Matthew Lickona 4 p.m., May 26
- Community Blog
- The Abnormal Width of Normal Heights
The Early Daze, part 15
After my night out with the Hank and the other guys, when I’d smoked too much pot and drank too much tequila, when I’d sloppy sneezed on a girl who kissed me, when my warring brains had wracked me with the usual litany of physical symptoms (aches and pains and snots) to distract me from my overwhelming feelings of inferiority in such pickup-joint circumstances, when I’d finally given up and called Karen, longing and love in my exhausted voice, she and I enjoyed another of our extended bouts of relative calm.
We went bird-watching often, down at Quivira basin, binoculars in one hand, our National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds in the other. Karen, the real avian fanatic of the two of us, could spend hours at the basin any day, observing the many varieties of iridescently feathered ducks, and the great snowy egrets standing tall and still like white tie butlers, and the curlews with their long slender curved bills and the godwits with their long slender straight bills poking into the soft tidally exposed mud hoping to hit worm or invertebrate or tiny crustacean gold. One sunny day we ourselves hit bird gold, at least according to Karen. While engaged in our enjoyable observation of the usual assortment of winged creatures, we saw in the distance two larger birds approaching, gliding down toward the water side by side. Small pelicans was my first thought, but Karen said no, they weren’t pelicans at all, not even close (what was I thinking?), and she focused her binoculars on the gracefully descending pair.
“Oh my god,” marveled Karen excitedly, “they’re skimmers! Black skimmers! I’ve never seen them before!”
Just then, the birds, true to their name, skimmed along to top of the water, so close they could not get any closer, their breasts moist, their red and black lower bills protruding beyond their upper bills, a perfectly designed fish scooper. Suddenly, tiny whitewater splashed as their lower bills bit into the water, allowing them to scoop up a shallow swimming meal.
“He got one!” exclaimed Karen, as I could barely see the squirming fish sticking out from one bird’s bill.
She was so thrilled. It seemed like she lived on that high for a few days, if I recall. But our most memorable experience with birds came a few weeks later, when we decided to take a hike at Otay Lakes, east of Chula Vista. This was twenty years ago, it occurs to me now, two decades, a blink before the area became a mass of tract homes and shopping center development, before the massive U.S. olympic training center was built, when the area was still open space and ranchland and mostly empty. But development was coming, reaching, stretching. I’d delivered many a truckload of M.G. electrical supplies to housing tracts under construction that were slowly creeping their way toward the open space (and which have now reached and passed it). That afternoon, Karen and I parked our car along the side of what seemed a desolate Otay Lakes Road. For awhile we stayed on the makeshift trail around the roughly Y shaped lower Otay reservoir. At some point, we wanted to get to the water’s edge, so we hiked through some taller weeds and reeds and found our way to the silent and flatwater shore.
Karen and I were holding hands, beautiful silence enveloping us. I kissed her cheek, and a bird shrieked desperately from across the water…treep treep treep!! We looked up, our eyes and minds taking a moment to process the sight, and what a sight it was: the mating dance of the western grebe.
The birds, black on top, white on their breast bottoms, beaks like thin pointed blades, bent and twisted their rubbery long necks in a sort of call and response, accordions of flesh and bone, curl and twist, curl and twist, three or four times in a matter of seconds, before another quick shriek, treep treep treep!, and then…they walked on water.
The birds ran on water actually, side by side, their hose long necks extended and arched gracefully into a razor beak peak, stride stride stride, run run run, splash splash splash, fifty or a hundred yards, the staggering and speechless beauty of nature’s sexual choreography. And this was not flying on water, no wings were involved; their wings were held back, stiff and unflapping, this was pure grebe magic, the best miracle of Jesus repeated thousands of times a season. And then, when they were done running atop the water, they dived in unison and disappeared into the depths of the glassy green lake.
I hardly spent a night in the 32nd Street house during this period, sleeping regularly at the Rolando house Karen shared with skinny Shauna. At night, in bed with Karen, I’d feel the mattress gently begin to shake, moving side to side.
“I’m wiggling,” Karen had told me the first time I’d asked her, almost two years earlier. “It helps me fall asleep.”
It usually kept me awake, but now I didn’t care. So she wiggled, and I endured it, enamored of it more than ever. We fed squirrels at Lake Murray every week, toting a bag of shelled walnuts to our favorite bench, where we’d be accosted by three or four familiar members of the family Sciuridae, my favorite among them a squirrel with a large crooked tooth sticking out from his chops like a tiny ivory tusk, who scurried with a pronounced limp, his back left leg stiff and inflexible compared to his others. I’d put a fat walnut on my shoe and watch as snaggle-tooth would slowly approach, then take it and stuff it into his knapsack mouth. He always gave me a momentary look after he took the nut, as if to say, “Thank you, friend, you can see from this tooth and my bum leg that I have it hard enough already.”
