This has been a fantastic experience, and I want to thank everyone who has contributed to it. What began as an experiment over the course of these last few months became a pleasure. But now it is time to close this chapter and move on for a while.
I have enjoyed writing for an audience, small though it may be, and genuinely appreciate those of you who have been kind with your remarks every week. I’ve collected enough data to demonstrate a proof of concept, of sorts, in response to Shima’s theory that people would want to read the stories from my life I’m so careful to record — her thinking being that I should share them with more than just the two of us. It seems that some people might. A small handful of you could be interested. Or perhaps you’re just being kind. Or perhaps you’re just fishing for votes. It’s so hard to tell... how is one to ever really know? And perhaps I might find more certainty in a different environment. But I will spend some time considering whether or not finding such a space would be a noble pursuit before actively searching for it.
We have reached the point on this ride after which those who remain are pointedly focused on striving toward an end goal — that of winning. The competition element of this game never appealed that much to me. I just came here to prove to myself that I could do this. And I believe I have done that. It’s not like anyone asked me to actually talk about myself. But, ultimately, though, I’m not a writer. I’m just a journaler, telling stories of the things I’ve seen and done. And if I were going to continue trying to move forward, I’d have a hard time doing that, while remaining true to myself, as I’d soon have to consider what kind of stories would be most likely to get me the most votes. And that’s just not who I am.
I am grateful for the contacts I have made; interesting people with fascinating lives... I hope to stay in touch. Perhaps I might be more comfortable in the “home game,” where I can’t be voted off the island. Perhaps I may see some of you there.
Good luck to all who continue.
Before I carried net-centric electronics with me everywhere, as one does — first a laptop, and now a notebook or tablet, and a smart phone — I would use this kind of time for journaling, if there was no one around to connect with on a more direct, personal level. I will almost always prefer a conversation with a stranger over retreating into my own internal space. I have enough of a solitary life that there will always be plenty of opportunities to do that without wasting a chance for one-on-one “face time” with another human. I know, I’ve said I’m a man of few words — few spoken words, that is — and that’s true. But I don’t have to speak much to get people talking about themselves, most of the time. I have a knack for getting people to open up and tell their stories. Perhaps because I have a quiet, unassuming, non-threatening presence. Or maybe I’m better looking than I realize, heh. ;) I think it’s probably just because I’m genuinely interested, though, and I listen well. Most people actually want the chance to talk about themselves. Often, it seems, they’re even desperate for it. In fact, it’s rare to encounter someone who doesn’t have some fascinating little morsel they’ve been sitting on for ages, just itching to spill. Strangers are safe for that. And I’ve stopped being surprised anymore when I hear someone say, “OMG, I’ve never told that story to anyone, and now I’m telling a complete stranger!”
The thing about strangers is, well, most of them really aren’t all that strange. There’s nothing scary about a neighbor you just haven’t met yet. And we’re all neighbors, really, of this same celestial orb, floating around space on a predictable route in our great spherical mobile home. Just galactic trailer trash. I’ve heard the most interesting tales from neighbors, and I could certainly retell one or two that would probably grab your attention pretty well. But I’ll leave those for another day. Right now I’m focused on those moments when I have a little time to kill, and no one to share it with.
I’ve never kept a TV in my home. We had one at the shack, eventually, in the late 80s, that we kept in the closet on a microwave cart, and only rolled out when we felt compelled to enjoy a show together. So it became a social experience for Shima and me to share with one another, and I liked leaving it that way. I don’t often have a lot of guests to my home, usually, and when I do, I certainly wouldn’t try to entertain them by plopping us all in front of a stationary moving picture box. So when I’m watching TV, I’m most often streaming it on one of my mobile devices. I spend a good deal of my free time in wifi hotspots reading articles, books, keeping up with news and friends around the world, etc., but sometimes the eyes need a break from skimming too much. Sometimes the brain needs a break from thinking too much.
I’m not old enough to be shaking a cane and muttering about “kids these days,” I don’t think. But I do at times feel like I might have preferred some elements of the world in a different era, not that I’d be willing to wind the clock back to get it, of course. One of my favorite music styles, for example, is from the 60s. Or maybe I just value those treasures that have stood the test of time, and I might not be quite so keen on another generation if I was actually in it. Today, I feel there’s way too much noise in the world. Not just musically, but everywhere, in nearly every manner possible. That’s probably part of the reason I love being out in nature so much. The culture of the human race is an all-out combat strike on the senses. Ask me again in 30 years what I think about the media of today, though, and perhaps I will have a greater appreciation at that point for only those paragons that have endured from now until then. Time has a way of filtering out the background clutter, naturally, and leaving the cream to rise to the top. Not that you can’t get access to all the chaff, too, with all the providers out there competing with each other, everyone trying to offer all choices, all the time. And, sometimes, that’s worth exploring, too, for its own sake. In small doses.
I enjoy classic TV the most, when I tune in to it, and probably the fantasy variety of that is my favorite. When I was a kid, I used to love to immerse myself in fantasy books. I read a lot of other genres, too, but when I really wanted to escape — which was probably more often than I’d care to admit to — it was usually in some variation of fantasy. The fantasy version of classic TV shows, for me, boils down to having seen probably all the original Star Trek, Twilight Zone, and Outer Limits shows that are available on the web. I like that there’s almost always some sardonic or satirical fable element to these, putting humanity — or some “nose-alien” stand-in representing for humanity — in situations that are directly the result of their own making, warning about what might happen if nothing is changed about the condition of society today — which was a different society of “today” for the time those shows originally aired, of course. And yet, it’s interesting to me to see, comparing then to now, how very little has changed, as so few of these “morals” are no longer relevant because we have done away with the issues given focus. One can definitely get a feel for the origin of the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
I wonder if there’s an anthropological study program for determining the nature of a society by the content of its broadcasts, and, if so, who would teach it, what would the associated degree program be like, and what is the practical application? Which, of course, being a sci-fi enthusiast (I hesitate to say “geek,” because, I think I’m probably a few merit badges shy of being able to use the term properly) naturally leads me to the question, what would life from other galaxies think about us if they judged us on the merit of our air waves? Not just radio and television transmissions, but all the flotsam and jetsam on global media today, anything bounced off a satellite and back down, which would include everything from the news of our major current events, to all the duckface selfies in the cloud. It would be a really interesting discussion to consider, if there is an alien tribunal out there, assessing our collective transmissions on the whole, to pass judgment over what to do about this crude menagerie of self-absorbed humans, what do you think would be the verdict? Inter-galactic trailer trash, maybe? Whelp, there goes the neighborhood!
I’ll give you a minute to talk amongst yourselves.
Moar Storease!: Streaming*
i can haz votes, pleez?*
* Please also see especially the skillful works of Team Clueless:
• Deathmatch — i_love_freddie
• Jiminy Crickets! — prog_schlock
• The Rambler — sinnamongirl
I was the “chief cook and bottle washer” at Frankie’s, a little Mom & Pop Italian eatery in the heart of the district. Frankie, the shop owner, was a hard working stiff from New York City. He’d been a union plumber in the Big Apple, but when he lost his wife to breast cancer after she retired from the public school system, he moved south to get away from everything in the boroughs that reminded him of her... the history of their shared life was everywhere he went, and felt empty without the partner who’d spent the better part of his life by his side. He relocated to another big city, though, because that’s what he knew best. He liked the glistening gleam of the Atlanta skyline, the juxtaposition of a city teeming with towers of industry while brimming with nature, its streets overflowing with flowering trees, and the Southern charm of its residents. But he still found himself bored. Things in Atlanta are pretty swift-paced compared to the rest of the South, but nothing moves as fast as the rat race that is NYC.
Frankie wanted to keep himself active, or he was sure he’d shrivel up and die alone, collecting dust in his one bedroom apartment until the rats came to feast on him. He was interested in finding an old man’s hobby just to keep his body busy, though — as it’s easy enough for a senior citizen to get exercise in a thriving metropolis — but sought to occupy his heart with the kind of fulfillment that would feed his soul. So he decided instead to bring a little bit of his old life to the Southern end of the East coast, and opened up his own restaurant, using staples of his wife’s most treasured household recipes. Funny, he’d moved halfway across the country to escape the memory of her, but then found he couldn’t live without it, and created an environment that felt like stepping back into their kitchen, surrounded by family and friends. It was a great little place for that feeling of home away from home.
When I landed in Atlanta, I’d just turned 18 earlier that year, about the same time my graduating class held their own liberation ceremony (I’d taken myself out the year prior). I’d followed a job lead that had fallen through. I’d been in Oklahoma when a regular patron at the hardware store where I was working at the time promised there was plenty of drywalling to be done out that way, that he had a cousin there whose new construction business was booming. He said they were always short of hands, but found it difficult to keep guys with decent skills from moving on to greener pastures with bigger operations, so they paid pretty well to motivate loyalty among their subcontractors. So I’d scraped together what I could and took a Greyhound East, but by the time I’d arrived, the business had folded, due to mismanagement by the cousin. The drywaller was headed back home to Maryland, and offered to bring me along to his Dad’s business, but I wasn’t going to make that mistake twice. And Atlanta seemed worth checking out, so I decided to stay a while. It wasn’t like I had a whole lot of other options.
I’d spent everything I had getting to Atlanta. I’d been promised a signing bonus just for showing up, which I’d been counting on to go toward a deposit for a boarding house I’d checked into ahead of time, where I could set up to hunker down, with just enough left over to get a handful of odd grocery items for a few days or so until I could start to earn regular wages. Bread and milk would do, if it had to. Maybe peanut butter if I had enough, possibly bologna, perhaps cheese, hopefully an apple or two. But I’d gotten by on a lot less before. I’d learned how to stretch, and how to make do. Not having the bonus, though, meant that I had no place to stay, nothing to eat, and no way to get back to where I’d come from. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Crazy to think how different things were back then, as if it was so long ago. But in many ways, it really was a whole other life. In today’s world, I could have saved myself the hassle just by texting for confirmation, or Googling from a smartphone. But I’m old enough to have come from an era where jumping for an opportunity sometimes meant swinging without a net. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to think on my feet and improvise, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Frankie came upon me in the alley behind his senior apartment complex, where he’d gone to take out the trash. The Home Park neighborhood is just a handful of blocks from the bus station, which is about how far my increasingly urgent quest had taken me as I wandered in hopes of finding a dumpster to scavenge for something digestible to quiet the rumbling in my gut, before heading further in to explore the town’s interior in search of shelter and respite. Restaurants are best, if you can find them, but I was in the wrong district, possibly a good 40 or so blocks away from anything resembling an eat street. Striking out blind for whatever might be in between would be a crapshoot, at best, but I’d have taken that route, if it had got bad enough. There were other options, though. Multi-unit residential facilities are a bit more work, but usually offer some promise. If there are plenty of units contributing, and doing so often enough, you can generally find something fresh-ish on top that hasn’t turned completely rancid. Never any point in digging too far down, but you get a knack for it, after a while — learn to notice sensory cues before you dive in. The closer you can walk up on it before you’re blasted, the better the hunting. Moisture buildup or a coating of film over everything means it’s been too many days since anyone’s added in; too much exposure to the elements, not worth the effort.
Frankie took me for a street thug, come to vandalize the property, and challenged me with a baseball bat. I didn’t want any trouble. I could have evaded him and looked elsewhere, but I also didn’t want to walk away from what might have made for a passable score. When I assured him I was only there to find food, he insisted on bringing me in to his place for a proper meal. I reminded him that only a moment earlier he’d thought me a criminal, and questioned what made him suddenly feel I was safe enough to invite into his home. Frankie laughed, and assured me that while he may look small, he’d been a Navy man, and promised if I tried anything, he could most assuredly “drop” me, age and size be damned. I liked him instantly.
Italians are always feeding people. As if any problem in the world could be fixed with the proper application of pasta and Bolognese. From Frankie’s perspective, that wasn’t too far off. Frankie was actually Polish, but an orphan. His wife had come from a giant Italian family, and they’d adopted him like a favored son. He, in turn, had taken so naturally to the culture, you’d never known he wasn’t born into it.
Frankie said that most of today’s crime results less from any instinctive desire to act against societal mores, and more from a need to meet the basic requirements of survival. He was the first one to introduce me to Maslow’s Hierarchy, said the simplest way to fight crime is to simply ensure a place to sleep for everyone, and enough to eat for every hungry belly. That’s why he didn’t care if I was a criminal when I told him I was hungry. He said, put a man in a desperate situation, and until you fix that need, that will be what defines him. A starving man cannot be a man, as long as he’s starving. He’s just starving. Everything else is secondary. But feed him, and he becomes a man again, and only then you can understand who he truly is.
This was more or less a summary of our conversation while he set about making something delectable for both of us. He gave me some fresh baked bread while I waited, and let me give him a hand with the cutting of vegetables for the “gravy.” He could tell from the way I handled the knife that I knew my way around a kitchen. I told him about my shima, and the delectable spreads she could put on with nearly nothing. He said that was the mark of all the best cooks — when it looks like your cupboards are bare, can you still feed a family and make them like their plates, begging for more. Frankie’s favorite recipes were the kind that would feed an army, so he enjoyed having me there to give him an excuse to make something for more than one person. I think he liked having the company to talk to.
