Thursday, June 30, 2005

Always Check the Oil

Three years of all play and no work might not have made me a dull boy, but in college it finally caught up to me. I had a student loan from the state of Alaska, which had a minimum grade point requirement to maintain. The semester previous I had skated by a thin margin, and were it not for a successful plea to my Spanish teacher to raise my D to a C, I would have gone home earlier.

My good friend that year was a Japanese Hawaiian called Roach. I don't know how he earned his nickname, but he was a delightful person. He had long black hair and was a tough guy through and through, hardened by the tough streets of the big island. He had a Commodore 64, which at the time was the best game system available. We were very competitive, playing at the Summer Olympics deep into the night.

Roach held me on an elevated platform, and thought I was the roughest, toughest example of a haole from the mainland. I enjoyed his reverence, which had a contagious effect on most of the people on our dormitory floor. Before long, I was wildly popular in our little community. Though I hadn't earned my reputation, I strived to live up to it.

The arm wrestling champion of the floor was Steve, a stocky, medium height bookworm who never missed an opportunity to rub it in our faces. He would hold up his arm and flex his bicep or turn his fist forward and show the bulge of his forearm, then mimic the motion of his arm slamming yours on the table.

My luck and money ran out that year, and everybody from the floor came back the next year without me for a neighbor. That summer my dad bought a farm in northern Washington, not far from Pullman, from whence I took my hiatus.

My dad was like Harrison Ford's character in Mosquito Coast, as our sojourn into the Colville Indian Reservation territory was a similar story. Both involved leaving civilized society behind, forced cohabitation with violent people, and a reclusive mad scientist father. Dad had promised me since I was a little boy that one day we would own a ranch and have horses, live off the land and build a log house. He made good on all accounts.

At first, life in the country, the real country, was novel and fun. We planted forty acres of alfalfa, and cut it down with a rickety old swather that dad somehow got running. The field was dry and the dust was so thick I had to wear a bandanna over my nose and mouth to breath. I don't know where the picture is any more, but I looked like Al Jolson when I was done.

We helped the local farmers pick up their hay, in exchange for help with ours. Even though the neighbors lived miles apart, the community was close and friendly.

We hired a lumberjack to cut down thirty trees for our log house, which was about thirty trees short of what we needed. I had watched him closely, and even took turns with the chainsaw in order to learn the art of felling a tree. It might have been a financial decision, but when I pleaded my case, dad let me cut the balance of what we needed.

Dad found a twenty foot section of metal culvert, which he buried upright in the ground in the middle of our foundation. He stuck a log straight down into it and built a homemade crane. We bought a winch from Sears, and a whole length of cable from an old boom truck at a junkyard. As impossible as it sounds, it really worked, and we raised a 40 x 40, two story log home in less than two months.

It all turned bad the day we found out that one of the local Indians shot our two dogs that were running deer in the woods. The whole community supported the move, as it was the responsibility of the owner to keep dogs within their property boundaries. This didn't sit well with any of us, and tensions sparked at the local pub, which was the only entertainment for anyone for a hundred miles. I won't go into details here, I'll save it for another time. But suffice to say I was happy the day we moved away.

Physically, I was completely transformed at the end of the summer. My arms were two pistons and my forearms rock, from logging, swinging a hammer and bucking bales of hay. When the new school year started, I decided to pay a visit to my old friends in the dorm. Kip, who lived with us that summer, loaned me his motorcycle for the trip.

The usual suspects had all returned, along with some new faces. Roach introduced me around, informing everyone that I was not to be fucked with. We were just opening the first of our beers when Steve walked in the room with that same cocky look on his face. I had a long sleeve flannel shirt on, which was a good thing, because he immediately did his signature arm wrestling pantomime, and I jumped up a little too eagerly, which seemed to get past Steve, who was looking forward to humiliating me once again for all the newbies on the floor.

"Stevey boy, I'm going to crush you like a little baby!"

He looked at me with a quizzical expression, the doubt was already worming through his brain. "Have you been... working out or something?"

"Take a look at these guns." I pulled off my shirt and the guys in the room started to roar. Roach patted Steve on the back bid him farewell. "Well, Steve, it was nice knowing you!"

"Ladies first," I said, pointing to the desk.

A commotion was stirring in the hall as doors were pounded and announcements were made. The room was soon filled to capacity, with guys covering the floor and beds like a hoard of ants. I was all smiles as he put his hand out and I seized it in an iron grip.

"I'm going to lose, aren't I?"

"Don't ruin this for me ok? I've been waiting a whole summer for this."

