The War on Baby Boomers

It’s an old story, so I won’t bore you with the whole spiel.  The media called them the ’60s Generation, but demographers and advertisers called them the Baby Boomers, because when GIs returned from WWII, it caused a boom in births and a bump in the population.

All during my youth, they were a big deal.  Everybody looked to them to see what the future would look like.  Under their reign, racial barriers came down.  Whites started treating minorities like real people.  Whites started marrying blacks.  Kids started growing their hair long.  They didn’t see the use in raising their pinky while drinking tea or maintaining the perfect lawn.  They wanted to express themselves, find meaning, and gaze at their own navel.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979

The generation before them didn’t have a name.  But then Tom Brokaw came along and named them after the fact: The Greatest Generation.  And they were great, because they had real, life-or-death challenges that later generations didn’t really have.  They fought for everything they got.  They cleaned up the corruption that was rife within society throughout the 1930s and ’40s.

But now, those generations are under attack.  A virus has targeted them.  The media talks about the virus targeting the elderly, but let’s not forget that these people were a very big deal in their day.  They won World War II.  They brought us the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Aretha.  They took us to the moon.

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Now, a small slice of American culture is saying that the mass death they are experiencing is just fine.

“Many people who are dying, both here and around the world, were on their last legs, anyway….” Bill O’Reilly said in an appearance on Fox News.  “A simple man tells the truth.”

Simple, yes, although not in the way that he means it.  Truth, no.

What O’Reilly is implying, of course, is that we shouldn’t mourn these generations because they would’ve died soon, anyway.  Well, O’Reilly is going to die soon, anyway, too.  But when that happens, I won’t go around disrespecting his life, because every life deserves dignity and respect.  Some people have no class.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick put his foot in it, too, when he said:

“There are things more important than living,” and that those generations of Americans might be “willing to take a chance” on dying for the good of the economy.

Vicious, yes.  Pro life, most certainly no.

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Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

My own mother was a member of that Greatest Generation.  She remembers Pearl Harbor, blackout curtains and air-raid sirens.  She was a mother when Nikita Khruschev banged his shoe on the podium.  She worked hard for her Masters Degree, raised two good kids, and received her reward by retiring in a house on the hill.

My mother doesn’t deserve to be sacrificed body and soul so that a serial sexual harasser like Bill O’Reilly can try to goose his stock portfolio, or Dan Patrick can try to service the Texas oil companies by forcing people back into their cars.  They built this country before us.  It’s theirs.  Show a little respect, why doncha.

True Tales of Horror from the Grocery Store

I wouldn’t want to be a grocery checker right now.  They’re the infantry, the poor sods that the generals send in first to get mowed down by gunfire.  I hole up at home watching Netflix and eating too much cheese.

However, I do know a Vons checker.  His name is Miguel, and he has some tales to tell from the front lines.

20200408_055238Miguel remembers quite clearly the day the COVID panic hit.  It was Friday the 13th of March.

“All of the sudden, a flood of people came in and we were overwhelmed,” Miguel said.  “We were running all of the checkstands, plus all of the new self-checkout stands.  We started running out of things, but whenever we brought out a new palette, people were just grabbing things off it before it could even get to the right aisle.  It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  We usually close at 1 am, but that night, we decided to close at 10.  We just ran out of supplies.

“On Saturdays, we usually opened at 5 am, but it soon became obvious that that wasn’t enough time to get all the products restocked, so we waited until 7.  When we opened the door, it was even crazier than the day before.  People were in a state of buy buy buy.  It turned out being a record sales day.”

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That was over a month ago, of course, which seems like a lifetime ago.  In general, people have been calm and polite to each other, says Miguel, even more now than before the pandemic.  However, there have been exceptions.

“My manager tried to enforce the limits on toilet paper on this one customer, and he threatened to beat him up,” Miguel said.  “On another occasion, he received a death threat.  Those people haven’t been back to the store.”

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Every morning at 5 am, there’s a line waiting outside the store, because that’s when the store is fully stocked.  Generally, it’s about 10 people deep, usually maintaining a 6-foot distance from each other.  By 7, they begin their 2-hour window for seniors, pregnant women, and the disabled.

One day, a guy appeared in that line who obviously didn’t fit into the required categories, and the manager questioned him about it.

“Well listen, my kids gotta eat, too!” the man said in a belligerent manner.

The manager let him in.  They’re grocery clerks, after all, not paramilitary forces.

A few days ago, I talked with Miguel again.  He hadn’t seen his girlfriend in five weeks.  He was working long hours.  The anxiety was getting to him.  Fortunately, the crowds have slowed down considerably.  In addition, corporate is treating them extremely well.  However, there are still incidents.

One day, a female clerk was standing at the front door making sure that people were wearing masks, and a man objected.

“This is not a prison!” he yelled.  “We have rights!”

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Another customer who was stopped for not wearing a mask yelled: “I fought in Vietnam!  I can do whatever I want!”

Did I mention that most customers have been extremely kind and polite?

Every time I go to the grocery store, I take all the precautions.  I put on my face mask.  I seal it up on the edges with medical tape.  I put a playing card in the pocket to physically block the virus.  I don’t even take a shopping cart; I just hold my bags.  I rush through the store, picking up products quickly one after another, trying not to pass through anybody else’s exhaust, so to speak, avoiding close contact.  But Miguel has to work in that environment eight hours a day, five days a week.

I mentioned to him that to many, food workers are heroes.

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But Miguel would have none of it.  He launched into a monologue about heroes, that nobody at Vons is patting themselves on the back for being a hero, that when you see it in the newspapers, it’s all just hype from the unions, that the employees have all the gloves they want, all the masks they want, extra hand sanitizer, and blah blah blah.  Finally, I just interrupted him.

“Look, that’s what heroes say,” I said.  “Somebody rescues a little kid from a burning house, and they say that say they’re not a hero, that they just did what anybody else would have done.  Some soldier saves 15 buddies who are pinned down by enemy fire, and guess what, he says he’s not a hero, too, that his 5 other buddies who died are the heroes.  Dude, that’s what all heroes say!  Accept it!  You are a kind of hero!”

That shut him up.

[Miguel is a food clerk at a Vons in the north San Fernando Valley.]

How I Killed My Father

Years ago, I gave my father the flu.  Six weeks later, he died of it.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.  The COVID-19 virus is spreading through families like wildfire.  There are still without a doubt children who have given it to their parents, as I did.  Everyone’s hunkered down in their hermetically sealed houses waiting to see how bad this is going to be.  We’ve seen the movie Contagion.  We’re waiting for dead bodies in the streets.  We’re waiting for loved ones taking their last breaths.  Or, more optimistically, we’re waiting for Fauci’s Curve to bend and for everybody to pour into the streets and hold up their hands to the strains of “Hallelujah” and ticker tape.

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My father’s story began in the late 1940s, when he was a teenager.  I don’t know the exact decisive moment when he started smoking, but he did mention a type of conversation.

“Come on, just take one puff.”

By the time Dad entered the Marines in 1950, his medical intake exam noted that his lungs exhibited “rales,” which are defined medically as “an abnormal rattling sound heard when examining unhealthy lungs with a stethoscope.”

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By the 1960s, I remember Dad smoking a lot.  The smell of it didn’t disgust me, but simply reminded me of him with fondness.  He smoked Kents, which tagged him as intelligent and professional.  Mom smoked Salems, a feminine and breezy brand, something a pretty lady would smoke on a sailboat.  He never smoked as much as John Wayne, who bragged that he smoked two packs a day; he smoked half of that.  He was a construction engineer and a strong and silent 1950s Dad, and the smoking seemed to go along with it.  Decency was part of the profile, too.  He went to work in the morning at a big corporation and came home at night.  He never drank.  He wasn’t loud or obnoxious.  He coached my Little League baseball team.

One day when I was 16, I was in our house when I envisioned a moment that merited documentation with a camera.  Dad was sitting in the living room relaxing in his favorite dark blue velvet chair, a bright wall of curtained light behind him, having a cigarette and staring into space.  I snuck up behind him with my Rolleiflex and shot the photo before he even knew what was happening.

