Friday, August 29, 2014

Dog Days



We’ve got most of the stuff moved out. The TV and the couch. And the mattresses on the floor. And the curtains and the clothes and the pans and the plates and all the shit in the garage. It’s all gone and d’Artagnan doesn’t know why. Why is everything gone? And then I leave. I’m gone. Somewhere. He doesn’t know where. And I’m gone all night long. And then, the next day, here I come again. And I’m removing the boxes from the basement. All the belongings the boys left behind when they moved to New York. Their clothes. Their antiquated stereo equipment that we don’t have the authority to toss out. So we move it to the new place and throw it in the spare room. “Someplace dry,” says Deb. “Not the basement or the attic.” Because we remember the time the basement flooded and we lost all those family photographs and books. And we remember the mice in the attic. Nibbling away at all our shit. As though it didn’t mean anything.   

Deb says we can’t bring the dog to the vineyard until he gets groomed. Because he “smells like a dog.” And the vineyard isn’t really our place. We’re just the caretakers. But the dog doesn’t know any of this. He’s left to wait. And he grows anxious. And he grows desperate. Remember that time we left him at my brother’s place for two months? D'Artagnan does. The landlord in Boston said no dogs. But the dog didn't know anything about that. He was left. And then, when we came to visit, only for a day, and were driving away on the highway, there was d’Art running faster than the wind right out on the highway. Chasing us down. And we had to slow up. And we had to let him in. And take him back again. Regardless of what the landlord might say. How could we leave him that way? Couldn’t we see how rapidly he could run? He came for us in a burst of speed. Nothing would stop him. How could we leave him again?

He remembers this. In his little dog brain. In his loyal dog brain. In his brain where he only wants to lie down with us when it’s time to sleep. And then wake up and eat some crunchy food. And then run outside and take a shit somewhere along the edges of the field. Where the grass grows longer. He wants these things to go on and on. He never wants them to end. In this world of springs and summers and falls and winters, he wants something that will never change. Not ever. Never. And the idea that his seasons with us might be over is too much for him. He’s in a ferrule state when I return the third day to bring him to the dog groomers. But he doesn’t understand my new words. They don’t sound like, “Are you hungry?” Or, “Do you want to go for a walk?” Or, “Come here, boy.” They sound like, “Don’t worry! Don’t worry, boy! We’re only going to the dog groomers!” I might have been saying, “You’re going to die! You’ll die today, boy! I’m driving you to the doggie slaughterhouse right now!”

And I need to address something. I hate to say it because I’m sure it means something about me I don’t want to acknowledge. But when the dog’s on the rear porch, begging to get in, with every motion of his body (mouth pulled back in a grimace, ears pressed down low in an overly-friendly Labradorian way), when he’s begging me to let him in. To not leave again. To not go away. When he’s whimpering and drooling; shaking with an emotion that might be called “love,” or maybe “desperation;” when he’s at his most vulnerable moment, that moment of absolute weakness, a wave of nausea washes over me.   


Brian gave me a motorcycle. It’s black. I post a picture of it on Facebook. “This is my new bike,” I write. Someone writes, “Cool.” And I write, “It’ll be cooler when I get it running.”

But I can’t get it running. Which shouldn’t bother me. Because it wasn’t a worry before Brian gave it to me. So why should it be a worry now?

But it is. It’s a worry. And the two-pound burrito from Ponchero’s doesn’t taste so good because I’m thinking about how that injection module I ordered on Ebay for 1/15th the price of a new one didn’t do the trick. And I wonder whether or not the part I got off Ebay might be no good. Or whether I’ve misdiagnosed the problem. And it gets me to wondering what I do know, exactly, about anything mechanical. And who do I think I am? Why should I be able to fix a BMW? All that German engineering. What gives me authority over all that German engineering? And then I wonder if maybe it’s the hall effect sensors, which send a signal to the ignition module. And the ignition module sends a signal to the injector module. And what signal would cause my injectors to lose their signal? Could the airflow sensor do that? And then I look it up online. Starter problems with the K100RS. Step by step. And I determine, according to the website, that the airflow sensor is, indeed, no good. And I order a used one, again on Ebay. And I install it.

I bring the dog to the groomers. He’s whimpering and drooling the whole way to West Branch. He's thinking, where are we going? Why is Joe acting so strangely? Do I disgust him? Why do I disgust him? Why, he thinks, does Joe keep saying, “Calm down, boy! Jesus fucking Christ!” What does it mean?

All the boxes are at the vineyard. Either in the barn or the old farmhouse. All the tools from my garage. All the clothes and mattresses. And pans and plates. Everything except the stuff we’ll take to the dump. And the K100RS. Which still doesn’t run. Because I may have replaced a bad airflow sensor with a bad airflow sensor. But how do I know? Can I trust the website? Can I trust the idea that a potentiometer should change resistance when the wiper arm is stroked first one way and then the other? That a thermistor should change resistance with a change in temperature? But what if I’m wrong on these counts? And if I’m wrong on these counts, what have I ever been right about? And what possible purpose might I serve on this planet?

The move is incomplete. And we are consumed with completing it. We have the idea that when it’s over, when the old house is sold or rented, things will be easier. Things will even out. And the sameness of things will be like a long drink of cool water. And things will remain constant for the foreseeable future.

We’ve changed residences five times within five years.
(Why is that?)
And each time, we’ve lost or discarded more of what we considered “our belongings.”  

Socrates would argue we’re practicing for the final move. When the time will come for us to lose everything.  

Epictetus would chime in, cleverly, “Say not that I have lost it. Say only that I have given it back.”

But of course what did he know about it? He was alive when he was purported to have delivered his clever line about death. And giving back everything he ever owned. And anyone he might have loved.       

