Saturday, April 6, 2013

I Learned My ABC's

I learned my ABC’s
I learned how to make bunny ears and
Tie my shoelaces
I learned state capitals
World continents, to duck into the gutter
Cover my head in the event of nuclear attack

 
I learned French kissing at a party with a
Chubby girl who kept pressing her wet
Tongue into my mouth
Uncomfortably but wanting
To continue

 
I learned street manners from my father
Ladies walk on the inside away from the curb
I learned table etiquette from my mother
No soup slurping or purposeful burping
I learned to drive a clutch car

 
I learned to speak Hebrew for my Bar Mitzvah
I forgot it all the day after
I learned some Latin once
Some Spanish, too

 
I learned three chords on my guitar
The House of the Rising Sun
And some Dylan songs
I play raucously alone in my room

 
I learned about doom on the news
Viet Nam and the pain of a country
I learned civics watching Bobby Kennedy
Die at the Ambassador Hotel the day after
Seeing him speak

 
I learned about the passion of love
A finger’s touch scorching my skin
Every erotic nerve ignited
Marriage and maturity
Love and hate
I learned to be patient
Sometimes

 
I learned how to make small talk
Be funny and smile knowledgeably
Look serious when necessary
Offend with intent
I learned how to be a friend
Empathy after most of a lifetime
 

I learned about lifetimes
When my mother died
About being a son
And no longer a child

Monday, March 2, 2009

Ben


As he pulled off the freeway, he thought about what his mother had said as she hugged him goodbye. Whenever he left after a pleasant or unpleasant visit, Ben’s mother always had some sort of sticky cryptic message that haunted him on the ride home. She was, after all, a self-appointed “omenist”, a word she had coined to describe her “powers of knowing the future before the future revealed itself.” When Ben suggested that the correct word was “seer” or “fortuneteller” or, better yet, “con artist”, his mother’s placid rebuttal was that she was different from those who professed special powers, and that omenist would prove to be the better term. His mother made no claims to know everything about the future. She merely claimed to know that every once in awhile something good or bad might be happening soon. Fortunately, he had become unconsciously competent at downshifting through the Triumph’s gears and stopping at the bottom of the exit ramp. Otherwise, being lost in thought would have resulted in multiple disasters.
This visit had been pleasant, unlike the previous one when his mother told him his life was too comfortable. He dropped by unannounced to bring his mother a bag of lemons and limes. After drinking iced tea with some lemon juice and freshly baked oatmeal raisin cookies, his mother hugged him and said, “Ben, just remember that being a man means more than being a man.” At thirty-nine, his mother was the only parent he had known. She was three months pregnant when his father was killed by Maoist terrorists while trekking in Nepal, after being warned by his mother that no good could come of hiking in foreign lands. Growing up meant a seemingly endless stream of caregivers while his mother worked two or three jobs to provide him with private schools, guitar lessons, summer camps, the most up-to-date computers, “with-it” clothes, and a diet of mostly organic foods. His mother never took advantage of knowing the future; rather, as she often reminded Ben, she elected to live in the “here and future.” She often reminded Ben that it would be unfair to take advantage of one’s special gifts to indulge in unnecessary frills or self-indulgencies. After graduation from law school at the top of his class and securing a job with one of the most prestigious San Francisco law firms, he bought his mother a condominium near the Giants new ballpark along with season tickets with his first of many extravagant annual bonuses. His mother loved baseball, but could never afford to attend a game.
Ben pulled into his Pacific Heights flat’s driveway, pushed the button of the garage door remote control, and quietly thought about all he had accomplished before forty: an Ivy League law education and an exceptionally high seven figure salary. He spurned the offer of partnership, since it would mean too much responsibility for shared oversight of the firm’s business, and he already made more money that he could ever spend. He invested well, had all the adult toys he wanted, and was recently named by San Francisco Magazine as one of the Ten Most Eligible Bachelors in the Bay Area. He felt very much like a man on top of the world. His mother, however, always reminded him that the future was not what he made of it; it was what the future made of him that mattered.
As he sat in his sports car, he fixated on a red azalea in full bloom. Ben wasn’t a gardener. In fact he had no interest in gardening. He felt it was important, for the sake of a good image, to have a professional gardener install and maintain the planting beds in front and behind his home. He had spent an inordinate amount of time and money for something he rarely noticed. This particular plant struck him as being perfectly beautiful. The red flowers reminded him of the lipstick his mother wore. They glistened with dusk’s moisture. Something to his left broke his rare hypnotic state. He couldn’t be sure, but it appeared that it might have been someone running silently across the intersection at the end of the block. He turned and saw another runner carrying what appeared to be a baseball bat. He thought nothing of it, and pulled into his garage. Before getting out of his classic sports car, he scanned his mostly empty garage. There were no tools, gardening implements, or any other typical items found in garages showing evidence of home ownership. In one corner stood a folded ping-pong table shrouded in a blue tarpaulin that had been used once for a housewarming party given by one of Ben’s law firm colleagues. A dart board randomly stung with six darts hung on the wall to his left.
His garage was a flight of stairs below his two-story home. He entered through the kitchen, threw his keys into the basket that served to catch miscellaneous items for which there were no clear organizational constructs. His home, as were his routines, was organized like an old-fashioned postmaster’s desk. Everything had its own specific cubbyhole. The first floor was a large open space that included the kitchen, dining area, living room, and a small powder room. A professional designer had not only furnished it in Ben’s post-modern taste, but had also equipped it with every essential and non-essential gadget she for which she could justify the retail plus consultation fee. Ben did not know that he owned five different types of vegetable peelers, nor did he care to know. It was more important that visitors knew that his Williams-Sonoma furnished kitchen, which included All-clad cookware, six-burner Viking stove, and a Sub-zero refrigerator, stood ready for preparing any dish requiring a state-of-the-art blender, mixer, or cookie sheet. Ben didn’t cook, but he had acquaintances and a mother who did. Upstairs were three bedrooms, the smallest of which served as a home office. The master bedroom and bath, along with the living room, had sweeping views of City lights at night and the Golden Gate during the day.
Before shedding his work clothes, he plugged his iPod into the central music system and selected Mozart’s Fantasia in C Minor for piano, played masterfully by Glenn Gould. He loved the mixture of serious and playful music and the intensity of Gould’s rendering. Ben listened to all music genres except Chinese opera, which he found to be atonal and unnatural. Other than a good wine, music was the only sensory stimulant Ben used to enhance his ritualized life style.
After changing into jeans, sweatshirt, and running shoes, Ben intended to walk down to the bottom of the hill to pick up a newspaper and some gourmet take-out from one of the popular boutique neighborhood restaurants. Intentions change when confronted outside your bedroom door by tall, blond, hallow-cheeked woman dressed in a tan topcoat, flowing red scarf, red watch cap, and large black sunglasses holding what initially looked like a cannon of a handgun.
“Good music choice, now sit down, Ben. You won’t be going anywhere for awhile.”
Ben stood not knowing what to do. The woman again told him in a measured tone to sit down against the wall with his hands behind his back “Close your eyes, Ben. You don’t know me, and it would be best if you never do. Close your eyes, Ben.” After following her instructions, Ben felt two large patches being placed over his eyes followed by the sound of tape being pulled off a roll. “I’m going to secure the eye patches with duct tape, Ben. After I do, I want you to roll onto your belly while I wrap your hands with tape. If you try to resist, remember I have a weapon and the ability to use it.” Ben did as instructed and was assisted to a standing position. “We’re going to go downstairs, now.” The lady with the topcoat and gun led Ben down to his living room with the panoramic view of the City lights and seated him in the yellow leather chair he rarely used. She instructed him to sit quietly, ask no questions, and wait for further instructions. He wasn’t sure if those instructions would be meant for him or her.
For several minutes, Ben’s mind remained blank. He didn’t know how or what to think. Slowly he began to meticulously take stock of his situation and try to give it some meaning. He practiced mostly anonymous law. He did research for large class-action law suits. He rarely met the individual clients who benefited from his investigatory gifts. The firm’s partners understood that Ben’s strengths resulted in large corporate profits, and they paid him royally for his efforts. Ben’s first thoughts were that no single person could possibly be seeking revenge against him, because he worked for the benefit of large faceless groups. He also had an astonishing track record: he had never been on the losing side. The losers were always, like Ben, anonymous entities – deep-pocket corporations with deep-pocket insurance companies paying damages. He concluded that his circumstance could not be about his work.
He could not imagine any personal relationship to be the source of any violent behavior towards him. He had few close friends and no current romantic relationship. It seemed that being named one of San Francisco’s most eligible bachelors was more of a curse than a gift. The notoriety more often than not was a reason for women to shy away from being seen with him. He surmised that celebrity must be the reason for his sudden victimization. Clearly, this criminal act would turn out to be nothing more than crime for profit. He thought that what he needed to do was keep calm, be patient, listen carefully, follow instructions, and gather available information so that he could effectively negotiate a win-win settlement.
His captor had not physically harmed him, and so far appeared to behave in a direct and business-like manner. Her instructions were clear, direct, and not spoken with vile temperament. Ben thought this must be a professional crime, not some amateurish whimsy. He heard three short, followed by two short, knocks at the front door. “Come in boys,” said the woman. “Put the baseball bat in the corner. He’s secured. Remember, I’m the only voice he hears. Have a seat on the sofa.” Ben now knew that she had colleagues in crime. He didn’t know that the two men had been a diversion while he sat in his driveway. They ran across the intersection to pull his attention away from the open garage allowing the woman to enter and hide behind the folded ping-pong table. “We’ll wait for the call.”
“May I ask what’s happening?” Ben said with all the politeness he could fathom.
The woman replied, “You need to sit quietly and wait.”
Ben obeyed. A cell phone rang and he heard the woman answer. “Yes, I understand. Don’t you think it may be a bit early for that? Okay, then we’ll proceed.” He heard the phone click shut. “Ben, I’ve been instructed to shoot off the small toe on you left foot. I’ll be removing you shoe now.” This marked the first of what would prove to be several feelings of panic for Ben. Suddenly any thought of rationale disappeared. He felt a shudder spike from the base of his spine up through his shoulders and skull. When his left New Balance cross-trainer was slipped off his left foot and sock pulled off, he discharged a small amount of urine and felt cold perspiration ooze around the collar of his shirt.
“Wait, please,” he trembled. “Can’t we talk about this? What is it you want? Money? Legal advice? What is it?”
“Ben, I’m sympathetic to your situation, but I’ve been instructed. We’ll talk about what we want after we get your attention and compliance. You have a reputation for believing you can solve anything through reason and negotiation. We’ll need to make sure you understand in advance that there will be no negotiation, no compromise, no reasoning. This isn’t about being rational; it’s about performance on our terms.”
Ben heard a mechanical sound that he couldn’t identify. “What are you doing?”
“Turning the silencer onto the pistol,” was the cool, surgical reply. Then he heard a pop and his entire body stiffened. “That was a test shot. The only real noise from the next shot will be your scream. Most likely you’ll pass out. We’ll have you treated with an anesthetic and bandage before you awake. We also have pain medication for you.”
Ben began to feel cold and nauseous. “Please, can’t we talk first? Let’s think about future consequences. Let’s think about the future,” he pleaded.
“We are your only future, Ben. You need to know that.”
“I do. I promise. I do.” Silence in the room ensued. Ben felt colder and began to shiver. A metallic taste pushed up through his throat and the back of his head began to tighten and ache. “Please,” he whispered.
Finally, the woman spoke. She said that while she had been given specific instructions, she did have some discretionary power. She assured Ben that unnecessary pain and suffering could be avoided if he followed all demands. He felt his breathing slow and he consciously took a deep breath filling himself to his diaphragm and gaining some measure of calm. He assured the woman that he would do all as she requested.
“I need you to call your mother, Ben. You must instruct her to come here. The business we have involves her. Once you fulfill this demand, you’ll be freed from all other obligations.”
“How is my mother involved in this?” The tightening ache pulsating across the back of Ben’s skull began to surge down the nape of my neck and spread across his shoulders. “You mustn’t hurt her.”
“Ben, you have a choice to make. Get your mother over here or suffer painful consequences for not obeying orders. I’m going to hold a phone to your ear and dial her number. It’s your choice how you handle this. If you tell her something is wrong her, the toe is gone and there will be other serious consequences.”
The phone was put to Ben’s ear and during the six rings that it took before his mother answered, he thought about options. He could make an outrageous request that might alert her to something being very wrong and subsequently prompt her to secure seek help. However, he couldn’t think of any invented story wild enough to prod his mother to take such action. Of course, he could also simply blurt the truth of the matter and suffer whatever consequence might ensue. He chose instead to engage in conversation while trying to buy time to figure out another solution.
“Mom, you said something when I left this evening that I’ve been wondering about. Do you remember?”
“Yes, Ben. I told you that being a man was more than being a man. Is that why you’ve called?”
“It’s just that from time to time you say things that leave me wondering. Like being an omenist and knowing what the future brings.”
“But, Ben, I don’t know what specifics the future holds. I only know if the future might sustain promise or hold potential doom. What’s bothering, Ben? You sound down.”
“I still want to know what you meant about being a man.” The phone was removed from Ben’s ear and he heard it being hung up. The woman told Ben to stop stalling and get to the point. Ben explained he had never spontaneously asked his mother over to his house and that he needed to find a way to do so without raising suspicion. The woman agreed and explained that she would redial his mother. She instructed Ben to say he accidentally disconnected the phone. Once back on line, Ben again asked what his mother meant about being a man.
“Ben, I felt a presence about the future that would require you to make an extremely difficult decision. I simply wanted you know that being a man sometimes requires action that benefits others while resulting in undesirable conditions for the one taking action.” His mother’s response seemed rehearsed. It appeared to Ben that his mother was trying to teach him a life lesson. The tightness in his shoulders increased, perspiration soaked the collar of his sweatshirt, his right eyelid began to twitch, and he felt a shiver and fainted. His captor, while holding the phone in her left hand, used her right hand to push Ben against the back of the yellow, leather chair and keep him from tumbling forward. Her accomplices moved to hold Ben back by the shoulders. The woman took the phone and matter-of-factly told Ben’s mother that Ben would be calling back soon.
When Ben regained consciousness, the woman offered him a sip of room temperature water. Ben sensed perspiration dripping down his spine and soaking through his sweatshirt. The woman observed color returning to his cheeks. What she couldn’t see was that Ben awoke with a new sense of self and resolve. “Ben, you must call your mother again. You’ll need to explain that a friend suddenly dropped in and apologize for hanging up so abruptly. Do you understand?”
Ben replied, “I need more information. You can do whatever you want to me. I don’t really care. But you need to tell me how my mother is involved before I decide what I’ll do next. Go ahead: shoot off my toe.”
The next time Ben came to was in an ambulance. His left leg was elevated and he felt a throbbing pain from where his toe had been. “You’re lucky,” remarked the EMT. “Whoever shot you had some medical expertise.”
The policewoman riding with the EMT informed Ben that an anonymous caller made a 9ll call from his house to report the incident. She explained that he was found on his back, eyes patched, and his leg elevated on the leather chair. “Whoever did this to you was careful to minimize physical damage.”
Ben asked the policewoman to call his mother and tell her what had happened. “We’ve already contacted her. She’ll meet us at the hospital.”

Sunday, November 11, 2007

It's Mayhem Again

A bunch of withered leaves
Hunched against a sycamore
Old homeless men clustered around a barrel fire
One season barging into another
Like a bear barreling into a cave
On a mountain shedding its skin
And pulling on an icy sweater
We try, and try, and try
It’s mayhem
Again

Monday, July 23, 2007

Novel: Killing Dad - Gardening with Chemicals

This is a work-in-progress/rough draft. Chapters will be added as they are written.

1

Someone once told me that a man is not an adult until his father dies. It may well have been my own father; he had a certain way of reducing every emotion to a single, accountable act. At any rate, I’m sure it must have been said during some highly esoteric conversation that embedded itself in my imaginative, highly unpredictable, hormone-inflamed adolescent mind. I’ve obsessed about it ever since.

Dad still lives. Here I am truly caught in the middle ages between my Dad and my son: by Dad’s definition, not yet an adult, and, without adulthood anywhere on the horizon, stuck in adolescence. How far does male adolescence continue beyond the teens? Anyone experiencing the unresolved ritual dinnertime philosophical and political explosions between Dad and me would know there is no answer. All questions became rhetorical while Mother and sisters went figuratively underground during those explosions of generational combat.

There’s only on true answer. One solution. The final resolution. The Coup de Crap, if you will: kill Dad.

My psychotherapist, Dr. Sheldon Leftowitz, suggests my thinking may be a bit extreme. Then, again, the good Dr. Lefty seems to be a bit over-the-top. A graduate of the New School of Jungian Psychotherapy in Fargo, North Dakota, he’s a soft-spoken gentleman who favors plaid bowties worn with denim work shirts. Barely five feet tall, painfully slender and extremely bony, he strides into a room like a nervous chicken. Clean shaven, freshly manicured, and topped by overly coarse white hair, looking much older than a man in his mid-sixties, he utters words rather than complete sentences. I always felt that the good doctor had been manufactured in the back room of a Shrinks ‘R Us strip mall store. Nonetheless, I’ve been seeing him for almost fifteen years. I think a cure is eminent.

On the other hand, Dr. Lefty refuses to explain my illness; in fact, he suggests in very few words that I have no illness at all but rather an inability to come to grips with being a fifty-seven year-old, white male, in a multi-cultural, gender-equal, politically-correct, individualistic-trying-to-be-a-team-player society, bent on the inclusion of all regardless of faith, sexual orientation and preference about whether Oreo cookies should be eaten whole or split apart in order to best lick out the cream filling. At least that’s what he’s implied in a very few words.

“Dr. L, I don’t think I can be a man until Dad dies,” I said for the umpteenth time.

“Think or feel?” probes Dr. Lefty.

“What difference does it make? Think or feel? Everyone knows that feelings determine our thinking. Everyone knows that thinking is merely a rational way of explaining our feelings. You keep asking ‘think or feel’ every time I proclaim what I’m thinking. New word: theel. I don’t theel I can be a man until Dad dies.”

“Go on,” says Dr. Lefty.

I can best describe myself as someone who pays more attention to my penmanship than what I’ve written. The angle of my fountain pen’s nib is more important than the twists and turns of my stories. The number of pages filled, the word count, the variety of words, and the length without width best describe my writing. I’m less a writer and more a keeper of journals. Journals that I doubt anyone will ever read.

I’m sure that my best years are behind me; I’m sure an excruciatingly painful death awaits me. Although Dad travels, practices daily yoga, runs in senior marathons, consumes a salami sandwich and a beer every day for lunch, and practices unsafe sex with a bevy of women usually half his age, and although every single grandparent, great grandparent, and great-great grandparent lived well into their nineties, I’m convinced I need to prepare for an untimely, early demise. Mom is still alive. However, no one really knows much about her. She abandoned Dad, my three sisters, and me after flirting with a flamenco dancer at their twentieth wedding anniversary party at the local Ramada Inn. The last we heard, she was in Barcelona.

When not at work, I spend most of my time at home, alone, writing in my journals. I try to make every individual letter come alive with a flourish, each movement of my pen artistically applying ink to paper. If I have to go to the great unknown, a place I’m sure doesn’t exist, then I want to leave behind a neatly detailed account of my empty, meaningless life.

Ten years ago, while starting a new journal, my wife of thirteen years called for me to come downstairs to dinner. “It’s your favorite, John, and Travis wants to get going,” said Beth.

I replied, “I’m journaling. I just began a new one. It’s going to be a list this time, and I’m in the midst of it.” I heard Beth coming up the hardwood stairs. She wore wooden-soled sandals and the clip-clop distracted me. I leaned back in my chair and waited for Beth to make her entrance.

“John, we need you at dinner tonight. The kids want a family meeting. They said it’s an important conversation this time.”

This would be another one of those important talks. I’d been keeping a journal of all the must-have family meetings Beth and children had called since Beth had started the family meeting institution when Travis, our oldest, was eight. Beth watched too many television talk shows that featured empathetic female hosts with no qualifications but lots of life experience and bombastic, psycho-babbling know-it-alls with lots of credentials and no life experience. And it seemed that every suggested marriage, home, childrearing, improvement was bound to be incorporated into our family life: hence, repainting the entire house with soothing colors, strategic placement of potpourri around the house to induce memory enhancement, and the employment of a Feng Shui specialist to ensure the proper placement of furniture and dragon-repelling mirrors. She had even sent a letter to Dr. Phil requesting a cure for my "obsession with journal writing”. She received a belated reply suggesting a kind of Reichstag ritualistic burning of my journals with "sage thrown on the pyre to cleanse the bombastic spirit" inside me. The more Beth thought about the reply, the more she came to realize that it must have been sent by one of Dr. Phil's staffers having fun at the Dempsey family expense.

As Beth stood in my office door, she scanned the bookshelves lined with a thousand or so neatly categorized Moleskin journals: “Reasons to Live” marked one shelf; “Counting the Days” another; “Who Asked?”; “Family Meeting Disasters”; “The Days My In-laws Lived and The Day They Tragically Died While Trying to Take a Shortcut Through the Malibu Canyon”; “Reasons My Parents Stopped Trying to Go On”; “The Illustrated Atlas of Beth's Freckles”; “Where the Pets are Buried - an Anthropologists Guide”; “Killing Dad: Seventeen Prescriptions for Freedom”.

