Saturday, March 31, 2007

Blue Danube Waltz

I never learned how to roller skate. The one time I tried, I ended up face-down on the concrete of my cookie-cutter tract home's driveway. I thought I'd knocked a tooth out I fell so hard and so fast. My lip was fat for a week, and I decided then that roller skating was the devil's activity and work; I would never try it again.

As autumn melts into winter in the southeast, there's a lot of rain that falls. It'd stop just long enough to get you thinking you didn't need to build an ark after all, then a new storm would roll in. It was really amazing, the amount of rain. Having grown up in a drought-stricken and rain deprived California anyway, I just wasn't accustomed to so much water unless it was a river, lake or ocean. It would fall down like these huge, pregnant pods that exploded their payloads into tiny rivulets that ran over all the impervious surface they could find. And when the water couldn't run off into the drainage ditches or sewer grates, it would collect, rapidly, into deepening pools that spread out over whatever wouldn't soak it in.

One particularly wet, gray and cool autumn day, we got a rare treat. Money wasn't growing on trees for us, if you get my meaning, so we didn't eat out a lot. Occasionally, but not a lot. We could do so more often at Duff's, which was a smörgåsbord or buffet. I was hitting my teen years, and my body was calorie loading for the growth spurt to come like nobody's business; I could eat more food than the other three members of my family combined. But, if we kept it cheap – like Krystal Burger, Hardy's, or Captain D's – well, then it became more possible more frequently.

Captain D's, if you don't know, is – or at least, was – a seafood chain similar to Long John Silver's. A fried fish and chips sort of dump with decent food and a bit of an eat-in atmosphere, where your food was brought to you if you wanted. So, on that soggy Friday night, we went out for fast food, which was a big deal for me and my brother. I put on my “desert boots” for the evening – which I guess are now called “chukka” boots or something candy-ass like that – and my favorite blue jeans and ran my long, sissy-boy locks under the blow drier for a couple of minutes, and I was ready. We grabbed our jackets and out the door to the car we went.

The trip to the restaurant wasn't terribly long and was uneventful, because my dad drove. I'm pretty sure the Captain D's we went to was in Fort Oglethorpe, GA, but I can't be sure now. There was a couple of them in Chattanooga, too, and who knows how many have come and gone in the last thirty years since I was in the south. At any rate, it was a short jaunt, and we watched the rain clouds dump buckets on us while my parents talked. It must have been one of the times my dad was either off on a weekday, or he was working an early shift, or something like that, because the afternoon still had plenty of sunlight left as we pulled into the parking lot of the little shack. It sat back from the sidewalk a bit, with stout wooden posts poking up to line the walkway of big red tiles that led to the front doors. The posts had a heavy, thick rope running through them all like a makeshift handrail, and those huge tiles, four across, formed a wide entrance to what was a fairly insignificant building.

We walked up the curb and took a couple of stairs onto the tiled area of the entrance, surrounded by rock beds of white and red which sat just beyond the wood post and rope fence. I could hear the rain spattering against the hood of my jacket and was watching my parents lead the way to the door when I saw my mother slip, her hand shooting out to grasp my father's shoulder. He muttered “Sweet Jeezuz!” and clutched her arm to steady her. “Whoa!” she said in her best I'm-a-cool-parent-who-uses-hip-terms voice, eyes bulging at us as she laughed in relief.

I looked down at the thin skin of water standing over those big red tiles, and I got an idea.

Now, at something like 13 years old, it wasn't a great idea, I'll be the first to admit. The front of the building was largely glass, and it was full of diners who had little else to do but watch out the windows at the falling rain and passing traffic. It was a mistake from the get-go, but I was gripped by the idea and it ran with me before I gave it much thought. Like any teenager gives anything much thought, right?

I shoved forward and planted one foot on the smooth tile surface, and skidded gracefully across the tiles almost the full width of the walkway, slowing to a stop just before the rope fencing cut me off at the knees.

My brother Ryan was fascinated, and tried to do it too. His shoes were typical, little kid sneakers, though, and they had too much friction with their rubber soles to work very well. I laughed at him and pushed myself the opposite direction, and again slid along the top of the tiles until I almost tripped over the other rope fence. I went back and forth a couple of times, then I started doing something else ...

... I started pretending I was doing an ice ballet.

I put my hands behind me and used just my legs to slide “elegantly” over the makeshift rink, singing “Blue Danube” while I did it.

That's goofy enough for a 12 or 13 year old to do; but it was far, far goofier when my mother started doing it with me.

She laughed at my antics for a moment, then joined the Danube chorus and began sliding over the “ice” with me, her hands also behind her back. We criss-crossed over each other's paths a couple of times, and went around my father, who was trying to resist a temptation to tell us we were being stupid and to please knock it off. My brother Ryan was complaining – as usual – about not being able to slide as well, and still struggling to try. He'd push himself forward for a few inches, harder and harder, until finally his weight and momentum would topple him forward when his shoes caught, and he flung his arms wildly to keep from smashing his pudgy face into the ground. I laughed at him, and continued the waltz on “ice”, moving to the time of my vocal orchestra while skidding easily on the smooth, tractionless bottoms of my shoes.

We carried on like fools for maybe five or ten minutes. As the crescendo of Danube approached, I began to get fancier with my maneuvers, spinning and sliding on one foot even. I was actually seeing the crowd, flash bulbs popping, applauding after each increasingly more difficult move. I thought for a moment that maybe not knowing how to roller skate was an erroneous idea of mine; maybe I did know how after all.

As I wound the song up, I launched into the air, spinning around as many times as I could and trying to land on one foot like a bona fide ice skater would, my arms outstretched for balance.

I hit the ground and promptly landed flat on my ass in the rain in front of a restaurant full of people.

The splash of my butt hitting that pavement and the standing water that made the spectacle possible was a lot bigger than I would've imagined possible. Water reached all the way to my glasses and speckled them with droplets. My pants soaked through to my drawers in a split second. Despite the greater friction my jeans skidded a couple of feet before stopping so that I was facing toward the windows of the building when I finally came to a stop. I blinked a couple of times, and my parents were laughing hysterically at me.

I laughed too. It was funny. I got up, swatting what water I could from my soggy ass, and we all proceeded into the front doors of Captain D's for dinner.

I nearly screamed in start when the entire restaurant exploded into a thunderous round of applause when we walked in. Some of the diners even stood up to ovate us.

When I swallowed my heart back into my chest, I saw my parents were hanging their heads and laughing softly, both of their faces glowing beet red. As we were seated, I tried like hell to hide behind my menu so that no one would see me. It didn't work; some people told me I put on a great show as they passed our table on their way out of the restaurant.

I guess that was my fifteen minutes of fame.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

And the Waters Parted ...

The roads in Georgia are hilly. The rains in Georgia are heavy. That means that, from time to time and in some places, rain is going to collect into small and isolated pockets of water in the troughs and valleys between the hills and peaks of the roads: puddles.

The rain came down steadily, but it wasn't the “toad strangler” or “frog choker” of earlier that day. That's what my dad called heavy rains: “toad stranglers” or “frog chokers.” I had no idea why an amphibious animal would “strangle” or “choke” in the heavy southern rain; seemed to me if that were true, there'd be no more frogs or toads in the southeast in just one season, because it starts raining and the storms can come often and heavy. Any beast subject to strangling or choking in that kind of weather would surely die or split for better climes.

Anyway, that day the rain was coming down steadily. Earlier that morning, it had been the gushing, almost opaque sheets of water from the sudden and violent storms that sprang up from nowhere. The drainage ditches on either side of Bell Avenue were brimmed with the run off from the torrent, and didn't show any sign of receding as the day wore on.

Time to go to the grocery store.

Anything could happen on a trip to the grocery store with my mother. You might avoid a squirrel and narrowly miss injury or killing someone. You might end up in that beckoning, gaping drainage ditch. You could slide down an access road into the parking lot, avoiding oncoming traffic only because God wanted you to. Who knows what adventures awaited on a trip for bread, milk and butter. You took your life in your hands every time you climbed into the car ... and that was when she hadn't been drinking.

