later. He told me that after I left, they milled around and looked kind of stupid for awhile. They didn't seem to know what else to do, so they made like they were going to try and take him back up there to the front, but he just sat down and dared them to try. Eventually, mom quit playing the song, and they all wandered back to their seats and sat down.
I walked home by myself thinking about things the whole way. When I first got out of that church, I was feeling pretty cocky and a little bit proud of the way I had stood up for myself. As I walked though, a little doubt started to creep in. What if I just missed my opportunity to get right with Jesus? I often wondered why Jesus never talked to me the way them other people said he talked to them. I mentally made a list of all the stuff I'd been doing wrong with a special focus on the things that I had been doing wrong in and around the church. I mean how stupid could I be to fantasize about Donna's pink sweater right there in the house of God? Hell, her daddy was preaching at me while I was doing it! When I reached the time that I spiked the punch at one of the potlucks, I couldn't think of anything of anything else, so I stopped and I apologized to God for me being such a dumb ass. I would've even got down on my knees and prayed too, but I was in the middle of the intersection of Bradshaw and Stratton streets and people out watering their yards and tending to their gardens would have thought I was crazy, so I just asked for forgiveness as I walked along.
My Dad was working that Sunday but was home for lunch and was sitting on the sofa eating off the coffee table and watching TV. I came in the door and slunk over and sat down in his chair.
"Dad. When you got saved, did Jesus actually talk to you?"
"Why? What happened?" I explained everything to him including the thing with hand accidentally falling on Donna's boob.
"Mom's gonna kill me. I decided that I wasn't going up there just because they wanted me too. Jesus ain't told me nothing yet. I mean he's made me feel guilty a time or two, but he ain't talked directly at me yet. I ain't going to pretend that he did just because it makes other people happy. I don't think that's right."
Pop took a drink of this sweet tea and wiped his mouth off on the back of his hand. "Well, don't worry about it, Son. When Jesus wants to talk to you, he will. You might be thinking though that he's gonna come at you talking English and all."
"What? Jesus don't talk English?" I was confused this was something I hadn't even thought about.
He laughed. "I mean he talks it, but it ain't his primary tongue. You gotta remember he was from a different time and place. I don't even think English people talked English back then."
"Well, how'd he talk to you?"
Before he answered, he went and put his dishes in the kitchen sink and poured himself another glass of tea, "When I got saved, Danny, I really needed for him to set me on a new course. I was drinking way too much and fighting with your mom all of the time. What it really amounted to was I was worried about money and paying bills, and I wasn't happy at work and came home and took it out on her. I surely needed an adjustment to my way of thinking. One night, your mom and your Aunt Lola went out hunting for me and your Uncle Andy. They found us playing cards at the Four Roses and came in there like their damn tails were on fire and started making a big scene. Hell, your mama was hitting me on the back of my head while I was trying to bet. Me and Andy got up and were coming out the back to the alley where your aunt's car was parked. I'll tell ya, I was mad enough to do your mama some serious harm. All the frustration and resentment that was building up in me just came pouring out, and I was going out there to put this woman in her damned place." He paused at that moment, and I could see his eyes start drifting back in time.
"What happened then, Pop?"
The question brought him back. "We get out there in the back of the place, and I'm really pissed by this time. Your Aunt Lola and your Uncle Andy are off on the side arguing, and your mama is standing there in the middle of the alley with her hands on her hip snapping her head back and forth like a crazy damn chicken. I'm fixing to light into her ass when I looked over toward the car and in the back window, I see you and your brother Glenn looking scared as hell in the back seat. Suddenly, this strong electrical like feeling came over me and a voice on the inside of me told me that instead of making a fool out of myself, I should count all my blessings and be happy. I can't explain how it felt other than that it was like a rush of electricity and I really felt changed. Nothing phony about it. I mean from the inside out."
"Nothing like that's ever happened to me. I'm supposed to fake it what?
He kinda chuckled and grinned at me, "Naw, nothing like that, son. I guess it depends a lot on what you really want out of life."
That statement stopped me dead in my tracks. I had never in my life one time had ever asked myself what I really wanted out of being alive. I didn't know what to say. I thought about it a bit, tried to answer but my mouth wasn't working real well, then I'd stop and think a bit some more, and then I'd try again. Finally, I just said the first thing that I could think of, "I think I just want to know as much of what is true as I can without going crazy."
Pop looked puzzled, "True? Crazy? What makes you think of something like that?"
"You know like them Hitler people killing all them other people. That's part of what truth is, the good with the bad, stuff like that."
"Damn, Boy. That's pretty deep. I never really put much thought into truth having a bad side too. I just figured that what was true was true and lies were lies and that way of thinking about it. You gave me something to think about. I got to get back to work. You gonna be okay? Your mama'll be home directly."
"Pop, can you help me with Mom? You know put a good word in for me? Tell her what I said?" I smiled shamelessly but it didn't work. He just shrugged.
"No, I told her I'd let her take care of this church going business." The thought of what he was telling me made him think back on something that happened before, and he added, "We was fighting bout something at the time. Kept her from yelling at me. I said I wouldn't interfere unless she really started screwing things up."
I looked at him incredulously. It must have made him nervous because after a while, he shrugged his shoulders and added, "Hell, boy, I didn't know I was going to start going to church at the time."
I kept looking at him for a while before asking, "What am I supposed to do about them mobbing up on me?"
What he said then surprised me, "Well, son, I think I'd keep sitting in the back row next to the door. I mean at least until I got big enough to punch Baker Jones on the nose." When I looked stunned by the answer, he continued, "When you're getting bullied by a crowd, always take out the leader first. Most people got no heart for fighting. They just go along for the excitement."
"But it's in Church."
"Churches are a good thing, no, make that a great thing, Son, but never go around thinking that they ain't people in them that don't need punched in the nose from time to time."
I thought about what he said and then confessed, "Dad, I'm doing a lot of stupid stuff, and I don't even know why. Jesus's silence on the matter has me more than a little bit worried about if I'm destined for the Big Roasting."
Pop just laughed and reached out and rubbed my head just as Terry and my mom pulled up into our driveway coming in from church.
Terry burst out of car almost before it came to a complete stop. "Danny, you should have seen it. Brother Bramley was getting on Brother Geary about not stopping you from going out the door, and, all of a sudden, they start fighting out in front of the church. Next thing you know, their wives are kicking each other and pulling each other's hair, and Sister Geary snatched the wig off of Sister Bramley and was waving it up in the air. Then Ray-Ray said something smart about you being the cause of the whole mess and Donna hauled off and kicked him right square in his nuts. He was rolling around on the sidewalk crying like a baby. I'm telling you, you should have seen it!"
I looked over at Mom as she came around the car. She stopped for moment and took her white gloves off and placed them in her purse. Then she came over to where I was sitting. I'd tensed up thinking she'd be mad and was very relieved when she wasn't. She gently pulled me up and put her arms around me and asked me if I was okay. When I said I was, she whispered in my ear, "I talked to Reverend Jones. They won't be doing that anymore."
Later that night, I pulled the covers over my head and talked to Jesus, man to man like and explained that I really wasn't trying to be mean; it just came out that way. I said that I would promise I would change, but I knew that I was just getting the hang of this puberty thing and figured that I would probably be crossing some lines, so that I thought I'd better hold off on the promising. I did say though that I never wanted to hurt anyone, and I told him that I'd seriously try to do better.
I waited for an answer for a while but fell asleep before it came.
It was at that exact moment when I first thought about leaving her. I had set up a romantic getaway at San Simeon which had included a late night tour of the Castle and a candlelit dinner. Our room even had a personal hot tub. Jenny, on the other hand, had decided to choose the week-end not to talk to me at all. If I asked her a direct question about something simple like if it was raining outside, she would answer, but other than that, zilch. During the dinner, she hadn't said a word to me at all.
We were on our way back home to the valley and had reached the junction to turn onto the highway by San Luis and head east. She had looked out of the passenger side window the whole time, just like she had been doing on the way over. This was where I had swallowed my pride sixteen years before and just kept driving. Jenny left me about six months later, but not after repeating the behavior one other time after we had been looking for houses in Belle Vista all morning. We were stopped at red light after looking at a house we had both liked. She was staring out of the window again.
"I liked the patio best and the upstair rooms. I can use one for my office, you can do whatever you want with the . . . . ," that was when I then noticed that she wasn't even listening.
She suddenly turned toward me, brushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes and said, "Of course you do know that I don't love you anymore, Danny and never will again."
It was my second chance to do something, but once again I froze. It felt as if the ground had dropped out below me and as though I was floating in the exact center of an unfeeling universe. My throat constricted, and I felt sad enough, given a choice, to check out completely. There were other things involved, louder things, things that crashed and wailed, but I knew deep down that this was one of the moments on which the future hinged, the facing down of the monster, and instead of rushing forward sword in hand, I froze up inside, pissed my pants, let the monster bar the way, and turned a retreated with my tail between my legs. I tried to explain to her once about the freezing up inside, the inability to talk, and the feeling that every word we said in such moments contained nuclear capabilities, able to annihilate our existence as a family. I tried to explain how my older brother had watched transfixed as my parents had fought tooth and nail. She never understood. Maybe she shouldn't have; maybe it was for me to understand.
This time though I didn't waver. I knew what was coming and had Googled directions to the Greyhound station. Jenny was so lost in her thoughts she didn't even notice until I pulled up to the station and shut the car off. I opened the door, got out, and got my suitcase out of the trunk. I came back and threw the keys onto the front seat.
"What are you doing, Danny Wilson? What's this?"
"You haven't said a fucking word me this whole trip. Now you want to suddenly ask questions. I ain't driving home with you. There's the keys. I'll take my chances on the bus."
Her face went from a state of confusion to one of outrage in single moment when she realized what I was doing. " Oh so now, you want to be a big man, and show me how tough you are. Now, instead of doing..."
