In the photo, Lezlie stands alone, arms open wide, wearing a sweater stitched with the words “NEVER ENDING FUN” from the bottom of one sleeve, across her chest and down the opposite sleeve. It’s perfect Lezlie. The life of the party. Her radiant smile. Her quips and cuss words. Her warmth.
We know it isn’t true, of course. Nothing lasts forever. The music eventually stops. The fun inevitably ends.
For Lezlie, it ended on July 10.
I’ve been a shitty friend. I sent the obligatory note to her husband but I don’t know her daughter Madalene well, and I can’t bring myself to reach out.
I don’t know the words to mend a broken heart.
Besides, death makes me uncomfortable. Suicide, even more so. It evokes an inescapable desolation.
No one understood this better than Lezlie, having lost both her mom and sister to this unbearable torment. It’s not a betrayal to share this with you. It was a huge part of who Lezlie was. Her awful past saturated her present.
And yet, she was one of the most vibrant, positive people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, as if the tyranny of her loss made her even more intimately attuned to life- precious and precarious.
She was this puzzling paradox. I can’t begin to know the psychological company she was keeping, but rarely was she melancholy. She was, more often than not, crazy fun, a lofty achiever, driven, passionate, invested. Perhaps that was part of the problem. Her best self was a tough act to follow. When she didn’t measure up, she was unforgiving.
Madalene said her mom was the only person she ever knew who truly made the world a better place. This seems a fair appraisal.
I often wondered how a person who carried so much heartache radiated so much joy. She didn’t like to dwell on her own pain. Being the center of attention made her uneasy. She would always make it about you. And she meant it. I can’t tell you how many times she would end one of our conversations with an over the top affirmation: “oh my God, I adore you!” or “you are the funniest person!”
As adorable and hilarious as I am, she said these things to everyone-people she loved as well as people she hardly knew.
I know the prevailing, whispered opinion about suicide- that it is the ultimate, selfish choice. Lezlie has forced me to re-evaluate this judgment.
Here is a woman who was devastated- and I mean wrecked- by suicide. So what did she do? She started an outreach program for survivors and threw her entire soul into helping others cope with that loss. Comforting them, easing their pain. It would be like taking chemotherapy alongside a perfect stranger, all the while ignoring the cancer growing inside of you. If you want to tell me she was selfish, fuck right off. She was heroic.
And as far as choice is concerned, while it’s true she chose the time and place, I don’t believe hers was an act of free will any more than getting hit by a bus.
I was little more than a casual observer of Lezlie’s relationship with her husband Chris, but he appeared unfailingly loyal, patient and understanding. He had to have been. As for Madalene, words cannot convey Lezlie’s pride and love for her daughter. At times, Lezlie seemed in awe of Chris and Madalene, that they loved her in spite of how she saw herself. This is a common thought among depressed people. That they are worthy of love seems unfathomable.
I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say they kept her alive for years.
Unfortunately, sometimes even love is not enough. But it’s all we have. And it works, if only for a time.
The summer of 1980 my dad hired my friend Lance to disassemble and discard furniture from the guest rooms of an old hotel in Tulsa that was being renovated. We spent all day hauling stained mattresses and cheap, particle board nightstands to a dumpster in the parking lot. It was hot, backbreaking work and I was constantly imagining ways to get out of it.
One day I convinced Lance that, instead of throwing it away, we should try to sell the used furniture. I had a background in sales, so I volunteered to manage the operation while Lance handled inventory. I hand-painted a large sign that read “Luxury Hotel Furniture For Sale.” We soon realized there wasn’t much of a market for our offerings and it looked like I might have to re-join Lance doing the manual labor until Lance found a stash of magazines under one of the mattresses. It looked like the Library of Congress in adult literature- Penthouse, Playboy, Chic, Oui, Modern Man.
Being a nimble entrepreneur, I pivoted to peddling smut. After word reached the male, aged 13-17 demographic, business was brisk. In fact, demand outstripped supply and soon we were sitting on top of an extra $200. Lance and I briefly disagreed about how to divide our tainted lucre, until we spotted a small sailboat for sale by the side of the road. Neither of us knew how to sail, but I carried this notion that sailing was a rich man’s sport and the price tag of $300 seemed like a reasonable entry point to a hobby I would clearly need to learn.
The seller took $200 and our promise to pay the additional $100 in a month.
After our hotel project ended, Lance and I were about to embark on another endeavor in indentured servitude when my friend Blake told me about an opening for a file clerk at his dad’s law firm downtown. I idolized Blake’s dad who was a legendary trial lawyer. I imagined a summer of accompanying Blake’s dad to the courthouse where I would lend my nimble brain and keen eye to the fellow trial lawyers, thereby securing a blue blood oath with my nascent partners
My first morning I met the receptionist, Edith, who introduced me to the head of the file room. His name was Vuong but everyone called him Vu, except for the senior partner in the firm, Jimmie Sellers, who, I would later find out, called him “You.”
He was a diminutive Vietnamese refugee who ran the file room with an iron fist.
“Vu, this is Timmy. He’ll be working as a clerk this summer,” Edith explained.
“Vu has been with us for almost 5 years. He’s from Vietnam” said Edith.
Then she leaned in and whispered, “Vu’s a boat person.”
Having recently purchased a boat myself, I trapped that personal nugget in my Dale Carnegie brain in case I ever needed to use it to build rapport with Vu.
Vu led me on an unenthusiastic tour, orienting me to the essential features as well as my duties.
“Dis copy machine,” he said as he pointed to what appeared to be a coffee maker.
“Every morning make copy, and keep make it all day,” he continued.
He then showed me the copier.
“Dis copy machine” he said.
“You not can make copy” he cautioned.
I didn’t follow along too closely because I knew it was only a matter of time before I was asked to engage in more important law firm endeavors. But for the time being at least, Vu appeared to be my boss.
Vu was a tough taskmaster and always the first one in the office. I did my best to be on time but even on the days I slid in just under the gun, Vu wasn’t impressed.
“Almo tardy,” he would say as he pointed at his wristwatch.
From the outset, Vu eyed me with quiet suspicion, as if I were a threat to his job. He didn’t realize the file room was merely a brief interlude on my way to a job as a real clerk, whatever that might be.
It didn’t help that I had to ask Vu to repeat himself more than either of us were comfortable. His English was a frequent source of frustration. He had an impressive vocabulary but his sentences were sprinkled with mispronunciations, malapropisms, disordered grammar and, in rare moments, mild cursing.
He would also frequently double check my work, a native English speaker, to make sure I put files in their proper order, as if I didn’t know my own alphabet.
“I find dis Robins file behind dis Robinson file. It go in front.”
“Okay Dewey Decimal” I wanted to say, “Whatever.”
Vu had a tiny, makeshift desk tucked away in the corner of the file room. A small, framed photo of his wife and children and a reproduction of a watercolor painting of the Oklahoma State Capitol were the only personal adornments. My promotion was taking longer than I hoped so I decided to try break the ice.
“Are those your kids?”
Vu smiled proudly and pointed.
“Yes. Dat Dat. And Dat Bich.”
I was unsure whether he meant “dat” as the definite article “that” or whether his kids were named “Dat Dat” and “Dat Bich” so my feigned interest in his family as a segue to deeper conversations came to an abrupt end.
“Nice painting,” I offered.
“You know Greg Burn?” he asked.
“Sure. I’ve heard of him.”
Greg Burns was a well-known Oklahoma artist who, unable to use his arms due to a muscular abnormality, painted Oklahoma landmarks by clasping the brush between his teeth.
“He pain dat,” Vu said proudly.
Vu’s acclimation to his adopted State of Oklahoma was apparent in other ways. Every morning he would read the local newspaper and offer, to no one in particular, a comment about the minor league baseball team, the Oklahoma City 89ers.
“Dis no very good baseball team. Dey play like Bill’s shit,” he would murmur.
After a few weeks of demonstrating my proficiency with the alphabet, Vu trusted me to venture outside the office.
“Dis need to file at district clerk.”
I hoped this would provide a brief emancipation from Vu’s fiefdom. Turned out, his influence was widely cast.
“Wait. So this is from Sellers & Hyder law firm?” one clerk asked as I awaited her file-mark stamp.
“Yes. Is there are problem?”
“You’re not Vu.”
That seemed to get the attention of the other clerks.
“Where’s Vu?” asked one.
“Yeah what happened to Vu?” they all wondered, with a tone suggesting I had recently dumped his body in the Canadian River.
“I’m working there this summer. I’ll be handling the filing for awhile.”
My attempt at grandiosity fell flat.
“Tell Vu hello!”
“Yes, tell Vu we’ll miss him.”
This ode to Vu would become a daily occurrence, one that would strain my formerly liberal views on immigration. The district clerks weren’t the only ones who showed a preference for Vu.
Vu was taking a smoke break one morning when the file room phone rang.
“File room,” I answered.
“Get down here.”
Other than the caller’s brusque manner, there was no way to identify who this was or where “here” might be. I decided to ask the receptionist.
“Hey Edith. Some guy just called the file room and asked me to get down there.”
“I’m not sure who it was.”
“What was the extension?”
“Didn’t catch that.”
Edith didn’t have much to go on. Still, she tried to be helpful.
“What did he say?”
“Come down here,” I repeated.
“Did he say ‘Come down here’ or ‘get down here?’”
“Now I’m not so sure.”
“What did he sound like?”
“Old. Oh, and mean.”
Edith cyphered my scant description to likely be Jimmie Sellers, though there were several candidates from whom to choose.
“Last office on the left” she said.
I hadn’t yet met the firm’s founder so I was eager to make his acquaintance and a good first impression. When I knocked on the door, I was surprised to see Methusalah’s twin brother swivel to greet me.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Where’s you?” he interrupted, though at 137 years of age I could see why he was a man of little patience.
“Excuse me, who?”
“You! That’s who!”
I paused to consider whether I was playing the straight man in the opening stanza of an Abbot & Costello routine.
“Um… I’m not sure. But can I help?”
Mr. Sellers handed me a certificate that read “Lifetime Achievement Award.”
“Give this to You. He’ll know what to do.”
Edith was able to clarify that Mr. Sellers always mispronounced Vu’s name as “You.” That might have been helpful going in, I thought.
When Vu returned from his cigarette break, I handed him Mr. Sellers’ certificate.
“He want lemonade. We no lemonade. Take to Kinko,” said Vu.
This miscommunication Bill’s shit was still a problem. Nonetheless, I did exactly as I was instructed.
“Can you lemonade?” I asked the Kinko’s employee.
“Ah. Is this from Vu?”
“Yeah sure no problem. Come back in an hour.”
When I returned I was handed the glistening certificate, beautifully laminated.
I seemed to be the only one who couldn’t penetrate the language barrier or Vu’s hard shell. Save for whatever indecipherable instructions Vu might impart, most of the time we sat for mind numbingly long periods of silence. My few attempts at conversation were met with either a nod or a single word.
