Archive for the ‘Memories that might be Mine’ Category
They showed up from time to time on Sundays here at the Laundromat at the Center of the Universe. The femme of the pair was a dark-haired, darker skinned version of a young Woody Allen, if the latter habitually wore sweats and fifty more pounds on his short frame. The other half of the couple, who we’ll call “Buck,” was the opposite, slightly taller and half the mass of his companion, with sandy hair, a skeletal face, and a loud voice. Buck dressed ‘butch’, usually in flannels and worn jeans, sometimes with a buckskin jacket. Today it was a set of coveralls, logging boots and a boonie-hat.
It was kind of cute in a saccharine way to see them come in, chattering back and forth, helping each other with the laundry. Their dog, a young shepherd-collie mix that Woody called “Biscuit” would come in with them and lay under one of the tables or at one or the others’ feet.
This morning was different.
Pablo and I watched as their little SUV backed into the last open parking slot slowly, as if it was carrying a live bomb. Woody got out of the passenger side, said something long, sharp and shrill to the driver, slammed the door and huffed around to the back of the vehicle. Biscuit, who was in the back, cringed as Woody grabbed a couple of bags and stormed off for the entrance. Buck’s expression as he got out was a mixture of confusion, concern, and boy-have-I-screwed-up. He gave Biscuit a quick scratch behind the ears before grabbing a basket full of throw-rugs and closing the hatch on the dog .
They’d had a fight. From the signs, it had been a beauty.
“Ooooh, boy.” was all Pablo said. Pablo’s been married thirty years, me about two-thirds as long.
Woody stomped through the front door of the Laundromat, closing it behind him, and stopped when he the saw two of us sitting there.
“Hi,” he said, deliberately dropping his voice about two octaves.
“Morning,” said Pablo in his usual drawl.
“Good morning!” I said with all the cheer I could muster. I don’t know why I did that. Woody just glared at me and continued down to the unused washers. It took Buck a bit longer to enter, what with the heavy basket and his aiming for the other and open entrance door. He skirted his partner, opting for the far side of the folding tables and the heavy-duty washers in the back. I noticed Woody had picked the farthest open washer from the heavy duty ones.
It wouldn’t have been a stretch to say the air in the Laundromat dropped a few degrees. Everyone either tried to look busy or decided to go get some coffee.
Woody jammed his stuff in the machine, answering Buck’s “helpless husband” questions with one or two-words, without looking at Buck. He measured his detergent and softener, punched the requisite temperature-and-cycle buttons and dropped his quarters in.
The machine didn’t start.
So Woody opened and closed the door again. He punched the requisite temperature-and-cycle buttons again. He pressed the coin-return button and then pressed it a few more times. Each time was a little harder than the last.
The machine still didn’t start.
Woody then began a pattern of beating on the coin box with a pudgy fist alternated with opening and slamming the washer door. The sequence continued and then got more animated, accompanied by the longest, most imaginative string of vituperation I’d heard since that day in the Persian Gulf back in ’88, when my Chief Hull Technician scraped the skin off his knuckles while trying to show a hapless underling “how P-250 pump-starting was supposed to be done.”
People came from the other side of the Laundromat to watch as Woody continued beating faster and faster on the machine. Pablo and I just sat there, mesmerized by the performance. The only thing missing was kicking and an accompanying drum beat.
Just when I thought Woody would lapse into complete, tearful hysteria, he stopped. He quietly pulled his laundry out and placed it in a neighboring machine, and went through the start-up litany again. The machine, thankfully, worked. Woody completed this performance with another string of muttered cursing, this time with “three-fifty wasted” added to the mix.
Buck finally decided it was safe to join in.
“Do you need more quarters?” He held out a partially-used roll of them.
“No, I’m good… thanks,” Woody said, sounding spent. Buck pointed at his machine and complained about how little water was coming into it. Though it seemed fine to me, it was enough for Woody to walk over, look at the offending washer and commiserate with his partner.
They went off in search of the “manager.” Usually the Professor handles problems like this, and quickly. But the Professor has been sick lately and his deficient-on-all-but-self-esteem son was nowhere to be found. The Laundromat crowd, relieved that the drama was over, helpfully offered suggestions and consolation to the pair. Buck kept saying to everyone that “sh** like this never happened when I ran a business.” Woody just looked exhausted and upset.