While Beth sometimes considered that my extensive, neatly organized collection of journals might border on obsessive-compulsive behavior, and, even though she had called on Dr. Phil, she usually dismissed the collection as a certain loveable quirkiness comparable to many other ordinary hobbies: the collection of stamps and matchbooks, the Barbie doll collections of our two daughters, our son’s collection of owl pellets and other exotic bird feces, her own collection of Christmas candles embossed with the likeness of Jesus Christ – which I, as a nouveau Jew had some difficulty accepting – and even our friend Bill Whitaker’s extensive pornographic magazine collection, which he kept locked in a vault in his wine cellar behind the Merlot. Beth believed that collections and hobbies were an appropriate outlet, and, in the long term, ought to be nurtured. Her main concern was the amount of time I spent on mine. She didn’t understand that writing in journals wasn’t just about amassing the journals themselves.

"Come on, John. We need you downstairs."

"Can't we have dinner and a family meeting at the same time tonight? I've got lots to finish here."

"What is it this time, John?"

"A list of places I'd like to visit before I die but probably won't", I replied.

"Didn't you already complete that list?" asked Beth.

"No, I wrote a similar one called 'Places to Visit After I Die If There's an Afterlife But Probably Won't."

"You're being silly, John. Please, come down now. The kids are quite excited about something."

I shrugged, made a final note in my new journal, and followed Beth downstairs. I wondered what the family meeting might be about and what I could be required to tolerate. It struck me that I forgot to bring the journal 'Family Meetings Called by Excited Kids' and quickly retrieved it.

As I entered the kitchen, I noticed that Travis, Doris, and Dee Dee were already at the oval, oak table in their customary places. My favorite dinner, spaghetti and meatballs, green salad made with iceberg lettuce only, and garlic bread were already being passed around. Something special was about to happen. What could possibly be sprung on me this time? My favorite meal, the kids appearing to be anxious, and Beth already revealing that something important was going to be discussed - definite clues that something big was about to be sprung on me.

I took my seat to the left of Travis. Doris and Dee sat to his left and Beth across from me. The girls, in typical fashion, were slurping noodles one by one into their mouths while looking at each other knowingly. Six-year-old twins, they had a way of metering the spaghetti strands at precisely the same speed that appeared as synchronic slurping. Travis twirled his spaghetti into huge wads, which he managed to wedge into his mouth, causing some concern about potential suffocation; however, he had over time developed an intrepid skill and had never even coughed up one ounce of pasta mass.

Beth seemed to be lost in thought, holding a forkful of spaghetti near her mouth but staring aimlessly at the center of the table. She seemed fixated on the salad bowl. For what seemed like an eternity, but only a blink in time, I looked into Beth's vacant eyes. And then, in apparent slow-motion, she collapsed into her plate.

2

Someone once said that losing your spouse is a life-changing experience. It was probably my father. He hadn’t lost his wife, unless you consider the disappearance with a flamenco dancer to be a loss. My father apparently didn’t, because he continued to live his life as before: running around with women half his age and having the gall to brag about it.

Beth’s demise was due to an undiagnosed brain aneurism. When she plopped into her plate of spaghetti, I hadn’t the slightest idea of what to do. She had made quite a mess, the children were screaming and out of control, and I didn’t have a single thought. I felt completely incapable of doing anything. Time froze and I was fixated on the tiniest drops of spaghetti sauce that appeared to linger in mid-air before exploding as tiny red dots on the tablecloth. The children’s voices were simply background noise. My head began to pulse and ache.

It was only several months later that I was really able to see the entire event with some clarity. In the meantime, my sister Harriet and her husband Bob had taken stewardship of the kids. They seemed to know I lacked the maturity and mental judgment, much less the emotional stamina necessary to care for twin girls and a precocious son. After Beth’s cremation and scattering of ashes at sea, I sat around a lot. As a tribute to Beth, I had all my journals incinerated along with her remains. The life-changing experience had begun.

Beth had been my only friend. We met while looking for underwear at Mervyns. I was examining a package of Fruit-of-the-Loom classic white briefs and she was checking out the higher-end, colorful boxers. I couldn’t help glancing over at her. She possessed the dark, brunette Brazilian exotic look that always caught my eye. The intense manner in which she examined the underwear package caused me to imagine for whom she was shopping. As she tried to pull open the plastic packaging, three shorts fell out and landed in disarray on the carpeted floor. I bent to pick them up for her and she laughed, “Why my father must have these, I’ll never know. He insists that I purchase specific colors and patterns and touch everyone to be sure they meet his softness test. Thank you.” And she smiled at me.

“No problem,” I replied. And that’s when the romance began. We chatted about the quirkiness of our fathers, learned that we both worked at Robbins, Higgins, Morgan, and Rafferty Insurance just up the street from the shopping mall, and agreed to continue our conversation at lunch. Lunch became a two-hour conversation, and getting back to work just didn’t seem all that important. We were both lucky to be in charge of something, she director of customer service and I supervisor of advertising and public relations, so neither of us were slaves to structured time schedules. For most of our conversation, I simply stared into her dark, brown eyes, lost in fantasy and falling in love.

I had thought that I was immune to love. Before Dr. Lefty, I had actually sought counseling while in college. All my high school and college friends seemed to be in love every single second of the day and I couldn’t relate to the concept. Off I went to the student health services building: a squat, pre-war bungalow that looked more like an intake facility for the municipal zoo than a place for the mentally and emotionally confused. Then, again, maybe there’s little difference between disoriented monkeys, snakes, pigeons, giraffes and hyper-sexual, gawky, late adolescent college sophomores. Being the later, I approached the experience with a sense of interest. After all, I was enrolled in Psych 101, it was the late 60’s, inner exploration – chemically or not chemically induced – and the freeing of one’s true self, the selves of others (whether they liked it or not) and the driving need to understand were commonplace. Somewhere along the line nobody seemed to know what it was that needed to be understood. I read a lot of poetry; there were a lot of words with references to some obscure thinking. It seemed that most of the poets were more interested in creating complicated intellectual mazes rather than saying what was on their minds. I fell in love with Haiku. As it turns out the Japanese know how to write poems that make sense in a simple, structured manner, that engage me in thinking about complicated ideas. They also make really good electronics, household appliances, and cars.

I registered for services at the student health center, and, when prompted to indicate the reason for wanting to see a counselor, wrote “wishing to understand love” on the three-page, canary-yellow form. That didn’t get me an appointment right away; however, two weeks later I was scheduled to see Tippi. Why mothers and fathers name their children after actresses who are destined to be answers to crossword puzzle clues, I’ll never know. Nevertheless, being named after the star of Hitchcock’s The Birds did seem to have a nice symmetry with the mental health profession, kind of like Dr. Bonebrake being an orthopedic surgeon. Actually, Tippi wasn’t a real counselor. She was a graduate student trying to earn hours for licensure as a therapist. This was reassuring. Nevertheless, the six treatment sessions allowed as part of my matriculation in the California State College system resulted in two key understandings. First, love will happen when it happens. Second, don’t rush it. This was a bit better than my father’s advice when I went off to college: “John, just remember this: if you think you’re in love, it’s probably lust. Get over it and move on.”

Sitting in the booth at Ameche’s Diner and falling in love and lust with Beth was the beginning of long conversations and noontime walks, which continued for several months before I actually asked her out for our first official Date. “Beth, would you like to go out for dinner and a movie this Saturday?”

“Is this our first official date?” asked Beth.

“I suppose it is: official.” I paused to think about the implications. So far we had had extensive talks about family and the mutual belief that all families were screwed up, politics and its inherent dishonesty, religion and its incumbent foolishness, the social obligation that somebody ought to feed and clothe the poor, our shared interest in traveling to every continent and where we’d most want to explore, the likelihood of a woman or black president in our lifetime, our concern that Robbins, Higgins, Morgan, and Rafferty might not be where we wanted to spend our entire professional lives, favorite movies (hers: “The Summer of 42”; mine: “A Thousand Clowns”) , ice cream (hers: peppermint; mine: vanilla) , and bands: the Kinks, Rolling Stones, Cream, and The Dave Clark Five, the band destined to surpass The Beatles.

First official date led to second official date and so on. We kissed on date two, again on three and four, and on date five we kissed for an hour or so. It was date six when she invited me to stay the night with her. Tippi was right. Love happens when it happens. I was twenty-seven. My acne had recently cleared up. Drinking red wine didn’t give me headaches anymore. I could grow a reasonably thick mustache if I wanted. I was beginning to buy clothes that required altering. I owned two designer watches. I drove a red convertible Mustang. On date seven, I asked Beth to marry me. She said, “Maybe.”

Dates eight through twenty-nine alternated between her apartment and mine. The lovemaking was incredible. We experimented with different positions; sometimes more than once. The Kama Sutra was frequently consulted during a lull in our evening’s adventures. During one eventful tryst, terrible back spasms caused both of us to reconsider further experimentation. We already had five or six more-than-satisfactory methods and decided to perfect them. Beth was everything I could have imagined in a life partner. Gorgeous, smart, intellectually engaging, with a laugh like a mule – the one attribute that we agreed was a drawback, but not enough of one to matter – and, as far as I was concerned, she made the most delectable fried bananas a la mode and the most wonderful love on the planet. On date thirty she said, “Yes.” We married seven years later. Tippi was right again: no need to rush.

I had always kept a journal, but, in those early years with Beth, I found my entries to be infrequent. I wanted to spend every moment with her and do nothing else. I’ve been told that’s a common emotion in the early phases of falling in love. As I think back, now that Beth is somewhere in the mystical ether, I can relive the chemical changes of those first years. Slowly, the intensity became less intense, and, like the experts say, our love matured. I started writing in journals more and more. The collection grew logarithmically and I spent extended time alone.

Tippi was good about helping me to learn about getting into love. It was the moving through love that I was having difficulty with. And now that I’ve burned my journals along with Beth, scattered a couple of buckets of ashes at sea, assigned the kids to an aunts and uncle’s tender care, I’ve decided it’s time to travel.

3

Someone once said a wandering soul is simply a soul without a home. Again, I can’t remember who said it; I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my father, because he was definitely a wanderer with a home. He’ll wonder from supermarket to supermarket looking for gefilte fish, good horseradish and younger women - serious about gefilte fish and hoping to bring home an interesting woman. He’s named this maneuver the Gefilte Fish Strategy. He’ll spot an attractive woman, generally thirty to forty years younger than himself, try to position himself one aisle away and pretend to be looking for a hard-to-find product. Because my Dad has that I’m-lost-and-need-help aura about him, invariably the target woman will turn into the aisle and ask if my Dad needs assistance finding something. “Yes, I do. I can’t seem to find the gefilte fish.” And that leads to needing direction to the good horseradish and finally an invitation to lunch where the gefilte fish is consumed, and, if all goes well, a short-term romantic relationship begun.

Dad claims that the strategy works best in smaller, independent, neighborhood groceries. However, it’s almost impossible to find gefilte fish in those markets these days. He says that gefilte fish began disappearing from the shelves of those markets once the Asian immigrants began running them. Now he keeps pretty much to the larger supermarkets, but feels that woman are in too much of a hurry to give him the more individual attention he was accustomed to in the smaller stores. “Times have changed, son, and I’m afraid I’ve had to adjust.”

Adjust? This is a sixty-eight year old senior citizen who has dressed the same way – except when he’s out jogging - for the last twenty-seven years: khaki pants, Madras shirts, sequin-studded suspenders, and the latest running shoes available. And price has never been an issue; Dad invented the Painless Put ‘Em to Sleep Zen Bug Zapper when he was forty. The patent made him a multi-millionaire when he was forty-one, and a good financial advisor has multiplied that several times over. While his divorce from Mom cost him many millions, it barely fazed him. “I let her go for a few million. If Flamenco makes her that happy, so be it,” says Dad whenever he’s asked about the cost of divorce. As far as he’s concerned, the price of divorce purchased a ticket to many more opportunities. And when you’re a five foot four, 122-pound, spiky-grey-haired, jogger in pink running shorts, purple Nike jogging shoes, orange tank top and piggy-embellished suspenders out for an early morning six-mile run, you need to be able to buy all the opportunities you can.

Dad actually attended college – The New School of Philosophical Studies in Taos, New Mexico. This was long before Taos became the refuge for stubborn, self-absorbed, New-age artists looking to make a fortune in the semi-reclusive, but highly remunerative, schlock arts trade. When Dad matriculated, it was more a place for stubborn, self-absorbed, psycho-pop philosophers looking to ensure long-term poverty while spouting existential-lite musings to a throng of post-Beatnik wannabes. Dad was lucky to invent something that earned him a fortune and allowed him to maintain a peculiar worldview understood by few and irritating to all members of the immediate family.

I was driving Dad to the New Asian Corner Grocery and Coffee Café when I told him I was going to take an extended leave from work to travel up the coast. “Great, it’s time to move on,” remarked Dad. “You need to let go of the past, move forward, find new opportunities.” The fact that it was only three months since Beth’s lethal aneurism and spaghetti dive didn’t seem to matter. “Son, you can’t allow your wife’s passing to hinder opportunity. Move forward. Live life,” said Dad while giving another good example of his penchant for insensitive advice, and aptly fit the profile of a serial irritator.

I often drove Dad to the market. I did this on the condition that he didn’t walk out of the store with groceries and another new female opportunity. Nevertheless, I still needed to remind him. This was another typical grocery run and the shopping list was always the same: a jar of gefilte fish, half pound of salami, a dozen eggs, a loaf of corn rye bread, a six-pack of Budweiser long necks, and a package of Dutch Masters President cigars. Fortunately, this time he came out alone with his bag of groceries and a double latte. “No opportunity this time, son. I’m telling you the best places are the supermarkets. I’m going to have to give up on the New Asian.” Dad sat sipping his latte while I drove him home. With all his money, he still refuses to buy a car. He either runs, rides his bike, or calls a cab or me when he needs to go out. He also has a scooter that a former opportunity’s son left behind one day. It is one of those scooters with a gas motor on the back that Dad sometimes fires up at six in the morning, waking up most of his condominium complex on weekends when he goes roaring off to pick up the Sunday Times. There had been countless complaint letters sent to the condominium homeowners’ association over the batty senior citizen who has no respect for the condominium noise ordinance. Since there has never been any such ordinance, nothing ever came of the complaints. Besides Dad’s yearly generous contribution to the condominium’s annual holiday gala generally assuaged any ill feelings.

I needed to see Dr. Lefty before leaving.

4

Someone once said that your inner life is more important than banana tempura. It was some wisecracking comic famous for his non sequiturian humor. In fact, it may have very well been Dr. Lefty, because I often felt his reactions to my dilemmas were not logical reactions.

“I’m thinking of taking an extended trip up the coast,” I said to Dr. Lefty.

“Mmmm. Nature causes the Monarchs to return every year to the same trees.”

What in the world does that have to do with my taking an extended road trip?” No response from Dr. Lefty. Silence. I’m thinking. He wants me to think. I call this shrink-think time. Sometimes I also dub it shrinker-tinker time. Does he want me to ponder the cyclical nature of life and death? Or is he trying to tell me I’ll return to a more normal life once I’ve ventured out? “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” I ask.

Dr. Lefty smiles one of those smiles where your lips grow a bit tighter but don’t turn up and no teeth show. He nods and pushes his pencil against his chin. “How many times have you traveled alone?” And he turns his chin to the side to appear earnestly concerned.

“Never.”

“Hmmmm.”

“I want to look up some old friends. I want to wander around for awhile,” I said.

I grew up about 400 miles up the coast before going south to college. Dad moved south once my sister Harriet and I made Southern California our permanent home. Harriet had followed me to the same college; she was three years younger than I and we had always been each others’ confidants. I remained in touch with a few of my high school buddies over the years, but hadn’t seen any of them except for the ten-year reunion that I forced Beth to attend with me. “I’m really not interested in meeting any friends from your past life, John. You go without me.” I would have nothing of it. I needed to have her with me. Not the least of the reason was that she was gorgeous, and this was my one and only opportunity to show her off as part of my success in life. Shortly thereafter it was pointed out to me that this was shallow and sexist thinking by none other than Dad.

“You want to reconnect like the Monarchs,” interjected Dr. Lefty.

“Are you suggesting my home is elsewhere?” I asked.

“Hmmm. Interesting thought,” says Dr. Lefty. “What do you think of home?” asks Dr. Lefty.

Finally, Dr. Lefty asks an interesting question; every once in awhile this occurs. Out of nowhere, he’ll ask me something that actually causes me to ponder its implications. I’m fairly certain that I never developed a sense of home. Mom and Dad didn’t really provide a place I could call home. During their twenty years of what legally constituted a marriage but emotionally represented a turbulent fling punctuated time-to-time by a negotiated détente, we moved around a lot. They married shortly after turning twenty-one, while both attending the New School of Philosophical Studies. Dad majored in Minor Philosophical Aesthetics and Mom studied Spanish Romanticism.

After graduation they headed west and landed in the San Francisco Bay Area determined to make their mark by opening the New Thinkers’ Laundromat and Head Shop with the intention of nationwide franchising. Unfortunately, the business provided little more than subsistence living, and, when I was born early in the marriage, Mom decided to be a homemaker and Dad secured employment with a local exterminator specializing in termite, ant, and rat control; hence, his idea for the Zen Bug Zapper and eventual financial wealth and security. Until their economic independence and a subsequently affordable divorce, we never lived in a house or apartment for more than two years. In fact, the longest stretch in any particular abode was the two years camped out in a Santa Cruz Mountains yurt that Mom and Dad had found through a former head shop acquaintance. An outdoor kitchen, pit toilet, and gravity-fed running water from an unreliable and bacteria-ridden spring made for difficult times, especially when my sister Harriet came along at a time when all of us were suffering from chronic giardia. We went back to apartment living and Mom showed early signs of restlessness, as homemaking was not her forte. She missed working, so Dad suggested she open a small gift store. Because of her interest in folk and blues music, Mom found a small strip mall shop where she sold records, sheet music, collector guitar picks, and a wide variety of harmonicas. She loved the Harmonicats and seldom missed their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show.

“I’m not sure what a home is,” I responded to Dr. Lefty. He nodded and looked at me with solemn interest. His hand made a tent in front of his mouth, with his forefingers tapping against his lips.

“How did you and Beth think of your home?” probed Dr. Lefty.

I began to feel tears forming, my nose itching, and the memory of Beth’s marinara sauce on my tongue: sweet with a hint of cayenne pepper. I began to sob, feeling emptiness in my chest. I remembered the time Beth surprised me with a journal and Mont Blanc fountain pen for my fortieth birthday.

5

Someone once told me that a journey begins with a small step and ends either with an interesting discovery or a terrible misunderstanding. Again, I can’t remember who said it, but I believe it may have been either a high-ranking politician or the CEO of a major oil company. After packing for my trip, I drove over to Harriet’s to see Travis, Doris, and Dee Dee. I saw them three to four times each week. In their own way, I think they understood my need to have them cared for in ways for which I was incapable.

After hugs and kisses and promises to call every night before bedtime, I drove off. I had no plans, just the notion of heading north away from the overbearing presence of Los Angeles. It was a Saturday, noon, and the summer heat had yet to kick in. Robbins, Higgins, Morgan, and Rafferty Insurance didn’t balk at my request for a six-week leave; after all, my accumulated vacation time exceeded the request, and, for a business often thought of as sterile and stoic, my superiors were suitably empathetic. The only problem was my six-year old Volvo, a give-in to Beth’s need for a safe car. With rarely exercised impulsivity, I drove to the Honda agency on Ventura Boulevard and traded safety and security for sports car bravado: a three-year old S2000 roadster. Throwing back the convertible top, I managed a mildly screeching lurch, looked around to make sure no authorities caught my mini-gesture toward hot-rodding, and drove off toward Hwy. 101 and the Ventura Coastline. After clearing the San Fernando Valley, former home of the Charles Manson Family and current capital of the video porn industry, I set the cruise control for 65 MPH, and wondered where I might stay on night one of my grand adventure. And I hoped an adventure more worthy of the one Mom and Dad had once attempted.

Shortly after my fourteenth birthday Mom and Dad decided to take a family vacation. Dad had been promoted to chief exterminator and received a small bonus, and Mom’s music store had become a fixture with the alternative folk/rock set and afforded her the means to hire two employees, which allowed her to take a short vacation. At the time, we were living in a reasonably neat and clean house in Brisbane with a view of the San Francisco City Dump, Candlestick Point, and the East Bay. We enjoyed sitting on the front deck watching the seagulls swirl around the dump while finding the discarded treasures only a filthy bird could enjoy. We called them the Winged Hobos of San Francisco and imagined these majestically, tiny-brained birds to be quite stupid as they circled, squeaked and dove into mountains of smelly refuse.

Our first family vacation was to be a camping trip to California’s Gold Country. Because we owned no camping equipment, the VW microbus’s portable roof rack was piled with blankets, pots and pans, boxes of whatever was in the kitchen cupboard, and an ice chest with refrigerated perishables. We looked as though we might be a family returning to Oklahoma in post-Dust Bowl days. This was Dad’s pre-financial independence and his penchant for oddball attire; his wardrobe was almost entirely exterminator duds. Instead of his name embroidered on his coverall’s bib like all the other bug killers, Dad choose to have stitched in all capital letters “CHIEF EXTERMINATOR.”