One tug and it was over, and the mighty Stevey struck out. My reputation was intact, and my popularity bigger than ever. We went to a dance that night where I hooked up with one of the girls from the floor upstairs. We went for a ride on the motorcycle across campus where no cars were allowed to go. On a sidewalk between buildings, we bumped smack into the campus police, so I turned to run the other way when the motorcycle quit. Were were about fifty yards from the hill crest, so we got off and pushed as the policeman got out of his car and gave chase on foot. We cleared the hill and coasted all the way back to the dorm and scrambled up to her room, where I spent the rest of the night.

Don't worry about her reputation, I was a perfect gentleman. Ahem.

The bike started the next morning so I set out for home. Half way, in the middle of Palouse county, the engine seized.

Then it hit me, the words my father had told me as I was leaving, "Don't forget to check the oil."

"Oh shit."

I checked it now and sure enough, it was dry as the Sahara. My dad picked me up, and we took the bike to our garage. When dad, by the grace of God, went inside, I grabbed a couple quarts of oil and filled it to capacity. He came back out, and sure enough, he checked it. The stick came out and dripped oil the color of light herbal tea, not the jet black of the old and used. He scrutinized my expression for a crack, but I maintained my composure. After an eternity of blinkless staring, he let it drop with a squinty, Seth Bullock leer that had a slight tint of bemusement.

Whew, dodged another one.

Knock Knock

I am fortunate that my boss valued my services enough to retain me as a remote employee when I left California for the east coast. With my two hour roundtrip commute, most of my day was spent away from my wife and children, as any working parent can attest. Working out of the home holds a special advantage in that regard, in that I can watch my children grow.

I heard the truck fire up from the garage and thought the family was pulling out, when I heard the familiar footfalls of my five year old son Jackson clopping up the stairs.

"Daddy! " he gushed with excitement, "I have a good knock knock joke for you! Knock knock."

"Whose there," he answered himself, "Lettuce. Lettuce who? Lettuce go to Chuck E. Cheese!"

"Oh, that was very cute," I chuckled, rubbing his short brown hair, rife with all the same cowlicks as my own.

"Knock knock," he started again.

"Whose there?" I helped this time.

"Let me." He was making one up from scratch. Cute how kids don't really get the subtlety of the knock knock construct.

"Let me who?"

"Let me give daddy a hug and a kiss before I go to Chuck E. Cheese."

And he did.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Off to College

In high school I was an average student at best. If not for my guidance counselor, Mr. Szepanski, I wouldn't have dared to dream that I could get accepted at Washington State University. I hadn't even bothered to take the SATs, and that's a good thing, because if I had, I most certainly would not have gained admittance. Due to a misunderstanding, a flowing letter from the good counselor and a barely acceptable grade point average, I finally received a letter that was my deliverance from the oppressive guidance of my father.

College was my chance to find out who I was for the first time in my life. In high school, I was defined by the attitudes of the many that had come to despise and ridicule me; college, on the other hand, was a fresh start, in a new city where nobody had a history, free to start anew.

I took full advantage.

I lived in the dormitories for a couple years, then tried out two fraternities, then back to the dorms again. I lived on different floors in different halls, and tried on the hat of serious student, crazy tough guy, obnoxious party animal, and borderline criminal. The latter two would be my eventual -- albeit temporary and sorely needed -- demise, but honestly, I had the best time of my life, and came out the other end a serious and well adjusted adult. For now though, I needed to release some tension, a whole lifetime of it.

Washington State is located in Pullman Washington, barely 20 miles across the Idaho border to Moscow, where the drinking age was nineteen. Fridays and Saturdays were all about Rathskellars, a bar that featured live local bands, dollar pitchers, and caveman bouncers.

My best college friend, not to be confused with a real best friend, was a Canadian called Jay. He was a preppie, selfish, handsome and egotistical SOB -- in other words, a real ladies man. His favorite tag line was, "I know you wanna kiss me." As unbelievable as it sounds, this had about an 80 percent success rate.

Jay, I think, enjoyed my raw spontaneity, while I admired his self confidence and charm, as hammy as it could be. I wanted a little of what he had, and possibly vice versa. He was like a little dog with big attitude, causing trouble then hiding behind the big dog, namely, myself. One night at Rats, Jay was having a fight with his latest sex partner Stephanie. She was a knock-out brunette with long legs and a derriere I had to wear a neck brace to avoid staring at. In a fit, she stormed away and found a mean looking partner for a slow dance. Jay went out onto the floor and gave him a shove, which was returned in kind. Soon enough, the guy had two of his buddies, all my size or bigger, threatening to kick his ass.