“Hey, what are you doing?!” he said when he heard the click.

“Taking your picture,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because that’s your favorite spot to sit,” I said.  “It’s a good picture.”

He was a tad pissed off, I must confess, but I was glad I caught it.  To me, that photograph perfectly defined my father, like Carly Simon’s song: “…My father sits at night with no lights on/His cigarette glows in the dark….”

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My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking.

By 1985, I had graduated from UCLA and was writing freelance health & fitness articles for magazines and newspapers all over the world.  One day, I visited my parents at their home in Diamond Bar, California, and Dad was sitting on the carpeted stairway with his shirt off.  I was alarmed at how skinny he had gotten, although I didn’t immediately say anything.  The family was sharing time together, which didn’t happen all that often anymore, now that we were adults, and I didn’t want to dampen the mood.  However, I eventually just came out with it.

“Dad, you’ve lost some weight,” I said.

“Oh, I stopped eating donuts in the morning at work,” he said cheerfully.  “You know, the boss brings in a big box of donuts and they’re free. When I stopped eating those, I lost weight.”

“You know, the doctors that I interview say that a weight loss can also mean that there’s something medically wrong with you.  Have you gone to the doctor?”

“I’m okay.”

“But I’m just asking if you’ve gone to the doctor.”

“I’m okay and I don’t want to talk about this.”

“But Dad, what if you’re sick?”

“I told you I’m not going to talk about this,” he said, and stood up and walked up the stairs and into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

After he left, my mother, sister, and I discussed what had happened.  Whatever the cause of the weight loss might be, it was worth checking out.  We all agreed that something might indeed be medically wrong with him.

“He should definitely go to the doctor, Mom,” I said.

“Leave it to me,” she said with a wink.

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So I left it to her.  Mom said that she had “ways” of getting him to do things.

“I’ve been married to him for 34 years, after all,” she said.

So Mom started a campaign.  She discussed and cajoled.  She used reverse and double-reverse psychology.  She tried every trick in the book.  After several months of trying, however, he still refused to go to the doctor.

So my sister decided to give it a try.  She and Dad had a special relationship, like England and America.  She asked Dad if he would take her to the doctor.

“Okay,” he said.

So my sister made an appointment with Dr. Arnold Bergman in Montebello.  Dad drove her to the appointment, and they both waited in the examination room for the doctor.  When the doctor came in, he looked at the chart.

“So I’m here to see…Mr. Groves?” he said.

“No,” he said.  “It’s my daughter’s appointment.”

“No it isn’t, Dad,” Diane said.  “I want you to get examined.”

“Oh no.”

“Dad, we’re already here….”

“I said no.”

Dad walked out of that appointment, refusing to be seen.  His denial reaction, it seems, was quite virulent.  And all the time, he kept getting skinnier and looking more unhealthy.  His skin was prematurely dried out, his wrinkles deeper than they should be.

“I worry about you,” I told my father.  “You could be very sick.”

“I’m not sick,” he said, “I’m just getting old.”

“You’re only 57 years old,” I said.  “You shouldn’t be this frail.”

“I’m not frail.  And besides, I get all the health care I need on the radio.  I listen to Dr. Dean Edell every day on the radio.”

I’m sure Dad knew he was in bad health.  In the middle of the night, Mom would wake up and find him sleeping in strange positions, which is a common compensatory behavior when people find breathing difficult: Their body searches desperately for a position that makes it easier for their lungs to pull in oxygen, sometimes twisting itself in pretzels.  Sometimes, my mother would wake up in the middle of the night and find him sleeping with his butt shoved into the air.  Not only that, but he was getting down to an alarmingly low weight, partly because people with bad lungs find it difficult to eat; the time that the mouth is closed and chewing seriously interrupts their desperate efforts to breathe.  The body needs air more than it needs food, after all.

I was still writing health & fitness articles for all the major women’s magazines–Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Self, Shape, and the like–and was writing sagely about good health.  I was the man who told everybody how to live forever.  At the same time, however, I was full of heartache about the man I loved who refused to take care of his own health.  It was the heartache that we all carried around during that period, and we turned it this way and that in the light.

What occurred to all of us, quite as a surprise, I might add, that you just can’t force anybody to do anything.  It seemed ridiculous, but it was true.  We couldn’t make him save himself.  We couldn’t arrest him.  We couldn’t drag him bodily.  We couldn’t trick him.  It was our one great lesson in the mighty power of denial.

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In January, 1989, four years after I first spotted Dad’s weight loss, Mom was on a trip to Europe and Dad was all alone in that big house.  He didn’t like being alone, but he didn’t like to admit it.  He thought of himself as a lone wolf like Bogart in The Big Sleep or Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but deep down, he really craved the warmth of the family.  During family parties, he loved to stand around the periphery, leaning on a railing, watching everybody enjoy themselves.  That spot on the railing was his querencia, which is a bullfighting term for the spot where a bull stubbornly stands in the ring where he feels he cannot be killed.  Dad never quite felt comfortable participating in family life, but he loved watching.  He wouldn’t have used the word love, but that’s what he enjoyed being in the middle of.

That winter, I had been sick with a particularly nasty flu.  For weeks, I would suffer its symptoms, fight it back with rest and medicine, and then it would claw its way back into my life.  I don’t know how many times I relapsed, but it was a few.  I remember sweating mightily in my sprawling two-bedroom apartment in Culver City, watching television while my head pounded and my sinuses filled with congestion.  The trash bins were filled with Kleenex.  But at some point, I had improved enough that I thought I was past the point of contagion.

“By the time you’re showing symptoms,” a gorgeous nurse friend of mine had said, “you’re no longer contagious.”

So I visited Dad in that big house.  It was a two-story house in suburbia with four bedrooms and a great hillside view of suburbia.  I hugged him, which he always bristled at.  I spent time with him.  We went to a video store to rent a movie, but ended up not being able to decide on what to watch.  He wanted to watch Conan the Barbarian or Sheena of the Jungle, while I wanted something literary or even Shakespearean.  To this day, I’m still not a fun dude.

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We went back home, having disagreed for about the millionth time in our lives, and before I left, had a conversation about Dad’s father.  I talked about how extremely strong and silent Grandpa Roy had been, and how I had given up trying to get him to talk, how it was impossible to get anything of meaning out of the guy.

“Wow, you noticed that, too?” Dad said.  “Wow, I thought it was me.”

Dad’s sudden interest in family dynamics surprised me.  He had never seemed that interested in the past, or even more so, psychological explanations for anything.  Thinking back, though, it occurs to me that Dad knew that he was quite sick, and that his life was flashing before his eyes.  He was gasping for air.  He was panicking.  His world was changing.  He was running out of time.

On February 9, my mother left a message on my machine.

“Dad has gone into the hospital,” she said.  “You better come today.  It’s serious.”

Dad had been diagnosed with a flu laid on top of the worst case of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and emphysema that the doctor had ever seen.  I pretty much stopped working.  The family spent all of our time at the hospital.  Mom slept there.  Dad was in ICU for two weeks, and then transferred to a Kaiser Hospital in Downey, just down the street from our very first house, back when I was 5.

There were many ups and downs that I could document, but suffice it say that after a month, Dad succumbed.  Early on the morning of March 9, while I was sleeping in my apartment, Dad suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes.  By the time I arrived around 8 am, Dad was brain-dead.  He laid on his ICU bed with blank eyes, staring straight at the ceiling.  We came in and said our goodbyes individually.  I looked at his body, with the same arms, the same chest, the same shape of face, and I saw myself.  In some strange way, I said goodbye to myself.  Soon afterwards, we pulled the plug.

I don’t know if I gave Dad the flu.  Truth be told, I’ve never worried much about it.  After all, I didn’t intend to give him the flu.  Not only that, but he could have caught it anywhere–at the grocery store, from a coworker, from the surface of a pack of cigarettes.  In addition, it was the severe risk factors that made that flu deadly, and I had no responsibility at all for that.  Hell, I had even asked him to quit a few times.