I was appointed navigator and given the privilege of riding up front while Mom, Harriet, Sylvia, and Rose rode in back with an assortment of ersatz luggage: a collection of grocery and department store bags loaded with most of our belongings. One could never be sure of what one might need while on the road. Our vacation ended while heading east on the Bay Bridge and passing through the Yerba Buena Island tunnel as the two bald front tires exploded. Fortunately, VW microbuses are designed to fall apart whenever disaster strikes. The front end hit the pavement in a splash of sparks and disintegrating bumper and fenders. Somehow Dad managed to keep the vehicle in the slow lane, causing all of the evening’s rush hour traffic to come to a screeching halt behind us. I stared at Dad, who remained totally calm while Mom shouted, “Oh, shit!” My sisters screamed in unison, “Oh, no!” Dad said, “Well, I guess that’s it.” We sat there as cars edged their way around our wreck, many taking the time to yell “Get that piece of crap off the road” while giving us the fuck-you gesture. The highway patrol showed up just minutes before the tow truck, and between the two of them we were driven over to Oakland. Mom called one of her employees who happened to own a VW microbus with good tires. She transported us back to Brisbane.

We called it the Fourteen-mile Vacation for the Fourteen Year-old Boy. The microbus was never seen again. The money saved from the thwarted vacation went towards a ten-year-old pink-and-white Ford Fairlane that never broke down and never went away until after the divorce. Dad always referred to it as an interesting experience deeply rooted in ancient Greek tragedy. When I asked Dad how he could compare our aborted trip - caused by his own vehicular neglect - to a Greek tragedy, his easy answer was that all tragedies were Greek. While Dad’s philosophical reasoning lacked reason, it certainly wasn’t short of ambitiously constructed mythmaking.

6

Someone once said that you’ll always forget the ordinary people you meet in life, remember the real screw-ups and realize that everyone else will give life meaning. It was my sister Harriet during one of those tête-à-têtes we often had late at night over a Beck’s and Vienna wieners. We often stayed up late talking on and on about Mom and Dad, growing up in a crazy family, and the fact that we seemed to survive all of it. Mom and Dad seemed to be the screw-ups in our lives, we felt very ordinary, and our own families were the meaning makers.

As I headed toward Santa Barbara, I realized I hadn’t eaten all day and began looking for a coffee shop. Fast food restaurants were not an option. Long ago Beth and I had decided that eating out would not be some grab-and-run occurrence. We insisted that out-of-the-house meals include table service. I pulled off the highway looking for some old-fashioned coffee shop, a dying breed that offered rubbery green beans, mealy meatloaf, grilled cheese sandwiches burnt around the edges, and waitresses who cared to have a rude or sometimes friendly conversation with the diners. Just behind a Denny’s I spotted Belle’s Good Eats. Pulling into the pot-holed parking lot, I saw a phone booth in a corner of the lot and thought it would be a good idea to make a collect call to Harriet and talk to the kids.

Dad answered. “Where are you, son?”

“Somewhere just south of Santa Barbara. I’m going to get something for dinner. What are you doing at Harriet’s?” I asked. Dad rarely dropped in on Harriet or any of us, for that matter. And answering the phone was not one of his strengths either.

“I thought I’d see how the kids were doing. It’ll be hard not having you around. Where are you planning to stay tonight?” This was unusual behavior for Dad. It wasn’t that he stayed away from his grandkids. In fact, he was an involved grandfather. He’d take them out for ice cream, movies, and even hired a limousine to take them to Disneyland for a weekend getaway. But it was always done by appointment. Spontaneous behavior wasn’t Dad’s forte.

“Dad, what are you doing at Harriet’s? Did you just drop in? Is everything okay?”

“Son, I know what it’s like to lose a wife. You need your time. I just wanted to make sure the kids are all right.”

“Dad, I can’t remember you ever talking about loss. You’re always sermonizing about opportunities, the future, not looking in the clichéd review mirror. What’s this all about?”

“Son, loss is temporary. In the cosmic scheme of things it really doesn’t matter. The faster you get over it, the better. It’s highly over-rated. What does matter is moving forward until you can’t go any further. You’ve got to figure that out for yourself. I’m just going to spend a bit of time with the kids until you’re ready.”

As crazy as Dad seemed, conversations with him were never dull - difficult maybe, but not dull. I remember times in Brisbane, sitting on the front porch, watching the scavenger sea gulls, and he’d raise a question that we’d talk about for hours. “Son, do you think communism is really such a bad idea? How do you feel about mixed marriages? Do you believe more poetry ought to be taught in schools? Don’t you think gardening with chemicals is corporate America’s biggest conspiracy?” And whatever my response, it was always met with a challenge from Dad. “Communism can’t be good because it doesn’t work. People won’t ever accept mixed marriages, especially the lunatics who wrap themselves in religious doctrine. Poetry should be abolished from schools all together. Not only is it a waste of time, but it confuses young impressionable minds. Young minds need order and discipline. And frankly, life is not about rhyme. It’s about living. And chemicals are man’s genius at work. Nature gave us the ingredients; man simply figured out how to make the best use of them.”

Dad is a socialist at heart. He specializes in mixed-race opportunities. I think that’s why I’ve been predisposed towards dark-skinned, exotic-looking women like Beth. He spends a considerable amount of time reading poetry. He’s been know to say, “Eat lots of peaches, son. Don’t be afraid. Fruit is good for you,” when in an Alfred J. Prufrock frame of mind. And he hates gardening because it ruins your fingernails and claims that chemically treated fruit and vegetables not only cost less but taste better.

“You’re at the crossroads we all come to,” Son. “Trying to find meaning is perfectly natural and a perfect waste of time.We’re just blips in the scheme of things,” said Dad. “It’s all serendipity. If you’re trying to find order, you’re only kidding yourself. Just live, Son.”

I shot back, “Dad, your degree in New Age Philosophy was nothing more than a license to repeat trite homilies.”

Dad replied, “Trite, son, is nothing more than a universal truth. Unfortunately not enough people honor trite.

“We’ll have to finish this ridiculous conversation later. Are the kids there?”

“Nope, Harriet took them shopping. I’m actually waiting for them to return and then we’re having dinner together. But there is something I need to talk to you about.”

“It’ll have to wait. I’ll call later. Please, tell them I called. Talk to you later, Dad.” And I hung up. I noticed that the parking lot of Belle’s Good Eats had filled while I was on the phone. I walked across the parking lot to the ancient red train caboose diner, and when I entered, noticed that seated at the counter were a dozen or so men drinking champagne in long stemmed glasses. The sign by the cash register stand said, “Welcome to Belle’s. Please, seat yourself.” I chose a booth near the entrance. A busty waitress wearing a French maid’s outfit approached and said, “Welcome to Belle’s. Would you like to start with some bubbly?”

This seemed a bit odd for a diner, but then again, competition with all the chain restaurants had demanded creativity from the independents. That’s one of the things Beth and I liked so much about the out-of-the-way places we specifically sought when we traveled. Once we took a weekend trip to the desert and found a three-room bed-and-breakfast that specialized in Ethiopian cuisine. Breakfast consisted of kinche - some sort of crushed wheat dish chechebsa - a cracked wheat bread, foul - cooked beans mixed with tomato, onion and pepper, and the best black coffee we had ever tasted. The owners were Billy and Filly O’Dell. (No kidding – this was her real name and she’d serve up each breakfast course with a high-pitched whinny that Beth found terribly amusing).

Billy and Filly were two very white, red-headed Americans who had met at Enid High School while growing up in Oklahoma. They fell in love with Ethiopian cooking while doing a world history report on their teacher-selected foreign county, Ethiopia. Billy was the son of the local hardware store salesman, Billy Senior and his wife Clair, a stay-at-home mom. Filly’s parents were the Reverend Colton and Judith Lee Colt, hence the choice of Filly for their one and only child. Billy enlisted in the Air Force, and, after training as a mechanic, was stationed at the Top Gun School in the Mohave Desert. After his discharge, he and Filly decided to stay in the desert. With a small inheritance from Filly’s grandmother, Ellen Naismith Colt, they found the Desert Rose Bed and Breakfast, which they purchased and renamed the Addis Abbaba Restaurant and Inn. They had been successfully running the establishment for over fifteen years when Beth and I were guests. Hearing their life story, while drinking excellent coffee, kept Beth and me enthralled for several hours. However, the intermittent whinnying was about as endearing as Mom’s playing her off-key version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on her harmonica every Fourth of July at precisely twelve noon. Mom explained it was her annual “tip of the hat” to America.

I looked up at my waitress and said, “I’d like to see a menu first.” I noticed a name tag pinned to her French maid’s apron to the left of her magnificent décolletage. It said Theresa and there was something in smaller print that I couldn’t make out.

“Sure, just a sec. I’ll be right back,” said Theresa.

Theresa returned with a one-page, handwritten menu. It had all the standard diner fare: meatloaf, minute steak, hamburgers, spaghetti, grilled cheese sandwiches, and milk shakes made with real hand scooped ice cream. I didn’t see champagne on the menu. Theresa returned and said that they were out of meat loaf and minute steaks. Just then I noticed a highway patrol car pull into the parking lot. The officer spoke something into his microphone before opening the cruiser’s door. After unbending from his vehicle, he unclipped his equipment-laden belt and tossed it onto the passenger seat and turned to enter the diner. He swaggered in and took a seat at the counter, where another French maid garbed waitress brought him a glass of champagne.

“I think I’ll just have the grilled cheese and a vanilla milk shake. And where’s the restroom?”

Theresa said, “It’s outside to the right of the entrance. The key is next to the cash register.”

As I picked up the men’s room key, I noticed several name tags on the counter and couldn’t help by read the names and the smaller print below: “Kim – Mt. Me Fuji”; “Bunny – I’ve Got a Cottontail for You”; “Sue – Me Now or Later”; “Gloria – In Excellence Deo.” Realizing I was in a whore house, I threw five dollars on the counter, left the men’s room key, and strode quickly to the car and decided to try something a bit further up the road. Three exits later I spotted a Bob’s Big Boy and decided that chain restaurants would be just fine for now. There was a phone by the restroom and Dad answered again.

“Are Harriet and the kids back, Dad?” I asked.

“Not yet, Son. Listen, there’s something I need to tell you. I wanted to wait, but it’s important.”

“Now what?” I asked.

“Your mother called,” replied Dad.

“You must be kidding!” I exclaimed. “After all this time, no word from her at all, why now?”

“Apparently she reads the wedding and birth announcements and obituaries from the local newspapers whenever she gets the chance. She says it keeps her current on the important goings on. Anyway, she saw Beth’s obituary and wants to see you.”

“See me? You mean she’s coming out here?” I said while feeling stunned and numb, not unlike my feelings when Beth collapsed into the spaghetti. “When? I asked.

“Soon,” replied Dad.

7

Someone once said that life is like a harmonica; it’s just waiting to have life breathed into it to make beautiful music. It was Mom during one of her many off-the-cuff metaphorical musings. Mom had a way of speaking in metaphors. One time when I ran home with blood dripping down my face and sobbing because a pack of older bullies was throwing rocks at me, Mom said, “John, rocks are like an evil letter, you’ll need to learn how to return to sender.” I think she came up with that one after listening to an Elvis Presley album. Her most memorable bon mot, however, came after meeting her flamenco lover at the Club Seville near the Colma cemeteries: “Marriage is like a high school prom; sometimes you need to know when to change partners.” And now, out of the blue, she’s decided she wants to reconnect.

I needed to talk to Dr. Lefty, but it was after office hours and I was still hungry. One thing about Bobs Big Boy that I remembered from my college days was that you could always trust the combo hamburger, salad and fries. The salad was especially good with their famous bleu cheese dressing, which I ordered on the side for French fry dipping. I sat in the window booth staring at the Bob’s Big Boy cartoon-like statue in front of the restaurant thinking, there’s someone without a care in the world. Could there a Mrs. Bob’s Big Boy? Any little Bobs or Bobbies running around? Or was Bob outside by his lonesome because Mrs. Bob had run off with a flamenco, samba, or tango dancer? Bob looked like a happy-go-lucky fellow, but one could never know. Maybe Mrs. Bob suffered from an unexpected aneurism and plopped into a bowl of Bob’s Famous Chili with extra red onions and cheddar cheese sprinkled on top. Did Bob stand outside his chain of restaurants while his sister cared for little Bobs and Bobbies? Did Bob’s father, Bob Senior, philosophize with overused clichés? And why was I imagining an inanimate object to have life? I finished my meal, paid the cashier, left.

Dr. Lefty wasn’t available; I’d have to try to phone him in the morning. I’d call Harriet if I knew she’d answer. I didn’t want to talk to Dad again. Across the parking lot at the corner of the adjacent gas station was another phone booth. Dad answered.

“Harriet’s not home, yet. She called and said decided to take the kids out for dinner,” replied Dad in response to my inquiry.

“Have you told her about Mom yet?” I asked. I was hoping he had. It would help to pave the way for my conversation with Harriet. I needed her to come up with some good advice, some sort of strategy to deal with what was feeling like an overwhelming change. My life was already in chaotic upheaval. I needed Harriet to create some order and comfort for me.

“Not yet. I wanted to tell you first,” said Dad.

“I’m not sure I can deal with this right now. I need to talk to Harriet or Dr. Lefty first,” I told Dad. “When did Mom say she was going to call?”

“She’s not calling; she’s coming for a visit,” said Dad. This was not good.

“A visit! When?” I asked.

“She’ll be here in about a week. She’s driving across country with her new boyfriend Eugene,” said Dad.

“You actually had a conversation with her?” I replied.

“Of course, Son. Your Mother and I never had a problem talking to each other. Although it’s been quite a few years, old habits are still there. You, know, it’s funny, when I answered the phone, your Mother started right in with a metaphor: “Hello, Saul, it’s Freda. You know family is like a ball and chain; you spend a good portion of your life making the links, then breaking the links, and then putting them back together to create an anchor to what’s important.”

“You’re not serious,” I interjected. “It’s not even a good metaphor; it’s a mixed one!”

“That may be true,” said Dad, “but at least she’s being consistent.”

“What else did she say?” I asked.

“Well, she’s been living in Cleveland for the last five years or so,” said Dad. “Spain was fun, but not permanent. Apparently your Mom and Eugene might be getting married. They’re in a traveling harmonica band called Phat Lipps with a Ph in Phat and pp in Lipps.”

It’s true; Mom and Dad never did have a problem talking to one another. In fact, I can’t remember one time, except when Dad and I were engaged in heated debate, when they weren’t in polite conversation. They never argued; they always had calm, focused discussions. Deep discussions. Intimate discussions. Discussions that I thought married people were supposed to have. Not the type Beth and I had. Beth and I had lots of shallow discussions. Other than the first years of discovering one another, our interactions were shallow: my day at the office, Beth’s day at home, errands that needed to be run, the kids’ behavior, a Saturday shopping list, a movie we might want to see but rarely did, and what god-awful color a neighbor had painted their house. I wondered if shallow conversations produced stable marriages.

I remembered a time when Mom and Dad talked for two days straight – without sleep – about a situation in the Middle East. I know this, because I awoke three or four times during the night and could overhear them in the living room strategizing about what Israel should do after another marketplace attack. Never once did I hear Mom and Dad raise their voices. I imagined them to be like two American ambassadors developing a strategic response to a presidential inquiry for an appropriate governmental plan of action.

“A harmonica band? Phatt Lipps! This is crazy, Dad,” I said while becoming more agitated.

“I think I hear Harriet, Son,” said Dad.

“Okay, I need to talk to her. Right now.” My voice rose a bit more.

“Son, keep in mind that your sister doesn’t know yet. Here she is.”

“Harriet,” I said with a pained voice, “Mom is coming to visit.”

There was a pause. I may not have been particularly tactful in relating the news of Mom’s impending invasion. And that’s what this was going to be: an invasion. Before Dad’s Zen Zapper invention, when Dad proudly wore his jumpsuit with CHIEF EXTERMINATOR stitched above the left breast pocket, when we were scurrying from place to place like a gypsy family living off the residue of dead termites and other buggy infestations, we might have been considered by some to be a normal middle-class family. Except for our short stay in the Mongolian-styled yurt, our family had all the appearances of any other middle-class family. After Dad’s invention and the mega-millions that followed, Mom and Dad suddenly had the wherewithal to exaggerate every quirky behavior that they had accumulated over their quirky lives. Life became a whimsical, incoherent pattern of serendipitous behavior. Their chaos prodded me to become a seeker of coherent and predictable patterns.

This was a common therapeutic theme in my sessions with Dr. Lefty. I felt this constant probing by Dr. Lefty to find something within myself that was spontaneous and risky. All I could come up with was the outrageous expression that I would need to kill Dad to find my own identify. I knew this was merely my way of expressing a need to break paternal bonds; however, there was no way I could physically destroy Dad. And now Mom was coming back into the picture. I had managed to erase her from my present tense memory bank. She lived in the past tense. She was somewhere back there and irrelevant. I had eliminated her a long time ago.

“What!” exclaimed Harriet after what seemed like several minutes. “Mom is coming to visit?”

“Listen, Dad can give you the details, but, yes, Mom is on here way out here with her traveling Phatt Lipps harmonica band and Eugene,” I explained.

“Eugene?” asked Harriet.

“Eugene.” I answered.

“Who’s Eugene?” she asked.

I responded, “I don’t know. Probably some rebound guy after Mr. Flamenco Dancer. They may get married.”

“Married? Okay, this is just too much information for me, too,” said Harriet with her voice now ascending.

“Harriet, I need you to stay calm right now. I need you to help me with this. Can you do that?” I wasn’t managing this conversation very well at all.

I could always rely on Harriet when things were not going well. Even though she was two years younger than I, she was light years more emotionally mature. I was a junior in high school when the school bully Frankie Falatino decided I was to be the next target of his strong-arming extortion. Frankie likened himself to being a mafia don. Even though his father was an elementary school janitor and his mother a stay-at-home mom with his six brothers and sisters at their “other-side-of-the-tracks” house on Fourth Street, Frankie was a self-appointed tough guy. All through elementary, junior high, and now high school, he’d systematically identify new victims and force them to pay a protection fee. I was walking home alone when Frankie blocked the sidewalk with his regular gang of four or five aspiring hoodlums. “Hey, Jew-boy, where you going?”

“Come on, Frankie, leave me alone,” I pleaded.

“Sure, I’ll leave you alone, but it’ll cost you,” he threatened.

“I’m not going to give you any money, Frankie, just leave me alone.” And that’s when he slapped me and his comrades laughed.

All of a sudden Harriet stood beside me. “Frankie, leave John alone,” she stated with a calm, matter-of-fact voice that required everyone’s attention. Harriet simply had a magical air about her that caused tension to evaporate. It wasn’t so much what she said, but how she said it. It was always that way.

“Who are you to tell me what to do, Harriet?” scoffed Frankie.

And that’s when Harriet taught me a new word. Afterwards, when she explained it to me, I realized that no conversations with Harriet would ever be taboo. “Frankie, do you know what the school nickname for you is going to be?” she asked.

“What are you talking about?” asked Frankie.

“It’s simple, Frankie. You’ve got the tough guy reputation right now, but that can change. When your new nickname is revealed, things will change,” said Harriet.

“Bull crap!” exhorts Frankie.

“Frankie, if you don’t leave John alone, the school will know you as Frankie Fellatio the Faggot from Fourth Street,” replied Harriet. “So you’ve got a choice: leave John alone or suffer the new nickname.” And that was all there was to it. Frankie didn’t stop bullying others, but he did leave me alone. Years later, Harriet and I heard that Frankie ended up teaching junior high social studies in San Diego. But back to my phone call.

Harriet said, “Well, this is a very interesting turn of events. Will you be coming home?”

“I don’t know what to do. I wanted to get away for a short trip. I need to get away. This is not a good thing,” I told Harriet. “I need to talk to Dr. Lefty. What do you think I should do, Harriet?” I implored.

“I think you should check into a room, try to get a good night’s sleep, and talk to Dr. Lefty tomorrow,” advised Harriet.

“You’re right. Can I talk to the kids?”

“They’re playing with the neighbor kids outside. Do you want me to get them, John?”

“No, let them have some fun. They’re going to meet their unknown Grandmother soon, so let them have some fun for now. How are we going to tell them, Harriet?”

“John, let’s think about this a bit. I want to talk to Dad. Go find a motel, check in, and call back later. We’ll work this out,” said Harriet in her ever-reassuring voice.

8


Someone once said that unsolicited advice is nothing more than criticism wrapped in foil paper with a fancy bow tied around it. I wish it had been Dr. Lefty when I asked him for advice about how to deal with Dad and his annoying habit of giving unsolicited advice. But the gift of advice from Dr. Lefty was never forthcoming. Instead, he would remind me that I had to find those gifts within myself. And what I needed more than anything else at this time was advice. No doubt Dad was probably boxing, wrapping, and tying bows around several advice packages that would be sent at the next available delivery date. Harriet was more of an unlicensed Dr. Lefty. And Dr. Lefty wasn’t available.

Why was it so hard to travel away from home? It didn’t seem to matter if it was the Fourteen-Mile Vacation or this rapidly deteriorating attempt to travel up the coast. Getting away suddenly seemed to be an insurmountable task. Without thinking I popped the clutch on the Honda and laid a touch of rubber on the pavement as I pulled out of Bob’s Big Boy. I regained my driving composure, eased onto the highway, drove up a couple of more exits at a safe 55 MPH, and spotted a Best Western Motel.

