Slow On The Uptake

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My first exposure to the inevitable was seeing Mrs. Doyle walk into our kitchen through the side door, the kitchen door which everyone used as the front door was too formal, useless, and hearing her cry “Jim’s gone.”

It was late spring or early summer, a fact that could be verified should I visit my father’s grave as he and our late neighbor are buried in the same suburban Philadelphia cemetery, Jim on the hill above, my father down below, appropriate, since everyone looked up to Mr. Quinn. I used to sit on his lap doing nothing but feeling safe and happy by just going next-door. Somewhere there’s a photograph of the two of us sitting like that. He was an executive at the steel mill, wore a white short-sleeved shirt and a black tie, smoked a long-forgotten brand, drank Carling Black label, played golf and drove a ’68 burgundy Oldsmobile back when a man was characterized not defined by the car he drove, Carl’s a Ford Man or He’s always been a Chevy guy. The Oldsmobile seemed dependable. Like Jim.

And now I realize why the kitchen door was used exclusively; it was off the carport and we drove everywhere, had to, until we were old enough to ride our bikes freely the first words out of my father’s mouth were always Get in the car and out the kitchen door we went to drop off a letter in the mailbox down the corner or up the turnpike to visit family miles away.

My father embraced Mrs. Doyle, cigarettes were lit, and I walked out the door into the carport and saw the long, sleek Cadillac ambulance conveying Mr. Quinn, dead from brain cancer, to Brock-Donnelly funeral home then to Resurrection cemetery and finally on to parts unknown, its siren silent, its red light muted with grief. My last image of him was as he waved to me from his couch where he was lying, recuperating from surgery, looking the same to me in memory as he did to me as a 5 year old. I remember his wave, his eyes and the smile.

My friends and I all grieved and felt the loss kind as he was to us all even though there may have times we were underserving of such unconditional kindness. Over the next few years Mrs. Quinn would take us in the burgundy Oldsmobile to visit his grave and plant flowers. The ground below waiting for my father as well as my friend Paul’s father, too, an irony neither of us will appreciate if we live to be 1,000 years old which we won’t.

A few years later when my father was in the hospital Mrs. Quinn looked after me in the morning before school for about a week after I stopped going, disconsolate from missing my father. My mother and brother left before my school began and so I simply stayed home and played cars and watched TV until the school decided five days of absences were worthy of investigation. She scrambled eggs every morning, two of them in a bowl, a little bit of milk whisked in and then all into the pan to set briefly before the scrambling to be served steaming hot with a little salt and pepper and a side of toast.

I remember heat radiating from the stove-top towards the small kitchen table where I sat waiting, knife and fork, butter, a glass of orange juice and the empty plate before me, the same couch just behind me in the living room off the small dining area in the Levittowner where Mr. Quinn had waved goodbye. I remember someone doing something she didn’t have to do. And I remember that although the eggs were made just as my mom made them they tasted nothing like hers, they had a stronger egg flavor and just weren’t as tight. To this day whenever I scramble eggs I let them go a little bit longer. I simply can’t eat a runny egg. It’s just me.

Rolling & Tumbling

Under The Overpass

Jack leaned forward, put his hands on the dashboard and scooted his ass up to the edge of the front seat with a thought in his mind then turned around to share it with Brandon in the backseat of the ’71 Ford. It was something funny, a witty observation bordering on the obscure which his fellow passengers could appreciate. That acknowledgement always startled him, as if someone was being underestimated and he was shouldn’t sure who it was. Maybe they were just bluffing him, understanding half of what he said but humoring him just the same. Still, that said something about the quality of their friendship, at this time, in this age, in the place they all called home.

He turned just about a quarter of the way around to his left to face the backseat while keeping his eye on the driver so his profile was split right down the middle, half in darkness and half in the dim green radiance of the LTD’s radio spewing forth Molly Hatchet’s “Beatin’ the Odds” and decided, nah, I’ll keep it to myself and swallowed an acrid burp.

Looking like he had something to say his buddy busted his balls, “A little louder there, Cappy…” which only drew good-natured laughter from all the other travelers. “Have another beer,” said the blackness behind him.

