Monday, December 26, 2011

Some Days

Some days just start upside down. I ain’t talkin’ about a jackleg at the drive-thru skimpin’ on the scalded milk in your white-chocolate mocha. More a life-style that leaves you wakin’ up at the bottom of a dumpster every morning, hands and feet bound. There’s an undetermined amount of garbage between you and fresh air, and as much as it turns your stomach you know the only way to get there is to start eatin’. Makes you wanna hurl most days, but don’t let anyone tell ya being a detective in the South Bronx ain’t without its perks.
 A junk-yard dog ain’t much for paradin’ around at a show—prefers to run at his own pace, bites at the leash that binds him to another’s will. White-gloved ladies with floppy-brimmed hats know the only way he’s takin’ home ‘Best of Breed’ is if he eats the competition. A dog like that does what he knows to do in order to see another sunset. Granny Donatelli taught me about the kind of tenacity that boils from within—that it’s OK to be that kind of dog.

In nursery-rhyme terms ninety-three pounds of sugar and spice ain’t nothin’ to fear but it’s a game changer when you’re ten years old and that gnarled thumb and forefinger latches onto your cheek like a pair of dollar-bin vice-grips. Survivin’ the clench meant you done only half the work. The shake that followed consisted of a painful and vigorous thrashing that in some perverted way brought her great pleasure. But come to think of it, wouldn’t the world be a better place if all ten year old boys understood the importance of bringing their grannies pleasure?

Professional wrestlin’ was the steak and taters of grannies television diet. Even as a young boy I figured if two half-dressed fat dudes wanted to slither around pressin’ private parts it shoulda happened behind closed doors, but I came to appreciate what wrestlin’ done for her. While nobody was lookin’ she climbed out of the shell the world saw and become as real to me as my young psyche could handle. After you seen it once you learned to recognize the warnin’ signs. Things was headed south when her eyes went glassy and the corners of her mouth got shiny. Only once had I seen such a display of raw aggression, but had trouble reconciling the two. Comparing your granny to the neighbors Rottweiler bordered on sacrilege of the highest order. Let’s call it an early brush with reality; the day I stood in my bedroom window and watched Moses display in convincing fashion why a three-legged cat should never venture far from home. Granny and the most feared dog in the neighborhood bore undeniable similarities. Both had jowls that quivered with anticipation and a mindset that left reason two blocks back. Like the spring-loaded hips of Moses, Granny would lean forward in her rocker and outta nowhere would loose a string of curse words that would make a Turret sufferer blush six shades of red. As profound and disturbing as the episodes were the whole thing lasted no more than a few moments. Once the referee accepted the submission Granny fell limp in her chair, like an expressionless shell of a human body after an alien abduction. In those eerie moments before granny came back to me completely, I knew exactly how the priest in the Exorcist felt. I too wanted to do somethin’ to help, but the thought of her head spinnin’ around 360 and spewing pea-soup left me frozen in time.

Some people might frown on a young boy learnin’ to curse and spit tobacco from his paternal grandmother, but if you wanna learn to read you gotta go to the library. Granny was real—no pretenses—right down to the ability to fart like a three-hundred pound man with an unholy penchant for chili dogs. Even today her bits of wisdom live on. She reminded me there’s at least a dozen ways to skin a cat. It was her way of tellin’ me there’s always more than one path to a destination.

Cops are a strange breed, believin’ justice comes in all forms. So long as it comes timely, ain’t any of ‘em bad. Not one standin’ on the dock was frettin’ over the prospect that justice arrived in the form of an extended nap in the East river. Alfonzo “The Bull” Luchesse was stiff and lifeless as we fished him out of the sludge, and all I could hear is Ganny’s voice sayin’, “Dead is dead ain’t it?”

The Bronx white-pages had fewer names than those who legitimately wanted to see “The Bull” on a one-way trip outta this world. Business owners tired of being shaken down, rivals lookin’ for a cut of the drug traffic, and jilted women. Alfonzo showed no prejudice when it came to the ladies; he loved them all equally lousy.

After floatin’ a few questions around the neighborhood I decided to pay a visit to a particularly buxom brunette named Bridget Bardello. With a name like that you’d think she’d scratch out a livin’ doing somethin’ pretty—a florist or somethin’. Fact was she did work with arrangements; choreographed all her own dance moves. Bridget hit the stage hungry-like from start to finish. Straddling a shiny pole running from floor to ceiling she doled out her magic in small, tantalizing doses. There were other dancers in the place, but Bridgette was the roller-coaster that kept ‘em standin’ in line.

Nothin’ says classy like a flashin’ neon arrow, but I suppose the clientele slithering around the Rumpus Room weren’t as much into ambiance as amenities. The night was all played out with the exception of a couple lizards staring at leftovers through blood-shot eyes. I approached the corner table and slapped a bottle of Thunderbird down between the old dog and his bone. Bridgette looked surprised a guy could drop her mid-sentence and split for the door. Did I mention the fact I ain’t much on ice-breakers?

“No offense, Baby, but I think he found you coutin’ ones from last night’s take a turn-off. Didn’t look like a math major, but between the two, he figured the Thunderbird was the guaranteed ride.”

I expected her to be upset over the prospect of lost business, but Bridgette was a pro. She worked men like Charlie Daniels eats up a fiddle on a Saturday night.

“So Bridget, word on the street is you and The Bull had a public fallin’ out the night he went for a swim. There anything you need to get off your chest?”

“Just these pasties—you offerin’ to help?”

Her response came between drags on a Virginia Slim, accompanied by a giggle. She stood and saddled up close figurin’ the odds were slim I could resist those babies waggin’ in my face like two-dollar lollipops. There I was in the middle of a gentlemen’s club after hours, pressed against a firecracker like Bridgette. A man could get lost with no chance of findin’ his way back to sensible ‘til sunrise, but I had a job to do.

“Sugar, I’m not opposed to a girl short on brains making her livin’ by horizontal means, but if you’re fishin’ tonight you got the wrong bait for this cat. Don’t tell me the fragrance you’re wearin’, let me guess. I’m desperately torn between Dumpster Diva and Heavenly-Ho. And as far as your pasties go, I’m like the hometown grocery…don’t do plastic.”

