Friday, June 29, 2007

 

Travels with BB (Part Three)...



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"Jesus," I whispered.

"Holy fuck," BB breathed.

We were in the back lot of the wrecking company that had been responsible for towing most of the cars involved in the accident that killed our parents three weeks earlier. In the interim, all the other vehicles involved had been claimed and towed away from the lot. Sitting lonely in a spot well away from all the other cars and trucks, my parents' Jeep--or its remains--was the last one.

As we learned upon signing in at the office, our timing was most fortuitous. Unbeknownst to us, my parents' insurance company had made plans for the Jeep to be towed to another lot that very morning.

"We tried to collect everything from the accident site," said Justin, the young man who had been assigned to escort us out on the lot. He talked as he worked, pulling back the blue tarp revealing the wreck, "but, well, a lot of stuff fell out on the way here. And there'll be a lot more that'll go missing once the new wrecker comes to get it. So this is probably as good a time as any to look through it all."

BB and I had nothing to say to this. I reached in my waist pack and pulled out the first of several pairs of latex gloves, snapping them on. BB was chainsmoking his fourth cigarette. Looking at the Jeep, every side of it open to the elements, I could see how futile it would be to find my grandmother's bracelet. The car looked as though it had been turned inside out, its contents festooning everything from the front grille to the cavities where the rear brake lights had been.

As if to confirm what he was seeing was real, BB reached out a tentative hand, touching a small, damp clump of wrapping paper that was hanging from a jagged edge on the rear of the car. It was suspended by a single, pathetic pink ribbon. There were several such clumps; my parents always came bearing gifts. This time, they would have had Communion gifts for Thomas, baby gifts for the Éclair, birthday presents for the Brownie. Now, between the force of the crash and the rain that had fallen off and on the past few weeks, all that was left of these presents were exploded bits of box and paper and merchandise.

Justin began pulling things out of the wreck as best he could. At the office, we'd been told in no uncertain terms that we were not to touch the wreck--there was too high a risk of us getting cut and the company didn't want to be responsible for that. But BB and I pretty much ignored that imperative and Justin never opened his mouth to shoo us away. He was a young man and pretty well spooked at the idea of us being there. I understood how he felt. When you're young and invulnerable, it's easy to be rattled by the presence of people who have suffered a death. A chasm separates you from them, and at that age, that's exactly how you want it. You don't need anything or anyone around who might belie the idea that you're immortal.

I circled the Jeep several times, just looking. I have to say, though, it wasn't the sight of the wreck that was disturbing, so much as the smell: The sweet aroma of motor oil. The musky scent of damp and mildew. The unmistakable metallic odor of blood, which I could detect instantly, despite the fact that emergency workers had coated the inside of the cab with some kind of phenolic or chlorinated powder to absorb the fluid. Until my own dying day, it's a scent that will stick with me as the smell of death.


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Industrious Justin had created a growing pile of clothes and ruptured suitcases to one side so I turned my attention to that and began sorting through. My mom had been planning to stay the summer, so most of the clothes were hers. I picked through the suitcase, finding a burst bag of cosmetics, exploded pill bottles containing vitamins and calcium supplements and blood pressure meds. Tucked between one layer of clothes, I found another clump of wrapping paper, this one slightly more box-shaped, protected as it was by the clothing. Hardly daring to hope, I opened the package and out fell porcelain shards of a religious statue. I think it was a statue of the Virgin Mary, but really, the impact of the accident had shattered the statue so badly, it was impossible to divine the identity of the religious figure.

"Anything?" BB asked. He was holding my mother's sewing machine, or what was left of it.

"No," I said. "No bracelet, anyway."

"Well, you better go around the other side of the car and help Justin," he said. I stood up, knees and back popping as I did. I suddenly felt old and creaky and not at all sure I wanted to see what Justin had. But I went anyway.


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Around the other side, Justin was trying to leverage the driver's seat and grab a box jammed behind it at the same time. When he saw me coming, he put his whole weight against the seat, moving it just enough for me to grab the box behind it and pull it free.

The cardboard fell apart as soon as it was free of the car. Justin and I were suddenly enveloped in a flurry of baseball cards.

My Dad had mentioned that he had picked up a few cards at a flea market and was planning to bring them, knowing that baseball cards were Thomas' latest obsession. But Dad had downplayed exactly how many he was bringing. In addition to the box I'd just removed, we found another tucked behind the driver's seat. And Justin informed us that there were at least two more large boxes in a small shed on the other side of the yard. In the end, I packed more than 30,000 sports cards into the back of my car, nearly all of then intact, but each covered with a film of grease and slivered glass that would require careful wiping with a treated cloth of some kind. Well, now I know how I'll be spending my idle hours this summer. And fall. And winter, I thought.

Within about 30 minutes, it was apparent that Justin had removed all the items he could without having to resort to a crowbar or a metal saw. BB and I stared dumbly at the sizable mound of torn clothes and misshapen items that were my parents' possessions, everything looking at once familiar yet bizarrely foreign.


jeepmm4


"There's still the items in the shed," Justin said, stirring us from our morbid reverie. BB followed him across the lot, smoking the last of his first pack of cigarettes, while I finished loading the back of my car with what few items we were claiming--the baseball cards I'd pulled from the back, the Jeep's twisted license plates, a dented brown valise that contained my Dad's mileage logbook that he kept for tax purposes and a few important-looking papers we thought we'd want to sort through later. Each item was wrapped in a black garbage bag. But when I got in the car and closed the door, that strong smell of oil and blood and death still filled the cab. Suddenly my vision was swimming and my fists clenched so hard I left bloody nailprints in the palms of my hands.

For three weeks, I'd managed to lock down any trace of emotion about the accident, knowing that I needed to function and not trusting myself to risk feeling anything that might hinder me, might keep me from doing what needed to be done. But you can tamp down a great hurt for only so long and it seemed I had reached my limit. I sat there for half a minute, my body in spasm, in a veritable seizure of unchecked grief. Tears ran fast like a flash flood, down my face, over my chin and neck, soaking the collar of my t-shirt. My lips were pressed hard together to keep my teeth from chattering. My nose was suddenly congested and I couldn't breathe. After 30 seconds, I realized that if I didn't rein it in now, I might not be able to stop.

"Knock it off, knock it off, knock it off," I hissed to myself, the only mantra I could manage at that moment. I hyperventilated til I felt dizzy, then I finally caught my breath and just like that, it was over. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand, started the car and rolled it across the yard to the shed.

There wasn't much waiting for us there: just the other boxes of baseball cards, a ripped garment bag containing the oil-soaked remains of my dad's one good suit, and a small tote bag.

"Hey, look at this," said BB, pulling a bent notebook from the tote. I blinked, then recognized my Mom's handwriting and realized that she had brought her recipe book on the trip. It fell apart as I thumbed through it, recipe cards falling out of their plastic sleeves. Here was her recipe for banana bread, for pie dough, for the buttermilk chocolate chip cookies she used to make for us when we were kids. Her Lovely Self would be awfully glad to see this, and I was pretty happy about it myself.


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But if such episodes in life can have a high point, that was it. In short order, we disposed of the rest of items, consigning them to the Dumpster at the back of the yard.

It was getting on toward 11 o'clock and we needed to get back on the road. We peeled off the last of the purple latex gloves, shook Justin's hand and thanked him for helping us with our unpleasant task, then walked to the car. BB surveyed the back, checking the garbage bags I'd packed to confirm one last time what we were taking and what we were leaving behind. He paused as he looked into one bag.

"Hey, this is trash," he said to me, and showed me the contents. BB had filled a bag with the damp clumps of wrapping paper from the dozens of sundered gifts that had been in the Jeep and I had unthinkingly tossed them in the back. He took the bag out of the back of my car and started to walk it over to the Dumpster, then something made him stop. He cocked his head to one side, then reached in and pulled out a small clump of torn paper, and I saw from its single pink ribbon that it was the fragment of wrapping paper he'd touched when we first saw the car. Now BB turned the soggy clump over and over in his hands, squeezing it experimentally. Suddenly he swore and began pulling the wadded paper apart. A second later, I saw a swatch of green velvet in his hand. I walked over and on closer inspection, saw that it was a small, damp drawstring bag. BB pulled it open, and there, dented and crimped, but shining in the May sun, was my grandmother's bracelet.


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"I don't fucking believe it," BB said, and man, he spoke for the ages.


I can't even begin to calculate the odds of that mashed parcel remaining attached by a single ribbon to the very end of the wreck of my parents' car, or of it being the first thing my brother should lay hands on when we arrived. But when the Brownie lost her heirloom ring a few weeks later, the knowledge that we were still one bracelet to the good made it hard for me to feel too sad about the ring's loss.

Before my parents had left New Hampshire, Mom had turned the bracelet over for cleaning to a local jeweler who also specialized in the restoration and repair of antique jewelry. Since he was already familiar with the bracelet, BB thought it made sense to give him the job of trying to uncrimp it after the accident, and I had a hard time arguing the point. Thus it was that I was persuaded to let him take it back to New Hampshire when it was time for him to leave at the end of that week.

