Some Things Never Change

Rat

Al crawled up the inside of the drain pipe, hurried along the gutter and made his way into the hole beneath a loose asphalt shingle above aluminum flashing.  The bar was busy tonight.  A Walkman blared tinny music from ear-buds suspended in the rafters and several rats gyrated in synchronized rhythm on the make-shift dance floor.  Al looked to the bar where Tony sat hunched over a thimble full of stale beer, slouching on his stool, his long leathery tail drooping to the floor.  He made his way over to the laminated popsicle-stick bar-top and took a thread spool beside his friend.

“How’s it wigglin?” he inquired with a good natured grin and gentle slap on Tony’s back.

“Eh…,” Tony responded without much enthusiasm.

“Oh, oh.” Al had seen Tony in this kind of mood before.  “What’s up buddy, Agnes again?” Al ordered a beer for himself.

His companion looked up.  Tony’s nose twitched sending his long whiskers into a frenzy. “I swear to God Al, I just can’t please her. If it’s not one thing it’s another.  She’s always busting my balls.”

“He heh…,” sniggered Al. “…and that ain’t easy. You got some pretty hefty balls.”

Tony chuckled half heartedly and repositioned himself on his spool.

The gerbil behind the counter handed Al his order.  After a long slow draught, Al wiped his paw across his muzzle and asked with some resignation, “Well, what is it this time?”

Tony paused, looked at Al, and turned to stare once more into his beer.  “I ate two of the kids.” he responded somewhat sheepishly.

Al’s beer spewed from his mouth, spraying the gerbil full in the face. “Sorry Mac.” Al apologized.  The bartender toweled his face dry, all the while complaining mightily under his breath.

“Geez Tone, not again!”

Tony groaned.  “I know, I know,” he complained.  “But, yah know…,” he struggled for the words.  “I’m out here every night, scurrying around in sewers for any moldy morsel I can find, scouring back alleys and dumpsters for a lousy piece of cheese, and then I come home to a rat-hole full of 75 kids and Agnes…”

“Seventy-three kids!” Al corrected him,

“Yah! Now!” Tony admitted reluctantly. “I swear, all I want at the end of a hard night is to sit back, put my paws up, have a God damn beer and relax for five minutes without six dozen rug-rats crawlin’ all over me.” Tony’s arms fell to his side as he threw back his head and exclaimed, “And now I find out, there’s another litter on the way!”  Tony slumped forward again and returned to whatever comfort he hoped to find at the bottom of his beer.

At that exact moment, Paul Anka’s “Having my Baby” crackled onto the over head speakers.

Ignoring the ironic musical interlude, Al placed a sympathetic paw on Tony’s shoulder. “C’mon Tone, cheer up.  Aggie will forgive you.  What’s two rats outta …” he did a silent calculation relative to current progeny and average litter size, “…eighty plus kids?”

Tony shrugged.

“Agnes loves you, no matter how many kids you eat.”

Tony was not to be consoled.

Al continued in an effort to comfort his friend. “You know Big Carl… you know him…. the big dock-rat that comes into O’Malley’s?”  Tony nodded weakly as Al continued.  “I heard he ate a whole litter of his kids after he got off the boat from his last cruise, and in a matter of weeks he and his old lady were knockin’ out a brand new brood.”  Al’s two sharp front teeth glistened in the neon bar-light as he attempted to smile away Tony’s sour mood.

Tony turned to Al, brightened by the thought of Big Carl’s more serious infraction.  “Yah know, Agnes and I’ve been together for over eight months, the best months of our lives.  We’ve been through a lot.”

Al took another drink, nodding in agreement. “That’s the ticket. You guys were made for each other”

“She’ll get over it.” Tony’s disposition was definitely improving. “I know she loves me.  And I love her too.”

“Sure you do.” offered Al.  “Let’s have another beer to celebrate your renewed dedication to each other.”

Tony thought about it for a moment,”Nah…The sun’s coming up and I’m going home to tell Agnes I love her.  She’ll take me back.”

