Friday, July 29, 2005

Plane Crazy

Sophie called me one evening while I was watching a movie in my small, one bedroom, San Francisco apartment on Lombard Street -- and yes, that is the curly one, but eight blocks west towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

"Scott, how would you like to go parachuting with me and Brian," she asked me sweetly in her sing-song French accent, diluted by years of residency in the states.

"I've always wanted to try it!" I exclaimed.

"I know," she replied, "now you have no choice but to go through with it."

"Ok, I'm in. I'll see if Eric wants to go to."

The four of us met at Yolo County Airport, a dusty airstrip in the middle of rural farm country, somewhere between San Francisco and Sacramento. Sophie and Eric were apparently good to go, feeling no pain and looking forward to the jump, while Sophie's husband Brian was turning pale. My anticipation was building too, so Brian and I tried to rally one another while our counterparts picked fun at us.

Our jump was to be from thirteen thousand feet, with an instructor secured to our backs with a tandem harness. We were separated into groups and told what to do, and assured that if our first chute didn't deploy, a backup would deploy automatically at 2000 feet.

We filed into the plane like army ants, and took our seats inside the cabin. I was the second to last in line, which made me the second jumper to go. Three guys sporting California tans sat by the open side door wearing nothing but shorts and chutes, and were chattering amongst themselves. They jumped out one after the other at eleven thousand feet, screaming like wild monkeys. I was reminded of Point Break and felt a surge of envy.

When we reached our elevation, the man in front of me, a mellow looking Mexican man, took his place at the edge of eternity, froze solid and refused to move. After some cajoling, he finally jumped. Then it was my turn.

After watching my predecessor's embarrassing display, I was determined to go without pause. I stepped to the edge and looked at the green and brown checkerboard below me, and nearly lost my nerve. The instructor was yelling something at me that I couldn't make out, but I bent me knees and leaned over the edge, only held up by the instructors resistance. He gave up on saying it, and grabbed my hair and yanked my head back, as I was taught to do before, and finally let us teeter overboard.

We twisted in the air to look up at the receding plane, already the size of a child's toy. We turned back towards the ground, and the rush of air was intense, like riding on a motorcycle with no helmet on a desert road at full throttle. I felt like Bruce Banner as he transforms into the Incredible Hulk; every inch of my body was electric.

The instructor grasped my wrist and pushed my arm down. We spun like a helicopter blade, and I had to close my mouth and tighten my stomach before it came out like a bad meal. It nearly did me in as I panicked to lift it back up, but he held down tight, the shock of which angered and shamed me to a degree, so I upped the ante and jerked my arm farther down, which spun us even faster. It felt like a hammer ride I once rode at a carnival, where the G forces were so intense that my face felt like it was clamped in a vise. It was his turn to panic, and he yanked furiously at my arm, but I didn't budge -- right away. I let up when my point was made.

He was none to happy with me when we hit the ground, but the adrenaline coursing through my veins dulled my ability to care. I unstrapped while I watched the three half naked guys shoving at one another.

"Don't hit me from behind like that man!" The one yelled. Apparently they had also watched Point Break and were reenacting some crazy scenes.

Brian landed next and was just as jacked as I was, and we hurriedly told each other of our experience, with the instructor still glaring at me nearby. Sophie and Eric landed soon after, and both were worse for the wear, looking like extras for The Night of the Living Dead.

"Jesus! Are you ok Sophie," I asked.

"I think I'm going to be sick."

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Ah So!

It's been something like five years since cancer took my mother, and equally as long since I've had the stomach to visit with my family. It wasn't just mom that died; the whole family institution crumbled, like a downed power line, whipping about and hissing, electrocuting anyone who got too close.

But two weeks ago I made the trip, me and my family, to surprise my Grandma Rose on her 80th birthday, a woman who had to endure the loss of her daughter, a roll of snake eyes in the craps of life, an ordeal worse than any this cruel planet has to offer.

I called her yesterday to wish her happiness on her real birthday, even though we had celebrated it together two weeks early. As usual, she was screening her calls. The mechanical machine monotone greeted:

"Hello... please... leave... a... message... Beep!"

"Hi Grandma, it's Scott, just calling to..." Click.

"Scotty! Hold on! Let me get the other phone! Hold on!" She is hard of hearing, has been all her life, so she has a special phone that is never the one she answers.

"Hello, Grandma."

"Hi sweetie, how are you?"

"Good. I'm just calling to wish you a happy birthday."

"Oh, my real birthday celebration was two weeks ago."

My wife and I mixed into the midst of her adoring friends and family as my aunt escorted her into the restaurant where Grandma expected to meet with my uncle for a quiet dinner. I was holding my twenty month old son in my left arm. Grandma saw my wife first and put both hands over her mouth and her eyes glossed over, and she reached out for her to come. Looking over my wife's shoulder, she finally saw me holding the baby.

"You have such a precious family, Scotty," she told me on the phone. "When I kissed little Emmett it was like Laura was there kissing him too. When I touched his little head it was like it was Laura's hand, and I just know she is here, watching over you."

I tried to keep my voice steady, "I hope so Grandma."


"Aunt Sandie, why did mom leave dad."

She looked at me with a stone poker face, but her eyes belied her casual countenance.

"I don't really remember back that far," was all she could muster.

"It's ok. I'm forty years old now; even you have to admit I'm not a baby anymore."

"Well, there might have been some abuse involved, I really don't know. Something happened on their wedding night, but I wasn't involved. But they went though with it anyway."

"Was mom pregnant then?"

"Of course not."


My step-mother never remarried since she left my father. She is a devout Catholic of the fire and brimstone variety, whose faith remains strong in a church that refuses to recognize a divorcee as a member. Perhaps she is punishing herself.

By happenstance, after the divorce she moved three thousand miles across the country, within ten miles of my biological mother, and neither had any idea. Whenever George Strait sings All My Exes Live in Texas, my father changes the station. Sometimes I have to believe that there is an angel looking after me, perhaps my great granny Deal, who reminds me that someone up there cares with little gifts like this. When I went to Houston to visit my mom, I got to see my brother and sister too, and for that I am eternally grateful.

"Mom," as I still call her, with a wisp of wryness, "what did you ever see in dad?"

"Have you seen any of his early pictures?" She laughed. "He was quite a macho man."

It's true, I remember seeing an old faded color photo of dad wearing blue jeans and a tucked in tee shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled into his sleeve, and a camel hairy butt hanging carelessly from his lips. He was tall and dark haired, and his face was cool and confident, like an actor from the day when men were men, like a young Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood. His face was forbidding and yet a promise of great things to come.

"When did things go wrong between you?" I asked.

"Right around the time he started fucking my best friend from high school."


"Yes! Remember, we used to visit them on weekends when we lived in New York?"

"Yes I do."

"He would drive up there while he said he was away hunting or on business trips."

And it all snapped together for me. The day my father told me that I couldn't go on the fishing trip for lying to my step-mother, how even then I thought he was lying, that he had ulterior motive. I thought it was me.


A long time ago, my real mom and I were driving to see the Houston Oilers play the Cincinnati Bengals, on a typical oppressively heat soaked day.

"I wasn't a planned pregnancy, was I mom?"

She looked at me for a moment before answering. "No."

"How did dad take it? I can only imagine that he didn't want it."

"Not at first honey, but once he realized there was nothing he had to say about it, he was very happy."

I smiled wanly. My momma, such a sweet liar.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


My father all but abandoned me to run a construction site with nearly a hundred employees. At the time we had a crew of ten laborers, twenty framers, thirty vinyl siders, and twenty or more craftsmen doing a variety of other miscellaneous tasks. It was both exhilarating and overwhelming.

It was the first time in my life that I was called "Boss." Suddenly my friends and erstwhile coworkers looked at me different, some with suspicion, some fawning like schoolgirls with a crush. Never have I felt so alone as I did then. My office was a stream of people with a variety of sad stories, begging for advances or time off. I hired a secretary to help with the payroll, which was a desperate situation every week, struggling to get paid by the general contractor for completed work in order to cover the paychecks we wrote. Even she began to get cozy, once bringing her daughter into work for me to meet. She was a poor single mother, abandoned by some quick draw McGraw to raise his child without any support.

