30 April 2015

The Mysterious Contents of the Burlap Sack


It was a cold winter morning in 1963 I was sitting in a coffee shop reading Faulkner and looking out the window at the fog and wet streets. It had rained the night before and more looked to be coming. That suited me fine. I was wearing a warm wool sweater and khakis. My loafers were not ideal for wet weather but they'd do. Other than all I had with me was the book, an umbrella and in my pockets my wallet, keys, loose change and a comb.

I had a girl named Charlene who was part of a folk music trio. She had long black hair, that hung down to her ass, a slender figure and beautiful green eyes. She was taller me than me by a good two inches. I was thinking that Charlene may have had a thing for one of the guy's in the trio, Larry McKinnon. He was two inches taller than Charlene, the opposite of me, and was a charming guy and  talented musician. The third member of the trio was a scrawny fella called Doug Speer, it was widely known that he was queer. 

Charlene's trio was called the Wanderers and they were playing a few gigs in the valley that week. This meant that Charlene was off with Larry McKinnon and I was stuck in Berkeley feeling melancholy. On the other hand I had a lot to do. I was trying to earn my PHd in Literature at the University of California and as you might expect had ton of reading to do. Actually the Faulkner book wasn't even on my reading list. I'm such a book junkie that I was actually reading a novel for fun while I had about half a dozen I needed to finish in a few weeks for school. 

The bleak weather suited me. I've always liked it grey and wet I've never been one for outdoor activities except for walks, which I don't need the sun shining to do. The only sport I'd ever played was basketball which I stunk at. I was too much of a loner to be any good at sports anyway.

My mother had died from cancer the previous Summer and my dad was struggling to keep his record store open, especially since he was depressed about losing Mom who he had been married to for 30 years. My little sister, Evie, was no help. She was screwing up royally in school and spent most of her time chasing boys. It was even money she wouldn't graduate high school with her class that Spring. But they were all up in Tacoma, Washington which is where I was born and raised. They might as well have been on the moon. Out of sight out of mind.

My dog Rufus was tied up outside and it seemed he was becoming aware of the fact that I was taking my sweet time. I'd heard a few tentative howls and he'd gotten on his hind legs a few times to peer through a window. If he spotted me, the howling would triple in volume and frequency very quickly. Rufus could stand to be tied up outside for only so long before he got antsy.

I decided to finish the coffee and take Rufus home. The rain could start again any second and Rufus wasn't big on walking in so much as a drizzle. I left a half a buck on my table which covered the coffee the refill and a tip. I headed out. My name is Whitney Peterson, although some people call me Whit. Dad, Evie and Charlene all called me Whitney and some other people do when they first meet me, but mostly people assume that Whit is okay. Doesn't matter to me. I was 25 years old at the time.

Anyway this is a story about the time my pretty ordinary life became pretty interesting -- for a short time. It's taken awhile but I figure its worth telling. You can decide whether I'm right.

The part about being in the coffee shop reading Faulkner isn't so germane to the story but I remember it so vividly and it happened just before things got interesting so I decided to include it. Also let's be clear, I'm a life long student of English literature and an avid reader but I'm nobody's idea of a great writer and I admit that right off. So remember that I may read Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but I don't claim to write like any of them. Not even close.

After the coffee I'd taken Rufus for a walk in the park and repaired to the room I had in the Tofelson's backyard. Abe and Leona Tofelson were a retired couple who had converted their garage into sort of cottage to rent out to college students. It was perfect for me because it meant I could keep Rufus. He had the run of the backyard, although he spent nights inside with me, usually nestled at the foot of my bed. Rufus was all mutt, a big wire haired dog with gray, white and black fur.

My living quarters were what you would call cozy. Plenty of room for a bed, chair, desk, hotplate and all my books. There was even a half bath with a toilet. I had to go into the Tofelson's house for showers but I had pre-arranged times so as not to surprise or disturb them. Best of all the rent was dirt cheap.  They even invited me over for dinner some nights and Leona Tofelson was one helluva cook. I'd been living there for two and half years at the time of this story. They liked me because I was quiet and paid the rent on time. The Tofelsons didn't even mind Charlene occasionally spending the night with me.

*********************************************************************************

I was laying in bed reading -- this time it was an assigned work of Sinclair Lewis -- when I dozed off. This was not unusual for me. I often fell asleep reading then woke up and just picked right back up where I left off. I was dreaming about flying. Not in an airplane, just as if I were a bird. I was flying across San Francisco Bay towards the Golden Gate Bridge when a loud thud against my door woke me up. It took a second to confirm to myself that this was not part of my dream and an investigation was in order. Tentatively I opened the door. There was a large burlap sack with something heavy in it on the ground beside my the door. I looked to the left, to the right, straight ahead and even straight up. I saw no one and nothing out of the ordinary except the sack. Two instincts were in direct competition: one was to pick the damn sack up and see what was inside; the other was to have someone else do the dirty work, perhaps Mr. Tofelson. But I noticed that his truck wasn't in the driveway so it was either going to be up to me to have a peak or I could just leave it. Option two  seemed out of the question. My curiosity had gotten the better of me.

First I bent down and looked at the bag hoping that its shape might reveal something, perhaps there was some tell tale bulges. My conclusion was that the whatever was in the bag was in the shape of a human head. I found this idea to be most disturbing indeed. I picked up the bag and noted that it was quite heavy. Too heavy, I thought, to hold a regulation human head, save one that had been hollowed out and filled with cement. It was nearly a minute of holding the damn bag before I felt brave enough to look inside.

I had no idea what I was looking at. It was round and metal and had what appeared to be minutely carved incisions in patterns. I turned it around like you would when looking at the other side of the world on a globe. It looked like there were two eyes, actually it was hollow where these oval shaped eyes were. There were no other markings on this side. I remember looking at it and actually saying out loud: "what the hell are you?" I also wondered where it came from, I mean who chucked it against my door. Was I selected or was it at random?

Rufus finally came out. I put the object down and he went over and sniffed it. I was surprised at how much sniffing he did and how interested he was in it. I mean for crying out loud it wasn't organic so what kind of smell could it have had? I sure didn't smell anything. But Rufus was fascinated. When the mutt was done sniffing he sat down and just stared at it. This was spooky.

It was past 1:00 and I had to be on campus in an hour for a seminar. I decided to head out their early and see if someone could help me sort out what this metal head actually was. But who?

I finally settled on a friend named Harry Fillmore who was a grad student in psychics. Harry would almost certainly be working at the department office or doing research in the same building, which was LeConte Hall. I'd be glad just to get rid of the damn thing. After wolfing down a sandwich and glass of milk I set off on the 20 minute walk to campus lugging the bag with me. I'd find Harry, give him the whatever the hell it was and make it to my seminar in plenty of time.

Sure enough Harry was holding the fort in the office.

"Got something for you," I said by way of greeting, then without further ado, handed him the sack.

"What is it?"

"See for yourself."

Harry took a long look into the bag and then said: "So I repeat: what is it?"

"Beats me. That's why I brought to you. I can't make heads nor tails out of it. Thought maybe you could. Weird thing is that spooked Rufus. He was sniffing away at it and then sat in stared at it."

"Where'd it come from?"

"That's another weird thing. Someone tossed it against my door. Woke me up from a nap."

"Who?"

"No clue, Harry. Mind if I palm it off on you? I couldn't think what the hell to do with the damn thing but thought you'd either figure something out or be able to pass it along to someone who could."

"Sure I'll take it off your hands. I like a good mystery. I'd say that based on these markings it seemed something for the archeology department but given the shine of it and whatever its composed of it may be up our alley."

"So you've got no clue what we've got here just looking at it."

"Hell, Whit if I had to guess I'd say its from outer space."

"You're ribbing me, right?"

"Well, kind of but the truth is that seems a good a guess as any. I'll take a closer look, check with one of my profs and then maybe we'll figure out what we're dealing with. Or we'll go mad trying."

"I've got to head to class. Thanks for taking it and when you find out what it is lemme know."

"Sure thing. And if someone tosses anything else of interest against your door, just bring it on by."

"I promise."

I liked Harry. We'd been roommates my sophomore year at Cal. We had different interests academically but shared the same sardonic sense of humor and had some great chats over spaghetti dinners and bottles of wine. Harry was also on his way to a Phd and there was no question that he was destined for big things. He was the darling of the department. Harry had a fiancé named Kate who was probably the world's prettiest librarian. Charlene and I sometimes double dated with them

I headed to my seminar and forgot all about the stupid bag and the mysterious metal head.

