Eulogy for Orwell

Orwell the kittenBorn of rebel blood, he emerged mewling and messy in the darkened recesses of a magnolia-scented alleyway, licked clean by a mother whose face he would never remember but whose spirit he carried with him always. The fledgling family plucked from the alley weeks later by horrible helping hands and shuffled off to a new reality, the pungent laissez-faire of the side streets replaced by four sterile walls and a tiny window deemed well out of reach of anyone but his captors. His mother impossibly, indefatigably scaling the bare wall with his squalling sister in her jaws, driven by self-preservation and the call of the streets, dropping her charge gingerly from the sill and climbing down to repeat the unthinkable ascent three more times until at last the family was reunited in the swelter of their natural habitat. The escape would be short-lived, the kidnappers tracking them down the next morning and cornering the progeny. His mother dancing, hissing just beyond their reach, the barbed ultimatums of fight or flight ricocheting around her skull until she finally saw the futility of the situation and was forced to choose freedom over family. His frightened squeaks serving as his uncomprehending goodbye as he watched her tail melt away into the shadows of a sultry New Orleans evening.

Entering the home of the new abductors frightened and defiant, a defensive ball of angry striped fur. These new people, these sweaty, shaggy, uptight outlanders, one soft and one hairy, not at all like the few other people he’d had the misfortune to encounter. Liking them even less. Being carried to the bathroom, the indignity of captivity now magnified by an actual cage, one with a handle lest he forget what a portable piece of property he really was. Stashed in the bathroom, the door closing behind him, tossed again into a four-walled prison, not that the size of the cell mattered much. Passing the first day with his bristled back pressed against the rear of the cage, resisting the new people’s pitiful cajoling to come out and play. Eventually overtaken by the proverbial curiosity that was the curse and the cliché of his kind, venturing out long enough to snatch a few morsels and a lap of water from the bowls that the soft one and hairy one had left as offerings. Miraculously returning to the cage safe from harm.

Orwell and familyFinally earning their trust enough to be freed from the bathroom prison, biding his time, waiting for their inevitable exit. Once left alone, darting for the tightest, safest space in his purview, a tiny hole at the back of the oven. Hearing their frantic search echoing through his metal cavern hours later, their timorous calls tinged with fear at their memory of his escape artist mother. The soft one finally making a last-ditch check of the oven’s underbonnet, her voice flooding with joy at the sight of two luminescent eyes twinkling out of the darkness. Both the soft one and the hairy one cooing with joy at his return from a daring escape that never was. Deciding this living arrangement might not be the ordeal he’d presumed.

Gradually acquiescing to their advances, gaining confidence, finally willing himself to accept a life of comparative luxury within the walls. Taking advantage of the long, unobstructed runway, indulging his frequent caprices for racing and hiding and stalking those big brown insects that crunched when he pounced on them and devoured them shell and all, invariably vomiting up his chitinous snack minutes later until he discovered the trick of flipping them onto their backsides and slitting their bellies with a single, surgical claw so he might feast on only the fatty, digestible goo inside. Not even lonely for the streets once an appropriate period of mourning had passed, discovering that he preferred the outdoors from a spectator’s seat. Spending hours crouched by the sturdy screen door, his wide, round eyes giving him an appearance of perpetual astonishment, studying the endless parade of neighborhood ferals, hardscrabble, half-tame grifters and brawlers who took food where they found it and likely would not see more than a handful of summers. Any envy in his gaze tempered by the knowledge of the ever-present dishes of food and fresh water waiting in the bathroom. Even befriending one of these outcasts, a scruffy grey longhair who came to the door most days and sat silently by his side, the screen separating them like a penitentiary visiting room although they may not have agreed about which was the inmate and which the visitor.

Orwell and Abbie watching catsAnd then an adopted sister, a tiny grey kitten oozing affection, often literally, snuggling unabashedly into the people’s laps and purring until their shirts were wet with her contented drool. Any threat he felt from this interlocutor quickly fading away in the face of her innocuous obsequiousness. If anything her presence proving a boon, she flinging herself headlong into aspects of pet-hood that never came quite naturally to him. Settling smoothly into their roles, she the doughy ball of love, he skittish and feisty, still clinging to a hint of his near-forgotten wild beginnings. Becoming a team, scampering after each other, tumbling across the hardwood, knocking knick-knacks from shelves that should have been beyond their reach. Curling up together in a furry, grey-brown yin-yang when the clinging cold of a Deep South winter settled over the city.

Orwell in a blanketJostling about in carriers and open cabs as their curious little family headed north, first to a sprawling, creaky Chicago flat. Passing long days bickering with birds and watching the world pass through the sheer curtains of a second-story window. Then a mid-winter move to Minnesota and a cramped apartment, the smaller quarters making him anxious with confinement and cold. That stopover proving mercifully short-lived, the soft one soon enough loading he and his sister into the box-bulging car, the terminus a full-fledged house with stairs and sunbeams and endless nooks and crannies for hiding away. In the warmer seasons even a screened porch, he and his sister basking daily in blissful sloth until the sun faded away. If this was the reward for his years of mildly grudging domesticity, he was happy to have it.

Settling into old age as a cranky curmudgeon, stalking the darkened rooms at night meowing at nothing in particular, simply savoring the echo of his voice in the cavernous space, indulging every now and then in a throwback to kittenhood, pouncing on his sister – she now fat and slow and more indolent than ever – and nipping at her nape until she yowled and the hairy one shouted at him from the bedroom. Pacing the bedframe slow and persistent, nuzzling and cajoling the soft one into lifting the bedsheets so he might slither under, then twitching and flopping in an orgy of warmth until the hairy one inevitably had enough and ejected him.