Being an RA in college was similar in many aspects. Whenever I stopped into a dorm room to say hello, the conversations were normally terse, especially if the faint aroma of pot lingered in the air. Or the opposite, where my every utterance was met with gales of laughter, as if I were Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy rolled into one.

The corner room at the end of my hall was a suite, which was a common area containing a television, refridgerator and couches, surrounded by four bedrooms and a bathroom. Basically these were the party palaces, where the din of loud music and voices erupted on weekends.

I caught people walking to and from the suite with gargantuan beer cups several times on the first occasion, so I pulled their leader into my room the next day.

"Mark, I couldn't help but notice that you guys had a keg party last night."

He looked at me sheepishly. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Man, didn't you hear anything I said at our meeting?" He looked down at the floor. "I don't care if you are partying or not, but sneaking a keg into your room and then parading in the hallways with thirsty-two ouncer cups is being a little obvious, don't you think?"

"Yeah, well, I tried to talk the guys out of it, but they won't listen."

"Listen, stop with the keg parties and stick with a coolers and half cases. You're going to get caught and I'm going to be in a spot."


But the next week it was the same thing.

I walked into the party and stood like Clint Eastwood in a gunfight. Somebody killed the music and everyone turned to stare at me, their smiles slowly melting from their faces. Waiting.

I felt like the terminator as possible next-things-to-say scrolled through my mind. I wanted to do a good job while balancing the peace, but this group wasn't going to play along. I was forced to make a choice.

"It's been a really long day people," I said slowly, "and I could really use a beer."

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Party Pass

In order to work for the Ricks boys, I had to gain admission into the carpenter's union, which had a great many advantages. The most obvious was the wage, which blew Davis Bacon out of the water. The one I took advantage of, was a fund that my employers had to pay into, a dollar for each hour I worked that could only be collected on for medical emergencies, or college. I don't remember how much had accumulated, but it was enough to pay for my tuition for the year and a half I needed to complete my schooling that I started and failed out of at Washington State.

For me, a person who had become addicted to working hard and fast, long time union members were a dunk in glacier water. These sloths placed all their emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble, doing the minimum amount of work to actually qualify as work in a court of law, and never missed a break, no matter how behind the job was.

One guy in particular, I'll call him ordinary Joe, came on board in the same capacity as myself. He was small and soft, and the only detail for which I can remember him was his bountiful, capacious lunchbox. Having him around was like packing a hundred pound flounder on my back; getting work done was a bad dream of a long hallway where the end keeps stretching.

"Break time," he would say.

"Joe, we just got started, can't we take a break after we've actually done some work?"

"Scott, you got it all wrong," he said like Foghorn Leghorn, "You have to learn to relax."

"I'll relax tonight over a cold one, ok? We've got work to do right now."

"You don't seem to get it," he chided, "You are in the carpenters union, no?"

"Yeah, yeah, but that isn't a license to fuck off."

"Well, you're either in the union or you're out."

"I'm out alright? Now get up and move your ass!" It was times like these that I felt close kinship to my father.

I left that all behind to go back to school, but money was a big problem. I had enough for tuition, but nothing for room and board. My dad and new step-mother Diana offered that I come stay with them, and somebody, either one of them or her sons would take me back and forth every day. I had no alternative, and begrudgingly accepted.

And what a nightmare it turned out to be.

She had three sons, each ironically named for the saints, Michael, Matthew and Mark. We lived in a small town thirty miles from Potsdam College, where the boys had grown up all their lives. The town, which shall remain anonymous, was a blight, and all it's residents were dark and sardonic, and the longer I stayed there the more I needed to escape lest I be swallowed whole and spit out a pile of bones.

The boys all had girlfriends, but in the loosest definition of the word, that they called their bitches, sluts, cunts, pigs, and whores. Girls in town all had degrading monikers, like Easy Edith, or Hand Jobala. The boys themselves were the stars of the town, with reputations built on the subjugation of women and through fisticuffs with their peers. My first semester was a series of days spent in dread anticipation of returning to the pressure cooker, where one day it would be me and my father against the devils of this town.

In my second semester, I applied for unemployment, which paid enough to purchase a meal pass at the school cafeteria. To pay for my room, I applied for and was accepted as a resident adviser, which is basically a cop installed on every dormitory floor on campus, a person who is always shunned and feared, and represents the school authority. My basic job was to make sure kids didn't drink or smoke pot, two of my favorite pastimes, causing me a severe moral dilemma. I've never been a hypocrite, and I wasn't about to start, but a case could be made that I took a job and should have done it as I promised to, but I counter that nothing I did was going to stop it, and would only serve to slap a few wrists and make me into the bad guy.

I called my first floor meeting in a lounge on a landing between our floor and the girls floor above us. My chargees were scattered about the floor, some paying rapt attention, some being the ass kissers, while others the schmoozers, and others scrutinized the patterns in the walls and carpet, completely indifferent.

"Ok, this is going to be short and sweet. I'm just a guy like everyone here, and I'm not going to pretend that behind closed doors, half of you won't be smoking a joint or doing upside down tap hits from a keg in an iced filled tub in your bathrooms."

I might as well have been a drill sergeant for all the attention I was commanding now.

"My director says that I need to have this kind of meeting every week, but this is the first and only meeting we are going to have. I don't think any of you needs a parent looking over your shoulder, but if you need me for any reason, you know where to find me, and the door is always open. So, here are the only rules that you need concern yourself with. If and when you smoke pot, open your windows and put a towel under the door. If I smell it from the hall, that means my director can smell it, and I will write you up."

Laughter, head scratching, looks of awe.

"Do not carry beer in the hallways, nor should you carry any evidence thereof, like the telltale plastic beer cup, even it is empty. Sneak it into the room. Don't put me in an awkward position, and I'll look the other way. Capiche?"

Everyone nodded absently, trying to absorb this unexpected turn.

"This is a good thing, so don't fuck it up. Meeting adjourned."

Monday, July 25, 2005

Hanging Around

The father-son relationship is hard to explain. It can be characterized as love-hate with nothing in between, a walk on the tightrope with no net. My dad had hidden fears, some of which I have become aware lately, while others have been exposed through bitter struggle, when words bit like hollow tipped bullets that passed the skin like a whisper, but exploded within, churning my insides into creamed corn. Every mistake I made affirmed in him the worst, triggering belligerent and sometimes violent responses, paralyzing me into indecision, for fear of making the simplest misstep. His was the self-fulfilling prophecy, an engine in perpetual motion that oiled itself.

Dad met his fifth and hopefully final wife, and pulled up his construction operation to devote his attentions, forcing me to strike out without him.

"I got you a job with the Ricks boys," he told me one night.

"Really, what are they doing?"

"They have the roof framing contract at Fort Drum. I had to pull some strings to get it done though."

"Dad, I've been jamming here; they should have no problems with my coming on board." It was true. I had been building roofs as a subcontractor -- dad was the general -- on an army base in Aberdeen Maryland, away from his constant scrutiny and direction. I prided myself on quality and speed, and had built a reputation amongst the other subs.

"Well, they didn't want you, but I told George that he owed me one."

"I see."

The Ricks boys were the three wunderkinds of dad's childhood friend and rival, depending on the astral configuration, George Ricks. Each was born with a hammer in one hand and a teat in the other, and never has there been a more talented group of carpenters to grace a construction site. The middle of the three, Raimey, became my boss and mentor, who taught by example and expectation. If you still had a job in the morning, that meant you were doing good, but you were never, ever told so.

Work started in the morning while it was still dark, synchronized with the coming sunrise once the extension chords and air hoses were spread, air compressor running, skill saws plugged in and our toolbelts stocked and ready. We ran from place to place, while toting lumber, spreading rafters, and nailing down roofs. Everything we did was in double-time, and breaks, as Raimey would say, were for pussies.

Our biggest nemesis on the job site were the OSHA safety men, who insisted that we wore hard hats and were tied off, but that flew in opposition to our work ethic. We leapt from rafter to rafter like gazelles, Raimey being the fleetest of all. When the safety man came by, we clipped onto the safety line that was strung from the farthest opposing rafters, and unclipped when he was gone. As such our roofs popped up like toast, perfectly brown.

Raimey was of a rare breed that could show up to work every day, crisp as a new dollar bill, while at night, drink and rage until the bars closed. He had three personalities: daytime, slave-driving taskmaster; warm, giving, overly generous friend in the early evening; and angry, tempestuous drunk at night. I didn't have a car back then, so every night Raimey let me have his van, but he made sure that I understood that he would have done the same for anyone.

