By coincidence, thanks in part to Covid, my divorce was final yesterday.
I just got a call from the mover, advising me that the next phase of my life starts in 17 minutes. I hope I carry forward the enthusiasm I have for life and jettison any bitterness that might infect me. Whatever lessons I was supposed to learn, I hope they stick with me. I also hope that all my errors are new ones and not repeats.
Once you jump out of the plane, you have to hit the ground; how you hit is up to you. P.S. I just took this picture of my cat Guino, who is staying in East Springdale. ..
I sat next to the large glass window, my food, chips, and Tajin in front of me. I’d describe my mood as grateful and happy.
Outside, a woman with her mom and two children were eating lunch. They’ve joined the two small tables on the sidewalk to make a megatable. Before I’d entered, I could hear the younger mother chastise her son in a way that made me attentively continue listening. He was prancing around the perimeter, his feet tracing a path around a sidewalk pot of beautiful yellow flowers. The breeze was brisk, and the day was a treat. Fair or not, I decided that the younger mother might be an asshole.
As I sat at my inside table, I couldn’t help but watch the four people as they interacted. The two children, especially the boy, seemed to overflow with energy and interest. Grandma didn’t fuss at the children; she appeared to be a little dismayed by the frequency and ferocity of her daughter’s ire at the children, though. While I couldn’t hear the mother as she fired staccato bursts of irritation, her expression and body language were a red flag. Whatever was going on in her life, it was apparent that her kids were the outlet of her anger, which probably was true most of the time. I’d say the girl was three and the boy was five.
I turned away from the otherwise beautiful view of the street and goings-on outside. A few minutes later, the door in front of me opened, inviting in the mom’s grating and irritated voice. “I said stay the eff out here!” I looked to see that she was yelling at her son, who attempted to follow her inside. He flinched and stepped back away from her reach. I recognized the body language from my own childhood. It took me a minute to convince myself to do what I don’t do best: shut the hell up.
What should have been a delicious meal in a beautiful setting instead became a refresher course in the insidious curse of having too much anger in one’s life. I hate it when I notice it like today. I know what the kid’s lives are going to be like. Every ounce of free happiness they have will be squeezed out of them by someone who might not know how angry she really is. Maybe they’ll get lucky. Perhaps the mom will get help.
Here’s why if you look at the picture on this post, you will notice my eyes are a little misty. As the four left the tables and walked to my right, I waved at both the boy and the girl who trailed behind the two older women. They waved back. I finished my incredible lunch, thinking about all the needless anger and unhappiness around us. A few minutes later, mother and grandmother passed within two feet of where I sat, both holding drink cups. Moments later, the two children pranced by. To my surprise, they both waved at me AGAIN as they passed. I laughed and waved back. Mom turned to chastise the children to hurry and catch up and noted that I was waving. She snarled and said something I couldn’t hear. I’m guessing it was something along the lines of, “Don’t talk to my children!” And then she scolded the children, who both stood motionless staring at the ground. Grandma stared up at the canopy or nothing. I’m guessing the mom told them, “Don’t talk to strangers.”
I wanted to duck outside and tell her, “I think they’d be better off with strangers.” But of course, I didn’t. I bit my tongue. The universe will take whatever course of action it is supposed to. That’s the lie I tell myself, anyway. Having earned my merit badge in parental anger, I know too well that it is nothing more than a lottery.
When I left, I took a picture of the corners nearby and then one of myself. I almost always do. It reinforces the idea of the new me, the melted one I still don’t always recognize. I’ve been accused of being vain. That’s not true. I’m trying to convince myself that it really is me. Looking at the picture, I realized I should have wiped my eyes a little. They betray the slight jolt of listening to that mom fail to get control of herself.
I’m not sure I have a takeaway for this little story. Likely, I’ll never cross paths with those people again. I hope the children cross paths with people who find a way to show them that life is not as their mother sees it. Were I one to pray, that might be the one I’d write on my little piece of paper and tuck away into my heart.
Before leaving, I retrieved a piece of chalk from my car and wrote a few words on the sidewalk about anger being infectious.
This is a personal post, so scroll past if you’re not interested in learning new and terrible things about me. I’m always one for transparency, even when it’s complicated. Especially when it’s difficult. I’ve not been silent out of apprehension or shame. I always feel free to tell my own story – because I own it. Being compassionate, I also realize that other people don’t want a rock dropped on their heads simply because their story overlaps with mine. I’ve waited to say anything specific out of deference to the other people involved. It’s my story now, though.
I’m getting divorced. Because people need to assign blame or frame such things in their heads, you can place the responsibility for the divorce directly on me. Of course, there’s more to the story – but it would be wrong for me to evade the finger pointed at me. Adding explanatory caveats would be equivalent to ruining an apology by offering excuses. Those who know me well know the story. When my marriage faltered, I turned my attention to another woman. While I did not consummate the relationship, I fell in love with her. That’s entirely on me. Not that anyone is entitled to know the details. But I’m not so stupid as to think that people don’t know. It’s human nature, and whispers travel faster and more loudly than headlines.