I even forced myself to become endeared with the way Karen talked to her cats, in this cutesy-pie sort of sing-song baby talk that irritated me from the first time I’d heard it. At that point in our relationship, however, it was cat, singular. The previous summer, after our trip across the country, we’d returned late one night to discover that Slinky, the stray she’d taken in six months earlier – and whom I was much more fond of than Kiko, her smush-faced Himalayan – was lethargic and panting, and looked to be in great discomfort. By 1 a.m. we were at the emergency veterinarian’s office in Mission Valley, petting the cat lovingly as a vet injected him with a lethal dose of drugs, after a chest x-ray and other tests revealed a terminal lung infection and/or feline leukemia. Poor Slinky would have had nothing but endless and increasing suffering in his future. So we let him go. Karen and I cried all night together.
* * * * * * * *
1990 was winding down. I was still writing, mostly plays, and sending them out to theatres all over the country, getting rejection letter after rejection letter. My only consolation was that these rejection letters were now more personal, not form letters, but they were still rejections. On a Friday afternoon, I received a reply from Playwright’s Horizons in New York, one that seemed so encouraging, like they would finally say “Yes, bring that play to New York and let’s workshop it,” it was a correspondence so complimentary it couldn’t be a rejection, it just couldn’t be. And then…came the but. The unfortunately. The no. I was depressed all weekend, I was a bear to Karen. And I went to work Monday in a terrible mood.
Hank was grumpy, as well. He’d gone to Bakersfield over the weekend to see his little brother play Pop Warner, only to discover his mother had a new man whom she’d met through the personal ads.
“He just seemed creepy, dude,” Hank told me, in that exhausted dysfunctional family voice I knew so well. “I mean, my mom had all these boudoir photos taken of herself in lingerie and sh-t, just to send these guys. And my brother hates the guy, says he’s a jerk. F-cking home, man, isn’t it supposed to be welcoming and warm and happy and all that? Where’s the Brady Bunch when you need it? Just for a lousy weekend.”
Everyone at M.G. Electric, it turned out, seemed to be in a similar state of mind. The economy under Dubya’s daddy was tanking, business was starting to fall off, orders were down, and “That’s when good people get the boot,” Tommy lamented as he thumbed through invoices, while the whispers were starting to be heard. But it wasn’t quite that bad yet, we all still had jobs, for how long was another question, and we all hoped for an increase in business.
For me, a dip in orders meant fewer deliveries in my truck and more time in the warehouse bored and trying to find things to do, like pushing a broom up and down the merchandise aisles until I’d worn a groove in the concrete. Clock watching at work is like waiting to get flogged. Unless it’s Friday. And it never seemed to be Friday nearly enough. It never does when you’re doing manual labor.
As the holidays approached, it was inventory time at M.G. Since nothing was computerized, everyone stayed late one night and counted everything by hand. And I mean everything. Wire nuts, roof jacks, couplings, conduit, Romex wire, lamps, cable, outlet boxes, circuit breakers, screws, bolts, clamps, toilet paper in the restrooms, all of it was accounted for by someone’s eyes and fingers and written down on a clipboard form to be transcribed later onto a huge ledger by old lady Gosh and her assistants. Like monks copying the Bible. M.G. Electric was a dinosaur.
As I tabulated the number of dimmer switches in an already open box, old man Gosh approached me, his voice gravely and tired. He’d actually had a heart attack the week before, but he was back on the job in days with freshly vacuumed coronary arteries, now smoking lite cigarettes and drinking red wine “only at night.”
“Dave, I know you haven’t been here that long,” he said through a wheezy breath, “but you’ve done a good job for us. And it’s that time of year, you know. Merry Christmas.”
With that he handed me an envelope containing a check for two hundred dollars. It was the first holiday bonus I’d ever received during one of my peon stints. I had to hand it to him, for as big a jerk as his kid could be, the old man wasn’t so bad. I saw him in a sympathetic light now, stuck with his bullet-bra, Virginia Slim smoking wife, who was perpetually in want of a newer and more expensive something or other, and his sex-addict son with the multiple DUI’s and the drunken sense of entitlement. Everyone was a player in their own freakshow at M.G., myself included, but at least it paid, and I was happy to have a few hundred extra holiday bucks in my pocket. It would be enough to cover my Christmas gifts for my family.
