Sunday, July 31, 2005

 

In Which We Study the History of C.R.A.P....

Case study:

End-stage infection of Chronic Regenerative Acquisitional Proclivity (C.R.A.P.) in a 62-year-old Caucasian male

A classic sign of a C.R.A.P. infection is the one-way flow of items into the life of the afflicted. A C.R.A.P. sufferer always acquires, rarely divests. In the unlikely event a C.R.A.P. sufferer can be persuaded to part with an item he has gathered, it's only in exchange for more items. In its advanced stages, C.R.A.P. causes patients to demonstrate the ability to gather objects whose immediate usefulness is not only not apparent, but would require an unlikely combination of events for them to ever become useful.

Let us take, for example, the case of an anonymous patient we will call "Dad." In the mid-1970s, Dad acquired a bundle--approximately 20 feet in length, roughly four feet in diameter--of Victorian-era crown molding. This molding was constructed of wood with an overlay of ornate metalwork, of a design that brought to mind the interior of a brothel (and indeed, such may have been its origin). The reason Dad gave for bringing this bundle home (which he found at a nearby landfill, a location commonly frequented by C.R.A.P. sufferers) was that the metal in question was, he believed, lead, a pliable material which did have some value on the secondary scrap market, but which was an outright health hazard when used in the home. However, Dad could not bring himself to strip the metal from the wood and sell it for scrap, his reason being that the bundle represented an architectural antique that would be much more in demand among restorers of historic homes than its intrinsic value would dictate. When no such restorers materialized to purchase this bundle, the lead-covered wood was dispatched to a distant storage shed on Dad's property. It remained in Dad's possession for the next three decades, and was moved no less than six times before finally coming to rest in a barn in New Hampshire.

A condition that can sometimes exacerbate the C.R.A.P. virus, however, is a scenario in which impossible luck can and does favor the sufferer. In the case of Dad and his bundle of hazardous woodwork, eventually a restorer of historic sites in the New England area found out about Dad's cache of Victorian molding and further discovered that it was of sufficient square-footage and era-appropriate design for his projects. A transaction was agreed upon and the restorer carted off the molding while Dad recouped $250 on the bundle which, by conservative estimates, cost him approximately $1,400 to store and transport cross-country over the years. Despite the fact that he would have earned substantially more had he simply placed the same amount of money in, say, Microsoft IPO stock or even a simple interest-bearing account at the time of acquisition, Dad nevertheless viewed the transaction as validation of his tendencies. No amount of logic or mathematics would dissuade him from this viewpoint, yet another hallmark of intractable C.R.A.P. Syndrome.


So much for the medical literature.

As for me, I confess I had a similar moment, although thankfully it didn't involve 350 pounds of lead-laden trim. When Thomas was barely out of toddlerhood, he was fascinated with action figures. He was forever arranging them in elaborate scenarios--scenarios which often included dismembering or breaking the figures, alas--and then begging me to photograph the numerous tableaux he would create. Not wanting to discourage this father-son activity, yet not having the funds to buy brand-new figures for destruction, I took to purchasing boxloads of miscellaneous action figures at yard sales and flea markets.

At one point, I was sifting through debris in the bottom of a recently acquired box, when I came across a flat, black plastic lid which, God help me, I recognized as the hatch to a specific kind of Batmobile, the only Batmobile that could seat both Batman AND Robin at the same time (of course the Batmobile it went to was long discarded). Well, Batman and Robin were my son's favorite figures and--mark this--he already had a perfectly good Batmobile, but it was only a single-seater (and only a cad would suggest that Robin sit in Batman's lap whilst they went about their crime-fighting duties).

Naturally, this two-seater Batmobile had been off the market for a couple of years and had achieved a collectible status in that time. Of course, you know what I did: I saved that fricking lid against the day I would find a lidless two-seater collectible Batmobile at a reasonable price.

Although small in size, that lid very nearly ruined my marriage. Her Lovely Self just couldn't get over the fact that I was hanging on to this "lump of plastic" against pretty steep odds of finding its vehicular mate.

In the end, when we were getting ready to move to the house we now occupy, I broke down under the combined pressure of endless haranguing and conjugal embargoes and sold off bags and bags of action figure parts, as well as that damn lid. It actually ended up getting $12.50 on eBay.

The first week after we moved into our new house, our neighborhood had a community yard sale. And what do you suppose the kid across the street--across the street--was selling?

(All right, he lived across the street and down about eight houses, but still...)

There was no camera to capture the look I gave my spouse at that moment, no device to record the strange guttural squeaking that emitted from my throat, but the combined audio-visual spectacle must have been sufficiently horrifying enough that Her Lovely Self ended up buying the lidless Batmobile I found that day (cost: $2). And when I recovered the power of speech, I heard myself saying the words that are ever the precursor of a long-term C.R.A.P. flare-up: "I am NEVER EVER getting rid of anything again!"

And so here we are.

To be fair, my condition is not as severe as my parents', not yet anyway. Not long after we were married and moved into a new home, I brought my young bride up to the wilds of New Hampshire, partly to show her off to my relatives (many of whom, I'm chagrined the say, I did not invite to the wedding. These were the truly intractable C.R.A.P. sufferers, the kind of people who would have made off with the cake centerpiece and the votive candles). But mostly, I used the trip to make off with a load of, well, crap.

That's one of the fun things about a family of C.R.A.P. sufferers. You're always taking each other's stuff, whether it's given to you or not. That Johnny West figure in the picture the other day? Okay, fine! It WAS my brother's. But possession is nine-tenths, right. And anyway, who nibbled off the kung-fu grip on my GI Joe and then started calling him "Knuckles," huh? Well?

This personality trait among C.R.A.P. sufferers is especially pronounced after a member of the family has perished. When my grandfather died of a heart attack in the early 70s, some of his children didn't even wait til sun-up the next day to raid the house and the numerous sheds, looking for the old gingerbread clock, the Shaker dresser, the only known tintype images of our Abenaki grandmother, and dozens of other legendary items.

And so it was that one of my uncles crept up to the house at 4:30 the next morning, slid in through the side window of the house, intent on getting into my dead grandfather's bedroom, probably to make off with the coin collection, or the Amoskeag musket, or the wooden box full of Dick Tracy cap guns that the kids were only allowed to fire off on the Independence Day.

I know. Appalling, isn't it? And we know for a fact that he did this, because as this person was creeping through the darkened living room, he tripped over my dad, who had been hiding behind the sofa ever since he heard the window open.

As they sat their in the pre-dawn gloom, bickering, they saw a small pick-up coast into the barnyard, its lights off, its motor killed. It was their sister! Hastily, they came to terms: One got the cap guns, one took the musket. They both squeezed out the side window with their acquisitions just as Sis was opening the front door. They didn't find the coin collection, but that was because the eldest child--my aunt Barbara--had dispatched uncle David to retrieve it (for safekeeping) approximately 45 minutes after my grandfather's body had been discovered the day earlier. Or so I was always told.

And now here I was, about 300 yards up a hill from that old farmstead, in a two-story storage building my dad had constructed himself. Here were all the prized possessions of my youth: the bulk of my comic-book collection, my toys, a collection of child-sized polyester leisure suits of the style worn by The Six Million Dollar Man, which my mom had sewn for me when I was a boy (I regret to inform you that NO photographic evidence of that unfortunate sartorial era has survived into modern day).

While I happily puttered about upstairs, gathering my things, Her Lovely Self remained downstairs, assisting her new in-laws as they checked on their belongings. After a while, she became silent and pensive, almost withdrawn. Eventually, I gathered the 40 or so boxes I was planning to transport to our new home. It took an hour to load it all up, and during that time, Her Lovely Self scarcely spoke a word, looking paler by the second. At last, we climbed into our vehicle and followed my parents back to the house.

"Now what's the matter?" I asked, trying not to be defensive, but when you have C.R.A.P., sometimes you can't help but walk around with your back up.

Her Lovely Self gazed at me with troubled eyes. "I know this stuff is important to you, and I'm happy to move it home so you can go through it. But if you ever get as bad as your parents--"

"Oh God, what?" I asked. "What did they do?"

HLS shook her head. "Your mom said she was going to go through some of the older boxes and throw things out." She paused for breath. "I saw her open this one box, and do you know what was inside?"

I tried to think of the most bizarre possession my parents had. "Was it the stuffed dog? The Civil War bedpan? The syphilis needle?"

She stared at me a long time, wondering if I was joking, but not daring to ask. Finally she said. "No. In the box there were two things: a crochet blanket that some squirrel had turned into a nest, and a giant rock."

I hated myself for saying, simply, "And?"

"And your mother started winding up the loose thread from the blanket. Covered in squirrel pee and whatever! And I said, 'Please don't tell me you're going to save it!' I really think she was, until she saw the look on my face."

"But--" I said, "she threw it out."

"Yes, but she put the rock back in the box! Who saves a 50-pound rock?"

Well, I guess you have to have C.R.A.P. to understand C.R.A.P. ...


Friday, July 29, 2005

 

In Which I Pop In For A Nightcap...

Heavens, what a day! So many odd and interesting things abounding, it's a wonder I don't just keel over.

Can I tell you about these things? Er...no. Mostly it would be pretty boring, a bit like watching, say, two friends playing Battleship. It just ain't the same unless you're playing.

Oh wait, I can tell you one thing:

Thanks, first, to everyone for making the previous entry a record-breaker in terms of comments here at the Masthead.

(At this juncture can I say how interesting it is that the all-time most popular blog entry AND the most frequently viewed image among all my flickr images have NOTHING to do with me? I might as well change the name of this blog to "Fingerpaints and Bikinis.")

(Hey, that's not half-bad...)

As a result of your enthusiastic comments--and my foolhardy decision to read them all aloud--I have been corraled into launching an art blog. I'm told it will ALL happen this weekend. To emphasize the point, there is a box--like, a SERIOUS box--of drawings and paintings and homemade picture books following me around the house. It was sitting here by the computer yesterday. This morning, when I got up, I put my foot directly into it, since it had been shoved up the stairs, step by heavy step, and placed next to my slumbering form, so I wouldn't miss it. At lunch, I got a voicemail reminding me to set aside my weekend for putting up the art blog (I didn't even know he could dial me at work). And when I intimated that we might not get as far on it as he thinks we will, you'd have thought I'd set fire to the box. Oh, the wailing. Oh, the gnashing of teeth. Oh, the direct-dialing to Grandma!! I swear, where does this kid get his overdeveloped sense of drama?

