Friday, October 31, 2008

 

An October Moment...


As you know, I spent a week with BB in New Hampshire, right around Labor Day. The main reason for my visit--there always has to be one besides brotherly love, of course--was to help BB empty the sagging old barn hanging (literally) off the back of the house. The thing is over 250 years old and several people--from my own father (before his death) to a skilled restorer of these barns, to the appraiser the insurance company sent out--have told BB that the thing could collapse completely at any moment. So BB decided the time was ripe to empty it of anything remotely valuable--and when you have C.R.A.P. Syndrome, it could all be valuable.

The thing is, the barn really was sagging. The loft seemed especially treacherous. BB--who it’s worth mentioning dresses out at around 340 pounds--couldn’t place a foot on a floorboard up there without the whole structure groaning like an old man with gas pains. And yet there were several crates and two old steamer trunks up there and BB and I wanted them. So it was that after reinforcing it as best we could from below, I began carefully, gingerly emptying the loft, slowly working my way to the back of the barn, where the very worst of the sagging could be seen. And it was there, on the third day of work, that I climbed up one morning and saw, sitting on a pile of hay, this innocuous object:


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It is a Tupperware container. Although in fact, I should say it is THE Tupperware Container. It is, in its innocuous way, the best proof I can offer that the stories I’ve told here about the unseen are as true as I understand truth to be.

For one thing, if I had made these stories up and was looking for a tangible object to verify those stories, I’d have picked something more visually interesting and dramatic, you know? I’d have gone with an old fountain pen that wrote by itself, for example. Or perhaps one of those steamer trunks I just mentioned, albeit one that shook of its own accord and seemed to contain a presence of some kind. I wouldn’t have voluntarily gone with The Telltale Tupperware.

But the container does have a tale to tell.

The Telltale Tupperware entered our lives in the most mundane possible way: My mom bought it with a lot of other Tupperware containers at some rummage sale or other the summer we moved to New Jersey and took up residence in the old green farmhouse that dated to 1785. The container was originally intended to hold food, but at first, it held pinecones. My mom had decorated our kitchen’s breakfast bar with a few wooden containers filled with pinecones my brother and I had long ago collected from our hill in New Hampshire.

But over the years, the pinecones had been lost or commandeered by a cat looking for a new plaything. And as the numbers dwindled, my mom reduced the overall area in each of the wooden containers by setting a smaller container inside the larger ones. Thus it was that this innocuous Tupperware container sat in the bottom of the larger wooden container, while on top of it my mom stacked the remaining pinecones, positioning them artfully so that it appeared she had a full container of the things, although we all know now that she didn’t.

And then, one cold winter night, something emptied that container, hurling pinecones at my brother. I told you that story here. What I didn’t tell you is that, at the very end of the incident, the yellow Tupperware box popped out of the wooden container and landed on the floor near me. When I picked it up, it was warm to the touch.

Thereafter, the Tupperware went into the dishwasher and became a holder for various foodstuffs, sometimes leftovers, but mostly blocks of sharp cheddar cheese, which we all loved to put on sandwiches or shave onto crackers for a late-night snack.

Well, one night, late in the summer of 1985, I had just come home from working the late shift at the movie theater. BB had picked me up, since I didn’t have a car, and by way of thanks, I offered to throw together some crackers and cheese for us to nosh on while we watched a late movie.

So there I was, cutting the cheese, as it were, standing there in the semi-dark kitchen. The Tupperware container was sitting on the counter next to me. I finished shaving some slices of cheese onto a plate, plopped the chunk of cheddar back into the container, then dropped the lid on it.

The second I did this, that container, on its own, turned a full, slow quarter-turn there on the counter, as surely as though an invisible hand had grasped it. I stopped what I was doing and turned to look at it. It had been more than a year since anything like this had happened in our house, long after a bad incident involving my brother and some stupid friends and the injudicious use of a Ouija board. My friend Ruth, a woman who had helped me to communicate with the entities that occupied our house (and the daughter of the Witch Man, for those of you keeping score at home), had helped me out of that jam, and I swear to God I'll tell you all about it one of these Octobers. Suffice it to say, after that incident, Ruth had told me the spirits in the house might not reach out to us so much again. For months, it seemed she had been right. And truth to tell, I missed those experiences.

So it was with mixed startlement and excitement that I turned my head to watch the Tupperware move by itself there on the counter.

And then BAM! As I stood there watching it, the Tupperware container full of cheese slid across the countertop with dizzying speed before hitting the edge and going tumbling, cheese and all, up and over a bread box and a spice rack, landing on the rug right by the basement door. I turned on all the lights (and you would have too) then went over to pick it up. The block of cheese had fallen out of the container--I hadn’t secured the lid--and was now festooned with grit and dog hair. I picked the cheese up with one hand, while with the other I grabbed the Tupperware and discovered that, once again, it was warm to the touch. Hot really. And then I turned the container in my hand and saw this:


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As you can see, some kind of heat source had melted the edge of the box near the lid, as well as two distinct holes in the side, a few inches below the lid. I suppose it would be easy to dismiss the damage you see as perhaps an accident involving a red-hot stovetop or an overheated cooking implement. But I know this: the container didn’t have that damage when I got it out of the fridge that night. And it didn’t come in contact with anything hot enough to cause those melt marks and holes. I have no rational explanation for how the Tupperware got those marks in the few seconds it was seized by, well, whatever it was seized by, and shoved along the counter.


By now, my brother had come over to see what the commotion was.

“What did--ohhhh, fuck me fucking fuck!” he cried, dancing away. BB now hated “that spook shit,” as he called it, and had been more than pleased to be rid of any phenomena the past year or so. He took the cheese from me and rinsed it off in the sink, afterward deeming it safe to eat (even in the face of the supernatural, my brother always had his eye on the priorities of life). But the Tupperware container, he wanted no part of that. He chucked it, lid and all, in the trash. And that was the end of it.

Except, of course, that it wasn't at all.

When my parents eventually moved back to New Hampshire and BB and I were helping them unpack, we found the damn thing--lid and all--stacked neatly among all the other Tupperware kitchen items. I remembered the container instantly--you would too, even if it had been two years by then. My mom couldn’t remember saving the box from the trash (and honestly, she wouldn’t have, not with two holes melted into the side), but there it was. She couldn’t really use it for storing food anymore, not with those holes, so she pitched it out. I personally saw it go into the trash bag and I personally threw that bag into the back of my Dad’s pickup truck the day he ran a load out to the dump. That had been in 1988 or so, a solid 20 years ago.

Except...here it was again, sitting inexplicably in the barn. I recognized it at once--those holes are hard to miss, you know? Smiling, I bent down, picked it up, and lobbed it out of the barn. “Here, catch!” I yelled to my brother.

BB was outside, pulling on some gloves. “What--?” he said, putting his hand up instinctively, catching the container. He turned it this way and that. It took him longer to recognize it, but recognize it he did. “Oh, fuck me fucking fuck!” he shrieked, flinging it into the back of the trailer we’d rented for hauling trash. “What the hell is THAT doing in there?”

