Fool’s Gold


(A still rough piece of short fiction that came to me yesterday.  The setting and the time are the same as the novel I’ve been working on, but the characters are new.)

It stormed the night before, thunder claps and lightning flashes moving stealthily across the sleeping town. It took only about an hour to pass through, but it was enough to finally break the heat wave that had gripped the town for the first two weeks of August. The cool breeze that blew out of the north was a welcome reprieve from the hot and damp southern winds that pushed daytime temperatures into the nineties, but as welcome as it may have been, it was also cool enough to remind everyone that summer was almost over, and that autumn was on its way.

Autumn and other things were on Bill Michaels’ mind as he sat in the passenger seat, the wind through his open window rolling back his black hair. It was cold enough to cause his girlfriend, Peggy Olsen, sitting alone in the enormous back seat of Jeff Fry’s 1965 Rambler, to complain about how chilly it was and what a mess it was making of her hair.  Without hesitation, Jeff reached down and grabbed the handle and rolled up the drivers’ side front window. Bill didn’t move, his blue eyes fixed on the endless rolling corn and hay fields of county highway F that had been dipped in the golden late afternoon sunlight.

“I’m glad there’s at least one gentleman in this car,” Peg said.

“Don’t get your panties in a bundle,” Bill said. “It’s only for a minute or two.”

Peggy folded her arms and bit her tongue. She wanted to tell Bill what a jerk he’d been lately, but she reminded herself that Bill had a right to be on edge. She thought about how this was the last night she’d have to tiptoe around him, the last night she’d have to suffer his uncharacteristically brooding and short fuse, and then she felt guilty.

Bailey’s Bridge, where the Canadian Pacific railroad line traversed Count Highway F, appeared ahead of them. Jeff slowed the Rambler down and parked under it, on the side of the highway. They got out and Jeff opened up the trunk, and looped his right arm through the three folded up lawn chairs and reached out his right hand and grabbed the case of Old Milwaukee. Peg and Bill both took a bag of groceries. Jeff took the last bag, from the Orchard Depot Ben Franklin hardware store, and lifted it out of the trunk with his left hand.

“What’s in there?” Bill asked.

“Spray paints!” Jeff was pleased with himself. “I’ve got four different colors.  I figured it’s time we immortalized ourselves.”

“Far out,” Peg said, as they started climbing the dirt path from the highway to the top of the bridge. The side of the bridge was covered with graffiti, the largest and freshest addition a psychedelic-ish red, white and blue “Class of 69” that word around town their class president, Tom Robinson, painted the night of their graduation, openly defying the town president, Frank Cornish, and his promised crackdown on “the bastardization of valuable public property” that graffiti represented. As they got to the top of the bridge, Bill thought about Tom Robinson and how “brave” and “daring” everybody said he was, and wondered how much courage it’d take to start college in Madison in the fall compared to how much Vietnam would require from Bill, and he got pissed off again. Robinson would spend his days that autumn fucking coeds, while he’d be in the jungle getting shot at by the Viet Cong. He resented Robinson, and wondered why his number didn’t come up in the lottery, and he thought of Robinson up at the lake with the spectacular Janice Shaffer in her two piece swimsuit while he was left to spend his last night before shipping out to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri at the gravel pit with his idiot best friend and his moody girlfriend. He extended his hand and pulled her up the last step to the railroad tracks, taking note of the jacket she was already wearing.

They walked along the tracks west from the bridge for about a half mile, the same terrain Bill and Jeff knew so well from rabbit hunting. They’d done it so many times in winters past that they’d execute the routine without speaking, the shooter getting high up on the elevated tracks and the pusher taking the wooded brush below and beside the tracks, on the north side of the tracks first, walking through the thickets and stomping on the brush piles while the shooter up above, on the tracks, kept his eyes peeled on the brush in front of the pusher below and his 20 gauge shotgun on the ready for the inevitable rabbit that would feel the pressure and try to escape, running ahead until the shooter got a bead on him and squeezed the trigger. They’d hunt like that, walking west, until they got to the gravel pit, when they‘d switch roles, with the shooter taking the south side and becoming the pusher, and the north side pusher taking the role of the shooter, as they’d make their way east back to Bailey’s Bridge.

“I’m gonna miss rabbit hunting,” Jeff said.

“You can still hunt,” Bill said.

“Not by myself.”

“Then find someone else.”

“Wouldn’t be the same,” Jeff said.

After about a fifteen minute walk, they arrived at the gravel pit.  The sun was sinking in the west.  One of the first times they hunted the tracks, about six years earlier, they “discovered” the gravel pit. Inactive since at least the late fifties, it still carried the scars from the big digger machines that cut and carved and dug holes in the earth to load boxcars that used to take the sand and gravel harvested by the machines to the county municipal building, where it’d be put to use as fill and ice melt. In addition to the cuts and wide holes left in the earth, there were also new hills created in the process of piling once loose rocky soil and sand that over time became attached to the terra firma. The highest of these hills, known as “Gravel Hill” stood about fifty feet above the ground, or just high enough to provide the best view of Orchard Depot short of being in an airplane. Bill and Jeff and Peg climbed to the top of Gravel Hill and opened up their lawn chairs around the fire pit that had been installed at its peak. Jeff and Peg collected fire wood while Bill took some newspaper and a book of matches he’d stuffed in the back pocket of his jeans out and lit the kindling until the flames were strong enough to ignite the bigger logs.

Soon it was dark and chilly out, the fire providing light and warmth as they sat in their lawn chairs next to it, on its east side, drinking warm Old Milwaukee and looking out over the fire to the west, where the yellow and white lights of Orchard Depot stood out against the black horizon, while above a handful of stars tossed up against the clear night sky sparkled and shone. Bill and Jeff told the story about how, when they were in seventh grade, they came out to the gravel pit and found, unearthed by the swipe of an old digger machine that’d scraped a hole in the ground, a rock that glittered and glowed.  Peg had heard the story countless times before, about how they convinced themselves they’d found a deep vein of gold or silver or some other mineral of untold value, and she always loved hearing them get more and more animated as they described the plans they’d made for their harvest and the lengths they went to in order to keep their finding and their subsequent expeditions secret. They finally go up the nerve to approach the middle school science teacher, Mrs. Breck, about their finding and how her examination of the sample they presented to her resulted in her declaring, “what you’ve got there is a sizable chunk of Pyrite.”