I glanced in the men’s room mirror and again at the photo. Provoking Bridgette into slapping me across the face was easy, and although the pattern did match the bruised cheek of Alfonzo Luchesse it wasn’t enough. So like many a gent gone before I left the Rumpus Room unfilled—but not without a piece of evidence I hoped to be substantial. Four-inch stiletto heels brought Bridgette to five foot nothin’, but man did she pack a wallop—enough force to break the clasp on her bracelet.

I suppose he noticed the hand-print on my cheek and the crooked smile that accompanies a jacked-jaw, but good friend don’t ask those kinda questions. Virgil Valvano adjusted the jewelers loop for a closer look.

“Sloppy craftsmanship…nothin’ I’d want my name attached to, but the rocks are quality. I’m certain I sold ‘em. Let me check my files.”

The prospect of Virgil keepin’ records made me smile like a homely girl standin’ at the punch bowl eyein’ the last geek plastered to the wall. In the ten years since our initial introduction Virgil had done good for himself. As an undercover agent I had arranged a rendezvous in a dark alley off 142nd to buy a 100 grand worth of illegal diamonds. With both of us bloody and bruised our dance ended with Virgil sporting some shiny new wrist-ware. Like any good date I introduced him to the back seat of my car—face-first with my boot planted in his backside for leverage. In exchange for rolling over on his supplier in Angola the prosecutor cut him a break. I had to admit, reformed look good on Virgil.

He returned to the counter grinnin’ like a shit-eating dog waiting to teach his pup a new trick.

“You’re a bold man—flashin’ around fifty-grand worth of ice like it was CZ.”

Dropping the hardware into the inside pocket of my jacket I spent a solid minute prayin’ I hadn’t done an injustice to my favorite pair of boxers.

“You sold a house-worth of diamonds to someone and don’t recall that off the top of your head?”

I allowed the cold steel of steel of my sidearm jammed against his cheek to signal the deterioration of my mood.

“Don’t play with me, Virgil!”

“I ain’t playin’. Fifty-grand ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at but business is real good these days.”

I nodded toward the security camera in the corner.

“Virgil, tell me you got a popcorn maker in the back and can’t wait to show me some video.”

Granny always said, ‘You can’t make chicken-salad outta chicken shit.’ The buyer in the video was dolled up like the Queen of England, but the stiletto heels had enough bling to make a blind man beg for a second pair of shades. Bridgette Bardello and I definitely needed to have a more intimate chat so as I could wrap my mind around just how much disposable income a stripper has these days.

A few hours of shut-eye proved costly—it always does. Over a couple of drinks the owner of the Rumpus Room told me Bridgette didn’t show for her shift. Her dressing room was as empty as Monday morning church.

I spent the next two days trackin’ down extravagant purchases with no common theme. Other than the fact Bridgette and the ‘Bull’ had a butt-load of cash and didn’t mind spillin’ it in all corners of the city. On day three I woke feelin’ like an old tom cat humpin’ a ball of yarn—I was getting’ chafed.

Midmorning I got a phone call from the coroner. DNA results showed the body we pulled from the river was not Alfonso, but his twin brother Arnold. Talk about night and day. I can only imagine the scrappin’ that went on in their poor mother’s womb; the indigestion caused by a gangster and priest rentin’ the same space. None of it made sense.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thought for the Day

Take a picture of someone you love today. Carry it with you and let it remind
you life is fragile, that you should treat every day with care, and you get out
of life only what you are willing to invest in others.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Glue

As the clock rolled into the second hour, boredom spread to every corner of the sanctuary. Even the pastor’s wife, Irene, appeared powerless against the forbidden meeting of eyelids and the sudden twitches that accompany the uneasy entry from consciousness to rest. The occasional snap of Mrs. Hallock’s gum transformed into a metronome gone bad; a feverish pace I feared might sprain her tongue or prematurely and irreversibly wear the enamel from her teeth. Just twenty minutes earlier the Johnson twins were content to snap the back of each other’s ears with rubber bands. Now one lay across his mother’s lap and his mirror image over his fathers. Each set of eyes glazed over and mouths agape, like a poisonous gas had incapacitated them. Not even the mischief and energy of five year old hellions could withstand Pastor Wieland’s sermon. As for me the pain was real and tangible, settling below my beltline. For a moment I contemplated turning to the row behind for verification that my tailbone had bore completely through the impenetrable oak pew.

A new kind of restlessness sprouted as Pastor Wieland began sputtering his traditionally prolonged prayer. Before the much anticipated hearty Amen, I offer a prayer of my own. “God, if at all possible, allow his mind to be too consumed with his message and its purpose to hear the collective sigh from his parishioners. Without question the pastor’s a bit antiquated in his thinking and preaching style, but Harwood Grove would be an emptier place without him. He is a faithful servant and a fixture in our community; bless him and Irene fully—and please nudge Irene so that she wakes from her slumber before he lifts his head. Amen.”

From the pastor’s perspective, sneaking in a little work on a Sunday afternoon was indistinguishable from using a butter knife to carve a nun’s heart from her chest while she sleeps. He would carefully avoid lending words to those lines of thinking, but a man of such conviction and strict adherence to the Word need not voice his every thought for us to know them. One could search long and hard and never discover an ounce of hypocrisy with respect to his sermons and how he conducted his daily life. Pastor Wieland made the ideal neighbor, but only one home separating his from mine left me nervous—afraid of the incongruity he might observe in my life with regard to words and actions.

Certainly the ‘old money’ he and Irene descended from would afford the ability to live in relative luxury at the edge of town, but that is precisely the point. Irene found great purpose in staying home to raise her boys to be good men, and her husband opted for the meager salary and general scrutiny of a small town pastor. Together they displayed a sense of purpose that transcended collecting worldly reward. Some in the community busied themselves with the matter of interest earned on inheritance, but anyone with half a brain and one eye saw it spread throughout the community and I suspect much of the principle found its way there also. The pastor joked about why they had not settled in the country, claiming to have heard a clear message from God. “How should a shepherd watch his flock from a distant field? He cannot—he must take residence among them so that he can keep a careful eye on the wolves that would destroy them.” I suspect God trained his eye not only for wolves, but also lambs with a mind to stray.

