Those of you who have been reading me, here and elsewhere, for any length of time, know that I battle my tendency to sink low when something happens in my life that leaves me feeling lost and alone, even for a short time. During the past few years, several of my good friends, and one of my brothers, have died, leaving me to hope — but also wonder — if in some form, if in some way, I’ll once again be able to feel their friendship, not just today inside my heart, but also spirit-to-spirit, whatever shape, sound and size that ineffable reality might be. I miss those friends. I miss the warm, funny, silly, serious, sad and outrageous times we shared. Family and friendship really are the most valuable gems we can acquire in life. I have been fortunate to have shared parts of my life with many friends. Good people, all. I get to say those things and mean them now that I’m old, quite soon to be officially old in terms of certain of the USA’s societal rules. As well, in my oldest foggiest moments, while engaged in a conversation with a young person, I can say and mean things such as “Yes, but you have your whole life ahead of you.” The person whom I love most in this world scolds me whenever I talk like that. This morning, I told her my legs ached and my back hurt, and I felt old. She answered, “You need to get out of bed, take some Tylenol and get a move on, before I apply a pillow to your noggin.” I got up. She drove me here. Here is sitting inside this coffee shop in Arroyo Grande, CA, writing this longwinded, never get to the point, but always astute essay. The photographs featured with this article will show you what a pretty place this is. Now, I’m no genius, far from it, but for all my brutish mistakes in life, still, I remain a man of average intelligence (however that hoo ha concept of intelligence is these days defined by the high and mighty intellijudges who sit on the high intellicourts that in turn rule and devise academia-mania IQ tests.) When I was a working stiff, I had to pretend that I gave credence to such tests. I didn’t, but objecting out loud to such nonsense caused me further trouble. And during my younger years, I was loud, clear and articulate. I am physically a small man, so words quick became my weapon of choice. Several of my superiors throughout the years modified my divinely inspired name to include the epithet Firebrand. If I still hesitate, out of a worn-out sense of pride, to admit to the title Firebrand, I will admit that I was oftentimes a wise ass. Of course, in later years, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner designed a new outline of sorts to describe what he felt certain were seven kinds of intelligence. Apparently the Prof wasn’t initially so certain that he wouldn’t allow later high-class intellectual pedigrees to modify his outline. Sorta like the first ten ammendments to the USA’s constitution, followed by seventeen more, although one such amendment nixed another. I’m rusty where my Catholic theology is concerned, but I don’t think God allowed for any ammendments to his tablets of commandments. Correct me if I’m mistaken. Yes, I said mistaken, because we Sicilians are never wrong. Anyway, the expert academicians now list for us at least nine types of intelligence. I suppose there’s a lot of good thought involved in all that elitist rigmarole, but after thirty-seven years in the trenches, I still wouldn’t dare to try to define the concept of smarts. Feels too much like judging a human being based on my own definitions, or on someone else’s PhD thesis’ conclusions, when in truth each person owns the right to define his or her own smarts. *** And how in the woo woo did I manage to lead off with that mini-rant? It’s all the fault of a long ago friend with whom I recently reconnected. My writing drags, winds and curls into itself, whereas what my friend writes entertains his audience. I chuckle when I’m reading his work. I need that universal medicine, laughter, as much as the next person. I consider this friend from my distant past to be a master writer and entertainer for many reasons, not the least of which is that he just lets go with honesty and respect intact. I’m not the only one of his readers to say so. But I won’t here mention his name, because he claims to be shy about praise, and I believe him. I knew him many decades ago as a kind, insightful, comical and gentle man. If memory serves me at all well in my old age, then this friend of mine was, even way back then, a wee bit timid. Except . . . yes, except when he was acting as a teacher to young people. There and then he acted as a confident and relaxed master. I know this because I witnessed many of his performances. In some ways this long prologue (the word prologue holds more dignity than the term please get to the point nonsense) does indeed relate to the title of this article. See, as I thought about curling back up under the blankets, fetal style this morning, those deaths of friends, one of whom was just mentioned to me yesterday by the friend and writer I allude to here, along with the aches, pains and advanced-age associated physical limitations, left me feeling self-righteous about entertaining self-pity. And although my pretty partner booted my egotistical butt enough to encourage me to rise from the almost dead, once outside, where morning clouds let go to reveal afternoon sunshine, I felt obligated by a sense of honesty to admit that old or not, that having suffered loss or not, that with further loss and suffering to come included, this old world is indeed full of wonder. For all that I may feel is wrong with this world, and I do grow sad and sometimes angry by how mean we human beings can be to each other, there is plenty that is right with this world. I’ve just now tipped the one thousand word mark; nothing new for me there, but I’ll here on out try to limit the final paragraphs, to speak of just one right thing, one world wonder that I discovered in just the past few days. Let the photos associated with this article represent a few more bits of beauty I enjoyed today. About my friend, the talented, honest and humorous blogger. As I already mentioned, I knew him decades ago. He was a good man then, and from his writing and his photographs I now know that in spite of a long, dedicated but difficult career helping others in need, this guy hasn’t lost one bit of what was always good about him. And as justice sometimes does play itself out, this writer friend, I now discover, met and married a smart, pretty and talented woman. Together they share a son and two sweet grandchildren. That’s just perfect. That’s plenty enough to leave me with a smile today. This world is full of a lot of realities, some more sad than others. But whenever I discover a set of world wonders, I celebrate each and every one of them. Ciao, AVT
Written November 2009
I moved to this town many years ago, because the blue fog combined itself with the false impression of infinity that an ocean can provide if only an eye looks beyond the foaming coastline that signals a return to port.