“Pyrite.” Bill and Jeff repeated the term in unison. It sounded impressive. “How much do you suppose it’s worth?” Bill finally asked.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said.  “I’ll give you each fifty cents for it.”

“Fifty cents!” Jeff couldn’t hide his disgust. “More like fifty dollars!”

She laughed. “That’d definitely be paying too much,” she said, “too much for fool’s gold.”

“Fool’s gold?”

“That’s right.  Not worth a cent.  But it’d be worth a buck to me to use it in class.”

At this point in the story, Bill and Jeff would always go over the list of things they’d planned on buying with their precious metal, and Peg loved hearing them say, “mini-bike?  Scratch. Snowmobile? Scratch.”  Peg came from a home environment that was dominated by alcohol and divorce and was completely humorless. The concept of self-deprecation was so foreign and new to her that she found it hysterical.

It was times like this, with Peg laughing so hard and loud at such a simple story that convinced Bill he was in love with her. It was the pureness and the genuine joy she felt, and the way her face lit up when she was happy and laughing. At times like this, Bill was certain that she was the prettiest girl in town. The problem was that she was so hesitant to let her guard down that few people had ever seen her like that.

Bill and Peg had been going steady since the previous October, their senior year, when Bill asked her out to the Homecoming dance. They had a class, third hour senior civics, together. Bill, who’d always been painfully shy around girls, found himself seated behind Peg, and every day as he silently stared at the back of her head, at her full reddish-brown hair, he grew more and more enamored with her. Then one day, as she passed a test back to him, he smiled at her and she smiled back. Emboldened by the exchange, he vowed to talk to her the next day, asking her what she thought of the test, and she said that she thought it was really hard, which surprised him, because he found it to be quite easy. But he didn’t let on, instead agreeing with her.

The ice successfully broken, they started talking more and more until Bill finally worked up the nerve to ask her to the Homecoming dance. Once there, they were both able to brush off their initial awkwardness enough to successfully take a couple of slow dances together. At the end of the night, Bill drove Peg home and walked her to her front porch, the glow of the porchlight exposing peeling and faded green paint on the siding as they quickly kissed good night, their lips barely making contact.

The first time they made love, had sex, was three months later, a cold Wednesday night in mid-January, the day Bill received his draft notice. It hadn’t really sunk in yet, that he was going to Vietnam.  Bill used it to his advantage to get what he’d been pestering her for the previous month or so, as he parked his dad’s green Ford LTD on Brown Woods road, a short and uninhabited stretch of gravel north of town off of County Highway G. It was cold as they climbed in the back seat and unsnapped their jeans, the windows quickly frosting over as he thrust himself into her, exploding after only a few rushed strokes, the whole thing over just moments after it’d started. As they were putting their jeans back on, he caught a glimpse of a single tear running down her cheek before she quickly wiped it away with her hand. He felt horrible.

It’d be another month before they tried again, again on Brown Woods Road, again in the back seat of his dad’s LTD. This time was different, though, as they didn’t rush things, taking off their shirts as well as their pants, their bodies lit by the pale and cold moonlight that streamed through the windshield. Bill found her beautiful, her bare breasts and her hips and her waist, but especially her bare upper back, between and under her shoulder blades, her skin milk white and smooth.

By the time they found themselves sitting in the fire light on Gravel Hill on the night before Bill was to head to basic training, they’d had sex eight times.  Bill hated that he knew this. He understood that he was cheapening the experience, cheapening Peg, by keeping a count, but he also knew that he couldn’t help it. He’d always seen and processed the world through numbers, since before he could remember, and he counted and stored everything. Times he and Jeff had gone rabbit hunting:  twenty-six.

At one time, in Junior High, it looked like his proficiency with numbers would be the ticket for Bill to become the first Michaels to attend college.  But although he got good grades in math classes, he remained a poor and unmotivated student in his other academic endeavors.

His senior year, especially the spring semester, after receiving his draft notice, was especially bad. There were many days he didn’t show up to class at all. The school administrators had grown all too familiar with the phenomenon of the unmotivated drafted senior and agreed that compared to going to war on the other side of the world, high school just didn’t seem that important, and adopted an unofficial policy of graduating these individuals regardless of academic achievement.

Bill glanced at his Timex, a graduation gift from his grandparents.   It was shortly after one o’clock. Time was running out.  His folks were taking him to Mitchell Field, in Milwaukee, at six o’clock in time for him to check in and board his 7:30 flight to Saint Louis. He’d told his mom and dad all along that he planned on staying out all night before leaving. He could feel the moments ticking away, and as he reached down for another beer, he realized they were almost gone, too. As he pulled the top off the can of Old Milwaukee, he looked across the fire at Jeff and Peg and felt the same panic that’d been hitting him too frequently lately, that everything was moving too fast and that the very earth itself was about to spin off of its axis.

“I sure wish I was going, too,” Jeff said.

“No you don’t,” Bill replied.

“That’s not true,” Jeff said.  “Just because I can’t go, doesn’t mean I don’t want to.”

“Why on earth would you want to go?” Bill asked.

“Because I, be-be-because I just want to,” Jeff said. He was starting to get agitated.

“That’s the dumb …”

“Bill,” Peg interrupted, “that’s enough.”

“I’m sorry, Jeff.”

“You just think I’m dumb,” Jeff said.

“No I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I really don’t.  You’re my best friend, Jeff. I’m just saying, you don’t want to go to Vietnam.”

