All posts by X Teri

A Moment Before

storm, outside, window

 

Euell sat facing the long picture window, his eyes lazily tracing the rain as it cascaded from the roof. His book lay folded open and face down on his lap. How long he’d been absent-mindedly watching the rain was an unanswerable question. Time slows to a crawl on such cold, rainy afternoons. Euell enjoyed allowing the tiredness to overcome him. An hour stretched to two or three if he allowed himself the luxury of such mindless pleasure.

Behind him, the man coughed, reminding Euell that his special request was drawing to a close. Euell closed the book in his lap, admiring the book cover, remembering how much joy the book had brought him through multiple readings.

The man stood and placed his coffee cup on the small antique table next to the chair he’d just vacated.  He carefully straightened his long black jacket.  “It was an unusual last request, sir, but one of considerable pleasure for me. Most people request something a bit more exotic for their last request.”

Euell nodded, uncertain how to answer him. The man had unexpectedly come to gather the sum of Euell’s life, regardless of whether Euell was ready to depart.

The man gestured for Euell to lead the way. As Euell’s hand grasped the glass doorknob of the front door, he looked back toward his chair one last time. He was sitting there, slumped over and leaning slightly to the right. His book still lay open across his lap. Euell could barely tell that he was no longer breathing.

The man placed his thin fingers across Euell’s shoulder, as if to console him even as he moved him along.

“Thanks,” Euell uttered to no one in particular, as he opened the door to discover what waited for him on the other side.

 

Open The Door, Richard!

open the door richard

 

“Open the door, Richard!”

It was the last thing his wife Sara said to him, as she lay on the edge of the bed, the light in her brown eyes fading. Her open copy of “The Last Picture Show” was flat on the quilt next to her. The two paramedics who had just arrived looked at Sara in helplessness, unsure what her last words meant. Pete waved his hand toward the paramedics to indicate that she didn’t want any extraordinary measures to prolong her life. Sara had mentioned more than once that she wanted to live a full life until she could no longer do so independently. Pete and Sara had shared a long life together. Despite his promise not to call 9-1-1 if the time came, he had reflexively panicked for a moment when Sara’s headache painfully blossomed and half of her body went numb.

“Who is Richard, sir?” One paramedic asked Pete as he leaned over to place a hand on Sara’s neck, already certain that she was gone. Behind him, the clock indicated 11:59, a minute short of the new day.

No one would understand that this was their private and intimate joke, representing a short-hand to entire conversations and connected moments. “Open the door, Richard,” Pete whispered.

As he looked down at Sara’s silver hair, Pete suffered a stroke of his own as his thoughts retreated in time. As his mouth contorted, and he became slack, the paramedic motioned for his partner to help him with Pete. It was going to be a long night. They took their time, instinctively giving Pete’s body time to take him elsewhere. Pete never made it back to the home he shared for so long with Sara, nor was he awake or aware of his beloved Sara’s funeral. Since they’d made arrangements years ago, Sara was laid to rest in the cemetery of the church where her father had once preached.

Soon after, Pete began a quiet life in Shady Glen Nursing Home. He moved in the day the facility opened. His picture was on the front page of the local newspaper. He didn’t speak a word after the stroke. He would learn to smile again, and the vast repertoire of facial expressions he demonstrated was evidence that emotionally he was intact. As happens with so many nursing homes, after the grand opening, the staff slowly turned over, moving on to other jobs or to other homes with better pay and benefits. By the time he was eighty-five, none of the staff employed there remembered Pete’s original story, other than he was unable to talk.

Often, he would prop himself up in bed and shuffle through the pages of his journals. Sometimes, staff would find him in his room listening to his shortwave radio in a variety of languages. His ability to freely move returned and he began to bathe himself, eat infrequent meals, and dress. He hadn’t spoken a word in his 15 years at Shady Glen. Residents and family became accustomed to Pete’s presence on the periphery of things. He seemed to drink in every word uttered nearby.

Sometimes, he would sit by the outside door and scribble in his journal, hour after hour, a relentless torrent of nonsensical scrawling. Near his tv stand, you could see his stack of journals, each filled with his handwriting. Several nosy housekeepers, nurses, and CNAs had opened them, trying to make sense of the thousands of pages of writing. They shook their heads in sadness, wondering about Pete and how badly his stroke had hurt him. A rotating cast of staff would occasionally bring him a new journal for him to later fill with his mindless scrawling. It never occurred to a single soul that perhaps Pete’s scribbled writing was something other than gibberish.

People would speak to Pete, often at length. He would sit patiently, head turned to face them. Because he was otherwise in good enough health, the doctors who would visit less and less frequently advised the staff to not pressure him toward a response. Through the years, some of the residents visited him and shared the stories of their lives with him. Often, it appeared as if he were taking notes as they spoke to him.

Other than his journals, he had one possession remaining: a picture of a lovely young woman with a sly smile, holding a smiling baby. Everyone who saw the picture stopped to admire her in permanent repose there.

Each day, Pete would take his red pen and make a large “X” across the previous day’s block on the calendar. Each “X” represented another defeated day behind him. His battle was to return to Sara when it was finally his time. The days flew past like startled birds.

