Monday, December 31, 2012

O Holy Night

Under absolutely no circumstance would Brad accept the offering from his estranged mother. That’s what he promised himself a week earlier. Reaching for the opened envelope signaled his surrender. His shoulders slumped and a heavy sigh nearly folded him in half. Brad removed the check and re-read the note attached.

“Hope this helps you make it through the holidays.”

His is mother spoke in code. What she really meant was that it would totally spoil her social status if elite friends read in the newspaper that her son starved to death on Christmas Eve.

“Twenty stinkin’ bucks to clear her conscience!”

The bank closed at noon on Christmas Eve and it was 11:45 a.m. Brad stuffed the check in his front pocket and grabbed the hand-gun from atop the refrigerator. His hand trembled as he operated the slide and watched a round disappear into the chamber. He shoved the weapon down the waist of his jeans before he lost his nerve. It settled cold against the small of his back.

“The gun won’t be necessary”, he re-assured himself, “Just insurance.”

Brad had been out of work for almost a year with no solid prospect in sight. His cupboards were bare and as of three days ago the electric company decided to cut their losses. He spent most evenings alone, shivering in the dark, contemplating what could have been done to stall this downward spiral. Blow after bitter blow life rained down on him until a shabby apartment was the only standing between him and homelessness. In the still moments of dawn he crossed a tipping point when an idle mind eventually turns on itself. Where the darkest of dark settles in your bones and absolutely nothing separates you from hopelessness. Even as he entered the revolving door of the bank he mumbled words of despair.

“You miserable son-of-a-bitch, your life couldn’t get any worse!”

Brad Sinclair could not have been more wrong. A swift dissension into chaos left him regretting having ever uttered such things.

The coldness of the marble floor seeped through his jeans until his knee-caps ached. Every time he felt the urge to shift his weight he reminded himself of the potential repercussions. Two eerie gaps in the line of those commanded to kneel; black, empty space on either side of him where living, breathing creatures had been moments earlier.

“So for any of you numb-skulls that rode the short bus—this here’s a heist. Don’t be foolish and no one else gets hurt!”

The shortest and ill-tempered of the gun-man laughed for a disturbing amount of time at his own comment. As if anyone needed a further indicator of his disconnect with reality than what they all were forced to witness moments earlier. He paced back and forth; his assignment to patrol the line of hostages while his partners in crime attempted to gain access to the vault.

Brad’s attempt to reconcile such evil and heartlessness was futile, but he couldn’t stop his mind from circling back. To the right of him a sophisticated looking, salt-and-peppered haired gentleman lay face down. When questioned about access to the vault the quivering of his voice was interpreted as stalling. The empty space between words was enough to make him the recipient of a round to the back of his head mid-sentence. Brad couldn’t turn loose of the injustice. A man’s final thoughts; the fear and regret of everything he had done wrong in his life, splashed against Italian marble for the world to see. Among the intricate pieces that comprise a man’s life, a single sliver of consolation that he flashed from life to death in an instant.

Brad said a quick prayer for the young, blonde sprawled to his left. He could see the fog of condensation on the tile below her nostrils. The marauder had asked things of her she was incapable of. Despite repeated warnings she could not suppress an occasional sob with regards to her two little girls at home. Brad grappled with how such a predictable reaction from a mother could trigger a tidal wave of agitation. Anger so all-consuming that it subsided only after the butt of the man’s weapon met with her skull.

As soon as the perpetrator’s back was turned, without thinking, Brad reached forward, pushed her legs together and pulled her skirt back to a dignified position. Anyone deserved that much.

Brad spent the next several moments mentally distancing himself from the half-baked idea of robbing a bank. He was ashamed to have ever considered it. Perhaps had the circumstances gone terribly wrong, Brad might have brandished the hand-gun but would have never used it—not with the carelessness this animal displayed.

“This Christmas music is driving me ape-shit!” He bellowed.

Until now Brad had been unaware of Bing Crosby’s full and rich voice drifting downward from the lobby speakers. ‘White Christmas’ was followed by ‘Holy Night’. As it began to play Brad suddenly became aware of the Christmas tree near the teller desks, adorned with all of its elegant white lights. He stared at the lighted angel sitting atop the tree until her glow transformed his mind to a vision of himself as a young boy sitting next to his grandmother in a country church on Christmas Eve. A measure of peace fell over him as he heard his grandmother’s sweet voice once again. Brad was unaware of his humming until he heard a quiet voice most distinctly in the present.

He turned to the woman next to him. She was probably early sixties with a soft and kind face; the kind of person you supposed smiled at anyone. She had tears in her eyes, but offered Brad a warm parting of her lips before closing her eyelids tightly. She too moved to another place and time. Her voice became louder and sweeter. One by one, the remaining ten hostages joined hands; discovering within themselves the strength and defiance to join in.

The gun-man sensed the loss of control and sent a spray of bullets into each overhead speaker. The initial blasts from the muzzle temporarily interrupted the unlikely carolers, but soon there was no need for music at all. One after one a different employee or customer led the group in their favorite Christmas song.

Waving his weapon and threatening their lives was no longer effective. Collectively and harmlessly they had disarmed the perpetrator and he realized it. Even as Brad sang he watched the reactions closely out of the corner of his eye. His level of agitation grew ten-fold as he stopped his feet like a child. He moved quickly toward the nativity scene.

First he accosted the wise men, mowing them down one by one. He then turned on Joseph, laughing madly as he decapitated his representation. The cold-blooded murdering of Mother Mary caused several in the group to flinch, but even as the last splinters of wood and paint floated to the floor the ten remained relatively composed and able to carry a tune. The frustrated robber loosed a blood-curdling screech as he kicked the manger with all his might.

“Merry Fucking Christmas, Baby Jesus!”

