Scenes From a Dull Marriage

(This is my tribute to the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman and his 1973 film, “Scenes From a Marriage”)

(It is early in the morning.  HUSBAND comes downstairs to the kitchen, where WIFE is sitting at the table, sipping coffee)

WIFE:   Did you  (pause) …. take the garbage out?

HUSBAND:  No, why, is today …

WIFE:  Yes, it’s Tuesday.   Garbage pick up day.  I would think you’d remember a thing like that.

HUSBAND:  It’s not that I didn’t remember …

WIFE:    No?  What is it, then?

HUSBAND:  (beads of sweat breaking out on his brow) I … I…  okay, I admit it.  I forgot that today was garbage day.   (begins sobbing).  Can you …  can you … can you ever forgive me?

WIFE:  Oh, Harold, Harold.   After all we’ve been through together.  The time you spilled your beer on the kitchen floor … the time you wore mismatched socks … the time that bird in the front yard frightened me so … we’ve come so far.  And now this.  Our garbage can sits full in the garage, and in only two more hours, the garbage man will come.

HUSBAND:  I’m so sorry.   I didn’t mean to make you so unhappy.

WIFE:  Maybe mother was right.  Maybe I should have married Leonard.

HUSBAND:  Don’t say that!

WIFE:  Well, I’m sure that Leonard’s garbage can is out on the curb by now!

HUSBAND:  Stop it!

WIFE:  Yes, Leonard, he’s a real man.  When he shaves, there aren’t any tiny little hairs left in the sink!   I’ll bet he even squeezes the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube!

HUSBAND:   If that’s the way you want it, maybe I should just leave!

WIFE:  Then leave!  Be gone!  And don’t come back until you’re ready to put your glasses on a coaster!

HUSBAND:  I will leave!  I will! (patting his pants pockets) Have you seen my car keys?

WIFE:  Do you mean ….they aren’t hanging on the little plastic hook where they’re supposed to be?

HUSBAND:   No, the little plastic hook … the very same plastic hook I purchased for you on our tenth anniversary … the little plastic hook sits empty … empty and barren, like our marriage.

WIFE:  I remember when you gave me that little plastic hook.

HUSBAND:  Yes, I spent a great portion of our savings on it … seventy nine cents.  But it’s been worth every penny.

WIFE:  Yes, and the car keys have hung there for six glorious years.

HUSBAND:  Until this morning.

WIFE:  Yes, (suddenly remembering)…  but wait!  I suddenly remember!   I had the car last night!  I filled the tank with regular unleaded at the neighborhood Citgo!

HUSBAND:  Why?   Why are you telling me this?

WIFE:  Don’t you see?

HUSBAND:  See what, Gladys?

WIFE:  That it was I, I who failed to return the car keys to the little plastic hook!  The keys are in my purse!   Can you ever forgive me?  (weeping, on her knees, pleading with her husband)  Please!  Oh, please!  Please find it in your heart to forgive me!  Please!

HUSBAND:  (Dropping to his knees and holding his wife)  I forgive you!   I do!  If only you could forgive my forgetting to take the garbage out!   We can save this marriage!  Please!   Forgive me!

WIFE:  (rising)  Geez, Harold, it’s just a garbage can.  Get a grip.

Saturday, August, 1968

It’s strange sometimes, the things you remember.  I know that in my fifty plus years on the planet there have been any number of life-changing events that I’ve completely forgotten about, and still others that are murky at best.  At the same time, there are also random snippets of innocuous day to day and seemingly unexceptional moments that remain vividly etched in my memory forever, moments that I can recall with perfect clarity whenever I want.

It was a Saturday in August of 1968.  I was nine years old.  The television in the living room was on, channel four, the major league baseball “Game of the Week” on NBC, with Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek doing  play by play. The Detroit Tigers were playing the Baltimore Orioles.   I was watching.  I remember Don Wert, third baseman for the Tigers, hitting a home run.

My dad was home, wearing a plain white t-shirt, cleaning the garage.  I don’t know where everybody else was.  I just remember being by myself in the living room and every now and then going out to the garage and “helping” my dad.   I remember he was in an especially good mood, and I remember at one point he had the garden hose out and was rinsing down the garage floor.  I’d come out, hang around with him for a while, and then I’d go back in and watch the game for a while.  And I remember being keenly aware of how happy I was, I didn’t understand why, but I felt completely free and good and happy, with baseball on television and my dad in the garage.

That’s about it – I wish I could tell you that something exciting happened.  I wish I could even tell you who won the baseball game.