The slate-gray sky was an unbroken sheet of marble that hung low over us and stretched away beyond the rolling horizons on both sides. Onto Bell Avenue the huge, baby-blue Olds backed, and then lumbered away down State Line Road toward Cross Street. So far, so good.

The car came over a rise and my mother gasped; from the back seat (it was Ryan's turn to ride shotgun), all I saw as the car tipped forward was what looked like a river snailing its way across the narrow, two-lane road. The front of the car surged into the water and parted it like the prow of a tugboat, launching white walls of water over the top of the vehicle on both sides. I flipped around quick as a wink to watch the water rush in around the hole the car plowed through the enormous puddle, and saw those high-arcing rooster tails crest over on themselves to either side of where we'd been. It was like watching a scene from The Ten Commandments, with Charleton Heston parting the Red Sea. As we rose up another hill, the water pooled back into place, foaming where the walls of water had collapsed beside the pavement.

It was spectacular. The water must have been two feet deep or more, but it was no match for the heavy GM behemoth. I turned back to face forward.

“That was bad,” I grinned in my sassy 13-year-old way. In those days, "bad" was "cool."

My mother laughed, but I could tell it had scared her; the car probably hydroplaned over most of that puddle, and had it been any deeper, we could've stalled.

On we rolled, finally turning left on Cross Street to take us south to Fort Oglethorpe. The Kroger was down this road a few miles, and that's where we went when it was major shopping time; for smaller, quicker trips, the M&J Market was closer. Since we were bound for Kroger, I suspected this was to be the shopping trip for the week's supplies, and we'd be gone for some time.

Tiny dips in the road were filled with puddles that sputtered and hissed loudly against the bottom of the car as it crushed through them, scattering them into mist and ripples before they could recollect and regroup. Once in a while, a larger puddle would put up more of a fight and the car would drag and slow as it ripped through the deeper water, sometimes sending miniature versions of those initial rooster tails away from the car at window height. My brother and I laughed and “whoa”'d through the bigger ones as we made our way toward the store.

I noticed then something I hadn't before; a stretch of road that gave no puddles to destroy. A slow, steady rise up a gentle hill. The car's own weight tugged at it and my mom goosed the accelerator slightly. The car cleared its throat and then growled meanly up the slope, which was so mild I'd never even noticed it was there before.

Oh my God!” I heard her exclaim, in that “I'm freaking out but don't want you to know it” voice that parents use to say things around their kids.

The car breached the top of the hill like a whale breaches the ocean's surface, and started the descent toward the valley beneath it.

Which, naturally, was filled with water.

The puddle was a pond, spreading across both lanes and swallowing the helpless drainage ditches on either side; they were completely overrun. The smooth, unbroken water's surface reflected that marbled gray sky at us like a mirage, and stretched far ahead until the asphalt emerged from it's depth like a sea serpent slithering from Loch Ness. The opposite side of that mini-lake seemed to be light years away and we had no way to know how deep the water was.

I looked across that huge pond just in time to see the tan-clad figure step out of the State Trooper car and swagger his way over to the poor sap he'd stopped along the side of the street, just beyond that lake in the road. He didn't see us hurtling toward them as the driver rolled down his window and the trooper adjusted his dark aviator's sunglasses lazily to check the documents.

“Cop!” I shouted in panic, “Slow down!”

“We can't!” my mother breathed, and mashed the gas pedal. The car obediently lurched ahead while Barney Fife in his Smokey the Bear hat, carefully draped with a plastic bag, took the ticket pad and his shiny silver pen from his shirt pocket. Ryan whined.

The big Olds hit the surface of the water with a thunderous splash and slowed a bit, but pushed forward anyway, the blunt front end pounding against the water's surface and bulldozing it backwards.

On each side of us, those really cool, really high and really white walls of water careened off the car doors and fenders, shooting higher and higher, far over the car, the tops eventually curling over to fall slapping onto the ground somewhere behind us.

We cruised through that puddle so fast the car didn't have time to stall; it hit the water so hard none of it could flood into the carburetor or distributor cap or whatever the hell makes a car stall in deep water. And just behind the rear view mirrors, just in front of my door, the walls of water launched themselves skyward and outward, like the car was trying to grow wings and fly over the landscape.

The roar of the engine and the white-water rushing sound of the retreating lake around it made the driver turn to see what was coming. Barney Fife was busy studying the man's driver's license, standing at the open window of the car. When that moving violator saw that runaway comet of blue metal and white watery tail rocketing toward him, he grimaced in panic and began to frantically roll the window up, right in the cop's face.

When he saw what the driver was doing, Barney seemed stunned for a moment. Then he saw us in the reflection of the car's window, and he turned around slowly in stunned disbelief.

His face went slack, sinking as he figured out what was going to happen.

If that cop was six feet tall, then the water was twelve feet high. It towered over him like a proud Hawai'ian surfing wave, rising up as we whipped by and then curling down, forming a hollow over his head before it came crashing down on him.

I jerked hard to turn around in my seat, my jaw open and eyes wide, giggling like a maniacal hyena as I watched that wave melt over ol' Barney, the car he'd pulled over, his own vehicle with its driver-side door standing open, and crested off into the field beside the road where the gravel shoulder disappeared into trees and grass. It sloughed off the broad bill of his trooper hat, his clothes dark and clinging, sopping wet, his ticket pad drenched, his face and arms dripping water in sheets as it flowed off him.

He never looked up, never made a move to go back to his car; he just stood there staring at himself soaking on the side of the road, shaking drops and rivulets off his hands. As we shot up the other side of the rise and down again, out of the line of sight, the driver was rolling his window back down, mouth agape with his laughter.

We finished our shopping – which took a really, really long time – and went home without passing that cop again.


Monday, March 26, 2007

Alien in the Yard

I used to be a really great mimic. Anyone who knows me will tell you, I can make some of the strangest sounds, and if I hear a noise or voice that's even remotely interesting, I am compelled to see if I can reproduce it. I often can. That talent began to really emerge in 1979, when I was not yet 14.

1979 was a great year for Science Fiction movies. Both Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien were coming out in theaters that year.

Alan Dean Foster's classic suspense/horror work about 7 tugboat crew members returning from a deep-space asteroid pick-up and encountering the ultimate alien predator was nothing short of fantastic. And it was funny, because not that long before it was released, my mother read the book to us aloud. We found the book somewhere – a grocery store, I think, on the rack with the other novels – and she read from it every time we were in the car, or sitting at home with nothing to do. It was hysterical, because she'd start reading in this strained, frightened voice, eyes bulging from her face, body tensed, and then she'd gasp and go silent until we all cried out “HEY!” or “WHAT??”

It was a really great story, though. We struggled along with those 7 crew members, each going extinct before the eyes of the survivors, and we all cringed and tensed at the building drama and horror with each passing page.

When the movie came out, we saw it on the marquee of a theater in some mall – I think it may have been East Gate Mall, in Chattanooga, a short trip from our Bell Avenue home in Rossville, GA. The sign said, in HUGE lettering on a lighted background, “ALIEN IN DOLBY.” My brother and I squealed in delight at the sight; my mother said, “Where's Dolby?” We had to explain to her that the sign was advertising that the movie, Alien, based on Alan Dean Foster's novel, was being played at the theater in Dolby sound – a new technology at that time which was advertised to enhance the movie going experience with sound such as never had been experienced prior. My father agreed to take us.

Oh, what fun we had that day! My mother, not drunk or able to get drunk in theaters, can be a real spectacle at movies. We used to go to drive-ins, when they were in vogue, and we'd hear her scream at the scary parts and call out to characters on the screen. And, if I haven't already told you, my mother's scream was a wake-the-dead, chill-the-blood, curdle-the-marrow, murder-victim-in-the-movie type of scream that would make others jump in horror. It was great; you never saw so much flying popcorn and spilled pop in your life. Objects d'movie were flying all over around us, and the entire experience was one of the most positive I've had in a long time at the movies. Maybe ever.

We were chatty and wound-up on the way home, Ryan and me, rattling on about “did you see that part where ...?” and “remember when this happened?”, as if the other weren't there. The movie was vividly locked in our memories as we made the jaunt home in the dark, quiet southern night.