*********************************************************************************

It was about two days later that I finally thought about the mystery bag. Charlene was back in town. The first thing we had done was get between the sheets and become reacquainted with one another's bodies. We were laying there after chatting when I remembered about the bag and told the story. Naturally Charlene asked if I'd followed up with Harry. It wasn't unusual for me to get absorbed in my studies and forget about most everything so it didn't surprise Charlene that I hadn't. It was just then that there was a gentle knock on the door, it was Mrs. Tofelson telling me I had a phone call. I rarely got calls but when I did they came to the Tofelsons. They didn't mind seeing as how I got so few.

I hastily dressed and dashed through the Tofelson's back porch and into their kitchen where their old fashioned wall phone was off the hook waiting for me. It was Harry and he was excited.

"Whit, I've got some news. That head you brought in has been analyzed and no one can figure out what the heck it is. More than that whatever its made from is a total mystery. One prof said the only thing that he could figure was that it came another planet."

"You've got to be kidding."

"I absolutely am not. Course no one is taking that idea seriously, except me. I swear to you Whit there is something really strange about this and its creeping people out."

"Where's it now?"

"Oh I don't have it. Looks like I'm out. Someone in geology is looking at it now. I've been promised that I'll be kept in the loop so I'll let you know when I learn anything new."

"Thanks I appreciate it. How you been, by the way?"

"Me, I'm fine. Better question is how you been? I'm sorry to hear about Charlene...."

"What about her?"

"Come on, Whit, everyone knows she's been keeping real close company with what's-his-name the guitarist. Sleeping together on tour and registering like husband and wife at motels. You'll find someone better. How'd she put it to you anyway?"

"She didn't"

"Huh?"

"I gotta go. Thanks for the latest dope. Stay in touch."

I was shocked but not surprised. I'd had a feeling for awhile that she was going to take up with this McKinnon guy. What got me the most was that she came back into town and not only didn't level with me but immediately hopped in the sack like everything was normal between us.

"Bad news there?" Mr. Tofelson, pipe in one hand, evening paper in the other, had just come into the kitchen and saw whatever expression was on my face.

"Oh, not really. Just a surprise. Thanks for letting me use the phone again."

"Never a bother. Say you want to come back later for dinner? Leona's making pork chops."

My immediate reaction was to say beg off but given that I was about to send Charlene packing a good family meal might be just what I needed.

"Usual time?"

"'Course. See you then."

The Tofelsons always had dinner at 6:00 except Sundays when it was at 4:30. Don't ask me why. But they were as regular as clockwork about meal times.

Returning to my room Charlene greeted me with the question: "You up for another round, handsome?"

The nerve.

"Word is you've taken up with McKinnon. In fact everyone but me seems to know." I said coldly.

Charlene turned white. She got up and wordlessly dressed. Once she had her clothes on and her purse clutched to her bosom she finally spoke. "I was going to tell you, Whitney, honest I was. I really just wanted one last bout of passion with you."

"So you could compare me with McKinnon?" This was icy cold and mean.

"Goodbye Whitney. I had fun with you. Honestly I did. Maybe we can talk about it sometime."

"Maybe not." Icier yet. Charlene went out the door. A year later she and McKinnon split and the trio was kaput too.

*********************************************************************************It was a week after Harry's call and I hadn't heard from him so being near LeConte Hall I decided to pay a visit. A secretary I kind of knew named Ruth said Harry hadn't been heard from in a few days and no one knew where he was. They'd tried calling his apartment but had gotten no answer. They even called Kate and she didn't know where he'd gone off too. This was troubling because Harry was reliable and consistent. I went from there over to his apartment which was near campus. A lot of knocks on the door weren't answered. His landlady from downstairs finally emerged and told me she hadn't seen Harry since before the weekend. This was a Tuesday.

I went back to the physics department and found a prof that Harry worked with, Dr. Vine. He was as worried as I was, but the strange thing was his reaction when I asked about mysterious metallic head.  Dr. Vine immediately looked down then to his left. He didn't say anything for a several seconds. Finally: "oh that, yeah that was nothing." I didn't believe Dr. Vine. It wasn't just what he said -- which contradicted what Harry had told me -- but the way he said. I didn't figure that questioning further was going to get me anywhere so I split.

My plan was to drop by the Geology Department and see what they knew since when I last spoke to Harry he said they had the bag. But it would have to wait because I had a paper due and needed the rest of the day to work on it. My next few hours were spent in the library. When I finally got home I took Rufus for a walk and then it was lights out.

It was eight the next morning when I was awoken by a solid knock on my door. Something about this knock seemed official. I put on a robe and opened the door. There were two large men in suits and wide brimmed hairs filling the doorway. One asked if I was Whitney Peterson. I said I was and they both immediately flashed badges. "Is this about Harry?" I asked. "Is there bad news or are you guys investigating his disappearance?" I was at once scared and hopeful.

"No Mr. Peterson. We don't know anything about your friend, Fillmore. We're just here to talk to you about something you discovered, a bag with an object in it."

"Yeah, but is this a police matter?" I was curious.

The one who did all the talking ignored the question. "Any idea where it came from? How it happened to be thrown against your door?"

"No. None. I was asleep at the time. I looked around after I saw it but saw nothing or no one nor even any sign of anyone."

"You're sure?"

"Positive. Say what's the big deal? What is it and why are you guys interested? Was there a crime committed? And are you sure you don't anything about Harry?"

The guy who did all the talking took out a notebook and jotted something in it with a stub of a pencil then officiously put the notebook back into his inside coat pocket.

"I'm afraid I'm not liberty to answer your questions. We don't know who this Harry fellow is. I will tell you this: you should lose interest in this case. There's nothing to it that is of any concern of yours. Nothing. We strongly advise you not pursue it. Were the people who live in the house home at the time the bag hit your door?"

I told them no, they thanked me and left.

This was downright bizarre. Why had Professor Vine acted so strange when I asked him about the head? Why had these men warned me off even asking about it and why were the police looking into it anyway? And  what, if anything, did Harry's disappearance have to do with it? Then I realized something. First the cop had referred to Harry as "friend" and by his last name then he claimed not to even know who he was. He was lying, just like Dr. Vine.

I changed my mind about going by the Geology Department, there seemed little chance anyone was going to acknowledge that their had been a heavy head-like object given to them to analyze and anyway the cops had me spooked about making further inquiries.

Believe it or no that's pretty much where the story stands with the exception of an epilogue. You see I never learned anything from anybody about the metal head in the bag. And certainly not why it was thrown against my door. Anyway I was pretty busy with my doctoral program. Harry never showed up. I spent a lot of time comforting his fiancé Kate and two years later she was my fiancé and a year after that we were married. We still are. Rufus is long dead but has been since replaced several times by other mutts. I've loved them all and of course I've loved Kate and the two kids we've had.

The epilogue is this. Five years later Kate and I were in Chicago for the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention, the one where the cops went on a protestor beating frenzy. We were standing in a Lincoln Park early one morning talking with a friend when we saw a rather disheveled looking gent shuffle by. I immediately recognized him to be Harry Fillmore. I nudged Kate. "Harry?" I said. Harry looked at us, his eyes got wide. He tentatively approached us and finally put a hand on my shoulder and looking at Kate said: "I got away from them. Don't tell them you saw me."

"Who?" Kate and I said almost simultaneously.

Harry searched our eyes with his, they moved back and forth. His body was shaking. "I'm not telling. And I'm not telling about the head. They'll kill me if I do." Then quietly, looking down. "You know it wasn't from here." Then he looked up to the sky.

Kate said, pleadingly, "Harry what's wrong, what is it, can't we help you?"

Harry shook his head no and said: "they asked me to sign something saying I'd never talk about the head, never tell what I know. I refused. They made me pay for that refusal. They took me away, you know, but I finally escaped. Some day I'll tell, I'll tell the world what I know. People will believe me." Then Harry ran. Harry was always a good athlete and ran track in high school. There was no way I was going to catch him. He disappeared into the crowd.

We never saw nor heard from him again. I wish this wasn't a true story. But it is.







28 April 2015

When Duffy Died


Brain aneurysm. Killed him instantly. That’s the way it happens with them sometimes. He was 61 and only recently gotten a clean bill of health from the doctor. Was working steady and even got exercise swimming at the local Y. Good diet too.

He was sitting in his easy chair listening to a phonograph record and reading Kafka of all things. Nice enough fella. No debts. Couple of kids both grown. The boy fresh out of college (he didn’t have to be in the service owing to a bum knee) the girl recently married to an up and coming lawyer. The wife was on her way home from the grocery store. She’d taken early retirement a year before on account of heart problem. Everyone figured she’d go first.

His name was Will Duffy. He taught history at the local high school and had for 33 years. Pretty well respected although not the type who won any of those phony baloney teacher of the year awards. Most of Duffy’s friends were other teachers, a lot of whom he’d work with for 10, 20 and in one case, 30 years. He was friendly with the neighbors too and was always good for an appearance at block parties and such. But his wife Cora was more of the social butterfly. Had friends galore and liked to entertain.

