From the edge of the swamp

Location: marengo, il, United States

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Strange Love (Or how I learned to relax and stop hating my Dad)

"‘Tis a lone road to travel, this dirt path that meanders about God’s green Earth. Yet there is the call of crows nearby, or the repetitious cry of a mourning dove, coming from some hidden spot among the wood, or up ahead, a place where the whippoorwill sings. The fearsome swamp-wampus is held at bay with a few stones secreted away in one pocket, while in the other is kept a small knife for sharpening sticks, in case two show up. But without the trees and the birds and the beasts, this trail would be abandoned in favor of another, for I desire to wander."

First, forgive me for coming up with such a terrible title, but today is Wednesday after all, and of course you know what that means. Wednesdays are simply a great excuse to do anything.

I left home in the middle of the night in a fit of rage, right after a nasty, ugly argument which took place at the bottom of the stairs. It was around eleven-thirty. My mother, who drank, had hissed an insult in my direction as I headed up to my bedroom. I stopped on the second step, turned around, and there I lost control of my temper.

My father, also a beer-drinker, would hurry to step in between us to break it up. I was seventeen years of age at the time, and had never once dared to talk back to my mother like I did that night.

Both my parents had strange backgrounds. Divorces, disownments, and displacements took place in both of their families. These things occurred for so many generations that it has become next to impossible to unravel and sort out.

Both of my grandfathers were mystery men. Both of my grandmothers, one a sweet old lady; the other a dark and brooding woman, lived nearby, but spoke no words of either man.

My mom often told how dad, who was born in 1903, had been forced to quit school in the third grade and go to work to support his mother. That bitter old woman lived in a small trailer behind the house I stormed out of.

Mother also told her own horror stories of growing up in a convent, placed there at an early age by her wild and wanton mother, along with her little brother, Otho. The sweet old lady, the one called grandmother, went to reclaim both of her children only after several years had passed.

She also resided in a matching aluminum trailer which sat next to the one belonging to the person we called Grandma.

My family life felt secure and fairly normal as a kid, even though mom and dad fought a lot. People usually nod, and then say all parents fight. I glower then, thinking of curses being hurled by both man and woman, along with lamps or heavy glass ashtrays. I cringe, thinking of loud thuds and crashes as a bookcase overturns in the living room. Sounds of breaking glass or the grunts of two people struggling made me turn to my pillow where I would pray for God to send company so they would act nice toward each other. On mornings after, the destruction that lay in the silent room looked surreal.

But it all seemed natural until the day I learned of plans to separate and divorce. I never understood the feelings that were to well up inside me when both parents privately took me aside to ask which parent I wanted to live with.

A year went by. Then my father called from Georgia, where he still lived. He and my mother made some arrangements, and afterwards he moved to Texas where he was to become my father again.

Yes, my parents remarried each other. How sweet, some might say. What a poetic ending, one could think. It was far from it.

The bitter taste I had in my mouth never left. Plus they took right up to fighting again, albeit more genteel this time. Only outbursts of words. Hissing and name-calling. Stinging comments.

So after the explosive rage against mother at the bottom of the stairs, I escaped from there by joining the Marine Corps. Sixteen weeks of boot camp turned out to be a cinch, and I got through it easy. Yelling and screaming, red-faced drill instructors never said or did a single thing during the four-month ordeal to make me afraid.

Much later, my first marriage and the twelve years of military service came to an end at the same time, and I went on from there to drift about the land.

Then I woke up one day feeling lonely and missing my father, the man who had thrown me “up in the elements” back when I was a small child. I wanted to talk with him about how I felt, and how much I missed his love and affection, and how deep I yearned for him. I would later shake my fist at life, for the meeting never happened due to his stroke.

Another lifetime later, and during a rough time in a third marriage, I had to succumb to counseling or else. At one point I was asked by an expert to, of all things, go home and write down good memories about my father. I scoffed at his naive request.

I have nothing good to say about him, I responded.

Try, he smiled.

So I did. And later I wept.

But after putting pen to paper, I wrote and I wrote and I wrote more.

I surprised me.

I discovered I had forgotten about that one.

Oh, and here is another. My goodness! How could that have slipped my mind?

I ended up turning in seven pages of good times by the end of the week, but it would take years for me to understand the source of anger hauled around for almost four decades.

I went on then to write down things about my mom. Later I learned the importance of forgiving them both, but without excusing the bad behaviors. Yet the anger inside seethed.

So I delved deeper.

Prayers were prayed.

Memories were searched as I continued to bicker with my wife.

I looked to find where the monster came from, but found nothing tangible; nothing to blame; no thing; no one source; no singular reason.

Am I mad, I wondered? How can I become so angry so fast for no apparent reason?

