Then suddenly, and without warning

I’ve survived. Of course I have. But lately, it appears as though I’ve been enduring a series of unforeseen incidents. No one was hurt in the creation of these events. (I’ve never felt like a victim. Can’t say why, but I never have.) However, I’m starting to wonder if the power of living a life without compromise might have something to do with planning. Certainly NONE of these surprises were planned. That’s the nature of surprise, after all. Yet I find that, when I’m caught in the middle of complex emotions and rational thought, I get nervous.

Frankly, it’s the only time I find myself getting nervous. And oddly tongue-tied.

I staunchly maintain that being on tour with both the Missoula Children’s Theatre and the Young People’s Theatre Project prepared me for anything. On the road, you learn to expect the unexpected, and take it in stride when things don’t quite work out as planned. (There’s that word again … planned.) To calm others down prior to theatrical events, I tell them the story of the two pee-wees playing pumpkins in Cinderella. These were five- and six-year-olds dressed as pumpkins. I  would sing a song with them, and they would do a little pumpkin dance. Believe me, no one cares about you when you are surrounded by 20 very small children dressed as pumpkins. So, there we were, me and the pumpkins, waiting to go onstage probably somewhere in the frozen tundra of Alberta, Canada. And there were two pumpkins clearly at opposite ends of the stage-fright spectrum. One was calm, the other was crazed, but clearly had a sense of humor. The calm one said, “I hope I remember my song.” The other one said, “I hope I don’t spit up blood.” To this day, whenever something goes awry on-stage I think to myself, “No one ever spit up blood doing this.”

So tell me, why … in the midst of not one, but two catastrophic computer failures … I became that guy. You know the one. The asshole on the other end of the phone that blames you for things not working. Or not working out. Or not working as planned. Try as I might, I tend to think of these things in terms of balance. True … my livelihood is at stake … but I’ve become a strong advocate for technology. So much so it should never fail me. Right? I’m pissed and won’t take no for an answer and … nervous. At my worst. Not my finest hour.

And then, there I am, driving home from the grocery store yesterday with turkey in tow feeling useless. I mean it. At the time, in my world no PC=no worth. No value whatsoever. I’m talking bottom-of-the-barrel stuff now.

When suddenly, and without warning, my phone rings.

Unfamiliar number, but I answer it anyway.

“Mr. Byington? It’s [name of former student]. I don’t know if you remember me, but I just wanted to thank you for teaching me way back when. I want you to know that you really made a difference in my life, and I’m very grateful for the effort and time you put in to working with all of us.”

(I swear to you I’m not making this up.)

And I’m blubbering like a baby when I say, “Well, [name of former student], I want to thank you! You really made a difference in my life, and this call couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Day made. Nerves calmed. PC fixed.

Posted in Memoir | 3 Comments

Among my souveniers

So … it’s been a while, I know. While I’d like to apologize for that, I’m not going to. I’ve been busy. New plays, new work challenges, new friends. It’s been a while, but much of it has been new. All new. And that’s a good thing. Really. It’s a very, very good thing.

I started a project last week. I have a rolling file, full of all kinds of stuff. You know, bank statements, after-visit printouts from the doctor, school photos of friends’ kids. The stuff of life. The stuff, at one point, I figured I’d probably like to keep. And although I’m sure a list of the stuff I kept would interest all of you. I’m letting you know that I was pretty surprised by the stuff I let go. It was mostly cards. Lots of cards. Opening night cards, Christmas cards, lots of sentiment.

Some of it was really old, like the ticket stubs to my first Broadway show (Kander and Ebb’s The Life) Some of it was funny, like the card from a director friend telling me to “Break a nostril,” on opening night of Noises, Off! the first time I did the play. Some of it was sweet, like the note of extreme gratitude for stepping into a role with lots of lines and very little rehearsal. It was all real. It was all hugely felt, I’m sure. And I enjoyed looking at it one more time before I let it go. It started me thinking about all that stuff in the closet behind me. Who’s going to want that when I’m dead? I mean … why am i keeping it in the closet? I’m not going to use it. And I’m certain that Abel Ganz poster, which hung in my apartment for so many years, while at the time was really special to me … well … it no longer holds that much meaning. So, what do I do? (Look out closet, I’m gunning for you.)

My wife says I’m a purger. I think she’s onto something. I just don’t really keep stuff around very long.

I have this recurring dream. I might have mentioned it before. It’s kind of a nightmare in terms of the anxiety it causes. It’s always pretty much the same. I won’t bore you with the details, but the log line for the dream is:

Grant discovers he has an apartment he never moved out of, and owes 20 years’ back rent.

I’m not making this up. It’s a pretty nice place, near a river … in an unnamed town, and the long-benevolent landlord has died and his estate is asking for a shit-ton of rent. And the apartment is full of stuff that I didn’t know I even had. Maybe that’s where all the stuff I purge is accumulating.

Today I pitched a lot of stuff into the recycle bin, and piled up quite a pile of receipts onto the shredder. I’ll run them through later … closer to the day we pull our recycling out into the street. Here’s the last thing I want to share.

I came across a piece of construction paper. It was probably from an exercise with a work team a long time ago. It was probably pinned to my back, and it was probably prefaced by a speech that went something along the lines of, “Write on everyone’s paper a word or phrase that best describes that person.” It might have been an exercise in awareness building … you know, the whole “How others view you,” type deal. I don’t really know. But here’s the words and phrases in no particular order:

Brilliant strategist—vulnerable  ;-)

Grounded in what he does best

A crack up — in a good way

Notices everything

Honesty

Teacher!

Straight forward

Knows his stuff and a delight to be around — the one to trust with celebrities

Guru — oracle — speaker of truth

Incredible storyteller

Brilliant writer

↑This too

So … thank you. All of you, whomever you are. I really, really appreciate it. But today, I’m letting it go.

 

Posted in Exercises | Leave a comment

Chapter One — where it all began

Okay, so … this is the story. I mean THE STORY that I used to tell at parties. It was the story that got the whole ball rolling. It was the one episode that used to provoke people to tell me, “You should write these down, you really should.” It was also one of the main pain points between my sister and I back in 2012. She remembers this whole event quite differently. And frankly, so do I. This is the point, right? Creative Non-fiction. This really happened, but not really this way. So, after my sister and I talked things over, she came around to the idea that I was taking a bit of creative license, especially when it came to the way she was portrayed in this particular piece. But neither of us will deny these events actually happened. So, if you want her version of this story, you’ll have to ask her. This is mine. All mine. And it’s the strong first chapter of the book, one I’ve been wanting to post for quite a while, but the timing just hasn’t been right. Today seems like the day. So … here it is.

********

Independence Day

July, 1965

I hated shoes. I hid them under my bed in the summer. They made my feet feel stupid. Huge, hard, stupid shoes.

“Stand still! This cowlick just won’t stay down,” Mom said. “There … no … there … no! Goddammit!” My mother was determined to make my hair stand still.

“Shoes too tight,” I whined. (Only it came out Whose poo bite!) Born tongue-tied, my cleft tongue was a problem for everyone in my family except my older sister.

“What’d he say?” Mom asked her.

“His shoes are too tight.” A year older, B.J. (short for Bobbi Jean) was my interpreter, mentor and partner in crime.

“Stand still, honey. Goddammit!” Mom spit on her hand and started rubbing the back of my head. “Good. Good? OK, stand there for a sec,” she said. I stood stalk-still next to B.J. “Well, don’t you two just look like Caroline and John-John!”

“When can we take these clothes off?” B.J. asked.

“After the picnic, honey. Later on, after the picnic,” Mom said. Every Fourth of July there was a big parade downtown and a picnic in Washoe Park. “Now go play, but don’t get dirty. And for the love of God, Grantsy, don’t touch your hair!” She lit a cigarette, pulled the smoke into her nose and blew it out her mouth.