The blasphemous outcry echoed and reverberated through every heart, and the singing stopped. In slow motion baby Jesus rose to the apex of his travel until gravity reversed the arc. When he collided with the hard surface his appendages broke free and skidded in different directions. The torso of the Christ-child rolled toward the line of mourners. The women next to Brad burst into tears, shook free of Brad’s hand, and leapt to rescue the child as if he belonged to her. Turning her back to the gunman, she drew the child to her bosom and began to rock from side to side. Her friends watched in horror as the gunman leveled the muzzle in her direction. Brad reached behind and retrieved his handgun and one final time the lobby exploded in chorus of gunfire, smoke, and guttural wailing.

Two officers led the remaining hostages from the bank single file. A swarm of reporters jammed recorders into Brad’s face and began firing questions.

“Sir, How does it feel to be a hero? It’s rumored that you broke one of the gunman by joining hand and singing Christmas carols, whose idea was that? Is it true you purposefully only wounded the three when you clearly could have killed them all?

Brad stared at the ground for a moment before responding.

“Ma’am, It’s Christmas Eve isn’t it? Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance.”

Brad lowered his head again and weaved through the circle of hungry faces until he felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning quickly to confront an overzealous reporter, he was met headlong with the kind, smiling face of the woman who rescued baby Jesus.

“Thank you for what you did for me today. By the way, my name is Marlene.”

Brad smiled and extended his hand.

“Well Marlene, you have the voice and heart of an angel. Thank you for your courage to lead us in song, and reminding me that I am part of a world much larger than my own troubles. No matter how little we believe we have, we always have something to offer someone—and today the comfort in knowing that feels exceedingly good.”

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thought of the Day

One of the greatest illusions in life is that any stretch of road appearing straight and narrow is just that—an illusion. Every twist and turn has the potential to either crush or conform you—most often both.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Odd Fellow

It has been as enlightening an occasion as I can recall; the acquaintance of an odd fellow who accompanied me last night during the loneliest piece of my evening walk. A stretch where trees on one side lean and lock branches with the opposing side to form a dark and hollow tunnel; a blackness so complete the dirt path disappears beneath the feet of those who tread there. The reputation of such a treacherous and loathsome section of road has in my opinion become greatly exaggerated, but certainly the man who claims not to have overheard villagers swapping stories would be either half-deaf or teetering on the edge of oblivion. I suspect, as in all burgs, it is no coincidence that as the ale flows freely so do the lips of men. If there is one word describing what can be seen and touched, then man will craft ten for the intangible; neither good nor bad, it is his nature and he cannot escape it. With sufficiently diluted minds they gather outside taverns in the wee hours of morn, arms stretched overhead casting eerie shadows, patiently waiting a turn to express an interpretation of what transpires in the tunnel. A pauper’s therapy more or less, where each delights in how it might feel to wield control over a slice of life when he is told from a cradle such hope is nonexistent for their kind. For generations I suppose there is no consideration given to time outside work and how unknowingly they’ve handed that slice over to spirits in tall glasses. Before I digress completely, suffice it to say one grizzly rendition feeds another until the rising of the sun gathers them home. Perhaps it also bears mention there were no spirits involved in the meeting of this odd fellow a few nights earlier.

He appeared from nowhere or perhaps from everywhere at once, an apparition gathered from unruly parts of a wayward wind or fashioned from the slimmest splinters of time. I supposed the later, as closer inspection revealed a striking resemblance to a better version of me; his face ironed free of wrinkles, belly still flush with his chest, and a good measure of freedom remaining in his gait. Neither of us acknowledged the other, yet his steps found synch with mine, like two soldiers marching into battle, minds filled with certain dread, the details of which too morbid to speak. As any good townsman or merchant will attest, I am not often given to the kind of foolishness that allows for speaking the mind of another, but I believe on both parts this meeting carried an air of duty rather than preference for good fun.

Leaving the light of day behind instantly he lost sight of me and I of him, only plodding steps and beating hearts indicated the presence of another. Having shared nary a word between us none was designated to assign a pace and each struggled for control. Void of words, expression, or body language, I recall an overwhelming air of aggression bellowing from the young man. The lack of elegance and grace shall keep me from describing it as dance, as the man gripped my arm in such a manner as to issue a challenge, like one young boy coerces another to wrestle. I never understood completely, or even partially, this primordial urge to establish dominance over another, but if the man expected his work easy, I supposed it was my duty he should meet with disappointment. I meant for him to understand that not being given to such inclinations is an entirely different matter than being found incapable.

Determining the source of such vile anger for a complete stranger was as complex equation as I have set about solving, but lost all pertinence when he struck the first blow, catching me squarely in the forehead and bridge of the nose. Devoid of daylight I could not confirm the onset of double-vision, but felt reasonably sure good sense and manners were left behind to bake in the sun. His father failed to instill in him the philosophy that a measure of respect was due even a stranger. If barbarism and thuggery were his primary means of communication I intended to speak to him clearly, extracting respect where it had not been offered. Consumed with a rush of adrenaline I unleashed a flurry of blows I supposed would break the young man of his habit.

As it were, this stranger was skilled in the art of brawling, as if such things could be carefully and meticulously sewn into the fabric of one’s being. His treacherous tactics drained from me every ounce of courage and strength I summoned from reserve. We clutched and struck at the other for what seemed like hours, each grabbing a handful of conscience yet finding it impossible to even bend the opposition’s resolve. I suppose we covered each square inch of the tunnel three times over before emerging on the far side still locked in battle. A sliver of remaining daylight exposed each to be crippled, bruised, and bloody; a matched set of fiery eyes mere inches apart. Deep within his I discovered a great many things, but suppose he found in mine something so terrible and disturbing that he feared facing it would destroy him completely. He leapt from me and dissolved as quickly and eerily as he appeared.