In the late afternoons, Vu would sit at his desk and read the files. He devoured everything- the petitions, the briefs, the deposition transcripts. Vu idolized Steve Dudley, head of the firm’s insurance defense practice. Dudley liked to brag about his legal conquests to an admiring Vu, imbuing Vu with Dudley’s own self-righteous disdain for plaintiffs of any stripe.
Mostly, Vu would concentrate on the worker’s compensation files. Dudley defended employers who were trying to prove that an on the job injury wasn’t as disabling as the worker (or, in many cases, worker’s attorney) claimed.
One day Vu broke the afternoon somnolence.
“You have see dis ting.”
Vu recited the gruesome details of a man who lost an eye when a glob of red hot slag splashed up from a vat in a steel mill. Vu, unduly influenced by Dudley’s defense lawyer callousness, was unsympathetic.
“Maybe dat why God give him two eye.”
This soon became my afternoon entertainment: Vu reciting the facts of a case coupled with his personal assessment of its merits.
In one case, a man was claiming permanent disability due to the traumatic amputation of his left leg in some horrible industrial accident.
“Dis guy bricklayer.” Then he’d give a dismissive laugh. “Not so hard.”
Because of Vu’ s own experience narrowly escaping a war torn country dusted with agent orange and his admiration for a prolific, disabled artist who painted with his teeth, a blue collar worker with a broken back sounded like a coddled infant.
“Dis guy full of Bill’s shit. He say he not can work. But he on video change flat tire.” Vu shook his head and continued, “Mr. Dudley going to put video up man butt sideway.”
Having emigrated from a third world country, I was concerned that Vu was unfamiliar enough with our legal system to know whether that was an available remedy. I started to tell him it was just a figure of speech.
But then Vu delved into more arcane issues of the case and I realized he knew exactly what was at play.
“He just need sit/stand option,” Vu offered as a resolution to one matter.
Or “Why he tink it take two hand do piece work?” he would wonder aloud about another.
I actually began to look forward to these afternoon briefing sessions. Vu enjoyed having an audience, and it seemed like we finally made a connection.
As the summer wore on, we settled into an easy, climate-controlled routine, interrupted occasionally by some trifling errand.
One afternoon in late July, I was just back from the clerk’s office and about to head home when Vu approached, looking ashen.
“Mrs. Black want to see you.”
Sharon Black was the sole female partner at the firm and to be strictly avoided.
“What does she want?” I asked.
“She not tell. I am sorrow.”
When I got to Mrs. Black’s office she was all business.
“Shut the door!” she ordered.
After I complied, she continued.
“Get on your hands and knees!”
Whoa, easy there Mrs. Robinson, I thought. And while obedience was not my strong suit, I did what I was told.
She stood up from behind her desk and all I could see was the hem of her wool, navy skirt, her compression panty hose and her scuffed, orthotic, lady-lawyer shoes. Not yet a scene worthy of Penthouse Forum, but I was willing to see what developed.
She walked over and used her hands to approximate the width of my shoulders. Then she crouched down and put one hand on my back and one on the floor to measure my height on all fours.
“You should fit,” she said. “Get up.”
She scribbled her address on a piece of paper.
“Meet me here at 7:00 p.m.”
Two hours later I found myself pulling up to a stately Tudor home in Crown Heights. Mrs. Black was on her front porch standing next to a freakishly large Doberman.
“My husband and I are leaving tomorrow for a few days. I need you to come by every morning and evening to feed Zeus.”
She kept Zeus on a short leash as we walked to the side of the house where she showed me how to latch and unlatch the gate. I failed to pay as close attention as I probably could have.
“Make sure this is always locked behind you,” I believe she may have said.
We ended up on her back porch. She pointed to a doggie door.
“We don’t let anyone have keys to our home so that’s where you’ll have to enter and exit. Zeus’s food is in a large can next to the counter. Three scoops per feeding. No sudden movements. We’ll be back Friday afternoon.”
For a guy seeking a quiet place to drink beer and hide from the man who was still looking for the final payment on our sailboat, this would fit the bill nicely.
Lance and I spent most of Wednesday evening on Mrs. Black’s back porch trying to come up with more money-making ideas. When I went for Thursday morning’s feeding, my stomach dropped. The gate was open. I called for Zeus. Gone. I conducted a brief, frantic search of the neighborhood. Nothing. Then I drove to work and told Vu.
“Very not good.”
Vu promised to handle the file room duties while I continued my search. I canvassed the entire neighborhood in the hot Oklahoma sun.
I enlisted Lance’s assistance. Finally, about 9:30 p.m. I called off search and rescue and started to plan a funeral- my own.
I conducted another brief search Friday morning, my day of reckoning, before going to work. A smiling Vu met me at the elevator bank.
“Good new. I call dog pound. Dey has Zeus.”
“Vu! Thank you, thank you!”
I sped to the animal shelter where I found an unhelpful attendant.
“I’m here to pick up Zeus.”
“What is Zeus?”
“Do you have proof of ownership?”
“It’s my boss’s dog. I have to get him back home as soon as possible.”
“Sorry but I need some proof.”
I called Vu and explained the situation.
“Let me see what it take.”
Thirty minutes later Vu showed up with a photo of Zeus and a bill from the Oklahoma City water department. Fortuitously, Vu was able to fit in the doggie door as well.
When he arrived at the pound, he made quick work of the matter.
“Address on collar match dis water bill. And I have dis picture. Oklahoma statute say dis enough to proo owner.”
The attendant knew that Vu had the goods. He had no choice but to release Zeus. I deposited him home without a moment to spare.
Back at the office, Vu laughed at my close call.
“You almost get put in butt sideway.”
Later that day, I invited Vu to go sailing. I felt like I owed him a favor for saving Zeus, and my legal career.
I drove the boat to Lake Hefner and met Vu. We both awkwardly waited for the other to take the helm. It occurred to me that we were equals in terms of sailing abilities. So we just pushed out about 25 yards and sat, idle on the still water, while we drank our beers under a stubborn sun.
“Thanks again for your help with Zeus.”
Vu nodded. “Dat what friend do.”
“You tied that guy in knots. Would you ever want to be a lawyer? You’d be a great one.”
“No. Lawyer never seem happy.”
“What would you like to do then? You don’t want to work in the file room the rest of your life. You’re way too smart for that.”
“It not so bad. But not for long time. I like baseball. Maybe coach 89er team. Dey shit.” He paused. “Or get my own lawsuit. Make lot of money.”
Then Vu wondered.
“You still tink you want be lawyer?”
“Probably. I’m not really sure.”
“Dat okay. You get do what you want,” said Vu. “America greatest country in the world.”
This was a common refrain among refugees, but Vu didn’t know what I knew; couldn’t see what I saw. Sure, the United States had its advantages, but it was a work in progress and still woefully lacking in terms of racial equality, celebrity chefs, and Star Wars sequels.
However, those problems were for a later time and place. This evening, at the end of another long summer day, it was just Vu and me, two boat people, each eager to someday pursue our own version of the American dream.
Two days before Christmas I rushed out the door, eager to befoul the fresh blanket of snow.
“Don’t forget your Dad’s present!” my mom called after me.
Every year my mom would give us $10 to buy my dad a gift. Since it was primarily a ploy to keep us occupied, we had to make the purchase without her assistance, which meant we either hitched a ride with my sister’s boyfriend or we rode our bike to the nearby hardware store.
When I was twelve, my sister was dating Charles Manson’s twin brother. He drove the preferred automobile of the mid-1970’s drug dealer-a Z-28 that smelled like marijuana and Paco Rabanne. Problem was, we hadn’t seen him since my dad threatened to string him up by his nuts. So, this year, if Otasco or 7-11 didn’t have it, my dad wasn’t getting it.
I was eager to get my dad something special in order to secure a promise he had made a week before. In the throes of pre-holiday myopia, he promised to take the family on a ski trip “if we can make it to Christmas without killing each other.”
It was a precarious bargain, one which needed clarification.
“What do you mean by ‘to Christmas’?” I wanted to know.
“Are you being a smart ass?” he phrased in the form of a question but meant as an unmistakeable declaration to cut the shit.
My best friend from across the street, Rod Hedges, tutored me on the quid pro quo of gift giving.
“If you get your dad something real nice, he’ll have to take you on the trip” Rod explained.
I was already feeling pretty good about our prospects because just a few days after my dad’s declaration, my Mom took me shopping for a new ski jacket. Even so, she was careful not to tip her hand.
“You’re going to need a winter coat whether we go skiing or not.”
We went to Guy Madison’s clothing store where I spotted a bright metallic silver coat with puffy, down-filled rings.
“I want that one!”
“My gosh, that’s so bright. You’ll blind everyone on the mountain.”
“It’s probably too expensive. It looks very fancy.”
“Actually that one is on clearance. It’s a boy’s extra small. We hardly ever sell any in that size,” said the helpful salesman. “Going on a ski trip?”
“Only if everyone behaves” answered my mom.
“Well, you’ll never lose sight of him in this!”
Sporting my new silver jacket and only two shopping days until Christmas, I was on a mission.
I boarded my bike and started out when I spotted my partner in petty crime at the end of our driveway.
“Where are you going?” asked Rod.
“Otasco sucks. What for?”
“Gotta get that Christmas present for my dad.”
“Wait here. I’ll go with you.”
With Rod, even the most benign excursions were a gateway to delinquency. True to form, we weren’t even to the end of the block when motive met opportunity.
“Look! It’s old man Scoggins!”
Harold Scoggins, the hard ass of Guilford Lane, was cautiously navigating his dark green Buick Centurion down the slush covered road. Former military and now an engineer with a local energy company, he wielded a heavy hand in terms of neighborly order and discipline. His demeanor constantly idled between merely agitated and violently angry. He was the perfect target.
Rod and I ditched our bikes and crouched behind a low brick wall, quickly molding the fresh snow into perfect projectiles.
Splat! Both landed squarely on Scoggins’ windshield. He slid to a slow stop as Rod and I sprinted through several backyards to safety.
“Hey you little pissants! Get back here!” we could hear him yell as we made our escape.
We were hiding behind a large holly bush, chortling about our successful deployment, when a large paw grabbed the collar of my new jacket, its metallic glare serving as the beacon that revealed our whereabouts to a very determined and very pissed-off Harold Scoggins. He had a firm grip on my neck and the dimming prospects for our family ski trip when he dragged us to Rod’s house. It took several raps on the doorframe before Rod’s mom, Ann, answered.
“Take him to his father,” said Ann. “I can’t control him.”
Rod’s dad, Harry, was down the street playing poker at Pody Poe’s. Pody was a notorious tinhorn gambler who ran a twenty four hour gaming table out of a small room above his garage.
