Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Changing the Channel...

It's our last day in New Hampshire and I am so sore and achy and depressed that I literally cannot get out of bed. I just lay there til almost 10 AM--an obscene hour to be sleeping in, especially since we've been getting up around 5 or 6. Eventually, Her Lovely Self tucks the Éclair in next to me and she is irrepressible. She keeps plucking the hairs on my arm and cooing at me until I finally open my eyes. Whereupon she fixes me with the world's most beatific toothless smile, jams her Tigger doll in my face, and I feel a small drop of joy begin to melt my insides.

It's been almost a solid week of sorting closets and boxes and rummaging through the drawers of furniture and still we've barely scratched the surface. I will almost certainly have to return again in the fall or early winter and the thought of it is almost more than I can bear. For the first time, I am aware of just how much psychic energy I've expended trying to keep myself moving forward, especially when BB disappears on some stupid and circuitous errand and leaves me in an attic or crawlspace for hours by myself.

We've accomplished so little, and I'm not just talking about sorting through the house. I had hoped to take a little time to see some relatives--my mom's sister down in Boston; my poor uncle David, still grieving from the loss of his wife, my aunt Barbara; my dad's surviving siblings. But each day passes at speed and so little seems accomplished that in the end I've gone nowhere, seen no one. Seriously. I've been out of the house exactly once, to go to the bank one morning in order to start the process that will enable BB to buy the house from the estate. The rest of the time I've been absorbed with trying to make the house more livable for BB. He needs to begin to make the place his own, not live out his life as a housesitter for people who are never coming back.

But in this regard, he is his own worst enemy. He fights me in just about all of my efforts to throw things out, turning the week into an exercise in tooth-pulling. In the morning, he'll be gung-ho to clean house, but then a run into town for donuts and coffee--a run that takes him four hours--gives him time to reconsider and feel guilty and by afternoon he's retrieving boxes from the trash, stuff we agreed had no value to anyone, not even to my parents, if they were still alive. He's so conflicted, it's painful to watch.

On this last day, though, he seems to have an epiphany. While I've been lying abed, he's spent the morning going over his mortgage application paperwork and realizes that if he's going to spend his own money to maintain the house and stay in it, then by God he ought to enjoy it.

"It's going to take a long time to get rid of everything you'll ultimately need to get rid of," HLS sagely observes. "We never meant for you to do it all this week. But you know, you ought to make your mark some way."

BB decides that the mark he'll make will be to pitch out my Dad's recliner. I bought it for him 9 years ago, when he helped me build a home office in my basement and he sat in it every night of his life from then on. It's badly sprung and since his death no one has sat in it except the cats. It smells badly (I suspect the cats have done more than sat in it).

The amazing thing is BB actually DOES get rid of it, carting it right outside. And I am so impressed by this act that I have an idea of my own.

"Maybe instead of throwing things out, you'd feel better if you added something to the house, something that's just yours," I suggest. "Is there anything you've been wanting to get?"

BB nods emphatically.

So, my last night in New Hampshire, we drive off to a store over near the Vermont border, and have a look. BB suffers more doubt and hems and haws for a while. But then he sets his gaze on his prize: a really nice, wide-screen television.

Driving home, BB and I have one of those brotherly psychic moments where it occurs to us at the same time that this is actually the first new TV our family has ever owned. When I was growing up, we started with a color TV and that was a second-hand job with a broken channel knob (you had to change channels with a pair of pliers). When that crapped out in the late 70s, my folks got a used black-and-white job, and then my Dad brought home a color TV that was a gift from a departing roommate from his years of living away.

More recently, my parents had made do with my late grandfather's TV, which died about a month after he did. Then I gave them a really fine color TV that I bought for $75 from the guy who lived upstairs from me in Chicago. But the picture was failing and the volume was bad and it was on its last legs.

So here we are at 11 o'clock at night, chucking the old TV into the seat of the recliner and putting it all into the back of the trailer BB will drive to the dump. Inside, we push aside furniture and cats to make room for this 46-inch wide-screen monster. BB brings his Xbox down from his room, where it had been hooked up to yet another used TV, and plugs it in. My mom hated that game console and would never let BB have it hooked up to the TV in the family room, so it all feels highly illicit. And therefore just the thing to do right now.