“You tell me!” I called back as I stepped deeper into the gloom. It was dark and close back here. I ducked under a massive cedar beam, about as thick around as a big man’s thigh and 20 feet long, stretching from the peak of the roof to a jagged hole in the floor, just to my left. I stood under it for several minutes as I grabbed onto armloads of debris and old hay in an effort to clear space around the trunks and items of value that we wanted. It was sweaty, dirty work, but I was up for it. I managed to get the trunks out by day’s end and was planning to get the rest of the boxes under that corner of the loft the next day.

And the next day, when I climbed up into the loft, there was that damned Tupperware container again. Almost in exactly the same spot as where I’d found it.

“Very funny!” I called out, winging the container back out to BB. This time, he saw it coming and dodged it.

“Hey!” he called back. “I did not fish that out of the trash and put it up there. I haven’t set one toe up in that loft. The fucking thing would collapse on me the moment I stepped up there.”

And the moment the words left his mouth, I stopped where I was.

Squinting, I looked around the dark, close eaves of the barn with new eyes. Everything was sagging inward here, but it all looked sturdy enough. I reached up and gave a tentative shove of that heavy rafter. It didn’t budge. You’re fine I said to myself. Now you’re just psyching yourself out. Shake it off and do the work!

And so I shrugged and took one more step deeper to into the barn.

“MM,” BB said quietly.

I stopped, turned, looked at my big brother. He had a funny expression on his face. Not funny ha-ha.

“Come on out of there,” he said evenly.

And without arguing, I did.

I decided to spend the rest of that day in the yard in front of the barn, clearing all the crap I’d dug out of there, hauling some stuff up to a pile for burning later, and in general performing basic pick-up work. It was nothing terribly substantial, but it filled the hours and by 4 o’clock, we were both a little tired and willing to call it a day. We showered, changed clothes and decided to make an evening of it by going out to supper.

I know what you’re waiting for: the moment when we come back home to find the barn had collapsed.

But it didn’t happen.

In fact, so far as I know, the barn is still standing (barely). So I’m not sure why the Telltale Tupperware would make a fresh appearance in our lives. I’m at a loss to divine any meaning from its regular reappearance over the years. On the other hand, I’m glad it compelled us to knock off early in our efforts to clean the barn. BB and I had been rather single-minded in that week, dedicated to emptying the thing, and had spent hardly any quality time together. So the fact that it rattled us enough to make us stop and go out to dinner was, on the whole, a good thing. Not as dramatically good as saving me from a collapsing barn, I grant you, but still good in its own, special, odd, Tupperware way.

I left the container in New Hampshire, sitting on a stack of wood by the edge of the barn. BB threatened to throw it out when he hauled away the rest of the detritus from the barn. But somehow, I don’t think that’s going to work any more than it did the other times we tried it. So there it sits.

As I said before, this object represents the best proof I can offer that the stories I’ve told here are as true as I understand truth to be. Which is to say that these stories aren’t always complete, they don’t often make any kind of sense, being rife with holes and bits that run together, containers that don’t fully hold water, if you will. But they do serve as a reminder that there are things out there that we will never completely understand. Maybe if we wait long enough, they will reveal certain truths to us.

And one of those truths is: sometimes you never get the whole story.

Sometimes, you just have to be satisfied with the mystery of it.


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Happy Halloween, everyone.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, October 30, 2008

 

In Which We Count to 10...



My son, my first-born, the amazing Art Lad: He turned 10 today.


This thought brought me quickly awake at about 5 this morning and I just laid there, letting it run through my head.

Ten years old. Oh, my holy God.

I cannot tell you how thrilled my 30-year-old self would have been to hear this, back in the fall of 1998, when he lay awake at around 5 in the morning in an antiseptic hospital room, where he had been staring up at the ceiling, listening to every sound around him. His wife was snoring a few feet away, absolutely exhausted from not having slept in the previous 48 hours, on top of performing the hardest, most strenuous act he had ever seen anyone, man or woman, perform. But he wasn’t really listening to her.

No, MM30 was listening to the small, soft, unending series of grunts and farts and groans emanating from the crib on wheels that sat between him and his bride; the transparent little hospital crib containing his first-born. So loud, he thought. No one told me how loud these little people were.

No one told him a lot of things. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that never in the history of the species has any one human being ever been so singularly unprepared to care for an infant, and my 30-year-old self was only too painfully aware of that fact. Which is why he would have been thrilled to have his 40-year-old counterpart reach across the years and let him know a double-digit birthday party was about to be underway. MM30 frankly didn’t think he had it in him to keep a child alive for 10 days, let alone 10 years.

Twenty-three hours earlier, he had been sobbing with relief as he watched his son pop into the world. He had watched without blinking as his wife swore and grunted and pushed and out from her nethers extruded something that looked like a giant wad of grape bubblegum. With ears. He had been alarmed at first, his first thought (though he promised never to tell anyone what that first thought was) was Something’s wrong. What the hell is that thing? But then the wad of bubblegum breathed and turned a magical pink color and began screaming and instantly MM30 was oriented as to the facial features of his child. And then his wife groaned and strained and did a little more work and out came the rest, including a hormone-swollen item of genitalia that prompted the doctor to say, “It’s a boy!” Which no one had really known until then. And as exciting as all this was, it was the relief that reduced MM30 to tears, the knowledge that his child had crossed the threshold and made it into this world.

But now the euphoria had worn off like a sugar rush, and all MM30 could think about was how wrong he’d been to be relieved. After all, the kid was safest back in the womb. Now that he was out in the world, there were countless dangers lying in wait for him. And granted, MM30 wouldn’t be alone in taking care of him, but he did feel that the baton had been passed. Her Lovely Self had done the first, hardest lap, carrying that kid for 9 months, growing him like a hothouse flower, sacrificing coffee and chocolate martinis and stylish underwear and every other manner of comfort to ensure his well-being. Now it’s my turn, he realized, once he’d dried his tears of relief. And I am so TOTALLY going to fuck it up. Relief?!? What the hell had MM30 been thinking?

So he was awake, worrying about all the possible dangers that lay ahead, understanding for the first time how it was that his own mother could have spent all those years, all those car drives to school, drilling him and his brother in various assorted disaster scenarios, scaring the living daylights out them. Now he saw that it was a coping mechanism for her, probably the only way she could step one toe out the door with her children and still function.

MM30 got up. There were no extra beds on the maternity ward, so MM30 was sleeping on a vinyl-upholstered recliner that flattened out into a kind of cot. A cot roughly 18 inches wide. Every time he moved, he bumped an elbow against one of the chair’s armrests, which loomed up on either side of him and made him feel like he was trying to sleep in a coffin. It was nearly pitch-black in the room, except for a line of light coming from under the bathroom door, a general glow of streetlamps from the window on the other side of his wife’s bed, and a few blinking lights from the control panel by his wife’s head. On a shelf above those lights, and all around the floor behind his reclining chair, he could see tons and tons of flowers sent by well-wishers: some in vases, some in ceramic choo-choo trains or piggy-banks. Some weren’t bouquets of flowers but of helium balloons, which were slowly drifting apart and scattering throughout the room.

