Bob’s Big Boy is where I saw my first person die. As if there have been tons, like I served in Iraq or something. We were off 95 on our way to Walden Pond for an overnight high school field trip. Stopped for lunch at the oasis, Bob’s bright smile frozen in red and white checkered plastic. I had just finished eating a burger with fries and a coke, standing at entrance of the restaurant, waiting to get back on the bus, the grease still lingering in my mouth. Balding man, pot belly, sitting in a swivel stool, maybe 63. I saw him fall fast, tipped over like the last bowling pin, a french fry still in his hand. Heart attack, I think, but I wasn’t thinking. I looked at my friend Jon, we had been in CPR class together. How do we start, with a breath or chest compressions? I asked him, frantic, imagining my mouth hovering over the lips of the balding man. I don’t remember. Jon spoke the truth of CPR training, who really does remember? We gawked, immobile for a few more seconds until our bus driver pushed past us, deftly straightened the man, started compressions. Turns out our bus driver used to drive ambulances, witnessed the dying, the dead, dozens of times. Some of my classmates turned away, but we stared until we knew for sure that the man would never stand up again. Lifeless eyes, cold french fries, his plate of food half-eaten.
I remember being in front of the classroom; leg shaking slightly, the sweat was no longer just in my pits, there was a wet ring expanding to the size of a sand dollar, darkening my Arrow shirt. On the board in my handwriting, Violence is the answer. The words simply arranged to spur discussion, debate. We were moving towards studying General Sherman and the Civil War, the scorched earth policy. Weeks later we’d compare Grant to Truman, and the dropping of the A bomb, but I always started with probing student psychology, trying to get kids talking and thinking out loud. Still on one leg, Raymond was also sweating, we were 20 minutes into class, his leg was wobbly. Raymond was the center for the football team; he kept coming to class late, my pleas falling flat. 11th grade, 16, 17 years old, and they were all systemized, stigmatized; I was the face of the public school bureaucracy, handing out tardies. Raymond was a tough, kinesthetic kid; I needed to lose the script. “I bet you put your foot down before me,” I said when he came in late again. I wanted him to do push-ups, but that seemed like a step too far, now we were in this one-foot thing together. “Violence is the answer, if Gandhi got shot, he’s dead, then what?” said Patricia. I hopped over towards Brian who had his hand up. “People talk about peace, but what about us making nukes? Only peace because we might blow someone up,” he said. “How many of you could burn someone’s house down in front of them, watch a child’s teddy bear become smoke, you holding the torch yourself?” I asked. No one said they could do it, they’d almost forgotten about Raymond and me, we were all in the present moment, thinking about destruction’s role in history. “There are no rules in war,” Phil said. “So, if you could, you’d poison the water supply for the entire South? Kill all the toddlers, dogs and horses?” I asked. Phil started to squirm. “No, no, there should be rules against that.” “But why?” I countered. 35 minutes into class and Raymond was puffing, flushed, swaying, about to topple. He finally put his foot down, gave me a grin, and sat down at his desk. My face was dripping sweat, I jumped over, shook his hand, “please don’t be late again.” “I won’t,” he said. I stayed on one foot for the rest of the 55-minute class, the bell rang, they walked out still debating, I heard one of them say, “violence isn’t the answer.”
The squirt of liquid soap mixes with my sweat as I push the hard brush bristles into the shirt’s collar. No breeze in the stuffy backroom of the Virginia cleaners on a July day, just the whir of plastic encased blouses, pressed pants and starched shirts as they creak by me on the ancient conveyor belt. During pauses I catch glimpses of the inked names of lawyers, lobbyists, and members of the FBI on cotton fabric; Gant, Ralph Lauren, Van Heusen, Arrow.
I only break the buttons of the assholes, the ones who shove the shirts at me, their garments reeking of dickness. One snap of the stapler and the circular plastic splits in two.
Danny, anything you find in the pockets under twenty dollars is yours to keep, anything more, we hold onto for two weeks, then we split it 50/50, Mary Lou the manager tells me on my first day.
Jack, Jack, Mary Lou yells out to her elderly white servant of a man. Jack drives the shirts back and forth an hour each way to Richmond to be cleaned off site. Jack will be dead by the end of summer, and to look at his shaking hands and wizen face, his countenance is a walking premonition.