“I’ve tried to quit 150,000 times,” he said when he was first hospitalized.

Perhaps it was his fault.  Perhaps it was RJ Reynolds’.  When we went through his effects, we found a whole cache or RJ Reynolds promotional material that minimized the risks of smoking and complained about smokers’ civil rights, evil libertarian screeds that still make me angry.  But as for responsibility, I’ve never worried that it rested on my shoulders.  I don’t tend to worry much about things that are not my fault.

 

As of today, there have been over 162,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths.  Many more may die, we’re not sure exactly how many.  It looms above us like a black cloud.  But hey, I’ve been there.  My father died at 59, but he should have had more years on this earth.  I would have liked him to see me get booked as a performer at the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, as I did in 1997, or to meet the woman of my dreams, whom I got together with in 2001, or to read my novel, What Happens to Us, which I published in 2014.  I would have liked him to read the passages in the novel about him.  I would have liked him to read what I had learned about life, so much of which I packed into that book.  But he only made it to 1989.

That very month, he had just fully paid off his home mortgage.  It’s ironic that he never had time to enjoy the payoff and his golden years.

Now, my mother is 89, and still misses Dad.

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Mom with my partner Claire.

“I think about him every day,” she says.  “He would have had to wear an oxygen tank around everywhere he went, but I wouldn’t care.”

Sometimes, I catch her crying.

“I’m just thinking about your father,” she says.

Like a nightmare, it’s happening again.  Mom also started smoking in the 1940s.  She stopped around 1990, but not before she damaged her lungs.  Now, she too has COPD.  She cannot walk half a flight of stairs without getting severely winded.  She cannot sleep through the night without wearing a tube that supplies her oxygen.  All of that makes her at high risk for COVID.

“If I get the coronavirus,” she told me recently, “I’m dead.”

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She’s right.  As a result, she has holed herself up in her 4-bedroom house in Diamond Bar.  She doesn’t let anyone in, even me.  She lives there with her little Shih Tzu Phoebe and her five television sets.  She’s happy to watch her Columbo and Everybody Loves Raymond and documentaries on history and civilization. When she needs help on her computer, as she often does, I take control of it from my house with Team Viewer, a program that allows remote computer control.

The way it’s going, it looks like she’s going to turn 90 alone in that house.  Her birthday is in May.

When Mom needs food, I shop for her.  Then I drive into her driveway and call her on the cell phone.  She opens the garage door remotely and I bring the groceries into the middle of the garage and walk out.  Then she carries the groceries inside.  She washes each package with rubbing alcohol.  Then she washes the bags, even the handles, with bleach.  She can’t be too careful.  She loves life.  She still finds it sweet, indeed.

This week, I read the statistics.  Dr. Fauci says that up to 200,000 Americans may die of this COVID.  Other estimates say that up to 2.2 million may die.  Then on Facebook, Trump is afraid, not of the disease, but of losing money in the stock market.  He wants the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.  Republicans argue that we have to get back to the economy and not be afraid to live our lives.  It’s worth the lives we lose.  After all, they’re just old people who are going to die soon, anyway.

I just think of my father.  I would have liked another 30 years with him.  I would have liked to get to know him better.  I would have asked him about the Korean War, which he never talked about, but now, I realize, fought heroically in.  Hell, he fought at Chosin Reservoir, a bloody battle in which we sustained 25,000 casualties within two weeks, and I didn’t know that till after he was gone.  I would have asked him about his mother, a beautiful but schizophrenic woman whom I hardly knew.  His whole miserable childhood growing up in the Great Depression is a supreme mystery to me.

And then there’s his soul.  I would have liked to just sit around it for a few more years and warmed myself by its fire.  He was a man of good intentions, which I now realize is quite rare in this world.  He had no ulterior motives.  I know I could have found his center, even though he tried to hide it.  I would have located it, sat with it, and cherished it.

Everyone Dies

[This is chapter 9 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 8, see here.  To read chapter 1, see here.]

Evan was driving on the interstate at 75, his mountain bike strapped to the trunk, having emptied a bottle of wine and another one open on the passenger seat.

“It’s the Russians again,” John was saying on the phone.  “You got five days and then we’re on.”

“All ri’,” Evan said, hitting SPEAKER and holding the phone between his hands above the steering wheel.  There was a wall between Evan and his body, and a ringing in his ears that reeked of sulphur.

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“But it’s a different deal,” John said.  “We aren’t in it to win this time.”

“Whaddyu mean?”

Evan had been drinking in his apartment when he suddenly wondered how fast his car could go.  He wanted a number.  It was a leech that attached itself to his brain.  At the steering wheel, he was still wondering, squinting his eyes at the speedometer.  Suddenly a car cut in front of him and he flinched and the phone clattered off the steering wheel and onto the car floor.

“I mean, this time we lose 75% of the time,” John said.  “Have you been drinking?”

“What, so I can’t drink anymore?”

Evan, still cruising at 75, one car riding his ass, was reaching down and feeling for his phone, swerving over the line, then glancing up and straightening up, then swerving again, but whatever, life is for living.

“I give you the signal,” John said, “and you fold.  You’re going to do a lot of folding.  And a lot of losing.”

Evan found the phone and lifted it up to his mouth.

“Why?”

John gave him his typical silence, and instead of trembling, the way Evan usually did, he had a mouth full of shit that he was waiting to spit out.

“Why do you need to know?” John finally said.

“Cuz I fuckin’ wanna know, what kinda question is that?”

“See, I wouldn’t normally tell a guy why.”

“Okay, fuck it, don’ tell me.”

Evan knew he’d overstepped some boundary, but fuck it.  Evan was amazed how much courage he now had against his uncle, although perhaps it wasn’t courage, perhaps it was an unbridled horse called rage, or perhaps it was just the wine talking.  There was a long silence, but finally, John took a deep breath and lowered his voice.

“Okay, I tell you this and you’re in on something,” John said.  “These dudes we’re playing next aren’t whales to take down.  The Russians have to get their money out of their own country.  They don’t trust their own banks, because they’re not really banks, they’re just people who take your money.  Plus, it’s not the Russians’ money to begin with, at least not legally.  So they come here with all their fucking cash and they lose it at our private

game.  If anybody gets wind of it, like really looks into it, we’ve got a couple of witnesses who are in on the game and it checks out.  So then they come to the casino and I’ve got another Evan to help win it back for them.  Minus a commission, of course.  It’s a fucking win win.  Except for the Russian people, but who gives a shit about them?”

“Laundering money,” Evan said.

“Oh, you own a dictionary.”

“The thing that Trump does.”

“Don’t slander my man, I’m warning you.”

“Got it.”

“So are you happy now?” John said.  “Now you know everything.”

“Ecstatic.”

Evan hung up and tossed the phone against the door panel.  That’s how it was now.  Everything was difficult.  The world sped by at 85.  His head seemed separated from his body, like Ichabod Crane’s headless horseman.  His mouth was emanating things that his brain couldn’t quite grasp.  He hoped John didn’t notice, but of course, John noticed everything.  He grabbed the bottle and took a swig.  His eyes felt puffy and tired.  He felt woozy.

Maybe I need eye surgery, he thought.

That was the last thought Evan had before he passed out, and soon after that, hit the center divider, ricocheted, bounced into a second car, and rolled three times.

Φ

Kara had called Evan ten or twenty times over the last couple days, no dice, straight to voicemail.  She hung up the phone once again.  She had been over to his apartment and knocked, but no answer.  He had been getting distant, but this was ridiculous.  It hit her deep.  She looked at herself in the mirror.  This was the girl that Evan didn’t want.  She slathered on the makeup as if it were a mask.  She drew on the lipstick with a hand that drew perfectly, but deep down, wanted to create just a red slash.  She imagined taking a razor to her cheek.  She imagined blood.  She didn’t know what that was about, never had, but it was never a good sign.

