Thursday, November 27, 2008

Three



As his soon to be former psychiatrist, I continue to stand by my original diagnosis. Charlie Spangenburg teeters on the edge of neurosis. Despite such an affliction he is one of the most intelligent patients I’ve encountered in twenty years of practice. Yet his refusal to cooperate outweighs any intrigue I once held for Charlie and how his mind works. I am heeding his request for a referral. Please see the enclosed documentation and audio tapes of our previous sessions. Charlie believes he might benefit from a ‘more competent doctor’, perhaps he will.

Best Regards,

PhD Myran Masters

Several years back when this letter was penned I truly believed I had seen the last of Charlie Spangenburg, but last week he wandered back into my life. My receptionist stood her ground for a short time, but eventually she proved no match for him. Despite his issues Charlie possesses a stubborn tenacity. Perhaps this is the one characteristic that will see him through. Just as he insisted we resumed the sessions. I found his sudden change of heart curious.

His appearance, goals, and future were narrowly defined by obsession. Each facet of his life fit neatly in a slot, contained and easily managed. Few were aware of the egg-timer that sat upon his dresser or the specific purpose it served. He never exceeded the allotted nine minutes set aside for grooming. The middle-aged New Yorker shuddered at the thought of even accidentally being labeled metro-sexual.

Breakfast consisted of two Grade ‘A’ brown eggs, never white. Three strips of bacon laid diagonally near the eggs, but not close enough to touch. A saucer placed to right of the plate, in the two o’clock position, was reserved for toast; stone-ground wheat exclusively, toasted for precisely sixty-three seconds—sixty-three of course being divisible by three.

During our first meeting Charlie clutched to a worn leather planner. My inquiry about the contents of the binder was met with resistance. I was asked by my patient if he might be allowed to rifle through my desk, simply to satisfy the curiosity of a stranger. This was not the first time Charlie turned the tables on me. Many days it seemed I rested on the preverbal couch, subjected to a battery of questions designed to determine the purity of my motives. Only now on his second round of visits was he prepared to allow me into his world.

It was a journey of despair; painful, daily musing from a broken man who longed to be a part of a normal world which presently found no use for him. The first several pages were barely legible, letters overlapping and sporadic spacing between lines. It seems Charlie began his journal under the bleakest of circumstances. He allowed his emotions to flow, isolated in total darkness behind a locked closet door. Even a mother’s love could not overcome misunderstanding. He could not recall the length of his punishment or even the crime, if indeed there had been one. I sensed the tenderness of thirty-year-old wounds and moved forward quickly.

Hidden in the back I discovered a very detailed chart for his life’s course. Charlie explained that all plans begin in pencil, only when an item was determined as likely, would it be traced over in pen. Curiously I asked about the entry under the heading ‘girlfriend’. Despite the ink, permanent and irreversible, the name had been marked through completely.

Instead of prescribing to the failed model of modification, Suzanne accepted his idiosyncrasies and loved him despite them. Her sudden departure introduced unwanted variables into an otherwise orderly life. Variables in the form of difficult emotions which Charlie had no clue how to deal with.

As I thumbed through the pages it occurred to me the mind is a powerful thing, some believe capable of influencing if not controlling our physical health. Charlie’s experience causes me to question my neutrality on the subject.

March 3: I awakened with chaos all around. Despite turning the apartment inside out I could not find Suzanne anywhere. After a thorough scouring of the kitchen produced no note I knew wherever she had gone Suzanne did not intend to be found.

With trembling fingers I withdrew a Camel Light from the pack. Smoking it with purpose—I only wished to see the thin paper meet the filter as quickly as possible. Although Suzanne was no longer here I felt a strange compulsion to respect her rules. Smoking was only allowed on the balcony.

Thirty stories of air between me and the pavement did nothing for my frazzled nerves. A painful thirty seconds was all I could endure. Retreating to the safety of the apartment, hand over hand I maintained contact with the rail. As I prepared to release my grip and lunge for the open door a faint whimper reached my ear. Looking to my left, thirty feet away huddled on the ledge, was the object of my search. Still in her nightgown Suzanne crouched there biting her lip in an effort to remain silent. This was the day I realized Suzanne was an imposter also. She too had only been a visitor to the world of acceptance.

Upon being discovered Suzanne quickly found freedom in her leap. I still cannot conceive the power of the voices in her head. I had been aware of their presence, but had underestimated the sweetness of their words.

