Monday, July 18, 2011

A scene from the cookout

“Oh in thirty years or so, but by then, I won’t give a fuck!” Meaning by then he’ll be dead, and it will be someone else’s problem. What he said didn’t bother me so much. It’s a common thing to leave a mess for the next person to clean up. I’ve seen it many times before. What struck me was the way he leaned in and said it. His voice lowered just a bit.

I’m taking liberties here, but I think it lowered because he knew that what he was about to say was bad. I’m not talking about his use of the word ‘fuck’, but instead his acknowledgement that when he is dead, he’ll have left behind a mess for someone else.

The hushed way he delivered it stood in serious contrast to the way he relished the statement. In his one sentence, I was able to see the whole messed up mentality that seems to plague every man, woman, and child. The one where we know we are bad, or wrong, or just plain immoral, but where we are excited by it.

This was his response to a question posed by myself as to how long it will take for copper pipes in his home to clog like arteries and need repair. Maybe he thought about his worthless son, the 34 year old video game addict, and imagined him with a monkey wrench and a floor covered in water. I could see that giving some gleam to his eyes. The same eyes that watched his boy forever fail and oversleep opportunity, to end up living at home.

He couldn’t kick his son out. Not with the economy being the way it is. It would mean certain death. Instead he would pay his internet bills, and provide for him like he was still 14, all the while justifying to strangers at the BBQ, myself included that ‘Thomas is really great to have at home. He helps around the house, and adds a lot to my life.’

Again I’m taking liberties. Maybe he just smiles at the thought of sticking it to some random stranger who is unfortunate enough to buy the home after he is dead and gone. He might be some kind of pervert who gets off on the idea that one day a person who has never even uttered his name, Al Jenson, will be affected by his actions. Some sort of half-assed stab at immortality.

There was a lull in our conversation. We both looked to the Bocce ball game being played just past the picnic tables and groups of talking people. I used the silence as my chance to slip away. Someone else would walk into Al’s proximity and set off the flood of information that he unleashed on me. Telling them about constructing his house, his son, his past, and it’s not that I won’t give a fuck, I just won’t care.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Blah Fucking nonsense story

My old man was a real asshole. He used to get home from work and already be a little drunk. Yeah I know, an alcoholic dad, nothing new there. I'd like to say that I'm different. That I don't pity myself. That I don't dwell in the past, but that isn't true. I hate myself just as much as the next guy, but that isn't what this story is about.

It's about my asshole dad. More importantly, it's about the little boy I used to be. It's about the kid that handled that 250 pound son of a bitch and lived to write about it. Like I was saying, the old bastard would get home around 5:45 and he'd already be a little drunk. I don't know if he started on the job (not wholly unlikely considering he hung sheetrock and made his own hours), or if he got his start in the cab of his truck while cruising home. It doesn’t really matter because either way he did it, he'd come home ready to whip some ass.

I was a fast little shit. I could scramble like a cockroach when the kitchen lights come on. You had to get me by a limb, or the neck, ‘cause if you caught only fur or fabric, I was likely to run till it ripped clean off, leaving you with a handful of hair or a new dishrag. I don't know what I was doing all day in the trailer, besides watching TV and making instant Ice Tea, but whatever it was, my dad wanted me to stop doing it and 'get the fuck outta here' soon as he got home.

Pops wanted to drink in peace till he could sleep and wake up another day to head to another job site, to get drunk again, and to stay pissed all the while. If I didn’t hand him the remote right away and split for the little strip woods outback, he would get real quiet. I don't know if you've got any experience with dogs, but a barking dog is a threatened dog. It’s all noise, but a quiet dog is a dangerous one, and my dad was no exception. The quieter he was, the crueler he would be.

Don't pity me here, 'cause I deserved it most of the time, but I've got cigarette burns like the small of my back was an ash tray. I'm not saying he wasn't bad, hell I'm saying he was the baddest, but what I'm saying is I am my father's son. As a kid, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree if you know what I mean, and I think that's why we didn't get along so well.

One day, after losing a clutch of hair to his sheetrock dusted hands, I got a bright idea to just irritate that old cuss more. I walked over to my friend Jamie's house and asked him if we could steal some bread out of his kitchen. His ma was watching Wheel of Fortune like it was a newborn. We could have took the stove without her turning around.

