Sunday, September 30, 2012

Truth or Consequences

Leaving Las Cruces, I was feeling low and sad after having said goodbyes to two wonderful grandkids. I was heading north into the darkness and stopped for gas at a town called Hatch, just a few miles west of a place called Nut... Undoubtedly both of these strange city names were conceived exactly there, in a Nuthatch.

My destination? Truth or Consequences. I am not making this up. There really is a town in New Mexico so named though I noticed one highway sign shortened it to "T or C" probably to save space for the two other strangely named cities that precede it, Derry and Arrey. Say those two real fast and it sounds like the French word for buttocks.

Before long another sign informed me the next four exits would send me to various aspects of T or C, the first of which was the Truth or Consequences Historic Hot Springs Area of town. Now I had heard of this, motels and B&B's offering not only rooms but access to the city's acclaimed mineral springs. My aching back and heart yearned for pampering.

Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I had told my grandsons some white lie to explain why I was leaving that day.  It felt like my heart was being torn out when they asked their father why I couldn't stay longer.  And when their father/my son heard that I planned to stay the night in a town called Truth or Consequences, he told me a story about its weird movie theatre where old classics were shown as if they were first run movies. 

Apparently there was but one “movie house” and a single old man who sold you your ticket, took it from you, and later sold you your drinks and popcorn. Before he started the projector, however, the same elderly gentleman climbed a small stage in front of a small movie screen and spoke to the few people in the audience, just as in the “olden” days of cinema.
"Well, folks we've got a great movie tonight, lots of excitement and thrills, starring an up-and-coming young feller named Steve McQueen in "Bullet"!

I slowed my car to crawl, wondering if the theatre was still in business. A throw back to mid 20th century America, this little berg had small cafes, dress shops and shoe stores that, get this, actually offered to do repairs. The  occasional shit-kicker bars all seemed closed and not a single drunk staggered down the car-less streets. Very dark and creepy.

I drove on, rolling down the windows to stare at the silent storefronts, listening for any hint of human habitation. Tiring of the sound of my own treads, I turned down a side street and glimpsed a neon sign above a group of dimly lit shacks. I had arrived at the famous hot springs. Could I enjoy the waters from within my room, I wondered, or would I have to share with other denizens of those shacks? There was no brightly lit lobby, no flashing sign of vacancy, only an “open” sign. Open for what, I wondered?
Darker and creepier still.

Some part of my mind warned me that this was a place where the inhabitants ate tourists and happily threw their bones to backyard trolls. I locked car doors, sped around two corners, and eased myself back onto the silent main street.   A hot shower appealed to me, but not the idea of being scalded in mineral springs as food for the local zombies. But I wasn't too concerned. An Internet search that afternoon assured me that there was a Motel 6 on the outskirts of town (or was it a triple six?). 

Before long, there it was in all its tacky but assuringly franchised glory. I was ready to stop for the night. A weathered septuagenarian met me at the desk—the wife of the town projectionist? Cutting right to the chase, she informed me that there was but one room available this evening, second floor, and I would have to access it from the back staircase. 

Whatever. I forced a smile and told her that it sounded wonderful. After the usual motel dance of ID, license number and signature, she pulled out a metal key attached to a plastic tab. I reached for it but she pulled it back. I looked at her and waited. Eventually her wrinkled face formed the sly hint of a smile.
"You have a nice night," she said, finally handing me the key.

Something wasn’t quite right here. There was a mismatch between the words which wished me a good night’s repose and the tone of her voice--as if she was really telling me to "Go to Hell." But I didn't care. All I could think of was some hot food and an even hotter shower. I pulled my luggage out of the car and headed to the mandatory back entrance. I was about to take my first step up the dingy staircase when my leg froze mid-stride. Was that a huge log of human feces straddled across the third step? Again the overly tired part of my mind said "Whatever."

I dodged the obstacle and trudged up the stairs. Once again, I am NOT making this up!  What kind of person, I wondered, would do a filthy thing like that and why? Fifty more yards might have gotten this bowel-plagued guest to the marginal comfort of a motel toilette... Or was it malice, some intentionally shocking behavior designed to disgust and dismay the finder?