Usually I was partnered with Tucker, a product of a farm in rural Idaho, who had long, dirty blonde hair, and a gentle disposition. He spoke slowly but deliberately, and had an innate moral confidence. To pass the time during our grueling workday, as we nailed hurricane clips or fastened fascia board, we would sing old Schoolhouse Rock songs, quote Star Trek episodes, or make up our own foolishness.

"Remember the old, 'Hanker for a hunka cheese'?" I asked Tuck.

He immediately jumped into the routine, "Hanker for a hunka, slice or slab or chunka, cheese!"

One of our favorites was an imitation of an old southern man, that sounded like he was eighty, like the old man at the beginning of Play Me Some Mountain Music by Alabama, "Yewww ain't just tootin' boy, yer darn tootin'." We thought it was the funniest thing ever, and we said it all the time, while Raimey would pass by rolling his eyes like we were two simpletons. Perhaps we were...

I don't know how it started, but one night Raimey and I were in the back of the van with all the tools, chords, hoses and toolbelts at our feet, and Tucker was driving. Raimey had more alcohol in his veins than blood, and he was prodding me as usual, but tonight I had reached my limit. He leapt on top of me and pinned me to the floor and opened the side door. His hands were locked around my throat as he screamed: "Feel the air seeping from your lungs."

Thankfully I was a lot stronger that he was, and I turned it around slowly and backed him off.

"You can't hurt me mother f$%&@r," he hollered at me as I got out of the now stopped van.

"I don't want to hurt you Raimey, but I would if I thought it would help." My heart was hammering like the pulse of speed bumps under a speeding car, and my muscles were quivering from adrenaline loss.

"Come on," he goaded, "Let's have this out once an for all!"

"Raimey," I returned, "It's not that I'm scared; I just feel sorry for you." And I walked away into the night. The next morning Tuck and Raimey picked me up at the normal time, and we were back to business as usual.

A month or so later I was traipsing down a triple-wide rafter, hung over and walking lazy. My feet were dragging behind me. Towards the edge of the roof, three stories up, my foot caught the back heel of the other and I plunged over the side. Dad always had pride in me for one trait that he claimed was hereditary: we were survivors. He told me that some people just get hurt or dead, while others in the same situation have a knack for coming out of it unscathed. He saw me fall once on a job, and laughed at how I grappled with the rough framed walls before landing harmlessly on the floor below. He rubbed my head and smiled, then told me to get the fuck back to work.

I've experienced it before and since, that when something life threatening occurs, the world slows down. A lot of thoughts went through my head as I started my dive. Like, "What the hell am I doing here? I hate this job, and this life that I'm leading. This isn't where I wanted to be when I was a kid." I twisted around in the air, now fully aloft, so that my back was towards the ground. I reached out and snagged the tail end of rafter and caught it solidly, and hung there for a minute as I appraised my situation. A floor below there was a block wall, that I may have hit first, but sticking out of every gap in the blocks were six foot lengths of metal rebar, which I may have been impaled upon. Two floors below that was nothing but cement and rubble, an almost certain death.

"Whoa dude!" I looked down and saw an electrician staring up at me, slack jawed. "That was hairy."

"Did you like that?" I asked, smiling, still hanging like a pinata.

"See you at happy hour tonight. I'm buying you a beer!"

"Ok, but none of that cheap shit."

I looked up to where my hand kept me in this world, and made a life changing decision.

"I'm going back to school."

Friday, July 22, 2005

Interior Decorating

My mom was in the car business all her adult life, beginning her career as a salesman then moving to finance. For many years after she left my father and moved to Houston she remained single, as was the tendency of all my father's ex-wives. As a result, many of the men she introduced me to wore polyester pants, ten gallon cowboy hats, alligator skin boots, had voices slick as Texas tea and were always trying to charm my mother's only son as a tactical maneuver towards the bedroom.

I lived with my dad all my life, and would visit mom on summer vacation. When I turned seventeen, my dad got me a beat up, navy blue Chevy Nova, the most welcomed and amazing gift I had ever received. It was quirky, and developed rust holes in the floorboards through which you could put your feet and drive Flintstones style. It had an awful backfire; if you let off the gas too quickly it sounded off like a firing squad, or the finale of a fourth of July celebration. But there weren't too many cars in town that could outrun it; she could do the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.

Mom came to see my high school graduation, bless her heart. It must have been some shock to come from the land of consumerism, big houses and new cars to no-man's-land Alaska and take up guest accommodations in our shanty trailer. My car must have been the deal breaker, because when I started at college, she told me to get myself down to Houston, because she was sending me home in a new car.

It was a Chevy Cavalier, replete with a strange odor that I had never experienced without a fancy air freshener: new car smell. But that as it turned out would be fleeting.

I gathered a couple of my friends for the road trip back to Washington where I was attending college. We rolled a few joints for the trip and agreed to take shifts and drive straight through. I drove to College Station, home of the Aggies, to pick them up. On the way, a little rock flew into my windshield and created a spider web crack, my first ding, and I cursed the heavens, steaming all the way.

We set out for Washington and I drove for as long as I could take it, and turned the wheel over to Alan, or Tex as everybody called him. I met him in Alaska, and it was by sheerest coincidence that he moved near my mother in Texas. His accent was thick, which earned him his incredibly inventive nickname, and aside from being unemployed, he had every bit of the car salesman personality. He had long blonde hair and fair, feminine features, and was smash hit with the ladies, a great ice breaker at parties.

I decided to get some sleep, so I showed him the map and told him where to go, and he said, "Yeah yeah," in a dismissive tone. When I woke up, we were on a farm road a distance north of where we should have been, and nearly ran into a cow sleeping in the road. I had to get out and shoo him away.

Tex pulled out one of our joints, and after a few pulls, the mood was once again serene as we flew down the highway, once again on track, somewhere in the middle of rural Texas.

"Look," said Tex, pointing ahead to the side of the road, "a deer."

Most people would have slowed down, but he kept on going, happy as you please at eight five. As we approached, the deer decided that it needed to be on the other side of the highway, and shot in front of us in a single bound, and there was nothing we could do. It was in the midst of a jump when we collided, which pushed it's legs forward, spinning the deer a three quarter rotation before it shattered our windshield; it exploded like a water balloon and double layered the interior and everything in it with blood, excrement and liquid the color of wheat grass, and fell into a formless heap onto Tex's lap.

He screamed like a B movie actress and forgot to drive the car, which flew in auto pilot, thankfully straight.

"Tex!" I panicked. "Do not panic! Step on the brake and stop the car."

He looked at me uncomprehendingly and yelled, "What?!"

"Stop the car!"

"Oh my god! I can't hear anything." He put his fingers to his ears and pulled out clumps of green, undigested grass. His face was starting to bleed from a hundred tiny glass cuts, but his eyes registered relief as he realized that he was not deaf after all. He looked at the deer and his panic heightened again.

"Tex just stop the car god dammit," but he picked up the deer instead with two hands and threw it in my lap. I recoiled in disgust and kicked it into the floor boards and jumped up on my seat, every bit as panicked as he was moments before. Tex got control of the car and brought it to a stop.

We realized that the deers head and right front leg had been severed, so out of morbid curiosity I walked back the surprisingly short distance to where the rest was laying alongside the road. It's jaws were lying beside the mouth like a set of dentures.

Eventually an elderly couple stopped to give us a hand. The car had a new interior and a gaping wound through the windshield on the drivers side. They had a large supply of water, as they were coming back from a camping trip, so we each took turns washing the glass and body juices off us. They also gave us three or four old sheets to cover the seats with.

We drove the car to the nearest town and found a Chevy dealership. By now the car smelled like a slaughter house. The head mechanic, with a white patch on his breast that said 'Earl', sporting a lump of Copenhagen between his cheek and gum, took a long appraising look at the damage.

He turned to one of his men and laughed sadistically, "Better call in Billy on this one, he's low man on the totem pole."

Thursday, July 21, 2005

A Load of Bull

My cousin Fess was a cowboy in every sense of the word, and even Conway Twitty -- may he rest in peace -- who lamented, "don't call him a cowboy until you've seen him ride," would have agreed. His bull riding buddies were a breed apart, sculpted from the rock of our eastern Washington canyons, living their lives from one rodeo to the next.

