Archive for February, 2011

Prettier than any flower

It’s a neon November, and the boy at the loud bar is trying to come up with something smart to say to the girl, a friend of a friend who is slouching and smoking ultralights and kind of looking around. He exhales and asks the girl if she wants to go some place quiet, like outside for a walk.

“You mean in the dark and the cold with an odd boy I don’t know?”

He nods.

“I’d love to.”

Two weeks pass, and the odd boy finds himself clomping along a path with the slouching girl on a warm afternoon. She tells him about her mermaid job and how she can train a pig to swim and how her father walked away after 31 years of marriage.

“I murder relationships, too,” she warns, smiling a little, as they put one foot in front of another and step into a yellow glade.

***

The man blames her sometimes. He wants to train for bike races and meet friends at clubs and hike the Inca Trail, but there isn’t time or money and even when there is, he’s too tired. For a while, he holds on to who he was, the athlete, the traveler, but when the second baby arrives, he lets go. Some days he wants to pull the blinds and stay in bed all day.

The woman blames him, too. He sleeps through the baby crying and he doesn’t close the bathroom door anymore and he zones out when she talks about her job and he’s pissed off most of the time. Some days she can barely stand to look at him.

***

It’s a black January, and the odd boy is riding his bike on an icy night to the slouching girl’s house. She hasn’t answered the phone for two days, and he’s determined to find out what’s going on. Right now. This very evening.

As he rolls past her car and stares at her dark house, the boy gets his answer, without peeking in her window, without even slowing down. He just knows. The boy pedals down the empty street, and the girl sleeps in the still house, and the boy knows he’s been dumped.

A month passes before the odd boy finds the courage to dial the girl.

“Happy Ground Hog Day,” he says into the receiver. He wants to admit that he really phoned because he misses her, but the boy doesn’t dare. He doesn’t dare tell her his hurt is as heavy as an anvil. He doesn’t confess that he gets drunk almost every night.

“I’m glad you called,” the girl says.

“I am, too.”

He doesn’t admit that he writes her poems in notebooks and on napkins. He doesn’t tell her that her voice is prettier than any flower.

***

The man fails on Valentine’s Day. He stands in line at the grocery store to buy flowers and a bottle of cabernet and chocolate just like last year and the year before.

“You shouldn’t have,” the woman says like last year and the year before.

He’ll fail on her birthday and their anniversary and Christmas, too. She’ll be gracious and remind him that the gift doesn’t matter, but truth is, it does some. Almost everything matters.

***

It’s a green March and the slouching girl is knocking at the odd boy’s door. Her eyes are pink from red wine and too much sun and too little sleep.

“Walk with me?” she asks.

“You mean in the dark and the cold?”

“Come on.” She tugs on his shirt, looking at him sideways, smiling. “I don’t have cooties. Not many anyway.”

And the odd boy knows. He just knows.

***

The man and the woman are finally kicking back after working all day and making dinner and bathing the children and cleaning the kitchen and feeding the dogs and folding the laundry.

“Who are you again?” the woman asks.

“I’m pretty sure I’m your husband.”

“My husband, eh? That’s good to know because you’re sort of cute.”

“Only ‘sort of’?”

“Sure. I’d do you. I mean, why not.”

The woman looks at him sideways and smiles, and her expression takes him back, back to March all those years ago, back to the slouching girl at his door.

“I might just take you up on that one of these days,” the man says, and he sees her, sees her to the bone, this girl, this woman with the career and the wide grin, this mother with the wrinkles and the sagging skin. She’s still a knock out, even after all this time.

“Good night, Husband,” she mumbles a few minutes later as she ambles towards bed. Her ankle is swollen from jogging that morning and her posture is getting worse and her voice is still prettier than any flower.

“Sweet dreams, Wife,” he says and lingers for a few seconds in an emotion that’s as soft and kind as summer mist.

Then he notices the remote and picks it up and turns the TV on.

Note: Some of this fact; some of this invented. I suppose that means it’s like everything else that’s ever been written. Also, I cannibalized several sentences from a post I wrote on this very blog a couple of years ago. I can do that, right? Eat my own.

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High Ball

It’s last Saturday night, and I’m at the High Ball, a slick Austin night club. There’s a bowling alley here and a view of the Austin skyline through the floor-to-ceiling windows and a DJ in a bear costume and two go go dancers on a stage and put together people sipping coctails everywhere.

“What do you want?” Hollis asks as we squeeze toward the bar.

“Nothing,” I tell him. “I’m not feeling so hot.”

He smirks. “Come on, dude. What are you drinking?”

“Nothing. I can’t even keep ginger ale down.”

This is the truth. My gut is grinding and gurgling and groaning. It expels anything that slides into it, including the ginger ale I thought might settle it.

Hollis looks at me like I’m lying or a sissy and orders a Manhattan for himself and a Racer 5 for Tubre and a water for me I won’t touch.