I opened the door to room 217 and threw my luggage into its interior. Darker and creepier still. The only light emanated from partially opened drapes, a view of a Micky D’s across the street, perhaps the room’s one redeeming quality. Even generic fast food appealed to me at the time, and I slammed the door and headed down the stairs surprised to find them now fecally free. I was about to round the corner and exit the building when I nearly ran into the strange desk lady.
“Somebody rang me up about a turtle on the back steps.” I politely suggested that “turd” might actually have been what the caller had reported. Then I noticed she was holding a white plastic bag, small enough for me to make out the shape of something inside. Gradually, her face formed itself into that same sneaky smile. “Oh, that. I’ve got it right here. But I don’t think it’s real. It feels kind of rubbery.” As she lifted the bag in my direction, I automatically started to reach for it until hit by a horrific realization.  Seriously, she wanted me to examine it—and for what? Texture, consistency, and latent warmth? Ugh. 

Then I remembered that I was in a town deliberately named after a popular game show of the 60’s and furiously tried to remember the rules of play. I realized I didn’t really want to know the truth about the contents of that bag and resigned myself to accepting the consequences. I lowered my arm. “Yeah, probably just a prank,” I shrugged and continued quickly out the door.

Crossing the street to fast-food heaven, I was pleased--but not too surprised--to find the place devoid of customers. Yes! No waiting and, man, was I hungry!  Behind the counter stood another elderly woman. She looked a lot like the proprietor of the motel but, hey, everyone in these small towns is related, right? Anyway, she quietly took my order, my money, and then disappeared into the kitchen.  I saw no co-workers, heard no cheery but mindless chatter from teenage drones. 

Before long, the elderly counter clone reappeared, bagged my order, and slid it across stainless steel into my eager hands.  I thanked her sincerely.  After a beat of odd silence, I turned and walked toward the door. Just as I was about to press the bar, I heard a familiar voice behind me. “You have a nice night!”

Recrossing the street without even bothering to check for nonexistent traffic, I took the stairs three at a time. Not even giant elephant turds would have slowed me down. Once inside my room, I locked the door and closed the drapes.  I fumbled around in the darkness eventually discovering that only one light fixture worked, the one beside the bed.  So Tom Bourdette's "We'll leave a light on for you" was the literal truth. Seriously, just one?  Shit.   

I considered calling the front desk, ask someone to come up and replace the light bulbs. But when the knock came on my door, who would be behind it?   Would I encounter the weird front desk lady or her twin sister in a McDonald’s uniform?  Would it be the town projectionist, a dead ringer male triplet of the other two?   Maybe it would be something else, a thing all together different from anything I could imagine, easily capable of sending my already racing heart into a dead heat?
No thanks.

The bag of fast food sitting on the desk no longer appealed to me. Neither did the idea of a showering in the dark. I could hear the projectionist’s voice: “Folks, tonight's movie will knock you dead! Two up and coming kids, Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, star in a family film about a mother and son trying to make a killing in the motel business." 

The room's one working lamp drew me to bed. I began plunking away on my iPad, thinking that I could calm down by recording the events of this strange night.  And it worked for a while. At some point, I became aware of a scratching noise outside my second story window. I ignored it and typed some more, getting everything down up to this moment.

And the scratching continues, probably just a tree limb brushing against the glass. But there are few trees to be found in this part of New Mexico, and from my experience tonight, fewer living things outside that window.

Sure, all I have to do is get out of bed, throw open the drapes, and face whatever it is that's out there. 
But I can’t, I just can’t.

Maybe I’ll just turn away from the window, pull up the covers.
And wait for the consequences.

