Saturday, June 25, 2016

Infernoesque

Those living in the six-hundred block of Sidewinder Lane were overexposed; at least whereas it pertained to the personal affairs of a particular couple living there. The Feldman’s drove a chestnut colored sedan, owned a poodle named Sherman, and raised two children who were presently away at college. Two people as ordinary as paper, except that each subscribed to the school of thinking that the louder of two points most often prevailed. It happened during the spring and fall of the year when windows were thrown wide open and voices carried. Primarily their disagreements revolved around toothpaste etiquette, missed trash days, and the like. Pretty average, if not boring, fare, I decided. But all of that changed one Saturday afternoon in late September when the dissemination of information spilled into the street like poison.    
“Yes, she’s an attractive woman, Margaret, but the world is full of attractive women. In fact, many years ago, you used to be….”
In an attempt to cut off his words, I sincerely hoped Mr. Feldman swallowed his tongue. Even then, I wasn’t convinced a medical emergency could save him.
“Used to be what, Harold?” She screeched. “Attractive? Enough for you? I’ll tell you one thing I refuse to be—that’s naïve!”
I’d just finished raking leaves when their words turned sideways. Without question, the proper response would have been for me to return indoors, but knowing the correct course of action and executing it are two different matters altogether. For two full years, I had endured every minor quibble. Now, having stumbled upon it, I felt entitled to a serving of meat and potatoes as it were. Glancing across the street, I discovered company—a familiar set of eyes hovering just above the hydrangeas. Mrs. Jones had found a unique and depraved use for her gardening stool—sandwiched between the garage and the landscaping she appeared to have settled in for the duration. I had never officially attended an eavesdropping before, but in the absence of experience, I supposed common courtesy prevailed. As such, I raised my hand in her direction. It became painfully apparent that she perceived my offering as an egregious and unforgivable breach of etiquette, as Mrs. Jones left me standing like a school-crossing guard frozen in time. This period of penance dragged on long enough that the connective tissue in my right shoulder became a series of angry and knotted muscles. Perhaps out of pity, even then rather reluctantly, she returned the awkward gesture, and I understood our exchange to be a shared oath of silence rather than a greeting.   
We, Mrs. Jones and I, would soon learn the mystery woman Mr. Feldman found attractive happened to also be his twenty-something secretary, Giselle. A damning bit of information that in my opinion only bolstered his underdog status. Mrs. Feldman taught Literature at the university, and I supposed painting pictures with words for a living made for a decided advantage in any argument. 
“Come on, Harold. Giselle hurdled past attractive in junior high and never looked back. Hot doesn’t even begin to describe her. The woman is….she’s….she’s…infernoesque!”
It wasn’t a word, but it didn’t matter. By the time Mrs. Feldman finished describing it, you’d be looking for an opportunity to slip it into any conversation where it half-way fit.  
“Those four-inch stiletto heels barely provide enough clearance to prevent leaving scorch marks everywhere she steps. Does she still wear those dangerously short skirts, and the black stocking, turned down at the top to allow the steam to escape? And who could possibly forget that first glimpse of skin lying just above the stocking turndown—a healthy, three-finger width gap of flesh—delightfully and evenly tanned, except when a man’s thumbs press it white again. Should we dust for prints, Harold?”
“That’s enough, Margaret. Can we stop this now?” Mr. Feldman pleaded.
She steamrolled his objection as if she’d gone deaf to the tone of his voice. “What a lucky bit of flesh indeed, as it plays quietly in a ‘W’ shaped shadow with the lower portions of the letter squared off—a shadow cast down by a plump and juicy apple-shaped derriere.”
Mrs. Feldman was exceedingly good. Despite never having laid eyes on Giselle, in less than a minute she carved the curvaceous, young trollop out of thin air. Suddenly, I felt dirty for considering the image frolicking in the dead space between my ears. 
Mrs. Feldman made it abundantly clear that she had nothing against attractive women, or an apple-shaped derriere. At one point, she even stated that she could understand a stolen glance now and again, but it became apparent that her understanding of such a glimpse did not extend to the man whom she shared a bed with, when she lashed at him with a renewed fervor.     
“Did you look at it, Harold?” His wife bellowed.
I sympathized with Mr. Feldman’s predicament, if for no other reason than we shared the same man parts. Saying nothing at all equated to a guilty plea, yet uttering a word in either direction instantly made him a liar or a pig.
Sadly, Mr. Feldman folded like a dove on opening day. His admission of guilt came out mushed, as if she had his face firmly in her grasp, and by now, I supposed she did. Her white knuckles milking the poison from his lips.
“Do you know how incredibly unbelievable it is that after a glance or two, you might suddenly find your conscience—unless, of course, it was pasted on the back side of your zipper. Are you naïve enough to think I can’t smell her on your clothes? Tell me, Harold, was there even a fleeting thought of me when you gripped her thighs and pressed those bits of flesh white again? Did taking hold of something so young and electric make your blackened heart race? And did you once consider our children, as that wayward worm of yours burrowed deep into the core of that rotten apple? The thought of it turns my stomach irreversibly inside out!”
I can only assume that Mrs. Feldman turned loose of his cheeks long enough to slap one of them soundly. A sharp snap sliced through the chilly air between houses, arriving with enough force to temporarily dislodge Mrs. Jones from her gardening stool and rattle the tines of my rake. In the silence that followed, I sensed a checkmate. If he responded at all, I anticipated a frantic plea from a man caught, in the most literal sense, with his pants around his ankles. But Mr. Feldman recovered and countered rather quickly, his voice carrying an air of sincerity that had been missing earlier.
Even with his wife’s stomach lining exposed, he suggested that the abuse of alcohol and prescription pills were more likely the cause of her digestive disorder than his indiscretions. He recommended that if she ever stumbled upon a minute’s sobriety she might eventually see her part in it. Mr. Feldman closed by assuring her that a decade of frigidity and inattention will almost always trigger a man’s appetite for apples.
To my knowledge, Mrs. Jones and I were the only neighbors outside that day. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, we always found something else to talk about. Neither of us admitted seeing Mr. Feldman throw a duffle bag in the back seat, before crawling behind the wheel of the chestnut colored sedan and driving away. I never told anyone that when he turned the corner and headed for the highway that an avalanche of emotion filled my belly and backed up in my throat. Or that I stared for a long while at the mound of spoiled breakfast covering my shoes—trying to make sense of what had transpired. I simply couldn’t shake the tremendous sense of loss, and eventually scattered the pile of leaves as to erase the evidence I’d ever been there.
Within a few weeks, a knock came at our door. Mrs. Feldman announced she’d be searching for an apartment in the city. Closer to her teaching job at the university she said. After signing a lease and settling in, she’d return for her belongings. 
Her words sounded too rehearsed and I couldn’t get past the runaway look in her eyes. Even when she tried to bluff, the wringing of her hands said something altogether different. “Could you help move some of the heavy things? I mean…..when I…when I come ba…..” Her voice cracked and the syllables crumbled completely.