For years before I came here, to this town of short-sleeved polyester shirts sitting proud around a boardroom table; this town of short walks to the Post Office or the sugary-pink bakery; this town of hello good mornings spoken to strangers; this town enveloped by a Sunday-morning, aromatic cloud of steam lifting off from crackling bacon and pan-fried onions; this town of inconsolable old fishermen and their exhausted wives. For years before I came to live with all of this, I vacationed in the next town over, just twelve miles away, but they were twelve miles that I never wanted to traverse.
Not until the morning I sat beside a wrinkled, fat and dusty man dressed in denim overalls, the two of us hunkered down over the diner’s counter, dipping burnt bread into sunny-side egg yolk, scooping dollops of homemade corned beef hash onto the wet and buttered toast. Not until we began to speak to each other, or rather he began to speak to me.
“Good to have an old-fashioned diner here in town. Mike, the tall guy who owns this place, comes from Atlantic City,” he said. His cheeks bulged with food as he spoke. His lips, full and chapped, looked slimy with the egg yolk he spilled there.
“Atlantic City? New Jersey?” I said.
“There isn’t any other, not that I know about.”
“My dad used to take me crabbing in Atlantic City.”
“Yeah, well you still have the accent,” he said. “I grew up there, too, along with Mike, though I expect that you and us came up at different times.”
“Sometimes I miss the place,” I said.
“There’s lots of crab and fish in the next town over. Just a short stretch, and I’ll be going there after breakfast if you want to come along. Won’t be much sunshine there today. Never is,” he said. “Want to come with me? Finish your meal, then.”
We both let the weight we gained from our full breakfast pull us down from the diner’s vinyl-covered stools.
His truck, rusty as a ripened crab trap, was parked around the corner. Along the way we walked past clean-shaven Christians holding hands with their pleated-skirt wives and pert college girls looking at their reflections in shop windows.
The truck door’s hinges creaked as I pulled her open. I climbed the distance from sidewalk to worn-cloth upholstery, sat and stared through a dirt-streaked windshield; and once out of town I allowed my glance to follow the four-lane highway’s painted lines.
My breakfast companion said nothing until we reached the exit that led to Our Town.
“Gotta drive down to the boat launch first, then we’ll ride back again and meet the crabs I was talking about. You game?”
“I’m game. You own a boat?” I said.
“No. I clean the fish that others carry up to the sinks. Then I sell what I can for them down to the Olde Port Market. Rest I give away to friends. It’s all part of the deal, the way I make my living now that I’m old. Once upon a time, though, I owned a side trawler. Many folks nowadays find it fashionable to condemn the man who trawls for the food they eat, but that’s just the way it is.”
“Is that why you gave it up? Because tree huggers criticized you?” I said.
“No. It’s a long story you don’t want to hear, but the short of it is that Manny, one of my Mexican crew, killed himself by being crushed in the winch’s cable. Nothing any of us could do in spite of his screaming. Once you’re caught, you’re dead. There’s a monument just the other side of town that makes mention of Manny and all the others lost to sea. Maybe someday you’ll say a prayer while standing there.”