A few Saturdays after his 85th birthday, Pete was still in bed after an early supper of beans and cornbread, staring at the sunlight cascading across the ceiling as it marched its way toward the evening. In the distance, he could hear a loud voice almost singing. “Hey, young fellow! Good evening!” The voice seemed to be on the prowl, its greeting changing slightly based on the sex of the listener or apparent temperament. It continued its approach and then went silent.

Knock, knock. A fist bumped against Pete’s door. Silence.

“Open the door, Richard!” the voice boomed.

Stunned, Pete lay there in silence, holding his breath, trying to imagine how a stranger was using his wife’s secret words, so many years after her passing. He hadn’t heard it spoken since the night his Sara passed away, except in a few vintage radio shows. Both the phrase and style of music had all but vanished from the American consciousness. Pete marvelled at the constant ebb and flow of music, language, and culture in the United States.

As if the stranger read his mind, he said, “Don’t make me bring Count Basie in there, sir. Time to get acquainted with your new social director! I’ve been here a month and I’m not taking another ‘No’ for an answer today.” The man’s voice boomed. Pete remained motionless and quiet, hoping this strategy would send the visitor on his way in the same way it had during previous visits. Pete learned many strategies in his long tenure at Shady Glen.

Without waiting for Pete to answer, the stranger opened the door and said, “Hi there. I’m Crosby. We’re going to meet in the main area in 30 minutes, so drag it out of that cocoon you’re in and get down there. I know you can’t talk, so see ya.” He turned and departed. Pete barely had time to notice the young man’s outlandish mustache or the bright blue suit he was wearing.

Pete stayed in bed, aggravated that Crosby would barge in, but also intrigued how such a young man might be familiar with Count Basie. His wife’s memory and their shared catchphrase compelled him to investigate reluctantly. Pete had never taken part in any of the contrived social activities at the nursing home, although he had been an involuntary spectator for many of them. Given the acoustics of the building, he had no choice but to listen to much of their gatherings, too, regardless of where he found himself inside its confines. The previous social director was very old and evidently thought that lifeless bingo and watching the television in the common area was enough socializing. Occasionally, one or two mediocre musicians would visit them. Pete could discern whether the visiting musicians were enthusiastic about their visits; their music conveyed a sense of delight and energy.

Forty-five minutes later, there was a sizable turnout in the common area. As Pete shuffled into the room, he could see Crosby standing near a record player, a reproduction of one of the older models of his youth. Crosby still wore a blue suit and had an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth. He looked ridiculous, and Pete knew without a doubt that he liked him.

“As many of you know,” Crosby began, “I’m the social director. My mom named me Crosby, after the infamous Bing Crosby, because she was a standards singer when she was younger. She didn’t like Bing, so she decided to give me his surname as a first name. We’re going to start by listening to a song that is often overlooked. This record was one of my mom’s, so let’s get started.” He motioned for everyone to sit or find a comfortable spot. Many were in wheelchairs. Crosby didn’t wait for everyone to be quiet, as he knew from experience it was almost impossible to convince a group of seniors to stop talking completely. Some talked to one another, and some talked to themselves, regardless of setting.

Pete, being near the wide entrance, carefully plopped onto an oversized ottoman. There were six of them along the nearest wall, designed to both seat and catch someone with uncertain stability.

The needle hovering over the record descended and after a hiss, voices began speaking. Within seconds, Pete lost the ability to remember that sixty years had passed since he and Sara had stood in the nightclub, laughing and shouting “Open the door, Richard!” at one another until they had forgotten what was funny to begin with.

2005 faded as 1940-something coalesced in Pete’s imagination.

Sara stood in front of him, close to the gaudy jukebox, the dress her mom made for her shining a bright yellow despite the smoke-infused light in the nightclub.

Just 7 hours earlier, they were married, with Sara’s father Reverend Thomas Burns officiating the ceremony. They had chosen a place near the river by Sara’s childhood home to have the wedding, even though the Reverend’s church was only a quarter-mile from his house. About 15 family and friends attended. Sara insisted on wearing a yellow dress instead of a traditional white one and after some bashful objection, her mother joyfully made it for her. She told Pete that he had to wear black slacks, a white shirt, and a blue tie.

After the wedding ceremony, Pete changed into slacks and white long-sleeved shirt so that Reverend Burns could baptize Pete in the river. Much to Pete’s surprise, both Sara and her mother Lucy had a plan to run and jump into the river after the baptism was finished. Even Reverend Burns had no idea what they were up to until he heard them whoop and jump into the river. As they came out laughing, Mrs. Burns shouted, “You’re never too old for a refresher baptism!”

Reverend Burns tried to act irritated, but even he burst out laughing at the spectacle. “It’s a good thing that you’re an only child, Sara,” he shouted. “Otherwise, it would be the death of me.”