It wasn’t my lie to tell, but I helped her anyway. “When you come back”, I offered. She managed only a nod. The moment I reached to steady her trembling hands something moved between us; she instantly knew that I knew everything….about the affair, her drinking problem, and that if she survived the escape she’d never return to this place of brokenness. When the tears of shame and frustration became too many to disguise, she hugged me quickly before wheeling and heading down the steps.
Mrs. Feldman could have easily slipped away in the middle of the night, but she hadn’t. She needed something from me. I searched for the words that might be appropriate for the last she heard from me, but my mind malfunctioned under the pressure. I called after her. “Infernoesque, Mrs. Feldman…you’re a classy version of Infernoesque!” Her determined gate stalled and resumed more than once, I supposed until she decided it was o.k. for me to see her cry. She turned and mouthed the words “Thank you”.
After a few months, the bank foreclosed on the property and auctioned off the contents. Even when another couple moved in, I avoided walking past or even looking at the place. Something significant died there. An accidental death, I supposed.
__________________
Claire leaned close to the mirror, waiting for the eyelash glue to set. She tossed her head from side to side and blinked from every imaginable angle. I often wondered what determined whether they passed inspection or she ripped them off and started over again. Waiting for the sink, I picked up the box and looked on the back for some type of ancient algorithm harkening back to the days of Cleopatra. My first disappointment of the day—nothing but made in China stamped on the case.
She finished at the sink and walked across the hallway to the bedroom. Waiting for the water to get hot again, I spied on her from the bathroom mirror. Maybe spied wasn’t the correct terminology, but I supposed even if you’d been married a hundred years, people did things, or at least did them differently when they knew someone was watching. Claire reached inside her slip with the opposing hand and yanked her left breast into alignment before jamming an enhancer into the bra. She applied the same violent method of compliance to her right breast. I imagined a migrant worker tossing cantaloupes onto a wagon, and resented the fact I would have been scolded for handling them so roughly. Sometimes I missed the youthful days when we pawed at one another without permission—when we had to fight back the impulses instead of trying to manufacture the moments. I wondered if Claire missed those moments too, but long ago I determined finding out otherwise would cause more damage than asking hard questions. I guess Claire decided the same, as we didn’t talk about the old days. For a married couple, we didn’t talk much at all.       
With the aids in place, Claire leaned forward at the waist and shimmied her shoulders back and forth until she achieved maximum boost. Over the years I’d quit telling her how ridiculous and unnecessary I thought the enhancers were, but I did still snicker when the packages arrived. Claire shopped on-line and ordered from a place called the ‘Spillage Village’. 
“I wish the Spellman’s would have cancelled.” Claire complained. 
“What? I thought you liked Mark and Sherry?”
“Mark’s alright, but that Sherry is so fake. Did you hear she’s got a new set of knockers…like D’s weren’t enough.”
The word hypocrisy flashed long and hard in my mind like a neon sign. Maybe Claire made a distinction between her own temporary fake, and Sherry’s more permanent. Maybe in a few days or weeks I’d mention the contradiction, maybe I wouldn’t.
Claire appeared in the bathroom doorway. Sometimes it felt like she heard me thinking.
“They’re like 38’s, you know?”
I said absolutely nothing, but it didn’t stop her from pulling me in.
“You do know, Charlie. I’ve seen you look at them, especially after a couple of beers. But looking’s not cooking, right?”
Remember when I said that people do things when they think no one’s looking. The truth of the matter was I had looked. I specifically remembered a Christmas party ten or more years back. Sherry wore a red sweater with an embroidered Christmas tree on the front. The designer’s focus was clearly the angel topping the tree, but the combination of a plunging neckline and ten pounds of heaving breasts framing the head gave the disturbing appearance that the cherub had been involved in an accident with air bag deployment. The pressure applied equally from either side contorted and creased the saint’s features into a slightly heavenly version of Chuckie. Every time Sherry sauntered across the room and her goods began to float and gyrate, I swore the angel winked at me. When I caught Rick outside and asked his take, he relayed a similar version of a fallen angel living in the valley deep. The simple fact that such vivid imagery had survived in my mind for a decade was enough evidence to convict.    
I pretended that the trimming of my beard required my full attention. I supposed much the way Claire pretended my looking at another woman hadn’t wounded her. Claire didn’t pretend well. The turned down corner of her mouth indicated extreme disappointment—usually in me. 
“I need the truth, Charlie. Do you think Sherry is attractive?”
Low and behold, it was the deadliest kind of Déjà vu. The attractive question—the loose end that unraveled Mr. Feldman. Stretched across the doorway like a barricade, Claire had loosed a question so heavy it displaced every ounce of oxygen in the room.
“No…the answer is absolutely not.” I had blurted out of panic, but as soon as the words left my lips, I decided if she turned up the heat I was sticking to it.
“Then you must find her breasts attractive.”
We both knew I was operating from a point of weakness, but still I attempted a redirect. “Mark’s a gym-rat and a pretty buff guy, are you attracted to his physique, Claire?”
“You’re not leaving this bathroom until you answer the question….do you find her boobs attractive?”
After putting away my toiletries and wiping down the sink a second time, she still hadn’t budged.
“I suppose a little, but that’s the defective gene thing. Take a professor who’s got five P.H.D’s in his back pocket; flash a set of boobs in front of him, and suddenly he can’t work third grade math. Honestly, I think it goes way back to Adam in the Bible. Remember, God created him from dust…..so according to divine design all men are kind of dirty like.”
Claire gave me the benefit of appearing to consider my absurd proposition, but only for a moment.
“A long time ago, you used to look at me like that, Charlie. What happened to the way we used to be?”
My initial answer covered broad topics like jobs, children, and life happened. Claire didn’t offer a response. She couldn’t because the corner of her mouth turned down again.
I’m not even sure I understood exactly what constituted an epiphany, but if it came in shots, I think the reflection of the man staring back from the mirror slipped me a double. I suddenly realized that Claire objecting to the fake Sherry wasn’t hypocrisy at all. The only reason she shopped at the ‘Spillage Village’, put on the fake eyelashes, wore freakishly high heels, and did a hundred other things was because of my extreme stupidity. I had either glorified or crucified certain things by offering undue attention or complete and utter inattention. To the best of knowledge, there had been no infidelity in our marriage and we weren’t the type to engage in loud verbal exchanges, but our marriage was just as broken as the Feldman’s. I supposed it high time that I quit stumbling in circles, stepping on my wife’s feet, waiting for the song to change.
“Hey, Mark, this is Charlie. Sorry about the late notice, but Claire and I won’t be able to make it. Awesome news, brother, I have a gorgeous wife that’s been pretending to be someone else for years. Never mind, I’ll call you next week and explain.”  
I joined Claire standing before an open closet, slipping hangers from right to left, moving more to the rejection side. Positioned behind her, I massaged her shoulders for a moment; a diversionary tactic designed to disguise the moment I slid my hand past her shoulders and retrieved the merchandise from the Spillage Village. She turned on me and issued a half-serious glare.
“I haven’t listened in a while, and that’s probably why you quit talking, but I hear you now, Claire.”

