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For people who spend the day saying and writing things that others accept, while thinking things that are infinitely more interesting.

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Gil C. Schmidt was born. Lucky for him and some 416 people, many of who don't seem to know it. Lives in Puerto Rico, which is convenient because he also works from there. Gil writes about dozens of real things (with relish) and dozens of imaginary things (like phantasmagoric pickles), in separate forums. Author of several books and a son, Gil gets in trouble when he's bored. Please head to the egress now.


Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Cleaning the Cleaners

I had been down that alley several times before, a good shortcut from where I was to somewhere else. The glass window had an old wooden frame and a few times I’d peered in to see the silent, cold machines of a dry cleaner.

One night I absently pulled the window up…and it slid open. The sharp smell of dry cleaning fluid in warm air hit me like a warm sock. Without hesitation, I slid inside and pressed the window closed. The large room, open to view from the street, felt muggy and my skin tingled with the feeling of being exposed. I roamed aimlessly, just looking, keeping low as cars passed outside. Finally, tired of the effort, I headed back for the window. And I saw the safe.

It seems a natural tendency to see a safe and want to twirl the dial. I did and stopped as it clicked. I stared at the dial, sitting on 38. Then, without thinking about it, I twisted the handle… and the safe opened.

It was all dark. I reached in and discovered the safe was much smaller inside than the outside indicated, and that the small interior space was stuffed with paper. Dollars and checks. I emptied the safe and with no rush, found a paper bag in a drawer above the safe, stuffed everything into the bag and left the dry cleaners through the window. No one saw me as I made my way back to my apartment.

I counted the cash: $438. I totaled the checks: $519. A grand total of $957. I stared at the pile of money and colored paper. It wasn’t mine. I needed the money. It wasn’t mine. I had already escaped with it. I had to return it. The checks had to be destroyed. The checks might be replaced.

The clock said it was already 4:55 AM, with dawn only a half-hour away. Not now. Tonight.

I slept on it. During the day, I didn't think about it, but from 10 PM on, I was jittery. Reasons not to even try seemed reasonable: the theft was reported, there’ll be more vigilance. The window will be locked, so you can’t break in. The safe will be locked and you can’t just leave the money anywhere...

Midnight inched past and I gathered the bills and checks again, organizing the bills into denominations and the checks in alphabetical order. Earlier they were in order by serial numbers and amounts. I tried to watch TV, flipping channels while staring at the clock. One. One-thirty. Two.

Gathering the rumpled paper bag, I looked around, then sat down. Two-twenty. Two-forty. Time to go.

I took a circuitous route, walking at my normal pace. I didn’t spot any police cars, an odd but not unique pattern. I bought a Coke, drank it and headed for the alley. I didn’t pause at the entrance, but simply kept walking, disappearing into the darkness in seconds. Without hesitation, I tugged at the window.

It slid open. My mouth did too.

I climbed in, then shut the window. I moved quickly to the safe, and with a wry smile, twisted the dial to 38.

It clicked.

I twisted the handle as I pulled the paper bag out of its hiding place beneath my sweatshirt. Of course, the safe opened. Angry, I stuffed the bag into the tiny unlit interior and as I was about to close it, I reached up into the drawer above and rummaged until I found a piece of paper and a pen. Writing with stiff pressure, I traced six letters and an exclamation mark over and over, until the anger receded and the paper was dented and frayed.

I shoved the note on top of the money and slammed the door shut. I didn’t care if it made noise. I stalked to the window, shoved it open, jumped out and walked away. Maybe the open window, newly-locked strongbox and a note that demanded him or her to “BE SAFE!” would change their ways.

In any case, I never went back to find out.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Frodo and Gerard

Sometimes fictional characters come to you as if from on high, their reputations preceding them so that the first encounter is like meeting a celebrity. Then there are those characters that explode from the mists, leaping onto the mental stage with undeniable presence.

Frodo came recommended. From a chance encounter with The Hobbit, which I didn’t read at the time, I discovered the growing popularity of Tolkien’s creation. A few years later, I bought the books as a set and immediately plunged into it.

Not good. Although there are flashes of lyrical brilliance, The Hobbit's tone is often smarmy if not openly condescending. The adventure has a cartoony feel to it, flat yet colorful. The end result was that it put me off the trilogy for several months, until a lengthy bus ride—my last—almost forced me to find anything to do.

Starting slowly, almost ponderously, Tolkien weaves a very different tale in The Lord of the Rings. The smarmy tone is replaced with near-historical weight, a chronicler rather than chatter. And Frodo, tiny Frodo, is the golden thread that holds the story to the heart, an innocent struggling with a world beyond his ken or control. If Aragorn is the quintessence of human nobility, Frodo is that of the human soul, often battered, always challenged, but rising above it all to endure.

On a long bus ride, with a spot of light in inky darkness, Frodo carried me with him past The Tower, a shared journey unlike any other I will ever have.

Gerard, or more accurately, Brigadier Etienne Gerard, was the best rider, swordsman, adventurer and lover in Napoleon’s Grand Armeé. From the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gerard is Holmes’ equal in memorability, for despute the fact that Sherlock Holmes was the “first” of his kind and Gerard another soldier hero in a long line of warriors, Gerard is panache personified.

Told as tales of an old soldier, the set-up is perfect for romantic excesses handled deftly. Conan Doyle was always proudest of his historical writings and with Gerard, his love of history and powers of characterization are keenly displayed. With delicate tweaks at the British and French amour de guerre, Gerard swashbuckles and gamboles through his adventures, defeating the mightiest, wooing the loveliest and outshining the brightest of friends and foes across the face of a troubled Europe. Gerard is charming in his excessive self-love and pride, but his wit and eye give him a humanity we can all cherish.

Two British writers, two dissimilar characters, one obvious result: admiration. Like the ideal conclusion to blind dates—described beforehand or surprised afterward—one takes the chance and is pleased. Odd how life has a way of doing that, too.

Friday, May 27, 2005

3:16 Call

The phone rang and I automatically checked the time: 3:16 AM. I was alone, and though the shift had long ended, I didn’t hesitate to pick up. I would wonder about that for a long time.

Her voice was ragged, broken in heart and spirit, her words tumbling softly without shape. “I wanna kill myself.”

When you joined Rapline, you were told to screen such calls carefully, to explore the sentiment and situation to determine how serious the caller’s intent was. In most cases, it was simply an expression of pain, a silent scream for support. In most cases.

You were also told to never work alone, for if a caller was serious and intervention was needed, your partner would alert the authorities while you made every effort to help the person. And if the situation became critical, your only goal then was to identify who the caller was and where they were, so that your partner could lead the authorities to the emergency. If it was critical. If you had a partner.

There was no need to screen this caller. Four times before I’d dealt with a possible suicide and each time it had been a slow process of trying to help the person before they reached the point of acting. Two of those had required intervention. And here I was facing a third, because I sensed--deep inside--that the girl had already acted.

3:17 AM. And I was alone.

I asked her what had caused her such pain. Her words came slowly, as if covered with razors. She was pregnant. Told her boyfriend. A week ago. She called him constantly. No answer. Went to his apartment. He was gone. Finally called his parent’s house. In Oregon. The first call, he answered. Then hung up. She called again. Many times. Finally a woman answered. Screamed. Called her a whore. Told her to stop calling. She took pills. Many, many pills.

I asked her name. No. Told her mine. Nice name. What pills. Blue. Used to be my roommate’s. How many. A bunch. Please, how many. I didn’t count. Did they have a marking. Yeah, a letter. What letter. B or D. Maybe an E. And some red ones. I’m really tired.

3:31 AM. All we had was each other and she was fading. I gambled. “I bet your name is ‘Sally’.”

A small laugh. “Silly. My name is Beth.”

“You sound like you live on campus, like on Sorority Row.”

Snorting. “Uh-uh. Got an apartment.” She named the building. I walked past it every night as I roamed Oxford in the dark.

She started gagging. “Which apartment?” My voice was strained. Almost harsh.

