Thursday, August 14, 2008


In Which We're In A Dead Heat...

So I took the dog out for a walk last week. It was about 7 in the morning, but already it was beastly. Walking outside was like walking into a sauna. Humidity was easily at a hundred percent. The sun was beating down on my neck and I was aware that even if it weren't humid as hell, I'd be feeling the heat. It had to be well into the 90s.

Now, none of the above is written in the slightest tone of surprise. I've been here for more than 5 years now, and I've managed to put it together: Where I live, we get hot summers. Simple as that. I've lost count of the number of mornings I've stepped outside into the exact same conditions as those I experienced last week. My response is the same each time: I walk the dog as quickly as I can, and then I take him in (don't worry: Her Lovely Self gives him a good lunchtime walk and then I take him on a frigging cross-country odyssey in the cool of the evening). I don't care for the heat, so I don't stay out long in it if I can help it. Generally that's the extent of my response to the weather.

But this morning last week, I guess my body decided it really couldn't stand the heat, because in the time it will take me to get to the end of this paragraph, I went from feeling uncomfortably hot to feeling uncomfortably hot and nauseous. And after less than 5 minutes outside, I became aware, in that way we all become aware, that somewhere in my body, something had made an irrevocable decision. I made a u-turn on the sidewalk and headed back to the house. Actually, I knew I wasn't going to make it to the house. I just wanted to get to the shade of the tree at the corner of my yard. The nausea was like a physical force now, doubling me over. The sun had become literally unbearable.

I made it to the tree, dragging the poor dog the whole way. I stood for a moment, shaking, sweat pouring off me. I looked down at Blaze, who looked back up at me, panting, an expression that seemed to say, "WTF, buddy? Not like you've got a permanent fur coat on, ace. What's your damage?" And I'd have answered, but the very next second I was yarking my breakfast up right there in my front yard and, well, I was always taught it was bad manners to talk with my mouth full. The dog did a mincing little dance backwards, trying to get out of range, poor bastard. I clung to his leash so he wouldn't get away, then sank to my knees, shaking like a leaf. Then the dog, God love him, went all Lassie on me, whimpering and sticking his cold shnozz in my ear, then emitting a couple of general "Hey! Little help here!" yips to the neighborhood. Then he hooked his head under my armpit and pressed against the side of my heaving chest. I don't know whether he was trying to steady me, or help me get to my feet, or just thought I was smelling pretty good to him all of a sudden. But he stuck by me.

Eventually, the nausea passed and I got to my feet, all my muscles stiff. The dog and I started for the house, but no sooner did I step out into the sunlight than I felt another wave of sickness descend on me and I made a dash for the garage, where my kids found me, dry-heaving into the trash bucket.

"It's like you're a vampire," Thomas observed helpfully, after he brought me a cup of water and a sopping wet paper towel to drape on my neck. "You just walked outside and the sun made you sick?"

I couldn't answer him; I was too woozy. Darkness seemed to come in spots all around my field of vision. Part of me was still coherent, trying to figure this out, thinking that I definitely hadn't spent any length of time outdoors the day before or any time this summer. In fact, I couldn't think of any reason for me to suddenly just get sick from being out in the sun for 5 minutes. And yet, the whole sudden, violently-heat-sick scenario had a faint ring of familiarity to it.

But the part trying to sort things out was just one small part of me. The rest of me was somewhere else completely. I tried to blink away the dark spots, then shut my eyes tight and counted to 5.

When I opened them, I was 10 years old.

I knew exactly when and where I was. My family was living in Kansas. My Big Brother and I were sitting in the back of our SUV, my Dad at the wheel, my Mom in the passenger seat up front, all of us rocketing down a dusty dirt road in the middle of summer, windows rolled up tight.