He stared down now at the darkened plastic crib, tilted slightly upright on a rolling gurney just in front of him. He could make out a tightly wrapped shape that put him in mind of a very large burrito. Except the burrito was making all those grunting noises. My son, he thought, tasting the words in his mind.

He leaned into the transparent crib, breathing in the smell of the baby. As he leaned, his eyes gradually became accustomed to the faint light and he could discern more of him: the wisp of black hair on the baby’s forehead, the edge of the blanket he was wrapped in. Then something waved in front of him and he realized it was a tiny, perfect hand, worked free from its blanketed confines. In wonder, MM30 extended his own hand, stuck out an index finger. The tiny, perfect hand waggled around in the air, brushing once against his finger, then a second time, then with surprising speed and strength, it grasped his finger and squeezed.

So strong, MM30 thought. I didn’t expect that. He took some comfort in this revelation. It gave him hope that maybe, just maybe, his child had reserves yet unknown to him, and that he could draw on these reserves and survive--perhaps even thrive--despite his father’s worst moments of incompetence.

As he thought about this, his son’s eyes opened, alert and casting about in the dark. The nurse said he could see pretty well at close range, so MM30 leaned in until he was nose-to-nose.

"Your name is Thomas," MM30 said.

The baby stared at him now, unblinking, his attention undivided.

"I’m your Dad. Sorry about that, but I think you’ll turn out okay anyway. Grandma--you’ll meet her in a few hours--said our family never failed to improve itself genetically with each new marriage, so I think you got some good stuff to work with. But I’m gonna do what I can to help out. And I apologize in advance if I screw up every now and then. I’m gonna watch out for you, okay? And I’m gonna try to make sure you get all the things a boy needs these days. Not video games and action figures--although I think I can rustle that up--but the other stuff. And if I seem a little jumpy right now, well, it’s because I am. You’re the most important thing I’ve ever had to be responsible for, by a wide, wide margin. Before you, it was a kitten, and before that, it was a Venus flytrap. So this is a major trade-up and I just want to make sure nothing happens to you. Bear with me. Okay?”

Thomas stared back, his big wide eyes gazing intently, seemingly at a point past the up-close face of his father. He seemed to be staring into his father, maybe trying to decide who this person was, and whether or not he was safe to be around. But in a moment, he must have decided he was safe enough, because the baby blinked a couple of times, shifted in his blankets enough to emit a fart that sounded like distant fireworks, then closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

MM30 watched him, incapable of not watching him at this point. God, whatever bad things are coming down the pike, bring them on me, please. Not this baby. Not my son. Deal? he prayed.

Which turned out to be a fitting thing to pray for. Because a second later, MM30 turned around to get back into his recliner bed...

And found himself face-to-face with an intruder.

MM30 had spent the previous 9 months reading about all manner of baby-snatchings, the most daring of which had been when the snatchers crept into the rooms of the exhausted new parents and plucked the infants out of their cribs--sometimes even out of a new mother’s arms. Now here was one, right in his family's hospital room.

The intruder was big. He loomed a head taller than MM30, and seemed to bob and weave in front of him with an easy, taunting grace. His eyes were blackest black and he wore a huge, hideous super-villain grin. But he hadn’t expected MM30 to be awake, and the new dad realized that this gave him the element of surprise, which he could expect to have for only a few seconds longer. He had to act. He had to save his baby. So he drew back his fist and, screaming as loud as he could for help, let fly with a punch that nearly dislocated his shoulder.

“MotherFUCKERHEEEEEEELLLLLLLLPKillyou!!!Killyou!!!HELPHELPHELPFIREFIREYEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!”

Pow. MM30’s punch connected, although it didn't feel like a solid hit. There was a loud crackling crunch as the intruder’s nose collapsed in on itself. The intruder jerked backward, almost in slow motion. But he didn’t fall. That was bad.


“YYYYYYYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” MM30 screamed again, swinging, grasping, clawing. The intruder’s face seemed to be retreating into the darkness. MM30 lunged and he and his assailant fell over the recliner.

At that moment, the nurse on call burst in and flicked on the light.

MM30 didn’t get to see the look on the nurse’s face at that moment, but I imagine it was one of the great all-time looks of bafflement, as she beheld Her Lovely Self, bolt upright in bed, only just awakened by her husband’s caterwauling, and no doubt sharing a baffled look of her own as she stared across the room at the spectacle of her husband, in his underwear, splayed across a pink vinyl recliner.

Wrestling with a helium balloon in the shape of a jack-o-lantern.

(Well, hey, it was dark.)

(And I was really tired.)



But you want to know the best part?


Thomas slept through the whole thing.



***



“What are you laughing at, Dad?”

I blinked in the darkness and realized that my son was laying in bed next to me.

“Oh, must have dozed off. What time is it?” I asked.

He turned his head and stared at the illumined face of the bedside clock. “It’s almost...wait...okay! It’s 6:16! I’m 10!! I’m officially 10!!” He bounced in bed. Next to him, his mother groaned. At our feet, Blaze grunted, then kicked us with his paws. Somewhere down the hall, I could hear the Éclair shouting for her sister to come get her. A new day was dawning at the Magazine Mansion.

Thomas flailed and pumped his fist in the air for a moment longer. “Ten! I’m 10!!” he shouted, then settled back into the bed again, suddenly sober. “Wow. Can you believe I made it to 10, Dad?” he asked.

I got nose to nose with him, looked him in the eye.

“Buddy, I never doubted for one second that you would.”


Happy birthday, Thomas.


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Friday, October 17, 2008

 

An October Moment...



October 14, 2008


We’re doing a little fall cleaning and so our upstairs hallways has become a kind of clearing ground for various items, including a cardboard box full of photographs. They’re a real mish-mosh of pictures, including stuff of all of the kids, images from my own childhood, and a recent influx of older photographs that I had brought back from my parents’ house. The Brownie is utterly fascinated by photos--especially photos that show her parents as children (the idea that we were once her age strikes her as both amusing and impossible, like a real-life optical illusion, and so whenever she passes the box, she stops to take a look).

But the other night, she grabbed a picture that didn't feature either her mother or me and let out a little cry of recognition as she did.


“Hey, that’s our old neighbor!” she exclaimed.

“Who?” I asked, coming down the hall to take a peek.

The Brownie stared and stared. “He used to visit me in the back yard all the time. He always talked to me when I was outside. But he moved away a long time ago, I think. Because I haven't seen him in a long time.”

Then I saw that the Brownie was holding an old black-and-white photo.

This photo, in fact.


papa


“Um, wh- who do you think that is, honey?” I asked, reaching out to take the photo with a trembling hand.

The Brownie gave me a Look. “I told you, Dad,” she said. “He used to talk to me in the back yard. But that was a long time ago, when I was real little. I used to have picnics with my foxes and he would come and talk to me. He sometimes told me funny stories about you and Uncle BB.”

