Monday, October 31, 2011

ring cycle: elevator

It seemed like a moment. I met her at one of the places I go. She was working at the desk, looked me up in the computer. She called me, Mr. Lynch. I laughed, reached out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Bill.”

She blushed. We shook hands and she told me her name.

A week later in the same building, she stepped on an elevator and stood next to me, not saying a word. We went up a floor. She turned to me then asked, out of the blue, “What’s your favorite color?”

I don’t even remember the last time anyone asked me that and that’s what I told her.

“I’m sorry,” she said, embarrassed.

“No, it’s okay. I just haven’t thought about it in a while.” For a couple of seconds, I deeply considered the question then said, “I guess it depends on the day. It’s how I feel. Today, I guess, I feel green. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel orange.”

She nodded, understanding. I don’t know if it was a test or if she was just looking for a reason to say something to me. I kind of hoped it was the latter.

“What’s yours?” It was now my turn to be kind of lame.

“Purple,” she told me, finally.

The elevator door slid open and she went her way. I went on the next floor, feeling a little baffled at the nature of the exchange.

A week passed, another week, then another and I didn’t see her except once, walking on the street, far away from the place I knew her. I almost stopped to say hello, but thought maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.

She contacted me on Facebook. It was random and out of the blue. I was a little intrigued. It seemed like… something.

We talked here and there, expressed our sanitized mutual admiration. She thought I was funny. I thought she was kind. We laughed together in front of our individual computer screens.

Again, there was a little momentum, the feeling that something could be happening. She mentioned a show. I thought, you know, maybe I could work something out, bring her along some time, something safe, something that wouldn’t actually have to be anything, but could be.

I moved too slow. The next day there were new pictures of the autumn leaves and the weekend she’d spent with her longtime boyfriend shuffling her feet through them. She smiled a lot. She positively glowed, but not because of the light, not because of the color clashing with her light, brown hair, but because she was happy to be with him.

Looking at the pictures, I was taken with how much younger she was than me. I felt my age. I felt my decades wrapped around me and chained to a lamp post like a bicycle chain. There was the fear, too, not just of being alone, but stumbling forward like a bull in a china shop and making meaning out of the meaningless.

In inexact words, she'd told me she admired me, that she liked my work and thought I was an interesting person to know. She thought I was a big deal.

I told her I wasn’t, but I was vain.

Friday, October 28, 2011

ring cycle: Burn

A pile of wood lay discarded in a ditch. Leftover from a fallen tree cleared by the county, the state or just some guy with a chainsaw; I didn’t know, but I passed the scattering of logs on my way home, on my way to work and I coveted them.

Cold returned with the falling leaves weeks ago and sent me into a sweat. Winter is coming, and I have come to fear winter. It goes back years and years, from that winter I spent in a hundred year old house with six-foot tall single pane windows, high ceilings and the cracks of daylight coming through the corners of first floor walls.

We put up plastic over everything, hung blankets over the door to the hallway and sealed the front door.

It still wasn’t enough. We practically froze and our heating bills were the stuff of legend.

I don’t know what to expect here. The house has almost twice the living space as the last place I lived. Some days, it’s like I haunt it and have yet to see what all this fine country space is going to cost me. I try not to worry about it, but my nature is to analyze, analyze, analyze.

But… there’s a small wood stove insert in the back room and that, maybe I can use.

Of course, I have no wood. I don’t even have an axe, a hatchet, let alone a chainsaw, but I did have a small economy car with a trunk and a certain sense of certainty.

Better to take what is offered, when it’s offered than to be wanting later. It’s not a bad philosophy to live by. It is a scavenger’s philosophy. It is a survivor’s philosophy and I am a survivor. I will not starve. I will not freeze to death and I will not be afraid of winter, not this year, not in my own house.

I drove past that woodpile several times over several days before I decided that if the owner of that wood wanted it, he probably should have done something about it sooner. It was a nuisance, probably some kind of hazard. So, I parked the car on the shoulder, popped the trunk and got as much in as I could.

I moved quickly. If a neighbor from across the road popped their head out and asked me my business, I decided I’d tell them the truth. I was but a poor man of limited means looking to catch a break, but if the wood belonged to them, I would be happy to put it back.