The $500 and change the TV cost is just about all the money that's left of my parents' insurance payout (after covering the cost of the funeral and the wreck of their car), which was given to both BB and me as joint beneficiaries. Of course we should be using the money for taxes, or bills--something sensible.

But you know what? Fuck that.

Watching BB excitedly plug in wires and fiddle with the new remote, watching him sit back on the sofa in what I will now think of as his living room, I realize that this was exactly the right thing to do.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007


BB Comes Out A Head...


I don't think I impressed upon you quite enough how unusual it is that I should find a stuffed animal in my parents' house. For years they were banned. That's because they caused more fights between my brother and me than just about anything else, including who got the bigger slice of pie for dessert and what the hell I did with all the accessories for BB's S.W.A.T. action figures.

First, there was Big Bear. He was, well, a big bear with a wind-up music box in his back and eyes that glowed red in the dark. I believe this was a very old bear and I seem to remember being told that his eyes glowed because they contained some kind of radium. What a fine toy to sleep with every night.

And of course BB coveted him because he had been BB's before he was mine and even though BB was too old to be sleeping with stuffed animals, he regularly attempted to divest me of Big Bear--once by the novel method of lowering a noose down from the top bunk and snagging him. He was foiled when the key on Big Bear's music box got hooked on the edge of the bed and he began warbling "You are My Sunshine," whereupon I woke up and grabbed Big Bear's legs, which were so well attached that BB ended up hauling ME out of bed and my head got stuck between the bed and the wall and my screams brought the authorities and Big Bear was taken away.

That Christmas, my brother and I each got our own bear: BB got a small brown bear that he called Cappy and I got a soft white koala that I named Wally. But BB was embarrassed to have Cappy, so he gave him to me, but...well, you can see where this is going. Eventually, BB decided he wanted his bear back and so another tug-of-war ensued, only Cappy proved not to be made of as stern a stuffing as Big Bear and, during our battle, there was a terrible ripping sound and BB ended up tearing off the head of his very own bear (evidently, "Cappy" was short for "Decapitate").

I loved Wally and lived in fear that BB would avenge himself on my bear, so I hid him. So well that a few days later, when I went to look for him, I quite forgot where I put him. When I cried to my Mom about it, she sternly announced that too many bears had suffered in this house and henceforth there would be no more (thereafter, I suspected she had disappeared Wally, perhaps sent him into a Bear Relocation Program). And so it went.

Now, 33 years later, I'm on my hands and knees in a stifling crawlspace, pulling out box after box of crap and discovering things I never knew we had: sheet music from the 1920s (we never had a piano in the house, growing up); a collection of 1950s era instruction booklets for appliances I'm certain we never owned (such as a top-loading GE dishwasher). Hurricane lamps. Bolts of heavy wool plaid fabric. In a box containing four hand-sewn, child-sized Nehru jackets (one of which I remember seeing upon my own luckless self in an Easter portrait shot in the early 1970s), I find two taped-up shoeboxes. One contains an assortment of spooled thread.

The other contains Wally.

Unfortunately, mice burrowed up through the bottom of the shoebox and made a nest in Wally's stomach. He looks like a performer in a reenactment of an Alien movie in which all of the characters have been portrayed by stuffed animals.

I shake him loose and the room becomes a festival of soiled stuffing and mouse turds and hoarded birdseed from God-knows-where.

"Wally!" I cry. "She saved you!"

Just then, BB walks into the room to gather another boxload of stuff to throw out. He sees my old bear in my hands for the first time in 33 years, but you'd think it had only been 33 seconds ago, so fast is his reaction. In a beat, he muckles onto that bear's head. He pulls. I pull back. There's a tearing sound and I fall back into the boxes, holding only my bear's legs and ass.

"Revenge, Cappy! Revenge!!" BB screams. Then he does an ungainly pirouette of victory and dances out the door.

With the head.


Monday, August 27, 2007


The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers...


Naturally, my trip to New Hampshire falls on the week the Éclair chooses to make a quantum leap in her cognitive development. This week, she's discovered boredom and screams when large humans do not stop what they're doing and report to her immediately for Monkey Face duty.

