"You know what, Dad? I don't want to talk about that shit. So, either you don't talk about it, or I'm leaving!"
The people all around us in the Mexican restaurant where we were dining turned to see what the fuss was all about. I stared back angrily at each intruding pair of eyes until they turned back and pretended to fiddle with the rice and beans on their plates. They were still listening though, their ears on the side of their head that faced us were clearly sending out little radar signals as their spouses nudged at their feet beneath the tables.
We had been having good time reminiscing about things. Then Deja told me about a conversation that her sister Casey had had with their mother before her mother passed away. Deja told me that as her mother was dying she had made Casey a promise to contact her somewhere from the great beyond. Casey had her doubts of course and expressed them to her mother. Jennie was very close to the end, but had managed to squeeze her hand and hoarsely whisper, "I love you and your sister so much, I know that I can do it."
Casey was weeping when she told Deja about the incident, "I asked her, 'How, Mom? How you gonna do it? You can't write or phone me; they don't have phones there, or even paper?"
She said that Jenny had thought about it a while before she answered in another hoarse whisper, "The lights, honey, I'll do something with the lights."
I was sitting there thinking about the possibility of communicating across the great divide when a well-known political figure appeared on the television on the wall behind Deja's head. I absentmindedly said something derogatory about the politician. I had forgotten the one rule we had about conversing which was never talk about politics. We were both tired after coming from the hospital and visiting my mom who had fallen and broken her hip. In a matter of seconds, we went from talking and laughing amicably into full-scale political savagery.
I looked at the fire burning in Deja's eyes and instinctively tried to calm her down. I got six words in, really just two, 'calm down' repeated three times, before my own fire roared to life. I stood up, pulled a hundred-dollar bill out of my wallet, and slammed it down on the table.
"I'm your father. I brought your ass into this world, and it wasn't so that you can tell me in a crowded restaurant at the top of your damn voice, what I can and I cannot say. . . . Be safe going home." And just like that I was out of there but not before unleashing my ire on the fat, bald headed man staring through the colorful flowers and the green ferns that sat upon the divider wall, "Eat your Goddamn beans, asshole."
I slowed down while walking toward my car in the dark parking lot hoping that she would hurry out and stop me. She didn't, so I unlocked the door and threw myself into the driver's seat. I sat there in stunned silence, leaned backwards into the seat, relaxed my shoulders, and took two long centering breaths exhaling each slowly. I started the car and looked into the mirror, still hoping to catch the image of her running toward me, or at least coming around the corner looking somewhat remorseful.
The tires crunched on the pebbles as I and pulled out onto the road heading for a home once so full of life, but now that Jennie had left and died and the kids moved off, seemed as dark and forbidding as a dimly lit parking garage in a cheap horror movie. I turned the stereo on; Boz Scaggs's Loan Me Dime was playing; so I turned the volume up and stared at the white lines in the road and AT the inroads that my headlights made into the darkness, trying hard not to think about anything.
There's this part in the guitar solo where Duane Allman pleads with the all-mighty to take notice of his plight. Every time I hear that guitar plead it sends a shiver up my spine. I knew it was coming and that it would be the perfect soundtrack for where my head was, a muddled state silently yet urgently begging for God or anybody else to loan me a fucking dime: the dime being a metaphor for peace of mind. I ain’t had much of that since Jennie left. Then one night she up and died and well before I had had time to adjust to being without her. Maybe that dime that Boz Skaggs was crying about represented some kind of personal salvation too. Lord knows, I could needed some of that too.
The tingle happened while I was passing under the overpass on 10th Street, emerging on the other side with a single fucking tear in the corner of my right eye. I caught it just before it spilled and nudged it gently back into place. I don't know why I always prided myself on such stupid shit, but keeping my facial features free from moisture while the storms raging inside my head were erasing coastlines is a trait that I've always foolishly valued.
I didn't really know when or where the cultural divide between my daughters and I began, probably when they were born. Each successive generation thinks that it’s their responsibility to point out all the flaws in its predecessor's point of view. I remember several loud arguments when I believed that I was right about the Vietnam conflict and was equally certain that my father was wrong. We never got it right we got it right, but just tired of the argument. I thought I knew everything at the time, and listened to a lot of people who shamelessly lied rather than listen to my parents who I knew always had my best interests at heart. The way of the world I reasoned. I wanted out and my father barred the way.
I read a quote somewhere that said that what we lose as we age is not so much our physical strength or dexterity as our illusions. I had witnessed this. My parents took to going to McDonald's everyday where they sat and laughed and conversed with people from every different persuasion, people they had never socialized with before. They all had differences too but decided to put aside the things that made them different and concentrate on the things that made them similar. They valued each other's presence and laughter more than anything else.
