Why The Flame

Like an ant to syrup I respond to this word
“Pure”
In any context
Even the painfully inaccurate
By seeking to savor and store something
From it
Out of it
Drip it Drip it’s Dripping
Slow love if you’re lucky
Are you lucky
That was a question

What about the moth that runs from the flame
That was a question

When you have always known
You are a teacher
And you hate the idea
Which circle of hell will you flat track

That, too, was a question

Like, Have you seen me lately
Or, Does heaven have a landlord
And, How many white doves does it take
to satisfy the devil

Answer as you would if you were naked and
Cold and
Pure

Wrestleair

Jacob was the a.k.a. extra heir
Esau was heir enough but sold room in his lungs for food
(one cannot breath and swallow at the same time)
And as far as we know
He lived happily ever after as a hairy man with many wives
(God bless him)

Angels are often depicted as smooth skinned
Aerodynamic ephemeral creatures
(which is why they refer to each other as “the boys”)
Made of the remaining air from God’s intent
After breathing seeds of life into the foundation of time
(which is why God refers to them as the “sons of exhaustion”)

I wrestled Jacob in the shadow of Esau’s forgiveness
He demanded a blessing which was not mine to give
(the text falls shy of truth: he had me by the balls)
But I delivered it yet so God set me aside in his humor
To be the fallen angel of oxygen margins
(is how he said it, and then smiled)

I am all wind over 30 miles per hour
I am balloons
I am the small gasp at the site of someone you cannot love
I am lost hats
I am under every falling leaf
I am 30% of home runs and touchdown passes
I am the snort when laughter snorts
I am a pause on the radio
I am farts
I am on jet planes
I am friend to the woodwinds and cousin to brass

This is an abridged list, of course

But you know me, the angel of extra air

The Monkeys and Who 1997

There’s a dog sitting on the sidewalk near the door of the Fahrenheit coffeehouse. A big dog. Doggie dog. Tom is not a dog person. Not even a little. As he slides quarters into the parking meter, he looks at the German Shepherd. A big German Shepherd with ears. Ruff! Dogs know, damn it, that he’s not a dog person and they resent it. They bully him.

Dogs know that Tom is a coward deep down in his weepy little heart. Oh, Dog. He doesn’t notice anyone else having trouble with the pooch, all tongue and slobber. He worries: slobber on my suit. The dog is laughing at him. He leads with his wrist. Here dog. Pheromone check, yes? See. Not a bad man. Not a danger to myself or others. Smell my hand and do your doggie calculations. Fear, minus intent, equals: pass on by. Coffeehouse sentry. Grrrr! He’s clean. Let him through.

 

The air conditioning inside the coffeehouse is like a prize. And the winner…boy oh boy that cool air feels good. He was starting to sweat and that wouldn’t really work because he’s meeting someone and she…kiss, kiss. Right! In his dreams.

Tom spots Ruth. He spies her and takes a gander. She is sitting in the corner writing. Writing what? Her hand scoots across the page in a Morse code rhythm: The party of the first part…The party of the second. No. It’s all computer templates now, yes? Of course. Tom always wanted to be lawyer, but he never went to law school and this, then, is what happens. You don’t become a lawyer. Oops! Tom went, instead, to the ICC Technical Institute. The hallowed halls of a converted grocery store where he learned to turn tiny tiny screws with itty bitty screw drivers. Oh, and more importantly, he learned to write computer code. The secrets of the universe, yes? This was, everyone remembers, at a time when people who graduated from technical schools like ICC went on to become customer service technicians for IBM. He could look forward to repairing computerized cash registers or servicing sections of giant main frames that read time cards and spit out payroll checks.

But then came (hold on) the computer boom. Boom! And Tom’s know-how was needed elsewhere…needed everywhere. Fast and in a hurry. He was on the inside. Turns out—who would have guessed—Tom had more than a knack for this sort of thing. Ground-floor shares. Ground-floor millionaire. One wealthy hombre.

Of course, Ruth isn’t one to be impressed by money…is she? She’s pretty, that’s all. When she looks up from her work and smiles, Tom pulls out a dagger and slits his own throat. Not really. Joke! She doesn’t give him a hug. They’re not that sort-of couple. Actually, they’re no couple at all. Strictly business. A business affair. Anything beyond a handshake would be, well, unprofessional, inappropriate, and other multi-syllable words. Wouldn’t it? Ruth is his…or, one of his lawyers. She is not house counsel, but a hired gun. Bang! Take that. It’s the truth. She is here to help him sell his huge little company: RamDex. Everybody has heard of his company and nobody really knows what it does. It’s technical.

Tom left his second ground-floor millionaire job to start RamDex. Those were the days, everyone remembers, when you had to make an effort to screw up in the computer industry. And every day that RamDex made money, he felt like an impostor. This is my manufacturing plant? This is my loading dock? This is my office with a view of the bay? How did I get here? Come on. What’s the joke? Am I on candid camera?

“Sorry I’m late,” says Tom.

“Oh, no problem, just going over my notes.” Ruth smiles again. “They serve soup here. Soup with a roll, I think. I know you probably didn’t get a chance to eat.”

“Soup? Soup sounds good.” He hangs his jacket over the chair.  “I’ll be right back, then.”

Will you marry me? Right! Not a chance. He walks up to the counter to order. The girl at the cash register has a nose ring, a pierced eyebrow, and about—

“Nine,” she says, when she sees him looking at her ears. “Nine ear rings, one nose, one eyebrow, tongue, bellybutton, and one unmentionable.”

“Oh.”

“Do you want to order?”

“Please, yes…uh, what’s the soup?”

She points without looking to a sign behind her. “Split pea, no ham.” She sort of turns and bends a little as she says this, like she’s dancing.

“Hmmm. Split pea. You know, I can’t remember ever having split pea soup, exactly.”

The girl shifts her weight, brushes her hair back, and ponders the ceiling. She chews her gum furiously, but without malice. “Tastes like chalk,” she says.

“What?”

“Tastes like chalk to me. I mean, don’t get me wrong or anything. It’s good.”

“Well, then…give me the chalk soup.”

She walks down to the end of the counter and starts to ladle out his soup. “Anything to drink?” she asks.