One of his friends, Crazy Joe, I met at an overnight campout before the Winthrop Rodeo, where, to quote David Allan Coe, "the bikers stare at cowboys, who are laughing at the hippies, who are praying they get out of here alive." The town was a juxtaposition of Harleys and pickup trucks, "Mom" tattoos and oversized belt buckles. Crazy Joe was the quintessential bull rider, full of bravado and afraid of no man. Around the camp fire, he told the story of how he managed to evade the long arm of the law.

"The cop tells me to put my hands on the hood of the car and starts pattin' me down, so I bashed my fuckin' face like three times until I'm black and blue and blood is gushing from mouth and nose."

"Holy shit," I was stunned.

"Yeah, and the cop is yellin' at me to stop, and I'm yellin' stop hurtin' me, and people was drivin' by starin' and all."

"So he let you go?"

"Had no fuckin' choice."

Fess, sitting with me, laughed, "That's why they call him Crazy Joe."

Another of his friends, John, was a short and squat bulldog of a man, whose anger spit fumes like sauna rocks. Nobody ever said an unkind word to his face and walked away with theirs as originally arranged. He was a zen buddhist of attitude adjustment, and I've seen him back off men twice his size.

I saw a drunk once in the stands of another rodeo, popping off at everyone that walked by, spoiling for a fight. After a half hour of not finding any takers, he wandered back to where the bull riders were preparing, and started his flap with John. He stumbled back out of the chutes holding onto his nose like that little boy with his thumb in the dike.

All of Fess' friends had similar stories. But for all their grit and steel, they were the best people to be around, full of fun and good times, and as welcoming and considerate as you would please.

At this particular rodeo, Fess had finally convinced me to give it a crack. He was pleased with the bull that I had drawn. When my turn came to ride, the bull was fairly sedate in the chute. Fess coached me on what to do. I put a glove on my left hand, which had some kind of resin on it for grip. The bull had a loop at the base of it's neck through which I could barely slip my hand, and I feared that it would never come back out. The bull was furious but still, it's heaving breath sounded like a steam engine. Fess raised his right arm and slugged the bull in the nose, and the bull roared and tried to crawl out of the chute and nearly smashed me flat into the ceiling.

"What the fuck are you doing Fess?!"

"Getting him angry! He's too calm, you'll never score any points if he doesn't try to throw you."

Several cowboys jumped up and ushered him back down into the chute, but I was nearly spent. What courage I had mustered was quickly failing me, but I got back on.

What happened next might as well have been a dream. I nodded my head, which was the ready signal, but from behind myself, like I was a spectator at my own execution. The bull shot out and I fell off, simple as that. Fess took a picture and my long lanky body was already half way to the ground. The bull kicked up his back legs and landed in front of my chest by a few inches, then was ran off by rodeo clowns. Aside from the dirt sandwhich, I was fine, and feeling quite satisfied that I had tried.

But in neglect of conventional wisdom, I did not try try again.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Ten Spot

"How many times do I have to tell you, empty your pockets when you throw your pants in the wash!" Beth plopped my wallet in front of me, or what was left of it. Every seam had come apart, and the plastic that shielded my license was separated and curling outward along the top edge, and the credit card slots looked like shrapnel wounds that healed without proper stitching.

"I just wore them last night, gimme a break," I countered, "You picked them off the floor this morning, so maybe you should have emptied the pockets." Ooops, that got me the look. I won't bother you with the end of that conversation, but once again I was left to wonder why I always think I can win an argument with my wife.

I removed the contents of my wallet onto the bathroom counter; my license and triple-a card, a debit and two credit cards, a laminated phone extension list from work -- more like an obituary of employees past, and a host of business cards from people I can't remember with bleached, runny blue, ink stained phone numbers on back.

Tucked in the deepest pocket, in a section that I never look in, was exactly half of a ten dollar bill. I laid it on the counter to dry. For a moment I considered hiding it from my wife, whose eyes came to rest upon it, but then I remembered I had told her about it before. She looked at me for an instant, and I waited for a jab for being such a sentimental fool, but she didn't comment. She left the room quietly and pulled the door shut behind her, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

I met Jeff in college; he was a teachers assistant in one of my core computer science classes. My first impression of him was that he was laid back and easy going, a good person to get to know. He would lounge in his seat one row up and six desks over, his left arm resting casually on top of the seat back, like a teenager typically does through and open window, driving on a sunny day.

By happy coincidence, I was reunited with him after college, while I was working at TelTech, a subcontractor at IBM East Fishkill that recruited me before I graduated. A close friend of his asked me to present his resume for employment, which I was all too glad to oblige, as my company paid a whopping referral fee of $1500. I only found out that I really knew him after he accepted a position.

TelTech basically harvested new graduates, paid them enough money to eat, pay rent and drive a used car, and managed to retain people for a couple years on average. The employees were mostly from SUNY schools, and were out for a good time. Happy hours and softball, house parties, jam sessions, women and song; real life was yet to come. For now it was all about the party.

Jeff and I were instant friends, and our group was getting larger by the day. Soon we rented a house on Crescent Ave, which was dubbed Crescent Manor. Barry was the owner of the newly opened Blueberry Hill, who introduced us to Sophie and Vanja, two au pairs that had recently come to our country, that basically had the same concept of living as we did. They brought around twenty of their new friends to our first party at Crescent Manor, and it was like that scene in Risky Business when the girls arrive. Every time the door shut the bell rang again, and suddenly, a bunch of computer nerds were entertaining girls from every corner of Europe.

All along, Jeff was the glue that held it all together. He was wonderfully quirky, had a temper that exploded like Yosemite Sam's, his sense of humor had a hard edge, and his laugh was contagious. For a friend, he would do anything; his personality drew us all together. I'll never be as happy as I was in those days. We were free spirits, only living for fun and frivolity, and we didn't have to leave the house for it.

But East Fishkill was a dead end town, and I decided that I had to leave. I had angered my IBM manager, who said some unkind words to my boss, who in turn informed me that advancement at TelTech was premature in my case.

The IBM manager, Larry, approached me in the hallway when I had announced my decision to move west.

"Listen, Scott, I'm real sorry about what happened."

"Don't worry Larry, no harm done."

His eyes were glossed over, his guilt palpable. "I'm not so sure."

It hit me then what he must of said. "Well, I needed an excuse to leave anyway."

He shook my hand, "If you ever need a favor, you can count on me." He made good on that. I was hired at IBM Mountain View without so much as an interview. But remember kids, don't ever show your manager a program that you haven't finished writing yet.

Something snapped in my relationship with Jeff when I told everyone I was leaving. We were never really friends again. He was codependent, and as bright and as great a person he was on his own, he was like a little boy that needed a male father figure to respect and dote on. Some will interpret this as he was gay, but I don't think so. He would eventually move out to California where we would be roommates, but he was bottled rage, and never forgave me for leaving New York. I tried to draw him out, but socially he was stunted. Where once he was willing to try out new people and places, he only wanted to stay home and get stoned. He bought a Harley Davidson Fat Boy and became the lone rider; he polished that bike like Lady Macbeth trying to wash out that imaginary bloodstain. Like so many that lose their hair, he let what was left grow long in back and pulled it into a pony tail. The Jeff that once gave me so much joy had become a crusty old curmudgeon, and it sickened me to look at him anymore. But still I tried, and tried, and tried.

I moved out and got an apartment in San Francisco. We tried to coexist a year or so later, but still the old resentment was there. I got him a job at a gem of a software company that had taught me everything in this business that I hold dear. He started to sabotage my relationships with my friends and my co-workers, until I had no choice but to leave the company and strike out on my own, and for that, I couldn't forgive him. His power to bring people together had a dark and terrible shadow, and it sucked the light from my life.

During this whole drawn out process that spanned ten or so years, everyone that knew me stopped talking to me about the situation that weighed so heavily on my mind. Our common friends didn't want to be in the middle, and eventually I had to remove myself completely, so that today, I am alone, so much worse than before I knew what having such good friends was about.

There is another side to this story, and his is probably quite compelling, and I could even give you the most of it. I was uncomfortable with his unerring attention to the smallest details of my life, and felt squeezed. So I lashed out at him many times. In any fight, there is cause and effect which feeds into the next, such that by the end it's impossible to trace back to the origin. I'm no angel, but I cared for his friendship. But where is that line? When do you say that enough is enough? Some will say never, but there is a line, there has to be, or else you will be abused for the rest of your life.

