Yard Lights


It was a Friday night in early October. Headlights pulling out of the high school parking lot flooded the darkness of Highway 47 with light. As we started out for home, we wrapped ourselves in our jackets or sweat shirts, the autumn air cool and crisp, still new, still romantic, still a revelation.

Our varsity football team, the Mustangs, had just lost to the Waterford Wolverines, thirteen to six, seriously jeopardizing our chances for a conference championship, but that didn’t seem to matter to any of us in the throng of sophomores and freshmen that had formed and grown during the .game

We’d found each other, like we did at every home game, either in the bleachers or the concession stand or in the crowdof kids walking or hanging out on the asphalt 440 meter track that surrounded the football field. It was the great gathering place for the students who were motivated to attend more by a need for social interaction than an expression of school spirit.  That week, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to the game or not.  It’d been only a week since Paul Morris had died. Then I found out that my little sister was going to have some of her junior high friends over, and that tipped the scale in favor of going. I told my mom I was going, and she set 11:00 as my curfew.

When we started the walk home after the game, our ranks had swelled to eight or nine sophomores and a couple of freshmen, none of us with our driver’s license yet. As we walked, one by one, our ranks would diminish as we came to the houses or corners that belonged to those who lived closest to the school. By the time we walked from the school parking lot past Zimmerman’s Ford dealership and crossed the railroad tracks into the brightness of the streetlights and the storefronts of downtown and entered the Town Fryar, four of us; Wes Collinson, Dan Hansen, Jim Bryant, and myself, remained.  The neon sign at the bank alternated messages about the upcoming Ladies’ Auxiliary Luncheon with the current time and temperature It was 53 degrees Fahrenheit and ten past ten.

The Town Fryar was the local diner, a greasy spoon that for years was the gathering place for the high school kids who would be loyal clientele for a couple of years until they’d graduate from Pepsi and milkshakes to the beer and whiskey of the three taverns on Main Street. Conversations and gossip that began at the game would continue or be rehashed, and jokes and stories about cars and girls and the events of the past week would be told and discussed.

The place was warm and loud with laughter and buzz, and nearly full with mostly juniors and seniors, 11th and 12 graders, and their dates. The booths were all taken, so we took a table in the front. I sat facing the street. The waitress came and took our orders.  I, like I did every time, ordered the cheese burger basket with onion rings and a strawberry shake. 

We settled in and started talking about the game when I looked out the big window to the other side of Main Street, to the white building with the sign that read “Sterling Brothers funeral hall,” and it occurred to me that Paul was in there, at that very moment, probably laid out on a table with one of the Sterling Brothers doing whatever a Sterling brother does, prepping Paul for his big day tomorrow. I felt the sudden grip of a hand on my right shoulder, squeezing tight, and I noticed that all the other guys had gone silent, their mouths hanging open, looking at me and whoever, whatever, the hand belonged to, and I could see, reflected in the window, the image of Mrs. Palmer, my freshman English teacher from the year before, standing behind me.

Mrs. Palmer and I always had one thing in common – the fall semester of 1972 was our first year at Orchard Depot High school; she fresh out of college, me out of middle school. That was probably the only thing.  She was beautiful, and like just about every other boy in her classroom, English suddenly became my favorite subject.  She had blonde hair she wore in a bun, highlighting her perfect cheekbones.  She was tall and lean, with smooth and creamy skin, and deep blue eyes and soft cheeks. 

“Hello, Tom,” she said.

“Hi, Mrs. Palmer,” I replied, turning around. I recognized our school colors in the red sweater and blue jeans she wore. 

‘How are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m doing okay,’ I replied. She was wearing her hair down, and it fell on and around her shoulders.  She was perfect.

There was a man standing at the cash register.  He looked like a movie star, with short but thick black hair and a Kirk-Douglas-ish chin. He called out, “Ready, Ruthie?” as he stuffed his wallet in the back pocket of his slacks.

“Be right there,” she replied before turning her attention back to me. “If you ever need someone to talk to,” she said, “just stop by my classroom.” Paul and I were students in her vey first class, first period ninth grade English, so she knew how close we were.

“Okay,” I said, then teasingly added, “Ruthie.”

“You’d better watch it, Buster,” she said pointing a finger at me. She glanced to the door, where her husband was standing holding her jacket open for her, when she bent down and gently kissed the top of my head. Her perfume smelled sweet and intimate. Then she was slipping her arms into the jacket, and they left, and the world that had temporarily stopped spinning kicked back into gear.

“Holy, shit!” Wes blurted out, “Makes me wish Paul Morris had been my best friend.”

“Wes!’ Dan said. “Jesus ChIrist”

“What the fuck,.” Jim said “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“What? I only meant …” Wes’s face turned as red as his hair in acknowledgement of the inappropriateness of his remarks. “Sorry, Tom,” he said.

“That’s okay,” I replied, accepting Wes’s apology.  I felt bad about the fact that I’d been kind of sullen all night.  I still hadn’t learned how to process grief, and I had no way to articulate how it felt, especially to these guys, who were just classmates, nowhere near as close to me as the one guy who would have understood what I‘d been feeling since I lost my best friend, that being my best friend since fourth grade, Paul Morris.