“Iced tea, thanks.”

As she hands him his change, her face suddenly lights up. She takes a postcard sized announcement from a stack near the tip jar and hands it to him.

“This is my band,” she says, “Monkey Tongue.”

Tom turns the postcard around in his hand.

“We’re playing Friday night at the place next door, the bar upstairs.”

He looks at the postcard, which reads: The Bar Upstairs Presents Monkey Tongue.

“Monkey Tongue,” he says. “Wow.”

“Yeah, we cover the Monkees.”

Tom pictures a giant cotton sheet bubbling like water on the stage as the monkeys underneath try and escape. Eeek! Eeek!

“You know,” she adds. “That’s your generation, right? The Monkees? ‘Hey hey, we’re the Monkees…’”

Tom remembers. “Right, right. The Monkees, sure. Junior high school. Mickey, Peter and whatever. Yeah, I watched that show.”

“Yeah. Their music is really cool, but we play our own stuff too.”

“Do you sing?”

“Back up. I’m the bass player.” She breaks into an air guitar riff.

“Well, maybe I’ll drop in. I haven’t heard live music in a long time.”

“Cool, yeah. Bring your friends. It’ll be nostalgic and everything.”

“Right.”

He puts the postcard in his shirt pocket and he carries his soup back to the table. Ruth doesn’t look up this time, but keeps writing. “You know, Tom, I honestly don’t think you could have picked a better time to sell RamDex.”

He has the impostor feeling. Poser! “Really? Well, it just feels like time, I guess. I don’t think it’s been much of a strategic thing.”

“Well, whatever your motivation, now is the time. We’re beating them back with a stick. You’re the belle of the ball.”

But his success doesn’t interest him. Luck. The right place at the right time. Pow!

“You know,” he says, “I think I’ve already sold the company emotionally. It feels like a done deal. I don’t feel invested.”

Ruth laughs. “Oh, you’ll be invested, all right. It’s part of the package we’ve put together.”

“God, more money. It’s all gotten sort of silly.”

Ruth looks up from her papers. She frowns. “So start a foundation or something. We can strategize for the guilt factor if that’s an issue.”

The guilt factor. If only guilt was a factor. He isn’t sure he knows how to feel guilty when it comes to business. A faker? Yes. But, guilt? Guilt is reserved for those who act out of intention. Tom is a walking reaction, a living pinball. Bing! Bong! Whir! He just keeps racking up the points.

“Maybe,” he says. “A foundation might be interesting.”

“Have you given any more thought to what you might do once we’ve put this thing to bed?” she asks.

He’s getting some rare eye contact from her. Is this a personal question? No. She’s fishing for more business, exploring future opportunities. Good for her. Go get ‘em Ruth.

“Well, honestly, I haven’t given it a lot of thought. But I’m sure I’ll end up needing a lawyer or two somewhere down the line.”

“I’ve got to admit, Tom, having you and RamDex as a client has given our firm some prestige here in the valley. The truth is, your name has brought us additional business we might not have picked up otherwise.”

Impostor. Whenever he reads his name in the newspaper or a trade publication, he feels detached, out of body. That is some other Tommy Eisner he is reading about. He prefers they talk about RamDex. RamDex, he likes to think, is the company he works for.

“I think you do great work,” he says. “It’s been my pleasure to recommend you when I can.”

All business. Next on the agenda. Move along. The soup does taste like chalk. Good chalk, though. Green, green. He keeps adding salt. He waits for Ruth to get down to it, and she does. While he dips his roll into the split pea, squeezes lemon into his tea, chews his ice, Ruth fills him in on the offers. Crunch! She details the subtle differences between them. Some are just fat cash offers. Others come with less cash, but are adorned with interesting perks and opportunities which should be considered over the long run.

Ruth’s voice rises and falls with the steam of the espresso machine. Her words fade into the background as he focuses on her teeth. Great teeth.

He realizes she’s paused and it’s his turn to say something, give her his feedback. Now would be the time to say: I’m Batman. If he was Batman. She’s worked hard on this whole thing and her face is all confidence and anticipation.

“Remember the Monkees?” he says.

“What?”

“You know. ‘Here we come, walking down the street…’ The Monkees.”

“Well, I know who they are, or were. I mean, I guess that’s a little before my time, but I’ve seen reruns. So…you want to finance their next reunion tour or something?”

Ha. Funny. Good. He laughs. Of course not. But the idea of doing something a little nutty with all his play money does appeal to him. He’d like to do something where success wasn’t really the point. Or, at least, success measured by numbers wasn’t the point.

“No,” he says, “it’s just that…well, the girl at the counter, she’s in a band, a rock band or…and they play Monkees music, Monkees songs. It’s a revival or tribute thing, I guess. I don’t know.”

He pulls the postcard from his pocket and hands it to her. She takes a deep breath and looks at it. She’s summoning up her patience. He’s seen her do it before and he imagines she assumes he likes to test her on occasion. She might tell herself that this is how it is with powerful people. They test you, gauge your reactions to things so they know how best to use you. People in business think these things, he knows. They are always looking for ulterior motives, hidden agendas, who controls the most variables, who is in the loop, and what do people mean by what they say. Poof!

“Huh,” she says, and hands the card back.

He looks down at the band’s logo. It’s a spoof on the Rolling Stone’s logo, using a monkey’s mouth. Apart from the name, the logo wouldn’t make much sense. He’d done the original RamDex logo himself, a profile of a human head opened like a box lid on hinges with a floating spool of tape snaking down into it. Eventually, they hired a high-end design boutique in San Francisco to design a new one. They came up with a cube spinning on one corner. They said it represented both speed and order. Well, speed and order. What more could you ask for in this business. Hooray!

“Tom?” Ruth looks expectant.

“Sorry. Tell me, what do you recommend?”

“At this point, almost any one of these deals looks good to me. Your people will be taken care of, which I know is your priority. The offers we didn’t like were eliminated weeks ago.”

“Still, tell me which one you favor?”

“Me?” She flips through a few pages, but he knows she is stalling somewhere between her mind and her gut. Tick! Tock! She closes the file and looks up. “Take the money and run.”

