I’m writing this on a laptop (Editor's Note: So, uh, no clean-copy expectations), which I hate, and it’s quarter of one in the morning, which is ridiculous. More importantly: I haven’t written much of anything in over four months. That’s the worst thing of all. ‘Cept it’s not.
The worst thing of all is the Kansas City Chiefs Football Club.
Somewhere in the middle of all those axes of suck lies the fact that the period of my life in which I, to date, have spent the most time consistently writing was an era that centered on these same Chiefs. I mean, my life has always centered on the Chiefs, and by “these same” I don’t mean this 2012 team, but by this point, it’s unimportant.
My life, for as long as I can remember has revolved around the successes and failures of Lamar Hunt’s football team, and in this moment, on this early, second morning of November, I can say that that will no longer be true.
Where I’m going with this doesn’t need to be long-winded. It’s best summarized by two distinct memories in two unique venues, some six or seven years ago, in which two grown men who’ve never met one another offered me the same answer to the same question. I don’t remember if I asked them on the same Sunday, or even in the midst of the same season, but it’s irrelevant.
The two separate conversations involved me asking them how they could be so nonchalant about fill-in-the-blank Chiefs loss, and they both answered identically:
“I tell you, Blair,” they said. “I used to care so much. I used to live and die with this football team, and I reached a point in my life where other things became more important than being letdown game after game, year after year. So, I just don’t care anymore.”
Those words hurt. I carried them with me, like an irreparable wound, winter after winter, vowing never to become that guy. And tonight, courtesy of Thursday Night Football and the NFL Network, I have officially become that guy.
This is how much I don’t care: Stats about not having leads and history lessons regarding how tight-rolled my acid-wash jean cuffs were the last time a quarterback drafted by the Chiefs that won a game for the Chiefs aren’t even fazing me. I don’t care that the crew at the desk unofficially declared us the laughingstock of the league, and I certainly couldn’t be more apathetic about next year’s draft positioning.
The fact remains that I am officially too old, too busy, and if so be it – so be it – too boring to stake all my claims in what this franchise might or might not accomplish on Sunday.
I don’t care.
So the media can take to the printed pages and the airwaves tomorrow morning and talk about whether or not Scott Pioli or Romeo Crennel will be fired, or whether or not now’s the appropriate time to do so. They can take calls and print letters from season-ticket holders that say they won’t renew. And they can compile stats that pit this team against the worst of all time.
I’m done giving the thing any energy.
The landscape that encompasses the National Football League is too big for me to tie myself with the team that bears my city’s name, and there aren’t enough hours in the week to warrant keeping tabs on how much worse this team will be this week than they were the prior.
Like Andy Dufresne said in The Shawshank Redemption: “It’s time to get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”
I’ve died a little bit each year of the past three decades. I’ve got a life to live, and it can no longer be shackled to the anvil around the ankles that the red-and-gold team at Truman Sports Complex represents.
Friday, November 2, 2012
I’m writing this on a laptop (Editor's Note: So, uh, no clean-copy expectations), which I hate, and it’s quarter of one in the morning, which is ridiculous. More importantly: I haven’t written much of anything in over four months. That’s the worst thing of all. ‘Cept it’s not.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
When I first sat down to work on this thing, I did so because something was telling me there's a story in here somewhere.
I wasn't sure where it was then, and as I put the finishing touches on it this morning, the feeling hasn't changed much. But whatever the thing was moved me enough to chisel it down to what follows. Maybe there's a story in it that I haven't even realized. Or better yet, maybe there's one for you.
A Georgia Bird
It was a warm summer day at 2825 Kinnett Drive and the sounds of playing children fill the air of the subdivision known as Cherokee Woods East.
I think it was 1983.
Life, in that moment, seemed simple enough. We lived in a big, new house, and there were so many kids we’d made friends with in our short stay there that it was impossible to know them all. If I had to guess, I would say CWE sprawled upwards of five and-a-quarter miles at the time and new earth was constantly being turned, on several corners of the development, for expansion. I know that to be true because we used to ride our bikes up and down the mounds of dirt in the evenings after the construction workers had gone home for the day. Without fail, we’d parade in and out of homes being built and we’d always check to see if the keys had been left in the ignitions of the massive front loaders and tractors.
I’m not sure what we’d thought we’d do if we ever came across a set of keys shining there in the evening sun, but we dreamed of harnessing the power of such a massive piece of equipment, nonetheless.
The children we played with lived mostly in our corner of the subdivision. It was impossible, at such a young age, to know our way around the entire neighborhood, let alone navigate it via bicycle.
I can’t speak for my sister, but for me, back then, everything was about baseball. Baseball was my dream, and although I was warming up to the idea of loving the Atlanta Braves, my heart was still with the Royals in Kansas City. I tried hard, and often, to envision myself playing Major League Baseball in Kansas City and the vision was always cloudy at best. I gave the idea plenty of energy, nonetheless, and this summer day was no different.
It was an afternoon, like many, that consisted of driveway baseball. It’s hard to say exactly how many kids were over on this day, but there were usually half a dozen, minimum, and sometimes upwards of 10. All I know is that I was on the mound, which is to say that I stood in the center of the driveway. My best friend at the time was Lewis Tanner. He roamed the outfield, which is to say that he stood at the bottom of the sloping neighbor’s yard across the street.
David Barinowski was up to bat; he stood almost perfectly between the two garage doors of our house. Somewhere nearer the top of the cul-de-sac, my sister played with some neighborhood girls, and somewhere inside 2825, my mother was busy doing something. Perhaps she was in the kitchen. It’s an interesting theory to consider that Steve, one of the most polarizing figures in the picture, was not present. While I don’t know for sure, it’s presumable that he had gotten in his Toyota Cressida that morning, and driven to ISACOMM.
The notion of Steve not being present lends irony to the picture as ISACOMM ultimately became Sprint’s national-accounts division, Toyota quit making the Cressida 20 years ago, and, as I discovered via some research last summer, Steve has been dead for over six years. All of that is relevant as to why I stood there on the “mound” that summer afternoon, waiting, pretending to scan signals being flashed by an imaginary catcher. It would've been impossible for me and my family to predict that, in a few different chunks of time, there'd be no more 2825, no more Cressida, no more Steve, and sooner than I knew, no more driveway baseball that day. Anyway, when the right signal was "sent," I’d deliver the tennis ball toward the house Steve had built for us to live in.
At least that was the plan.
First base was the edge of the driveway directly to my left, and conversely, third was to my right. All three of these spots on the field were connected by one of the driveway’s cracks. Balls put in play down the first-base side were no problem as our side yard spilled into the Tanner’s yard. The third-base side was a different story as our front yard was sloping and littered with trees. Anything in the outfield warranted hesitation, as the street took up most of it. None of that mattered to me at the moment, though; I was going to fan Barinowski for the final out of the inning.
And then, as I went through my dramatic, super-slow-motion windup, my eyes shot a glance toward first base as though I were keeping the threat of a base stealer at bay.
Something in the midst of the windup threw everything off, though. Instead of peeping the gloves of my imaginary first baseman or giving a sideways stare-down to the runner on first, my vision, for the briefest of milliseconds was focused on an object that had nothing to do with the game, and instead of blowing a blinding-speed heater past a swinging David Barinowski, I balked.
One August afternoon in 1995 I was standing in a classroom on the campus of Fort Lewis College, and although there were a dozen and-a-half students in the room with me, I felt very alone. Two years prior, I’d started my freshman semester at Pittsburg State University, and had had the same feeling. Coming out of high school, I didn’t want to go to the University of Kansas and continue partying with all of my friends the same way I had in high school. I wanted a fresh start, and although I made new friends in Pittsburg, I had not been able to escape the feeling of loneliness.
So on most Friday afternoons, I drove the two hours back to Kansas City to hang out with some of the friends I’d chosen to separate from when choosing Pittsburg State. One weekend I stayed around to help a friend’s brother move and we drank beer all day long while loading boxes in and out of a pickup truck. When evening came around and our work was done, we went out.
I remember barely being able to sit upright on my backless bar stool at Danny’s when the last-call lights came on. The lights told me I needed to get out of there and go home to sleep off the day of sweaty labor and cheap-beer consumption. I staggered out the door and bumped into a pair of guys, who found little pleasant in my lack of coordination. In short, the large one put his cigarette out on my face and knocked me unconscious with a single punch. The impact of his fist striking my chin fractured my jaw in two places.
It only occurs to me just now, but “fractured” is the word that was used at the time, and I’ve continued to use it whenever telling the story these past 17 years. In truth, it was fractured in one spot, broken clean in the other; the lower right portion of my jaw has a plate with screws in it, and the connecting point where the jawbone meets the skull was actually severed. The point is that this situation -– one that left my jaw wired shut for three months –- was counter-productive to the lonely feeling. Not only did I have to then feel lonely and deal with something real, but I had to make many, many more trips to and from Kansas City for surgery and post-surgery follow-ups. By the time May rolled around, I was ready to be out of Pittsburg for good.
So I did two things: arranged for a transfer to KU the following fall, and moved to Estes Park, CO for the summer. While in Estes, I met a ton of great people, one of which named Amelia. We began dating, and eventually moved to Durango together late summer, ’95. It took us a few days to find a home, and things were a bit up in the air for me; her transfer (from Jackson State University) had been finalized, complete with in-state-tuition status. Mine had thrice been denied.
It would ultimately work out in my favor, but that first week or so at Fort Lewis College felt very unsure, and yes, lonely. We were renting the master bedroom of this house about 20 minutes north of town. We were both taking full loads and both working full-time at night and on the weekends. She was delivering pizzas for Little Caesar’s while I slaved in the grease pit of a kitchen then known as Chelsea’s London Pub and Grill.
While I got to know some folks at work and one or two people on campus, I was just going through the motions while my tuition status was in appeal, and because of its dependency on financial aid, I had no money to buy books, so I was immediately behind in all of my classes. The one class I was not behind, per se, in, was Indian Arts & Crafts. It met twice a week for three hours at a time, and I’d signed up for it because it sounded both easy and cool. Rita Cordalis taught it, and I’ll say this about her: She could have had any number of reasons to dislike me, and it’s possible she chose all of them, but she was mean, cold, and to be honest, a bit racist, too.
Rita Cordalis ended up giving me an ‘F’ in Indian Arts & Crafts, and it was due to the fact that I clearly violated her clearly outlined attendance policy. When I went to talk to her about it after the semester, she wanted nothing to do with any part of the conversation I wanted to have with her. But I mention all of that to mention this: The day that I was standing in Indian Arts & Crafts feeling lonely, a random student struck up a conversation with me, and I mentioned my interest in wanting to get involved on campus, perhaps even with the student newspaper, if Fort Lewis College had one.
Turns out, they did, and the person that told me about it offered to walk me over to the office after class that day, which he did. This person, whose name escapes me, introduced me to the lovely Clara Woodmansee, who was editor-in-chief of The Independent at the time. She embraced my desire to join, and was kind enough and welcoming enough to make a lot of that lonely feeling vanish for a little while. I’ll never forget the first story she assigned me: a generic bit on homecoming, for which I was to interview Bill Bolden, Director of Student Housing.
Doing that story was an eye-opener for ways that are unimportant at this particular time, but on the bigger scale, I met some of the most amazing people being part of The Independent, and some of them are still very close friends today. One of them was Alex Neth.
I don’t know really know where to begin with Alex Neth. For starters, he’s a heckuva follow on Twitter if you do the Twitter thing, and if you don’t do the Twitter thing, well, shame on you. Anyway, Clara introduced me to Jason Fisher (not a bad follow himself), who actually succeeded Clara in her editor role, and I was immediately drawn to Jason. He was charismatic, friendly, and he seemed to be a well-meaning enough guy. He also seemed motivated, for reasons I couldn’t then and cannot now fathom, to teach me things about sports, politics, and newspapers. All of these things stimulated me, and I mean that in an entirely non-gay fashion.
The problem I had with Jason was that this Alex character was always right there by his side, spouting off obnoxious things about punk-rock music and the Denver Broncos, which, ironically are probably the two things on the planet that I hate more than anything. Moreover, I’ve been known to exaggerate a time or two in my day, but this is not one of those occasions. When I say “spouting off,” I mean that Alex holds nine masters and three PhDs, all in the field of talking, and they all have emphases on high frequency. So I’m trying, whenever I can, to engage this Jason character in conversation as often as possible, but -– at least at the time it seemed like –- Alex was doing the same thing. It seemed some sort of competition.
I mean, it wasn’t. At all. It just seemed that way as I tried to feel my way around another new set of people with whom I could befriend.
By the time I was finishing up at Fort Lewis, though, Alex and Jason were both gone. Jason had moved to Fort Collins in an effort to transfer to Colorado State and finish up school away from home. Alex, for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time, moved to Denver to continue his relationship -– here’s the part I couldn’t understand –- with easily the most obnoxious person on The Independent staff.
It’s been 12 years since I graduated from Fort Lewis, and my relationships with all of the aforementioned folks have developed both as a group and individually, and I’m thankful for all of them. Jason and I started participating in what we dubbed The Tradition, which has been referenced a time or two on this blog, and several years into it, Alex came aboard. When this occurred, I hadn’t really seen Alex much since our parting of ways in Durango. And at first, under the unfriendly lights of InVesCo Field at Mile High Stadium, Alex seemed to be the same old, loud-mouthed Broncos fan.