PalsPeering tentatively at the mysterious bundle of cloth and flesh that appeared in the house one frigid afternoon, a squirming, guileless thing that was undoubtedly a living creature, but of what kind? The new thing eventually proving itself not a threat but not the same kind of partner that his sister had proven to be either. Keeping his distance from grabbing hands and unchecked slavering, learning to dread the shrieks and squeals the small one emitted at unpredictable intervals. Finally coming to understand the too-rough petting and startling exclamations as a new kind of love, savage and unchecked, summoning a deep memory of the ragged side-street fraternity of his own infancy. The two finally bonding in a friendly rivalry, jockeying nightly for plum position on the soft one’s lap with the hairy one droning and turning pages in storybooks. Curling beside the small one as he slept, savoring the flutter of tiny breaths against the fur of his neck.

Becoming slowly aware of the thing growing in his insides, knowing not what it was but understanding somehow what it meant. Slowing down as his comfortable accumulation of fat and muscle melted away, shrinking him to skeletal in what the people said seemed like days but to him felt like agonizing eons. A visit to those dreadfully soothing other people in white, they peering at his ochred ears and exchanging grim glances. The strange faces a queasy whirl broken only by the soft one’s tears confirming what his insides had told him already.

Hugging OrwellThe coming weeks a bacchanal of tuna fish and canned foods, the one-time delicacies tasting less rarified than they once did but still palatable, and palatability now seeming more than enough. Gravitating in those final days again to the bathroom, retreating to birthplace of his domestication. Spending hours sprawled on the bathmat, saturnine, leonine, staring into an unknowable void that intrigued as much as it frightened. Venturing downstairs only for occasional attempts at eating, the wet food and even the tuna fish soon losing their appeal until only the aromatic tuna water provided him any solace. Submitting wearily but gladly to the hairy one’s tearful attempts to reunite the family on the couch, relishing the scratching and caressing until it inevitably became intolerable, he shambling back up the stairs to his adopted womb.

Rousing himself from his bathroom trance one morning to follow a movement barely glanced in the corner of his eye. His cloudy eyes focusing on a yellow wisp of a spider wobbling along the tiled floor, a peculiar sight so deep in the mire of winter but a welcome one just the same. A sudden stirring inside him, an awakening of an impulse so long dormant that he scarcely recognized it, gathering the remnants of his strength, retracting his torso and pouncing on the doomed spider with all the ferocity of his youth. Pain and confusion rolling aside for a few blissful seconds of noisy gobbling, the spider’s feathery limbs flittering down his throat, offering nothing by way of sustenance but tasting for all the world like one of the clumsy, squirming insects he had taught himself to vivisect on the splintered floor of that long-ago home. The thrill of the hunt fading rapidly, settling back onto the bathmat exhausted but somehow glowing, flush with an understated ecstasy, his awestruck eyes awash in images of hardwood floors and dingy carpets, of streets and strays and siblings lost and found, of sunsoaked afternoons and blanket-swaddled mornings, of lizards and birds and squirrels roaming aimlessly behind glass, of nibbled leaves and dancing toys, of licked ears and fuzzy embraces and intertwined tails, of little hands and soft laps and hairy faces and of home and of life and of love of love of love of love.

See how we are

I am afraid.

My wife works for a state agency that runs environmental tests for public safety. People sometimes get upset with her lab when test results don’t turn out the way they’d hoped, especially since some of them see her agency’s very existence as an example of government intrusion on personal freedom. On days when I work from home I bring our son down to visit her at lunch time. While they play, I often work on my laptop in the lobby of the State Revenue building across the street. There is a lot of foot traffic in that building, much of it irritated-looking people trying to resolve tax issues. There have been several lockdowns and evacuations in the complex since my wife has worked there, all of which have turned out to be false alarms.

I am afraid.

My son’s pre-school is on a busy intersection right downtown. His classroom has a large picture window facing out toward the street and a security door with a passcode that could be easily cracked. I work for a sizable corporation that has been struggling to adapt to the new economy. It is generally a pleasant work environment but uncertainty and tension bubble just below the surface.

I see a lot of live music. Most of the shows I see are in small, dark, crowded clubs. The bands play loud. People drink heavily. The exits could be blocked with very little effort. Our family goes out to restaurants two or three times a week. We go to grocery stores, malls, gymnastics classes, coffee shops, museums, art galleries. We spend countless hours in public spaces where people mill about and anyone could enter at any time.

I am afraid.

One night in late December I have a dream. I am waiting in line at a second-floor business, possibly a bank or a DMV. A place where the queue moves slowly and no one much wants to be there. I’m checking my phone when out of the corner of my eye I see a scowling woman unzip a duffel bag and pull out something long and thin and black. My stomach seizes and a collective gasp sweeps across the room. I glance behind me and see that I have a clear path to the exit. In a split second I decide I can do more good outside summoning help than I can inside as a hostage or god knows what. I bolt for the door and down the stairs before the woman notices.

Outside it is warm and humid. The sky is jet black, the stars obscured by the thrumming glow of the city. I turn on my phone and start to dial 911 when a cry from above makes me look up. My wife leans out of a second-floor window. She holds our son out at arm’s length. I choke, as I had no idea they were inside the building. I never would have run had I known. Before I can speak or even think, my wife thrusts the boy out into the night sky. I run to catch him but can’t get there in time. He lands on his backside on the dew-dampened lawn, miraculously unhurt if rather stunned. I race to his side and scoop him into my arms, my mind racing with half-ideas of how to rescue my wife.

Suddenly I hear someone else call my name. I look up and see one of my closest friends standing in another window holding his own young son. We lock eyes briefly before he too flings his arms outward and sends the boy soaring through the air. I hurriedly set my son down and sprint to catch the falling child, but again I am too late. The boy hits the sidewalk face down and does not move again. I stop cold in my tracks, gaping at the tiny form on the pavement. The wet thud of his impact is still reverberating in my ears when a staccato burst of sharp cracks from above splits the night.

I wake up panting, panicked, staring at my bedroom ceiling in near-paralysis.

