Window of opportunity

In May of 1998 I made my first trip to NYC, in the company of my friend, Diana. It was a very short trip, just a couple of days, so there wasn’t time to see much more than a couple of landmarks. I fought my acrophobia enough to go to the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

To my surprise, I liked being up there, and took several photos on my crappy disposable camera. I would probably have taken more, but this was pre-digital, and I was cheap.

Later, we took the ferry to Ellis Island. During the transit, Diana pointed out the towers, and suggested that maybe we should head there next, as I might like to take some pictures from the other end of the island, too. I was a little nervous about going up still higher, but I liked the idea.

By the time we’d finished touring the Ellis Island memorial, though, I was physically and emotionally exhausted, and begged off.

“I mean, this won’t be my only trip to New York, and it isn’t as though the towers are going anywhere, right?”

View from the Empire State Buliding, 1998
May, 1998

Found Notes on Hurricane Andrew

1992 notes on Hurricane Andrew
1992 notes on Hurricane Andrew

I was living with my wife in a Plantation apartment when Hurricane Andrew struck. I believe it was Marie’s first hurricane, and while I had been through several tropical storms during my twenty-two years in South Florida, it might as well have been my first, too.

This comes to mind because I recently discovered a small group of torn-loose steno pages in a dusty manila folder. The day prior to projected landfall I had started scribbling down some notes for some reason. Since this was years before the founding of Hidden City, I can only assume it was for possible use in my ‘zine of the time, Ambergris From Leviathan, but in truth I have no idea. Maybe I was writing myself past the fear. I do that.

It’s a bit premature, I know, but for your possible amusement I’ve transcribed the notes as is. Again, these are from August 23 and 24, 1992.

I guess I should start this before things get too weird.

I first heard about the hurricane on Friday, I guess, on national news (NPR). I didn’t pay much attention to it, because it had been a hellish week at work, and I was too brain-dead to notice much. On Saturday Tucker made a joke about it, and Tanya took Marie “hurricane shopping” with her.

When I got up this morning, there was news on the TV about it heading dead for us, with no chance of petering out. I went to the office to shut down the computers and phones. On the way to the ATM to get cash, I gave a ride to an elderly man I saw walking along.

His name was Sam, and he was heading to church. He had lived through several hurricanes himself, but seemed cautiously confident.

We decided to go to my parents’ house, and dismantled our apartment. I took all our photos and financial records and put them in boxes, along with all my diskettes and copies of AFL. We called the insurance company, and we are covered for $20,700. Marie said she had the REM song “It’s the End of the World, as We Know it” playing in her head.

Custer [our cat] has not taken well to the new quarters. My mother has three cats here (all bullies), plus she has taken in two neighborhood cats. As soon as Custer got out of the carrier, she rqan under a cabinet, and refuses to come out. I am very worried about her.

I have been (predictably) thinking about my mortality today. I have done a lot of evil things in my life, which I won’t ever atone for. The last few years I have tried to be a better person, as much as I can be. But maybe this is the end? I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.

The scariest thing about this hurricane is that for all the preparations my father and I have made, we could still be killed by the roof coming off the house. Nothing we can do about it, and it isn’t likely. There are also some windows int he house — facing a well-protected entranceway — which do not have shutters. We could lose one of those window, and get some very scary results. But it should be okay.

I have also had a lot of thoughts for friends in dangerous areas. Millie and Al live in the first evacuation area, but when I called at 10am, I got their machine. I hope they are okay. Also my friend Otto, and Bebbie and Ronnie, who just moved to Kendall.

The saving grace of having to watch all the TV coverage has been Brian Norcross, Channel 4 weatherman. He has taken a no-bullshit attitude, calling people who won’t evacuate “plain stupid.”

It is strange being in my parents’ house. I took a shower in my old bathroom, and we’ll be sleeping in my old room. No hurricane party here, though. We have things to drink, and I brought a bottle of Courvoisier from the apartment (for medicinal purposes, of course), and ‘Rie brought Wild Turkey.

—–

5:00 AM: Woke up when A/C went off. Still just like a real bad thunderstorm. We have finally gotten Custer to come out — okay, she came out on her own, and we left her alone until she had calmed down some — and into my old bedroom. Marie & I slept for a while, but once it really kicked in, I wanted to get up and write this. Bryan Norcross and Channel 4 miraculously stayed on the air, radio and TV both. The National Hurricane Center was hit by a gust of wind at 164 mph, and their radar unit was wiped out completely.

6:40 AM: We should be getting the worst of it in the next couple of hours. Custer is terrified, mewing and panting. (It is starting to get hot and stuffy.) The odd thin is that we discovered that she is afraid of the dark. While the light is on she is scared but okay. When I turn it off, though, she immediately starts to cry.