The attention paid me by Mrs. Palmer took me away, if only for a moment, from what I’d ben obsessing about all week.  I’d never seen a dead body before, and tomorrow, at the funeral, Paul would be the first. During the brief hours I slept I was visited by vivid nightmares. In the one I can still remember, our little league team had gathered at the grade school field, and we were waiting for Paul to show up before we stated practice. The sky darkened into deepening black, black clouds that the wind blew across the sky until they blotted out the sun and chilled the air.  The wind gusted and blew dead leaves off of the ground and twisted and turned them into a spinning whirlpool rising from the ground in center field.  The gust exhausted and the column of leaves died and fell in a heap on the ground, revealing ankles that rose up to legs and then a uniform, splattered with dried and caked on blood. Paul was there, standing alone in centerfield.  I got a good look at him, his eyes were dull and empty and colorless with dark circles beneath them, his skin pale and gray. “Paul,” l said, and the sky grew darker, black as night, when he turned to me and said, ”Worms.”

The food came, but for some reason, my appetite, which had being growling during the game, waned.  I picked at my order until the others were done.

“‘Are you going to eat that?” Wes asked. Wes was short and pudgy, with a roll of baby fat that extended over his belt. He was well known for his ability to eat, and had already consumed two Fryar dogs and an order of fries before turning his attention to my leftovers.

“No, go ahead,” I said.  Wes enthusiastically scraped the contents of my plate onto his while Jim rolled his eyes in disgust. Jim could always barely tolerate Wes and they appeared to be complete opposites, yet they were always together. The only explanation was that they lived on the same street.  When you’re a young boy, geography plays as prominent a role in determining friends as anything else.

That’s how Paul and I found each other.  In the summer before fourth grade, Paul’s family moved into the ranch style house three ranch style homes down and on the other side of the street from where my family lived, on Vicksburg Avenue on the eastern edge of our town, Orchard Depot, Wisconsin. One bright June day I saw him walking by with the same black and yellow metal carrying case I used for my Hot Wheels collection, and from that point on we were inseparable. We loved sports and rooted for the same teams except in baseball, where we were in that dark period between 1965 and 1969 when Milwaukee lost the Braves and before Bud Selig bought the Seattle Pilots franchise, moved it to Milwaukee and renamed it the Brewers. With the absence of a Milwaukee team to root for, we had to pledge allegiance to someone. Paul chose the Chicago Cubs, the regional favorite at the time, while I chose their bitter rivals and the defending champion St. Lois Cardinals. We settled our differences in countless hours of Strat-O-Matic games played out in my basement. We were little league teammates, and in our last year, when we were twelve, we both made the all-star team, and came one out away from winning the championship series.  When summer ended, we played basketball in our driveways, or football in our back yards. We slept out in tents in the summertime, and explored the neighboring woods and farm fields, watching his Springer Spaniel, Dolly, run windshield wiper patterns through open fields of green and gold until finding and pointing out a pheasant and staying on point until Paul gave her the flush command and she’d kick it up for us to shoot with wooden sticks that served as make-believe Browning shotguns. It was no more real hunting than Strat-o-Matic was real major league baseball, but the poetry of Dolly running and staying on point was as pure and real and beautiful as any Frost or Dickinson.

We exited the Town Friar with the bank telling us it was 10:45.  I had fifteen minutes to make the curfew mom and dad had set for me.   It’d be close, but I figured they’d cut me about five minutes of slack. Dan and I said goodbye to Jim and Wes, who lived on the other side of Main Street, and Dan and I crossed Main Street and headed east towards our homes. Dan lived on Fredrickson Avenue, only about a block from Main Street.  I’d drop him off and finish walking to Vicksburg alone.  I ‘d been dreading those last four blocks without Paul all week, but before we went  there, I had to deal with the Sterling brothers and their stupid funeral hall. 

I had no idea what the Sterling brothers looked like. I imagined they’d look something like Nosferatu, who I’d seen in a silent movie on Channel 11 sometime before. It was more than the knowledge that Paul was in there that creeped me out. I was always creeped out by the place, by the presence of the dead. A few years later I’d learn that the older of the two Sterling brothers had died years before; they didn’t change the name because by that time there were four other Sterling brothers funeral homes scattered through the state, so they couldn’t change the name, it’d become a franchise, like McDonalds, prompting the idea of drive-thru service lanes, one for drop-offs and one for pick-ups, to take root in my brain.  I also wondered when the older Sterling brother died, did the younger one prep him? Did he cut his brother down his back, open him up and pump him full of embalming fluid?.

“You okay?” Dan asked as we walked by the funeral home.

“Yeah,” I replied. “these places have always given me the creeps.”

“I know what you mean.”

“Plus, the fact that Paul’s in there.”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Dan said. Dan was tall, taller than me, one of the tallest guys in our class, but he was gangly and still growing into his height. He’d join us in the epic pickup basketball games that frequently materialized in Water Tower park, but he wasn’t very good. He was, none the less, a good guy, well liked and respected by all.

“Are you going tomorrow?’ I asked him as we crossed State Street on 14th Avenue.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Have you ever been to one before?”

“Yeah, my grandpa’s, He died a couple of years ago. You?”

“I’ve never been to one.”

“They’re okay.  Gets boring after a while.”

“I’ve never seen a dead person before. What’s that like?”

“it’s kind of weird. You have to stand in line to go and look at it when you first get there. The body is laying there in an open coffin, and I was real nervous about it before hand, but once I got up there, it was just my grandpa, and he looked like he was sleeping. It looked like he was sleeping, except you could tell, just by looking at him, that he was never going to wake up again.”

We came to the corner of Fredericksburg Avenue and 14th street.

“Well, maybe I’ll see you at the funeral tomorrow,” Dan said.