Religious people will state that their faith sustains them, but clichés fail significantly with some.

My faith, I can truthfully attest, has surely helped me realize that my anger is merely a trait to overcome; nothing more, nothing less.

Maybe I am indeed a madman, but when you can smile when the tears flow, it just might be a breakthrough moment for you.

I want to thank Janus for taking me to another level, and my friend Clive, who supplied me with the flow of Red, Red Wine. UBgreat.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Wild Hare, Strange Hair

I feel like dancing. I don’t mean the herky-jerky, sweat-inducing moves inspired by disco, or even those endless varieties brought on by rock and roll, but something more like the mellow style performed at a small club called the Wild Hare and Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary. Its name is long and almost impossible to remember easily, or to even pronounce correctly on the first try, but if you dare go there for an evening, you might find yourself hooked on the place.

It took two hours for our group to reach the club from the far western suburbs. A good portion of our trip we wasted going the wrong way on Lake Shore Drive, arguing at the top of our lungs.

It is further south. Why did you just exit here?

No, it is way north. Turn that dome light off!

Martin, from the back seat, thought everything sounded hilariously funny. Donna could only encourage him.

Four white suburbanites on a Chicago night out. Glib word-of-mouth suggested the famous night spot we searched for. I began to doubt the rumor as soon as we drove onto North Clark Street.

Seedy has great connotations to me. I like things with seedy character. Seedy holds great artistic promise, and earns my admiration. But to travel down a deserted street located in an unfamiliar part of town while passing closed warehouses and abandoned-looking buildings caused me to wonder.

Donna yelled in my ear sudden-like.

There it is! Pull over! Pull over! Stop! Stop! Stop!

A warm glow spilled out of a doorway. I caught a glimpse as we sailed by.

Where are you going? Why didn’t you stop?

We can’t park along here. Don’t you see the signs?

Martin howled at the sound of the word, signs. My wife laughed. I groaned. Donna slapped the back of my seat as she giggled and bounced with excitement.

It took time to find a parking spot, and then more for a brisk walk to deliver us there. The light and the music coming from inside automatically appeased our fears of muggers or night people. A large man at the door waved us in. The place looked packed. Our foursome had arrived an hour after the music started, but no one in the crowd seemed to mind.

We weaved our way to a spot where we could all stand together and see the band, plus have a place to set drinks. Donna led Martin on a trip to the bar.

A musician wearing sunglasses stepped up and leaned into a microphone. He showed a toothy grin as his right hand began to strum on his electric guitar. He and the ax looked to be the best of friends.

A wah-wah pedal soon kicked in and began to pulsate. A person standing next to me went to rocking back and forth. Shoulders, chest and head. A hint of knee. Movement of the people. Slow and uncomplicated, forward and back, rocking easy.

I sneaked a look around me as the hypnotic two-four accent played on. Another one swayed, and there stood another, going at it. Everyone appeared to be caught up and sweetly lost. Then I heard the rise and falling tones of a Hammond organ.

Donna materialized from out of the forest.

Here are your drinks. I think I spilled some of yours. Don’t these guys sound terrific?

I cupped a hand to one ear and mouthed words. Do what?

A man on bass omitted certain notes here and there, which worked fine with me.

We smiled to each other as the tinge of a familiar scent drifted by. A woman next to us had her eyes shut as the song faded to a close.

Up on stage, another singer, this one wearing a giant, outlandish hat, stepped forward. His puffy Elmer Fudd-style hunting cap, crocheted from bright-orange yarn, sat square on the top of his head, but tilted back slightly.

A drummer kicked off the beat. The band fell in and did another familiar tune, and as they began to grove and wail, the singer-man punctuated some of his lines with a little dance step. For a moment he would hold the mic stand and happily run in place. His orange hat jiggled every time he did. But he kept on crooning and he kept jogging, and the headgear continued to slip back even further.

By now we four were all swaying along too, just being happy and not worrying about a thing. Then I saw something that seemed to be spilling out from underneath his big hat, so I elbowed Martin and pointed.

What on earth is all that?

Martin cupped a hand to his ear. Do what?

When I looked back, that crazy hat had moved all the way to the very back of the man’s head. And it sat there seeming to defy gravity, bouncing along with the beat while hanging onto an incredible amount of braided hair that at some point had been carefully stuffed inside the hat.

Later on the cap vanished from sight, and so for the rest of the evening the musician let his long and loosed dreadlocks swing free while he sang out and ran. No one else seemed to be taken with this strange occurence, except for me. But then no one made fun of my bald white head during the night either. As a matter of fact, I did see a couple of approving smiles as I rocked back and forth, and before long the entire room swayed to that easy, friendly beat of reggae.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Good Grief

People tend to shy away from the uncomfortable subject of death. And who can blame them?

