Wednesday, May 31, 2006


In Which We Learn the Three R's...

I've been very lucky in this career to have met and even hung out with some pretty impressive writers: folks whose books have been at the tops of best-seller's lists and who engage in multi-city book tours where they laugh it up with morning talk-show hosts, then go to signings where their legions of fans form lines out the door and around the block and up the sides of buildings.

(This would be the point where I would name some of them, but name-dropping is just so self-serving and fatuous that even I, with my monstrous ego, can't quite get behind it.)

They're all very different folks, these writers. Put them in a room together and they might all get along--or they might just start beating the shit out of each other with hardback editions of their books. But when I've made one particular observation to each of these people, nearly all of them agreed with me.

This observation was first articulated to me by my old college mentor, a man who made his living writing magazine stories for the likes of Life and Time and the Saturday Evening Post in their heyday. He also wrote more than a dozen books, all of them best-sellers. He was something of a stoic, and not easily ruffled. But I remember him telling me that in his long career, there were only three experiences in his writing life that ever struck him as surreal and vaguely unsettling. The three Rs, he called them:

Recognition: The first time a member of the public either recognizes a writer on sight or by overhearing his name.

Reaction: Instances of the writer overhearing perfect strangers discussing his work, as well as sitting next to someone who is reading or quoting his work, unaware that the author is right there, within touching distance. Perhaps the most famous example of this is in the film "When Harry Met Sally" when Carrie Fisher's character quotes a line from a magazine story, and it turns out to be the very story written by Bruno Kirby's character, who is sitting across the table from her. He becomes instantly smitten with Fisher, since no one has ever quoted him back to himself before hell, you know the rest, and if you don't, someone else can fill you in,

And then we have the third R:

Remaindered. In short, finding a copy--or worse, several copies--of one of your books sitting on the clearance table or stuffed in the bargain bin of a bookstore.

Recognition has never happened to me, and likely never will. I say "never" because when I say "never" I jinx myself and it ends up happening anyway, so I'm trying to make the jinx work for me.

Reaction has happened to me exactly once, when I was in college. It was in a lecture hall when I was sitting behind a gorgeous young woman who was reading the university newspaper--specifically, the semi-amusing column I wrote for the paper on a semi-regular basis. I read over her shoulder and watched as she smiled and chuckled in all the right places. I fell in instant love with her and was going to say something. But then she finished reading my column and handed it to her boyfriend, saying, "You have to read this guy, babe. He's a riot." But she so enjoyed my work I almost didn't even mind that I missed a chance to hit on her. Almost.

And then 19 years later, just this past weekend, I was wandering around my local Barnes and Noble, treating myself to a little buying spree (thanks to Big Brother for the gift card. I'll fight anyone who says you're a self-serving, thoughtless prick. Anyone except me, I mean). I sauntered by the clearance table. Then froze in mid-saunter, causing the woman walking behind me to utter a squeak and almost run into me.

I backed up, scanning the long table. Surely I had not--

Surely it wasn't--

Oh God! It was!

Five copies of one of my books. On the clearance table. At 80 percent off the cover price.

I'd been Remaindered.

Before we proceed, I just want to take a moment to address the aspiring writers out there who are thinking, What the fuck are you whining about, MM? At least you HAVE a book to be remaindered. I'd give my right arm/eye/nut/breast to have ANY book in a real bookstore, whether it was on the clearance table or not. And I appreciate that. I really do.

But now I ask you to imagine spending more than a year of your life reporting, researching and writing a book that runs to 700 pages, busting your ass to get it out the door early, driving yourself to exhaustion to flog the book across the country. And by the way, you're doing all this for money you've pretty much already spent.

Then imagine finding the sum of that work fallen to the depths of the $4.98 table. Wouldn't you find it surreal and unsettling too?

Well, never mind whether you would or not. It sure as hell struck me as surreal and unsettling. In the words of one writer who's experienced this, "It's like walking down an alley and tripping over a homeless person, only to realize the homeless person is one of your children." I don't know that I'd go THAT far. To me it felt more like visiting your parents while they're in the middle of a yard sale and discovering that your mom is selling all of your prized comic books. A collection you spent your childhood amassing, now in a box marked "25 cents each." It's not about the money, really. Barnes and Noble bought these in bulk and I got my money for the book a long time ago. They're just trying to move some overstock. Still, that does nothing to overcome the impression that something you worked on, that you put something of yourself into, has been arbitrarily devalued.

But that's not the worst part. The worst part--for me, anyway--was wondering what to do about this. I mean, my God, you didn't think I was just going to leave them there, did you?

As I saw it, I had a few options. Let's examine each in detail:

Option #1: Loiter around the clearance table until someone looked at my book. In this instance, "looked" is defined as "happened to brush my book with his sleeve while reaching for something by Douglas Coupland." Whereupon I would blurt out an unsolicited recommendation for the book the browser is resting his elbow on.

But no, that would be odd. And not just odd, but possibly even unnerving to the customer, since the book on clearance is the one I wrote about men and dating (the one that's flying off the shelves in China under the title I Am the Sex Man!)

Option #2: Sign them. No idea why this came to mind, except I thought it would be a nice surprise to anyone who actually bought it. Or if they were just browsing and happened to turn the page and see my signature, they'd be induced to buy the book and rescue it from the clearance table.

But then I formed a mental picture of me standing in the middle of the bookstore, opening each copy and scribbling in them. Some Barnes and Noble employee, fresh from a quick visit to the in-house Starbucks and amped up caffeine, spies me defacing store merchandise and sends me into the U.S. History aisle with a flying tackle.

As a further refinement of Option #2, I considered finding a manager and graciously offering to sign my books, thus allowing the store to put their special little "Signed Copy" stickers on them, and quite possibly even remove them from the clearance table, perhaps to a special display table of their own.

And then I recovered my sanity and realized how self-serving--and possibly even desperate--this would sound and so thought of...

Option #3: Buy them all myself. I mean, you can't leave your kid in the gutter; you can't let your comics languish in the yard sale bin. And truth to tell, I only have a handful of copies left (and a few of those are promised as prizes to people who discovered my secret ID this past year. You know who you are, and you know I haven't forgotten. But if you'd care to nudge me by email, feel free to do so). There are three version of this book (not counting the Chinese edition that is reputed to feature a picture of my very own ass on the cover): a hardback volume with a nice dust jacket featuring an author's photo and bio; a trade paperback version; and a hardback volume with no dust jacket--the cover art is simply embossed on the cover, making it look like nothing so much as a school textbook).

If these copies had been the dust-jacket or paperback versions, I'd have bought them: the paperback is weirdly scarce and I have only one copy of it. As for the dust-jacket one, certain favorite aunts and relatives have asked for them, but I only ever got two (giving the first one to my parents and keeping the second one for me). But the ones on clearance were the textbook versions and I have plenty of those.

That aside, there was the checkout desk to consider. I don't know what Barnes and Noble is like in your neck of the woods, but whenever I buy something at mine, two out of every three cashiers I get feel compelled to examine and comment on each purchase, partly to compliment me on my good taste, but mostly to demonstrate to me that they are not just cashiers, but well-read cashiers. I couldn't bear the idea of plopping five identical books on the counter, then handing over my credit card and having the cashier notice (and he would notice) that the name on the card matched the name on the books. I didn't think his reaction would be "Wow! A real book author! And I get to ring up his purchases!" but would instead be more along the lines of a nonverbal expression of pity.

Meanwhile, there I stood in the middle of the bookstore, staring at my remaindered books, wondering what to do. I realized then that in all the conversations about the three R's I'd had with other writers, it never occurred to me to ask them what they did when they encountered copies of their books on the clearance table.

So instead, I'll put the question to you. Gentle Reader, of the above three options, which would YOU have chosen? And if you happen to think of a 4th option (as I ultimately did), what would it be?

Let me know in comments below. There might even be a prize for the most creative answer.

As for me, I'll tell you what I eventually did, tonight or tomorrow.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, May 26, 2006


In Which Alvin Gets the Boot...

The topic of neutering Alvin had come up more than once since the giant cat came to live with my aunt Barbara and uncle David, but David had resisted, mostly because he believed that neutering would compromise Alvin's effectiveness as a hunter and render him, in David's own words, "softer'n a sack of shit. Need a goddamn wheelbarrow to haul his ass around once he goes to seed."

On the other hand, having Alvin fixed would hopefully keep him closer to home, and would certainly free Barbara and David from the wrath of neighbors who had female cats. So it was decided.

As it happened, Barbara and David set Alvin's cut-off date during a weekend when my family just happened to be in town. In fact, we pulled into my aunt and uncle's driveway to say hello just as David was lumbering across the yard, walking with purpose toward the barn...

"There he is! Ol' fella, you can help me flush out the goddamn cat," he said, speaking to my father and ignoring my brother and me. David didn't have much use for kids--the last of his own had just finished high school that spring and promptly joined the Army, it being preferable to living at home, I guess.

My mom went into the house to visit with my aunt Barbara, leaving my brother and me to distract ourselves there in the yard between the house and the barn. We had brought some Hot Wheels cars along and ended up playing in the dirt with those, entering that Zen-like state kids enter when they play, the activity of nearby grown-ups receding to the very edge of awareness.

If we had paid more attention, we'd have noticed my aunt bustling about a small patio table outside near the kitchen door, occasionally interrupting her actions to gab with my mother. On the other side of the yard, we'd have heard some fine profanity coming from the barn, where my father was wedged in tight between two loose boards in the back wall of the barn, having narrowly missed snagging Alvin by his tail. Now my uncle was pulling him free, which required no small effort.

