Monday, April 28, 2008

Louie and Son

It was there alright. And growing. Yesterday, it could’ve been anything—a bit of grime, a chip in the grout, some standard shower mildew. But today, today there could be no doubt it was something more. And it was all Louie’s.

This was the Y of course and many individuals frequented the shower stall in question. Some made two, three trips a day in fact. But overly-clean individuals were the exception rather than the rule. And besides, that corner—the corner of the stall where it was growing—that was Louie’s corner. It was the corner where he…well, finished.

Louie examined it closely. About the size of a dime and slightly dome shaped. It was fuzzy and if one did not know better it might be confused for a nasty spot of mold. But Louie knew better. The fuzz was a dull, grey-brown, not unlike Louie’s own hair. Yes, he thought, this is certainly the fruit of my loins.

* * *

While never a family man by anyone’s standards, Louie always had a soft spot for children. During periods of unemployment, which were quite frequent, Louie would wander the park and nod approvingly as children ran and jumped and slid and laughed. So happy, Louie would say to himself. In these moments, they all seem so happy.

But Louie was not of the stock that settles down. Not the type to marry and breed and jockey a gas barbeque grill on summer evenings. If it was due to his chronic bouts of unemployment or his semi-permanent residence at the Y, Louie could never be sure. What he knew was this: some men are not made for family life and he was one of those men.

So explains why Louie took such an immediate liking to the growth in the corner—his corner—of the shower stall. What fellow residents would dismiss as a normal development in an unsanitary bathroom was to Louie a unique chance at fatherhood, however unconventional. More than a chance, it was a responsibility. A responsibility, Louie decided, not to be taken lightly.

* * *

First order of business: what would Louie name his spawn? Garret was the first name that came to mind but Louie quickly dismissed it. Far too strong a name for creature destined to be small and fuzzy it’s whole life. After all, Louie wanted neither himself nor his kin to look ridiculous. Herbert, it was decided. To be referred to affectionately as Herbie. When he matures, Herb. A fine name indeed.

Great. With that settled Louie was free to tackle a far more pressing matter: how to protect, or at least preserve, young Herbie. The current situation was unsustainable. Weekly cleanings of all communal areas at the Y meant the clock was ticking. Who was on bathroom duty that week? Oh…Flannigan, the bastard. There would be no persuading him to lay down the bleach. If anything, a request on Louie’s part would only fuel Flannigan’s cruel streak.

So there it was. Louie had two days to act. Two days before Flannigan and a big bottle of diluted bleach reduced little Herbie to a smudge on the bottom of a paper towel. That, Louie thought, would be unbearable. He was a father now and it was up to him to ensure Herbie’s survival. Two days. Louie needed a plan. Two days.

* * *

A sleepless night was spent weighing options. One plan Louie developed involved transferring young Herbie onto a slice of bread. Mold grew handily on bread so surely Herbie—the fungi-offspring of Louie himself—would thrive in such an environment. However, this plan was not without complications. Would Herbie survive being uprooted, transferred to a new locale? Would the yeasty new abode not eventually develop a mold all its own and would Herbie be able to cohabitate? This will not work, Louie decided in the wee hours of the morning. There are too many variables.

As the sun rose on what could well have been poor Herbie’s last day on earth, Louie had all but run out of ideas. Slowly, quietly, on tippy toes he snuck through the hall and into the communal bathroom. Back against the wall, he slid down the tile and sat by the corner—his corner. The corner Herbie called home. I don’t know what to tell you little bugger, Louie addressed Herbie, things are looking pretty darn grim.

We’re a lot alike you and me, Louie continued. Not just because you grew from my seed. Both of us Herbie, both of us have had it pretty rough. Now, maybe you’ve only seen a couple days but son, if you coulda lived to a hundred you’d realize these couple days have been pretty darn typical. They were mean and cold and sad. But somewhere in there we had ourselves some moments. Those moments, they’re what life is all about. And I hope when my time comes I can go out like you will kid. On my own terms.

Louie choked on his words a bit but managed to say all he had to say. His eyes were wet and he turned, Herbie should not see him cry. He had to make a move today. By tomorrow Flannigan would have done the job quickly, carelessly. The bastard. Louie left the bathroom and snuck down the hall on tippy toes. He opened a door marked Supplies, removed a large spray bottle.