Kara slumped down on the sofa in her silk offwhite blouse, tight black skirt, and fuck-me pumps.  Still was hotter than August in Manhattan, but still and all, she felt ugly.  She had called Evan, but he wasn’t answering his phone and she knew she was heading for a dive.  “Downton Abbey” was playing on her widescreen, a show that always depressed her even more, pretty people in a simpler time, when Kara herself was just an ugly girl living in a lonely world, don’t stop, don’t ever stop.  Kara had tried calling Evan a dozen times or more, which made her feel like a fucking toddler.  Kara had been dealing with dives since adolescence, when they had first hit her bigtime, and she was experiencing a kind of déjà vu familiarity, thinking of Billy Meister, the first boy who messed with her self-esteem big-time.  Looking back, it must have been the narcissistic mother.  Or an asshole father.  Or maybe just bad chemicals inherited from her grandfather, who was sent to an asylum at age 17.

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Kara’s older cousin told her that in 1920, her great-great uncle Frank Elmer had committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun.  Four months later, his twin brother Orland Alexander had killed himself by hanging, despondent over his twin’s death.  Kara felt a bond there.

On a whim, Kara dialed her sister, closing her eyes while it rang.

“You can’t call me,” Kendra said, no hello.

“Kendy, listen….”

“You forfeited that right when you took what was mine.”

“Sis, I’m so sorry, I—”

“He was mine.”

“You took what was mine before that.”

“This can go back and back to Adam and Eve,” Kendra said, “so make it quick.  What the fuck do you want?”

“I miss you.”

“Apparently, your boyfriend does, too.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, you don’t know?”

“Don’t know what?”

“I saw him the other day.”

Kara sat up on the sofa a little straighter.

“You what?”

“He came into the office.  Wanted to talk about his new problem with his uncle.  You know his uncle?”

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“Yeah.”

“Yeah, so he told me all about it.”

“It is kind of a problem.”

“Yeah, the kind of problem that makes you want to sleep with your ex-girlfriend.”

It took Kara’s breath away, her eyes widening.  No matter that it wasn’t true.

Φ

Evan lay in a rotten Vegas hospital with a semicoherent elderly roommate thankfully drugged up beyond coherence, but a British nurse with an erect accent who was much too coherent.

“…Because I came here ten years ago, but I still miss my country terribly….” she was saying as she tidied up the room.

Some lovely painkiller was pumping into Evan’s veins to keep his mind off the broken leg, broken rib, and black eye, and one ragged, underfed coyote was running kind of sideways through his brain.  It was a complex coyote, even pointillist.  It ran like this:

Everyone has to die sometime.  Most people die for nothing, in convalescent homes or in traffic accidents or at dinner eating shrimp or peanuts.  They die of nothing and their life ends up signifying nothing.  They work at nothing jobs manufacturing nothing products for other nobodies.  Insurance, software, government.  They’re ball bearings in a machine that does nothing.

At most, they’re proud to be parents, that’s it.  They look deep into their children’s eyes, and in a cracking voice and with wet eyes, they say, “You are the best thing I’ve ever done.”  What bullshit.

But Evan had the chance to die for something.  The game was in four days.  It didn’t matter if he was healed.  He’d be there.

“…I was up in Leicester Square….”

In his morphine haze, it was like a dream, but it had been that way before the tumble.  There had been times in his life when nothing meant anything.  Climbing stairs was just climbing stairs.  Smiling at the woman in the next car was just smiling at the woman in the next car.  But this was not one of those times.  Now, focusing on the television was the effort of the mighty Achilles.  Smiling at a chatty British nurse was the mighty Achilles about to wield his fucking sword.  That weapon was brandished high.  There were classical brushstrokes on his face and body.  There was a gilt frame around the things that he had planned, and plaques beneath each.  He blinked.  He blinked again.  The morphine wasn’t enough to keep him down.  Everything was a pulse, his sanctified skin pounding with blood.

“…that the old English way of fixing Christmas pudding is best,” the nurse was saying now.  “In this day and age, it’s important to remember that there’s this lovely thing called tradition.  When you’re fixing your pudding, you have to stir it from east to west.  People ask me, they say, Why east to west?  That’s very important, east to west, because that is, of course, the direction that the wise men traveled to bring all their lovely gifts, their frankincense and myrhh, to the baby Jesus….”

I will meet him very soon, Evan thought.

Φ

The day of the game, Evan walked out of the hospital through the back door.  He threw a couple bottles of painkillers into his bag.  They’d taken away his driver’s license because of the open container, but he didn’t need a license to drive, he just needed it if he got caught.  He drove through the streets of Vegas wobbly, because the double-yellow line kept shifting like an article on fucking dailybeast.com.  When he finally got to Pancho Villa’s warehouse, he picked up the car and drove to the game with the Russians in his Mazerati.

Roll4015 distressed 1a

The doctors said that if Evan hadn’t been so drunk, he wouldn’t have survived.  A rib and a leg were broken, but he had ripped off the braces because that wouldn’t do in a real game.  He didn’t need any major questions.  He also didn’t need a slur in his voice, so he was letting the drugs wear off.  He’d explain away the black eye somehow.  As he drove to the game, he began hurting in a major way, in the way that people who are not used to pain realize that pain is a real thing and not just an excuse not to live.  He tried to suppress the pain, but it kept coming to the surface like a dead body.  He needed to weight it down.  If he didn’t, John would hear it in his voice and send him home because he couldn’t pull off the sleights.  He needed to pull off the sleights.  He needed clear elocution and a relaxed face, but without drugs.

Parking the car, Evan parked it against the grain, blocking 2 ½ parking spaces.  He was thinking it was good luck.  Everything was boiling down to premonitions and luck now, so he followed his instinct and parked the car east to west, just to snatch the luck of the baby Jesus.  That fucking coyote was running sideways through his brain again: Everybody dies, the coyote was saying, a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth.  This is your moment to shine.

Evan opened the car door and faced the task before him, which was simply to pull himself out of the driver’s side.  He took a deep breath, gritted his teeth against the pain, and pulled his sore body up against everything that was working against him.  There were muscles all over his body that were spasming, but he held steady.  It was an incredible effort just to stand upright, and a separate Herculean effort to focus.

Finally, Evan just stood there and looked at the house.  He had it all planned out.  Swann’s pistol was in the trunk.  Evan would go into the game and begin playing his part, splitting his two selves.  He would keep an eye on Pancho, because that was his major impediment to pulling this off, plus the Russian bodyguards, and they were an even bigger wild card.  It was all about a moment, just like a magic trick.  You look for the moment when everybody was relaxed.  You made an excuse to go to your car.  A special bottle of Champagne, say.  An antique deck of cards.  He would come back shooting.  He doubted he would get out of it alive, but if he did, he would hobble back to the Maserati and hit I-15.  At the Summerlin turnoff, he would dump the Maserati and jump into a rental compact that was parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot.  He would transfer four suitcases that he had packed, two of which contained pounds and pounds of cash, in fact, nearly $240,000.  Then he would head east until he got to Arkansas and lay low.  Maybe Kara would be next to him, maybe not.

The drugs were wearing off.  The pain was coming back.

Φ

Kara was standing at the window watching Evan.  She felt like running out to him, but she didn’t want any more pain.  It was like touching a hot frying pan.

There were tears in her eyes.  She couldn’t figure out why he had a black eye.  Plus, he was standing kind of funny.  She knew he loved him because just seeing the way that he was standing hurt her.  She also couldn’t figure out why he was just staring at the house.  Something seemed terribly wrong, but she couldn’t figure out why.  So many things swirled around in her head, her sister, them fucking, Evan not talking to her, who he belonged to, DNA, who she belonged to, twins, everything.  They were swirling like blood down a shower drain.  She felt that her heart was collapsing, that she had never felt pain like this before.  She wished there was a drug that could fix it.  She wished she was anaesthetized.  She wished that she could sleep.

Mentone party 1979b distressed 1a

Kara placed her hand against the window.

That was the moment that Evan collapsed onto the cobblestone driveway.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

Be the Pin, Not the Balloon

[This is chapter 7 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 6, see here.  To read chapter 1, see here.]

“Why did we leave so fast?” Kara said in the car.