After checking in, I called Harriet. Travis answered. “Dad, where are you?”

“I’m somewhere near Santa Barbara. I just checked into a motel for the night.” Travis sounded older on the phone. “What are you doing, Travis?” I asked.

“I’ve been playing Trivial Pursuit with Grandpa.” Travis loved trivia and so did my Dad. I couldn’t remember a time, however, when they had ever played the game together.

“And how are you doing? Don’t let Grandpa take advantage.” I advised.

“Oh, I’m way ahead. Grandpa really isn’t very good,” said Travis.

“Travis,” I asked, “is everything okay at your Aunt Harriet’s?”

“We’re okay, Dad. Are you?”

I wasn’t sure how I ought to respond to Travis. He seemed genuinely concerned about how I was feeling. His ability to be concerned had to come from Beth. This just didn’t seem right. “I’m not sure, Travis. I’m not sure how I’m feeling. I miss your mom.”

“I know, Dad,” consoled Travis.

“Travis, I have some important things that I need to think through. That’s why I needed to get away and have Aunt Harriett take care of you and your sisters. Do you understand that?”

“Dad, it’s okay. We miss you.”

“I miss you too, Travis.” I felt tears welling. “Do you want me to come back and pick up you and the girls?” I asked.

“We’re okay for now, Dad,” said Travis.

“Okay, Travis, you know I love you.”

“I know, Dad,” replied Travis.

“Is Aunt Harriet there?”

“Here she is, Dad. I love you,” and Harriet came on the phone.

“John, we’ll need to prepare everyone for Mom,” said Harriet.

This was going to be difficult. How do you explain extreme adult behavior to a child? The kids knew that their grandparents had divorced and that their grandmother lived in Spain. The fact that she had never made contact, sent a birthday or holiday gift, or took any sort of interest in their still young lives went unexplained. My father’s eccentric behavior filled any need to know about grandparental behavior. I think the kids simply assumed that all grandparents were weird and that there was no need to have two strange grandparents in their lives. One was more than enough. I’m sure that having Grandpa show up for your fifth birthday swim party wearing a Madras bathing suit, Miss Piggy suspenders, red bathing cap, snorkel, and aqua flippers had the permanent affect on Travis of being content with only one grandparent. Beth’s parents would have provided a nice normalcy balance, but they had long been deceased, so Dad had to serve as the model grandparent.

“Harriet, I don’t know if it’s possible to prepare anyone for Mom,” I said.

“I think we just need to be honest and straightforward. You need to talk to the kids, John.” That wasn’t exactly the advice I wanted from Harriet.

“I’m going to take a walk, Harriet. Then I’m going to try to get some sleep. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” I hung up, changed into some sweat pants and shirt, and walked into the cool night air with a sense of resignation to the fact that life was about to take another turn; one in which I was totally unprepared.

The motel was located near the older part of whatever town I happened to be in. I hadn’t paid much attention to where I was when I pulled off the highway. As I walked along, I began to read the local business signs for counselors, chiropractors, day spas, massage therapists, attorneys, astrologers, and personal philosophers. Clearly I was in one of those boutique villages where service rather than products was the commerce du jour. Baby-boomer activists had metamorphosed from anti-war, free speech, multi-colored feminist, pot smoking, acid dropping, take-time-to-make-one’s-fortune individualists into self-serving community builders intent on serving one another with services designed to make easier the slow, inevitable human degeneration. Those Christians who could not afford the luxury of pampered introspection returned to the church of their youth with conservative fervor. My fellow reformed Jews reveled in the memory of brisket, latkes, borscht, and chicken soup and used their agnostic beliefs as a warranty for the possibility of something beyond their known and little-understood lives.

I was the only one walking on a tree-lined street of restored Victorian shops with tidy flowerboxes. All the buildings appeared to be freshly painted and groomed: a civic facial. I was alone; pondering my next move. I would call Harriet in the morning and inform her that I was going to continue my trip and would not call her for the next five days. In fact, I would not even call Dr. Lefty. I was going to put some time and space between events. Mom would not be arriving for at least a week. I needed time to think.

I crossed the street to walk along the other side and start back to the motel. Sitting against a backpack in the doorway of the Heaven On Earth Mud Baths and Day Spa was a young man smoking a sweet-smelling briar pipe. His long, matted hair and coarse beard gave him a tramp-like appearance. He wore a tattered tuxedo, top hat, and white spats over mud-encrusted hiking boots. The pipe seemed out of place. He appeared to have freshly manicured fingernails. He eyed me speculatively. I nodded. He uttered, “Dude,” and nodded at me. I stopped and noticed that he sported a bright-pink cummerbund. Clearly he was a self-assured bum.

“Dude?” I asked. I generally don’t speak to riff-raff. In fact, I’ve spent my life ignoring it. But, for some inexplicable reason, this particular character seemed more interesting than the usual run of societal bottom feeders. “Were you talking to me?”

“Yes.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I had reacted to his “Dude” utterance; now I was stuck. Smelling his pipe reminded me of a former college roommate who took great joy in intellectual pretense when smoking was allowed in all manner of places, including the dormitory, college classrooms, and coffee shops. My sometimes-roommate Jarrod enjoyed puffing on his expensive Meerschaum filled with a cheap, cherry infused tobacco. “Your pipe smells good. What’s the blend?”

“It’s the house mixture from the Good Smokes, Good Folks Tobacconist just up the street. They’re closed, if you were thinking of buying some.”

“Actually, I don’t smoke a pipe. In fact, I don’t smoke at all. But maybe I’ll check it out tomorrow. I’ve been thinking about taking up a pipe. I need a new hobby.” I don’t know why I said that; it just seemed like the right thing to say at the time.

“I could help you with that,” said the young bum. “I’m a regular customer when I’m in town, and they give me a member’s rate. I’m sure I could get you a good deal. When you’re first starting out, it’s good to have a guide. Pipe smoking is like anything else in life: you’ve got to learn your way.”

“Interesting,” I replied. “Do you know of a coffee house or some place where we might continue this discussion? You look like you could use a bite to eat and maybe a place to stay.” I knew I was taking a risk, but it seemed all right at the time.

“There’s a small coffee house a few blocks off this main street, near the house I’ve rented for the month. Yes, I look homeless, but I’m quite well off. Let me treat you to a coffee.” This was unexpected and I agreed. Maybe I had met an eccentric a Howard Hughes wannabe, not a down-on-his-luck bum.

For the next couple of hours, till past midnight, we sat drinking coffee and chatting. He told me that his current name was Sparrow, and that he changed it regularly to fit his mood and travel plans. He preferred to keep his legal name private. Sparrow told of his growing up as a privileged, doted-upon son in Atherton, an enclave for the super-rich south of San Francisco. His father had made a fortune as a “techno industrialist” and his mother spent her waking hours supporting “socially responsible” causes and her sleeping hours in various yoga positions. He graduated at the top of his class at an exclusive private academy, earned a degree with honors in economics at Stanford, and decided shortly thereafter to take advantage of a large trust fund to travel the world and pursue his interest in social anomalies. After telling him about Beth’s untimely pasta dive, Sparrow said, “Sounds like nature sent you a Dear John letter. How will you reply?”

“I’m not sure. That’s what I’m trying to work out.”

“John, there are really only two kinds of people: dead ones and live ones. Dead comes in two versions: living-above-ground dead and dead-dead. Live comes in one version: alive. You’ll need to choose soon because there’s not that much time.”

I was beginning to think that I’d just run into a younger version of Dad, but with a more adventurous spirit.

9


Someone once said that ideas are like worms in the brain. It was WuWu Metu, the former Albanian-born Tibetan lama who was banished from his homeland while still in his mother’s womb. And Sparrow was full of ideas. The morning after our coffee house chat, we met for breakfast at a renovated jail appropriately named the Jailhouse Omelet. While seated in Cell Number Nine with Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock looping incessantly in the background, we both enjoyed the “Infamous Locked ‘Em Up” omelet with Capone sausage, Valentine’s Day cheddar, and Fried-in-the-Chair home fries.

I found myself lost in Sparrow’s travels and the stories he had already accumulated in his relatively short life. He told of visiting a newly discovered tribe of little people living in a remote Brazilian jungle. They had been nicknamed Bearded Gnomes due to their size and the belief that their lives were predestined to be as long as their beards. The tribal leader was the one with the longest beard. He was doted upon by several handmaidens who washed and combed his beard on a regular basis, and, when it was dry, carefully braided it into long tendrils that often stretched to his navel. Any loose hairs were carefully preserved in tree sap, which would be buried with him when he died and his beard stopped growing.

When I asked Sparrow about his plan for the remainder of the day, he said that he tended not to plan; rather, he sought to “go wherever his observations took him.” Then he asked if I was interested in purchasing a pipe. “Yes, I think so,” I replied without really knowing how much of a commitment I was making. As we walked along what I was finding to be a Disney-like town, Sparrow talked about how silly it was that the Bearded Gnomes equated beard length with longevity and leadership. He spoke of what he called a “common anthropological silliness” where all tribes – be them Brazilian, Scotch, American or whatever – needed “silly” reasons for their lives to have meaning. “Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and beards – in the grand scheme of things, they’re all the same: silly symbolic inventions for humankind’s inability to come to grips with its own mortality.” I stopped mid-step and looked at Sparrow. Now I was sure it was Dad all over again, but with a twist: Sparrow was an accident, a placeholder in the book of my life.

Approaching the Good Smokes, Good Folks Tobacconist, Sparrow said, “I think you’re a candidate for a straight pipe.” We entered the shop and the aroma was instantly intoxicating. I’ve never understood why the scent of coffee, leather, pine forests, fresh bread, and good tobacco were so appealing. The walls were filled with displays of pipes, large tobacco jars, and different accoutrements designed to enhance the pipe smoking experience. There was a walk-in cigar humidor at the far end of this narrow store. Behind the counter stood an older, white-bearded fellow whom I assumed to be the proprietor. The counter was also filled with pipes, lighters, and small humidors. “Good morning, Sparrow, how are you today?”

“I’m hunky-dory, Noah. I’d like you to meet my new friend John who needs to be fitted for his first pipe. I think we ought to take a look at a straight Savinelli. You know, that’s the pipe that Bing Crosby made famous.”

“Yes,” replied Noah, “A Savinelli is a good choice for a first pipe. They’re light, burn cool, and are easy to care for.” He pulled a pipe out of the counter case and handed it to me. I looked it over, feeling its smooth finish. “I think a lighter tobacco would be in order. The Dunhill Early Morning pipe blend would be a good starter; it’s mild with good flavor.” My day was becoming interesting. I was getting excited about the prospect of trying something new. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt that way. Noah continued, “You’ll want to rub little saliva in the bowl and fill it loosely about half way for your first smoke and gradually increase the amount of your pack for the first five or six smokes. That will allow you to season the bowl. Now let’s see, you’ll need a few other items.”

I left my new personal tobacconist with my Savinelli, eight ounces of Dunhill tobacco, pipe cleaners, a pipe reamer, and a silver pipe lighter. Sparrow and I walked to the small town square, sat on a bench, and lit our pipes.

“You know,” said Sparrow, “Noah lost his wife a year ago. She was a victim of lung cancer and she had never smoked. She wouldn’t even allow smoking in or around her house. Noah had been an investment banker and retired to care for her. He bought the tobacco shop a few months after she died.”

“Do you think this was an intended irony?” I asked.

“I prefer to think of it as his way of thumbing his nose at inevitability. What about you, John?”

“I think I understand inevitability. I’m not sure what to do about it.”

“That’s your problem: thinking you can do something about it.”

I puffed on my pipe. The tip of my tongue burned a bit, but I was truly enjoying the experience. I notice a couple across the park, sitting on the bench opposite Sparrow and me. They might have been in their late twenties or early thirties. He was gesturing with his right hand while she snuggled against him with her head on his shoulder and her arms wrapped around his left arm. His gesturing seemed to punctuate something that made her smile and laugh. She kissed him on the cheek. He seemed to relax and go still, and they pushed even closer together. Were those the movements between two lovers that made everything else inconsequential?

Sparrow interrupted my thoughts: “I’m thinking about changing my name next week. I can’t decide between Rocket and Mr. Niven. I really enjoyed Around the World in Eighty Days, but the whole space race story I’ve read about intrigued me, too.”

The changing of names, perhaps of one’s entire identity, seemed to be such a cavalier move. Was Sparrow being disingenuous; a spoiled boy hiding behind multiple identities and a pink cummerbund?

“What’s the point?” I asked

“It’s more an experiment in mood than anything else, “he explained. “Some folks use drugs, psychiatrists, health spas, or excessive exercise to adjust their state of mind. I prefer a name and wardrobe change.”

I eyed Sparrow - or maybe it was Rocket, or Mr. Niven for that matter - through a different lens: bifurcated skepticism. This was either a case of genuine self-identity or the best con job ever. I imagined that his parents must really be wondering what went wrong. How could they have reared what appeared to be an intellectual dilettante? And then I thought of my own father and his gefilte fish strategy and Miss Piggy suspenders helping Harriet and the kids while I was on a trip trying to figure out something I had yet to define. What real influence do parents have once their children have lost parental insulation against the real world? What would be my impact on Travis, Doris and Dee Dee.

“Sparrow, how about lunch? My treat.”

“There’s a good new age deli up the street. They serve faux pastrami on rye. I think it’s a tofu product, but you’d never know the difference.”

“Sounds good. Let’s go. I’m up for something new.” I tapped my pipe against the bench to empty the bowl and stood.

“Be sure your pipe is completely cooled off before you empty it. You want to be sure to build up a good lining for a better smoke.”

10


Someone once said that the myths we create are more real than the lives we lead. It was Sparrow, who, over lunch, had decided to change his name to Gregory McGeorge. “But you can call me Mr. GMG, if you’d like.” We were seated in the corner of a multi-ethnic, semi-kosher delicatessen. Mr. GMG, almost Rocket or Mr. Niven, was munching on a feta, tapenade, and corned beef on rye sandwich. I had ordered a ham and cheese on white bread, but my corn-rowed redhead and serpentine tattooed server raised her pierced eyebrow with disdain, so I ordered a salad nicoise with tofu instead. Lunch went on for most of the afternoon. No one seemed to mind how long we sat. Most customers ordered food to go.

“Now that you have a new name, what will your new wardrobe be?” McGeorge thoughtfully considered my question by looking up at the faux bamboo ceiling fan, smiling to himself, and running his forefinger along his right eyebrow.

“I think a crisp white shirt, blue blazer, carefully creased tan pants, silk dress stockings, and tasseled loafers. But first a professional manicure. I know a place up the street. Will you join me?”

After the manicure and the purchase of new clothes, with a promise by the tailor that they would be ready by the close of the next business day, we were, once again, smoking our pipes on the town square bench. It was just past closing time for most of the town businesses and the streets surrounding the square were beginning to fill with people on their way home. McGeorge and I sat quietly puffing on our pipes.

“When Beth died, I had no idea what to do. It had never occurred to us to make funeral arrangements. We hadn’t even made wills. We carried minimal life insurance. And we both worked in the insurance industry. I wasn’t prepared for Beth dying on me.” I turned to McGeorge, puffed on my pipe, and paused. “My sister Harriet came to my rescue, as she always has. She made all the funeral arrangements. The day before the funeral, I found a letter in Beth’s nightstand drawer with instructions that it should be opened in the event of her death. I was caught off guard. Inside she wrote of her love for me and the kids, instructed me to ‘get on with life as soon as possible’, and asked for a ‘quiet, appropriately somber funeral with no music, no candles, and no pictures’. She only wanted one song played: ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.’ Can you imagine that?”

McGeorge laughed. “She was subtle in her contradiction. Wasn’t she?”

“And I’ve been thinking that I would want something much different for myself when the time comes. High energy, rock and roll music, a wild wake would be in order. But I’d want it surrounded by classical music. The ‘William Tell Overture” to open and the “The Hallelujah Chorus” to close.”

“That would be your identity change, so to speak,” said McGeorge. “Natural and supernatural. Good thinking. Your own personal wardrobe change”

Now it was my turn to laugh. “You know, I’ve been seeing a psychotherapist for years. I think it’s time to give him up.”

McGeorge looked at me, smiled, and said, “What you need is to see is my psychotic reader. She makes a lot more sense in the short run.”

“You mean psychic reader,” I replied.

“No. Psychotic reader. She’s totally nuts, very interesting, and harmless unless you believe her.” McGeorge stood and said, “Let’s go.”

We stood and walked through the center of town to an adjoining neighborhood of modest houses with tiny front yards and older cars parked in the driveways of detached single-car garages. McGeorge signaled for me to swing open a picket gate, which led to a small cottage painted Halloween orange with lime green trim. “This is Madame Y’s place.”

“Madame Y?” I asked. “What happened to Madame X?”

“She’s the long-departed sister, and ironically disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Local and state authorities even dug up the yard, but have never found her. It’s still an open case.”

McGeorge knocked once on the cottage’s black door. It was opened by a very large woman whose girth seemed to be equal to her height, Her Methuselah-like hair slithering from under a silver and purple babushka. She wore two or three rings on each of her fingers. Her bare feet sported spider web henna markings. A black sports bra and latex bicycle pants did not compliment her National Football League physique. “Sparrow, it’s nice to see you again. Please, come in. I was just finishing my weekly workout. You and your friend can wait for me in the parlor.”

“I’m now Gregory McGeorge, but you can call me Mr. GMG.”

“How nice: another identity to keep reality at bay. I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”

We entered Madame Y’s cottage and turned left into the parlor. The walls were papered in a gold grass cloth, the ceiling painted sky blue with images of clouds passing over. The only furnishings were assorted bean bag chairs circling a worn middle-Eastern carpet. We sat. “What in the world would bring you here?” I asked.

“Remember: I’m interested in social anomalies. Madame Y not only fits the category, but she’s even right about much of what she has to say about the world, and, most importantly, about our individual circumstances. She intentionally calls herself a psychotic reader, as she doesn’t believe in foretelling the future, but professes that we all carry around hidden psychosis that must be confronted if we are to live happy lives.”

“I think psychotic behavior is a pretty severe mental illness. Don’t you think quirky neurosis might be more appropriate?” I stared at McGeorge feeling confident in my own analysis. After all, I had a bit of personal experience with psychology and Dr. Lefty assured me that my desire to kill Dad was not a psychosis but rather a slight paranoiac need to grow up.

“Madame Y likes to ask the hard questions,” replied McGeorge.

We sat quietly for several minutes. Madame Y made her entrance in rush of white chiffon and a white turban. She moved quickly to a white bean bag and with amazing grace arranged herself the way a princess might assume her throne. “Who is your friend, Mr. GMG?”

“This is John. His wife recently died. He’s been seeing a therapist for years. He’s on a journey of self-recovery, and he’s lost.”

‘Self-recovery’ caught me off guard. I wasn’t sure how to react. I’m sure my expression even surprised McGeorge because he quickly added, “I meant to say ‘self-recovery’. And I didn’t mean from your recent loss. I meant from life in general. You see,” turning to Madame Y, “John has yet to learn what was meant by that great line from the Beatles song “The End”: ‘And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.’” And McGeorge slowly turned is head and bore a stare right through me. I dropped my eyes to examine my fingers, which lay entwined on my lap.

Madame Y asked, “John, did you know that your namesake, John Lennon, was the reincarnation of the Greek God of Love, Eros? You have nothing in common with him. Why do you think your psychosis is a lack of love?”

I began to feel extremely ill at ease. I can accept the company of a gadfly like McGeorge, but the inanity of Madame Y was disturbing. I rose with some effort, as getting out of the cocoon-like bean bag required a rolling back and forth to get the necessary momentum to stand. “I’m leaving. You were correct in describing Madame Y as insane.”

“Hold on, John, I’m coming with you.”

And Madame Y called out from her bean bag perch, “Insane? That’s a compliment reserved for only the great ones. Thank you!”

Walking away from Madame Y’s seemed like an intentionally defiant act on my part. I couldn’t remember any time in my life when I voluntarily walked away from someone without an explanation. I often made up some lame excuse, so as not to appear impolite. I felt a sudden surge of personal power.

“John, what was that all about?”

“Listen, McGeorge: I’m frustrated with the bullshit! It’s time for a change.” I surprised myself with my profanity.
“Good, John. I believe Madame Y had exactly the right effect.”

I stopped and turned toward McGeorge. He smiled at me, pulled his pipe from his jacket pocket, carefully tamped fresh tobacco in its bowl, and lit up. The few moments this took gave me time to compose myself. Whatever anger I had shown subsided and I felt my pulse slow. And then Madame Y appeared around the corner like an exploding snowflake, furiously waving a long-handled garden spade and shouting, “Insane! Insane! Insane! I’ll beat the psychotic crap out of the both of you and bury it with a favorite relative. Insane! You betcha!” It seemed that a particularly wicked gravitational pull was causing her hefty white mass to accelerate towards us. McGeorge and I wasted no time in making a fast retreat. Fortunately, whatever forces were at play could not keep Madame Y’s bulk from getting the best of her. As we looked back over our shoulders, we saw her propped up against the shovel gasping for breath, her head hanging loosely with her partially unraveled turban swinging beneath her chin while she meekly waved a fist at us.

McGeorge and I slowed to a walk and I said, “I need to find a phone and call Dr. Lefty.”

“You need to talk to Lefty now?” asked McGeorge.

“No, I need to call him and tell him I no longer need to see him. And then I need to call my sister Harriet and let her know I’ll be coming home.”

