Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Angry Bird

This is the sort of thing that always happens a day or so before we're planning on going out of town. Here we are all excited about spending 3 days at some swanky resort in San Diego,  when a critter decides to take up residence in our attic.

My wife missed her calling.  She should have been one of the Super Friends. Pam has super-sonic powers of hearing. The two of us will be sitting in the family room with the television blaring when she will turn to me and say,  "Are you going to get that?" I look at her, bewildered, knowing that her turbo-ears have picked up some faint sound. I turn my ears upward hoping against hope that I will hear it too, but after a while I answer,  "Get what?"  She looks at me like I am some pitiful creature with a profound disability.  "You can't hear that??!! The kids toilet is running!! Geeze!"  Then she storms upstairs to jiggle the handle. Sometimes we will be in bed and she will say.." Listen to that squirrel."  I will perk my ears up and conjure up all of my powers of concentration to no avail. "What squirrel?"  She will look over at me and incredulously answer, "The one in Lilly's back yard with the heart murmur! You can't hear that??"

Well, for the past two or three days Pam has been pestering me to do something about the critter in the attic, which until this morning had gone totally undetected by my merely human powers of hearing. But at 7:30 I heard something shuffling around up there, so I grabbed my trusty Daisy Powerline 35 pump-action, duel ammo BB gun purchased a while back to rid us of the great squirrel infestation of 2010, and carefully opened the door to the attic and made my way silently up the stairs. The lighting up there isn't great and it was quite cold, but my blood was running hot with the thrill of the hunt. At the top of the stairs I heard a flutter in the back left corner and thought I saw movement. This squirrel was going down!! I tip-toed closer and saw that whatever it was was actually in the overhanging eave. I sent a slug towards the offending sound and suddenly a loud flutter came roaring out of the darkness, black and angry, flying way too close to my head. My heart began beating the doors off of my chest as I spun around to follow the flight. It was some sort of black bird and he was mightily pissed.  He flew in disoriented circles from one end of the space to the other. Since I had already fired a shot, I couldn't fire another until I had re-pumped the gun 20 times, a major design flaw I might add, so I ran back down the stairs to close the door so this angry bird couldn't fly into the house. After pumping like a wild man, I was ready for the kill if only the bird would light somewhere. Providentially, he came to rest on a rafter about 10 feet above my head. I fired and  knocked him off of his perch. In a flurry of feathers he fell down to the floor out of sight and as I gave chase I could hear him flapping and squawking wildly. By the time I reached the landing at the top of the stairs he was nowhere to be found, which meant that now I had a dying bird hidden somewhere in my attic. After an exhausting search failed to locate the now silent menace, I shut the door securely and headed to work. Now on my lunch hour, I went back up to try again. This time I hear the bird in the eave all the way on the opposite side of the attic from whence he came, clearly in duress and unable to fly. I can't see him but every couple of minutes I hear his wounded shuffle. Who knows how long its going to take before he finally goes to that big bird-feeder in the sky? But at least now he's in the eave that overhangs Patrick's room. Maybe if I shut the door to his room and line the door frame with blankets and pillows, Pam won't be able to hear the death throws.  Who am I kidding? She can probably hear me typing this all the way from her room at Rivers Edge. Stupid bird!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

For All of You who have ever crashed at MisterD's house

Its Saturday morning. I feel it my duty to inform you all that the furniture has been purchased.  Yes, after years of false starts, indecision, trauma and tears, it is finished....and that was all over deciding what outfit to wear WHILE shopping for furniture. No, seriously, Pam has made her choice and we have bought a bunch of furniture from Bassett. I must say that it gives me great satisfaction to know that I bought furniture manufactured entirely in the state of Virginia, USA. This company is the oldest such firm in the state, having survived for over 102 years. I could have saved some money by going with furniture made in Asia, where 69% of all furniture purchased here comes from, but I chose Bassett. As a free-trader, I am agnostic about the fact that Americans buy so much stuff from China. I want as many options as possible when I spend money, and I particularly love the ability to make my own decisions rather than having my decisions made for me by a government who restricts my access to foreign goods. In this case I chose not only an American product, but a Virginia product. Good for me!

This post goes out to all of the hundreds of teenagers who over the past 13 years have done their part to make this purchase necessary. You all know who you are. Patrick's friends.  Kaitlin's friends. Strange kids who would wander in who we didn't know. Youth group kids over for bible studies. Then, hordes of college kids who would come for the weekend.  Belmont kids. Cedarville kids. Liberty kids. All would bring their insatiable appetites for popcorn and freezie-pops and chocolate. There they would gather, flopped down in a mass of arms, legs and feet all over the sofa, love seat and chair, sprawled out wildly on the floor, Molly sniffing around for dropped treats. After they would leave we would go into damage control in the early years when the furniture was young.  But after a while we just let it go, realizing the utter futility trying to protect furniture from swarms of barbarians. There were memorable offenders. Giles Fort overflowing the toilet upstairs. Matt Watson and Tyler Pegues wrestling with Molly and knocking knick-knacks off of end tables. The new years eve party that featured Mr.'s Watson, Pegues, Burton, and Edworthy actually shifting the foundation of the house by jumping up and down in tandem as the clock struck twelve. But, lest you think that all the offenders were male, think again. Most of the food stains were female in origin. From the freezie pop drippings of Amanda Carter and Lauren Pegues, to the chocolate stains courtesy of Arika Aker and Meghan Kees, the girls did their part. Well, in a couple of weeks all the old stuff will be hauled off and replaced with new, and a small part of me...actually a very small part of me will be a bit sad to see it go. The fact is that Pam and I wouldn't trade anything for the times we spent overrun with teenagers. Sure, they cost us a small fortune in groceries alone, and they were a colossal mess at times, but they brought something with them to our home.... fun. The energy and promise of a house full of kids on a Friday night is an amazing gift. To see so many of them all grown up and accomplishing great things is one of the most rewarding thrills of my life.  I saw a picture on facebook the other day that stopped me in my tracks. There were three of my all time favorite "kids" sitting on somebody elses' sofa each holding a toddler in their laps...THEIR toddler. All grown up. What a blessing to see that they didn't end up in jail.