I thought better than to ask the man any further questions. I figured that he needed time to think about Manny and then some more time to recoup his sense of purpose.
The boat launch felt like a lost and empty place, grey and filthy as the fog, constant rainbows of blood and guts flickering on the metal cutting boards beside the sinks. My breakfast companion worked fast and with the skill of a seasoned surgeon. I shuffled and humble-shifted my body around the several men working there, men who not once asked who I was, men who seemed so intent on completing their day’s work that nothing outside of that sweat-soaked reality registered as being part of the world.
My companion loaded several coolers, each filled with fresh-cut fish covered in ice, into the bed of his pickup truck, then wiped his hands on a blood-soaked towel and climbed back into the driver’s seat. I followed suit. We traveled less than a mile before he pushed his foot down hard on the brake pedal.
“There’s the crab tubs. Get yourself down and out, and go to look at them,” he said. “I’ll be inside talking business with Giovanni.”
To the left side of the Olde Port Market’s front doors sat two metal tanks filled with live crabs. A filter ran a continual bubbling stream of water into the vats in order to keep the crabs alive. I stared and ran my thoughts backward to the times I and my dad went crabbing just outside of Atlantic City.
“They’re beauties, ain’t they now?” he said.
I jumped when I heard his voice come from behind me. I’d been lost in thought, and now I felt irritated because of his interruption.
“No. No, they aren’t beautiful, friend. Matter of fact, they’re downright ugly,” I said.
“What’s got you pissed?”
“The hair on the back of their shells. I never saw, much less ate, a crab who needed a haircut.”
“This ain’t Atlantic City, you know, but it’s as close as you’ll come out this far away.”
“Maybe, then, just maybe I should turn around and make my way back home.” I said.
“I like you better without all that make pretend shyness, kid. Hash and eggs, and catering to old men like me won’t cure your disease, but –”
“Disease, what disease are you talking about?”
“Loneliness. Don’t go back now to pretending, because a second act can’t erase a first impression,” he said.
“I’m not particularly lonely. No more than most who move from one shore to another,” I said.
“Okay, whatever you say, but for what it’s worth, I think you’re right about crabs. You’re not the only one who remembers the oily smell of mud around Atlantic City. But home you are. Right here and now. Manny was lonesome for home, too. But in fact of things insofar as I understand them he died at home, right there crushed to bits inside that winch’s cable.”
I never again saw my breakfast companion, and I never want to see him on a different day. But on blue-gray mornings such as this one I oftentimes visit the monument he talked about, and standing there I say a prayer for all of us.
Dear Young Companion,
I watched you last night. Lying there on your antique couch, the one with the maroon brocaded upholstery and the wide-winged arms, one of which you use each day as an uncomfortable headrest, stiff and unyielding enough to leave your neck muscles in knots. Why do you remain there and refuse to climb into your bed each evening like any sane man would do?
Ludicrous of me to ask, of course. After all, I know the answer to every question I put to you. I am your old friend. I’ve been close to you for what seems to be a lifetime’s worth of days and years, and yet is just as short or as long as what human beings name a second.
I ask you questions so that you will ask them of yourself. If you want to survive these saddest days, then hear me and pay attention.
You will survive, by the way. I know this fact as well as I know myself. One day soon you’ll rise from your couch and walk out your front door for more than just a midnight walk.
For now, though, you must swim a while longer inside your self-made pool of tears. I could tell you not to worry. I could say that self-pity is a necessary step toward revelation and self-acceptance. But you wouldn’t believe me. Not today. You think you’ve reached your end. Fact is that you want your life to seize upon itself, at least that’s what your voice whispers whenever your mind settles on the subject of regret.
So she left you. You came back to the apartment that you shared with her, the home where you and she tried hard to destroy each other. Four weeks ago now. You walked through the door and smelled the odor of darkness that you kept safe by closing all the windows, all the shades drawn tight against your secrets. And there you found the note, the single scribbled sentence that you pretended would never come to meet you. There the note lay, on top of your prized writing desk, the desk that you and she in happier times pushed neat into the living-room alcove. The living room where death occurred each morning.
“I need some space, some time to think,” she wrote.
And you feigned anger in order to avoid spiritual disintegration. You screamed profanities. You blamed her for leaving you. You imagined yourself as an altruistic, noble gentleman who had been cruelly wronged. But no one heard you shouting. You knew that no one could hear you. After all, it was you who shut the windows of your second-story apartment, that very morning and all the preceding mornings, so that your neighbors and the angels flying by could not hear the ugly arguments that you and she entertained.