Finding no use for the last bite of a grilled-cheese sandwich, I tossed it on the saucer and went about clearing the table. The window over the sink provided a clear view of my garden—now a disturbing scene of chaos. Like watching a funeral procession of a loved one, I dug deep to recall memories of better times. The arrival of spring ushered in an overwhelming sense of renewal where the smell of freshly tilled earth settled in my nostrils and a sense of accomplishment as I surveyed the rows of carefully planted seed. Months old now, the memory was stale. In its absence a sense of guilt and neglect settled heavy. I was the shepherd sitting on a hill too far away to reach those things entrusted to his care. The garden represented only my most recent shortcoming, and I suspected someday soon full disclosure would require me to gather the courage to check the rear-view mirror of days past. Presently I found it too painful to examine tiny images of opportunities slipped away.

A wise man would have chosen a flame-thrower, and I contemplated it until I surmised that inquiring at the hardware store about the rental of such an item of destruction would surely prompt a call to local police. Instead I gathered an arsenal of tools from the shed and entered the battleground. No sooner had the first beads of sweat formed on my brow a familiar voice startled me.

“John Benton—I certainly hope deep beneath those weeds there’s an ox in the ditch.”

Pastor Wieland chuckled.

Small talk seemed my only choice for buying time.

“Pastor, what brings you out this afternoon?”

I half-expected him to say the sound of the devil’s tools clanking so near his home woke him from a dead sleep.

“Just heading out for my afternoon walk and thought I’d see how things were with you. What did you think of my sermon this morning?”

“Your sermon—I thought it was long…..I mean long overdue.”

Shifting into full recovery mode, I hoped a few ripe tomatoes and cucumbers would serve as reparation for hasty words.

“Pastor I was sitting in my easy chair after lunch resting peacefully for the day—being Sunday and all. But I began thinking about how displeasing it must be to God to see these beautiful tomatoes go to waste. Do you think you can see past the fact that I just happened to rescue them from certain destruction on the Sabbath?”

His frown melted into a smile.

“Those are beautiful tomatoes, and Irene hasn’t fixed cucumbers and onions in quite some time. I suppose if I pray over them long enough they’d be fit for nourishment.”

Pastor set the vegetables aside. A smirk appeared on my face as I visualized a cat dropped from a rooftop—I felt I recovered reasonably well.

“Back to my sermon, John. Often I feel I’m delivering a general message to the masses, but on rare days I get the distinct impression my sermon is directed at only a handful, and on even rarer days I feel God is funneling my words to one very specific heart. Today I felt you were the only one in the sanctuary. Did you feel it too?”

I had felt it completely. I was the catcher repeatedly calling for a change-up, but God was on the mound shaking off my signs, throwing fast balls directly at my heart. As of yet I couldn’t admit the impact to myself. I needed time to interpret the message and how to properly apply those principles to my life.

“Pastor, you sure it wasn’t Amos Little sitting a row over that was your target? He looked pretty convicted to me.”

“You know, John, maybe you’re correct. I think I’ll head that way. Thanks for the produce.”

Before the pastor reached the edge of my lawn I asked God to forgive me for throwing the trail. I also prayed fervently that Amos wouldn’t return the favor by sending the Pastor back my way.

Even though the sun slipped beneath the horizon and the temperature hovered in the high seventies I lit a fire. My insides were chilly. The pastor’s message dwelt on past indiscretions and conflicts, how easily small words and deeds are perceived by those wronged as more significant than the offender recognizes. That there is no statute of limitations on wrongs needing righted and apologies that lodged and died during the thought process. Reminding us that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and the time for action was yesterday.

The dancing of flames is a mystery of sorts, one moment swaying in unison and another battling to determine sufficient air space for coexistence. If God intended us to be solitary creatures we would have been born in cages, without mouths to speak, ears to listen, hearts to feel, and arms to hug. Each time I am still enough to absorb it, the vastness of his plan for humanity awes me. With night draped over me fully and fire fading to ashes another bitter truth rolled over me with all the subtly of a locomotive. None of us is guaranteed even a single second of tomorrow, all the plans we push off to another day could implode in an instant. How will we feel when He finds us lingering hands full of nothing but excuses?

“Hey Marcus, this is John, tell the boss I’m taking the next couple of days off. Not sure if I have any vacation time left, but pay or no pay I have important business. In his airtight world of self-importance it will be a tough sell, but smile wide when you tell him he’s been trumped by a bigger boss. Thanks, man.”

At seven a.m. the aisles of Nuemann’s Market were practically empty. Truth was business became scarce altogether since the big-box stores opened up. Yet Neil Neumann continued to struggle to make something of what his father and grandfather identified as a vital service to this community. I respected him immensely for that.

“Hey, Neil, got a minute to talk?”

“Nothing but time these days…business ain’t good, John. Took a second shift job at the factory to keep things afloat and Jenny ain’t too happy about it. Keeps pushing me to close the doors, but I just can’t turn my back on what pop and granddad built.”

With little warning sunken eyes lost in the shadows of dark circles began to leak. Thoughts from the night before prompted a reach across the counter. I used my God-given arms for hugging and prepared both my ears to listen. Neil needed hope and encouragement beyond what I could provide, so we prayed silently over the meat counter.

“Sometimes God has a way of altering our paths, fixing broken ways of thinking. It just occurred to me that maybe he was reserving that lonely stretch of empty pew beside me specifically for you and Jenny. Talk it over with her and maybe I’ll see you on Sunday.”

After I offered Neil my handkerchief I meant to say what needed said.

“You remember when your dad ran the store, how all the boys stopped here every morning before and after school, picking up a pack of gum or handful of candy? Candy meant nothing to me. At that time my love was baseball. I idolized every facet of the game; the sounds and smells of the ball park, the players that were bigger than life. They had a way of transporting me to where my mind needed to be.”

I retrieved a pack of baseball cards from my pocket and placed them on the counter.

“Don’t remember the exact date I stole them, just that I did. In the following days and weeks I couldn’t muster the testicular fortitude to bring them back. The look of disappointment in your dad’s eyes would have crushed me. But in all these years I also couldn’t bring myself to open them.”