Evan, at the steering wheel and staring straight ahead with a strange look in his eye, mumbled something that sounded like, “Brad Pitt is thirty savior,” but really, could have been anything.

“Seriously?”

It was a long, quiet drive back.

Φ

Evan jumped onto his bike.  Knobby tires and shocks were his route into that sin.  Lift his all-terrain Bontrager onto a bicycle rack, drive out to Red Rock Canyon, pedal through the desert.  Three hours in the hot sun, skin slathered with Banana Boat, the sun flogging him, sweat dripping off his helmet, his nose, his chin, tasting the saltiness on his tongue, thinking about that sin.  Temps in the high 90s and climbing, he didn’t care.  He liked the heat.  One day, it was 101, the next day, 110.  When the sweat stung his eyes, he stopped, poured water over his face, and continued.  Bargained with the pain in his hams, his delts, his lungs.  Pushing and pushing, never backing off.  Single trail, sailing through saguaros and sagebrush, past hares and iguanas and rattlesnakes.  He liked climbing more than coasting downhill because climbing was pain and roar and coasting was a sign that you had given up on living, so never coast, only roar.

Evan needed high mileage to figure out his toe tag.

IMG_2004Once, pushing 110% or 111%, Evan went over a root just a tad too far to the left.  His balance buckled and he fell right, down a dusty ravine, over scrub brush and red sand, and all the way down, he was thinking, Good!  Bring it!  Fucking bring it to me!  He was hurtling through the air and looking forward to the things he would hit on his way down.  Finally, his left cheek hit the dirt and his bike landed on top of him.  At first, he lay still.  Everything is numb after a fall.

20160926_175033I must have broken a cheekbone, he thought.

After five minutes, Evan slowly clambered up.  Took inventory for an eternity.  Found himself astonished and a little disappointed that his only souvenirs were road rash, sundry bruises, and pebbles embedded in his forearm.  Dust in his mouth, spitting to get it all out.  He loved the hell out of every wound.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” Kara said when she saw his cheek.

Bicycle tire filtered 1b

20160921_174650cBut it wasn’t about answers, it was about looking for that high again, not whimpering, until he fell again.  He liked punishing himself.

Builds character, he thought while pedaling.

“Can I go?” Kara said.

But it wasn’t about being with a girl.  It wasn’t about going slow.  It wasn’t about chit chatting about the pretty Desert Canterbury Bells along the way.  It wasn’t about fitness and reducing hypertensive risk.  It wasn’t about reducing LDL cholesterol.  It was about abomination.  It was about sin.  It was about landing hard.  It was about the long, red, irritated desert stretching into the horizon of his heart, where the sun was dying of neglect.  It was about the raw, red skin inside his mind.

Bicycle gears filtered 1bThere is a moment when you say goodbye to someone and hug them.  If you hug them too early, it becomes awkward, because then, you have to hug them again.  So you wait for the last moment, and then you hug.  It’s just manners.  But Evan had missed that moment with himself entirely.  There were no hugs at all.  Hugs were for believers.

Φ

Kara was trying to get something out, but the crying was getting in the way.  More like sobbing or even blubbering, Babylynn thought.  Babylynn was sitting across from her on a chair, holding her hands, while Kara was bent over nearly horizontal in the seat across from her.  Babylynn didn’t want to say anything, because it wasn’t about talking, it was about being with her.

The sobs were coming out of Kara from a place way down deep, like a well with a girl stuck in it.  The girl had been waiting down there for years.  She was a-scared.  She had bad memories.  She had things to yell out.  She had wounds on her heart.  Kara tried to tell Babylynn that it was okay, don’t worry, that sobbing was nothing to be afraid of, it was just something she was doing, like breathing or starting a car, but just thinking about saying that made Kara cry even harder.  She was tired of excuses, even if they were her own.  She’d been making excuses all her life.  It wasn’t about apologizing, it was about what was she knew was going to happen because it had happened before and it was the deepest fear of the little girl in the well.

Distressed child 1bKara grabbed a Kleenex and wiped her face, but it took five or six, and afterwards, she was still blubbering.  Her aunt’s face appeared to her as if in a cloud.  It was from long ago, when she was six.  Her parents had sent her and Kara away to live with that bitch aunt.  She didn’t know why at the time.  Why was a fountain of pain.  Why was with her every day like a creepy old man.  Why had dismantled her piece by piece.  First, she lost the piece called safe.  Later, pieces that keep a boat from blowing out to sea.  Ever since then, Kara had always been prone to blowing out to sea, driven by currents and bad weather.

Much later, Kara pieced together that her mother had suffered what her hard aunt referred to as “a break” and had been checked into a hospital.  She had taken off her clothes in the grocery store.  She had sat down in the middle of the produce section, pulled her knees into her chest, rocked back and forth, and said, “Stop.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop.”  It took a year for her mother to stop rocking, and two for her to want her twins back.  By that time, though, the damage had been done.

Crying blur 1a

Kendra, on the other hand, had gotten stronger.  A fist to the jaw will destroy some people and galvanize others.  From the day that her mother had taken them back, Kara knew that she was of the former persuasion.  Like the cotton dress that she had bought in Tijuana, offwhite with little collections of flowers, something she looked forward to wear to tell her friends that she had gone somewhere, but after the first wash, it had basically fallen apart.  Kara was the type who needed someone or she was nobody, and nobody meant out to sea with no sunscreen.

Kara grabbed Babylynn’s arms again and looked into her eyes.  There were words she wanted to get out, but then the water works were coming again.  It always happened this way.  Babylynn had seen it before.  She took a deep breath and held tight.  They stayed that way for another twenty minutes, just holding each other, and then, an hour later, with the help of a couple pills that she had in the bottom of her purse, ended up nestled into each other on the sofa, Kendra falling asleep in the crook of Babylynn’s arm, and the words she wanted so desperately to say—I’m losing him—still buried deep within her.

Φ

One morning, Evan found himself knocking on an office door.  He didn’t know what Kendra would say.  He didn’t want to start trouble.  He just wanted to know things.  Finally, she answered.  It was strange to gaze at that face.  It was the same and yet it was so different.  She didn’t speak right away.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she finally said at a volume that would have fucked the sound man.

“Can I talk to you?”

“What I mean is, what in the holy fuck possessed you to come into my fucking territory?”

Evan looked down at his shoes.

“I don’t know.”

Kendra stared at him for a long moment.

“Does my sister know that you’re here?” Kendra said.

“No.”

“You should tell her.  You’re her poodle now.”

“Listen to me.  Please.  I need to talk to a professional.”

For a long moment, Evan thought she would hit him.  He didn’t care.  If he could fall off a bike, he could take a hit.  He tried to read her face, but it was all stone and flaring horse nostrils.  Finally, Kendra opened the door slightly.  Evan entered silently on radioactive wings.  He sat down in the client chair and Kendra took the therapist’s chair.  Then he realized the symbolism of those positions and stood up.  He didn’t want symbolism.  He didn’t want meaning.  He just wanted her to tell him what to do.

“I have a client in a few minutes,” Kendra said.  “So what the fuck do you want from me?”

Evan told Kendra about what he had discovered, everything.  Kendra’s eyes suddenly focused and everything changed.  He didn’t know how much time it took, but it was long.  He wanted to include everything.  When he had gotten near the end of his story, he looked up at her.

“So I’m, like, sick all the time.  Not virus sick, but, like, head sick.  And I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be sick.”

Angry Kendra 1a

Kendra said nothing.

“I need to talk to someone.”

Kendra took a deep breath, looked out the window.

“Why don’t you talk to my sister about it?  She’s the one who bought your contract.”

“She’s not up to it.”

“She’s not up to taking care of herself, even.”

Kendra glanced at her watch.  Her client had been waiting now for 20 minutes.

“Do you have to go?” Evan asked.

“So do you fuck a lot?” Kendra said calmly, as if she were asking about washing the dishes, like, Do you do the dishes a lot?

“My heart is sick.”

“Do you fuck at all?”

“Not lately.”

“Because she’s bad in bed.”

“No.”

“Because you miss me.”

“No.”

“Because you made the wrong decision.”

