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Posts Tagged ‘vignettes’

My youth plays out in monochromatic Super 8, all shadows and light, soundless but for the clacking whir of the projector, each jumpy image spattered by specks of dust that flash past, gone before they even register in the mind.

Around me, I see the shining, sun-bleached hills behind our houses, wild land laced by the trails I hike in adventures that are my haven, my freedom, my escape. I see the black-and-white blurs of schoolmates as they race their Flexi-Flyers headlong down the sloping streets. I see my family—mother, father, sister—wave and laugh, speaking silent words to whomever runs the camera, as they go about their daily lives.

All is shades of grey, wan and distant.

In my home, though, moving past the dark stain of lawn, the walls of pale grey stucco, and the brightly trimmed opening of the doorway, beyond the shadowed living room where children dare not tread, through the kitchen with its charcoal-colored wood, and into the chiaroscuro of the family room, there is a red chair.

It is red. So red.

It stands in the ashen jumble of the room like an open wound, colored the red of blood, bright and arterial, shiny as a skinned knee. Upholstered leather is nailed to its frame by rows of brass tacks that glint in the streaming sunlight, their rounded heads faceted by the hammer blows that set them.

It is an old chair—I do not know a time when it was not there—a holdout from days before my birth. Wing-backed, claw-footed, it is large, its arms stained by the grip of a thousand hands. Here and there the leather is a bit dry and has cracked, revealing tufts of excelsior and batting. It creaks when I climb up, as if complaining, as if I am an unwelcome intruder, and perhaps I am, for it is my father’s chair, and his alone. I curl up in its empty embrace, breathing in its captured aromas of Old Spice and Bond Street.

And on this day, this one day, it is the chair in which my father sits and, for the last time in our lives, gathers me up in his arms, in his warmth, in his scent. It is the chair in which he tells me of my mother’s death. 

After that day, I do not know what happened to that chair. I still see the wall of books, the ancient davenport, the old B&W television on its tubular stand, the corduroy love seat, the sliding-glass door that opens out on the too-bright patio, all these I see in the flickering cinema of remembered youth, but there is a dark spot, a lacuna, a patch of emotional blight where the chair once stood. After that day, I do not remember it being there. I do not remember my father ever sitting in it again. I have excised it from my past, wished it out of existence. 

In my experience, time does not heal, but it does teach. Sometimes it teaches us to understand and adapt, while at other times it teaches us how to cope and survive. The disappearance of that red chair is just such a lesson, learned during the sixty years that separate me from that day. That chair, the cauldron of my earliest grief, has bled out, its color used up, the power of its memory spent.

And I can live with that.

k

 

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My first first date was a disaster.

I was a sophomore in high school and wasn’t old enough to drive, so Mark and Julie (my upperclassmen friends) agreed to a double-date. It was going to be great. Mark had an ancient, rusty, squeak-shocked Austin-Healey sedan. He and Julie would get me and then Lori (my date), and drive the four of us to Sausalito for dinner at the Alta Mira. From there, we’d go into the City where we had tickets to see an off-Broadway production of a play. We’d be home late, but not too late.

I was terribly nervous. I should note at the outset that Lori and I were barely friends. Beyond saying “hey” in the halls, pretty much the first conversation we’d had was my stuttering invitation, asking her out. The fact that she had agreed was, in itself, a victory (in my book, anyway), so my nervousness had a large helping of anticipation added to the basic impression of doom. But I wanted it to be a special night, so Mark and Julie and I planned the itinerary well in advance. What could go wrong?

Not being able to find Lori’s house was the first thing to go wrong. She lived on a narrow hillside side street, and the house was set back from the road, up a juniper-covered slope, accessible only by a twisting, shadowed stairway lit by a dim lamp up at the house. We must have driven past it five times before we noticed it.

Despite being late for our reservation, dinner wasn’t bad. The Alta Mira was a legend where I grew up. A grand old hotel tucked up in the fog-blanketed hills above Sausalito, it had a fancy restaurant and it was famously difficult to find (locals had had T-shirts printed up that said “No, I can’t tell you how to get to the Alta Mira.”). Driving up to this fancy-schmancy place in Mark’s rust-bucket drew sniggers from the valets, but we shrugged it off. We were having dinner at the Alta Mira!