I worry a lot about this current generation. They seem to be a lot less forgiving than us. People are flawed, and we overcome our flaws as we age.
People like to talk, and a great many of them lie as much as they talk. Many lives have been tainted by the actions of their forebearers, and somehow that stain got written into code. Most people spent lifetimes working to erase the stain and rewrite the code, but others could care less, and just go with what was written. Then there are those whose empathy has been destroyed by the time, setting, and obstacles of their life, preventing them from achieving a wholeness only accessed by a knowledge of the self, people without hope, driven to hurt others by pain they can never seem to soothe.
I was sitting at the intersection of Arboles and Laguna waiting for the light to change, six blocks from home when I thought that all I really wanted is for my daughters to beware of those who will use their goodness for evil ends. The snakes are out in multitudes. The main flaw of life is that it takes so long to see if new ideas truly function any better than older ones do.
There’s a mantra I repeat over and over when I'm mind won't settle. It starts with the beginning of the Lord's Prayer up till the part where it says that God's will be done on Earth. Then I add my own part where I ask for forgiveness of all the sins that clog my heart and brain; it ends it with, "Lord, please grant peace, love happiness, and freedom from pain and suffering to all who I have sinned against." I say it three times perfectly and then as many times as needed until most of the winds are spent. Sometimes it works, sometimes it don't. I had repeated the mantra some fifty-two times before I got home and walked into my front door.
I fixed myself a Scotch and water, took it into the den, sat down in my brown leather recliner, kicked off my shoes, and turned on the TV. An old Pentecostal neighbor I had as a kid once told me that TV antennas were the sign of the devil, 'The Devil's Cross' he used to say. I laughed at the notion a lot. Nowadays, though, I sometimes worry that the process of gaining entrance into Heaven could involve taking the amount of time I've spent in front of a TV screen and dividing it by the times I actually did something useful.
I was five minutes into watching a repeat episode of Two and Half Men when my memory grew hazy and stumbled upon a memory of a dog, the only animal I had ever loved, a poodle my aunt had given us named Peter after an old flame.
Me and my brothers quickly dubbed him Petey; he was a small black, shaggy little thing but a purebred poodle, a type of dog that was about as out of place in neighborhood we lived in on the south side of Concord as I would be standing on the Champ de Elysees.
My aunt had to move from one apartment to another where pets were not a part of the plan. When she dropped him off, he looked like a little sissy with his sides all perfectly trimmed and little puffs of hair on his hips and shoulders, the top of his head, and even on his tail. My dad, a dust bowl Okie, wasn't much on spending money on hair styling for pets. My brothers and I eyed the dog anxiously and thought to ourselves, "Damn, Petey, you going to have to get used to things around here."
It was like that damn dog had read Darwin. It was kind of like he knew that if he waltzed around the Southside of Concord like he did at my aunt's fancy apartment in Bakersfield, he was going to get his ass chewed clear off. Hell, none of them other dogs out there even knew what a poodle was.
It wasn't long though before Petey took over the neighborhood. He was kind of like that dog Tramp in the Disney movie. Before long all the girl dogs were clamoring for Petey's body like he did something like won a game of chicken or something. Before a month was out, he came home with a bunch of buddies, and all the girl dogs on the block started sashaying by our yard swishing their tails like they were chasing flies.
Petey the Poodle was the only pet I've ever loved like a human being. I know this says a lot about me. A lot of people go through many dogs in a lifetime. Not me. It was way too much of an emotional investment. It was like the idea of me remarrying. I don't think I could ever love like that again.
At the rear of our house a single step led out of the back door unto a large five by eight plain concrete slab. Petey and I used to sit there on Saturday mornings and watch the sun rise over the line of tall trees that dominated our neighbor's lot. The sunrises were glorious mixtures of pinks, oranges, blues, and yellows that reminded me of the vibrant colors in the cinematography of The Wizard of Oz. Petey and I would just sit there basking in the warmth of the morning sun as contented as any living creature could ever be.
And when I left, he would go about his business. That always impressed me about Peter. He always had his own shit to do and didn't have to depend on me. He would come rolling back home about the same time that I did every evening when I returned from the playing fields of the nearby elementary school. Then we would eat and watch TV. Petey usually sat on the couch next to my mom, and sometimes between her and dad.
My parents were never very demonstrative when it came to showing their affections. At least, that's the way it seemed to me at the time. It never occurred to me that there was any history involved in the matter. I never once thought about all the roots of all things, of the painful lessons or the joys, or the wounds and the scars. It seemed to me that life was shaped mainly by the problems of the here and now and the demands that the future placed upon it. I never did learn how to be demonstrative in love.