"Don't we have anything she can play with?" I ask my wife, fully aware that we didn't bring so much as a teddy bear with us. My parents kept a large basket full of toys in anticipation of their grandchildren visiting (although the number of times we actually brought the kids up to New Hampshire was around 5, I realize with a guilty start), but what's here, if memory serves, is all for older kids.

It is therefore with more relief than surprise that I open the lid to the basket and find, sitting at the very top, a brand-new stuffed animal in the likeness of Tigger. I grab him and hear a little voice mechanism whir to life. "You're a strong little bastard, aren'tcha?" he says, or words to that effect. I ask BB about it, but he has no idea where it came from.

So I call dibs and waggle Tigger in front of the Éclair. It's like she's found a long-lost brother. She spends the rest of the visit chewing on one of his ears and occasionally squeezing him hard enough that he utters some dopey exclamation, such as "You're hugarrific!" or "Hoo-hoo-hAggh, I can't breathe!"

It is just one of many secret legacies we discover as we began the impossible task of inventorying and cleaning my parents' house. We spend a full day in their bedroom, sorting my parents' clothes for Goodwill and other destinations, deciding who gets--or who would want--any of my Dad's trademark suspenders, marveling at the number of slips my mother felt compelled to keep in her closet (she owned more than 20!).

In my mom's closet, we also find two bags of children's clothing. All new, all several sizes to big for my own children. Who were these intended for?

And then at the bottom we see the baby clothes--all for 6- and 8- month-olds, all in Thanksgiving and holiday colors and motifs--and it dawns on us that in fact these clothes ARE intended for my kids, for when they got a little bigger. Clothes my parents never got around to giving them. All of a sudden, I can't breathe either.

It's all so fucking pathetic that it's almost funny, in a hysterical kind of way...


Thursday, August 23, 2007


A Long Haul...


"How long can babies cry like that before they break something?" my big brother asks as we wend our way north through the darkness the night of our arrival. The baby hasn't been crying that much, actually, but BB isn't used to the noise. "How can you stand it?" he asks me more than once during my visit. But all I can think is, I was going to ask you the same question. How CAN he stand waking up every morning--or afternoon, as the case may be--to a house devoid of all human sounds except what he makes? Not for the first time, not for the thousandth, I am so grateful for my family, and filled with such pity for my brother. After all, I'm the only immediate family he has left.

My pity doesn't stop me from being a little shit, though. As we walk through the door of my parents'--my brother's--house, I am astounded by my view of the kitchen. Or rather, by the obstruction of it. The main counter--actually, all of the counters--are completely obscured by a mound of mail that has been accumulating, I'm sure, since I left after the funeral.

"I'm a little behind sorting the mail," BB says, evidently competing in the Understatement of the Year Contest.

I stare at him. "Good God!" I cry. "That pile's got to be two feet high!"

He gives me a sour look. "Oh, don't be such a dick with your exaggerations. Bet you can't wait to write THAT in your blog, 'Well, my brother has a stack of mail two feet high. And let's not forget about the dead cats in the freezer!'"

Her Lovely Self's head nearly swivels off its neck at this news. "There aren't…are there?"

But I'm too busy rooting in my parents'--my brother's--junk drawer to answer. I fish out a tape measure.

"God forbid I be accused of exaggeration," I say, pulling out the yellow tape. At its peak, the pile of mail on the main counter in the kitchen measures 28 inches.

"I'm going to bed," BB grunts, shaking his head. "You guys are in mom and dad's room."

HLS gives me A Look, and I'm reminded that I promised I wouldn't be hard on my brother. I can't help it. I'm forced to admit a hard truth: I don't want to be here. But as co-executors of the estate, BB and I have to sort through my parents' accumulated possessions and try to come to some kind of value. We also need to start figuring out what gets saved, what goes to Goodwill, and what gets pitched. Before any of that can happen, we need to haul years of accumulated crap out of assorted sheds and crawlspaces.

"And I just know I'm going to end up doing most of it," I tell HLS as we get into bed. "When Mom and Dad first bought this place, BB and I were supposed to spend our mornings working here, tearing the place out for the remodel. But most mornings, it was just me. BB would show up around 5, just a little before Dad would get home, so it looked like he helped. Pissed me off."

