Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Asylum Road

In my early childhood I was already a philosopher, and one of my favorite ponderances involved the existence of the universe. Was it just what scientists could see with their radio telescopes? Could we be but one galaxy amidst hundreds of galaxies? Or were we so small that the entire set of galaxies fit within something as small as a single teardrop.

I was finally inside the famous teardrop of the giant, the entire universe, Milky Way and all contained within a ball of liquid rolling down the cheek of this huge creature. We moved at a snail's pace, leaving a damp, smeared trail behind as my world slowly made it's way toward the precipice of the monsters chin, begging to meet it's inevitable doom; splattered upon the floor, leaving nothing but soggy atoms, the hoax of my life in a billion pieces at last.

Laying prone inside the drop as if it were a sheet of plastic wrap, hands and feet splayed like a child at a candy store window, I peered toward the earth from on high...my sister's blonde heads bobbing like apples in a sea of blue fabric that appeared to be the family couch. And there was me, the suited monkey on the end; hands buried in his lap, tightly gripping each other as if they'd explode if he let go a moment.

And as we rolled along, the little ball getting smaller and smaller, I wondered where I would actually break off and fall to the ground, and if the impact would truly kill me and get this the hell over with.

It had started out a horrible day, my new suit not only too tight, but too geeky for words. Easter was supposed to be fun, and going to gramma's even more fun than that; But everyone in the house was whiney, including me. I hated suits; the biggest benefit to being poor was that my parents couldn't afford to buy one for me until they thought my growth had slowed sufficiently, and I'd grown like a weed until age 12. But now I cursed all the powers that be for making six foot my adolescent benchmark, goading mom to pick out the ugliest chubby boys vested suit imaginable, with a clip on tie to go with it. It was hard enough to deal with people making light of my size all day, pinching my big, chubby cheeks and dipping fingertips into my dimples, she didn't have to put a woolen neon sign on me for God's sake!

I hated my size. I hated my looks. I hated my name...Ronnie. Couldn't it have been Erik or Leif or maybe plain old Robert like some normal guy whose aunts didn't call him by some baby name? Even Bobbie was cool sounding, not like Raahhnnneeee. Gawd! It still makes me cringe.

My sisters were decked out in that white princessy stuff, the fake satin and fluffy under things that made the dress look like wind had blown it up and then it stuck there. Nancy liked it just fine, she didn't talk to anyone anyway; if she was unhappy you'd never know it unless she started crying and she didn't do that very often either. Barb on the other hand was her normal self, loud and obnoxious, cursing in that little kid way about how stupid she looked and how someone would eventually pay for her humiliation.

Mom and dad were especially grouchy, snapping off vulgarities as they passed each other in the hall between the bathroom and their bedroom. We don't have to go if you don't wanna I'd offered after witnessing a particularly nasty exchange, as if this Easter dinner thing was celebrated in my honor so I had the right to cancel it. I had no desire to spend a day with a black cloud hanging over my head, trying to be all smiley for gramma and grandpa while waiting for the hammer to fall. I'd rather have laid under my bed and paged through the Playboy that I'd found in the city park trash the day before, though even thinking that on Easter Sunday likely made a huge black mark on my soul.

They both only stopped and glared at me, making it clear that my opinions were not welcome at that moment. So I closed my door and sat dutifully on my bed in wait for the call to arms.

Church was normal; my father the atheist stood and sat at the right times, but kneeling was out; much to the annoyance of the old woman behind him who couldn't properly extend her prayer hands because his shoulders were in the way. He once leaned forward as if he was going to puke, but it was really his silent response to the woman's nasal whining and harrumphing. I only knew that because he tilted his head toward me and rolled his eyes; and I almost laughed, but as an altar boy I would have immediately been identified and later shot before a huge crowd, my blackened soul sent to purgatory for an extended visit until I was properly purged of sin and presentable to the Almighty. So I just smiled at him and went back to mouthing the Latin Apostle's Creed like I was supposed to.

Even the ride to gramma B's was uneventful; the girls and I in the back seat of the ugliest car on the planet, and my parents silent and brooding up front where the radio would normally be playing, but not today. I began to feel the world closing in as we drove around the lakes and down 38th street, some kind of invisible hand was squeezing my head all the way from King's Highway past the huge churches and nursing homes, through the black neighborhood with it's street hawkers and strutting jive roosters with their slit eyes locked onto ours every second we towheaded white kids dared look in their direction.

And then the turn onto her block, identified by the middle school on one side, and the Dairy Queen across the way, an ingenious marketing ploy and a great landmark as well.

It was a tiny, stucco house, a two bedroom arts and crafts style with a fake dormer above a miniature porch where a single foldout couch and round wicker table stood, the table bearing a white plastic cathedral that not only lit up, but played some innocuous holy tune once wound and triggered. The house was way too small for all of us at once, so like any 60's family, we just jammed inside anyway, my mothers three sisters and families fighting for seating right alongside mine.