Ever the faithful lapdog, I jumped between them and told him to back off or I was going to kick his ass, which had the effect of a bug to a windshield.

"Let's go outside and settle this mother fucker!" he yelled in my face.

"All right cocksucker," I feigned bravado, "but the odds are three to two. How is that fair?"

"So go get a friend."

"A friend. Hmmmm. Any friend?"

"That's right, anybody!"

"You're on. Wait right here, and don't go sneaking out while I'm gone."

"I'll be right here," he laughed and pointed at his feet. I flipped him the bird and wandered into the crowd.

Washington State, as many probably know, is a Pac Ten football school. The players that drag their knuckles across campus are simply not human. I knew of one player in particular, who was red shirted for the year, and as luck would have it, was here tonight. He wasn't hard to spot. He must have been Nordic, as he would not have looked out of place wearing a metal helmet with protruding horns, and wielding the hammer Mjolnir. He was seated by the dance floor with a slight waif of a girl on his lap, who looked more like a ventriloquist dummy in comparison.

"Andy," I started.

"Fuck off! I'm busy." he growled, gesturing towards his lap candy.

Wow, the 'roids must be boiling his brain. "Andy," I hazarded again. He looked up at me with a look that said, this better be good. "Listen, I don't want to interrupt, but there are three guys that are fucking with me and I'm one guy short. Would you mind..."

Andy picked up his girl and placed her on his seat and said simply, "Where?"

"Follow me." I couldn't suppress my smile.

I pointed towards the ring leader, who along with his cohorts, with big, mooney, Puss N' Boots eyes, looked like they just pissed themselves. Andy loomed over the flock and bunched his fists, seemingly in the last stages of metamorphosis into the Incredible Hulk. His body shook and a guttural, visceral growl built to a terrifying crescendo. Then he yelled into the face of the leader, "ASSHOLE!"

"N-n-n-now w-w-wait a m-m-minute," he stuttered, "there's no need for any of this. I was just dancing with her, you know?" His face was pathetic, and oh so satisfying. Andy, disappointed, simply turned and walked away.

"Man," the leader continued, "I am sooooo sorry man. I don't know what I was thinking. Can I buy you a beer?"

"You know," I said as I put my arm around his neck in a soft headlock and gave him a knuckle rub on the head, "a beer would be great."

And so it goes, the whimsy of the young mind; for the rest of that night, Jay and I partied like it was 1999 with our new friends.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Joy Ride

I'm forty years old, and still afraid to tell my dad what I'm about to tell you.

First, a little background. If you've read my blog so far, you've probably noticed a theme of underlying sadness, and may conclude that my life, at least in my estimation, has been one sorrow to the next. It's true that I yearned for a normal life, but in between the bad times there were some incredible moments that sometimes stretched for months, even years.

My dad. My incredible, adventurous, fearless, reckless, defiant and rebellious dad. Rules were for other men, and nothing was too immoral. His mind was like a prism that refracted life in all it's glorious color. There was nothing he couldn't do, and nothing he was afraid to try. For all the carnage he left in his wake, he made me the man I am today. He won't author any bestselling parenting books, but the man taught me to fly.

Mostly by reverse example. I credit a lucrative career and a wonderful marriage to a lifetime of eating Top Ramen and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, sleeping in the back of pickup trucks under leaky tarps, and playing Name That Step-mother.

But sometimes the old man was a lot of fun. When I was eleven, he called me from a bar in Hayden Lake, Idaho. Apparently there had been a police raid and he was twelve beers over his limit. He needed me to come get him. Dad had recently come into some money, and true to form, when dad had money, everybody had money or toys or both. He came home with a motorcycle trailer loaded with new bikes for myself, my six year old brother, and my step-mother Lorrie. His was a Suzuki 250, a very loud and very fast bike that I had been eyeballing for some time, but dad wouldn't let me touch.

"Now listen to me," he said, "you have to ride my motorcycle, because it's equipped for the road."

"You're kidding," I screamed.

"Now hold on a minute," he warned, "I'm absofuckinlutely serious here, so listen up!"

"Ok," I said meekly, but the excitement bubbling and he knew it.

"You drive the speed limit and don't attract any attention to yourself. Do you understand me?"

"No problem dad, speed limit, no attention. Got it. Be right there."

He paused. "I'm serious..."

"Ok," I said, feigning exasperation.