Back in the bathroom Louie knelt before Herbie. I’m sorry it had to be this way, Louie said, I’m so sorry. He lowered the spray bottle and squeezed. Once, twice, a third time. Deliberate and accurate. The small fuzzy growth in the corner of the shower—Louie’s corner—withered and darkened. I’m sorry, Louie said, but we had ourselves some moments. That’s what life is all about.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Why We Fight

“Pick your battles, son.” My grandfather was 86 when he said that to me. “Pick very few and only pick one’s you’re likely gonna win.” His skin was waxy, sallow and spotted. Arms as thin and knobby as his bamboo cane and always wearing his WWII Veterans baseball cap. Too large for him by then, it slid over his eyes. It was covered with marks of rank or valor or I was never sure what.

“I was an old man before I figured that out,” he said. “Too late to do me much good.” Not long after, he passed. If he had fought too much or if he had lost too much I never really knew.

* * *

Benny doesn’t throw knockouts but what he throws he throws a lot. One after another after another with the ferocity of whiskey. He throws them until somebody drops, sometimes him. He throws them over women, over respect, over nothing. He throws and he throws. When he wins he sneers. When he loses he smiles through busted lips. Tall and lean, he looks more like a marathon runner than a barroom brawler. “Fight every fight like it’s your last,” he tells me.

Benny is my friend, I love him regardless. Still, I always wonder if he only follows the first half of his advice, if all he wants to do is fight every fight.

* * *

For a long time after my mother left, Dad was a mess. He sat in his armchair and drank scotch. First, on the rocks and then, as the nights wore on, straight from the bottle. He cursed, whimpered, stared holes in the wall. He blamed my mother, himself, God in heaven. He tugged at his beard and mused on and on about what might have been. “Boy,” he said to me. “Fight the good fight. Always fight the good fight.” And most nights, for months and months, Dad fell asleep in that armchair, woke up in that armchair.

Dad got over it, people tend to do that. And likely he doesn’t remember those nights too well. Likely he doesn’t remember much of what he said. But me, I remember and I have my doubts that he ever fought a goddamn day in his life, good fight or bad.

* * *

I picked some battles. Sometimes I didn’t have any other choice, most times I didn’t look for any other choice. Beaten and bloodied, literally and figuratively and every other way too. The good one’s are never easy and if you fight every fight like it’s your last, it never will be.

I fought for other people’s reasons, on other people’s terms. At times I fought to win, at times I only fought to fight. What I’ve come to know is this: when something’s worth fighting for, fight for it. And when something’s worth fighting for, don’t lose.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The End of Days

Donald wakes, startled. Cold sweat dripping from his brow, panting to catch his breath. He walks to the bathroom, takes a shower. Most days, Donald will sing in the shower, but today is not most days. Today, Donald fears, is the End of Days.

Donald brushes his teeth, little circular motions, just like his dentist taught him. Donald goes through his closet, removes a green polo shirt, a pair of Dockers. Donald sits at his kitchen table, drinks coffee, reads the paper. All the while trouble hangs heavy on his mind.

Dreams had never been of much concern to Donald. Usually they were fuzzy little things, abstract and comical. He would be naked while waiting in line at the DMV. He would ride a dolphin to the office and all his coworkers would be in clown makeup. He would pick his nose only to find a cheeseburger on the end of his finger. Then he would eat it. There was never much narrative, never much clarity and Donald never gave his dreams much thought.

Last night, all that changed. Last night Donald found himself in a very strange place. It was dark and hot and far more vivid than anyplace he had ever dreamt before. Donald sat in this strange new place, listened to a strange new sound. It was the sound of moaning and it was soft and eerie and far more vivid than any sound he had ever dreamt before.

Then, “Donald, my son.” A voice boomed through the darkness, over the moaning. “The time has come. Prepare for the End of Days.” A towering figure stood before Donald, cloaked in red. Two eyes glowing like ember. And despite the suffocating warmth of this strange, new place, Donald felt a piercing chill. “Prepare,” the figure repeated. Then Donald awoke, startled.

* * *

Donald sits in a booth at a corner diner. He’s distraught, confused. Dreams are but dreams with no bearing on real life. This is what he tells himself. But would it not be prudent to at least give some credence to the vision. After all, it was so real, so unlike any dream before. And, surely there’s something to be said for being the Antichrist.

So here is Donald’s dilemma: if the End of Days indeed comes, he would like nothing less than to be on the bad side of the Supreme Ruler of the Underworld (if there is any other side, Donald cannot be sure). But if his dream was only that, he does not wish to appear foolish. Or worse, completely batty. So, he must ready for the Apocalypse but he must do so discretely.

