Snake Oil


The liars at the NRA are at it again with a new television commercial. If you haven’t seen it yet, it features an attractive woman waking up alone in the middle of the night to the sounds of a shadowy intruder in her home.  As the voice over explains that it takes an average of eleven minutes for authorities to respond to a 911 call, she reaches for a gun in a gun safe on top of her dresser. But the gun vanishes as the voice over explains that “Hillary Clinton could take away her right to self-defense.”

It’s the same nonsense that Donald Trump has been spreading about how if elected, Hillary would “do away with the second amendment,” as if that were even possible.  While she has proposed relatively minor and common sense increases in gun control, unless the woman purchased her weapon from a gun show or one of the other loop-holes that don’t require registration, her gun will still be there. The commercial is more of the nonsensical paranoid “Obama’s going to take your guns away” fantasy that the NRA has been perpetuating for the past eight years. And as their subjects shoot each other up and as the body count rises, they and their gun manufacturing masters continue laughing all the way to their affluent suburban bank.

The simple fact is that president Obama has been the best thing to ever happen to gun and ammo manufacturers. Eight years into his presidency, there are more guns in circulation than ever before, and even as we’ve experienced the nightmares of Newtown and Aurora and the countless other mass shootings, even as we’ve made the jobs of law enforcement even more difficult with the passage of open and concealed carry laws, the extremism and fear mongering perpetuated by the NRA continues unabated, and as its constituency digs in, the second amendment becomes its shield.

This devotion to the constitution might be considered noble if it wasn’t so selective. One need only look at the other amendments that Trump has proposed violating:

  • His immigration policy of “mass deportations” would violate the Fourth Amendment‘s ban on “unreasonable searches and seizures,” as well as the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments by relying on racial profiling.
  • His proposed ban on Muslims would violate the First Amendment.
  • His proposed “database” of Muslims would violate the Fifth Amendment.
  • His advocacy of state-sponsored torture would violate the Fifth and Eighth Amendments.
  • His proposal for “opening up the libel laws” to enable  the executive branch to sue the media would violate the First Amendment.
  • His support for mass surveillance and the bulk collection of citizens’ data would violate the First and Fourth Amendments.

That’s a total of five amendments that Trump’s policies would trash – and there are probably more, as I am no constitutional scholar.  Yet the NRA would have us ignore these in order to protect ourselves from a moderate interpretation of the Second Amendment?

None of this makes any sense – especially when you consider that the supposed foundation of political conservatism is the prevention of government overreach. How can the very same people who fear the government coming to their homes and removing their guns be okay with the same government locking up and deporting millions of people?  How can they be so sensitive to perceived slights to their religion and support a ban on another religion?

The answer is that a large chunk of the modern conservatives in this country are fear ridden and selfish idiots who can’t see the forest for the trees. Only Jesus and guns can save their narrow minded white asses from the black and brown people who are so frightening to them that they’d throw away everything this country has stood for so that an orange haired lunatic con man can protect them. That they buy the snake oil he is selling is a reminder that there is no constitutional amendment against stupidity.

Posted in General Essays | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Death, Loss and Beer


(This is a very short fiction inspired by real events …)

One Saturday morning in the summer between my Junior and Senior years in high school, my Dad came and got me and said, “Come on with me, we need some muscle.” I must have still been half asleep, because the next thing I knew, I was in the back seat of Mr. P’s car. My dad was in the front passenger seat, and Mr. P. was driving.  Mr. P. lived two houses down from us on Yorkville Avenue. He was older, in his late fifties. He was always quiet and reserved, soft spoken. He didn’t drink and attended church every Sunday with his wife. He seemed to be the opposite of my dad, who loved being the center of attention, always with a story to tell.  They had one thing in common, though, that trumped all of their differences: they both drove the big rigs, eighteen wheelers, for a living, Mr. P working for a beer company out of Milwaukee and my dad for an over the road freight company.

I was only half listening to my dad and Mr. P’s conversation, and only picked up on a few nuggets.  I heard the word “cancer” and didn’t think much about it, as my dad had cancer the previous year but now he didn’t.  I assumed they were talking about him until I heard Mr. P say, “It’s a hell of a thing.  Only twenty five years old.”

Just prior to arriving at the southern edge of Main Street Mr. P pulled into the back alley and parked next to an empty wooden trailer parked in front of an old garage behind a two story house. We got out of the car, squinting in the bright sunlight as Mr. P led us up the back stairs to a porch. He pulled a key out of his pocket and unlocked the door.  Mr. P entered first, followed by my dad, then me.