I sat down on the hallway floor, my face--my head--going numb. The Brownie went through her fox-picnic phase about two years ago, when she was five.

“And you, you remember this?” I asked, though I shouldn’t have questioned her. The Brownie has always had an excellent memory.

“Oh yes,” she said emphatically. “And you remember him too. He was the one who told me about the tree.”

I remembered the tree all right. The big old aspen tree in our side yard. One summer about two years ago, the Brownie came in from having a picnic with her foxes and told me that an old man had told her to go inside or she might get hurt. I thought it was weird—and a little scary--that some strange old man I’d never seen was in our backyard warning my daughter about getting hurt, so I went looking for this guy. I never saw him--no one did, except the Brownie (and I had only been aware of her seeing him the one time, not the multiple times she was now revealing). As you can imagine, it freaked me out. So I kept the Brownie indoors.

And a few days later, that aspen tree, which turned out to have some kind of dry rot or disease that was undetectable, suddenly crashed over in our backyard. Had it happened while the Brownie was under the tree with her foxes, that tree would have crushed her. The mysterious old man had probably saved her life.

I told the story in fuller detail here.

At the time, the Brownie didn’t call the mysterious old man our neighbor. In that way that young kids often accept the impossible, my daughter opined that maybe the old fellow was God. But looking at the picture, I could now identify the Brownie’s mysterious benefactor.

It wasn’t a neighbor.

And it wasn’t God.

It was my grandfather, Papa John. My Dad’s dad.

Who, incidentally, never met the Brownie. That’s because he died in the early 1970s. When I was about five, in fact.

When I informed my daughter of this, she just shrugged. Seven-year-old woman though she is now, she still accepts the impossible with great grace. “Oh. No wonder he knew all those stories about you and Uncle BB," she said.

I had to remind myself to breathe. “Um, do you remember any of the stories he told you, honey?” I asked.

The Brownie shook her head and gave me a look of perfect indignation. “Geez, Dad, that was a long time ago. I can’t remember everything. What do you think I am?”

“Pretty freaking amazing, actually,” I said.

And meant it.


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

 

An October Moment...

(Don’t know what an October Moment is? Now you do.)

Because you asked so nicely:



October 3, 2008


A couple of weeks ago, I was sleeping in. I had been up during the night to deal with the Éclair, who had a head-cold and thought everyone should know about it. I finally got her settled around four and slept on into the morning, well after the kids got up, well after the Éclair awoke again. So everyone was downstairs having breakfast while I slept on.

At some point, Blaze came into my room, as he often does in the morning. Half-awake, I remembered his cold nose pressing up against a dangling hand. He does this most mornings--his idea of a wake-up call, although it seemed to me that he was being rather more insistent this morning. I assumed at the time that he had to go for a walk, but I was still tired, so I waved my hand at him, pushing him away. “Go downstairs!” I muttered. “Thomas’ll put you on your runner.” I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.

Next thing I knew, I was aware of a growing light in the room. I was facing the windows on the west side of the house, so it was odd that light should be coming up from them so early in the morning. I flopped my arm over my face to shield my eyes and then...

And then...

I was shaken violently. Not in a physical sense but in a way that’s not easy to articulate. It was like some kind of concussive force--like an earthquake, or a blast of air--had been detonated in the room and I was snapped awake by the power of it. I dropped my hand from my eyes and sat up instantly.

And there, standing over my bed, was my Dad.

I was so disoriented, so thrown, so completely struck deer-in-the-headlights by this image in front of me that I was rendered instantly awake. I didn’t know where I was or what was going on, but for that moment, it was like I was 10 or 12 again and my Dad had been forced to come yank me out of bed to mow the lawn or haul wood, as he had sometimes done on weekends in my childhood when I had overslept.

“Get your ass outta bed right now!” he shouted in my face. I thought he was mad but later it occurred to me that he was simply urgent--an emotional shading that was often hard to differentiate in my Dad. And I felt more than saw that he was being at his most seriously insistent. He wanted--needed--me to get up. Right. That. Instant.

Man, I was out of that bed in less than half a second, colliding with the dog, who had apparently remained at my bedside, continuing to try to wake me. But now Blaze bolted out the bedroom door ahead of me, yelping as though kicked, running like his ass was on fire. So was I.

I headed for the stairs in that panicked, mostly instinctual state of the suddenly awakened. All I could think was that the house must be on fire, and that I had to get out. But then Blaze stopped dead at the top of the stairwell, waiting for me to go down first. Or so I thought.

But it turned out, he was refusing to go down the stairs because someone was coming up them.

Specifically, the Éclair.

The baby had snuck away from her mother and, quietly, sneakily, started crawling up the 14 steps to the landing on the second floor. All by herself.

She was one step from the top when I arrived on the scene. And as she stood on that penultimate step, teetering crazily on her little unsteady legs, she turned slightly sideways to look back down the stairwell, so she hadn’t seen me or Blaze yet.

And a second later, her foot slipped.

Moving with that superhuman speed all parents have in times of near-doom, I lunged, burning my knees on the carpet of the top step, stretching out my arm so quickly all the joints in it popped...and snagged my falling daughter by the collar of her jammies, catching her literally at the very beginning of what would surely have been a terrible headlong cartwheel down the stairwell.

With a wrench that made my back go into painful spasm later, I yanked her up onto the landing and we both fell backward onto the floor. She squawked in surprise, the Éclair did. But she recovered quickly.

Which is more than I can say for me.

While the Éclair got to her feet and toddled into her brother’s room to see if she could find something interesting to play with, I lay gasping on the landing, t-shirt drenched with cold sweat at the thought of how narrowly disaster had been averted. I mean, if I hadn’t been right there, right at that second...

Blaze seemed to be reading my mind as he gave me the most baleful look, and then trotted after his young charge.

I was a long time calming down from that, but later, when I did, I remembered the dream that had brought me awake.

Because that’s what I have to call it, of course. I don’t know why, but I tend to have my most vivid dreams in the morning, when I drift between wakefulness and sleep. And in my head, I know the logic of what happened: Blaze’s unusually urgent efforts to wake me, coupled with whatever sounds I was hearing in my sleep (the Éclair likes to talk to herself and I have no doubt some echo of her efforts up the stairwell was filtering into my room), caused my subconscious to form an image calculated to send me into instant action, and so it was that I had a waking dream of my Dad, 18 months in his grave, alerting me to a dangerous situation involving the granddaughter he never met.

I know that must be what happened. I know it was a dream. I know it.

Except...

The next morning, when I woke up, I heard a strange, keyed-up whining. I sat up, and saw Blaze lying just outside my bedroom door, his eyes shining.

“Hey boy,” I smiled, and patted the side of my bed. “Come here, buddy.”

But Blaze only trembled and wouldn’t move an inch closer to me.

In fact, ever since that morning, he refuses to step one paw into my bedroom.