Beside the wrinkled and yellowed pack of cards I laid a fifty dollar bill and continued my explanation.

“Figure a dime for the cards and forty-three years of interest, ought to be close. It’s amazing how heavy an ounce worth of cards became though the years. Unfortunately, Neil, some things can never be made fully right. Because of my hesitation and head-strong ways your dad has already passed. It doesn’t have to occur today or tomorrow, but I need you to grant me forgiveness on his behalf.”

I traveled no more than a half a block down Main when Neil burst through the door after me.

“Hey, John, there’s a Mickey Mantle rookie card in here!”

I lifted my head skyward to find a deeper shade of blue than a moment earlier, and an irrevocable smile spread across my face as I called back to him.

“It belongs to you, Neil—it always has.”

As I walked northward down Main the steps came easier. For the first time in decades it felt good to be moving toward something, instead of hovering or in retreat. The subtleties of the sidewalk consumed me, in particular the division between each section. Without the one before or after it was simply a concrete pad, an island of isolation, having no beginning point and leading nowhere. Every life needs a destination.

Stopping by the flower shop seemed the right thing to do. It could never be enough, but I didn’t want to arrive empty-handed. With bouquet in hand I rounded the corner and the sun ducked behind a dark bank of clouds and shadows melted into pools below grade. Landscape surrounding the place was immaculate, entertainment they shipped in top notch, and the level of care impeccable—all of it cleverly designed to absolve us from guilt. We would sleep sounder if a loved one stayed somewhere with a peaceful or regal name like Shady Acres, Bickford Place, or The Regency, but fancy names fooled no one. Each of the residents carried forlorn expressions like they were standard issue, a byproduct of realizing that for the lion’s share this place was the last stop.

I never intended to stop coming. Certain aspects were easy, like looking past how time twisted the body and expressions of the woman who raised me. In a strange but comforting way, reciprocating those things she had done for me so many years earlier; reading a book out loud, brushing her hair, stroking her hand, they all seemed to draw the arcs together and complete the circle of life. But sadly and without warning I reached the limit of my inner-strength. On a rainy Wednesday afternoon she could no longer recall my name, that I was her firstborn—that I ever existed at all. Selfishly I pressed until she became so confused and agitated she chased me from her room. How absurd it sounds to say hurt kept me away for this long, but I am at a complete loss to describe this horrible thing that swooped into our lives, gobbled up something as sacred as memories, and in its wake left behind an indescribable emptiness.

I arranged the flowers in a vase on the nightstand, and drawing up a chair I was content watching the gentle rise and fall of her chest as she slept. A loud noise in the hallway caused her eyelids to flutter before slamming open. She seemed less concerned about a stranger sitting bedside than with the contents of the vase. Her eyes lightened and the corners of her mouth lifted.

“Carnations are my favorite—how did you know?”

I grinned and shrugging my shoulders.

“I thought every woman loved carnations?”

“Perhaps they do, but they hold a very special meaning in my heart.”

Her eyes drifted from the present into the past and she began telling a story I’d heard a hundred times before, but was starved to hear again.

“My late husband brought me carnations on our very first date. We lived in the country and he never was good with directions, you know. He was to arrive at 5:00 pm, but somehow got lost. By 5:45 I was busy trying to manage the prospect of being stood up. Just after 6:00 the bell rang and I swung open the door and my entire world changed forever. Out of all the prospective women out there, such a beautiful man arrived on my doorstep wishing to spend time with just me. From that moment forward, when in his company, time completely lost any relevance at all.

We sat by the pond talking for hours before he worked up the courage to hold my hand. He was a strong man and his hands were calloused from farm work, but he held my hand like I imagine God holding a dove. It was harvest season and he had to leave much earlier than he wished, but as he walked me home he explained the meaning of the three different colored carnations. Light red represented admiration, and he was already consumed by it today. The white stood for pure love; he said that he firmly believed we would discover it together in the months to follow. Finally the last carnation was dark red and symbolized the deepest love and affection one can feel for another. Something so splendid it had to be spread across decades to fully appreciate the expanse and depth of its beauty. I blushed as he told me he wanted to share that gift with me. While the sun was busy settling into the horizon that evening, I hid his words in my heart, and even though he’s passed now because of him my heart remains full forever.”

She stopped speaking and stared at the flowers again, as if they were a portal between yesterday and today. She blinked several time before turning to me.

“I apologize for boring you with such a story, and I’m very sorry my condition doesn’t allow me to remember people and names. I didn’t catch yours.”

Tending the corners of my eyes I composed myself and searched for a proper response.

“Names are kind of overrated aren’t they? If someone decided long ago carnations were called something else, or if they had no name at all, would they mean any less to you? Let’s keep it simple—just call me Sonny and I’ll call you Ma if it doesn’t bother you. I enjoyed your story and would like to make a promise to visit once a week if you’ll have me.”

The way she busied herself fiddling with a button on her gown made me nervous about the proposal.

“Sonny—you’re right about names. You seem like a nice enough fellow, and being a good listener is very important in life. I think I’d enjoy your company on a regular basis.”

As I left Bickford Place that evening I noticed someone sitting on the park bench just beyond the door. Twilight didn’t allow for positive identification, but his words to me did.

“Well, John—I can tell you for certain it wasn’t Amos Little God was speaking to yesterday morning, but I think you already knew that. How’s your mother doing?”

“Pastor Wieland, thanks for being the glue that holds people like me close and long enough to God that we develop a lasting bond.”

We shared the bench until the moon hovered high above us. Spoken words were minimal, but I remember hearing something very profound that night that still sustains me, and I’m almost certain it wasn’t the pastor voice I heard whispering.

“Humility is life’s great equalizer, a brutal reminder you are only a renter in this world. Continuing to wrestle with things beyond your control exposes the flaws of the human mind and spirit, but I love you anyway. Have you considering that losing your mother-son relationship was required for you to discover her as a friend? Friendship is what she needs most in her last days. John, I need you to leave here tonight feeling you salvaged those things within your power to affect, and isn’t that the way every day should end?”

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Her words trailed off as her friend drifted closer to sleep. Laura released her hand and placed it by her side. Lifting from the chair she slipped quietly toward the patio door. A breath of fresh air would provide a welcomed relief from the distinct smell of death. It wasn’t overwhelming yet but the presence was building.