Our drive to the airport that day was once more filled with awkward silence, but a different kind of awkward.

"You all right?" I finally asked, as we reached the airport garage and I found a parking space.

"Yeah, it's just...funny. I didn't think I'd feel so bad about leaving when the end of the week came. I figured I'd be fucking sick of you," he said.

I was strangely touched and said so. "You know, you can come and stay any time you like, for as long as you like," I said.

"Yeah, yeah, maybe this fall. Too much to do this summer," he said and I nodded. For while our journey to see where my parents died had signaled a kind of end to things, in truth our troubles were just beginning. Soon enough, the probate court back in New Hampshire would confirm us as co-executors of my parents' estate, and before the summer was over we'd have to conduct an inventory of the house.

"I'll fly back when it's time. We'll do it together and get it done in a few days," I assured him, as we reached the security gate at the airport.

"Yeah," BB agreed. "Okay." And without warning he dropped his carry-on bag and swept me up in a bear hug that made my ribs squeak and caused flashes of light to explode behind my eyes.

"Call me when you get there," I gasped.

"Yeah, whatever," he said, dropping me to the ground as suddenly as he'd picked me up. Then he turned without another word and marched off to the security station. I waited for a few minutes, thinking that once he was through the checkpoint, he might turn around and wave. I even half-raised my arm in farewell when I saw him at the end of the checkpoint. But instead of turning to me, BB spotted the Burger King stand a few feet in front of him and made his way directly there, leaving me standing in the corridor, feeling foolish and alone.

Well, maybe not alone, after all.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, June 28, 2007

 

Travels with BB (Part Two)..

The purple orb of urine spun in the warm air as it flew in a high arc, up, up, and then down, exploding in a gaily twinkling (or perhaps tinkling) spray of droplets--into the Dumpster at the back of the rest area where we had stopped.

"Waste of a good water balloon," BB said, as he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of smokes. Ten years ago, when BB was diagnosed with Type-II diabetes, he seemed to catch religion, as far as his health was concerned. He quit his sedentary desk job, stopped eating lunch everyday at a fast-food joint, and quit smoking. I was so impressed with his turnaround, I ended up using him in a story I wrote for Men's Health magazine later that year. Now here he was puffing his way through at least a pack a day. It pained me to see it. BB's more or less in his mid-40s and dresses out at around 300 pounds--not the ideal profile for someone who wants to pick up smoking again. But I had refrained from saying anything: I knew this was one tool in a limited arsenal that was helping my big brother keep his shit together.

As he lit up, I stood upwind, still thinking about the purple glove.

"Not like you don't have box full of the things," I said. "Incidentally, what were you planning to do with that many latex gloves?"

"They're heavy-duty. EMTs use 'em. Thought we might need 'em if we have to pick through broken glass and stuff," BB answered. "I also brought some industrial garbage bags to wrap up anything we take home. I expect there to be a lotta engine oil, residue from whatever retardant the fire team would have sprayed the car with to prevent a fire and, you know, stuff."

By "stuff," I knew exactly what BB meant. I had seen the police report by this time. I had spoken at length with both the coroner who autopsied my parents and the funeral director who did her futile best to make them presentable. My parents suffered multiple and severe lacerations in the accident. BB was talking about blood.

But instead of dwelling on this morbid thought, I found myself fairly impressed with my brother's forethought. When you're a little brother with a big mouth, it's all too easy--indeed, for much of my youth, I considered it my job--to dismiss your big brother as a total loser. But the truth is, BB is actually pretty goddamn sharp when he wants to be.

"That--that was good thinking," I allowed.

BB cocked his head and opened his mouth to speak, seemed to think the better of it, then closed his lips back over his cigarette and continued puffing. Ever since the funeral, we'd been uncharacteristically decent to one another, which caused each of us to occasionally say something kind--such as my meager compliment about his good thinking--while the other was left with no clue how to respond. It led to us spending a lot of time sharing uncomfortable silences together, like two little kids doing their awkward best to be grown-ups while their parents were out of the room. Except, of course, our parents weren't coming back into the room, so our kind demeanors had been stretched far beyond the bounds of normal use.

However, as night fell, as my car brought us ever closer to Elkhart, our kind demeanors were becoming brittle as both of us grew increasingly nervous and irritable.

"Can you stop pumping that goddamn pedal!" BB cried without warning, about 20 minutes after we left the rest area.

"Pumping? What pumping?" I asked.

"You know what pumping. You tromp on the pedal and we juice ahead, then you let up and we lurch and drop back. Like riding a fucking donkey!"

"You're imagining things."

"Not likely. You drive like an old woman."

"Hey, fucko. Any time you want to drive, you just sing out."

That shut him up. BB was extremely nervous about driving. Especially driving on the same toll road where our parents had met their end.

A short while later, as the sun went down, BB became a fidgety silhouette in the passenger seat. He was having a nicotine fit or something. Then he stopped moving and suddenly I heard this repetitive smacking noise. BB was chewing a wad of gum. With his mouth open. The chewing noise was wet and loud, like hippos kissing. Or mating.

Smack.Smack.Smack.

I stared ahead at the road, trying to concentrate.

Smack.Smack.Squirgle.Smack.

I turned up the volume on the radio. The Fine Young Cannibals were singing "She Drives Me Crazy."

Smack.Smack.Smack.Smackity.Smackle.Smack.Smack.

"WOULD YOU FUCKING CLOSE YOUR MOUTH WHEN YOU CHEW?!?" I screamed, so loudly and suddenly that BB actually did stop smacking. Then he made a gagging noise and threw a tiny, full-body fit, followed by an exaggerated gulping noise.

"Thanks, motherfucker! Made me goddamn choke on my goddamn gum! Now I've swallowed it--and it was my last fucking piece."

"Well, Jesus, I'm surprised there was any left in your mouth, the way you were sucking and smacking on it. It was sounding like a porn film over there!"

BB swore under his breath, then reached for his shirt pocket. I heard the crackle of cellophane.

"I KNOW you don't think you're gonna smoke in my car!" I cried.

"I'll stick my head out the window!" he shouted back. "I'm fucking desperate."

"We're gonna be in Elkhart in an hour. You can't wait?"

BB looked at me as though I were insane. Then he pulled out his lighter and flicked the wheel of it.

"Oh you weak-ass smoking shithead!" I yelled, and arrowed us into the breakdown lane, jamming on my brakes as I did so. BB jerked forward, contacting the dashboard with his face, and dropping his lighter and his smokes. He scrabbled in the dark for a moment, then sat up, opened the door and hopped out before I'd even brought the car to a halt.

While he puffed manically on the shoulder, I toyed with the idea of leaving him there.

We didn't speak to each other for the rest of the drive, arriving at our motel in Elkhart a little after 9 in the evening. While I finished signing in, BB grabbed one of the keys off the manager's desk and walked our bags to the room.

When I let myself into our room a few minutes later, BB was nowhere to be found. The lights were still off. I flailed briefly, found a switch and flicked it on. Our bags were plopped on the floor right in front of the bathroom door, which was closed.

I grabbed my bag and picked the bed farthest from the bathroom. Please God, don't let him be taking one of his Olympic-class dumps. Please? I have to share a room with him tonight and there's not enough Lysol in the world to save me if he's taking--

And just then, I heard the muffled flush of a toilet. Followed by another muffled flush. Then swearing.

Oh no, I thought.

The door opened. I could almost see a cloud of noxious vapors swirling around my brother.

"Hey," he said looking at me, hunched in the far corner of the room. "Can you go down to the desk and see if they have a plunger?"

I gaped at him for a moment, then I lost it.

"Go get it yourself, you stupid fat shit!" I cried, realizing only later that "Your stupid fat shit!" would also have worked in this situation.

"You know what? You call me 'stupid' or 'fat' again, I'll put you in the fucking morgue!" he bellowed, an old threat from our youth. But BB suddenly thought of a new spin. "And hey, we're in Elkhart! You can get the same coroner Mom and Dad got!"

I'm usually pretty immune to my brother's insults, but this one hit the rawest of nerves. I was off my bed in a blink, charging straight at him.

Of course, my childhood reads like a series of pauses between fights with my brother, and they almost always started like this--a few verbal jabs followed by a spattering of blood, usually mine. BB has almost always outweighed me by more than a hundred pounds, and put me in the ER a number of times. Sometimes the fights were his fault. Sometimes--okay, a lot of times--they were mine. I don't know that I can really fault him for this one, not entirely. My mom used to say that blame is a partnership, and I think we both had 50 percent voting stock on this fight.

As I lunged at my brother, he shoved his hand into my face and pushed me to one side. I stumbled as the edge of his bed caught me behind the knees and made a wild, flailing swing (I made the swing, not the bed). BB checked it easily, and then pasted me good--POW--right in the mouth. I bounced hard off the bed and hit the floor.