No one ever came out from across the road. No car traveling on that piece of road did so much as slow, but I could feel them staring as they passed. I could hear the words of my father echoing in my head.

“Fuck ‘em, they can go around.”

Yep, they could.

Lying under the still white flesh of the freshly cut logs were the bleached bones of several deer. I found three small skulls, alongside slender jawbones edged with gleaming teeth. The bones seemed not quite large enough to have come from full-grown animals. If I had to guess, I’d have said it was a doe and two fauns.

For a moment I wondered if the tree had somehow fallen on them, killing the deer together in one stroke, but that seemed impossible. Just as likely, this was left over from some other sort of incident: a heavy truck that could not stop or bored boys with nothing but time, a couple of rifles and nothing like a hunting license.

It didn’t matter what I thought. The bones belonged to the earth. The tree, however, was mine.

ring cycle: valkrie

There is a kind of peace in roller derby. I can’t explain it, but standing off to the side, watching women in hot pants and fishnet stockings go round and round on roller skates in a beat up former gymnasium is relaxing. It is soothing.

Not everybody sees it that way.

Standing next to me, one night, one of the girls on the injury list told me she still loved coming to practice, “because I just want to see someone knock a bitch down.”

She likes the aggression, the release of tension, even if the bitch getting knocked down is one of her friends.

I like the weird little community of women for other reasons. It's an odd little sport, which I like, but I also like that they seem more or less glad to see me. They also expect nothing. This is somehow different than the rest of the women I know who seem glad to see me and expect nothing from me.

The roller girls joke and talk trash. They say the most outrageous things. On some nights, the word vagina bounces off the walls of the place like a tennis ball in a dryer. The roller girls get raunchy, make sly allusions to sex lives both real and imagined, but they don’t flirt, not really. They don’t confuse me. Nobody pretends they want to take me home with them and somehow, I find comfort in this.

I don’t think I could stand the pretense of being wanted when I’m not.

Love and sex are things I think about a lot more and a lot less than I used to. I guess I mean to say that I think about it differently than I did. I think in past relationships, and not just my marriages, I’ve looked at sex as a kind of a validation. If I was having sex with my wife or my girlfriend on a sort of semi-regular basis, I guess I thought everything was okay. The relationship was okay. I was doing okay. We were okay.

That seems hopelessly na├»ve, but honestly, it isn’t so unique. I looked it up. Men often gauge the success of those kinds of relationships based on sex. I imagine this is why when these relationships unravel –and it can happen pretty damned fast – you come away from it feeling a little baffled.

It makes you want to reevaluate how you’ve seen the world.

A couple of friends have suggested I just say to hell with it, hit the bars, do the roadwork and play the inevitable numbers game of sex in the city. The ideas is if you ask enough drunks enough times whether they’d like to have sex with you, sooner or later one or more of them will say yes.

“Just move on, man.”

There is a similar theory about monkeys left in a room with typewriters and how long it would take them to reproduce the works of Shakespeare.

I’m not really that big a fan of Shakespeare. I mean I like MacBeth, but never could get to love Hamlet. I think I just wanted to see someone knock a bitch down.

Instead, I go to roller derby. I watch and listen: I only know about half of what is going on at any given time. Nobody seems to mind. I guess I like that they take me at face value and they all laugh when I bring juice boxes for the end of practice.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

ring cycle: Musical chairs

There was nothing particularly special about the chairs except they looked sturdy and were the right height to slide underneath the kitchen table. I wasn’t looking for much. I just needed them to work. They also had to fit in the back of my very small, economy car.

I pulled them out. There was a little wear and tear, but nothing damning, nothing that couldn’t be improved upon. They seemed fine, except for the price.

Twenty bucks each was a bit much. The chairs were probably worth it, but just a week before I’d seen kitchen chairs just like these (well, maybe not as good) for only ten a piece.

I almost walked away.

But I needed chairs. There was only one at the house.

Of all the things I wanted right now, I wanted a place to sit in my kitchen, just someplace where I could look across the table at someone. I wanted to eat dinner with my kids, not serve them individually from the stove while taking bites from a cooling plate by the sink. When it was just me, I wanted to sit at my table, look across at the empty seats and remind myself that other people lived here, too. It wasn’t just me.