“No.”

“I’ve got a client.”

Evan looked straight at her.

“Listen, just tell me what it all means.  Am I a freak?  Like an albino?  Like a dwarf?”

“You are what you’ve always been.  You’re Evan.  You’re not anybody else.”

“I don’t feel like Evan anymore.”

“I’ve told you what you need to know.  A good doctor would drag it out for six months, collect all that money, but hey, this is my gift to you, I’m laying it all out, like instant coffee: You are what you’ve always been.  You’re Evan.”

“But I feel so awful.”

“I’m telling you what I tell all my clients: Don’t let it get you down, bro.

“You look like shit, too.  You’ve lost weight.”

“I’m not eating.”

“To be expected.”

“I’m not sleeping, either.”

“I could’ve told you that,” Kendra said.  “Now get the fuck out of here.  You’re cured.”

Evan stood up and started for the door.

“Hey, I’m just curious,” Kendra said.  “Why didn’t you just find an appropriate therapist?”

“What?”

IMG_1134 smaller

“Just pay $150 to another therapist.  Someone who wasn’t your ex?  Someone who would do the job correctly?  You’ve got the money.  You’ve got so much money, it’s killing you.  So why didn’t you do that?  Answer that question and you’ll know what’s really eating at you.  Now get the fuck out of here.”

Φ

Evan wasn’t much for kissing Kara when he came in the door.  It seemed cliché.  He didn’t like calling her sweetheart or honey.  What he did like was waking up in the middle of the night next to her, like 3 or 4 am, just barely awake, and whispering in her ear, I love you, you know that?  It was like talking to her unconscious.

“Really?” Kara said, bleary eyed.

“Definitely.”

“I thought you had gotten tired of me.”

“I’ll leave you a post-it when I do.”

IMG_5181c filtered

Kara smiled, then drifted back to sleep.  Evan couldn’t, just laid there.  He listened.  There were shadows within shadows cast across the ceiling.  The faintest humming sound in the wall.  When Evan was certain that Kara was asleep, he spooned up to her again, their naked bodies fitting each other perfectly.  He needed this.  He stroked her hair and then whispered in her ear again, quite softly this time, but still, out loud, as if that were required to make it real.

“I’m going to kill my father, okay?”

Kara’s breathing didn’t change at all.

“People been doing that for thousands of years.  Sons killing their fathers.”

That time, Kara stirred.

“What?”

“Okay?” Evan said.

Kara shook her head in confusion.

“Okay,” she said.

“All right,” he said.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 8, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/11/09/dying-slowly-in-the-city-of-bad-thoughts/%5D

Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy

In high school, Lily was a cute, bubbly girl. I knew her from the born-again Christian youth group to which we both belonged, called Young Life. Kids in Young Life were their own clique of “good kids.” They met monthly in kids’ homes, sang songs together, went on campouts together, and generally tried to channel the energy and humor of youth into something that didn’t involve substance abuse, depression, and lawbreaking, but instead, involved God and Jesus.

http://www.younglife.org/About/Pages/History.aspx

We grew up in Orange County, California. There was a lot of wholesome whooping it up. There was a lot of guitar playing and sing-alongs. There were a lot of Praise the Lords.

“Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy is the people whose God is the Lo-or-o-ord!” went one of our favorite songs. We would clap together while singing it. It was a bright and perky song, and it was great fun to sing.

Lily was the cutest of the bunch, I always thought. A few times, I got the look. You know the one, the one that says, Maybe I like you. But nothing ever happened between us because, in my mind, she wasn’t good enough for me. Through the years, it turned out that nobody was ever good enough for me. But hey, that’s a whole other story.

After high school, my born-againism faded. There was so much that born-againism prohibited me from experiencing. For one thing, sex. For another, poets like Dylan and Plath and, on the music side, Beck.  For still another, thinking for myself. For still still another, doubt.

Happy, happy, happy, happy, now that’s an interesting subject. Within ten years of leaving born-againism, I was much happier. To be specific, I was happier using my own logic to decide whether something was wrong or not, like abortion, or watching violent movies, or whether all indigenous people should be converted to Christianity. I was happier sleeping in on Sunday mornings. I was happier reading pagan literature in bed.

Decades passed. You can live several lives in that amount of time, and I certainly did. I was first a journalist, then a New Yorker, then an uncle, then a famous magician, then “a guy who never married.” I had so many different identities. I was political. I was an exercise fiend. I was a guy who had been with his girlfriend for 14 years and had never married her. I was a world traveler who published accounts of his journeys in the New York Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/travel/palau-splendid-view-pacific-paradise-article-1.290314

Then Facebook comes along. This weird free network puts you in touch with people you haven’t thought of in years. And one day, we all “friend” Lily. I was so happy to see her smiling face, which still lit up any room she was in. I started having chats with her, and discovered that she still lived in the area. One day, I called her.

“We should get together for coffee,” I said. “Catch up.”

“Sure,” she said.

And then she popped the question.

“How are you with the Lord?”

Ugh God, she wasn’t still into that, was she?

“I’m not,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry, what happened?”

“Jeez, it’s a long story. I’ll tell you when we get together, if you like.”

I wasn’t interested in being converted, that was for sure. But if all she wanted to do was hear the story, I could do that.

In the end, we never got together. In June, I read on Facebook that Lily was dead. I was stunned. She was far too young. I scrolled through her Facebook page, but nobody was being specific about what had transpired. She died around March 1, but her friends didn’t seem to have been invited to the funeral, if there even was one. A memorial had been promised, but that had fizzled out, too.

There were so many mysteries. To me, it seemed to reek of bad family. I mean, what kind of family wouldn’t invite friends to a funeral? There are so many ways for families to be dysfunctional.

Last night, I went to Lily’s wake. It was held five months after she passed, at a sports bar in Newport Beach.

http://www.clubplanet.com/Venues/124022/Costa-Mesa/Skosh-Monahans

It seemed like a weird place to celebrate someone’s life, more like an Irish wake, with the dark lighting and all the alcohol flowing. The young waitresses wore tight black shorts and skimpy black tops and had lots of weird tattoos and sneered. For the wake, there were lots of middle-aged women, all chatting, laughing, and raising a glass to Lily.

“How did you know Lily?” one of them asked me.

“I knew her in high school,” I said.

“Did you know her as an adult?”

“I hadn’t seen her since high school, but in the last year, we were planning on getting together. It never happened, though.”

“That’s sad.”

I listened hard, trying to figure out how Lily died. It was weird. I wondered if she had died of something that some consider shameful, like AIDS. For example, one of my friends has rectal cancer but finds it embarrassing to talk about, so he just leaves it at “cancer.” But you have to die of something, and nobody was talking about what the cause was in Lily’s case. Finally, I leaned over and asked a woman named April in hushed tones.

“So how did she die? Cancer?”

April locked onto my eyes. She pursed her lips and shook her head no. She became very quiet. I leaned in even closer. I waited expectantly, but she didn’t answer, she just started telling the story.

On a convention trip, April had roomed with Lily. Watching her day in and day out for several days, she quickly realized.

Realized what?

April recounted the conversation she had with Lily that brought it all to a head.

“Lily, you’re going to kill yourself if you keep drinking and doing pills the way you are. I’ve seen this so many times,” April said.

Turns out that April has worked for years as a substance-abuse counselor at a local hospital.

“You’ve got to promise me,” April said, “that you’re going to stop tonight.”

“Okay, okay, I know it’s bad for me, I promise I’ll stop,” Lily said. At this point, Lily was in tears.

April called Lily the next morning.

“Hllo?” Lily said.

And April lost it, because she could hear the pills in Lily’s voice. This wasn’t just a patient, this was her best friend.

“You promised me!” April said.

“I know,” Lily said, “but I had insomnia last night, I had restless legs.”

And that’s how it was every time Lily made a promise to April.

Throughout the evening, I heard other stories from other people.

From a blonde with a determined mouth: “Lily loved my husband. He was her knight in shining armor. We would go on those conventions, and we would go down to the Jacuzzi and she would drink, and it would get to the point where she couldn’t drag herself out of the Jacuzzi. And my husband would always pull her out and help her back to her room. And she was always so thankful, it was, like, ‘Henry, you’re my knight in shining armor.’”