When we got there, several men were smoking cigarettes in the driveway. One went to retrieve Harry while another regaled the group with a joke about a intemperate prostitute with a wooden leg. He was about to reveal the punchline when an irritated Harry made the scene.
“This kid is a menace to the whole block. He could’ve cracked my windshield and caused a serious accident!” said Scroggins.
Harry didn’t mince words, though their aim was less certain.
“Now son, you can’t go around throwing snowballs at people….even if they are First Class pricks” he explained.
Harry Hedges always ascribed a certain distinction to the character flaws of our neighbors. When Mr. Harper made us take down our bike ramp, he was “Grade A fuckwad.” Mr. Cunningham’s austerity qualified him as a “tight ass of the highest order.” It was kind of sweet, actually.
Thankfully, my dad wasn’t home when Scoggins deposited me for my arraignment.
“I’m so sorry. It won’t happen again. His father and I will make sure of that!” said my mom.
My dad grounded me for two weeks and informed the rest of the family that the trip was in jeopardy. Since no one had yet died, this would be a breach of the unequivocal terms of his previous offer, but I wasn’t in a position to take up that matter at present.
My unequal bargaining position meant that my dad’s gift was more important than ever. But with only one more day until Christmas, and my house arrest, prospects were grim.
The next morning, Christmas Eve, the doorbell rang early. It was my grandpa. He was a stern, humorless man and an infrequent visitor to our house. He would appear at random times near, but not actually on, Christmas Day with a family gift that reflected his utilitarian mindset.
The previous year he gave us a wheelbarrow.
“Maybe you can help your dad haul some of that crap in the front yard to the back” he suggested.
A few days later I was wheeling Ricky Meador across the yard when I hit a rock sending Ricky to the emergency room with a broken wrist.
I was the only child in attendance when my Grandpa entered this particular Christmas Eve. He looked like a landlord with an eviction notice as he handed my dad four envelopes.
“Merry Christmas. One for each grandchild.”
Envelopes? My mind raced. It could only be money, right? Finally, the old man got us something we could use….to buy anything we wanted. Or to help pay for a ski trip.
“You’d better keep those in a safe place.”
A safe place? Must be a pretty large sum, I thought.
My dad opened the first envelope while I peered around his elbow to inspect our holiday windfall. He unfolded several long pages with a gold seal embossed on the top of the first page.
“What is this?” my dad asked.
“Life insurance policy. $10,000 per child. Premiums paid up for the next 12 months.”
My grandpa’s holiday gesture seemed to catch my dad off base.
“Oh. Okay. Well. I highly doubt…”
Just then, my brother Tommy chased the youngest, Will, down the stairs, violently swinging a tire iron at his head. My dad tucked the envelopes into his pocket and shook my grandpa’s hand.
Later, my dad explained the concept of life insurance.
“You pay a little bit of money per month while someone is alive. Then when they die you get a lot of money.”
“Who pays the little bit of money?”
“Your grandpa already did that. So we don’t have to pay for it. That’s the gift.”
“What’s the gift?”
“The ten thousand dollars. If someone dies.”
“Who has to die?”
“One of you kids,” he explained, a little too casually for my liking.
I wasn’t overly concerned that my parents would kill me for money, at least not before eliminating the greater liability of my sister Liz.
Then, presaging my career as a lawyer, I tried to calculate the personal benefit from another’s misfortune.
“So if, say, Tommy dies, who gets the $10,000?”
My mom intervened.
“Let’s stop talking about it. No one’s going to die.”
Still, it struck me as a pretty good hedge against the ski trip getting cancelled.
After my grandpa left I broke the bad news to my mom about my failure to get a gift for dad. Always the benevolent warden, my two week grounding was commuted to time served with a single condition for parole.
“Stay away from Mr. Scoggins!” she warned.
More determined than ever to get something special for my dad, I hopped on my bike. True to protocol, Rod was on his front porch, eager to join.
I warned Rod that I didn’t have time for any detours into juvenile delinquency.
Still, we stopped briefly at Nichols Hills Baptist Church where we rearranged their nativity into a soft porn tableau. The sign in front read “Fear not for I bring you glad tidings of great joy which shall be to all people!”
Rod scrambled the letters to read “touch a weiner Free!”
I offered a weak protest until Rod explained that if we don’t sin, Jesus died for nothing, which, oddly, makes sense to this very day.
When we finally made it to Otasco, it looked like a Goodwill drop bin. Random screwdriver sets, strands of Christmas lights, mouse traps, bug spray. While I’m certain there was something my grandpa would’ve found useful, my dream of finding something special for my dad was waning.
We were about to leave when Rod spotted a bottle of cologne. The cap was in the shape of a gold trophy and it said “World’s Best Dad’ on the label. $7.99. Perfect. This would seal the deal. Something he would never indulge for himself, with a literal conveyance of my thoughts on the man.
Rod and I were racing home when my bicycle hit a spot of ice sending me over the handlebars. The cologne bottle flew out of the Otasco sack and shattered on the pavement.
Rod tried his best to cheer me up.
“It’s okay. That stuff probably smelled like shit anyway.”
I was inconsolable. Then…
“Uh oh. Here comes old man Scoggins” said Rod.
Rod beat a hasty exit while I sat bawling on the curb. Scoggins’ Buick rolled up right next to me. I decided that if Scoggins gave me any crap, I was going to let him have it.
“Are you okay, son?” Scoggins asked.
“Looks like you took quite a spill.”
Scoggins picked up the cologne bottle and stood my bicycle upright.
“Was that a Christmas present?” he wondered.
“Yes. For my Dad.”
He loaded my bike into the trunk of his car.
Scoggins turned the car around and a few minutes later pulled into a parking space in front of Otasco.
“Better hurry” he said.
“B-b-but I don’t have any money” I explained.
Mr. Scoggins handed me a $20 bill. I went inside and bought the last bottle of “World’s Best Dad” cologne just before the store closed.
We sat in silence the entire ride home. When we got to my house I offered a feeble, inadequate thank you.
As I watched him pull into his driveway a few houses down, I offered a revised appraisal of Old Man Scoggins.
Covid 19 outbreak has come to our city. All citizens are required to self-isolate. Thinking positive. This will be a great way for us to unite in a crisis. 14 day lockdown begins…now!
Made a list on how to survive (and thrive!) during this ordeal.
1. Don’t panic.
2. Stick to a routine.
4. Use it as an opportunity to grow. Learn a new skill.
5. Read the Bible. (Such comfort in the Word).
Let’s do this!
Up early to beat the crowd at Tom Thumb. Just the necessities. Lysol, eggs, bread, milk. In and out. We are all in this together. Take only what you need and leave enough for others. If we just eat what we already have in the pantry we should have enough food to last several weeks. Stay home people!
Fuck. Got home and realized I forgot the bite size Snickers. Went back. Two bags left. Grabbed both.
Ran into next door neighbor. He didn’t acknowledge me because, you know, social distancing. Noticed he had several packages of toilet paper.
Up early. Ready to go! Did 6 1/2 pushups.
Can’t find Bible. Searched attic. Pretty sure it was in a box that went to Goodwill last summer. Tried to google “comforting scripture” but predictive text showed “comforting sc..ents” as an alternative. Ordered a jasmine and lavender candle.
Found my trumpet in the attic while looking for Bible. Made a liquor store run. Tipped the cashier a ten spot because we have to take care of each other. But, honestly, she didn’t appreciate it as much as I thought she would.
People wearing masks and gloves. Overreaction if you ask me. Just wash your hands folks.
Nothing good to eat in pantry besides Cheerios.
Slept in. Arms tired from push-ups. Taking a break from exercise today because this is a marathon, not a sprint. Going to sign up for online exercise class. Getting back in a routine tomorrow.
Learning to play ‘Hot Cross Buns’ on trumpet. Work in progress. Wife wants me to practice in backyard. Next door neighbor peeked over the fence. Thought he heard a cat in heat. He’s so funny. Thankful for good neighbors. #blessed
Suspect Tito’s could be shorting the vodka. Supposed to be 59.2 ounces in a handle. Lost count at 16 ounces but going to buy another bottle and chart it. We shall see.
Trying to stay away from conspiracy theories on twitter. But this Covid 19 may be a bio weapon. Chinese trying to poison us.
Drank two vodka and Red Bulls and ate some expired Teriyaki Beef Jerky I found on the floor of the pantry. Pretty, pretty good.
Rough night. Couldn’t sleep for some reason. Wired, plus stomach cramps and night sweats. Covid? Trying not to alarm anyone. Told my wife to call 911. She totally ignored me. Drank some apple juice and vodka for breakfast and felt a little better. Fell asleep and missed my online exercise class.
No fruit or vegetables in the house. Made a run to Tom Thumb for limes. Wore gardening gloves. Picked up some mint Oreos. Retail businesses closed but restaurants serving takeout. Created 72 separate profiles so I could repeatedly sign online petition for governor to declare liquor stores essential. Felt good to do my part.
Stock market getting clobbered. Checked my retirement account and did some calculations. I still have enough to retire at 65 so long as I only eat every other day and live outdoors. Not going to panic. In it for the long haul.
Wife told me the internet keeps crashing because so many people are watching porn online. Disgusting.
Changed the password on my iPad.
Craving pop tarts. Fashioned a pantyhose face mask for a Tom Thumb run. Saw neighbor’s wife. She had several cartons of Blue Bell and more toilet paper. Told her it was going to be hard to ‘flatten the curve’ with all that ice cream. Hahahahaha. Pretty solid Corona joke right there. She didn’t laugh. Felt bad later because realized she may be lactose intolerant.
Tried to log on to exercise class but forgot my password.
Dow is down 1900 points. Sold every position.
Trying to keep my mind sharp.
Fun facts: there are 3,437 holes in the front porch screen. It takes the ceiling fan in our bedroom 1 minute and 22 seconds to come to a complete stop once it’s turned off.
Jasmine and lavender candle arrived today. Smells like a whorehouse.
Ran out of club soda. Discovered Capri Sun and vodka. Not bad. #improvise
Learning to play “We Need A Little Christmas” on the trumpet. Every time I practice, the next door neighbor gets out his leaf blower. Starting to think it’s not a coincidence.
We won! Liquor stores declared essential! Fuck yes. Take that corona!
Donned a ski mask and goggles for protection. Then first in line at Tom Thumb to get club soda and Ritz crackers. Out of toilet paper. Made a quick congratulatory stop at liquor store. High fived everyone! They’re the real heroes. Picked up a couple of liters of vodka just in case. Security escorted me to my car. Shit’s getting real.
Wife trying to make me feel better. She read that Anne Frank survived over 700 days in an attic during World War II. So this is nothing. But Anne Frank didn’t have to listen to conversations between my wife and my sister in law, so I’m calling it a draw.