(comments are closed to my brother)

So, we'll at least get started on it, but I have to say that I will also be busy dealing with a little situation.

Well, it's not a little situation. It's actually kind of a big deal, having to do with a certain...uh...condition I have. It's nothing fatal. It's one of these chronic problems. I've actually got two strikes against me because I inherited a genetic weakness from both my mom and dad. I'm kind of embarrassed...

Aw shit. This is tough.

Okay, here it is: It appears I've acquired Chronic Regenerative Acquisitional Proclivity.

Or C.R.A.P., as it is sometimes known.

In layman's terms: I'm an incurable pack-rat.

My family is genetically predisposed to acquire C.R.A.P.

Which isn't so bad. I mean, it's not fatal, like I said.

The problem is that Her Lovely Self has delivered an ultimatum: C.R.A.P. virus or not, I MUST begin to clean out the basement this weekend.

I mean it's not that bad.

wreck 005

Not really.

wreckfin

God, this is going to kill me.

I just know it.

(comments are STILL closed to my brother)

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, July 26, 2005

 

In Which I Watch The Artist At Work...

I'm not so good with heat. "Heat" by the way is for me defined as temperatures in excess of 76 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything in the 80s is "sweltering hot" and anything in the 90s is "fucking hot." Temperatures in the triple digits constitute an Extinction Level Event.

So it's that time of year when I'm spending a good chunk of the weekend indoors, where life-giving Freon, as interpreted by my environmentally antiquated appliances, provides me with the essentials I need for survival (specifically, cool air and popsicles).

This weekend, I wasn't alone. While Her Lovely Self toiled outside, watering her garden with her own sweat, the kids decided to hang out inside as well. It had been a week full of sports and parties and outdoor activities for them, so I think they just wanted a change. We played a nauseating amount of Go Fish and Memory, then cleaned out the basement (that is, I cleaned out the basement, while threading my way through the ever-growing obstacle course of LEGOs and minuscule Barbie apparel).

Later, we watched a thrilling nature documentary about dinosaurs, which featured enormous, slavering T-rex style carnivores and--speaking of Extinction Level Events--a massive volcanic explosion. Well, dinosaurs and natural disasters are pretty high up on my son Thomas' list of artistic inspirations, and before the show was even over, he announced that he would be doing a new series of watercolors based on what he'd just seen.

Sometimes, when he's really excited, my son will prepare to draw a picture the way I imagine actors will prepare for a role. For example, if he's going to draw a picture of a fluffy woodland creature being chased by a pack of ravening wolves, he will first run through the house, or the yard, pretending to be the fluffy woodland creature. Then, he'll switch roles and be the entire ravening pack of wolves and convince his sister to be the FWC. I don't think they teach Method Painting at any of the big art schools, but I can't argue with his results. For me anyway, it makes the prep work leading up to the painting as enjoyable as the finished project itself.

So I was anticipating watching him spend the afternoon exploding out of our big red beanbag, or perhaps cajoling The Brownie into being a quiet little veggiesaur while he stalked her throughout the house.

But this time, Thomas did nothing like that. Instead, he laid on the floor a lot, with his eyes closed. Sometimes, he'd jump up with a yell, but instead of running, he'd stand still and look straight up at the ceiling. Then he went outside and did this for a bit, lying perfectly flat on the grass and staring up into the sky. A passing neighbor asked if he was looking at clouds. "No," he said, a little testily. "I'm working on my painting."

Finally, after an hour of this behavior, he settled in at the kitchen table with his watercolors.

About 45 minutes later, he carefully laid his work on top of the dog's kennel to dry.

"Come see," he said.

And this is what I saw.

dinner

Wow, I thought. It's kind of an abstract volcano. I mean, it was rather a lot longer and narrower than the one we had seen on the show, but look at the red of that lava! The more I looked at it, the more I saw that he must have tried to do a sort of cutaway view of a volcano, so you could see the lava inside.

"Wow, it's really vivid," I said, remarking on the colors. "Did you name it yet?" Thomas always names his artwork.

"Yes," he said gravely. "It's called 'Dinner.'"

Before I could stop myself, I said, "A volcano called 'Dinner'?"

He gave me one of those oh-god-dad-is-crazy looks that both of my children have mastered from an early age. "It's not a volcano, Dad!!"

Of course, I had been thrown. I thought because of the show we had just seen, Thomas was responding to that influence. But then I remembered that last night we had had pasta. HLS and I had ours with a rich, dark pesto sauce, but the kids had theirs with standard-issue tomato sauce. I remembered now how fascinated Thomas had been with the colors of the sauces, sitting next to each other in different bowls. He must have decided to switch gears and paint something inspired by, well, dinner.

"Oh, of course!" I said quickly. "That's the green sauce Mom and I had, and in the middle is the red sauce. And it's on some kind of, er, pizza bread thing..."

Thomas looked completely resigned. "No, Dad," he sighed in the practiced way of the artist who must explain his vision to the ignorant masses. "Not OUR dinner. YOU'RE the dinner!!"

And now I had no idea what he was talking about. "I'm sorry, buddy. I guess I don't—"

He pointed at the picture. "That's a T. Rex, coming to eat you. You're on the ground, and he's opening his mouth to bite you up. You're the dinner."

It was like that moment when you're looking at an optical illusion and the picture of the vase suddenly becomes a boy and a girl kissing. I could see it instantly: the white teeth, the bloody red maw. I just didn't expect a 6-year-old--even mine--to draw something from such a perspective.

Have another look:

dinner

"Holy shit!" I exclaimed, quite despite myself.

"So it's good?" he asked. "Good enough to hang in your office?"

"It's better than that," I said. "In fact, I'm going to show it to all my friends on the computer."

And so I have.

But please, folks, do not feel obligated to comment on it. We've all been subjected to those parents who expect you to coo over their baby (even when that baby has been whacked liberally with the Ugly Stick) and I have no desire to put you in a similar position. Just chalk this post up to the enthusiasm of a father who finds himself consumed by his son's talent.

In more ways than one.

Yours,
From Somewhere in the Stomach of the T. Rex


Monday, July 25, 2005

 

In Which It Never Rains But...

I'm sure it will embarrass her no end, and I know it's just the most egregiously self-inflating manner in which to start a post (and you can see already how that's not going to stand in my way at all), but this entry over at Finn's Space just made my month (and yes, I know it's completely innocent, and in the same sentence she links to three other guys she's blog-crushing on, but who's #1? Huh? Well?).

The last time my name was linked with the word "crush" was longer ago than I care to admit, or remember. I was working with my pal C-Dog at the time, so it was more than 5 years ago, less than 10. I was sitting in the office, pecking away at some story or other, when one of the other editors--let's call her Abby--came by to talk. She had a bit of a bemused smile on my face and finally revealed the reason.

"So," Abby said. "One of the little interns has a big crush on you."

"No," I said dismissively, then drew a breath. "Which one?"

"Oh, it's [name of the cute intern with a weakness for form-hugging tops and skirts of a shortness not usually seen outside of music videos]. You should have heard her at the production meeting going on about how funny and charming you are. You lucky dog," she said with a smile.

"Yeah, I'm so lucky," I said, rolling my eyes. "Where was she in the late 80s, when I actually needed this kind of attention?!?"

"In the womb," Abby said dryly.

Oh, yes, ha ha, big laugh about that.

I was married, not dead, of course. And you'd have had to be dead not to notice that year's crop of summer interns, all them about 19 or 20, all of them women, and all of them exceedingly well-crafted by a kind and loving God.

I would be lying if I didn't admit to an instant of private and self-serving delight at the information Abby presented to me. Because, to be perfectly honest, this sort of thing NEVER happened to me. If experience has taught me anything it's that I'm just not suitable crush material, except perhaps in circumstances involving desert islands or being the last man on earth. I can count on the fingers of one hand--on the hands of a Disney character, at that--the number of times any female has ever regarded me as crushable (No, I can't even include Her Lovely Self. I've asked her, believe me, and for my pains heard a story that didn't include the word "crush" at all, but which did serve to remind her--and me--just how much of a factor pity was in her decision to go out with me).

But as soon as that instant of delight was over, I was filled with a certain frowning dismay. I'd been to enough corporate sexual-harassment seminars and sensitivity-awareness sessions that I could scarcely feel anything else. I realized--and realize still--that such political correctness in the working world is a vital and necessary thing. Make no mistake: I support it wholeheartedly.

(Not just because I have no choice, but because I've heard the horror stories. My own mother, during her years working for a sewing machine and fabric store, spent a miserable month dodging an ass-pinching manager who was smugly, supremely confident that she had no recourse. Boy, was he ever wrong about that. But then again, not every woman is married to a man willing to march right into the Bedford Mall, bend the ass-pincher over a sewing machine and threaten to stitch his penis to the inside of his trousers if he ever touched her again.)

And yet, it's kind of sad too. Because I knew myself and knew that my tendency from then on would be to limit my interaction with that woman. Sure enough, I became ultra self-conscious around her, and certainly less funny and charming so as not to exhibit any behavior that could have been construed by anybody as leading her on. I was dismayed because I realized even then that no matter what I did, I'd end up bruising her feelings in some way, which I hated to do. I have no desire to be unnecessarily mean to someone, for any reason.

So imagine my surprise, then, the day after the post over at Finn's Space, to walk into the office and get an email from that very intern. Who is, of course, an intern no longer, but now a colleague working in magazines. It was an exceedingly flattering email, thanking me for all my time and advice so early in her career, so I guess I didn't bruise her feelings or treat her as aloofly as I thought I had, after all.