Thankfully, I was way wrong about that.
Turns out, Alex has this bit of genius in him that he lets out more often than he probably realizes. He’s witty, wicked intelligent, ridiculously funny, and pretty caring, too.
It took me some time to realize this because for the first three years I knew him, he was seldom employed and always bumming smokes and dollars for Burger King off of whoever would support him at the time. But I’ve learned a ton about Alex since college, and I can’t say that any of what I’ve learned about him hasn’t been positive.
I know little about his childhood and upbringing but I’ve learned enough about both to say that they were fascinating. His dad was a newspaper guy, his mother a librarian. He was a baseball-card junky and was subject to an array of influence from his siblings. In thinking of a way to summarize him, I go to the Chris Rock standup bit where he talks about married people and how they eventually stop talking. In this bit, he makes a point about how you never really know someone, and how this is the case with spouses.
You think you know someone, but when you meet them, you’re meeting their representative. You almost never know the complete picture of someone; you never really get into the crust of a person. Alex and I have hashed out 12 rounds-plus in music debates. We’ve traded a litany of football smack, and we’ve spent countless hours together partying and waxing philosophy. And for the longest time, he still struck me as a loud-mouthed, tattooed punk-rock Bronco fan that occasionally speaks with spittle, never doesn’t seek the last word, and often shies from displaying his monumentally admirable talent of crafting the written word.
Then, one day, I learned something profound about Alex, something that, in my mind, goes against the grain of every cell that comprises his core: He’s a bird watcher.
On the few and far occasions he has time, he ladles passion from the punch bowl of ornithology. That is, I don’t know how much he technically studies, them, but if watching lends to observation and thought, then studying is certainly apropos.
Couple of interesting notes from the Wikipedia bird-watching page: Under the “Socio-psychology” sub-heading, it is supposed that male birdwatchers do so as “an expression of the male hunting instinct,” because of the “male tendency for ‘systemizing’,” and that they are “motivated by sharing knowledge with others.”
I could be biased because I’ve known Alex for so long and because he is a good friend of mine, but those phrases are largely on point with his personality. Alex is very much a man’s man, even if he shuns the notion of wasting money on expensive beers and lap dances at the nudey bars. In my mind, that “systemizing” thing is right up his tree, and the bit about sharing knowledge would be in the bio line of his baseball card if he had one. He has an arsenal of knowledge in that head of his, and he’s never shy about sharing it, be it with friend or stranger.
This nugget of crust still blows my mind. This guy –- this tattooed punk rocker that geeks out over the NFL draft and how it may pertain to his Broncos –- who loves whiskey and weed and tweeting about the idiocy of others has one of the hardest shells of personality I’ve ever met, and on the inside lies the opposite: an affinity for what I imagine to be the most peaceful, tranquil, granola-seeming pastimes on the planet. And I love this about him.
Brooklyn Bird (by Way of Denver)
Of my male friends, Alex might have been one of the toughest nuts to crack, so it makes sense that he did/does have a healthy crush on one of the toughest female nuts in my pack. Pause for clarification: When I say “crack,” I mean nothing more than understand, or at least attempt to, and when I say “healthy crush” I refer to a tidbit once uttered by my then future mother-in-law:
Back when my wife was my girlfriend, we were working at the restaurant in which we met. I was one of the sous chefs; she was a server. I had already learned that she had crushes of the Hollywood-heartthrob variety. In her apartment bedroom was a Lord of the Rings clock, and any time discussions of the film would arise, she made no bones about revealing the fact that Viggo Mortensen got her hot and bothered. I wasn’t a giant LotR fan at the time, but she made me one, and in fact, we went to a midnight showing of Return of the Kings on my birthday the year it was released. I’ve sense seen each film at least half a dozen times, and I have no problem admitting that Mortensen, when wearing his Aragorn cape, is very bro-mance-worthy, and I’ll say the same about Orlando Bloom as Legolas. And since I’m really gaying up the joint, I’ll throw out that I'm a huge fan of Daniel Day-Lewis and David Duchovny’s cinematic roles, too.
Anyway, the girlfriend’s way into Mortensen. Fine. No problem. Slightly more disturbing was this semi-sinister fever she had for Josh Hartnett, who, from what I can tell, movie buff that I’m not, hasn’t done a damn thing since Forty Days and Forty Nights. So, there. Take that, jerky girlfriend-fantasy guy.
There was another crush, though, that made me a bit uncomfortable in my skin, and that one had the celebrity factor removed; it was a fellow server of hers. A guy I liked as a person and knew for some time before she joined the staff. Evan Enderle is his name, and he’s a fine specimen of a human being. Or at least he was then. One night, though, over post-shift drinks, she told me that she, at some point, had had a crush on him. We didn’t have a fight about it, but it certainly knocked my confidence level down a few notches, and if memory serves, she mentioned it to her mother at lunch the next day.
When next we spoke, she said, “My mom said that crushes are always going to be there, that people are always going to have them, even married people, and that they’re okay as long as they’re healthy crushes.”
I don’t know that that’s the exact quote, but obviously I’m certain enough that I applied the appropriate punctuation to it. My reaction –- the one that occurred in my head –- was something along the lines of this two-parter: 1) Of course your God-damned *mom* is going to say that. It supports what you’re feeling and saying in *our* relationship; 2) Wait. So this means I can have crushes, too? Niiiiiice. Way to go, lady I’ve never met.
We ended up having a productive talk about crushes, though, and she explained that she thought her crush on Evan Enderle was of an intellectual variety, that she didn’t necessarily want to sleep with him. This, of course, didn’t help. It might have made it worse. I dunno. I think what it made me think was that this cat had an edge on me wise-wise, and that I’d better step up my smart game. It was an important bit to hear, though, because it taught me that it’s okay to have crushes when you’re involved with someone. You know, as long as they’re healthy, which I defined as something you don’t obsess over/pursue, which both keeps us with the woman that became my mother-in-law and brings us, for a moment, back to Alex.
My mother-in-law bore a second daughter, and Alex once told me, in not so many words, that he had a crush on her. The story doesn’t begin or end there. Rather, that’s the middle of it.
Where it begins, I reckon, is a time in which she still lived in, and occasionally nearby the Kansas City area. I can’t remember all of the details, but she completed her undergraduate studies at some combination of a little bit KU and a lotta bit Truman State University. During the times she collected her mail from the Lawrence, KS, Kirksville, MO, and Kansas City, MO zip codes, she had a relationship with a guy named David. On my end of things, David means little more to me than a guy with Crohn’s disease that sold my wife a black-market Wii. I mean, he was important to my sister-in-law for a long time, so he matters in that regard, too, and, in the big picture, first, but I mention him to mention this: He toyed with her and it hurt her.
It’s a long, confusing story, but it has to do with honesty and a gal named Ivy, who I think he wound up marrying, but all of it’s neither here nor there. The point is that the relationship pained her, and for that I dislike him. At the end of Truman State, she was able to sign up for some deal that involved something along the lines of two more semesters of study, then a student-teaching gig -– in of all places, Raytown, which is one of Alex’s favorite places to mock –- and she would earn a Master’s degree. When that deal was up, the relationship aspect of her life involved a guy named Pauly. He was accepted to some mechanic school in Laramie, WY, so they moved there together.
By the time he’d completed the program, the proverbial spark had fizzled, and they parted ways. He wound up back in KC; she dove into some publishing gig in Denver, where she stayed with a friend for a time. I don’t believe that the end of that relationship left any hard feelings on either side, but I think there was some of that basic-human hurt that results from a lot of investment in trying to make things work when, eventually, they don’t.
The wife and I will semi-annually travel out to Denver for the previously mentioned Tradition. While there, we typically try to hook up with all of our friends for eats, drinks, and terrible football, and while the sister-in-law was living there, she was part of the mix. One of these years, we were all together partying and she was dating Chris.
There was –- the particular times of which I cannot recall –- a moment or two in which I liked Chris, but on this particular weekend in which he was part of our fold, he kind of came off as a massive stooge. That is, he didn’t really do anything offensive, but he seemed far off of the map of genuineness and struck more than one of us as, how shall I say this…rather into himself. Since then, I have had a beer with him at a bar, and he made buddies with a complete stranger while watching an NBA playoff game (Editor’s Note: Boo.), and in doing so, ignored the rest of us, most importantly, my sister-in-law (Note: Big-time boo.).
Even more recent than that was his visit to New York, where my sister-in-law currently resides. He basically blew her off until it was convenient to him to hang out with her, and when that time finally arose, it appears that his lone mission was to get in her pants (Note: One step away from getting pillowcase-soap-barred and left in a dumpster, pal.). Point being, there was emotion, time spent, and investment that all resulted in the discovery of him “cheating on her,” which ended things with her being hurt. For clarification, the quotations there exist because the revelation was something to the effect of significant engagement with another person via text message. So, the cheating was, as my married-to family has defined, of the emotional variety, which, as they say, is an offense greater than that of the physical.
Now, I barely knew the guy well enough to characterize or criticize him, so I leave that to my sister-in-law, but on my end, he reminded me of Justin Warring, another server from the previously mentioned restaurant, and Justin Warring is a complete and utter knob.
Anyway, the following year we were out for another installment of The Tradition, and this time, the beau of choice was Andrew Hoffman. Pre-travel, we had heard gobs and loads about this kid, and things were sort of seeming like a big deal. And then we met him.
Here’s where it gets real tricky.
Picture Waldo from Where’s Waldo?. Now make him tiny, unpopular, less than friendly, and throw in a splash of nerd meets hipster, and you have Andrew Hoffman. Or at least our group’s initial impression of him. After an evening of hanging out as a group, Alex said to me, “Dude, what’s the deal with your sister-in-law dating tools?”
I probably had some form of a defensive response forming when he added, “’Cause, you know, your sister-in-law is prêt-ty…” But he didn’t trail off where the ellipses indicate he did. He actually tilted his head and leaned in to elbow me while offering a nod, a half-squint and a mild Tim Allen grunt all at the same time.
Now I don’t know if Alex found her attractive because of her cute face, her intellect, her quick wit, her spontaneous energy, her gigantic boobs, or some combination of all those and more, but this would not be the lone occasion for such a mention, thus my conclusion that Alex has a crush –- albeit a healthy one -– on her.
None of that is the point, though. The point is that the following spring launched a hurt of record levels. In sum, my sister-in-law had been accepted to journalism school at NYU, and would be moving there that summer. Amidst conversations and think-tank sessions regarding whether or not Andrew Hoffman would accompany her came the curious actions on his part to almost leave Hansel-and-Gretelesque clue trails to the cabin in which Andrew Hoffman was actively involved with another woman.
The details of which are not important, but given an ultimatum in the form of a second chance, he practically repeated the details of his original offense, which sent the energy, emotions, and endeavors of my sister-in-law spinning out of orbit. In short, she was devastated by the derailing of a relationship that appeared in the beginning to have had real potential and left to try and piece things back together alone and within the confines of New York City while, of course, trying to make a new geographical, emotional, educational start.
I mean, this thing unraveled her, and I’m not trying to be unfair or dramatic. I think she would agree. And for the most part, I think that a lot of folks have had relationship-termination hurt that pained in a way that overwhelmed, that lurked, that threatened to never go away. What I don’t think a lot of folks have experienced is the kind of hurt that cuts so deep to the root of your being that it threatens to shake and eventually does shake your entire foundation of self-worth. I’ll never forget two Christmases ago, at my in-laws.
It was actually the day or so after Christmas, and my father-in-law was readying the car to take his youngest to the airport to catch her flight back to La Guardia. My wife and I’s daughter was maybe two days old. We were standing with our baby in the front room, and my mother-in-law walks in with this look of pain, desperation on her face. I could tell she had just wiped tears from her eyes, and with her came a hollowing silence.
As she moved from the doorway, my sister-in-law delicately stormed in and exploded in a fit of sorrow so painful that it was all she could do but hug each of us in lightning-flash rapidity so that she could get out of the house and into her father’s car. It was her way of trying to speed through the hurt.
I looked at her mother and the look on my face must’ve expressed my confusion.
“She needs to be in New York because that’s where what she wants to do is happening, but she doesn’t have any people. She needs to be here because this is where her people are but this isn’t where what she wants to do is happening.”
I’ve been with my wife for nine years last month, and over the course of most of those years, I’ve tried to understand her sister. Sometimes I’ve succeeded; most of the time I have not. I have ultimately decided that it’s not important to understand her, but to support her. I know that I love her like my own sister, and sometimes I think that she loves me, too. She’s had rough goes in spots, and above all, it’s been a real drag to not be able to attempt to give her the direct support that I think she needs.
I won’t say that the wounds from her most recent, deeper-than-all-the-other-hurts-combined hurt have completely healed, but I think that with time they will.
The memory of that hurt, however, will linger in my living room until we have moved to a new home, and it’s not because of an episode that happened inside of it.
When I was in college, I lived with a guy named Steve who graduated from Tyler School of Art in Pennsylvania. I also became friends with a guy named Matt who graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute. They are the two finest painters I’ve known, and I’m proud to own several pieces of their work. For some time after I purchased them, I began to, foolishly, think of myself as a collector of original artwork.