I made an error earlier. I convinced Custer to come into the bedroom with us, which would have been okay save for one thing: the room faces the entranceway, and has a wall of unprotected windows. I don’t want to risk her staying in that room and sitting on the wondowsill, so I took out her litter box, bowl, and water, and put them in the hall right outside the door. She seems to be doing better now, though.

6:55 AM: The sun is theoretically coming up. It is getting a little lighter outside, and has the gray-violet look of a severe storm. The winds come and go.

Brian is still going. The reports are interesting — rumors of disasters, reporters trapped in cars, talking on cellular phones. Now they say we might get off relatively easy. We shall see.

7:18 AM: Went outside with my father. His carambola tree was wiped out by the neighbors’ black olive, which was overgrown and lost its top. On this street there are a few dead trees strewn about, but it doesn’t look too bad. Then again, it isn’t over yet.

Hurricane Andrew at landfall
Hurricane Andrew at landfall

The notes abruptly end. Of course the storm turned south, leaving Plantation and Fort Lauderdale relatively unharmed while devastating southern Dade County. Our apartment suffered a bit of water damage due to a leaky roof, but was otherwise unscathed.  I can’t say the same for many other friends.

This is probably why I never continued. In my life I observe the events around me, both to keep myself fully in the moment and then to lock down details in case it should prove a good topic for an essay. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work out that way, because it just wasn’t that interesting, or I can’t find a handle on the story, or, sometimes, because my observations seem so small, so petty, in the enormity of the total event.

Nineteen years later I remember the building fear all too well. But I also remember the relief when we were spared the brunt of the storm, and the tremendous guilt I felt over that relief when the extent of the impact became known. Since Andrew I have taken storms seriously, very seriously. Right now my pantry has a good stock of canned tuna and saltines, and I know my evacuation plans and routes by heart.

I also spent a lot of time with my ex-employer’s emergency operations center, working on business continuity plans and disaster preparedness. Sure, a lot of that focus was on helping the company survive a disaster, but even when management’s focus was elsewhere, I devoted my energy to doing what I could to provide systems and services to help the afflicted employees and their families, when a storm struck. It was the right thing to do, of course, but it also helped me atone in a small way for my relief at avoiding Andrew’s wrath.

Now Face North

Miami is not my favorite place in the world.

This should not come as a surprise to long-time readers of Hidden City, and cannot possibly be surprising to those who know me personally. My tendency to sweat any time the temperature rises above 70° F is legendary, as are my complaints about it. At one time I even considered using the tagline, “Bitching about the Miami heat for over forty years,” but realized that people might get the idea I care about basketball.

A reasonable person might ask why I haven’t moved away, if I hate it so much. In fact, a good number of reasonable people — and a few unreasonable people — have done just that. The answer, though, is a bit complicated.

(I doubt that comes as a surprise to anyone, either.)

Continue reading Now Face North

Waiting Room

“Mr. Hall?”

The nurse gestured toward the open door with his clipboard. I glanced at the clock. Not bad; I only had to wait forty minutes this time.

By this time the bi-weekly visits to the clinic were becoming routine. Get up early, drive to Midtown, give the receptionist my money, wait for a while, get blood drawn, pretend to listen to the doctor tell me how God will solve most of my problems, set a follow-up appointment, get in the car, drive home. I’d been doing this for a few months already, so I barely paid attention to the routine. My numbers had stabilized, so everything was under control. Except, of course, the $500 a month in medication.

A trainee nurse did the pre-exam honors. Hop on the scale — hey, I lost five more pounds! Cool. Blood pressure is fine, so those meds are still working. Temperature checked, pin-prick for the sugar test.

She looked at me, puzzled. “Did you take your diabetes medication this morning?”

“No, because I’m not diabetic. My sugar’s never been high in my life. My father is diabetic, though.”

She left the tiny office and got the primary nurse, and showed him the meter. “Were you fasting this morning?”

“No, this isn’t a fasting visit, that’s next month.”

“Wait here, I need to get the doctor.” He almost ran out of the room.

I rolled my eyes. Damned Pop Tarts. But that was hours ago. How long does cherry filling stay in the blood stream? Whatever. The doctor would clear it up.

He walked in, wearing his gravitas like a robe.

“Mr. Hall, I am calling an ambulance. Your blood sugar is almost five times normal. If we don’t get you into the hospital you will die.”

He turned away without pausing for my answer.

I thought of the inevitable bills that come with a trip to the hospital. Thousands of dollars at a minimum, tens of thousands are more likely. All to save my life; fine, but to save it for what?

“Wait.”

He glanced back over his shoulder.

“I won’t go to the hospital. I’m going home.”

