Danny Wilson kept fiddling with his tie as he watched the people filling into the gymnasium. He had coached close to four hundred basketball games in this very room and had never once been as nervous as he was on this night. He was seated up at the dais right next to George Haller, his principal and long-time friend. He looked over to where Haller stood bent over Superintendent Michael's table. He felt a twinge of disgust at the image. Superintendent Michaels was both a pompous ass and a first class douche.
Danny thought to himself that his mom would have been impressed to see how many people turned out for his retirement dinner, and then that thought segued into the realization that he had last seen his mother alive at another dinner just six months before this night. It was at Thanksgiving and this year, it was just the two of them. Glen, his older brother, had dinner at his son's, and Scot, the youngest by two years, lived in Arkansas with his second wife. Danny's two daughters had dinner in Santa Barbara at his youngest daughter's house. He would have been there too, but his mom was sick and embarrassed by her incontinence and rarely left her house. He rememberer that they had gotten into an argument that night.
"All that I'm saying is that a man your age needs some female companionship. You want to end up all alone like me?"
"Why do we always have to have this conversation, Ma? If I wanted to date somebody, I would."
The stare she gave him made her look so much like a bald eagle, that it almost made him smile. "Pshaw! You just waiting around for Jennie to come back, and she's dead. She ain't ever coming back. You need to move on with your life, Son."
He lied. "I ain't waiting for Jenny, Ma. I know she's gone. I just ............. I just a.............what would happen to you if I started dating."
She snapped at him, "Don't you dare try to put this on me, Danny Wilson!"
He cleaned off the table, threw away the paper plates, and bagged the left overs and placed them in his mom's fridge. He kissed his mother on her cheek when he left. Getting in his car, he looked back, and she was still sitting in the doorway in her wheelchair. He honked his horn, blew her a kiss and waved goodbye. The next day, after school let out, he returned to her house to get some left-overs. She didn't answer the door, and he knew right away what he find when he walked into her room.
A loud noise in the back of the auditorium snapped him back to the moment, and he looked up and saw a tall, blonde entering the room. It was the captain Julie Whitlock and most of the members of 1994 State Championship team. They were honored guests and were quickly escorted to one of the front tables. They took turns waving to Danny as they as they were seated.
George Haller walked over to where he sat, "Almost time, Coach. You doing ok?"
Danny nodded and then asked, "What did Michaels have to say?"
George made sure no one was listening before he answered, "Same shit, different day. I sure would like to punch that miserable bastard in his face." Then he hurried away, scurrying over to the table where Board member Susie Archuleta and her husband Jim were sitting with County Supervisor Janie Serna and her significant other.
Julie Whitlock was radiant looking as usual, the perfect image of a strong, confident woman. It made Danny remember another time when she didn't look so great or so strong. Her parents had divorced her Freshman year, and her mother pretty much abandoned her. She lived with her father Leo who had never gotten over the divorce. He spent most of his time at the Rosewood Bar and Grill, leaving Julie to make out on her own. One day, she came home after practice and found her father lying in a bathtub half filled with bloody water and with most of his brains plastered against the bathroom wall. Danny was the first person she called, and he called the ambulance and hurried right over and found her sitting outside on the porch, trembling in the cold night air. He had somehow known to grab a blanket and wrapped her up in it and held her until the ambulance arrived.
Jenny and him were still together back then, and Julie's mother was more than happy to sign the papers that allowed Julie to come stay with Danny and his family. His girls loved it; Julie was like their big sister. He smiled as he remembered all of the times they would drive as a family to go watch Julie when she played on scholarship for Medford State.
He remembered that Jenny and his marital problems didn't manifest until after Julie left for college. He had come home from practice one day to find Jenny out back by the pool drinking a margarita in the November fog. Out of the blue, at least to him, she announced that she didn't love him anymore and was leaving. Later, while cleaning out her closet, he found the want ads section from the local paper. Jenny had been looking a apartment for a while. He looked at the date and did the math. It was right after her dad had died.
Danny instantly knew something was up when George had called him into his office a little over two weeks ago because George had never called him into his office in all of their years of working together. He came in nervously and sat down in the big, comfortable red leather chair in front of George's desk. George was on the phone, so he waited. When George got done, he hung up the phone and looked at Danny and tried to talk. It took him more than a couple attempts before he could get words out. Finally, he said, "I ain't gonna shit you, Danny. Those numb-nuts across the fence are forcing me to try to get you to resign."
He was surprised he kept his composure so well despite the fact that he felt that he had been punched in the gut.
"And what if I don't feel like retiring? I love my job. I'm good at it, and you know it."
"I do. I've always said that you're the best damn literature teacher in the whole state, but you know the drill. Same way they forced Riddenour out last year. You know as well as I do, that Sam should have been teaching Chemistry at the university level. Didn't matter to them. They only knew that they could hire three young hot shots for what they were paying him. Don't matter if they could teach or not. Michaels only sees the bottom line. They already plan to kill off the both the Honors and Literature classes. You don't go along and they'll have you teaching remedial English to worse behaved kids in the whole school, and there's nothing I can do about it."
Danny leaned back in his chair and took a measured breath before answering, "The saddest thing George, is that there was a time when you would have fought them like a lion protecting his young."
George's shoulders collapsed, "I know, but that was back before Carmen took most of everything I owned. With her behind me, I could have took on the world. Now? Hell, I've been a principal for over thirty years, and I'm living in a trailer house on the outskirts of town."
It looked like George was getting ready to cry,"Give me the damn papers, George. I don't want to work for these assholes anyways." As he signed the papers, he added, "You do know that you're probably next."
George gave his friend a sad smile, shrugged and whispered, "I know."
Danny suddenly found himself wishing that Jenny was still alive to see this. She always believed that his coaching was just a hobby. She never understood how much it meant to him. In his mind, he was a coach. It was a role that he had been born to play. She treated basketball like it was another woman and never understood that there never was any other woman as far as Danny was concerned. He loved Jenny with all his heart while knowing that he could never make her happy. Her dad dying had taken away her ability to laugh and smile.
He had been driving home after a game one night and heard two guys on the radio talking about a company who could get your Alexis to speak to you in the voice of a departed loved one. When he got home, He went and opened a desk drawer in his office and took out a small white box containing Jenny's last cell phone. He knew that if he called her on that phone, he could hear her voice on the answering machine. The phone was dead and there was no charger in the box, so he placed the phone back in the box and returned it to the drawer.
Jenny died a year and half before his mom, sandwiched between the death of his father the year before and his mother's death the day after Thanksgiving. She had gotten brain cancer right after leaving him and fought a very valiant fight before succumbing to the disease. He had gone to see her in the hospital and held her hand as she filled him in on all of her struggles. She had cried the moment he entered the room, and later one the nurses who cared for her during hospice told him that Jenny had always talked about him and said that she knew he loved her, but he never knew how to say it.
The dinner went remarkably well. He had prepared a speech earlier in the day where he planned to expose Superintendent Michaels for the ass that he was. Julie Whitlock's speech though had spoiled the plan. When she was finished talking there wasn't a dry eye in the room, including Danny's, and the fiery rage contained in his speech had been condensed down to a small puddle of sadness and frustration.
The Archer family were the last ones to speak before Danny's own remarks. He had taught every member of the family for three generations. Conrad Archer, the grandfather, told the assembled crowd how much he appreciated being able to trust a school system that had such high quality veteran teachers like Sam Ridenour and Danny Wilson. As the crowd rose to their feet when the man of the hour was introduced, Danny sought out Sam Ridenour's eyes and the two long-time colleagues shared a knowing smile.
It took several for the applause to die down enough for Danny to start talking. In lieu of the angry speech he had written, he spoke simple words straight from his heart. He almost broke down a few times but kept together pretty well. He closed out his own remarks by saying how much he loved what he did and that given the choice he would do it all again. It was kind of noticeable afterwards that he hugged nearly everybody in the room except for one table.
The crowd rose to its feet again when he ended. While he smiled and looked out across the room he remembered that while searching for some triple A batteries that morning, he had found Jenny's cell phone charger. He got the phone out of the drawer and plugged it in right before he walked out the house to go to the dinner.
He took four stiff Scotch and waters before he worked up the nerve to call her number. "Hello. This is Jenny. Sorry, I can't come to the phone right now. Please leave your name and number and I promise, I'll get right back to you as soon as I can. Or, you can just leave a message if you prefer. God Bless you."
When the beeper sounded and before he could even think about what to say, he started crying and the words flowed out like water from a busted dam, "Hi Jenny. It's Danny. I love you and I miss you so much................... If you can hear me, please come home."
We all have memories that we bury a lot deeper than most; memories that we can almost not bear to deal with and wish we could completely forget. Mine usually involve episodes of abject humiliation or hurting someone who didn't deserve to be hurt.
One such memory involved a girl in elementary school who had the great misfortune to be born unattractive. Children can be brutal to those who don't fit the standards of what they believe is normal. One day at morning recess, a boy in our class touched her sweater with a popsicle stick and started playing cootie tag with the stick the rest of the recess period. When the bell rang, I was walking into class, and I looked back to see the girl bunched up between the rain gutter and the wall with her arm across her face crying. It made me feel terrible, I wanted to go comfort her, but the teacher asked me to find my desk, and torn between obeying and helping the girl, I opted for the seat.
To make things worse, I got to know the girl in high school, and she was a very sweet person. I wanted to apologize but she was always a happy person, and I never felt right about reminding her of the painful memory. She died right after high school and it still bothers me that I never said I was sorry. As painful as it is, the memory has also served me well and kept me from doing or saying a lot of stupid, hurtful things, serving as a constant reminder to be careful of the consequences of careless or hurtful thoughts and actions.
I was driving home from Visalia recently and the memory popped into my head. I don't know what triggered it, but I know I was feeling a blue and little confused about life. My mom passed away recently, and I was the one who found her and took her pulse to make sure she was dead. I was having trouble getting the image of day out of my head where my beloved mother was curled up in her bed looking like a cantaloupe rind that had been left out in the sun.
The event that caused the memory happened over sixty years ago, but I remember it with great clarity. This time I began to think about all the memories I've had like that and how that they're all clearly remembered in great detail despite my efforts to keep them buried. Something dawned on me that should have been very obvious from the start. Those events were lessons, poignant moments full of powerfully charged emotions designed to teach lessons about how to live. No amount of dull lecturing, hypocritical sermonizing or pedantic preaching could ever have driven home that lesson with such authority as the experience of living through it.
Our lives are designed to teach us what we need to know. This is an important realization because nowadays, everyone seems to think that they have to right to badger everyone else on how to live life. Yet, we are totally unique and therefore these lessons are carefully designed to fit our individual needs, and, just like the tests we take in school, there are no guarantees that we have learned the material that we were supposed to learn, there's always the threat and consequences of failure, and there will always be the need to learn more and to retest.
