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.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead cover

Strangely (for me), I have no idea what led me to this play by Tom Stoppard. I was always one for fiction or poetry, but not drama — not recreationally, anyway. Nonetheless, something possessed me to pick this slim volume off the shelf in Waldenbooks and take it home, thus introducing me to a terrific playwright, the concept of metafiction, and a life of questions.

R&G is a retelling of Hamlet from the perspective of two minor characters from the play, school friends of the dour prince. In Shakespeare they are utterly lacking in distinguishing characteristics, serving more as a plot mechanism than as living characters. They come on stage, advance the plot a bit, are cruelly used by Hamlet, and then sent away to die. In Stoppard’s play, we experience the life of a minor character; while the original play remains intact as a force of destiny, we see these poor saps spend their off-stage moments trying to make sense of a world where they don’t even get to know the plot.

As tragic as this sounds, along the way to the final curtain there is a lot of humor — traditional gags, physical comedy, and more subtle bits — all of it serving Stoppard’s themes. The dialogue is quick and sharp, filled with multileveled puns even as Guildenstern tries to develop an internally consistent explanation of why eighty-five times in a row tossed coins have come up heads. There’s music hall slapstick, sexual innuendo, and even a bit of cross-dressing — something for everyone!

And then there’s the excursion into metafiction. The best example of metafiction — a concept new to me at that time — is in the character of the Player, who seems to know that he is in a play, and has seen it all before. The levels start to get deep here, as he is an actor playing the role of an actor who is playing the role of the Player who is an actor leading the troupe hired by Hamlet to perform at court. He knows where this will all end up, and yet he won’t answer any questions for Rosencrantz or Guildenstern; he only drops hints and winks slyly at the audience.

Lastly, there’s the ambiguity of it all. Ros and Guil never do get the answers to their questions, but the audience gets something more important: a better question. While Hamlet is the VIP of Shakespeare’s play, he’s only a minor character in Stoppard’s version. Isn’t it better to be the protagonist in your own story than a minor player in someone else’s story? Or is it best of all to step outside the cycle entirely, and take the Player’s role?

So with the witty writing and philosophical questions and metafiction and implication that everyone is the lead in their own story, I fell in love. I was so fascinated with this book that I started tracking down everything I could find by Stoppard, which led me to more great writing. I even decided to take a community college course in twentieth century drama.

Which brought me, as these things do, to a moment of personal weirdness. The class was good, and the instructor, though I can no longer recall his name, was quite sincere. I read Ionescue and Pinter and Ferlinghetti, discovered my own tendency was toward the absurd, and hung out with student actors for a few months. But the text we used didn’t have Stoppard, a failing I brought to the attention on the professor.

“Oh, yes, that’s a fine play, and a lot of fun to read. If it was in the book we’d discuss it in class.”

At this point a normal person would resign themselves to their disappointment. I, on the other hand, scraped together what little savings I had and went on a quest to buy every copy ofRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead available for sale in Broward county. It took three weeks and all of my money, but I managed to get twenty-two copies, one for each student in the class.

In hindsight, the professor must have been mortified when I came to class with a Publix sack full of books. He wasn’t prepared to discuss the play, and even if he was doing so would have thrown his lesson plan all out of whack, this late in the term. So he asked to see me after class, mumbled some apologies, and offered to talk with me about Stoppard any time I might like to stop by his office.

He asked if I wanted the books back, the books I’d blown my savings on, but I declined. I told him to keep them, that I was donating them to the school. I don’t know what happened to them; I never went back to class.

The Lord of the Rings

Cover of the 1973 paperback of The Fellowship of the Ring
The edition I read

I first encountered Middle Earth back in the 1970s, when I was in high school. A beautiful, dark-haired young woman was my guide, an English teacher named Debbie Ernst. We became friendly when I was in her composition class, and she picked up on how bored I was with most of my classes. “I have a book you might like to read,” she began, innocently enough. “Have you ever heard of The Hobbit? I think you’ll like it.”

She brought me her paperback copy, and I took it, somewhat skeptically. At the time I was reading nothing but science-fiction, and couldn’t see how anything with swords and bows could be really interesting. Nonetheless, I really liked Debbie, so I gave it a chance. By the middle of the book I was hooked. Even though it was obviously a kid’s story, there was a depth to it, with hints of a bigger story just behind the page, a world larger than the tale it was telling. I was fascinated.

Debbie was thrilled that I enjoyed it so much, and told me about another book by the same writer—actually three books telling a single story, which was related to The Hobbit, but more adult. I begged her to bring them in for me, so on Friday she brought in the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. I couldn’t wait to get a chance to start reading it.