Sound sleep has eluded me three nights running and I can assume a handful more as I recall subtle details of my encounter with this strange and odd fellow. There lies a connecting point between us, where past and present collide; he is most assuredly me as my former self who came looking for what became of him. Deep into the predawn hours between shots of brandy, small revelations befall me. In this slightly altered state his jealous and aggressive nature seems quite understandable. I had known him forever; his conscience transparent as a pane of glass. How reckless and random were his thoughts and actions, but all the while understanding the intricacies of every circumstance that transformed something wild and uninhibited into a universally acceptable gentleman. From his perspective he saw absolutely nothing at all he recognized as himself. How completely and utterly disheartening it must be to feel you’ve been erased completely from existence.

I search for him now and again on my evening walks, folded between the bark and meat of a tree that lines the side of the road, hopping from one cloud to another, or even a hint of his scent on a warm summer breeze, but I suppose there is no compulsion for him to visit again. I believe he was genuinely and completely crushed in the ‘me’ he found. Never would I ask him to bear that level of disappointment again. Someday, if the winds are perfectly aligned to coincide with the passing of time as it synchronously moves forward for some and backward for others, should we meet again, I would wish him to know one thing—despite what I allow the world as a whole to see, there is much more of him lingering than is apparent from the surface.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dream a Little Dream

“Just pick a winning horse for Daddy. If I place a phone call from here we can walk away millionaires. Come on, baby, after all we’ve been through with this, what’s the harm in making a little something for ourselves?”

I stared at him long and hard. Throwing daggers with my eyes bought time to gather words potent enough to penetrate what remained of his conscience.

“Dad, I’ve told you a hundred times, I don’t choose my dreams they choose me. I don’t see horses, lotto numbers, or the stock market. I see burning houses, dying people, crumpled cars, and pools of blood in alleyways!”

Like a sleeping volcano, my response erupted louder than intended and attracted every set of beady eyes in the bar. I supposed dad had slipped toward comfortably numb, but I felt the burn of each additional gaze as the collective weight settled on our backs. Someone finally voiced what everyone was thinking, “Looks like we got a genuine freak in the house tonight, fellas!”

Dad bristled before swiveling on the stool and launching an angry scowl in the general direction of my detractor. He pretended that double-vision had not claimed the space a foot beyond his nose two hours earlier. Puffing his chest he wanted every patron to believe if there were reason enough he could stand without wobbling. I saw an ugly situation sliding distinctly in the direction of uglier, so I acknowledged his good-hearted effort to defend me.

“It’s no big deal, Dad. Just turn around.”

Alcohol reduced his attention span, so within moments my father regained his focus. We came to the bars often enough for both of us to realize we weren’t leaving until he reached the bottom of the liquor bottle sitting between us. Sully’s was a rundown, smelly, ugly, place, where people bearing like qualities came to meet. Even those that strolled through the door differently stumbled out the same. If not for my compulsion to watch over him I’d have been a million miles away, and sometimes despite my physical presence my mind dabbled with faraway places. Daddy’s escape came in clear bottles of amber colored liquid, and mine in dreams of how wonderful life could be if it were dreamless.

Over the years he attempted to shield me from how the world viewed people like me. It took a gravely, anonymous voice rising from a dark corner of a rundown bar to confirm my suspicions. It wasn’t anyone’s fault really. Those having dreams about catastrophic events before they occurred has to classify them as permanent residents of ‘freakville’. Without even realizing, I moved there at the age of five, but the part I regret most was dragging my family with me.

I remember the first time with painful clarity. How the lace at the bottom of my dress scratched my knees as I skipped around the kitchen table singing a tune.

“Grammpy died, Grammpy died, Oh how we wish he were alive.”

Neither the innocence of a face painted by the hand of God, or the darling curls framing chubby cheeks could offset the morbid nature of my song. On my third trip around mother grabbed my arm and put her fingers over my lips to hush my singing. She asked me why I sang about such things, and why I would wish something so ugly. I explained it wasn’t a wish at all, but from a dream last night. I described sitting on his knee and that we were watching television. That he gave me a big hug and a kiss, and drew my head to his chest. That I heard his heart’s last beat, and he was smiling when the angels came for him.

Mother dismissed the dream to eating too close to bedtime and adamantly asked I not sing the song. She had asked me to help her finish breakfast when the doorbell rang. Daddy answered and when he entered the kitchen to inform mom her father passed late last night all she did was stare. She was staring at me in a way that made me very uncomfortable, and changed our relationship forever. In the following weeks she probed me about my dream. I didn’t want to talk about it any longer because every correct detail I provided tore away another piece of her love for me.

Daddy still denies that worry drove my mother to an early grave, but prior to her passing I dreamed about it. She was whistling in the backyard with a clothesbasket nearby and laundry hanging. The colored clothing on the line represented the pretty things she once hoped for me, but the buzzards circling overhead symbolized the darkness of what my dreams had done to us. The circles became tighter as the descended little by little. Mother flailed her arms frantically in an effort to save what she could, but their beaks and talons shredded all that swayed in the breeze. With a swirling sea of black about her head my mother fell to the ground. That’s exactly where Daddy found her two days later.

It started with dreams, but later morphed into vague visions during daylight hours. There were hundreds if not thousands of them, but I learned to keep close watch over the key to my mind. Once I realized I could do nothing to prevent or preempt the future I kept most of them secret, locked inside. Every day I struggle with the misfortune of being given half of something useful.

The slam of an empty whiskey bottle startled me back to reality and signaled our departure. We left the bar around 4:00pm, and I remember three things distinctly; the kind of things that lodge in your brain and rot. Firstly, my father stumbling down the curb, secondly, me coming up short as I reached for a handful of his shirt, and lastly the loneliness in the rush of wind from the city bus that took him from me.