“Yeah, maybe.”

Then Dan was gone. I watched him walk away from the glow of the corner street light until he was consumed by the darkness, and I was reminded that despite the bright glow of the streetlights that lit up 14th street, it was still night, and I was passing through it, through the secrets and mysteries it concealed. A gust of cold blew in from the north. I turned the collar of my jacket up and started for home. I was alone.  As I walked, I started rehashing the events of the past week in my head.

The previous Saturday morning, I went with my mom to the library.  As we backed out of the driveway, we both noticed the police car with its lights flashing parked in Paul’s driveway. Neither one of us knew why it was there, and we didn’t speculate.

When we got to the library, the librarian, the one named Connie, older, short gray hair, glasses, looked just like a librarian was supposed to look, saw us come in and called mom over to her desk. They started whispering to each other, when my mom suddenly and loudly gasped, putting her hand to her mouth, and I knew something, something bad and big, had happened to Paul, and that was why cops were at his house. It took a while for all the details to weave into a coherent story, but we knew right from the start, from the sketchy and incomplete details Connie gave us was that there was a car accident and that Paul was dead.

It happened a couple of miles out of town, out on county Highway J, where Paul, a passenger in Corey Wilson’s dad’s 1969 Fort LTD, was killed when a 60 year old farmer named Willoughby  ran his Buick through a stop sign and t-boned Paul and Corey, collapsing the frame into the car’s passenger side and crushing Paul.  The farmer was dead, too, while Corey suffered only a broken right hand. The ironic thing was that although Corey had only gotten his license a month before, and that Willoughby had 45 years of a perfect driving record, without even a parking ticket, he was found 100 percent at fault, and that the only thing Paul and Corey were guilty of was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I made my way to the corner of Wilderness Avenue, and 14th Street, just a block away from Vicksburg Avenue. The city planner who, in the early 1950s, before the post-World War Two boom reached Orchard Depot, when the roads on the east side of State Street were still farm fields, designed the development of the neighborhoods that by 1973 were already ten to fifteen years old, was a big civil war history buff. To pay tribute, he deemed that all of the north / south roads, all of the avenues, would be named after Civil War battles, while the streets would conform to the same numbering system the rest of Orchard Depot used. Vicksburg Avenue ran between thirteenth and fourteenth streets. Our address was 1314 Vicksburg Avenue and Paul’s was 1307 Vicksburg Avenue.

As I walked on, I wondered again, why I hadn’t cried more. Aside from a couple of tears when mom first told me what the librarian told her, that Paul was dead, I hadn’t’ cried all week. Other kids at school openly wept when they found out. I, his best friend for so long, couldn’t bring myself to cry, even though I thought about him constantly, even as the world went on without him. All I could muster was a couple of nightmares and some teen-aged angst about having to see a dead body for the first time.

The truth was that Paul and I were growing apart. It wasn’t any one big thing, nothing that anybody could touch that came between us. We were growing apart because we were growing up, time and experience and fate shaping us, sculpting us into the men we’d later become.  When the summer of 73 began, Paul and I started hanging out, like we did every day of the previous six summers, but for some reason, it was strangely unsatisfying. Fun wasn’t found as easily as it was in summers past, even though we looked for it in all the old familiar places –in our driveways, in the woods and fields, or on our bikes.  We were just beginning to shed off of our childhood skin, and all of those childhood things and places were in the puberty fueled process of being replaced by less innocent pursuits like driver’s licenses, weed, and girls. By mid-July, we were hanging out a couple of times a week, and by the end of August, we hadn’t seen each other for weeks.

Then school stared, and we walked together, and we rebooted our friendship, not to the level it was before, but it was getting stronger again, until Paul got into Corey Wilson’s dad’s car last Saturday morning.  It struck me that the funeral tomorrow would be to mourn the loss of the man Paul will never be as much as it was for the child that he and everybody else once was, that he will always remain.

I finally arrived at the corner of 14th and Vicksburg. As I walked toward our house, I looked and saw that its windows were dark, and my mom and dad had left the yard light on for me. I smiled. One of my favorite things in the world was coming home to a lit up yard light.  Nothing felt as warm and inviting as its yellow glow, and it represented trust and acceptance, that no matter what time you get home, we’ll be here, home.

I walked up the driveway and entered our house.  I shut the front door behind me.

“Is that you, Tom?” Mom’s voice asked from her darkened room.

“Yes,“ I said, looking at the clock in the kitchen.  It was 11:10. I was ten minutes late.

“I made some brownies if you’re hungry,” Mom said, above dad’s snoring.

Yes! I thought to myself.  I was starving ever since we left the Town Fryar, since I’d let Wes Collinson eat half of my order.  I found the cake pan on the kitchen counter top. Brownies with fudge frosting.  She must have made them for my sister’s party. I was in Heaven.  I poured myself a glass of milk and cut a row of Brownies out of the pan, and when that was gone, I had another glass of milk and a second row.

Finally, with my gut full and my head empty, I went to the front door and locked it and shut the yard light off. I was exhausted. Before I went to bed, I looked through the narrow window in the front door out to Paul’s house. His yard light was on, too and I felt a heaviness in my heart and tears rushing to my eyes. They burst through, I couldn’t contain them. I just stood there, crying uncontrollably. It seemed like I’d never stop and now, nearly fifty years later, on some level, I never have.

K-Town


Kenosha, K-Town,

maker of mattresses, automobiles, and underwear.