Maybe he saw my Dad too.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Monday, October 13, 2008

 

In Which We Go Shopping for One Thing and Come Back With Another...

And so, despite my earlier (and only 24 hours earlier) vow to stop obsessively hunting down an action figure for my son’s birthday, I reversed myself with no hesitation whatsoever when my elder daughter announced plans to come with me and renew the search for the elusive Ahsoka Tano, an action figure based on the eponymous character now appearing in the current Star Wars cartoon, and the one item Thomas wants for his birthday more than anything, including money and world peace.

Does that bring us up to speed?

I was glad to take the Brownie with me, in part because she is a born shopper. Whenever my parents used to visit, they always took the Brownie shopping, an event I know my daughter looked forward to, not only because my parents could never refuse her anything, but also because she just enjoyed being with them. In fact, I realized, always with fresh shock when it happens, that this was the time of year that Papa and Grandma normally would be visiting--and taking the Brownie shopping--if they hadn’t been killed in a car accident 18 months ago. Much as we all still felt their absence in our own ways, I thought I ought to be able to keep some traditions alive. If my parents were no longer around to take her shopping, surely I could do it.

My other reason for taking the Brownie was because I realized I hadn’t spent any one-on-one time with her lately, which I generally try to do with each of my kids. But after school and on weekends, the Brownie usually pals around with several girls in the neighborhood and I barely see her during daylight hours.

And I confess, I’ve been wanting to find some excuse to spend a little time with her, what with the crying, and all.

Right around the beginning of October, see, we got a message from her teacher that the Brownie was suddenly given to these unexpected outbursts of crying. Nothing hysterical, just silent weeping while she sits at her desk. No amount of pleading and wheedling on the teacher’s part could yield any concrete reasons for the tears, so the teacher would either comfort her or, if the Brownie asked (and often she did), leave her alone. After about 5 or 10 minutes, the Brownie was fine and it was business as usual.

Except for the fact that it worried the teacher and the school counselor, and practically drove my wife around the bend. Everyone tried to have meaningful conversations about this situation--was she hurt, was she sad about something, was some other kid--or God help us, some pervert adult--bothering her? But the Brownie didn’t want to engage in a discussion. “I just get sad. But then I get over it!” she yelled in a kind of frustration one night after my wife tried for the umpteenth time to talk to her.

I’m not saying it didn’t bother me, but I do have to admit that I was only slightly less worried than my wife and my daughter’s teacher, for reasons I’ll get to in about 1,600 words. For now, suffice it to say, I thought that if the Brownie and I just spent a little time engaged in a common purpose, she might open up to me a little and I could gain some valuable intelligence.

Oh, and while we were at it, we’d try to find that goddamn action figure Thomas wants for his birthday.

So it was that after dinner of Friday night, the Brownie and I embarked on what was to be a weekend-long quest, encompassing stops at more stores than I care to count right now. Instead, I’ll transcribe the simple travel log I kept as we made our progress and let it do the counting instead:

Store #1: Target (the one nearest the house):

We marched as one through the store, heading for the back, where the toy department sat.

“Hey look, there are some socks,” the Brownie noted, pointing to some very brightly colored tubes of fabric, each adorned with a Disney character or some kind of headache-inducing pattern.

“Yes,” I agreed. Whatever else those head-splitting monuments to ugliness were, they were indeed socks. “Do you need socks?” I asked, bracing for the answer.

“I might,” the Brownie allowed. “I never know what I need until I go shopping, and then I think of lots of things.” All I could think of at the moment was how perfectly my daughter had managed to express what I suspect is an axiom for her entire gender. But I didn’t say that, of course.

We reached the toy section. It was simplicity to pick out the correct aisle for the Star Wars toys because on the end of the row, we could see a display of Darth Vader and Clone Trooper helmets. And evidently there was a motion sensor hidden in that display, because the moment we walked by, a sound chip activated and the highly recognizable sound of a lightsaber igniting filled our ears. It was a sound I would come to grow weary of.

Also wearing was the sight we next beheld: a nearly stripped display of Star Wars action figures. All I saw were robots and stormtroopers. I knew we wouldn’t find our quarry here, but the Brownie made a diligent search of every peg, carefully checking each figure in the row, going all the way back to the wall.

“These all look like the same ones I saw a few weeks ago. They probably didn’t even get the new ones in,” I remarked, knowing that the elusive Ahsoka was packed in the most recent wave of figures.

“Hmm,” said the Brownie. She pulled out a robot action figure and studied the package carefully. Then she turned to me. “Look,” she said. “Ahsoka’s on the back of this package.” She held the package up for my inspection so I could see: there on the bottom, the manufacturer showed a little lineup of several other figures from the line--sort of a built-in marketing inducement to entice kids to collect all the figures and make a set (a feature which I recalled from my own days of buying Star Wars figures. My own childhood days, I mean). The little alien female labeled “Ahsoka Tano” was there.

“I think this droid figure is from the same batch as Ahsoka, otherwise she wouldn’t even be on the back like that,” the Brownie said. “Which means the store did get her in already, but we missed it.”

I stood for a moment, marveling at the little 7-year-old woman I was shopping with. “You know, that’s an excellent observation. You ought to be a detective,” I gushed. The Brownie just smiled and dropped the figure back into the display. “Where to next?” she asked.

Store #2: Wal-Mart:

Found nothing.

Store #3: Kmart:

Ditto.

Store #4: Target (another one):

It is the next day now, and after a fitful night’s sleep, we are on the trail again right after breakfast. We are not the only ones. At the other stores last night, we bumped into: one slightly harried mother looking for Ahsoka Tano, only to settle on a stormtrooper and the fat chick who dances in Jabba the Hutt’s palace (really: why so many of her?); and a boy of about 10 who compared notes with us briefly (“Seen that girl Jedi from the movie?”) before leaving to check out the Hot Wheels aisle.

I’m slightly surprised--and worried, from a competitive standpoint--that so many people are after the same thing. What the heck? Was it on the news? What?

At this Target, we didn’t find the figure, but we did find a young man in the aisle, a basket full of toys under one arm, while with his free hand he riffled through the figures all lined up on their pegs.

I never know what protocol is here: Do I wait for him to go through every single row of figures--even though that constitutes half the aisle--or do I just step up next to him and start looking through the rows he hasn’t gotten to yet?

Before I could decide what to do, the Brownie stepped up and cleared her throat.

“Excuse me,” she said.

The young man turned: he was rail-thin with a huge shock of blond hair and enormous glasses. He was very pale, which made the red acne on his forehead stand out like a Vegas casino sign.

“So...are you a scalper man?” the Brownie asked.

The kid looked shocked even to be spoken to, let alone be asked a question. He looked from the 7-year-old woman to me, then back to the Brownie again.

“Uh, no,” he said, tentatively at first, but then repeating himself, this time trying for a little indignation. “No! I’m not a scalper. I collect these figures.”

“Ohhhhhh,” the Brownie said, trying to sound all casual, but in her mind deciding that this was exactly the kind of man--and God help me, there will be so many of them--that she should avoid in the future.