It’s strange being sober with these old friends, Hollis and Tubre. I’ve known Hollis since I was a homesick Freshman living in the dorm. He smoked Camel shorties then and listened to obscure music and hassled the guys on our floor pledging fraternities. I liked Hollis from the get go.

I met Tubre a year later in the student-run coop I’d moved into. My first memory of Tubre is from a Retarded Elf show. Tubre chugged a bottle of Boone’s Farm that night and climbed on stage with the band and dived into the mosh pit but missed the swirling mass of grimey moshers. When he reappeared a minute later at the back where a group of us had gathered, he had a slice of pepperoni pizza in his hand.

“You want this?” he asked me, smiling and holding up the drooping slice. His chin was bleeding. “I can’t eat it. I’m a vegetarian.”

I liked Tubre immediately, too.

A year after that, the three of us rented a listing house with rats and roaches and slits in the outside walls wide enough that the yard was visible. That time, living in a house that would soon be condemned, studying hard sometimes, making it on 400 dollars a month, binge partying frequently, cemented our friendship.

I realize at the High Ball that this might be the first time in the 20 years since Hollis, Tubre, and I became roommates in that collapsing house with one functioning space heater that I’ve been in a bar with these guys and not put away a single beer.

Sobriety provides a kind of perspective. I notice, for instance, the bartenders hustling and yelling and sweating. They’re not just working, but working out.

I notice, too, that the place smells like perfume and tequila and cigarettes and arm pit and hot breath. It’s an unfortunate combination for a guy with twisting insides.

Most of all, I notice how belligerent and silly and dim Hollis becomes after he downs one potent coctail after another. It’s funny at first. He tells Tubre and I that High Ball is a neighborhood bar.

Tubre asks a girl next to us if she lives in the neighborhood.

No, she tells him. He asks another. She says no as well.

“Hollis,” I chime in. “There’s absolutely no way this is a neighborhood bar.”

“Whatever,” he snorts. “You all don’t know shit,” and Tubre and I laugh at his stubborn foolishness.

But as Hollis slurs and forgets and gets cut off at the bar across the street, it stops being so funny, even if we’re still cracking up. I don’t see Hollis much, two—maybe three—times a year, but when I do, it’s often like this, him doubling down on liquor, him getting sloppy and cocky and stupid.

I watch him light a cigarette on the outside patio and listen to him mumble and begin feeling low. I don’t know if I’d call Hollis an alcoholic. He’s successful in his career and finishing up a master’s degree is in his spare time. For all I know, he drinks like this only when he’s with his old pals. I’d like to think so.

But what I know is he doesn’t seem as sharp as he used to be, and I worry that booze is slowly shorting out his mind.

I worry about what alcohol has done to my mind as well. My long nights at the clubs became less frequent with graduate school and bike racing and fatherhood, but they never stopped all together.

And even now, after the kids go to bed, I still drink. I tell myself it’s just a beer, maybe two, and it is usually, but I can feel it blurring memories and deadening perspectives at the same time it uncoils the knots from a long day.

I still get loaded, too. At a neighborhood gathering on New Year’s Eve, I drank so much vodka and homebrew that I vomitted and passed out on the couch. On Saturday, had I not been sick, Tubre, Hollis, and I would have cabbed it from club to club and gotten polluted like so many times before.

My grandfather would slip whiskey into his morning coffee and suck down bourbon from the time he returned home until he went to bed. In the middle of the night, he’d shuffle into the kitchen and pour himself one final glass to make it to daylight. By his early 70’s, Papa didn’t know who I was and only sometimes recognized my mom. He never forgot that whiskey of his, though.

Is this Hollis’ path, I wonder? Is it mine?

By Sunday, the nausea that poisoned my stomach at High Ball has seeped away. I can drink then but I don’t, nor do I Monday, but Tuesday, after basketball practice and after the boys fall asleep, I pull a bottle of Mirror Pond from the fridge in the garage. The pale ale warms my insides as it goes down, and Sally and I zone out for an hour in front of the TV.

A famous actor makes a cameo on the show we’re watching, and I can’t remember his name. Then it comes to me. It’s Edward Norton. Of course. American History X. Fight Club. Death to Smoochy. How could I forget?

I feel better than I’ve felt in days, and once I finish the beer, I realize it’s still early. Maybe I’ll have just one more, I think. What’s one more? What’s the harm?

I pull myself off the couch and aim for the garage.

Well swell

“I haven’t took a shit in three days is that bad.” People keep typing those exact words into Google and ending up here. Perhaps this is a sign that we’re finally attracting the erudite readership we’ve so profoundly coveted.

Not that we’re any kind of authority on constipation. In fact, our household has experienced the opposite problem this month when in comes to bowel movements. Over the past 10-plus days, Sally followed by Slade followed by me followed by Eli have been kicked in the shins and dragged on the ground by some kind a bug/virus/flu/plague.

It’s been swell.

But today the sun is out and we’re finally mostly alive and I swear I caught a whiff of honeysuckle in the air this very afternoon. Spring is imminent in Austin, and the world has turned green and pretty in my head.