The dog ceases his shaking when I open the door to the old farmhouse because he knows he’s home now. Here’s all the shit that was in the other place. It’s our shit. It must be our house. And he hasn’t been discarded. He’s still with us. And we feed him some more crunchy food. And he takes a shit in the field near the fence line. And he sleeps, once again, at my feet.

Deb worries about Mike’s medication.
I worry about the move.
“I worry,” I told Ethan.
“That’s why I like you,” he said.
Lucy is going to a new school.
Mike is going to a new school.
Imagine the bravery. To change schools at the start of your junior year.
When you’re a sixteen year old girl. And uncertain.
When you’re a sixteen year old boy. And severely autistic.
“Do you think he knows it?” said Scott.
“Yes,” I said. “He knows it. He knows he’s not like us. He knows it.”
And this should break my heart.
But it wouldn’t do anyone any good.
Besides, I’m too busy worrying about the fuel injector module. And the airflow sensor. And if I get the motorcycle going, I’ll take a trip to Colorado. And I’ll buy a whole shitload of weed for my son, Michael. Because it’s the only drug that helps him. And the trip will begin. And I’ll worry. And it’ll be over. And I’ll still worry.

I had a dream that there were angels on earth. They were very tall. And they wore dark robes. They didn’t really do much. They just stood around mostly watching us do whatever it is we do. But every now and then one of them would open his robe and I’d be filled, in the dream, with nothing but absolute happiness and absolute peace. With no reason to worry. Because I was in the presence of the absolute. The neverchanging. And all the rest was a trembling and drooling. A grimace. A whimper.

At the end, my mother bent over my father’s bed and she said, “I love you.”
And he said, “Do you?”
And she said, “You doubt me? You’ve never doubted me before.”
And he said, “Nothing seems real.”


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

This Reluctant Season



Kevin doesn’t shave much. He doesn’t worry about his skin or his nails or his teeth. Nor does he smoke cigarettes or drink coffee. He wears his baseball caps with the brims cut very short, which makes him appear, along with his bedraggled maintenance uniform, to be a hobo bicyclist. The short brims, I think, so he doesn’t need to turn his hats backward when he cuts and welds. He has large eyes made all the more dramatic by the reaction of the skin all around them, wrinkling the way it does when he concentrates.  

“You been watching any hockey?” I ask. Taking the three-foot diameter fan blade and balancing it on the vice. I adjust the vice.
Kevin considers my question for a few seconds before saying, hesitatingly, “not so much. Not since your Bruins bounced my Redwings from the playoffs.”
“I didn’t watch that series,” I say, “but I’m watching the Canadiens.”
“That’s what I like to see,” he says.

I pulled a condenser fan motor from the Student Union at Luther College. Condenser fan motors have condenser fans attached to their shafts, and most of them are positioned with their shafts, and therefore fan blades, facing upward to the heavens, so that each rainfall and snowfall and sleet storm seeks out the steel shaft and fan hub and eventually rusts the shit out of them both, locking them together in an eternal marriage. Till death do us part. And you need to take your hacksaw and cut the shaft and then take the blade and figure a way to divorce the two from one another.

“It’s a tough series,” I say. “I’m telling you. Those Habs are tough.”
“That’s what I like to see,” Kevin says again. “It’s getting back to the original teams. I’m only hoping the Tigers get it together this year.”
“You must be from Detroit originally?”
“Nope,” he says, turning and searching for something on the wooden tool bench, which is scattered with wrenches and vice grips and cans of 3-in-1 oil and dirty cloths and power tools and hasps and hammers. “Darn it. Where’s that striker?”

“I got one right here,” I say, reaching down and grabbing my striker from my trusty old tool pouch, which isn’t so trusty anymore, with all the holes in it which, if the wrong tool is shoved in the wrong fold, will let it pass all the way through.

Kevin takes the striker and blinks. Looks down. Blinks again.
“I grew up. I had a dream. I wanted to work at one of the auto plants in Detroit. I loved cars. Still do. But they were different then. Detroit was different then too. I never got to do it. Never even been to Detroit. But I always loved it.”
“I was up there not long ago,” I say. “It’s pretty rough. At least where I was.”
“I know,” he says. “I seen pictures. I wonder what can save it. I was thinking maybe Renault could come in and save it.” Long pause. Blink. “Mercedes didn’t do Dodge any favors. Those Germans.”
“They make good cars,” I say.  
“They do,” he says. “They do.”

Kevin gently picks up the cutting head from the oxy-acetylene rig and studies it. You’re not supposed to have any oil or grease on an oxy-acetylene welding or cutting head. None at all. The first thing they do in metal shop is partially fill a tiny balloon with a touch of oxygen and acetylene and then touch it to a torch. The explosion is thunderous. And it scares the shit out of everyone. “What we have here,” says the instructor, motioning toward the large tanks, is a bomb. Powerful enough to level, absolutely level, this building.”

“You want to use this one?” I ask Kevin, motioning toward my turbo torch.
“No,” he says, adjusting the acetylene knob on the head and tightening the flame. Bright orange. Black smoke curling up. Then he adjusts the oxygen knob. A blue dart entering in. Now the flame blue. Now the outer flame ghostly blue and the inner flame a sharp needle of light. He focuses the flame on the fan hub and moves it back and forth so as not to melt the steel. After a few seconds, the top of the hub begins to glow in that dull sunset color.
“That heats it up quick,” I say.
“I don’t know how deep it’s going,” he says, “but that metal has to be moving.”
I watch him heat the hub. I think about Detroit, Kevin’s childhood dream. And then the Barracuda he owns, all cherry bomb and Bondo, that low, Javelin shape still reminding me of Lynard Skynard and Aerosmith, those deathwish rides to the packey stores in New Hampshire on those beach weekends.

I make my way to my truck and flip open the back door. I grab my thirteen-pound sledge hammer, which I have named “The Bitch,” and then I open my plastic tool box and rummage around for my half-inch brass punch. Kevin snaps off the flame as I approach. I set down the Bitch and my punch, grab the blade and flip it upside down on the vice.