It was smack in the middle of the school year when Duffy died. After this one he was going to teach two more then retire. Him and the wife were going to tour Europe if the war was over by then. Duffy’d figured it would be. He gave the whole mess another year tops. It was February 1944 so he wasn’t far wrong.

About ten minutes before Duffy died he’d finished grading a batch of papers and decided to treat himself with a little music — Benny Goodman — and what was for Duffy some recreational reading. Like I said it was Kafka, the book was called The Trial. He opened the book to page 100 which was where he left off. Duffy noted that the sun had just come out which was kind of ironic because it was near dusk. He also noted that there was a scratch — a minor one, but still — on his record. He also wondered what was keeping Cora. She was probably gabbing with someone at the market, he figured.

Duffy started to read but then stopped. It occurred to him that he forgotten to mail a letter he’d written the night before to his brother Larry in Milwaukee. Well it can wait another day. Larry was doing all right, had his own business and his wife was loaded. Plenty of dough and big fancy vacations to South America every year. But secretly Duffy thought his brother was an intellectual lightweight. Sure he was good in business but Larry knew nothing of art or literature or even good films.

Duffy thought about bringing the evening paper in. Cora would make a fuss if he didn’t. He never understood why she’d get so agitated with him for not bringing it in right away. She acted like it ruined the beauty of their front yard to have a newspaper there. Oh well, he’d get it when he was good and ready. Duffy didn’t read the evening paper until after supper anyway. He could always wait to catch up on the war news.

Duffy started reading again but had to stop right away to deal with an itch in his lower back. Worst spot possible. He wished Cora were here. That woman was a great back scratcher. Good cook too. Duffy wasn’t as crazy about his wife as a lot of guys were but he loved Cora well enough just the same. They’d have been together for 40 years come June. Never a big blow up between them. Sure they got on each other’s nerves now and again and Cora could be Grade A nag but they generally fit together like hand and glove. Duffy reckoned he couldn’t have done better.

She’d been a good mom too and Duffy was proud of his own parenting. The kids had turned out just fine. Matt had his degree and was looking ahead to a long successful career in engineering. It looked like Rosie was going to be a housewife but she’d married well and was happy as a clam. Neither one of his kids had given Duffy a moment of trouble.

Darned if Duffy wasn’t having a hard time concentrating on his book. He was really enjoying it too. But there was so much on his mind and it all felt good. The only thing bothering him was the scratch in the Goodman record. Duffy always made a point of taking real good care of his record collection so when there was even the smallest scratch it annoyed him to no end. The record and the flowers that adorned the front and sides of the house were what he called his happy time killers. Duffy was damn proud of the flowers and tended to them carefully. In the backyard Cora had a Victory Garden going pretty strong and it helped ensure that they had nice salads and vegetables with their meals.

It was going to be a light day at school. He was giving tests to all his classes. He’d grade the first batch during the second class and so on which would leave him only one set to grade when he got home. There was an all staff meeting after school but the new principal kept those thankfully brief.
He liked Mr. Wilde the principal. Young for the head of a school but competent and polite. Duffy liked most all of his teaching colleagues. There’d been a few over the years he hadn’t gotten along with but that happens.

The book was beckoning so Duffy tried to put aside his mental meanderings and concentrate on it for a bit. Duffy’d read a few paragraphs when he had a weird sensation in his head. Nothing that scared him but a little odd. Oh well, he thought and resumed reading but seconds later the weird feeling was replaced by a sharp pain like Duffy had never experienced before. He was frightened for a second. Then he was dead.

Cora came home five minutes later. When she realized what had happened she screamed and then cried and cried and cried.

Duffy’s funeral was well attended and many fine words were spoken. Duffy had touched more people than he ever realized. Scores of former students showed up, many of whom shared stories with one another or with Duffy’s family and friends about what a great teacher he had been. Always kind and patient and fair and never unwilling to explain and give detail where it was needed. Many of these former students reported that they'd developed a real appreciation for history and the country from Duffy and had left his class feeling inspired to be participatory citizens.

Cora and the children wept. Duffy’s brother Larry was there along with an assortment of cousins and nephews and an elderly aunt. No one could think of a bad thing to say about Duffy. Everyone loved him.

27 April 2015

An Aborted Hike is Nevertheless Insightful and Enjoyable

A picture I took on campus during my walk. Nice, eh?
I only managed two lousy hours out of the house. Had run seven miles yesterday and slept poorly so was not up to my ambitious plans. Those included a hike up a hill behind the Cal campus that would have afforded a beautiful view of the San Francisco Bay. Instead I made it a third of the way through campus and veered off towards Telegraph Avenue.

I love walking through the campus. It’s beautiful. The eucalyptus grove alone is worth the walk. Strawberry Creek runs through it. Pretty young women ogle me (it is most certainly not the other way around) and I am, for the most part, among people pursuing greater knowledge and understanding of the world they live in whether through the study of its history, geology, computers, wheels of finance or languages. It is an area rife with future movers, shakers, thinkers, writers, speakers and informed citizens.

A stroll through the university is also nostalgic for me. It recalls visits to sports events — particularly football games — classes taken and seminars attended, drunken escapades and of course demonstrations. I’ll never forget the sight of large pot bellied cops in bright blue uniforms “hiding” behind small shrubs as I made my way (cutting high school classes) to anti war demonstrations in ’69 and ’70. Nor will I ever forget running along the creek half blind from a blast of tear gas. Forever a radical.

In Sproul Plaza there was a co-ed giving a tour,  probably to some of next year’s freshman class. I heard her say: “it’s a beautiful day, it feels like its gonna be hot, I like that.” And then she added cheerily, “no more rain!” Yes who would want rain in the middle of the worst drought in the state’s history? How did such a clueless idiot get into the university, let alone earn the right to give tours?

It is the accepted narrative. Everyone loves warm sunny days. Some people love them so much that they complain constantly about wet weather no matter how much it is needed. I used to say that if they didn’t like rain they ought to move to the desert, but it doesn’t seem they’ll have to. California is on the verge of turning into one.

I mentioned to a couple of people that some scientists believe that we could be at the beginning of 100 year long drought. Both times the response was the same: they won’t be around in 100 years. Hardy had had. Morons. That’s when the drought might end. The very very negative effects of the drought have already begun and will be getting worse in the next few years. In ten years? You don’t wanna know. In 20? Forget about it.

I’ve made much of the fact that I prefer clouds and cold and rain and mist and drizzle and fog and occasional wind. It’s more interesting. Hell to me is day after day of blue skies. In other words much of the last Winter was hell. Oh I don’t mind the occasional sunny day for variety’s sake, in fact one appreciates the sun when seeing less of it. Spend some time in England and note how happy the citizenry get on those rare days when the sun makes an appearance.

But I digress….

From Sproul I made the inevitable — for me — trip down Telegraph Avenue and a stop at one of my favorite places on the planet, Moe’s Bookstore. Any minute spent browsing there is a minute well spent. There are few greater joys for me than perusing the various aisles on the various floors. None is more enjoyed than the fiction section. It should not be a surprise that I made a purchase — Babylon Revisited a collection of short stories by one F Scott Fitzgerald. Amazing that I did not already own a copy.

From there I ambled on home and plunked myself down with my good friend the MacBook Pro to check on the latest doings in the world. You can see for yourself, the usual nonsense here and everywhere else.

As for me I think a nap may be in order.

(And know its time for a brief aside. Imagine you've got a broken leg and are in a cast. How many people would come up to you and say things like this: you don't need that cast, your leg's probably not broken at all, doctors are just trying to make money off you -or- I've had plenty of leg injuries and pains in my legs that doesn't mean its broken, take off that cast use some herbal medicine and you'll be fine -or- you really sure its broken, I mean come on, legs don't break its all in your leg -or- first you're different because you need to put a cast on your leg the next thing you think you can drink again. No of course no one ever says anything so idiotic when you have a physical injury. But when your wounds are mental or emotional you get exactly this kind of crap. People dispute medical advice, think you're not really suffering or assume they know "exactly" what you're going through. My advice to people suffering mental anguish is to be pretty damn selective who you share it with. It's not that people will use it against you, its just that they'll often manage to compound your woes with their well meaning but ill informed prattle.)

25 April 2015

2001 a Depression Odyssey Complete with a Trip to the Pier and a Fritz Lang Western



“Open the pod bay doors, Hal.” Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I don’t want to chronicle my depression, mostly because I don’t want to have it around to be chronicled. But there it is staring me in the face unwilling to move just a tad to the right or the left so that I can have an obstructed view of life. Weird how utterly immobile it can be. It’s like the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Looming over me ominous, mysterious and portentous.

And then there's Hal. The computer serving as my brain developing a personality of its own and inflicting upon me anything it damn well feels like. Don't know that I can disconnect it. Maybe I can just find the Hal part of my consciousness -- or is it sub? Anyway there's a part of my brain that thinks it knows what's best for me. I've got to reclaim it.