I would have been content to let it go there--when BB lands a punch, you don't get up in a hurry--but he wasn't finished with me. "That's for your big fat yap!" he grunted down at me. Then he pulled back and kicked me hard in the ass. "And that's for the shit you pulled on me with your stupid-ass blog!"

(That's how BB is in a throwdown. He feels compelled to justify each blow, often bringing up things that have no bearing on the moment. The whole falling-out relative to the blog is a long story, by the way, and one I don't have time to tell in the middle of a fight.)

BB left me alone long enough to get up, then he pushed me again, this time sending me into the wall between the two beds in our room. My shoulder crushed one of the bedside lampshades, breaking the bulb inside. As bits of glass filtered down onto the rug, I looked down and saw the phone on the nightstand, grabbed it, and flung it at BB--Ka-DING--hitting him in the elbow. He came at me again, getting his meaty forearm up under my chin and lifting me off the floor.

"Aggk! Can't...breathe..." I gasped.

BB's size is both his blessing and his curse in a fight. On the one hand, of course, he's a big guy, and so can kick your ass and mine too. On the other hand, he's a thoughtful big guy and over the years he's hurt just a few too many people by accident. His eyes got wide and he relaxed for just a moment.

"Sucker," I said, bringing my knee up hard into his balls.

Groaning, BB sagged and listed sideways.

"Dirty…fighter..." was all he could gasp. In nearly every scrap in which I've managed to get in one good lick, BB has always accused me of dirty fighting, never stopping to consider that outweighing me by a good 140 pounds isn't exactly the definition of a fair fight.

I didn't say that to him, though. I just fell on top of him and went all Drunken Booger on his ass, flinging elbows and knees.

But BB knows the secret to defeating the Drunken Booger technique. He wrapped his big arms around me, pinning my arms to my side. He squeezed for all he was worth. This time I really couldn't breathe as he forced all the air out of me. Up and down my spine, joints popped like distant fireworks. He stood with me still in his arms and flung me at the opposite wall. I slid bonelessly down it.

"Fucking fucker!" my brother bellowed at no one in particular. He looked around wildly and I could see that tears were standing in his eyes. Then he swiped his room key and his cigarettes off a nearby table and stormed out of the room.

I sat propped against the wall for a long moment, tasting a little blood in my mouth from where my teeth had bitten into the inside of my lip after BB's first punch. Then I wiped my own eyes, got up and absently began putting the room back together. While I was busy hiding the broken lampshade under the bed, my cell phone rang and I realized that I had forgotten to call Her Lovely Self when we hit town. I spent a few apologetic minutes calming her down--she was as nervous about us driving as we were. While I was on the phone, BB returned, brandishing a plunger. Without even looking at me, he disappeared into the bathroom for a while, then emerged with his street clothes in a bundle under his arm and wordlessly climbed into bed. By the time I rang off from HLS, he was already snoring loudly. And I have to admit, despite my initial adrenaline surge, I was feeling wiped out too. I fell into a dreamless sleep in probably five minutes.

When I opened my eyes, it was early morning, earlier than I usually get up. BB was spread-eagled on his bed, snoring like a sawmill. I got up and, after a brief but lively moment where I felt the welt on my ass from where BB had kicked me the night before, I quietly collected my clothes, dressed and left the room.

In the lobby, the staff had not even set out their complimentary breakfast spread, it was that early. I decided I couldn't wait for coffee and so trotted outside and across the street to the nearby convenience store. I got a cup of coffee large enough to fill two latex gloves, made a few other purchases, which I deposited in my car, then went back to the motel and sat on a concrete bench outside in the sun. I spread out a map on the bench and read off a set of directions from a crumpled piece of notepaper, trying to orient myself and figure out where the wrecking yard was that had stored my parents' Jeep for the past three weeks. As I traced a finger along the state highway that ran both through my map and directly past my motel, I was dimly aware that some part of me was steeling itself for this next phase of the surreal odyssey that had been my life since the day my parents were killed. I found myself despairing that my grandmother's bracelet would ever be found, and wondered what I would do if it didn't turn up. How far would I go to look for this thing? Yesterday, BB had briefly mentioned going up the toll road a little further to the very mile marker where the accident had occurred, but I put the kibosh to that idea right away. Seeing the Jeep would be bad enough. Plus, I didn't exactly relish the notion of pulling over on a busy toll road to survey an accident scene three weeks after the fact. Odds were pretty good we'd end up causing an accident ourselves. Thankfully, BB eventually dropped the idea, but now I was taking it up. How far would I go to recover that bracelet?

I stood up now, arching my stiff back. I was most definitely too old to be getting in fights with my brother, I thought, rubbing my sore butt. And speaking of sore butts, I wondered how sore BB would be after last night's to-do. Historically, such squabbles heralded the beginning of a long, simmering period of mutual anger and resentment. Very occasionally, though, BB would wake up the next day acting as though nothing had happened. I was very much hoping for the latter; I didn't think I could stand having a huge sourpuss in the car with me for the next 9 hours, let alone in my house for the next week.

For the next little while, though, all indicators were suggesting that I was in for a long, hard day, regardless.

For starters, when I got my bill from the desk, I noticed they had overcharged me for the room by a good $25. I had booked the room online using a coupon code, but the day manager, who acted as though I was trying to pull a fast one on him, a notion from which he could not be disabused, even after he called his manager at some distant office, and was assured that, yes, there was an Internet, and people actually reserved motel rooms from the comfort of their own homes, using special incentive codes that they typed in themselves.

With that resolved, I sat down in the lobby to eat my complimentary breakfast. BB, so far as I could tell, had still not emerged from our room, which meant I was going to have to go wake him up soon, an action I most certainly did not relish, for BB is no more a morning person than I am. As I was absorbed in such thoughts, a burly fellow in sagging jeans and a Chicago Cubs baseball cap lumbered in to the lobby, consulted briefly with the manager at the desk, then turned to the three or four of us sitting in the dining area and announced in a booming voice that, for reasons known only to himself, he simply had to park his U-Haul van crosswise in the first three parking spaces right by the front door of the motel. The only problem was, there was a pesky little Honda CR-V in one of the spaces.

"That's mine," I said, and I offered to move the car as soon as I finished eating. Mr. Cubs Cap goggled at me for a second, then turned and stalked out the door without so much as a thank you. I can only assume he expected me to drop what I was doing and hop immediately to the task of clearing a space for him, even though, it must be said, the motel was not exactly at capacity. He had almost the entire rest of the lot to himself.

But I didn't really mind moving my car, since I was almost finished eating anyway. I spooned the last of my cereal into my mouth and took a last swig of coffee. This action couldn't have taken more than a minute. Nevertheless, within that time-frame, Cubs Cap was back in the lobby, now giving exaggerated looks at his watch and staring at me. The manager, who had already decided that we were not going to be best friends, joined Cubs Cap in glaring at me.

What a tool, I thought, but said nothing. I stood up, catching the sympathetic eye of a fellow motel guest, then grabbed my paper plate and cup and moved to throw them out. Unfortunately this action caused me to take a couple of steps away from the front door of the motel, and this sent Cubs Cap into an apoplectic fit.

"Oh, come on!" he cried.

I turned now and was about to tell the guy to stop being such a dink, when I saw BB standing in the lobby, right behind Cubs Cap. He must have come through and gone out for a smoke while I was pouring myself a bowl of cereal.

"HEY!" BB boomed, his mouth about two inches from the guy's ear. Now everyone in the lobby stopped and looked. Cubs Cap jumped about a foot as he whirled, startled. The guy was big, to be sure, but BB was a head taller and he was wearing his look of most serious consternation and displeasure, what I have for years come to think of as the Whafuck? look.

BB scowled down at the man. "How about you lay off my brother for a minute?" he said, an edge in his voice, and all of a sudden I was 9 years old again. This could have been the gym, or the hallway or the locker room of an elementary or junior high school, and Cubs Cap could have been Peter Krause or Brian Parnell or David Chew, or any of the other bullies of my youth who had no idea they were going to find themselves unceremoniously stuffed into a locker or a trash can before the next bell rang. I couldn't help but smile.

"It's all right," I said quietly, jingling my keys, edging past them while BB continued staring down Mr. Cubs Cap. Outside, I skirted the U-Haul truck that was idling at the front doors--why did this guy need to park so close anyway?--and moved my car. As I looked over my shoulder, I noticed both BB's bag and mine were in the back, packed and ready for the road. A moment later, BB came outside and clambered in.

"Oh yeah, they're gonna welcome us back here with open arms," he said with a grin. Then he put his Whafuck? look back on and turned around to glare some more at Cubs Cap, who was standing in the doorway. "Hit it, kid," he said, and we peeled out of there.

"Glad you're in such a good mood this morning," I said as I turned onto the state highway listed in my directions.

"And why wouldn't--ow, hey! What am I sitting on?" he said, reaching under himself to fish out the plastic shopping bag containing my convenience store purchases. He peeked inside.