Baby steps, Donald decides. He has gone his entire life diligently avoiding any overtly malicious act, badness for the sake of badness. So he will start small, baby steps. But he will start right away. He must be bad.

The waitress arrives at Donald’s booth, takes his order. “Bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs and hash browns. Buttered wheat toast, no make that white toast. And cheese, yes cheese on top of it all.” All fatty, greasy food. All food devoid of nutritious merit. Indeed, all bad food. This is a start.

Donald eats. Donald eats and eats. Donald finishes, satisfied. But now poor Donald is left with a harsh realization: while all that food was very bad indeed, it tasted oh so good. Yes, this whole being bad bit is going to be a little more difficult than he had imagined. And then a second harsh realization: having ordered far more food than originally planned, Donald is left with a bill nearly as bloated as he is.

But after a brief panic, Donald has a moment of clarity. Being bad, he realizes, is far too ambiguous a goal. He must be something worse. He must be cruel. Life has given Donald lemons and he will make…well, he will just pass along those lemons. Neatly piling cash upon the bill, Donald leaves a one nickel tip. This, he imagines, is crueler than no tip at all. Then, he calmly rises, walks out of the diner into the street beyond.

* * *

Exhilaration. Donald skips down the street, thinks this whole Antichrist gig is really growing on him. Imagine the look on that poor waitresses’ face. Count the bills, the coins, quick math. Oh, if he could have stuck around for that. Still, to give her the satisfaction of a confrontation would have taken away from the base cruelty of the act. But what fun, what fun.

Before he knows it, Donald has pranced his way down three full city blocks. He stops to catch his breath, compose himself. Looking up Donald sees the mountainous concrete steps and towering marble columns that adorn the public library. Ah, than this shall be the site of his next mischievous deed.

Inside Donald peruses isle upon isle of shelf upon shelf of book upon book. Mystery and science fiction. Biography and cultural study. How to and self-help. Donald grabs a volume here and a volume there. His plan: to check out the maximum of ten books with absolutely no intention of ever returning them. Cruel indeed.

But Donald stops, has second thoughts. No, it’s not his conscience catching up with him, quite the contrary. Donald realizes that, if he is to usher in the Apocalypse, he must continue to up the ante. Baby steps. A cruel deed is just not enough, now he must do something genuinely evil.

So, Donald scraps the ten-book limit. He will pile the books on, as many as he can hold. Instead of checking out, he will run out. And Donald scraps the mystery and science fiction. He scraps the biography and cultural study. He scraps the how to and the self-help. When all of his previous selections have been neatly returned to the shelves from which they came, Donald skips merrily to the children’s section.

Arms loaded with picture books and pop ups and every last copy of Good Night Moon, Donald eyes the exit. He creeps and sneaks and is completely inconspicuous until he passes the checkout desk. Then he runs. Like the wind he runs. “Hey,” yells the librarian. “Hey, stop it you,” yells the librarian. “Hey, somebody stop him.” But Donald has run out of library into the street beyond.

Exhilaration. Donald runs. Donald runs and runs. He doesn’t look behind to see if anybody has followed him. He doesn’t look both ways as he sprints across the street. He doesn’t look up when the bus honks, barrels down the boulevard. Then he doesn’t look at anything, not anything at all.

* * *

It’s dark. Dark and hot and moans come from all sides. Donald sits up and this strange new place is not quite as strange and new as once it was. “Donald,” a voice booms. “Donald, this is how you spend your last day?” Eyes like ember.

“Uh…” is all Donald can say.

“Usually,” the voice continues, shakes the bones deep within Donald’s flesh. “Usually, when I tell someone their days are at an end, they spend time with family. Or they smoke an expensive cigar and drink fine scotch. Or they watch a favorite film, they look at an old photo album, they have some sex. They do something they will enjoy or something that provides them with meaning. But you Donald, you ran around acting like a complete asshole.”

“Uh…” Donald says. “I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”

“A misunderstanding? Are you telling me you were not acting like a complete asshole?”

“It’s not that. It’s just, when you told me it was the ‘End of Days’ and I was supposed to ‘prepare’…well, I thought we were going to usher in the Apocalypse. I thought I was the Antichrist.” And then, almost an afterthought, “It was kind of nice.”

“Ah,” booms the voice, the Price of Darkness, the Devil himself. “Ah Donald, maybe you got it. Maybe you got it.”

And Donald sits. He sits in the dark and in the heat and with the moaning. He thinks about his dream that was not a dream and he thinks about the diner where he left no tip and he thinks about the library where there are no more copies of Goodnight Moon. He thinks about his time as the Antichrist and he thinks about the end of his days.