Perhaps I’m on a journey that will take me — like Dave in 2001 — to places I can’t even imagine now. Through the looking glass and into new dimensions seeing myself aged and as a star baby. Imagine what I might see, how I might feel. Acid flashbacks again? Or could it be that I’m going to start digging. Digging deeper and deeper and burying myself under tons of doubt and pain and regret and soul crushing anguish.

Maybe there’s a middle ground.

Here's one of those damn seagulls who wouldn't talk to me.
Went to the Berkeley Pier with the wife today. Negative ions. Wind. Vistas. Clouds. The awesome perfection of sea waters. The San Francisco Bay and beyond the Pacific Ocean. Talked to sea gulls. Noted the people with fishing poles. Low percentage place to fish. People used to have fishing boats. Still do but they tend to be upper middle class or above. The pier is for working stiffs. My maternal grandfather built his boat. He was a regular on the bay and out into the ocean. He caught a lot of fish too. My dad and big brother and even little me would go with him. All three of them were committed fisherman who loved to dip a pole in the line. My dad was still fishing at 91. Me, I never caught the angling bug. I’d like to take it up again. I’ve got a couple of nephews who could take me fishing if they had a mind to. It'd discussed but the young people today are so busy.

Some would argue that fishing is cruel. Well for the fish, maybe yeah. But if you’re gonna eat the damn thing well then its part of life. I do object to hunting. There’s no call to shoot ducks or deer and certainly not bears or lions (do people even eat lion?). I differentiate and maybe its out of convenience since I’m a pescatarian (no, its not a religion, it means I eat fish but not meat, for crying out loud look it up if you don’t believe it’s a thing).

But the folks at the pier aren’t being cruel to any fish. To themselves yes if they’ve built up hope about catching anything. We did see one chap pull in a net with a couple of crab in it. It didn’t seem as though he was going to return them to the briny so I believe he was in violation of fish and game laws.

The trip to the pier did me a world of good. That and a preceding brunch of huevos rancheros (yummy). We came back to the homestead and I watched Rancho Notorious (1952)
which I’d just DVR’d it having been on TCM earlier in the day. I’d never see it (past perfect tense). Not your typical Western. You can pretty much assume that when you see that its directed by Fritz Lang. It stars Marlene Dietrich, so you’ve got a German director and a German star in a film set in the Old West circa 1873. I’m not here to write a film review so you’ll have to be satisfied with me saying that this is not your run of the mill oater from the ‘50s. It’s a revenge tale that, unlike its characters, pulls no punches. I liked.

So ups, downs and sideways. I’m diving back into meditating and studying Italian and here I am once again scribbling words down and I have not stopped my every other day runs. Running is meditating for me. I get a lot of bad thoughts out, work out my body and my soul. It is empowering.


The end of the pier.
We all like a little bit of power in our lives. There being so much we are powerless over. Our greatest frustrations can come from those events or situations in which we are at the mercy of other people or nature or luck. My greatest frustrations often center around large numbers of people. Like in front of me in line. Or crowded onto a bus or subway car. Or changing in the same area of the locker room at the gym. People as individuals are generally pretty cool, but you put a bunch of them together and they can be a proper pain. And a cause of frustration. Running and meditating can relieve the stress. And I couldn't be depressed during a run if I tried. Nor while teaching nor during sex nor during a hearty laugh. The rest of the time, yes.

It might be that my dark moods will get a little brighter soon and that I’ll be merrily skipping down the street with daises in my hair and a song in my heart. Actually that would be kind of weird.

18 April 2015

Neither Peanuts Nor Cracker Jacks, Thank You, A Trip to the Ballpark

My vantage point from view reserved.

The first bit was written on MUNI on the way to a baseball game Thursday night. The reset I scribbled here today. Just so ya know.

The misery of this long slow hot bus ride. Crowded and smelly as the Chinese have shopped with raw fish and chicken among their buys. And I deep into an all consuming depression of dark grasping inexplicable sorrow a heart aching despite a life rich in gifts and health and great love. Odors so strong breathing becomes a chore I dream of sitting by a cool mountain stream with fog dipping into my eyesight and happy birds providing the only sounds. Glum and irretrievably solemn I languish in the searing suffering of the melancholy unable to fathom relief. Solace in knowing my destination is the ballpark and a cool outdoor baseball game. Following I'll return home to that perfect wife who gives all and asks little. I remember to look forward and to at least feign a smile. Ode to joy.
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I used to go to as many as 30 baseball games a season. Once I went to 39. Later it was down to about 20 and now its closer to ten. I've got other interests. Plus I get frustrated with how long games last now. Thankfully Major League Baseball is making efforts to speed up the game. In some respects I'm fully sated. My favorite team has won the World Series three times in the last five years. Prior to that they hadn't been champions since the year I was born. They were in New York then. They're in San Francisco now. My dad took me to games when I was a kid. Willie Mays was in centerfield. Growing up watching Mays play was an incredible treat. I've always said that my dad and Willie Mays are the only two people in the world who could tell me to do something and I'd do it without hesitation no matter what.

Another reason I go to fewer games is that I'm less comfortable around the people there. When the missus and I were in London two years ago we went to the theater and saw a play starring Helen Mirren. I felt at home with the people in the theater. Maybe I'm becoming a snob. Or have become. Thursday night behind me and to my right sat two young men in their early or mid twenties. They were not too dissimilar from what I was like at that age. Especially given the fact that they were sloshing down beer after beer and yakking non stop. However it was their constant and loud use of the word fuck or fucking or fucked that got to be annoying. I'm pretty liberal with my use of such words but tend not to use them loudly in public unless I've just had an anvil dropped on my foot.

Behind me and to my left I noticed a huge woman of about 30. Her belly was falling out of her shirt. She was wearing a half a ton of make up including some pretty thick eye liner. She was eating cotton candy. Later I happened to look back and noted that she was eating beef jerky. I intentionally took a third peek later on and she was working on some candy. Yikes.

Directly in front of me were a quartet that spent an inordinate amount of their time taking selfies. When they weren't taking pictures with their cell phones they were staring at their cell phones. They seemed oblivious to the fact that a baseball game was being played. A lot of people at sports events are only marginally interested in the sports part of the event. For a lot of people a baseball game is a golden opportunity to spend large portions of their paycheck eating overly priced unhealthy food. You see people making repeated trips to the concession stands missing several innings of play so that they can fatten up on junk. Of course the modern ballpark, like so many other places, is specifically designed to separate people from their money. Spending options are everywhere and are convenient and tempting. I always feel like spending too but realize there's little I want or need and everything is over priced.

There's a lot to do and see in modern stadiums. Plenty of distractions. Being an old geezer I go just to watch the game. Oldest daughter is my favorite person to go to the ballpark with. I started bringing her regularly when she was nine years old. She was not too interested in all the nonsense going on at the ballyard, even that designed for kids, she was there to watch the game and enjoyed doing so. As a young teen she began keeping score. One of my favorite memories is going to a game with my dad and daughter. Three generations.

The Giants fell behind, rallied to within one and tied the game with two out in the bottom of the 9th. Cheers and high fives and happy faces all around. But they blew a chance to win it after loading the bases. On to extra innings. They gave up a run and the earlier rally seemed wasted. But the Giants tied it again and loaded the bases again, this time with just one out. Again they failed to push across the winning run. On to the 11th and then the 12th the inning in which they fell behind by two. Again a rally, but this time only one run scored and it was over. Had they lost in in nine it would have saved me a lot of time and frustration. Sports will do that. They can get you dancing down the street and they can make you cranky and unhappy. Actually I've learned not to stay cranky or unhappy as the result of game for more than about 15 minutes after it ends. What's the point? Plus I have many years of experience suffering crushing defeats (I'm looking at you Cal football). I know from sports heartache and I know not to dwell on the pain. Wins on the other are worth going nuts over.

Sports is always to be put into perspective which can be pretty hard to do when you invest time, money, and most importantly, passion into it. The hardest part is the utter helplessness of it all. Sure you can cheer your lungs out, but really you have no influence over events. I love going to certain sports events but am weary of some of my fellow fans' behavior and their lack of appreciation for the efforts of participants. This is particularly noticeable among people who have never or rarely played a sport. They often complain and boo the loudest when an athlete making their best effort comes up short. When vitriol is directed at college athletes (remember these are very young adults who are not only not professional but are simultaneously studying at a university) I am particularly peeved.

Despite the failure of the hometown heroes my trip to the ballpark served its purpose to get me out and about and participating in a communal exercise. Depression was held at bay for awhile.  I'll be dragging my sorry ass out there again soon, I'm sure. You can't keep a good fan down.