I cut her off. I knew from the all the arguments that we had later what she would say. "NO. Don't say a fucking word. You lost that privilege when you decided to treat me this way. I don't want to hear shit about our relationship, what you think I do wrong, nothing! You don't treat people the way you treated me this weekend."
I walked into the station, and by the time I bought the ticket, she was gone.
"Well, how did that make you feel, her being gone?"
"In truth, not that great. She was gone, and it was over, just like that. I felt better because I had made the stand. I had said what I should've said before. I just felt like I didn't deserve better. I can convince myself that when I got home, she would have been more inclined to treat me like a human being. For some reason, I believe that it was the only chance that we could have worked things out. She understood better than I did why I needed to fight back. I mean, once I had gotten past the idea that every word I wanted to say back then weighed like a ton. You're sure that this is not going to change anything, I mean, my daughters aren't going to disappear or anything like that?"
Doctor Laurel took off her glasses and laughed, "No. This was for you alone, to give you a sense of closure. Our technology allows us to recreate such moments virtually. The thought behind it is this is a process that allows people like yourself to repair psychic damage, those who suffer from some form of trauma to make some corrections. Our founder was a Japanese bio-geneticist who proved that the humans can alter their genetic make-up by doing right things and learning how to deal with traumatic situations. How do you feel about it now that you experienced your first correction?"
"It's been cathartic. I mean it felt so real, and I have been waiting to say those words ever since that day. When you've been fighting depression as long as I have, you just know when the moments were that you did the worst thing that you could have done."
"Great. It says that you have two more treatments scheduled for today."
"Well, I know of hundreds of such moments; it was a hard decision, but I believe I've picked three that were pivotal in making me into who and what I am today."
"Well, are you ready? We can start on the second one right away. Sit back and close your eyes and count backwards from ten, please." My eyes were closed and I heard the song You're Still a Young Man by Tower of Power playing. Then I heard a voice that I hadn't heard in over thirty years. It was cold and deadly and sounded like a hiss.
"Shit, you just don't seem to be listening to me, Danny. I don't exactly understand these things myself. All, I do know for sure is that I sincerely don't want to stay with you anymore."
"Sincerely, huh? Just last Friday you told me that you were in love with me, Jocelyn. Just last Friday. I haven't even seen you since that night."
I recognized the scene immediately. It was the moment right before I cried, a single tear escaping and sliding down my cheek. I knew its effect immediately. She had been talking and listening to me before, but upon seeing the tear, she swiftly checked out and after several moments, laughed to herself, opened the door, got out of the car.
We were parked and sitting around the corner from her house. We were mostly in the dark shadow of her neighbor's tall wooden fence, but the light from the street light on the opposite corner seeped through the front windshield and fell on her face. She had never been more beautiful.
Jocelyn had been lying to me about her ability to get out of the house for about a week. She had been calling me everyday for weeks and then, suddenly, every time I tried calling her she had an excuse or just didn't answer. On the night in question, I had gone to a party and when I walked up to the house, I saw her sitting in the living room talking to another guy. It was awkward as hell when I went in, and she tried to make it less awkward by saying that she needed a ride home and was just going to call me to ask me if I would take her home.
I knew better to let that tear drop. For thirty years I had practiced what I should do next. I started the car up which surprised her.
"What are you doing?" she asked as we pulled away from the curb.
"I'm taking you back where I picked you up. I know where this shit is going. I know you and how you like to get guys to fall in head-over- hills in love with you and then break their hearts. I thought about taking you outside of town and dropping you off and making you walk home in the dark, but I decided against it. That's what my friends would do, but I ain't that kind of guy. I'll take you back to Randy's and drop you off."
"Why would you fucking do something so stupid, Danny! This is insane."
"Maybe, but I know where this is headed, Joss. You're going to walk in the house, and I ain't never going to get the chance to tell that I know who you really are, and how you hurt the ones who fall in love with you to try and get back at someone else."
"That's crazy. Who exactly am I trying to get back at, Danny?"
I just shrugged, "I don't know, your drunk ass parents maybe, your step-dad, or how about that Dad you never see? Thing is I don't care. I don't want to spend the next thirty years knowing I didn't kick your ass out of my car when I had the chance. I don't want to have your ghost hanging over every relationship I'll have going forward."
I pulled up in front of house where I had picked her up. This time she was incredulous and asking herself how it was possible for someone like me to resist her.
I reached across her and opened the door.
"Danny. . . . .."
I drove off. She stood there and watched with a stunned expression. When I turned the corner it was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
The third experience had happened a long time before. I was in the second grade in fact. My friends and I were at recess and a guy I knew named Markie Rodriguez had a taken a Popsicle stick and touched this homely looking girl with it, and we played cootie tag with the stick the rest of the period. When the bell rang, we all ran to class. I was the last one and I looked back and saw the girl, red-haired, freckled face Barbara Lewis sobbing with her head buried in her arms while she leaned up against the drainage gutter coming down from the corner of the next wing of buildings. It had been raining earlier and water was running out of the bottom of the gutter.
I instantly understood the cruelness involved. I kept watching till the teacher told me to take my seat. Years later I was hanging around with this girl Teresa who was Barbara's best friend, and I got to know Barbara one night, and discovered that she was a sweet person with a very funny personality. She was homely as ever but possessed a smile and a sense of humor that easily made one forget about her shortcomings in the looks department. I had always wanted to apologize for what happened when we were in elementary school, but never found the time or way or the courage.
I eventually quit hanging out with her friend when her friend started going out with another guy, and I never talked to Barbara after that night. A few months, later she was killed in a traffic accident on her way to junior college. Every so often, that image of her crying up against the rain gutter reappears and prevents me from truly believing that I am a decent person. I have this problem; I carry around so much guilt and shame that most times I don't feel worthy of forgiveness. A person can't function very well that way.
I didn't ask the doctor to place me back into the moment where I could have walked over and gave her hug and walked her back to class or even in the moment where I could have prevented it from happening. Our reactions to events like that are the tests that define us, mythic moments that create the bricks of our existence. Preventing it would make me seem heroic, and I wasn't shooting for heroic. I knew what. I needed most was both the remorse and the repentance.
Teresa, a slender blonde with beautiful green eyes was milling about the kitchen fussing and talking. She seemed nervous about something. We found out later, she was trying to capture the attention of this guy she had met the night before. He worked at this store on Main Street, "I'm going to run down to the store and get some more cokes. You guys stay here, and I'll be right back."
She left Barbara and I sitting there at the blue linoleum covered counter that divided the living area with its gold-green shag carpet of her apartment from the rusty red tiles of a Spanish style kitchen. Barbara was leaning up against the wall beneath a small, framed, autographed portrait of Tommy Bolin. There was an awkward silence for a moment before I asked,"How's school going, Barb?"
"I love it. It's pretty hard but kind of fun too. I'm going to be a nurse, Danny. Ain't that funny? Maybe someday you'll come into the doctor and I'll have to give you a shot." She laughed at the thought.
"How about if Mark Rodriguez came in for the shot?"
She stopped laughing immediately. "Now, why would you say that?"
I explained to her how I had seen her crying that day, and how ever since, I wanted to tell her I was sorry but never had the nerve nor the courage.
"I've so, fucking sorry, Barb. I have been so fucking sorry for such a long time, ever since I saw you there and realized how cruel it was."
She was quiet for a moment and looked at me suspiciously. She looked away and spoke in barely more than a whisper, "I hated that fucker. Mark, I mean, for the longest time. He always had it in for me and made my life miserable. It's weird. Last year I was doing some internship stuff, and he was one of the patients. He died last week all alone, all by himself. He shared the roomed with this other guy, but the guy died the day before he did. I mean it bothers me to think that the he had spent the last night of his life thinking about the death of that other guy. Mark recognized me right away, and he apologized. He confessed that he took the misery of his own life out on mine. He told me that his dad used to beat him and his mom would just sit and watch and not say anything. I can remember once seeing his dad beat the shit out of him in front of the school. It was tight after he had did that stuff with the popsicle stick. I laughed. I smiled all that day thinking that God had answered my prayers for revenge. Mark told me he came to school looking for someone to abuse and that there wasn't anything personal about it."
"You forgave him?"
"Yeah, I mean ... it hurt me a lot, but I needed to get past it. Look at me; I ain't never going to be physically beautiful. I had to learn to accept myself for who and what I was and not to define myself by someone else's judgements. I even apologized to him because I had gotten such joy from watching his dad whip him. I was visiting him when he died. And now, here we are and you say this. What? Are you wanting forgiveness too? There you got it, now what, Danny Wilson?"
"Naw. I mean I'll take all the forgiveness I can get, and I'd be glad for your forgiveness, Barb, if that's what this really is, but what I was needing more is learning how to forgive myself, and the only way I could get that was to face you and tell you I was sorry, and how you didn't deserve none of that."
She smiled a little, "Well, it would have been a lot nicer if you had done it back then."
"I know. I'm real sorry about that too."
"Well, Danny, I'm glad you resisted the urge to warn her about the wreck. It could have done a great deal of damage to the program. We have to constantly warn participants that they are not there to change the fabric of reality, or to alter fate. Barbara Lewis was destined to die in a car wreck in the fall of 1970.
"I know. I wasn't there to change her future but my own. Still."
"I know. But what would be the point of living a life if all we are going to do is edit it later. Here, we only work on unpacking trauma related issues. The great fabric of reality always weaves itself into the forms it needs to express. "
"That's nice. Hindu?"
"No. Just something I came up with on my own. Egyptian, more or less."
When Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson's nipple in front of millions of Super Bowl viewers, I could see where things were heading with the NFL It was about as accidental as the later event with the Latin bombshell Shakira putting her crotch right on the camera lens and shaking it as if she were having a seizure.