I began to think of what that type of failure meant and one of Jesus's parables popped into my head. It was the Parable of the Talents wherein a master leaves and gives each of his three servants 100 talents of gold. When he returns, he summons each of the servants. One had buried the gold and simply gave the master back the initial 100 talents. This made the master angry, and sent the ungrateful servant forth. The second servant had loaned out half the gold and buried the other half. He showed the master a fifty percent return. The master grew angry again and sent this servant out. The third servant loaned out all the gold and gave back a 100 percent return. This servant received the master's thanks and blessing.
I didn't fully understand this parable until I read a book called the The Divine Code of Life by a Japanese Nobel Prize winning bio-geneticist named Dr. Kazuo Murakami. The good doctor states that it is possible to alter our DNA for the better by things like positive thinking, possessing a sense of wonder, and being driven by curiosity. This also implies that we are hardwired to be the best that we can be. If we are hard-wired to be the best, then that probably is what we are supposed to be doing with our lives. The Parable of the Talents seems to say the exact same thing.
It appears that all of the obstacles that life places before us, are moments where we are constantly being tested with by the question, "What are you doing with the Master's gold?" No one else can answer that question for us, nor can they take away the obstacles without presenting us with another set of decisions equally as urgent. We are meant to make our own decisions, and learn our own lessons from those decisions. The politicians, priests, and others who want to the remove these decisions are merely tempting us to bury the gold.
I was driving by our local park not too long ago and made an offhand comment about the tent city that the homeless have created there. My companion at the time gave me a disapproving look and said something that reminded me of the girl crying. I replied that it was was a point well taken, but for some reason, I also uttered the words, "Yeah, but you can't absolve them of their sin."
I try not to judge in that regard but believe it's a fair assumption to think you might be doing something seriously wrong to end up living in a tent in a park in Corcoran. The people in the park seem to have more or less given up on life. I do know that life has a tendency to pound on people. As I have aged, I have come to see that it can also be a constant parade of the disappointed, the dying, and the dead, and that even the most fortunate of us has to wipe his/her own ass and learn to deal the lessons from all of our buried memories and with the deep grief that comes with knowing that all of our friends and love-ones will one day pass away. Looking at it like this, anyone who manages to remain upright into their old age is a truly special, battle tested human being deserving of our respect.
I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien left a message in The Hobbit on how to think about the current homeless situation. Tolkien knew a lot about a lot of things. I mean you don't get put in charge of an entire section of the Oxford English Dictionary without being somewhat wiser than the rest of us.
There is a character named Bombur in the troupe that sets out on the heroic quest of confronting the dragon Smaug who sits upon a gigantic horde of gold. Bombur is an obese, clumsy, always complaining dwarf who causes the group a lot of problems because of his size and appetites. When the group enters into the Mirkwood Forest, a dark and foreboding place, they are warned explicitly by Gandalf the Wizard not to leave the path for any reason. In the middle of the forest however, Bombur falls into an enchanted stream causing him to fall asleep and the rest of the party are forced to take turns carrying him. They grow increasingly hungry and become ever more frustrated by their plight as the path seems to go on forever. The longer the journey continues, the more they resent the dead weight that Bombur has become. He eventually awakens but continues to whine about their plight. One night they hear elves feasting and celebrating in the darkness off the path, and it is Bombur's arguments combined with their hunger and frustration that convinces them to leave the path where they are immediately captured and imprisoned by the suspicious elves.
I was just driving along that night when for no particular reason, I suddenly thought about the numbers involved in the Parable of the Talents. Two thirds of the servants failed the test. I converted the fraction into decimals, two-thirds equals .666, the number mentioned in reference to the Anti-Christ. I don't think that this an accident or coincidental in the least. The message of parable seems to say that true sin lies in not trying to be our best. It seems to say that the majority of humans do not receive the blessings of God because we aren't fully engaging in utilizing the gifts that were bestowed upon us at birth.
There is another hidden number in the parable. The Egyptians believed that a person's chances in the after life depended on his/her spirit (KA), represented by a feather, being weighed on a scale. If the feather weighed one tiny bit on the positive (spiritual) side, their salvation was assured. The number represented by the fifty percent return of the second servant seems to say the same thing. It would be too hard for most people to achieve perfection, but doing right more times than you do wrong seems to be the important concept. Something evenly divided can not be said to be one thing or the other.
At the end of The Hobbit, it turns out the members of the quest, lucked out in getting captured by the elves. Their escape out of the dungeons of the Elf castle proved to be the only way out of the forest after all. Bombur was a big pain in ass, but he was also one of a band of brothers, a fellow traveler, and leaving him behind was not considered as an option. Had they done so, it would also have resulted in the failure of them all. It was in their willingness to deal with all of his short comings that saved their mission in the end. The purpose of the individual efforts of the hero is to transform into the best individual that they can possibly be, then to return home to raise the level of their community and to inspire others to do the same.
I don't think that turning our parks and public spaces into hovels and junkyards is the answer to the homeless problem, but neither is abandoning them to their own devices. The salvation of the human race just might depend on our willingness to discover what we need to learn about our self, to figure out how to fashion our life around those lessons, and to teach others the true value of hidden gold.
I instantly stopped what I was doing, looked up at the ceiling and said, "Mom, if you're up there watching me don't pay no never mind to this shit, just know that I'm a little bit freaking nuts." I paused for a moment looked down at the floor and added, "You knew me better than almost anybody else and all you ever saw was, well, what you wanted to see.. . . Yeah, I'm nuts. But as you probably figured out, most the rest of us down here are too."
I don't even try to pretend that I don't talk to myself a lot. I live by myself and spend most of my life alone. Usually, when I do talk to myself though, it's because I'm cursing at myself for doing something really stupid like walking downstairs and opening the front door to get a cup of coffee when I know for a damn fact that the kitchen where the coffee pot sits was just a few steps to the right of where I started, and no stairs involved. It's either something like that, or else when the universe doing something really sketchy or amazing and I want to take the time to acknowledge it and to make sure I remember. Let me give you an example. I'll be watching a movie and hear a line, like the line Warren Beaty's character in the offbeat western McCabe and Mrs. Miller utters to himself as he leaves his confrontation with the three cold blooded killers who have come to kill him. Muttering, he briefly digresses from the conversation he's having with himself to justify his actions and starts talking to the absent Constance Miller (Julie Christie), the prostitute he loves, about how hard he has tried to let her how he feels about her, and he says, "Just one time you could be sweet without no money around?" He is face to face with the prospect of his impending death, and all he can think about is his failure to tell the woman how he truly feels. The deadly situation has made him aware what he's missed the most in his life is true love.
When I run across stuff like that I get so moved sometimes that I feel like crying, and sometimes I do. Usually, I'll just blurt something out like, "Damn it, Robert Altman. That was so pretty. That was so freaking nice." I'll sit there for a second and think of the scene as if it was an arrow aimed directly at my heart from somewhere deep in the universe. Then I'll recall the memory of when I failed my wife when she wanted to hear me say those words and I all I could say to her was, "Don't you know when I run down those stairs and greet you outside before you even get out of the car, don't you know what that means?" Unable to bear that memory for long, I'll quickly change the channel and put on something like Ninety Day Fiancé but only for as long as it takes for me to forget the still quivering arrow sticking out of my heart.
Now that mom's dead, I bet you that I'll probably start saying something like, "Did you catch that one, Mom. That was fuc...I mean that was pretty dang beautiful don't ya think?"
This morning, I was dancing around in the kitchen in my underwear, waving my arms around like a stoned hippy listening to a Grateful Dead jam. I just gotten a chipped coffee cup out of the cupboard and filled it with hazelnut coffee when the Holy Spirit reached out and grabbed hold of me and I started moving like a monkey on crack, waving the cup in my right hand above my head. When Jerry Garcia really started gettin it, I started gettin it too. My eyes were closed tight and for a moment I was back in time in front of the stage of the Mountain Air concert in Angel's Camp a few days before I started my teaching career. Suddenly, I lost my balance and bumped up against the counter and dropped the cup shattering it and spilling its contents on the floor. My first reaction was to look around to see who was watching. I looked and it caused me to laugh and reminded me that my mom was dead. I decided to give her a head's up on how things were here down below.
When I was a lot younger, there was this spot in our neighbor Mr. Miranda's yard, a shady little clearing between some trees. There was also a pasture to the north of the clearing bordered on the east by a small canal; not one of those dirt packed ditches that surround Corcoran but a small grass covered stream like something out of a story where a girl who looked like Shirley Temple could sit in the sun on the bank, talking to her lamb, and tossing flower petals into the clear flowing water. My friends and I used to gather there in that clearing and talk, play and argue.
"Who made you boss, Danny? Why can't we just play army like regular kids?"
"Who said I was boss? I just thought it would be fun to play three hundred Spartans?"
"There's only six of us dumbass! How we gonna do that if we can't even have the Spartans. How we gonna do that?"
"Imagination, George. It's a little thing called imagination. We could pretend there's six hundred of us. Marvin's house over there could be where the Persians are gathering their forces, and then they'll start coming at us through the drive way over there and we're here defending the pass and keeping all them from getting into Greece proper." I pointed at the neighborhood on the other side of Mr. Miranda's pasture fence.
George and the others looked and tried to make the connection between the run down houses on the other side of the street to the glory of ancient Athens.
"Nah, I'm going home watch cartoons. You coming Dean?"
People can say whatever they want, but they can't say that I lacked imagination. It was what got me through the rough patches, I could always imagine something else. I had the intuition even back then there was always something more to the story. How could there not be; we exist in an infinity, and that has to mean that there has to be an infinite amount of perspectives on everything. The worst thing I can imagine is to be trapped in life with only one way of looking at things.
Like my mom.
Don't get me wrong. I love the woman and will always revere her memory and cherish the fact that she was my mother. I am referencing though the fact that the trauma of her youthful experiences gave her one script to read, one narrative, and one outlook. I'm not saying it was a bad script, but it only had one ending and you could see it coming from the opening chapter. Her father dying in the middle of World War II when she was only ten years old was the dominant factor in how her life played out. Back then there were no therapists around to tell her how to deal with the overwhelming grief she must have felt. So she carried around inside of her for the rest of her days and passed it down to her boys without even knowing that she did.
She loved reading stories about the survivors of the Holocaust. Her favorite writer was the British novelist Catherine Cookson who wrote stories about young women placed in untenable situations who overcame obstacles with sheer determination and the simple act of moving forward one footstep at a time. Mom was an empath of the highest order and deeply felt compassion for all those who suffered. She sent money most of her life to orphanages and needy seniors. She would have made a great teacher but settled for teaching Sunday school, and it was the job she loved the most.
