Cancerous Growths

north korea

“Sure, I remember what you told me,” the old man said. 

His name was Tom.  He wore khaki pleated pants and a collared shirt; his clothes were clean and ironed but hung from his body.  They were meant for a bigger man, a man with more meat on his bones and vitality in his heart.   

He dismissed the woman, who also happened to be his wife and caregiver, with a weak wave.  Clearing an area in front of him, he rested his elbows on the cluttered table and held his head between both hands.  Blue veins ran across the back of his hands and down his arms.  Band-aides covered skin tears and puncture wounds, still fresh from the most recent treatment.  

Wanda crept forward silently in her orthopedic shoes and stockinged feet, bringing a grandmotherly smell cloud of light perfume and hairspray and powder.  She placed her hand on his forehead and her rings spun around, getting looser on her fingers as she also started to shrink with age and disease.  Her hand expertly registered two temperatures, fever and not-fever.  His skin felt cool and clammy, somewhere between fever and not-fever. 

“Get off,” he barked, lashing out as any sick animal will do in self-defense and looked up at her.  If he had fangs, he would have bared them at that moment and then scampered off to hide in the forest. Instead he had to settle for snarl of old, dull teeth, brown with coffee stains.  

She yanked her hand back with a “Harumph!” as though bitten by his sharp tone.  

“Do you remember what you told me?” Tom asked. 

Wanda nodded, “Of course.” 

No self-respecting wife would admit to forgetting a directive given to a husband. 

“You told me to cheer up because things could always get worse,” he allowed for a dramatic pause. 

Wanda waited, she was anxious and hopeful that something nice would come out of her husband’s mouth.  Perhaps something about how he appreciated her dedication and excellent nursing skills, and tolerance of his grouchiness and bad attitude. 

“So, I cheered up and sure enough, things got worse.”

Wanda gasped, that was the lifelong advice that she gave to friends and family, strangers and neighbors.  She said it out of habit; it was a reflex in her desire to help, to say something when silence prevailed and there wasn’t anything to say.  Now here it was, regurgitated and bastardized.  The cancer was killing more than her husband, it threatened to destroy the life they built together. 

Unless she could come up with another helpful saying to boost his spirits and refocus his energy.   

She gave a brave smile and wiped a tear from her eye, “No, things could still get worse.  We could be at war with North Korea.”

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Good Old Boys

Flavorful

I sit across from a crooked, old man in a wheelchair.  He is dressed in a wrinkled suit of tan linen with leather shoes and a deep brown felt derby hat.  As I put the hard questions to him, he remains as calm and cool as the earth tones he wears.  He explains away the rough patches of his life in stories with movement and flair, dancing around everything but a simple answer. 

“You know about the Good Old Boys?”

He smirks when I shake my head.  

“They ran this town in the 80’s. They had all of the drugs and you didn’t mess with them.”

I picture the “good, old boys” from my hometown with their pick-ups and lips full of chew, wearing flannel shirts and scuffed boots.  Sure, they had guns, but they kept the safety on and used them for hunting or to run off trespassers and the occasional out-of-towner. 

“I needed money, so I got mixed up with them and ended up in little bit of trouble.” 

He refers to a hefty prison sentence for an armed robbery which involved cocaine, and an unregistered handgun. 

“A little trouble, huh?”

Just like how the Good Old Boys of his past weren’t really “good”, this wasn’t what would be considered a little trouble.  A speeding ticket or a warning for loud music was more like a little trouble than ten years in prison, but who was I to judge?

How easily could our backgrounds have been switched by being born to different families in different environments? In a parallel universe, maybe I sit across from him with a fly looking hat, a monochromatic suit and endless tales of adventure and danger.  And in that world, I hope he can withhold judgement just long enough to listen and learn a thing or two about life on the streets.   

hat

Movie Night in a pre-Netflix world

An empty wooden bowl stained a dark brown collects dust on the shelf amidst other useless trinkets and knick-knacks in the name of décor. I looked at the bowl without really seeing it for years when suddenly the bowl is overflowing with the colors and smells of a twenty year old memory.

The room is dark and warm with the summer air. The windows are open and dingy lace curtains gently billow with the night breeze.  It smells like fresh cut grass and gasoline and pollen and earthworms.  Three feet of rabbit ear antenna are connected to an old tv that flickers in hues of green and pink.