I am afraid.

But I get up. And I go out. Because this is how we are. This is what we do.

Welcome to the machines

Originally posted on Rob Duffer’s marvelous fatherhood blog Experiments in ManhoodAugust 14, 2011.

The machines arrive each morning before seven. Their cacophony of beeps, clanks and belches is the first thing I hear upon waking. In the next room, my son Selby hears them too. I imagine he feels a tiny ripple of anticipation every day as the cobwebs clear and the sounds begin to take shape in his head. At 19 months, patience is far from his greatest virtue, but in this case he seems to have made peace with waiting. He knows he’ll be with the machines soon.

Selby is a city kid. More than a year and a half into this fatherhood bit, I still can’t quite get my head around that. I grew up in the woods. Not on a farm or in some rural subdivision, but in the middle of the deep dark forest in the hilly country of Western Wisconsin. My family’s nearest neighbors lived nearly a mile away across a corn field. Our only bathroom was a wooden outhouse handcrafted by my father. Our rare visitors had to maneuver a quarter-mile of rutted driveway interrupted by a fast-flowing creek at the midway point.

My son, in contrast, can hear the crackling speaker of the Wendy’s drive-thru from his backyard. He negotiates city buses as easily as any grizzled urban warrior. And his favorite form of daily entertainment is watching the machines. We live half a block off of University Avenue, the future site of Saint Paul’s much-anticipated light rail line. Nearly every day, I take my son by the hand and walk him up to the corner to watch men in yellow helmets tear up a major metropolitan thoroughfare using equipment half the size of our house. A few years from now, they’ll have built a state of the art rapid transit system that stops just outside our door. My son is absolutely enthralled by this, and why shouldn’t he be?

Watching him watch things is one of my greatest joys. The focus he puts on these earth-movers and hole-diggers is so intense that I suspect he could operate one from memory if he only had the size and strength. I can recall being similarly rapt when I was a kid, but it was the relative nothingness of sumac groves and babbling brooks that held me in thrall. Selby drinks in what Petula Clark called “the rhythm of the traffic in the city,” unfazed by churning traffic and passing vagrants. These are just the ambient noise of his everyday existence. I love to see it, but it also makes me uneasy.

Even though I’ve lived in cities for years, I’ve think of myself as a country boy at heart. When you’re raised on grassy pastures, starry nights and unbroken solitude, it’s hard to throw it over completely for the city. My wife Myra is in a similar situation, coming from a sleepy town of barely 1,000 people. For us, the Big City was a destination, a far-off place full of wonder and danger. For the boy we’re raising, small towns and farmscapes will be the exotic outposts. Will he dread visits to his grandparents’ homes, where the nights are silent and there’s no Target right up the street? Will he dismiss country folk as backwards yokels? Will he gag melodramatically every time we drive past a manure-coated cornfield?

I surely hope not, but as with most things, only time will tell. Maybe someday Myra and I will relent in our determination to be city folk for life and trade in culture and convenience for small-town stability. But for now, all I can do is offer Selby my halting guidance through an urban jungle I can barely navigate myself. And keep watching the machines.

The Boy Who Named the Trees

Here’s a little slice of my childhood. It was originally published in the Winter 2006 edition of No Touching, the creative nonfiction journal (currently on an extended hiatus) that I co-founded with the delightful Molly Each.

I am the boy who named the trees.

I did it when I was four or five, before I went off to kindergarten. Those were my peak verbalization years. I was an inquisitive kid with an expansive vocabulary, and I talked a lot to anybody who would listen. Unfortunately, there were not a lot of anybodys out in our neck of the woods. Dad went to work. Mom spent most of the day in the vegetable garden. She usually kept my brother Levi by her side, which didn’t make a lot of difference because he was too little to talk with anyway. My closest agemate lived half a mile away and I wouldn’t meet him until we were old enough for school. We had two dogs, but Phoebe was short-tempered and Gerda was incredibly stupid, even to a five year old. I tried making up some imaginary friends, but I didn’t quite get the idea that I had to make them do things in order for the relationship to blossom. I just sat back and waited for the imaginary people to entertain me and was sadly disappointed.

And so I talked to the trees. Years later, as a grown-up, I read an Annie Proulx story that ended with the line, “When you live a long way out you make your own fun.” I was good at that, making my own fun. I had learned from Sesame Street that everything has a name. I had also learned that in nature some things are alive and some things are not alive. Trees were alive. They were also immobile, which made them better candidates for lasting friendship than the various bugs and toads I caught. Yes, the trees would be my friends, and they would need to have names. And not just species names. I knew most of those – birch, spruce, cedar, etc. – thanks to my mom’s unflagging love of horticulture, but those names were so impersonal. They referred to all trees of the same type not only on our land, but all over the world. If I wanted these trees to be my friends, I needed to give them individual monikers to show them that I cared.

The first tree to get a name was Big Bart, the massive cottonwood between the shed and the house. Bart had to be first, because he was so obviously the captain of the trees. He was just the biggest tree you could hope for, at least in westernWisconsin. Sixty-odd feet tall, eight feet in diameter, rough grey bark, lofty branches that would make good sized trees themselves: if there was such a thing as tree porn, Big Bart would be a surefire centerfold. When Bart shed his cotton-esque seeds in the fall they coated the ground like an early September snowfall. He had a similarly impressive cousin out in the pasture, Big Bruce, but I never established the same rapport with wild trees as I had with the domesticated ones in our yard. I loved Bart, but it was that odd combination of love and fear usually reserved for benevolent authority figures, so we remained more acquaintances than friends.