A co-worker made plans to go home the same weekend I transferred south to Quantico. A girlfriend in Philly had changed her mind and took him back, so the last time I saw handsome Joe Karpen, he waltzed out of our D.C. office wearing a broad smile and a new after-shave.

Two months later, another Marine and I crossed paths while shopping in a commissary. We stopped to talk, and I asked about the old gang and their antics, which made us both laugh for a moment. Then I asked about Joe. The sergeant looked at me with surprise.

Didn’t you hear about Joe? He got killed the same weekend he went to see his girl up in Philly.

The news hit me hard. I felt a sensation like wind being slammed from my chest and the room began to spin. My legs almost buckled, and I recall using my shopping cart to steady myself while he spoke.

Joe, downtown. All alone, on a sidewalk. Daylight. Volkswagen beetle. Drunk driver. Sudden swerve. Terrible, terrible loss. I am sorry. I thought you knew.

My mind continued to reel after he and I parted company, and the shock stayed with me for days after.

Years later, my pal Steve and I worked as roofers for a summer. We lived together, we ate together, and we chased wild women together. One day the man was there; the next he was gone. Horrible accident. I remember being slightly stunned at the time.

My father passed away next, while I was on the road. I felt more anger then than sorrow.

My mother finally died after a long illness. I thought we all saw that one coming, but then I broke down and bawled like a baby while trying to speak at a memorial service the family held.

That greatly surprised me.

What surprised me even more is how hard I grieved later own. It was a horrible thing for a tough Marine to go through, but later own I saw the need for it. People then were even talking about how men should be allowed to cry, but it still seems like only women have mastered the mysterious art of tears.

Yesterday, right after posting what was meant to be a whimsical and light-hearted story about a good friend from days gone by, I made the promised phone call, only to learn that she had died three years ago.

I apologized to the woman who answered the phone, hung up and went looking for the small bottles of Jose Cuervo margaritas I had seen stashed away in the pantry. Then I located what is probably the first cassette tape in my small collection: Sade, singing her heart out on an album called Promise. Next I twisted off a cap and turned up the volume, and only then did I sit down and do some serious listening for awhile.

And today I know this: she will be forever missed by me, but I feel much better now, after going through the mean, dreadful process. And thank you for listening.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Illicit Desires

The house arrived one day unannounced. A truck must have surely delivered it. I got home after school, and there the place sat; complete, spotless, tan in color and brand-new. Finished. Ready to move in. Looking totally done, except for the surrounding yard. Deep ruts of a delivery vehicle told the whole story, but green grass was to never grow in the dirt across the street.

Strange, but the lady who owned place and I had already met. A school chum came along to show off his large array of action figures during recess one day. My sixth-grade eyes went wide at the sight of his collection. Magnificent and glorious, they were just what I thought I needed to make life worthwhile, so I asked him a favor.

You can get your own, he coldly told me, after I had begged for just a few of the characters, but then he mentioned the name of the store where they had come from, so I relaxed and made plans.

Then less than twenty minutes after class ended on that hot Texas afternoon, I walked the air-conditioned aisle of the drugstore on the town square, my pockets overloaded with plastic heroes, and quietly hurried out of the place without paying for a single one.

I could hardly wait to get home, for no one would be around for awhile. I barely remember the short journey itself, but I do recall thinking up all sorts of adventurous plots along the way. I dreamed of several scenes involving each and every character as I raced down one sidewalk after another. Heroic rescues. Dashing fights. Mad chases, which, of course, all ended victorious, except for the hapless pair of villains I had chosen to steal.

As soon as I got inside the front door, I ran to my room, pulling out figurines as I went. Twenty minutes later, while lost in reverie, a soft voice behind me spoke up. It belonged to my momma.

“Where did you get those?”

She sounded so interested.

“A kid at school loaned them.”

Like most moms, mine loved me dearly. But when the woman went mad, she hissed through clenched teeth to get your attention. It was one effective ploy.

“You march yourself down to the drug store this instant!”

Two years went by before the house cropped up across the street. I sat on my front steps that afternoon, checking one of my dogs for ticks while watching the going-ons. Two people walked around the perimeter; one a portly man and the other, a thin blonde woman. Both spoke and gestured to each other, seeming to be in agreement. Lady jerked and barked just before she ran off. It was then that I recognized the woman across the street. She worked at the drugstore down on the square.

I was soon to abandon childish ideas of theft, however; this lady had a daughter just a year older than me.

I think I should stop now and give the girl a call, just to see if she remembers.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Ladies of 16th Street

A summer job with the Washington Post. Haul bundles of newspapers. Do deliveries around the beltway. Mainly southern Maryland. Short days. Odd hours. Great pay. Boring work.