But there is one thing I can add – it remains what it’s always been, one of my favorite memories of all.  I’ve often wondered why, with no definitive explanation, but I think it has to do with the vividness the memory presents itself to me.  I see my dad how he looked back then, with what hair he had on his head still dark, his face unwrinkled.  I see that the television was our old black and white console in the living room.  I see the grey cement floor of the clean and empty garage, I see the dust rise from my dad’s sweeping with the big push broom, then later the water spraying out of the hose.  I see my dad smiling that contented home on a Saturday afternoon smile.   And I remember feeling free, free to watch baseball or hang out with my dad, two of my favorite things to do.

That’s all it is – just an ordinary moment in an ordinary day in an ordinary life.  And I think that’s why I love the memory so much.  What makes it feel so extraordinary is that my dad was with me, home from work on a Saturday afternoon.  I had no concept then that our Saturday afternoons together were finite.  I had no concept of aging and death and time and space.  I was nine years old, and all I understood was baseball and my dad, and on that Saturday afternoon in August of 1968, they were everything.

Summer Solstice

Sky blue and cloudless and enormous,
endless fields stretch out to the horizon,
a thin and distant green line.
Everything infinite and unending
yet small against the sky.

The sun never goes down,
this day never ends.
There is no yesterday
and are no tomorrows.
This day is forever.

I am nine years old.
Daylight runs through my veins
and seeps out my pores.
Blades of grass between my toes.
Sunlight on my face.
I, too, am infinite and unending,
and small and minute.
I have swallowed the sun.

Spelling Bee

Getting called out of my 7th grade classroom to report to the Principal’s office wasn’t that unusual of an event for me. What made this particular occasion different were the other kids that were selected to join me. They were four of the smartest and best behaved kids in the room and, of course, they were all girls. I honestly had no clue why we were called out of class.

It turned out that we were the top five finishers in a test to determine who would represent our classroom in the middle school finals of the spelling bee. Then we had a little spell off for the classroom championship, conducted by the school’s vice principal, right there in the office. No one was more surprised than I was when I won. And trust me; anyone who knew me was surprised, too.

I was a notorious screw up in my junior high years, blessed with a rare combination of immaturity and laziness. Most of my academic energies were concentrated on coming up with new and original excuses for not turning my homework in (I lost count of how many times I claimed that papers fell out of my notebooks and into sewer grates on my way to school – there was also the dog we never owned that had an insatiable appetite for paper, and was eventually the victim, along with a science worksheet, of an apparent alien abduction. That one didn’t go over very well). So my winning anything except more detention time was big news.

A couple of weeks later they pulled me out of class again, this time to the school cafeteria, where I was to compete against all of the other sixth, seventh and eighth grade classroom winners in the school finals. All told, there were about 20 contestants. All of the other kids were very smart, good students, brainiacs, who, unlike me, had actually studied for the event. I might have studied, too, had I been paying attention when someone must have told me about it, but I had no clue – but then again, I probably wouldn’t have studied even if I’d known about it. But it was an hour or two out of my normal class work, which I was all in favor of.

Well, in the crowning achievement of my academic career, I managed to finish 4th in the event. I wish I could say that it was a life changing moment; that inspired by my performance I buckled down and became an honors student, and I realized all of my untapped potential, but nothing of the sort occurred. I was the all-American screw up, blessed with talent, brains and opportunity, and I was spoiled and stupid enough to squander it all.

The other night I watched the national Spelling Bee finals on ESPN. These kids are incredible, breaking down impossible words that I’d never heard of, knowing not only how to spell them but where their origin comes from, and what a syllable might mean in that original language. I can’t remember what word eventually tripped me up in 7th grade, but I can guarantee it wasn’t anything close to what these kids were breezing through.

Being the white American male that I am, I couldn’t help but take note of the fact that the eight finalists were all of Asian descent. I thought for a moment about what that meant, and the answer quickly came back to me: not a damn thing. They’re all Americans, and thank God, with intelligence like that, we’re so lucky to have them. There’s no way looking at them you can tell if they’re first generation Americans, or if their families have been here for decades, but that makes no difference, either.

I was so impressed by these kids, with their unique personalities and their incredible grace under immense pressure and their sportsmanship and class. I really enjoyed the shots of their families, the nervous and proud parents and siblings. Many of the contestants had lofty dreams of what they’d grow up to be, and they all seemed achievable.

Short features showed the contestants at home with their friends and families, and they were just kids, smiling and laughing, just like my kids did at that age, just like I did, and it struck me, this is America at its best, where kids can still be kids, where they are loved and nurtured by family, and where they can dream, and where there is still a chance their dreams will come true, no matter where they’re from, how long they’ve been here, or what the color of their skin is.

For those of us who grew up taking everything this amazing country offers for granted, watching these kids was a great reminder that this has always been our dream, and that as long as there is an America, it always will be.