March 21: I fiddle with my breakfast out of obligation. This morning routine has always been more about preparation rather than hunger. I move from the table to the balcony door, only to find watching the traffic below makes me dizzy. The door remains locked as it will forever. I reach for the lever, actuating it open and closed three times. As far back I can remember three had been my lucky number, but finally this fog has lifted and I can see them for what they are; detestable prompts used to feed my repetitive obsessions. Yet out of all of the numbers that churn in my head, three remains particularly loathsome. Even as I speak of it now, I know that three can no longer be part of my life.


Charlie’s knees began to buckle even as he contemplated breaking the cycle. He grimaced as he opened and closed the lock the fourth time. The clicking of mechanism instantly sent his heart into an uncontrollable frenzy. A bolt of pain stretched across his chest and exploded through his right shoulder blade. His breath came in accelerated bursts and Charlie fell to his knees. The objects in the apartment lifted from their resting places and began to dance in a circular motion. With a muted thud the back his head made contact with the carpeted floor. During what he believed were his last moments Charlie watched the ceiling fan rotate, unable to resist counting the revolutions. Within the glass orb that surrounded the bulbs he saw Suzanne’s face. As bittersweet as their encounter had been, within her soft eyes lie the beauty of acceptance.

Now that he has left my office I’m left to ponder many questions. Charlie had not suffered a heart attack as he was convinced, only a severe panic attack induced by the stressful situation his mind perceived. It’s a shame the unique workings of a genius are often his curses. I still hold a sliver of hope that a boy resilient enough to emerge from a dark closet might eventually find acceptance. My office manager tells me we are in need of an accountant. Perhaps Charlie’s mind for numbers may be just what the doctor ordered.

How do we live in a world where our capacity to expand our definition of normalcy is bound by our level of comfort, and hence it becomes far easier to continue the charade? The illusion that we are part of that narrow band of mediocrity eases our conscience as we cast those considered different aside. Charlie Spangenburg lingered at the door of acceptance for years, but never received his invitation. Perhaps someone is knocking at your door tonight—someone very much like Charlie. Will you turn out the lights and pretend the house is empty, facilitating another ascent to the ledge; or will you open your door and ask them in?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Play Ball


Fanned out by Charles Dana Gibson




The roar of the Boston crowd was deafening. Those who could afford tickets to the final game had certainly gotten their money’s worth. Game seven of the World Series between the Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals had been nip and tuck throughout. Now with men on second and third, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and the home team down by one; ‘Rip’ Jones strolled to the plate. He tipped his cap to the fans with a confidence that the game was already in the bag.

As long he did what they agreed to, the game was all but over. Jack Stallings smiled at the pure salesmanship with which ‘Rip’ sold the sham. The Bean-town faithful would watch in horror as their hero took each pitch straight down the middle without even offering a swipe at it.

Jack had no misgivings about being in the middle of throwing a game. Fans were merely miserable riffraff; those too na├»ve to believe something as sacred as baseball could go to the highest bidder. Soon they would learn everything and everyone has a price. ‘Rip’ would be instant millionaire while Mr. Stallings stood to make substantially more. A quick tally in his head calculated each of three strikes to be worth approximately fifty-three million a piece.

“Not a bad night’s work he mumbled”, as he gnawed off the end of his cigar and settled back in his seat.

The Cardinals’ ace nodded to his catcher and fired a fast ball down the middle. An anxious crowd grew silent as the umpire raised his right hand confirming a strike. Jack simply nodded in contentment. Two consecutive curve balls missed just outside and the crowd came to life again. Jack rode the edge of his front row seat and cursed the pitcher for his inability to throw a strike. ‘Rip’ didn’t flinch as the umpire rung up strike two, but Jack nearly came unhinged as the closer threw the next pitch in the dirt.

“You son-of-a-bitch, throw a fast ball down the middle will ya!”

‘Rip’ called time and stepped out the batter’s box. With each practice swing the roar of the crowd intensified ten fold. The umpire motioned for the batter to return to the box and he did, but not before holding his bat in one hand extending it to centerfield.

Jack laughed out loud, “With skills like that, this boy will make me billions.”

The pitcher shook of the sign twice then went into his windup, delivering a scorcher headed straight for the heart of the plate. In the blink of an eye, ‘Rip’ turned on the ball and sent a line drive twenty rows deep into the center field seats.

Millions upon millions of baseball fans the world over scratched their heads as they listened to the post game interview. ‘Rip’ insisted on dedicating his game winning home run to Jack Stallings, but why?

The next morning each of the major newswires carried an audio taped phone conversation. The incriminating words undeniably belonged to the owner of the Yankees, Mr. Jack Stallings III. The Sox had crushed the Yankees in the American League Playoffs three years running.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Gummi Worms




Tommy Braxton slowed to a trot, comfortable with the distance he had put between himself and those who wished him harm. His legs were cramping under the weight of the backpack, but the shield had spared him a multitude of welts. Tommy rested his hand on his front pocket—where his lunch money had been only moments earlier. Tossing it on the ground was the only thing that saved another beating. It had sent the scavengers scrambling and given him a head-start.