After the wedding and baptism, everyone came to the Reverend’s house to enjoy a communal meal. Pete asked Thelma Pinkins to make enough Lady Baltimore Cake for everyone. Her sisters, all seven of them, cooked enough fried chicken to fill three bathtubs. A friend of the Reverend, someone you’d never find inside his church, managed to provide a sizable assortment of wine, beer, and moonshine. Others brought soda and sweet tea, of course. There was enough food to satisfy a hundred people. It was a celebration unlike any Pete had witnessed in his life. John Hoskins, along with his brothers and cousins, brought their guitars and fiddles and provided the music. Rumors said they’d memorized thousands of songs just by hearing them on the radio. Anyone foolish enough to skip the celebration would undoubtedly hear both the music and the frivolity through their screen windows, anyway. At Reverend Burn’s church, everyone was welcome to be married there and for a meal to be provided. Members of other congregations often chose his church to celebrate. Because of Reverend Burn’s reputation, other pastors seldom became upset about it. Those with jealousy in their hearts knew to keep their criticisms private.

Sara’s parents, though religious, loved to socialize, dance, and share a good drink. They were well known in their small community for having open invitations for people to come to share their supper or sit outside as the fireflies approached. Often, they’d sing songs and share a drink as the night deepened. All were welcome. Reverend Burns was ahead of his time and didn’t overly concern himself with appearances. He worked the fields when needed, helped chop wood, and built furniture for those needing it. He constantly reminded everyone that the world was a short place to stay and to get one’s fill while the good Lord provided. Pete could think of no better way to express his views on life now that he was once again with Sara. “Live now, then live forever,” he’d say as if it were a prayer, exactly like his father-in-law had done. “Praying is done best with dirty hands,” the Reverent often reminded people. “Just like washing your hands removes the dirty, prayer and reflection help us get past the wrongs we’ve done.”

Sara’s parents died in a fire five years later. Over a thousand people came by the Reverend’s church to pay their respects. John Hoskins sang several hymns for the funeral and finished with the Peerless Quartet’s “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” a song both the pastor and his wife loved.

After the Reverend’s death, Pete sold his managing interest in the lumber company his dad started and operated with a paternal cousin. He became a public school teacher, just as Sara had. Both he and Sara spent their lives in the small school district. No one knew that Pete’s share of the business had become worth a small fortune.

As Pete stood near the wall, laughing almost uncontrollably to the musings of Count Basie being played at the nightclub, he couldn’t imagine how life had brought him back to Sara. War and the wide world had conspired to separate them for a time. He’d survived being shot 4 times and as he bled, he thought only of coming home to Sara. Even among his German captors, he shared stories of his girl back home. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he bore no hatred toward the soldiers themselves; each of them found himself trapped by decisions made by strangers with titles or rank. Pete was discharged forty pounds lighter than when he had enlisted. Unlike many others, however, he spent his time in captivity listening to everyone’s stories, even those the Germans sometimes shared. He learned German, Italian, and a great deal of Spanish while they held him captive.

He knew that several men in the nightclub were stealing glances at Sara, attempting to gauge her beauty and measure her smile, weighing their chances of a dance with her. When she laughed, everyone seemed to forget that life was filled with troubles.

Each time Count Basie or those around them would say, “Open the door, Richard!” Sara would throw her head back and laugh like humor had just been invented for her. The phrase was a fad, one which was everywhere until it disappeared like an early morning mist. For that night, though, it was hers.

For the moment, both Sara and Lucy accepted offers of a dance from eager strangers. They swished and twirled on the dance floor as Pete and his father-in-law watched in wonder as the women in their lives demonstrated their graceful and carefree approach to dancing. As another record dropped to play, both Pete and Reverend Thomas approached their respective wives to claim the next dance.

Sara and Pete spent their honeymoon night under the stars, in a field near the Reverend’s church. After that night, the first of their long marriage, both of them used the phrase “Open the door, Richard!” to signal “hello,” or “goodbye,” or even “I love you,” and all manner of meaning residing between them. Family and friends grew accustomed to hearing the phrase as the years passed. As time took its toll and friends and family departed, almost no one remembered the origin of their catchphrase, much less what had inspired it.

Like all great stories, it was born in intimacy and laughter.

Pete felt himself being shaken. It shattered his connection to the recollections of the past. His head felt both light and foggy at the same time.

“Are you okay, Pete? Pete! Can you hear me? Nod if you can!” He felt hands near his shoulders, shaking him.

He opened his eyes and he could see the faces of a few fellow residents hovering over him, and behind them, the ceiling. It occurred to him that he was on the floor.

Crosby’s face came into focus above him, the absurd cigar now dangling toward him. Crosby seemed concerned. He probably thought Pete had a stroke or had shattered a hip in the fall.

From within Pete’s own throat, an alien sound burst out. For a moment, Pete didn’t understand what had happened.

“Crosby, are you going to help me up, or not?” Pete’s voice sounded perfectly normal, as if he hadn’t been mute for more than a decade.

The cigar fell out of Crosby’s mouth and struck Pete across the forehead. A few of the residents gasped in shock at hearing Pete’s voice. Many were convinced his brain had been scrambled years ago.

After a few moments of conducting an inventory of Pete’s general well-being, Crosby helped him sit up and then shakily stand.

“Let’s go outside,” he told Pete, as he led him outside and away from prying eyes and ears.

A few minutes later, Pete sat outside below the driveway canopy. The sun was finally receding below the distant treeline across the road. Crosby sat next to him, still with a concerned look on his face. His blue suit seemed other-worldly in the remaining sunlight.

“Pete, are you really okay? You were smiling and just fainted dead away.” Crosby patted him on the knee.