Nevertheless, I still own them, and a couple are on display in our house. When things were near their high point in this relationship my sister-in-law had, she purchased a piece of Andrew Hoffman's work and gave it to my wife and I as a Christmas present. It is a unique, original piece with pasted pieces of blueprints of a log cabin and excerpts from some kind of printed manual that make up the background. In the foreground is a tree branch that bears cherries or some kind of berries, and perched in the center of it is a plump, sheepish-looking bird.
This bird looms in front of faint charcoal swirls that appear to be drafts of sketches of other birds, or perhaps they are other images of the same. And in the top right corner of the piece is some sort of white drip effect. Most of the streaks reach for the tip of the tree branch. A few of them make it. And one lone streak extends all the way to the bottom corner, falling just to the right of the artist’s signature.
I see that bird, intentionally or not, a dozen times a day, and my eyes almost never spot Andrew Hoffman’s cursive in that corner, but there’s a part of me that feels my sister-in-law’s pain when I look at that bird, and though I am proud to own the piece, I sometimes want it to go away for good.
My wife is a funny creature. She can be tidy and a slob, both focused and distracted, supportive yet cold. There are days where she confesses that she loves me more than anything, and sometimes those days are followed by days where I think she thinks she can do better than me.
I’m not an easy person to be married to, but she puts up with me, and I her. On most days we love each other, and are considerate of one another’s needs. There are countless reasons for which I admire aspects of her personality, and one of those things is her love of birds. This does not mean that she is a birder, or does anything on their behalf, although one of the first projects she took on when she moved into what would become our home was to hang, with the assistance of the young man for whom she became a life coach, a bird house out front.
So the concept of birds is evident in our home before you even enter it.
When you cross the front door’s threshold and into the living room, there is, as mentioned, a piece of original artwork on display that features a bird. In fact, you don’t even have to get that far. There’s a glass bird on the book shelf just beyond our front door, and below it is the newest addition to the home: a light-blue iron bird perched on wire legs with pastel-flower wings. But if you were moving at normal speed and didn’t notice those, you might spot the collection of three stone birds that rest on my wife’s desk, just below the Andrew Hoffman.
Had you been over a few years earlier, you might have noticed a gift on our wall from the Smith family. It was a framed, red painting of a horse with a little bird perched on its backside. Near where it used to be is a pair of pewter birds on the end table adjacent to our couch. Perched atop our television set sit a chicken and some kind of peacock-looking bird in a chair. Beyond our dining-room table, a massive iron rooster stands on the floor. In our kitchen are no fewer than three feeble-legged fowl that I manage to topple almost every time I set my keys down, and on the wall are some framed prints of a rooster and a chicken.
Next to the Kleenex on the back of our toilet is another, smaller pewter bird that looks like he belongs with the three on the end table, and while there are no (save the four embroidered on our throw pillow) feathered friends in our bedroom, the room next to it -– which was a guest room prior to our daughter’s arrival –- used to house a miniature Christmas tree every holiday season, and it was adorned with only one kind of decorations: birds. And if you step onto our screened-in porch, you’ll notice to your right a wooden chair.
Once adorned in hooker-nail-polish red and left on the curb of someone’s house for big trash pickup, it’s been sanded, coated with a bright periwinkle, and doused with TLC. Nine sturdy pillars set a perimeter between the back support and the seat, and smack in the heart of that back support is a stencil my wife painted on. It’s a faint stencil, likely overlooked by many, but it’s there, in a light gold, and yes, it’s a bird. And, yes, there are more, but enough with the inventory.
I don’t know that I’ve ever addressed it with her but I might have casually asked once and gotten a simple “I just love them” as a response. And to be fair, you’d have to be looking for these household birds to see a lot of them. It’s not as though she hoards them, but it might seem like she does in reading this. I think the simple explanation is that she does in fact, just love them.
In come several twists of irony.
A few weeks before I started working on this piece was the six-year anniversary of my friend David taking his own life. The details of his struggles are not something I’m going to hash out here, but he left three animals behind; my buddy Matt took his two dogs while my fiancée took his cat. She loves to tell the story of Matt –- who initially took the cat as well –- driving up to drop off the cat and seeing this unkenneled beast perched on the dashboard of his truck. When she saw how big he was –- he’s a Maine Coon –- it occurred to her that her logic in stating that she’d take the cat –- which went like this: “I'll take the cat; I have a cat door.” –- had perhaps been a touch flawed.
Nevertheless, she and the cat instantly bonded, and have remained close for the past six years. Once or twice when she was out of town, I watched the cat, and liked him some, too. I’ve never been a cat person, but I would think of Dave when I saw him, and connect to both of them on some sort of other-world parallel. Then, once we were married, I grew to like the cat for himself, even though he did/does things that all cats do that gross me out.
Somewhere along the way, our relationship took a peculiar turn, and it can be summed up as so: There are a few things the cat does –- or rather used to do –- that I could not tolerate, like cleaning himself in our bed or getting up on any of the above-floor surfaces in the kitchen, or knocking my favorite blanket off the back of the couch. Mostly, these things are associated with shedding and grooming and me being grossed out.
So I became super-militant with him regarding these specific practices, and he quickly learned of my disproval of them. What he did, however, was attempt to become more regular in actually doing them, instead of avoiding them, which made me want to do two things: spray his little bastard face with water and choke him. My only issue was that I could never decide in which order. What I did do was begin to carry around a spray bottle, and I would relentlessly chase him around the house until I’d caught him and soaked him a good bit.
Surprisingly, this only made him do these things more.
This pissed me off, and on occasion, I’d use a harsher tactic, one similar to shoving a dog’s nose in the pile of his own indoor poop, only it actually looked like me giving him hockey-style cheap shots along the boards every time we passed one another. He would still approach me for affection, and hop up onto my lap from time to time, but we shared an enemies-on-common-ground thing for a while. He’s mellowed out now with regard to those forbidden practices, but he’s still a man of routine, and one thing has been consistent with him since the day I met him: He’s an outdoor cat, and he loves to hunt.
I believe there was a lone kill before I moved in, and it was a bit indirect. The cat had chased a ground squirrel up onto the front porch and ultimately inside. Once past the threshold of the front door, the little guy’d made a hard right and found safe haven in the coat closet, but he hadn’t escaped without injury. My guess is that the cat had snatched him up in his mouth and let him go to continue toying with him. Needless to say, he perished in there, and my future father-in-law was beckoned to root the smelly remains out of there.
Coincidence or not, the cat’s hunting practices grew after I moved in, and news of his kills would immediately reach us via consecutive pairs of throaty mews, and when we would greet him, he would drop his prey at our feet in search of praise. Twice we made the mistake of leaving access to the house open to him. The first time he entered through the open garage door and traversed the kitchen floor, having come inside through his cat door. When he dropped a ground squirrel on the living room floor, it shot to the back of the house, launching a two-hour mission to track down the injured and get it safely outdoors. The second time, he managed to sneak up on a blackbird.
On this occasion, he entered through the propped-open porch screen door and let his catch go in the dining room. The thing thrashed about bashing into windows and walls, crapping in every corner and on every ledge possible. After most of an hour, we luckily shooed him out the front door. Oh, and there was a third occasion, about 18 months later, when he snuck a baby rabbit into the house and let it go near the basement stairs. It hopped its little way down a few steps until the cat snuck up on it again, causing the wee bunny to leap to the concrete floor below, a fall I’m sure contributed to his demise. Much like the original ground squirrel, the stench of his rotting corpse tipped us off to his resting place, and I, having had no luck finding the mauled creature in our nightmare of a basement, had to scrape his body off of the cardboard box to my dart board with rubber gloves and a dust pan.
It was the spring before last, though, that still takes the cake.
The mentality of our home had just shifted via the news that we were expecting a child. Plans were brainstormed, intentions were launched, lists scribbled. In my mind, I wanted to step up my husband game in hopes of fostering the development of a father game, and so my initial bit of yard work was perhaps a bit aggressive. Usually prior to my first mow, I’ll trim all the hedges, a few tree branches, and, as much as I hate every quarter-ounce of energy associated with raking, I’ll rake the leftover leaves from the previous fall. This is a never-ending cycle, because I always put off raking every year, thinking that I’ll be damned if I’m going to rake while there are still leaves on the tree. This means that by the time all the leaves have fallen, it’s gotten damn cold out, and daylight is scarce, and I just sort of half-ass it. This means that there are leaves wedged in every nook of the yard come spring, and all of the critters have made homes in them, and it’s hot out, and I’d rather be doing something else, and instead I’m cursing myself for not having been more on top of my raking game.
Anyway, I raked the leftovers and weedeated and mowed and trimmed hedges and trees and, as per usual, got suckered into doing some bullshit for the wife’s garden. Don't get me wrong. I love the idea of having a garden and I love that my wife is committed enough to handle 98 percent of the responsibility it demands. But I am opposed to having something that requires more yard labor from me as it greatly affects my general state of laziness.
That said, along the north fence of our back yard grows honeysuckle, and for portions of the spring, it is out of control. My father used to use an electric hedgetrimmer for the hedges in the yards of every house he lived in. It was like he had this inner network that was synced with the bushes on his property. One blade would get higher than the majority and the man would be out there at two o’clock in the morning trimming hedges.
I always thought he was a maniac, but in my youth I had precisely zero appreciation for the contrast of handsome landscaping against the exterior front wall of a house. At some point in between the development of my appreciation for such a thing, and the simpler idea of responsibility regarding yard maintenance, I bought some shears and a lopper. So in the spring, I get after our thick honeysuckle to the north, our sundry weeds to the west and south, and I’ll tidy up our smallish hedges around front. For the stuff that’s too thick, and the low-hanging tree branches, I brandish the loppers. Like most yard work, it’s a curse-word-riddled chore -– especially afterwards when you have to rake and bag all of the clippings -– that delivers an incomparable sense of pride after the fact.
Like most springs, I was out there with my shears, cursing the tedious work and wishing I had my father’s hedgetrimmers/affinity for hedge trimming. I’d put it off and was short on time, and so the work, which I’d imagined would take 20 minutes, had grown into an hour, but in my father-to-be mind, I had to do a thorough, tidy job on the yard, one of my few household responsibilities. I mean, I handle plenty of other things inside the house, but it makes the story sound better/more manly if I pretend that I’m a yardwork-only kind of husband.
So I was getting after these honeysuckle bushes, which always makes the wife sad because she loves honeysuckle and ties the notion of trimming with the concept of nature's demise. I was making my way along the fence, though, and the sporadic sound of birds chirping was getting louder and louder as I went. I paid it no mind until it was too late: With my shears I reached into a portion of bush and jostled a bird’s nest, and with three consecutive plops fell baby birds at my feet.
I have been frozen in a moment before. Few have held me that motionless. With my arms still outstretched, shear blades open, and sweaty fog from my sunglasses clouding my downcast gaze, the sound of an angry mama bird from the telephone wire above began to ring in my ears. In some sense of mild panic that was equal parts safety for the birds/have to get this job done, I retreated inside to consult the wife. She was out in no time, gloved and ready to scoop these delicate babies back to their home.
The trick was that the cat was on the prowl, well aware of what had landed in his yard.
We shooed him away, avoiding dive bombs from mad mama, and got these chicks back into their now-obvious nest, deep in our honeysuckle. At the end of things, our effort was a success, but this notion in the back of my mind kept banging on my skull’s backside, and it had something to do with the mother bird not wanting anything to do with her babies once they’d been handled by humans.
I have no idea where this came from. Maybe I saw it on an old reel-to-reel filmstrip in my fifth-grade science class. Or maybe I read about it, all stoney-brained in some high-school-evening cram session. It’s possible that I made the whole thing up, but either way I was terrified that this parent was no longer going to want or care for her offspring, that she would leave them vulnerable to whatever the maker had deemed in store for them. And as much as this bothered me, it was only the half of it.
I kept trimming, each clip now hesitant with a pre-chop peer, and a delicate closing of the blades. I fussed with the poisonous crap on the west fence, and my skin broke out in its traditional rash. I got up on a step stool and lopped some tree branches that seemed to be in the way of garden sunlight rays, and I made my way along the south fence until it was time to rake up all the waste and get out the mower.
Our front yard is so easy to mow that it’s actually annoying to have to go through the motions. The grass has never grown strong there, and so for the most part, you waste gas, energy, and time, all in the name of shortening dandelion stalks, so I save it for last. Our back yard is a good size, and a variety of grasses grow, warranting different stride speeds for the mower. Near the north end is zoysia. Along the south is a patch of those obnoxious purple weeds that take over more of the yard each year. And the southern portion is just bluegrass, or, actually, I have no idea what it is, but I can zip through it.
A couple of winters prior, the wife had purchased a slew of fabric and crafted patio-furniture pillows for both the front porch as well as the back. Like most of her projects, it was quite impressive. Impressive to the tune of the fact that I’d forgotten she was doing it, and one day came home to cushioned furniture on both of our porches. The cushions out front took a beating, mostly because no one ever sat out there, so we never retrieved them prior to storms. The table and lounge chairs out back, however, received considerable use, and so we’d make the occasional effort to bring them in when it looked nasty out. The winter that immediately preceded the honeysuckle-nest disaster, however, we had not.