A sudden spell of dizziness and nausea washed over her. She gripped the rail with both hands and stared at the small amount of supper that now lay spoiled on the grass. The side effects of chemo were tightening their grip and Laura knew the worst was yet to come. Like a fog hanging in the back of her mind, she realized this particular battle was potentially more than she could take on. In the end—if it was greater, it only seemed fitting things should end where they began.

The sun hung low in the Wisconsin sky, clinging to the remnants of today as if it had a reverent fear of what lay on the other side. Billowy shadows crowded the adjacent hillside. With respect to shape the darker counterparts were an exact replica, but a colorless rendition could never do justice to the oaks standing guard over the hillside. The incline rose gently beyond the creek until it melted into the shadows near the guardian’s feet. Such perfect imagery sparked memories of a magical place where two young girls, hand and hand, skipped through grass that shifted and waved like ripples on the ocean. A thousand times she walked the dusty lane to Sharon’s place where they sipped tea from tiny cups, giggled at the names of young boys they had no interest in, and waded in the creek when the spring rains came.

That particular day in May the duo wandered further down the creek than Sharon’s mother allowed. Their actions far removed from disobedience or rebellion; more a silent agreement that some missions in life are greater than any boundary. The blackbird’s wing was injured. Each time Sharon cupped her hands the bird fluttered further along. When Laura looked back the two-story home had faded into a speck on the hillside, and even birds grow tired of chase. Laura was certain the adventure had come to a disappointing end when the bird left the confines of the creek banks for refuge in a mulberry tree. Undeterred, Sharon ascended the clay bank with her eyes fixed squarely ahead. Using exposed tree roots for hand-holds she propelled herself quickly up the face. The two sounds were inseparable; the snap of a root bowed past the breaking point, and Sharon’s shriek. Laura’s heart raced as she heard the subsequent thud and watched the muddy water surrounding her friend’s foot take on a crimson hue. Moments melted into millenniums. Steep banks on either side were like brick walls a hundred feet tall and every moment that passed seemed to draw them closer to touching. Propelled by an urgent sense to escape the walls, Laura grabbed Sharon’s arm and dragged her to a shallow spot. Sharon gasped, struggling to reclaim the wind that had been knocked from her. Thoughts of broken bones and ruptured innards sent Laura’s mind reeling, but once gasps gave way to quiet sobs a sense of peace washed over her. She wet a handkerchief, placed it over Sharon’s eyes, and gave specific instructions to envision the wounded bird. Laura examined her friend’s foot and discovered a shard of glass extending from it.

“It’s going to hurt for a second, but I promise you’ll be alright after that. Have you caught the bird yet?”

With a firm tug the worst was over, but the wound was angry and ugly. Laura pressed the separated pieces of flesh together to slow the flow.

“Sharon, you’re going to be fine….good as new I promise.”

Laura had no idea of the power of her words or in her touch. When she removed her fingers from the wound only a scratch remained. Laura stared at the crusted blood on her hand; she knew what she had seen. She never told anyone about the gaping wound turned scrape in a matter of moments, and especially about the mysterious gash that developed in the arch of her own foot within a matter of hours.

Fifty-seven summers had come and gone; the scar barely visible, but what transpired in those few hours would shape a lifetime. At the age of nine Laura discovered her gift. She supposed it was a gift, but not at all like she remembered Reverend Michael’s referencing in his sermons. Mrs. Turner baked the most amazing pies and every Wednesday she took six of them to the homeless shelter and no one disputed that a voice as angelic as Daisy Clark’s belonged in the choir. It seemed so ironic that even in the house of the lord those believing in miracles were few and far between. Miracle, in the biblical sense, was too strong a word. The symptoms, pain and suffering did not simply evaporate. It was more a transference to her own person. Through the years Laura discovered there were few limitations to what could she could absorb. A tiny hoot-owl colliding with a glass window and falling lifeless to the ground produced a migraine lasting a few short days, but there were others that left her bed-bound for weeks, and some remnants simply refused to leave. Laura took comfort in knowing the limp she carried on her right side allowed a young man somewhere in Maine, barely in his thirties, to live a relatively normal life. Had she not been driving that dark road she knew his head-on collision would have been fatal. After so many years and multiple encounters she still didn’t know what to call it, but reluctantly settled on referring to herself as a pain-eater.

Laura returned to find Sharon sleeping peacefully so she began straightening the living room. Since Sharon’s lymphoma diagnosis and subsequent treatment, it really had become a place for all things, portable hospital bed and toilet in adjacent corners. Laura sensed it was more a ‘dying room’. She inhaled deeply and the smell was stronger now, but yet she smiled. The day Laura arrived; the two lifelong friends had nearly come to blows. Laura wanted to sleep on the couch because of the proximity to her friend, but in no uncertain terms Sharon disagreed.

“You will stay in my old bedroom, or I’ll call the Sheriff and ask him to remove you from my home! We’re good friends you know…the Sheriff and I. Not another peep…it’s bad enough you came here to look after me. You’ll not have a sore back doing it!”

Laura lifted the photo from the coffee table, wiping the dust from the edges of the frame. The Sheriff and Roy were best of friends. Laura knew what it felt like to have a forever-friend, but wondered how awful it must be to lose a husband of thirty years. Standing at Sharon’s side at the alter she recalled the moment they were presented as man and wife. A smiling of their eyes announced to the entire world that Roy and Sharon were made for each other. Now Roy rested no more than two-hundred yards away; lying still beneath ground at the foot of the tallest oak. A simple stone for simple man he said. Laura supposed if she had married she would have wanted someone like Roy. There was one proposal of marriage, but Laura knew that a commitment like that would produce second thoughts when it came to the use of her gift, and she could not live with herself if even one time she passed an opportunity to use the power God had given her.

Laura needed to finish what she had come to do. She scooped Sharon’s hand. Closing her eyes she pushed her mind to reflections of days gone by, but skipping on the hillside while the sun caressed the faces of innocent girls was not nearly enough to dull what flowed from one hand to the other. The wrinkles around her eyes tightened as she focused on drawing the poison away.

“Stop it!”