For the lurkers who are tempted to write something snarky, go ahead, but please take a moment to be creative in your attempt. I don’t mind contempt or passive-aggressive tomfoolery so long as it’s both authentic and distinctive. I can get run-of-the-mill snideness from several sources. Chance are your two cents won’t affect me. I’ve already paid the price for my choices; a few words can’t possibly inflame anything medieval lurking in my heart.
In so many ways, I failed and succeeded simultaneously over the last year. I hurt people who shouldn’t have been. I realize that my intentions are meaningless and irrelevant when compared to the consequences of my choices. I’ll try to take the successes and amplify them. Whether I’ll learn anything from my adventures and misadventures is always the critical question.
My wife is keeping the house. Evidently, homes and property should remain in the hands of responsible people. I’m not sure where I will end up. I much prefer having a roommate, but so far, that has been a bust. You wouldn’t know it, but I’m not nearly as crazy in person as you might think. (Admittedly, though, there is a disproportionate likelihood of tomfoolery.) If I move from Springdale, I’ll miss it terribly. I’ve grown to know it very well, especially during the pandemic. Barring something surprising, I will probably get an apartment in Fayetteville that’s too expensive for me, primarily because of work – and probably without a roommate or someone I know. I’d rather not live alone, even if doing so might be beneficial to me somehow. I’ve somehow managed to stay in the same job for 16 years without one of my co-workers murdering me. To be clear, I’m pretty sure there have been discussions, but luckily, no assassin has been hired, at least not that I know of.
As tough as things have been, I’m glad I had counseling. I was lucky. I put the pin back in before I made my life worse, as well as learning how to sleep again. Counseling didn’t fix all of my problems, of course, but it might have saved me.
My story isn’t particularly original and certainly not so during the pandemic.
There’s no need to react or comment if you don’t want to or don’t quite know ‘how’ to do so. This isn’t something you see on social media very frequently. It’s certainly something that happens all the time, though. By posting this, I’m removing the taboo of openly talking about it.
Meeting my sister answered so many questions. Not all of them, though. Expecting complete answers at any stage of your life is a denial of the fact that as we change, the same answers can ring hollow or fail to give us satisfaction. We often don’t understand our motives or what led us to those choices, even regarding our own lives. Usually, the simple answer is “nothing.” You might be comforted by realizing such a thing. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that our lives might be a game of pinball, with our choices volleying us across an almost random field. Careful observation of other people’s lives tends to reinforce it, though.
Isn’t it strange that we stridently ask and demand explanations and answers from those who preceded us, even though we well know that there may not be a reason that falls blithely to our hearts?
When we’re young, we falsely believe that the adults and people in our lives somehow have a magic formula for safety and love. Growing up exposes us to the harsh alchemy of people being people, making mistakes, and quite often winging it. In my case, I should stop surprising myself with revelations. At this point, almost any combination of things may be valid. It took me until I was 52 – and in the face of constant argument – to find out that my Dad not only had fathered another child but that he had done so with a girl much younger than he and from a different background. For those of you who understand my hometown’s circumstances, this alone gives ample berth to find credibility in any rumor or suspicion.
It might explain why Dad decided to move everyone to Springdale and Northwest Arkansas for a new life. After he went to Indiana and ended up in prison, he returned to Monroe County to stay. Whether he would farm, be a mechanic, or work one of several other jobs available, he made it clear he was back to stay.
Now, thanks to DNA and an ongoing decision to keep looking, I’ve changed the narrative of how I came to live in this part of the state. Much of my adult life revolves around terrible misbehavior on the part of my Dad. Knowing that I live here due to it changes nothing. Yet, it does make me think about the spiderweb of cause and effect.
In the summer of 1972, we packed up and moved to Northwest Arkansas. It was probably August, not long before school started.
I am convinced that we moved in 1972 primarily because my missing sister was born in May of that year.
If I heard rumors of her when I was younger, they would have been snippets of angry revelation from my Mom or others, probably during a drunken tirade. I did hear hypothetical insinuations, but I don’t recall concrete accusations. Such a truth would have certainly caused a homicide between my Mom and Dad. I have to admit the possibility, though. The existence of my new sister in itself proves that we are all unreliable witnesses to our lives. I used that concept of ‘unreliable witness’ on one of my first blog posts about genealogy. We will never have all the facts of our lives coherently arranged. We can’t trust our memories, much less those around us, who actively conceal and camouflage their lives for one reason or another.