“How do you know what I do or don’t want to do? Just because they won’t take me doesn’t mean I don’t want to go.  Just like you – you’re going but you don’t want to.”

“Jeff,” Peg said. “Just calm down. Who wants to go and who doesn’t want to doesn’t matter. This is the last night we have together. That’s what’s important.  I swear, I’m so sick of hearing and thinking about Vietnam.”

Jeff got real quiet. It was getting late, and he was getting tired.

When Jeff was six years old, while chasing an errant basketball into the street, he was hit by a delivery truck in front of his house.  His head bounced off of the pavement, and he suffered a fractured skull.   The incident left him with minor but permanent brain damage, and a lower than average I.Q. and some short term memory loss that was enough to earn him a draft deferment.

Bill knew Jeff since seventh grade and Peg had spent enough time with him that they both understood him.  Most of the time, he was just a little bit slow mentally, not bad, just slightly, so slightly as to be almost unperceivable.  But once he got tired, once fatigue set in, he’d become easily agitated and forgetful, and start slurring his words.  As they looked at him in his chair beside the fire, Bill and Peg knew that in a minute or two he’d be sound asleep, and given an hour’s nap, he’d wake up refreshed and coherent, and he’d be Jeff again.

Once Jeff was asleep, Bill and Peg sat close to one another, forsaking their lawn chairs to sit on the ground next to the fire.  The night was getting cold, and Bill, in his black t-shirt, was struggling to keep warm.

“Still think I was stupid for wearing a jacket?” Peg asked.

“No, I guess not,” Bill replied.  He sat close to her, absorbing her body warmth. He reached his left hand into her jacket and between buttons on her blouse and over her bra covered beast and gently squeezed. She turned her face toward his and they kissed.

“You want to go in the bushes?” Peg asked.

“No, that’d be about the last thing I’d need.  Start basic training with poison ivy all over my ass.”

Peg laughed, and then said, “well, I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it out here in front of Sleeping Beauty.”

“No, neither would I.”  They then agreed that the cold, the poison ivy, and the presence of Jeff were all enough to make sex, last night together or not, a dubious proposition that wasn’t worth pursuing.

“Just keep me warm,” Bill said, as they huddled together. Jeff was snoring loudly from his lawn chair.

Bill cleared his throat, and said, “Peg, I’ve been thinking.”

“About what?”

Bill nervously poked at the fire with a stick.  “About us,” he said.

“What about us?”  There was apprehension in her voice.

“I was just thinking …” he started. “I was just thinking that if something happens …”

“Now I told you we weren’t going to talk like that.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “Okay. It’s just that I’m going to be gone for so long, and I’ll be so far away, that, if someone else comes along, I don’t want you to feel you have to wait for me.”

It was the truth, at least the partial truth.  He had been thinking about that lately. The complete truth, though, was that part of him was looking forward to getting out of Orchard Depot, and finding new people, instead of the only other two people in town who were as lonely as he was.  He’d been wondering how it came to this, how on the night before he was to ship out he found himself alone on Gravel Hill with the daughter of the town drunk and a brain damaged imbecile.  He wondered what his flaw was, and all he could come up with is that he’d been a math geek with a photographic memory filled with nothing but numbers, because that’d been all he allowed himself to experience, and now he was going to war, to face possible death, without ever having really lived, and having seen so little of the world. He looked at Jeff and Peg, their faces lit by the firelight, and he realized how much he loved them both, and how much he needed to move beyond them.  He saw the tear rolling down Peg’s face and he suspected she knew it, too.

Jeff woke up and saw Bill and Peg sitting by the fire, and said, “How long was I asleep?  You two getting cozy together?”

Peg wiped her face and stood up, saying that she had to go in the brush and pee and that nobody better follow her.

“How you feel, Jeff?” Bill asked.

“I feel like another beer,” Jeff replied. Bill grabbed one of the last Old Milwaukees and tossed it to Jeff.  “What time is it?” Jeff asked.

Bill cocked his wrist so that his watch was lit by the fire. “It’s two thirty,” he replied.

Peg returned from the brush and the three of them sat and finished the beer, talk and laughter coming easily in the pre-dawn darkness.

Finally, at 3:45, they decided to call it a night. They put out the fire and picked up. Jeff held a flashlight in his hand as they prepared to walk east along the tracks to the bridge and Jeff’s Rambler, when Bill stopped and looked west towards town.

“Guys,” he said, “if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to walk home.”

“Are you sure?” Jeff asked.

“Yeah,” Bill replied. “One last long look at things.”

They said their goodbyes, there on the railroad tracks, Bill shaking Jeff’s hand before Jeff pulled him into a big hug, both of them slapping each other on the back. Then it was Peg’s turn, and they kissed and held each other tighter than they ever had before.  Tears were running down both of their faces as they finally let each other go, neither one of them able to think of a single word to say to one another.

Bill stood still on the railroad tracks, facing east, and watched Peg and Jeff walk away until all he could see was the faint and fading glow of Jeff’s flashlight and when he couldn’t see that anymore, he climbed back to the top of Gravel Hill and looked to the west, to the sleeping lights of his hometown, Orchard Depot, Wisconsin. They’d never before shone so vividly, and it was as if he was looking at them from the other side of the world, from the jungles of an unknown place called Vietnam, yet he still could see, as clearly as if they were standing next to him, sparkling and glittering in the yellow streetlight lit haze of memory like rare and precious minerals, his best friend and his first love.

Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment

Tuesday Morning


Last year, on Easter Sunday of 2015, my wife took me to the emergency room after I experienced pains in my chest and left arm. They ran a bunch of preliminary tests and everything looked fine, but the doctor admitted me anyway until I could undergo a stress test, which he ordered for me to take Monday morning.

To make a long story short, the stress test almost killed me, and I ended up in Intensive Care for a couple of hours. Finally, after running more tests, they were able to determine that three of the arteries to my heart were badly constricted, with one at 99% blocked. They scheduled me for triple bypass surgery early Tuesday morning, and they closely monitored me all that night.