Truth be told, we miss the mess. We miss the drama, the angst of raging testosterone, the honor of comforting a crying kid. But life comes at us in waves, one washes over us and then is gone. So we get rid of the old furniture and get ready for the new and wonder what the next wave will bring.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Power of Music

I didn't sleep well last night, tossed and turned, woke up several times, a stormy night of dreams.  At 6 or so I finally gave up.  The coffee brewed as I stared at the heavy, wet snow clinging to the branches of every tree in my back yard. Snow at 53 isn't the stuff of playful imagination. Snow is wet, cold and messy, a nuisance. As I trudged up the stairs to my office a darkness began to enter into my day. It was Monday, the snow had thrown a white, lifeless pall over what had begun to resemble spring. Something new and young had overnight become tired and bleak. I turned on my computer and read through my normal business lineup.  The Wall Street Journal proclaimed the latest contradiction in monetary policy out of Washington. Drudge reliably chronichled the contined cultural decline that is my country in 2012. I closed my eyes and took a sip of coffee. I reached for my iPhone and switched on Pandora.

There was a blues tune playing, something by B.B. King. His woman had left him and he was terribly distraut. His crying, mournful riff did nothing at all to raise my spirits.  When you're trying to snap out of a funk, clear the fog from around your thinking, trying to raise your mood, the blues are not your friend. I stared out of the window and waited for B.B.to finish. It would have been rude and disrespectful to click to the next song, no matter how tired I may have been of hearing about this unfaithful winch of a woman. So I waited, mourning along with him and watching little clumps of snow slide off the curved front of my gas grill.

Then suddenly, there was George Gershwin and his Rhapsody in Blue. There was a piano, then an orchestra. I sat down slowly and took another sip of coffee, holding the mug tightly in both hands to keep them warm.  I closed the laptop and listened. The sounds coming from my cell phone transported me to another place. I felt as if I was in the concert hall.  Where was it? Who was it? I grabbed the phone and scrolled through and saw that it was the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Berstein. The pianist was anonymous and should not have been for he was masterful. The soaring beauty of the melody and the playfulness of the jazz theme began to sweep away the dross. I became aware of the beating of my heart. A tightness came to my throat, an emotion from some hidden place. All of my life it has been this way. Music is one of the few things that has consistently had the power to stir in me powerful emotions that come from some strange place, I know not where. But there I was listening,in my pajamas, spellbound, to this beautiful work, with a lump in my throat. Whenever I try to explain this phenominon to other people, they take a small step back, turn their head to one side and smile nervously. The only people who have ever really understood what I was talking about have been my brother Donnie, my son Patrick and Patrick's high school choral director, Sherrie Matthews. Each of these three are all music people, each supremely talented, and each had a flicker of recognition on their faces when I tried to explain the otherworldly power of music to transform the mind. None of them could explain it either, but each knew it to be true. Towards the end of the piece there is this particularly powerful, soaring melody that brought to mind a United Airlines commercial from years ago. When I first though of it, I felt a bit disgusted that anyone would use such a work to sell anything, let alone airline tickets.  But then I thought, why not? It transformed my day from dreary to something lighter than neutral,  no small feat. A lot cheaper than therapy. Rhapsody in Blue makes you want to do something good, to be good. I wonder how many men were inspired to get on a plane and reunite with their wives after hearing it? How many long lost friends were reunited after someone heard the soaring notes, got inspired and flew across the country to reconnect?

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why we insist on teaching music in school. Someone may hear the notes and be transported to a better place.  Someone may hear the melody and be stirred in a magical way and realize that there is something better, something higher to aspire to. Today, for me, it simply jump-started my day. For some kid somewhere, it just might save their life.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Jeremy Lin, Tiger Woods, and Shopping for Furniture

What a crazy week. Business is brisk and a bit chaotic, as it always is this time of year for me, so I have to wait until Saturday to access the damage. Many things to comment upon. Here goes…

Our fearless Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner was testifying on capitol hill the other day, and when I say fearless, I’m not kidding. If you had to defend the budget that Obama just sent to Congress, you’d better be fearless. There was an incredible exchange with Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan had just put up on a screen a graph found on page 58 of said budget where the administration shows deficits and debt skyrocketing exponentially for as far as the eye can see into the future. Ryan then asks Geithner why his boss is offering no plan to correct this dangerous trend line. After a few minutes of economic jargon and back and forth nit-picking, the Secretary admits that the future economic condition of the Republic is in peril unless the trend is corrected, but then cut loose with the most honest words to ever come out of his mouth….” We don’t have a solution, but we don’t like yours.” Now, THAT, my friends, is pure unadulterated leadership. We are in charge of the government, I am the Treasury Secretary and I am admitting that the country is headed over an economic cliff, and I’m also admitting that I have come to you with NO PLAN TO FIX ANY OF THIS!!! But your plan sucks. So there. Epic!!!