He turned and waved a defiant middle finger in their direction. The response to his rebellious gesture came in the form of an angry growl. Gus Childers’ voice rose from the distance and sliced the autumn air. Although the threat in no way carried the fear of a face to face confrontation, his sentiment rang clear.

“Go ahead you chicken-shit, hang out with the hobos! They’re the only one’s that will have you, but you better believe I’ll be waiting for you again tomorrow!”

The scamper had carried him to the old train yard. Perhaps a poor choice of escape routes considering the ample supply of ammunition within arms reach, but fear rarely consults with logic. Truly did it matter, rocks or fists?

Tommy recognized the wisps of smoke rising from an old burn barrel. Despite their differences, the heat like a magnet drew the wanderers into a tight circle. Tommy searched for one in particular. Carl had never given a last name. With no mortgage papers, bank accounts, or auto loans to sign for, a career hobo had little need for one. Yet he had seen thousands of places; moving about as his heart guided him and controlling his own destiny. Tommy admired the freedom of his lifestyle, but also appreciated his words. Carl looked past the acne of a teenager and spoke to him as if he were already one of them.

Tommy made his way into the circle and opened his pack. Only a room full of kindergarten children could have been more appreciative of a bagful of Gummi Worms.

“Let’s here it for Mr. Carver. I slipped in and out of there before the half-blind old man saw me lift a thing.”

The smallest of the group wasted no time. With the enthusiasm of an attack dog on an intruder’s leg he chomped at the generous gift. Dwarf, aptly nicknamed, was second in command behind Carl. He laid claim to being the oldest of the wanderers, but forty plus years on the run had taken their toll. The hunch in his back required him to noticeably lift his bald head in order to keep from speaking to the ground. He stared a moment at Tommy’s ripped jeans before speaking.

“Looks like you run into trouble this mornin’, Tommy.”

“Same old, same old—turns out Gus Childers and his goons wanted my lunch money more than I wanted my ass beat.”

The miniature man stroked his chin for a moment. In a move that revealed hours of practice he withdrew a knife from his boot and ran his thumb across the blade.

“Big, red-headed kid ain’t he? For another bag of them goodies ole Dwarf might see to it Gus Childers don’t come around no more. Bet he’s as rotten inside as he his out!”

“Dwarf, you better put that knife away. I’ll take care of Gus one day and you’ll be the first to hear about it.”

Each of the outstretched hands had been satisfied except for one; one which lacked three fingers and half of a thumb. Carl had slipped trying to board a train outside of Boston. Tommy never tired of hearing about learning to pick his nose with a pinky finger or the nasty visual represented by wiping one’s backside with an inexperienced hand. No matter the circumstance Carl took what the world was willing to give and made the best of it.


Tommy held up a giant bag of worms reserved for his favorite, “So where’s Carl?”

Dwarf tilted his head to the left. “Ain’t sure you wanna talk to him this morning—crabbier than usual I’d say!”

“This’ll put a smile on his face,” Tommy beamed with confidence.

Carl stared at the bag Tommy tossed at his side as if it were poison.

“Ain’t this a school day?”

“You’re starting to sound like my parents. Why should I spend another boring day in school—when I can hang out with you guys learning about the real world?”

Carl’s voice took on a serious tone, one that Tommy was unfamiliar with.

“Sit down here for a minute, Tommy. Let me tell you about the ‘real world’.”

“What do you plan on doing once you graduate?”

Tommy smiled, “Not sure I will—graduate I mean; thinkin’ about droppin’ out. I thought I’d hang out with you guys—you know, see the world.”

In a commanding voice Carl asserted himself.

“First thing you need to do is take the stolen stuff back and then you need to stop coming here—forever!”

Tommy cowered in response to the harsh tone. The only one he considered a true friend was asking him to leave and never return. Suddenly the friendly surrounding had become cold and demanding. He started to stand and leave, but Carl grabbed his arm.


“Look—it ain’t that I don’t like you, but you got potential. This ain’t about stolen candy, but that’s where it starts. Tommy some day you’ll have to look in a mirror and the stranger staring back at you will ask questions—hard questions.”

Carl fished around in the pocket of his soiled flannel shirt until he produced and envelope and handed it Tommy. Inside was a picture of a young women holding the hand of a little girl; no one he recognized.

“That’s my mirror, Tommy—and I hate what I see staring back at me.”

