Friday, April 29, 2005


In Which I Count to 4...

This weekend, the Brownie turns 4.

Which came as a surprise to nobody, except me. I feel terrible admitting this, because some folks will immediately jump to the conclusion that I am the worst kind of dad, but the truth is, I've been saying she was 4 for the better part of the year.

Note my choice of words: it's not that I forgot her birthday (if you could see my closet and the space under the thing by the place where nobody can get in, you'd know I've been laying in wrappables for her birthday since the beginning of the year).

It's not that I forgot when she was born--precisely eight months after we got home from a little four-day vacation to Bermuda, a vacation from which Her Lovely Self returned bearing a somewhat unexpected souvenir.

The Brownie came a month early, an impatient girl even then. She knew there were brownies to be had and daddies to wrap around her tiny stubby fingers. I have a picture of her at about 6 weeks old, in which she is sporting the most knowing, mischievous, Mona Lisa-like face. In the picture, she is looking at me, and you can almost see the thought bubble containing the words, "Wonder what I can get him to do next..."


See, even as an infant, she seemed far older than she was, so it's not surprising that now I should regard her as older than she is. She just hasn't behaved like a 3 year-old girl. Like, ever.

I mean, what 3-year-old tells her father that she wouldn't have to cry if he would just follow her directions?

What 3-year-old goes around telling the other dolls that Barbie has a big ass?

What 3-year-old effortlessly manipulates two grown men into building her a secret room (dubbed The Foxhole, although I wanted to call it Brownie Point. Get it? Huh?) with ancillary walk-in attic?

This morning, I overheard this exchange as I was coming downstairs:

Big Brother: So what do you want to do on your birthday?

Brownie: I'm going to be the Boss of Everyone, that's what.

Big Brother: No. Pick something you don't get to do all the time.

Her brother said this without the slightest trace of sarcasm, because he knows what the score is. I suppose that's a sign that things are a little out of hand. But the Boss of Everyone is such a kind and benevolent ruler that we almost don't mind.

And it's hard not to be impressed with such a large amount of will and determination in such a small and button-cute form.

On her first birthday, we made a cake for her that was essentially a giant brownie. It was just large enough for all of us to have a piece of it. We sat her in the high chair, presented the candle-lit cake on a pink plastic plate, and sang the requisite song. We helped her puff out the candles, then she proceeded to reach in with both hands. Her Lovely Self told her not to touch the cake, to wait til Daddy had removed the candles and Mommy had brought over plates for everyone.

We should have moved the cake away from her. But our backs were turned for only seven seconds, only long enough to step into the kitchen (me to throw the snuffed candles out, Her Lovely Self to get plates). Then we heard the simultaneous crash of a cake plate and cry of an aggrieved brother.

We turned, saw the empty pink plastic cake spinning on the floor, heard her brother screaming "Bad baby ate the whole cake!"

We couldn't believe it, but the evidence was all over her (although she only ate HALF the cake, not the whole thing, as her hysterical brother had insisted. Still, it was quite the accomplishment). And there was no mistaking that look of pride on her face. I should have scolded, or done something parental. Instead, I snapped a picture.

Brownie rules!

Is it any wonder I call her The Brownie?

Happy Birthday, baby.


Thursday, April 28, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)


Job #3: Trash collector (Part VI)

I had numerous adventures working for my uncle David, both the rest of that summer and the many that followed. There was the time the brakes went out on the dump truck--and naturally we were on a hill when it happened. There was the trip to Maine; the time David passed out under the house and I had to pull him out with the truck; the time I impaled myself with the pitchfork; and the time I got dumped into the landfill along with the trash. There was also much wheeling and dealing, when my uncle taught me everything he knew about haggling (a skill I use almost everyday, when I'm negotiating with freelancers).

Together we cleaned out many houses and found many treasures, including a Duncan Phyfe table that my aunt still uses as a nightstand. And there was the time I found the bundle of small dovetailed boards in the woodshed of an old estate David was cleaning. They looked like really worn shingles, but when I fit the dovetailed sections together it turned out to be a Shaker carrying bucket (in fact, it looked something like this). David referred to me as his "number one nephew" for a few days after that, he was so pleased.

As I've said before, these moments of discovery were rare in the overall scheme of our summers. For every Paul Revere spoon or Shaker bucket, I must have hauled a solid ton of shitty diapers, soggy cartons, and moldy, manky detritus from our various customers. In the heat of summer, it could get discouraging sometimes. But gruff as he was, uncle David also had a buoyancy about him, a way of making you feel that a new treasure awaited us just behind that next attic cobweb, just a garbage bag away.

One Friday afternoon late in August, though, I wasn't feeling so buoyant. We had just returned from the county landfill and I was performing my usual post-rubbish route chores, which included hosing out the back of the dump truck while David took the weekly deposits of the Dubba Land Corp. to the bank. It was a scorcher of a day, and I was filthy and sweaty and couldn't wait to get home so I could change and go for a swim. Soon, summer would be over and I wouldn't be able to go swimming in a handy lake. Of course, I wouldn't be covered with garbage either, but somehow that prospect made me sad. I was glad to be freed from my job as trash collector. Glad, but sad too.

Aunt Barbara had brought me some iced tea when I finished hosing the truck down. So I was sitting in the cab, thinking long-range thoughts about my upcoming return to school, when David pulled up in his pickup truck. He just shook his head.

"If I had a nickel for every time I found you sitting on your dead ass this summer, drinking my tea, I could hire me a full-time garbage assistant, by gorry!" he called. But I was used to this ribbing by now and just played along.

"Well," I said. "If I'd known you were gonna be back so soon, I'd have gone up to your rocking chair and propped my feet up, so you could get really annoyed at my laziness."

He pointed at the passenger door of his truck. "No time for rocking today, ol' fella. Go get them newspapers and get em in here," he instructed.

I drained my cup and headed for the barn. That morning, we had hauled a full load of debris from Sam Howard's place. Sam had torn off the whole front porch of his house and so we were hauling huge chunks of plaster and wood lath to the landfill. Sam's great-grandfather, when he built the porch, didn't have the benefit of fiberglas insulation, so he had insulated the porch walls with layer upon layer of old newspapers, which Sam had pulled out of the walls in great sheets. I separated as many of these papers from the debris as I could and we had three boxes of various newspapers from 1858 to 1898, including Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. I had been sneaking quick reads of the stories all morning, and was particularly fascinated by an ongoing serial in the back of Harper's, written by some English fellow named Dickens.

I loaded the boxes in the back of the pickup, then climbed in with my uncle. Normally, our business took us south of town, away from the post office. This time, David drove north, past the post office, up the hill into the tiny town center, and then made a quick right onto a dirt road whose sign identified it as "Bog Road." And my pulse quickened.

We banged along down past the marsh and up into hill country where we passed several old Cape Cod style houses and a few trailer homes. At last we came to an access road with a chain across it. David reached into the glove compartment and extracted a long rope loop from which dangled about 40,000 keys. He expertly picked out the padlock key and sent me out to open the lock on the chain. Then we drove onto an old logging road for about a quarter-mile, before finally coming to a quiet wooded lot where stood the old stone foundation of a farmhouse longed burned to the ground, and a rather well-maintained old red barn.

I humped the boxes of papers to the barn door while David hunted for the key to the door's padlock. Considering how quickly he found the first key, I was surprised at how long it was taking him to find the key to the shed. Minutes passed, while my uncle muttered--either to himself or someone I couldn't see. "Let me see. I know I must have that key somewhere. By Jeezuz, I thought it was on this ring. Mebbe we might have to go back to the house and look for another one." He gave me a quick glance, checking my reaction, but I wasn't biting. I knew he was just drawing this out, yanking my chain. And I knew how to play this now.

"Well, that's fine," I drawled, playing it as cool as I thought I was at 13. "If we don't get in here this summer, I guess you can just pay me cash for my work instead."

David straightened suddenly as if I'd kicked him in a sensitive spot (and, of course, I had). "You gone soft in the head?" he cried. "I ain't paying you one goddamn penny. We had us a bargain." And then suddenly, miraculously, he had the key in his hand and snapped open the padlock.

I'm sure you all have certain smells that you associate with childhood. For many, I've read, it's the smell of crayons or Play-Doh that takes people back to childhood, that gives them a certain sense of peace and serenity. For me, it will always be the smell that came wafting out of that barn. The high, sweet, slightly musty smell of pulpy old paper.

The barn was full of it. Whole shelves of books, hardbacks, mostly. Stacks and stacks of newspapers (including two covering the assassination of the president. Not Kennedy, but Lincoln). David had boxes of old Sears and Montgomery-Ward catalogs, bundles of magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and Look. He had magazines I had never seen before, too, pulp magazines from the 20s and 30s.

In a daze, I followed my uncle as we wove through the stacks and piles of paper, trying not to sneeze from the sheer weight of dust and mildew as we plodded through this haphazard museum of paper.

At the back of the barn, on an old work bench, David suddenly stopped and looked at two old cardboard boxes. He peeked in both of them, then with a flourish that was both clumsy and dramatic, he tipped one of the boxes over and its contents cascaded across the work bench in a riffle of paper and a gaudy flash of color.

"Shit," I whispered unselfconsciously.

"Not here," David retorted. "That's the one kinda paper I haven't got in this place."

The joke went right over my head. For a moment, my uncle and the rest of the world grayed out around me and all I could see was this:


In all, I earned some 300 comic books that day, none more recent than the mid 1960s. The oldest was one from August 1938. The best were the copies of Batman and Detective Comics, many of which were coverless, but some, as you can see, were not. I still have them all.

"By gorry, the ol' fella has found his muthaloade," David cackled, as I sifted through the books. Batman. Action Comics. More Fun Comics. There were classic EC titles here. Early Ditko Spider-Mans. World War II-era work by Simon and Kirby. They were the sweetest, nicest bunch of old comics I had ever seen, certainly far better than anything I could have ever hoped to have, many still showing a good amount of cover gloss, even after 40 or 50 years.

Of course, almost none were in what a die-hard collector would consider mint condition or even close to it. But as I started reading them on the drive back from the barn, I already knew that the comics--and everything I had done while earning them--constituted a treasure beyond calculation.

"Thanks," I said to David at some point on our drive. "Thanks a lot. They're just--wow. Thanks."

David affected a sour look, but couldn't quite pull it off. "I thought they was all crap. All Bugs Bunny and what-not. Didn't know they was that good. Guess I got the shit-end of the stick this time." He gave a dramatic huff. "Aw hell. Guess we'll just have to work you that much harder next summer."