Tony and Al shared a glance and Al winked. “She always does Tone.  She always does.”

Tony smiled his best rat smile.  “It’s been a long night.  I’m going home grab a bite then crawling into the mattress with Agnes.”

“A bite?” asked a genuinely concerned Al.

Tony tipped his cap and made his way to the hole in the shingle, “Don’t worry buddy, only cheese for me tonight… nothing but cheese.”

Breakfast Junkies

Often, a Sunday morning will find my wife and me going out for breakfast. We have a few places we favor and occasionally we choose the retro store with the restaurant attached, Cracker Barrel.  Without fail, the place is packed.

cracker-barrell

This morning was no different. At least 40 people were playing checkers and sitting in rocking chairs ahead of us, a twenty minute wait the greeter informed us. And sure enough, before our demeanor slipped into “hangry”, we were at a table with a menu, a cup of coffee, and a glass of tea.

So how do they do it?  I mean there’s only a couple of ways you can order an egg for breakfast. You fry them, scramble them, or fold them into an omelet. Yet, every weekend there’s a line out the door of breakfast junkies looking to get their Old Timer fix. I just don’t get it.

Sure, there’s the allure of shopping for everything your Granma ever wanted, but is that enough to explain it?  I don’t think so. There’s got to be something else.  And then it occurred to me.  It came to me like a side of grits with biscuits and saw-mill gravy. There’s something in the eggs. Let’s break it down.

CRACKer Barrel. Huh? Yeah? You feel it?  Makes sense now, right?  You can’t see it, smell it, or even taste it, but it’s gotta be in there, Crack!  I’m surprised they haven’t been caught out on the street corner offering the first egg for free… or haven’t they?  I’ve never been in the kitchen, but I wouldn’t be amazed to discover the eggs over-easy being handed to the server through a slot in a heavy steel door. I mean if they aren’t all jacked up on something, how do you explain how they churn tables like a Ford assembly line?  I had to prove this theory.

So I snuck out a portion of scrambled eggs in a napkin, and made my way through the parking lot full of cars and Fedora’d chickens in pale gray trench-coats, to a small pharmacy run by a guy I know.  In a matter of hours I had the answer, Omega 3’s, my friend.  Omega 3’s! That’s right!  Alpha – Omega!  The beginning and the end!  It was crystal clear to me and I looked at my wife, who had faithfully remained by my side, and recognized the knowing look in her eyes.

I looked at her.  She looked at me. And she spoke the words we had both suspected.

“Hey, perhaps twelve cups of coffee is not such a good thing for you!”

Sam

My dog, a lab, is mostly manic

With only occasional bouts of panic

At thunderstorms and fireworks

Set off at night by thoughtless jerks.

img_0570

By nature she is always happy

And even when I’m feeling crappy,

At the door, my ass a draggin’

She greets me with her tail a waggin’.

 

She seems to find no imposition,

My sometimes surly disposition

And meets me still with love and gratitude,

Despite my curt and sour attitude.

 

Those times when I’m not glad to be me,

She is never sad to see me

Reminding me when this occurs,

To be less like me, and more like her.

 ​

​ 

 

 

 

 

 

A Walk With My Father

old-man-and-young-man-walkingOne evening in the summer of 1999, I was walking with my father. We were returning home from The Swan, a local pub in the coastal town of Stranraer, Scotland.  My brother and I had come with our families to visit my parents.  It was the first time we had seen them in the three  years since they had returned to Scotland from the United States.  

A chill air surrounded us as we walked through the close streets of the town.  It was June, but the weather was still cool and damp, and as we made our way past darkened store fronts I told him of my impending divorce and my concerns about moving out of my home and setting up a new household. I was worried about my ability to care for my children on a diminished income and how to provide stability, despite their changing environment?   We walked for a few moments in silence and then he uttered the words that haunt me still.  

In his thick Scottish brogue he said, “My father died when I was 14.  He never gave me anything but the back of his hand!  And I was happy to have it.”