Twenty bucks each was a bit much. So, I grabbed two of the four and marched them up to the counter.

The clerk started to ring me up and I noticed a small tear on the back of the chair. It was nothing much, but if I was going to have to pay twenty dollars for the chair, I wanted to make sure I got my money’s worth.

“Hey,” I said. “Would you mind if I swapped this out for one of the others? I think I meant to grab one of the others.”

She shrugged: fine with her.

A couple of minutes later, I was back with a nearly identical chair.

“It’s a shame to break up the set,” she said. “You know there are four chairs back there, right?”

I nodded. Of course, I knew there were four.

“Yeah, but I can’t afford all four of them, just the two right now.”

She looked at me then the register.

“You know, I think today those four chairs are forty dollars,” she said.


She nodded and told me to get them.

I thanked her and in kind of a gush, I explained why I needed the chairs in the first place.

“My wife and I split,” I told her. “She kept the stools and I got the table.”

She laughed and shook her head. I tried to explain that it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. I didn’t really want the stools. They never fit the table in the first place and really, I felt lucky to have the table. She’d been kind to let me have it.

I told her, “I’m just trying to put my kitchen together, you know?”

She nodded then said, “It’s going to be okay. You’ll fill your house up with new love. You’ll be fine.”

That sounded great, though I was also kind of looking for a foosball table.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Everybody Leaves

It's funny how you think you've known someone longer than you have. My friend Mona, for instance, I met four years ago, not the ten it feels. It was summer. I'd just come back to doing weekend radio with the vain hope of catching up on my bills. She'd just started as the new music librarian.

We were fast friends.

Over the past couple of years, I've watched her grow and do things I didn't even think anyone would ever want to do. She's been great and always good company. Together, we've explored at least a third of the bland, half-hearted dives on the West Side.

I regret that we will not find our way to the end of them --if there is an end. Jeez, it's like the only people who can cook over there work at the fucking Taco Bell.

And so, Mona is moving. She leaves in less than a week. My grief over that is only matched by my absolute pride. Mona's next job is going to be amazing. Not only will she accomplish wonderful things in Rochester, she'll see, hear and try things that I will likely envy for the rest of my days.

I wish her every happiness.

Friday, October 14, 2011

ring cycle: Sympathy for Gollum

A friend of mine has been having a little trouble at the gym. She's young, attractive and a target for the juice heads and horn dogs who believe the men's magazines that say a health club is a great place to hook up.

Now, in their defense, I have seen a couple of middle-aged juicers walk out with some middle-aged mommies in black spandex. I'm pretty sure they weren't going for a gatorade.

Casual sex happens, I think; just not the way most people would like it to happen.

Of course, what the fuck would I know about that?

For my friend, the guys come up, they toss a line that might buy them a minute or two of somebody's time in a bar or ask some inane question meant to gauge interest. She's polite, but she's just there to hit the elliptical machine and maybe work on he arms a little. She's got a boyfriend. They're in love, live together and are one of those cool couples who don't overdo it on the cute stuff that makes me want to climb from a great height then plummet headfirst.

I may be overly dramatic here.

Anyway, she told me about it and I poked fun at her. I, too, have been chatted up on occasion; sadly, by pruney old men in their 60s and early 70s who have intensely stared at parts of me most women have never so much as glanced at in passing.

Later, I felt bad. She didn't ask for the attention. It was a legitimate problem and while I joke about the occasional old guy taking an inexplicable interest in me, it's not really as serious --or as frequent (a couple of times in four years versus a fairly regular occurrence).

Then I remembered an old trick unwed mothers used to use: they'd fake being married with a wedding band. I figured it might work on some of the guys, not all of them probably, but some of them. It might be like a bulb of garlic to vampires... well, to some vampires. Those middle aged couples I've seen hooking up: I'm pretty sure all parties involved were married, just not to each other.

Still, I thought it might help and I have a spare wedding band.

My little band of gold never really fit, which is neither the fault of my marriage or the ring, but the fault of a well-wisher who gave us an gift certificate. We turned it into a South Beach Diet book and I lost 40 pounds. I had the ring sized then gained 25 pounds back. After that, my weight yo-yoed for years. I'd go up a few pounds then come down again.