The bike was in the garage. I stepped onto the left peg and kicked my right leg over and sat down on the seat. Neither foot could reach the ground at the same time as the other. I turned the key on and kicked started the engine. One kick and it roared to life. I pulled the clutch and shifted it into first, then rocked the bike until it stood almost upright and let it rip. I flew out of the garage like I was shot from a cannon, leaned left and turned onto the street and opened it up, full throttle. What a rush.

Dad loves to tell the story today -- with grand embellishments, of course. Sure he was mad that he could hear me coming for blocks, or that I kicked up gravel in the parking lot as I skidded to a stop, but he was also proud of his boy, with a distinctly familiar irrespressible spirit.

So, back to the raison d'ĂȘtre. Jeez.

When I was fifteen, I was aching to drive a car. My dad had an old style Voltswagon Beetle, dark blue like a festering bruise. It was a small car and had a manual transmission, which I reasoned would not be unlike shifting a motorcycle. One night, when dad had been drinking and was definitely passed out for good, I decided to take it for a ride. It was probably one or two in the morning, and most of the world was comfortably numb. In those days, Juneau only had a few cops, and they weren't hard core like they are today, but still, even they would have found some fault in what I was doing, so I was scared to get caught for more than one reason.

I put the car in neutral and pushed it down the street a ways, fearing that dad would wake up to the distintive cough of old reliable's engine. I drove up the highway towards the Mendenhall Glacier. I was doing good for a while, until I turned too sharply and scraped the entire passenger side on a stop sign (that appeared out of nowhere, I swear!), clipping off the door handle and denting the rear tire well.

This is one of those times in life that I really wished I was dreaming, and for a moment I actually considered that it might be true. There were only two things certain in life, imminent death and taxes. Like Arnold Swartzeneger in Terminator, possible excuses were scrolling through my mind, but unlike Arny, I was shooting blanks. There wasn't anything more for me to do now but go home and meet my maker.

I acquired a full head of steam, turned the car off and coasted it in neutral for half a block and into my driveway. I snuck into my room and tried to sleep, which seemed like an eternity in the making.

"God dammit!" I bolted awake. Dad was having the expected reaction. Any minute now my bedroom door would implode. I only prayed that my death would come quickly. "Somebody wrecked the f$#^& car!"

The storm was collecting and the cloud was about to burst over my head, when there came a knock on the front door.

I ran to my bedroom door and put an ear to it. A woman who lived in the apartment across from us introduced herself, and said that she knew what happened to the car. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, I'm so dead.

Then, the most amazing, most miraculous words came from her mouth. "Last night, I heard a car screeching in the driveway, and a loud crashing noise. I heard someone cussing, the slamming of a car door, then the squeal of tires. I ran to my window just in time to see a green station wagon fish-tailing out of the driveway and onto the street. I came out and saw the dents on your car."

I don't know if you believe in God, but that night, an angel arrived upon the Chinook wind and delivered me from the beating of a lifetime.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Eric

There is no one word that describes Eric. He is the most self-assured, intelligent, honorable and honest man I have ever known. In high school chemistry, I did a lab where a chemical was added to a milky white solution that broke apart the component molecules, forming a yellow sludge at the bottom, and a clear liquid on top. Eric has the same effect on any group of people he meets; he is either admired for his aforementioned qualities, or despised as an intellectual snob. For the latter Eric makes no apologies.

I met Eric when I was a senior in high school at a sophomore party. I didn't have senior friends, at least none that I wanted to be with. Something was missing from all my friendships, a sense of equality, brotherhood, and mutual respect. I was like the lonesome cowboy, always alone, even when surrounded by friends. The party was winding down, and the parents were out of town, so many were jockying for places to sleep. I was sitting on the couch, thinking about heading out when Eric approached me for the first time.

"Are you sleeping on that couch?" He asked with his trademark cocky swagger.

"No, I'm going home." I replied.

"Excellent," he said, "I won't have to wrestle you for the couch."

"Really," I replied with my mouth slightly opened, head cocked. "You're feeling pretty good about your chances, are you?"

"You never know," he said with false modesty that made me smile.

We didn't wrestle for the couch, which is probably a good thing because although I was strong enough, anybody with a basic understanding of the fundamentals could treat me like a crash test dummy.

Up to this point in life, my major influence came from a father whose reality suited the need. I lived in a trailer park with my third step mother in squalor, and could only look upon others that lived with their real parents in real houses with envy and yearning. Eric came from the world of my dreams, where my mother never left, and bore a mantle deserving of his station.

