Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A Big Disappointment

I had taken up smoking again.  And not only was I smoking again, I was caught smoking in the middle of the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital.  The nurse came in shouting at me with half my family trailing scornfully behind her.  There was even talk about a lawsuit and charges being pressed for smoking in a restricted area.  My mother, uncles, aunts, brothers, cousins, everybody glared and shook their heads at me.  I tried to stamp the cigarette out under my heel on the white tile floor.  I tried to explain myself.  I tried to tell them that it was just the one pack, and that once it was gone, I could quit just as easily as I did before.  But every word came out like the feeble excuse that it was.

I slipped away from them and out into the parking-garage that adjoined the building.  It was evening, just beginning to get dark out.  I knew there was nothing waiting for me at home but long lectures, distressed sighs, and bitter recriminations.  Down at the curb in front of the hospital, there was a black-haired girl in a light blue 65 Mustang convertible.  She offered me a ride away from all of this.  I accepted eagerly, and we were off down country roads that unwound in the headlights and sharp lashes of wind in the open air.  I clicked on the radio and the dial glowed gold and there was a warm hum and then all the old songs were there.      

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Instant Replay

I was hanging out with a friend of mine, and we were listening to the baseball game on the radio.  It was a hot July afternoon in the city, and we were sitting on the back stoop in the narrow alleyway that ran behind the apartment building.  My friend started going on about how the instant replay feature had ruined half the fun of listening to these games.  In the old days, he said, a close call would lead to disputes of passion and imagination, marvels of improvisation.  Now they just waited for the replay to settle everything.

He said that his old uncle was a master at this peculiar craft.  He would set up the whole play and go through it beat by beat.  My friend proceeded to demonstrate.  He stepped up to an imaginary home plate and swung away.  He cracked a fly ball into the outfield and barreled down the first base line.  Then he was the outfielder, scrambling for the ball at the fence and then whipping it to the shortstop.  And there he was the runner again, headed for second, and now the shortstop, and again the runner, and then back again.

"Safe," he pronounced quietly, showing that the shortstop never touched the bag, that he had missed it by just the slightest inch, indisputable proof informed by physics, stats, and simple geometry. The play was over.  The pantomime had stopped.  The spell was broken.  It was just a back alley again on a sweltering day.  My friend nodded his head and tossed the nonexistent ball to me, and as a matter or reflex, I reached out to catch it in my nonexistent glove.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

On Higher Branches

Back doing factory work again.  I had my old job as a material handler, running to and fro, making sure the machines didn't run out of dye or material.  But now all the presses were out in the open air of a summer night in amongst a small grove of chestnut trees, and each tree was inextricably bound up with the workings of a different press; the cogs and gears, the pistons and valves, all inter-meshed with the bark and twisting sinews of the tree trunk until it was impossible to distinguish the two.  I scrambled around from press to press, making sure this one had the right dye, hearing that telltale suction noise that warned me that this other one was nearly out of material, stopping just long enough to wipe away the sweat with my sleeve.

Our work involved feeding these trees and helping them grow.  Each fresh load of material brought a wooden crackle from each one of the trees and I could see the branches reach out just a little further in the dark, twisting in new directions, sprouting new leaves at their tips.  On the ground we all bustled along.  There were lights clustered around the press at the base of each tree, and the clink of metal on metal and the rumble of machinery and the abrasive edge of rough voices continued through the night.  But from time to time, I had to climb the trees to fill the dye loaders, and this took me up above the noise and the hot, busy air.  From my perch on a high branch there was a nice breeze and I could see the full moon high above and the yellow blossoms of soft lamplights somewhere below.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

My Brother and Me

I was a young boy.  It was just me and my mother and my little baby brother.  We had fallen on hard times.  We had taken to living in the hollow of a large boulder at the local park.  There were small holes to climb up into this hollow on either side of the boulder, and it was comfortably snug within.  Once ensconced, we were safe inside the boulder, but we had to be discreet in our comings and goings, so that the other patrons of the park wouldn't notice that we were living in there.  To that end, my mother took some of the sand that lay on the ground around the boulder and molded it in such a way that the openings were recessed into two pitted grooves.  That way the folks power walking in the parking-lot down the hill wouldn't see us slip in and out.  My mother demonstrated, wiggling in feet first.  Her smiling face slipped up under the boulder and she was inside.  The people down the hill went about their picnics and their brisk strides, never noticing a thing.

But then I just had to go and point out a problem with this idea.  I climbed in after her, and once inside the cool, damp hollow, I whispered that there was a winding stone walkway that passed right by the boulder.  Certainly these hidden entrances would be visible to anyone walking along this path.  My mother stuck her head out to see what I was talking about, and just then a cop happened to be coming down this walkway.  He spotted her before she could duck back in.  So she slipped out the rest of the way, and made like she was just resting against the boulder in its shade.  She assumed as casual an air as she could with a smear of subterranean dirt across her cheek.

