Tuesday, August 30, 2005

 

In Which I Have Promises To Keep...

While Thomas walked to the bus with his friends Monday morning, the air was still ringing with my earlier promise to meet him at his stop at 4:25 that afternoon. All of a sudden, the day seemed to have an ominous feel to it. I tried to ignore it as I got Her Lovely Self more or less upright and into the car for the trip to the clinic. I also had to hustle the Brownie along, since she is a terrible dawdler in the morning. As Thomas rode off to school, we got to the clinic and the Brownie and I waited while HLS saw the doctor.

She was in there a long time, and at length the Brownie wanted to explore the rest of the clinic, which is in a huge office complex. So we wandered around and had to make a potty break and visited all the stuffed animals in the gift shop and totally lost track of time. By the time we got back to the waiting room, HLS was slumped halfway in a chair, clutching a prescription for antibiotics for her strep throat. "Where were you?" she asked hoarsely. "I wanted to come find you but I was too tired." At this point, I felt so much like shit, I'm fairly sure I was taking on the appearance of a large, ambulatory turd.

I got her home and set up the Brownie with about 5 hours worth of Tom and Jerry and Disney Princess DVDs, which I was loathe to do. For months we've been trying to get the Brownie not to be such a TV-aholic, but here I was now encouraging the behavior.

On top of that, I put the dog out in the back yard on a runner. There was no way HLS was well enough to walk him. The problem there is Blaze was abandoned by his first family. They left him tied up. In the back yard. All alone. He HATES to be alone in the back yard. Howls a blue streak, which really endears me to the neighbors, let me tell you. But as I may have intimated, I had no other choice. I had to go to work, HLS was too sick to do anything else, and every mom I could have asked to watch the Brownie or the dog was either out of town or otherwise unavailable when I called.

Feeling like just the worst father and husband, I guiltily slunk off to work for the shortest, most intense three hours of my life.

True to form, I got stuck making a thousand niggling little formatting changes to my last story when I glanced at the clock and saw that I was already late. Would nothing go right for me today? I whizzed through the last of the changes and hustled out to the car.

(Which itself was a disaster, by the way. In an effort to keep the kids from making too much noise, we had spent a good chunk of Saturday cleaning out my car. Of course, with a 6- and a 4-year-old assisting, the task is a bit like trying to bail out the ocean. As fast as I emptied the car of assorted detritus, my kids managed to fill it up with an assortment of action figures, art supplies and various costumes (the kids love to dress up).

As I sat in my rolling toy box, I realized I had two options to get home: take the expressway, which is usually jammed at rush hour but definitely the quickest route home when it's not. Or I could take a series of surface streets, state highways and causeways, which was quicker sometimes, but only if you caught all the lights. Given that it wasn't rush hour yet, I opted for the expressway.

Well, I probably don't have to tell you that I almost immediately regretted my choice, because about two minutes after I was irretrievably committed to the expressway, I rounded a bend and found cars lined up to the horizon. Naturally, this was the day the construction crews decided to close off a lane or two to finish up some late summer work. I hopped and swore in my seat so violently, my car shook.

My dad often says "God loves to make a man break his promises." And here I was, blowing it. I was going to be late. I was going to miss my son at the bus stop.

I know it sounds like an insignificant thing and many of you may think I'm making a big deal of it. After all, it's not like I promised to take him to Disneyworld and then made him wait all day on the curb, only to blow him off. And it's not like I could help traffic. But still, it gnawed at me. I had promised to be there. I gave him my word. Now I was going to be the dad whose word was no good, who made him get off the bus and stare around with a look of bewildered hurt on his face, wondering where I was. Of course, he'd get home just fine. But he wouldn't be fine. He'd remember. I'd drop a notch. After behaving so atrociously over the weekend, I was going to make it worse now by letting him down. If he couldn't count on me for the little things like meeting him at a bus stop, how would he ever trust me to be there for the big things?

I tell you this so you can understand how I might have worked myself up to do what came next.

As we crept along, as the hour grew later, as my desperation grew larger, I took note of the large construction site off to my left. They were putting in a new exit ramp to one of those state highways I mentioned earlier, and the ramp was mostly finished. Finished enough, in fact, that as the current crew came off shift, I saw that they were all getting in their personal vehicles and making use of the exit. One of those vehicles was a Subaru wagon just like mine. When I realized that, a wild plan hatched in my mind.

I reached behind me and began rummaging blindly through the assorted toys and junk my kids had deposited in the car. I started pulling bits of costumes over into the front seat. Fireman's jacket? Not what I wanted. Feathery princess boa? No again. Tool belt full of play tools? Ah, we were getting closer. And then I found it: the child-sized construction worker's hard-hat.

Up ahead, there was a gap in the concrete apron that separated my creeping lane of traffic from the construction site. The opening was right below the sign reading AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY. Already, I had seen one construction worker pull in there in his car. And how did I know he was a construction worker?

Why, he was wearing his hard-hat.

Now I probably didn't need it. I probably could have gotten away with it on my own merit. One trick worth learning early in journalism is the ability to look like you have every reason in the world to be somewhere you're not. Nine out of 10 times, if you just walk (or drive) and look straight ahead with purpose, you can bluff your way past many of the gatekeepers of this world.

But in this instance, I felt I needed a little help. And so, as I reached the opening in the apron, I jammed the tiny yellow toy hard-hat onto my head (it really didn't fit, so I had to angle it forward. I'm sure it looked retardedly rakish) and pulled into the construction site, falling in line behind a truck and a sport-utility vehicle that were rumbling across the gravel, heading for the exit.

Where the gravel turned to concrete underlayer and marked the start of the incline of the exit ramp, I noted a man standing nearby, casually waving or nodding to the cars as he went. Probably a foreman. Crap. I scrabbled for my bag and pulled out my cell phone. Making like it was a walkie-talkie, I held it to my mouth and began talking to myself. As I rolled past, the foreman nodded at me, then seemed to give me a harder look. Maybe he realized I wasn't on his crew.

Or maybe he just wondered why one of his crew would be wearing a hard-hat bearing a Bob the Builder logo.

Regardless, I stared straight ahead, having a heated imaginary conversation with my cell phone. I hit the ramp and accelerated onto the state highway, which was almost utterly devoid of traffic. After a few stoplights, I hit a long stretch that ran parallel to the newer expressway (still backed up for miles) and I gunned it.

I wouldn't like you to think I am an incautious person on the road, gentle reader, but that afternoon, I did put myself in the less prudent category of driver. In a city of any size, you will always get those who observe posted speed limits and those who slalom between cars at a speed that could charitably be called foolhardy. Usually, the drivers who pilot their cars in this manner have vehicles of a certain type. BMW sports sedans. Zippy convertibles. You know the kind I mean. And into this fast-moving school of motorized fish came me in my Subaru. The brochures call it a "sport utility wagon" but let's face it: it's a goddamn station wagon. The engine whined in protest as I tried to keep pace with the faster traffic element.

The whole time, I kept thinking I might make it. I might make it.

Eventually, I reached the exit for the long boulevard that leads to my nondescript suburban development. I accelerated through a yellow light and found myself literally in the home stretch. It was 4:17. As I remembered to finally remove my jaunty Bob the Builder hat, I thought, I'm gonna make it.

And now a logistical point: When my son's school lets out, a squadron of buses heads for my neighborhood. My son's is usually the first or second bus to reach the confines of my particular development. The other buses bank away to assorted side streets and neighboring developments.

But two buses, I discovered to my horror, stopped right on the boulevard to let kids out. One of these buses was about 10 cars in front of me. The other was coming towards me in the opposite lane.

Traffic on both sides came to halt, as of course they must by law. And then about a block later, the bus in my lane did it again. Each time, it disgorged more children than it seemed could physically fit on the bus. It was agony. Traffic was getting hopelessly snarled with the stop-and-go of it. Then a light injudiciously changed far down at a busy five-point intersection and we all sat there to await the glacial changing of the lights.

I looked at my watch: 4:21! So close but yet so far! On my right, there it was: my development, but the road to it was almost a quarter-mile down. There were no shortcuts. To keep traffic to a minimum, there was only the one access road.

I was not going to make it.

Already in my mind's eye, I could see Thomas' bus in the development, dropping off all his friends on the north side of the street, before proceeding across to the corner where he'd be let out. It was foolish to hope they'd be late. Those bus drivers are always on time. They're like my brother's colon. You could set your watch by them.

I fumed miserably, impotently. I had come so close. I had violated speeding laws to get here. My God, I had worn a toy hard-hat onto a working construction site to get here! And now I was going to fail after all, almost literally within sight of my goal. For in the distance, I could see the distinctive crooked evergreen that marked the far corner of the backyard of my house. As the crow flew, there were really only about five or six houses between where I sat on the boulevard and where my house was, just a hundred or so feet from the bus stop.

And then I realized there was a shortcut after all.

"Fuck it," I said. In full view of a sign reading NO STOPPING OR PARKING. VIOLATORS WILL BE TOWED, I clicked on the hazard lights and pulled off the road, up onto the curb, slightly up the grassy embankment, until my car was off the road by at least a foot. It was 4:22. I jumped out, locked the doors, and bolted through a stand of trees into my neighborhood. And into someone's backyard.

I ran, baby. I ran as though my craziest ex-girlfriend was chasing me. I ran as though legs were going to be outlawed tomorrow.

Ours is one of those unfortunate cookie-cutter developments. All the lots are uniform size. The houses pretty much all look alike. And intent though I was on meeting the bus, I happened to notice that all the backyards look alike too. Every one of them has the little stand of trees marked by stones. Every one of them has a jungle gym or play fort for the kids. Every one has a back deck.

To be sure, there are some differences. For example, did you know one of my distant neighbors has a fence covered with thorny raspberry vines? Neither did I, until I buffed my underside with them as I leapt the fence and sprinted through his backyard. And the neighbor next to him has a fence that is just a little higher than the previous fence. Thus when I went over it, my trailing foot caught it. I didn't fall. Instead, I did one of those ungainly maneuvers where my legs splayed in a graceless leap before my feet hit the ground heavily, while my arms pinwheeled for balance the whole time. To the surprised couple sitting on their back deck, I must have looked like I was about to lead them in a cheer.