I was the oldest child, a year older than my sister and 6 years older than any cousin, so I had the pleasure of sitting with the adults where neither the big kids nor the little kids would talk to me. Thank the Lord my gramma was a great cook, I was able to bury my loneliness in food, a trait I carried with me for the rest of my life.

We'd had dinner and had moved on to the drinks before the sniping started, my mother insinuating that my dad was getting too cozy with one of her sisters. I felt sick, but in a horror film way; I needed to run as fast as my legs would carry me, but I couldn't stand the idea of missing anything. So there I was, leaning against the wall like a cool guy might while smoking a cigarette in front of a group of cute girls; pretending as if I were lost in my thoughts and unaware that everyone was looking at me and wondering how I was going to react at my parents bringing the party to it's demise.

Louder and louder the snips became, more and more graphic as words like tits and ass hit the ceiling and bounced back down to smother me where I stood, as if a spider had paralyzed me and spun her cocoon, saving me for tomorrow's teatime.

And then they were actually shouting at each other, my mother swinging wildly and dad covering his face while trying to grab her arms before...too late, a full glass of wine sloshed onto his stubbled chin and broad, workin man shoulders before dribbling the length of his Sunday best.

As I remember it he slapped her though I could be wrong; something got gramma B into the fray as she took her daughter's side and verbally pasted her son in law for being a cheat and lecher without knowing the facts at all.

It wasn't nanoseconds before we were all in the ugliest car on the planet and screeching toward home, my parents screaming at each other through the black neighborhood where the roosters now smiled and laughed to each other, knowing we were about to suffer some horrible fate and nodding about how it served us right since we were the privileged class.

Somewhere near the lakes mom said something really cruel, or at least it must have been because dad grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head into the back seat screaming shuttup shuttup shuttup shuttup over and over while mom was kinda bowed out over the seat and her face was damn near right in mine, still screaming fuck you’s at my dad and crying all over my ugly and uncomfortable chubby boy suit. There was something almost funny about swerving all over a public road while your mother's head is nearly in your lap, her body distended like a Chinese gymnast in a circus act screaming bloody murder while your dad is foaming at the mouth and waving the hand that should be on the steering wheel out the window, I guess so passersby couldn't miss noticing the crazy fuckers from Vincent Avenue were on their way home and if they hurried they could watch the fun from the bottom of our grassless hill.

By the time we reached the house they were on each other like kittens from hell, scratching and hissing and shouting so all the neighbors heard that we were the most fucked up family ever, ruining my social life from that moment on. Us kids tried to run upstairs to our rooms where we could pretend we were deaf and in a movie with the Beatles or maybe Roy Rogers, but we never made it to the stairs before mom told us to sit on the couch and be quiet until she could take a picture of us in our nice outfits.

They vanished into the kitchen while we sat as far from each other as possible on the stiff, scratchy, blue burlappy couch, all of us rapidly creating our own little looking glasses to crawl through before all hell broke loose.

I'm not sure where the girls went, but I disappeared into prayerland, visualizing the altar boy thing with all my might to show God that I was a good boy in spite of my obvious shortcomings, especially the Playboy that I should have thrown away but didn't but would if He'd only intercede before we were orphans.

I heard dad scream something about a knife just before it came zipping into the room, sliding across the birch floor like a scene from "Psycho"; and then out he came, so pissed that even he knew he was out of control and needed release before he actually hurt someone like his wife or children perhaps.

The cabinet stereo took a direct boot to a speaker, accentuated by a fuck you you motherfucker or some such as the entire simulated cherry wood music box went flying into the wall behind it, breaking off one leg and creating the character that we'd come to know and love for the rest of it's short life.

Mom was good about never knowing when to quit and leapt to the offensive, adding the crime of stereo bashing to his already long list of more pornographic pursuits; and so she stood in the kitchen doorway and shouted to anyone that might be awake in China that her husband was a rotten son of a bitch, just as he responded by putting his bare fist through a plate glass picture window and somehow came out relatively unscathed...physically.

That kinda stunned mom; well, and us kids too if I can speak for my sisters, and the action sort of fell back into the darkness of the kitchen where they screamed in slightly hushed tones for a few minutes, apologizing for letting things get to a boiling point in that fuck off, kiss my ass sorta way.

Finally dad walked toward us holding a cup of coffee; Swedes could never get enough coffee, it was like a blood thinner or liquid breath or something....I don't remember a moment in their house when the glass, ten cup coffee pot wasn't on the stove and in full brown bloom and even in the middle of a murderous row it didn't surprise me in the least that he'd be swiggin' the horrid black goo.