Next door neighbor selling toilet paper at $5 per roll limit 3 per neighbor. Gave her a $20 for 3 rolls but she didn’t have change. Promised she would pay me later.
Wife won’t run the dishwasher until bottom rack is full. But I’m out of highball glasses!
Supported local Mexican restaurant by ordering margaritas to go. Said law requires us to order food as well. Whatever. Thought this was America.
Slept in. Quick Tom Thumb run because someone ate all the Swedish Fish but no one will own up to it. Ran into different neighbor from down the street. Asked how they’re coping. Said all was well except for the ‘no-talent jackass’ who keeps blowin that g.d. horn. Told her I hadn’t heard.
Saw my next door neighbor over the fence. Reminded her about the $5. Acted like she couldn’t hear me. Her husband came out and called me a boozehound, a tightwad, and an ambulance chaser. Told my wife and all she would say is ‘3 for 3, not bad.’
Good news. Went online and found sheet music for ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ for trumpet.
Wprst handover sense colledge.
Feeling slightly better. Need dough. Put my dad’s van up for sale on Craigslist. Some idiot e-mailed and asked me to send a picture. Found a good one of him at his 80th birthday party. Not sure why she wants it.
4 days of quarantine left. Looking for other things to sell.
Can’t find my trumpet.
Cases exploding in US because people refuse to stay home. If people don’t stay home they may have to extend this thing. Come on people! Don’t you even care?
Out of chocolate syrup so quick in and out at Tom Thumb.
Cut a hole in fence and snuck into neighbor’s shed. Traded his leaf blower for my jasmine/lavender candle. Oh and guess what else was in there? My trumpet. Sold the leaf blower to a yard crew for $10.
Two. More. Days.
Wait….oh shit…never mind….extended it another 30.
Constable in driveway. Nationwide lockdown? Martial law?
Trumpet confiscated. Arrested for theft. I hate you all.
After law school I went to work for a white-shoe, blue blood law firm where I wrote uninspired legal memorandums about jurisdiction and venue and the rule against perpetuities. Most of my output was drivel, but I was relieved to find that someone thought of a rule against perpetuity because I was two years in and it already felt like a lifetime.
Citing irreconcilable differences, I went to work for a firm where I was told I would be able to try cases defending insurance companies against unscrupulous malingerers, also known as people wanting to be paid a fair sum for a reasonable claim.
My first assignment was to research the legal effect of the term “total blindness” in a disability policy. Some greedy bastard was trying to lay claim to his benefits after having lost only 98% of his vision in a horrific industrial accident involving molten ore.
As Mrs. Hedges, our besotted third grade Cub Scout den mother, used to say when we were supposed to craft sock puppets but she didn’t have the right supplies: “Fuck every single last bit of that nonsense.”
I then took a job with one of those “stack ‘em deep and settle ‘em cheap” mills. My boss was a theretofore respected attorney who had developed a drinking problem and a troublesome habit of spending money that didn’t belong to him. A gifted litigator in his day, he liked to brag that he never lost a trial.
One hot Friday afternoon, about two weeks after I started, I was summoned to his office. He was holding a crystal tumbler filled with Crown Royal in one hand and a thin file in the other.
“I hope you didn’t have any plans this weekend. You’ve been called to trial. Yoakum County. Monday morning at 9.”
He tossed me the first notch on my trial lawyer belt: Robert Ryder v. William Doggett and FD Drilling.
According to our threadbare Petition, my client, Mr. Ryder, was a roughneck on a drilling rig. Mr. Doggett, an employee of FD Drilling, worked on a rig about 200 yards away. One evening, the crews from the two rigs engaged in a series of practical jokes which escalated to the point of gunfire. Doggett was the gunman; Ryder, my client, the victim.
The medical records showed that Mr. Ryder suffered a gunshot wound to his left shoulder. He was in the hospital for 3 days and had about $20,000.00 in medical bills. A report from his doctor said his shoulder needed further surgery and physical therapy which would run another $20,000.00.
There was also a letter in the file from the workers compensation carrier denying benefits because they considered gunplay to be outside the “course and scope” of employment. I wondered whether he should have appealed that decision based on the fact that, well, this was Texas.
I called Mr. Ryder’s number several times on Saturday to arrange a pre-trial prep session but there was no answer and no answering machine. So, early Sunday morning in August I left my pregnant wife and two year old son and started the 358 mile drive to Plains, Texas. The air conditioning on my 10 year old Volvo felt like the warm breath of a purse dog so when I pulled into the Days Inn six hours later, I looked like I had been running from some Tommy Lee Jones character.
Still unable to reach the client, I decided to drive to his home. About 5 miles outside of town, past a patch of dead tumbleweeds, down a dirt road, I pulled up to a double wide trailer. As I approached the front door, I could hear the theme song for “America’s Funniest Home Videos” pierced by an occasional hillbilly guffaw. The place smelled like stale cigarette smoke and boiled cabbage.
I knocked on the unsteady metal door frame. Someone inside turned down the television hoping to conceal their presence.
I knocked again. Finally a thin reed of a man appeared in the doorway, his left arm hanging limply by his side.
“Yes sir. I’m looking for Robert Ryder.”
“Sorry man. Ain’t no one here by that name.”
He started to turn away.
“Mr. Ryder. I’m Tim Hoch. I’m your lawyer.”
“Bullshit. Show me your lawyer ID.”
“I don’t have a lawyer ID. I just have your file here. We’re going to trial tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow? Can’t. Gotta carry my ma to the doc.”
“Mind if I come in?”
He pushed the door open. Once inside, he introduced me to his mom who was fully reclined in an easy chair under a mound of blankets. She was not well.
We went to the kitchen. A bug zapper was the only light above the table so the dead carcasses of several hundred insects were scattered about.
“I thought you guys done give up on me. Hadn’t heard from you in two years.”
“I’m sure sorry about that. I’ve been trying to call you since Friday.”
“Phone don’t ring.”
He cleared a stack of unopened mail from the table, most of which appeared to be collection letters. I opened my file.
“First of all how are you doing these days?”
“Like shit. Left arm don’t work at all. Can’t find a job. Mom’s got the cancer and I’m always pissed.”
His bleak recitation actually glossed over how awful things appeared.
Robbie, he insisted I call him, hadn’t worked anything but an occasional odd job since being shot. The lack of physical therapy resulted in profound atrophy of his arm. As we spoke, his mom would cough and lurch violently about every three minutes. After one particularly rough episode, I looked over to see whether she was still alive.
“She’s fine. But it’s some kind of hell,” said Robbie.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened the night you were shot?”
“We was workin’ overnight tryin’ to fish some busted pipe outta the hole. We needed more string so me and Jimmy went over to borrow some from FD. Anyways, Mad Dog was runnin the rig for FD and…”
“Billy Doggett. Everyone calls him Mad Dog. He was foreman for FD. Him and Jimmy don’t like each other cause Jimmy was always tellin’ everyone about the time he caught Mad Dog pullin’ his pud in the bunkhouse. So Mad Dog tells us to go to hell.”
“When we get back to our rig, the guys was pissed so they put a copperhead we found earlier that day in a bag and went over and threw it on the FD rig. So’s about twenty minutes later Mad Dog and his numbnuts come over and start raisin’ hell and throwin cow turds everywhere. This goes back and forth awhile. Then an hour or so after everything gets quiet we start hearin’ gunshots. Next thing I know, I’m bleedin’ all over.”
“How do you know it was Mad Dog who shot you?”
“His ex-wife told everyone he was braggin’ about it after.”
“That’s good. Try to keep your cool and tell it just like you told it to me.”
“I’ll do my best. But I cain’t be there right at 9. I’ll get there as soon as I can after I drop off ma.”
Monday morning I showed up at the Yoakum County Courthouse-a two story beige brick building surrounded by a quaint town square. The courtroom had dark paneling and old church benches. I made my way past the wooden divider that separated the parties from the spectators when I heard the bellow of a large gut.
“Hello counselor. Welcome to Plains.”
He offered his stubby, moist hand.
“Thank you. You must be Mr. Davis.”
“Mr. Davis is my dad. Just call me Jack.”
He appeared to be in his mid-sixties. I figured his dad was probably long since dead so I was unlikely to ever meet him or need to remember to call him “Mister.” Jack was stout and mostly bald but with a ring of gray, matted hair.
He had already taken up residence at one of the counsel tables where he neatly placed his yellow pad, his Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and a King James Bible.
Just then the bailiff came in.
“You the out of town lawyer?”
I looked at Jack. He looked at me.
“Oh me, yes. Yes. That’s me,” I said.
“Judge is ready to see you.”
The chambers were stuffy and hot. The Judge was already in his robe, reading the newspaper.
“Mornin’ Jack,” he said to my opponent with a deep drawl.
“Mornin’ yer honor,” said Jack, bursting with pride that they were on a first name basis.
The Judge turned to me.
“And you are?”
I have always had this habit of trying to affect the same manner and speech of the people I’m around, so I sounded like an idiot straight outta the chute, so to speak.
“This here name is Tim. Tim Hoch.” It didn’t roll off a west Texas tongue anyway but I secretly cursed my parents for not giving me a name with a little more flexible machismo, like Tough or Flint or Bear.
“Welcome to Plains,” said the judge, displaying the countenance and Alpha-male boredom of a silverback gorilla. “Who’s dancing in the hog trough today?” he asked.
Jack wasted no time.
“Yer Honor, this here case shoulda nevah been filed in the first place.”
Apparently believing this was a sufficient exposition of the facts, the Judge looked at me for a response.
“Well, um, I, uh, would, of course, disagree.”
It was an ineloquent introduction, to be sure. Jack continued.
“Yer honor, I’m here to defend the integrity of my client, a client that employs dozens of citizens of this county. But I am deeply offended at these scurrilous allegations and we will seek a ruling from yer honor that this is a frivolous endeavor, yer Honor.”
I was still a little slow on the uptake.
“Judge, I was just given the file on Friday and…”
I felt like I was drowning. I tried to recalibrate.
“Your honor. Mr. Davis has it wrong. The only reason we’re here is because of the reckless and deadly behavior of his….”
The Judge had already heard enough. He waved his hand and shook his head.
“Let’s go stew this skunk.”
We went back to the courtroom and I was relieved to see Robbie sitting at our table. He looked great in his pressed jeans, western shirt and spit-shined ropers. A large, hairy man in overalls was seated at Jack’s table. The bailiff was instructing a group of Yoakum County citizens on the legal requirements for jury duty. Robbie leaned over and whispered.
“That prick keeps flipping me the bird-double barrel.”
“Mad Dog. See? He just did it again.”
About that time, the Judge called the courtroom to order. He welcomed his fellow Yoakums and extolled the civil jury system as the most important pillar of our democracy. Then he introduced me to the jury pool.