Monday, April 7, 2008


It was the summer before I started high school when construction began on the new development. I would ride my bike to the town’s edge and watch the wooden frames erected, a dozen on one side of the road and a dozen on the other. All exactly the same. Large men with bad sunburns laughed and worked until four every afternoon. I would spit on the asphalt and watch it evaporate. Then I would get on my bike and ride back into town.

One day, deep into July, I took a bad fall on my ride home. I was right outside the McKenzie house, hit a pothole, went head first over the handlebars. My bike was fine but my elbow lost a good chunk of flesh. I sat on the curb and bit my bottom lip, tried to get through the pain.

“Are you okay?” she said from the McKenzies’ doorway and I looked at her but didn’t respond, continued to bite my lip. She disappeared for a moment, returned with a roll of gauze and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. I had never seen her before, this girl who was dressing my wound. Not at school, not in town, not in front the McKenzies’ and I rode by that house just about every day.

When all was done and a tight, white bandage hid my missing skin, I thanked the girl, asked her name. “Heather,” she said. “I just moved here last week with my dad. This is my grandparent’s place and we’re going to stay until dad can find some work and get back on his feet.” I introduced myself and offered to show her around town, maybe buy her an ice cream cone to show my gratitude. “It’s getting late and dad will lose it if I’m not home for dinner,” she said. “But maybe tomorrow.”

* * *

Heading out to the development the next day, I went by the McKenzie place at a crawl. Heather wasn’t in the yard, wasn’t in the doorway. I couldn’t see her in any of the windows. At the corner I made a left, then another and another and another and I came back up the McKenzies' block. This time she was there, sitting on the lawn, smiling, looking as if she’d been that way all morning. “Hey there,” she said. “Come sit with me.”

The lawn was little more than scattered patches of dead crabgrass and laying on my back, the beige-brown blades tickled my ears, scratched my neck. “Have you lived here long, in this town?” Heather asked me. I told her that I had, all my life. “That must be nice.”

Later, I again offered to show her around town. “Not today,” she said, and it was left at that. It would soon be dark so I headed home, mindful of potholes in the fading orange light. Over meatloaf and mashed potatoes my father assured the family that those new houses on the edge of town would never sell. They were too fancy for the current residents and there was nothing in these parts to attract anyone new. No, they would never sell.

* * *

Summer dragged on with little change. I rode to the McKenzies’ and watched the clouds move overhead. I rode out to the development and watched the houses edge toward completion. I rode home and watched the new flesh, pink and tender, emerge on my skinned elbow.

Near the end of August I asked Heather why she spent all her time on that lawn, why she would never go into town with me. “Show me that construction site you always go to,” she said and as I started toward my bike, “Tonight. Let’s go out there tonight. Meet me here around ten?” I said I would, then rode home.

I returned at ten sharp and Heather was waiting on the dead lawn. A black sweatshirt was zipped up, hood framing her face. She waved, stood up. I waved back, hopped off my bike.

We made our way to the development. Cars rarely ventured that far out of town, particularly so late at night, and the trip was quiet and dark. Heather did not have a bike so I walked mine. “I like the way the air tastes out here,” Heater said. “It’s sweet, almost like honey.”

By now the houses had progressed beyond skeletal beams. No doors had been installed and we entered one of the structures, sat against the sheetrock wall. “This will be a nice house when it’s finished,” Heather said. I had to agree. “And one day it will be old and it will not be so nice anymore.” I figured that was one way to look at it. “But when that day comes, it will be important to remember that once, not so long before, this was a very nice house.”

* * *

The week before school began rumors spread all over town about the McKenzies. People whispered all sorts of things to each other, shook their heads. As I heard it, the McKenzies gave their son a place to hide out. He was wanted for the kidnapping of his teenage daughter.

Some said the McKenzies didn’t know about any kidnapping, that their son said he was he was in town for a visit. Some said the whole kidnapping was the McKenzies’ idea in the first place. Either way, Heather was gone, her dad likely in jail. The Mckenzies couldn’t make it past the stares and the whispers and soon they moved out of town. And then life went on.

The development on the edge of town was completed before the winter storms rolled through. By spring all the houses had been sold. Over the next couple years all sorts of new shops, restaurants sprang up by the edge of town. And now, years later, those houses aren’t very new anymore, aren’t very nice. But I still remember a time when those houses were very new, were very nice. Back when the air smelled like honey, before life went on.