In fact, the only thing that roused me from my state was the fact that something really heavy pushed into my back, nearly knocking me into the dirt. I turned and there was Alvin, purring to beat hell. I stroked his big ol' gnarled head while my brother sprinted for the barn. Moments later, David and my dad emerged, walking as if they were on thin ice, slowly, with exaggerated steps, trying not to make any sudden moves.

"You just keep pettin' that goddamn cat," my uncle said evenly, one of the first times I remember him addressing me, although he wasn't looking at me. "Your father'n I are jus'gonna walk right by ya," he said, staring straight ahead. And for a step or two it did seem that my uncle and my dad were going to pass us by, but in a flash, they whirled at the same time, as if coordinated by telepathic signal, and pounced on either side of me.

David grabbed Alvin by the scruff of his thick neck--taking a good hunk of my shirt sleeve in too. My dad was one step after him, having collided with my brother, who was trailing them from the barn. Then Dad got behind me, intending to prevent Alvin's escape.

But Alvin didn't seem at all interested in escaping. He just kept purring and let David pick him up (tearing my shirt a little as he did, but never mind).

"That's a good ol' hoss," David grumbled in a voice that Alvin seemed to enjoy. He squirmed with pleasure as David wrestled him into a more or less cradled position in his arms. "Holy-o Jesus, he's a heavy wrigglin' bastard, this one. Keepin' holda him is like baling snot."

My dad was looking around. "You got a sack or a box or sumpin to take him in?" he asked.

Finally, David tucked Alvin securely under one of his arms like a great furry football, and looked blankly at my dad. "Take him where? The vet? You know what they charge to lop a cat's nuts off? Hell with that."

"Oh," my dad said, as if suddenly remembering something. "Cawse. You're gonna have Babra do it."

My brother, an anxious and somewhat squeamish fellow (as I think he will be the first to admit), suddenly screeched, "Aunt Barbara's gonna cut Alvin's balls off?!?"

David didn't answer him. It was a rhetorical question. As we would soon see for ourselves.

I followed the men over to the patio table by the kitchen, where aunt Barbara had been setting aside some essential tools, including what appeared to be an old straight-razor (at the time I thought it was a knife). And right then, everything in my world changed. Suddenly it was as though I was living in some bizarre mirror universe. Aunt Barbara, this funny, jovial, storytelling aunt had taken on a darker cast. Or so it seemed, watching her talk in her usual light and chipper voice so as not to alarm Alvin as the men drew closer. Alvin blinked at her and gave a deep but friendly "Reow" and continued purring as she got nearer to him and uncle David. When she was close enough, she suddenly brought her hand from behind her back.

At first, I thought aunt Barbara was holding a log in her hand, but as she moved with surprising speed, I realized it was large, old leather boot. As she swung it forward, she put her other hand behind the heel. As one, she and my uncle pushed--he shoved Alvin's head and front paws into the boot and she pushed the boot as far up over Alvin's head and paws as his bulk would allow. It was one of uncle David's old boots and so was quite big on its own. Alvin fit almost completely into it. All that was sticking out was a roll of kitty fat, a switching bottle-brush of a tale and his powerful back legs. Oh, and those giant set of balls.

Then David grabbed the bootstraps, spun it around and wedged the boot--with Alvin inside it--between his legs. Then he reached forward and grabbed Alvin's tail with one hand and his feet with the other. "Dumb bastard's still purring," he remarked.

What happened next was so fast I don't have clear memory of it. It seems as though Barbara suddenly produced a small bottle of antiseptic that she poured on Alvin's rear-end. She set the bottle on the table, grabbed the razor and, with a swift and practiced swipe, brought it across the top of Alvin's kitty scrotum.

The funny thing is, I don't remember seeing any blood. Aunt Barbara did have a rag or old towel on her shoulder and may have used it. That part's fuzzy. What's not fuzzy is that my overly anxious brother had put his head against the wall of the house and covered it with his arms, as if getting ready to start counting for a hide-n-seek game. Except instead of counting, he was saying, "Is it over? Is it over?" Over and over again. Meanwhile, my dad was standing right beside me and I heard him making strange swallowing noises and uttered the quietest "Yeowjeezuz" as he witnessed the proceedings. I was just frozen in a kind of awe. With my legs crossed.

Next thing I knew the razor was down and Barbara had the antiseptic bottle in hand again. She leaned toward Alvin, blocking my view. I don't know what she did, but Alvin sure didn't like it. He let out a single, aggrieved "RoWr!" from within the boot and began kicking his mighty legs.

"All right, that's done," she said. "Let him out so's he can breathe."

Instantly, David let the boot fall to the ground. Alvin spun twice in a circle, but he was so big he was stuck in the boot. David grasped the heel and with a quick but firm shake, Alvin was free. The cat stood there in the yard by the kitchen door, his fur ruffled, looking first to my uncle, then to my aunt, perhaps trying to work out what the fuck just happened. I thought all hell was going to break loose and that Alvin might go wild and attack somebody. Instead, he walked gingerly off to barn, occasionally throwing us a suspicious glance over his shoulder.

I had a good view of his rear-end then and something was definitely different. I assumed that aunt Barbara had literally cut off everything, but the ear muffs were still there, sort of deflated though, with just the faintest red line right above them.

Where did his balls go? I wondered at that moment, and a few times since. I didn't recall seeing any blood, anything ball-like, being removed or even disposed of. In my dim memory all I can see is my aunt with the straight razor and the small bottle. Maybe she put them in the rag and threw them out. I really don't remember.

I do remember my brother suddenly standing next to me, panting in relief. Nearby, David towered above us, still holding the boot. He had a sort of satisfied smile on his face, then looked at us and raised his eyebrows.

"All right, ol' fellas. Who's next?" he asked, waggling the boot.

We locked ourselves in the car and didn't come out for the remainder of the visit.

You'll be pleased to know that Alvin was none the worse for wear, and lived to the age of 23, not bad for a cat. He continued to be a fine hunter, although he did become something of a tubby cat after his, uh, procedure. When my aunt and uncle sold the farm some years later, the rat problem in the barn was no longer an issue, so Alvin came with them, moving into the house where my aunt would eventually inherit the town post office and install it in her living room. Alvin spent his golden years sitting on the desk in the post office, or lounging out on the porch, greeting customers as they came in. He was still alive and well by the time I was old enough to work for uncle David. At that time, I was a teenager and so knew everything. And one afternoon, while eating lunch on the post office porch and watching Alvin pad around the railing, looking for a place to settle himself, I took aunt Barbara to task for what I considered an act of animal cruelty.

She just smiled at my indignation. "You know, when we was on the farm as kids, we had to take care of the animals ourselves. Never called a vet; couldn't have afforded it. Your grandmother knew all about treating livestock, so she learned it me. I helped birth cows, slaughtered hogs, and neutered lots bigger animals than Alvin. Trick is to do it fast. Alvin weren't in that boot more than 20 seconds, you know. If I had a nickel for every ball I've cut off an animal I wouldn't need to be postmaster, now I'll tell ya."

She looked over at Alvin, the big old cat, now a lumpy fur carpet spreading across the deck.

"And he don't seem to be too scarred by the event. Are you Alvin?"

At the sound of his name, Alvin started purring and that seemed to be the last word on the matter.

But I'll be thinking about him in a few weeks, when I'm sitting in the waiting room at the urologist's. The doctor's supposed to be pretty good, and he specializes in the no-scalpel vasectomy, a supposedly less invasive and traumatic procedure that involves using the medical equivalent of a paper hole punch. In NSV, the doctor punches a hole in the skin, then fishes out the vas deferens, snips em, cauterizes em, pops em back in and seals the hole. Takes a bit longer than 20 seconds, but still it's supposed to be pretty fast.

Pretty pedestrian, huh? I honestly don't think I'll be blogging about it.

Not unless I go into the operating room and find the doctor coming at me with a huge-ass boot.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, May 25, 2006


In Which I Set the Cut-Off Date...

Well, I'm sure you'll all be happy to know I'm in much higher spirits than I was a couple of days ago on my birthday. Yesterday was my parents' 42nd wedding anniversary and I called to congratulate them on going one more year without either of them ending up in court for a divorce hearing—or as a defendant in a homicide case. I've always been slightly amused by the fact that I was almost born on my parents' anniversary. As the Brownie has delighted in telling neighbors that Her Lovely Self and I got married just a week before the day she was born, so I used to enjoy telling people that my parents got married the day after I was born (The idea of it still amuses me, I must admit. Sometimes, I'm easily pleased).

I was on the phone for some time yesterday, talking not just to my parents, but also to my doctor.

Not because I was injured (because I know that's your first thought).

Not because I was sick (because that's your second thought).

No, I just needed a referral.

To a urologist.

For a vasectomy.

A call I really did not want to make on my birthday.

I know, that was a jarring change of subject, but there it is: After more than a few heartfelt conversations about this, Her Lovely Self and I decided we shouldn't push our luck but instead should be glad for the two kiddos we have and, er, cut and run.

Really, I wonder why we--by "we" I mean "guys"--make such a big deal of this. I mean--and no offense to male writers who have done this, because I'll probably end up doing it myself--if you were to Google "my vasectomy" or similar, you'd probably find a ton of magazine articles and blog entries in which guys will write with painstaking detail about some doctor opening their scrotum up and severing their vas deferens, thus blocking sperm from traveling from the testicles and effectively rendering a guy sterile.

What drives us to talk about it? Is it because it's the perennial male sensitive spot and we've just defied all logic by voluntarily permitting--nay, paying--someone to go at it with a scalpel, and some compulsion drives us to share this seemingly paradoxical behavior with others? Is it just that we think it's a good story with an easy wince-factor going for it, and so we tell it to get a cheap gut response? Or are we secretly feeling martyred and want to make sure as many people as possible know that we've saved our partner from undergoing general anesthesia and suffering pretty invasive surgery? I don't have an answer, because I haven't undergone the experience yet. I DO know that, as a listener to and reader of such tales, I've not always been the best audience, if the teller of the tale was looking for a queasy expression and an involuntary crossing of the legs.

