Monday, January 31, 2011

Phantom Limb

It's not something you notice at first, except the old guy in the marines t-shirt walks with just a hint of a limp. Barely that, it's more of a slight drag in his step. One leg is just a little out of sync with his pace.

Of course, if you follow the man's leg, you can't miss it. He doesn't hide it, doesn't cover it up with by wearing track pants or sweats. It is what it is. At the knee his leg tapers sharply before becoming a dull aluminum pipe that burrows like a screw into a tennis shoe.

It's something to watch him work out. Others his age conserve their strength. They step onto the treadmills like cows drowsily being led through the chutes at a slaughter house, but not him. He fights. He rages. His fists are clenched around the handles and he swings like he'd fucking kill you if you tried to stop him.

I understand.

Every now and again, someone asks him about it --his leg. It's a curiosity at the gym, though he isn't the only man to be missing a leg. There's another man, much younger, also ex-military, who comes in on crutches. He's still getting the hang of his, but the old marine is practiced. He lost his leg a long time ago. He's used to it.

"Does it hurt?"

The marine smiled and shrugged. "The funny thing is I still feel it. I can feel if it's turned the wrong way and just yesterday, I was sure, I was absolutely sure, somebody was standing on it."

Phantom pain, phantom sensations, he talks about and the mousy old man's eyes grow huge. He could not imagine.

"It still feels like it should be there," he said. "It's just not."

Friday, January 28, 2011

Red, Green, Amber

There wasn't much of a crowd --maybe 25 people, a poor turnout no matter how you looked at it. With it being opening night, at least a third of the audience was probably related to someone in the production. A few others would be members of the theater group. They served on the board. They were volunteers and they'd come out as moral support.

Really, there were only a couple of truly die-hard theater fans: a scruffy, bent man sipping fizzy water flavored with a big olive and very little water; a pair of teenage lesbians who'd taken their waifish, pet boy out for the evening and one or two gray others who'd come alone.

For a second, I envied the guy who'd bought the tonic water with a splash of vodka (six bucks, what a rip off!), but at least he had some idea what he was doing here. Me, I had no clue. I didn't know the play, barely knew the actors and had no idea where I was going with the review.

Reviewing local theater can be kind of thorny. Musicians tend to develop thick skins by exercise, by simply watching how many people leave their seats during their show to go to the bathroom, go outside for a cigarette or head off to chat up the bartender, the waitress or the militant-looking girl with the nose ring, the black boots and the short skirt. Visual artists largely don't care what you think --if you hate it. They're creative cocoon is comfy enough for one and besides, they sold a piece last fall so fuck you --not that it's about the money because it's not.

Local theater groups are a culture unto themselves. They're tribal and when they decide they've been wounded, they can get bitchy. They won't call or write, but you'll hear them mumbling about it for weeks. Their displeasure will not show up in the comments section or on the vent line, but will be telegraphed along the various grape vines.

The best you can do is choose your words wisely, be honest, avoid unnecessary cruelty and look for what works. Getting up on stage is hard. It's brave, particularly when you know you're not GREAT. You're just a local actor doing a small play only a few people will see.

The play was about to start. A few stragglers came in late and grabbed seats in front. The actors took their places. One of them looked out over the shallow pond of faces and seemed to stare right at me. The jolt was immediate and powerful.

For a second, I didn't believe it was her.

In my life, people come and go. Often, they disappear suddenly. They call from the road, leave weird notes that make you think they've joined a cult or sometimes they just stop showing up for work. They utterly vanish.

A month or a year later, somebody tells you some little thing about them, how they ran into them while they were on vacation or how they got a card from them at Christmas, unexpectedly.

Each absence cuts deep into the heart of met. No loss is ever recovered, even if new people come into my life and start new conversations. The ache never goes away. I miss them forever.

Amber was one of those people I'd gotten attached to. She'd dropped out of my life suddenly, went off and got married. I thought she'd left town, left the state, left the solar system, but there she was. She smiled and winked.

I tried to make some sign that I knew it was her, that I was seeing her, too. I wasn't sure if she was getting that then I looked over. Sitting three or four seats over and a row back was her very proud, absolutely beaming husband waving back.

My heart sank. She hadn't recognized me.

It had been a couple of years. It was dark. I was older, though to me I look the same, but I didn't remember if she'd ever seen me with a beard --and honestly, maybe I hadn't meant so much to her. It sounds cynical, but you never never really know how much someone cares about you, regardless of what they say. The allotment of space in the human heart varies from person to person.

The theater darkened and I tried not to stare. I had a play to review, but it was hard not to focus all of my attention on her. We'd been friends. I'd missed her, but that didn't even mean she remembered me.