We had arrived at the town center and our familiar bench was waiting or us. After lighting my pipe, I sat back and told McGeorge that I really appreciated meeting him and would he like to meet my family. He enthusiastically said that he’d love to. I offered him a ride, but he declined. He said that he drove an antique Bentley and would simply follow me. We agreed to leave the next day after he picked up his new wardrobe.

While sitting on the bench, puffing on my pipe, and chatting with McGeorge, I noticed the marquee of a shop across the street: “Laughing and Weeping Yoga”. On either side of the shop’s name were the Greek masks for tragedy and comedy and inscribe below the shop’s name “Get your karmic yin and yang in balance.” This town was clearly a progressive lesson in mixed philosophical metaphors. I could sense my mother’s presence like a new moon rising and my father’s unsolicited advice like the setting sun. I had to cross the street to find out what this yoga business was all about.

“I’ve got to check out the yoga shop over there,” I said to McGeorge.

“I thought you had phone calls to make.”

“They can wait a bit. Are you coming?”

11


Someone once said that a true visionary never experienced the world with their five senses. It was Dr. Radcliffe Del Rio, the author of Funny Bones Yoga: the Way to Good Health, Good Looks, and Financial Independence. His book was prominently displayed in the small, ornately draped window of the yoga studio. Before entering this apparent new-age hobby shop, I thought about what McGeorge had said when he was Sparrow about being an observer of social anomalies. Was I becoming such an observer, or was I simply developing a newfound curiosity for people and events outside myself? I was suddenly aware that I was experiencing some kind of shift in my world view: I was ready to dispose of Dr. Lefty, go home, and begin a different relationship with my family. I didn’t know what that relationship might be, and, with mom’s visit looming, not sure I even wanted to know.

McGeorge tapped me on the shoulder. “Are we going in?” Before answering, I glanced again at the title of Dr. Del Rio’s book. I wasn’t really interested in any of its promises. I was more interested in resolution. My mind flashed on all those who had never finished their life quests: the quarterback who never won the Big Game, the movie director who was never awarded the Big Prize, the thief who never scored the Big Score, the writer who never finished the Great Novel, the poet who never found the Perfect Couplet, and the man or woman who never fell into Perfect Love. Was life simply a serendipitous journey that meandered through the highs and lows of joy, tragedy, and irony with no resolution? Was it something sustained by the faith in something larger than ourselves or the simple knowledge that we are what we are and nothing more?

“Okay,” I replied to McGeorge, “Let’s see what “Laughing and Weeping Yoga” is all about. It’s got to be more amusing than Madame Y’s.” And McGeorge laughed. We entered and found ourselves in a space about the size of a small den with a high ceiling. The walls were painted an eye-straining bright enamel white, except for the wall behind the reception desk, which seemed to glow a fire engine red. The only furniture in this overly tidy space was a stainless steel counter behind which stood a twenty-something young woman wearing what appeared to be a Navy blue flight attendant’s uniform. Her shoulder-length white blonde hair hung straight and didn’t move when she looked up at us and said, “Welcome to the first day of the rest of you soon-to-be healthy, good looking, and financially rewarding life. My name is Isabel, and I’m here to help you initiate the penultimate experience.” She smiled just like a used car salesman or whore who sees a client walking down the street in the bad part of town with a fistful of money to burn. I thought she must be Madame Y’s daughter. After all, it was a small town with small town virtues and vices.

“We were curious about Laughing and Weeping Yoga,” I said. “What’s it all about? Can we sit in on a session?”

“This is not one of our studios,” she explained. “This is an enrollment center. You may fill out a suitability survey, and complete a financial viability application at this location. Depending upon your membership level, you will then be eligible to attend classes at any of our centrally located studios where Dr.Del Rio or one of his trained life guides will provide personalized instruction. Would you like to complete the forms now, or take them with you?”

McGeorge placed his hand on my shoulder. I turned to see him smile and shake his head. “What do you think, John? Shall we partake in this corporate scam, or would you prefer to get some dinner and make plans for tomorrow’s departure?”

“Actually, I’d like to make a phone call first. I think Dr. Lefty may still be in his office.” I turned to Isabel and asked, “Might you have a phone I could use? I’ll pay for the call.”

“That’s quite alright. Dr. Del Rio has a policy that any call to another doctor is always complimentary.” And she placed the telephone on the counter. I dialed Dr. Lefty’s private client line and he answered on the second ring. “Dr. Lefty, it’s me, John.”

“Hello, John. How goes the journey?”
“I think things are beginning to change. I’m going to head home tomorrow with my new friend, McGeorge.” I paused to think about what I wanted to say next. I felt suddenly a sudden rush of self-assurance. I was ready to tell Dr. Lefty I would not be seeing him anymore. “I have a lot I need to do when I get home, Dr. Lefty. And I’m not going to need your services to do what I need to do.” I waited for his response. I felt comfortable with the ensuing silence.

Dr. Lefty said, “Congratulations, John. What’s the first thing you’ll be doing when you get home?”

I considered the possible reasons for his question. Was this a test? Was the underlying message that I might not be clear in my thinking? Could it be a positive presumption that I did know what I would be doing first? Or was it simply conversational without an underlying agenda? Did it really matter? And why did I find it necessary to perseverate on a series of questions? “It really doesn’t matter, Dr. Lefty. I’m going to go home and take care of what needs to be taken care of in the order it presents itself. And I don’t need you to help me with any of it.”

“I wish you the very best, John. And please don’t feel that you can’t give me a call should you feel the need. Take care.”

After saying good-bye, I hung up and turned to Isabel. “Thank you, Isabel. I came in here with a sense of curiosity, but I’m leaving with a feeling of internal satisfaction. And believe it or not it was the ludicrous corporate nature of Laughing and Weeping Yoga that helped me find the strength to rid my self of an unnecessary construct in my life.”

“I’m happy we were able to be of assistance,” said Isabel.

“Let’s go, McGeorge. I need a good puff on my pipe, something to eat, and I need to call my sister.”

As we walked down the street, not really knowing where we were headed, I scanned the town square. This was truly a fantasy town, trapped in its own sense of what it would like to be. Other than a good smoke, everything else was imagined. Where else would someone find a Madame Y, a corporate yoga shop, store fronts looking more like movie sets without the wear and tear of a real life? I had even met someone, Sparrow or McGeorge or whatever he would become, whom I liked but who seemed to be a serial identity abuser. It was time to not only reconnect with reality, but also shoulder my responsibility as a parent and adult family member. I asked McGeorge, “Do you know where there’s a good stationery store. I need to pick up a new journal.”

“I thought you burned all your journals,” said McGeorge.

“I did. But that was when I was journaling for all the wrong reasons. I now have a story to tell. My journaling was mostly list-making and anecdotal gibberish. I’m ready to begin something longer and more meaningful.”

McGeorge nodded. “We’re all really a continuous stream of emerging identities. I choose to clearly define them in the moment they occur to me. You choose to label them as they reveal themselves to you. I think you’re moving out of your tragedy, John.”

“Whatever that means, McGeorge, I still want to buy a journal, call my sister, get something to eat, and get a night’s sleep before heading home tomorrow.”

McGeorge led me to another quaint store: Paper, Pen & Beyond. After purchasing a leather-bound journal, I found a phone booth. Dad answered.

“Harriet is out. How are you, John?”

“Dad, are you staying at Harriet’s? You’re there every time I call. What’s going on?”

“Son, it’s what grandfathers do when their sons need some time. Are you okay?”

“I’m coming home tomorrow. I ready to be there.” Dad was saying something about looking forward to seeing me. My mind wandered to the fact that my mother would be arriving soon, which would give me only a day to prepare the kids for the grandmother they had never met.

"Son, you mother and Eugene will be arriving tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" I asked. "I thought it would be later in the week."

"Well, she called earlier and said that she and Eugene were making good time. It'll be tomorrow."

All I could think of was that here was another unexpected circumstance to deal with. It seemed that my life was simply a series of unexpected circumstances. McGeorge appeared outside the phone booth.

"Dad, I'll be home tomorrow and will deal with all of this. I hope I'll get there before mom."

"Don't worry. I'll take care of things if she gets here before you do."

I told McGeorge that I wasn't really in the mood for dinner. We agreed to meet for breakfast before leaving in the morning for my sister Harriet's. I walked back to my motel puffing on my pipe. In my room, I sat at a small desk, opened my new journal, and began writing. Words flowed easily and I constructed the first few pages of what I thought might become a good story. I paused and looked at my fabricated surroundings: the specially designed king-sized bed, a picture some old man on some old sea like all the other old man and old sea pictures in all the other fabricated rooms. I imagined the people who worked in careers designing and manufacturing kitschy furniture, plastic shoes with pink plastic daisies, oversized reflective sunglasses, decorated walking sticks with hidden whiskey flasks, fake dog poop, and other marketable items. Was it possible that they found the same deep meaning in their work as a noted poet, playwright, sculpture, musician, or watercolorist?

I retired for the evening.

12

Someone once said a surprise is like a false promise - it's the expectation of truth, but the reality of never knowing. I never understood what my mother was trying to tell me. She frequently surprised me with promises of a normal life and then bursts of unexplained behaviors. It wasn't just the running off with a flamenco dancer, although that certainly qualified as the acme of her reality of my never knowing. There was the time when she decided to paint her body puce in commemoration of Puce Letter Day. Of course, there was no such holiday, but mom thought it a splendid idea, so she had dad paint her puce, take a picture, and make flyers which she hung all over Brisbane's telephone polls and market bulletin boards. "Come celebrate Puce Letter Day at the Brisbane Dump. Free sodas!" proclaimed the flyers. There was no further explanation, and there were mom and dad on March 15 - the Ides of March, two days before a legitimate celebration - standing in the dump: mom painted puce and blowing harmonica blues, dad standing by a drink table with two cases of sodas, and no one else in sight except for couple of trash-pushing tractor drivers, a gardener unloading his pick-up truck overflowing with tree trimmings, and a few hundred gulls circling overhead.

I pulled into Harriet's driveway. McGeorge parked his Bentley curbside and waited. He knew that I wanted some time inside before his introduction. Dad opened the front door and stepped outside. "I'm home,” I announced.

"The kids have gone to the park with Harriet and grandma."

"She's here already?"

"Freda actually arrived last night after you called. Everything’s going well, I think. She, Eugene, Harriet and the kids should be back soon."

I waved for McGeorge to join us. "Dad, this is my new friend McGeorge. I think you'll find that you have a lot in common."

We stepped inside Harriet's modest ranch-style home, which she kept meticulously clean and tidy. Although her decorator's style might best be termed whimsy, everything fit together. Each piece of furniture was picked for comfort first, color second, and style a distant third. I think it was Harriet's way of tempering her own logic and order with intentional disorder.

Dad immediately began asking McGeorge all the usual who-are-you questions when the front door swung open and Travis ran in shouting, "We've killed grandma!"

“What!” I exclaimed.

Travis frantically explained that grandma wanted his sisters and him to sit on one end of the see-saw while she sat on the other end. “Grandma sat down and then we sat. Grandma pushed up and went flying off. She’s dead. The ambulance came and …” Before Travis could finish, a gentleman looking like Dad’s twin walked in. He wore black shorts, a black T-shirt, black socks, white buckskin shoes, and a very large black sombrero.

Dad said, “Eugene, what happened to Freda.”

“She flipped off the see-saw and knocked herself out. The ambulance has taken her to the hospital. Harriet and the girls followed in her car. We need to go.”

I stared at this Dad look-a-like: spiky grey hair, wiry, efficient body, wearing a faux Mexican get-up, with the whitest, hairiest legs imaginable. What sort of weird family dynamic could possibly have come to this? Finally, McGeorge instructed us to all get into his Bentley, and he drove us to the hospital. I sat mute in the back seat. Travis followed my emotional lead, and quietly leaned against me. Dad gave directions. Eugene seemed to be trying to introduce himself to me, but I was non-communicative.

McGeorge pulled into the hospital’s visitor parking lot. As we approached the emergency room entrance, I recalled the three rides to the hospital with Beth: two for births and one in the ambulance following Beth’s aneurism. My only hospital experiences involved life and death. In the waiting room, we found Harriet and the twins. All three embraced me with hugs and tears.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“The doctors are examining Mom. She was knocked out, but came to in the ambulance. I think she’ll be okay.”

Eugene said, “Thank goodness.” And Dad seemed to audibly sigh at the good news.

We sat down on orange plastic couches that must have been designed by someone who flunked ergonomics in design school. Not only did the color scream “get out of this hospital immediately”, but the cushions seemed embedded with a squeaky and sticky substance. I must have been the residue of toxic hospital sanitizers and too many children dripping candy and sodas from the nearby vending machines. Dad and McGeorge were huddled in conversation in one corner.

“Harriet, I’m so sorry this is happening.”

“Don’t worry, John. Mom will be okay. Everything was really going well until the accident. She and the kids seemed to hit it off quite well.”

Travis chimed in. “Yeah, Grandma’s really okay, Dad. She apologized for not being around more and said that she looked forward to getting to know us.”

Then Eugene spoke. “John, I know you’ll find this difficult to believe, but your mother has missed you. She wants to reconnect, especially now that we’re going to be married.” Mom was going to marry Eugene? This struck me as getting another dad like Dad, only one wore piggy suspenders and the other a black sombrero. I noticed that Eugene’s announcement caught Dad’s attention. He stood and approached Eugene with a congratulatory handshake. It felt like two bothers celebrating the exchange of presidential power.

McGeorge came over and gave Eugene a hug. Was I missing something? And then McGeorge began telling me how he and Dad were talking about opportunities and the need to be constantly on the lookout for them. Dad chimed in with how much he and McGeorge had in common. He noted that McGeorge’s new identities were just another method for finding new opportunities. Eugene elaborated with a story about how he and Freda – my gallivanting mother – saw their harmonica band as creative opportunity, while, at the same time, travel the world meeting new and interesting people. Dad and McGeorge were nodding approval when Travis asked, “Where’s Aunt Harriet, Doris, and Dee?” We all looked around, and coming down the hallway were the girls and Harriet pushing Mom in a wheelchair.

There rode Mom wearing a lime green sombrero, pink jumpsuit, and silver sneakers. We stared at one another as she practically leaped out of the wheelchair with arms outstretched, and, with a clear, soprano voice, called, “John, I’m fine. You know life is like a box of Cracker Jacks.”

And before she could finish another predictable metaphor I interrupted with, “And you never know what crappy prize you’ll find at the bottom.”

“No, John,” she replied. “You’ll never know how many nuts you’ll find. Come and a give your Mother a hug.” What else could I do? We hugged and, as I tried to pull away, she pulled me back with a strength that pushed the air from my lungs. As I gasped, Mom began planting sloppy kisses on my forehead and cheeks. I could hear Travis gleefully shouting “Grandma’s alive!” Finally, I pulled away and, at arm’s length, looked down on this tiny woman with hair as black as the inside of a bowling ball. Her unwrinkled face smiling back at me. It did not appear that my mother had aged in twenty years.
“Mom, you look good,” I managed to utter. “How was Spain?”

“Let’s get out of here, John. Hospitals give me the willies. You come in here with a little bump on the head and they want to poke and prod and test you to death. No wonder so many people die in these places.”

“Mom, you were knocked out! Travis thought he had killed you.”

“Travis,” said Mom, “Grandma is perfectly fine. It’s not the first time this has happened and it won’t be the last. You know: life is like some trees. The leaves come and go but the roots are strong and firmly embedded in reality. Let’s go back to Harriet’s. Tomorrow we can try that see-saw again.”

I looked at Harriet and we both rolled our eyes upward. I knelt to give the girls a hug, and hand-in-hand we walked out of the hospital. As we were loading into McGeorge’s Bentley, Travis turned to me and said, “Dad, I think Grandma is kinda different.”

13

Someone once said that a mark of intelligence was laughing aloud while reading. From the very first time Travis began to read, he would often break into belly laughs over what seemed to be the most benign humor. Beth and I knew we had a very smart child. While Doris and Dee Dee also laughed when reading, Travis’s intelligence seemed more mature and insightful. Friends would tell us it was a first born attribute, but it seemed like much more than just a birth-order phenomena.

While McGeorge drove Travis, Dad, and me home, Travis sat up front, I behind McGeorge, and Dad next to me. I stared at Travis and thought how proud I was to have such a special son. Beth knew how gifted he was from his birth. I thought that it must be part of the mothering instinct. It had taken me much longer to realize his talents. Travis got along with everyone. He was the sort of kid other kids wanted to be around. At others’ birthday parties he would become the center of attention. And I couldn’t explain it. He didn’t talk a lot, but, when he did, others wanted to hear what this soft-spoken boy had to say. He wasn’t the best-looking kid in the room. He had far too many freckles and a large cowlick that sprouted like wheat. However, he did have a grin that caused others to smile. He began reading when he turned three. Beth said it was because she read to him while he was still in the womb. Whenever I found her reading to her pregnant belly, a children’s book in one hand and the other gently caressing what she called her ‘watermelon belly’, she’d say, “I’m making the baby a library room in the womb.” Travis giggled at his first picture books and began laughing while reading chapter books at four.

My reverie was broken when Dad said, “Son, your friend McGeorge understands the nature of life.”

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“He understands that life is a series of serendipitous opportunities. They happen randomly and without reason. It’s how we engage with all sorts of random opportunities that gives our fleeting lives meaning.”

“Dad, cruising through life under multiple disguises does not make for meaning.” I looked at Dad, feeling both ill at ease and self-satisfaction over my spontaneous engagement in backseat philosophizing. Travis turned his head to watch and listen. I noticed McGeorge’s eyes reflected in the rear-view mirror.

“Sure it does. It makes life as meaningful as discovering a cure for cancer, inventing the Nerf ball, landing on the moon, coming up with a recipe using Kool Aid, or caring for an elderly parent.”

“Are you suggesting you need to be cared for?” I asked.

“No. I’m saying that all acts are meaningful if we give them meaning. It’s what makes us human.”

“But some things are more important than others. The polio vaccine was more important than going to the market to buy gefilte fish.”

“Son, it’s not about importance. It’s about meaning. Importance is defined by consequence; meaning is defined by existence.”

“Dad, none of that makes sense.”

“Don’t over-think things, Son. It’ll cause your brain to freeze up.”

“Grandpa,” laughed Travis. “You and Grandma are both kinda different.”

McGeorge laughed. I smiled. Dad looked at Travis and said, “We all are. And you’ll find that appreciating the differences is what makes us adults.” McGeorge laughed again as he pulled up to Harriet’s house.

Harriet waited for us at the front door. As I approached she told me that Mom was in the backyard and wanted to see me alone. This wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. I briefly imagined that Mom would be resting, alone, in the guest room for several hours; better yet, recuperating from her see-saw tumble for a few days while I spent time with the kids away from Dad, future stepfather Eugene, and even McGeorge. I assumed that McGeorge and my father had hit it off well enough to want some of their own quiet time exploring shared New Age philosophical tenets, which they would probably be inventing in the moment.

Mom was seated on a bench by the red azaleas in Harriet’s meticulously maintained garden. The azaleas and rhododendrons were in full bloom and so was Mom, wearing an over-sized pink sombrero, black jumpsuit, and a string of pearls that appeared to have been freshly plucked from some poor dead oyster. Mom stood and beckoned silently with open arms. We hugged and sat on the bench.

“You know, John, hugs are like the swinging doors to life: once they’re open, you must walk in. And you never know what comes next.”

If my lower jaw could have dropped any lower, it would have been scratched by my big toe. I could only stare into Mom’s smile and wonder if this was where our conversation was really about to begin. Dad ambled into the backyard and announced that he, Eugene, and McGeorge were going over to his condo to discuss life, love, and their various strategies, obliquely referring to his gefilte fish strategy. “We’ll be stopping by the market to pick up a few things on the way over,” he mentioned while exiting the yard.

“Mom, you changed sombreros,” I was finally able to mutter.

“I have a varied selection. This is my garden model.” And she sat quietly with that inner peace that comes with life experience.

The newfound courage I began to experience with McGeorge over the last couple of days seemed to be ebbing as I sat and fidgeted on the bench next to the mother I hadn’t seen or heard from in over twenty years. I took a deep breath and blurted out, “Beth dies and you show up! You’re timing is impeccable.”

Mom appeared to be unmoved as she dipped her sombrero and crossed her wrists, palm sides up, on her lap. She lifted her head slowly, looked into my eyes and said, “Your father called and said it was time to come home.”

For another agonizingly long period of silence, during which time I caught sight of a hummingbird twitching about a bird feeder, we sat until she took hold of my hand and gave it a firm squeeze. I thought that something was not quite right. I thought that Mom had abandoned Dad and us and that they had had no contact. Now I’m hearing that Dad contacted Mom, so he must have known where she had been.

“Mom, what are you saying?”

“Your father and I never divorced. He’s sent me money every month knowing that I needed to live a different life with a different set of opportunities. We’ve always loved one another. We just couldn’t live together.”

“But Eugene said you’re getting married.”

“I’ll need to talk to Eugene about that. It’s his fantasy. Not mine. I’m coming home.”

In an instant, my family history was changing. What more could possibly happen?

“When I heard that Beth had died, I thought it would be good to be here with you and the grandchildren I’ve never known. They’re wonderful kids, John. It’s too bad I didn’t get to know Beth. Your father says she was a great wife.”