Finally a woman who looked like a gunnery-sergeant tracked down a number for them on her phone and the two stepped outside to make the call. The show over, the crowd went back to their business.
When I left a while later, they were sitting close together on one of the benches out front, talking with low voices and sharing a cigarette. Biscuit was lying at their feet, looking up at the two and cautiously wagging his tail. All was right with the pack again – for now.
Among the electives I took in college was a class in Poetry. Lord knows why. Maybe it was to meet girls or something.
The professor was somewhat of a minor celebrity in New England (or at least on Cape Cod,) having published several volumes of the schtuff. He had very high standards. Learning to write and read poetry was worse than learning statistics. After a period of initial roughness (like my repeatedly showing up to class hungover), somehow I pulled off a decent passing grade. But as we did our end-of-semester meetings, he told me: “You might want to stay with writing prose.” I wasn’t offended. We stayed in touch for a few years afterwards and I have a volume of his work signed by him put away someplace.
Nearly three decades later, I found this in a box of college papers out in the garage. I don’t think I submitted it because it’s got ‘draft’ written in one corner. Keep in mind that it was written by a 23-year old.
Life at 78 (rpm)
Sun is warm
On the porch
Smell of new-mown grass
I’m five again
Cars pull up
Car doors slam
I know those sounds.
Voices in the hall
Heels on the tiles
Nurse in front of the crowd
“There he is!”
They’re all here
Kids, mine, in-law and grand.
Where is She?
The ache-pain of loss.
“You look good.”
They tell me.
They give gifts
A new robe, a radio
Baby girl placed in my lap
One boy, teenage angst
Scared of this place.
I don’t blame you, kid.
There’s that damn song
“Happy Birthday (Grand)Dad”
They brought cupcakes
I can’t finish mine.
Eldest has a new job
Brings out a map
His brand new state
I can’t recall its name.
Each talks about their lives
They’re so grown up
And I smile.
Honey, we did okay.
All that I am
All that I was
All that I could have been
I see in every face.
I’m eighteen again
I smell fear and hot steel
I hear wedding bells
I can feel Her kiss.
I’m back on the porch
Voices have stopped.
Youngest says “Dad’s tired”
(“And the kids are bored.”)
They kiss me,
pat my hand
I get a hug
“Goodbye, (Grand)Dad. Goodbye.”
A child cries
Car doors slam
Cars drive away.
Sun is warm
On the porch
“Come, time for your nap”
Yes, I’m five again.
I figure I’ve read J.R.R. Tolkiens’ Hobbit and Lord of the Rings about forty times since I was a teen. Twice each year (usually in the Spring and Fall) on long road trips, and during every deployment I made. And each year, but more importantly, each deployment, my reading experience altered.
I was a “callow yout” of nineteen and it was the sunset of the Age of Aquarius, but still the Age of the Stoners, when the first reading happened. The books were bedraggled, late-sixties paperback editions discovered in a used bookstore in Seattle. They had a preface written by someone (whose name I’ve mercifully forgotten) that closed with the usual dreck of the era, blathering about “murderers carrying crosses” and praising the “colonisers of dreams”. I read them in the evenings during that first too-long and mildly boring seven months off Iran (interspersed with much-more-bedraggled copies of Penthouse,) reveling in the imagery of a greedy dragon, dwarves and elves, swords and horses, mountain passages filled with goblins, and pipe-smoking wizards.
The second deployment, some six years later and located a little farther north of the first one, was much shorter and certainly not boring. I’d picked up new, U.K. printed editions of the books complete with gloriously illustrated covers during a stop in Singapore. Reading them was a return to a familiar place, but with a slight dissonance. Perhaps it was because I was reading them not as a fable, but as an author’s work. During those six years in-between, I’d gone to college for an engineering degree on the Navy’s dime. I wrote a mid-term paper on the books for English class, and like the rest of my freshman year, it was not exactly a success. The professor (bless his British heart) suggested I do a little research on the author and his works and submit it again for re-grading. I did well the second time around and continued over the following years reading up on Mr. Tolkien’S body of work.