For the very first time in my life it was the things I didn’t see that ushered in an unbelievable burden of guilt. If only I had felt the quiver in my gut, we’d have stayed until daddy passed out. I’d have figured a way to get him home. A million times over I wished for something as simple as a light switch to stop the dreams. I had no idea of what I asked for.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Pain Eater (The Summons)

I've decided to expand upon a previous story. It may make a bit more sense after reading the original story.

Pain Eater

Pain Eater
(The Summons)

Jimmie climbed back onto the doctors table to await test results. His mind like an intellectual version of a gumball machine—millions of thoughts swirling in his brain until one peeled away and filtered down for processing. What a jewel of a thought it was—contemplating the irony of wait. How inaction bordered on negating the very definition of a verb, yet within a medical facility idle moments serve such vital purpose. Waiting perpetuated the eeriness of the unknown; fueled the idea that every worker knew more about a patient’s condition than allowed to divulge. Workers playing the roles of perfect minions; dancing in the hallways like puppets masquerading with painted-on smiles. Each peddling the premise of promise; that somehow through the pursuit of higher education a doctor acquired the ability to heal. As if simply desiring something so noble could make it true. The entire charade was nothing more than a higher form of hogwash.

Dr. Medina arrived carrying a packet of x-rays under his arm. Jimmie barely noticed the company in the room or the grim look on the doctor’s face as he did his best to temper the news. Words dribbled from his mouth rolling one into the other like vegetables into a blender.

“Tell me, Doc, do we have time for a serious question?”

Dr. Medina found Jimmie’s request for a ‘serious’ question uncomfortably amusing. Following an elongated stare in the direction of his watch he nodded, allowing his patient to speak.

“There’s a woman in the waiting room—probably middle thirties, thin, short hair, and a kind face. Glued to her sides are two of the cutest little girls I’ve ever seen. Each draped over an arm as if she’s their favorite carnival ride. Have you seen her?”

“It’s the second Thursday of the month, Jimmie. She’s due for another round of chemo—of course I’ve seen her!”

“Oh I understand you believe you’re treating her, but that wasn’t the question, Doctor. Are you moved by how pale and lifeless her eyes are; how the heaviness of her heart has seeped through her pores and settled like a fog around her. How day by day she’s losing the battle to hide her struggle with mortality from her babies. Are you able to see those things?”

The exam room became an experiment for displacement, as if every molecule of air was vacuumed out and thick layer of tension rolled in. The slap of x-rays against a metal counter echoed cold and still.

“Jimmie, you need to listen to me closely. There are time-sensitive decisions that need to be made. Can we avoid critique of my bed-side manner and get back to your condition?”

The woman in waiting touched Jimmie from the inside out. He was no more able to release the hold she had on his mind now than he could physically let go of her in the waiting room. They shared a hug that lingered; he brushed a tear from her eye and stroked her hand until they called her back, but perhaps the beauty of the moment was only the shared realization that modern medicine had lost sight of a patient’s true needs.

Disgusted by the lack of urgency on the part of his patient Dr. Medina cleared his throat a second time.

As thoughts of the woman faded Jimmie turned his attention to the row of plaques hanging on the wall.

“The best medical schools money can buy, and yet you don’t understand this at all, do you, Doc? How can you heal patients when you can’t even see them? You used to believe in a higher power—a creator in control of all things. As a young man you allowed him to guide you to the poison and watch over your methods of treatment. What caused you to leave those things, Doctor?”

An icy glaze swept over the physician’s face as his mind drifted to a dark and unsettled place. As uncomfortable as was the snapshot in time, more than anything he resented someone opening the door to it—a patient no less. The loss of control consumed him and so like a missile shatters its silo doors, his tone erupted sharp and cold.

“Jimmie, it’s not your day to play doctor! You’re not mentally or emotionally equipped for it. So if you’ll stop this superfluous nonsense I’ll deliver your diagnose now.”

The outburst produced nothing more than a wry grin from his patient.

“If you mean the cancer—I know full well what’s inside me. Soon it will be gone, as will the woman’s in waiting. In case you haven’t figured it out, Doc they are now one in the same. As much as you need to believe I came here to see you today, I came here for her. “

The consultation ended in a stalemate with Dr. Medina accepting a denial of treatment form while Jimmie continued to elaborate as he dressed.

“You see, Doc, God designs no one without purpose. He created with me with the ability to carry things for others; physical ailments they are unable to bear on their own. I inherited this ability from my Aunt Laura. She referred to herself as a pain-eater. Spent most of her life half-crippled by the afflictions of others, yet she chose to greet every morning as an opportunity to live out her calling. She saw a gift in what others would consider a curse. Most everything in life depends on perspective doesn’t it Doc? How is it that you lost yours?”

Jimmie didn’t require an answer just yet. He finished buttoning his jacket and placed a piece of scrap paper in the doctor’s palm. Folding the doctor’s fingers around the note Jimmie held them closed while he made his offer.

“After you see Jenny—when her test results come back clean and none of your journals offer a plausible explanation, please consider coming to our next meeting. You have the address, and we desperately need your help.”

Locating a reasonable parking spot turned into shear madness. Not even the finest play or sporting event warranted a five-block walk on such a frigid winter night but the doctor needed answers. In twenty-eight years of practice he had seen a single case, but in one afternoon a total of six terminal cancer patients walked from his office with a clean-bill of health and new lease on life, presumably because of contact with a man of questionable mental stability. One who possessed no medical qualifications whatsoever and identified himself only as a second-generation pain-eater.