Back then, one of the things we did as a family was go to auctions. Actually, it was really my parents who liked going. BB and I were too young to leave home alone, so they dragged us along. We drove all over Christ creation, on countless dirt roads looking for this old farm or that dilapidated house where we'd got wind of an auction being held. Always we went in our family car, a then-brand-new GMC Jimmy (whose eulogy I delivered here) which had many modern amenities--notable among them being a swish 8-track tape deck--but no air conditioner. This was a problem, because my mom insisted we roll up the windows whenever we were driving on a dirt road which, being in rural Kansas, was most of the time. In her estimation, she would rather die of heat prostration than allow herself to be coated with a patina of heartland dirt and manure.

So it was that I now relived that fateful July afternoon, when we arrived at the auction of the day, which was really two auctions going on simultaneously: one inside a very nice old white farmhouse situated far out on a trackless plain somewhere west of Salina; the other in the barn right behind it. We emerged from the car looking as though we'd all been in a sauna. I didn't need a mirror to know I was red in the face, my hair plastered down on my head by sweat (but hey, at least we weren't dirty). I felt lightheaded and said so.

My Dad looked up briefly from the auction brochure he'd just acquired from a nearby card table. He was more interested in the antique slide yoke soon to be up for bid over in the barn behind the house (my Dad raised oxen as a kid and so had a sentimental attachment to all ox-based accessories). Without so much as a second glance, he flipped me a few coins and told me to go find the concession table and get myself a pop. These auctions always had at least one table where some enterprising person had a cooler of sodas, a water jug, and a plate of cookies.

While my Dad and BB headed off in search of the barn, my Mom gave an appraising look around the grounds. We had parked in the field adjacent to the house, along with dozens of other cars and trucks. There were literally hundreds of people milling about--it was a big farm and there was lots on sale that day. My Mom, who could never pass up an opportunity to be worried about her children, was forever warning BB and me about kidnappers, molesters, and perverts (oh my!). She saw them lurking in every crowd and on the way to every auction or flea market, she never failed to drill us in what to do if someone attempted to make a grab for us (the correct answer, of course, was to scream like a girl, claw at the person's eyes, then when he put his hands up to protect himself, kick for the balls. It apparently never occurred to my mother that a woman might try to snatch one of us). I was at that transitional phase of pre-adolescence where I wasn't old enough to be left home alone, but I was of sufficient age to be allowed to leave my mother's side in a store and go over to, say, the toy aisle. But leaving me all alone at a big auction was a new scenario and my mom couldn't decide what to do.

After a moment of watching me sway out there in the field, Mom eventually walked me over to a huge walnut tree, under which a little old lady sat in a lawn chair, a money box in her lap, as she presided over the refreshment table, which featured an assortment of cookies and brownies, as well as a tray of well-cooked hot dogs. The old lady looked like she'd been cooked too long herself, all shriveled and curled in upon herself, like a baked-apple doll. She peered at us over the top of her bifocals, then, in an unexpected spasm of motion, clutched her money box tight in her knobby hands, as though one of us might make a grab for it.

Somewhere in the distance, an auctioneer on a portable loudspeaker announced that they were about to start auctioning kitchen items, and my mom looked around like a hunting dog that has just caught a whiff of some big game.

"I need to go sign in and get a number," she said, more to herself than to me. "Will you stay right here?" she asked, although it wasn't really a question, so much as a command. I nodded--I was already at a point where I didn't think it was such a good idea to open my mouth--and with one last hesitating look, my mom went off to get her number so she could bid on Depression glass and Bakelite oddments.

I gave the lady a quarter--which she snatched from my fingers with a quick, unexpected birdlike motion--and helped myself to a bottle of Coke from the cooler under the table. I moved a few feet away, out of the line of traffic to the concession stand, but still under the shade of the tree, and drank my Coke. Dear God, Kansas was hot in the summer. It had to be well into the 90s that day, and it was a dry, penetrating heat. I felt baked inside and out, and the cold carbonated soda I swigged did very little to refresh me. My stomach sloshed ominously, putting me in mind of a rusty old rain barrel. Full of slimy, brackish water. With a dead squirrel floating in it.