His brow creased as he parsed what I was saying, clearly unaccustomed to a patient asserting their own authority.

“That isn’t an option. This is very serious. Without treatment you will die.”

I was perfectly calm. I may have smiled. “I am uninsured and unemployed. I will not saddle myself with debt. I do not accept this treatment.”

His mask was motionless, emotionless: “Go to the waiting room.”

The nurse escorted me back to the crowded common room. I found a chair in the back row.

I was a bit surprised at my own calm. According to this doctor I was very possibly going to die soon, and it didn’t bother me at all. I felt truly relaxed.

For quite some time my life has been deteriorating, a combination of illness and circumstance and society. I spend nearly every hour of every day under stress, being crushed to death by fist-sized stones. America values nothing but money: you are your bank balance, so I barely exist. Anything that might bring me relief would be welcome, even if that relief is final. That the stress might finally be over was calming.

A short time later I was brought to the doctor’s office. The doctor’s voice resonated with exasperation. “Since you refuse to go to the hospital, we will give you insulin here for four hours. If during that time your sugar returns to reasonable levels we will allow you to go home. If not, you will go to the hospital, with or without your permission.”

I wondered briefly how exactly he was going to force me to go. Was he planning to call the police?

“How much will this cost me?”

He grimaced. “Nothing. Why is that— ?” He shook his head.

“Okay, I will let you give me insulin. If it doesn’t work I will leave.”

Back to the waiting room. I sat and watched the patients come and go around me. It seemed to happen very quickly, like time-lapse photography. Occasionally the receptionist shot me an odd look as I sat in my chair, writing in my composition book.

A shot in the left shoulder.

I waited, writing instructions: contact these people; distribute my possessions like this. I worried if my handwriting would be legible enough.

Test results: no significant change. A shot in the right shoulder.

More instructions: “Here is my primary password. This will let you into the storage for my other passwords.”

Test results: levels inexplicably rising. Back to the left shoulder.

A letter to be delivered to a distant friend: “I warned you this day might come. Here are the instructions on how to retrieve and post the final entry for Hidden City…”.

Test results: levels starting to fall.

A final shot in the right shoulder brought it low enough to call off the emergency. I was hauled away to the doctor’s office again.

He explained diabetes to me as if it were something rare and exotic. My life was now more complicated, I was informed; no more eating whatever I wanted, or whatever could afford. I was handed a photocopied “Welcome to Diabetes!” checklist, a prescription for still more pills, and sent on my way.

I walked to the parking lot through the afternoon sun. I opened the car door, buckled myself in, and sat there, letting the stale heat soak into me. I’d cheated death, or so his educated eminence had informed me. Shouldn’t I be singing hosannas, swinging around lampposts, heart filled to bursting with the joy of life?

The engine turned over on the first try. I drove home to wait some more.

Gifts

[This story originally appeared on December 25, 2009. Consider it a Hidden City Holiday Classic, if you will.]

I was up late again, sitting at the computer trying to get some writing done until long after midnight. I was having a little trouble with my focus. The ideas just weren’t coming to me, probably because of the day. Even though I’m well into middle age and not at all religious, I was working on Christmas Eve — how Dickensian! I leaned back in my chair and took a sip of my rum, snickering at the image of my bulk crouching on a high wooden stool, scribbling in an enormous ledger while my breath fogged the air. But then I remembered I was playing the roles of both Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. I’d no one to blame but myself.

I had stretched and started to get up when I heard the wood floor creak behind me. How weird, I knew none of the cats were in the room with me, or thought I knew. I started to turn to look.

“Please don’t turn around. It would really be a very bad idea.”

The deep voice was stern and commanding, the voice of someone used to being obeyed. My mind racing, I considered the possibilities. The office door was in front of me. The two windows into the room both had their storm shutters down. How the hell did a burglar get in here?!

Stay calm, I told myself, just do what he says. “Okay, I’m not turning around. You are in charge. What do you want? I don’t own much other than this computer.” I hoped the tremors in my own voice weren’t too obvious.

The floor creaked again, a step closer. Oh no, I thought, he’s going to knock me out. Well, if I’m out at least I won’t have a heart attack, I guess. I closed my eyes and tensed for the blow.

“Relax, I won’t hurt you. I can’t let you see me. There is a protocol, a tradition that must be observed. Just don’t turn around. Please.”

He had an odd but subtle accent, like someone who had moved to the Midwest a long time ago, but with traces of their original language remaining. It was pleasant, really, a rather soothing sound. Against my will I found myself relaxing.

I took a deep breath. “Okay, I promise not to turn around. Just tell me what to do.”