This was much harder work than the first book. It demanded more of me than any book I’d ever read: I had to sort out characters with annoyingly similar names, the historical digressions were ubiquitous and essential, and there was quite a bit of poetry thrown in, too. And yet it was still compelling, as though I wasn’t just reading a story, but rather looking into another world, one as richly detailed as our own.

I blazed through the book that first weekend, and then couldn’t wait for Debbie to bring in the next, instead forcing my father to take me to a bookstore to find the other volumes. The Two Towers slowed me down quite a bit—that’s the one where people often lose their courage and stop reading—but once I got into The Return of the King I couldn’t even sleep I was so desperate to find out what happened.

And then it was over, with that marvelous, bittersweet ending I’ll not spoil for those who haven’t read the books. I sat there with the book open in front of me, and I felt something I had never felt before: deep, wrenching sorrow that the trilogy had run its course. While I could re-read the books, there would never be new stories of Frodo and Sam. Gandalf defeated the Balrog, but he couldn’t prevail against the death of Professor Tolkien. I sat at my desk, and actually cried for the end of the story.

In the days and weeks that followed, my friends and I re-read and endlessly discussed the books, dissecting them, scraping out every bit of undiscovered lore, trying to recapture the feeling we’d had reading them the first time. We bought books about the languages of the elves and dwarves, memorized frightening levels of minutiae, even took on character names for ourselves.

It was decided that I should be Gandalf (“because you are wise beyond your years,” Debbie said), that Debbie should be Galadriel (although she insisted she was much more like a hobbit than an elf queen), and that my cohort in obsession, Jim Aurand, would be Saruman. Frankly, Jim and I should have exchanged our names, as he has always been one of the most resolutely good people I have known, whereas I… well, let’s just say that like Saruman, I, too, have stared into thepalantir, and been left changed.

Graduation came, and it was time to move forward in life. I didn’t give up Middle Earth, although by that time it had been joined by a myriad of other worlds, though none as richly imagined. While by brief foray into college slowed my re-reading of the books, it didn’t stop, and even lead to some rather odd experiences in later years, experiences we may discuss another time. But mainly, reading The Lord of the Rings exposed me to the heights to which imagination can soar, the importance of detail and consistency in suspending a reader’s disbelief, and that writing can be fantastic and still have something to say about our mundane lives. It changed the way I viewed literature.

Debbie changed me, too. We became friends, close friends, talking as much about our lives as about school and books. She was only a few years older than her students, really, which made it easier for us to talk with her, and harder in some ways, too. The last days before school ended, we got together often, just to talk about the world. We talked about what we wanted to do with our lives, which surprised me, as I had assumed that by the time you got through college you’d have all that worked out. She laughed when I said that, and told me she didn’t know if anyone was ever really sure what to do with their life.

As tradition dictated, I asked her to sign my yearbook. She held on to it for a while, at least a day, and when she gave it back she said she knew what she wrote was terrible. “Please forgive me for writing something so clichéd. Don’t use that to remember me….”

On the page she had written “Frodo Lives. At least, he does in our hearts.” She signed it simply “Debbie.” I looked at her and she had this tremendously embarrassed look in her eyes. I couldn’t help myself, I started laughing, and she said “Well, you are a better writer than I’ll ever be, darn it!” She started laughing, too, and I hugged her, and we kept laughing until we were both crying.

When the moment passed and we’d regained a little composure, it struck me why we’d been crying. Our story was over.

Another Roadside Attraction

Paperback cover of Another Roadside Attraction
My original reading copy

It’s Phil Houha’s fault. One high school afternoon in 1975 I’d gone to his house for a jam session, and while we were relaxing post-jam we talked about books. He asked me if I’d ever heard of this guy Tom Robbins, that he was writing some pretty trippy stuff I might like. Being still somewhat naive, I had no idea who Phil was talking about, but the book’s cover was certainly interesting, and the sulfurous scent of blasphemy wafted across the room when I flipped through the pages. I took it home with me that day, read it in a night, and spent the next couple of weeks reassembling my blown mind.

Robbins’ sprawling tale of a Washington hot dog stand, a mystical earth mother, and the Second Coming of Christ is dizzying, especially when you’re a white suburban 15 year old kid who reads too much in the first place. The novel is rife with drug references, philosophical debate, explicit sex, and mythic characters. This is humanity the way it should be, where people stand for something, have beliefs and are willing to die for them. Even their names are colorful and exotic: Marx Marvelous, Plucky Purcell, Baby Thor, John Paul Ziller—sobriquets to conjure with, to be sure.