She coughed and wretched. I heard a faint Two-oh-four, then: “I gotta throw up,” followed by the phone hitting wood.

I raced out of the office and leaped down the stairs. The University Police Department was on the first floor. I burst in and told the dispatcher to alert the chief, a suicide intervention and to hurry. She stared at me like I was mad. I repeated myself then raced up the stairs.

3:36 AM. Faint sounds far from the phone. Then: “I threw up.”

“Beth? Is your door locked?”

“No.”

I asked her if she had confirmed the pregnancy. Yes. If she had family nearby. No. Family in Florida. Divorced. Hadn’t seen her father in three years. She was mumbling.

3:44 AM. “Beth!”

She grunted. “I wanna die.”

I told her I wanted to die too. Then I said it again. The desperate tone was sincere. Why. I felt alone and nobody cared about me. No friends? No. Like me. No, you have a friend. Who. Me. No you’re not. I am because I’m listening and I want to help. No. I’m listening. He left me. Because I’m pregnant. And I hate him. He shouldn’t have left me. That’s true. I loved him! She started to cry, then cough.

3:52 AM. The door behind me swung open and the UPD Chief, a lanky ex-Los Angeles cop, walked in and perched a hip on the desk. I passed him a note with the details. He read it and gave me a hard, bored look. I let him listen to Beth as she continued sobbing. I nodded. He just stared at me. Then Beth howled, a ragged, raw soul in torment, screaming without hope. I saw him shiver and he tried to cover it up. He didn't see mine. Without a word, he left.

“Beth?” The phone was set down gently, clicking into emptiness. “Beth!” No dial tone. “Beth!” I was standing, sweating, trembling, willing her to answer. She had to answer.

She did. “No.” The phone thudded softly, echoing my heart.

The seconds dragged, piling upon me like yokes of despair. I called her name and listened to the drumming of my chest as the only reply. My hands became slick with anxiety. I called again and again and again, a name to momentarily stop the whirlpool of thoughts that crushed my breath: If I hadn't been alone... If I hadn't answered the phone... If I hadn't failed...

3:59 AM. A loud series of knocks. A strong voice calling out her name. “Please answer the door.” More knocks, another request and a curt “We are coming in to help you.” I heard the door open, then movement and a request for assistance. Muffled phrases in staccato: Check her pulse. Roll her over. Breathing isn’t good. Stomach pump. The bathroom’s back there. Possible overdose. Take her in now.

The phone was picked up. “Hello?”

I replied: “She told me she has a confirmed pregnancy.” A hand covered the receiver and passed the information on.

“We’re taking her in. She’s pretty serious right now, but we’ll do all we can.” He hung up.

4:04 AM. I hung up. I was alone once more.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Student Body Elections

It happened once a year, I think in the spring. Posters and flyers would circulate, The Daily Mississippian would pretend to cover “issues,” an assortment of people would knock on your dorm room door at odd hours to toss banalities at your feet and carefully-rehearsed impromptu scenes would erupt in the Student Union in support of some faceless drone or the other.

Student Body elections had all the charm of a hangnail. The best thing to do was just get it over with quickly, as painlessly as possible, understanding that there would always be a smidgen of pain in the process.

The truly annoying part of the process was the monkey fever intensity frat boys and sorority girls would display in favor of their brother/sister/third-cousin on Aunt Becky May’s side. The whole Student Body deal was a Greek thang, more a show of plumage and just as weighty in the grand scheme of things.

The independents, those of us wise enough to skip the Greek tragedy, made up a majority of the students. So for once, the Greeks had to come to us to help secure their puny ambitions. If Greeks bearing gifts were to be treated warily, Greeks with empy hands and empty smiles were to be run from.

Yet we held our ground. Some of us curtly, some of us patiently and some of us… well, some of us just had to do it our way. And in astonishing fashion, be frustrated anyway.

As many times as I was approached by a frat boy or a sorority girl and urged to vote in the STUDENT! BODY! ELECTIONS!, I would shake my head ruefully and say: “I can’t vote. I’m illegitimate.”

Eyes would glaze over, smiles would fade to blank and the usual response was a timid “Sorry” and a quick retreat to safety.

Absurdity aside, I was just aching to have one of those empty Greek urns say “Bastard,” so I could retort “It takes one to know one.”

Did I ever get to complete my pitiful little one-act play? ETA ALPHA!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

I Want(ed) a Pipe

I can blame Tim-the-Freudian for the inspiration, but only me for the continuance. Tim was the only person I knew who smoked a pipe and many times I was able to find him around campus by the trail his particular brand of tobacco left behind.

Tim was a graduate psychology student, stocky of build and thinning of hair. He affected an almost comical seriousness to his role as embryonic brainbuster and it was often amusing to see him struggle to avoid jumping into a situation with both Freudian feet.

Our friendship was sporadic, with frequent meetings for two weeks then a disconnect that could last two months. One summer I sub-let the apartment he had in the old two-story house Miz Evelyn owned across from the Oxford Cemetery. I saw him four times that summer, always harassed, as his summer internship turned him from amiable gadfly to lumbering oaf, a process that became irreversible.

Tim smoked a pipe like some people get tattoos. He was fussy about tobacco and sometimes finicky about pipes, but it was the ritual that intrigued me: the selection of just the right amount of tobacco, the careful packing, the oddly-lengthened lighter flicking to life, the rhythmic puffing and careful nurturing until the pipe was well-lit and clouds of smoke began attacking the surroundings.

I marveled at the smoothness of the wood, the rich grain, the careful shaping of bowls and stems, the artistry of bringing together diverse materials to create an instrument so powerfully experiential. When Tim got a job at The Smoke Shop—wooden Indian and all—he turned the experience into his own little psych lab and I used his meandering theories to cover my intense scrutiny of dozens of pipes.

I even tinkered with the idea of making my own pipe, buying a kit as a way of spending quiet hours in careful craftsmanship. But though I spent many months lingering over the idea, the reality of actually smoking a pipe—and how I would look doing so—always stopped me. A pipe would be a burden and as useful a prop for me as a paintbrush to a monkey.

The day I let the idea die I was having lunch with Tim at a restaurant with a prominent salad bar. An elderly couple walked up to it, the woman muttering a mile a minute, poking at the salad items, the dressings, vegetables and bread, always criticizing. The man carefully carried their tray to a nearby table, his face a wooden mask of disinterest. The woman filled her plate, then one for her husband, words machine-gunning the air. They sat down and the pattern continued: her mouth, his mask.

Tim and I watched in silence. Finally, their meal ended, the man gathered the tray and disposed of the trash. They left as they had appeared: her mouth, his mask. Tim took the pipe out of his mouth and pointed with it at the couple. “You’d think she was the head case, but she’s not that off.” He puffed on the pipe, then pointed with it again. “He, on the other hand, is certifiable. He is way past normal. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up taking an axe to her.”

He tapped the pipe on the table. “I know these things.” I looked at the tobacco flakes and ashes sprawled across the tabletop. Maybe he was right; I sensed he was. But the pipe? Overkill.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

God is Black

Silly me: I thought college classes were for exploring concepts. I quickly learned that the sheep want to graze quietly and that some of them are actually venomous when aroused.

A Basic Logic class, in an auditorium half-filled with breathing bodies, me perched in the highest back row, wondering how far I could jump. The class had two speakers: the professor and me. Everyone else spoke if spoken to, and maybe not even then. At the point in a lecture where the professor was describing arguments that are unsupportable and unassailable by logic, he asked for an example.

“God is black,” I said.

You could hear heads snapping around to look up at me. The professor cleared his throat strongly and said the example was correct and that positions such as th—-

What did he say?” growled a voice somewhere to my right.

Before the professor could interrupt, I repeated: “God is black.”

There are moments when you see a disconnected group come together, a mass of people barely aware of each other all of a sudden discovering a common focus, a menace maybe, like a fire or a fistfight. When that focus centers on a person, when the random stillness and movements instantly coalesce into a current flowing at the focus, you have the beginnings of a mob.