* * * * * * * *
My memories of that Christmas morning are aided greatly by the fact that I videotaped some of the festivities. I’d driven from San Diego to Hacienda Heights (such a moniker, so perfectly southern California) to my mother’s house in a gated community called “The Avocado Grove,” and literally so. The houses were built in a grove of the fruit trees, and the homeowner’s association would harvest them and sell them to help maintain the pool and tennis court and the other amenities gated life provides. What the avocado grove also attracted were rats. You could often see them feasting on fallen avocados, or, thanks to my second stepfather Tom’s shoddy construction standards, you could hear them fighting with each other inside the walls of the downstairs addition he’d added a few years earlier. Once when watching television in that part of the house, when I was home one weekend babysitting my brother and sister, I looked up to see that a giant rat, the size of a cat, had chewed its way through one of the thick paperboard drop-ceiling panels, and was staring down at me like it wished it were bigger and could chew its way through me. I stood up and shouted to spook the massive rodent, but it stayed right there staring down at me. Which spooked me, and I fled the room.
As we opened gifts that morning, my grandmother sat in her favorite chair, talking to herself and smiling like a little girl. She’d had a sort of stroke the year before, and it had left her a bit more childlike that she already had been prior. She opened her gifts slowly, her arthritic hands crooked and weakened, but she was always delighted, even when the gifts were odd ones, like a canned ham. When she opened the bottle of perfume I bought her, rosewater, the scent of grandmothers, she was thrilled. Not only to have perfume again, since she’d run out a month ago, but also because it meant she wouldn’t have to use air freshener anymore.
“You used air freshener as perfume?” I asked her, increasingly amused.
“Oh yes. It’s really not so bad, except it makes me sneeze when I spray it on.”
“What scent do you use?”
“Well it may sound strange, but I do love the Mountain Pine.”
This explained why she smelled like Lake Tahoe when I’d given her a hug earlier.
My little brother and sister, in their early teens, were awkward and uncertain of my comments. I never knew quite what they made of me then, or what any of my half-siblings think of me really. They each had a sibling to relate to. I was the oddball, the octagon peg, and I always felt out of place, no matter which version of my family I was in the process of negotiating.
“Here you go, sweetheart,” my stepfather said to my mother. “This is my special one for you.”
At this point in their marriage, things were starting to unravel. Tom had already expressed to me his unhappiness that my mother didn’t seem to have any romantic side left, a sentiment I neither wanted to hear nor think about. I know he started to have an affair late in their marriage, and whether it had already started I have no idea, but from my mother’s reaction to his gift, I would guess it had, and that she knew.
“Oh,” she said with a distinct lack of enthusiasm as she opened it, and not showing us the gift. “Thank you.”
I was filming at this point, and I told her to hold up the gift. She didn’t want to. I insisted. She huffed and showed me. It was a package of French cut panties. Ugh. What was he thinking? You give that gift in private, not in front of the stepkids. My mother was annoyed, disgusted more accurately, and my stepfather turned beet red from his seat on the couch. She frowned at him and tossed aside the package, moving on to the next gift for one of her children. She hardly spoke to him for the rest of the day.
The marriage was over. I could clearly tell that day. And I didn’t want to come back home again until it was over for good.
As I write this, I remember that Tom passed away a few months ago. Even though his marriage to my mother ended badly almost twenty years ago – and even though I’d hated when he always referred to me as his “son,” or made a point of telling me that my father had “abandoned” my mother and I, and that he was my father now – I had for many years harbored decent feelings for Tom. He had rescued us, in a way, and protected us from my abusive first stepfather, even if I didn’t want anything to do with him as a child. But then, a few years ago, my sister (his stepdaughter) confided to me that she had never trusted him, that he had been inappropriate with her beginning when she was a young teen. Not molested her, but inappropriate in a way a man should never be with his stepdaughter. Comments about her breasts growing, “playful” slaps on the butt, things that immediately erased whatever remaining gratitude and affection I possessed toward him. I felt like punching him at the time. But he was an old man at that point. Then again, twenty-one years older than my mother, he always had been.
I don’t know what to think or feel now that he’s gone. Much like I didn’t when my first stepfather had died and, for my brother and sister’s sake, I’d forced myself to muster emotion, managed to pretend to care. Although pretend and care are awful words together. I can only repeat: I just don’t know what to think or feel. I never do, and never have. Truthfully, I get so mixed up that sometimes I still think my third stepfather, Jeff, is alive; it feels like he should still be around. He was a great guy in so many ways, younger than my mother’s other men. But when he was a child, he’d practically witnessed the murder of his mother at the hands of her boyfriend, a man he had idolized, fatherless himself, and I know that too big a part of Jeff, the healthy part emotionally, died that day with his mother. He’d get so drunk, and it only got worse, that it could’ve only been to keep at bay the rage and pain, the brute-strong physical memory of that horrible day. But he couldn’t fight forever. When he took his own life, his funeral was the single saddest gathering I can remember attending. Three stepfathers dead in three years. Now, several years after that divorce, my mother is getting married again. And I want her to be happy. I want the marriage to last forever. I like this guy, a lot, but I just don’t know. I have an attachment disorder. And I’ve had it for decades. Clearly. So it goes. And goes again.