B.J. was dressed in a frilly party dress and a pair of very shiny Mary Janes. She looked great.

I looked stupid. My pants weren’t shorts, my mother told me, but short pants. I had to wear a blazer and a clean white shirt. Like B.J., I wore my Sunday shoes.

I was clean. I was a clean little boy. I never did anything my parents told me not to do. Mom insisted on dressing us like the Kennedys. According to her, we were fancy people, and it was important that we dress fancy. Only nobody did. Well, nobody except us.

Every afternoon, between Dark Shadows and General Hospital, Mom took a nap. She would close the heavy curtains over the big picture window, wrap a special pillow around her neck (to preserve her hairdo), and snooze on the couch in the front room. Before she went down this Fourth of July afternoon, she reminded B.J. and me to play quietly indoors and not mess up our nice clothes. She wouldn’t stand for us showing up to the picnic in play clothes like the neighbors.

We weren’t allowed to light fireworks until we were eight years old. It was a rule. But B.J. and I had swiped some snakes from my brother, Donnie. Snakes were little black pellets you put on the ground, lit on fire and watched from a safe distance. The ash of the firework made a snake—a long connected ash that grew from a tiny, smelly pellet. The fun was to see how long a snake you could get.

Snakes are harmless fireworks. No bang. No sparkle. No lighting it and throwing it like other, more grown-up fireworks. Although the smoke and fumes from the pellet made an icky smell, this was the only firework my parents told us was safe enough for B.J. and me. But we still needed a grown-up to light them.

That afternoon, B.J.’s plan was to take a pack of matches from the ashtray on the coffee table, go outside (away from my dozing mother) and light a couple of snakes. We counted on the good time doing something you aren’t supposed to do. What we didn’t count on was the wind.

“Sometimes, there’s nothing to stop the wind from coming all the way down from the North Pole. Over the mountain, across the street and into our yard,” my dad told us. Although we couldn’t see over the mountain across the street, I just knew he was right. He was smart about the weather.

Try as she might, B.J. could not get a match to stay lit long enough to ignite a snake. She went through an entire book of matches. She sent me back into the house for a second book, and she tried lighting the entire book of matches on fire and then igniting the snake. The wind blew out every try.

“Skylark!” I said. (Only it came out Pie rock!) I had gotten the idea to get out of the wind by lighting the snakes in my dad’s brand-new, sky-blue Buick Skylark.

I loved the sound of the word Skylark. It meant so many things, like the smell of the plastic seat covers that had little stars in them, or the big shiny dashboard with Climate Control. The car had a radio with stereophonic sound and a metal frame to hold a box of Kleenex that rotated out from under the dashboard.

My mother adored the rotating Kleenex box. She had Kleenex everywhere. It would appear from a sleeve, a brassiere, a purse, a pocket, even a shoe if it had to. She was never without one. She’d spit on the tip of it and wipe the grime from B.J.’s cheeks. She would use it as a compress on open wounds. She would roll it up and stuff it in our nose to stop the bleeding.

Our Skylark had a big bench front seat and a huge ashtray. In that ashtray was a lighter. At the end of the lighter was fire. Sit-in-the-back-seat-and-watch-your-parents-smoke-at-the-drive-in-movie fire. The plastic seat covers, the Kleenex box, the electric windows, the big shiny dashboard … oh, the glamour of the 1967 Buick Skylark. This was my mother’s car. But my father owned it. My father never drove the Skylark, but I could tell he liked owning it. He drove a Ford Falcon.

B.J. thought if we got the keys to the car and turned the key enough to hear the radio, we could use the cigarette lighter to ignite the snake.

“Go get the keys!” she said.

I did what I was told.

We tried using the lighter with little success. The snake pellets were small, after all, and B.J. simply couldn’t hold the lighter and the snake without her fingers getting burnt. In a moment of brilliance, B.J. thought to twist a piece of Kleenex into a punk, light the Kleenex with the lighter, light the snake with the Kleenex, then carry the snake outside to the curb. Easy peasey lemon squeezey.

When B.J. slid the Kleenex box out from under the dashboard, my heart began to pound. After several failed attempts, we had collected a half-box of twisted, torn Kleenex at our feet. B.J. twisted the Kleenex and held it in her right hand, the snake in her left. My job was to light the twisted Kleenex with the lighter and move away. But my hand started shaking every time the lighter popped out of the ashtray. Finally, my heart in my throat, I eased the lighter from the ashtray and moved it toward the Kleenex, which ignited with a small spit flame.

B.J. moved the burning Kleenex to the snake pellet resting in the open, outstretched palm of her left hand. For a few seconds, nothing happened. The moment hung suspended on a small, twisted bit of tissue.

Then the pellet burst into flame.

I shrieked and slapped her hand up from below, causing her to pop the burning pellet into the air, and we both watched it land in the Kleenex box below. After a second of hesitation, B.J. dropped the burning, twisted Kleenex onto the pile of scattered tissue.

We now had two fires—one in the Kleenex box, and one at our feet. Bits of ash floated up in our faces. B.J. stamped on the pile of burning Kleenex with her Sunday shoes. Before long, the seat covers began to heat up, and the smell of smoldering plastic filled the car. In a panic, B.J. shoved the burning Kleenex box back under the dashboard, opened the passenger door, and dashed off into the wind.

There I sat, dressed like a Kennedy, in the burning cockpit of my father’s Skylark.

Both fires leapt and danced around me. I knew I had to get out of the car. Being a clean little boy, I left the burning Buick by the driver’s side door. I ran up the front walk into the front room, trying to stay quiet, so as not to disturb my napping mother, but at the same time searching for B.J..

Not in the front room. Not in the kitchen. Not locked in the bathroom. I found her in her room, playing with Barbies. This was bad. She played with Barbies only when she had something to hide. It was one of her biggest fakes. After all, what could a little girl playing with dolls possibly have to do with the flaming car parked in front of the house? I didn’t dare cross the threshold.

“What are we going to do?!” (Putt doughing goo?!) I panicked.

“Nothing,” she replied.

“But … ” (Tut … )

“If you tell Mom, I’ll kill you!” she said, and slammed the door in my face.

I ran to my room. B.J. had told me she would kill me through clenched teeth. She did that only when she was serious. She was capable of killing me. I knew this. I had seen the tantrums when she didn’t get her way. I had watched my entire family—both parents, older brother; and eldest sister (who didn’t even live with us anymore)—crumble at her whim. I had seen her tear dolls limb from limb. I had even stood by, aghast, as she pulled clumps of hair from our Siamese tomcat. She meant business. If I woke my mother and told her the car was on fire, B.J. would kill me. It would hurt.

From my window, I could see the front seat of the Skylark filling with smoke. I stood silent as the flames licked the passenger-side window. I had to do something.

I made my way to the darkened front room. I wanted the phone to ring. I wanted the mailman to come and the dog to go berserk. I wished for a visit from the neighbor, from the insurance man, even the milkman—anything to wake my mother without getting blamed. Moments passed. Nothing happened. The front room was silent as a church. I could even hear the electric clock humming on the kitchen wall.

It finally dawned on me. There was only one wordless way to wake my mother. Only a sunbeam could scream into a room and send my mother running to close the drapes.

The drapes! Of course!

Before I knew it, I was standing at the side of the huge picture window, watching my own two hands reach for the cord stretched from floor to ceiling. With a quick tug the sun splashed into the room and fell across my mother’s face. She rolled out of the sun. I tugged. She rolled again. I tugged again. Finally she woke up, blinded by the sunny Montana day filling the front room.

She sat up on the couch and gazed beyond me to the smoking, seething, brand-new car parked directly in front our house.

“Good God!” she cried. She was up and out in a flash. Rushing down the walk, she paused to take in the sight of her blazing automobile.