Jamie didn't know what I wanted to do with the bread, but he knew I had a plan, which is why he followed me back through the rows of trailers till we got to mine. "I'm gonna get him all riled up Jamie, check this out." I said as I threw slice after slice of bread onto the roof of the trailer. It didn't take long for all the black birds from a mile around to come land on that old aluminum roof. They were stepping around, pecking at the bread, and squawking at each other. I knew my pops was inside that old piece of shit single wide just going insane. The peace he so desperately wanted was nowhere in sight.

"I bet he is going bat shit bonkers in there Jamie, he can't stand a peep when he gets home."

"You ain't scared he's gonna find out and mess you up?"

"Shit, he won't kill me or nothing, or else he woulda done it last year when I broke his key trying to turn a screw."

I hardly got the over confident thought out before a blast from inside the trailer blew a plume of black feathers up into the air, sending the whole lot of them flapping and scattering. Jamie looked at me like I was a ghost and high tailed it for his place.

“I don’t know what you did, but I know it was you!”

I heard that jerk shout, his voice booming from the new hole in the roof.

“Got yourself a sunlight now you little shit!”

I waited till it was dark, and I knew he’d be passed out drunk before I crept back in the house. The crazy old man blew a hole right through the ceiling in my room. He never tried to fix it, and it actually worked out to my advantage when I started smoking as I grew up a little more, although it was a lot like camping out in my room. I always had to shake out my bed for spiders, and it was a bitch keeping things dry.

You might think I learned my lesson that day, but I got under his skin plenty since then.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Summer Job

Those sheets came out of the washing machines hotter than boiling pasta, and God they burned my palms. At 15 I didn’t have the calluses that protected the hands of the older women who worked in the hospital laundry, but what I lacked in dead skin I more than made up for in young ignorance.

All the ladies who worked in the steam exuded a prickly kind of quiet that made me hold my breath for fear that they would break their silence all over me. One among them was quiet in a different way. She had the gentle sort of silence shared by simpletons and sated babies. When we would heave arm fulls of fabric in and out of the laundry, she would carry one small folded linen from one side of the room to the other. Each time she would place it neatly on a stack that was being prepped to go, and then shuffle back to collect another.

I thought it was funny when the oldest one among us would taunt and tease her for carrying such a little burden by saying things like, ‘Take it easy Velva, don’t hurt yourself.’ or ‘Be careful lifting heavy loads Vel, you might get a hernia, then what good would you be to us?’. Our laughter would whip up from our lungs and disappear like so much steam into the air.

Velva would shuffle; her head always down. I’d see her mouth something, but no sound escaped her. By the end of the day she would have sent a few loads of linen up, less than a wing for sure, but enough to outfit a couple beds to keep the sick, dying, and healing, covered in clean white cloth.

I didn’t know it then, but my mom told me when I was older that Velva used to be a nurse in the hospital. She was a smart woman, on par with doctors and widely respected, but one day she suffered a nervous breakdown. I don’t know if it was the stress of her job, being life and death and all, or if God just left a loose wire in Velva’s head that would one day cross another and reduce her to the shuffling cigar store Indian I remembered. I just wish I had known it when I was working the laundry, I would have never laughed at her, not once.

I can only tell you the boiling hot sheets burned me, but I don’t feel it in my hands today. But damn it all, it hurts like hell when memory makes me see Velva’s lips move and hear our past laughter evaporate.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Elinore

We were young and dumb. If you are old and bitter and keeping track, I have said two redundant things already. I’ll try to stop.

It’s just not easy finding the right words. It’s almost as if each idea and feeling is just a puzzle piece that I pull out of the box in my gut and hold up to my tongue. Rubbing the edges along my taste buds, hoping to find the word that ‘fits’. You’d think after 15 years I’d have gotten it figured out by now, but you’d be wrong. I only have the border finished, and it is this:

We loved each other and that was reason enough to keep the baby. It didn’t matter that we were broke, and didn’t know the intricacies of air conditioning unit maintenance that older, wiser, homeowners all seem to know.