As if he had not spent years unable to speak, Pete said, “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m okay now. That song broke something loose inside me, Crosby. It was our song, my dear Sara and mine. I was remembering our wedding day.” Pete shook his head as if something were still loose.

“I love that song, Pete, and Count Basie in particular. It’s a coincidence, that’s for sure.”

Pete and Crosby sat in silence for a minute, neither of them certain it was a coincidence at all.

“Crosby, can I tell you a secret?” Pete whispered the words.

“Yes, of course!” Crosby couldn’t contain his curiosity. He knew the other residents were inside repeating the miraculous first words of Pete’s a few minutes ago.

“Those journals of mine? The ones everyone thinks are full of scribblings? Those are my stories.” Pete laughed.”There are probably 10,000 pages of the stuff. Everything in my life is in there and at least a third of it is about my precious Sara and our life together.”

“Oh?” Crosby asked. He was suddenly at a loss for words, an unusual predicament for him. His mother used to pretend to faint from a lack of oxygen when Crosby would excitedly tell a story.

“The real kicker is that the stroke only affected me for a few weeks. Everyone just assumed that I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want to, though. After a time, I think even I forgot.” Pete laughed at the absurdity of his long prank. Crosby didn’t know what to say. The staff had told him several wild and speculative stories about Pete’s journals and life.

Ten infinite minutes passes as both Crosby and Pete sat with their own thoughts.

“Let’s go back inside and listen to that record again, Crosby, before I think this is all a dream.”

As Crosby reached for the door pull, Pete laughed and said, “Open the door, Richard!” They both laughed like old friends. Like all good friends, they had recognized something essential in each other.

As Crosby readied the record player and prepared the needle, Pete stared at Crosby. Only a couple of the people from the previous playing were still in the common room. Most had gone back to their own rooms, to the expansive dining and activity area nearby.

“I want you to take the journals, Crosby. Do with them what you will.” Pete’s voice was now vibrant and strong.

“I can’t take them…” Crosby began to object but stopped as Pete held up his right hand.

“Okay, okay.” Crosby realized how awkward his voice now sounded. “If it will keep you off the floor, I’ll agree to anything.”

“Ha!” Pete barked. “Now put on the song before I croak.”

Crosby dropped the needle. The song began to play for the second time as he sat down a few feet away from Pete in the darkening room. When the song ended, Crosby rose to turn the record over and play the B-side.

A chill rose up his spine.

As he leaned over to look more closely, he knew with certainty that Pete was dead, well on his way to find his Sara.

“Open the door Richard!” would be their eternal greeting.

Crosby smiled. Witnessing an honest life and death were both a rarity in the world. Of the hundred thousand people who died that day all over the world, Crosby predicted that Pete would linger in his mind for a long time.

After a few minutes of sitting in silence, Crosby made his way to the nursing center to inform them of Pete’s death and to start the machinery tied to someone’s demise. To his further surprise, he found that Pete had all the arrangements made.

Once Crosby deciphered Pete’s handwriting, he spent his waking moments reading the stories of Pete’s life.

A year later, Crosby walked along the edge of a barren cotton field and felt the pull of an early-October wind. The river was nearby, and the smell of earth and water washed over him. After reading all Pete’s journals, he felt compelled to visit the places Pete, Sara, and Mr. and Mrs. Burns called home. To his surprise, the small community still stood, even as so many others faded. People had come and gone, to be sure, but the spirit of the little town was intact. So much of Pete’s journals were meticulously detailed, and each place was mentioned with care. It was difficult to imagine that everything he’d written in them was true.

A hundred yards further, Crosby saw that a white church and its sharp steeple stood against the treeline. On the other side, an expansive cemetery occupied the landscape. The gravel parking lot ran all the way up to the front of the double doors in front of the church. On the front, a small sign indicated, “Perkins Gospel.”

To the right, a marker stood a few feet from the wall of the church. A copper-colored plaque was attached to the upright chunk of shaped rock. “Perkins Gospel, founded 1899. Generously funded in perpetuity by an anonymous donor, in memory of the most humble of God’s servants, Reverend Thomas Burns.”

After Crosby composed himself, he dared to walk the remaining steps and stand in front of the graves of Pete and Sara. An hour passed before he could pull himself away, both from the gravestones and the overlapping memories of this place so lovingly described by Pete.

He would never again hear Count Basie without picturing Sara in her yellow dress and Pete’s admiring eyes following her.

A place, a time, a love, all in equal measure.

Say it with me, friends, even if you don’t know the original song: “Open the door, Richard!”

May a song of your own choosing forever propel you forward, in this life and the next.

 

 

With Malice Toward Some

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As with my post that followed the Syrian dad teaching his daughter to laugh at bombs, this post follows an interaction I had with a writer who is largely unaware of her ability to write. I worked on this post and didn’t post it. It’s been sitting in my draft folder for a long time, like undiscovered poison. Later the other day, I discovered that the writer had visited my blog and read about my cousin who died of cancer. It was an odd coincidence, one which prompts me to share it now, long after I was inspired to write it.