I thought about writing a movie script that night, one about the childhood joys of playing football on a playground in the coolness of a sunlit Saturday morning in Autumn. I thought that America needed that story. I still do. I don't think that I have ever been as consistently happy as I was on one of those mornings after catching a pass or even running the football across an imaginary plane proscribed by the end of classroom on one side and the fourth fence pole from the road on the other. Joy is too weak a word for that feeling. I felt good about myself, about my choice of friends, and about how we lived our lives, and it has been approximately the exact time from one of those moments till now, since I could honestly say that.
Arnie Lofton passed away this week. He was my neighbor back then. In my mind's eye, he would have been the center of the story. He was the best pure athlete that I've personally known. I've watched sports ever since Arnie and his family moved next door to us back when all the neighborhood kids attended Mark Twain Elementary School. It was him who brought sports into our neighborhood. He had a football, and he knew the basics and the rules to all the games. He showed us, the kids who lived on the southern ends of all streets like Letts, Estes, and Van Dorsten, how to play. His dad Hank used to sit out on the porch and listen to Giant games in the evening, and that more than anything else is why I hate the Dodgers.
I've coached basketball for thirty-five years. I've been around some truly amazing athletes. The reason why I would say that Arnie was the best pure athlete of all those who I have known was his love of the game. As far as I know, he never played a single sport in high school and was never corrupted by a win-at-all cost mentality that so much of our sporting culture espouses either overtly or otherwise. He liked to win, don't get me wrong, but he loved playing even more.
He was the one who showed us how to play basketball, and he had great corner jumper which, for my money, is the hardest shot to make, and he didn't panic when you rushed at him, and with a simple flick of his wrists, he'd get you up in the air and drive by you talking smack all the while. I always thought he could have played pro-baseball had he desired. He had such a great swing and did everything on the diamond so naturally.
But it was in football, as a pocket passer, where he became the Legend of the Southside. His huddle presence was direct, "Gilbert, you go long. Carlyle, you cut across the middle. Adrian, you wait over on the left as a safety valve. Harold, you snap the ball and block." As simple as it gets, but the complexity, and the thing that made it beautiful was that Gilbert Martinez was the fastest human being who ever ran in a pair of street shoes, and no matter how fast he ran, Arnie would put the ball exactly in the one place where it needed to be. I don't think I ever saw Gilbert stretch to make a catch. He would run as if he were being chased by demons, hold his hands in front of him slightly below shoulder level and the ball would land there as if by magic.
Yes, I said, "as if by magic." Humans make mistakes, it's the most fundamental rule of our existence. We screw shit up. That's what we do best. Legends, on the other hand, defy rules, they find ways to circumvent logical explanations. The guys who I grew up with will all tell you that Arnie Lofton's deep passes were the most perfect thing we've ever seen, and the most consistent. I mean Albert Einstein could have plotted the velocity of the pass (VOP) and calculated Gilbert's rate of speed (ROS) and then drew an X in the sky five feet from the ground and about twenty yards from the front leg of the swing set where the ball should end up, and that damn ball would end up there every time. (Or at least enough times to convince us that we were seeing something special.)
The Sixties hit our neighborhood pretty hard. I am ashamed when I look back and see the role I played in leading some of my friends astray. We bit hard at the lure that the movies, magazines, and the music they dangled in front of us using our budding sexuality to tempt us unto paths that led us away from the innocence and the ball fields of our youth. As far as I know, Arnie and his friends stayed true and never got caught up in that culture. I took the rest and left.
Our paths diverged, but we often combined our efforts in adult leagues later, and Arnie was always the "great equalizer". We would lead us, a ragtag bunch of misfits into battle, and provided us with moments that we will talk about with reverence all of our lives. He gave us hope that we could be better than we were.
It took me several years to overcome the damage that the Sixties inflicted upon my life. It hinged on the discovery at some point where I could no longer avoid the fact that everything bad that ever happened to me was the result of my own bad choices. A lot of people never understand that the future changes the past. Looking backwards from a higher ground changes how you should remember things and makes you realize how much that you got wrong as you were going through them.
Justin Timberlake has a lot of fans. He is considered by most to be a legendary performer. To me, he is always going to be one of the douches who corrupted football. He willingly participated in the halftime event that told the world that this is how things are and are going to be from his point on. I've always believed that it was more of a staged ritual than an accident.
A few years ago, I ran into Arnie's best friend, one day at the Kings Drive-in, and he told me about this project that him and Arnie were working on rehabbing a living space for a handicapped friend. That's some salt-of-the earth shit right there, and that night as I thought about it, I realized that I had never in my life done anything as altruistic as that for anyone.
I got into coaching because I wanted the kids like me to avoid the all the mistakes I made. I wanted them to understand that you shouldn't depend on others to select your heroes for you and to allow them to use those heroes to sell you a false reality. Most real heroes never make the paper, they live right next door to you; they fix your cars at a reasonable rate, they teach you how to read; they make your breakfast, or pay for the food. They never get close enough to someone like Janet Jackson to unbutton her blouse in front of people, and left with the decision would ultimately think, "Actually, that's probably not such a good idea."
And being in such close proximity, it should allow us to tell them that we appreciate how they inspire us.
I ran into Arnie one time much later in life and tried to tell him. He just shook it off.
I've been trying for the last few months to write a story. Yet, this is one of the only times in that period that I've actually sat down to write. Problem is, ideas no longer come to me with the fluidity that they once came when I went a little crazy. I mean there was a time when I could see a dead dog lying in the middle in the road and come home and write something about what it meant in relation to the human condition. I was admittedly living on the borderline; it was in the time right after my father and ex-wife died within a few months of each other. It was a time when I was first afflicted with tinnitus and didn't get a good night's sleep for months. It got to a point where I was spending way much too much time living in my subconscious and rarely venturing out into the material world.
I wrote a story about being amphibious and able to keep my eyes above the water while the rest of me remained below the surface. I wrote another one about being someone who kept poking his head above the grave to see what was going on, too afraid to come out. It wasn't a fun time in my life, and writing was how I tread water. There was never a shortage of ideas then, as everything seem to be alive, craving attention. and sending out signals that read, "Hey you! Pay fucking attention to me. I deserve some respect!"
I no longer feel like that. I mean I still feel like all the small things that we constantly ignore are important and therefore deserving of our attention, but in a different, somewhat healthier way. I don't know if it was the lockdown, the paradigm destroying, mythic summer of 2020, or just the fact that I'm getting old so quickly, but seems to me that I've lost a whole lot during this time, and I need to regain some of it, to glean through the rubble and keep what's important and discard the fakery, and since it also seems like I've been inhabiting the overgrown, ruins of a lost civilization ever since my wife left me, I need this new life to begin with a proper foundation. My first incarnation was never based on fact; it suffered greatly because of it, and sputtered and never seem to overcome the fact that it was built on so much self-delusion.
In truth, it was almost impossible for someone like me to be genuine back then because the world around me was so loud and never made much sense. There is so much absurdity in life that at times it makes it all seem like some weird tragedy mixed with elements of fantasy, but also always contains the essence of truth in our every moment and situation, our freewill being that faculty within us that allows us to decide how we choose to interpret the narrative flow like we are just movie critics. We either grease the wheels, or we mine for truth; make no mistake, we all do one or the other, and usually come up with a mixture of both.
Christ said that he despises lukewarm people; and for someone who usually spoke in parables, he made this one thing very, very clear. "I'll spit you out of my mouth," he said. I think he was saying what's the point of spinning your wheels. If you only go in half ass all of the time, you are never going to get anyplace in life, or ever acquire any of the things needed to develop a understanding of what it really means, and if you choose to approach truth-seeking with an unfocused mind, you will always travel in circles and never, ever come close to finding that magical place in back of the wardrobe.
Searching for truth though is lot like hitting yourself in the head with a mallet. Every time you raise a new barricade, build a wall, create a levee, or stumble upon a new belief that offers up some certainty, you soon find new information that either tumbles it down like an adobe house in 7.0 earthquake or maybe reduces it to the substance of a windblown ash. Ingesting too much truth at once is like taking an iron pill on an empty stomach. It makes you gag and burns your vocal cords.
It's hard too. The effort to grasp reality can cause internal bleeding, lots of anxiety and perpetual confusion, it makes you walk around in a cloud of dust that partially obscures the world like the Pigpen character in the Peanuts cartoons. but what else is there really to do? I have this story in my head about a guy who reads both War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov and finishes both on the same day. He puts down the books and for a brief moment allows himself to concentrate on reducing both to the single theme of "Life is a Shit Storm; buy a raincoat and forgive everybody as it was never meant to be personal." And as the guy concentrates, a friend rushes in a says, "Hey I got a video of two fish fucking. Want to watch it?"
"Sure. I'm not doing anything important."
It's kind of understandable though, most of us can't focus on that theme too long. It's too perplexing and grisly, and you can't really dance to it. Instead, most of us would rather close our eyes and listen to the Kardashian sisters debate Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg on the merits of Marilyn Monroe's wardrobe knowing full how much of a waste of time and total dodge that would be.
I was having trouble thinking what to write about. Then tonight I saw a new movie called North Hollywood, and it was a good movie. The scene where Vince Vaughn as the father has a Come-to-Jesus meeting with his son made me almost cry because of how well it documented the great missing conversation I never had with my dad. Well written, well acted, and well filmed, it reminded me of all the feelings that I've kept repressed for most of my life. It also reminded me that the things worth writing about are the things we keep below the surface. The movie reminded me that it is best to be as truthful as possible and say things instead of boiling them in a pot with all the other resentful shit. There is a whole warehouse of memorable scenes in each of our lives that we remember only because of how outside of the box they played out, or because they made us pout, but, like a scene from a Tarantino movie, they don't ultimately mean crap. The only ones that are important are disguised, buried, or placed into darkness where they smolder and burn, big vibrating boulders embedded in our psychic landscapes; they never go away, no matter how much we wish they would.