I ran to B.J.’s room, flung open the door and shouted, “She’s up!” (Pea soup!)

B.J. was busy twirling Grow-up Skipper’s arms around and around in their sockets, making Skipper’s boobies move quickly in and out of her chest.

“Did you wake her up?” she snarled.

“Nope!” (Dope!) I said. A naked Skipper was thrown into the upstairs bedroom of the Dream House.

“You better hope not!” she rasped through clenched teeth.

Both of us raced down the hallway and out the front door. My mother was pacing around the front lawn, a lock of hair falling down from her bouffant across her dazed face. The hairdo pillow still encircled her neck. She was muttering something—parts of words, grunts, incomplete questions.

By now the neighbors were stalking the burning car. Our little neighborhood had become half war zone, half Night of the Living Dead.

My mother picked up the hose. Moaning and grunting, she followed the length of the hose to the nozzle, and made her way to the spigot. She cranked the spigot like Fireman Frank.

“Get on the porch! Stay on the porch! Don’t touch anything!” she shouted. We did what we were told. The hose tensed on the front lawn. My mother pulled herself and the hose as close to the car as she could and opened the nozzle. The neighbors advanced.

B.J. and I stood side by side on the front step. Neither of us could take our eyes off the flaming car.

While my mom doused the roof of the car, angry flames blew out the electric windows, one by one. The fire shot from the windows into the windy day like orange ribbons tied to the front of a fan. The gray-black smoke sailed up higher than any kite I had ever flown. The roar of the fire sounded just like the smelter train when you stood too close to the tracks.

Within a few seconds, the car began to hiss like wet wood on a campfire. Then it hunkered down … and … BLAM! The passenger-side front tire blew out. BLAM! The driver-side front tire followed seconds later.

My mother was well past 40. She had been a serious young woman during World War II. I don’t know if it was her civil-service training, or pure instinct that had placed my mother so firmly in command that afternoon. After she had witnessed the tires explode off the front of her husband’s pride and joy, she abandoned the idea that she could ever tame this flaming beast and dropped the gushing garden hose. She shot B.J. and me a terrified glance and then turned her attention to the zombie-like neighbors.

The car started to rock forward on its broken wheels, then back, then side to side. Fluid started oozing out from under its front. It looked like it was drooling. Then it sounded like soup boiling over on the stove.

My mother’s feet were planted in the ground as she Watusied on our front walk, dropping the garden hose and twisting from the waist, first to the car, and back to us. Her face was starting to get smudged and sooty.

She threw out her hands like a base coach calling a runner safe, squatted slightly and shouted with all her ever-loving might “SHE-E-L-L-L-L-TER!!!”

B.J. and I retreated behind our screen door, the neighbors turned tail and started toward the safety of their own homes, and my poor, dear, fresh-from-a-nap mother chugged toward our front porch.

The explosion sprung the hood of the Skylark open to expel a huge orange mushroom cloud of flame. The front passenger-side door blew clear off its hinges, cartwheeled across the front walk and flopped smoldering on the front lawn. Little bits of glass hailed against the picture window, which now stood between us and the burning car, each of us peeking around the edges of the open curtains.

The frame of the Kleenex box stuck, shrapnel-like, into the bed of honeysuckle lining the front of our house.

Fire trucks rounded the corner three doors down the street. The Buick inferno was watered out within the hour.

My father showed up a short time later and helped us simmer Mom down.

“What happened?” she asked, a dazed look crossing her eyes.

“Bake! Pee bit da bake! Burned da bee’s necks! Dook!” I cried, pointing from the car to B.J..

“What’s he saying?” my mom asked B.J.

“Beats me,” B.J. said.

Posted in Memoir, Writing | 2 Comments

At capacity

Frankly, I’m busier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. And I LOVE IT. It’s always nice to have something to do, you know? Something to pass the time. I don’t think I’ve ever been so completely satisfied with what I’m producing … work wise. But here’s the thing: The book, the memoir … the creative non-fiction. Well. It just isn’t in my fingertips these days.

It is on my mind, though.

Someone posted a question on Facebook about a month ago. Something along the lines of “If you grew up in Anaconda and moved away, would you ever move back?” It sparked quite a conversation. And it got me thinking about my collection of bits and bobs and odds and ends of stories of the place. And some of the people. And I thought I must get back there. I really must.

There was a quiet kind of reverie that would come over Anaconda on days like today. It’s hot outside. There’s not much shaking, save the sound of a few odd fireworks here and there. The dogs are trying to find the cool spaces under the desk, or near the window where there’s a vent. Days like this, we’d head to the creek if we were kids and to the lake if we were kids with cars. Wait until dark, peel off our clothes and swim in the cool, cool water. The bashful among us keeping underwear on. The rest of us not really caring.

It was on one such outing, just this side of Spring Hill campground that I drifted over the center lane and side-swiped a car due to the sun in my eyes and my mind preoccupied. The car was full of older folks. An across-the-alley neighbor, his wife and a man I would later recognize as “That guy in Butte who repadded my clarinet.” The neighbor lit into me as I stuttered an apology and admission of guilt. I was sorry. I didn’t see them. The sun was in my eyes. He was furious. I … wasn’t.

I’ve since learned how unnerving it can be for most people who are all wound up to be around me in a crisis. I totally turtle. My mind slows down and I start listening very carefully to my thoughts. Sometimes I take notes so I can remember exactly what people are saying. One of the only times I take notes. Their hearts are racing. Mine is slowing. My ears tuned to the exact moment they are going to tip over into hysteria.

That’s usually when I raise a hand. Clear my throat.

Walk away.

In the old days I used to laugh a little. I don’t do that any more because that REALLY pisses people off. I know better now.

This particular time … later … around a campfire with a six pack of Rainier tall boys close by, I remember exhaling and wondering exactly what would have happened if I’d have drifted even an inch further. I remember looking at the stars and saying a secret thank you. Thank you for not taking me. Thank you for not taking them. Thank you for the patience and understanding I know my father will show. Thank you for allowing me to not even mention it to my mother, she’ll only worry. And it’s over. It won’t happen again. 

I must get back there. I really must.

In an attempt to “get back there” today I resolved to take a peek at the manuscript just a little every day. Tweak this, pluck that … kind of like tending to an unruly set of eyebrows. I was talking to a friend about the organization of the collection and I think I’m going to return to my original plan. It will allow me to take the notes from my most excellent editor friend and really run with them.

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“It’s a sad, funny feeling … “

“… now I’m older than him.” I didn’t write that … Amanda McBroom did. Lyrics to a song about her father. I love that song. Days like today.

The air smells like mud. It brings me back to the time … almost 26 years to the day … that my father died. It was an early spring in Montana. Those were rare 26 years ago. Now, thanks to the hole in the ozone layer, they probably happen more frequently.

Anyway, the air today … smells like mud. Just like it did the morning I drove my dad’s run-down car back to Anaconda from Missoula. I hadn’t spoken to my mom since my sister had called me (at a dress rehearsal) and told me my dad had died. And suddenly I felt that sensation. It’s a total cliche, but completely true. When my sister told me the news, I fell down on the ground … because it felt like the ground had fallen out from under me. I felt as though I had nothing left to stand on. Amazing how metaphors can actually happen, right?

I’ve now been alive longer without my dad than I was with. And it’s a sad funny feeling. The other day I confessed to Alana why I don’t like sharing food. It’s because my dad used to beg tastes and swallows of whatever I was eating or drinking. He’d say, “Give me just a swallow of that, would ya?” or “Let’s have a taste of that.” Drove. Me. Nuts.

But whenever I grunt a little when I bend down now to pick something up, or whenever I bounce my hand on a table top — from a fist to a flat hand and back — well … it’s a little uncanny. And a little unsettling. My dad.

My poor old dad.