That settling for less was the hallmark of both of my parents. My Dad was her perfect mate because he too had suffered severe early trauma. They both could have made so much more out of their lives but preferred security above risk. Because of them, I learned to understand the hidden effects of trauma and its influence in shaping life long after the events that caused it. It helped me to understand my parents and appreciate the struggles of my students, friends and neighbors in ways I would never have discovered on my own. It also helped me to develop a greater understanding of my own foolish behavior.
Mom would ask my brother Steve and I almost daily, in reference to some celebrity or politician's infamous behavior, "Don't they believe in God," or "Don't they know that someday they'll have to stand before God?" And nightly her troubled sleep would always erase the memory of the conversation we'd had on that very subject the day before and she would ask the same question again the following day.
Sometimes tired, I would just shrug my shoulders and answer, "No, Mom. They don't." She would always look at me incredulously as if to ask how could anyone not believe in God. I would just shrug again.
There's another great line in McCabe and Mrs. Miller delivered by Warren Beatty, "If a frog had wings, it wouldn't bump its ass so much." It's not near as ascetically pleasing as the other quote, but it captures the essence of the character John McCabe who desperately wants to accomplish something with his life in order to elevate his stature and prospects and especially look good in the eyes of Mrs. Miller, but everything he achieves or builds is tainted by its proximity to the horseshit and the mud of life in the West in the late nineteenth century. One cynical critic opined that McCabe's lover even preferred the opium pipe to his romantic advances. I don't think that was true. Rather, I think the real problem was that he could never outright tell her that he loved her. Constance Miller's heart was encased in a very large glacier and only those words delivered simply and with passion might have had a chance to begin the thaw.
I don't know why people don't believe in God, and I've thought about it a lot. It greatly puzzles me why anyone would want to believe that our life on this earthly plane has no meaning. I also think that the simple understanding that there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye would put some wings on the frog and actually allow us to not bump our ass so much.
That's gotta be worth something, right Ma?
He sank back into the soft cushion of the chair. It felt great. It was expensive, to be sure, close to three hundred dollars, but worth every penny. Jenny and he had picked it out for his birthday. The old chair had hurt his back. He admired the leather of the arms. It seemed that he spent at least half his day, night really, working in his upstairs office preparing for class or basketball practice; it was an investment.
As he fired up the computer, he closed his eyes for a second, and quickly found himself back in kindergarten class when he was five years old sitting at table by himself with a small carton of milk and half eaten graham cracker sitting in front of him. He looked around the room and saw all of his classmates sleeping on their blankets. It was nap time, and he was being punished for not drinking his milk. Mrs. Johns was pretending to do class work, but he knew she was secretly sending him mind messages ordering him to drink his milk.
With his eyes closed and firmly committed to the traumatic emotion trapped in the memory he didn’t see or hear Jenny enter the room until she was standing there by the desk and cleared her throat.
“Danny, I don’t love you anymore, and I know I never will again.” She wasn’t angry. The words came out all matter of fact like, and it was only the fact that she kept blinking her eyes that betrayed the fact that she wasn’t talking about something mundane.
“I told you two months ago that I’d give us a chance. I did and now I realize I deserve better. I need someone stronger than you Danny, a lot stronger.”
He was speechless. He could see his reflection in one of the pictures hanging on the wall. He looked like a fish out of water his mouth moving and nothing coming out. Finally his eyes flooded and the words tumbled out, “I didn’t….I didn’t want….I didn’t mean to hurt any….anybody.”
She gave a ghastly smile looking like a cruel guard telling a prisoner a joke, “I know that, Danny. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change anything whether you meant to hurt me or not. It’s just that I’m been thinking, and have come to the conclusion that I deserve someone better.”
From that point on, he didn’t listen. It was all a blur anyway. It was true that she had told him two months ago that she was unhappy. She had even left for a couple of days before returning and giving him the conditions. She told him that they would try for two months to change things for the better. He’d been on his best behavior ever since walking on eggshells.
On his birthday, they’d gone out together and bought the chair, he’d sensed a change for the better. Jenny herself had even made the suggestion that they opt for the more expensive model considering how much work he did on the computer. They’d even driven over to the coast and had a nice dinner at Finnegan’s that night and had walked on the beach for a while before making the drive home.
That night, she’d laughed at his jokes and even smiled when he remembered his first birthday after they were married when they were so poor that she had put a candle in bowl of Taco Bell beans and he had blown it out. He could even see her eyes mist up in the moonlight as he recounted that when she had asked him what he had wished for, he answered her with a kiss and the words, “That on our thirtieth anniversary, we walk along Seine in Paris with our grandchildren asleep back at the hotel.”
He was given hope on the ride home by the fact that she had slid over in the seat and sat near him.
Her last words as she stood at the door of his upstairs office, “You’ll find somebody else. You’re still young enough and if you drop ten-twelve pounds, you’re still pretty handsome. Some lucky woman will come along and snatch you right up.”
With that she gently closed the door, and he heard her footsteps padding down the stairs. He had never felt so all alone in his entire life. He looked out of the window at the school where he worked across the street from their house. The aisles were empty. It was a Sunday. He thought to himself that if you had to inhabit a cold, empty universe, this was the chair to do it in.
He closed his eyes and once again found himself back in kindergarten. All of the kids were awake and looking at him all strange. He thought he heard Mrs. Johns say, “I told you to drink your milk, Danny. I told you.”
He stood up and knocked the milk off the table with a sweep of his arm. “I wasn’t trying to hurt nobody, Teacher. I just hate the taste of milk.”
"Ma? I told you not to do that."
"Not to double cards in the discard pile, or put down two cards to a run. It makes it too easy. Someone would only need one card to pick up?"
"I had to."
"You have nine other cards; you didn't have to."
"Are you saying I'm stupid. I'm 89 years old. I'd like to see you play Rummy when you're 89."
"Ma, I didn't say that. I said that it is not a good move."
She didn't answer, just gave me a look that half said, "Keep talking and I'll kick your ass," but also half said, "I just want to die sometimes. I'm so tired of everything about living."
I didn't respond to the look.We have had that conversation way too many times lately. I'd usually tell her not to talk like that, and she'd ask me why not. Then I'd come up with something to tell her. Sometimes though, it takes me while to think of a good reason. I don't mean because I didn't want her around, or think that life ain't worth living, or nothing like that, but sometimes I'd get so down myself and need my own reassuring. At such moments, I would resort to keeping it simple and say, "Just don't say stuff like that. It. upsets me, and besides it's not a Christian thing to do. We'd miss you."
She'd always stop and think about the Christian thing before she'd answer, "Sure you would. I'll be gone before you know it."
I really do admire old people; I think of them as People of the Weed. There's a story that comes with that title. Once I was in a pretty bad place after my wife left me. I'd admit that I was a little bit off and skirting dangerously close to the edge of things. Everything I saw was looking new and wondrous. I could see the artistic merit in shadows and trees and even in old abandoned cars. That was what tipped me off that I was a little off kilter. I was driving down the back way into Bakersfield to go to scout a couple of basketball games at the college when I came to a stop sign by a railroad track outside of Shafter. The wind was blowing pretty good and there was a little two foot weed growing by the side of the road. The wind would blow it down and when the wind died down, the weed would just pop right back into its original position. It impressed me how that little weed displayed so much character. A lot of people who I knew would have collapsed on the first gust and lay there until someone or something came along and helped them to their feet. Not that weed. It was wordlessly saying, "Fuck you, Gravity! Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!" I know there are more than a few people who would have translated the silent conversation into something more like the weed was actually saying, "Ha ha! You can't keep me down! I'm Indefatigable!" But I was in mood that day, and resorted to the more poetic reading of the event. Just so you know, I don't want to be crude. I know better. Life just pushes my buttons sometimes and brings the Southside out of me.
Old people are pretty amazing though. We keep getting up from the ground in spite of all the stuff that tells us to just lay there and stay down. We void our bowels and wipe our asses everyday knowing full well that if we were anywhere near as divine as we like to pretend we are, we wouldn't have to do stuff like that. We'd shit pastel colored marshmallows that smelled like daffodils and roses and piss out lemonade and Vodka Crannies.
"Damn it, Ma! Quit doing that! You're just handing him points."
"I had to do it. He would've played anyway no matter what I threw down."
Usually I wouldn't bring things to a boiling point. I'd just grin and bear it knowing that nothing was ever going to change. She'd put her card down, frown when my brother picked up all the cards in the discard pile, and then stare out of the window into the dark. I don't know what she looks at when she does that, but I know, it ain't here and it ain't now. Sometimes she'd say something, and we'd have to guess where she was going and then guess some more to help supply the missing context to the story. On other occasions, she would snap out of a reverie and interject a question about what we we were talking about after one of us had just spent ten minutes making a point. It's hard at such moments not to just say, "Nothing." But she would get hurt and reply, "OK" with a sad look in her eye.
I often bring food, sometimes just snacks and sodas and play a music on my phone in an effort to spice up things a little. Whatever I would think about while I played the cards would often be predicated on what music I had picked to play. If I wanted her to respond, I'd pick some old Hank Williams, Patsy Cline or George Jones. She would still stare down our cards like a old mother eagle searching a grassy field for prey, but she would also tap her foot and sometimes absentmindedly join in the chorus. Sometimes we would all join in, and that would be pretty cool even though it never sounded anywhere as good as we pretended. Other times I would listen to someone like Al Stewart and remember the mix-tape I made from his albums and listened to everyday on my way to and from Fresno State. You don't find much music nowadays that you could listen to over ten times with wanting to poke your ears out whenever it came on. Al Stewart's music is, I mean, was, different though. He had a series of albums beginning with Past, Present, and Future that were so lyrically beautiful and meaningful that they would always take me into a different headspace. John Prine was like that too, and Bob Dylan. Elvis Costello could do it too. We often listen his song Allison and the hair always stands up on the back of my head when he pleads with the girl, "Sometimes, I wish, I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say."
"What did you say?"
"We were just talking something about a speech the president gave to today."
"Does he even know what he's talking about?"
"Some people say yes. Some say no."
"I don't think he does. What about you, Steve?"
Before he would answer, she would generally toss something like a three on top of a three. There would be another three at the top of pile, and Steve would greedily scoop up the cards and lay down a couple of trips.
She always knew I was mad and would say, "I had to. I didn't have a choice"
"Ma, you threw the third three down."
"I can't see I tell you. Hell, I'm 89 years old."
