Thursday, July 25, 2013
A rainbow is perfectly bent with just enough arc that each color finds a voice and the hues travel harmoniously from one side of the sky to the other. A feeling of awe washes over me…that I will never comprehend the breaking point of something as precise as the bending a rainbow. That despite an artist’s abilities he or she will never create an exact replica of the sky. That the capabilities of our creator are endless and questioning his means of accomplishing things should always be something I run from.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
At night when the air is still and sound carries further than it should, I hear the cry of hope drowning and the empty thud of crumbled dreams. HE reminds me, apart from Him, this world knows nothing of faith, hope, and love, and without those there is nothing to separate birth from death.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Saturday, July 13, 2013
As a kid certain things are just about impossible to remember, like math homework or taking trash to the curb on Wednesdays. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the things you can never completely forget. I’m not talking about the night you decide to investigate the strange sounds coming from your parent’s bedroom. Those kinds of natural disasters may set a new free-style record on the ‘gross-out meter’ and speaking from experience you’ll feel a mild discomfort as you explain to your literature teacher that you need an alternate assignment when the rest of the class has no problem with the title, Call of the Wild, but in most cases no permanent damage is done.
I’m talking about the serious stuff—the kind that changes the way you think and who you are forever. It’s like something weird happens where every last detail gets permanently etched in your brain. I supposed it was like that for Rodney and Clutch too, but never bothered asking. We swore under oath to never breathe a word about what happened that day to anyone. The pinky-swear didn’t specifically prohibit talking about it amongst ourselves. I figure we were too busy trying to sort things out in our own heads. I don’t know, maybe some things are just too traumatic to relive.
I sensed we were about to embark on a journey that would take us places no neighborhood kid had ever seen and lived to tell about it. The two-story tree house we built in Clutch’s backyard three summers ago was impressive, but I had a gut feeling we were on the precipice of something way cooler. Precipice—edge, steep cliff, or drop off. I remembered the word from a spelling-bee. From that point forward I was into new words and their meanings. This thirst for knowledge certainly wasn’t anything I could share with Clutch and Rodney—couldn’t needlessly risk the loss of ‘cool points’. Good friends are hard to find and even harder to hold on to.
Although he refused to acknowledge it, his real name was Reginald Clemons. We called him Clutch because no matter the odds he always came through. The last person to call him by his real name was Rocky Ford and ain’t no one seen him since. Some kids say he changed schools—reckon he had to after the beatdown Clutch gave him. Clutch was outgunned by close to a hundred pounds and gave up at least two feet in height. Witnesses said it was funny to see Clutch eye-level with the waistband of Rocky’s jock-strap, but I think my buddy saw it as a challenge. Clutch chased him out of the locker room and took him down at center-court, right in the middle of the jump circle. Before it was done Clutch blacked both his eyes and during the melee removed and was using Rocky’s own jock-strap for leverage in a rear-naked choke. That’s when Mr. Livingston broke things up and sent the gathering on their way. I would have died on the spot from embarrassment, but rumor had it that the whimpering coming from the janitor’s broom closet a half-hour after last bell was the broken spirit of a 275lb nose guard. And ain’t nobody even thought of calling him Reginald since.
I figured Clutch was born tougher than most. Kind of like dogs I guess, some are named FeFe or Felix—made of fluff, perfect size for your lap, and perform tricks for miniature treats. Others command names like Moses or Zeus—shoulders wide as a wheelbarrow, go for the jugular every time, and for fun kicks they hunt dogs named FeFe or Felix. Maybe he was born regular, but livin’ on the wrong side of the tracks changed that. Rodney and I couldn’t imagine walking to school every day with thugs hidin’ around every corner—looking to take something from you. I suppose Clutch’s dad took the most from him though. Seemed like he was always beating him with a belt for no reason at all other than he drank too much and he could. If Clutch liked ya he was the kind of guy you wanted to have around and he like me and Rodney plenty. Probably ‘cause we were different from everyone else—me and Rodney tried not to ask him much about what went on at home. A couple punk kids couldn’t do nothin’ to change it and it seemed altogether easier to image the bruises, cuts, and welts came from thugs on the street than a guy he called dad.
Rodney was just plain old Rodney except when he ate fried food. I personally think he had some kind of undiagnosed enzyme imbalance. If he so much as looked at a French fry, within an hour he became a walking, talking, bag of flatulence. That’s when we called him ‘Rotney’, which didn’t seem to bother him much at all. Rodney was the kind of kid that played the smallest detail up—forever coming up with a story to embellish his ‘rare talent’. He told us the Army had secret agents posted outside of his house. Said they were trying to bottle his funk to be used as a chemical weapon in Afghanistan. Every kid’s gotta find something he’s good at—sometimes it don’t matter what it is.