And boy, you better believe he did.

From Somewhere on the Masthead



The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #3: Trash collector (Part V)

Although I spent most of my summer weeks hauling junk out of old homes and cottages for my uncle, Fridays were set aside for The Rubbish Route. And a great deal more.

We'd start before sunrise, driving the old chain-drive dump truck in a winding, back-tracking route that didn't make a lot of sense to me the first time we did it.

"Aren't we going to get Mr. Wheeler's trash?" I asked as we roared by the fine Victorian cottage on the tip of the lake. I didn't know everyone on the route, but I knew Mr. Wheeler--from his long-winded visits to my aunt at the post office--and knew he was one of uncle David's customer.

David just looked at me. "Maybe you think you know everything there is to know about hauling rubbish already?" he asked archly. I shut up.

After about an hour and stops at 20 or so places, David pulled over and ordered me up in the back of the truck. Bags were strewn everywhere. He threw me several stout bungee cords.

"Now pile all that garbage way up to the back of the truck," he instructed. "Pile it right up good, like a hill of shit." Once I did this sloppy, messy work, he had me hook the bungee cords across the bed of the truck and up to two metal struts on top of the cab, effectively lashing the mountain of garbage tight, keeping it securely in the back third of the truck bed.

"Now for the good stuff," he said, when I got back in. We criss-crossed out way around town again, this time collecting rubbish from some of the more well-heeled addresses, and it gradually dawned on me what David was doing: We had collected the trash of the customers who David had determined threw out only genuine garbage. Once that was done, we lashed it in the back, keeping the rest of the truck bed free for what I came to call "treasure trash." This was usually--but not always--the refuse of the summer residents and folks who were in the process of cleaning out their places. This was, in short, trash worth picking through. Which is exactly what we did.

As soon as we had collected all the trash, we never went straight to the county landfill. First, we stopped back at the barn or one of David's many sheds scattered throughout town (but never, I noted, the shed on the Bog Road, where David claimed he kept a storehouse of all his paper goods, including the stack of vintage comics for which I was working my ass off this summer). Wherever we ended up, we spent several minutes opening bags, feeling around, picking through trash, looking for anything of resale value.

We found lots. Stuff that had immediate and obvious value, such as old tools; radios and tape players with nothing wrong with them besides needing the old burst batteries cleaned out of them; countless books and magazines (and even a few comics, but nothing old or unusual).

And there was weird stuff. Someone pitched out a scrapbook full of TV Guide covers. Someone else discarded a large and varied stack of mismatched table legs--but not the tables themselves. One Friday, I extricated a box of old wooden spools, each with a perforated paper scroll wrapped around it. David and I puzzled over these. The perforations on the paper made me think of old computer printouts, but the wooden spools were really old. It was as though someone had invented a computer in the early 1900s and this was what they used to program it. When I said this to David, he brightened and snapped his fingers. "I know it!" he cried. "Them there are player-piano rolls. They gotta be."

And indeed they were. Almost a century old and in perfect condition, according to the restaurant owner we met at the Newport flea market a month or so later, when he made the financially fatal mistake of sharing this information with us, along with the fact that the restaurant he was opening had in its entryway the very piano that played these spools. "I've been looking everywhere for new music for the thing," he gushed, not seeing the dollar signs roll in my uncle's eyes as he kept increasing the amount he was going to ask for the rolls. In the end, David sold the lot for $500, but was grumpy about it. "Where the hell was the sport in that?" he asked me after the guy left. "He practically tossed his goddamn wallet to me, yammering on like he did."

While we didn't find such treasures in every Friday load, it was almost always worth the hour or so it took to pick through the trash of the summer people. I also learned some real lessons in detective work. I, of course, had fancied myself a boy detective only a few years earlier, but David took deductive reasoning to a whole new level. He could read people's trash like a newspaper. Knew who was sick, who was having marital problems, and quite a lot more, just by seeing what they threw out. Of course, Dumpster-diving is well known today, but back then, the idea of garbology was pretty new to me. It was an education.

As scientific as he could be about such things, David also proved to be quite the mystic. Aside from his revelation that he apparently talked with "haints and spooks" regularly, David accepted as fact what many of us regard as superstition. In his personal belief system, luck was somewhere between a godlike entity and an actual force of nature, like gravity. He believed in signs and omens, took the reading of tea leaves (which my great-aunt Mary did for both of us every other Friday or so, when we came to collect her trash, and the light snack of tea and blueberry cobbler she often prepared for us) VERY seriously. And in certain matters of the occult, others in our community took David very seriously.

As I discovered when we went to collect Elisha Mutney's trash one morning, and David sent me into the woods nearby on an odd errand.

"You want what?" I asked.

"A branch. It's gotta be birch. Needs to have a fork in it. Break it off about yea long--" he held his massive hands about three feet apart "--and bring me the fork of the branch. If it looks like a giant Y, you done it right."

"What are you gonna do with it?" I asked.

He glared at me. "Might be I'll jam it up your ass and roast you on a fire if you don't hop to and find me what I need." I hopped to.

When I came back, old Elisha was chatting with David and pointing to a spot behind his cabin. Elisha was one of the oldest men in town and a beloved friend of the family. He had known David since he came to town, I learned, and they often bartered favors with one another. I handed David the Y-shaped birch branch. He hefted it and spun it around.

Elisha looked at me. "Best dowser in these parts, he is."

I had no idea what he was talking about til I saw David hold two ends of the Y-shaped branch loosely in the palms of his hand and begin to walk around the yard, the stem of the branch flopping loosely as he went.

"Uncle David's a water-witch?" I asked.

Elisha frowned at me. "Better not let him hear you say that. Dowser, they call 'em. Ol' Dubba here has got the touch, he does. His people all did. His aunt was the real witch. Potions and such, doncha know. She raised him when he was a pup."

"Was this in Maine?" I asked, my voice unconsciously dropping to a husky whisper as we watched David work.

"Ayuh," said Elisha. "David's family died out from one thing or another. His aunt took him in, but then she passed. Nobody knows when. During the war this was. He were just a sprat, no more than 10 or so when someone finally found him, living all by hisself up in the woods. He never went to no orphanage nor nothing. Just started working the lumber camps. But before she passed she taught him all manner of things. Saved your grandmother from a whammy, I recall."

"A what?"

"A whammy. A curse, doncha know? Lifted it off her like it were a tree that fell on her. This was when he first come to town and still bunked in my wood shed. There was quite a to-do about it, but that's an old story and ol' Dubba don't truck with such things no more. Mostly now he does this."

And as we watched, the dowsing stick waggled in David's hands, then suddenly spun straight down like a magnet was pulling on it. David stopped and called out. "Here she be! From the pull of it, it's down a ways, mebbe 200, closer to 250 feet."

I'd seen some crazy things even by this early age in life, but this was too much. "I gotta check this out," I called, running over.

If David was pulling a trick on me, it was a good one. The dowsing stick was pointing straight down and was unmoving. I tried to wiggle it but it did seem as though some force held it fast.

"You're gripping the stick," I said, but even as I said it, I could see he wasn't. David's arms were loose and relaxed, not showing the slightest amount of muscle tension. The two ends of the Y were in his open palms, digging into the callused skin slightly, as though a weight were tugging on them, but as near as I could tell, David was exerting no force on the stick at all. It certainly did seem as though something unusual was at work.

"Ol' fella's a detective, he is," David called out, sharing a wink with Elisha. "Your father didn't think this was hokum. I been up on your hill a time or two to dose for well sites. But I keep telling him, the water's too deep. Too expensive to dig for it, least til you decide to build a place."

"And this really works?" I asked.

David shook his head. "Magnets work, but you can't see how they do. Lotsa things--and lotsa people--work at things they can't see nor understand. Sight unseen, ya know. This ain't no different."

Elisha came up now with a small red flag and marked the spot David indicated. David tossed the stick into the bushes, waved absently to Elisha and lumbered back to the truck. I followed, full of questions I would never fully answer. We kept on with our appointed rounds.

A month later, I did get one answer, of a sort: The excavator who came to drill Elisha's new well hit water right at the spot David indicated. At a depth of 248 feet.

It was near the end of summer when I found this out. In fact, that was the same week that David announced that we needed to stop over at his shed on the Bog Road.

The shed where he kept the stack of old comics I'd been dowsing for all summer...


Wednesday, April 27, 2005


In Which There Are Consequences...

Scenes from the Magazine Mansion

Her Lovely Self: What is that up on the screen?

Magazine Man: It's my blog entry on our annversary.

HLS: No, THAT picture. You put THAT picture on your blog?



MM: But...that's Numero Uno of my favorite all-time pictures. Remember how amused you were at my near-drowning? And it was exactly 11 years ago today that it happened. Boy, I wish I was in Barbados now...

HLS: (silence)


(gives The Look)


HLS: Delete it.

But why?

HLS: You know why. I don't even look like that anymore. That was 10 years and two babies ago.

MM: Oh please. You weigh less now than you did when that picture was taken. You look exactly the same, except your hair is shorter. You still wear the bikini and everything.

HLS: Not for the whole Internet I don't!!

MM: For Pete's sake! That picture was taken on a public beach. Hundreds saw you! And it's not like I posted pictures from the topless beach, ya know.

HLS: Delete the-- (squints) What are those?

MM: Comments from readers. Shane thinks you're hot.


MM: The Turbo Tax Guy. The one you crush on every tax season when the commercial runs?

HLS: Shut up!

HLS: (pause)

HLS: What did he say?

So, many thanks to that cute Turbo Tax Guy, and all the other commenters who effectively bailed my ass out of this one. They say flattery gets you everywhere, and yours sure got me out of the doghouse.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


In Which I Wish I was In Barbados...

Everything that could go wrong went wrong today. Let us thumb through the catalog of woes:

--I have become a prisoner of my reputation for turning stories around quickly, which explains why I was asked to write a story from scratch this morning to ship to the printer this afternoon. This has happened three times now. If I want it to stop, I will have to fail the next time I'm asked. But if I fail...well, talk about the horns of a dilemma.

--I spent so much time working on this story, I didn't have time to finish prep work on my next round of story proposals. Story proposal meeting is tomorrow, just after lunch.

--Just as I was leaving for home, one of my editors quit. I will spend all of tomorrow morning enmeshed in human-resources nightmare stuff. Which means I won't have time to finish prepping for my pitch meeting.