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Excerpt from Smelter City Boy

Writing a memoir gives me a odd kind of self-reflection. There are people and there are memories of people and there are memories that flash through your mind everytime you see those people. This chapter is for my girl friend, Mary Sue. I recently saw her on-stage, after a number of years. She’s captivating.

You all know I have a dishwashing fetish. This is how it all began:

_______________________________________

Hideaway

June, 1978

Dinner was over, and I’d put in my requisite hour on the piano, while Mom did the dishes. It was a weeknight, school was out, and I had the car. That could only mean one thing.

“Is Mary Sue there?” I asked. Her grandmother had answered the phone.

“Hold on,” she said. Then I heard her say, “It’s for you dear.”

“This is Mary Sue,” she sang into the phone, putting an extra ew on Sue.

“Coke and smoke?” I asked just loud enough for her to hear, but for my folks to ignore.

“Sure! There’s a party at John Tracey’s tonight, but it doesn’t start until late,” she said.

“I’ll come get you,” I said.

“I will be waiting,” she sang.

This was, by far, my favorite thing to do. I’d head out, pick up Mary Sue and we’d drive down Fourth Street, around Ben Goodman Park, out to the turnaround at the Armory and up commercial to either Main Street or up as far as Cedar Street, where we’d loop back onto Fourth. The entire loop around Anaconda would take about fifteen minutes. Twenty if we hit the light at Fourth and Main. We’d cruise the drag and smoke and talk and sing to the radio.

I always described Mary Sue as my girl friend, whenever anyone asked about our relationship. Then I’d say, “In the truest sense of the word. She’s a girl. And she’s my friend. She’s my girl friend,” I’d say. We were completely platonic. A tall, red-haired vixen, Mary Sue and I were interested in the same things. She had tons of soundtracks to movies and Broadway shows. We were in band together (Mary Sue was the drum major), and we had been in plays together at school and at the Anaconda Community Theatre.

We thought so much alike, we’d often finish each other’s sentences.

Mary Sue had one thing I didn’t have, though. She had friends. Tons of friends. She was the type of person who made friends easily. I think she actually liked people. I was quite the opposite. We were a pretty odd couple, but I loved being with her. We’d stop at Lu’s Drive In and get fountain Cokes. Then we’d drive around and around town.

“Oh! Listen to this song. I love this song. It’s country, I know, but I just love the lyrics,” she said when she climbed into the front seat of the Hornet.

Eddie Rabbit was singing I Love a Rainy Night. It wasn’t my favorite song. I didn’t like many of the songs on the radio. But Mary Sue had a really great ear for music, so I pretended to think the song was good.

“We have to pick up Mary Shaun at the Hideaway before we head to John’s,” Mary Sue said.

“Did she go out to eat?” I asked. The Hideaway was the new restaurant in the remodeled Marcus Daly Hotel. The history of the hotel was a paradox. An interesting mix of fact and folklore in Anaconda.

Marcus Daly built the Montana Hotel in 1889 as a premiere European-style hotel. It was a place for visiting dignitaries and mining executives. In its day, the Montana Hotel was one of the most oppulant, civilized places west of the Mississippi River. On the corner of Park and Main Streets, it was four stories tall, had a huge dining room, a coffee shop and a big, ornate bar, carved out of a single piece of solid oak. The Tammany Lounge was named for Marcus Daly’s favorite racehorse, the face of which was in-laid into the bar floor, using tiny wooden tiles. Depending on who you talked to, it was either good luck or back luck to step on Tammany’s portrait.

In the sixties and seventies, the hotel had fallen into decline. The dining room closed. The hotel rooms were rarely rented, and a motel was built in the back parking lot. The succession of owners renamed it the Marcus Daly Hotel long before I was born. In the late seventies, a developer bought the hotel and started ripping it apart. This was looked on with both favor (as a sign of progress) and disdain (so much history gone to waste). The original shell of the building remained, but the main floor was split between retail shops and the Hideaway Restaurant—a brand new, state-of-the-art kitchen, dining room and bar, built in the far corner of the ground floor, where the banquet facilities had once hosted elegant balls and lavish dinners.

“What?” Mary Sue was busy listening to the radio.

“Did she go there to eat?” I said. “I hear the food’s pretty good.”

“No! She works there,” Mary Sue said.

“What?”

“Yeah. She got a job there washing dishes,” Mary Sue said.

“Wow. Cool. OK,” I said. “What time do they close?”

“You know, I don’t know. I think she said we should stop by around 9:00,” Mary Sue said. “This song reminds me of a beatnik kinda song. I mean I can just snap my fingers to it, you know?”

She really loved that song.

We drove around for about an hour before stopping in at the Hideaway. The place was really nice. The furniture was new, and the developer had taken all the interior walls of the hotel down and sand-blasted the brick. There were huge, arched windows in the dining room with long sheer curtains covering them. The kitchen was all new. All the appliances were stainless steel. The big Hobart dishwasher had a levered door you could pull down with one hand. It looked like you loaded the dirty dishes on blue grates, slid the grates into the Hobart, pulled down the doors and waited for the cycle to end. I’d never seen anything like it.

Mary Shaun O’Leary was fairly buried in bus tubs of dirty dishes. The cook was gone, having closed the restaurant at 8:00. There was a single bartender on duty in the lounge. Apparently Mary Shaun was supposed to finish the dishes, haul out the garbage, sweep and mop the floor. Then she was supposed to tell the bartender she was done for the night. But from the looks of it, she was far from ready to do that.

The deep sinks were filled with hotel pans and dirty pots. There were five or six bus tubs stacked with dirty dishes … filled to overflowing. Mary Shaun pulled down the Hobart doors, the water whooshed into the machine and she spun around to face us. A lock of curly brown hair had fallen across her forehead.

“This totally bites,” she said. “I’m not going to be ready to go for at least another hour, maybe two.”

“Wow. You must have been busy, huh?” Mary Sue said.

Mary Shaun looked around the kitchen and squinted. “Not really. It’s always kind of like this at closing. The bus boys just keep coming with the dirty dishes and the cooks just keep piling dirty pots and pans in the sink!” She was clearly overwhelmed.

I looked over at the gleaming, flat-top grill. The make table and deep fryers were pristine, compared to the dish area. The whole room wafted fried chicken. Like someone had make dinner and turned the volume on smell up to high. I squinted like Mary Shaun. I could easily see how two people had stood between the grill and the make table all night. I could see how the bus boys had brought their loads of dishes in one door and left by the other door which led to the wait station. This is so cool, I thought.

“This job sucks,” Mary Shaun said. “I’m not going to be able to go to Tracey’s. I probably won’t be home until midnight at this rate.”

“What do I do?” I asked.

“What?”

“Tell me how you do this?” I asked.

“Do what?” Mary Sue asked.

“This. All this. Tell me what you do,” I said to Mary Shaun. I gestured out over the field of dirty dishes. “Show me how to wash these dishes,” I said. I pointed to the tub of soaking silverware. “Do you sort that before you wash it, or after?” I asked.

Mary Shaun turned her head slightly to one side, looking at me out of the corner of her eyes. “What?”

“Before or after? They seem to just be thrown into that tub every which way. There’s a sorter, right? Do the bus boys not sort the silver when they put it in there? Or do you leave it soak unsorted, then wash, then sort, or do you sort, then wash?”

“You’re putting me on, right?” Mary Shaun said.

“No! I want to know! In fact, why don’t you let me clean these up and you go to the party,” I said.

“But this is my job,” Mary Shaun said to Mary Sue.

“Oh, yeah. I know that, but I don’t want to go to the party, and you do. And you don’t want to wash these dishes and I do,” I said.

“But I’m getting paid to do this,” she said.

“I know! You can keep the money. I just want to wash the dishes.”