It was cool but not cold when we got back. Bell Avenue has exactly one streetlamp, and it was down the street from our house about half way to State Line Road. It glowed that warm yellowish tone of a really, really old incandescent bulb, and burned at what seemed like 60 watts. Dimly it tried to push back the moist Georgia air, but it ended up being a fairly useless halo of light unless you were less than fifty feet away from it. Ten big candles might've lit the area better.

So, near our house, you could see the light glowing like a firefly in the darkness, but it wasn't doing much to light our yard. The grass was wet with dew and my parents milled around the yard smoking, my mother trying to marshal her courage to go in and go to bed. She had her arms folded over herself in a half-embrace, clearly shaken from the vivid images which later won best special effects at the Academy Awards, beating out Star Trek for the honor, to the dismay of Trekkies everywhere. Her light windbreaker zipped and zopped as she moved about the blackness, and the only way we tracked her was the sound it made and the glow of the flame from her cigarette.

Finally, my dad went inside the house and began to turn the lights on, though they did little to penetrate the tar-black outside the windows. Tiny islands of light emerged on the sloping lawn from the windows but they failed to offer refuge in the sea of darkness. My mother walked skittishly about the house, to the backyard between our minty-green asbestos shack and my grandmother's old white farmhouse, passing the massive tangled bushes that burst through the ground near the ancient structure's foundation as though they'd grown wild. She'd vanish into the blackness like a ship in the fog and then her sole, orange-ember cigarette fire would blip on like a beacon as she dragged hard on the smoke before fading back to the blackness.

I watched in deep fascination as the tiny fire lit my mother's face into a hideous mask twisted in the pale light then dissolved it again to black. A moment later, a puff of smoke drifted like a lazy fog into the waterfall of light streaming from a tiny window in the house and then vanished into the dark again.

And I realized, that very moment, that she was a considerable distance away and couldn't see me in the soupy dimness.

I giggled, stifling it hard beneath my sleeve, and did a quick cartoon sneak behind a bush between the window and me. I checked quickly for languishing spiders waiting to devour stray dogs or humans that wandered into its tangled web, then hunkered down out of the line of sight.

I heard the shuffling footsteps as she moved up the yard again toward the front door. There was no back entrance; she'd have to go right by my hiding spot.

Again I stifled a giggle that threatened to burst out of me. I could hear her stop, nervously and quietly calling out to my father, then me, then my brother. Of course I said nothing, whatever, to let her know she wasn't alone out there. I heard a strangled, nervous sound come from her as a bout of the heebie-jeebies took her. I tensed. A half moment later, she walked past me, trying to be calm and rational under the strain of her imagination.

I tip-toed out behind her, set to spring, ready to pounce, about to jolt her with my hands and cry out to startle her like she'd never been scared before.

Then, at the last minute, I lost my nerve.

“Is anybody out here?” she whispered hoarsely into the dark, the voice of someone trying to be heard over distance without using full voice. I nearly burst out laughing again, and suddenly, that very moment, that split-second, my resolve steeled.

I gripped her shoulders firmly and issued a sound exactly like the alien creature in the movie.

She tensed for a fraction of a second and her head jerked as a sound came from somewhere around her navel and erupted up onto the roof of her mouth, then smashed like a runaway freight train through her teeth. It forced her mouth open into a gaping maw and the sound tore free of her in what I swore were waves of audible tide that you could see even in the dark. It rattled roof beams and vibrated windows across the street and rolled like a comet down the street toward State Line Road, hopped across the street and I'm sure is still ricocheting today in the Tennessee Valley. It was a scream from the pit of hell, a Jamie-Lee-Curtis-would-envy-this-sound scream, a scream that would have torn a hole in storm clouds, one that was audible from space. My heart exploded into shards of bloody flesh as the auditory tsunami ripped it from my chest, and flung it still beating to the ground in front of me.

The reaction was a bit delayed as the echoes rolled away into the distance of geography and history; first my father's head popped through the door of the house, his bushy brows knit over the top of his glasses, his mild voice intoning “What the hell's going on out here?” Fractions of a second later, lights popped on in the house across the street; then another a few houses down, the next door neighbor's house, the house behind my grandmother's, and a succession of others along Bell Avenue. I couldn't stop laughing, I couldn't breathe, and I hobbled doubled-over into the house with my face purple and my eyes watering mercilessly. I heard my mother's choked sob-laughs as my father (quickly) ushered her into the house before the bang of storm doors began to tattoo the beat of good, Christian people coming to check out the scream.

I don't know if I ever laughed that hard again in Georgia, and I don't know if I've laughed that hard again in my life. It was glorious.

We stayed up for hours after that, laughing and talking and being a semi-normal family. When at last we fell asleep, I remember thinking that it was, perhaps, my crowning moment for pranking. And to think, I nearly chickened out.

You know, I've never been able to make that sound again.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Calm Before the Storm

I'd never seen rain like I saw in Georgia before.

It just doesn't rain like that where I grew up. My first exposure to the powerful, ear-drum splitting, head-throbbing, hair-standing lightning strikes of storms in the eastern US were on our trips across the country to visit my paternal grandmother. The very idea of rain in the summer is just strange to those that grow up in California. It just doesn't happen. And, during the 1970's, there was a drought and water shortage, which meant water rationing and even less rain than normal. So, to me, the amount of rain that fell while we lived in Georgia was biblical. Torrential downpours sheeted down from huge, flat-topped black clouds locals called “thunderheads.” They looked like huge anvils rising miles into the sky to flatten off; and the invisible metalsmith working on those mighty giant anvils banged his hammer to forge steel, sending sparks of hot yellow and white and purple lightning arcing and dancing to earth. The snapping crack of thunder peals would buffet you with their force and then roll off into the distance like a cannon ball fired from the storm.

Once, during a particularly violent and active storm, I was sitting in the living room on the scratchy, ugly sofa that my parents had my entire life and staring lazily out the window. The springtime wasn't hot, and was less humid than summer, and the storms rolled in on a regular basis. My brother and mother were there, and we were probably watching TV and passing time. My father wasn't around. He almost never seemed to be, now that I recollect, but that was probably due to the fact that he did shift work at the M&M/Mars plant in nearby Cleveland, TN.

Anyway, I was on the couch next to that open window that looked southward into a bramble of brush dividing our yard from that of the next door neighbor. The sky was so dark, it was like twilight. The air was heavy, pregnant with impending rain, and the storm clouds piled higher and higher into the heavens while I watched. I was fascinated with their speed and sheer size. They were monsters rising, huge dragons heaving their bulk from the earth in dark piles of black smoke to blast their fiery lightning-breath at the cowering humans below.

Suddenly, in the distance, I heard a roar as a wave of sound tumbled over the landscape and sped off to distant places. A wind picked up and shook the lazy young leaves awake on the limbs of the sturdy old trees lining the streets, standing sentinel in the yards of those ancient, creaking houses of cracked, spider-webbed paint and rotting, sagging lumber. I perked up a bit, and waited; a flash in the sky, that seemed to come from no one particular location, strobed outside. I counted – one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, f-

... the peal of thunder clapped and made me jump, cracking as sudden as a whip snapping unexpectedly behind me. I became more alert, watching the skies for more lightning. Gently, off in the distance, I heard thunder roll like a growing avalanche and then die on the horizon. I still watched. I could hear the wind now, cool but not cold, pushing against the old guards' trunks and limbs, pushing the last seeds to the earth for them, bending them before they sprang back to reject the breeze trying to gently topple them. I heard birds as they whizzed by, but didn't see them, but then the earth seemed to grow silent and stealthy, scheming and plotting.

It was still as a church at night. Only the wind, starting to rush through the trees now, broke the stealthy quiet.


A mighty blow of thunder ripped through the thick air and violently struck the house like Thor’s hammer, seeming to crash so hard into the tiny old structure as to knock it from its foundations. I yelped like a kicked dog and felt that hot blast of adrenaline burn my palms and cheeks and soles of my feet from the start, and simultaneously my mother screamed. I laughed. I always laughed. In an instant, my brother and mother were laughing too ... but I could see fear and the edges of panic creeping into Ryan's expression.