As for the part of this entire scenario you thought I had forgotten about: No, this sort of interaction doesn't faze Her Lovely Self in the least, and not just because of the considerable infrequency of my being an objet de crush. I have friends whose wives would be supremely pissed at them for a situation like this--pissed just on general principle, you understand. One my best friends is a part-time professor at a local university. The guy's a certified genius in his field, but as he says, "I'll consider myself a genius on the day I figure out how to keep my wife from being mad at me." Granted, he's in a particularly hazardous situation. Unlike, say, me, he is a pretty handsome guy. A handsome guy who teaches college. You know the classroom scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where all the coeds are gazing dreamily at Harrison Ford? Well, that's what his life is like. At least once a year, he can pretty much count on one of his young female students to get all goo-goo eyed on him and make a pass. He does nothing to encourage this, nor would he ever take advantage of the fact. Nevertheless, it drives his wife right up the wall, despite his assurances that nothing has, is, or ever will happen.

"Don't you trust me?" he'll ask her.

"It's not that I don't trust YOU," she'll say angrily. "I just don't trust THEM."

How do you argue with that?

Luckily, when it comes to Her Lovely Self, I don't have to deal with this at all. I'm more or less in the same boat as my pal C-Dog, who is also married, and whose long-suffering wife has never seemed to mind his chronic case of Roving Eye, nor the fact that he occasionally gets a gaze or two from women.

"God, we're so lucky," he said to me recently. "It's a good thing we married the women we did."

"Amen, brother," I said.

"We're so lucky," he continued, "because it's absolutely inconceivable to them that anyone else would ever be seriously interested in us."

I was so tickled by this observation, I shared it with Her Lovely Self later. "Of course," I added. "I had to tell him that in our case it had more to do with trust and honesty."

"No," said Her Lovely Self. "He got it right the first time."

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Friday, July 22, 2005

 

In Which I Am Certifiable...

As I scrambled to retrieve the phone (and towel), all the panic and blind hysteria I had successfully avoided during my accident of several months ago now came over me in a sickening rush. I had just received a receipt notifying me of a certified letter awaiting me at the post office. And the blood bank had just confirmed that certified mail was exactly how they notified donors if their blood screen revealed an STD or other communicable disease.

"Hello? Hello?" the nice woman on the other end called out.

"Sorry," I said, struggling to hold both my towel and my phone. "My hand's wet and the phone slipped."

The nice woman got all serious. "Did you just get a certified letter, sir?" she asked, not unkindly.

"Yes," I said miserably. "Except, why now? I mean, I donated, like, six weeks ago."

"Well," she said, "assuming the letter is from us, we did have a delay in expediting some of the blood screens, so it took about three weeks to notify people. Did you move or change addresses recently? That would cause a further delay."

I nodded stupidly, since she couldn't see me. I had of course just moved into the city about a month ago. Oh God, I've got something! Oh God, I gave it to Her Lovely Self! Oh. My. God!!

Then a sudden thought occurred to me. "Listen," I asked the nice woman. "Can you look up my donor record and see the results of the screen? I can give you whatever information you--"

"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't have access to that information here. And even if I did, we're really not supposed to give it over the phone."

Numbly, I thanked her and hung up. Clearly, I was going to be a little late for work.

That was about as long a morning as I ever care to spend. I dressed quickly and set off for the post office at a brisk walk, figuring it would do me good to burn off the nervous energy, although it must be said at that point I was generating enough nervous energy to power a medium-sized city.

I felt awful for so many reasons, it was hard to know what to agonize about first. Bad enough that I was carrying around some infectious disease, but to have been so irresponsible as to sleep with Her Lovely Self while carrying it!! The guilt I felt was absolutely nauseating. When it came to theoretical dilemmas regarding my sex life, I had always imagined the worst possible fate would be getting someone pregnant. But my God, at that moment the idea paled in comparison to infecting someone with a potentially life-long, life-threatening disease.

And clearly, it was one of the biggies, had to be, because I had nothing in the way of symptoms. No unexplained or awkwardly placed rashes or skin eruptions, no physical signs of any kind. Of course I also knew that HIV and hepatitis and other diseases could be asymptomatic for months or even years. And I had given it to Her Lovely Self, I was sure of it (yes, there had been precautions, but as anyone who's ever read the fine print can tell you, no precaution is 100 percent effective, and the way my luck had suddenly turned, I was going to be in the percentage where it wasn't).

I got to the post office just a few minutes before 8, and realized to my ever-expanding dismay that this particular sub-station did not in fact open til 8:30. Another half-hour to wait. I threw myself onto the steps, stared blankly at the yellow postal slip, and tried to get used to the idea of what my life would be like now, here in my new alternate reality, Earth-H ("h" for "hell" of course. Or maybe "herpes." Who knew?).

I tried to imagine the conversation I soon would have to have with Her Lovely Self, and it was just too painful to contemplate. Then a new thought occurred to me: I would not only have to have this abysmal chat with Her Lovely Self, there were others I was going to have to track down and have this conversation with, including at least one woman who already had plenty of reason to despise me. Good God, I really am in hell, I thought.

At this point, I was just about physically ill. My heart was galloping at around 40,000 beats a minute, I had a terrible coppery taste in my mouth and I was dead certain that I was about 5 seconds away from vomiting right there on the post office steps.

At this point, another man arrived and with a nod of greeting, he joined me on the steps, waiting for the post office to open. He tried to chat with me, but I'm sure I wasn't the best conversationalist at that point. He saw the yellow slip in my hand.

"Certified letter, huh?" he said. "Rich uncle leave you his fortune?"

"I wish," I muttered. "But I'm afraid it's nothing but bad news."

"Oh," he said, faltering. "Well, maybe it's not..." but then he kind of trailed off and we stopped speaking.

Well, maybe it's not, I thought. Maybe it's not something life-threatening. Maybe it's just something that can be solved with a shot of penicillin or something. It's not often you find yourself hoping that you've maybe only given the love of your life a dose of the clap, but man, I was grasping at any silver lining I could find, however tarnished it might be.

I sat for the rest of the time with my head between my knees, struggling to get a deep breath. And not puke.

And then I heard somebody unlock the post office door behind me and I couldn't breathe at all.

Even though I had been the first person on the steps that morning, somehow a line had managed to form in front of me at the pick-up window. After about 17 years, it was my turn. With bloodless, unfeeling hands, I gave the attendant my yellow slip and my driver's license. She was gone an additional 8 or 9 years. My last hope--that it was perhaps some overzealous equipment manufacturer sending me a product for review and wanting to ensure that I got it--was dashed when I saw her return not with a box or parcel, but with a devastatingly slim, white business envelope with a Chicago box number for a return address. I saw with chagrin that the letter had indeed been mailed to my old apartment first, before taking another three weeks to find its way into my diseased hands.

I stepped over to a counter, coincidentally next to the man I'd briefly chatted with on the post office steps. He was putting stamps on envelopes, while I simply stared at mine. It was a bit of a Schrodinger's Cat moment.

As long as I didn't open the envelope, I wasn't a sick, diseased, sexually irresponsible pig who had ruined his own life and the lives of others (note that at no time did it ever occur to me that I had to have gotten whatever I had from someone else. Even under extreme duress, I was exceedingly egocentric). But once I did open it, well...

I closed my eyes and ripped open the envelope.



The man at the counter turned and stared--indeed so did every one in the post office--as my whoop of joy filled the cavernous lobby.

"Oh my God! Oh thank God!" I cried, reading the letter over and over.

"Good news?" the man asked.

"Yeah!" I shouted jubilantly, wiping tears from my eyes. "I'M BEING SUED!!!"

The man stared at me for several seconds as I hopped and cackled, then he quietly slid himself and his letters down the counter, far away from me.

The summons to appear in court read like a reprieve from the governor. It turned out that my Romanian friend, the man in the Cadillac who hit me four times on the night of my accident, was having some trouble getting any insurance company to pay out for damages to his car. Because the police had ruled it a no-fault accident, both my insurance company and the truck driver's insurance company refused to compensate the poor guy for his loss. After several months of trying to get them to pay up, the man's insurance company decided to take me and the truck driver to court.

And I couldn't have been happier.

Granted that legal mess was a bit of a wrangle to sort out (in the end, my insurance company had to abide by a clause in my policy that protected me from any legal action related to a car accident, and they settled it. Yay.), but it didn't matter. Once again, I had escaped a cruel and terrible fate. Even better, I had become so convinced that a cruel and terrible fate awaited me that when I got news of the lawsuit--a situation that would have caused me great dismay and stress under any other circumstance--I was actually elated. Best of all, I had escaped an inconceivably awful and relationship-ending conversation with Her Lovely Self. I was back on Earth-M, baby!

But just to be on the safe side, I went straight from the post office to the local clinic and got another blood test.

Hey, you can push my kind of luck only so far.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, July 21, 2005

 

In Which My Luck Runs Out...

For the next few months after my accident, my life continued to be charmed. Despite a two-year long wage and promotion freeze at my job, I nevertheless managed to get a promotion and a raise. I also began traveling for work, doing stories that took me to all sorts of interesting places, including the America's Cup race, the frickin' Oscars, and, impossibly, the small Midwestern town where I had lived out my boy-detective days. Even more impossibly, the house in which my family lived there had been converted to a bed-and-breakfast, which meant that I was able to get reservations for my old room (and my job paid for all of it!).

My freelance endeavors, once such a struggle even to get into small papers and zines, was exploding. In the space of one month, I placed two stories in national magazines--a first. I also secured an extremely desirable contract from one of those magazines to be a regular contributor to a department devoted to all manner of products, gadgets and toys. Suddenly my apartment was awash in cool new things and it was my job--my job!--to play with all of it.

So it was with gratitude--but not an especially great deal of surprise--that I noticed my social life was also improving. I moved into a bigger (yet cheaper) apartment further in the city and much closer to all manner of fun and action. Her Lovely Self and I went from just palling around to being well-nigh inseparable. It wasn't an overnight thing, to be sure. Despite my new lease on life and my fresh sense of good fortune, it was still a good while before I was able to make myself quite clear on the subject of being, hopelessly, irredeemably in love with her. And even then, it took some convincing, some dramatic declarations in crowded bars and darkened apartment courtyards, some sweet and goofy gestures involving at various times flowers, U2 tickets and Victoria's Secret products.

Some thought my efforts were foolish, and there was a time where I would have agreed with them, since I had never quite believed that I was in the same league as HLS. But I was living on Earth-M now! I knew that if I just persisted, it was only a matter of time before I would, well, get lucky.