A few years ago, my cousin was dying of cancer. He’d been in remission for a while but as often happens, the cancer returned, vengeful and malicious. There was more than sufficient time for everyone to see him during his first round and in the interim intermission. While he was still a little wild and still a fan of drinking, he’d transformed from the person he’d been five, ten, or fifteen years prior. My cousin realized that anyone who really wanted to see him had more than enough time during his life and during the last couple of years. All else was an excuse. He recognized that he had been guilty of the same dismissive immortality with some of his friends and family.

My cousin became withdrawn. Daily life was a struggle for him, and his moments became both agonizing and precious. He wanted to reduce the drag on his spirit from visitors and ghosts from his past, especially those who brought with them the accompanying demons wrestling inside them. I tried to inform people politely that he wanted peace, to not take offense to unreturned calls, declined visits, and to honor the requests some of us were passing along on my cousin’s behalf.

To preface, there were people who were gloriously helpful, compassionate, and of unimaginable help. We all know people like this. They embrace, reach out, sit by the bedside, scrub the floor, and know when to be quiet or smile. They light us up with joy. Those people were around, too.

All of us who’ve lost someone, though, have stories of despair that sometimes overtip the balance of good vs. dark.

I was ignorantly unprepared for the backlash of anger, resentment, and hostility from some of my cousin’s friends and acquaintances. I’ve written about this time before.

I almost had a nervous breakdown due to another family member. Unbelievable as it may sound, I also became convinced that the family member was going to kill me, someone trained and capable of doing so. Though I discarded most of this sort of hateful memory, I have a couple of voicemails from the guilty party, ones in which he laid out his plan to kill me, and kill anyone who dared interfere with what he wanted to do. He also made sure that I understood that his knowledge of the system would not only allow him easy access to others to help him exact his will but also to avoid being held accountable for it. I can’t listen to them without despairing for humanity. It’s some of the ugliest things I’ve ever heard in life. This episode ruptured my connection to the family member in a way I didn’t believe was possible. Addiction or not, it was profoundly evil. It didn’t help that the family member gaslighted me and everyone around him about it, either. I still struggle with the aftermath of the anger and hate that came from that period.

There were other people like him, but most were amateurs on the fringes. Through it all, I felt horribly sorry for both my cousin and his wife. The angels among us helped my cousin’s wife get through to the end.

Really, though, the last part prompted this post.

Someone else who knew my cousin well, someone I knew in passing due to overlapping schools and geography, told me I was the worst #$%^ing human being in history, was gay, probably half-black, and that he hoped that I died of the worst form of cancer imaginable. I’ll call him Fred. He said these things because I asked him to treat my cousin’s wife in the same way he wanted others to treat his own wife. My cousin loved the moments he’d shared with Fred, but couldn’t find the energy to wax nostalgic with someone who would only make him feel worse. Fred loved drinking and hitting people, male or female. He couldn’t imagine a world in which someone might not want his anger and alcoholism around someone trying to find a few days of peace in his dwindling life. He doubled down and called my cousin’s wife every name in the book. In the most sincere way I could muster, I told him that I hoped he’d find a way to get past the anger in his soul. That only made him angrier. Because he needed to hear it, I told him that it was my cousin’s wish to be buffered from people who weren’t in control of themselves. Fred kept screaming, “I hope you get cancer X, you and that b@#$% he’s with.” He was fixated on it. He finished off his tirade by saying that my cousin deserved the cancer.

I recently found out that Fred has cancer.

Pause…

I’m not sure how I feel. Fred continued to have anger and addiction issues in the years after my cousin’s death. I’ve heard stories. I’ve watched Fred use a combination of anger and bullying on other people. He’s deserved a multitude of plates of crow and humble pie. I infrequently drop in, so to speak, and look for indications that someone is calling him out for his misbehavior. Now that he has cancer, it is impossible for anyone to call him out for his previous hatefulness.

He’ll pass away, and the world will continue to spin. I’ll feel a little pang of relief to know he’s gone. It’s not nice for me to say it, even if I’ve admitting it while not callously naming names.

My conflicting feelings don’t paint me in a flattering light. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. Much of my aversion to Fred in all honesty stems in part from the poison of hate and addiction that my parents spewed into my life. My other family member, the one I was certain was going to kill me, mixes into the same karma that befell Fred. They are inseparable because they both contain equal parts of hate and addiction.

We all want justice and to see that “what goes around, comes around” has teeth. We don’t want the suffering, if we’re good people, but that sense of things being set right can’t be denied, not if we are honest with ourselves.

If Fred’s wife could feel even a tiny bit of the hurt that her husband inflicted on me a few years ago, she would collapse into a deep pit of anger and despair. Imagine if someone talked about her like her husband did about my cousin’s wife. I would hope that Fred himself would recognize how vicious and inhuman he was a few years when my cousin just wanted a peaceful death. He doesn’t though. His close family members are bigots and the opposite of what I consider to be good, compassionate human beings. They won’t see the irony of applauding this man’s life.

I sit with this little piece of recognition of myself. It poisons my life a little. But I protect it.

I’m not comfortable with myself. My threatening family member and Fred share the fact that they lived their lives roughshod over those they quarreled with; their anger was their first line of attack. They saw no need to withdraw from anger and even less a need to apologize or make amends.

Time cures them. But they’re quickly replaced with people who share their lack of humanity.