"Well, that was 20 years ago. And this is different," HLS says. "He's going to help."

But in the morning, BB is gone, leaving me to start humping boxes out of the attic. And leaving HLS (and the baby) to start wading through two feet of mail.

It's going to be a long four days.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Babies and Botox...

I hate leaving the kids in Ohio, but Her Lovely Self and I are promised in New Hampshire. We are bringing the Éclair for moral support (and also because she goes where the milk goes). So here we are in the Detroit airport, waiting to board.

The Éclair is a little fussy, so I sit in a remote section of the terminal--barely in hearing range of the gate. Her Lovely Self goes to find a restroom. I pace the row of seats, jiggling the baby, making faces. This placates her; she actually starts to nod off.

Before I can begin to entertain the hope that she'll sleep through the flight, I'm joined by a tiny woman of late middle years--almost too late, to be honest--who has a cellphone grafted to her ear. She's one of those cellphone users: the kind who believes she needs to speak at a volume that not only clues the rest of the terminal into her conversation--all about her recent adventures with Botox--but also wakes babies.

Having now thoroughly bestirred my child, the woman wraps up her call and departs. HLS returns and our flight is called.

It is the Flight of the Damned...Babies.

There are five babies on the flight (one actually may be an obnoxious 4-year-old who sounds like a baby). All are screaming at one time or another. Except mine. Believe me, if my offspring did something awful, you know I'd tell you, but she is quiet and alert for our transit to Manchester.

That doesn't stop passengers from giving us the stink-eye when we disembark.

And as I step into the terminal, I hear a familiar voice, complaining to another woman, "Ohmigawd, whadda nightmare! Screaming babies everywhere! I couldn't hear myself think!" Then she actually turns and gives MY daughter a sidelong look.

I cannot resist.

"Guess all that Botox hasn't frozen your mouth," I remark.

Nor does it keep her lips from forming a perfect O of shock.



Monday, August 20, 2007


In Kansas, Anymore? NOT!


As an avid--ravenous? gluttonous?--reader, I'm always surprised to feel a sad twinge coming to the end of a book I love. Same deal for series--Stephen King's conclusion of the Dark Tower saga, though imperfect (is it just me, or did he rush to get it done, as though worried another van might come along and hit him?), was still satisfying, and therefore sad, having come to the end of it.

Recently, I finished reading the last Harry Potter book to Thomas. I enjoyed it, and yet I didn't. Because it's the end, you know? As much as you can go back to the beginning, as much as you have your happy memories, over is over.

But what books take away, they can also give, and in equally surprising ways. As a complete impulse buy, I just got Tom DeHaven's It's Superman. If you ever loved Superman--especially the 1930's version--you'll love this book, which recounts Clark Kent's early days with pulpy panache.

But what surprised me was how happy the book made me. Because it spends a lot of time in Kansas, (accepted as canon as the place where Superman grew up). Having moved to Kansas as a boy, I was always pleased to think I lived in the same state as Superman. Yes, I knew he was a fictional character, but when you're a kid, that doesn't stop you--or even really slow you down.


I felt that pleasure once again, reading the first chapters of the book. Because early on, the Smallville police summon the sheriff of Osage County.

I lived in Osage County.

The sheriff, we learn, resides in Lyndon, and drives 30-45 minutes to get to Smallville.

Lyndon was 30 minutes from me!

From then on, I couldn't get the notion out of my head that perhaps my old town was the model the writer used for Smallville. Crazy, but there it is.

"Why are you smiling?" Her Lovely Self asked.

"I think Superman and I are from the same town," I said, and cackled with alarming glee.


Friday, August 17, 2007


The Apple and the Tree...

We have reached safe harbor--the inlaws. There is much oohing and ahhing and jostling for position with the baby, who we are more than happy to surrender. Of course, she isn't crying now. Her vast tear reservoir must surely be empty. In fact, she cried out so much moisture on the ride here she should look like one of those dried out Egyptian mummy-babies.