And there you stood understanding nothing of nobility or of gentleness. You knew that fact, too. Each day when you shaved your face — the same face you stopped shaving after she left — you saw the reflection of a sinner’s broken spirit.
I’ll pose just one last question for today: Why do you take those midnight winter walks through blizzard winds? Hear me. Pay attention. Ask yourself, and try to answer.
Dear Old Friend,
Somehow I know you’re here, your face close to mine, your lips kissing my mouth. But I cannot understand you. Why would anyone want to be near me? I’m a failure. I tried to love her, but I was born without sufficient capacity for giving love, without sufficient tenderness or empathy.
I’ve given up my desk. Instead, I lie here on the couch and scratch disjointed thoughts onto one pad of paper after another.
I changed the locks on the one door to this apartment. I go outside only after midnight. I never turn on a lamp. I want the air here to remain dark, black enough that I can think, think until the end arrives.
Yesterday afternoon, a friend came knocking at the door. “Are you there?” she asked. I slid my body silent to the floor and crawled, slow and careful, into the nearest corner, under a window sill. I held my breath until her murmured questions stopped. And then I held my breath a while longer. I stayed still inside the corner. I shut my eyes tight. I would not allow her to hear me moving.
She left, and I returned to the couch, to my place of refuge. There again I recorded the fearful moment. Someday soon I will destroy these pads of reckless paragraphs, but when I reach the bottom of the final page I’ll remember what I wrote.
I keep one dim light lit. A green glow behind a round clock face. There I can watch the clock’s hands move, listen as they tick off the needled steps toward midnight. At midnight I feel safe enough, alone enough to stand up and leave this place for a while. As I reach for my woolen coat, I can feel you holding it open, wide enough to allow me to slide my arms into its sleeves. This winter season, this season of my saddest, final days, is the coldest winter season I remember. So I wrap and tuck the scarf she gave to me last Christmas tight around my neck. I wear boots that keep most of the snow and ice away from my feet. I lost my gloves somewhere in the mess I made here, so instead I pull a heavy sock onto each hand.
I have nowhere that I need to be, no destination comes to mind, no one who asks that I visit. So I punch my legs into the snowdrifts, follow the misty orange streetlights that serve as background to windswept flakes, and I walk in circles. Until hunger returns to say, “Go there and eat.”
There is a sandwich shop at the intersection of two sets of trolley tracks. Each time I enter, the big man in the little kitchen throws a few slices of thin chipped beef onto the grill to join the pile of fried onions that lives there day and night. He asks me no questions; and for his silence I feel grateful.
I slip my body onto the vinyl-covered seat of an empty booth. I watch the man squirt pale-yellow oil onto the inside of a hard roll of bread, then press the roll down on top of the steak and onions. I breathe in deep the food’s cheap aroma, rise from my seat, snatch a cold root beer soda from the metal locker, pay the man and walk home with my food.
At the foot of the snow-covered path that leads to my apartment building, I stop and spy, just to be certain that no one waits for me there. That’s a nonsensical thing to do, isn’t it, old friend? Two-thirty strikes the darkest morning of my saddest day, Zephyr surrenders to the howl of frigid air, and I expect a visitor? Nonsense, yes, perhaps; but somehow I understand that it’s you who waits for me, you who will sit with me on my antique couch to share a meal, you beside whom I will sleep until tomorrow.
The serenity of solitude and sunshine takes me away from writing here these days, that and the fatigue that follows a few hours’ worth of penning Frank Shaver’s story. Sometimes I sacrifice a few moments to a concern that I’ll somehow lose my ability to swing words by way of absence, but experience tells me that such a loss is not possible, that just the opposite is true: feeling comfortable with being alone is a gift that contributes to the treasure that each one of us holds inside (although not many care to unwrap that present and relish what reveals itself).
A long number of years ago I read a column written by Lawrence Block, now dead but not forgotten, not by me at least. At that time Mr. Block and his wife were planning a road trip, the type of voyage labeled Destination Unknown. As he packed luggage into the boot of his car he worried that time away from his keyboard might cause his writer’s soul to abandon him in favor of a visit to the inside of another human being’s carcass. But his wife wanted his company, and so he dragged the suitcases, the sleeping bags, the extra pillows and the road-trip backpacks along the length of his driveway and at first attempted to block out all thoughts of Lawrence Block.