The reading during that second deployment came to an abrupt end for a while one day. Fortunately someone had been thoughtful enough to pack them in my seabag when they medevaced my broken body to Germany. I read them again while I healed, only now the stories seemed much darker. The idea of “what was back then” clashed with “what is now”. I recall reading a critic’s remarks that science fiction belong to the liberal and the progressive because it “looked forward”, while fantasy was conservative because it “looked back”. It was easy to see where the snobby bastard had placed himself on the spectrum.
The third time reading the books started out almost like the first time but with a pronounced difference. We sailed for three months around Asia, visiting ports, doing exercises and goodwill visits with foreign navies, and looking forward to one final series of port visits around Australia before heading home. That was not to be. We headed for the Gulf for months of escorting carriers and stopping merchant ships.
Then, when the shooting started, it was farther north as a “special platform”, to wear ruts into the waters off Kuwait. It was an almost surreal time, filled with boredom, standing watches and smoking too much, dodging mines (while thanking our lucky stars we weren’t one of the ships that hit them), getting shot at with a Scud that was shot down by the Royal Navy in what was their “last hurrah”, and babysitting the Free Kuwaiti Navy and Amateur Canoe Club. And reading the books off-watch, especially The Return of the King, became especially poignant.
“Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon, and the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields. And they’ll be eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
Sorry Sam, I couldn’t. We became inured to the sometime-sight of debris and body parts drifting down from the Bubyan channel. At night, with all our lights out, one could stand outside and see the glow and thunder of bombing over the horizon, like sitting on the back porch watching a distant summer storm . Our world compressed to a routine of watches and sleep, of overflying jets and occasional panic, in an unremarkable patch of the Gulf filled with drifting mines and corpses. There was just the glow on the horizon at night that sometimes illuminated the hulking outline of another ship. There was the strong smell of crude oil and the very faint but constant smell of death. Aside from the intermittent delivery of mail and the AFRTS news-feed, and the blurred outlines of the few other ships around us, we were cut off from the world. After a while one stopped watching the news-feeds. The mail that came might have as well have been missives from Mars.
What it came down to in the end, like Frodo, was The Duty. Reading those books, I saw that one “looks back” because that’s where the lessons are and where one’s foundations are based upon. In the Lord of the Rings, it was the lineage of the Kings, Princes and Princesses of Men that gave them their strength and warned them of their weaknesses. I had my oath and traditions. I had the three classmates I’d lost on the Stark and the Chief from the Sammy Roberts at the hospital, the one with the broken back and nightmares of drowning. I had the memories of the Kuwait refugees who’d been lucky to make it to Muscat, as they tried to explain to relay their own stories, showing the photos of the dead and ruins they’d left behind.
And like Frodo, we came back to the unreality of a world run by Sarumans with their Wormtongues and Millers’ sons. We returned to California and a new squadron, none of whom had Been There. They didn’t understand our grim demeanor and unwillingness to do skits about the war. We returned to a new leadership who had earned their medals in the Beltway wars. We returned to an all-too-sudden and a bit too eager beating of swords into plowshares and the spurning of a possibly good story in Iraq by political expediency. And like re-reading the series, we saw another war take place in the same region a bit less than a decade later after an attack by a new set of Witch Kings of Angmar.
I haven’t read the series for almost twenty years now, what with the movies and the marketing and souvenir swords and commemorative Rings and the hordes of fans that simply adore the ‘LoTR saga’, then give you a blank stare if you ask them if they’ve really read the books.
Last week, while cleaning the garage, I found the original set of books buried among some uniforms in a battered seabag. I nearly put them back and let them get hauled off to storage with the rest of the junk. But I carefully placed them in a pile going to the new place next month.
This winter, if all goes well, I’ll burrow into a chair for a few days and read them again. I don’t know what will happen. Then again, neither did Tolkien as he wrote them.
There was a decided conspiring tone among the group at what had to be our fourth or fifth bar. I was only one who didn’t speak Japanese (Jock and Ian did) so I contented myself with watching flushed, inebriated salarymen gesticulate at each other while working on yet another three-fingers worth of Suntory. Then Ian whacked me on the shoulder and shouted in my ear.