“Do? I don’t need you to do anything, Marc. I just want to talk with you a bit. You don’t mind, do you? It’s been a while since we’ve spoken, and I could use a rest.” There was a rustling of heavy cloth, the sound of one of the many boxes sliding across the floor, and a deep sigh as he sat down.

He knew my name. Great. “Sure, um, we can talk. I like to talk. What do you want to talk about?”

Cellophane crinkled behind me, then a muffled crunch. A familiar, spicy smell filled the air. Peppermint. Now I’m not the brightest guy in the world, but by now I was starting to get a sneaking suspicion about this. “Wait, no, c’mon, seriously? You’ve got to be kidding, you’ve got to be fu—”

“Come now, Marc. Do you think I like that kind of language? I look the other way as much as I can, but it’s more difficult when people use those words right in front of me. It makes me sad, too.”

Yeah, that cinched it. I didn’t need to see the suit.

“I was checking the records the other day, and I noticed that you haven’t sent me a list for years and years and years. Why is that, Marc? You don’t want any presents? Do you really have everything you want?”

“Well, no, but I’m a grown-up now. Well, adult, anyway. If there are things I need I buy them, and if I can’t afford them then I don’t really need them. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?”

“Oh yes, yes, that’s how many people choose to do things, yes. But that isn’t part of the rules, you know. You are always allowed to ask for gifts.”

“Maybe I can ask, but who will buy them? My dad? I’m fifty years old, for— for crying out loud. Do you expect me to make out a list and address it to the North Pole?”

“You could, you know. Plenty of people do. But the letter isn’t the important part. Believing is. Isn’t there anything you want, something you know you can’t get on your own?”

“I think you have the wrong Peanuts special. The Great Pumpkin is the one about belief.”

“Still a smart-aleck, aren’t you?” he chuckled. (I don’t need to tell you what his laughter sounded like.) “No, this is about dreams and wishes and hope.” He paused, then chuckled again. “What do you want for Christmas, Marc? If you want we can skip the part where you sit on my lap.”

“Thank heavens for that!” I laughed, in spite of myself.

I could feel him looking at me, into me. “Seriously. It’s important. Tell me what you want.”

I thought of some of the material things I would like to have, the trips I would like to take, but ruled them out. I thought about the things I knew my friends needed but couldn’t afford, and the gifts that might make them smile. Then I got to the big stuff: all of the jobless people, the troops fighting overseas, my friends fighting disease.

“I guess world peace, an end to hunger, and a cure for cancer would be asking for too much, huh? Not to mention it would be an unbearable cliché.”

“So? A fat guy in a red suit isn’t a cliché? Marc, when you were a little boy, did you ever ask for a gift and not get it?”

“Don’t you know?” Silence. “Yeah, okay, of course. It happened all the time.”

“And what did you do when all the gifts were opened but there was no chemistry set under the tree?”

“It depended on the gift. If I really wanted it I’d whine to get it for my birthday, or save up my money for it. Most of the time, though, I would forget about it.”

“You were disappointed, though. Of course you were. But since it didn’t cost you anything to ask, what made you stop asking?”

Because the holiday became all about the presents, and the presents were a matter of money. But I didn’t want to say that to him, so I kept quiet.

For a few minutes we listened to the wind picking up outside the window, moving through the palm fronds.

“Why did you stop at my house? I don’t have any cookies, or milk, either. What made you decide to stop here and scare the heck out of me? I don’t get it.”

There came a deep sigh; peppermint filled the air.

“Well, you have conversations with cats, so you are obviously—”

“Crazy?”

“Let’s say receptive. And you squeaked onto the nice list this year, too. Barely.” He paused. “Besides, I thought you could use the company.”

I thought the empty house around me, sighed, and took another drink. “Yeah, okay, you have a point.”

From behind me I heard the sounds of weight shifting, and a faint jingling of bells as he stood up.

“Most people only ask for toys of one kind or another. When someone does put together a less materialistic wishlist others treat it as a joke. But tell me, what’s so terrible about asking for a happier world at Christmas?”

“Because world peace doesn’t fit in your magic pack, obviously, or someone would have gotten it by now.”

There was a jingling again. I suspect he was shaking his head. “Sometimes you don’t get a chemistry set the first time you ask for it. But if you really want it, you’ll find a way to get one. If not this year, then next year, or the year after that. You just have to want it enough to ask for it, to tell people that’s what you want.”

Weight shifted, and the floor creaked again. “If enough people ask for the same thing, it’s a lot more likely that they’ll get it.” He laughed aloud. “Except for those new dolls. There are never enough of them. I can’t figure it out.”

A heavy, gloved hand settled gently on my shoulder. He spoke quietly. “Keep wishing for things that make you happy: big or small, simple or complicated, personal or for everyone. Everyone deserves presents, Marc. And I’ve given you something I know you need right now.”