I sat there cross-legged on the grass, staring down at the individual green/brown blades, trying to get my mind off that barrel and into some kind of mental middle distance. Around me I could smell the mingled aromas of dust and sweat and cigarette smoke as people came and went. The general hubbub of the crowd and the distant amplified patter of the auctioneer filtered to me, but it was faint background compared to the general buzzing in my ears, which I took to be locusts, except I was dimly aware that the locusts were in my head.

The buzzing was interrupted by something else. A noise I couldn't identify at first. And then I felt a sharp pain on the crown of my head and looked up.

The old lady in the lawn chair was staring right at me, one wizened claw still clutched around her cash box, the other outstretched to me in what looked like a kind of eccentric wave or salute.

Then I looked down, and saw a hard black walnut on the ground in front of me. It hadn't been there a second ago. Where had it--?

Whak! Another sharp pain, this time on my shoulder.

I looked up, now slightly more alert. The old lady was looking at me intently, her hand outstretched again. Her mouth was moving and I realized that the noise I'd heard above the buzzing was the sound of her voice. But I still hadn't processed what she was saying. I was too busy noting that, in her lap, next to the cash box, was a small pile of walnuts. Is that old bitch chucking walnuts at me? I wondered.

As this thought went through my muzzied head, the old baked-apple-doll of a woman clutched another nut and raised her hand to hurl it. "Hey!" she croaked. "You awake yet?!"

I was only 10, and I had been taught to be respectful of old folks, but it was hot and I wasn't feeling so great and I didn't think this dried-up old twat should be pegging nuts at me. "Stop!" I yelled back at her. "What?!? What is it?"

She dropped the walnut back in her lap and pointed out away in the direction of the front lawn. "You git!" she screeched, as if she was shooing away a dog. "You cain't stay here!"

I stared at her, utterly nonplussed. "But--" I started. At this point, I was addled by more than the heat. At that age, I had certain preconceptions about little old ladies who ran concession stands. They were supposed to be kind to you, and slip you extra cookies and call you "hon" or "sugar-booger." They didn't, in my admittedly limited experience, use your head for target practice and yell at you for sitting in the shade and minding your own business. I felt like I'd been taking crazy pills, like nothing was making sense.

"You cain't stay!" she repeated. "You're loiterin'!"

I don't know what her deal was, except that she was an old biddy who evidently decided this tree was her tree and no one else was allowed to stand under it, even if they were a paying customer. I awkwardly got to my feet and looked around. There were no other trees in the yard. The nearest shade was the front porch of the house, and it seemed impossibly far away, under a stretch of browning grass that looked as hot and brittle as I felt.

Whak! This time, the old lady caught me on the calf of my leg.

"Ow!" I cried.

"Git!" she retorted.

And so, swaying like a drunk, clutching my Coke bottle and thinking the 10-year-old equivalent of what the FUCK?!?, I staggered back out into heat.

Big mistake.

The light and heat of that Kansas sun felt like a palpable, crushing, suffocating mass. I couldn't keep my eyes open. The buzzing in my ears was a deafening roar now. Across the desert of brown grass, the porch of the farmhouse doubled, then trebled in my vision. I would never make it. But I took one halting step in that direction anyway. And then I felt my stomach flip-flop and knew that the Coke I'd just drunk, plus the ham-and-cheese-and-green-pepper omelet I'd had for breakfast was all about come back on stage for an encore.

I turned and scooted back under the shade of the walnut tree. My nemesis, the little old dried-up Annie Oakley of walnuts, was making change for a beefy man in coveralls, who was holding a couple of hot dogs in his hand. Two or three other auction-goers were queued up behind him, waiting to pay; several more were making food and beverage choices at the concession table. To the left of the woman, on the far side of the wide trunk of the old walnut tree, I noticed a little scrub of bushes. It wasn't as discreet an emergency landing spot as I might have hoped for, but I was running out of time and it would have to do.