The play was fine, better than expected. I laughed. I groaned. I tried to keep a tally of what worked for me and what didn't. Mostly, it worked. The play ended. The actors took their bows and the lights came up. I shuffled on my coat. It was time to get back to the office.

At least, I knew her new last name. It was in the program. She seemed to be doing all right.

The actors wandered into the crowd, shook hands and accepted kind words from their friends and family. Amber spoke with a few people on the front row then pulled away and came up the steps.

She called my name.

"I knew it was you," she said. "I tried to let you know I saw you." She smiled. "Your face..."

She told me she didn't know if I'd recognized her. She'd had a child and gained weight. That seemed to pain her most of all. She didn't look exactly like she did four or five years ago.

"I wasn't sure if you'd know me," she said.

"I'd recognize you at a hundred yards," I told her. "I've missed you all along."

She wanted to talk. She wanted to know where I'd been in the last four years, what I was up to. She wanted everything right then, but there wasn't time to explain, though the short answer was, "nowhere." I've been here all along.

I wrote down my office number, the only reliable way to reach me.

"Give me a call," I said. "I'll buy you coffee. We can have lunch. I want to hear everything."

Before I left, she introduced me to her husband. We'd met before. I remembered him. He did not remember me, but that was fine. I didn't really miss him either.

I did the work I had to then while I was thinking about it, I looked her up on facebook. The damned thing has its uses. I threw out a line to her there --just in case she lost the number. I haven't heard back yet, but I'm hopeful.

People have left my life lately and it has been a heavier burden than I would have thought it to be. I thought I was used to the traffic by now. I keep blaming my age, this middle age, and maybe that's it, but also maybe it's a failure to see the people who've come back.

Seeing Amber again gave me some comfort. Not everything lost is gone forever. Sometimes they come back and sometimes they've missed you all along.

I needed to feel that again. I needed to believe that again.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The gig

"Hey, we're closed."

Sunday afternoon and the Empty Glass was empty, practically dark, but it would be. Only the most devout alcoholic or a fraternity kid would be in a bar getting hammered this time of the day --unless there was a football game on. That goes without saying, I think.

I smiled, waved and said, "Hey, this is Bill with the Gazette."

Roadblock, the bouncer and sort of manager of the place, squinted then smiled.

"Sorry. I can barely see you, man. How are you?"

He's a big guy and comes by his name honest, but I told him, "Fine," as a couple of people scurried out the door, hauling amps and a drum kit.

"I think that's the band I'm supposed to be interviewing," I told him.

Roadblock looked at me. It was news to him. They'd just been recording, and a guy come to do an interview with a band in his bar, that couldn't be terrible.

He chased after them. "Hey, dude from the paper is here for you guys."

I followed outside. The remnants of the band blinked and stared like they thought at any second I might burst into flame and get some ash on them. It was just two of them, a man and a woman. I knew the woman vaguely. Her name was X and our careers in this town had sort of run parallel. She got started in music about the same time I started writing music.

It took her a second, but then X seem to remember inviting me to come, "between three and four."

It was 3:30 and watching her, you could almost see the stomach ache starting to form and the words, "Oh fuck," dangling from her mouth.

Instead, X said, "Sorry. I should have like checked back with you to see if you were actually coming."

In my mind, this had already confirmed, but an argument was pointless. I was annoyed. The interview was a favor to them --on a Sunday afternoon, during what are usually my off hours --but there was nothing to be done except to see if something could be salvaged.

"That's okay," I said. "My photographer should be here in a minute."

I said this because I hadn't given up on them. I was still willing to do this, if they could pull it together.

"No, the guys left," X said, eyes wide-open. "I mean, they're gone."

For the next couple of minutes, they tried calling the two missing players while I worked out what I had and what I didn't.

They'd put away their gear, packed it up and loaded it in the car. So, a cool picture of them looking all rock n' roll was probably out. Also, the bar was closed. Roadblock might have been okay with us coming inside to sit and talk, but then again, he might have had other plans. They hadn't cleared this with him. This could mean sitting in Wendy's, which is just about the lamest places to talk about anything other than taco salads.

Also they were having only limited success in getting in touch with the rest of the band and I had another gig in about an hour. No secure location. Not enough people. Not enough time.

Essentially, the interview was toast. There would be no picture. There would be no story. There would be no press coverage.

"Well, this is pretty much a wash," I told them then broke the news to the photographer. No way were we shooting half a band.

He shrugged. It was just one more thing of his to do list.

X said, "I guess you were right with what you said about interviews at rehearsals being not so good."

She felt kind of bad about it, but there was nothing to be done.