Monday evening, my wife sat with me in my room. I don’t remember much about what we talked about, other than telling each other how lucky we were to have caught this in the nick of time and how much better I’d feel after it was all over and my recovery was complete. Finally, sometime around ten o’clock, we realized how exhausted we both were and what a long day Tuesday promised to be, so she went home to try and get a few hours of sleep while I’d try to do the same in my hospital bed.

An hour or two later I woke up from dozing and saw the empty chair where she’d been sitting all evening. Only it wasn’t the chair I saw, rather, it was our bed at home, and I saw my side empty and my wife sleeping alone, and it hit me: there was a chance, if things didn’t go well during the operation or in the immediate days of recovery afterwards, that I’d already spent my last night sleeping in bed with my arm wrapped around her. For the first time since my hour or two stay in Intensive Care, the gravity of what I was going through and the permanence of death really hit me.  It wasn’t her eyes or her face or her skin or her voice that I thought of.  It wasn’t the laughs or the secrets we’ve shared. It wasn’t the deep friendship and comradery we’ve spent a lifetime forging.  It wasn’t any one of the million waking real world things I love about her.

It was instead the sleep we share every night, our bodies pressed against each other, the rising and falling of her breath, and the rhythm of our hearts beating together in perfect time. I laid there the rest of the night, awake, hoping and praying I’d wake up from my operation on Tuesday morning so I could go back home and once again fall into sleep and into the dream that my love for her has been all these years.

This Monday, August 15th, will be our thirty fifth wedding anniversary and I want to tell you, thank you, Deb, thank you for the dreaming.  After we have our little anniversary dinner and evening, we’ll go to bed and sleep and dream together, just like we have almost every night for the past thirty five years, and when the August early morning light of Tuesday morning illuminates our bed, we’ll wake up together, too. I now know that, regardless of what happens or whatever distances are placed between us, in the night, when you close your eyes, and in the morning, when you open them, I’ll always be with you and you with me.

Posted in General Essays, Memoirs | 2 Comments

Windows


From July of 1977 to November of 1979, I worked at the Norco Windows factory in the tiny town of Hawkins, Wisconsin. It was a big operation at the time. There had to be at least 400 people who worked there, more than the entire population of 338 who called the town of Hawkins home.

I was eighteen years old when I started and twenty one when I left. For most of the time I worked there, my job was to snap together the insulated aluminum spacers into rectangular frames that were the starting point in the process of the creation of double insulated windows.

The frames I snapped together were insulated with silicate by Lew, my work partner, who had two square, three gallon jugs that he’d fill with silicate and then place into a metallic frame someone had designed.  They were positioned in the frame cocked at an angle, with the bottom seam of the jug held together with a strip of rubber with holes punched in it.  The rubber holes were slits just big enough for Lew to insert the aluminum spacers into.  There were about ten holes in each jug, and Lew would insert the spacers into the holes and gravity would force the silica into the spacers. The apparatus that Lew used to fill the spacers was ingenious in its design, as right after Lew would insert the 20th spacer, the first one would be filled, and he’d remove the twenty spacers in the same order he’d inserted them. There were no expensive electronics or hydraulics involved, just a frame someone had welded together, two square three gallon jugs, two rubber strips with holes punched in them, and the endless force of gravity. I imagine that now, forty years later, the whole process has been re-engineered, and that both Lew’s job and mine have long ago been automated.

Which makes me thankful that I got to Norco when I did, else I probably would have missed out on ever meeting Lew, one of the nicest and simplest and sweetest men to ever walk the earth.

Lew was a funny-looking guy, short and squat, with soft features and a baby face that contradicted the fact that he was forty five years old.  His skin was blotchy and hung loosely on his frame. Like a lot of the older guys who worked there at the time, he wore a dark green buttoned up work shirt over a white t-shirt and olive green work slacks every day. He wore a fading and floppy yellow fishing cap over his bald head. He was a confirmed bachelor, and still lived at home with his folks.

We’d stand there, side by side, him on his little spacer filling platform and me next to him, snapping spacers together, for the better part of eight hours a day.  We’d make small talk, talking about the Packers and the Brewers and the Bucks. We shared a passion for sports, although I quickly learned that Lew didn’t think like others. His brain worked in bizarre but pleasant ways.  One day we were talking about the packers and discussing the weekly injury report when I said that one of the players was listed as “probable, meaning that he’ll probably play.”

“That’s not what probable means,” he replied.  When I pressed him on it, he said that “it means he’ll probably play or he probably won’t.”

He never said anything negative about anyone, and more often than not, his face expressed a goofy looking toothy grin.

There were things about him that just didn’t make any sense.  For example, when I asked him what his favorite move was, he answered “Under the Yum Yum Tree, with Jack Lemmon.”  It was always “with Jack Lemmon,” and when I asked him what it was he liked so much about the movie, he’d smile that big goofy grin and reply, “Oh, no, you’re not going to get me like that.” I never had a clue what that meant, or why, in the two plus years I worked with him, every time the subject of movies came up, he’d mention “Under the Yum Yum Tree with Jack Lemmon,” but never give any context as to why.

He was proud of the small town he’d lived in with his parents his entire life, and worked at softball tournaments and parades and fireworks, always volunteering to work the concession stands or to stay behind afterwards and sweep up the town hall or turn off the lights and close up the ball park.  Although he never served in the military, he was none the less proudly patriotic of his country.

One non-descript afternoon we were working in silence when I looked over at Lew. All of the sudden a look of panic overcame his face. He set the handful of spacers he held in his hands down and stepped off of his platform.

“Lew,” I started, “is everything okay?”