Forty years ago I fell in love

with a Kenosha girl, and we’ve lived the last 38

just beyond your city limits.                                                                                    

You are tough, a survivor.

Thirty odd years ago, after the cars were gone,

everyone said you were done for, you were finished;

a company town without a company, a one trick pony,

your downtown dead,

the old lakefront factory torn down and its land condemned for toxicity.

But you persevered, you prospered.

You were the perfect reflection of your country’s pure and still skies

Now those skies have grown troubled and cloudy

with pandemic and violence

and the threatening hurricane of chaos and confusion already

churning their mirrored stillness into choppy and muddled waves.

If you want to understand America in 2020,

Kenosha would be the perfect place to start,

because it’s turned out that 2020 is the year we are supposed to lift every rock

and see what’s to be found in the damp brown dirt in the pocket of their\

carved out indentations.

As difficult and heavy as the rocks might be to lift

it’s surprisingly easy to see what’s been going on just beneath their surface

Now, Kenosha,

There’s a gaping fault line running down the middle of 52nd street,

separating the right from the left,

dividing you in half

Yes,

you rebuilt your downtown,

and it didn’t just survive, it thrived,

with a beautiful Marina replacing the formerly toxic lakefront

factory location,

a farmer’s market with fresh produce and crafts from surrounding

farms and local artisans. 

empty store fronts replaced with small shops, restaurants,

gathering places for mostly upscale white people to frequent,

and a new neighborhood of upscale condominiums for them to live in.

Kenosha was and is

 a reflection of its country, with epic cavernous divisions

along the fault lines of economic class and racist segregation.

I’ve gone downtown and drank micro-brewed beers all night,

feeling safe in the absence of people of color.

It’s easy to be a progressive liberal, to support Black Lives Matter,

from the distance of suburbia,

as long as they stay in their red lined neighborhoods,

even when grocery stores and healthcare clinics abandon them

to chase the gold dust

lining the gutters of streets in the affluent suburbs  .

Systemic racism.  The poor get poorer, and more isolated.

Then pandemic hits, and we all experience, even if only fractionally,

some degree of the same isolation and uncertainty,

and finally open up our eyes

to see things that cannot be ignored.

The brutal murder of George Floyd is captured in a YouTube video,

and the outrage crosses racial lines, and even as Minneapolis became

engulfed in flames,

there was the sense that this time was different,

that real change might occur.

But soon even this promise turned to ennui

and faded from the collective consciousness

as the opportunity for real change seemed headed for the same destiny

as the Parkland mass shootings.

You remember Parkland, right?  You don’t?

The one that was supposed to be so different than all of the

other mass shootings, those student activists that we admired so much that

were finally going to bring meaningful reform to our gun laws?

Well, it’s been two and a half years (feels longer, doesn’t it?),

and no laws have changed,

and those courageous young voices have gone silent.

Although protests continued, George Floyd began to sink into

the same depths of cultural oblivion.

Then, Kenosha, you happened, it was your turn.

In one of your “bad “ neighborhoods,

a 29 year old Black man named Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the

back from inches away by white policeman. It was captured on an

unambiguous YouTube video,

It was your moment, your chance to show the world what you’re made of,

and it wasn’t pretty.

Your streets were set on fire,

buildings that had over generations become institutions reduced over night to war zone rubble.

Self-armed militia groups combined with National Guard troops and

Policemen to combat the “violent”

protestors supposedly aligned with Black Lives Matter,

although the only meaningful violence came from the AR-15 of a malleable

17 year old militia member

named Kyle Rittenhouse who shot and killed two protesters and blew an

arm off of a third.

We know these things because they, too, were captured on YouTube video.

So what happened to Rittenhouse?

That night, nothing.

He walked the streets brandishing his AR-15, unmolested by police,

even though he’d shot three people, killing two,

even though it’s illegal for a minor to open carry,

even though it’s illegal to cross state lines with a semi-automatic rifle.

Then he went home and slept in his own bed.

He slept in his own bed, while about 40 miles away,

In Milwaukee, Jacob Blake was in a hospital bed,

seven holes in his back,

fighting for his life.

The President of the United States,

the white supremacist in chief, saw what was going on,

saw an opportunity to stir up the rubble into his reliable stew

of chaos and division, and decided to drop in for a visit.

In all of his remarks that day,

not even once did he mention Jacob Blake

or even acknowledge the shooting.

Instead, he focused on the handful of violent protestors,

ignoring the 95 percent that were peaceful

just like he ignored the systemic racism he’s campaigned to strengthen. 

He did manage to insert some sympathetic remarks about Kyle Rittenhouse,

making clear what was already obvious:  who’s side he is on.

You’ve taken some real strong punches, Kenosha,

and you were shaken and bruised,

rocked back against the ropes, your knees bent, but you never fell.

Instead, at the same time the president was spewing his hatred and vitriol,

you began to rally,

defiantly holding a block party and community building event

on the very street where Jacob Blake was shot,

countering the president’s inflammatory  words of divisiveness with acts of love and kindness.

The media presence and national attention waned and left,

leaving you with the daunting task of rebuilding

not just the piles of brick and concrete,

but more importantly, the frayed connections between your people.

Today, driving by the wreckage and ruin,

you’ll find messages of love and hope spray painted across the boarded up

windows and doors.

These simple but profound sentiments won’t by themselves be enough to

close the gaps that divide us,

but they’re a start.

Love requires more strength and resolve than hate. We all knew that. 

Let’s hope that all this sound and fury was enough to make us learn

that love is always worth the extra effort.