On first reading the adventurous aspects of the narrative hooked me with their sheer audacity. But on reflection, the plot is as thin as butterfly wings. The real story is in the swooping aerial acrobatics of Robbins’ prose, with its frequent digressions into modern parables, dirty jokes, social satire, and generally chaotic disregard for convention. The author’s voice shifts from time to time, at first seeming awkward and clumsy, but then with narrative purpose, eventually forming a kind of self-conscious epistle to a new world. The book has a punch line, too, oh indeed it does, a hell of a punch line. But mainly, the words take delight in themselves, in their freedom from all restraint.

Another Roadside Attraction changed the way I looked at writing. Here is a book, serious in intent, but filled with playfully overwrought metaphors, its syntax stretched beyond recognition. The characters aren’t realistic at all, not deep or fleshed out, but vehicles for mythic ideas and cosmic tales. And it’s obvious that the author had a hell of a lot of fun writing it, too, a contagious joy. A novel with a serious theme, handled in an irreverent, goofy, slapstick fashion was something new to me, and opened up a new way of looking at the craft of writing.

But it affected me in other ways, as well. The openness with which sexuality was expressed struck a chord with me. Amanda—the earth goddess—made a distinction between the physicality of sex and the emotional attachment of love, something I’d felt in my own heart, but had never been able to express. Spiritually it gave me more confidence to question matters of faith, and to seek my own guidance rather than any established authority. But the book brought sadness as well, because I wanted so terribly much to live in that book, to be larger than mundane life, to be a character and live a meaningful (and colorful) life; it felt right, as though I wasn’t meant to be ordinary flesh and blood. I threw myself into intellectual and creative pursuits with a renewed fervor, knowing that I would only find that sense of belonging in my own imagination.

But that’s another story, for another time.

[Incidentally, I recently got in touch with Phil, and he says it isn’t his fault, because he didn’t read Robbins until college. So who could it have been?]

The Wizard of Oz

Paperback cover for The Wizard of Oz
1970s-era reprint series of the Baum Oz books

I started reading the Oz books in sixth grade, when I was ten years old. I had been reading rocketship style science-fiction for a while, along with the Alfred Hitchcock collections (Ghostly Gallery, Haunted Houseful, Monster Museum, etc.), so this detour into fairy tales was a bit of a shock to my system. In my mind fiction was either scary supernatural stuff, or what-if extrapolations, all stainless steel and glittering stars. So what the hell was this?

I was of course familiar with the basic story from watching the film each Easter, and that was the source of a lot of confusion. If you haven’t read it, the book is quite different from the film, making much stronger points about the alien nature of the fairy land of Oz. For one, the Tin Woodsman is practically an action hero, using his trusty axe at the drop of a hat to behead adversaries right and left. The Cowardly Lion is a real animal, and at once point it is mentioned that he goes off at night to feed, and they don’t question him about the nature of his meals. And the “wonderful” Wizard isn’t just a humbug, but a scheming old man. He sent them to kill the Wicked Witch of the West in hopes that the adventurers would die or be enslaved by her, so that he wouldn’t be revealed as a fraud. Clearly Oz was a magical place, but one fraught with danger, as well.

The nature of the magic was also odd. I was used to simple science fiction stories, where you make one divergence from the “real world” (say, space travel), and the rest of the story proceeds logically from there. Or horror stories, where there wasn’t any logic, but there was a thematic unity around the sense of the world being inherently unknowable, and filled with unseen evil.* But this business—nothing is ever explained, and just one wonderful thing after another keeps getting piled on. A sack of clothes wakes up while being stuffed with straw? A woman dissolves when she gets wet? A race of tiny people made of china, who can only move if they stay in the area where they are born? So much strangeness, and yet it has a kind of realism of its own. My head just nearly exploded trying to absorb all these new images.

And ultimately that’s what has stayed with me: the infinite variety of creation in the world, and the lack of reason behind it. In science fiction everything serves the purpose of advancing the plot; in horror the invention illuminates the world as a malevolent and frightening place; in European fairy tales the stories serve a moral purpose. In the Land of Oz things just exist, without purpose, without explanation, driven only by a sense of wonder and the raw force of imagination.

That’s why I keep returning to Oz.


*Just for the record, I would not have expressed myself in quite those terms. I was pretty precocious, but I didn’t become a pseudointellectual lit-crit ass until much later. However, I did have a conversation with my Grandma Palmer about what separated sci-fi and horror, and told her the words they used were very different, and made me feel differently. I guess it’s always been in me.