I tottered over to the side of the tree, and as I did, the old lady whirled her head around and saw me. "Hey!" she cried, leaping to her feet with startling speed and agility. She had forgotten about the cashbox, and indeed about her paying customers as she jumped up. The little metal box cartwheeled into space, coins flying. I had my hand on the trunk of the tree by this time, my head lunging around the back side of it, utterly committed to the moment, when she grabbed me. Her little hand possessed unexpected strength, no doubt enhanced by years of hurling walnuts at unsuspecting children, and she yanked me back towards her.

"I said GIT!" she cried.

My response was a little less articulate, involving perhaps a single phoneme--MWAH.

I had heard about projectile vomiting, of course--at the age of 10, you become intimate with such terms because they represent an area of special interest for you--but I had never actually experienced it before. I was like a high-pressure firehose trained on a group of rioters. The old lady had yanked on my arm so hard that I fell towards her in a wide arc that encompassed the tree, the old lady herself, the lawn chair, the cashbox, the man in the coveralls, the unfortunate bespectacled woman in the print dress behind him, and one small corner of the concession table. None of them escaped what I, in later tellings of the tale, would come to call the "blurp radius."

It happened that quickly, the blink of an eye--MWAH--and that concession stand was closed for business. Everyone who had been standing at the table exploded out from under that tree like they were a covey of quail. Even the woman in the print dress vanished. Only the man in the coveralls and the old lady remained.

As vocal as that old biddy had been earlier, you'd think there would have been screaming. Instead, there was dead silence.

Then things happened in a kind of blur.

The big man in the coveralls didn't seem to mind that I had, er, hosed him. He put a giant hand on my shoulder and said, "Son? You okay? Sheee-it, you're white as a sheet!" The old lady continued to be silent, and sank back into her chair, something I'm pretty sure she regretted a second later. But by then, I was halfway to unconscious and the big man in coveralls literally picked me off the ground and started to run. I never saw the old lady again. And you know? That's probably just as well.

The man, meanwhile, was taking me to an old hand pump behind the barn on the other side of the house. Which means he carried me right past the big kitchen window. Right past my Mom, in fact, who had seen the big man carrying the little boy and thought, Oh, that poor man with his sick son. Must be the heat. I hope MM is all right under that tree. In her defense, Mom had a bad angle on the scene and only got a good look at my feet, so she didn't realize she was looking at her own son--her own son being whisked away in the grip of a strange fat man in coveralls, a man who could have been a kidnapper, molester, or pervert (oh my!).

Of all people, it was my Dad who spotted me. He had literally just placed the winning bid on the slide yoke he wanted, his hand raised in the air, his number held aloft for the auctioneer to read, when he turned his head slightly and saw the big man lumbering through the gap between the house and the barn, and saw my pale white face and great shock of red hair flopping helplessly in the fold of the man's elbow. With a yelp and a swear word, Dad took off across the yard, and was in turn pursued by BB, whom he'd left without a word. Both of them were in turn chased by one of the auctioneer's assistants, who evidently thought my Dad was having instant buyer's remorse and was attempting to skip out on paying $125 for an ox yoke.

I didn't find out about any of that until much later. The next thing I knew, I was on my hands and knees on a splintery wooden platform. "Hold on, hoss. It's gonna get better in a sec!" a voice boomed in my ears, and then I heard a rhythmic pumping noise directly overhead, then felt an icy flood of water engulf me. The kind stranger was right: it had gotten a lot better. Indeed, except for the unfortunate taste of regurgitated Coke in my mouth, it was heavenly. I closed my eyes, shutting out the light, the heat, the smells of the crowd, the approaching sound of my Dad's voice, crying "What in the HELL..."

When I opened my eyes, water was pouring across my glasses, spattering on the garage floor. Thomas was standing over me, an enormous plastic pitcher in his hands. He had just come back from the kitchen, trailing water all the way.

"You okay, Dad?" he cried, then sloshed some water right in my face for good measure. "You okay?" he asked again. "You went all dizzy!"

"I'm good!" I glubbed, before he could throw more water on me.

And together, my children and my dog escorted me into the house, where it was 72 degrees, actually so cold that that I was now shivering. Thomas went to put the pitcher in the sink while the Brownie guided me to the sofa. I sat for a moment, wiping water off my face with my shirt.