Mining such ore for inspiration is hard. You have rise early when you want to sleep in. It requires learning how to kill, gut, and skin zombies, how to face down the fear of spiders and snakes, and worst of all, it requires that final, cathartic, ground-shaking, freedom inducing facedown, while standing in front of your mother's bathroom mirror, locked eye-to-eye with the glowing image of who you were really meant to be. It inevitably leads to a moment in time when we are forced to quit deluding ourself and have to come to grips with a whole bunch of terrible truths, the stuff that we hid and pretended didn't matter, the lies we've invented since childhood to cover up the fact that we knew the answer to the ultimate question well before we even knew how to phrase it. The failure of not trying is way too horrible to even contemplate.
I love good movies and books because they move me in ways that few things can; they help illuminate the darkness, and in many ways are the very voice of God. I am going to try and write some stories about wrestling with such truth, stories about breaking chains, climbing out of quicksand, and fleeing from the past, stories about betrayal and moral failings. I'm going to try and write about how love makes life worth living, but at the same time, is capable of a wounding greater than a knife with a serrated blade.
My marriage ended badly; I ain't gonna lie, but I often find myself adding things to the litany of reasons why things went so very wrong. I still loved her, and I like to think that in most respects, she still loved me.
I recently purchased a book entitled The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Reread by Harold Bloom the eminent Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and noted Literary critic who passed away in 2019 at the age of eighty-nine. It cost me thirty-five dollars, and let me tell you that every speck of my deceased father Bill White ( who also plays the Ghost of the Dust Bowl Past in my family's version of the Dickens's Christmas classic) contained in my DNA was screaming, "Are you out of your fucking mind?"
I calmly answered in reply, "Dad, it's 516 pages long? Do you know how much effort goes into writing anything that long? Besides, it contains Bloom's take on forty-eight of the world's great novels. That's like getting an entire university course in Literature for only thirty-five bucks plus taxes." That silenced the screams; my dad, who was forced by economic necessity to quit school after the eighth grade, was always respectful of education, or book learning as he called it.
I was reading Bloom's review on Jane Austen's Emma when I ran across his amazing insight on the fictional after lives of Austen's famous feminine protagonists. What he mentioned was his doubts about whether they were truly happy after marrying the man of their so-called dreams. He points out the fact that they always seemed to settle for the best man at hand and not the one who would cause their bosoms to heave, whatever the hell that means. (Just joking. I think I know. In fact I think I've done it a few times.)
I was kind of a bad boy at one time, or at least pretended to be one. I tried to live according to the masculine ethos that was called for in those days. I smoked Marlboros before I entered junior high, and, because I didn't have a horse, I rode a bike with high handle bars with the cigarette pack rolled up in my t-shirt sleeve, and with a pair of dark green aviator sunglasses and a sneer.
I continued to project this facade right up until about a year after my wife had plucked me from the herds of other self-projecting young mustangs stampeding down the streets of Corcoran, which we all know was the center of the whole damn universe back then, as least as far as its inhabitants were concerned. I also said fuck a lot, I still do. It meant I was rebellious once. I don't know what it means now as I try not to think too hard about it.
She chose me because of the way I looked in those damned sunglasses. She actually said, "I really like the way those glasses look on you." So, I wore them to the breakfast table, mowing the yard, in the shower and even tried to come up with some justification to wear them to bed at night. (Remember this was long before the night she told me that I wouldn't half bad if I took off a few pounds, back when the bloom was still on the rose, so to speak.)
She really chose me because I had some potential, I was kind of funny, somewhat intelligent, not completely hideous to look at, and, hidden somewhere deep inside, I had a streak of kindness. She brought out the kindness part out of me as I had hidden it so long I forgot about it. She blew the dust off of it and shined it up and placed in on the coffee table where others could see it. I was never as much a narcissistic dick as I was back during the sixties and early seventies when the media and American culture seemed to demand that I be one.
Basically, she settled for the security and the lesser evil as did Elizabeth Bennett and those other Austen women. I did too. I mean she wasn't Olivia Hussey, the actress who played Juliette in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliette, but she was pretty, sweet, funny, and pretty hot looking in her white bikini. Mainly, she picked me and in those days, that was the ultimate of aphrodisiacs to the male ego. It was also the thing that hurt the most when it was over, when I had to come to terms with the fact that she no longer picked me.
What Harold Bloom noted that made me wince a little was the knowledge that in life we too often settle for what we think is the best deal that our situation allows. It's kind of like depending on our credit history to decide what car or house we want to buy. And a lot of time, things actually turns out for the best and becomes the thing that the universe itself would offer us if we paid all of our bills, gave a lot of money toward charity, relentlessly gave of ourself and went to work smiling the whole while.
We don't often know this though at the time; we always want to believe that the grass is greener somewhere. What I also didn't know was that because of this "settling" thing I was also under an obligation to recreate the world anew for her every morning, to fill her heart with wonder and amazement, to never let her for moment doubt the beauty and power of her own imagination, and mainly to prove to her that at all times she was the very epicenter of our universe, not only of my individual world, but of the part of the universe that we created together.
Damn, I wish I had read Bloom way back when before I had settled into the ruts of domesticity (hell, the book might even have been a lot cheaper then). Better yet, I wish my dad had read it in the seventh grade, and his father before him.
I know grief. He and I are on a first name basis, his is George. We are always talking about some weird shit or the other.
"Hey, George. How you doing today?"
He always shrugs first thing. It drives me nuts. He always looks at me all serious like Jason Robards looked in All The President's Men. He shrugs, then attempts a sad ass smile that ends up looking like he just bit through the sugar coating of dog turd. He then raises his hand up sideways and shakes it twice and says, "Meh."
He stands behind me when I shave, frowning like I'm doing something wrong. He is the single most, stupid ass, lying, conniving, piece of shit, sorry excuse I know, and in this pandemic era where your willingness to lie can make you the leader of the free world, that's setting the bar pretty fucking high. But I can't ever seem to break it off our relationship because every so often he reveals the truth in ways that no-one else can.
This morning I got up and started reading Joan Didion's novel Play It as It Lays which one critic described as being a ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s. The book is about the main character's relation with her own grief. She gets up in the morning and relentlessly drives the highways around Southern California in search of things to make her forget the fact that her mother died alone in a car wreck and was partially devoured by coyotes before they discovered her body. The main character was partying with a rich boyfriend when it happened.
I've done that, not the rich boy friend partying, but the relentless driving. My father, and my wife had died and God punished my failures as a husband by giving me tinnitus, a classroom full of kids lacking self-control, and a sense of hopelessness that often resembled a tear-stained photograph of a harsh Martian landscape.
That's the thing. Grief always hangs out with these two wormy little fucks named Guilt and Self-Loathing. They always show up late and ring the door bell and wave around an empty bottle of Champagne and say let's party while they're standing there in your doorway, but the moment you let them in, they gang up on you and make you feel like shit.
One summer, I drove from Tehachapi to Merced along the eastern edge of the valley, sometimes with my mom in tow, trying to keep from thinking too much, always hoping that what I discovered on such journeys would be so new and important that it would wipe away the bloody footprints and chalk outlines of the past. The road trips never did help that much, but the demands of the unknown road ahead sometimes kept me from staring too hard at the image in the rear-view mirror.
This morning I got up feeling more than a little discouraged. I read the book I mentioned for an hour and only put it down when the insanity of the main character's outlook on her grief filled life started sounding suspiciously like my own. I went to get another book from the back seat of my car and I found a funeral announcement from a funeral I had recently attended and spoken at. I saw the date under the picture; she was barely 30 years old and was known throughout our small community as someone who had decided to fill her short life with as much love, live, and purpose as she could muster. I think of her like one of those movie characters who put way too much stuff in their suitcase, then have to sit on it to try to make it shut. Her attitude was summed up in the term Beast Mode.
I saw her smiling in the picture and got pissed off at myself for feeling down just because I pretend to have the luxury to waste my time that way. I went in the house and did a sink full of dishes, cleaned my toilet bowl, and washed and vacuumed my car, things I had been neglecting to do. It helped. Doing the things you need to do are often just as vital as love and laughter. Feeling sorry your self is not.
I read now with the same urgency like I once drove across the valley floor in an endless search of shit that I can use to blot out the memories of my shortcomings, flaws, and moral lapses. Someday, I would like to get to the point in the story where on some lost, desert highway I come face to face with a long gray haired, bearded, shabby looking stranger drinking water from a burlap covered glass jug, smoking a Salem. Someone who looks and sounds a lot like Sam Eliot.
I would pull over and park on the other side of the road, look over at my mom and tell her I needed to talk to this fella, and I would be right back. Then I would get out and slow strut to where he sat on a rock covered with a red and blue Navajo blanket, and I would say,
"What can you tell me, man? I read a lot of books and traveled miles and miles both inside and out, fought off demons, and bled real blood. I've come so far to talk to you. I wouldn't even have even known which way to come, but I saw the mark you made on that stop sign back at the four corners. I could really need use some help, Man. Not knowing is driving me crazy."
The man would look me over, take a long drag off his Salem, exhale the smoke making it form a series of concentric rings and then take a drink from his jug, and I would notice that it looked like water coming out of the bottle's mouth, but turned into a dark, red wine as it seeped out of the corners of his mouth. He would burp and mumble, "That's some good shit," and drag his sleeve over his mouth to wipe it. Then he would tell me, "You got every thing you need in that there car, son, your mama, some good books, and a tank of gas. I can only assume you got a CD player playing Kind of Blue and a good GPS app?" I would look at him like of course and on cue Mile's coolest riff from Freddie Freeloader would float out of the car's open windows.