And for all this, Eric treated me like an equal when others would certainly look down. He saw the fights my parents had, how my dad treated me like the mentally challenged, the dilapidated, trashed out trailer I called home. He didn't feel sorry for me, but I think he understood the hill I had yet to climb. He had no mercy when my fathers' words came through me, never laughed at a joke that wasn't funny, or allowed me to foray into my fantasy world that previously had been my bastion.

Eric was, at the risk of sounding dramatic, my savior. He would guffaw at the suggestion, but then again, he never was any good at expressing affection.

Let's call this part one, the story of how I met my best and most enduring friend.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

On Step Mothers

I met my first step-mother when I was six. My first vision of my brother, only a year old, was from the kitchen entry way, walking towards me with his thumb crammed through a hole in his cheesecloth blanket, sucking his thumb, a vision frozen in time.

I called her Lorrie for a short time, until my father made me call her mom. I didn't have a real problem with it, I just thought it was a title that should only belong to my real mother. Lorrie was the prototype of her mantle, bitter, jealous, and angry at a little boy whose innocence she would steal, all because his father wasn't her first. The most galling is the hypocrisy. She knew me before I knew her, a tenant of the same apartment complex where my father and mother split. Perhaps mom left dad for the affair, I don't know. I suppose I could ask dad, but how does it really matter?

Lorrie once told me, after having received yet but another bad progress report on my behavior at school, that it had been a tremendous effort on her part to love me, but she finally managed it. But did she? I think so, in her own way, but those demons come out under stress. Like the time I didn't clean the dog droppings in the basement. She asked me calmly why I hadn't cleaned it yet, and I looked at her speechless, saying, "I don't knowwwwwwww." But I did know what was coming, or at least I thought I did.

Never in my life have I taken such a shot. She was a lean woman, with surprisingly large biceps that popped like volcanoes. Her anger was quick and physical. Almost daily my pants were at my ankles as she welted me with a plastic spoon or leather belt. Today was special. She flew at me and I was forced to stare her down, for fear of provoking her further. She caught me with a balled fist in the sweet spot of my belly, the solar plexus, and my air left me and was excrutiatingly difficult to recover. The details are fuzzy now, but I took a beating and was sent to her room. I crawled into bed and sobbed for some time, wondering what I had done that was so bad. She called me out later and apologized, and even let me sit in her lap, an honor reserved for her real son.

It wasn't the only time she hit me, but it was never as bad as that. She never punched me again. I have a five year old son now, whom I have never struck. I can't understand, even though he can try my patience, how someone could be reduced to hitting such an innocent little creature. But he is my son isn't he, not someone else's. It makes no difference to me, but the distinction did to her.

The next one was Cynthia, but she wasn't nearly so mean or jealous, if she was jealous at all. Like her predecessor, she also insisted on being called mom, which I did so grudgingly. She was embarrassed that she had to explain it to her friends, and reasoned that if I didn't call her mom, she wouldn't call me her son.

She hit me I think only once. I was openly defiant and probably had it coming. She threatened to hit me with the belt and I said bring it on. Like a lioness she sprang at me and I didn't budge. Her belt whipped me across the face and I laughed, inciting her further to do the same over and over again, screaming obscenities. Then she ran to her room crying. I sat down and watched TV.

She lasted for a short time. Then along came Polly.

Eleven years younger than dad, and eleven years older than me. More like a big sister, the one you can't stand. She openly competed with me for everything, asserting her position and belittling mine. She mocked me for my weakness and relegated me to obscurity, all to elevate her fragile ego.

We lived in a trailer park in the beautiful Mendenhall Valley of Juneau, Alaska. I never even knew how miserable my existence was, so wonderfully surrounded as I was.

She and dad would fight every day, without fail. These fights were just short of real violence, sometimes crossing over. Once my bedroom door burst open and Polly was hurled into a heap by my bedside. A trail of snot meandered from her right nostril and curled over her upper lip. I told her not to go back out there, but she did.

I knew they wouldn't last long, the genius that I was. I should have known the day they were married. Polly's brother was the minister, a title he had earned from a mail order service, on his ranch in eastern Washington. He made her promise to do what she was told at all times, to much laughter, then asked dad if he would take Polly to be his lawfully wedded wife. Dad didn't reply at first, and actually thought about it, probably for the first time in his entire life. But he said, "I do," like it was forcibly ripped from his chest. That night they had a fight, and everybody was drunk and thought it was real funny.

Polly found my phone number and left a message around eight months ago. She doesn't know that I am married and have two kids. Guilt is a heartless beast, that doesn't reason what is right and wrong. Still, I deleted the message and didn't save her number.

