As Above, So Below

as above

The screen door slowly opened with a squeak.  The hinges were reddish-brown with rust and curls of white paint peeled away from the wooden door.  A pink noise poked out and sniffed at the air; the nose was followed by the black and white body of a small dog.  The animal slipped the rest of the way out of the house and the door slammed behind it with a bang.

Scents of all kinds bombarded the tiny but powerful nostrils of the dog.  It looked left and then right, orienting to its new surroundings.  A squirrel watched from the branch of an oak tree in the front yard, holding a nut in its claws and waited to see what the domesticated creature would do next.

The dog took off in a beeline towards the edge of the yard, running with muscular strides, quickly drawing away from the house.

“Beanie!” a boy yelled as he pushed through the screen door.  He wore jean shorts and striped tank top; dark hair fell over his forehead and hit the top of his ears, in a perfect bowl cut.

He yelled over his shoulder, “Beanie’s out, again!”

A girl followed the boy through the door, letting the door slam behind her.  Bangs obstructed her view and she pushed heavy locks away from her nearsighted eyes.  She wore a faded pair of jeans, rolled up at the bottoms with a thin t-shirt.

With bare feet, the pair raced after the dog, leaving mashed grass and flowers in their wake.

“Beanie! Beanie! Come back!” they yelled in unison.

Suddenly the dog stopped and looked back, it waited for the kids to catch up.  Its sides heaved in and out and its tongue fell from its mouth as it rested for a second and then it took off again like a shot.

Chase me, shiny eyes begged as it risked a quick glance back at its pursuers.

The siblings laughed and resumed the chase after the dog.

An engine revved over the hill and a car appeared trailing a cloud of dust from the gravel road as it sped towards them. Screaming, the girl grabbed the boy with both arms, pulling him back from the road as the car flew past them.

The car intersected with the escaping dog.  They watched its body hit the front of the car and shoot off to the side of the road.  The girl’s heart pounded in her chest, she was still screaming.  The car sped on, never once hitting its brakes as the dog lay still on its side. Its life whiffed out in the same moment as the fleeting innocence of childhood.

Once gone, always gone.

 

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How Fish Breathe

fingertip-pulse-oximeter

Leo was an imposing man, over six feet tall with a sharp intellect that cut with amazing speed and accuracy.  A gold link bracelet hung from his wrist.  He wore khakis and a soft, green sweater that clung to his round belly and skinny shoulders.  His clothes were simple, but good quality, meant to last with care.

He leaned against the wall just inside of the restaurant.  The room was bright with garish yellows and oranges; it was decorated with sequined sombreros, pictures of dark eyed women and ponchos with intricately threaded designs. 

After making his way through the door from the parking lot, he needed to rest.  Just for a second.  He surveyed his family as they milled about in front of him, laughing and talking, unaware of the struggle occurring behind them.  Good, he thought. 

He blew his breath out through slightly blue, pursed lips as he tried to force his body to cooperate.  It was a technique from his respiratory therapist that he would never admit to using, especially after the way he ended their work together. 

Patting his pocket, he slid his hand inside and held his pulse oximeter; a small device the fit over his finger and flashed out a percentage.  He resisted the urge to get a reading, but knowing that he could pull it out at any moment gave him a sense of control.  There was power in the label and an understanding in the scientific.  He felt an ironic reassurance as though it contained the magic needed to open his lungs and carry oxygen when it needed to go.  While still in his pocket, he gently turned it over several times between his long, white fingers, a lifelong fidgetier.

Yet, it held no magic, no healing, or even a preference for life over death.  The pulse oximeter was not to be swayed by his position or intimidated by his size or smarts.  It could only tell the truth that he was not getting enough oxygen and then finish each statement with an honest beep before shutting itself off. 

What to do when air becomes the enemy for a man used to walking on top of it?

 

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.”

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

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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.

 
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