So dad's walking toward us for some unexplained reason and mom comes out of the kitchen with this frying pan and up the coffee goes, splashing all over the stark white, perfectly flat but slightly slanted toward the front of the house sheet rock ceiling. And as the action once again took it's rightful place within the black hole of the kitchen, where torture devices lay everywhere from fire to ice to knives to meat hammers to beer bottles to Kirby Vacuum cleaners with meat grinder attachments......I watched one single drop of that black and steaming coffee leave the oogy blurg on the ceiling and slowly roll it's way toward the front of our house as if it was running from it's nightmare as fast as it's little legs could carry it.

Unlike the outside world, it was quiet inside the teardrop of the giant; and it proved my theory that the whole universe was so small in comparison to what lay beyond it, that it could fit within a speck of dust in the teardrop of a giant's eye. I forever memorized how insignificant I really was as I watched myself watching my liquid chariot trace it's arc across the white sky; and as it finally detached from the painted rock and raced toward the earth's deadly crust, I prayed to God Almighty that the fall would shatter me as well. Like Humpty Dumpty maybe, where not even the kings horses and men could bring me back to face another day of what was only going to get much, much worse so long as I stayed imprisoned in this life.

Of course, I didn't die at all. Something inside me began to die in my place; something that gathered every misstep, every cruelty, every abandonment over the course of 50 years into it's clutch as if it was an internal Pandora's box that just couldn't be satisfied until it was overflowing with bullshit. And all the king's horses can't fix it, nor all the king's men....nor drugs, nor alcohol, nor food, nor self harm, nor riding motorcycles on mountain roads in blizzards, nor putting a gun to my head unless I actually pull the trigger, nor all the self pity on the earth. I've tried them all to no avail.

I was at my wit's end, I didn't know what else to do to stop the hemorrhaging. All I figured might help was to open the box and lay it's remnants in the light of day where they might shrivel up and blow away.

She was my mother ya know? My one and only truly trusted confidant and protector; the one person willing to always forget my crimes, to always perk up at the sound of my voice, to always cure my illness, but not so fast that I couldn't get at least one day out of school in honor of each.

What <i>had happened</i> was bad enough, the nightmare was still fresh, my ears still ringing from the incessant screaming accusation after accusation; I was yet quivering in fear that inevitably I'd hear the exit door slam, walk into my parent's room and find one of them dead on the floor, blood pooling near their head, a look of "why couldn't you save me" on his or her already stiffening face.

But now we were talking humiliation, a fate worse than death itself. It would be an admittance of failure, a giving over to strangers what we couldn't handle on our own, an acceptance of labels and laughter, finger points and curious stares. There would be a vote soon, and it would determine as to whether my mother was insane or just a little out of sorts.

They'd had a fight not so long after the coffee drip incident; a knock down drag out that lasted the better part of a day and in the end one tried to kill the other in an "I'm not sure if they really meant it, at least I hope not" kinda way. Mom was babbling incoherently something about sex and neighbors and no matter what dad tried to do to keep her from wiggling free to shout her story to the rooftops, she always came loose and did just that.

It was well out of control by the time the ambulance arrived and I stayed in my room while the strong-arms strapped her down and dragged her gurney to the street and into the waiting ambulance, as any neighbor within earshot craned to see what circus was in town and what tickets were still available.

They were off to lockup in St. Mary's hospital...the psych ward, the flip out palace, the cracker cage, where they would keep mom imprisoned until she calmed down, or whenever the hell they pleased; whichever the state decided first. It was only hapless irony that the very vault in which my mother was housed for those few weeks, would much later also accept my father as it's ward, but that's another story written and soon to be reposted.

It had to have been one of the hardest things my father ever had to do. Not dealing with doctors and hospitals and drugs; but dealing with in-laws who had never really accepted a man of differing religion, a man who obviously had few morals and no convictions to hang them on anyway.

I'm not saying the Branigans were not nice people; far from it, I loved my grandmother and father dearly and found my aunts and uncles to be a kind and well meaning lot if not a bit judgmental and gossipy. But as you can imagine their first allegiance was to my mother, their own; and as a committal to a state institution was not possible without more than just the spouses consent, dad would have to kneel at the altar of humility and subservience, one to which he was unaccustomed to be generous.

I was not privy to the actual conversation between them; I'm sure dad figured it was an adult thing in spite of the fact that who the final decision would affect most were the kids. And I'm sure it was anything but pleasant for both sides as it was quite obvious to even a twelve year old like me that something was dreadfully rotten in Denmark and the longer we waited the harder the answers would be to find.

Whether I've blocked something out or just became so self absorbed that I'd not noticed the schedule, suddenly it was made clear that mom had been transferred from the local hospital to the nut house far into the country, as if there was some difference between the two beyond location, style of torture equipment and length of stay.