 

Ruth stopped reading the proposal summary in front of her to watch Tom. He was standing in front of the coffeehouse, offering the back of his hand to a German Shepherd. The dog sniffed his hand briefly and then looked away, uninterested. But Tom remained stooped over, his arm outstretched. He didn’t try to pet the dog. What was he waiting for? Finally, straightening up, he walked into the coffeehouse.

He was, she thought, nice looking in the way that money can only improve. That’s not to say it was his money that made him attractive. It’s just that he was always wearing a nice suit. He always had a nice hair cut and expensive glasses. She imagined he could look sort of awful. Like me, she thought, he isn’t a natural beauty. Good grooming can never be overrated.

As he looked around for her, she went back to her work. Best to look busy. It had occurred to her that these sorts of moves were not needed with Tom, but these habits were as old as her first homework assignment. She was a little worried that her suggesting they meet in such a casual atmosphere might have been a bad idea. But when she looked up and read the smile on his face, she decided her instincts had been right. She guessed that conference tables and battalions of lawyers were exactly what he was trying to leave behind.

Keeping with the casual theme, she suggested he try the soup. As he stood at the counter she allowed herself to check him out. Though she knew it to be an unreasonable notion, she couldn’t help but imagine that men with nice butts would be good in bed. Tom, she decided, would be good in bed, assuming, of course, he wasn’t still a virgin at 44.

She laughed at her joke. He wasn’t married and never mentioned a girlfriend. The gossip at her firm was that he rarely dated. He’d been known to show up at industry events alone. No time? He didn’t strike her as the asexual type. Gay? She watched his body language with the girl behind the counter. Like most women she knew in San Francisco, she liked to consider herself something of an expert in this realm of speculation. In Tom’s case, she would bet against it. But the categories had begun to blur in her mind over the last few years. Maybe he was one of the growing numbers of undefinables who felt free to slide up and down Dr. Kinsey’s scale of sexuality. Ah, the rich.

Her mind always worked this way, always looking for the angles, options, opportunities. It made her a great business attorney, but sometimes it was exhausting.

Tom sat down at the table with what looked like split pea soup and she wondered how his mind worked. He was occasionally elliptical, but knew how to get to the point when necessary. She thought he was probably always thinking of new product ideas, new marketing plans. The computer industry viewed him as some sort of hybrid, difficult to figure. He seemed equally at home (or was it equally uneasy?) with tech-nerds and marketing mavens. How does a mind like that work?

 

Hamburger. Munch! Eating soup always made him wish for a hamburger, something to chew. Take the money and run? Ruth is being honest, it seems, projecting her real opinion into this situation. Good.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll take the cash, Monty Hall.” (I’m Batman!)

He expects her to smile, but she raises an eyebrow instead. “Tom, that’s just what I might do, but I can’t say it’s the best option. Actually, I think, as a firm, we were going to recommend the B.R.H. offer. The consulting deal keeps you in the game. It’s not as much cash up front, but it’s quite a bit more over the long run.

“You know, I’ve been pretty sure from the start that I wanted to make a clean break, get completely free of the whole thing. Besides, I like their attitude over at Delcom. That whole Gen-X thing feels right for RamDex.”

“Well, I admit I was thinking the same thing.”

“Then it’s a done deal.”

Ruth leans back and crosses her arms. “Hardly. Now it’s time for Eric Dobson, our negotiator, to take over. Have you met him?”

“No. Maybe. Let’s go see the monkeys.” Zoom!

“Monkeys?”

“Yeah, the band…the monkey’s tongue or whoever they are.”

“When…I mean, where is that?”

“Tomorrow, next door to this place.”

He watches her. Dope! She was completely unprepared. He stops himself from saying never mind. He puts his spoon into the soup bowl and leaves it there. He wants to tell her something secret, something private, something he’s never told anyone. Nothing comes to mind. Hello! She is telling him it sounds fun. Sure, she’d like to go. She is leaning forward in an effort to look earnest, eager, excited, or some other ‘e’ word. He understands that she is a little uncomfortable and that until a few years ago he would always forget to clean his glasses. His comic book collection is worth more than his car. He keeps them in a special room. She probably reads The New Yorker and runs three miles every morning. He could spend thousands of dollars every day and still not spend all of his money in his life time. There should be a law.

“We can meet here for coffee before,” he says, trying to make it all seem a little more casual.

 

For a moment, all she could think about was how he got the name of the band wrong. It’s Monkey Tongue, not The Monkey’s Tongue. But then she noticed her pulse. She hadn’t seen it coming. She tried to remember what she’d done to make him ask her out, but then stopped herself. That was silly, to always think that she somehow invited the invitation. Not that she wishes he hadn’t. It was Tom Eisner, for one thing. And she was interested in him…generally. Maybe specifically. She wasn’t sure. Of course, she’d assessed him in that way, but she did that to most men she knew. God, was she really using the word “assess” in reference to a man?

She hadn’t really thought about Tom as a possibility. There were nagging thoughts about business and pleasure, but then she had to laugh at herself. The reason she had hesitated when he first asked was because she was supposed to go out with Eric. Negotiator Eric from her office. She would have to cancel.

Tom pulled the band’s postcard from his shirt pocket and fiddled with it while suggesting they meet for coffee before. She glanced at the card and saw that the band didn’t start playing until ten o’clock.

“The band goes on late,” she said. “Let’s make it dinner.”

Then the doubts lined up in a neat little row. Maybe this was just a business celebration get together. She should have kept her mouth shut and followed his lead. He even winced when she mentioned dinner. She’d blown it. She couldn’t believe how, in a matter of seconds, she’d gone from not even considering the possibility of dating this man to being disappointed that he wasn’t interested in her as more than a business associate. Wait. She had to slow down, take a breath. Breathe, Ruthy. Now she was angry. Her mind was racing, and for what?

Turns out his wince was due to the fact that he had plans for early in the evening. She must have still been a little angry as he explained about needing to look at a few homes with his real estate broker because her first thought was that she might still be able to sneak in dinner with Eric. She and Eric had been sort of dating for a few months. But they were seeing other people. Weren’t they?

 

Oh, dog. Still here? The German shepherd lifts its head when he and Ruth step out of Fahrenheit. Let me out? Whew!

“Okay, so,” he says. “Okay, then.”