Words erupted first.

“What the hell?”
What did he say?”
Black? Like a nigger?”
“Fucking crazy!”
No way! The black guy say it?”
“Quiet, please.” The professor spoke alone, quite loudly.
“That’s wrong! Wrong! He can’t be right! God can’t be black!”

I chose to answer that one. “God can’t be black? I thought God was omnipotent.”

“He can’t be black!”

I rolled my eyes. “Somebody explain ‘ominipotent’ to this redneck.”

“God is white because He’s white in all the paintings!” She seemed on the verge of tears. I let that one pass.

“Quiet! Please!” The incipient mob herded right to look at him. He gave me a dirty look and I waved cheerfully. He proceeded to indicate that the example, though “touchy,” was valid. A few grumbles rippled through the classless room. I was ready as he asked “Any other examples?”

“God is a woman.”

Stunned. Until the professor slammed a hand on his podium and roared “That’s enough! Confine your examples to general topics!”

I smirked. “Oh, you want us to think as you do and not freely as we’re supposed to?” Cheap shot, but it was there. The former mob suddenly perked up, sensing their grazing grounds were not as green as they had believed.

With visible effort, the professor willed himself under control. “I am hear to teach Logic, not start a debating group.”

I nodded. “Yeah. Not enough brains in here for a debating group.” Some furious looks told me I had crossed the line.

Class continued and at the end, as the group filed out with stares and glares at me, the professor pulled me over. “Why did you do that?”

I looked out the door at the small group of guys waiting for me and decided to skip to the end. “I could have said God was a black woman.” I shrugged away from him and went to meet the “debaters.”

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Hoka

It was as out-of-place as a tuxedo in a barnyard. To call it a throw-back would be to imply it actually had a shred of contact with current life. At its best, The Hoka was a timewarp, a pocket of illusion in a world that had begun to move wholeheartedly towards cynicism. At its worst—and it was often at its worst—The Hoka was the trash heap of discarded dreams.

The only word to describe its presence was “sprawl.” It didn’t sit so much as it oozed against the rising land, a tent made of wood, shingles, drywall and spit with the charm of an aging hooker who’d discovered the joys of basket-weaving. Part bar, part restaurant, part hangout, part theater and all Hoka.

My first visit there was like walking into fish guts. The air itself felt sticky, none the least for the obvious cloud of smoke that lingered above and beyond the bar. We ordered coffee with chickory, New Orleans-style, and the heavy mug was cracked to the point where creamy liquid seeped out like a tired tear. Around me appeared, disappeared and re-appeared relics of a bad memory: aging faces, stooped shoulders, emaciated bodies of the time when peace and love and drugs and rock and roll were virtually one magical amalgam. Long hair turning gray, tied back into ragged ponytails or hanging loose like dried kelp. Tie-dyed clothing desperate for patching. Sandals with blackened outlines of ancient sweat.

We ordered food. My choice was hamburger, rare, a choice that can only be deemed insane. It arrived wrapped in goat cheese, or something spewed, on buns that weighed a pound each surrounding a piece of meat so charred it should have been a paperweight. Two bites confirmed the cheese, the taste of wet cardboard and that paperweights are not food.

Music drifted in and out of the smoke, interruptus. A song would begin, the hazy tribe would oooh and then the music would fade to dreamy smiles. Notes plunked and clinked through the air, vying for escape. Then another song would begin, the ooohs, the fadeout, the dreamy smiles. Over and over.

We ordered more coffee and my mug had no handle. The movie was about to begin, the classic Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon.” Popcorn appeared out of the dark, a Hoka gift that felt vaguely menacing. Tim-the-Freudian warned me that sometimes the reels were shown out of order and we sat on chairs that kept their shape out of sheer stubborness. The screen was a patched set of sheets that behind them had the parking lot. No walls, just a sheet. The Hoka never closed.

The movie began. Not even this smoky hovel could erase the snappy dialogue, the quick wit and sheer magnetism of Bogey, Sydney and Peter as they chased “the black bird.” But at the chase’s peak, Bogey doesn’t take the fall, the stuff dreams are made of is center-screen and then the tense apartment scene where the gunsel is sold down the river makes its play. Nobody said a word, and when the third reel ends, we get up and leave past the screen, into the dingy, sweet-smelling night. We didn’t pay for anything and we walked away in heavy silence.

At The Hoka, dreams came first and the sell-out last. Every day.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Fencing Wounds

I took up fencing in 1986 as a way of trying a new sport. Always a fan of swordsmanship, I quickly discovered that fencing was serious effort, not trivial play, and that I enjoyed the challenges immensely.

I quickly became the second-best fencer in our small group and trained harder with our Captain, an accomplished modern pentathlete. One Wednesday evening, after sweating out a grueling 20-minute session, he asked me if I wanted to compete in a fencing tournament. I agreed instantly.

The tournament was held in New Orleans. A large, stuffy gym served as the stage for an old-fashioned club challenge, a “them-against-us” day of fencing with human judges instead of electric machines. The local club had about 30 members and though ours was half as big, only 5 of us had made the trip. We decided on a round-robin format, by divisions, and began fencing.

My first match pitted me against a burly, wide-bodied fencer. Because of the other matches, all the judges in ours were his club members. I noticed this, slipped on my mask and we began. My style was quite aggressive, relying on my reflexes and footwork to streak in and make rapid lunges. Almost immediately I scored and at my pause, he lunged at my chest. “Point.”

I returned to my spot when I noticed I was down 0-1. I questioned it, but the guy behind my opponent, who should have seen my touch, shook his head. Settling in, we resumed. Again I made a fast approach and scored, only to have the point awarded to my opponent, by the same “judge.” Down 0-2. The mask seemed to fade away as I attacked, scoring clearly on my opponent without him touching me in return. And once again, the same bastard shook his head, denying me the point.

I removed my mask to stare at him. Bad form. Like I cared. He pushed his glasses up, crossed his arms over his chest and avoided my eyes. He knew. The match resumed and I eventually lost 2-5. I should have won by that score. My first true fencing match and I had lost.

Four more matches and I won them all easily. Then my final match and as the luck of the draw would have it, my opponent was the near-sighted bastard of my first match. I almost ran to the strip. We shook hands and he gave me a weak smile. I was ready. Masks on, we began.

In an instant, I knew I could beat him. But I wanted more. With cold certainty, I created an attack pattern—up, down, side, then down—and kept it going until I scored. We resumed and I kept the same pattern, but scored from another angle. I did the same on the third point. And as he again assumed his en garde position, I knew had him. I started advancing, sword high. He stepped back. I closed and started my pattern: up, down, side… He went down and I immediately lunged, sword straight, my entire body a line of furious thrust from foil tip to left foot. I aimed through him, the tip slamming into the vest exactly where his heart was. As if punched by a heavyweight, he slumped back and fell down clumsily.

I straightened up slowly, the rush of energy flowing down and away. He groaned, grabbing his chest and his teammates came over. Edward, our captain, looked at me, his eyes boring into mine. Quickly, the bastard’s friends removed vest, sweatshirt and T-shirt. I stepped off the strip to wait. They left.

I won that match by forfeit and made it to the finals, where once again I faced the same stocky guy… with four of his club members as judges. I noticed no one from my club volunteered to judge and Edward couldn’t do it because he’d lost to the stocky guy in the semi-finals. I scored 9 times, but lost 4-5. What a surprise. The stocky guy even apologized.

As I was packing my gear, the near-sighted bastard ambled over slowly, his face a mask of pain. He kept rubbing his chest, just above the heart. “Look,” he pouted, raising his sweatshirt and T-shirt to show me an already-bruised and swelling plum-sized knot on his pasty flesh. “You hurt me!”

I stared back at him until he lowered his shirts and started to shuffle his feet. Surprisingly, he extended his hand.

“I was aiming for more,” I said and walked away, his hand ignored.