(Shout out to my old friend Phil one of my favorite people to go to games with. He's living in the UK and rarely makes it to a baseball game but I'm keeping a seat warm for him.)

13 April 2015

Panic and Depression Are Not All They're Cracked Up to Be

I am a fist of my unease - Anne Sexton

I wouldn't know how to handle sanity. What does the fully functional, happy mind do? How do you think when it's so easy and painless without impediments? It's like excepting mediocrity as your base line. Vanilla.

Yet chronic mental illness is draining. Saps your energy. Leaves you limp and your blood feeling cold. Aggravated by the smallest inconvenience. Expelling great loud sighs and pondering a bleak future.

I avoided all that during the flat line phase of my life, faking sanity, getting by on heavy doses of anti depressants. Smiling amiably and feeling very little. My thought process was often bland and uninteresting and my creativity was deflavorized.

Ever disbelieve your happiness? I do. I don’t trust good moods. They are deceits, they are lies I tell myself. There is nothing there giving me joy, it is all illusion. The darkness beckons. The warm comfortable bath of depression. The sinking into melancholy. Surrounded by deep rich waters with waves washing over me and all is misery. The pain is steady and palpable and the most real feeling imaginable. Joy seems a canard. A lie life tells you to mask its truth. And there is no greater truth than panic....

Your hand reaches into a front pocket, pulling, tugging, grasping. The hand comes out and fumbles around. You feel your body temperature go up and your skin gets prickly and you clench your fists and buttocks. You feel light on your feet, much too light, as if you are about to float into the stratosphere. Your face is in a rictus. Teeth clenched. Fear is coursing through your brains. No, you don’t feel as if you are dying. You wish you could. You are more alive than anyone could possibly want to be and it is utterly terrifying and the worst of it is that this feels like your new reality. It is never going away. You are in a permanent state of hysteria and wouldn’t a gallon of alcohol guzzled quickly level things nicely or a pill. You have pills for this and hungrily reach for the bottle and fingers shaking put one in your mouth. You look at the time calculating when you will start to feel normal although just the taking of the pill is a comfort. You are a junky. A different kind to be sure, but you need this pill to feel normal. Meanwhile you twitch and your eyes open wide because closing them would be horrific. Finally you remember to breath normally. A little deeper than normal feels good. Just don’t hyperventilate. You know you can make it. But you’re not sure. You’re sure you can make it. But you don’t know. Finally the magic pill --ativan does nicely --  takes effect and you start to feel better, as if you maybe could function and will not go stark raving mad after all. But you are shaken, to the core of your being. You are no longer in a state of panic but are depressed because once again you were struck quite unexpectedly by the terror of a full fledged panic attack. You feel vulnerable and defeated and not at all in charge of your life. There is no solace. The depression will deepen in the coming hours and days. You will recover and feel good again. Until next time.

And so I struggle but I keep on getting up and moving and doing and being and pushing ahead and trying and searching and I have joys and satisfactions and pleasant encounters and with the wife kisses and more and there are hugs and hellos and two wonderful children and compliments and meals and coffee and tea and there is running and sweating and there is literature and films and music and dreams and poems and there is sometimes meaning and the lights of knowledge and understandings and there is ceaseless curiosity and always there is hope and I wouldn’t know how to give up.

I watched my father die and he never gave into it, he struggled to get up and to talk and to move. Death was all that was wrong with life to him. He wanted to be and fought that battle until I had to tell him it was over and he needed to let go and I’m sorry I did but I had to do it. Never yield. Never give an inch. In all the shit storms never bow out. It is only through the constant struggle that we grow and attain and really become and are who and what we are. Else is meaningless.


12 April 2015

The Creative Writing Teacher

“What should your expectations be when you write?” After introductions and distribution of the course syllabus, Mrs. Lemmings liked to ask this question on the first day of her adult education creative writing class.

There were 13 students in the class, one over her limit. Two students raised tentative hands. One was an elderly woman named Miss Ashby. Mrs. Lemmings was doubtful that Miss Ashby would live long enough to complete the eight week course as the poor old woman seemed to have one foot firmly in the grave and the other making its way in that direction. The other hand was raised by a student who was the polar opposite of the aging Miss Ashby. This was a young man who appeared a good ten years younger than the next oldest student and about three score younger than Old Lady Ashby. This was Tom Blake who Mrs. Lemmings would have a hard time not thinking of as Little Tommy Blake.

Seeing no third hand go up she opted to call on Mr. Blake, fearing that Miss Ashby might expire mid answer. “My expectation when I write is to create something special. Like I have to have a high, really high standard for myself. Every time I’ve got to do my best. I wanna be a great writer someday. Soon. I wanna be like Kerouac.”

“Thank you, Mr. Blake.” Really Mrs. Lemmings wasn’t all that thankful for young Mr. Blake’s answer. He sounded to her like an idiot. Frankly most students did and very little of worth came out of the question but it got students to think and had the added benefit of killing some class time.

“Okay who else will share?” With the ice broken several other hands shot up but Mrs. Lemmings felt duty bound to call on the nearly deceased Miss Ashby.

“I expect that I am going to be able to tell more of my story, more about my life. You see I’m trying to leave behind a record of what I’ve done and seen in my life. I take a creative writing class only to make my writing more interesting, you know. I want to add a little spice so that people will actually enjoy my stories….” Mrs. Lemmings quickly realized that Old Lady Ashby was one of those elderly people who would just ramble on if given half a chance and what she had know was a full chance.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Lemmings cut in when Miss Ashby took a breath, it was either that or watch as other students began to doze off one by one. She called on a few more students including a Ms. Regent who said she was going to write a revenge novel to expose her dirty, cheating, lying ex-husband Curtis and her expectations when she wrote was to work towards achieving that goal. Though of course she didn’t say so, Lemmings thought that was not only the best answer of the evening but one of the best she had ever heard. Unlike Ms. Regent, Lemmings had not been cheated on by a lying scumbag of a husband. Rolf Lemmings had taken the coward’s way out and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge leaving a ton of debt, a cat named Angus and a note saying: “Can’t face another day. Sorry all. Rolf Lemmings.” Not much of an explanation or a legacy. That was three years ago and Angus was still around and so was most of the debt but the grief had passed surprisingly quickly. It took her husband jumping into the Pacific Ocean to realize that she didn’t really love him anymore. So now she was 43 years old, childless and without a steady beau and teaching at a community college five days a week and adult ed once a week. None of her writing was selling and hadn’t in over 15 years. Still Priscilla Lemmings (nee Ashcroft) was happy. Maybe it was because her health remained good owing to a rigid diet, daily runs and frequent backpacking trips. Maybe it was because those backpacking trips afforded her an escape from the city and into the wilds of California, Nevada and Oregon where fresh air and beautiful vistas were plentiful. Maybe it was because she had a wide circle of friends and a sister, brother and assorted nieces and nephews and cousins. Maybe it was because she had a huge personal library of poetry and literature much of which had been bequeathed to Lemmings by her late father who had been a long time professor of literature. Or maybe it was because she had availed herself of the assignations possible from a website called Affair Alert through which one could find members of the opposite — or for that matter the same — gender for no-strings-attached sexual liaisons.

It had been a year now since her first “hook up” and Lemmings had since met with nearly two dozen men for individual nights of sex. Only a few of those of nights had been disappointments for one reason or another. That was more than out-weighed by the six or seven nights of pure sexual bliss. Lemmings had never been promiscuous, having only three lovers previous to Rolf who she married at age 27 and had been exclusive with for two years prior. In fact, Lemmings had been something of a prude when it came to sex, at least compared to her friends. Now she was making up for lost time. She kept to a strict rule of seeing none of these men a second time no matter “how good it is.” Frankly, Lemmings told her best friend Dora, she feared forming an emotional attachment to the type of men who would cheat on their spouse (as most admittedly were) or would need to use such a website to find a sexual partner (never mind the apparent hypocrisy of her position, she would say). Plus knowing it was for that one night only made it extra thrilling.

Lemmings refused to meet men at her house, which created problems with the ones with a wife at home. Usually men would spring for a room or had an available room, and if not Lemmings was willing to split the cost of a room. Several times she had been house sitting for a friend or relative and thus had an available place to use.

Only Dora knew of Lemmings occasional nocturnal activities and being saddled with an overweight husband and four children she was thrilled to live vicariously through Lemmings. Dora was only slightly disappointed that Lemmings never had anything kinky to report. It was always the usual kind of foreplay, a bit of oral sex and then a few standard positions of love making. Often with encores. Still it beat the hell out of Dora having to talk about her fat husband and whining children.

Lemming was neither proud nor ashamed of her sexual escapades. She viewed them as necessities. They were no different than a brisk hike in the Sierras or a morning run through her Berkeley neighborhood. They were a damn sight more interesting than teaching this adult ed class, though minus the monetary compensation. Lemmings frequently thought she’d like to re-marry but she was in no hurry and didn’t currently see any prospects. It was enough right now to be the boss of her own life with the only real burden being the debt that was years away from being vanquished. When the debt was gone she could bid adieu to teaching adult ed. Meanwhile….