Carl’s eyes softened considerably and his voice wavered as he continued.

“That used to be my wife and daughter before I made the decision to leave. We were so young and I was scared to be a daddy—scared to fail the woman I loved. Chelsea was only three when I hopped my first train. Last week my little girl got married and in my absence some other man walked her down the aisle. Those you abandon and hurt will eventually grow cold and indifferent to you. This shell of a man rides a train because that’s all he knows. Believe me, there comes a day when there are no more trains—when you can’t run any farther from yourself. When it’s too late you finally realize the problem was not the world, but how you chose to deal with it. It will literally break my heart in two if I ever meet up with you in a boxcar. Don’t throw away your future, don’t be a wanderer, Tommy.”

Fueled by Carl’s words Tommy graduated from a community college some years later. He walked the familiar path to the train yard, wishing to check on the wanders, more specifically to thank Carl for his advice. In one had held his diploma proudly and in the other a jumbo size bag of Gummi Worms; one that he had purchased this time.

As he stared at those that circled the fire Dwarf’s was the only face he recognized. He didn’t attempt to lift his head as he explained the circumstances surrounding Carl’s sickness and eventual death. Before turning and melting into the darkness he handed Tommy an envelope. The scribbling was difficult to read with only the dancing flames’ intermittent light. Tommy BRAXTON; the last name was capitalized and underlined.

Tommy,

The very first day you came to the train yard I knew you were different, but in my selfish desire for company I allowed you to stay. For that I apologize; for the harsh words I spoke to you I cannot. When you walked away from here I celebrated inside.

I know you’re a thinker—yes; the small amounts of cash I mailed to you each month were earned honestly. Once you enrolled in college I found a reason to work. I lost something very valuable in a boxcar back in Omaha and spent twenty six years searching for it.

I’ve included the adress of my wife and daughter. Can you go there and explain I died with a smile on my face. I finally did do something I’m proud of—and you’re it, Tommy Braxton. You represent hope for the future.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembering The Fallen


Standing among stones in a field of rest;
white markers of strife aligned in straight rows.
Voices of past relive each bloody quest
yet honor and duty speak louder than those.

If wounds were assessed in years left behind
many expired only miles from home.
Battles were waged and heroes defined;
assuming these wars not of their own

For a lapse in time and it involved me
each would do well to shake one of their hands.
Blessed by these warriors and leaders-to-be
bravely and boldly defending our lands

Our flag waves today in part by their deaths;
those fallen shall be remembered upright.
From sacrificed souls and ragged last breaths
a mighty eagle finds purpose for flight
.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Unity




Unaware that several sets of eyes were anxiously awaiting her departure, Martha Jones grabbed her purse to head off to her day job. Finally the door closed and the house was empty, conducive to such a ceremony. Rolland sighed in relief and wiggled from his perch, clutching his lower back as he hobbled along. He wasn’t as spry as he had once been, but for a rolling pin that had seen two World Wars and delivered enough pastries to fill the Albert Hall, he couldn’t complain. He smiled and nodded as he passed his culinary cohorts that gathered for this sobering event. Forming a semi-circle, as close to the edge of the slippery counter as anyone dared, they joined hands. Rolland cleared his throat.

“Spatulas, measuring cups, ladles, and silver; we gather here today to mark the passing of a dear friend.”

A hush fell over those that stared at the near unrecognizable mass of plastic that lay in the bottom of the trash can. Choking back his emotions Rolland continued.

“Neither human nor utensil could have anticipated such an untimely demise. Spending only a few short years upon this counter, Patty the pancake-turner never met a stranger. Certainly she had a few dings and dents, but don’t we all. My only regret was that had she had been stainless perhaps we would not be here today, but such things remain beyond our control. Patty jumped at the opportunity to serve, but sadly she has flipped her last stack of flapjacks. Through selfless sacrifice she allows each of us standing in reverence today to serve another meal. It was fate that Mrs. Jones selected her to beat back the flames of an angry grease fire, but mind you it could have been any one of us. Although the charred flesh of her remains lies among the coffee grounds and eggshells of this morning’s breakfast, her spirit lives on. She now joins countless others in the great kitchen in the sky. As surely as I stand before you there will be another pancake-turner that tries to take her place. I implore you to resist such shallowness; her act of bravery should linger in our hearts and minds for years to come. Bless her perforated soul and serrated edges—and God speed.”

Rolland had performed far too many services during his lifetime. He considered himself extremely fortunate to have been passed down from generation to generation. Certainly there had been some downtime in moving from home to home, but the Jones family treated him well. Only once had he had been placed too close to the edge of counter and left unattended, but all in all the nasty spill produced no broken bones or concussions, merely a few migraines.

