Friday, September 12, 2014

Black Spider Black Hole



I dated a woman, once, with a sister who lived in Saratoga Springs and in the summer we’d ride the motorcycle out from Boston. One morning, we bought a cup of coffee and walked down to the famous racetrack to watch the thoroughbreds warm up. (That little grunting sound when they come off a full run and slow down around the backstretch. The crescent moons of clay flying up. The sun just up. Hovering above the grandstand.) And we so young. I didn’t know, then, how close I was to my childhood. I didn’t know who we might be. I thought we might be the type of people who would summer on Lake George and come to the track in the mornings, she in her woven summer hat and I in my Benetton sailing shirt. Maybe Saratoga would become our habit. And we’d walk into the party with one eye on the mirror. And we’d go out on Lake George like we did that one time with the sister’s boyfriend. And then, maybe, a round of evening golf.

It was eight and a half hours on the Megabus from Burlington to Manhattan with one stop in Saratoga. Raining the whole way. The Saratoga racetrack was empty. Maybe there were no races scheduled anyway. I don’t know. 

It was dark on the corner of 7th and 24th and I wasn’t exactly sure where I was in relation to where my sons lived. Somewhere in Bushwick. I’d need to figure out what train would take me there but first I’d stop by the restaurant where William waited tables and maybe we’d go out, although I was weary of travel and it was hot in the city, the rain having abated, and I had a heavy gym bag and computer to tote around with me. On the other side of 7th, Fashion Avenue. I saw the familiar pastel orange and pink sign with the coffee cup and steam swirling out, so, obedient to the accumulated advertising of my youth, that’s where I went first. A coffee and donut.

Coffee balanced atop a trash can while I unsheathed my donut. And then down to the subway, where I picked up a subway card on the ground and put some time on it and then took the position of tourist, frowning at the subway map pasted behind the Plexiglas mounted to the white tile wall. The L train, William had said. And there it was. Gray in color. And here I was. I was here. On the red strip of color. Which didn’t seem to have anything to do with the L train. I cleared the stairs and walked two blocks to the orange strip of color and took that toward the Rockaways.

I thought it was toward the Rockaways. I was pretty sure. But I wasn’t absolutely sure. But I didn’t sweat it. If I was headed the wrong direction, I’d know it pretty fast. And then I’d get off and catch a train heading in the opposite direction. One that coupled up with that pesky L train.  

I was sweating heavily by the time I reached the restaurant where William worked, a small place called Koda on Flushing Ave. My son, young and handsome, met me at the door. Introduced me to the bartender, who poured me a gin and tonic. Strange to see my son, who played with army men and drew pictures of little ant men distracted by heroic pursuits, in this black-walled New York place. He, dressed in black with black shoes. And I wonder if he is aware, as I was not when I was young, that he is young.  

Late that night, on the L train traveling back into Manhattan to meet my eldest son, Sam, who washes dishes at another restaurant, William confides in me.
“I spent most of my life being nervous,” he says.
As he speaks, I watch William’s hands. He twists his fingers together in a way that looks painful.
“I guess I’m just nervous. I always have been.”
“What do you mean, nervous?” I say.  
“Nervous,” he says. “You know. Nervous. Like, when I went to California? I was wicked nervous the whole time. I couldn’t just relax. I was always nervous. And the same when I came out here. Just nervous.”
“I’m sort of the same way,” I say.
Pause.
“Look at that,” says William.
The lights of Manhattan, across the water, are putting on a show. The way they do every night.
“It changes colors,” says William, motioning toward the Empire State Building, glowing like a beer sign. “But you know that. You’re a grown man.”

It’s endearing to me how William doesn’t try to mask his enthusiasm for the Manhattan skyline at night. He doesn’t care if everyone knows he’s not a native. But then, what’s so great about neglecting to see the beauty in a thing?

And then the skyline is gone. Darkness again. Lights flashing by. The squeal and shake. The man asking for money. Fought for his country. In a wheelchair now. Trying to make ends meet, he says. A family, he says. And I feel unmoved for some reason. Not that I being moved would matter or help his situation in any way regardless of the truth or falsity of his story, having no cash on me.