The next fence was higher still and I didn't even try to vault it. Instead I threw a leg over it as though I was mounting a horse. I lost momentum then and found myself stuck, balanced for a painful moment on the fulcrum of my pubic bone, before rolling to the other side and landing in a tangle of tomatoes. In a second I was back up and over the patch and into another yard. And another.

My heart leapt as I reach the next yard. Here I could cut between houses and get to the sidewalk leading to the bus stop. I didn't dare look at my watch. I bolted into the yard. Straight ahead of me was yet another play fort. But this time, I spied a little girl sitting beneath it, her back to me. She couldn't have been older than 4 and there appeared to be no adult in sight.

Unbelievable, I thought, as I raced across the yard towards her. I could be some crazed child abductor right now and she would--

But we'll never know what she would or would not have been, because at that moment, a furry torpedo flew out from under the back deck. I had just enough time to register the dark blur and a kind of guttural chuffing noise.

Then it clobbered me.

I haven't been hit so hard since my brother convinced me to play football with him. Whatever it was, it was heavy and dense, like a sandbag with legs. It hit me in the backs of my knees, knocking me to the ground. Did I say knock? I went sprawling forward, hands, elbows and knees digging into the grass. Then I felt a weight digging into my rear end, something clawing my lower back, pushing me down. My face hit the turf and then I was like a human combine, gathering grass into my mouth.

The guttural chuffing became an excited growl. Instinctively, I curled into the fetal position, covering my neck with my hands. But as suddenly as it happened, the attack stopped and I heard an all-too-familiar panting sound.

It was, of course, my dog who had creamed me. I was, at that moment, dashing through my very own backyard.

The look on the dog's face was all too familiar. It was the o-o-h-h-h-h-h-h shit look. I wore that very same look the day I vomited in my boss's office, years ago at my first job. But I didn't have time to be mad (and later, when I did have time, I wasn't. He was just reacting instinctively to the deranged man pelting through his yard).

While the Brownie and Blaze exchanged bewildered looks, I noticed Her Lovely Self for the first time, curled up in a hammock under a stand of trees. She stared at me with glazed eyes, her mouth forming the word "What--?" But I didn't stop to hold a press conference. I staggered to my feet, bolted up between the houses, and hit the sidewalk sprinting.

A hundred feet ahead of me, a bus was just pulling to the curb.

I glanced at my watch just in time to see the numbers wink from 4:25 to 4:26.

I came to a gasping halt behind several mothers, two of whom looked at me with frank alarm, as if they had never seen a grown man soaked with sweat, shirt half untucked, grass staining his elbows and knees (and also, incidentally, stuck to his face).

The seventh child off the bus was my son. He scanned the little crowd for a second, then caught my eye. He ran over.

"Hi Dad," he said laconically.

"Hi (gasp) buddy (gasp). How (pant gasp) was school (pant gasp wheeze)?"

And we staggered back down the street to the house, talking about his day. Well, actually he did most of the talking, while I did most of the staggering.

I can't say my mad rush to meet the bus really made any impression on him. Nor could I fairly say that it did anything to make me a better dad, so much as a lucky one. And I can't say what the moral to this story is, if there even is one.

But I do know this: Some days you make the promise, and some days the promise makes you.

I also know one other thing: In my city, it only takes 10 minutes to get your car towed.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


 

In Which I Pretty Much Blow It...

So here's the thing: I joke about what a bad dad I am. But the truth is I kind of AM a bad dad when the chips are down.

Oh sure, it's easy to be a good dad while someone else is making the meals and wiping the butts and listening to the umpteenth tantrum and in general doing all the heavy lifting. But when you have to do a little bit of work and deal with a little bit of whining, the fair-weather dads drop like flies. And I think I might be a fair-weather dad.

This fact hit home most especially this weekend when, quite aside from my self-pitying post of last night, I did plenty more to disgrace myself in the eyes of my children.

I always start weekends like this with the best of intentions. I have this image in my head of being a calm, cool, collected dad who can help finish the puzzle and whip up the batch of cookies and deal with the shoe stuck in the toilet, often simultaneously, but always with unwavering grace and aplomb.

But what really happens is I quickly feel myself getting worn to a tiny nub. And once I enter nubhood I get surly and impatient and become the kind of heavy-handed dad I swore I'd never be (and which most of you probably still can't believe I ever could be).

Now when I say "heavy-handed" I don't mean that literally. I have never hit my kids. My problem is I'm voice-raiser. If the kids don't listen to me or they persist in doing some foolish or annoying thing long after any novelty value for that thing has worn off, then I blow it and become Old Yeller. I shouldn't shout at my kids, I know. But there it is. Sometimes I do. I hit them with my voice. And then feel enormous guilt afterwards.

I hit Shouting Point right around dinner time on Sunday. My wife was sick, it was clear I was going to have to take her to the clinic in the morning. To compound matters, I was going to have to go into work for a few hours. The current issue ships tomorrow and I have five stories to complete. My senior editor would normally pitch in and help out, but by an unfortunate stroke of luck, he blew out his Achilles tendon Saturday afternoon and would be undergoing surgery sometime on Monday or Tuesday, not to return to the office for the rest of the week.

This is all in my mind as I'm trying to get Sunday night dinner ready. To compound things, I have a situation to work out with Thomas. Since he has just started school, Her Lovely Self has been in the habit of seeing him off on the bus in the morning, but picking him up at school in the afternoon. The situation being what it was, there was no way I could get to his school to meet him when school let out, and he no longer needed parental supervision to get on and off the bus at the corner near our house. So I sat him down and told him in my best lets-all-do-our-part voice that I needed him to get himself on the bus in the morning. And ride the bus home in the afternoon and walk himself from the corner to our house.

It wasn't like he'd be alone. All his friends are on the bus and he could walk home with the girls who live across the street from us. What's more, about 15 moms regularly meet the bus in the afternoon and would gladly look out to make sure he got to his door without incident.

But that wasn't the problem, of course. The problem is Thomas is generally an anxious kid. In particular, he gets very upset if there's a change in his routine, especially a routine that makes him feel secure in a new environment, such as his mom picking him up at school during the first few days of class. So it was natural that he would carry on a bit, wanting to know why I couldn't meet him at school. Why did he have to ride the bus home? Why did he have to walk the 125 feet from the corner to our door without his mother to greet him? Why couldn't I do it? He was afraid he'd get on the wrong bus at school. He was afraid he'd forget to get on the bus at all and be stuck all alone in school. Oh, it went on.

And if I were the dad you all thought I was, the patient, kind-hearted dad who usually shows up in this blog, I would have validated his feelings and yet still patiently, kindly, wisely convinced him to ride the bus to and from school like a big boy.

But instead, after a few exhausted attempts to comfort/reason with him, I abruptly lost my patience and adopted a hard line. His mom was sick and couldn't get him. I had to work and couldn't get him. He would have to do what all his other friends do and ride the bus and walk himself home on his own.

When he protested more shrilly, I totally blew my cool and shouted at him to please JUST DO IT AND STOP ACTING LIKE A BIG BABY. For all the shock on his face and the brimming tears in his eyes, I might as well have slapped him across the mouth. We began dinner in silence. I felt just awful. Thomas wouldn't look at me.

Not my finest hour.

So I was truly grateful for the miracle that occurred halfway through dinner, when his first tooth unexpectedly came loose. When I threw myself across the table to snatch it out of his mouth before he accidentally swallowed it, I knew I was grasping at my last chance to salvage the day.

And I was right. In the excitement that followed, everything was forgotten, forgiven. But later, lying in bed, too tired to sleep, I felt that I had gotten off on a technicality. I had really blown it. I needed to make it right.

Next morning, before I could even do that, Thomas bravely informed me that he would be able to take the bus and walk himself home after all. Then, just to put the stake completely through my heart, he said, "I'm sorry I got you so mad last night. I'm sorry I'm a big baby. I'll try to be bigger."

God, my eyes are filling up just writing this.

Feeling like a total shit now, I apologized for yelling and told him I wished I could meet him at school. But I would be home by 4:30 and we could do something fun then.

When I said this, he got a hang-dog yet hopeful look. "Dad, if you can come home then, could you still maybe meet me at 4-2-5? That's when the bus comes."

I didn't realize his bus took nearly an hour to get home. And it was only a five-minute difference from my planned arrival. So I said sure. Then he smiled at me, a big missing-tooth smile that made me feel both better and even more like a shit.

"Really? You promise?" he asked.

"I promise I will be there," I said.

Well, anyone who's read this blog even a little must realize that this was the moment I totally doomed myself to an afternoon of either abject failure or complete wing-nut behavior in a desperate effort to avoid abject failure...


Sunday, August 28, 2005

 

In Which I Don't Even Have the Energy to Write A Good Title...

Oh, I had such writing plans for you this weekend. I was going to launch the first annual Giveaway of Crap. I was going to regale you with my adventures in obedience training with the dog. I was going to write about the new series of nature documentaries Thomas is making me film in the back yard. Big plans, I tell you.

And then Her Lovely Self woke up with strep on Saturday morning. She refused to admit it until Sunday morning but honestly, who does she think she's kidding? Here's a woman who is normally up at dawn tending to her garden on the weekends. That's BEFORE she's gotten the kids breakfast but AFTER she's already written a letter to her grandmother and cleaned all the bathrooms and spent some time online crafting a query for the next freelance piece she wants to do. She's like my personal little Army representative. She really does do more before 9 AM than I do all day.

Oh hell, who am I kidding? Make that all month.

Instead of her usual routine of embarrassing productivity, she spent this whole Saturday sleeping in a beanbag, interrupting her slumber only long enough to croak at me in a voice so astonishingly like Brenda Vaccaro, I thought she was going to ask for Playtex tampons (helpful link in case I am dating myself, which I probably am). In the event, all HLS asked for was tea. She doesn't even like tea. Except when she's sick, which she kept insisting she wasn't. I mean really! Did she think I wasn't going to put it all together?

By Sunday it was a moot point, as she was flat in bed with a 101 fever and a throat that looked like one of the smaller gates to Hell.