Eleven-thirty at night, deep inside a fluorescent-lit, underground loading bay. Along one wall, trucks wait, facing out. A biting odor of diesel fumes combines with the sweeter smell of printers ink. Scattered piles of fine paper hair, chopped slivers that have fallen from the edges of newsprint, gather in heaps, lining the base of a busy loading dock like unoccupied rat nests.

Yells and thumps punctuate the constant idling of truck engines. Drivers, of various hues and ages, wait patiently, anticipating their flying bundles of fresh news to arrive. The bales will be aimed toward and shot into the back of their empty rigs, one landing on the floor about every two seconds.

A hand rests on a hip; one on the silent chute extending from the cinderblock wall. A man peers inside. A loud buzzer sounds. A red light above the chute begins to flash. A short distance away, a fork lift operator skillfully wheels his machine around in a tight circle, narrowly avoiding sending the back tires over the edge of the dock. Farther down, a driver whistles sharply, and then a truck horn sounds twice. Two men stand and laugh together, but the sounds are all but lost.

Work gloves on. You know to stand by when the red light blinks.

Get ready to dig in and grab two plastic wrapping bands. Lift the bundle and turn; then pitch.

High stacks. Stack tight. Let the missed bales go. Kick them aside; take it in stride. Add to the final row. Keep your rhythm going, son. It will all be over soon. Whatever you do, don’t panic, son. It will all be over soon.

The stifling heat of the ten-minute work-out intensifies the aroma of ink, sweat and diesel.

I hold no grudge against hookers, nor do I condone their lifestyle. They are God’s children too, after all. I can say with no particular pride I have known them for what seems like forever. But admitting that I lost my virginity during a short fit of passion, while a bored lady of the evening read a few lines from her paperback book, makes me less ashamed now than it did then. Also, fourteen months spent abroad were not squandered on movie theaters, nor did I visit any local museums, either. So I am fine with hookers.

However, reading in the paper the day before starting work for the Post that three prostitutes had stabbed, killed and then robbed a local cabbie upset my world view just a little.

Here are your keys, mister, and a list of downtown deliveries. Begin after lunch. They pay you in cash. Keep track of my money. Then report to the loading dock before midnight. You should be done by three in the morning, tops.

By eleven-thirty I had collected almost three hundred dollars which I stuffed in my left pants pocket. I patted the thick bulge of another’s money as I steered the box truck into the opening of the cavernous bay.

A half-hour later, sweating and breathing hard, I pulled out onto the street again and turned left. Ahead of me lay a deserted roadway, lit up by a long procession of amber streetlights. At the first intersection I stopped at a red light and looked around.

Hard to read the street sign. Is this where I am supposed to turn, or is it the next one down?

My question went unresolved because my passenger door suddenly swung open. I turn to see a painted lady climbing up into the bench seat, with another one following close behind her. Both mini-skirted women slid over next to me as third hurriedly joined them, and then she shut the door.

Everything began to blur as seconds slowed to a crawl.

One beside me began to unzip my fly.

One. Two.

The middle one reached around to run her long nails through my hair.

Three four.

“You like that, honey? Uh huh. I bet you do. What you like us to do to you tonight, baby?”

Five six.

The third one leaned forward, animated and flashing her teeth.

Seven eight.

The close one slid a hand down inside the front of my jeans.

I felt my ribs tense up. Here comes the knife.

Before the count of ten, I turned to stick a fist in her face.

“Get out my damn truck!”

“Oh, baby. You a mean one.” She feigned a look of fear as she leaned even closer.

“Now, sister, or I will break the nose God gave you.”

That brought on a baleful look which clearly said I had acted out of line, but in a flash the three vanished.

The light overhead changed to green and I exhaled.

I laid down across the seat then and reached for the open door. In the glow of a streetlight I saw my open wallet on the floorboard. Its contents lay scattered. I pulled the door shut and locked it before picking it up. Then I sat upright to pat my left pocket. Only then did I bother to zip up.

Even hookers want respect, some might argue, and maybe they genuinely do. But even though I made it through the night feeling no guilt or any shame, my ribs felt just fine. And so did that big wad of cash stuck in my left pants pocket.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

To All the Esquires I Have Known Before

A thoughtful reader sent me a letter. Rather than do the polite thing and respond in kind, I figure here is another shot at me winning the Pulitzer, so follow along, kids; I have blogging material. Now let’s hope that all of America decides to vote me in.

I am not the type who goes in search of new readers (not that I am adverse to having more readers; I am merely your basic lazy lazyman. If a company were to make a couch-potato doll, it would certainly resemble me. I am afraid my condition is terminal, and there seems to be no hope for a cure down the road, nor would I accept any offered treatments or prescribed pills or oily ointments). I am glad they stop by, though. I know they do, because my counter at the bottom keeps on clicking.