Bad form. Like I cared.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A 100 Degree Summer

Growing up in Puerto Rico inures you to heat, as the blazing sun and high humidity wrap you like a damp blanket 270 days a year. I played all kinds of sports under Puerto Rico's summer sun, so walking around Oxford in the summer was fun. Even as the temperature slipped above 100 degrees, the relatively low humidity made it easy to live in.

Bill was also very comfortable in the mid-year sun, so in the summer of 1981, we began to play tennis as soon as the temperature topped 100. I think it was his idea, but I certainly jumped at it enthusiastically. Neither of us was really a good player and we actually had more fun whacking balls with exaggerated swings than trying to emulate classical play.

Several times that summer I'd be walking to the court and see people sitting on porches, fanning themselves with the slow desperate rhythm of the overcome. I stifled the urge to wave, for wasn't I blessed with youth, vim, vigor and a pleasant attraction to high infrared? Why rub it in? I'm smiling smugly now, just as I did then. (I didn't wave, but I smiled. Oh did I smile!)

What began as a day's impulsive whim soon stretched to three days, then six, eight and ten. Day after day, the heavy-handed heat slapped itself upon North Mississippi and sure enough, as the mercury hit triple digits, Bill and I hit the courts. Once we were able to determine that the temperature on the court was close to 125 degrees, the concrete slab almost clutching at us with wavy fingers of heat. And we played on.

Eleven, twelve, fourteen. Two full weeks of the longest heat wave in recent memory and we were as regular as two of those mechanical cuckoos. We played at least for an hour, often for two or more, a couple of young men just sharing time, space and the occasional metronome of ball over net.

Day fifteen. By noon, the temperature soared over 100 degrees and less than 20 minutes later, we were on the court. For almost an hour we engaged in our usual thwacking and wise-cracking play, when suddenly I began feeling tight, as if my stomach and leg muscles had turned to wood. I played through it and when I turned to pick up balls against the back fence, I slumped. Holding on with nerveless fingers kept me from falling. I didn't notice Bill standing next to me until he spoke.

I told him I was okay and let go of the fence. He asked me if it could be the heat and I gave him a look. But no retort emerged. With a touch of humility as new as the next minute, I nodded. Maybe. He asked me if I wanted to stop. I chuckled and said our streak had to go on. I took a deep breath, picked up the balls and we played on.

After 17 days, the temperature peaked at 98, then dropped to 95-97 for several days. It did hit 100 one more time and we didn't miss that. Our streak was intact, a tennis summer in the highest heat. It was a lark, an adventure, a deepened friendship and a lesson: I am not immune. Slow learner that I am, I needed several reminders before I got it right.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Australian Rules Football

At 4 AM, TV used to be a wasteland. Even with the advent of cable, the darkest hours were populated by black-and-white B-movies, odd reruns and the occasional preacher desperate for attention. It isn’t much better now, because the peak moment of pre-dawn TV was Australian Rules Football.

ESPN was barely gaining momentum when, without fanfare, they started showing tapes of a sport that combined the high-impact action of rugby with the high-scoring drama of basketball and was simply mesmerizing to watch. Rugged guys in colorful uniforms of sleeveless T-shirts and shorts would run down and across an oval field, passing a large ovoid ball by punching it like a weak volleyball serve, by kicking it through the air or—daringly—by dribbling it in mid-run. Points were scored by kicking the ball throught two tall uprights or between a tall upright and a shorter one. Referees in long white coats and perky hats would indicate the score with mechanical gestures pre-dating “The Robot.”

Without explanation, with color commentary that assumed you were an Aussie fan and simply added to player bios that read like excised drafts of a Crocodile Dundee script, the action and intensity drew you in almost against your will. The play never stopped, and like in soccer, injuries (a few a game) were tended to on the field. I once saw a player knocked down, start getting attention from the trainer, only to bolt up and try to tackle an opponent and get even more viciously knocked out, forcing the trainer to sigh deeply, pick up his equipment bag and run over to the new mid-field “bedside.”

The hand-passing and dribbling seemed quaint and awkward, but the real drama was in “marks,” kicks that soared high and far across the field and were secured by players jumping like—well, kangaroos—to catch it in mid-air. The catches were not unchallenged: short of grabbing the other player, anything went. I saw a player run, leap, plant his left foot in the opposing player’s back for greater height and catch the ball while slamming the opponent to the turf, a catch so spectacular it was shown before and after almost every game.

Scores were often 80 points or higher per team as each goal was worth 6 points and a “behind” worth 1 point. Momentum could and did shift often and in one spectacular match, a league doormat overcame a 36 point deficit in the closing minutes to defeat a perennial winner, a sort of “Cubs beat the Yankees” scenario that was thrilling to watch. So what if I couldn’t tell one team from the other? I know a great game when I see one.

And so did thousands of others, especially in Australia. Despite its size (about 20% smaller than the States), Down Under is not nearly as populated as you might think. At the time, the total population of the country was around 14 million persons, and yet, these matches often had attendance that numbered over 100,000 fans. To give you an idea of what that really means, imagine a Sunday football game in Green Bay… with 12 million fans in the Stadium. All of them cheering, waving, singing, screaming, swaying and stomping their feet in the best soccer-crowd tradition.

The games were exciting, the marks were often spectacular, the close-ups of players who were “veterans” after 20 games and looked like middle-aged hockey players though they were 24 or 25, the drama of athletes playing hard because pride demanded no less and the sheer fun of being able to watch all this at 4 in the freakin’ morning was too much to pass up. But eventually, Life changed its rhythm, ESPN changed its schedule and Aussie Rules Football dropped off my radar. Still, the sporting excitement and pageantry remain a vivid, happy memory of the night’s quietest time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Letters

In those days before e-mail swamped us and placed letter-writing in a comatose state, I wrote letters, actual pieces of paper covered by my handwriting (such as it was) or my Smith-Corona’s inky output. They were often monologues—as letters tend to be—but always ended in a P.S., or two or eleven, although I once wrote a letter that was 98% P.S. (That’s “P,” okay?)

I wrote well over 300 hundred letters over a five year period, averaging 5 a month. The bulk of those letters I wrote to Carol, filled with anecdotes, tweaks (I bugged her a lot!), sports news, asides, feelings and low comedy. She wrote back often and the long-distance dialogue, the closing of space too vast for me to contain, went far towards healing my first bouts of loneliness.

I wrote to my mom, letters that let me express my feelings in a light manner, trying to hide my moments of pain or confusion and doing as good a job at that as is possible when a mother’s instinct has an uncanny way of seeing straight to the truth. Letters to my dad were military reports: long on facts, short on interpretation. He usually answered on the back of deposit slips that he got at the bank, often sent to me in bank envelopes he scratched the return address from and always with a stamp he charmed from a bank officer. A lady bank officer, of course.

My sister got more emotional letters, ones where I expressed concerns about her and about me. We seldom wrote as each tried to establish a space of one’s own, separate from family. As my sister kept mom and dad in the dark about many things (she was geographically closer, but emotionally more distant at the time, the opposite of my case), it was up to me to sound her out and pass on the “all clear,” true or not.

Letters to a high school friend were exercises in the excess of “one word.” Using my Smith-Corona and time, I wrote him letters that were one word, with no separation or punctuation between the letters. After the straight-through version, one letter was one word that spiraled in to the center of the page. Later I wrote a letter that had to be read vertically, again with no separations or punctuations. Another had to be read following the line from the front to the back, then back to the front again, a spiral across both sides of the paper. And my last, greatest effort, had a diagonal pattern, starting in the upper right corner and spiraling over both sides of the paper, ending in the lower left corner. And these were not random efforts either: I told him and his family my news, observations and thoughts, all within the exact confines of the pages and format. He still has them.