Christa

1968, Carbondale, Illinois. I was in fifth grade, and something of a know-it-all. I had already decided I was going to be a writer, having recently abandoned my previous choices of astronaut and atomic scientist. And I was generally acknowledged, for better or worse, as the smartest kid on the class. Except for her: Christiana Marie Snyder.

She got better grades than me. She always knew the answer, but didn’t jerk her hand into the air when the teacher asked for volunteers, waiting instead to be called on. She had long, straight brown hair, and mismatched eyes, one green, one blue. And she was clearly smarter than me. It was love at first report card.

But hey, I was eight, and at eight you haven’t got a clue about how to express your feelings for someone. At eight you don’t even know you have feelings! So I kept my mouth shut and worshipped from afar, all the way until February.

But then it got close to Valentine’s Day, and to the annual ritual of going to the store to pick out the box of perforated cards to give to your classmates. As usual my mother had to ask if there was someone special I wanted to get a card for. Much to my (and, I imagine, their) amazement, I said yes. So my mom helped me pick out a nice card with lots of glitter and ribbons and stuff that girls like, and we brought the cards home.

And of course she wanted to know whom the special card was for, but wanted to let me have my privacy and not ask. But she wasn’t above looking at the mimeographed list of classmates’ names I had brought home to see who didn’t get a Peanuts valentine. I was too smart for that, though – I addressed one for Christa, too!

I didn’t address the crimson envelope, but took it with me to school and wrote her name on it there. When the time came for us all to walk around the room and drop our little valentines into the decorated paper bags that served as our mailboxes, I tried to slyly slip hers in without being noticed. Fat chance, the card was bigger than the mailbox – I was busted immediately by a girl across the room with a voice like a braying donkey.

“Hey, look! Christa’s got a boyfriend! Christa’s got a boyfriend!”

Thus commenced the taunting and teasing, and there was much merriment among the urchins. So, I did what any self-respecting eight-year old would do when confronted with the leering question, “Do you like her, Kevin, do you?” I said “Ew, no, ick!”

For what it’s worth, she said the same thing. The difference was, I knew that I was lying.

Days peel off the calendar, and it is May. In spite of our public declarations of ick-ness, we started spending time together at recess, running scams on the other kids, being generally weird. It was nice, and we even started to develop a clique around us. So one day in the playground I steeled my nerves and made my move.

“Christa, I like you.”

She smiled at me, and took my hand. “That’s good, ’cause I like you, too.”

And then Tim and Meg came up, and looked at my hand in her hand, and didn’t say a word. And it was good.

And that day on the way home from school my father says, “Hey, guess what? We’re moving to Florida!”

[2003]

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.

Prom Night

Sheila Dixon and Marc Kevin Hall, 1977“If you don’t go to your senior prom you’ll regret it for the rest of your life!” So said my mother, with the conviction only a mother can muster. Unfortunately, being a headstrong and willfully defiant and unconventional high school senior (isn’t that entire phrase redundant?), I would have no part of it. Besides, to go to prom you need a date, and I hadn’t dated anyone for quite a while, not since Suzanne had unceremoniously dumped me. So I told my parents that it wasn’t going to happen, and that they should thank me for saving them the cost of a tux rental. They were not amused.

Nor did the pressure ease up, as the date approached. And to be fair, it was tough at school, too. Even band kids were going, so I couldn’t escape the endless talk of dresses and tuxes, and after-prom parties, and who was getting a hotel room on the beach, etc. One day just two weeks before the event I was complaining about this obsession with a ridiculous party to Lori, a girl I had known for years, but who was way too pretty to go out with me. She admitted she wasn’t going, either, and was getting grief from her folks about it, too. After an extraordinarily brief pause, I asked her to go to the prom with me, “Just to get our folks off our backs.” She thought that was a good idea, but seeing as she was dating someone (an underclassman, no less!), it would probably be trouble. “But why don’t we double-date! It will be more fun to go with someone else who thinks this is silly.”

I sadly pointed out my currently unattached state, but Lori was undeterred, assuring me that she could easily find someone to go with me. I was skeptical, but was willing to let her try to hook me up. And hook me up she did. Boy, howdy.

Sheila Dixon was a member of the drill team, beautiful, sweet natured, quiet, and a sophomore. I knew her by name, but had never even really spoken with her before Lori introduced her to me as my prom date. I formalized the invitation – “Do you really want to go to the prom? With me?” — and she accepted— “Sure, I mean, it’s the senior prom! Oh, and I’ve heard you are nice.” So, passionate vows having been exchanged, we set to work on the arrangements.