He gave no indication of having heard me as he stepped away from the corner where he and I worked and out the big doorway of our department into the larger factory.  My curiosity aroused, I followed silently a few feet behind him. He had the same panicked expression in his eyes and on his face, as he walked, swiftly and purposefully, as if some voice in his head was ordering him where to go.  He got all the way to the other side of the factory, to the big warehouse where they stored hundreds of stacks of windows.  I was still about ten feet behind him when he finally stopped, in the middle of the cavernous building. I ducked behind a palette of wooden sashes so he couldn’t see me, but I could see him. He just stopped and looked around and the dread left his face and he was back from wherever he’d gone to, and he walked, silently and casually, back to our station.  He stepped back on the platform and grabbed the spacers he’d set down and inserted them into the rubber slits.

“Lew, are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he grinned.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“What?”

“You just got up and walked to the other end of the factory,” I said.

He just laughed and asked what was I talking about. It became evident very quickly that he had no memory of the incident, even though I saw it, I knew that it’d happened, even though it had been only a couple of minutes earlier. It remains one of the strangest things I’ve ever witnessed.

All I ever knew about his home life were the occasional random and incoherent nuggets. As far as I could tell, he’d always lived at home with his parents and had never been on his own.  His father was such a Green Bay Packers fan that, when his only child was born in 1933, he named him after Verne Lewellyn, a Packers great from the 1920s.

As far as I knew, there’d never been any great romance or tragic love of his life. If there had been, it didn’t seem to have had any lasting effect, as he was almost always happy and cheerful.

I got the impression that after living with his parents his entire life, now that they were older, roles had reversed and he was taking care of them.  This lead to one of the rare instances of frustration he shared with me.

It was our first day back to work after the Christmas holiday when I asked him how his holiday was.

“Terrible, just terrible,” he said, making no attempt to hide he disgust in his voice.  He went onto tell me how he’d gotten his mother a microwave oven. It was 1978 and microwaves were not only new technology, but they were expensive, too.  His mom, for reasons that eluded Lew, didn’t like the gift, and returned it.

“Maybe she thought you’d spent too much,” I offered as an explanation.  Lew just shrugged his shoulders in disgust, and then muttered something about her saying she was too old to learn new tricks.

Now, almost forty years later, whenever I think about Lew, I think about time, too, about both a snapshot into the past and all the time that’s passed since. I wonder if he’s still alive, and I do the math, and calculate that he’d be in his mid-eighties by now.  I think about aluminum spacers and rubber slits and gravity, and I think about microwave ovens, but mostly I think of a floppy yellow fishing cap and the strange episode I witnessed when something took control of Lew.   I still don’t know what it was that drove him to the far end of the factory, what it was that momentarily gripped him with fear and panic. Maybe in that moment, Lew walked through a wrinkle in time into the not too distant future and saw a world that no longer has neither the time nor a place for such a pure and lovely small town soul, as beautiful and simple as a floppy yellow fishing cap.

Posted in Memoirs | 2 Comments

Cemetery Music


(Still working on my novel when I came upon a couple of paragraphs I’d completely forgotten writing more than a year ago …)

The Orchard Depot cemetery sits on a ten acre hillside plot just south of the town limits on state highway seventeen.  The headstones are laid out in neatly aligned rows and columns that rise with the hillside until, just short of the top of the hill, they abruptly stop, halted by a woven wire fence that marks the beginning of a large hay field that belongs to Driscoll’s farm. For most of the year, the mature oak and elm and maple trees that break up the neat rows of headstones provide cool shade and whisper in the westerly breeze, and in early August, when the uncut hay is long and golden and the wind is out of the west, you can watch it make the hay dance, a gentle and golden ballet, swaying to the hushed and whispering symphony that the wind and the leaves and the hay composed and performs for the dead.

In the depths of winter, though, only the wind remains, icy cold, and with the leaves gone and the hay cut, in the gray absence of sunshine, the ballet becomes a dirge, a melancholy and empty meditation on death. Its audience, the dead, sleeps cold and restless beneath a blanket of snow, haunted by the bleak winter music.

Posted in I Don't Know Why, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Changes


(I’m having so much fun working on my novel that I’m going to post the chapter that occurs immediately before the sceneI posted last night – it’s still pretty rough, but I kind of like how it’s coming together.  The setting is the fictional south eastern Wisconsin town Orchard Depot, and it’s November of 1979)

Right before our eyes the town was changing. Sometime in early November, suddenly and without warning, the giant green brontosaurus that marked the intersection of State Highways 17 and 47, was gone, replaced by a CLARK sign. Richter’s Sinclair had become a casualty of the late seventies oil crisis, one of many Sinclair stations across the country to be sacrificed.  Roman Richter still maintained ownership of the franchise, and he still ran his mechanic business out of his garages, but Richter’s Clark would never come close to the Orchard Depot landmark that the green brontosaurus and Richter’s Sinclair had been.

There were other changes, too, starting with the sudden departure of the town president Frank Cornish two years earlier. If the downtown sidewalks seemed emptier, it’s because they were, more people choosing to do their shopping at the plush shopping malls and non-descript strip malls that were popping up on the swollen edges of Racine and Milwaukee, nibbling away at the flat farm fields, moving ever closer to Orchard Depot and offering national chain hardware and grocery and pharmacies that the owners and operators of the downtown businesses couldn’t compete with.  Even Frank Cornish, before he left, sold off the Orchard Depot lumber yard to a regional conglomerate.

The old Cornish home, the grand Victorian mansion that stood on the hill next to the high school, had already been sold and foreclosed upon, and was starting to sag under the weight of its age, while weeds took over the front yard.  Cornish Park, the forty acres across the street was the big donation Frank made to the town he loved so much, and was the one landmark that bore his name.

It wasn’t just the town that was changing,

Days after I turned twenty one years old, Angela Pollard, of Michigan City, Indiana, became the first steady girlfriend I’d ever had.

This was also the time that I started a new job, working evenings, two to ten P.M., unloading delivery trucks and packing orders on the loading dock of a company called Open Pantry in Racine. Our schedules were such that I’d get off work an hour after Angela started the overnight shift at the Town Friar, so after its tumultuous start, we were forced to slow down the pace of our romance. Which was just fine with me.