As is always the case, however, he could not escape himself with such blithe imprecision, and so instead he wrote inside his head, and still he relaxed.
And so I relax, as well.
Each day I rise by six in the morning. I shower and next I accomplish my chores (exciting life, no?). A cup or two of herbal tea. Fresh fruit and goat’s milk yogurt. Perhaps a load of laundry. Feed the cat. Last night’s dishes into the washer. Sweep the sidewalk, empty the trash, water the lawn.
Then upstairs to tap the next episode of Frank Shaver’s confused mental magic into my machine for two hours or so.
And next comes my time to soak my flesh in sunshine.
A retirement nap as I sit on a fold-out chair, lean back and let the red behind my eyelids hypnotize me. Employment never brought me so much pleasure.
I find that these days I sleep with a soundness that seems almost foreign to me. I awaken and realize that I must not be anywhere, not sooner, not later.
A visit to the medicine cabinet, there to splash a few drops of minor medicine into my eyes, enough to provide me with clarity sufficient to read.
I am halfway through Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of The Vanities, and although I hate to admit that my dear curmudgeon friend was correct, the book is boring. Still, I’ll finish reading it the way a writer reads a book, because Wolfe can interweave subplots with skill and grace.
My digital book reader, by the way, now holds about seventy volumes, and those seventy make only a small dent in the device’s capacity. I recommend these machines to readers everywhere.
Two days ago, I took myself on a long walk — doctor’s orders for this old man — and snapped some photographs. Color all around me. I feel grateful for whatever time may be left to me, and for the opportunity to appreciate my surroundings free from the anxiety that a working man’s life entails. We should all retire soon enough to see the light that shines upon this speck inside the universe. Rich or poor; if you can manage, retire early. And don’t wait, as I waited, for weakened health to force the issue.
Today I spoke by way of telephone with a beautiful woman named Elizabeth. Her mom died just this past Monday (I did not know this before I called). Readers here know that one of my brothers, John, died just a few weeks ago. I felt comforted to understand that Elizabeth and I shared similar reactions to death. I hope to meet this fine lady sometime soon to share a cup of tea and laughter.
In a couple of weeks I’ll attend an open house where some of my former colleagues and current friends will gather. I am uncomfortable feeling as if I, because I recently retired, might be even a slight center of attention. Some folks who think they know me giggle when I tell them this, because I own a big mouth and I cannot stop talking when I am part of a crowd (I know, writers are supposed to be the “silent type”). They consider that I’m joking. I am not. I am a shy man.
But as the grand woman who will throw open her doors to host this fete told me, “You need to get over that.” And so I’ll try. I know that, as well, I’ll enjoy the companionship of kind people.
So pull closed the curtain for now. Perhaps we’ll talk again tomorrow. Sorry to raise your blood pressure with such a tale of suspense as here I offered you today.
And just now, as I re-read what I wrote above, I understood my good fortune; because I — even caught inside the cell of my old age — am surrounded by gorgeous women. Eat your hearts out, friends. Would that you should be so lucky.
“So, okay, what do you make of Bonfire?“
“Ronnie Reagan’s time frame. I liked Ronnie in many ways. Please, if you own a sense of mercy, don’t tell my former colleagues and current friends I said that, because they’re bound to take my admiration the wrong way, being confirmed Liberals on the outside.”
“So you’ve given me a weapon. Thanks.”
“Employ that sword and you’ll wound yourself.”
“Back to Ronnie.”
“No, rather back to restaurants, credit cards, too much wine and joyful extravagance. I loved it all. The aroma of garlic at Mama Mia’s, the shiny plastic tarjetas and the heady feel of false inebriation.”
“But you spent too much money, fool.”
“Regrets, I’ve had a few.”
“Please, not The Voice. Not tonight.”
“I sing well, and at one time I danced even better. Without lessons. Yes, you heard me. I never was much for form, although watching two romantics perform a Tango inspires me to believe I might yet be a sensual lover.”
“That yogurt’s going to your head.”
“Better than booze. Want to ride inside my blue pickup truck?”
“A bench by the beach.”
“What’s got into you?”
“Friendship, affection and the thought of death.”
“It’s windy here. Cold, too. But, I’ll bite. Why death?”
“And tomorrow evening I’ll join yet another friend for supper. She’s lovely and loyal.”