Another friend who kept my letters was Joeann. I flirted with her outrageously when we were in school together (her boyfriend was my friendly sports “nemesis”) and I did the same in my letters, behaving like a sex-mad fiend who was just a split-second away from conquering her with his animal magnetism. (Comedy is often based on reality.) (Often, not always.) Years later, Joeann told me she had kept the letters and when sadness or depression gripped her, she would read the letters and eventually start laughing, sometimes until she cried. She even showed me the creased, almost split pages, carefully tucked in their envelopes and wrapped in a linen handkerchief.

But the strongest emotional impact I’ve felt about my letters happened many years after the fact. My dad’s only sister and I wrote to each other 4-5 times a year. Some 15 years after I left college and stopped writing letters, I went to visit my aunt in San Francisco. We spoke about her dead husband, Jack, a former Air Force pilot who I only met twice, but with whom I traded news through my aunt. I knew Jack thought highly of me, but not much else, so I asked her to tell me more about him. She told me that even when his health faded badly and he didn’t even want to watch television, Jack would perk up whenever one of my letters arrived. He would ask her to read them aloud and laugh at my my comments and sarcasm. Sometimes he would ask her to pull out older letters and read them, too. The week before he died, she gathered all my letters and read them to Uncle Jack, one after the other, to take his mind off the pain of his dying. His soft laughter echoed hers, she said. That night he slept soundly for the last time.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Cheerleaders

They swarmed on campus like a multi-headed creature, with an odd number of heads and legs. They tittered, giggled, cheered, tittered, screeched, tittered, shrieked, clapped and did I mention they tittered? They moved in herds with amoeba-like fluctuations that were appealing and disturbing to watch.

They were high school girls on a college campus... where there were college men. Even I qualified as an interesting specimen when that broad a definition was used. The occasional exchange was a break from routine for me and an anecdote in the fall for them.

One Tuesday afternoon, passing the Student Union, a voice from a cheerleader herd called out in a cloud of laughter: “Would you date me?”

“Only if you’re naked!” I yelled back, causing even greater clouds of laughter and setting off a flutter of spastic gyrations.

The top moment in my mind was sitting in the cafeteria with Bill, in our usual next-to-the-entrance table. The place was almost empty when four cheerleaders came in, a grand total of nine inches separating all four heads from each other, their legs choreographed in some instinctive way so that every step landed where it should. They were dressed up in what I could only describe as “informal teenage chic,” a fashion trend that changes every eleven days (except in big cities where it changes every six.)

I was ruminating about something to say as they walked by, an integrated unit of teenage vanity, when Bill yelled out “Look at them! They think they’re pretty!”

The girls wilted. Wilted, I tell you. In the time it took them to walk twenty feet they went from “fabulous” to “failures,” their body language a visual apology for being in our midst.

I turned to Bill and said “That was cruel.” He looked at me, impassive. I shook my head and added “I wish I’d said it!”

I brought that up when we saw each other recently and he told me his top cheerleader moment was something I’d done. We were sitting on the window ledge up at the office, the summer heat forcing a search for some less-stale air. A group of some 15 cheerleaders herded by and as they passed near us, I let out a wolf whistle. Heads snapped in my direction and smiles flashed. Then I yelled “Not you!”

Heads snapped back and some dropped. Postures slumped. But as Bill so keenly remembers, one girl had not turned to seek out the whistler. And as the herd moved on, her smile made it clear that my little jest had very much made her day. Maybe even the whole summer.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Computer Football

This is complicated: While at Rapline, I answered a call from a young lady who complained bitterly about her boyfriend, a computer geek who treated her like dirt. We spoke three nights in a row and as chance would screw it, I sat next to her in the computer center later the third night. I recognized her voice and name and before I could escape, she recognized my voice and broke through the veil of secrecy that should separate Rapline from the world.

Her boyfriend, Steve, was the quintessential nerd: pencil-neck, glasses, mussed-up hair and the social skills of an aardvark. A lot like me, actually. The computer center was his living room and this was back in the days of mainframes, green-tinted monitors, BASIC, FORTRAN, COBOL and line-by-line debugging of programs with under a hundred lines.

Mae, Steve’s tolerant victim, sort of let it slip that “Ben” was, well, interesting. Steve, with some inane and ill-suited jealousy, wanted to make something of it. But he couldn’t fight his way into a paper bag, so he was not about to physically challenge me, even if I did match him as a welterweight. He let it come out that nobody, n-o-b-o-d-y, could beat him at Computer Football.

Now Steve was a heavyweight in the computer division and I was barely a flyweight, but that wasn’t going to stop me from taking on the feeb. Not for Mae, who was not only unattractive, she was snotty. (Steve was lucky to have her.) It was because the challenge was flung at me by someone who couldn’t sniff my jock when it comes to sports.

Steve sat in a corner of the 24-terminal center; I sat in the middle of the right-hand wall. Maybe it was my imagination, but the scattered few were behaving like a showdown was happening at the OKilobyte Corral. The game came up, all text. Steve “won” the toss and elected to receive.

Nine plays later, he had scored a touchdown. I received and two plays later, he intercepted, then scored on the next play. I was down 14-0 and there was about 6 minutes left in the first quarter. I received, drove downfield and with a second-and-goal, Steve intercepted the screen pass and scored again. It was now 21-zip and I was about to punch my way through the monitor.

Steve, great guy that he was, was yakking it up, reiterating that he was simply unbeatable at the “real” kind of football, the mental game that separated the men from the boys. I wanted to separate his manhood from any future of spawning boys…or girls. Mae, who had been sitting at the far end of the room and had told me she would love for me to beat Steve badly, had now moved and was sitting three seats away from Steve. Bitch.

The second quarter started and I was able to manage a field goal, but Steve matched it: 24-3. I drove to the 4 and on third-and-2, I ran a roll-out pass play and to my utter astonishment, the pass was intercepted and run back for a touchdown. 31-3, 44 seconds left in the first half and Steve was cackling softly, his arm around Mae. Bitch. And so was Mae.

At that moment, Bill, a silent observer of the proceedings, said “You’re playing football. This is computer football.” I nodded, my anger freezing into a cold spike aimed directly at Steve.

The return was to my 34, and knowing that Steve expected a deep pass, I ran a sweep. Then another, a sideline pass and then a slant and I scored with 4 seconds to go. 31-10. The second half started with me receiving and again I mixed plays nearly at random and scored again: 31-17. I kicked onside, recovered and scored in five plays: 31-24. The cackling had long been silenced and Steve’s keyboard was getting abused. I kicked off and after giving up good yardage, intercepted and scored in four plays. The game was tied, the scattered denizens of computerland had gathered around me and Mae had been shoved aside as Steve cursed a blue streak. Nasty temper in that boy.

He managed a field goal to go ahead 34-31, but as the fourth quarter started, I nailed him again and took the lead 38-34. For several minutes I was the distinct center of geek worship…and then the computer crashed. Steve immediately left the center as some über-geek in charge came rushing in to ask what had happened. I didn’t know, but everyone else seemed to.

Mae gathered her books and walked out without a word.

A couple of weeks later, I entered the computer center and Steve was thrashing another geek on the virtual football field. He cackled that he was invincible, and after a few minutes, he turned and saw me. His words died out and a dry chuckle from somewhere preceded a “Yeah, but you can’t beat him without crashing the store.” Steve said something crude and left.

It was the shallowest of victories. But it sure as hell beat the other option.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Day John Lennon Died

I was bowling the sixth frame of my third game and it wasn’t going well. My first game had been a bust, the second even worse and so far in the third game, I was making my first two look like masterpieces.

The radio over the loudspeakers squawked, then an oddly-detached voice came on and read a statement. I took a shot, left pins standing and as I turned to mumble a curse, the words drifted into my brain: John Lennon had been killed.

I looked up. Of the 20 or so people in the bowling alley, no one was reacting. The same thing had happened in March when then-President Reagan had been shot. I was sitting in the cafeteria that day, the news came on and though some 25-30 people must have heard it, no one said anything or even tried to find out if the news was true.

As if aware of my doubt—of the doubts of so many—the news item was read again, each word a separate tile placed in a mosaic of collective pain. John Lennon, ex-Beatle and symbol of a generation, had been shot and killed outside his Manhattan apartment building. The shooter, a fan, had been arrested and was being interrogated.