Every time I stepped out back with the dog, or bundled up and went out to shovel the porch, I’d notice new tears in the table-chair cushions. This infuriated me because the wife had made them, and here was some creature ripping them apart for a nest of sorts. Then the bastards ripped out a few chunks from the screen of the back door to our garage and I was really mad, especially when spring rolled around and we a) had no cushions for our table chairs, and b) the cat would leap in and out of the garage through the hole in the screen.
Anyway, I was jogging up and down the southern part of our yard with the mower, weaving around the clothesline poles and around the trunk of the tree adjacent to them. A few strips in from the poles, I was plowing along and something foreign brushed my cheek.
In hindsight, it’s wickedly embarrassing –- as the master of our yard –- to admit that I hadn’t noticed this until it literally hit me in the face, but it caught me so off guard that I actually shut off the mower for examination. I discovered that this surprisingly long strand of fabric was dangling from one of our tree branches, and my first thought was that some dumb squirrel had ravaged the sheet cushions for winter warmth and now that it was warm out, had discarded the makeshift blanket, leaving it caught up in the branches.
With a somewhat-blind upward gaze, I gave the thing a tug, but there was hardly any slack in it, so I tugged harder, and when I did, I heard a miniature chorus of shrieks followed by: Plop. Plop-plop. And plop.
I wouldn’t call it quite an out-of-body experience, but for a moment, I was teetering on the edge of one. And trust me: Thanks to psilocybin mushrooms, I know what one feels like.
What followed was one of those human surges of emotion that is almost always the antithesis of pleasant. It was two parts panic, three parts nausea, and nine parts shame, all swirled together by this guttural inner voice that was moaning to me about my disturbance of the life cycle, and as I looked down at this other family of baby birds, the voice was slowly drowned out by that of an angry mother bird, perched, squawking and staring down at me from one of the outermost branches.
I ran for the back door to the garage, and as I arrived, I saw the cat crouched in leap form and scooped him up with just enough reflex to hold onto him with sweaty palms and chuck him into the kitchen. I sprinted back into the yard with broom and dust pan in hand, and when I arrived at the helpless pack of baby birds, it occurred to me that their nest was likely too high for a successful replacement. I had to go all the way back to the porch to see exactly how high up in the tree their jostled home rested, and unbeknownst to me, the cat was inside, sitting at the front storm door, mewing to my wife to be let out.
Upon observation of this unreachable height, I choked back a few tears, and decided that I would have to scoop them up and try to place them deep in the brush along the western fence, where they’d hopefully be out of harm’s reach, and in a place where their mother could feed them, assuming of course, that my theory was wrong, that she’d still care for her young even though their existence had been tainted by human hands. When I went to scoop the first one, I realized that the far fall had been far from kind to them, and it took a timely, delicate series of maneuvers to get it onto my dust pan. Once successfully on board, I was dive-bombed by the mother, and had to do some kind of war-movie jungle-ambush-scene run to the bushes along the fence.
When I got there and was unloading the chick, I heard the cat. He was starring in a different kind of scene: the sort where the tiger sneaks up on the wildebeest on the Discovery channel, his head barely above the tallest blades of grass. Now, I had unloaded my first passenger, but not gotten him deep enough into the bushes to feel comfortable, but the bigger-fish-to-fry chime had rung.
I sprinted back to the small pile of injured and chased the cat out into the middle of the yard, who proceeded to sit there with a front-row seat as I loaded up the next of my injured. As I hustled for the fence, I heard the cat let out a furious sound. A steal of a glimpse over my shoulder revealed him on the down side of a leap into mid-air at the angry swooping mother bird.
I wanted to choke him. How dare he, I thought. How could he launch a counterattack at the mother of the fallen? I tried to get the two babies tucked into the brush along the fence, keeping an eye on the cat and then repeating the process for the remaining two.
As much as I hate the phrase “sick to my stomach,” that’s precisely how I felt until the mower was put away and I was showered and back on the porch poring over the landscape, trying to send out energies of protection into my back yard.
Near the end of dinner, the wife calmly, quietly told me that if the honeysuckle babies she’d rescued didn’t make it, she didn’t want to know.
And over the course of the next 10 days, miniature imaginary shards of glass tumbled down my throat and pierced my guts as, one by one, the cat brought all seven baby birds to me on the back porch, a look in his eyes that was half: aren’t you proud of me?, half: foolish human; you thought you could keep me from them.
The only time I lived completely alone was a stretch from February 2005 to May of 2007. It was a vertically split duplex, a home that had been converted into two. On the front porch were two doors, one to each residence. I lived in the top half, and I know that the creaky stairs that led up to my place could be heard by those living below when traversed. I like to think that my comings and goings on the stairs were all that could be heard out of my half of the home. Conversely, I’m certain that most every occurrence that took place below was audible from above.
In that 28-month period, five parties occupied the lower space, and none of them were anything shy of a nightmare. My sole purpose for renting the upstairs was for solitude and quiet while attending grad school, and I should’ve taken it as a sign when the landlord showed me the spot and a downstairs tenant turned the volume control of a metal album to 11 on his stereo. It shut off momentarily but came on again a second and third time.
Embarrased, Bald Matt the landlord –- who had an affinity for the handy, and was handy himself, to the tune of missing one digit on his left hand -– went downstairs and indicated that he was showing the place. Jay, as I’d soon learn was the guilty party, claimed he was test driving a stereo he was trying to sell, that he was sorry, that it wouldn’t happen again.
Bald Matt was a nice enough guy, but a husband and a father as well, and single-handedly managing the 60 properties he had under contract kept him a little too busy to deal with, in a timely fashion, the frequent issues I had living at 6127 ½ Harrison.
Jay and his mom were there until winter became spring, but Jay’s mom was an over-the-road trucker and gone three of four weeks a month. This left Jay to manage things, and by “manage things” I mean do absolutely nothing. Here might be an appropriate time to mention that Bald Matt, when going over the terms of the lease, directly indicated that smoking was not permitted inside the property.
Anyway, I hadn’t even brought two loads of stuff into my new place when it became clear that downstairs did not have the plush carpeting upstairs did, and that every step on the hardwood floor could be heard from above. And I’m pretty sure I hadn’t even started unpacking before I caught the first whiff of second-hand smoke trailing up through my carpeted floor. At first opportunity, I politely asked Jay if he’d been smoking inside, and he answered with, “Not cigarettes” and a smile that let me know he thought he was funny. Or clever. Or cleverishly funny.
A long-time smoker myself, one who was never a fan of indoor second-hand smoke, I bristled at his response, and half-heartedly dove into his comedic attempt advertising his cannabis habit. I made mention of Bald Matt’s declaration of the property as no smoking, and dropped it, only to encounter it again the next night.
Not wanting to start an immediate feud with my new neighbor, I let it go for a day or so, and got to know Jay a little bit. The week went on and I continued to heave boxes and furniture up the creaky stairs, and at one point, I came out onto the porch and discovered a note sticking out of my mailbox. Deciphering the absolutely disastrous penmanship, I understood it to be from Jay, and the purpose of the message was for him to offer his assistance, should I need it, with anything. He suggested contacting him via text and left me his cell-phone number.
I texted him once or twice to see if I could borrow this or that, and eventually he invited me inside while he looked for something I’d requested. To call the condition of downstairs anything less than an aberration would be not doing it justice. But in those situations, we try, I think, to not make it obvious that we’re looking around at piles of filth, to attempt to minimize the awkwardness of a situation where someone offers for you to sit, and there is literally no place to do so because every ounce of furniture is buried beneath piles of filth and dirty laundry. To add to the uncomfortableness was a massive, wooden, circular ashtray on the coffee table –- I guess you’d call it -– in front of the living-room couch. I’m no Raymond Babbitt, but I think there were roughly 86 extinguished butts piled in there.
I hung out with Jay for a few moments, and pretended to share a bowl of awful weed with him, and, again, wanting to avoid the discomfort of the situation, tried to mask the look on my face as he went through his schpeel about why he wore wrist braces above each hand, and a back brace to support his lower spine. Somewhere in the bit was a cloudy theme of how years of work had left him disabled.
I was 31 at the time, eight or nine years his senior.
Over the next week or so, I learned that Jay likes to start his day before dawn. Or at least that’s what I thought I learned, as I could hear him shuffling around when I’d rise early in the morning. What I came to understand was that Jay would actually be still up from the previous evening, and turn in around eight or nine before kicking his day off around the crack of noon.
Here was the routine: Get out of bed, light a cigarette, hopefully make it outside with the burning butt before it was finished. At that point, he would take a small collection of vitamins and prescriptions that served the purpose of countering the symptoms of his allergy to marijuana. He would then smoke another cigarette or two, eat a handful of stale popcorn from his coffee table, and then begin to puff weed all day long, into the night.
This was the first time I'd heard of someone being allergic to marijuana, and I haven’t heard of it since, but it was pretty profound to learn that he swallows half a dozen capsules every day to fend off the side effects of the activity in which he will be engaged until the next time it’s pill-thirty.
I never truly had a problem with Jay. It was mildly painful to listen to his stories of unsuccessful job searching, and the pain his wrists and back caused him. It was always amusing to hear him attempt to get the house in line for his mom’s week off, and the ensuing arguments they’d have over him accomplishing absolutely nothing. His mom, by the way, had a small dog, the breed of which I don’t know or care to, but it was bigger than a Chihuahua, smaller than a Dachsund. Not a yapper, but an ugly face, so, not really a dog at all in my book, but a dog that spent roughly 40 weeks of the year living out of a tractor-trailer cab.
Eventually, I had to call Bald Matt regarding the cigarette smoking. I hated to do it, and it was more than once or twice. Had it been during normal hours, I'd possibly have tolerated it, but it wasn’t. It was bedtime and beyond, meaning the trail of burning tobacco would rise into my face as I lie in bed trying to sleep. He never stayed completely true to his promise to not smoke indoors, but he did get better at it, and all said, he and his mother were not terrible neighbors. And I am still thankful to him for rapping on the window of my car one evening when, after consuming some post-game beers in a men’s-league-hockey locker room, I decided to close down the 3 a.m. bars and stay in my running vehicle, parked out front “’til the end of this song,” when I never should have driven in the first place. His nocturnal habits might’ve saved my record from having three unfriendly letters attached to them.
At some point, Jay’s mom decided to move. Home on her off week, she’d assigned him a list of things to pack (read: everything), as they had to be out by the first of the month. It was right around noon on a Saturday when I heard unusual rumblings below. As I made my curious way downstairs, I discovered a significant portion of their belongings arranged in the grass in yard-sale fashion, and by “yard-sale fashion” I mean he’d moved everything from the living room to the hilly landscape out front. Nothing was priced or organized; it was all in piles.
Having no place to go and an absurd amount of homework to do, I retreated back upstairs, but was back down shortly after hearing a screaming match between Jay and his just-returned-home mother. This, was apparently the day they were to be completely moved out, and like the deceased Willy Santiago from A Few Good Men, Jay “hadn’t packed a thing.”
The vocal wrestling match was staged at a pitch for all neighbors to hear, especially me, as it went from outside to in and back out and all over again. Jay, with his bum wrists and achy back, hustled in and out of the front door attempting to get this yard sale started, when, in fact, the new tenants were anticipating being able to move in that afternoon.
I learned this little tidbit when the new tenants –- a woman with her two children, three pets, stereotypical-NACAR-fan boyfriend –- pulled up 20 minutes later in their Ford Escort, Chevy pickup with loaded trailer in tow, fresh off the road from North Dakota.
Homework, I decided, would wait. Now, on our common-property porch, are 10 breathing creatures. Three of them should be gone from, seven of them entitled to spend that night (and the ensuing 364) in, the apartment below mine.
When in doubt, call Bald Matt.
Bald Matt showed up about an hour later in his pickup truck with his trailer in tow, the difference -- aside from loaded versus empty -- between the two being that Bald Matt actually made his trailer. Well, that and his was empty. The landlord was left with no choice but to put the North Dakota transplants up in a hotel and leave his handiwork bike locked to the tree adjacent our front curb.
It took Jay and his mom three days to get out, and when the last scrap of theirs was gone (Note: Technically, the last scraps never left as I helped myself to a nice sturdy bench and a computer-desk chair leftover from the customerless yard sale.), I felt bad for my new neighbors.
And I can say with the purest of honesty that that feeling lasted about 14 minutes.
I don’t remember how long they lived below me, but they, to this day, remain nightmare fuel. She was a degenerate of sorts, a gal that was about as attractive as she could be for a cigarette-smoking mom of two in her 30s who’d had a rough go of things, you could tell.
Now, when I say she was “as attractive as she could be,” I mean that she did not, whatsoever, come from handsome genes, but she frequently wore low-cut tops, smelled of shampoo, and occasionally floated a vibe out there that suggested she would’ve let me fuck her had I tried.
Christine. Her name might’ve been Christine. Luckily, I never tried to fuck her because had I tried and been successful, I’d probably still be trying to scrub flecks of white trash off my man parts.