Over the last 15 years or so I’ve spent maybe an hour of my life thinking about the NBA. I mean, after Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retired, why bother? I freely admit that I haven’t watched an NBA game probably since the 90’s. I only see snippets of the NBA on “shots of the day” segments on ESPN while I’m waiting for spring training news. But in the last two weeks I’ve actually been paying attention to one basketball story, Jeremy Lin. I’ve only seen highlights and read stories about the kid. But, without question, he’s the best thing to happen to basketball since the shot clock. What an amazing story. Player of the year in California and can’t get a D-1 offer?? Goes to Harvard and gets them to the tournament? Shuffles around with several teams but never gets a chance to play, then because of injuries gets thrown into a game almost as an afterthought. Then, all he does is ignite a 7 game win streak in which he scores more points than anyone in NBA history over their first 7 games in the league. The kid is an amazing talent who until two weeks ago nobody knew existed. Then I find out he’s an outspoken born again Christian? This story just keeps getting better. He’s got faith, brains, and game. He keeps this up, I may actually tune in. Maybe one day he will agree to be Treasury Secretary.

Poor Tiger Woods. Watching him get schooled by Phil last weekend was a guilty pleasure. Tiger still has the physical brilliance, but his mental toughness is gone. He no longer has the power of intimidation. And when Phil walked off the 18th at Pebble into the arms of his beautiful wife, the contrast with Tiger slinking away, shoulders slumped, and head down could not have been more stark. He had it all, and now he seems lost. There was Phil, with his breast cancer surviving wife in a knowing embrace that testified to the joy that comes when a tough road is travelled together. Tiger slipped away, probably to the driving range and then, into the arms of the bimbo-du-jour. Painful to watch, or it should be at least. There is a bad place in me that takes comfort in justice even when its application is painful. I need to work on that.

Pam is in full home decoration mode. Basset furniture is coming here this morning to case out the joint. Our kids are grown and all of the furniture that they and their multitudinous friends destroyed has become a source of irritation. We need new stuff, but what kind, color and style? Is it time for real grown up furniture? Are we allowed to buy something without scotchguard? How do we know if we’ll like it 5 years from now? Will it be suitable once grandkids arrive bringing the second plague of locusts upon our house? Will Molly’s paws scratch leather? To recline or not to recline, THAT is the question. And what about paint color and rugs and what used to be called “curtains” but now are referred to as “window treatments”? How will the new stuff look with Christmas decorations? If the sofa only has two seat cushions instead of three will the crack in the middle make people hesitant to sit?( no kidding). I’m with Tim Geithner on this one…”We have no plan, but yours sucks.”

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney Houston, Pandora, and Valentines Day

# Whitney Houston dead at 48. Sad. It had been a question of when rather than if. Her steady descent into narcissism had been difficult to watch, the wasted talent, almost a clichĂ©. All I know about her was that when that adorable girl bounced behind the microphone to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991, nobody had ever performed it better before or since. The joy and abandon on her face, the graceful ease with which she glided through the song, the radiance, the beauty, the art…it was all too much. I’ve never forgotten it, and it is always the way I will recall her memory.

# I have recently discovered Pandora radio. Very cool. I have established four “stations”. I suppose the four say a lot about me. It tags me as to age, gender, and level of hipness. So I present them here and welcome your judgment:
#1 Beatles Radio
#2 Frank Sinatra Radio
#3 Blues Rock Radio
#4 Classical Radio

I’m sure that at some point I will add others, but right now, these about cover it. Every mood I might happen upon, there are songs in this universe to cover it. As I write these words I’m listening to Sergey Rachmaninov’s piano concerto No. 2 with the London Symphony Orchestra and I might add that if you can’t write to such music, you simply cannot write. But, what a remarkable thing is this Pandora?

# This Tuesday I celebrate Valentines Day number 30 with Pam. After so many years it becomes harder and harder to come up with fresh material. How many unique ways are there to say “I Love You”? We’ve done everything from overnight stays at fancy hotels, to laying on blankets at the patio doors with the lights off watching the snow fall. I’ve done roses, chocolates, pajamas, and lingerie. We’ve had Italian food, Chinese, steaks, chicken and fish. I’ve gone Hallmark, and homemade. This year I’ve got a new idea. It might be a hit but also has a chance to be an epic fail. I will let you know how it turns out.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Proud Parent

I do my fair share of bragging about my kids. Over the past year there have been numerous entries testifying to their many triumphs. This is, after all, my blog and I can write whatever I wish. I have, however, tried to not pile it on too thick. They both have significant flaws, most of which clearly inherited from their distant relatives. Parents who lavishly praise the most benign accomplishments of their children as if they had just discovered cold fusion have always irritated me. I actually saw a bumper sticker the other day that proudly proclaimed, “ My Kid Got A Hole-in-One At Putt-Putt Golf! “ Really? By all means, let’s immortalize dumb, blind, luck on the back of our automobiles. What’s next?...”Proud Parent of a Potty-Trained Toddler”. Nevertheless, it’s time for another tribute to the development of my children into adults, no small feat when everywhere I look I see twenty-somethings living out their interminable adolescence.

Kaitlin is in grad school at Wake Forest. She is surrounded by students and faculty who daily mock not only religion, but the religious. It would seem that the famously tolerant Ivory Tower set can’t quite bring themselves to tolerate the Christian faith that created the very institution that grants them tenured protection and the freedom to openly ridicule their benefactors. In the midst of this hostility, my daughter is quietly gaining a reputation as the rarest of scholars, one who has the ability to communicate complex ideas in a clear and understandable way. She has made several oral presentations in her time at Wake and each of them have been praised by fellow students as well as professors. Many of these students and professors know that she is a believing Christian and therefore treat her with bemused fascination, much as how an anthropologist might observe a newly discovered race in New Guinea. But through it all, she has gained the respect of her fellow students who see something special in her intelligence and grace. They see what her parents have always seen, a powerfully inquisitive mind combined with a tender heart that abounds with sensitivity to the needs of others over her own. She has overcome initial doubts about her intellectual fitness for such a program, and now is excelling and winning admirers along the way, fulfilling the charge of the Apostle Paul to ..” become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe.”

