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Hamilton Stone Review #29
Reamy Jansen, Nonfiction Editor
Reamy has been nonfiction editor since 2010. He writes poetry (Two Ways of Not Hearing, Finishing Line Press2012) and nonfiction, including a memoir, Available Light, Recollections and Reflections of a Son, Hamilton Stone Editions, 2010. His book is also available as an e-book.
David W. Ricker
ba·ri·o·lage noun \¦barēō¦läzh\
a cadenza for a solo musical instrument; specif : a special effect in violin playing obtained by playing in rapid alternation upon open and stopped strings.
On October 8, 2004, the third of my four children, Angela Frances Ricker, was born at our home with a rare and severe genetic condition called Trisomy-13, aka Patau Syndrome. The doctors gave her a few weeks to live. What follows is a small slice of her life, and the life that goes on around her on our little sheep farm in northern New Hampshire.
First lambing – March 2009
It was my first night out in months, and I left Murphy’s Pub in Hanover at around seven, diving head down into a very windy, dark and snowy New Hampshire winter's night. As I drove northward along the Connecticut River, the snowflakes rushing at the windshield seemed to be striving to loosen my somewhat soggy mind from its moorings, setting it adrift on the sea of its own subconscious and leaving the steering wheel to its own devices. The roads were already covered in white, but with the four-wheel drive engaged, the soft light of the truck dash, and the good Irish stout in my belly, I felt warm, not only in body, but in my thoughts. To northerners, the snow is a welcome harbinger of the cold and close comfort of Chaos and Old Dark Night, and the promise of wilderness amidst the dull gray sameness of everyday living. I relieved the babysitter a little after eight. My babies were still up when I arrived. I refer to them as my babies even though they are two and five because Erin, my two year old is the last of four, and will always be the baby, and Angela, my five year old is a twilight child, a child that according to doctors is not supposed to live, and thus occupies a kind of nether world between ultimate night and improbable days, suspended between infancy and eternity by the same thread that holds the sword above the head of Damocles, while the Norns click their shears in the wings. And yet she lives! From sunrise to sunrise, and moon to moon, her life goes on. My two older children (Karina eight and Dylan six) are not at home, but further down the Long River, as the Native Americans call the Connecticut River, in Amherst, Massachusetts visiting with their grandparents. The sitter mentioned casually as she stepped out onto the porch to take her own measure of the dark and snow that the sheep had been raising a bit of a ruckus in the barn. The baby monitor out in the barn was quiet at the moment, so I let it pass. My wife, Melinda, was also away, down in White River Junction, Vermont enjoying a well-deserved night out at a knitting gathering dubbed “chicks and sticks”.
I changed a couple of diapers, got Angela settled in her crib, and read to Erin until she fell asleep. After stoking the wood stove, I settled myself into an easy chair with a back issue of The Atlantic Monthly (I am always behind) and soon drifted off into a wonderful deep winter’s slumber. At about 9:30, I was awakened by another ruckus in the barn. Heading out to investigate, I found in addition to Apples and her week-old lamb Hardy, Chrissy the white ewe lying on her side with two lambs (still covered in blood and amniotic fluid) lying in the hay at her feet. They had just been born. Scampering back into the house to the phone in the kitchen, I called our mobile phone and of course my wife did not answer. You see this was her thing. I know little of animal husbandry except for what I have learned from helping home-birth and care for our four small children. I came home from work one day in late summer and despite my protestations over the preceding weeks these two ewes were just there, in a makeshift pen of my wife’s fashioning, a busy afternoon’s work to be sure. But unbeknownst to my wife, they had been left out to pasture with one of the rams before they were given to us, and had become pregnant. The original idea was that we would provide a kind of retirement home for old ewes and wethers that folks could just not bear to slaughter, allowing them to live out their days in peace and tranquility amidst the pastoral (literally) atmosphere of our hillside home. Over the course of the fall and winter, we watched Apples and Chrissy grow bigger and bigger with a wary eye. Now here we were with the natural fruition of such events. Although these sheep were not my idea, they were now, alas, my responsibility.
I headed back to the barn in the wind and snow and by the time I got there a third lamb had been born. Three new lambs in the barn, and two small children asleep in the house, and the weather taking a turn for the worse, could it get any better? Only the darkness knows the oaths I uttered while traversing that snow covered drive. I tried the mobile again, and still there was no answer. Back in the kitchen I began racking my brain for the name of the woman whom had given us the sheep. She is one of those earthy women, lives on some mountainside in Corinth, Vermont, raises animals, and belongs to a church where the women wear head dressings reminiscent of the Mennonites I knew back in the day in Ohio. Conjuring these images does little to bring her name around, so I turned to technology. Our telephone stores twenty-five numbers of people who have recently called and I turned to that in the vain hope of finding some advice. About half-way down the list, I found her. Her name was Leslie, and she miraculously answered the phone. After apologizing about the lateness of the hour, and explaining the situation, she launched into the list of things I needed to do: towel off the lambs, get them dry, get the barn as warm as possible, clear the plugs from Chrissy’s udders, and get them nursing. Sure. Simple. Clear plugs. No problem. She ends the phone call with the encouragement that it is not that cold of a night, so, “You have that going for you." “Not that cold? By whose standards?” I was thinking as I again waded out into the pelting snow and wind.
We keep the old Chevy parked in a dilapidated wood rick, and I took out the Mexican blankets kept in there in winter and tacked them up with some roofing nails over the open areas of the barn window and door to help keep out the wind and blowing snow. We have a space heater in the basement; I retrieved it and fired that up too. Then I commenced trying to clean up the lambs. One, I could tell, the cleanest one, and presumably, the first one to come out was not doing so well. The others were on their feet and bleating. This one was not. Mom had been licking them and seemed pretty tired. She still had the placenta hanging out of her backside. After toweling off the lambs a bit, I commenced searching for the mother's teats. This was disconcerting. I could not seem to find them. There was so much wool on this beast I couldn’t locate the damn things. I watched as Hardy (the week old lamb) nursed his mother (Apples) and tried to use that as a guide. Still no luck. Of course, my searching was somewhat discouraged by thoughts of the kids waking up in the house, the lateness of the hour, my buzz wearing off, and the placenta still hanging from Chrissy’s backside, and I was starting to get a tad bit concerned about the one lamb for the cold and the lack of nutrition. At one point I turned to Apples, the other mother, in exasperation and said, "What the hell, can't you help here a little bit?" She showed no interest in the lambs, just looked on dumbly while chewing. I headed back to the house again to make sure my other babies had not awakened. It was still quiet. I tried again to call my wife. Still no luck. It was snowing like crazy now and the wind had come up even more. I remember thinking, “looks like we’re in for it.”
Back to the barn, after some more toweling off, I found myself just standing and waiting. Hell, shouldn't Mother Nature take care of this situation? Do I need to intervene at all? Haven't these beasts been doing this for many a millennium without help from us? Then I thought that Chrissy is a very old sheep. In the wild she would have been wolf meat by now. She's got three lambs. So I guess the answer is “No.” The one lamb is still not looking good. It can't get up. Its eyes are closed. It is shivering. I move it closer to Chrissy and cover it with a towel. Back in the house, Leslie has called again. I gave her an update on the situation with the one lamb and she goes into some speech about how some lambs just refuse to live, etc., and that our creator blah, blah, blah. You can guess the rest. I didn't hear it. I cannot bear any defeatist mutterings that begin with "our creator." Our creator my ass, I exclaim to nobody in particular after I get off the phone. Angela's baby bottles are right there on the kitchen counter. As is her highly nutritious food, and nipples as well. I start to prepare a bottle, when the phone rings again. It is my wife. She is still in White River Junction, but on her way. The roads are bad, she's got 25 miles to cover, but at least she is on the way.
Off to the barn again armed with hope in the form of a plastic baby bottle, I find the failing lamb still down and barely moving. The other lambs are alert but still not getting much attention from mom. I pick up the failing lamb and try to feed it. Not much luck. I sit down in the corner, cradle the little beast in my lap and wait. I talk to it of the merits of sticking around: Sunshine, green grass in the spring, that sort of thing, trying to pique its curiosity. I try to warm it with my stomach and arms. The barn is warming. The hay is comfortable, and I am sheltered from the wind and snow outside. There is a certain sound to a snowy night in northern New Hampshire, like the distant roar of rushing waters. The snow and cold outside, my exhaustion, the warmth inside, the smell of hay, the soft light and hum of the space heater, the new life cradled in my lap, all conspire to create the most soporific of environments, and soon I have drifted off to sleep. In the moments before sleep, I experience and almost unreal peace. Time and space seemed to have collapsed, and it was as if in some great cosmic sense I was perfectly fitted into a brief moment of eternity meant just for me, as if, miraculously, I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and doing what I supposed to do, and by this strange collusion of forces I was made free.
The next thing I knew, my wife’s headlights were coming out of the snow and darkness and through the knot holes in the barn siding in angling spears of light. She quickly took over. I lay the little one down and began to fetch things, warm water with molasses in it, fresh straw, yet more towels, a divider to keep Chrissy separated with her new lambs (for proper bonding with the mother when other lambs and mothers are present). I found an old door in the one of the wood-ricks (yes, it is the kind of place where old doors can be found just laying around). Remembering the babies, I check on them in the house. Erin is up and crying. I settle her back down. Back in the barn my wife is trying to get Chrissy off her feet so that she can get a better bead on the udders. She can't do it. Remembering what I saw at the Billings Farm and Museum about five years ago on sheep shearing day, I wrestle the old ewe to the ground and hold her there using her head. If you've got their head, they just give up, which she did. One udder clear but the lambs don't seem to be interested. We put their faces right there. No luck. The clock is ticking. Back in the kitchen, my wife has spoken with Leslie, and I have called the Joneses down the hill who have goats and donkeys. The advice is pretty much the same. Keep them warm, and keep trying to get them to nurse.
It is after eleven now and I am beat. And I have work in the morning. The alarm goes off at 5:15am. The chances that Erin or Angela will wake me up sometime between now and then are pretty good. Melinda and I debate what to do about the failing lamb. Melinda is willing to let the beast go, or at least not willing to expend the energy to save it. Again, something to the effect of God's will is uttered and how I can do something if I want, but it is all up to me. She is done. Undaunted by the prevailing air of fatalism, I throw a couple of birch logs in the wood stove to get it really hot and head out to the barn to defy the creator’s will. I bring the lamb into the house and cradle it near the wood stove until it begins to warm. As it warms, it has some moments of alertness and curiosity. I continue to ply it with the bottle, but still no go. I talk to it. Finally, I sit in the chair in which I have sat so many times before cradling and talking to babies. I rock and talk and try to feed the lamb without success. Brenda Jones from down the hill calls and says she has been trying to get up the hill to help us for over an hour but the snow is too deep. Their truck won't make it. I tell Melinda to fire up the Chevy and go get her. I watch the headlights disappear and return. The snow is coming down in large heavy flakes. Brenda and Melinda work away in the barn while I continue with the lamb. About twenty minutes later, Brenda comes in with a syringe full of colostrum or “first milk” from Chrissy, and takes the lamb from me. Success! The lamb takes about 10 milliliters, and then takes the bottle of lamb formula as well. This is good. The lamb is then returned to the barn, and I head to sleep. It is about 12:30 am now. I try to get some sleep, but it is a fitful sleep in that Erin keeps waking.
At four, I rise and check on the crew out in the barn. The snow has stopped. The dawning of the day promises to be bright, hard and cold. All are still alive, but still the one is not looking great. I put my finger to their mouths to check to make sure they are warm. They are. I try and get back to bed. Four thirty now and Angela is rising. She is crying and hitting her head on the floor. I go up. She has had a blowout diarrhea poop and is a mess. I take care of this as well. It is five-fifteen now. In the shower getting ready for work, I have Angela with me getting rinsed off. Breakfast is at six. I head out to the barn again. The lambs have moved around some. Two are snuggling up to Apples (so much for our makeshift divider), the other mama. Melinda shows up at the barn door. We move the lambs back to Chrissy and checks if they are warm. I head to work. It is up the Melinda now. I have a big day ahead of me at work.