Jeff walked me to my car when I was packed for my move west. He gave me a state of the art radar detector to keep me out of trouble on the ride.

He pulled out his wallet took out a ten dollar bill, and ripped it in half, then handed me a piece. "The next time we get together, we'll put these back together and have a drink."

I took it without much thought and put it in my wallet. I was getting uncomfortable and it was time to go. He looked at me for a moment and his eyes darkened slightly, then whirled away and started for his car.

"Jeff, wait!"

He didn't stop, and got in his car and drove away with a screech.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Snake

My dad got a job building an apple warehouse in Leavenworth Washington, where I spent my eighth grade year. Dad was on his third wife, and now I had a step-brother whose name I shall omit, because I am quite sure the name is so unique that it could be looked up without his last.

Socially, I had my best chance since I left Ohio to fit it, but I have never been one for politics, and playing the game to rise to the top is not my idea of a life well spent. I was told by several of my classmates that Patricia had taken a shine to me, and she was a cheerleader for the football team. I was attracted to her, but it was such a circus, and the school had us marked as a couple without any response from me. I confided my problem to a friend.

"There's all this pressure to just start going with her." I complained.

"Hey," he replied, "just go out with her for a while. I mean, have you seen her legs?"

"Yeah, she's hot, I guess. But I don't like being told what to do."

"Listen, just date her, she's a cheerleader. Date her for a while then dump her later. It will make you very popular and then you'll have it made."

But I couldn't do it. What I should have done though, is something other than give her the cold shoulder, because what has the power to raise you up can cast you down. And frankly, as hard as it was on me, it must have been really embarrassing to her.

I think though, that more than for any other reason, I was scared. She was hot, and would have been good for me to try "going steady" like all my friends were already doing. It would have initiated me into the fun and frolic of young love. But I wouldn't look for a healthy relationship until I was in my thirties. Instead, what followed was the first of many mistakes I would be doomed to repeat.

She was called the Snake by everybody in town. I met her at a volleyball game at the local high school, sitting in the bleachers. She was a flirt, and I couldn't resist. She kissed me in the parking lot outside, in front of a few of my classmates.

The word got around, and everywhere I went I heard the same sound, "Ssssssss," like air leaking from a tire.

We talked on the phone every day, and I became obsessed with speaking to her. Before long we were saying I love you, but I really meant it, or thought I did anyway.

I went to her house when her parents were out of town, and she took me to her room. I was totally clueless. Only now can I understand what she wanted, but I didn't know then. I didn't even know how to french kiss, and I asked her to teach me. That was probably the breaker for her, finally realizing what an innocent boy I was, not the hyper-spermatic man she needed.

A friend of mine told me that she had sex with somebody on "the hill" beyond the bleachers at the football field. I was heartbroken, I called her up, and when I hung up the phone, it was over.

I sat next to her sister in science class, who asked me, "have you ever french kissed a woman?"

I looked at her suspiciously, "not that it's any of your business, but no."

"Would you like me to teach you?" She laughed her cruel mocking laugh, and I knew that I was totally ruined.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Intercourse Discourse

"It seems like everybody has had sex but me," I told John G. We were standing on the second floor of our high school at the intersection of two hallways. Around us our fellow students toiled between classes, animated in their own discussions, solving the problems of our tiny world on the capital island of Alaska.

Like my mother, I have always tended to reveal too much too soon, and the effect on people is either disarming or alarming. John took a consipiratorial survey of our personal space, his eyes darted left, then right. Satisfied, he leaned closer and whispered, "I haven't either."

"No way!" I whispered back. "There is hope then." We both laughed. "I wouldn't dare tell Eric; he would have me for lunch. I'd never hear the end of it."

John grinned, that evil Chesire Cat grin that connects the ears.

"What?" I said, my mouth hung open because I forgot to close it. "You know something don't you?"

John nodded his head, but his eyes kept mine locked.

"Oh come on, don't make me beg!"

"Let's just say, that I've had this very same conversation with Eric last weekend."

"And he's a virgin?!"

John held out his hand and made a peace sign. "The big V."

"Oh man, this is unbelievable," I said too loudly, but we both had forgotten the world around us. Eric was a football star, and was in the top eschelon of guys in our school. The girls that John and I wouldn't dream of approaching were friends of Erics, so naturally we looked up to him. This development was nothing short of a miracle.

John had told me this for a reason. While it is true that we looked up to Eric, we were jealous too. Add to this that Eric was incredibly confident, arrogant even, and seemingly never made a mistake. To make it worse, Eric was intolerant of the mistakes of others, and because of his competitive nature, was always exploiting his chances to smear it in your face. Thus, when the rare opportunity presented itself for payback, it had to be cherished like a rare and expensive wine. John and I were smelling the cork.

"Ok, this is good. This is real good." I rubbed my hands together; he saw the wheels turning in my head and waited patiently. "Ok, I'll handle this. Don't tell him that I know."

John watched me skip away, probably feeling a warm glow, like a boy scout that just earned a merit badge.

My dad in those days was a house builder. Eric and I would always buy a "half-rack" of Miller and drive to whatever house dad was in the process of building, get suitably buzzed, then continue to wherever the action was happening that night. And yes, we were driving drunk, and yes, it was very irresponsible, and yes, we could have killed somone, and no, we didn't. The cops were different back then. They just expected you were driving drunk on friday and saturday night, because as Sam Kinison once said, there was no other way to get your car back to the bleeping house. Ironically, Sam was killed by a drunk driver -- but I digress.

Tonight we drank our beers in a rough framed house; the roof was shingled and the outside walls were covered in plywood; the windows, as yet uninstalled, leaned against their empty openings, allowing the night free reign. We sat on the second story floor that was lightly peppered with sawdust, which danced in tiny whorls from the cool night breeze that carried the sweet smell of new lumber.

"Eric, we never really talk about all the girls that we have been with, do we?"

He looked instantly uncomfortable. Steee-rrrike one! "Uhh, yeah."

"Well, do tell! You must have stories, and you are not one to miss an opportunity to brag."

He reminded me of Rodney Dangerfield, who always pulls on his collar like it is suddenly too tight. I had Eric on the ropes.

"Why don't you start," he dodged. "Who have you ever been with?"

"Heather," I said simply.

"When!?" Slap! "I didn't know about that, you never said."

"I'm not a bragging man Eric, I leave that to you. Actually, it was more than once; she couldn't get enough. Once she got a taste, well, you know what I mean."

He was squirming. "So, how about you then?"

"Just once." He was such a bad liar.

"Reeeeeealllly? With whom may I ask?"

"Just some girl I met last summer, you wouldn't know her."

"Juneau is a small town Eric, and I know a lot of people. " His head was starting to lilt. "Why don't you indulge me on this one, hmmm?"

"Oh, all right. I lied."

"What was that, I couldn't hear you?"

"I lied, I've never been with a girl before."

Strike two!

"I can't believe that you could just sit there and fill me with your lies Eric. I thought you were my friend!"

He shook his head helplessly, "I.. uhhh.."

I know that most people would let it end with that, maybe rub it in for a while, relish the victory for as long as possible. But to Eric, losing to a friend, losing to anybody, was the most unsavory morsel to chew. Like a comic bad guy, I wanted Super Eric to know that I got him.

"That's ok Eric, I lied about Heather."

"What the..." His shock was total. "You lied to me, I can't..."

Strike three, and you're out!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The One That Didn't Get Away

My little brother and I -- he doesn't like that term now -- were fishing on the dock on Hayden Lake in Idaho when I was eleven and he was six. My dad was still married to John's mother back then, but these were the twilight years of that era. My brother John, the official junior of my father, was in many ways just like him. At six years old he was the scrappiest kid on the block, and was unafraid to take on kids several pounds and several years his elder. He once took on a whole little league baseball team, saved only by his superior speed that kept him ahead of the pursuing mob.

John cast his line into the water and scrutinized his bobber. I grew bored of fishing quickly, and had developed an empathy for the fish. I walked down the length of the dock, and much to my surprise, there, just under the surface, was a little crappie, staring at me in what I could only regard as wonder. I got down on my belly and stared back. His little fins worked against the mild current to keep him steady.

"John, look at this fish, he's just staring at me."