“Coffee at nine and then monkey music,” she says.

“Right, The Monkees. We’ll see you then at nine.”

He watches her walk down the street as he unlocks his car. Hot! The car is hot. He’s wishing he didn’t have to see Cindy tomorrow night. If she was just his real estate broker, he could cancel, though he is anxious to finish up the house hunting. But he and Cindy have been seeing each other socially. It isn’t anything very serious, not real serious. They hadn’t slept together. Yikes! He found her attractive. Sure, sure. But, what?

This is the thing. The thing about it is, Cindy is good company. She understands his schedule, yes? She doesn’t call…very often. But what if she did? Would he mind? Probably. Would he mind if Ruth called all the time? Every day at eleven, two and four? All the time. No way Jose. He’s got eyes for her. Eyes, eyes. Likes her attitude.

Yes, Delcom and their big pants. That would do. Ruth and her white teeth. He doesn’t remember ever trying to imagine any other woman with her hair down. Would she wear her hair down tomorrow? He’s not usually one to ask himself these questions, is he? Cindy always wears her hair up…or…no. Cindy has short hair. Yes, yes.

Anyway, there’s no understanding between him and Cindy. Right?

He rolls down his window as he pulls away from the curb and sings words to a song he didn’t know he knew: Then I saw her face…

Waiting for the Thunder

I fall from the sky with the lightning into New Orleans, two hours from the funeral.  A bad flight, a flight that causes sudden infatuation with trains. I consider the idea that tragedy vibrations can linger, echoing like shock-waves, creating random unsafe zones in all directions for hundreds of miles, even up in the air, but the thought is cured, forgotten with the feel of solid ground.

No one meets me because no one knows I have come. Of course, my grandma knows, because she is dead and the dead know. This I was told, perhaps by my grandma Dette herself, when I was young. Beliefs like these, beliefs gathered in childhood, have left imprints my adulthood cannot completely erase: God knows, the dead know and Santa Claus knows. No one else knows I have come. I remain unexpected, and so not missed.

The Louisiana summer air. I feel the weight of humidity before I feel the rain. It is claustrophobic like fevered dreams, like waking from nightmares to blankets and sweat. Now, I am sweating in the rain.

Outside the airport, everyone is moving slow. Careless and slow. One year after the hurricane they try to ignore the rain as being anything other than simple rain. It takes five minutes for the rented air conditioner in my rented car to kill the heat and begin chilling the damp patches around the knees of my suit pants. My trousers, she would say. Normally, I’d wear tan cap-toed shoes against a charcoal suit. But not today. Black wing tips.

On the highway I lose the city, its wounds lingering on my peripheral as I watch only the road at first, heading inland. I savor this distance from suffering, give safe harbor to my practiced indifference. I’m not really here. This thought has been negotiated.

Eventually I will look through the trees as I drive for the brown bayou water and wonder about alligators. This thought, this thought about alligators, embarrasses me. I think about this and don’t think about the funeral, beyond wondering if that is where I am going.

          Candy Corn filled the crystal dish on the coffee table in the den where Dette took TV and medication, maintaining a constant high with coffee, cigarettes, sugar, and quack-prescriptions.

          “Take one,” she always always said. “Hell, Peetie, take two, they’re cheap.”

          The old kitchen chair at the end of her couch, a chair we would now call “vintage,” was mine and I sat there waiting for stories.

          “Grandma, tell me about Grandpa and Pearl Harbor. Tell me about the first time you drove a car, driving your mother the Indian witch into a barnyard. Show me a picture of you when you were twenty-three, looking exactly almost like Lucille Ball. Can we listen to that record you made, swearing and drunk? Let me make cinnamon toast.”

          “Wash those hands, kiddo. I don’t know where they’ve been.”

 

The land is ever-wet and green in Louisiana. The trees droop from memory even when it doesn’t rain. Pockets of water are everywhere. It seems as if the land is sinking. It seemed like this, even before. Dette once told me south Louisiana was so haunted because the bodies had to be buried above ground. How haunted now?

The rain stops at Baton Rouge and the window comes down. The funeral approaches. There are places to see here, history lurking, the house that Huey built, distractions enough to wait out a funeral, and none of the hurricane scars to temp my lost self and the anger. The gift shop attached to the gas station is full of alligator souvenirs and Cajun cookbooks. After buying two dollars in candy corn I am back on the highway with the trucks.

          “Grandma,” I’d say, “watch your cigarette.” The ash would grow long. I once counted and found she averaged only three drags per cigarette. I always thought her favorite part of smoking was putting them out. She ended the life of each Chesterfield with a flourish, a fancy twist of the wrist.

          She used a large, green, pipe-smoker’s ashtray that had a crumbling cork knob in the middle.

          “Shit, kiddo. What do I do when you’re not around? If I put on my glasses, I find ashes all over the house, days little Pete wasn’t here to watch his grandma. Little Pete, named after a moonshiner. Hell.”

          “Best in St. Landry’s Parish, right?”

          “That’s what they said Peetie. Goddamn if I know.”

 

I don’t speak French, but let the radio rest on a French station because the voice is a laughing voice. The funeral begins in an hour and I’m half that time away so I stop for a sign reading, LIVE BAIT. COLD SODA. I grab a Pepsi from the cooler, from the ice box, she would say, and drink while sitting on a rock, watching a crop duster bomb and save the corn and the beans. The pilot is risking his life.

The tourism billboard for New Orleans appeared, like a dark Mardi Gras jester, a block from my apartment in North Beach. It read, “Dry? We were never dry.”

I try to imagine being a movie star, rescuing people from the flood waters. I try to imagine floating in the middle of Pearl Harbor, watching the Japanese planes fly low overhead and drop torpedoes, like my grandpa did after his ship, the Oklahoma, sank. I try to imagine him standing at Dette’s graveside. Everything I know about his life I learned from other people.

There is accordion music coming from the radio in my car.

I remind myself it is not too late to return New Orleans, my college stomping grounds, to the French Quarter, an island untouched. A few evenings without funerals and people I don’t really know but must hug. In a few days I can return to California and the places I knew Dette before my grandpa and his early retirement carried her away to his boyhood hunting grounds. The Louisiana air.