I stand before the bookcase in the library and say out loud to nobody other than myself, “What does it God-damned matter anyway? We are all buried in the end.” And I am thinking to myself of Black Elk, his words are on my shelf, and how he said "all our words return to the circling winds.” I only wanted to be loved anyway. That is what the dream was about, the dream of becoming a writer. It was about freedom, and the promise of love for free. To have love, admiration, and affection, and to have it without sacrifice, except to the muse. Like Charles Stickland in Moon and Six Pence, to be loved simply for one’s genius while happily nurturing that genius. And what do I have now? I have a sick child in the bathroom, a child whom even when “healthy” cannot speak, feed herself, is partially deaf and blind, and suffers from a laundry list of physiological anomalies that would make a second year medical student start thinking about switching to law, a sick child who even when healthy will give you all the bodily fluids you can handle in a given day, a sick child who is forever in danger of dying, my dearly beloved daughter Angela. I wanted love and peace and the luxury of self-absorption and what I got is a being that challenges me in ways I never could have imagined, challenges me to love her, to be there, outside myself, for her, amidst all the crying, chaos and scatology, yet tonight a child who has also shattered one of the few chances I’ve had for a little peace in my own home for what seems like years. I should not feel angry about this, but I am. Why peace when I should simply be grateful for her life, the gift of another day of her life? I feel guilty for feeling this way, and feeling so helpless in the face of her enormous challenges, but what I CAN do is tend to her, keep her clean amidst the vomiting, warm against the cold, and give her some comfort where possible. That is what I can do. And this is right, and good, and in the end, is what sustains me.
Earlier in the day, Melinda had unearthed from a box in the basement a stack of writing magazines I had collected back in 1995. I commented when she showed them to me, “Ah, ’95, when the dream was still alive.” She knew immediately what I was talking about. Later, she left the house to pick up the older kids from school and take them plus the younger ones (all four!) to a choral rehearsal. I was to have two whole hours completely to myself in my own home. If this happens once in six months, I consider myself lucky. I had been home sick from work, and was finally starting to feel better. The house had had at least one sick person in it for the last two weeks. With Angela, she has had bad blow-out diarrhea (colitis) for the last six weeks (Oh, the laundry!). I had just settled in with the laptop when the van came back up the driveway. Melinda brought in Angela, car seat and all, covered in vomit, and summarily dropped her down on the kitchen floor, waved me off without a word before I could protest, hopped back into the van, and drove away. I stood in the kitchen in a state of utter despair and disbelief. For the last half hour I have been ministering to a writhing, vomiting, non-verbal, and generally very unhappy Angela. I write during intervals of calm.
I brought Angela upstairs from the kitchen, showered with her (both of us being covered in vomit) and got her into some clean pajamas, the simple pleasure of getting a child clean and into clean clothes cheering me. This was the day after the night I myself had spent sick, trying to sleep on the hard floor of this same bathroom, writhing in nausea. I was still feeling weak, so the whole exercise of getting her bathed and dressed had left me feeling exhausted. Not long after this was accomplished she vomited all over herself and me as well, all over again. I have towels over her now, and under her. I try to keep her clean, but she just keeps vomiting. It is hopeless. I try holding her over the toilet, but she is too limp, too squirmy. I finally put her in the tub.
I leave the room occasionally to take a couple of deep breaths, write a few notes, and calm myself while standing in the library. When you have a child with a serious chronic health condition, who is not supposed to live and she gets sick, you’re alone in a trackless wilderness, even in the comfy confines of your own library. There is no one who can help this child, nor you, for she resides in a Tierra incognita, beyond the reach of medical science. She is the result of an “unfortunate roll of the cosmic dice” as one physician put it to me, afflicted with a condition “incompatible with life” which is permanently baked into her DNA. There is nothing to be done. “Nothing to be done”, I think as I stand before the bookcases amidst the pale green light of the reading lamp gazing upon my old books, a catalog of a different time, a different life, with different hopes, dreams and desires. This night I think it queer to look upon ones old books.
Come on, move along reader. There is nothing profound here. Just what is. Today, I should feel grateful. A number of my colleagues at the college have been laid off today and are staring suddenly into the darkness of the abyss, and if the press is to be believed, another Great Depression. I am thankfully still gainfully employed, at least for now. But this is a personal utterance. The day fades as I write this. There is just Angela and me now on the hard wood floor, a scattering of towels and a portable heater humming along bringing some warmth and peace, a miniature diorama of tragedy and pathos similar to others playing out all over the planet from palatial penthouses in grand cities to mud huts in Africa, yet droning on largely beneath the notice of society at large. We sit, we two, and wait. Wait for difficulties to pass and hope that worse are not to come.
Angela sleeps now. This moment is not new. It is very old. A child’s suffering and a father’s anxiety, birth pangs to some greater tomorrow? That would be a hopeful thought. Or simply a single inconsequential and meaningless beat in the pulse of the deep unfathomable and indifferent universe. Pick your poison.
She stirs and kicks off the towel. I cover her again. The sky has gone from gray to burnished blue steel. It is cold outside. The thermometer outside the window says ten below. I slip downstairs to throw another log on the fire. The furnace has turned on, blowing cold air, stirring Angela’s curly blond locks. The propane truck came today: Five-hundred and seventeen bucks. Even with the wood stove going full bore 24/7, we are getting killed this winter.
I love the bare trees against the failing light of a winter’s eve. The room is dark now, as are the woods despite all the snow. The only light is in the twilight sky and the dim snow-covered fields. I wait for an evening star. She has stopped vomiting for a while, but still occasionally stirs uncomfortably. Her face is not smooth, not relaxed. When will this suffering end? What if she were to die right now? What would I do?
Ah, but then there is an evening star. Venus I suppose. Pale and cold and distant, it winks just above the naked gnarled branches of the dying old silver maple tree. I light a candle now to freshen the room, and bring a soft light to the darkened corners. The light flickers on her face. This improbable child, and her beautiful face, how I have grown to love her. In the end, I suppose I’ve gotten what I was really after, someone to love, and to be loved by in turn. The loving is hard, but uncomplicated, for she is so basic and pure. Half of loving is in knowing how. To love this child completely is not so much in the knowing, but in the doing. I stare out the window and recall the words of Leonard Cohen...”Love is not a victory march. It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.”
The Baby Ewe
Last night, the baby ewe died. I guess, in this case, our creator’s will was not to be denied. But I did what I could. I got home from work, did not like the looks of the creature and brought her back inside the house. She was not sitting like the other lambs. She was on her side with her neck going way back. I have seen this pose before in a book, or fossil, frieze or cave painting. Maybe it was an antelope. It is a pose that only death strikes. Melinda went off to the feed store to get proper nipples and food for it. I, once again stoked the fire, and held the lamb in the warmth. It was starving, I suppose. It kept having spasms. A response to its body consuming its muscles I presumed. I remember learning about this at a search and rescue conference in New Mexico, years ago. But I held the lamb, rocked it, spoke to it, just like I have done a thousand times with my own children.
I have rocked a being back from the doors of death before. A day or two after Angela was born I was holding her alone in the hospital and she started to go. The machine was squawking about low SATs, little pulse, low BP. Lots of machines squawked in that Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. And when nobody came, I rocked her, brought her face close to mine and sang to her and yet I could feel her getting heavy in my arms. I could almost feel the abyss opening up in front of us, beneath my arms, feel her falling away. I like to think I willed her back. The beeping stopped. The child returned to me. Little did I know at that moment what I had set myself up for, what agonies the future would hold, I just knew that she could not die, and not die unshriven, it would have been too much for my Catholic parents.
It was my father's wish that the child be baptized as soon as possible. His brother had died as a newborn, during the Great Depression, and he remembered his father carrying a cup of holy water to his grave and pouring it on the grass, saying, “I don’t even know whether the child was baptized or not.” In that era, in that part of the Midwest, unbaptized children went into limbo. We talked about it as kids. Some neighborhood kid fell through the ice, or died in a car accident, that kid went into “limbo”.
The doctors have given my daughter only weeks to live. Her condition was not fixable, and was as I have said, “incompatible with life.” We brought her home to die. It was four years, and a lot of nights rocking later that I held this dying lamb. The suffering of those four long years has been considerable and showed no sign of abatement. I rocked in time with the clock on the wall, and grew impatient for Melinda’s return. When she finally returned, she mixed up the lamb formula, put in some of Chrissy’s colostrum and again we tried to feed the little ewe. No luck. We tried to syringe some of the colostrum into the lamb. No luck there either (even though I reluctantly tickled the ewe’s anus as was recommended - this is supposed to stimulate sucking. The mother does this when she is trying to get the lamb to nurse – Oh a mother’s love!). I finally laid the lamb on a couch cushion, wrapped in a towel before the fire.
Melinda wanted to return the lamb to the barn to die with its siblings and mother. It shows our differing world views I suppose. In the cold barn I see little comfort in siblings that nuzzle one away from food, warmth, life itself, and a mother impatient and kicking the lamb, the runt, away. In the barn, was competition, and natural selection. There was no love, no comfort, no warmth, and no light. There was not a god that was kind or merciful. Even a manger is a brutal place for the runt. No, this lamb would lie before the altar of a different god, a Greek one, named Prometheus, with his gift of warmth and light. Maybe here, in the house, the lamb would find some measure of mercy. And of course, in the house there was still hope. If the ewe roused itself, I could be there to try and feed it again.
It was strange to see Gandalf’s (our gray cat) reaction to the lamb. He would occasionally walk up to the lamb, and give it a sniff, but generally paid about as much mind to it as he would a stuffed animal. Erin, just two years old, patted the lamb a few times as well, soothingly. Before bed, the fire stoked, the rooms dark, everybody else asleep, I checked on her one last time. She might have been gone at this point. It was hard to know with the warmth from the fire. But I didn’t check too closely. I wanted to go to sleep with my illusions still intact, to still have hope of a little bleat in the night crying for my help. But she was probably beyond help already.
At about 1 am, Melinda and I rose, and checked on her. She had not moved a muscle. She was gone. We spoke with sadness of Karina and Dylan’s disappointment, spoke of what to do with her body. Melinda thought we should bury her in the woods. I reminded her it was February, in New Hampshire, and digging a hole would require explosives of some sort. She thought we should just put her out there anyway. I countered that she would just be torn up by some animal and the kids might come upon the remains. I thought we should put her in the freezer until she could be given a proper burial in the spring or I could cremate her when I burned one of my many brush piles (thoughts of Old Testament figures and their bone-fires, aka bonfires and their offerings dancing in my head). When Melinda asked why I cared about the body. “I don’t know,” I said, “I suppose it is because we are humans and that is how we deal with our dead.” I was thinking of the ancient Greek story of Antigone, but I told her the story of when I buried our cat Cinder when I was a kid.
Cinder had been hit by a truck. I still remember my little sister's wail when the very contrite truck driver brought the corpse to the front door (people took more responsibility in those days). My father must have been out of town. He traveled a lot. He was a salesman. So I dug a grave for the cat and had my little sister come out while I performed some kind of rite I must have seen on TV. I covered the grave with a heavy stone to keep animals away and marked it with a cross made of two sticks bound with dandelion stems. Both my sister and my mother still remark about that event to this day. They remember every detail.
We have three children that will at some point need to endure the death of one of their siblings, Angela. We need to do what we can to get them ready. The burial of this innocent lamb was a good start. Its little life would serve a higher purpose. Melinda went outside to check on the other lambs while I loaded the dishwasher and once again stoked the stove, before gently putting the lamb into a bag and taking her body downstairs to the freezer in the basement. The bag seemed strangely heavy as I descended the stairs.