No one seemed to care. I bowled quickly, the change of pace actually improving my game so that I finished with my best score of the night. I paid and got back to my room.

When Don came in, I told him the news. In his characteristic way, he avoided looking at me and said “I don’t believe you.” I knew Don was a fan, not obsessed, but a true fan, and I never expected he wouldn’t believe me. He thought I was joking. I told him I didn’t joke like that, but he still refused to believe me. I had to sit down.

Don left and when he came back a couple of hours later, he told me he’d heard the news. He apologized and I made a feeble attempt to wave it off. I was still hurt, but the intervening time had made me wonder what about me would create the impression that stupid and pointless behavior, almost cruel in intent, was part of my make-up. I didn’t have to think for long. Not to find evidence, that is. Beyond a doubt, there was plenty to think about afterward.

We never mentioned the incident again, or if we did, it made no impression on me. But in a rare moment of lucid and mature introspection, I could deem Don’s paining disbelief as understandable. A moment of shared tragedy yielded to me some much-needed perspective. Sometimes you are given gifts in unlikely packages. Don is as unlikely a package as could ever come your way, but without a doubt, he is a gift.

Non-refundable. Believe me, I tried.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

11:57

Bill urged me to join and being the son of an Air Force veteran (retired), I figured it would be a good experience. Forget the fact that I already had longish hair and an aversion to clothing more complicated than jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, and that my idea of disciplined behavior was limiting my sarcasm to only several forays a day. Air Force ROTC was waiting for me.

In some mysterious way, I lasted a year. Despite the long hair that gave me the moniker of “Custer,” (yet never to my face), a laissez-faire attitude towards “gung ho” activity and no interest in pursuing a career where brown-nosing was a requirement, I occupied a space in the Air Force’s universe for those nine months. A full-term stillborn, if you will.

The second semester we had a Phys. Ed. requirement of running a mile and a half in under 12 minutes. I noted the fact, then promptly ignored it, even when it was mentioned ever so often. I must point out that despite my love of sports, running just for the sake of running was idiocy to me. I could run all day on a baseball field, a basketball or tennis court or on a beach playing touch football all afternoon, but running just to get back to where you started from? Puh. Leez.

Suddenly one morning, Bill tells me that the final day for the P.E. requirement was that day; in fact, that the timed trial was going on at that moment. I threw sarcasm his way, missed and went to the Rebel Coliseum.

Several LeMay-wannabes were gathered, a few holding stopwatches. Nothing like redundancy. I walked up and said I had to run and their glances were almost interested enough to be perfunctory. One nodded and said I could start anytime. I dropped my notebook on the ground and started running, although I was dressed for day, not sports. Someone had told me 12 laps around the dingy dome was the requirement, so a minute a lap was required. Woop-de-doo.

I ran with a blur of anger in my head. Stupidstupidstupidstupid was the rhythm of my run. I noticed one poor sap, red-faced and heaving as he lugged fat and gristle around with two buddies encouraging him every two seconds. Along the way, I heard another trial was set for late afternoon, so runners who failed now could try again. I shook my head: I’d do it now or forget it.

Time passed and I kept my rhythm. I lapped the heavy-legged sap whose buddies were now pleading with him to go on, to pick up the pace, to make it happen. I lost track of the laps as my pace never changed and I kept running, just running, doing nothing but running.

I passed my timekeeper who raised one finger. “Last one!” he told me. I ran on. Then, as I passed the halfway point of the final lap, I heard a yell. “Seventeen seconds to go!” I immediately kicked into a sprint, passing the lumbering trio and racing to whatever passed for a finish line. I pulled around the final turn and accelerated as I passed my timekeeper, who clicked his stopwatch and nodded. I took several more steps to slow down, then walked over. As I did, the trio went by me. A collective groan washed past me. “Twelve nine.” Lumberjock had failed.

I was handed a clipboard with my name and 11:57 next to it. Uh-huh. I signed, the timekeeper signed and I picked up my notebook. The trio was now a duet as the main character had collapsed to the ground, his whole body heaving for breath. I heard someone say “You can do it this afternoon.”

In a car, I said to no one in particular. As I walked to the cafeteria, I noted I hadn’t even broken a sweat.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Jefferson Avenue Hideaway

Even if you were looking for it, it was hard to find. A converted home that sat atop a steep hill, the four apartments had been carved from the upper floor and the narrow basement had been made into a fifth.

That was my hideaway, Jefferson Avenue #5. To get to it, you had to walk to the right of the building, get off the sidewalk onto a footpath and reach the door tucked under a small awning. To the right as you approached my door was the beginning of urban wilderness, a grassy cliff that plunged into a wooded stream where raccoons, possums, squirrels and wild cats made their presence felt regularly.

The door was in the center of the apartment, a narrow rectangle stretching some 35 feet one way, but only 10 feet from front-to-back. In front of the door was the closet and Murphy bed, usually down. To the left, the living room. Along the left-front wall was my Smith-Corona. Along the left-side wall was the TV set and to the right of the TV was a built-in set of drawers, well-made and convenient.

To the right of the door was a tiny breakfast nook (actually, a tiny table) and the kitchen, with a half-sized fridge and a full-sized range. Beyond the kitchen, in the far right corner, was the bathroom.

You could see the whole apartment in under 10 seconds and most everyone did. In the summer, the trees and concealed nature of the place kept it fairly cool. In winter, once the door was sealed properly, the space heater kept the place toasty with little effort.

The hideaway was large enough to contain my few belongings and small enough to induce intimacy. I never felt cramped there, and with only very few exceptions, it never felt empty. My friends came over enough to keep it social, but not so much that it lost a sense of my self. I wrote hundreds of pages, read thousands, listened to music, watched TV, played wargames, cooked and had a blast usually doing a few of those things at the same time. I learned to be comfortable with another person and that sharing words and silence is a glorious thing.

My late night walks launched from there and quite often ended abruptly as I was escorted back by police, to make sure I didn’t keep the lips or hips going. My daytime forays were always wrapped in the feeling of excursions, as coming back had the feeling of comfort. In solitude, day melted into night bloomed into day with a sense of exploration and discovery, leavened by humor as the world, or my world, burped an odd idea.

Up to the moment I moved in to Jefferson Avenue #5, I had lived in 14 different places, product of an Air Force master sergeant father and the vagaries of military assignments. Within a week, my Jefferson hideaway was home. My list of places where I’ve lived has more than doubled, but that narrow rectangle tucked beside a steep hill still feels like home.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Diana

I wrote several years ago that one sometimes has friends one doesn’t deserve. I used no names, but I had a shining example in my own life to show me such Truth.

Diana met me on our first night at a residential school in Puerto Rico for advanced science and math students. In my first true moment of deep introspection, I was walking back and forth across the rough surface of the basketball court, nearly oblivious to the jolly gathering around me. I had noticed Diana sitting on a large table along with other students, singing hymns. She seemed the happiest person in the place and even then her smile was a joy to behold.

My mind whirled as I contemplated the abrupt and fundamental change I was facing: most of my behavior and many of my attitudes were aimed at being sent away from my immediate environment. Now here I was in a place I desperately wanted to stay in and I had no idea how to behave. I’d already caused a stir and my experiences up till then told me the situation—or I—would force something to happen.

At one point, wandering aimlessly, I passed by the singing group and was grabbed. The shock froze me. Diana had reached out and pulled me, patting the table so I’d sit next to her. Nonplussed, I sat. The singing went on and for a few minutes, I forgot my dilemma. I watched her sing. She was fully in the moment, her dark eyes flashing happily.

We started our classes and as the days went by, I noticed Diana noticing me. As I hesitantly carved a unique niche for myself, she was a constant presence, always friendly. In the wordless way of shy adolescence, we drifted together, and though we never said as much, we were something of an item.