The humidity is feeling heavy again and I’m beginning to take deeper breaths. For a moment I wonder if more people hyperventilate in the South than in other places, like California, where Dette drove the biggest red car I’ve ever seen.

Back on the road into Opelousas and the funeral, the voice on the radio has changed. It is now deep and graveled and speaking excited English. Then Cajun festival music begins.

“Whooboy!” I yell. “Whooboy!” until my throat hurts. I tap the steering wheel off rhythm and pretend to know the words. When cars pass, I don’t stop singing. I sing louder, open my mouth wide and tilt my head back.

I stop more than once to look at the map, wasting time.

          “Your grandpa hardly knew his papa,” Dette told me. “He died young when lightning struck a tree and it fell across the road. His truck was on the road, so the tree ended up in his lap.”

          After saying this she would close her eyes for one of her long shrugs. “They were all goddamn moonshiners.”

 

I circle the graveyard twice and watch them arrive. Their great great grandfathers were slave owners, land owners, and politicians. They are politicians and alcoholics.

After the funeral begins, I get out of my car. I’m thinking of watching from a distance like a killer or the disinherited. I find the above-ground tombs of my dead relatives, known to me only in stories, freshly scrubbed and flowered. Papa Josh. Little Pete. Ms. Bea. Old Taylor. That bastard Jordan Hayes. Pretty Ms. Jen.

I look around and imagine Dette here too, watching.

“What’s that bitch Alice crying about?” she says. “She hated my guts.”

“I always liked Aunt Alice,” I say.

“Shit, Peetie, you like everybody.” She raises a limp wrist to take a drag. Her other hand is on her hip and her shirt tails are out. It’s a classic Grandma Dette pose.”

I smile. “Did I ever tell you how much you look like Lucille Ball?”

She laughs. Actually, she cackles, but it is familiar and comforting. “You just feel guilty because your grief over goddamn Sodom and Gomorra is just as strong as your grief for memère…I know.”

I walk up quietly to take a folding chair behind cousin Bobby, a district attorney with an always-new Cadillac. I think about this rather than listen to the preacher tell lies about Dette and God. His suit is brown and bulky, stuffed with pamphlets, hankies and church keys. His shoes are the exact same color as his suit.

Finally, it is over, and a mingling begins. For a moment longer, no one knows I have come. Most of them haven’t seen me since I was tripping over fourteen on summer vacation, or hung over and bearded on a weekend visit from college. Aunt Alice spots me though, and I feel trapped between the humidity and expectations. I actually think of running.

“Eugene,” says Aunt Alice, “look who’s come.”

It’s been a long time since I remembered my grandpa’s name is Eugene. He turns to look at me. Only a slight lifting of his brow betrays surprise. My grandpa is the word gruff. He is navy. He is Hughes Aircraft Company. He is war movies, westerns, and professional wrestling. He is a killer of wild animals. Today, he looks small in his coat and tie.

He calls me “boy.” He’s always called me that. But today it sounds like a question. It comes out of his mouth as part of a sigh. Then he says something which causes me to look at my shoes. He says this while shaking my hand.

“This is going to make your grandma’s day.

Yes, I want to say, you are right.

But he moves on, leaving me with the capable small talk of Uncle Jack and his smooth Cajun drawl. Uncle Jack keeps trained dogs. “We didn’t expect you, son. Now, you fly into New O’lens, that mess?”

“This morning,” I say.

Uncle Jack gives me directions to his house where there will be food and poodles that roll over. I try thinking of the crawdad and the catfish which I love and haven’t had, done right, in years. Instead, I think of the taste of candy corn as I drop it on Dette’s grave, as the people leave in their long shiny cars.

          “You know they got goddamned B.B. King playing guitar down there at the woopty doo World’s Fair in Sodom and Gomorra?” said Grandma. 

          “I know Grandma. I saw him play. I shook his hand. It was the only reason to go.”

          “Hell kiddo…Petie, B.B. King might even make me visit that shit hole. Might go to visit you though, when you graduate from that college of yours. Woopty doo.”

 

Uncle Jack used to operate drilling equipment. Oil. Now he’s the Mayor of Palmetto.

“All the way from California?” he asks, after I arrive at his home.

“Yeah, real bumpy over Texas. We hit some weather.”

He never lets his can of beer fall below chest level. “I used to get out to the West Coast time and again. Hell of a place. I was—”

“Jack,” Aunt Alice calls from across the room while carrying a platter full of folded meat slices and cubes of cheese, “get Peter a beer and don’t leave him standing in the doorway.”

I follow Uncle Jack to the ice chest. He hands me a beer and I almost start to look for a glass. Almost.

“I was in Long Beach, California, oh, year before I retired,” he says. “Manufacturer flew me out. Sittin’ in this park, or what, green belt, my my. I see this old gal walkin’ her poodle-dog. You know, Peetie, I like the poodle-dog. Well, this old gal gots my attention ‘coz she’s wearin’ pink sneakers. Oh, they were pink, good and pink. And the poodle-dog, he does his business there on the grass like a good pup. Then I see somethin’ I ain’t never seen. This old gal reaches into her pocket, pulls out some, oh, blue toilet tissue paper. Then what do you think? What do think this old gal does Peetie? She bends over the poodle-dog, pulls up its tail, and wipes its ass, God bless her. Now, I don’t know for sure, but maybe the pup had been leavin’ scoot marks on the white rug at home; but it was a sight, I tell you. God almighty, it was a sight.”

Uncle Jack chuckles. As he drinks from his beer, I know he will wipe his mouth on his sleeve. When he does, I remember that I love him.

“Got to be somthin’,” he says,  “about that little moment that just pisses God the hell off, you think? California, my my. Nobody’s wipin’ the dog’s ass in Louisiana, no sir.”

Aunt Alice interrupts one argument about hurricanes and the federal government after another, introducing me to people I haven’t seen in fifteen years, cousins mostly.  They are given all the necessary information: my mother’s name, the year of her divorce from my father, the year Aunt Alice and Uncle Jack visited us and Disneyland, my occupation and bachelor status. Since most of my cousins are distant, those who are also single women are given a special presentation: where I went to graduate school, my age, conjecture on how interesting my job must be, the distance from my apartment to the Bay.