 

Once Upon a Time & Habia Una Vez

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A video of a Syrian dad recently went viral. He’d taught his daughter to laugh when she saw bombs dropping. To some, it sounded ridiculous.

I didn’t doubt it. I have a story I wrote down four weeks ago, one involving Latinos with a different approach to negativity. It didn’t seem as interesting until I saw the Syrian dad with his daughter yesterday in the video.

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I was careening around Walmart to distract myself from the malaise of modern living. You know the feeling: one moment you’re happy with life and smiling at babies – and the next, you desperately need to walk around in a cavernous retail warehouse to get incredibly (and incrementally) irritated at other visitors. You know how it is: you enter the market to buy a bathtub plug and 75 ounces of Argentinian fava beans, then realize that something is amiss with the world; namely, that being in a market is both necessary and ridiculous.

As I rounded the aisle near the spices, an older woman jumped backward as two adorable little Latina girls whirled by, both chatting feverishly to one another. “Chicas!” a concerned dad shouted from just out of sight. I could hear the practiced exasperation in his voice.

The older woman hissed toward me, “They’re everywhere. And can’t control their little brats.” The girls suddenly stopped their mutual little dance and looked from me to the older woman. It was apparent they spoke English, as well as understanding the tone of the woman’s voice. I hoped they didn’t think I was with the hateful older woman.

The dad rounded the corner. “I’m so sorry,” he said.

“You shouldn’t be here,” the older woman said. Normally, I don’t get surprised by people. It was obvious she wasn’t referring to being at Walmart.

This story isn’t about anger or prejudice, though.

It’s about me witnessing the response of this amazing dad.

The two girls looked at their dad as he said, “I’m sorry. Please forgive us.” The older lady didn’t acknowledge him at all as he apologized the second time.

“Había una vez, niñas…” Both girls smiled and told their dad they were sorry.

The old woman evidently couldn’t stand the sound of another language in her delicate ears. She whirled her cart around and stomped off, her face frozen in an ugly state.

For those who don’t know, the phrase “Había una vez” translates to “Once upon a time,” and often starts fairy tales and stories in Spanish.

Because of this, I asked the dad what he meant by the fairy tale phrase.

In Spanish, he told me, “It’s game me and the girls play. Don’t let someone having a bad day or life get us down.”

“You’re a genius, sir,” I said, as he laughed at the idea.

“Tell them that,” pointing at his two girls, who once again curtsied and made dance-like steps between the aisles, their encounter already forgotten.

 

Sketchy ________

sexy mf

NSFW warning: this story is true. It contains references that will make curse words materialize in your head. (Not that watching the news doesn’t cause the same reaction, regardless of which camp you root for.) If you know the song, there’s no use pretending you’re offended. This story, however, reminds people of the fact that I’m not one to be offended at profanity per se; the sentiment underlying the language is the only offending force at work when profanity makes its appearance.

For real, though? You’re still reading? Stop reading. You will get offended or be put in the position that obligates you to pretend you’re offended. (A common affliction we all seem to suffer from more and more.)
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Most of us have our profane “in-jokes,” ones which defy meticulous explanation.

One of mine is “Sketchy _____________.”

If someone passes by who looks like he just jumped out of bed after a long night in a beer-filled ditch, I laugh and sing a line from a Prince song. Its radio title was “Sexy M.F.” You can google it if you need to.

Likewise, if someone looks like a rejected extra from “Silence of The Lambs,” the dicey parts, I’ll croon the line in an even creepier falsetto. If they look like a failed professional bowler wearing stuff from his mom’s closet, he gets the “Sexy M.F.” Prince song. The only requirement is that I change “sexy” to “sketchy.”

Shortly after the new road bypassing Old Wire in North Springdale was finished, we were waiting at the light at 264. One of the weirdest people I’ve ever seen in my life was waiting on the opposite side of the intersection. He looked like Axe Body Spray had mated with Domino’s Pizza and produced a child. I suspect that even his birth certificate had been stamped “Suspicious.”

I sang the lyric wrong without thinking. Comedy gold was born.

If you’re ever around me and we see someone really wickedly strange, just nod and I’ll do the thing. There are few joys greater than hearing me sing in a falsetto, especially in regard to an obscure Prince song.

In closing, don’t be a “Sketchy ____________.”

Or I’ll sing at you as you pass by.

It’s Just a Cup

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Starting with an admission of a bit of my own hypocrisy, I admit I own a very delicate set of teacups and saucers. My friend Jackie, who passed away recently, was the troublemaker who gave them to me. Since getting the surprise gifts of specialized china, I started using one cup as a coffee cup almost immediately. It alternates with my green Grandpa cup as my cup of choice. It looks alien in my hand.
 
 
On a very recent afternoon, I made a dish that reminded me to use a packet of special lemon and spice seasoning, a flavor bend I tried the first time thanks to Jackie. She was a talented cook. We shared a lot of ideas regarding things culinary. While my ideas were almost exclusively adventurous or weird, Jackie’s were rooted in decades of trial and error. Because I felt a bit of Jackie’s inspiration in me that afternoon, I used two of the saucers to serve pieces of baked chicken on. I think Dawn thought I was a little crazy, even though she knows I loathe the idea of china and of owning things that don’t provide beauty and utility. Hoarding allegedly expensive dishes that are seldom used doesn’t strike me as appealing logic.
 