Now if you were to ask how I installed my handy tool to begin with, I would cry without shame about how I forget things, especially technical computery stuff. I do recall giving it a nice Tahitian name of feminine persuasion right away. She was so winsome and popular. But I am afraid even her classy moniker has now vaporized from memory. And yet she keeps on ticking.

I do check my little clicker everyday. That almost sounds medical, but it was unintended, for I really do. I average about twenty hits a day, and ten of those are probably due to curious me. I also recall when it once shot past one hundred. That was an exciting but scary day. I just knew at the time that I would get pulled over by a cop, so I ran and hid for an entire week. Yet it kept on ticking.

So my reader wanted to know if I minded if they installed a similar thing. I am pretty sure I did not invent or build mine, so knowing how thrifty I am (my kids never use nifty words like that, which means it came to me free), then what else could I say but offer a benison.

Go, and count no more. Let the cute wahine do it for you.

I am mildly insane (my kids never use weak words such as mild, either), but I can truly appreciate the effort it must take for anyone to bother linking to my blog. I would apologize for not returning the favor, but those who know the unplumbed depths of my techno-ineptness will understand why I do not.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Dreaming in the Dark

Dreaming in the dark
A desire to reach out
And touch where she lay

Two rooms apart
A universe to go
Yet silence only comes

Failure makes a friend
And sticks close by
True to the very end
While coffee fills the pot
Daylight staggers in
Ahead around the bend

Arrive and then they go
None seems to work
They come here for the show

Never one to grieve
Holding it together
Trying to believe

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I Will Survive

What is the saying: those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat the same mistakes?

That sounds close enough to enable me to launch into a story which I might have already told once or twice, or maybe more. So what, I say? Ever listen to a hit song just the once? Or did you wear out the grooves (or magnetic tape or CD player, or whatever new technology you might have bought into) trying to satisfy your hungering ears? Sure you did, so stop complaining and listen up. In the meantime, my older son lurks down in the basement, playing one of those vile video games. He is waiting for the results of his first hair-coloring experiment to occur.

I told him already; be patient. Things will change soon enough (I actually feel more excited than I let on).

Once upon a time, when Royal Crown was king of hair treatments (much superior to tubes of Brylcreem, a little dab will do you, or any bottle of Get Wildroot Cream-Oil, Charlie), and back when rock and roll music was just beginning to get a firm toe-hold into dull American culture, a horrific thought crept into the collective minds of innocent youth, one which was designed to alarm and dismay all adults living throughout the kingdom.

It was such a killer idea that most of the children shied away from its rebellious display, and few would attempt to do such shocking things. The brave few who did went on to become legends of sorts, who were then mentioned in hushed whispers at family gatherings and during high school reunions, and their courageousness was brought up and examined for many, many decades afterwards.

Yes, and a few lucky druggists even grew rich as hydrogen peroxide sales shot to unheard-of levels. This all transpired when teens began to bleach their hair.

I was one of those, and this is my story.

Billy Don Bixby showed up at school Thursday morning with hair the color of wheat straw. It was an instant hit. No one could count the number of girls who started flocking around him. It made me sick how all of them wanting to touch and tousle his strange-looking locks. Mine had never been tousled before, so the first impulse I had was to set him on fire, somehow. Their high-pitched, delighted squeals followed me home, though. I thought I wanted to crawl under the covers and never come out, but one of my classmates had said something during the day that was to change my life forever.

“All he used to get that effect was regular old hydrogen peroxide.”

I had been taught from an early age to pour an amount of hydrogen peroxide over a cut or a scabbed-over scar, and then watch as it painlessly bubbled and fizzed, killing truckloads of germs and all of their best associates. Remember, this was before television came along.

I believed in the actions of the product, too. Any chance I got, I used chemical warfare on those invisible hoards, and felt satisfied for days afterwards. But to put this agent on my hair? How did Billy Don manage that, I asked my erudite classmate.

He wipe it on, or did he immerse his head in a vat, or what? And how did it work, exactly?

The details he gave to me seemed sketchy, so I had to go home and resort to experiments and guesswork.

The first thing I did was lock the bathroom door. Then I washed all the pomade out of my hair. Pomade is what got bathtub rings going in the first place, in case you did not know. I am pretty sure that is true, since I never saw one stuck to the walls of a tub till I turned fourteen and started combing my hair the same way Ricky Nelson did. That guy must have went through a lot of pomade. But Royal Crown smelled sweet and held every hair in place, so who cared? I know I liked who looked back at me in the mirror.

I wrapped a towel around my head to dry the wetted hair. The shape vaguely resembled what my two sisters usually produced. That is, until I let go of it.