At this point, I would get mad, It would develop slowly as I checked off all of the shortcomings of the unresolved situation, and truth be told, the anger was really being fed by a sense of frustration, the kind that comes from knowing that I was no closer to any kind of permanent understanding than I was when I first started asking why. I would stare at the stranger with great disappointment, both hands open, facing upwards and outstretched and hanging in the air, a gesture of irrational, disbelief, "That's it? After all that driving down dust, deserts roads? Swimming in rivers of ice? All the searching, the thinking, the arguments and face slaps? The saliva on the front of the shoes? After the dark thoughts, the reading, the rereading, the situational compromises? That's it? That's really all you got to offer?"
He chuckled as he pulled a strand of long white hair behind his right ear, then pointed his finger at me and smiled with a big, ass goofy grin. "One other thing; son, you gotta get rid of those three little assholes you've been hanging with a lot."
"You know, Grief and his buddies."
"But how? How do I do that?"
He reached down on the other side of the rock and pulled up a dust covered, white painted board. He blew the dust off and handed it to me, "Hang this sign over your door."
I looked at the sign; it had a big picture of the sun rising carved in the wood and colored red and yellow. And in big blue letters, it said, "No Grief Allowed Here. Get Your Sorry Ass to Stepping!"
I would look at the sign, think about it a bit, and after a while I would arrive at a unique understanding. I would suddenly realize that it was the Monday after Easter Sunday. That would be enough to send me into a short trance-like state as I tried to place the realization into some category where I could process it, and I would smile and nod at the guy, looking somewhat like a lunatic, I would look back to check the anxiety level of my mom, turn back, grab the sign with both hands, and run quickly back to the car, carrying the sign, eager to show it to my mom.
Sometimes I fall into the mistake of thinking that I haven't been writing lately. I have, but I haven't been sharing a lot of it. I have developed such a deep distrust of a lot of the media platforms because of the blatant dishonesty they put on full display at the end of the year. I was looking back at some stuff and while pleasantly surprised by some of what I did write, I also noticed that it was also full of so much longing and regret.
The View From Mt. Fuji
"I knew you guys would come. Or, I knew someone would. I figured the universe couldn't be so cruel as to leave me standing there with my thumb up my ass in front of a prison where I was locked up for five years."
The van was old, rusty and noisy, and they had to raise their voices in order to talk. Lola took a deep last drag off of her Salem and flicked it out the window and then slowly exhaled the smoke out of the window too. "That's where you wrong, sonny boy. The fucking universe would have let you stand right there until the guards came and locked your goofy ass right back up. It was your mother who picked you up. Remember that. I ain't gonna lie though: it was Carla reminded me. Otherwise, I woulda just gone down to Hanratty's and gotten drunk like every other day. Not that I wouldn't have come, of course. I had just forgot."
Old Dudes Fishing
The shiny, new Lexus backed out of the parking slot and straightened its wheels so that Rodney, sitting in the back seat, was level with where Geezer and Pancho were standing. His head and shoulders were slumped over, and his head was barely above window level; he looked up sadly and barely raised his hand and waved as the car pulled forward.
Pancho and Geezer stood right where they were and waved long after the car turned left on Derry and drove out of sight toward the outskirts of town.
After a long while, Geezer turned to his friend and started to say, "Maybe Big Larry's right. It might be good for. . . ," he then noticed that Pancho was crying, "Are you crying? You damn crybaby. Two tours of duty as a helicopter gunner in Nam just to come home and start bawling outside a shit hole restaurant.. Knock it off, Pancho. We ain't freaking snowflakes! We real men remember. The last of a dying breed and don't you ever forget it!"
Pancho turned toward Geezer and smiled through his tears, "Said the same dumb ass fool who cried all night when Jerry Garcia died. I'm gonna miss that fool, Geezer. He didn't talk dumb shit all the time like you."
So You Want to Shag a Movie Star?
"Do you honestly mean to tell me that you think that your answer was appropriate for a high school literature class?"
"That's a different question. I answered the question he asked me, and I answered it honestly. It's not my fault that Mr. People's is a hypocrite."
"So, your deepest desire is to sleep with a Hollywood movie star?"
"There you go to changing the question again. I didn't say it was my deepest desire. My deepest desire would be to be able to function in a society where I didn't have to lie or modify my truth in order deal with the inability of others to accept it as such. In response to your question, I would just say, how could it be otherwise? That's why those stars exist, to create desires where none existed before. They use our desires against us, to sell us stuff, including false realities and untruth."
Ms. Stephens started coughing at that point.
The Languages of Trees
The memory of Petey's death strangely made me think of the image of my dad kneeling down and scratching the words, "Petey Our Beloved Puppy," into the wet cement slab he had placed on the dog's grave and then just as quickly, that old memory morphed in the newer memory of my brothers and I standing at the side of my father's grave. I had thought of Petey's funeral on that day too, wondering who had etched the words into my father's headstone. It was a cold, breezy day the middle of an unusually warm Autumn. My brother Cody had selected Elvis's Peace in the Valley as the music marking the end of the ceremony.
My childhood friend Hobo, real name Larry, came up afterwards and hugged me tightly. He whispered, "Did you pick out that damn music?"
"Naw. That was Cody's idea. He loves Elvis, man. He'd sang it hisself if we'd let em."
Hobo pulled back and said earnestly, "Good fucking choice though. I always said that if'n the King can't break you down, you can't be fucking broken down."
I laughed, "Shit, fool. Don't be making me laugh. It's my dad's funeral for Christ's sake." I then thought about it a minute then said, "Hell, the song was a lot better than that damn preacher though."
"Ain't that the damn truth! Where did you guys get that mealy mouth motherfucker, out the Yellow Pages? Sound like he was trying to sell us a car."
I laughed again, "Knock it off, I said. Damn, dude. Jennie said that if we used Old Penrose she wouldn't even come. Glen came up with this dude."
Hobo pulled a package of Marlboros out of his shirt pocket, lit a one, and exhaled slowly, "Well you know what they always say. Same shit, different suit."
The Man With Half a Heart
And, oh yeah, she took half of him with her. The left half. He suddenly felt a lot lighter, so he looked down and noticed that she had sliced him neatly in two, starting at the top of his head and exiting below his crotch area. He was just starting to wonder just how the f**k she could done the thing so neatly and so swiftly when he remembered that Delia wielded words like a highly trained samurai wielded a katana blade, and she also had a natural gift for turning his own words into weapons that drew blood.
As far as the people eating at the surrounding tables knew, he was okay. Sure, they had witnessed the tossed napkin and the storming out, but to the outward vision, he was still in one piece. He played along with the charade, paid the bill, and slowly made his way into the restroom where he stood before the marble counter and carefully surveyed and listed the real damage.
Anybody knows that possessing half a heart is damned near as worthless as having no heart at all. But a lot of people do not understand that the heart is also a seat of memory and the hub of all emotional activities. So, all of his emotions now entered in a limbo after discovering the hub was missing. They wandered about the halls of his consciousness lost, lonely and confused, sometimes hooking up with the half baked ideas that were still being emitted by the still intact right side of his brain. This resulted in a lot of strange behavior on his part. Sometimes he fell in love with an episode of CSI, at other times he would rage at the sight of cute squirrel eating a peanut in the park.
Mourning in April
I started thinking that life comes at people like a fastball thrown by a hall of fame pitcher while we are looking for the curve. The ball gets up on us so quickly that we swing weakly and miss it by a mile. We know we can't quit though, it wouldn't be right, so we tell ourselves on the way back to the dugout that that motherfucker gotta wear out sometime, and sooner or later, he'll hang that curve right over the plate. Trick is being in the batter's box when he does and still having your team close enough for it to mean something. I was of the mind that after striking out three times, I was fixing to get pulled for a pinch hitter anyway.
It's been over twenty-five years since that star flew across the moon that night and almost the same amount of time since Gladys crushed my hopes like a bug on the first day of seventh grade year.
You'd figure that those two events should have been deeply buried in the sediments by now, far enough beneath the surface of the water, rusted and forgotten, that they couldn't possibly affect me anymore. But you'd figure wrong.
And it's always those deep, forgotten, rusty things that hurt the most.
The Secret of the Sliver Moon
Lazarus Russell died all alone on outskirts of Concord, a small, judgmental town full of people who often carved their presumptions out of stone, yet had a hard time scratching the surface of the obvious. Lazarus had lived there so long that he had become to seem of no more substance or meaning than a barely noticed tree, or a warning sign posted on a certain corner that no one ever heeded.
It was cold and bitter the night he died lying on a dirt embankment beneath the railroad bridge along State Route 23. He looked up at the slight, blurry, sliver of silver hanging in a dark black sky then lowered his gaze toward the brackish water pooled below the railroad bridge and saw the same slivered moon undulating lightly on its surface. He then closed his eyes, mumbled something toward the shadows, exhaled and surrendered.
Kevin Cash ran through life like his tail was on fire. Looking back, I often wonder if he didn't have the right idea. Life is like a big assed wool blanket and if we stand still long enough, or worse, just sit and watch, it will eventually smother us all.
Standing there by his grave, all his friends were gathered at one end, clustered in between a flower arrangement that spelled out 'Go for it!' in red roses at one end and one that said 'Tell Johnny I Said Hello' in blue and yellow roses at the other. The picture his sister Sharon took of the sad looking group looked like the after picture of the whole Sixties era, and, in perfect truth, captured the essence of those confusing times as they played out in our dusty, little town in the great San Joaquin Valley. I can't help but wonder though how many other such photographs exist and how many 'What the Fuck?' responses they would one day engender.
We laughed that there was nothing inside that shiny walnut box but the ass end of big joint in a roach clip. We joked about it because we had all seen it coming, and, each in our own way, had tried to warn him. We always presented ourselves like a stoic bunch of sad-eyed losers but a little bit deeper down, underneath the thin layer of epidermis we passed off to the public, our hearts were drowning. It was like being at the funeral of Icarus. All of us got a little sunburned, but it was always Kevin who flew the highest.