As the scent of peppermint faded from the room I turned to look, but there was no package, no stocking, nothing at all to indicate that he had even been here. It didn’t hit me until I stood up to refill my glass. “Well, of course. What else?” I said to the empty room. I may not have asked for it, but he gave me something I really need right now.

He gave me hope, enough to share.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, friends. May you get everything you ask for, and more.

Savior

‘Cause I can tell you know what it’s like,
The long farewell of the hunger strike.

But can you save me?

Aimee Mann, “Save Me”

Even considering the plethora of mental and physical abberations in my repetoire, I consider myself very fortunate. I may have an obsessive personality, but thankfully so far none of my obsessions have blossomed into addictions.

I’ve come close, though. In my early twenties I was going through my first period of epic relationship failure, so I spent a lot of time relying on my friends for support. Many of my friends were relying on Fort Lauderdale’s Rendezvous Club for their own support; hence I was spending a few nights a week at the bar.

The Rendezvous was a decent enough place, for an ex-biker bar/ex-gay bar/ex-restaurant. They had a pool table, some pinball machines, and a pretty good Jefferson Airplane cover band. But like most people in their early twenties working jobs barely above minimum wage, I couldn’t really afford to hang out at a bar that much, not even one as — shall we say — affordable as the Rendezvous. A friend’s cousin was tending bar and sliding us heavy pours and mixing errors, but hanging out with my friends still had me spending money I couldn’t afford.

Not that the simple matter of money stopped me from going, though, or from developing a taste for cocktails. Fortunately, I made two discoveries before things got out of hand. The first was the miracle of the package store, allowing me to get a bottle for the price of a couple of drinks. The second was that if I wasn’t around other people, I paid more attention to the taste than to the buzz.

Unfortunately, I also discovered that if the rum is good, I really, really like the taste. I didn’t have any problem enjoying the taste all the way through a fifth of Barbancourt every couple of days. Well, no problem other than the money. I never reached the point of borrowing from my friends, or cadging drinks from strangers, but there were a few occasions where my bills weren’t exactly paid on time.

I got lucky, though. A my epic relationship failure was replaced by a somewhat less epic but still satisfying relationship success. This gave me someone else to blow my paychecks on, and something else to do at night other than marvel at how good an aged rum tastes, even down to the bottom of the bottle. Amazingly I stopped drinking entirely, probably a matter of a couple of weeks before it became a life-long problem for me. I am thankful every day for the auspicious entry of that girl in my life, even if that eventually ended in another epic failure.

Today there are almost two dozen bottles of liquor in my house. They stand on a shelf, arranged into neat ranks and files, a tray of shot glasses and swizzle sticks and mixology guides beside them, waiting for guests to come. Sometimes I am tempted to pour myself a couple of drinks, just to help me relax; occasionally I do. However, awareness of the bullet I dodged has soaked through my brain, and I rarely enjoy it. It’s probably a silly concern, but I’d rather err on caution’s side. Dodging one bullet doesn’t make you bullet proof.

Everyone — even if they aren’t aware of it — knows a few people who didn’t dodge, people with serious addictions. I know quite a few, and sometimes it feels as though I know more than my share, but that’s just my perception. Still, the self-mutilators, the depressives, the alcoholics, the addicts: I’m compelled to help them in whatever ways I can. I’ve held friends’ hair out of the way while they vomited out a fifth of Absolut. I’ve answered the phone at 3:00am and then listened to the wordless sobbing long past sunrise. I’ve watched infomercials in the emergency room while doctors stitched up the thigh of a woman who cut a little too deeply this time. I’ve held on to heirloom jewelry for a friend who was afraid she would pawn it to feed her habit. I’ve given away my own inheritance to keep friends from being evicted. And I could go on for pages telling these stories, but to what purpose?

I’m not a professionally trained counselor, and even among professionals there is debate as to the proper course of action when dealing with someone with deeply rooted problems. So I worry: Do my ham-fisted attempts at helping people in pain cause more damage, or does knowing that someone who has seen them at a very low point still cares about them give them a little more strength, a little more hope? Is it better to try to give comfort and fail than to look away and let them go it alone? For me, it is.

And there is my shame: “for me”. How often am I helping someone because it lets me feel like I have some purpose in the world? I’m trying to help people find their ways out of desperate situations, but I’m also trying to repay the universe for my own narrow escape from alcoholism, and to return the kindnesses shown me by others during my own dark days. But while I can easily indulge in pages of self-analysis and psychobabble, I admit that in large part I am motivated by one of my own obsessions. In my optimism I see so much potential in people, yet so few ever get a chance to develop it. Whenever the opportunity arises, I have to try to fix things, to redress wrongs. I’m obsessed with solving problems, but do the problems always have solutions?