John rushed over to see. "Hold on, I'll get the net!"

When I was my brothers age, fishing with my dad was all I could think about. Our time together by the lakeside or wading in creeks was like being in heaven. He taught me how to bait the hook and clean the fish, and how to find a fishing spot that was just right.

While dad was at work one day, I told me step-mother a lie. I don't remember what it was about, probably that I had cleaned my room but really hadn't, but whatever the lie, it became a big issue.

Dad and I were going on a fishing trip that weekend, and I had built it up to be bigger than Christmas and my birthday combined. I was outside playing when I saw my dad approach from the direction of our apartment.

"Hey dad," I yelled, running up and giving him a hug.

His manner was cold as he held me at arms length. "You're mother told me that you lied to her."

I looked down. "Yeah."

"Well, I'm sorry, but you are staying home this weekend."

"No dad! I won't lie any more, I promise."

"I know you won't."

And I did stay home, but he went with friends. Even then I felt like it was an excuse to go without me, but now I am sure. Something died within me that day, in that moment. Fishing was never the same, and maybe that is why I always throw them back.

I managed to net the little crappie, and I felt bad for betraying the trust between us.

"I want to throw him back, John."

"Are you crazy, NO!"

"C'mon, we have a whole pile, why is it so important to have this one?"

But he wouldn't relent, so I let him keep it.

For years those eyes haunted me, to remember caused me a contraction in my chest. I've learned to live with some of my mistakes, to forgive myself perhaps for not listening to my heart. But if I could take anything back that I have done in this life, well, this wouldn't be it. But it says something that it's on the list.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Funeral

Mom's cancer went into remission, and I fooled myself into thinking that she had a year, perhaps more, that I had time to make my peace with her, or perhaps with myself. She was an extravagant spender of the bank's money, and so deep was my denial that I told her to stop and think about the future. I wasn't the son that I would like to have been. I should have cried with her and told her that I loved her, that she would always be in my heart, that my children would regret not knowing her from the stories I would tell. I regret that I did not, but before she died, she was given a gift that eclipsed any she had ever received: a grandson.

My aunt called me and told me to come, that Mom was in the ICU and hooked to an air tube because her lungs were losing their ability to retain oxygen. My family and I flew to Houston but I went to see mother alone. The nurse, a Nigerian woman with a lilting accent, took me to see mom, laying there with that awful tube shoved down her throat so that her mouth was pried open in a permanent yawn.

"Laura," the nurse said loudly enough to address an audience, "your son is here."

Mom's eyes fixed on hers with a look that seemed to ask, "where?"

"Not me Laura," the nurse said in a tone that could be mistaken for mockery, to which I took offense, "he's right here." She pointed at me.

I put my hand in hers, smiled and said, "Hi mom." She looked at me for a moment, concentrating.

"That's your son Laura."

And the last conversation I ever had with my mom ended with a squeeze of her hand, and she knew I was there.

Mom's ex-husband Scotty -- technically he was an ex-husband, but in most all other aspects he was part of mom's life -- was in mom's house when I arrived earlier that evening. He knew I was coming and called my Aunt and demanded to have the keys to the house, or else, he threatened, he would break in.

His daughter Kimberly was a juvenile delinquent, with past drug and alcohol addictions, and had spent some time in jail. Mom hated her, and told me Kimberly had stolen jewelry from her that had to be bought back from the pawn shop. Kimberly and her father were both at mom's house the night I arrived, all hugs and condolences. I was too upset to fully understand what was really going on.

Mom had a safe hidden in her closet, which was now open and empty, but that detail would only be revealed later.

I shared my mothers last moments in the company of these two grave robbers. Kimberly held my mothers' hand. I know what I should have done, what would have made me feel better, but I knew that even though mom had divorced Scotty, that she loved him more than the breath she could no longer take.

The doctor pulled me aside and told me that the end was near, and after getting a second opinion to his diagnosis, I authorized a large dose of morphine so that she could go peacefully. When the time came, her eyes opened wide, and for the first time in my life, I noticed how beautiful they were, like a sunny blue crystal lake.

Scotty leapt on top of her and kissed her all over her face, sobbing and screaming, "my baby, my sweet darling, she's gone, oh my god!" I thought he was serious until his fingers started to probe her earlobes and removed her earrings. He never looked up, just reached back, face down on top of her, with his palm turned upwards, and presented them to me. I looked at his hand in horror, and knew the devil through his disguise. I kept my cool and took them and put them on a dresser. He got up and joined the group of nurses and doctors, who were all waiting for me to break down and give them an even bigger show, but my tears would wait. My grief didn't belong to them. I put my head on her chest and said simply, "Goodbye mom."

After that, the deluge.

The family descended like seagulls. A meeting at the mom's house was thrown together to decide how to divide everything up. According to the will, everything was mine, but for a few items specifically given to Scotty. But the pressure was immense.

"I gave this to my aunt and it is special to me. If you don't want it, but no pressure."

"Your mom had a deal with her friend, that whoever died first would give each other their dinnerware set."

"If you don't need this couch, my daughter sorely needs one."

"She once told grandma that she wanted me to have this necklace."

It was my aunt that noticed the safe.

"Laura had made brown paper sacks of her jewelry to give to each of the girls, and now they are gone!"

More family was called in. Everybody decided that I had to do something about it, but the only person who wanted to help me get through it, aside from my wife of course, was my cousin's husband Jim. He was a mountain of a man with the gentleness of a teddy bear. "I'll go over and get anything back that he took," he said to me.

"Do you think he really stole mom's things?" I asked him.

"This isn't his first rodeo."

I thought about it for a moment. "Jim, I appreciate that you would do that for me, but I have to handle this myself."

"Well buddy, I'm here if you need me."

The next day I called Scotty and demanded that he return everything he stole.

"Are you calling me a thief? Because if you are, then we are going to punch it out."

He had a little wiggle room, because earlier in the year, he had presented me with mom's will while she was upstairs sleeping, and asked that he be able to keep the jewelry he had bought her. I didn't want to talk about it at the time, and agreed without thinking. I didn't realize at the time he was talking about all her jewelry. And don't get me wrong, jewelry means nothing to me. I want the memory. It meant something to her, and like a song that brings you back to the time you heard it first, I feel my mother when I hold it close. That's all tainted now by the ugliness involved in getting it back.

He continued, "You said I could have it!"

"What were you doing in her house then, why couldn't we go in together. Instead you snuck in, desperate to be there before I got there. There's something wrong with that."

"I wanted to clean it up before you got there! I couldn't let you see the house in the state it was in." Like Jim said, this wasn't his first rodeo.

Houston is a big city, but I had the bad luck to pull right behind Scotty at a stop light. He got out and confronted me in the street. We shoved each other and had some hard words, but in the end, he stormed off and arranged for the jewelries return. I knew there was more, but how could I prove it?

I arranged for Scotty to have a private viewing before everyone else arrived. The family railed against me for letting him even come, but I blew up at the whole group of them.

"Everybody in this room needs to understand one thing: this is about MOM and what MOM would have wanted! Do you think she would be proud of what I have done so far? Mom loved him so he is coming to the funeral, and that is the end of it."

I sat down and wrote a eulogy, but it was weak. It lacked any real substance because I didn't even know her, that our lives had been spent apart.

When we got to the funeral, my family had taken all the front row seats. I stepped up and looked at them, and they all smiled back, but nobody offered me their seat. I sat in front of Scotty and avoided his gaze. His picture was amongst the other family shots on stands in front of mom's open coffin. He whispered in my ear, "Thank you for including my picture."

I turned to him. "She loved you Scotty, more than anything."

"And she loved you Scott, and she never doubted that you loved her."

The reverend finished his eulogy, and looked to me to give mine. I brought my printed speech and placed it on the podium. I turned to see my mother, laying there, adorned with all the jewelry Scotty had given back. A lump formed in my throat. I pursed my lips and looked at the audience, waiting patiently for me to say something.

"When I was sixteen years old," I forced out, then paused. The audience was waving like a desert mirage, my throat constricted and I couldn't talk. I collected myself and managed in a strangled bleat, "my mom made the biggest mistake in her life and gave me the keys to the car."

I looked helplessly at my wife, who pointed towards herself and mouthed, "Me?" I nodded and she took my place. She would later tell me that she was proud to be my wife that day, to be there when I needed her. And I did, so very much. I took my seat and cried like I never had before. Finally I was able to cry for my mom, but partly I did so out of relief, that I really did love her.