"Pop, is there anything about your God forsaken life that you actually regret?"
I saw that the question hit him right between the eyes, and he flinched for just a second. For as long as I had known him, my dad had never, ever looked backwards. He even told me once that he had taken the rearview mirror out of the first car he owned. When I asked him why, he surprised me with his answer.
"A old man I knew, Guy Mitchell, used to be a Professor back in Arkansas, once told me a story about a mule sitting equal distance between two bales of hay. He said that damn fool mule couldn't make his mind up which bale to eat and starved to death. There's only one way to go, Son. Forward. And because life is hard on your ass trying to run you down you gotta move fast, so you got no time to sit cry in your fucking beer."
"Regrets, Pop? You got any?"
He looked out the window as the town he had lived in for over sixty years flew by like the moving back drops in the old Western movies he loved so much. After a minute, he turned back and looked me in the eyes. He wore thick lenses, and they magnified his eyes so that I could see that his bottom lids were damning the flow of the only water I had ever seen in those eyes.
This man had cracked jokes at my mom's funeral. He complained so much about her cooking, that I had to threaten to kick his ass if he didn't shut up. It was only now though, in sudden flash of insight, no doubt helped along by the shock of seeing those damn tears welling up, that I realized the jokes and the complaining was all facade. I knew that he was hurting, maybe even feeling guilty as we sat there by the side of my mother's grave.
"You can't live life the way I"ve done and just up and start feeling guilty or ashamed. It wouldn't be honest. My old man use to beat my ass every day. Right up till the time I took his belt away and turn the tables on him. The way I see things, I only have two regrets anyway."
Pop stopped mid thought. I waited and waited and the answer didn't seem to be forthcoming. "And?"
He then gave me the saddest look I had ever seen, "I regret in taking the pretty offa your mama. She was the prettiest girl in this county at one time. . . . . .then she had the bad judgement to take up with me." He chuckled sadly, "I used to parade her up and down this very street like I was toting peacocks."
With that, he grew silent and turned and looked back out the window. I could tell though that what he was seeing in his head sure wasn't really out there now.
"Pop, you said you had a second regret?"
The words came out simply, hard, fast and resigned, "My greatest regret is turning that belt on my daddy. I should never have done that."
I was 10 years old when I first thought about death. I was standing in the darkened kitchen of our old house on the Southside of Corcoran, looking through the doorway into our fully lit living room when my mom and dad returned home from my uncle Raymond's funeral. They were dressed in black and I instinctively knew that something serious was happening. I wasn't quite certain what all it involved, but I knew that I would never forget that moment as long as I lived.
Then the day after school ended my sixth grade year, my best friend at the time drown while swimming in an irrigation canal out by where the prison is today. I heard the news from a kid that I didn't want to see at that moment for whatever reason. When I heard that he was looking for me, I ducked beneath my neighbor's grandpa's truck and was lying facedown in the dirt in the darkness staring out at his sunlit feet when he told my friends to let me know that Billy had drown. I had a dream that night that Billy was running through the hallways of Mark Twain School calling for me to come out and hang with him. Then I woke up into the extremely bitter realization that he was gone forever.
About a year later, there was a thunder and lightening storm that hit Corcoran, and my mother in a rush to pick my brother and I up from his football practice, forgot that our beloved family dog Pepe often slept in a rut behind the left rear tire of our family car. In the darkness my brother Tim and I didn't even notice that my mom was crying until we walked out of darkness of the night into the house and saw my dad sitting in the middle of the couch crying with his head haloed by a ceiling light coming from the kitchen through the same doorway that I had once saw them coming home from my uncle's funeral.
My dad, trying to spare us the grisly knowledge of death had hastily buried Pepe before we had even got home. We made him dig Pepe up and place him in a wooden coffin lined with an old towel, and we held a ceremony for our pet the next day and placed a headstone on the grave that is still there to this day.
I learned that time that it is inevitable and certain that all the people and things we love will one day pass away, and that is a heavy knowledge to place upon the shoulders of someone young, or for anyone for that matter. Throughout my life, I've often caught myself holding back and keeping my loved ones at arm's length in the hope that death won't notice my love for them and spirit them away.
I'm certain that everyone who reads this can substitute their own images of death that they will never forget for as long as they live. And I believe that if they search their memories that they will also notice the role that the demarcation beneath darkness and light play in their memories too, for Death is the great illumination that most clearly defines our very existence. So often, it pulls us up out of the darkness and our sleep and thrusts us into the harsh light of reality. REALITY. As in the world as it really is.
We humans often resort to such ridiculous measures to avoid the certain knowledge of our own impending death. Most of us, if we are being perfectly honest, would be more willing to watch every stupid ass show there is on Bravo in an endless loop than to ever take the time to carefully examine those acid-etched memories in an effort to squeeze out every ounce of possible meaning that we could gain from such an effort. We would rather become diehard Detroit Lion fans, or even pretend to love the music of a dip-shit like Marilyn Manson rather than sit for a minute alone with the deafening silence of the simplest most enduring Truth of our existence.
Recently, a young lady I knew and loved passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. She was given a timeline that pretty much told her when her life would come to an end. Her response was to try and prove her doctor's wrong. And the thing that was most amazing was that she always had a smile on her face right up until the very end. People my age live in daily fear of receiving such knowledge. And I don't even want to speculate on how well I would handle such news.
I read a quote the other night in a book that I was reading to learn more about another book I had already read. The author was trying to come to grips with the tragic death of a close friend, and it said, "It is a parent's job to love a child into the belief that life is worth living." I was struck by the stunning truth of that haunting sentiment. How different our lives could be if all our schools operated on the belief that it was their job to love a child into believing that life had meaning, or if all of our politicians understood that it was their chief responsibility to give us hope instead of behaving like the silly twits to which we have become accustomed.
What a great parent this young lady surely must have had to have her believe so strongly that life, no matter how bad it might seem, was worth the living. What a lesson for us all, not in how she showed us how to die, but in how she showed us how to live.
Johnny 'Buddha' Aguayo walked out of the prison gate with no expectations. He had put absolutely zero thought into figuring out what would happen upon his release. His mom knew he was getting out, so he figured she might be the one who showed up to pick him up, but over the years, he had learned many painful yet valuable lessons, each slightly varied in their particulars, but all with the same theme; it would be totally insane for him to place his trust in his mother. So, he left it up to the universe to deal with, the same mental practice that had helped get him through most of his childhood and the five years he had just served in prison.
He just stood there adjusting his stance from time to time, a tall, well built, light skinned Mexican-American with a graying goatee, staring off at the horizon. He had short, reddish-brown hair parted on the side and a light scattering of freckles across his nose. It had been the one thing that he had missed the most while locked up, a clear, unfettered look at the horizon, one that didn't have the walls of the prison obstructing the view.
Johnny stood perfectly still for at least ten minutes, not saying anything, or displaying in any way that he was impatient or the least bit anxious. The guards watching his every move would never be able to understand how much his mind was instantly comforted by seeing the horizon from outside of the walls.
In the distance, a solitary cyclonic cloud of dust appeared to be following the single road that led toward the front of prison. After a while, it became apparent that the cloud of dust was being created by Johnny's mother's van. Johnny could tell by its purple coloring and bright, yellow trim. His mother Lois was the leader of small tribe of diehard Laker fans and nearly everything she owned exhibited the same color scheme. The van also had a wheel-chair lift on the side that distinguished it from most other vans. It sped by the first entrance and slammed on the brakes only after passing the second entrance by about fifty feet. It backed up, turned into the driveway, and came to a sudden, grinding halt facing the way that it had come surrounded by the dust cloud and announcing its presence with the cacophony of a heaving bucket of rusty bolts. The rear door opened and Johnny threw his back pack in and jumped inside climbing over the rear seat. The door slammed, and the dust cloud began its journey back to where it had started.
Lois, heavy-set and heavily made-up wore her long gray hair braided. She wore leather sandals and a white, peasant's blouse bare at the shoulders. She turned in the driver's seat and questioned, "Hey, Mijo, you starting to get worried? We woulda been here earlier except your fucking dad had to stop and pee at the 7 Eleven." She looked over to where his father Big John sat in the passenger seat across from his son.
His dad's nickname was all lie. Big John had never weighed more than a hundred and sixty pounds in his whole life, and he was only five foot six. He was a thin, passive man who had labored in the fields on the outskirts of the city until his back had given out and dealing with t his wife caused his last testicle to wither up and die. He rarely spoke unless in response to a question, and his most worthwhile contributions to his family was his silence, his stoic sensibilities and the disability check he received once a month. Big John gazed at his son, smiled, and nodded.
"Hey, Pop. Long time no see," Johnny said. Big John's smile revealed he had lost his front teeth, shook his head sadly.
"Hi, Johnny, we're glad you're finally out. You're mom's been making tamales for your first meal home." This came from Carla, his mother's girlfriend. She smiled at him, looking somewhat like a cartoon raccoon with the heavy black eyeshadow she always wore. Her hair was dyed black but her blonde roots were showing adding to the raccoon look. Carla had grown-up in a well-to-do family in Pacific Palisades, but she had left home at sixteen when her parent's drinking and her father's gotten attentions had gotten completely out of hand. She had dropped out of college and ended up dancing at a strip club where Lois was dancing too. Johnny had been fully prepared to hate her when she first showed up at the house, but her naivety and natural goodness quickly won him and his brother over.
"Oh, I knew you guys would come. Or, I knew someone would. I figured the universe couldn't be so damn cruel as to leave me standing there with my thumb up my ass in front of a prison where I was locked up for five years."