Sharon was awake now, and visibly agitated.

“Don’t touch my hand again!”

Laura laughed nervously, “Why would you say such a thing?”

“Because I’m fairly certain of what you’re doing, and I won’t allow it to happen. While I was sleeping I had a dream. God’s coming for me and he isn’t far away. Close enough that I hear his voice clearly. It’s time for me to be with Roy, and he told me he still has plans for you.”

Laura matched the intensity of her accuser managing to lie with a straight face.

“Don’t be silly, dear…it was just a dream.”

Sharon wiggled until the pillows beneath fit the small of her back.

“All of the pieces are falling in place now. You’ve had this gift since we girls, haven’t you—this power to heal people?”

Laura fought against them, but the swirling of emotions brought on bitter tears as Sharon unraveled secrets of the past.

“In the creek that day—I fell twenty feet, and barely a scratch. When you were staying with us after Roy Jr. was born. Senior was at work and I was in shock because my two-week old son stopped breathing. You took him from my arms and rushed to the other room. You told me you gave him CPR, but he was dead wasn’t he….until you brought him back?”

The room grew still as death itself, while flashes of scenes and people played in Laura’s head. Like a nightmare, as it always did, a tiny face moved out of the collage and hung in place until the image broke her completely.

“I would have given anything to have been here for Roy Jr. the second time!”

Sharon motioned her close.

“Here’s what I know. In a world where it is difficult to illicit a wave from a neighbor let alone a stranger, you are willing to give all you have to others. You gave me eight precious years with my boy before he passed…he was born with a bad heart. I know there are scores of others that you cared for. It is an unbelievable gift you’ve been granted—loving people like Jesus. Get it out of your head that you have been sent here to save me from what God has planned. He’s not finished with you, he told me exactly that. Move out of the way and let him take me now.”

Laura missed her friend intensely, but better Roy's stone had finally received its mate. She supposed in certain cases letting go is the kindest thing we can do.

Laura pushed her walker over the gap where the elevator met the tile floor. She was broken and tired, but never failed to smile. Just two days shy of her ninety-fifth birthday Laura fell lifeless on the sidewalk. She was far enough down the street that none of the workers at the children’s hospital saw her go, but they all remarked how wonderful it was to see her hugging and squeezing all of the young patients, steadying each of their trembling hands with hers, while she whispered the importance of faith and hope into ears that were starving for such things.

For many of you this story will seem foolish, sorry you wasted time reading it. It is purely fictional, but the amount of faith you possess will determine the believability of it. I whole-heartedly believe God places people in our lives for specific reasons and often only for a season. Who am I to question the ability and means of our Creator? You decide how the story ends, but in my version the sky opens and an exceedingly bright light accompanies a band of angels coming to retrieve one of their own. Perhaps one of them removes their wings and fixes them on Laura’s back, taking on human form to stay behind in her place.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Better Man (Part 1)

For a man with two first names, Kenny Joe Southerland seemed like a nice enough guy, but I’m pretty sure that’s what everyone assumes when they first meet a college roommate. At least in Vegas the odds are plainly posted. Best case scenario you split a 12’ X 20’ space with a sleep talker that rambles like an auctioneer with a serious Red Bull dependency. A couple hops over on the roulette wheel and you discover your ‘roomie’ enjoys “Sweating to the Oldies”, buck-naked with the exception of four inch stiletto heels because he likes the clicking sound of a tile floor. In fairness to Kenny Joe, he bore no semblance to the aforementioned, but nonetheless inside of a semester I came to view his mere presence as minutes shaved from an otherwise productive life.

According to father, my first mistake was failing to inquire about his major. “The minds and personalities of those drawn to drama and theatre are too abstract and loosely constructed to mesh with those geared for hard science and medicine.”

Father dealt exclusively in condescension and while he believed an eloquent undressing somehow made it less offensive—it didn’t. There existed a certain friction between Kenny Joe and myself, but it paled in comparison to the chasm separating a father and his son. Verbal disagreeance would only incense him—that much I had learned. Instead, a mental marquee scrolled from one side of my mind to the other, “A man forged under the noonday sun—brittle and unforgiving.”

Of four siblings none of us escaped completely, equally damaged by means of entirely different methods. Ours was a world where something as uncontrollable as gender dictated everything. During my informative years he openly referred to having endured the setback of three daughters; careless words like a hard frost striking lilies in full bloom. While my older sisters pined for a moment’s attention I begged for respite from it. Each morning I knelt bedside praying for something as benign as blithe dismissal or perhaps even a brother to dilute the full measure of his critical eye and burden of great expectations. As it were no rescuers came. I only watched my sisters fade further into nothingness and one dreadful day rolled into another as he molded me into a miniature version of him. He wanted me to believe there were worse outcomes in life than becoming a respected neurosurgeon that made a comfortable living, and perhaps occupationally speaking there was, but more than anything I regretted that someday I too would warn my son to avoid contact with those who ignored the seriousness of life.

Kenny Joe’s inspiration came from a performance in a third grade play and his drama instructor, Miss Jenkins’ insistence that she never witnessed such passion from a frog. A public school teacher not only recognized a young boy’s natural ability and desire to perform, she went out of her way to nurture, encourage, and coach him. As such Kenny Joe spent his weekends crunching cheese snacks, honing his Kramer imitation from a lost episode of Seinfeld while I grappled with a more complete understanding of Homosynaptic plasticity. It is crystal clear to me now that my disdain for him then was due to the absence of a Miss Jenkins in my own life.

“Doctor, he insists you were his roommate freshman year. Will you take the call?”

Despite the venomous ways of the world, Kenny Joe’s amiability remained. After fifteen years he spoke to me like a neighbor over a privacy fence, extending an invitation to celebrate his birthday. The 750 miles separating us should have been reason enough to decline, but I was convinced more than ever that Kenny Joe had been born a better man, and I needed to understand why.

Early in my life spontaneity and I crossed paths briefly, but offering a time slot in a busy schedule insulted his very nature, so we quickly claimed irreconcilable differences and moved on. Open-ended decisions left my insides tied in knots, so early evening fell over the city and although I was behind the wheel, selecting a gas station on the outskirts of Memphis was purely precautionary as it was still close enough to turn back.