I remember being a young fellow at my summer bank job, many moons ago, listening to a loan officer talk about his experience. He just picked a urologist out of the phone book, didn't get a referral, didn't ask the guy how many of these he'd done, nothing. Turned out the doctor had done, oh, about five vasectomies in his career. And he wanted a LOT of room to work with, because he left a two-inch scar in the guy's scrotum and snipped out almost all of the vas deferens. But the best part was that the doctor apparently cauterized the ends of the vas with some kind of super-hot implement that looked halfway between a cattle brand and a glue gun.

"I didn't feel anything, of course," the guy said, "but I watched the whole thing. I'm telling you," he added, in one of the few sentences I remember from the story, "there is something VERY weird about watching smoke come out from between your legs and smelling the smell of your own balls burning."

While I remembered that somewhat hyperbolic statement and I remember the various outcries from other guys listening, as I hinted earlier, I didn't really respond in a way the loan officer would have considered satisfying. Not because I'm a particularly tough or unflappable guy, but because that narrative was not my first exposure to the odd world of vasectomy stories. Indeed, when I was just a wee lad of 7 or 8, I actually witnessed the procedure. It was quite a moment to see up close you know? Sort of eclipses the stories of others. Which is why whenever guys have an urge to tell me their vasectomy tales, I always listen politely to their story and then feel the strong desire to follow up with the story of what happened to Alvin.

Alvin worked for my uncle David and my aunt Barbara back when they owned a small farm outside of town. I guess you could call him a farmhand. That's if he had hands. Alvin was a cat.

Like my Dad, my aunt Barbara--his older sister--was raised with the idea that you kept animals on a farm only if they served a purpose. So when Barbara went to the barn one morning and discovered what she claimed were "rats as big as rum barrels" she and uncle David didn't waste any money buying nonsense such as poison or traps. Instead, David asked around for a cat, a big ol' tom if he could get one. At that time, most anyone who had a barn had an extra cat or two to keep the varmint population down, so it was easy enough to get one for free. Free was a price to David's liking. What was more, he reasoned the cat would be busy catching its own dinner, thus sparing my uncle the expense of cat chow.

I don't know precisely where Alvin came from, I do know his owners were more than willing to get rid of him, not because he was a bad cat. Just the opposite, to tell you the truth. Alvin was very good at his job. Too good, in fact. He had so thoroughly decimated the varmint population on the farm where he lived that Alvin started hunting his owner's chickens. Or to be completely accurate, I should say he was an alleged chicken killer. His owners came to this conclusion themselves only after their chickens--and their chicks, and their eggs and, finally the rooster too--had all vanished, leaving behind only a few bloody feathers. Then one morning they caught Alvin attempting to kill a piglet twice his size (he likely would have succeeded, too, had his owners not intervened) in order to satisfy his enormous appetite.

I know "enormous" is a word I tend to overuse, but it's the best adjective to describe Alvin. He was without a doubt the largest domesticated cat I've ever seen. He was a tabby cat--the black-and-gray stripes were the giveaway--and I know tabbies can grow to impressive size. But Alvin wasn't just large, he was larger than life. Everything about him said BIG, from his stupendous tom-cat testicles--so large you might at first glance assume someone had hung a pair of gray furry earmuffs off the end of his ass--to the deafening purring noise he could generate if he decided he liked you. And for some reason, he liked me. Whenever we visited the farm, Alvin always swaggered over with impressive leonine grace and rubbed against me--an act I had to brace myself for because the first time he did it when I was 5 or 6, he actually knocked me down (I guess I'm lucky he didn't try to eat me).

Since they didn't keep livestock, Barbara and David weren't worried about Alvin killing chickens. The rats were a much bigger concern, and I mean that in every way possible. As Alvin was to ordinary cats, so these rats were to typical rodents. These were rats with tails as long as my arm, New York sewer rats on summer holiday, it seemed. The barn was positively infested with them, had been for years, ever since the town landfill opened on the other side of the ridge from where Barbara and David lived. On a hot day with the wind blowing the wrong way, you could smell the garbage, which explains why my aunt and uncle got such a good price on the farm. They bought it mostly as an investment, knowing that they could stand the stench--it was only garbage--until the landfill was sealed in another 5 years, at which time the stigma of being located near the dump would pretty much be a non-issue and they could sell the farm for twice or three times what they paid (which is exactly what happened).

Meanwhile, they had a more or less unending stream of rats coming over the ridge from the dump and taking up residence in the cozy confines of the barn. When David heard the story of Alvin's exploits with the livestock, he knew he'd found the right cat for the job. The first night that he locked Alvin in the barn must have been like putting a piranha in a bowl of goldfish. In Alvin's first summer on the job, David didn't keep track of how many rat parts he found around the barn, but it was a lot.

Alvin earned his keep, but he was a handful too. Because of his reputation as a hunter, he was implicated in several cases of vanished chickens and at least one dog. Elmer Butcher, a crotchety old bastard from down the street, insisted Alvin had made off with Clowny, his pet Chihuahua, although he was never able to prove it (for the record, my aunt believes the dog simply ran off and got hurt or run over. My uncle, however, believed that Elmer was probably right. He just never bothered to tell him so.).

And two or three times a year, Alvin would pull a disappearing act himself. More often than not, he returned to his old barn, which was more than 20 miles away, a good distance for such a large cat. But a few times in Alvin's first year or two on the farm, my uncle had to retrieve him from the barn or garage or woodshed of someone else in town. It was no mystery why Alvin disappeared. Every single time my uncle had to fetch him, Alvin had been following his nose--or some other appendage--to a cat in heat.

Like the great pharaohs of old, Alvin was father to hundreds of offspring. You didn't need DNA testing to figure out if Alvin was the dad of any particular litter--if they grew big with gray stripes and showed a serious aptitude for hunting, they were probably his. To this day, you can still find oversized gray tabby cats roaming around the town. Residents call them "Alvins" in honor of the great beast himself, although they can't all be descended from him (My parents, however, did have a genuine Alvin cat for many years--a long, lean tabby named Seemore, who was one of Alvin's countless great-great-great-grandsons. Giant cat, head the size of a soccer ball. He was not interested in mice, but was a great slayer of snakes).

Thirty years ago, Alvin wasn't so well thought of in town, I'll tell you that. More than one neighbor had taken a pot-shot at Alvin, not because he was mistaken for, say, a raccoon, but because he had knocked up all their female cats. David was getting tired of the complaints and of having to collect his hired killer from some hayloft or beam while under the baleful glare of an irate farmer.

And so it was that after one particularly annoying morning (during which he had to coax Alvin down from a fairly high rafter in Winnie Colcord's barn), my uncle stomped into the house he shared with my aunt, swearing under his breath and covered in cat hair.

"Time to cut his nuts off," David announced with his usual lack of preamble...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


In Which I Take In the View from the Top of the Hill...

So I checked the numbers and, near as I can figure it, the life expectancy for a man born in the late 1960s averages out at around 76.

Which means that today I have officially hit Middle Age.

And apparently some part of my subconscious is not about to wait til 40, not about to be cheated out of one minute of his midlife crisis. And so I woke up in just the most spiteful, foul, fatigued, depressed mood. I'm certainly not as chirpy about my birthday as I was last year--and I even had strep throat the day I turned 37.

I'm no bottle rocket early in the morning on any day, let alone my birthday, but I tried to summon appropriate murmurs of pleasure and satisfaction when I came down this morning and saw that the Brownie had made me not one but THREE birthday cards, including one that contained a drawing of a fox, above the words "Daddy the Fox!" Now, if Her Lovely Self had given me such a card, my mood might have brightened considerably, but the Brownie meant it in a totally innocent way--foxes are her all-time favorite animal and I am her favorite Daddy so she wanted to show me in her own way that I ranked pretty high in her personal pantheon of living creatures. You could do worse (Thomas, for example, loves Komodo dragons, and they have simply awful table manners).

Meanwhile, my son, whose artwork output this year slowed as he became more involved in school and Little League and taking photos with a digital camera, did not make me a card. Instead, he found a gift basket up in the attic and filled it with all the snacks and drinks I love. He thought I could take this basket to work so I can have snacks there, not quite thinking it through, apparently. Because these were, of course, from our own pantry, filled just yesterday when Her Lovely Self went shopping. If I take all this edible swag to work, there will be no drinks or snacks for the rest of the family.

Nevertheless, I hauled that goddamn basket all the way into the city and here it sits in my office. Let the kids eat Saltines for dessert. Let HLS go shopping again and make Thomas pay for it.

See what I mean about being in a spiteful mood?

I'd love to put my finger on what's bugging me. Mostly, I think, it's just the time of year. April and May are filled with birthdays and visiting relatives and sporting schedules and what not. There isn't a day--even on weekends--when we get to hang out at home for an afternoon, or even an hour. My annual budget for down-time shrinks by the year and it bugs the hell out of me. But that's happened every year and I don't remember it bothering me this much before.

So I'll blame work. In point of fact, I blame work for missing some of the above. Every magazine goes through a period of dramatic changes, where key people either join or leave, new orders are handed down (often in complete contradiction of the old orders), and someone in my position finds himself overloaded with work and missing dinner and staying long hours and bringing home work. This has caused me to come late to some of Thomas' games and miss entirely some of his practices, which he doesn't notice or mind, but I do.