The longer we talked — over a meal the likes of which I hadn’t enjoyed since I left home — the more we felt in tune with one another. I respected his perspective on life, and how he’d come by it honestly, through hard work, the love of a good woman, and the kindness of family. How he treated the rest of the world. How he was slow to anger, and quick to trust, because he felt most anyone deserves at least that much. It doesn’t hurt any to give someone the benefit of the doubt, he said... you can always still give them the chance to prove you wrong later. I think it was likely in that mindset that he decided to take a chance on me. He said you can learn a lot about a man over a meal. The way he tends to the food, the speed at which he eats, the attention he gives to the flavor, the grace he offers. He believed there was a reason so many of the recorded moments in the bible of the Christ happened while the man was breaking bread with his disciples. He said how a man is at the dinner table gives away more of who he is than anything he tells you about himself. I guess he decided he liked who he figured I was then, because he offered me a job, one that came with a place to stay.
Frankie’s restaurant had a small efficiency apartment above it. He didn’t like it. The area was too young, too hip for his taste. But he liked the idea of someone staying in it, keeping watch over his kitchen — his second home. So, I came on board. I didn’t have an official title, I just took over anything that he needed help with. Sure, he had waitstaff, and kitchen help, and lots of employees. I did all that, and more. I was Frankie’s right hand man, so to speak. I did everything he asked of me. I’m sure he paid me something, but I don’t remember the money. I had more than I needed in the heart of one of the nicest areas of the city, all the Italian food I could ever want (I think I might have actually put on a few pounds while I was there), and he treated me like family.
Frankie’s didn’t specialize in pizza, but the kitchen did offer it. And, delivery — not just of the pizza, but of anything on the menu — to anywhere within the 404 area code, which included most of Buckhead, at the time, and some portions of a few other districts. I was the one most often called upon to make many of the deliveries. I suspect Frankie wished he could pay me more, and liked for me to have the opportunity to get tips on top of what he offered. And, I think he trusted me the most to give the proper respect to the set up of the dinner table, and handling the customers the way he wanted them treated. It took some serious patience, at times, in some cases, Buckhead being such an odd mix of all types. Man, but I could tell some stories about some of the things I saw on that route.
But this story isn’t about those cases. This is about a double case of mistaken identity that inadvertently turned me into an accidental gigolo. It was Veteran’s Day, 1993. It was the end of my shift for the night, the kitchen was closed, and the last delivery order to be taken before I circled back around to my bed was going to the Ritz Carlton, which in and of itself was not that unusual. What I found when I arrived, though, now that was a bit out of the ordinary.
I don’t remember the room number, but it was pretty high up — one of the multi-room suites... the kind a family of 4 could probably live in for a good couple decades or so. Which was just as well, as I was bringing enough food to feed a small wedding party. The woman who answered, though, was no blushing bride. She was dressed only in a skimpy negligee, that left very little to the imagination. Her voice was hushed and breathy, like she was trying her damnedest to impersonate Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. She seemed genuinely surprised by the food.
At first I thought maybe there’d been a mistake, but I double-checked the order, and the room number was right, based on what we’d been given by the caller. She paid for the food in cash, though, along with a hefty tip, and I began to unload the carrying cart for service set up. When I asked her where she wanted it, she gave a giggle like I’d said something dirty, and while I was sure that I hadn’t, I have to admit, I had a hard time keep my eyes where they belonged as she wordlessly beckoned me in further. She showed me to a dining room table, covered in candles. It was then that I noticed there were no lights on in the entire suite. Only candles. They were everywhere. The entire place was filled with them, on every surface that could hold anything. I’m a bit surprised they hadn’t set off the fire alarm. I hadn’t noticed the lack of light, because from the hotel floor hall, which was brightly lit, the entire suite had been emanating a warm glow, like dimmer-switch lamps on a lower setting. I felt like I was in a meeting at a coven, and wondered if there was going to be a séance later. When I asked how many she was expecting for dinner, her answer made me choke on air.
“Tonight, it’s just going to be me, and YOU,” she told me.
I’d had customers invite me to stay for dinner before, mostly drunk college kids who were overly friendly from too much wine. Frankie didn’t have an official policy against it, and probably would have told me to enjoy myself — “You need to get out, DO stuff, young man! ” he’d say. “Make friends, hang out with kids your own age, keep company with somebody besides this old fuddy duddy!” — but I usually had other matters to get back to. Besides, I think Frank liked that I was always around to play chess with, or tell stories about his wife to. This night, though, Frank had gone to bed early ... a few too many liquid V-Day memories, I suspect. There was nothing else on the agenda for the rest of the evening for me, and I wasn’t going to be opening the next day. It was clear from this woman’s tone, though, that the table setting I busied myself about putting together — as if there would be at least 6 guests — was not the only thing on her mind, and the food would not be the only thing on the menu that night. I had the thought to wonder what Frankie would think about me “handling” this particular customer. And then some.
I was pretty confused. I’d heard tales of what felt like was going on there happening before. Lonely older women — I think they call them cougars these days — putting in phony calls, waiting around to seduce an innocent service worker to get their kicks. Mostly bored housewives, legend has it. But that stuff doesn’t really happen. The Ritz Carlton is definitely not the suburbs. And if this raving beauty was a housewife, in this posh environment, I didn’t want to be around when the man of “the house” got home. I tried to keep my wits about me, focusing on the task at hand, and went about my business in the most professional manner I could muster, which she made more complicated, by being overtly flirtatious, occasionally even a little grabby. It was all I could do to keep her hands off me.
“Aren’t you going to party with me,” she asked, in a sort of whiney, schoolgirlish pout.
I had a vague inclination what kind of “partying” she intended, but I only responded that I couldn’t, as I didn’t know what we’d be celebrating. She said it was her birthday. She was turning 40. I was shocked. She didn’t look a day over 32. She showed me her driver’s license to prove it. I felt bad, because if I’d have known, I’d have had the kitchen include a special birthday dessert. Might have even tried to sing. I told her I was sorry I hadn’t brought her a present.
“Oh, but I think you did,” she grinned mischievously, just as I was finishing up with the table setting, and gathering my things to go.
Then she grabbed onto parts of me I generally only share with my doctor and people I’ve gotten very close to. I think my voice might have risen about an octave as I tried to protest, but she was making a concerted effort to undress me. I like to think of myself as a man of resolve, but I was 18, and there are limits to how far a man can be pushed. I wasn’t a virgin. Not technically. But I was certainly new to many of the things she introduced me to that night. Things I hadn’t even conceived of at the time.
Turns out, she’d been planning on meeting a “hookup” that she’d connected with in one of those older phone chat services that used to be popular before online dating. She hadn’t met him yet, but they’d had a series of involved discussions over a period of a few weeks, discussing fantasies, among other things, and scheming, mostly about their plans for what they would do to each other when they finally did meet. She hadn’t told me her name at that point, because they had agreed not to exchange names. He was going to come to the door pretending to be an electrician, and they were more or less going to act out the kind of scene you might find in a bad 70s porn. But, he actually hadn’t showed up. In fact, he’d gotten cold feet and NEVER showed up. I showed up instead, because I was at the wrong room. I didn’t get the number wrong, the concierge who placed the order for the customer did. We didn’t find that out until the next morning, though. Thankfully, the actual customer wasn’t upset, because he’d passed out exhausted before the food would have showed up anyway, and was just happy to have not been stuck with the bill for a nasty overblown case of the munchies.
That’s why my “delivery customer” had been surprised by the food. But she’d just figured the guy she’d been chatting with had decided to change that part of the story — maybe he couldn’t find the right uniform, or didn’t know how to play the part? — so she threw herself on me instead. She was improvising. And who was I to say no? The fantasy had less to do with the actual roles being played, and more with the activities she was eager to try.
Over pillow talk, and a monstrous after coital feast for which we’d certainly worked up an appetite, I learned she was a former beauty Queen. She’d been Miss Atlanta some nearly 20 years prior, and was runner up to be Miss Georgia, but had never gone on to the Miss America pageant. She was recently divorced. Had married a man of power, who liked nice things, and had taken her as a trophy, for the status that came with having the latest, best model wife, along with everything else he owned that was top of the line. But he took no real interest in who she was as a person, and barely even touched her. He kept her in a nice mansion on a hill, like a collector keeps a glass menagerie on a shelf, while he spent his days jet-setting around the globe, chasing after every hot young piece of tail with a perky set of double Ds, mostly waitresses and stewardesses half his age, who just liked the attention from a handsome older rich man, and were willing to settle for whatever he’d give them.
It blew my mind how a woman still that drop dead gorgeous at 40 — with legs that could crack a man’s spine, an ass that would turn any man into John Bonham playing Moby Dick, and breasts that blocked out the sun — could be self-conscious about herself because some self-absorbed jackass felt his toys had more value if no one was playing with them. The conundrum brought me such a whole new insight into the female psyche that I questioned everything I knew about woman up until that point. Which, of course, was pretty much nothing, at age 18, so, that’s not saying much. But, I’d always admired strong, capable women who think for themselves and take charge of their lives and the world around them. This was the first time I had a window into what it takes to chip away at that strength. I guess you could say it changed my world, and more than just a little. Perhaps I’d never known the right type of woman, but I’d never realized they could be that fragile. And I’d be blown away that she stayed with him for so long, but I understand it’s human nature to become complacent in exchange for comfort. Sad but true.
My Beauty Queen — I’ll call her Gwen — was more than a pretty face and a smoking hot bod. She had a Masters in Fine Arts. Which, I’d imagine, doesn’t open a whole lot of doors, but it does at least show a personal commitment to being able to apply oneself to a goal. Her ex-husband hadn’t been willing to let her work, though. And, of course, they’d signed a prenup, so when she divorced him, she got nothing, even though she had proof of infidelity. She didn’t care, though. She wanted nothing from him. Her family had come from money, and they were willing to keep her in the lifestyle to which she’d become accustomed. She was Daddy’s Little Angel, and he was just glad to have her back under his wing. When I met Gwen, she was working as the manager of a respected local theater, which, in and of itself was no small role. She was getting her life back. Perhaps beginning it for the first time, really.
Gwen and I had sorted out the case of mistaken identity when she told me she’d been expecting me to not look exactly like how I’d described myself, but she hadn’t expected me to look so much better. You can imagine my confusion. I’m sometimes the order taker at the restaurant, but I hadn’t recalled this one coming in, and I’m sure I’ve never taken any time out of a phone order to describe anything about my appearance. I didn’t even wear a uniform. I was just the guy who showed up with the food that had been ordered, and was expected. No one ever questioned if I was the right guy, and everyone was always happy to see me. Now that I think about that, I wonder how often predators exploit that natural trust to their advantage.
I don’t remember much detail of the how that conversation went, exactly, but I’m sure it was pretty awkward. Once she got over the initial shock and horror that she really actually had done all those crazy, deviant things with a complete and total stranger, who actually was the delivery boy, I think she spent the next 10 minutes or so laughing so hard, at one point I worried she was actually going to pass out, and I’d have to call an ambulance. I do remember I’d already started trying to figure out in my head what I was going to tell them, and being not a little stressed about how that was going to come across.
When Gwen finally caught her breath, she was dehydrated, and had the first inkling of a headache, so she asked me to draw her a bath. I did, and then she attacked me again, for probably about the 6th time that night. At least this time she knew who I was, though. Sort of.
I have no idea what a suite at the Ritz Carlton costs, but I’m sure it’s more than I’d probably ever seen in one place at that time. But I know we got her money’s worth that night. By morning, there was barely a surface we hadn’t covered with our exercising of her birthday festivities. Fortunately, we were able to blow out all the candles as we got to them. I consider it a win that we didn’t have to involve the fire department. That could have gotten ugly.
As for the guy she’d originally been planning on meeting that night, Gwen actually did get around to meeting him a couple weeks later, in a much more mundane setting. It seems she’d been the only one with the guts to follow through on their shared intended adventure together, as he’d straight up just chickened out. He’d even figured she probably would, too, that maybe they were both just seeing stars, and reaching for pie in the sky. She’d been willing to give him a second chance, in case he had other redeeming qualities she might otherwise have missed out on. But she didn’t tell him she’d actually gone through with the plan. She decided he wasn’t worth the effort. If a wild hellcat in the sack was what he’d wanted, then it was his loss, for sure, as it turned out there was another fella available to fill that position for the next several months. Ready, willing, and able. Boy, was I ever.
Things went on like that between me and Gwen for a while. Not at the Ritz Carlton, of course. She visited my efficiency at Frankie’s once or twice, but she had her own luxury condo in one of Buckhead’s many fine highrise habitats for the obscenely wealthy, where I became a frequent enough guest to eventually be let in on sight by the doormen. She even dressed me up and took me around town to her schwanky theater events, introduced me to her family and artsy friends. They all thought I was so exotic. I found that odd. You’d think they’d never seen a Native American in formal attire before. Which I know can’t be the case, as Atlanta is home to many of the country’s more affluent tribes. Perhaps they just don’t run in the same circles.