My mother put her hands over her ears. She didn't like fireworks, either.

The sky impossibly darkened more, and there was another strobe-light flash that lit the room. My mother tensed, squeezing her eyes shut, and pressed her hands harder to her head. I braced, but refused to cover my ears. That was for chickens, and I was no chicken. I was determined to face the storm, to brave the thunder and lightning, to stand defiantly against the --

I almost wet myself when the sonic boom smashed against the doors and window panes, buzzing them loudly in their frames. The sound was indescribably loud and sudden, and I felt myself leave the surface of the sofa when I jumped. I was sure that if I looked I'd see my skin laying next to me, still in the spot where I'd been sitting when I leaped out of it.

Ryan screamed like a school girl at a horror movie and raced to my mother, who was the very visage of panic and disorientation. She was nearly in an upright fetal position, sitting on the love seat next to the couch, embracing herself for comfort. A fountain of strength, a port in that crackling storm, was she. She clutched Ryan tightly in front of her and pretended to be comforting him. I knew she was hiding behind him, though. Nothing like being a human shield for your mother. Ryan was too stupid to know better.

Tiny, whimpering sounds of tension-built fear were streaming from them. It was like being on a roller coaster before that first, big, stomach-extracting, gut-smashing, face-peeling fall down the incline. The suspense was as charged as the air. I braced – any minute, now, I thought, any doggone minute ... the lightning's coming, and then the thunder, and dang it, don't jump, do not jump, don't you DARE jump, don't be a --


I jumped like I was skipping rope, just like the sissy I was telling myself not to be, and probably yelped too. I hoped it was lost in that landslide of sound that shook the house like you'd shake a wet umbrella in the foyer, but I can't be sure. I am sure, though, that it was lost in the shrieks of terror my mother and brother let loose. They were long, sustained notes, like people on a thrill ride, the notes discordant like a car horn and ending simultaneously.

The house stopped shaking, and the thunder rolled away into Dixieland. There was a sound, like the wind only growing, and a familiar, pleasant smell.

Rain. It came on softly, a gentle spring rain from that granite sky, tiny splashes bouncing from the concrete porch and the asphalt on the blacktop ribbon of Bell Avenue. Gradually, the water began to trickle over the side of the road's surface. But the sound grew from a gentle rain, to a heavy rain, to a torrent, to Niagara South. The fat, oblong drops of water crashed viciously into the earth, exploding into a miniature fountain before collecting again into streams that gushed into the ditches and began to raise the water level. Faster, thicker and harder the rain came. In moments, I couldn't see the other side of the street.

There were random booms and rumbles from the distance, and every once in a while one would pop nearer, a brief flash lighting the darkened room and blazing over the trees and grass outside. It seemed the worst had passed.

I started thinking, then, about something my father had once said. He said that he met a man when he was young who told him he'd been hit by lightning. He said that he felt kind of tingly and pins-and-needle-ish, then there was a blinding flash and he went black. When he came to, people had gathered around him and were leaning over him, murmuring and covering their mouths with their hands. He told my father the last thing he remembered was that all the hair on his body stood up on end, just before the bolt struck.

BOOOOOOOOOMMM! The lightning responded to my thoughts. I shuddered, a creepy chill shimmying its way down my spine.

Then the lights went out and the TV snapped silent.

Another shrill banshee cry from the two huddled on the love seat, and I again left my epidermal layers beside me when their screams and the sudden dark startled me.

Heart pounding, ears ringing from the chemical rush, and my insides all jelly and quivering, I dropped myself onto the couch again, and listened to that driving, punishing rain beat the road, the trees, the roof of the house and the yard. It was a percussive cacophony like white water rushing just outside the window.

Just then, I felt an odd sensation. It was an itchy, faintly tingly and burning feeling in my hands, my feet, my scalp. And then it happened.

The hair on my arm started slowly standing on end.

I watched in growing horror as the tiny little strands stood as though in a trace, all in unison, reaching slowly up like blossoming flowers.

“OHMYGODI'MGONNADIEI'MGONNADIEI'MGONNADIIIIIIIEEEEE!!” I shut my eyes and jumped, diving as quick as I could for the floor, toward the center of the room, away from the dreaded open window that would let the snake of electric plasma leap in at the speed of light and fry me to a burned cinder like a child's marshmallow over a campfire.

The thud of my landing was huge and I tucked into a tiny ball and held my breath --

... and absolutely nothing happened.

I opened my eyes, slowly, gingerly. My mother and brother were staring at me with wide eyes, jaws hanging open as I moved my arms away from shielding my face in slow motion.

“My hair ... it was ... standing up ... the lightning ...” I stammered.

Only the rain, easing back into a gentle springtime song, answered me.

Way, way off somewhere, a thunder ball rolled down over the landscape, barely audible over the rain through the windows.

It rained all night. I didn't see any more lighting, though.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Rose, by Any Other Name ...

We hated that dog across the street. He was mean, conniving and mangy. He was sneaky, ugly and cunning. But most of all, we hated him because he was so damned loud.

He'd start barking, whether at a passerby or a vehicle or an animal or whatever, and he'd keep on barking for what seemed like hours. He just wouldn't let up. The people in the house seemed to be blessedly oblivious of the ruckus he raised, but the rest of the neighborhood certainly wasn't. It was one of the first times in my life that I realized that ignorance truly IS bliss. More ignorant people I've never met in my life. Those dirt-smudged, grubby kids and their waddling, ball-cap-wearing old man with his nervous hair-sweeping habit couldn't have raised their I.Q.'s with a floor jack, and that dog never seemed to bother them.

After beaning the kid across the street with a rock-loaded snowball that winter, I didn't see or hear much from them anymore for a while. When the weather turned warm, we kept to ourselves except for school, and they didn't seem to emerge from their den until later either. But the dog let us know they were around. Always barking and yapping about something, he'd eventually be silenced; and he didn't spend the night outdoors that we could tell, so we assumed those mole-rats across the street were still around.

This particular day seemed different. My parents had gone out shopping and left me with Ryan. They didn't have to worry, in those days, about someone grabbing us and holding us for ransom. And they couldn't have paid it anyway, so it made no difference; but things were different then. We could play out in the yard or in the street until late, travel back and forth to friends' houses (if we'd had any within walking distance), and do kid things without having to worry about some psycho doing something Stephen King to us. So, Mom and Dad left us on our own quite a bit.

We decided to go outside that day. I'll never forget it; I had on my “Jaws” T-shirt, tie-dyed blue and white to make it look like water, with a big, iron-on decal shark's head on it from the cover of Peter Benchley's novel. It came from Universal Studios; my maternal grandmother got it for me when she went there shortly after the movie was released, and it was easily three sizes too big. I was wearing my favorite blue jeans and my black Chukka desert boots. Man, I was the epitome of cool that morning, with my flowing blow-dried locks, geeky, thick-ass glasses and gapped front teeth. Sexy to the core, that was me. So I strutted my bad self outside to show the world what I had going on.

The dog across the street was barking, as usual, and I was hanging around doing whatever 13-year-old boys do when there's nothing to do. I don't remember specifically, but it wasn't anything interesting or productive. Ryan was outside with me a few minutes later, and we were still doing a whole lot of nothing when I noticed something I'd never seen before.

A kid – bigger than the one that threw the snowball at me – was in the yard across the street with the other dirt-child. His hair was darker; almost as dark as mine, but not quite. My hair's always been about half a hue lighter than Raven. But he was dark-haired, where the others had hair that was light brown or dirty blond. Or just dirty. Anyway, he caught a glimpse of us looking at him, and then leaned over to the kid I drilled with the rock-ball.

I knew something was up and it probably wasn't going to be good.

Ryan was kicking around, twiddling, but I kept my eyes on those two guys across the street. I tried to do it like I wasn't watching them, but how sly is a 13-year-old nervous kid?

Not three minutes later, those two barefoot, bare-chested dirt bags started crossing the street.