It occurs to me that the reader might wonder why such drastic steps were taken to save this little creature, particularly on the part of the writer. Because it is a life. And life is magnificent. Because the rest is the immense dark spaces between the galaxies, the furnaces of the star, and the cold yawning void between and beyond. When the spark of life left that lamb, the universe became that much darker. And it is dark enough as it is.
It is one o’clock in the morning, and the crack beneath the bedroom door is the only light. Outside a soft rain is falling. You can almost feel the trees growing out in the dank forest beyond our pastures, their trunks swelling in the cold spring rain. Angela drinks from her bottle and rocks her head back and forth, back and forth, riffing on the thin blade of light. Oh, how the mind hungers for the food of the senses, for it needs this for its becoming, no less than the seed its sunshine and rain. What the mind cannot find because of blindness or deafness (Angela has impairment in both sight and hearing and is technically “deaf-blind”) it will create through motion with whatever stimuli its constrained circumstances afford. The rocking you see, like a mechanical toy stuck in the corner of a room, is a struggle to escape constraint, a struggle to grow amidst darkness.
I fear what these nights are doing to me, this nightly Pieta of father and daughter, me holding her as she drinks, her eyes shining in the moonlight or in the light of the crack of the door. My love for her deepens and swells in the darkness like those trees back in my woods, as does the wound, the wound that will open with her inevitable ceasing to be. The books to my right are confounded by this improbable life cuddled in the crook of my left arm, their words drained of all meaning. I have recently moved into Angela’s room to be nearer to her. When I was awakened before by her cry from a distant room, I would feel anger. I would try to ignore, or hope out of existence that bewildered wail from deep within the night, those sleep shattering moans. At first I gave words to the wailing: "Daddy, I am scared." "Daddy, I am hungry." "Daddy, something hurts." But that was not enough. My anger persisted; my ego needed breaking, my sense of entitlement shattered. So I moved closer to the source of my anger. Now that I am in the room, I feel connected to her. It is not a disembodied cry I hear deep in the night, ripping me from my dreams, but my mute daughter whom I love, in distress, and I am rarely angry now when I am awakened.
It is during these small hours that I gather strength from the bread of the bones of my fathers. Here in my arms lies a choice between two agonies. If she lives, I suffer. If she dies, I suffer. This is no different from the lives of my fathers. With her I am with them. With her, I know their uncertainty, their suffering, and their fears. Children died in droves in those days. It was part of life. The small families of today represent a kind of hubris, a denial of hazard and the tenuousness of life.
There is an old bagpipe tune that has become a kind of anthem to me. It was composed in the 16th century by a legendary piper by the name of McCrimond. The McCrimonds lived on the Isle of Skye, strangely enough, the destination where my wife and I honeymooned years ago. As the story goes, an epidemic of scarlet fever struck that part of Scotland in the early part of the century and carried off many children, including seven of McCrimond’s children. As a father of four, all of whom I love with an intensity that knows no proper metaphor, the depths of grief this man must have endured is almost unimaginable to me. In his pain, the father turned to his bagpipes and composed a lament which became traditional in that part of Scotland. McCrimond’s “Lament for the Children” eventually made its way over to Nova Scotia presumably with the Scottish immigrants who settled there. In the late nineteenth century, the lament was heard by a Czech composer who was touring the “new world”. We know McCrimond’s musical lament today as the Largo section of Dvorak's “New World” Symphony No.9 in E-Minor, Op. 95. Having roamed those same Scottish hills myself and suffered some of the same fears as McCrimond, I feel a special kinship with this music, and it never fails to both move me and ignite my imagination. This is one of many things for which I have Angela to thank, the subtle but important gifts that a child like her confers upon those who love and care for her. With Angela, you sip from the unsullied wellsprings of the human condition, and find kinship with others who have done the same, even if they lived and died almost 400 years ago.
The other side of the coin is the relentless suffering, and more generally, the thorny question of suffering of innocents. After hours of crying in the middle of the night, night after night, week after week, you begin to wonder; will there be no end to her pointless suffering? No end to the exhaustion, the fears, the sleeplessness and the pain? One is naturally tempted to ask, where is God in all this? In a moment of anger I answer my own question. He is deaf, blind or indifferent. There is only man. And man has Will. And man can act. I CAN act. This suffering, this captivity, could all be over in an instant for both of us! So what holds me back? It is the thought of her destiny, her raison d'être. Many a man's hand has been stayed by the consideration of another’s purpose in some greater plan. So I do what I can do, and wait, with them, my distant fathers, and endure. It is all I can do. Later on, I lay my head down on the spine of a book on the edge of the bookshelf. It is Robert Bly's "Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart." I lay my head down in the rag and bone shop of the heart, in hopes of finding some rest.
There are times when the love I bear for this child approaches would I can only imagine divine love to be like, for there is no ego in it. Plato never reflects on it in his Symposium. Angela will never grow up to win trophies, or scholarships, or reflect any kind of credit on her old man. Her successes are subtle, and for the most part beneath notice. No matter how hard she has had to fight, how far she has had to come, society will always see her as “disabled”, and discount her triumphs, for the measuring stick of her life has been rendered almost undecipherable as the language of empathy and compassion is steadily replaced by the language and culture of achievement. And nobody, nobody will ever know the depths of sacrifice or loneliness in the small hours of those long nights, nor the tenderness shared between parent and child in those tear-stained soothe sessions in our upstairs library, alone in the dark, parent and child groping for some kind of relief, some kind of detente with dark fate, with only her pain, her fears, and your own, because it cannot be written, painted, or sung about, its story existing only in hieroglyphics for which no Champollion exists, and known only by those who have experienced it, night after night, year after weary year.
"I love you too child, but you've got to go back to sleep", I say softly to Angela as she reaches up to hug me after feeding her. It's 4:15 am. I should have changed her diaper when I fed her at one, but I didn’t. I tried to get by cheap. And now I have to pay. We both have to pay. She's had a leak. Her clothing is wet, as is the crib mattress. I change her clothes and lay a towel over the wet spot on the sheet all the while hoping during all this that she has not become too awake. The hugging started about six months ago. It is nice. What did Emerson in his essay on compensation? This is compensation for all the suffering: A hug from a broken child amidst the deep fatigue of a sleepless night. Angela now lies back in the crook of my elbow again. I place the bottle before her and she grabs it with both hands, not using her thumbs. She can hold it with one hand now. With the other hand she plays with my nose, my face, my chin, my ear. With four fingers together, thumbs slightly tucked, fingers slightly crooked (forming a kind of little back-hoe) she explores the world of her father's face, his watch, his thumb, his fingers, the palm of his hand. Oh how these words will wound my future self, how they will evoke these precious moments of quiet tenderness lost one by one to improvident time, like a little boy his pocket of treasures. Even now I write the words with trepidation, knowing how much someday I will miss her, knowing they will wring tears from my future self, tears of memory made sorrowful by fate and the inexorable passage of time. Time will turn these powers of expression upon the self, like a bare bodkin.
To sleep, perchance to dream...For my part I play the waiting game parents of babies have played for centuries. She's back to sleep, but how long should I remain motionless before trying to lay her down? My back aches. Do I dare scratch my nose? Damn, I should have gone to the bathroom before I picked her up. Laying the child down too early could result in waking, and another forty-five minutes without sleep. Do I risk two more minutes of waiting to save forty-five? But I'm soooooo tired. I scratch my nose and the child stirs to wakefulness again. The voice of a young woman comes into my head. "Oh non!" It is the voice of a young woman we know. It is what she sings after the barracuda has eaten the "Petit Poisson" in a French children’s song by the same name. At 4:15 in the morning, this song my kids have been singing for weeks comes into my head straight from the seventh level of Hibernian hell as the lyrical equivalent of the Sisyphian labors that await me as I try to quiet my mind in order to get back to sleep. It looks like I am going to start another day at 4:15am (which is a far sight better than the 3:15 the days were starting at prior to daylight savings time). Ah yes, the remnants of another night's sleep ruined again by unattainable desires. I suppose the wakened Vishnu knows the same, and as he thinks, thus does the animate world wail. As a father every day you do what you can do to make life better for your child. You have good days and bad. After the bad ones, you let them go and know that if tomorrow is to come for this child, you have another day to make a go at it, to do better. Having a child like Angela simplifies your life.
The Old Ewe
The old ewe Crystallite aka Chrissy was euthanized in our field yesterday in the late morning. She was afflicted with fly strike and was not going to recover, and was probably suffering, so Melinda and her friend and large animal veterinarian Kirsten administered an injection that ended her life. It is seems strange to say, but she was a very sweet animal, and it is sad to see her go, but we knew this going in, that she was old, and would not live much longer. I’d like to think she had a pleasant final two years up on the hill in our care. She died in a field of green grass beneath the cool shade of an apple tree. Melinda called me at work around 11:30 and told me the news. It was the last day of school and the kids were getting out at 12:30. I volunteered to pick them up from school and promptly headed north.
The day had turned somewhat gray and misty from the gentle morning sunshine, and the sky was lowering as I drove north up interstate 91, the brows of Smarts Mountain, Mt. Cube and Mt. Moosilauke were already darkened by the clouds. The Connecticut River was a great gray highway, fringed alternately by brown plowed earth, light green hay fields and dark pines no doubt already dripping with the mists. I reached the parking lot of the Samuel Morey Elementary School in a light drizzle. Inside the school, the joyous screams of the children were rising to a fever pitch of excitement, and soon they were pouring out of the building. It was interesting to see their faces. Some looked happy, others relieved, some crying for teachers they loved, and would miss over the summer. Of my children, Dylan, my second grader, came out first, all smiles, carrying the lightning poster he had been working on and describing to me over breakfast for the last couple weeks. Then came Karina, my fourth grader, and eldest, who once she saw me, knew something was up. We hugged amidst the hullabaloo and strode through the masses to the parking lot and waiting car. It was there I told them about Chrissy. Karina got particularly upset because she had not had a chance to say good bye to her that morning, having been late for school, and in sandals and a dress, and the pasture so full of dew.
The trip back across the river, up to the village, and finally up our hill was a relatively quiet one. The rain had stopped. I did not say much, letting the kids absorb the news on their own, in their own way. We reached the driveway and the kids were greeted by our old friends from New Mexico “Papa” Lew and Melissa. Erin was napping. Angela was in her pack-n-play clicking away at one of her toys. The excitement of the moment overtook the kids amidst a flurry of backpacks, books, posters, year-end projects, report cards and the like, the kids trying to show everything at once. Karina was particularly interested in me reading the comments from her 4th grade teacher about her writing and how the teacher wanted to read Karina’s books someday. Karina had started a new tradition in her class of turning simple spelling and sentence assignments into full blown stories using all the day’s words, a tradition that had spread to several of her classmates.
Once the flurry of activity had died down, and I had changed clothes and eaten a half-finished peanut butter and jelly sandwich left over from Erin’s lunch, we went over to see Chrissy. Kirsten and Melinda had put her in the old wooden garden cart. Karina stood back at a distance and said nothing. Dylan got right in there, full of curiosity, touching the fur on her head, moving her head around, looking closely at her face. There were tears and plenty of hugs as Lew and Melissa joined the circle to lend their arms and kisses. It was decided that we would bury her on the property with her baby ewe (still in the basement freezer) by her side, a daunting proposition to be sure given the size of the animal and the ledginess of the property. But we had Lew to help with the labor and Melissa with the care of the younger children.
Lew and Karina and Dylan and I set out with a sledge hammer and a long iron pike to find a suitable burial place. We discussed the pros and cons of various locations, but the criteria that mattered most was whether the ubiquitous granite ledges would make digging possible. I probed the soil in a few places and we settled on the only place we found where the pike would go in for more than a foot or so, and that was down in some mossy bottom-land by our wild blueberry patch, in front of a nice cluster of ferns and swamp maples. We needed to get started for the day was growing darker. Gathering a clutch of digging tools and work gloves from the barn we soon got about our work digging the hole.