Apologies all around again. I was sorry it didn't work out. They were just sorry. Oops. Didn't mean to like wreck your Sunday afternoon. We made vague promises to work this out another time, but I don't know if it's going to happen.

Six or seven years ago when I was just starting to get into the whole business of writing about musicians, I was working nights at Books-A-Million. One night, X was out on the patio playing guitar. I thought she was pretty good, unusual, so I introduced myself and handed over one of my nifty, little cards I got over the Internet.

"I'd love to do a story," I said then explained that I'd written for Graffiti, wrote for a couple of free papers, and had just landed a few stories with the Charleston Gazette.

She smiled, but never called. I tried asking around some of the people who knew her at the bookstore, but she never came in again, at least while I was working, and I never got much of an explanation of why she didn't appear to be interested.

It was the first time I pitched a story to my editor that I failed to deliver on. The rejection bothered me. I was just getting started. I was a bundle of nerves and back then not a lot of people took me seriously --this is not to say they take me seriously now, but I did get some better.

Anyway, you hear, some things are never meant to be. The timing is never right. Some pieces never go together. Fate always conspires against, never works for.

Of course, I don't believe any of that.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


There's a cluster of middle-aged men at the gym who tend to hog the benches. They laugh too loud as they work out. They bray like donkeys and it distracts me, with my ear buds planted firmly in each ear canal, the music turned up so loud it starts to hurt after the second or third station.

They chatter and make jokes, talk about football, basketball and God. Politics used to come up, but they don't really agree so they don't talk about it. Everybody wants to be pals. They move from station to station like a herd of Galapagos turtles.

I am a soloist in the gym. I stick to myself, try not to gawk too much (not that it's really a problem in a place where some mornings I am the youngest guy in the room) and do my best not to draw any attention.

Three days a week, I lift weights. The other two days, I climb a machine, swing my arms and legs and quietly work toward a heart attack. This wouldn't be a bad way to go. It would look like you tried.

I think I've come close once or twice.

I am an angry exercise enthusiast. This is where I come to work out my rage, my aggression, my endless frustration and my ever-present sorrow. I do penance for the sins I have committed --both real and imagined. I do penance for the sins I have not committed --both real and imagined. I do not do it for love or for vanity or really even for my health, except to say that I need this. It has become my raft.

Pain is my constant companion. I overdo it and stay sore, particularly over the weekends after a leg workout. In high school, I used to dread squats. Now, I hate them, but I do them. The pain is a comfort. It is shelter against the numbness and the cold pit of indifference.

By accident, the exercise clears my head. Lying on a bench with a weighted bar slowly approaching my throat somehow quiets the noise. The crushing pressure of iron on my shoulders, pushing me to my knees, lances and drains the poison in my mind. This is where I find peace these days.

It lasts barely the length of a single day.

Watching the turtle men, meandering through their workouts, wasting time, laughing like a squad of junior high cheerleaders, I can't help but feel a little envious --not for their little morning communion, not for their fraternity, but that the weights I lift seem so much heavier.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bliss: Glutton

I tried a few new things this week. I had lunch with a friend I hadn't spoken to in a year. We talked and I was reminded why people like me: I am an amusing asshole.

We joked and talked and toward the end, I insulted her boyfriend a little by describing my job as not really being about important things. He's a musician and a good one, quite possibly one of the best in the area and I've written about him. There wasn't a way to recover from that, though what he does and what I do is not the same. Creating art and talking about art is not equal.

Self-awareness isn't always kind. I know what I do. I strive for truth, but usually settle with being entertaining or just a distraction.

It's okay. There is some nobility in being a clown. I am a holy fool.

But they were nice enough to buy me a shot of wheat grass, which tasted green. It was a new experience.

Most of my new experiences were edible. I had the wheat grass, ate at the Pita Pit and bought some candy from the International Food Market. None of it was earth shattering and felt sort of shallow. I think I should stop trying to eat my way to enlightenment.

I'm trying to read more philosophy. I'm studying Buddhist writings again. As I like to say, I am a Buddhist, just not a very good one. Anyway, the new reading is me trying to pick up some of the strands of thought I've misplaced --particularly the ones about letting go of cravings and attachments. Right now, I feel like Luke Skywalker, wanting to get off the farm and take on the Empire, and that's kind of silly.

I'm also reading Joseph Campbell, which explains the Star Wars analogy. He's fun and broadening in his way, but not every insight is useful. That's an insight right there. Not all wisdom is important, but it almost always seems that way.

I faced a pair of raccoons living in the crawlspace/unfinished dungeon beneath my house. I scared them off with bright lights, noise and some store bought crap that they supposedly hate the smell of. It appears to be working, which is good for them. The alternative was murder. If it didn't work, I was going to have to try a big batch of poison mixed with a jar of peanut butter.