She eyed the basket the man was holding. “How come you have so many of the same guy?” She was pointing to a stormtrooper figure with some yellowish markings and a removable helmet, identified on the package as "Commander Cody." In the basket right next to this figure was an identical one.

“I don’t have so many!” the guy cried, as he turned to shield his basket from further view. “I got two Codys. One for me and one to trade! Not my fault Hasbro short-packs them!”

The Brownie just nodded. “Did you find any Ahsoka Tanos?”

The guy blinked at her for a moment, then smiled tentatively, as if he’d been bracing for something worse. “No, not yet. She’s in the same wave of figures as Cody so she should be here, but there were none by the time I arrived.”

“Oh,” said the Brownie. “Okay. Thank you.” And then she nudged past him, dismissing him as utterly as if she had vaporized him with some kind of secret death ray. She planted herself firmly in front of the display of figures and started looking through them. Evidently she didn’t take the guy at his word. I turned to smile at the guy and apologize for the grilling he’d received, but he was already gone.

“Honey,” I said. “What if he had had two Ahsoka figures in his basket, instead of the stormtrooper?”

“Oh,” said the Brownie, not even bothering to turn to look at me, so obvious did she imagine her answer was. “I would have asked real nice for one. And if he didn’t give it to me, I would have screamed til police came.”

Oh.


Store #5: Toys R Us:

Plenty of Star Wars figures here--a whole wall of them the moment you walk through the door. But none from the latest wave of figures. A helpful store employee informed us--with the air of a man who has provided the same exact information to about eleventy jillion people today--that they are due for a shipment of the new figures next week.

On the way out, who should we see loping across the parking lot but our friend from Target, the Collector.

“They’re getting them in next week!” the Brownie hollered at him. He cringed and, staring straight ahead, marched on into the store.


Store #6: Walgreens Pharmacy:

The Brownie insisted that she had once seen toys in the pharmacy, so I impulsively swung into the parking lot. Turns out they do indeed have a notional section of dolls and cars and assorted crap--even one or two Star Wars figures. But nothing like what we’re looking for. The Brownie looked briefly at a bin of colored socks--why in a pharmacy?--then noted, with mock surprise, that Walgreens has a candy aisle and boy! is this shopping ever hungry work. I outmaneuver her--barely--by suggesting we grab an early lunch instead.


Over lunch--which consisted of the kinds of awful, empty-caloried fast-food crap guaranteed to make discriminating mothers’ heads explode--I casually asked the Brownie how school was going. She dropped the French fry she was holding and looked up at me with a Face.

“I’ll tell you, Dad. So long as you’re not really asking me about the crying.”

Seven-year-old woman. I thought.

“Why don’t you want to talk about it?”

“Well, why DO you?” she countered.

“Because I’m worried. That’s one of the main Dad Jobs: I’m supposed to worry about you. When my daughter cries and doesn’t want to talk about it, that makes me worried. I’m also supposed to help keep you happy and safe, and crying seems like the opposite of that, unless you’re crying tears of joy. Are you?”

“No,” she answered. “But I don’t know why, really. I mean, I just get sad ideas that don’t stop and then I cry. And then I feel better and it all goes away til next time.”

I nodded, thinking for a minute. Then I made up my mind and I said something. Something I’d been keeping to myself for a long while.

“You know,” I said. “When I was in second grade, I went through a months-long crying jag at school. Every single morning from October until January or February.”

“Oh?” the Brownie answered with an air of nonchalance, but I could tell she was listening because she had stopped eating.

“Seriously. My teachers and Grandma and Papa spent long, exasperating months trying to draw me out. All I could tell them was that I was just feeling sad. But they were worried it was something else. Papa thought a bad person was hurting me. He wanted to sit outside the school with a shotgun.”

The Brownie laughed at this. “But you were just sad, right?”

“Right. Seven is a tough age. You’re old enough to know what you’re feeling and to be able to tell people you are sad, but it’s harder to tell people exactly why because it gets all mixed up and confused. If that’s how it is with you, fine. But if there is something—or someone—bothering you, you can totally tell me. Even if you promised not to, even if you think we’ll be mad. Because we totally won’t.”

“Ok,” she agreed, picking her fries back up. “NOW can we stop talking about it?”


Store #7: Yet Another Target:

Found Nothing

Store #8: Another Toys R Us:

Nada.

Store #9: Target (The Last Goddamn One in the Area and if I ever hear the name “Ahsoka Tano” again it’ll be too fucking soon):


After nearly 10 stores, I am a little footsore as I hobble in, but the Brownie is already ahead of me. She ducks into the toy aisle, and almost instantly I hear the squeal of triumph. I quicken my pace and she comes hopping out of the aisle holding a nauseatingly familiar white package bearing the Star Wars logo. But the figure is one I’ve never seen before--a small, orange-skinned alien girl. With a lightsaber.

“Ahsoka Tano, I presume?” I said.

The aisle of figures appeared freshly stocked--we even saw a couple of those Commander Cody guys our collector friend hoarded.

“I might get one of these Cody guys for Thomas to go with Ahsoka,” the Brownie said as she grabbed one and stacked it atop the figure we’d been searching for. I told her to go ahead and look to see if there were any other figures Thomas might want. I absently wandered over to the next aisle, looking to see if there were anything else--a board game, say--that I might get my son. I didn’t want to give him just action figures for his birthday, after all. And God knows that after today, I was all done with shopping for his birthday.

Then, as I was stepping out of the aisle, I saw them enter it: a little boy, flanked on either side by an older man and woman, too old to be parents to such a young kid. The boy started yelling “Clone Wars guys!” and the older couple--clearly grandparents--beamed at each other, basking in the glow of the little guy’s excitement.

The kid was loud--I could hear him in the next aisle as he rooted through the toys. I gathered from his endless excited jabber that he, like everyone else we’d met at various toy departments over the past 36 hours, was looking for the elusive Ahsoka. Too late, kiddo, I thought, perhaps a tad gloatingly.

And then, the Brownie was standing in my aisle, tugging insistently on my arm. “I’m ready to go, Dad,” she said, in a strange voice. I turned to look at her, but she brushed past me, walking fast for the front of the store. I trotted to follow her to what I assumed would be the closest checkout stand, but that’s when I noticed something.

The Brownie’s hands were empty.

“Wait!” I cried, slightly aggrieved. “Where’s Ahsoka?” The Brownie turned and now I could see her eyes brimming with tears. I thought I understood why. “Did--did that little kid take it from you or something? Did--?” I stopped and pivoted, intending to march back and make some noise. But then the Brownie grabbed my hand.

“Stop!” she said, her voice broken, but still commanding real power. I froze, looking at my daughter’s crumpled face as she tried to master herself long enough to get the words out. “I GAVE it to him!!” she howled. And then this 7-year-old woman turned on her heel and marched out the door.

It was the sight of the grandparents, of course.