I can't help thinking sometimes though that she does it to annoy me. I've told her several times, it is not good strategy, and that the worse thing in Rummy is not splitting a pair, but in helping your opponent harvest the bounty of the discard pile. She doesn't care; to her the pairs in her hand represents certainty, and that's the one thing she wants more than anything else including winning.
Our little game has certainly evolved in the almost two years we have been playing. It started out as just a way to pass time with her while she was in lockdown. It's become so much more. We can not miss a day without noticing the affect upon her face, the greater spaces between her words, and added bitterness and mistrust in her attitude.
The game has assumed more of an existential nature. We sometimes sit in silence figuring out odds in our head and looking as grim as those three witches at the beginning of Macbeth who gloomily stir their caldron. I wonder when I think on what that metaphor says about us, if any of those decrepit ladies were thinking of the past while they stirred, about sunny days when they were younger and still hopeful.
We play now in order to survive and to show our little weed dance of our own. Where we once played with no concern over who won and recklessly discarded cards on rash impulse, we now take our time and slowly deliberate figuring out what the odds were that our opponents will play on what we discard. At least my brother and I do. Ma keeps her game simple, clings to pairs and two card runs with the tenacity of a wolverine. A lot of times, the strategy allows her to go out quickly and catch my brother and I with a lot of points. She wins her share of the games too, especially on those days when she doesn't give away all of her cards.
Sometimes I listen to Miles Davis in the background, and in between playing my hand, I'll imagine that we're playing cards on the tenth floor balcony of a Manhattan high rise with the sounds of the city rising from the streets and the music coming from a neighbor's open window. I'll think about all of the different possibilities of the setting and get lost and start nodding my head to the music. Out of the corner of my eye, I'll notice her looking my way, waiting until she can't handle it any more and have to say something.
"What are you doing, Danny? Who are you talking to?"
"I'm not talking to anyone, Ma. I'm just listening to the music."
"What is that stuff anyway?"
"It's called Jazz, ma. "
"Jazz? What's the name of the song?"
"It's called 'The Wind Just Blew My Ass Over and I Got to Get Up Again'.
"Stupid name for a song."
"Tell me about it."
I love my mom and it pains me greatly to watch as she deteriorates ever rapidly. I know that each game could be our last and that adds an added layer of importance. I can't remember the last time I walked out of a class at Mark Twain Elementary. I can't remember the last time walked out of the candy store on the south side of Corcoran never to return. Hell, I don't remember the last day my wife and I cohabited in the house I still live in. Something tells me though, I'll remember the last Rummy hand that my brother and my mom ever play and maybe just simply because I know that it will occur a hell of a lot more recently than those other events. But, prolly not.
Mom just wants and needs the company and a break from watching gameshows. I no longer know what Steve wants, he often talks about traveling, sometimes even to Mars. I, myself, just don't want to die within a mile of the place where I first entered the world (Corcoran Hospital I can see it's roof from my living room). I know that'd be a real waste of time and effort.
But for right now, I would settle for Mom not pairing up the cards in the discard pile, or expressing her desire to not exist at all.
Apparently, the old man was talking to the wind. He stood out there by the entrance sign to SR- 47 talking to no one in particular, and he was always there, six days a week sometimes seven. He was a tall, lanky man with a distinguished mop of white hair and piercing blue eyes. If you gave him a shave and slapped a suit and tie on him, he could easily have passed for a minister or a college professor which he had been at one time.
Everybody in town knew him as Mr. Jim and sometimes That Old Crazy Mr. Jim. His real name was Jameson. They didn't start calling him Mr. Jim until he started hanging out by the highway. Some even remembered a time when he used to teach middle school English and Reading at the junior high on the north end of town. He also coached basketball and that was what originally got him on at the Junior College in Belle Vista. When the school first started up a Women's basketball team back in the late 70s, Mr. Jim was hired to coach them. He went back and obtained a doctorate in literature and started teaching at the school.
Everybody in town knew him as the guy who stood out by the side of the highway talking to the cars that were turning off of East Main to gain access to the highway. Some would sit at the stoplight, roll down their windows and listen too. Most people were kind and waved to him, and he always waved back and smiled. He had to have noticed though how many times the people in the front seats of those cars would shake their heads and laugh as they drove away.
Lindberg Carlyle was sitting in the Bluebird Cafe with his buddy Carlos Rios and looking out the window at Mr. Jim. Before him was large plate containing eggs over easy, trail potatoes, four pieces of thick cut Applewood bacon, and according to the sign outside the cafe, the best damn biscuits and gravy in town. It wasn't much of a claim because it was also the only breakfast joint in Concord. A sign outside of town about a half mile east of where Mr. Jim was declaiming said that Concord was the Cotton Capital of World, or at least did until some jokers crossed out the word cotton and replaced it with Asshole. It might not have been factually correct, but everybody in the small town knew that Concord did possess more than its requisite share of walking talking sphincter muscles.
"Goober?" Lindberg addressed the owner of the Bluebird, who was standing at the cash register trying to figure out how to work the new machine that had been installed just an hour before.
"Damn it, Lin, I done told you a thousand times not to call me that shit. My name is Curtis, as you well know, but you can call me Mr. Jones. Carlos can call me Curt, but you can't. You lost that privilege for that Goober nonsense."
"Screw you Mr. Goober Jones, I can't help it you came out your mom looking like that George Lindsay dude that played Goober on the Andy Griffith show. Seem to me, you should be mad at your mom. You make her call you Mr. Jones?"
Curtis Jones just rolled his eyes and reached up and rubbed his furrowed brow a few times before he answered, "If I wasn't so busy trying to figure out how to work this damn thing, I'd get Tiny over there and eject your ass bodily from this fine dining establishment. What is it that you want?"
Lindberg looked at Carlos with an incredulous look, "I don't know you can call this shit hole an establishment much less fine dining. I saw a maggot puking in the alley yesterday, and if them damn biscuits you always bragging on were any heavier you could sell them as anchors. Hell, I just wanted to ask you if you remember Mr. Jim being a teacher?"
Carlos paid no attention to all the bickering because his two friends had been at it almost continually for forty some odd years. He just sat back, drank his coffee which was surreptitiously mixed with a little rum and chuckled as the verbal banter got progressively worse. There were times that he interjected when he thought a line had been crossed. Both men trusted his judgement and would dial the tone of the conversation back accordingly. The only time he would really get riled up enough to join in was when they started needling on his beloved Cowboys.
Carlos looked out the window, "I had him in English and Reading back in junior high. I remember we read Old Yeller. He always read that last chapter where the boy shot the dog out loud and all the girls would start crying."
Curt quit tinkering with the register and went somewhere into the past for a second, "Shit, I cried too. I loved that damned book. Hell, I even got the movie on CD." He walked over and poured himself a cup of coffee then came around the counter, motioned Lindberg to move over and sat down beside him. "He was good teacher too. I was there in that Literature class at the college when he took on that kid and got fired for it."
"I was just sitting here checking him out. He sure puts a lot into that talking stuff. Is he just nuts or what? I heard they fired him because he cussed out some kid class. Somebody told me he been out there ever since."
Carlos sat up a little straighter in his seat, "Mr. Jameson cuss, hell no! He always talked like a gentleman even to us kids. I heard that kid said something bad to him."
"Like I said, I was there. That kid was one of them smart assed hippy kids who thought he knew everything. He was always saying stupid shit back to Mr. Jameson. He was the one that started calling him Mr. Jim. They got into a verbal argument trading insults one day and Mr. Jameson was using quotations from literature and was rolling over this dude because all the dude said was stupid shit like Abby Hoffman quotes and stuff like that. I remember that the kid said something particularly stupid like 'What me worry?' and nobody laughed. Mr. Jameson countered with 'Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.' The whole class started laughing, and the kid got embarrassed and real mad. He walked up to the front of the class and said something under his breath. Mr Jameson stretched him out with one punch."
"That was Plato, He always used to use that one on smart assed kids. He loved that verbal jousting. I had him in college too, and you could always take him on in class as long as you showed some creativity. We loved it too and came out of that year with shit load of literary putdowns. If I remember right, part of the reason they fired him was because we used to have these verbal battles every Friday, and you had to use only literary putdowns. He almost cried when Leslie Lopez told Mike Wilcox, 'You are simply a hole in the air.'"
"That's right! I remember that's what it was. That kid was being an ass and saying stupid shit to the girls."
"Well, what did that kid say that got him punched in the nose?"
Carlos and Curt looked at each other and shrugged. Carlos answered, "No-one ever knew? As far as I know, he never told anyone. But he didn't start acting all weird when they fired him. It was only after his wife died. I remember because my mom and I went to the funeral and the next day he was out there."
They all turned and looked out of the window. The one by one, they returned their focus back to the inside of the cafe.
After a while, Lindberg spoke, "You know what? Let me out Goob...Curtis. I'm going to go ask him."
Curtis got up, "I don't know if that's a good idea, Lin. I don't see no reason to bother a lonely old man."
"I didn't say I was going to bother him. I just want to talk to him. Solve this here mystery. Tell me you don't want to know what he said."
The two friends sat there curious and watched as he made his way across the parking lot and then crossed the street. They sat transfixed as he stuck out his hand toward the old man. The old man looked at it for a bit then slowly reached out his own and took it. They talked for about five minutes before the two inside the cafe turned and faced each other with widened eyes because Lindberg and Mr. Jim started walking back toward the cafe.
It was a windy day and Mr. Jim's hair was a bit mussed when he came through the door. He stopped and combed it with his fingers before walking toward the table.
They both stood as he approached. Then they offered him their own hands. He shook their hands but cut them both short when started to introduce themselves.
"Curtis Jones and, if I'm not mistaken, you're the Carlos Rios who once silenced a saucy young wench named Violetta Vinson with the quip from Chaucer, 'I wolde I had thy coillons in myn hond. . .Lat kutte hem of.'"
Carlos was stunned, "You remember that, Mr. Jameson?"
"Classic, totally inappropriate, but classic. I would have given you an A in class for that quote alone. She was such an annoying, aggressive young lady, much like her abominable friend Mr. Clark."
The old man took the inside of the booth and Lindberg slid in beside him. Carlos sat back down and Curtis went to fetch their old teacher a cup of hot coffee. Returning, he sat the cup down in front of the old man along with four containers of Hazelnut creamers. They watch silently as he fixed his coffee and took a sip.
"Mr. Carlyle here told me that you gentlemen want to know what that Randall Clark said that made me to react so violently. That's a secret that I've kept for almost forty years."
Carlos started to say, "You don't have to..."