“Mr. Hoch here is gonna ask you some questions about what you believe and don’t believe. Then Mr. Davis gets to ask you some questions. This will help us decide who is best suited to serve on this jury. Mr. Hoch you may proceed.”
I stood and told them how pleased I was to be able to represent Robbie in his hometown; how much I was enjoying the hospitality of the local citizenry; and how I looked forward to presenting our case.
Then it was time to wade into the backwaters.
“How many of you have ever filed a lawsuit?”
Not a single hand.
“That’s very fortunate. How many of you hold it against Mr. Ryder that he filed a lawsuit?”
The brief silence was interrupted by a low wattage flicker from the third row.
“I don’t believe in ‘em.”
Several nodded in agreement.
“Interesting,” I said in response to an opinion I found to be dull and uninformed. “Why is that?”
“Too many of ‘em,” he said.
“Just tryin’ to hit the lottery,” added a lady in front.
Nods all around. This thing was starting to flatline.
“You got a problem with someone just settle it yourself,” someone said.
I spotted an opportunity.
“That’s a great idea. So instead of filing a lawsuit, you think it’d be better if folks just worked it out between themselves?” I asked.
“Yes I do.”
“What if that doesn’t work? Should they resort to violence?”
“Because that’s what happened here. These two men had a disagreement and that man sitting over there, Mad Dog Doggett, shot my client, Robbie Ryder, in the shoulder.”
There wasn’t as much hand-raising after that exchange. I was able to strike a few for cause who said they’d never consider giving damages of any kind whatsoever. Those who remained were still a salty bunch and I knew I would just have to try to select the least worst.
Jack Davis picked up his Bible. His folksy manner combined with his lofty vocabulary conveyed that he was one of them, but also just a notch or two above.
“Folks, on behalf of Mr. Doggett and FD Drilling, I would be remiss if I neglected to thank you for your honorable service here today. How many of you agree that a man should refrain from mischief?”
“It says so in that Bible,” offered one helpful fellow.
“Indeed it does. In fact it says that those who conceive mischief give rise to iniquity,” Jack preached. “And how many of you believe that iniquity should be rewarded?”
Davis went on like this until I objected and the Judge mercifully made him stop. We finally seated 12 stoics and started the testimony.
I called Robbie to the stand and took him through the facts just as we had done in his trailer the night before.
Davis rose and began his cross examination.
“Now Mr. Ryder, you testified that my client’s ex-wife told folks that my client admitted to shooting you, is that correct?”
“Do you happen to know anything about her reputation for veracity?”
“Lots of fellas think she has a pretty good one but I don’t wanna say cause I’m a gentleman and I don’t look at ladies that way.”
The Judge and I were the only ones who chuckled. Davis then asked Robbie about his 3 convictions for public intoxication from 20 years ago.
“What is your explanation for this habitual drunkenness?”
“Habitual thirstiness, I guess.”
Robbie’s quiet manner conveyed an earnest charm. He spoke of his desire to work, his inability to use his arm and his abject frustration. Davis couldn’t touch him.
Mad Dog took the stand and denied everything. He said Robbie and his crew were always partying and jacking around and shooting guns and Robbie was just looking for someone to blame. I asked him about his reputation for being a hot head. I even suggested he lost his temper that night after Jimmy teased him about a certain incident in the bunkhouse.
“That’s BS and Jimmy knows it!” shouted Mad Dog.
Then I pressed him on whether he shot Robbie. I asked him why his story was contrary to every witness statement in the record. He didn’t know.
“Even if I did shoot my gun, I would’ve fired into outer space and the bullet probably burned up on re-entry.”
The next morning we gave our final argument. I took a clinical approach to the testimony. I asked the jury to consider all of Robbie’s medical bills and to give him enough for surgery and physical therapy. I also asked them to consider damages for his mental anguish and his incapacity.
Davis would have none of it. He called Robbie’s lawsuit a “money grab.” Robbie was a “shiftless prevaricator” who was trying to “hoodwink the fine citizens of this community.” Davis quoted Corinthians and asked “what partnership hath righteousness with lawlessness and what fellowship hath light with darkness?”
“None!” Davis, and apparently the Old Testament, concluded. “We don’t think you should give this man one thin dime.”
I got to go one more time.
“I don’t really know many Bible verses,” I said. “I do remember one that requires us to bear one another’s burdens. I can’t quote the chapter or verse. But I sure like that one. It brings me great comfort. When I first met Robbie he told me that people in Plains are good folk who will always try to do the right thing. Ask them to help and they will. So that’s what I’m asking. A little help. A little trust. A little optimism. A little belief in your fellow man.”
It wasn’t much but it was all I had in the moment.
The jury deliberated a couple of hours before delivering their verdict. They found that both Robbie (40%) and Mad Dog (60%) were responsible for the incident. They awarded Robbie his past medical bills of $20,000.00 plus $500 for his pain and suffering. A final judgment would reduce that by 40%-the amount of Robbie’s proportionate responsibility. There was no award for the money he would need to have his shoulder surgery or his physical therapy.
Jack Davis was packing his briefcase, basking in self-adulation, when the Judge came over and shook my hand.
“I know you’re disappointed. But just remember: The sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass every day.”
Maybe I had spent too much time in Plains, but I took this as an offer of solace, this comparison to a canine’s sphincter. And I appreciated it as such.
“Thank you your honor.”
Robbie and I walked to his truck. I told him I was sorry I couldn’t get him what he so desperately needed.
“Ain’t your fault. You fought like hell. No one ever done that for me before. Want you to know I appreciate it.”
A thunderstorm was brewing in the distance. Robby turned west into the darkening sky as I headed east trying to stay one step ahead, undefeated.
It was Christmas break 1978, my sophomore year in high school, and I needed a job. My 16th birthday was just three months away.
The cool guys in my class were buying used Alfa Romeos for around $6000.00. I did a quick audit of my finances and, including the heavily disputed money I owed Rod Hedges for a bet on whether he could get to second base with Lisa Foster, I was about $1,006,000.00 short.
“Why don’t you try the mall? They’re probably looking for seasonal help,” offered my mom.
“I don’t want to work at a dumb ass mall” I said, clearly overestimating the demand for my services.
“You can watch your brother then.”
My brother, Will, is 4 years younger, so watching him, in and of itself, should not have been a difficult task, except that our older brother Tommy was home full time which meant that Will was always at risk of suffering some misfortune that reflected poorly on me. Tommy had recently suggested selling Will to human traffickers. I wasn’t completely opposed. We were getting a little tripped up on the percentage split.
The next day my mom dropped me at Penn Square mall.
“I’ll meet you back here in two hours,” she said as she handed me a $5 bill.
I went to the mall directory and planned my route. Stork Shop, Junior Miss and Fabric Fair were quickly eliminated. Then I saw the British Import Shoppe. I walked in to find a man half-asleep behind a glass counter. He was wearing a Union Jack shirt, red suspenders and a bowler hat. He was clearly startled to see someone.
“Mighty fine to see ya lad? Out for a shop?”
“Is it for your mum? Or your pop?”
“I was thinking I….”
“Don’t worry. We’ve bits and bobs for everyone. Take a look around and let me know whether you see anything.”
His congenial manner and inability to read a situation offered helpful insight into how we won the Revolutionary War but little else. I was about to beat a hasty exit when I spied several “Going Out of Business” signs behind the counter. Guilt wouldn’t allow me to go away empty handed.
“How much for the Big Ben lighter?” I asked.
“50 pence. Or three quarters American.”
I was 10 minutes in and my ledger balance was already down about 10%. Time to fish in a bigger pond. The mall had two large department stores: John A. Brown and Rothschilds.
I decided to try John A Brown first. Greg Brown was a kid in my class so I could drop his name if necessary. I went to the hiring department and filled out an application.
A receptionist examined my submission.
“Do you have any references? We don’t hire anyone without references.”
I leaned in: “How about Greg Brown?”
“Put his number down in the blank.”
“No. I mean Greg Brown…you know….the son or…um…maybe the grandson or….nephew of John A. Brown, the owner…also known as your boss.”
“Nice try. My boss is the Dayton-Hudson company.”
I was ready to call it a morning but fate drew me across the concourse to Rothschilds where I asked the receptionist for an application.
“Do I have to list references?”
“Yeah put down a couple of names and numbers but we don’t check ‘em.”
“How can I be sure?”
“Because I’m the one who’s supposed to do it. I mean how stupid. Who’d put down a shitty reference?”
I could see a bright future at this place. The hiring manager came back from a smoke break and the receptionist introduced the two of us.
“I already checked his references. All good,” said the receptionist.
“How soon can you start?”
“Be here at 9:30 sharp.”
My mom was excited that someone other than immediate family or the government would agree to shelter and perhaps even pay me for a day, so she was up early laying out my clothes.
“What did they say you would be doing?”
“Jeez, I don’t know mom. It’s a bunch of old bags who sell shit. You tell me.”
“Here. Wear this.”
She handed me a chambray leisure suit that we bought at Shepler’s Western Outfitters.
“No way. I haven’t worn that since 8th grade graduation.”
“If you hadn’t ripped the left sleeve off your navy blazer at Uncle Jim’s funeral you could wear that, but this is the nicest thing you own.”
The next morning, I felt like a retail insider as I entered through the dock area. When I got there everyone was in the break room. I filled out a tax form and learned that my wage was the bare minimum-$2.90 per hour.
Pretty soon Ron Arnot, the store manager, burst through the door. Arnot was a former assistant baseball coach at a local high school. He was asked to leave after some ‘misunderstanding’ involving a camera in the girls softball team locker room.
His wife was the daughter of the Rothschilds owner so he was using this as a temporary assignment before going back to ruin more teenage lives.
Arnot had a buzz haircut that went all the way down the folds of his neck to the top of his back as if a former mullet had been closely cropped. He was one of those guys who thought there was a conspiracy afoot when the world failed to treat him as he imagined it should.
He was holding a clip board clasping a stack of sales receipts.
“Gather round men.”
Never mind that 90% of the employees were women over 60.
“I’m not gonna sugarcoat this, team. You guys sucked ass yesterday.”
Arnot‘ s neck hair stood on end like a cornered Rottweiler.
“Let me tell you, I’m not going to have my ass embarrassed by John A. Brown. So what’s your excuse? Why are they kicking your ass?”
Where Coach Arnot was concerned, there was no ‘I’ in ‘team’.
“Better merchandise,” offered one clerk.
“Lower prices,” said another.
“More selection,” intoned one more.
“Ha. Shows what you know about retail” said Arnot without a hint of irony. “Listen up whiners. Two days from Christmas and we aren’t even close to our goal. If we don’t hit today’s target then no employee discount for your layaway merchandise.”
A collective groan arose from the group as Arnot stormed into his office.
I wandered around looking for the woman who hired me. Turns out she was sick. So I gave a tentative knock on Arnot’s door.
