©copyright 2021 Paul Steven Stone
This is all so strange.
I feel as if a dozen unpleasant bodily sensations have switched on at the same moment, all of them so far beyond my control it is as if I observe them from a polite distance at the same time they run riot within me.
Perhaps you will recognize the symptoms.
My stomach is upset. I am sweating profusely from glands strategically placed throughout my body. My vision has been slightly blurry for the last half hour, and every once in a while I notice my hands actually suffering tremors. All of this relates directly to concerns I have about my companion of the morning, who is not even in sight at the moment.
Still, if I cannot see him, I know for certain he is somewhere in this noisy, over-crowded function hall, running around with other nine- and ten-year-olds, probably committing unintentional acts of minor arson. He has brown hair and was last seen wearing a blue cub scout shirt topped by a neatly rolled, banana-yellow bandana whose rolled ears come together over his breastbone in a metal ring embossed with the blue and gold image of a wolf.
This nine-year-old cub scout is of average height for his age and thin; I prefer to think of him as wiry rather than frail. Once, long ago, he possessed wispy golden curls for hair, but now they are gone and in their place lies a thick field of brown matting, with a cowlick rising in the back and reaching out like a perpetual waterspout. If I think about it, he looks much like I did when I was his age, even down to the way he divides his hair with a half-hearted part on the right side of his head.
Like many things in his young world, the part in his hair runs barely longer than the thought that created it.
I am talking about my little boy, of course, my very own nine-year-old son Michael, who I call Mickey and who, at this precise moment, though I cannot see him, is running around somewhere in this room, most likely laughing and shouting with his friends. An easy assumption, since most of the room’s occupants are contributing without restraint to the deafening volume of noise and chaos that surrounds me.
There is no reason to be concerned about this, however. Given the circumstances, the shouts and screams and laughter are entirely appropriate. Manufacturing noise is what young boys do when you bring them together in large numbers in confined spaces. And they are definitely here in large numbers. I estimate more than two hundred cub scouts present, half of whom are in constant physical motion, their screams, cheers and cries rebounding off the linoleum floors and green painted walls of St. Theresa’s church basement hall without noticeable rhythm or pause.
If you happen to be a parent, you will have been in countless rooms like this before. As the father of three children, I have been in a thousand at least, or so it seems. They are easy to remember, these anonymous rooms dedicated to civic ritual, because they are all so similarly forgettable. You only need remember one to remember them all.
These are the rooms where parents organize book fairs and bake sales, where little leagues hold their spring sign-ups, where Christmas Pageants are presented and sixth-grade dances are chaperoned. And, oh yes, where cub scouts gather on an early February morning, dragging their fathers out from winter hibernation and post-NFL depression for the Pinewood Derby.
If you look in the approximate center of this swirling mass of blue-shirted boys you will see a clearing in the middle of which is an imposing structure that looks something like the downhill segment of a roller coaster. The structure, the actual Pinewood Derby ‘racetrack,’ begins about four feet off the ground at its starting gate and runs downhill for twenty feet before reaching the linoleum floor. On top are three parallel wooden tracks, each with an elevated guiderail down the center on which the model racecars are placed; and down which, once the starter restraints are removed, they race furiously for all of 4 or 5 seconds, totally under the impetus of physics and the requirements of gravity, until they cross over a finish line marked in yellow tape on checkered linoleum squares two feet beyond the end of the wooden run.
I marvel at how something that happens this quickly, in five whizzed-by seconds, can be so captivating and exciting for nine- and ten-year-old boys. But then I realize we are dealing with new age children whose attention spans blink on and off in nano-seconds, and my sense of wonder is blurred by the sharpening image of a reality that never ceases to surprise and discomfort me.
I have long realized that I am little more than a stranger in this strange land of my children. No longer the child at the center of his own universe, I have become ad adult—worse even, a parent—and have been transformed from a leading player in my life’s story to an inconsequential character in that of my children’s. Leaving myself no room to hide from life’s unpleasant realities, I accept the fact that I have risen to heights of inglorious accomplishment which parallel, even surpass, those of my own parents. I am now, without doubt, tolerated by my children as culturally obtuse and terminally dimwitted. Or, as they might phrase it, “…too dim to light a refrigerator.”
How many times have I been startled by the fact that I do not understand the world my children inhabit? Their particular zone of the planet is not a familiar or welcoming place for me with its quick cut video images, its harsh music, its casual familiarity with foul language and sex, its unattractive hair styles and, most especially, its body jewelry puncturing the human form at any number of inappropriate places. I make it a point never to count the number of piercing metal objects my eldest daughter Susie has mounted, like teenage battle trophies, on the rims of both ears. The one time I jokingly suggested she might imperil herself by exposing her head during a lightning storm, she did not appreciate the humor.
Then again, where the women in my family are concerned, the men of the family rarely meet their high standards for humor.
You will notice that none of these aforementioned women from my aforementioned family suffered the need or the interest this morning to accompany their brother Mickey and myself down to this church basement; cub scout activities occupying one of the lower positions on their menu of interesting spectating sports. But the truth of the matter is we do not need women with us this morning, my little boy and I. What we need is luck. And I am not referring to the winning kind, as you will soon come to see.
Have you ever been to a Pinewood Derby?
This is my first Pinewood Derby, and already it has become one of life’s little learning experiences.
It is a marvelous thing to watch the individual races, or heats as they are called. Once the three racecars have been placed in position, usually with extreme care by their respective cub scout owners, the thunderous buzz of noise and energy subsides, as if a switch had been thrown under an immense weight of expectation and anxiety. Then the individual gates, nothing more than pins that retract into the guiderails, are simultaneously withdrawn, and instantly the noise level shoots up again, as if the audio segment of a hurricane or some other ferocious natural cataclysm had been abruptly turned back on; with no apology offered for the interruption.
Under the rising storm of screams and cheers, the three cars duel each other for all of three to five seconds. Each race, if you pay close attention, has its own unique qualities. Most are actually decided in the split second after the restraining pins fall away, when a single car usually ends the suspense by jumping to the lead and holding onto it for the entire distance. Occasionally, the contest is a seesaw battle for supremacy between two cars; but occasionally, all three vie for first place.
If you are not feeling overwhelmed by the desire to personally witness a Pinewood Derby, do not be concerned. It is not an experience whose pleasures are easily described or vicariously enjoyed. To be fully appreciated, it must be experienced firsthand. Otherwise, there is very little for one to hold onto. Without the roar of the crowd, the surprisingly stylish, almost professional look of the home-made racers, the titillating presence of a table filled with Pinewood Derby trophies, each with its gilded racecar pitched upwards in a drunken strutting pose and, especially, without the non-stop buzz of two hundred would-be Grand Prize Winners, you are left with nothing more than a child’s racing game to consider—two hours of individual heats, three cars at a time, five seconds to a run.
But make no hasty judgements. Do not be deceived by my inability to convey the thrill of this unique annual sport competition.
More often than you would expect, the outcome of a race is too close to call and the two official cub scout spotters lying on their stomachs flanking the finish line, their faces pressed close to the linoleum floor, call out excitedly that a second heat is needed. For the most part, however, in four out of five races, there is usually a clear cut winner crossing the finish line first. And conversely, two clear cut losers following soon thereafter.
And now, if you would, take a close look at this object in my hand.
Allow me to raise it up for your inspection.
This—for those of you who cannot see, or for those who cannot identify what they see—this is one of those rare Pinewood Derby powerhouse racecars. In fact, so far this morning, this humble creation has powered itself to victory in five different heats, two of which were decided in second heat runoffs.