Mr. Jim raised a hand and stopped him, "I think it's been long enough don't you? Randall died last year of a heart attack. He was a businessman, divorced several times, and when he died, he died alone. I went to see him in the hospital. He challenged me again. As I got up to leave, he said, 'I shall laugh my bitter laugh.' Before I got to the door, I turned and told him, 'To show resentment at a reproach is to acknowledge that one may have deserved it.' I should have just left, but I couldn't help myself. What he told me that day was really quite reprehensible, and I've been carrying it around for quite a long time."
In unison, "Which was?"
"Let me be clear, Randall was very angry. I could see the rage in his eyes. He came up leaned over and said in a very low voice, 'The personification of the devil as symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the ...." I hit him before he could finish. You see, he was quoting Hitler from Mein Kampf. You see, he knew my wife Ana was Jewish. Her parents were both murdered by the Nazis, several other fellow members as well."
Lindberg beat his friends to the punch, "Why didn't you say something. I mean don't you think they would have understood?"
There was a faraway look in the old man's eyes, " I promised Ana I wouldn't. She was the most compassionate human being I've ever known. She felt that he was angry and just speaking out of his rage. She hated the thought of ruining a young man's life by getting him branded as being a closet Nazi. We always followed his life and watched him sink lower and lower. She admonished me often for taking pleasure in his misfortune."
It was Carlos's turn, "Yeah, but it ruined your life, your career too."
The old man shrugged, "I loved her more than anything in the world, including my career. I'll tell you something no-one else knows about Ana. She escaped the round up of the Jews from Holland. Her and her older cousin were sneaking toward the harbor of a small coastal village where a boat was waiting when they were stopped by a young German soldier, hardly more than a boy. Nathan, her cousin, killed the soldier. They were worried about bringing retribution down upon the whole village, so they put his body on the boat and dumped it in the ocean. Ana worried that the young man wasn't a real Nazi and was just a boy playing soldier. She also worried that dumping his body at sea prevented him from having the proper funerary rites. In her mind, she conflated the two, Randall Clark and the boy soldier. When she was dying, she was very worried about that, afraid that we had taken on some kind of generational curse. I promised her on her deathbed; I swore to her that I would make amends. It was only way that I could comfort her."
It took them a while to figure out what he meant. They all seemed to grasp it at the same time. It was Curtis who voiced their combined astonishment, "But...Why out there standing by the highway talking to yourself?"
"I didn't at first know what else to do? It had to be something of substance. I loved literature, and I had lost my ability to give voice to that love, so it had to be something that involved the voice. I read passages from my favorite books to the cars that passed by. It's kind of like I was hoping that the words latch on to the passing vehicles and spread like airborne seeds. I've done it for fifteen years. I know that it sounds pretty crazy."
"I rolled my window down at the stop sign this morning. You were saying something like, 'We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinions than our own.' I was going to look it up when I got home."
Carlos answered before the old man could, "Damn, Lin, that's Marcus Aurelius." Then added half kidding, "Don't you know anything?" He turned to the old man, "Mr. Jameson, I'm just going to be blunt. People think you're nuts, Mr. Jameson. Doesn't that bother you at all?
He waited a while before answering And the friends waited patiently to hear what he was going to say. Finally, he sternly muttered, "Frankly, my Dear, I don't give a damn."
After several seconds, Lindberg broke the silence by laughing, "Hey, wait a damn minute..."
A few days later it snowed in Concord, a rare occasion. The people who passed by the Bluebird Cafe that morning didn't notice much other than their usual concerns as they carried their well bundled children off to school, or made their way toward work wrapped up in the anticipatory thoughts about what their day would be. Chances are they didn't notice Lindberg Carlyle pulling up to the stop sign in front of the cafe and looking past the fogged windows to see a tall, white-haired gentleman drinking coffee in the third booth from the end and conversing with the proprietor of said cafe who had stopped midway through drying off a just washed coffee mug. And chances are none of them noticed the car pulling away from the stop sign with Mr. Carlyle flashing just the hint of a smile.
"Her arched look could slam a door from across a room, and more than a few dreams had died at its command."
Yep, it was that kind of morning. I had been reading a description of the English iconoclast Jessica Mitford and the author had placed great emphasis on her singular ability to arch an eyebrow and wither somebody's heart with just a glance. I resolved to make use of that idea somewhere, and when I woke up in morning, I put the quote above in the 'to be used later' section of my journal.
I shared my morning coffee with Carl Jung. He was writing about a dream he had where he was placed into a supplicant position requiring him to touch his head to the floor. He made a strong effort but could not close the last millimeter. In his interpretation, the inability to touch the floor explained man's relationship with God, the willingness to go so far but always holding something back. Without it, he said, there would not have been a need for book of Job, or for Christ to enter the world.
It gave me some food for thought. So much of what is going on in this crazy world carries the same import of the incidents talked about in the scriptures, only we are far too stupid to understand this simple fact, and too given over to the belief that what we say and do is somewhat meaningless. I never liked using the word stupid when I was in the classroom, but the word does seem to perfectly describe the condition of being intentionally ignorant.
Jung was a compassionate thinker too, but he used the phrase maliciously stupid to describe such a state. God forgive me, but I can't help but think that there is a certain maliciousness involved both in mankind's inability to perceive the truth and in our unwillingness to believe that our lives even matter.
I see Shakespeare's fingers all over this current script, and it looks a lot like he's ripping off Faustus and Oedipus the King. I think that he's also been watching some Tarantino movies and possibly The Sopranos on TV. Who knows, maybe Sophocles and Goethe are also collaborating on this project.
In other words, nothing nowadays seems to make any sense at all. I try to keep my hopes up and remember the time that me and my brother Tim brought Tinkerbell back to life by believing with all our hearts. But then I remember reading in a history book that World War One made absolutely no f-ing sense at all either.
I was so shocked that the historian had written the F word that I ran and got a highlighter out of my desk drawer. When I got back to the book, the word was gone. I still remember it though, and that phrase has stuck with me, and I often use it to describe situations like what this old-people-seeking-missile of a virus has created.
To take my mind off of such thoughts I decided to ride my bike around my hometown while listening to Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. It's a trick that I often use in an effort to try to trick the Universe into yielding up some of its secrets.
When I got down to the road by the park where all the squatters are, he was singing about a book of poems that she(?) had given him where,
"Every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul."
And I knew that it was his way of telling me to pay close attention to my surroundings. That there was something afoot here that most people weren't catching.
As I rode along, my mind often twisted back into the past when I was young and rode my bike along these same paths, and it was like realizing that no time had really elapsed between then and now. When I was looking at these streets through those younger eyes, I was also seeing them as I do now without realizing that it was so, the time between being the illusion.
When I got down to the road in front of the church that used to be the Nazarene church, the song was A Simple Twist of Fate with lyrics that said,
He woke up, the room was bare
He didn't see her anywhere
He told himself he didn't care
Pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside
To which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate."
Dylan, and especially this album, talks to me, and these words reminded me of my wife's leaving. He wrote them to describe his own heartbreak when his wife left. Pushing the window open wide and feeling the void enter the room, damn, what a soul sucking image. The location where I was when I heard them served to remind me that even churches change over time. You wouldn't think so, but they do.
What few simple twists of fate could have brought about my wife still waking up beside me in the morning and/or the Nazarenes still holding services on the corner of Letts and Hall? I'm left with the distinct impression that those should have been the choices that were made, yet weren't.
He next compounded the feeling of guilt and confusion from those bad decisions with some words from You're a Big Girl Now,
"I'm going out of my mind, oh, oh
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we've been apart."
I don't know about the people who once attended the Nazarene church. I knew some back in the day, but most of them have long since died. I do know that every now and then that corkscrew is applied to a soft spot in my heart to remind me of the importance of making better choices.
Then minutes later, as I made my way up Letts toward home, Idiot Wind comes on, and this time, it's Job himself telling the story.
"You hurt the ones that I love best
And cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch
Flies buzzing around your eyes
Blood on your saddle."
Prophetic lines if there ever were prophetic lines. While listening, I can't help but to think that truth remains the truth in spite of all the savage, maliciously stupid people we now have shouting nonsense to the winds. I don't wish anyone ill, but there will be a certain grim satisfaction knowing that them flies will one day buzz around their vacant eyes, at the bottom of a ditch too, and right next to blood stained saddle. He doesn't explicitly say that the horse ran off, but it's implied.
But Dylan doesn't just leave things there. He admonishes the rest of us too. He once said he couldn't find a place to break this song off, that the words and images just kept coming, many insanely beautiful, trenchant, and addressed to our materialistic side,
What's good is bad, what's bad is good
You'll find out when you reach the top
You're on the bottom."
Or else, frighteningly apocalyptic,
"The priest wore black on the seventh day
And sat stone-faced while the building burned."
It is the chorus though where he warns all not to go back to a world of worshipping movie stars and athletes and tells us that we need to take our politicians out to the woodshed in order to remind them they need to work for us and not the opposite. The song's title Idiot Wind seems to perfectly describe our current news media and makes me wonder if it will be all the people who pay them, follow them, or enable them who will eventually wind up seeing/not seeing the buzzing flies and that empty saddle.
There is a message of hope at the end of the album too, but it's words are also juxtaposed against the bleakness of a world where true wisdom has fallen beneath the cushions of the sofa with our pocket change and popcorn seeds where we watch and measure our lives away as time spent between commercial breaks.
The repeated chorus of Shelter From the Storm reminds us that true wisdom only results in recognizing our situations and surroundings for what they really are, biblical settings and events where God is always negotiating for our lives and our salvation or damnation,
"Suddenly I turned around
And she was standing there
With silver bracelets on her wrists
And flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully
and took my crown of thorns
'Come in,' she said, 'I'll give ya
shelter from the storm.'"
Returning from my journey, I realized that yes, there is such a thing as malicious stupidity. Covid-19 is its cousin and apathy its twin. I also know that there is a stern, austere beauty attached to my hometown. You have to squint sometimes to see it, or else mentally go backwards in time to when you can remember in a soft, fuzzy, glow what it looked like before you missed the opportunities offered up by a few simple twists of fate and made your own series of bad choices.
But given the choice of staying inside again and listening to the children of the corn argue about what our options are, it's well worth the effort to rediscover.
"Look, Dee Dee! Danny got his hand on her boob!"
It was my buddy Ray-Ray who was talking. We were laughing really hard at something on the TV when he turned around and saw where my hand had accidentally meandered and just up and blurted it out. Surprised, I looked down and, sure enough, my right hand was resting comfortably on my girlfriend Donna's boob. You'd think I might have taken a second to register just how nice her rack looked in the pink sweater she was wearing, but I didn't. Instead, I was mortified and immediately straightened up and brought my arm back around to the front in support of a two-handed gesture of contrition.