“You want me to tighten this up?” says Keven.
“No,” I say. “We’ll move it down. Then we’ll clean it up and drive it the other way. It’s a bitch to do the other way, with the punch. You end up peening the end over and you never get it off. Just hold on to it.”
Kevin holds the outside of the blades, steadying the hub. I grab the Bitch and take a swing.
“Holy shit,” says Kevin. “That thing is. . .”
I take another swing. I can feel a slight movement of the shaft, a sigh as it breaks away from the home it has known for the past fifteen years. I know it’s been fifteen years because I was the one who replaced the motor last time.
“…more like a maul.”
We flip the blade right side up again and Kevin begins searching around again for something else.
“What you looking for?”
“File,” he says. “And also. . .also. . .”
He continues searching.
“You know what the big secret ingredient of WD40 is?” I say.
Kevin stops searching and blinks. Considers. “No,” he says.
“Fish oil.”
He considers this. Smiles slowly. Nods his head. “I can believe that. You know, back fifty years ago transmission oil was mainly whale oil. And then, when that became uncool, transmissions suffered.” He nods. We both stare off for a second, as if we can see that time. Right there before us. Fifty years ago. And those unlucky whales and those lucky transmissions.

When Kevin returns with the WD40, he prepares to spray some on the hot shaft. “Look out,” he says. “This might flash.”
He lets out a little oil. There is the sound of a cigarette extinguished in a puddle of water and a wisp of white vapor. And now he’s spraying liberally. And now using his file, with folded up length of sand cloth, to clean the shaft. The rust comes off begrudgingly. But it has no choice. Not when faced with the file. Kevin is telling me how he went down to what he calls my “neck of the woods” last weekend. Down to North Liberty.

“It’s a long story,” he says, a few moments after I ask why. “There was a guy down there. Had two Cadillac engines. Five hundred cubic inches. Largest production motor made. And I was talking to this one guy online about how I wanted one because I already have one but I need another one and before I know it, I get this email from this professor guy. Used to teach physics or something. And he had these two engines. Was going to build an air boat. Or something. Imagine that? That thing would have. . .anyway, and he had these two five Cadillac engines he wanted to get rid of and. . .”
“He didn’t build his boat?”
“I guess not. And never will now because I came down and bought them engines. Both of them. Now I got three of them. All different years. 71, 72 and 73.”
“Are the parts usable one to the next?”
“Some. Some are.”
“What are you going to do? You want to put in in the Cuda?”

Kevin thinks about this, as if he has never thought of it before. But what he’s really thinking is, “Well. . .the Cuda is mainly Mopar. You know? What I really want is a 56 Chevy.” He smiles after he says this. He was shy of telling me this secret, and now he feels a bit exposed, yet shining dully. Pleased with the revelation.

“You and everyone else,” I say.
He blinks. “I know,” he says. “I know. But that’s what I want.”
The shaft has cooled down a bit now, and it’s shining dully as well, all the small pockmarks from the rust burrowed into the steel like cancer visible, and Kevin is lighting his torch again and heating the hub and then I’m grabbing my brass punch and the Bitch.

“Ready for the moment of truth?” I say, hammer poised.
“I’m ready,” he says.
“I take a little, abbreviated swing, careful to drive my punch in the center of the shaft so as not to peen the edge. The shaft moves. I do it again. The shaft scoots along again. I do it again, the shaft level with the hub now, and there is suddenly no movement.
“Uh oh,” I say, bending down and looking under the vice at the length of shaft, which has been driven up against a stationary part on the bench.
“It’s hitting something,” I say. Kevin bends down and moves the shaft, so it’s clear of the obstacle.
I drive the shaft partway down through the hub and my punch bottoms out. Kevin starts searching around again for something.

It’s May 13th. And still the spring refuses to arrive. Despite the flowering trees and bushes. Despite all our wishes. The wind is steady and strong from the north and west. The temperature around the fifty degree mark. It’s cold if you’re not working. If you’re just sitting and considering things. Outside is not a place to be. But of course, we’re not outside. We’re in the boiler room. With the classic car calendars on the wall and all the tools spread about.  


Kevin comes up with a half-inch bolt. I grab it. Stick it in the hole, and tap it with The Bitch. The small, cut up, heated up, rusted up length of shaft pings against the concrete floor of the boiler room, where so many of these jobs have been done through the years. Where it’s always warm, thanks to the burning of #2 fossil fuel oil in the big, old not-so-efficient steam boilers. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Writer's Life


It’s hard to discipline your kid for being a lazy sack of shit and sleeping until one and not doing any work for money or otherwise when you’re doing the same thing. The winter was long and cold. I think we went an entire week with the temperature below zero. And it snowed steadily but in a maddeningly moderate way so there’d be no excitement regarding the big storm. You’d need to peel yourself out of bed when you just couldn’t find it in you to sleep or lie beneath the covers and daydream or edit your bullshit manuscript for one more minute because you couldn’t stand yourself anymore and you needed to get dressed for the cold and venture outside only to shovel the two inches of snow from the night before. And that would be your work for the day because you didn’t want to miss an episode of Gun Smoke or Bonanza.