I nod and smile, shake hands, take hugs, ask several people if they’ve heard Uncle Jack’s California poodle story.

Eventually, I escape out the back door and into the giant back yard, the air. On the patio there is a table piled high with corn on the cob and crawdad. The yard is full of children and dogs running in every direction. These are not poodles. These are the hunting dogs, beagles mostly, and they don’t roll over or beg for food.

It was in the forest not far from here that I first heard the sound a rabbit makes when shot. My face couldn’t keep secrets then, and the men all became quiet. My grandpa didn’t say anything. He carried my shotgun back to the truck.

“See that brown one over there?” My grandpa is behind me now in the middle of the yard. I look over toward the garage. A large brown dog is sitting down, watching the flurry of children. “That brown is a smart one. He checks the logs.”

I look back over my shoulder. His eyebrows are gray and bushy. It occurs to me for the first time that he is a good three inches shorter than me. He sees that I don’t know what he means when he says the brown dog checks logs.

“Some of those swamp rabbits get in the water,” he says, “and they hide behind a log with just their nose sticking out.” He smiles and sticks his nose into the air. Then he looks back over to the brown dog. “Most dogs will run across the creek looking for the scent on the other side. That brown, he’ll look behind the logs, check the weeds.”

Suddenly, Grandpa whistles sharply and every dog in the yard comes running. They surround us. Their paws are muddy, but they don’t jump on us. I reach down to pet the brown dog.

“That’s pretty smart,” I say. “What’s his name?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Brownie, I guess.”

He kneels to pet the dogs and raises his coat sleeve to his face, wiping at his eyes.

“I suppose I’m entitled,” he says, more to the dogs than to me.

I have to stand to escape the smell of wet fur. The sky is gray and growling. I spot lighting on the horizon. Dette told me she once saw lightning break through a window and blow up a television set. How long do I give him before starting a conversation about the weather?

“You know,” he continues, “I cried when I realized that boy I’d been holding onto while we floated in the harbor…well, I was watching the Japs drop those torpedoes and talking away about how we were going to be just fine, they couldn’t fly around forever. I just looked into his face and I knew he was dead. I don’t even know what killed him, just the water I suppose.” The water.

I’m counting, waiting for the thunder.

He stands and squeezes my shoulder briefly. He is grinning. “Never cried for a rabbit, though.” Then he laughs, and I join him. Rain drops appear on my glasses.

“You know,” he says, “your grandma used to go hunting with us, just to watch the dogs run. Goddamn, Bernadette used to yell at those dogs: Go get’ em you bastards, get that bunny! She said, if the rabbit was so stupid as to run in a big circle, it deserved to be shot. As far as I’m concerned, smart rabbit, dumb rabbit, they all taste the same to me.”

“All right, Peter and Eugene, you two come in out of the rain with the rest of the children.” Aunt Alice is standing at the screen door. “You two should have something to eat.”

My grandpa walks toward the house and the dogs are wandering back into the yard, unconcerned. The sky blinks and flashes. Beyond the clouds somewhere the sun is starting to set. A voice rises above the murmur floating from the house; I hear my grandma’s name and then laughter.

NIGHTHAWKS AND ROCK STARS

Non-Fiction Recollection for Rob, Mark, David and Doug.

There is a pounding. Is it inside my head or outside my head?  Both.  And that damn song. What is that?

“Mr. Ferguson?” Knock, knock, knock. Pound, pound pound.

I open my eyes. The sun, all-consuming and filling my entire window, is like a million ray guns shooting directly at my eyeballs.

Knock, knock, knock. “Mr. Ferguson?”

I realize I am in a hotel room, though I’m not certain, immediately, where. Perils of frequent travel. The music, more static than anything, is coming from the clock radio next to my bed and someone is knocking at the door.

“Yeah,” I wheeze. “Hold on.”

I wrap the bed sheet around me and stumble to the door. I remember I am in New York city at a “boutique” hotel on the east river next to the Roosevelt Island bridge, or, as I call it, “the bridge that was in that Sylvester Stallone Movie.” I cannot usually remember the name of the movie but as I open the door to find a man I recognize from the front desk standing in front of me, I think, “Nighthawks.”

“I’m sorry to disturb you Mr. Ferguson,” he says but does not mean, “but you did not answer your requested wakeup call and as a matter of hotel policy we must check on anyone who requests a wakeup call and then doesn’t answer their phone.”

He’s clearly annoyed but I can tell that just moments earlier he was genuinely concerned, not for me so much as for himself, concerned he might have to open the door and find a dead body…or worse.

“Thank you,” I whisper, weakly.  “I’m sorry to make you come up here.”

“It’s no trouble,” he says. “Have a nice day.” I swear he clicks his heels before spinning around and gliding off down the hall.”

And then the full measure of my circumstances arrives into my consciousness. First, I am good and properly hung-over like I have been perhaps only one other time in my life. It’s the mythical hangover of movie legend, the one where your entire body is in full revolt and taking its revenge while your brain, shriveled to the size of an old lemon, struggles to organize thought  and coherent perception of the world outside your eyeballs. Second, I was late. And I wasn’t late in any trivial sense. I was late to a board meeting where I was not a board member, I was staff. I was late to a board meeting where almost everyone in the room was a volunteer while I was being paid to be there.

(Compulsory vomiting scene deleted here)

I turn off the clock radio and the evil red numbers tell me I am, at that moment, nearly one and one half hours late for the meeting.  I check my cell phone and, of course, the alarm is set to go off at 7 PM, not AM. Shower or baseball cap?

This story, or my version of this story—there are others told here and about—begins with Brazil winning its fifth World Cup title back in June of 2002. This was the first and only World Cup to be hosted by two countries (Japan and Korea) and Brazil won the final against Germany, which is quite the match up if you’re a soccer fan. If you happen to be both Brazilian and Danish, Brazil winning over Germany is akin to winning the lottery on the same day all your enemies go bankrupt.

A man named Christian was a Danish-Brazilian. The man named Christian was a member of The Board. It was a two day board meeting and the Brazilian’s won on the first day.

It should be said that the man named Christian is a man about whom a dozen good and memorable stories could be told, but this is not one of them. He is an important part of this story, but not really one of the principal players.