Three-heads was much more benign. Three-heads was technically two, or possibly three, different box elder trees that had grown together at the base, with two distinct trunks sprouting off at obtuse angles. The larger trunk forked off again about six feet up, thus providing the third head. Box elders are generally sort of a nuisance tree, with their dull, ugly bark and those irritating, ground-littering seed pods we kids used to call helicopters, because of the way they twirled to the ground. Three-heads, however, was far from a nuisance. His visibility from both the house and garden made him the perfect playpen from my parents’ perspective. My dad hung my tire swing from one of Three-heads’ lower branches and I whiled away many an hour drifting back and forth in that swing with a stack of Chip N’ Dale comic books. When we were a bit older, Levi and I nailed an old ice cream bucket to Three-heads’ largest trunk and played one-on-one hoops with a Koosh ball. Three-heads was our own home entertainment system and, as such, the only box elder I ever graced with a name.

A little ways down the gentle slope from the house, near the fence line dividing the yard from the pasture, stood a grove of three walnut trees, rising tall and black and strong above their runtier brethren. Walnuts were another nuisance on the land. They cropped up everywhere and emitted toxins from their roots that killed off any more desirable would-be neighboring species. They cluttered the ground with their obnoxious fruit. In the spring, the big green walnuts made crossing the yard akin to walking across a golf driving range with longer grass. In late summer, the outer casings rotted away to an unpleasantly textured black slime that was impossible to get out of clothing. In the fall the outer shells were exposed and they became nasty, sharp-edged obstacles that would carve up a bare foot just like broken glass. Still, I admired the stately trio of walnuts enough to deem them nameworthy. I must have also deemed them somewhat comical, as I dubbed them Wilma, Fred and Barney (Apologies to Betty Rubble, but there were only three trees).

I was not on friendly terms with every tree in the yard. There were a few whose angry visages set me to whimpering. My chief adversary was Scarface, a tough, mid-sized walnut who lived along the north fence line separating us from Jim Kowitz’s cornfield. Scarface had been gnarled irreparably by several strands of barbed wire that bit into his trunk unforgivingly. The disfigurement was more than I could bear. I turned my head and hummed to myself every time I walked past, hoping to avoid eye contact with the horrid creature. In later years, I came to feel sorry for poor Scarface. I realized he was a misunderstood monster, like Frankenstein’s creature, and that the scars were not his fault at all. My mother, incidentally, has told me she was mildly concerned that I named a tree after a movie I should certainly never have heard of at that age. I have no idea where the name came from. Perhaps one of my cartoon shows did a parody, or maybe PBS ran the old Paul Muni movie one morning when I was unsupervised.

I do know where my other nemesis, Bruce Banner, got his handle, though exactly why I decided to name a twisty, scary oak tree after the Incredible Hulk’s alter ego is a mystery to me. Maybe it was because the tree looked relatively harmless in the summer months, its true nature cloaked by layers of leaves. Once the seasons changed, however, Bruce Banner was transformed into a frightening behemoth, all pointy limbs and severe angles. I’m not certain why this particular tree’s nudity affected me more than any other’s, but I suspect I drew a connection between Bruce Banner and those angry trees in The Wizard of Oz who threw apples at Dorothy. So much trauma stemming from that film.

My little brother swears to this day that I used to wander around the yard talking to the trees. This is simply not true. I’ll admit I regarded them as friends, but I knew full well that tree friends are different from human friends. We had a relationship based more on recognition than communication, and that worked just fine for both parties. That might sound odd, but I could point to any number of married couples who operate on the same principle.

I don’t want to read too much into it, but tree naming might have been a key contributor to my development as a storyteller. Even if I didn’t establish an actual narrative for each tree’s life, I was starting to build worlds of my own. I was toying with the early stages of personification and teaching myself untold lessons about human personality. The surprising power of that original vision is evident not only in the fact that I remember so many of my old friends in such vivid detail, but also that my parents to this day refer to all of “my” trees by my given names. While I appreciate the resonance, I have been embarrassed on more than one occasion when friends visiting from a more urban setting have inquired about the identity of this “Three-heads” my mother keeps referring to. I have learned that the most dignified approach is to simply smile politely and explain quietly that they’ll have to bear with my mother, as she’s gone a little bit crazy.

Little House in the Big Woods

Here’s a little slice of my childhood. It was originally published in the Winter 2008 edition of No Touching, the creative nonfiction journal (currently on an extended hiatus) that I co-founded with the splendid Molly Each.

To answer your first question, the smell really isn’t that bad. Or maybe you just get used to it. I guess I really couldn’t tell you, since I never knew anything different. To tell the truth, the spiders concerned me a hell of a lot more than the smell, but then I’ve never dealt well with arachnids. Otherwise, the only major obstacles were distance, temperature and poor upkeep. Except for those elements, growing up with an outhouse was no big deal.

A lot of people hear the word “outhouse” and immediately assume “hillbilly.” One childhood classmate even asked me in all seriousness if I was Amish. I pointed out my Hawaiian shirt and Velcro shoes – I was one of the cool kids, obviously – and asked if they looked Amish to him. The fact was, my parents were neither rednecks nor religious rebels; they were just a couple of hippies with a dream of solitude.

Actually, my mother would bristle to hear herself described as a hippie. In her book, hippies were pretentious and lazy. She and my dad were just a couple of counterculturalists who’d had enough of the hustle and bustle of Minneapolis and wanted to stake a claim of their own. Around the time they became aware of my impending arrival, they started hunting around the upper Midwestfor a plot of land that was large, cheap and rural. They found it in the two-hundred acres outside of Sparta, Wisconsinowned by Elwood and Evelyn Kast (Elwood and Evelyn, now they were hillbillies, as evidenced by Elwood’s cause of death, namely being crushed under a tree chopped down by his brother Barney). My folks bought the land in early 1978 and moved on down in the summer of ’79, seven month-old me in tow.