But now, take a good look at this demon of the Derby and you will start to understand why my nervous system is working under such a severe strain.
Go ahead, look closely at this leading contender for one of those ten dollar trophies with the gilded plastic racecars snobbishly tooting upward into the air. If you did not already know what it was supposed to be, and that it had taken its place amongst model racecars by the hundreds, what would you see? What would you make of what you see?
At first glance you would find yourself looking, with wonderment, at a small elongated block of wood that someone foolishly painted fuchsia. I say ‘foolishly’ for the simple reason that this shade of fuchsia is so bright and garish it seems patently inappropriate for an object this small and so poorly defined. There is also the possibility that some observers, though they would be committing a grievous mistake, would look at this painted wooden form resting in my hand and imagine its color to be pink.
There it is: ‘pink.’ I said it. Please, God, let that be the last time the word passes through mine or anyone else’s lips.
But continue to rest your eyes upon this object, and observe closely what happens.
Gradually, the object, or its general shape, begins to grow familiar—am I right? You begin to detect car-like qualities in the way its various aspects come together and occupy space. Yes, its shape definitely bears rough resemblance to that of a car. Or a child’s idea of a car; like a cartoon automobile magically brought to three-dimensional reality.
But still, the resemblance is not clear enough to give you confidence in your opinion. You suspect it was meant to be a car, but you are not ready to commit yourself. So, you begin to break down and separate the individual segments of this brightly painted block of wood. In the middle, there is a protuberance that sticks up like the topmost section of a child’s finger. If you allow your imagination enough license to animate this upright plug of painted wood, you begin to see it was meant to look like the head of a racecar driver, and not a lifeless nub of wood. And the boxlike segments to the front and rear were probably intended to be the engine and trunk of that selfsame child’s car. And there, straddling the bottom of the block, without any imagination required, are four black plastic tires. They are, in fact, the only elements of this modest effort that resemble their real life counterparts.
We are gazing upon the final product of a weekend’s futile efforts. A weekend where too few hours were stolen from too many activities to allow anything more than this gaudy imposter of a model racecar to emerge from the virginal block of wood my little boy had been given by his cub scout troop.
I hasten to add, to avoid any misunderstanding, that if the tires seem true to life, it has little to do with the modeling skills possessed by me or my little boy, and everything to do with the fact that the tires and their individual axles, come fully manufactured and ready for use along with the kit, as if someone knew that a minimal amount of realism was needed to keep these cub scouts and their fathers on solid ground.
However, if one of the objects of the exercise was to keep our feet on solid ground, this humble achievement I hold in my hands proves how far short, indeed, my little boy and I had fallen from the objective.
Take, for instance, our attempt at applying racecar graphics to our miniature racecar. Look on both sides of our model’s bright, (dare I say?) ‘pinkish’ exterior. There, where another father and son team might have simply applied realistic racecar decals, you will notice instead crude, hand-painted white symbols, one on each side of the car. At first glance, these symbols appear undecipherable, like primitive caveman drawings. Their legibility is not helped by the fact their whiteness is barely maintained against the bleed-through of the fuchsia. Which creates, of course, the false impression that the blurry white symbol is about to give itself up to more of that ‘pinkness’ whose presence I seem compelled to acknowledge time and again, even against my deepest will.
Now, if you squeeze your eyes into a fuzzy squint, and hold up the block of wood so you are looking squarely at one of these white painted symbols, you can actually start to see, or imagine, the number two surrounded by a poorly drawn circle. The number itself, of course, represents the body count of those responsible for creating this act of aesthetic mayhem.
“Let’s make it number two,” I had suggested a short week ago, both of us in my apartment kitchen, hovering like inattentive gods over this freshly painted model racecar, “just like there are two of us,” I explained. “What do you think?”
“That’s cool,” my little boy decided with hardly a thought.
But now, looking at it in the cold cruel morning light of St. Theresa’s basement hall, there is nothing ‘cool’ to be seen. If I had the time to do it over, I could be easily convinced to omit the number two altogether and leave the surrounding circle as testament to the number of modelmakers on our team who actually knew what the hell they were doing.
Ultimately, if you hold the entire object further away, at whichever angle you choose, eyes squinting or not, consciousness set at high or low, you start to realize you are looking at the juvenile attempt of a child and his father to create a model racing car. The final product of two amateur craftsmen with too little experience and, probably more significant, far too few carpenter’s tools.
Surprisingly, my little boy does not notice my discomfort. Nor does he seem to realize how ungainly a model racecar he and I have brought to this day’s derby.
This is the real miracle of the morning. Not our winning five consecutive elimination heats, not our remaining undefeated while legions of meticulously designed racecars have fallen by the wayside, but our making it through all this complex, unfolding activity, where human lives and hopes intertwine so closely, without being spotted or called out for the poorly dressed clowns and imposters that we are.
But there is little solace in having gone this far undetected. It is a miracle that resembles a penny balloon floating high up into the heavens. You watch it climb, awed by the grandeur of its flight, all the while knowing it will inevitably burst once it reaches an altitude where the pressure is too great.
At this moment, I cannot do anything but watch the balloon as it continues to climb, paying idle attention to the fact that my hands are moist and periodically seem to shake.
My little boy, on the other hand, seems quite happy. ‘Ecstatic’ would be a better word. He is not yet old enough, I suppose, to suffer from the disease of social self-consciousness that greatly inflicts both his sisters, who if given the choice would rather be shut up for life than be seen wearing or doing anything that could be labeled ‘uncool.” But my little boy has not yet caught that particular strain of social virus. His sights are set on more manly standards of accomplishment at the moment. Rather than measure himself against the other scouts in terms of the aesthetics of our humble creation, my little boy is content to be the proud owner of an absolute killer winning racecar. ‘Content’ is too mild a term. In truth, he is totally inflated with pride and beguiled by the heady aftertaste of fresh killed conquest.
And so, my little boy (not to overwork the balloon metaphor) flats grandly above the losers and the also-rans who populate this bleak, noisy and very crowded church basement. The fumes from his victories hold him high above the realities that worry and upset his father. Unlike my little boy, I am not elated. I do not savor our victories. Instead, I silently pray to whichever God holds dominion over this basement hall that my little boy will continue to remain innocent and elated and unaware of the lowly place he and I occupy in this subterranean world of exquisitely designed and torturously crafted model racecars. At least, (please, God!) until we can remove ourselves from the premises.
Now I see him!
There, on the other side of the room, running back and forth with Billy Montcrief, Ivan Pittorney and Louie Marino. They are playing some form of tag that requires only minimum attention to any apparent set of rules.
I suddenly feel myself smiling; feel the tension release as my facial muscles shift autonomously into positions I would have thought were lost to memory. As if my face, intent on smiling, has declared independence from the control of my battered and beleaguered emotions. That is not true, of course. That is not the way things work. If I smile in reaction to seeing my little boy immersed in child’s play, it does not mean I have been released from the bondage of my worries; only that I have been furloughed for a few brief moments.
And what a joy it is to see my little boy filled with energy and the ever-present hint of life’s potential fullness; to observe even from across a crowded room how he enjoys his brief moment as a competitor-chomping, Pinewood Derby hotshot. It is also quite a rare sight to see him so openly animated by positive feelings. Mickey usually expresses his emotions more discreetly, and mostly by himself. He is not aware right now that he is sharing his elation with others. Still, it is no less a window into his present state of mind to see him running around in circles, trying to tag an elusive Louie Marino, as it would be to hear him relate his deepest feelings to a therapist.