Christian is important to this story because, on the first day of The Board meeting, he was distracted because Brazil was in the finals of The World Cup. He was on his phone at every break. When he learned that Brazil had won, he actually asked The Board’s forgiveness for his bright shinny happy face. He was so happy. He was so happy, he invited The Board to join him for a celebration cocktail after the meeting at a Brazilian restaurant. He called ahead and made arrangement. We were happy to help our friend Christian celebrate.

Following The Board meeting we all made our way to a restaurant with a Brazilian flag in the window. Needless to say, the place was already deep into celebrating.  Almost as soon as we sat down, the first round of Brazilian cocktails arrive, the great and dreaded Caipirinha.

In addition to being Brazil’s national cocktail, this drink is two things: sugar and lethal. It’s like drinking lime cool-aid. And the man named Christian made sure nobody’s glass was empty ever. Brazil had just won The World Cup, after all. Being naive in the ways of the Caipirinha, I drank away, as did everyone else.

Eventually we departed the Brazilian restaurant for dinner at some super-secret Chinese restaurant that only real New Yorkers know about, and as if to prove that this was true, former Mayor Ed Koch was there, shaking hands and nodding and pretending to be interested in what people were saying to him. That’s how I remember it, anyway.  And, of course there was beer and wine with dinner.

Following the meal, there was a mingling outside the restaurant. It was the kind of mingling commonly found following such gatherings of a variety of folk. People segregate. The morning runner’s say goodnight, as do the people traveling with family and the locals. The pure of heart hail cabs for their hotels. And thus, those remaining:

In addition to myself, there was a man named Rob, a man named Mark, a man named David, and a man named Doug. In our collective wisdom, we concluded the night was yet young and made haste to a hotel bar, the hotel being one where one or two of our number were staying, That’s how I remember it anyway

We found seats at the bar and proceeded to share wit and wisdom, I am sure, much like the participants of the Algonquin Round Table did in their time.

Normally,  when someone suggests that  shots of Jägermeister are appropriate, I not only protest vigorously, I ask them when they moved back in with their parents. But Brazil had just won The World Cup. Would it not be an insult to reject a drink in their honor?

I’m sorry to say I cannot recall how many shots of the demon drink we consumed.  I remember these things: At some point I went to rest my elbow on the bar and missed. For some reason, this caused my companions to erupt into near catastrophic fits of unending laughter.  For reasons I cannot, to this day, fathom, I decided to call my wife in California. She didn’t answer, so I left a 3 minute voice mail message, which she saved and played for dinner guests and visitors to our home for years. I wish I could tell you what I said and how I said it but I could only bring myself to listen to the first 15 seconds. I can say, with some awkward pride I suppose, that everyone who ever listened to that message laughed until they cried.

I also remember that the man named Doug, in mid-sentence, suddenly stood up and walked away, out of the bar and out of the hotel, never to return. We worried about him, to the extent that we were able.

Eventually, someone had the sense to call it a night. The man named David and I hailed a cab since we were staying at the same hotel. Again, for reasons I cannot fathom, I decided to sit in the front seat of the taxi. This caused the man named David to giggle uncontrollably. When I gave the taxi driver the address of our hotel, which I had quite cleverly written down on the back of a business card, the taxi driver said there was no such address in Manhattan. The man named David started laughing harder. I gave the address of our hotel to the taxi driver again and again he said there was no such address and again the man named David laughed. This time, he laughed so hard he was laying down on the back seat. This sequence of events was repeated a few times, until the man named David was laying on the floor of the taxi, doubled over in laughter.

The taxi driver and I began to argue and I was explaining to him that we were near the bridge. He asked which bridge and I said, “The Nighthawk Bridge.” The man named David was now choking on his own saliva.

We just sat there, the taxi driver and I staring at each other, until the man named David regained enough composure to tell me that I was giving the driver the address of our hotel in Boston, where we had just been attending meetings a few days earlier.

We were delivered with expediency to our New York hotel. Knowing that my capacity for waking was compromised, I called the front desk for a wake-up call, set my clock radio alarm, and my cell phone alarm. All three failed.

The next morning, the man named David and the man named Doug managed to make The Board Meeting more or less on time. The man named Mark and the man named Rob were a bit late. Although I wasn’t there, I am told that when the man named Mark and the man named Rob arrived at the building where The Board meeting was held, a building known as The Federation, they exited their cab, applied their sunglasses, and looked up at the top floor where the meeting was already underway. The man named Mark said, “We are total rock stars.”

When I finally arrived at the meeting, over two hours late, the man named Rob and the man named Doug were wearing sunglasses…sunglasses in the meeting which was inside. All of us made regular trips to the restroom to fill our coffee mugs with water. It was, perhaps, one of the most miserable days of my work life. My boss never said anything to me about being late.

Years later, at a cocktail reception, the man named Christian asked my boss if I had gotten in trouble for that day. My boss said that he thought he knew me pretty well and he didn’t think he could deliver any punishment greater than the punishment I delivered upon myself for being late for a board meeting. It was the first and last time I was ever late in 9 years of meeting four or five times a year.