The ring stayed on a shelf where I looked at it often and tried it on every couple of months, never happy with the result.

I found the ring while I was moving furniture around last weekend. It was never lost. It just never got unpacked. I've been kind of afraid to look at it.

I know I need to get rid of it. The ring has to go. It's part of the healing, the moving on.

A long time ago, I had another ring I wanted rid of, but that was a different marriage and I was a different man. I was very angry, resentful and full of spite. So, I took it to a pawn shop, took 15 or 20 bucks for the thing and watched in horror and strange amusement as the clerk tossed the ring in a coffee can along with what seemed like a thousand others.

"Yes, you, too, are just a statistic."

I didn't want that to happen to this seldom worn ring. It seemed like it deserved better, even though gold is fetching a good price according to those assholes on talk radio. More and more I see the marriage as less of a failure and more of season in my life.

But I am often full of shit.

So, I offered my friend the ring, told her she could put it on a chain and maybe that would keep some of the pigs at bay, give her a little peace. She laughed and said, "No."

I think my gesture probably came off as more creepy than caring and thinking about it, yeah, it kind of does sound creepy; taking a ring from a middle-aged slug for the purpose of warding off other middle-aged slugs.

So, now I have this ring I don't know what to do with.

It only looks like the same problem I've always had.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

ring cycle: cancer man blues

I picked Lisa up at the doctor's office. It was the first time we met. Because of the length of time she needed to be under treatment and the distance in travel, another driver and me had divided the job.

From the sight of her, I knew Lisa wasn't doing very well. Her hair was gone and her skin was the color of sour milk left too long on the counter. Her belly was swollen yet her clothes hung loosely from her dwindled limbs. She'd overdressed for the weather, was in a loose sweat shirt and a coat, which was probably as much to hide the colostomy bag as keep her warm.

Lisa had a frantic, fearful cast to her eyes and she moved like she was perpetually crossing a frozen pond in late winter. She could hear the ice cracking under her feet with every step, getting louder. Lisa was dying and she knew it.

In the car, she thanked me too much for coming to get her and the ride back to her friend's home. She didn't actually live in the city or the county, but was a county or two over. She owned a small house there, something she'd bought just a few years ago.

"I rented my whole life," she said. "I hated it. Something would go wrong and the landlord wouldn't do nothing about it."

This went on for years until she finally had enough money for a down payment.

She'd bought the place with a little money inherited from her parents. Both had died in car accident and left her and what was left of her family with a couple of thousand dollars each.

The house was small, but it was hers. She hated that she couldn't get to treatments from home, but counted herself lucky that she'd landed a spare room among friends long enough to get through this round. Sadly, this was not her first time at this particular rodeo.

"The doctor got me through it eight years ago," she said wistfully. "Maybe he can do it again."

She changed the subject and asked about me, if I was married, if I had children. I explained that I'd been married and had children. She told me she was sorry for my loss.

"I never married," she said and sighed. "No kids."

Lisa said she'd dated a little in high school and through her 20s, but nothing had really took. She'd lived at home until she was in her mid-30s. Being alone didn't seem to bother her much. She had other family around and she had a cat, but no children, no husband.

Instead, Lisa was proud of her education and thought she'd had a good job.

"I worked for the welfare office," she said. "I helped a lot of people who needed it."

She also took a little bit of satisfaction in the screws being put to people who lied to her.

"Most of the time I knew while they were filling out the forms," she said. "I'd tell them to be sure about what they were putting down. Sooner or later, somebody would catch them."

She didn't have a lot of regrets. After decades of living under another's roof, she had her own home. That was a comfort to her, which I have come to understand. A shelter you own can be a different kind of refuge.

Lisa was fine with her house. She only wished she'd get to stay a little longer.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

ring cycle: 41

"Bill, you're 40 and you still have a wallet with a velcro strip?"

This was a friend and she was amused by yet another sign of my retarded maturity. There are plenty to choose from.

At my age, I should have a leather wallet. I should probably have a decent car and a savings account that registered more than double digits. I should probably have a better wardrobe, too, and something going for me other than a gold library card and the ability to make a pretty good apple walnut cake.