I'd just as soon not kill something right now. I don't think I could bear the grief.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bliss: Blood

A quarter to nine and there were probably ten people waiting to get called. Some of them were regulars, but a couple of newbies were looking around nervously, wondering what was going to happen next.

I did my meet and greet with the computer, explained for around the 60th time that I did not have relations with any Haitian voodoo practitioners while I was having a mad cow burger, took my seat and waited to be called.

And waited.

And waited.

The people leaving the room was a slow trickle. Meanwhile, one episode of "Charmed" rolled into another. I watched commercials about feminine itch problems and snack foods because pretty clearly whoever programmed the show starts drinking pretty early. You'd think they'd try to match things a little better in the same commercial break. I mean, if you've got an itchy vagina, do you really want Cheetos or a can of Dole pineapples right after you use the miraculous sanitary wipe that also deodorizes?

I don't think so. The magic of modern science aside, I'm thinking maybe you might wait --like the 15 minute thing before going back into the pool after having a snack. Maybe you'd want to test drive a new Honda first or plan to watch "The Dark Knight" Friday or Saturday, when it makes its non-pay cable channel debut with limited, but probably still a shitload of, commercials.

Pretty clearly, I was watching too much tv and thinking about it in ways entirely unhelpful to the people seated around me. Suddenly, it was 30 minutes later and there were still quite a few people ahead of me.

I could probably use the money, but I kind of needed to get to work and I wanted to stop by Habitat for Humanity to look at filing cabinets. It was 20 minutes after the hour then 25 minutes.

I got up and left.

There was no fuss. I didn't make a scene. I didn't go up to the desk and say, "Hey, why is this taking so long?"I just left.

Maybe it's time to put up or shut up, write the book proposal and see if anything sticks.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bliss: Checkout

The guy bagging the groceries dropped two 50 pound sacks of dog food in the cart then slipped a package of toilet paper, some assorted boxes and bottles of cleaning supplies, and a jug of milk into separate bags. The last thing to go was a plastic container with an eight-piece of cold chicken from the deli, which is always overcooked, greasy and dry.

The woman involved in the transaction looked up at the screen above the cashier and bit her bottom lip.

"I don't know if I have enough," she said and pulled a cheap pocketbook out of her battered purse. "We'll just have to see."

The cashier only nodded. He was a young, but had seen this before.

"I might have to put something back," she said to no one in particular and brushed the yarn-like strands of her thinning, gray hair out of her face.

She waited for the kid to hit the total: $41.35.

The old woman winced, but nodded and began counting out tens, then fives and finally single dollars.

She had $38.

The guy bagging the groceries looked up and said, "You could put one of the bags of dog food back."

He was trying to be kind. The dog food was heavy and she had two of them. It seemed like a graceful way to exit the situation, but she declined.

"No, that's okay," she said. "We need that. Just put back the chicken."

The two grocery store employees looked at each other then I leaned forward.

"How much is she short?"

"About three bucks or so."

I'd come to the store to solve some needs and wants. My youngest wanted kool-aid. My wife wanted lite soy milk. My daughter needed a big ass candy bar and a bottle of root beer. She's an autistic and the last two days had been home from school. Lately, the world has become a lot more threatening to her and the candy was an easy way to calm her.

I'd collected these items and realized I kind of wanted something for me. I thought I kind of deserved it, but the movie selection kind of sucked and I wasn't really in the mood for candy, beer or even a magazine.

I laid a ratty looking five dollar bill on the counter.

"It's good karma," I told the lady. "I happened to have a couple of bucks."

She blinked, a little surprised, then thanked me. The clerks were stunned.

"That's like the nicest thing," the cashier said and I shrugged.

"It's not a big deal."

It wasn't. We all went our separate ways. The guy bagging the groceries only had a half hour to go until he went home and he couldn't wait. I saw the old woman out in the parking lot, riding in an old beat-up van that made me think of the one my parents had when I was a kid, the kind of vehicle good for hauling an army of ten-year-old baton twirlers to a parade or a bunch of very big dogs.

In the car, I turned up an old Motley Crue song as loud as I could force the stereo to go. Nothing had really changed. I felt the same, but it was a good kind of same.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Blood: Dog

"Can I call you Bill?"

The question caught me off guard. For over six months I've been dutifully showing up like a cow to the barn to get my bi-weekly milking and it's always been, "William," no matter how many times I say, "Really, just call me Bill."

I didn't know what to say at first. No one had ever asked me that and I guess I'd settled into the routine of being more of a number than anything else, but over the past few months, I know I've grown on some of the staff. They seem pleased to see me when I show up with book in hand. I'm like a neighborhood dog --a familiar and safe face. I don't smell too bad and I don't bite. I also ask for a lot, don't demand attention or whine about how much money we're not getting paid.