Luckily we were busy during that time. It was post Easter and the three of us were on the last leg of yet one more year of Catholic education. I was an altar boy and boy scout, I had mud pies to make and melting snow to form into balls and break windows with.

So while it was quite odd to make our own lunches and generally fend for ourselves, it wasn't as if it was an all day affair and on the weekends there was always a grandparent to take up the slack.

Of course we all missed mom, probably no one more than I as she was really my only bud in the house; everyone else having judged me incompetent, boorish, mean, nerdy or otherwise unfit to pal around or trade clever banter with. We talked about her at the dinner table, we thought about her and what she must be suffering as we walked to and from school, and we prayed long and hard for her deliverance every night.

But there was only empty rhetoric to keep us company, mom wasn't coming back for a minimum of 30 days and until then we had to simply wean ourselves off her care.

It was much longer than 30 days in the end, and for a family that took people at face value, expecting truth to be a universally accepted form of human intercourse, the news was at once maddening and quickly admitted as an anecdotal footnote to our opinions on doctors, the State, and anyone else who later would try to get us to believe the unlikely and downright silly.

My enduring cynicism took root during those months; that people who prided themselves in their knowledge of the human condition would not be aware of the cost of lying to children about their sick mother pretty much indicted the entire system for me. And their following callous disregard for the emotional rollercoaster caused by dealing with a chemically imbalanced relative, kind of put a bow on the pretty package of discontent toward psychiatry on the whole, or "shrink" wrapped it if you prefer a slightly annoying pun.

But all this knowledge came later, after years of in and out of the hospital, up and down in mood and temperament and Doctor Regan always assuring dad that this pill or that was the cure, and that nothing else could be done.

It was maybe two months into mom's incarceration that we were invited to visit, and the whole idea made us wish for a few more months to think about it first.

Anoka State Mental Hospital was reported to be a dark and dreary place where bugs and worms crawled the floors during the day, and monkeys roamed the halls and rooftops in the light of the moon. It was said to house people who talked to no one but screamed all night long, people who played cards with dead siblings and carried imaginary sacks full of pirate treasure, so laden with gold that they would sometimes fall to the ground and not be able to rise.

But we were visiting as it was a time when children didn't say no but once, and after the dust had cleared did exactly what their parents requested. Dad wanted to take us in the worst way. I'm sure he felt horrible for having condemned his own wife to a goofball's prison and thought that seeing her children might start the long process of forgiveness rolling.

We drove the ugly car to Anoka, the nearly one of a kind and quickly defunct Fraser; a brownish 200 ton rust bucket that would hold it's own in any head on collision, but suffer a stunning defeat in a popularity contest with even an Edsel.

As we drove up the long drive of what appeared to be your average enormous state sponsored human being warehouse, I tried to think of the brick and mortar building as a resort of sorts; a vacation hotel where mom had taken a well deserved break from the endless and thankless job of raising a medium large family. It looked like a school to me, only twice as tall and three schools wide; big enough to house the population of the island of Japan perhaps, or at least hold every box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes ever made.

There were cars and people everywhere outside; it reminded me of some school documentary wherein some guy with happy patter would tell us kiddies not to eat yellow snow while random shots of huge school buildings, yellow snow eaters retching on the school steps as proof of the dangers of a urine tainted diet, would flash past on the tiny, 13 inch monitor we were all supposed to see.

There were people in wheelchairs out smoking up a storm while the proverbial men in white coats would push them from this fire hydrant to the next. There were old women and bent over men shuffling along the sidewalks looking all too much like pod people, the same white coats walking just behind them as if they'd had their patients on invisible leashes and were taking them out to do their business.

We got out of the ugly car and straightened our Sunday go to meetin' clothes before trekking through the mass of loonies and into the lobby of Le 'hotel du Wheee!

It wasn't nearly as funny as I'm making it sound, I was quite frightened and my sisters even moreso. People who probably hadn't had a visitor since Pearl Harbor were eyeing us as a surrogate family come to call, and as we hurried past the huddled masses I forced myself to wave back and smile so often I felt like I was walking on a float in a Christmas parade.

I wish I could say otherwise, I truly want to tell you that all was commonplace, no zombies milling about, no smell of urine, no crones rubbing their hands together as if we were Hansel and Gretel and yet one more tender morsel. But it's the way I remember it so we'll have to go with it whether stereotypical or not.

I'd never seen so many hallways, so shining and bright with their freshly polished surfaces screaming to me to run fast and slide far. The doors in those hallways on the other hand made it easy to quash the adventurous side of my brain. The doors with little barred windows in them like peepholes for Cyclops; the ones with handles on the outside, but I was betting no handles on the inside.