It is Movie Night in a pre-Netflix world. There is a stack of VHS boxes from which to choose the evening’s entertainment.  First up, Cujo.  Perhaps, not the best choice for two kids who are scared of the dark, loud noises, cauliflower and clowns.  Nonetheless, the tape gets pushed into the mouth of the VCR and starts rolling to a limited but captive audience.

We pass the same smooth wooden bowl filled with popcorn back and forth, each taking a handful. I let a piece dissolve and shrink on my tongue before taking on another for the disintegration process.  It’s a complicated and slow way to eat popcorn, for sure.

Baby Bird stops passing the bowl and instead holds it between his hands, entranced by the scene on the flickering screen. As a massive black dog lunges almost out of the set, Baby Bird screams.  He tips the bowl over his head and eyes, and like an ostrich with his head in the sand, he feels safe.  Popcorn rains down onto his shoulders and gathers around his little body, like the falling of dogwood flowers around their tree in Spring.  It is a beautiful mess.

The bowl is back on the shelf, a retired relic of the past. However, the memory is wily, not to be sterilized or neatly labeled and categorized.  Instead it disappears into the shadows of the mind with days of red popsicles, puppies, summer breaks, and Baby Bird who is thousands of miles away from his refuge under the bowl.

Mr. Big

Two grey trash cans lay uselessly on their sides, like a pair of beached whales. Their contents were strewn across the grass and the broken pavement of the parking lot.  Mr. Big and his crew had struck, again.

Mr. Big was a clever bandit with a luxurious coat that was thick and shiny from his rich cuisine of leftovers, stale cereal, cold French fries, wilted salad, moldy bread, and whatever else he could procure from his nightly raid of the local trash cans.

He lived at the top of a dilapidated brick building. The maintenence man was so busy trying to keep the walls together that he didn’t bother about the extra resident in the attic.

There was an unspoken agreement between man and beast that if given words would have been something like, don’t bite me and I won’t bite you. It was an understanding that lasted long enough for Mr. Big to grow from a ball of fluff into a healthy dog sized creature of 25 pounds or more.

On most nights, Mr. Big organized a gathering party with neighboring bandits to go out foraging, targeting different trash cans on the same city block. He found the greatest success on Sunday when the cans were at max capacity with plastic and paper bags, vegetable peelings, plastic cups and to-go boxes.  When the cans were filled to the brim they took more pushing to knock over, but the effort was rewarded without fail.  Mr. Big usually took Monday off to digest the massive amount of trash-can-food eaten during the previous night.

For years, Mr. Big was the perfect criminal, growing in confidence and size until one day, two Thursdays again, he made a serious error. Mr. Big lunged out after a snot-nosed kid who had the nerve to throw away a pop can into the very trash receptacle where he was rummaging through a discarded bag of half eaten Rally’s burgers.

I cringed when I heard the story from the kid’s parents without a hint of surprise.

You see, the maintenance man wasn’t the only one aware of the Mr. Big and his movements. I knew. I laughed off the stories about his escapades around the apartments. I listened to the ever exaggerated description of his size and strength.  I righted the trash cans and gathered up the trash or asked a loitering resident to do so.  Mr. Big was just another familiar face in the area trying to get a decent meal.

But when he messed with the kid, I drew the line and began to gear up for battle.

By Monday, a wire cage was dropped off and baited with an ear of corn to lure the greedy Mr. Big inside and then off to the great raccoon farm in the sky or at least the nearest state park.

Tune in over the next few days to find out what happened.

big

The Sweet Taste of Success

zen

A mysterious fist pounded at the door. Bang, Bang, Bang.  Without carpet or better insulation, the sound reverberated around the room and immediately annoyed me.

“Mrrwhaf?” I yelled through the door with a mouthful of peanut butter.

It was lunch time and there was a sign on the door stating in very neat and uniform letters, “CLOSED,” which did not leave much room for an alternative interpretation.

Bang, Bang, Bang. The knocking continued, shattering the golden silence of noon like an errant bullet through the front window of a retired school teacher, scattering a million shards of glass on the ground where previously there were none.

I bit into a fat baby carrot, severing it in half with my very sharp teeth. It broke with a loud CRACK that was surely heard in the hallway indicating the eating of lunch. Thoughtfully, I rolled the carrot chunk towards my molars for the most efficient mastication of the vegetable.