I stood and begin to circle the perimeter of Harriet’s garden. I was reminded of the time when Dad told us that Mom had gone away with the flamenco dancer. Having believed that we were in a normal, wholesome family, we didn’t understand how to cope with one’s mother simply picking up and dancing away to Spain or some other Latin country. Mom didn’t even speak Spanish. In fact, the bit of Yiddish she spoke from her own growing up was mostly slang and barbs. I thought her to be a single-language abuser. Dad kept reminding us of life’s opportunities and the need to move beyond extended periods of grief and dismay. Little did we know that the sadness we perceived in him to was nothing more than a charade.

“I can’t believe how many lies you and Dad have perpetrated on us!” I exclaimed.

I stood rigid and angry. The door to the garden opened and Travis walked into the yard. Mom and I turned to him, and before either of us could say anything, Travis said, “Grandma, I think life is like a see-saw: you fall off one day, but need to get back on the next.”

“Actually, Travis, I think you mean a horse. But we’ll still go back to the park tomorrow and get back on that see-saw.”

This time my jaw dropped lower than my toes.

14

Someone once said that metaphors are either a way of avoiding reality or a device for being overly clever. And after Travis’s see-saw metaphor,r I worried that his grandmother might be pulling him into her reality or prodding him towards cleverness. Having just been struck by a new version of family history, I had no idea of what her reality might be. And, while knowing that Travis was a bright and introspective boy, I also understood that his cleverness could mean a life of shallow and manipulative meanderings. Whenever I became metaphorical, Beth would remind me that I was acting like the mother no longer in my life, and I would immediately cease using comparative language.

Mom and Travis left me alone in the garden. I considered the situation at hand. Dad, McGeorge, and Eugene were off on a philosophical excursion. Might they be stopping for gefilte fish and new opportunities? Dad had been unencumbered by a committed relationship, but, now that Mom had returned, were his days of opportunities over? For all I knew, McGeorge had no special relationships holding him back from gallivanting around. Poor Eugene wasn’t aware of what was to come. I actually felt empathy for him. Not only would he be losing the woman he believed he’d be marrying but a harmonica-playing partner as well. Dad, McGeorge, and Eugene: might they be a modern-day version of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, the Three Musketeers?

I groped for the fountain pen and a small notepad I always kept in my breast pocket. What was happening gave me inspiration for the story I had begun in my new journal. I thought of what Beth had said many years before, “John, you are more than the sum of your journals. You have a longer story inside you.” Even though Beth was concerned about my obsessive journaling, she supported my habit. What would she say about the situation at hand? Her knowledge of Mom was based on the stories I told. When I first described Mom’s flamenco adventure, Beth first appeared to be amused before lovingly empathizing with her dark eyes and serious mouth.

“Sometimes women find themselves trapped in unintended lives, John.”
I understood what she meant and replied, “I hope you’ll never feel that way with me.” Beth wrapped her arms around me and we quietly held each other for a few minutes.

My thoughts were interrupted by Doris and Dee Dee, who had quietly come into the yard. “Daddy, are you okay?” They stood before me, twins looking like their mother. While Travis appeared to be an extension of my family’s genes, the twins were definitely maternal knock-offs: dark complexions and deep brown eyes reflecting their mother’s calm, thoughtful nature. “Grandma is going to take us for ice cream. Do you want to come?”

Grandparental influence can be an insidious process. One philosophizing, former exterminator grandfather who rides a noisy scooter, wears mismatched clothes, and takes the grandkids on limousine outings to Disneyland is one thing, but a harmonica-playing grandmother – presumably divorced from your grandfather - who has in one short day prompted a bright boy to use a trite metaphor and completely alter family history is another. I sensed a dangerous trend beginning to take shape.

“I’m not really in the mood for ice cream. Go and have fun with Grandma.” The girls smiled back still waiting for a different answer to ‘Are you okay?’ Now they were being just like Beth, waiting with a look of unflustered openness for whatever might come next. Some might label it naivety, while I knew it to be acceptance. “Actually I thought it must be confusing for you to just now be meeting your grandmother. I know it’s a difficult time right now. And I really didn’t know how to explain all of this to you. I’m afraid I haven’t been a good daddy.”

Doris and Dee Dee sat on the bench, one on either side of me. Doris said, “Aunt Harriet told us that sadness takes a long time to go away, and that’s why you needed to be alone for awhile. Are you going away again, Daddy?”

“No, we’re all going back home today. We can all be sad together for as long as it takes us to be happier. And it’s okay to be sad whenever we think of Mommy being gone.”
“That’s what Aunt Harriet said,” affirmed Dee Dee.

I wrapped my arms around both girls and gave them a hug. Harriet appeared at the garden door. “We’re going for ice cream, John. Are you coming?”

“Not this time. I’m going sit here for a bit. When you get back, I’ll want to get the kids’ things together. We’re going home tonight.”

As Harriet turned to leave, Travis reentered. “Dad, you’re not coming with us?”

Before telling Travis to go and have fun, I asked him to sit next to me. I needed to find the words to explain the events of the day. Beth, and now Harriet, was rarely left without the right words. The twins reinforced that by sharing Harriet’s wise and simple advice that sadness takes time. Dad explained all circumstances as opportunities; Mom through metaphorical trickery. I would have retreated to my journals to merely record, but not interpret if I had not set them ablaze in tribute to Beth. I needed to be adult enough to parent my children with sensitive authority.

The brief conversation with Travis went better than I could have imagined. He sat quietly while I explained that my short trip away was my need to create some thinking space, and, while I intended to take a longer trip, his grandmother’s reconnection to the family required my return. His response was, “Families are sometimes like Superballs: they bounce back higher than from where you dropped them.” This caused a moderate internal cringe on my part.

“You know, Travis, you weren’t too far off the mark when you described your grandparents as ‘kinda different’.” It’s okay to be different. I hope you’ll be different.”

“I know, Dad. At school, I already laugh more than anyone else while reading.”

Not long before Travis was born, Dad gave me a cell phone. “It’s time to join the modern world, John. Pay phones are almost extinct, the ball point pen has been around forever, journals are kept on computers, the Segway will revolutionize transportation, and Beth continues to give you haircuts.” I have yet to turn on the cell phone. In fact, I don’t remember where I put it. I suspect the real reason for Dad’s gift was so that he could call me whenever he needed a ride. Whenever Beth and I talked about Dad, she summed him up with the phrase, “Your father tries hard to be different, but he’s so much a father.”

I’m afraid I needed to be different by shunning the modern world. Working in the insurance industry seemed a contradiction, but actually was a perfect example of the nineteenth century trying to exist in modern times. It continues to exist on the premise that you can pay someone else to take care of you when you or someone else screws up. The most inane is life insurance: a guarantee that someone will benefit from someone else dying, with the insurance company making the biggest profit.

Beth and I used to talk about the Big Picture whenever we were able to get away for “couples weekends.” When Travis turned six months, Harriet gave us a “half year present” by babysitting so that Beth and I could take a weekend away in the mountains. Once out of the city and on the two-lane mountain road surrounded by pine and fir, I noted the effects of modernism while Beth drove. First the billboards: “You’re a stone’s throw from the best peaches on earth”, “It would be the pits if you didn’t stop for fresh cherries,” “Kale, kale, the gang’s all organic over our fruits and vegetables,” and “If at frost you don’t suck-seed try our grape, strawberry, or blackberry shave ices.” After the Poet’s Health Food Hut, came the recycled paper wrappers flung roadside from one of the Poet’s famous “organically orgasmic burgers” and the 100% biodegradable cups from which pseudo-nature lovers drank pineapple pop, strawberry soda, and diet Pepsi.

We spent the weekend becoming erotically reacquainted and discussing how our lives were changing with Travis making us a three-part family. Beth insisted that we consult with an attorney and draw up a will. It was the first time we had a serious talk about the inevitable. She also suggested life insurance. “We need a policy for both of us, John. You can’t predict who will die first.” Even though I said that the odds favored me preceding her in death – after all, I did have access to actuarial data – Beth argued that modern times were changing the statistics. It was then that she said that she hoped that she would die first because she didn’t think she could cope with my death. I decided to agree with anything she suggested as I really abhorred the topic. Although we never did draw up a will, we did take out small life insurance policies on both of us. Mortality is a story without a good ending.

We stayed in a cabin by a small lake. No television, no phone, not even a decent radio station. Of the three stations that could be found on the small transistor radio stored away in the pine nightstand, two were Holy Roller Christian and the third hosted a series of conservative political pundits complaining of all things not American. And American, by their definition, was all things patriotic, white, and dating back to sometime in the 18th Century. Beth asked if I had brought the cell. After I told her I didn’t even know where I had put it, she said, “John, I was hoping we could call home and check on Travis. In this case your Dad was right about needing to join the modern age.” I had to admit that there were some things that made for timely convenience.

Travis stood to leave. “Dad, I could bring you back an ice cream. Are you sure you don’t want some?”

“You know, a sundae would be great. How about butter brickle with butterscotch sauce and lots of almonds and two cherries.”

“You’ve got it, Dad.”

15

Someone once said that, given enough time, a monkey with a typewriter could generate enough gibberish to fill a small Red Ryder Wagon. With a computer, maybe a small pick-up truck could be filled. At the moment, I felt that this sufficiently described my inability to form words and sentences to adequately describe Mom and Dad to Travis, Doris, and Dee Dee. Perhaps I did need a cell phone, computer, and state-of-the-art gel pen to push me into a new age of enlightenment.

Beth and I considered ourselves to be politically progressive. We believed in a woman’s right to choose; marriage as a civil function regardless of sexual orientation and not requiring sanction by a church, mosque, or synagogue; environmental policy allowing for individual comfort and collective responsibility; socially responsible corporations; and the need to elect bright and ethical politicians based on what they said rather than how they said it, even though it might mean voting for an ugly man or woman. We also considered ourselves socially conservative. We valued family meals, adherence to traditional celebrations like our annual beginning of spring picnic, a hard work ethic, and supervised television time. The ice cream outing gave me some sense of family togetherness still rooted in old fashioned family values. In fact, Mom and Dad often deflated family tension with spontaneous ice cream excursions. Even Dad had not found a way to modernize the soda fountain experience.

Now that everyone had left, I enjoyed a bit of solitude in Harriet’s garden – but not for long. Dad, McGeorge, and Eugene entered with the excitement of a group of scientists who had just discovered a cure for some obscure Amazon malady. They stood together, arms over each other’s shoulders, and waited for me to say something. I sat motionless with my hands tucked securely under my thighs. And then I realized that they were all dressed alike. I swallowed hard at their business attire: blue blazers, tan pants, and tasseled loafers – it had to be the McGeorge effect! I pulled my hands free, replaced my pen and notebook in my shirt pocket, reached inside my pants pocket and pulled out my pipe and tobacco pouch. After filling and lighting my pipe, Dad asked with a tone of incredulity in his voice, “When did you start that?”

I pointed my pipe at Dad and retorted, “When did you start that?”

I sat puffing away as Dad described a fantastic new opportunity, which McGeorge related to him and Eugene. Interestingly enough it did not involve gefilte fish or women. At least I couldn’t figure out a connection, which surprised me, because all of Dad’s opportunities could be reduced to a successful or unsuccessful sexual engagement. No, this one was even more shocking: The three of them had made an appointment with Dr. Radcliffe Del Rio, the author of Funny Bones Yoga: the Way to Good Health, Good Looks, and Financial Independence and entrepreneur of the Laughing and Weeping Yoga franchise. More McGeorge effect!

“Why?” I asked while continuing to puff away with greater rapidity. “You and McGeorge are already financially independent. I assume you’re okay Eugene.”

“Because it’s not what you have in life, Son, it’s what you do,” emphasized Dad. “If it turns out to be a good venture, then we’d like you to be a partner.”

Apparently Dr. Del Rio was in town and speaking at the local franchise. Dad, being Dad, called and explained that he, too, was a successful business man having invented the Painless Put ‘Em to Sleep Zen Bug Zapper, and was always looking for new opportunities. When he mentioned that he was a millionaire many times over, an appointment was made for that evening. After I remarked that I thought it was a scam, the three future business partners said that they didn’t think so. Extensive research on the Internet confirmed their basic instinct that Dr. Del Rio and Laughing and Weeping Yoga were legitimate, with huge growth potential.

“In fact, I called my investment counselor, and he confirmed that the franchise might be going public,” reiterated Dad.
“Same here,” said McGeorge. This so-called McGeorge, nee Sparrow, has a financial advisor? The world has definitely capsized.

“I’m just going along as a future family member,” added Eugene.

“Dad, have you revealed the whole truth and nothing but the truth to Eugene yet?” Eugene looked at Dad like a puppy having been harshly told no for the first time.

“What’s going on, Sol?” asked Eugene.

“Eugene, you’re family now, don’t worry about new information. We’ll talk about this later.” Eugene cocked his face like that same puppy who continues to question the meaning of no.

“Dad, I need to talk you alone.”

I emptied my pipe by tapping it against the bench and stood. Dad sat and looked up at me with the respect you’d expect from an ex-convict meeting with his parole officer, polite deference with a tinge of sneer. “How can you have allowed us to live with a lie?” I asked with authority.

“It wasn’t really a lie. It was a withholding of information. Your mother and I were able to live a life true to our philosophies. The full story would have been too difficult to explain to someone not living in the modern age.”

“There was nothing modern about what you and Mom did. It was all about personal convenience. It was blatantly dishonest. It created a hole in our family.” I stood before my father with my feet firmly fixed in place, this former chief exterminator now being sprayed with reality serum by a son emerging into a new level of adulthood. “You need to tell Eugene the truth, as well as your daughter and grandchildren.”

“Harriet already knows. Freda and I told her when she arrived. Eugene is another matter. He truly loves Freda. Freda loves him, too, but not as a life partner. The grandchildren are a problem.”

Dad appeared to be losing his luster of impenetrability. His wiry stature softened and his eyes became watery pools. He studied his polished, black loafers. “Yes, that is a problem that you’ll need to solve along with Mom.”

There was a soft knock on the sliding glass garden door. Eugene hand signaled whether or not it was okay to reenter the garden. His tentative affect reflected double on the door’s glass plane. McGeorge tapped him on the shoulder, and slid the door open. “Alright to join you again?” he asked pushing his head over Eugene’s shoulder. The scene was shifting from the Three Musketeers to more like the Three Stooges. How could three reasonably intelligent men so quickly adorn themselves in similar attire, and, in spite of what their financial gurus reported, fall for an obvious scam focused on enticing the unsuspecting into New Age radicalism? On second thought, this made perfect sense for Dad and McGeorge. Eugene, on the other hand, must be playing the dumbest Stooge, if that’s possible to ascertain.

I waved them into the garden and told them that I thought they were being sucked into the quintessential hair-brained scheme. “I won’t go with you to meet with Dr. So-and-so. It’s your folly. I have things to deal with here. And Dad, you’ve got serious business to settle when you get you get back.” McGeorge and Eugene squinted with confused, narrowed eyes at Dad. Dad simply motioned them to follow and they were gone.

16

Someone once said that a garden can be either a great place of refuge and rejuvenation or the root of all evil. Actually it was two leading religious scholars speaking at a reconciliation conference for Christians and Jews. Mom and Dad attended with fellow philosophers bent on disrupting the affair, claiming that all agreements between any bible-spouting organizations would be null and void when the Age of New Enlightenment and Modernism emerged. Rabbi Mordecai Schlimowitz and Father Bert Kennedy O’Toole did not take kindly to the dozen or so rag-tag, faux scholars from The New School of Philosophical Studies constantly chanting “Goyim and Jews, Jews and Goyim, were not for ‘em!” The religious leaders were determined to point out that even though the foundations of their respective faiths interpreted similar events differently, love would conquer all. And that love’s victory would be more possible by throwing out the dissenting handful of scruffy protestors.

When Mom and Dad first told Harriet and me the story, we were too young to react with our brains. We were more dumfounded and embarrassed than anything else. Years later we realized that we had parents who not only took up causes that no one else would even dare to consider, such as Puce Letter Day at the Brisbane Dump, but they also made a total commitment casting aside any sense of family pride – present or future - or decorum. Their lives were issue driven by a kind philosophically obtuse and maniacal abstraction. As Travis would later wisely and simply state, “Grandpa and Grandma are kinda different.”

I was quickly filling my new journal with a story. No longer was I a list writer – a recorder of useless and uninteresting data. I was beginning to form an allegorical children’s story. An Aesopian morality tale with unusual animals: a wombat and a crow. The wombat had lost her way and the crow appeared as her guide. They were in the Sahara Desert, not a likely place to find a wondering wombat and friendly crow, but a setting that added to the fantastical nature of the story. The wombat, named Tilly, had several endearing qualities. First, she carried an orange colored backpack filled with water bottles for the arduous journey between oases. Second, she walked upright, unlike other members of her species, and kept her hands tucked into her marsupial sack. And, third, because of her overextended two front teeth, she spoke with a heavy Australian lisp.

Hearing noises inside the house, I straightened up when Harriet walked into the garden, closing the glass door behind her. “Mom’s bald,” she announced.

I hadn’t noticed baldness at the hospital, but, then again, perhaps I hadn’t seen her without a sombrero. “Cancer?” I asked.

“John, you think every physical change is cancer. I remember the time you thought that your in-grown toenail was a cancerous growth.”

“It could’ve been, Harriet.”

“Well, in this case, Mom says that sombreros fit better on a bald head.” Mom’s incongruous behavior continued to bewilder me. First, wearing a sombrero in Spain didn’t fit. Playing flamenco harmonica - yes, another detail to her ‘kinda different’ behavior – and wanting to reconnect with her family just didn’t make sense. Mom and Dad were more outrageous than the story of wombat and crow. Something else had to be going on.

“While walking to the ice cream parlor, she popped into Ralph’s Old Time Barber Shoppe, sits down, takes off her sombrero, and says ‘freshen me up’. Travis nearly fell down laughing and the girls ran over to Mom and held her hand saying ‘are you okay, Grandma?’ I swear, John, if anyone has grown daffier than Dad, it’s Mom.”

With Harriet I always felt a sense of safety and comfort. I wasn’t close to my other two sisters, Sylvia and Rose. They lived on the other side of the country, and communication was infrequent. It didn’t even occur to me that they ought to know about Mom and Dad. They had long ago ceased being connected to Dad, whom they thought belonged in some sort of asylum for former bug killers who must have been infected with an insecticide-induced brain and personality disorder. In terms of birth order, I was first and oldest, Harriet two years younger, Sylvia five years younger, and Rose the accidental sibling, a home birth three years after Sylvia. Sylvia lived in upstate New York with her husband, the college professor, and their two adopted, foreign-born children: Iku from the Ivory Coast and Preston from Saskatchewan. They took special pride in knowing that neither of their children could grow up to president. Rose, upon learning of her accidental conception status at sixteen, ran off with a trumpet player from her high school jazz band for a life of adventure and chemical experimentation. She checks in with Harriet once or twice a year. She says she’ll never give up her life on the road. Harriet says it sounds like her chemical experimentation is having a deleterious effect. The few times we’ve asked Dad about Sylvia and Rose he says, “It’s their opportunity. I hope they know how to choose.” It’s never about choosing well with Dad.

I asked Harriet, “When did they tell you about not being divorced?”

“After Mom arrived, they both asked to speak to me alone. We came out in the garden while Eugene introduced himself to the kids and played harmonica songs for them. You know he’s a pretty good harmonica player. Anyway, Mom and Dad told me the whole unbelievable tale. Mom asked that I not say anything to you. She wanted to tell you herself, and then there was the whole see-saw scare. Dad even started acting strange. I guess I should say different. He cried when Mom was taken to the hospital.”

“Dad wept? You mean he didn’t call it another opportunity?”

“I told him I wanted to call Sylvia. Who knows where Rose is? And he said he wanted to call Sylvia. He hasn’t talked to her in years. It’s getting a bit weird, John. I’m really at a loss to figure out what to do. I’m really glad you’re home.” This struck me as being a first: Harriet at a loss and looking to me for some guidance.

“Has he called Sylvia?”

“Not yet. I think he and Eugene and your friend McGeorge are up to something.”

“They are. And it’s a flirtation with a scam.” I explained the Laughing and Weeping Yoga business while Harriet sat shaking her head before breaking into uncontrollable laughter. I couldn’t help by join her. Serendipitous opportunities abound.

We spoke about Eugene. Poor Eugene. Puppy dog Eugene. Harmonica-playing, tag-along Eugene. We agreed that Mom and Dad needed to both sit down and fill him in on the truth. “How do you think we ought to handle filling everybody in, including the kids, Harriet?”

“I think you ought to take the lead on this, John. You can do this.”

“Have you told Bob?” I asked. Harriet and Bob had been married for close to twenty years. By mutual agreement, they had no children. While Harriet happily worked at home as a freelance editor for several alternative publications, Bob managed a large chain bookstore and earnestly avoided career advancement. His interests were less about work and more about philately and building anatomical model body kits.

When one is first introduced to Harriet and Bob, they think they’ve met fraternal twins. Both are slender, brown-haired, thin-nosed, and possess extremely white teeth. And they both walk the same with long, looping strides, not unlike a giraffe’s. For some reason, Harriet’s is a more confident stride, especially when coming straight toward you. “Bob’s been at a book seller’s convention in Denver all week. He’s due home tomorrow. He knows what’s happening, and thinks I ought to write a story about. He says it would be a great one for one of the “goofy” – that’s his word – magazines I work for.”