We waited for an eternity while some nameless nurse with lovely fetish making white stockings and a little sailor hat went tripping lightly in search of Doctor Regan, the jailor who held my mother's freedom as if it were a banana yet to ripen. I'm sure he was busy signing forms and couldn't come right away, or maybe he was eating raw meat and slurping a thickly headed ale while watching the flogging of an unrepentant neurotic. To this day I can't guess the truth.

But indeed he did show up eventually, and led us off to "the conference room" where he might talk down to us for an hour before allowing our visit.

It was official he said; mom was crazy and only he could save her...well, he and a shitload of the newest drugs hot off the presses. Until mom had whatever chemical he was feeding her oozing from every one of her 80 gazillion pores, she'd have to stay right where she was; in the arms of State sponsored salvation as it were.

At that moment in fact she was a "likkered up", and so the good doctor led us to her quarters that we might cheer her and aid in her recovery, on the presumption I suppose that our appearance would aid in her absorption of Stellazine.

I nearly wept the moment I saw her, partly because I'd missed her as if she'd been gone since my birth. But partly too because she looked as if she'd had the shit kicked out of her, her baggy eyes and disheveled hair looking all too much like she wasn't really on vacation after all.

She had a roomy we were introduced too, one whose appearance immediately made me swallow the words "bibbity bobbity boo" as I swore I'd seen her in the movie, and not as a goodie two shoes. Maybe it was the wart on her nose, I mean it was so damned obvious at the time. But I think it was more how she bent over mid spine and craned her head slightly to the left, watching me out of one eye as if imitating Marty Feldman. And as we left the claustrophobic confine of the shared bedroom, how she followed close behind me, whisper-asking "got a cigarette? Got a cigarette?"

Mom took us on a tour; I suppose there was really nothing else to do with kids but walk in circles. My mother was quite pragmatic about her illness, pretty much from the moment she truly understood the severity of her occasional plight. So she was pretty damned happy to show us around, not at all ashamed by either her imprisonment or her new neighbors.

It was endless; I was impressed by the fact that no escapes were possible simply because without a freaking map, there would be no way to find the exits. It was like a cathedral cut into a million little confessionals, each one housing a little priest waiting to hear your sins and give you the long list of penances you deserved.

We sauntered through the gymnasium, a bleak room with no moving equipment save a "medicine ball". Wouldn't ya just know it. I thought of the gyms I was accustomed to; to climbing bars bolted to outside walls, the heavy ropes that dropped from the ceilings for boy-men to prove their fearlessness and ability to haul at least their own weight. And then I visualized those ropes wound around the necks of withered old men, tired of eating jello and chicken noodle soup and in a hurry to check out the menu on the other side. And the climbing bars with women trapped by them as if they were dungeon racks like Poe might write into a pendulous story; doctors and nurses alike tickling and tugging on them shouting "repent, repent your evil ways" or some such nonsense.

I have to admit in retrospect, seeing "The Crucible" within weeks of visiting my mother didn't help my imagination any. One only wonders how I'd have reacted if "Silence of the Lambs" had been on TV the night before our picnic.

The cafeteria held no special horror beyond being reminiscent of school lunch, so the ordinary horror I suppose. But as we moved from the lunchroom to the backyard grounds for a boxed lunch my father had carried throughout our travels, we passed a slightly open door that my childish curiosity could just not ignore.

I don't know how long I stood there, or how long I was alone in that hall. The rest had made their way outside and finally noticed I was missing before someone was sent to retrieve me; and how long that took in minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years...I can't say.

I can say I wish I'd passed it by, that I'd never seen it, that the door had been closed as I'm sure was the custom if not the absolute rule. And I can say I'll never forget every splotch of paint on it's walls, every rubber wheel smudge on it's floors, ever instrument, dial, cord, sheet, chair, table and lamp within it's walls. But most of all, I'll never forget the bed.

It was a normal looking hospital type bed, save the leather and fuzzy something straps that hung from it midpoint, and then at it's foot. But the sheet looked to be rubber or some composite, of which there were few in the early 60's, The pillow was covered in the same material, as if making both spill proof or resistant to piercing maybe.

I never might have figured out the puzzle if it hadn't been for one item laying on what appeared to be a food table; one of those goofy things that roll under the bed so you might have your paper cup of steamy broth brought closer to your mouth.

It was the size of a cigar I spose, but shaped more like a blackjack on both ends; kind of a pencil thing with fat erasers. And it was covered in leather it seemed, or at least some pliable material that suddenly made me think of teeth.

As that thought tilted my brain I scanned the room and all became demonically clear. The boxes full of dials and switches, the cables neatly laid in attached cradles, this was the room in which doctors drove out the demons; this is where my mother's shock treatments were held.