I had never behaved this way. Never in my life. To lie in the hot bathtub, all the lights on, and read a detective story while the cold wind blasted away at the windows. To just lie there and wonder how much longer the gas would stay on and what, exactly, it would be like when the bank actually repossessed the house. And to think, what fools these people are, getting up early and driving to jobs and working all day and coming home and watching TV and drinking a lot of alcohol and going to sleep again. What fools they all are. And thinking of the industrious homeless people I so often saw, gathering cans from dumpsters. Toting around big plastic bagfulls of them. Boy, I thought, that takes a lot of effort. More effort than I seemed to be capable of. And then it would be out of the tub and I’d make some oatmeal. Just oatmeal. No fruit because fruit is expensive. And it would be past one o’clock, so I’d wake up my lazy sack of shit son and ask if he wanted to eat some oatmeal with his lazy sack of shit dad and he’d say yes. And then we'd eat the oatmeal while watching Bonanza, the winter wearing on through the windows. And we’d watch Bonanza. That horribly uncomfortable season happening outside. And I, so grateful for my shelter. So fearful of losing it. But not fearful enough to actually do some kind of work that paid. Only writing. Sitting up in bed. Writing. Editing. Moving words around. Deleting them. Moving paragraphs around. Deleting them. Because they didn’t work. Or I thought they didn’t work and then, after deleting them, I’d miss them and add them again, and then, realizing again they didn’t work, delete them again and then miss them and then fuck the whole thing and make some oatmeal. When we were feeling especially rich, William and I would split lunch at a Mexican place called El Cactus. We knew the owner and I’d always speak Spanish and he’d always laugh at the way I spoke it and the things I said. “Oh, como esta?” “Oh, Gracias!” “Me gusto mucho!” And then, if we were feeling especially, especially rich, we’d see a matinee movie. But those days were rare and most days it would be oatmeal and Bonanza and then rearranging words again.

These were the conditions under which I completed my second book, which I am determined to call a work of fiction even though I never invented a single event or expression on anyone’s face and the dialogue was a close as I could come without using a recording device. But still, it’s all fiction. It’s not real. Not like when it really happened. Open to myriad interpretation. All from our own perspectives. And never recognizing ourselves even for a minute in someone else’s version of events. “I never said that!” “Yes you did! You said it like ten times!” “I did not! I’d never say that!”  Or, “why do you always try to make me look like an idiot?”

I have only realized, just now, that I wrote the book while grieving the death of my father. I thought the grieving process had passed me by. Like the angel of death. Due, perhaps, to the blood I smeared over out lintel. I never cried. Not specifically for his death. I simply sank into that great, black morass of meaninglessness. I mean, why work? What would it mean in the end? What would any of it mean? What fools they all are for driving to work the way they do. Don’t they know what’s waiting for them? And I fear, now, not having even glanced at the manuscript since I sent it out to a few friends of mine, that nobody wants to read about death and grief and depression. It’s not interesting. And I’m afraid I may have depicted my friends and family in ways they will find insulting. Even though I never meant to insult them. And I fear that I am most certainly literarily autistic, completely unaware of how one should behave on the page. And I fear that it was all for nothing. Coming from nothing. Going nowhere. For no reason. And every day that passes and still no email from friend one two or three, I fear they all hate the work. And what’s more, hate me. Because why would one man presume to send them such dreck? Why must they wade through so many pages of it? For what?


I have always wished that my life could be simple. For it to be guided by a simple purpose. It’s a major theme for me. And I’m bored with ruminating upon it like a cow on a cud but so be it. Why can’t I wake up and the world is largely orange and yellow and the ranch is made of rough-hewn oak and we have an Asian cook and Paw sends Hoss and me to repair the fence line down by Shady Creek? We might spot some rustlers while we’re out there. And we might just have to set them straight. Right, Paw? But Hoss didn’t last long. Nor did Little Joe. And that other brother who later became bald and then a medical doctor and now dead. Of course. What else should he become? And Lorne Greene did dog food commercials before he died. And his voice was so deep and his expression so sincere.  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Beat the Devil

William is writing a graphic novel about two post-apocalyptic characters, one named Father and the other Son. These two ride around on their choppers and sit by campfires and try to survive in a dark world. Son, who has never known anything before the apocalypse, is very romantic. He wants to fall in love, but he has never met a girl. Father remembers the world the way it was. He recalls television shows and commercials and the internet and frozen dinners and things like owning a house, which, after the apocalypse, being only a dream, seems absurd. But still, he remembers.

William writes a scene in which Father and Son are chased by a horde of invaders. They agree to split up and meet at the old camp, but as soon as Son takes an exit, Father pulls his bike over and dismounts. He kills many with his war club, but eventually is subdued and beaten to death.  

“He needs to be killed so Son can become a man,” William explains.
But still, I don’t like this newest turn.
“So, the son becomes a man because he gets away?" 
"That's not the point." 
"But what about Father?" 
"He's dead, man." 
I don't like this turn at all. 
"Maybe he can come back as the undead or something,” I say.
“But that sort of ruins the metaphor,” says William.
“Who cares?” I say. “It’d be cool! Besides, anyone who sacrifices their life for something bigger, in this case his son, becomes, like, greater than he was before. Look at Jesus. Joan of Arc. Martin Luther King.”
And I go on to name a bunch of other martyrs. But William hates it.

“Okay," I say, “How about this? I’m not telling you how to write it, but the father should meet up with a character that seems to be his ideal. This big, strong, quiet guy who knows everything about engines and the father should compromise himself in some way. You know? He should compromise himself and that will be his bargain with the devil. Because the guy he thinks is his ideal is actually Satan. That’s how Satan operates. You need to be the one who chooses him. He has no power other than that. So, the father is fooled into this deal with the devil, and then the father needs to die, but the son is innocent so he’s unaffected by the deal. And his whole mission is then to get even with the devil. Because these post-apocalyptic stories are perfect for God and the Devil. Right? There’s always God and the Devil. I love that shit.”
“But the father still dies,” says William.
“Yeah,” I say. "I guess." 
“And he doesn’t come back.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Does he come back? Can he come back?”

These days I spend with William are more than I could have hoped for. We work out twice a week – 150 pushups, 50 pullups, 75 dips, curls, crunches, military press, and jump rope. William has boxing gloves and headgear from his kickboxing days, and on the off days we try to spar. Four rounds at three minutes a round. Punches pulled. No haymakers. And we write together sometimes. Sometimes we split lunches at the Cactus, a small Mexican restaurant in Coralville, or the China Garden. Last weekend, we raked the lawn together. Yesterday, he helped me change out a water heater. Next month, he’ll be moving to New York City with his brother, Sam.