I stood up. I figured I was in trouble, because the new kid looked like he was kind of muscled-up a bit. Me, I'm a geeky dweeb at 13; I've got long hair, thick glasses, badly-stained gapped teeth, and I'm scrawny-armed and thick-middled. Kind of like my mother is built, actually. I wasn't real athletic or fit, and this guy looked like he'd been playing Pee-Wee football most of his life and spent the rest of his time doing push-ups or chin-ups or something. He was well-defined and sort of intimidating.

As he got closer, I could see he was just a hair shorter than I was, but not much. It didn't make me feel any better. I was nervous and twitchy. But I had to play it cool. That's what you do when you're from California; you gotta act cool. So I just sat down on the concrete slab porch and pulled petals off the wild rosebush that grew about a foot away and to the left of it, while they strutted through the drainage ditch and up to me.

“Hey,” the new kid said. He seemed friendly, but I knew better. Ryan wandered over to us.

“Hey,” I replied. I didn't make eye contact. I was afraid he'd see I was scared and pounce. Instead, I stood up – real casual-like, so as not to give away being jittery – and walked a couple of feet to my right. Very nonchalantly, of course.

“What're y'all doing?” he asked. The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

They moved to sort of follow me, but not outright follow me, if you know what I mean. Shadowing my movements, keeping me in range. Unfortunately, I'd dug myself a hole and let them get between me and the front door to my house. I'd cut off my retreat.

“Nuthin',” I said casually, “what about you guys?” I patted myself on the back. Man, that was cool. Then I moved down the walkway that wound around a gargantuan mutant bush of some kind to the gravel driveway. They took another step closer to me; Ryan was between me and the front of the house to my left.

“Nuthin',” he said back. “Wan' do sumthin'?” I could barely understand him through his hillbilly dialect. I kept eying that front door, wondering if I could get by them to get in if I had to. I felt like a rabbit surrounded by foxes. Ugly, dirt-smudged, barefooted foxes with thick southern drawls and cut-off shorts.

I shrugged. “How about hide and seek?” my brother spouted.

“Nah, that's fer bay-bees,” the kid said, sneering at Ryan. I tensed even more. If I got any more tense, I'd be brittle. But I knew something was going to happen; this situation was a kid powder-keg.

“What then?” Ryan said, getting a bit uppity. I inwardly cursed him for being just the type of jackass that would let his mouth write checks my ass would have to cash.

The kid seemed as muscular as a panther to me. He yawned hugely, without covering his mouth so we all got a good, long look at his uvula, arching his back into a great, tiger-like stretch. I couldn't gauge how old he was, but he had to be around my age.

“I dunno,” the other kid said, “hide-'n'-seek's fun.”

“I said it's for damned bay-bees,” the older kid snipped, and the younger one shrank back a bit.

“You guys brothers?” I interjected quickly – too quickly – trying to ease the pressure of the situation.

“Nah, cuzins,” he said. “You guys brothers? Ya both wear them damned thick glasses and what-not.” He sneered a wry smile at me. My sphincter tightened a little. He was getting to the insulting part; the part where he wanted to start a fight. It was a classic kid strategy: start friendly, become gradually more aggressive and then you have an excuse to beat the other kid up. When the teacher, adult, caregiver or whatever, came to break it up, you could say you didn't start it. By the time all the explaining was done, it was one big “he-said/she-said” of one kid's word against the other's. Neutrality would be forced by the fact that the adult probably didn't see what happened. It never failed.

“Maybe,” I said before Ryan could answer. I was a bit peeved by the glasses remark, and it would only be years later that I realized that the hormones that were coursing in gallons through my veins were going to be too strong for any fight-or-flight response I may have had. And that was what was getting my hackles up.

“So you wan' do sumthin' er not?” he said again, more hostile, more sarcastic.

“No,” I said quickly.

“Why not?” My dildo brother couldn't leave well enough alone and was too stupid to know the nuances of the terrorist negotiations taking place here. This was a standoff on par with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he just weakened my position. I gritted my teeth.

“I said no,” I hissed. “Mom and Dad will be home soon. We're supposed to stay in the yard.” The comment about Mom and Dad was designed to warn the intruders of the arrival of the cavalry.

“We don't have to leave the yard to do something, it's boring now!” he whined.

The dog across the street started barking.

The sound burst out sharply as the dog erupted from his rotting-lattice lair beneath the crooked, sagging stairs of their porch. A blur of flying shed hair and spit, he charged to the end of the driveway and yapped so hard his entire body would lift up with the force of the sound. We all looked to see what he was barking at, which was nothing, as usual.

“I hate that dog,” Ryan said absently. He said it every time the dog startled him; we all did.

“That's his damned dog!” the new kid shouted, and he stepped forward and gave Ryan a shove.

Ryan was what mothers, and clothing designers of the time, auspiciously called “husky.” He was a Butterball turkey, in other words. Plump and pudgy with a round face and the beginnings of man-breasts, his knuckles were always little dents instead of knobby protrusions. I teased him about it mercilessly, of course, and others did too. The one benefit it had, though, was that he wasn't all that easy to push down. He slid back and toppled, but didn't go over.

“Hey!” he shouted at the kid, swatting one hand at the attacker while using the other for balance. “Knock it off!”

I don't know exactly what happened next. I've never been a great “big brother” type. I didn't really like my brother, much less stick up for him. I recognize now that the chemical witch's brew flowing through my system also contained a magic and powerful ingredient:


I stepped forward with my jaw set and my brows knit firmly on the rim of my glasses. The kid looked over just in time for me to plant both palms right in the center of his chest, one beneath each collar bone. I stepped into the motion and gave a mighty shove, without stopping to think about how I'd respond to a counter-strike. As it turned out, it wasn't necessary.

Like I said, I wasn't a large or strong kid particularly, and wasn't terribly athletic either, but I was better than I thought I was, because the next thing I saw was the gritty, dirty soles of those nasty bare feet as the kid sailed through the air about two feet off the ground and about six feet back.

Right on top of that wild rose bush beside the porch.

For a frozen, pregnant moment, there was silence. Then, there was a scream that came from somewhere around his belly button and erupted from the tangle of arms, legs, thorns, leaves and petals. His hands twisted into hooked claws of agony as the millions of tiny thorns poked, tore, ripped and shredded naked flesh.

The younger kid gaped with saucer-eyes and slack jaw, but the older one couldn't move – any way he tried shifting dug some group of thorns in deeper. He stiffened into a statue of pain and rivulets of blood, tears streaming down his face and cleaning a trail on his grimy cheeks. He looked at me with genuine fear in his eyes.

And I liked it.

“Now,” I said over the top of his wails of agony, “get off our property. And don't come over here again. C'mon, Ryan, get inside.”

I strode like a grown-up into the house, adrenaline pumping and pounding through me, ringing my ears. Ryan waddled right behind me as silent as a mouse through the door. I slammed it shut on the sight of the younger boy trying to pull rosebush branches from his cousin's flesh so he could stand.

I went into our room and started laughing. Ryan joined me, but he didn't know why he was laughing. He was laughing because I was, but I was laughing because it was the only way I knew to release pent-up tension.

My parents came home about 15 minutes later. They honked the horn in that high-classed way they had to let us know they wanted us to carry in groceries. When I stepped outside, there was no one around – not in our yard, not in theirs ... nowhere.

And the dog was not barking.


Monday, March 19, 2007

The Squirrel's Triumph

I'm not even thirteen yet and I almost died, I mused inwardly. Outwardly, I couldn't contain my laughter. The giggles wracked me from the belly to the chest, cramping the muscles around my midriff and making my eyes water.

"It's okay," my mother soothed, "we're all right. Everything's fine." Problem is, I didn't know if she was trying to soothe us or herself.

Ryan was uncharacteristically quiet in the back seat. I figured he'd be screaming his considerable guts out, making his usual drama-queen presence felt. Then again, maybe it wasn't drama.

I was turned backward staring out the rear window of the big Olds Cutlass while it sped away, watching the steam drift lazily from the front of the Triumph TR-7 as we left it behind.

In the ditch. Where it crashed.