Patrick graduated from college two months ago. Instead of coming home, getting a job and saving some money for grad school to come in 9 months time,(my advice), he asked if he could stay in Nashville. I was skeptical. It seemed a foolish waste of time and money. I warned him that my financial support of his college career ended with receipt of his diploma. My hopes for him finding dependable gainful employment were not high. But he informed me the other day that he in fact had gotten a job as a waiter in a high end burger joint/ coffee bar and bakery. “ Huh?”, I said. To my amazement, he is learning the waiter thing on the fly and doing quite well with tips, to the point that he established a savings account for himself. The kid is working a lot of hours and paying his own way in the world. In the meantime he is also thriving in the city that he loves, surrounded by tons of friends and creative people that make him a better musician. As I write this he is stuffed in a car with a bunch of friends driving to Atlanta where the a cappella group that he founded three years ago , the Belmont Beltones, hopes to win a regional competition. Even though he isn’t in the group any longer, there he will be, cheering them on like a proud parent. I know many of the kids in that group, and if one can be judged by the company one keeps, then Patrick has become a wonderful young man. He’s where he wants to be, working on his music, and busting his hump to pay the bills by doing honest work day and night. Awesome.

Too bad I can’t fit any of this on a bumper sticker.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

War Stories From an AmFam Veteran

I’ve been a member of American Family Fitness for almost 8 years now, ever since my surprise open- heart surgery in 2003, amazing how getting cut open focuses the mind on fitness. On the whole, AmFam and I have gotten along well. I have a flexible work schedule that allows me to work out in the mid afternoon so I never have to fight the crowds. The Short Pump gym is a brand new facility and has everything I need with the added bonus of being minutes from my house. However, after 8 years of any relationship, there inevitably arise…how shall I say??...challenges.

At AmFam there is a policy against cell phone usage. There are charming little signs posted throughout spelling out the prohibition in all areas except the lobby. In addition, a public service announcement randomly runs on the ubiquitous television screens that loom about the place reminding us all of the reasons for the rule, to wit, courtesy towards other members and a concern for personal safety. I must admit to an appalling lack of Christian charity in this business of personal safety, since it would be awesome to see some self-absorbed, hot-shot walk face first into the fist of some guy doing a chest fly because he just HAD to talk to his BFF in the middle of a workout! OMG that would be worth three months of dues right there. Courtesy, on the other hand, is a different matter. The kind of people who can’t go an hour without being connected to their cell phones, constitute the lowest of the low of human development. These guys and girls are the type whose lives are of such grand importance, whose existence so complex and fragile, that they simply cannot run the risk of being off the grid for even thirty minutes. Just yesterday, I was running my 3.5 miles on the treadmill when I was joined by a portly young woman three machines down. In the 35 minutes that followed, this unfortunate woman spent 30 of them engaged in trivial conversation with what seemed to be three different people. Since she came equipped with Bose headphones and a hands-free Blackberry, she couldn’t hear any of my suggestions that she was in clear violation of the Gym cell phone policy. Which brings me to my first complaint, in 8 years, I have suffered through an endless stream of cell phone knuckleheads but not once have I ever seen any member of management ask anyone to stop using their cell phone. I guess it’s going to take a tragic accident before management gets serious about enforcement. A tragic accident maybe like some annoying woman in the midst of a crucial discussion with her BFF about something of earth shattering importance tripping over a barbell and then getting impaled by the bench press bar, the ultimate dropped call!

Complaint number two. There’s this guy at my gym who I have never actually seen working out. But I do know that he is an ex-marine. I know this because of his military haircut, and the loads of ex-marine gear he wears, cap, jacket etc.. The problem with this guy is that he spends 90% of his time at AmFam standing buck naked in front of the sink in the men’s locker room removing his nose hairs with tweezers. Now, when I say ex-marine I mean that in every possible way. This gentleman is very large and in an advanced stage of physical decrepitude. So when he bends over to inspect his nose at close range his back-side poses a real and present danger to any small children that might wander by. They could get lost and never be found again. So…Marine guy, your uh,.. rear echelon needs some covering fire in the worst way man. Semper Fi.

Complaint number three. Whenever I chose to run on the indoor track instead of the treadmill, I invariably run into the group of women who take up all four lanes talking about Paula Deen recipes walking along at the brisk pace of 1 mph. So each lap I have to yell out ..”coming through”, which takes them forever to do causing me to slow down. It’s like the feeling men get when they realize that the tee-time just ahead of them at the golf course consists of four silver-haired women all dressed in pastels, two of whom turn out to be left handed. Ughhhh….

What follows are not complaints, simply observations that one encounters at AmFam on any given day:

@ the skinny- armed guy who wears the biggest, baddest leather support belt known to exist in the free world. He also carries his drinking water in a gallon jug. Hardcore!

@ the mid-twenties guy with perfect hair who works out in extremely tight spandex and literally can’t take a step without checking himself in the mirror.

@ the New Years Resolution crowd that always annoys everyone else for a few weeks in Janurary then disappears.

@ the alarming number of people on staff at AmFam who could stand to back away from the dessert bar every once in awhile themselves!

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Canvas Bag....the conclusion

Some kind of light seemed to be coming from the bottom of the box. Bernie checked on David again, and his condition seemed worse than just a few minutes before. Bernie realized that he was dying. Something in this room was killing him. He returned to the box and began emptying it of its books. At the bottom he saw the money, green and neatly arranged in tidy rows.