Five times he has carried our clunky, tropical-colored creation up to the starting block, and five times he has survived elimination runs where all the other scouts competing against him have not. And each time he has scampered happily up to the finish line, retrieved ‘Old Number Two’ and carried it with immense pride back to his seated, substantially more subdued, father whom, if the truth were known, sits on the sidelines waiting for our luck to catch up with us; waits for my little boy and two hundred other cub scouts to discover what a shamefully ugly piece of work we have brought with us to this year’s Pinewood Derby.
That we have not yet been discovered—that is the real miracle of the morning!
PUT THE BLAME ON MAME, BOYS
Yes, we are living on borrowed time, my little boy and I. Sooner or later, we will be discovered and denounced. Sooner or later, these buzzing, shouting, elbow-high, cub ‘sprouts’ will descend upon us in an unfeeling, pitiless swarm.
I know this as well as I know who is to blame for our being here with a Pinewood Derby racecar that looks like an arts and crafts project from The Home For The Incurably Inept.
It is all Marilyn’s fault.
Does that phrase sound familiar to you? It does to me. I have listened to it repeat inside my head like a runaway mantra for the last hour. Marilyn’s fault, it repeats effortlessly. Marilyn’s fault, like a needle stuck on an old-fashioned vinyl record. Marilyn’s fault, like the pathetic cry of a single father waking up to realize the depth of his own incompetence.
But how can I blame Marilyn, you might wonder?
How can I blame her for the choice of colors, the childish carpentry, the amateurish look of our racing graphics—for anything, in fact, having to do with the creation of this pathetic final product? Even I can see she had no active part in the unforgiveable act of creating ‘Old Number Two.’
Still, I have no difficulty blaming her.
I have done less logical things in the last five years. Divorce itself is a surreal experience; a time when nothing seems real, and logic holds little counterweight to emotion. So much of what I went through, the unraveling of our relationship and marriage, seemed like a badly produced movie I was forced to watch, one whose scripted outcome was totally beyond my influence or control. And so, now, I find it quite easy to hurl unfounded charges against my ex-wife, a woman who will never be judged or punished for one-tenth the harm she has done to me.
“This is her fault,” I confirm once again, nodding briskly. And keep in mind, the charge is not entirely groundless. Marilyn had a role to play in the comedy of errors that brought us here this morning where, as you can see, I wait helplessly on the edge of my metal folding chair, a condemned man watching his last seconds tick away.
I only have to look back to last weekend to see how Marilyn participated in the making of this mutant model racecar and the scripting of this overwrought melodrama…only back to last Saturday morning, when I arrived at the usual time to pick up my children for the weekend and found my little boy waiting for me in the kitchen, a plain white, cardboard box held tightly, with some sort of unstated significance—I can see that now—in both his hands.
He and I stood waiting through long awkward minutes in the kitchen while his two sisters, Susie and Shelly, noisily scrambled around the house gathering whatever items they considered necessary for surviving another weekend with their father. As usual, I was feeling uncomfortable, hanging around my former home like a tradesman waiting for a check. Obviously, I did my best not to show it, especially since I expected my former wife to appear without warning, as she often does when I pick up the kids.
“Do you have your stuff?” I asked my little boy, the question more a formality than a concern.
“Got it!” he answered, lightly shaking the box in his hands. Whatever was inside rattled around with the weight and certitude of a single large item, but I gave it passing significance.
To be fair, he could have been setting fire to the house and I probably would not have noticed. I may have been standing in the kitchen at that moment but my mind was lost in a swirl of confused thoughts and highly charged emotions. If there was any focus to my thinking, it concerned where in the house my ex-wife might be and whether she was likely to make an appearance before we left. Her presence was something I simultaneously dreaded and desired, like a reformed alcoholic who concurrently fears and longs for that next fatal drink. Most likely, I will never be entirely cured of my feelings for my ex-wife—the love or the hate! But for now, four and a half years after we separated, I still feel too recently estranged from her, and from the familiar patterns of our family life, to safely regard them as relics of the past.
Once I had loved the woman, and felt affection at the simplest thought of her. Those feelings were not yet dead, and were no longer fully repressed, now that the pressures of our legal battles had been lifted. Perhaps those emotions would have spent themselves by now if I had been the one to end the marriage. But she had sought the divorce, not I, and those feelings were still alive. Breathing shallow gasping breaths, I am sure, but not yet fully dead. And so they had not yet released me from their grip, only from their charm.
It is strange how we can free ourselves from someone and yet remain captive to her at the same time. In some ways more strongly than before. Marilyn remains larger than life to me, as if she were a celebrity in my world. Seeing her, or interacting with her, is still something of an event in my world, which, if I am honest, I constantly thirst for at the same time I anxiously hope to avoid. I may have been divorced by the courts, but they did not instruct me how to wipe out all the years I loved this woman and saw her as an extension of myself, the odd-shaped puzzle piece I thought I needed to make myself complete.
It is all very strange. Life, I mean.
This existence of mine is a mathematical formula whose mystery was constructed for my eternal bafflement. Someone else will have to one day unravel it. Someone who can explain why I am here this morning holding in my hands a fast-ticking bomb in the crude shape of a model racecar. And most importantly, someone who can explain why I remain here, frozen in place, virtually trapped by my own inertia and resignation, here on this metal folding chair, here in this church basement, waiting anxiously on this Saturday morning, like a smiling idiot, for the bomb to finally go off.
But last Saturday morning, I did not know Mickey was holding a bomb in his hands. When my eyes traveled from the open kitchen doorway to my little boy and, eventually, down to the box shaking and rattling in his hands, I thought it might be something from school.
“What is that?” I finally asked. “A school project?”
“My Pinewood Derby kit,” he answered with slight annoyance, as if I should have remembered something said in a previous discussion. Which I should have, of course, since we had discussed the Pinewood Derby a number of times. I had just chosen to forget about it for as long as he would let me. Till about this very moment, to be exact.
The memory came back fuzzily.
“We were going to work on this weeks ago, were we not?” I asked. “Some cub scout project or something?”
“Yep,” he answered.
“…and things kept getting in the way?”
“Well, I have not forgotten my promise, Mick, it is just that we have a real busy weekend planned…”
“Dad,” he interrupted worriedly, “the Pinewood Derby is next Saturday! I entered ‘cause you said we’d go; that you would help me make a model racecar. And now we’ve got no time to do it.”
The concern and frustration I could hear rising up in his voice seemed to strike some exposed and unprotected nerve. Almost instantly, I was lifted from my confused emotional state like a puppy pulled from a stream, and shook myself free from thoughts about Marilyn to focus on this worried and upset child in front of me.
“Who said we have no time left?” I asked with mock indignation. I tapped the cardboard box with a finger. “Is this it? The racing thing—the kit?”
“Well, what are we supposed to do with it?”
“Fix it up so it looks like a racecar,” he answered, beginning to brighten.
“Well, that sounds easy enough,” I said, taking the box from his hands and shaking it, experimentally near my ear.
“Sounds like a full kit,” I said, pulling my ear away. Then I lifted off the plain white cover to examine the contents inside the box.
“Is that all?” I asked. I stared down at a block of blond piney wood, mill-sawed to suggest that the overall dimensions and shape of a model racing car might be hidden within its long cubic form. There was a middle section on its top side which stuck up like a squared ship’s bridge to accommodate, one could easily guess, the future shape of a racecar driver’s head. Four slits in the underside of the block allowed for the individual axles and the four black tires which, bundled in a plastic bag, made up the remainder of the kit. That was all there was.
