Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Little Squirt

When we were very young, my parents would drive us across the country to visit relatives out west. My father would pull the seats from whatever van we were driving that year, and build a wooden platform to fit in their place. Underneath the platform would go the luggage, and on top would go their bedroom mattress. We kids would pile in, sitting, laying, rolling, on the soft mattress together as the miles passed below us. Mom would tape aluminum foil to the windows to reflect away the sun and its heat, and we would eat sandwiches from a big red and white cooler. There was no air conditioning, so the windows would be open for most of the drive, and the hot wind would rush in and stir up the pages of our books.

Dad would drink "Squirt," a sour grapefruit flavored soda that came in yellow cans. I would steal a sip or two when I dared, and as I did, I would imagine driving my own wife and kids across the country someday. I would drink "Squirt," wear a Farrah Fawcett tee shirt with faded blue jeans, and block out the sun with big black sunglasses. My left hand would hold the wheel, and I would bend my right arm up over my head, fingers clasping the seat belt strap that hung from the door frame above. My wife would sit all pretty in the passenger seat, handing out crackers coated with squeeze cheese and bacon bits. I would listen to the kids sing along with John Denver and Olivia Newton John on the radio, then smile at their cheers when I pulled over at fireworks stands along the way.

After driving all day, Dad would pull over to the side of the road, grab a sleeping bag from the back of the van, and drop to the ground for a long nap. I would worry about my father out there on the ground; I imagined his body being crushed by a passing truck, or wild animals tearing him from sleep with their sharp claws and cutting fangs. I wouldn’t sleep much, restless from  the thought of losing him playing on a loop inside my head. Come the dawn, I would wake to the creak of the driver side door opening, and then listen for the rustle of his sleeping bag as he crammed it into the space between the two front seats. The door would close with a click, and he would murmur something softly to my mother as she stirred. Only then would I feel safe again, and as he started the engine and pulled the van back onto the highway I would drift off to sleep with a smile on my face.

I could really go for some Squirt right now.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


"So Dad, have you written any more chapters for your book?" Caleb's voice tugged at my mind, a tether to hold me fast to the present and prevent me from running too far and long into the past.

I turned to answer my oldest child, and noticed that framed as he was by the doorway of my bedroom, his height was remarkable. "Yes, I have written a few, and I made some changes to the ones that you have already seen."

"Anything I can read tonight?"

"Sure, I think I have most of them printed out here somewhere," I said, and began to search the pile of paper on my nightstand.

"I can't wait for your book to come out; it will be a bestseller, and they'll probably make a movie of it."

"Well, I am glad you and your mother have that kind of faith in me, because I sure don't," I laughed, pulling from the mess before me a short stack of papers held together by a paper clip. I held out the chapters, then pulled them back before he could take them from me and said, "You know, this is a tough thing to write about."

"I know it is." He looked me in the eyes, making me feel safe for the moment.

"Some of the stuff in here is pretty heavy, but it is the truth, you need to understand that. There's a lot of love in this family, but there is a lot of harshness too. I don't want you to think less of anyone in here." My voice cracked a little, and I paused, holding my breath and pushing away a breakdown.

"Dad, do you want me to hug you? I mean, you look like you are sad right now, and maybe you need a hug, if that's what you want."

"Yes, I could use a hug, I am in bad shape," I shuddered.

"I know you are."

As we hugged, I felt his strength and became aware of his stature. I felt a moment of panic, fearing that I had somehow missed the last eight months of his life and that his childhood was passing like a breeze through my hair. I squeezed him then, perhaps a bit too much, but I couldn't let go because I didn't want the moment to end. Then I thought about the strength in his arms, and noticed the width of his shoulders and the height of his head so close to mine. I was happy; my son was hugging me, an outward expression of love and compassion for me in my moment of great need. Yes, he was leaving childhood behind, but as he did he was becoming a man, a great man who knew what it meant to love someone and show it.

I could have passed away in that moment, happy and fearless for the future, but I have two more to finish first, and I think Elizabeth needs my help.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Darkest Hour

“Matty, come here!” There is alarm in her voice. I sprint across the few hundred feet that separate us, jumping logs, dodging branches, stumbling over rocks.