“OK, you’re clearly shittin’ me, right? No one wants to wash dishes,” Mary Shaun pushed her hands into the front pockets of her smock.

“I do,” I said.

“Grant …,” Mary Sue started to say something, and stopped herself.

“You can’t do it for me,” Mary Shaun said.

“Well, what can I do to help you?” I asked.

Mary Shaun looked at me sideways again. “You want to help me?” she asked.

“Sure! I’ll help you. We’ll help you.” I pointed between Mary Sue and myself.

We all thought about it for a few seconds.

“Well, if you sent through the tubs and sorted the plates by size and stacked them there, that would be great. Also, once the silver-sorter gets full it’s time to drain the machine and refill it with new water. You’re not supposed to wash the silverware in used water. If I can get you started on the dishes, I can take a whack at the pots and pans. Mary Sue, you can dry, I guess,” Mary Shaun said.

“Let’s go!” I said. Try as I might, I couldn’t hide the fact that I was thrilled at the thought. Within a half-hour I’d broken into a sweat and the three of us were working in perfect, synchronized rhythm. By the time 10:00 rolled around, the dish area sparkled and I was an expert.

The next night, Mary Shaun continued training us on how to close the restaurant. We had to sneak past Kevin, the bartender, who was likely to tell Ruthie, the owner, that Mary Shaun had help closing the kitchen.

After three more shifts, Mary Shaun had almost a week off. I found myself getting antsy around 8:00. I’d drive by the Hideaway and slow the Hornet to a crawl, stalking the place. I checked whose car was in the parking lot, who was bartending. Who could possibly be using my Hobart? I asked myself.

Two more days passed with no dishwashing. That afternoon, a Thursday, the phone in the kitchen rang just before General Hospital started on the TV. My entire circle of friends were completely absorbed by Luke and Laura, and it was one of the few things B.J. and I didn’t argue about. We knew where we’d be at 1:00 on the weekdays. Since B.J. had her own line in her bedroom, I knew the phone was probably Mom calling to tell me what to do to start dinner. I was surprised when Mary Shaun said hello.

“Hey! What’s going on?” I asked.

“Can you do me a big favor?” she asked. She skipped the niceties and got right down to business.

“What do you need?” I asked. Mary Shaun hardly ever needed a ride anywhere.

“I need you to work for me tonight,” she said.

“Excuse me?” I asked. My heart started racing a bit.

“I’m stuck at the lake and my shift starts at 4:00. I can’t come in. It’s the only shift I have this week and I can’t get fired from this job. Please work for me. Please.”

“I can’t just work for you. I mean, I can do the work, but I can’t just show up and start working there like I have a job or anything,” I said.

“Look. I already called Ruthie and explained the situation. I told her you knew what you were doing and let her know that you knew how to close. The cook tonight is Robin. She’s really nice. I think you’ll like her.” I heard a car honk somewhere behind Mary Shaun. “Look, I gotta go,” she said. And the line went dead.

“Unbelievable. Un-fucking-believable,” I said.

“What’s that?” B.J. said.

“I think I just got a job at the Hideaway,” I said.

“Waiting tables?”

“No. I don’t want to be a waiter. I think Mary O’Leary just gave me her job washing dishes,” I said.

“Eeew,” B.J. said.

“I couldn’t be happier,” I said.

 

***

Ruth Perinni looked up from the four-top she had set up between the kitchen and the salad bar. I had nothing but respect for her. She’d been a fixture at the hotel, working there for as long as I could remember. Mom and I used to go to breakfast after church at the hotel with Margaret Bubash and her daughter Cynthia. If Ruthie didn’t wait on us, she was in the kitchen making our breakfast. When the hotel closed and started getting ripped apart, we stopped going there for Sunday breakfast. Eventually, I stopped going to church altogether.

“I’m Grant. Grant Byington,” I said.

“Oh I know who you are,” Ruth said. She smoked the same kind of cigarettes as Mom. She spoke slowly and deliberately. It was clear I would have to choose my words wisely around her.

“My dad is Bob Byington,” I said.

“I said I know who you are,” she repeated.

“Mary Shaun said she talked to you about my working for her tonight,” I said.

“She said no such thing,” Ruth said. She stuck a match and touched the end of her Virginia Slim.

“She called me around noon and asked if I could work for her. She told me she’s squared it with you, or I never would have come here,” I said.

“Are you the man who’s been closing for her?” Ruth asked.

“I haven’t been closing for her, but I have showed up a few times at the end of her shift and helped her take out the garbage and stuff like that,” I said.

“You know know how to run the machinery?” Ruth asked.

“Oh the Hobart? Yes. I know how to do that. I know how to stack the dishes and use the rubber ring. I rinse before I load. I find the dishes are cleaner that way. I am a bit rusty on how long to soak the pans, though. Mary Shaun usually does that part. And I know about the oil in the broaster and the solution to mop the floor. I guess I know how to close, but I’ve never closed for her. She’s a good friend of mine. She’s the secretary of the band, did you know that? She’s really a responsible person. I don’t think she would have called me if she wasn’t in some kind of jam,” I said.

“She didn’t tell me she was in trouble,” Ruth said.

“Oh? I don’t think she’s in trouble. I just think she’s stuck out at the lake. Her car is probably stalled or something. He’s really a responsible person,” I said again.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Ruth said. She looked around the dining room. Ron Cron, the bus boy, was setting up the salad bar. I could hear Robin the cook talking about the specials to Ron’s mom, who was the waitress for the night shift. Ruth looked up at me again.

“I don’t like it,” she said. “I don’t like it one bit.” She ashed her cigarette. “I make the schedule and she’s supposed to follow the schedule. There’s twenty girls I could call to take her place tonight, but instead she sends you. I haven’t even hired you,” Ruth said. She inhaled deeply and rolled her eyes a bit when she said, “I don’t suppose you’re a member of the union?”

“Me? Union? No. Not me. I mean, I’ve never worked in a restaurant. Except, that is, to help out Mary. No. I don’t think I need to be in the union do I? I mean, I have a pretty strong anti-union background, so I can’t really see joining something I don’t believe in. Well, it’s not that I don’t believe in unions, it’s just that I don’t see the future of labor as a union situation. I think it’s more of a free agent society we’re working with, I mean … .” It was one of those times when I could hear myself talking, but I had no idea what I was saying.

“Hon. Stop. No. Hon. Grant. It’s OK. You know, it’s OK. Dishwashers don’t have to be union. Especially if it’s part-time. I only have one full-time dishwasher, that’s Barbara. She’s in the union. But you don’t have to be,” Ruthie shut me up.

“So I can work tonight?” I asked. I tried not to sound too hopeful.

Ruthie looked around the room another time. She looked out the window and inhaled. “How old are you?” she asked.

“Seventeen. A year older than Mary Shaun,” I said.

“Well, I have no choice, do I? OK. I’m going home and changing out of my work clothes. I’ll be back to open the dining room. Until then, go back and help Robin get ready. I’m going to stay here tonight and pay attention to how you’re doing. If at any time you think you are in the weeds, you have to let me know,” she said.

“Weeds?” I asked.

“You’ve got a lot to learn. Aside from what you think you know, this is the shittiest job in restaurant work. But you must remember, if there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean. You should never find yourself not doing something. And ‘in the weeds’ is what we say when we’re overwhelmed with work and can’t seem to get ahead. Your friend Mary was probably in the weeds when she called you today,” Ruth said.

“Thank you,” I said, “you won’t regret this, I promise.”

Ruth looked me up and down. “Takes all kinds, Grant. Takes all kinds of people to make the world go around,” she said.

Posted in Memoir | 2 Comments

Duped

I was not what you’d call a social kid. I always got along better with adults than I did people my own age. This troubled my parents. Probably more than I will ever know. So you can imagine their reaction when I told them I wished to take Hunter’s Safety. (I also was not an outdoorsy kid.)