We walked into the kitchen of an upstairs apartment that looked both lived in and abandoned at the same time. It was neat and tidy, yet it had a kind of musty smell, like it’d been shut up during the recent heat wave.

“This is a nice place,” Dad said.

“Yes, it is,” Mr. P. said.  “Maggie just loved it. But now, it’s just too much, for her alone …”

I recognized the name Maggie as belonging to MR. P.’s daughter, about eight or nine years older than I was. I didn’t really know her, other than she was pretty, with straight and long blonde hair.  Mr. P’s son, Bob, on the other hand, was in the same class as my oldest brother Mike, and had been one of Mike’s best friends since they were in grade school. Bob was a musician, playing guitar and bass in several garage bands over the years. Bob and his dad clashed like fathers and oldest sons so frequently did in the 1960s, the “generation gap” being a real and discernable thing.

Mr. P walked us through the apartment, showing us the living room, a small home office with a desk and chair, a bedroom, and the bathroom. The bedroom closet was filled with a man’s clothes, his shirts and trousers, and his razor sat on the edge of the bathroom sink next to a can of shaving cream, and it became clear to me where we were.  I vaguely remembered hearing that sometime in the past year or two, when Mike was still in the army, Maggie got married. I had no idea who her husband was, but it was clear that he was gone and wasn’t coming back.  At one point Mr. P opened up the refrigerator.  It was nearly empty, with just some butter, a couple of eggs, and an unopened six pack of Olympia beer.

Then we were back outside, in the glare of the sun again, walking across the alley until Mr. P took the keychain out of his pocket again and opened the pedestrian door to the garage.  There in the dusty streams of sunlight that burst through the door and the windows sat an early sixties vintage white Corvette.

“That was his baby,” Mr. P said. “Such a waste.”

“Way too young,” my dad added.  “Way too young.”

“Well, we’d better get to work,” Mr. P said.

We went back into the apartment, and we started with the big stuff, the couch and the bed, the overstuffed chair, the end tables, bending our backs as we walked them down the steps in the bright sunlight, and loaded them all on the trailer in the alley. Then we started on the smaller stuff, loading what we could into banker boxes that Mr. P pulled out of the trunk of his Buick. We’d filled the trailer to its capacity and fit whatever boxes we could into the trunk of the Buick, but there was still some random stuff left upstairs. We were all standing in the nearly empty apartment when Mr. P said, “Thanks, guys. After he gets off work, Bob and I’ll get the rest.” He said that Bob was borrowing somebody’s van and it had a hitch they’d haul the trailer with.

We got back in Mr. P’s Buick.  It was about 2:00 and it was hot out.  As he craned his neck to back out into the alley, Mr. P. said to me, “Thanks, Dave. I really appreciate your help.”

“No problem,” I said. They were the first words I’d spoken the entire day. I’d had a million questions I’d wanted to ask, about death, love, and life, and the things we leave behind, but I knew it wasn’t proper, I knew that this was not the place or the time to ask these questions, and that my dad and Mr. P weren’t the ones to ask anyways. It was obvious to even my sixteen year old self that they didn’t know the answers to these questions any better than I did.

Mr. P pulled the Buick into his driveway on Yorkville Avenue. Maggie was there.  She was wearing shorts and a white t-shirt and sunglasses. She smiled as we got out of the car, saying “Thanks, dad,” to Mr. P as he opened up the trunk.

“Don’t thank me,” Mr. P. replied. “Thank these guys. On such a hot day yet.”

“Thank you, guys” she smiled at us as she moved and stood next to her dad, facing the open trunk.

“You’re welcome,” my dad said.

Maggie reached down and pulled the six pack of Olympia out of the trunk.  She turned and handed it to me, smiling from under her sunglasses, and said, “Here, take this. Consider it payment for your hard work.”

I looked at my dad to make sure he was okay with it.

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “You earned it, take it.”

I replied a meek thanks.  Dad and I went home and I put the six pack in our fridge.

That afternoon and evening, every time I’d open the fridge, I’d see the beer.  It sounded good, especially on a hot day to a sixteen year old to whom beer represented freedom and adulthood, especially since I’d worked so hard to earn it, but for some reason, I left it untouched. I couldn’t bring myself to open it because it was his, and he had touched it, and death had taken him, and no amount of work I might have done could ever stand up to death’s infinite power.