I don’t wish to bog you down with too many details--I'm sure you have plenty of things to do today--so let's just say that, eventually, HLS and I arrived at a point in the relationship that all responsible, consenting adults reach, where the thrashing and heavy breathing and surfeit of hormones suddenly give way to a "serious" conversation that resembles--in the most surreal fashion--a job interview. Before I could be considered for a certain, um, position, there was a frank discussion of previous...employers, and a brief review of my proficiency and consistency in the use of...safety equipment during prior employment (as well as the availability of same for the job at hand). In some jobs, you're required to submit to a drug screening. In this case, I was asked about a similar process, namely a blood test. Because we were children of the 80s and adults of the 90s, and because AIDS awareness campaigns were at their absolute peak at the time, this was a perfectly natural, normal part of my application for the open position I was rather avidly seeking.

But there was a slight problem: I hadn't had a blood test since college. Granted, I had been, uh, out of work for pretty much all of that time, except for the rare and brief, er, freelance assignment here and there (you know what? This analogy is totally breaking down for me).

It could have been an awkward moment. But you forget--I was living on Earth-M now! As we were talking, I remembered something: only a month before, the bloodmobile had come to our office and both Her Lovely Self and I had signed up to donate. At the time, I distinctly remembered signing a document that acknowledged and gave permission for the blood bank to screen my blood for all pathogens and communicable diseases. Surely if there had been a problem, they would have contacted me by now. Especially me. My blood type is O negative, the universal donor, and that year in Chicago, it was in dangerously short supply. I was told at the time my blood would probably be marked for expedited processing and could be inside somebody else by the end of the week (and so, I hoped, would I).

Well, as luck would have it--and here on Earth-M, what else would luck have?--this bit of news was good enough for Her Lovely Self, and so our relationship entered a new and rather vigorous phase.

...

Oh sorry, my mind was wandering there for a second.

Yessir, life was just about as good as it could get for this 23-year-old. Granted, work was getting to be a bit of a pain, asswise, having as it did a tendency to bite into my freelance hours, my commuting time to favorite bars, and the frustrating process of passing Her Lovely Self every day in the hall without actually being able to do anything about it. At least til after 5, when everyone else left.

And so my lucky life continued apace until one morning in early summer, when I returned home. I was barely at my swell new apartment these days, often racing back at dawn from HLS' place over in Wrigleyville and staying at my own digs just long enough to sprinkle hot water on myself, void my bowels, and find a clean shirt before heading off to work. Oh, and collect my mail, which I did now. Stuck to the outside of my box were a couple of slips from FEDEX and UPS--more products to test. But here in my mailbox was a slip I hadn't seen in some time: a pale yellow card from the post office, informing me that a certified letter awaited me at the local sub-station which, alas, did not open til 8:00.

As I showered, I wondered what it could be. Ever since I started freelancing, I used an accountant to do my taxes (and worth every penny she was), and she sent me my tax returns by certified mail, but April 15 had long come and gone. I went down the mental list of editors I now worked with as a freelancer, but none of them would send a contract or payment by certified mail. It was too expensive and too big a hassle. People only used certified mail if it was urgent, sensitive information...

Naw, you can't be thinking this has to do with the blood bank, I thought, thinking this had to do with the blood bank. And yet...

Clad in a towel, dripping water the length of my apartment, I slid across the floor to my wallet, where I found my blood donor card and the number of the blood bank, as well as their hours--7 to 4. It was 7:30 so I called and got a very pleasant woman on the phone.

"So," I said, trying to sound all casual against the backdrop of a rising apprehension. "You guys really do screen all blood for diseases. AIDS and hepatitis and herpes and what-not, right?"

"Oh yes. We have to," she said.

"And if there was a problem-- I mean, let's just say you found something. You'd notify the person, wouldn't you? I mean, you'd call them right away?"

"Oh absolutely we notify donors as soon as we can if there's a problem," she said gravely.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Oh thank God. Earth-M, baby! I’m living on Earth-M!

"But we don't call. We usually notify people by certified mail," she continued.

That's when I dropped the phone. And my towel...


 

In Which I Adjust to Life on Earth-M...

There's an interesting coda or two to my accident story. The first one is bit beyond belief, but I assure you it's true, and just the merest example of the kind of luck I tend to have (that is, the kind that you're never entirely sure is really bad or really good):

A couple weeks after the accident, I was still bumming rides to work (although now with Her Lovely Self, rather than my neighbor). But eventually I had to get back in the car and drive it to the garage where the adjuster would evaluate my rolling wreck and figure out what kind of loss I'd sustained. THAT was a nerve-wracking drive, I'll tell you. The adjuster made the evaluation with commendable dispatch (although, really, one look at my car and the only conclusion any sane person could draw was that it was totaled). That was when I also learned I'd be getting around $2,400 which, as I mentioned earlier, was something of a gut-punch, seeing as I still owed $800 on the car.

I was dwelling on this as I drove home, wondering how I would manage. At the rate I was going, I'd be another 6 months paying off the car and while all my money was going to pay that and sundry other bills, there was no way I could start saving money to buy a new car. I had just started freelancing, but at small magazines that tended to pay $50-100 per story. Where was I going to find the dough?

Well, the answer was right in front of me, quite literally, as it turned out. Because about 5 minutes from my apartment, as I was driving through an intersection where I had a clear, bright green light and an obvious right of way, a late model Toyota Celica inexplicably made a left turn directly into my path and I creamed it.

Time did not slow down this time. The Celica and I spun in a fast circle, locked at the bumper, and waltzed off to the side of the road, where we both came to rest on the curb. I had no time to think about my parents, or Her Lovely Self, or whether or not THIS was going to be the moment of my death. All I could think was, Again?

Again.

Luckily, I had been driving about 20 miles per hour the whole way, so no one was hurt. I clambered out of the passenger side and ran to the Celica. Inside, a 17 year-old girl was crying. I worried that maybe she had been injured, but when she looked up and saw me, she burst into fresh tears.

"Oh my God!" she cried. "I'm so sorry. I was looking for a tape on the floor! I'm so sorry!" She gazed out the window at my wreck. "Oh my God! Look what I did to your poor car!"

Presently the cops came and this sweet, honest, stupid young lady told them everything. They promptly issued her a ticket, which gave her something new to cry about ("My dad is gonna kill me!"), and I got another police report to add to my collection. Incredibly, my car still ran (although the right front wheel now had quite a list to it and the Celica had smashed out the headlight on that side). I drove home and vowed never to drive again.

So it was lucky indeed to get a call a couple days later from the very garage where the insurance company had totaled my car (The girl and I had the same insurance carrier, it turned out). I even got the same claims adjuster and once we started talking, he remembered me immediately.

"So what happens now?" I asked. I mean, they had already totaled the car once. They couldn't exactly do it again, could they?

Turns out the adjuster was as clueless as I, having never been in this situation before. He hemmed and hawed for a bit and said, "Well, the accident report says your front wheel got bent and your headlight got knocked out. So I'm just going to do an estimate for that damage. Be a helluva lot easier than trying to do the paperwork to explain this to the home office." I said that was fine, as long as I didn't have to drive the car anywhere. We hung up and I didn't think any more about it.

A few weeks later, I had just mailed off two checks to the bank that held my car loan: the $2,400 payoff from the insurance company, and my regularly monthly car payment. Boy was THAT a dispiriting day, I'll tell you. I was in the dumps for quite a while.

Well, at least until the mail arrived in the afternoon, and I found a second check from the insurance company waiting for me.

I had been under the impression that because the company had already totaled the car and made an estimate on what it was worth that I had therefore received all the money I was going to. But no. Because the adjuster had filed two separate reports on two separate claims, I got two separate checks.

This one was for $1,550.

Once I paid off my car, I still had $750, which turned out to be the exact asking price of an old beat-up Toyota Tercel (I know, it would have been poetic had it been a Celica) with 90,000 miles on it, which a woman in my apartment building just happened to be selling.

So much for my vow never to drive again.

But the longest time, no one--not even me--knew whether I was having a run of bad luck or good luck. I had been in a serious car accident. But I had lived through it, and more then that, the accident had somehow kindled a powerful new bond between me and Her Lovely Self. In the same month, I was in yet another accident. But once again, I survived and not only emerged unscathed, but also with enough money to pay off my old car AND buy a new one.

It was around this time the notion of my living in an alternate reality--Earth-M--began to take hold. It began to dawn on me that perhaps I had indeed made my way to a parallel universe where, it seemed, I could do no wrong. Where I was living a charmed life. And so I embraced that little conceit for the next several months.

Right up until the day I got the certified letter in the mail...


Wednesday, July 20, 2005

 

In Which I Discover My Reason for Being...

In the morning, I hitched a ride to work with a neighbor. Still in a daze, I told her what happened. She couldn't believe that I was alive and unscathed, let alone that my car was still drivable. I couldn't believe it either. I kept waiting to come to my senses and realize that I was still back in that other universe (what we should probably call Earth-Dead), that everything that had happened since the accident was just some last-second fantasy conjured by my dying mind. I kept waiting for the darkness to close in. I kept waiting for something awful to happen. It felt wrong, my being alive and unharmed, I mean. Last night, I had the answer to a question I'd always wondered about--how I would die. And now today, I was still here and everything seemed thrown out of whack. It made no sense that I should still be here. One of my mom's favorite maxims was that everything happened for a reason. But...what was my reason for being here now?

It was a question I was no closer to answering--indeed it seemed that if anything I was losing ground on it--as I spent the morning making calls to my insurance company, beginning a Kafkaesque process that would result in my car being declared a total loss. The insurance company would pay out in the paltry amount of $2,400, which was dismaying because after turning that money over to GMAC, it would be determined that I still owed $800 on my car loan, and I would find that few things are more dispiriting than making payments on a car you no longer have.

But that was all in a future I still couldn't quite believe I'd get to experience.

At lunch, I wandered around my office and out to the parking lot. I wasn't hungry. I wasn't tired. I was just numb. Whenever I closed my eyes, I could still see the grille of that truck, the silver Mack truck dog. And when I did, I had to force myself to suppress this tendency to shake all over, like a Chihuahua. If was like trying to stop your teeth from chattering; sometimes it worked, sometimes not. Everything seemed just beyond the edge of my control. That includes my mental processes, which seemed reduced to a single loop. What am I doing? What's my reason for being here? I thought, over and over.