Somewhere around my third failed attempt at making a turban, someone tapped on the door. Mom knew I was in there, but she had no clue why, so she asked. I told her I took a bath. She then hurried off to tell my father how she was beginning to worry -- that boy went in and took a bath without being told to fifteen times.

I knew I had little time to waste, so I grabbed the brown bottle from among the multitude of odd-sized and many colors of bottles and jars kept on a long shelf behind me, and I twisted off its white cap.

Here we go, you handsome thing. It’s now or never.

I then carefully poured a small amount on top of my head and began to spread it around, using just the tips of my fingers, applying it much in the same manner as Vitalis Hair Tonic. The room began to smell. I stopped and watched my reflection. I timed it and waited three minutes. Outside in the hall I heard shuffling, but I was occupied with imagining squeals of joy.

No results. Nothing happened, so I sloshed on a goodly amount for a second try. A cold line of the liquid dribbled down the back of my neck.

Hurry, hurry, hurry!

I squinted at myself in the mirror. A muffled little voice cried out.

“Are you done yet?”

The piteous noise came from a sister who leaned her head against the other side of the door, so I ignored it. I was not about to miss any changes I knew would occur soon.

“Ma, he has been in there over an hour.”

What a whiner. I opened up the window and put away my tools, and only after she began to sob properly did I let her in.

“What are you doing? Don’t you know people have to pee?”

She had gotten just mad enough to miss the smell.

Later that same night, I snuck back in for two separate and swift tries. By bedtime I had given up. What a load of crap. Peroxide is useless. I then fell asleep and dreamt I had blond curly hair that filled an entire house. People drove for miles to come see. My parents acted so proud, and I had no sisters.

When I woke up, I dashed downstairs. What I witnessed left me glum. My brown hair looked as dull as ever. Lazy cats were laying about in the hallway, and sisters were talking somewhere close by. I kicked at one feline and the other ran, which helped my mood only slightly.

I decided to do one more application before school -- who knows? Maybe I did something wrong. Mother got a puzzled expression on her face, and she sniffed the air as I went out the front door.

Once at school, I confided to a close friend. He inspected my hair closely, but shook his head. Then we argued if peroxide could possibly be the real deal or not, but he still sounded more convinced of the rumor than me. That Friday was the worse day of the entire year, I felt.

Late that night, dad laid out his plans for the weekend. I discovered him and a map at the kitchen table. He had heated up a can of pork and beans, and it, along with his handful of garlic cloves and a hefty daub of mayonnaise mixed in, seemed to mask the smell of my last-ditch effort with the peroxide. Or he never mentioned it. But his eyes did light up when he pointed to a place on the map he had circled.

“White Sands National Park. I figure it’s just a few hours away from here.”

Exciting, dad. When do we get back home? I have friends to deal with here, you know.

To this day I do not know how it came about. Maybe the bright sun worked its magic while we romped around in New Mexico, running up and down snow-white dunes most of one afternoon. But by evening my hair had turned to the desired paler shade of straw.

I was unable to smile, though. From the moment I climbed into the backseat of our station wagon, I started to moan. My cool hairs aside -- my poor lips were killing me. Mom shook her head and handed dad a warm beer when I tried asking for lip balm. My words came out sounding like monkey-talk. Dad took the can from her and cranked up his new air conditioner. I got a glimpse of my white locks reflecting in his rearview mirror, and I choked.

One little sister sat beside me holding a small compact. The object was pink, with tiny white flowers. She held the thing steadily as she tried the newly-learned art of putting on lipstick. I wanted to gag. She then smacked her lips, snapped the case shut and smiled up at me.

She smiled!

How is that possible? I can barely form words without wincing.

I looked at the other sister. She too looked garish, but happy. My cracked lips were on fire, but then my teeth began to chatter from the frigid air, so I moaned about that. Mom shoved her ratty old fur coat over the seat while dad sipped his beer and drove. It helped some, but my pain only grew worse.

“Let me have your compact.”

“What for?” She looked at me like I had went crazy.

“Momma, make her give it to me!”

It took a few miles of arguing, and a few extra miles of me enduring the girl-giggles before I could feel any sense of relief, and only then did I give her back the compact and her lipstick. She looked at the spent tube with disgust. Both girls then began pointing and laughing after that, so I turned an angry face to the window. Then I leaned against the glass and let the fur coat hide all but my nose, and soon fell sound asleep.

Just before I opened my eyes again, I heard the rushing sound of a liquid coming from somewhere. I raised my head slightly and tried to focus on the face I saw gawking at me on the other side of my window. Some stranger stood less than a foot away, and his jaw hung slack with what I took as an expression of pure awe.

Then I realized we had stopped at a gas station.