I can feel the city approach. The gravity of it. The weight and shadow of it. And all those tons of stone and gravel over our heads. There was a time when I was trapped beneath the weight of the things I feared. Even in those Saratoga days. Especially then. Even though I didn’t know it myself. I considered myself a free man then. I bought a motorcycle to prove it. Quit my job to prove it. Left that girlfriend. Found another. But I was nervous, like my son is now. I had dreams, then, the sleeping kind, not the waking kind, of shooting a gun that did no damage to my enemies. I’d shoot and shoot, and still they’d be coming after me and so I’d run.

There is a time of life when one must leave behind everything that, at another time in life, one was afraid of losing. There’s a chapter in Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge about the tradition, in the Indian culture, that the head of household walk away from the home he has built and the family he has procreated. Barefoot. Homeless. Without family or money. He walks away and begins again. In our culture, we call it abandonment. Lots of people do it. Mainly men. Who seem to dream of such things more regularly than women.

It doesn't make sense for me to walk away from my family to cure myself of the fear I have always had of losing them. My fear of the loss of my wife and children. The loss of our home. Our means of support. Our tenuous place in society. Among our friends and professional acquaintances. My fear of becoming dispossessed. Without roots. And at the root of all my fears, like a black spider in a black hole, the fear of my own death.

I’ve always been afraid of spiders. But it’s silly to fear them. It’s like fearing rose bushes or poisonous toads. The likelihood of being poisoned by a toad or caught in a maze of vicious rosebushes is very remote. Whereas death, in the end, is a stone cold lock. It’s silly to fear a thing that has little possibility of happening, but it’s even sillier to fear a thing that is guaranteed to happen. And what could I gain if I were able to walk away from my fear of spiders and death? Could I become like the rising sun hatching from the reflection of itself on the horizon?

I suppose I could come up with a hundred arguments why I should be afraid. Fear of unemployment and starvation and destitution and abandonment has gotten me this far in life, after all, but I reject any argument I might promote in favor of fear. It’s a guarantee that, eventually, I will lose any job I might get. And, eventually, I will be without my family. We talk about the shame of dying alone, but that’s the way we’ll all die. We can’t take our wives and pets with us like the Egyptians imagined they could do. Just as we are alone each night when we go in search of sleep, the rest of the world gyrating all around us, living and spinning and squealing and shuddering, while, all day, we have lived and observed and given back what we are able, what we are determined to give back. I will sleep and then I will wake and one day this series of events will end. Which is a good thing because the idea of eternity makes me sleepy.

We wait for Sam in a small, black-walled pub. William chooses a sealed off cubicle, like an old phone booth with windows all around. We sit across the table from one another. My son. The one I have feared for most. That he would lose his way. That he would be sad. That he would be unemployed. That he would lose his hope. That love, for him, would be a thing out of reach. I sit across the table from my son, William, with his boxer’s nose and his impossibly handsome, defeated face.

“They have a deal here,” he says. “A shot and a beer for six bucks. But you probably don’t want that.”
“I’ll take that,” I say, reaching for my wallet.
“No,” he says. “I got it.”

And he leaves the glass-walled cubicle, where the music isn’t quite so loud. He leaves me and heads for the bar, the noise of reverie, of loud conversation, loud music, outside the neon signs advertising another bar called Libation, he walks toward the bar and I know that this moment is passing and now it has passed and I let my son go.  


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Height of Gary Oldman


“Oh, your father always liked to tinker around in the garage.”

That’s what my mother says, “. . .liked to tinker.”  

“Your father liked to tinker,” she says again. “He had all kinds of tools. They should be here somewhere.”