If you take a look at the finished racecar in my hands—if we can presume to call it finished—you will unfortunately notice it has not undergone all that much transformation from its original primal block state.
“I do not…” I said haltingly. “I mean, where are the…?”
I looked up at my little boy. He must have seen the concern, or heard the worry in my voice.
“What, Dad?” he asked.
“There are no instructions…?” I asked quizzically.
“I guess we don’t need instructions,” he suggested with a lack of assurance I could hardly find encouraging.
“Did anyone else get them?” I asked. It was the victim in me suddenly stepping to the foreground. “I do not want to be the only father who worked on this without instructions.”
“Dad,” Mickey said forcefully, his uncertainty suddenly absent, “none of the kits came with instructions. You’re supposed to know what a racecar looks like. You don’t have to do anything that needs instructions.”
“You are sure?” I asked, still uncomfortable. “You are absolutely sure?”
“Mrs. Marino went over the contents with us when she handed out the kits. Nobody got instructions.” He looked at me with a mixture of frustration and irritation. “Don’t you remember; we talked about all this?”
Yes, I remembered—some of it, at least. Enough to know I was running out of options for this weekend. I cast my mind back and hazily recalled my little boy telling me about this annual cub scout ritual. And then, as I held the block of white pine in my hand, the memories shifted more clearly into focus and I also remembered I had promised to form a team with him, and that together we were supposed to transform this inert block of white wood into a model racecar.
“Yes, I remember,” I admitted.
My little boy picked through the contents of his gym bag, looking, I supposed, for some notice about the Pinewood Derby. He blew a large measure of air through his lips when his search proved fruitless.
“Lose something?” I asked.
“Did they give you a notice or something?” I asked. “Something I can look at?”
“I can’t find it, but I know it’s next Saturday morning.”
I knew it too. We had spoken about the fact the race was scheduled for next weekend, when he was supposed to be with his mother. We had agreed, assuming we actually built ourselves a racecar, that I would come down to St. Bart’s Bay to take him to the Pinewood Derby even though it was not my weekend.
“You know, Dad,” he said accusingly, “we did talk about it. You did say you’d help me.”
“I remember,” I reassured him, handing back the open kit box. “I did not forget.”
Leave it to my ex-wife to enter the discussion at the precise moment my failure as a father was the unstated subject of the general discussion.
“Forget what?” his mother asked, walking wearily into the kitchen. Seeing me hand over the racecar kit, she asked directly, “Will you be able to help him with that? He’s been waiting for you to do it for weeks now—to help him create a model; just like the other kids and their dads.”
She paused a moment, for effect, I guess.
I felt as though I had been caught doing something reprehensible—not quite as bad as shooting a defenseless puppy, but almost—having her walk in on me as I was handing back that underwhelming Pinewood Derby kit.
“Put it away,” I told my little boy.
“There’s really no time left,” Marilyn continued, walking over to the kitchen counter where half a pot of coffee was sitting in the Braun coffeemaker my Aunt Sheila gave us as a wedding present, “so if you can’t help him, just say it.”
“Good morning to you, too,” I wanted to say, but held my tongue.
There she was, the woman who could set off my emotional warning systems whenever she came within shouting distance. No longer the beautiful girl I first met, with an ever-ready warming smile, long dark sinewy hair and a modest but exciting figure. Nor had she remained the beautiful woman I married. She was now a much older, mature and not all that attractive middle-aged woman. I always thought she wore her hair cut short as she did to prove how little admiration or attention she wanted from men like myself who often verbalized our appreciation for the finer feminine attributes such as long hanging hair.
But as for the unflattering way she has aged, the fault, I suspect, lies not in her stars but in her genes. Simply put, she has aged like her mother. Where once her smile and youthful vigor attracted wide-ranging envy and interest, there were now advancing signs, crystallizing physical characteristics, of an older, more matronly woman showing themselves, most notably her pendulant jowls and a roundish, slightly protuberant mid-section that must have sent her to older women’s clothing departments looking for larger sized jeans.
I secretly smirked to myself about all the weight I had lost under the stress and multiple symptoms of divorce, and how they had left me capable today of wearing the same slacks I had worn to my wedding—slacks I would have struggled to get into, with no hope of buttoning them, when we first separated.
Still, within this older, less attractive woman I could sometimes see glimpses of the girl I once cared for. I wish I could show you that vibrant young woman of twenty years ago, so you would understand how, years later, this plump matronly version could still have such a hold on my emotional well-being. But it is just an idle thought, and not very helpful. My beautiful young bride is gone forever. If she exists at all, it is only in memory where, I am happy to say, she can never again make the tragic decision to seek out a ball-busting, male-hating divorce lawyer.
Back in the kitchen of my former house, I stood staring at Marilyn in silence, uncertain how to respond to what seemed like an off-handed attack. When I did not immediately jump to answer her accusation-laden question, she pursued the issue wearily.
“Well, can you do it; can you help your son with his cub scout project? Or…” and you can see how helpful this next statement was, “will I have to do it?”
There was no outward sign to mark the discomfort I was feeling at that moment, standing in the presence of this person who was someone I once loved and who was now offering me spoonfuls of scorn beneath the shadow of her smile. Still, my discomfort was so large and unmistakable, I knew that all three of us must feel surrounded by it in the confines of this modest kitchen that once was mine.
But how did it feel for her, I wonder? That moment, and all the others, when I was unable to look her in the eye for more than the briefest instant? Did it hurt? Did it bring up her regrets or, more likely, her anger? I would guess my awkwardness was just another trophy she had taken away from our marriage, along with the house, the kids and Aunt Sheila’s coffee maker.
“What?” I said, awkwardly, finding myself off balance under the press of her sudden attack.
“Will you help him?” she asked again, the smile no longer visible. “He’s been waiting weeks, at least three weeks, because you kept telling him you would do it. Now, there really isn’t any more time. If you can’t do it this weekend, I’ll have to do it, or find someone who will.”
Well, here was a lesson in life I might one day share with my little boy; when we were both older, of course. A perfect illustration of how an ex-wife can quickly gain the upper hand in a conversation.
First, I would point out the way his mother had decided to put me on the defensive in front of one of our children, a brilliant tactical maneuver, rather than open up a two-way dialog she and I could share in private.
And listen to the way she spoke to me, I would add significantly. There was not a single sentence in the bunch that failed to rise to an accusation at the end. Not one. With her will you’s and or else’s , the casual listener would think I was a chronic disappointment to my children, rather than a father who was trying to do his best to please everyone. Usually at his own expense.
Do not let yourself be put in such a position, I would advise my little boy. Though how one avoids such a weak position I would not be able to suggest since I have yet to learn that lesson for myself.
When all else fails, I would probably tell him, let yourself get angry.
“You do not have to tell me what I said, or what I promised,” I answered slowly. “Mickey and I do not need your assistance—in any way, thank you.”
I do not know what I would have chosen to do about my little boy’s Pinewood Derby racecar had my ex-wife not taunted me with the unpleasant echoes of my hollow promises, but I do know things would have turned out differently if this key interchange had not taken place.
It is all idle speculation, of course, since that interchange did take place, and I did take up the challenge, with foolhardy ease and falsely asserted confidence, to help Mickey build his Pinewood Derby racecar. After that, I merely had to deal with the reality of actually building it.