I lived most of my life suspecting that my new sister was out there in the world. She lived most of her life without the answers that could have given her the ability to understand herself better. It wasn’t her choice, but she paid the price and consequences of not knowing. I hate that for her.
I don’t know how life would have looked had Dad been honest with everyone about having another child. He died in 1993, another lifetime ago. My sister was around 21, and I was about 26. His shame or inability to acknowledge his indiscretion robbed other people of a fuller life. I can’t understand how a man who beat his wife and children, went to prison, and killed someone in a DWI accident would have difficulty saying he had another daughter. This is doubly true after his Mom died on May 21st, 1983. My sister turned eleven years old the next day.
I wish that people could be open to the complexity of their lives.
Were it my choice, all of y’all who know me well also know that I am no fan of concealment. We’ve done it, said it, and lived it, precisely in the same way that my Dad and others did before we came along. In the future, our descendants will whisper, pry, and discover. You may as well give the painful answers now if you find yourself in any way in the role of a secret keeper.
Somewhere, there is another me, looking for answers and wishing that my sister didn’t have to spend so many years without her truth being exposed.
I wish. For me, for you, for us all.
Let’s all shine the lights in whatever direction they are needed.
On Father’s Day 2019, I discovered that my ancestry and DNA quest had not been in vain: I found a sister (or we found each other), one whose existence defied any possible expectation. We didn’t meet initially – and then the pandemic struck. We both survived 2020. So, ironically, we met for the first time on New Year’s Day. While y’all were eating black-eyed peas, I was meeting a reflection of myself and wondering about the spectacle of life and how decisions made five decades ago continue to reach forward. Unlike other parts of my life, this has been a reward, one welcomed by both of us. How we got here was the result of other people’s decisions. We still have questions, though one of which is no longer what we might be like in person: Carolyn is as kind, witty, and outgoing as I could hope.
When Carolyn arrived, I discovered that I had met my match for the longest hug ever. I’m also not the baby of the family any longer. I kept telling her that I saw Aunt Barbara is so much of her mannerisms and look, which compliments everyone involved.
It’s incredible how good-looking we both are, isn’t it? 🙂 Due to Carolyn’s presence next to me in the pictures, I realize how much of my Dad’s devil-may-care attitude is reflected in me. I’m still wondering how it is possible that Carolyn is my sister.
I also met her youngest son, who tolerated our hours of catching up on 48 years of missed lifetime as we sat, talked, and pondered into the night.
When I was younger, I suspected that I might have family in the world. I’m still amazed that I kept the hope into my 50s – especially to find someone who seems to be a bit like me, even if she got there from an opposite path.
This strange, strange world holds a few surprises still.
Carolyn and I are the two truths; the lie is that love and truth can be concealed, even in a world convoluted by people’s inability to tell their stories due to fear, shame, or for some other human reason that eludes definition.
Though it isn’t a contest, I am convinced that I won the New Year’s Day contest for the most rewarding.
P.S. You might wait until we hear Carolyn’s opinion; you’d have to be crazy to accept mine without corroboration.
Judy’s eyes opened to see the projector clock on the opposite wall indicating 4:45 a.m. Before going to bed, she set the bedroom alarm for 5:00 a.m. and her automatic coffee pot in the kitchen for 5:15 a.m. Since it was Christmas morning, she needed to complete her to-do list before Jake scrambled out of his pillow fort. They spent at least thirty minutes last night, carefully building his sleeping fort to his precise specifications. He wanted to ensure that Santa wouldn’t find him awake in the dark. After getting Jake to stop chatting and to try to sleep, Judy pulled the presents for Jake from the trunk of her car and tucked them under the tree. It would be an austere Christmas this year. She hoped Jake wouldn’t mind.
Judy succumbed to the warmth of the bed; she pulled the comforter tightly under her neck.
The last year was beyond difficult. Judy’s ex-husband Richard spent the first four months of the year denying he had abused her. When he discovered that Judy’s decision to flee him was going to last, he turned his efforts to the court to take Jake from her. Even Judy’s mom testified against her. For reasons she still didn’t understand, the judge awarded her sole custody and granted her permission to move away. By September, she had a new apartment, a new job, and a new list of fears. Judy and Jake were on their own in every sense of the word. For ten years old, Jake somehow avoided the anguish others kids might have experienced through such a traumatic year. Judy found herself holding her breath tensely, waiting to see Jake act out. He never did.
At 4:50, Judy imagined she could smell coffee. If she overslept the alarm, the coffee always roused her from the bed. Single parents had to use a bit of creativity to keep their lives manageable. Imagining her first cup of coffee, she realized that she needed to pee. She pulled the comforter over her head as if doing so would erase the imaginary scent of coffee from her nose and the need to go to the bathroom. When she got the edge of the comforter tucked behind her head, she heard the soft melodies of “All I Want For Christmas” by Celine Dion. Most people preferred Mariah Carey, but not Judy. Celine was the voice of her angel. Deciding that she wasn’t going to quiet her mind or rest, Judy crawled from her warm bed and walked through the small dark bedroom to the tiny bathroom attached to it. As soon as she sat, she distinctly heard the music volume increase dramatically. Without a doubt, Celine’s voice played in the living room. Judy tried to finish more quickly, which only increased her need to go longer. As most moms discover, there is no such thing as quiet time, even in the bathroom. There’s always a bang on the door or an immediate need to address.
