The Viewing

I never liked this tie.

I must admit, I’m sure I’ve looked better in my life, but my life ended three days ago. I have no say in how my family and the mortician presented me for final inspection by whoever is coming to, at best, say goodbye to me and console my family and, at worst, see if I managed to leave a decent looking corpse.

True, it’s only 6:00 PM, but I expected a bigger crowd. Maybe it’s the weather, rush hour traffic or extended happy hour prices or something. Denise and I were always early arrivers at the wakes we had to attend. Even for the schmucks who couldn’t die soon enough for my tastes.

Ooh, there’s old Fred Howser. Wow, Fred, time to put down the beer and Doritos. There’s room for only one in this box, buddy, and I have the lease until The Rapture. Take care of yourself and moderate some, pal. The world needs more happy drunks like you, not dead ones like me.

Uh oh, here comes a coven of ladies from the old job. Jesus, what the hell are Diane and Sally doing with Elaine and Joanie? I never got any warm vibe from them. Wish I could sit up just a little to hear what they’re saying. I was afraid of this. I’d hoped for some sort of omniscient point of view deal when I tripped on that rainbow. What fun is watching your own wake when you can’t hear what the all the people are saying about you? If I could breathe, I’d be sighing now.

The kids look pretty busted up. I guess the dead can feel guilt, even though your balance sheet for the afterlife is closed. But damn, seeing them cry like that makes me feel good as much as it makes me feel sad. Wish I had been a better Dad. I know I can’t go back to make it right, and that I was a good Dad for the most part. When you’re lying here, you’ve nothing but time to figure out when and how you could have done better. Maybe this is what they really mean when they talk about Purgatory. No fire, no pitchforks, just your soul and time to think about your shortcomings.

Oh no, here she comes. I guess Purgatory is a timeout to think about your sins, even the almosts, too.

Been a while, but she looks pretty good, at least to these closed eyes. But then I always had closed eyes for her, from the first time I saw her. She had all that crazy curly hair, angry victimhood, fierce intelligence in a man’s world and some spark that lit a flame in me I didn’t know I had. She was my red ink, my fall from grace, my weakness in the face of vows, honor and duty. Boy, was I stupid, but boy did I love her.

Okay, Rose, Joe, Jake, Marylou and Bobby, move it along. Nothing to see here but the husk of the entertainer. No more yuks, except for the fact Denise made the mortician put this tie on me. Oh, well. If it makes Denise happy. I owe her that.

Shit, now Teresa’s right there above me. Wow, real tears. I remember how I joked that when I died I expected her to get a gussied up for my wake and then throw herself across my body, shuddering in wracking sobs. Damn, she did wear a dress. If she throws herself atop me now that I’m dead, I’ll be so pissed. No, she’s kissing her fingers and touching my cheek. Well, I’ll be damned. Perhaps. Probably.

Well, last call, I guess. Funny how time moves when you’re not counting it anymore. Bounces around and then you can sit somewhere in the past for who knows how long. There was that bender in ’78 that was like that. I guess I’ll get used to it.

Hi, Denise. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to support you tonight. It really is all I’ve ever wanted to do. You’ve been my rock, my touchstone, my soul mate, my savior. Don’t know how you can look at me with such pride. You finally got me sober and some drunk plows into me. Sorry I never made it home with your ice cream. This time I remembered—peanut butter crunch.

Aww, man, please don’t cry like that. I don’t really hate this tie. Don’t lay your head on my chest. I don’t deserve…I’ve been a total drunken fuck up…I… Wait, what’s she saying? Damn it, why can’t I hear her? There’s that crooked grin I fell in love with 45 years ago. That’s it, honey. Straighten this cool tie.

Please don’t drop the lid, dude. Denise, I don’t know if we’ll ever be together, you know, on the other side, but if your face is the last thing I’ll ever see before…

I guess that’ll have to do for this eternity.

I wrote this piece in a rush and no doubt sparingly so it would fit within the parameters of my friend Dan Mader’s every-Friday feature 2MinutesGo over on his site, Unemployed Imagination. Since I went away for a week without access to a computer nor my iPad, my writing muscles got pretty flabby fast. So if this looks like I think it does, realize that it’s an exercise to get back in writing shape. In the my case , though, I just choose to exercise here in the equivalent of a picture window…wearing a Speedo.

Hesperides in Gold Leaf

During summers on the lake,
I’d leave the family back
at the trailer after dinner—
because I was a big kid now,
almost 12—and walk to the beach.
The sun would be sagging
in its evening ease, casting
golden flakes upon the chop.
Over the next hour they’d melt
into orange, purple and red
slicks upon the quieting surface,
like a lake-wide gasoline slick
from some grand mahogany runabout
christened Hesperides in gold leaf
on her stern. The sun sinking behind
the pines gave the sky a black eye,
and I’d skip a stone along the surface
to shatter the image of the moon
in the southeast corner of this mirror
of my youth called Snyder’s Lake.
Tonight, as I watched alone the sunset
behind the pines back of my house,
the memory of that bruised sky
hit me in the eye. Must have been
a speck of dust, too, because
I’m a big guy now, almost 65,
and why else would I get teary?

