Christmas Broke

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 would have sold Will to human traffickers without batting an eye. To this day I shudder to think how easily this could have been arranged if Tommy had offered even a minuscule percentage my way.

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?”

“Um…well..actually..”

“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?”

“Tomorrow.”

“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.”

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 hourly wage was the bare minimum-$2.90 per hour.

Pretty soon Ron Arnot burst through the door. Arnot was a former assistant baseball coach at a local high school. He was asked to leave after some ‘irregularities’ 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.”

“Wh…what?”

“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 too?”

“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.”

“Really?”

“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.

“Hey Lisa”

“Oh hi.”

“I heard about you and Rod.”

“Heard what?”

“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.

“Merry Christmas.”

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 million dollars.”

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Hands to Clasp

grinch2I love the Grinch. After all, I’m a lawyer.

No, I don’t love him because of the heartwarming way he teaches us all the true meaning of Christmas. In fact I turn off the last 5 minutes of the show, just around the time he has gathered his booty and starts to make his way back up the mountain.

I love him because of his ruthlessness. I imagine the Whos are probably way behind on their house payment or sitting around collecting welfare checks. The evidence is everywhere. They live in a ring of houses, surrounded by beautiful mountains with no visible means of economic support. No factories, no office buildings. Yet somehow they are able to give their kids gar ginkers AND tar tinkers for Christmas. Yeah right.

My cynicism has probably had a deleterious effect on my kids. One Christmas when my son was about 7 years old, he and I joined a group from our church to go caroling to the “shut-ins”. He kept calling them the “shut-ups” and when we sang “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” his version went:

“Now bring us some friggin’ pudding, now bring us some friggin’ pudding, now bring us some friggin’ pudding and BRING SOME RIGHT NOW!!!”

The last four words were sung with a particularly disturbing gusto.

The only Christmas spirit I usually allow myself is to daydream about golden days of legal yore. A time when one could troll the ancient yuletide carol. 

I imagine what it would be like to represent nine ladies dancing against ten lords a leaping for equal pay and benefits. And don’t even get me started on the eight maids a milking in the “me too” era. 

I’d give my left chestnut to have been the lawyer for one of the three wise men, the one with the gold.

Then my legal assistant threw a curve ball. She suggested our office sponsor a family through the Christmas Connection. I frequently tune her out so she mistook my grunt and nod for acquiescence.  Then she called to make arrangements. 

They were out of families. Thank goodness. At least we tried. 

She started to hang up when she heard footsteps approach the lady on the other end of the line. “Oh wait”, the lady said. “Here’s a new one.”

This family’s house burned to the ground the day before Thanksgiving. Now they have an extended family of 19 living in a 3 bedroom apartment. And one of them delivered a baby on Thanksgiving Day. The list they prepared had one request: Everything.

“Of course” I muttered to my cynical self. But this seemed like a rather audacious request even by the lowly standards of the greediest welfare frauds. 

While I busily prepared collection letters, my employees contacted the family and went shopping. They threw themselves into the project with enthusiasm and selflessness. They bought food, blankets, baby clothes, diapers, wipes, toys, even a Christmas tree. On Tuesday they went to drop off the gifts. All I had to do was write the check.

When they returned, my legal assistant told me that I misunderstood what they meant by “everything.” They did not have anything. 

Their newborn did not have a crib. She had been sleeping in a broken car seat. When the grandmother saw a sack of bath towels she clutched one to her chest and started to bawl. 

A bath towel.

“So they weren’t drinking beer they bought with my tax dollar?”

“And they weren’t wearing fancy jerseys and dressed up like a baller?”

“Did they try to hide their iPhones and pretend they didn’t holler?” I asked in my best Dr. Seuss verse.

No. None of that. They just cried. And smiled. And thanked everyone. And retreated to their corner of the world where they will rely on faith-and each other- to make it through.

But I don’t want you to think it’s all sugar plum fairies and candy canes over here. Next week I’m meeting with a Who about an injury she suffered from a defective jing tingler. 

And the Grinch is coming by to see me. His insurance company dropped him because of an enlarged heart. I’ve heard that can be a hazardous condition.

Junk Bonds

flea

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?”

“Twenty bucks.”

“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.

“Guess.”