"Are you all right?" I heard a voice call to me.

I turned, and there, at the edge of the parking lot, in a little grove of trees, eating lunch with coworkers and enjoying the fall air, was Her Lovely Self. She was standing now, a hand on her hip, her lips pursed slightly, her eyes gazing at me in wonder and concern.

"Are you all right?" she repeated. "You look really pale."

I came over and sat down at a bench with her. I couldn't concentrate on forming words and suppressing the shakes at the same time, so I just started talking and quivering. I told her the whole story, the blow-by-blow of the accident, the perilous spin across the expressway, the pure certainty that I had arrived at the moment of my death, everything you've just read. Well, almost everything.

She stared at me, eyes wide with shock, one lovely hand slowly creeping to her mouth as I told her what happened. She put her other lovely hand on top of mine. "Have you seen a doctor? Are you sure you're okay? I think you're in shock. I'll drive you--"

"No," I said simply, standing up. "I think I'm okay." Without another word, I turned to leave.

And then a fragment of thought from last night completed itself. I never told her how I felt. Which was an odd thought to have, because up until the moment of my death back in that other universe, it hadn't quite occurred to me just how deep my feelings for Her Lovely Self went. But I had a pretty good idea now.

I stopped, turned back to look at her. God, she really is lovely, I thought. And she was, looking so smart in her black skirt and jacket, her white blouse opened slightly at the neck. The October sun was gleaming brightly off her strawberry blonde hair, which she had worn up today, revealing the most appealing nape of neck. She was staring at me with a look halfway between pity and curiosity.

"You know, it's funny," I said. "Maybe I shouldn't tell you this, but right in the middle of that accident, the last thing I thought of was the moment I met you back at that internship two years ago."

"At the apartment," she said, smiling at the memory. "When I bummed a ride to the mall with you guys and you left your roommate behind."

"Right," I nodded. "Anyway..." Suddenly I was out of words. "Anyway, you were the last person I thought of." I started to turn again, thinking Fuck fuck fuck! Say something else! Anything else!

But before I could, I heard her say, "Wait! Wait!"

I turned back again, and she took three quick steps towards me, then wrapped her arms around me fiercely. I buried my face in the nape of that delicious neck, smelling her, feeling her warmth, her wonderful closeness. I hooked an arm around her waist and pressed her to me. I was still shaking. But not from shock now.

"You're all right," she said soothingly, her lips touching my ear. And then she said, in a slightly different tone of voice, "I'm so glad you're all right."

Suddenly, everything did seem all right. And just as suddenly, I knew my reason for being here.

Like I said earlier, it was the best accident of my life.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, July 19, 2005

 

In Which Life Goes On...

And so I died.

(Didn't see THAT coming, did you?)

My grave sits, surrounded by others that share my last name, atop a quiet hill in New Hampshire, overlooking the huge tract of land that in the 1630s was granted to my ancestor Nicholas. My mother won’t visit the grave--after all, I'm not there. But my dad ambles up the hill sometimes to weed the grounds and stare at the stone and wonder what would have happened if I had survived. Would I have escaped trade-magazine hell? Would I have finally achieved my ambition to write some kind of book? We'll never know.

Her Lovely Self, unexpectedly the last person on my mind just before the end, married her old college boyfriend or some other dink who made her feel stupid and worthless, a fate she had predicted to me the week before I died (This was not long after the party where I was compelled to dispatch Joe, just one of the kind of dink beautiful women like Her Lovely Self so often attracted into their lives). They have no kids. They don't even have a dog, such as Blaze, a wonderful, heroic and somewhat over-protective dog who lives a pampered life with a kindly animal hospital employee.

And this blog never came to be.

Meanwhile, in an alternate universe, another version of me sat in his car, already a wreck (both the car and he) as he spun four or five times across four lanes of oncoming traffic. Defeating all odds, he missed every car, and then was hit four or five times by one car in the last lane. The Caddy almost sent him down into the El tracks, but instead, he came to rest in the breakdown lane. He sat for a moment, too stunned to move, still embalmed in the certainty of his own death.

And then he became me, as my consciousness left the universe where I was killed in a car accident and found its way into this one, what I would eventually come to think of as Earth-M ("m" as in "miracle"). My neck hurt. My legs ached (I had used them to brace myself inside the tiny cab of my car). The pain was wonderful, being as it was proof that I was no longer dead.

And then I smelled something. Exhaust? Smoke? Had I just left a universe where I was killed in a car accident only to find myself in one where I burned to death horribly? Screw that! I reached to open my door, but it was bowed inward, hopelessly smashed shut. In less time than it takes to type this, I was out of my seatbelt and across the passenger side. Except that door was blocked by the concrete retaining wall. I rolled the window down in three mighty jerks, then threw myself out the window and up onto the retaining wall.

And here's the El, bearing down on me.

I twisted and flopped forward across roof, sliding down onto the hood of my car as the El roared by. I caught my shirt on the jagged edge of the front fender, then flopped bonelessly onto the tarmac before rolling to my feet and sprinting from the car. I ran straight ahead, up onto the stopped Caddy in front of me, bounding up on its hood and over its roof before sliding off the trunk to the road again.

I probably would have kept on running, but just then, the driver of the Caddy--an older gentleman whose only distinguishing feature I can recall at this point is that he was from Romania--leapt out of the car and called to me. "Stop, my friend! Stop!" He darted after me and snagged my shirt. He wasn't mad. He just didn't want me running in blind panic onto the expressway. "You are okay, yes?" he asked.

"Fire. Smoke. Get away," I gasped, pointing at my car.

He turned and looked, still holding my shoulder. My car's muffler was gone and plumes of exhaust were rolling up from the back. There were no flames, no black smoke. We watched for several seconds and nothing appeared to be about to explode.

"Your car is still on," the man said.

He was right. Somehow the impact must have shifted the car into neutral so instead of stalling when we came to a stop, it was just idling there. Shaking, I walked back to it on legs made of rubber. I reached in through the driver's side window and turned the engine off, then grabbed my keys.

I leaned against the retaining wall, my new Romanian friend leaning next to me, jabbering away. "I am so sorry to hit you, my friend, but you jumped in the front of me and I have no choice. I am hoping there is the insurance to make a payments for you and me."

Traffic is slowed to a crawl and people stared at my car, then at me, some talking and pointing. Suddenly, a middle-aged man in coveralls dashed across, panting and standing before me. It’s the driver of the truck.

"Holy shit!" he exclaimed in my face. "I thought for sure you were dead!" He put a hand on my shoulder--perhaps to see if I was real--and then slumped next to me on the retaining wall.

"I was," I assured him. "I really was dead. And now..."

I had no more words, so we sat there, calmly, placidly. There were no heated exchanges, no accusations. After a while, three police cars showed up. After a quick check of the three of us, one of them got on a radio and called off the paramedics, while another took each one of us aside, considerately out of earshot of each other, and took our statements. They ruled the accident as no-fault, because the truck driver's account and mine conflicted. He insisted I veered into his lane, which was absurd because I was exiting. But at the time, we were all just grateful that no one was hurt and no one was getting a ticket. With the report finished, a wrecker arrived on the scene. The cop who looked over my car said, "You know, if we can pull this bumper away from your rear wheels, you might be able to move the car." Together, the three cops and I pulled. The bumper was little more than plastic and literally tore off in our hands.

Shaking, I got in the car and started it up. Impossibly, the engine not only turned over, but the car was indeed drivable. In a huff, the driver of the wrecker left. The cops stopped traffic and allowed me to pull across the expressway to the Addison exit ramp. I got out. One of the cops looked at the exhaust pluming out from the underside of the car and said, "Better check underneath, make sure nothing's leaking. If it seems okay, drive it straight home and call your insurance company."

I hunkered down on my hands and knees and peered under the car. A few things appeared to be twisted, but nothing was leaking. I paused a moment, caught my breath. Still on my knees, head bowed near to ground, I thought, Well, as long as I'm here... and uttered a brief but heartfelt "Thank you, thank you. I won't forget this." Then I stood. The cop gave me my copy of the report. Already the truck, almost completely undamaged, was gone. My Romanian friend in the Caddy was looking mournfully under the hood of his car. His engine was running, but a fan inside was making an ungodly clanging racket. He slammed the hood, got in and clattered away.

The drive home was a blur. I took surface streets the whole way, keeping my speed to around 25 miles per hour. I got home around midnight, to a series of increasingly incoherent messages from my pal Matt, wondering where the hell I was. I decided to call him in the morning. I took a shower, pulled on a fresh shirt and boxers (the latter of which I sorely needed, I assure you), then I climbed into bed and proceeded to stare at the ceiling for the next seven hours. I didn't think about how lucky I was. I didn't about getting a new lease on life. All I could think about was that poor dead guy one universe over, and how the people in his life would be affected when they found out...


Monday, July 18, 2005

 

In Which We View the Instant Replay...

Let's shift perspective now.

Your name is Daniel Parisi (or Parici, the police report is a bit smeared) and you drive a truck for a living. You've never been in an accident on the job in your life, so imagine your surprise when you feel your rig shake a little and suddenly here's a tiny hatchback sitting sideways in front of your truck. In fact, you're pushing it down the expressway like a plow shunting a mound of show. And the little car is beginning to rise up on one side. In a second, you'll roll it. And roll right over it.

You jump up on your brakes and a roaring, hissing, screaming sound fills the cab. In your haste to stop, you also accidentally turn on your windshield wipers and your high beams. Now you can see the occupant of the car: a young guy--just a kid, really--sitting, staring blankly up at you as his car lift up on two wheels. All you can think is, He’s dead.

At the last second, though, your momentum slows fractionally and his car, balanced perfectly on two wheels for the splittest of instants, starts to slide away from you. Then it comes down on all four wheels with a jarring CHUNK! And now it's facing you.

Your momentum is slowed, but not that much, and you plow into the little car again, this time hitting it with the left fender of your truck. You nail it squarely in the front and your high beams shine right in the poor kid's face. And then you can't see him at all, because his car goes spinning away. Into four lanes of oncoming traffic.

