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
When I was a young child, I used too much glue whenever I put together a model airplane. I could see the fine details—the erect plastic nipples on each tab A, the receptive bellybuttons on each slot B, the ridges, the cutouts and the seams—but I couldn’t manage the combination of patience and coordination required to apply just enough pressure to the tube to release a tiny droplet of epoxy. Instead, I squeezed too hard, and clear sap leaked all over the wing, jammed up the landing gear and blurred the pilot’s windshield.
It’s not easy to wipe glue off plastic. Paper towels are useless—they tear and shred, and leave unattractive tatters of themselves behind—and cotton cloths aren’t much better. The glue thickens as it breathes, so you have to wipe fast, although even with a rapid swiping motion you can never get to all of it before scar tissue forms on the fuselage. Still, I tried my best to make my models neat and clean.
I used paper towels on the B-52, and cotton cloths on the Hawker Hurricane; and then, out of frustration with the inevitable, smeared deviation from exactitude—and out of respect for the Spitfire’s legend—I tossed the towels and cloths and I developed my own method for turning error into art.
I unscrewed the cap of the next soft-metal tube, pinched its bottom end, then rolled my thumb and index finger along its body, from foot to nozzle, over and over again, until all of the tube’s transparent blood oozed, seeped, ran and coated the model’s surface. Next, with the tip of one finger, I pressed, pulled and drew the thickening glue into a level sheen, as if I were painting the airplane without a brush. When I got it all as smooth and even as I could, I used an artisan’s razor to etch a few signature details. A bolt of zigzag lightning on the nose, the rough outline of a seductive lady under the window, my initials on the tail.
These lines that I drew folded in on themselves, changed course by force of gravity, and all but disappeared as the glue congealed like tired lava and then dried and flaked like a bad skin condition; but I knew what I’d meant to say by slicing them there.
My friends and brothers laughed at the results of my experiments. Back then I could not absorb ridicule any better than glue, so I gave up building the machines of war. I threw away the B-52, the Hurricane and the Spitfire; and in a fit of passive, inward temper, I declared that I’d hated airplanes all along and that I much preferred the force of nature to the power of weapons.
And yet, you cannot stop a spy from guarding secrets, nor keep a determined athlete from his sport, and so I soon replaced my glue-and-plastic art form with another exercise, this next adventure more forgiving of a young boy’s errant glance toward what delights him. I took up digging for Saturday-morning worms to use as lure for mindless catfish fed and swimming in the lake that lies below the highest hill in Bronwell Corners. I traveled muddy paths through wooded marsh at sunrise, filled my lungs with the erotic aroma of rotting vegetation, spied the flick and swoosh of rabbits darting through the reeds, nicked my fingertip on the sharp point of a fishhook, sucked the blood and cast the line.
I sat down beneath a canopy of maple leaves, listened to proud cardinals singing, and felt the summertime shadows run through me. I stared beyond the grassy bank, slipped off my shoes and socks, pushed my legs forward and let them dangle over the edge. My toes touched and then broke the lake’s cool surface. I shivered as the red cedar water tickled my ankles. I closed my eyes and imagined that a raft made of tree limbs and thick vines floated just a few hundred feet from where I rested.
A tall man dressed in a burlap toga, and wearing a straw hat on his head, rowed the raft. He smiled at me. His teeth were white and his eyes were yellow. When he’d moved the raft nearer to the shoreline, the man threw me one end of a vine.
“Tie me up, boy,” he hollered. “I have something to say to you.”
I stood up, grabbed the strong, green rope and tethered it to the tree trunk behind me. I tugged hard at the vine, letting the slack fall in circles at my feet, until the raft floated close enough to the bank that the man could jump ashore.
“You fishing or dreaming, son?” he asked.
“A little of both, I guess. It’s better than building model airplanes.”
“That’s why I’m here, boy,” he said.
I think my expression told him that I felt puzzled, because the tall man shook with a round belly laugh and then went on to explain what he meant.
“Was it the glue or the ridicule that drove you to dangle your feet in red cedar water?”
“I never really liked airplanes.”
“But you enjoy the aroma of rotting vegetation, and the flick and swoosh of rabbits reminds you that you can run like a frightened beast. That’s right, isn’t it? Flick and swoosh is what you called it, no?”
With that the man again began to laugh. This time he laughed so long and hard that he seemed to lose his wind. I watched as he chuckled and snickered, giggled and groaned, sniggered and roared, before he fell to the ground in front of me and rolled side to side, all the while holding on to his middle.
“I won’t ask you why you’re laughing at me,” I said.