The grandparents who were shopping with their little one, just like the Brownie had. Just like she would be doing right now, if fate hadn’t intervened. I had thought the Brownie just a tad too young to be very hard hit by the loss of her favorite grandparents, but I saw now how wrong I was. We sat in the back of my car there in the Target parking lot, the Brownie crying into my shirt. I didn’t ask her any dumb questions. I got it in one this time, so I just shut up and let her turn my shirt into something that was just wringing wet.

“I told you I just get sad sometimes. I’m really sorry,” she said later. We were at an ice-cream shop, fortifying ourselves with something exceedingly chocolate.

“I’m not,” I said. “I’m kind of proud, actually. It was awfully nice of you to hand that toy over. I honestly don’t think I could have done it.” Actually, there was no “don’t think” about it. After 9 stores, part of me was still stunned we didn’t have that fucking toy to show for it. But never mind.

“Well, at the time I just felt like I had to,” she said. We were both being strangely careful not to actually mention the little boy and his grandparents.

“It was totally a good thing. Honest. I expect you’ll get some good karma out of this,” I said.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Well, basically it just means what goes around comes around. You did something really nice for somebody today so that’s going to come back to you somehow.”

She frowned at me over her chocolatey mess. “That sounds like magical thinking to me,” she said.

I almost fell out of my chair. “How do you know about magical thinking?”

The 7-year-old woman just stared at me. “Daaaaaad,” she moaned, supremely put-upon. “Come on. I read. I watch TV. I know stuff.”

Presently, we were back in the car, heading home. I confess I was all done for the day. Who knew shopping could be so emotional? But as we passed a certain strip mall, the Brownie perked up. “Oh, Kohls!” she cried, indicating the biggest store in the strip mall. “That’s where we got the good socks last time!”

All of a sudden, I realized we just couldn't go home empty-handed. So I pulled in and offered to get the Brownie a couple of pairs of the most hideously colorful socks she could find.

Sometimes parenting is like that, I think. You go out intending to do great things and have big, meaningful conversations, and slay all the dragons you’ve set for your daily quota as a parent. But in the end, you count yourself lucky if you can just buy socks together.

And the really crazy thing is, sometimes the socks are enough.

Anyway, that’s what happened this weekend.


Yours,
From Somewhere on






“Dad!”

I peered over the top of a rack of socks. “What?”

The Brownie was pointing to the far corner of the Kohls store we were in. “I see toys.”

I had actually never been in a Kohls before, but it was my impression they were just a basic department/clothing store. “Oh, honey. They don’t have toys here,” I said.


But they did.


Granted, it was a small section--just four short rows. But on the very last one...

“Holy crap! Jackpot!” the Brownie screamed, loudly enough to make every head in the store swivel.

On this whole last aisle, I counted 25 rows of pegs, each peg holding about 10 figures, all Star Wars. First peg on the end, not two feet from my shaking hand were no less than four Ahsoka Tanos. I looked at the price.

"Jeez! This is a whole dollar more than they cost at the other places!" I cried, forgetting that they didn't have them at the other places. Forgetting that I hadn't just spent so much on gas that I could have bought 5 Ahsoka Tanos on eBay and still had money left over.

Still, I grabbed one up for Thomas. And as I did, the Brownie caressed the second figure on the peg, gazing at it.

“Don’t tell me you want an Ahsoka Tano too?” I asked.

The Brownie smiled. “Well, I DO have my own money,” she insisted. “And I’m kind of attached to her now. So I think I will. But don’t worry,” she said, patting my arm and walking away. “I'll hide it til after Thomas's birthday. Oh, and you can still buy me the socks.” Then she dashed out of the aisle.

I sighed and shook my head, putting on the act of the exasperated dad, but the only audience to witness my performance now were rows upon rows of plastic people. I sighed again and looked up and down the row.


“Figures,” I said.


Then I ran to catch up with my daughter.


Friday, October 10, 2008

 

In Which We Begin Our Quest...


In the worst, best, and oddest moments in my life, I have often coped by imagining that my life is not really my life, but some kind of sit-com or series of movies being written and produced for the private amusement of some higher being (oh, and all of you). Which is fine, as far as it goes. But if you view your life through that kind of lens long enough, pretty soon you’ll find yourself adapting certain aspects of TV-show and movie-making as a way to live and amuse yourself.

Take, for example, the concept of the MacGuffin. In cinematic parlance, The MacGuffin is the object, the thing that drives the plot. Hitchcock was famous for using MacGuffins and more recently George Lucas has thrown the term around in association with the Indiana Jones films, all of which revolved around the seeking and finding of a MacGuffin. It’s just a gimmick, a way to move a story forward, and they’re usually highly disposable. Often by the end of the movie, the MacGuffin becomes meaningless, because it’s already served its narrative purpose of putting the show’s characters through a compelling arc of developments.

As a viewer, I have mixed feelings about the use of MacGuffins in shows and films, but I have to say that I love pursuing MacGuffins in my life. There’s something about the search, the hunt, the pursuit of something that I find especially thrilling. Hunting a MacGuffin can reliably fill an afternoon--or a weekend--for me.

I’ve done this for years, often without realizing I was doing it. In college, I was forever enlisting my roommate to go searching for something with me: one Saturday morning, it was to find a Nerf fencing set (which sadly, they do not make anymore). Another time, I got my roommate and his girlfriend to drive 6 hours to Boston (and then 6 hours back to college) in order to find a case of imported English cider to which I was especially partial.

You’d think growing up and having a family would make you more inclined to abandon such juvenile pursuits, but if anything, family life has only increased my options for MacGuffin hunting. Her Lovely Self, for example, has recently taken to acquiring and decorating her garden with old-fashioned sprinklers--the neat antique brass kinds--and now I spend lunch hours and whole afternoons hunting through junk shops and salvage warehouses looking for the things. With the kids, it’s even worse, because there are so many things out there in the world that they want.

Now let me add here that my kids have never been prone to flailing in a toy store aisle screaming “I WANT IT!” But every once in a while, Thomas or the Brownie will get all wistful and wish for a certain something and--since they ask so rarely--I’m inclined to get it for them, even though it is sometimes a hardship for me. In fact, especially because it’s a hardship. That seems to be essential to the idea of MacGuffin hunting. And so, off I go, spending what to the untrained eye must seem like an enormous amount of time and effort to locate an item that only has meaning because I’ve chosen to give it some.

My long-suffering wife just doesn’t understand this behavior, which she has labeled as being on the verge of an obsessive-compulsive disorder (and who’s to say she’s wrong?). My behavior also tends to lead her to the conclusion that I am a tad materialistic and tend to put a little too much importance on the having of certain things in my life. I dunno. I guess it’s fair to say that I do like having certain things in my life. This is not because I suffer from a congenital form of C.R.A.P. syndrome--well, not completely because of it--but because there’s a certain small satisfaction that comes from committing to a quest and actually seeing it through. It’s no different than participating in a scavenger hunt. In short, I consider MacGuffin-hunting to be good, innocent fun.