The boyfriend was the kind of human being that leaves one at a loss of words on 11 out of 10 encounters. When bathed, he had a greasy mullet, but most of the time he was filthy, fresh off the clock from his landscaping gig, which meant he left for and came home from work earlier than most. And when he came home, he was always shirtless. Shirtless meant that he was going to be out front, on our common-area porch, flaunting his pierced nipples, rocking his all-white high-top sneakers and jean shorts, and he would stay this way until the family retired inside for the evening.
When he spoke he was loud, and with his speech came the overwhelming sense of know-it-all that was emulsified with a faint hint of I’ll-kick-your-ass-if-I-have-to. It’s a little bit sad for me to admit that the teeniest part of me kind of regrets not trying to fuck Christine, because at the very least I would’ve gotten something positive from living above them. But on the good-thing-I-didn’t end are the facts that a) Doug -– I think his name was Doug -– never had a reason to kick my ass, b) that I didn’t attempt to cheat on my fiancée, and c) well, just refer back to 'a' and 'b'.
Anyway, the story could begin and end with Doug, and how he seemed to bully and manipulate Christine, and how he appeared to expect a hot meal prepared for him in the evening, and how he appeared to do absolutely nothing in the way of household contribution. The story, though, is more about Christine’s entire herd. Yes, there was whatever baggage she carried, and yes, there was her specimen of a boyfriend, but there were also the pets: a dog and two cats. These animals matter little, as they were ultimately exchanged for others.
But her children. The youngest was her daughter of maybe seven or eight. She was a sweet enough little girl, one who looked like her mother had cloned a male version of herself and birthed a clone of herself, an offspring destined for a replica of her mother’s life, only with eyeglasses. Like her mother, she was pale and thin with stringy brown hair so long that she occasionally sat on it. The loneliness that this little girl exuded should have been heart wrenching, and the only reason it wasn’t was because of the undisputable fact that Christine thought she was doing the right thing by being with Doug, when in reality he was a burden to them.
So the little girl was often out front on our common-area porch. She was almost always barefoot, frequently creating something with sidewalk chalk. At first this bothered me to no end, because I didn’t want to smoke in front of her, even though her mom and mom’s boyfriend did all day and evening. But I also hated to come home to new pastel exclamations and flowers on my porch floor, the artistic reminder of Swiss Family Snodgrass living below me, as if they ever gave me reason to forget. It was a shitty feeling to have, one I felt even shittier having one afternoon when she’d turned the entire porch into a canvas that portrayed a thought-out apology to me for having live above them.
Her time on the porch and in the yard seemed to be a sort of escape attempt. An effort to flee from the neglect wrought upon her by Christine, who was almost always on the phone trying to wrangle together some money from either the government or her children’s father, or both. Christine would then attempt to keep her daughter occupied by loading her up with chores that she, understandably did not want to do. I know that she loved her dog and cats, but I imagine that tending to the three of them, who were constantly cooped up downstairs, was one of those chores, and by going outside she could escape from them as well.
But above everything, it was her brother Daniel.
Daniel was –- and I use past tense there because while I’m sure that he still is, he is no longer in my life and for that I am grateful -– I think, autistic.
I’m not licensed to diagnose anyone, and I’ve blacked out so much of our cohabitation on Harrison that I don’t remember Christine actually telling me, but I did major in psychology and my wife has spent considerable time working with an autistic population. But before I dive into Daniel, let me remind you that the hardwoods below, coupled with the acoustics of the one-time single home –- Bald Matt had simply floored over the inner staircase that once led to the second floor, so on my end, the hallway to my bedroom was directly over the inner staircase, and on their end, you opened a closet door to a staircase.
My bedroom was over the miniature back porch, so when they let the dog out in the morning, the screen door to that porch slammed under my nightstand, and the back door leading into the kitchen literally shook my bedroom when shut. When the water was turned on or the toilet flushed, I heard it. When cupboards were opened and coffee pots beeped, I knew. If I was about to shower and they turned on their bath water first, I had to wait. When they walked from one end of the apartment to the other, I could literally tell which one of them it was.
I could also tell which of their three television sets was on. Doug and Christine hung a tapestry in Jay’s ashtray living room, and on the far side of it was their bedroom. The near side was the family living room. The bedroom under my living room was Christine’s daughter’s; the one semi-below my bedroom occupied by Daniel, and everyone had a TV in their room. On occasion, I could tell what program they were watching, and when Christine cooked beef for dinner, which was every night, I could smell it.
There were a few things about Daniel that suggested he was autistic. The first was that he seldom made eye contact, and on the occasions in which he did, it was because he was walking towards you with his head down, unaware of your presence until the last minute. He had disgustingly long fingernails, and a thick, unkempt mullet that was not only mid-back length down his shoulders, but bushy in front of his face, perhaps assisting with his desire to avoid eye contact.
Daniel had a tremendous amount of energy but was never outside, nor taken anywhere to burn it. So he made the most of what he had and spent late afternoons, evenings, nights, and every other weekend running inside. Barefoot, clumsy, across the hardwoods and from one end of the apartment to the other, he would run. And when he reached one end, he would launch himself into the wall. I can’t recall if Daniel had big feet because the one time I looked at his shoeless appendages, I was mortified by the condition of his toenails. They made the cuticles of his fingers look attractive. I think, based on hearing his feet smack the hardwoods below some 6,000 times, that they were big.
It sounded like he was stomping, and it would take two or three stomps for him to build momentum, and then he’d be at a run, just long enough to hurl his body into the air and against a wall. I hate to get all Cyndi Lauper here but he did this time after time. And day after day. And week after week. In a very short time, I was on the horn with Bald Matt. And in a very short time, Christine was ringing my door bell. Like Jay had done, she had scribbled out her number, and told me to text her if I needed anything, that she’d try to keep the noise down.
Daniel’s speech was also telltale. I mean, it was very limited and had two attributes: Scream the question you want answered. Repeat. If his desire was left unfulfilled, he would take to running and launching while screaming and repeating. Now, I worked several days a week, and in the evenings I was either working or in class, so when I had time during the day to study, I could if the kids were at school. Naturally, this was a pretty big if, because it was apparently no small task to get Daniel ready for school and out the door, and on mornings when it was too much of a struggle, Christine would just let him stay home. That had to be a massive drag for her, simply because I know it bugged the living shit out of me.
The first few times it happened, I texted her asking why he was not at school, and it only took a couple of responses before I understood the reasoning behind it. Like I said, there is much about this cohabitation I’ve blocked from memory, but two particular instances remain. Daniel, with another textbook symptom, was completely obsessed with video games. When he wasn’t playing a game, he could be heard asking, pleading for the opportunity to play more. And sometimes, he’d fall asleep at night with his console on, leaving the game of the evening’s soundtrack to trail up into my bedroom.
I don’t know what kind of gaming system they had, what games they owned, or how often they rented, but I do know that one day he wanted to play “Sonic Heroes,” which I assume is from the “Sonic the Hedgehog” series. As usual, it started with the basic scream.
“’Sonic Heroes’, yes?”
This was repeated a sixth, seventh, and eighth time before he took to the running while screaming, “Mom, ‘Sonic Heroes’, yes?” Each interrogatory declaration was followed by the crash of him launching himself into a wall.
On another occasion, it was food that he wanted. A specific piece of food that I struggled, at first, to decipher. Then it became clear.
It should be noted that each time Daniel did not receive an answer, he repeated his statement/demand with higher volume.
“KFC biscuits, yes?!”
This particular exchange lasted for half an hour until, at last, my living room shook with the slam of their front door and I heard them load into their Escort to procure the Colonel’s baked dough.
Like I said, I’m not sure exactly how long they lived below me, but because the list of episodes created by this family was never-ending, it seemed like an eternity.
In addition to the front porch, we shared two other common areas: the yard and the basement. It was my understanding that the downstairs tenants were responsible for lawn maintenance, but, well into the summer, when they hadn’t mowed once, I decided to handle it myself.
The front yard was not large, but it was all one massive hill, which was both dangerous and annoying. Compared to the back, however, it was a cake walk. My living-room table was adjacent to two windows on the south side of the house. It was where I occasionally studied and from time to time, ate. When the weather was nice enough, I kept the windows open. More often than not, however, Daniel’s noise would travel out their windows and up, into mine, compounding what I could already here through the floor. It was my own in-stereo soundtrack to the production of an independent film called Inside White Trash Walls. Even more telling was the olfactory delight that was eventually worked into the picture; when the first wave of heat settled in that summer, I began to notice wafts of a wretch-inducing stench.
Initially, it would only travel up with the breeze, and so I imagined it to be coming from the lot behind our homes, wherein a business had its dumpster (that was conveniently emptied just before five in the morning). When the odor became stronger and more frequent, I investigated the contents of my refrigerator, imagining that something was tucked away and rotting. When I discovered that this was not the case, I assumed that something had crawled into a wall and died, so I let Bald Matt know.
It was when I entered the back yard to mow, however, that I discovered the source.
While there was not a corpse of any sort rotting in the sun, a question I’d once posed to Christine came rushing back into my mind. When they’d first moved in, I’d explained the trash-day protocol: my garbage and recycling went on one side of the driveway; theirs on the other. I’d only made it a point to illustrate this because it’d been a problem in the past in that the trash company assumed our home was one household, that we were trying to get away with putting out more than the weekly allotment by using both sides of the driveway.
I’d be gone for the day. The trash guys would come, take one half of the trash, and leave the other. Phone calls to the waste-management call center were seldom productive as the trash would simply sit on the curb for the entire week, eventually retrieved the following week. Every once in a while, you could catch them on the same day, and they’d come back by.
Christine and her family put their trash out for a couple of weeks, then ceased. I asked her about it one evening on the porch.
“Oh, Doug just takes it to his work site and dumps it there,” she said.
“I see," I said. "So, instead of walking it out to the curb, where waste management -– paid for by Bald Matt -– collects trash, he hauls it to the truck, drives it to work, and lugs it to a dumpster?”
“That’s what he said he wants to do,” she said.
Of course he does, I thought. That way his meth paraperhnalia and chopped-up murder victims don't roast in the sun on our curb.
I’m not sure how long he’d not been doing this by the evening I unwedged his make-shift gate closer to the fenced-in back yard, but it was all I had in me to keep from vomiting. In the corner of the yard just inside the gate, directly across from their back porch was a pair of plastic 35-gallon trash cans. The one on the left had some branches, sundry yard waste crammed into it. The other was piled over six feet high with draw-string black trash bags, each of which was full enough to burst. This particular stack had so many flies buzzing around it that it was fit for a scene in a modern-day Amityville Horror.
Having worked in restaurants for about 15 years at the time, I’d smelled some foul trash. But nothing like this. The thought of having this collection of waste below my apartment sent me into mild fits of sweaty panic. I had to do something about it, and soon, and in a way that, if I could help it, would keep me from seeing or knowing the contents.
I’d wanted to act immediately, but didn’t want to be discovered fiddling with their trash in the daylight, so that evening, I gathered gloves and my head lamp and returned to the yard. With the sun long since set, the vile collection had cooled to a simmer, and as I heaved the first bag down from the stack, it split along the side.
I know exactly what 35 pounds feels like. I’ve hoisted, stacked, and carried hundreds of cases of fryer oil in my day. This bag, and the ones that followed, were easily 50-plus. When the bag split, I tried to mask my gasp, still wanting to keep the operation incognito, but profanity fell from my lips when the beam from my skull shone down on the largest sea of maggots I have ever seen. I gagged and swallowed, hustling back up to my apartment for a broom, a dustpan, and a box of trash bags. We could have two bags per side, and since I seldom generated one myself in a week, the plan was to condense their mountain of rotting meat flesh with my trash all into four bags, each doubled to prevent further spillage.
Like the first, each of the following bags busted when I lifted them, and so not only did I have to repeatedly sweep up piles of swarming, heat-soaked maggots, but I also had to manipulate loose batches of them that had been smashed between each bag. At the end of the thing, I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if the bags had begun inching down the sidewalk on their own. There were that many maggots in the heap. The final step was to fire up the garden hose and blast the remaining rotted-cow-flesh consumers out of the can.
I don’t think I directly touched any of them in the process, but once my broom and dustpan had been bleached in hot water, I took a 30-minute shower, feeling all the while that I could not completely scrub the decaying meat juice from my skin. At that juncture, I wasn’t much of a prayer, but I certainly kept my fingers crossed that the trash men would make a full collection in the morning. The next afternoon I came home to an empty curb and a gigantic floral-patterned chalk drawing on the porch thanking me.
The final major episode with the Christine clan involved their pets. At some point, they pawned their dog off on another family, and in its place came a pair of puppies. In addition, a friend of Christine’s had asked her to watch her cat for her while she was out of town, and that friend, whether or not she actually left town, never came back for the cat. Like the one my fiancee had adopted, this cat was an outdoor cat, and the family was in the practice of letting it out whenever it mewed at the door.
This cat also obtained the worst case of fleas I have ever seen. Now, I’ve lived with a dog or two that got fleas, but in each of those instances, the situation was quickly remedied, so I’d never actually had a flea on me. But this cat’s fleas were so bad (read: went untreated) that it quickly became banished to the basement. In the basement were two primary things: our separate storage areas and the washer and dryer. My storage space consisted of a locked room that took up about 10 percent of the basement. The entire rest of it was theirs. Somewhere in the middle was the laundry area.