"I hear you get more in Huntington," I hear people say. "I wish I could go there."

I have no idea. I'm not driving to Huntington --unless, of course, it's a lot of money, which it never will be.

I also listen. The milkers and the techs are a talkative bunch. They grouse about how little they get paid, about how much they don't like the new company and even how they wished they hadn't had that one more beer the night before. Some of them have, or so they say, pretty wild lives outside of their jobs. They get kicked out of bars and concerts for fighting. They go to parties that take days to recover.

Being asked if I might be called by my own name was kind of novel.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Cancer Man: Old Lang Syne

Gina wanted to give me ten dollars. Over and over on the way back she said, "You ought to get something for this. You're doing me a favor. It ain't much, but it helps, don't it?"

I wouldn't take her money.

"Gina, that's okay," I told her. "I'm doing fine."

At least, good enough, but Gina...

A couple of months ago, I picked her up for a couple of cancer treatments, went to the tiny apartment she was sharing with at least two kids, her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend. Gina was a tiny, mousy woman who moved quickly, but gingerly, as if she didn't get to where she was going soon her back would snap in half.

Her life has been impossibly hard. She didn't have much to begin with then lost her husband when she was in her late 20s or early 30s. She raised a pair of daughters alone, worked every crummy job a woman with limited education and resources could get to support them and it never got any better.

"My parents helped some," she said. "His did, too --and my Grand dad."

She never got over the loss. Gina has mourned her husband these last 25 years and struggled like a fly caught in the web of a very fat and very bored spider. Cancer is just the latest in a long line of insults and injuries leading to her eventual end.

The last time I saw her was before Halloween and I didn't have particularly high hopes of seeing her again. It's one of those unfortunate things I've figured out about driving for cancer patients. By the time they get to needing someone like me to get them to their appointments, they're on their last legs. Their support system of friends and family has failed. They're usually broke and you can feel the fear and hopelessness rising off them like an awful heat.

Gina seemed spry when I met her, but I didn't expect her to last through Christmas. It was the type of cancer, the round of treatment she was on and of course, because she needed someone like me to get her where she was going. I was delighted when I got the call.

"Yes, I'll go. Yes." The details hardly mattered. I'd have taken her to see the doctor at midnight.

In the car, she was all chatter. It was cheerful, but miserable. Her daughter and the boyfriend were in the middle of a move. They had a house they were renting a few blocks over, but she wasn't sure where it was or if she was going right away.

"I might go stay with my other daughter for a while." But they'd been fighting and things were tough with the daughter she was living with now. She felt like she was contributing, but the daughter and her boyfriend kept borrowing money.

"I don't really care about money," she said. "I don't have much and I have stayed with them some." She smiled. "But I watch the kids, too, and buy some of the things in the house."

They always promised to pay it back. Sometimes she'd get a little bit, given to her in little amounts, handed over like spare change. Gina resented it and she didn't like that her daughter opened her mail.

None of them had much. Her daughter was often between jobs. The daughter's boyfriend worked mainly in fast food. He had a criminal record --something he did when he was a teenager.

"But he won't tell us what he done," she said.

The criminal record followed him everywhere. He couldn't shake it and nobody wanted to hire him, except burger joints and pizza places. He can't get ahead and he blows what little money he gets his fingers on.

Outside the door of the apartment there was a swollen trash bag, the transparent kind you sometimes see in restaurants. There were a lot of beer cans; more beer cans than soup cans, more beer cans than tightly tucked disposable diapers.

"He talks about going to school, becoming a paramedic --all kinds of things." She laughed. It was useless. "He's a big talker. He even says he's going to get that felony moved off his record."

She likes him and doesn't mind the money so much, but it bothers her that she doesn't know what it is he did. Gina doesn't know who her daughter is sleeping with. He won't tell them.

On the way back from the doctor, just a consultation, where they kept her waiting for an hour and a half, she points out houses where she used to clean and one place where she used to take care of an old man.

"He had Alzheimer's," she said sadly, like that somehow might be worse than what's happening to her. "Over there." She pointed. "That's where a man was shot."

It's less than a block from where she lives.

She offers me the money one last time before she grabs her purse from the floor and bolts for the alley and the icy steps leading to a battered door closed tightly against the cold.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bliss: The High Cost of Livin'

When I was nine or ten years old, I got into the beginning of my petty larceny phase. I was a pretty lousy kid: stupid and envious. Our neighbors coughed up money for their kids whenever they seemed to want it. They had all the cool shit (Swimming pools, HBO, decent bicycles, Atari) and got it for nothing, while most of my spending money came from mowing the lawn in the summer and shoveling the walk in winter. Allowances were occasionally started and frequently discontinued due to lack of interest on one or both sides.