One morning a blind man finds his way to the cleaners, I see him tapping bricks around the door. He dumps a pile of shirts on the counter; they smell like mildew and urine. I count the shirts, feeling moisture, wondering how many times he wore each one until he finally decided they were dirty. Thank you, thank you, he says, tapping outside into the darkness, as I watch him shuffle out.
Garments arrive in jumbled stacks, leave on hangers straight. We all do our part, Mary Lou, Jack, the facility down south, and me.
Most of my friends don’t go to church on Sundays, they go to the pool. I give my family’s member number at the front desk, but everyone knows my sister and me, we’ve been going for years. I quickly pass through the locker room, trying to avoid seeing the ancient hanging testicles of older men drying themselves. Quickly out the door, it appears majestic like Memorial Stadium where the Orioles play. The pool. A thick blue chlorinated backwards L, two connected rectangles filled with the tanned bodies of summer. I look over at the distant grassy area where the high school girls in curvy bikinis are splayed out on towels talking about Guiding Light and General Hospital, listening to Q107 on their transistor radios. The upper area has the baby pool, shallow warm urine-filled liquid where chubby diapered legs splash and play with exhausted parents. I check out the high dive, see if anyone is trying for a can opener or leaping off headfirst. The warped Ping-Pong table is in action, sandpaper paddles hitting the ball from all angles, while onlookers chomp on frozen 3 Musketeers bars. I opt for a jump off the low dive, then get into the sharks and minnows game.
Sun high in the sky, no one is wearing sunscreen, as timeless moments pass at the glistening watery oasis. An hour later, kids compete in relays, dive for quarters, try to dunk lifeguards. The greased watermelon is the grand finale. I see it resting like an oval green buttery pig, on the edge of the high dive board. We all gather around the perimeter, maybe 70 of us, waiting for the oblong sphere to be shoved into the prepubescent abyss. The head lifeguard slowly climbs the ladder allowing the excitement for the time-honored tradition to build. Then with a nudge of his foot the thing is released to gravity with a cannonball splash. We are a kicking thrashing throng, Lord of the Flies, elbows and hands jutting out in all directions, like the start to a sugar-drunk triathlon. I can’t see anything, never wear goggles; I’m in the center of the wet stampede. Then I feel it, hard against my foot, of the earth, not someone’s thigh, the watermelon. I move it gradually, careful to guide it with my feet, barely paddling. Seconds later I heave it up to the side of the pool, hop out, struggle to hold it up, declare victory. A minute passes before everyone realizes the game is over, then they see me with it. A moment of awe, invincible, me, a man among boys.
Walking up the stairs to the exit, I want to think it was my skill, my power, my stellar swimming, but no, just blind luck. Before I leave, I stare at the photo of the 1966 swim team, their taut smooth baby boomer muscles at life’s physical apex. I clutch my watermelon thinking about my dad who went to Vietnam in ’67, shifting the weight from arm to arm, I hope I can carry it all the way home.
I never thought about death, except maybe that one time when I told my sister that it was all darkness, over, done. Like at age 10 I knew what I was talking about. I definitely didn’t think I would almost die under a moose carcass on an empty highway in a blizzard. February 18th 1992, a Tuesday, my friend Patrick wants to celebrate his 19th birthday in Canadia (as we call it) with me and Brandon. The plan is to eat an early dinner, get to the border town of Armstrong by 7pm, drink a couple of beers, head back to Waterville, Maine.
Patrick drives a maroon Honda Accord, the vehicle barely contains his 6’3 frame, 6’4 with his wild curly brown hair. Patrick wears glasses, ran cross-country at St. Andrew’s (where Dead Poets Society was filmed), and wants to travel around the world when he graduates from college. Brandon is from the Chicago area, likes to imitate his favorite rappers, has the quick intelligence of a stand-up comic. We get in the car as Patrick cranks up “More Than a Feeling” by Boston.