October 1st
1:15 am
T or C, New Mexico

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Truth or Consequencesq

Leaving Las Cruces after having said goodbyes to two wonderful grandkids, I reluctantly headed north into the darkness. I stopp for gas at the townn called Hatch, which is just a few miles west of Nut.. ans that is undoubtedly where ere these screwy names names must have been conceived, in the nut house. My destination? Truth or Consequences. I am not making this up. There is really a town in New Mexico so named , though one highway sign shortened it to "T or C" probably to save space on the sign for the two other cities that precede it, Derry and Arry. Say those two real quickly and it sounds like the French word for buttocks. Before long another sign informed me the next four exits would send me to various aspects of T or C, the first of which was the Truth or Cosequences Historic Hot Springs area of town. Now I HAD heard of this, motels and B&B's offering not only rooms but access to the city's acclaimed hot mineral springs (no doubt heated by some secret underground Hell). My aching heart and tired back yearned for some kind of pampering. Earlier in the day my Las Cruces son said he had heard that there was a single theatre in the town where a single person sold you your ticket, the same a ancient man took it, and later sold you drinks and popcorn. Before the movie started, the same old man would climb a small stage in front of even smaller movie screen and speak to audience of less a hslf dozen just as in the olden days of cinema: "Well, folks we've got a great movie tonight, lots of excitement and thrills, staring and up and coming actor--Steve McQueen in "Bullet"! I slowed my car to near crawl, wondering if the theatre was still in business. A throw back to mid 20th century America Small cafe's, shoe stores that, get this, actually offered to repair shoes, and some very old school bars. But there was not a car in sight, not even a single homeless inebriate staggering down the streets. Very dark and creepy. And drove on and rolled down the windows, listening for any hint of human habitation, and staring at silent storefronts. I got tired of listening to sounds of my tire treads, and turned downn aside street when I got glimpse oa neon sign, above a tired group of shacks that claimed to be a motel offering access (in your room?) to the famous hot springs. But the sign did not proclaim vacancy, only that the were open-- open for what? I &could see no evidence of a lobby to check in (and out?). Darker and creepier still. I locked all the doors, sped around two corners and eased mydelf onto the zombie mainstreet thst would eventureturn me to the s Some part of my mind warned me that this was a place where the inhabitants ate tourists and then happily threw their bones to backyard trolls. I sped around the corner, returned to thr small town main street of death and drove on. After an eternity of driving, I began to see ocassional people, and eventually recognozable franchuses like Motel 6. I was ready to sto for the night . A hot shower was on my mind and much more appealing then being cooked in hot spring and food for the local zombies. Did this city even exist during daylight hours? A polite but efficient septugenarian met me at the desk. One room left this evening, nonsmoking, and I would have to access from the back starecase. Whatever. I staggered in with my first load of luggage, was about to take my first step up the tired staircase when I froze. Was that a huge log of human feces straddled across the third step? Again the ridculously tired part of my mind said "Whatever." WHat kind of person would do such a thing and why? Fifty more yards might have gotten this bowel plagued guest to the marginal comfort of Motel 6 toilette... Or was malice, some sort of intentionally disgusting behavior the root cause? The room was nothing that would have excited Mr. Trump, but once in I was rewarded The room was nothing that would excite Donsld Trump I sped rapidly aroun a corner tp the twilight zone main street. Evevtually, people a

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Returning from San Simeon

Beatings will continue
until the moral improves.

(Found on my department head's door,
the first day of my teaching career)

So hot.  And why exactly had we left the beach, returned to this godforsaken valley with its smog, fog, barking dogs, and neighbors we barely talk to?

And look at that.  Just look at it.
Peaches, both floating and still, depending on whether the culprit achieved the target or not bobbed in and around our swimming pool.  All from an out of control peach tree that straddled the corner of our lot.

Who had thrown them?  Three households of children had access to those peaches.  But I didn't care.  I was mad.  After coming back from the pristine coast, this is what I absolutely did not want to see and now would no longer tolerate.  Fruit had been sporadically lobbed at us by unknown assailants for several months and I was ready to take action.

I decided to speak to all three of the parents whose houses adjoined the neglected peach tree.  "That's it," I told my wife.  "I'm going to each of their houses and talking to the parents."

Then just as I was about to leave, having carefully planned my accusations, she handed me a battered peach.  "I saw the girl on the high dive at the blue house just as she was throwing this into the pool.  She looked me straight in the eye and she knew I saw her throw it."

Target acquired, the malefactor exposed.  I picked up a bag of recently gathered peaches and marched around to the house, to meet what actually seemed to be a very nice family as far as I knew.  The father of this familly had helped me repair the fence boards that both of our dogs had rambunctiously destroyed. 

I knocked forcefully.
A teenage girl, maybe 15, answered behind a chain locked door.
"I'm your neighbor, and I would like to speak to your parents."
"They're not here now."
Considering that meant several children were swimming unsupervised in the back yard, I suspected evasion--like when a teacher calls home, a child recognizes your voice and lies his or her head off about the presence of a parent.
So I asked, "When will they be back?" in a slightly louder voice. 
"In about a half hour." I told her I would certainly return later and skulked off with my bag of rotten fruit.