I never got to spend time like this with Sam. Sam and I never had a mature relationship. It was always father / son. I’d tell him to clean his room to no avail, and to avoid drugs to no avail. There were a lot of things I told Sam to no avail. But I didn't listen much. And then he moved out and he hasn’t moved back. Lucy, my only daughter, is sixteen years old and hates me for being old and disgusting. And she probably will hate me for the foreseeable future.

I had a dream that the children were young. We were hiking in the woods at Squire Point. We were paddling the canoe down the Iowa River. We were inspecting the ruins of a tarpaper shack on some abandoned stretch of highway. We were in Arizona climbing Silly Mountain. Moving through North Dakota by train. Swimming in the Atlantic. Swimming in the Pacific. Lucy’s body bright red due to the cold. But all these things, of course, actually happened. Not that they are in any way distinguishable, now, from things that didn’t actually happen.

Mounted on the walls of the stairway leading downstairs are a series of self-portraits done by my children when they were each in kindergarten. Sam’s is square and robot-like. William looks like a half-formed human. Maybe in a pupal state, arms and legs forthcoming. Lucy is standing beneath a tree with tulips. Beside her self-portrait is a small crayon drawing of a small person and a large person, both smiling like maniacs, with the words “Me and Dad.” When she did it, I thought it was very cute and didn’t think much more about it. But Deb, having a feminine sense of history, framed it and hung it. Now, seeing it in the midst of this other life where Lucy dates a baseball player who owns a truck and works at Noodles and Company and has been drifting farther and farther away, as I head downstairs with a load of laundry, the little crayon drawing makes me want to cry.

Last night, I was an eagle. I was released in one level of a video game. The idea was, I needed to fight some evil force. The devil. But the devil would appear as many flying creatures yet to be released into this particular level. I flew to a lighting fixture, high up in the clouds, an enormous window behind me. Another eagle joined me, an ally.

“There’s no way they’ll miss us here,” I said.

I thought of the two of us, perched on the lighting fixture high up in the air, backlit by the window, an easy target. Looking down, I saw a dark barroom with a grill. I couldn’t make out much else, it being so dark. So, I flew down and huddled up next to the exhaust hood, loud music, the smell of stale beer, the patrons shouting, and was invisible. My eagle friend joined me. And we waited for the devil so that we might subdue him and beat him to death.  

It has been my third devil dream in a row. Once he appeared on my daughter’s computer screen, a series of colorful lines and the sound of static, and although I was almost paralyzed with fear, I walked into her room to protect her. And then, once, he was in the closet beyond the TV set as I slept on the couch, and although I didn’t want to look, I had to use all my energy to turn my head. And then awoke to find that my neck was very uncomfortable and at an odd angle on the arm of the couch. And although my heart was racing, the devil had once again disappeared.

But it’s hard to believe in such things when I'm not sleeping. And the spring has just begun, the best part of spring when there is yet to be even one leaf on a tree and the crocuses have just now poked their purple and white heads up and fifty degrees feels like a beach day. How long ago was it when I first saw a crocus make its through that frozen soil? How long ago when I hated to step out of my truck, the cold wind pulling at me like a vengeful spirit? A week ago? Two weeks ago? And I would have given anything, then, for a day like today. 

I’m raking again. Alone this time. The sun bright. The wind at bay. New shoots rising up from the roots of the old crabapple tree. And I filling my certified paper bags with dry leaves and lining them up on the curb to be taken away. Those leaves that have been so long covered with snow so that I imagined they might not be there anymore. Unraked last fall when my father lay dying and I crisscrossing that familiar stretch of highway again and again, unaware of what death might look like. Of what it might be like to be in a world without a father.

All this talk of death. And loss. When the season is so new. It’s ridiculous to maintain focus on this dark ending. To imagine that death is any more final or absolute than life. What could be more absolute than life?   

“I have four kids,” said the woman I met yesterday morning in Brueger’s Bagels. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“At the time?" I said. "Not about kids.” 


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Leap Frogs of the Rhoudenbush Community Center


The Rhoudenbush Community Center in Westford center had three large, steel frogs painted green that we were supposed to leap over and, even when I was very young, they bored the shit out of me. I leaped over them each once and that was the end of my interest in the leap frogs. The swings were cool. I got a lot out of them. That heavy feeling in the stomach on the bottom of the arc, and then the zero gravity at the top, the chains suddenly free from their load. I don’t think they had a merry-go-round. Those were deemed dangerous. But whoever deemed them dangerous should have also deemed the teeter-totter dangerous too. Who puts a fifteen foot plank with a fulcrum in the very center of it and doesn’t expect kids to #1 try to launch a lesser object, like a smaller child, into the air by leaping on the other end, or #2, stand in the middle and pretend you’re surfing while two other children go up and down, or #3 step off at the perfect moment so the other kid free-falls six feet and lands on the plank? What’s dangerous about that?

But I guess it didn’t matter. When we weren’t provided with dangerous things, we provided our own dangerous things. We tipped our bikes upside down and spun the wheels as fast as we could while “working on” the chains. I got my finger caught once. A trip to the hospital. And then we flipped them right side up and took big jumps on them. I don’t know how many times I crunched my nuts when I was a kid. Or how many times I suffered concussions from first climbing trees and then falling out of them. A trip to the hospital. One time, while getting bucked on the back of a ten speed, I somehow got my bare foot caught in the spokes. Another trip to the hospital.