K-Town.  Tough and enduring.

My town.

My country.

Deal


(First fiction I’ve written in a long time –it shows)

In his dream, he was walking, alone, through the streets of his childhood home town.  It was late, maybe two A.M., and the inky-blackness of night was interrupted by the electric glow of streetlights, lighting up front yards while leaving back yards dark and formless. It was cloudy enough for neither the moon nor any stars to reveal themselves, and it was quiet enough that he could hear the electronic drone of the streetlights, humming in monotone harmony, while darkness and dread pressed hard on his chest.

The small town and its streets were how he knew them as a much younger man, forty some years earlier, when he was still thin and strong, and when the town still had a personality, an identity, before they, both he and the town, would bloat and swell and fade until they’d become unrecognizable to each other.

As the dream was taking shape, in its beginning, he found himself about three blocks from the house he grew up in. He was walking away from it, each step taking him further away from the place where his Mom and Dad and brother were alive again, where their chests rose and fell as they slept in the silent comfort of home.  He wished, he longed to be there, to be with them again, but he knew he had to do something first. He was unaware of what it was, but he knew it would be revealed to him as soon as he got to the park on the west side of town beneath the town’s water tower.

He approached the red bricks of the big elementary school that in the real world had recently been condemned and torn down but in his dream still stood. The streetlights here didn’t glow, the faint light they gave taken over by the thick darkness, and the steady drone of their hum replaced by the rise and fall of crickets. As he walked past, he could hear a faint murmur of kids, ghosts, rising from the abandoned playground from which empty swing sets and monkey bars rose up from the cracked asphalt against the barren black sky. He stopped walking and listened to the hum of the thousands of children that no longer existed, and he could make out the sound of his own voice as a child, faint and slight, inter-mingled with all of the others.

He walked on, crossing Main Street on the south side of town, where the stores and small businesses gave way to older and elegant homes, with stairways and framed-in front porches. He passed a church, Lutheran, and the memory of a Sunday school session from the age of five years, one of his oldest but most vivid memories, played in his head. He was dressed in his best church clothes, sitting on a bench at a table, where he and several other kids were coloring in a coloring book with multi colored crayons strewn across the table.  On the wall, right above the table, a small, golden colored crucifix hung. His copy of the coloring book was open to a page that said “Jesus Died for Your Sins” above the uncolored image of Jesus on the cross, waiting to be filled in, to be brought to life, the same image that looked down upon him from the cross on the wall, the same image that seemed to be everywhere in the church, the same image that haunted him in the dark at night, before sleep, sometimes after sleep, too. He remembered having no clue as to what a sin was, let alone why anyone would die for anything he happened to have. He looked closely at Jesus’ hands for the nails his brother told him they hammered through to the cross, and he remembered thinking how much that must have hurt.

He looked north, to downtown, a four or five block long section of Main Street, itself just a three mile long section of state highway 45, where all of the storefronts erected to serve the small town stood. A pharmacy, a Ben Franklin hardware store, a locally funded bank, a lumber yard, a diner,  a grocery store and three taverns, so you could get anything you needed, everything you wanted, without leaving the comforting confines of the small town’s borders. Even in the midnight cool, even when deserted and empty, downtown exuded an undeniable warmth and charm. He stood there for a moment, taking it all in, inhaling it, tasting it, sweet and tart on his tongue

He became aware of how tired he’d suddenly become, and that he was only three blocks away from the water tower. A gust of wind blew in from the north and filled his lungs with ice.  He turned his collar up and started walking.

Main Street had always been the dividing line between the more and the less affluent sides of town. The east side was newer and more prosperous than the west. It rose a slight but noticeable level up to and beyond the town limits until it reached the gentle rolling pastures of the big farms that highway eleven winded through on its way to Racine, while the west side descended from Main Street until it reached its deepest depth under the water tower, where it began the slow and steady ascent to the county fair grounds and the industrial park.

As he began walking the dream landscape again, the difference between the two sides of town was heightened and exaggerated. As he entered the west side of Main Street, the descent to the water tower park was steeper, and there were no streetlights, no light at all, except for the faint glow of a flash light that suddenly appeared in his right hand. Even the crickets had grown silent and still, and the only sound piercing the blackness was the amplified sound of his shoes on the sidewalk.  His vision adjusted as best it could to the ever thickening blackness, and he had to use the flashlight and his memories of epic one on one basketball games in the court in the park against his seventh grade friend Danny H to make his way.  Buoyed and brightened by the sudden summertime memories, fifty years suddenly melted away, and he decided that tomorrow, after this thing was over, he’d call Danny up and challenge him to a game. Or maybe Joey M. would be home from his family vacation and they’d get their gloves and bats and balls and play 500 in his back yard.  He felt a smile form on his face, and it felt good. It’d been so long since he’d seen his friends. He missed them terribly, and he found himself thinking about them, conjuring up their images more and more frequently in these days of pandemic and isolation.

He raised his flashlight and in its filtered glow he found the swollen metallic legs of the town’s water tower. They raised up and into the darkness above, but he had no interest in them now. Instead, he turned his light to the court, wishing he had the Spalding basketball his mom and dad had given him for his birthday in 1970.

Then he remembered why he’d come there in the first place.  Using his flashlight, he found the picnic tables, exactly where he remembered they’d be. He started forward and he stopped and took one last moment, and he thought about how he’d wake late tomorrow morning, in his childhood bed in his childhood home in the summer of 1970, the days when he’d earned every minute of sleep in the energy he spent every day, the same energy that fueled his growing body and mind.