I’d make a point of stopping at the Town Friar every night on my way home from work and ordering dinner.  Angela would serve me, and, as it was still in the slow time of night, usually be able to break free to sit with me for a few minutes, when we’d discuss the events of our days. I found myself looking forward to these moments, mentally logging things that happened during the course of the day as things I’d have to tell Ang about. It was a new experience, having a friend that I could share the details of my life with.

Nights Angela was off, usually Tuesday and Wednesday, I’d drive straight to her apartment and spend the night. I was making up for lost time by engaging in Olympics gold-medal worthy sexual gymnastics. I was a quick learner and an enthusiastic experimenter.

None of that got in the way of our mission to find Matt’s body. Angela made sure of that. I, on the other hand, would have been happy to finally forget about Matt for a while/. I was enjoying working my $4.25 per hour job and my first real relationship with a living, breathing woman, one who not only looked great but was able to make me feel things I’d never imagined feeling. I was falling in love, both with Angela and with the idea of falling in love. It’d been so long since I’d allowed myself to even dream of these things coming true that I was willing to let them take me where they would.

It was Angela who kept us tethered to reality, and the fence post she kept us tied to was Matt, and the search for his body. I recognized a determination and drive in her to uncover the truth that was waning in me. She’d have to be the driver, and I’d be a willing passenger.

The subject of Tom Musgrave and why he lied about seeing Matt became the point of focus, with Angela becoming obsessed with the question, why did he lie? She became convinced, and in turn convinced me, that once we understood Tom’s motive for lying, the answers to the remaining questions would fall like dominoes.

The years after we discovered the lifeless body of Matt Pollard couldn’t have turned out more differently for Tom Musgrave and me.  Where I began my downward spiral and became an object of derision and fear and perhaps the most reviled individual in Orchard Depot for what I did to Sam Richter, Tom, on the other hand, became a source of pride and something of a cherished Orchard Depot celebrity. It was basketball that did it, as Tom starred first on the middle school team, then the high school team, where he shattered all of his older brother Jim’s  scoring records, making the class C all-state team and accepting a scholarship at one of  the state schools, UW Stevens Point. He was the team’s starting shooting guard, averaging twelve points a game his junior year and, at Thanksgiving, just  a week before the 1979-80 season was to start, was listed by the newspapers as a possible all-American candidate.

As I observed my one-time best friend’s ascension into sports stardom, I couldn’t help but feel that the fates were rewarding him for lying about the body and punishing me for insisting on the truth. It also became apparent that the more successful he grew, the bigger of a dick he became. This was more fact than opinion, as I’d overhear classmates talking about what a snobbish cunt he was, and watch them roll their eyes in disbelief over yet another example of his arrogance.

When we were still best friends, in the seventh grade, he was only a slightly better basketball player than me, and we’d wage epic one on one battles against each other. Then after the body and the lie, after we split and went our separate ways, Tom blossomed and pushed his way out of the shadow Jim cast, while I was left to shoot baskets by myself in the driveway.  Where Tom progressed, I digressed.

It wasn’t just basketball, either.  As high school bled into college, I retreated inside of myself, spending most of the time alone, reading and watching television. I fell into a lonely rut, and I put on a few pounds. While I wasn’t fat, I was well on my way to becoming just another pear shaped late twenty or early thirty-something idiot.

Then I attempted suicide and failed, and spent nine long months in the state psych ward in Madison. Bored out of my mind, I quickly discovered the gym and running track, and ended up spending a large portion of my waking hours on their treadmills and weight machines. I ran a minimum of three miles every day, most days going five or six. By the time I was released, I was in the best shape of my life.

So it was that on Thursday, Thanksgiving morning, I looked out the picture window of my mom and dad’s house and saw Tom Musgrave, home for the holidays, in his sweats, jogging down Vicksburg Avenue in the chilly grey morning, and decided that I’d go for a run, too.  But first I called Angela up.

“Ang,” I said, “meet me at the grade school playground in about fifteen minutes.  And bring the photo of Matt.”

I slipped on my running shoes and exited our house out the back door, and started running, heading due west through the back yards for two blocks, until I got to Highview Avenue. Figuring I’d intersected Tom’s route and gotten the drop on him, I slowed down to a jog and headed north on Highview, toward where it ended at Thirteenth street, toward where Tom was.  As I approached Thirteenth Street, I looked to my right and sure enough, jogging west on the sidewalk, was Tom Musgrave.

I timed my exit from Highland and entered the Thirteenth Street sidewalk so that I ended up by Tom’s side.

“Hey, Musgrave,” I said. “Mind if I join you?”

“Go fuck yourself,” he said, not even looking at me.

“I’ll take that for a ‘go ahead, Jack.’”

“Leave me alone,” he said.

“I will, I will, I promise,” I said.  “Right after I ask you one question.”

Tom didn’t say anything, he just kept on running. I stayed right there at his side. I was having no difficulty maintaining his pace.  We got to the corner of State Street, and I slowed down and let Tom choose which direction we went. Luckily, he chose left, toward the elementary school, where I’d told Angela to wait for us.

As we headed towards the elementary school, I said, “I’ve got just one question for you.”

“Fuck off,” he said, louder his time.

Ahead of us the school playground came into view, and I could see Angela, sitting on one of the swings, waiting for us.

“Why did you lie about the body?”

Tom didn’t say anything, we kept running. I wouldn’t leave his side. We were just about even with Angela when I reached over and grabbed him by his unzipped sweatshirt, stopped and said, louder, “Answer me!  Why did you lie?”

“Get your fucking hands off of me,” he yelled, ripping my hands off of his sweatshirt.  They were free for only a second, then I grabbed him again. I could see him reaching his right arm back to throw a punch at me. Before he could launch it, I stuck out my left leg and pulled him over it.  He fell hard on the sidewalk, and I was on top of him, the same way I was on top of Sam Richter when I hit him with the tire iron.  From my periphery, I could see Angela, running over to us, with the Polaroid in her hand.