Back at the house, I unpacked my bags, wishing I was still in San Simeon, more than a little pissed at having to keep my steam up until the parents came home.  But thirty minutes later, almost to the minute, the doorbell rang.  Said father, the same nice guy I mentioned before, stood  before me.  All 6 foot 5 or more of him.  But I'm no longer afraid of bigger people.  And if things went south, it wouldn't be the first time I've had the crap kicked out of me.

He had two girls with him, both about the age of ten.
"I understand you've had some trouble with peaches in your pool."
"Yes," I said and gleefully went to retrieve the bag of fruit I had gathered, including one very soggy peach which I preserved on a paper towel because it was our most recent and wettest piece of evidence.  Holding the towel up, I continued, "In fact, my wife witnessed this one being being thrown over and into our pool by a dark haired girl, probably the one I see on my left.  Both girls were now dressed up in skirts. Quite impressive really, not jeans, not shorts.  Perhaps they understood the gravity of this situation, I told myself.

"But I didn't throw all the peaches," said the one I had identified with all the certainty of having seen her in a police line-up.  At that point, the slightly younger girl on my right looked straight down at her sandled feet.
"Well, I just want you to know," I said, "that throwing this kind of stuff into a pool could cause some expensive damage--or worse yet, it might hit someone in my family and hurt them."

I was surprised at what happened next, emotionally ambushed actually.  Both of the girls gradually and sincerely murmured their apologies.  Okay, whatever, but afterwards they started to sob uncontrollably.  I didn't know what to doe.  If felt my breath sucking and babbled something about "Well, everybody makes mistakes."

And the whole thing hit me like a ton of bricks. These two wonderful, basically innocent girls would never forget this horrible moment (that I had indirectly created) and might always feel awful about it.  I heard their father's voice in the background of my mind, assuring me that these his two young children would be grounded from the pool for several weeks.  I think he went on to mention some other punishment but I really can't remember at the moment. 

That's when I laughed.  I didn't mean to.  And it was more of a quiet chuckle anyway.  Afterwards, I tried to pull myself together.  Forcing myself to make direct eye contact with the father I said, "Thank you so much for coming by."

And I closed the door quickly.  Freakin' bizarre, I know.  But if I hadn't let air out of my throat at that exact moment, never intending it to come out as a laugh, their would have been three people bawling on my front porch and I would have certainly been the loudest of the three.  What would that weird display of emotion have taught those girls: all adults are hopelessly strange?
Was there a better way I could have handled this? 
My wife, who had almost made it to the door before it slammed hard nevertheless heard every word and admitted that she too was about to cry--which made me feel a little less like a hopelessly emotional geezer.  Perhaps it was because I had only raised boys, I thought to myself, a subset of the human race that never, ever cries and always shrugs everything off, even when confronted with obvious proof of their guilt.

Anyway, I felt horrible.  Guilty as the girls.  I got on the computer, wrote down what I could remember about the last few minutes, and thought about the time several of my childhood friends collected peaches from a local orchard.  We spread them in a double-lined, across the road leading to our housing development.  It was so cool.  We climbed out on the branch of an oak tree and looked down on the mayhem as cars smashed through our double barrier of peaches.

"Squish, squish." 
"Squish, squish."
God, this was fun.
Then a familiar car approached. It was my  father's fishing buddy and coworker, Albert Rodriguez.
He got out of the car and examined the mess.  His wife also got out of the car.
"Al, did we hit some poor doggie?"
"No, honey, they're just peaches."
On the oak branch almost directly above them, we laughed hysterically.  We closed and covered our mouths but shook so hard that it's a wonder that all of us did not fall out of the tree. This was gnarly, truly bitchin'.  The most fun we three boys, Bruce, his brother Mark ever had. 
But then there's always a price to be paid for that kind of fun.

A compact car, a green Hillman to be exact (anybody remember those?) drove up the street and the same thing happened:  "Squish, Squish" followed by the sound of breaks, and a man getting out.  Even before the car door opened, I knew all too well who drove that car:  Robert Joseph Richardson, Bobby to his friends and his wife--my mother.