“I’d like you to start out by writing one strong paragraph that describes an imaginary place. It doesn’t need to be a fantasy, you can be describing a realistic place, as long as it is only one that exists in your imagination. Please take your time with this. You have 15 minutes so I really want you to give this some thought.”

Two and half hours was too long for a class. Lemmings had tried to convince the acting director of the adult ed program that two classes a week at an hour and a quarter would be better. But the acting director reminded Lemmings that the word acting was affixed to his title and there would be no schedule changes until he was permanent or a new person took over and even then space limitations would probably prohibit such a change. Lemmings hated bureaucracy  She especially hated bureaucrats. They were generally both spineless and heartless and lacking any imaginative.

Mercifully the clock finally neared the class end time of 9:30 and Lemmings was able to give the homework assignment and tell everyone how nice it was to meet them and how she looked forward to working with them. It was total bullshit but obligatory. The teacher was not surprised when the decaying Miss Ashby approached with a question before she could get out the door. After her question was answered Miss Ashby tried to launch into a monologue. Lemmings saw that the old bag was going to talk well into the wee hours so -- as politely as possible -- made her excuses and got into her 1999 Audi and drove home little expecting what would await her.

*********************************************************************************

When Priscilla Lemmings pulled into the driveway of her North Berkeley cottage she immediately knew something was different. She got out of the car hurriedly anxious to discern what was amiss. It wasn't until Lemmings was on her porch with her key that she realized that there was a man sprawled out in front of her front door.

It was difficult to be sure because she'd forgotten to leave the porch light on but the man appeared to be asleep. Lemmings leaned forward using the light from her cell phone to illuminate the man.

"I am the fucking king of Sweden!" he bellowed, scaring the bejeezus out of Lemmings in the process.

She stepped back dropping her phone in the process and nearly tumbling down the three steps of the porch. The man stood. It was Rolf. Her late husband. In the flesh. Or a ghost. Priscilla Lemmings gasped, her right hand reaching for her heart. A heart that was now beating very fast.

"Didn't expect to see me, did you?" Rolf asked.

Priscilla felt a wave of panic. She gulped, blinked and physically steadied herself. It occurred to her that this was not a nightmare despite very much feeling like one.

"Relax, let me explain." Rolf then paused and wiped the dust off his suit. Priscilla felt calmer, she liked the idea that an explanation was forthcoming. One was certainly required given that she had identified Rolf's body. It had been picked up by the coast guard just a few minutes after hitting the water as a trawler happened to be just 100 yards away from impact and a few on board had even seen Rolf's swan dive.

As Rolf continued to tidy himself and delaying his explanation,  Priscilla finally managed to speak: "You can't be Rolf. I saw you dead. You were cremated --"

Rolf caught it."Yes about that cremation, I never said I wanted that. Then again I left no instructions at all so I can't say as I blame you. I trust the life insurance was enough to make things comfortable for you?"

"There was no life insurance!" Priscilla had accepted that this was her late husband -- just like that. "You lied to me. You told me a couple of times you had life insurance and I believed you."

Now Rolf was the one who was surprised. "I didn't have life insurance? What the hell was I thinking. It seems eons ago."

"Yes and very little in the savings," she added.

"Yes I suppose I didn't plan very well. I'd been feeling blue for a long time but only decided to end it all a few days before. Say can we go in? It's getting a little chilly."

Priscilla somehow couldn't think of any reason why they shouldn't go in. She immediately sat in her usual spot on the sofa. Rolf sat in a chair opposite.

"It's nice to be home. The place looks spiffy." Rolf was being pleasant and enthusiastic. More so than Priscilla could ever remember him being.

"I could go for something to drink. Got a beer?'

Something had been bothering Priscilla -- aside from the fact that the ghost of her husband was sitting across from her -- something wasn't right. Even if she accepted the idea that Rolf -- dead these three plus years -- was sitting across from her, there was something phony about the whole scene. The request for a beer was what did it.

"You're not Rolf! Rolf never, ever drank beer. I hope you're not going to suggest this is something you picked up in heaven or hell or limbo or wherever you've been. And Rolf never said the word 'spiffy' and you also said feeling 'blue' another expression Rolf never used. And the birthmark on your cheek seems to have disappeared. Who are you and why are you doing this and you better talk fast because I've got the police on speed dial and can scream pretty fucking loud." Priscilla had gotten angrier with each word she spoke.

"Ahh shit...I'm Rolf's cousin Yale. From back east. We met a couple of times..." Yale's voice faded. He slumped, he studied his lap.

Now Lemmings felt empowered. Her confidence was back. Her eyes were like slits as she studied the impostor. "I remember you were at the wedding and an anniversary for Rolf's parents. I also remember how much you looked like Rolf. But why this, this sick joke -- and it better be good."

Yale explained that it he was in San Francisco for a few weeks and instead of just popping over for a visit or calling first he thought it might be fun to play a little trick. It had especially helped that he'd been drinking a lot all day. He'd come to the house several hours earlier not realizing that Lemmings was teaching a night class. He'd fallen asleep where she found him although he actually woke up when she closed her car door. Yale said the declaration that he was the king of Sweden was based on a childhood game he'd played with Rolf.

"Can I crash here tonight? It's kind of late to make it back to my hotel in San Fran."

The weary Lemmings agreed adding that she'd be up about seven for a run before getting ready to teach a 10:00 am class at the city college. "Try to be gone as early as possible. Maybe we can have lunch before you go back. Assuming you're sober." Lemmings made a bed for Rolf's cousin on the bed and then retired for the evening. That night she had a very vivid dream.

The dream took place that very night in which she was sleeping. In it Lemmings got out of bed and went into the kitchen for a glass of water. Standing there was the ghostly apparition of her deceased husband Rolf. He'd poured two glasses of water, one he gave to her. There was a very serious tone to their encounter. She talked with Rolf updating him about her life and Rolf in turn explained his suicide and the terrible depressions that had plagued him and gone untreated his whole life. Both of them cried. They hugged, then Rolf vanished. Lemmings returned to her bed and awoke from the dream. She was quite shaken by the dream and the whole experience of Yale's stupid practical joke and her first prolonged dream of Rolf.

It was near time to go for her morning run so Lemmings put on her shorts, running shoes and sweat shirt. On her way out the door she noticed that Yale had already left. Oddly there was no sign he'd slept on the sofa at all. Maybe he'd thought better of it and made his way back to the city right after she went to bed.

It was a particularly good run. Some are better than others. Occasionally she'll feel like superwoman as if she could run forever and had infinite speed and strength. This was such an occasion.

Lemmings showered and ate breakfast and thought about her teaching day. It was a Thursday which meant two classes, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon.

Lemmings started to pick up around the house and what she didn't notice bothered her -- the bedding. What had Yale done with the bedding she'd laid out on the sofa? Lemmings double checked but sure enough it wasn't there. He couldn't have known what closet to put it in, but just the same she checked. It was there. Folded. Why would he put it back an without washing it, unless he didn't use it? This made no sense. Lemmings remembered that Yale said he was staying at the Commodore Vincent Hotel. It was an easy name to remember, especially since she and Rolf spent a night there one New Year's Eve. She called the hotel and asked for Yale. No one of that name was registered there. What the fuck?

Priscilla Lemmings was sure she had seen and talked to Rolf's cousin Yale the night before. In her house. It wasn't a dream. Rolf's visit was in the kitchen was a dream. The beer bottle. Yale had drank a beer. But there was no bottle in the living room or in recycling. But she's served him one. Or had she? How could I? I never have beer in the house. Lemmings was scared.

She thought to check the kitchen again. There was a glass of water. Not hers. Where Rolf had stood. in her dream. Priscilla refused to believe she was cracking up. But the evidence seemed to suggest otherwise.

The phone rang. It was an administrative assistant from the city college. "Mrs. Lemmings, we need you to drop off your keys," she said.

"What on earth for?" Lemmings couldn't imagine why.

"Why, you can't have keys when you're no longer employed with us. We discussed this last week when you were let go."

Lemmings sat heavily onto her sofa. She vaguely remembered a conversation with some people at the school including a dean about her no longer being able to fulfill her duties adequately and her classes being taken over by someone else. This must mean she had no classes to teach today. How could she have forgotten that something, she wasn't sure what, had caused them to let her go. "And again Ms. Lemmings, I'm so sorry about your loss, I realize that the shock of your husband's sudden passing last Summer was still too fresh in your mind to allow you to return to the classroom."

Last Summer? But it was three years ago, not six months. Wasn't it? Had her mind fast forwarded two and half years?