"Hey, can I have some of your gum?" he asked...


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

 

Travels with BB (Part One)...


Well, much as everyone seems to be yelling "Duck!" from the previous post, I think I need to go with one of the runners-up. It's a story I meant to tell you earlier, and I really need to get it out of my system.

You recall, a couple of posts ago, how I was able to come fairly quickly to terms with my daughter's lost ring (still not found, by the way)? Well, there was a reason for that: missing jewelry--indeed, missing heirloom jewelry--is a bit of a recurring theme right now. The lost ring was actually the second time this has happened.

The first time was when we realized the bracelet was lost.

It was a simple gold bracelet and it belonged to my grandmother, Catherine Ellen Lang. We have an old black-and-white picture of her at age 6, wearing an impossibly pouffy dress with a truly startling large black bow in her hair. But she's smiling right into the camera, and her hands are intertwined up near her face, so that on one wrist you can clearly see the bracelet that was given to her by her grandfather that year. You can't see the underside of the bracelet in the picture, of course, but I know there's an inscription there, and it reads: CEL from Grandpa, December 10, 1923.

My grandmother died in early 2000, after several hard years of suffering from increasingly severe dementia. The last time I saw her, she had no idea who I was, although she took one look at baby Thomas and knew he was her first great-grandson. That was common for Grandma at the end: She'd have these startling bursts of lucidity amidst the confusion, and when she did, it was almost always to recognize something (or someone) important. Or to give her daughters--my mom and my aunt Cathy--instructions, something she seemed to enjoy to the very end of her days.

Indeed, one of her last sets of instructions was that her cherished gold bracelet--safe at home and impossible to wear now on her swollen wrist--should go to her great-granddaughter.

"And I mean my first great-granddaughter, not the second one. She can have the diamond ring. Or the brooch. You know the one," Grandma had told my mother.

Mom knew the jewelry she was talking about, but she felt compelled to tell Grandma that she was confused.

"It's just Thomas, Ma," she said. "There are no great-granddaughters, first or second. You mean you want Thomas to have it? Or do you want Kelly to have it?" Kelly is my cousin and the first (and only) granddaughter.

As my mom tried to make sense of the request, Grandma put her hand out imperiously, palm out to shut my mother up.

"I know what I'm talking about!" she insisted. "I mean my first great-granddaughter."

"But there isn't one," my Mom said.

Grandma fixed her with a glare that just about caused the curtains behind my Mom to burst into flames. "She'll be along soon enough."

Grandma died two days later. Seven months after that, when I told my Mom that Her Lovely Self was pregnant again, Mom said, "Ah, that'll be the great-granddaughter your Grandma was waiting for."

Sure enough, the Brownie arrived the following April. We gave her "Catherine" as a middle name. And this year, on April 30, on what would have been the Brownie's 6th birthday, my Mom was planning to give her the bracelet.

But as you know, Mom died four days shy of that birthday.

I admit that in the days that followed, I completely forgot about the bracelet, right up until I got a call from the coroner's office in Elkhart, Indiana, wanting to know where to send some of my parents' effects. Apparently, when the coroner arrived at the scene of the accident that killed my parents, he secured whatever valuables he could find: Dad's wallet, their camcorder and digital camera (both in miraculous working order), a box of baseball cards Dad was bringing out for Thomas, and mom's voluminous purse.

"We did an inventory of the items," the coroner informed me. "Your mother had quite a bit of cash in her purse, as well as a couple of small gift-wrapped packages."

When he said that, my heart leapt as I remembered the bracelet. I gave him my address and thanked him kindly for taking care of the items.

The box containing my parents' effects were shipped to the Magazine Mansion at about the same time my Big Brother and I were getting on a plane together. I was finally flying home and I had asked BB to come and spend a week with my family. I couldn't bear the thought of just leaving him alone so soon after putting our parents in the ground. So he came home with me, and the next morning, when the big box arrived from Elkhart, we steeled ourselves and went through it together.

Let me say here and now that if I ever happen to die, I'll gladly do it in Elkhart, under the care of its local coroner. Not only were all my parents' items meticulously catalogued and cared for, but we found, in mom's purse, a fat wad of cash totaling over 400 dollars. I can think of all sorts of reasons for that cash to have gone missing, but there it was.

Along with two small wrapped gifts.

"The bracelet," BB breathed, handing me the crumpled package. I tore it open, only to find a rosary, a gift for Thomas' Communion, now hopelessly destroyed by the stupendous impact of the accident, its beads crushed and broken.

The second gift was a small child's book about Mass and Communion, another gift for Thomas.

We went through Mom's purse twice each, and even upended the camera cases. But in the end, we were forced to conclude the bracelet was not there.

"Maybe she never had it in her purse. She might have packed it in her suitcase," BB mused, but he didn't sound hopeful. That's because in one of the aerial pictures of the accident scene, which I had found online, you could see a small red square broken open on the highway, which I knew instantly to be my mother's suitcase. If the bracelet had been in there, it could easily have been part of the ample debris that littered that fatal part of the Indiana Toll Road that day. The bracelet was almost certainly lost forever.

And yet, even with the odds against us, we knew: We were going to have to drive to Elkhart and search what was left of my parents' car, which had been sitting in a wrecking yard for the past three weeks.

We had talked about doing it anyway, despite the loud objections of many friends and one wife. The overall feeling against us going was that we were needlessly setting ourselves up for more shock and grief by visiting the scene of the accident, by seeing with our own eyes the tangled mass of tires and metal that had been my parents' tomb. But BB and I saw it differently. Our parents had raised us to be unflinching about certain unfortunate facts of life, such as death. Growing up, whenever a relative died in our family, my parents invariably brought us along to the wake or the funeral, and we were often the only children present at such ceremonies. Not to go to Indiana now seemed like a refutation of the kind of men they wanted us to be. And anyway, this felt like the last piece of the whole awful puzzle. We needed to go. Had there been no bracelet to look for, we still would have gone.

And so we did.

We climbed into my car early Sunday morning and set off. In the back we had a couple of overnight bags and a box my brother insisted on bringing.

"Please don't tell me you've brought a gun or anything!" I said, when he refused to tell me what was in the box.

BB shook his head, not to assure me about the lack of firearms, but to despair of my stupidity. "Wait. Let's just think about this for a second. I've just flown cross-country. On an airplane. They wouldn't let me carry a fucking lighter aboard, but somehow they'd let me bring a gun? Do you even know how to spell 'numbnuts'?!? Cause that oughtta be your name!!"

"Okay! Okay! But...what the hell's in there?" I asked.

"Need-to-know basis, dickweed. You'll find out when we get there."

And getting there was going to take a while, at least 9 hours, probably more if we hit traffic. More than that, both my brother and I were inclined to drive rather cautiously. I hated myself a little to discover that I was avoiding being near any semi trucks and passed them only if I had no other choice. Something that was pretty hard to avoid on the interstate. Something that was impossible once we got within orbit of Chicago.

Having lived in Chicago for a few years, I was the obvious choice to drive that leg of the trip. BB sure as hell wasn't going to get behind the wheel; he hadn't been in city traffic in years. This was a man who complained about road congestion when he found himself waiting behind more than three cars at a stoplight. "My nerves," he said, as the highway brought us into an eight-lane expanse of whizzing cars and blaring trucks. "Too many fucking cars," he said.

Let me hasten to add that I wasn't doing much better. My city-driving skills haven't atrophied very much, but that didn't stop me from being nervous as hell. With the kind of irony that tends to govern my life, I could easily imagine driving our asses into a spectacular automotive death of our own.

But once we got through a tollbooth and the initial crush of traffic, I started to relax, just a smidge.

Which explains why I didn't notice the semi.

I was in a far right lane when it happened. A tractor trailer came up on my right, in the exit-only lane, intending to get off at the next ramp. Or so it seemed. But just seconds before he was committed irretrievably to the exit, the driver must have realized he was taking a wrong turn, because in the time it will take me to get to the period at the end of this sentence, he was veering back onto the expressway, into my lane. Which, incidentally, was itself ending in less than an eighth of a mile.

My first alert to this situation was my brother, who has a tendency to scream out words in a rapid and weirdly high-pitched voice whenever danger looms.

"FuckatrucktruckTRUCKtruckafuckcomingfuckfuckcomingBACK!" he cried.

I made to move into the next lane over before the oblivious semi could sideswipe me. But at that second, another semi was coming up in the lane on my left. Suddenly we were the filling in an impending tractor-trailer sandwich.

There was nothing for it--I stamped on the gas pedal and we shot between the two semis, clearing the narrowing gap just as the lane ended. Then we were driving on the shoulder and even that was ending fast. I yanked the wheel hard, pulling us safely back on the road. Sweat was streaming down my face, my hands were welded to the steering wheel.

"Oh Jesus, pull over," BB said. "I just shit my pants. In fact, I think I shit your pants too."