“Get off of me,” Tom was yelling, flailing about, but I still had him pinned down when Angela got to us.

‘Not till you tell us why you lied,” I said.

“I didn’t lie.”

Angela was bent over, holding the photo out in front of his face. “Look at this.  Look at it.” Tom at first wouldn’t look at the picture, jerking his head from side to side, but then he caught a glance of it, and recognition sparked across his face.  “That was my brother, asshole.  Thanks to you, whoever killed him is still walking free.”

Tom’s expression softened and he stopped resisting. I still held him, pinned down, when we could hear the sound of a police sirens, at first distant but getting closer with every second. Tom lifted his forehead but I grabbed him by his scalp and shoved his head back down on the hard sidewalk.

“Why, fucker?  Why did you lie? ” I said. The sirens were getting louder.

“I don’t know! Ask Jim,” he said.

“Your brother?”

“Yeah, Jim,” he said. “He told me to.  I don’t know why.”

“Jack, the cops!” Angela said.  A squad car had just turned down State Street, the siren louder and approaching. I got up, leaving Tom laying on the sidewalk, and grabbed Angela’s hand, and we ran across the playground into the small grove of trees on its eastern edge.

We stood there, in the trees, catching our breath, hiding from the cops.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” she said.  From across the baseball field and over the playground, we watched the scene on the State Street sidewalk.  The police car was parked on the side of the road, its lights silently flashing.  Tom was standing, dusting himself off. Two officers were there on the sidewalk, talking to him.  Angela and I watched as they got back in the car, leaving Tom on the sidewalk. The lights on the squad car went dark, and it slowly pulled back out on State Street and drove off.

“They’re leaving,” Angela said.

“Yeah, my guess is that Tom didn’t want to press charges. Not with his brother involved in this whole thing.”

“Do you know his brother?

“Yeah.  Jim’s always been a great guy.”

“Do you think Tom’s telling the truth?” Angela asked. “Do you think Jim killed Matt?”

“Yeah,” I said.   “I mean, no.  Yeah, I think he’s telling the truth. But no, I don’t think Jim killed anyone.”

I was trying to process what had just happened. Angela was distracting me with all of her questions. It wasn’t as much what Tom said as it was the way he said it, the expression on his face. His entire demeanor softened after he saw the picture.  It became apparent to me that, despite his lying, the corpse of Matt Pollard had left just as indelible a mark on Tom as it had on me. The expression on Tom’s face when Angela showed him the photo was of instant recognition.

I started walking Angela home. It was going to be a big enough day without the altercation with Tom, as Angela had accepted my invitation to Thanksgiving dinner with my mom and dad. It was going to be nerve-wracking enough, as we’d also decided we’d use the occasion to tell mom and dad about Matt, and that it was more than random coincidence that brought Angela to Orchard Depot and into my life.

But none of that mattered as we walked across town. All Angela could talk about was Tom Musgrave, and his admission that he lied, and that we’d have to get to his brother Jim to find out why.

“So you don’t think Jim killed Matt?” she asked.

“No, there’s no way,” I said. “There’s just no way Jim killed anybody.”

“But can you be certain?” she asked. “Maybe he has a dark side.”

“Jim?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “A dark side? You’ve obviously never met Jim. One of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, even if his little brother did turn into a dick head. Did you know he was there the night I hurt Sam Richter?”

“At the gas station?”

“Yep. He witnessed the whole thing.”

“Then that proves he was involved!”

“How does that prove anything?”\

“Well, how do you know it doesn’t?  We’ll just have to talk to him this weekend.”

“Oh, he’s not home.  Don’t ask me how I know this, my mom must have heard it and told me. He’s with his wife’s family in Texas, her folks retired down there.”

She stopped in her tracks. “Texas?”

“Yes.  So what’s the big …”

“Does he have two kids?”

“Yeah, a boy …”

“And a girl. Does he work at the Plastics factory?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Holy shit,” she said. “I know this guy!”

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Sparks


(I’m up at my cabin, working on my novel. I wrote this short scene tonight – the setting is an all night diner in a small mid-west town.)

Shortly after midnight on Angela’s first night waitressing at the Town Friar, a late twentyish man with dark bags under his blue eyes and dishwater blonde hair neatly parted on the left side walked in alone and took a seat in the last booth.  It was a Thursday night, officially having just rolled over to Friday, and as it was a week night and still almost two hours before the bars closed, the restaurant was nearly empty.

Angela approached the table with a coffee pot and a menu in hand.  She handed him the menu and asked, “Coffee?”

He didn’t look up as he turned his cup upright and took the menu. He muttered a “thanks” and buried his nose in the menu as she poured.  When she was finished with the coffee, she asked “Do you need a couple of minutes?”

“No, I’m set.”  Then he ordered bacon and eggs, sunny side up, not lifting his eyes until he was done, when he saw her for the first time.  “Say,” he said, “You’re new, aren’t you?”

“First night,” she smiled.

“Well, nice to meet you,” he replied as his eyes dropped down to her breast, where her uniform proudly displayed her name plate, “Angela.”

The following Monday, shortly after midnight, he stopped in again. This time, when she bought the menu and the coffee pot, he looked straight at her, and smiled.

“Hi, Angela.  Do you remember me?”

“Yeah, I remember you.  You were here Thursday night. Bacon and eggs, sunny side up.”

“That’s right. You must have a good memory, or else I really made an impression on you.”

“I never forget a face.  Or a tip,” she said.

“Well,” he said, “I never forget anything. I have what they call a pornographic memory.”

She laughed. As she poured his coffee, she said, “I suppose next you’re going to tell me you like your coffee like your women.”

“Not my coffee, my eggs.  I like my eggs like I like my women. Sunny side up.” She smiled and shook her head.

Once Angela settled into her schedule, the night shift Thursdays thru Mondays, he became a regular, always stopping in at about five past midnight every Monday and Thursday, always at the same booth, always with some new cheesy lines for Angela. She found something endearing about the way he delivered them. He was just self-effacing enough not to take himself too seriously, and at the same time, there was something sad about him, a sorrow that seemed to settle in his shoulders.