And I got the shakes, bad shakes, scary sensations that told me writhing snakes were uncontrollably sliding around in my stomach.  My mother was half way out of the car, when I heard my father call back to her, "Don't even bother getting out Pearl.  Bunch of stupid kids must have put peaches on the road.  Some kind of dumb-assed prank."

Then he looked up, through glasses that barely corrected his stigmatised eyes, eyes that had been perfect until a childgood bout with diphtheria, eyes that had almost beaten a semi-professional boxer before they closed when he backed up hard against a stop sign.  Eyes that now looked up at the branch where the three of us sat in absolute darkness and turned and now turned directly upon ME.  And to this day I still don't understand how he knew I was there--did those same eyes have some sort of x-ray vision, able to sense fear, see my sweat? 

"Johnny, is that you up there?"
"Y-yes, Dad," I whimpered.
"Get on down from that tree and head back to the house right now, you hear me?"  He walked back to the car but right before he got in, he stopped and turned those lethal eyes back upon me and imparted his certain justice: "And get ready for a beating."

Now this was back in the days when corporal punishment was not only common but entirely accepted.   My friends knew what lay ahead for me and offered little in the way consolation.  They knew my father, and that he would certainly stop two doors down short of our house and bring their own father up to date on our criminal misdeeds.

Shared doom was the gist of our conversation and bonded us tightly as we approached our certain but separate dooms.  We speculated as to who would suffer the most and in what terrible ways.  Apparently, their father had a predilection for a "switch" an instrument of correction with which I was not yet familiar.  Apparently it was small, carefully trimmed branch from a particular tree that grew steadfastly in their back yard.  But it's hard to feel sorry for someone else's fate when you suspect yours will be worse while at the same time hoping that you will not soon be puking right in front of your friends.

And all the while we walked, and walked, in the slowest pace possible without actually running in the opposite direction.  Eventually, Mark and Bruce said our final godbyes and it was it time to open the door of my house.  My father was in his chair, the chair we never sat in, the one reserved only for him, the chair of parental judgement.

"Yes, Dad," I managed to croak out through a closed- down throat.
"Get me my belt."
"Oh, Dad I'm sorry, really, really never meant to..."
"Doesn't matter.  Get me my belt, now, the skinny one."

Oh, dear God, not the skinny one!  Spankings weren't that common and even now I wouldn't consider the ones I truly deserved to be especially abusive.  But, now had to retrieve that heinous narrow belt the one he seldom wore except on the rare occasions we went to church. 

Then I began to sob and sob, just like the poor little girls on my doorstep a while ago.  Each step toward my parents bedroom and the closet containing the instrument of terror, was  an absolute eternity.  Fear, dread, and the prospect of a new level of agony consumed my entire being.  By the time I actually found the requested belt and staggered back toward the living room, I was falling on the floor, groveling, slobbering and abjectyly begging my father to please, please understand how sorry I was (a disgusting image, I know, but I never claimed to be a brave little trooper).

Then the punishment began.  Just two quick slaps of the narrow belt, half hearted actually, and I didn't even have to pull my pants down for the full effect.  But I suffered.  Sweet Jesus, had I suffered!  Sometimes I wonder if my father didn't know more about torture than the CIA.  Though his light-weight strokes were mild compared to the socially accepted thrashings of the day, he was light years ahead of water boarding, having mastered the fine nuances of psychological pain. That long walk down the hallway and back stripped me of all arrogance and any desire to "cut up" for a good long time.

I have no particular memories of punishment beyond that point.  That is, until I turned 18.  Little did I know that my father had used all those years to plan his most diabolical punishment. 

My parents had left town for the weekend.  Great.  By some incredible luck (or misfortune) my awkward 18 year old body had attracted the attention of 21 year old goddess, a woman I told myself who was experienced in the ways of the world. More importantly, she was able to buy me booze.  And she did.  In vast quantities.  One Sunday morning I left her apartment, a slightly hung over but very satiated young man, happy as the day was bright.  I remember fiddling with the radio dials on my mother's Chevy Impala, with its incredible stock acoustics just as the speakers were delivering the first sweet rifts of "Judy Blue Eyes."