And I hope it’s turning green and pretty in your head as well.

Some of this matters

Sometimes I should quit. I was reminded of that last week, when, on a whim, Sally and I decided to spend a Chili’s gift certificate that we’d been sitting on for a couple of years.

The meal out started fine. We were seated without a wait. The boys were handed crayons. Our server took our drink order.

But as I paged through the extensive menu, Slade started dropping the crayons and yelling, and Eli kept poking me.

“Dad, Dad, Dad,” he said. “Do you want to play tic-tac-toe?”

“Not right now.”

“Dad, Dad. Can I get a lemonade?”

“Sure. I don’t know. Ask your mother.”

“Dad, Dad. How come I don’t have a green crayon?”

And so on.

Unable to make it through the menu, I finally asked Sally to just order me a sandwich or whatever and dragged Slade to the waiting area where he wouldn’t disturb the old timers next to us who seemed about as warm and personable as a cardboard box.

In the waiting area, Slade pointed at a toy, yanked it away from another kid, bellowed when I intervened, and attempted to throw the toy across the restaurant.

Into time out Slade went.

While Slade sat, an obese boy in a Tapout tee-shirt about Eli’s age waddled into the restaurant with his scruddy family, and I noticed two men drinking alone at the bar, and I remembered why we hadn’t used the gift certificate sooner.

I lugged Slade back to the table and asked Sally if she’d ordered.

“No,” she said. “Our waiter disappeared and I hate this place and I think we should go.”

“Wait? What? We can’t,” I objected. “We already ordered a lemonade.”

“So put two dollars on the table.”

“But we can’t just get up and leave.”

“Sure we can. Put the money on the table and let’s go.”

So we did. We quit dinner at Chili’s. Slade, whose spirits had turned, waved as we slinked past the hostess.

“Bye, bye,” he chirped.

“Thanks for coming, y’all” she said, oblivious or indifferent to our hasty exit.

****

It whispers in my head, commanding me to obey. It tells me to fight this life that’s untidy, loud, and fast. I follow its dictates most of the time. I edge the grass. I make up the bed. I nod and shake hands and laugh when I’m supposed to laugh. That’s what It wants me to do. Get back in line, It orders. Be polite. Don’t ever crack.

Something else whispers, too. Fuck it all, Else tells me. Leave the bed unmade. Dance alone in the dark house.

Laugh.

Let go.

Break sometimes.

Believe.

****

Mornings are a stupid sprint. Before the sun rises, Sally and I scramble to feed, clothe, and brush teeth. We pack snacks, favorite blankets, homework, reading logs, extra jackets, and sometimes lunch. We sign report cards, Tuesday folders, and day care forms. We scribble checks for the maid and the PTA and the class fund-raiser. We make coffee and part hair. We wipe mouths and noses and counter tops.

We remind: “10 minutes, Eli.”

We reprimand: “Stop flushing the toilet, Slade.”

We repeat: “Have a good day, Wife.” “Have a good day, Husband.”

And before 7:00 AM, Sally is listening to NPR in the car with Slade, and I’m standing at the bus stop with Eli.

Monday morning was particularly chaotic thanks to a late start, the disappearance of Eli’s third jacket this winter, and a knot in his shoe a minute before the bus’ scheduled arrival. But Eli, the dogs, and I made it in time and stood at the corner, breathing hard. It felt like we’d won a race.

Then Chuck peed on my shoe. I thought it was raining on my shoe and looked down, and there was Chuck, 100 pounds of lazy canine, with his leg raised.

“BAD, BAD, BAD DOG,” I exploded, yanking him back by collar. “You sit, Chuck. You sit and you stay.”

“What’d Chuck do, Dad?”

“He peed on my shoe.”

Eli laughed.

“Why’d he do that, Dad?”

“Who knows, Eli. Who knows.”

Let go, Else said. None of this matters. Let it go.

“Chuck, why did you do that, dude?” Eli asked. Chuck wagged his tail and looked up meekly, his ears back and his head down.

“I’m totally telling all my friends,” Eli exclaimed. “That’s awesome.”

“Um, yeah, I don’t know if I’d call it awesome.”

Eli stepped towards the bus, which had squeaked to a stop, and turned back: “Yes it is. It’s awesome.”

“Again. Not really,” I said, grinning a little now. “Hey, have fun today. And try to learn something for once.”

As the school bus smoked away into the grey day, Eli waved from his seat and smiled and mouthed “awesome” one more time.

****

It’s not awesome, but it is something, this time, this family, these small stories. And despite what Else whispers, some of this does matter: The grinning boy in the window of the clattering bus and the misbehaving two year old in the restaurant and the sleep-starved wife and even the apologetic dog. Some of this matters very much.

Snowmageddon

It snowed half an inch in Austin, which means, of course, a state of emergency has been declared and the city is officially closed till March.

Sure is pretty, though.

Notice Eli’s classy sled. Lone Star. Is there anything it can’t do?