Standing staunch behind the counter was a man of Indian descent. His turban added a foot to his height but strangely gave perspective to a beard that turned gray waiting to reach his waistline. Arms folded high across his chest indicated my arrival left him waiting longer than expected. The entire scene felt creepy and scripted, as if I was an understudy thrown in at the last moment, unprepared and unsure of my lines. After placing a cup of coffee on the counter I become aware of his penetrating stare. Dark eyes with the power to convert moments into millenniums, focused squarely on me. Even fishing in my front pocket for payment took entirely too long.

“Never underestimate the power of a journey”, he said.

He seemed quite certain of his words and as much as I wanted to believe he spent his spare time writing tiny messages stuffed inside fortune cookies, the improbability was absurd. I acknowledged a strange power in the moment, but perhaps he was bluffing. Pointing to my car just outside the door I intended on drawing him out.

“Thanks for the advice, but it’s only a few steps—do it every day.”

My attempt to dismiss his comment as horoscopic in nature not only failed to bring a smile, but provoked a deeper reach into uncomfortable territory.

“A reflection knows nothing of depth. Whether in a puddle or the ocean it always appears perfect, but it is the obligation of every man to himself to dive beneath the surface and explore the integrity of what it is he projects.”

The storekeeper’s name was Vivek, and he intrigued me completely. Initially because he exemplified the kind of man my father denied existed. By way of owning a business he qualified as a contributor to society, but he also possessed a significant philosophical component belonging exclusively to radicals and free-loaders. As our conversation progressed it became increasingly difficult to view him in such stark and rigid terms. Neither at that moment nor now can I begin to explain his sage-like intuition. He saw more of me than I was willing to; the moment I entered through the door of his mart he sensed I was as disengaged with my surroundings as the day I was born. More specifically Vivek insisted that visiting Kenny Joe was about much more than barbequed ribs and cole-slaw. I had not been searching for a beginning point for this journey—or perhaps unknowingly I was. In either case Vivek stirred something within me that continues to linger and grow in intensity, like a boiling summer breeze riding the lead edge of a storm.

With a rainbow of neon fading in the rear-view mirror and a dark highway stretched out before me, it became apparent why so many desire the company of the city. Busy streets and overloaded schedules leave little time to answer the questions a mind naturally wants to ask. Learning to dissect people like regions of the brain was an unintended consequence of becoming my father’s shadow. I was a student skilled in the art of avoiding personalities and emotional connections, and Father, the instructor much too eager to teach dysfunction. Had I possessed the inner strength to break free from his way of thinking perhaps things would have been different, but I suspected there were a million others out there waiting to take his place; wolves standing in the shadows of the meadow, those that killed more for pleasure than hunger.

Dark hours on a lonely highway became an odyssey of sorts, one revelation predicated upon another, each progressively more disturbing, but I sensed this was a place of hard truths, where the excuse of transferring responsibility for my own shortcomings was unacceptable. Subconsciously I had assigned my father the role of ogre, and myself as victim, but as I closed the distance between the perception of myself and who others perceived me to be, the collective bits of truth rolled over me with all the forgiveness and subtly of a locomotive. We were one in the same; the beast was a detestable but accurate representation of who I had become. Certain truths were inescapable and indefensible. Only a fool builds his life on the foundation of another. My personal and professional life shared a single point of failure, fatefully entwined like the twisted snakes in the symbol of the profession I represented. One of the primary tenets of the Hippocratic Oath is to “Do no harm”, and alone I had done more to desecrate that than ten men in a lifetime.

Sifting through the ashes of self-evaluation delivered me to an uncomfortable place, but I am convinced had I not come here that tomorrow would be nothing more than a miserable collection of yesterdays. Until now I believed epiphanies existed in the minds of the foolish and easily coerced, but I assure there is not nearly enough breadth in the definition of random to describe the connection between the quiet moments of dawn and my own personal awakening. What was unfolding within and all around me was profound enough to pull to the side of the road.

There were a million places I could have been at that moment, but parked on the side of the road just this side of nowhere was my destiny. Watching a thousand paint brushes, each of them broad and knowing, heal the smallest cracks in the landscape with color. The hues were indescribable, except the overwhelming feeling that each of them represented the hope and promise of a new day. The procedure was radical, leaving more of me lying on the roadside than was left to continue. A majority of me was too damaged to salvage, more suitable for buzzards that circled overhead.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The River

She stood in front of the mirror in a state of undress, her form muted only by a thin, black slip worn the night before. Katie smoothed the wrinkled silk from top to bottom, her hands rising over exaggerated curves of implants falling abruptly to her protruding abs, starved of reserves by liposuction. If she were alive, her mother would be pleased that there was literally nothing left of an awkward and homely girl that lived in the mirror. Most of her mother’s words and thoughts died unexpressed carried to an early grave. When a well-constructed thought passes through a brain scrambled from too much vodka and the effects of a crack pipe, it becomes gibberish. Katie remembered only a single lucid conversation, and having no company it lingered awkwardly until it lodged in her brain like a cancer.

Katie was excited about starting Jr. High, and busy fastening a large blue ribbon in her hair when a knock came at the door. Her mother walked straight that morning and her words were unusually crisp and shrill.

“Girl, when was the last time you ran a brush through that bird’s nest you callin’ hair? Come over here and let’s throw some make-up at that nasty complexion God gave ya. Lord have mercy, your chest looks like your little bothers—grab a box of tissue and start stuffing. I’m just dying to pin up that skirt a couple of inches, but them knobby knees is a show stopper. Katie, a girl unwilling to maintain her own appearance will never get a second glance from a decent man.”

Her mother was nothing more than a painted horse on a merry-go-round, plenty of men were willing to pay for a ride, but they never stayed long and none of them were above beating or leaving them in the end—what did she know of decent?

Katie’s insides ached to the point of throwing up, and the tears were as warm and plentiful as ten years earlier. Slumping over the bed she retrieved her journal, turning to a worn page where all of the names had been crossed through. Each man had a corresponding page detailing the breakup. She had been a hopeless fool to think the latest would be different.