She watched intently as I worked the scissors through each of the aids and tossed the useless halves onto the bed. “You used to say the sparkly purple dress made you feel sexy. Put it on. I’ve made reservations for Mandini’s downtown at 8:00.” 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Margaret Sunshine

My father made a guest appearance at the hospital the night I was born. It was a split decision, as grandma insisted he was drunk, and grandpa suspected controlled substance. It’s hard for me to imagine the awkwardness of the moment. It was the first time my grandparents had laid eyes on him because during the pregnancy mom insisted on keeping his identity secret. She probably didn’t know how to tell them what kind of guy she had wrapped her legs around this time. Turned out she didn’t have to say anything at all. When the umbilical cord settled around my neck and the heart monitor plummeted with every push, he excused himself outside for a cigarette. And just like a billowy wisp of smoke on a windy day, he disappeared.

They told me I was the center of my mother’s world and that she provided for me as best she could. My grandparents maintained there wasn’t any hard proof my mom had willfully abandoned me. In fact, where her disappearance was concerned—there wasn’t much evidence at all.

The police recovered her timecard from the diner where she waitressed during the day. They also determined that she finished her shift at her second job in the wee hours of the morning. From that point, like my almost-father, she disappeared into thin air. Her rusted-out, rattletrap of a car was still in the lot and no one saw her leave the club with anyone. Most businesses on the east side of the city didn’t have security cameras. The few that did were usually styrofoam or cardboard replicas mounted at the roof corners, high enough that the detailed paint jobs made them look like the real thing. Mom made a few bucks waiting tables at the diner, but any real money she brought home came from her second job. Grandma refused to use the term ‘stripper’. Her only daughter was a professional entertainer at a gentleman’s club; she shortened it to professional entertainer when she talked to the folks from church. I still haven’t formed a solid opinion on the subject. I figure my mom was stuck trying to raise a baby by herself, and if there had been an opportunity better than taking off her clothes in front of strange men, I wanted to believe she would have done it.

I didn’t think about my mother often, except occasionally wondering if I looked like her. I didn’t blame feelings of abandonment for ruining my life. All things considered, I’d had a pretty good life so far. My grandma and grandpa took me to raise a week before my third birthday. I don’t suppose they had much of a choice, but to their credit, I never felt unwanted or a burdensome obligation.
I appreciated the fact my grandparents were on a fixed income, so when I turned sixteen I started looking for work. The options are somewhat limited in a small town. I’m certain Donnie’s Diner would have hired me on the spot. My friend Sherry worked there and said the tips were good, but only if you didn’t make a big deal out of the old men smacking your butt. The first time it happened she told the manager, Zeke Reynolds, All he did was shrug his shoulders and tell her, “You can’t expect somethin’ for nothin’, Sweet-heart.” Grandpa said Zeke came from a long line of perverts, and if that had been me working there getting smacked on the backside, he’d have rounded up old Zeke and the perpetrator, put their nuts in a vice, and started turnin’. Wouldn’t take long to reach an agreement, he laughed.  

Grandma slapped him on the arm when he talked like that—to signal her disapproval. Maybe she’d had a second glass of wine at dinner that night. After leaving the room with an armload of dishes, I heard her giggling. Peeking around the doorframe, I saw her moving one hand in a circular motion—operating the imaginary vice, I supposed. The confirmation became clearer when I noticed a grape between her pointer finger and thumb in her left hand. She whispered something to grandpa between giggles, after each revolution. The giggle morphed into full-blown belly laughter when the grape burst and sprayed onto her glasses.

Like a wheelbarrow of bricks falling on my head, something struck me. Despite the silly moment, I knew I wanted to remember them that way—forever. Her apron quivering and his chins dancing, laughter gushing from their eyes.

I wasn’t good at small talk and gossip, and doing something as repetitive as working a cash register would drive me insane. I crossed off the gas station and five and dime with one big X—unless I couldn’t find anything else. Even after the remodel, Shady Acres still had a slight smell of urine. I didn’t suppose eliminating incontinence at a rest home was a realistic goal. The smell wasn’t that awful, so I decided to put in an application.

The woman that interviewed me, Miss Ellie, remembered my mother working there as a teen. I’d answer one of the questions from her sheet and instead of moving on to the next question; she’d stare at me—as if she was looking through me instead of at me. She’d shake her head and tell me I looked like my mother, only prettier, and if I worked half as hard as she had, I’d be a fine addition to the staff.

I cried half the drive home, mostly over missing the opportunity to see and remember my mother, but the tears dried up when I realized that instead of mentioning my mother’s occupation like most people did, Miss Ellie remembered her beauty and good work ethic. I decided it takes a special person to see the best in people when they most often display the worst.     

Although she was my first, I couldn’t imagine a better boss. She expected a full shift of work, but had a way of seeing more of you than you wanted seen. She didn’t just crawl in and scoop your insides out, leaving them to bake in the sun. Miss Ellie would help identify the poisonous things that were infecting all the rest. Sometimes it was an hour or more after her quitting time before you had them stacked back inside neatly, and stitched up your head or your heart, often times both. She never said the words, but Miss Ellie needed to know you weren’t going to bleed out on the side of life’s road between now and your next conversation.

I certainly never imagined looking at Miss Ellie from the opposing side of a courtroom. She was wearing a black knee-length skirt and a white blouse with piping down the front. She looked frazzled—scared and stiff-necked, sandwiched between the District Attorney and his assistant. No matter how many times I leaned around my defense lawyer and looked her way, she stared straight ahead.

The accident changed everything between us. It was the first time she placed conditions on our relationship. I understood the administrative leave, pending the investigation—she was forced to do that. But the change in the way she looked at me hurt my heart in unspeakable ways. A veil of mistrust slipped between us.  

“All rise. The State of California, Superior Court of Santa Cruz is now in session, the honorable Hector M. Hernandez presiding.”

The judge stepped to the bench. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen—calling the case of the State of California versus Margaret Livingston. Please be seated.”

Those were the last words I remember hearing clearly. Most of the preceding was blurry in my mind—like they were accusing someone else of murder and I was watching from a distance through a frosted pane of glass. The D.A. lurked and prowled around the witness stand like a wolf circling for the kill—the kind of wolf that killed more for pleasure than hunger. Although he bristled and flashed his fangs at each one of them, I knew the clock was ticking. That eventually they would call me in from the outside—that I was the accused murderer—and that the beast would not retreat until he tasted my flesh.  

Before we entered the courtroom, my defense attorney reminded me how much was riding on my ability to maintain my composure under pressure. I recalled sitting in his office for the very first time as I explained to him how I met Eugene, how our relationship developed, and what happened that stormy Thursday afternoon.

We weren’t supposed to have favorites. We were reminded that at every staff meeting, but I think it’s impossible to avoid connecting with some patients more deeply than others—they’re still people, right? I became convinced Eugene Parsons was a vibrant and virile man of twenty-five trapped in the failing and crumpled frame of someone twice that age. At fifty-one, he was our youngest patient by a couple of decades.