Then it's like one of those quantum events, where all the molecules of the oncoming cars pass through all the molecules of the kid's car. There’s no other explanation for why the cars in the next two lanes--all moving at speeds in excess of 60 miles an hour--completely miss the kid. He continues spinning, unchecked and out of control, across the expressway.

And then some poor guy in a massive Caddy smacks into him, twice--no, three times. It's like a demolition derby over there. Finally, the Caddy knocks the kid's car another time, sending it into the breakdown lane. Right into the concrete retaining wall that separates the expressway from the El tracks.

The kid goes ass-end first up the concrete and almost over. Then he rolls back onto the road. The Caddy smacks into him yet again--unbelievable--and now they both come to a stop on the other side of the road.

You're mesmerized by this. So much so you almost plow into the rear-end of the car in front of you. Instead, you pull over on the opposite side, near the Addison Street off-ramp.

You hop out of the cab. Cars all along the expressway have slowed to a crawl. The gaper delay. The kid's car is a wreck, the front end smashed, the back end crunched and raised up somehow. Exhaust--or smoke?--is pouring out of the back.

The kid isn't moving.

All you can think is, He’s dead...

Sunday, July 17, 2005

 

In Which It All Happens By Accident...

So the family is home.

FYI, I'm ruined on being home alone now. After the first 24 hours of peace and quiet, I long for the noise, the pounding of little feet, the excited galumphing of the dog (who, after our night of drama, had spent the rest of the week by the door, moping and whining. This behavior was interrupted only at night, when he wandered upstairs to sniff the kids' empty rooms and woof piteously, before coming into my room to give me one of those where-are-they looks and then we'd end up in each other's arms for the rest of the evening.)

Imagine, then, the excitement when the van pulled into the driveway late the other night. Imagine the ecstatic whimpering, the jumping, the wet nose pressed up against the glass (Oh, and the dog was pretty excited too, although he restricted himself to running in circles and barking). The kids were wide awake and they raced into the house, where a gang hug--dog included--resulted in much rolling around the floor.

Then my son said, "Wow, did we have fun! Especially when the van in front of us started spinning out and Mom drove off the road!"

And all the color drained from my face. Hell, my body.

Whenever my family is on the road without me, I have to constantly shunt aside images of trouble happening just because I'm not there to prevent it with my vast psychic powers. Truck drivers driven berserk by road rage. Hitchhikers at darkened rest areas who won't take no for an answer. Sudden blowouts or pile-ups or vehicles flipping like auditioners for an automotive version of Cirque de Soleil. Shunting such images aside was an especially hard job this week, what with poor Joseph K's recent accident, not to mention Sharfa’s fender bender with the brand-new Sharfamobile a short while back. And now it happened to my own family--

Well, except that nothing happened, as I learned when we were joined by Her Lovely Self a moment later. A van two car lengths in front of my wife and kids DID suffer a sudden blowout, causing it to do two complete spins in the middle of the road, on a highway in heavy summer traffic. Had Her Lovely Self jammed on the brakes, which would have been my first reaction, she would almost certainly have been rear-ended by the semi right behind her. Instead, with superior presence of mind, she simply took her foot off the gas and veered into the breakdown lane, piloting her vehicle wide of the spin-out and giving the semi just enough room to brake. Miraculously, no one was hurt, no accident resulted. The van with the blowout was able to limp to the side of the road and traffic resumed. A miracle.

But of course, it's all about me, isn't it, and once I recovered from news of this accident-that-wasn't-quite, I thought about the worst accident of my life. Which, oddly enough, was also the best.

This was in Chicago. Long gone was my shit-brown Chevette, lost in, well, yes, lost in an accident (as recounted here). Now I was driving my Chevy Spectrum, a handsome grey hatchback. It was the first new car I'd ever owned (only 6 miles on the odometer when I got it) and I just loved it. It had a great, race-car style steering wheel, plus a very cool instrument and control panel set-up. For example, the headlight and windshield wiper controls were arrayed in a row of button situated on the dashboard just behind the steering wheel. This was wonderfully ergonomic as they could be reached by your fingertips without ever having to take your hands off the wheel. Where was I?

Oh, so--it was October. I was about three months into my job at a trade magazine during the phase of my working life that I've come to think of as Magazine Man: Year One (coming soon to a random anecdote near you). I didn't have much of a social life then, mostly because I had no money. As soon as I had graduated from grad school back in June, all my student loans accrued as an undergrad had immediately come out of academic deferment so I was suddenly saddled with about $240 a month in loan payments. Plus I was paying $185 a month on my car. Rent on my single apartment was just under $500 a month (thank God it included utilities). Because I was literally penniless, I had done two things to secure the apartment: sold my collection of mint condition football cards from the late 60s (including several Gale Sayers and Mike Ditka cards, plus three Brian Piccolo rookie cards, which commanded a high premium in Chicago). That covered my security deposit but I still needed to come up with first month's rent in advance, so I was forced to take a (gasp) cash advance on my credit card. Despite my not using it at all, the debt on that thing had a way of growing every month. I had only received about six paychecks from my job at that point, and was finally getting a leg under me, which meant that at the end of the week I sometimes had 10 or even 20 bucks to spend on myself.

I was just sitting around my apartment early one Thursday night (Thursday was payday at my company), wondering what to do with this bounty, when the phone rang. It was my pal Matt. I'd first met Matt when I lived in London and we were both students at different schools. Now we were both in Chicago--he was a photographer for the Tribune papers and sometimes went with me on freelance assignments (having both photos and a story to offer editors could be a very lucrative gig indeed).

"Live music at the Abbey, man. See you there," he said, then hung up. Matt was a man of few words, and had a way of talking to you that made you automatically do whatever he suggested. Go down to the South Side at midnight to get ribs from Leroy's? Sure! Wander around Cabrini Green to get candid shots of gang-bangers for the Trib? Why not? Compared to that, hanging out at our favorite Irish pub listening to live music (often, one or two of the Drovers would show up for an impromptu jam session) sounded positively tame.

So I hopped in the car and got on the expressway. I lived at the edge of the city, off the Harlem Street exit. Depending on traffic, it was a fairly quick jaunt up to Addison Street. This time of night, rush hour had just ended, but it being Chicago, the four lanes of the expressway were still jammed with speeding cars.

Just as I got to Irving Park, traffic in the middle lanes slowed a bit. A couple of dump trucks were lumbering up the slight incline here. Traffic veered around them at breakneck speed. I was just an exit away from where I wanted to be, so I simply got into the far right lane, preparing to exit at Addison.

I was going about 60 and the dump truck in the lane next to me was going maybe 50 or so, so I zipped right by it. But at that moment, the driver suddenly accelerated and as he did his truck edged slightly into my lane, just enough for his right front tire to graze my left rear tire as I passed.

It didn't feel or sound like a graze. There was an enormous BANG! inside the car and my little hatchback shook violently. Next thing I knew, there was a sickening jolt as if I'd been shoved from behind, and suddenly my car was turning sideways, skidding into the path of the accelerating dump truck.

There was another wrenching BANG! accompanied by the awful nails-on-blackboard screech of metal as the massive truck broadsided me. And then an amazing thing happened.

Time slowed. I'm not kidding. Everything became very sluggish and dreamlike. Cars slowly passed before my windshield--at the wrong angle--their headlights leaving dazzling streaks of light as they went. Beyond them, I could see faces in the windows of the El train that was just now passing on the track that ran in the median between the expressway lanes. Sparks lazily arced up from the wheels as it slid by.

I turned to my left, looking out the driver's-side window. There in front of me was the front grille of the truck, a silver cage filling the view from the window almost completely. Slightly above me, but still close enough that I could have reached out and touched it, was the gleaming silver hood ornament of the familiar Mack truck dog. I stared at it for what seemed like hours.

Then, ever so slowly, my side of the car began to rise as the momentum of the truck started lifting me off the road. As I tilted up, I could see the face of the driver, looking ashen, his teeth gritted. He was up out of his seat, literally standing on his brakes.

A single thought went through my head just then, a thought so stunning in its clarity, it felt like it came from some other head besides my own.

So THIS is how I die.

It was like learning the answer to a question I'd been asking all my life (I just hadn't realized I'd been asking it), and now that I knew it, everything seemed all right somehow. A stunning and quite uncharacteristic serenity settled over me like a blanket. I took a deep breath--what I thought must surely be my last--and settled back in my seat. I had sometimes wondered if I would see my death coming and wasn't at all sure whether I wanted to or not. Now I felt a certain gratitude that I had recognized my end for what it was and would be fully aware when it happened. That sort of knowledge doesn't sound especially comforting, but I was comforted by it nonetheless.

The car continued to rise. I was a moment away from rolling and being crushed by the truck. I had enough time to think of my mom and dad. I hope they tell them it was quick, that I didn't feel a thing, I thought. I certainly wasn't suffering.

Then suddenly, and quite to my surprise, an image filled my head. A gorgeous young woman, standing on a balcony in a skirt, looking down at me, a hand on one hip, her full, luscious lips pursed, her hazel eyes gazing down at me in a kind of expectant way. Her Lovely Self. Oh, now that IS a shame, I thought.

An impossibly loud roaring noise filled my head and everything began to accelerate again. A stunning light filled my field of vision, blinding me. Involuntarily, I closed my eyes and felt the world begin to spin. My last coherent thought was a fragment, I never told her how--.

And then the multiple impacts came, hard and fast, and I couldn't think of anything...


Friday, July 15, 2005

 

The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

like most everyone else, I worked a few jobs at college. As with my college relationships, it's probably best to move through these via a series of snapshots:

Job #6: Galley Slave


And here we finally come up against it: a job so awful and dull and almost completely lacking in event or interest that it defeats even my powers of exaggeration to make it compelling as a narrative (and that's saying quite a bit). I worked the breakfast shift at the main dining hall in the university student center for most of my freshman year of college. I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer before 10 AM (in college, you'd have to shunt that up to noon) so most of my tenure wearing the stupid hairnet and the green apron was a bit like sleep-walking.

Valuable life skills learned on the job:

--How to crack an egg with one hand.

--How to juggle plates.

--How to flip pancakes and omelets without landing them on a customer's head (this took some practice, I can tell you).