The kitchen faucet is leaking, and an Allen wrench is required to dis-assemble the spray header, which seems to be restricted with lime.  
“Are these them?” says my mother, holding up a set of ratchets.
“No,” I say. “They’re L-shaped things. Six-sided things. About this long. They’ll be black. I can’t believe he didn’t have any Allens.”
“Oh, I bet he did,” she says. “He loved to tinker. Tinker Soldier Spy.”
“Tailor,” I say.
“Tailor Tinker Spy,” she says.
I check myself. Because I’m a grownup now.  
“That was such a good movie,” she continues. “Le Carre said that’s the way it should be done. He thought it was the way it should be done. Did you like that movie?”
“I thought—”
“And that guy who played Smiley? Smiley’s People? He was so good. He never smiled, you notice. What’s his name?”
“Oh,” I said, “that little guy? Great actor?”
“No. He’s a big guy.”
“He is?”
“Yes. Smiley was a big guy.”
“No,” I say. “I mean in the movie.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. He was big in the movie.”
“No,” I say. “That actor. He was small in stature.”
“That’s what I mean,” she says. “In stature. He was a very important man.”
“No. I mean physical stature. He’s a small guy.”
“No. He’s big. What’s his name?”

I’m thinking, now that I’ve got the wrong actor in mind. That little guy. Black-rimmed glasses. Commissioner Gordon. Serius Black. Beethoven. Dracula. And other much more demanding roles when he was younger. . .
“Gary Oldman,” I say.
“Yes. Gary Oldman. The big guy.”
“He’s not a big guy,” I say.
“I mean in the movie,” she says.
“The actor,” I say. “The actor, Gary Oldman. He’s physically not large.”
“He’s big!” she says. “He had a very important role!”
I need to calm myself.
“Why are we shouting?” I say. “This is. . .silly.”
I hate the word silly
“He’s every bit as tall as that other guy” says my mother. “That other good actor. What’s his name?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know. What’s his name? Very handsome. He was Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.”
“Firth? Collin Firth?”
“He’s every bit as tall as Collin Firth.”
“How tall is Collin Firth?” I say.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’m saying in the movie. He’s every bit as tall as Collin Firth in the movie.”
“So you’re saying Gary Oldman is a rather tall person?”
In the movie he is.”
“But he’s not in real life?”
“He is. He’s big!”
“You wanna bet?” I say.
I hold out my hand.
“Ten bucks.”
My mother hesitates, which is gratifying to me.  
“You know I won’t bet,” she says.
“Well,” I say. “It doesn’t matter. Why don’t we just look it up? I’ll just look it up.”
“That doesn’t matter,” she says. “They’re never right online anyway.”
“Oh. They’re not?”
“No. And that’s not even what I’m talking about. You never listen to me.”

In the Blair household, a firm belief in a thing is grasped as both shield and spear, ample armor, we believe, to go into battle against an opponent armed with, say, facts. Or logic. People in my family don’t win many battles. But we firmly believe that we do.

I had a lot to do the day before I left to visit my mother in Vermont. But I didn’t do it. Or, I should say, I didn’t do nearly as much as I could have done because Scott texted me, asking if I wanted to play golf at 1:50. By the time I noticed the text, it was almost noon and I was about 2/3 done mowing the lawn of the ranch home on 10th Street we were moving out of. I didn’t want to let the neighbors down and I knew I’d need to finish the lawn before I went. I also planned to organize my parts and tools that were, at the time, scattered across the floor of the otherwise immaculately empty barn. What would the other members of the Village think of me? I’d need to get that done. Also, there was the billing. And that quote I needed to forward to that restaurateur at the Corral Ridge Mall. Also, I’d promised Deb I’d meet her at Randy’s Carpets at 12:20 so we could buy some of those throw rugs that were on sale for $100.

“Bring me lunch please,” Deb texted me.
So, I knew I’d need an extra ten minutes so I could pick something up at the Pita Pit.  

I was ten minutes late for the tee time. Scott arranged it with the clubhouse and the other two members of our foursome.
“Thanks for hanging in there with us,” he told the guys before we all teed off.

The sky was overcast and the temperature was somewhere in the high seventies, a perfect day for golf. Not much wind, but enough to affect our club choice. I hit a short drive and then topped a five iron thirty feet short of the green. I’ve played this course a hundred times. Maybe more. When I was in my twenties and thirties and forties and fifties. Mostly I’ve played it with Scott. We know every corner of it and we’ve played it in every season including winter. Through two marriages, one divorce and six children.