A memory. Rolf coming home unexpectedly from a business trip. Finding her in bed with a man she'd met on Affair Alert. Discovering that she'd been using the site to meet men. A week later jumping to his death.

"What now, what do I do now?" Lemmings asked aloud. "I'm so goddamned confused!" she added in a shout. Lemmings shuffled into the kitchen. Yesterday's newspaper was still on the table. Above the crease there was an article about a home invasion on Regent Street in Berkeley. An old woman named Ashby had been attacked, but the assailant, whose name was Tom Blake, had been arrested.

Lemmings began to weep. Those were names from her writing class last night. Or had she made up the class just as she had made up Yale's strange visit? Lemmings realized she was cracking up. She needed help. The only real thing that had happened was Rolf's visit. But he was dead. Lemmings looked out the kitchen window and noticed a hummingbird.

Over by the sink was her new butcher knife. It was stainless steel. Long, sharp and beautiful. Lemmings held it up letting the overhead light reflect off the blade.


05 April 2015

The Seemingly Unbelievable But I Swear to God True Story of When Edwin Meeks Disrespected Hitler

Edwin Meeks
This is a true story and I’ll fight any man who says it isn’t. It’s about what happened when Edwin Meeks met Hitler. I know a lot of people have called me a liar but I’ve put this story together from FACTS. I came upon those FACTS from letters, newspaper accounts, talking to folks and from what mostly from the himself. I happen to know more about Meeks than anyone else outside his family probably ever did. Come to think of it I knew MORE than anyone in his family because he barely had a family. His folks both died when he was growing up and his brother moved off when Meeks was just out of high school and his sister and him didn't much get along. It's me who knows Meeks and his story. Anyway, here it is.

Meeks was a writer. He pounded out stories for the local paper every day of the week. Drunk driving arrests, high school basketball games, city council meetings, record sized fish caught, you name it. He also re-worked wire service stories, although that generally was just a matter of editing them for length. He hunted and pecked at his old Royal typewriter on the old pine desk in the old room he had in the old newspaper office, often with his hat still on and a cigarette between his teeth. Besides the editor, Sam McGee, and the ad man, Chester Grant, Meeks was the only full timer on the paper. And there weren't too many part timers at that.

Thing about Meeks was that he fancied himself more than just a purveyor of local trivia and scandal. Why when Meeks got home the first thing he'd do was to sit himself down and start pounding out short stories, fictional ones, that is, on his other Royal typewriter. His plan was to someday compile the stories into several collections to be published to, these are his words, "widespread acclaim." Oh sure those few fiction pieces he’d had in print so far — mostly in a county magazine — had been called things like  “simplistic doggerel” or “base humor” or “unimaginative and cliche ridden” by snooty critics, but Meeks didn't care, he said he was saving the good stuff. No way he was putting his best material in those low circulation periodicals. Nope. He was aiming higher.

Everyone in town knew Meeks. He had been born and raised in Catchings and had hardly strayed except when he went to the state capital (that was Madison because, you see, Catchings is in Wisconsin) for some kind of story or once when he vacationed all the way down in Florida. Meeks had a wife for a short time but she run off with a salesman who came through town once. Meeks had never seemed interested in replacing her. “One wife for a lifetime is enough,” he'd say. But secretly he really missed Sadie and hoped that once he hit it big she’d come running back or that he’d find himself another gal. "Maybe one a lot younger and prettier than Sadie" he'd say, though that was not likely for Sadie was a real beaut. Speculation was she wanted more out of life than a town like Catchings and a fella like Meek could offer, so hitched her wagon to the first real hotshot that came through town and showed an interest in her. Last I heard she'd busted up with the guy and was waitressing in some dive in Chicago. Serves her right for runnin' off.

Yeah so Meeks was a homebody. You could generally find him at his desk in the Catchings Gazette or at home or at Merv’s. That was a cafe where Meeks took a lot of his meals. He’d almost always order whatever the daily special was for dinner. That was Meeks, a creature of habit. The only variance to his usual routine was when Meeks chasing a story or when he would go down to the Badger’s Bucket to wet his whistle -- which he’d done most Friday nights since prohibition had come to a merciful end three years before this story commences. Meeks was not a big drinker but he could hold his own with some of the big, rough loggers who sauntered into the Bucket.

Sometimes Meeks would, as he put it himself, "quaff beer" and other times it was whiskey. Meeks was a medium sized fella with a pretty good build. He'd played some ball in school but never starred. I suppose he was a handsome enough fellow though a few people over the years poked fun at his bigger than average proboscis. "It's cause I got a nose for news," Meeks would say to explain his schnoz.

Me, I'm Brent Hillegass and I'm the baker in Catchings but also chief of the volunteer fire department and the best amateur fisherman and hunter in the area. You can ask anybody, they'll confirm it.

What happened to Meeks was something so amazing he'd have never imagined it for one of those stories he was always writing.

It was a Wednesday the first of April 1936. I remember exactly because I'd been complaining early that morning to my wife, Maude that now that April was hear the dang snow was welcome to leave. And I know it was a Wednesday because that's the night of the town council meetings which I always attended and there was one that night that was mostly gonna be for jawing about building a new bridge over Willow Creek.

It was late morning and I stopped in at Merv's to see if they needed anything special for the next day and how was the new rhubarb pie I'd baked selling. Meeks was at his usual spot at the counter sipping a coffee and smoking a cigarette and ogling the new waitress named Beulah who was as cute as could be and damn well knew it. I sat for a spell next to Meeks, us being good pals and all, and we shot the breeze. I noticed that he had a bunch of letters in one of this coat pockets and happened to ask what they were. No reason, just making conversation. Meeks said: "my morning mail. Haven't opened it yet. I like to let it age a bit before seeing what I got."

"You're an odd duck in some ways," I said. I added a big smile just in case Meeks didn't know I was kidding him.

"I suppose," he said. "If it'll make you feel better I'll take a look at what I got." And with that Meeks tore into them. The first three were nothing of interest, bills and such I guess. But when Meeks started reading the last of them his eyes got as big as pie pans.

I noticed his wide-eyed gaze and asked him, "what the dickens is it, Bub?" ( I usually called Meeks, by that nickname, Bub.)

"I just can't believe. I can...not...believe it. It's my brother, Hank."

From that I figured ole Hank had died and this letter was notifying Meeks of that fact. I was wrong.

"Bad news, there Bub?"

"Not hardly. Hank is in Germany of all places. And he's invited me to come to the Olympic games there this Summer."

I wouldn't have guessed such a thing if you'd given me a million chances. "Since when has Hank been in Germany?"

That's Merv's with Merv at the counter and yours truly.
Then by way of explanation Meeks read me the pertinent part of the letter: "Came to this part of the world last year and have made a lot of money so have settled for awhile. I want to share my good fortune with my only brother. Feel bad that I haven't seen you in so long and this will be a way of repaying you. If you agree to come out I will arrange passage on an ocean liner all paid for and you can stay with me in Berlin for the entire time of the Olympics. Course I'll also cover expenses for your trip home too."

"He say what kind of business?"

"Not here but I imagine its in plastics. That's what he'd been involved in last I heard." Then after a pause Meeks practically shouted, "holy cow my brother is doin' business with the damn Nazis." Beulah turned around to see what the fuss was and ole Merv himself gave us the eye from over at the cash register. Merv liked a lot of chatter in his cafe but he didn't care for raised voices or cuss words. "That's for the Bucket," he'd say.

Meeks apologized. We talked some more and Meeks did some thinking and realized he hadn't seen Hank since 1925 and then for a day, when he swung through town. He'd not seen him before then since Hank left Catchings in 1916 when Meeks was just graduating high school.

The way Meeks figured it he had to go. There was no way in the world he could pass up going to Nazi Germany and to the Olympic games and covering them not just for the Gazette but for other nearby rags that'd be getting exclusive reports from a local lad. Heck, Meeks figured he could write up some stuff that would get national play. That was Meeks, always the optimist.

Of course Old Man McGee was glad for Meeks to go to Germany and find out what it was all about over there and write it up for the Gazette. He probably knew he'd need to hire several part timers to fill in for Meeks while he was gone in addition to doin' a bit of extra work himself, but McGee was probably glad to get Meeks out of his hair (what little he had) for awhile. Like I said Meeks and I were pals but I knew good and well he could be a pest, especially to work with, what with all the ideas, inspirations and suggestions he constantly had.

For the three months before he left, Meeks was doing one of three things: researching and planning for his trip; talking about his trip; or doing his usual routine at the Gazette. Most of us were good and ready for him to be on his way when he finally took the train to New York (which is where he was booked on a liner for Europe). He'd damn near talked all our ears off. I've never seen a grown man more excited in my life.

Now I wasn't a witness to the rest of this but I pieced it all together from various sources including the letters Meeks wrote direct to me. Whatever else Meeks was he was no liar nor even a teller of tall tales. Heck, the man didn't so much as exaggerate. So here goes.