There is something about digging a hole (even it if is going to be a grave) that sets the heart to lightness. There was lots of competition to wield the shovel and the pick between Karina and Dylan, who were typically not good natured to each other (“it’s just a phase”, my mother would say), and jealous for their time behind the spade. Lew and I on the other hand were of good cheer even after the skies opened up and a heavy rain began to fall. We dug for the better part of the afternoon. The showers came and went, and came again, and the hole took on the musty smell you get as you probe deeper into the earth. A fog settled in for a while, and then lifted. The bugs where mercifully kept at bay by the nice cool breeze that followed the fog. The kids made a game of gathering the ubiquitous rocks that emerged from the hole (it is New England after all). One stone in particular, dubbed the “ewe stone”, was a brilliant combination of white, yellow and dark purple quartz and was chosen to top the cairn that would top the grave.
Melinda joined us at some point and we finished the digging around 4 pm or so. Back at the house, Melissa and Melinda got the bread dough rising and the soup for dinner in the pot while Lew and I played Whiffle ball outside with the older kids. Erin had risen from her nap hungry for attention, and wanting to lead Lew on a tour of every nook and cranny on the property for a proper inspection. We watched our gray cat Gandalf stalk a chipmunk that was checking out the six cords of wood I had had delivered the day before bringing thoughts of next winter, even on a spring day. Dylan took to dirtying the clean bathroom with the ewe stone and an old toothbrush. By the time he was done, it was an impressive stone, almost as impressive as the mess he made of himself and the bathroom. After what seemed like forever, the soup was simmering, the children shod and re-gathered, the frozen baby ewe fetched by Dylan from the basement freezer, the procession finally got underway on the lane back to the blueberry patch. I was in the van with Angela (who loved to be in her car seat in those days) while Karina and Dylan pulled the garden cart with Chrissy in it and Erin ran behind as only a three year old can run, alternately finding things of interest, a stone, a stick, a flower, and then running for all she was worth to catch up. Lew and Melissa and Melinda strolled behind. I parked the van out in the field beneath a huge pine tree and left the side door open so Angela could be with us.
The day was still gray, but it was no longer raining. There was a nice fresh breeze and it was cool. At the graveside it finally dawned on Erin that something was going on. She looked at Chrissy and said, “Is Chrissy dead? Is the baby lamb dead too?” “Yes, we’re going to bury them together in this hole.” “Oh”, she said with more wonder in her voice than anything else. And that was about it. Melinda and Lew put the body into the grave while I recorded the event in pictures. Dylan placed the baby ewe by her mother’s side commenting that the umbilical cord was still attached. The ewe was only a day old when it died. Everyone tossed a clod or two of earth onto the bodies and then we took turns filling in the hole, finishing up with some rocks and a bouquet of wildflowers that Karina had picked in the field. Melinda said a few words and the procession made its way back to the house.
Karina called Leslie, the woman who gave us Chrissy, and told her the news. They spoke for some time, my eldest daughter, and this earthy woman who dresses from another century, whose head is always covered, and who raises sheep on a hillside farm in northern Vermont, and the words that passed between them were left alone to pass between them in private, but it gave me a good feeling what was spoken was right and true and good. I got Dylan and Erin into the bath and Melinda brought me up a whiskey. Oh was it fine, elemental, like everything else that day, the stones, the soil, the sound of pick and spade, the sky, the rain, the grass and all. Karina noticed immediately the glow it put on my face. I followed this up with a pint of dark porter and a nice meal of soup and bread. It was all so simple and good. The evening had turned somewhat darkly dramatic, the sun trying but failing to penetrate the chaotically amassed dark clouds. The kids did well in their violin lessons. Karina played and sang The Ash Gove for Lew and Melissa. She had been practicing this old Welsh tune for my parent’s upcoming 50th wedding anniversary. Dylan fell asleep on the couch. After lessons, Karina retreated to her room to work on her writing. She would have plenty to write about today.
By fall I was once again digging a hole, but this time it was simply to have the septic tank pumped. Ah yes, once again, a father’s love, to paraphrase Yeats, has pitched its tent, in excrement, or in this case, above excrement thankfully. I am once again joined in the back yard by little Erin. She had been collecting windfall apples from beneath our apple trees. She came over to the hole and asked what I was doing. I explained it to her and she seemed satisfied and went back to the shade of a large butternut tree where she had been piling the apples and the occasional sticky butternut. The day being warm for fall, I joined her on the long cool grass and in the shade beneath the tree. “Chrissy died”, she said to me simply. “Yes. Yes, she did”, I replied. “Chrissy liked apples”, she continued. It was true. Chrissy loved to eat apples and last fall when Erin was only two, she would feed Chrissy apples through the fence, both child and ewe being so good about it, Erin holding her hand out, just as she had been told, palm up, hand open, so as not to get a finger in there, with one small green apple as offering, and Chrissy taking it ever so gingerly. Such trust on the part of the small child, trust in a father’s words, and trust before such a large animal. It would be like you or I feeding a dinosaur. “Chrissy liked apples”, she repeated.
All parents are amateur anthropologists, the childhood of a man (or woman) is not unlike the childhood of mankind, a window into our past, an unsullied portal into the prehistoric human soul, forever new, yet ancient, for not much has really changed in ten thousand years, and what happened next under that big old butternut tree was further evidence of this old maxim. I suppose it was the smell of the newly broken earth, the apples themselves, or something on the breeze that had brought the old ewe around for Erin, but whatever it was, the impulse it created was strong, strong enough to move the child to action. Erin gathered as many apples as she could carry (in this case, after several attempts, just three) walked very deliberately out into the sunshine, and over to the hole. There she stood for a few moments and then one by one dropped the apples into the hole with great ceremony. She returned moments later, back to the shade beneath the tree, and said simply, “Chrissy died” before sitting down contentedly before what was left of her pile of apples. The seed of all the world’s religions was encapsulated in that moment, in the simple gesture of a three year old child gifting an old deceased ewe one last little taste of the sweetness of this world, of this good earth. And that it was all possible, despite the turning of the seasons, the seemingly inviolate constraints of distance (from this hole to the other) and finally, death itself. And the why? Because that ewe was a thing of beauty and wonder, and we, we are born into this life by love, and for love. There, as those apples were dropped into the ground, was the most sacred of covenants in all its grandeur and simplicity, the warmth of the sun, the smell of earth, the fruits of the field, the innocence of a child, a simple offering, and the faith that it mattered, and was acceptable.
The True and Complete Story of Orange
Nothing is ever true, because there is always more than one true, and nothing is ever complete because there is never an end. Here is how I know:
Long ago, in a different time and a different place, but really yesterday and in a town twenty miles from here, I was sixteen and it was July and I had just returned to town after living in Florida for six and a half years. The town was a small town. It had railroad tracks that meant sometimes you had to wait ten minutes, until the railcars ended and the caboose passed, so you could continue your walk down the street. Sometimes a guy would be standing on the platform at the back of the caboose, and he would wave back. Like most river towns, the streets were laid out in a grid. Front Street ran parallel to the river. Market Street ran perpendicular to Front Street, bisecting the town. There were a few places near the creek that formed the southern border of the town where the streets grew crowded and irregular. Mostly they were in a grid. The people of the town had always been practical, liked order. After all, the town was built on the site of a fort, put there to keep the brown-skin Indians in the wilderness, away. There was a gray wall, twenty-feet high in places, running the length of Front Street. It was built in the 1940s to hold back the flood waters. Sometimes it held things in. At the north end of town, if you peer over the wall, you can see the confluence of the two branches of the river. The river is expansive there; it looks like nothing, not even the tall gray wall, could contain it.
There was a highway across the river and late at night you could hear the semis shifting up or shifting down depending on whether they were going north and making the hill toward Winfield or headed east and curving along the river. I was sixteen and hadn’t lived in this town for six and a half years. I left in fourth grade, a few weeks before Christmas. I came up every summer for two weeks, when my mother and stepfather took vacation.
Two years before I stayed the whole summer. I stayed at my grandmother’s. I stayed over at Chuck’s as much as I could. Chuck was less than a year younger than me. He would have been my best friend, except I usually only got to see him two weeks a year during the time I lived in Florida. His mother worked out of town all day and paid us little mind during the evening. His stepdad was a long-haul trucker. We took his stepdad’s rifles out, walking the alleys until we got out in the woods along Kirshner’s Hill. Mostly we took .22’s, but once we took the 7mm Remington rifle. It sounded like thunder ripping open a sunny summer sky. We also took Chuck’s stepdad’s motorcycles out. He had a purple Honda 305 Scrambler and a 250cc Yamaha Enduro with a blue tank. The Scrambler was a good road bike, with a lot of pop for its size. The Enduro was a knobby-tired dirt bike with a headlight to make it street legal. Once we rode to other side of the river, past the truckers and up Blue Hill, to some girl’s house. It was raining and I was gunning the Enduro down County Line Road. The road had a steep decline and I was sure I was not going to make the curve and I would go off the road and fly down the cliff until I hit one of the broad oak trees on the side of the hill. My mind was clear and I was ready to die. I was fourteen. The bike made the curve and I geared down. The next summer, I didn’t come up at all. I stayed behind in Florida because our vacation was in late August, and I wanted to tryout for football. I stayed with the neighbors across the street, Jerry and Nancy. They were poor and lived in a trailer, and had three kids. I brought my stereo over to their house and listened to Jim Croce tapes. At night, Jerry and I and some of the other guys from the neighborhood went snook fishing off the Pine Island Bridge in Matlacha. I made the football team and went to practice twice a day. I did not like football. I lacked the blind aggression needed to play. Our team lost every game that year. One of the coaches was from my same town in Pennsylvania. I never told him about this connection. That winter I joined the soccer team.
The summer I was sixteen I was back in Pennsylvania. My mother was divorcing my stepdad, which was cool by me. I hated him. He had a crew cut and a fat face with jowls like Richard Nixon. He ate runny eggs with mustard on them. In May, my mother headed north. I finished my school year. This girl who lived in a neighborhood about a mile away was interested in me. Her name was Noel, like Christmas. At night I would walk over there, and we would hang out. Noel was nearly as tall as me and had brown hair and brown eyes. She was on the track team, and was strong and fast. Mostly we walked around. I don’t think we held hands much. We just walked and talked. Then I walked home. Once we were sitting on her couch and then we started kissing, and then her older brother came in and told us we were too young for that kind of stuff. That summer I tried to get a job. I had a driver’s license. But I did not have a car and there were no businesses within walking distance. I went to summer school instead, taking gym so I would not have to take it during the school year and could maybe take an elective like newspaper writing. Then my mother sent a plane ticket and I returned to Pennsylvania. While I was living in Florida alone with my stepfather, we did not do anything together. Once the regular school year ended, he gave me these parameters: “I don’t care how late you stay out, just don’t come home with the cops.” I was an Eagle Scout, played soccer, and was a bit of a shy kid who liked school. My stepfather’s only recreation was drinking a case of beer by himself each weekend.
It is the second week of July. I am sitting on the cement steps of Chuck’s front porch. My skin is copper, its summer color. My hair is a collaboration of loose curls. No one in this town looks like me. No one in my family looks like me. I do not fit in here. I do. In this town of German and English names, my own family contained names like Shultz, and Haas, and Bauman. Though I was adopted, I had found out, two years before – the summer of rifles and motorcycles – that I was also blood kin. Chuck’s mom had also given birth to me, the result of her affair with a black man in Baltimore. My mother, who is by blood my aunt, adopted me from the Scranton orphanage where I’d been left. She raised me as her own, her only. Chuck’s stepdad, drunk, told us this one night.
Chuck is ten and a half months younger than me. We are men now. Chuck lives a mile away from my house. Sometimes our sons hang out together. He has not seen his mother in a couple of years. I have not seen her in thirteen or fourteen. My mother is dead.