So I got to see to the kids' every needs. For the whole weekend.

Now it's Sunday night and I'm so tired that I just this moment yawned extravagantly enough to make the dog yawn. I'm so tired I didn't even notice that my ass fell off earlier today. Twice I tripped over it. Both times, I'm like, What is that on the floor?

Oh yeah, it's my ass. It fell off.

It's not that the weekend was without its bright points. And it's not like I wasn't able to muster the necessary--more than necessary--enthusiasm for those bright points when they came. It's just that it took everything I had. By the time I got everyone trundled off to bed, I felt like it was past my bedtime too. About 18 hours past.

Still, as I've remarked before, this is good for me, these brief interludes of being driven to the point of my ass falling off. It serves to remind me who really has the hard goddamn job in this family. I do tell her this, in case you're wondering. But now I'm telling you too.

Single parents, how DO you do it? The only thing keeping me moving is the knowledge that Her Lovely Self will bounce back in 24-48 hours and I can go back to my carefree life of sleeping in til 7 and wondering why some people are too tired at the end of the day to laugh at my jokes. How do you manage, you solo moms and dads?

And please do not read sympathy or pity into my question. Read awe. Read wonder. You each deserve your own action figure and trading card.

That's all I wanted to say. Hell, that's all I can manage to say right now.

I'm so wiped. In the space of 48 hours, I'm completely spent for the rest of the week.

Now I know what it feels like to be every paycheck I earned in my 20s.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Friday, August 26, 2005

 

In Which They Take Me Apart A Piece At A Time...

Here's what I hate about every dermatologist who's ever been drafted to treat my drama-queen skin: It's the fact that they specialize in the care of the largest sensory organ that the human body possesses, yet they are always astounded by your reaction to the sensory signals that organ transmits when they poke you with a knife or lancet or needle.

Every single dermatologist who has ever teated me for anything from horrific mutant teenage acne to removing a mole has always said, "This won't hurt." And THEN had the nerve to act all surprised when I howled loudly enough to be heard from the waiting room (and I don't think it's telling tales out of school to say that being heard from the waiting room was sometimes my goal).

In my case, it's even worse because I'll tell a dermatologist up front that I'm expecting to feel pain. "Oh you won't," they'll say. "We'll be injecting a little bit of anesthetic under the skin." And then I point to my medical file, the part that explains my weird resistance to most of the local anesthetics doctors favor. And they smile indulgently and say how that's impossible, and then wonder why I'm writhing and screaming two seconds later.

"Oh. Did you feel that?" they'll ask, puzzled.

I used to say simply "Yes," but over the years, I've found that shouting "What the fuck?!?" is much more satisfying.

This was the sort of thing I thought about as I sat in the empty reception area of my local dermatology practice early on the morning of 48 hours ago. It also occurred to me that this would be about the 8th or 9th time I have had a piece of my skin removed, by means professional and amateur.

The first time occurred when I was about 5. Our family was visiting the farm of some friends--I believe their name was Tautkus. They had a great old Colonial farm up in the hills near where we lived in New Hampshire and we loved to go there in the late summer and early fall, helping the family pick veggies from their massive garden, and watching as Mr. Tautkus made apple cider in the large old hand-cranked press he kept behind the barn. As the day wore on, the adults would repair to the porch to sample some of the harder varieties of cider Mr. Tautkus made, while the kids went off and played in the barn or out in the driveway.

This one year, one of the Tautkus boys, who was my age, had received a Big Wheel for his birthday. I LOVED Big Wheels, but never had one myself, so I wanted us to spend our time in the gravel driveway, racing that thing til the cows came home.

Problem is, Big Wheels were designed for paved surfaces and the vehicle's performance lagged severely on the gravel track of the driveway. After watching us spin wheels and spray rocks hopelessly for several minutes, my brother and the oldest Tautkus sibs decided to help us out by giving us pushes that sent us rumbling down the driveway with satisfying velocity.

On about my third turn, I instructed my brother to give me the proverbial Really Big Push This Time. Of course, we all know what kind of push that is: it's the one guaranteed to end in tears.

As I sat at the controls, my brother backed up a good 10 feet and started his run. When he reached me, he grabbed the back of the Big Wheel and with a lurch we hurtled forward. I swear, you'd have thought my brother was trying out for the Olympic bobsled team the way he was running. He dashed on, pushing me ahead of him for several more feet, then with one mighty shove, he sent me rocketing away. And I promptly lost control.

I spun in one complete circle, gravel flying everywhere, then spun another 180 degrees and found myself flying backwards down the incline of the driveway. I shot across the dirt road out in front of the house (thankfully, the farm was on a quiet country lane that was seldom trafficked) and landed in a ditch, flying off the back of the Big Wheel.

As soon as I landed in the dirt of the ditch I felt a sharp pain in my elbow. I don't know whether it was a piece of broken glass or a jagged rock that did the job, but when I pulled my arm up in front of my face, all I could see was a ragged flap of bloody skin dangling off my elbow. The elbow on which I had a huge brown mole. The mole I could now clearly see in the middle of that ragged flap of skin.

Naturally, I cried and made a big deal of my wound (wouldn't you?) and in short order I was surrounded by grown-ups, the other kids, and my duly chastened brother. My father carried me up to the porch of the house and while Mrs. Tautkus went to get some gauze and antiseptic, I sat on the porch steps and whimpered.

In response to my whining, out from under the porch came the Tautkus' old golden retriever, a lovable lump of dog with the unfortunate name of Pooper. He came right over and sat next to me, licking the salty tears off my face, then sniffing around my bloody elbow. Presently, he started licking that too.

I giggled through my tears. Pooper's muzzle was tickly as he licked the blood off my elbow.

And then I heard a strange snarfing sound and felt a sharp pain as Pooper suddenly hoovered the dangling flap of bloody skin into his mouth and ate it. Mole and all.

If I screamed at the sight of this, I couldn't hear myself doing it, because I was drowned out by Mrs. Tautkus, who had just that moment returned to the porch. The roll of gauze fell from her hand and she shrieked like a victim in a slasher movie. I think it's fair to say everyone was either appalled or grossed out by Pooper, who sat there, thumping his tail on the porch in a tentative way and smacking his bloody chops thoughtfully, acting for all the world as though he hadn't just snacked on a juicy morsel of my tasty self.

When the skin grew back on my elbow, the mole never returned.

I kept the rest of my moles intact for the better part of the next two decades. But in my early and mid-20s I went through a three-year period where I had them razored, burned, or frozen off at a rate of about two per year.

Probably the most dramatic removal--and in many ways, I feel this example even trumps Pooper the Flesh-Eating Dog--was the winter before I turned 24. It was an icy February and I was on my way to a doctor's appointment, coincidentally enough, although my reason for seeing the doctor had nothing to do with my skin (I think I had a sinus infection or something).

The practice where my doctor worked was in part of a large hospital complex, but her offices were in an older building, on a side street that rarely got a lot of attention from the hospital's maintenance crew. The driveway and sidewalks were poorly plowed and salted, so I had to pick my steps carefully as I trod the icy pavement up to the building.

It was a lovely old building with an ornate brick facade and a wrought-iron fence around the front. To be honest, I had never really paid much attention to the fence, at least not til that day, when I opened the gate to it and slipped on a patch of ice at the same time.

I didn't fall, exactly, but I did go down on both knees, right in front of the gate. As I dropped, my head fell more or less exactly between two of the pointed iron pickets that composed the fence and gate. It was a lucky thing, how I landed, because those pickets had decorative tips that resembled nothing so much as spearheads. As I went down, the picket on my left side poked me, hard, just under my jaw line.

For brief second I was trapped, neck stuck between two pickets on the gate. But I took a deep breath, found my footing and pulled myself back up. Then I walked inside.

As soon as the heat from the office hit me, I felt a pulsing pain in my neck where I had been poked by the fence. Instinctively I pressed my hand to the sore spot and walked up the receptionist.

"Hi," I said. "I'm here to see the doctor."

That must have struck the receptionist as one of the great understatements of all time, considering her perspective. Because what she saw was a pale guy holding his hand to his neck, a guy who was unaware that bright red blood was not just flowing, but bubbling from between his fingers.

Without a word to me, she grabbed the phone, punched some buttons, and announced to whoever answered that she had an emergency walk-in.

It was at that moment that I became aware of the wet sensation on my hand and injudiciously brought it away from my neck. As I stared at my blood-soaked hand, I went suddenly dizzy. Not from the sight of my own blood so much as from the loss of it. My hand, you see, had been the only thing keeping it from pouring out of my neck.

I grayed out.

Next thing I knew, a sharp, jerking pain brought me to my senses. I was flat on my back, a bright light in my eyes. People in medical attire were hovering over me, one hovering very close to my face on my left side. His hand moved and suddenly I felt that visceral tug that can only come from having a needle and thread inserted into your skin and then pulled and tightened.

"Don't move," murmured the doctor, as he did it again.

Well as you have no doubt surmised by now, when I slipped outside, I didn't just fall on the wrought-iron gate, I impaled myself on it. I had a cut that went in about half an inch. And on the way, I nicked something important. I thought the doctor said it was my carotid artery, but for all I know about anatomy it could have been my jugular. Either way, it's lucky I chose to impale myself right outside a large hospital with a superb ER, don't you think?

Now that was one boo-boo that was a LONG time healing, let me tell you (and indeed I still have a pretty impressive scar from it). And when I finally got the stitches out and the bandages off, it was only then that I noticed the mole that had resided on my neck for as long as I could remember was missing, apparently a dermatological casualty from when the ER surgeon debrided the wound. I was a little surprised no one had bothered to mention this at the time. But in the end, I supposed I was lucky the surgeon didn't simply nibble the thing off (so far as I know).

And so it was with these happy reminiscences that I passed the time waiting to have the latest bloody mole examined.

At length, I was brought in to meet a very young-looking doctor, the new guy at the practice, I was informed as we shook hands. He peeled the sodden bandage off my neck and examined the offending mole. "Yep, that looks funky," he said. "We'll get rid of it." He summoned a large bullish nurse into the room and while she prepped me to be parted from yet more of my skin, the doctor, to my amazement, actually perused my file.