He laughed, tried to hide his chin in his chest, then pivoted on his left butt bone and inched his ass back into the warm, well-worn groove Kenny’s mother had made in the seat on countless trips to the Shop’N’Bag, JC Penney’s and St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church. As Kenny overcorrected the Ford out of the oncoming northbound lane of Gullytown Road into a right hand turn just over the bridge spanning St. Joe’s crick the momentum pulled Jack backwards pressing him against the door where a belt loop on the back of his Wranglers caught the door-handle. Kenny looked over. His right hand was at 5 o’clock. The wheel began to spin counter-clockwise through his grasp. Jack leaned forward, toward Kenny but his buckle had already pulled the handle open and he was sucked out like an indiscriminate extra in an airline disaster movie, an angel cast out of the warm celestial glow of the Ford’s cabin into the dark, cold, winter night whose only light was a gray fibrous mist of filtered, third-hand luminescence bouncing off the snow after refracting from the moon.

He realized the earth hadn’t approached him as quickly as he had anticipated once he understood he was tumbling down an embankment. There was a veneer of ice atop the snow which softened his descent but then cracked the recent storm’s remnants into a thousand diamond-tipped barbs that decorated his face and hands with scratches which bled ruby-red in the amorphous light of the early a.m. winter morning. He came to a stop on his back, feet first toward the ribbon of mumbling water, his cheeks stinging, his eyes open towards Heaven. He closed his eyes and saw more stars than ever before.

After losing count of his breaths he stood up and began walking through the woods thinking if bad things happen in threes do good things happen in threes, too? He saw the numeral in his mind then thought of The Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost. A guy and two chicks. Saltines, peanut butter and milk. Joplin, Morrison and Hendrix. He got the Father and the Son. What the fuck was the Holy Ghost? Then he fell. Again.

He woke up freezing. In the crick. Freezing in the crick. His eye opened on the clear stream rippling in winter moonlight like it was the world. His eye and the stream. Two worlds. His one eye opened on two worlds. Itself and the moon on the water. He exhaled and the moon disappeared. One had to go. It wasn’t going to be him. Not now. Not tonight. He clamored up the banks. Each step forcing his weight back into the stream. His arms would wave like he was dancing his way off the stage. He would his stamp his foot into the frosted muddy bank. He stomped it into the sucking mud. He felt each tiny ice crystal being corrupted through the toe of his Chuck Taylors where the sole flapped opened. The mud leaked languidly into his sneaker. It invaded his sock. It infested every available opening. There was no defense when the assault occurred on such a microscopic level. He found a cold slick root. He shook hands with a cool slick root and hauled himself up until it burned through his grasp. Burned through his grasp on a night when it 20 degrees outside and he was outside. He grabbed again. He waved as the root shook avoiding his hand. Finally he grabbed it and pulled himself up out of the stream in one lung-emptying lunge that filled his windpipe with coarse sandpaper going down his gullet and he vomited. He vomited again his knees pitched into the bank. He prayed. He vomited. He clasped the loamy earth, scratched at the lip of the world. Got up to his knees. Penitent. Then fell face first into his own pool of steaming vomit. This time he said. I’m not going to open my eyes. If the moon wanted to shine go ahead and let it. He didn’t care.

He slept a peaceful sleep that started to blur at the edges. The edges of his sleep were blurred with frost. His blood ran cold. Colder than the stream. He expelled the crystallized air from his lungs and woke up tasting a faint hint of peach schnapps in his nostrils. Pennies. The rotten crabapples. In the utter, absolute silence he heard the buzzing of bees feasting on the fecund droppings of a twisted, gnarled crabapple tree dying in the front yard of the house where he grew up. He told himself two more breaths and then he would stand up and walk home to whatever awaited him there. Winter passes. Winter would pass into spring. He waited waiting for winter to pass into spring. No. One more breath and he would stand up and be on his way home to catch holy hell.

Flights

Flights

Rob Godwin took the stairs to the 36th floor in honor of his birthday. That was last week, his birthday, last Thursday, but the idea came to him on the way home on the train Friday night when he saw a girl who looked like her. Leah? Lee. Channing. It prompted an inventory. He was 18 then, when they last saw each other, a Labor Day weekend, too, but 36 now, 72 when the actuary said he’d be dead, so it felt like a time for inventory. He was still catching his breath.

They’d met during Senior Week down the shore and fell together almost immediately. It was what they and everyone else was there for but rarely found. Love. And it was because that’s the time love comes at you so innocently but determined, either the last maturation of the teenage body, psyche and soul before adulthood or the first step into that brave new world, that its roots furrow deep into the fresh, fertile, susceptible heart. Even though the last time they saw one another she acted like they’d never met.