Like Clutch I was saddled with a name that was useless. Why do parents insist on giving kids names that only get used on birth certificates, school registration, and other useless stuff? So Sydney Lyle II became Sid. A three letter name saves on school-supply outlay when you factor in the cost of pencils and writer’s cramp as well. Alphabetically speaking it moved me up a couple of notches in lunch line. There were two other kids in my class with the last name of Smith. Tyler going by Ty didn’t really buy him anything. And Sidon—well, he wasn’t really smart enough to play the game. Sidon was the kind of kid you suspected ate too much play-dough in Kindergarten, or maybe fell off the monkey-bars at a bad angle.
We found the boat weeks earlier, but waited that long to make sure it didn’t belong to anyone, or if it did they wouldn’t miss it for a day. If my calculations were correct and the legend was true we could reach Creed’s Cave, camp for the night, and make the return trip within a twenty-four hour window.
The evening prior to our departure the three of us met for a final inspection. Rodney had a mind for detail so I trusted him when he said the number of cobwebs, in the corners of the boat and from the craft to the surrounding weeds had increased. I verified the lack of footprints in the flour we sprinkled on top of the mud around the bow of the boat. Clutch was busy doing a visual inspection of the craft. Maybe he was testing the side of the boat for integrity, but I think Clutch just bored. That happened on a pretty regular basis. Anyhow, Rodney and I were too busy with our own assignments to see Clutch draw back his right foot and kick the side of boat. Hard enough that echo reached the trees and came back in a matter of milliseconds. Rodney and I both hit the deck and rolled into the weeds. I thought we’d been shot at and was thankful the owner had the decency to fire a warning lob.
I scanned the weeds until I found a monster-set of eyes staring at me. Rodney had worn thick glasses since first grade, but when he got scared the gap between his eyes and the frame got swallowed up completely.
“Sounded like a 12 guage, Sid. You see Clutch anywhere?”
If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Clutch was auditioning for the role of a mad scientist. The scene was that creepy moment when he’s combining test tubes and finally gets the formula right. The laughter rolling from him came in volleys.
Sometimes Clutch played too much. I hadn’t decided whether I was pissed off enough to scold him or not, but trying to wipe away the muck from my tee-shirt was pushing me in that direction.
“You should have seen you two duffus’ hit the deck—it was like a fire drill, stop, drop, and roll. Hey Rodney, look it’s the Army, they’re here to capture that funk of yours, bend over and take one for your country!”
Good sense left me completely, as I walked straight over to Clutch and chest-bumped him.
“Look, Clutch, I know you like to goof on us, and that’s OK most of the time, but we got serious business to tend to. Come tomorrow morning the three of us are going to be starring into the steely jaws of the unknown. If we can’t stick together and know without a doubt each of us has the other’s back—well, well, maybe we all just get swallowed whole!”
Only after I’d acted in frustration did I think about Clutch deciding to use his fist on the top of my head to pound me into the soft marshy ground, and the silence screaming from him did nothing but bolster the vision. I turned to Rodney for support and got a nod of agreement and an almost inaudible accompaniment.
“ Yeah—what Sid said.”
The anger in Clutch’s eyes faded and his facial expressions rolled back in time.
“Sorry guys, you know you can count on me. Some jaggedy, old tooth monster grabs one of you, he better be ready to have his tonsils removed—the hard way. You know I ain’t afraid of nothin’!”
Clutch grabbed a handful of me and Rodney’s shirts, and after bumping us together like bookends, he called for the secret handshake.
The sun had almost vanished by the time we reached the edge of town and split up to head to our respective homes.
“OK, meet back here at 6:30am sharp and we’re doin’ this thing. Rodney, you got the tent, sleeping bags, and lanterns covered, right? I’m bringing cooking stuff, matches, flashlights, canteens, a hatchet, and a bag full of dad’s camping stuff.”
I glanced at Clutch. He had his head down. The shadows were getting long, but not enough that I couldn’t make out an expression I’d never seen before. I searched quickly for the right words.
“And Clutch, you’re bringing a big set of hairy balls and enough ass to steam-roll anything that gets in our way, right?”
Clutch grinned and our fists met.
“Yep…already got it covered”, Clutch giggled.