David felt raindrops hitting his face. He opened his eyes slowly and saw hundreds of droplets of icy water clinging to the ceiling of his room. Drops were falling casually like rain off the leaves of the ficus tree at the park after an afternoon shower. He turned his head slowly towards the kitchen and saw Bernie kneeling down at the fireplace. David wanted to speak but couldn’t make his mouth form the words, so he laid there helplessly watching Bernie burning each pack of one hundred dollar bills, one by one at first but then all at once. The flames rose higher and higher and soon Bernie backed away from the heat.

Bernie watched the flames rise and wondered if he had been a fool. It was more money than he had ever seen before, more than he or David would ever see again, and there it was going up in smoke. First a fire had taken away David’s family and now it was destroying his fortune. Bernie had decided the whole business in a flash, in response to an unspoken assurance in his soul that it was this money that was killing his friend. He had grabbed the matches and lit the fire in a flurry without giving himself the chance to second guess himself, and now it was too late. He couldn’t take his eyes away from the flames.

David began to feel the warmth, then the feeling in his arms and legs returning, and then the strength of his voice. He threw back the covers and sat on the edge of the bed. By the time he stood to his feet, he had lost the anger. Bernie turned to him and didn’t seem surprised at his transformation. “It was killing you Davey. The money was killing you. I’m sorry”, Bernie slumped back into the kitchen chair.
David watched the last of the money curl up and disappear. “ But what will I do now? I have nothing.”

“Nothing? You’re alive, and you have the rest of your life.” Bernie reached into his jacket and removed the small cardboard box and tossed it on the table. “And you’ve got this. It’s the only part of that money that was redeemed because you gave it away. Well, now I’m giving it back to you. I don’t need it, but it might help you start over.”

A couple of weeks later Bernie drove David to the bus station. David headed back east to start fresh. Bernie would never see David again. Fifty miles into the trip, David removed his jacket to use it as a pillow against the cold window. A note fell out of his pocket. It was written in Calligraphy…Isaiah 42:16. David smiled and removed the white canvas bag of books in the overhead compartment and found his bible.

“ ..and I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. “

David laid his head against his jacket and closed his eyes. Sleep came quickly, gentle and soft.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Canvas Bag....part seven

“ Yes, I have.” Bernie had gotten his voice back. He backed away from the table and stood erect. “ How could I not ? Look at yourself. You hardly work anymore, you’re putting on weight, your eyes look like you haven’t had a nights’ sleep in months. You’ve treated yourself like a murderer for nearly five years now Davey, and it’s starting to show. I’ve been waiting for the day that you would finally forgive yourself for all of it, but you’re getting worse, not better. So, lately I’ve resorted to the word of God. So yes…I’m the one responsible for the notes!”

“ You really think that guy was with the mob? This isn’t New York or Chicago Bernie. Why would the mob bother showing up in Fresno? “

“ You always change the subject when we actually talk about something that matters! You always want to talk about the little things, not the thing that is killing you.”

“ I think the mob is pretty big.”

Bernie dropped the subject and sat back down. A long moment of chilly silence passed between them. The longer it went on the heavier the air became. David knew that Bernie was right. He had never allowed himself an ounce of grace, not a single moment of forgiveness since the fire. Now, the money had only made it worse. Why had he of all people stumbled upon such a fortune? It was unfair beyond description, so unfair it bordered on the comical.

“Listen Bernie, I don’t know anything about any money in the park, so you can stop worrying. “

“ Who said it was money? “

David looked away and said nothing. Bernie asked no more questions. When he reached the door on his way out, Dave put his hand on Bernie’s shoulder and said, “ Leave it be Bernie. “ Three weeks passed. The man in the black suit never came back, and David had seemingly vanished. Bernie began to ask around and discovered that David hadn’t been on the corner in over two weeks. He worked up the nerve to pay him a visit at the boarding house. No one answered the door. Bernie reached for the knob and despite the clammy heat in the hallway, it was ice cold to the touch. He turned it and heard a click. David had left his door unlocked.
David’s room seemed to have its own atmosphere, everything seemed heavier inside than it had out in the hall. Bernie’s coat pressed down harder against his shoulders, his clothes seemed suddenly made of iron. The room seemed oppressive and sinister, like something not altogether of this world. The walls and ceiling were oddly pale blue and shimmering with streaks of silver that diminished as they got closer to the kitchen and fireplace. Bernie was shocked to find David in bed, shivering under icy covers, his face hot and streaked with sweat, and his eyes red-rimmed and vacant. He tried to revive him, calling out his name, but David was silent and burning with a fever. Bernie ran to the sink to run water on a rag. When he looked back at David he noticed what seemed to be an ice-encrusted box, blue and glowing , under the bed. Bernie had to wrap the dish towels around his hands to get a grip. It finally broke free and slid out from under the bed. Bernie could make out only books through the clear ice. But whatever on earth was wrong with this room was coming from this glowing blue box. He began to search the kitchen for something that he could use to break the ice. He needed a hammer and a screw driver but could find nothing, except a hard edged metal dust pan in the closet. Bernie knelt down beside the box and began to chisel through the ice. It was a slow and painful progress. David lay as still as the dead, making no sound and responding to none of the flying ice chips and scraping noises. Bernie’s hands had begun to bleed, dripping down onto the icy surfice and blurring it red. Suddenly the ice let out a loud crack and cleft into two big blocks, crashing to the floor and sliding away leaving a trail of blood and water. Bernie saw only books, amazingly dry books.