It was a nice change of pace to get to see how the other half lived. But, quicker than I’d have imagined, the novelty wore off for me. Sure, it was pretty neat to get to see and do things I’d only ever dreamed about, but I didn’t have anything in common with these people, and I sometimes found all the excess and gross misuse of resources nauseating. You didn’t have to go too far into Atlanta — you could even stay right there in Buckhead — to find actual people, with real lives, and human stories, starving in the streets. Yet here were these elitists, hosting $500 plate black tie dinners in the name of random charities, and patting themselves on the back over what a “difference” they’d made. The world didn’t seem all that different to me.
And Gwen wouldn’t stop calling me Steve. At the time, I went by a shorter version of my given name, but one that was more true to my heritage. It reminded Gwen of a famous action movie hero from the 70s, and once she made the association as a nickname, she said she thought it was cute, and it just sort of stuck. I think she just wanted to try and make me more socially acceptable to her sphere of influence. After a few months’ test drive of a shiny new life, I called it quits with Gwen. I’d spent some time in my past peering into the windows of that way of living, and now that I’d seen it from the other side, I just craved the kind of comforts you’d be more likely to find in an Italian family kitchen.
Gwen had never understood why I hadn’t just quit my job at the restaurant while we were together. She certainly had plenty of money, and promised I didn’t have to want for anything. But she’d never had to work. Sure, she’d been disciplined enough to earn a Master’s degree, but that was a means to an end. For all I know, that end might have even been to look good for the pageant board. What does one really do with a Masters in Fine Arts, anyway? But it had been something she wanted. Having to make a commitment to a business, to be part of the machine, a cog in the wheel that turns income into profit that sustains a livelihood, that supports a family... this was a world Gwen had never known. Would probably never know.
And, in time, I saw a correlation between the way she had been treated by her ex, and the way she treated me. Oh, sure, she would never have dreamed of cheating on me, even though we’d never established any formal relationship parameters or boundaries, so I wouldn’t have been hurt in the slightest if she did, or if one day she just stopped seeing me altogether. I’d never gotten attached to the notion that “we” were “a thing.” That this was forever. The attention was nice, the events were fun, the settings were cush, and the sex was mind boggling. But Gwen didn’t love me. And I didn’t love her. When I first met her, I think I thought she needed me. That she needed someone to care for her, the person, not just her body, or even her mind, or the status symbol that her family name represented. I think my 18-year-old self might have thought I could give her what she needed in that respect, and I might have mistaken that for love, at first. But before too long, I realized the truth.
There was a vast age gap between us in years, but not in maturity. I’d lived enough of the world by then to be a little more in the know on some things than some college graduates. And she’d been sheltered away from the real world for long enough that her emotional growth had never really developed past her college days. So we met very naturally in the middle, effectively as equals. For a while. Until one day I recognized, unlike she had been to her ex-husband, I wasn’t a toy that was kept on the shelf. Gwen sure liked to play with me. But I was still a toy. If I’d have let her, she might still be keeping me around to take me out, dress me up, show me off, decide my future for me. At some point, I looked into that future, and I didn’t like what I saw. A kept man may have it pretty good. But he’s still a kept man. And that just wasn’t who I wanted to be.
I remembered Frankie telling me how a hungry man isn’t really a man so long as he’s hungry. He’s just hungry, until he’s fed, and then he is a man again. But there are many ways a man can be malnourished. Frankie understood this. It’s why he opened his restaurant. After Gwen, I think I began to understand that, too. I was a hungry man, and I needed to be fed. But what I craved, Gwen couldn’t give me. So I couldn’t stay with her, because I would always be starving there, and eventually, it would kill me.
Frankie didn’t have any sons of his own. I think, if he’d had his druthers, he probably would have liked to have groomed me to take over the restaurant from him when he retired. And I probably would have been okay with that. But it wasn’t in the cards. Destiny called me elsewhere, with circumstances I will save for another tale. He harbored no resentment, though, and when he passed on a few years ago, I went back down to pay my respects. The manager of his estate asked me to stick around for the reading, as it turned out he’d included me in his will. Humbling to think I’d meant so much to him, so long ago, but our bond, while short lived, in the grand scheme of life, had been a strong one. Don’t get me wrong, he hadn’t left me a small fortune, or anything, just a tidy, but respectable sum, in gratitude, the will said, for the time I’d given him everything I had, and always done so pleasantly, and to the best of my ability, for very little in return. “But paltry compensation,” it read, “which cannot meet the debt.” He made me smile. I never remember needing anything when I was with him. But even though I often told him I was well supplied, I know he’d always wished I had more. That was his way of saying so, again, once more, and having the last word on the matter, so to speak.
He’d sold the restaurant a little over 10 years ago. I saw the place that now stands where it had been, and was pleased to see it’s being run by a nice young couple from New York, who makes downhome family style Italian food, available for delivery in the Buckhead district. And it swelled my heart to notice, it is appropriately named, the Italian term for, “The Kiss.”
Moar Storease!: 404*
i can haz votes, pleez?*
* Please also see especially the skillful works of Team Clueless:
• Road Trippin’ — ellison
• Silence of The Lam — i_love_freddie
• Exile in Pop Music — prog_schlock
• Normal is ... nice — sinnamongirl
The sky opened up today, dumping a heavenly residue over a significant portion of the central US. Aaaaand now we have snow days all around, across affected regions. It’s not exactly blizzard conditions. Even so, lotsa folks abandon job posts in favor of cabin fever at times like this, causing business shutdowns all over for the duration of this multi-state “whiteout.” Soooo, I have some unexpected free time on my hands right now.
Coincidentally, a friend of mine also happens to be sick in bed. No connection, just convenient timing, since he now gets the day off without using PTO. But still no fun for him. Apparently, being bedridden can lead one to some questionable television viewing choices. In an IM chat this afternoon, he said he couldn’t find his remote, and didn’t feel well enough to either look for it, or get up to change the channel, so he’s been stuck watching second rate cable shows about cryptozoology, the paranormal, and other pseudo-science since mid-morning.
Not being a man who places much value in most broadcast network television, I have a hard time imagining how anyone could ever be “stuck” watching anything on TV. Did you know there is more brain activity going on in your head when you stare at a blank wall than when you’re zoned out in front of the boob tube? It’s a fact! Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy some quality cable programming on occasion. But here I have to stress “quality.”
I was flabbergasted to learn not only are there multiple complete series, but entire networks dedicated to exploring these types of “strange mysteries” and “unusual phenomena.” Spose this is what happens when you put Rupert Murdoch in control of National Geographic. Or maybe, this is what results from the institutional dumbing down of a nation. Perhaps both. But don’t get me started on that soapbox. Don’t want to come off like a conspiracy theorist. Though, I believe I’m not going too far out on a limb to suggest there’s a time coming —and probably sooner than you’d like to think — when the “plot” to effectively lobotomize our general populace no longer seems quite so farfetched. You don’t have to dig too deeply into current affairs before considering the notion might carry some weight. In fact, you’d only have to check out a handful of hot-button political issues. I’d even venture to say, if you’re not there already, you probably haven’t been paying attention. Did you know there is an entire subsection of our culture which actually believes — yes, in the 2nd millenium, even — that the EARTH is FLAT? I’m really not kidding. Seriously. I wish I was. Is it any wonder those men of science with a media persona are starting to come across in the public eye as a little bit cranky? For now, anyway, let’s just agree it’s amazing what passes for entertainment these days.
My friend doesn’t know when the show first aired, but “The History Channel” — where, based on its current flight schedule, this name obviously does not mean what you think it means — recently reran a presentation focusing on UFO nuts upset with Barak Obama because in a public address he came out as saying there is no evidence of alien visitation to the planet, and there are no government documents which prove the existence of aliens. Now, me, personally, I don’t know about whether or not there’s evidence of alien visitation to the planet... I never thought it important enough to lose any sleep over. It wouldn’t surprise me if aliens had at some point in our history visited the earth, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if it hadn’t happened, either. There are billions of star systems out there, and I don’t think we’re so important we’d be terribly worth visiting across the vast expanse of space, since there’s no sentient life outside ourselves within our own solar system. So I wouldn’t disagree there’s no evidence of alien life... I simply wouldn’t know. Not only that, but I also sincerely believe the lack of knowing is not likely to impact my life one way or another, regardless of my opinion on the matter. Though, I will say, as gigantic as the universe is, anyone who believes we are the only intelligent life to have ever emerged, across a macrocosmos of planets in existence since time began, has got to be a special kind of arrogant.
But I just don’t understand people who devote so much of their lives to the search for aliens and cryptozoology. I’m okay with NASA doing space exploration, of course. The President did indicate our government is actively searching for life on other planets, and I consider that a worthwhile pursuit. A constant drive to explore the unknown and unexplained — that’s how science works. Gene Roddenberry understood that. He inspired a whole new generation to seek out new life and new civilizations, as many of today’s astronauts were motivated to chase after the space program because of Star Trek. No joke! The rest of us, though, I would think, should be content to recognize there are some things in this world we just don’t and can’t know everything about, and leave the unearthing of advancements in science to the experts who have actually dedicated their life’s work to being involved in that process. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be curious, and I wouldn’t discourage that curiosity. I mean, if you really feel it’s your calling to be the next Aristotle, Isaac Newton, Augusta Ada King, Louis Pasteur, Madam Curie, or Jane Goodall, then do it. But at least go about it with something resembling a logical approach. Like, through NASA, AIBS, ASM, IWLS, WAZA, or WHO, etc., for example. There’s a reason major, world-changing discoveries of science are never made by rednecks in the woods with wire hanger antennas and tinfoil hats. Trust me, I know — I’ve seen this in action.
When I was 24, I’d planted my feet for a while in Cloudcroft, NM. Cloudcroft was as far as I’d wandered after breaking away from the Mescalero Reservation, where I’d been connected for a spell when a journey to find my father had lead me there, but turned up empty. The parting was both amicable, and inevitable. Taking my leave from the community had something to do with a sweet young gal I just couldn’t bring myself to settle down for. If ever anyone coulda done it, she’d have been the one, but by then I’d seen enough to figure out life on the rez just really isn’t for me, and I had to move on. I’d say more about that, but I’ll save it for another time. This is the story of my run-in with a group of Steve Irwin wannabes, a not-so-supernatural being, and their brush with the law.
I was working at the time as a veterinary assistant in the local clinic there. Having a natural way around wildlife from being raised on a farm in the woods by a shima with a soft spot for tending to needy strays — her own “catch and release” program, she’d joke — yielded the kind of skills that are profoundly beneficial to overworked villagers smack dab in the heart of a National Forest territory. In a sticksburg of less than a thousand, it doesn’t take long to become familiar with everyone, not just by name and reputation, but by knack and know-how, both on and off the books. It’s even easier for them to get to know you when you’re the freshest face there. Particularly if you bring with you shiny new talent and abilities to be added to the common kitty. Which is how I came to find the night patrol Ranger (whom I won’t name out of respect for his privacy, due to the nature of his position) knocking on my door at nearly two in the morning one crisp early autumn evening in 1999.
He had a special case that required emergency attention; said he’d seen enough of my work to figure I was the right man for the job. Based on his urgency, I didn’t even argue, I just got dressed and followed him to the animal hospital, where I would have expected the vet and a couple of techs ready to operate, with me as an extra hand for cleanup or sedation support if necessary. But when we got there, I was surprised to find it was just him and me. And the patient.
The Ranger hopped out of his truck and motioned for me to give him a hand, then jumped into the flatbed, struggling to maneuver a rather sizable bundle into a position where two men could carry it. Now, I’m not normally hesitant in a crisis. Adrenaline fuels you, training kicks in, muscle memory takes over, and you just do the job that needs to be done. But I have to admit the blood in my veins felt like ice for half a second when I met him at the back of that truck. I had no idea what was under that fire blanket. It was bigger than a wolf, but smaller than a bear. I only took a moment to assess that it wasn’t moving, though, so I knew whatever it was, it was in trouble, so I gathered my wits and found my feet in short order. The two of us wrangled the limp, dead weight onto a table in the OR, where I found a surprise I wasn’t prepared for. When the Ranger carefully unwrapped the blanket from the beast in the bundle, I might have done a double-take at first.
I may not have a degree or any formal higher education, but I like to think of myself as mostly knowledgeable about the world we live in. When I was younger, though, the internet was not as easily accessible to me, I never watched much TV, and most of the books I read were older, secondhand, probably fantastical in nature. (Life outside the shack didn’t have much to offer I didn’t want to escape, so I was something of a head-in-the-clouds type daydreamer... these kinds of books helped me to get away a lot better than any others.) Consequently, I might not have been as smart as I thought I was then. Looking back on it, I’m sure of it. Spose I’m probably still not as smart as I think I am, even today. But at least now, though, you can give me a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone, and a coffeehouse with wifi, and I have the world at my fingertips. These days there’s a lot less than can shock me.