In 1969, by the time I was 12 years old, I had watched nearly every episode of Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, Andy Griffith and My Three Sons.  With research conducted via after school re-runs and prime-time family viewing, I considered myself an expert on the structure and function of the American Nuclear Family.  Of course the head of the household was always male, a sober white-collared engineer or architect, strong but kind, firm but fair. Mothers, if there were one, for mothers could often be replaced by curmudgeonly old uncles, maids or a trusted man-servant, were always of the beautifully coiffed, perfectly appointed, stay at home, and supper on the table variety.  Children, one to three were an acceptable number, were handsome, respectful, and constantly getting into the type of problems that could be resolved within 30 minutes allowing ample time for commercials.

No childhood indiscretion was so calamitous that an appropriate solution could not be found within the bounds of a good firm talking to. There were no spankings, no angry fathers yelling, no children made to feel terrified or inadequate for their ignorance of the far-flung consequences of an un-made bed or a bad report card.  No standing stiffly with an outstretched hand in anticipation of the quick snap of a leather belt and the steel resolve not to flinch and suffer the consequence of another.

I cannot remember an incident for which my father apologized.  It wasn’t in his nature.  And how can we learn to avoid mistakes unless we learn to recognize them for what they are?  We are after all, nothing more than the sum of our experience.  We learn from what we observe and choose to imitate or ignore the example of those that hold influence over us.

My father mellowed with time, especially in his later years. I had long ago forgiven him for any perceived injustices when on that long walk home he told me of the loss of his father at such an early age and of their broken relationship.  But in 1969 without the benefit of foresight and with the dauntless indignation that is the dominion of all 12 year old boys, I thought my father had simply grown up without a T.V.

 

Monkey Love

monkey-treeYungpin, of the Juju clan, clung to a thin branch at the top of the Home Tree. The young Macaque looked out over the tribe’s territory, running from the big water by the mangroves, to the rocky outcroppings where the hills began. On one side ran the wide river, swift and murky in the rainy season, and on the other, the territory of the Bobo tribe.  Yungpin was Muladee; three summers from his birthing.  Tonight he and all his siblings, those born in the same year, would stand still beneath the half-moon, in the clearing below, and become full members of the clan. All but two.

There were twelve in Yungpin’s season.  They had come to know each other, clinging each to their mother during grooming sessions, or jumping madly from branch to branch, playing tag in the dry billowy summer dirt, flinging mud and rain-soaked leaves in the fall, tumbling, chasing, and biting, in rituals of dominance and hierarchy. They were twelve, but there was only one of any real interest to Yungpin.  Her name was Juputin.

Yungpin longed to pair with her.  But union was forbidden for Muladee.  Pairing was a privilege reserved only for full members of the clan.  The bloodline must be protected.  Tonight, as he and the other initiates stood still in the clearing, two of them would be chosen, donated to the strengthening of the bloodline. The pair would be given to the Bobo tribe, taken from the home of the Juju, passing into the unknown.

Dewal, the dominant male, had conveyed the tradition. The bloodline grows weak without donation.  Each summer, beneath the half-moon, two Muladee are selected from each clan.  Before dawn they are exchanged at the boundary of our range.  The half-moon, the demi-light of the night sky, is the brightness of the bloodline and the darkness of the failure to honor the ways of the ancestors. Yungpin hoped he and Juputin would not be chosen.

The afternoon passed slowly. The clan lounged lazily in the shaded branches, seeking shelter from the hot summer sun beneath the broad leaves of their sanctuary.  Yungpin lay across a high limb, his long spidery legs dangling on either side, tail twitching nervously.  Juputin sat with her family unit, nimble fingers combing through her mother’s hair, searching the briefly visible skin beneath for unwelcome parasites. The two young Macaques exchanged occasional brief glances, but neither moved to engage the other.  The moment that would decide the future of their lives was fast approaching.