Or more accurately, Diana was seriously interested and I was an immature bastard. In the presence of one of the kindest, most generous and genuine persons you could ever hope to meet, I was a lying, insulting, mean-spirited moron. Don’t blame youth or inexperience: even children know when they hurt someone and only the backward ones continue to do so.

We occupied the same space for the rest of the year, and occasionally interacted, but it was painful and inconclusive. I left for college; Diana went her way and time worked on me. Those college years filled with living in my past showed me where I’d gone wrong, what I’d wasted and how I’d lost so much for no reason at all.

I learned. Thanks to wonderful people, warm hearts and my growing sense of self, I learned. But a deep ache entered my memories of Diana, the awful remorse of causing so much needless pain. I wanted so much to speak to her again, but I didn’t know how to find her and at times, that brought despair.

Months and years went by. One morning, as I slept late in my unusual schedule, the phone rang. When I answered, I heard the voice that collapsed my reserve. Before Diana could explain who she was and how she found me, I blurted out an apology. Like water through broken floodgates, my words rushed downstream, trying in their brief vibrations to assuage the hurts of long before, to relieve the burden of guilt I carried and to let Diana know that I did care for her, that I had finally learned how to express it.

I ended as I ran out of breath, clutching the phone like a lifeline. The silence went on for seconds and I dreaded saying something to an empty line, or hearing the hum of a connection cut. Then Diana spoke. She told me she expected many things—sarcasm, insults, contempt—but never what she’d just heard. I felt like crying. Then she said she was surprised, and grateful, that I was not what she expected. She said she accepted my words and their feelings. And with that, we began catching up.

Over the years, we’ve kept in touch sporadically, but with emotion. As my highs carried me away, Diana was there to keep me grounded. As my world collapsed inside me, she was there to give me hope. I gave back only a tiny portion of the grace and peace she gave me. I denied us a chance to meet while in New York, but she made it a point to meet me shortly after my son was born.

And on a day I thought the end could now be embraced, Diana called, compelled by some powerful instinct to tell me I was wrong. She was brutally honest: “God knows you’ve never given me very much, but for some reason I care a lot about you and you will not give up now.” I didn’t, because she was right. On all counts.

Diana is one of my oldest friends, an amazing presence in my sparsely populated life. She revels in pointing out that I’m damaged goods (at best), that I am often my only enemy and that there is always hope. We laugh at me and with each other, with the ease of honesty and comfort. (I notice she uses potty language with me. Maybe because it’s the only way to make me listen?)

Today is your birthday, Diana. On the day you blessed the world with your presence, I want you to know I have loved you since the moment my arm was kindly yanked out of its socket. We both know I don’t deserve you, but we both also know I’m fascinating.

Okay, I know it and you pretend you don’t. What are friends for?

Friday, May 06, 2005

A Moment of Gravity

At 11:20 that night I decided that I needed to go to Dallas. I packed some clothes, toiletries, a couple of books and by 11:26 I was leaving Oxford.

The summer heat still hung in the air, a heaviness that came in through the open window on ponderous wings. I was sitting in a 1973 Dodge Maverick, tan with white stripes, "The Grabber" tatooed on its hood. Some 430 plus cubic inches of engine rumbled impatiently as the three speed kept clutch use to a minimum. The light chassis didn't cut through the air so much as it surfed, and the miles dropped away quickly.

The highway became a dual two-lane affair heading almost due south towards Jackson. The median area was a grassy river that seemed gray and deep in the midnight hour. My speed kept creeping up, passing 80, then 90. I was going to Dallas. I was in a hurry.

Trees would pop up as boulder islands in the river. The stars ahead were twinkling madly and I wondered if it would rain before I crossed into Louisiana. At times the highway curved, gently. I passed 100 miles per hour and felt at ease, though The Grabber was shaking like a palsied hound.

Clouds moved in and a distant rumble crept into view. I closed the window a bit, the roar becoming a howl. Stars winked out, covered by gray cotton in mindless flotation. Somewhere, I passed 110.

The highway was now a promontory, a ridge, and I was the greyhound fleeing atop. My eyes were drawn to the arrow-straight path of the northbound lanes and in the vaguest of manners I saw a yellow sign try to tell me what I needed to know.

As trees broke the silhouette I wanted to follow, I looked ahead. And the road was gone. The yellow sign flared in my mind, an arrow bent at 90 degrees to the right. I glanced down: 122. And the road was running out.

I plunged the clutch to the floorboard and thought of downshifting. My mind was filled with a scream and in an instant, a now moment frozen in my memory like a snapshot of lightning, I pulled the stick back, released the clutch and turned into the curve like a suicidal hawk.

The brake barely cut the speed and I pumped twice, again, then a last time. The steering wheel fought to break my grip. I was leaning against the door, my neck stiff as stone as I kept the wheel steady.

By instinct, a moment of lucidity or insanity, I jammed the brakes again then shoved the accelerator down, the engine's ignored roar exploding into the night. I felt the wheels slip, grip, lurch, grip and then as if slung by David the Shepherd, The Grabber was rocketing down the highway again, straddling the center line.

I whooped! I hollered,yelled, screamed, howled and shouted my laughter to the night. The clouds parted, stars emerged and with a vicious grunt, I slammed on the brakes, fishtailing the car until it faced my immediate past. Unconcerned about traffic, I drove back to the right-angle, parked on the narrow shoulder and walked until I saw the first signs of fresh rubber.

I traced my path, eyes glued to the ground like a tracker. I could see where the brakes had bit into the road and as the edge came near, how the skidmarks ended. Dust and gravel showed me the track, the tires cutting a message of speed in the gritty surface.

Only to disappear at the edge. Two interwoven tracks continued unabated, but the other ones, on the left, were halved. One track slashed to the edge, the mesa above a twenty-foot drop into a veritable wall of pine trees. The other track just stopped at the edge, a lone voice of surrender to the improbability of friction overcoming such inertia.

I stood there, in awe. Then I followed the emptiness of one line to its completion as two, then four, the tracks disappearing as I had started to straddle the center line.

I thought of leaping and cavorting, of punching the air with the power of beating the odds. I thought of it, the power surging like electric waves. I thought of it.

The moment passed. Back in The Grabber, I turned around and cranked it up to a steady 90. Well before noon, I was in Dallas, my brush with the law of gravity long forgotten.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

A Confederacy of Dunces

I’d seen the book many times, sitting at eye level, the cartoonish characters on the cover almost in motion, a fat guy wearing a green hunting cap (the kind with ear flaps) posing in a Jack Benny-ish gesture of simpering disdain.

The book had raised some controversy, for being a comedy about the South, it had struck the many exposed nerves of the “Dixie Gentry.” The author, John Kennedy O’Toole, had woven an outrageous tale centered on one of the most improbable, undefinable and fascinating characters to ever lumber, thunder and gambole across the printed page. That this character and his supporting cast happened to accurately skewer Southern life, mores, society and misperceptions-taken-as-Gospel only added well-deserved insult to insight.

The novel, the brilliant outpouring of a young man’s talent and ambition, almost didn’t see the light of day. Depressed over his inability to find a publisher, Kennedy committed suicide seven years after finishing Dunces. It fell upon his mother, a teacher of dramatic arts and avid reader, to find someone who could see in the manuscript what she had seen. Rejection followed rejection over several years. Then she collared Walker Percy and practically forced him to read it. As the novelist says in his Introduction, he reluctantly read it at first hoping it was bad, then with increasing wonder until he was overwhelmed. In 1980, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize.

Ignatius J. Reilly is described as “part Falstaff, part Don Quixote” by some lazy reviewer. Reilly is much, much more. Philosophical, dependent, arrogant, erudite, lazy, intuitive, confused, passionate, analytical, funny, bone-headed, pathetic, sensitive and insensitive, a heroic coward wrapped in stained bedsheets, Reilly stands alone as a literary creation. As you read the novel, you shake your head in disbelief, and if you are a writer, you gape in Percy-like awe at what Kennedy flung at the page with devastating accuracy.