The Canvas Bag.....part six

Bernie’s was closed. A sign hung crooked on the door. Bernie’s was never closed at eight o’clock at night. David took the bus to Bernie’s neighborhood. He had eaten dinner there many nights after the fire. He would have to choose his words carefully. Bernie was a good man, but enough was enough. The door opened only a few inches and Bernie’s face looked past David as he let him in. Something was wrong. Bernie looked scared.

“Hey Davey. What brings you all the way out here?”

“Why is your place closed? I dropped in to have dinner and there was a closed sign on the door. You never close. And while I’m at it, I’ve about had it with these bible notes you keep leaving at my room.”

David felt ashamed as soon as he had said it. They might not even be Bernie’s notes and even if they were, Bernie was probably his only friend in the world. Bernie made no defense. He motioned for David to follow him into the kitchen. He turned off the light in the foyer and briefly walked down a short hall in total darkness, then flipped on a light switch as they entered the kitchen. David noticed that every window shade was drawn.

“I think I might be in trouble Davey.” Bernie’s voice was timid and shaky, hushed in an exaggerated way. “ I received a visit a few days ago at the diner from a large man in a black suit who spoke with some kind of accent. I had never seen him around before. Anyway, he was asking questions about the park, that since I was the guy who knew everything about the neighborhood, I should know everything about everyone who used the park. He said that he worked for a man who had lost something very valuable in the park. He wanted to know who I knew that used the park. Of course you immediately came to mind, you’re practically the only one I know who uses that park what with all of your reading and such. Of course I didn’t tell HIM that. But he was very insistent, said that it was very important to his boss that this thing was returned to him. I think he’s with the mob Davey. Before he left he said that if I helped him I would be handsomely rewarded.” Bernie was breathing heavier now, his eyes wider, fear palpable on his face. Then he got up and walked over to the pantry door, walked in and then returned with the cardboard box that David had miled to him.
“ I had almost forgotten about the whole thing when I got this in the mail yesterday…ten thousand dollars Davey! There was no note, no nothing. Just ten thousand dollars!! It had to be from the mob man. Who else do I know who would send me ten thousand bucks, even if they could?”

“ First of all, you need to calm down. Maybe it’s just a debt of gratitude from an old customer who you gave free meals to years ago who went on to strike it rich someplace and didn’t forget about you. There are probably fifty people or so who might fit that description. Maybe it’s Flannigan, overcome with guilt for not tipping you for twenty years. Who knows?”

“ Davey, tell me the truth. You’re in that park all the time. Do you know anything about this?”

David looked into Bernie’s eyes and wavered. Why did he have to be so earnest, so decent? All we like sheep have gone astray? Not Bernie. If he was ever going to unburden himself about the money it would have to be here and now. “You tell ME the truth…Have you been leaving bible verses in my mail slot?”

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Canvas Bag...part five

A week passed, then another. David managed to spend enough time in the fields so as not to arouse any suspicion, but he noticed that he wasn’t getting picked as often. The effort wasn’t there, and stronger, more desperate backs were always available. David was starting to feel more comfortable. He had been very careful. He had gone out one rainy day to Sunnyside and bought a radio. He placed it on his kitchen table and listened to baseball games from the Midwest. The Cardinals would come in on clear nights. Bernie had surprised him one night. It had rained three days straight and there was no work. Bernie stopped by to check on him. He had seen the radio but hadn’t said anything. He had been sure that it had been Bernie who had left the bible verse, but he had never mentioned it. Bernie was religious, but in a good way, out of some soft spot in his heart, not out of judgment. The day after his visit, there was an envelope in his mail slot with four dollars. David made the decision there and then to make a gift to Bernie. He took the bus across town to a post office in Clovis where he bought a small carboard box and a book of stamps. It had probably been dangerous to carry a ten thousand dollar bundle of cash in his jacket pocket on a public bus, but precautions had to be taken. He couldn’t allow the package to be traced back to him. The money fit perfectly snug in the box. He thought about writing a note but decided against it. David would be sure to be in Bernie’s for breakfast every morning for a while. But if Bernie was ten thousand dollars richer, nobody would ever have known by any change in his demeanor. Same old Bernie. Still, it had given David a feeling, something approaching joy, when he imagined Bernie’s face opening the box.

As the days passed, David began to notice the changes. He had put on a few pounds. He had become lethargic. Although the level of physical exertion in his life had been greatly reduced, he lacked energy and late in the day had to fight to stay awake. But no matter how tired he was, peaceful sleep was illusive. He longed for one good night of sleep, just one night without the dreams. No matter how many adjustments he made in his nightly routine, the dreams would roar to life as soon as he drifted off. They weren’t nightmares, just unsettling little scenes and always in color. Anna was in most of them. David had thought it would be different after the money, thought his spirit would begin to heal. It was better. There was better food, just no healing. The note in his mail slot this night said, “ Proverbs 16:25”….”There is a way that seemeth right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” David threw on his coat and headed to Bernie’s.

Canvas Bag...part four

The looming figure of Porfiry hovered in the sky like a Macy’s parade balloon looking down at Raskolnikov with knowing judgment in his eyes. There was no escape. The giant Porfiry moved overhead like a storm cloud blocking out the sun, shadowing Raskolnikovs’ every movement. His presence became leaden, suffocating. Finally he spoke…”All we like sheep, my dear Raskolnikov. All we like sheep.”

David awoke with a start, covered in sweat. His first thought was of the money. Was it still there or had it too been a dream? He jumped to his feet and dragged the heavy box from under the bed, madly digging through the titles until he glimpsed the neat rows of cash at the bottom. What time was it? He grabbed his watch from the nightstand. 5:20. Plenty of time to be on the corner in time. He got to his feet and sat on the edge of the bed, breathing easier now. Would he really work today? It would be terribly hot, maybe the hottest day of the year he had heard someone say. There was a new reality, new facts on the ground, a swift reversal of the story of his life. There was no driving hunger. There was no force compelling him to fight for his survival. He had money now. He didn’t have to go without a decent meal, no more days of bread and water. He could now direct the course of his day from the commanding heights of plenty. It felt very good. But he couldn’t go crazy, mustn’t attract too much attention. He must be careful, never stop thinking.