"It was an accident. I was laughing at the TV and didn't even notice what was going on." I looked at my green-eyed, red-headed girlfriend Donna, and saw that she was embarrassed but laughing, and her best friend, a slender blonde named Dee Dee was laughing pretty hard too. "I honestly didn't mean anything by it; I mean wasn't trying to be sneaky or anything like that."
I often wondered about the effect of that last statement. The whole incident blew over pretty quickly, and I spent the last part of the night with my hands securely resting in my lap. We were watching TV at Donna's grandma's house after church, and her grandma was supposedly sleeping behind the closed-door of her bedroom. When Ray-Ray and I were leaving later that night, I turned around and I saw Donna looking out the window with a look that I took for regret. A few weeks later, she broke up with me, and I heard from Dee-Dee in a sort of a roundabout way, that it wasn't because I was making moves on her, but because I wasn't making them fast enough. She started dating another guy pretty much right away, and I always presumed it was because he was making the right moves at a right pace.
I mean, I was pretty much conflicted the whole time I was with her. Number one because she was my first real girl-friend and because I was pretty damn clueless about how all that stuff worked, and number two because she was daughter of the Reverend Baker Jones the preacher of Resurrection Church where my family attended. Reverend. Jones was a square-jawed, straight shooting, ex-marine and a bit of a fire and brimstone spouting crazy man on Sunday. He frightened me quite a bit. That church had lot of preachers while I was there, and I wouldn't give you ten cents on the dollar for most of them, but Baker J. Jones wasn't as hypocritical as most of them. I mean, he walked it like he talked it and put in the good work visiting people in their homes and when they were dying in the hospital.
I don't really know why I thought that Donna was any different from any of the other girls that I was trying to get my paws on back in those early days of my misspent youth. I mean I didn't have nothing against wrestling with a female or trying to cop a feel in general, but I must have thought that her upbringing might have made her a bit more disdainful of such activity. If so, I thought wrong. I've since known quite a few preacher's daughters, and, if anything, they were just as curious about that stuff as most girls and probably more so. There was the idea always lurking in the back of my mind that the good Rev. Jones being a minister and all might be able to summon up a great deal more of the wrath of Jehovah than the average irate father. I didn't really want to find out. My parents went to his church, and that created a whole set of problems in and of itself. I just remember that I thought it was in the best interests of everyone concerned to take things kind of slow.
"Damn it, Ray-Ray, I had my hand on her boob and you pull that shit. What's the hell wrong with you?"
"I'm sorry Danny. I just turned around and saw your hand there and it just came out. Sides, I thought you said it was accidental."
"It was accidental, you dumb ass, but I was still on second base! It doesn’t matter if you hit a double, stole the damn base or got there on a throwing error. You're still sitting on second when the dust clears!"
"I said I was sorry, dude. I didn't mean to do it. Won't happen again."
"Damn right it won't. I brought you with me thinking you'd take care of Dee-Dee, and you hardly talked to her all night."
"Shit, I'd had better luck talking to the cow in that stupid picture on the wall. That girl's way too stuck on herself."
"No she ain't. That's all false bravado, dude. She's putting on with that attitude. All you got to do is come in, act confident and take over. That's what she really wants, someone to tell her how things are."
We stopped at the street light at the intersection of Hill and Lessing; it was where our paths diverged with his heading east on Hill and mine continuing south on Lessing.
"You think so?" He shook his head. "I don't. I think she's got her mind set on Anthony. I've seen her looking at him in church. She sometimes forgets that she's staring at him until your dad hits that loud part of Washed in The Blood, then she wakes up and looks around to see if anybody saw her looking at him."
"In the meanwhile, you forget that you're staring at her."
Ray blushed, then laughed and shook his head, "Yeah. Well, screw you, Danny Wilson. Hey, tell me something. Why don't sit up front with Donna during church?"
"She has to sit up front with her mother and dad. I have my own place in the back. I've been sitting in that pew in the northwest corner ever since I started going to church. If Donna wants to sit with me, she's welcome to come back there anytime."
He laughed again, "Man, if she was my girl, I'd sit up front with her. You're an idiot!"
"Yeah, but I ain't an idiot sitting up front where I ain't got no business. Man got to know his place in the world, Ray-Ray. Even when it comes to where he sits in church." Ray shook his head and waved and then disappeared in the darkness of Hill Street still mumbling something about me being an idiot, and I started the long walk home with the thought of my hand resting on the softness of a pink sweater clouding my mind.
I always sat in the back of church for good reason. For one thing, I wanted some cushion for all the crazy stuff that happened up front. One time, I sat there with my jaw hitting the floor as the deacon and a preacher got in a fist fight over some doctrinal dispute. On another occasion, an alcoholic husband of one of the Sunday school teachers interrupted the services by insisting he be saved. He was pretty drunk and stumbling around, and his wife tried everything she could do to get him to sit down and be quiet, but he wasn't having any of it. He wanted saved and he wanted saved right then! The preacher we had back then decided to appease the drunk man and staged a mock salvation. It didn't go over too good with the rest of the congregation though who took that stuff seriously and didn't want to waste a perfectly good salvation on someone who was appeared to be too drunk to appreciate it.
Mainly, I sat back there though because I inherently knew the value of having an escape route marked out, just in case, you know, if something crazy happened. I don't know how or why I was thinking that church was someplace I needed to be on guard, but that's exactly what I was thinking.
One day, during altar call, the congregation suddenly realized that there were only two people in the whole church who hadn't been saved, that being me and my younger brother Terry. We caught on to it a little late, as we normally shut down our focus on the service and started thinking about what we were going to do once we got out of church about that time. Terry was sitting on the inside of the pew right next to the aisle, and they were on him before he even saw them coming. Before he knew what had happened, they had surrounded him. My mom was up front banging away on the piano pretending she didn't see what was going on. I took advantage of the confusion and slid behind the crowd and acted like I needed to go to the bathroom. Once inside, I locked the door and hid in there until I heard the people leaving church. When I finally go the nerve to go outside, I spotted Terry standing by himself.
He looked at me kind of shell shocked, "Where the hell were you?"
"They had you surrounded; there was nothing I could do, so I took advantage of the confusion and snuck out and hid in the bathroom. What happened?"
"I reckon I kind of got saved I guess?"
"I didn't have much of a choice. The preacher got me by the hands and kind of dragged me. Brother Bramley was pushing me from behind."
"Did you feel anything?"
"You mean like magic or stuff?"
"Not really. I was just kind of relieved when they let me go and let me go back to sit down. You know they'll come after you next time, don't ya?"
"That's the way I got it figured."
And that's exactly the way that it played out too. When we got ready to leave for church the following Sunday, I told Mom that I wasn't feeling well and thought that I'd stay home. She didn't say anything but went back inside the house and got Pop's belt and stepped out on the front porch holding it in her right hand. She stood there until I went and got in the car and then she tossed the belt inside and shut the door. I was on my toes all through the preaching part. Ray-Ray had been teasing me all through our Sunday School class how they were going to drag me up to the altar. I pretended that I needed to go to the bathroom at the rear of the church, locked the door, and climbed out the window and went and sat on the curb in front of the church and smoked a cigarette I'd pilfered from my mom's pack of Kents to calm my nerves. When I got back to the class, there was a note on my chair from Donna. "What are you planning to do, Danny?" She had drawn a big red heart on the page. I just looked up and smiled at her and shrugged my shoulders.
Everything started out like normal, but as it started getting closer to noon, I started noticing that people kept stealing glances in my direction. Then my mom got up and made her way toward the piano which was the sign that passing the collection plates was about to happen which would be closely followed by the playing of Just as I Am and the altar call. The two deacons passed the plates as usual, but, this time, Brother Geary handed his plate to Brother Bramley and went and stood at the back by the swinging doors that led to the foyer where the outer doors were.
When the plates were handed over the preacher, my mom kicked into the altar call music and suddenly everyone in the church turned in my direction including my brother Terry and Ray-Ray. I hadn't even sat down yet from the offering, and I just waited as everybody began to slowly move toward the back where I was. Terry was laughing at me. I let them all get back almost to the final pew before I made my move. Then I quickly slid around the pew gliding like a halfback back to the rear of the church and started heading toward the door. Brother Greery made like he was going to stop me at first, but I balled up my right fist and he saw it. I guess he didn't want to get in fist fight with a kid, so at the last second, he stepped back and let me pass. I pushed open the swinging doors and was out.
There was a potluck luncheon scheduled after services, so I didn't talk to Terry until later. He told me that after I left, they milled around and looked kind of stupid for a while. They didn't seem to know what else to do, so they made like they were going to try and take him back up there to the front, but he just sat down and dared them to try. Eventually, mom quit playing the song, and they all wandered back to their seats and sat down.
I walked home by myself thinking about things the whole way. When I first got out of that church, I was feeling pretty cocky and a little bit proud of the way I had stood up for myself. As I walked though, a little doubt started to creep in. What if I just missed my opportunity to get right with Jesus? I often wondered why Jesus never talked to me the way them other people said he talked to them. I mentally made a list of all the stuff I'd been doing wrong with a special focus on the things that I had been doing wrong in and around the church. I mean how stupid could I be to fantasize about Donna's pink sweater right there in the house of God? Hell, her daddy was preaching at me while I was doing it! When I reached the time that I spiked the punch at one of the potlucks, I couldn't think of anything of anything else, so I stopped and I apologized to God for me being such a dumb ass. I would've even got down on my knees and prayed too, but I was in the middle of the intersection of Bradshaw and Stratton streets and people out watering their yards and tending to their gardens would have thought I was crazy, so I just asked for forgiveness as I walked along.
My Dad was working that Sunday but was home for lunch and was sitting on the sofa eating off the coffee table and watching TV. I came in the door and slunk over and sat down in his chair.
"Dad. When you got saved, did Jesus actually talk to you?"
"Why? What happened?" I explained everything to him including the thing with hand accidentally falling on Donna's boob.
"Mom's gonna kill me. I decided that I wasn't going up there just because they wanted me too. Jesus ain't told me nothing yet. I mean he's made me feel guilty a time or two, but he ain't talked directly at me yet. I ain't going to pretend that he did just because it makes other people happy. I don't think that's right."
Pop took a drink of this sweet tea and wiped his mouth off on the back of his hand. "Well, don't worry about it, Son. When Jesus wants to talk to you, he will. You might be thinking though that he's gonna come at you talking English and all."
"What? Jesus don't talk English?" I was confused this was something I hadn't even thought about.
He laughed. "I mean he talks it, but it ain't his primary tongue. You gotta remember he was from a different time and place. I don't even think English people talked English back then."
"Well, how'd he talk to you?"