We arrive at the Canadian border around 7:30pm. What is the purpose of your trip? The officer asks. We are just going to Armstrong to have a beer, then come right back to Maine. Patrick replies. How much money do you have? We are questioned. Brandon gives the officer a shit-eating grin. Sir, we have $30 and one condom. In our pre-9/11 world, this is met with a smile. You boys aren’t going to find beers in Armstrong, that place only has lumber, no bars, you’ll need to go to Saint-Georges.
Crossing into Canada the landscape changes, darkness still encompasses, but fewer trees block the cold night sky. About an hour later we manage to get off the highway and find a bar in Saint-Georges. The place is all beards, flannel shirts, loud French voices, and cigarette smoke. We order some Molsons. The longhaired band looks like a cross between Poison and ZZ-Top. They play covers of “Enter Sandman” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in Québécoise. We shoot some pool; sing “O Canada” (it has the same tune as “Hail, Colby, Hail” our college song) to a couple women who find us amusing, then decide we need to go before it gets too late.
The lonely midnight air outside the bar is a sideways torrent of cascading snow, huge fast-falling flakes. There are three inches on the ground already. We could have been smart, used Patrick’s credit card, found a room somewhere. I’ve got Spanish at 8:30am tomorrow. I say. Yeah, we’ve got to get back tonight. Patrick adds.
Decision made, we set out to drive the 135 miles through mostly barren wilderness in a thick white storm, without snow tires or four-wheel drive. Pulling onto the highway Patrick is tense, I glance at him as he grips the wheel like a seven-year old on a roller coaster. The road is empty; we are the only dumb asses driving to Maine at 12am on a Tuesday night. Somehow we make it back into the U.S., the tires are dragging but the pavement is mostly still under us. Near Jackman the car begins to feel like a big snowball with headlights, the storm has absorbed us as we swerve through five inches of unplowed quicksand.
By 2am we are driving in the middle of the vacant two lane highway. Looking out my snow-caked shotgun window I see only pitch black. Out front billowing tufts of mesmerizing pale powder reflect our lights with a visibility of maybe eight feet, as we putter along at 35 mph. Patrick is fiddling with the AM stations when I see a large brown figure just before hearing the left part of our bumper hit the Moose’s back right leg. It’s a Moose, It’s a Moose, It’s a Moose, Patrick yells with more excitement than terror. The moose turns it’s head with a surprised dejected look, then like an animal ghost, trots into the wispy shadows. Had we been going a little faster, we would have hit the legs dead on like bowling pins, 800 pounds of toppling weight hypothermically crushing us. Patrick’s initial National Geographic moment quickly wears off. We need to get off the road, get a motel room. He says in a panic. Patrick is agitated, but there is nowhere to exit, we must continue south. I’m turning off the lights, we can see better without them. He says. I don’t believe him, but Patrick’s right, we can see the sides of the highway and the pure white for about 15 feet. As we slow to 25 mph, the thought never crosses my mind that hitting two moose in one night is almost statistically impossible, we are all beyond shaken.
2:30am and we are a sleigh, we are Santa, we are pioneers, completely alone immersed in the silent fluttering of a frozen sky surrounded by drooping pine trees. As we get closer to Waterville, the flakes become flurries, then rain, then nothing. Just 30 minutes earlier we were on the surface of the moon, in arctic wilderness hitting a large wild beast, now passing Skowhegan, we read signs; see the double yellow line again. As if out of a surreal dream we arrive back onto the sleeping campus. 4:30am my head hits the pillow; I imagine the moose trodding through tufts of snowdrift, the memory of us already forgotten.
Maybe you want to take photos of the paintings to show Liz, see if she might like them, my mom says, as we walk on worn wooden floorboards. The house smells old, slightly musty from the never opened windows, old like the Chickering grand piano that sits in the living room. We can’t even give it away, my mom says. It is from 1910 and apparently has an affliction that no piano doctor can cure, age.
I go into the basement where I used to play Ping-Pong, lift weights, hit the heavy bag. Only the netless table remains, labeled boxes piled on top. I see my name on some, peer inside to find yearbooks, faded inscriptions urging me to have a great summer, get laid, get psyched for high school. I look through old photo albums, take out my iPhone, snap shots of me with bangs, wearing polo shirts, my dad on a Honda motorcycle, send them to my wife. Cute, she texts back.