--And I never got to write the next installment of my trash collector story.

And all I could think was, I wish I was in Barbados.

Which is where I was 11 years ago today. Doing this, you may recall:


And you know who took the picture, don't you?

You know that if I showed you who took the picture, I would be delivering this day into perfect damnation, because hell hath no fury like a spouse whose husband posts a certain picture of his wife, even though said husband thinks it's a flattering photo. Even though said husband, when he's old and withered and in possession of the Pencil Whose Lead Is Done Gone, and all rational thought had fled and he can't distinguish between a pair of socks and his own children, STILL that husband will hold a memory of his lovely wife, and that memory will look pretty much like...the picture that I'll get in trouble for posting.

Like, a lot of trouble.

So, never mind. Let's just say it's been a bad day and leave it at that.

All things considered, I'd rather be in Barbados.

From Somewh

Aw, what the hell...

[This is the place on the blog where, for years, people would come looking for a picture of my wife in a bikini. I'm not saying they found it here. I'm just saying that YOU won't find it here. Sorry if that sounds like a terrible tease, but hey, you're strong. You'll get over it.]

From Somewhere on the Sleeper Sofa

Monday, April 25, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #3: Trash collector (Part IV)

I don't wish to overly romanticize my life as a trash collector. If you must know, most of the rest of that summer, and the three or four summers that followed it, were filled with the hardest, most back-breaking, most disgusting work I hope EVER to do in my life.

Naturally, my parents thought it was the best thing that ever happened to me, and still talk about those summers using phrases like "character-building" and "developing a strong work ethic" and other horse-shit platitudes that parents use (and that I can't wait to use myself) when they have consigned their flesh-and-blood to a sweltering season of hauling steaming bags of used diapers and coffee grounds.

But there were moments of pure wonder and brilliance.

Such as the end of my first day of work. We had indeed started at 5 AM--the proverbial crack of ass--and spent the morning cleaning out the cellar of an old lady who had recently died. David bought the estate lock, stock and barrel. Apparently, this woman had made a hobby--obsession probably isn't too strong a word--of canning. Her cellar was packed to the ceiling with stack upon stack of Ball-Mason jars and what David called "original Lightning jars" whatever they were. Every one of them was sealed and labeled. And filled.

David kept the most recent season's worth of goods for his own pantry, but that covered barely a fraction of what was left. The woman lived alone for years and obviously never ate all that she had put up, so consequently she had hundreds, maybe even thousands of jars dating back 20 or more years (and many of the jars themselves were quite a lot older than that). We formed a kind of bucket brigade and handed each other crate after crate, jar after jar, emptying the basement and loading the jars into the truck. I saw more preserved beans and tomatoes that day than I've ever seen in my life.

And then I found four oversized jars filled with a wine-colored viscous matter I couldn't identify. There were no years on the jars, but they were labeled: Iris, Petunia, Lily and...

"Is that last jar labeled Tom?" I asked David as I brought them out. "Never heard of a flower called Tom. Why would she can flowers anyway?"

David squinted at the jars, then raised his eyebrows. "Them ain't flowers, ol' fella. Those were the names of the cats she used to keep." He started cackling, as much at the look of rank disgust on my face as at the very idea. "Guess the ol' girl didn't want to bury em, by gorry! Pickled her cats, she did!" Oh, he thought that was a laugh riot. I still get chills thinking about it.

We carted nearly three full dump-truck loads back to the barn, where I spent the rest of that day emptying those jars (yes, even those four big ones filled with cat innards. THAT was a real New England-by-way-of-Stephen-King moment, now I'll tell ya) into a seemingly unending succession of plastic jugs and barrels. Then I filled each jar with a cleaning solution (mostly bleach and water I think) and let them sit and soak. I had jars everywhere, on every rafter and shelf, stacked in pyramids. It was quite pretty, and when I hobbled through the barn (it was my first day back in boots and my toe was still a little sore) my very footsteps set the jars vibrating with an eerie but somehow beautiful ringing sound that could be heard up the hill in the post office.

David returned late in the day, surprised despite himself that I had all the jars emptied and soaking. "By gorry," he said, when looked in the barn and beheld the wavering, ringing jars, "that's pretty goddamn good." Among my people, "pretty goddamn good" is about the highest praise you can hope for.

And then he made me grab one end of a stinking, sloshing barrel full of pickled veggies and cat guts and we proceeded to load the dump truck back up.

We carted the contents of those old jars off to the county landfill, easily the prettiest one I've ever seen. You had to drive through this forest of mature pines before coming out on this amazing overlook. Right below was the landfill. We started dumping jugs and barrels.

We had arrived at nearly sunset, so the view from the overlook was stunning, all reds and golds. "Ain't it somethin?" David asked. "I never been up here this late, but they said it was worth it." I looked around and noticed that there were several cars and trucks parked nearby, some occupied, some not.

"Boy, lotsa people must come for the view."

"No sir!" David said. "They come for the bears. Soon as the sun sets, the bears come out and pick over the trash down below. Thought it might be worth a look."

Now this was a treat. I had never seen a bear in the wild before, so I hurried to finish our work as the sun sank lower and lower. Within a few minutes we were done and David started walking down a short access road to the bottom of the landfill. I called after him.

"Aren't we gonna watch from the truck?" I asked, my voice cracking a little (hey, I wasn't scared or anything. It was puberty). But he ignored me so I had no choice but to hobble after him.

At the bottom of the road, he traded greetings with a small knot of people, including one of the custodians of the landfill. The man shook hands with me and said, "They'll be here soon, you bet! 'Nother half-hour or so, you'll see." I breathed a sigh of relief. We still had time.

David stood near a mountain of rubbish, watching the sky darken. I could hear him talking to himself. "Yessuh, I think he does. I think he does at that."

I came over and stood next to him. He glanced over. "And here he is now. You believe in haints, ol' fella?" As I came to learn, David had a habit of switching subjects without warning.

"In what?"

"Haints. Spooks and such. I hear you got a house full of em." I allowed that we had moved into an old house where some pretty odd things had happened. "I don't talk about it very much," I said. "People think it's stupid." What I was really thinking was that if I told David what I'd seen, he'd never let me hear the end of it. He was definitely treating me a lot better than when the summer began, but I thought him a hard-nosed, brutally honest man, the sort who would mercilessly tease a kid for what he deemed flights of fancy.

Then David spoke quietly, his voice a low grumble. "I don't see 'em so much anymore, myself. But I hear 'em all the time. By gorry, some days they can't keep their goddamn yaps shut."

"What?!?" I asked, thunderstruck.

By this time, though, someone else had come up next to David to watch the sunset so I didn't pursue the matter. I could see the newcomer out of the corner of my eye. I thought it was the landfill custodian. Right up until the moment he bent down, ripped a bag of trash open and began to make some odd snuffling noises.

That's when I turned and looked and felt every hair on my arms and neck stand straight up.

It wasn't the landfill custodian. It wasn't a haint or a spook.

It was a black bear.

I was all set to scream something unoriginal and obvious, such as "JESUS IT'S A BEAR!" when David, who was a mere five feet away from the snorting creature (which was easily as big as he was) calmly took one step backward and put a big, quieting hand on my shoulder. In perfect, painfully slow unison, we walked backwards, slowly, quietly, until we reached the bottom of the access road. That's when David said, cool as ice, "How d'you feel about running, ol' fella?" I felt just fine about that. In fact, I didn't feel the slightest twinge of pain in my toe as I pelted up the hill to the truck.

And that was just my first day on the job...


Sunday, April 24, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #3: Trash collector (Part III)

As it turned out, the little blister on my toe was not a blister. It so happened that a tiny metal filing--probably from a wire brush I had been using during one of my odd jobs for my aunt--had worked its way into my toe. Within a couple of days my big toe looked like a special effect from a horror movie, all purple and bruised and seeping pus. I had taken to wrapping it in gauze and wearing two socks to protect it, but it still was murder to walk on it. I hadn't told my mom. She would have taken me straight to the doctor and that meant I wouldn't have been able to work for David. And I was only a day away from finishing the field he had assigned me to clear.

Of course, now I marvel right along with you at my own stupidity, but at the time, I was determined not to lose face with my uncle. His opinion of me as being softer'n a sneaker full of shit was low enough. I didn't want him to think I was slacking on the job because of a sore toe. So I ever so gently pulled on my old workboots and rode my bike to the field.

It was one of the milder June days we'd had, but I felt murderously hot. I'd stoop to hack out a bush or pull up some clump of scrub and alomst immediately feel dizzy. My toe was throbbing and it got to the point where I was sort of standing one leg to avoid putting any weight on it. I was by myself. Dallas, the young man who had started the field with me, had moved to another job for David, digging a pit for a septic tank, I think. I had never dug a septic tank pit myself, but it sounded positively awful. I told myself I had the easiest job of all, and so I pushed on. By 11, I only had another few yards of field to clear. I sat down to take a drink of the water I had brought with me.

My whole foot felt like it was on fire. I pulled off the boot, an act that was excruciating. Blood and pus had seeped all the way through the gauze and the two socks, I discovered. Gingerly, I pulled off the socks and waggled my poor toe in the air. The cool air was slightly refreshing.

"Now what the hell is this?" I heard from directly behind me. I spun around and there was David. I thought he had snuck up behind me, but later I realized I hadn't heard him because of the incessant buzzing in my ears.

"Holy-o Jesus! Every time I come find you, you're sitting around on your dead ass, taking a--KEEEY-RIST almighty!" He said this last because he saw the bloody sock and the wreckage of my toe.

"It's nothing," I said, almost apologetically. I tried to stand up and stumbled. Before I could fall, I felt a mighty arm around my waist. I weighed 100 or so pounds at the time and David hefted me under his arm as though I was no heavier than a football. He carried me that way, hooked under his huge arm, across the field and to his dump truck, talking to himself the whole way, muttering things like, "I know! I know, goddammit! Think I don't feel bad enough, do ya? Holy-o Jesus!"

The truck was up on the embankment of the road. David propped me against the truck,hooked the door open, then grabbed a fistful of my shirt and shot-put me up and into the cab. Then he drove me straight to the hospital.

I'll spare you the gore of the needle-aspiration of the abscess, the discovery of the metal filing, the removal of my big toenail, the I.V. antibiotics. It made for a very exciting evening, I grant you.