Before he answered, he went and put his dishes in the kitchen sink and poured himself another glass of tea, "When I got saved, Danny, I really needed for him to set me on a new course. I was drinking way too much and fighting with your mom all of the time. What it really amounted to was I was worried about money and paying bills, and I wasn't happy at work and came home and took it out on her. I surely needed an adjustment to my way of thinking. One night, your mom and your Aunt Lola went out hunting for me and your Uncle Andy. They found us playing cards at the Four Roses and came in there like their damn tails were on fire and started making a big scene. Hell, your mama was hitting me on the back of my head while I was trying to bet. Me and Andy got up and were coming out the back to the alley where your aunt's car was parked. I'll tell ya, I was mad enough to do your mama some serious harm. All the frustration and resentment that was building up in me just came pouring out, and I was going out there to put this woman in her damned place." He paused at that moment, and I could see his eyes start drifting back in time.
"What happened then, Pop?"
The question brought him back. "We get out there in the back of the place, and I'm really pissed by this time. Your Aunt Lola and your Uncle Andy are off on the side arguing, and your mama is standing there in the middle of the alley with her hands on her hip snapping her head back and forth like a crazy damn chicken. I'm fixing to light into her ass when I looked over toward the car and in the back window, I see you and your brother Glenn looking scared as hell in the back seat. Suddenly, this strong electrical like feeling came over me and a voice on the inside of me told me that instead of making a fool out of myself, I should count all my blessings and be happy. I can't explain how it felt other than that it was like a rush of electricity and I really felt changed. Nothing phony about it. I mean from the inside out."
"Nothing like that's ever happened to me. I'm supposed to fake it what?
He kind of chuckled and grinned at me, "Naw, nothing like that, son. I guess it depends a lot on what you really want out of life."
That statement stopped me dead in my tracks. I had never in my life one time had ever asked myself what I really wanted out of being alive. I didn't know what to say. I thought about it a bit, tried to answer but my mouth wasn't working real well, then I'd stop and think a bit some more, and then I'd try again. Finally, I just said the first thing that I could think of, "I think I just want to know as much of what is true as I can without going crazy."
Pop looked puzzled, "True? Crazy? What makes you think of something like that?"
"You know like them Hitler people killing all them other people. That's part of what truth is, the good with the bad, stuff like that."
"Damn, Boy. That's pretty deep. I never really put much thought into truth having a bad side too. I just figured that what was true was true and lies were lies and that way of thinking about it. You gave me something to think about. I got to get back to work. You gonna be okay? Your mama'll be home directly."
"Pop, can you help me with Mom? You know put a good word in for me? Tell her what I said?" I smiled shamelessly but it didn't work. He just shrugged.
"No, I told her I'd let her take care of this church going business." The thought of what he was telling me made him think back on something that happened before, and he added, "We was fighting bout something at the time. Kept her from yelling at me. I said I wouldn't interfere unless she really started screwing things up."
I looked at him incredulously. It must have made him nervous because after a while, he shrugged his shoulders and added, "Hell, boy, I didn't know I was going to start going to church at the time."
I kept looking at him for a while before asking, "What am I supposed to do about them mobbing up on me?"
What he said then surprised me, "Well, son, I think I'd keep sitting in the back row next to the door. I mean at least until I got big enough to punch Baker Jones on the nose." When I looked stunned by the answer, he continued, "When you're getting bullied by a crowd, always take out the leader first. Most people got no heart for fighting. They just go along for the excitement."
"But it's in Church."
"Churches are a good thing, no, make that a great thing, Son, but never go around thinking that they ain't people in them that don't need punched in the nose from time to time."
I thought about what he said and then confessed, "Dad, I'm doing a lot of stupid stuff, and I don't even know why. Jesus's silence on the matter has me more than a little bit worried about if I'm destined for a roasting."
Pop just laughed and reached out and rubbed my head just as Terry and my mom pulled up into our driveway coming in from church.
Terry burst out of car almost before it came to a complete stop. "Danny, you should have seen it. Brother Bramley was getting on Brother Greery about not stopping you from going out the door, and, all of a sudden, they start fighting out in front of the church. Next thing you know, their wives are kicking each other and pulling each other's hair, and Sister Geary snatched the wig off of Sister Bramley and was waving it up in the air. Then Ray-Ray said something smart about you being the cause of the whole mess and Donna hauled off and kicked him right square in his nuts. He was rolling around on the sidewalk crying like a baby. I'm telling you should have seen it!"
I looked over at Mom as she came around the car. She stopped for moment and took her white gloves off and placed them in her purse. Then she came over to where I was sitting. I'd tensed up thinking she'd be mad, and was very relieved when she wasn't. She gently pulled me up and put her arms around me and asked me if I was okay. When I said I was, she whispered in my ear, "I talked to Reverend Jones. They won't be doing that anymore."
Later that night, I pulled the covers over my head and talked to Jesus, man to man like and explained that I really wasn't trying to be mean; it just came out that way. I said that I would promise I would change, but I knew that I was just getting the hang of this puberty thing and figured that I would probably be crossing some lines, so that I thought I'd better hold off on the promising. I did say though that I never wanted to hurt anyone, and I told him that I'd seriously try to do better.
I waited for an answer for a while but fell asleep before it came.
It’s been more than fifty years since I fell asleep that night, slightly disappointed in that he hadn’t answered my prayer, but at the same time kind of relieved that I didn’t wake-up and find him hovering over me and showing me the scars from the scourging and the holes in the palms of his hand. The constant feeling that I was missing something has never left me though, not for one second of my entire life. I must admit that I understand the sense of defiance and grievance that Cain must have felt when he stood on the road outside the gates of Eden with a knapsack on his back and his thumb up in the air. “I have to find myself,” he must have muttered to the crows circling overhead. All of my life, I’ve tried my best to cover up that gigantic acne flair-up in the middle of my forehead that I discovered shortly after the onset of puberty.
Carl Jung wrote about his inability, while down on his knees, to lower his head the final inch and place it upon the floor into a position of total obeisance. I understand what he was saying. It is the same feeling often expressed in literature where the young protagonist is left to his own devices to deal with the threats of extinction and existence while his father is gallivanting around on a cattle drive, off saving conquering Troy, or fighting his way across a war ravish Europe. That final inch that turns into a stiff-necked pride is mankind’s lot in life, we can’t help but blame God for suffering of our loved ones and because of that, our own suffering.
I am often reminded of Mark Twain’s sentiments on arriving in Heaven only to discover that every pompous asshole you hated in life was in the welcoming party while all your friends are smoking cigars and playing poker with water-proof cards down in the cauldrons of hell. I know that that’s a simplistic notion, but one that I developed honestly from the people whom I trusted placing simplistic people in charge of my religious development. I wouldn’t last two days in place like the concept of heaven that those people held, a place of golden streets with mansions with white picket fences; it wouldn’t take two days in place like that before I was out looking for a bottle of Glenlivet, or trying to find Wolfman Jack on the radio.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of infinity lately. It seems to me that all of our problems are caused by humanity’s failure to understand that at some point in our life we have to come to grips with our fundamental relationship with that paradigm busting concept. It’s opened up my eyes to a lot of things including how well Jesus’s words seem to be saying that same thing.
I went through a great deal of suffering when my ex-wife died within six months of my father’s passing, and I also developed a bad case of Tinnitus the night she passed away. I was severely depressed, a depression made worse by the lack of sleep and the fact I also was blessed at that time with that one situation that every teacher ultimately fears, a classroom full of unmanageable kids and the arbitration of people with the emotional intelligence of Pontius Pilate.
I got up this morning and Jesus was waiting downstairs making coffee. He handed me a cup with the Hazelnut creamer mixed just the way I liked it.
“You look like you need this.”
“Thanks,” I took a sip before I sat down on the couch. I relaxed my shoulders and took a centering breath, “Why? Why now?”
It was his turn to take a sip, “You remember how Andy took Opie out on the porch and talked to him, or how Mr. Cleaver would always sit Beaver down in the living room, how Robert Young talked to Buddy, or even how Mr. Coates showed up right when Travis was burying Old Yeller and told Travis that he shouldn’t let his sadness dominate his world view?”
“Well, that was me.”
“Not to be disrespectful or nothing, but... well, you ain’t ever made me coffee before. Like I said, why now?”
“Your Jennie used to make the coffee in the morning, didn’t she?” He waited till I nodded before continuing, “Well, that was me too.”
He sat down his cup on the coffee table and I saw the obvious hole in his left hand. The skin around it was still angry red like it had been made earlier that morning. “I still don’t understand. I been waiting for this moment since I was… well, since that night after I ran out of the church.”
He smiled slightly before he answered, “What did them fathers always do?”
I didn’t hesitate a moment before I answered, “Well, nothing really. They would just calm the kid down and give him some advice in such a way so that he could figure out himself which way to go.”
“I’ve been there all along, Danny. You remember when you suddenly grasped the meaning of Moses parting the Red Sea? You were at work digging a ditch with a dragline when it happened.”
The statement surprised me. “I will never forget that day! It changed my life. I felt an actual electrical current running through my body when I grasped the meaning. I couldn’t sit still; I walked around that machine for a better part of an hour! That moment led me into going back to school and becoming a teacher.”
“That particular truth has been around since before the beginning of time. You, on the other hand, had just reached the point in your life of where you could understand it.”
The realization of what he was saying took the wind out of me. “You?”
He didn’t answer this time, just smiled and took another drink of coffee. “Man, I love the taste of Hazelnut creamer. You’ve looked a little lost lately, Danny. More so than usual.”
It was at that exact moment when I first thought about leaving her. I had set up a romantic getaway at San Simeon which had included a late night tour of the Castle and a candlelit dinner. Our room even had a personal hot tub. Jenny, on the other hand, had decided to choose the week-end not to talk to me at all. If I asked her a direct question about something simple like if it was raining outside, she would answer, but other than that, zilch. During the dinner, she hadn't said a word to me at all.
We were on our way back home to the valley and had reached the junction to turn onto the highway by San Luis and head east. She had looked out of the passenger side window the whole time, just like she had been doing on the way over. This was where I had swallowed my pride sixteen years before and just kept driving. Jenny left me about six months later, but not after repeating the behavior one other time after we had been looking for houses in Belle Vista all morning. We were stopped at red light after looking at a house we had both liked. She was staring out of the window again.
"I liked the patio best and the upstair rooms. I can use one for my office, you can do whatever you want with the . . . . ," that was when I then noticed that she wasn't even listening.
She suddenly turned toward me, brushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes and said, "Of course you do know that I don't love you anymore, Danny and never will again."