After school, one afternoon, I got the bright idea to go looking for cash around the house. I'd found some spare change in a coffee can in the basement and this led me to think that there might be more hiding around the house. Eventually, the search led me to my mother's jewelry box.

Inside, I found was a few dollar coins. They seemed pretty cool to me and a dollar was real buying power --or so it seemed. It all went inside of a week. I ended up spending them on ice creams at school and two hamburgers at a high school football game. I can still taste the tang of the institution grade concession stand yellow mustard. I didn't even get cheese.

I was immediately found out. My parents didn't give me a lot of money and wanted to know where I was getting the cash to spend it. I lied and lied as much as I could, but they asked me to show them what else I had. That's when they saw the remaining coin.

My mother was heartbroken. I remember her going to her room, looking in her jewelry box and weeping. My father was furious. I was grounded. I don't remember for how long, but it wasn't nearly long enough. I got a lecture, was told I'd have to make restitution and his parting shot before he closed the door to my bedroom was, "It's a lucky thing for you that your grandfather isn't here to see this. He'd have been ashamed."

My grandfather had died a year or so before. I'd adored him and Dad was right. It would have hurt.

In the dark that night, I fell apart and eventually, fell asleep. My mother didn't talk to me for a couple of days and my father didn't want much to do with me either, but I did my time. They more or less got over it. Eventually, it was deemed I'd paid my debt to society and I forgot about it --only I never did.

I've been carrying it around with me for decades --the guilt-- and in my mind, this was my first real crime. This was the one that made all the other stupid and idiotic shit I did possible. It made it okay for me to go along with bad ideas, scheme and do things I knew were wrong. I mean, if I could screw over my mother for a few coins, then why not?

I've never been good with money. For a long time, I thought it was just because I was unlucky or because I made stupid decisions. The main thing is it has taken me years to understand there's more to money than a numeric value. Money is not just cash. It's part of someone's life. Sometimes it represents time and energy traded --almost always at a poor rate of exchange. Other times, it's hope for the future, a balm for relief.

I never asked my mother why she saved those particular and very odd coins. I don't know what they meant to her, but I knew what taking them away meant. I was less than what she hoped I'd be. I was less than what she deserved.

As I've grown older and reflected on what I've learned and what I should have learned, I have often come back to those coins. A few years ago, they started falling into my hands --Eisenhower dollars. I thought fate was helping me make good. I figured the coins were valuable by now and I scarcely have two pennies to rub together half the time, but I refused the spend them. I waited and waited and waited and hoped the others might show up.

Today, I quit waiting. I went to the little coin shop downtown. It reminded me of someone's basement. When it was finally my turn, I said, "I'm looking for Eisenhower dollars."

The guy behind the counter shrugged and said, "I have ten thousand of them. How many do you want and what year?"

I took out a piece of paper. Written on it was a list of the coins I had: 1971, 1972, 1974, 1976 and 1978.

"How long did they make them?" I figured I could start buying the missing ones. If they weren't too expensive, maybe I could have a complete collection in a couple of months.

"From 1971 to 1978," he told me and my jaw dropped.

The old guy halfway sitting in the floor added, "Except 1975. They did the bicentennial coin for two years. There is no 1975."

I had two bicentennial coins.

"How much for 1973 and 1977?"

He counted it up. $1.30 for one and $6.90 for the other, but he didn't take debit or credit cards and I didn't have my checkbook with me.

"That's a pittance," I told him and he seemed insulted, but he was willing to hold them for me while I went to the bank.

I ran. I ran down the street, got 20 bucks out of a machine and all but sprinted back.

He took my money, handed the two coins over and I gushed the whole reason why. He could care less, but I think he got this wasn't about collecting for the future. It was about me trying to buy back a small piece of my past.

They go home to my mother tomorrow.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Eat prey live

My youngest and I have been looking at a book called, "1001 Things To Eat Before You Die." He's 5. I'm 40. We both look at the pictures and wonder, "What the hell is that?"

Mostly, we just flip through the pages. Occasionally, we stop and I read a description. Often he laughs at the funny-sounding words, which I'm about fifty percent sure I'm mangling. Despite the English teacher influenced diction, I've got a country boy mouth (not a "purdy" mouth, mind you, but a country mouth). I sound like a idiot when I try to order in restaurants by anything other than the number.

"Yes, I'll have the number four. Thanks."