He transferred to our facility from out of state a couple summers ago. Eugene arrived with a good portion of his medical records missing. When Ellie asked if he might have dropped some of the documentation in transit, he became visibly agitated. He asserted that being physically confined had absolutely nothing to do with his mental acuity. He went on to say he wasn’t surprised at the missing information as the facility he came from was a training camp for nincompoops and clowns, and he hoped he hadn’t made the same mistake twice by coming here. Eugene said he could provide as much detail as Ellie required. His paralysis resulted from a fall a few years back. While attempting to install new guttering on his home, he lost his balance and fell from the ladder. He fractured his 7th and 11th vertebrae and severed his spinal cord. And, on a personal note, after the accident he found it literally impossible to enjoy the occasional game of craps, so it would behoove her to refrain from asking him to play unless she wanted to see his malevolent side. Eugene laughed. Ellie didn’t. After a pregnant pause, she asked me to show Eugene to his new room.   

He loved to read poetry, and often answered the staff’s questions with a verse—stale remnants floating around in his head from his last reading, he said. He was a man of mystery, never disclosing all that he was thinking, or expressing exactly how he felt about a particular topic, but always providing enough intrigue to keep you coming back. Much of what he talked about originated from, or was subsequently recorded in, a worn leather journal. He carried it with him at all times and was very protective of his ‘intellectual property’. He placed it in a Ziploc bag when he showered and under his mattress at night. It seemed a bit odd to me at first, but I came to realize most of the patients tended to cling fiercely to anything that represented a connection to freedom and the normalcy of their former lives.

I remember how his face lit up the first time I took him into the courtyard and parked his wheelchair in the shade of a large oak tree. He was completely in his element. Before I took him inside that day, I remember him saying, “Particular words and the elegance with which they are strung together, is like sitting atop the highest mountaintop and sipping champagne from a golden chalice.”

He insisted I take him there for a few hours every day that the weather allowed. After a few weeks of escorting and retrieving him from his favorite thinking spot, he invited me to stay outside with him. At first, I just sat by his side quietly, enjoying the breeze, but in time, he used me for a sounding board. He asked my opinions and interpretations, and began calling me Margaret Sunshine when we were alone.

“I’d avoid telling the jury that he called you Margaret Sunshine. It gives the impression, real or implied that perhaps your relationship was headed in a personal if not romantic direction. Tell me you weren’t romantically involved with him, Margaret?”

Absolutely not, I replied. Not in a physical sense, but emotionally I grew very fond of him. I suppose like the father I never had.

“So he asked you to stay and listen to his musing, correct? Let’s move forward.”

It was a very magical moment when he placed the journal in my hands for the first time and asked me to read from it. It seemed at that moment the birds ceased to warble and the breeze stood paused. Devoid the clutter of outside noise, the words emerged from his lips like crystalline notes smashing against stone. “Sunshine, you must never read from this journal outside of my presence. My soul, in its entirety, is recorded here. There will come a time when I’m ready for you to see all of me.”

I must have looked confused because he concluded by saying, “You’re a very intuitive creature. You’ll know when that time has come.”

I had absolutely no idea what he meant. I knew his journal was intensely private and I would have never looked through it, but it seemed that he wanted me to…that he needed me to know something, when the time was right.

Unfortunately, the accident happened before I ever had the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity.

“Margaret, I’m your representation. You have to be completely honest with me. I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you, because the prosecutor is going to turn up the heat. Everyone knew about Eugene’s journal and the investigators scoured the scene and his room and never discovered a trace of it. Do you have the journal? Did you read it, and did it have anything to do with Eugene tumbling down an embankment? Did your hand really slip or is it possible you pushed his wheelchair?”

“No, I didn’t read the journal and I don’t have it. We were caught in a rainstorm, I was hurrying along the ridge, and my hand did slip—I’ll swear to all of it on the stand!”

“Right now I’m not even convinced I can take the risk of putting you on the stand. You’re hands are trembling and you’re voice is cracking. You’re not telling me everything you know, Margaret. This D.A. is tough—he’ll eat you alive”

_____________________________


My grandmother always told me that telling half the truth was just as bad as weaving a bold-faced lie. I believe she was describing the gray areas—those muddy places between black and white where the lines blur—those shadowy corners you unwittingly paint yourself into. 

I had decided before walking into his office that I couldn’t trust an attorney or a jury with the entirety of the truth. Eugene and I were not caught out in the rain by accident like I told him, but I couldn’t very well tell my attorney that in a fit of rage I had purposely taken my patient out in the middle of thunderstorm against his will. That I was in the process of extracting answers to my questions by threatening to push him down a rocky ravine and that during the inquisition my hands did indeed slip from the grips of his wheelchair.    

Not only had I read the journal, I disposed of it within twenty-four hours of Eugene’s death. It wasn’t a completely selfish act. The information contained within was too damaging for the both of us. From my perspective, those few pages were an F-5 tornado, a cyclone of revelation, ripping up the shallow roots of my existence. 

Eugene left his journal lying on his dresser one night when he went to the dining hall for dinner. I was tempted to pick it up then, but needed to be certain this was the time he mentioned. On the third consecutive evening he left the journal unattended, I picked it up, pushed the door to, and set down on the edge of his bed. I flipped through to the final entry. 

Maybe it was because I grew up on the coast, but I always imagined life as an ocean, chapters arriving like waves, the sweetest moments beginning as swells on the horizon as the steel gray mistress swallows the sky inch by inch before giving back the blue in an extended exhale. Time enough between breaths to order and reorder your thoughts, then cast them aside for instinct. Your heartrate slams into overdrive the moment you plug into her pulse. You spring up and get out ahead of the break, carving up the surf like you own it. When you reach the shore you laugh just a little and lie to your friends, “That wave was nothing until it met me.”

Other chapters catch you undecided and under-committed. Rising out of nowhere—merciless monsters, slamming you face-first into the surf, tossing you like a rag doll before handing you off to the undertow. Pinned below the surface, you’re a pawn in a waiting game you never agreed to play. Your head spins. Confusion and panic descends like vultures. She’s broken the seal, water seeps in and your thoughts turn to muddy recollections. She demands an answer to the only question that matters. Is your will to survive greater than the grip of her icy fingers around your throat?

I still believe in the chapters of life arriving like waves, but it’s funny how looking back over your shoulder the majority middle melts away and only the peaks and troughs remain. I missed the point altogether, Margaret Sunshine. When you’re gone, people soon forget your greatest contributions. What will stick in their minds is how well you handled adversity. Whether you ran from it or worse yet, stepped on people to pull yourself out of the hole.

The first thing I remember after coming to was seeing a red light only a few feet from my face. It startled me at first, and honestly took the better part of a minute for me to determine the anemic red glow was the check engine light turned upside down. Anemic, because the car battery was nearly dead, and upside down because that’s what happens when cars hurdle through guardrails and over the sides of cliffs. Anemic and nearly dead—I could totally relate. I started to laugh, but the pain in my midsection wouldn’t allow it. The sound of the midnight surf slamming against the rocks indicated we were at least a hundred feet below the Pacific Coast Highway and more than halfway to a watery grave. I remember thinking that in more than one respect, it would have been better if the car had plunged into the rocks and burst into flames. The collar of my tee was soaked in blood, cold and heavy against my chest. I stared hard again to the other side of the vehicle. Part of me hoped she had been thrown clear and into the water; her body concealed by a thick layer of frothy foam. I remember thinking that an already troubled marriage couldn’t withstand a blow like this.