“This better be important,” came the reply.
I cracked the door a bit.
“Um…sir….I was just hired and today is my first day.”
“What? By who?”
“I think her name was Karen.”
“You mean Carol?”
“That sounds right.”
“What did she hire you for?”
“I guess you needed some help…”
“No I mean what department?”
“She didn’t say.”
Arnot escorted me to the loading dock where he and the head of shipping had a private conversation. They both looked me over from afar and the shipping manager gave an emphatic shake of the head.
“Run upstairs and see if Mrs. Farley has anything. She’s in make-up.”
I took the escalator up to the second floor. The lady who yelled “better prices” at the morning pep talk was standing at the make-up counter desperately trying to find something in her purse. After a few seconds she gave up, retrieved a lipstick cartridge from the display case, ran it across her mouth, wiped it off and set it back carefully.
“Are you Mrs. Farley?”
“We don’t open for..” she checked her watch….”4 more minutes.”
“Mr. Arnot sent me up to see you. This is my first day.”
“Goddamn Arnot. Always sending me his castoffs.”
Not much on new employee orientations, she started looking around. Finally, she spied a young man across the sales floor.
“Bradley! Yoo-hoo Bradley.”
Bradley seemed eager to please as he hurried over.
“Yes Mae! How can I help?”
“I’d like you to meet…” she paused and looked at me.
“Oh um…Timmy. Timmy Hoch” I said.
“Nice to meet you Timmy” said Brad sweetly as he put his hand in mine.
“Bradley is in charge of the fragrance department. He’ll find something for you.”
Brad sized me up for several uncomfortable seconds and said: “Follow me.”
He led me to the break room.
“You can’t wear that.”
“It’s all I have.”
He retrieved something from his locker and tossed it at me.
“Here. Try this on.”
It was a green cable cardigan sweater about three sizes too big. It had a sash at the waist and itched like it was made of fiberglass.
“A fragrance model has to look the part.”
“Come on. I’ll show you to your station.”
Bradley placed me at the second floor entrance to Rothschilds, directly across the concourse from John A. Brown, and handed me a basket with perfume samples.
“Hand these out. But don’t give one to every single lady you see. Use your judgment.”
“So who should I give them to?”
“Never reward track suits, t-shirts, crop tops, letter jackets or anything western. For God’s sake this isn’t Sheplers. Oh and every 10 minutes or so, spray two shots from one of these counter samples. Keeps everything fresh.”
The sweater was so big that every time I tried to hand out samples I’d have to wave my hands in the air to roll the sleeves back. I looked like a miniature Liberace impersonator just before he sat down at the piano keyboard. One time, I was trying to draw back my sleeves and appeared to be signaling distress because the security guard came over.
“All good there little fella?”
Nothing can disabuse you of the illusion of being a highly sought after fragrance model like being called “little fella” by a mall cop.
“Yeah. Just working.”
“I think you’re having an allergic reaction.”
“Your neck looks like pounded beef steak.”
“I am a little itchy.”
“Maybe you oughta take a break. Get that looked at.”
“I’m not supposed to leave this area.”
“Listen fruitcake. This ain’t Checkpoint Charlie. Jesus, go get a Benadryl or something.”
It was either the power of suggestion or the massive recent inhalation of Enjoli, but suddenly I was feeling light-headed. I made my way over to Mrs. Farley. My intuition told me that she was a pretty good resource for a prescription med.
“Goddamn kid, what happened to you?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. I don’t feel so good. Do you have an allergy pill?”
She heaved her purse on the counter and started rifling through a trove of pill and airplane liquor bottles. She shook a moldy brown tablet into my sweaty palm.
“Take this. But not on an empty stomach.”
I walked over to the food court and bought a bean burrito from Taco Tico. By the time I made it back to my station I felt as though I’d been hit with an elephant tranquilizer.
Mrs. Farley diagnosed my anaphylaxis, slipped me another pill and ushered me to a narrow storage closet where I fell into a deep slumber. Some time later she was rapping at my shoes.
“Get up. Arnot’s looking for you.”
My dizziness had dissipated only to be replaced by a churning stomach. I went back to my post. It felt like a rodent was trying to gnaw its way out of my intestines but I couldn’t bear the thought of spraying any more perfume to mask the smell. Then I spotted Arnot.
“Hey pipsqueak. Holy shit. It smells like a goddamn goat farm over here.”
He sprayed a few blasts of Charlie perfume and pulled me to one side.
“I’ve got a special op for you. I need you to run down to Toy Land and get a remote control car.”
“Okay.” I stood there a beat. “With what?”
“Don’t you have any money?”
I opened my wallet to display my remaining three one dollar bills and a coupon for a haircut at the Mane Man. Arnot shook his head and handed me a $10 bill. Two days before Christmas, Toy Land was pretty picked over so the only remote control car I was able to find was a yellow Barbie corvette.
Arnot was still waiting at my post when I returned. He was less than pleased with my selection but so eager to implement his plan it hardly registered. He pulled a smoke bomb from his pocket and put it in Barbie’s passenger seat.
“You got a lighter?”
I pulled the Big Ben lighter from my pocket.
“Ha. Figures. Take this over to that John A. Brown entrance, light this baby and drive the car into home furnishings.”
Aside from the references slight, I didn’t have a beef with John A. Brown. But I was easily impressionable and frightened, your Honor.
“Why don’t I just throw it and run?”
“Because that’s against the law pipsqueak.”
I doubted Arnot was versed in the finer points of the penal code but he told me even if what we were doing was a crime, I was already an “accessory before the fact” so it was too late to back out. The Barbie ‘vette had a cord which tethered me dangerously close to the IED. After a few minutes, a malfunctioning escalator slowed the tide of holiday shoppers and my window of opportunity was nigh. I lit the fuse, gunned the car until the cord ran out, dropped the device and let the momentum carry the canister forward.
I ran back to Rothschilds where Arnot and I waited to watch the ensuing carnage from a safe distance. We were able to detect only a faint wisp of smoke and a small flurry of activity but, all things considered, it was a dud. Arnot let out the sigh of a man well-experienced with exciting buildups and false starts.
“Get back to work pip.”
Since we now shared the bond of co-conspirators, he shortened my nickname.
I went over to Rod Hedges’ house the next morning to borrow something to wear. I looked through his closet and found a brown and green polyester shirt emblazoned with camels drinking from an oasis. I was shopping for Bradley now.
“Don’t forget about that million dollars you owe me,” reminded Rod.
When I got to work I was told that my new assignment was to clean and stock the employee break room. While it didn’t carry the panache of fragrance salesman, it was decidedly less threatening to my health and my liberty.
The break room turned out to be a perfect fit. The employees would come in with all manner of gossip and tales of personal woe. Mrs. Farley told me that she was invited to her daughter’s house for Christmas with her grandkids but she couldn’t afford to get her merchandise out of layaway and she didn’t want to show up empty handed. I started to tell her some bullshit story I had heard in Sunday school about the difference between “presence” and “presents” but I didn’t want to be responsible for the emotional carnage wrought by her failure to bring a proper gift.
Bradley needed a raise so he could afford his rent which he was having to supplement by giving his landlord samples of Aramis cologne and foot massages. His personnel file was “marked” with some allegation of making a pass at a customer which followed him like a scarlet letter.
My work in the break room gave me easy access to Arnot’s office and since Arnot happened to be dodging a process server on Christmas Eve, he was pretty scarce. Motive met opportunity so I found Mrs. Farley’s gifts and put them in her locker. Then I made a few edits to Bradley’s personnel file.
I went to the food court for lunch and decided to do a little math. According to my rough calculations, I had earned about $35 before taxes over the course of a day and a half. I would have to work another 2056 hours to be able to afford the Alfa Romeo. That’s when I spotted Lisa Foster.
“I heard about you and Rod.”
“I think you know.”
She turned a couple of shades of red when I offered her an out. In exchange for a written denial I could probably slide her some samples of Tabu.
The store closed at 5 p.m. for Christmas Eve. I was helping Mrs. Farley carry her bounty when we spotted Arnot sneaking back into his office.
“Merry Christmas Ron,” called Mrs. Farley. “And thank you.”
She thought Arnot had forgiven her balance.
“Merry Christmas Mae. Merry Christmas pip.”
My brother was waiting at the curb. Just then, Brad came by and gave me a long hug.
Tommy was cracking up when I got in the car.
“How much did you make today fairy dingleberry?” he asked.
I took Lisa Foster’s statement out of my wallet.
“A voucher for a million dollars. How about you?”
Tommy glanced into the back seat where Will was playing with a broken slinky.
My dad died this week. This is a story I wrote a couple of years ago about him.
Last Sunday morning, as I enjoyed the silence and my first cup of coffee, I started to hear some strange noises. Bump…..bump……bump.
Silence again. Then the faint but unmistakeable sound of footsteps. Another bump. Long silence. A few more footsteps. Another bump. They were coming from the attic. Squirrels? Mice?
I did what I usually do when confronted with the grim prospect of a household chore that could not be immediately subcontracted. I ignored it.
But the noises grew louder and louder. Clearly someone or something was rummaging through our attic. It had to be a bear. Or Big Foot. No ordinary human would venture to the nether regions of our garage.
I ran to the garage and saw the attic door open and my wife casting boxes everywhere.
“What are you doing?” I yelled.
“Where is the box with the Beanie Babies?”
The Beanie Babies-those tiny stuffed animals that were all the rage in the early ’90’s. When they first appeared we bought some for our kids. Then my wife got wind that they might be a collector’s item, so we bought several hundred more, left the tags attached and put them directly in a box in the attic. Seemed like a pretty solid retirement plan. Incubate those gems for a couple of decades and, in the event Ross Perot wasn’t able save America from economic ruin, sell them on the open market. Index funds are for suckers.
“Well? Aren’t you going to help me look?”
I climbed midway up the ladder when I was struck by a horrible thought.
“I think we gave them to Goodwill.”
“You better not have given them to Goodwill!”
“Why do you need them?”
“Just start looking.”
I found myself rummaging through several sizable mounds of worthless residue accumulated over the past 25 years.
My wife was going at this with great gusto. Finally, she confessed in a conspiratorial whisper.
“The Princess Di Bear is worth $75,000.”
I was careful. My wife tends to mishear things. She still thinks the chorus to “Beasts of Burden” is “I’ll never leave your pizza burnin’.” She also once called our kids’ school to protest when she heard the cafeteria was serving fish dicks.
“$75,000? That’s impossible.”
“Yes. $75,000. I saw it on the internet.”
So it had to be true.
I guess it couldn’t hurt. Just a couple of years ago some lucky bastard in Toulouse, France stumbled upon a Caravaggio worth $136 million when he was having his roof repaired.