Judy quickly put on her Santa pajama bottoms and walked out into the living room. Inexplicably, the small tree next to the front window was fully lit and twinkling. The stereo next to the small television was on. Celine’s voice streamed from it. Judy walked across the narrow living room to Jake’s room. Opening the door, she went to the pillow fort and peered inside. Jake wasn’t there.
Judy quickly backed out of the room and peeked into the front bathroom. Also empty.
She turned and slid the sliding door to the kitchen open.
Jake sat at the small plain wood table. A cup of coffee sat in front of him. Next to that, a simple red box tied with twine.
“Merry Christmas, Mom!” Jake shouted as he ran over and hugged Judy around the waist. Surprised, Judy stood and rubbed her son’s hair back from his face. After a few seconds, he pulled away and reached over to grab the cup to hand to Judy. “I made this just the way you like it, Mom!”
“When did you learn to make coffee, Jake?” she asked.
“Oh Mom. That’s what YouTube is for! Plus, this is your Christmas!” Jake’s smile was as big as Judy had ever seen it. Though doubtful, Judy sipped the coffee. It was perfect. She laughed, realizing that Jake just volunteered to make coffee for her for the next ten years. “It’s delicious and so much better when someone else makes it!” She winked at him in the way that he loved.
“What are you doing up so early, son? It’s barely five.”
“Mom, I asked Santa to give you a good Christmas. He told me that I should give you a good one. I got you a gift.” Jake reached for the box on the table and pushed it toward Judy.
“How did you manage this, Jake? Do you even have money?” Judy laughed. She pulled the top bow loose to work the lid off the box.
“It was easy. I took out the trash every day for Mr. Johnson and agreed to help the building manager for a few months next year. I got Ken’s mom to get the gift at Target. Ken brought me the surprise to school, and I sneaked it home in my backpack. Simple.” He smiled. Judy knew that it had been anything but simple. Such planning for a ten-year-old was impressive. She was going to act delighted no matter what the box contained. It’s a ritual that Moms do instinctively.
Judy lifted the top off the box. She gasped. Inside the box at the bottom was a single ruby earring. Her eyes welled up as she looked at Jake. He sat, watching her, a smile on his face.
“Mom, do you like it?”
She swallowed hard to avoid crying. “Yes, of course!”
“I know that Dad took your Grandma’s ruby earrings and hid them. I could only afford one this year. I’ll get you the other one next year, I promise.”
Judy abandoned all pretense and started sobbing. She sat down hard on the chair across from Jake. Her coffee sloshed and spilled a little as she did so. Jake came around the table and hugged Judy from the side. She grabbed him and squeezed him hard against her.
“I love it, Jake! I love you.” She fumbled to pick up the single ruby earring and put it into her right earlobe. She smiled at Jake.
“Merry Christmas, Mom!”
As Celine continued to soar in the clouds in the background, Jake and Judy, mom and son, sat at the kitchen table laughing. It was a long time coming. In the living room, beneath the tree, Jake’s presents waited.
Love and Christmas were drowning them both. They swam in it.
Wherever you are and whoever you are, the season is inside you if you’ll permit it to overwhelm you.
Recently, a friend posted about kayaking on Lake Elmdale. He also mentioned that many people seem to be unaware of its existence. (The lake, not kayaking – although I do wonder if such people who kayak really exist.) I tend to agree with him. Lake Elmdale is an artificial lake built in 1953. It derives its name from a mix of the names for Elm Springs and Springdale communities. I think they missed their chance by not naming it something extraordinary, like “Devil’s Tooth Lake,” or even “Drowning Hole.” Arkansas already boasts Nimrod Lake, named after Noah’s grandson. (Sorry, but the word “Nimrod” was forever redefined by Looney Tunes.)
Since I have your attention, in 1950, Springdale had a bit over 5,000 people. Ten years later, the population doubled. Elm Springs started at 217 and, by 1960, added a whopping 21 additional people.
I have dozens of stories from my youth involving this body of water. Many from my early childhood are fishing stories involving my Dad and Uncle Buck or a rotating series of misfits called friends. Other stories are from the time when I lived in Elm Springs in the mid-80s.