But within a few days, I was back to being a kid with a really sore toe. I spent those recuperative days down on the beach of my aunt's cottage, sipping iced tea and reading comics. And then one Friday I heard the chain drive of the dump truck coming down the road. Despite myself, I felt a little guilty for sitting around on my dead ass, although my toe was still so swollen I couldn't wear a shoe at all. I braced to be yelled at, but my uncle was done yelling at me.

"There he is!" he called gruffly. "Drinking my tea and reading funny-books." He tossed his battered old lunch pail on the picnic table next to me. "Time for some beans!" he hollered to no one in particular. He went into the cottage to find the pitcher of iced tea. When he returned, I saw that he had doffed his socks and work boots. He poured himself a glass of tea, then rolled up his patchwork pantlegs and walked down to the beach a few feet away.

"Like em do ya?" he asked, while he cooled his feet in the lake.

I wasn't sure if he was talking to me or to himself. "Like what?" I asked.

"Them funny-books."

"Comics? Yeah!"

"Well," he says, walking back. "I got me a place over on the Bog Road where I keep a few things. Papers and what-not." He sat at the table next to me and stretched his legs out, sunning his feet. "Bet I got me a stack of funny-books--" he held his giant hand flat, about three feet off the ground "--about that high. Old ones, too. 64 pages all in color, some of em say."

Those words rang like sleigh bells at Christmas. I had spent many free hours--and nearly every penny I ever saved--buying up comics at yard sales and flea markets. The oldest ones I owned then dated to the early 1960s. But I had been to one or two comic-book stores and had seen the vintage books in plastic on the walls behind the counter. Those were where proprietors kept the rare issues. I'd seen the phrase "64 pages, all in color" on some of those books. The ones from the 1930s and 40s, the very heyday of comicdom's storied Golden Age.

"I sure wouldn't mind seeing those," I said.

"Well, might be you might and might be you mightn't," he said. "But it might be we could do us some wheelin' and dealin'." He looked at my foot. "Guess you ain't much good for field work yet. But I bet you can stand still with the best of them. I need someone to stand in the back of my truck and pitch rubbish into a landfill pit. Cos Christ knows I don't want to do it. You can start there."

"Okay," I said, waiting for some kind of punchline.

"Soon's you can move around again, you'll help me on the rest of the route. I got 14 houses to clear out this season. That means clearing attics, swamping out cellars. It's a good job o' work, now I'll tell ya."

I nodded. "Sounds like it." I hesitated, summoning every ounce of nerve for the next sentence. "Maybe it's more work than an electric bill costs."

If I thought David would be annoyed by my impertinence, I was dead wrong about him, a feeling I would be getting used to this summer. Instead, he was amused. "The ol' fella want to wheel and deal!" he cackled. "Well then. I reckon it this way. You work on the reg'lar rubbish route with me on Fridays. You spend the rest of the time working on them houses I got lined up. End of summer, we'll call it square on the 'lectrics you been using for the trailer and--"

"--and I get that stack of comics in your shed." I finished.

He gave me a cagey look. "Sight unseen, then. Might be Archie and Jughead in them funny-books. Might be Batman and Robin Hood."

I nodded.

"By gorry, we have us a bargain!" he exclaimed. And so we did. David went back to eating his lunch and drinking his tea. He still had his shoes off and his giant, pale feet shone in the sun. It took a few moments, but eventually I noticed something was odd about one of his feet.

The top of one of his toes was missing.

"What happened to your toe?" I asked, startled.

David didn't even pause. He spoke as though he'd been waiting for me to ask. "Same thing that almost happened to yours. Pride and stubbornness." He finished his lunch, then put his socks and boots back on. "We start Monday, 5 A.M. Don't make me wait, ol' fella!" I watched him lumber back to the dump truck and felt a growing thrill of excitement.

It's a testament to just how shrewd uncle David was as a wheeler-dealer. I mean, how many men do you know who could not only maneuver a teenage boy into becoming a trash collector, but also cause that boy to actually be enthused at the prospect?

I was going to be a trash collector. And I couldn't wait to start...


Saturday, April 23, 2005


In Which I Count to 11...

I don't know what you were doing 11 years ago this weekend, but I was kinda busy:


Hands down the best thing I've ever done, and the doorway to every good thing I have in my life right now.

I know a lot of people, for whatever reason, don't feel that way about their marriage, but I do.

And yes, I know how lucky I am.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to see if I can get any luckier...

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, April 22, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #3: Trash Collector (Part II)

As I've mentioned elsewhere, my family had lived for a time in the Midwest. When we moved back east, it was decided we'd spend the entire summer in the little town in New Hampshire where my dad was born. Before, we had only stayed a week or so, and could board in a hotel or stay with relatives. But if we were going to be there for the whole season, we needed long-term digs.

Somewhere in their travels, my parents had acquired a 1960s vintage Airstream trailer. It wasn't terribly roadworthy, but it was otherwise sound. All the plumbing, heating and cooking infrastructure worked, so my parents planned to put it on blocks up on the hill that my folks owned. "We'll be living like high-brow white trash," my mom tartly commented. And so we did.

There were only two problems: water and electricity. We had neither well nor electrical hook-up on the hill, and my uncle David had counseled my father that it would have been cost-prohibitive to dig a well where my father had wanted to put the trailer. "The water's too deep," he insisted. I wondered how he knew this, but my father accepted it as gospel.

We were prepared to rough it when aunt Barbara made the generous offer that we plant the trailer down on her two-acre spread near the lake. There was a spring nearby, one of many that fed the lake, which we could run a hose to for water. And my uncle produced some industrial-grade power cable which we used to tap into the electricity at the cottage where my aunt and uncle spent most of their summer nights.

My parents insisted on paying their share of the utilities, which my uncle was only too ready to accept, but my aunt flatly refused. We were family and not a burden and she was glad to have company close by. She and my mom got on like a house on fire and spent many evenings walking around the lake. And it was on one of these walks that my mom proposed a compromise: since they wouldn't accept money, what if "the boys" did odd jobs for her?

Well, "the boys" ended up being just me, because my brother had already lined up a summer job. Thus I became an indentured servant at the age of 13. Every day I'd get up and ride my bike into town and do what needed doing for my aunt. That meant mowing the lawn or weeding the garden or hauling firewood (in New England, it's never too early to lay in wood for the winter).

I got into a routine where I could finish my chores in an hour or two, so I spent the rest of the day with my aunt in the post office. She was the master storyteller of our family and had a gift for making the most mundane moment of her day sound like a grand adventure. We passed a wonderful few weeks in this manner until one day at lunch, uncle David showed up.

I had done a lot that morning and was sitting on the porch near the post office door. I had been wearing a pair of old work boots that didn't quite fit, seeing as I was in the midst of a growth spurt. I had the boots off and was examining my big toe, which seemed to be developing a blister on one side. It was definitely sore.

David usually ate down at the cottage or wherever he was working, but he had come back this day because he needed something from the barn. When he saw me sitting on the porch in his rocker, with my boots off, he glowered. "By gorry, you chop yer foot off in the mower?" he asked.

"No," I said warily.

"You break yer leg or something?" he asked.


"Did a pigeon kick ya, maybe, and stun ya?"



Barbara swatted him on his enormous arm. "You stop it. This ol' fella's a good worker bee." And she ticked off all the jobs I'd performed that morning, which had included mowing, weeding, carting several wheelbarrow loads of stone to a fence at the back of the property, chopping and stacking the last of the latest pile of firewood, and hauling mailbags for Barbara when the afternoon truck had come.

"Like hell!" David said. "Take him the day to finish all that. Softer'n a sneaker full of shit." And then he lumbered off to the back yard and saw that Barbara had spoken true.

"If there's more to do--" I said when he came back. I was young and stupid and eager to please. I pretty much played into David's hands.

"Goddamn right there is!" he said. He was holding an ax and a sickle when he returned. "Get in the truck." I put my boots back on and did as I was told.

He drove me to a scrub-ridden field where a young man named Dallas was working. David gestured that I should grab the ax and sickle and follow him. I waded into waist-deep grass and brambles as we crossed the field to where Dallas was working with a scythe.

"By gorry, Dallas here is a good man. He's clearing the field for me. You go into the scrub and cut down anything he can't get with the scythe. Trees, bushes, whatever." With that, David started back to the truck, talking to himself the whole way. I heard snippets of the one-sided conversation. "I think you're full of shit. He'll be lucky if he don't chop his goddam foot off!" and then he was gone.

Dallas smiled pityingly when I introduced myself. "I know who you are. I sure wouldn't want to be related to him. What's he got ya working for?"

I explained the terms of my indentured servitude--my labor in exchange for free utilities at the camp. Dallas gave me a sympathetic look.

"Well, you won't have much to show for it," he said. "Me, I made a deal with ol' Dubba for a '53 Ford he's got in one of his sheds. Said I could haul it away if I cleared this field and did one or two other things." Dallas, it turned out, had made several such deals with David over the years. David rarely paid money to anyone if he could barter work for any of the items he had accumulated over the years.

"Does he have a lot of junk?" I asked. The cottage was positively spartan and the barn up at the house seemed likewise uncluttered. Dallas laughed.

"That man has about 50 little sheds and outbuildings chock full of all the stuff he's found in the attics and cellars of the houses he'd fixed up. That plus the rubbish route," he said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"The only reason David does the rubbish route is so he can poke through the trash of summer folk and keep the good stuff they throw out. Get a lotta flatlanders up here, ya know. No offense to your mom," he said quickly. I was young and stupid but even I knew that "flatlanders" was the slightly derogatory term for folks from places like Connecticut and especially Massachusetts. I was also still learning what life was like in such a small town, where a man I'd never met before not only knew who I was, but evidently knew that my mom had originally hailed from Boston.

"Anyway," Dallas continued, "you get these people up here fixing up old camps and cottages and they throw out the damnedest stuff. David does deals with em to clean the places out before they get started on the fix-up work. He hauls a lot of rubbish, but he keeps whatever good stuff he finds and uses it to trade. Or he sells it at the big flea market they have on the town green over in Newport."

So THAT was why he did the trash route. "Does he really find good stuff?" I asked.

"I'll say!" Dallas said. "Couple years ago, David showed me a bunch of spoons he found in one empty house. This was from one of the old Colonial homesteads on the side of town near the old mica mine. Guess what the spoons were?"

"Uh, silver?" I hazarded.

"Of course they were silver!" he said. "But on the back, David found the mark: little rectangle with the initials of the silversmith. P.R.," he paused meaningfully.