It occurred to David that he could now pay bus fare. There was no need to walk clear across town. He would spend the morning in Sunnyside on the other side of town where he could eat wherever he chose and maybe buy some new clothes. He sure could use a decent pair of shoes. He grabbed a couple of fresh bills and folded them tightly. It was Christmas morning.

He ate pancakes and sausage at a place called the Sunnyside CafĂ©. Delicious. He bought two pairs of work pants, a new pair of boots and wool socks from department store. Then he saw the YMCA. He took the longest, hottest shower in history. Fresh and clean, he put on his new clothes and gathered up the old ones and stuffed them in the hamper with the dirty towels. Across from the YMCA was a movie theatre playing the new Hitchcock picture. He settled in the blood red chair with his buttered popcorn and delighted in Kim Novak. She was beautiful, alluring, although her character proved to be tragically devious. Nothing was ever as it seemed with her. Scotty never had a chance. For dinner, David found a steak place called Sherman’s. His porterhouse was cooked to perfection. He was careful not to take the bus back until it had gotten dark. It had been a wonderful day and when he arrived back at the boarding house, he removed a couple of letters from his mail slot and walked up the stairs to his room. He would sleep with a full stomach, and clean clothes to wear in the morning. He switched on the light on the nightstand and glanced at the letters. One was an advertisement and the other had no address of any kind, just his name...David in all capitol letters. Inside was a single slip of yellow paper. In ornate calligraphy were the words, “Isaiah 53:6”. Puzzled, David pulled one of the boxes from under his bed and found his old bible, the one his mother had given him when he was baptized. He found Isaiah in the table of contents. “ All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Canvas Bag.....part three

Low profile or not , he was terribly hungry. Now he had enough money to buy a porterhouse steak but all he really wanted was a cup of coffee and some scrambled eggs and maybe some biscuits. But how was he going to pay for it with a one hundred dollar bill without attracting attention? He once again scurried through the box of books, jammed his hand down to the packs and slid out one bill. Once outside, the sun had finally burned through the low clouds and the fog was long gone. It was dripping wet hot, and David began to sweat through his t-shirt. He decided that he would walk across town and buy a bag of groceries at a store where nobody knew him. Then he would take the change back to Bernie’s and buy breakfast. It was a good plan. It was sensible. But it was awfully hot, and even though he had worked for ten hours in fields a lot hotter than this, for some reason, the bag of groceries got too heavy halfway back. Now that he had change, he could always buy groceries right down the street like he always did once he got back to his side of town. Besides, if he left this bag in an alley somewhere some hungry guy might stumble upon it and make a meal. It was another one of those mysterious ways that God was famous for. David smiled for the first time in months.

Bernie worked behind the counter of his own place and made it his business to give every regular a nickname. If a William came in he would become Billy, a Robert would be Bobby and David would always be Davey. This day Davey had Bernie’s complete attention.

“What..wait, you ordering eggs AND biscuits? You win the Lottery Davey? Hey everybody!! Davey won the lottery!”

David felt blood rushing to his face and hoped desperately that no one would notice. Luckily there were only a few customers in the place and he gathered his composure up tight within him and offered a reply.

“No, I most certainly did not win the lottery. You know me Bernie, I don’t even have enough money to play the numbers. Just spending my last dime on a good meal, that’s all.”

“Didn’t get picked today I suppose.”

“Actually I overslept”, David replied. For some reason Bernie always brought the truth out of him.

“Overslept? That’s not like you Davey. You feeling alright?”

I’m fine. Just slept right through, that’s all. It happens to everyone at some point.”

David hurried through the rest of his meal, anxious to leave Bernie before he blurted out the days’ events in complete detail. Bernie had missed his calling, should have been a detective. He had the kind of face that people didn’t want to disappoint. It didn’t seem right to lie to a man like Bernie Mann. After all, in David’s darkest hours after the fire, it was Bernie who came around to listen. It was Bernie who offered no advice but brought stew and bread and looked in on him every night. It was Bernie who had found him the room at the boarding house. Whenever it rained all week and there wasn’t any work, mysterious envelopes of small bills would turn up in David’s mail slot. Often it was only two or three dollars. David had no proof and needed none. It was Bernie, couldn’t have been anyone else.

That night David lay in the darkness listening for sounds in the street, sounds of squealing tires and violence but heard only the buzz of the street lamps. Maybe he should make a secret gift of ten thousand to Bernie. He surely was the only person he knew who deserved a windfall. He could think it through, make a plan of just how to get the money to him without giving himself away. David had started to feel the weight of the treasure at the bottom of his box of books after only one day. Maybe the money was meant to have been stumbled upon by someone else, someone more deserving, someone who hadn’t killed their family by being too lazy and too broke to spend twenty five dollars at the hardware store to repair a few faulty wires. David stared at the ceiling for hours until sleep finally came. He dreamt about Raskolnikov.