But this was nothing. The guys down at the corner of Long Sought for Pond and Dunstable Roads, Danny Carlo and Big Mike Bomal, and and Vinnie Dorsett all bought switchblades and were always talking about street fights with what they called the “Ricans” so Dave and I asked for switchblades for our birthdays and ended up with Swiss army knives. We were proud of them, but when we showed them to the guys, they were not impressed. “What’re you going to do, blunt them to death?” I never saw any street fights going on, but was eager to become involved. This was the time of the film, The Warriors, where there were a bunch of gangs all wanting to kill one another. And it was always the time of Clint Eastwood, the man more responsible than anyone else in the history of mankind for the idea that one guy could and probably should kill ten or twelve other guys all by himself. My brother, Dave, took this theory to heart. He was always getting into fights with whole groups of people, but he didn’t have the poncho or the leather hat with the wide brim or the beard or, more importantly, the six shooter in the holster, or even more importantly, the script or the camera nor the film editor. Dave got his ass kicked regularly. I must have been more cowardly because I rarely went for the whole crowd. I’d go one at a time. But Dave and I were alike in that we both had some oversized sense of justice and, at the same time, a vulnerability to the world, to other kids calling us faggots or saying something about our red hair (red on the head like the dick on a dog) or mentioning something about us being identical twins, or saying anything at all that might be construed as a slight. We held a wild and ferule desire to be placed in kill-or-be-killed situations.

In most civilized societies, there is a line drawn between one person saying something to another person, and punching that other person in the face. But such a line did not exist in Westford, Massachusetts in the mid ‘70s. People punched each other in the face all the time. And if you weren’t punching someone in the face, you were getting punched in the face. And if you had the lowest of impulses, the impulse that has allowed our race to survive climate changes though the millennia and the end of the dinosaurs and tribes of invaders, you had a better shot at waiting at the bus stop or smoking cigarettes before class or walking down the hallway without being hassled. But of course, we were hassled. We were red heads. And twins for god sake. And we weren’t the biggest kids in our grade. So, there were fights. And all the classical music our parents listened to and all the foreign films they saw and all the books our mother read to us and all the art museums they took us to lost out to Sergio Leone. We knew there would come a time, because it came all the time, when we would be alone against the many. And we knew that, in order to do what was right and good and maybe not pure but necessary, there would be bloodshed. And it was always better to shed someone else’s.

Just out of high school, we spent most of our time in Lowell, the closest real city to Westford. There was a big man outside glass window of Captain C’s sub shop one night. My friends were eating steak and cheese subs. I didn’t know why the big man kept looking in the window. Why was he looking? My friends didn’t seem to notice, eating steak and cheese subs as they were. But the big man kept looking. He didn’t appear happy. He was four or five smaller men. I didn’t like the big one.

I was with Gary Nosek, perhaps the best athlete in Westford, Massachusetts, who could throw a baseball in the mid-90s. On the football field, you could hear him growl from the sidelines, and when you hear him growl like that, carrying the ball, you knew someone else was going to fall to the turf in pain. Gary never seemed to be in pain. And then he took up karate. In a fight, nobody could beat him. And the less-smart among us had tried. In third grade, I tried. It was the only fight I had ever lost at that tender age. When it came time to shake hands, as was the custom of vice-principles to make students do in those days, I refused to do so. He had beaten me in a fight. And I didn’t know how to respond. Steve Johnson, whom everyone called “Hyper” due to his high energy in football practice, was there as well as my buddy Doug Delillo, the man with arms like tree trunks, and there were three or four other guys at Captain C’s when the big man, who was standing outside glass window of Captain Jason's Sub Shop in Lowell, Mass, put his foot through the glass. And the glass didn’t just crack and craze and fall out in chunks the way safety glass does. It shattered, tiny crystals all over us. And, because I had been watching the big man, I was ready for it, out the door before anyone else had fully realized what happened, and down the street after big man and his friends.

I circled around the corner by the viaduct to a side-street where one lone streetlight cast a very dramatic pool of orange light on the pavement. Other than that, tenement apartments. Parked cars. Dogs barking. The ghostly flicker of TVs from inside the windows. And distant sirens. And the smell of piss and cigarette smoke. And someone shouting something from somewhere. Other than that, darkness and silence. And emptiness. And I was all alone on the empty street. Heart pounding fast. Blood lust up. Nobody behind me. Nobody in front of me. Until my friends caught up, now running. Now walking. Gathering around me, my friends. Who were indomitable. And I was surprised to hear myself shouting for big man to come out. Calling him a pussy. Calling him a coward. Telling him was going to kill him. And why was I going to kill him? Why, in this world of classical music and art films and punching and kicking and stabbing and shooting, was I going to kill this one particular big man? Because he kicked glass on my sandwich, which I had paid three dollars for. That’s why. He had kicked glass on my three-dollar sandwich.  

It was pretty badass to see the big man step out directly beneath the street light, about thirty yards up the hill. A black silhouette stepping out of the other blackness. Stepping out. Sub sandwich in hand. He was big. His shoulders were broad. And he gave a shout. And then the others stepped out of the darkness, all along the street. Maybe six guys in all. And they just stood there like guys in The Warriors. Just like we would expect them to do if we were in the darkness of a theater. And the big one was walking toward us, and I stepped out front the way Achilles would do. And the big man stepped up to me the way Hector would do. And there was a silence that descended upon us, neither of us sure of what would come next if this were a story, and, at the same time knowing that something certainly would come next. We couldn’t just walk away. Every film we had ever seen demanded something of us.

“What’s up?” said big man. 
“You like kicking in windows?” I said.
“What?” said big man. 
“You like kicking in windows?” I said.
“What?” said the big man.
“You heard me,” I said. 
“Where’d you get that sub?” shouted Doug Delillo.  
Big man looked at the sub in his hand.
This was not a cool thing for Doug to say. He was engaging in deductive reasoning. We weren’t there for a class in deductive reasoning. We were here for some other reason.  
“I’m going to kick your ass,” I said to big man.