When I heard her moan from the backseat of the car, I should have comforted her—let her know that help was surely on the way, but like so many instances in my life, the significantly lesser part of me won out. Selfishly, I wiggled out the driver’s side window. My movement caused the car to shift decidedly toward the ocean. Her terror-filled scream streaked into the night. I yelled back, asking her to remain as still as possible while I did my best to stabilize the car and worked on a plan to extract her. With my back positioned firmly against a rock, I drew my knees inward and placed my feet against the back quarter panel to test the possibility of moving it. In a spilt second of insanity, I lied to her one last time, even as I fully extended my legs and watched the car teeter over the edge.

The sun was nearly up by the time I reached the roadway. I hitched a ride and told the gracious couple I had been mugged, beaten, and left for dead. I knew that I’d have to leverage all of my connections to clean up this mess I’d created. For a price, a group of men retrieved the car from the shoreline, towed it out to sea, and disposed permanently of the vehicle and the contents—no questions asked. I had been out of town on business and the car was a rental. Considering my injuries, I concocted a story of being car-jacked at a stop light by three thugs who mercilessly beat me before speeding away.

Not that I was underserving of such torture, but for years I have lived in fear that something I’d missed would turn up. Recounting the details of these heinous actions seems so surreal that I can hardly believe I committed them. To this point, I have omitted the most abominable detail, as it turns my stomach each time I look at you, Margaret Sunshine.

As I stated I was out of town on business, which covers a lot of territory for a mess like me. Our final meeting wrapped up by early afternoon. While a celebratory drink sufficed for the others on my team, my kind of celebrating turned into upwards of a dozen whisky sours and a little carousing. My last stop was a gentleman’s club on the east side of the city. When they closed up the place, I wobbled across the parking lot and settled behind the wheel of my car. While I was still weighing the options of grabbing a few hours of sleep in the car or getting a room for the night, someone knocked on my window. It seemed one of the dancers was experiencing car trouble and needed a ride home. Despite my diminished state I heard a distinct knock—one of the skeletons in my closet, needing to get some air. I truly hated the fact she had become an exotic dancer, but I supposed running out on her,  literally the night she gave birth to our daughter, left her with little alternative.

When the jury filed back into the courtroom, none of them made eye contact with me—that told me all I needed to know. The judge asked if a verdict had been reached, and after a nod of confirmation from the jury spokesman, he asked me to stand.

“We the jury, by unanimous decision, find the defendant not guilty on the charge of murder one, but guilty as charged on the count of negligent homicide.”


My defense attorney had my best interest in mind by not putting me on the witness stand. Honestly, he did me an enormous favor—serving seven years on a count of negligent homicide was definitely preferable to heftier sentence associated with first-degree murder. And I can honestly say six months into my sentence I have finally convinced myself that my hands really did slip.  

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Penicillin

Early retirement didn’t happen every day. In my defense, I was truly excited for my mother. I suppose in hindsight, perhaps I had slapped an umbrella garnished drink in her hand and unceremoniously pushed her out the front door of her own home—that’s the way she said I made her feel. Real or imagined, once mom got her feelings bent, apologizing was about as useless as dabbing at a severed femoral artery with a Q-tip—messy and ineffective.
   
Midway through an icy stare, Mom made a point of reminding me that I had always been the most troublesome of her three boys. A rather belabored point, in my opinion, but mom specialized in the beating of all things dead. In the blink of an eye, she’d troll back through the years, retrieving and regurgitating examples of my past failures so that we might dissect them anew. There was the lost retainer when I was nine—swallowed it whole in Jimmy Dill’s backyard during a reenactment of Evil Knievel’s Snake River Canyon jump. As busted and mangled as I was, Mom made me poop into a tea strainer for the better part of two weeks—nothing but mud. Although she denies it, I remember her mumbling that I deserved crooked teeth, and that she hoped the retainer lodged in such a way that it prevented me from reproducing another like me. Mom’s viperous tone associated with the lost retainer was nothing compared to the fury she unleashed when she discovered the broken strap on her favorite bra. It was a Sunday morning and I found it particularly ironic that she beat me about the head and shoulder with a miniature crucifix from her nightstand—extracting justice one thump at a time until I confessed that my distorted version of charity consisted of slingshotting cans of soup at those standing in line at the shelter. The retainer and bra incidents were solid and tangible predictors of future missteps and failures, she said.   

Mom had the opportunity to visit my older brothers and their wives—shuttling off to Omaha or Poughkeepsie and making over her grandchildren a week at a time. She could finally travel on a whim—a rustic cabin in the far reaches of Minnesota in the summer time, and spend the winters hanging out at a tiki bar on a sunbaked beach in the Bahamas. The possibilities were endless. 

Mom never gave an official reason for holing up in the farmhouse, or becoming significantly more involved in my life. When questioned directly about the entanglement, she claimed it was well within her ‘motherly right’ to invest inordinate amounts of time dabbling in my personal affairs.
Just last Tuesday she became obsessed with the idea that speed dating was a fabulous new vehicle for me to meet the woman of my dreams. To which I promptly referred her to Consumer Reports as supporting evidence that new vehicles are often dangerous and subject to recall. I also stated I didn’t believe a head-on collision broken into five-minute intervals was necessarily less painful or debilitating. Throughout my teens and early twenties, I’d been involved in a few relational train wrecks, and made it quite clear that I wanted no part of another catastrophe even if it fell under the seemingly benign heading of speed dating.

Mom had a way of calling me out. At some point in the fray, she would label me a drama queen and then offer some subtle means of proving otherwise. I especially liked it when redemption came in the form of a bet. Mom was the gullible type who believed anything she read or heard—gossip at the hairdresser, social media rants, conspiracy theories floating about the internet—every delicious morsel as reliable and steadfast as the red lettering in the Holy Bible. I jumped on the opportunity like a fat man on a chilidog during ‘Two-for-one Tuesday’. You can only imagine how flabbergasted I was to discover that Rabbi Yaacov Deyo had first introduced the original concept of speed dating in the late 1990’s, just as she insisted. I did lose the bet, but claimed a minor victory when I eventually convinced her that even though a rabbi was involved, her assertion of divine powers at work was not necessarily mutually exclusive.   

I suppose every downward spiral begins when you brush against an invisible portal called destiny, and a mysterious black and swirling force sinks its teeth into your ankle. Like fresh meat dragged into a grinder, round and round it thrashes you—your think-box pounded against the pavement until all your dreams and fears come spilling out your ears in liquid form. Maybe mom had a point about the drama queen thing, but it didn’t change the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I heard the words speed dating.      

I arrived in the parking lot a few minutes early and observed the first ominous sign—a line of angry and agitated blue-hairs, locked arm-in-arm, protesting the decision to allow the bingo hall’s temporary use. It unfolded like a deleted scene from a geriatric zombie movie. Operating under a higher power of confusion, they shuffled their walkers into the form of a circle and closed in on a distraught young woman. They pawed in her general direction and mumbled “B-ware, I-4 an eye, and O-hell no”. I probably could have tossed a couple of 10% off coupon onto the ground and rescued the woman, but I wasn’t feeling particularly heroic. Instead, I used the diversion to slip around the slow-motion melee and enter the building with only a trace scent of icy-hot on my back-trail.    