"Wow," he said as he read. "You must have a really high tolerance to local anesthetics. I guess we won't bother sticking you with a needle. No point in adding insult to injury. But I'll do it as quick as I can."

With that, the nurse pinned me stomach-down to the examining table and he swabbed some cold antiseptic on me. I could hear him pick up the scalpel or the razor or whatever they use.

"Let me guess," I muttered, my face jammed into the pillow. "This is the part where you tell me it won't hurt."

"Oh no," said the doctor brightly. "It's gonna sting like a son of a bitch."

And did it ever.

But boy I really liked that doctor. I liked him even better when he called me personally this morning with the news that tests showed the mole to be completely benign. I tell you, this guy can be my dermatologist any time.

"But why did it bleed so much, though?" I asked.

"Probably never know," he said. "People go their whole lives with these things and then one day, all it takes is a good cut or poke and they start bleeding like a stuck pig. You probably did it yourself without realizing it. Are you very accident-prone?" he asked.

"Apparently only where moles are concerned," I said.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, August 25, 2005

 

In Which I Get Under My Own Skin...

My skin is SUCH a drama queen.

You'd think it would be content with its ranking as Largest Organ Of My Body (true for everybody, by the way. Sorry guys), but no. It's always got to act up, remind me that it's there.

As a child my skin was so dry in the winter that I couldn't take a bath like normal kids. If I did, I'd wake in the middle of the night scratching great red patches of dry skin so much I'd actually draw blood. So instead, I abluted myself every night with an off-putting cleanser supplied by my pediatrician. Though skin-friendly, this unguentary substance was offensive in every other way, smelling like a cross between kerosene and spoiled fruit, and having an appearance and consistency that reminded my father--for so he would confide later--of the semen of a large farm animal.

You were supposed to slather this milky, viscous goop on, wait a moment, then wipe it off, much as if it were a staining gel for furniture. No matter how thoroughly I wiped this stuff off, though, trace elements of the goop remained so that, within a few moments, a strange translucent film would manifest on my body. My brother started calling me "the ghost." Had he known what my father thought of the stuff, I'm sure he would have called me something much worse.

I outgrew the worst of my skin's eczematic tendencies at 12, just in time for puberty. Boy, did my skin have fun with that. Of course, when the adolescent hormonal turbines begin their keening start-up whine, everyone expects a few side effects. Pimples, for example. But I didn't get the usual adolescent acne, oh no. Thanks to my skin, I wound up with freakish mutant acne. Every square inch of flesh on my upper arms and torso became so inflamed that merely tapping me on the shoulder or slapping me on the back produced brutal agony.

And my face! I wish there was a way to put this delicately--because I know many of you unwisely choose to eat or drink while reading--but my face was one great oozing mass, each pore so densely, painfully packed with whiteheads that the merest smile or furrowing of a brow could unexpectedly cause a high-pressure jet of pus to shoot out from my head at distances of up to 18 inches. I can only thank God this never happened while I was at school (although it did happen once while I was arguing with my brother, and he got sprayed in the face. He didn't know whether to be revulsed or impressed).

Yes, let's ALL have a collective "Ewww."

By the time I was 16, the problem was so pronounced, so uncontrollable, so completely offensive to everyone but our blind neighbor, that my choices were reduced to:

A. Walking around with an Elephant Man style mask over my head

or

B. Seeking the intervention of a dermatologist

Though my brother lobbied on my behalf for the first choice, my mom ruled in favor of B. In truth, I'd have gone to a specialist sooner, but this was a period in time where my father's employment in construction was so erratic that we didn't have adequate health insurance to cover what would have been an otherwise expensive out-of-pocket proposition. So we had to wait until the benefits from his latest job had kicked in.

(If the future should ever turn bleak and I find myself penniless and destitute, huddled with my family under a ragged tarp beneath an overpass, and it should transpire that my teen son or daughter inherited the dramatic tendencies of my dermis, let the record show that I will sell my bone marrow, put a kidney on eBay, even cash in on my comic books before I would let my children suffer one day of the four years of sebaceous indignity I endured at the hands of my skin.)

Eventually, after a long war of attrition fought with the assistance of the benzoyl peroxide family and massive doses of tetracycline, the tide of battle turned and I entered my 20s--okay, my mid 20s--more or less unblemished.

That's when the moles attacked.

This is not to say I didn't have problems with moles before. I did (and soon I'll tell you way more than you want to know about it). They just weren't what you could call traditional problems. Well, that all changed in the 1990s and continues to this day. If my struggle against freakish mutant acne was a war, this latest attack by my skin could best be described as a terrorist action. Over the past decade, I have gone months, even years, living out my peaceful if clumsy existence. Then out of nowhere, a terrorist cell activates in some mole on my body, and an innocent, unobtrusive mark, having no value or purpose--beyond perhaps allowing my family to identify me in the event of death involving the removal of my head and hands--suddenly pulses with suspicious intent.

Case in point:

Seventy-two hours ago, I was sitting in my office, typing, typing, typing, when my assistant popped in, dropped off something, then stopped and said, really casually:

"You got blood on your neck." And left.

Oh, bug bite, I thought, putting my hand to the slightly irritated spot on my neck.

Imagine, then, the jump-up, shove-the-seat-back, squawking surprise when my hand came away a bright and shining red.

Touching my neck seemed to activate a pressure sensitive switch in my platelets, because they all went to the "off" position and now I could feel blood freely coursing down my back.

I must have cut quite a figure as I dashed past the conference room where a bunch of editors were meeting. Crazily, I wished I had thought to ask our copy editor--the one who keeps a toy fireman's axe in her office--to chase behind me.

In the men's room, guys leapt aside as I careened to the sink. No one asked me if I was okay, they all just vanished, no doubt sprinting the length of the corridor outside so they wouldn't have to hear the thud as my clammy self sprawled to the floor of the john.

I moved my soggy red collar aside to see what the hell was going on. What could it be? One helluva mosquito? Ninja blow-dart assassins? Misplaced stigmata?

Nope. It was another damn mole.

Thirty-some years that thing has been on the back of my neck. I've scratched it by accident thousands of times, rubbed it raw with the 100-grit towels my mom used to keep in the bathroom, had countless barbers apply countless scissors and clippers to it, and never once has it bled. Now, with no provocation, it starts impersonating one of the more hemophiliac members of the Russian aristocracy.

Stuffing an entire dispenser's worth of paper towels down the back of my shirt, I squelched home and called a local dermatologist. When I said I needed to see someone, the gum-popping receptionist informed me I couldn't get in for a month. As she made the appointment, she asked why I was coming in. I described the mole, lingering in particular on the part about the freshet of blood coming in such effusiveness that it had now dampened the waistband of my underwear.

She, like all of you, made a distracted little squeak of disgust, then transferred me to a nurse who, after a few questions, told me to come in first thing the next morning.

I always get worried when medical personnel rearrange their schedules to accommodate me...

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

 

In Which I Offer The Briefest of Updates...

So we went to the party and of course no one got sick or died and Thomas had the best time ever.

At one point late in the day, all the boys at the party had decided to play baseball, but lacking anything in the way of equipment, they chose to press an enormous red ball into service. For want of a bat, they used a hockey stick. That didn't work so well, so the game degenerated into kickball. But then the ball was too large so none of the 6-year-old boys could get it to go any distance when it was their turn to kick.

Leave it to the girls to offer a solution--and masterfully insert themselves into the game--by suggesting that everyone work in pairs (boy-girl pairs, of course). Thus there would be two pitchers rolling the giant ball to two kickers, who would hit the ball more or less simultaneously and then round the bases together (there was a little rhubarb about whether or not the pairs should hold hands as they run. In the end, the hands-free option carried the day). There turned out to be a dead even boy/girl ratio at the party, so everyone paired off and play resumed.

By some happy stroke of fate, Thomas found himself paired up with Alyssa (Of course, the fact that she grabbed a handful of his shirt and said "You come here!" may also have been a determinant).

Gotta tip my hat to the girls: the plan worked for a couple innings. And when Thomas and Alyssa were up, they kicked in perfect synch, arcing the giant ball into the next yard for a stand-up double.

Unfortunately, the next three pairs of kickers were not as successful and the inning ended. Thomas and Alyssa ran off the field. I think he was holding her hand. It was just the most perfect little innocent childhood moment.

And then Thomas ran up to me and cried jubilantly, "Did you see that, Dad? I got to second base with Alyssa!"

Note to self: In the future, when double-entendres are uttered by innocent children, do not be the first Dad to laugh. Even though nearby Dads--including Alyssa's father--will collapse in a spectacle that may involve the silent "Haw" face or beer spraying out their noses, your wife will only remember that you laughed first.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Monday, August 22, 2005

 

In Which I Go Off The Guidebook...

Just this weekend, I committed yet another act of terrible parenting.

This is in addition to neglecting my daughter and exploiting my son to further my own naked ambition to Have A Blog With Even More Traffic, to quote my second-favorite e-mail from one of Art Lad's many online surrogate parents.

(My most favorite e-mail? That would be from the person who accused me of "making Thomas up." Well guess what? I DID make him up. And Her Lovely Self helped. We spent the first two months of 1998 making that kid up. Nice work if you can get it...)

At this rate, I should be inducted into the Bad Dad's Hall of Fame before the year is out. I--

Wait. Let me back up...

Like pretty much everyone else with offspring, my own personal guidebook, How To Raise My Kids is composed of the following:

--Things I Learned From My Parents
--Things I Learned From My Parents That I Swore I Would Never Do To My Own Children (But Did Anyway Because, Hey, They Worked)
--Brand-New Strategies of My Own Devising
--Things I Learned While Recovering From My Latest Parenting Fuck-Up (see "Brand-New Strategies")

(Obviously, Her Lovely Self carries the same manual, but with somewhat different strategies. In cases where our strategies don't match, the person who carried the child around in an ever-expanding bag of water inside their abdomen for nine months wins.)