At any rate, I remember my mother looking away, and my father looking at the ground. “Hunter’s Safety Grantsy? Whatever for?” I can see the faded linoleum on the kitchen floor. I was sitting in my customary chair at the dinner table, waiting to be excused.

“I want to learn how to fire a gun,” I said. I had a particular kind of plea in my voice, which I knew played on my parent’s emotions. It was a tone that was both defiant and pathetic at the same time. I used it in lieu of saying “All the kids are doing it.” I knew that wouldn’t go over well, so I opted for the direct approach. And the tone. It never failed me.

“Why?” My mother was mystified.

I opened my mouth and started to speak. Nothing came out. There really wasn’t a reason. I just thought it would be a good thing to know how to do.

“You know how I feel about guns,” she said. I really didn’t. Guns weren’t something we discussed in our house. I knew my dad had an ancient, 12-guage shotgun that he kept in pieces in the garage. “I don’t allow guns in the house,” she said.

My father alternated between looking at the floor and looking at his empty plate.

“I say yes,” he finally said. My mother blanched. “I think gun safety would be good for him. But they aren’t going to teach him how to shoot anything. And I’m certainly no help. Hell, I couldn’t hit a broadside of a barn even if I tried. But if he’s interested, I’m sure we can figure something out.”

In less than a week I was learning how to load a .22-caliber rifle. Turns out, there was a shooting range set up in the basement of my grade school. The class was run by somebody’s dad and one of the local librarians. They briefly taught us how to hold the gun in several different positions. We all wore headset mufflers and every so often would stop firing, unload and do something they called “fleecing the brass,” which I came to understand as cleaning up the empty shell casings.

We learned how to shoot from a prone position, a kneeling position and finally a standing position. I sucked at kneeling. I was not a social kid, nor was I an outdoorsy kid, and I certainly wasn’t a skinny kid. Fact was, I simply couldn’t stay on a bended knee long enough to get a shot to even come close to the target. That poor librarian tried everything. In the end, she rolled up her coat and let me kneel on it.

I became quite advanced. We would turn in our targets at the end of every round of shooting, the instructors would evaluate them, and give us pointers. At the end of the session we’d get certificates. Marksman, Expert, Sharpshooter. They were suitable for framing. I kept them in my baby book, along with my piano certificates and various other awards. I would take them out and look at them occasionally.

Eventually, the course ended. I took Hunter’s Safety, passed the state test and received a hunting license.

I used it only once, on a hunting trip with my brother. I shot a large, white-tailed doe through the back of her head, just behind her ear. She fell in an instant. I never fired a rifle again.

I recently pulled out those certificates I earned almost 40 years ago. They were signed by officials from the NRA. In my desire to be a part of the gang I had unknowingly joined the NRA. And they were happy to have me. They encouraged me, even at a young age, to be a gun-toting individual.

But that was 40 years ago. Imagine … firing a gun in a grade school basement supervised by the town librarian!

Back then, I’m sure I didn’t know enough to look at the seething underbelly of an organization, and I’m fairly certian my parents—as smart as they were—didn’t either. But today as I glance at my awards, granted me by an organization so firmly rooted in twisted logic and backward rhetoric I can’t help feeling duped.

And ashamed.

Posted in Memoir, Writing | Leave a comment

Except from Smelter City Boy

You know there’s more to Creative Non-fiction than just making things up. It allows me to examine moments in my past and write about them with a deeper sense of truthfulness. These are not word-for-word recollections of the conversations I’ve had, but they are close enough to reveal the underlying emotion of the issue.

Today is my sister Cherie’s birthday. And as I reached into my bag of tricks for what to give her, I realized I had revised this section of the book to be published in a shorter form for a collection that I didn’t make it into this year. This isn’t the most attractive side of our relationship. It illuminates a moment in time when our kinship became strained. Cherie and I, you see, enjoyed a close alliance. Growing up, she was more than a sister to me. She was a sounding board, a baby-sitter, an ally in many arguments. After my mother died, Cherie became a matriarch, and wrapped herself in the mantel of all things family related. In this moment I wrote about, she was the arbiter of doing the right thing … even if it felt horrible and wrong.

We have long since confessed this to our family. I didn’t get the opportunity to come clean to my parents before they died. But you can rest assured, when I speak to them in my head (as I so often do) I let them know how much I loved them, and what an influence for good Cherie has been in my life.

About Honey

February, 1980 

My sister Cherie was the only person to ever cut my hair. Sometimes, she’d whip a towel around my shoulders and clip my hair in our kitchen. But today she had managed to squeeze me in between the shampoo, set and comb-out crowd she normally tended to in her beauty parlor. I usually left with more than a haircut. The shop a nexus of town trivia, and I took advantage of our half-sibling relationship to bitch about the other members of our complicated family. She had moved out of the house when I was two years old. We saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things.

“How’s being alone going?” Cherie asked. Mom and Dad were on their yearly mid-tax-season vacation. This year, they had driven to San Francisco.

“I love it,” I said.

“How’s the dog?” Cherie asked about Honey Yvette, our ancient toy poodle.

“Oh you know. She has more coughing fits than usual. Sometimes she passes out and pisses herself, but she’s holding up,” I said. Cherie carefully clipped my bangs, the wet hair fell into my lap.

“Yeah, about that,” she said.

“About what?” I could barely hear her over the bank of hairdryers working at full power, their denizens almost shouting at each other.

“About Honey. She has no quality of life,” Cherie said.

“She has what?” I shouted.

“Hush!” Cherie pulled out a blow dryer and directed it at the back of my head.

“She has little mini-strokes. You know, you’ve seen it,” I said, louder than I probably needed to.

Cherie turned off the hair dryer. My hair was far from dry.

“About Honey,” she said again. She swung the chair around and faced me.

“What about Honey?” I repeated.

“Listen, I … she … we,”

“What?”

“We’re going to come by tomorrow and pick her up and take her to the vet,” Cherie said.

“Mom didn’t say anything about that,” I said. “But that’s fine. I’ll leave the back door unlocked.”

“We aren’t going to be bringing her back,” Cherie said. She swung the chair away so I faced the mirror. “Look down,” she said. She opened a straight razor to shave the back of my neck.

“That’s OK. I’ll pick her up from the vet after school,” I said. Honey was seeing the doctor with a lot more regularity since she’d developed a heart condition.

“Grant … ” Cherie shaved my neck with short, quick strokes.

“It’s no problem. I get out of band at 2:45 tomorrow, and I can pick her up before 3:00. She won’t be there all day. She hates being kenneled,” I said.

“No sweetie. We’re going to have the vet put Honey to sleep.” She wiped the back of my neck with a towel and unclipped the smock.

“What?” The air was leaving the room. The sound of the blood pumping in my ears drowned out both the hair dryers and the shouting women.

Before I could speak Cherie said, “Listen. She’s old. She’s really old and her heart … she has no quality of life. You’ve said it yourself. She has those coughing fits, and then she passes out. I think it’s better this way. She is causing a lot of trouble for Mom and Bob.”

“She is not,” I said. “She’s a good dog. She’s been our dog since I was, like, three years old. She’s got a heart condition.” I stood up.

“Sit down for a second,” Cherie said.

“Does Mom know?” I asked.

“Sit down for a second,” Cherie said. “Mom doesn’t know. And we’re not going to tell her.”

“What?! You think she’s not going to notice when she comes back from vacation and finds you’ve killed her dog?”

“She’s my dog, Grant.”

“She’s not though, Cherie. She hasn’t lived with you—ever. You may have been the one to bring her home, but you’re also the one who left her with us. She’s my dog. I’m the one who takes care of her.” I was starting to shout.

“Calm down.”

“I will not calm down. You’re going to … ” I couldn’t continue.