I’m constantly joking that we should take such dishes outside and use them for skeet shooting. Honestly – I’m not joking. “All dishes are disposable if you’re so inclined.”
 
 
Jackie bought me the teacup set because of our discussions about tea, coffee, and a few other drinks. It didn’t hurt that I had a huge set of custom cups made especially for her and her husband, using pictures of them. She snorted when I told her the best flavor of tea I’d tried in a long time was called “Gunpowder.” That part isn’t a joke, either. Dawn surprised me with it for Christmas one year.  It was as bitter as a mouthful of salty dirt. It was delicious.
 
 
On another front, I have a family member who hasn’t got the memo about china being almost irrelevant. Her hoarding makes a logical discussion very difficult. As a society, we’ve moved away from the idea of preserving china or of storing such dishes in a huge cabinet anywhere in the house. Yet, so many people continue to guard the idea that china is valuable or worth wanting once someone has passed on. Dishes are only valuable to us if there is a memory, moment, or feeling attached to it. Dishes we never use do not find themselves embedded in our nostalgia. Few people want the burden of dishes that shouldn’t be used. As for the family member, most of her dishes had to be discarded a few years after her house became unlivable due to her hoarding. She has a set that she feels to be very valuable. They’re just dishes to those who never used them around a table of friends and family.
 
 
Which brings me back to my hypocrisy.
 
A couple of years ago, I researched to discover what kind of coffee cup was part of my earliest (and most loved) memories with my Grandpa Cook. He served me coffee as if it were no special thing. Even though the cup I bought is not the same cup my Grandpa handed me when I was four years old, it serves as a placeholder. It’s precious to me, like the blue one my cousin sent me, the one holding the razor my Grandpa himself used.
 
The same is true for the teacup I use from Jackie.
 
The teacup is a reminder of friendship, interest, and even of the loss that inevitably befalls us. I’ll accidentally break each of these cups. I have no doubt. My fingers will become more infirm, and my grip more loose. They’ll perish in individual piles of broken china. I won’t mourn them, though. They will have brought back Jackie to me, in small doses, on quiet, somber fall evenings, and during sunlit summer mornings. I don’t resist the recognition of entropy as it works its necessary magic on me and the world.
 
 
Everything that falls between, all the finite minutes, are the real treasure.

A List For The Ages

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I was at the in-laws’ house, chopping wood for the fireplace.

The next-door neighbor came out and said, “Need firewood, do you?”

“No, I just hate trees,” I told him.

Bill Engvall could not be reached for comment.

In an oblivious nod to wordplay, my health insurance said they don’t cover baldness.

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It bears repeating: if you are in it, you ARE traffic.

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Monday, I woke up with random splotches of hair on my head.

I went to the doctor.

He diagnosed me with non-pattern baldness.

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Unusual sign you’re an artist: if your cat vomits on the floor and your first thought is whether decorative beads would enhance the design – or detract from it.

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Two-part anecdote: the lock on my community mailbox was inoperable. Instead of waiting on the postal tech to replace the lock, I forced the key in to get the treasures I knew I would find. Among them was a custom deck of playing cards I had made for someone unlucky enough to be related to me. (Note: I had to break the key off to keep people from getting inside the box pending alleged scheduled repair.)

Also, and much to my surprise, a fellow Aficionado of Shenanigans had honored me with a pleasant surprise. The envelope was addressed to: “President of the Avian Minstrel Society, NWA Chapter.” I assume I’m the president. My wife never mentioned an interest in anything either minstrel nor avian, unless cooked in the oven and coated in gravy. Inside the envelope was a page from the best/worst book ever published. Its pages are regarded as both awesome and awful, depending on the dosage of whatever medication you’ve been overprescribed.

It is advisable NOT to attempt to make sense of the contents of the page.

P.S. I bet Zuckerberg never imagined that Facebook would ever have a post as weird as this one.

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Note: don’t try to suck the cork out of a bottle of wine, no matter how much Walmart drives you to it during winter weather. P.S. I did drop a bottle, though – and felt terrible, especially since I successfully passed it 15 yards. (Does anyone else see a bird in the accidental mess?)

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I rarely post other people’s pictures. This one, however, bears such an uncanny resemblance to my mother-in-law that it made me look twice. No word on what my sister-in-law might have prepared for lunch that day.

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“…As for you, if you’re 60 or older, you were born closer to the 1800s than today…”

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Regarding the almost-road conditions: 99 Problems But The Ditch Ain’t One…

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I walked in with a couple of scratches on my face.

“Attacked by a pack of coyotes?” a coworker asked.

“No, a pack of cigarettes.”

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“Monday is ranch dip with a hidden cockroach in it,” the man said, fairly loudly.

I laughed. It’s a good line.

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Possible tourism slogan for small towns in Arkansas: “It was more real than I imagined it would be.”

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“I’ve been working like a dog,” my boss said.

“Yeah, you get distracted every time someone passes by.”

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I can see for miles and miles, if I choose. I’ll stay here, though, and grimace at the walls in front of me – and recoil with each mundane complaint from those around me. It’s out there, though, the wide expanse of world. I could see for miles and miles. If I chose.