Worst of all, though, was yesterday, when the Brownie had her little graduation ceremony from pre-school, which included a snappy little song-and-dance routine put on by the class, about all the animals on Noah's Ark (one guess which animal the Brownie was?), and the presentation of certificates and a big lunch afterwards. And I missed all of it because I was sitting in a morning-long meeting to discuss how other people could leverage my experience and knowledge--and therefore earn bonuses and raises for themselves--by finding ways to help me fit in more TV appearances and Webcasts in addition to my increased workload of editing and writing.

Speaking of experience and knowledge, I guess I should be grateful that I got a good helping of that this past year. On my birthday, I always try to look back and see what I've gleaned from the previous 365 days, see if I've reached any goals I've set for myself, and perhaps discover that I've accomplished some very important things without realizing it. Or not.

For example:

I've learned that I have a surprising capacity for vanity.

Ordinarily, I don't care much how I look. I don't break cameras, but I ain't no supermodel neither. After watching my dad go bald by 32 and watching Big Brother develop a positively monklike bald spot beginning at age 19, I had long ago consigned myself to male-pattern baldness. I keep waiting for the clumps of hair to show up on the comb, in the sink, but they never have. Now I'm told that if I haven't gone bald by now I probably never will. Which is almost (but not quite) a disappointment. I mean, at least I was ready for it.

What I was not prepared for was the loss of my bumblebee-like metabolism and the gain of 20 pounds this year. Did I say this year? I meant this spring.

When I got out of the hospital, I weighed 155 pounds, a weight that I'd maintained since the end of college, and one that, on a frame just an inch shy of 6 feet, looks fine, even underfed. Oh, I'd typically gain a little winter weight--in the past I'd tip scales at 160, 165, but that was usually in February and while I was wearing heavy boots, so it may not have counted. In any case, by the time summer hit, I was always back to 155 and pleased to be there.

But here it is, nearly the end of May, and I'm 175 pounds. That's with no snow boots on and after getting a haircut. And all of it gained in about two months. It's enough to make you wish for a tapeworm.

I don't even know what I ate. I know I had a fearsome appetite when I got out of the hospital, and I know that they gave me plenty of steroids to combat inflammation in my lungs, but you can't blame this on medical problems. The bottom line is I'm socking away more calories than I'm burning off. I am on my way to becoming a fat tub of goo.

I mean, look at me!


I look like I just came from shoplifting at the Food King and I still have a roast tucked under my sweater. Only the punchline is: I'm the fucking roast. Now, in the past, after a big feed like Thanksgiving, I have been known to arch my back and push out my stomach and try to create a food baby. There's no need to try now. It's my natural state.

And my God, the only thing more astonishing than this accumulated bulk is the realization that I am shamed by it. I officially no longer tuck in t-shirts. And even untucked shirts don't help. That shirt in the picture above? Gone, baby, put in the Goodwill pile for someone less corn-fed.

Oh Jesus, I take it back: Don't look at me. Remember me as I was, during the Boobiethon, for example.

I've learned that I like baseball again.

I thought I could retire from baseball after the Sox won the Series. They had disappointed me so many times growing up that I hated watching all baseball, even hated the Red Sox for making me give a shit again when they came back in 2004 to eat the Yankees' lunch. I almost hated them even more than that when they swept the Series. I had become so conditioned to expect a struggle, a key blunder, a last-minute loss, that when it didn't happen, when they won almost effortlessly, in such a nigh-Yankees-like fashion, I couldn't handle it.

It also didn't help that I was in a cabin in the middle of the woods in northern Michigan on the night of the final game. There was no TV in the cabin, the nearest bar was a 5-mile hike, and I had no car. I finally found an old clock radio in a closet and tried to pick up a sports station. In the end, I was able to grab an intermittent signal from an AM station in Nebraska, but only by leaning out an upstairs bathroom window while holding the radio under my right arm and sticking a coat hanger out as far as I could with my left arm. Also I had to shut down the heat in the cabin (it was electric heat and when the baseboards turned on, they generated a buzzing noise than the radio picked up, drowning out the signal). All so I could listen to the win. I damned the Sox even as I cheered, then went to bed and woke up the next morning free of any interest in baseball. That was almost 2 years ago.

Then this year, two things happened; I'll tell you the second one first: My son started honest-to-God Little League and when he did, we started a nightly routine of playing catch and having batting practice. I would have been fine if it had ended there, but it didn't. Then Thomas started watching ESPN for the highlights of the day's games. Next, on one ill-advised trip to Target, my son saw that stores sell these peculiar addictive products known as baseball cards. Rationalizing that, hey, at least it wasn't Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh cards, I let him get them. Now the house is awash in discarded foil packets and duplicate cards of the strangely ubiquitous Devil Rays outfielder Aubrey Huff.

Worse still, the laundry hamper is overflowing with distinctive gray and pinstriped uniforms. See, Thomas found that he was randomly named to the roster of one of several teams in the league, all of which happen to be named after actual MLB teams: the Cardinals, the Reds, etc.

Thomas was--I almost can't say it--signed to the Yankees.

It's God's judgment on me. I never thought I'd find myself rooting for a Yankees team, let alone stand beside my flesh-and-blood while he's wearing their logo.


But seeing this image reminds me of the other thing that happened, which was the death of my grandfather, who was a helluva pitcher in high school in his own day (and who won a baseball scholarship to Colgate, he was that good), and who doggedly refused to depart this earth until he saw his beloved Sox take the Series. And even after that, he decided to hang around for a bit longer, just in case they were going to win again.

After the funeral, when we were cleaning out his tiny apartment, my mother and my aunt Cathy found a few things in the closet that they wanted me to have: one was my grandfather's favorite tie, the one he wore to my wedding, the one he used to fasten with a stickpin. Another was one of his patches from his days in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II.

The last two items were rescued from the trash and from being turned into a dustrag, respectively. The former item was the stained Sox cap. The latter was the well-worn Sox baseball t-shirt. My grandfather wore both during the two times he went to Fenway in the past 10 years, and always whenever he watched them on TV. I haven't had Red Sox apparel of any kind since I was 10 or 12, but I wanted these badly.

Thomas wants to make our own baseball cards so he had me pose in a variety of shots. This is the only halfway acceptable one.

Look at me, channeling my grandfatha, facrissakes!


(Yeah, the gut is somewhat concealed, but Jesus, I could host the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Hour with that double chin).

My grandfather's posthumous gifts made me realize that the best presents are ones that come unexpectedly, on days besides your birthday. I was SO pleased to have a good old, worn, broken-in shirt and cap, I can't even tell you. Yes I can. Let me put it this way: I haven't worn a ball cap of any kind since I was 12. Why? Because most of them don't fit me (All one-size-fits-all caps should be labeled "One Size Fits All--Except for Freakish BIG HEADS Like MM") and when I find a cap that does fit me, it just doesn't look right. It looks like I'm trying to hide a giant surgical-saw scar, or the results of a hair-coloring experiment gone horribly awry. They just aren't for me. But I'll wear this cap whenever Thomas wears his (which is turning out to be rather a lot), which not only would have made my grandfather very happy, it pleases me strangely too (except for the part about my son wearing a Yankees cap. Have I mentioned that yet?).


I've learned the secret of wisdom (or a secret, at least. For me, anyway. Maybe not for you...)

I'll explain this one by revealing a little secret first: I've had a surprisingly compelling temptation dangled in front of me, and it couldn't have come at a worse time.

Back when I was writing for men's magazines, I found myself doing a piece on male midlife. I thought I did a pretty good job on it, but now that I look at the story, I see it for what it was: the disgustingly clever writing of a twentysomething kid who had no children of his own, no mortgage and pretty much no major responsibilities in the world, except to pay the rent.

In particular, I remember writing a bit about why men do crazy things at midlife, such as buying a new car or new hair, or having an affair with some cute young thing in his office. And I wrote: "If it comes down to buying a sports car or renting a suite at the Hilton for a nooner with your secretary, for the love of God, buy the car. In the long run, it'll be a bargain compared to the emotional and financial costs of a fling. Trust us on this."

No, this is not the build-up to some big confession (I had sex with my car! I bought a new secretary!). I'm just saying that it's beginning to dawn on me how much of an apples-and-oranges thing the above comparison was. In its startling naivete, it misses an important point entirely, and it's this: What I REALLY should have written about was how to deal with choices and temptations that, in the comparatively consequence-free environment of my 20s, would have been easy to make and indulge in. But when you're older, the choices you've already made surround you like carefully laid dominos and there's only so much floor space left to lay down new ones. Even when you do find floor space, you have to be awfully careful about where you put new dominos--lest you screw up the pattern you've worked so carefully to make--or worse, accidentally set off the chain reaction that knocks the whole fucking thing over.

The latest domino dangled in front of me was the chance to leave what I'm doing and take a job with another magazine. The money would be about the same, but instead of being a deputy editor at a Really Big Magazine, I'd be THE editor of a Really Small But Very Well Thought-Of Magazine.

In my 20s, this would have been a no-brainer. I'd already be picking up the U-Haul this afternoon and be on my merry way by supper. Like the RBM, the RSBVWTOM is one I've read and admired all my life. It's one of the reasons I got into magazines and there was a time when it WAS my reason for being in magazines, so I could get a job at this place. But now...

Now I just don't know, and indecision bugs the shit out of me, especially if it's me being indecisive. Because I have a really good gut, you know? In 15 years in this field, I've always figured out what my gut says about any new decision--some way thornier than this one--and it has never steered me wrong.

Now, though, it's like my gut has said, "You're on your own, buddy. See you. I'm taking off early for the long weekend."

Part of me wants to take the job, knowing it would be an impulsive decision, but trusting that I would figure everything out as I went along. But the other part of me, Mr. Older and (God, we hope) Wiser, sees a lot of pitfalls to jumping from one ship to take over another one.