"You okay now?" the Brownie asked. "What the heck happened?"

"I'm fine," I assured her. "Daddy just doesn't do well in the heat sometimes. Happens every 30 years or so."

"Well," she said, adopting the matter-of-fact, boss-of-everyone voice that is fast becoming her trademark, "I think you better stay inside and watch some cartoons with me until you cool down." And she sat down with me.

Thomas was back at my side, putting his hand on my forehead. "Hmm," he said. "You're still hot. I know what you need: an ice-cold Coke."

"No!" I cried, stopping him as he turned to go. I patted the empty sofa seat between his sister and me, gesturing for him to sit down. "Trust me," I said. "I have everything I need right here."

Stay cool, everyone.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


In Which We Surface for a Moment...

Hey there. Just coming up for air--one quick gulp and then back down into the murky depths.

Nothing's wrong, just busy at work. For reasons I can't really go into--because I don't actually know what they are--the production schedule here at the Really Big Magazine got all squinchy, so that we're producing two issues roughly simultaneously. I'm not happy about it. In fact, I'm being kind of a crotchety old guy about it, crabbing about the general unfairness of it all to anyone who will listen.

Unfortunately, the only one who will listen to me is the Éclair, and then only in the middle of the night, after I've rescued her from her crib. And whenever I finish a rant, she just waggles her eyebrows at me, pokes me in the cheek and say, "Daddy, you a BUM!" "Bum" is one of her favorite words. She doesn't know what it means, she just likes the sound of it. I hope.

She's coming along fine, our lovely Éclair, who will be 16 months old next week. Although she's only in the 7th percentile for height and weight, she's in the 112th percentile for cute babyness. Her vocabulary grows daily, and now includes, in addition to "bum," such gems as "stinky," "don'twanna," "nuh-uh," "yo baby," and "doofus." For a while there, she was doing a wonderful job of sleeping through the night. But then her incisors came in and suddenly she was up, rattling the bars of her crib and screaming in that strangely muffled way that babies do when they have their hand jammed halfway into their mouth.

During daylight hours, when her mother is conscious and within eyesight, the Éclair wants nothing to do with me. Gone are the days when she would greet me as I came through the door (now, she just shakes her head at me, in a way that seems to say "Don't even think about coming near me."). But at night, oh, at night, she remembers what a fine fellow Daddy is, and she calls to me in her sing-songy siren voice:


I know I should just leave her be, let her gnaw on her hand for a while and then pass out. But I'm a weak man, and so I go in and check to make sure she hasn't somehow wedged her 7-percentile head between the bars. And when I reach into the crib to lay her back down, she goes all Ultimate Fighter on me, jamming her fingers into my mouth, fish-hooking me, then yanking me helplessly forward, where she gets a grip around my neck that would put a howler monkey to shame. Too late, she's got me.

She finally took her first steps last week, which was cause for great celebration at the Magazine Mansion as we were beginning to wonder if she was ever going to try out those legs. Unfortunately, when she did take her first steps, I was at work--working on those two simultaneous issues I was telling you about--and so I missed the whole thing.

This fact has weighed on me more than I'm generally inclined to admit. I didn't miss any new developmental milestone of Thomas or the Brownie, so it gnaws at me that I missed this one. I know I need to get over it--what's done is done--but it's hard. She's our last baby--the little caboose at the end of our family train--and I don't want to be left out of anything. Of course, I don't want to be left out of gainful employment either.

Soon, maybe, I'll post some video of the Éclair walking and talking. But not this week. And maybe not next. Because in addition to trying to produce two issues at once, I'm trying to get that work done far enough ahead of schedule that I can duck out of town for a week and go see my Big Brother. We were supposed to get together earlier in the summer, but it never happened, so now I'm going week after next. And when I do, I hope to be able to resume a somewhat more regular blogging schedule.

That's about all I have for you today. Sorry, folks. What can I say? I guess I am a bum.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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