I shook my head. "I don't--"

"P.R. Paul Revere. He made em. David got the proof of it from some fella down in Boston. Keeps em in his safe now. Says he's also got a musket barrel that came from Revere's copperworks in Canton, but I've never seen it."

"Wow," I said. As I've mentioned before, I've always loved poking through old houses. When we moved back from the Midwest, we bought a house that had been built in the 1780s and I spent a glorious first week poking into every closet, scouring the attic rafters and cellar walls for hidden treasures. I never found anything of value, but the romance of exploring the place--or any other old house I could get into--never lost its luster. I wasn't so thrilled about the idea of hauling someone else's trash, but if it was trash I was collecting from 18th century farmhouses and Victorian-era cottages, well, that was a different story.

"Wow," I said again. "I wouldn't mind doing that kind of work."

Dallas went back to swinging his scythe. "You aren't the only one. But David doesn't let folks help him on the rubbish route. Doesn't think we're good enough, I guess!" And we both laughed.

Then Dallas frowned at me. "What's the matter with your foot?" he asked. I hadn't realized I was favoring it.

"Just a blister," I said, and went back to hacking at a bush with the ax. That toe of mine really was sore. I'd have to get a Band-Aid or something for it that night. I didn't want David to see me limping just because I had a blister. He'd probably volunteer to chop my foot off with the ax I was using.

Of course, within a few days, I was ready to do the job myself...


Thursday, April 21, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

(For those of you keeping score at home)

Job #1: Boy Detective
Job #2: Baby-shitter

Job #3: Trash collector

No matter where we lived, my family always managed to spend at least some of our summer in New Hampshire, in the town where my father was born, in the area his family had helped settle, going back and back to the 1630s. At that time multi-great Grandpa Nicholas had been granted an enormous chunk of hillside, timberland, pasture, marshland and, finally, the western shore of the lake in the heart of the settlement where he made his home.

By the time I came along, all that remained in the family of this tract was the original farmstead, owned by my uncle Dennis; the 120 acres of timberland my father owned; and a two-acre square of forest, marsh and shoreline where my aunt Barbara and her husband David had built their cottage.

Aunt Barbara, my favorite aunt, was my father's big sister, and the postmaster of our little town. The post office itself resided in the living room of the house she and uncle David owned up in the town center. That's also where David kept the tools of his business, the Dubba Land Corp. In the lot below the house, he kept a massive barn and a yard where he parked his old chain-drive dump truck, his backhoe and his bulldozer.

When I was a child, David was an enigma to me. He seemed to have no interest in--or even the slightest tolerance for--kids, not even his own. He and Barbara had married at 17, so by the time I came along, David was in his late 40s and his kids were already grown and long gone. No doubt they had been driven away by David's acid wit and relentless honesty.

If he had an opinion about you, he was unabashed in sharing it. Put it this way: Had we been a Native American tribe, and had my uncle's descriptors of us formed the basis for our tribal names, my brother's would have been Great Big Fat-Ass. Mine would have been Sneaker Full of Shit.

As in "that boy is softer'n a sneaker full of shit," a statement I heard my uncle utter about me on numerous occasions. He was more gracious with my mother and father, but not much.

My father held David in great esteem, and was full of tales of the man's wild youth. David was an imposing presence physically, close to 7 feet tall, and regarded in his prime as the strongest man around, a reputation he cemented at the Saturday night dances. There he used to get into the worst fights, including a legendary skirmish with Joe Philbrick--the town bully--and four of his friends. David beat them all to the ground. After that, people started calling him "ol' Dubba" because, they said, that was the sound his fists made, like a boxer working a speed bag: dubba-da-dubba-da-dubba-da.

Little was known of David's past before he came to town. Some said he had been in the Army, others said he had come out of Maine, where he'd worked as a lumberjack from the age of 14. He was a bit of an eccentric. For example, he had a tendency to talk to himself. And not the way you or I might. Sometimes in his barn, or while he was working on his dump truck, David could be heard carrying on one-sided conversations, like a man on an invisible telephone. Very occasionally, he'd interrupt a conversation with someone else--a real person I mean--and turn, give a hard glare to the empty air next to him and say something like, "Would you shut the Christ up already?" or "Jesus, your yammering makes my ass twitch!" Then turn back to the real person and resume talking as though nothing had happened.

Another eccentricity was how he treated clothes. Like a lot of thrifty Yankees, David hated to spend money on anything, but especially clothes. He once said he considered it bad luck to throw a t-shirt away and so he wore the dingiest, most threadbare, stained, torn t-shirts you ever saw. His overalls were little more than a collection of patches held together by two buckles and a zipper. Anywhere else, he'd have been mistaken for a hobo.

But in our part of the state, David was well known as a savvy businessman, a real wheeler-dealer. David arrived in town at 16 with only the clothes on his back. He worked odd jobs long enough to save the money to buy a tarpaper shack on the edge of town. He turned this into a full-fledged house which he sold at a profit. He repeated this process with various shacks and dilapidated cottages and camps throughout the area. Eventually, he parlayed this money into a construction and land development business that was worth more than a million dollars a year. Very few knew this, however. And if the fact had been made public, very few would have believed it. After all, if you were a millionaire, why would you bother being the town's trash collector?

Every Friday at dawn, David would fire up the chain-drive dump truck and rattle around the old highways and camp roads and dirt tracks of the county, collecting the refuse of nearly 100 customers before hauling it to the county landfill, a half-hour away. Aunt Barbara always called the job "David's little hobby," which I thought was a great joke.

Until the summer I turned 13 and learned I was going to go to work for him...


Monday, April 18, 2005


In Which They Come and They Go...

Question for discussion:

If fish and visitors stink after three days, how much fumigation must the Magazine Mansion require after a visit from my parents, who arrived three weeks ago yesterday?

They left this morning.

And indeed it does stink--it stinks that they're gone.

Don't get me wrong: it only takes about a week to remember all the niggling little things that drove me out of the house in the first place. My mom's elephantine memory may be a source of amusing anecdotes, but it is also a veritable Biography special--a negatively slanted one--on my life (and I'm not just talking about the time I crapped in my footed pajamas when I was 4).

And my dad may be handier than a Swiss Army knife with legs, but heavens, he requires a lot of babysitting to stay on track. He'll run downstairs to grab a piece of strapping to shore up the large piece of panelboard he's left me holding against the wall--balanced in that perfect spot, you know. And I'll wait. And wait. And finally the board slips and I go downstairs and find he's gone off to Home Depot to buy jigsaw blades. And this will remind my mom of the time I left my brother handcuffed to a doorknob and went off with my pal Shawn for the rest of the afternoon (an incident of which I have no recollection. Except that my brother deserved it). It does get old after three weeks.

But now they're gone and everyone is desolate. Before they depart, the Brownie hides in her room, withholding her goodbye "smackeroni and squeezes," reasoning that they can't leave until she bestows them, so if she never bestows them, they can never leave. Of course, at the last minute she relents and tries to turn the smackeroni-and-squeeze-fest into a morning long event, stretching it out for as long as she can. But go they must, and then Her Lovely Self, who gets used to my mom's nattering--like a kind of sonic wallpaper--calls me up most of the morning of their departure, all teary and sad. My son sulks when he gets off the bus and sees the old GMC Jimmy (or this time, the rental) vanished from its usual spot.

Even the dog seems mournful. In his dotage my dad's position on animals has softened considerably. As a child, he was so unsentimental, he knew his dogs as That Goddam Dog and The Other One, and regarded cats as merely useful creatures that kept the rat population down in the barn. Now, he has bird feeders at every window in his house in order to entertain the eight or so cats he and mom own. They are currently between dogs, so when Dad visits, he greets Blazey like a long-lost relative. Every single day they went about 14 long, rambling walks (including one while I was left up in the darkened walk-in attic, waiting for someone who was supposed to throw the switch-breaker back on). Every night, Her Lovely Self has to police Dad at the dinner table, since he's more apt than the kids to slip food to the dog. No wonder he whimpers and whizzes on the rug every time they pack up to leave (The dog, not my dad).

I feel sad, too, of course. But it would be dishonest if I didn't also admit that I am looking forward to getting back to our usual routine (since we've been on the sleeper sofa and my parents have been staying in our room, I will be especially glad to sleep in my own bed again). Mostly, though, I feel lucky. If I lived closer to my parents, we'd see them a lot more, yes, but familiarity breeds contempt. The more I saw of them, the harder I think it would be to enjoy the time we'd spend together. We'd just grate on each other too much, and take for granted that we could freely piss each other off, because there'd always be tomorrow. Or next weekend.

Living as far away as we do, most parents could only manage a long weekend (and most families could probably only stand a long weekend together. Have I ever mentioned my in-laws before?). So I'm doubly lucky that my parents are both able and willing to stay as long as they do. Instead of feeling like they have to cram three or four days with "meaning" and "quality time" and other similar descriptors in "quotes," they actually have a chance to settle in, spend time with the grandkids in their natural habitat and routine, and actually be at leisure without having to think about the long trip home in a day or so.

Of course, it also doesn't hurt that this block of time is long enough to accomplish any number of useful projects--even if it means occasionally being stuck in the middle of that project while someone wanders off to the corner store to buy a Slurpee. Or having someone else come in while you're working on wiring and remind you of the time you electrocuted your own father by screwing the fuses back in while he was still rewiring the family room lights.

Before I left for work this morning, after he had finished loading the car, Dad and I split a last pot of coffee and he reminded me of an old saying of my grandfather's: "When family visits, you're glad to see 'em, but twice as glad to see 'em go." I can go along with the first part of that statement, and even at the second part--hey, it's funny because it's true.

But it's also true that I'll be three times as glad when I see my parents roll into our driveway again in five or six months.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, April 14, 2005


The Hairball Express (Part 3)

(Continued from Part 2)

They sped out of the country, and on into the cities.

They passed through one city. Nobody noticed them.

They passed through two more cities. Nobody noticed them.

But the next city they passed, a station master saw the train roar through and thought it was a runaway train.

(He didn't know Moxie was at the controls.)

He called up the Train Police.

Someone at the Train Police called the TV news.

Then someone at the TV news sent out a helicopter with a camera to take pictures of the runaway train.

Meanwhile, as the sun was coming up, Thomas was up already. He had cried all the day before and into the night when he came home from pre-school and saw Moxie was gone. He told Mommy and Daddy who REALLY made the mess in his room. He was sad as he had ever been.