“Quit yer woolgatherin’ – we’re leaving!”
“Where’re we going?” I asked him once we were outside in the drizzle and waiting on the minibuses. The hotel, maybe?
“Karaoke!” There were huge grins, clapping and chatter from the others.
Japanese guys on a night out, back in the late 80s at least, at some point went to a place that had karaoke. Our guide had obviously arranged for the ichi-ban. The one we went to sported a sound system that was an audiophile’s wet-dream. There was a low stage complete with lights, a slick energetic middle-aged emcee accompanied by a cute ‘deejay’, and a huge screen hung on the back wall that showed images cued to the song. Ian told me there were ‘R’ rated versions they could play, but they weren’t on that night. And, lucky us, we had tables not far from the stage.
Japanese guys on a night out back then also didn’t sing “party music” karaoke; the more melancholy or dramatic the song, the better. Something like ‘My Way’ – either Elvis or Sinatra .You could request a song or let the girl pick one for you. There was an applause meter and you got ranked. The crowd would also buy the singer drinks if he was especially good, like pulling off a real tearjerker. It was a competition, and you only got one round to prove yourself.
It turned out to be a blast. Some did well on the music, some on emotion, some on style. Quite a few were really good, but many were so drunk the fun was in watching the attempt. There was a reason why the stage had a ramp rather than stairs. It was like a musical airshow, where you waited for the crashes. Jock, our quiet expat Brit, had a surprisingly smooth voice. One of our Japanese (I think the brother of the groom) apparently imitated one pop singer so well that his table was crowded with drinks, which were passed around with much cheering to the rest of us. Everyone in the place took, or had to take, a turn.
You guessed it…
The emcee asked my name twice, said “a desu ka” and announced it, followed by some quick patter that got laughter from the audience. Our group cheered. The DJ, seeing that I wasn’t going to ask for a song, sized me up, went to her console and pulled up this:
Maybe it was having watched that video four times over Christmas liberty while house-sitting with a Buddhist ghost. Maybe it was having a voice stained by a day of whiskey and tobacco. Maybe it was because the reasoning part of my brain was lying passed-out and cuddled up to the lizard part. Maybe it was that it had been six months since I’d left her at the airport and five months and a week since I’d told her answering machine that I loved her.
I nailed it.
“Where the fuck did that come from, mate?” Ian demanded when I finally made it back to the table.
“Dunno,” I replied as I watched trays of glasses show up. “Guess I said ‘hell with it’ and went along for the ride”.
“You’re seven!” I must’ve looked stupid because he pointed at the scoreboard. Seven indeed, misspelled name and all.
I’m told I ended up in ninth place. Somewhere in a box, I have a tie to prove it.
I was a stud in kindergarten.
Maybe it was the button-down sports shirts, the crisp slacks and the red blazer. Maybe it was the bad-boy reputation of being the first kindergartner in recent memory to have stayed after school (it was a half-day class back then, and I’d elbowed another kid in the ribs during the Pledge of Allegiance.) Anyway, I got the girls. Barbara, with chestnut hair down to the small of her back. Rose, who bragged that one of her grandfathers had been in the IRA. A few other playground female friends, including one auburn-haired sprite whose name I unfortunately forgot, but who probably drove her parents to despair when she hit puberty.
And then there was Natalie.
Our neighborhood in the early 60s was a mixture of French, Polish (mostly), Irish, and Black. I was essentially part of the first group and she part of the last. We’d meet up to walk to school and then walk home together holding hands. Sometimes we’d visit the fish market on the way home to look at the lobsters in their tanks. When it rained, her father (who worked nights) would drive us the whole two blocks. I gathered years later that we were the talk of the North Side for quite some time. When you’re six years old and brought up in an environment of relative innocence, you don’t much know about that.
Natalie’s dad drove a big dark green Chrysler with lots of chrome and the radio permanently tuned to a jazz station. One time a song was playing that I really liked and asked him who the band was.
So for months I thought the band’s name was ‘Brubeck’. A few years later, I found Take Five Live among my mom’s albums and damn near wore the record out.