There is this little problem one encounters when leaving the family home and moving out into the world at the age of 41. Actually, there are many problems, some not so little, but the specific problem to which I refer concerns the loss of all one’s tools and hardware, from scissors to power saws to nuts and bolts.
Yes, nuts and bolts, the perfect example! You have no idea how many different baby food jars I once possessed, filled with nuts and bolts and screws and washers! And not just metal washers; I had a separate jar for rubber ones, as well. And how many large size jars and cashew nut cans did I also collect? Using them to store larger items, like nails, screws, and long bolts? I almost said ‘my nails…’ but they are no longer my nails or screws or long bolts. And that is the problem in a nutshell—or a cashew nut can, if you like.
You can easily see the many jars and cans of nuts, bolts, screws, washers, nails, tacks, pins and whatnot I assembled during my years of marriage. Just go down into my ex-wife’s basement, where you will find them all neatly organized on shelves above the workbench. Just the way I left them when I moved out five years ago.
It is this lack of tools and a work-space that, at least partially, accounts for my apparent difficulty to follow through on my promise to help my little boy build his racecar. The other part of the problem is my perpetual, 24-hour a day, seven-day a week, capacity for putting off almost anything that seems like a chore, or too demanding…
Or, especially, anything that forces me to look at how divorce has changed my life.
‘She took away my tools.’
Can you hear how that sounds? What better way to describe the emasculation of divorce?
But this confrontational approach of Marilyn’s takes me beyond such psychological or physical limitations for the moment.
“Hey Dad,” Mickey said, almost in a whisper for some reason, “we can work in the basement. You can use your old tools and things. I’ve got my trains on the workbench, but I can clean them off real quick.”
“That is a possibility, Mick,” I nodded my head, attempting to smile. Without thinking, I took back the cardboard box and shook it, far too lightly to cause any rattling. It was as though I were weighing possibilities as well as the box’s contents. Involuntarily, both of my eyebrows rose in a high arc, a facial gesture I habitually assume in situations that appear hopeless or with little promise of relief.
It was a facial gesture my divorce lawyer came to know well.
“Paul, you had better make some decision today,” Marilyn added, significantly saying nothing about Mickey’s suggestion. That could be a good sign, I thought…? But maybe not.
I could see, however, that she was determined to appear highly exercised over this matter, assuming the aggrieved air of a mother hurt for her child.
So here I was in the kitchen of my former home, standing at an oblique angle to my former wife, who fills me with such emotion these days that I cannot look at her directly, and who in the final years of our marriage could never get enough of whatever it was she needed from me. Clearly, it is no surprise, and hardly ironic, that once again she has found herself holding a significantly smaller portion than she feels is her due.
But that is only part of the story. Because, next to her, at the same moment, was one of our children, a boy who rarely asks very much for himself, and almost never asks for more than he is given. The contrast was striking. One takes so much, and gives so little. The other asks so little, and gives so much.
I stared blankly into space wondering where I would find the tools or the work space to craft this block of wood into something remotely resembling a racecar. My little boy’s suggestion was beginning to make sense to me. He must have sensed it, because he pursued the concept with mounting excitement.
“We better do it downstairs, Dad,” he suggested, reaching for the box and pulling at me in the same instant. “Your saw and stuff are still there.”
I looked to his mother who still did not appear to be registering a complaint. More important, she did not point out that the ‘saw and stuff’ my little boy was talking about were no longer mine, according to an agreement worked out by two highly-paid, highly-combative divorce attorneys.
“Good idea,” I finally decided. “We will come back and work on it after breakfast.”
I turned to his mother, asking “Is that all right with you?” almost choking on the words, which painfully proved to us both how much I had lost and how much she had gained. “If it is, we will come back after breakfast to use the tools.”
“That’s fine,” my ex-wife said with little expression.
Then she looked up at me, catching my eye before I could look
away. And in six words, took back everything she had just given.
“Just clean up when you’re finished,” she added.
I do not know if it was the words she used or the way she
used them, but whichever it was, I knew the instant after they were spoken, I would not come back to the house after breakfast. That was the critical moment, the crossroads marking the turn in the flow of events. The moment that Fate pulled sharply on the rudder to turn my ship around and steer it directly towards the rocks that were waiting for me in the shallow waters of the Pinewood Derby.
In an instant the decision was made. I would not use the tools I once owned. Nor would I use the workbench I once built, or the basement I once set up as a workspace and a storage area. They belonged to her now, and I would not be borrowing her ‘stuff’ as Mickey would have called it.
I turned to my little boy and told him, “Go run up to Susie and ask if she still has the tool set I gave her when she first went to Montessori?
It eventually turned out, after considerable searching in the attic, that Susie still possessed the child’s carpentry set I gave her, which meant I had in my possession some of the tools I would need for the job at hand. Enough tools for my purpose, I thought. Enough to fashion a Pinewood Derby racecar out of a block of wood, of that I was reasonably certain.
Just what sort of racecar?
I quickly decided it did not need to win awards for beauty or design. After all, I concluded, it was only a cub scout project. Nothing too important.
You can see now, the flaw in my thinking—the fatal flaw as it turned out. You can see how the approaching disaster we face can be traced back to a moment in the process before I had even touched a tool. It was a flaw that never would have revealed itself had Marilyn not felt the need to shame me one more time.
“Just clean up when you’re finished.”
Maybe it really is her fault.
“Thank you,” I said, turning to face my ex-wife. “We will not need your tools after all.”
Is it any wonder, as I sit here watching model racer after model racer speed down the long incline, each one more handsome and detailed than the next, that my stomach wrenches at the realization I have once again exposed my little boy to possible ridicule? And is it so farfetched for me to accuse my ex-wife of being our personal jinx at this year’s Pinewood Derby? If only because of her insatiable need to exact some sort of penalty from me?
“Just clean up when you’re finished.”
Why does she still need her pound of flesh? What have I done that makes me such a criminal in her eyes? Perhaps I am a living reminder of what she created for all of us through her selfishness, and so she hates me for what I reveal about herself.
I am the husband she walked away from, the father she separated from his children.
I know she does not care to remember it, and will refuse to admit it if you actually confront her, but it was her emotional breakdown that led to our divorce. A breakdown brought on by the pressures of an inappropriate emotional attachment to a patient, and her inability to balance that attachment against the dwindling love she felt for her husband.
Nor does she like to admit the obvious consequence of her decision to get a divorce—the breakup of her children’s family.
By now, I am sure she remembers it all as my fault.
For not fixing the lawn mower or painting the bulkhead door, or for never silencing the gurgling of the toilet—or for all of it, more likely.
She used to get after me about things like that, the things I never fixed, the projects I never completed; and seems to have carried into our divorce her long-suffering disappointment over my ineptitude with all things mechanical, as if the breakdown of our marriage could have been prevented by my being more handy around the house.
“And they’re off!” the scoutmaster, Mr. Ryan, calls with as much animation as he can muster, which is not very much considering how dry a fellow he is and the high level of excitement and energy he has to compete against.
A moment later, the room fills with rising cheers and applause as another winner streaks across the taped finish line. Silently I pray for this winning contestant, should he face us in the future, to be fast enough and lucky enough to beat Old Number Two.
But life moving mostly in the direction of irony these days, odds are this champion will lose to our unsightly speedster as all the others have lost.
And that, too, will also be Marilyn’s fault.
HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, KID
But what do we have here?