We then drove across the Golden Gate and into the City, down to a tiny theater situated in an ill-lit corner of the Mission District. I wasn’t much of a theater-buff, so I knew nothing about the play we were going to see: Norman . . . Is That You? It was a relatively new play—this was 1973 and it had only premiered in ’70 (to middling reviews)—so I was going in blind. The play, we quickly learned, dealt with a young man coming out to his parents. As I said, this was ’73, so the general attitude toward LGBTQ+ folks was decidedly unfriendly, and it was definitely not a given that everyone was comfortable with the topic of homosexuality. Suffice it to say that my date did not seem comfortable with the topic.

Leaving the theater, our conversation was three-sided, with Lori maintaining a sentinel-like silence as we walked back to the car.

Which wasn’t where we had parked it.

Stolen? Couldn’t be. Who would steal a rust-laced, barely-functional junker like that? Then we saw the sign: No Parking 11PM–5AM, All Vehicles Will Be Towed.

It was 11:10 PM.

At the bottom of the sign, a phone number for the impound lot was printed, so the next task was walking to find a phone booth (remember, kids, mobile phones weren’t even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye at this point). We found one a few blocks away, via which we learned that the impound lot was a fair distance, too far to walk, especially in the heels Lori had chosen. Mark and Julie and I pooled our cash; we probably had enough to get the car out of impound, but we weren’t sure, so paying for a cab was out of the question; even the streetcar was an iffy proposition. We decided our best way to get at all close to the lot was to do a hop-on/hop-off run on cable car. In the late hours, they weren’t so strict about payment if you were just on for a few blocks.

Eventually, we made it to the lot, had enough for the fine, and sprung Mark’s car from the hoosegow. By this time, Lori’s silence had become so intense that it had a gravitational field. When we finally rattled our way up her street and Mark stopped in front of the long, dark stairway, Lori was out of the car before I could round the vehicle to open her door. She was halfway up the flight by the time I reached the foot of the stairs. She never looked back.

Frankly, I do not blame her one tiny little bit.

We never went out again. We never actually spoke again. It was a long time before my next first date.

My last first date, on the other hand, was better. I’d learned a lot in the intervening years. Still, though, I did manage to break the First Rule of First Dates as, over our lunch of enchiladas and tamales, I told her we were going to get married and have a great time growing old together. (I’d known her all of two weeks, and to be honest, it had taken a lot of discipline not to tell her that when we first met.)

Despite this obvious faux pas, on Monday (Valentine’s Day 2022) we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of that last first date, and had our forty-first Valentine’s Day meal of Mexican food to commemorate it.

So, yeah, the last one went a bit better.

k

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I could say that, as she entered the drawing room, all skirts and leg-o-mutton sleeves of emerald silk over petticoats of crinoline and stiff cotton, the dark skin of her pearl-draped throat rising above her off-the-shoulder neckline, hair piled up in thick black plaits, dark eyes meeting each guest with a warm and welcoming glance, that she moved with the sound of rustling leaves, but such simplicity would be unfair, for the truth was more specific, more evocative, as with her smallest step we heard—all of us—the memory of an afternoon’s respite in the shade of a chestnut’s overarching boughs on a bone-dry summer day when rain was but a fond wish and the tree’s huge, canoe-like leaves, jostled by the gardenia-scented breeze, caressed one another with a dry and papery sweetness that was at once both gentle and substantial; such was her effect upon her parlor of admirers.

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Today I am thankful for:
Two brothers, all bundled up in matching navy blue hoodie jackets, out on the cul-de-sac in the bright drizzle, playing a game.

The game is:
Proceed in stages from a starting point (the truck at the near end) to a goal (the far end of the block), by one player tossing a Frisbee ™ as far as they can but not so far (or wide) that the other cannot catch it. It must be caught, or the disc goes back for a rethrow.

Eminently scalable, simple and elegant in rules, it’s a beautifully cooperative game. They win together, full stop. There is no losing. There are only gradients of victory.

Looks like they’re going for a team best, now.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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There are, in my home, many watches. But for five years, I’ve carried only one.

My watches date from the Age of Steam to the Age of Jets, bearing the marks of craftsmen from Victorian, Edwardian, Nouveau, Deco, and Mid-Century eras.

I have watches that were used to keep trains running on time, mark a valued employee’s retirement, chime the quarter hour, and show the time in the dark with radium-lit dials. Some glister with ruby bearings and gears of gold, their plates tooled with filigree, their enameled dials bright, while others are of stamped brass, paper faces, encased in cheap tin.

They are the watches of men both rich and poor, bespoke or mass-produced, but all came to me in somnolent neglect and the silence of disrepair. For each of them, I cracked their cases, disassembled their movements, cleaned and repaired and replaced the parts that were begrimed, bent, or broken, bringing them back to life, allowing their spring-loaded hearts to beat once again.