I must have stood there with my jaw gaping for longer than I meant to. The Ranger had to repeat himself a couple times to snap me out of a daze so I could get his instructions, and hear the story of the creature in front of me. Even then, it still took me one or two tries to stop staring long enough to focus on what he was saying. I was just certain I was looking at a genuine Kensah,* in jeans and a flannel. (*Or, what Ina would have called Chiyetanka, Shima knew as Yéitsoh, and you pilgrims, depending on what region you hail from, might be more familiar with by the more common names, Sasquatch, Wendigo, Yeti, or simply, “Bigfoot.”) But anyone who’s been around a while has learned, as I did that night, things are not always what they appear to be, and even appearances are not always what they seem. More often than not, there’s probably a rational explanation for most everything ostensibly unexplained.
His name was Hector. He was 6’5,” 285#, and covered in thick, black hair from head to foot. He grew up in Brazil, had a masters from San Paulo, and was getting a doctorate in Juarez. He’d taken a working vacation to Sunspot, and was enjoying a weekend hiking excursion into the interior of Lincoln National Forest, doing some camping at Benson Ridge. He was out for a midnight stroll to watch the stars, when he was happened upon by a delinquent band of ruffians, drunk and loaded for bear, who took his family’s hereditary condition for lycanthropy, and fired at him. The punks hadn’t left it there, though. Certain they had caught themselves a real live werewolf, the hoodlums chased him down in their truck, hollering and carrying on like a lynch mob. When the Ranger had come across them, they’d caught Hector, had him tied to the trestles at the Mexican Canyon railbridge, and were busy contesting each other’s skill by pelting him with rocks and pissing on him.
If the Ranger hadn’t come to his aid, Hector probably would not have made it through the night. In addition to pulling buckshot from his nethers, I also treated him for multiple wounds, and significant blood loss. He was bruised and battered from the beatings, lacerated from running for his life through the woods, and, most importantly, suffering from shock, and the early stages of hypothermia. New Mexico is generally pretty warm, but it gets down to the low 30°s at night in early October, which is more than a body can handle on top of extensive body trauma, even a body in flannel with a natural fur coat.
I patched him up as best I could, gave him fluids, kept him warm, and stayed with him through the night and much of the next day. The clinic was officially closed on Sundays, except for emergencies, and I was on first alert that weekend, anyway, so it worked out that we didn’t have to bring in the Doc. The Ranger didn’t really want to get too many people involved in this mess, which is why he’d taken Hector to me, instead of to Gerald Champion, the nearest major hospital in Alamogordo. Gunshot wounds are an automatic call to the police, and while the Ranger had no interest in protecting this group of gangsters, he was sure the news would be all over the story, and he didn’t want that kind of press either for our small town, or for Hector. Hector’s family is prominently renowned in Brazil — not just because they’ve passed down multiple generations of hypertrichosis, but because they represent a well established business legacy, and leadership in their community. The fallout of this debacle had potential to create an international incident.
When his condition was stable, I spent some time connecting with Hector. He spoke English well, and taught me a little Spanish, even though his native language is Portuguese. He figured a little Spanish would be more practical for me, given our location. Hector himself put me to shame with his extensive linguistic aptitude... he spoke at least a dozen languages, at the time, and quite possibly knows a few more now. He was a decent fellow, and surprisingly understanding, considering the torture he’d endured. I learned a lot about grace in the face of extreme injustice, and the true power of genuine mercy. He refuses to harbor resentment because it eats at you from the inside, and if you can’t let go of a grudge, you will be controlled by it, he says. He told me, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison, expecting another man to die.” Words of the Buddha, I do believe.
Hector may have been willing to overlook the matter, but the Ranger wasn’t. He was not going to let the hooligans get away with what they’d done. They were a group of fratboys from local provinces scattered within the Lincoln territory — Mayhill, Sacramento, and Weed, specifically. Ironically, their connection to each other was through one of the many churches in the Forest. Weed — which gets its title from the surname of its founding family, not what you were thinking — is a miniscule little borough of about a sneezeful of people, where everyone is so close as to be practically related, and the shame alone of a misdeed this monumental might have been soul-crushing for the twin brothers from that neck of the woods. It may very well have actually done so in one case... perhaps both.
I don’t remember the entirety of the punishment the Ranger cooked up for them, using pressure from the boys’ understandably outraged families as leverage to help them stick to their sentence, but I know it involved astronomical fines that took years for most of them to pay off, donated to the charity of Hector’s choice — which I believe was wildlife preservation — that he was happy to earmark as dedicated to the Lincoln National Forest. The Ranger wanted it to go towards furthering the advancement of hypertrichosis research, but Hector wouldn’t hear of it. He said no one in the history of his family, living with this condition going back hundreds of years, saw it as a debility, and everyone he knew who had it was a well rounded, genuinely happy individual... why would that need to be cured? In addition, each of the “brute squad” committed to a set amount of community service, to be carried out in the burn unit of GCRMC, or any other place that would cause the wayward young men to have to look upon the undesirable and care for the suffering with dignity. If the Ranger could have found a leper’s ward, I’m sure he would have pointed them there.
I kept up with Hector for a few years through letters, and more recently, in email and on social media. He continued to visit Sunspot while he was still in school, making a point to add Cloudcroft to his list of routine stops on his periodic weekend getaways. He became something of a part-time town hero, for a brief while there. Though I’ve long since been gone from that area, and Hector himself hasn’t been back in ages, I still consider him a friend, a mentor, an inspiration, and a role model.
As for his tormentors, one of the twins ended up hitting the bottle pretty hard, landing himself in and out of county lockup throughout his 20s, graduating each time to worse and worse crimes, until he eventually went to prison before he was 30, where he was caught in the middle of an internal gang scuffle, and beaten to death. For the other three, the results of this escapade were much more positive. The other twin brother from Weed, woefully remorseful, confessed his sins before his church, rallying their forgiveness and emotional support. Encouraged, humbled, and seeking absolution from a higher power, he went on from there into Seminary, where he became a Baptist minister, and returned to lead his home congregation.
The Sacramento commoner, with the Ranger’s permission, spent a good portion of his college days in a Green Peace exchange program, traveling the world, giving to the underprivileged and needy all across the globe. I think he’d initially meant to effectively use the opportunity to flee the country and thereby escape his “punishment,” but the Ranger, knowing what Green Peace stood for, valued the education he would glean from the experience, and allowed it. When he came back, he was a truly changed man. He married and moved to California — ironically, to Sacramento — where he now lives with his wife and two daughters, running a family bakery. Together, the couple donates at least 25% of their annual proceeds, and a significant portion of their time and energy, to feeding and helping the homeless and hungry in the area.
And the Mayhill resident, already in a medical program, originally intending to become a plastic surgeon, determined to dedicate his skills to something more lofty than simply making money, and joined the ranks of Doctors Without Borders, where he now practices every day pediatrics, and sometimes donates his training to performing no-charge facial reconstructions on third world children with cleft palates.
I’ve met a lot of troubled souls in my travels. And I know there are plenty who espouse the mentality that there are some people in this world who just can’t be saved. But I think the most important lesson that arose out of this encounter for me — though it took a while for it to become clear — may be that, no matter how malevolent, how destructive, how far gone a person may seem... everyone is redeemable. Because anyone can change. Change, as it happens, is inevitable. You might just have to coax it in the right direction. And, miracles do happen, but sometimes, in some of the hardest, most tough love cases, it might take a miracle — perhaps even delivered in the form of a fuzzy angel — to bring about the otherwise impossible. So never say never. Because you just never know.
Moar Storease!: They Said It Couldn’t Be Done*
i can haz votes, pleez?*
* Please also see especially the skillful works of Team Clueless:
• A Moonlit Winter Canvas – ellison
• Blade of Darkness – i_love_freddie
• Heroes and Legends – prog_schlock
• Thank You For Not Smoking – sinnamongirl
I know how to scrap, but prefer to refrain, whenever possible. Things don’t always work out that way, though. When you live like I do — like I have — sometimes you gotta keep your guard up, and know how to protect yourself, if necessary. Or someone else who needs it, maybe. Seems that’s been the case more often, actually. If you’re not afraid of a fight, and willing to take a punch, you can usually avoid finding yourself in situations where you have to throw one most of the time. But it’s important to know when you need to. I feel like I may have more or less written on that concept already, to some degree, and I don’t want to repeat myself, but I spose it’s been something of a running theme in my life, so it might come up again from time to time.
I am just a poor boy,
You already know I came from nothing. Depending on how you define wealth, you might say I still have nothing. Though I consider myself rich in all the most important ways. But I may be just a poor boy, if that’s all you want to see. And that might tell us both all we need to know about each other.
…though my story’s seldom told.
It might surprise you to know I don’t talk much. Not saying I’m mute, but writing is a lot easier for me. I’ve kept a journal of some sort for as long as I can remember, going back to closets, shelves and trunks now stored at the shack, full of old composition notebooks overflowing with my thoughts on life. Not that those matter much to anyone but me, but they help me make sense of my world. I think. Or of life in general, maybe.
Writing was the natural next step for me, from growing up reading everything I could find to hold in my hands since the first time I knew what words on a page were. These days, most of my reading about the world is done online. That saves a lot of room in the backpack. But the world is a fascinating place, and there’s so much of it available, so much to explore. Even my journal is digital, now, too. That saves me a lot in postage.
I’ve never had a habit of sharing my journal with anyone. Not before now. Though, technically, maybe I’m still not, because this isn’t my personal journal. It’s the journal of things I choose to share, which is selective. But I’m here for the experience of sharing, which is still new to me. My story’s seldom told because I haven’t learned to tell it. I haven’t felt before there was anyone who needed it. But I’m learning. And you’re helping. So thank you.
I have squandered my resistance
I am a man of peace, by nature. I never seek to start a fight. I’m easy to dismiss, because I don’t tend to demand my way. Don’t guess I really have a “way,” if you get right down to it. There’s so very little in this life I find that is worth squabbling over, I will quietly back down to most any more imposing force. Some might misinterpret this as cowardice, though that would be a mistake. If I give in to a greater will, it is not out of fear. There is no shame in it, either.
I have nothing that can be taken from me. Anything that is truly mine, I carry with me, in my very essence, and I cannot be removed from that. Though it can be changed. If I am living, then I am growing, as this is the essence of life. Growth is change. If I am not changing, then I am not growing, I am dying. But even that, too, is inevitable change. I will resist the oppression of the innocent. I will fight to protect those who cannot. I may have surrendered my own resistance, but only to be reserved for use by those who need it more.
...for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises.
All lies and jest.
A man will say whatever he believes he can convince you of to get you to buy whatever he needs you to for the sake of his own agenda. Everyone has one. It is the nature of who we are. Once you realize nothing in this life is ever truly real, then you can never be taken, because you never really buy anything that’s being offered.
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear,
and disregards the rest.
Everything is illusion. If you understand that, though, you can still appreciate the magic, even if you know how it’s done. I willingly relinquish whatever is genuinely needed, for those who are sincerely faint of longing, even when they don’t know how to ask.
When I left my home and my family
I was no more than a boy.
I don’t have a college degree. I don’t even have a high school diploma. I got my GED when I was 16, and that’s just as good, for most any place that needs it. It wasn’t because I couldn’t graduate, or because I didn’t think I could do any better in education. I won’t profess false modesty. I’ll freely admit, I’m pretty bright. I probably could have applied for a number of academic scholarships and got one. And if I’d have wanted to have paid for it on my own since, I’ve been in a position to. But I don’t put a whole lot of stock in what passed for education then, or even now, for that matter. Perhaps even less now.
American History is a shameful fiction; a disgrace to our true ancestry. To the victor go the spoils, of course, and the rewriting of the story, too; the redrawing of battle lines, and the retaking of sides. The farther we get away from our past, the more of it we sweep under the rug.
I could have pursued a life that would have required that level of prostration to the higher mind, if I’d felt that was a life worth pursuing. But that would have created a great deal of pressure — of various types I won’t go into now — on Shima, and I couldn’t bear to put her through that. I got the certificate because I needed to get out, for her sake. I wasn’t going to be a burden to her anymore. She was 66 when I left the shack, and her body couldn’t continue to take the strain of working to support us both, so I freed her from that responsibility.
Some might think Shima shouldn’t have let me go at that age, that maybe I wasn’t ready, maybe I wasn’t properly equipped for the real world. But she trusted the teaching she’d given me to guide me in finding the world on my own terms. She trusted the man I had become — the man she had lead me to be — to meet the world with integrity. I’d just turned 17. I had a strong back, a willing heart, capable feet, skilled hands, and the sense to take me as far as I wanted to go.
In the company of strangers,
in the quiet of a railway station, running scared.
Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
where the ragged people go.
Looking for the places only they would know.
When Shima took us on the road, in my school days, she was running scared, and taking me with her. It was for my sake she was afraid. But that’s a longer story; one I’m not prepared to tell just now.