I belonged. I was on my aunt’s porch. My cousin lived next door with her two kids, the twins. My grandmother used to live there. I have a picture taken when I was eight. I am dressed in a blue suit and an ill-fitting, undersized fedora. I am on this porch, and in a few minutes will be on way to Easter Sunday Mass at St. Michael’s. Now my grandmother lived around the corner, and my cousin and her husband and their little girl lived next door. Her husband would be killed in a motorcycle crash. Two doors over was my house. I had gone to St. Michael’s until it was almost Christmas in fourth grade. In second grade I played the robot in the play The Thumpity Bumpity Box. We put on the play on a small wooden stage in the basement parish hall. My mom made my costume out of boxes she got from the supermarket, and silver spray paint, and magic markers. In my first communion picture taken that same spring, I am marching in a line of eight-year-olds in angelic costumes. I am easy to pick out. Nobody looks like me.
It is the second week of July and I am sitting on Chuck’s front porch steps. I’d been in town a week. I see her. She is sitting on the cement steps of her front porch, across the street. She is the cutest girl I have ever seen: petite, long blonde hair, and a funny smile that I find mesmerizing. She has on jeans and an orange t-shirt. Her favorite color, I learn later, is orange. I watch her for a few minutes. She is troubled. She is holding her hand in a funny way. I am not sure why I do it, what it is that propels across the street and to her side. All I know is that this is one of the great moments of my life. A few weeks before, I would not have done it. In Florida, I would not approach the cutest girl I ever saw, sit down next to her, and hold her hand. That’s what I do with Orange. Her thumb and forefinger are stuck together with Krazy Glue. I hold her hand and roll her finger and thumb around in mine. The bond is not hard to break. After five minutes, we go for a walk.
We walked a lot that summer. We walked up to the hill section of town to Cindy’s house. Cindy lived in a big brick house with an enclosed porch, and was Orange’s best friend. Late at night, after Orange is home, and I should be, I go for walks all over town. One night, when the air is thick with August’s humidity and fog, I walk the black bridge. Trains stopped running on it years before, and in a few years it will be torn down, leaving only the stone pilings as a reminder of what once was. That night I walk slowly to the center of the bridge. A thick fog has settled into the moonless night. I can hear the water below; can barely make out its shifting shape through the timbers of the bridge deck. I can hear the trucks on the west shore, the noises of the town – cars driving slow down alleys and window air conditioners – to my right. The confluence is maybe a mile to my north. I cannot see it. I hear two people walking, coming toward me. I walk toward them. We meet. It’s just two stoners catching a buzz.
Even though I had a driver’s license I had no car. The only time I got to use the car was to go to the job my cousin Wendy got me at the Arthur Treacher’s fish and chips fast food place that just opened across the river on the highway. The job wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The twenty-year-old manager, Rick, was a decent guy. And I worked with Herbie a lot. He was a funny kid whose dad’s main occupation seemed to be his afternoon “paperboy” route. I always wondered if Herbie was embarrassed that his dad was a paperboy. The town paper came out in the afternoon, so sometimes if you were walking around town right after school you could see Herbie’s dad, the Daily Item bag with its safety-orange strap slung over his shoulder, chucking papers on porches. I didn’t have a dad.
One morning, when we were opening up, Herbie blew himself across the room. The deep fat fryers were gas. Herbie bent down to light one of them, but turned the lever to “main” instead of “pilot.” When he struck a match there was a sudden noise, a combination of whompf and bang, and Herbie was propelled ten feet across the floor. He sat, legs askew, against the back brick wall of the kitchen. His blonde bangs and eyebrows and cheesy sparse mustache were singed, gone. I laughed for a long time. Rick came out and wigged. One night I almost killed everyone: the assistant manager, Herbie, and me. It was near closing and Rick asked me to mop the front area, out by the booths and the order counter. I was glad to do it. Most of our customers were older and came in early. We hadn’t been busy for a long time. It was something to do other than waiting for the time clock to rollover. I took to the task with thoroughness of those grateful to get a chance to prove themselves. What I thought I might prove at an off-brand fast food outlet in central Pennsylvania is beyond my recall. I was about halfway done when Rick came out of the back office choking, eyes tearing. In an effort to get the greasy floor clean, I had used both ammonia and bleach in the mop water. This is a dangerous and potentially lethal combination. It makes chlorine gas, something used by the Germans in World War I. It took a long time for us to air out the restaurant. Some things do not mix.
Here is the thing: I will not use her name. Like the power that propelled me across the street to meet her, some un-nameable force now holds me back from renewing that familiarity. Respect? Regret? What is this queer feeling that lurks in between others? It sits on the edge of being and laughs. It knows what has been won and lost. Here is what I do know: to her friends, she was known by one name. Her family called her another.
After Orange and I had been together a while, and I was spending most of my time with her, Chuck began to tease me. He kept singing the chorus to Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” which was a popular song that summer. That fall, I would think about her and listen to the Born to Run album by Springsteen, sometimes stopping to replay “She’s the One.” Sometimes I would listen to David Bowie’s version of “Sorrow” from his album Pin Ups.
With your long blonde hair and your eyes of blue
The only thing I ever got from you was sorrow
You never do what you know you oughta
Something tells me you're a Devil's daughter
One night Orange and I are coming down the hill, heading toward our neighborhood. The night is getting cold. In Florida wore I sandals a lot, mostly when I went out of the neighborhood. In my own neighborhood I often went barefoot. I am in Pennsylvania, still wearing my Florida sandals. We stop at my house. No one is home. My mother is two houses over, visiting her own mother. I kiss Orange once we are inside the heavy wooden door of my house. We kiss often. We are not like the sickening high school couples always lipped-locked to the mild disgust and envy of their friends. It is always in the shadows, away from others. It is between us. It is enough. Other times we hold hands and smile. Orange and I go upstairs, to my room. She sits on my bed. I put on socks and my white Adidas with green stripes and two pair of shoelaces, green and white. We leave. Just as we get outside my room, my mother starts up the steps to the second floor. I tell her I stopped to get some shoes, and that I am going to take Orange home, and then see what Chuck is up to. The next day, my mother tells me that I should not have girls up in my room at night when she is not home. I understand, but given my still existent overall shyness, know that there is little real reason for the rule.
School started. I had homeroom with Mr. Levi. It was rumored that his wife made his suits out of old drapes. By the looks of it the rumors were true. He had on something purple and patterned and oddly corduroy-looking. My actual classes were good and interesting, except for speech, the last period of the day. The teacher was a benevolent racist. He coached basketball, and bugged me every day to try out for the team. He never asked me if I could play. He never asked me if I liked to play. I played soccer in Florida. When I actually tried out for the team he was disappointed. A couple of years ago I saw in the paper where this man was hired as superintendent of schools in a nearby town. My cousin Jackie was in that class. She was tall and blonde and had a German last name.
Here is the best part about America: reinvention. By moving back to town from Florida, I got to reinvent myself. The real power of the plane ride I took was that it transformed me. For Orange I was this guy who was both intentioned and thoughtful. I crossed the street, held her hand, helped her. In my new school I was this kid who had lived in Florida, who knew Jamaican slang and about Bob Marley, who played soccer instead of football, who knew different stories and would listen to your old ones with new ears. For the first couple of weeks, many of my old classmates from St. Michael’s came up and said hello. Most of the Catholic school kids went to the local public high school because there was no Catholic high school in town. The last time I saw them was fourth grade. Sometimes they would ask: “Didn’t you used to be Arthur?” My real name is Arthur. At St. Michael’s school, the nuns called me Arthur. Taught to bow to the authority of the Church, I never corrected them. Thus, for the most part, the kids at St. Michael’s knew me as Arthur. Everyone in my family called me Jerry.
School starts. Orange no longer acknowledges me. She does not sit out on her porch anymore. She does not talk to me in school. I ask her friend Cindy. “She can’t” is all that Cindy says. I press for an explanation. None is offered. What am I to think? Perhaps Orange is ashamed of me. Perhaps I do not fit in with her image in the school. Perhaps she cannot reinvent herself. She has always lived in this town. The school does not have a soccer team. I go to a few football games. I see her in the Bravettes, the flag twirler unit of the marching band. By late September I need a coat. I have not owned a coat in years. I get one in October. I do have an orange sweater. I got it in late summer, when Orange and I are still together. I know she will like it, or at least appreciate the gesture. The sweater is really a Philadelphia Flyers jersey that I buy on sale at the sporting-goods store uptown. It is the only orange sweater I can find. That winter, Brian Bloom, who is a really cool kid, keeps asking me to play on his hockey team. I had just moved up from Florida. I cannot ice skate.
After I failed at the basketball tryout, my friend Dave said I should try out for wrestling. Wrestling was big at this school. State champion big. My cousin Jesse, who is three or four years younger than me, was a runner-up in the state tournament. He got a four-year scholarship to Virginia Military Institute. I wasn’t good, but it gave me something to do, and I got in really good shape. Dave introduced me to Hope, the younger sister of his girlfriend. She was cute, aggressive. She had short brown hair and blue eyes. A few weeks after I met her, she told me that she loved me. We spent a lot of time together. We went on actual dates. I drove across the river to Pizza Hut and sat next to her in a big, red-vinyl booth. She told me she was cold. I offered her my jacket. She said that when she said “I’m cold” it really meant “Put your arm around my shoulder.” Sometimes I went to her house and her parents were nice to me. They had an Irish Setter. I liked that dog. Sometimes we watched TV at her house with her parents and younger brother and sister. One week Roots was on. I watched most of one segment with them, then walked home. I did not go back to their house the rest of that week. That winter, Hope and I skipped school together at my house. My mother should have made a rule that said, “No staying home alone with girls in the house all day while skipping school.”
I really fell for Hope. I cared a lot for her. I know that I told her I loved her too, though I was aware that I did not. I guessed that she did not really either, so it was okay. In March, after secretly asking my mother for permission first, Hope gave me a puppy for my birthday. I named the dog Corky after the title character in the favorite movie of my best friend in Florida. I hadn’t seen him in the eight months since I left Florida. I never saw him again. A week after my birthday, Hope broke up with me. Her parents liked me well enough, but her grandmother, the school nurse, put pressure on Hope and her parents. Over the next year and few months until I graduate, I would occasionally visit the nurse’s office. I would say I had a headache, take an aspirin, then sit in silence staring straight ahead until I felt it time to go. That summer, when the lease up was up and my mother had a chance to move to a less expensive house, we moved to South Second Street, across from the wire rope mill. One Saturday morning, Corky, still a puppy, got out of our fenced yard. My mother told me to go look for him. To my shame I never did.
When I was a senior and she was a junior, Hope got pregnant by her then boyfriend. He was a kid named Clyde who drove a beat van and joined the navy. Hope had the kid, finished school. A couple years later, Hope was at Cindy’s wedding. She sat by herself, a row or two behind me. At the end of the service, I turned and we were face to face. Then we walked down the aisle, and exited the church. We joined the same small group of friends and acquaintances on the sidewalk ten feet from the church steps. Someone said my name. Hope, a few feet away, smiled at me. She said she hadn’t recognized me. I wondered how anyone could be such a liar.
Spring is prom season. I helped decorate the gym for the prom, but I didn’t go. There was a girl who I worked with at the movie theater uptown who I liked. Despite my experience, I might have even asked her to the prom, but she had an older boyfriend who was a stoner loser. On a Friday, when we were done with the decorations for Saturday’s prom, my friend Scott, and the girl with the stoner-loser boyfriend, and another girl who talked a lot, got into Scott’s car. I asked him to stop by the garage in the alley behind my house. I got out, got a fifth of lime vodka from the tall grass on the side of the building. On the ride out to the party no one wanted a drink of warm lime vodka. So I drank it all. The next year this girl named Sherry was talking to me after Mass outside of St. Michael’s. She was talking about the upcoming prom in a hinting manner. Her mother was nearby. She shushed Sherry, and pulled her away. Sherry probably thought her mother wanted to go home for dinner. I watched her blonde hair disappear across the parking lot. The next Friday, Laurie actually asked me to go to the prom. I said OK. Then on Monday she told me her father would not let her go with me. Laurie and I saw each other off and on for a few years. We saw each other a lot. The thing is, we never really went out in public that much because it is a small town and she was afraid of word getting back to her father. The thing is, she never really gave up her other boyfriend, the one her father could accept. A couple of years out of high school, Laurie and I were seeing each other for a few months. She had her own apartment and a job at the hospital doing data entry on second shift. I was working a job out of town during the week and trying to figure a viable means of escape, from that town, from my life. I would meet Laurie at her place on Friday nights at 11:30. One Friday someone else answered the door. This girl said Laurie moved. I didn’t ask where. I saw Laurie the next summer when I was pulling into the parking lot of the supermarket on North Fourth Street. She had a baby and was with her boyfriend. I parked the car, went into the store, and got what I needed.