After about 30 minutes planting the seedlings of asbestosis in my lungs, I gave up. I can safely confirm that I don’t own a Honus Wagner baseball card or an original Van Gogh. Or, alas, it would appear, a Princess Di beanie baby.
This isn’t too surprising. I’m not much of a collector. That’s not to say it isn’t in my genes.
My dad was a hell of a trader. He would drag us to flea markets and estate sales almost every Saturday morning growing up. He would move through the tables with the grace of a lumberjack. He had an aura of flea market mogul about him. There could be a hundred people standing at a table of junk and my dad would always be the one who caught the vendor’s wary eye.
“What you lookin’ for?”
“Not buyin’ today. Just out with the kids.”
He paused for awhile over some old, wooden fishing lures while the vendor, a bear of a man in bib overalls, tried to resist the tractor beam. Then after just the right length of time had passed, my dad walked away.
“Them’s wood minnows. Company that makes ’em went out of business 40 years ago” the vendor called after my dad.
My dad was already across the way at a competitor’s table where he paid a dollar for some old postcards. I kept glancing back at the fishing lures salesman. My instincts told me we still had some unfinished business.
Finally, my dad sauntered back and picked up one of the lures.
“What’ll you take?”
“Askin’ $40 for 10 but I’d take a little less. Gotta get a scrip filled for nitro. Bout to run out.”
My dad, clearly unconcerned with this man’s incipient medical condition, examined the lure even more closely.
“Look an awful lot like the ones I saw last week in Lindale. Ol’ boy had a whole table of ’em. Come to find out they were fakes.”
My dad sounded like an investigator on CSI: Lake Tenkiller.
The vendor and I couldn’t tell whether my dad was bluffing. I eyed the exchange like I was witnessing the climax of a John Wayne movie.
“How about 13 lures for $15?” asked my Dad.
One of his favorite negotiating ploys was to mix up the bargain i.e. change the numerator; adjust the denominator. The vendor was sufficiently befuddled and, as best I can recall, my dad finally ended up with 15 lures for $25.
When I was about ten my dad took me to Mecca for junk dealers-First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas.
We rode down there with one of his best crap cronies, Poe.
To this day I’m not sure whether Poe was his last name or first. I do know he was as shifty as the popped clutch on a Model T. He had a firm, protruded belly that made him walk with a backwards lean as though he were carrying twins at full term. His daily uniform was high water jeans, frayed gray T-shirts and a ball cap that could barely contain his unruly mop of hair.
He supported himself with dice games and the two bit commerce of bric a brac. He didn’t pay taxes because he claimed to be registered with the IRS as a Unitarian minister. He was the type of guy who would rather climb a tree and run a con than stand on the ground and work for an honest living. But he was sure a lot of fun to be around.
We picked up Poe at a storage unit. He threw a couple of large, dirty boxes in the back of the van and we were off.
I woke from a nap as we pulled into the flea grounds. It looked as though every garage sale since Herod’s reign heaved forth its contents onto 250 acres of scrubby hell. Row upon row of vendors with every ware imaginable- watches, hubcaps, transistor radios, dolls, glassware, paintings, lamps, clothing, pop bottles, tools, cinder blocks, license plates.
We pulled to our spot and set our table. My dad carefully displayed an assortment of hickory shafted golf clubs, a dozen gutta percha golf balls, some antique toys and a stack of vintage postcards. Poe opened his box to reveal some old coins, several rusty knives, rain sticks, a heavily dented trumpet, a ukulele with no strings, a felt painting of a nude woman in semi-repose and a frayed rabbit’s foot. Poe placed the rabbit’s foot in a fancy glass box and set it toward the back, distinctly separate from his other clutter.
My dad handed me a twenty dollar bill and turned me loose.
I quickly located a booth with vintage games. A Plinko board was $8 and a magic set was $3. I couldn’t decide. It was still early so I ventured on.
The more I looked, the more overwhelmed I became. I was headed back to our booth empty handed when I saw a dealer selling vintage tin signs-Burma Shave, Coca-Cola, Route 66, Humble Oil etc.
Then I spied a cheap plastic sign with a painting of a small dachshund and the caption: “Have you seen my wiener?”
Newly aware of the hilarity of this double entendre, I was eager to show my dad and Poe my maturing sense of humor. I just knew us guys would get a hell of a chuckle out of it.
“How much for the sign?” I asked the man.
“How much you got?”
“I reckon I could let it go for $20.”
Sweet. My first scalp. I handed the man my money, tucked the sign under my arm and sprinted back to camp.
“What’ve you got there, weasel wart?” asked Poe.
“Where’s my dad?”
Just then my dad appeared and it was time for the big reveal.
Poe roared with approval. My dad looked at me with a glare he usually reserved for bankers, lawyers and high school football coaches.
“What’d you pay for it?” he asked.
A dollar? He thought this sign was worth a dollar? Didn’t he get it? I tried to explain but about this time Poe gave me a shush. A mark approacheth.
I looked up and saw a man wearing a ball cap with a confederate flag. Thousands of tiny, broken capillaries pockmarked his nose and cheeks. He was drinking a can of beer wrapped in a brown paper bag.
After lingering a few minutes he wondered: “What’s in the glass box?”
“Oh that. It’s not for sale.”
“Didn’t ask that.”
Poe ignored the man’s abrupt manner and handed him the glass box.
“Be real careful with it now” Poe warned.
The man laughed.
“Ain’t nothin’ but a damned ol’ rabbit’s foot.”
“That ‘damned ol’ rabbit’s foot’ belonged to Stonewall Jackson, sir.”
“Bullshit,” said the man displaying all the evidence one needs that your first instinct is almost always correct.
“Had it in his pocket at the Battle of Bull Run, first and second. Lost it after Fredricksburg. Accidentally shot by his own men a couple of weeks later.”
Poe held it to his nose.
“Still smells like his nuts.”
Poe handed it to the man. The mark didn’t bat an eye that Poe was able to discern a telltale odor from the scrotum of a long dead confederate general. The mark took a sniff and carefully placed it back in its case.
Curious, I picked it up and took a whiff. It occurred to me unlikely that anyone could prove the rancid smell was from glandular excretions more than a century ago…..but they couldn’t prove it wasn’t either.
“How much you want for it?” asked the man.
“Ain’t for sale. Sorry.”
“Bet you’d take $50 for it.”
“Bet you a fifty I won’t.”
“How bout a hunnert?”
“Sir I’m sure you’re well intentioned but I can’t sell this to just anyone. This right here is history. It needs a proper home.”
“I reckon ain’t no one could give it a better home than me. I’ve got all kind of Civil War memrobilya.”
“What you got?”
The man rattled off a litany of his belongings from the Civil Era but the die had long been cast. Sold. For $150 and a promise to give it due respect evermore.
After the man left Poe grabbed a few old coins and placed them in a different glass box, setting it again near the back of the table.
The next morning we packed our belongings but first a little unfinished business. My dad asked me to follow him.
“Grab your sign” he said.
We walked a few rows over where the sign vendor was packing his truck. I stood several yards away.
“Mornin'” said my dad.
“Can I help you?” Said the man who took my money.
“Just doin some last minute trading.”
“Don’t have much left. Most of its been packed away.”
“Looking for a Route 66 sign.”
The man started to dig under a blue tarp.
“Happen to have one right here.”
“How’s about $15?”
My dad called me over and motioned to me to hand over my sign. The man showed a brief glimmer of shame.
“Tell you what let’s do. I’ll trade you this sign for that one and a five dollar bill” offered my dad.
Obeying the code of honor among thieves, the man handed my dad a fiver and the sign.
My dad and I walked to the van where Poe was asleep in the front seat. I sat in the back and pretended to strum the Ukulele.
“Hey Poe, what are these things?”
“Indian rain sticks. That purple one there ended the dust bowl. Brought first rains to Kansas in over three years. Took this country out of a depression. Works every time.”
I turned it over and over, listening to the beads fall as a light drizzle coated the windshield.
The nurses’ station on the 8th floor of Methodist Hospital Dallas has a stack of travel magazines as part of their curriculum of torture. It was the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday ironically enough, when I wandered by and picked up one with a cover photo of palm trees and sandy beaches. The headline read: “Phuket! Closer Than You Think!”
I showed it to the attending nurse behind the counter.
“How would you pronounce that?” I asked.
Working a holiday shift, she wasn’t really in the mood. She gave a quick, irritated glance.
“Fuck-it” she said.
“You sure it’s not Poo-ket?”
“Ph makes an f sound. Fuck-it. Don’t matter anyway. Still the same place.”
I smiled. I didn’t need a magazine to transport me to Fuck-it. I was already there. I had been there for about a week. And I was ready to go home.
The Saturday evening before Thanksgiving I was eating dinner at a friend’s house when I began feeling nauseous. I excused myself and went outside. Suddenly, my knees buckled and a rush of cold air penetrated my every pore. Face down on the grass, I started retching violently. No vomit. Just heave after painful heave of dry nothing. Then desperate gasps. I stumbled to my car and drove home. By then, I was screaming in pain. I fell through the back door where my startled wife tried to understand what was going on.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
I was writhing on the floor. I told her to give me a few minutes.
Wisely, she would not. A short time later we were at the Emergency Room where a series of tests revealed I had a rupture where my esophagus intersected with my stomach.
And thus began my eight week medical odyssey- one from which I hope to never fully recover.
The day following my ER diagnosis I transferred to Methodist Dallas to see the only physician in north Texas who performs endoscopic suturing. I narrowly qualified as a candidate for the procedure since my hole was on the larger end. On Monday morning, I had a stent placed in my esophagus and the rupture was stitched. All good, right?
Sure. Except nothing could disturb my esophagus while the rupture healed. So the next day, I had a narrow plastic feeding tube inserted into my jejunum. This would be the conduit for all of my nutrition the next several weeks. For at least 12 hours per day I would be tethered to a pole that forced brown liquid into my gut. Ice chips would be my only oral diet for the foreseeable future.
The first four days of my hospitalization were packed with surgeries.
Thanksgiving Day was the first official day of recovery. Needless to say I wasn’t exactly awash in grateful sentiments. Unfortunately that attitude wasn’t much different from Thanksgivings past. Sure, I would give a cursory nod to my blessings. But then I would move on to matters of greater importance….like football or climbing some imaginary social/financial beanstalk.
This Thanksgiving I awoke to an almost unbearable sadness.
My family did their best to intervene. My wife would remind me to take it one day at a time or to think of people who had it even worse than me. Good points, to be sure. But comparing my relative fate to some other poor bastard who had it worse only got me so far. I even tried my hand at some self-actualization.
I mean, am I perfect? No.
But am I the type of person who tried each day to be a better person?
Mostly alone, I started to reflect on what had brought me to that point.