In the evening the clan crowded into the clearing beneath Home Tree. Through gaps in the canopy the cloudless sky was pierced with uncountable points of light outshone only by the semi-luminescence of the half-moon.  Bright future – faded past. Dewal stood in the center of the gathering and called the Muladee before him. Stand still.

Welcome, new blood of the Juju, strength of the clan.  Within you flows life or death for all the tribes. Tonight you will be Muladee no longer.  Beneath the half-moon you will join a clan and be allowed to pair and keep the bloodline strong.  But this night also, our bloodline is shared with that of the Bobo.  We both donate our strength so each of our tribes does not grow weak and die. Through donation we live forever.

Dewal rose to his full height and threw wide his arms, showing his face to the half-mooned sky. The clan waited without chatter, surrounded only by the sound of rustling leaves above, swaying gently in the warm breeze brushing the forest canopy

It was decided.

Dewal lowered his arms and extended one towards the line of Muladee before him.  A flick of his wrist indicated Juputin and a male, Jameet.

Come! Dewal turned from the gathering, away from Home Tree, toward the Bobo. The chosen two fell in behind.

Yungpin couldn’t breathe.  He had thought he had been prepared, and he had been.  But now the moment had come and he was unable to contain himself.  He couldn’t lose her.  He had waited four seasons. Without clear intention to protest, Yungpin began swaying from side to side.  Small chirps of alarm emanated from his mouth.  His lips pursed as his frustration grew and found voice.  Soon he was hopping in place and slapping the ground with open palms.

Dewal stopped, turning slowly to face Yungpin, astonished. What was this new thing? He was more amazed than annoyed.

Explain yourself.

Yungpin raised his arms to the night sky where the half-moon hung silently mocking him and his altered destiny.  He pointed to the chosen and back to himself.

Dewal frowned.  Juputin is not for you.  She has been chosen.  Jameet has been chosen.  They are for the Bobo.  They are chosen together, they are Bobo now.

Yungpin would not be consoled. He was still Muladee, still young, he didn’t care about tradition or blood lines or even the future, not a future without Juputin.  He didn’t care what they did with the other but he couldn’t lose the one he loved.  The only one he had ever loved.

Dewal made his way back into the center of the gathering and stood before the one who had challenged the way of the clan.

They are the chosen.  These are one. He gestured to the two timid and bewildered Muladee beside him. Together they are our donation, to the future of the clan, to the strength of the bloodline. It is our way. They are together for the Bobo, for the Bobo to decide…not you!

Yungpin was not cowered.   Juputin is for me.  She is mine.  Do what you will with Jameet.

Dewal flew into a rage. His hair bristled and the dominant male puffed his chest and raised himself threateningly over Yungpin, screaming, his yellow teeth bared.

Stand still Muladee. How can you have Juputin if you donate Jameet?

Yungpin fell to the ground in the face of Dewal’s onslaught, limp, numb, uncomfortably so.  Submissively, he turned away and stared up at the dark side of the moon.

Little Johnny Frankenstein

johnny-frankenstein

Little Johnny Frankenstein lived in the tool shed at the end of the subway line.  Most nights he sat in his shed and listened to the coming and going of the rail cars and the noises of the maintenance men as they went about their work.

On stormy nights, Johnny would take out his silver kite with the golden string and fly it high up through the hole in the roof of the subway station. Up and up his kite would fly, up past the tree lined street, up past the apartment buildings and tenements, up and up, higher than the tallest building in the heart of the city.

When the storm raged, Johnny’s kite would be tossed about in the wind.  But the silver kite was strong and the golden string unbreakable.The kite would dance in the blackened sky and bolts of lightening flash onto it’s shiny metallic surface and shoot down along the golden string and through the the bolts in Johnny’s neck.

After the storm was over Johnny would reel in his kite and walk out onto the tracks. Kneeling down, he would place his hands on the third rail and all the electricity stored in Johnny’s body would surge out of his hand, down the rail and into the reserve batteries at the end of the roadhouse.

This kept Johnny well grounded and riding the subway free of charge.