Finally, his light settled on the second of the three picnic tables.  On top of it was a small, metallic, and shapeless hump. As he approached the table, as he got close enough, the hand-sized lump revealed itself.

It was a pistol. 

Standing now in front of the table, it was a revolver, and picking it up he saw the safety was off, meaning it was ready to fire, and he finally understood what he was being asked, what choice he’d been given, what deal he’d been offered, and he remembered that his mom and dad and brother and Danny and Joey were all dead, and had been for some time now. If he took his own life, he’d be given access to the happiest time of his life and the people who he’d missed so much for so long. He took the gun in his hand and carefully put the safety back on. He held it for a brief moment before setting it back down on the picnic table. He turned around and rose out of water tower park like Orpheus ascending from Hades, refusing to look back at the west side.

He headed for home but the landscape had changed. Instead of brightly lit streets, he found himself in the dark, miles from his childhood home town and fifty years later.  He was slowly awakening, his wife of 39 years sleeping beside him, with her back to him. He lay there, awake in the dark, thinking   about his life and the unexpected sharp turn it’d taken 15 years prior, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He thought about life and death and his childhood, global pandemics and social distancing. He thought about everything until he became aware of his wife’s sleeping inhales and exhales, her body rising and falling with each breathe. He rolled over and put his arm around her waist, pulling her to him, realizing as he fell asleep that this was the happiest moment of his life.

One Giant Leap


The other night I was in the kitchen when my wife entered.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Making a root beer float,” I replied, gesturing to the plastic two liter bottle of A & W and the carton of vanilla ice cream sitting on the counter in front of me.

“I wonder who invented the root beer float” she pondered as she placed her empty cup in the sink and nonchalantly returned to the television program she was watching. I stood stunned and silent. What may have been an off the cuff remark by her in me revealed a gaping chasm of indifference, a shallowness in my being.  For sixty years I’ve been enjoying the cold and refreshing foam and cream that are unique to the root beer float. Sixty years of frosty goodness.  Sixty years of cold comfort.  Sixty years of devotion, and yet never once in all that time did I ask the simple and obvious question my wife so innocently asked.  How could it be, given the hundreds of hours of pleasure that RBFs have given me, that it never occurred to me to ask who, what great man, what visionary, what genius, was responsible for so much joy in my life. Whoever he was, he deserved my deepest gratitude.             

I took my latest RBF with me and locked myself in my office, determined not to come out until I’d righted the wrong I’d committed on this man who’d given so much to me. A quick Wikipedia search revealed his identity: “The root beer float was invented by Robert McCay Green in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1874 during the Franklin Institute‘s semi centennial celebration.” I began to read on but the subsequent come-down from my RBf induced sugar high and my reduced attention span led me to fill in the facts with some minor enhancements and suppositions from my own imagination.  But not enough to shake the basic integrity of the incredible story of this heroic man and his epic struggle that ultimately resulted in triumph and glory. In other words, I am fairly confident that some facts have made their way into my account. So, without further ado, here is the story of Robert McCay Green and his incredible journey to refreshment immortality.

March 17,1822

Robert McCay Green is born, the only child to Bartholomew and Kate Green. His maternal grandfather, Dystonia Pebbles, is a self-made millionaire, the founder, sole proprietor, and owner of the monolithic Philadelphia Peanut Butter Company. With no sons of his own to leave his enterprise to, son-in-law Barth Green stands as the only heir to the empire.  In 1819, preparing for his own retirement, Pebbles begins mentoring Barth Green to take over ownership of his vast portfolio.

The transition does not go well, however, because Barth Green, it turned out, was a complete and total idiot. Pebbles had been fooled by Green’s undeniable passion for peanut butter, and had slowly come to realize that Barth’s habit of walking down the street licking the contents of an open jar of peanut butter while smacking his lips and loudly moaning “mmmmmm,’’ while enthusiastically demonstrating a true loyalty to Pebbles’ product, ultimately was just weird..

Finally, in July, of 1831, after forgetting to remove the peanuts from the creamy peanut butter for the seventh time, a frustrated Dystonia Pebbles gives up mentoring Bartholomew and disowns him, throwing him and his young family out of the warm comfort of the palatial Pebbles estate onto the cold hardness of the street.   

Times are hard and Bartholomew Green struggles. He turns to the bottle to lose himself, but it’s not until he realizes that the bottle is empty and fills it with tequila does he grow dependent on it With Barth an unreliable wage earner, Kate Green and her nine year old son Robert both take jobs, she as a shoe shine boy and Robert as a dance hall girl.  Their combined income is enough to keep food over their heads and a roof on the table.

Robert develops into a good student, demonstrating an undisputed aptitude for the burgeoning food chemistry field. His Doctorate thesis, combining ham and cheese into a single sandwich, causes a stir among food chemists, who either laud his genius or curse him as a food radical, rejecting Green’s insistence that his invention would work equally well regardless of the bread, regardless of Green’s choice of a Kaiser roll in his presentation.

Several years later, in 18i59, Green shocks the world by announcing he was dedicating himself to liquids and soft, cold solids.  “I believe, that that by combining an ice-cold soft solid with an equally ice cold beverage, the ultimate summer time treat could be achieved.” It was a bold statement, especially given its timing; one month after the  Buchanan administration had just granted  a million dollars to Phil Shake to develop a ‘”frosty, flavored dessert.”