I wondered whether the etiology for my torn throat was the bile of cynicism I was devouring on a daily basis. The truth is, something toxic had been festering in my gut for a long time. Perhaps it was witnessing the rancid state of society that numbed me to the world. It could be unresolved grief for a friend I lost to a heart attack in February or watching a family come to terms with the tragic loss of their son. Meanwhile, the slow creep of Alzheimer’s has completely shrouded my dad in its heavy fog.
So needless to say, happy horseshit had been in short supply around these parts.
Medically speaking, I knew there was a real problem. The past ten years, I had a half dozen trips to the emergency room to extricate food stuck in my pipe. But rather than treat the cause, I decided it was easier to deal with the symptoms. I didn’t have the time.
For some reason, I have always been in a hurry. Not exactly sure where I was going or why, but I had to get there quickly. Looking back, I think I was just afraid to sit still. If I was always on the run, the cruel hand of fate would never catch me.
But as the saying goes, I found my fate on the road I took to avoid it.
I was finally discharged from Methodist Hospital after 6 nights and I went home to settle into my new routine-a plastic tube through which a light brown liquid coursed directly into my bowels. Ice chips to moisten my mouth. My kids were gone and my poor wife tried her best to save me from a tsunami of self-pity. She didn’t stand a chance.
Ten days after I left Methodist, I spiked a fever. Later that day, I was back at Methodist Hospital with an abscess-a big, nasty, pus filled infection.
To clear the fluid, a drain was inserted into my back with a tube threaded through to my abdomen. This appendage had a plastic bag on one end which collected the discharge from the infection.
After a few days of treating my sepsis, the doctor ordered a barium swallow to determine whether the sutures were still sealing the rupture.
I knew this was a pivotal moment. If there were no leaks I could continue along this course. The presence of any leaks meant we were back at square one.
I was wheeled in a hard plastic chair to a frigid room. The radiologist had an emergency which put her behind schedule. So I sat. For hours. I couldn’t rush it. I couldn’t will it to turn out any particular way.
This is where things started to change. With no iPad or phone to distract me from the stubborn immediacy of suffering, I watched as other patients and their families trickled by. You can learn a great deal observing people who help those in need. I watched an elderly man reach across to grab the hand of his frightened wife as she went in for an MRI. I saw a nurse hum a sweet hymn to a man, barely conscious, just returning from surgery. I recalled my own family who sat with me and encouraged me and prayed for me and cheered me on.
When something kicks you squarely in the nuts, it alters your vision. Over the next two hours I felt this strange thaw. No matter what the radiologist discovered, that’s where I was. And I would deal with it. And I would be grateful for it.
The short version is that my sutures were in place but I had to go back to the hospital a few days later to treat a second round of sepsis and pneumonia. It was rough. But by then I was busy recalibrating my attitude.
I realize now this had to happen to me to bring me to this place and I’m glad it did. The manner is unfortunate, but I’ve never been much for subtle hints or signs or nudges.
The older I get, the harder it is for me to deny that life is just one big crap shoot. Some fucking nut job slays 17 people on a sunny spring afternoon. Cancer kills an eleven year old. A young mom dies in childbirth. It’s hard not to be cynical. So I had to face it head on to get my arms tentatively, uneasily around it. So, what is “it” exactly?
I suppose it is the realization that the beauty of life might just be its fragility.
Sure there are people engaged in horrible battles. But isn’t that where we find the most exquisite humanity? They’re inseparable.
Grief sucks, to be sure. And while it’s cathartic and gut wrenching it’s also beautiful and cleansing. It strips away the bad parts of the world. The cynicism and the anger and the hate. It reminds us of our overwhelming capacity to love and to be loved. It’s magic really.
My dad doesn’t know who I am but he still understands laughter and hugs and love- the very things that make us human. He’s in the same place but he wakes up in a new world every day-one that he can’t distinguish from the one he woke up in yesterday.
In a way, we do too, because we never know what is coming our way. Things change in an instant. One day we are in “Poo-ket;” the next we are in “Fuck-it.” Same place. How it’s pronounced is up to you.
The most effective debate strategy is to simply make your opponent defend their position. Over and over. Every 4 year old knows how it’s done. Ask why. Ask how. Ask what. Be disciplined and relentless in this approach. People’s opinions are usually a mile wide and an inch deep. They fall apart after their talking points are exhausted. You can often win an argument just by making your opponent back up his beliefs. This strategy will also require you to question and test your own beliefs. Do they hold up?
2. Be scrupulously honest.
This may sound quaint but the truth still matters. Most people know when they are being lied to. Some may swallow it for awhile, some may look the other way for the sake of expediency and some may not care at all. But for most people it makes a difference. And if you lose your credibility on an issue, you are finished. Maybe not right away. But eventually you’re done. The truth is a long game.
3. Yield on some points.
Give your opponent something to drag back to the cave. If your opponent makes a good point, tell them. It doesn’t mean you have to agree. This may come as a shock to most people, but complex issues often have excellent arguments to be made by both sides. That’s why they are so intractable. This recognition can help ratchet down the emotion and lead to reasonable discourse.
4. Ignore ignorance.
We all know that guy- the one who is always looking for a fight. You ask him how his weekend went and he starts in with some political diatribe. Then there’s the friend who posts a video on Facebook with a comment like “I’m just going to leave this right here for you libtards!” or “Chew on this you p.o.s. republican knuckle draggers.” (Both are real comments by some of my “friends”).
Ignore these people. They aren’t really part of the debate and never have been. That’s why they’re so angry.
5. Run for office.
Has your slumber under the warm blanket of democracy been disrupted? Well now that you’re awake you might as well do something. Get off your ass. Run for office. Volunteer in a campaign. Be the next American hero. Quit with the excuses. Why you? Because you can. This is still the greatest Country in the world for that reason alone.
6. Turn off the television (Or Twitter or Facebook).
Not because it’s “fake news” but because it’s an endless loop of echoes. You sit in your chamber and surround yourself with programs which only serve to reinforce your own beliefs. Cable new programs are crack for your basest instincts. The talking heads you worship don’t even believe or understand the bullshit they force feed you on a daily basis. It’s not information. It’s entertainment.
7. Make it personal.
This isn’t what you think. I don’t mean for you to call people “trolls” or “dipshits,” even if it’s true. No, this is about the most effective way to argue your point. Find a compelling story about a real person and how his life is impacted by whatever policy you are trying to advocate. Our feeble brains cannot process statistics but we can always remember a story.
8. Stop yelling.
I get it. There are a ton of really pissed off people right now on both sides. Protests and rallies are an important part of our democracy. Those are great places for a bullhorn. But when you go to a town hall meeting or you’re locked in a debate or you’re having a discussion and you shout down your opponent without giving her an opportunity to speak, that’s not effective. It’s rude. It’s like the all caps tweet. It doesn’t elevate your point. It may make you feel better but it just makes you look foolish.
9. Laugh and smile.
If you truly want to disarm your opponent, make them laugh. The most persuasive tool is humor. This is why SNL has been politically relevant for over 40 years. People take politics too seriously.
Another point: When you are engaged in a debate, always smile. This will accomplish one of two things. It will make your opponent lighten up or it will make them angry. Both can be equally effective.
10. Live your life.
Exhale. Go outside. Meet new people. Lighten up. The constant torrent of political bullshit will eat you alive. 99% of what you’re freaking out about doesn’t impact your daily life a single iota anyway. So let it go. Besides, if you’re ratcheted up to boil all the time, you’ll be too exhausted to fight when it really matters.
Good morning folks. I’m very happy to be here today to announce my cabinet selections. They are smooth, luxurious 100% cherry wood- no particle board- and made right here in the…..
(Donald Junior whispers in his ear and hands him a piece of paper)
Oh right. Here is a list and I will now tell you who I have selected to be my secretaries. I don’t know all of these women but rest assured all of them will be beautiful. Because they are secretaries. And I only hire beautiful secretaries, believe me. I am told that some of them may be men so I think it’s very clear that I do support the LGBT community. I mean a male secretary is probably gay, right? That’s just what other people are saying.
First, for my Secretary of State I choose Ted Cruz. I know what you’re thinking. “But Donald he said some truly awful things about you.” I know. But it’s Secretary of State. Not States. And the State I choose for him is……New Mexico. Believe me, new Mexicans are even worse than old Mexicans. Then when I build my wall I’ll go around the northern border of New Mexico and Lyin’ Ted will be trapped….in Mexico….where he’s from.
For Secretary of the Treasury-Jack Sparrow. Have you seen the treasure this guy finds? We could probably wipe out half the Obama deficit with just the stuff he found in Pirates of the Caribbean I.
Next is my Attorney General. Ladies and gentlemen it’s not easy finding an attorney who is also a general. Most attorneys are pussies, am I right? I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. Cap’n Crunch. I’m going to promote him to General and give him a bar card. He will be tremendous. #bigly
Secretary of the Interior will be Ivanka. She already has her own line of home furnishings. It’s all gold and very luxurious. She’s very hands on too. You should watch her hang curtain rods. What an ass. And by the way, my Mar Largo gardener, Jose, will be Secretary of the Exterior. But he has to stay outside.
My Secretary of Agriculture will be Jolly Green Giant. I mean, have you seen this guy? He’s huge. I frankly can’t believe I am the first President smart enough to choose Mr. Giant. He’s been around for years. Eats nothing but vegetables and look at him. Great guy. And he’s said very nice things about me.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Are you serious? This department is so obsolete it’s not even funny. If you don’t already have a house by now with these low interest rates, you’re a loser. But there aren’t enough people buying second homes. So I am changing it to Secretary of Vacation Housing because I believe every American should be able to realize the dream of second home ownership. Or at least a time share.
And I’m going to privatize the Urban Development part. It’s going to be known as Trump Urban Development or TURD for short.
My Secretary of Transportation is going to be that guy who owns Uber. Come on. #nobrainer
Secretary of (High) Energy. By the way, if I had to choose a secretary of low energy do you know who I would choose? You got it. Jeb!
But my administration is all about high energy so I choose….you’re seriously going to love this …..Tasmanian Devil. Have you seen this guy? He’s nothing but energy. And it’s a win-win. Let’s say Putin decides to invade Tasmania. He is screwed. There’d be no point. We already have their devil. He works for us. You’re welcome.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs. We have to care for the veterans who were smart enough to not get captured or killed. But they did get injured which is not good. And that’s going to cost us a great deal of money. Should they have been smarter about not getting injured? That’s just what some people are saying. You tell me.
Let me think about this one. On second thought you know what? I’m not so sure these Veterans even deserve to have affairs.
Secretary of Homeland Security. I can’t decide. The Rock? Or Jack Bauer? Or that guy from American Gladiators? Or Clint Eastwood? All of them have been very nice to me. So here’s what we are going to do. We are going to have a competition. It will be prime time Thursday on Fox Public Television and hosted by our new Secretary of Education-Willie from Duck Dynasty. It will be huge. Best ratings ever.