Second-hand furniture lined the perimeter walls of an apartment designed to small. A single empty chair remained out of twenty or so. Doctor Medina passed on the front row and instead chose to stand near the door. If the appearance of the inhabitants was any indication he anticipated an early escape. Concert tees, brightly colored hair, or unusual piercings and tattoos appeared to be prerequisites for admission. Out of place didn’t begin to describe the doctor’s presence here.

Jimmie extended his hand.

“Thanks for coming Doctor. I’ll assume Jenny’s test results were the deciding factor on accepting my invitation. The other five cases were to avoid the understandable inclination to dismiss this as a freak occurrence. I assure you, everything that occurred in your waiting room was deliberate and divinely orchestrated.”

Dr. Medina leveraged the handshake and jerked Jimmie close.

“Why did you invite me here? Personal gain—you want to know how much you can extort from a doctor for your services! I’m telling you now I want no part in your black magic.”

Jimmie drew back matching the intensity with which the doctor delivered his accusations.

“None of us are for hire! If we even considered such a path our ability would be immediately and permanently be stripped from us. Funny you suggest black magic—there is a darker side to this and there are more of them than us. Through the same method of physical contact and transference they deliver disease and pain. In my mind the real question is how many in your profession would we be willing to arrange an endless pool of patients? Many already have. I needed to reach you first. Our group needs a spokesman who will be respected in the medical community, who can remind them of the Hippocratic Oath they all took. God directed me to you, Doctor Medina—are you telling me he was wrong in doing so?”

Jimmie’s attempt to keep the conversation private failed. All were innately aware of the importance of this moment. Every eye and heart in the room fixed squarely on the two—waiting for the pendulum to swing in one direction or the other.

“Doctor, time is of the essence. You assure me our group has your full support, and we’re on the way to your home.”

The physician’s face reflected an indescribable degree of perplexity. Indecision coursed through his veins like fire. He reached for the handle of the door, but the swing fell short as it met with Jimmie’s foot.

“Did you hear me say we would go to your home, Doctor? More specifically where your daughter is under the care of hospice? She has deteriorated to a point where your heart barely allows you to maintain eye contact. She understands you feel that you and your medicine have failed her. That’s why she can’t look you in the eyes, but we all know you have done everything within your power. The fact remains she’s broken beyond the scope of modern medicine. There is only one who can save her now. Damn it Doctor, are you too stubborn and prideful to let God use us to give you your daughter back?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Thought of the Day

There is nothing more imminent in life than death. Nothing more humbling and perhaps harrowing than the moment you realize the person staring back at you from the mirror is a player in this game and despite your attempts to cheat, thwart, or postpone it, your turn will come.
I am reminded of the final paragraph of something I wrote some time ago titled “A Hunters Eyes”

“Even now as I sit in my tranquil state, the transformation from hunter to hunted looms near. Truly it began seconds after drawing my first breath, but it is only now I’m aware of its steely approach. Being prey is nothing to fear, for everything is hunted by something or someone. My prayers are only that I may face the hunter who desires me with dignity and grace.”

The only possible way to hedge your bets against unpredictability is to convince yourself that today is ‘your turn’. Your only priorities are to live, laugh, and love appropriately

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Gates of Passage

A few of the words came in dribbles, others eluded her completely. Katy’s spotty recollection of the Mending Wall would have crushed Mrs. Carter; a woman who believed the poem to be of such greatness that all third graders should have devoured every word and committed them to memory. Katy recalled the look of horror on her teacher’s face as she explained Frost’s ambiguity left her cold inside. Her teacher coaxed her to an empty corner as if a third-grader with an opinion might be contagious. Swallowed by a state of panic, Mrs. Carter drew the back of her hand across her forehead and crumpled into the nearest chair. Katy had yet to connect the sharing of her thoughts with her teacher’s sudden illness, and she had plenty more to say. She described in great detail her profound sense of disappointment in the author’s inability to act upon his apparent desire to tear down the barrier. Mrs. Carter’s eyelids fluttered as Katy attempted to lighten the mood by suggesting that perhaps Frost was riding the proverbial fence of which he so eloquently wrote. Mrs. Carter’s eyelids slammed shut in a state of unconsciousness as Katy asserted indecision was in part, and in certain cases, a complete indicator of weakness.

She stared past the iron posts until the vertical and horizontal lines melted into a puddle of black. Fences served no purpose other than to keep people or things locked on one side or the other. She supposed the builder of this particular fence a fool. With respect to graveyards and spirits, barriers were helpless to do either.

Katy leaned her bicycle against the fence. She hated when mother was right and she had been on both accounts. In a perfect world Katy would have been mature enough to have attended her grandmother’s funeral with the rest of the family, and she supposed most fourteen year old girls had long ago removed the flowered basket hanging from the handle bars of their bicycles. Most girls her age didn’t ride bikes at all, but that was their problem.

Katy was born a roller coaster, her mother a merry-go-round, and most days the chasm separating them could not be bridged. Mother seemed to believe if she threw the term ‘young lady’ at her a gazillion times a day perhaps at least a remnant of it would stick. Katy wanted to puke a putrid, green, stream every time she heard it. Her mother acted as if she should understand completely what the title entailed and how to navigate the waters gracefully. She didn’t. Life in its present form simply moved too fast. Each day ushered in a new level of awkwardness. Katy longed for yesterday. She missed the way her pigtails bounced when she sprinted to first base, how her dolly’s eyes sparkled when the two sipped tea from tiny cups, and the strange feeling in her tummy when her father bounced her on his knee.
Overnight something swooped down and snatched every beautiful thing from her life. She despised the cakey feel of makeup, like her face could barely breathe; how her breasts continue to swell, interfering with the handle bars on hair-pin turns. The way the boys looked and smiled at her was different and disgusting. If these awful things were part of being a young lady she would rather stay a child. Stopping time didn’t appear to be an option. The injustice of being uncomfortable in your skin seemed inevitable and permanent.