Scariest moment:

The day I fell into the trash compactor out on the loading dock. While it was running. It was NOT like the scene in Star Wars where our heroes have escaped Detention Block AA-23 and are stuck in garbage masher unit #3263827 with the dianoga pulling Luke under and the hatch all magnetically sealed (sorry, I geeked a little on the screen there). It was more like that scene in Ten Commandments where Moses' mom gets her dress caught in a moving pyramid block and some woman starts screaming "STOP THE STONE!" in a shrill and quintessentially effeminate voice. Except there was no woman screaming, there was just me, but I nailed the shrill and quintessentially effeminate voice perfectly. And in lieu of Charlton Heston showing up to cut me loose, I was rescued by the maintenance guy, a wreck of a man we all knew as "Bob Zero," who as a reward asked me to buy him a bottle of vodka at the liquor store down the street, and then cursed himself for saving my life when I told him I was only 17.

Oddest moment:


Any time I wandered into the dishwashing room, a steamy, mysterious place dominated by a large blue box. This was Vulcan, a state-of-the-art industrial dishwasher. It was bigger than my dorm room and had the unnerving ability to speak in a dead, monotone computer voice, a bit like a depressed Stephen Hawking, I suppose. Vulcan was attended to by not one but three kitchen workers who were all vertically challenged. Okay, they were midgets. Antisocial ones, at that. When I tried to speak to them, they regarded me coolly and wordlessly. I was a towering interloper in their steamy domain. They ignored me and bustled about, occasionally vanishing into the steam before emerging in some unlikely place: above me on some previously unseen catwalk, crawling out of the conveyor belt that led into Vulcan's steam-sanitizing mouth, or sometimes materializing right beside me with a glare and a stack of dishes. At intervals, Vulcan would make some booming pronouncement:

"CURRENT CYCLE TERMINATES IN FIVE, FOUR, THREE..."

or

"VULCAN NEEDS DETERGENT. VULCAN NEEDS DETERGENT IMMEDIATELY."

And then the little people would scurry, clambering about Vulcan to retrieve clean dishes or to feed it detergent (later, I was told a computer-science student had reprogrammed the voice chip so that when it ran out of detergent, Vulcan would imitate a popular video game of the time and start shouting "VULCAN NEEDS FOOD BADLY!"). Despite the way Vulcan's attendants tended to, um, look down on me, it was an oddly compelling place, like finding a back door into the Oz commissary.

It's sad how things fade with time. You'd like to think that every job has something valuable to teach you, but my days as a galley slave never left much of a mark on me. Even most of the valuable life skills I gained there have since atrophied. For instance, I am now forbidden from so much as attempting to juggle even one plate, and my omelet- and pancake-flipping abilities are appreciated only by the dog, for reasons that need not be elaborated here.

Ah, but I can still crack an egg with one hand.

And of course, I've learned to give man-eating trash compactors a wide berth.


Job #7: Writtting Couch


For nearly all of my college career, I was an on-call writing tutor for Student Services. On paper, the job looked good: $5 an hour to help other students sharpen their written command of the language.

But as soon as I started getting calls to meet with students, two problems became readily apparent:

1. I was one of about a hundred students in the on-call pool, which meant I got maybe one call every other week, if I was lucky. I averaged about $15 a month.
2. Because I had been stupid enough to list French as one of the languages I was studying (and therefore in which I was barely conversant) I was automatically put in a sub-pool of on-call tutors who were assigned specifically to work with foreign students, or what Student Services categorized as ESL students, which stood for "English as Second Language." In the case of my students, "second language" meant "just a second while I look up the word I want to say to you in my dictionary."

My first student was a woman from, as near as I could tell, Tokyo. Through an elaborate game of charades and pointing to words in her English-Japanese dictionary, I determined that she wanted me to write her organic chemistry paper for her, working from her notes, which were absolutely indecipherable. When a friend of hers--who spoke marginal English--happened by, I got him to translate for me and explain that there was no way I could help her. When he told her this, she got indignant, and began jabbering and poking me in the chest as though I had pulled some hateful trick on her.

Eventually, I convinced Student Services to take me out of their ESL pool and pair with me native speakers. Although it must be said that many of these students had no more grasp of their mother tongue than the ESL crowd.

My all-time favorite tutoring student was Deerick, a rotund and jovial man whose great good humor was infectious. Tutoring him--which I did every week for several months late in my college career--was a pleasure. He was courteous and punctual for his sessions. And if he was going to be late or miss a session, he would call or even sometimes leave a note on my door--touchingly addressed to "MM, My Writing Couch."

When I would offer comments on his papers or his notes for papers, he always listened with avid interest, and often punctuated our sessions with complimentary outbursts along the lines of "Man, you ought to teach this shit. I'm serious!" or "I'm learning more in an hour with you than in five years of English classes!" Which made me feel good, at least until we'd meet the next week and I would see that he had pretty much ignored every piece of writing advice I had given him, and had instead gone on to make errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation heretofore unknown in my experience.

For example, one day, when we met at my apartment, I began to notice after several sessions of what seemed like progress that Deerick's papers were suddenly displaying a surprising number of spelling errors. At first I simply noted them on the paper, figuring he'd correct them in his next draft. But in his next draft, the errors were still there.

"Deerick," I asked finally. "Are you having a problem with your typewriter? Are the keys sticking or something?"

"No, why?"

"Well, you have repeated letters in a lot of words here. For example, there's only two 'l's in 'killers.'"

From upstairs, I suddenly heard the faint snort of my roommate's girlfriend, who just happened to be visiting that day. She was normally a quiet woman who only emitted noise in moments of pure disgust or high humor. As soon as I heard her snort, I had to struggle to suppress a laugh myself.

"Oh, that!" said Deerick. "Yeah, that's right."

I paused, waiting for him to elaborate, but he simply smiled with his usual good humor and stared back at me. My humor was slowly turning to consternation.

"What's right? You mean you're adding extra letters to words deliberately?"

"Yeah!" he cried. "It's my style, see?"

I shook my head. "Noooo..."

He stabbed a finger at me. "Yeah, like that. If I was to write what you just said, it'd be, like, 'No' but with some extra 'o's. I just added extra letters to other words, you know, for emphasis."

Hence the sentence:

"If I was in charrrrge of the penil system, I would makkkkke it so killllers would DDDDIIIIEEE in the eeelecticcc chairrr."

At the time I was just appalled that someone could make it through five years of college with these kinds of notions.

But now, I don’t know. Maybeeee Deeerrrickk was ontoo sommmethinggg...


Job #8: Security Agent


This is one of the few jobs I actually wrote about when I was in college, and the story is reprinted below--lumps and all--for your amusement. It was the kind of job where I had hours and hours (and hours and hours) of free time to read and write. After reading this, I'm sure you won't be at all surprised to learn that one of my constant companions on this job was an omnibus edition of Raymond Chandler stories.


There are nine million stories in the naked city. Here at the university, though, we keep our clothes on. Makes it easier to conceal weapons, and hard liquor, and drugs. None of which, by the way, is allowed in residence halls. I should know, because when it gets cold, you need a man in an orange vest. That's me. I'm a Resident Security Agent (RSA). This is my story.

It was late Friday night. Like most Friday nights, I was at RSA dispatch. I signed in and grabbed a cup of joe when the dispatcher stopped me. His face was hard and lined, like a tombstone. Mine.

"MM, you gotta do Smith Hall."

I finally got the call. They were sending me to the majors. Smith Hall! The name struck me like a bullet, twisting and spiraling into my guts. Fate had it out for me; living on the edge was never so hard. I grabbed the sign-in file for this case, thinking it might well spell the end for one tired old RSA.

The dispatcher briefed the rest--most of them raw recruits--but glanced my way occasionally, shaking his head. His words were lost in a sudden haze of fatigue and foreboding, and something else--fear. Yeah, maybe I was scared. Maybe this was the end. But if it was, I'd go out like a man, dammit, like an RSA.

As I shuffled across the campus, the night was cold, colder than the muzzle of a .38 kissing your forehead. I shuddered and pulled my orange vest tighter around my trench coat.

Smith Hall on a Friday night! I opened the sign-in file and sat down at the front entrance, a solitary soldier in an endless war. This was the kind of job where, when the heat came down, brother, you really earned your money...$3.35 an hour.

Then they started coming in. Not all at once, just in twos and threes. These were the residents, not really evil, just misguided. They were coming back from the only pleasure they knew, the only release they had from their studious lives. Each one stopped at my desk; each one knew the drill as IDs came forward. It was a simple game, like putting a peg in a hole--just fit the face with the picture.

"But...but I accidentally flushed my ID down the toilet at the bar. I really live here! Honest!" she said.

I tackled the urge to laugh before it could score a touchdown. The excuses might be different, but the bottom line was the same: no ID. No ID meant no residence hall dot and no dot meant no entry. This broad was definitely trying to put a square peg in a round hole.

The girl returned my cool stare, pouting. She thought a minute--I could see the smoke wisping up from her ears--then she said, "Look, I'll open my mailbox..."

"Save your nail polish, sweetheart," I said, shaking my head. "I don't want letters from your aunt Barbara, I want your ID."

"Maybe I can give you something else," she said in a sultry voice. She fluttered her eyelashes, made her intention plain.

"Can it sister! I know all the dodges!" I said, narrowing my eyes. She was a looker, sure, but I knew from experience that looks could kill. Besides, I had a job to do. After a while, she put on the same act for the next dumb slob who staggered in. The poor stiff who signed her in didn't know her, didn't care. She walked past me, free as a bird, and thumbed her nose at me. I shook my head. Sure, I could have let her walk, but then I'd have to let everyone walk: residents, non-residents, axe murderers, neo-Nazis. The day I did that would be the day I retire, the day every RSA quits. Didn't that dame know I was doing this for her own good?

Such was the bread and butter of my work, for the first three hours. After three, though, I knew that things would get tough. And after four, svelte blondes who flushed their IDs would be the least of my problems.

Case in point: two guys walked in with a case of beer.

"You 21?" I asked.

"Naw," said one of them, then pointed to his partner. "But that's okay--he is!"

"Yeah. He's, uhh...my guest. Yeah, that's it!" the other agreed.

"Sorry boys," I said, "no can do. You both gotta be legal or the beer stays out." As I say this, I tense, smelling trouble like stink from a sewer.