Of course, I didn't pull over. I was too busy checking my mirror as, behind me, the wayward semi dealt with our lane ending by accelerating, blasting his horn and veering in just ahead of the second semi, narrowly avoiding yet another collision.

My brother is a member of my family, and therefore is just as gifted with powers of exaggeration as the rest of us, so I had hoped that his announcement involving pants-shitting was simply a case of him suffering a hyperbolic seizure. But then he said, in a husky, distracted trying-to-hold-something-in kind of voice. "Seriously, man, can we stop somewhere, like, really soon?"

Unfortunately, we had just passed a rest area some miles back and wouldn't find another one until the Indiana border. "Can you make it? I mean, did you--you didn't really--?" I asked, taking a tentative sniff of the air in the cabin of my car.

"No," he admitted. "I didn't shit myself, but I DO have to piss like a racehorse."

I kept my foot on the gas, and told him to hold on, but we were still a solid 15 minutes from the next rest stop and meanwhile BB was squirming in his seat like a 4-year-old.

"Can't stand it," he finally said, unhooking his seatbelt to reach into the back. He pulled the mystery box forward and opened it. With my eyes glued to the road, I couldn't really see what was in there. Then I watched out of the corner of my eye as he pulled out a smaller box, opened that and pulled out something shockingly purple.

It was a single latex glove.

"What are you--?" I began, but then BB shifted off the front seat onto his knees. I heard the unmistakable sound of a zipper and glanced over despite myself. "Oh Jesus Christ!!!" I cried.

I couldn't help it; I took my eyes off the road for a second as the glove BB held swelled to unbelievable proportions, taking on the appearance of a set of cow's udders. Only purple. And full of piss.

BB gave an almost obscene sigh of relief.

"And what are you going to do with your purple piss glove now, Mister Man?" I bleated as I put down some windows (because, you know, pee stinks).

He gazed proudly at the quivering, uddered orb of fluid. "Oh, I dunno. Is the semi that almost killed us still behind us?" he asked...


Monday, June 25, 2007

 

In Which We Have Failure to Launch...



I keep meaning to write a new entry, I do. It's just, well...

I don't know that I ever told you this before, but when I sit down to write a blog entry, a good 90 percent of the time, I start by writing one or two simple sentences, maybe even a small paragraph, something that sums up my most recent misadventure fairly succinctly (although sometimes it's just a weird thought bouncing around in my head that has no bearing on anything). Then I write my way away from that passage, like a swimmer paddling away from a raft in the middle of a lake.

Often, the sentences end up being the last line or two of an entry, but lots of times my starter sentences get stuck somewhere in the middle as I write above and below them, filling in the other two (or three or four) thousand words. Very rarely does my starter sentence become the actual start of a blog entry.

I tell you that so you understand what comes next. Over the past couple of weeks, I've written down several starter sentences, but they don't seem to be taking me anywhere just now. Maybe it's because I'm so up-to-my-eyeballs busy with work, or because I'm spending a lot of evenings talking to my brother and helping him manage our parents' affairs, or because when I'm not spending evenings talking to BB, I'm spending them with the Éclair, who is proving to have quite a temper (I predict she will become a world-class ball-breaker).

But tonight, when I sat down to by-God write something to let you all know that my brain still pulses (albeit barely), I opened up my last blog document, and there was a whole catalog of starter sentences. It reminded me just a little bit of the Chris Van Allsburg book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a wonderful book that invites you to make up your own stories based on the illustrations within.

So in that spirit, I offer you a few starter sentences, with an appropriate title (and even a picture or two, in some cases) to go with each one. Make of them what you will.



In Which I Have Second Thoughts...

It was only after I hung up the phone that I wondered: How smart was it that I had just scheduled my vasectomy for Friday the 13th?



In Which the Light Bulb Goes Off...

As I stared at the smoldering duck, all I could think about was the four previous nights that I'd been plugging the thing in, again and again.

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"Holy shit!" I cried to Her Lovely Self. "Thank God you've been getting up and unplugging this duck. It would have burned the house down!"

Her Lovely Self stared at me quizzically. "But I've never unplugged the duck," she said.




Travels with BB (Part One)...

There was nothing for it--I stamped on the gas pedal and we shot between the two semis, clearing the narrowing gap just as the lane ended. Suddenly we were driving on the shoulder and even that was ending fast. I yanked the wheel hard, pulling us safely back on the road. Sweat was streaming down my face, my hands were welded to the steering wheel.

"Oh Jesus, pull over," BB said. "I just shit my pants. In fact, I think I shit your pants too."




In Which I Just Have to Say...


My first thought was: Do I have the most beautiful daughters or what?


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My second thought was: Thank God I brought Dad's shotgun home.






I'm not saying these starter sentences won't ever become full blog posts (in fact, if you have a favorite, I'm willing to open comments for voting and see if the majority will motivate me). But for right now, it's the best I can do, except to wish you a good evening and hope that you are all well.

Tonight, for some reason, I kind of am.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Monday, June 11, 2007

 

In Which We Cope...


Not long after I returned from New Hampshire, I went to see my doctor, mostly to bitch about my back, which was acting up after a few weeks of long plane flights and car rides and sleeping in strange beds and in general for bearing all sorts of burdens. But my doc had heard the news about my parents--one of her other patients works in my office--and it was only part of her job to bring up the idea of antidepressants and antianxiolytics.

Aside from accepting a couple of weeks' worth of painkillers for my back (which I am no longer taking), I refused any other medicinal assistance. I'm depressed, for sure. I feel incomparably bereft. But I have no thoughts of harming myself or others--not even so much as a fleeting impulse--and I am able to function under the load of daily life without feeling out of control. So I turned her down. "I just think I need to feel bad for a while," I said. Which she seemed to understand.

Now, this is not to say that many people don't need prescription help--hell, I certainly haven't ruled it out completely, just for now. I have other ways of mitigating. Sometimes grief has a way of leading you to moments when you do things that seem absolutely crazy to bystanders, but which are ultimately good for you, if not downright healing.

This weekend, I had such a moment. Sunday was the long-awaited and postponed day of the Éclair's baptism, which was originally going to happen back in April. So, too, was Thomas' first Communion (which was a long time coming, as readers of the account of his first Confession already knew). Her Lovely Self's family descended as a horde--parents and sisters and brothers-in-law and cousins beyond reliable counting, since they wouldn't stop moving.

It was a time for much catching up, including on birthdays, so there was an orgy of gift-giving, although I am generally classified as a Hard Buy. This feeling exists on both sides of the family. Not long ago, my brother despaired that he never knew what to get me for my birthday. "You have everything!" he cried. "Is there any cool toy or gadget you don't have?"

"Yeah," I said, a trifle ticked off that he should say such a thing. "You know damn well what I want: A metal detector!"

"Dream on!" my Big Brother laughed. As BB well knows, when I was a young boy detective, I was convinced that a metal detector would not only be a valuable investigative tool, but could also provide a useful side income recovering lost treasure. Unfortunately, then as now, metal detectors cost a lot of money. Even the modestly priced one I had my eye on had cost over $100 in the 1970s. My dad had said for that money he'd buy me livestock and I could get a side income from that. In the event, he and my mom got me a tape recorder instead and I was so ungracious about it that my parents vowed NEVER to get me a metal detector.

And so I never have. This year? Clothes and gift cards. So it goes.

Then the multiple birthdays were over and Sunday morning came and everyone dressed in his or her Sunday best. At the suggestion of Her Lovely Self, the Brownie brought out a for-special ring, a small gold band with a tiny ruby in it, given to her by my mother. It had been my mom's when she was a girl and before that had belonged to a favorite aunt. It's a child's ring and should have fit the Brownie, but it was a little too small to fit on any finger but her pinkie, and there it was just a bit too big.

"Maybe I shouldn't wear it," she said, gazing at it. "Maybe it will get lost."

And of course it did.

Somewhere between the car ride to church and meeting and greeting our assorted relatives in the parking lot (which necessitated a lot of jumping and hooting and spirited boogying), and holding her baby sister all through Mass, the ring slipped off and landed somewhere. The Brownie didn't even notice its absence until we were on our way home.

Now, I'll admit there are times when I go all Dad on my kids and speak harshly to them for being inattentive with their things (letting the dog play Nintendo DS, impaling action figures with sparklers and setting them alight, stuffing the better portion of their fall wardrobe irretrievably down a heater vent because they didn't like the colors), but I just couldn't be mad or even really disappointed with the Brownie, or with Her Lovely Self, both of whom were disconsolate and near tears at the loss.

But I did decide to find the ring if I could, so while nearly 20 family members milled about the house, eating and playing games in the back yard, I toiled. First I turned the van upside down, then pulled the cars out of the garage and walked every inch of the floor and the driveway beyond. Then I drove over to the church and spent more than an hour walking the parking lot from where we'd parked up to the church and back again, an act of eccentricity that so unnerved the ladies counting the Sunday collection inside, that one of them finally poked her head out a window and inquired if I was all right. It was good timing, since the church had been locked (God's house, can you believe it?). I explained what was up and they kindly let me in. Alas, our church is a spare one with wooden pews and slate flooring and not many places for even a tiny ring to hide. Our priest walked in and saw my butt sticking out of one of the pews.