For some reason, and coupled with a hundred others, I never told her that I already named the baby. Her name was to be Elinore, and she’d serve tea to invisible friends while her feet dangled from her seat above the ground. I apologize for the long build up to this point (I needed it), but our baby was never meant to be. My girlfriend had a miscarriage.

So much happened, so much time passed, but still I kept her name a secret. My girlfriend has been my ex for years, lives in Seattle, and looks happy on Facebook. A couple weeks ago I got a tattoo. A tiny little name on my rib cage. I told the guy doing the ink that it was my girlfriends name. It feels almost shameful, but that’s not the right word. I’ll keep trying to find the proper one.

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Just Like The Duke

They told me I'd be just like John Wayne, all I had to do was press my hands in the stuff and time would do the rest. You can't imagine my excitement. I was always the kid tagging along in second, third, and sometimes fourth-hand clothes. I was never allowed to be the hero, much less go first, so I never imagined I could have my hand prints frozen in time just like John Wayne.

When you have a childhood like mine, you question kindness because it is out of the ordinary. As horrible as it sounds, it’s for your own protection. More than once I took a sandwich from a concerned parent, or a shirt from a neighbors mom, and every time it was with the same uncertainty. Part of me was half expecting them to pull the gift away, or worse, smack me over the head with it the same way my hateful grandpa would.

But when the neighborhood kids told me I could be just like my hero, I didn't think anything of it. My excitement drowned out any suspicion. I just kept seeing the Duke in my mind, with his gun on his hip, and a look of confidence on his face that no man could shake. I pressed my eager little hands into the steaming pile of asphalt, with a smile so wide it threatened to rip my face in two. I was going to be just like him, just like John Wayne!

The pain was instant, as was their laughter. I pulled away hurt as bits of asphalt clung to my palms and around my shaking fingers.

"You dummy! That's asphalt, not cement!" They laughed loud enough to attract the workers twenty or so yards away.

"Beat it you little runts, don't mess with the road!" One of them boomed, sending them scattering.


I didn't move. My hands were burning like they were covered in boiled sap. Even in my panic I knew not to wipe them on my clothes, no matter how threadbare they were, my mom would surely kill me. I began to pat them on the grass with the hope it would cool them off, but the tar just ripped up grass, gluing it to my blisters.

I cried there beside the sidewalk. I don't know for how long, but it’s been over fifty years since that day. With hardly any imagination at all, I can still see the tar in the wrinkles of my hands.

I'm an old man, but I've got the heart of a beat down kid. I'm no longer skeptical of kindness. My life has gotten much better, but I can still cry with the best of them. Especially now when my asphalt memories come bubbling up at sunset, when I smell fresh cut grass and I hear the neighbor's kids laugh.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Paying Still

After my wife died, it was months before I came out of my fog. It happened one morning when I was sitting at the kitchen table. I looked over the cell phone bill and realized I had been paying for her phone. It took some searching to find it, still in her car in the driveway. The battery had long run out.

When I charged the phone and turned it on, I saw her her desktop and name. The in box was full of spam mail, work messages, and old voice mails. Somewhere in there I called to tell her she better have her appetite because I was coming home with General Tso's.

I dont exactly know why, but I dialed her cell phone and watched it ring, both vibrating and buzzing. When it picked up, and her voice came over the little speaker in my ear she said that she was sorry she missed me, but if I left a message she would get right back.

I left a message of long silence. The phone still pressed to my ear. I had so much to say it clogged any way to come out. Eventually the phone beeped. The digital tape had run out. A few moments later the phone buzzed twice, letting me know that my message had arrived, that my wife missed my call.

The bills from my cellular provider kept coming, and I kept paying them. My wifes phone was in my dresser drawer. Underneath a couple socks. I used to call often. After long days, or on the mornings of them. I would tell her how much I missed her in more ways than I can remember. There was a big empty spot in our bed where she slept, and I told her how I still can't spread out. I called her one night when I couldn't sleep because our son couldn't either. His crying passed changed through the walls. I told her about his muffled sobbing.

Many times I filled up the inbox. Every time thinking it should be the last. That I have had long enough. The truth is I have not had long enough.