Like trash-day protocol, I had tried to map out a system for doing laundry when they moved in. This conversation was a waste of time as they literally had laundry going every time I went down to do some of my own. And I do mean every time. So the routine became to pull her load out of the washer and set it atop the dryer. I’d do my load, and if she had something in the dryer, it either went into one of her baskets or on the floor. I felt bad about doing this at first, but quickly got over it.
I didn’t realize the outdoor cat had been banished to the basement until it startled me one evening by coming out of their mounds of shit they had stacked wall to wall in their area. My entry point to the basement was through a door at the top of the driveway. Theirs was via a staircase that led up to their kitchen. The cat came out from its hiding spot and startled me just before Daniel’s sister opened the door at the top of the steps to instruct me to not let the cat out.
“It gots fleas,” she said, as one simultaneously leapt onto my leg. And then another. And another, and before I knew it, there were dozens of them on my socks and shins. I couldn’t swat them off fast enough to stay ahead, and so, back up on my front porch, I had to set my laundry down, take off my shoes and socks, and de-flea my legs and belongings before retreating upstairs. Having worked for my father’s exterminating company, I offered both Christine and Bald Matt to treat the basement and their apartment for a small rent reduction the following month. The landlord agreed, and Christine and I set a date for the debugging. When the date came, I stood just inside her front door, and noticed a painting that fascinated me. It was a simple oil piece of a wrinkly, bearded old man praying before a meal of bread and broth. Next to his meal lay a knife and a thick book with reading glasses folded closed atop it.
We talked for a moment about the piece, how its simplicity made it beautiful, and she smiled at me in this way that seemed to apologize for something. When I inquired as to where I should start with the de-fleaing, she informed me that she had to cancel.
We set two more appointments, and she cancelled those, too, leaving the lot of us to have to walk around to the garden hose and spray off after being in the basement.
One evening, having sprayed the fleas off my ankle, I was hanging the hose back up, and I looked up at my windows. Something in the soffit caught my eye. When I got back onto the porch, I leaned out over the railing for a closer look: a bird’s nest. I can’t really describe the peculiarity of the nest’s placement, but suffice to say it was puzzling how these birds had managed to fashion their home under the soffit of a semi roof; it seemed suspended in air, magically attached to only a couple angled planks of decaying wood.
My enchantment with this nest grew with each day. I’d sit on the concrete slab of the porch railing and keep lookout for the birds’ travels and activities. One afternoon, I was out smoking on a study break and Christine came out. I asked her if she’d seen the nest, and when she said she hadn’t, she came over to the railing. She leaned out over it and I confirmed my suspicion that she was almost always braless.
“How did they manage to build a nest there?”
As the words left her lips, her eyes caught mine finishing their gaze at her bare breasts. She smiled and backed up, adjusting her top. When I told her I didn’t know, she sat down and said, “Huh,” which she followed with silence.
I extinguished my cigarette and excused myself to return to my studies.
“Hold on a second,” she said. She got up from her rocking chair and went inside.
When she came back out she had the painting of the old praying man in her hands.
“Matthew has found us a home over on the Kansas side,” she said. “It’s a whole home, one that won’t have us disturbing anybody above.”
“Oh,” I said. Fumbling for a response, I felt joyous at the possibility of silence and guilty for the various ways in which I’d advertised my displeasure of their presence and practices.
“I’m sorry you’ve had to put up with us,” she said, “and I’m sorry about the fleas. I really wanted you to exterminate, but I just couldn’t bear to have you see my house like that.”
Feeling embarrassed and awkward, I continued to contribute nothing but silence.
“Anyway, I want you to have this.”
I tried to tell her she didn’t have to do that, that they hadn’t been so bad to put up with, but before I could say much of anything, she’d gone inside.
In a week, they were gone, and a pair of young men -– Fletch and Craig, who I’d met when Bald Matt had shown them the place –- moved in downstairs. Bald Matt had left me the key to the apartment and asked me to rid it of fleas, which I gladly did. On my way out of the empty half of the house, and back up to my half, I peered over the railing to check on the nest, and was horrified to see a small bird suspended from the bottom of the nest. The creature had managed to wrap some pieces of the nest twine around its neck and fallen, perhaps in a fit to free itself. I dropped my pesticides and ran upstairs to get my broom.
After a half hour of unsuccessfully trying to hoist the bird back into its nest, I gave up, and watched its fight against strangulation dwindle to the occasional twitch. That evening, I looked at the painting of the man before his supper, and offered a quiet, folded-hands wish for the bird to be freed of its situation. In the morning, I could tell that the bird had expired, and tried once more, again with no success, to untangle it from its accidental noose.
Fletch came out of his apartment and spotted me in my struggle.
“Whoa,” he said. “What the fuck happened there? We got some suicidal birds living on the side of our house?”
Irritated with the whole situation, I could think of no reply.
“Yeah,” I said. “It appears so.”
Craig wasn’t there long. He knocked up the obnoxious girl he was dating and they moved in together. Adam moved in in his place. We shared many an evening Jager Bomb on the porch, frequently checking on the state of the carcass. It was just out of reach enough that the only way to free the bird from its self-made gallows would have been clumsy at best, a certain destruction of the entire nest. I could never tell for sure, but the nest’s activity seemed to have dropped off completely after the suicidal bird met its end. It was as if the other birds simply couldn’t stand to live in a home from which one of their kin was suspended in death, and had fled, in search of a new spot to create a dwelling.
And for some reason, that bird always made me think of Christine and the crossroads decisions she’d made in life that left her unbothered by a greasy-headed, nipple-pierced boyfriend, a screaming-and-running son, a lost-and-wandering daughter, flea-ridden cats, and maggoty trash. How her only solutions were to work the phones in search of money, to smoke cigarettes in her rocking chair on the porch, and to let the graduate students that lived above her holy hell look down her shirt and occasionally think of boning her in an act of degenerate contagion.
"Birds of a Feather"
Phish has been my favorite band since senior year of high school. I was skipping fourth hour with Chris Fickel one day when he played a song off the album Rift for me. We were in his Jetta, and headed to pull bong rips with Seamus McGreevy. I don’t remember if the tape was a studio copy of the album, or if it was a bootleg show that had a Rift song on it, but I was immediately infatuated. That was almost 20 years ago, and I have occasionally had this experience where I think my relationship with the band is coming to a close.
This has been because they’ve taken a hiatus, or have actually broken up, or something in my life -– i.e. getting married, becoming a father, etc. -- has happened that has led me to conclude that I might have seen my last Phish show. Turns out, I’ve been delightfully wrong every time. In fact, the wife and I will see them thrice this summer, two of which will include our daughter.
I used to think, for good or otherwise, that I was unquestionably their biggest fan. I’ve only seen a fraction of their shows; many more have seen far more than I’ve ever dreamed of. I don’t have a Web site dedicated to them, and only on one real occasion have I written about them. I’ve tried a couple of other times here and there, but starting has always felt forced. But, I’ve thought on countless occasions that nobody could possibly love Phish more than I have and do. It’s a dumb thing to think, a thing that matters none, but it’s a thought I’ve had nonetheless.
What’s either equally dumb or perhaps worse has been this eternal quest I’ve been on to try and make people love Phish as much as I do. Or at very least, make them big fans. This is a problem with the way that I’m wired because it’s as though I have some psychological need of verification for loving something as much as I do. Put simply, their music and the experience of seeing them live give me a joy similar to nothing else I’ve experienced in life.
Now, such an affinity is bound to create opinions with friends and family. My wife likes Phish. Two of my sisters like Phish, and some of my friends do, too. I’ve tried to graduate them from like to love, but mostly, it’s been a dumb thing for me to give energy. My mom, on the other hand, does nothing more than roll her eyes when she hears me mention the band. Every time I say something about them, and especially when I announce that I’ll be seeing them live again, she voices her opinion of absurdity.
A little over a year ago, I made the decision to try and trick her into liking them. I decided that I’d make her a CD of Phish songs but not tell her that’s who she was hearing. It was a project I spent about a month on and it took that long because I wanted to listen to each album and select which songs I thought would appeal to her the most. Then I wanted my sister to do the same thing so that we could compare lists. In the end, she’d be getting a CD we both agreed had the most appealing tracks for her on it. I don’t have any evidence to support the claim, but if she ever listened to the whole thing, I’d be surprised, and if she actually did make it through once, it’s probably been the only time.
I asked her about it once, and she did say that there was one song she liked, but that was the beginning and the end of the discussion. Essentially, it was a fun thing to collaborate with my sister on, but the purpose ended up being a waste of time.
One evening during the portion of the project in which my sister was still working on her list, she was talking to me about a particular album that had a particular track she didn’t care for. She’s never been great at knowing song titles; she usually refers to them by the number sequence in which they appear on the album, i.e., “I like number six a lot.” We went round and round trying to figure it out, and the effort was of no avail.
A couple of nights later, we were at a bar together, celebrating our aunt’s birthday when the very song she’d been trying to recall came pouring out of the jukebox: “Birds of a Feather” from The Story of the Ghost album. I was pretty disappointed to hear this, but in fairness a part of me was going to be bummed regardless. In her defense, it’s not that great of a song, but I’ve always loved the shit out of it for its sheer symbolism.
Or rather, what the symbolism means to me.
There’s some interesting sociological commentary in the verses of the tune’s lyrics, but the one I have always been most interested in is the refrain: “Birds of a feather are flocking outside.”
My interpretation of this phrase centers on the notion of the live show. The band is either in their tent or backstage at a venue, and outside their walls are thousands of people, all different in numerous ways, all gathered –- or flocked –- together for one single purpose: to see Phish.
I don’t want to get too philosophical about this, but in all of the literature and psychology courses I’ve taken, the big morsel I walk away with is that things are about interpretation. You read a passage from a novel and get one thing out of it. I read the same passage and get something different -– be it slightly or entirely –- all based on interpretation.
In this instance, the figurative passage is about a sort of world view, and the world view that I have is largely staked to the lenses I wear as a Phish fan. There have been many days and months and years in which I’ve wished for there not to be birds of a feather flocking outside, for all the birds of the world to be of the same feather. And even though I have continued to try and force this notion upon my small slice of the world, I’ve come to learn that if all the birds were of the same feather, shit would be pretty damn boring. So I’m happy to be the brand of plume I am, and will seek happiness from within my own flock.
A Georgia Bird (continued)
When I balked that summer day on Kinnett Drive in Lilburn, no ump came out of his stance with arms extended outwards. No fans booed, and no base runners advanced 90 feet. As a matter of fact, the game simply ended, right then and there, and here’s why: The object that had caught my eye was a plump robin, sitting there peacefully in our side yard, and for reasons I’ll never be able to quite understand, I stopped the windup that would have delivered the tennis ball near, perhaps in, David Barinowski’s strike zone and instead targeted the bird.
Maybe I thought this would make me look cool to my still newish friends. Perhaps I was lashing out at the world, frustrated that I was over 800 miles away from my dad, that both of my parents had each married another. It’s possible that I was still processing the fact that I had to share my parents’ love with my sister. Still another theory is that the whole thing was a combination of all three. There is only one certainty in my mind, though, and that’s this: Were I forced to relive the moment and forced to relive it in precisely the same manner, the odds of me delivering a perfect strike would be pretty low.
But not that day. Not in that moment, with that tennis ball, and that bird. I don’t remember an awful squawk or an explosion of feathers or any grotesque launch of organs or parts. I only remember this muffled thud that, in the quickest fraction of a second in which one can attempt to measure human experience, my feelings went from excitement to shame.
I remember looking first to David Barinowski who was bigger than I, and, at least by grade, a year older. I sought his approval for the display of aim, and instead, the bat he held in his hands clunked to the driveway, and it was his arms that took the formation of an umpire calling time, only his palms faced upwards, not the concrete. I don’t remember his exact words, but they formed a question that inquired why I’d done that. He took a few steps in the direction of the bird, and behind me, the fielders all trotted in as though an inning had ended.
David Barinowki took the briefest of glances at the bird, which had been forced from its spot by about a foot upon impact. As it took one, maybe two steps, and settled into its new, final spot, David shifted his own path and walked into the Tanner’s yard next door, out onto Kinnett Drive. He crossed, and started up Mystere Lane’s hill toward his home. I didn’t see him for a few days, and when I did, he never mentioned the episode again. As for the rest of my friends, some of them slowly scattered into the directions of their homes. A few stayed, still interested in playing.
I could only lower my head to hide the tears that had begun to stream down my face as I walked into the garage and through our kitchen door to find my mom. I needed her help, or Steve’s, or both. I needed someone to show me how to undo what I’d done, or at least alter the effects of my action.
One Little Bird
Somewhere, floating in the universe is a collection of thoughts and sayings that people have and people say about parents and how they view their own children versus how they view the children of others. I can’t summarize what they are, but it’s some combination of the following: Everyone thinks their own children are the brightest/most beautiful; no one cares about your children but you.
I am no exception to this mantra. Some of my friends and family have beautiful, wise children, and I care about them and in some sense love them. If asked, I would care for and raise them like my own. But I would never be able to love them like I love my daughter and I hope to be blessed with the ability to love our next child, should we have one, on the same level. But right now it’s just her, and she is the smartest, most beautiful thing I have ever laid eyes on, and as it stands right now, she has two sets of obsessions, and each set contains two things.