Both efforts were stalled by the Civil War although a breakthrough was tantalizingly close when inside the icebox at the Appomattox Court House, a bottle of Sarsaparilla and a quart of vanilla cream was found.  Before anyone could combine the two elements, the ice cream was quickly consumed with a cake that Robert E. Lee had baked earlier in the day as a term of the Confederacy’s  surrender.

After the conclusion of the civil war, the original “cold war” between Phil Shake and Robert Green captured the attention of the entire reconstructed union, with newspapers breathlessly churning out stories about every new lead and disappointing set back the two camps endured. Just when it seemed Shake had the upper hand, he’d suffer a major setback, like when he tried to mix chocolate ice cream with a vinyl automobile floor mat.

Green’s journey was no less perilous. Although he settled on Root Beer as a vital ingredient early on, he had trouble finding a cooling agent, and tried dry ice with disastrous results, killing three testers.

Finally, in1874 while walking in downtown Philadelphia with a mug of root beer in his hand, Green turned a corner and ran into none other than Phil Shake, who was enjoying a vanilla ice cream cone.  They collided with such force they both fell to the sidewalk.

“Hey, “ Green said, “you got ice cream all over my root beer.”

“Yeah?” Shake replied. “You got root beer all over my ice cream.”

They both sat there for a moment until the same realization flashed in their faces. Each took a mouthful of their sullied products.

“Incredible,” Green said. 

After a brief pause, the two men rose to their feet and started running for the patent office.  Shake had a slight lead and made it to the steps of the patent office first.  Green, closely behind, leaped out and tackled Shake and got on top of him.  He began slamming Shake’s head on the concrete until Shake was a crumpled, bloodied and lifeless heap.  Green got up and went inside and applied for the RBF patent.  Shake was dead but Green was acquitted in the trial, with the Grand Jury saying that the RBF is so delicious and refreshing its invention transcends any life that may have been lost in the process of inventing it.

So now, nearly 150 years after its invention, I raise my mug of root beer and vanilla ice cream in tribute to my hero!

Tucker


You said everything with your wags,

your tail all fluff and flash.

It was talking to me this morning,

telling me how happy you were,

unaware of my betrayal

even as I lead you to the gallows.

 

Your eyes were so dark and deep,

deeper and deadlier than quicksand.

To look into them was to sink in the depths

of un-asking loyalty and endless love,

love without boundaries, without conditions,

your trust in me unquestioned.

 

The mask of pandemic

soaked by tears and guilt.

These are strange times to die

and I wonder where I’ll see you next.

Maybe in the shape of soiled laundry

lit at night by dim bath room light,

or in small heaps of fallen branches

crumpled in the backyard

where we went for our walks.

 

Wherever you are now,

you are unencumbered by collar and leash.

Run free, chase your terrors and heartache away

and I’ll soon be there beside you,

my tears finally dissolved,

my worthiness unquestioned again.

Summertime


You were summertime, more than anybody else.

The log cabin that your husband, my Uncle Steve, built from scratch in the Wisconsin north woods, by hand, measuring and cutting the logs, pouring cement, hand digging a well, stacking the stones for the fireplace, installing electricity. Walls and windows and ceilings and floors. Plus all the art work that hung from the walls, the landscapes and the portraits, the oils and the water colors, the output of his day job as an extraordinary artist. Now, seventy years later, it still stands, out living its creator by about thirty years and now, outliving you. It was (and still is) a simple structure, but to me, it was (and still is) grander than the Taj Mahal.

You were summertime, breakfast.

My dad, your brother. My Mom. My brothers and sister. Every summer, after you returned for summer vacation from your job teaching in California, we’d spend whatever time Dad got for vacation in our trailer house that doubled as a summer cabin and winter hunting shack, parked just over the small hill behind your cabin.  And every year, beginning the first morning after we arrived, we’d wake, and one by one, each of us would make  our way to your breakfast table, where you’d already be up and have the first shift of the endless breakfast sizzling loudly on your stove.  Pancakes, French toast, fried or scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, and sausage – whatever we wanted – we’d put our order in and within seconds we’d be sitting there, at your small round table, and a plate full of the world’s best breakfast would appear. One by one we’d file down, until all of us, including my mom and dad, would arrive while you worked tirelessly keeping the plates filled.  The amazing thing was that when we were finished eating, filled up, nobody left.  As good and plentiful as the food was, the conversation, the banter, the laughter, was always better, and we’d sit there, listening and talking and laughing, for a good four hours after the first straggler made his way down.  Most of the laughter was at your’s and my dad’s expense, as we’d hear the same old but never tired stories and arguments that’d been festering since you were kids.

You were summertime, early mornings.

I remember walking with you, 6:15 A.M, the sun already out and warm on spectacular summer mornings, daylight alive with the sound of songbirds, the road speckled with smatterings of sunlight that pierced the trees that canopied the narrow county highway, back when it still ran along the Chippewa River, twenty years before they’d re-route and move it to the south, away from the steep and eroding river bank.  We’d walk the half mile or so to the farm next door, that just happened to be the farm you and my dad grew up on, where you’d get a bottle of milk from Ken Schultz, the owner of the farm at the time, one of the nicest men in the world. I remember the milk being so fresh, and the cream that rose to the top of the glass bottles.

You were summertime, lazy afternoons and evenings.