On the professional side, I'd be charged with reviving a magazine that has been slowly dying for the last several years and I have a sneaking feeling that the only way to turn that around would be to make some drastic changes to the book that the owners would never entertain (which explains the slow death part). I already have a job where I have a maximum amount of responsibility with a minimum amount of authority; I don't need more of the same, in a higher-profile position, only to be made a scapegoat and tossed out on my ass (which they more or less did to the last editor). I suspect that their numbers are even worse than they've been reporting and I suspect the job would require way more time and energy than I have to give it.

Especially when you factor in the personal side, which is that I want to see my family more, not less. If I took this job, I'd be a little closer geographically to both sides of the family, but it would be hard on my immediate family and might even distance me from them in all the ways that count. Her Lovely Self would have a tough time moving. The kids would adjust, but they'd be going to public schools that are 10 times worse than what they're attending now. In my 20s, these weren't factors at all. The only factor would have been the desire to fulfill a long-held dream. The temptation, despite all the obvious dangers and pitfalls, would be too great to resist. Now at 38--excuse me, Middle Age--the temptation is placed before me and I have to decide if the dream is still valid, or outdated.

Or perhaps simply outgrown. After all, when I was younger, it was also my long-held dream to get the complete set of Wacky Packs sticker cards and I never fulfilled that one. Then last year, I saw the complete set on sale on eBay at a price I could easily afford, but what the hell was I going to do with them, when I already had a basement full of crap? That was a temptation easily resisted (although I DID think about it for a little while). What about this one?

I thought wisdom was all about experience and knowledge and finally coming into one's powers and being the kind of man one always thought one would be. But really, sometimes wisdom is just about knowing when to give in to--and when to resist--temptation. And right now, I don't know which way is the right way to go. My gut feeling is absent. Maybe that's what's really bothering me today.

Wow, am I a ray of sunshine today or what? Well, don't sweat it. I'll be fine tomorrow. Why? Because tomorrow things will get rolling again. Today I'm at the top of the hill. Tomorrow I start the long roll downward. And you know what they say: once you're over the hill, you begin to pick up speed.

So here's to enjoying the ride (raises semi-full glass of beer). I thank you one and all for sharing another year with me (and I especially thank those of you who actually remembered it was my birthday and took the time to send me a kind email or an electronic birthday card. You know who you are and you know I won't forget it). Here's hoping the next year won't be more of today. I can be a cranky old bastard for only so long.

Now if you'll excuse me, Thomas wants to get in some batting practice with his Old Man.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Sunday, May 21, 2006


In Which We Draw Your Attention...

Two things happened this weekend:

1. I got my 100,000th visitor. That is, I noticed that I got my 100,000th visitor. It actually happened sometime Friday but, as with the odometer on every car my family or I have ever owned, I wasn't around--or more likely didn't even realize it--when the numbers flicked over to all those zeroes. There's something kind of anticlimactic about seeing a digital readout of 100,009, you know?

Still, I went back to Sitemeter because I thought in the back of mind I might try to do something cool or special for the 100,000th customer--maybe reveal my secret ID to them, or send them a wad of cash or something. But according to Sitemeter, magic #100,000--from Southfield, Michigan, incidentally--had a visit length of exactly ZERO seconds before they clicked on to something more interesting. Sigh. So much for that.

But then something much cooler happened to take my mind off it...

2. Art Lad has returned. Out of nowhere yesterday, Thomas just up and decided to do an entry--and my, did he want to cram it all in to one post.

So, fresh Art Lad, for them that's interested. Enjoy. I did.

Much more than watching the numbers on an odometer turn over, that's for sure.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, May 19, 2006


In Which We Talk of Parodies, Parents, and Posture Problems...

When does one become a parody of oneself?

I mean, let's say, you end a recent blog entry in a cliffhanger about entering a neighbor's house on the most tenuous suspicion that a pervert has broken in. You have no police back-up. You are, in fact, technically the criminal in this case, since you are entering the house without permission. What's more, you are famously unprepared for whatever you might encounter. Instead of carrying, say, an assault weapon or a black belt in martial arts, you are wielding a flashlight and your dog who, though loyal and fiercely protective of your children, has never really proved himself useful to you in a dangerous situation against a criminal. He's barked and growled at many deliverymen and one ass-hat driver who mouthed off to you. He chased your neighbor around your garage one night. Yes, he did tackle a man who appeared in your back yard and ran aggressively at your daughter, but that man was YOU. He's faced down a mean but stupid dog about a half-dozen times. He terrorized a possum and bit the head off a bird, both animals roughly 7 to 10 times smaller than he. To your knowledge, he has no formal training as an attack dog. If a desperate or crazed criminal attacked you, you honestly have no idea what his response would be. Would he tear the guy's throat out--or just stand their barking while you're slowly murdered?

Your readers have come to expect these kinds of ill-thought-out misadventures. Indeed, odds are they've anticipated several possible outcomes already. In one outcome, you end up being attacked by the neighbors' dog, previously thought missing, but now in the house and attacking you. Your dog gets involved and in short order you find yourself lying on the floor, bound in a web of leashes.

In another outcome, you scare the shit out of the neighbors' oldest child, Gary, who comes home unexpectedly and proceeds to beat you senseless with his rollerblades.

In a third outcome, you scare the shit out of one of your neighbors, who returns home early. If it's the mom, she maces you. If it's the dad, he shoots you with his shotgun.

All of these scenarios end with you being arrested by the police and charged with unlawful entry. Irony ensues.

Some readers have perhaps even come to expect the unlikely but validating plot twist, in which you actually encounter an intruder who, just as your instincts predicted, had snuck into the house, intent of visiting some form of harm on the 7- and 10-year-old daughters of your neighbors. A heroic tussle ensues and the man either escapes or you lay him out with the flashlight, which will lead to much preening and crowing by your brother, who gave you the thing in the first place. In another permutation of the scenario, you are caught at a disadvantage by the pervert and your faithful dog proves his worth beyond all doubt, savaging the attacker, and subduing him by getting a good purchase on a sensitive appendage while you call the police.

If indeed you each predicted every one of these possibilities, then I think it's fair to say I have become a parody of myself and it's time to consider blogging something new: endless posts about my love of anime, or how much Korn rocks; or perhaps I'll give you vividly detailed accounts of every medical procedure I and members of my family have ever received.

Of course, there's always the chance that nothing happened at all, which would just be so unlike me. Perhaps enough unlike me that none of you predicted that outcome.

And if indeed that is the case, then you'll be shocked and thrilled--okay, maybe just shocked--to learn that

(wait for it)

NOTHING happened. Nada. Zipperoo.

Blaze dragged me into the kitchen, growling and chuffing, but once he sniffed around and found some old bits of potato chip on the floor (which he happily inhaled) he calmed down considerably and looked at me as if to say, So, WHAT are we doing here?

As it turned out, we did nothing. I opened both the front and the back doors, but locked the screen doors (the better to hear someone leaving in a hurry). Then we checked out the house from the scary basement to the bedrooms on the second floor, pausing to look in each and every closet, doing so each time with flashlight/cudgel raised high so I couldn't be surprised in typical horror-movie style.

During this tip-toeing tour of my neighbors' house, I saw nothing out of place--not a single muddy footprint nor a jimmied window nor a ruffled bedspread indicating someone was hiding underneath (I had Blaze look under each bed). I did crazy Ivan style turns (actually, more like 180-degree jumps) at unpredictable intervals, just in case someone was padding up behind me with an unlikely but silent murder weapon--a yo-yo as a garrote, perhaps, or a twirling baton as a shiny bludgeon.

In the end, though, nothing out of the ordinary happened. The dog didn't even so much as spray a drop of urine in an inappropriate place. We found ourselves standing in the open garage, having come up absolutely empty-handed, which was both a relief and a cause of worry. I went about closing up all the doors again and leaving as I came, through the unlocked back door.

Once again, the dog and I returned to our vigil on my front step, waiting for my neighbors to return. I grabbed the cordless phone and left them a message, telling them where the girls were, just in case they picked up home voicemail from wherever they were. Then, for lack of anything better to do, I called my mom, expecting to hear a sympathetic voice when I told her what I'd just done. Instead, she freaked out.

"Are you shitting me?" she shrieked in a tone so shrill that Blaze could hear her, even though the receiver was several feet from him. "How could you do that? That's breaking the law!"

"Oh my God!" I cried. "Look who's talking! This is the woman who put a brick through Mrs. Cooper's back door window because she thought the woman had had a stroke!"

"Excuse me, Mistah Man, but she DID have a fall on the stairs and break her ankle, if you recall. If I hadn't broken in, she'd have died on the stairs. And that yappy little dog of hers would have partially devoured her by the time the police found her."

Oh yeah, forgot about that.

"The difference is, I called and Lillian several times and knocked on her door and thought I heard her groaning. Also, I was RIGHT. On the other hand, YOU went into a situation that was dangerous for you without knowing if you were right or not. You should have waited until they came home, like the policeman told you."

In the distance, on my mom's end, I could hear a gruff voice. "No!" my mom said, speaking offline. "I think that's a ridiculous example! That was a one-time case! You'll just encourage--"

There was a muffled pause. Then Mom returned.

"Your father wants to talk to you," she said coldly, then handed the phone off.

"So, playin' vigilante are we?" Dad asked, cackling with glee. "You find some pervert hiding in the neighbors' closet?"

I told Dad what I'd done.

"Hell, ain't so bad," he said. "You had the dog with you. And I gotta tell you, that is one goddamn good dog. I think he'd have torn a new asshole on anyone that got near you."