Others in the book are easily pronounced, but might look like the aborted fetus of a German Shepherd... and they're fruit. We look, we laugh and I tell him I'd try it --if somebody offered. He says the same.

Neither of us would ever hold the other to the pact.

Actually, I'm pretty game for anything --minus the more vermin-like game such as possum, raccoons or muskrat. I don't much care if they taste just like chicken or beef or an orange slushy, I am not consuming them --unless it's the annual critter dinner and then you sort of have to or look like a total square.

I also don't like Brussels sprouts, but my son's tastes are even more particular. He prefers for his food to be unnaturally colored and preferably made by time traveling cyborgs.

Anyway, we look, we laugh. Last night's big find was "Black Scabbard Fish," which looks like an old belt with eyes and teeth. I would totally eat the thing, if offered, but I'd never buy it --unless I was looking to ward off neighborhood children.

This morning, as I was driving back from the gym, I considered the Black Scabbard Fish one more time and pulled into the grocery store. It occurred to me that I didn't make a lot of resolutions for 2011 --just some general guidelines. The first one was to follow my bliss. Part of what makes me really happy is trying new things, doing what I haven't done, going where I've never been: new experiences. There is hope in the new, I think, but each new opportunity, sadly, is for a limited time only. No rain checks.

Nothing new seemed on the horizon, but instead of passing by the grocery store, I stopped in and looked for a couple of things to take home --things I haven't tried or maybe have forgotten I've tried. I picked up a couple of pieces of fruit --nothing spectacular-- two golden kiwis, some baby bananas and a melon-looking thing I think is a papaya.

It seemed like a step to me. Grow a little bit. Go someplace new. Follow my bliss --even if it's at the end of a fork.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Blood: New Year's

New Year's eve and the plasma center was jumping. Up front, at the desk, the two techs working the counter looked hectored and weary. The lobby was half full. New bleeders were coming in and the center was closing its doors in about an hour.

Newbies are extra work for the staff. There is a whole half-hearted screening process they have to march them through. They have to get them weighed and measured. They have to get them to read things --though most people just thumb through it and go along with whatever gets them through the door and gets the money train started.

It's one big hassle for the staff. Boo-hoo.

Anyway, I am now a regular even though nobody calls me by my name. It's always William, no matter how many God damned times I say, "just Bill" or "Bill would be fine" or "I like being called Bill." Formal names are probably easier for them. It's like referring to a car by its make or a refrigerator by its brand. There is no emotional investment. It allows them to care that much less.

I put up with the forced anonymity though a couple of them do check to see what I'm reading (note to self: for the new year, time to bring some really fucked up books to the Plasma Center and see if we can make the milkers squeal). They look but seldom ask and usually glaze over if the I don't say something like, "and I thought it was even better than Dan Brown's last book."

Things went fine. I got processed to the back in record time. The whole place was motivated: Don't try to understand 'em, just rope, throw and brand 'em... There was booze to consume and booty to shake. It's New Years!

The milkers in back were harried but positive. It was a short day. The music was playing. It was Electric 102, the plasma center's favorite radio station. Ke$ha was singing about how my love is her drug while Randal was busy putting a needle in my arm. Call that coincidence? I don't think so. That is karma.

Unfortunately, Randal speared the vein and a process that should have taken about 50 minutes slowed to a crawl as the machine began sucking whatever is in between your veins. When the machine isn't getting fed. It beeps. It makes an annoying noise and everybody starts looking at you like, "What did you do?"

The floor supervisor guy noticed after a couple of minutes and tried to fix it. No luck. He brought Randal over and together they discussed the problem and tried to fix it together. No luck. Finally, after about an hour and a half and only 2/3 of a bottle, they cut me loose.

"Since this wasn't your fault, you still get paid the same." The floor supervisor guy handed Randal the bottle of my life-giving fluid and they sent me to the window.

The giant dude running the cash register wasn't having any of that. As soon as Randal told him it wasn't my fault and I was supposed to get the full amount, he got defensive and loud.

"No, he does not." He pointed to the sign on the wall. "He knows this."

The sign basically dictates prices for when things go wrong. If they get less than half a bottle, you only get ten bucks. If you give more than half, but less than a full bottle, you get fifteen. The least they can send you home with (other than zero) is five bucks for just poking your arm and getting nothing.

"Art said he gets the full amount," Randal said.

"Art should learn to keep his mouth shut." He looked out toward Art. "I know he's the floor manager, but he doesn't know what happens here. He don't control this."

Randal nodded. The giant was throwing a fit over paying me another five dollars because Randal speared the vein and the donation was screwed up, but he wasn't going to have a pissing match over five bucks. I wasn't either. I didn't give a shit. I had places to be and plans of my own.