Then, I focused all of my energy on the door. It was made out of cheap and cracking wood, held together by a coat of white paint, scuff marks were at the bottom from multiple feet.   Narrowing my eyes, I stared with the intensity of a brain surgeon preparing to remove a tumor and fixated on whoever stood on the other side.

I was gratified with a few seconds of silence which were without a doubt too good to be true, as no footsteps followed. At first, I only assumed that the would-be intruder had not vaporized as I intended, which was then confirmed as fact when the aggressive knocking continued.

“Nobody’s home,” I yelled and launched into a period of self-reflection.

Was it selfish to want just one uninterrupted lunch? Was it wrong to take that time back for myself and to declare that it was something beyond want and was actually a need?  I struggled with the boundary of giving and balance of self-care with professional responsibility, recognizing only afterwards when I had nothing left but resentment that I was already to the emotional land of no-return for the day.

At last, the knocking stopped and the sound of footsteps were heard heading out the door.

It was a small victory, fleeting and hard fought which somehow made the rest of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich taste that much better.

Bells and Whistles

Instinct

b

The man is tall, towering and mostly toothless. He wears blue sweats and a plain black t-shirt.  Like the man, the clothes are clean but worn out.  Grey stubble grows on his chin and head.  It is a low maintenance style that he picked up in the Big House and decided never to change.

He steps inside the office and looks quickly to his left and right. Under a broad forehead, his eyes are deep set with a slight bulge from an untreated health condition; they pick up who, what, and where of those present.

He is a mangy wolf sniffing out an easy dinner. There is an unnatural shine to his eyes as a small woman greets the visitor with a barely hidden disdain usually reserved for car and life insurance salesmen.  He is not scheduled to meet until later in the week.

Just Puney, the man accurately surmises. Excellent, he thinks as he shuts the door behind him; it closes with a definite click of the latch.

“Keep it open.”

He experiences a physical shock and takes a half-step back. Puney’s voice sounds different, clear and strong.  She stands back from the doorway, out of arm’s reach from the man.

“Oh, I thought you wanted it closed.” He laughs in a forced and creepy series of “Heh, hehs.”

“The door was open when you walked in. Why would you think that?”

Puney stares at the man, very hard. She looks him in the face, gathering information as quickly as he did seconds earlier.  Fine hairs on her neck prickle and stand at attention.  There is a physical connection to her animal ancestors, a leftover gift of evolution that is needed now as much as in the past.

“Open. The. Door.”

She speaks slowly to ensure that he understands. Her feet are firmly planted and her knees are slightly bent, ready to spring out of harm’s way.  In her hand, she holds a pen, no longer twirling it between her fingers.  Rather, it is repositioned in her palm, grasped by all fingers as a weapon, ready to stab and poke as needed.

Taking another step back, the man opens the door and a gust of fresh air gusts into the room. Puney exhales a sigh of relief, not realizing until that moment she was holding her breath.  In a cross between a smile and a snarl, she shows her teeth.

“Now, what can I do for you?” she asks and wonders with an internal sense of exhaustion, what can I do for me?

When everyone and everything is a potential threat, Puney startles at the drop of pin. Her instincts are shadowed by anxiety and exaggerated by the constant clanging of bells and whistles sounding their warning. It’s a hyper-vigilance that cannot be maintained. She knows something has got to give and sincerely hopes that it’s not her.

The Guilty Witness

“Before we get started, I want to say that wasn’t a crack pipe in my suitcase.”

This was not a good way to start an interview, especially with a detective, I thought as I casually eavesdropped on the men. I peeked around the corner and then returned to my position, busily typing away at pointless notes, listening all the while.

A good natured detective sat next to the man. He held his thumb on the record button of a slender, silver device while the corner of his mouth tugged upwards. He had yet to ask any questions and already the information was pouring forth, and like a tipped over bottle of malt liquor, it stunk.

“Ok,” the detective agreed. “We are in agreement that the pipe found in the suitcase was not used for smoking crack. Can you explain what it was used for?”

They reached a consensus so quickly, I marveled. It is easier to swim with the flow of the stream rather than to resist it.  There is a Buddhist quote in there somewhere.  I made a search of the internet of swimming upstream and found reference to a crappy Australian movie.