If you ever read this Polly, in my own way, I still love you.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Old Man is Snoring

One of my intimacy issues sprang from an insecurity of mine: I snore. I don't just snore, I crack the plaster. I've even woke myself up, if the acoustics were just right and the blast was bounced back at me, audio streaming into my nightmare of an irritating bug that won't die no matter how hard I squash it.

It's a proud tradition though, handed down from my grandfather to my father. It likely preceded grandpa, but I never asked. We must have oversized uvulas, or swollen throats. Dad blames his problem on the missing cartilage from his nose, lost he claims, when somebody clocked him in his wild teenaged years.

Dad's various partners, I mean, my step-mothers, would sleep on the couch most nights, and complain to me in the morning. So my paranoia was substantial when my first opportunity came to sleep with a woman of my very own.

Some wouldn't say, others would allude, but let's just say that some engagements were cut short. My friends have been less restrained. I'd wake up to see the pillow that woke me come to rest on the floor. Most of the time however, I just didn't know what woke me, as my tormentors would feign sleep, probably trying to catch a few Zees before I revved up again.

I understand how they felt; it bothers me more than the average having grown up in a room two doors down from my father, whose rumblings sound like a Phantom Jet fly-by. Paradoxically, I was angered by the my friend's insolence, which bought them the time they needed as it kept me awake.

My dad's current wife, the saint that she be, told me that she found comfort in dad's nocturnal grunting, but this I dismissed. No way is a twenty something beauty going to be so similarly moved. I was nervous.

My future wife and I met briefly one night on her last day of a business trip. She was from the opposite coast, and our romance sparked on the phone and by email. We decided to give it a shot, and five months later, she was living with me in a small San Francisco apartment. Night one I stayed awake until I heard that even, steady breathing, and only then did I allow myself to drift off.

It worked for some time, and I even asked if I ever snored, and she said no. I thought she was being polite until one day it really struck, and she wasn't shy in the least in letting me know. But the whole incident was anti-climactic; she made me prop my head on my pillow just so, and voila, the problem was solved.

I often think about how much time I spent growing up, worried about such inanities, or how much effort my mind applied to the subject of sex. It's a wonder that a man even moves out of his parent's house before 40.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Kip

It was a perfect shot. A .22 rifle, no scope, standing up at 100 yards. The bullet was hollow tipped, the sound echoed like two cupped hands clapping as the bullet burst inside the throat of the erstwhile ground squirrel.

My dad favored an old high school rival of mine, a young man not unlike himself -- crass, fiery, a first responder with his fists. I was like Ferdinand the bull. While all the boys were boxing for the title, I sat under a tree and smelled the flowers. Many are the bullies who have beguiled me, but a few, a few mind you, have learned that sleeping dogs should not be poked.

I've always been tall for my age, eligible for the attentions of every stumpy kid with a Napoleonic complex, and grist for every bully's mill. My dad always told me, when someone gets in my face, jump right in and knock them down, but my heart wasn't in it. He was right of course, because the more I backed down the more they would come. It seemed like there was a surprise waiting around every corner.

Kips was one of those bullies, who as luck would have it, worked for my dad after I dropped out of my first college. I had worked out and filled out substantially since my senior year, and I wasn't afraid of him anymore. But I was still the same old me, you know, Paul McCartney, a lover, not a fighter.

It all came to a head one day because I tied an undoable knot on the end of a log we were hoisting into place. Dad was below operating the winch and oblivious to our exchange.

"You stupid son of a bitch!" Kip yelled at me as he tried to untie the rope.

"Sorry, you guys were in such a hurry, I just did it the best I could!"

"God dammit, you're so fucking stupid!"

The feeling poured through my insides like cold mercury. I looked him in the eyes and clenched both fists into white balls. "Yeah, Kip, well you can go fuck yourself."

He looked up at me, and let me tell you that this man was a wild animal; the look in his eyes reminded me of a werewolf, devoid of human intelligence, just pure, unabated hatred.

"You'd better watch your mouth," he threatened.

"I said," with the same force and conviction, but my resolve was shaken, "go... fuck... yourself."

Kip looked to the ground, then stormed towards me. For one breathtaking moment I thought he was coming at me, instead, however, he brushed within inches, stomped down the stairs and hopped into his pick up truck; dirt and rocks spewed like hail as he left with a deafening roar. I stood shaking from the loss of adrenaline, then retired to the stairs and waited for dad.

"What happened?"

"Kip got mad because I tied a knot on the end of the log."

"Well no shit he got mad, with 3000 pounds over your head, someone is going to get killed!"

I couldn't believe it. "You've always liked Kip better than me. Perhaps, DAD, you should just adopt him. As father and son you can beat the shit out of the world!"