That night I dreamt I was small again, in the third grade. It was the last day of school before summer vacation and we’d just been released out into the cool June afternoon.  The wind picked up out of the east and blew the helicopter seeds off of the big Maple tree at the end of the playground, and as they took flight and whirled and twirled in the warm breeze, I felt my feet leave the ground and I was floating, too, me and a thousand helicopter seeds, free, to wherever the random winds of fate would carry us. The dream ended and I woke up in the dark thinking about not just the places I’d be taken, but also about the things and people I’d leave behind. And I thought about Maggie and her dark glasses and her pale skin, and I wondered how she could find the strength to muster up a smile from so deep in the depths of the dark shadows cast by death.  And for the first time I wondered about him, what he looked like, I wondered what his name was, and I pictured the two of them riding on an open highway in his Corvette, the wind blowing Maggie’s blonde hair back.

It was 2:30 and everyone else in the house was asleep. I got up and crept through the darkness to the kitchen.  I opened up the fridge and ripped a can of Olympia free from the plastic grip of the six pack. I sat at the dining room table, alone in the dark, and raised a silent toast to Maggie and her dead husband before I slowly finished it.  It tasted good.

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Nice


“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'”  – Kurt Vonnegut

I’ve done enough whining on this site about the times when Parkinson’s is getting the best of me that it would be wrong not to write about the past week to week and a half. The simple fact is, that for some reason I don’t fully understand, over that timeframe, I’ve felt great.  Indescribably great.  Great as in how good one can feel when compared to how crummy I felt.  Great as in I’ve actually reduced taking my meds from once every three and a half to four hours to once every nine to ten hours. It’s been literally years since I’ve felt this good.  And while my voice and handwriting are both bordering on being illegible, those seem like minor complaints.

The balance problems that were not only getting me but actually literally knocking me down have largely vanished. Where I was prone to falling or crashing into walls or doorways or furniture multiple times per day, I now move normally and freely about 90% of the time. I’m sleeping six to seven hours a night, and while I still sometimes take a quick nap in the late morning (I’m convinced because  of the cumulative side effect of my morning cocktail of six different meds), I’m awake and alert the rest of the day, and avoid the afternoon naps I’d been taking.  I never imagined I’d feel this good again.  Ever.

Why am I feeling so good?  Well, I’m not sure. Here are my guesses:

  • On the cardiac front, I’m still watching what I eat, and exercising an hour to an hour and a half every day. I recently had my annual physical with my doctor, and the numbers are very good:
    • Weight: 212 pounds (down from 235 before my bypass surgery)
    • Total cholesterol: 120 (down from 230)
    • LDL (“bad” cholesterol): 48 (target:  < 100)
    • HDL (“good” cholesterol): 54 (target:  > 40, ideal > 60 – still have  a little work to do here!)
    • Triglycerides: 88 (<  100 optimal)

While exercise and diet have been big contributors to my improved numbers, my nightly dose of Lipitor has been just as big a factor.

Heart disease, while scary and deadly, has been pretty easy to prevent.  Just eat right, exercise, and take my Lipitor, and my numbers go down. These have been tried and proven methods, and the numbers provide an excellent indicator of progress.

Unfortunately, for Parkinson’s, it’s not as black and white. There are no proven biomarkers to determine how likely one is to get Parkinson’s, and once diagnosed, it’s known as a “snowflake” disease, as in everybody’s instance of the disease is a unique combination of symptoms and side effects that progress and evolve and react to treatments in varying and often times unpredictable ways. Treatment tends to be reactive and is dependent upon symptoms and is often trial and error.

So why am I at this point, eleven years into my diagnosis, suddenly feeling so good?  I have no idea.  What my guess is, is that after my recent appointment with my Movement Disorders Specialist (MDS), Dr. Z., we’ve arrived at a combination of meds, Deep Brain Stimulator settings, exercise, and physical therapy regime that are perfect for where I’m at in terms of the disease’s progression and how my unique instance is behaving at this time.  Specifically, Dr. Z added an additional med to my daily cocktail, which has enabled me to cut back on the amount of Carbidopa / Levodopa I consume.

I do know that I am incredibly lucky to be treated by a MDS, especially one as gifted as Dr. Z, at one of the premiere institutions in the country, Northwestern Memorial in Chicago. Because I treat there, I have access to resources that sadly aren’t available to too many people who are suffering much more than I’ve suffered.

The other thing I know is that I’m better off appreciating these days when I’m feeling so well instead of wasting time trying to figure out why. I don’t know when this “honeymoon” period will end, I just know that it will.  It might end tomorrow, next week, next month.

Until it does, all I can say is, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Posted in Parkinson's disease | Tagged , | 1 Comment

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