“What , what do you see?” I ask as I approach.

“I don’t know, it looks like clothes, but I am not looking again.” Elizabeth has turned to face me, and is pointing over her shoulder.

“Ok, ok, I’ll look.” I say as I pass her in a hesitant rush.

I look out over the forest floor, but my eyes will not cooperate. I can see something large and blue, but the whole of its shape does not make any sense. I am looking at something just fifty feet away, but I cannot tell what it is, there is a disconnect between my eyes and my mind. I take a few steps forward.

“Is it him?” Her tone is soft and pleading.

“I don’t know, my eyes won’t focus.” I take a few steps closer, rubbing my eyes.

“Don’t go any closer.” Elizabeth warns.

“I won’t, I just can’t…” My eyes suddenly snap into focus, and I know that I am looking at a blue blanket. One corner is folded up over something. Shoes. They are shoes, sticking out from under the corner. My mind moves cautiously, the puzzle’s picture taking shape with each new piece that snaps into place. The legs are crossed at the ankles, the corner of the blanket laying over the feet, creating the odd form that made no visual sense. Jeans. I stop and focus at the waist. I see a black belt, with two rows of silver grommets running around its length. I know that belt.

“It’s him, it’s him, it’s him.” I am stuck in slow motion.

“Oh, no,” Elizabeth begins to whimper. She reaches for me as I take a step closer. 

“Matty, don’t go over there.” She pleads.

I look at her for answers as I begin to cry.

“Oh Jared, why, why, why?!” I am now shouting, sobbing, gasping, and I fall down. No strength, no control. I stare across the forest floor at the blanket.

A great shift has befallen me, sending me to my knees. There is a tightness in my chest with each anxious, life-giving breath. Strange, feral, sorrowful sounds are coming from my throat. Through blurry eyes I see long strands of spit dripping from my lips, and as I watch them coat the dirt beneath me, I marvel that I don’t care. 

My mind leaps across time. From one memory to another, a rapid, fitful slide-show of the past thirty-six years flashes before me. I am trembling, weak, defeated. Something touches my shoulder, a reminder that I am not alone. Elizabeth is with me, standing close, her hand on my back. It is there to comfort me, but also to hold me in place. I thank God she is here, with me, in this moment. She knows me, that I will want to run over there. To scoop him into my arms. To hold him. To fix him. I lift my head up, and my knees press into soil. My arms are limp and useless, my chest heaving. I look over at him once more, and another growl escapes my throat. I fall forward, and my forehead touches the earth. A deep breath, and I begin to wail. I am surrounded by darkness as the whine of a distant siren blends with mine.

My brother Jared lies dead on a blanket in the woods.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Burning Family Bush

Hello, my name is Despair, have you met my family? My parents, Denial and Martyrdom, have been married for many years, and nowadays they bounce around inside a grand monument built to honor (on display) the trials of so many decades together. I have many siblings; first, there's Ignorance, he's right jolly if not a little selfish, but not in a spiteful way. He is hard not to love, but can be a tad tiresome. My sister Hate is next in line, and her name says all you need to know about her, at least for now. I came next to the family, and I have not the time nor the will to detail my faults. It is enough to say that I am incapable of self, and appear to need to be needed in order to survive. Something of a work in progress for me is the shaking of that self-imposed mantle. After me there was Loneliness, but he is gone now, a victim of himself. I wonder if Loneliness ever imagined being missed as badly as we miss him now. It strikes me now, how ironic it is that he has caused so much of himself for others. Loneliness is followed by The Bouncing Ball, but that is not his real name, we just call him that because he can only seem to be up or down, and travels rather quickly and without warning from one to the other. He can be fun to play with, until he bounces away from you, seemingly ever-unwilling to return. Not long after The Bouncing Ball came Submission, eager as she is to please others. It's sad, the fact that she doesn't see herself as fine the way she has been in the past, and so feels the need to adapt to others. The last of the litter is Drama, and her name follows her wherever she goes, but only because she demands that it does. She must feel that without her name she would be somehow less of a person, and more of a blind spot in everyone's eyes, and maybe she is right, but we don't remember; it's been years since she traveled alone.

Hope springs eternal, as they say...