On the night of the prom that I did not attend with Laurie, I walked up the hill to Ricky’s house. Ricky played on the basketball team that I did not play on. I drank a case of beer in his garage with him and a skinny guy with a blonde Afro that everybody called Jetson. He was the drummer of a local rock band and the boyfriend of Ricky’s sister. Everybody thought that band was cool because each summer they toured Canada. Sometimes they still play shows locally. Jetson asked me why I wasn’t going to the prom. I told him I didn’t like getting dressed up. He handed me another beer.
From the time we returned from Florida until about a year before she died at the age of sixty-six, my mother worked in a sewing factory hoping to earn enough to make rent and survive the inevitable layoff coming in that cyclical and disappearing industry. I could say the obvious, something like, “It must have been hard.” But the funny thing was she actually liked to sew. She liked sewing girls’ clothes best. She often sewed clothes for my cousins. If someone was to have a baby, the child would surely have something made by my mother. And she was good at it, too. Just before she retired, I met one of her co-workers who marveled at how fast my mother could set a zipper, which, I take it, was one of the harder jobs on the factory floor. She retired just in time. Within a few years, there were hardly any dress factories left in the region, the result of a global economy. She retired, and then she died of cancer.
The spring after Orange stopped talking to me, the spring Hope broke up with me, Orange returns. She asks me to meet her at the Spruce Street cemetery and go on a bike ride. I do. We do not ride far. We ride past the cemetery to where the streets are narrow and irregular, out behind the wire rope plant and the supermarket chain warehouse. Just beyond the tree line, South Creek, polluted with sediment and mine runoff, whirred its last half mile to the river. Orange and I stand under the canopy of an old and giant oak tree. She puts her hands in my back pockets and her head on my chest. It may be the happiest I have ever been. It may have be the happiest I have ever been because it is before I learn that no matter how happy you are, there is always more to the story. We meet there several times, on into the summer. Sometimes we kiss, but not as much as before. Once a train passed by on the tracks about a hundred yards away. I wave to a man peering out the window of the engine. He only looks at us.
I would like to say that everything works out between us, but you know that isn’t true. The truth is she never came back. Sure we met those times, but I could tell. She wasn’t mine. By then Orange had begun to hang around with Bob, a friend of Cindy’s boyfriend. He was tall, good looking. That first summer we were together, I sometimes told her that I was going to by an orange van, and I would wait the year until she graduated, and then we would drive to California, watch the sun slip like an orange ball into the ocean. And she would smile and believe me. This time I told Orange the truth. She never blinked or denied it. She knew too. She would marry Bob right after high school. They moved two hours away to Maryland for his job as a welder. At least she got that far.
A few years ago, my friend Steve, who still lives in that town, was talking to me on the phone. We were talking about a bunch of stuff, mostly him telling bits and pieces about people we knew. Then he told me about Orange. She graduated in his class, a year behind me. I had lived out of the area for the most part since then, and had only returned a few months before. He told me she was dead. She got cancer and died. He told me this just they way you might mention any person who you kind of remembered. Orange and me: he had forgotten. I wondered if everyone had. I wondered if one person had.
Sometimes I do not care about the town at all. Memories flood like the dirty water of the creek, and my heart turns cold against it. But I have always loved the river. It has power. Sometimes it is weak, and sometimes it is strong. But you cannot stop it. You can only learn to understand it.
Here is the last thing I know about Orange: Years later, after high school, but while she was still alive and living with Bob in Maryland, I ran into her brother Craig in a bar. I was in the navy then, stationed in Virginia and came home often enough. It was not unusual to run into Craig. It was a small town and the places for young people to go out were not numerous. A few times we spent a couple of hours shooting pool and drinking Rolling Rock. The bar was on North Fourth Street and called The Bitter End. I had been going in there since my senior year of high school. Craig was three or four years older than me and worked at the Mohawk door factory outside of town. He always seemed like a cool guy. He was good looking, but not in a flashy way so that he acted full of himself. His girlfriend Cheryl was always by his side. He was easy going, and would complement you on a good pool shot like he meant it, even if it cost him the game. He gave good, practical advice. Once he told me how he saved all his bar change, putting it in a jar when he came home at night, and that it added up quickly. He told me I should do that, too, because there would be times I would be glad to have that money around. I did and I was. That night the place was crowded and we quit playing pool for a while. We did a couple of shots of apple schnapps at the bar. I bought us two more. Then he told me. He told me how much his sister had liked me, and how she never wanted to break up with me or stop talking to me. He told me how their father beat her each time he knew she was hanging out with me. He said that she cried every night for months, but their father was relentless. She was not allowed to talk with me, at home, at school, anywhere. The father said he’d have not daughter of his going out with a colored kid. My head grew heavy and spun dully. I wondered what names the old man had used for me, for his own daughter. What kind of father would beat his petite, beautiful girl into submission? One that lived in that town, I guessed. I have pictures on my office wall of that town. One, a photograph I took from Blue Hill, shows the twin branches of the river meeting at the town, merging, creating a new and powerful thing. Sometimes people ask me if I like the town so much, now that I live so close, why I don’t live in that town again. Sometimes I am still living there and then. Sometimes time does not exist, and sometimes time is a careless child in a Sunday suit and crooked hat wading in a cold creek. Sometimes time is a river washing everything away, and sometimes the river runs dry and does not flow. Sometimes I think about Orange, and know that she is still living somewhere in Maryland. I wish her well.
Here is, in the words of famed photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the decisive moment. A space in time that is seemingly inconsequential, but not. I wasn't the hardscrabble kid on the stoop, awestruck by the local dealers and their swashbuckling ways, their clothes, their cars.
I was the East Coast suburban white boy, playing in the woods and riding in the back of the station wagon—the way in back as my mother called it—with the dog. I went to Cub Scouts, ate Wonder Bread, played street hockey. I had a loving family and appropriate role models.
Yet here I am.
Late author Frank Conroy said, "Somewhere in the nooks and crannies of memory there are clues." Given my circumstances, I suppose that quarrying my past would only be natural. (This thinking feels suitably reactive. As a dealer I had about as much use for existentialism as Nietzsche would've had for a digital scale.) I can't find much, honestly, but there are certain memories that seem salient, and I review them sometimes like an editor scouring the dailies. Like I have a rough cut of my life and I'm trying to decide what moves the story. Sometimes I treat the memory. If it's simple nostalgia, I'll make it grainy, like the filmstrips they showed us in grade school. If it's particularly vivid, I'll drench it in sepia. Either way, if my life were a movie these memories would be flashback scenes. People would look at them and think Oh, this must be a dream.
I'm six years old and my mother is attempting to overpower me with a woolen hat. Cranky in my ill-fitting snowsuit, I'm wholly uncooperative, writhing from her efforts. I wonder out loud: why this hat?
"Because," my mother says, "Mrs. Doherty went to a lot of trouble."
She didn't have to, I argue. That's not the point, my mother explains. When someone makes you a hat, you wear it without question. That is, if you want to "look right." I balk at this, and as I do the scratchy fibers on my head become secondary. I'm overcome now by a new discomfort. I hate what the hat means. I lack the words to articulate this, which frustrates me all the more. I have only three syllables. "It itches!"
"If it's itchy, that means it's warm," says my mother.
"But my other hat's warm and not itchy."
"Don't get smart with me, James Andrew. Now hold still."
I give up. She adjusts the hat on my head, cuffing it up so I can see. With me there are always cuffs: my pants, my shirtsleeves. I have two older brothers, so nothing ever fits right. I already hated my snowsuit. Now I hate my hat and my snowsuit. I can't wait till I get outside so I can play by myself. We live on a dead end street, so I can play outside by myself till it gets dark.
I'm outside and everything is black and white. The snow is white. The sky is white. The trees are black because the leaves are all gone. I go to the bushes to see if I can find a twig, a good one. I know which ones are dead, they snap off easy, but I want a live one so it'll bend when I pretend it's a sword. It'll make that whippy sound.
I try to bury my twig like a treasure but it's no fun. I can always see where it is. No matter how nice I smooth the snow it never looks right; it never looks like the rest. I can't have any fun anyway because of my hat. Every time Mrs. Doherty makes a new one I have to wear it. No one cares if I don't feel right. I swear I don't get grownups. All they care about is what looks right, and I have to look right for everyone. But I never do. My brothers are way older, sixteen and thirteen already, so nothing ever fits right and nothing ever will because I'm an accident.
I'm eight years old and I'm sitting Indian style on the carpet, staring at the heater. The paint is yellow and crackly, but there are a million holes in the metal making a swirly pattern. I stare for as long as I can without blinking—till it gets all fuzzy. Then something weird happens. I reach out and put my hand through the heater. Not really, but that's how it looks to me. My hand goes through the part that I can see, and then I touch the other part, the part that I can feel. Then I blink and shake my head and everything goes back to normal. Then I do it again. I do it again. I wonder how my hand can go through something like that. Something I can see and not feel. Then I hear the voice (omniscient, somehow, despite the first person): I'm making this happen. I know it's not real. But it looks real. And if I can make something look real when it isn't, then I must be real. I'm a person. I'm nobody else's.
I do this over and over. It's the same every time and it's nice. No one ever sees me, and I don't ever tell.
I'm ten years old and I'm trapped. I just heard the "unmistakable click of an automatic weapon going from safety to full automatic" and the guy pointing it at me says I'd better do some fast talking. I have a choice now. I can tell my captors who I really am and explain about Matt and Mimla (turn to page 3), or I can pretend I'm a civilian trying to locate my brother who lives outside of San Francisco (turn to page 32).
Meanwhile, in real life, my parents are upstairs with company. They're always so loud when they have people over. I don't want to go up there, but I have to. I wish I could control what happens, like I can in the book. But I can't. It's always the same…
You're lying in bed, in the basement of your parents' modest house in suburban Boston. The basement is cooler in the summertime, and you're happier down there, alone. You've had to pee for a while now, and it's only getting worse. The only bathroom is upstairs, on the same floor as the laughter. You're aware that nothing could possibly be that funny, and once they spot you, you're doomed. If you fall asleep you're bound to have an accident. Put the book down now, and get it over with. You have no choice.
You start up the stairs, the laughter growing louder with each step. You reach the door and turn the knob. You enter the kitchen, unnoticed at first, but then they see you. They begin calling out, loudly. A strange man musses your hair. There's no escape. You're onstage now and the crowd wants entertainment. Your mother's friend, Fatima, cries out, "Do that funny thing you do!" You're confused. What funny thing? You know from prior experience that anything you do or say is likely to produce very loud laughter. You're embarrassed, galled in your jammies. You clutch your full bladder. "Oh, I think he has to pee!" a strange woman says. They laugh. Why is that funny? You sort of understand that they're not trying to torture you. You knew they'd be this way. They're drunk. Flustered, you struggle with something to satisfy them. "I…I don't know what I'm supposed to do." The crowd loves it. The laughter makes you wince, but you're allowed to pass.
You make it to the bathroom. You fumble freeing your little penis, but you succeed in time and the stream comes forcefully. You breathe deeply. Despite your limited intellect, you're certain that peeing should be a given and not a reward. You can't wait to grow up and move away. Be someone else.