I looked up, bewildered at what I was seeing in an age where nobody had ever heard the term "distracted driving."  How had the signal become red and why was I entering an intersection which could never had come up so soon?  A car had already entered the intersection from my right.  It was hopeless.  In the final seconds before impact I remember seeing a nice looking woman's mouth and face stretched into to a "rictus of terror" (phrase admittedly borrowed from a Stephen King novel).

Then I remember veering to the right at the last moment, barely managing to hit only the back end of her car.  Everything starting spinning.  If any unfortunate pedestrians had been standing at either of the right hand corners of that intersection, they would have learned a painful lessons about physics--either that, or died in short order.

I don't remember too much after that.  The police arrived at some point.  Thank God the woman was okay and we were both able to drive our vehicles away from the scene of the accident.  But I had destroyed my mother's car, totaled it by even the most lenient standards of insurance evaluation.

And I had eight hours to go until my parents arrived home. There would be pain.  Maybe not a spanking, I knew that wouldn't happen at my age, but definitely something worse, much worse.  Would they force me to break up with the older girlfriend that they never liked?  Probably.  Would I be banned from ever again using the family car?  That was as certain as the fact that my dating life was over.  Forever.  Maybe they would even force me to get another part time job so I could pay off the damages, year after year and year after year... forever.

But what transpired was worse than I ever would have imagined.  Right on time, my father's truck drove up into the driveway heading for the garage.  He saw the car and slammed on the breaks (nice that the left hand side which had sustained all the damage--front panel squashed, driver's door overlapping the rear passenger door, everything hopeless and immediately on display).  My mother got out, took a quick look, sucked in a bunch of air and finally announced her profound disappointment in me as a human being.
"Oh, Johnny."
"I'm so sorry, Mom"  I said, but she was already rushing into the house.
My father walked around the car and examined it slowly, analytically, saying absolutely nothing.  Meanwhile I babbled, explaining how I was coming back from my taboo girlfriend's apartment at 8:00 am (because I didn't want to take the chance that they would come home early).  I admitted how I had been playing with the radio, not paying attention, and how lucky I was that my inattention hadn't hurt or killed anyone.  Without a word he, too, went into the house.

I sat down on the porch, my life over before the age of 21, knowing that the worst was yet to come.  After a half hour or so, I went inside to face the music.  The house was silent except for the murmurs I heard when I crept down the hall toward my parent's bedroom.  Obviously, they were planning some hideous fate, one that I totally deserved.  Back in my own bedroom, I waited.  Maybe I even slept an hour or so out of sheer mental exhaustion. 
Then I woke up and gradually got the nerve to leave my room.  There he was, my father in the living room, sitting in the special off-limits parental chair, albeit a newer model since the peaches episode.  He said nothing.  I sat down on the couch and waited until I could no longer stand it.

"What are you going to do, Dad?"
"About what?"
"About me, because I wrecked Mom' car."
"Nothing... Nothing?  What do you mean nothing?"

He paused a long time before answering.  My mind went wild.  Certainly, it wouldn't be a belt spanking--which I knew he still had but hoped I was way too old for.  It would be something worse, way, way worse."
"You know you made a mistake, Johnny, and you admitted it."
"Yeah... and now you're going to punish me."
"Because I screwed up, I really screwed up bad and now Mom doesn't have a car to get to work."
"She can ride with her friends from work.  And tomorrow, I'm going to talk to Harold next door and see about getting some parts from the junk yard to fix the car."
"But what about me, what are you going to do about me, what I did?"
He smiled, actually might have chuckled, I'm not sure: "Here's the way I see it, Johnny.  You've spent the better part of the day hating yourself because of a mistake that could happen to anyone, worrying about what would happen when we got home.  You said you were sorry and so I figure you've been punished enough already.

I was shocked, dumbfounded, and profoundly disappointed.  I needed a beating.  I wanted to find that skinny belt--or something worse--and have my proper anguish.  But he wouldn't give it to me!  I was angry. This was the cruelest beating of all. What happened to the man who could easily rob me of dignity just by mentioning that stupid, skinny belt?

But I got over my anger and eventually came to appreciate my father's calculated wisdom.

I'm going to bed soon.  This story went longer than I expected and is no doubt filled with countess embarrassing errors. It should've stopped with me slamming the door before I started to cry with the girls.