A lame but recognizable knockoff of June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver welcomed me. In an effort to promote their overtly chivalrous ploy, the organizers had stationed one woman at each table. The men would be required to do the moving around—a primordial reference to hunting and gathering I supposed. She explained that each man could choose his first date from the available seats. While perusing the possibilities, a brilliant and devious idea flashed through. My mother was crafty enough to suspect sabotage, but proving such dating debauchery would be difficult.        

After accepting the chilly offerings of a folding a chair I wasted no time making direct eye contact with the unlikely choice. During this pivotal moment I’m certain her eyebrows would have arched noticeably, had they existed. It was unclear whether she was the victim of a lawn manicuring accident involving a renegade weed-whacker, or she simply shaved them off into trashcan for maximum shock value—I supposed the latter. Heavy black lipstick against a pasty white backdrop was only a brief pit stop on the way to the glistening hardware in her right nostril, but the main attraction consisted of an epic battle of wills playing out atop her head. The sides were shaved down to stubble making for an elevated platform, where two equally proportioned swathes of tangled hair, one of them magenta and the other hot pink, were battling for a position of dominance. Magenta was the clear winner, as the hot pink definitely overpowered the bleached platinum base. Before I could cast my vote, the bell rang and she lobbed the first question.

“Where would you say that you are in life?”

I reasoned ‘the middle’ would be too sophomoric.     

“Where am I at in life? I suppose if you consider the jet-set in L.A. the ultimate destination, and judging from your appearance I’m certain that you do. I’m probably stuck knee-deep in a brownish-green lake of manure in the middle of Iowa—too busy slopping pigs and making bacon to care about the next stupid thing that comes out of Kayne West’s mouth. Not that Kanye is inherently stupid, but given a half hour I could produce half a dozen yard gnomes that communicate more effectively.”

“So you’re into pigs?” She inquired suggestively.

“It’s what I do. I’m not suggesting you’re a pig or anything, but your eyes are set very close together and your nose does turn up at the end. Did you know they put rings in a pig’s snouts so they don’t root the ground?”

“Like the one in mine?” She asked, touching her nostril.  

“Well, minus the gaudy fake diamonds of course, because for the most part pigs aren’t into cliques and class warfare. The rings are simply a deterrent—make it a painful experience not worth repeating. Very much like this speed-dating thing is working out for me. Sorry for wasting your time, Penicillin.”

“It’s Pricilla, more like Presley, less like the overprescribed antibiotic. No need to apologize for being an ass—genetic defect I’m sure. And as far as wrinkly, sphincter-type creatures go, I’ve met worse. Actually, that’s a complete lie designed to preserve and protect your fragile ego. I’m working on old-fashioned, but unfortunately you caught me during a techno-glitch—VCR slipped a belt midway through a Little House on the Prairie marathon. Anyhow, hope you and your piglet friends have a 
stellar life, Mr. Pristine Pooper.”

“That’s Cooper, Eugene Cooper.”

The bell rang and all I could manage was an inappropriate wink, like the crusty guy hanging out the window of an unmarked van parked at the edge of a playground. “Can I circle-back with you later?”

“Suit yourself, but don’t take it personally if I slit my wrists when I see you coming.”
__________________________

Based on sheer sex appeal, I supposed the fit, blonde aerobics instructor from Ames was the clear cleavage winner—a stand out in the most literal and artificial sense of the word. Mrs. Cleaver developed an understandable animosity toward the busty young candidate, as the hostess felt obligated to wipe down her table with disinfectant between rounds and mop the floor to prevent any saliva related slips or cross contamination lawsuits.   

Concerning the competition I faced, I could only eliminate one of them with any certainty. I had nothing against Juan, his alligator pointy shoes, or the way he wiggled his hips like he was working a glass runway in Milan. I’m almost certain he misunderstood the hetero format, and am equally positive that in his own element he would have wowed the boys and set their naughty parts tingling.

In all, I engaged with eleven other women. Under normal circumstances, at least ten of which would have appeared more attractive and physically compatible than Pricilla, but tonight they were merely ill-prepared understudies, definitely and permanently forgettable. There was something forbidden, yet mysteriously alluring about a freakish train wreck of an exterior disguising a feisty soul who could deliver biting sarcasm in a tone reserved for prepositions. Under the daunting circumstances where I had attacked her character so completely, she shrugged me off, and mounted a laudable defense. It was more than laudable; the name-play alone, Pristine Pooper for Eugene Cooper, bordered on genius.

I fussed with the buttons on my coat long enough that she and I were the final candidates remaining in the hall. Reaching into the pockets to retrieve my gloves provided the opportunity to steal a quick glance. Pricilla caught me looking and issued a broad and knowing smile. Had the queen of rebellion not been wearing it, I would have considered it rather delicious and suggestive in nature. In the breadth of a sideways moment, I decided she was trying to lure me close enough to drive a final dagger in my kidney. I probably owed her that. As we ambled together toward the exit, I felt obligated to speak.    

“Any reasonable prospects?” I offered the inquiry without looking.  

“Not really—nothing I couldn’t have scraped from the floor of a subway train during my drunken ride back to my cardboard box excuse for a home—certainly none that insulted me as thoroughly as yourself. You set the bar pretty high, Eugene—the pig machine.”

We paused a few feet from the exit. I looked at her this time. “About that—the way I treated you earlier. It really wasn’t about you personally, more abou….”

“About your general opposition to the idea of speed dating—you were flexing your anti-establishment muscle—completely understandable for a renegade soul that pig-farms in the middle of Iowa. You’re probably here because you lost a bet. It’s O.K., really. I’m used to it.”


We reached for the door at the same time and while I’m not exactly sure of the logistics, our arms became tangled. We were close enough I could smell the subtle essence of perfume. Suddenly I was afraid she could feel the trembling of my hand through the shared door handle. “How about a cup of coffee somewhere, and I promise before the night is over I’ll slip you a subway token so you don’t have to hop the turnstile again.”   

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Rudy




I suppose every family has a magic number; ours is two. Once a gathering grows to three or four the odds of some type of fracas increases significantly, and the holidays literally guarantee a complete Chernobyl-like meltdown. You can almost smell the dysfunction in the air when fifteen or twenty of us are cooped up for more than an hour in mama’s little rat-trap of a maze she calls a home. We love her to pieces, but when a woman misses the birth of her grandbaby because she can’t pry herself away from the QVC Lunch Special it’s time for someone to pull the batteries from the remote. The last time we ‘intervened’ I discovered two dozen unopened horse brushes hidden in the corner of the pantry. I could understand it if she ran a stable, but the closest momma ever had to a horse was that over-sized, half-breed of a mutt that sat in the corner and licked his sack 90% of the time, and split the other 10% between trying to give the babies kisses and getting tangled in everyone’s feet. When I confronted her with the brushes she said, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly get rid of those….they make the cutest stocking stuffers.” It wasn’t anything we officially announced, but after third or fourth intervention we kind of gave up trying. I guess the moral of the story is, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t do it justice if you don’t have two dozen horse brushes.