If you look at the picture, you can see one of the lake access roads on the right, about halfway up. Just a short drive beyond, and you can take a left on Lakeview and quickly reach Elm Springs road. Continuing on the circuitous route past the lake entrance, and you’ll emerge on Elm Springs Road further east and headed to what is now I-40. This story is really about the roadway’s right side, where the lake access ramp road intersects with E. Lake Road.
(GPS coordinates if such things interest you.)
My Dad loved a good scare while driving. Whether it involved turning off the headlights at any random moment, cutting unexpectedly through a field (fence or not), jumping out of the vehicle if it were going slowly enough, leaving the wheel to whoever might be both inside and paying attention, shooting a pistol or shotgun from inside the cab, playing chicken with unsuspecting people dumb enough to be on the road at the same time, driving on railroad tracks (sometimes suspended) over creeks, marshes, and rivers, or hitting things for no discernible reason, my Dad often had no limits.
I know that the last sentence is intolerably long. I wanted to pile it all out there to give you an idea of the level of crazy that might Dad exhibited. Sometimes, it was scary. Looming death tends to be that way. Other times, it was fun – but after the fact. Surviving such ‘fun’ colors the ability to laugh about it.
My apologies for taking so long to get to the point. Before this picture was taken, the road was less maintained. Edges weren’t graded appropriately, and erosion and run-off worsened already bumpy or uneven roads. This specific spot was no exception.
While I don’t remember the first time Dad revved his truck to 50+ mph and fly across the edge of this entrance as he passed, I remember coming off the cab’s seat and floating for the briefest instant. Whether the vehicle had a solid axle or good suspension had a say in managing the landing. If you’re thinking of the Dukes of Hazzard reading this, you’re not far off the mark. Though you might think I am exaggerating, Dad once convinced me and my brother Mike that he would do it at 80 mph. He did, after telling us he was going to for a long approach. Our butts were clenched until the point we realized that Dad wasn’t bluffing. Afterward, I felt that Dad would have regretted doing it had he not been three sheets to the wind. When I tell the story, I usually say, “I could see Kansas from up there.” It’s a joke. It was decently dark when Dad took that last quarter of a mile stretch before hitting the bump at 80 mph. After keeping the truck in the road, he hit the brakes and skidded to a full stop. He took the Camel cigarette out of his mouth with a flourish, looked at Mike and me cowering against the other door panel, and said, “Which one of you wants to drive and do it again?” Dad took the same jump, albeit slower than 80 mph, while we were in the back of the truck in the bed, too. We failed to determine whether clutching the truck’s side was safer or to lay against the tailgate.
At times, Dad doing this sort of thing would involve Mom being in the car or truck with him. Mom’s reaction to being scared like this can best be described as “murderous rage” or by one of her signature phrases, “Go# Da## It, Bobby Dean!” shouted at ear-piercing levels. If it lands me in hell for saying so, I’ll admit that hearing her squawk like that was amusing as long as we weren’t witnessing the oft-overlooked attempted murder aspect of many of our weekends.
If you are wondering if Dad ever wrecked, broke an axle, or blew out a tire doing these things, the answer is “yes.” Likewise, if you wonder if any of us ever suddenly experienced bladder control issues, you’d be right for questioning.
On one occasion, Dad drove with his boss back to his house in Elm Springs. The truck was a Cheyenne or Chevrolet truck of some sort, one of their favorites to restore. In those days, rednecks often stated with confidence, “I have to blow the cobwebs out.” Being young, I didn’t understand the cliché but did know that it roughly translated to mean, “I’m going to go incredibly fast and possibly die in this vehicle.” Dad wasn’t drinking. I was in the bed of the truck with Duke, Dad’s german shepherd. Charles sat upfront up with Dad. He had a cigar in his mouth as he often did. Charles was also married to one of Dad’s cousins. I didn’t figure that out until years later.
We drove down Highway 112 and turned on E. Lake Road leading to the lake. About halfway between Highway 112 and the lake, Dad slowed and shouted to me out the window, “White lightning!” I immediately realized that it was a “go” for Operation Scare the Boss Shi$less.” The phrase could refer to the hell-raising 1973 movie starring Burt Reynolds or to moonshine – and sometimes both.
About 100 yards from the side road to the lake, Dad pushed the gas hard and shifted gears. As we hit the bump and sailed off the ground, I laughed. I heard Charles scream in surprise and then scream at Dad, asking if he’d lost his ever-loving mind. By the time we reached Charles’ house, he was laughing and jokingly cursing at Dad.
One more note. Thanks to Dad, I learned how to drive through barbed-wire fences, closed gates, front lawns, flooding creeks, and just about anything else. Here’s the secret: you have to not give a damn about what happens when you do it. Once you master that skill, sober or inebriated, you too can be an amateur stuntman. I wish that I had experienced that version of my Dad freed from alcohol. There’s no doubt he would have still managed to convince me I might die at a given moment.