See, this was one of those times when the event seems funny later, but at the time it was sort of scary. My mother, my brother and I piled into the car that afternoon to go to the grocery store. For most people, going to the grocery store was a pretty uneventful trip. They go, they get their groceries, they leave; no big deal. For us, it was a life-threatening experience on more than one occasion ... never mind the trip to and from school. That could be a thrill ride like no other, too. On this occasion, we were going to the Kroger in nearby Fort Oglethorpe, GA. It was a few miles away. I always called it "Fort Ugly-thorpe." I was a jerk like that at 12 or 13.

To get there, though, the most expedient route was to take State Line Road. Logically enough, State Line Road is the borderline between Georgia and Tennessee. It crossed the north end of Bell Avenue and stretched away east and west, rising and falling in rolling hills. It was a tiny, narrow, two-lane band of blacktop that rose up a small crest just west of Bell Avenue and then dropped again as it divided the town and the states from each other. I had never seen roads so narrow before; and I never saw roads that rose and dropped like that. In my native California, there were LOTS of hills and mountains, of course, but they were larger, and didn't cause the dramatic peaks and troughs the way the tiny hills bumped the older roads of the deep south. I guess Georgia didn't have the land moving equipment available to flatten the roads the way they did in California. Or maybe it cost too much. Or who knew why, but there they were -- roads full of little dips and valleys that would give your stomach a tiny roller coaster thrill if you were going fast enough.

They could also be a bit dangerous, if you were going fast enough.

See, the dips were relatively deep; deep enough so you couldn't see the cars in front of you in certain places. Those dips were sometimes high enough that you didn't see the other side of them until you'd crested the rise, and cars on either side of the hill were invisible to each other.

As a kid, who cared about that stuff? That was the adult's job; they were driving. All we had to do was enjoy the ride.

Knowing how my mother drove -- we got a real feel for it when we transferred from public school, within walking distance of home, to a private Catholic school across town, requiring a ride from either Mom or Dad every morning -- there was no "enjoying" the ride. You learned to keep your eyes peeled and be ready to cry out if something bad was going to happen. I don't know why, we couldn't have done squat about it except yell, but I guess that was our plan. Yell just before you die. Just like in the movies.

So anyway, that afternoon, we were headed for the Kroger. We backed safely out of our driveway -- not as mundane a task as you might think, but that's another story -- then headed north on Bell Avenue to the intersection with State Line Road. So far, so good.

You look both ways before you turn, then you look both ways again. There's no way to necessarily see the oncoming traffic, like I told you. And there was a pretty steep rise not too far west of Bell Ave. So, Mom watched carefully (she wasn't drunk yet), then turned out onto SLR and headed west.

The car was huge -- a '70 Olds Cutlass, baby blue with a white Landau top. Yeah, it was older, but it had a big motor, and would get to speed pretty quickly if you asked it to. It's throaty V8 would growl threateningly and push you forward, sucking passengers back into their seats when you goosed it to get on the highway or something. When we got onto SLR, my mother squashed on the pedal a bit and the car began it's obese, inertia-laden climb up the speedometer.

As we crested one small rise and headed for the big one, passing the grassy fields, lawns and thick-trunked trees separated from the pavement by the deep open drainage ditches on both sides, something moved quickly out of the corner of my eye, just to the right of the car on the north side of the road.

As quick as a blink, a big, fat gray squirrel darted into the middle of the road.

My mother's a weird one, if you haven't gathered already. She hates mice and rats, opossum and things like that, with a passion. Screams bloody murder, jumps on furniture, hides behind my dad -- you know, the whole "femme fatale" thing. But squirrels, chipmunks, hampsters ... they're all okay for some reason.

So, when she saw that fat, lazy-ass, well-fed squirrel skitter himself onto the road, she didn't want to hit it.

"OH! A squirrel!" The words were spilling out of her mouth while she yanked the wheel hard left, tires barking and screeching in protest, pulling the car into the left lane. You know, the one for oncoming traffic.

Now, this is like 1977 or 78. '78, I think. There weren't any seatbelt laws, and we didn't wear 'em then. So, I didn't have one on, and my brother in the backseat didn't have one on either. That's partially why my head went slapping against the window, thunking like an empty gourd, knocking my glasses all cockeyed and crooked on my face. And it's why Ryan, sitting in the center of the back seat to see more clearly out the windshield, went toppling with limbs akimbo like a chimp tumbling around its cage at the zoo. I knew we were going pretty fast, but that little exchange with G-forces let me know how right I was.

I was trying to push my glasses back onto my nose and sit up when I saw a car crest that big rise, just ahead of us.

It was a tiny sports car -- I knew from my mom's youngest sister that it was a Triumph TR-7, one of her favorites -- and he was really cooking when he hit the top of that hill. He was moving along so fast, in fact, that his tires left the road at the top of the hill. I know, because I saw the air beneath them from our viewpoint, along with the underside of the car in flight. He didn't get real high, but high enough that he couldn't steer. Not with no tires on the road.

The driver's face, a young man with dark glasses and hair, went ashen white through his windshield as his mouth dropped open to form an obscenity. I heard a sound, something along the lines of "Oh no!" from my left, and then suddenly, viciously, the car ripped to the right again, once more barking and squealing the rubber on the asphalt as the lumbering hulk of metal and glass yanked back to the right lane, spilling me face-first into the bench seat between my mother's ass and mine.

I couldn't tear my eyes away from the tiny sports car when I sat upright again. The wheels hit and grabbed, and the driver pulled simultaneously on the steering wheel.

To his left, of course. Right into our path again.

There was precious little distance between the two cars as they hurtled toward one another, and the eyebrows of the driver in the TR-7 rose up above the tops of his sunglasses, his mouth wide and gaping, looking like a snapshot of surprise you'd find in a first year psych book. He tugged again, harder, and there may have been a gasp from my mother, but there was no more reaction than that -- straight on she barreled, and suddenly the little black sports car vanished.

I spun in my seat, looking out the rear window to see what had happened. My jaw dropped in shock at the sight.

The TR-7 was perpendicular to the road, his hood on one side of the deep drainage ditch on the north side of the road, his rear wheels spinning uselessly above the other side. The driver's door was open, and steam was rising from the front end of the V-shaped car, which buckled just before the windshield when it smashed against the drainage ditch. It looked like a sad gypsy's accordion, sagging, broken and clicking across the wide ditch. The driver had his arm hanging out of the open door, shaking his head in stunned disbelief with his eyes closed. I don't think he ever saw us, and didn't open his eyes to catch a glimpse as we climbed that rise.

So, my mother accelerated. We hit that rise and went down the other side and rocketed along State Line Road like never before.

She was still cooing to us that we were okay, everything was fine, and please don't tell dad about this, nothing happened, we're all fine, when we finally got to Kroger.

We stayed there for a really, really long time. I don't remember when I stopped laughing.

And I still don't like squirrels.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Mouse that Roared

I finally had it cornered. And there is nothing more dangerous than a cornered animal.

That morning wasn’t anything unusual. It was a crisp, overcast autumn day. I don’t even remember what month it was, to tell the truth. I remember the coolness outside, and the way the day started so chilly. My grandmother called the weather “brisk,” and my mother never stopped imitating it. You should hear someone who’s drunk mock another person’s southern drawl; it’s a comedy classic. Anyway, there wasn’t anything unusual about that day to speak of, as best I can recall.

It must have been either Saturday or Sunday. Maybe it was after school. I don’t recall anymore. What I do remember, though, is the cold of the linoleum floor biting right through my socks and chilling my feet. I completely dressed everyday in those years, for a couple of reasons. One, I never knew what the day would hold. Sometimes the order of the day was “exploring” -- that was my lush mother’s term for getting in the car and getting as lost as possible. Other times, the day was spent watching her get progressively more drunk, belligerent and stupid while the Michelob bottles piled up around the house. On those days, I tried to be outside or somewhere else -- ANYwhere else -- as much of the day as I could. But, during the cold months, my mother spent her days shivering in front of an electric coil heating element that ticked and clicked, glowing red hot from it’s tiny alcove in the lower part of the wall. It didn’t heat much, so she’d stand right in front of it with a sweater or light jacket on, her knees and hands clenched together while she chattered her teeth and bitched about the cold.