I asked Sheila if she wanted to go on a “trial date” first, to get to know each other before the prom. Unfortunately, that wasn’t practical, as it turned out that Sheila was a from a highly restrictive and religious household. She was sixteen, but was not permitted to date until she was twenty-one. Getting out for one night would be hard enough; two would be impossible. How could she go to the prom? Easy: her mother was so excited that Sheila was going to the prom that she decided to lie to Dad, to keep him in the dark.

Prom night itself was an episode of Mission: Impossible. Prom started at 7:30, so at 6:30 I was to pull up around the corner from her house and park on the street. At the same time Sheila’s mother would ask Dad to run to the store and get her some milk, insisting in only the way a housebound mother can. When I saw a large blue car roll past, driven by a burly man with a sour expression on his face, I was to zip around the corner and into the Dixon’s driveway. Sheila would then be bustled out of the bedroom where she had been hiding all afternoon — feigning “feminine discomfort,” I later learned — and after a quick photo op for Mom, we would jump into the car and whisk away to pick up Lori and Steve.

I must confess, I can remember relatively little of the prom itself. We got a little lost on the way there, and arrived late, so that people were already sitting down to eat. I was a bit nervous, too, as I was very much out of my element. Formal wear, white linen tablecloths, the Beautiful People — these are not things for which my Kentucky upbringing had prepared me. But I gave it a shot, and tried to have fun, in spite of the slow dawning realization that Sheila was having trouble remembering my name, and the fact that she was putting the moves on every football player who came within reach. Besides, the torture wouldn’t last forever, given our time constraints.

Yes, time constraints. See, Sheila had to be home by 10:30. “Feminine discomfort” or not, her Dad was going to go into her room to kiss her goodnight before he went to bed, which occurred promptly at 10:30 every night. Mom was going to delay a bit with another emergency grocery run – “Honey, I just realized I don’t have any eggs for your breakfast tomorrow!” – but we had better be watching to see the blue tank come around that corner.

We made it down the street just a little late, but Sheila recognized her father’s car turning the far corner toward the store. We whipped into the driveway, and her frantic mother rushed out and hustled her in. No goodnight kiss, no “Thanks for a lovely evening,” nothing. Just a blur of white fabric, a slamming door, and me backing out of the driveway.

When I spoke to Sheila the next day, she would hardly acknowledge having ever gone out with me. Shortly after these events, of course, I graduated and went away to school, so I couldn’t keep tabs on developments in her life. I did hear that she started to rebel against her parents, though, and ended up dating a prominent member of the offensive line. The evening wasn’t a total loss for one of us, anyway.

And my mother turned out to be right. If I hadn’t gone to my prom, I wouldn’t have this story to tell, and isn’t that all we take away from high school, anyway, stories?

A Nameless Kiss

I can’t honestly recall my first kiss. I have vague memories of kissing a girl named Donna when I was about five, but I don’t suppose they count. Two or three years later I was kissed by Christa, an embarassed peck on the lips at a going away party she had for me. That one left me dizzy, but maybe it was just too much sun. Anyway, they were both too vague to really count.

The first fully intentional and anticipated kiss I ever received was at about age eleven. I was at a lavish birthday party for Debbie, once of my classmates, and as the evening wore on the numbers dwindled to the point where we could all go into her dad’s study and listen to records. The lights were low, there was much whispering and giggling, and then the empty Coke bottle came into play, beginning an American rite of passage.

I knew Debbie pretty well from band class, and I freely admit to a tremendous crush on her. She was darkly pretty, whip-smart, and a talented musician. I didn’t fully understand all these hormonal currents rushing through me — I hit puberty at nine, so I was pretty damned certain something was going on — but I knew that getting my lips against hers was the first step in the process. So the bottle was spun, and spun, and spun, and wouldn’t point at me. No kisses. Finally on one girl’s spin it did. She wasn’t my first choice, Debbie, but by now I had witnessed enough kissing that I knew the kiss was more important than the person.

Unfortunately, the girl who spun the bottle looked up, saw that it was me, and said “Ew, no! I’m not kissing him, no way!” Much hilarity ensued, all at my expense, until Debbie coldly informed the girl that if she didn’t kiss me she would tell everyone at school that the girl was making out with me all night. The thought of her utter social devastation so terrified her that she steeled her nerves and gave me a dry kiss lasting perhaps a nanosecond.

Shortly after that I decided maybe it was time to get on my bike and ride home. I still wanted to hook up with Debbie, but in no more than ten words she made it clear that we were just going to be friends. Distant friends. Acquaintances, even. It turned out not to matter, as her dad was arrested for money laundering the next year, so they moved out of state.