When my brother Mike came home from leave in the Army, I didn’t get to spend much time with him. Life’s demands and the constraints of his limited time conspired against us. We did drive the road leading to Lake Elmdale, though. I knew Mike was going to ask before we ever approached the jump zone. “Should we?” he asked me, laughing. We were in my car. He was driving. “How can we not?!” I shouted. We hit the bump going 50 mph. As soon as we started to lift, Mike regretted testing his courage. After the adrenaline subsided, we drove for another hour along what once were quieter roads. 33 or 34 years have passed.
In the years since, in the spirit of full disclosure, I too have excessively sped toward that same bump without warning the occupants of the car. Though the ridge is considerably flatter than it once was while I am much fatter, it never fails to fill me with nostalgia for both the times that were and those which weren’t.
“As sorry as I was to hear of my brother’s passing, I’ll bet the news bothered him a LOT more.” – X
There’s a considerable risk in people misunderstanding you on a good day. Many of us tend to judge others with the worst possible filter. I’ve found that good people can understand and appreciate contradictory and sublime behavior. Those who don’t just aren’t my people. Old age and experience, if we’re lucky, gives us more latitude in recognizing this.
The greater danger is people hearing what you actually said, and you having no defensible context to mitigate it. So much of life is context, and much of that isn’t immediately explainable. “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” is a cliché for a reason.
The joke that started this post? I’m sure people can and will get angry if they choose to. They’ll claim I wrote it as an insult to Mike. It’s not. He would laugh his ass off reading that joke. About one hundred times over the years, I threw one of Woody Allen’s jokes at him: “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Years later, I threw in another one: “My relationship with death remains the same,” he said. “I’m strongly against it.” When Mike and I were young, we both read “Death Knocks,” a story (turned play) by Woody Allen. It was a sometimes topic of hilarity, even though Mike did not like Woody Allen as he grew older. Mike and I both made many bargains with imaginary devils and deities when we were young.
Only those who can imagine hiding in the space between the bed and the wall in the dark and waiting for a parent to come for them in a drunken rage might be able to understand the connection between bargaining and gallows humor. I have a list of stories about these incidents, and some of them surprise me by being funny. If you’ve read my blog, you can see that I’ve largely refrained from identifying some of my family by name. Despite this, I still infrequently find myself at the receiving end of hateful criticism.
When we lived at City View Trailer Park in Springdale, Mike swallowed an incredible amount of tobacco juice. Several of us had played and fought down at the retched pond that once stood at the end of City View. Mike spent much of his time between punches proudly with a mouthful of tobacco. He puked violently on the floor for what seemed like a full minute. That black juice stained the purple carpet deeply. No amount of cleaning could remove it. We’ll talk later about how someone thought purple carpet in a tinderbox trailer might look attractive. When the trailer burned, the stain obstinately remained. The carpet was dark, of course, but the underlying stain plainly stood out. Years later, when Mike and I spent the night at Mom and Dad’s house on Highway 49, Mike compared that stain to dealing with being helpless all those years, or nearly so. That was the same night we discovered that a nest of yellow jackets inhabited the other bedroom’s west-facing window. That’s a story for another day. As for the tobacco, despite attempts to make Mike stop, he dipped most of his adult life. I have at least three dozen pictures of him spitting into a bottle, cup, or a family member’s potted plant to prove it.
After Dad died, my cousin jimmy recommended that I watch a particular Billy Bob Thorton movie. Most people have never heard of “Daddy And Them.” You’ll be shocked if you take a look at how many stars joined this movie. Because it was set in Arkansas, it accurately grabs the absurdity of white trash living and wraps it in comedy. (A difficult feat.) After Jimmy twisted my arm and made me watch it, I did the same to Mike. In it was one of the jokes my brother and I shared as hilarious. Here’s the joke:
“Hey! Do you know what Dad would say if he were alive today?” One of us would reply, “No, what?” Dramatic pause. “Let me out!” With the last line, we scratch the air in front of us with both hands as if we were clawing our way out of the coffin. Last year, an Irish veteran stole the joke and shocked funeral attendees by having a pre-recorded tape of his voice shouting to be let out played during his service. Mike thought it was hilarious and an excellent way to separate the humorless from the good people in a crowd. “Can you imagine how tightly wound up Aunt Elsie’s panties would get if someone did that?” was part of his reply.
I have to say, though, that despite the immense teeth-gnashing my brother and I often shared, our deplorable and macabre sense of humor was unrivaled. Marines and serial killers alike cringed if they accidentally overheard our nonsense.
No matter what you’ve read and heard on sitcoms or dramas about the impossibility of confining an involuntary laugh at a funeral, my brother and I separately were a disaster; in combination, we probably deserved the death penalty. Some of the fault lies with my Dad. Even when he wasn’t drinking, he could say some of the most outrageous things devised by a human being. He once called the preacher a “co$$su$$er” in front of about 50 people just to get a leg up on him. In a twist of fate I’ve written about before, Dad and the preacher somehow became friends.