The van was old, rusty, unreliable and very noisy, and everyone had to raise their voices in order to talk. Lois took a deep last drag off of her Salem, flicked it out the window and then slowly exhaled the smoke out of the window too. "That's where you wrong, sonny boy. The fucking universe would have let you stand right there until the guards came and locked your goofy ass right back up. It was your mother who picked you up. Remember that. I ain't gonna lie though: it was Carla reminded me. Otherwise, I woulda just gone down to Hanratty's and gotten drunk like every other day. Not that I wouldn't have come, of course. I had just forgot."
Johnny raised his chin and almost shouting said, "Thanks, Carla. You too, mom. And you too, Pop."
Lois, happy that he had included her, couldn't stop herself from asking, "Whatya thanking him for? He never does nothing but smile that same stupid ass smile all day, and you gotta drag every word he says out of his ass with a pair of God-damn vice-grips."
"Yeah, well then I'm thanking him for smiling everyday and not saying shit." After that, the conversation died. They drove back to city with no-one saying anything. Lois was listening to radio KRTH and her and Carla would sing along every time a song came on that they liked. Johnny looked at his dad who was looking straight ahead out of the front windshield but also seemed to be looking into a different dimension. It reminded Johnnie of the times when he was younger, back before his brother Eddie got shot, when Big John would stare at the television set but looked straight past it seeing God only knows what.
It was late afternoon when they finally got to the house that Lois had bought with the money she was awarded from a lawsuit she had brought when she was injured at a packing plant. It wasn't painted Laker colors, purple with yellow trim, when she had bought it, but she persuaded her boy friend at the time and his brothers to paint it for her. Johnny walked in and went straight to the bedroom he had shared with his younger brother Eddie. He could tell that his mom, or probably Carla, had recently cleaned it. Even the record he had left on the turntable the day he had last walked out of the room had been dusted and shined. He walked over to the twin bed he had slept in, took his shoes off, and lay down.
He couldn't keep from thinking about how eerie it was that how little it was unchanged from the times when he and Eddie would lie in bed and talk into the wee hours of the night. He looked up at the ceiling and was pleased to discover that the poster of Mt. Fuji that Mr. Cyrus, his seventh grade English teacher, had given him on the last day of seventh grade was still there. He recalled the many hours he had stared at the picture and pretended that he was standing on the top of the mountain where he received the special magical powers that would transport him to any place in the world that he wanted to be. He also remembered how Mr. Cyrus was the only teacher who had ever said anything nice to him.
"Johnny, you got a real gift with your reading ability. You need to nourish it, and it will do good things for you."
"I don't know about that Mr. Cyrus. It's a rough place where I live."
"It's rough everywhere. Sometimes, it don't look it but life's tough."
"It don't look too rough on the other side of the freeway over there, Mr. Cyrus. Them people got their own swimming pools and stuff."
"I live by some people who have swimming pools. They are some of the dumbest people I know. I mean it, they are some seriously screwed up people. I grew up poor myself. My dad was executed by the state of Arkansas right after I was born. I could read well though. I earned a scholarship to go to college. I've taught here for the last thirty years. I've long since faced up to the fact that most of the kids I've taught didn't learn much."
"Why you keep doing it?"
"I don't want a none to five. I want to try to make a difference. I've had a few kids come through that wouldn't made it without my help. Besides I like coaching basketball."
I'm retiring this year, Johnny, tired of talking to myself. My brother-in-law is an investment banker; he makes fun of my teaching career. You know what I tell him?"
"What do you say?"
"May not be enough for you, it's enough for me."
Before Johnny got locked up, he had heard that after Mr. Cyrus's wife Beatrice died from Ovarian cancer, he had ran a garden hose from the tailpipe into the cab of his blue Chevy 150, put Miles Davis's Kind of Blue on the stereo, and sat there till he died; the paper had used the word asphyxiated. He wondered who, if anyone, had attended his services. He also decided he would visit the grave.
Johnny slept deeply for two hours then awoke to the sound of Carla and his mom preparing his welcome home dinner. The TV was blaring in the kitchen and they were laughing over a joke someone had made. He got up and walked out the back door onto the patio. Big John had just finished spraying off the concrete and was busy trimming the ivy which had clearly taken over the yellow wooden lattice work that separated the patio from the vision of pedestrians walking by. The patio furniture his mother had bought on her forty-fifth birthday was still there. There were four metal scalloped back chairs with white legs. The chairs were once red, blue, green and orange, but she and Carla had painted them purple and yellow. Everyone in the house except Johnny got to pick a number of their favorite Laker to paint on the front of the seat. His brother Eddie was real artistic and made the numbers look real. There was #23 for Lois's favorite Magic Johnson, #42 for Carla's James Worthy, Big John's #33 for Abdul-Jabbar, and #21 for Eddie's choice of Michael Cooper. Johnny hated the Lakers and often wore a Piston jersey with Joe Dumar's #4 just to piss his mother off.
He walked over to the set and pulled the #21 chair out and sat down. A rush of memories flooded over him. He remembered the nights of a patio full of neighbors and friends drinking, arguing, and laughing loudly. Life for the most part growing up had usually been a real shit show; it wasn't always bad.
His mom, or more likely Carla, had pulled out all of the stops for dinner. There were tacos, carnitas, enchiladas and tamales. There was even fresh baked pumpkin pie with whip cream, his favorite. A case of Pabst Blue Ribbon bottles sat covered with iced down in a yellow and purple cooler on the kitchen counter. Lola was drinking one of her Laker Bombs, a concoction she had created consisting of a bottle of Jose Cuervo mixed with Grape Kool-Ade and slices of lemon. Johnny could tell by her flushed face that his mother had been drinking them for a while
She slapped her hand on the table and said, "Hey everybody, I want to make a toast to my boy Johnny being home."
They all drank the toast. Then they all made made a toast, one by one, to Johnny's homecoming, even Big John managed to mumble something out.
After Carla's toast, Lois added, "I only wish Lil Eddie could be here to see this."
"Amen," said Carla.
The statement triggered something in Johnny, a resentment, that had been building up for six years; he sat his beer down on the table, "Maybe he could have, mom, if you hadn't had him standing out on that corner where they shot him."
There was a very tense moment of silence, and Johnny saw the always present smile on his dad's disappear."
The gist of what he what he said finally managed its way through Lois's drunken haze, and she exploded in anger, "What are you saying? That I caused him to get shot that night? He was my son. I loved that kid. I didn't do nuthin!"
"You beat up Pedro Verdado's grandmother because she said something about Carla. You put the old lady in the hospital with a concussion, and then you threatened their whole family saying that your boys would take care of them."
"Fuck that bitch. She deserved what she got; she called Carla a puta. She told me, 'Your fucking lezzie whore thinks I owe her some money.'"
"And then later that night, Pedro and his cousin Felix shot Eddie who was down on the corner telling everybody he was looking for Pedro. So, I then had to shoot Felix."
Carla was trying to run interference for Lois, "Yeah, but it was self defense what you did."
"Naw, that's what my lawyer said, and the jury believed him. I had to shoot him first because he knew I was Eddie's brother."
"Then how's that my fault, Johnny. I fought her with my fists. Besides, me and Yolanda had bad blood for years. I beat her ass up at least three times before that night. Eddie had go out there acting all bad."
"Yeah, but he was doing it for you, Ma. You put him up to it, always trying to please you and show you how tough he was. That wasn't really him. That was never him. All he really wanted to do was paint and draw, but you always called him a sissy for wanting that."
"He needed to be tougher, Johnny. He wouldn't survive out there unless he got tougher."
"Tough enough to get shot, I guess."
His mom hurled her beer bottle at him. It missed and exploded on the wall behind him. She stood up and pointed at him in anger, "I didn't do it. You think I wanted him to get shot down like that, like a dog in the street. He was my baby boy. I loved him the most! You're just jealous." She collapsed back down into her chair and put her head down on the table sobbing. Carla tried to comfort her. Big John had slipped out of the room like he always did whenever tempers began to flair.'
Johnny breathed deeply and slowly exhaled, "I'm sorry, Mom. Something made me say it. It's been building up in me for years. I didn't mean to put it like that. It didn't have to happen. We could have left and moved somewhere else. Shit, we could've painted another house all purple and gold.......It's just that I had too much time to think about that night. I read a lot of books and it took me a while, but I learned to understand that most of our troubles start when we are too young to know how things really are. I know how tough you and my tias had it growing up. I understand that you did things you probably wouldn't have done if your dad had been a real man instead of some Irish, asshole drunk. But there are consequences, Mom. There is always a price people got to pay for not playing by the rules. Sometimes, you don't pay it yourself and someone else has to pay it for you. I realized that maybe your dad had it rough too, and probably his dad before that and on and on. It made me realize that our lives are mapped out years before we even get a chance to live them, and unless something happens where the universe decides to throw us a rope, we live out our destinies paying for the mistakes of all those who came before us."
He got up from his seat and went and kneeled before his mother and placed his head into her lap. She stopped sobbing after a while and leaned over him and placed her head on his and her hands on his back. "I'm so sorry, Johnny. I never meant to hurt you guys. I ruined it all for you and you were such a smart kid. You could have been a doctor or a lawyer." Her words made her start sobbing again, "It's crazy. I love you guys so much, but I do such stupid shit. I don't even think before I do it. I even love your dumb-assed dad, wouldn't know what I'd do without that goofy bastard."
That night, lying in bed and staring up at the poster hanging on the ceiling above him, Johnny summoned the magic from the picture and took himself back to the night where he and Eddie had talked about the future. He told his brother he had wanted to be a writer and to write a book like Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, his favorite writer. He related the outlines of the story to his brother. Then Eddie had told him about his wish to become an artist.
"Keep it on the down low, dude. I don't want them assholes like Julio and Ernest laughing at me like they do with Joey and his wish to be an architect."