Mommy and Daddy were sad too, because they had sent Moxie away. They had been up all night feeling bad too. Mommy went downstairs to make breakfast and as she did she turned on the TV.

The morning news had a story about a runaway train that was headed for their town.

The TV news crew on the helicopter showed a close-up picture of the engine cab.

And there, sitting at the controls, was a black cat wearing a blue engineer's cap. It was Moxie!

"It can't be!" said Mommy, rubbing her eyes. "I need coffee."

Meanwhile, aboard the Hairball Express, Tuffy was contentedly munching the last of a turkey sandwich and playing with something on the windowsill. Moxie, who was eating granola bars, dropped the wrapper and squinted at Tuffy.

"What are you playing with?" she asked.

Tuffy looked at Moxie with his guilty face and she saw the little wooden engine in his paws.

"Did you take my train again?" she asked.

Tuffy lowered his head. "I hid it in the cap when I packed the sandwiches. I thought it would be fun to play with. I LIKE trains."

Moxie was about to say something when the flicker of flashing lights in the distance caught her attention.

Tuffy saw it too. "What's that up ahead on the tracks?" he asked.

Moxie squinted. "It's police cars," she said.

And it was.

The Train Police had driven their cars up on the track, hoping to stop the runaway train.

(They didn't know Moxie was at the controls.)

But the chief of the Train Police figured it out quick, when the chief grabbed his binoculars and saw who was in the cab.

"They won't stop us," said Moxie. "Full steam ahead!" She pushed the throttle forward while Tuffy pulled on the whistle.

"Two cats stole that train and they're not stopping for anything! Clear the track!" yelled the chief.

All the policemen got off the track in time.

But their cars didn't.



The Hairball Express crashed through, knocking the police cars off the track.

And kept going!

Now it was speeding straight for the station near Thomas' house.

Where, it turns out, Thomas was headed at that very moment!

And he wasn't alone. Along with Mommy and Daddy there were also police cars, and TV news crews, and crowds of people.

Someone said, "There's a runaway train headed straight for this station."

Thomas thought that sounded exciting. "Boy, I wish Moxie were here to see this!" he said.

And in the distance, he heard a


Meanwhile, aboard the Hairball Express, there was one tiny problem.

"You WHAT?!?" exclaimed Tuffy.

"I' quite sure how to stop this train," said Moxie.

"How can you NOT know?" asked Tuffy. "You're Moxie! You know more about trains than any other cat on earth!"

"Thomas' videos never covered this particular model of locomotive," said Moxie.

"Well, you better figure out how to stop this train now, otherwise, we're going to shoot right past the station," Tuffy cried.

Moxie stared intently at the controls. They were going too fast, and just past the station was a Big Curve. If they couldn't stop in time, they would jump the track! She had to find the brakes.

But there were so many buttons and switches and levers. Which one was it? She thought she knew everything about trains.

She looked and looked but it was no use. Up ahead, she saw the station, and just beyond it. The Big Curve.

"Get down!" she yelled to Tuffy. "We're going to jump the track!"

With a "ROWR!" and a fluttering of granola bar wrappers, Tuffy jumped to the floor of the cab. Moxie let go of the throttle and did the same. She closed her eyes tight. The engine roared like a lion, then--


Sparks flew up from the wheels of the Hairball Express!


The two cats rolled across the floor of the cab!


The Hairball Express shuddered and swayed, and steam poured from every valve and then...


The Hairball Express stopped.

Everything was quiet.

Moxie looked at Tuffy.

Tuffy looked at Moxie.

"How'd you stop it?" Tuffy asked.

Moxie looked up at the throttle and suddenly she remembered. "Some trains stop automatically if you let go of the throttle. As soon as I did, the brakes came on."

Just then, Moxie heard a familiar sound. It wasn't the CCCSSSHHHH CCCSSSHHH of the steam engine. It wasn't the clickety-clackety sound of a train.

It was a voice.

Slowly, Moxie climbed up to the window of the cab, and looked out at the crowds of people in front of the station, staring in surprise at the train.

And right below her, who should she see but---



Moxie leapt into Thomas' arms and gave him a big kitty hug.

"Ohhh, Moxie!" cried Thomas. "I'm so glad to see you! How did you ever get here?"

Now, if this were one of those stories that had lessons at the end, this would be the part where Thomas would promise never to lie again. Where his parents would promise to get all the facts before punishing anyone.

And it would also be the part where Moxie would learn that sometimes, knowing more than anyone else isn't as important as admitting when you DON'T know something. And WHEN you don't know something, sometimes, just sometimes, you need to let go and trust to luck.

And Moxie might have said that very thing to Thomas.

But before she could, she was interrupted by a



as the Hairball Express suddenly pulled out of the station.

And do you know why?

Because Tuffy took the train!

And that's...THE END


In Which I Take A Compliment...Any Compliment...

Feeling dullardly and sluggish--or is that sluggardly and dullish?--today. Woke up looking and feeling like I had lost about 20 IQ points (points I can ill afford to lose, I hasten to add) and work was one long stumble to 5 o'clock. Hope I didn't decide anything important today.

Part of it's just that I haven't been sleeping so well. I am stiff and sore from both my impromptu cycling weekend and the non-stop work on the Brownie's Secret Room (which she is now calling The Foxhole, so named for her beloved stuffed animal Foxo, who will apparently be living there in the future). Also while my parents have been here Her Lovely Self and I have been sleeping on the fold-out couch. See, the guest room was emptied because that's where we were going to put in the door for the walk-in attic. And I don't know what kind of son you think I am, but there was no way I was going to ask my sixtysomething parents to sleep in a room full of drywall and insulation dust, nor would I put them on the hideaway, especially when my dad's busting his ass on the room and my mom is acting as built-in babysitter. So they're in the master bedroom. I knew we had a nice mattress on our bed, but damn! I had no idea how nice. Three weeks later I do (and so do my parents).

I've never been a good sleeper, but last night was pretty bad. About the only bright spot was my dream. I used to remember lots of my dreams. That hasn't happened much lately, but when it does, they're usually quite vivid.

First, some reality back-story: my sister-in-law is in the final stages of adopting a baby girl from Guatemala. Yes, it's a very big deal and there is much excitement and we're eagerly awaiting the nubbin's arrival, some time this summer. Blahblahblah, huggy kissy, thank you missy. Let's get back to the dream.

So, in the dream, I'm at work, editing stories (only instead of working on a computer, I'm playing with a bowl of fruit. I'm rearranging pears and peaches, picking grapes off an exceedingly large bunch. Somehow I understood, in just that way that you can when Dream Logic is in effect, that this bowl of fruit had some kind of interface with the story I was working on, with the grapes representing individual words and the pears and peaches representing whole paragraphs. All being rearranged in the story--which was somewhere else--as I rearranged the fruit in the bowl. Anyway, it made sense at the time. Doesn't it always?).

The phone rings, and it's Her Lovely Self, all distraught. Apparently, her sister and husband were in Guatemala, all set to retrieve their adopted baby. But there was a problem: some official--a customs agent, a local police chief, somebody in authority--was being a real asshole, holding up the baby's travel visa, claiming some important stamp was missing. Of course, what he really wanted was a bribe.

Next thing I know, my mother-in-law is somehow conferenced in to the call and the upshot is that they want me to fly down to Guatemala that very night with a fistful of Thomas Cook (this was a very specific detail in the dream) traveler's checks to haggle with the guy and free up the travel visa.

"But...why me?" I ask Her Lovely Self. "I would think your dad would be your first choice to do this." As I may have mentioned one or five times before, because of his status as an ex-airline employee, my father-in-law can fly pretty much anywhere in the world--yes, even my dream world--for free. Also, he is singularly unencumbered with anything resembling a full-time job, and so, it seemed to me, just the person to toddle off to Guatemala and bribe the necessary official.

But apparently, he had an expired passport. And because of my job, I'm sort of required to have a current one (like I ever have to fly out of the country for work on a moment's notice).

"So you're our first choice," says my mother-in-law. "Besides," she adds, as if this clinches the deal, "you're the biggest asshole we know."

This apparently qualifies me to negotiate the terms of the bribe.

I don't remember the rest of the dream--it sort of segued to nothing once I got on a plane--but I woke up feeling ever so slightly honored. My mother-in-law would never call me an asshole. I suspect she thinks about it from time to time, but she would never say it. And while it sounds like an insult, I actually took it as a compliment. At least I would in real life if she ever said anything like that to me.

The compliments I remember most are the back-handed ones, probably because so many compliments you hear are so often not much more than the equivalent of asking "how are you?" or "that's nice." It's just something that's expected of people in a given situation, and so they give the required response ("you were great" or "I really enjoyed reading that"). Whereas with back-handed compliments, you're getting a certain level of sincerity that is inescapable and impossible to fake.

When I was 11 or so--to pick an example relevant to my dream--I was not exactly a star athlete. In fact, I was pretty uncoordinated, a bit on the runty side, and therefore always one of the last kids picked for any kind of team activity. It's an old story, and one you've heard--and probably experienced--before. It was especially true during Play Day, the annual school event in which we spent a whole day playing various games. It was a kind of school Olympics and I'm sure you had something similar in your school.

In the morning there would be individual events, such as the long jump and the hurdle race (in which I one year I not only lost the race, but also my gym shorts, when they somehow got caught on a hurdle and were yanked to my ankles. I sprawled to the ground, but not realizing what had happened, actually jumped up and waddled another 10 or so feet before I had the presence of mind to pull them up. Oh, the indignity! And it didn't end there, but that's all I have the nerve to tell you, gentle reader). In the afternoon we'd have team activities. Mr. Terry, the school principal, would anoint captains for the different activities and these captains would choose teams from the class.

One year, instead of the usual soccer and baseball and kickball matches, Mr. Terry had organized a scavenger hunt for each class, a really tricky one with cryptic clues written in riddles and some in secret codes that would guide you to each object hidden on the school grounds. And there were false clues too, and false trails to follow to false items. It was a complicated game.

After he explained the rules and had announced the captains--Michelle and Theresa--the choosing of teams began almost immediately. David Johnson, the athlete of our class, was the person who was always picked first and, sure enough, Theresa had her finger pointed at him and her mouth forming the syllable "Da--" when Mr. Terry interrupted.

"I forgot one more thing," he said. "This isn't an athletic event. This isn't a game where it pays to be the fastest or the strongest or even the smartest. You need to be..." he faltered for a second, the phrase "able to think outside the box" not quite in common parlance at the time. Instead, he said " need to be sneaky. You need to think in strange, crazy ways."