My brother Mike once unknowingly used an open mic at a funeral home in Brinkley to improvise a bit of comedy regarding our Grandma’s teeth. The funeral director sheepishly ran into the outer area to grab the mic from my brother and tell him that it was a ‘hot mic.’ It’s essential that you know that my Grandma was one of the two closest people I ever loved. Despite that, I laughed. I cannot think about that incident without losing a little bit of my soul to laughter. I’m convinced each chuckle puts me a foot further into purgatory.
There’s no greater or sublime pleasure having someone who is both smart and willing to go the extra mile for a laugh, joke, or smile – even if it burns down a few villages on the way there. I give Mike the win, though, because he could tell jokes that I wouldn’t. That’s saying a lot.
Not too many months ago, I sent my brother a collection of hand-written postcards, each with a joke from comedians we both loved. As with index cards in my back pocket, I’m also a fan of prestamped postcards for quick notes. Even while we were uneasily bickering, I wanted him to know that humor was still a big part of my life. (Even if I’m old, boring, wear a lot of black socks as leisurewear, and get too excited by an early buffet.)
Mike would see these words as a compliment.
Because of our relationship, I tend to expect someone to emerge with poison in their hearts to attempt to silence me for joking. Those who know me also know I’ve written multiple times about the fact that they have my permission to mock me to the end of the world when I’m gone, especially if it is funny or creative. Mike was not someone to pull back from a bastardly comment. The same quick and violent tongue he sometimes used to wound me also created some world-class humor. For everyone who knew Mike and watched him in action on solemn occasions, the Bobby Dean in him could not be confined or controlled. Trying to do so was just catnip for his enthusiasm to up the ante.
It’s not reasonable to accuse me of glossing over or attempting to sugarcoat Mike’s life. Equally so, I have to tip my hat when it is merited. Both of us emerged from childhood with a scorched-earth comedic streak. It probably saved us as many times as it caused us grief.
As it turns out, Mike was indeed there when death came for him. His birthday would have been November 1st, the day after Halloween. For some, it is All Souls Day. When I sat to finish Mike’s ancestry record, I noticed that his two children are the same age I was when our Dad died. Mike was 20,062 days old, the mentioning of which would irritate him due to my occasional reminder that I still keep a tab of how many days old I am.
My job is to remember the Mike who put a fish under the driver’s seat of my 1984 Oldsmobile in the middle of summer during a visit to Aunt Barbara’s. (Without telling me.) Or the Mike who read “Lord of The Rings” in almost one sitting back in the early 80s.
Please don’t fault me for taking refuge in contradictory stories about Mike. But if you do, I’ll accept that charge. Given the arc of my origins, I find this potential sin to be minuscule.
P.S. The word “acolate” is mine, one devised to denote eulogic remembrance, perhaps a day too late.
I love a great insult, even when it’s thrown in my face. I’ll steal it, no matter how much it burns. People think I’m joking when I say, “Just be creative. Boring insults are the worst!”
Because I had it used on me, I can attest to how much it initially caught me off guard but resulted in a nod of admiration. I’ve used it selectively a few times in the last few years, and always with excellent results. (If by ‘excellent,’ you mean “made the other guy furious.”)
Here it is, although it is a bit NSFW:
“I’m doing a survey of men who’ve never pleasured a woman sexually. Everyone told me that you’d be the perfect candidate to answer some questions about this.”
When my brother and I talked casually again for a few months, I used this one him in the game of “You Can’t Make Me Laugh.” He laughed. I told him that if he got bored, he could get a lab coat and clipboard and stand by the automatic doors of any supermarket and randomly ask men entering the store this question. The mental image of it never fails to amuse.
P.S. You can modify it as needed for a particular occasion. I don’t recommend it if you’re in a karate studio or at anger management class.
This post is a portmanteau of lives. One was a dedicated writer, and one was a policeman; both failed to adequately recognize their afflictions.
My wife’s eyes sometimes glaze over when I hear tales of “writer’s block.” I don’t know what that is. I can’t help myself: I always say, “What’s that?” half-jokingly. It’s the same way with me regarding boredom. Reading, writing, genealogy, humor, photography, and just scrolling the window of the internet could entertain me for fifty consecutive years. I’d be ideally suited to be a vampire.
This time, we were watching “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” on HBO. Michelle McNamara had her deadline pushed forward a month and struggled to realize her ambition of finishing her book. It was her lifelong dream. She died before DNA solved the case of The Golden State Killer. Michelle and I share many attributes regarding writing. I don’t put myself on her level, though, so there’s no need to remind me snarkily. But I don’t understand the inability to plow through. She resorted to drugs to keep her up and allow sleep when necessary. The thing she relied on to help her achieve her ambition also undid her life.