Level one consists of hats and dogs. We have a dog, live in a neighborhood where lots of folks have/walk dogs, and when I leave in the morning and come home in the evening I’m wearing a hat. In turn, wherever we go in public, regardless of the time, she appears to be on a perpetual lookout for hats and dogs. Once spotted, she will let everyone know, and she is so quick to locate them, that it often times takes a moment for the adults with her to seek out the particular hat or dog –- sometimes it’s the combo of a hatted person walking a dog –- she has identified.
Before we get to level two, I must add that my wife got our daughter going on the Baby Signing Time series several months ago. I’m not going to sit here and gush over the thing, but it’s been an unbelievable example of the whole kids-are-sponges theory. She has seldom sat through a video or a CD or a book in the series, but she has picked up almost everything they’ve taught her, which means when she does see a dog or a hat, or both, she signs for them. Or at least her version of the sign.
Anyway, level two: books and birds.
I might be mistaken, but I frequently think that books give my daughter as much joy as food does. My wife had the brilliant idea of asking for books as gifts at our couple’s baby shower, and in addition to the stacks we got on that occasion, Adeline has acquired quite the impressive library. She has her favorites and they go in waves. Oftentimes she will pull book after book from shelves and from baskets in search of a current favorite, and when she finds it she’ll sit and “read” it herself, or bring it to you and request that you read it to her. Right now her favorites are Hug by Jez Alborough and Eric Carle/Jim Martin’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (Note: They've changed several times since I typed that.).
With the birds, I’ve already mentioned a few of the images in view everywhere in our home, but even more noticeable is the sound of dozens of birds chirping from before dawn and until around dusk. This is a fascinating concept because, prior to her hitting this stage of development, I never realized how unaware I was of the chorus that inhabits our neighborhood. Now, we don’t even have to step outside to hear the singing, but when we do, it’s a thing of beauty.
There’s something about motor-skill development at 17 months that prevents a toddler from being able to do the precise sign. Or at least that’s the case with my kid. For example, the sign for more is a circle made with each hand (your fingers lightly pressed to your thumbs) and then you gently knock your two circles together. Adeline touches the inner palm of one hand with the index finger of her other. For dog, you pat your lower waist as if beckoning a canine. She makes the same motion but does so on her chest. To sign bird, place the top of your hand to your mouth and open and close your index finger and thumb, like a beak. She touches her index finger to her top lip and draws the finger down over her lip, as we might do when doing the playful b-b-b-b-b sound.
To add to it, she’s enchanted by the outdoors; it soothes her, especially when she’s tired and borderline fussy in the late afternoon. So we’ll step outside and into a trance she goes, observing and absorbing. Once the sound of the chirping birds resonates her, she’ll slowly do her version of the sign. And smile. It would appear that she loves birds.
Anyway, the books.
She’ll pick one out and bring it to me. I’ll look at it, say the title aloud, and on cue, she’ll extend her arms upward, requesting to be picked up and placed in my lap, at which point, I’ll read to her. Her favorite books have shifted several times since I started this piece, but for the first few days in which I began it, her favorite was one published by Brighter Child and illustrated by Claudine Gevry. It’s not so much a story, rather a “pushing, turning, counting book” as the cover suggests. It’s title? One Little Bird.
There’s a part of me that wishes it was a story book as opposed to a book full of stimulus that promotes movement and mechanics, but the timing of the whole thing was perfect and adorable. The cover art, naturally, depicts one little bird, and it, along with the title, will forever remind me of my one little bird.
Big-Apple Bird; Brooklyn Bird by Way of Denver, Part II
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. It was only the second time we’ve hired a sitter, and it was important that we do so, given the 40 minute drive to Smithville wherein the best food in the Kansas City area lies: Justus Drugstore. We sat at a two-top near the front door and immediately fatigue from the end of the work week bore down on my shoulders. I needed the food and drink to come and come soon or I wouldn’t make it through the evening. We were in luck and my wife’s Manhattan, along with my Elixir du Jour, were delivered.
As we sipped our beverages and studied the menu, my wife began to tell me of a recent tale of heartbreak and hurt suffered by her sister at the hands of still another boy. A few chapters into the story, our server was tableside again to discuss cuisine. We selected appetizers, followed by salads and entrees, and by the time we were done with dessert, not a single bite had disappointed.
The tale my wife told of her sister's most recent, soul-dismantling hurt was one so loaded with lies and deceit on the boy’s end, and so full of trust and integrity on my sister-in-law’s end, that it pained me to hear, and having seen her for an in-town visit just over a month ago, the vibe she had exuded suddenly resonated. The situation this young man had put her in glistened of such cockamamie, that it lingered in that cloudy, just-crazy-enough-to-work vortex that makes reality appear genuine and desirable, when truthfully, it weeps and oozes of ache and insanity, a poison ivy of the mind and heart, if you will.
The delightful menu at the Drugstore represents all-local, made-from-scratch ingredients, and in place of your average verbiage, it lists ingredients, almost requiring the patron to attempt to envision what one might concoct with so many variables. What’s impressive, though, is that the service staff knows what’s printed, as well as featured items they must cite verbally, like a good law student knows bar-exam material. Ours was no exception on this evening, and in attempting to absorb the description of our amuse bouche, exhaustion and bewilderment gave way to distraction; while trying to listen to and read about all of this fine food, something about our server caught my eye.
It was a pendant, small and round, quaint and cute, suspended from her neck. And in the center of it, the image of a tiny little bird. When she walked away, I couldn’t help but think of little Eva in the Big Apple, trying so hard to take flight, yet cinched to her nest thanks to swarms of hurt and deceit that seem to seek her out every time she ventures onto the branch.
"Bird in a House"
A little over a year ago, the wife and I took our daughter to St. Louis by train. It was our first trip out of the city as a family, and our destination was a Railroad Earth show at The Pageant. Although short-lived, the experience was incredible. I remember feeling equally vulnerable and excited to get out there and explore with my girls but stay safe at the same time. I’d only been into Railroad Earth for a few months, had acquired only two of their studio albums. Feeling the need to study for the show, I purchased the others off of iTunes, and made CD copies of each for the wife and I to have in our cars.
I’m guessing it was because of the time our cat brought a bird inside, but I was most excited to listen to Bird in a House, their second release, and it surprised me little to deem the title track the album’s best cut. It starts with a quiet, simple melody and quickly works its way to the first verse, which is where I always do two things: envision the experience that bird had in our living room, and think about my struggles to become both a better human being and a paid writer.
“’I want to sing my own song, that’s all,’
Cried the bird and flew into a wall.
‘There must be some way out,’ he cried,
And his desperation echoed down the hall.”
The chorus follows and it’s as simple as a chorus can get, but I still dig it, because it illustrates the pain the bird’s situation causes him. For the first two lines of that verse, though, I interpret that singing-my-own-song bit as my battle to not only improve and succeed, but to figure out the right way to go about it. That right way hinges on my ability and willingness to be structured, disciplined, and to make good choices. Most of the time, I fail miserably at those things, leading me to feel trapped and inadequate. There’s got to be a solution, and in thinking and saying just that, my own desperation bounces off the walls of our home, much like that blackbird did so many months ago.
“’I want to join my own kind, that’s all,’
Cried the bird and flew into a wall.
‘There must be some way out,’ he cried.
And his desperation echoed down the hall.”
Join my own kind. I am certain that abundant men, who are great husbands, fathers, and dream pursuers, inhabit all stretches of this countryside. I want to join them. They are my own kind. If only I could keep myself from getting in my own way, the possibilities and opportunities would open up to me.
“’I’m gonna smash my way out,’ that’s all,
Cried the bird, and smashed from wall to wall.
‘There must be some way out,’ he cried,
And his desperation echoed down the hall.”
The opening line to this final verse symbolizes the frustration that results from moments in which I analyze poor choices and mistakes, and attempt to coach myself to learn from them, to do better next time. Then, when I don’t, my thought patterns get aggressive, and I, too, want to “smash my way out.”
The song is so basic, so complex in its simplicity and it is for that combination, along with the story it tells, that I love it.
At the end of our anniversary dinner, fatigue had returned. This time, it’d brought its finishing move, and I knew I was toast. As we signed our bill, I let my wife know that she would have to drive. I remember her backing the car up, and I was out. Half an hour later, she woke me up and we were pulling into the parking lot of a neighborhood bar. Apparently, I’d agreed to get a nightcap before relieving our sitter of her duties. I think my portion of the conversation led her to believe that I was too tired to function in such a setting, so we skipped it, and again, I crashed, asleep for the final five minutes of the drive home.
I don’t really even remember what transpired inside the house, save for me crawling into bed in my clothes, and her coming in a few minutes later to tell me she wanted me to open my gift. I usually give pretty decent gifts for our occasions. I also usually procrastinate in obtaining them, leaving her to open a printout of the gift that’s en route from an online order. I hadn’t even been that good, this time. Between business in the restaurant I chef, and off-premise catering functions, and our anniversary dinner falling on one of the craziest Saturdays in our six-months of being open, and Mother’s Day being the day after our anniversary, I’d meant to shop for a gift, but hadn’t.
Fletch and Adam had moved out of the bottom of the split-level a number of months before my wife and I got married, and for some time, downstairs was vacant. Adam, being the activist that he is, had plans to work for some politician in California. All he had to do was get there and try to avoid letting his dust cloud of problems follow him. Fletch was moving in with a girlfriend, and so both tenants needed to shed as many belongings as possible. Fletch had asked me if there was anything I wanted from their place. My response was, “Yes. The Phish poster from Adam’s room and the wind chimes out front.”
This was a strange thing for me to say in that I had yet to figure out exactly what I’d be doing with all my artwork in my wife’s home. It would all, no doubt, be relegated to the basement, where all the walls are concrete, a challenge for artwork-hanging projects. I’d never had much of an appreciation for wind chimes, but this set was massive. The longest pipe was probably two feet long, and Fletch had hung the chimes from the porch ceiling, so on days when my doors and windows were open, I could hear them, and they soothed the stress of my studies, which were always behind. Their sound was magnificent, an indicator of the spring breeze, an immaculate replacement of Daniel crashing into the walls and asking about biscuits and Sonic the Hedgehog.
On the afternoon in which they were moving the last of their belongings out, I heard the chimes sounding in an unnatural way, and their noise was dulled by conversation on the porch. When I heard Fletch start his truck and drive away, I went down to investigate and found two things on the porch: emptiness where the chimes had been, and the Phish poster aggressively folded and stuffed into a trash bag, left behind for someone else to tote to the curb.
I’ve been a sensitive person all my life. I easily embarrass, seldom escape a shadow of shame, and am quick to have my feelings hurt. Not only was this discovery not an exception, it felt deliberate. My feelings were especially hurt considering the countless times I’d helped or been kind to Fletch. Like the times they had raging parties and I’d only complained when the noise was unbearable after midnight. Or the times I’d brought him lunch when going out to obtain my own. Or the times I looked after his dog Buster, or Adam’s beagle, Beagle. Or the time he called me at four in the morning, ill and in need of emergency medical care due to dehydration caused by his Crohn’s. I’d woken and driven him to the hospital without batting an eye, and later helped his father gather some belongings when he’d come by to obtain them. Or how when he’d agreed to DJ my wedding reception, then flaked at the last minute, I didn’t give him too much grief.
Anyway, my feelings were hurt and when I called him out on it, he said he’d forgotten about the poster, that a buddy had wanted the chimes.
I’d really looked forward to hanging them in my new home, hoped that their calming effect would offer good graces as my wife and I entered that first year of marriage, and so after I’d moved in, I shopped around for some. I had no idea how expensive big ones were, and so I settled on the miniature set she had, and mounted them on the outside of our screened-in porch. They were not handsome and black and bassy in sound, but green and trebly, easily battered by a light breeze, so much so that their instigator weight knocking against the house drowned out the sound of the chimes themselves more often than not. In no time, they were loosed of their stringwork and one by one, each chime fell to the earth. They lay in a pile inside the porch, and eventually, the wife declared reparations too difficult, and they were discarded.
After making the Mother’s-Day rounds the day after our anniversary, we returned home, and my wife again asked me to open my anniversary gift from her. She brought out this large rectangular box and instructed me not to shake it. Upon opening, I discovered a beautiful set of hand-crafted wooden chimes, not quite as large as the ones I’d had my heart set on, but big enough. I was tickled that she’d remembered my affinity for the chimes after five years, ashamed that I hadn’t even shopped for her gift yet.
The next day, I plugged in the words “wooden” (the five-year traditional theme as opposed to the contemporary suggestion: silverware) and “anniversary gifts” and there, in the middle of the first results page was a pair of mango-wood candleholders, large, hand-carved, and inside the round base of each, birds. The larger one houses a pair inside its base; the smaller a lone, wee bird in its. They were going to run me $70, but I’d been saving $50 in my PayPal account for a writing piece I was paid to do by some guy that owns an online-gaming site.