And as soon as he said "crazy" both Michelle and Theresa pointed at me and called my name. It was a funny moment and the rest of the class all laughed, except for the captains, who actually got in a heated debate over who had the right to pick me (Michelle argued that Theresa had already picked David. Theresa countered that because Mr. Terry hadn't finished explaining the rules she was entitled to a do-over). It was the first--and I'm willing to bet it will be the only--time that two girls fought over me.

I forget which team I ended up on (I know my team won), but I was walking on air the whole time. It felt as though the line between dream and reality had blurred. Sure, Mr. Terry had said "sneaky," "strange" and "crazy," but I heard something else entirely, a subtext that spoke volumes about the kind of resourceful, creative--and okay, sneaky, strange and crazy--person I imagined I was. And I always felt that my classmates had heard the same thing.

Of course, on that point, I could be completely kidding myself. For all I know, the team captains and the rest of the class might have interpreted Mr. Terry's comments as, "Pick the biggest asshole you know."

But even if they had, I still would have taken being picked first as a compliment.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


The Hairball Express (Part 2)

Continued from Part One...

Tuffy looked around to make sure no one was listening. "Not now," he hissed. "Grandma watches you like a hawk, and she won't let anyone out. Plus we have to watch out for Inky and Stinky. We'll go tonight, when everyone's asleep."

So that night, the two cats snuck into the kitchen, where they made turkey sandwiches for the trip. They packed the sandwiches along with some granola bars into the engineer's cap that Thomas had given Moxie.

Then, the two cats snuck out--I can't tell you how, but they snuck out.

Grandma's yard was empty, so the two cats dashed across the grass and into the trees, headed for the old station.

Little did they know that Inky and Stinky saw them, and the two big dogs followed them into the dark, dark woods.

On the cats ran, holding the engineer's cap full of turkey sandwiches and granola bars.

Until at last, they came to a big clearing full of tracks.

Some tracks were rusted and broken.

Some just ended at bumpers.

One track just went around in a big circle.

But one set of tracks led back behind an old station. And behind the old station was an engine shed. And inside the engine shed they could hear a

Chsssh! Chsssh! Chsssh!

"I'd know that sound anywhere!" exclaimed Moxie. "That's a steam locomotive!"

"The old man who runs the station fires up the boiler every night to make sure the train still works," said Tuffy. "Come on, let's go have a look."

"Wait!" said Moxie. She nodded to a railroad switch on the track. "If we can throw that switch, we'll be able to switch the train onto the Main Line. Come on!"

The two cats ran to the switch, where Moxie jumped up on Tuffy's sturdy gray back.

With all of her cat strength she pushed the switch and


The tracks switched over to the Main Line!

Then, the two cats ran down the track to the engine shed, and slowly pushed open the doors.

There was the biggest train Moxie had ever seen in her life. It was a giant choo-choo, with a big red smokestack, and smoke (which Thomas always called "woo-woos") chuffing out of it.

They heard another noise, too.

Snnnnnorrrrrrp Pff Pff Pff Pff Pff

Snnnnnorrrrrrp Pff Pff Pff Pff Pff

"It's the old man!" hissed Tuffy. "He must have fallen asleep after he fired up the boiler."

"Good!" said Moxie. "That's one less job for us. You go outside and make sure the yard is clear, while I take a look at the controls."

As Moxie hopped up into the cab of the engine, Tuffy sat outside the doors of the engine shed.

And that's when he heard two low growls, coming up fast in the dark.

"Rrrrr! You didn't listen to us!"

"We're the bosses around here!"

It was Inky and Stinky!

Snarling, the two dogs crept closer and closer to the sturdy little gray cat. "You left the house! Now we're gonna get you!"

Tuffy arched his back and tried to look brave. He tried to roar like a big cat, like a lynx, maybe or a mountain lion. But all that came out was a spluttering "Pfff! Pfff-fffffft!"

The two dogs laughed and were just about to pounce...

Suddenly, an ear-splitting noise filled the air!



"Awoooo!" the two dogs howled. They fell backwards, shaking their heads.

Then, there was a tremendous


as the doors to the engine shed flew open!

Inky and Stinky looked up and saw the enormous choo-choo bearing down on them.

With Moxie at the controls!

"All aboard!" shouted Moxie, and gave another blast of the whistle.

The noise was too much for Inky and Stinky. They turned, tails between their legs, and ran into the woods.

"Wow!" said Tuffy, as he hopped aboard the train. "That was wicked!"

"That's just for starters!" said Moxie. "Watch this!" And as she nudged the throttle, the train surged forward, heading out into the yard.

"Hold on," said Moxie. The train was coming up to the switch. Moxie would have crossed her fingers if she'd had them. The train came up to the switch and...


They were on the Main Line!

And just in time, too. All the noise had awakened the old man.

He jumped up, saw his train leaving, squinted, rubbed his eyes. "It can't be!" he shouted.

He ran for the station, where he picked up the phone and called the Train Police.

"Two cats just stole my train!" he bellowed.

But the Train Police just laughed and hung up on him.

"You know," said Tuffy, as they left the station behind. "We ought to name this train. All good trains have a name, don't they?"

"You're right," said Moxie.

She thought about it.

"I know!" she said at last. "We'll call this train the Hairball Express!" And with another blast of the whistle, the Hairball Express thundered into the night...


Tuesday, April 12, 2005


The Hairball Express (Part 1)

(No, this isn't my first blog entry. I predated the entry because this was about the time I first started making this story up with Thomas. And I needed to bury this somewhere in the blog. If you're finding this first, you might be better off starting here instead.)

Moxie & the Hairball Express

A Story Written Just for THOMAS

By His Dad

You have to understand that Moxie was a very special cat.

She had fur that was black as a locomotive and eyes that burned bright, like two pieces of coal that had just been shoveled into a firebox.

But that wasn't what made Moxie special, NO!

What made Moxie special was that she knew more about trains than any other cat on earth!

How did she know? Her boy Thomas told her.

Every day, Moxie would watch as Thomas played with his wooden toy trains. He showed her how to make the trains click together, and how to build tracks that wouldn't break apart.

Every afternoon, when Thomas watched his trains videos on TV, Moxie watched too, and learned how the BIG trains operated, how to make them stop and go, how to switch trains from one track to the next, and, most importantly, how to pull the rope to make the whistle go "Woo Woo!"

And every morning, when Thomas left with Mommy to watch real trains at the station near his house, Moxie would watch them go, then wait for Thomas to come back and tell her all about the trains he had seen.

And they had a very nice life together, until one day...

Moxie came into Thomas' room and discovered a BIG MESS.

Little boys sometimes get angry for reasons only they understand, and when they do, they sometimes throw tantrums. And here was Thomas, throwing the biggest tantrum Moxie had ever seen.

(It might have even been two tantrums.)

Toy trains were strewn everywhere. Videos were out of their boxes. Tracks were scattered about the floor--there were even some under the bed.

Just then, Mommy and Daddy came in and saw Thomas and Moxie sitting in the middle of the BIG MESS.

"WHO made this mess?" they asked.

Before he could think better of it, Thomas pointed at MOXIE and yelled, "She did it!"

Thomas loved Moxie, but he didn't want to get in trouble.

Moxie was sad that Thomas blamed the mess on her, but she didn't want him to get in trouble either.

So she didn't say anything.

So Mommy and Daddy thought MOXIE did it.

"You're in big trouble," they said. And they put Moxie in her cat carrier for the night.

Thomas felt so terrible about the lie he had told, that later he snuck down and gave Moxie his favorite blue engineer's cap to wear and a bunch of his favorite trains to play with in her carrier. He also gave her some turkey from the refrigerator.

(Turkey was Moxie's favorite food. She liked granola bars too.)

In the morning, Thomas was going to tell Mommy and Daddy the truth, but he had to go to pre-school and Mommy was so busy getting them ready to leave Thomas didn't have a chance to tell her.

As soon as they drove away to school, Daddy came down the stairs and picked up Moxie's car carrier and put it in his car.

What Thomas and Moxie didn't know was that Mommy and Daddy had the decided the night before that they couldn't have a messy cat in the house. Moxie would have to go live with Grandma.

(Grandma lived on a farm way up north in the country, and had lots of animals living with her, including chickens, birds, a family of raccoons in the barn, a salamander, dogs, and other cats.)

So that very morning, while Thomas was at pre-school, Daddy drove north to take Moxie to her new home.

Moxie was sad to go, and especially sad that she wouldn't get to say goodbye to Thomas. So she laid down in her cat carrier and curled up around the special blue engineer's cap and cried--ROWWWW ROWWWW ROWWWW--the way cat sometimes do when they're in the car.

Now, it's not that Grandma was mean (she wasn't) or that she didn't have a nice place (she did). In fact, Grandma's house had lots of windows for cats to look out of, and lots of toys for cats to play with.

But Grandma also had two big dogs living with her, named Inky and Stinky. Some big dogs are very nice and friendly, the kind that wag their tails and lick your face and are happy to see you even if they don't know you.

Inky and Stinky were the other kind of dog. The mean kind. Luckily, they lived outside, while all of Grandma's cats lived inside.

When Daddy's car pulled into the driveway, they came right up to the window and growled at Moxie in her cat carrier.

"We're the bosses around here," they told her. "And we don't like cats. You stay out of our way. And don't you go outside. It's our yard, and it's not for cats!"

"Hmmph!" said Moxie, who was not scared of any kind of dog. She turned around in her box and simply twitched her tail at them.

Daddy gave the carrier to Grandma, then got in his car and went back home. Grandma brought Moxie inside and let her out of her box to explore. Moxie looked out all of the big front windows--in one of them she could see Inky and Stinky growling at her.

Moxie explored all the closets and looked under all the chairs. The she went upstairs and tried out all the beds in the bedrooms.

All of a sudden, Moxie heard something else!

She swiveled her keen cat ears around. From downstairs she could hear a familiar clickety-clackety sound. It sounded like a train!

She ran downstairs to her cat carrier. The special blue engineer's cap was there, but the toy trains Thomas had given her were GONE!

Moxie started looking around the room when she heard the familiar clickety-clackety sound again. She followed the sound into a big room. And there in the middle of the floor stood a sturdy little gray cat with one bent ear.

His name was Tuffy.

And he was playing with her train!