The week before, Eddie had finished painting a mural of Magic Johnson driving for a lay-up inside the taqueria of one of Lois's friends named Hercule Perez. He had also painted a picture of an Abdul-Jabbar skyhook on the outside wall facing the busy street. On the inside wall, behind the counter, Eddie had painted a picture of Napoleon's flagship The Orient burning and sinking after the battle of The Nile River.
"Why? Why the hell would you do that?" he had asked his brother.
"Because Hercule gave me my choice, a hundred a fifty for both paintings, or a wall to paint what I wanted. He got mad when I finished because it didn't match the theme, and he tried to pay me to cover it up, and I told him, "Fuck you, Dude, we made a deal, so he let it stay up. People liked it too."
The very next night, he and his girlfriend drove up on Eddie lying bleeding on the corner of Fifth and Galveston in front of Hercule's place, then later that night he hovered over the body of Felix Garcia lying at his feet facedown in the gutter in front of Mercury Liquor with the puddling red blood from his head wound reflecting the colors of the traffic light. He remembered setting the gun on the ground and standing there and waiting for the police to arrive on the scene. The night and the street corner were noisy as hell, but the only sound he remembered was the broken breathing of his girlfriend Cathy crying as she stood beneath the streetlight clutching his arm. She married his best friend Benny while he was on trial. He had given her his blessing, not that she wanted it.
"Your blessing? Who the fuck are you, St. Francis all of a sudden.What the hell I need your blessing for, asshole?"
"I didn't mean it like that, I was thinking in case you were feeling guilty or something. I mean I was your fiancé before all this shit happen."
"My fiancé? This is the first time I heard about that? Were you planning on telling me? You were a good lover, Johnnie; that's about it? Besides, all you ever did was boss me around."
"Boss you around? Girl, no one could ever tell you shit. That's always been your fucking problem. You do such stupid shit. You're still beautiful as ever, Cathy, but you never listen to reason. Now, go on and get your sorry ass out of my face. Marry that fool."
She pushed away from the counter with a look of rage contorting her features. He couldn't resist one last dig, "Yeah and don't worry, I want tell Billy whose kid that is as long as he don't ever take a math class. Benny couldn't count to nine with out taking both shoes off!"
The next morning was a typical LA morning with the sun trying to fight its way through the dull,, gray haze hovering over the freeways. Johnnie rose feeling refreshed and took his first free shower where he didn't have to keep his butt cheeks clenched and his eyes furtively searching the area in the back of his head. He asked borrowed his mother's van and took them all, Lois, Carla, and Big John to Denny's for breakfast. His mom got in the passenger seat without the customary heavy make-up she always wore in public. He kissed his her and Carla and hugged his dad before they entered the restaurant.
"Damn, Ma. I think this is the first time I can ever remember you going outside without your make-up. It's a good look for you, especially going without all that purple eye-shadow."
Lois turned and flipped him off, but it was clear that the remark made her happy. Her eyes smiled more so than they ever had in all of his childhood memories, maybe with the exception of the years that the Lakers had won the championship. She was always toasted on those occasions though, This time she was sober, and the smile was unexpected. Big John agreed with him, smiling broadly and nodding, "She's pretty this way, huh?"
When he dropped them off later, Lois asked him where he was going, so he answered, "Going to see Eddie. What else?"
"Well, don't do anything stupid, Mijo. Think about yourself first, son." He turned his hands inside out on his lap. He meant it to be a reassuring gesture, but Lois only noticed the sharp red outline of a scar that ran all the way across his left palm.
It was a long drive from one end of LA to the other, but it gave Johnny plenty of time to think. It was a somewhat beautiful day with a slight breeze that had driven away most of the haze, and he cruised along at highway speed with the window down and his arm hanging out, the wind rustling his hair. He thought about how many times he had driven down this same stretch of road and had taken the moment for granted. He put the radio on and War's classic Slipping into Darkness came on. He helped out with the chorus.
It was about an hour later when he turned into the long, oak lined driveway that led into the pastoral grounds of the Heavenly Home for Assisted Living. He recognized his brother Eddie as soon as he stepped out of the van. Eddie was sitting in his wheel chair in the middle of group of other wheel chair bound artists. He was the exact opposite of their father. Even in his chair, he looked tall and his mother's Irish side stood out more in his face and complexion. Eddie was showing his wheel chair bound audience how to paint oak trees, easy to see because he was in front of huge easel with a large canvas with a beautiful sketch of the tree before which they were seated.
Fifteen minutes later, after carefully securing Eddie and his wheelchair into their mandated slot, Johnny and his brother were flying down the highway toward a third destination. For the first ten minutes neither said a word and only the wind whistling by and highway noise filled the van. It was only when they flew by the Now or Never Amusement Park they used to frequent as kids that Eddie spoke.
"Member that place Johnny, the go-karts?"
Johnny shook his head sadly before answering, "I remember Diego getting us kicked-out for good?"
It was Eddie's chance to shake his head sadly, "That poor fool never had a chance? It was wrong what his mom did, pure fucking evil?"
It grew silent again, except for the road noise and the wind whistling, otherwise the verbal silence ruled for about as long as it took for the brothers to rethink the fate of their long lost friend.
Another five minutes flew by before Eddie urgently looked over at his brother, "You bring it, Johnny?"
Johnny answered Eddie by nodding toward the glove box.
"He urinated on me, Bro. While I was lying there, he took his dick out and pissed on my fucking head."
"I know. And Felix laughed too, and he told Pedro to leave it to him and he would take care of Mom and her little lezzie friend." He looked back at his brother, "I made you a promise, Eddie. You don't have to worry about me."
"Never have, brother. I always known that I could count on you. But I'm sorry about how much crazy shit I've put you through."
"Don't be, Eddie. Fate or whatever put me into the role. We can't pick our parents. Neither could they. Besides, if I hadn't been fighting with Ma, I'd probably been there instead of you, and we woulda probably switched places. Are you sure you wanna go through with this? Looks like you got yourself in a sweet set-up back there. I mean all things considered."
"I'm in a fucking wheelchair, Johnny. There's nothing sweet about it; stuck in a prison of memories of being pissed on and handicapped. I piss in a bag, Johnnie. Besides, Lucy was there in the car laughing as he did it."
"Word in the joint was he had her killed too."
"I know. All the more reason. She was my girl first. Then he got her strung out on that shit." Eddie paused for a moment and traveled back in time for a bit. "You know, as much as Ma and I usta fight, you'd think that shit he said wouldn't have bothered me so much."
"Maybe if he hadn't spray painted it across your mural of Kareem?"
Eddie chuckled lowly and smiled grimly, "Maybe so."
"You do know, don't ya, that in reality Ma started the whole thing over some comment that Pedro's grandma said about Magic Johnson. You know after he got AIDs."
"I didn't know it for reals; I heard the whispers and just kind of assumed," Eddie answered as he took the pearl-handled .38 that his brother handed him and placed it into the pocket of his Laker jacket.
They found him sitting outside of Azule's Bar holding court with a bevy of young ladies. It took a few minutes before Johnny could extricate Eddie from the lift. He then reached into the glovebox and handed his brother the pearl handled gun. Eddie stuck inside his jacket and off they went.
Afterwards, they waited by the van breathing heavily.
"What the fuck just happened, Eddie?"
"Damned if I know. I had the gun out when that tall waiter dude ran by me, pushing me aside. He just started blasting away, Man. I seen a bullet go though Verdado's eye; then he shot the dude next to him. Next thing, I know we getting the fuck out of there."
"Well, what we do now?"
"Scram, fool. Get me up in there and let's roll!"
While Johnny pushed Eddie into the lift. A long black SUV slowly rolled up, and two tall, serious looking types in black uniforms got out. They weren't cops, but the Uzis they were carrying and the earpieces they wore signified something else.
The one who stepped out of the passenger seat, a six foot, well built, young black guy with a shaved head spoke first, "You guys really shouldn't be hanging around here. That dude who got smoked has a lot of friends."
Johnny was confused but before he could wrap his head around what the first guy had said, his huge, Caucasian partner added, "I know you're displaying a handicap sticker on that thing, but I assume that you can load this non walking gentleman up and get the fuck out of the area."
Eddie started to say, "But what about.....?"
The first guy shushed him, "We'll handle it, don't worry. That fucking dude was a scum bag who had a hell of a lot more enemies that he had friends. Let's just say you got beat to the punch and leave it at that."
Johnny's mouth tried to work, "But the women, the other people...?"
The giant shushed him too, "Just get your ass in the van and scram, Dumb Ass!"
Johnny got the message and quickly loaded Eddie up. The SUV started up and pulled around to where they were. A darkened window slid down and the man driving called out, "Ain't that @Lois#1Lakerfan's van?"
Johnny shut the side door, took a deep breath and muttered, "My mom."
The driver looked at his partner and nodded. The window slid back up into place and the SUV rolled away across the parking lot like it was being driven by an older couple looking for a place to eat. Johnny started the van, put his sunglasses on and drove off slowly.
Miles away when they finally felt themselves beyond the grasp of the event. They pulled over in a 7-11. Johnny looked over at his brother and cracked a small smile. "Damn, Eddie that was intense."
"I know. All the shooting..."
"Naw, fuck that. The universe, dude. The universe just saved us both from what we perceived as our fate. You had the gun out and everything, Man!"
"Now why would it do that, for us, I mean? Why not just some random thing?"
"I don't know, Eddie. Maybe because it knows that, at heart, we are not bad people. I really don't know."
Eddie laughed, "You know what I was thinking just now? I was wishing for the presence of mind to have emptied my bag on that fool."
Johnny looked at his brother and started up the engine, "Your call. I wonder if it's too late though?"
Eddie laughed again, "They'll be an opportunity at his funeral."
"I don't know from what that guy said, they'll probably be a line."