"Yeah, well, I still have the tell the neighbors I essentially trespassed in their house."

"Sez who? Just tell em what you thought when you heard their dog was let out. Goddamn fishy, you ask me. On the farm, if someone wanted to rob your livestock, they always killed the dog or fed him sumpin to make him sick. No gutless crook wants to mess with a dog. I'd say yer instincts was right on the beam."

"Thanks," I said, pleased. "So what was the one-time case Mom didn't want you to tell me?"

"Oh. It weren't a one-time case. You know, back when I was a kid, we had a useless sheriff in our township. And weren't but two or three state troopers for the whole of New Hampshire. Weren't no law, is what I'm saying. If something needed taking care of, you and your family or your neighbors took care of it. I ever tell you the story about Hap Whitney?"

I searched my memory, but the name never rang a bell.

"Not surprised. Kind of a scary story when you think on it some." And then he told me:

Long before I was born, when my dad was a teenager, his sister Barbara, then about 16, was out in the front garden of the old family farm, bent over and weeding. The men--my dad, my grandfather, and Barbara's boyfriend--my future uncle David--were in one of the remote pastures, gathering hay. My grandmother and the other two siblings--my uncle Dennis and my aunt Brenda--had just driven to the store.

Presently, a seedy character ambled out of the woods from across the street. We'll call him Hap, because that was his nickname. Hap Whitney lived in the woods in an old makeshift cabin. It was fairly common, actually: ever since the Depression, a lot of men and women--sometimes even whole families--lived rough up in the woods, spending what must have been some harsh winters in slapdash shelters made of little more than canvas tarps and rotted logs. Many of them were decent folks and harmless eccentrics.

Hap was not. He muttered to himself in just that way that crazy people do, and he was also known for his unexpected bursts of temper. Today, he'd probably be on some beneficial cocktail of meds and be a fine contributing member of society. But back then he was just known about town as being not wrapped too tight. People said he was harmless, but most didn't quite believe it. Kids were told to stay out of the woods opposite McDaniel's Marsh, where Hap had his cabin. Once or twice in the two or so years since he drifted into the area there had been some complaints--a girl walking home from school had seen him following her through the woods just off the road, making doglike woofing noises. A group of boys who'd been swimming in the marsh told their parents that Hap sat out on a rock and watched them wordlessly while they swam, then made whistles and cat-calls at the boys when they climbed out of the marsh and got dressed (they had been naked, of course). But the sheriff dismissed these concerns. Hap hadn't actually harmed or even touched anyone. The feeling was, so long as he kept himself to himself, people had nothing to worry about.

My grandfather, who was a gentle man and who believed wholeheartedly in the live-and-let-live philosophy of life, had been one of the few people to agree with the sheriff. "As long as he don't give us cause, I don't see why he can't live his own life, and we live ours," he had said. But he always added, "Just the same, steers clear of him, kids. Don't be giving him cause."

So it was too bad for Hap that he came wandering across my aunt, who cut quite a curvy figure at 16, especially bent over and weeding like she was. Hap didn't make any dog noises or cat-calls this time. Instead, without prelude or ceremony, Hap walked right up to my 16-year-old aunt and grabbed her ass. With a squawk, Barbara whirled and, seeing that it was not her boyfriend or even one of her brothers messing around, she lashed out with a punch, catching Hap--hard--on the side of his head.

Hap staggered back, stunned. Then his face became a sneer of animal rage and he reached into his pocket.

Although she saw nothing, Barbara had reason to believe that Hap had either a knife or a gun on him and was certain of her mortal peril just then, when my grandmother drove up over the rise and pulled into the yard. No one messed with my grandmother, so Hap--hand still in his pocket--walked rapidly back into the woods. Barbara was shaken and she started crying.

When the men returned from the field, David was so incensed, it took both my grandfather and my Dad to restrain him from charging into the woods and running a pitchfork through Hap. "Your uncle David was some strong at the age of 18," Dad recalled. "I doubt anyone but your grandfather was strong enough to hold him back."

But my grandfather managed to keep David in an armlock until he calmed down and agreed to come in for supper instead of killing Hap. It was a silent meal, and my grandfather presided over it in total silence, handing bowls of food around the table. David stared straight at his plate, stabbing his food with a fork, perhaps imagining it was a tiny pitchfork and each Brussel sprout he popped into his mouth was Hap's head.

Finally, as Barbara and my grandmother cleared the table and set out plates for pie, my grandfather calmly, almost absently, remarked to my uncle. "Well sir, poor ol' Hap. Reckon it's time he moved on."

My uncle looked up sharply, then nodded very slowly, in his usual laconic way. "Ayuh," my uncle replied. Not another word was said about it, but my dad knew his family was going to take care of it.

The next week, Hap, after a day of aimless ambling and muttering, returned to the clearing in the woods on the other side of the marsh, where his makeshift cabin was.

Only the cabin was gone.

I don't mean it was destroyed or that it had been dismantled. It was just gone.

Not so much as a stray nail or beam lay in the clearing. Only a bare spot of dirt gave testament to the fact that any structure had occupied the spot.

Hap looked around once or twice, as though perhaps he had entered the wrong clearing. Then he stopped and looked as, from behind a large old oak, my grandfather emerged, smiling his usual, easygoing smile. He held a burlap sack in one hand and he loped with easy grace across the clearing.

Hap knew this was Barbara's father and he took a couple of steps back, his hand already in his pocket.

"Oh Hap, ol' fella," my grandfather said easily, almost sadly. "Be bettah for you if that ain't a knife nor nothin'. Be bad for your posture if t'were."

Hap stopped. "What? Why?" he muttered hoarsely.

My grandfather blew a breath of air through pursed lips. "Well, sir, because I'd have to break every bone in your body," he said, his voice still light and sincere, as if discussing the weather.

(My dad, all of 13, heard every word of this exchange from where he was hiding behind a rock. "I was never so scared of your grandfather in my life right then. He NEVER threatened anybody that I knew of," he told me.)

Hap slowly took his empty hand out of his pocket. And just then, a big, ham-like hand clapped him on the shoulder from behind. Hap jumped and tried to squirm away, but David tightened his grip, holding the very bones of Hap's shoulder.

"Listen," Hap said, his voice still low and muttery. "I din't hurt no one. I din't mean nawthin. I'se just having some fun."

"Fun!" David bellowed in his ear. "I oughtta grab yer ass and see how much fun YOU think it is! I-"

"David," my grandfather said quietly.

David shut up instantly.

My grandfather stepped up to Hap and looked down on him (he was a very big man, my grandfather).

"Hap, ol' fella," he said, still in that neighborly voice, a friend offering advice. "You got a choice here. You can take this here sack--" and he dropped the burlap bag at Hap's feet. It contained everything that had been in Hap's cabin before it vanished, every earthly belonging the man owned. "--and you can leave. Route 4-A's just a mile thataway and someone's sure to give you a lift." He sighed. "Or--"

Hap licked his lips. "Or?"

"Or you can find out what happened to your cabin," David said, squeezing Hap's shoulder.

"And?" I asked my dad.

"And...last time I saw Hap Whitney, he was dragging that sack down the logging road to 4-A as fast as he could leg it. Last time me or anyone in town ever saw him again," my dad recalled. "Run him outta town they did. And I helped. Five kindsa illegal that musta been. Imagine the ACLU would have some stern words for us today."

"I guess," I said, trying to imagine my grandfather--who I only remembered as the gentlest of giants--being driven mad enough to do something so crazy and aggressive.

"So, wait," I said. "What DID happen to the cabin? How'd you and Papa and Uncle David get rid of it?"

There was a pause.

"Well, suh, I suppose I could tell ya," Dad said. "But I ain't gonna. And I don't suppose you're gonna tell your neighbors you searched their house for some crazy-ass bastard," he said.

"No, maybe not," I agreed. "But I am going to tell them about that guy in the Volkswagen. Let them handle it with the cops."

"Good idea," said my dad. "Nothin' wrong with being a good neighbor, but at some point you just let the parents of these girls handle it. Never ceases to amaze me what a parent will do when his child is threatened."

As he said this, I finally saw a van--the girls' mom--turn down our street. "In fact, here they are now. I'm gonna go."

"Awright," said my dad. "You done a good thing today, but--"

"Yeah?" I asked.

"Don't do it again. Worries your mother." He paused. "And it'd be bad for your posture. Understand?" he said, calmly, evenly.

"Yessir," I answered.

And so I told my neighbors. About their missing dog. About the strange guy. About Officer Peltz's offer to look through the house if they were concerned that there was a connection between the two. Then my own family returned and I didn't really have time to find out what my neighbors were planning to do. All I know is, I didn't see Peltz's patrol car there last night.

And Buddy their dog is still missing.

I hope he's just lost. I hope he finds his way home.

I hope my neighbors lock their back door from now on.

Because even today, you never know who is going to amble out of the woods and into your yard.

From Somewhere on the Masthead


In Which Many Things Run Wild...

I was going to post something completely different today, but then I went home early this afternoon. I had to oversee a photo shoot at a studio nearby, so I came straight to the house from the shoot. My mind was still on work and one or two thorny issues I have to deal with. But as soon as I pulled in the driveway, the two little girls who live across the street came running over to greet me. Their dad is never home until after dinner and their mother is taking evening classes to finish her degree. One of the girls is Thomas' age, the other is slightly older. They aren't quite latchkey kids. Their older brother--who just turned 12--looks after them on days when the parents come home late.

"Hey," I said, looking at my watch. "Thomas is at a birthday party, and I think his mom and the Brownie went with him. But I'll let them know you came over to play--"

The older girl--let's call her Kay--interrupted me, and I realized at once she hadn't come over to play. "We weren't looking for Thomas," she said. "We can't find Buddy."