One of the things I learned from my parents--well, my mom--was how to deal with sick children. When I was little, if you were sick, you were sick, man. You were confined to bed until your temperature returned to normal. While this meant you could get a day off from school or chores if you had the merest 99-degree temperature, it also meant you were in for a pretty boring day, unless you'd had the forethought to hide comics under your pillow. If my mom heard you get out of bed, she was on you like a store detective on a shoplifter. You were not allowed out of bed except to go to the bathroom or to throw up (and even that was frowned upon, as my mom always positioned a lined wastebasket at the bedside for that eventuality). You weren't allowed to sit on the floor and play with your toys (floors were breeding grounds for pneumonia-inducing drafts) and you most certainly weren't allowed to recline on the living room couch and watch TV (not even PBS). Going outside was beyond my mother's consideration (possibly beyond her comprehension). This policy held true year-round, even in the event of summer colds.

Now, I'm not saying Mom wasn't justified. As children, my brother and I rarely got "a little" sick. I could go from a normal temperature to a he's-delirious-get-the-ice-packs fever in the space of a television program. My brother was so prone to stomach viruses that his most common method of announcing illness was with the sudden, guttural and always unexpected cry of, "I'm gonna beLUUUUURRRRAAAAPP!" If you had one son who could ruin an episode of Three's Company by going red and screaming that the walls were melting, and another who could be counted on for projectile vomit one out of every 7 times he opened his mouth, you too might adopt an all-bed sick policy.

Life must have been nice growing up at Her Lovely Self's house (aside from the oppressive guilt trips and total erosion of self-confidence, I mean). When HLS or her sisters were sick, they pretty much got to set up camp on the family room sofa and watch cartoons all day. They got to sit on the floor. In the case of colds suffered in warmer weather, they even got to (gasp!) sit outside.

So when a recent flu bug swept through the Magazine Mansion like a viral freight train, you can bet that bed was the place my kids spent the least amount of time. When his temperature hit 103 last week, Thomas spent just a few hours of one afternoon and a chunk of the next morning lying in his room, and trust me, that was a record. He was sick, to be sure, but the rest of the time, he stayed on the sofa under a layer of blankets, paper and magic markers.

Over the course of the week, his fever burned itself out. By Saturday, he was simmering at a modest 99 and feeling very much more chipper. By Sunday, he still had that 99 fever, but insisted that he was completely cured.

"Are you just saying that so you can go to the party?" I asked. Sunday, see, was the day of our end-of-summer block party, when all the kids in the neighborhood would mainline Kool-Aid and scream and run around like crazy people. With anguish moist and fever dew, my son insisted he was well enough to go. All his friends would be there, including Alyssa, the first-grade equivalent of La Belle Dame sans Merci. In my head, How To Raise My Kids was emphatically open to the section marked Things I Learned From My Parents, and the entry on sick children burned in neon red. I honestly didn't think we should go and said so.

"Of course we're going," said Her Lovely Self, looking at me as though I was the one who was sick.

"He still has a fever..." I said.

"Only a little one. And every kid in the neighborhood has had this bug over the past month. Besides, it's the last big party before school starts."

"But..."

"I've already made cupcakes," she said, as if that settled everything.

I'm telling you, it was a real dilemma for me. Never mind that it was a warm, sunny afternoon. Never mind that my son would almost certainly be just fine. Technically, he was still sick. I mean, even the school nurse, in her regular series of self-important hand-outs, is forever reminding parents not to send kids back to school until they've had a normal temperature for at least 24 hours. And now, here we were, contemplating sending my son (and the Brownie, who was starting to look a little flushed) outside. Outside to a party. Outside to a party, with a fever (okay, I took his temperature before we left and it was 98.8. But still!)

I say "we," but of course I was the only one doing any contemplating. In less time than it takes to tell, my family was assembled in the driveway, loading up a wagon with lawn chairs and a tin of chocolate-frosted cupcakes crawling with viral death.

Her Lovely Self gave me The Look, Version 2.5 (1 part Pity, 2 parts Exasperation, 97 parts Utter Disdain For Someone Who Is Being Ridiculous). "Are you coming?" she said.

"That's a rhetorical question, isn't it?" I asked.

"Yes."

So, with a practiced sigh, I resigned myself to being a Bad Dad and joined my family on our trek to the party.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles to the north, my mother's head spontaneously exploded.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Friday, August 19, 2005

 

In Which We Cover Our Tracks...

As soon as the chain broke, the long end came snapping like a whip, catching me hard in the ankle and knocking me flat on the sand of the soft shoulder.

My brother ran to me while Mr. Bradley wheeled the Jeep around in the middle of the street and came roaring back to see what happened.

"Is you dead?" he asked me, his eyes all buggy. Aside from a stinging foot, I was fine, actually, just startled and slightly winded. "Haint you lucky!" he yelled in my ear. As he pulled me up and dusted me off, he proceeded to tell me about a cousin in the Air Force who had lost both feet when a braking cable on an aircraft carrier snapped and hit him. Or something. It was a fairly involved story and it took a while for us to get back on track.

With the chain now in two pieces, we were kinda stuck (more stuck than before, I mean). Neither length was long enough on its own to connect the truck and the Jeep. It was then that my brother and I resolved to walk back to camp and tell mom what happened. Mr. Bradley blanched when he heard that.

"Holy-o Jeeziz!" he exclaimed. "Let's keep mum outta this. My mutha shot me in the leg once for sumpin I done, t'weren't near as bad as this. We'll getcher out, by gorry!"

Without elaborating (and that was a story I would have wanted to hear!), Mr. Bradley began rummaging around in the back of the Jeep, then emerged with something that looked like a long metal bolt. He grabbed the two broken ends of the chain and began working furiously.

My brother craned his neck to see what was going on, then gave a start of disbelief. "Is he--? No fucking way! He's tying a knot in the chain!"

Sure enough, Mr. Bradley made a very awkward double-knot of the chain, then slid the bolt down through the middle of it. "Try 'er agin!" he hollered as he hopped in the Jeep.

My brother and I just looked at each other. "There is no fucking way this is going to work," he muttered, even as he clambered back up to the top of the stone fence and climbed into the truck.

Limping slightly, I moved across the street. And up the hill. And behind a stone fence that sat on that side of the road.

Miraculously, my brother got the truck started this time and put it in reverse. From 400 yards away, I waved to Mr. Bradley and at the same time they both gunned their engines.

Stones flew everywhere as the rear wheels on that truck spun. I saw the signpost vibrating under the front wheel, then lost sight of it completely. And just when I was sure the knotted chain was going to break again or the truck was going to settle back on the guide wire and pull that pole down on my brother like a hammer on a nail (and wouldn't I have some explaining to do then!), there was a loud scraping sound and a grinding noise as the rear wheels suddenly caught purchase on something and the truck came flying back over the top of the stone fence.

My brother managed to brake just before rear-ending Mr. Bradley's Jeep. As near as we could tell, the only damage the truck had sustained--aside from losing more of its rusty self--was a giant dent in the muffler. Oh, and the exhaust pipe was slightly askew, but who would ever notice that on a truck with so many other defects?

You never saw such lick-spittle gratitude as the display my brother and I lavished on Mr. Bradley, shaking both of his hands, offering him whatever money we had in our pockets, begging to let us replace his broken chain with a fine new one we had back at the camp. He just laughed.

"Nossir! Don't need nuthin'!" he said. "Just glad to help. Hee hee! Now don't go trying to jump anymore stone fences, you hear me?"

We heard.

With a wave and a spray of sand, Mr. Bradley roared off up the street and out of our lives. He died a few years later, and to my knowledge never shared his part in our story with anyone, quite a feat for such a talkative man in such a small town.

As soon as he was gone, my brother and I sprang instantly to the task of covering up our misdeed. Rust-marked rocks were pitched off into the bushes. Tire ruts were quickly scuffed over. We went to stick the slightly bent signpost back in its hole, when we realized that the sign itself was missing. The little boy and girl gaily crossing the street were gone.

"Oh God!" cried my brother, as though we'd actually killed someone. We hunted about in the bushes for that damn sign, but it was nowhere to be found. In the end, we decided the scene looked as good as it was going to. I javelined the signpost off into the forest and we got the hell out of there.

My brother, for some reason, insisted on driving back.

On the way home we explored many areas of philosophy. Chief among these areas was our mortality (how mom would kill us if she found out), fate versus free will (was Mr. Bradley meant to find and help us, or was it just dumb-ass luck?) the flexible nature of the truth (how we would never tell mom what happened ever, even if asked) with a little bit of zen thrown in for good measure (if you crash a truck in a forest, but manage to get it back on the road and no other car is involved, is it still an accident? Or is it just a little impromptu off-roading?)

We were almost an hour later than expected, but mom was so busy getting the camp packed up, she didn't even miss us. Congratulating ourselves on...I dunno, being rescued from our own stupidity, my brother quickly backed the truck into its winter resting spot.

And that's when I saw it. Or rather, didn't see it.

The front bumper. It was gone.

I ran up to the truck and whispered to my brother what I'd seen (or rather, didn't see). He was so certain I was kidding him he actually got out of the truck and went out in front to look for himself. The expression on his face when he saw the truth was one of the great dumbfounded looks in a long and storied career of dumbfounded looks. But to his credit, he recovered quickly.

It was too late to go back and look for it (and to be honest, I couldn't begin to imagine where it ended up, because we were all over that spot cleaning up. All I can figure is that it tumbled down into the marshy area of the forest that was just beyond the stone fence, or got buried by enough loose stones that we never saw it. Or maybe we were so preoccupied looking for the crossing sign that we overlooked a little thing like the front bumper). So in a matter of seconds, my brother spun the truck around and drove it front-end first into the grassy little hollow where we'd be parking it for the season. We worked like a pit crew to get the wheels off and get it up on blocks. Finally, we stood back and surveyed the sitchyation. Unless mom waded into grass up to her knees and physically pulled that grass away from the front of the truck, we were safe.

"There's no way she'll notice it's gone," I said, perhaps a tad optimistically.

"She'll find out sooner or later," my brother replied, in a haunted kind of voice.

But by next spring, my brother had a new car and I, who would not find someone foolish enough to teach me to drive for yet another three years, had no need of a vehicle. And so the truck remained there in the hollow. Every so often, usually when we were in a car together and passed The Corner, my brother and I would look at each other. He would always say, "She's gonna find out sooner or later." But I just smiled and marveled at our luck.