I want to save the world, but sometimes the world doesn’t want to be saved.

I want to save my friends, but sometimes my friends don’t want to be saved.

I shouldn’t argue. Sometimes I don’t want to be saved, either.

Tumbling

When I was a child my grandfather had a rock tumbler. It was a small, rotating drum similar to a clothes dryer. You put in some polishing agent, like jeweler’s rouge or grit, add a few rough stones, power it on, and wait. After an hour or so of listening to the clatter of the stones tumbling around the moving drum, you would open the door and find that the constant motion and abrasion had sanded away the rough edges, leaving your rocks smooth, and often exposing a beauty you hadn’t seen beneath the coarse exterior.

During a visit one summer day I decided to tumble some interesting rocks I had collected up on the farm, jagged chunks of varicolored granite the size of peach pits. I went out to the back porch and plugged in the tumbler, and did a pretty good job of following the instructions my grandfather had given me on its use. In went the grit, in went the rocks, and I flipped the switch to start the process of changing the plain stone into something smooth and interesting. I sat and waited, watched the birds in the backyard, poked the spiderwebs behind the old refrigerator, and was generally a bored pre-teen boy.

The tedium was broken when my mother called from inside the house: lunchtime. I ate a tuna sandwich and some potato chips and drank a root beer and then — bored by the adult conversation — wandered off into the bedroom to read comic books. At some point I went outside with my brother and we tried unsuccessfully to find something to do until supper.

At twilight we headed into the backyard to catch fireflies. Suddenly, I remembered the rock tumbler. It had been patiently rotating all day, bouncing my chunks of stone around, chipping the rough edges away. I rushed to the porch and switched it off, eager to see what was inside the unremarkable chunks of stone.

It was empty, save for the grit. I was furious that someone had stolen my rocks, and — predictably — accused my brother of having taken them. His denial seemed sincere, even after some judicious arm twisting. The arm-twisting attracted the adults, too, so I had to explain what had happened.

My grandfather asked how long I’d left the rocks in the tumbler. Since this morning, I said, so they would be extra-smooth. He sighed, and opened the little door again. “Your rocks are in there,” he explained, “but you left them in too long. They were ground away to nothing. There’s nothing left but rock dust.”

I peered into the drum, hoping to recognize a fragment of the stones I’d tried to polish, but I couldn’t see anything beyond the fine black grit. My grandfather said something about finding me some new rocks to tumble tomorrow, but I wasn’t really paying attention; I had wanted those rocks, and now they were gone.

One year ago today I walked out of my corporate office for the final time; for twelve months I’ve endured the daily humiliations and disappointments and frustrations of unemployment. But as a result of all that grinding I’m now clearer in character, my strengths more noticeable, my skills more refined; I am truer to myself than I was a year ago, and for that alone I am grateful.

Still, I think of the rocks that vanished, and I wonder what will be left once the tumbling stops.

The Other Side

Like a lot of other people, I live in more than one world. Most of the time, I live in the same world you do, or one very similar: the tv-news world of the lowest common experience. But sometimes I cross over to the Other Side, where the rules really are different. Oh, it looks pretty much the same, but it really isn’t. Things are changed in small and subtle ways, like the smell of the air, and the colors of light.

This is a story from the other side. Worst of all: it’s true.

One evening around seven, while I still lived in my original tiny apartment in Fort Lauderdale, Sue called. She was a wonderful girl, with the type of personality that gave first rise to the term bubbly. I was surprised to hear from her, as we had not spoken in a while, in the way these things sometimes happen. Her voice was a whisper.

“Can you come get me right now?”

“Sure, what’s up?” I cheerfully countered. I was very glad to hear from her.

“Just come and get me now. I can’t stay on the phone.”

There was a click, then nothing, so I threw some clothes on, and jumped into my Chevy tank. Sue only lived about fifteen or twenty minutes from me in a quiet suburban area near my folks, and it was obvious that I had to hurry.

During the drive there, my mind was racing. My initial elation in getting her call had faded quickly. I had no idea what she needed, or why she was whispering. She lived with her parents, but it was early in the evening, so there would be no need for quiet. I wondered what could be the problem, that she would call me out of the blue after over two months.

As I made the right onto her street, I started to get a creepy feeling, like something was wrong. I saw her walking towards my car, from the bushes at the side of the road. She was saying something, but I had the AC on and couldn’t hear. I rolled down the passenger window to hear her, and she started to shout “Look out!” I turned, and saw a burly man with a baseball bat running toward my side of the car. I sped up slightly, moving toward her.

“Get in the car, damn it!” I leaned over and opened the side door. Sue started screaming.