Ramble Tamble #1

When you’re in the middle of it, living and learning, learning about living, living as a means of learning, you don’t notice how you might be different from (or the same as) some guys across the ocean or across the room. You don’t notice much about anything but what’s inside the three inches of air surrounding your body.

They are Them, There, Then. You are You, Here, Now. Context is but a ghost, barely a specter of a concept through which you  your place in a wider world. You accept ideas, tenets, the virtual castle walls within which you secure your position as the center of the Universe. You don’t question. God just IS, He is a He and you need to toe his line in order to win the lovely parting gifts they hand you for completing the Home version of this dicey Game of Life.

The other day, I asked myself not only who I am, but what, forcing myself to look beyond myself as this sack of meat, its spark of intellectual and essential energy and the possessor of opposing thumbs that answers to Joseph, Joe, Joey and any of a hundred or so discrete alphanumeric identifiers that differentiate me from you. And you and you, as well.

I saw such a small thing, a cluster of cells both good and ill, beneficial and malignant, functional and inert, held modestly upright by some universally accepted beliefs that inherently make me superior to so much of the rest of the inhabitants of this blue marble upon which we stand as it falls, rises, or circles in the vastness of the Universe.

And so much of what I see is just a matter of dumb luck, some bit of kismet that Valentine met Maria and Patrick loved Lizzy and they all somehow decided to leave their homes in Europe to come to this coast-to-coast set of geographic coordinates that may make this the most varied and valuable piece of real estate on the planet. They came to this place where people can be free to become the monarchs of their own existence. Here in this nation established upon the premise that all men are created equal.

Except, of course, if you were on the wrong end of our “peculiar institution,” where white men owned black men who did the physical labor that either built or buttressed the Whites’ socioeconomic standing. And that sin was committed even in my hometown, tucked up here in the upper right corner of your map, which is the oldest chartered municipality in the country.

And also except if you were a member of the class of original inhabitants of this breadth of the continent. Then you were crushed in the essentially forgotten, if considered at all, dirty little secret of American’s Manifest Destiny, which included eviction, subjugation, military intimidation, interdiction and an open-air type of incarceration. And, quite often, our Euro-America’s God-blessed version of the final solution to the “Indian problem,” eradication.

Which brings us rambling back to my original premise. When you are so busy trying to make it from First to Twelfth Grade, from freshly minted believer to elder keeper of whatever Word you follow, from allowance grabber to worker bee and then retirement check-cashing senior, you don’t think of these things. You pretty much have to live within your insulated little castle keep, those walls of ideas and ideals I spoke of before.

It’s human nature. Self-preservation, self-centeredness, selfishness, maybe even a selective selflessness, draw blinders around us from which we might occasionally sneak a peek outside ourselves. Then we pull our heads back within the silken bonds of our own spiritual and intellectual cells. There in the comforting darkness we see house-of-mirrors reflections of ourselves, warm and fuzzy, clean and bright, dark and angry, volatile and violent. And we accept them or reject them with but a blink, a wink or a meditative, prayerful closing of the eyes.

Please forgive me this tedious ramble. I’ve been reading again, something I haven’t done as much as when I was younger. Back then it was hardcore youthful inquisitiveness, feeding the insatiable intellectual beast as much trivia, possibly necessary minutiae and winning team history it could take. Now, it’s my own version of sticking this silver-pated gourd out of the dusty crust of virtual Hesch topography to see what I missed. In my old age I’ve become another type of Self-something. Self-aware. It’s embarrassing and painful, yet somehow freeing.

I see the mistakes, poor judgments and failures I’ve made. I see the victories, loves and lucky guesses, too. On electronic and physical pages I’ve cast them out there like stars across a desert sky. And now I see how they tell stories and give necessary direction, even if I have almost reached my ultimate destination.

I just thought I’d pass this on to you, since you’re traveling that way, too. Slán abhaile.  Auf wiedersehen.  Safe travels.  Ramble Tamble. Down the road I go.

This started its life as a poem, then grew like some good ol’ southern kudzu, spilling all aroun d the page, seemingly taking over everything from my writing hand to better judgment. By the way, Ramble Tamble is the title of the first cut on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s  classic 1970 album, Cosmo’s Factory. It one of the rockingest songs I know, a great road song and might be as good a fit for our current times as it was for my youth.

Lying Upon a Bed of Nails

I tend not to dream and I awaken
long before the alarm does.
The music I don’t wish to hear
again plays and there
you stand smiling above me.
My subconscious pulls the covers
off me, leaving me awash
in thoughts into which I’d prefer
not to wade. They often
keep me awake on the other side
of each night’s ford across
the river to tomorrow.
They pull me out and wrap me
in a different kind of blanket,
one of your knitting and my
weak attempts at rending.
It’s not that I don’t wish
to surround myself with those
soft thoughts of impossibility.
I’d prefer their comfort as I stare
at the ceiling from this bed of nails
I built and continue to lie upon.
Just like I’m lying awake again.
Lying alone. Lying here. Lying now.
Lying to you. Lying to myself…
Supine upon every lie I drove.