So in a sense, I brought more birds into the house by doing the very thing "Bird in a House" represented for me and a portion of my goals. They shipped quickly and arrived in three days. The wife loved them, or at least told me she did, and quickly decided that they’d look great in her new office. Our daughter was just as quick to identify the new birds in our home, and all of this came on the back end of wind chimes coming back into my life. And in my life, the oft-raging storm in my mind needs all the tranquility it can get. Now, one writer that I admire, sent out this tweet within less than 24 hours of me receiving my gift, but he’s a bear I choose to joke with rather than wrestle. Perhaps his storm settled some time ago.
That same writer sent out a series of tweets a few days ago. In them he criticized the long-lived mantra of writers being poor and advertising it. A part of me wants to associate with this mantra, in that I would love to have the confidence to call myself a writer, and I have in fact been poor for as long as I can remember. “Poor,” of course, is relative. My wife and I both have cars and plenty of clothes and a refrigerator full of food at all times. We also take trips to see concerts and go camping and vacation like I imagine most quote/unquote normal Americans do, but budgeting and finances are a struggle every month, and we literally have zero savings.
I get why Chris Jones said what he said –- which was basically that it’s annoying the writers have historically boasted poverty –- but he has also enjoyed some success in the profession, and I imagine that, at the root of his success, was the solid foundation of what every writer needs to do: put your butt in the chair and write. In fact, he has tweeted precisely this, that writing, whittled down to its core, begins and ends with writing. Obviously, there’s editing, which is like the broken rib in the marathon of writing. It’s tedious work that takes keen observation, insists upon avoiding rigidity, and demands that you come back to it again and again, even if it means starting over.
There’s also marketing and publishing, feral beasts of their own, but at the root of it all is that butt in that chair with consistency. I’d guess that the probability of why many writers fail, or never even attempt to be successful reflects the lack of cheeks in seats. I say this based on experience, not because I don’t want to sit down and work, but because I make poor choices that limit my ability to do so. And for the most part, “poor choices” means indulging in booze and tobacco, when I should be resting and preparing myself to rise early, before work, and sit my ass down to write.
It’s a major monster, one I’m working on in therapy, and it sickens me to admit that, for over 20 years I have been addicted to nicotine. It’s a habit I started in high school and it was anchored by a lack of confidence. Translation: I had plenty of good friends, but we weren’t in the cool crowd, and maybe (went the thought process back then) if I smoked, it’d make me cool enough to get my foot in the door of that crowd. Why this was a priority continues to baffle my brain, but I think it has something to do with all of the beautiful girls being in said crowd. And then there’s the sauce, most notably beer. I could drink with the best of them in my teens, and although I eased up in college, I still got after it both there and in grad school.
Grad school was the worst. I was invested in studying and working like no other academic portion of my life. And I was in a writing program. Surrounded by writers. One professor told us on the first day of class that we would actually go out to the bar together most nights after class, which we did. Us students would get after it. He would always have two beers and bail. I asked him once and he said, “It’s a head thing.”
I think that was one of those moments where I knew what he meant but only on the surface. The gravity of the message didn’t fully sink in until years later: There’s no sense putting your butt in the chair if you don’t have a clear head.
I think it was 1987 when my dad was first hospitalized. I never thought to get the details associated with the actual moments leading up to him going in, but he was laid up for most of a week, needing surgery to repair an ulcer-riddled stomach and 40 staple stitches to close up his gut. The quiet word around his house after the fact was that the doctor basically told him if he didn’t stop drinking and smoking it would kill him and soon. Turned out to be true, as 14 years later it killed him.
The episode was significant for me as a boy who looked up to his dad, but I was entering puberty then and trying to solve the undying puzzle to my parents’ divorce and, for the first time in my life, having stability in where I resided. And in the end, he was out and home and back to work, which meant I was right back to needing him for things. Like basketball.
My dad and his wife and their two children had moved into a house that sits some four blocks from where we live now. It was a pretty cool place, and they had affordable rent because they cared for my great aunt who still lived there at the time. Her husband had a bazillion tools and they were on the walls and benches in the basement and in the detached garage as well. In fact, it was from this garage that I borrowed the bicycle to go to the mall and purchase Led Zeppelin IV, which led to this piece, which led to the paid, online-gaming piece.
In front of this garage, though, was a basketball goal. To me, as a 13-year-old, this thing looked like it had actually come from the previous century. It was nothing like the solid, one-piece post and prefab backboard/rim combo in my buddy Mike’s driveway. Rather, its gray, iron post was sunken into a thicker, deeper black iron secured by some bolt system, all attached to a backboard so rotten that it looked like the rim could fall off and maim a dunker at any moment.
When my dad heard me tell him that I wanted a basketball goal, he did what he’d always done: ruled out purchasing a nice, new one, and crafted a way of getting me one for cheap, if not free. His solution in this case was to take the one that faced the driveway of his detached garage, and haul it to my mom’s house. At the time, only two words could summarize this plan: terrible and idea. I suppose they could have been substituted for cheap and bastard, but either pair was suitable.
For a stretch, my dad drove these two beater-ass hoopties. The first was a red one and it was a sled guaranteed to embarrass any kid being dropped off. One time he pulled into this gas station to get smokes, and parked it on this slope. As he walked away from the car, it started rolling backwards towards the street. I hollered out of panic and, after sprinting back to the vehicle, he lunged through the driver-side window and tried to wrestle with the gear selector on the steering column to get the thing into park. When it came off in his hand, he had to squirm, head-first, legs flailing out the window, to the floor to depress the brake pad with his hand and bark instructions to me to somehow get the selector back into place, the car into park.
I don’t know what became of that heap, but it was succeeded by an even bigger, albeit slightly nicer blue car, and on one Saturday afternoon, his vision was to take down the basketball goal and drive that blue cruiser with its pole sticking out like his feet had done in the red one. As we began to dig out the massive concrete base in which this pole had been set, my dad, still fairly fresh out of the hospital, belched. When the stench of his healing innards registered with me, I almost heaved. It was like someone had bottled a toddler’s Cheerio breath, soaked it in Kimchi juice, and sprinkled it with summer-highway road-kill blood. And that belch was the first of some three or four dozen he littered the driveway air with that day.
After about an hour of digging, we realized that the iron post t-boned beyond its concrete base and ran parallel with the ground. For this surprise, my dad produced a board and a car jack from the garage, and we cranked and cranked until the post was finally freed from its secured place of who knows how many years. The rim, which was somewhere between its original red and a permanent rust hue, was released from the splitting backboard, and placed in the trunk of the blue car. We laid the post, which to this day will make your hands stink if you grab it, behind the driver seat, a third of it sticking out the left-side window, across the front passenger seat, between me and the dashboard, and drove the 20 minutes to my mom’s house, doing 10 miles per hour, hazards flashing.
Once we had it unloaded, we went to the hardware store for a piece of plywood, which we then drove to Mike’s house, where his dad produced a ladder and wrenches for detaching Mike’s rim. In some ghetto-fabulous fashion, the four of us hoisted the plywood to Mike’s now-bare backboard and traced the outline of it onto the plywood with a fat, black Marks-a-Lot. Mike’s dad set up saw horses and a jigsaw, and the eventually the plywood took the shape of a backboard, which we then drove to my mom’s and fastened to the post we had re-concreted into new ground. When the rim was attached, my dad was up the ladder again with his marker, crafting a shot square for his son.
The next day, after waiting for the concrete to set, I rode my bike down to the sporting-goods store, and bought a net, and for the next few years, I shot hoops constantly, alone and with friends, in my mom’s slanted driveway, retreating down the sidewalk for top-of-the-key straightaways, and teaching myself how to shoot around tree branches from the left side. There was no right side, as the garage was in the way, but by Jove, my dad had gotten his son his basketball goal.
I’m not sure when the last time a ball swooshed through that net, but I do know that a few weeks ago, when we were over there to put together a new rocking chair for my mom, I walked out the front door and looked up at that ridiculous backboard, amazed that it still held a rim in place. What I saw, though, was not just the memory of that transplant that was littered with death burps, but something that stopped me in my steps: a bird’s nest, fat, fresh, and resting on the flat mounting surface behind the back of the rim. As I stood there in awe, a bird hopped from one of those in-the-way tree branches to the nest’s edge and deposited something in it.
I won’t swear on this, but I think that, up until that evening, my daughter had only heard birds. She’s at that stage where she can identify them in pictures/via symbols of them, and she's mildly obsessed with their oft-audible song, but she can’t follow a point. I’ve tried to show her birds in the yard, and almost every time, she looks at my extended finger, and then signs bird because I’ve said the word and she can hear them chirping. But when that rocking chair was assembled, and we were on our way out, I again saw the bird tending to its nest and we stopped.
“Do you see the birdie?” I pointed and looked at my daughter.
I could tell the instant her eyes locked on it as her mouth formed a quick smile. She bounced up and down in my arms and said, “Ooooo,” then signed her version of bird. It was a delightful moment I’d hoped to see repeated when, two weeks later, we arrived at my mom’s for dinner. My wife and daughter were already in the driveway when I pulled up. She ran to me and I picked her up, walking towards her mother, and as we turned to walk down the stones that lay where my free-throw sidewalk rested years ago, I glanced up at the backboard and saw an empty rim.
I wanted to know what had happened, but we were late for dinner, and I exhausted from having just played in a hockey game which fell after several days of poor choices that took their usual form: too many beers and too many cigarettes, too late into the evenings. We ate dinner and visited and on our way out, I asked my mom what had happened to the nest.
“Shhhhhh-oop,” she said, motioning downward with her arms. “It went plop,” her hands demonstrating, “on the driveway and the eggs…” She trailed off and offered a cracking sound. My sister asked if she cleaned it up herself, and my mom replied with some sense of uncertainty that she thought she had, that she’d probably used a broom or something to avoid touching the fragments with her hands.
I didn’t expect her to understand the sorrow I felt in learning this, and I don’t expect her to comprehend how her need to attempt to entertain -– in this case with movement and sound effect -– made indirect light of the life of these particular birds and their unborn, but it was a jarring moment.
As I drove down her street and thought about the sad nest, I was overcome with how exhausted I was, how shitty of a parent and a spouse it makes me to be this worn out based on my addiction to nicotine. When it formed, so many years ago, it was about showing. I wanted cool kids to know that I smoked because, in my mind, I wasn’t cool enough on my own to have them call me cool. And now, it’s about hiding, about not smoking around my wife because she hates it with a burning passion. It’s about smoking when I’m not around and knowing that I have to try to have the strength to simply turn it off once I’m home.
And somewhere, thick in the mess of the history of my father’s basketball-goal project, lies death. It claimed the man with the rotten guts who had, with his son, transferred that pole across the state line, and it claimed a portion of the bird family that made their home atop his efforts. Those efforts, done by a father for a son who’s now nearing 40 himself, will be transformed, it is hoped, from bad choices to better ones, ones that result in that son getting to bed early, with a clear head, so he can rise early the next day, and get his butt in the chair.
A Georgia Bird (continued)
This collection, were it allowed, could continue. Every day and every week and every month there will be birds crossing my path, and I’ll feel compelled to jot some notes about them and decipher their meaning. Like the birds that built a nest this spring in the laundry-vent chute over the back door at work, the ones that peck grease-fried bits of trash out of the parking lot and shit on my windshield every day. Or the Byrd sisters that are cousins to my friend Nate. I had a crush on the older one back in the day, and was sad when she married some Romanian gay and had his baby. They’ve since divorced and she’s now a lesbian. Meanwhile, her younger sister is dating some biker dude in his ‘60s, and the last time she was in town, she admitted that she had thought that maybe I was gay.
Or the little girl that sometimes sits in front of us at church. Her name’s Bridget, but she can only say “Birdie,” so that’s become a sort of permanent nickname. Or the heavily tatted-up Denver Nugget. The Bird Man, who seems to be on Alex’s television set every time I’m out for a visit. Or the bird that our cat caught a few days ago and partially devoured on the front porch, leaving part of the head, a smidgeon of torso, and an entire leg scattered in front of the porch couch. Or the fact that, a few days ago, my wife took down that bird house she and her young pupil hung so many years ago, and replaced it with some kind of hummingbird feeder. Or the fact that I’ve been brining, rubbing, and smoking a ton of whole chickens for the new menu.
These birds are everywhere, and seem to continue to be so.
But above all, I think about that bird in the side yard of our Kinnett Drive house that day back in 1983. And I think about how I gathered it up the next day and put it in a small box and carried it a short ways into the woods. I dug it a shallow grave and buried it, finishing the process off by aligning a bunch of pebbles in cross formation atop the dirt and saying a prayer.
I will forever remember the crushing feeling of kneeling there and dealing with the horrific reality that I had killed something, and for what? What I thought to be social acceptance.
A beautiful creation resting in some grass, wiped from existence at the hands of an eight-year-old boy and a tennis ball.
There have been a number of times over the years where I’ve tried really hard to will that moment out of history and existence and, in essence, memory. And I guess maybe that’s what the story is. You can’t undo your mistakes in life. If you waste time and energy trying to do so, life might undo you in the process. We’re all trying to (Note: Putrid metaphor alert! Repeat: Putrid metaphor alert!) form and maintain a nest, to one day take flight in our own ways. Perhaps in trying to do so, we must carry caution in our breath and remember that others, or even our own selves, can screw things up at any given moment.