“We’re going to put her out of her misery, Grant. She’s really sick, and Mom and Bob are never going to do it. We’re going to have to do it,” Cherie said.

“Yeah? Well … they’re hoping she has a coughing fit, passes out and doesn’t wake up!”

“That’s what you are going to tell them when they call tomorrow night,” Cherie said.

“Excuse me?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“You’re going to tell them that you let Honey out to pee, and she collapsed on the front porch. When you noticed her missing, it was too late, she was already dead,” Cherie said.

My eyes traveled across the floor. I looked at the hair Cherie had swept into a little pile. “Hold on. Let me get this straight. You want to kill my dog, and you want me to lie about it to Mom and Dad?”

“She’s my dog, Grant.”

“OK. You want to kill your dog—which you left with us when you moved out—and you want me to lie about it to my parents,” I said.

“Yes. That’s it. Listen …”

“Nope, I will not listen,” I said. “This is crazy talk. You are talking crazy talk to me!”

The women started to notice we were arguing with each other. I thought for a second, then I lowered my voice and said, “I want you to think about what you’re asking.” Cherie opened her mouth to protest, but I put up my hand to stop her. “I’m going home. They are calling at 10:00 tonight. If, between now and then, you still want to do this, you have to come up to the house at 10:00 and tell them yourself.”

Cherie’s resolve melted. Tears came up under her eyelids. She blinked them away and sniffed. “Jesus Christ. Can’t you just do this? Can’t you just do this for me?” she begged.

I tilted my head and frowned a bit. “I can’t see how this has anything to do with you,” I said.

***

Honey was asleep on the couch when I got home. She had long since stopped hopping up and down to meet me when I came home from school. But she had also astonished us with moments of pure, lucid, regular dog behavior.

I stepped across the living room and sat down by her side. She didn’t stir. I stroked her head and massaged the spot at the top of her ears. She opened one eye and blinked a couple of times. Lately, her breathing was irregular. She huffed a few times and then inhaled, nuzzling her snout into the palm of my hand. We sat together while the late February sun cast long shadows across the snow drifts on the front lawn.

Around 6:00, the sun had completely set. I got up, went into the kitchen and dialed Cherie’s home number.

“I’ll do it,” I said when she answered the phone.

 ***

The phone started ringing just as Johnny Carson was finishing the monolog. Don’t answer that, I thought. When they ask, you can tell them you were out and missed the call.

Honey had barely moved from her spot on the couch. The phone stopped. I exhaled, lit a cigarette, and waited.

A half-hour later, the phone rang again. There was no escape. I walked to the wall phone and picked up the receiver.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hello is more like it,” Dad said. “How’s everything?”

“Oh. You know, OK, I guess,” I said.

“We called before but you weren’t there,” he said.

“I was here,” I said.

“What?”

“I was here, I just didn’t answer the phone,” I said.

“Talk to your mother,” he said.

I waited for a moment. I glanced at Honey. She was breathing in catches on the couch.

“Hello honey,” Mom said.

“Oh … my … hmm .. Mom … my … I …,” I stammered.

“Oh honey, what is it?” She knew something was wrong, my stammer had given me away. Again.

Nothing, I thought. Say nothing. Just wait for them to come home and ask about the dog. If you’re lucky, you won’t even be here and they’ll put it together themselves.

“Honey, is something wrong? Did you have a car accident? Are you OK?” If you wait long enough, sooner or later she’ll ask you about the dog, I thought. I hadn’t rehearsed this.

“Something’s wrong. Can you come home?” My voice cracked.

“Oh my God. Bob? There’s something wrong,” she said to Dad. I heard him in the background muttering. “What’s wrong, honey?”

“Honey’s … dead.”

“Honey’s fed?”

“No, Honey’s dead. Honey died. Honey is no longer with us,” I blurted out.

“What? Did you just say Honey’s dead?”

“Yes. That’s what I said,”

“Oh no,” she said. There was a long minute on the phone. I could hear faint bits and pieces of other people’s conversations. Long distance was like that. Sometimes you could clearly hear entire conversations. Tonight, even the distant voices sounded difficult. As if everyone on the phone was lying to their parents. “Here, honey. Talk to your father,” she said. The phone clattered down on the hotel nightstand.

My heart started to race. I switched phone hands and ears, drying my free hand on my pant leg.

“What’s going on?” Dad said.

“Well, Honey died last night,” I said.

“Oh no,” he said. Another long minute passed and I heard muffled chatter on the line.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No. No. Not at all.” His voice drifted off. I’d heard my father sound angry, or frustrated, but never once had I heard him sound sad.

“How?” It was Mom on the phone. He had handed off the receiver.

“What?” I asked. I had hoped to avoid this part. It painted me as a careless person. A bad dog owner.

“How did she die?” Mom asked. I stared at Honey, sleeping fitfully on the couch. This is mean, I thought. You’re being mean to your parents.

“I let her out and she had an attack on the porch. She didn’t come back in, so when I looked for her before I went to bed, I found her on the porch. I thought she was asleep.” Jesus Christ! Listen to yourself!

“Oh no. I can’t believe it, you know? I just can’t … ” Oh my God. She can tell you’re lying. She can see right through you. She always could. This is so fucking mean. I heard her talking to Dad, “He says she had an attack on the porch, and when he found her she was dead,” she said. “Honey, here, talk to Daddy,” Mom said.

“Hey,” I said when Dad came back on the phone.

“Is it cold there?”

“What?” I was no longer there. I was somewhere else, talking to someone about something I had no notion of.

“Is it cold there? I mean, how cold is it?”

“I dunno. It’s … you know … above freezing in the daytime and below zero at night, I suppose,” I said.

“Did she freeze to death?” he asked.

“What?”

“Was she frozen to the porch?”

“Oh! No. No, she was cold, but she didn’t freeze,” I said. There was another long pause. Someone on the line started laughing uncontrollably.

“Where is she now?” he asked. I couldn’t tell if he was talking into the phone or across the room.

“Are you asking me a question?”

“Yes, where’s Honey now?” he asked.

“Oh! Um … you know … um …,” I stalled. She’s asleep on the fucking couch! “I put her in the garage. Cherie is going to take her … no, wait … Cherie is coming up tomorrow and we are going to bury her in the sand box.”

“Well … you know … at least she died on her own,” Dad said. I had to end this conversation. My guts were twisting.

“Oh Dad, I … I’m just … I’m so sorry.” I started to cry.

“She was a good dog,” he said.

“Yeah. She’s a good dog,” I said. I glanced in Honey’s direction. “Please come home, OK? Come home tomorrow?”

“It’s going to take us a couple of days to get there. We’ll be home soon, though,” he said. He can hear you crying. “Grant?”

“Wha-ha-what?” I stammered.

Another long silence. Somewhere on the line, someone asked a question.

“Nothing,” he said. “It was nothing. We’ll be home soon. All right then … goodbye,” he said. The line went dead, and the dial tone crackled back to life.

***

The next morning I hopped out of bed and roused Honey. We began our morning routine. She coughed until she choked, lapped up a bit of water, and panted her way to the front door. I let her out and watched as she peed on the porch, her urine raising a little cloud of steam. She stood and sniffed at the wind a little bit, coughed, and walked to the other end of the porch. She pooped before she came back and scratched at the aluminum screen door.

I got ready for school, flicked off the porch light and pulled the door closed behind me. When I unplugged the heatbolt heater, I glanced back at the house and saw Honey sleeping on the couch in almost the exact same spot where she’d spent the night. I shrugged off the cold, started the car, and scraped the frost off the windshield.

After my second class, around 10:00 a.m., I went into the third floor bathroom and vomited. I swished some water in my mouth and walked into the office to tell them I was leaving for the day.

On the drive home, I thought through my plan.