“Just go! He won’t hurt me, he’s my father! But he’ll kill you!” I tried desperately to get her in the car, but she just told me to go away, and started running back to her house. I was creeping the car forward, trying to convince her to come with me, when I heard the crack of the bat against the back of my car.

I tried one final desperate time to persuade her, but without success. She promised that she would call me in an hour, then bolted for the house. I wheeled the big car around as I heard another thump from the back, and saw the man in my side mirror holding the bat overhead like an executioner’s axe. I maliciously threw the car in reverse and gunned it, just to see him jump, then drove away.

I was a bit shaken by this, and frantic that something would happen to Sue. I was too stupid (and scared, I admit it), to call the police, like I should’ve. I rationalized unreasonably that with the noise and shouting, one of the neighbors would do it. Since I never heard anything in the papers, though, I guess no one did.

On the way home, I felt lightheaded, from the adrenaline, I guess. I pulled in at a Burger King drive-thru to get a soda, but it had changed. The outside window was now on the wrong side of the building, making it necessary to lean over to the passenger side to pay. I thought that I had pulled in wrong, and started to pull around, but the girl at the window laughed and told me that I was okay. She was surprisingly pleasant, so I looked at her name tag to get her name. It read “Sue.”

I paid for my Coke and drove on. It started to rain, a south Florida winter drizzle, and I saw a woman in jeans and a plain white t-shirt at the side of the road hitching. I pulled over to offer her a ride, but she wouldn’t get in.

From there I turned onto State Road 84, heading home. The drizzle had gotten a little stronger, although it still wasn’t too bad. A short way up, the highway passed through a very small patch of woods, near a waterway. The trees weren’t anywhere near the road, but the sudden lack of civilized clutter was always disconcerting. It was even more disconcerting when the car 50 feet in front of me suddenly started swerving all over the road.

Immediately I looked for the source of the problem, probably a raccoon or a stray dog on the road. No, nothing that mundane. The road was swarming with small shiny objects, wave after wave of them from the south. They were land crabs, heading for the canal on the north side, swarming across the rain slick highway.

There was nothing I could do but run over them. The car was filled with the sickening crunch of their shells. A couple even hit my windshield, probably thrown up by the car in front of me. They scrabbled in vain for a foothold, inevitably sliding off the sides.

Less than a minute later I had passed out of the zone, and ten minutes after that I was home. I didn’t look at my car when I got out of it; I was hoping the steadily increasing rain would wash away the evidence of the carnage. However, I did notice a couple of survivors scuttling towards the trash cans as I headed for the door.

The vigil began. I waited by the phone all night for Sue’s call, which never came. I was going out of my mind with indecision. Would I be putting her in danger by calling? Should I just call the police, and wash my hands of the situation? Maybe I should drive by there again, sometime after three in the morning, when he should be asleep. Eventually I conked out, and crossed back over.

Sue called at 8:30 the next morning, while I was showering. After a mumbled apology for not calling when she promised, she told me that everything was okay.

“What do you mean, okay? He was running around with a baseball bat, for God’s sake!”

“It’s okay, really, Kevin. Just relax about it. We had a misunderstanding, that’s all. It might be better if you didn’t call for a while, though. Dad’s pretty pissed off at you.”

I tried to argue with her, but without success. She promised to call me and explain the whole story later, but she never did.

I spoke to her once, a couple of years later. When I brought up the incident, she didn’t even remember it. Then when I asked for her number, she wouldn’t give it to me, and she never called me again.

Faith 2: Paradise

Plantation, Florida, 1975

The first time I can remember being inside a church I was paid to attend. A high school classmate’s Baptist church wanted a brass quartet to perform an Easter service, and I was asked to play trombone. It was fun, if a little weird. We were positioned in the upper choir loft at the back of the church, so we weren’t visible to the congregation. It was an ideal perspective for witnessing some strange and new customs.

When the performance was over I wanted to get my $40, thank Carol for getting me the gig, and leave. Unfortunately, her parents wanted to meet her classmates, so I was pulled from the quiet safety of the choir loft into a maelstrom of questions I couldn’t answer. “So what church do you attend” “I don’t go.” “No church? You’re not a Jew, are you?” “No, but I’ve been to bar mitzvahs.” “Well, we’ll see you next Sunday, then, right, Carol? You’ll bring him along, won’t you? It sounds like your friend here needs to be saved!”

For the rest of my high school years I received monthly invitations to attend services there. I never did go back.

But ah, Carol. I had an enormous crush on her. She had cascades of unruly blonde curls around her adorable round face, a heartbreaker’s smile, and curves that were very probably illegal in 1975. The main reason for my crush, though, was far more primal: she would talk to me and treat me like a human being.