But I wish I knew those girls better, the ones who had fun throwing stuff into our back yard.  I fantasize about tomorrow.  I will be clipping the hedges along the side of my house, when the girls come along on their way to school. I casually look up from my gardening and say, "It's okay girls.
Your father did what he thought best.  Someday you'll understand that this was his way of showing you how much he loved you.  Maybe you'll even share a chuckle or two recalling your peach throwing episode sometime in the future (not that I would actually do this, too creepy, and the two little girls would have no idea what I was talking about).

It might be a long time until I enjoy peaches again.  And as for punishment, whether corporal or devilishly clever, I still haven't made up my my mind whether either is a good idea.  Talk to my two boys, who have grown up to become men that I greatly admire.  I'm sure they have some interesting stories to tell.

And if you do, be sure to tell them that I love them and tried to do my best.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Be Careful what you ask for part 2

My sleep that night was interrupted by short bouts of quiet sobbing. Kate is a good listener, fortunately, and after she patiently endured a rambling account of my day, I eventually slipped off.  The lack of fog and relentless sun gradually brought me to consciousness the next morning. Reluctant to give up my blankets and sheets, I thought of  Elizabeth  Kubler-Ross and her five stages of accepting death.  I was certainly past the denial phase and the manner of Christian's death left little room for bargaining.  Ironically, it was Christian who had shown me a hilarious but slightly profane U-Tube video about a giraffe mired in quicksand as he worked through the stages.  I shook my head as I filled the coffee pot with water and decided it was a bad day to change my routine.  So I leashed the dog, performed a brief inspection of the beach, and returned with a newspaper.

Kate was still asleep but Andy had just emerged from the spare bedroom and we said our "good mornings" while passing each other in the hallway.  I surprised the hell out him (and myself) by suddenly giving him a brief hug.  It had been a long time since I had hugged anybody but my wife.  He handled it well, but I wasn’t finished.
So I turned back.

"Can I ask you you a favor, Andy?
He shrugged and managed a sleepy smile.
"I've decided to attend the memorial after all.  Could you give me a ride back to the valley?  Kate never really knew Christian, and I want her to have the car while I'm gone."
He paused at bit then smiled broadly, "Sure, John." 
I chuckled to myself.  Though barely out of bed a few minutes, I probably shocked him with both a hug and my weird request.

During the trip back to the valley we discussed random subjects, mostly about the music he blue-toothed into his car stereo.  There were also silences reflecting an unspoken agreement not to talk about Christian.  So we didn’t and he dropped me off at my empty house.

I spent the rest of the afternoon on edge as is I usually do before  funerals and memorials.  I polished my shoes, debated about what to wear and worried about how I would handle myself that evening.  Not that I was afraid about losing control.  Knowing how  successfully I stuff my emotions, I was more afraid I would seem cold and uncaring to people who capable of overt and public grief.  But I remembered Andy telling me once that I tended to "over-analyze" everything.  I resolved not to think so much, especially about myself.  So went out and worked on the lawn and considered various stories if forced to share that night.

But the memorial was easy, mostly due to Andy’s exact planning.  And when he came to me asked about how to execute the next activity, I surprised and a little unnerved.  Everyone was supposed to write a message to Christian on a helium balloon and once outside, we would release them.  But he wanted my advice on how and when to do this.  At first I thought he was merely being deferential, nice to the retired teacher who only knew less than 10 of the hundred or so students attending, but decided he really did want some guidance.  I did what every teacher does when faced with an unpredicted outcome—I made something up.  We went outside and released our balloons one by one after sharing and explaining our message.  I went first to ease the way, explaining how Christian had enabled me to something very helpful but slighltly illegal with software that I had not actually purchased.   Later, when I sensed the sharing was going downhill,saw what I perceived to be a problem I gave him some unsolicited advice and suggested that we wind things up.  I went on to share more about myself (speaking only to bring events to a positive conclusion) and people started to leave.

I returned home that evening so excited that  Icouldn't wait to call my wife.  I told her how smoothly things went, how so many students had shared, indicating that my humorous story about how he had helped me with a computer problem eased the tensions and eased the way so many could share.  Tell about sharing intelligence and weird habit of helping people install wifi and how it lead to some very startled reactions when he popped up live on their computers or phones.