Katy scanned the graveyard for fresh mounds of dirt, finding three that matched the general location her mother had given.  She lifted a paper sack from the bicycle basket, bit down hard on her lower lip, and moved toward the archway that marked the entrance.  The framework of twisted iron rose gracefully from one side of the gate before falling to the other, finding time enough between rise and fall to paint an ornate design against an azure sky. Even in a parking lot for the dead there were hints of elegance if you took the time to seek them out. The hinges of the gate were rusty and the moan dashed any hope of slipping in quietly and anonymously. A doorbell for the dead she thought.

“It’s Katy, Grammy. You home?”

After the words left her mouth she realized how ridiculous they were, but no more so than using ‘Eenie-Meenie’ to select one of the three graves. Her skinny finger bounced from one to the other until two were eliminated. Tightening the grip on the paper bag she tiptoed forward. The lettering on the temporary markers was tiny and difficult to read. By the time Katy could make out the name “Herman Mortimor Wagner” she realized her feet were nearly touching where his should be. She envisioned the toenails tickling hers to be black, curled, and filled with dirt. A sudden creepiness scaled her spine. She drew a deep breath and began backing slowly. Her heel snagged a hardened clod of dirt and a startled shriek ended abruptly when she met with the ground.

A sudden wave of easiness washed over her. If an angry spirit was on the prowl, her clumsiness would have made his work easy. She could only hope that clumsiness made the flesh bitter and sprits avoided her type altogether. Katy slowly reclaimed the breath squeezed from her. Her face flushed as she felt the breeze, much cooler and in places it should not be. She scrambled to pull the purple dress from her waist back over her hips and glared at the high heels strapped to her feet. She turned to the marker and spoke in an apologetic tone.

“I’m so very sorry, Herman Mortimor—wrong grave. This is all new to me…the heels, the dress, graveyards in general. While I’m not at all sure if spirits communicate with one another, if they do, please don’t tell my Granny you saw my underwear. She’d be very disappointed and embarrassed for me.”

Grannies did those kinds of things without thinking—bearing the good and the bad of their grandchildren’s decisions. “No mistake is unrecoverable”, she used to say. Granny used those words a lot with Katy. The time she confused tablespoons with teaspoons, when purple grape juice dribbled down her white ruffled blouse, but especially when a clumsy turn sent a family heirloom to an early grave. Katy burst into tears when she realized what she had done, but without expression Granny patted the top of her head, grabbed a broom, and swept up the remains. As Katy shivered at the sound of broken glass dropping into an empty waste can, Granny whispered that she had secretly hated the color and shape of that old vase, but never had the courage to do anything about it. She went on and on how it resembled an urn; how the color matched nothing in her home, and the relief she felt to finally be rid of it. Katy supposed grandparents had the latitude to lie, if it spared the feelings of those they loved.

Granny was a master helmsman when it came to people. She steered difficult conversations and circumstance toward the best possible outcome. That day Granny tuned a broken vase into a discussion about the uniqueness of individuals. How some women were graceful and pleasing to the eye, and all that was fine and good, but the world placed too high a value on the exterior. She spoke of how courage was difficult to come by, and Katy had been born with more courage in a hangnail than most would discover during a lifetime. Granny didn’t dabble on the surface; she dove straight into the soul, probing the depths, searching for jewels to bring to the surface.       

Katy plopped down Indian-style before her grandmother’s stone and wasted no time opening the paper bag. 

“Hey Grammy, brought one for each of us.”

Katy laid a peanut butter and banana sandwich at the base of the stone and took a bite from the other. Katy giggled.

“Met your neighbor, Herman Mortimor, a few minutes ago…a little scary at first, but seems like a nice enough guy.”

Katy reached deep into the paper bag.

“I found a vase to replace the one I broke. It’s purple and the lines are curvy and sexy. I hope you like it.”

The weight of holding up a one-sided conversation worked on Katy’s insides. Tears formed in the corner of her eyes as she placed a fresh bouquet of white daisies in the vase.

“Plain and beautiful, Grammy, just like you.”

Sobs came in uncontrollable bursts, tears carving her cheeks like tiny knives.

“The truth is I miss you terribly. Right now life is unbelievably hard. I don’t have the answers to anything, and you’re not here to help me anymore.”

Katy felt the presence of granny close. She adored the strength of her arms wrapped around her and the peace and comfort seeping into her soul. Katy absorbed every ounce of goodness and encouragement a vision of Granny could offer. She placed her hand on the stone and closed her eyes. The sun broke across the bridge of her nose, warm and inviting.  Katy listened intently to the sound the wind made as it slipped through the boughs of the pines. Wanting—believing desperately that her grandmother’s voice could heal everything.  

As is so often the case in life, Katy did not receive what she believed to be the answer to all her difficulties in life. She was however blessed with a measure of understanding that allowed her to move forward one more day in a positive direction.

Katy returned to her bicycle and skipped across the lawn with purpose. She stood a long while admiring the flowered bicycle basket setting at the head of Herman Mortimor Wagner. She expected to return now and again filling the basket with a portion of the flowers she brought for Granny, and they would laugh at how awkward their first meeting had been.  

Granny smiled deeply as she watched a budding young woman slip through the mist of dusk toward home. Piece by piece Katy would discover that her strength was not founded in a tired old woman, but was budding and growing within. Soon the garden in her belly would flourish to excess. Granny could hardly wait until Katy shared it with another and two generations passed through the gate to lay flowers.   