A topic for conversation was my first pick in the upcoming fantasy football draft.
“So, who you gonna take?” said Scott.
This is what we talk about each fall, when the draft rolls around. And it’s become a tradition to play golf on the day of the draft. But, since I’ll be on a plane tomorrow, we’ve decided to play a day early.
“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “I’m thinking of taking Manning.”
This is strictly bullshit. Nobody would take a quarterback with the first pick in a draft. It’d be a bad move, running backs being such rare and elusive birds.

“I think that’d be a good idea,” said Scott, who would be picking fifth. “I think you should do that. It’s a bold move. It makes a statement.”

We laugh. And we play golf. The second hole, a par five with a familiar stand of trees to the right and another familiar stand of trees to the left. We have become intimate with both stands of trees. Then the third, where you need to play a fade so as to avoid the trees to the right and bunkers straight ahead. And the par-three fourth, uphill with traps to the front and right. Everything was coming on as it always did, and Scott was playing well, still even par, which made him happy. We were on the eighth hole, a par-four dogleg right with a wide open fairway, when Deb called. I had driven my ball to the right rough under the branches of a tree and I needed to play a low shot about 150 yards.
“That’s Deb,” I told Scott. “I’m gonna have to lie to her.”

Deb began telling me about Mike’s day and then she stopped suddenly, sensing that something was amiss.
“Where are you?” she said.
“I’m on the Finkbine Golf Course,” I said. The truth. Which, some misguided bastard once said, will set you free.
“I knew it!” she said. “I knew you’d be playing golf!”

I don’t know how my wife would have known this. I rarely play golf anymore, having become an occasional golfer after too many arguments with her about how much time I spent on the course. That was fifteen years ago. This year, I’ve played five times.

“What’s the matter?” I said.
“I wouldn’t be mad,” she said, “except for the fact that you’re gong on a weeklong vacation tomorrow!”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“You know the last time I worked out? I haven’t worked out in a month!”
“Uh huh." 
"What's this the the 'Uh huh?' Is that your new thing or something?" 
"Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll come home right now and you can go.”
Silence.
“I’ll come home,” I said. “And I’ll take Mike. You go work out! Why not?”
“I cant!” Deb shouted. “I’ve got to take him to music therapy and then I have  to take Lucy to a party at her friend’s house!”
“I’ll do that,” I said.
“It’s too late!” she said. “Mike’s gotta be at music therapy in a half hour!”
“Fuck music therapy!” I said. “I’ll be there in a half hour. And then you go do yoga!”
“I can’t! Forget it! I’ve got stuff to do!”
“Okay,” I said, eyeing my shot. The other guys had already hit and they were waiting for me. Deb was still shouting at me.
“Okay,” I said. “If you can’t work out anyway, why are you mad at me?”
“That’s not the point!” she said. She’s always telling me what the point is. I pull a four-iron out of my bag and line up my shot. Deb’s still saying something loudly.
“I was going to make a nice dinner, but now I’m not going to.”
“Hang on a minute,” I said.  
“I had a nice meal planned but now I’m. . .”  
“Hang on. Just a minute.”
Deb never stopped shouting.
I threw the phone in the rough and set up over the ball.
“Don’t rush it,” said Scott.
I rushed it, taking a short, violent swing, the ball hissing through the rough and stopping twenty yards ahead, still in trouble.   
I hit the ball again.
When I retrieved my phone, Deb was gone.

After the round, Scott and I walked out past the flagpoles and flowerbeds to the parking lot, where Scott’s black Audi and my white GMC cargo van were parked side-by-side. One of our golf buddies, a lawyer and restaurant owner, shouted out as he drove by. “Cold beer!” he shouted. “Come on over!”
“You want to go for a beer?” said Scott. “We gotta talk draft.”
“I can’t,” I said. “Deb would kill me.”
I pulled off my golf shoes, which is one of my favorite sensations in the world, and zipped them into the side pocket of my bag. The sun had come out and the air had gotten warm and humid. My fantasy football magazine, full of mystery and promise, was ruffled up on the passenger seat.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go. What the hell?”   