Big man looked at all of us. My friends a few steps back. And then he looked at me. The skinny red headed kid. He could tell my friends weren’t keen to fight. We were just kids from a little suburban town somewhere. We weren’t jailbirds or tough guys. We had lawns. And moms.

“Oh yeah?” said big man, tossing his sub to the side of the road.
“He threw his sub away!” shouted Doug Delillo, victoriously. “That’s good enough! He threw his sub away! Let’s go.”

But I wouldn’t have it. I had been insulted in my primal soul. Glass has been kicked upon my sub and there was no civilized solution for such an uncivilized act. I knew that big man must fall. And he came at me. He was much bigger than I was. Taller and wider. And he knew he’d have no problem with me. I sidestepped his lunge and punched him once in the face and then twice more while he fell. Now I was straddling him. Now I had his arms pinned, his head completely vulnerable, my fist poised in the air, and then I recalled something I saw earlier in the year. A real big guy, even bigger than big man, named Johnny Damm, who moved to Westford from somewhere in New York, had some schmoe on the ground just like I had this schmoe on the ground, and he held his fist in the air the way I was holding my fist in the air, but he didn’t hit the guy. He said, “Listen, pal. This fist can put you in the hospital for a long time. You want to be in the hospital for a long time?” And I thought that was just about the coolest thing I ever saw. When in every other instance, for myself and every other fighter I had ever seen, the fist came down. And the blood splattered everywhere. And the fist came down again and again.

“This fist can put you in the hospital,” I said to big man. “You want to go to the hospital?”
The guy shook his head.
“What did you say?” I said.  
“No!” he said.  

And I stepped back and he got up, looking back at his friends. “Let’s go!” he shouted, lunging at me again. I put the guy on the ground once again, and his friends did not move. They simply watched their big friend hit the ground once again. But I didn’t put him in the hospital. I guess you could say it was my first act of mercy. Although it had more to do with trying to be like Johnny Damm than mercy. And we walked back to Captain Jason's. Spoke to the cops. Got free subs. Went home. Went through college or not. Got jobs. Had families or not. Lost parents. Moved on through that tidal wave of time that makes every big man little. Everything real a dream. Everything that seemed cool uncool.   

  

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Breakfast at IHOP


Years ago, when my four children were young, I wrote half a novel about a selfish, unintelligent guy named Bill who had a bad marriage and four children who were becoming aware that their father was a loser. Because Bill needed money, yet was unemployed and lacked any salable skills, he decided to go on a crime spree, ripping off IHOP restaurants at slingshot-point while dressed as Santa Claus. In the last chapter of the first half, in the heart of winter, teenage kids shouted names at him as they pegged him with loose pennies and nickels from their pockets. Rather than protect himself, our hero lay on his back trying to retrieve the runaway coins from under the grease dumpster. I couldn’t finish the novel because, search my mind as I may, I could find no redemption for my hero. Since he never had anything, he couldn’t regain it. And since neither he nor I had any idea what he might be looking for, he couldn’t very well find it.  

It wasn’t my only attempt at fiction. There were other half-finished novels, all of my heroes following the same spiral path downward. During my spasmodic attempts at writing, in those early Iowa days, I did bring in money for my family by working in the trades, and I did love my family the best way I knew how, and I had friends who were important to me, and I played golf and softball and listened to baseball on the radio and occasionally treated myself to breakfast at the IHOP, and I was happy from time to time. But my moments of happiness, when I was actually playing golf, for example, were always surrounded by my awareness that the good parts didn’t last. That was the nature of the good parts. It was the bad parts, consisting of either waiting for the good parts or regretting that the good parts were over, that comprised, I believed, the more abiding truth. I dreaded the good parts even when they were upon me, like spring after winter, because I knew them to be false. There would be lilacs one week and then they'd be gone and the brutal summer would press its white skies down upon us again, like The Truth. I had this idea of my life forging the original path for my fictional characters, circling the drain, and although I should have been happy with my life, blessed as I was with everything I could have dreamed of when I was a kid lying on my parent’s orange shag rug listening to the Herb Alpert album, I was miserable, forever waiting and regretting and then waiting again. I imagined there might be some way I could work against this continuous, inexorable Coriolis effect of misery. I thought there must be an answer of some kind that would solve the equation for my irredeemable character.

Professions of religious faith make me uncomfortable. If someone needs to invoke the name of The Lord after winning a golf tournament or an Oscar, I tend to change the channel. A Mariano Rivera point to the heavens, on the other hand, never bothered me. And I’m often moved when, during an injury time-out on the football field, a circle of grown men kneel to pray. So, how to explain my reticence when it comes to writing about the changes in my religious belief that has occurred over the past ten or fifteen years? Maybe it’s because religious fervor often goes hand-in-hand with bigotry and riots and murder and war. But the same can be said, I suppose, for many kinds of fervor. Maybe it's because so many religious leaders seem to be know-it-all, closed-minded, hypocritical assholes. I don't know. Maybe that's why. I guess I've never had what could be defined as religious "fervor." But I wonder if there can exist in a person a strong belief in a certain thing and, at the same time, a complete acceptance of all other beliefs? I hope these things can exist in me, although I can't say I've come that far yet. I do maintain many of the characteristics of my old anti-hero, Bill, but my story is different now. My struggle to accept the existence of a loving and merciful God has been the central narrative of my adult life. Still, I haven’t been able to approach it on the page without trying to sidestep it with sarcasm or irony. It’s a special kind of coward who receives something like forgiveness and redemption and refuses to acknowledge it for fear of how he might appear to his friends.


And so, I have to say I admire Matthew McConaughey for his acceptance speech last Sunday. It wasn’t easy for me to listen to, but it was important for me to hear. 

http://www.buzzsugar.com/Matthew-McConaughey-Oscar-Acceptance-Speech-Video-34235430
   


Friday, February 28, 2014

The Village


I never identified with the NO FEAR bumper stickers because I've always been scared to death of something. When I was young, I was afraid I’d never be able to buy all the stuff that was needed to be an adult. All the pots and pans and shoes and suit coats and coffee tables and stuff. When I was a teenager, I was afraid I’d never be able to do what was necessary to have a girlfriend. Or a career. Or a house. After I got married, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make enough money to do all the cool stuff I had always wanted to do. But the minute Mike was born, I had different fears.   