"Wallet or jewelry?" he asked sagely.

After assuring me he'd keep an eye out--someone could have picked it up and preferred to walk it in later in the week rather than leave it in the lost-and-found box--I headed back outside and began to search one of four grassy medians in the parking lot where my kids had run to after getting out of the car.

Talk about a needle in a haystack! The sod here was all thatched and went down a long way--it would be very easy for a ring to drop all the way to the dirt and unless I put my hand right on it, I'd never find it. I said a quick prayer to St. Anthony, then upgraded to St. Jude as the early afternoon wore away and the ring remained unfound.

I took a break around 3, sitting in my car, slurping warm water and generally feeling perplexed.

How am I ever going to find the ring in all that grass? I wondered. I'd practically need a--

And 15 minutes later, I was at the local sporting goods store, buying myself a metal detector.

My 10-year-old self would be very surprised to learn something my 39-year-old self discovered to his cost: Working a metal detector is a right pain in the ass. For starters, I had the devil's own time adjusting it to the proper height so that I could sweep the ground without being stooped over or running the damn thing into the dirt. Second, you have to sweep realllly slowly and methodically. And even then, the thing is, you know, a metal detector, which means it will detect bits of tin cans, nails, and other things patently not ring-like. But I had faith in the machine and so spent the next two hours sweeping, then dropping at the slightest beep and stooping to scrabble around in the zone where the detector had sounded. Once I swept all four medians, I went back again, this time having worked out the sensitivity switch that allowed me to filter out such bits of hardware as the church sprinkler system.

The afternoon wore on. Our priest came back again, and pulled his car over to the median where I was currently on my hands and knees, prostrated, face about an inch from the grass.

"You know, we have a place inside for that," he said.

Har har.

By 6:30, with no ring in sight, I was ready to call it a day. I caught up with the family over at the local baseball field, where Thomas was practicing with his team. They've finished their season tied for 2nd place and the semi-finals start tomorrow. Her Lovely Self was glad to see me, though sad that I had not found the ring.

Sadder than I was, actually.

As she had put it, there are so many things in my life right now that I can't ever get back, she thought surely this would be one thing I could recover.

"Well, maybe I will someday," I said. "But I gave it my best shot and I'm satisfied. Plus," I added, feeling awfully philosophical for someone who had a world-class case of sunburn on the back of his neck and elbows, "I guess there are worse ways to spend a Sunday than being on my knees at church for the better part of six hours. Better than an antidepressant."

But Her Lovely Self couldn't let the ring go. "I hope it comes back. I hope your mom finds some way to put it back in our hands."

"Yes," I nodded, "or maybe she helped it to get lost so that I could finally get a metal detector."

Her Lovely Self nodded with me. Then stopped.

"Wait. A what?!?"


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, June 07, 2007

 

In Which We Lower the Flag...


My aunt Barbara died today.

After hearing the news, the folks at the post office lowered the flag to half-mast, and there it will remain for the rest of the week, which is only fitting. For more than 25 years--and for all of my youth--Barbara was the town postmaster, the center of news and indeed the center of life for her little community.

I'm feeling mighty low tonight. In less than 18 months, I've lost the last of my grandparents, my Mom and Dad, and now my favorite aunt, a woman I spent nearly every summer of my youth with. For the first half of my life, these people were the pillars, the very foundation of my world, each in their own way responsible for making me the man who writes these words. Now they're all gone. And as much as I love my family and am grateful for their unfailing sweetness and support, tonight I am as lonely as I've ever felt in my life.

I can't really muster any more than that, so I'll simply leave you with the following. It's a piece I wrote when I was 20 years old. Aunt Barbara was still running the town post office out of her living room--one of the last small-town post offices to reside in a private home--but that was going to change soon, so I decided to write a day-in-the-life piece about the place, and therefore about the town. I even got my girlfriend--a professional photographer--to come up to New Hampshire and spend a day shooting the photos that you'll see here (apologies for the poor scans).

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(That's aunt Barbara and uncle David in their sitting room, which doubled as the lobby of the post office. Yeah, that's me on the right, with wearing one of my Amish serial-killer-style beards.)

After my brother called with the news, I dug out the manuscript and photos. Looking at them makes me feel just a little less empty. Much as I'd like to edit it, trim some quotes, make sure I stay in the same tense throughout, I'm presenting the story as is, warts and all. Although I had published a few articles before writing this one, the piece marks my first serious attempt at a real magazine story. I wanted to get this right and I think I mostly managed it, at least in terms of passion, if not technical proficiency.

Alas, no one else thought so. I sent it to Yankee, which hemmed and hawed a good long while before finally passing on it. New England Monthly rejected it out of hand. Country Journal came this close to publishing it (I still have a lovely letter from their managing editor about it), but they passed too. New Hampshire Profiles had me rewrite it, liked what they saw, then put it on the slate for their November issue, only to suffer budget cutbacks and change their frequency from 12 to 9 times a years, eliminating the issue the story was to run in.

Thus, this is the first time that the story will be seen by an audience wider than my immediate family. I hope you enjoy it. It's not my best, but it's as fitting a tribute as I can manage for my aunt tonight.



General Delivery, West Springfield

"We had a postal inspector come in here once and say this was the most primitive post office he'd ever seen," Barbara Reney said, then laughed. "I told him he ought to go up to Maine. Some of them don't even have a bathroom up there."

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There is a bathroom here at the West Springfield, New Hampshire post office, on the "official side," behind the nine short rows of mailboxes. There is also a customer area on the other side, where the obligatory bulletin board of postal notices and wanted posters hangs, almost out of place in this room. Bounded by pine boards and paneling, a tray of potted plants at one window, two comfortable if rickety chairs nearby, here one could find practically all the comforts of home.

But then, this is Barbara's home, both the house and the village. Born and raised in West Springfield, Barbara has been a part of the 220-year-old village for nearly a quarter of its history.

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And for the past 13 years in that history, almost since Barbara and her husband David moved into the house on Grantham Road, the post office has dwelt in the room below her kitchen. Of the nearly 250 post offices in New Hampshire, only eight exist in private residences. On this day, West Springfield is still one of them. Soon, that will change--soon, but not now.

Barbara marches out her front door, the flag in one hand, an orange safety cone in the other. Where the end of her yard meets the edge of Grantham Road, she drops the cone as a deterrent to any of her customers who might inadvertently try to park on her lawn. She pauses now, considering the weather. Today, she can hear the trickle of last night's rain, meandering down the shoulder of the road, cutting through the earth and, she thinks with a frown, right into her cellar.

She peers over the top of her bifocals, looking up the road towards the general store, the other half of West Springfield's "downtown" section. Businesses have come and gone in the past two centuries, everything from mining and cattle-driving to milling and blacksmithing. Now, there is just the general store, a handful of antique shops, and a trading post of sorts, over by Lake Kolelemook, on the other side of town. In summer, the area around the lake is the most densely populated area as the "flatlanders," the other half of West Springfield's 700 residents, come up-country to the comfort and quiet of the cottages and condos that dot the woods around the lake.

Barbara grew up on that side of town, a member of one of West Springfield's founding families. Time was, the land around the lake was marshland, worthless from the agrarian viewpoint of her ancestors. Several generations, and several tons of sand later, this waterfront land yields a lot more green than the forefathers could ever have imagined. Times have changed in West Springfield.

But people have not, as Barbara would be inclined to agree at this moment. Her watch reads 7:40, and, as usual, there is still no sign of Hollis, her deliveryman.

She walks around the side of the house now to her flowerbed, the spot her prized dahlias grace in spring and summer. The white stem of a flagpole also grows out of the ground here. She hooks her flag to the rope and pulls. The banner flutters to life, officially beginning another day in West Springfield.

She goes back into the house and hangs her coat near the living room doorway. Unlocking the blue door to her right, she steps into the post office, the latest one in West Springfield's 135 years of postal service.

For nearly 20 of those years, Barbara has upheld that service, beginning her tenure a dozen yards up the street, in the town's one general store, where the post office existed for years as a fourth class office. In strict postal parlance, the fourth class or Category L post office is the smallest there is: open less than eight hours a day, serving a small community with few customers. Barbara had a different definition.

"At the time, fourth class meant whoever was postmaster also had to supply a place for the post office," she recalled. "So the store's owner, because he had room, had been postmaster for years. Then, David and I bought the store, the old owner retired as postmaster, and I took the place over."

The place in question consisted of a space the size of a modest walk-in closet, 50 mailboxes in a corner of the store. As the town grew--aided in part by David, whose construction and development business has made him one of West Springfield's most unlikely land barons--Barbara knew she needed more space. When they sold the store and moved down the street, she took the post office with her.