Can’t say I can think of a time when I was running scared after I’d said goodbye to Shima, though I’m sure there were moments of fear, especially in those early days. The occasions that pumped the adrenaline were much more common back then, and once or twice I had reason to wonder if I would see the dawn. But there were always people who knew how to help others who needed it, and in the beginning I fell much more in the category of the latter than the former. Freight train railyards, off the grid circuits... in that time when I was the least aware of my surroundings, strangers — good people with tough stories and hard lives with whom I had not yet come to have any connection — took me in, showed me what I needed to understand. Warm, dry, places to rest tired feet for a few hours without being driven off or accosted. How to find water safe to drink. Where to scavenge for the heartiest scraps of nourishment. Whom to trust. These and other priceless treasures — some of which I couldn’t even help you comprehend — should only be relied upon from sources with the need and means to know. I have since cultivated diligence in keeping that cycle circling back around.
Asking only workman’s wages,
I come looking for a job, but I get no offers,
I’ve never had to look for work. There’s always work to be done, and I’ve always been willing to do what I can, to learn what I can’t, and I’ve never cared much about what my time is worth. I require very little to make me comfortable, and for that reason, I’m easy to employ, and generally not in want. I get no offers because I don’t need them. I make offers, to do what is missing, in exchange for what is needed. I am met with gratitude and kindness, and I am fulfilled.
Just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue.
I do declare there were times when I was so lonesome,
I took some comfort there.
There are many ways to sell oneself. Much of today’s labor force is in some form of prostitution. The primary working class populace is doing something they don’t want to do, in exchange for something they must have to survive. This is what we teach our children is the American way. Another reason I have little confidence in our schools.
In the strictest sense, one might consider me a whore. But I’ve never done anything I didn’t take joy in, and for my pride in my efforts I have been given far more than I’ve asked for, and much more than I’ve needed. Though I’ve never sold my body for money, I’ve sold my skills — my time, my energy, and my labor; my knowledge — my perspective, my awareness, and my values; my life — my history, my character, my loyalty, and my trust; and my love — my attention, my compassion, my protection, and my warmth — for reciprocal companionship, connection, and the communal bounty of a shared path, until the roads of our separate lives diverge us. The journey of life is about more than mere survival. We are not here to simply exist, but to experience the great adventure of the universe, which requires that we must interact with other travelers, to see what they’ve seen, to learn what they know, and to try to understand.
Now the years are rolling by me,
They are rockin’ evenly.
I am older than I once was,
And younger than I'll be; that's not unusual.
No, it isn’t strange.
Life is full of riches and surprises and wonder, and it keeps on rolling, no matter what comes of it. It will roll right over you, or you can roll with it. I don’t know what I thought in my youth that 40 would be like, but here I am, and I’m still amazed by this world every day.
After changes upon changes,
We are more or less the same.
After changes, we are more or less the same.
Don’t guess I have what you’d call a religion, but if I did, it might come closest to an appreciation for the Tao in all things. Or perhaps the oneness of Buddhism. But I believe the spirit of Creator is in all that lives, and our purpose on this plane is to connect to it. We can only do that by reaching out to one another, by recognizing the spirit of creation in ourselves, and in each other, thereby becoming one within it.
You will never find it in your living room. Or your office. Or the mall. It is out there. In the hearts and minds of the living, and growing, and changing, and dying. It is in life. It is the world, and the world is waiting. It is ours to seek, and ours to find. Yours. Mine. Theirs. Ours. All embody the spirit of creation. And when we know that we are one, then we will be united.
May you find in this world all that you seek from it. And may you be at peace.
Moar Storeez!: Disregard the Lies and Jest*
i can haz votes, pleez?*
* Please especially see the skillful works of Team Clueless:
• Ode to Homer – ellison
• You Can’t Handle The Truth – i_love_freddie
• Metal Machine Music – prog_schlock
• A Tale of Madges – sinnamongirl
I realize this must seem odd, and I suppose it was. It has something to do with an overeager teacher showing up at our door unannounced when I was in junior high, to talk to Shima about my grades. (I was bored. I had a tendency to not do homework, but the teacher knew I was smart because I always aced the tests, and wanted to convince my shima to get me to “apply myself” better. It didn’t have the effect she was hoping for. Also, teachers, unless you’ve actually met the student’s legal guardian in person, and often enough to know how he or she might react, please, please, never, ever do this. Especially not to a 60+ year old-woman with trust issues — particularly related to authority figures — which may or may not be valid. The chain reaction you might set off may be more than anyone bargained for, and quite possibly, unstoppable.)
That is just a bit of the TL;DR summary version, but I assure you it has nothing to do with running from the law. If it did, I wouldn’t be quite so nonchalant about it in such a public setting. This much just sets the stage for why I went to more schools during my secondary years than most people do in a lifetime, and why I never really bothered to make much in the way of long term relationships. Except in one case.
His name was Dark. Well, that wasn’t his real name. His first name was Robert, and his parents not only gave him the middle name Kennedy, but actually called him “RK” for the first several years of his life. I guess maybe they thought putting an extra middle name in there for the sake of being able to use the “F” was a bit too much. By the time he was in high school, Dark must have thought it was a bit much, too, and after a few weeks of trying out going by just the sound of the initials RK together, which came off more like a biblical reference or a barking seal than a name, Dark added the “D” in front, to create the handle that stuck. The real reason behind its staying power, though, was the fabulous irony behind it, the way that “Little John” refers to a giant man, or “Lucky” refers to a 3-legged, one-eyed dog with a chunk of ear missing. Dark is about the silliest, goofiest, most brightly smiling, brilliant idiot one could ever hope to meet. And I say that with the utmost fondness.
I met him the summer before my 11th grade year, which ended up being the year I spent the longest time of anywhere in school, mainly because by then, I’d learned to keep my grades up enough to stay out of trouble, and also, generally, by that time, most high school administrators are past caring, and don’t bother to get on even the most promising students about their wasted potential. But I like to think that at least some portion of it was in part due to my friendship with Dark.
We became friends instantly, mostly because Dark was friendly with anything that could hold a conversation with him, but we stayed friends because I didn’t get irritated with him for all the stunts he pulled, and actually found him funny. Dark had a tendency to otherwise wear out the patience of most people who tried to be friends with him. Me, I guess I just always expect a snake to be a snake, a fox to be a fox, and a crow to be a crow. No more, no less. Dark, I think, was probably born part Raccoon.
You probably all have that friend. You know the one. Never takes anything seriously, always up to no good, pulling pranks and playing tricks? Yeah, well, you’ve probably never met anyone quite as committed as Dark. Sure, some folks get their start when they’re young, putting rubberbands around the sprayer nozzle, saran wrap over the toilet, or tape over the shampoo bottles. Dark would never stoop to anything that simple, or mundane.
The youngest of five brothers and three sisters, Dark was a special kind of prodigy. The oldest couple of siblings had enough advanced years on him to have fortunately been out of the house for most of his upbringing, but the rest grew up never being able to forget about his “precocious” position in their household. Even his parents were not immune to his antics. His folks knew pretty early on there was something somehow “different” about him, and began making note of his unusual quirks from a very young age. When he was only 3, Dark straight up just peed right in his brother’s shoes. Sure, it was a little crude, and Dark doesn’t even remember doing it, but he happily takes credit whenever the story comes up, and says it just goes to show he came by his impish nature honestly... apparently, he was just born with it, and can’t help himself. At least, he uses this as a rationalization to justify his behavior, anyway.
I wasn’t around for the majority of Dark’s childhood, obviously, but we hung out together at his place plenty after we figured out how well we click, and his family never let him live down many of his shenanigans. They were often a frequent topic of discussion around the dinner table or just idle living room chat. Indeed, it seemed having company over was just an excuse to tell “Dark stories.” Through many of these occasions, I learned quite a bit about the young man who would come to be my best friend.
By the time he was 5, Dark was already putting blue food coloring in the family’s hand soap. At 6, he emptied out his mom’s push up deodorant and replaced it with cream cheese. His Dad used to take naps on the family sofa in the afternoon, and once when Dark was 7 years old, during one of these naps, Dark painted his Dad’s toenails with glow-in-the-dark nail polish. His Dad was pretty mad at first, but saw the humor in it, and even came to find it more amusing in the dark when he got up to go to the restroom in the middle of the night. He joked it helped him avoid stubbing his toes.
When he was 8, intent on getting the brother who was always rushing out the door in the morning, Dark “buttered” the entire linoleum floor in their kitchen. He actually got several family members with that prank. Given the time of year, they were all lucky to be wearing heavy winter padding, so no one broke any tailbones falling on their backsides, but Dark got his own hide tanned good for that one, due to the scare that someone might have been hurt. Dark never tried anything quite that physical again.
The brother who was unfortunate enough to share a room with him got his pillowcase stuffed with catnip when Dark was 9. That brother woke up screaming in the middle of the night, certain that the family cat was trying to kill him. Dark nearly passed out laughing at that incident, which he still says worked way better than he’d planned.
As Dark grew in experience and intelligence, the pranks became more sophisticated, more daring, and more fantastical. When Dark was in 4th grade, his Dad walked into the kitchen to find him holding a cup of water up to the ceiling. When Pops (my name for Dark’s Dad) asked what in blazes was going on, Dark told him it was an experiment, for science. He said he needed to record some data, but had to go get his notes, and asked Pops to take over for a moment while he grabbed the rules of the assignment. Dark handed his Dad a broom, and instructed him to please hold the cup of water against the ceiling with the broom for just a couple minutes until he got back. Then he left Pops there, holding a cup of water above his head against the ceiling on the end of a broom, and went downstairs to watch TV. After 15 minutes, Pops started hollering for Dark to get his butt back up there, and 5 minutes later, appeared in the den drenched and steaming mad. Dark said the grounding was totally worth it.
Dark learned to accept his family’s punishments pretty well. Said they were “all part of the game,” or sometimes referred to them as “the cost of doing business.” He was in the doghouse for a month when he was 11, and his oldest brother, home from college for the summer, made the mistake on a family day at the beach of falling asleep in the sun without any sunscreen on. His mother thought he was being very thoughtful when he took the sunscreen and began rubbing it on his brother. She was so proud, until her eldest son woke up a couple hours later, completely red all over his back, except in the area where Dark had used sunscreen to write “I <3 Boyz II Men.”
When he was 12, Dark offered to “help” his mom “pick up” at her outdoor party with some of her friends. He gathered up a few of her empty wine cooler bottles, filled them back up with water and food coloring, and then casually wandered in front of her guests chugging a couple at once, stopping just when he knew he’d caught her attention to “down” the rest in a double fisted action right in front of her. It took quite some convincing to keep her from calling the emergency room to have his stomach pumped. Thankfully, Dark wasn’t very good back then at picking up after himself when he was in the “prank zone,” so all the evidence that supported his story was still by the sink.
His family could never stay mad at him for long, though. I think one of the reasons Dark gets away with so much of what he does is that it really is mostly harmless. That was probably the closest he ever came to actually hurting anyone, and turns out, it was himself. You’d think that woulda put the fear of consequences over a stunt gone horribly wrong into him, but not Dark. He just kept upping the ante more, sometimes with incredible results, and occasionally, even a reward.
At 14, Dark filled the A/C ducts of his family’s station wagon with about a trash bag full of those little pieces of paper you get from a 3-hole punch, so they blew all over everything as soon as the family turned on the A/C. The only trouble he got in then was having to clean up the mess himself, but he was still finding those little buggers in the carpet and the crevices of the car several weeks later. It would not be the last time he would mess with the family ride, though.
When he was 15, and learning to drive, Dark put a Guns N’ Roses cassette in the wagon’s player, and stuck a penny underneath the tape so it couldn’t be popped out, then cranked up the volume to the top notch, and broke the knob off so it couldn’t be changed. After three days, his mom got so frustrated with having to listen to the same side of that album as loud as it could go that she gave up driving the car, and effectively passed it on to Dark, the only one in the family who liked GNR well enough to put up with it. It was on its last leg anyway, and was a decent vehicle for him to learn to drive in, so as soon as he got his license, it became his “Darkmobile,” and his Mom had an excuse to buy herself a new grocery getter.
At 17, he did something similar that netted him claim to his Dad’s pickup, by painting “El Trucko” in bright neon letters across the sides and back of Pop’s work rig. Pops woulda had him work off spending his own money to buy the paint and cover it, but he figured having the responsibility of keeping an old jalopy running was punishment enough, so he bought himself a new one, and turned the keys of “El Trucko” over to Dark, because it was past the tipping point on cost vs. value in major repairs needed. Dark learned a lot more about automotive maintenance than he’d planned or ever wanted to know as a result. Pops figured it was a good skillset to have, so it was worth the trouble. While it lasted, though, never has a teenager seemed more like a redneck than Dark did riding around in that thing. The thing practically screamed white trash — all of the ignorance, none of the manners.
And, to further the redneck image, I have no idea how he came by it, but Dark once used that pickup to dump 200 pounds of unshucked corn all over the family circle drive. Maybe he wanted to go “all in,” on the redneck front, or maybe he just wanted a reason to actually haul something in the flatbed. His Mom was pretty mad, but she was actually happy to have the corn, so she just made him shuck all of it by himself. Not willing to let the joke end there, though, Dark then filled Pop’s trunk with the husks. It was weeks before Pops discovered them. By then, it was funny all over again, because Dark had completely forgotten about doing it. I think he did get his keys taken away from him for a week that time, though.