“Alright, let’s get some sleep men. 6:30am…set your alarms, and don’t forget to tell your parents you’re spending the night with someone other than one of us. We don’t want them checking up.”
As I finished my walk home I sorted through my thoughts. The three of us had always been tight, but tonight the dynamics changed a bit. Two things happened I thought I’d never see. For the first time in his life Clutch backed down. I think I represented the first person in his life he could trust completely and therefore respect. I never considered myself a leader at all. That was a risky proposition; screw up and you got a coop on your hands. But it felt pretty good having stepped up tonight. I’d never be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but half of the battle is recognizing and admitting that. I was however savvy enough to know the leadership road was rocky and filled with potholes. A quality leader needed to be measured and careful in their approach. Those that weren’t became dictators. My decisions had to be for the betterment of the group as a whole. I had a gut feeling that the swirling, ugly water leading up to entrance of Creed’s Cave would demand everything we had—if not more. We needed a competent leader to guide. These weren’t subordinates at work, they were life-long friends and I wouldn’t let anything jeopardize that.
Thursday, July 11, 2013
We are all but single stones in a raging river called life. Moved, shaped, and carried by forces beyond our control. For some it is a frightening and desolate journey, whereby dysfunction has displaced hope, and 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. While withdrawing to a stagnant pool may save immediate discomfort, it is only a cruel suffocation in disguise. Some will tell you they are too jaded to be moved by the river. But I say, that in the end, 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.
Monday, July 8, 2013
Sunday, July 7, 2013
In our relentless pursuit of an uncertain tomorrow we often trample the blessing of today
Frank listened in horror as the closing bell sounded and the Dow tumbled six-hundred fifty seven points. In four days a shade over twelve-hundred points completely vanished from the marketplace. His stomach was in knots and the overpowering urge to vomit would not pass quickly. In moments Frank sailed well beyond the point of finding comfort in what he called ‘advisor speak’. Larry Saunders had been wrong in prematurely predicting the market’s bottom, but in all fairness, so had many others. “You have to ride this thing out, give it some time,” he would say; pretty sage advice for a thirty year old executive sitting on a fat 401K or hopeful parents saving for a toddler’s college fund. But for a senior who scraped a lifetime in anticipation of a few good years the loss felt like a hatchet buried in his skull.
In the case of Frank and Margaret Wilhelm, time was the enemy. A nasty visitor arrived uninvited, swooping in and gobbling up everything good in their lives. The doctors were hopeful, but so far it crushed every defense mounted against it. In the back of Frank’s mind he knew there would be no negotiations, and little delay. This kind of marauder only departed when he had taken what he came for.
Frank tapped his foot against the floor as he waited for the teller’s return to the window. Such a transaction required a witness and it came in the form of a short, rotund man in a white suit. The fluorescent lighting did little to prevent the glare of his polished scalp as he waddled to the counter. An obligatory handshake was as ineffective as his explanation of bank policies. In an effort to make his position crystal clear, Frank grasped the knot of the little man’s tie and drew him close.
“Look, Boss Hog! I’ve just about reached my limit of cartoon-like characters in my life. I’m willing to forego the thanks you owe me for profiting from the use of my money. As your pathetic little sign with tiny print indicates, I am one of your valued customers. As such I would appreciate your prompt cooperation in retrieving my funds!”
With eyes the size of flapjacks the man muttered under his breath about regulatory safeguards and pre-notification concerning large transactions. Nonetheless he retrieved a pen and added his signature to the paperwork. The bank officer flinched as Frank reached across the counter again, but this time in an effort to smooth the wrinkles he created.
“I apologize for the rash behavior. If Mrs. Hog would be so kind as to forward the cleaning bill I’ll gladly compensate you for it.”
Frank shared equal glances between the busy road and the receipt he gripped in his hand. It took everything he had to keep from fainting dead away to see an account balance of all 0’s. Within arm’s reach lay the results of fifty years of obsessive behavior. Every extra penny squirreled away, but he had to ask himself—precisely for what? For a half-century he’d break into a cold sweat when considering tapping the funds while precious needs went unmet.
Margaret’s eyes were closed as she rested peacefully upon the couch. Her cheek-bones were high and prominent again; her entire frame thinner than when they married. Frank used his index finger to gently trace the veins in her hand. They were still full of life but different now. A lonely tear crossed the threshold and rolled down his cheek as he thought back to careless comments about her weight. He frowned at the foolishness of youth—believing that their time together would be endless. Now he often woke in the middle of the night just to hold her in his arms or watch the rise and fall of her chest. For decades the grandfather clock sitting in the corner of their bedroom did nothing but annoy him, but now every tick meant something. Each swing of the pendulum ushered another memory. Both sweet and bitter were welcome, for that’s what life was. Frank placed the box next to her side and quietly slipped from the room.