Which held for about 15 years, right up til the week my aunt and uncle sold their property and my parents had to go down and clear out a lot of junk we had stored there over the years: an old trailer, several cords of wood, and a certain truck up on blocks.

One day my dad brought his torch down and was in the process of cutting up the old truck for scrap. As he was removing the rusted out doors, he heard a rattling sound from the passenger side door. While my mom watched. he gave it a mighty shake, and out of the rusted-out hole in the bottom of the door fell a certain yellow road sign, completely recognizable despite the great black tiremark across those poor children.

That night the phone rang. It was my mother, who was not about to let my status as an adult, married, home-owning new daddy stand in the way of her justice.

And when she triumphantly informed me that I was now grounded for life, I knew that my brother had been right after all.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, August 18, 2005

 

In Which We Are On the Fence...

It was one of those quaint stone walls, marking the edge of an old pasture, long since grown to forest. Although easily over 200 years old, the stone structure still maintained its distinct fence-like shape.

At least it did until I smacked into it with the truck.

In my panic, my foot never left the gas pedal, so we didn't just hit the wall, we went straight up it.

There was an almighty lurch beneath us and I could feel stones shifting under the cab. For a brief but memorable second, the nose of the truck pointed up towards the sky. It was a brilliant blue, cloudless and beautiful. And then there was a sort of sharp shift downwards, much like the sensation one experiences during the here-comes-my-lunch portion of a roller-coaster run. We crested the wall and found ourselves pointing down into the edge of the forest that began behind the stone barrier. I finally let up on the gas and with a few hiccupping gasps, the truck stalled.

We sat there and had a tender moment, my brother and me, suspended in the downward pointing position, looking into the sylvan glade that marked the start of the forest. We were both very quiet, breathing through our noses, mouths clamped shut for fear of what might come out if we opened them.

At length, my brother said, "Oh fuck. Are you okay?"

"Yeah. You?"

"Yeah. Can you get out on your side?"

I looked out the open window. Just below me was a little pile of rust and rubble. I tentatively pushed the door open and saw, with some scraping, I could get out. But as I scissored the door open and closed, I couldn't help but notice that the truck was somehow quivering slightly with every movement, in exactly the way a truck should not quiver when it's sitting on a pile of stones.

"Why are we bouncing?" I asked.

My brother looked out his window and said, in a calm, even voice that for him was a sure sign of shock, "That's because the rear wheel is on the edge of a guide wire for that phone pole."

And that's when I saw the pole in question, just a few feet away from the truck. And maybe it was just my angle of view, but it seemed to me that it was leaning kind of in our direction.

Gingerly, we got out on my side. Our exit was accompanied by a subtle springing noise, not unlike a screen door being opened, and the tension on the guide wire caused the truck to raise up slightly on the right side.

We surveyed the damage. There were from some deep tire marks in the shoulder and several rust-marked stones scattered about and a yellow road sign under the right front wheel and a portion of high-tension guide wire stuck under the right rear wheel of the truck, which was pointing at an almost 90 degree angle down on the wrong side of the stone fence.

"We might be okay," I said, perhaps a tad optimistically. "Maybe we can back it out."

It is a testament to my brother's restraint that he didn't pound me into a greasy spot there on the soft shoulder. Although I think it's fair to say he was at that point more worried about mom pounding him into a greasy spot for allowing me to drive in the first place (I, of course, held myself completely blameless).

We stood there for what seemed like a long time, listening to the old engine of that truck tick away in the heat of that late summer day. For want of anything better to do, we began casually rolling over any stones that had obvious rusty scrape marks on them and wondering in the most general way What The Hell We Were Going To Do Now.

Eventually, we realized we couldn't just leave the truck sitting up there, its ass end fully visible from the road. It was embarrassing in a way not easily explained, but I content myself with the knowledge, gentle reader, that if you can recall the stupidest thing you've ever done in your life, you'll immediately appreciate the sense of embarrassment we now felt. My brother finally decided that he would get in and gun it and see if he could just get it off the stone fence (which was really resembling a stone pile at this point) and down into the forest. Then what? We didn't know. Our plan could best be described as a Kitty Litter Contingency: just cover up your crap so no one else will see it.

As my brother climbed into the cab, we heard the roaring of a vehicle coming down the county lane. Hardly anyone ever drove on this road at this time of year, but sure enough, here was someone now. With our luck, it would be my mom, coming to look for us in the Jimmy.

But no. Coming up to The Corner and lurching to a surprised stop was a little man in a red Jeep who I recognized.

He pulled up to us and hopped out. He was a rotund little fellow with a wispy red beard and a matted clot of black hair. He could have been one of Santa's elves, if he'd had the benefit of a red suit. And a bath.

"By jeeziz I knows you, don't I?" he said to me in a thick New England accent.

It was Mr. Bradley, one of my uncle's customers on the rubbish route. When we finally placed each other, he shook my hand with vigor, then made a contemplative smacking noise with his lips as he surveyed the tableau before him.

"Y'know fellas, I do b'lieve you missed your turn!" he said, then laughed and laughed at his own wit. They were oddly high-pitched laughs, the kind of laughs you would spell "Hee Hee."

Then he stopped, and decided that wasn't quite funny enough. "Or was you mebbe trying to jump the fence but didn't quite make it? Hee hee hee!"

I nodded and laughed like a madman myself, deciding to do whatever it took to get this guy to help us. "Yessir, you caught us, I guess," I said, trying to be both simpering and off-handed at the same time. "Don't suppose you've got a chain on you, maybe you could pull us back so we could try again?"

He thought this was even funnier than his remarks and punched me in the arm, repeating it over and over.

"Try it again! (punch) Ain't you a caution! (punch) Try it again! (punchpunch) "Yessir, I'll memba that! Heehee! (punchpunchpunch)"

Mr. Bradley clambered up the pile of stone to "survey the sitchyation." The big concern would be whether we could pull the truck back off the wall without putting any more tension on the guide wire and pulling the pole down. Eventually, Mr. Bradley decided that if we jacked up the rear tire a little bit and piled a shitload of stones around and under it, we might get enough traction to back the truck up without affecting the wire.

Of course, this meant positioning the jack atop a fairly wobbly rock and at an angle not recommended in the instruction manual. "Guess whose job THAT will be, ass-wipe!" my brother growled. I managed it, though, and in about five minutes had the rear of the truck up off the wire. While my brother and I packed stones under the rear tire, Mr. Bradley opened the back of his jeep and brought out a length of chain that looked even rustier than the truck, if that was possible. He looped the chain around the exposed undercarriage of the truck, then locked both ends of the chain to the bumper of his Jeep by means of a padlock. My brother got in the cab and tried to start up the truck. Naturally, the engine wouldn't turn over. He began swearing a blue streak.

Mr. Bradley looked up at my brother then at me. "Ol' fella's a bit high-strung, ent he?" he said, leaning in to me in conspiratorial way. "Dunno what he's all het up for. That's what he gets for trying to drive his truck straight up a goddamn stone fence. Heehee!"

This man's energy and good humor were infectious and I felt it would have been rude to correct him at that point, so I simply smiled and answered brightly, "I'll say! I don't know what he was thinking." Meanwhile, my brother wished horrible death upon me.

"Put her in neutral!" Mr. Bradley called up. My brother gaped at us, then did what he was told.

Mr. Bradley hopped in the Jeep and gunned it. I stood a few feet away and watched the chain draw taut. The truck began to move and as it did, I felt a great weight slowly lift off my chest. Our luck was changing.

That very thought was hanging in a bubble in the air over my head when there was sudden metallic "Pow!" as the chain broke under tension.

I saw a sort of rusty blur and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground...


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

 

In Which Our Story Shifts Into High Gear...

It was late in the summer I turned 15, not too long after my stint as a snack-bar boy.

The season was winding down and my brother was starting college soon. My mom and I were heading back home in about a week.

The week before you leave camp and head back to your life is one that's both exciting and melancholy. There's lots of bustling about and wrapping things up, as you put away the dishes and drain the pipes and hoses and make arrangements for mail and electricity to be turned off here and turned back on there. You start to look forward to all those things you couldn't get away from fast enough back in June, such as school. But you're already missing something you haven't quite left yet. In my case, it was the mountains and forests of New Hampshire. The days spent exploring the strange underside of the village, as only my uncle, the town trash collector, knew it. The nights spent walking around the lake, soaking in stories of my wacky family, as told by my aunts.

And of course, I was already missing that intangible sense of promise and adventure that summer always seemed to offer when you're of an age where your primary obligations and responsibilities are largely seasonal, tied to the school year. Soon, I knew, I'd be like my brother, working both to pay for school and to pay my dues, to earn credit in whatever it was I was going to plan to do for the rest of my life. I was working now, of course, but my work experience had been something I could safely file under the adventure category, and adventure was something you could never get enough of during the summer (this was how I felt despite my eventful few weeks with the crazy snack-bar manager who tried to bite my nipple off. That wasn't adventure. That was adversity).

As we came to the last couple of days at camp, I began to feel that perhaps I hadn't done quite enough, hadn't had quite enough adventure to make my summer truly memorable. I craved one last...thing. Some event, some exploit to truly make the summer stand out in the mind.

And so it was that I began to beg my brother to teach me to drive the truck.

My brother had bought it at the beginning of the summer. It was a Chevy pick-up truck that had led such a hard life I was always astounded when its engine would turn over. My brother needed some kind of vehicle to take him up to his job at the restaurant where he worked (there was no way in hell he was going to bicycle the 10 miles up the hill to the place and back, especially at 1 or 2 in the morning, when he usually punched out), and this was all he could afford (in fact, I'm not entirely sure the previous owners didn't pay him to take the truck).

Pretty much everything that could go wrong had gone wrong with this truck. The tires were bald, the transmission and exhaust system were shot. The foot pad on the gas pedal was broken in half and the one on the brake pedal was missing entirely. The bench seat in the cab was a loamy garden of ripped green vinyl, bits of foam and rusty springs that could find your rectum with scary accuracy whenever you sat in the truck. There was no rear view mirror. And if there had been, you'd have had a pretty clear view of the road immediately behind you because the "truck" part of the truck was missing. The pick-up bed had long since rusted away. In its place, my brother would ultimately bolt a few two-by-fours to the frame, but you could still see the undercarriage of the truck without the aid of X-ray vision.