I felt bad that we dumped a lot of the responsibility on momma’s boyfriend, Hank. I did truly appreciate what he meant to my mother—she seemed happy, but Hank definitely wasn’t going to be momma’s knight in shining armor where the hoarding was concerned. He’d done a lot with the place in the last fifteen years. There was the gnarly gang of broken down lawn mowers lurking in the wilds of un-mowed grass that he optimistically referred to as ‘strategically placed yard ornaments’, and of course the Old Style can-pyramid in the living room kind of screamed ‘art  nouveau’. The thing I liked most about Hank was that he farted a lot—kind of sputtered when he walked, especially when he made trips to and from the fridge for beer. In redneck terms it was a flatulence freestyle version of the X Games…small fart, he laughed, medium fart, he laughed harder, big fart, he began the full fledged belly-laugh. The infamous explosive fart was reserved for the finale, which typically resulted in an extended visit to the bathroom and a fresh set of sweats in a darker color. I guess there comes a time when every 60 year old man feels the compulsion to grow up. After the old dog passed away, Hank was forced to take ownership of the stench floating about the room as well as the stains in his easy chair. I’m pretty certain that degree of reckoning would knock the wind out of any well-trained athlete. Hank just didn’t get tickled nearly as often anymore. It was kind of a shame for the little ones, because for years he was pretty much full-time entertainment.                 

I don’t really know how my little brother and older sister feel about our real dad. We never talked much about it, even though he’s been M.I.A for going on thirty years now. As tragic and sudden as a car accident or heart attack can be, I remember wishing for something so ordinary. I preferred to have been able to lay eyes on a crumpled pile of metal or at least have had the memories of seeing him lying in a casket. Dad rolled out of the driveway on his Harley in a beat up pair of jeans and a white tee and just disappeared into thin air. He told mom he was headed up to the T-Mart for a pack of smokes. The cashier said he’d been in that afternoon and the only thing odd about his visit was that he bought a winning scratch-off lottery ticket. Momma said the $500 would have gotten us completely caught up on rent, but assured us she’d make ends meet somehow. She didn’t talk about dad after that.      

As a ten year old boy I remember thinking that whatever his reasoning, dad’s scheduled his departure perfectly. He narrowly missed the period of time when our family began to unravel. After a particularly ugly fight with momma, Linda, fourteen at the time, moved out of the house to live with her alcoholic and abusive boyfriend. My younger brother, Wayne, started wearing girl’s clothes and insisting that everyone call him Wanda. About that time Mom decided we didn’t have to go to church on Sunday mornings anymore, and I just remember being angry about everything, especially things I couldn’t change. Before long I was subsisting on a steady diet of schoolyard brawls and suspensions. I suppose we were all too busy dealing with our own demons to notice Momma sitting in front of the television, buying things left and right. I think she got tired of the brokenness and just wanted something shiny and new.

If Linda had went to college, or even graduated from high school; she would have majored in procreation. She studied hard and always had a willing lab partner waiting in the wings when an experiment finished. No one knows for certain, but I think she produced five babies in a shade over four years. Quite an impressive streak for anyone, but especially when the first arrived two weeks before her fifteenth birthday. More like a litter of puppies than babies, Linda kept three, and the luckier two went up for adoption. At the ripe age of twenty she took a break and settled down with a boyfriend who appeared more interested in moving drugs than making babies. He moved her into what is arguably considered one of the nicer government housing apartments in Clayton County.

On his sixteenth birthday Wayne convinced my mother to take him to the court house to officially become Wanda Rene. Upon graduation, Wanda moved to the city. She never gave an official reason, but I heard through the grapevine that she went to work as a hairdresser, no doubt with like-minded folks, at a trendy salon called Transformers. Wanda made a good living, with enough disposable income to afford some quality plastic surgery in the facial region as well as a very realistic pair of torpedoes jutting skyward. Regrettably with a significantly higher trajectory and a full cup size larger than Linda. Wanda was hands down a more attractive woman than my sister and Linda knew it. Looking at the pictures hanging on the walls of my mother’s home there was a clear distinction between pre and post- conversion. Post pictures were signified by Linda standing with no less than three people between her and my former brother.          

I too had admittedly encountered a few bumps and crooks along the way. It took three failed marriages and a couple of domestic charges before discovering I was the type of person who needed to operate solo and in open spaces. I eventually dropped the drinking and learned to harness my anger and redirect it toward more positive outlets. I settled into a rather mindless factory job that allowed me to live modestly in a double-wide at the edge of town. In time I opened myself to the idea of sharing my space with a rescue from the shelter. My new best friend was a blood-hound named Rudy. I immediately connected with him because like me, he’d been dumped, and I was dead set on making his life mean something. We spent a lot of time bonding and honing his instinctive skills. Over the years he had tracked countless coons and located a multitude of poorly shot deer. He even helped locate a missing three year old once, and a couple counties over we used him to put a serial arsonist behind bars. Whereas dogs are concerned, Rudy became a rock-star not only in my mind and heart, but in the community as a whole.      

I never considered myself better than my mother or either of my siblings—at best slightly less damaged. For me, one of the hardest parts of Christmas was looking around the room, surveying all of the collateral damage, while the catalyst of the collapse had driven off into the sunset. The most unjust aspect of it all was that he never once was forced to look any of us in the eye and admit any 
culpability for the broken and wandering souls he left behind. 

Dinner went surprisingly well, aside from a few harmless, verbal barbs and sideways glances which I considered to be a vast improvement over years past. Like the pro she had become, Linda transitioned from wine to beer and was well on her way to being over-served by the time we were opening gifts. I nearly bit my lip in two each time she demanded her three year old retrieve another beer from the cooler.

“Take one to your Uncle Randy, Sweetie. He looks like someone drove a railroad spike into his 8 penny diameter asshole!”

Linda smirked as she popped the top, and didn’t seem to notice that more beer dribbled down the front of her Christmas-themed sweater than entered her mouth. In stark contrast she wiped her face with the back of her hand like a lumberjack, and then carefully flicked the stray droplets of brew from Santa’s beard.

Holding up my hand I waived the toddler off. “No thanks, Darlin’. Your mommy probably forgot that I don’t drink any longer, but her potty-mouth is like American Express—never leaves home without it. Come sit on your uncle’s lap a minute and Granny will get us a gift to open.”

Mom ran interference by stepping in the line of sight between Linda and me, while handing out similar looking and shaped gifts to all the children. After making quick work of the wrapping, my niece looked up at me with her chocolate-drop eyes and asked “What is it?”

I was unsure myself, so I rolled the objects over in my hand several times before discovering an inflation valve on each. There were three distinct components, two of them connected with a rubber strap, and a lone cone-shaped object. I worked hard at suppressing the notion I’d just wasted a good amount of breath I might regret having expended at life’s end.  

Mom jumped from around the corner, a pearlescent, cone-shaped object jutting from her forehead and the other two flapping on either side of her back, “We’re all Unicorns for the day—Yeaaahhhh!”

The suspense of this year’s mystery gift unfolded as my grown mother galloped about the living room with all the miniature unicorns trailing behind. Their eyes lit up when she revealed each and every one of them was an important part of the world’s first and most beautiful unicorn parade.