And beyond Reilly is a cast of deftly-written portraits that feel more like biographies than fiction. Time and again the reader with Southern memories will find familiar “faces” and scenes that seem as if Kennedy had sat on the collective porches of Southern families and simply taken notes.

I’ve read Dunces six times now and I look forward to a half-dozen more readings in the coming years. The novel lulls you in like the French Quarter on a foggy morn, odd and quiet, eerie even, then erupts into a raucous romp that carries you along to a bittersweet end. Few novels are more absorbing; even fewer have such soul.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Kent and Jeannie

He was quiet, a rangy athletic type with a fade-in-the-walls demeanor. She was almost as tall as he, with shoulders that gave his a run for their money and was about as quiet as a frat party.

They sat together in English Lit, usually one or two spots removed from where I sat. After the first week of class, Jeannie figured out I was breezing and made sure she sat next to me, to ask me questions, and of course, boyfriend Kent sat where she told him to.

The class was engaging enough to have me drop in more than half the time and the show was often Kent and Jeannie. Although tall, blonde and pretty in the way sharp knives are, Jeannie was no Barbie, so seeing Kent as “Ken” was difficult until you realized both only spoke when spoken for.

Any questions directed at Kent were answered by Jeannie. On the rare occasions when Kent proffered an answer or even an opinion, Jeannie would immediately counter with “What Kent means is…” and proceed to mangle whatever he said.

At one point, during a pop quiz, with an essay question about the role of irony in Hamlet, Jeannie asked me for an example of irony in the play. The professor noticed and the three of us pretended this was normal. I told her irony was dripping all over “the play within the play.” She turned to Kent, smacked him on the shoulder as if she had to break through armor to get to his skin and said out loud “Don’t write about the play ‘cause that’s my answer.” Kent kept writing.

To say that Jeannie was physical was like calling a tornado windy. She pushed, pulled, yanked, smacked, slapped, bumped and otherwise beat you senseless if you stayed within arm’s reach. At the oddest moments, she would grab Kent and hug him so hard his feet would dangle. His expression at those moments was a blend of chagrin, affection, physical discomfort and deer-in-headlights awareness.

One day she grabbed my arm and said “You wouldn’t last ten seconds in a fight with me. You’re too scrawny to put up a good fight.” Kent rolled his eyes slightly. I pulled my arm out of her grasp because I relished blood circulating through it and replied “I’d never fight you.”

She cocked her head at me. “Why not?”

“I might like it and then what will I do? You’d never leave Kent for scrawny ol’ me.”

She laughed like I’d done a whole Three Stooges routine and then whacked me so hard even Kent winced.

The last day of English Lit, Jeannie came into the room with reddened eyes, her usually vibrant face a tragic mask. Kent was not with her. I leaned over and asked her what was wrong, knowing a direct question would get an answer. “We broke up,” she said quietly.

“Just now?”

She nodded, her eyes watering. I figured this would work. “Just tell him. Don’t beat him up because you can’t say the words.”

Her jaw dropped. I waited until she looked at me. “It won’t kill you to say what you feel.”

Jeannie was puzzled. I sighed. “Stop pushing him around and tell him you love him,” I said. “Beating up the poor guy is a sorry excuse for true love.”

She actually blushed. I could barely believe it. “How’d you guess?”

I waved a hand at the room. “Everybody can see it,” I lied. “So go tell him.”

She grabbed her books, aimed a swinging slap at my back that I almost dodged, tossed a “You’re a good guy!” over her shoulder and blew down the hallway.

They got back together and I saw them a few times more. But I wonder if clinging to Kent like a barnacle was any better than whacking him.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Animal Moment #3

When you’re a door-to-door salesperson, you have plenty of time to think. In fact, you have so much time to indulge in your own lines of thought that the whole purpose of being out there, selling, can become secondary to roaming the streets. And when the hours—or days—go by and your weekly commission check stuns you with its paltriness, you either refocus on the “door-to-door” activity or you find another job.

I refocused, despite the certainty that being a vacuum cleaner salesman was the most atrocious waste of my time that I had ever been involved with (except for every classroom I’d ever been in.) I was caught between loathing the freaking job and stubborness at trying to prove I could rise to the challenge.

That morning had been typical: Many knocks, most on doors, some on me. One potential nibble turned sour when I mentioned that the vacuum cleaner I sold was Electrolux. The woman had apparently developed a phobia to the brand when some relative had dropped one on her foot back in the Johnson Administration. I asked her if it was Andrew. She gave me a quizzical look and said No, it was Maureen.

I drove to another neighborhood and chose one that was obviously filled with employed people. At 10:35 A.M., most of the houses looked empty, so I aimed at strolling around, leaving cards in doors for people to dispose of properly and just indulge in some daydreaming.

After parking near the corner, I walked down one side of the street, noticing the little signs of suburbia: slightly-tended lawns, tricycles, a motorbike tucked along a porch, the occasional dented mailbox, earth tone facades and no sense of personality to the entire tableau.

Coming down the opposite side of the street, my luck held: nobody answered. Four houses from my car, I stepped up to a marvelously carved door and knocked. As my arm came down, I felt a rustle in the pine needles behind me and to the right. I turned and barely got my hands up in time as a large furry thing slammed into me.

Grabbing the thing’s mouth, I pushed and twisted as I fell against the wall and to the ground. I—felt—a crackling snap then a huge thud as I hit the porch. For a couple of seconds, I held the thing tightly, my chest heaving it up and down. With a quick shove, I pushed the thing off of me and stood up, my heart hammering like a trapped frog.

It was a collie. Was.

I looked all around, a hint of panic thrumming in my chest. Nobody stirred. Hooking the dead dog with my foot, I shoved it across the porch and tucked it behind some bushes.

Thinking clearly, I left a card in the door, and the other three houses’ doors leading to my car. I got in and with a touch of restraint, I drove away. I never went back to that neighborhood and my sad door-to-door days came to an end.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Dino's

A Greek restaurant specializing in pizza. A college hangout that professors and university muckety-mucks frequented. The first place to close when the second summer session ended. A place where food came first, service came second and friendship was always in the mix.

Dino’s was usually dark. A long rectangle, you walked past the main counter/kitchen area and headed for a booth somewhere in the back. The booths, lined in vinyl and with a sticky slickness that implied use and cleanliness, were not designed for efficient use of space. They were laid out because they were there.

You know what I mean.

The house specialties were gyros, strips of roast lamb wrapped in doughy pita and pizzas. The gyros were always a treat, though the variety was ostensibly less than what you’d find in the Greek isles. It didn’t matter: none of us was going there for comparisons.

The pizzas displayed more flair and were cut Chicago-style, in squares. I once asked for my pizza to be cut in wedges and I’m still waiting for an answer…unless you count square-cut pieces as a reply. You could order sandwiches, but even though I remember eating a few, I can’t recall what they were. I may have had a hamburger there once, but that memory smacks of revisionism: either I ate one and that shows I could waste time and money on a bad decision, (it may have been a good hamburger, but what’s the point of ordering it there?) or I didn’t have one and I’m just trying to spice up my recollection needlessly.

I spoke with the owner almost every time I went in, usually when hanging out with Bill, Don or both. I guess his name was Dino, though it’s more likely he was just called “Dino.” In any case, we spoke often. Don’t ask what about: I don’t remember. Maybe about Greece or Italy or football or finals or vacations or the number of angels that should dance on a pinhead. It didn’t matter: we spoke as part of the ritual of our visits.

I never met anybody new at Dino’s. That was me being me. I never partied there. In over three years of visiting the place, nothing remarkable ever happened that I can comment on. (Except that I once got skunked by a pinball machine: three balls, three instant wipeouts.)

So why recall Dino’s? Because it fulfilled my expectations every time. It asked nothing more from me than my presence and I requested of it good food and a comfortable time for myself. We each kept our end of the bargain, through every one of many visits. It was a relationship built on few demands and the trust that they would be met faithfully.

You could do a lot worse. Quite often, in fact.