I glared at the tall man and I waited. Eventually, he lay still and seemed to regain his composure. He looked at me through watered eyes and winked.
“I know that,” he said. “I know you won’t ask. You won’t even ask me who I am. I’m a little bit of God and a little bit of Jim the slave. I’m the poet you think you are today, and the craftsman you might not become tomorrow.”
“I don’t want to become you,” I said.
“Of course not. Not now that you see that my hat is made of straw and my toga isn’t seamless silk. You thought I’d be sporting a black beret and quoting windbag Whitman, didn’t you?”
“I told you, Mister, I don’t want to become you. I never wanted to become you. I don’t even want to know who you are.”
“I’m a bad-boy poet, son, and I work hard to earn a living. Sometimes I squeeze too much glue along the seams, but I’m too smart and too foolish to take up fishing. If you want to hitch a ride on the raft, then you must leave the windblown, black-beret attitude behind you. You’re too young to sound like a prophet and too old for plastic-model tantrums. And scar tissue, son, scar tissue is part of surgery, so get used to it,” he said.
“I don’t understand you,” I said.
“I think you’ll want to pull in your line now, then tomorrow return to etching zigzag lightning on the nose and a seductive lady or two under the window. There’s not much meat on even a well-fed catfish.”
And then the tall man left me sitting there alone.
Written in February 2000
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.
Yesterday, your wife Melinda told me that we lost you. Those were her own words: “We lost John at 3:20 pm,” she said.
Inwardly, I fumbled as I searched for some sense of equilibrium, for some sense of any kind, however mysterious, mystical, religious or just plain reasonable.
But of course, such deep loss owns no sense of reason, no purpose recognizable to those of us who are yet to be lost.
Relief was apparent in your wife’s voice as she spoke. As I squinted my eyes against no one in the room with me, although perhaps against the urge to cry out loud, I let her think that I was listening to her. I am a good, careful listener to those friends who know me, in spite of my habitual verbosity; but my silence on the line had nothing to do with listening, and everything to do with survival and with tenderness.
Yes, I heard her communion with relief, and for her release from all the pain that you and she shared over the course of many years I felt glad. Glad that finally we lost you.
I understood long ago, however, that even should I try to lose you, brother John, I could never succeed in so shielding myself from the heartbreaking pain. You are not lost, John. I cannot believe in religion — and never in the wistful myth of an afterlife beyond oblivion — but so too can I never escape contact with my soul. You are here today, touching me where it hurts the most.
Last night I spoke with brother Chris. In many ways he is the most vulnerable of the three of us who remain still attached to this planet. He, as always, is the first and the last to weep to those heavens that he imagines exist. Chris wanted to ask me questions, questions he’d never before put to me about my reflections and weak conclusions regarding our childhood familiarity with ugliness and with the hand-holding bond that such ugliness creates without intention. We talked into the deepest part of night, and I believe I helped him for at least one bitter slice of time.
After our telephone conversation, I braced myself with the knowledge that where brother Christopher is warm, I am a cold-hearted man. So it is, and there remains no use in denying the obvious.
A few hours before speaking with Chris, our brother Wayne had called me. “I called to ask if you’re all right,” he said.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I lied.
“Just want you to know that if you need to talk, I’m here,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said; and then I changed the subject fast.
This morning I awoke inside what is to an old man an unfamiliar frame of mind. Much like the young man who awakens to realize and remember that yes, he actually did it. He made love with a woman and survived.
I tried out all the war-torn, tired phrases. John is lost. John passed away. John passed on. John left us. John is in a better . . . no, that one will not work for me.
John is dead.
John, you’re dead.
John, I knew you were about to die. I thought I felt ready for the final news broadcast, but why then do I want to cry? Where is my cold heart when I need her most?
John, dear brother, where have you gone? You were younger than I. Not fair, my friend. Life isn’t meant to be fair, isn’t meant to be anything at all; I understand all of this, but please, I need some sense of fairness now, some sense of right and wrong.
In order to calm myself down, I moved toward memories, and not just the good ones. I know, I’m supposed this moment to remember only the sweetest times; but down the road toward sweetness lies more tears.
So I tried my best to recount the unjust sins each of us committed against the other, the resentments, the envy, the competition between two superior intellects who by nature of their superiority understood too well their flaws.
Yet, behind this narrative of betrayals, attacks and raging vanity, plays an insistent melody made of harmonies that only you and I could have composed.
My denials, coupled with a search for my cold heart, are of no use this morning.
John, my gentle brother, you are dead; and yes, cliche owns its proper place, because a part of me died with you, friend.