“Take Five” was pretty controversial when it was new, but today it’s a jazz staple. Most times that I hear it now, it’s either a tarted-up musical confection, or it’s been so suffused with ‘cool’ that it should be renamed “Fanfare for the Hipster”. That’s why this stripped-down yet complex version by a couple of lads from Maine called Unorganized Hancock blew me away.
It takes me back to sitting in the passenger side (Natalie in the middle, next to her dad) of that big Imperial, the beat -and-swish of its wipers somehow accompanying the song.
Natalie and I stayed together until the third grade, when her father died of a heart attack. She ended up “staying back” a class and we drifted apart. She fell in with a wrong crowd. Though we’d still run into each other all the way through high school, we were strangers venturing on enemies.
It wasn’t until over decade after high school that we met each other again at a party while I was home on leave. She’d straightened out her life and had gone on to college. She was happy, pretty, living in New York City and married to a photographer. We exchanged information. As usual in life, I never saw her again. But I still think of her once in a while, especially while this song plays.
And I think of something else. Maybe it’s weird, maybe not. Looking back, her husband and I could have passed for brothers.
“I’m going back to Idaho.” Those were the first words from the Mechanic when I walked into the Laundromat at the Center of the Universe.
The Mechanic’s been here longer than me. He moved to California at twenty-one with the firm offer of a job in the oilfields. Now he’s in his forties, divorced, did a couple of years in jail (“for being stupid”) and unemployed when the axe fell on his contract job out at the base a couple of months back. We’ve talked a lot during the waiting times, usually about cars, The Professor’s health issues, doings in the town, getting pulled over by the CHP, the joys of working for the government, the joys of working through the California family-court system, his neighbors’ stealing his cable (and the Mexican lad across the way calling the cops on them), his moving out to a new place after a nearby meth lab blew up. The usual stuff for a little town out in the Mojave.
We seldom talked politics and religion came up only once, when his kids wanted to head off to church with a friend’s family. ‘Going to Idaho’ is something he’s talked about over the past half decade, while we sat on the benches and watched the crazies go by. Then last Christmas he made a trip up there to see his family, the first time in six years, and he took his kids along.
The supplemental information came hard and fast. A friend landed a huge long-term contract working in the forests and called him, saying the Mechanic’s skills were a fit and could he start soon, like the beginning of next month. It would be a Spring-through-Autumn deal, meaning the hunting season would be unimpeded. Mom wasn’t doing too well. She was moving in with one of the siblings and the family home was going to be empty. The Mechanic paused to take a drag off his cigarette.
“And my son wants to go, too.”
The boy was the Mechanic’s pride and joy, twelve and fast growing out of the pudgy-lad stage. There’d been the stories about the problems with his school and the struggles to stay out of trouble. I remembered the Mechanic talking about how the kid had taken to the woods and the mountains, going hunting and hiking with his cousins. There’d been a change in the boy since that two-week visit. There was something in the eyes, awareness and even thoughtfulness.
“I checked the school up there,” the Mechanic continued, “It’s small and it’s got good ratings. He’ll have to do some catching up, but my brother’s boy is in the same grade. And he can stay with family while I’m at work”
There was a break in the conversation as we watched an ambulance came screaming up the highway, followed by a fire truck. Not unusual for a Sunday morning in an area where age, obesity, respiratory problems and heart attacks were common. Moments later a Highway Patrol car roared by. So much for the cardiac arrest theory.
“I gotta get him outta California,” the Mechanic said through a haze of cigarette smoke as the sirens died away, “He deserves something better than this. He deserves to have a future.”
We didn’t say anything for a while, then he excused himself to retrieve his laundry from the dryer while I sat and watched a gaggle of hipsters stroll to the vegetarian restaurants down the street.
“You still got my number, right?” I asked him when he came back out with his bags.
“Yeah,” he replied as he threw the bags in the back of his truck. “I’ll see ya around, there’s still a few weeks.”
“Yeah,” I replied back, “see you around.”
Thirty minutes later I was heading home when Billy Joel came over the satellite radio, singing about a time when he wasn’t old and gray and hadn’t drunk the bittersweet dregs of success.
Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he’s quick with a joke or to light up your smoke
But there’s someplace that he’d rather be
He says, “Bill, I believe this is killing me.”
As the smile ran away from his face
“Well I’m sure that I could be a movie star
If I could get out of this place”
La la, di da da da dum
Yes, it’s a re-post of sorts. But it’s rather interesting that unique things happen to me at Christmas, for two years in a row:
She was standing to the right of the side entrance of Walmart. Just close enough to catch shoppers going in, but not close enough to draw the attention of management and the Sheriff’s Citizen Patrol that were cruising the lot. It might have been a good location earlier, but the winter sun had set and there wasn’t much light coming from the halogen lamps. Or maybe she’d picked that spot on purpose. Faded jeans, whitish sneakers and a dark down-jacket that had seen better days.
“Would you like to buy some mistletoe?” she called out as I stepped onto the sidewalk.
‘No thanks,” I replied as I headed for the sliding door and the fluorescent interior. It would be just an in-and-out mission, if the crowd permitted. It was busy in spite of the lousy economy. Or maybe, my fatigued brain finally figured, because of it. Finding the present was easy. A gift card for an aged relative who “didn’t want anything for Christmas”, but would be quite unhappy if her request was actually filled. Yes, a gift card isn’t sentimental. But sentimentality had long been passed over for practicality – on both sides.
I shuffled along with the tweakers and the badly-tattooed welfare cases as they juggled their carts and their too-many kids toward the register. The worst part was that the wait gave me time to think unhappy thoughts. I’d volunteered to stay at work through Christmas Eve, so everyone else could take vacation. Somebody had to mind the shop and I volunteered to be the somebody. I’ve long cursed myself for being a soft touch. I’m the shipmate you’d hit up for fifty bucks the day before you were discharged, the mark who’d stand duty for you on Christmas Eve gratis, the one who actually talks to the missionaries at the front door, the guy who gives five bucks in a Denny’s parking lot to a woman with way too many visits to the glass pipe and gets a cheap ring and a ‘bless you’ in return.
But what really bothered me was that I would still wish the borrower who we both knew I’d never see again ‘good luck’. I would still enjoy looking at the stars and the Christmas lights out in the little town across the Sound while standing the midnight watch out in the cold. I’d enjoy talking to the earnest young men in their white shirts and ties and black name tags, hearing their life stories. I’d even kept that damned cheap ring in my ‘treasure box’, along with the medals and ribbons I would never wear again, the keys to cars long-junked, and the yellowed, twenty-plus year old envelope with the photo of The Girl inside.
Then it was my turn to exchange cash for the gift card. I swapped empty pleasantries with the cashier with her orange-dyed butch-cut and tribal tattoos on her arms. I took my change and bag, did the “Merry Christmas” routine, then headed out the main entrance and into the cold for a roundabout trip to the car. No soft-touch this time, I said to myself.
Except that I turned right instead of straight.
She was still there, except she’d moved closer to one of the lights. She wasn’t young, but she wasn’t methamphetamine-aged either. Dark eyes, dark hair framing a slim face that was on the edge of pretty, with a mouth that looked like it could smile easily, or used to.
She gave me That Look – the one women seem to have been giving me ever since I started shaving.
“I changed my mind,” I said quickly. “How much?”
“Five dollars each.”
I fumbled with my wallet, pulled out the money and handed it over. She reached into a wrinkled plastic shopping bag and gave me a cellophane packet.
“Thank you and Merry Christmas,” she said. I wished her the same, tucked it into my jacket, walked to the Volvo and started it up. But before I put it in gear, I sighed and pulled out the packet. It was indeed a sprig of mistletoe, tied with a silver ribbon and a long silver string. I pulled it out and held it up to the light. There were still tiny droplets of water on the leaves.
I don’t know how long I sat there with it in my hand. Then I tied it to the rear view mirror and drove home.
There would still be coffee in the pot on the stove and a half-bottle of brandy in the pantry. A few minutes outside on the deck with both, and the stars and the Christmas lights in the town below for company sounded good to me. Maybe a quick trip to the treasure-box and a look at the photo of The Girl, just for comparison before the recent memory faded. Perhaps, sometimes it paid to be a soft touch.