“Weed,” the man said with a nervous laugh. “I smoke weed.”

Oh great, that’s much better than crack. I rolled my eyes and continued my search.

Found a better quote, “Three things cannot be hidden long: the sun, the moon and the truth.”

“I see, you smoke a little reefer,” the detective said with a nod.

The tugging at the corner of the detective’s mouth gave way to a smile. He had nice clean teeth, all accounted for in a straight line of healthy white.  He was really jiving now, pulling out his street lingo for drugs.

Suddenly, the man received a message on his phone. He got up and announced, “I’ve got to smoke a cigarette.  I’ll be right back.”

He went across the street, forgetful or unaware of the window through which the detective was able to watch him walk up to a car and make mysterious transaction and return without once lighting a cigarette.

Namaste, little brother, the truth will almost certainly not set you free and it will all be known soon enough.

 

 

There he goes again.

spring-bird

There he goes again.

I watch from my office window as a man in faded blue jeans limps across the street using a crooked stick for a cane. He wears a straw hat over a mess of grey hair.  From this distance, it is hard to tell if he is wearing his teeth, but it seems unlikely.  In his free hand, he carries a plastic bag from the gas station.  The bag contains his sickness and the cure.

I am surprised to see the man return so soon after the bitter cold of winter, certain that he resettled in the south, retired and resigned from a life of struggle on the street. Then like a bird of spring, he suddenly returned and resumed his daily activities as though there was never any interruption.

Most mornings, the man leaves his nest of dirty blankets and plastic bags and travels across the street to fuel up on cigarettes, cheap booze, and a pack of peanuts or crackers.   He returns to doze in the comfort of his makeshift home until he runs out of supplies and is forced to make the trek once again.  Sometimes he is gone for long stretches of time.  I like to think he made it to the mission for a hot meal and a few days off the street or is visiting with an old friend rather than the more likely truth that he was arrested for public intoxication or hospitalized for seizures.

Time and time again, he returns. Unchanged and uncompromised.  Always limping and always with the hat.

He is surviving off of the elements, earth, wind, air and fire, and asks for nothing more. Yet, the people around him refuse to accept his decision to live and die in the alley behind an abandoned building. He remains at odds with these concerned neighbors.  They want him housed and sober, in treatment, at the least.  They want him to sleep in a bed and eat nutritious meals, to be warm and safe.

Meanwhile, he is determined to drink himself to death, programmed to self-destruct by a wicked and powerful hand. He is centered and focused on a course that is difficult to change; it is one that he is not interested in diverting from and next to impossible for his concerned neighbors to understand.   While they scheme to bring him in, coordinating agencies and professionals in the effort, they forget to look up at my spring bird.

He needs freedom, dignity and is one of the rare few who has not forgotten how to fly.

There he goes again.

 
Center

The Airing Of Grievances

The large conference room was filled with angry faces. Several tables were configured in a semi-circle around the accused and her comrades, who happened to be the management.  The workers were on the edge of turning savage; they snarled and breathed heavily as they prepared for the meeting.

It was an airing of grievances, of which there were many.

Icily the accused stared out at the workers, refusing to look away. She sat with her straight back in perfect composure.  There was no reason for her to answer to these swine.  In front of her, she had neatly folded her hands one over the other, which would have been non-confrontational, if she hadn’t been wearing a pair of tight, black leather gloves.

Everything else about her was normal; light pink blouse, pleated slacks, modest, black heels and a dainty gold chain that lay softly over her collarbone and around her neck. She wore just a hint of makeup and kept her intricately braided hair pulled back with a clip.

Everything but those damned black leather gloves said she was willing to make peace.

Almost certainly, it was the gloves that tipped the workers over the fine line of decency. The gloves proved that she had something to hide, a reason to veil her dishonest hands and a lack of shame that anyone else was implicated.

The first stone was thrown, followed by another and then another. Her comrades stepped away, unwilling to risk being struck as well.  Out of respect, they lowered their eyes, unwilling to participate in the violence but unable to stop it.  Small pebbles grew into rocks with the workers’ confidence until finally a boulder was pushed over onto the accused.  She held her hands up to shield the blow; the gloves did nothing to save her but they did send her out in criminal style.

gloves-2

 

Hospice, the conversation killer

Expectation

wilted-flowers
Hospice, it’s a real conversation killer.

So death, what a bummer, amiright?