I'm thirty-six years old and I'm pacing the yard outside the house on Bright Street in Northampton, working up the nerve to call my father. It's warm. I'm coatless. I could do this all day.
But we need to have the talk. I've been procrastinating. I know my dad; he won't make the first move. I have to thank him for the money anyway; that's my Trojan horse. I take a deep breath and dial 727. The light beats in my chest turn to those thumps: the ones I associate with anxiety, bullying, confrontation.
I'm relieved when he answers. I didn't want to leave a message, prolong this, plus it soothes me to hear his voice: warm and crackly with age, like an old record. At seventy-five he's mellowed considerably, seems content, and contentedness had never come easily to my dad. We have that in common. And then the divorce, his retirement, the move: all within such a short period. Everyone was concerned, including my mom. Maybe even her especially.
The small talk goes well, so I decide to regale him with the story behind my living situation. He knows that my brother Michael, his own divorce pending, has lost access to his house—a judgment that was handed down on the same day I left California—but my father is unaware of the effect that this has had on me.
I was permitted to leave Los Angeles on the condition that I continue formal probation in Hampshire County, living with my brother, a reputable businessman and homeowner. I was to check in monthly and find legitimate work, like any local offender, but now I had to explain to Hampshire County Probation that the housing, my transfer's lynchpin, had fallen through. I contacted Chief Foley from my childhood home, pled my case. Foley was unmoved. He gave me twenty-four hours to land an address in his county—or else. That meant revocation of the transfer, and my LA-based PO had bitched about the paperwork. His final words were "Fuck this up and I'll hang you." I repacked some things and headed for the door, brushing past my mother on the way. "What if you don't find anything," she said, "where'll you go?" Back to jail, I replied. There was no time to bullshit her. I drove straight to Northampton with the goal of targeting tattooed, wayward-looking women on Main St. I realized the outlandishness of that, but it was too late for Craigslist. That I succeeded can only be attributed to luck coupled with the Jedi mindset: that zone in which you simply cannot fail. A young woman named Teresa took me in, a situation that would sour soon enough, but I could tell Foley that I was living there, on Bright Street.
Dad likes my story, which I tell comically, leaving out the part about mom's despair. He laughs easily these days, and in stark contrast to when I was young, he's very attentive. He no longer talks over me. I thank him for the money, a much-needed two grand that helped tremendously with the settling process. I'll get it back to you as soon as I can, I tell him. Of course he rebuffs the offer. "You'll inherit it anyway," he explains, "why wait another ten years when you need it now?" I tease him about his optimism, reminding him that he's already outlived his own father by several years. Again, he laughs.
I wait for the next lull, take a breath, and dive in. No amount of mindlessness or impulsivity could explain a drug business five years running, so I make no excuses. I just explain that I did what I did willingly, recklessly, methodically. I paint broad strokes, sparing him extraneous details. No point in defending my product line. That I sold only what I used, eschewing heroin and other opiates, probably wouldn't sound cogent to him, I assume. To him drugs are drugs. I do explain, however, that while I broke the law, I broke no moral code of my own. Everyone involved was a consenting adult and no one was ever coerced, cajoled, etc. It's very important to me that he understand, "I never meant to hurt anyone," and though I know how flimsy that sounds, I say it anyway. He stops me, tells me that he gets it: the temptation, the lifestyle appeal. He even uses the word "glamorous," which I'm sure I've never heard him say before. I begin to realize that my nervousness had nothing to do with any perceived disapproval. It was about my father's true feelings, and how I'd have to live up to them now.
Ever since his boys had grown he'd cherished every moment he could spend with us, in person, on the phone, and the divorce had only intensified that. Here I am throwing myself on his mercy, and all he wants is for me to feel better. As determined as I am to repent, I feel consoled, so I give in to it. "I just didn't know," I say. "The sales thing wasn't happening, and then this opportunity comes along." Again, he tries to comfort me, tells me that it's okay. Now I'm the one talking over him. My new job (restaurant, kitchen), the writing I've been doing, the possibility of grad school. I'll make things right, I promise! Then I feel the tightening in my throat. I'm trying to keep from breathing—no, I'm trying to keep from crying. "One day," I say, "I swear I'll make you—" and my voice cracks on "proud." Now the tears come.
I can hear my father choking up. His breathing labored, he struggles to tell me that he's proud already, that he always has been. We're both crying freely now, yet somehow I can't resist appealing to his manliness, for he ought to know: his boy was no punk. "No one fucked with me in jail, daddy. And the cops didn't break me, either." Again, he tells me that he's proud, that I handled myself well, the way he would have. "You were always a good boy, James."
Now I know. This man, the one I've wanted so badly to please my whole life, the one I've always suspected of having to accept my existence after the fact—he loves me regardless. And he always has.
That would've been September or October of '09, whenever I got around to making the call. But I know that mom called in November. I was headed home from the gym, I think, but I was definitely going south on King St. She asked if I was sitting down. I said I was driving, which answered her question in the literal sense, I suppose. Actually, mom, I'm standing. On the edge of a cliff. Teetering. That might've made a difference, who knows? You can't blame someone in shock. "Your father had a heart attack," she said. "He's gone."
Shoes Make the Man
What am I doing here, standing in the upstairs hallway while he changes his clothes in the bedroom down the hall--in plain sight, first his shirt, and now his trousers, pausing for just a moment so that he stands in yellow undershirt, yellow briefs? He steps into a light brown jumpsuit, suitable for gardening, and now I’m following him back downstairs and out to the yard so he can show me where he wants his new garden path dug. He will import a load of gravel that I’m to spread evenly in the dugout pathway—a pathway winding through his formal gardens to the back of the yard where a pond of goldfish swim, looking as if somehow they understand the meaning of all this.
Over the next week I spread the gravel and then remove it all again when he decides that he wants the path to be cemented, with gravel interspersed into the wet cement. A mixer truck will come, dumping cement into my ready wheelbarrow. The first time, though, I’m not prepared for the sudden weight, so the wheelbarrow overturns. I scoop the wet cement up, but there is some that won’t scoop, some that is left near the beginning of the path forming a misshapen mounded blight on his design. When I’ve spread the entire load, I’m short at the end. I don’t want to risk his temper. I make my shovel spread and spread so that while thinner than expected, at least cement covers the entire pathway when I’m done.
I’m not a gardener by trade; the most I’ve ever done before is to weed my mother’s flowerbeds and cut the side yard of our house with my father’s ancient, non-mechanized push mower.
But for some reason this man dressed in yellows and browns hires me for summer work at fifty cents an hour. Now I weed, and mow, and trim, and keep his garden lovely.
I keep it a showplace.
I don’t work regular hours. He calls on mornings that he needs me, the phone beginning to ring as early as 7:30, after my parents have left for work. I would rather sleep, so I try to ignore the ringing. But he’s persistent and lets the phone ring twenty or thirty times. If he does interrupt the call, it’s only for a moment. The ringing starts again almost immediately, and I know he won’t go away. It’s as if I’m indispensible to him; as if I have no choice where he’s concerned.
Now, on this day, a day when he’s worked only till noon, he’s here with me, to instruct me. To guide me. Which still doesn’t explain why I’m upstairs with him, not exactly watching him change clothes, but not exactly not watching either.
He’s our family pediatrician, and I’m thirteen years old. I’ve been seeing him since I was eight, since my first doctor incorrectly diagnosed my chicken pox, sending me to a specialist who brought in yet another team of other doctors to observe and consult about what they all hoped would prove to be Birmingham, Alabama’s first case of “Swimmer’s Itch.” Maybe if my mother hadn’t told my doctor that we’d just returned from a week at the ocean, my life wouldn’t have taken this course. I’d have been sent home with the chicken pox and some lotion to be administered regularly to alleviate my distress. A week or so later, I’d have been good as new and would have kept seeing my first doctor and would not have seen what I did.
I would not have seen a man my mother knows from high school.
My doctor, a man who lives with his elderly mother in an old Victorian house just down the street from us.
A grown man who wears yellow briefs.
It’s our first visit to his office; he enters the examining room where my mother, my little brother Mike, and I wait. He’s smoking, his cigarette kept securely in a dark red metal holder. His hair is thin and trained back. He’s slightly bent at the shoulders, making him seem fragile and not at all doctorly.
“Well. And whaaat do we have here?”
He sounds like someone from a distant world. Today, I’d say his voice had an ironic, patrician tone, amused, slightly sarcastic, even caustic. Eyebrows raised, he stands there looking from one to the other of us.
“Hello Gavin,” my mother says.
“Why Jo Ann. How arrrre you? Now, who are these two?”
I’m sitting on the examining table wondering why this doctor is so unlike my other one, and why we have to be here.
“Don’t say anything about your other doctor,” my mother warned us on the way to this first appointment.
“Why,” we asked in unison.
“Because doctors don’t like to know where you’ve been before.”
I didn’t understand, but trusted that the adult world knew best.
But I’m here on his table, and I don’t feel like trusting anyone at this moment.
Then, almost as one, Mike‘s and my eyes travel downward, to the floor, to the doctor’s feet, and to his…
“Houseshoes,” Mike cries. “Momma look. He’s wearing houseshoes!”
Mike is only four, and the adults take his question as the impudence of an ill-mannered yet innocent child.
“Mikey! Don’t say things like that!”
“But they’re houseshoes like Daddy wears,” my brother insists.
And they are, except these have backs as opposed to Daddy’s slip-ons.
“Well. If you must know,” this doctor, this “Gavin,” says, drawing out the drama, “I have corns, and regular shoes hurt my feet!”
His eyes widen on this last word, and for a moment, a deathly silence hangs in the sterilized air. I don’t know what to do, what will happen now. And then Mike bursts out laughing.
The doctor’s face takes on a look I’ve seen before: on Jack Benny, in fact, one of my favorite TV stars. That put-upon, the-rest-of-the-world-is-made-up-of-idiots expression.
“Ye Gods,” Gavin says, but somehow the tension has evaporated, and both Mike and I allow him to examine us--to check our ears and noses and throats, listen to our chests, and feel our reflexes.
Apparently we’re good-to-go on this afternoon, and he even gives us suckers himself, looking at Mike as he does so, and before relinquishing the sucker, forcing Mike to look at him as he says,
“Behave yourself Michael!”
Mike just laughs:
And that’s how we’ll refer to him from now on, not only during office visits, but on social occasions as he becomes another member of my mother’s antique-collecting, arty set.
Over the coming years he’ll help us navigate countless sore throats and bronchial infections. He’ll help us negotiate the onset of adolescence, a “disease,” I hear my mother confiding to a neighbor, that is the source of all my “trouble.” A disease, my doctor says, that is enough to keep me from participating in football.
Though he can be understanding, even empathetic, whenever we see him at his office, he always lingers in the examining room doorway for a moment as if he’s about to take the stage; as if what is about to unfold will be an act of great drama with him in the starring role:
“Well my God! What brings you here today?”
As if we’re exasperating him, even though, with his ironic smile, he always diagnoses our problems correctly.
In those houseshoes.
This morning he woke me at 7:30 to tell me to meet him at his house at noon, as he is coming home early to show me how to contour his garden. I’m there waiting when he drives up.
“Mother is out for the day. Come inside. I’ll change clothes and we’ll begin.”
We walk into the kitchen. He’s wearing a regular coat and tie. And regular lace-up shoes. It’s so strange to see him in street shoes, and I know I must be staring too hard at them, but I can’t look away. I can’t get over the way they look.
“Terrence,” he says, as if he’s a professor addressing a slow-witted student. “Are you ready?”
My name isn’t “Terrence.” It’s “Terry,” my mother’s maiden name. He’s always called me Terrence, though no one ever told him to, and no one ever corrected him for doing so. Not me, and not my mother. Certainly not my father who barely knows our doctor. My father is never the one to take us for regular check-ups or for sick checks either. My father could care less, as well, about antiques or fine art. He’s a football man. But he does share our doctor’s love for a beautifully mowed lawn.