“A dollar.”

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 much?”

“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.

Eff It

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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?

Also, no.

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.

So sexy.

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.

 

 

Flow Master

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(This is not me)

River has been a caddy at Augusta National for 60 years. He started when he was 16 years old. He has caddied for President Dwight Eisenhower, John Elway, Peyton Manning, Gary Player…and me.

Well, not just me exactly. He’s a part timer now and was assisting guest golfers during Hospitality Week, which I was able to attend at the invitation of my sainted brother Tom.

“Nice to meet you River. First time I’ve ever met someone named River.”

“It’s my nickname” said River proudly through five teeth.

“What’s the back story?”

“I just flow.”

Here was a nice man in his seventies who is enjoying his semi-retirement. Someday, perhaps, I’ll flow as well, I thought.

Today would not be that day. I’ve never really been one to flow. I’m more of a lurch forward, suddenly stop, reconsider, double back, start over kind of guy.

And did I mention I was about to play Augusta National? I know, I know, it’s a bit unbearable.
Nonetheless, River offered some soon-to-be-unheeded advice.

“Just remember, you ain’t got no power over this course. Take it as it comes. Glide. You know. Flow.”

“Um. Okay. Thanks a lot River.”

“You about to play heaven.”

Suddenly it dawned on me. God didn’t want me to play. That explains my harrowing ordeal the day before. When I boarded my plane in Dallas, I was seated next to a Kenny Chesney looking fellow in an Affliction T-shirt who had smuggled a carton of Chili’s honey-chipotle, buffalo fried, southwestern chicken egg rolls onto the plane. I’ve never quite understood the context of a t-shirt that reads “Affliction” but about thirty minutes after his meal, found it to be a warning of sorts.

God then diverted my plane from Charlotte to Nashville and I missed my connection to Augusta so we drove through a torrential hailstorm to arrive at 11:30 the night before. Never one to be outdone where I am concerned, the devil dutifully delivered my clubs to the Augusta airport at midnight. We caught a scant 4 hours of sleep before heading to the course.

I woke up without a hint of fatigue. I knew right then it was going to be one of those days that no matter how much you tried to slow it down, you felt as though you were living in fast forward. I figured I was only going to come this way once in my life……so I might as well be as obnoxious as possible.

“Good morning!” I said to my first human encounter. “I’ve got a big day ahead of me….you know…playing Augusta National….”

“That’s nice…just order when you’re ready” came the reply from the drive-thru lady at Chick Fil A.

I was in fine mettle, but still, I was wary. You see, I’ve never really fit in with the “grip it and rip it, get up, get down, turn, fade, sit, hit it Alice” crowd. They’re able to compensate for their lame banter with 300 yard drives. When my lame banter runs dry, I am, as my dad used to call me on and off the course, a “short-knocker.”

Driving down Berckman’s Road I steeled myself for a heavy dose of pretentious prickness. But when we arrived at Gate 2 of Augusta National at 6:30 am, we were met by absolutely, top to bottom, the kindest, most accommodating people on the planet.

When you sit at the pinnacle of the golf world, you don’t have to try to be something you’re not. You know who you are. So you just…..flow.

We were paired with Andrew and Brent. These guys looked, and played, like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. They walked to the first tee and promptly smoked drives right down the pipe.

I gave the starter my name and he scanned a lengthy list of potential Augusta invitees that probably read:

1. Bobby Jones
2. Jack Nicklaus

2765: The ghost of Sam Snead

37,424: The Choctaw Indian Casino long drive champion

177,289: AJ from Backstreet Boys

741,883: Jared Fogle from Subway

741,884: Tim Hoch

I know what you’re thinking. Why does he get to play Augusta? I could kick Tim Hoch’s ass in golf, Mah Jong, beer pong, calculus and backgammon, all at the same time. And you would probably be right.

But tough shit. I don’t make the rules. This was my turn. Besides, Sandra Bullock never even acknowledged my Twitter DM after she broke up with Jesse James, so don’t tell me about getting snubbed. Get over it.

The starter politely motioned me forward and I felt as though I was on the verge of perpetrating the largest sporting fraud since Shoeless Joe. There are some sports pairs that do not go together. Art Briles and ethics. Jerry Jones and humility. My golf game and Augusta National.