“He’s right, Harriet. But be sure to change the names to protect the indecent. There are no innocents in this story.”
Beth once said that Harriet was her best friend. They often spent whatever free time they had shopping and planning family get-togethers. I wouldn’t call Bob a best friend, but we certainly got along. He found my obsession with an early demise to be amusing. When I’d complain about a headache and the certainty that it must mean brain cancer, he’d pull out a transparent human head model and question me as to the exact location of my piercing pain. Unsympathetically he’d tell me, while chuckling, that I ought to fade away slowly but surely. Little did we know that Beth would go in a flash without warning and with absolute certainty.

“I really like your garden, Harriet. It’s been a good place for me today.” Harriet stood and went back inside. I thought how strange that Dad had cried in this garden.

17

Someone once said that good omens are simply bad omens proved false. I think the writer may have been a columnist for the alternative publication The Atheism Monitor, one of the least read monthlies edited by Harriet. It came to mind as I continued writing my morality tale of Tilly and Crow. As the good wombat traipsed across dessert sand dunes look for the next oasis and running low on precious bottled water, Crow soared high to check for any potential dangers that might lie ahead. In the distance, two dunes away, Crow noticed a large white mass. Not being a particularly sensitive bird, Crow could not tell whether or not the pale figure was friend or foe.

My writing process was again interrupted by a commotion inside. Dad had returned, in full business-casual attire, and excited – again – about something. He came charging into the garden, his confidence restored, and with elevated voice inquired, “Did you tell Harriet I was involved in a scam?” I nodded affirmatively. “Listen, it’s my business, my money, and my opportunity. You don’t need to be telling Harriet. She called to tell me I ought to be careful. That I shouldn’t go to the meeting. That I was contributing to more deceit and deception with, and I quote, ‘Poor Eugene’”.

Dad rarely lost his temper. In fact, I could not remember a time when he ever lost it with me. I was the oldest and only son. I was privileged by virtue of birth order combined with gender status to differentiated parenting, which included not being directly subjected to anger or disappointment. He did his best to give me a menacing look and asked, “What do you have to say for yourself?”

I smiled like a bully who’s about to let you off the hook, but retains the option of beating your brains to a pulp sometime in the future. My calm, yet firm, resolve reduced Dad’s offensive posturing to a trickle of the class four rapids that had just gushed in. “You and McGeorge are heading down a dark path with disaster just around the corner. And you’re pulling along Eugene. You haven’t even informed him of the false promise of marriage with Mom. It’s not what I have to say for myself, it’s what do you have to say for yourself.”

“It’s none of your business. Your Mom and I will tell Eugene when we’re ready. In the meantime, we’re off for our appointment.” His tone lacked authority.

I stared into Dad’s eyes and saw an ebbing confidence. “Dad, I know you are capable of tears and remorse. It’s time to show some with me.”

The narrowing of his eyes and tightening at the corners of his mouth accented a short pause before he spun and walked, shoulders hunched over a bit, out of the garden. I expected him to throw the sliding glass door shut, but he left it open. Mom strode through, sans sombrero, bare-headed, and sat beside me. “Please, no metaphors, Mom. You’ve already managed to influence Travis with your trite word trickery. The least you can do is attempt more elegant language.” We had yet to have a substantive conversation that might answer some important questions, such as: Where the hell have you been for the last twenty years? How can you expect us to simply allow you back into our lives without any sort of explanation? What’s the deal with Eugene? Are you really recommitting yourself to the marriage we thought you and Dad had dissolved? And what’s the real deal with the sombreros and shaved head? They don’t wear sombreros in Spain!

“John, I’ve become an old woman. Your father and I decided a long time ago that we’d spend our final years together. We’re in our final years in case you haven’t noticed. Beth’s passing was a signal. All I can say is that I’m sorry for the lost time.”

The sun dipped behind the roofline of Harriet’s house. Suddenly I felt hunger. It had been a long day beginning with the drive to Harriet’s, a surprise run to the hospital, seeing Mom for the first time in an age and finding that my family history was a deception, and learning about the “three stooges” new opportunity. I was simultaneously feeling emotionally drained and empowered. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, it was past dinner time, and I wanted to spend some quiet time with the kids. This wasn’t a good time to begin a potentially lengthy conversation with Mom. “Mom, I really do want to talk to you, but right now I want to have dinner with the kids. We can talk when I return. Tomorrow I’m going to take them home and try to resume whatever might be a normal life in an extremely abnormal situation.”

I told the kids that dinner was their choice, and predictably they selected the Pizza Palace, a restaurant where pizza was the sideshow to automated singing and dancing puppets hanging from bright orange walls and trumpeting some adolescent’s version of music at ear-splitting decibels. The whole purpose of the hyperkinetic dining out experience focused on distracting the diner from the realization that whatever variety of pizza one ordered, it all tasted like tomato paste lightly smeared on cardboard dough.

Shortly after returning to Harriet’s, the kids prepared for bed, I read them their favorite stories, and told them that we’d all be back in our own beds the next day. Harriet, Mom and I were watching a television special on premenstrual syndrome when the Dad and Eugene returned from their meeting with Dr. Del Rio. I was enduring Mom’s and Harriet’s mutual empathy for their respective past and present biological conditions. Dad and Eugene began to gush over the real possibility of purchasing regional rights for the Laughing and Weeping Yoga franchise when I asked, “Where’s McGeorge?”

Eugene replied, “He met a friend who was meeting with Dr. Del Rio and they’ve gone for coffee. He said he’d be by later. He was also going to check into a hotel.”

I didn’t want to hear about their meeting, nor did I want to engage in any other conversation. I excused myself to the front porch where I intended to resume the Tilly and Crow story when McGeorge’s Bentley pulled up front. A familiar face sat in the passenger seat and McGeorge came bounding up the front walk. “You’ll never guess who’s considering a Laughing and Weeping Yoga franchise.” Unfolding herself from the Bentley like an amorphous cloud of white was Madame Y, not exuding the menacing figure I had recently fled. She calmly strode toward me with hand extended and said, “Nice to see you again, John. I hear we might be partners. And, by the way, you’re forgiven for calling me insane.”
“Am I also supposed to believe that your suggestion that I have a ‘lack of love’ psychosis is something to put behind us?” She stood like a large scoop of melting vanilla ice cream, all folds and crevices, pondering my question. The threatening image of her waving a shovel at me was not a distant memory.

“John, John, we all have roles to play. I’m no longer Madame Y, psychotic reader. I’m simply Yvonne Whitefish, a poor girl from the Midwest trying to make a living.”

McGeorge stood there in his blue blazer and khaki pants grinning like middle management supervisor. “I thought you’d get a kick out of seeing Yvonne again. Believe me, John, I didn’t know how illegitimate she was until we saw her at the seminar this evening. I’ve got to tell you, John, Del Rio’s on to something. You’ve got to come in on this with us. Where are your Dad and Eugene?”

“They’re inside elaborating on this lame-brained idea of yours.” McGeorge excused himself and went inside leaving Yvonne on the front porch with me.

“I’m really sorry to hear of your wife’s death, John.” Her sincerity seemed real. At least it wasn’t the syrupy sweet gesture of a door-to-door vendor of religious doctrine. She waited for my response. I tried looking beyond her billowing, white façade. There had to be a genuine person in there. Most likely of a female persuasion, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.

“Thank you, Yvonne, for your kind sympathy. May I ask you a question?”

“Certainly. Anything.”

“What’s with the multiple white identities? Do you and McGeorge have some sort of identity issues?”

“That’s two questions, John, but I’ll still respond. Usually when one asks those kinds of questions, it’s more about the questioner and not the one being interrogated.” This was beginning to sound like a 55-minute therapy session with Dr. Lefty , the master manipulator who could deflect a direct question and not take responsibility for his own thoughts. Psychological practitioners are like master gladiators who use language shields as protection against their own inability to solve practical problems. “I like white because it’s a symbol purity and truth. I’ve had problems with the truth; few problems with being white. McGeorge seeks truth through the investigation of social anomalies. Hasn’t he told you that? On the ride over here, he said that your dad and I are two of the more interesting ones his met on his journey. He also said that he has yet to figure you out. Why do you think he said that, John?”

“For the same reason I haven’t figured out if McGeorge is Sparrow, Mr. Niven, or Rocket; or if my father and McGeorge might be one in the same, only living in parallel universes; or if my mother has changed from being – for lack of a better phrase – an adulterous, sombrero-clad adventuresome miscreant; or if my sister Sylvia may, in fact, be my mother living in a parallel universe; or if Beth and my children are the only sane people I will have ever known during my temporary existence in this universe. But I’ll tell you this: I am beginning to understand and relish the thought of being an adult and accepting the fact that all I can do is find fascination in whatever comes my way.”

18

Someone once said that, while accidents may be waiting to happen, obsolescence is a sure thing. At least this is what Yvonne, formerly known as Madame Y, remembered from the meeting with Dr. Del Rio. This was Mr. Laughing and Weeping Yoga’s way of explaining life and death. An early expiration was the result of a careless accident; otherwise life would run its course to inevitable extinction. Apparently the best way to endure this natural frolic, according the good entrepreneur, was through high doses of hilarity and tears. I asked Yvonne if order mattered. In other words, should hilarity precede tears or vice versa. She said that it made no difference, and that simultaneous sadness and glee was the highest form of being.

After our front porch chat, I said goodnight, thanked Harriet for allowing the kids to stay over one more night, threw back my sport car’s convertible top, and drove home. The distance from Harriet’s to my house wasn’t far, so I decided to enjoy the night air and take city streets. I thought more about Tilly and Crow in the dessert, as Tilly was running low on precious water and Crow flew high observing a white mass in the distance. It turned out that the mass was nothing more than a mirage, but the good news was that near the mirage a refreshing oasis bubbled among a circle of palms. Crow dove to inform the wombat of this fortuitous news.

I awoke early the next morning after a short, but rejuvenating, deep sleep. After completing my morning wake-up routine, I drove back to Harriet’s in Beth’s mini-van so that there’d be room for the kids and all their belongings when we returned home. I arrived just as others were stirring. I went in the kitchen and Harriet had already made coffee and was busy putting together a breakfast frittata. Eugene came in and asked the whereabouts of Sol and Freda. From his neutral affect, I surmised that he had not yet been informed of his “poor Eugene” status. However, I wondered why he’d be asking the question if he had spent the night with Mom, as he had for an undisclosed number of years. I decided this would be a good time to invite him to take a neighborhood walk.

Harriet’s immediate community is a collection of older, Spanish-style bungalows on tree-line valley streets. When built, they sprang from the architectural imagination of someone interested in creating close-knit communities hearkening back to childhood memories of involved families who kept an eye on each other’s children. Little did the designer know that his memory of the nuclear family was a kinder and gentler version of subatomic structure and not the chaotic result of the detonation of a family’s hydrogen bomb. Harriet’s was one of the few homes with two adults and no children. Most residences sported one adult and multiple children, or two or more unrelated adults with a collection of unrelated children. Almost every parcel featured a warning posted on the front lawn that the property was electronically guarded by an insured and bonded alarm company prepared to send out armed combat units at the slightest hint of intrusion. Harriet’s home proudly displayed a sign above the front door proclaiming that there were no weapons kept in her house. Nevertheless, homeowners and renters alike did keep the sidewalks swept clean and the lawns and gardens acceptably maintained. For all of the combustible relationships inside these modern versions of old California casas, it was a pleasant enough neighborhood in which to go for a stroll.

The morning air was unusually cool for the beginning of a summer’s day. I noted for the first time that Eugene was my height and similar to my slender build. We both walked with equal strides, although his head bobbed up and down like a ball on a tight spring. For his age, he had a young man’s gait. We both wore American-made sneakers, a special version manufactured only for walkers. Those interested in running, jogging, basketball, tennis, racquetball, or any other sporting endeavor would need to wear the shoe made especially for that athletic pursuit.

“Your mother is an amazing lady,” said Eugene. “We’ve been together for over five years and it’s been a great relationship. I look forward to getting to know you and the rest of the family. Freda has told me of her leaving the family without proper notice and she hopes you’ll forgive her. When she heard of your personal tragedy, she felt it important to return and reconnect. I haven’t had a chance to extend my sympathies, and hope you’re able to accept them. Your kids seem delightful and I hope you’ll find a place for me in their lives.” Eugene’s speech seemed formal, apologetic, and invitational. What response does he expect from me? Does he know that he’s really “poor Eugene” about to be displaced when Mom and Dad finally reveal the truth? Or has he already been told that there will be no celebratory nuptials and he’s fallen into a depressive shock?

We turned the corner and a block away stood the community coffee shop, bakery, saloon, market, butcher, vegetable vendor, stationery store, and gift shop. They had been erected decades before Harriet’s neighborhood and served as a kind of neutral zone between those who led disconnected, but moneyed, lives and those who lived in multigenerational families just above the poverty line. The well-to-do types were easily spotted while hastily parking their expensive touring sedans before running in to purchase a flavored coffee and a scone before speeding off to deliver children to the next custodial parent.

We stopped at the coffee shop and purchased two regular coffees. Eugene loaded his with two packets of artificial sugar and non-fat milk. He remarked that it was something you did when you get to be his age. I preferred mine black with no sugar or dairy. We continued our stroll, paper coffee cups in hand. Eugene confided that Mom had been acting “differently” during the last couple of weeks. “In fact, for the last two weeks she’s insisted on no relations,” revealed Eugene. “I suppose she was just nervous about reconnecting with the family.”

Poor, unsuspecting, naïve, harmonica-playing, seems-like-a-nice-enough-gentleman, about-to-be demolished Eugene. Was there anything I could do to soften the blow? I felt a compulsion to do something, but it wasn’t my responsibility. “Eugene, how long have you been playing harmonica? I hear you’re pretty good.”

“Actually, I started when I met Freda. She was giving lessons out of small music store in Philadelphia and I decided to enroll. I had just retired from my job with the city. I lived alone. My wife had passed away several years before. I had lots of time to fill and always liked the Harmonicats whenever they were on Ed Sullivan. Freda was great teacher.”

Now I learn that Mom lived in Philadelphia and not in Spain. How long had she been back in the States? And back in the music business! “Freda is so funny with the sombreros and shaved head and using metaphors to explain everything. I think she’s the best thing that could have happened to me after my own wife’s passing. Three of my four children are scattered in Florida, Texas, and New Mexico. My youngest daughter still lives in Philadelphia. When Freda suggested we form a harmonica band, part of the incentive was that it would get me around to see my other kids and grandchildren. You know, I have sixteen grandchildren.”

Oh, poor, sympathetic, head-bobbing, artificial sweetener, non-fat milk, nice man Eugene! And then he interjected, “I was caught a bit off-guard last night when Freda and Sol told me of their circumstance. I was looking forward to being married again, but there are worse fates.” It’s not poor, uninformed Eugene anymore. It’s poor, informed Eugene having been brainwashed by a random and superficial thinking philosopher and his metaphorical, harmonica playing wife. “I suppose I should simply pack my bags and take off for Philadelphia, but I’ve really hit if off with Saul and McGeorge. It really seems like we might become partners, and I was hoping you’d join us.”

We were rounding another block and heading back toward Harriet’s. Eugene walked quietly beside me waiting for a response. It occurred to me that Eugene’s search for new relationships since his wife’s death was not unlike my own need to connect more meaningfully with my kids. Beth had to coach me in my parenting responsibilities. She read all the books about childhood growth and development, went to “baby and me” classes, and spent the bulk of her time being a mom. It wasn’t that I was a reluctant parent. I accompanied Beth to classes, skimmed a few of the books, and scheduled weekend time with each of the kids, individually and collectively. I didn’t want to replicate the parenting that I had experienced. I remembered when Beth first left me alone with Travis when he was still an infant, in diapers, not talking, and wide awake. Beth knew what all his tiny gestures and baby sounds meant. I was not proficient in four-month old body language and the cooing vocabulary. She explained that all I had to do was relax and not worry about anything during the thirty minutes she needed to run some simple errand. However, for that half hour, I was so fearful of accidentally dropping Travis that I never lifted him from his crib. I stood and observed and marked time until Beth returned. She smiled, kissed me on the cheek, and said, “What a dad.”

“Eugene, I think you’re nuts to stick around here. You’ve got a family spread out all over the country and lots of grandkids. You seem like a nice enough fellow, and you don’t need a harmonica as an excuse to travel around the country. I’m going to spend some time with my kids before I need to go back to work in a few weeks. I thought I needed some time to be alone and recover from Beth’s death. But I’ll never recover from it. I will always be sad, but I’ll live with it. I have to. I have kids. You do, too. And I’m not about to partner with my Dad or any other family member. I really do love my Dad, but he drives me crazy. And now my mother has returned. I haven’t even begun to figure that out. Leave, Eugene. Write a note once in awhile. Stay in touch. But leave.”

We neared Harriet’s house. Before going in, Eugene stopped and turned to face me. “John, we’re both widowers. In one aspect, I’m becoming one for the second time. The sadness I feel now is nothing like the sadness I’ve carried in my heart and soul when my wife passed. Freda still gives me joy. She makes me laugh. I may or may not stick around, but I’m going to wait a bit.”

“It’s your life, Eugene. I suppose you’re at an age when you can make whatever decision you want.” Suddenly Eugene wrapped his arms around me and gave me a hug that was more like a welcome than a good-bye. I’m not a hugger type, but managed to say thanks without hugging back, as my arms were pinned firmly against my sides.

Harriet opened the front door. “Hey you two, we’re all about to sit down for breakfast”

Harriet had set the dining room table, and it was filled with two frittatas, a bowl of fresh fruit, cranberry and orange juice, and even a centerpiece of red and yellow roses from the garden. I noticed that Mom and Dad were seated together, holding hands, with Travis next to Mom. This might make for an interesting metaphorical exchange between grandmother and grandson, but it also meant that Eugene would be seated across the table and at arm’s length from the happily reunited married couple. Before taking my place at one end of the table, across from Harriet, I asked if McGeorge and Yvonne were joining us. Dad said that McGeorge had called while Eugene and I were out walking, and said that he was picking up Yvonne and they’d be over around lunch time. Harriet added that Bob was also expected about the same time. I informed the group that the kids and I would be going home after breakfast.

Before anyone had a chance to help themselves to Harriet’s banquet, Mom broke a momentary lull in the conversation. “A family meal is like a carnival ride. It can be a thrilling experience if we allow ourselves to sit back, relax, and engage with others.” Travis looked admiringly at his grandmother before shifting his gaze to me.

“You know, Dad, they’re both kinda different, but so much fun. They’re like two hilarious stories where it’s one surprise after another.” And that’s when Mom, Dad, and Eugene broke into laughter. Harriet and I and caught each other rolling our eyes upward, for what must have been the umpteenth time. Doris and Dee Dee looked to me for advice and I winked and grinned back at them with a sideways nod and shoulder shrug.

19

Someone once said that, while innocence resides in the eye of a child, it quickly evaporates into the steely, corrupt vision of a politician. McGeorge reminded me of this as I packed the kids’ belongings in the mini-van and prepared to move back home.

McGeorge and Yvonne arrived early than expected, charging into Harriet’s dining room while in the midst of heated argument. She clad in her usual all-white impersonation of a bed sheet covering a large piece of furniture; he in rumpled business-casual attire. Their debate concerned a lack of understanding about the amount each investor would need to make in the Laughing and Weeping Yoga franchise. McGeorge turned to Dad and asked him to assume judicial authority. Dad explained that he, McGeorge, and Eugene – and me, if I decided to join them – would each retain equal shares of eighty percent of the company. He added that the twenty percent left over would be available to other investors, but that they would not be voting members of the partnership. Yvonne’s anger concerned her belief that it was unfair to her if she was making one of the initial investments. Finally, Dad said, “It may be unfair, Yvonne, but you’re not family.” At that point, she screamed with all the force that her whiteness could bear that neither were Eugene or McGeorge. And then Dad surprised everyone when he said, “I’ve adopted McGeorge as an honorary son, and Eugene is practically family. So that’s that.” The room became silent as Harriet, Mom, Travis, Doris, Dee Dee, Eugene, and I all jerked our gaze toward Dad. “Enough said,” remarked Dad. Yvonne spun her whiteness away from the table and, like a melting snowball, whooshed away and out the front door. At that moment, I thought of Dad as a corrupt politician who had maneuvered a delicate situation to his best advantage. Yet, he was also capable of tears.

“I don’t know where she’s going. I drove her over here,” said McGeorge. And that prompted another round of table laughter. “I understand you and the kids are going home today. Can I help you with anything, John?”

Before driving off, I restated my adamant position to Dad, McGeorge, and Eugene that I would not be an investor in their venture. About three blocks from Harriet’s, I drove past white-shrouded Yvonne, the former Madame Y and now jilted investor, sitting on a bus stop bench. The white cloud that had once given chase armed with a shovel had been vaporized.

As we neared home, I announced that we would be having a family meeting once we unpacked. Travis turned his head and grinned at me. Doris said, “Mom always called the meetings.”

“I know, but I can do it, too.” I glanced back at Doris and Dee Dee and smiled at them. They were identical twins, but Beth and I could always tell them apart because of their noses. Doris’s turned slightly to the right and Dee Dee’s a bit to the left. “In fact, from now on, any of us can call a family meeting. How does that sound?”

“I think that’s a great idea, Dad,” said Travis.