Rust was probably the most pronounced feature on this truck. I swear, when it was parked in the shady grove near our summer camp, you could hear the rust flaking off it, and wherever my brother went, it always left some of itself behind. If it was parked anywhere for longer than a couple of hours, you could pull away and see the faint dirty-orange outline it had deposited. The first week my brother had the truck, he rolled the window down on the driver's side door, and watched with dismay as the mechanism came loose and the pane of glass shot down into the interior of the door. He was even more dismayed when he opened that door and watched the pane fall again, this time out through the rusty hole in the bottom of the door. It landed on the tarmac and smashed into tiny glass kernels at his feet.

But like every vehicle my family owned, this one has a manual transmission, with the shift-lever located on the steering column--the old three-on-the-tree configuration. Or so we thought. Late in the summer my brother discovered a theretofore unknown fourth gear from which he could not downshift, rendering the truck virtually inoperable for several days. Then one morning, my brother got up to take the trash out and saw the truck several yards down the hill from where he had parked it the previous evening. Inexplicably, the truck had shifted itself back into neutral during the night and, since there was no emergency brake on it--not anymore, anyway--the truck had gone for a bit of a roll.

Naturally, I thought this was the perfect vehicle to learn to drive in. I certainly couldn't do it any damage, could I?

Well my brother, being my brother, ignored my requests until pretty much the day before we left New Hampshire. We were leaving the truck behind. As an incoming freshman, my brother was not permitted to have a car on campus, and even if he was I'm not entirely sure the thing would have been street-legal. But rather than junk it, my brother--who is just as afflicted with C.R.A.P. as the rest of his family--decided to prep the thing for winter and put it up on blocks.

This meant a shit-load--possibly as much as two shitloads--of work. Draining the oil (or changing the oil. I forget). Removing the tires (like they needed preserving) and jacking the thing up onto blocks. Covering over the open driver's side window. Filling the radiator. It was a long list for a worthless truck.

Naturally, my brother got me to do pretty much all of this work. In return, he promised, he would let me drive the truck. After we put fresh antifreeze in the radiator, he told my mom we needed to take it out for a drive before putting it up on blocks so that the engine would run long enough for the antifreeze to fully circulate. For all I know about engines, this could have been pure-D bullshit, but my mom swallowed it and off we went.

We puttered off up the hill and drove a couple of miles around the lake. When we got to the opposite shore, my brother pulled into a little picturesque turnout. Here you could see the whole of the lake--if you squinted you could even see my aunt's cottage and our camp on the far side. The road on this side of the lake was a paved county lane that was seldom traveled, so traffic wasn't going to be a problem. From this spot, it was a straight stretch of road about two miles to The Corner. At The Corner, you could turn left and head to the state highway that led to Concord, or turn right and complete the circuit of the lake, down a leafy road that was largely uninhabited, except for a few year-round residents and one or two summer folks heading to their camps. But most of these people had already left for the year. It was, in short, a perfect place for me to practice driving.

Assuming I could even get out of the turnout.

After giving me a few pointers on the eccentricities of the shifter, I set it to neutral, started the truck, then clunked the shifter into first. We stalled, which wasn't cool, because you never knew if the truck would start up again or not. This time it did, though, so now I pushed in the clutch, then put it into first. The clutch on the truck was much easier to use than the one in my parents' Jimmy. After a couple of bucking near stall-outs, I actually got it moving and we rolled along the turnout. Heading straight for the lake.

"Nowsagoodtimetopullontotheroad," my brother said in a calm but rapid voice. I swung the wheel and we veered away from the lake and onto the road. I gunned the engine and it roared vehemently. My brother opined that second gear was a good gear to try after first, so I thumped the clutch and rammed the shifter into second. We jolted ahead as though we'd been given a great invisible goose.

"Here goes third!" I hooted, and shifted into the next gear. We surged up over a hill and down the county road. I was doing it! I was driving!!

The engine strained again, so I kicked the clutch in and shifted once more.

"NO, NOT FOURTH!" my brother suddenly screamed in my ear.

We were going along at a good clip now, so when he suddenly went apoplectic on me, I jerked the wheel and we did a merry high-speed fish-tail for a moment before I got us back in our lane. My knuckles were white on the steering wheel as my brother not-so-silently swore to himself.

We were coming up to The Corner rather quickly. The Corner was a T-junction, so unless I wanted to take us straight up into Sam Howard's woods, or try to take a sharp left or right at 55 miles an hour, I was going to have to slow us down. I took my foot off the gas and the engine immediately began to buck and make stalling noises. My brother began making noises himself--indistinct bleatings to the effect that I shouldn't let his truck stall, so I gave it the gas again.

"WhatdoIdo?" I asked.

Having already stalled once, my brother feared that we might never get the thing going if it happened again, so he said, "Try to downshift."

I pushed in the clutch and pulled on the shifter as hard as I could. It wouldn't budge. My brother leaned over, took hold of the shifted in his mighty hands and yanked. Nothing.

We were coming up the mild incline to The Corner, just 100 yards away.

In a panic, I let off on the clutch, but my brother was still pulling on the shifter. Miraculously, but with a great grinding of gears, the shifter suddenly moved and we downshifted. From fourth to first.

The engine whined like a siren and my brother and I briefly buffed the windshield with the tops of our heads as the truck shuddered to a sedate 25 miles an hour.

"Okay, okay, turn right, and keep giving it gas," my brother said, regaining his composure. Shaking, I began slinging the wheel to starboard as we came to the top of the small incline on which The Corner sat. The engine bucked.

"Your foot's off the gas again. Give it a little to make the turn," my brother said. So I gave it a little.

At one time, the truck may have had power steering, but those days were long past. So once I had made the turn, it took me rather a bit longer than we had estimated to straighten the truck out. We were drifting on the right shoulder of the road now, heading towards an old stone fence and a yellow sign. God help me, I believe it was a "Children Crossing" sign.

My brother yelled some instructions in quick succession. One was "Turn.Turn!!TURN!!" But I was turning. I was cranking that wheel back for all I was worth, but all it meant was that we were now heading for the stone fence at a slightly different angle. A split-second after issuing this order, my brother evidently made the command decision to abort the mission, because he said, "Nevermindstop.Stop!STOPPPPPPPPP!!"

I took my foot of the gas and mashed down on the brake pedal.

Or rather, where the pedal would have been, had it not gone missing ages ago. Instead, my foot hit the thin metal stem of the brake. And promptly slipped off it and back onto the accelerator.

A screaming roar filled our ears. The yellow sign post disappeared beneath us as quickly as if a trap door had been sprung on it. With a terrible grinding noise and a spray of rust, we slammed into the stone wall...


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

 

In Which I Get Behind the Wheel...

Having spent last weekend and this one teaching my kids to ride bikes, it occurs to me that I am probably not the best person to instruct someone on the piloting of any vehicle. I myself did not learn to ride a two-wheeler until I was 8 or 9 years old, and even then the preparations I used to undergo to ready myself for a ride rivaled that of a NASA launch.

First I had to walk the bike to the steps leading up to the second door to our house, the one with the concrete landing that was about level with the bike seat. Then I had to lay strips of scrap plywood on the sidewalk that ran from that door to the driveway (we had a lot of cracks in that sidewalk, and I needed a smooth runway. Plus, if I'd stepped on them, it would have broken my mother's back). Then I laid a couple of rolled-up sleeping bags on the lawn opposite the runway so I'd have a soft landing if I fell during the liftoff.

With the launch pad ready, I turned my attention to the vehicle, a battered green Schwinn bike that my dad, true to form, found at the dump. It was an adult's bike and therefore too big for me, but my dad compensated for that. At first, he bolted a square block of wood to each pedal so my feet could reach, but this modification proved unsuccessful as the wood acted like a counterweight on the pedals, rotating them upside down, rendering them useless for my purposes (my dad experimented briefly with putting blocks of wood on both side of the pedals, but that looked goofy as hell). Eventually, my dad broke out his welding torch and cut off the bike's middle bar (what my brother and I--and probably all boys everywhere--knew as "the ball bar," so named for the part of your anatomy it was most likely to contact during a sudden stop or collision). With this customization I was able to reach the pedals normally, but I was forced to ride the bike in a perpetual standing position. It was hard work, but man, by the time I was 10 I had the quads of a 12-year-old.

The pre-flight checklist of the bike itself was pretty straightforward. I got two clothespins off the line out back and affixed baseball cards to the spokes of the front and back tires, a quaint little trick picked up from my dad. I didn't want to use any of my favorite Red Sox cards, so I generally used the Yankees cards that my cousin had given me. Cousin Jimmy was about 20 years older than I was, and he had given me a bunch of his old stuff, including a shoebox full of baseball cards, mostly Yanks. Jimmy had multiples of a couple players--Mickey something, Stan somebody-or-other--and in short order I sacrificed all of them in the effort to give my bike that all-important purring sound.

Then would come the positioning of the bike by the step and--this was crucial--the orientation of the pedals so that the left-hand pedal was at the very apogee of its cranking orbit. Finally I mounted the steps and in one motion pushed the bike and leapt onto the seat as it moved forward across the plywood. Once we had achieved coasting speed, I slid off the seat, my left foot would hit that raised pedal for maximum power on the down-stroke and off I'd go, across the plywood, past the row of sleeping bags, headed for the driveway.

And that was when my brother would jump out from the garage and into my path, waving his arms and yelling "Oooga Boooga," or some similar incantation of startlement, forcing me to make a squawking flop on the grass or into mom's petunias (it never occurred to me til now that I should have simply run the fat turd over).

With that kind of back-story, it should come as no surprise to you that I never learned to drive a car until I was a junior in college. And by "learned to drive" I mean learned to drive stick-shift. To this day, my dad remains deeply suspicious of the automatic transmission, although I believe the technology is older than he is. His belief was that engaging a clutch also engaged your brain, whereas anyone--"hell, even a g'rilla"--could drive an automatic. Consequently, we only ever owned cars and trucks with manual transmissions, and I just could not get the hang of them, a source of never-ending exasperation for my parents.