From a woman with long grey hair who was sitting at what seemed to be the alcoholics’ table: “Yeah, I met her here, at this bar, when I moved down the street seven years ago. She met us here every Tuesday for seven years.”

From a brunette: “Oh man, she could do great Blow Jobs—you know, the kind of shot drink where you can’t use your hands? She was the best at Blow Jobs.”

Happy, happy, happy, happy.

You can see a video of anonymous stupid girls doing Blow Jobs at 7:50 here:

April told me about another conversation she had with Lily just a few months before she died. April and her grown daughter were at a party that Lily was at. April’s daughter, who had known Lily since she was ten, was bartending, and her daughter came up to her.

“Mom, I think Lily is dying,” the daughter said. “She looks so bad, with her eyes sunken in and everything and her skin translucent.”

So they walked up to Lily and April’s daughter says: “Lily, you look terrible. What’s wrong with you? I think you’re dying.”

Lily immediately burst into tears.

“I know something’s wrong with me,” Lily said, “but I don’t have the money to see a doctor.”

It was a strange thing to say, because she was working for AAA at the time.  I can’t believe that a full-time employee at AAA doesn’t have medical insurance.

“I work for a doctor,” the daughter said, “and I know I can get him to see you for free.”

But Lily turned down all offers.

“I don’t want to do that,” she said, “I just don’t want to do that.”

Remembering back to high school, I recalled that Lily had had scoliosis and had to have a rod surgically implanted in her back. Perhaps the painkillers were originally prescribed to treat that. Perhaps she still had lots of pain.  Perhaps the alcohol was another form of medication.

Suddenly in April, people were notified that Lily had been admitted to the hospital. April came to see her, and when she entered the room, she saw a woman who was a shell of her former self lying in the bed. Lily’s hands and feet were in restraints so that she couldn’t leave the bed and look for alcohol. Worst of all, Lily had incredibly sad eyes. Almost immediately, though, April was approached by a friend named Samantha and told to leave. April was escorted out with the help of several nurses while Lily kicked against her restraints, perhaps to object wordlessly to ejecting her best friend from the room.

“Samantha is sitting right over there,” April said, pointing at a steely blonde sitting at the alcoholics’ table. “When I leave, I’m going to give her a piece of my mind. She had no right to turn away all these people who loved Lily. They stole our goodbyes from us.”

The hospital visit was on a Tuesday. By Saturday, Lily was dead. Her friends never did give a name to Lily’s cause of death, but it was clear by the description. It was cirrhosis. It was liver failure. Or, as one family member kept telling people, “liver cancer.” In essence, it was like a cancer, relentlessly eating away at Lily.

I told April about my phone conversation with her about “the Lord,” and April was shocked.

“I never ever ever heard her talk about ‘the Lord,’” April said. “You mean she was a born-again Christian?”

“Yeah, we all were.”

“And she implied to you that she was still one?”

“Yeah, basically.”

“My God, that’s so hypocritical what she said to you. It makes me mad.”

Everything had been turned around, and I told them about it.

“You know, when I came here tonight, I thought I was going to a memorial for a woman who might have died a virgin,” I said. “I mean, I heard she’d never married and never had children, so maybe she just followed that born-again stuff to its logical extreme.  And she even told one of her high school friends that she was a virgin.”

But April just shook her head solemnly, an ironic twinkle in her eye.

“No, trust me, she wasn’t a virgin.”

It was in that moment that I realized what had bothered me about that song Happy all these years. It was the enforced happiness. It was the denial of any other feelings except happiness, with an emphasis on denial.

When she left, April passed by the alcoholics’ table and had a brief conversation with Samantha, who looked like a hard woman with no illusions and no pity. Since I knew the confrontation was coming, I’d had time to reposition myself so I could hear it.

“We were all wondering why none of Lily’s friends were allowed to see her in her last days in the hospital,” April said calmly.

“Well, it was Lily’s wishes,” Sam said sadly.

“Well you know, all of her friends think it was you.”

“What?”

“They think it was you who blocked all of us from seeing her.”

“Well, I don’t give a shit.”

Sam began to get visibly hot under the collar.

“And you know, I think it was you, too.”

“Well,” Sam said, her voice rising, “I. Don’t. Give. A shit.”

That’s when April walked away. At that point, Sam turned back to her alcoholic friends, clearly pissed. She took a few sips from her red wine, trying to calm down. Finally, she emptied the glass in a single gulp.

“What?” one of the friends said. “What’s wrong?”

“You see that woman April?” Sam said, pointing at her as she walked out the exit.

“Yeah.”

“Well, they told me she was a troublemaker.”

“That woman over there?”

“Yeah, what a bitch.”

Strangely enough, I believe Sam. It would be just like Lily to block her friends. She didn’t want her friends to see her die from an excess of Blow Jobs. It would have been humiliating. She wanted to just disappear. And that’s kind of what she did.

A Rose for Doug Slater

Ten years ago, I learned how to twist a napkin rose. I thought it was a pretty neat trick. You take a cocktail napkin and twist it into something that looks like a rose. To boot, I bought some napkins that were specially printed, three-quarters green and one-quarter red, to make it easier.
I told my magician friend Doug Slater about it, and he smiled. He had been there before me. He took out a couple napkins and showed me the real work on it.

Doug didn’t cheat by using a preprinted napkin; instead, he used two napkins, one red and one green. Unlike me, he knew all the little touches and twists. He cared about every little part of the process.

As Doug showed me his work on the napkin rose, I realized that when he put his mind to it, he could master a subject not just thoroughly and completely, like the engineer that he was, but with a measure of love. In fact, he and his friend Elroy videotaped an instructional videotape on the subject that, for technical reasons, never made it to market.
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Doug, I never mastered the napkin rose as you did. But now that you’re gone, I offer this napkin rose to you. It’s not as good as you could have made, but it’s the best I could muster with my limited skills. Rest in peace, my friend.

Something in Her Face Was Incredibly Alive

The other evening, we watched a movie that was pretty blah.  There were many things wrong with it, but the most obvious thing was the emotional texture of the film.  I always find the emotional texture of Ronald Bass films terribly false.  It made me think of a woman we met a couple years ago.

Claire and I were on our usual 35-minute walk together.  Toward the end of it, Claire said hi to a woman who was picking up the newspaper in her driveway.  Claire is sometimes too friendly, and truth be told, so am I.

“Hello,” the woman said back.

It was a sixtysomething woman who was picking up her Sunday newspaper from the driveway.  There was something in her face that was incredibly alive, and I wasn’t sure what.

“How are you?” Claire said.

That was the wrong thing to ask.

“I don’t know, not very good, I guess,” she said.  “My husband just died.”

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We stopped.  Given her tone, it seemed disrespectful not to stop.  The woman started talking, and I don’t know how, but we became planted there while she poured out the details about her husband.  She blamed it on some horrible consumer product that had turned his brain into Swiss cheese, just ate away at it so that he was a walking zombie.  What made that woman’s face seem so alive, I guess, was that she was staring directly into the face of Death.

“It just doesn’t seem real,” she said.  “We’ve lived in this house for 40 years, and now, suddenly, he’s gone, and he didn’t have to be gone….”

We stood there listening to her rail against the pesticide companies, talk about her outrage, her pain, and her grief, all in a tone of voice that could not be ignored.  Believe it or not, this conversation with a stranger stretched on for a half-hour or more.  On the one hand, it seemed like a little miracle, like we had boiled everything down to the essentials: three souls connecting, listening, consoling.  On the other hand, however, she was a stranger.  Our time was precious.  And we had a movie to go to.  Finally, I spoke up.

“You know, Claire, that movie starts really soon,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” the woman said.  “I don’t want to hold you back.  Thank you so much for listening.”