Dark’s family members weren’t the only victims of his relentless torment, though. That’s just where he got his start in this life of questionable conduct. The best pranks he ever pulled were in a variety of environments. When we were in high school together, I witnessed a handful of these myself. Someday I’ll have to tell you about his ongoing battle with one particular teacher, Mr. Magnus. But I’ll save some of those for later, and just hit a few other high school highlights.
Some of these took extraordinary planning. And patience. Like baby powder in the sousaphones. If you’ve ever been in band, you probably know the difference between a tuba and a sousaphone. Maybe your school even used both, but, in our music program, only the tubas were used for indoor events, like concerts and musicals. But the sousaphones were a big part of the magic that happened on the field, so the brass section would expand then to include them. They came out every year during football season, or any other time the marching band was in session. Which means that this prank could have been stewing for quite some time. And, fortunately for him, it happened during a rehearsal session that was not in dress gear, or Dark might have been stuck with a handful of dry cleaning bills. That stuff is a bear to get out of polyester. There was powder everywhere. If not for a heavy rain the night before the next big game, the team might have played with it all over the kickoff zone.
Then there was the assembly. Right in the middle of the vice-principal’s speech about something no one can remember, a radio started blaring “It’s Raining Men” loud enough to drown the administrator out. Veep insisted, "Someone shut that damned music off right this instant!", but no one could figure out where it was coming from. Turned out, after having to dismiss the entire class, and spending more than forty minutes searching, the custodial team discovered there was a radio alarm clock hidden in the rafters, set to go off that day at exactly that time. The search had been compounded by the acoustics in the gym, which were such that the sound echoed back, seeming to be bouncing off of every wall. Since the VP had very publicly — in a thunderous rage on the PA system, no less — threatened to expel the culprit, not surprisingly, no one ever came forward, and Dark kept acknowledgement of his involvement limited to only his closest friends, which pretty much meant just a couple of his brothers, and me.
But my favorite, by far, was the chicken incident. Again, with the redneck theme (I suppose there were always enough of them around in that part of the world, so it was probably never too hard for Dark to use his charm in working backwoods deals with a few from time to time), Dark once released live chickens in the school at lunchtime to run amok, as part of a supposed vegetarian protest. But that wasn’t even the best part. There were only three chickens. THREE. And paint. In addition to the signage he’d placed around the cafeteria, the likes of, “Save the chickens!,” “Don’t eat poultry!,” etc., Dark had also painted each chicken with a number. Chickens 1, 2, and 4. That’s right, he left out #3. After the initial chaos, all three chickens had been rounded up in a little under an hour, but the Vice Principal spent the rest of the day trying to find Chicken #3. They even shut down a couple different wings of the school, and called animal control. In the end, it was determined that the last chicken must have escaped the premises, and had at that point become someone else’s problem. The best part, though, was the administration considered the event an actual protest, and began offering meat-free alternative options on the regular hot lunch menu. Score one for progress!
I lost track of Dark for a while after high school. He went on to college and I went on to, well, the rest of my life, I guess. But as advancements in web technology progressed, eventually we found the means to reconnect online, and have since renewed our friendship, albeit with a bit more distance between us now. We still visit each other from time to time in person, too, though. Dark has grown up in some respects. I’ve spent some time catching up on some of what he’s been doing since, and learned, he has a degree, a career, and a family now. But in other ways, he hasn’t changed a bit, because he’s still at his craziness, as shrewd as ever. Once a rascal, always a rascal, I spose. Through our communications, Dark has kept me filled in on a handful of what he calls his “greatest accomplishments.” Probably because I’m one of the few people on the planet who is still amused by them.
In college, Dark lived off campus in a kind of frat house. It wasn’t actually a fraternity, just a group of guys willing to pool their resources to avoid having to stay in the dorms. The school was local for Dark, so he could have stayed at home, but instead jumped at the opportunity, he said to get out of the house. I think it was to have a whole new set of “bros” to wreak havoc on. It started innocently enough. Emptied an entire bottle of dollar store bubble solution in the house toilet. Said the thing bubbled up nearly to overflowing every time somebody flushed for almost a week.
He picked one of his roommates to fall prey to what he referred to as the “underpants gnome” gag. It was a guy he knew slept in the nude, so he waited until he was asleep, then rounded up every last pair of the guy’s underwear and stuffed them all in the freezer. By the time dude woke up the next morning, they were all frozen stiff. The house had washer and dryer hookups, but no appliances, and the laundromat was too far away to get to before his first class, so the guy went to school that day with skivvies he’d dried out in the microwave. Dark said that made the whole thing for him. He’d expected the guy to go commando, but afterward considered renaming this particular escapade the “Toasty Buns” gag.
Dark must have loved having new people who didn’t know him well enough to be wary of his schemes. It completely opened the door for him to try out new material. Like the time he very nearly drove one of his housemates crazy. He put a couple of long lasting batteries in a small radio tuned to a mariachi station, and taped it to the bottom of the guy’s bed, just loud enough so only the “mark” could hear it, and only when he was lying down. It took him four or five days to find the thing, and in the meanwhile he started wondering if had problems with his hearing, or if a dental filling was picking up an AM signal, and in time, to even question his mental state when the rest of the house kept telling him he was nuts and hearing things. Dark got pinned down by three guys and given the mother of all birdchests for that stunt. So much he thought his “victim” was going to rub a hole in his sternum. But if not for that, Dark probably would have been laughing through the whole thing.
A lot of the guys who lived at the house either kept losing their keys, or never remembered to carry them along when headed out. Dark got tired of always reminding everyone to lock the door, so he decided to “cure” the problem. He placed an ad in the paper with their address. “Estate sale. All Day. Absolutely everything is up for grabs. Just walk on in, have a look around, make an offer on anything.” He’d bought a small footlocker to store his own valuables out of the way, but traded for everything that wasn’t nailed down, and even a few things that were. He actually sold quite a few items before he got shut down. His roomies never got into the habit of locking the front door, because well, what can you expect from lazy college kids, but at least they stopped leaving their stuff out in the common space. And, the free TV Dark got to replace the one he’d sold turned out to be nicer than the previous version. They never did replace the Sega Genesis system, though.
Eventually, Dark’s “brothers” stopped trying to fight him, and started to work with him. Spose, given enough time, most people probably find that’s the path of least resistance. Better to be on the planning side than the receiving end.
Now, Dark never drinks. Says it dulls the senses. But give most college guys enough alcohol, and they’ll go along with even the most harebrained conspiracies. Like that time Dark convinced his buddies to drag a working outhouse (who knows where he found on of those — rednecks, probably?) into the middle of a four-way stop intersection on the edge of town. I don’t know what kind of fanfare Dark had been expecting, but it actually stayed there through an entire 4-day long holiday weekend, with cars just maneuvering past it like it was the center median of a roundabout. It even got “tagged” a few times by some local graffiti artists. Dark couldn’t have been prouder, but, because all good things must come to an end, he decided to give it a proper sendoff. So on the 4th night, he and his crew snuck back to the scene of the crime and lit the thing on fire. It burned for three hours, with Dark and his mates sitting around it on lawn chairs, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows, drinking, and waiting to get arrested.
But the cops never even came by. The few people that started down that road just ended up stopping and joining the party. I guess things are pretty slow in a small college town, and folks will hang out with anybody who knows how to turn any occasion into a good time.
The professional world didn’t do anything to straighten out Dark’s mischievous streak, either. One of his first off-campus jobs was as a janitor at a local country club. Once again taking a page out of the redneck handbook, Dark decided in his second month there to do some late night “tipping” of his own, but seeing as how there weren’t any cows around, what did Dark use? Golf carts. Turned them all upside down, and scattered them all across the course.
Bolstered by some of his first “real world” earnings, Dark decided to enter the real world of adult financial responsibility, too, and marched himself straight into one of the largest family owned bank operations in town. Tried to open a savings account. With Monopoly money. Had to be dragged out by security, screaming obscenities, making legal threats, and yelling about citizen’s rights.
Once Dark had graduated into the world of the office job environment, though, one of his favorite hobbies was pulling pranks on his coworkers. You did not want to be working with Dark and get under his skin. Especially not if he has access to your cell phone number. A common theme he’s used is to place ads on Craigslist with your number in the contact section. He’s done this posing as a disgruntled parent offering a free Playstation. “My kid’s lost too many brain cells. I want this thing out of my house now!” Or a husband in the doghouse. “Free pool table, you haul. Wife says it has to go.” Even when asking for money, though, he can still test the bandwidth on your data plan. “2009 Kawasaki Ninja. Good condition, runs. Some minor repairs needed. Don’t have the time, baby’s been stored too many years. Just want it to see the sun again. $600 CASH and it’s yours.” Basically, the more effort he puts into pranking you, the more screwed you are.
Take that time one of his bosses was constantly riding him for no reason, so Dark got a friend who still worked at his old alma mater to get the kid at the radio station to broadcast an on-air spot to the entire campus that you could be entered to win $5000 just by texting your favorite song to this number. (Guess whose?) The ad ran for several weeks. His boss got so inundated with broke college kids texting him, he actually had to get a new service agreement and change his phone number. When the source was finally tracked down, the station manager just apologized, and claimed there must have been a misprint on the copy.
To Dark, finding the joy in pulling a prank does not always require him to witness the results, or even be aware that the prank has been pulled off successfully. For him, there’s enough satisfaction in just following through on the idea. Like the Swedish fish, for example. Dark once put a handful of Swedish fish in an envelope with a handwritten note that read, “Thinking of you. Thanks for the laughs. Wishing the best, hope these help. — Linda” and addressed them to a fake address, using a real return address he pulled at random off a house in some neighborhood where he was stuck at a stoplight one day. He giggles every time he imagines the look on the face of whomever lives in that house, wondering why the heck someone else would try to send Swedish fish from their home.
See, you really don’t have to be on Dark’s bad side to become his target. With Dark, unless you’re part of his “inner circle,” no one is really safe, and even then, the effects are just minimized. Mildly. Sometimes, he pulls stunts on complete strangers, just for the fun of it, because he enjoys messing with people. The first time he ever did this was at an airport. He had a 2-hour layover in Atlanta, and no cell service, so he picked a random yuppie who looked like he had, as Dark put it, “too much money, and a stick up his butt,” and paid a beautiful woman $50 to look distressed, go up to the man with tears in her eyes, hold onto his elbow, look him straight in the face and say, “Whatever you do, don’t get on the flight. The rest of your life depends on it. It’s already too late for me,” then hurry away sobbing. Dark has no idea what resulted from that encounter, but the idea of what it did to that yuppie for the rest of the day makes Dark smile every time he thinks of it.
Changes after 911 made that sort of thing no longer possible, but this particular bit of genius spawned the stream of consciousness and sequential thinking that eventually lead to the planning for what may be one of the greatest stunts ever pulled, in which I must admit, I was a more than willing participant. It required a good deal of advanced planning, and a few accomplices, myself included. One of Dark’s college mates was visiting from out of town. He’d settled in New York, in fact, where one might become used to people jostling against you, and a constant buzz of city life sounds around you as you travel throughout your day. The old chum was in town for a week, and on one of the days he was there, I also happened to be passing through, and planned to pop in on Dark and his household. When he told me about the plan, I think my reaction was pretty much, what part can I play?
As Dark chaperoned his companion about for the duration of his stay, he’d carefully coordinated three separate “encounters” in seemingly random public settings. Once, on a busy crowded street on the day he arrived, another time, at the local mall, and the third, at the airport as he was leaving to go back home. In each and every incident, Dark had persuaded three of his own friends, all of whom were complete strangers to his college colleague, to stay out of sight and observe the pair of them, Dark and his pal, then wait for a moment when Dark seemed to be on roll talking about something, walk straight up to both of them, interrupt Dark mid-sentence, take his buddy by the wrist, look straight into his eyes, and say, in the most intense voice possible, one of the three of the following lines, listed here in sequential order:
“Be careful. The trap has been set. They’re just waiting for you to fail.”
“They KNOW. It’s time. You need to wake up NOW.”
“Everyone’s in on it. Don’t trust ANYONE. You have to get OUT while you still can.”
...then the accomplice would suddenly shake his or her head as if coming out of a daze, look slightly puzzled, and move off in the opposite direction. Each time it happened, Dark, who was expecting it, would see the friend approach, and not only stop speaking mid sentence — sometimes mid-word, even — but also completely freeze, halting movement, blinks, and even breathing, to be immediately resumed as soon as the accomplice had passed. Dark always went about the rest of his statement as if nothing had happened, and every time was able to convince his companion that he hadn’t seen anything.
I also have no idea what happened as a result of that little “experiment,” but I wonder if Dark has ever fessed up about it, or if he’s going to contribute to the guy’s psychatriac care bill. I’d like to say I feel bad for the victim in this case, but in truth, I was just honored to have been in on it. An opportunity like that doesn’t come along every day, and if you get the chance to be a witness to it, you really should jump on it. There’s probably some interesting karma floating around out there with my name on it as a result, but I’m sure I’ll weather it with glee.