I knew little of the actual procedure save those that talked about it at all were pretty matter of fact about it as if it were a painless amusement ride. But as I stood in that door my ever burgeoning imagination created the scene: My mother strapped in comfortably, quite full of some penathol or barbiturate, barely able to hold this leather fob thingy securely between her teeth. (though I'm sure it had a strap or something to keep it place)

And then the nod, the clack of a toggle and the sound of a Frankenstein movie when the doc is really cranking the juice to the monster.

And last, a color picture of my mother, the woman who held me in her arms whenever I sniffled, the woman who fed me the last cookies in the house when no one else was watching, the woman who had borne me and raised me to be good and kind and forgiving and violence free...............................

straining against her bonds as her body leaped and pounded against her mattress, the smell of her lightly searing flesh forcing it's way into my nostrils as I watched her in abstentia thrash against the voltage that was reported to bring comfort to the afflicted, if not total removal of all memory and speech function.

It wasn't easy to eat lunch after that experience, but maybe that was the day that food became more a medicant and less a necessity. I chatted with my dear sweet mother as best I could over bologna and Velveeta, white bread and oleomargarine sandwiches and grape Nehi, but my skin was crawling for the rest of the afternoon and I can only hope she never noticed.

I don't remember exactly how long it was that she was trapped inside that hell, how long my flesh and blood lay helpless to the jolts of a medical community that didn't yet know shit from shinola beyond it's reams of anecdotal claptrap.

But eventually she came home and we got back to normal, or as normal as you can get after all the neighbors and every kid in school knows your mother was in the nut house and reminds you of it as often as it seems funny.

It was great to have her back and I never once used her illness against her, even when it was crushing me socially by my connection to it. I understood the chemical imbalance thing, even though I sucked at science; so it would have never occurred to me that it was in any way, shape or form a fault issue, as in "she did it on purpose".

The whole affair kind of vanished from view after a few long months...well ok, maybe a dozen long months, but eventually all was quiet and even the kids didn't see the humor in beating that horse. And then it happened again, at least the beast reappeared though the treatment was less severe and of a shorter duration.

The problem in my world was that I'd been convinced that "it" was over after the stay at the Vincent Price Home for the Damned; I was never told it would likely reawaken every so often whenever mom would secretly decide that she was tired of being medicated and wanted to go it alone.

From then on I was less at ease with life, and far more prone to overreact to every word spoken, to every cocked eye; at least those actions taken and speeches made by my mother. Call it paranoia if you choose, but the fact is I was almost never really sure if what she was saying was fact or fiction, and that it would be years between bouts at times, only made things worse. I'd find myself finally loosing my shoulder muscles and forgetting to verify sentences for authenticity and WHAM... we'd be right back where we started; stunned, out of breath and wondering why I couldn't find a way to fix this problem, genius that everyone told me I was.

There are plenty of reasons I'm the doofus I am, and this is probably the greatest cause among them. I in no way, not even by the slightest thread blame my mother, or anyone else for that matter for how it affected me. "It aint the stuff that matters, it's how you deal with the stuff that counts". I guess I just dealt incorrectly often enough to short out some of my wiring, and now some days I jump at the most non threatening noise, metaphorically speaking.

There are other stories on this path to come, but this was the entire beginning of my world of difference, my badge of honor for a life lived by grinning through clenched teeth all too often. And so it goes.





Monday, July 18, 2011

The Clontarf Trees

Boru’s men had already thinned our ranks, chopping down the tallest of us and those closest to the sea, that he might have a battlefield in which his soldiers had clear view of the enemy’s landing. Though I weep for the loss of my brethren, were it not for the slaughter I’d not have been able to relate this story, as I was an inland oak until this wasteful human strategy unfolded. It was odd at first, the ability to visualize that which I had only smelled for the whole of my first century. Its salty spray would dampen my young leaves each spring, when the winds shifted from westerly to northeast and the towering waves would fling foam into the boiling skies. The taste was exquisite yet always left me longing to see what it was that had provided a spice to my ordinary atmospheric stew; and now that curiosity had been satisfied by the misguided hand of interspecies bloodlust. I’d rather it had been by natural causes, from dieback or even the fires of lightning, but no matter, it is done.

I understand that Boru seems a danger to those who have come, those who now row their longboats through the churning surf. Having near united the clans of Ireland was a bold move and wise in my opinion, though I admit as a tree I was hardly suited to express an opinion, nor was I asked for my elder counsel in any case. Yet it was obvious, to even those of us considered less than intelligent, that the endless laying to waste of village after Irish village would only be stopped by the unification of the peoples of Eire to the benefit of their own defense; that the constant caterwauling about this neighborhood triviality and that insignificant tribal border needed to cease, lest the Vikings always face splintered opposition when landing upon the green for purposes of rape and pillage.