It was gorgeous property – acres of former cropland gone to pasture, low canopies of birch and oak, crystal clear springs and creeks bubbling out of the ground, a high ridge overlooking the cornfields of Lyons Valley – all the accoutrements your discriminating hippie could ask for. The only problem was housing. Evelyn and Elwood had been living in an uninhabitable frame house for God knows how many years, and that was torn down before we moved in. The only other structures on the property were a crumbling horse barn, a tiny, defunct pump house/tool shed and a two-story grain barn. The latter being in the best condition, my dad and a rotating cast of relatives set to fixing it up into a habitable domain. In the intervening months we slept in a big blue tent in the pasture, curious dairy cows tottering around outside our lodging.

By the time of the first frost work was more or less completed on the main house, and the workers had sunk a well about a hundred feet down the hill and constructed a “bath house” (so dubbed before the term became synonymous with sexually transmitted disease) where we could draw drinking water and, wonder of wonders, take hot showers, doubtless a huge step up from bathing in the creek as was our previous tradition. Unfortunately, funds were running low at that point, and my dad’s chimney sweep’s salary couldn’t fund a septic system just yet. And so it was that we rolled into the 1980s defecating out of doors.

The outhouse was a simple enough structure, but the design was rather ingenious. A permanent outbuilding intended for everyday use has to be a little sturdier than those plastic port-a-johns you see at outdoor festivals and construction sites. To start with, our building straddled a very deep hole, since it couldn’t be pumped out once weekly like those mass-produced models. The walls and roof were made from two-by-fours nailed together to create a cozy little shack about eight by four by four, painted the same odd peach-tan as the bath house (it must have been the cheapest option at the hardware store). There was a hinged door complete with a latch for privacy (no traditional crescent moon cut-out in the door, as my dad felt that to be tacky and, in winter months, impractical). The floor and the base of the seat – the “throne” portion – were concrete poured from the leftovers from the house renovation. The seat itself was made from more slotted two-by-fours, with a strategically shaped hole cut out in the middle. There was a closable lid that stayed open most of the time, and at the back of the seat, a makeshift wooden “ventilation shaft” leading to the outdoors. Throw in several small screen windows, a ten-gallon bucket of crushed limestone for deodorizing and a few Sunday comic strips taped to the walls and brother, you’ve got yourself an outhouse.

I don’t know when exactly I became conscious that not having an indoor toilet was a bit of an oddity, but I do recall a rush of embarrassment when a friend told me, “I can always tell when you peed in our bathroom, ‘cause you never flush.” It had never occurred to me before, but I really didn’t know how to use a regular bathroom. Sure, I’d been using them all my life, at school, at church, at other people’s houses, but bathroom time is solitary time, so no one ever taught me the intricacies of flushing and washing and all of those processes normal people took for granted. I was utterly mortified by my friend’s accusation and thereafter took to flushing every time I entered a bathroom, whether I’d used it or not. (I feel I must mention here that I am now fully versed in the proper usage of indoor plumbing and I would ask that any of you who might by chance encounter me in a restroom not feel compelled to edge away from me. Unless I give you other reason to do so. Which I very well might.)

When the shoe was on the other foot, my playmates made no secret of their fascination with my unique bathroom lifestyle. Kids visiting the Brooker estate for the first time would usually ask excitedly to go see the outhouse within a few minutes of their arrival. I would dutifully lead them across the lawn and down the hill, about a hundred yards from the house, and invite them to try it out. Few were brave enough to actually take me up on the offer but they all peered inside, in awe of the primitive savagery I called home. And those were the farm kids, kids who were used to seeing nature in all its ugly glory. The rare visitor who lived in town, or worse yet, the big city, was generally rendered near catatonic.

There were always questions, of course, and I had my answers down pat. No, we didn’t have to go running down the hill every time we needed to pee. We usually just stepped outside for that, or, in the dead of winter, kept an empty ice cream bucket in the house for late night emergencies.

Yes, we still used the outhouse in the winter (did they think we just ceased bowel movements for four months?) and yes, it was very cold. Sometimes there’d be frost on the seat and you’d sort of have to lower yourself down slowly, letting the heat from your buttocks melt it away before you settled in. In the winter it was often advisable to hold it in until you went to school, church, Wal-Mart or some other heated environment.

Yes, the hole would eventually fill up, at which point my dad would dig another hole next to the outhouse and set to the unpleasant task of transferring the contents of the original hole into the new hole. I never actually witnessed this process – Dad did it while my brother and I were at school, as I can imagine it’s the type of thing you’d prefer to do alone – but I can testify from my days of lawn mowing that the grass forever after grew much faster over the site of the second hole than in the rest of the yard.

It’s tough to explain to someone who grew up toileted, but the outhouse was more than just a pit stop for a quick excretion. Its easily climbable walls doubled as a jungle gym for my little brother and me. Perched atop the tarpaper roof, we turned our humble biffy into the flight deck of the Millennium Falcon, or Lex Luthor’s secret lair. It was also a sort of fortress of solitude for a bookish kid like me. Oftentimes I’d hang around well after my business was done, finishing up a chapter in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader or polishing off the latest Jughead Jones Double Digest. That kind of seclusion became all the more precious when I hit my adolescent years. My dad had designed the renovated house as kind of an open living space, with no interior doors to denote individual rooms. This left very few options for a hormonally charged youth to “discover himself” in private. The outhouse, on the other hand, was physically removed from the house and even had a lockable door. The presence of an aging People magazine featuring a pictorial profile of Madonna was just an added bonus.

But time marches on, all things must pass and all that jazz. When I was a junior in high school, my parents finally decided to take the plunge and take out a home repair loan to thoroughly overhaul the house. For six months we moved into a crummy rental place in town while my dad and various work crews more or less started rebuilding the place from scratch. When we returned to the countryside, the grain shed had been replaced by a lovely, totally modern dwelling with all the comforts of the twenty-first century, including running water and a septic system. As of that day, the outhouse was obsolete.

It was probably just as well, as the old facilities had taken quite a beating over the years. It had been toppled in several windstorms, so the walls were far from plumb. The door had fallen off at some point and never replaced. Using it in the rain had become an exceedingly soggy process, and for the last few winters snow drifts had been finding their way through the door. It was a change, we all had to admit that, but there were few tears shed for the passing of the outhouse.