I can’t walk the street, work, or sit and listen to music without wanting to research a hundred different ideas. Things breeze into my mind at a velocity that I cherish. The satisfaction of an overactive mind isn’t diminished by the value or result of the ideas. I’m able to divorce content from needing a goal. This allows me to produce dozens of things that never see the light of day or end up in the ‘delete’ file simply due to happenstance.
Had Michelle raised her hand and admitted she was overwhelmed, Patton Oswald and their mutual daughter would still have her in their lives. Instead, her book and ambition fell to uncertain others to complete, and Michelle lost a presumable thirty or forty years with family.
While I wrote the first part of this a few weeks ago, it still is on my mind. Not just because it was a great show, or a peek into a writer’s life, but also because a piece of it parallels the life of my brother. He was ridiculously smart. He could have worked to be a writer. As I do with anyone I recognize as innately great at writing, I repeatedly tried to convince him to spend a portion of his life writing his stories. I do not doubt that he easily had several books of material in him. Much of his writing might have derived from his professional career as a policeman and detective. Even his Army career was as an MP.
Michelle McNamara’s life revolved around crime and its intricate tendrils. My brother Mike spent his career investigating and collaring criminals. While Michelle’s ambition always included being a writer, Mike could have done the same, and just as expertly.
The contradiction is that his job itself was one of his biggest impediments. It put a wedge between his personal life and his ability to live it. The schedule, the demands, and the danger of having a job that perilously exaggerated his tendency toward authoritarianism. People often ask whether the job makes the man or the man gravitates toward it. I’m not sure. As much difficulty as my brother had coming out of his youth, the job exacerbated his personality defects. It’s no secret that police are more likely to be abusive and susceptible to addiction. My brother chose alcohol to appease his conflict. Michell McNamara chose prescription medications. Anyone who gets angry at me for saying so doesn’t understand me. In Michelle’s case, her husband Patton capably framed her turmoil in a very public and touching television show.
My brother’s intentions to retire as a detective after a full career collided with his inability to stop drinking. He was forced to retire. Even still, he could have turned that blow into a blossoming retirement. Had he stopped drinking, he might have lived to be seventy instead of dying before his fifty-fifth birthday. Because he was smart enough to work in the north, his pension was protected by a formidable police union. He had the option to pursue any interest he desired.
I was envious of that and his ability to work a job that allowed it. It’s a fantasy for most of us to round fifty and shift to do whatever interests us.
In the last couple of years, I sent Mike books, starting with “The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee.” I knew it would ignite his interest and recognition of what writing about the South could do. It was my hope he’d begin to leave the alcohol to the side, even if it cost him herculean effort to do so. He’d be able to careen into another career writing feverishly. Whatever else Mike did or didn’t do, he also loved books and libraries. That’s something that can’t be said about many police.
Mike’s death not only closed the door on his gift of writing, but it also cost him a couple of decades with his family. They’ll each struggle with the legacy of his big personality and choices. As Mike declined, I couldn’t help but get irritated at him for the waste of his life. Instead of pivoting to change his course and take advantage of the privilege of a chosen life, he furiously wasted his and his family’s energies to dedicate himself to drink. As bad it was, we were all lucky a few of the circumstances didn’t cause greater harm to others.
Now, silence. What could have been a rejuvenated family and life is now a complicated and unenviable path to an uncertain future for all of them.
As in my mother’s case, I know that much of the harsh words I shared with my brother were a result of alcoholism. Knowing it helps more now that they are passed than it ever did while they lived. He recognized the danger, just as I always did, but relied on his devious inner voice to convince himself he could overcome it. The same personality that made him loud and larger than life also participated in his fall. Many of our family and ancestors did the same. None of our ancestors who knew they were alcoholics successfully pulled out of it. It’s a sobering thought. I’ve written about the infection of my family. While I cannot adequately describe it, the trajectory of those around me gives proof that my theory must have some validity.
Mike loved that I wrote stories. Some of them caused him grief, especially before he could come to terms with the magnitude of the shadow that our dad and others left behind us. He vested energy in secrecy while I opted to throw open the windows. I was often a terrible brother. The only safe harbor I had at my disposal was separation. Mike had trouble seeing that my life was not one punctuated by drama. He also hated that I told him more than once that were I in his shoes, I would do anything and everything to break my addiction. It wasn’t because I felt superior to him in that regard, but that I never fooled myself into believing that any of us have magical skills that preclude us from behaving stupidly. Behavior that is obviously hard-wired into our DNA is that much more insurmountable.
The shelf that could have held Mike’s books will be forever empty.
The lives he could have intersected with for the next twenty years will now bounce obliquely off someone else.
The silences and subsequent shouts of confused recrimination will echo in his vacant place.