A couple of times a week I’d ride my bike to her house after school and we’d sit around and talk and listen to records. Well, mainly I would listen and she would talk, but I cant recall much of anything said. I was content just to sit on the floor in her pink and yellow bedroom and watch her as she regaled me with the latest gossip from her friends.

One afternoon we lost track of the time in our chatting until a phone call reminded Carol that a friend would be over in just a few minutes to pick her up and take her to a party. Suddenly leaping into action, and without a hint of warning, she reached down, grabbed the bottom of her t-shirt, and in a fluid motion, pulled it right over her head.

In an act of infinite mercy, Time itself slowed for me. Enraptured, I studied the motion of her hair as she shook it free of the shirt’s confinement, each strand of spun gold moving in a perfect wave. I drank in her pale, freckled face as she smiled, eyes closed, and tossed aside the t-shirt. My gaze moved down, then, and I saw for the first time in my adolescent life that legendary miracle of lace and elastic and structural engineering, the final roadsign before entering the Promised Land of female nudity, her bra. I barely had time to take in this heavenly vista when her arms began to curl strangely, she was bending them up behind her back for some reason, she was oh my God oh my God she’s reaching up to take off her bra she’s…

“Carol? D-do you think you should really be getting undressed right now, with me in the room? Sh-should I leave?”

Trance broken, her eyes popped open as I spun to look behind me. Who had said that? Who else was here? Wait, no, that wasn’t — Did I really say that?

“Oh, I’m sorry!” She stopped her unhooking and shrugged. “You’re so sweet that sometimes I forget you’re a guy.” Ow.

“I am, Carol, trust me. Want me to prove it?” But she never heard me. By then she’d stepped into her closet to finish changing, blocking any further glimpses of Paradise.

She emerged a moment later in a tight pink top. “That was so nice of you to warn me like that. Most guys would have just gotten a free show and told all their friends. But you’re different from them. You’re not an ordinary boy. That’s why I like you.”

A horn honked in her driveway. I walked out with her and waved goodbye as I got on my bike. Pedaling home was rather awkward, and I cursed the universe all the way. Being nice, it seemed, could send you to Hell as surely as stealing a Danish.

Faith 1: Punishment

Southern Illinois, 1965

I stole a Danish off the breakfast table. I didn’t want the whole thing; I just wanted the jelly in the middle. I took it when my mother wasn’t looking and then snuck into the family room to eat it. I carefully tore it in half and ate the dollop of cherry, then stuffed the doughy parts under the sofa.

In the afternoon my mother opened the sliding glass door to the patio and yelled for me to come inside at once. I didn’t even remember the pastry until I saw her standing in the middle of the room waving it at me. “I didn’t tell you you could have this. Why did you take it? And why did you try to hide it?”

“I didn’t do it, Scott did.” My little brother was perhaps two years old to my five.

“You know darn well your brother didn’t do it. Don’t you lie to me, mister. Do you know what happens to little boys who lie? Do you?” The incriminating dough wagged at me as she raised her voice.

I shook my head.

“They go to hell, that’s what.”

I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about. “What’s hell, mama?”

“That’s where you are on fire and you burn all the time and you are hurting really bad but no one will help you and it goes on forever.” Her voice started to get a real edge to it. “Is that what you want? Do you want to go to hell?”

“No, mama.â”

“Then stop lying! You took this, didn’t you? Admit it!”

I still wasn’t sure what hell was but I knew it was bad. I also knew that if hell was a place she could put me then I wasn’t going to admit anything. What if there was someplace worse for little boys who stole? Stealing had to worse than lying, because lying was just words.

“No, it was Scott.”

“Go! To! Your! Room!”

I sat on the bed and hugged my stuffed beagle, Doggie, and thought about fire and hell and death until I fell asleep.


That Danish was my introduction to religion.

 

As the years passed I came to call my family’s religion the American Consumerist Christian faith. Easter is a rabbit that brings candy and wants you to dye eggs. Christmas is a guy in a red suit who brings presents. Somewhere in with them is a guy in a loincloth who was killed thousands of years ago, but we didn’t talk about that part. It made my mother uncomfortable.

But when the subject of religion did come up, my mother was always quite clear. If we wanted to go to church we could, but there was no way she would ever set foot in one again. Preachers were all liars and cheats, talking you into giving them your money so they could go spend it on booze and sneak out of town in the middle of the night, like her childhood pastor.

My father just kept his mouth shut, as he usually did when my mother would start to go off on one of her topics. My brother and I, we just let it go, too. Frankly, most of our friends envied us our Sunday morning freedom.

But while I was reading the funnies and having another bowl of cereal, I would sometimes wonder what I was missing.