It would seem silly that we trees would feel a stake in self anointed human miseries, save the fact that each culture has its own view of the spirit of the forest and its ultimate uses. The Irish have learned to accept our gifts wisely to date, they farm little so have cleared few acres, they build homes of sod and berm and use few logs in the making.

The Vikings on the other hand are a greedy lot. I can only imagine their native lands are barren rock or even sage swept desert; those topographic nightmares I’ve heard about from transplant seedlings carried across the sea and planted by the scat of migrating birds. They strip the land clean as if gypsy moths; what they don’t cut they burn, what they don’t burn they damage with their crude forestry, and leave to rot in the roiling winter fogs and continuous drizzle.

I pray for an Irish victory for those reasons, but I fear I may be too late with my penance. It appears the Irish have been outnumbered greatly, the Norsemen of Dublin have brought barge loads of mercenary fighters; Danish Vikings and by the looks of it, the hated Angles and Saxons of nearby genocide Isle.

It is a sad day for we trees, the Forests of Emerald on the Island of Snakes. Even now as I witness this tragic rout, Brian Boru himself has been stabbed through the heart from behind, as he knelt outside his tent praying to his God for divine intercession. Methinks even a God of His stature would not have been able to stop this horde, the High King of Ireland would have been better served with his sword swinging, than his hands clasped in an attempt to coax the Chistian almighty into protective rage. By the looks, we are conquered and divided once again. I am sure the blessing that has been my unobstructed sightline will now become my curse, as no doubt I am already being eyed by the shipwrights as mast material, or worse, by the pagan priests as funereal pyre fodder. I can only hope the humans find a way to collectively lay down their arms within the next thousand years, that by the miracle of peace my children’s children’s children’s roots are not fed by the same rivers of blood as are mine on this most malicious of days.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Random Act Run

I wrote a story long ago called "Random Act." I showed it to one of my aunts as a "here's what I've been doing lately as if you really wanted to know" (but only because my mother, bless her all Ronnie loving all the time heart is dead so I needed a surrogate pat on the back). She asked me something no one else had...where had I found the idea. I told her I'd just made it up, conjured it from whole cloth; she bought my explanation and patted me on the head as I knew she would.

But the truth is, there is no whole cloth; every tale has some connection to it's writer, every fiction hides some personal fact even if nothing more than that gleaned while researching it's subject.

Many years ago I was recently divorced and more depressed than usual. Knowing that my overall mood was dour, that I had little if anything to say of good cheer and that those around me needn't suffer my burdens, I spent a lot of my free time alone. I ate most of my meals in cheap restaurants, loathing to cook for one when I'd cooked for two for so long. But once in a moon I'd treat myself to a fine dining experience as there's nothing better than reading a paperback by candlelight, draped in cloth nappies, sipping a chateneauf du pape or mid priced Riesling, and purposely dipping the wrong fork into shrimp scampi or some regional Japanese concoction.

This particular night I'd driven downtown, far out of my way to a Polish eatery on the "nordeast" side. It had been a long day of hacking out mundane, melodramatic, marketing music and too late for my regular haunts; and though I don't imbibe beyond an occasional glass of wine or yearly beer, I chose this two room, eastern European pub to drown my sorrows in fatty foods.

You could describe my mood as "heavy sigh", only jovial enough to flirt with the waitress as I always do, but far too ponderous to dig into a new novel. So I watched people mostly, an eclectic mix of the painted, elderly, neighborhood matrons with foul mouthed, taxi driver mates, and Brooks Brothers admen and their floozied dates, ruining their livers with fancy drink, and my ears with loud renditions of show tunes sung across the piano bar.

I was thinking long and hard about my life while I picked at some Polish rouladen-esque brisket and sometimes smiling at the couples attempting to air dance a polka while the jukebox played Sinatra or some such.

I felt a little embarrased to be human, to be genetically related to these pandering clowns shouting "look at me! to a deaf crowd, each participant growing ever louder in their quest to be more than just another nobody.

But for some reason what occurred to me was how blessed I'd been to be in the position to watch this dance unencumbered by the desire to flaunt my assets so as to influence people. That I was pretty secure as an individual at that moment, and while lonely perhaps, moderately healthy, wealthy and wise enough to set my failures aside for an evening at a time.

I stayed 'till closing, the bar's ambiance even more entertaining as the night wore on, my smiles growing larger, laughter slightly louder as each minute passed. After leaving 30% to cover my extended stay, I succumbed to the "last call" and made my way to my car for a drive among the city lights.

There's an edginess to the wee hours, slipping from shadow to shadow, witnessing petty crimes and partygoers too addicted to let up no matter what the hour. Much of the first half of my life had been spent here, a street urchin only alive in darkness and the feeble rays of dawn; oblivious to the madness of daylight and the haunted ghouls who pandered their widgety wares day after day. I'd not been back for years, my life now "respectable", my job all consuming. I was so enthused I decided to walk a spell in one of the worst neighborhoods of the city; a coward's instinctual face down of fears long held, a fool in a fool's paradise.