On that day, I was doing something with my brother in our room. We were playing with our dolls -- sorry, I mean “action figures” -- or something like that. It was too cold to play outside and not cold enough to snow, so we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We holed up in our room and tried not to pay attention to what was going on in the other areas of the house. My old man wasn’t there, and it was just me, Ryan and my mother.

So when she screamed her blood-curdling scream of terror, we both bolted without thought into the living room to see what was wrong.

She wasn’t there. We passed into the main room of the house, which was the kitchen. There was a tiny gas stove that seemed to date to the Civil War against the wall adjacent to the entrance from the living room, and a diminutive refrigerator beside it on the connecting wall that separated the kitchen from the “spare bedroom“. The old farm-style sink, buried in a bank of rotting and leaning cabinets that seemed to beg for a swift merciful death were opposite the spare bedroom. Against these, pinned like a knife was being held to her face, was my wide-eyed and horrified mother.

“What’s going on?” I said, following her terror-frozen stare into the spare bedroom.

“S-something -- h-HUGE -- ran across -- in that room --” she stammered.

“What was it, Mommy?” Ryan yelled. He got excited easily and had a big mouth.

“A - m-m-m-MOUSE!” she spat, and buried her head in her hands as a case of the willies shook her like a dusty blanket.

“A mouse?” I repeated, suddenly trying to become the “man of the house.” With my dad away, of course, it was my job to address these things. Spiders in the corner, mice in the kitchen, burglars threatening to enter -- these things became my responsibility when my father wasn’t at home. At least, it was in my mind.

I marshaled my entire five-foot-one frame and began to march toward the “spare bedroom.” I never knew how the hell it qualified as being “spare” when my stinking, loud-mouthed, slob of a brother and I had to share a room, but I didn’t make the rules. I strutted into the room, which had always been filled with our “leftover” furniture, boxes that never got unpacked, a big Kenmore freezer filled with frozen meat, and miscellaneous crap that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else in the house. We’d definitely down-graded from the house we had in California, and the “spare room” was actually a storage locker, in retrospect.

Somewhere, among all the crumpled newspaper pages, stacks of battered corrugated cardboard, rippled and stained linoleum, and the one ancient, paint-crusted window, a mouse was hiding.

I waltzed in like a young gunslinger going to meet the local hero in a bad western. I had the freezer along one wall to my right, the window in front of me and the “closet” -- a gap between two interior walls that was divided in half to form a storage space for this room and our room just beyond it -- to my left, along with most of the room. I swaggered in, feeling very grown-up and John Wayne-ish, swatting boxes and rattling stacks of debris to shoo the mouse out of hiding.

“Be careful!” my mother called, another bout of the willies shivering the words out of her.

“It’s only a mouse, mom,” I said, rolling my eyes. How much of a problem can this be?

I’d dealt with mice before. Tiny, with little pink limbs and those bouncing, stiff little tails, they usually were found at the wrong end of a hardware store trap of wood and copper. But, I reasoned, they’re so small a good stomp should do the trick. The brownish little vermin were generally no longer than your index finger and could be driven to a heart attack if you sent them up in a tin can on a kite string. I’d done it with some friends when I was a kid. We caught a field mouse out near the Contra Costa Canal back home, just outside the Dutch Pride Dairy on Railroad Avenue. He didn’t fight much, and we tied a tin can to Barry Watters’ kite up near where the string anchored to the plastic, delta-winged kite. We sent the kite up for a bit; it went wonky a couple of times, but nothing ever fell out of the can. When we drew it back in that mouse was dead, blood oozing from his teeny pink nose. So, this would be no big deal.

I heard the critter scratching around some boxes back in the corner of the room, and my mother wailed and recoiled into the kitchen again. My brother kept pushing his round, fat nose into the room and screaming “Was that it?? Where is it?? I wanna see it!” I kept shouting at him to give me some room and not to let it get out. There was a flash of brown as the mouse skittered out of my peripheral vision, and I whizzed around on my Chukka-boot sole to stomp on it.

What I saw wasn’t a tiny mouse with delicate pink limbs and a bouncing little tail.

I hit the brakes when I saw it, and felt like the slick linoleum might as well have been ball bearings and marbles. I couldn’t seem to stop as I hurtled headlong into the beast’s open, frothing maw, lined with dripping canines and incisors like knives.

I hurled myself back, into a large stack of boxes, sending them crashing back next to the freezer. The beast was the size of a puma, with flaming, glowing ember eyes that pierced my soul and hypnotized me into panic. I jumped up as it stood on its hideous, black hind legs and did something I’ve never heard a rodent do, before or since.

The “mouse” roared at me.

I shrieked like Miss Muffet and jumped for my life when the leviathan charged me, all fangs and matted, chocolate-colored fur, the rabid foam spraying from its mouth as it darted straight for me. I jumped straight up onto a box, which promptly collapsed under my weight with a clattering crash and a tinkling of crushed glass items. My mother screamed again, and not the typical wail of a frightened person startled by a tiny terror, but the bone-tingling, murder-victim screech from the horror movies. My brother twisted around my mother’s legs crying like a pansy, and I freaked again when the mouse came back out from beneath a piece of legged furniture and zipped across the room into the closet. I stomped blindly, madly, frantically after it, elbows and knees flying up like a clown at a hoe-down, trying with all my might to overcome my “fight-or-flight” response that squeezed exclamations of fear from my clenched teeth. Small boxes, paper piles, a terra cotta pot, and the floor were all I hit before the mouse turned again to charge me. I screamed again, hearing the sound somewhere off in the distance, and finally could fight my instincts no longer as I whipped around quick as a wink and outran that mouse to the kitchen. I leapt onto the counter on the far side, pulling my legs up behind me and grabbing my knees to my chest, my saucer-sized eyes staring through my soda-bottle glasses, waiting to see the monster crashing after me.

My mother and brother were huddled at the door of the room, looking at me. I was panting and puffing, a final heebie-jeebie twisting its way up my spine, standing my hair on end momentarily.

“Did … did you -- get it?” my mother asked.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Chubs and the Watermelon

How was I supposed to resist it?

That summer was HOT; one of the hottest I'd ever been through. The temperatures weren't as high on the mercury scale as I'd seen in my time in the San Fernando Valley outskirts, but the humidity there is far, far lower. Here, in the deep south, east of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason Dixon line, the air was what my parents always called "muggy." I wasn't sure why it was "muggy," or even what "muggy" meant, but I got the idea that it made the hot feel hotter. The days in Georgia could be stifling.

As a kid, you don't mind as much. My brother and I were used to playing outside in the heat, and we were getting used to the idea of no air conditioning in the house to help ease it, too. My father thought he was clever and he placed two box fans in two windows in the house: one in my parents' room blowing air in from the outside, making their room wetter and cooler with passing air. The other fan was in our room, and was pointed blowing OUT, to "create airflow." That's what my spineless, selfish old man told us; ours had to point out so that "airflow" could move through the tiny house. And of course, that ain't what happened. The hot air gathered in the middle of the house and sat there like a fat, hot cloud of humidity and warmth, so that my brother and I could barely breathe. Every night I turned that damned fan around so that it was blowing inward from our window, and every morning the old man would curse and swear about it and turn it back around on his way out to work. His dumb-ass plan didn't work and he wouldn't listen to the complaints my brother and I gave. It's not easy to sleep when you're roasting in your own juices, and when I suggested he turn the fan in HIS room to blow out, well, that was the end of the discussion.

So, we jumped at any opportunity to go someplace air conditioned. This time, it was Aunt Eudie's house.

I didn't even know I had an Aunt Eudie until that day. My grandmother -- my father's mom -- came up the driveway that morning and asked if we wanted to go with her to visit Aunt Eudie, her sister. Apparently, Aunt Eudie was keen on seeing us again. I wracked my brain to remember when she'd ever seen me the first time, but couldn't find it in the recesses of my memory. I shrugged and asked if she had an air conditioner in her house. When my grandmother said she did, I was all in. My brother too, so while grandma went back home we bolted to secure the necessary permission from my mother -- who wasn't drunk yet that day. Then we were off, racing down the driveway to grandma's house on the bottom half of the lot to join her in her forest green Aspen. We didn't know where Aunt Eudie lived, but we knew grandma had an air conditioned car, so the day would be spent in sweet coolness.