Of all the surprises and shocks and who'd've-thunk-its from Meeks' trip, one of the most stunning was that he had a shipboard romance. It was with an English woman name of Cynthia Dixon of who was some highfalutin society dame. Why she fell for a regular fella like Meeks when she coulda landed her a duke or an earl or maybe even a prince I don't know. But she did. Like I said earlier Meeks was not exactly on the prowl for a romance so he really must have been taken by this Dixon gal. Anyway she was going to Germany for the Olympics too so they arranged to sit together on the train from Hamburg to Berlin. Whether they carried on like a married couple -- if you know what I mean -- I cannot say nor would I. Meeks sure wouldn't have told if they did. But in his own words they were "mostly inseparable."

When they got to Berlin Meeks' brother was waiting to take him to this big fancy apartment he had there. Miss Dixon went off with her people which included her folks, a brother and a sister. The sister was in an Olympic horse riding competition, which is why the family was in Berlin.

The way Meeks tells it his brother was making big business deals with the Nazis selling them things to use plastics for or plastics to make things with I don't recall which. Meeks flat out told Hank that he thought it was wrong to be selling to Nazis. But Hank told him there was nothing to all the stories about Hitler and them being so awful. Sure they didn't like Jews but they weren't going to do them nor anyone else any harm. Meeks never believed his brother and thought all he cared about was making a buck and would do business with the devil himself (which he pretty much was doing).

That bastard Hitler's in the middle of the picture at the Olympics.
The Olympics started and a day or two after Meeks got there. He was at the opening ceremony where he saw Hitler himself. Hank had managed seats that were pretty darn good. Turns out Hank had gotten to be a pretty big wheel. He was making big money and meeting all the top brass not just in Germany but wherever he went.

Meeks was writing up a storm about anything and everything he saw including all his impressions and thoughts and feelings. He suspected that the Nazis had swept a lot under the rug before their visit (boy howdy was he right about them). Meeks was no fool and he'd been studying up on them since they came to power. He was the first person I knew of to predict that they'd bring nothing but trouble to the world and they were making life miserable for their Jewish citizens. He didn't like the way the Germans were smiling and acting like everything was jake during the Olympics, it just didn't set with everything he knew. Plus their way of marching around and always "Heil" this and "Heil" that seemed wrong. Meeks saw right through them sonsabitches. After a day or two he realized that arguing with Hank about it wouldn't come to nothing so he let it go. Besides Hank was his brother and had provided this opportunity for him

Meeks may have been able to put differences aside and get along with his big brother but Miss Dixon had no such luck with her family. They didn't cotton to her being squired around by some common American fella who couldn't have afforded to pay his own way around Europe. Seems Miss Dixon was what you might call quite a playgirl and had been going out with all manner of hotshots from all over the world. The family was ready to see her settle down and they didn't want her wasting time with the likes of Edwin Meeks, reporter from Catchings, Wisconsin. I guess they had the pull with her to make their objections law so that was that for Meeks' romance. In other circumstances Meeks might have suffered a broken heart but he was so excited about his journalistic adventure that he managed to put the affair with Miss Dixon behind him with no bitterness towards the family. He's a better man than I ever was.

Much of the ado at the 1936 Olympics was about the great U.S. Negro runner Jesse Owens and his gold medal wins that made a fool of Hitler and the whole Nazi notion of a master race. Meeks wrote all about it and even managed an interview with Owens and you can find his stories in the Catchings Gazette as well as other papers and magazines. Meeks also wrote what he thought of Berlin and the Olympics and the damn Nazis and made the papers with them. There were enough other reporters who were there long before and stayed well after that no one was so interested in what Meeks had to say other than papers around our area. When it came right down to it Meeks was a good but his writing wasn't special enough to interest the big city rags or national magazines. I hate to say it about an old pal, but Meeks was no great talent. A man to be admired and respected and in places like Catchings valued, but nothing out of the ordinary.

It was towards the end of the Olympics that Hank was invited by the top Nazi brass for a reception and dinner that featured none other than Adolph Hitler himself. Being a bigwig Hank was able to finagle an invite for his baby brother. Meeks was overjoyed. It wasn't that he was so excited about shaking hands with the head of the Third Reich, it was more that he could turn his observations of the occasion into a story that editors all over the U.S. would be unable to resist.

So now we get to the big event of this whole story and practically the whole purpose for telling it. Meeks was a journalist and a dedicated, hard-working one who took his job seriously. But he was also a very moral man who didn't care for things like fascists or bullies or big phonies. Also, Meeks was -- as I didn't find out until later -- half Jewish. His mother's maiden name was Horowitz.

Come the day of the reception and Meeks was of two minds. I don't know about you, but I believe when you've got a task at hand its best to be focused on it and have your mind made up. But Meeks went to that reception half way thinking he was a journalist who was recording history and half way thinking he hated these people and what they had done and were liable to do and wanting them to know it. Its plain that the second half one over.

The reception was in some huge hall that was decorated all fancy and of course had them big Nazi swastika flags all over. Meeks and his brother were greeted by some English speaking Nazi who knew Hank pretty well. He told them all about the protocol like what to do and say when they met Hitler. Meeks said he didn't hear much of the what this mucky muck said because he was beginning to do a slow burn being among all these uniformed Nazis and them big flags and Nazi symbols. Wasn't too much later that they were led into a big room were Hitler was greeting people. Meeks and Hank got into a line to shake the Fuhrer's hand. Meeks tried to talk himself into doing the proper thing and shaking the bastard's hand and saying this greeting he'd learned in German. I believe he really meant to. But as the moment came Meeks thought about his mother and what lousy bastards he figured these Nazis were and he couldn't do it. Meeks said it came to him only as he was next in line. What he did was that instead of shaking hands with Hitler he took one step back away from him and thumbed his nose at the head Nazi. It was the full thumb to nose and fingers wriggling treatment. Then Meeks broke away from the line not knowing what he was going to do next.

Well he needn't have worried about his next move, that was settled for him. Before he knew it Meeks was surrounded by angry Nazis and his brother Hank who was angriest of them all. There was quite the commotion as Meeks was led out of the building and told he'd made a big insult and practically ruined the evening and strained U.S.-German relations and on and on. Hank followed Meeks out and gave him what for telling him to get the hell out of his place and he wasn't no brother of his anymore and that was it between them and that he'd better not have ruined his business deals and that he was worse than the Nazis for being so rude.

Next day Meeks was led by some Nazis to the train station and sent to Hamburg to take the next boat out of Germany and don't ever come back.

This whole time Meeks was thinking two things: I sure screwed up and by god I'd do the same again. For the rest of his life he held in his mind these two opposite feelings of the occasion. Personally I agree with him on both counts.

Meeks came back to Catchings and everyone wanted to talk to him and hear about Germany and the Olympics. Most of us thought he was a hero for thumbing his nose at Hitler although at that time a lot of folks never believed that Hitler would amount to much of a threat and would have laughed if you'd said he'd start another world war or kill of millions of Jews. There were also some yokels who didn't believe Meeks' story. The hell with them, I say. Like I said, Meeks was no liar.

Of course Meeks went straight back to work at the Gazette where he ran of series of articles about his trip -- leaving out his romance and the fact that he thumbed his nose at Hitler. A few papers in the area picked up his stories but Meeks was never able to get anything published outside of Wisconsin, nor even Milwaukee for that matter.

Meeks kept writing at the Gazette and he kept writing his short stories many of which now included Nazis in 'em (I know cause I often read Meeks' stuff). But he never got any of his fiction published. Not one story. When the war broke out everyone told Meeks how right he was about the dirty Nazis. Meeks had a notion to try to go to Europe to cover the story but somehow could never get out of Catchings. It was during the war that met he met a school teacher who'd move into town. She was a widow by the name of Nora Bowditch. They was about the same age and they hit it off and before you know it were married. Meeks was happy.

When the war ended and everyone found out how horrible those concentration camps were Meeks again was reminded about how he'd seen it coming. I don't know that the man took much satisfaction in being proved right about such terrible things.

Meeks kept pounding away at his royal typewriters, the one at the office and the one in the little house he lived in with Nora. Everyday the Gazette was filled with his articles, but try as he might none of his fiction ever got published anywhere. Meeks kept at it until late late in 1953 when cancer laid him low. He'd been diagnosed that Spring but kept working as long as he could. Nora took leave from the school and stayed at his bedside. Meeks finally passed on February 27, 1954 at the age of 56.

That was six weeks ago and I've finally been able to write his story. Now that I have I'm not sure what to do with it. Maybe in the future someone will find this and think it worth sharing. But right now I miss Meeks and wish that instead of writing this I could be sitting with him in Merv's drinking coffee and having a slab of pie.