Just this season, Dad has been teaching me the fine art of power mowing: how to cut the grass in overlapping rows so as to avoid leaving lawn-lines.
“And the one thing you never want to do in this kind of heat,” Dad says, “is to mow the grass too close. The sun will scorch it if you do.”
So I practiced at home and pleased my father. However, the first time I cut our doctor’s lawn, I received a swatch of his wrath and scorn:
“This won’t do! You haven’t cut it at all short enough!”
“My dad says that you should leave it high so that the sun won’t turn it brown.”
“What a cretin like your father knows about cutting a lawn could fit inside my little toenail!”
And with that, he retrieved his own electric mower, plugged it in at the garden outlet, and, turning his back to me, proceeded to re-cut the grass, not in the orderly lineless rows I had carefully crafted, but in outward thrusts as if he were the sun, and each new forward thrust was one of his rays. There was no order to his cutting at all, but when he finished, his yard looked like a putting green. A putting green with creased, mower lines.
“Now. That is how a lawn should be mowed,” he announced at the completion.
“It’s one way,” I thought. But I nodded in agreement, not wanting any more name-calling. Not wanting him to stare at me any longer, thinking his cretinous thoughts about my father. And me.
As I reached adolescence, my check-ups at Houseshoes’ office took a subtle, yet clear turn.
The exams were no doubt regular, no doubt covering all a doctor needed to cover to keep his patient healthy and himself safe from any chance of malpractice lawsuit. A doctor must, after all, check everything, even if his patient is complaining of pain only in his throat or chest.
I know this now, because my current doctor—the one I’ve been seeing for these past twenty years and who’s helped me negotiate middle age--explains what he’s looking for, why he’s probing certain sensitive regions of my body.
“It’s my job to keep you healthy, to keep you coming back here for many more years getting regular check-ups,” he says.
He’s a man maybe ten years younger than me. Our families are members of the same community club. His kids and my kids have been on swim team for years. He’s a nice guy, warm. He’s also an avid biker, while I’m purely recreational, though we often compare notes and tips on courses and seats.
Just a few years ago, he referred me to my regular therapist, a man who’s helped me deal with grief and loss. And finding my voice.
My current doctor knows me well, and I appreciate him.
I also appreciate that it’s no picnic for him to examine my groin area: my penis and scrotum, or to stick his gloved fingers up my rectum, and when done, to wipe off the lubricating gel. I know he’s doing this for my own good. He even jokes that he saves this procedure till the end because no one wants to engage in small talk after one guy’s hand has been probing another’s prostate gland.
We do this every year, and I’m faithful to him and to my health. I think that he and I could be friends if it weren’t for this pre-existing condition.
Still, though I trust him completely, though he’s as nice a guy as I’d ever hope to meet, and though I certainly know what is coming my way—what his hands are about to do--every time he tells me it’s time to slip off my gown, to turn my head and cough, and finally, that I’m about to “feel some pressure” down there, I tense up.
I know this is more than reflexive. This is “muscle memory.”
This is Houseshoes’ office when I’m eleven and twelve. This is after the ears and nose. After the chest and reflexes. After I’ve told him that it’s only my throat that’s hurting.
I’m lying on his table, and he’s feeling my abdomen area. He makes a move to lower my briefs, tries to start feeling my groin, and I know he’ll be going lower.
“No,” I say, and sit up.
Just that past spring I had tried out for football. We had to take a physical first, and my friend Robert warned me that at the end of the exam, the doctor would have to stick his finger on either side of my scrotum and ask me to cough. It sounded strange, but Robert said it had to be done. So I let it be done. I coughed properly, didn’t crack up, and didn’t flinch.
So why then and not now? Why not here?
“My God Terrence! You’re so sensitive. Well, all right!”
And he pulled my briefs back up.
There wasn’t a time afterward, however, that he didn’t try to examine me down there, and there wasn’t a time afterward that I let him. I never knew back then if any of this was “normal,” and I never asked my mother or father or even Robert.
All I knew was that I didn’t want to be touched, not there. Not by him.
How did I get upstairs? How did I get from the kitchen to here? What reason? What excuse?
Nothing happened. I know this, even though I don’t know how or when I walked from the kitchen, through the dining room, to the front hallway, and to those stairs leading up. Or why. Why?
Nothing happened, and I’m sure of that, except on that upper floor of his home, quite alone and quite unseen and quite out of the range of anyone else’s imagination or knowledge, I saw my doctor, Houseshoes, standing in his underwear. I would never have consented to seeing this. Yet I’m here.
Didn’t he warn me? Didn’t he tell me he had to change his clothes so that we could garden together?
If nothing really happened, why do I remember this, but not that? Why do I see one thing and not another?
For years after this day I kept seeing him as my doctor. He told my mother once that he would keep on seeing Mike and me for as long as we wanted. Even when we were much too old to be seen by a pediatrician.
I don’t remember the day or the reason when I decided that it was time for me to see an adult doctor, except that I was tired of being a kid. Tired of fearing what a kid fears.
When I changed doctors, the new one never asked or tried to lower my briefs.
And like I said, even though I always said no, my pediatrician, my summertime employer, my mother’s arty former schoolmate, kept trying to touch me down there, to see whatever there was for him to see, up through my very last visit with him.
He’s been dead for twenty years, but I still see him entering our examining room, lingering as if he’s Garbo or Bette Davis. I see him in his gardening jumpsuit mowing the lawn with that electric cord trailing behind him.
And of course, I see him in his yellow briefs. I remember thinking at that moment that I didn’t know grown men wore briefs. I remember thinking that I had no business being in this moment because while he didn’t look at me as he changed, he knew I was there, seeing him.
He neither closed his door, asked me to leave, nor tried to stop me from seeing him in any way.
He wanted me to see. And I did. And these are the lines he left on me--lines that only I can see.
Mr. Harlan's Jacket
The wonder of walking into his shed for the first time struck me silly. I didn’t know what had happened to Mr. Harlan, nor how my family, a teacher’s family in a Christian school, was so lucky as to buy his cabin, his studio, his shed and his six-and-a-half acres of woods, but a boy of 14 questions fate only when it’s dire. I threw open all the drawers and closets and cabinets in an ecstasy that needed no apology for childishness.
My father had bought the property with virtually no review from the family, only from my mother’s brother as co-owner, so the trip from central Minnesota to northern Michigan that first June was full of anticipation. Uncle Henry was already there, battened down in the separate cabin that had been Mr. Harlan’s painting studio, but Henry was more interested in music than society, and kept eerily to himself. When Dad opened the double doors of the shed for the first time, they creaked wonderfully and the musty smell of adventure poured out. Almost immediately, the shed became much more than a storage place for the lawn mower, the garden stakes, the outdoor furniture. It became my general store for dreams.
For those drawers and cabinets were full of Mr. Harlan’s trout fishing gear. Until that moment, fishing to me had meant a rare trip to big cold Mille Lacs Lake in the dairy land north of Minneapolis, with grandfather and uncle and brothers and father, in a rented boat and motor, with long cane poles and red-and-white Daredevils, trolling for pike that were mostly mythical; or standing with grandmother and mother and brothers on the shore of a warm, muddy pond in Blue Mounds State Park in Minnesota’s southwest corner, surrounded by flat cornfields, wielding little cane poles and bobbers, catching scores of bullheads on worms and macaroni. (Grandpa and Uncle John but not my father took over when we returned to the house, nailing the bullheads to an old plank and tearing off their scale-less skins with pliers.) The idea of trout was something out of Hemingway, not for timid boys. But here it all was: bamboo fly rods, waders, a creel, a net with a wooden handle, boxes of dry, wet, and streamer flies, and an authentic canvas fishing jacket.
I couldn’t really tell from his waders and fishing jacket, which were baggy by design, but I got the sense that Mr. Harlan was a big man, and not just in size. My parents knew very little about him, having dealt with his widow’s lawyer on the purchase and sale. Neighbors told my parents a few things: he’d been a businessman and made some kind of “killing” that enabled him to live pretty high during the Depression and travel all over the country (the fireplace he had built contained rocks from all 50 states, for example) and pick up things “dirt-cheap” like the chandelier made from a Western wagon wheel, the round slab of redwood trunk that was the outdoor table, the chairs made of birch pieces, the hand-hewn table and benches. He was larger than life, although hunting was apparently not part of the package (thank God). I guess I tried to be his heir, having no other role model for the manly life. I went trout fishing every possible chance, and when there was no possibility, when the season was over and our family had to go back to where my father was bidden, I passed my exile reading “Big Two-Hearted River” over and over and tying flies to be ready for summer again.
As I say, the fishing jacket was too big for me, except in the sleeves. At 14 I had already passed both my father and (apparently) Mr. Harlan in height, if not in bulk. I probably looked ridiculous, a stick figure clumping in baggy waders along the river bank to get as far as possible upstream, away into new lands. That first touch of water, though, pushing cold against my legs even through several plies of rubber, even in August – then I knew I was meant to wear the jacket. It had numerous pockets, some secret, for lines and hooks and pliers and bug spray and boxes of flies; clips for net and knife; a fake fur lining for the neck; two tufts of fluffy cotton, one on each breast, to receive and dry out the flies when they got waterlogged; mysterious stains. I felt authentic in that jacket. I could escape my ill-fit family and tremble on the edge of manhood and passion, free of the prairie’s dry rebuke.
Even now, in this late and comfortable time in my life, I return over and over to those years, or more correctly to those summers following each of grades 8 through 11: a dozen short months that set my aspirations forever. I roll them up together, June, July and August times four, making a year of summers, of feeling at home. Or was it just that they were so different from the actual plain place called home? Those four years of teen-hood spark my most vivid memories, good and bad, and the contrasts still make me ache with longing and ail with dread: a heavy brown trout on the line at dusk, whispers about my father in the school yard at recess.
In summer my father was temporarily not the outsider who battled school boards over the discipline of their children. He could be a dad again, playing cards, barbecuing, taking us for ice cream at Jones’, before putting on his suit jacket again in the fall. He appeared to care about nature, although he never went fishing, or even hiking. He was happy in keeping his yard tidy, eating outside whenever possible, planting a garden, although in retrospect I see that these are desires for order and dominion, not for nature. Those summers went a long way towards humanizing him, but the impression still remains, especially when I saw him last, buttoned up into a gray suit and lying in a casket, of a man slightly smaller than life, in spite of his bulk. The Great Depression marked him, not made him.
I do not mean to glorify the past. Those four summers were often less than wondrous: Dad expected his boys to work, and a job stocking shelves and bagging groceries at the supermarket in town was handed down, brother to brother, like a sports coat; Sundays were a trial, for our religion frowned on Lord’s Day activities that were merely recreational; by the middle of August the dread of leaving eroded almost all the joy of staying; and at last my uncle went crazy and all of his money accompanied him to Pine Rest Christian Hospital and my parents couldn’t afford the mortgage alone and had to sell the place far too soon. But until then there were joyous moments, even hours (those Tuesdays off from the store!), and I learned to take solitude and warmth where I could, and to forgive the snubbers of the school years past, or at least not worry so fearfully about them.
The future, though….well, inspired from the beginning of adulthood by woods and a clear rushing river, craved for 45 growing-up years in schools and the obedience classes of business, the future came true. My own kids grew up and are gone, nature became orderly as well as full of adventure, and I’m four years into retirement already, in a kind of perpetual, teenage summer lived by the side of the ocean. In tribute to Mr. Harlan, I wish I had kept the custom-made bamboo fly rod and the old stained canvas jacket, now lost in a lifetime of moves, and maybe something of my father’s too, besides the sober ties and button-down shirts and thick practical socks from L.L. Bean that my mother divvied up among the brothers after he died. I think about taking up fly-fishing again. The woods and rivers of Maine are even more momentous than Michigan’s. But I won’t. This boy now fits in a man’s jacket.