I tried to explain that leather wallets rot, but that didn't really get any traction. When a wallet, a pair of shoes, a shirt or anything else outlives its usefulness, you throw it away. That's what everybody does, right?

"I guess I'm aging awkwardly," I said finally and paid for lunch.

She smiled. Poor, silly, clueless me.

Looking at her, I think I saw how most women would see me.

I am 41 years old and don't have much of a future. I'm good for a few laughs, but not much else. Here I am, on the youngish side of middle-aged with few resources and many, many responsibilities. I am the survivor of two failed marriages and the father to a couple of kids. I also work too much and dress like I'm a second year Senior at a mediocre liberal arts college.

And to be honest, I kind of like that last part. If nothing else, I am very comfortable in my own skin. I know who I am. I like who I am. Better than most people, I live by terms I agree with --except this one: I'm kind of a joke.

As I put away my wallet, I could see the outline of my future. There would be many lunches like this one and a couple of dinners. There might be a few adventures here and there, but very few actual dates. Nothing like love. There would be many friends. I do make friends often and easily. I would be good company, but company no one would mind to see go home before it got too late.

It seems like a lot to read from a short exchange about a silly wallet and the look in one woman's eyes, and I can't defend it except to say, that's what it seems to me. I felt like I'd read the pulse of my personal universe, which was strong and steady, but lonesome.

Monday, October 3, 2011

ring cycle: growl

At the front desk, the receptionist at Hospice asked for my name then told me the person I'd come to see wasn't around.

"She's not in her office right now, but as soon as she is, I'll let her know. You can have a seat over there, if you like."

I was early: ten minutes or so. It wasn't even 8:30 and sure, everyone was just starting to settle into their day. That was fine.

To kill time, the receptionist gave me a clipboard that contained fire safety information and a confidentiality agreement. I signed them both, but really just glanced at one.

Coffee was offered. I declined. Minutes rolled by slowly, but without pause. Volunteers drifted in regularly, spoke as they passed the receptionist, made little jokes or gave details about lives outside of this building. Evidently, Ruby Tuesday is the best place for dinner in the free world.

Eventually, the receptionist spoke with who I'd come to see. After a moment, the woman left her desk, stepped into the hallways and coming only as close as she might a timber rattler, explained, "You'll be meeting with someone else. I'm the director."

"She's in a meeting now," the receptionist said. "She's doing interviews today." She looked at the closed door. The door had been closed since I'd arrived. The receptionist bit her lip. "I guess that one is going a little long."

I kept my seat, but the clock kept ticking. Wearily, I kept checking my phone for the time. I stood up. I sat down. I turned to look out the window. I watched the door.

Half an hour later, I got up, seething and politely told the receptionist, "I think I've come on a bad day. I'm going to go on to work now. If she'd like to reschedule, have her call me."

"Work?" The receptionist seemed genuinely puzzled. Maybe the process of volunteering for Hospice is long and difficult. Maybe she thought I'd come to see about a job.

I left.

Late in the afternoon, I got a call. Nothing much was said about my not sticking around. Nobody apologized. She offered to reschedule and for a while that seemed like a good idea until I realized I wanted an apology. I wanted her to fucking say she was sorry for making me wait out in the lobby for over half an hour. I wanted her to tell me that volunteers were valuable and that she felt bad for having wasted my time. I wanted her to gush. I wanted her to assure me that they weren't going to treat me poorly just because I had a conscience, because I wanted to do right by people. This was just a bad start and could we please try again.

I wanted her to kiss my ass.

And that's when I decided I needed to step back. I was annoyed at her for being busy. She hadn't meant to make me feel slighted. Volunteers were coming in regular bursts. They were in the middle of a project. Shit was going on and maybe she'd bitten off more than she could chew with her calendar.

So, I took a deep breath and apologized for being impatient and annoyed. I also explained that maybe this wasn't the best time for me to take this on. I'd missed the deadline for Hospice in the Spring by reaching out too late for the classes. This time, I just wasn't in the right place emotionally. I'm a wreck. It doesn't always look or sound that way, but I'm kind of screwed up right now and prone to moods.

I asked her if we could try again in the Spring, when I'm not desperate for warmth.