Monday, May 28, 2012


Throughout a lifetime a lucky man will come in contact with a handful of humans that meaningfully impact his life—rare men and women who quietly go about changing the world around them one life at a time. For me, Lloyd Perkins embodied and embraced all that is good and honorable in a man. Under the most extreme circumstances he answered only to himself; settled down at night with what he knew to be right, steadfast, and true. If people were paint and life a canvas, the majority would melt in the center to produce the muted shades of mediocrity. I’m convinced Lloyd Perkins would have wilted and died there. He is a fiery red hue, one of the scant few born to dance on the fringes of life.

From his outdated flattop to the way he carried himself reminded me of an old stallion that refused to be broken. After you crush the dreams of a few cowboys word gets out. All that’s required from that point forward is to posture in the corner of the coral, stamping your hoof and making certain they see the steam rising from your nostrils.

A steady diet of adrenaline is not for everyone, tends to eat most from the inside out. Over the years I watched plenty of decent men come and go, but within ten seconds of our first meeting I knew Lloyd Perkins was born to lead. His ‘old stallion’ persona perfectly suited for a man selected to head a S.W.A.T. team. The beauty of the situation was simplistic. I don’t believe for a second he realized the magnitude of impact and influence he had over his men. Lloyd relied more on actions than words. Each of us knew he considered his position a distinct honor and he viewed his boys as extended family. If a situation got ugly Lloyd would be in the thick of it. Not even a shred of doubt existed that if required and without hesitation; he would die in place of any one of us.


Information flowing from dispatch continued to be sketchy. Around midmorning a state trooper executed a routine traffic stop. As he approached the vehicle the unthinkable happened. Instead of simply speeding off, the driver jammed the car in reverse, backing over and killing the patrolman. He fled the scene at a high rate of speed, leading officers through two counties before bailing out of his vehicle and holing up in an old barn. The drivers ride turned out stolen, so even at this point his identity remained a mystery. As of yet no one wanted to connect our runner to a brutal mother-daughter slaying, but plenty of us were thinking it. The murders were only hours old and investigators still combing the scene for evidence, but a man doesn’t run like that because he’s a few minutes late for a P.T.A meeting.

Team members swayed in unison as the van made a hard right turn onto a dirt road. Leaning on the accelerator the driver announced we would arrive on scene in less than two minutes. Lloyd gave the signal for a final gear and weapons check.

“Men, we got a job to do. Let’s get it done safely and efficiently so we can all get home to our families.”

Right arms extended and fists touching we chanted, “We are the best of the best. Do our part and God takes care of the rest!”

I suppose the ritual was a strange cocktail of cockiness and humility; a confidence in our training, abilities, and fellow man, but much like our leader we hoped for just enough renegade to get the job done but never so much we forgot who is ultimately in charge of the outcome.

Our van slid to a stop next to a line of squad cars and before the dust settled the back doors burst open. Lloyd leapt from the vehicle and we streamed behind, fanning out, and taking up position.

“Who’s in charge of this scene…I need a status”, Lloyd barked.

A young officer stepped forward.

“We believe he’s ex-military, definitely heavily armed, Sir.”

In full surveillance mode; eight sets of eyes scanned and processed the bits of chaos lying about, but Lloyd was our spokesman—always. A single point of contact simplified things.

“Son, I’m not telling you how to do your job, but why in God’s name didn’t you call for us earlier?”

A shadow struck the young man’s face, making whiskers where there were none.

“Extenuating circumstances, Sir.”

Lloyd invaded the man’s personal space, delivering an honest assessment.

“You lookin’ at the same mess I am? One officer wounded, and from the looks of it, three more dead before they hit the ground.”

Lloyd abandoned the boy to act on a plan I knew to be forming in his head. Like a cobra his movements were purposeful and efficient.

“Marcus, take a position on the second floor of the old home. If we can snipe this guy let’s get it done.”

Voluntarily or not the officer on scene had been relieved of his duties. There was little for him to do but follow Lloyd around as he continued to position the team. It was only a matter of time before the young man became a nuisance. As if shedding the weight of a shadow Lloyd turned on the boy without warning.

“Is there something more you need to say to me, son?”

The shadow moved over the young man again, but this time didn’t even pause at his jaw-line, instead swallowing his entire outline. With head hung low the young man’s voice dribbled from the shadows.

“Just that I’m sorry, Sir—so very sorry.”

Lloyd grabbed the officer by his shoulders and squared him.

“Look, Son, someone has to knock on doors today—inform three families we lost their husbands and daddies. And having been there, no amount of sorry will make that job any easier.”

I feared the weight of reality would buckle the young man’s knees. If time allowed I would have pulled him aside and explained that someday when he had a son of his own he would recognize rebuke as a necessary part of instruction.

A newly arrived black sedan saved the young man from further scrutiny. The gnarled veteran stepping from the vehicle was Colonel Lionel Nichols, the head of State Police. Lloyd and he shared a friendship long before each stepped into their respective leadership roles. The young officer moved to a safe distance, perhaps anticipating the locked horns of two angry bulls.

The elders shared a hearty handshake, with Lloyd speaking first.

“Don’t look good Nichols….your guys took some heavy losses. Your boy needed to get us involved earlier.”

Lionel moved his head from side to side in dissent.

“Wasn’t his call, Lloyd. I asked him specifically not to involve your team if at all possible.”

“That’s bullshit, Lionel…you know the protocol better than anyone. What were you thinking?”

Before the Colonel could explain his position an officer rushed up.

“The shooter refuses to talk to our negotiator any longer—says he’ll only speak with the head of S.W.A.T.”

The Colonel reached for Lloyd’s shoulder, “I really need to speak to you before….”

Without a moments delay Lloyd laid the phone on the hood and flipped the phone to speaker.

“This is Captain Perkins. Who am I speaking with?”

A voice fashioned from gravel and grit emerged on the line.

“Well, well, Captain…..the perfect title for a man with a perfect little life.”