Scotty put both of his hands on my shoulders from his seat behind me. I grabbed the hand on my right shoulder and held on tight.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Office Romance

Everybody has to learn the hard way.

She was perfect, for one half of one date. Casey was a secretary at IBM Mountain View, a pseudointellect, an ex-model (or is that failed model), co-dependently living with her harpy of a sister, and was envious of anyone holding a professional position of any kind. She hated everyone that held a higher station, but smiled and said good morning like Pollyanna playing the Glad Game.

I received my call to California adventure only a year and a half into my first programming job in East Fishkill, New York. I left behind more friends than any man could dare to want to stake my claim in California gold. These were the days before the internet boom, where I was fortunate to find myself on the bottom floor of an elevator that would only go up.

But in the game of love, I had everything to learn. In the pedantic style of my father, Casey taught me everything I needed to know, by demonstrating the dark side of romance, and left nary a stone unturned.

She was a whirlwind of despite. It wasn't long before I knew what was wrong with every one of my co-workers. She had a special disdain for the lead technical writer, an intelligent, professional and long, sandy blonde haired beauty named Anne from Nashville, Tennessee. Casey had a degree in English, and felt the position was one that she was well qualified for.

"You should talk to Anne's manager to see if he'll give you a chance at it," I said to her.

"I've already talked to him about it."

"What did he say?"

"We talked for a while, and he decided that I was far too intelligent to be a tech writer."

Casey was always too intelligent, too cultured, too far above the rest, alienated by her God given gifts. Alas, she was from New York City, a place that gaff hooks it's residents and spoils them for the rest of the world. To her, the nation was always a decade behind the city in fashion and politics. To be upstaged by some hick from Nashville was a horse pill she couldn't swallow.

So what did I see in her then? Her superiority complex was a challenge to me, and I had to take her down, but at the same time, psychologically, I saw my mother -- aloof, unavailable, and yet, there. I put up with her games, and called her when she didn't call back. Basically I made a fool of myself, but it would be for the last time. I tried to break it off twice, and each time she cried to prolong it, but it never got better.

Finally it came to an end. For three days she avoided me. There was no doubt what that meant, but I needed closure. I drove to her apartment in the morning before work, took a deep breath and knocked on her door. Casey's sister Veronica answered, her eyes registered surprise then narrowed to a squint. She yelled into the hallway next to the living room, "Casey, Scott's here," then snatched her satchel and brushed by without a word. Casey came to the door, head cocked and putting on an earring.

"What are you doing here?"

"So, are we broke up now?"

"Well, it's not working out, is it?"

"No it's not. I just wanted to hear the words."

"Ok, so we're broke up."

"Now how hard was that?" I smiled, and my relief was not feigned. It was finally over.

This wasn't what she expected. She asked me to get some coffee with her, so I accepted. After we sat down with our breakfast she said, "I have some advice for you. The next relationship you are in, have some pride in yourself."

"Casey, I do have my pride, but I loved you, and to me love has no pride. I just made a mistake in who I gave it to."

She just smiled.

"I have to tell you," I continued, "I feel as light as a feather right now. I'm just glad that we are finally through." Her face darkened. I wasn't being malicious; truth is a two-way street. "I can go back to feeling like a human again."

That should have been the end of it, but Casey started a campaign to destroy me at work. By now she was best friends with Anne. I was walking by Anne's office and heard, "here he comes," in harsh whispered tones. Inside, Anne and Casey were staring towards the door. The secretarial staff, once warm and friendly, now stopped talking when I walked by. It seemed like the whole office was talking about me, and it finally drove me out.

My dad always said, don't take a shit where you eat, the wise old sage that he is, but I prefer something with a little subtext: never dip your pen in company ink.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Grandma and the Radio Shack Guy

My grandmother is like a Chinese dish: sweet and sour. But to me and my family she is only sweet. My dad is easily bothered by her, and perhaps with good reason. The stories he tells of his childhood are scary, the stuff of movies, of welts formed from a switch an inch apart starting at his ankles to just under his shoulder blades.

Grandpa passed away six months ago, so grandma is faced with many challenges now, like finding the will to live, and repelling the vultures that descend despite her cries that she is still alive.

They weren't a sentimental pair. I once asked her how she met grandpa.

"I don't remember."

"C'mon granny, you don't remember where you guys met?"

"It was at church." Grandpa, sitting next to her, didn't add anything.

Ask me how I met my wife, and I have a long story to tell. I'm one of the lucky ones in that it was actually romantic. But granny can't even remember. When grandpa died, after 65 years of marriage, she didn't know what to do with herself, and often she would fall silent looking at the chair where he always sat.

At first she wouldn't eat or leave the house, and we feared the worst. It's not uncommon for a spouse to pass away close on the heels of the other, but I've always thought grandma was too ornery to die. We've visited with her maybe three times since grandpa died, and each time she gave me little things that he had.

"Scotty, do you use Head and Shoulders?"

"No, sorry."

"It's shampoo!"

"Oh," I say, like I hadn't considered that.

"It was Jacks and I don't want it any more."

"Ok, I'll take it then."

And thus do I also have a collection of Old Spice.

Grandma, two weekends ago, was asked out on a date while returning a malfunctioning thermometer to Radio Shack.

"He asked me if I wanted to go dancing sometime!"

"What did you say?" I said laughing.

"I told him, I'm not interested buddy boy!"

I said, "What's the harm in dancing, it would do you good to get out of the house."

"No way, I'm all done with that stuff."

"I'm not talking about a date. You go out with Jiggs to play bingo don't you? This guy could be like another girlfriend."

"Leave grandma alone," my wife admonished from the back seat of the car. "She's doesn't want to."

"I've got no interest in any man. The fire in this furnace has gone out!" She smiled and added, "Even the pilot light."

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Dog Attack

We had a St. Bernard when I was in sixth grade. His name was Baron. He was my best friend and protector, and never has any creature on this planet been more loyal than he was to our family. A bully followed me one day from the bus in seventh grade, talking to me like like we were good buddies, then dropped his books and punched me square in the face. I tried to hit him back but he blocked everything I threw at him. He threw me to the ground, straddled my body and raised his fist, and all I could think was, could this the end of Rico? A white and brown streak flashed overhead and he was gone, beside me now screaming, holding his arm with Baron growling three inches from his face.

Dad moved up into the deep country of rural Ohio, to hide from a society that enforces that annoying and inconvenient institution known as the law. Out there, the neighbors don't care about the derelict cars in the yard, or the pot plants growing in the back yard, or dogs that bark at one in the morning.

But there is nowhere to hide if your dog bites a guest.

Baron is a family legend, but when legends die, they can't be replaced. But dad tried a couple years ago when he got another St. Bernard. Arnie, presumably named after Ahh-nold, developed a brain tumor, and one day attacked dad's sister-in-law at a party and mangled her ankle before he could be pulled away. Nobody saw it coming. Rather than allow his dog to be put down, dad packed his things and disappeared without a trace, and the dog was given to a farmer in some southern state for safe keeping, where he most likely died soon after.

Dad moved quickly to replace him with the dog that he has today. We paid dad a visit for the July 4th weekend, and my youngest son Emmett, 19 months old, saw him first through the kitchen window and pointed with his tiny hand and said, "See? See?"

Dad warned me then, "keep the kids away from him, I'm not sure how he'll react around kids." But later I would find out, he really did.

I walked outside by myself and peeked around the corner at the dog.

"Hi Bob!" I called to him. He looked at me and growled, then barked a few warnings. "I'm not gonna hurt you boy. I hope we are going to be friends." I continued like this for a little while, trying to schmooze, to no avail, so I walked around to the front, where I saw a little spark, and childhood memories of Ohio nights flooded back, and I sprinted up the front steps and into the house.

"Honey," I called to my wife. "Get Emmett dressed." She looked at me askance. "Please?" I added.

"What's going on?" she asked.

"Fireflies." Jackson perked up. "Have you ever seen a firefly Jackson?" I knew he hadn't of course, but had I told him all about them, and he shook his head. "There are hundreds of them outside!"

He leapt to his feet and ran to the window. "Look daddy!"

"I know, get your shoes on!"