And for whatever reason, the attendant could not seem to pull his eyes off of me and my blond hair, and my warm fur coat. Or my red lipstick.

So as soon as that boy of mine finishes with his little video game downstairs, I will offer him more helpful advice on how to be cool. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Life at 65 M.P.H.

Since I was the one hitchhiking, there was little to do but accept the ride. Who knew the couple seated inside the sedan would be all that drunk?

The odor of alcohol made me want to decline their invitation at first. It had reached my nose as I jogged the last few feet to where the car sat and waited. But I climbed inside anyway. A midsummer night on a lonesome strip of highway can cause some men to do very foolish things.

A middle-aged woman sat next the driver. She had all of her fingers laced lovingly over his right shoulder, but she broke loose long enough to lean over in my direction and push the passenger door open, friendly-like.

Sit up front with us, she told me, so I did.

She slid back in the darkness to snuggle against her man, and I took my haversack and set it out of the way on the floor directly behind me. I felt comfortable having it close by.

Next thing I know, we three are zooming down the highway with all four of the windows rolled down. It felt great to be moving fast. I tried to get a conversation going, but the wind made a lot of noise, so I ended up having to yell. Every time I did, the woman leaned closer to hear what I was trying to say.

After a while, I noticed something odd. She now sat perched half-way between me and him, and our legs almost touched. I stopped trying to talk after that.

The driver acted unsteady at the wheel. He had been muttering to himself the whole time, and he kept staring up ahead where the headlights shined, like they had him hypnotized. I tried to keep a close eye on her, him and the road. We all had a long, long way to go before reaching the next town, and I wanted to make it there whole.

I felt a gentle hand brush lightly against my knee.

You should know that by this time, I sincerely felt grateful as we went at break-neck speed down such a modern but empty four-lane road. No headlights coming at us; no potential carnage or deaths could be expected from head-on collisions, so our erratic driving was not at all troubling to my young mind.

Unlike the hand that had now begun to slowly stroke the top of my thigh.

The driver looked as if he might pass out at any moment.

Kiss me, she whispered hoarsely over the roar of the wind. The woman scooted closer.

No, I answered her. Are you mad?

A younger man has absolutely no business being in a situation such as this. He will be hard-pressed to do the right thing, and even then, it might be much too late.

Come on, she coaxed. He will never know. Please?

I really wanted to believe her. The warmth of her thigh pressing into mine felt good, and I trembled.

But our whisperings quickly came to an end when the man suddenly veered off the road and took an exit leading to a vacant rest area. He stopped the car there, killed the motor and headlights, and then unapologetically leaned his head back and began to snore.

Neither of us had moved. She had lots of room, but I had no place to go but outside. While I considered opening the door and running away, the woman leaned over to nibble on my ear.

Right here -- right now. Let’s do it.

She sounded pretty desperate. I felt pretty desperate myself, but not for the same reason.

Go ahead, I thought. Get involved with her. You know what happens next, right? He wakes up from his pretend nap, and then he kills you, that’s what.

I pushed her away, which was not easy, but I managed it somehow. Then I draped my left elbow on the back of the seat and tried to act cool about it. I am sure I must have talked fast. Frightened people usually do, but I don’t recall any of the words I might have used. I do remember easing my arm down behind the seat and slowly stretching out my hand, grouping around for something that offered me security. Then I felt it: a bayonet I kept clipped to the side of the pack.

Suddenly the man snorted and she tensed.

I almost dropped the knife.

A few unintelligible words came from his lips. She moved away from me. He mumbled again. She leaned against him and began to rub his shoulders. I heard a deep sigh and I kept my fingers on the handle of the blade.

The driver raised his head up to peer outside. He acted disoriented. The woman halted her massage. He then spoke the only words I understood.

I feel better now. Let’s go.

He immediately switched on the ignition and the engine rumbled to life. The headlights came back on. The car began moving forward as we resumed the journey.

Several miles later I saw another green exit sign ahead. I pointed to it and invented a fib.

This is where I have to get off.

The man coasted to a stop at the bottom of a hill, next to the big overpass. I lifted my haversack with one hand and opened my door with the other to step outside. After I shut their door, I leaned down and spoke to the shadowy figures huddling together inside.

Thanks a lot, you guys. I appreciate the ride.

And with that, the car sped away, lurching as it went.

Sometimes being left alone in the middle of nowhere can feel more than fine.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Untitled (yet)

The coyote raised her nose higher to test the afternoon air. Across the broad valley, where rugged cap rock edge met with soft blue sky, stark earth shimmered and wavered slightly, while only twenty feet away, the shape of a lone male, sitting in the shade of a mesquite thicket, stood out plainly. The female rested comfortably inside her shallow lair, studying him through half-closed eyes.