Perhaps her relatives wouldn’t listen.  Perhaps she was a bit crazy.  Or perhaps her cup spilleth over so much that even her family couldn’t give her what she needed.  At any rate, we went to the movie, which was also a Ronald Bass movie and wasn’t very good.  They say that he doesn’t write the scripts himself, but hires a committee of young writers, and then brings all their ideas together and chooses from the “best” of them.  But it was Hollywood emotions, not real emotions, and that day, we had seen the real thing.

And that night, when I laid my head down to sleep, all I could think of was that woman’s face, and how alive it had been.  And I haven’t forgotten it in the several years since.

150,000 Times

We were sitting around at the Magic Castle on January 2, at the 51st anniversary party.  From out of the blue, Siggie asked if any of us had any cigars.  She’s always been kind of a firebrand.

“My father died of smoking in 1989,” I shot back with a bite in my voice.

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

Everybody at the table was silent for a long moment.  Finally, Adam chimed in cheerfully.

“How do you know he died of smoking?”

I shot him a look.  He was wearing a red suit and a shit-eating grin on his face.

“Because he was a pack-a-day smoker,” I said.  “He went into the hospital with one of the most advanced cases of undiagnosed COPD and emphysema the doctor had ever seen.  He died of a series of strokes and heart attacks.”

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Smoking at age 21 in Korea.

“Yeah,” Adam said, “but how do you know it was the smoking?  Lots of people these days are dying of lung cancer who never smoked in their lives.”

“My father didn’t die of cancer.  It was COPD and emphysema.”

Clearly, Adam wasn’t understanding my tone, which was filled with venom and warning, or perhaps he was perversely choosing to ignore it, maybe to get under my skin.

“I know that,” Adam said, “but how did you know it was smoking that caused it?”

“Adam,” I said, “the Surgeon General issued a report as far back as 1964 showing a strong correlation between smoking and lung disease.  This is well established.”

“That was a long time ago,” Adam said.  “Our research has come a long way since then.  There are all sorts of reports these days finding different kinds of things.”

“What kinds of things?”

My father approximately age 58

My father approximately age 58, looking quite a bit older and sicker.

Adam floundered for a while trying to answer that one, and I let him flounder.  He was proving himself wrong, although by that time, there was nobody else there to witness it.  Adam has a similar contrarian view on climate change, government regulations, the national debt, and other Fox News lies.

“You can’t tell me what kinds of things,” I finally said.  “But I can tell you that the tobacco companies are evil.  Reagan’s Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, said that smoking was as addictive as heroin.  And I can tell you that on his deathbed, my Dad said that he had tried to quit 150,000 times.  Those were his exact words, ‘150,000 times.’  And after he died, we went through his stuff and found all sorts of literature about smokers’ rights.  And you know who published it?  Organizations that were funded by Philip Morris and all the other tobacco companies.”

I never did convince him, but he convinced me of something: that he appropriately summed up the dictionary definition of ignorant.

To read my other posts about my father’s death from smoking, click here and here.

The Dark Secret in the Glass-Enclosed Cabinet

During the holidays, I go to a helluva lot of parties.  Clients hire me to perform at corporate parties for employees and their wives.  Fancy parties for celebrities from the A list to the ZZZZZZ list.  Filipino parties in Cerritos in middle-class homes with a roast pig and they say, “Eat, eat!”  Sometimes, clients even fly me into other cities for the parties, and I stand on a lovely stage in San Francisco, New York, or Denver.

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But four years ago, I was hired to perform magic at a home Christmas party in La Crescenta, and that was the beginning of something.  I was hired to perform four hours of walkaround, strolling magic for an extended family.

If you don’t know what walkaround closeup magic looks like, look at this video:

It seemed like just a regular gig.  It was a sprawling but not gaudy house nestled in the foothills.  The lady of the house, Jane, was an energetic grandmother who lived alone, and I’m still not sure what the story is about her husband, whether he’s dead or disenfranchised, because nobody ever talks about him, even though I do the party every year now and have become a regular fixture of it.  In addition, Jane had hired caterers to provide a nice little spread, a clown to play with the toddlers, a photo booth, and some guy to set up an exciting slot-car racetrack for the grandkids under a tarp on the other side of the swimming pool.

At the party, I performed for this group and that group, eliciting gasps and laughter, which is the service they hire me to provide, gasps and laughter, it’s what I sell, it’s what people buy.

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And all the while, I’m marveling at Jane, because you can tell she’s an extraordinary woman.  The energy she gives off sets her apart.  She’s about 65 and has these quick eyes, this airtight mind, and this presence that is equal parts granite and love.  It’s hard to say how I can tell this, but it comes through just by looking at her, that she’s a one-in-a-thousand woman.  As the party progresses, I’m performing magic constantly, but behind my performances, there’s a river of thought running beneath it.  I begin to think that with Jane, I’m in the presence of someone who could accomplish anything, and probably did.  The house is probably worth a couple mil, and I’m thinking her extraordinary character must have had something to do with it.

After a couple hours, I slowed down and chatted with one of Jane’s sons.

“Gee, everybody seems so happy and friendly at this party,” I said.  “My family’s not like this.  There are people not talking to other people, one uncle who hasn’t come to the family party for 15 years because he had a financial disagreement with his brother-in-law over a business deal.  There’s a cousin who brings a woman to our parties that his son was originally dating.  I have a nephew who won’t hug me when he sees me because he’s mad at his father.”

“He’s mad at his father and he doesn’t hug you?”

“It’s crazy.  But you guys seem to have the ideal family.”

“Oh, we have that kind of stuff, too,” he said.  “You just can’t see it, but it’s there.”

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It gave me some solace to know that dysfunction isn’t unique to my people, but is the lingua franca of the holidays.

Towards the end of the party, I had elevated Jane to goddess status.  That’s when she filled me in on the history of the party.

“This is the first time I’ve had this party in 11 years,” she said.

“Oh, did you have a magician at the party before?” I said.

“Yes, it was a magician named Mark Furey, and he did it for ten years running.  But apparently, Mark isn’t doing magic anymore.”

Mark, I knew, had gone on to greater success as a screenwriter.  A couple of his movies had been produced, and apparently, all his time was now devoted to manufacturing words for the silver screen.

I interrupted our conversation to perform a little standup show in the living room for the 80 people assembled, and it was a hit.  People came up to me to make the usual comments.

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“How do you do that?”

“That card trick was sick.”

“You are a freak of nature.”

They were the highest of compliments.  I felt rather confident at that point, thinking that I might take over as the magician who performs at this party for another 10 years.  It was a good thing, because Jane had hired me at a pretty good rate of pay.  Finally, as I was packing up, Jane came over to tell me how much she had loved the show.

“Why did you stop having the party for 11 years?” I asked.

It was the wrong question to ask.  Jane’s face fell.  I thought maybe I had stepped into a landmine of dysfunction, perhaps, or maybe something worse.  That’s when Jane led me over to a tall glass-enclosed cabinet filled with photographs.

“My son would have loved your magic,” she said, her voice suddenly becoming somber.  “He passed away 11 years ago.  These are all my pictures and mementos of him.”

And it was, indeed, a shrine to her late son about eight feet high and the width of a grandfather clock.  Here was a photo of her son on the high school swim team, her son on his first day of school, her son’s college diploma.  And while she showed me, I realized exactly why Jane had taken an 11-year hiatus from Christmas parties.  She had been overcome with grief.  She couldn’t be gay and merry.  She had felt like dying.  She had felt that celebrating anything, even Christmas, would betray her son’s memory.

But 11 years had passed and people had convinced her to pull herself out of it.  Now, somehow, she had found it within herself to gather the family at her house again.  She was wearing a red sweater with a reindeer on the front.  She gave out boxes of chocolates as gifts as people left.  She hired a magician again.  As she stood talking about her beloved son at the photograph-filled cabinet, I realized that the grief hadn’t gone away, of course, but it had reduced to a manageable level.

Not only that, but she had realized that she had a choice.  She could be sad in her isolation, or she could step back into life.  Jane had chosen life.  And I was glad to bring a little magic into that life.

Update: Once again this year, I performed at Jane’s party.  Here’s the video of my parlour performance, which followed the walkaround performance.