Reading or fishing or exploring. Laughing, making puns, especially if your son Larry was home. Sitting in front of your fireplace in a rocking chair, reading The Yearling or The Call of the Wild or a Sherlock Holmes story, or a twist ending story by Saki or O’Henry or whatever else I pulled off of the bookshelves that lined your cabin’s living room. Or running outside and grabbing one of the fishing poles you always had leaning against the big tree at the top of the riverbank and running down the cement steps you’d laid to the shore, just past the confluence of the Flambeau and Chippewa rivers, where the Flambeau ended and the Chippewa went on. Casting my line for hours without a strike, the lack of action on my line and the long summer afternoons giving me room to explore all the wild fires burning wherever the current in the river and my imagination would take me. 

You were summertime, ice cream scooped from big plastic buckets into crunchy cones kept in a glass jar in your cupboard.

Warm summer nights, cloudless skies lit by the pale light of a full moon and an infinity of stars and the ancient dust of the cosmos. More laughter and conversation, in your lamp-lit living room, you speculating on some philosophic theory you’d just read about or picking up on whatever argument you and Dad had left unresolved at breakfast.

You were summertime, captured.

The portrait of you Uncle Steve painted back in the sixties that still hangs on the wall above your fireplace. Your eyes burn fiercely, intensely, and it captures you, your essence, in a way only Steve could have, in a way I didn’t understand until only recently, that the fire your eyes burn with is the fire of your very soul, their intensity revealing the strength that drove you to such exceptional love of and devotion to family and friends, the same strength and stamina that enabled you to work long summer days in your flower gardens under the hot summer sun as late as last summer, despite being 94 years old, slight and frail, a shell of your former self. 

You were summertime, some fifty years ago, when none of us realized just how young we were.

You are summertime, and always will be.

Spring Denied


Once

I ached for you and you for me

and when we found us we locked ourselves in

and breathed, and inhaled each other,

releasing our contagions to stoke the coals of desire

until our low grade fever burst into flames

and ignited passion’s wild fire,

happily alone together in our spring.

 

Now,

there is no dried kindle to coax into soft and tentative flames.

Instead, winter’s end finds damp indifference and decayed flesh,

cold ash in the curves and the crevasses,

dull and aching bruises covering thin and fading lines,

and all of the other damaged places

where passion once burned.

 

Winter,

As thick as the colorless sky that dimly lights these

days of gray and white and black,

where heartbeats are replaced by murmured whispers,

where shadows lengthen and spread

across the locked and rusty gates of the garden,

where its icy fingers remain,

unwilling to relinquish their corroded grip.

You Say Kahoutek, I Say Coranado


As I grow older, I find more and more that I am turning into my Father.  It’s not so much similarities in physicality, although there has been the occasional sleepy eyed sight of him looking back at me in my bathroom mirror. No, it’s brain function, or maybe malfunction, that I’m noticing in my own internal processing, the same butchering of words and names that I used to find so amusing in my dad.

For years, my dad fought an undeclared war with the English language. He’d get hung up on a certain word and mispronounce it several ways, some subtle and some just bizarre. Sometimes, he’d even add a new syllable or two. For example, the word “vibrate” became “viabrate.” Back in the seventies, his insurance agent was a man named John Kuharich. For some reason, he had trouble with “Kuharich.” Some glitch in his brain couldn’t process “Kuharich,” and his attempts to say it produced results like “Krewharich,” ‘Kronurich,” and “Kuhatcher” before finally settling on “Kahoutec, agent John Kahoutec.”

 I always found this to be extremely funny, until recently, when a similar glitch in my similar brain became evident. Just as my dad struggled with “Kuharich,” a word has emerged that has me totally befuddled when I try to say it. The only difference between the two of us is that “Kuharich” was the name of a relatively obscure insurance agent in a small town, while the word I’m having difficulty with has been one of the most frequently spoken words in the country, if not the entire world, over the past several weeks.

“Corona”

I can feel the cog wheels of my mechanical brain slowing down just looking at the word. It just doesn’t look or sound right. When in public, while maintaining a safe social distance of at least six feet, in conversation, I find myself referring to the Coranado or the Cordoba virus.  The other person will very nicely and politely point out my error, that it’s Corona. This correction is accepted and processed until some 45 seconds later, when I hear myself saying something about the Coradabo virus.

The next thing I hear is the sound of my dad’s laughter, viabrating in my ears.

Breakthrough


Happy holidays and Merry X-mas!

Those of you who occasionally read the drivel I post on this site may have noticed a recent plethora of mediocre poetry.  This is mainly due to the fact that I’ve recently developed an interest in poetry.  As amateurish as my poems have been so far, I chalk the dearth of quality up to the fact that I’m still learning the craft and remain a stumbling novice.

That was until tonight. Tonight, I finally broke through and wrote something that is undeniably good if not great.  Best of all, it’s in the form of a haiku, and even better yet, it’s related to the holiday season.

Here without further ado is my masterpiece:

What's the Deal With Egg Nog
Egg nog in July
would be just as refeshing
as in December

Thanks, and Merry Christmas from DBD!!!

December


The trees are all bare now,

their fleshy leaves having withered and fallen to the ground,

exposing their bony and naked branches and skeletal imperfections.

The leaves rustle noisily under my feet.      

Harsh and graceless, they are dead and decomposing,

their once brilliant colors having drained to cold dullness and risen and

overtaken the sky in shades of thickening gray.

A shiver runs down my spine and I pull the hood on my jacket up around my face,

as the leaves crunch under my feet,

making my steps crude and ugly

and reminding me in the arrogant clumsiness of my gait

that this is the December of my Decembers.