We never did tear it down, my folks preferring to keep it as a sort of reminder of their first sixteen hardscrabble years on the land. Occasionally on my visits home, I like to wander down the path and reflect awhile on a childhood that necessitated my leaving the house at least once every day. Moving on is for the best, I understand that, but it’s still a rather melancholy feeling to see that little piece of who I am fading into memory. I linger awhile before deciding to resist the urge to duck in and give it one last spin. The power of nostalgia only goes so far.

A Cup of Joe

Originally published in F Magazine, Issue 8, this story is also part of the memoir manuscript I’ve been crafting into (hopefully) publishable form for the past several years.

“Hey Lance, we got a dead rat. Where’d you put the dustpan?” It hurt me to realize how blasé I could be while saying those words.

Joe’s shiny bald head popped out of the box office. I hadn’t even realized he was coming in to work today. “Rat?” he boomed, a gap-toothed grin spreading over his mug. “In a trap or just dead?”

“Uh… just dead. In the aisle.” I didn’t really want to know where this was going.

“Fan-fuckin’-tastic!”

Lance handed me the broom and dustpan with a better-you-than-me expression as Joe steamed past me into the main theater. It always took my eyes a couple of seconds to adjust to the hazy dusk of the big auditorium, but Joe drew a bead on his quarry instantly. The deceased party lay sprawled in the middle of the aisle between the first few rows of seats, as if the rat had decided that if he was going to die, he may as well do it as publicly as possible. Joe hustled down the aisle, kneeling down when he reached the body. It was a small one, maybe six inches. It lay on its side, paws curled under in some kind of defense mechanism. The mouth gaped open slightly, exposing a pair of long yellow tusks. The hairless tail curled away at an odd angle, forming a macabre question mark against the stained burgundy carpeting. Unpleasant as the rats were in life, this unmistakably dead thing looked even worse.

For a moment I thought Joe was going to scoop the wretched body up with his hands, but instead he just giggled, “Have a nice dinner, ya dirty motherfucker?” then turned to face me. “See, the traps haven’t been working. We get a couple every week, but you have any idea how many of these little fuckers come in here every day? Especially this close to the river?”

He stood again, rolling his head around with an audible crackle. “Dirty fuckers come up through the toilets. Don’t ya, buddy?” He nudged the rat with his sneaker. I looked away, gripping the broom and dustpan impotently. “So last week I took all the leftover hot dogs we had, injected ‘em with rat poison. Then I cut ‘em up and left little chunks all over the theater. And it looks like this little fella,” he kicked the carcass a little harder this time, “bit into more than he bargained for!”

My etiquette books hadn’t covered what say to a grown man gloating over a dead rodent, so I just asked the primary question on my mind. “So… that means we’re going to be finding dead rats all over the theater?”

“I sure as hell hope so!” he beamed, then cocked his foot back and gave the rat a hard boot, sending the stiff body arching up into the air, tumbling end over end, the half-stiff tail flopping about lazily. The body landed with a clatter in a third row seat. Joe admired his kick, then turned to me, grim victory written in every crease of his tough-guy visage. He reached for the broom and dustpan. “Here, give me those. I’ll take care of this little fucker myself.”

For Joe, killing the rats was a kind of redemption. A way of telling himself, “I may have bottomed out in my career, my art and my personal life, but I will not, by God, be made a fool of by sewer-dwelling vermin.” It was hard for me to begrudge the man that, because really, what else did he have? Joe was a brute, and brute force was his preferred course of action.

In his way, Joe was a textbook New Orleanian, a beefed-up embodiment of the aimless bohemian exiles who simply couldn’t make a go of it anywhere but in this incomparable town. A full-blooded Italian formerly hailing from Brooklyn and Philadelphia, he’d made his way to the Crescent City a few years previous, his fireplug frame and propensity for violence landing him bouncing gigs at a couple of Bourbon Street’s less reputable nightspots. He never explained to me exactly how he came to be head manager of the Deep South’s most notorious ghetto theater, but it didn’t take me long to learn that no road ending at the Downtown Joy was a happy road.

My first night on the job, Joe greeted me in the lobby, his magenta dress shirt and baby blue tie making him look like a second-rate prizefighter on his way to an arraignment hearing. It was a Friday night, and the lobby was abuzz with teenage hormones. Boys in baggy jeans and Fat Albert gear huddled around girls in Bebe tops and ass-hugging denim. Middle schoolers jostled each other for position in front of the “Alien vs. Predator” video console. Behind me a pretty boy in corn rows burst into song, crooning an off-key rendition of some Brian McKnight slow jam, making a knot of girls erupt into a high-pitched squeal of laughter. If any of them were here to watch a movie, you certainly could have fooled me. It didn’t take me more than two seconds to realize that I was the lone caucasian in the building. Except, of course, for the energetic mauler pumping my hand.

“Hey, good to meet ya!” Brooklyn was still thick in Joe’s voice. “So you’ve managed people before, right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I managed a few people at my last job,” I half-lied.

“Well, ya ever manage total fuck-ups before?”

Thus was I welcomed to the first stage of my post-collegiate career.

In hindsight, I should have had my suspicions about the Downtown Joy from the first phone call, when Joe referred to my heavily padded but still frightfully skimpy résumé as “very impressive.” But then again, empty flattery has always been the surest route to my heart.

I think what impressed Joe more than any of my dubious managerial potential was the prospect of having another artistic type on the premises. The other manager, Mike, was a sad, spineless guy in his late fifties, just ticking off the hours until his social security kicked in. The employees were almost all residents of the nearby Iberville housing projects, high schoolers, community college students and middle-aged mothers, all happy to have landed even this miserable, minimum wage job in the crushing New Orleans economic climate. Good, fine people, but not, in Joe’s mind, appreciators of the finer things in life. Not people like him, and, apparently, me.