These were post chemo days where Margaret showed no interest in food. Even the smell of such things caused violent reactions. The upheavals were of epic proportion and of durations that were painful to listen to. During these times Frank subsisted on takeout eaten in the car, or a cold sandwich that created minimal odor.
Throughout this ugly slice of life he tried to remain neutral and supportive in the very personal choice of treatment. Frank determined that had it been him diagnosed he would have allowed nature to take its course, but perhaps that was the cowardice rising to the surface—the easy way out. Margaret had always been the stronger of them. She talked about the four seasons and wanting to experience each phase of life in its entirety. He recalled her words with admiration. ‘Without raw, excruciating pain how will one discover the value of inner-strength? If not for dark thunderheads that spawn tumultuous seas, how will we have a deeper appreciation for the sun that overlooks placid waters and provides warmth to the very core of our souls?’ Frank didn’t need to understand completely to know Margaret’s words and thoughts had always been more profound than his.
“What’s the special occasion?” Margaret asked curiously as she smiled from the doorway.
“An extremely belated gift, my dear. Open it up.”
The wrapping fell to the floor in shreds. Flipping open the velvet case the gleam in her eye told him she still recognized them. Margaret had long ago given up on the pair of marquee cut diamond earrings. She swallowed hard against the obstruction forming in her throat.
“But, you always said they were too expens…….”
Frank wrapped his arms around her and pressed his finger to her lips.
“You’d do well to forget everything I’ve said in the past, Margaret. You married a damn fool! Far too long I’ve been a dark cloud in your life. I want to be a ray of sunshine.”
Each day for the next two weeks Frank showered his wife with a different gift, many of which she had forgotten she ever desired. Yet the final package was something that waited a lifetime. Even as a young girl she allowed dreams of such fantastic places to fill her head.
Margaret made peace with the idea of expiring somewhere in a distant land—as much as one can wrap their minds around expiring at all. What did it matter, really? She would wake one day and continue her journey, walking down another dusty road, only this time there would be no fretting over choosing a direction; the road would just run out. She found a measure of peace and comfort in that. Margret booked the flight. She supposed a great many people spent their final days in a hospital bed only reading about exciting places. It seemed to her a very hollow and empty proposition. That if she did such an unthinkable thing a part of her soul would be restless for all eternity.
She mentally prepared herself for the rigors of travel and still portions of the fourteen hour plane ride were brutal and unforgiving, but Margaret reminded herself she had been uncomfortable in her own home. More than once she caught herself grimacing from the pain, but Margaret made a conscious decision to deal with each setback by remembering that if you boiled life down to its simplest form every moment revolved around perspective. As they walked from site to breathtaking site she needed to make frequent stops to rest. Most times they were able to locate a park bench or a step, and the few times they couldn’t Frank suggested leaning against him long enough to catch her breath, and wasn’t that the way marriage was supposed to be.
Quaint, street-side café’s were as plentiful as gas stations in America. Had time allowed she would have sat a moment at each of them. She didn’t recall the name specifically, but one marvelous evening stood out from the others. In mid-sentence she suddenly forgot how to speak, everything became awkward and new as she stared at Frank across a candlelit table and saw that twinkle in his eye. Like so many others, over the years theirs had become a comfortable love, but encapsulated in that very moment there was no mistaking the spark when he reached for hand and the uneasiness in her stomach when she felt his touch. She was falling for him all over again.
The soothing musing from a violin melted away the cares of the world. Fine Italian wine felt like velvet to her tongue and a simple crescent moon held a particular fascination when viewed from beneath the Eiffel Tower. In an attempt to appreciate Michael Angelo’s original perspective they laid flat on their backs against a cold marble floor and marveled at the dome of the Sistine chapel. They laughed with the abandon of young children, and wasn’t that how marriage was supposed to be.
Memories of Vienna, above all other, would remain eternal. As they floated further down the canal, a dark blanket of night gave over its will to lunar expression. The cosmos unfolded before them—where shattered fragments of brilliance disguised as stars, danced in delight around their master, for it was he that breathed them into existence. The harmony of the heavens was undeniable as the vessel fell under its command and the world spinning around them took on a vague hue of insignificance.