Mom ran over Petey one night, killing him instantly while he was sleeping in a rut behind the left rear tire of the family car. My brother Cody and I got the news when we walked in the front door of the house and found my dad sitting on the sofa crying. My dad never cried. Dad buried Petey in the northeast corner of our yard and placed a small concrete slab over his grave to mark the spot. The slab is still there.
I learned that the things you love the most always pass away. It was such a brutal knowledge to thrust upon the shoulders of a skinny, twelve-year-old. I do know that it's really a pretty fucking sad thing to realize that you haven't silently sat and watched the sun come up since you were twelve years old. It's kind of like not having a memory of playing catch with your dad, or having developed a fear of deep water because your best friend drowned the summer before you crossed town to attend middle school with a bunch of kids you didn't even know.
That period of my life explains a lot about all of my relationships afterwards. I always held the people I loved the most at a short distance afraid that life would catch them sleeping in a rut behind the left rear tire. When Deja and her sister Casey were changing from toddlers into awkward young girls, I was conflicted because even though I knew it was only a natural, I was bothered by the realization that there were such sweet parts of them being left behind, but life moves on, and I have to squint my eyes at times in order to remember for the briefest of moments the perfect innocent beauty of the bud before it blooms, briefly because it hurts too much to linger.
And we usually forget there is always the matter of the roots, the knowing of the sweetness and the memories of the suffering where great lessons are vaguely explained, painfully learned, and locked away only to be summoned in times of utmost despair.
The memory of Petey made me think of my dad kneeling down and scratching the words, "Petey Our Beloved Puppy," into the wet cement slab he had placed over the grave and just as quickly, that old memory morphed in the newer one of my brothers and I standing at the side of my father's grave. I had thought of Petey's funeral on that day too, wondering who would etch the words into my father's headstone. My brother Cody had selected Elvis's Peace in the Valley as the music marking the end of the ceremony.
My childhood friend Hobo, real name Larry, came up afterwards and hugged me tightly. He whispered, "Did you pick out that damn music?"
"Naw. That was Cody's idea. He loves Elvis, man. He'd sang it hisself if we'd let em."
Hobo pulled back and said earnestly, "Good fucking choice though. I always said that if'n the King can't break you down, you can't be fucking broken down."
I laughed, "Shit, fool. Don't be making me laugh. It's my dad's funeral for Christ's sake. Hell, the song was a lot better than that preacher though."
"Ain't that the damn truth! Where did you guys get that mealy mouth motherfucker, out the Yellow Pages? Sound like he was trying to sell us a car."
I laughed again, "Knock it off, I said. Damn, dude. Jennie said that if we used Old Penrose she wouldn't even come. Glen came up with this dude."
Hobo pulled a package of Marlboros out of his shirt pocket, lit a one, and exhaled slowly, "Well you know what they always say. Same shit, different suit."
Hobo invited me over to his house to burn a doobie. I remembered looking over my shoulder toward where Jennie and kids were talking with her mother and sister and weighing the consequences awhile before answering, "Hell, if a man can't get a bit twisted the day he buries his dad, what the hell he good for?" To this day, I don't know if it was a valid response. All I knew was that I didn't want to face a whole bunch of sad looking well-wishers telling me the same damned thing over and over.
When I pulled up in front of my mom's house about an hour later, twelve-year-old Deja flew out of the front door followed by a tiny Casey and came running down the sidewalk yelling, "Daddy, come quick! Uncle Cody's out back fighting with the preacher!"
I fell asleep after midnight and went somewhere altogether different in my head, a strange, colorful, enchanted place full of mystery and weird people. I never knew exactly where I was at any time. It looked a lot like the south side of Concord, but had rows of urban sidewalk trees and skyscrapers and even the damned Thames River flowing right through the middle of it all. I remember stopping to get my bearings and to purchase an expresso at a small sidewalk cafe in front of the Eiffel Tower. The actor Robert Mitchum was with me for some reason but not saying a whole bunch of anything when suddenly Pee Wee Herman came up on us and started acting a fool and jabbering at us in French. I was urgently looking around for something and didn't have the faintest clue as to what it might be when the phone rang.
"Hi, Dad. It's me Deja. I was worried about you and wanted to check on you to see if you made it home okay."
"I'm fine, Kiddo. How about you?"
"I'm good, Dad. It's funny though, ever since I've been home, my dang ceiling light's been flickering non-stop."
"Well, turn it off."