But instead, she's gone into perfect, glowing, happy fat, baby mode. She's batting her eyelashes and giving gummy little smiles and emitting sounds ("Aahma-GOO! "Haa-gee!") that will guarantee mental enslavement of her grandparents. Who are already holding her up to one of the many family photographs on the walls of the house and playing the game that never gets old: Who Does She Look Like?

I've never quite understood the lure of this game. I mean, obviously we're genetically linked so physical similarities are a matter of fact, right? But they have to see it with their own eyes. And so we know that Thomas looks like his mother, but only around the eyes and nose; the Brownie is almost the spitting image of her grandmother when she was a girl. But the Éclair is a head-scratcher. Yes, she looks a little like Thomas AND the Brownie did when they were babies, but you expect that. They need to prove the genetic link into another generation. But the Éclair won't match up.

It apparently doesn't occur to them that there's a whole other side to her lineage until I produce this gem, which my dad always kept in his wallet.


There's a long pause while the judges compare it with a recent photo.


"Well," says my mother-in-law at last. "Maybe it wasn't the mailman."



Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Answers on a Postcard...

Sorry for my long absence. I didn't mean to take a month off, but now that it's happened, I suppose it's a good thing. It's allowed me to come to several realizations. Don't worry, "quitting the blog" was not one of those realizations. I still have plenty to talk about here: the ongoing tales of my resume, the next (and long delayed) Giveaway of Crap, a 20th anniversary unearthing of my travel journal I kept whilst living in London, and quite a lot more. If you're very unlucky, I may do a Fiction Friday of my own and start posting installments of a story I've been telling Thomas and the Brownie: a tale about a smart-mouthed young man named Pete Zakes and the trouble he gets into when, in a fit of pique, he tells his mother to go to hell--and wakes up the next morning to find out that she has.

Meanwhile, one realization I've come to is that lately I don't seem to have it in me to write long posts--at least, not long ones that are remotely interesting. And it's been suggested by more than a few wags that I tend to drone on and on anyway, so for the next short while, we'll be going in the opposite direction.

Herewith, I offer you "Answers on a Postcard" (after the old instructions from magazine and newspaper editors soliciting replies from readers, replies that they wanted kept short and to the point). My original idea was to keep these sketches to 100 words or less, which is about what I can squeeze on a postcard (I can write very small when I have to). But then I remembered that this was ME I was talking about and that it would be an effort indeed if I could keep the posts to under 300 words, so that's the limit I'm sticking to.

Whether 100 or 300 words, I have no doubt these entries will leave a lot more to your imagination than usual, but I don't think you'll mind. And if you do, write in and tell me. Answers on a postcard, please.

Let's begin:

Fellow Travelers


"Dad?!" Thomas shouts. "How long can babies cry like that before they break something?"

The Eclair appears on the point of rupture, strawberry red, chin awash in drool and bubbles. She's been crying for two hours and 42 minutes--ever since we got on the highway. We've stopped to check for burning poop or stinging insects--anything to warrant the blood-curdling shrieks. Her Lovely Self even topped the kid off and burped her comprehensively. We've tried music, funny faces, stuffed animal puppet shows, all to no avail.


What can we do? We have to get to Chicago tonight. Tomorrow, we press on to Ohio to deposit the two older kids, then HLS, the Eclair and I continue on to New Hampshire. So we let her scream.

"Maybe she's scared of the car. She thinks we'll have an accident," the Brownie says, supposing the baby knows what we're all too painfully aware of: Tonight we'll be driving right past the stretch of highway where my parents were killed less than 100 days ago.


"Hold her hand, Daddy," the Brownie suggests. "Tell her she's not alone." It's absurd--the Éclair is surrounded by us. How can she NOT know she's not alone?

But…what the hell. I reach back into the carseat, patting the baby's heaving belly. She howls, latching onto a finger with her sweaty hand, gripping it vise-like. In a second, I lose all sensation in my pinkie. I look back. From my vantage I can see only her little hand, knuckles white with effort as she squeezes, squeezes...

...and goes silent.

I unbuckle myself and hazard a peek back: out cold.

But even in sleep, her grip hasn't slackened one bit.

More postcards from the road soon.

From Somewhere on the Masthead


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