He took these few moments to reminisce. Rolland did not come from a distinguished linage as did the silver set from France, which to this day still spoke with an irritating accent. Perhaps he was oversensitive to such things. He too had taken his share of ribbing about his southern drawl. Rolland came from the heart of a hard maple in the hills of West Virginia. He possessed no grand pedigree, but nonetheless took great pride in his work. He was fortunate to have never fallen into the hands of an inexperienced cook. The many awards and ribbons lining the small country kitchen stood testament to his and Martha’s abilities. He was particularly proud of the 1973 Warsaw County Best of show. Poor Mrs. Hartwigger, Martha’s nemesis, never saw it coming. Blindly she believed her apple pie would ensure her ten year reign. Rolland smiled as he recalled receiving word that the light flakey crust had won the judges hearts. Just as Mrs. Hartwigger found, all things must come to an end.

In the big city cooking had become a cutthroat business, where many simple utensils had been replaced with machines. Rolland shuddered as he thought of such things. Perhaps someday he too would bow to progress, but for now he was content to live out his days in the solitude of the country, where folks still chose ‘biscuits made from scratch’ over the expediency of Bisquick.

Some days were lonely as Rolland had outlasted many of his closest friends. Cathy the three-legged colander had given up the ghost. For years she performed her duties flawlessly, only with a slight tilt. Those closest to her pretended not to notice her handicap. As long as Rolland could remember the divide between electrical devices and those of manual labor had been great. Stan, the electric skillet, had made an exception and crossed the line, a fine example of kitchen-aids he was. With his cooking surface and heating element still intact, he had fallen victim to a frayed controller cord.

Suddenly it came to him like a bolt of lightening. Rolland would use his wisdom gained through the years to bring unity to all of those who graced the kitchen. If those comprising the culinary arts expected to live on in this imperfect and ever-changing world, all aids must stand united!

In the background Rolland imagined a rally with the rhythmic thumping of Mike the meat tenderizer keeping time as the Thompson tea-kettle family whistled harmoniously the tune of God Bless America.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Closer To Gray?




Yesterday at work, the day following a historic election, I heard some things that troubled me. My desk put me within earshot of a conversation regarding the Presidential race. It began very amiably, as they were discussing work, but quickly evolved from there. The participants were two ladies, one white and in her middle twenties and one African-American in her early sixties. Having worked with them both I suspected the two outspoken personalities would eventually butt heads. Collide they did, in spectacular fashion, like the clashing of horns between two hormone enraged white-tail bucks.

The younger of the two had written a message on the white-board in her cubicle, “Sorry America….Barack won the election!!” It took only a few seconds before the elder voiced her opposition to the message.

“Why would you write something like that?” She asked in an obviously elevated tone.

“Because that’s how I feel.” When pressed for a more complete answer, rather convincingly she laid out her opposition to every major plan of President Obama’s, also her differing views on abortion and her reservations about his questionable associations. As any good debater would, the younger of the two turned the table and asked the elder what philosophies of Obama’s she supported? After a short pause she replied in an outburst loud of enough for the entire office to hear.

“I don’t have to support his philosophies or plans, and you’re obviously a racist!”

As I contemplated the conversation I wondered whether President Obama can really bring us closer to gray, the melding of black and white. I felt badly for them both. I truly believe the elder didn’t care to know Barack Obama’s philosophies or plans, voting for him because of the color of his skin. I also could relate to the young girl who had been unjustly lumped into the ‘racist pile’ simply because she did not vote for Obama.

When talking about the election and I reveal that I also did not vote for Obama the reactions are telling, not so much the words but the tone. “Oh, I see.” As if there is no other reason to have voted otherwise except for bigotry. Usually the conversation ends there, which doesn’t bother me that much. Most people will continue to believe what they want to believe. Actually, only a single person has ever flat out asked me if I would vote for a female or non-white president. With great certainty I smiled and crushed both his assumptions—“Condoleezza Rice, my friend!”

Saturday, November 1, 2008

An Invitation


Pigs by Pablo Picasso


Beyond the fence
I watch them play
within their dirty domicile.
Sun-baked muck
cakes their backs
yet seems to make them smile


My mother chides
from yonder window
“Son, you best stay upwind!”
But as she tends to dinner
I cross the stile
to join my oinking friends.

With corkscrew tails
and flattened snouts
they fritter the day away.
How shall a boy of only ten
possess such will
his mother to obey?

The soiled bibs
display my guilt
as I face a mother’s wrath.
Returning with a willow switch,
the stoutest I can find.
Just in case a needed bath
is not all that’s on my mother’s mind.