I sat inside the boulder, trying to hold my breath, trying not to make a noise.  My baby brother rocked back and forth, shirtless, nibbling at his fingers.  I could hear the cop's muffled interrogation outside.  He seemed to be buying my mother's story.  He seemed like he was about to move on.  Unfortunately just then, I bumped into one of my brother's toys, a plastic phone for toddlers,  and it let out the briefest clipped ring. The noise echoed off the concave ceiling of the hollow.  This perked the cop's attention, but it wasn't until my baby brother suddenly started wailing from all the tension and confusion that the game was truly up.  I snatched up my brother and slipped out the hole on the other side of the boulder.  I took off running across the park with my brother tucked up under my arm, never looking back.

The two of us started making our way across town, somehow growing older as we cut along the back streets and crossed the busy intersections.  I figured that we could go stay with my grandmother.  I was nearly a teenager and my brother was just starting to walk and talk, coming out of stores marveling at everything he saw, fascinated by the bell that jingled whenever the door opened, the candy and chips and cans of soups that would sustain us smuggled under both our coats.  We sat at the curb eating, while I consulted the pieces of a weathered old map, figuring which routes we had to take.  My brother's little shoelaces were loose and dirty from being dragged along in the mud.  I tied them into bows and promised I'd show him how to do it himself some day, and then we got to our feet and kept moving.

I was a grown man by the time we reached my grandmother's house.  My brother was the teenager now, raised in the wild.  He tossed pebbles across the yard as we waited for my grandmother to appear at the screen door around the side of the house.  I told her that I would pay her rent for whatever rooms she could spare.  I insisted.  I wanted more than anything to settle into the comforts of working a steady job and living a daily life and paying my own way and finding myself in a chair in front of the TV at the end of the day in crusty old work shoes.  She told me that we could have two of the bedrooms in the back, upstairs.  They had been closed off for years, but we just needed to dust and take down the cobwebs and it would be just fine.  It would be so nice to live in a real house again, to sleep in real beds, to sit snugly under a roof on stormy nights.

The clouds were even gathering as we spoke and I could feel those first few drops of hard rain.  It seemed that we had arrived just in time.  My grandmother held the screen door open and my brother and I ducked inside.  Sitting on a cabinet across the room was a stack of letters that my mother had written from jail.  My grandmother had kept them for me, waiting for me to arrive.  The ones at the bottom of the stack were discolored with age.  I considered the weight of the stack in my hand.  The whole story of all those years in a handful of envelopes.                         

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Order of Things

I was lounging on a couch in a wallpapered study among the lengthening shadows of the day and I heard my mother in the other room, talking to my brother over coffee.  She was expounding on some religious principle or another, and I noted that she consistently referred to God by the use of the feminine pronouns "She" and "Her."  So she was one of those people now?  I went in and sat down at the table and offered my opinion on the matter.  I said, "I tend not to think of God as having a gender either way, and I generally assume that the masculine pronouns are used simply for the sake of convenience and convention.  But if I were to offer an argument that God was a man, it would be this: By all accounts, even the all knowing, all powerful creator of all things doesn't understand women any better than I do."

Joking aside, I did give the idea some serious consideration.  What a scheme it would be.  God comes along and creates women, the so-called "weaker sex" more fully in Her image, and yet to men She grants the ostensibly dominant position.  She lets them believe that they come first.  Is it a penance?   A way of balancing the scales?  A way of keeping things in check by subjugating those more closely representative of the divine?  A token gesture of the deity submitting to Her own creation?  Or is it some sly secret?  A coy wink hinting at the hidden order of all things, the key holders to the wellsprings of life and being?  I took a sip of the coffee my mother must have brought me while I was rambling on.

Wrong Beach

When I went back there, I found our local beach was worse than I remembered.  It had become a dumping ground for people's old junked appliances.  Industrial washing machines and dryers and electric stoves lay cock-eyed in the sand, littering the landscape, and there was always a chance of stepping on some broken piece of glass or rusted metal if one were unwise enough to venture out in bare feet.  The water had a thick red hue to it and the sky above was always dark, full of churning, turbulent clouds.  Determining day and night had become impossible, as even the sand itself was lighter than the sky, lit terrestrially as it was by a row of streetlamps planted along the edge of where the beach and the parking-lot met.  The sky's only illumination was the occasional flash of lighting rumbling in the cracks between the clouds.

No one ever swam out into the water, for fear of what it was, and whatever had given it its color, and whatever might have been lurking out there.  Instead, a large inflatable pool had been set up on the beach for whoever wanted to swim.  But the standing water in this pool was murky and foul, and it gave off a rank odor.  Swimming in this pool was almost certain to leave one bedridden with fever and chills the next day.  An air of sickness lingered about it.  It was rumored that there were drowned bodies that lay unretrieved at the bottom of this pool, and some claimed that you could feel the rotting flesh against the tips of your toes, while others insisted that these were merely spots where the pool's canvas liner bulged against the sand.  The water in the pool was so clouded that these debates remained unsettled.