As if the third act of a play had been announced earlier, Frank sensed the curtain sweeping closed. He cupped his wife’s hand in his, and with renewed conviction repeated the forty-three year old wedding vow. Margaret never heard the wavering of his voice, because she had decided years earlier it was perfect. More than anything she felt his heart speaking directly to hers, inscribing a message of love that time could not erase. In a non-descript gondola with the moon shimmering softly against their silhouettes, they shared one final passionate kiss. The sweetness of which would linger on her lips forever.
Thursday, July 4, 2013
Charlie plopped his seven-year old frame on the side of the bed to tie his shoes. The bows weren’t as even as when mom tied them, but the baby kept her busy now. He gave each pant leg a tug at the bottom. Mom said he was between sizes right now, but Charlie had never owned a pair of pants that reached the top of his shoes. He didn’t mind the color—earthworms, mud, and the stuff grasshoppers spit in your hand were all brown. On the way to straightening up he ran his fingers across the ridges. Charlie had no idea what corduroy was, but the older boys at school did and it seemed they didn’t like it much. The third graders in Mrs. Keen’s class didn’t like anything Charlie wore, or the way he looked for that matter. He used to enjoy spending time shopping at the thrift shops with his mother until the boys told him that only hobos and queers shopped at places like that. Some days he had to count to ten twice to avoid punching them in the nose for the things they said and the way it made him feel, but Charlie wasn’t a fighter and besides there was no one to teach him.
Charlie ambled down the steps, dragging his fingers against the wall as he went. He withdrew his hand quickly when he remembered that grubby fingerprints made mom crazy. Sometimes she sat him on her knee and spoke softly about little boys having trouble remembering, but when she had dark circles around her eyes she screamed his full name loud enough to make the neighbor’s dogs bark. Charles Allen Whitaker was the same name as his dad’s. Charlie didn’t want to be anything like his father. He did want to meet him someday just to see if he looked as much like him as mom said. When he turned sixteen, that’s when he’d visit. By then he would have forgotten most of the anger over his father’s leaving.
The television played to an empty living room. Saturday morning cartoons weren’t the same without mom sitting by his side on the couch, both eating Life cereal and slurping the milk from the bowl. Charlie didn’t know exactly why, but walked out of his way to kick his baby sister’s toy across the room. He tried not to think too hard about Ashley because it made him feel things he shouldn’t. Sometimes the yucky feelings went away if he thought about tickling her belly and the silly giggles she made, or the way her tiny hands felt on his face, and how good her skin smelled after a bath. Charlie wasn’t at all certain how he felt about Ashley having a different daddy than him—just plain weird he guessed.
Charlie walked across the kitchen and curled his arm around his mother’s leg.
“Can we have cereal for breakfast?”
When she looked down at him Charlie notices the black circles and knew the answer wasn’t going to be what he wanted to hear.
“I’d love to have cereal with you this morning, but I’m making bottles for your sister right now. Then the grass needs mowed and I have a million other things to get done today.”
“It’s OK, mom. I understand.”
The dejected tone of his voice meant a million things, but not one of them understanding.
“Tell you what…there’s a couple dollars in change on the counter. Why don’t you run to the gas station and buy yourself a doughnut?”
His eyes lit up instantly, “A cream-filled one?” He asked.
She patted the top of his curly, blonde head.
“Yes, Charlie, whatever kind you want.”
Charlie grabbed the money and barely opened the screen door wide enough to clear. In fact, it shut on the back of his shoe and he tumbled headlong down the steps. He did two complete summersaults and landed on his feet, but the rough concrete took a bite out of his forehead and one of his knees.
A neighbor working outside heard the commotion and rushed across the street. As the gentlemen rounded the corner he did not find exactly what he expected.
Charlie brushed his knees and used his shirt-tail to dab the corner of his eyes. He bent over and began collecting the change.
“Son-of-a-biscuit-bitin’ door. That stupid, stinkin’, change-stealin’, somethin’ or another!”
The neighbor choked back a giggle. Charlie had no idea anyone had seen or heard anything.
“Hey there, Sparky, looks like you took a spill. You OK?”
Charlie lifted his head to acknowledge the presence of the intruder, greeting him with eye-brows narrowed, and a scowl serious enough to wrinkle his nose.
“My name ain’t Sparky, and I’ll be fine as soon as I find my last quarter.”
The gentlemen stooped to help but didn’t see any sign of the missing money. He moved toward the edge of the grass. When the boy wasn’t looking he slipped his hand in his pocket and pretended to lift something from the lawn and took it over to him.
“I know your name’s not Sparky, I apologize. It’s just kind of a general term. Anyhow I’m Mark and here’s your quarter, Charlie.”