He found Chad Brewer on the internet over the weekend and was surprised by the quick response. It seemed like Chad was eager to connect and had emailed him back quickly. The bad news about her death on a lonely stretch of 73 in the Pine Barrens. What other kind of stretch is there through the Pine Barrens? She bled to death. Chad was ok, Gamblers Anonymous helped. He admitted his addiction and just removed the money from it and was living with Shelly Huff. They only bet their Xanax like poker chips. “Shelly’s nuttier than squirrel shit so my line of credit should be good for a while until I can get the parlaying chimp off my back,” he said in his characteristic rapid fire speech. He was back in Fairview Hills on the other side of Trenton Rd and where was Rob? Lower Wakefield Terrace, right? Way up the line. Another township entirely. Working in New York. Helluva train ride every morning. Back and forth. Need any zip? The old other side of the tracks animosities. Let him know if you needed hockey tickets. Just don’t tell him you’ve been to a few Rangers games. Chad still knew some guys.

He could look out his office window and see the river leading to the ocean. The ocean where they met. He wanted to think about her. Not about lying on the asphalt. Though he did for a moment. And hoped at least she was somehow on the sandy shoulder of the road. Had cleared the center of the blacktop unlike Chad had described. How would he know? Rob always thought Chad was jealous. He heard the radiator hissing. Her cries. He couldn’t help it. And he didn’t want to think about Labor Day but he did. Sitting opposite of him, gray clouds gathering behind her head, a life jacket on, hands braced at her sides as Bobby Reilly ran the small boat into the swells. Her long curly hair swirling around her head obscuring her face save for the thin closed lips flat as a calm horizon. Then finally he remembered her during Senior Week when she was warm, supple and young and the ocean fragrant in her hair. The sweat beading on her shoulder. Sand between their kisses. And he thought Heaven is a memory.

His Outlook calendar flashed on his computer reminding him of the 9 am meeting. He sat back and closed his eyes and thought about what could happen that couldn’t be fixed? The new millennium didn’t hurl the world into a yawning abyss of chaos and destruction. People had such short memories, and life was pretty much all memory after all, he thought to himself out loud, Fuck the meeting, sometimes life can wait, and let his mind take off.

20 Years

20 Years

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Are you going to wear that?

He looked down at his shirt then back up at her saying nothing as if to say yes.

I’m doing laundry.

And that was it. That was enough. He stood up and made to leave gathering up his sunglasses, wallet and car keys, his migraine medication and a pack of Juicyfruit and hoped for an instant it was an old pack; he always had them lying around, half-finished packs started on the run here to there, here or there, packs he never finished and left in the glove box or on the counter in the kitchen. Lately he noticed the gum had been reformulated, had a different taste, sweeter but flatter if that was possible, if that made sense, and he hoped that somehow this pack was from an old batch, pre-new and improved.
He was about to unwrap a piece and heard her sighs as she lumbered with the laundry basket and thought to himself I’ll wait till I’m in the car before I chew this. It will add some suspense.

Where are you going she said from somewhere out of sight. Except she said it like Where are YOU going and kept her voice level at the end, didn’t raise it, didn’t drop it, kept it even keeled right there where it always was, where it always would be.

Out he replied Gotta see a man about a horse he whispered deep down into the back of his head and down the back of his throat and down into the pit of his stomach where it fluttered like a dying butterfly to rest atop his fried egg sandwich, cup of coffee and vitamin d from breakfast. His doctor was concerned about a deficiency. But she had already turned her back and was lugging a load of laundry to the washing machine. I’m leaving and not coming back.

He imagined she turned with a look of surprise and sadness drawing down the corners of her mouth and eyes What she said Where? Why?

I have to get out of here. I’ve tried to explain but his imaginary voice trailed off…Babe he said wondering why he called her that anymore. If I don’t the same things will happen all over again. The same mistakes. The same sadness.

But she was sorting the whites from the colors and didn’t notice him leaving as he squeezed past her in the narrow hallway leading from the house to the garage.

He made it as far as the car before realizing he’d need some clean clothes so he went around the house to the back patio and sat down waiting for the laundry to finish. He stuck the piece of gum in his mouth. It was new and improved. Everything changes he told himself. Nothing stays the same