"Hey man, you can't do that!" one of them said. I started to stand up and he pushed me back down. He was big, real big. An example of science gone awry--part animal, part mineral, part vegetable. Sure, he was an SOB, but I was an RSA.

"You're messing with the wrong man, tough guy," I said. To show him I meant business, I reached inside my coat. His partner turned white, but the big man called my hand.

"You're bluffing!"

"Wanna bet?" Then, I pulled out my piece: a silver-plated, six-inch, automatic Papermate. "Consider yourself written up!"

The tough guy dropped his beer. I thought about picking it up.

The sun was rising over the city now. The vermin were back in their holes. Smith Hall still stood.

"MM!" the morning dispatcher exclaimed as I walked in. I looked at her and smiled roughly. She was a cute kid, this one. What was she doing in this line of work?

"Girl's gotta make a living somehow," she said, snapping her gum. "Rough night at Smith?"

"Nothin' I couldn't handle. But you know something?" I asked her as she looked at me, wide-eyed and innocent, like a deer frozen in the headlights of an 18-wheeler. "Those residents have got to remember to carry their IDs, get their residence hall dots, and be of age to bring in beer. Otherwise, the security of this crazy university won't amount to a hill of beans." I started to walk out the door.

"Where ya goin'?" she called.

"Got things to do, people to see. It's a tough old world out there, for me."

"But it doesn't have to be a lonely one. You can call me." I stopped and looked at her. "Sure, just whistle," she said. "You know how to do that, don'cha?"

"Just put my lips together and blow?" I asked. She nodded. "You crazy kid." I smiled and walked out into the ugly dawn.


Considering that the most challenging aspect of that job was staying awake from midnight to 8 AM (and occasionally calling campus security when someone declined to show their ID, what was known in the trade as a "run-by"), I'd say I was pretty successful at making the job more interesting than it really was.

Little did I know I'd be doing the same thing on a much more ambitious scale 20 years later.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Monday, July 11, 2005

 

In Which the Cavalry Comes...


Dogs don't lie, and why should I?
Strangers come, they growl and bark.
They know their loved ones in the dark.
Now let me, by night or day,
Be just as full of truth as they.

--Garrison Keillor


When I was a kid, my dad had a recurring dream about burglars.

It all started when he took a construction job up in Canada and started making twice what he had been earning in the New Hampshire (I think his salary at the time was something like $8,500 a year). Flush with cash, he and my mom decided to make one big splurge purchase. Now, you or I might choose to buy a new car or perhaps take the family on a vacation to Disneyworld. Something like that.

My dad bought a deep-freeze.

I remember well his pride when the truck from Sears delivered this vault-sized freezer and jockeyed it into position in the garage. He and my mom immediately filled it with all manner of vegetables, casseroles and stews that could be frozen for later thawing. At one point they bought a whole side of beef at wholesale, which they butchered themselves and stored in the freezer. It was my dad's pride and joy, and I'm sure he and my mom loved it because it meant we had some resources to fall back on. If we ever got snowed it, by God, there'd be meat on the table.

But it was such an extravagant purchase that it began to weigh on my dad's mind and he started having the dream.

It was always the same. He'd hear a noise in the garage and get up, quietly sneak his shotgun out of the gun cabinet, then throw open the garage door and flick on the light. In front of him would be two seedy-looking characters, each holding an end of the massive deep-freeze, which they were attempting to carry out of the garage.

My dad would level the shotgun at them and say, "By Gorry, the first one of you to let that freezer touch the ground is gonna get a face full of buckshot."

And then the men spent the rest of my dad's dream slowly sinking to the floor under the weight of the freezer, each screaming to the other not to let it fall.

Despite the stressful nature of the dream, my dad always woke up with a smile on his face.

The memory of my dad's dream flitted through my mind now as I listened intently in the darkness. I thought I had heard the metallic squeak of our garage door sliding up in the middle of the night.

My heart was pounding in my ears as I hopped out of bed. I fished around under the bed, knocking over books, before finally finding my cricket bat (don't ask why I keep a cricket bat under the bed. I just do, okay?).

As I crept down the stairs, I kept listening. I couldn't hear any noises, but the wall between me and the garage was fairly thick. Of course, so am I sometimes, especially in the middle of the night. There have been instances beyond number that I have done this: heard the noise of a window breaking, or a door opening, or a child crying, and leapt out of bed, cricket bat in hand, only to find the children sound asleep, the windows and doors all intact, and realize that I had simply dreamed it.

As I crept through the living room, I stopped at Blaze's kennel. He was locked in for the night, snoozing away, undisturbed by my presence. I was afraid he'd make so much noise that I wouldn't be able to hear what was going on. If anything was going on. Still, I wanted him along, so I opened the cage to let him out.

"Come on," I hissed. He gave me a look and rolled over, pretending I wasn't even there.

Oh that's just great, I thought. My dog, the hero. If I were the Brownie, he'd be in front of me, leading the way to the garage. If I were my wife, he'd already have any intruder by the crotch. But it's just me, the dumb ol' Man. Fine, I thought. You stay there, you big fat, useless tub of...dog.

Actually, I was heartened by his reaction (or lack thereof). Surely if a real prowler had been creeping around the garage, Blaze would have raised the alarm (wouldn't he?). Still, I had to check. I crept to the entry door of the garage, just off our kitchen and slowly eased it open. The door stood in one corner of the garage, up a few steps from the floor and overlooked the whole bay. The glow of the streelights from outside was penetrating the gloom of the garage ever so slightly.

Because the garage door was indeed open.

I stood there a long while, every hair on my arms and neck standing, cold sweat running down my back, under my arms. I couldn't see anything moving. Had someone come and gone?

Tentatively, I stepped into the garage, my hand feeling for the light switch along the wall. I placed my foot on the first stair leading down to the garage...

...and promptly stepped on the hard ridge of a plastic dinosaur. My foot slipped, my ankle twisted in a horrible wrench of pain and I fell hard into the garage. The cricket bat went clattering into the darkness.

And then in the dim light from the street, I saw a shadowy form suddenly silhouetted in the open doorway and heard a deep voice shout, "Hey!"

That's about as scared as I ever want to be. My hands are still shaking as I type this. I couldn't see, I couldn't get up, I'd lost my cricket bat. I've mentioned before that in crisis situations, I've occasionally been blessed with a certain preternatural calm that descends over me. Not this time. This time, I went into absolute blind hysteria.

I opened my mouth and in my panic, in my pain and distress, it's a wonder I didn't yell "Mommy!"

But instead, in a high, shrill, miserably desperate voice, I shrieked, "BLAZE!!!!"

There was absolutely no gap in time between my child-like scream and the next sound, which was actually two sounds at once: the clattering of nails on hardwood floor, and a simultaneous low growl like a muscle car ripping through my house.

Oh my God. It was like hearing the bugle call of the cavlary arriving, like that scene in the movies where the music swells and the hero suddenly steps into the frame to wipe the floor with the bad guys. My dog was coming to save me.

And then in the darkness, Blaze raced into the garage and ran full tilt into me, knocking me from my half-seated position, splaying me to the floor. He flopped halfway across me, and then, by propelling his back legs into my face and throat, he was up again with a disturbing, undulating "WHOAH-A-WHOAH-A-WHOAH" bark.

Dogs have been domesticated for so long, it's easy to forget that they were once wild animals. That they still have the strength and speed of some primitive feral creature. That the jaws of even the smallest dog are capable of crushing bone. Thousands of years of breeding and training have painted a certain docile, civilized veneer over most dogs, but it doesn't take much to strip that away, to turn them in ferocious creatures again.

And clearly there's something primitive in man that still responds to that ferocity. The shadowy form in the garage froze and I heard a familiar--if tremulous--voice crying "Wait! Wait! Don't!"

With great effort, I got to one foot, hobbled to the light switch and flicked it on.

It was my neighbor. The one who works nights. He keeps crazy hours and it's not uncommon to see him wandering around the neighborhood in the middle of the night. He's kind of an odd duck, but he's okay.

Blaze didn't care. He went for the guy, leaping over tricycles and coiled hoses and gardening implements, barking as he went, backing him into a corner.

Well, it took quite a while--and about half a pound of smoked ham--to settle Blaze down. My neighbor helped me back inside. The bottom half of my ankle was already puffy. The vein on the bone looked ready to burst and there was swelling just below the bone, along with some odd discoloration running from there to my foot. I'm sure nothing was broken (well, I hope), but it was a right good sprain. Ouch.

sprain


My neighbor and I both sat and had an impromptu late-night beer while we recovered from the moment.

My poor neighbor. Tonight was his night off, but he still makes himself stay up so he won't be off-schedule when he has to go back to work. He was walking by my house when he noticed the garage door was open (and here, I recalled, dimly and sheepishly, that I just might have left the damn door open when I walked Blaze earlier that night). He heard me crash to the floor and, thinking my family was still out of town and deciding it must be a prowler, he poked his head in to see what was going on. I mistook him for a prowler myself and, well, you know the rest.

So I must have dreamed hearing the door open after all (maybe it was my subconscious reminding me I had left the door open). And I still don't know what happened to my chain saw.

In the end we had a good laugh about it and my neighbor got up to continue his walk around the neighborhood. As he left, he looked over at Blaze, who was collapsed on the floor, burping moist bubbles of hammy air, exhausted from his recent exertion.

At rest

"That's some dog you got there. Isn't he the one that killed that bird?" I nodded proudly. He laughed. "Well, I'm glad he didn't bite MY head off."

"Yeah, he's a bit over-protective. Some days my wife wants to get rid of him."

My neighbor looked at me soberly. "If that ever happens, I'd take him. In a skinny minute." I smiled and thanked him and we said good night.

I didn't say more than that because I didn't want to seem impolite to my neighbor or his kind offer. And I hate to continue to aggravate Her Lovely Self. And I almost didn't tell this story because after telling you this one and this one, which occurred only last month, I figured at best everyone would be sick of these, er, dog tales. At worst, no one would believe it.

But in the end, I realized that when it comes to Blaze, I don't care what anyone believes, or what my neighbors, my friends, or even my wife wants.

This is my dog. This is what he does.

And after last night, there is no way in hell I will EVER give him up.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?