Randal mouthed a silent apology while the big guy started entering the information into the computer. His supervisor came through the back door. The big man looked up from the computer and began angrily explaining what had happened, how the floor supervisor had decided this donor (meaning, me) was going to get the full amount because it wasn't the donor's fault and he ought not to be doing that.

The supervisor nodded thoughtfully, agreeing with what he said up until he mentioned that it was not my fault then he said, "Art is right. He gets the full amount. The policy was put in place because we had people who wouldn't agree to a second stick or whatever to complete a full donation, but demand we pay them the full price. If it's not his fault, he gets the full amount."

Everything got quiet. The big guy sort of gathered that he'd just made a royal ass of himself. He looked at me then tore up the check he was about to give me and entered new information into the computer. He was obviously flustered and angry.

He never said he was sorry. He never said he was wrong. He handed me the check and said, "He still shouldn't be saying that stuff on the floor."

I can appreciate the guy's predicament. His turf had been invaded and his feelings were hurt. Of course, I can't say I cared for this new level of detachment from what is being done. A dude is selling his blood. Something goes wrong. Even if you can't make good on the loss of income and time, just say, "Sorry" or my favorite bullshit apology "I'm sorry this happened to you." The guy selling the blood is human. He's a little down on his luck because nobody is coming to sell their blood because it's a good career move or it helps them get chicks.

It's about the money and it sucks.

But no apology, no even acknowledging that he'd almost unnecessarily cheated somebody out of five measly bucks. He printed out the check and pushed it across the counter.

I headed out. Outside the door to the parking lot, I noticed the check was for $31. He'd overpaid me by ten bucks. I turned around. The front door was closed and locked. I couldn't get back inside.

For about a second I thought, maybe this is his way of making it right. It didn't seem too likely, but either way, I cashed it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Fraggle Rock

Blogging and other projects are pretty slow going at the moment due to the damned fraggles. Another couple of days and I'll have this weird affair done.

2010 ended in the emotional equivalent of a hail of bullets. The car cost me $450. I got another note from the Tax department, which will mean more to pay out and I crept across the finish line exhausted, fearful and feeling alone.

But I have not come to grieve for the losses of one year, but to look ahead. Onward, we move. New Year's day, I worked on the damned fraggles, to finish that promise, but also looked at reworking that old novel I've been carrying around with me for a few years. I looked at an old version and began my first steps toward making it the book it should be.

I also went through the first few dozen pages of the literary agents book I have (a fine gift from my wife and much appreciated). I marked the agencies I thought could represent the book. There were a lot and I wasn't even anywhere near the middle of the section. It was kind of exciting.

Part of what has always hung me up, I think, are expectations. I expect things to be a certain way. I expect people to behave in ways that make sense to me, which typically suit my needs and wants. This is the kind of thinking that dooms friendships, marriages and jobs.

I expected a long time ago to be a successful writer by now, to be financially secure and to be a man of leisure --kind of the dream, I think, of your average aspiring novelist --money enough to write and not have to worry about punching a clock. Everybody wants to be Stephen King --probably Stephen King does, too.

Last year was hard. I've felt almost crippling guilt at times at how envious I was over my sister-in-law's book. She made it look so easy and it's hard not to feel like shit when everybody says how great someone's book is when you've got two manuscripts sitting on the same bookshelf and a bunch of rejection letters. I've really grappled with it, with what she's accomplished and with how when she mentions working on a revision or a writing problem, it doesn't quite mean the same thing as when I say it.

Part of me wanted to dismiss her success as as a fluke, a lucky break. It could happen to anyone, but that does a disservice to her. She had the right book at the right time, but she was also the right writer. In order for her to be lucky, she had to be good first.

I think we learn in starts and stops. I find my lessons in the weirdest places. Lately, I've been bitching about the fraggle project. I started bitching about it almost from the minute I started it. This was supposed to be easy, something to burn through that maybe a few people would like and would help me clear my head. I now have 40,000 words written and the damned thing isn't done.

Keep in mind this is a project that will never be read by more than a handful of people --maybe a dozen. It will never earn me a dime. I'd call it satire and parody, but nobody makes money on that kind of thing (unless it's porn apparently, that seems to be booming from what I read) and the fraggle's lawyers would skin me alive in court, I imagine. I do not believe it can or will advance my writing career in any way. It is an epic time waster.

But here's the thing, it's been fun. I've spent many hours lost in that despicable world I've created and filled with not particularly admirable characters. There is no pressure to try and be good, though it would be kind of a joke if it accidentally turns out to be sort of good. It is pure creation and a joy --even if it's about the damned fraggles.

I have no expectations. It will be what it is. Maybe I could learn something from a fraggle.