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At 4 a.m., the rain violently washed away all the accumulated sins. Unlike with yesterday’s social media rants, people drove with caution as their cars skidded on the impromptu rivers eddying across the roads. To avoid a fully-clothed shower, I detoured through the cavernous hallways as I walked. A woman absently exited through a side door ahead of me. She muttered to herself as my steps fell only two feet behind her. Halfway down the hallway, she jumped in surprise at my unexpected presence behind her. “You startled me,” she said, laughing. “Yes, just like the day will,” I cryptically answered. We both laughed and went our separate ways.

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Though it’s early February, I’m out under a gazebo, jacketless, enjoying the breeze pass over me. I can’t gather impetus or enthusiasm to immerse myself once again in the literal confines inside the place in which I trade my finite minutes for small, rectangular green pieces of paper. Inside I must go, leaving the breeze and approaching daylight. I take a tiny portion of the darkness with me as consolation.

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I’ve abandoned my plan to publish a yearly Non-Farmer’s Almanac.

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“Can you drive a stick?” the snarky senior citizen asked me.

“Yes. Where do you want me to take it?”

I bowed.

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Things might have been different if Ted Kaczynski’s neighbor had been prone to sudden staccato bursts of trumpet playing at random intervals.

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For 5 consecutive days, I’ve successfully printed a form and reduced it 5% each day without anyone noticing. I’m proud of this achievement and hope fervently to reach 1/2 size on the form before someone has a panic attack.

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An epitaph I wrote for someone who died last year…

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Regarding the almost-road conditions: 99 Problems But The Ditch Ain’t One…

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A Dumb Joke For You

As I passed the old art supply shop, I noticed an open trash can at the edge of the curb. I drove a little further and made a U-turn. There was no traffic at all when I did so. I drove very close to the curb, hung my arm out the window and slammed the small bag of trash I had into the top of the trash can.

Immediately, I saw blue lights come on ahead of me. I pulled over and waited for the policeman to come up to the window.

“What’s the problem,” I asked him.

“I’m going to have to give you a ticket for Dunk Driving.”

A Lesson I Revisited Today

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It’s strange the things you find out later in life. When we’re young, we don’t understand that our older family members are adults, working jobs with the same stresses we’ve grown accustomed to as adults. We see them as caring or not, attentive or distant. A precious family member of mine died what seems like forty years ago. It’s no cliché to say that she died too early; we all lost a bit of our luster when she passed.

I found out today that this beautiful human being suffered the presence of a horrid bully at work. It’s difficult for me to imagine her in such a scenario, despite the Pennington Realization affecting everyone. The bully drove her to curse, something she never did. You know you’ve achieved negative success when one of the nicest people in the world not only curses as a result of your presence in their life but that they recall your mean-spiritedness vividly until the day they leave the earth. Even her children remember the bullying and the fact this person waged a war of hatred on their mother. There was no ‘why.’ The bully simply needed an outlet on which to pour her wrath. We all know someone like her.

Her bully died this week. She died after slowly and methodically losing her mind.

I didn’t know the bully. Only her actions. Someone told me that she was monstrously mean to their loved one, someone I knew as a bright soul.

She lessened the world for a few people, my family member included.

I read her obituary again. My opinion doesn’t stain her legacy. Though it reflects poorly on me, I have no uplifting words to lessen her harm to her small world, no neat bow to tie up these words.

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P.S. The Pennington Realization is an older rule I created in recognition of observing another gentle soul being crushed under the weight of an unrelenting pathology.

For You, Though You Know It Not

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My tuxedo cat lay on the couch, his nose buried in the embracing and welcoming fleece of a blanket adorned with pictures. What dreams bid him hello I can’t fathom. I stopped writing for a few seconds and looked outside. The sky concealed itself with the overcast moisture of a cold February day, the hills to the east and north shrouded in silvery-white mist. Though it may sound strange, a brief urge to run outside and lie down against the numbing cold of the concrete overtook me. Not too far away, a passing garbage truck echoed between the nondescript houses, its scrambling workers continuously emptying the mass of our discarded lives into the metal coffin to be compressed into a lesser burden. I could sense the workers’ haste as their day shortened in front of them. Would they hasten as enthusiastically if they could see the measured minutes in front of them? Earlier today, I read of a life lost at 24,883 days; my life had only briefly intersected with hers. I imagined I could hear the burdensome regrets of those left behind. Each of their clocks had suddenly reset by their friend’s unannounced exit. I couldn’t help but feel a bit of relief to know that the tide had rolled into another’s life today. Not because I’m found more worthy. Not because the rhyme and reason of it all are even discernible to me. I looked away from the windows and back toward the limitless content of the internet. A friend had shared a precious and profane sliver of her life, one artfully disguised as a story. In it, I recognized the universality of both promise and pain. That equation can never find balance. Despite the words of the wise and the protestations of many, we are swimming in a zero-sum game, precisely because we fool ourselves into thinking we are living outside the reach of the confines of our own minds. I took the last sip of bitter coffee from my cup and turned back toward the distractions and wondered what surprises might yet greet me. Be of good cheer; all else is dark folly.