He snatched the coin from his hand.
“How do you know my name? You some kinda creeper or somethin’?
By this time Charlie’s mother was standing at the door watching.
The neighbor moved to the door and whispered to her through the screen.
“Good morning, Lisa. If you don’t have plans for him today I’d like to spend the afternoon with Charlie. Thought we might go fishing.”
The offer brought a smile to Lisa’s face.
“I think it’s definitely time for that. Hey Charlie, would you want to spend the afternoon with Mark? He might take you fishing.”
Charlie looked across the street at the black and silver bass boat. Ever since it appeared he’d been captivated by it, especially when the sun danced and moved across the surface. He turned back to his mother with an expression that indicated she was feeding him to the wolves.
“I don’t know this guy. Remember what you taught me about strangers.”
Charlie gave Mark a good head-to-toe scrutinizing before voicing a final assessment.
“Looks kind of creepy, if you ask me.”
His mother frowned.
“Charlie stop being angry. I do know Mark and he’s a great guy.”
A heavy sigh nearly folded the boy in half. He kicked at the driveway knowing what his mother expected, but not wanting to give in.
“Whatever—you’ll be busy anyway.”
Mark knelt to take a closer look at the scrapes.
“Let’s get those wounds cleaned up. I have a first-aid kit in the boat. We’ll get you taken care of and be on the lake before the pleasure-boat rush.”
Charlie asserted himself.
“It’s not your job to take care of me.”
Mark made eye contact with Lisa and winked.
“Charlie and I will be just fine.”
The duo walked across the street and Mark lifted Charlie and sat him on the deck of the boat. He opened the kit and removed a bottle.
“This is peroxide…it’s gonna chase the germs out but will sting a little.”
Mark figured a little diversionary tactic wouldn’t hurt.
“What you said a minute ago is true, Charlie. It’s not my job to take of care of you, but sometimes you do things for people if you have the ability to do so.”
Charlie looked perplexed.
“Even for strangers?”
Mark placed a bandage over his knee. Rubbing the corners he looked Charlie in the eye.
“Yes, for people we don’t even know sometimes.”
Charlie picked up the metal case and looked at his reflection, turning his head from side to side.
“You think I got big ears?” He asked.
Mark leaned in close so that the reflections of their faces were side by side.
“Nah, they’re no bigger than mine.”
“Yeah but you’re a grown up.”
Mark lifted him over the rail and placed him on the drive.
“Yeah, but I grew into my ears though. When I was a kid the other boys used to tease me. They called me Dumbo and all kinds of mean things.”
Charlie raised his eyebrows in disbelief.
“They did. Did you want to punch ‘em in the face?”
“Sure they made fun of me, and yeah I wanted to hurt them at first—until I figured it all out.”
Charlie had made a connection with Mark. He followed him like a puppy to the driver’s side of the truck, hopped over the console, and settled into the passenger seat.
“What do you mean until you figured it out?”
“Well, I mean I was angry and hurt. No kid wants to be made fun of, but my daddy told me it’s the meanest kids that are hurting the most. Making others feel badly is the only way they know how to feel better about themselves. After that I just felt sorry for them and didn’t want to hurt them anymore than they were already hurting on the inside. Do you understand?”
Mark watched the boy’s expression turn gloomy. He supposed he’d failed at bridging the gap in explaining something in seven-year-old terms.
“Kinda. I just wish I had a dad to tell me those kinds of things—but I don’t. He left me.”
Mark pulled into the gas station to fuel up. Charlie peered up over the dash and his eyes brightened when he saw where they were.
“Can I get a doughnut? I have my own money.”
“Of course you can, son, but your money’s no good with me. How about I buy us both one?”
Charlie shrugged his miniature shoulders and grinned.
The weather could not have been better suited for fishing. It was warm, but not too warm, and with the overcast skies Mark couldn’t wait to get a spinner-bait right along the edge of the rip-rap. He fastened the buckles and cinched the straps on Charlie’s life vest. Mark threw the boat into reverse and they moved away from the dock.
“You ever been fishing in a boat before, Charlie?”
Although it was a pretty simple question, Mark waited for a response long enough that the words were forming on his lips to ask again when the answer came back as another question.
“How come you don’t take your own boy fishing?”
Mark smiled at remembering how a young boy’s mind works and the sheer number of question.
“That’s a very difficult question. The circumstances are complicated and I’m not sure you would understand completely.”