Sometimes, I wonder what Dark could actually accomplish if he really put his mind to using his powers for good. I fear the world may never know. Everything I’ve shared in this post has actually been written with Dark’s permission. In fact, he was not only so inspired by this endeavor for me to tell my stories here, but also so pleased to be featured in it, that he says he even took advantage of the opportunity to create an LJ account of his own. I haven’t seen it online yet, so I don’t know how disciplined he’ll be about keeping up with it, but maybe we’ll see him around again from time to time, and perhaps even get a few more “Dark tales” direct from the source himself. His only caveat was to request that I not use his last name, which I can respect. But if you should ever come across a rather jovial fellow who goes by the nickname “Dark,” let’s hope you have a sense of humor, or else you might want to grow a thick skin, and watch your back!
Moar Storeez!: All of the Ignorance, None of the Manners
i can haz votes, pleez?
My shima first taught me this lesson when I was very young, and repeated it or reminded me of it many times as I grew up. It became a sort of personal credo, influencing how I perceived my relationships with people, places, possessions, and purpose, driving the choices I made about to which to attribute value in my life. I learned to never become too emotionally attached to things, and to carefully measure every aspect of the living experience.
I haven’t made a secret of the fact that Shima was nearly destitute when she took me in after Ina died. I’m sure we were not at all well off, and I have enough perspective now to realize we lived well below the poverty line, but I never felt “poor.” We had to work hard to keep our crumbling habitat hospitable, but our home provided shelter, warmth, safety, and even comfort. Though we raised, gathered or grew much of what we needed ourselves, we always had more than enough food, for us, the animals we cared for, and whomever else happened along in need. And, there was always work to be found to do for willing hands with creative minds to solicit someone who would pay for it to be done.
Everything I wore was secondhand, but I never cared anything about having the latest fashion trend, or showing up in the “right” brand of sports team. I had no delusions of earning an athletic scholarship. Yet, I never felt out of place in any environment. Shima kept a sharp eye out, and always saw to that. She was more ahead of the curve than me. Sometimes had to convince me to retire something I still enjoyed. I’d have worn a favorite shirt or well broken-in set of duds to rags, but Shima wouldn’t have it. Said I wasn’t “hip” enough to pull off the retro look, knew when an article had seen its day. But also always knew how to give something a “new life” if she thought it would make a difference. She was one of the first I ever saw turn old jeans into handbags. Even sold a few. Still does, in fact.
We didn’t have much that was new. We hardly ever ventured into a chain store to buy anything from over the counter or off the rack. But there were special circumstances we sometimes set aside for — Shima always tried to find me something nice for Christmas — and the occasional unexpected crisis that from time to time required more than we thought we had. For those, we went to the penny jars.
At the entrance into almost every room of Shima’s house, the doors are propped open by a gallon jar, a tea kettle, a milk carton, an ice cream pail, a covered bucket, or a tote box filled with pennies. The size is for ease of tossing, and to allow for enough volume to create the weight needed for the practical application of door stop. When these storage vessels become too heavy to be moved, half or so of their bounty is scooped out, counted, and relocated to mason jars, where it is labeled by value and set aside as a rainy day / break-a-leg fund.
Thankfully, neither of us ever broke a leg, but when I chipped a tooth in junior high — actually, it was an errant softball that did it — the penny jars covered the repair. When Shima’s donated reading specs no longer worked because she needed trifocals, the penny jars came to the rescue. When the entire egg laying henhouse developed a case of roup, the penny jars got us enough potassium permanganate for the whole coop, as well as a few minor sterility measures to help restabilize the environment.
In many ways, I can’t imagine what our lives might have been like, or how we would have survived, if not for the pennies that so many toss aside now like they don’t matter anymore. Sure, we had a few nickels and dimes from spare change, maybe the odd quarter now and then, but those never landed in the jars. They’re not nearly as expendable, because they add up quickly, and are infinitely more spendable, so everyone recognizes their worth. Most of them we’d found were lost along the way somewhere, and the ones we had to contribute got absorbed back into the rotation quickly. But while the cash value of pennies has saved us plenty of times, it doesn’t begin to represent their only usefulness to me.
I’ve noticed in recent days it’s become the latest trend in art deco chic to garnish suburban households and businesses with pointless projects involving the tiling of pennies. This type of waste is sad to me on so many levels. The first time we were exposed to it was after one dump scavenge, a few years ago, when Shima came back from the hunt with a near perfect foyer mirror, 2½”Wx3”H, completely bordered by a 4” penny tile frame. The looking glass itself had a bit of chemical damage, but Shima knew how to repair it. She’d have never thought twice about a mirror before — Shima has never placed a great deal of weight on her appearance, though she is always clean, kempt, and neatly put-together — but she brought this one home, and hung it in our entryway. Says she likes to check herself now before she leaves, likes to see her face surrounded by pennies. Feels it might bring her good luck in whatever matter takes her out and about.
She’s not superstitious. She’s also meticulously counted every last penny on the frame — 940 in all. If I ever come home to find the mirror gone, or the frame’s border tiles replaced by buttons, I’ll know a need for penny jars had struck the shack again, and this time they got a little help from a rich man’s junkyard trappings.
Pennies may not mean much to the rest of the world, but I have a lot of fond memories wrapped up in how pennies have impacted our lives. And at the risk of feeling like I’m repeating myself after last week, I’d like to share a few, not just because I write what I know, but because, sometimes, the value that can be found where others don’t, can’t, or won’t see it, is worth passing on to those who might not have, but maybe could.
Whenever Shima leaves the house, she always carries with her one of her denim handbags, because there are many things she feels she needs when she’s away from home. Some of them, she actually does. One of the things I’m most comforted to know she has inside, though — readily and easily accessible to her — is a stretched-out old tube sock with a knot tied in the middle, securing in place 600 pennies. If she was ever in a bind where $6 might make a difference — like if she had to ride a bus to safety — the sock might prove necessary, but more importantly, it weighs just over 3 lbs., which could pack a heckuva wallop when swung in a sock against an attacker’s jaw (or junk).
I myself have used a penny as a gage to measure tire tread, or as the occasional screwdriver, but I’m pretty sure nearly everyone has done that. If you need a brass washer, though, and you have a drill, pennies work just as well. Brass washers cost about a nickel, plus tax, so even with the cost of the electricity, time, and muscle power you’ll use added in, you’re still ahead. Drill a few extra to keep around in your shed for use with nails when you need to expand their hanging capacity over a larger surface.
A few pennies have been used as fill-in for the mosaic tile in Shima’s bathroom. They even look nice, too. You can imagine my surprise, growing up accustomed to seeing pennies scattered across the wash closet, when I first encountered a New York hotel lobby floor made up entirely of penny tiles. We’ve used them at the shack for spacers when laying floor tiles, but other than gap coverage, never the flooring itself. Let’s just say I was floored.
Also in the bathroom, if you lose your shower curtain magnets, pennies can replace them. They aren’t magnetic, but they don’t really need to be. They’re only to weight the curtain down, which also works well for window coverings. Just sew them into the bottom hems to keep the drapes still.
Aside from being creative around the house, Shima’s also clever with merchandisable arts & crafts, which balance out our table when she brings our surplus crops to sell at the local farmer’s market. She puts on her most “native” attire, which is amusing to me, considering she spends most of her time in a housecoat and slippers at the shack, or jeans and a hoodie under a bomber jacket with cowboy boots when she goes out. But muggles will fawn over anything they think is “ethnic,” and she generally collects a decent profit — the more indigenous she comes across, the better.
The locals are familiar with her crafting ability, though, too, and sometimes bring her special DIY projects they either don’t have time or skill for, or just don’t want to bother with. What she doesn’t trade in barter, she turns over a tidy sum on. The income doesn’t cover bills on its own, but it feeds into the household kitty. Every little bit helps.
Pennies often factor into her crafting area. She uses them as a template for rounded corners on scrapbook photos, or to measure out circular appliqués, and more than a few wobbly knickknacks have been corrected with a carefully placed penny hot glued into the leaning space. Customers consider it all part of the “kitschy” charm.
Pennies are more than just fixes and tools, though. Sometimes, they’re fun. Shima got a little stir crazy one particularly harsh winter, and decided to teach herself tap dancing. She didn’t know anything about American dance, though, and didn’t have any tap shoes, so she just attached pennies to the bottom of a pair of dance slippers she’d found, and got silly with them. She tapped around the house that way for a week before I decided I’d had about enough and put some thumbtacks on the bottom of some old tennies, just so I could turn the tables and make her have to listen to me tapping wherever I went. She lasted almost three days before she gave in and hung up the slippers.
When I was young, and she wanted meaningful ways for us to pass our few downtime hours together, before I learned chess, Shima taught me checkers. Only, we never had a complete set of game pieces, so very often, pennies represented red, and nickels stood in for black. Shima always played the pennies herself, and let me have the nickels.
Now that Shima’s on her way toward half past 80, her joints are not always as cooperative as they used to be. She can still do everything she always has, but sometimes she’s just a little slower, and it takes a little longer. She’s had to make a few modifications for things that used to come easy.
There’s a small bowl with a handful of pennies near the medicine cabinet to help her apply leverage for prying off childproof bottles that would otherwise put too much pressure on her tendonitis. She says the spring loaded cabinet doors require wrestling a little more upper body strength now than they used to, and with me not around anymore to open them for her when she needs me to, Shima has superglued pennies to keep them from catching. She put some in the door jamb for the bathroom, too, and most any other door in the house that closes, so she never gets stuck on the wrong side of a twisting knob when her hands hurt too much to properly grip. The next time I’m home, I’ll probably start replacing them all with levered handles, but in the meantime, pennies have once again saved the day for my aging shima, and I’m grateful for that.
Growing up under the thumb of poverty may have helped to shape me into the man I am today, but it hasn’t defined me. I’m proud of my heritage, respectful of my upbringing, and I wouldn’t trade the lessons I’ve gleaned from my youth for all the wealth of a nation. Resourcefulness, ingenuity, independent thinking, integrity, reliability. These kinds of values do not come as naturally to a man when everything is handed to him. Shima says anything worth having is worth working for. But not everyone has my Shima, nor the wits and means to get by as we have.
Pennies are not just a fondly recollected rest stop from along my family’s nostalgic path. They’ve been a staple of survival for generations of poor in this country. They aren’t quaint. They aren’t overrated. They aren’t obsolete.
A lot of things about where we came from and who we used to be have been retconned from our country’s collective history to help the mass populace reimage what it wants to be. But the past can’t be white washed clean. Not when the present hasn’t caught up yet to our “neo-idealism,” which is really just a thin veneer, only two faces deep, that barely covers the trail of blood we’ve left behind.
On the list of richest countries in the world, the US falls into the top ten. This is the land of opportunity. The land flowing with milk and honey. Let’s use this vast abundance of ours. Let’s eliminate poverty within our borders, and then talk about where to draw the lines that divide us. Let’s fill every belly, rest every head, put tools in every hand to offer a fighting chance at self-preservation, and give a sense of self-worth to every strong and able back. Then, perhaps, we might consider losing the least of our currency. Only then will it be no longer needed.
More thoughts on: The Penny Debacle
i can haz votes, pleez?
It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. I’ll testify firsthand that this is true, and add that if it has a father, it’s got to be scarcity. To understand true ingenuity, there’s no need to go any further than your local ghetto. Who has greater necessity than those who’ve known abject poverty? This country may not be third world, but there are places in it that feel pretty close to second, at best. If you’ve never left “The ’Burbs,” then you probably haven’t experienced most of these ingenious “modifications.” There’s no capital to market them, and rednecks aren’t generally entrepreneurial types, but where there’s a will, rednecks will, as they say, “Git-er-done.”
I didn’t grow up in the ghetto, exactly. The place I think of as home was over 80 years old when Shima first came to it. She calls it “The Shack;” says it’s all ramshackled. She’s being too harsh, though. The old farmhouse and most of the accompanying standing structures have long since fallen into ruin, and what was once thriving farmland has become an overgrown forest around us. But her little cabin in the woods has been standing since the late 19th century, largely due to her ability to make things work, any way possible.
Ever since I was old enough to swing a hammer, I spent weekends and summers helping patch up the house we shared with rubberbands and bubble gum. It’s a run-down old sharecropper’s cottage, left to her by the farmer who passed on this land. He’d lost his family in an accident, and Shima had spent his final years caring for him at his farmhouse in his old age, so she was the closest thing he had to a living relative.
For most of my life, Shima has been expecting the blackrobes to show up at her door one day citing some loophole clause to take it away from her and turn it into a corporate farm, a freeway, or a stripmall with a Starbucks. But so far, no one has. So she keeps paying her taxes and keeping a low profile. Maybe she’s flying under the radar. Maybe she’s just too small potatoes for anyone to care.
There’s a story in that bit of family history, but it’ll keep. This is about the household alterations Shima has made to keep us one step ahead of disintegration.