Despite his pugilistic exterior and rat-stalking tendencies, Joe considered himself an artist first and foremost, a musician/cartoonist/actor/filmmaker constantly hovering just on the edge of his big break. It was hard to know just how much of the legend to believe. He proudly spoke of playing a soldier in an ambitious stage adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” although he dismissed the poem itself as unreadable bullshit, himself preferring the likes of Bukowski. He allegedly spent his weekends on what he termed “guerilla filmmaking,” shooting a digital splatter flick about a homicidal ice cream man (played by Joe, of course). Most noteworthy – and suspicious – was his claim to have been a founding member of Gwar, the seminal shock rock band better known for wearing six-foot phalluses and dousing their live audiences with synthetic body fluids than for any musical accomplishments. Joe spoke wistfully of how he quit the band for the sake of a girlfriend just before they hit it big. “A year later, I’m sittin’ in Philly in my shithole apartment, watchin’ my friends on the Joan Rivers show, and I’m just lookin’ at this girl, thinkin’ ‘you fuckin’ bitch.’”

If half of Joe’s supposed artistic exploits were genuine, I would have been impressed, save for one thing – no matter how you cut it, he and I were both making our living at the Downtown Joy theater. Facts don’t come much colder or harder than that. Some men would deal with a kidney punch of reality like that by hitting either the bottle, the girlfriend or the pavement. Joe dealt with it by poisoning sewer rats with hot dogs. All I can say is, I’ve seen worse coping mechanisms in my time.

Cooter Brown’s, October 16, 2005

Originally published in Make Magazine, Winter 2005

I’m sitting by myself in the corner at Cooter Brown’s on Carrollton, sipping an Abita Amber and watching my Vikings getting humiliated by the Bears. It’s a big, sprawling sports pub with two working bars and rows of long wooden tables, all of which are currently packed. I was lucky enough to grab a chair and a spot against the rear bar beneath the lone TV showing the action from back in the North Country.

Just about every other pair of eyes in the place is glued to the big screen on the back wall, where the hometown Saints are running neck and neck with their archrivals from Atlanta. It’s a wild, rowdy Sunday afternoon scene, and it all feels so normal I could almost forget why I’m here in New Orleans.

In an hour or so, I’ll be interviewing one of the cooks, a man who spent the days immediately following Katrina sitting in front of the bar with a shotgun to warn off potential looters. Every time I flash on my mission, I’m chilled to remember that it’s only been six weeks since all of New Orleans plunged into anarchy. Even here in Riverbend, this peaceful, blue-collar neighborhood where I lived for two years, the streets became a war zone. I’ve spoken to several people who stayed here throughout the worst of the post-storm confusion. Yesterday I had a long conversation with a woman who told me she was transformed literally overnight from an anti-gun “California liberal” to a rifle-packing vigilante who regarded every black person who came into sight as a potential threat. And this was in the least affected part of town.

But now things are creeping back to normal. All over the city, hand-lettered signs are going up in the neutral grounds (the grassy medians where the streetcars normally run) announcing re-openings of restaurants. In the week I’ve been in town, the number of semi-functioning businesses has at least doubled. Here at Cooter’s, the kitchen is serving only a limited menu, but people from all over the neighborhood are lining up and waiting half an hour for a mushroom and swiss burger with no complaints. Part of that has to do with most of the refrigerators in town being permanently ruined by rotted meat, but there’s also a communal feel to the chow line. Everyone is eager to dive back in and get these businesses up and running again, try to pull New Orleans back from the brink.

A cheer goes up from the table to my left as the Saints snatch a crucial interception. Even though I’m watching a different game, and even though it’s been more than two years since I’ve actually been a resident of New Orleans, I feel right at home. It’s been a rough week, full of conversations with traumatized survivors and visits to the Upper Ninth Ward, where the water marks rise eight feet high on the houses and every porch is spray-painted with the number of dead found inside. Most homes are marked zero, but there are more than enough ones and twos to leave me shaken for a long time. I haven’t yet been to the Lower Ninth, the area everyone describes as looking like a bomb went off, but the devastation I’ve witnessed already is as ugly as anything I’ve ever seen.

The Saints game slides into a commercial break as high fives circulate around the bar. I take a long pull off my Abita and jot a few observations about the resiliency of the human spirit in my notebook. And then, suddenly, the room quiets down. I glance up at the TV and realize why. On the big screen is an ad for the American Red Cross, black and white images of people wading through waist-deep water, desperate families waving from rooftops, tangled piles of wood and concrete. Johnny Cash sings a mournful “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as a somber woman’s voice asks America to make a donation to ease the suffering of those affected by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

And here in this crowded sports bar, several dozen of those affected parties cringe. Some turn away from the screen and pretend to have oblivious, unrelated conversations. Others look at the pictures straight-on, eyes burning with something between anger and sadness. I don’t hear anyone comment on the commercial directly, but it’s obvious the spot has stirred up some feelings no one wanted to think about.

The Red Cross ad fades out and is replaced by a bright, noisy Bud Light spot, some idiocy about a house with a beer tree in the backyard. The buzz in the room starts to build again. By the time the Saints return to the screen, the volume is almost back up to pre-break levels. Someone walking into Cooter Brown’s right now could easily be fooled, as I almost was, as all these football fans want so desperately to be, into thinking that New Orleans is more or less back to normal.

But it isn’t.

And it won’t be for a long time.

Audio essay: Christmas Reflections

Not long after returning from a week in immediate-post-Katrina New Orleans, I submitted this brief essay to the excellent Chicago Public Radio program 848. It’s a wonderful, low-key show that puts listeners in touch with a broad spectrum of professional and non-professional writers reading in their own voices.  My segment aired on December 22, 2005. Here it is, along with the capsule description from the 848 website:

http://66.251.226.131/audio_library/ram_2005/848/848_20051222e.ram

Ira Brooker—Graduate Student in the Department of Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago

New Orleanian-turned-Chicagoan Ira Brooker reflects on how the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina has made him a better Chicagoan.