Mike was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis. He suffers from severe autism. He will never be able to take care of himself. Most likely, he will never have a job, cook a meal, or have a conversation about politics. Michael turned sixteen two weeks ago. He’s six feet tall, two hundred and ten pounds, about ten pounds heavier than I am.

He still gets out of bed when we say it’s time to get out of bed. He still takes a bath when we say it’s time to take a bath. But I’m afraid that one day, he’ll realize that he doesn’t need to do what we say anymore. I’m also afraid he might hurt someone. I’m afraid he might be taken away from us and placed in a state-run home, shot up with drugs, and parked in front of a television for the remainder of his life. And even if we can handle him for another thirty years, when we’ll be in our eighties, if he’s not taken away because he hits someone or escapes from us and runs around downtown Iowa City naked or something, I’m afraid of what will happen when Deb and I grow too old to care for him anymore; to play with him in the yard; to take him for walks in the woods with the dog; to go to the beach with him, eat dinner with him, lie down with him at night and wander off into sleep, cook waffles for him in the mornings, take long drives with him. I’m afraid what will happen after Deb and I die. I wonder who will take care of Mike then.  

These are a few of my fears. And I wish I didn’t have them. I wish I could buy a bumper sticker or maybe get a tattoo: NO FEAR, and all of it would be banished. But bravado won’t banish these fears. 

In a few years, when Mike turns twenty-one, there will be no state-run educational program for him anymore, and we’ll be on our own. If we do nothing, he will eventually be sent to a home somewhere. I know that homes for kids like my son are necessary and there are thousands of good and worthy people who have made it their life’s work to care for people who can’t care for themselves. And these people should be celebrated and held in high regard by our society and offered continuing education and paid a good salary with incentives and stock options and given healthcare benefits and vacation time. It’s a nice dream, but in Iowa, the going wage for a direct service provider is between eight and eleven dollars an hour. No benefits. No vacation. Both my sons have worked for Mayor’s Youth in Iowa City as direct care providers for a short time. For them, as for most direct care providers, the job provides stop-gap employment. It’s not hard to understand why most people quit. When you place the demands of the job on one side of the scale and the available compensation on the other, the two don’t balance out.

For the time being, during the fall and winter months, we send Mike to school every day. He’s in school for six hours and then he comes home. We’re grateful for the people who teach him. Mike has allowed us to be exposed to generous and kind people. One of his teachers, Michelle, was Mike’s favorite. She was kind to him and, more importantly, wouldn’t relent in her demands that he learn to zip his coat and wash his hands and say “Hello” and “Good bye” and “Please” and “thank you,” which were great leaps. Another teacher, Alexandria, took Mike on walks across the Iowa prairies and brought him to art museums and rock climbing walls and painted pictures with him. But these two teachers, like all teachers, moved on. They had their own personal fears to overcome and their own goals to achieve. But in these things, Mike is left behind.

If we do nothing, there will come a time when we have no control over what happens to our son. We will leave him behind the way everyone else does. And people will be paid a low wage to feed him and bathe him and switch channels for him. But who will talk to him and wrestle with him and tease him and sing songs to him and demand interaction from him and, in short, love him like a son? Mike will be cared for. But he will also be left alone.

If we do nothing, these are the things that will most likely come to pass. Of course, not all teachers are like Michelle and Alexandria. One of the aids hired to teach our son was, by chance, caught on tape winding up and slapping him in the face. Although this incident was difficult and hurtful, it’s also easy to understand. Children like my son test us.

If a child shouts constantly and doesn’t know how to use a toilet and paces frantically all night long and occasionally becomes frustrated and violent due to his inability to communicate, how difficult would it be for a care provider to maintain a calm and loving demeanor? What if, due to the child's inability to communicate, everything done in the child’s presence is done in complete anonymity? What are the chances that this child will be abused in some form at some point in his life? It doesn’t take research and statistics to determine the answer. The chances stand at one hundred percent. This child will suffer abuse.    

For the past year or so, Deb and I have been meeting with five other families who have children with varying degrees of intellectual disabilities. Our decision to band together and build a communal home for our children comes less by choice than necessity, as doing nothing is not an option. If we are to overcome our greatest fear, the fear that our children will be left behind, in the end, without the love of their families and friends, we must do something now. Fear, it turns out, has been our ally because it has brought us to this unavoidable conclusion. 

A common necessity makes for a strong bond. Together, we have decided to form a nonprofit corporation. We will buy land. We will build a village. We will plant a garden. We will cook and sleep and learn and grow as a family, all of us together, parents and children and grandchildren, a continuum of support and advancement, a stable place for those unable to do for themselves, a place that will exist long after we are gone.   

We make this decision, if it can be called a decision, because there is no alternative. We must build a home for our children where they will be loved and protected from abuse and led toward some greater understanding of the world, of what is possible to be brought forth through the human mind and spirit. And we’re not alone. Although we conceived of this idea on our own, we have since discovered that there is already a community of people who are starting up cooperative homes like the one we’re in the process of organizing all around the world.   

Just as the rest of us must do, our special needs children must discover what it is they are capable of. And it's our responsibility, as parents, to provide a place for them in which they can do more than merely exist. We need to provide a place for them in which they can live.

I know it sounds like I’m running for office or something. I’ve written a few flowery-unicorn-fluffy-cloud sentences that need to be brought down to earth. But we will bring them down to earth because it’s what we need to do. We will do more than have a flowery vision. We will do something far more worthy. We will work to secure a future for your children. And it is this work that will banish our fear.