My wife handed me little Emmett and we ran outside, while Grandma stayed behind and poked holes through the lid of a mayonaise jar. The boys were in awe. If you've never seen fireflies, it's like being in a magical kingdom, where fairies prance and swirl around your head, like Christmas bulbs that float from the trees.

Emmett saw a tractor and decided to check it out, walked up to it and looked for a foothold to climb aboard. I was maybe twenty feet from him when I realized with a start that Bob was tied up in an enclosure not far from the tractor, and I started toward him with no urgency, because the chain surely wouldn't stretch that far.

I've always thought that tragedy moved in slow motion. Before my first step was taken, I heard the awful rattle of the chain. As my foot reached the ground, Bob leapt into view, and in three bounds opened his jaws and dwarfed my little baby and was on top of him. I yelled out and ran with terrible lethargy, as in a dream where everything else is normal but I'm slow and getting slower. I hit the dog from the side and grabbed him by the throat and started to lift him up. I thought he would fight me but he recoiled and sprinted away. Emmett was crying his scared cry, and any parent can tell you what that is, a cry that distinguishes itself from all others as being the most serious of all. I picked him up and looked at his face, fearing the worst -- a hanging eyeball, torn cheek, or missing ear. Nothing. I hoisted him onto my shoulder and let him cry it out and reassured him. I turned to see the dog, who looked serenely on, like nothing had happened. I wanted to rage at him, but I didn't want to scare Emmett anymore than he was.

Emmett stopped crying and pointed back at the dog, and Jackson ran up and yelled out, "Bob bit Emmett!"

Emmett said, "Bob. Bob."

"I know baby, it's ok."

"Bob. Bob." Each syllable was a dagger in my heart.

But Emmett was calm. I looked him over and there wasn't a mark on him, just some dirt on his head.

I was going to keep it quiet for a while, to gather my thoughts and decide what to do. I barely got my wife to agree to stay with my dad and step-mom as it was, this was surely going to be the final wedge between my father and I -- but my baby could have been killed. I was getting sick, my chest felt heavy and my mind was swimming with conflicting, incongruous emotions.

If I don't tell my wife, then what kind of marriage do I have?

What am I teaching my boys if I keep a secret?

What's more important, the safety of the boys or my relationship with my father?

If I tell my wife, then we will never visit again as a family.

Emmett isn't hurt, but emotionally he may be for life.

She has to be told.


Emmett saw his mommy through the window and struggled to get loose, crying out and reaching towards her. We all went inside.

Jackson resolved my internal confict for me. "Mommy, Bob got Emmett."

"What?" She looked at me with the question.

"Yeah, Bob knocked Emmett down and got on top of him, and I just managed to get him away. I don't think he is hurt, but he has been saying his name over and over again." I remained calm, and she stayed calm too. She took off his coat, and there on his forearm was the bite, a scrape that had broken the skin a little, and a spreading bruise the size of a fifty cent piece. She looked up at me with tears welling, but she still stayed calm. We took him into the bathroom and cleaned it up.

We told dad later, and he locked the dog in a van, but beyond that he never mentioned it again. His wife let it slip that it had happened before to another of their grandchildren.

That night after Emmett went to sleep, my wife and I talked for a while.

"Never again," she said. "We are not coming here again."

"I know."

She studied me for a moment. "I'm sorry honey, but I can't be in this position. You're father simply isn't responsible enough to..."

"Hon, you don't have to say anything, or explain anything. My little baby could have died because of that fucking dog. Nothing else matters."

She reached for my hand. "You probably knew I was going to say that."

"I did. I didn't know how to handle it, or what exactly to say about it."

"I would have killed you if you didn't tell me about it."

I paused.

She said, "You thought about not telling me."

"Uh, well, it's just that I... Listen, I know what a neanderthal my father is, but you know I love him. I didn't pick him you know, and even though it's his fault, I'm all that he has in this world. I'm sorry, but I'm confused and don't know what to do."

She squeezed my hand. Thank God, she understands.

Emmett cried out from the porta-crib, "Bob?"

We shared a worried look. I picked him up and layed him between us. Normally he goes to his mother, but tonight he snuggled tightly against my chest. My wife put her forehead to mine and together we fell asleep.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Off to Ohio and Dad

The last time we visited my dad, my wife was pregnant with Jackson. Dad lived in the country, where he rented a house on a huge expanse of land where nobody would judge him for his habits. He lived in the heart of Amish country, and was spooked one night by a knock on the door from a tall Amishman that asked simply to have some work, any work, so that he and his family could eat. Dad however, has an instinct for people, and right or wrong, he told the man to shove along. The man got back into his truck with five of his kin and drove off. This spooked both Dad and his wife, who locked all the doors and windows and got out the rifles and waited for trouble, which never came.

On our last visit, dad was a savage driver, and almost got all of us killed one night by passing around a blind curve, nearly running us head on into opposing traffic, then tried again and nearly ran us over a divider.

Later my dad, realizing what a bohemian he was, apologized, as he had so many times in the past after the rage had passed, and the damage reports made it to the thinking part of his brain.

But it wasn't about me anymore, it was about my wife, and my unborn child. My wife vowed never to stay there again, and yet, through much cajoling on my part, she has agreed to try it for this fourth of July weekend.

Wish me luck.

Friday, July 01, 2005

My One Victory

I have to be honest with you, I've never been mistaken for a male model, and pale in comparison to some of my friends in college. In fact, over time I came to despise the night club scene, whose loud, overpowering music negated my only asset in the pursuit of happiness: conversation. I'm not bad looking mind you, but standing in the room with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, somebody is more likely to hand me the keys and say park it out back.

Jay was one of those friends, that always got to choose from the crowd any girl he wanted, and the rest would ask me questions about him while stealing furtive glances at their friend; you know the look, the patented claw swipe that all women instinctively know, the one that says, "Bitch!"

I've revealed quite a bit about myself to date, but this is going to put me over the top. I had a thing for Wham! You know, that 80's band that brought us Careless Whisper, and Wake Me Up Before You Go Go? I especially loved the Wham Rap -- let's just say, Eminem George Michael aint. No matter, I memorized every nuance and turned it up until my speakers started to shred. My floormates were very tolerant, and some even wanted a recording of it. Go figure.

Jay and I brought a copy of it to Rathskellars on the weekend and convinced the extremely, smoking hot lead singer of the band to play the recording for us and let us take the stage on her break. Jay took center stage and I was off to his left. When our lip synch began, three girls jumped up on stage and flocked around him like he was Bruce Springsteen, making me look like a total loser. It's one thing to know your place on the food chain, but quite another to have it flaunted in front of an audience.

Then the most amazing thing happened. One of the groupies peeled off and put her arms around me, and I hope I didn't grin like a kid that got the one thing he wanted for Christmas. After we finished, she stayed with me and we chatted like old friends. She was really cool. I'm ashamed that I can't remember her name today. I emailed Jay and asked for it, but he couldn't remember either, or if he did, he didn't want to say. He saw the two of us together, and something must have clicked in his brain, because he moved between us and turned on the charm, and soon they were off alone.

Then she laughed, that carried over the din of music and conversation, then waved her hand dismissively and walked towards me, away from his icy glare.

"Do you know what he said to me?" she giggled. She faced me standing toe to toe, looking up from chest level.

"What?" I replied, but I already knew. It was always the same line.

"He said, get this, 'I know you wanna kiss me'" We both laughed out loud, me in relief that, finally, somebody was sane. She stopped laughing, and so did I as she took me in with a look, that, to borrow a phrase from Garth Brooks, even a boy would recognize.

"Isn't that a silly thing to say," she said playfully as her fingers pranced up my chest and pulled in closer.

I thought about saying, "I know you wanna kiss me," but a little voice said, shut and kiss her. So I did.

Jay was not a well man after that, and started a campaign to make me feel bad about it. "Oh, so I got turned down by an ugly chick!" Honestly, I don't understand how guys that have it all can't stand to lose just once, like their life depends on it.

Eventually though, he brought me down, or better put, I let him get me down, and I stopped calling her. A month later saw him in the dining hall talking to her, on more than one occasion. He proudly told me one night, in typical man fashion, that he had fucked her.

"Really," I said. "I thought she was an ugly chick."

"Well, you know, she's pretty cool, after talking to her and all."

"So are you going to see her anymore?"

"Nah, I'm sick of her."

"I see."