She sits in the customer area now, waiting for Hollis to bring the mail from Wilmot Flat, where the truck from Manchester drops it off every business day. At first, four-horse coaches carried the mail three times a week from Boston. With the advent of the railroads, trains made the delivery more frequently. And for the past 45 years, Hollis Heath has brought it to town in the trunk of his car.

He arrives now, braking just short of the orange safety cone. Barbara hurries out to help him, but the 73-year-old postal carrier needs little aid, hefting the bags with his one good arm.

"He lost the other one in a mill accident when he was a young man," she confides later. "He doesn't think he's in too good a shape. The other day he says, 'Babra, the doctor tells me I could drop dead anytime. Right here even.'" She clutches her heart at the idea. "I says, 'Don't you dare do it in here, Hollis. Can you imagine the paperwork I'd have to fill out?'"

But Hollis felt fit today, spirits high, face as ruddy as Esau's, despite his brush with mortality the night before.

"Ayuh, my mother-in-law, she finally died last night," he remarked off-handedly, as he brought the last of the bags in. Barbara offered condolences, but Hollis put up his one hand. "Well, you know, Babra, she were ninety-five and in a coma. I guess there weren't nothing to feel bad about."

Barbara listened as she up-ended one of the bags on her sorting table. She reached below and pulled down a flat board that ran the length of the table. Hinged in the middle, held fast by a chain on either end, this drawbridge-step gave Barbara an extra foot to her stature and allowed her to reach the upper-most boxes, a gift from her husband David after he realized he had built the counter too high.

babstep

Hollis remained for a while, talking about death and taxes, which reminded him that West Springfield's town meeting was today.

"You know, Babra," he said, "the most excitement they probably ever had at town meeting was when George Philbrick got up, made that speech about something, sat down, then slumped right over dead against your father." He shook his head. "How they did squawk." On that abrupt note, Hollis departed, leaving Barbara to sort the mail in peace.

"I don't understand why people can't use box numbers when they mail something here," she grimaces, waving one letter. "'M. Waddell, West Springfield.' Now, it could be Matthew or Myrtle, or even Mister or Missus. I mean, really." But she recognizes the return address and finds a slot for the letter anyway.

babsort

"You'd be surprised the things people expect the post office to know. Why, I once had a woman call me up, wanted to know if I knew where her septic tank was. She thought it was on record with the government, hence the post office. That's not as bad as the people who come in and want to know how much it costs to send a 25-cent letter. Oh, it happens, all right."

Barbara admitted, though, that her strangest customers were not nearly as odd as some of the items she handled for them.

"You'd never find a big city handling the things a rural post office gets. We get beehives, filled with bees, of course, live chicks, things like that. One time, someone got a container of mudworms in the mail." She pauses and shudders. The worms, undoubtedly on their way to an engagement at McDaniel Marsh, a favorite fishing spot on the edge of town, were unexpectedly detoured. "I was opening this one bag and saw there was all this peat moss, and these ugly brown things on top of mail. The container had disintegrated, but the worms were okay.

"Got an urn full of ashes in here one time," she said. "Came here by mistake, so I sent it quickly on its way. I guess people do that, but when my time comes, I sure as hell wouldn't want to be shipped home in the second class bag."

By opening time at 8:00, Barbara has sorted most of the mail. By 8:05, customers came in steadily, birds homing in on individual pigeonholes. Most merely collected the mail and left; some stopped to pass the time of day. All at least bade good morning to Barbara.

Sid Howlett stops for considerably longer. A rotund man in Carters overalls, Sid strokes his big, black, unkempt beard as he casually thumbs through his mail.
"Got my hair cut and my beard trimmed yesterday," he said, to Barbara's instant amusement. "No, it's true," he insisted. "Wife was after me to do it. Course, now the kids are mad as hell, wanting to know why I got everything cut so short." He sighed hugely. "Damned if you do, damned if you don't, which is why I ain't going to town meeting."

Saying this, he stoops--his Carters almost creaking audibly with the strain--and snatches a pamphlet from a stack of bound papers on the floor--copies of the annual town report.

"Yes sir, every time I go to town meeting, I don't want to say nothing, because if I do, I'll just get into trouble. Then, I leave without opening my mouth and feel bad because I should have said something," he says, sighing hugely. As he pages through the report, he notices that crime is on the rise in West Springfield: 397 police calls this year, up from 276, a 30 percent increase. Another sigh.
"Dog complaints were the single highest number on the list," he said, slapping the report down. "Thirty-eight in all."

Barbara leans over the counter. "Before we had a regular cop around here, people used to bring stray dogs here. They'd hitch them outside and, sure enough, someone would come along and claim them by the end of the day. Course, now they get put in the kennel up the road."

"I should have done that with the dog I found in my chicken shed the other day," Sid said darkly. "I know whose it was, too." Then his face brightened and he looked at the clock. "Well, I'd best get home to lunch," he said, ambling to the door. "Give my regards to David, Babra," he called over his shoulder.

Close to noon, David Reney strides into the post office, his massive frame filling the doorway. Fresh from his latest construction job, he stands for a moment, resplendent in his baggy, sawdust-covered jeans and a tattered goose-down jacket that makes him appear to be molting. His heavy feet thunder across the floorboards as he walks to the big chair by the window. As he sits, the chair mutters curses, but holds his weight.

"Stopping for lunch?" Barbara asks.

David nods emphatically, patting a callused hand to his ample stomach. "Time for some beans. Been a hard morning up at the Plaza."

The "Plaza," David's latest bit of construction, erected on a lot in the municipal section of town, an area that has been a hotbed of community development lately. The town hall up there is undergoing some changes, its first since 1851, when 40 teams of oxen dragged the building from Cemetery Hill to the grove it now occupies. The old white clapboards have been stripped from it for the impending face-lift, its belfry removed and mended like an old hat. Further up the road, across the street from the town offices, a stretch of land has been cleared as the Springfield Recreation Facility, complete with two baseball fields.

And then there is the Plaza, a long, gray building in the middle of this rural revitalization. Few people in town knew why David built it, and David wasn't about to enlighten the rest. "Hell, let them wonder," he decided.

Having caught his breath, he stands and walks behind the counter to check the mail. That done, he departs for lunch in a flurry of sawdust and feathers.

"Don't forget to let Roscoe out," Barbara calls after him. David waves his hand in assurance.

Roscoe, Barbara's small tabby cat, makes his appearance in the afternoon, leaping gracefully to the counter. He is waiting for the children to come in, a big moment for a little cat in a small town. In Barbara's youth, children went to the town school, first in the little building next to the town hall (now the Libbie Cass Memorial Library), later at the school building proper. Today, most children are exported to Kearsarge Regional in nearby Newport. Wherever they go, though, the post office is usually one of their after-school stops.

babguy

"It's as big a deal for the little kids as it is for Roscoe, you know," she said. "When their parents let them come in, it's the first real thing they get to do on their own. And usually they're well-behaved.

"One little fellow, Morris, he came in while I was waiting on someone else. 'You better hurry up and get my mail, Babra,' he says. I told him he knew better than to speak to me like that, and he should wait his turn. So, he quiets down.

"A minute later, this woman comes in--one of these people who's better than anyone else, you know--and asked if the Kearsarge Shopper came in. That's the local advertisement magazine that comes in free every week. I say yes, and she says 'Well, I'll take two.' And Morris speaks right up and says 'Right after me you can! We take turns around here.'" I couldn't say anything then, but after the woman left, I laughed and laughed."

babhand

As the sun weighs heavier in the sky, only a few customers filter in and out. One stops and leans across the counter in conspiratorial fashion. He has just come from the store, where he heard a rumor. Like most who pick up town gossip elsewhere, he has come to the post office for confirmation.

"So, what's David's building up over near the school, Babra?"

Barbara doesn't look up from stamping her letters. "Why, that's going to be the new post office."

"No! But why?"

Barbara lays her stamp down. "Well, now. We're running out of space here. I've only got a half-dozen boxes left to rent. At Christmas, it's murder. I can't hardly move back here for all the packages."

But the customer is flabbergasted. For the first time in 135 years, the post office will be in a place built especially for it. He stands there silently, letting it sink in: progress, growth, change, the end of an era.

"Well, I don't know," he said, shaking his head sadly.

Barbara suppresses a groan and turns her eyes heavenward as the customer departs.

"How they go on when they find out," she said. "But they did the same thing when I moved from the store. Probably did the same thing when someone suggested putting a post office in West Springfield in the first place."

She shrugs.

"As if moving changes anything. I'm still West Springfield's postmaster."

At the stroke of 5, she bustles about, locking doors, lowering shades, turning out lamps. Outside, in the fading light, she gathers up the flag and folds it dutifully. Then, she marches to the edge of her yard and grabs her orange safety cone. She looks up and down the street once more. From her vantage point, she can see the entire town, and the view is a good one.

Then she smiles and goes home.

babflag



Rest in peace, aunt Barbara. I love you.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Friday, June 01, 2007

 

In Which We Pray for the Stories...