My little boy is standing in front of me, catching his breath. Unburdened by the fear that hovers like a raincloud above his father, he has come running up in a flurry of excitement and a barely concealed agenda. I know he wants something from me. I only need wait a few seconds to find out what.
But why wait?
“Can I help you?” I ask, tilting my head in a questioning gesture.
“I need a dollar,” he answers, leaning against my leg, still breathing hard. “For a can of orange soda.”
“You do not need a dollar,” I answer in my customary instructive manner. “You cannot need a dollar if you do not need an orange soda. So what you really mean is that you want a dollar, is that right?”
“Yeah,” he says, flicking away my train of logic with a quick grimace and a blink of his eyes, his usual defense against unwanted information. He also tilts his head slowly to one side, but the movement is so subtle it would be unnoticeable if I did not know his every gesture.
“But I love orange soda,” he pursues with a whining air of self-justification, as if his desire can easily overshadow my logic. “Can I have a dollar, can I?”
“And…?” I ask, expectantly.
”And what…?” he asks back.
“And what little word am I waiting to hear…?”
“Please!” he growls, with a facial gesture that indicates how close he is to running out of patience.
“Well, since you are so polite…” I reply, pushing him back so I can place our hotshot racecar safely beneath my seat and take out my wallet. A moment later, I hand him the dollar.
“Do not spend it all in one place,” I say. My usual joke.
“I won’t.” he answers.
“Bring me any change,” I add, as I usually do.
To which he adds his usual response, “I won’t!” and laughs, running off.
He does love orange soda; he was right about that.
And I was right to give him the dollar, of course, since a can of orange soda is not too much for him to ask and not too much for me to give. Which may seem obvious to anyone witnessing our brief interchange, but not to someone like myself whose father was often difficult about ‘unnecessary’ expenditures.
When you wanted something from my father, it was rarely worth working up the courage to ask for it. If he was in the right sort of mood, he would dole out the money to my brother, sister or myself and seem to enjoy doing so. No big deal. But most of the time he was not in the right sort of mood. Which meant he would scowl as he gave you the fifteen cents, or more likely shrug off the request with four words I grew to hate as they echoed repeatedly through the long succession of days that made up my childhood.
“You don’t need it,” my father told us, time and time again. Simple, indisputable, powerfully conclusive. “You don’t need it.”
He was right, of course, if you wish to get technical about such things. Why would I need anything other than the clothes on my back or the food on my plate? Most everything else, according to my father, was strictly not needed.
I may have seemed a little neurotic a few moments ago, attempting to counsel my little boy on the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants,’ but at least he ended up getting his can of orange soda. I usually ended up with nothing except a half-frozen smile on my face and another twist to the giant-sized knot that grew in my stomach.
I just do not get it. I mean, why did my father have to be so cheap? What purpose did it serve? What did he have to lose, buying us an occasional soda or candy?
And those times when he did, he should have just smiled and kept his mouth shut instead of making us feel greedy and unappreciative with all his complaints and grudging acquiescence. What in Heaven’s name did we have to feel guilty about anyway?
And why would he want us to feel like that, except to discourage us from asking again?
The real truth, of course, is that my father probably had little money to spare on what he probably saw as frivolities. I never considered that possibility back then; though in my memory I always see him with the thick wad of bills he kept in his front pants pocket, secured with a thick rubber band, the smaller bills on the outside, the bigger bills—if there were any—hidden in the center. But maybe I only saw his money when there was money to see. A child thinks about the things he sees, rarely about the things that do not appear on the screen.
When I was young, I never thought my father behaved any differently from other kids’ fathers. It all seemed quite normal to us; his need to be controlling with his money, his need to run the family with the unquestioned authority of a feudal prince, even his late-night working hours, which meant my brother, sister and I would sometimes go days without seeing him.
Of course, it was normal to us; it was all we knew about fathers. If our father acted that way, then that was how fathers were supposed to act, right?
Even down to the gambling.
Yes, my father liked to gamble. Not just sometimes or occasionally, but in all seasons at all times. He was a gambler the same way other kids’ father were weekly bowlers or New York Yankees fans. Gambling was a habit with him, a habit that never left extra money lying around our house, or in our lives.
My mother proved pretty resourceful in that area, however, probably one of the few benefits of growing up with an alcoholic father. Each week, she regularly skimmed off small amounts, mostly pennies and nickels, from the food budget, stashing them away in glass jars that she hid in the back of her dresser drawers, just to make sure there was something extra to fall back on when my father hit a streak of bad luck. And if you know gamblers at all, you know they are always within close proximity of a streak of bad luck.
I never saw my father’s gambling as wrong or bad, or even unfair to the family. If anything, it gave my father a sort of romantic, ne’er-do-well luster that was as close to an outlaw’s mystique as a middle class Jewish father could come. I was too young to know the full extent of things, but I assume he enjoyed most of the gambler’s usual weaknesses: cards, horses, dice, sports betting. Later, he tried his hand at playing the stock market with disastrous results, which is generally what happens when you consistently purchase worthless stock just before it becomes worthless.
But most of what I saw as a kid were the poker games.
Every week he would play cards with his lodge brothers, most weeks at someone else’s house, or maybe even down at the Lodge Hall in Manhattan, far away from where we lived uptown in the Bronx.
But every few months or so they would hold the game at our apartment.
How magical those evenings were. And so monumental. My father’s friends, most of them lodge brothers, seemed like specimens from some oversized species, clustered tightly around our fold-up bridge table, which looked puny in comparison, even with both its extensions pulled out.
Most times, our living room seemed spacious to me, but on those evenings it appeared surprisingly small, as if all the extra space had been sucked out, barely leaving enough room for the players themselves and the non-physical elements of the poker game—the thick swirls of cigarette and cigar smoke, the clatter and tinkling of coins tossed onto piles of money and, behind it all, the constant, aimless banter of men at play. I was not permitted to eat any of the candy or pretzels my mother served in long mint-green ceramic serving bowls which, now that I recall them, were shaped like long-tendrilled leaves. Like most of the period pieces in our modest Bronx apartment, those leaf-shaped serving dishes became nostalgic icons of my childhood, probably more attractive in my memory than they were on our bridge table.
Sometimes my father’s friends would press me to take a piece of the forbidden candy, teasing me with friendly asides and avuncular winks. Especially my father’s best friend, Brady. Brady was the largest of the group, and the most friendly. Brady always had a smile for Henry, Gail or me, and always a kind word. And when he came to play poker at our house, sooner or later he would start pushing me to share in the evening’s refreshments.
“Go ahead, have some, Paulie,” Brady would say, indicating the bowl of bridge mix or Junior Mints. He had a deep, cigar-scratched voice that seemed to fit with his large bulk, and a broad kindly smile made up of big beaver teeth surrounded by fleshy lips. He said, “Paulie” like a New Yorker, so it sounded very much like “Pawlie” if you were not paying attention.
Holding his cigar between his fingers, and his cards fanned out in the other hand, Brady would look over at me, like a giant staring down from a mountain, and say,” They won’t kill you for eating a piece of candy, Paulie. Kids are supposed to eat candy.” Then he would pull a few cards from his hand, telling the dealer, “I’ll take two,” then turn back to me with a wink. Taking the cards in his hands, he would shuffle them slowly, laboriously, as though he were mixing fifteen cards instead of five, another of the many superstitious rituals these visiting giants seemed to religiously observe.