I Was Just Thinking…Making Us Better

When I was a kid, my mom would walk me from our flat on Bradford Street down to Dr. Jack’s brownstone office on the border of Albany’s Washington Park. Even now I can recall the giant yellow pine blocks, smoothed to a semi-gloss sheen over the years by innumerable toddlers’ hands. I’d pull them from the corner toy box to build grand castles and forts there in his rubbing alcohol-redolent waiting room.

But beyond those tactile and olfactory memories, I remember the vaccination shots he’d give me for any number of kids’ diseases, most especially that polio shot. But I don’t remember Mom paying anyone any money, which in our house was usually as scarce as enough real beds for everyone to have his own. But Dr. Jack must have gotten paid his couple of bucks because he didn’t hesitate to drive to our house and give me another shot when I got really sick one snowy Saturday.

When I got older, I had to visit the County Health Building in the big parking lot on Pearl Street, at the bottom of Morton Avenue, in the down-sliding neighborhood that once served as the pastures for Albany’s buckle-shoed, ruminant-owning swells and a chicken sufficed as a co-pay. I remember seeing all the little brown and black kids sitting with their moms and grandmas, waiting to get their shots. It never occurred to me if they had to pay for their pointed opportunities to avoid the kind of childhood diseases I did.

It wasn’t until I had to dig into my own pocket for a visit to the doctor, ponying up some cash for necessary medication, paying the hospital for sewing up another of my skull’s collisions with reality or saving my life when an asthma attack almost removed me from it, that I realized what a blessing and burden is the quid pro quo for some sawbones to exercise their Hippocratic Oaths.

These memories of those long-past times don’t surface very often. In fact, I’d forgotten them, even when, check in hand, I brought our girls to their pediatrician for all their shots. Even when my own health speed bumps brought me enough pause for thought. Even as I bumped up against mortality and Medicare.

That was, until this week, as I watched the proceedings of the United States Senate in attempting to dump and probably not even replace the law established to help people get healthy without having to give up not only a chicken, but the whole damn farm. It forced me to scour my recollection-seeping mind to recall the history I share with America’s post-World War Two healthcare system.

In my life, I’ve seen kids in leg braces and iron lungs, draped in pox scars and being born without limbs because their pregnant mom took a medication to help her get over morning sickness. I’ve known kids with cancer who now are grandparents like me. I’ve seen the advent of machines that will keep you alive until modern science, magic and prayer can get you better. And I’ve given the nod to turn them off.

These days, I see how much of my meager assets I spend on keeping a pretty healthy family pretty healthy and wonder how those little girls in the County Health Office and the little boys up in the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation waiting on their free vaccinations managed to do that in their lives. And, yeah, I know I’m paying for some of that, but I know that now they can have the health insurance they never could before if they ever need it. It’s not their fault it costs so damn much. It’s the system’s.

It’s a system that’s grown as creaky, expensive and imperfect as I have in sixty-odd years and I’d like to see both of us healthier before I have to bid you all goodbye. But I’d never ask my family to kill me first in order to cure me. And that’s not me talking the dreaded P word—Politics. Just some old guy’s sore back, shaking hands, stiff-walled heart still pushing what few undiluted drops remain of his human decency and common sense.

I ramble, therefore I am. A true change of pace. But I’ve paid my dues for this pulpit and sickbed. Thank God I’m an American who’s free to express myself here and who’s lived long enough to see how we as a nation can make bad things get better. But I also know that’s if we all get pointed in roughly the same direction, and to accomplish that we’ll have to accept the individual and communal guidance of “the better angels of our nature.” 

The Climb Left Me Breathless

Now I know. But I wish
I didn’t have to.
Then I’d be able to look down
that deep well of recollection
and enjoy seeing the reflection
of the guy I used to be.
Instead, I focus on the skin
of memories I scraped onto its walls
in my halting climb to today.
And as fallible, forlorn and
sore as that climb has made me,
seeing that hopeful face
staring back, framed by all those
slime-coated scars, breaks
what’s left of my heart.
Funny, even though I’m standing
here on the ground, peering into
this well feels like I’m looking
down from some mountain top.

That view of my yesterdays
often hits me like a gut-punch, 
taking my breath away.

I quickly wrote this poem in response to the prompt set in that photo at the top of the piece. It’s from my friend Sharyl Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines Challenge.

Struck by Lightning

The power went out last night,
the only illumination,
until I found the flashlights
and lanterns, were the lights
flashing in the sky.
I asked, in vain, if we could
keep the emergency in-house
lights off so I could watch
the outside electrical ones.
I’m sure that sounded ridiculous
to someone who hasn’t spent nights
on the back porch trying not
to fall asleep as the gods
struck sparks across the sky
and Hendrick Hudson’s crew keggled
in booming strikes and spares.
So last night I took to the dark
back bedroom and marveled at
the light show and the shadows
of the trees dripping down the hill
like rainwater, not just for
its natural majesty, but also for
the power it turned on to make me feel
like a twelve-year-old again.