With Thomas’ 10th birthday coming up the end of the month, I once again have a chance to find a MacGuffin. My kids’ birthdays have nearly always been triggers for great MacGuffin hunts. When my son was little, the MacGuffin used to be in the form of certain wooden trains; later he had a special desire for Justice League action figures--one year, he badly desired Solomon Grundy, a figure available only by attending a comic book convention in California--or by paying an exorbitant mark-up to some nose-breathing fanboy eBay parasite who had attended in your stead (in the end, I found a PR person who was attending for business reasons, and he got me one).

These days, Thomas is still into action figures, but now he likes the Star Wars ones. He’s fond of the new animated series on TV now and uses his figures to create elaborate shows of his own (sometimes he even films these shows with our old camcorder). I can justify getting the figures for him--and I must say that right now he has quite a few--because I see that he does more than hoard them, does more than play with them. He uses them to build something creative, something that in his mind aspires to art.

Which is great--wonderful even. Unless your collection is minus a particular crucial character.

Most recently, the figure he’s requiring is the female Jedi apprentice named Ahsoka Tano. She appeared in this summer’s Clone Wars animated film and is a main character on the new TV show I mentioned. I have my own opinions about the latest direction the Star Wars universe has taken with this animated series and its new characters, but this is not the place to air them. All that matters in this context is that Thomas likes the character. More than that, he considers her a crucial member of the cast when it comes to telling his own home-video stories. The problem is, she’s been impossible to find.

When the latest batch--in the toy business, they are known as waves--of figures based on the animated film were released this summer, you could expect to find dozens of the primary characters--an assload of Anakin Skywalkers, an orgy of Obi-Wan Kenobis. You could even find the fat chick who danced in Jabba’s palace, hanging on the pegs in numbers that defied explanation (why so many of her?). But Ahsoka Tano was nowhere to be found. Thomas went online to find out what the deal was, and learned through careful monitoring of various toy-hobbyist Web sites, that Ahsoka would be included in the second wave of Clone Wars figures, which would be released some time in September or October. And the scuttlebutt was that she would be short-packed. That’s the term toy hobbyists use to describe a figure who the manufacturer deliberately issues only in small numbers--usually one or two to a case. The company apparently does this to generate buzz for a particular toy line, but all it really does is inspire certain people known as toy scalpers to go out and buy up as many of these short-packed figures as they can, hoarding them and then selling them on eBay for as much as a 200 percent mark-up.

Long-time readers may recall that I’m not fond of scalpers, having encountered one a couple of years ago on another MacGuffin hunt. It’s not that I can’t afford to pay a little more than retail for a toy, but it galls me to have to pay more just because some retail mercenary snapped them all up while I was at work doing a real job.

And so the hunt began. Every lunch hour this week, I’ve driven over to a different Target, or Wal-Mart, or Toys-R-Us, trying to find the elusive Ahsoka MacGuffin. Always, I was too late, even by a matter of minutes, as I found out one day when I rounded an aisle at a Target, and saw a store employee breaking down cardboard boxes that were clearly labeled as containing the latest wave of Star Wars figures. The display was a mess, having just been rifled by two scalpers who waited while the employee stocked the shelves, then grabbed figures by the fistful and carted them off.

As I sprinted for the checkout lanes--in the heat of the moment, I think I was hoping to intercept the scalpers and see about guilting them into handing over the figure I needed, but they were long gone by the time I got there--I realized that I was probably getting a little carried away. Because the truth was I didn’t need the figure any more than Thomas needed it. But I was perhaps getting caught up in the chase, in the quest. So I slowed to a walk, and then left the store.

By evening, I had decided that I would occasionally check out some nearby stores at lunch or maybe on the way home from work, but no more would I chase willy-nilly around the county, scouring every toy department hoping to catch a fresh shipment of toys. Fundamentally, it didn’t make me much better than the scalpers. So I would just make the occasional look between now and the end of the month, when my son turns 10. If I was meant to find it, I would. And if not, well...

That very night, as I was resigned to this course of action, the Brownie came up to me after dinner, pulled me into a hallway and, after checking to make sure her brother wasn’t eavesdropping, said, “Dad, when are we going hunting for Ahsoka Tano, the figure Thomas wants?”

“Uh, well, you know I have looked, but she’s sold out at all the places I’ve checked,” I said.

The Brownie nodded grimly. “Scalper men,” she said, setting her jaw and staring off into the middle distance, no doubt lost in a flashback sequence in the latest episode of her own life. In my previous encounter with a scalper, I was able to prevail only because I had brought the Brownie with me. Her quick thinking and highly manipulative crocodile tears were what carried the day. “Well, we can’t let scalper men get all the Ahsokas out there. We’ll just have to go looking for them together,” she said emphatically.

And so, as they say, the adventure continues.

I’ll keep you posted on the highlights of the hunt, which begins right after supper, this Friday night. Tune in and don’t miss it.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, October 02, 2008

 

In Which I Misplace My Lucky Life...



I try. I really try to be this nice, amiable, funny guy in my neighborhood, but it never quite plays out that way.

Last night, I was driving home and I saw the girls on the corner. It's the neighborhood girls who congregate near our house after school. If it's warm out, as it was this day, they make a pitcher of lemonade and set up on the corner and have an honest-to-God lemonade stand. I drive home of an afternoon and see them silhouetted against the settling sun and feel like a man in a lucky life. I beep and wave as I go by. Sometimes I stop and buy a cup. Always I try to be nice and amiable and funny. But it never quite plays out that way.

Last night I was driving home and I noticed, standing right by the lemonade girls, an older neighbor girl, young Kay, who has a strong maternal instinct in her, even at 12, and who loves to come and play with the Éclair after school. Almost every day, when she gets off the bus, she makes a beeline for the Eclair, who is invariably waiting on the steps with her mother. Often as not, the Éclair will make more of a fuss about Kay than her own brother and sister. They are thick as thieves, these two, and I often come home to see Kay standing there, like an eldest daughter who never was, with the Éclair hooked on her hip, both of them waving to me.

So there was the familiar silhouette of girl and baby on the corner by the lemonade stand. And I'd had a long day and was glad to be coming home to my lucky life and so I gunned the engine in my car and revved it a bit and roared up to the corner where the lemonade stand was. I screeched to a halt and leaned out the window of my car and yelled, in a crazy foreign accent, calculated to make the girls squeal and laugh. I leaned out my car window, face contorted in a funny, crazy way, my arms outstretched, my fingers grasping at the baby in an outrageous, over-exaggerated "come-here-now" fashion.

"Never mind dee lemon-yade!" I cried, laying the accent on thick, my fingers pointing and gesticulating. "How much for the baby? Geeeve me da baybeee!"

And then the sun was behind a cloud and I realized that I was talking to complete strangers. Not Kay and the Éclair at all, but a small woman and child I had never seen before in my life--new neighbors down the block, it would turn out--gaping at me with matching horrified expressions.

I tried to explain, I really did, but the damage was already done, you know. So I just put the car in gear and raced down the street to my house, hoping to resume my lucky life tomorrow.

Welcome to the neighborhood, lady.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


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