Charlie opened one of the hatches. He stuck his head in and after a few moments seemed satisfied. He closed the lid and fastened it shut. Mark prepared a rod with a bobber and small plastic tub jig hoping for a late crappie or bluegill bite. After several failed attempts to cast Charlie became frustrated.
“Here Charlie, let’s try this.
Mark placed his hands over Charlie’s and the bobber sailed out into the choppy water.
Charlie turned to him and smiled. He stared hard at Mark, before lobbing another question.
“So you like my mom don’t you? I mean, why else would you take me fishing?”
Mark finished his retrieve and Charlie to wind in his line. He stowed the gear in the rod box. After closing the hatch Mark went to the casting deck, sat down Indian-style, and motioned for Charlie to join him. Charlie came but sat down some distance away. It was crystal clear he had no interest in fishing at this time. He was struggling with how to react to the uneasiness of a new-friendship. He fiddled with his shoe laces and picked at the carpet flicking the fuzz into the breeze.
“It’s a great day to be alive isn’t Charlie?”
The boy nodded in affirmation, but his full attention was obviously focused on a boat cruising up the opposite shoreline.
“You’ve asked some very good questions today, and I’m going to do my best to answer them. I need you to scoot closer and do your best to pay attention.”
Charlie closed the distance.
“I never answered your question about liking your mother and you feeling that I must or I wouldn’t be spending time with you. First, I’m spending time with you because I think you’re a great little guy and I’d like to get to know you better. I do care about your mother, and I know that must feel strange to hear. How does that make you feel, Charlie?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders and then giggled.
“My dad probably wouldn’t like it.”
Mark nodded, “I understand completely why you would think that. What if I told you that I knew your dad very well? What would you want to ask about him?”
There was not a moment’s hesitation.
“Does he look like me at all?”
Mark nodded. “Very much so, Charlie, and so far from getting to know you I think your personality is much like his. You talked earlier about wishing he was here to tell you those kind of things, but he left you. You know that he didn’t choose to leave you, right?”
Charlie shrugged and opened up a little.
“Yeah, Mom told me that he got in trouble with the law. Sometimes I wonder if she’s just trying to protect my feelings—mom’s do that you know.”
“That’s because she loves you so much that she never wants you to hurt, but what she’s telling you is true. Young people sometimes make poor choices. They get mixed up with bad people and do stupid things. Sometimes they hurt people, not on purpose, but because of silly choices. Charlie, you must remember even small choices have lasting consequences, and almost always reach further and deeper into the future than we intend.”
Mark’s words trailed off into silence and he stared off into the distance. Wet, shiny eyes gave way to the first tear that wandered down his cheek. The frequency between drops became less and less until they formed a steady stream.
Charlie turned away started playing with the carpet fuzz again, but the confusion and frustration boiled into words.
“Why are you saying bad things about my daddy? I don’t like you very much. I want you to take me home.”
Mark composed himself. He reached for Charlie’s shoulder’s and squared him.
“Charlie, I’m telling you the truth, and the truth is not always easy to say or hear, but you’re old enough hear it now. You’re mom and I talked and decided that it’s time for you to know who I am.”
Charlie did as instructed, stepping beyond the first set of steel doors waiting at the next. The chamber between the two was empty and cold, a doorway to nothingness. Something died inside when the clank of the steel bolts slid into place. The sound spoke of permanence and isolation and as much as air symbolizes life, little of either existed here. Charlie thought he would suffocate before the officer signaled for the opening of the second set of doors. The doors slid apart but Charlie’s feet were frozen. The officer’s firm grip on his arm prompted his steps.
“This is it, big boy, cell block B in all its glory. Notice the lines—don’t want the crazies reaching through the bars.”
Charlie stared through the glass and imagined an existence there—if you could call it that.
“You understand I’m doing this as a huge favor—visitors aren’t allowed here.”
The guard’s boots fell heavy against the tile as he moved down the hallway, Charlie’s barely made a sound. He supposed intimidation was a major component in this line of work, and this gentleman studied hard.
“Here you go, Son, have a seat and they’ll bring him out in a minute.”
The man the officer ushered to the window was only a shell, what remains after his insides are scooped out. He observed a vague resemblance, but nothing he wanted to wrap his mind around right now. Charlie spoke more into the glass than the man on the other side.
“Hey” was all that came out when he opened his mouth. He intended more.
His father studied him for a moment.
“Stand up, please. I want to see the man you’ve grown into.”
The hair on the back of Charlie’s neck stood on end. What right did he have to demand anything from a son he didn’t know? Charlie swallowed hard and found his feet.