She learned a little bit about him, that his first name was Jim. When she asked him what his last name was, he answered, “Nasium.”

“Nasium,” she said. “You’re name is Jim Nasium.”

“That’s right,” he replied. “And trust me, I could put you through a real workout.”

She learned that he worked 2nd shift at the plastics factory. When she asked what he did there, he answered, “I’m the foreman, because I’ve got the sexual stamina of four men.”

“You’re wife is a very lucky woman,” Angela frequently replied, reminding him of the wedding band on his finger, and trying to preemptively douse any sparks that might have been igniting between them.

He’d say things like, “You must be exhausted.”

Ever the trusty straight man, she’d reply, “Why’s that?”

“Because you were running thru my dreams all night.”

The cornier the lines were, the harder she laughed. She appreciated that he came armed with the lines, touched that he’d thought about her outside of the Town Friar even if only for a moment or two. She found herself looking forward to his visits.

As reliable as his business was on Mondays and Thursdays, he was never part of the weekend bar closing scene that was the busiest time for the Friar.  Angela only saw him once on a weekend, on a Saturday night in September. He came in and sat at a table in the center of the room instead of his usual corner booth, and then she saw he wasn’t alone.  There was a woman with him, seated across the table from him, and it couldn’t be clearer that it was his wife.  The table was still Angela’s to serve.  As she approached them she saw him wince. Rather than the customary greeting she gave him the nights after work, she went the generic route, pretending she didn’t know him, and he did the same.

Angela recognized Jim’s wife as one of the many same small town girls she’d gone to high school with back in Indiana. She was still pretty, but early childbirth had expanded her hips and added a shapeless softness to her waist and face.  As she watched the two of them, an image became clear, an image of what their lives were like. This was a big night out, a birthday or anniversary, long awaited and eagerly anticipated. They’d gotten a sitter to leave the kids with, and now, at 10:30 on a Saturday night, their big evening was already winding down, and they sat there, wordless and tired, with nothing to say to one another. As Angela served them, Jim couldn’t even look her in the eye, and the source of the sadness she’d always observed in him became clear, and a part of her felt like crying.

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Word Has It


One of the best songs ever written by the great Neil Young is the amazing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young track, “Helpless,” which includes the line “big birds flying across the sky.”  It conjures up images of herons or cranes or eagles or owls, “throwing shadows on our eyes.” It’s one of Neil’s most poetic and poignant images, and perfectly captures the feeling of being helpless.

Now, let’s look at what one misplaced apostrophe can do, and change birds to bird’s. Neil’s powerful paean to heartbreak and loneliness becomes a silly sentiment about a yellow-feathered Sesame Street character clumsily taking flight.

Such is the power of punctuation and typing.  An inadvertent space can change the kindly and distinguished therapist into the menacing and sinister the rapist.  An unintended “i” inserted at the right place can change a realty agent into something more mysterious and powerful, a reality agent.  Leave out the letter “l” and a minor vocal inflection can turn into a deadly and life threatening vocal infection.

Maddening as these can be, they are but one of many reasons why I love the English language. That it has room for Ogden Nash silliness, Ernest Hemmingway efficiency, William Faulkner bombast, and so much more, is truly remarkable.

But it wasn’t these brilliant masters who first made me fall in love with language. Rather, it was one of its great butchers.  Nobody could carve up the English language like my dad.

There were several categories of the mayhem he’d inflict.  Among my favorites:

  • Adding an extra random syllable wherever he deemed fit. Vibrate and arthritis may seem like perfectly fine words, but not for my dad – they became, instead, vi-a-brate and Arthur-ritis.
  • Strangely inexplicable word choices. More than once, while deer hunting together, we’d come to a nice hill or ridge and he’d whisper to me, “This looks like a good spot. I’m going to stand here – why don’t you go out about one hundred yards or so and make a half circle around me, maybe you’ll kick something up.  Don’t go too fast or too slow.  Just sashay thru the brush in a big half circle.” The first time I heard this, I went home and looked up the meaning of sashay in the dictionary:

          Sashay: to walk in an ostentatious yet casual manner, typically with exaggerated                      movements of the hips and shoulders.

Not the kind of lingo you’d expect while deer hunting with a burly truck driver.  If anybody reading this happened to be in the Chippewa County forest about forty years ago and thought you saw a guy dressed in blaze orange walking though the brush in an ostentatious yet casual manner, with exaggerated movements of the hips and shoulders, you weren’t hallucinating – that’d have been yours truly.

Another favorite strange word he’d use from time to time was monkeyshines. This was used whenever I was goofing off and getting on his nerves, forcing him to say “knock  off the monkeyshines.”  I’d heard the word so often that at one point in my childhood I became convinced that when I grew up, I’d make my living in the tropic, illuminating primates.

  • Mispronounced words: There were a number of these, but my all-time favorite was the time he was explaining a minor surgery he was scheduled for. When he got to the part about how they’d anesthetize him, he said “They’re gonna use Anastasia to knock me out.”  I immediately formed images of the missing daughter of the Russian Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandria bonking my dad on his head with a hammer.

It’s little wonder that I grew up loving puns and playing with words.

Here are some bonus sentences I’ve written without having a story to use them in:

He’d heard of the great herds of cattle, but had no concept of them until he rode the road and saw the herdsmen who drove droves of the great beasts into town.

His shirt was wet with sweet sweat.

While he napped, she grabbed the broom and cleaned up.  In other words, she swept while he slept.

It was so warm out that Fido, being a hot dog, had no appetite for a hot dog.

Horst, the singing cowboy, lost his voice.  It seems that Horst grew hoarse on his horse.

She sang a hymn to him. That Jim wasn’t here when he sang his hymn to her is neither here nor there – even if he was here, she couldn’t hear what he sang to her.

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