Buddy, incidentally, is not their older brother. Buddy is their spastic Irish setter who lives in their fenced-in backyard.

"How'd he get out this time?" I asked. Last summer, Buddy was a frequent reddish blur, seen whizzing past windows--and whizzing in flower beds--throughout the neighborhood.

"I don't know," answered the younger girl--we'll call her Bee. "Dad fixed the fence gate so he couldn't get out. But when we got off the bus, the gate was open."

"Where's your brother? Out looking for the dog?" I asked absently, as I grabbed my bag from the car and headed for my own door.

Kay shook her head. "Gary got off the bus at Justin's to do some rollerblading on the trail behind his house," she said.

"We've been looking for Buddy all by ourselves since we got home," Bee added.

"Oh," I said, unlocking my door. "Well, I'll keep an eye out for Buddy and if I see him, I'll put him back behind the fence."

"Okay," the girls chorused, then started back across the street to their house while I went inside.

A second later I was back on the porch and yelling across the street.

"Bee! Kay!"

The girls stopped on the walk leading to their back yard. I dashed across.

"You just got off the bus, right?" I asked, looking at my watch. It was about 10 to 5 and the bus usually comes around 4:30.

"Yeah," said Kay.

I looked around quickly. "Have you been in the house yet?" I asked, noticing their bags were still left in a careless pile on the driveway.

"No," said Kay. "When we saw the gate open and saw Buddy was gone, we started looking for him right away."

"He almost got hit on the big street last time he got out," added Bee.

"Any chance he would be inside?" I asked, peering up at their house.

Kay shook her head. "He stays out. He's too muddy. And he rolls in poop."

As they talked to me, I walked into the backyard, looking around. "Do you guys have a key to get in?" I asked.

"No," said Kay. "Gary does." She dropped her voice a notch. "But Mom leaves the back door open when she has class, just in case."

I stared at the girl. "What?!?"

Bee nodded. "Gary lost his key once and we were stuck outside--"

I put my hands on both girls' shoulders and guided them back out front. How to do this without freaking them out? I wondered. I briefly thought about inviting them over, but with the kids and Her Lovely Self gone, being alone with me might weird them out. I looked down the street and saw Dana Doohickey, one of my fellow Neighborhood Watchers.

"You know, since Gary's not home and your parents aren't either, let's go down to Mrs. Doohickey's."

"Why?" Asked Kay. "Me and Bee are home alone all the time."

"Gary never stays with us," said Bee.

I shook my head. I am just being paranoid, I thought. I am just a total hypochondriac of danger. That's all. I called to Dana and she came up the sidewalk with her own kids--both toddlers--in tow. The girls ran to meet the kids and while they played, I hastily filled Dana in on my odd encounter with the mysterious stranger in the black Volkswagen last weekend.

"And now the girls come home alone today and their back gate is open and their dog has been let out and they haven't been in the house yet but their mom leaves the back door unlocked and I am being a total drama queen but--" I rambled.

Dana had the decency to humor me by turning as pale as I felt. "That is too much of a coincidence," she hissed emphatically. "I wouldn't want them going in the house alone either. A 10- and a 7-year-old girl? No way." She turned and said, "Hey girls, you want to help me baby-sit my guys? You can stay at my house til your mom gets home and watch TV and have dinner and everything." The girls, incidentally, love her kids and are always asking to baby-sit them, even though they still need babysitters themselves. As the girls squealed with delight and began herding Dana's kids back to her house, Dana turned to me.

"Do you have a cell number for their mom or dad? I don't."

I shook my head. "I don't think they have mobile phones. I'm calling Peltz," I said, meaning the police liaison to the Neighborhood Watch. Dana smiled and nodded. "You go, MM!" she said.

I ran back up to my house and found the phone. I dialed Peltz's cell phone from memory. He has Caller ID, but to his credit, he picked up.

"What's up this time, MM?" he asked in a partially bemused, partially tired voice.

"Did you check out the plate I gave you this weekend? The guy in the Volkswagen?"

There was a pause that told me instantly that the answer was "No."

"Er...why do you ask?" he asked.

"Listen, the girls got off the bus by themselves today--their parents are both out til at least 6--and they found their back gate open and their dog had gotten out."

"So their dog got loose and you want me to keep an eye peeled for it," he said in a patronizing voice.

"Or...someone let their dog out so he wouldn't bark his head off. Like he does when strangers come around the house."

Peltz was silent for a moment. "Are the girls in the house?" he asked.

"No," I said. "They're with Dana Doohickey. They hadn't gone in yet."

"Did you see any signs of forced entry? Open doors? Broken glass?" he asked.

"No," I said. I had checked the basement windows when I was in back with the girls. "But their mom leaves the back door unlocked and--"

Peltz sighed. "Look, you know this is probably nothing. If it's the dog I'm thinking of, he was all over Christ creation last summer. Probably got out on his own. And if that fella from the weekend WAS up to something, you probably put the scare in him good. He saw you writing his plate down. You don't think you're making too much of this?"

"I probably am," I said. "Wouldn't you like to come over and check out the house and prove me wrong?"

Peltz sighed again. "Unless there are visible signs of break-in, I can't enter a house without the homeowner's permission."

"The back door is open!" I cried.

"You just told me the mom leaves it open. Listen, you said the girls are safe, so if you can't reach the parents, my advice is to wait til they come home and tell them your story. If THEY want me to check out the house, they can call me and I'll come right over."

"You are so useless," I said before I could stop myself.

"WHAT did you say?!?" he asked, his voice rising an octave.

"Never mind," I said, and hung up.

I ran upstairs and changed into an old pair of jeans and a t-shirt, then came back out and put my shoes on out on the porch. I was watching the house across the street, looking for Gary to come rollerblading back, looking for one of the parents' cars to roll into the driveway.

Looking for a shadow in the windows. A face in the glass. Some indication to tell me something was amiss.

Behind me, the screen door opened a crack a poked me in the back, making me jump. Blaze peered out at me, making a questioning kind of growl. I grabbed his leash from inside, hooked him up and brought him out with me. Together, we sat on the porch, watching the house. Blaze sniffed the air and kept looking at me. Expectantly, I thought.

"Oh goddammit!" I finally cried, slapping my hands on my thighs. "Fine! Fine! You want to go over there and check the place out?" Blaze just looked back at me quizzically. "All right, all right!" I stood up and went inside to get my flashlight. My big metal flashlight that my Big Brother gave me. The one with the weighted end that could crush a man's skull.

"Okay!" I said, tugging Blaze's leash. "This was YOUR idea, so let's go."

We crossed the street and walked into the back yard through the open fence gate. Blaze sniffed all around, stopping to urinate on every bush between the gate and the back porch.

Tentatively, I hunkered down and peered in the basement windows, shining my big light inside. All I could see was some boxes and what appeared to be a futon. No sign of life or movement.

Blaze tugged at his leash and clambered up the back porch steps. I followed and stood in front of the back door. Once again, I peered through the glass of the door into the darkened kitchen beyond. I lightly put my hand on the doorknob and without even turning the knob, the door creaked slowly open, a dim shaft of afternoon light illuminating the merest patch of kitchen floor.

Blaze stopped sniffing and started growling. He immediately wedged himself in front of me and I saw that his hackles were raised as he stared into the half-light of the kitchen.

"We shouldn't do this," I said to nobody in particular. "We should wait."

Then I thought: If this was your house, and it was Thomas and the Brownie alone, you'd want someone to check.

"If it was Thomas and the Brownie, I wouldn't leave them alone," I said. At the sound of their beloved names, Blaze looked up at me, then he nudged the back door and slipped into the kitchen, with me right on his heels...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


In Which One Kind of Trash Leaves and Another Kind Enters...

This past weekend, the Disaster Sense I inherited from my mom was tingling non-stop for about 24 hours, from the time I got home Friday until late Saturday afternoon, when the city dump trucks started coming through to collect the refuse from the annual Throw-Out Day.

Every year, our community--and many others like ours throughout the U.S.--has an appointed day (in some places it's a whole weekend) where residents can pitch trash and refuse that normally wouldn't be accepted in the weekly pick-up, either because it's too big or awkward or potentially hazardous. And any other time of the year, you have to pay extra for a truck to come out especially to retrieve this kind of trash, so it's a big day for my town, a kind of annual amnesty program where you can get rid of that rusting old swing set, or the 500 feet of PVC pipe from an old bathroom remodel, or the computer monitor you accidentally shorted out by spewing coffee onto it while reading a funny blog.

While it's a nice gesture from the town council and a good opportunity for all the residents, it does have its downside: the people who troll the neighborhood looking to scavenge free junk.

Around 4 on Friday afternoon, as soon as residents start putting their detritus curbside, they start careening through the streets: large trucks with flatbeds, small cars pulling homemade trailers, luxury SUVs piloted by rich misers looking for freebies, caravans of old station wagons with people leaning out of every window, scanning the piles of refuse. This oddball parade continues all night and well into the next day, right up until the dump trucks come and collect what's left.

I know this because I sat up all night and watched people coasting through the neighborhood at 2, 3, and 4 in the morning, dark figures ranging across the yards, flashlights in hand, rooting through other people's trash.

Please understand: In principle, I have no problem with this. In fact, I endorse it. I come from thrifty Yankee stock myself and am firmly consecrated to the belief that one man's trash is indeed another man's treasure. What's more, I spent 3 months out of every year of my teenage life both hauling and picking through trash. So I certainly don't begrudge folks their right to salvage. I have no doubt that a few of those beater trucks and sagging station wagons were driven by parents low on pocket money, looking for a bicycle frame they can refit for a child's birthday present, or a broken piece of furniture they can repair and resell for enough money to maybe bring their utility bill up to date for another month.