Poor farm living teaches you a variety of skills. You have to learn basic mechanics and general maintenance quick, or you’ll never make overhead. The farm hasn’t produced grand scale harvests since before the old man died, and we’ve never had rent, since Shima owns the place outright, but there’s still plenty of bills to pay. The farmer’s market helps, and Shima does a lot of odd jobs, but the budget is tight, and it doesn’t include paying the local belegana. There’s very few of them Shima trusts. She wouldn’t give a wooden nickel to a single one of ’em, if she could figure out a workaround on her own.
These are just a small sampling of a few of Shima’s best DIY fixes.
The water heater is often on the fritz. We’ve gone through a few, almost always getting the next one from the county dump. In the non-working interims, I’ve seen her:
• Boil a pot of water by setting it atop the underside of a clothes iron wedged between cement blocks.
• Run water through pipes coiled on top of a hot plate to heat it.
• When the faucet knob fell apart, Shima attached an old key to the top of it with a screw to use as a handle. I’ve seen Rednecks use pliers for this purpose, but pliers are way too valuable to be left in any one place for too long.
• When the showerhead stopped working, before she found another one, Shima took an awl and poked holes in the bottom of a plastic water bottle, then duct-taped it to the end of the shower pipe. Voilà, spraying showerhead.
• She uses a plastic water bottle with a hole in its side at the bottom to pour water from a sink into a mopping bucket that won’t fit in the sink.
Funny thing, Shima would never dream of buying bottled water. But people throw out all kinds of things on the side of the road, in the woods, wherever they figure no one cares, I spose. We care. The birds, the bees, the plants, the trees, the animals who make this place a home... they care. It’s not just a sense of cleanliness that leads us to keep an eye out for litterbugs and to declutter this space. Sometimes, it’s survival. Waste not, want not, Shima says. She makes the most of whatever comes her way, or sometimes goes to it. She’s not averse to digging around in dumpsters, either, or foraging at the county dump. Done a bit of diving, myself, not ashamed to say. Amazing what passes for trash these days.
Shima is the queen of repurposing. Did you know:
• An old dresser can be converted into a sink vanity cabinet.
• Golf tees can be glued inside stripped screw holes to fill them.
• A halved potato can be used to unscrew a glass bulb broken at its socket.
• Cheap generic shower curtain rings can be used as hooks to hang almost anything out of the way.
• When hanging wall items, a comb can be used to hold nails in place. (Saves fingers!)
• Beeswax will waterproof canvas shoes.
• Ice cube trays and egg cartons make decent organizers for small junk drawer items. They can also be used as a paint palette.
• The bottoms of cereal boxes also make decent organizing trays for junk drawers.
• Toilet paper rolls filled with dryer lint are a natural fire starter.
• An empty tissue box makes the perfect dispenser for plastic bags.
I think everyone recognizes the many uses for plastic bags. I’ve never been in another house that didn’t have a bag of bags somewhere. I’ve even seen a few that had purchased a special dispenser just for that purpose. Ridiculous, considering how easy it is to come by an old empty tissue box. You’d be surprised how many one can hold, too. Any more than that, you probably wouldn’t know what to do with anyway.
• Panty hose legs with the tops and toes cut out will organize multiple cords.
• Paper towel rolls are the best way to wrap extension cords.
• The blank side of business cards are the perfect size for labeling storage boxes, tubs and bins.
• Old post earrings make pretty pushpin thumbtacks for a bulletin board.
• Empty spice jars will organize office supplies.
• Mail can be sorted in priority order, standing up easily on an old spring.
• Nail polish will seal envelopes just as easily as saliva. Saves from having to taste it.
• A can opener will help with the packaging on plastic seals.
• An old pasta maker will just as easily shred paper.
Wouldn't exactly call a single antique sewing machine cabinet stuffed in the corner of an eat-in kitchen an "office," but most homes keep some sort of special place set aside for conducting household business.
• A slender ladder can be easily modified into a storage shelf, and fits in the space between the fridge and the wall. Add wheels and a cabinet handle as a knob. Alakazam, instant rolling pantry.
• Pringles cans are exactly the right size to hold spaghetti noodles.
• Dry spaghetti noodles make great candle lighters.
• Dental floss is a perfect slicer for cake and cheese.
• Wrappers from blocks of butter can be kept in plastic baggies and stored in the fridge to be used for greasing baking pans.
• An empty ketchup bottle used to dispense batter makes for the most perfectly round pancakes every time.
• An empty picture frame makes a simple dry erase board for keeping track of a grocery list.
• Frozen water balloons make for natural ice packs. So do wet sponges frozen in plastic baggies.
• Any standard sized Mason jar can be used in place of a blender container. The bottom piece of the blender screws right into the lid of the jar, and the jar becomes the new blender. Handy for canning and storing. Back in the day, blenders were actually designed this way on purpose.
• Window blinds turned on their side make great hanging racks for drying dish towels.
• Half a shower curtain dowel or a tension rod placed under the kitchen or bathroom sink allows spray bottles to be hung from their nozzles.
• A desktop file organizer doubles as a drying rack for cookie sheets and cutting boards.
• An alligator binder clip makes a great stand to dry a wet sponge.
• Plastic cards work wonders for scrubbing hard to clean sticky crusty grime off pots and pans without scratching glass or metal.
Crazy thing about that, too. Shima’s never used credit for a single purchase in all her 80+ years. If it can’t be bought with what you got, you don’t need it, she says. But there’s still plenty of plastic out there to be had. Almost every store has a points system that gives out one of those keychain danglers that comes with a card for your wallet. Shima has a special spot in an egg carton next to the sink just for the extras.
For that matter, almost any household cleaner, detergent, soap, air freshener, disinfectant or hygiene product — soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant — can be made at home using all natural ingredients. Most generally work better than the toxic chemicals available over the counter. Shima has perfected her recipes over 60 years of trial and error.
• Empty baby food jars will organize tool shed hardware and supplies.
• Scratched up, worn out old CDs still function as safety reflectors. Great for the mailbox.
• Shima was probably the first in the county to have a riding lawn mower. Non electric or gas, of course. She replaced the front wheel of an old bicycle with a push mower, and now gets exercise without hurting her back. It was pretty fun for me when I was there, too.
• A rubber band stretched across the top of an open paint can allows for wiping off excess paint from the brush with minimal drips.
• Bleached white sheets tacked on top of the roof in the dog days of summer reflect a great deal of the sun’s heat back out, and help to keep the house cool.
Actually, you know what? Come to think of it, don’t get me started on the roof. Let’s just call it a patchwork quilt of pure independence that includes — among the weirder items — terra cotta pots, license plates, and bottles, and agree that some things are better left to the imagination.
Shima had a great time when I told her about this post, running around the house putting together notes for it. I thought I’d be able to remember a lot of these, but my recollections paled in comparison to her list… and this is the pared down version. Ah, but there’s nothing quite like being there. I’d have had her send pictures, but she hasn’t quite figured out how to get them to me from her camera. I guess some things aren’t as easily hacked for even the most clever and creative octogenarian, after all.
Hmm. I wonder...
Maybe she just hasn’t learned to hack technology yet, or, perhaps that’s a challenge best kept in the hands of the younger generation. That way, no matter how capable may be the folks who raised you, there’s always still a reason to go back home, and give Grandma a hand.
Jugaad and many other fine tales
There’s a “Johnny” in every small town. Local hero. Funny what small towns prioritize. He’s the one they all thought would make good. They were counting on it. Needed it, even. Only, he didn’t, though. Peaked in high school. You know the story. Star quarterback of a losing team, singlehandedly scores overdue victory against the nearest long-running rival. Been reliving memories of glory days ever since. Worse, everyone else has been living vicariously through them.
Small towns are like that. For some, it’s an escape. Landed from whatever nightmare they’d fled, they marinate in the peace of the quiet, make it home. Others never grow farther than the town border. Small-minded provincialists content to keep their heads down. For the rest, the town is a prison, full of trapped dreamers longing for escape. Any escape. Even someone else’s.
You’d probably say I was one of those. Imagine it looks that way. My situation is different. You’d have to know me to understand how. Maybe it’s the same effect, though. Except, I’m not chasing a better life on easy street. What I’m searching for...
Wait, lemme not derail myself here. That’s actually another story.
This was one of my first adventures in small town life away from home. Before the local Sheriff stopping me at the border to check my ID just to identify the body later wasn’t so commonplace it’d become “normal.”
Well, crud. Sidetracked again. Gimme a moment, lemme get my bearings...
Not my first small town story, but still early on, when I was young, and hadn’t realized how alike we all are. How we’re all the same people. Living the same lives, with different names, different titles, from different places, in different skins. We all have the same story. We just tell it differently. We can’t see the ending from the chapter we’re in at the time. We’re just trying to turn to the next page. If I’d have known that then, maybe I’d have reacted differently to “Johnny.”
“Johnny” always gets the girl. She’s never the town bookworm. That’s a gal who actually has a chance to leave a small town in distant memory. No, “Johnny’s” girl is always “Jenny,” the prettiest cheerleader. Captain of the squad. Best standard of excellence a small town girl can hope for. A small town girl with no ambition of being anything but a small town girl, that is.
Sometimes, it works out. Most of the town is content to slap them on the back, buy them both a round on Friday nights, collectively wish for their looks and “talent,” and secretly resent them. Everyone has their part to play. Everyone knows their place. For a while, they live a charmed life.
Then something happens. He blows out his knee, he’s hurt in a factory mishap, he gets in an accident. Whatever the catalyst, he’s never the same again, and he doesn’t know who to blame. Someone’s got to be responsible, though. This is not his happy ending. Now he’s trapped and miserable, just like the rest of them. Lumped in with those beneath him, just as if he was oneuv’em. It isn’t right. It ain’t fair. Somebody should have to pay.
Only, it’s no one’s fault. But he can’t take that for an answer. So he takes it out on her. She’s the only one who has to put up with him. Everyone else gets to say goodnight at closing time. She gets to drive his drunk ass home, take his boots off, put him to bed, get his hungover ass up for work in the morning. She does it, cause that’s what’s expected. It’s what she’s sposed to do. It’s all she knows.
There’s a greasy spoon at the edge of every interstate town. The slop they’ll slough is never the best, but it’s good enough, it’s hot, it’s cheap, and there’s plenty of it. If the burg is just the right kinda podunk, it may also be the only place around to whet your whistle. That’s where you’ll find Johnny. Perhaps even his blushing bride. On this occasion, I met them both for the first time.
I didn’t know everything then. I still don’t know everything, but at least I know that now. I didn’t understand there’s a cosmic dance at play in every small town, under the dome of a protective bubble, and you can’t just tap out one of the figurines. You’ll only end up covered in sparkly water and broken glass.
I try to mind my own business. I really do. All I want is grub that hasn’t been carried in a backpack for a week, and to eat in peace. I only journal in private. I’ve read everything I’ve got on me right now. Sure the town has a library, but it’s late, and I’m hungry. Too dark to see out the window. And people-watching when you can count everyone in the place on one hand doesn’t win you any fans. But there’s pool, and I have quarters, so I can occupy myself until food shows up.
I’m not a gambling man. Another genetic predisposition I avoid. I’ll admit I’ve made a buck or two off the sport, but never hustled. I’ll take an honest win from an equally matched rival, because intelligent men of integrity are capable of making respectable wagers on games of skill. Sobriety helps. Still, sometimes you score, sometimes you choke. Sometimes the other guy’s just better. You hope to sniff those out before you commit, but losing is part of the process of learning to win.
I’m not great, but good enough to break and run the table. And I did. Playing by myself, so why not? Wasn’t calling attention to it. It was just something to do. Only, I’m not supposed to be the best. Not in Johnny’s small town. And he’s angry. He’s always angry these days. His world didn’t turn out right, and no one’s made good on that debt yet. So if someone doesn’t know their place in Johnny’s town, he’s damned well gonna show it to them. Or try, anyway.
Won’t go into details of what he said or did. Doesn’t matter. I can take care of myself. But I was taught to look out for those who can’t. And I don’t suffer bullies. Especially bruisers who traumatize women half their size, children, animals, or the elderly. You can guess which got my pool cue broken over his neck.
Dammit. I liked that pool cue.
“Johnny prob’ly had it comin’,” she sobbed through a swollen lip, wiping away tears from a black eye as she stroked his unconscious brow. “But trust me, you don’t want to be here when he comes to.”
“Johnny prob’ly had it comin’,” the barkeep told me as he passed over a to-go box. “But I don’t want no trouble, so dinner’s on the house, and you’d best be on your way.”
“Johnny prob’ly had it comin’,” the deputy confessed as he opened the passenger door at the county line. “Which is why you’re not in holding. But we all do our part to hold this town together, so we gotta look out for our own.”
That was the first time I learned what small town lifers inherently understand. Trust everyone to be who they are, and give them the space they need to be it. The devil you know may be easier to handle than the one you haven’t learned to manage. Valuable lesson to have when traveling through small towns, and it only cost me my favorite pool cue. If you don’t want to seem too out of place, keep your head down, your nose clean, and consider leaving your humanity at the border.
Too bad I never got used to looking the other way. But that, for sure, is a whole lotta other stories for another day.
More stories! Trust everyone, but cut the cards
I can haz votes, pleez?