My brother and I came racing to her front door. It was partially hidden beneath the wooden staircase that clambered up to the second floor. My grandfather built that house sometime in the distant and unclear haze of the past. He died before I was born, and I didn't know how much farther back the house dated than that, but it was newer than the one we lived in. Our tiny green asbestos-clad shack was where they lived while he built the newer, larger white house where grandma lived, I surmised. When grandma stepped through the screen door, a bulbous, jiggling figure followed her: our cousin, Chubs. He was going with us.

His face brightened when he saw us. I think he'd been staring down the barrel of spending all day with two old women alone, with no one for company but them. When he saw us, he knew, just as we did, it was going to be a lot more fun. Chubs, Ryan and I always seemed to have a good time. He was a couple of years younger than me and a couple of years older than my brother, so he sort of became the middle brother we never had. He could relate to both of us, so he always made for good company. As a bonus, his whiney sister Missy was nowhere to be found.

After the initial greetings, and finding out he'd been dropped off by his mother while she and Missy went out shopping, we all piled into grandma's car for the trip. I assumed it would be some distance, since grandma was taking her car. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Aunt Eudie lived less than a block away at the top of the cross street that terminated Bell Avenue to the south. I laughed aloud when we pulled up to the crisp, white double-wide on the narrow strip of grass just beside the bend in the road. It wouldn't have taken 10 minutes to walk the distance; the air conditioner in grandma's car didn't even get cold before we got there.

The house was cool inside, though. It smelled of old person, but what are you gonna do? She's old. As kids, we didn't pay much attention to the decor, but I remember yellowish, pale shag carpet and wood-paneling on the walls. I remember the popcorn ceilings and the pale yellow and white patterned sofa, still covered in plastic. I remember the faux-wood octagon dining table and the wrought-iron and vinyl chairs tucked tightly against the apron. I remember the green glass half-dome over the white ball hanging down over that table, and the ticking of a clock that I could never find.

And the smell of watermelon wafting to us from the "formal dining room" -- a niche cut into the family room wall, lined with mirrors, hung with a black wrought-iron chandelier made to look like it was holding candles, and a table covered with a lemon-yellow tablecloth. It was stacked with stout, striped watermelons.

But the first thing I noticed was Aunt Eudie.

She must have been six feet four, all pasty skin and beehive hairdo, with mushy, doughy hands that were soft and dry and creepy. She shook my hand, and it reminded me of a soft man's hand with long, manicured nails. A shiver ran up my spine, but I struggled to control it. I tried to meet her eyes, but couldn't. My brother was unusually quiet, and I knew he was feeling the same, eerie sensation: Aunt Eudie could have been a man for all we knew.

We did the dutiful nice things that kids do, answering her queries and laughing politely at her (not funny) jokes and one-liners, and then she asked us if we wanted to go outside and see her flowers. Hell no, we didn't want to go outside and see her flowers. We wanted to sit inside and feel that cool air cascade over us from the air conditioner. I politely said that my allergies were acting up a bit, and if it didn't offend her, I'd prefer to stay inside away from the flowers. She smiled and said that was fine, and would the other boys like to stay and keep me company?

They did, of course.

So, she towered over her sister and headed for the sliding glass door somewhere behind the kitchen, which I was sure was brown and orange or olive green and mustard yellow. When we heard it close behind them, Chubs was the first to utter it: the watermelon sure looked good.

We agreed. I walked over to one, and thumped it lightly with my finger, flicking it like the back of a weaker kid's head. It sounded wet and solid, and thumped grandly.

I got to staring at that melon, and noticing it's shape. It was oblong, and not too big, kind of like an oversized ...

... Chubs spoke my words before I could: "Hey, that looks just like a big football!"

I nodded and smiled, and he picked it up. "Ugh, it's heavy!" he complained, then hefted it to his shoulder. "He's back to pass --" he announced, trying to pose like a quarterback about to make a deep throw.

"He looks long downfield --" I added, our imaginations transforming the tiny little trailer into a packed stadium of screaming fans. My brother opened his mouth and made the standard "roar of the crowd" noise while I moved farther away from Chubs.

How were we supposed to resist? It DID look like a football.

"He's got a man open --" I continued, raising my hand like a receiver signaling for the throw.

Chubs stepped forward, putting his shoulder beneath his elbow and pushing with a mighty grunt as he hefted the bulk of that watermelon toward me like a shot-putter. I watched it wobble and arc slowly toward me, and shuffled under it, letting the weight collapse me as I caught it. It WAS heavy; it was like catching a small child. I grunted loudly, trying to figure out how the heck a melon so small could weigh so much.

"I'm open!" my brother said, waving to me. I wrinkled my brow, shaking my head.

"I don't think so, Ryan," I said. "I can barely catch it, it's so heavy. I don't want you to drop it." And then I turned and chucked it at Chubs before the whining and complaining about being a big kid, strong enough, yadda yadda, could start.

Chubs WAS a big kid. Only a couple of inches shorter than me, but much stockier. He was a pudgy but solid Weeble, and I was sure he'd wobble but not fall down. The melon arced right into his arms at about chest-level, and I heard it slap soundly against his skin.

And I watched it slowly, painfully, slip right through his arms.

I froze, my spine stiffening like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming semi, while Chubs began to giggle his hyena's laugh. He slapped one hand over the melon, his palm desperately trying to grip the smooth green rind, and as the melon inexorably pushed its way through his attempted blockade and down his gut he swatted frantically with the other hand.

No use! The melon kept sliding down his hips. Slap! Ssssslide. Slap! Ssssslide.

The insane, lilting laughter, the hands slapping at the melon uselessly, the unstoppable descent toward the bright, yellow carpet, slowly, slowly, the rasping of denim over the smooth, slick watermelon skin and the repeated slap of Chubs' palms, trying to stop that melon.

At the knee, he couldn't reach anymore. The melon went into free fall.

How bad can it be? I thought. It's only knee high, for cryin' out loud.

In super-slow motion, like an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, the melon spilled off of Chubs' knee and went nose-down like a missile from the sky onto the chartreuse carpet, the stem side staring up at us like a watching, baleful eye streaked with alien-green stripes. The wild laughter of Ryan and Chubs, my own cries to catch it, catch it, stop it, STOP IT -- all faded. All I could hear was the sound of my own heartbeat as the watermelon finally made contact with Terra Firma.

It exploded into a shower of pink debris, seeds, rind shards and juice, flying in a clothes-staining, carpet-ruining fountain that seemed so excessive for such a small melon from such a low drop. Endless pieces of internal watermelon organs sprayed up and out from ground zero and seemed to bounce from the walls, the ceiling, the mirrors, the furniture. In my mind's eye, a torrential fire hose of watermelon guts sprayed over the entire living and dining rooms, covering everything, splashing us with plant blood spatter and forensic evidence, incriminating us, accusing us, tattling on us as the bottomless gourd spouted like a humpback whale.

I heard a sound, and I was certain that it was Aunt Eudie and my grandmother coming back in from the tiny flower garden -- where there was far too little to see and it was far too hot for two elderly women -- and I jumped like a panther toward the front door, leaving Chubs and Ryan desperately clawing at watermelon chunks and goo, trying hopelessly to scoop the mess up and somehow have it passable before they came back in. It was no good, I knew; it was useless to try. I crashed through that door leaving them giggling and crying "Hey!", and heard only the beating of my own heart as I raced down the slight grade toward Bell Avenue. I rounded the corner and made a graceful arc in the middle of the street that terminated at our front door. I nearly knocked it from its hinges as I burst through and dove into my bedroom and onto my bed.

My mother came rushing in, hearing the commotion. "What's going on?" she said, glancing me over quickly to assess physical damage. "Where's Ryan?"

I panted and puffed, having made the journey in less than three minutes. "Oh ... uh, he's ... with grandma. I ... decided to ... come home early. It was ... boring."

"Oh," she said, and left the room.

But moments later -- scant moments, with my heart still pounding and breath still burning in my lungs -- the phone started to ring.