Harley was either oblivious to suggestion or in the running for the world’s cruelest man, she was too upset to decide. Yesterday marked the year anniversary of their first date. Katie had in mind a quiet dinner at the new Italian place on 32nd, and perhaps a movie afterwards, where they paid full admission price instead of sneaking in the side door when the attendant was on restroom break. Splitting a calzone at some dingy pizza parlor felt like a biker boot to the mouth.

Her mother lied. Decent men were attracted to naturally pretty girls like the waitress, and those made of plastic got kicked in the corner like a day-old Christmas toy. This full-time job of hoping for better was for losers. Katie moved back to the bathroom mirror where she found comfort.

Feet, thighs, and upper arms were good places to work, really anywhere rarely exposed to the public’s critical eye. She applied pressure to the box cutter, sliding along until it separated the skin cleanly and a thin line of blood rose to the surface. Over and over she repeated the broken process. Doctors say that scars are a body’s mechanism for healing; they only add obstacles to a cutter’s already misunderstood existence.

It is difficult for me to convey how proud I am of Katie for sharing her confession during our group counseling session. Katherine Ellen Luby is so uncomfortable in her own skin that cutting provides a temporary relief from an otherwise unbearable existence. Her story is only the most recent, but due to its profound impact on a man who hears horror stories each day I am compelled to share it with the world.

We are all but single stones in a raging river called life; moved, shaped and carried by forces beyond our control. For many it is a frightening and desolate journey, whereby dysfunction has displaced hope, betrayal has mired the beauty of the river to such an extent they no longer believe it will carry them to a greater connecting body of water. My station in life is to uncover these stones, convince them that while withdrawing to stagnant water may save immediate discomfort it is only a cruel suffocation in disguise. This story is written for those who have found a comfortable resting place, quite possibly injured themselves; that feel they are too jaded to be moved by the river. It is a difficult and gradual process, but in the end I—rather we will have failed if we cannot convince those within our reach that we believe more today than yesterday that the ebb and flow of the river has purpose.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


There is rarely if ever a good reason to prolong the inevitable so I was pleased to finally receive my summons to the Vice President’s office. An exit interview was something I had polished over the years, learning that unless a company was in its infancy there was no use wasting anyone’s time explaining the true reason for your leaving. If there was even a spark of interest in saving a good employee at the expense of the bottom line, the changes would have occurred long ago. For different, but equally selfish reasons, employers and employees allow a mutually bad relationship to linger too long. In cases of divorce the judge simply declares irreconcilable differences, but without the benefit of an impartial ruling body, it always reminds me of a bad ending to a knife fight. My solution: man-up, accept the blade of the other against your throat, agree to count to three, and it’s finished. Counting in unison squelches any lingering doubt that one party is more or less responsible than the other.

No sooner did I arrive, he slammed down the receiver of his phone and bolted past me, leaving a cloud of mumbled obscenities floating in the room. The simplicity of the moment was grand, no longer was I obligated to share in the frustration or take sides in daily pissing matches not of my own making. Some time ago I had given up the prospect of making any substantial difference here, and pushing the door to and uttering inaudibly, “Good luck with that”, teetered on the precipice of caring too much. It felt exceedingly good to sit in one of the cheap visitor chairs because in precisely two hours I would be just that.

Roughly fifteen minutes passed before I questioned his return. It was part of the executive game, a subliminal message that corporately speaking you were a bottom-rung dweller and undeserving his best effort. He took his plays directly from some Universal Corporate Behavior Manual with the following buried in a mission statement gone awry; “Deferring meetings indefinitely and showing up late is acceptable behavior if you carry a smart phone that blinks like a light house on Cape Hatteras during hurricane season.” To me, it was inconsiderate and rude behavior, something all good mothers warned against. I could only assume he awoke each morning aspiring to become everything I hoped to avoid in life.

During the past year the dysfunction at this organization had morphed ten times over, his office a direct reflection of a ship steaming toward a jagged reef. His desk calendar looked like a panel of Egyptian hieroglyphics, where indiscernible scribbles outweighed printer’s ink three to one. Adjacent sat two laptops, an obscure reference to his importance that I found particularly amusing. The all-seeing eye in the corner of the room was blind, the hard drive on the computer responsible for closed-circuit monitoring had crashed months earlier and was deemed too expensive for repair. The backup of the corporate e-mail database had been failing going on six months now, and twenty-three emails stating so had been ineffective in producing any substantive actions to rectify it. If this was not the birthplace of hypocrisy it was undeniably a finishing school for it. His sales force peddled the statistics every day, grim numbers for companies with no business continuity plan with regards to data losses too great to consider. Reluctantly I acknowledged some burdens are simply too heavy to carry with a single set of hands, but in one hour and forty-five minutes and counting, the albatross hanging around my neck belonged to another.

Eventually he returned and disappointingly his part of our final discourse came directly from a canned document. Monotonous words flowing from an expressionless face allowed my mind to drift to some random point in time before the corporate machine had commandeered another minion.

The image of a young boy walking along a dirt road was as clear and vivid as life itself. A corridor of trees lined the path on either side, barren branches and long shadows indicated late winter and the approach of dusk. His shoulders were slumped and his course uncertain as he lingered at one side before moving to the other. He was obviously distraught, his attention divided between the dark forest and glances toward a setting sun. Leaning deep into the shadows his calls to a lost friend echoed back at him and the lack of response produced an eerie sense of indescribable loss that resonated deep within me. Only when he dropped to his knees and began to sob in elongated bursts did I see his face for the very first time, shocked to identify him as miniature version of me.

I had been mistaken all along, never considering the man who sat across from me a fellow victim of circumstance. In postal terms, perhaps he was a drop-shipped package, wrapped in plain brown paper, lacking a return address. Maybe the past several years were only a miserable prelude to what I might say to him in the scant two minutes that remained.

“Stop, with the nonsense!” I blurted out.

His eyes grew wide, but he said nothing as I swept the collection of vendor awards over the edge of his desk and into the trash can.

“Reach in the bottom drawer and pull out the dusty picture of your wife and children. I want to know where you daughter intends to go to college. How your boy felt when he saw the baseball clear the fence in the county tournament? I want to know where you and the Mrs. plan on retiring once you finally realize this job…..any job, is nothing more than a pit-stop on a grandiose but very finite journey called life.”