When the cards were shuffled to the point of ridiculousness, he would bring them up close to his chest, tightly packed, then slowly fan them out, the cigar never moving from its appointed position between his fingers, murmuring, “Let’s just see what we’ve got here, Paulie…let’s just see…” as the mysteries of his hand were revealed. Then, he would smile as if he had just discovered gold with the addition of the two new cards.
“Oh, this is worth two pieces of candy, Paulie,” he would breathe out with a broad smile, effortlessly broadcasting the vast sense of pleasure he felt with his poker hand and with himself. “Go on, take two,” he would gently push, looking over with an air of benevolent inquiry towards my father, and seeing no disagreement, added, “Your dad won’t mind. Willya, Rocky?”
“Nah!” my father would answer gruffly, shaking off the idea that he might disapprove of something as inconsequential as my having a piece of candy.
Then, one of the other players would bark out, “Are you gonna talk all day, Brady, or you gonna play?” and Brady would wink at me like a conspirator before responding, “Now, don’t get your panties all in a twist,” or with some other jibe, and it was all like some fantastic secret society held up momentarily for my personal, private inspection.
If I was feeling brave, I would take a piece of candy—maybe even two—from the bowl. But since I was generally more concerned with my father’s wrath than my craving for candy, I would usually look over to Dad for permission, which he would generally bestow in a light manner as though I never needed to ask.
“It’s all right, boy. Have one,” he would say, playing the kind and loving father for his friends. He often called me ‘boy;’ his way, I suppose, of keeping me separate and distinct in his mind from my sister Gail, whom he often called ‘gal.’ My older brother Henry was always just ‘Henry’ to Dad.
Only recently did I link my father’s need to control things, especially our expenses, with his addiction to gambling and his likely losses. A connection that seems almost obvious now, after two years of psychotherapy.
But what did I know about any of that when I was a kid? I just knew that when I asked my father for fifteen cents for a soda, he would usually tell me, “You don’t need a soda.” And since one did not argue with my father without risking a smack on the side of the head, I would have to be very thirsty indeed to pursue the matter further.
Rarely did I want a soda that badly.
And speaking of soda…off on the side of the room I can catch glimpses of my little boy through the crowd negotiating with a den mother in the kitchen. As she hands him the can, which even from this distance I can see is a bright, shiny orange, I picture a younger version of myself, probably even younger than Mickey is now, already dressed for bed in his pajamas, reaching up to take two pieces of candy from one of my mother’s leaf-shaped serving dishes.
I am struck by this scene with my little boy, and the way it recalls images of myself when I was his age. Something in the way Mickey moves, acts, behaves, I cannot say what exactly—even now as he darts through the crowd, laughing nervously, trying to avoid Louie Marino who is chasing after him for a sip of soda—something in the quirky movement of his wiry body coupled with his high energy mix of nervousness and elation, vividly recalls the presence of my younger self and makes me feel like I am watching two boys in studying my son.
Two boys in one. My son and myself.
Suddenly the room takes on a different dimension. The rush of noise in the basement hall seems to grow muted and distant, the movement of the crowd less hurried, as if the boys are moving more slowly or my vision has speeded up. The light has shifted, too, but very subtly—can you tell?—altering the space and the distance between objects, creating a sense of freshness for everything that seconds ago seemed so commonplace and unremarkable.
Something is happening, but what?
It all seems so different and yet so familiar at the same time.
Before I have a chance to puzzle out this sudden change in my surroundings, a deeply resonant voice pulls me almost bodily from the depths in which my thoughts had been swimming.
“A story I’ve got to tell you, Peterson” the voice says, issuing forth like a pronouncement from a radio announcer. But it is not a radio announcer’s voice I hear, merely Bill McAndrews, who is a plastic bag salesman, of all things. McAndrews, sitting next to me on my left, is a tall bear of a man, mostly bald on top, which you rarely notice when he is standing. He has a deep resonant voice that could have easily taken him to a career in broadcasting had the lure of plastic bags been less compelling or less profitable, really—you would be shocked at what someone can earn selling plastic bags!
McAndrews is one of the few men here this morning with whom I am familiar. I have met some of the other fathers, but not often enough to fix them in memory, a problem I often have with the parents of my children’s friends.
“What kind of story?” I ask, gathering my senses, and realizing that whatever it was that momentarily heightened my awareness had passed, and sadly moved on.
“It’ll just show you the madness I have to contend with,” McAndrews explains eagerly. “I was up in Manchester last week…I told you I’d been given Southern New Hampshire, didn’t I?”
“I wish someone would give me a state,” I respond drily.
“That’s good,” He booms appreciatively in his richly modulated announcer’s voice. “But back in Manchester…we stop in this office where the fellow behind the reception desk has probably been there since the company started importing papyrus in the first century. He’s literally the company centurion—protecting the candlesticks, keeping fires burning to frighten off the wolves—not too large in mental capacity but loyal as a rock, you know the type…?”
“Actually, I was there with one of my salesmen, Salvatore Landers,” he continues. “As regional sales manager, I was accompanying Landers on his cold calls; trying to impart a small measure of my wisdom and experience. You know, Peterson, most salesmen despise making cold calls, but I love them. They’re marrow to my bones. Know why?”
“Power!” he booms. “A cold call is all about power. Who has the most; who uses it best. It’s a power struggle—you against the prospect—and I’m the type who rises to the occasion in power struggles. I should have been born in Russia!”
Suddenly I realize what is happening. I am about to be dragged through what will probably be an interesting but interminable story.
Without anyone asking for my permission!
“Hey, does this story have a point, Bill?” I would like to interrupt; but I only manage to mumble something about the need for us to watch the Pinewood Derby heats, in which McAndrews appears to have lost all interest for the moment.
“Pshaw! They’re still tabulating the last race,” he assures me, waving off my concern.
He is right, of course; they are still working on whatever paperwork is involved in a competition like this. So, being a person who generally avoids conflict, there is little I can do other than nod my assent, listen to his story and try to appear interested.
However, there are other things worthy of my interest, if I care to look around.
I say that because my eyes have once again fallen upon a highly attractive woman in a bulky Irish sweater; a cub scout mother, no doubt, who is sitting on the chair behind McAndrews. She is what I would loosely term a “Great Big Beautiful Doll,” and she is also the other reason, besides McAndrews, why I took this particular seat.
I have not yet spoken to her, having had little opportunity to do more than keep her under a lustfully watchful eye. Once or twice our eyes have met and we have exchanged polite, cautious smiles, but otherwise I have done little except luxuriate in her attractive full-bodied presence.
Certainly, now, with McAndrews off on one of his long-winded narratives, and me sitting here with a simpering docile smile, I might as well let my eyes drift to the rear and feast on the surrounding scenery.
Did you notice she is not wearing a ring on her wedding finger?
For a single man like myself, the ring finger is the first place you look when you see an attractive woman.
I feel a hand on my shoulder.
“Are you listening, Peterson?”
“Sure,” I respond with forced enthusiasm.
Taking that for encouragement—as if he needs any—McAndrews continues, “…so we’re in this office where it’s darker than a witch’s orifice, and I let Young Landers do the talking. As I indicated, there was this old fellow there—you should have seen him—had the funniest whisps of gray hair standing straight up in shocks all over his head. It was an absolute scream, like occasionally he might have taken his finger out of his ear long enough to stick it in a light socket.”
He pauses briefly to laugh at his own joke.
“Well…’Good afternoon,’ Landers says in a friendly way. ‘Can we speak to the person responsible for buying your company’s plastic bags?’ The standard opening line, nothing particularly creative.