 Andy buisy, wanted him to share, how it had helped me but worried about how it might dampen the convivial spirit.  I even debated telling him to lighten it up a bit but decided otherwise

Tell how he read, quote it,  tell how I softened with light hearted assurance that Andy was okay, and at that point the memorial was generally over.  I was very pleased with myself, probably a bit manic.
But that only lasted until 2:30 when I was visited by the multiple demons of personal insecurity.
what they said, how I reacted, resolved to call.

At first the assuring light of morning made everything I had thought about myself nothing more than a bad night.  But accusing voices continued became more agitated.
Tell about the calls, even the hotline.
realization one: this is what Christian must have felt every day and every night.
realization two: Besides his natural generosity, this was why he went to all the trouble to make it possible to pop up on their screens.  He desperate for human contact, affirmation as a person, and this was his brilliantly weird attempt to get some,  this his call for help.  And perhaps because many of us were in awe of his talent and intelligence, we never considered what was going on behind the mask.

Be Careful what You Ask For

The steep part was over.   I let go of the cable, planting my feet on a relatively level section of trail, and looked down at the beach two hundred feet below us.  Deep but quiet breaths so Andy wouldn't realize how old and out of shape I was.  He soon caught up with me, and I took a moment to look left and right, admiring the miles of blue breaking waves, punctuated by wild prehistoric looking rocks.

And not a living thing in sight. Well, not exactly, I could still see the cove where we came across the vultures busily devouring the carcass of an infant elephant seal.

     "But why do they die? It just doesn't make sense."
     "Sure it does, Andy. The young are more susceptible to 
      disease, accidents, random predators. You know, 
      survival of the fittest and all that Darwinian stuff."
     "What?  No, I was talking about Christian."

     "Oh, Christian."

We had spent an unusually mild north coast afternoon at a new found beach access, lounging, reading and fooling around with our digital cameras. And I had done my best not to think about the death of Christian, a student in Andy's film class and the last psychology I had taught before retiring.

     "No idea, Andy."
     "But it's stupid, so pointlessly destructive and incredibly    
      cruel to others--the people like us who cared so much  
      about him."

I was grateful for the several hours of easy companionship with my friend but not ready to pursue this subject.

      "I agree. It baffles the mind. Perhaps only someone else  
       severely depressed could begin to understand the  
       why's of it all." 

Even while saying this, I knew my simplistic, dismissive  answer was a crock of shit.  After my father died, I had spent weeks wallowing in bed going out only to acquire more booze. But on the Sunday of my second week of hiding out from the world, I glanced beyond the shelter of my covers.   My wife stood very tall before me and spoke words that were both loud and direct, leaving no room for misunderstanding.

    "All right, that's it. No, I can't imagine what it's like to lose   
     a parent, never been there. But two weeks of feeling 
     sorry for yourself is enough, John. Get showered, 
     dressed and be ready to eat dinner with the kids in half 
     an hour. And plan on going to work tomorrow."

Though my wife is loving and usually quite tolerant, the forceful intervention she leveled at me that day was her greatest gift. I'll admit that I was certifiably depressed during those weeks, but at no time did I actively entertain the option of suicide. Unless maybe I was trying to do it gradually in a "Leaving Las Vegas" style--which is actually more common. Still, it bothered me that I had taught psychology for thirty some years, but when it came understanding the mindset necessary to take one's own life, I was as clueless as the young teacher behind me. 

I once saw a bumper sticker claiming that "Old Guys Rule," but I have long since realized that they don't--and never will--have all the answers. Not that I was going to admit this to someone not yet out of his 20's.

     "Tomorrow is Christian's memorial.  Andy, are you sure 
      you can drive back and get everything arranged in 
     "Nothing I can't handle," he said, stopping to put  
      away his video camera. 

Ah, the confidence and energy of youth, I thought. The trail was taking us up through pungent sage, sweet smelling mint and the occasional, but easily avoided, incursion of poison oak.

     "Well, let me know if you need any help."

Then the path leveled out, and we ducked out from under the last of the shady oaks. The afternoon was warm but comfortable like the friendship that had gradually developed between Andy and me. Beyond the next stretch of chaparral, sun sparkled off my car's windshield. Death and sorrow seemed far away.

(Names changed obviously and unfinished.  Still not ready to share the rest of it)