Every ounce of color flushed from Lloyd’s face. During a million sets of undesirable circumstances never had I witnessed such an expression. In the absence of a response the man hijacked the line.

“What? Don’t even recognize your little brothers voice after all these years? Why don’t you take the opportunity to inform your colleagues how you fuckin’ cut off ties with me after Afghanistan. Told our entire family I was a nut…even went as far as getting an order of protection against me. This is between you me and Lloyd…come and get me!”

I disconnected completely, couldn’t make myself listen. One can only image the swirl of thoughts and emotions coursing through Lloyd’s body and brain. It pained me more than if it had been my own. The state police had known the identity of the shooter all along—the extenuating circumstances the officer spoke of. I knew how Lloyd’s mind worked, his knees buckled with the weight of each slain officer weighing on his conscience. He was traveling a lonely, desperate stretch of highway, and I needed to step up.

“Boss, I’ll gather the men. We’ll use the ram and bust those doors open.”

I hadn’t moved two steps before Lloyd returned to us.

“Get back to your position. I’m still in charge. I know what will bring him out.”

Lloyd gave orders to set the roof ablaze. Few things on earth wield the power and permanency of fire. That realization alone did not fully explain the uneasiness that swept in and settled in my gut. As I held the Molotov cocktail in my hand, I recalled a drunken celebration a few years back. In the dim hours of early morning Lloyd shared the details of a personal circumstance that was tearing him up. His brother returned from Afghanistan early. The transport he was traveling in was struck by an R.P.G. and his brother thrown some distance away. Despite the flames he returned again and again. Three times over he dragged another soldier to safety before the final explosion. A combination of burns over sixty percent of his body and the two soldiers he could not save proved too much for the young man’s mind. Lloyd shutdown after that and I don’t even know if he recalled what he shared with me.

A blanket of eeriness fell around as indecisive wisps of smoke flirted with dormancy. As if summoned a steady southern breeze arrived and transformed the roofline into a boiling stream of black that billowed skyward. Each fiery breath consumed another swath of wooden shingles and moss. Over and over I considered the human life trapped inside. By now his belly likely pressed against the dirt floor drawing from a waning reserve of fresh air. Collective wishing did not bring him out, and neither did my physical efforts prevent Lloyd from rushing in.

My granddad used to tell me even the fiercest storm begins as a subtle change in the horizon—and I suppose he was right. I’m convinced none of us could have changed the outcome of that day, but sure wish someone had been watching the sky. We executed our job to the best of our abilities and God did take care of the rest. At the time, the barn’s collapse seemed to me the cruelest and inappropriate end possible, but now I can appreciate the bigger picture.

The mother-daughter homicide victims turned out to be Lloyd’s wife and daughter and his brother the killer. No man should ever endure such agony. The dual blow would have been too much. Instead God allowed Lloyd Perkin’s last thought to be that of trying to save his disturbed brother. As bitter-sweet as life appears to be it’s those type of thoughts that grant me peace.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Thought of the Day

In a dusty corner of you mind lies the realization your approach is reckless. When you have time you will analyze it further—maybe tomorrow. For now something inside you says leaning harder on the accelerator is better. If reaching a destination as quickly as possible is the primary goal then speed is the obvious answer. Cars swirl past on either side. What if their destination is the same is yours? It occurs to you there is no glory in second place except that created by the man who finishes there.

You’re tiring of this game the temperature gauge is playing. You really don’t care if it sits squarely in the red forever. Fueled by a renewed sense of urgency you downshift hard and go for a double lane change. Something is wrong with the steering; the engine no longer responds to the mashing of the accelerator. You watch helplessly as the speedometer flutters and begins to plummet. You picture the ghoulish grins of those surpassing you. The loss of control is consuming; its icy cold hands slide down your throat, wrenching your stomach like a wash cloth.

Suddenly your vehicle is possessed. It slashes across lanes, finds the exit, and coasts into a rest stop.

Abandoned and frustrated you kick your vehicle before turning away. You walk toward a sizable group sitting on the grass beneath a shade tree. You’re thrust into playing the role of an understudy who’s forgotten their lines; a stranger in a strange land. The words rest and stop aren’t even part of your vocabulary. The laughter and their frivolousness nature immediately puts you at odds with them. You sit down at a distance, but close enough to listen.

For the first time in a long while you notice the breeze, but more the things it carries. Your eye is drawn to clouds lumbering across the sky. The smell of freshly cut grass settles over you as a Blue Jay scolds a squirrel who draws too near. The man continues to speak, and what he’s saying seems less like nonsense.

“The further you travel down life’s highway you discover it’s difficult to appreciate scenery at a 100+ mph. Destinations and schedules rule you. With all the subtly of a black-hole it sucks you in, and like a black-hole it warps and distorts everything, and if you allow it—people, conversations, interactions, and relationships, become nothing more than distractions.”

You walk back to your vehicle, kicking it twice as hard as you did the first time. You still don’t know exactly what brought you here or the identity of the man speaking, but you begin walking. You cross the median and have your mind set on catching a ride in the opposite direction. As the sun settles closer to the horizon you hope you can remember your course and that it’s not too late to discover those things, people, and opportunities you missed.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thought For The Day

Being bitter or better is a daily choice. There are easy days when the sun shines bright, but more prevalent are those days we can't outrun the storm. When our minds tell us the best we can do is curl up and feed the fury. All of us wrestle with idea of complete submission, but I pray that in those quiet moments we are still enough to hear our heart's whisper of rainbows and promise. There is not much middle ground here, we either choose to see tomorrow as a miserable collection of yesterdays or the blessing that I believe it to be. Nothing guaranteed, simply a life extended by twenty-four precious hours, and the opportunity not to reverse or regret decisions made, but to analyze and improvise, to be better even in one small way tomorrow than we were yesterday.