He too remained motionless, but for his oversized ears, both of which twitched or changed positions at regular intervals. He did keep a steady gaze on her den entrance, however, watching with a well-earned self-confidence. At his feet lay his small gift, intended only for her.

She glanced away briefly, seeming to act as if he never before existed , but she continually sniffed at the air for clues. From somewhere close by, a mockingbird trilled a brief medley, over and over.

The female had bred for the first time in the early part of January, but three weeks ago, and exactly fourteen days after the birth of her two pups, a sharp-eyed hunter took aim and fired a single shot from the front seat of his pickup truck. His bullet had then went spiraling through space to slam into the skull of her partner and lover.

The male’s untimely death put an end to him as the provider for her and their new family, and several days were to pass before she stumbled across what remained of his carcass. She had run from the sight filled with fear.

Recently she met the unattached male who now sat near her den, zealously guarding his fresh-caught mouse and waiting for her signal. He lowered his head for a moment, his nose nudging the dead rodent once before looking back in her direction.

The ravenous female suddenly sprang to her feet, and the two pups, eyes barely opened, both began to whimper. She turned to huff sternly at the noisome pair. Each hushed at the sound of her comforting voice. Only then did she dare to leave her hidden place.

The male had vanished before she could reach the mouse, off to hunt for more prey. She in turn trotted back to her home with both ears laid back flat, and with the limp mouse held securely in her jaws.

That night the male took up a position on a rise not far from the thicket. Inside the safety of her cozy den, the she-dog began to nurse her offspring. After a ritual marking around his area with fresh urine, the coyote, reveling in the glory of his own perfume, tilted his head back to sing an ancient composition

My brothers, hear my voice Remember this night as The Great Brilliance above us revolves in its slow dance Rejoice that she has chosen to become my lifelong mate, and that this area and all of its food now belong to us And, take heed

Far away, a brother answered. After a time, a third coyote joined in. Any human being, when hearing the primordial song for the first time, would respond with a shudder.

For a while, their scattered howls traveled for miles up and down the ancient canyon as kin sang to kin, and on this night, some of their notes even reached all the way to the sleeping little town of Hardwood Falls.

Floyd Weed drove slowly through the dark outskirts of town, searching for a house. After finding the right one, he parked next to the curb, and then turned the key to kill the motor. Next he switched off the headlights. Reaching for a cigarette, he lit it with a steady right hand, while at the same time rolling down his side window with his other. The night air drifted in to wash over his aching shoulders as he leaned his head back to exhale.

His fatigued body seemed to vibrate in the bucket seat, while his mind played realistic sounds of automobile tires speeding across unending stretches of freeway.

Floyd took in deep draws from the cigarette, the red glow illuminating just the heel of his palm. Then unmoving, he stared down the street without seeing, all the while listening to sporadic clicking sounds that came from the engine compartment. Their irregular rhythms helped put his mind at ease, and right after flicking the spent stub out to the middle of the roadway, he shut his road-weary eyes.

When he reopened them, the motor had cooled down completely, and everything around him lay silent. Feeling slightly refreshed but greatly disoriented, he opened the door of his car to step outside.

Down the street from where he had parked, a single light pole labored to compete with the Milky Way. Closer to the earth, a thin layer of fog had now settled over some of the adjacent houses. The weary traveler shivered once as he approached the driveway. Two cars he had never seen before, both wearing a fine covering of wet mist, sat silent and parked side by side. He turned to follow a curving sidewalk which would lead him to the front door of the residence.

A familiar but ghostly form of a century plant loomed off to one side. He pictured the huge agaves rising from its sterile bed of rose-colored lava rock as he hurried on past with hushed footsteps, but just as he reached the wrought-iron gate, he paused to listen to a remote sound that tugged at his soul. Unsure of what the faint sounds were at first, Floyd Weed suddenly smiled at the recognition of the far-away coyote song, but then that was quickly followed by a feeling of dread.

I hope that isn’t a bad sign. No lights are visible inside the house. The clock out in the car showed eleven-thirty. Maybe I should have called. But it is Friday. Eleven-thirty isn’t all that late; not for a Friday. Not really. She should be awake. Come on. I drove all this way. She can’t get mad knowing that.

Somewhere ahead, two large ornate doors stood guard over the darkened sanctuary. He unlatched the high gate easily, stepped inside and shut it soundlessly. Five steps further took him into an outer alcove, framed on both sides by the house itself. Once Floyd stepped up onto the porch, the distant yips became undetectable, and the sounds were all but gone from his mind by the time he pressed the doorbell.

He counted to nine before hearing rustling sounds coming from inside. A low-pitched voice murmured something unintelligible once, and then again as the porch light came on. He heard tumblers click twice before one of the doors opened, and a stranger appeared in the doorway.