I used to swap them out, carry a different one every week, its chain hooked onto my denim belt loop, the watch itself tucked into the tiny right-hand pocket designed solely for the purpose.

But no longer.

Waltham, Elgin, Hampden, Ingersoll, and the others, high-end or base-born, all now lie stored in cushioned darkness, their mainsprings having ticked down to quiet rest.

Now, my watch pocket is empty, for my wrist carries my watch.

It’s a scuffed and scarred thing, with a crystal that’s a bit scratched, a bit chipped. It isn’t very old—a score of years at most—and it is decidedly plain, with square hands and numbers on a simple white face. It doesn’t even have a mainspring, the coiled powerhouse of nearly every other watch I own, but runs on a battery.

It’s a run-of-the-mill Timex Indiglo wristwatch. And it is my father’s watch.

When my father died, five years ago, and I was cleaning out his last abode, his watch was included in his effects. It is the watch he wore every day, whether he was out fishing for steelhead, sneaking a smoke out back, or painting a landscape, and it is—as was he—basic, uncomplicated, quiet, easy to read, dependable, sturdy, and consistent.

For five years, it’s been on my wrist doing yeoman’s work, ticking away, showing me the wee hours with its cyan glow, keeping perfect time. I’ve never changed the battery, not once in those five years. It is, as I said, dependable, sturdy, and consistent.

Someday, it too will run down, its battery spent, and that day, I suppose, when the new battery clicks into place, that will be when the watch will stop being his, and will then be mine.

k

 

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It’s been a week of retrospection, and I mean that in the most literal sense.

We spent most of our week going through old papers—letters, receipts, documents, and such—searching for the most important ones to put a fireproof box. This was our way of jump-starting the Big Adulting task of writing wills, issuing powers of attorney, and all the other things attendant to, well, to our inevitable death.

Naturally, as happens when rummaging through one’s past in this way, we come across a lot that was not what we were looking for, and I mean a shit-ton of it. But for every time I found a manual for an appliance we no longer have, purchased with a now-defunct credit card, issued by a bank that collapsed a decade ago, I also found a photo of my brother in Mali, a 1946 letter from my great-aunt, a receipt for baguettes from the boulangerie around the corner from our Paris walk-up, a love note from my dad to my mom, or a ticket stub from the night I took my girlfriend to the movies in Jerusalem. None of it will mean anything to my heirs (presuming I have any), but for me, each item carries incredible weight.

As I hold that old Oyster Card, I hear my panting breath as I climb the stairs to hear Big Ben strike the noon hour. Picking up that acorn, rattling in the bottom of the cardboard box, I’m hit with the unseasonable heat of Gettysburg in October, surrounded by the humid scent of wild onions as I walk beneath the oaks of Devil’s Den.

It was a long journey, this week, due to the many, many side trips we took while digging through banker’s boxes filled with, okay, filled with a lot of junk, but also a lot of our collective past. I found things I’d merely forgotten about, but I also found things I’d never seen, items turned over en masse by my folks or accreted from their estates; like my 3rd grade school photo, the one with me making a Calvinesque goofball face, the one that pissed off my mother something fierce, the one on the back of which my dad jotted a hidden note: “This is Kurt. He’s smart as a whip, and I have trouble keeping up with him.” When had he written this? And to whom? And why had he kept it so long? And why had he never expressed this thought to me?

These boxes seem filled only with musty paper, small trinkets, and fading photos, but in truth, they’re filled with love, joy, grief, anger, wonder, and history. Should the tragedy of fire strike our home, they’ll not survive—only birth certificates, marriage licenses, wills, deeds, titles, and passports will have that honor—but even if I had a fireproof box the size of a two-car garage, I don’t know that I’d protect them there.

They are my history, sure, but like me, they are transitory, incapable of permanence beyond the time circumscribed by my birth and my death.

And perhaps, this is the way it should be.

we are
ephemeral
mayfly deities
standing at the verge
in sight of the distant shore
ready to leap

k

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Fingers deep in waking earth
  clearing ferns from wintry somnolence

Their feathered, spiked, serrate fronds
  release spores in ochre clouds

Raindrops drum my hat brim
  enthusiastic paradiddles of spring

Hands set blade to swordleaf
  trimming old stems and rusted detritus

From the center I lift accreted duff
  revealing curls, verdant and sleepy

Nestled in that fiddlehead crown
  is the confidence of rebirth

Hope is spring’s eternal gift
  a promise of life
    and all it contains

 

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