His dad shook his head from side to side and smiled for the first time in years.
“Charlie, I would like to say I’m proud of you, but that would indicate that I some positive influence on the results. You should be proud.”
Charlie settled back in the chair and their eyes met directly for the very first time.
“How’s your mom doin’?”
“Abandoned and lonely most days…just like me, but we’re used to it.”
His father’s eyes went to the floor and scanned from side to side before returning with a fire beneath them.
“Look, Charlie, if you came to punish me you arrived twenty-two years too late…that’s eight thousand and thirty brutal days and nights racking my brain trying to find a way to right wrongs. Broken as it is life’s a one-way street…there ain’t no replay button.”
His father’s words rang true, but Charlie’s mind raced with thoughts and images of missed ballgames and birthdays, trips to the lake, his first date, and billion other blow opportunities. Charlie stood up again.
“This whole thing was a bad idea—raking open the wounds again. I think I should leave now.”
His dad smiled as if he recognized the fire in his boy.
“You have all the power here Charlie, but just in case this is your only visit I need to tell the story. Believe me when I say spilling your guts twenty-four, seven to a concrete wall ain’t the answer either. I know you don’t owe me, but five minutes is all I’m asking. Your choice entirely.”
Charlie battled against natural inclinations and raw emotion, turning to walk more than once. He drew a deep breath and melted back into the chair.
“OK…five minutes no more.”
“Fair enough, son. I’d be lyin’ if I told you I hadn’t rehearsed this a million times, but practicing life don’t work either. I was three years younger than you are now, July 16th, 1982. I went to a birthday party for a friend alone. Your mom stayed home because you were only two weeks old. I was born a hellion and your momma had ideas of savin’ me. Didn’t expect her to, but didn’t stop her from tryin’ either. This many years later it’s still hard for me to say, but I don’t remember putting the keys in the ignition or my truck crossing the center-line. I only recall flashes and slivers of the ugly hours that followed; the crunching of metal, a woman and a young boy lying in the middle road, drowning in pools of their own blood. I remember her body being mangled, but she never stopped calling his name and crawling around to lay her hands on that boy one last time.”
The recollection became too much. He choked and sputtered until the words stopped altogether. All Charlie knew to do was shake his head from side to side.
“They died, Charlie, both of them. The only piece that keeps me sane is knowing they went to be with the Lord. So here I sit, paying a penance that can never be paid. You’re mom never looked at me the same…figure that when she gave up on me. She came for a couple of weeks out of obligation, but it was too much; I asked her to stop coming. Six months or so later they told me I had a visitor waiting. Thought he might have been someone from the past, but all of those ‘party friends’ evaporated like a dirty puddle exposed to the light. The man asked me how I was doing. If I was healing—told me he was worried about my soul. I knew then he was with some local church trying to win a wayward soul over to God. I was starved for conversation with anyone. We talked a lot and laughed some too. When he got ready to go he put his hand against the glass and asked me to do the same. He prayed for me and about the accident…that I knew in my heart that God had forgiven me and that I also knew he too had found forgiveness after meeting the man that had taken his wife and boy too soon.”
Both Charlie and his father were moved to tears—the kind that wash the old away.
“That ain’t natural. A man that can forgive like that has Jesus living in him. I knew that precise moment Mark was the man I wanted to raise my boy. He promised me he would and today I see what a fine job he’s done.”
Charlie felt a familiar hand on his shoulder and turned.
“Your mom said you were coming down so I wanted to make sure you were OK.”
Charlie put his hand around Mark’s waist and gave his father a thumbs-up.
Mark pressed his palm against the glass, Charlie placed his hand beside, and his father’s met from the other side.
His dad leaned to the microphone.
“You’re a man of your word and live what you believe. I brought hell right to your doorstep and Mark, you rose above it. And if that wasn’t enough you raised my son to be twice the man I ever hoped to be. Here’s to promises. God bless you, my brother.”
Images ingrained upon ‘old glory’
where pints of blood paint her bars
deep within the soldiers’ story
lies mettle to fashion silver stars
Found in tank brigades and mortar rounds
are heartbreak and widowed wives
while battle scenes and grotesque sounds
barely scratch our armored lives
Independence that shapes a nation
whereby fallen heroes pay the rent
from broken souls bleed liberation
and the freedom to dissent
What’s the cost to shed one tear
or stand solemn before a stone
no earthly fate commands such fear
as thoughts of not returning home
Gaping wounds only time can suture
leaving conflicts’ reminiscent sting
we salute soldiers past and future
in a land where freedom rings