"At least he has the common sense God gave a warthog."

Such betrayal. This was more than I could take. "Sorry I'm such a disappointment to you dad!"

He pointed a finger into my chest, "You know what disappoints me, you should never have dropped out of college."

He was right of course, but I was beyond listening. "I'll tell you what dad, give me all the money that you owe me and I'll strike out on my own."

"That's just fine with me."

I walked home, just a few fields away, and sat on my bed. It was the first day of my manhood, the first day that I realized the future was uncertain, that I didn't have any skills, not a single marketable skill, no hope of supporting myself, totally reliant on my father. I was a kid. The tears came from some place I have never felt before, wrenching themselves free as the soul of my childhood hissed through the fissures of my self perception.

I heard something and looked up, and there was my dad, embarassed at the impropriety of this unguarded moment. He looked at the ground and mumbled that he was sorry and walked away.

***

I searched the field where the ground squirrel had disappeared. Holes were everywhere, making it difficult to find the one he had come from. Then I saw his little feet sticking out, unmoving. I pulled him out, his body still warm, as if only asleep. The bullet went through the esophogus, and but for a prick of red, the damage was all internal. I gave him to our Pit Bull Jumper, who gently picked it up in his jaws like a beloved child, and spirited it away.

He was sheepish and afraid, and didn't know me anymore.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Ode to Mom

June 4th was my mother's birthday, and for the first time since her death I forgot to call my maternal grandmother to reminisce. Death does funny things to a family. Suddenly everyone was very close to the deceased, and as such deserves a "little" piece for posterity.

My mom was unhappy for most of her life. If I had to sum up what was most important to her in one word, I would say men. Like most parents, it's hard to see them clearly until you gather the perspective of all that know them. As a child you are told nothing of value, only non-statements such as, "You're mom is a damn good woman," or "She did what she thought was best for you." Uh, yeah, ok. Mom always took care of mom first, and gave me what was left over.

When I was three or four, my dad went to work like any other day, but came home to an empty apartment. Some man helped us load the UHaul truck, someone I knew from around the apartment complex. Mom told me that dad was meeting us where we were going. I don't remember when or how she finally told the truth. Funny, I remember a lot of things, but that one detail escapes me.

We lived with my Grandma for a while. My Grandpa took the training wheels from my bike and watched me ride it alone for the first time. Incidentally, I rode it on the street. Back then it didn't matter where you rode as long as you looked both ways. My how the world has changed since then.

How many times did I cry for my dad? Did I even speak to him on the phone?

Mom told me to go to my room, so I plugged my record player into an extension chord and bit the connection. My eyes saw static, the kind you see when the channel isn't available. When I pulled the chords apart, an tiny egg shaped depression had burnt into my upper lip. I told my mom what I did and she sent me back to my room. Her eyes never left the TV set.

Who was I to her back then? A nuisance, a mistake that could have been prevented by wearing a condom god damnit. Heads up to you parents out there, kids know, and they know early.

She told me one day that she was sending me to live with my father. I screamed for joy and bounced up and down on her bed. I never thought in my childish mind what that did to her, it wasn't intended to hurt.

My father's mother picked me up to drive me. Perhaps dad couldn't rely on his self restraint. Only then did I realize that I was leaving mom forever, and when the tears came I couldn't speak or think. I watched the receding figure of my mom in the rear window. Her face might as well have been a likeness on Mt. Rushmore. My grandma still tells me about that day, and how bad she felt for me. If I let go I can still be moved.

When I was old enough to drive, and visiting during summer breaks, the same old mom didn't have any time to spend with me, but she had cool cars, and a different one every year. She had no compunctions about giving me the keys and enough money to enjoy. Not every kid drove a Z-28, unless of course they were rich. Maybe mom was buying me off, as one of my step mothers felt inclined to suggest, but I was in no mood to question her methods. I was a poor kid living with my dad. I wore the same old corduroy pants that ripped in several lines from the foot to the knee. Every day before school I would go to one of the classrooms and tape it from behind with masking tape. I didn't even know how to bathe until Shawna in ninth grade told me I stunk. Then I took one every day whether I needed it or not. I always wondered why other guys got on so well with the girls, but I couldn't get the time of day. But when I visited with mom, the first stop was the mall to get a whole summer wardrobe. I felt almost human when I came home from fantasyland, back into the real world of poverty, despair and disheveled hair.