I pulled into the driveway, and, suddenly came to the full and irreversible realization that I was a single parent. Beth would not be calling family meetings. She began calling family meetings two years ago when she needed support for having the kids take care of cleaning up their own bedrooms. From time to time, she’d call meetings whenever she thought something was amiss or needed preplanning such as: toys not put away, the bathroom left untidy, an upcoming birthday party, reinforcement of behavior expectations with the babysitter, and a weekend at Aunt Harriet’s so that we could get away for a couples weekend. Now I was calling a family meeting, and I wasn’t sure of the agenda.

All family meetings were convened at the kitchen table. This was the first time since Beth’s death that we sat at the table. Before my shortened trip, while the kids stayed at Harriet’s, I avoided the kitchen. It dawned on me that the refrigerator and cupboards were mostly bare, and that we’d need to go shopping. That was certainly one thing we could plan together. I would need the kids to help with meals. Travis was old enough to actively help in the kitchen, and the girls could, too. We all seemed to be focused on the center of the empty and motherless oak table. Dee Dee said, “I miss Mommy.” My eyes filled with tears and the twins came over to sit on my lap and hug me. We held each other for several minutes before they slid off and went back to their chairs.

Doris asked, “Is Mommy in heaven?”

Beth and I were not religious. I think we were somewhere between agnostic and atheist, with Beth being closer to atheist than I, as I still held out hope that something other than reason might explain unexplainable phenomena. We didn’t attend any formal church or synagogue. Growing up Jewish didn’t stick with me. I’m fairly certain that Mom and Dad immunized me early for any possibility of religious fervor with large doses of cynicism and disrespect for anything appearing to be socially organized. Beth and I both considered ourselves to be rational people. We believed that our temporary lives had fleeting worth to ourselves and longer-lasting value to the family we would leave behind. Neither of us required any myth to give reasons for our existence. We were because we were.

“Mom is dead,” interjected Travis. “We scattered her ashes in the ocean. She’s in the ocean where she wanted to be.” Doris stared at Travis. As a preadolescent, he was direct and truthful.

Dee Dee added, “Mommy always liked the ocean.”

I considered what I needed to say. I was less worried about Travis. With him I knew that no politicizing was the correct course of action. The girls, on the other hand, required a different level of sensitivity, but I did not want to use fantasy to assuage their feelings.

I asked the girls to sit on my lap again. With my arms around them and holding them close, I said, “I miss Mommy very, very much. That’s why I cry sometimes. Some people believe in things like heaven, but Mommy and I don’t. We believe that while you’re alive it’s important to love each other as much as you can because, when you die, you can’t anymore. But you can still love those who’ve died while you’re alive. Maybe loving Mommy is kind of like heaven?”

“Then we need to keep loving Mommy,” said Dee Dee.

“Yes, we need to keep loving Mommy and each other.” I looked over at Travis and tried to read his stoic expression. He seemed lost in infinite thought. His lower lip began to quiver and his eyes moistened. A tear escaped and bled down his cheek before he sobbed, stood, and joined me and the girls in a lengthy hug. The space between father and son closed.

We remained huddled together, each of us in our own grief, until Travis returned to his seat. “Dad,” said Travis choking back his tears, “we’ll always be family, and Mom will always be in our family.”

“Yes, she will, Travis.” Not knowing what to add, I bounced the girls off my lap and suggested we think about what we would need to purchase at the market. Just as we were beginning to make a list, the phone rang. Travis answered and announced that Harriet was on the phone. She wanted us for dinner. I took the phone from Travis and told Harriet that we’d be having a family dinner at home. I heard some chatter in the background and Dad was on the phone. “What do you want, Dad?”

“John, in the scheme of things, everything is another opportunity.”

Before he continued, I cut him off. “Dad, I don’t want to hear anymore about opportunities. I especially don’t want to be asked again about being a partner in your latest opportunity.”

Dad surprised me, however, when he said, “John, that’s not what I wanted to say. Just give me a moment. Please. What I wanted to say was that I’m sorry. I want to apologize for the deception your mother and I have perpetrated. It wasn’t right. It simply served our own needs. I know it’s been hurtful. I know we have some things that need to be straightened out. That’s the opportunity I’m talking about.” I sensed, for the second time in two days, that Dad might have tears in his eyes.

“Dad, thank you. I appreciate the effort. Right now I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to be doing without Beth. Everything else will have to wait. You’ll need to wait. I’m trying to deal with important questions that the kids are asking.”

“Such as?” asked Dad.

“Such as ‘is Mommy in heaven’?” I replied.

“You’re and non-believing Jew, John. And Beth was of no faith. Your Mom and I are philosophers, which requires us by definition to have no religion. We’re truth pursuers. You can’t sugarcoat this heaven stuff with the kids.”

Dad was correct about me being a non-believer. Growing up we accepted Jew as a label, not a practice. There was no religious education. Mom and Dad made being a Jew simple. It involved being a proud member of an oppressed people who practiced odd, but quaint, customs. Having access to a language – Yiddish - filled with complexity, nuance, and multiple interpretations. Eating foods that only a “member of the Tribe” could appreciate: gefilte fish, borscht, pickled herring, matzo, tzimmes, Mandelbrot, blintzes, knishes, challah, bagels, lox, kugel. We were taught Jewish attributes according to Mom and Dad – education, love of family, perseverance in the face of anti-Semitic idiocy, honoring the worth and dignity of all human beings except the unworthy, and the most important of all, the absolute necessity to question everything and everyone and to never accept any assumption as truth. Beth and I did not consciously pass along any of these teachings to the kids. Technically the kids were not Jewish, as Beth was not Jewish and by default did not fulfill the requisite need for passing along the Jewish gene to our children.
“Dad, I’m simply trying to pass along truthful emotion and love.”

“Not a bad start, son.”

“Dad, are you crying?”

“I’m feeling deep sadness at the moment, John. I’ve been tearing up lately.” This emotional honesty was out of character. I sensed something else, but could not name it.

“This is an opportunity for both of us, Dad. However, I’m not sure what it is.”

“What are you doing this evening, son?”

“We’re about to go shopping. The cupboards are bare. We’ll have dinner at home. Would you and Mom like to come over? We could have some tea and pound cake.”

“You know, it’s hard to pass up a good cup of tea and a Sara Lee pound cake.”

We hung up after agreeing that seven would be a good time for them to visit. The kids and I sat at the table and made shopping list before driving to the supermarket. On the way, everyone was quiet and I thought again about my new story of the wombat and the crow. It would weave together a whimsical morality tale of innocent adventure, wonderment, and fantasy. It would be a simple gift from me to the kids.

20

Someone once said that reconciliation for a Jew was nothing more than the abandonment of identity. It was Moshe Muscovitz, one of Dad’s philosopher friends. I remember listening to him pontificate about the difference between Jews and goyim. He elaborated by instructing Dad and me in very harsh language that Jews cannot practice reconciliation because it was derived from the concept of penance. “It’s the goyim who are commanded to offer contrition and confession from their priests. We don’t do that. We don’t reconcile. We apologize and move on.” Of course, he always lumped all non-Jews, whether Catholics, Methodists, Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhists, into the same category of goyim. This included the generalization that all non-rabbinical religious leaders were priests. To be fair, he didn’t hold rabbis in high esteem either. He viewed all authorities who donned black robes as simply bullies who used blackness as a scare tactic. “Their dark robes are a symbol of death and the unknown. They use them to frighten us into obsequious behavior. The most foolish voluntarily succumb to tithing. It’s the Jew, who keeps the rabbi at arm’s length and questions everything, that has my respect. Only Jews are allowed to be doubters and disbelievers without retribution. It’s what makes free.” Moshe was is own authority on religion, and, other than the small circle of philosopher friends to which he an Dad belonged, nobody else paid attention to him. I, on the other hand, was a frequent victim of his blustery oration. I became an easy ideological punching bag. The one time I summoned the nerve to label his ideas as ‘crap’, he replied, “Exactly! Now you’re getting my meaning.”

Dad’s apology struck me as sincere, and sincerity had never been in great supply with him. As the kids and I finished tidying up after dinner, I tried to imagine what Mom and Dad might have to say for themselves over tea and pound cake. Doris and Dee Dee were in their bedroom when Travis answered the door and was greeted by his grandparents with hugs and kisses to his forehead. Harriet and Bob stood in the background.

“John, your father and I were hoping to have a private conversation with you. Harriet and Bob thought they might take the kids out for awhile.” Mom’s seriousness raised my level of concern. Would there be another family blockbuster announcement? Mom looked to be in a somber mood: sombrero-less, baldheaded, and wearing a black jumpsuit. Dad held her hand with the attentiveness of a dutiful husband. Bob extended his has to shake mine and commented that it had been awhile. Harriet asked with squinty eyes if everything was okay.

“I think that would be fine, Mom.” I called for the kids and explained that Aunt Harriet and Uncle Bob were taking them out for a treat. On the way out the door, Travis related how all of us had contributed to fixing dinner.

While Mom and Dad waited in the living room, I made tea, cut slices of pound cake, and arranged the necessary cups, plates, and paper napkins on a serving tray. When I reentered the living room, they were leafing through a scrapbook that Beth had put together shortly before her lethal aneurism. Beth called it a summary family scrapbook. There were pictures spanning the years from courtship to recent times. As Beth would sometimes characterize as our ‘skinny to our softer years’. The last picture in the album had been taken by Bob. Beth and I stood with Travis next to me and the twins huddled against Beth’s left hip. At either end were Dad and Harriet. Beth and I smiled directly into the camera. The twins appeared to be giggling. What I noticed for the first time was how Travis proudly looked up at me. My right arm draped around his shoulder, his head cocked left, eyes looking to me for my advice, and displaying a confident, lips-together smile. Dad, not much taller than Travis, dressed in running shorts, sequined T-shirt, suspenders, and new running shoes stood uneasily apart from the group and to Travis’s right. Beth had commented that the space between Dad and Travis was reserved for what she referred to as the ‘missing link’. At first, I thought she referred to Mom, but now I imagined otherwise. Perhaps it was a relational missing link between Dad and me, the gap between adulthood and childhood. There was Travis assuredly encouraging closure, while Dad and I lacked a common point of reference.

I said, “Beth spent hours putting that scrapbook together. It was as though she needed to prepare a lasting gift without knowing its irony.”
“John, I know your father has already apologized. I also need to apologize. When Saul told me of Beth’s passing, I realized that the holes in our lives can never be filled. My return isn’t about redeeming the past. Your dad and I always planned a return relationship. When I left it wasn’t as much of a whim as you and your sisters were led to believe.” Mom sat with her hands crossed on her lap and amazingly calm. Her head tilted slightly the way the twins would appear after asking a question. Only Mom wasn’t asking a question. “I’m not asking you to forgive or understand. I just want you to accept that your father and I are back together with all of our old singular opportunities behind us and only a future of opportunities together.”

“Not as much of a whim as we thought!” I exclaimed. “What is most outrageous is that you two have been in contact over the years. What do you call that? Having an affair among all your affairs? How do you begin to explain this to your own children, much less your grandchildren?”

Beth and I rarely argued. When we did, it rarely included loud voices. Raising my voice with my parents felt oddly comfortable. They moved closer together on the couch and Mom slipped her arm inside Dad’s. I was determined not to make this a debate. It wasn’t a case of right or wrong. Nor was it an opportunity for self-righteous or self-serving. I might predict that Dad would try to turn their separation into a philosophically appropriate decision. It would be their feeble attempt at justification leading to redemption.

Dad broke the momentary silence, “Son, our apologies are given without expectation. All we can ask is that you know that your mother and father have spent these lost years deceiving everyone, including ourselves. The grandchildren are more plastic in their acceptance of the future.”

“More ‘plastic’? What the hell does that mean?” Not only do I have parents who have invented a life so bizarre by any social standard, but who are also capable of creating words with unintended meanings so as to define their own twisted reality.
“John, we mean that children have a way of seeing the world with utter fascination. And they are more accepting of the peculiar. They understand that we are an unusual family. That’s all we’re saying.”

“Dad, you’ve got it all wrong. While we as adults may be more fixed in our thinking, we mature and accept oddities and differences because we are no longer children. We are better able to understand difference.”

Mom and Dad clasped together their hands and simultaneously remarked to each other, “Our son has a bit of philosopher in him.”

“You two really don’t get it. This isn’t about belief. It’s about sadness, loss and now reconnection. I spent today with my kids being a father for the first time in a long time. I’m a widower. I’ve suffered a loss I’m not sure I’ll ever understand. I had to explain heaven this afternoon and then shop for groceries. In the last couple of days, I found out that my parents have only been separated by distance, not my emotion. Family history altered in the proverbial ‘blink of an eye’, just like death. I think it will take a long time before I can be fascinated again.”

None of us had yet to sip tea or sample the pound cake. The serving tray sat on the coffee table like an invitation to a party. I reached forward and poured cups of tea for us. My first sip confirmed that the tea was still hot. Mom and Dad peered at me waiting for some kind of acceptance that life would be different from this instance on. Maybe senior citizens possess a higher degree of life in the moment, and this was that point in time when life would pivot and be altered forever more.

Mom broke the brief interlude between apology and what they must have hoped would be acknowledgement, and maybe an eventual understanding and acceptance. “John, when your father called and told me Beth had died, it was if I suddenly knew her. I felt a connection rooted in your loss. I felt that I had to reconnect; not just because I caused loss in the family, but also because I suffered the loss of a loved one, too. I was with the man I left with for over ten years and he died tragically without warning. It was not unlike your loss.”

“Mom, I really don’t want to hear about your other life, at least not now. I want to figure out what my life with three kids will be. If you and Dad want to help, then I wouldn’t tell you not to.”

“So you’re saying we can be a family again?” inquired Mom.

“Yes. But that means all of us. You need to find some way to include Rose and Sylvia.” I stood to give them time to think about what it would mean to take responsibility for bringing the entire family together. I retrieved my pipe and tobacco from the kitchen and was lighting it when I came back into the living room.

“When did you start with that?” asked Dad pointing to my smoke. “And the new sports car, when did you get that?

“McGeorge introduced me to the contemplative pleasure of a pipe. The car? Well, things change. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Don’t try to deflect the issue at hand.”

“We have no idea where Rose is. Your sister is a free spirit who sought an escape from the family a long time ago.” Dad nodded knowingly at Mom as if the meaning of escape was an all too familiar topic of discussion between the two of them.

“Then you’ll need to find her. After all, you have the resources.” The feeling of confidence I felt when I informed Dr. Lefty that I no longer required his counsel had returned.

“Okay,” said Mom. “Your father and I owe that much to the family. You should also know we’ve agreed to sell the condo to McGeorge. We’re going to get a house with a yard. It’ll be a good place for the family to gather. Eugene is going to move in with McGeorge while they’re getting the franchise together.”

“You’re really moving forward with this franchise partnership? Why?”

Dad responded, “Because it’s a good opportunity to form new relationships. I like McGeorge and Eugene. Truly, I think of them as belonging to the family.”

“You hardly know them, Dad.”

“I have a good feeling about this. Your mother agrees with me. It’s not much money, and, besides, I have plenty of money. Don’t worry, you and your sisters will be left with a nice estate.” Dad took great pride whenever he announced that we’d be left with a substantial inheritance.

Mom asked, “What do we do next, John? Do you need help with the kids? You’ll be going back to work soon and the start of school isn’t far behind. Your father and I could help out.”

“Thanks, Mom, I appreciate the offer. Let me think about it for a couple of weeks. I was thinking about a live-in nanny, but I really don’t know right now.”

Until I left home, I took family life for granted. Going away to college allowed me to gain perspective on not only how unconventional my family was, but also that there were really no conventions. Everyone I met told crazy family stories. Beth’s family may have been the most normal family I never knew, if normal can be defined. Pictures of her family gatherings were sepia-toned versions of Norman Rockwell paintings. However the stories she told revealed its own brand of zaniness. Her father’s loud and embarrassing whistling while cruising through department store aisles on back-to-school shopping excursions stood right up to Dad’s supermarket antics. Her mother’s insistence that Wednesday was meatloaf-for-dinner night requiring dressy clothes was akin to Mom’s garbage dump campaign.

The standard statistical concept of family, reinforced by 1950’s television, simply did not exist. There was no Ozzie and Harriet. Father Knows Best was a reassuring concept, but an unfound practice. There would be no June Cleaver wearing pearls meeting us with milk and cookies after school. Regardless of ethnicity, religious denomination, or degree of economic privilege, the Donna Reed definition of family existed only as a societal fantasy. Mom and Dad defined family as well as anyone. During the era of Dad sans Mom, the family redefined itself as necessary to survive. Sylvia used distance to establish her own identity. Rose, like Mom, used escape with a musician to find hers. Harriet found hers with Bob. Dad sought his through adventurous opportunities. I secured my family identity with Beth. The future would mean continuous redefinition.

I took several long puffs on my pipe, another sip of tea, and sampled some pound cake. “I’m glad you’re back, Mom. I will need everyone’s help. While Travis is old enough to understand the situation, the girls are just beginning to ask questions. I’ll need help with the answers. Both of you need to be grandparents, and I don’t care how crazy you are. Please, be there for all of us.”

“We will,” chorused Mom and Dad.

21
Epilogue

My father once said that a fascination with serendipity was as good as life could be. I later told Travis that keeping your eyes open and your mind available for amazing surprises would serve to delight, amuse, and give life meaning. I suppose fathers have a duty to confuse their sons with ill-defined future expectations. While Beth’s death left me feeling isolated, sad, in what seemed at first like terminal grief, and horribly lonely, the responsibility of supporting and preserving family - along with the slow passage of time - caused me to become the adult Beth knew I would become. She possessed the quiet wisdom to know that adulthood was not a product of familial succession. It wasn’t something one inherited; it was a marker of earned and learned maturity, not parental absence. Mom’s, Rose’s, and Sylvia’s distancing from the family kept them in elongated childhood filled with the dream of immortality. In spite of Dad’s inane behavior, he was the family core, the constant we could count on. Simply put, he was there.

I finally came to the realization that Mom’s multi-continental escapades brought her home as a result of my crisis, not due to any self-serving needs I thought may have motivated her. She may have felt some guilt, but it was ultimately her love of family that prompted her return. The ruse she and Dad had invented didn’t matter anymore. The kids appreciated their doting behavior. It reached a point where I had to ask them not to drop by unannounced more than twice a week. Because Dad would not get a driver’s license, they were constant companions with Mom driving their new fully-equipped, military-style vehicle. Dad would say that they were prepared for urban Armageddon.

They ended up purchasing a home on five acres within a twenty minute drive from Harriet’s home and mine. They also turned a large portion of their acreage into a fantasy playground, including a pool and waterslide, for the grandchildren. The remainder they used as a mini-farm, and they hired a couple of wannabe naturists to tend the gardens and livestock. They dug a well so that they would not have to depend on city water supplies. Emergency diesel generators and solar panels ensured that they would not be without electricity. Propane tanks gave them a year’s supply of fuel to power all gas appliances. A converted barn became the non-profit Freda and Saul Center for the Philosophical Arts and a meeting place for the Laughing and Weeping Yoga franchise. Gefilte fish is no longer on Dad’s dietary regimen.

McGeorge and Eugene never purchased the condominium. They rented for almost a year and helped establish their partnership franchise with Mom and Dad. Eugene was the first to sell back his portion of the partnership and move back to Philadelphia. McGeorge once again changed his name and persona before leaving for Arizona and other eastern travels. As Investigator Reginald Dewey, he promised that he would provide a full report once he located Rose. He left armed with old pictures and possible last known whereabouts. He dutiful calls every weekend to inform one of us of his lack of progress along with a full description of the all social anomalies he’s met along the way.

Every few months, Eugene sends a greeting card with pictures of him and the family members he’s currently visiting. Every card is signed “harmonically loving my adopted family, Eugene.”

I returned to work, and, although work would never be more than a job, I appreciated being among friends and colleagues more than I had known before. Before the kids returned to school, we all attended a series of counseling sessions with Dr. Lefty. Having my family’s support through the grieving process attended to many of our physical and emotional needs. Dr. Lefty helped us find answers to questions that we didn’t know existed.

Life resumed a predictable rhythm. Our live-in nanny has breakfast and dinner prepared during weekdays, along with bag lunches for the kids. On weekends we do everything as a family. We spend either Saturday or Sunday over at the farm. Harriet and Bob are much more a part of our lives. In my free time, usually after the kids are in bed, I’ll retire to my office to smoke my pipe and write children’s stories. After finishing Tilly and Crow, I found a graphic artist at work to create illustrations. I self-published twenty copies and gave them as family presents at the annual March 15 Puce Letter Day celebration at Mom and Dad’s farm. .

One day, about a year after Beth’s death, Travis asked me if there would ever be another mother in the family. I had yet to think about the possibility of being anyone other than an unmarried widower. Travis’s question reminded me of when Beth I had one of our life conversations. We spoke about whether or not either of us would remarry in the event of one of us preceding the other in death. Neither of us even thought of divorce as precipitating that eventuality. Beth found it easy to encourage me to find another relationship and fall in love again. I merely gave quiet consent. It was beyond my imagination to consider anything other than Beth being a constant in my life.

“Travis, I suppose I could fall in love again. But it will never be the same as the love I had with your mother. Whatever number of relationships you have, Travis, remember to cherish each one.” I have yet to meet a new partner in life. I’m not trying. I’m quite satisfied with finding fascination with serendipity and keeping my eyes open for surprises.