At night I tuck my son into bed, where he sleeps in my old room. My desk is gone, the mirror where I adjusted ties, gone, the wallpaper where I scribbled a girlfriend’s name, stripped off long ago.
Outside I amble along with the robins, squirrels, and chipmunks, everything so green and quiet compared to San Francisco’s flamboyant tech-savvy noise. Anonymous, I walk like an old man past young families, past houses where I used to eat ice cream, where I watched the Redskins on TVs with antennas, where I threw water balloons. Summer sun, the light is the same, the humidity, nothing has changed, I’m strolling through 1986.
Then I look across the street, stare at Howard and Dorothy’s former house where I used to rake leaves, both dead for years, my parents tell me. Back inside, my son is excited, shows me the time machine that he is building. I give him a kiss, I love it, I say.
I’m on planet 3-inch mattress crashing in an East Village studio apartment with my old high school friend Patrick.
Two months earlier it was Granada, Spain with Elena. She, on a continual cosmic wander, a quest to see what was beyond the flamenco caves a mile past the Alhambra where the gypsies lived. She took me there and I danced, clapped like a gringo, heard the guitar, for fleeting minutes felt Moorish. Restless with the colder weather, my years of autumn instinct gnawed and probed, told me it is over, that her steps were not mine. Some tears, a bus ride to Madrid, a day at the Prado, then I left.
Here now, walking by a phone booth on Avenue A, I want to call, but she doesn’t have a number and I’m broke anyway. The cross-continental breakup is final, no email, no texting, no Skype, no looking back.
New York City is a whirlwind, my life like jazz, a cacophony of busy denizens intently darting fro and to. Frenetic taxicabs, the smell of pizza on every corner, the never-ending screeching of the subway. For six months I do it all, intern at Human Rights Watch, book bands, date an actress, write for a community newspaper, and bartend near NYU. I dabble in poetry and poverty sleeping on the floor in the East Village, then a few months on a futon in an apartment on West 4th Street near 6th Avenue. I never pay rent, make enough money to eat on $12 a day. I work at two bookstores, the first, Barnes & Noble at Astor Place, the second, Rizzoli in Soho.
Five days until Christmas 1995 and I’m holding a tray of hard candies standing at the entrance of Barnes and Noble. I feel like Judge Reinhold’s character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but without the pirate hat. Recent college grad from an elite northeastern school, with a phony smile and wrinkled khakis. The urbane customers wear scarves, leather jackets, sweaters with reindeer, most ignore me. I prefer shelving books, hidden in the poetry section, where I can find Marianne Moore for an NYU coed. But they hired me for the holiday season, so I’m standing here, an exposed, breathing ornament, placed at the front of the store.
A couple days earlier they had me doing bag check. Better than candy, I got to sit. Men and women handed me their Jansport backpacks and Esprit tote bags, I passed them a plastic number. A middle-aged man gave me his backpack, he was maybe fifty, George Costanza bald, with a red Polo jacket and matching Polo glasses. “Give me that back,” he said to me with a sneer. I handed over his bag and he removed his wallet, looked at me directly, “you people are the thieves.”
Three days before Christmas and I’m the candyman again, grinning like a dope, when I see her, the actress, Claire Danes. Her hand reaches out for a piece of the crinkly wrapped candy, she knows I recognize her, knows I’m a writer, an artist, like her. She smiles, I smile. Then she walks away, leaving me alone with my peppermints, listening to the instrumental version of Last Christmas by Wham.
Ecuador is adobe bricks, hardened mud homes, no electricity, the smell of burning trash and chicken soup with feathers floating in the bowl.
My partner Scott and I sleep on cots, plant trees, dig latrine holes, smoke Lark cigarettes at night to pass the time. Scott rows crew for Andover, is tall with dirty blonde hair, has an intensity for work that I lack. We stay with Don Emiliano and his wife Lucia and their children Rosa, Hilda, Aurora, Armando and Alberto. Don Emiliano, part Quechan, is about five-foot three, kind, hard-working and dark-skinned. He has a forearm that juts out unnaturally; it had been broken and never properly reset. Before we finished our family’s latrine, we took dumps in our designated locations in the cornfield a few dozen yards from the house. Scott went to shit row, I went to shit haven. We both kicked the chickens to get them to quit following us, but inevitably they still ended up eating our liquidy crap, then days later we would eat them.