I had been anticipating this moment with equal parts excitement and fear for weeks. Now I was just consumed with dread.

My pre-shot thought process kicked in. Head still. Eye on the ball. I wonder if Big Foot is still alive. Wide swing plane. Kiss your left shoulder. Tuck your right elbow. Did I lock the rental car? Left arm straight. Turn over your wrists. Why do some people refer to it as a mute point instead of a moot point? Keep your head down. Finish high.

Then it hit me. Just flow. Hit the ball. Then walk to wherever it landed and do it again. Good or bad. Either way, deal with it.

And that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t lose my first ball until the 16th hole. I took in the azaleas, the blue skies, my newly formed camaraderies. I confirmed that Rae’s creek is not replenished every April with Paulina Gretzky’s recycled bath water (but I took a sip just in case). I stopped and smelled the pine straw which miraculously restored the olfactory nerves that had been burned by the Chili’s egg rolls.

When I finished, I ran in to River again.

“How was it?” he asked.

“No words. Didn’t play too great but…”

“Good. Good. Don’t matter how you played. Did you find your flow?”

I smiled.

“I did. I found my flow.”

A Letter To Every Dad Out There

bpOne of my best friends, Bryan Pennebaker, passed away unexpectedly on February 15. He left behind his beautiful wife and three children. One of his daughters, Kate, wrote the following and it is so wonderful I thought I would share it with you.

Note: I am 26 years old and my dad suddenly passed away from a heart attack on February 15th, 2017. He left behind three children and a wife who is currently battling Stage 4 cancer. Despite these facts, we are all going to be OK because he was an amazing father. I want to share some things with other dads out there so their children can feel the peace and love that I have, despite my fathers’ sudden passing from this earth.

Dear Dads

Tell your kids you love them. Every day. Even when you might not “like” them.

Tell them how proud you are of their accomplishments. Every day. Even when they might not have accomplished THAT much.

Hug them. Kiss them.

Coach their teams. At least once. If you aren’t a coach, show up to every single game, spelling bee, parent-teacher conference. Time is the biggest gift you have so give it to your family, even when work seems more important. I promise you, it isn’t.

Utilize tough love. Your job isn’t to make your kids happy every minute of every day. Your job is to teach them right from wrong, set high standards for what they need to accomplish, and perhaps instill a little fear in them. That fear is a good thing. I promise.

Love your wife openly. Hug her. Kiss her. Tell her you love her in front of your children. They might be “grossed out” but at the end of the day they will be happy to see that their parents are in love and that their father respects and cherishes their mother. This is important.

Valentine’s day isn’t just for your wife. Write your kids a note, give them a little present. They will always remember being their fathers Valentine.

Don’t be afraid to show your children that you are human. They want to know about your childhood, your experiences, your stance on current events, and even hear your bad jokes. In order for your kids to feel close to you, they need to feel like they truly know you. So, go ahead and let the wall down. Share things.

Plan for the future. If you are in the financial position, plan to pay for college and weddings and other life events. Money is by no means “everything” but it is an act of love to sacrifice your OWN purchases for the betterment of your children’s future. Set a good example by saving.

Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Plan family vacations. Whether it is the Grand Canyon, Hawaii, or a tent in your backyard — take you’re your children somewhere special. They will always cherish those memories.

One day your children will become “adults.” They will still need you just as much. Don’t forget that.

Take care of your health. Get check-ups. Listen to your body if something feels wrong. Most men avoid the doctor like the plague but take your health seriously. Others are depending on you.

Give everyone the respect and kindness that they deserve. Your kids will notice that you treat the mailman, the lady that cuts your hair, and your best friend all the same.

Tell your children, from the time that they can walk, that the world is theirs for the taking. Remind them that with hard work, discipline, and a little bit of luck, they can accomplish anything that they set their mind to.

In life, everyone searches for their “purpose” and wants to know how they can make their mark on the world. As a father, you can be a hero, a confidant, an advisor, and a friend. The gravity of your potential impact may not sink in, but I am telling you now, that a good father was the best thing that ever happened to my life. Don’t miss the opportunity to make your mark.

10 Ways to Survive (and Win) at Politics in 2017

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1. Question everything.

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.