I have slightly more of a problem with the BMW and Mercedes SUVs that whip into a driveway in order for some kid in hip hugger jeans and new Nikes to jump out and snag the discarded CD boombox or the practically new treadmill--especially if that SUV cuts off one of the old trucks or station wagons to do it.

I have even more of a problem with the people--no matter what their economic background--who are slovenly in their salvage, and can't even muster the dignity to pick through someone else's trash without making a mess. When our new neighbors down the street moved in last year, they left about 20 moving boxes by the curb, all neatly stacked and folded shut. By morning, the 10 or so boxes that remained were ripped open, their contents blowing across several yards. That's just rude.

Sometimes it's worse than rude. Two years ago, after we traded out our old bathroom sink and vanity for a pedestal sink, I hauled the beat-up vanity out to the curb on annual throw-out day. But first, I took care to separate the sink from it, figuring that someone might only want the vanity while someone else might only need the sink. As it turned out, someone only wanted the faucet still attached to the sink. But rather than take the whole sink or unscrew the faucet, the ass-strep who came for it decided to smash the sink in order to get the fixture. I awoke in the morning to find large shards of ceramic scattered across my yard, my driveway, and the road, pieces all sharp enough to cut feet, flatten tires and in general pose a hazard.

And there have been more than a few cases where the roving scavengers get carried away. By law, anything discarded at the curb is fair game. But every year, someone expands their idea of "curbside" to include someone's entire front yard or garage that's been accidentally left open. Yes, I'm sorry to say, bikes and power tools and other items that are clearly not trash get carted off. That's not just rude; that's criminal.

But every year since I've lived in this community, something else has been tweaking my Disaster Sense. At first I couldn't figure out what it was. I wondered if I had become a snob, had somehow caught the sniffy disdain of some of my wealthy, self-impressed neighbors, who grumble about the junker cars and low-class element that invade our leafy, well-groomed avenues every year. But no, it wasn't that. And I didn't think it was plain old paranoia that every car driving by my house in the middle of the night was a thief looking to swipe my power tools. Mostly these were working folks getting off a night shift and this was simply the only time they'd have to look for goodies among the garbage.

This year, though, it finally hit me what was bugging me.

It wasn't the trash pickers. It was the people who patently weren't trash pickers.

Like the guy in the minuscule black Volkswagen who drove down our street just as I was getting home Friday afternoon. I don't know why I noticed him. Maybe it was my revived boy-detective skills from serving on the Neighborhood Watch. More likely it was just dumb luck. But I noticed this guy never slowed to check out the piles of trash as he coasted down our street. Odd, no?

Then, about 25 minutes later, when I was outside playing catch with Thomas, I saw the car again and my Disaster Sense really started jangling. As before, he didn't seem to notice any of the interesting discards from my neighbors. But it appeared to me that this time he did slow down and cock his head in the direction of the two little girls from across the street, who were running up and down the sidewalk, giggling and flipping their curly locks of hair out of their eyes. And that part of me that is my mom, the Queen of Catastrophizing, began to think, You know, if I was a career criminal or a sex offender, this would be the perfect opportunity to troll the neighborhood and case the place, pick targets. With so many other strange cars rolling up and down the street, who would notice?

So I decided to do a little experiment. I told Thomas to sit on the porch--where Blaze, conveniently enough, was leashed and barking at every strange person who jumped out of a car on HIS street. I dashed inside and grabbed my reporter's notepad and a small black walkie-talkie, one of a set that Thomas and I use sometimes. I came back out with the walkie clipped to my belt and the pad in my back pocket. Thomas and I resumed our catching and batting practice. Blaze resumed his scanning of each car, quietly swearing to himself in low, continuous growls.

The afternoon wore on uneventfully and I began to feel stupid, and a bit like a wingnut myself, since now I was the one preoccupied with our neighbors' girls as they played hopscotch or did cartwheels on the lawn across the street.

Eventually, Her Lovely Self called us in for supper. Thomas and I gathered up our gear and were just stowing it in the garage, when I saw a familiar black form out of the corner of my eye. I turned and there was the Volkswagen, rounding the corner down our street, following a pick-up truck that was making frequent stops.

I strode to the sidewalk as I grabbed the notepad from my pocket. The pick-up stopped one house down and the Volkswagen slowed to a complete stop in front of my house. I began pointedly scribbling the car's license plate number down. The driver--a young man with long wavy hair and a round, pock-marked face--didn't notice me. He was gazing again at the cartwheeling girls. Then he slowly turned his head and froze when he saw me writing furiously in my notepad.

As soon as I had his attention, I stuffed the pad in a pocket and snapped the walkie-talkie off my belt. I put it to my mouth and pretended to talk into it. The man's eyes and mine locked for a moment. Then he turned to look straight ahead, gunned his engine and veered around the truck in front of him, roaring off around the corner as fast as he could go. My heart was pounding in my throat as I watched him go. Holy shit.

After dinner, I called our Police Area Representative, the semi-redoubtable Officer Zoltan Peltz. I can't say that we like each other. I've come to realize he's a better cop than I took him for when we first met, but I think he's come to regard me as a kind of cop wanna-be who knows just enough about the law to be a pain in his ass.

"What exactly is it you expect me to do with this information?" he huffed, when I told him what I had seen. "You saw a guy driving around who you didn't recognize. Like a hundred other cars in the neighborhood today. Just because he didn't stop and pick up trash on your block doesn't mean he didn't stop on another street."

"He came down our block three times in about the space of an hour," I said. "Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't this township have no-cruising laws?"

I heard a familiar exhalation from Officer Peltz, the one that seemed to say, Goddamn this guy. Thinks he knows the law!

"Listen," he finally said. "There are a lot of folks 'cruising' the streets this weekend, and for a reason that's completely legal. Under state salvage laws, they're allowed to pick through trash, so long as it's on the public easement and they don't go on private property. You know as well as me that we've had some people stealing out of yards and garages, though, and we'll have a couple of extra cars out in your area tonight. In fact, I'm on shift til midnight. If you see this fella again, you call me. Fair enough?"

"Okay," I said. "Thank you." Then, before I hung up, another thought occurred to me. "Officer Z?" I asked (that's his nickname among the kids). "What are community crime stats like in the month or so after the annual throw-out day?"

Peltz was silent for a second. "What do you mean?"

"Well," I said. "If I wanted to case a neighborhood to commit a crime, this is the perfect time to do it, when there's lots of strange cars on the streets anyway. But if I was smart, I'd use this weekend to case places and do the job later. I was just wondering if there was a rise in crime rates--break-ins, stolen property, or whatever--in the month or so following the throw-out day."

"You know," Peltz said thoughtfully. "It's not like we have master criminals planning jobs in your neighborhood. Mostly we just have people walking off with bikes or lawn mowers that people have left out in their yard." He sighed. "Let's give this a rest, MM. We're watching out for you."

I thanked him again and hung up, feeling a little stupid and paranoid.

But that didn't stop me from staying up most of the night, watching the cars glide by in the darkness, some stopping, some disgorging passengers--lurching shadows hunched over curbside trash. Blaze sat with me, growling and whining. I don't think I saw the black Volkswagen again, but it would be hard to tell.

I was breathing a lot easier Saturday when the city trucks finally came through and got everything. My Disaster Sense ebbed away for another year.

At least it did until this morning, when my phone rang at work. It was Officer Z.

"I just wanted you to know something. I talked to the girl who compiles the data for the annual town report. She has all the numbers in a database on her computer, including the numbers of police reports by each month of the year. In the past couple of years, there WAS a rise in burglaries and stolen property reports in the month following the date of the annual throw-out day," he said tonelessly.

"Oh my God," was all I could manage.

"I just thought I better tell you because I figured if I didn't, you'd check it out yourself anyway. I'll be honest, I wanted to prove you wrong. And this doesn't necessarily mean that people are using the throw-out day to plan break-ins, but, well, there IS an uptick in the numbers."

He paused.

"There's something else. A couple of the guys remember there being complaints last year about strangers in cars following their kids. This happened right after the throwaway day, and once or twice in the next few weeks afterward. Nobody got hurt or went missing. And it wasn't a guy in a black Volkswagen--it was a man and a woman in a maroon Chrysler. But I'm going to go ahead and check out the plate you gave me," he said.

"Thanks for telling me," I said.

"Well, you are on the Neighborhood Watch and I guess this is something we need to discuss at the next meeting. Hell, if the newspaper gets wind of this, they may end the throw-out day altogether, just to be safe. But I won't tell anyone it was your fault," he said, then laughed and laughed, vastly amused by his own wit. The dink.

Of course, I'll probably never hear another word about this guy in the Volkswagen. And Peltz had a point--this could all be total coincidence: crimes like break-ins and assaults on kids rise in the summer anyway, as school lets out and people go on vacation. So I have no idea if my Disaster Sense was right or not.

Truth be told, I almost wish I hadn't said anything to Peltz at all, so I could be blissfully ignorant of everything he just told me. Part of me wants to be able to just pitch that information out of my head like it was so much trash. It's too late for that, though. I am my mother's son. And my mind is already playing that old game of "what would you do if...?"

But I'm also remembering the look on the face of that guy in the Volkswagen when he saw me writing his plate number down, and talking on the walkie-talkie like I was calling him in.

Okay, maybe he was just an innocent guy.

But maybe he was a perv-in-training, doing a little window-shopping, and seeing that he had attracted some attention was just the shock he needed to get the hell out of my neighborhood--and stay out.

And maybe, just maybe, it's not so bad having a Disaster Sense after all.

In this particular instance, I hope we never find out for sure.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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