We saw things die in Ecuador, two dogs from poison, and a woman. We didn’t actually see the woman die, but we ate greasy rice and eggs sitting next to her dead body. The Garcia family kept her lying on the wood table for a few days to let people pay their respects before burial. It should have freaked me out more, but it actually seemed normal, her rigid body, lightly draped by a see through veil. I could have reached out, touched her closed eyes. She was dead, but at the dinner table, a physical reminder of how it ends for all of us. I would stare at the outline of her face while shoveling forkfuls of the inedible rice into the grease-stained pockets of my red windbreaker. I appreciated the food, but couldn’t stomach it; I dumped it out later for the chickens.
When we aren’t working, we play soccer games with the kids, teach them baseball with a bamboo bat and a taped up rock ball. We are in Ecuador to combat poverty, disease, flies landing on poo, spreading typhoid, cholera, dysentery. We build makeshift bathrooms, plant fruit trees, the villagers rotate as hosts, take turns feeding us. Maria Lopez and her husband Juan live the farthest away, maybe a mile and a half from Don Emiliano’s place. Juan makes guarapo for a living, a moonshine-like concoction made from fermented sugar cane. He just calls it traiga. We trudge up the single file trail that hugs a mountain on our way to the Lopez house, our skinny bodies weak from diarrhea and eating too much yucca and rice. Far above the path, precarious steep grazing pastures, where Don Emiliano’s milk cows roam. Dirt trail, kicking the toes of my Merrell boots, long views of mountain ranges in the distance.
Suddenly above us we hear a sound like Chewbacca, a cacophonous squeal-like moan. I never thought I’d be killed by a 1500-pound cow, but looking up all I see are udders, hooves, and blue sky. I squat like a football player doing a drill, like a soccer goalie guessing on a penalty kick. Moving to my right a few feet puts me off the mountain, a two hundred-foot fall. I’m frozen in time, three seconds, the fear doesn’t hit before I see the black and white shoulder smash against the ground first, legs, ass, and tail tumbling after. Writhing, it tries to get up, but only the head moves upward, body pinned, broken. Screaming now, high-pitched pain, a fellow mammal suffering, dying. I find a large rock, more like a big brown cube, maybe 25 pounds, awkward to hold, it makes my wrists ache. Afraid to walk directly over and bludgeon the poor creature, I take aim like a two-armed shot putter, heave the mini-boulder at the head, and miss. Less than a minute later the death knell ceases, only the silence of blood trickling from the cow’s nostrils.
Scott runs off to tell our family, several minutes later Don Emiliano returns to skin the cow. I want to help but don’t know how, the incision opens the cow up, lets the heat of stench out, a sauna of smells, guts, milk, blood, excrement. Poor cow, Don Emiliano says in Spanish. It was worth much more alive. I don’t know how many more cows he owns, but the whole family looks gloomy, almost ready to cry. Before walking back to the house, I look at the ground, red and white rivulets, blood and milk, mixed on the ground, like death and life commingled. Later, Don Emiliano butchers the cow, hangs a huge hunk in front of our light bulb-less room. They sell some of the meat, start eating the rest.
That night I get up in the pitch black to pee, my face smacks into the bloody thigh, I feel it dripping down my forehead. No fridge, no plastic wrap, no USDA Choice, no ground beef, just the taste of flesh on my lips.
We’re in the Volvo on highway 101 heading to Calistoga, Napa Valley, wine country. The radio and Supertramp have just saved me from his questions. Where do horses come from? Where do cows come from? Where do people come from? My 6-year old son asks. I try to explain evolution. I was a monkey? He wants to know. En route to some easy hiking, then dinner, Indian Springs and their 95-degree thermal pool. We pass acre after acre of grapevines, wineries, and restaurants. Napa, my old adult playground, the place where I was wed. Schramsberg champagne, Storybook zins, the Sterling vineyard aerial tram, the Epcot Center of imbibing.