You and Cherie will have a standoff. You will prevail. She will mention that you have already lied to Mom and Dad. You will tell her that lying was easy. So easy, in fact, that you will wait for their call tonight and tell them the dog had mysteriously revived in the garage. “When we went to bury her she was alive and well—better than ever,” you will say. You will apologize, and tell them you feel stupid. You will never speak civilly to Cherie again.

I pulled up in front of the house and parked the car. I raced up to the front door and burst inside. I considered dog-napping Honey. I had enough gas to drive to Missoula and back. That would be enough time for Cherie to come to her senses.

But I was too late. Honey was nowhere to be found. I called out her name a couple of times and nothing happened. I didn’t hear her cough to life in some obscure corner of the house. I didn’t hear the familiar jingling of the tags that hung off her collar.

She was gone.

I sat on the couch, where only hours before I had stroked her head and pulled lightly on her ears. Shit! I thought. Shit! Shit! Shit!

 

Posted in Memoir, Writing | 2 Comments

Almost … almost … not quite

What a year! I mean … What. A. Year. It’s almost been a year since I started this blog. You should see the usage details. Big, big start, steady climb. Total dive. The best of intentions, laid aside to return to work. And now, it turns out, my writing IS MY WORK.

And I feel fine.

Of course, I’m working on this post between assignments. Which is really cool. Cool that I have such great friends in the professional community. It didn’t take long for them to find me, ask me about my unemployment, and find me something to do. Turns out that’s important. Finding something to do. Very important. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “These are the words of a desperate man.” But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s been a year … almost … almost a year … not quite.

And I feel fine.

So: that happened. And so much more than that, happened. I’m richer now in experiences than I’ve ever been. I have a community of actor friends that are helping me find my way. I have a community of professional friends that are helping me find my way. And it’s been almost a year since I started this writing about myself stuff. So today I recollect. My roots are deeper back home in Anaconda. So many people reached out to me. Wrote to me. Posted stuff on the blog. Good stuff. All of it. Not one nasty bit in the lot. And it was a lot. It was almost too much. Almost. Not quite.

And about that I feel more than fine. I feel loved. And that’s really, very, very good.

Of course, I’m working on this today just in case there is no December 22nd. And here’s what I have to say about that: isn’t every day kind of like the end of the Earth? I mean, don’t we all live with a certain qualified amount of uncertainty about whether or not tomorrow’s going to happen? I guess I can only speak for myself, but I do. I have for quite awhile. Probably since that winter evening so very long ago. I think it was winter. Milan Lazetich, a family friend, had just died. I was probably six. Maybe five. Anyway I was laying on the couch, putting stuff together in my mind when I asked my mom if the dog was going to die. She said “Yes.” And I was fine with that. Sad, of course, by fine. Then I asked if I was going to die. She said “Yes.” And I was fine with that. Worried, of course, that it was going to happen right then and there. But it didn’t. Then I asked if she was going to die. She thought for a second and said, “Well, yes, honey … I suppose I’m going to die.” And I lost it.

I did not feel fine.

Hours later, or maybe minutes, you know how slippery these things are. I’ve written about that. You’ve read about it. It could have been just that very moment for all I know. It seemed like hours, though. And that’s what’s important. Anyway. Hours later, my dad came home. I was still crying. ”Carrying on,” as he called it. (When, by the way, did “carrying on” become something other than crying like a stuck ape for me? Doesn’t matter.) Hours later, my dad came home from working the evening shift at the office. (Must have been tax season.) And he said, “What did you say to him?” to my mother. They had a habit of talking about me while I was right there in the room. Like I wasn’t actually there. So my dad says “What did you say to him?” to my mom, and she says, “Well, I told him I was going to die. Someday.”

And that’s probably when I knew that time is … precious.

I don’t really remember what they did to calm me down. Probably tell me it wasn’t going to happen for a long time. And, of course, it happened. For both of them. Way too soon. But when it did, when it actually came to pass. It was hard, of course. But it wasn’t … impossible.

This past year has been filled with the types of things I simply lacked the imagination to predict. But here, on this almost, almost, not quite anniversary of writing this stuff down I know something:

It could all end tomorrow. It probably won’t.

And I feel fine.

Posted in Writing | 5 Comments

Apple Pie

Since Mondale v. Reagan, I’ve made an apple pie the night of every presidential election. It’s become a tradition. I like to do it mainly because it occupies the time while waiting for election results. It makes the house smell pretty good. And at the end, regardless of the outcome of the election, you have a piece of pie. As the years (and the presidents) have come and gone, I’ve given up on the obvious “American as” metaphor, and embraced the apple pie paradox.

Pie in general, and apple pie in particular, is both easy and hard. Anyone can make a pie. Yes, you can. It’s easy. You don’t need a fancy machine, you don’t need exotic ingredients. You need just the basic staples found in any kitchen. Flour, sugar, salt, butter, apples. There’s a bit of peeling and chopping and a bit of mixing and rolling, but it is doesn’t require an extravagant effort. In fact, you could argue it doesn’t take a lot of head space. You just sort of do what comes naturally. Do what feels good.

Over the years, I’ve learned how to finesse this process into a pretty intense affair. In fact, you could say that election night is the culmination of my entire apple pie season. I start by listening to people talk about apples. It’s crazy, I know, but if you really listen, you’ll find everyone has an opinion about apples. Everyone has a favorite. Most are mono-apple. They find one they like and stick with it. Others go by season. Some go by texture and a select few go by taste. At 50, I find myself in the taste camp. I prefer the Pink Lady for eating out of hand, or tangy/tart Granny Smiths. Neither of these apples are good for pie. Well, not solo. For my apple pie I need a mixture of all different kinds of apples. It’s like an apple melting pot.

Years ago I abandoned the arduous process of hand-peeling and slicing the apples. Here’s why: the folks who invented the apple peeler/corer/slicer knew what they were doing. You can whip through twenty pounds of apples quickly and every slice is uniform, so the apples cook at relatively the same rate. I like this idea. Individual apple slices, agreeing to some kind of uniformity for the good of the pie. In my head my apples have free will. Tonight’s pie has a mixture of Pinova, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Organic Crab. A mixture … all types of apples … that’s what makes the best pie. I process them the night before (a trick I learned during Clinton v. Bush ’92). I mix them with a combination of white and brown sugar and let them sit overnight on a counter in a big-ass bowl. I like that they get to know each other during this process. Their juices meld. Out of many, they become one.

I made the pastry dough this morning. Every time I make pie dough, I think of my mother, who told me “Learn how to make pie dough. You’ll always have something to talk about with strangers.” Probably the smartest advice she ever gave me. Like apples, every person who bakes has an opinion about pie dough. I tend toward the flakey. That takes flour; butter and shortening; water and vodka; salt and sugar. (That’s right, I said vodka.) There’s also a bit of diplomacy involved to get it right. Finesse. Agreement. It’s a process of making something unruly behave. For obvious reasons, it’s best to combine the ingredients in the morning and let them chill out. These are opposing forces, after all. Flour does not naturally get along with butter, and water does not naturally get along with oil. All the players in the pie require some rigor followed by some rest. It’s the natural order of things, frankly.

I wait until 5:00 p.m. PDT to assemble and bake. That way, as each state reports their results, the pie is finishing in the oven. Like the process of creating the pie itself, over the years this has taken a turn toward the methodical and ritualistic. Roll the bottom crust. Chill the crust in the pie pan. Strain the apples. Mix the juice from the apples with just the right amount of flour. Fill the pie, roll the top crust. Chill the top crust. Preheat the oven. Top the pie. Beautify the pie. Bake the pie. And wait.

The waiting is the hardest part. You never know. You just never know what you’re going to get. (I learned that the hard way … Bush v. Gore.) The easy part, and often the best part (lately) has been the pie.

Posted in Writing | 2 Comments