You are gone, you passed on, you left us, you left me, you son-of-a-mother-I-never-managed-to-love.
But, John you are not lost. John, you are right here inside of me.
I love you, John.
These photographs remind me of our childhood years; Wayne was yet to be born:
Lying on one of my several desks is a fifteen-page application that, once completed by me and submitted to the proper bureaucrats, will change the course of my life. Paperwork and living sometimes seem synonymous in this strange new world. Bureaucratic structures are nuisances that must be tolerated by us little folk.
I should pick up my pencil this moment and get to work scratching out a first draft of this latest manifesto regarding old age and lack of foresight on my part. But worry holds me frozen; so I’ll wait until this coming weekend when I can seek the help and comfort of someone who loves me sitting by my side to say “Yes, that’s right. Now on to the next page, on to the next day, the next year, the where and when still to be determined. Just move the pencil point and still your voice, my love.”
Between now and then, I’ll travel to yet another hospital for another medical procedure, followed by another anesthetized appointment with yet another doctor. News and numbers, all similar intersections on a graph, and none encouraging to this anxious mind I own. The scalpel seems held by the wizard who lives at the end of this road.
Oftentimes I wish that I could write and speak in tones stark and blunt, and so seem more appropriate to this twenty-first-century carpet of interwoven threads that makes for wild communication. But I’m not built for stark and unembellished, not ready for the plain and unadorned. Perhaps after the application is completed and relinquished from my grasp, the results confirmed and irreversible, this confusion I must abide resolved; perhaps then — if I’m still living — perhaps then I’ll write the truth without the syllables that now cover secrets.
This morning, after blood was drawn from my veins by a young woman who cannot realize the role she plays in my life once a week, I sat down with an apple in the sun. Green apple, tart flavor, heat upon my skin. Red flesh covering my closed eyes.
I bit, chewed and slurped as I tried to recall a summer’s day when I was a boy, lying on green grass, staring at puffed-up clouds overhead hanging in a clean sky. Suffering and violent turbulence lived inside the house behind me; but for a short while I escaped, long enough to listen to an airplane’s propellers as they fluttered in the air, long enough to move my mind around a certain corner.
A few blocks away from where I lay sat Gill’s Delicatessen, on the corner of Main Street and Thompson Avenue. A glass-fronted cabinet inside the store, holding penny candy. Wrinkled Mr. Gill waiting to hear which gooey confection I wanted that day. I’d stolen the change from my mother’s purse when she was preoccupied with hysteria, this opportunity the same one that arose most summer days in 1957.
A long, Formica-topped bar, local laborers chomping teeth into hoagies that smelled of salami and fresh-cut, wet onion slices. Mr. Moschella, leader of the local Republican ward, a trash man by trade — and glad for membership in the union to which he belonged — making tired, loud speeches about whom the men in town should next elect.
Across the way a wooden barrel filled to the brim with dill pickles swimming in brine. Nickle a piece, but I did not dare to taste one for fear that my breath would later reveal my thievery of coins.
A deep, red, metal cabinet. Slide open the top doors to find a selection of soda pop. Coca Cola, RC Cola, Hires Root Beer, Yahoo Chocolate Drink. Screwed to the front side of the cabinet a solid, strong bottle opener.
A light bell jangled as I exited Gill’s. Two blocks down and across Main Street the school I attended and loved. Such a wonder to consider that in those ancient times, times when report cards were filled in by kindhearted teachers wielding fountain pens, times when window shades were as brown and comfortable as parchment paper, when children’s desktops were made of birch wood — each summer hand-sanded and varnished by volunteer dads — times when books, pencils and paper were sufficient to the task of educating young boys and girls; such a wonder to consider that such boys and girls grew up to teach a still younger group of students whom the experts insist are in dire need of their vile and weary forms of research.
Pop Gill died a few years hence. I moved away, moved a great distance from the sound of that airplane’s propellers. Free, I thought, to eat dill pickles to my heart’s content. Free, I felt, to fall in love, to dance, to sing, to write my stories.
Free, I thought.
But Pop Gill had died, and with him went the memories of wooden barrels; parchment window shades and the aroma of wet, sliced onions. With him went the voices of the men who sat inside the delicatessen, deciding the fate of a future fold they could not see.
With me, as I traveled, came the memories of hysteria and the reality of fifteen-page applications that can change a man’s life, but maybe far too late to avoid the scalpeled price of self-destruction.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll climb the next mountain, complete the next application, visit the next physician, listen to the next round of bad news.
Until then I’ll think of friendship and its partnership with penny candy.