I didn’t sleep in my bed that night.
Left for the airport at three o’clock in the morning.
Deb and I haven’t spoken until now, four days later.
“I’m shocked when I saw you’d called,” says Deb, sarcastically.
“I tried two other times.”
“You only tried that one time.”  
I sigh. “I could argue with you, but I’m not going to. You could just check your phone.”
“I already checked my phone. That’s how I know.”
“Then there’s something wrong with your phone,” I say.
Silence.
“Hello?” I say.
“I just figured we’d become the couple who texts instead,” she says.
I almost laugh. Then I sigh.
“Are you going to be all dramatic about this thing?”
“What thing?”
“I played golf,” I said. “That’s what I did. And you’re acting like it’s some big, marriage-altering event. It’s ridicule-”
“Don’t call me ridiculous,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been angry, but you were leaving on vacation the next day. And then you lied about when you’d be home. And you just couldn’t tear yourself away from Scott, even thought you’d spent the past five hours with him. And then you lied when you said you were at Hy Vee.”
“I was at Hy Vee,” I said.
“You were lying.”
“I wasn’t lying,” I said.
“Then why didn’t you come home with the stuff for guacamole like I asked you?”
“When I called again and you were still freaking out, I thought, “fuck her” and I walked out. I just got the Coke for Lucy. And you’re still flipping out about it. You’re acting like it’s some big. . .”
“I’ve got to go,” said Deb.
“Deb, this is ridic-“
“I’ve got to go,” she said again, terminating our communication by pushing a button.

Brian, the guy who gave me his motorcycle, said he’d cover for me and by my proxy draft guy. 

Brian and I took Jamal Charles, the freakishly talented Kansas City running back, with the first pick of the draft. Second round we took another running back and Denver’s tight end. Then two receivers. Then another receiver and a quarterback (not Payton Manning, who went in the first round). Then I sent Brian a text that read something like, “You’re on your own from here on in. It’ll be easier for you without all the texting.” To which he responded, “I”.

Brian used his independence to draft whatever players from the Oakland Raiders he could remember the names of including their second-string quarterback, defense and kicker.

“A few dudes laughed when I took Sebastian Janikowski in the eighth round,” he said. “But I think you’ll be happy with him. He’s totally consistent.”

He might be right. Might not be. I guess we’ll need to wait in order to find out.      

I search through the large, red mechanic’s toolbox I gave my father thirty years ago. No Allen wrenches. I look through the capped jars in the basement but they only held screws and bolts. My father had a lot of tools. But it doesn’t appear he owned any Allen wrenches. And my mother has it wrong. My father didn’t like to tinker. He was afflicted with a desire to make things right. To fix things.

I have the same affliction. Not that I enjoy it. At least, not in the same way I enjoy, say, listening to a song I like. Or eating a good meal. Equipment repair isn’t something that happens to you. It’s not something you take in. It’s something you hand out. It’s a reckoning of accounts. In order to believe in repair, you need to believe in a certain idea of balance. You need to believe that it is necessary for equipment to square up with its own design. Fixing a machine is like rejoining a soul with a body and then watching the returning gasp of life, the flickering of eyelids, the heartbeat returning and then stabilizing. If you don’t believe in this process of raising a thing from the dead, if your idea of balance is the idea that death is your only guarantee, the only permanent thing, then you cannot be a mechanic anymore. You’ll take joy in the sight of the old tractor rusting in the field. Goldenrod growing up around the engine. Vines wrapping around the axles.

I know there’s a trigger I’m not pulling in regard to the Deb situation. All I need to do is send a text with the words, “I’m sorry,” in it and we’ll be back on the road to marital stasis. But I’m not going to send those words. Because, firstly, I’m not sorry. And, secondly, her strong belief that she is always right and I am always wrong annoys me. For some reason.  

My mother is folding clothes in the little alcove adjoining the garage. I’m staring into my smartphone.
“Collin Firth is six foot two,” I say.
“He is?”
“Yes.”
I wait.
“How tall is the other guy?”
“Gary Oldman is five eight and a half.”
I wait.
“Says who?” she says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Google.”   
“Well,” she says, “I don’t know if that’s right or wrong.”
Pause.
“But I do know he was taller than that in the movie.”    



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 stuff 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 the poem Sam wrote when he was five and the self portrait Lucy painted and all the rest of the stuff we were nostalgic about. 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 four times within six 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 stuff that was in the other place. It’s our stuff. 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.”