I didn’t want to spend that Christmas night in the house. I thought about driving out to Arcadia, home of Santa Anita Racetrack, and close to the house Karen grew up in, where her parents still lived, and where she was spending Christmas with her family, mother and father and three siblings. The thought lasted for about a second. If I could’ve had Karen alone at that moment, I’d have gladly driven a thousand miles, but another family, and hers was its own beautiful mess, did not interest me at all. So I drove back to San Diego in the battered Sentra after dinner, my spirits low, and I could feel my back lock up as I sat there, my legs sore and stiff, and I knew when I got back to the 32nd Street house that getting out of the car was going to be almost impossible. Which it was. I was hunched over like a hundred year-old man with a hundred pound chain hanging around his neck. The house seemed empty. Heidi had moved out to do her neurology residency in New York City, and Saundra was spending Christmas with her family. But then, as I opened the door, I realized our new roommate Ulf was home, I could hear his music down the hall. Then he appeared in the kitchen doorway, immediately sympathetic to my plight, and he moved to help me into the house. But I waved him away as politely as I could.
“Thanks, Ulf, but I’m okay, I just need to lay on the floor.”
I made it to the floor about ten minutes later, moving with the delicate sloth of a frightened hypochondriac forced to lie on a bed of nails. As I stared at the ceiling, Ulf’s blonde and pink Scandinavian face appeared above me.
“Turn upside down, I give you a rub. Even though Swedish did not invent the massage, we do it really good.”
I tried to dissuade him. “No no, that’s okay. And I thought the Swedes invented the Swedish massage?”
“No, it’s just one of those history things. People hear something and it keeps going. But I am very good. Let me help you.”
But Ulf’s pungent b.o. was already descending on me like a blanket made of armpits, and I told him I’d have to decline, that I really just needed to be left alone.
“Okay, but you tell me when, and I will help you.”
He went back into his room, turning up the Swedish pop music he was fond of listening to, which at that moment was the last thing I wanted to hear. But I couldn’t muster the jerk to tell him to turn it down. I lay there and felt my back spasm and lock, spasm and lock, spasm and lock. When I tried to get up, it was agonizing and hopeless. I slept on the floor that night, and I had a dream about my perfect family. In the dream, my mother and father were still married, and I had a brother and sister, and we were all having a holiday meal together, laughing and happy. I woke up in the middle of the night from the dream, more depressed and more incapable of getting myself up from the floor. My chin began to quiver and tighten, and tears came to my eyes. Wary of Ulf hearing me, I stifled my crying and tried to fall asleep again. I could barely move for the next two days.
Psycho. Soma. Tic.
* * * * * * * *
“Dude, Joleen’s leaving today,” said Hairy Hands Mike. “I have my plan all set up.”
“What the f-ck are you talking about?” Hank replied.
HHM wouldn’t say, but later we’d learn.
“What happened with Joleen?” I asked Hank a half-hour later. “I just saw her leaving in tears.”
He told me that HHM had called Joleen at her desk right before lunch. He’d told her that they both knew they wanted each other, and that his apartment was empty and all ready for them, that she should meet him there in twenty minutes. But she didn’t respond as HHM had hoped. In fact, his offer had so upset and unsettled her that she left forever right after getting off the phone. When I’d seen her a few moments earlier, she’d seemed to be shaking.
“Now fetch that forklift and hoist me up,” Hank concluded. “I need my nap.”
HHM wasn’t seen for the rest of the day. And the Joleen incident was never really discussed again around the warehouse. Hank said later that HHM had shut himself in his room at the condo that night, and that could be heard throwing things, cursing loudly, and punching the wall in anger.
* * * * * * * *
“Cool Daddy-O, look at this sh-t,” Hank beckoned as I arrived to work one morning a few weeks after the New Year.
Everyone in the warehouse was crowded around the small black and white television set that Tommy had brought in and set up on his shipping/receiving desk. The tiny screen glowed with madness, a nightvision nightmare.
We were bombing the hell out of Baghdad.
“Get those ragheads!” shouted Gary Gosh as he approached.
“Shut the f-ck up, as-hole!” Hank barked at him. “Have some respect for human life.”
They almost came to blows. Between the sinking economy and the war (in Iraq and in the smaller daily warehouse battles), the tension around M.G. Electric was not going to dissipate any time soon.