“The old fellow looks at us as if we had just stepped off a cloud. Whatever could we be thinking to ask such a thing?
’You’ll have to call us up on the phone to get that information,’ he tells us in a patented, dry Yankee accent. ‘We don’t give out that kind of information in person.’
“Landers explains, ‘We won’t bother him, if that’s what you’re worried about. Could you just give us his name: the fellow who orders your plastic bags?’
“’Sorry,’ the old fellow snaps back. ‘Like I told you, y’have to call us up on the phone.” And he says it firmly, like this isn’t some arbitrary, spur-of-the-moment decision but formal corporate policy, even though we’re talking about a company that maybe, in a good year, does two million dollars in sales annually…so we’re not exactly storming the gates of Proctor & Gamble, you understand.
“What do you think happens now, Peterson? Go on, guess…?”
“Mmm? …you tell me, Bill.”
“Showtime happens, Peterson!” he announces grandly. “The big guy—yours truly—steps up to the plate.
“I placed a restraining hand on Landers’ shoulder, stepped forward with little ceremony, then asked the old fellow, ‘Is it possible you don’t understand what we’re asking? All we need is a name, a simple name, a proud name, I’m sure. The name of the fellow who purchases your paper bags! My partner and I have come all the way from Canton, Massachusetts just to find out this one individual’s name. Can’t you just tell us, and we’ll be back on our way?”
“’Can’t do that,” he snaps back at me, ‘You have to call our main headquarters for that kind of information.’
“’All right! All right!’ I say. ‘We’ll do just that. We’ll call your main headquarters.’ The Truth is, at this point I don’t really give a rat’s ass who buys their plastic bags or rotten groceries or Swedish sexual devices. It’s the end of a long day, and the last call of a long week. So, I decide to quickly finish up with this Yankee misanthrope and leave.
“’So, let me have the number of your headquarters,’ I demand brusquely.
“I had no intention of writing it down, but when he began to recite the phone number slower than a college athlete taking a math exam, an idea came to me. I quickly took out my iPhone and began dialing the number as quickly as he rattled it off.
“You following me?” McAndrews asks abruptly.
“Absolutely!” I answer, more engaged by his tale than I wish to admit, even to myself.
“Now get this…” he prods. “One second at the most after he finishes giving me the number, and I finish dialing it, the office phone starts to ring!”
“He gave you the number there?” I ask, my surprise bordering on shock.
“Exactly! Can you believe it? That’s not only what he did, the officious bastard; gave us the number of the company headquarters while we were standing in the middle of the god-damned company headquarters all the time!
“Wait!” Bill says, gesturing broadly with his hands. “What happens next is even funnier. He picks up the phone, says ‘Hello,” recites the company name, then asks if he can help me.
“’Yes,’ I answer into my phone, and I’m just standing there, no more than five feet away from him, on the other side of the counter, when I then ask him—you guessed it!—can you please tell me the name of the person in your company who is responsible for purchasing plastic bags?’
“Then, you know what…?” McAndrews asks, smiling broadly.
“He told me the guy’s name!”
Bill finishes with a cry of elation that sounds like the accidental pairing of a laughing hyena with a snorting pig, then shifts quickly into a bout of full-bodied laughter.
“That is incredible,” I chime in, also laughing.
McAndrews continues to laugh even after I calm down.
“That is funny,” I admit, rubbing the last vestiges of laughter off my face.
“Isn’t it?” he responds with difficulty, his body still heaving under the weight of his laughter, most of which is now escaping silently. Wiping away tears, he struggles to speak. “Whoo!” he breathes out. “You should have seen the way his hair stood up. It was shocking!” Which renews his laughter, though with less turbulence than his previous bombardment.
Eventually, a few moments later, most of his laughter subsides, and I repeat, “That really is incredible.”
“Incredible but true, son,” he intones with that note of mock seriousness he often assumes.
McAndrews is a good storyteller, but he clearly spends too much time by himself. Why else would he seem so starved for companionship? Like most hungry people, McAndrews has a voracious awareness of his own needs and precious little awareness of his effect on people like myself, innocent victims who accidentally find themselves within storytelling proximity. So, like all habitual bores, he never knows when to stop. No matter how many stories you listen to, there is always another one waiting to be told.
Which is when my particular problem appears on the radar screen: this difficulty I have speaking up for myself, even when I am being overwhelmed by someone as big and excitable as McAndrews.
For some reason, I have always been afraid to risk hurting someone‘s feelings, even when they obviously have little consideration or concern for mine.
Suddenly, I realize I have been lost in McAndrew’s story. In the next instant, my little boy comes to mind and, as I look around without seeing him, I am gripped by an unreasonable fear that something has happened. Something bad. I know it; something I could have prevented has I just paid attention.
Continuing my search, I struggle to get my bearings, my hand over my mouth as if I can restrain my worst fears. I stand up to get a better look, breaking free of McAndrews’ towering influence, and nervously scan the basement hall.
An unexpected sound lifts up from the din of noise and sends my neck hairs to a stiff upright position, but then I recall what I had earlier learned, and allow myself to relax—at least partially relax. I rub the back of my next and frown at the memory.
One of the cub scout fathers, in fashioning his son’s racecar, had gone the extra step—perhaps in a fit of artistic bravado. His car, with “My Belle” proudly painted in script on the side of its candy-apple red exterior, was topped with two jingle bells attached to the driver’s neck by a tiny red ribbon. The first time I heard the bells this morning, my internal alarm went on full alert, and would not subside until I searched out the source of the sound for myself.
“Do not be silly,” I told myself, quickly rejecting the outlandish notion that Marco The Magnificent might have found his way into a cub scout Pinewood Derby in St. Bart’s Bay. But it was not until I saw My Belle and her jingling bells that I was able to fully return to my normal, lessened state of fear, discomfort and paranoia.
Fear does not always need logic to establish its presence.
“What’s wrong, Peterson?” McAndrews asks, now also standing.
At which point, a familiar, brown-haired, nine-year-old boy falls into my line of sight, no heartless magicians, or fire-breathing dragons for that matter, anywhere near him or within sight.
“Nothing,” I sigh, waving away my spent emotions. “It was nothing. Just a scare.”
There he is. See him?
On the other side of the room, huddled with his friends?
From this distance, he does not remind me as much of myself as he did before. Remember that? Before McAndrews started his story and whisked me away to Southern New Hampshire?
I was watching Mickey play with his friends and, at the same time, seeing images of myself as a young boy?
Yes, and then something strange happened to the room!
Remember how weird it seemed? The room appeared strangely different but also familiar. As if I were half in the present and half locked in some memory. A memory of a similar situation, or a matching set of emotions, from sometime long ago.
As if to help bring it back, lines from a long-forgotten children’s song float up, unbidden, from the deeper recesses of my memory. Something in the way they sound in my head makes me question whether I have the lyrics exactly right.
Oh where, oh where, has my little boy gone?
Oh where, oh where, can he be?
Does that sound right to you?
Sounds like a song about a lost boy. But maybe not.
I feel a hand on my shoulder, which is quickly followed by a deep resonant voice, boasting, “If you think that story was funny, Peterson, listen to this…”
I would like to tell him to shut up.
But instead, I merely turn my head, sit down and listen.
You’ve been reading the first three chapters of a new novel by Paul Steven Stone. I downloaded them onto my blog site so that interested parties—publishers or agents—could easily access them. If you enjoyed reading this literary novel so far, feel free to recommend it to any publishers or agents you might know, as well as friends.