We hit the trail, balance from rock to rock, avoid the mud. I’m a rock-jumping expert. He says. After the hike, dinner is his favorite, pizza. I drink sparkling water, he has an apple juice. Back at Indian Springs, it is cold with drizzle, I put on a white robe, he throws on his LL Bean fleece, we head to the pool for a night swim. What is that smoke? He asks, staring at the steam. The water is the kind of hot that makes synapses disconnect, that turns a wine buzz into an outer body experience. My son doesn’t know how to swim; we play fight with pool noodles in the shallow end.
I see her tiny feet pitter-pattering by the side of the pool; she looks like a doll with moving legs, her mother is busy with another little girl several yards away. My son and I are the only people in the pool. Out of the corner of my eye I look at the toddler again, maybe thirty feet from us, her body is doing a back dive, head entering the water first. Minutes later I will remember Tim O’Brien’s words from The Things They Carried, just flat fuck fell, describing a guy after he got shot in Vietnam. The little girl was like that, graceful gravity, then submerged. NO, NO, NO, I yell, high hurdling through the foggy water. I get to her seconds after the splash, turn her upright, she’s coughing, spitting up water. The mom hears my shouting, runs from the other side of the pool. She’s been walking by the pool all day, she never came close to the edge, she says. Is that wine on her breath? I wonder. That was an emergency, says my son, barely able to comprehend what just happened. Back in our room I find myself guessing how many minutes the little girl would have been hidden, silent under the water, before her mother figured it out.
I never interviewed for the legal assistant job, some poor suckers probably did, not me, my Uncle Aaron just hooked me up. In retrospect they should have paid people just to apply. I had two ties, one sport jacket, and a fear of being captured by the man, the capitalist system. My dad was an attorney, my uncle was an attorney, I was afraid that the law might get me too. Sunday night before my first day at the firm I announced that I would slumber outside of my aunt and uncle’s house. I lay my sleeping bag out on the Mill Valley deck, smelling the eucalyptus trees, feeling the presence of Mount Tam seeping into my being. I was looking for strength, for answers, for last breaths of freedom before joining The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.
The next morning starts out ok. My uncle and I take the ferry across the bay to the Embarcaderos, sunshine, gulls, lapping water. I try to ignore the suits, the newspapers, the paisley tie that I’m wearing. I don’t feel like I’m on the conveyer belt until we’re in the elevator surrounded by steel and little blinking lights, everyone staring down at their shoes. We get out at the 22nd floor. My uncle briefly introduces me to Harold, then is gone. Harold is a middle-aged, middle management man, sweater vest, navy blue tie, haggard, balding. Once upon a time he probably had lawyer dreams, but now he is king of the paralegals. These boxes all contain documents that need to be labeled. At any point you will be asked to discontinue one box and start another. We go to trial in late November, you will be working overtime, you will be working weekends, any questions? His coffee breath fills the small room that is packed with cardboard boxes and file cabinets. My mind starts alternating between Full Metal Jacket, You will not laugh, you will not cry, and A-B-C, always be closing, from Glengarry Glen Ross. After Harold leaves, I meekly ask some of the other slugs what I’m supposed to do. This guy with Buddy Holly glasses takes his headphones off and tries to explain the process of labeling documents, as I watch his pale face almost quiver. Why are you doing this? I finally ask. I’m applying to law school. If I do this for a year it will help me get in. It turns out everyone in the room is in the pipeline. I just sit there for an hour ruffling papers, contemplating the four windowless walls. I know I might go out one day, but I wasn’t going out like this, whimpering to myself, nursing my daily paper cuts.
No, I have one of the great moments of clarity that we sometimes only appreciate after the fact, but I celebrate it right then and there. I get up and leave. I enter my uncle’s corner office on the 23rd floor. I’ve got some good news and some bad news. My uncle looks at me with the quizzical countenance of someone who is trying to act more serious than he actually feels; I think he knows what’s coming. The good news is that I’m getting dim sum for lunch. The bad news is that I’m not coming back. My uncle proceeds to say all the right things about me letting him down, and how I blew this opportunity, but days later I heard that he was bragging about me. All the law firm partners knew that I had escaped being a shield boy; Aaron’s nephew wasn’t going to take it up the butt.