"How is it you can type 120 goddamn words a minute and not be able to drive a car! The clutch is just like the shift key on your friggin typewriter!" my dad remarked, after one particularly disastrous afternoon spent lurching around the back yard in our old GMC Jimmy. I wanted to explain that the shift key on my old manual typewriter had rather a lot more give than the clutch on the Jimmy, which needed about 10,000 foot-pounds of pressure to engage. Also, the typewriter did not require the coordinated use of hands and feet to operate, nor was I ever likely to be required to pilot my typewriter through traffic, so the analogy was breaking down for me. Rather like my parents' attempts to teach me to drive. They pretty much abandoned their efforts by time I was in my early teens.

My brother, though, had not.

At least, not until after the incident involving the truck, the signpost and the stone fence...


Monday, August 15, 2005

 

In Which We Go Downhill...

If you saw the crowd lining our street this past weekend, you'd have thought there was a parade. But no, it was just me, "teaching" the Brownie to ride a bike, and it was a spectacle to behold.

The Brownie was riding her brother's bicycle, which Thomas hasn't touched in two years, preferring the speed, stability and performance of his Big Wheel (and who can blame him? I tell you, if they made them for grown-ups, my hybrid bike would be gathering dust in the garage). Brownie outgrew her tricycle and wanted to see what a two-wheeler was like, so I lowered the seat on Thomas' bike, she lashed Foxo, her constant stuffed-animal companion, to the handlebars, and we began.

I put "teaching" in quotes earlier because the Brownie required no instruction. See, the bike still had its training wheels on. But it was a little bit higher off the ground than she was used to and so, even though she had four-wheel stability and clear ability to use the pedals and steer the bike, she insisted that I trot along behind her "in case I fall over," she said.

"Honey," I said. "The training wheels are on. You can't fall over."

"Could," she said, and that was that.

So here's me, running along behind her like some half-assed Secret Service agent trailing the motorcade while she tore off down the sidewalk at 60 miles an hour.

"DAD! KEEP UP! DAAADEEEEEE!!!" she screamed over her shoulder in a high-pitched voice that caused dogs to yap wildly and neighbors to emerge from their back yards.

"I'm trying!" I shouted back. Or would have shouted back, if I'd had any oxygen to spare. Instead, all I could manage was a sputtering, "Aaggh! A-huh-a-huh! Oh Gawd aggh!" Running is just not something I do, not unless there's a field of lava or a giant Japanese-style monster coming up fast behind me.

I caught up with her at the edge of our neighborhood, where the level part of the sidewalk ends. Here, the pavement took a bend and started down a hill. Not an especially steep hill, but enough to give a 4-year-old pause.

"Are we going down the hill?" I asked weakly.

"Yes," she said, turning to me. "But you have to stay Right. Be. Hind. Me!" To emphasize this point, she gave me two seconds' worth of The Look, enough to verify that She Meant It.

As she psyched herself up, the lightbulb came on and I surreptitiously grabbed the back of the bike seat. If I held on, I reasoned, I could both control her speed down the hill and actually keep up.

We started down.

My plan worked really well at first. I trotted briskly behind her and kept a firm hand on the back of the bike, slowing her just enough that I could keep up. She screamed with glee and let her legs dangle as gravity did its work.

Our downfall was the branch that had fallen on the sidewalk ahead of us. And by "branch" I mean "twig," roughly the length of a ruler, roughly the width of a toothpick, something that would not have caused so much as a bump had we gone straight over it.

But the Brownie spied it and reacted as though a giant redwood had just crashed in front of us. She swerved right to avoid the twig, veering into the minute gutter between the edge of the concrete sidewalk and the beginning of someone's lawn. At this point, I lost my grip on the seat. The bike pitched to one side and I lunged in to grab it and keep it from flopping over.

I needn't have worried. With catlike reflexes, the Brownie made a hard left, bringing the bike back onto the sidewalk and straight across my path, directly in front of my onrushing self.

And then she jumped.

I could not have been more surprised at that moment if she had sprouted butterfly wings and wafted away. In less time than it takes me to write about, she nimbly launched herself up and away from the careening bike. She didn't gain too much altitude, though, because as she bailed out, the upkicked heel of her trailing foot knifed into my crotch. She rolled into the grass. My eyes, meanwhile, rolled up into their sockets.

The impact was intense. Such power from such a little body! Still moving, I doubled over and plowed head-first into the bike, which was now sitting crossways on the sidewalk. Momentum propelled me onward and I fell across the bike, collapsing on top of it. The bike fell over and I skidded across the sidewalk for a few abrasive seconds, my legs and hands being treated to the kind of aggressive exfoliation that you probably have to pay big bucks for at a spa. I rolled bonelessly for a bit, dragging the bike behind me, then came to rest on my back, eyes shut, one leg caught in the chain of the bike, feeling the growing heat that can only come from the Leaden Orb of Pain dropping into your nether regions.

Slowly I began to writhe in agony, a modern-day Job in the ashes. I could hear voices, neighborhood children in a nearby yard, chattering in a gabble of amusement and awe.

"Did you see--"

"Whoa!"

"--kicked him right in the--"

"--his head bounced off the seat--"

"Awesome!"

Presently, I was aware of a shadow across my face. I opened my eyes and beheld the Brownie, completely unharmed, looking down on me with a worried face.

"Daddy?"

I rolled over, grunting like a wounded bison, cradling myself as best as I could in public. "I'm okay, honey. I--"

She interrupted me, looking around anxiously. "Daddy, where's Foxo?"

You'll be relieved to know we found the stuffed animal, who had also managed to leap to the safety and softness of the grass while I was engaged in the sidewalk equivalent of boogie-boarding. Together, the three of us made our way back up the hill.

Thomas was standing at the top, waiting for us. "ARE YOU OKAY?" he bellowed at the top of his lungs.

"Daddy's hurt!" the Brownie called back, then announced, in a louder voice and for the edification of the entire neighborhood, "I KICKED HIM IN HIS BASEBALLS!!"

In the aftermath of the weekend, and for reasons I can't begin to fathom, Thomas is suddenly interested in his bike again. He's asked if I can remove the training wheels and teach him to ride "for real."

"And I won't jump off!" he promised. "If I fall, I'll just stay on the bike."

So we're off to the sporting goods store for a new bike helmet. Plus some elbow and kneepads for Thomas.

Oh, and a cup for me. Just in case.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, August 11, 2005

 

In Which Things Get Hairy...

Did you know? Apparently I neglect my daughter.

I was told this the other night as we sat at a baseball game. The Brownie can't be bothered to watch grown men run around the field chasing balls, so she spent the early part of the game drinking in the profanity-laden conversation of the burly men seated in front of us (which would ultimately make for a lively drive home). At intervals, though, she bestirred herself, especially when someone with a pneumatic gun came out onto the field and launched merchandise into the stands.

"Get me that shirt!" she screamed as the rolled-up garment sailed 40 feet over my head into the upper deck. Daddy tried to explain that even Plastic Man would have pulled a muscle trying to snag that one out of the air, but she just gave me The Look, which she downloaded from HerLovelySelf.com. "You could have jumped," she said. And with that began a two-inning harangue that made me wish I HAD jumped.

THE LOOK:




Below, a random excerpt:

"Daddy, why didn't you get me an ice cream before?"

"Because, honey, you were hot and thirsty and asked for lemonade. That's what I brought you. Plus M&Ms, I might add."

"Yeah, but you didn't TELL me they had ice cream!" Then she gave me The Other Look, one of her own design. I think she thinks she's furrowing her brow at me in a very you-shouldna-oughtta-done-that way, but she obviously hasn't practiced this one in the mirror because she ends up puckering her lips in such a manner as to make her look like a pissed-off fish.

THE OTHER LOOK:




(Hmm. Actually, it may work better than a furrowed brow.)


"Also," she continued, as if she were imparting some big news. "I'm mad at you."

"Oh?"

"Yes. All's you do is do things with Thomas. And not with me!"

Ah. The old you-love-him-more-than-me gambit, one I remember using during the great emotional chess matches of Mom vs. MM, which took place throughout the 1970s.

"You mean aside from every night when it's just you and me walking Blazey? Or this weekend, when I spent 18 hours helping you learn to ride the bike? Or how I helped you write a letter to the lady with the white eyelash last week [long story]."

She blinked several times. "But! You helped him do his pictures on the computer and not me."

I shrugged. "Okay. That's fair. We can put up some pictures of the gourds you painted. I didn't think--"

She made the pissed-off-fish face again. "No, I mean ME! I want me on the computer. So Grammy and Grandpa can see. You never do it."

Aside from this entry.

And this one.

And this one.

Oh, and that one.

I reminded her of one or two instances where I might possibly have gone on about her at length, with pictures.

That quieted her down. For four seconds. Then she said, in a sing-songy voice. "What have you done for me lately?"

"What?!?" I asked.

"Oooo-ooo-ooo-yeah," she added, as an afterthought.

"Okay," I promised, sensing I was losing this chess match, but having no desire to be lectured further in pop lyric form. "I will write something just about you this week."

"All right," she said. "Something special."

"Like what?"

"Like my white hair."

So to sum up, I told you that to tell you this:

Both my children were born with full heads of hair. Thomas, weirdly, had a great shock of dark red hair that morphed into curly red hair before turning blond practically overnight. The Brownie, though, was born with the same hair she has now--completely brown, with one exception: in the back, she has a strip of platinum blonde hair. I first saw it when she was about 40 seconds old.

"What's that?" I asked the nurse, as she was wiping goop off my newborn daughter.

The nurse gave me some kind of medical term for it, but basically, it's the follicular equivalent of a birthmark. Even this summer, as her hair has started to show the same blonde streaks her mother has, that one strip still stands out.

hairfin

I shared this image with a friend, who was impressed. "She's like Rogue from the X-Men," I was told.

It's true.

In fact, she's already absorbed my wife's power to boss me around.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


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