Tuffy was pushing them with his paws and looking annoyed when Moxie snuck up behind him.

"You took my train!" she said, hissing into his bent ear.

Tuffy whirled and stared at Moxie with a guilty face.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I love trains. I was born under the platform of an old train station. When I saw your little train, I couldn't help it." Tuffy batted the little wooden train sadly. "It doesn't matter. This train is broken. I can't get it to go to together."

Moxie looked.

"No it's not. If you turn those two cars around, I bet they'll all click together," she said.

Tuffy turned the cars around and click-click-click-click! All the cars joined together to form a nice long train!

"Hey, thanks!" said Tuffy, pushing the train around happily. "How do you know so much about trains?"

"I'm Moxie," said Moxie. "I know more about trains than any other cat on earth."

"Who taught you?" asked Tuffy.

"My boy Thomas. He lives far away." She drooped her head. "I miss him."

"Well, why don't you take the train to see him?" Tuffy asked.

Moxie looked at the little wooden train. "That toy train isn't going to take me anywhere."

"No no no," said Tuffy. "I meant a BIG train. Not far from here, there's an old station. I used to live under it, until the mean old man who lives there chased me away and Grandma took me in. The old station is just on the other side of the woods outside. And behind the old station, there's an old engine shed. And inside the engine shed, there's an old train that still runs."

Moxie thought for a second. "If we could get that train on to the Main Line, why, I bet I could take it all the way to the station near Thomas' house!"

She looked at the other cat and ruffled her locomotive-black fur with excitement. "Tuffy, let's take the train!" she said...



In Which I Explain Why I Hate Pot Roast...

During our little getaway, Her Lovely Self and I dined at a restaurant that fancied itself a purveyor of Dutch cuisine, whatever that is. I ended up with a dish of "spiced Dutch beef" which I thought would perhaps be some kind of pepper steak or, at worst, a tricked-out variation of Italian beef, which I consumed by the pound in thousands of drippy sandwiches during my time in Chicago.

But then the dish arrived and I saw the "Dutch beef" for what it was: pot roast.

I hate pot roast.

I suppose it's somewhat sacrilegious to admit this, given that I am from New England and so should therefore love such dishes as "Yankee pot roast," but I don't. I also don't care for clam chowder or lobster either. So much for my solidarity to regional cuisine.

But pot roast. Ugh. Really cannot hate it enough.

Of course, my hatred stems from childhood (doesn't everything?). I remember--and if I had forgotten, I would have been reminded numerous times while my parents were here--that I was a stubborn, picky eater. This often left me sitting at the dinner table well past suppertime, staring sullenly at a cold plate of chops or beef stew, or whatever it was I was determined not to eat.

This left my dad in a state of apoplexy. He was and is an omnivore. On the farm where he grew up, the family was just poor enough that you were grateful for whatever food you got, and sometimes what you got was pretty weird shit: dandelion greens, possum, woodchuck, anything that happened to get run over in the dirt road out in front of the farm. So you can imagine what he would make of a little boy who refused to eat beef stew, and who so hated peas that, rather than give in and eat them, he opted to stuff them up his nose (8 in one nostril, 7 in the other. Mom had to pin me to the floor and extract them with tweezers).

The peas came from our acre of garden. Wherever we've lived, my dad has always planted a garden, and probably always will. To him there was nothing better than eating food you had seen to yourself. And even I have to admit that we grew some pretty amazing sweet corn when I was a kid. Unfortunately, we also grew turnips and radishes and onions and cauliflower and, well, pretty much every vegetable I hated. Not my dad, though. He was God in the garden, and loved all his children equally.

But there was one thing he hated: four-legged pests.

If my dad were in charge of classifying wildlife, he would have just one category for Varmints, and in it he would include porcupines, raccoons, rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels, possums, and our neighbor's cat, which had a taste for green pepper plants. As a boy, my dad was trained to hunt down and kill any and all varmints that might find their way into the barn, the henhouse, the garden. And when he had so thoroughly eliminated all traces of varmint presence in and around the farm, he took to hunting critters down in the surrounding woods. As a lad, my dad was well known not just for his marksmanship, but also for the Hills Bros. coffee can he carried, and into which he would place the severed nose of every varmit he caught and killed (the State of New Hampshire used to pay a 15-cent bounty on every porcupine nose you brought to the game warden, so there was some financial incentive for keeping these morbid little trophies. Or so my dad says).

As a grown man, Dad's hatred of varmints turned into genuine pathology. One of my earliest memories is of digging potato holes around dusk one evening. Dad was digging holes, into which I would drop potato halves. Without a word, Dad suddenly tore across the garden, shovel in hand. About 10 yards distant, at the perimeter of the field, a luckless porcupine was ambling by. Both Dad and varmint disappeared behind a bush and a second later I heard the thwong of metal on prickly flesh. Like a spiny baseball, the lifeless body of that porcupine came flying over the top of the bushes, landing back in the garden. Dad buried it where it fell. When woodchucks showed up, my dad set all kinds of interesting traps, just waiting for the furry perps to break into the garden. Raccoons were pretty infrequent, but when they showed up, it could sometimes turn into a mighty battle of the wits.

In fact, one year, we had a raccoon that had cleaned out an entire stand of Indian corn in one night. My dad tried all the usual tricks--laying newspaper in the rows, putting a radio under a wheelbarrow out in the garden and letting it play all night. Finally, he bought a second-hand electric fence and staked out the entire garden. Although the fence did a good job of keeping me and my brother out of the garden, the raccoon managed to defeat even this measure. Each morning, we'd wake to find something new had vanished from the garden.

After about two weeks of this classic struggle of man against nature, my dad had had enough. One evening after supper, he got a shotgun and a lawn chair and went on stake-out, positioning himself at the east end of the garden, which commanded a view of the full acre as well as the woods on one side, the side from which the raccoon was most likely to come.

Dad spent two nights outdoors, waiting with all the patience of a saint (well, a saint with a rifle). Finally, on the third night, just after my brother and I had gone to bed, we heard the thunderous BOOM of the shotgun. Then we heard laughing and hooting. We ran to our bedroom window and opened it, yelling to my dad. Presently he came around the back of the house, a shadowy form carrying a giant mass in one hand. It was almost full dark but in the light of our bedroom window, we could see that in this battle, man had won: Dad was carrying the largest raccoon I have ever seen. The thing was as large as a medium-sized dog and was so outsized it looked like some prehistoric creature--the saber-tooth raccoon.

Dad was jubilant. "By Gorry, we got him!" he crowed. "From now on, fresh vegetables will be on our dinner table instead of his!"

And sure enough, at dinner the next night, we had a veritable feast. The garden had been coming in strong so the dinner table was laden with fresh corn, green and red peppers, tomatoes, peas (yuck) and so much more. My parents were in a bright, almost festive mood and so was I, until my mom brought our dinner plates out from the kitchen and I saw that we were having Yankee pot roast.


I crabbed about it, but really, everyone was too happy to pay attention to me. Especially my brother and my dad, who adored pot roast. And there were plenty of vegetables I did enjoy on the table, so I dutifully gulped down the small amount of pot roast I was forced to eat, and then gorged myself on corn. My brother, meanwhile, had cleaned his plate and went for seconds. He took his plate into the kitchen to help himself...and appeared in the door a second later, his face a little pale.

"What--what kind of pot roast IS this?" he asked. "It looks funny."

I was nearest the kitchen and a curious little boy, so I jumped right up and ran into the kitchen to see what he was talking about. There on the platter was the roast. And my brother was right: it didn't look like any pot roast we had ever seen. For one thing, it had the tiniest rib cage...

"Oh no," whispered my brother. "It's--"

"Hey!" called my dad. "Get back in here and eat your raccoon."

I was 6 years old at the time and so did not have the full menu of profanity at my command. If I had, I'm sure I would have yelled something like "Jesus H. Christ, what kind of sick-fuck parents feed their kids a mother-fucking RACCOON?!?!?!?"

But at the time, the best I could manage was a blood-curdling shriek, followed by a keening, wailing, "Yuck-A-DOOOOOOOOOOO-dle!!"

No photograph exists to show the stunned expressions my brother and I were wearing at the moment of realization, but they must have been pretty funny because my dad collapsed on the floor of the dining room, and was laughing so hard that tears actually squirted out of his eyes, something I had never seen before. I couldn't believe it. This was FUNNY to him.

I went up to him, my face the face of the most serious 6-year-old you ever saw in your life. "You mean to tell me you fed us raccoon?" I whispered, hoping it was just a big prank (he WAS laughing a lot).

"No," my dad said, when he caught his breath, and I started to relax. Maybe it was a joke.

"No," he continued. "I didn't mean to tell you. But you ARE eating that raccoon."

As we later found out, once my dad had done his victory lap around the darkened yard, my mom appeared, dragging the trash bucket out of the garage. She held open a bag for Dad to dump the body into, but inspiration hit him.

"This sumbitch has eaten half my crop," he told her, shaking the dead raccoon at her. "By Gorry, I'm gonna harvest those vegetables one way or the other!"

Upon reflection, I don't know which is more disturbing: that my dad arrived at this decision at all, or that my mom just went along with it, as though devouring varmints was something we did every day. The only glitch in their plan was that my mom had trouble finding a recipe in which raccoon figured as the prime ingredient (imagine!). So in the end, after my dad produced the cleaned and dressed carcass, she decided to treat it like a roast and stewed the ever-loving crap out of it. Then they fed it to their unsuspecting children.


But after the initial shock, even my brother recovered quickly. For one thing, he actually ATE the seconds he had gone into the kitchen to get. My dad finished off the rest, eating a couple more helpings himself before using the leftover meat to make a sandwich for work the next day.

But I didn't eat another thing that night, not even dessert (which was apple pie). And for a long time thereafter, I would hover in the kitchen to watch my mom prepare dinner, just in case she was planning to make porcupine patties or possum stew. I just couldn't get over it (and as some of you may have surmised, I'm still not quite over it yet). It was like something out of a fairy tale, one of the more gruesome ones. And it ruined me on pot roast forever.

So perhaps now you can understand my disappointment at the restaurant a few nights ago, when our server brought me the heaping plate of "Dutch beef."

Her Lovely Self wanted to know why I wasn't eating, but I just couldn't bring myself to tell her--no sense in ruining her dinner too. Instead, I pushed the plate aside and asked our server to bring me the dessert menu. Thankfully, poetically, they had apple pie.

I ordered three slices.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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