It was my second chance to do something, but once again I froze. It felt as if the ground had dropped out below me and as though I was floating in the exact center of an unfeeling universe. My throat constricted, and I felt sad enough, given a choice, to check out completely. There were other things involved, louder things, things that crashed and wailed, but I knew deep down that this was one of the moments on which the future hinged, the facing down of the monster, and instead of rushing forward sword in hand, I froze up inside, pissed my pants, let the monster bar the way, and turned a retreated with my tail between my legs. I tried to explain to her once about the freezing up inside, the inability to talk, and the feeling that every word we said in such moments contained nuclear capabilities, able to annihilate our existence as a family. I tried to explain how my older brother had watched transfixed as my parents had fought tooth and nail. She never understood. Maybe she shouldn't have; maybe it was for me to understand.
This time though I didn't waver. I knew what was coming and had Googled directions to the Greyhound station. Jenny was so lost in her thoughts she didn't even notice until I pulled up to the station and shut the car off. I opened the door, got out, and got my suitcase out of the trunk. I came back and threw the keys onto the front seat.
"What are you doing, Danny Wilson? What's this?"
"You haven't said a fucking word me this whole trip. Now you want to suddenly ask questions. I ain't driving home with you. There's the keys. I'll take my chances on the bus."
Her face went from a state of confusion to one of outrage in single moment when she realized what I was doing. " Oh so now, you want to be a big man, and show me how tough you are. Now, instead of doing..."
I cut her off. I knew from the all the arguments that we had later what she would say. "NO. Don't say a fucking word. You lost that privilege when you decided to treat me this way. I don't want to hear shit about our relationship, what you think I do wrong, nothing! You don't treat people the way you treated me this weekend."
I walked into the station, and by the time I bought the ticket, she was gone.
"Well, how did that make you feel, her being gone?"
"In truth, not that great. She was gone, and it was over, just like that. I felt better because I had made the stand. I had said what I should've said before. I just felt like I didn't deserve better. I can convince myself that when I got home, she would have been more inclined to treat me like a human being. For some reason, I believe that it was the only chance that we could have worked things out. She understood better than I did why I needed to fight back. I mean, once I had gotten past the idea that every word I wanted to say back then weighed like a ton. You're sure that this is not going to change anything, I mean, my daughters aren't going to disappear or anything like that?"
Doctor Laurel took off her glasses and laughed, "No. This was for you alone, to give you a sense of closure. Our technology allows us to recreate such moments virtually. The thought behind it is this is a process that allows people like yourself to repair psychic damage, those who suffer from some form of trauma to make some corrections. Our founder was a Japanese bio-geneticist who proved that the humans can alter their genetic make-up by doing right things and learning how to deal with traumatic situations. How do you feel about it now that you experienced your first correction?"
"It's been cathartic. I mean it felt so real, and I have been waiting to say those words ever since that day. When you've been fighting depression as long as I have, you just know when the moments were that you did the worst thing that you could have done."
"Great. It says that you have two more treatments scheduled for today."
"Well, I know of hundreds of such moments; it was a hard decision, but I believe I've picked three that were pivotal in making me into who and what I am today."
"Well, are you ready? We can start on the second one right away. Sit back and close your eyes and count backwards from ten, please." My eyes were closed and I heard the song You're Still a Young Man by Tower of Power playing. Then I heard a voice that I hadn't heard in over thirty years. It was cold and deadly and sounded like a hiss.
"Shit, you just don't seem to be listening to me, Danny. I don't exactly understand these things myself. All, I do know for sure is that I sincerely don't want to stay with you anymore."
"Sincerely, huh? Just last Friday you told me that you were in love with me, Jocelyn. Just last Friday. I haven't even seen you since that night."
I recognized the scene immediately. It was the moment right before I cried, a single tear escaping and sliding down my cheek. I knew its effect immediately. She had been talking and listening to me before, but upon seeing the tear, she swiftly checked out and after several moments, laughed to herself, opened the door, got out of the car.
We were parked and sitting around the corner from her house. We were mostly in the dark shadow of her neighbor's tall wooden fence, but the light from the street light on the opposite corner seeped through the front windshield and fell on her face. She had never been more beautiful.
Jocelyn had been lying to me about her ability to get out of the house for about a week. She had been calling me everyday for weeks and then, suddenly, every time I tried calling her she had an excuse or just didn't answer. On the night in question, I had gone to a party and when I walked up to the house, I saw her sitting in the living room talking to another guy. It was awkward as hell when I went in, and she tried to make it less awkward by saying that she needed a ride home and was just going to call me to ask me if I would take her home.
I knew better to let that tear drop. For thirty years I had practiced what I should do next. I started the car up which surprised her.
"What are you doing?" she asked as we pulled away from the curb.
"I'm taking you back where I picked you up. I know where this shit is going. I know you and how you like to get guys to fall in head-over- hills in love with you and then break their hearts. I thought about taking you outside of town and dropping you off and making you walk home in the dark, but I decided against it. That's what my friends would do, but I ain't that kind of guy. I'll take you back to Randy's and drop you off."
"Why would you fucking do something so stupid, Danny! This is insane."
"Maybe, but I know where this is headed, Joss. You're going to walk in the house, and I ain't never going to get the chance to tell that I know who you really are, and how you hurt the ones who fall in love with you to try and get back at someone else."
"That's crazy. Who exactly am I trying to get back at, Danny?"
I just shrugged, "I don't know, your drunk ass parents maybe, your step-dad, or how about that Dad you never see? Thing is I don't care. I don't want to spend the next thirty years knowing I didn't kick your ass out of my car when I had the chance. I don't want to have your ghost hanging over every relationship I'll have going forward."
I pulled up in front of house where I had picked her up. This time she was incredulous and asking herself how it was possible for someone like me to resist her.
I reached across her and opened the door.
"Danny. . . . .."
I drove off. She stood there and watched with a stunned expression. When I turned the corner it was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
The third experience had happened a long time before. I was in the second grade in fact. My friends and I were at recess and a guy I knew named Markie Rodriguez had a taken a Popsicle stick and touched this homely looking girl with it, and we played cootie tag with the stick the rest of the period. When the bell rang, we all ran to class. I was the last one and I looked back and saw the girl, red-haired, freckled face Barbara Lewis sobbing with her head buried in her arms while she leaned up against the drainage gutter coming down from the corner of the next wing of buildings. It had been raining earlier and water was running out of the bottom of the gutter.
I instantly understood the cruelness involved. I kept watching till the teacher told me to take my seat. Years later I was hanging around with this girl Teresa who was Barbara's best friend, and I got to know Barbara one night, and discovered that she was a sweet person with a very funny personality. She was homely as ever but possessed a smile and a sense of humor that easily made one forget about her shortcomings in the looks department. I had always wanted to apologize for what happened when we were in elementary school, but never found the time or way or the courage.
I eventually quit hanging out with her friend when her friend started going out with another guy, and I never talked to Barbara after that night. A few months, later she was killed in a traffic accident on her way to junior college. Every so often, that image of her crying up against the rain gutter reappears and prevents me from truly believing that I am a decent person. I have this problem; I carry around so much guilt and shame that most times I don't feel worthy of forgiveness. A person can't function very well that way.
I didn't ask the doctor to place me back into the moment where I could have walked over and gave her hug and walked her back to class or even in the moment where I could have prevented it from happening. Our reactions to events like that are the tests that define us, mythic moments that create the bricks of our existence. Preventing it would make me seem heroic, and I wasn't shooting for heroic. I knew what. I needed most was both the remorse and the repentance.
Teresa, a slender blonde with beautiful green eyes was milling about the kitchen fussing and talking. She seemed nervous about something. We found out later, she was trying to capture the attention of this guy she had met the night before. He worked at this store on Main Street, "I'm going to run down to the store and get some more cokes. You guys stay here, and I'll be right back."
She left Barbara and I sitting there at the blue linoleum covered counter that divided the living area with its gold-green shag carpet of her apartment from the rusty red tiles of a Spanish style kitchen. Barbara was leaning up against the wall beneath a small, framed, autographed portrait of Tommy Bolin. There was an awkward silence for a moment before I asked,"How's school going, Barb?"
"I love it. It's pretty hard but kind of fun too. I'm going to be a nurse, Danny. Ain't that funny? Maybe someday you'll come into the doctor and I'll have to give you a shot." She laughed at the thought.
"How about if Mark Rodriguez came in for the shot?"
She stopped laughing immediately. "Now, why would you say that?"
I explained to her how I had seen her crying that day, and how ever since, I wanted to tell her I was sorry but never had the nerve nor the courage.
"I've so, fucking sorry, Barb. I have been so fucking sorry for such a long time, ever since I saw you there and realized how cruel it was."
She was quiet for a moment and looked at me suspiciously. She looked away and spoke in barely more than a whisper, "I hated that fucker. Mark, I mean, for the longest time. He always had it in for me and made my life miserable. It's weird. Last year I was doing some internship stuff, and he was one of the patients. He died last week all alone, all by himself. He shared the roomed with this other guy, but the guy died the day before he did. I mean it bothers me to think that the he had spent the last night of his life thinking about the death of that other guy. Mark recognized me right away, and he apologized. He confessed that he took the misery of his own life out on mine. He told me that his dad used to beat him and his mom would just sit and watch and not say anything. I can remember once seeing his dad beat the shit out of him in front of the school. It was tight after he had did that stuff with the popsicle stick. I laughed. I smiled all that day thinking that God had answered my prayers for revenge. Mark told me he came to school looking for someone to abuse and that there wasn't anything personal about it."
"You forgave him?"
"Yeah, I mean ... it hurt me a lot, but I needed to get past it. Look at me; I ain't never going to be physically beautiful. I had to learn to accept myself for who and what I was and not to define myself by someone else's judgements. I even apologized to him because I had gotten such joy from watching his dad whip him. I was visiting him when he died. And now, here we are and you say this. What? Are you wanting forgiveness too? There you got it, now what, Danny Wilson?"
"Naw. I mean I'll take all the forgiveness I can get, and I'd be glad for your forgiveness, Barb, if that's what this really is, but what I was needing more is learning how to forgive myself, and the only way I could get that was to face you and tell you I was sorry, and how you didn't deserve none of that."
She smiled a little, "Well, it would have been a lot nicer if you had done it back then."
"I know. I'm real sorry about that too."
"Well, Danny, I'm glad you resisted the urge to warn her about the wreck. It could have done a great deal of damage to the program. We have to constantly warn participants that they are not there to change the fabric of reality, or to alter fate. Barbara Lewis was destined to die in a car wreck in the fall of 1970.
"I know. I wasn't there to change her future but my own. Still."
"I know. But what would be the point of living a life if all we are going to do is edit it later. Here, we only work on unpacking trauma related issues. The great fabric of reality always weaves itself into the forms it needs to express. "
"That's nice. Hindu?"
"No. Just something I came up with on my own. Egyptian, more or less."