The couple, Jack and Jill, rode in silence with the occasional interjection about the weather and the Grammy’s.  When they arrived, it was a relief to leave the car.  They stepped out of their temporary vacuum world onto a freshly sealed, asphalt parking lot.

“This is nice,” Jill said with a grimace against the cold.

She pulled her coat together with one hand and held a bouquet of wilted flowers in the other. At the top of the inclined parking lot was a light grey stone, two-story building with clean, white trim around the windows. Along the edges of the building dry, brown, stick bushes waited for Spring to come alive with bright and vibrant colors, unlike the occupants of the building, grey and prostate, watching the world turn from their beds.

Next to the door, a sign read, “This is a secure facility, please ring bell for assistance.”

Jack studied it for a second, pushed the red button and waited; he was very good at following directions. The door clicked after a few seconds and was opened by an unseen hand.

“After you,” Jack said gesturing for Jill to walk in front of him.

Jack was also known for his good manners and gentle nature. Once inside, they met with another obstacle, Doris.  Doris sat at a table in the foyer, posing as a receptionist, bouncer, and tour guide, depending on the day.

“We’re here to see Beverly De…”

“Bev DeMonn?” Doris cut him off eagerly as though to say yes, we know the same people, isn’t that a coincidence.

Doris was a small woman with short hair done up in that old-lady-way requiring weekly visits to the beauty shop for a wash and style.  She nervously adjusted her glasses on her face and shuffled a stack of papers on her desk.

Jack stood tall and looked Doris in the eyes. He shook his head in confirmation and gave a warm smile.

“Yes, exactly, she’s my grandmother.”

“That’s nice,” Doris said with as much sincerity as she could muster. “Right this way.”

Jack and Jill followed Doris’s shuffling steps as she led them down a hallway and through an open sitting area. There was a fireplace pumping out dry heat, warming two empty arm chairs and an empty couch. The place was strangely quiet and still for such a large facility.

“It’s nap time,” Doris explained, reading their minds. Then in a whisper over her shoulder, she added, “And we just lost a few residents.”

“That must explain all of the locks, everyone wandered out,” Jill snickered.

“Not funny,” Jack hissed without looking at his companion.

“Ok, ok,” Jill said unrepentantly with a shrug, “anything to lighten the mood.”

Suddenly, the lights grew brighter as they stepped into a cafeteria. The kitchen area was against the far wall.  The rest of the area was taken up by empty tables and chairs.

A shriveled up human, presumably a female from the fuzzy pink sweater with shoulder pads that she wore, sat alone at a table. In front of her, there was a small dish with a half-melted, purple Popsicle.  A wooden stick leaned out over the edge, like a riderless teeter-totter.  With a weak shove, the woman pushed the dish to the side and folded her bluish hands on the table.

“Bev, you have company,” Doris announced and readjusted her glasses.

Bev looked straight ahead, her eyes a bleary blue with pupils drawn into pinpoints.

“Grandma, it’s me, Jack.”

Perhaps he was as unrecognizable to her as she was to him; her once black hair was now gray, her face shrunken in without dentures to support a shape, and her body was half of its previous size.

A dehydrated apricot, apple, plum? Jack tried to match up the fruit with the woman without any luck.

“Oh, and this came for you.”

Doris reached into the pocket of her sweater and pulled out a letter, postmarked and stamped from Florida. Bev turned to Doris, reached out with a claw like hand and grabbed the letter without a word.  She sliced it open with the long nail on her index finger and extracted the contents.

Slowly, she read each word of the epistle, feasting her eyes as she refused to allow her body. Jack pulled out a chair and sat next to his grandmother while Jill selected a seat across the table from the two.

On Bev read and still she refused to acknowledge her company.

“How are you, Grandma Beverly? We heard you were sick and brought you these flowers,” Jill spoke loudly.

For the first time, Bev looked up at Jill.

“I can hear just fine. What time is it?”

Jack stepped into the conversation, seizing his opportunity. Gingerly, he put his hand on her arm and said, “Its two o’clock, Grandma.”

“Hmmm…too bad,” Bev exclaimed and returned to her letter.

Dying was not about to change her mind about these unsaved heathens. It was simply too late to do anything about it. So Jack and Jill went back down the hill, got into their car and drove away with a sad promise not to return until another much, much later day.

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