The Canvas Bag......part two

He looked up from the bag and down the street in both directions and saw nothing. The street lights had turned off and the mist had gotten lighter. In another couple of hours the sky would be pale blue and the heat would come. Glancing back down at the bag he noticed that the top was held together by a thin rope pulled tight through two black grommets and tied in a knot. He reached down to pick it up and the thing was lighter than he had expected and dry to the touch, so It hadn’t been laying there in the high grass for long. Maybe it flew out from one of the cars involved in the accident. Before opening it, David stepped back from the street into the protection of the trees. The knot was stiff and unforgiving . As he pulled and tugged at the rope he noticed how scratched and dirty his hands had become. They looked like they belonged to a much older man. Finally the knot began to loosen. He pulled back on the fabric and saw the soft green rectangles of money held together in one inch stacks by thin bands the color of grocery bags. There must have been 20 or so packets of money all with the portrait of Benjamin Franklin. David suddenly became aware of the beating of his heart. He quickly stuffed the bag inside of his sweatshirt along with Crime and Punishment and began to walk back to his room trying hard not to rush.

Back in his room, David locked the door with the dead bolt, the chain lock and then wedged his kitchen table chair under the knob. Then he tore off his sweatshirt, suddenly feeling hot and sweaty. His book tumbled onto the floor and as he stepped towards the bed he kicked it underneath without noticing. He turned the bag upside down and watched the money pour out and clump together on his unmade bed. For a minute or two he could only stare in amazement. He had never seen this much money in one place at one time in his entire life. He probably wouldn’t earn this much money for the remainder of his life if he lived to be a hundred. Before daring to touch it he closed the window and pulled down the yellow and cracked shade, cutting off his room from the outside world. He hovered over the money once again for a moment, then walked over to the sink ran himself a glass of water. Although it was warm, he drank it dry and was immediately thirsty again. Back at his bedside he picked up one of the packs of money, peeled back the edges and began to count. One hundred, one hundred dollar bills in each tight pack, ten thousand dollars. A years’ wages. He would have to spend day after day for an entire year bent over in the hot sun yanking cantaloupe off their vines to make this much money. Each pack was the same. Ten thousand dollar bundles of joy spread out all over his bed. Twenty five packs. Two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and not one nickel of it was his. This money belonged to someone. His gut told him that it was connected to the squealing tires and angry voices, and if it was, they would come for it. David raked it all back up into a pile and then shoved it back into the bag. He reached under his bed and slid one of the heavy boxes of books out and emptied them onto the floor. Fighting off a rising tide of panic, David then grabbed each pack of bills back out of the bag and began lining the bottom of the box with ten thousand dollar rectangles. Then he stacked the books back in the box on top of this, his long awaited miracle. He then balled up the canvas bag and placed it on the grate of his small fireplace. He then stuffed an old newspaper underneath it and set the bag on fire. As the flames began to rise the heat in the little room became intolerable. But David just watched the flames. Sweat began to drip off the end of his nose. He thought to himself that the money most likely was ill-gotten, probably belonged to some mafia types who had no business with it in the first place. Maybe this was God’s way of balancing the scales, taking from thieves and giving to a guy who desperately needed a break. After all, he had always heard that God worked in mysterious ways. As long as he was smart about it and didn’t draw any attention to himself by going out and buying fancy clothes and buying everyone drinks, he would be ok. He needed to keep a low profile.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Canvas Bag.......a short story part one.

The day began in a milky shroud of fog. The humid air was heavy with mist and the street lights looked like distant moons. David sat on the edge of his bed feeling as thick and still as the elements. It was 6 o’clock and past time for him to be up if he had any hope of being chosen from among the pack for a day of labor. His life had become a daily test of fate, hanging on the delicate whim of the fat man with the clipboard. Some days he was chosen and would spend 10 hours picking watermelons or cantaloupe. Other days he would be passed over and spend his time trying to become invisible. He would wander around the city, keeping to back streets, waiting for a break, some sort of miracle that would deliver him. 6 o’clock. He wouldn’t make it in time, so today he would wander.

The only thing that had survived the fire was his car and the collection of books that he had strewn all over the back seat. A few years ago he had sold the car to a junkyard. Now all he had were the books. They were stored in boxes under his bed, all that remained of his old life. On the days that he didn’t get picked he would grab one and take it with him as he walked the streets. After getting dressed and eating the last bagel in the pantry, he picked up Crime and Punishment and left the boarding house, turning right at the intersection directly beneath his second story window. It was miserably humid and by the time he reached the park the mist had soaked him through. Dostoyevsky was safe inside his sweatshirt. David always guarded this last vestige of his old life with great care. At the park he found a bench sheltered from the mist by a thick Ficus tree. He sat down and opened the book. He needed a cup of coffee and something to eat more substantial than a bagel, but he had only 38 cents in his pocket. One bagel would have to do.

David read of poor Raskolnikov for perhaps the fifth time. It was one of his favorites. The guilt spoke to him. As he read, he fought with his memories, the only clear one that remained from before the fire. His wife and young boy were sitting at the kitchen table while David tended to dinner on the stove. Anna had never liked the old house. The plumbing was faulty, the roof leaked, and the wiring was a mess. If she plugged in any three things at once the breaker would trip, and they would be plunged into darkness. On this night in the kitchen David had promised to have an electrician come by and look into the wiring. He had gotten busy and forgotten. Eight days later the house had burnt to the ground while he was working the night shift. Four and a half years had passed and the only mental image that remained of his wife and child was their faces at the kitchen table while he prepared jambalaya in a heavy iron skillet

David heard what sounded like a backfire from a truck and then the angry screech of tires on the slick street behind the park. Another backfire. He turned toward the noise and could see nothing through the trees. Now several loud voices and the breaking of glass and the mangling of metal. David stood and walked briskly through the dense stand of trees that formed the southern boundary of the park. As he got close he heard an even harsher screech of tires and then silence. When he reached the street he saw broken glass, and the swirling skid marks on the wet street. Hidden in some high grass three feet from where he stood, he found the canvas bag.