Toggle And Shift

There was a time, almost 30 years ago (few here will remember) that I was in graduate school studying to be a therapist. I even put in over 1,000 hours toward my licensing requirements for California, back then. That means I was sitting in very small rooms with people who were court referred to counselling. Some of these people were scary, like the kid who bit off the head of a pigeon he caught in the quad, a la Ozzy, during lunch time at the local high school. That kid is 40 years old now and I hope he is an accountant somewhere and has bird feeders all over his property. “How come you’re not acting like I’m a freak?” he asked me. “If you want me to think of you as a freak,” I said, “you need to do something really insane, like roasting your dog. You have a dog, right?” I’m sorry to tell you about that. But that’s what I said to this kid. It really upset him. He actually asked for a different counselor. But my supervisors knew what they were doing and made him stay with me. They made other people stay with me too, even though I was what they called “unorthodox” because, they said, I engendered trust. I was standing on couches and proclaiming…stuff, long before Tom Cruise. That was one of my signature pieces in couples counseling, standing on the couch so I could reach for the ceiling to demonstrate one person’s expectations. But I didn’t stay with it. For years and years I told people that I quit because I could not imagine sitting in a room all day listening to people’s problems. But the truth is–and, yes, this is a rare Facebook honesty moment–I quit because of life circumstances. I was actually on my way to being a really good therapist. My supervisors even staged a kind of “intervention” to try and get me to remain on track for becoming a therapist. They brought all my fellow trainees into a room and they took turns telling me why I should not abandoned the path. What a gift that was. I wish I could have accepted it. And here I am now, like you. I adjust, I make room, I toggle and shift. I find a path that is both practical and interesting enough. I have been so lucky to discover coffee. And I have never compromised my requirement of making a difference, Nope. One time I had a counseling client who was court referred for something I cannot describe because it is so difficult a topic. He was only seventeen. I asked him to draw a picture of himself and his mother, his only parent, at the table having dinner. He drew the picture. When he was done I told him that i could not tell who was the mother and who was the son. He said, “It doesn’t matter.” The look on his face as his own words sunk in, because i said nothing, was like an earthquake. He was so young, but he understood what he had just said. I held the picture up in front of him and i told him that we had to find out who was who because the story would never make sense if we didn’t. Before I could move forward with this kid, I left my role as a counselor. The thing is, none of the reasons I left were as important as the people I left, the pigeon kid, the mommy issues kid, the guy with a fixation on women’s underwear, the girl who’s mom was only 15 years older than her and she was trying to compete for the bad ass award. I left them all behind to pursue something material. Dumb ass. I don’t do that anymore. Mostly, I don’t do that anymore. Sometimes you have to knock twice, but if you do, I will face down the demons with you. I promise.

Dig Like You Invented Digging

I collect these things…whatever you choose to call them, garden trowel, hand spade, little bitty shovel. I don’t collect them as in buy me one for my birthday. I collect them as in I can’t leave one on the shelf at a thrift store when it’s 77 cents. Also, I keep them stashed all over the back and front yard so there is always one handy because, yes, I lack focus.

But this one here is my favorite. It’s a Smith & Hawken, sort of a fancy brand when it comes to gardening. I would never pay what they ask for this new, though I think I did pay over a dollar for this one, used. It has a design flaw; a little tin cone fits over the spot where my index finger is. It comes loose eventually (this has happened to me on other S&H hand garden tools) and you need to cut it off with tin snips, or re-fasten it. Can you say, “superfluous”?

Other than this minor inconvenience, it is my favorite garden tool. It is stainless steel, so it doesn’t rust (admittedly, I like it when stuff rusts but in this case, I make an exception). The thing of it is is, the way it feels in my hand.  At last count, I own a dozen of these little shovel things and none of them feel as good in my hand as this one. It’s not only the weight, it’s the balance and, I’m sorry to say, the way it looks in my hand.

There are dozens of things about marketing that I know but cannot explain. I know that a certain word works better than another, but I can’t explain to you why. I just know.  I know that this font is wrong and that font is right and I cannot tell you anything about how I know.

Weight. Balance. Material. Design. Shape.

If anyone ever tells you they understand these things better than others do, in some objective sense, escort them, politely, out of your presence.  Nobody knows nothing.  If I invited you all over to test drive my little shovels and pick your favorite, the results would be… you guessed it, varied.

So what’s a marketing guy to do?

Pick the shovel that feels good in your hand and dig like hell. Dig like you own the soil. Dig like no other hand spades or garden trowels exist. Dig like you invented digging.

There’s a lot of marketing science out there, and I have written elsewhere about how that voodoo is all good and well. Mostly, it can bite me.

What I know for certain is, it has to feel good in your hand, the weight, the balance, the design of the thing. Listen to yourself first and give yourself extra points on the vote because who you are matters on a very basic level when it comes to growing whatever it is you are trying to grow, tomatoes or peas or whatnot. When they try and tell you otherwise, it is time to find a new garden.

Business Is Mental (F)

The ABC’s They Didn’t Teach You at Muncie College of Business Administration*

*But might be teaching you now if this is a textbook for a class you’re currently taking at Muncie College of Business Administration.

F Is For Firehose

In business, we spend a lot of time putting out fires, which means fixing things that go unexpectedly wrong, like a fire is an unexpected wrong thing almost always, except to the person who sets the fire in the case of arson. Every organization has arsonists inside and outside who set intentional fires and clumsy people who set unintentional fires. Most of the time, the fire will intentionally or unintentionally overwhelm a manager and make the manager feel like they are “drinking from a fire hose.” But remember when you were young and drank from the garden hose and the water went up your nose? That was really uncomfortable. Trying to drink from a fire hose is a lot like that, except the water pressure from a fire hose can remove your eyeballs from your head.

Think about it: Instead of trying to drink from the fire hose, turn the hose on the arsonist, but not on the clumsy person, because they can’t help it.  

Business Is Mental (K)

The ABC’s They Didn’t Teach You at Muncie College of Business Administration*

*But might be teaching you now if this is a textbook for a class you’re currently taking at Muncie College of Business Administration.

K Is For Knitting

The business world has long observed that people who knit have very short attention spans. The irony is that knitting requires, if not laser beam focus, some degree of prolonged attention. By reminding knitters to stick to their knitting, business leaders are paradoxically reminding themselves not to take up knitting before they retire, because if they do take up knitting, it will weaken their attention span. At the same time, they are providing a service to the knitting community by helping them focus, and in some states this is tax deductible.

Think about it: The threads of success are allegorical. 

Business Is Mental (I)

The ABC’s They Didn’t Teach You at Muncie College of Business Administration*

*But might be teaching you now if this is a textbook for a class you’re currently taking at Muncie College of Business Administration.

I Is for Is

Politics aside, most professional business people agree that President Bill Clinton made a major contribution to business discourse when he said, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Well, of course it does, but no one previous to Clinton had stated the obvious so obviously. In business, one of the easiest ways to pause a conversation so you can catch up is to say, “It depends on what your definition of (fill in the blank) is.” This tactic is especially helpful with accounting terms such as “Balance,” “Receivables,” “Payables,” and “Reconciliation.”

Think about it: Everything and everyone depends on something or someone but how those something’s and someone’s are defined is relative to circumstances and vocabulary.