So, as if the last month wasn't bad enough, my aunt Barbara, my favorite aunt and my Dad's older sister, is in the hospital, fighting for her life. A fight that her doctors, apparently, do not believe she will win.

I knew she'd been sick. When I went home to New Hampshire last month, I knew aunt Barbara had been suffering some kind of viral infection that was causing her lungs to fill with fluid. It wasn't pneumonia, but it might as well have been. I saw her the Wednesday before my parents' funeral, when my brother and I had arranged for our aunts and uncles to view the bodies. We had already decided to make it a closed-coffin service, so this was the one chance close family would have to see my parents before their cremation.

Aunt Barbara, now pushing 70, has always been a spry gal, so it pained me to walk into the funeral home that day and see her so diminished. She was sitting, hunched over on a chair near the coffins, her nose and mouth covered by a portable oxygen mask. She couldn't say more than a few words at a time, but from what she did say, I gathered that this moment was going to be the funeral, as far as she was concerned. She was far too exhausted to be able to attend the formal viewing, let alone make the trip up to the cemetery on that blustery May Friday, she informed us apologetically. My brother and I were the first to insist she stay home and not to worry. I had promised to call her later the following week and to stop by and say hello before I flew back home.

But the morning of the flight, after no one answered the phone at her house, I drove over and met my uncle David in the driveway, on his way out. The night before, aunt Barbara had been struggling to breathe even with the benefit of supplementary oxygen, so they finally took her to the hospital, where she was promptly placed in intensive care. She was there for a week, then they moved her out to a regular hospital bed. And it was there, about three days ago, that she eventually did catch pneumonia. As we speak, she's probably in surgery, as the doctors attempt to drain fluid from her lungs. But she's been laboring with this for over a month now and they are worried that her heart will fail before her lungs do.

Uncle David, ever the pragmatist, related all this to my brother the other day, who called with the news that aunt Barbara was dying and the further instructions that I should not trouble myself to attend the funeral. David felt it would be too much for me and my family, and that Barbara would understand. But, you know, she's not quite dead yet, so I'm praying for her rather than thinking about travel arrangements to her funeral.

I have to say that lately, for me, prayer has a way of segueing from fervent entreaties to the Lord into a kind of reminiscence about the people I'm praying for, if I know them. Aunt Barbara looms large in my memories, and I have always seen her as having a special connection with my Dad. Of the four siblings my grandparents produced, my Dad and aunt Barbara were the closest, no doubt because they had so much in common, not the least of which being their great reverence for storytelling as a way of passing on history, especially family history.

To spend an evening with my dad and Barbara as we walked around the lake in our little town, to listen to them hold forth on matters great and small...well, it was something special. Being with either one of them was like getting a master class in storytelling. But to listen to the two of them together, each filling in details of a tale, adding shadings to it that the other could not, was like watching great painters collaborating on a masterpiece. But they were masterpieces of the mundane. My dad and aunt had a gift for taking small details of everyday life and talking about them in ways that both magnified and glorified the events, made them part of the greater whole.

Once, while walking around the lake, we came to a small patch of turf on the side of the road--a nondescript strip of grass and two trees, separating the country road from the lake itself. There was no beach here and it was too small to be useful as a boat ramp. I remember stopping once and remarking--because I was 13 and knew everything--on what a useless and forgettable scrap of land this was.

Dad and aunt Barbara both looked at each other and then began talking at once, not speaking over one another, but each offering their own line in the story, a story that was really several stories, narrative mingled with hints of other great stories and side conversations that contained their own plot twists that surprised the tellers as much as the listeners.

"Oh hell--"

"--this is a special piece of property, donchaknow?"

"Ayuh, this is where they used to have a little turnout back in the day, an overlook--"

"--back before most of it eroded away--"

"--and right where you're standing, MM, why that's where they had a signpost identifying the lake--"

"--there's a picture of your grandmother standing next to it when she was a young woman."

"Who has that picture now?"

"Oh, it's up in the attic of the Homestead now, I guess. You know they hoarded most of those photos and know they're probably--"

"--ruined, ayuh. Leaks and birdshit and I don't know what up in them rafters."

"Whatever happened to that sign, anyhow?"

"Oh, they used to have em on all the lakes, but they was just made of wood and they all rotted away. Except this one."

"Oh?"

"Ayuh. Might be I know someone who was driving his Studebaker along here one night and drove off this patch and right into the goddamn lake--"

"You mean Stuart--"

"--ayuh. Only one in town with a Studebaker, weren't he? Clipped the sign and that tree right there--see how it's skewed?--and right into the drink. Car's still down there in the muck I guess."

"I memba the car. We used to row over to it and fish near it. But the sign--?"

"Well, Stu come wandering into the store just before closing, wet as a sponge holding up his soggy trousers in one hand and the sign in the other. Muckled right onto it when he swum out through the window. Guess he never let it go. Can you see him walking all the way down the New London road holding his pants and that sign? Folks musta thought he was hitching."

"Cawse, old Stuart weren't no Charles Atlas. Between the booze and the shock of the cold water and the walk he was some tired--"

"--I guess the hell, because no sooner did he tell us what happened than he pitched right over dead."

"No! I didn't know that was when it happened!"

"Ayuh. Face first into the candy rack. Red Hots and Junior Mints scattered from hell to breakfast. Well, there we were, stuck at closing time with a body on the floor. David called over to the sheriff, but he weren't to home. Turned out he was up to Lebanon chasing the Maple Syrup Bandit and didn't come back til next day. And there weren't no paramedics back then. Even if there was, it wouldna helped Stuart. He was deader 'n dead. So there we were, body on aisle 3. And ol' Stuart didn't have no kin around, so David and I put him up for the night."

(And here there might be a pregnant pause to allow the audience a moment of dawning realization. Or horror.)

"You didn't--"

"Oh, ayuh. David got some burlap bags from the back and we wrapped old Stuart up and carted him into the walk-in. Laid ol' Stuart out on some cases of Moxie and White Rock soda."

"Sweet Jesus!"

"Well, hell, why not? Stu, he didn't mind none. Only one who got het up about it was Arnold Putney, the milkman, who had the key to the store and would let himself in to deliver milk in the morning. When he wheeled a few crates in that morning I guess he squawked some. Said we shoulda left a note on the door of the walk-in--'Dear Arnold, watch out for the corpse on the soda pop!'"

"Today they'd have that on the CBS News--"

"--but back then, hell, it was a public service."

"As for the sign, well, David hung it on the wall inside the walk-in. When we sold the store, he left it. Probably still in there, for all I know. You could go and look for it, I guess."

And then we'd walk on, silent for a time, some of us rendered thoughtful, ruminating even then about what a special gift it was, to see stories in even the most nondescript and derelict of places like that patch of ground by the lake.

As I got older, I would long for those moments when my aunt would come over, when she and my dad would fuel one another's considerable talent for weaving a tale. The last time I saw them together was when my family went to Thanksgiving in New Hampshire some years back, when Thomas was a toddler. Seeing the newest generation of the family put both my Dad and my aunt in a more reflective frame of mind, I think, because they got to telling the old stories, tales handed down to them from their elders. Stories about the history of the town where they'd been raised, how our family came to live there in the 1630s. Stories of the town's boom times when it was home to several mica mines (which was used for the windows of stoves and furnaces in the 1800s). Stories about the more colorful people and places of the region.

"How do you remember so much?" I asked, a well-worn question I'd posed for years.

Aunt Barbara and my Dad smiled simultaneously.

"Oh hell, we don't remember so much," aunt Barbara answered. "In fact, we remember just a smidge compared to the great storytellers from when we were kids. I remember my Grammy--your great-grandmother, MM--telling stories that were so much better than anything we could remember." Great-Grammy had passed away earlier in the year. Aunt Barbara looked at my dad. "Memba the one she told about her mother?"

Dad nodded. "Ayuh. How she stood at the gate and watched her older brother and cousins march off to war--"

"--the Civil War, mind you--"

"--singing We Are Coming, Father Abraham.' She never saw them again, not a one."

We were all silent for a moment, thinking of Great-Grammy, watching Thomas playing on the floor.

"It's a helluva thing to be considered the storyteller in your family, when you yourself don't remember half the tales that the real storytellers knew," aunt Barbara said.

"That's the goddamn truth," my Dad nodded, then looked at me. "Oh, you can smirk all you want, Mistah Man, because you think we know all the stories there are. But we've got the backstage view and we know better."

Aunt Barbara nodded. "Someday it'll be your turn, and you'll see for yourself."

And now, as my Dad lies dead and buried, as my aunt lingers in a hospital bed somewhere in New Hampshire, I finally understand what they meant.

So I prayed for the life of the stories my aunt has yet to tell. I can't bear the thought of their loss, any more than I can stomach the idea that it might soon fall to me to remember the family stories. It's certainly not a job I deserve. And right now, it's definitely not a job I want.

All I want is for my aunt to be well again.


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


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