It was in that goofy moment I appreciated my mother the way I should have all along. As eccentric and frustrating as I often found her to be, her heart was always in the right place. She had done the best she could raising three less than cooperative children all on her own. Her joy came from sharing it with others, even when it came in the form of bulk purchased trinkets. Tears were pooling in the corners of my eyes when Linda’s drunken bellow stopped the parade cold.

“I wanna know whose gonna clean up all this sparkly, unicorn shit before it gets trampled into the carpet?”

Mom’s patented frown did little to suppress an inebriated giggle trickling from my sister. I followed it up by pressing the side of my index finger vertically against my lips, hurling it at her as much as a gesture’s direction can be harnessed.

Linda swiveled her head in both directions as if there was any question whom the directive had been intended.  

“Don’t you shush me, you goodie-two-shoes little shit!” Linda extended her finger in my direction, the tip of it circling, until the closing of her left eye seems to steady her aim. “Every since you stopped drinkin’ you ain’t no fun!”

I leaned around the Christmas tree and fired back, “It’s ever, and aren’t any.” She looked puzzled so I expounded. “Ever since you stopped drinkin’ you aren’t any fun. And that’s completely not true.”

She began laughing hysterically, “You damn straight it ain’t true. I ain’t quit drinkin’ yet and don’t intend to ‘til that coolers empty, and I’m a butt-load of fun.”

I was pleased to see that Wanda had matured past the point of holding silly grudges. She pulled up a folding chair near Linda and attempted to make small talk, but Linda was in rare form.

“What? The fake-tittied he-she in the crowd hears the word butt-load and heads right over!” That’s righteous ain’t it!

At that moment I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this year’s meltdown would be instigated by Linda. When she drank too much, she turned into an angry and rabid dog, more than willing to ravage anyone that wandered close enough to the cage.

I motioned for Wanda to come away from her, and lowered my voice, “Leave her be, Wanda. She’s not much right now.

My phone went off and the text message was from a friend on the emergency squad.

‘I know its Christmas Day, but need you and Rudy’s help.
Out on route 39, mile marker 48, family of four confirmed dead.
Suspected drunk driver fled the scene and headed into the woods.
K-9 handler is out of town, can’t be here for another 4 hours.
I now it’s askin’ a lot, but can you help us out, brother?’

I shook Hank’s hand, pulled on my jacket, leaned over my mother’s chair, and kissed her forehead. “Thank you for continuing to do this despite the difficulties…i.e., Linda. There’s an emergency they need my help with, and I need to go. Linda’s about ready to crash and burn; she’ll be piled up somewhere soon. I’ll plan on heading back, pouring her into my truck, and driving her home. Love you, Mom.”

As I made my way around the room saying good-byes, Linda snatched my arm.   

“Hey, Bar. That’s Boring-ass Randy—you ain’t leavin’ until you open up my gift!” She insisted.

“Alright, Sis, but this is important, so let’s make it quick.”

I plucked the bow off and peeled the wrapping back, to reveal a Christmas tree ornament with the likeness of Rudy on it.

“You don’t like it do you?” She suggested.

“No—I do like it. It looks a good bit like Rudy. I like it fine. Thank you, Linda.”

She used my arm for leverage, climbing the sleeve, as if her voice wasn’t already 50db too loud. “You don’t like it, Randy!” She insisted. “I can tell by the way you’re lookin’ at it.” She finally gave up the ill-advised attempt to stand and folded back into the chair, but continued her tirade with a renewed venomous tone. “Don’t pretend to like it if you don’t. God knows we grew up with enough pretending in this house—dad pretending he ever wanted anything to do with any of us, boys prancing around pretending to be girls, and momma, that bitch, pretending she cared about any of us and that she didn’t drive him away in the first place!”

The room became deathly still—so much that the ticking clock sounded like a bass drum. The eerie silence gave way to quiet sobs originating from opposing sides of the room, first Wanda, then my mother. The expression on Linda’s face was one of remorse, albeit significantly muddled and muted by the alcohol.

“That’s more than enough, Linda!” I roared.

My booming tone caused her to shrivel back so far into the chair it was almost as though I had to peel her from the fabric, before hoisting her over my shoulder.

“I’m taking out the trash, mom! Merry Christmas, everyone.”

Linda passed out in the passenger seat of my truck before we arrived on scene, and I figured a good rest was exactly what I needed from her. We passed the ambulance heading the other direction, presumably carrying the bodies of the family that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a spit second all of their hopes and dreams and the generations that would have come after them were crushed when their vehicle slammed into an eighteen wheeler careening out of control. According to witnesses on the scene the truck driver was not at fault, even though he had crossed the median into oncoming traffic. A motorcycle rider came flying up the on-ramp and forced his way into the lane. The truck driver swerved to avoid the immediate obstacle, his load shifted and the trailer jack-knifed, sweeping the biker into the median, before the tractor plowed through the divider and wiped out the oncoming car. The bike was certainly a mangled mess, but appeared to get pushed far enough to avoid the deadly swath of the truck. It had no license plate and had been reported stolen only an hour before the accident. A young woman said she saw the biker limp across the highway and disappear into the woods.

I allowed Rudy to sniff around the bike until he had a nose full. Then both of us slipped across the lanes and descended the steep berm. Even though it was more difficult on the dog, I didn’t want to ever influence his direction so I tended to lean back slightly and allow him to pull me along. I’d say we had traveled probably a half mile into the woods when the leash suddenly went light. Rudy had lunged and snapped the harness. I tried to keep up, but once he was free from the drag of pulling his owner he seemed to pick up pace, and was out of sight in the matter of a few minutes.
The shadows were growing thicker and starting to melt together. I estimated no more than an hour of light remaining. I was still waffling between forging onward with a tiny flashlight and going back for help and a better source of light when I heard the distinct crack of a hand gun. The shot came from deeper in the woods. A wave of relief washed over me when Rudy’s rhythmic howl picked back up again. A second discharge followed and Rudy’s cadence stopped mid yelp. I barreled headlong through the briars and the undergrowth with a renewed sense of urgency.

I emerged back on the highway well after dark, carrying the limp animal in my arms.

“He’s got a gun, Michael.” I shouted. “He shot Rudy. I’ve gotta get him to the vet!”

Without another word between us, I hopped into the truck and mashed the accelerator to the floor.

“I’m sorry—he’s hurt too badly, Randy. The best I can do is make his last few minutes comfortable.”

I know it was stupid, but I had never once imagined losing him, how difficult it would be to say goodbye, and how much more difficult it would be to get up each morning or come home in the evenings to an empty house. I guess that’s part of how we survive life—looking forward to the good times, and avoiding thinking in great detail about the crueler aspects of life. Whether you consider the bad or not, sometimes it blindsides you when you least expect it.


Ironically, it turns out that the murderer of my best friend, the renegade motorcyclist, was also my estranged father strung out on heroin. Although I tried for awhile, I came to the realization that I did not have the capacity to hate my father more than I already did. I also decided that telling my family about it would serve no purpose other than keeping the hurt alive. If I ever wanted to be a better man than my father today was the time to start.