Mom killed herself, not in the literal sense, but with cigarettes and vodka. Her ex-husband, a "rehabilitated" ex-con, was there with me to witness her final moment. Her crystal blue eyes opened wide in shock, then the lights went out but the eyes still shone, staring sightless to heaven where I hope she is waiting for me today. I loved her, and yet I was so disappointed in her too, for not loving me, not holding me or making me the priority that an only son should be. The nurses in the ICU stared at me, anticipating a big show of tears. Her ex was straddled on top of her, kissing her and mumbling incoherently, but I stood there looking at her, my face next to hers on that far away Dakotan monument. I lay my head on her chest and said goodbye, but to me, a body, ruined, riddled with cancer throughout most of her internal organs, was all that remained. My mother was somewhere else.

I feel like I need to apologize to her, but if she were here she would tell me that she understands. She was just that way, a realist that didn't have the same secrets that most of us have. Her secrets were much darker, so normal secrets were just insignificant.

Wait for me mom. But first, I have some children to raise, love, respect, and never, ever, let go.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Sorry Darin

When I was a boy, it was conventional wisdom to be seen and not heard. Any breach of the rules of conduct could result in a beating from a variety of specialized devices, depending on the imagination of the executor du jour. It wasn't just parents, teachers too had incredible lattitude in this regard. One of my fifth grade teachers had a paddle with bored out holes like swiss cheese, painted red and hung above the chalk board, an unspoken menace. The thought of being struck by that paddle turned my insides to jelly; I would do anything to avoid it's sting. So great was my fear that I sold out my best friend. Mrs. Arnold, a short, plain faced school marm, who for some reason was watching our procession crowding into the boys restroom, caught my friend Darin and I racing each other for last available urinal. Her dreaded voice echoed from every stall, summoning us outside. Dead men walking.

With our backs to the wall, she pronounced her sentence and I lost control of my chords. Lamely I blurted, incoherantly that it was all his fault.

Fear gripped me as I looked to Darin to respond, which I expected would be incredulous at best, at minimum some form of denial. My heart was a runaway train while the world ambled in slow motion. Mrs. Arnold turned to Darin with the "Oh really" look on her face and said, "Is this true, that you are to blame for the whole thing?" Darin looked like a cornered animal, shyly looking down, shrugged his shoulders said lightly, "I guess."

Pause the Tivo for a moment. There are times in life I remember, like the first kiss, the first penetration, the first time I punched someone in the face, the time I walked in on my parents getting busy on the living room floor, my first jog around the bases, the first time I got high, or when I snuck my dad's car out before I had a license. But no one moment in my life is more vivid, no emotion was ever so intense as the shame, the incredible fucking shame of that one moment.

"So", she continued, "then you are willing to accept the punishment for the both of you, and he can go?"

Darin, looked up, his eyes held hers with firm conviction. No malice, no attitude, just the serenity of saint. "Yes."

"Congratulations Darin," she said, shaking his hand, "You are free to go."

"You, on the other hand, are going to get it double."

I didn't get paddled that day, instead my punishment was detention during recess. I don't remember how many days. She made me write a paragraph on why I should be allowed to go. I don't remember what I wrote. It was all bullshit. We both knew that I had been revealed for the traitor I was, that my punishment was far from over.

Weeks later I was back in the hot seat, this time from my Gym teacher. After class, he escorted me to a dark room and locked the door. Wisely I think, he brought a witness. He brandished the paddle -- no holes -- and told me to bend over. I put my hands on my knees and took two whacks without a wimper. I stood up and smiled, much to their amusement. Too little, too late, but I took that one like a man.

So to you Darin, I can only say that I am sorry. In my forty years I have never met another with such integrity. What is love but the giving of it when expecting nothing in return? I'm still not the man you were at ten.

We moved at the end of the school year, which I was destined to do every year until high school, and I never had a real friend again until my senior year. I finally found someone that treated me with the derision I deserved, yet still wanted to throw back a few Millers on Friday nights.

My grandma passed away during my freshman year of college, and for the first time I was back in my old town, where Darin still lived in that small town that was so much larger in my head. I called him, and to my pleasant surprise I didn't have to repeat my name. I had sent him letters from time to time, once even a Christmas present. But after all this time he had to be wondering what the hell was wrong with me that I kept in touch, even if sparingly.

He picked me up and we went to see Revenge of the Jedi. On the way back I didn't have anything more to say.

"What's wrong," he asked, "you seem upset?"

I made some stupid excuse, the kind you make to your wife to avoid a fight. What was I going to say? I'm sorry about something that happened when we were kids? Actually, it sounds like a good thing now, but I just know I would have been disappointed.

What I needed wasn't his to give.