And yet, despite all this, as I stood there, people still poured onto the beach as gamely as ever, with all the cheerfulness of the damned, carrying towels and coolers, all ready for a fun day at the shore, their smiles and laughter only occasionally punctuated by someone cursing as they stepped on a used syringe or a broken bottle.  They wandered right down to the water's edge and dumped their stuff and took their place, as though tempting fate itself to reach its great red hand from the waves and drag them out to oblivion.  They lay out, as if basking in a sun that wasn't there.  They set up chairs under umbrellas, as if enjoying the infernal view.  They left their children to make castles that would rot and stink and decompose rather than simply wash away.  And all the while I just stood there and shook my head.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Roadside Portrait

An old man lived across the road from me.  In the spring he would come out every morning to sit there by the roadside, reading his newspaper and waiting for his grandson to come along and pick him up in a battered orange truck.  From my window I could see a kitchen chair set out there by the mailbox, weathered and worn and weak in one leg, and the old man was there to take his post at six o'clock every weekday morning, regular enough to set a pot of coffee brewing at five till and know that it was done by his arrival.  He was as dependable a part of the landscape as the thicket of trees behind him or the road that ran before him waiting to gather the heat of the day.  He just sat there with his paper, never glancing down the bend to see if the truck was coming or fretting impatiently over his watch.  He was the figure to which all the rest of it was ground.

And so I came out early one morning to set up an easel and canvas.  I had my paints and my brushes, and I started in on the grass and the trees and the morning light creeping into the scene from down the road.  I got most of it done, waiting for the old man to come take his place at the center of the composition.  But six o'clock rolled around and he never showed.  The orange truck never came along.  The crooked kitchen chair sat empty.  I was just one day late.    

Monday, December 15, 2014

Lifetimes Ago

Ever since I'd woken up from that dream, I'd felt like years and years had passed.  I dropped by to see people I knew, and it seemed like they were in completely different places in their lives.  My brother's ex-wife even greeted me warmly at her door, old grudges all forgotten.  She cooked breakfast for a houseful of guests.  They all sat around the kitchen laughing over eggs.  Who were these people?  It was the same with everyone else.  Old friends were all doing new things, working new jobs, telling unfamiliar jokes, stressed over different problems.  I felt adrift, disconnected, alienated from the people around me.  I blinked my sleepy eyes.  All of this overnight?

I chalked it all up to the epic span of the dream itself.  It was that sense that a whole lifetime had passed in my sleep.  I'd only dreamt that years had gone by, and that feeling had resonated upon waking.  I tried to explain all this to my family as they sat around on sunken couches in my grandmother's living room on Christmas afternoon, the garland wound around the bannister, the lights strung along the wood paneling.  My brother sat at a table and nodded over a glass of eggnog, but I could see that none of them really understood what I was saying or how strange it all felt.  It was just a dream.  How could a mere dream throw someone so out of sync?

I figured that if they could see it, maybe they'd understand.  I had sold the movie rights to the dream and I wheeled in the old silver TV with the rabbit ears and everyone gathered around on my grandmother's floor to watch.  The dream had told the story of a dog.  It had been a little puppy when we were all kids crouching there in the grass to pet it.  It was white with patches of black, and it grew as we all grew.  It was a frisky little critter.  There was a scene where it squeezed through a wooden fence and started paddling around in an alligator tank, and we stood outside the fence reaching our hands and yelling out the dog's name and hoping and praying that one of the alligators wouldn't bite it.  On the floor in front of the TV everyone laughed at that part and thought it was cute.  Then the dog got older, even as we all got older and we moved out of the house and went our separate ways, and there it was in the winter twilight all mangy and laying at the end of the driveway in the snow, whining, wondering where we'd all gone.  The credits rolled on this somber note.

After the movie, I went home with my wife.  But things were off there as well.  The place was a cramped basement apartment with high windows.  It wasn't the cozy country house out in Perry that I remembered.  I tried to tell my wife, but she wouldn't listen.  She just dragged me from room to room being playful.  "None of this is right," I told her as she pulled me along by my arm.  There were throw pillows and broken coffee makers and dirty dishes and junk everywhere.  I picked up a discarded towel with my free hand.  "I know that you used to keep the house a lot cleaner than this," I shouted over her laughter, showing her the towel.

She led me into the kitchen, which was just as cluttered as the rest of the place.  The cabinets were all crammed full of open cereal boxes.  The walls were bright yellow and there was an old icebox style refrigerator, the kind with the latch you pop out to open the door.  None of this looked right.  And then I noticed a small room off the kitchen.  "What's this?" I asked my wife.  She shook her head.  She didn't seem to know.  She suddenly grew serious.  I thought I had seen all the other bedrooms and rooms of the apartment on my dizzy guided tour.

I crept into the room.  It was actually more of a hallway, as it led to the laundry room down at the other end.  The light shined down from another basement window high on the wall above and my desk was beneath this window, piled with loose papers and folded laundry, leaving no space to work.  Even the chair was piled with laundry.  But as I got closer, I saw that it wasn't laundry.  There was a bundle of people in the chair, or maybe just their heads.  I brushed back the dark hair from one of the faces and the eyes stared back at me, and then I jumped and jolted and screamed and finally found myself back in my own bed.