Music Button: Jeff Chan, “Twilight,” from the CD In Chicago, Asian Improv Records

My Life in Red

Originally published in South Loop Review, Volume 7, Fall 2005

You don’t really know red until you’ve been sprawled on your back in a grove of sumac on a late summer afternoon. In that singular setting, red moves beyond color and becomes a state of being, not just an emotion or a sensation, but an all-encompassing, self-defining redness.

My favorite sumac grove is on the south slope of the back forty, over on the far east side of the hill just before it takes a northerly jaunt and wraps around to form the bowl of the valley. Back in the days of mules and plows, this hill used to be farmland – an unthinkable concept due to the severe, 70-degree angle of the slope, but a fact nonetheless – and it’s been a long time returning to forest. Here, the yellow grass grows above ankle height, crisp and slender and sturdy enough to put up a struggle when I lower myself to sit on it. Anthills abound here, rounded, solid structures that often grow more than a foot tall. Years of old school farming techniques have stripped the terrain of many of the nutrients that once made it prime growing land, so that now the vegetation is mostly limited to those few plants hearty enough to survive the near-constant onslaught of hungry deer, rabbits and rodents. The species that do manage to thrive are few but fascinating: Queen Anne’s lace, blackberry brambles, milkweed, Indian paintbrushes, a few scraggly, stunted apple trees.

And, of course, sumac. It isn’t a physically beautiful plant in most respects; it’s a skinny and twiggy tree that grows generally no taller than six feet. The leaves grow mainly at the tops of the trees, long and narrow and pointy, shaped a bit like a hand-rolled cigarette. The flowers grow in oblong, fuzzy clusters that resemble some manner of animal dropping but for their deep crimson coloration. Taken individually, they’re rather ugly, or at least unimpressive, trees.

But sumac seldom grows individually, at least not on our land. Sumac germinates rapidly, forming ever-expanding groves that become the dominant feature of small patches of land like the corner of this hillside. I am lying on my back in one of these patches, watching the clouds pass through my filter of red. From this angle, the leaves crisscross and interlock, creating a protective canopy that makes me feel invisible to the prying eyes of the outside world. Not that anyone would ever be around to see me way out here, but if there did happen to be someone, I feel confident that I would never be spotted. At this late stage of summer, the green sumac leaves have begun to turn a rich burgundy and the sunlight strains through those leaves to create that absorbing, penetrating redness I spoke of before. Even though I am out here alone in the middle of the deep woods, I have seldom felt safer.

I come out here by myself mostly. Sometimes if the whole family is out for a walk, or just my little brother and me, we’ll stop and linger among the sumac, but mainly this is my place. When I’m called on to walk the dog, I often head straight back here and sit among the skinny trunks nibbling on a blade of grass, watching the dog hunt grasshoppers in the underbrush. Sometimes I leave the dog behind and wander back here on a whim, stepping a little more carefully so as not to unnecessarily damage my bare feet. Sometimes I’ll even head back here when it’s pouring rain, because nothing fills a body with a sense of glorious solitude quite like listening to the pounding of rain against a leafy roof while trying to make out shapes amidst the deluge.

In pleasant weather, the view is immaculate. Immediately opposite me is the north slope of the back forty, the most heavily forested part of our two hundred acres, a visual cacophony of oak and elm and birch. It’s a vertical sea of rolling green in summer, an earth-tone painter’s palette in fall, an icy white web in winter and a bubbly landscape of budding anticipation in spring. Right now it is deep and green, inviting me to dive on in. I might make a go at it were I not confined by the wooden bars of my sumac cell.

Most days there isn’t a lot to see from the grove other than that treescape. Sometimes whatever herd of cattle we’re hosting at the moment will stroll through the bottom of the bowl, lingering around the three gigantic cottonwoods that mark the start of the spring runoff gully. Perhaps I’ll spy the angular silhouette of a red-tailed hawk dipping and squalling through my red-leafed kaleidoscope, or a hungry, circling turkey vulture silently alerting me to a death deep in the forest. On a truly eventful day I might see a deer or two meandering out of the low gathering of birch at the foot of the tree line, braving the open terrain for a few sunny moments before scampering back to the nurturing wood.

But usually it’s just me, on my back, belly speckled with fractured sunbeams, feeling the twin tickles of the coarse grass and the wayward insects clamoring over this fleshy new obstacle. From this vantage point, I am king of all I survey. Through the jigsaw of lanky brown trunks I cannot even see the barbed wire that signifies the end of our land and the beginning of the neighbors’. This is mine, this little crimson pocket of paradise, and I will bask here as long as I choose, lounging in the lovely, luxurious red.

Night of the Humans

Previously  published on the now-defunct This Is Grand and in the 2007 Columbia College Story Week Reader

 

As the doors slide closed at the Logan Square stop, a shrill giggle comes rolling from the front of the car. I glance up and see a dirty, bearded little man pointing out the window, writhing with mirth.

“Humans!” he exclaims, drawing the word out into several syllables: “Hee-yoo-mans! Human beings!” He’s bouncing up and down in uncontainable excitement.

“Look at ‘em!” he insists to no one in particular, “They’re so funny!”

I turn reflexively and watch the people filing off the train through the tinted glass. A hefty, red-faced man with a green plaid business jacket under his arm. A pretty, dark-haired college girl in a black hoodie, toting a skateboard. Two skinny young Latinos with beanies and tattoos, trying hard to look hard.

The little man squeezes his sides and rocks with laughter as the train pulls out to resume its trek to O’Hare. I take another hard look at the people on the platform as they fall away.

And he’s right.

They are kind of funny.

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