3AM, light snow, 10 degrees and no wind, it was a perfect night for a stroll among the warehouses and rat infested, parking lot shanties that I'd known so well in my former life. Memories bounced off me like so many drops of sleet as I stumbled onto the railroad bridge that separates downtown from the "north side"; land of industry, tenements and subsidized town homes. There I stopped to imagine my father, likely at that moment a few miles up the track, switching out another set of freight trains bound for Chicago and points eastward.

And there I spotted a white bearded man below me, fetaly curled and shivering near the unmanned switchtender shack; a lined, flannel shirt and levis his only protection from the evening's draft.

I called to him, a feeble "yallright?" forced from my now tingling solar plexus as my mind raced to discover my intentions. He only moaned and attempted a roll to no avail, the pool of liquid surrounding his head now more than obvious and wholly uninviting.

What could I do? This was pre cell phone and any public phone not yet yanked from it's box was securely planted in the suburbs. It could have been a ruse. I'd heard of a game called "cat and mouse" wherein one would feign injury so as to draw a Samaritan into range for the "cat" to pounce and "scratch" his valuables to the ground, if not simply drop the fool and take the items from his unconscious body.

But I was here among other reasons, to remove the last vestige of fear from my sorry state, and so a fool I became. I scrambled down the hillside, sliding the last few yards with bare hands as outriggers in the newfallen snow, and made my way to the breathing corpse.

"No cops" he slurred as I tried to lift him away from his own waste. "No cops" I agreed, "but where can I take you?" He pointed toward the bridge where I spied a mound of trash and a huge cardboard box hidden below the rusted pillars and crossbeams.

He was heavy, unable to walk and covered in vomit, and I am no hulkster in spite of my size...so I dragged him the 20 yards to his box, leaving angel prints in the snow as he flailed his arms while we traversed the span. Now I was cold as well and as I never wore gloves or hat, I began to shiver in time with my hobo friend.

A smoker has only one redeeming quality; never without a match. And so I collected a few clumps of McWrappers and spent a few moments tearing dead brush from the nearest hillside, soon creating a fine boy scout fire that we both could wallow in it's heavenly flame unseen by any crossing the tarmac above. It seemed all too much an adventure at the time, like ten year olds dodging through back yards and over fences, fingers cocked and ready for any sign of the enemy...the dreaded "krauts."

But my companion had already passed out, his breathing strong and noisy enough that I was comfortable in the knowledge that cpr was unnecessary. New quandary. Leave and call the gendarmes who would likely kick his ass on the way to a 24 hour layover? Or leave him in the hands of God or mother nature, or his tennis shoes if they happened to be his deity of choice.

I eventually determined to choose the latter, but only after a decision that would create the basis of a story 20 years later.

I scooted the "fridge" box up the rise toward the bridge surface and then dragged his carcass to an upright position, gripping his shoulders with my knees so as to keep him still while I removed my jacket.

It was a "bomber" jacket, a Navy replica leather complete with a fluffy woolen collar and heavy liner inside for those unheated trips into the stratosphere. I'd bought it as a graduation gift to myself, my pilot training completed in record time and my fresh license already 100 hours old.

Never having played with dolls as a child, it was a royal pain in the ass to dress this limp biscuit in my 400 dollar tour de force, but after a few days, or so it seemed, he was donned, zipped and ready for transfer.

I rolled him into the box, ignoring his snoring, muttered protests, and stuffed a few stray, tossed aside newspapers astride his form to keep his balance and provide a little inky down to insulate his legs from the chill.

Stoking the fire again, I sat and pondered life for a moment in my slacks and French cuffed, Egyptian cotton shirt. Though I still had visions of the butt end of a hammer attached to a railroad bum splitting my skull for my pocket change, I sat there silently and watched the flame as I'd done all my life, entranced by the wondrous, colorful magic of natural consumption; and pretty damn happy with myself.


Of course I'd never told this story. Charity is not a bragging right and selflessness is nothing once applause echoes in the wind. It was enough that I'd done it, that I'd overcome my fear and loathing long enough to practice what I'd long preached...just once. Besides, it's just as likely that the man froze to death, my jacket plucked from him by a wandering scavenger, and my culpability for his death an item I'll pay for in the great beyond.

Either way, as I sat here one night sweating blood, looking for any excuse to bury myself in fiction so as to relieve my constant, self indulgent pain for a few hours, I thought about the coat I gave away; the tiny offering from one man to another, a simple gesture of peace.

I marvel at the act, not the man. It was certainly not my doing, but those that taught me right from wrong, kindness from contempt, love from hate that are to be commended... if anyone at all.