“The Wall”

 

Wall: : something resembling a wall (as in appearance, function, or effect); especially: something that acts as a barrier or defense.

The Berlin Wall, The Great Wall of China, both hold substantial significance in history. My history, unpublished, had become tattered at the edges, loss, it’s architect. The act of loving, now surrounded by an impenetrable wall, was neither built of money nor political advantage, but survival. That is until he came along.

Dark days fell, far too heavy to lift. One is enough. Multiple are torture. Partner, parents, pets, all gone. Examining the blueprint of my life, any builder would see the footings of it’s foundation were imperfect. As in any young structure weight is supported. Over time, grounds shift, foundations crumble and occasionally structures tumble. I’d secured the love of my life, the one for eternity, and if an after-life exists, there too. Our concrete was poured, dried and lived upon. Then the floodwaters came. With them, the ground shifted and the “once upon a time castle” crumbled.

“I’m tired of losing people I love.” My friend Denise countered. “You don’t mean that. Someone will capture your heart.” Would someone break through my emotional fortress? I felt protected, safe or perhaps numb.

“You’re wrong.” The following summer I met someone. “I’m stepping away, trying something new. Let’s see if this works.” Perhaps a new footing could support me, my inner traffic light turning yellow. He did his best. Flowers, cards, dinners, everything necessary to check the correct box. “For love, check yes, forever, check no.” Would fate check “no”?

In the midst of our budding relationship, Spruce, my English Springer Spaniel, grew old. While vacationing on the boisterous, indulgent streets of South Beach the call came. Spruce had died. If I were to die now, it would be ruled an emotional assassination. In bed, mid- afternoon, my knees pulled to my chest, my heart barely beat once per minute as I grieved. A plaque was embedded in my soul. “No more pets, ever, in my life.” This would insure one less unavoidable heartbreak.

“Alright, I’ll look.” A dog? Inside, torment was churning. Post Spruce, something was amiss. Gone, the waving nubby tail, her saliva on my face, the welcoming bark at the end of tedious days. “But don’t expect anything.” He was a terrier, cute, but not my type. The caged corridor of the rescue shelter was scented with urine, the scruffy faces watched our every move. In a huge, sparse cage, with only a plaid, torn blanket to comfort him, I fell in love. “Let me see this one,” I said, pointing at the ShihTzu , knowing for both of us life was about to change.

He was precious, rambunctious , curious and in a way, royal. A mop of black and white hair. His history? Four months old, left by someone along the roadside. The puppy paws fumbled over to me, nibbled my beard and this adoption became a done deal. My plaque was removed, shattered actually. Two days later, my new found “son”and I made our way home. He sat, curious, in a basket filled with soft blankets, me joyful through my pain. “Hugo”, a large name for a small dog. With one belly rub, brick and mortar tumbled. Puppy breath, chew toys, even small poops in the grass, brought relief to old, stifling fears. I understand. An expiration date is imprinted on the relationship between Hugo and me. It’s one of the multifaceted issues between a human and a dog.

Why would I do this again? Why place myself in the position of falling deeply, only to have it taken? I suppose it’s because we aren’t meant to live behind walls. It seems unnatural. We are meant to be free, to live, run, stumble, lose and love again. I’d lost sight of that last part. Walls, I have learned, don’t simply keep out, they keep in. Walls create prejudice. Hurt, pain, growth, all are prevented from occurring naturally, as they should, without restriction. I thought keeping emotional expression out would stop me from grieving, in fact it stopped me from living. Today I am full. I love my partner and life, more so, the ability to say “love” without fearing the end. And when an end does come, as it naturally shall, who’d ever think there may be no Berlin Wall? It would have never been me. Without prejudice, Hugo, unconditionally, dismantled this unemotional soul , to retrieve once again, that loving, emotional heart.

“Lucky thirteen”

As I walked York Street in New Haven a young woman sat, legs crossed, on the sidewalk, in front of her a cup. “Please, any change,” she asked. I looked at her and understood. “Sister,  just twelve hours ago I was you…”

Lifestyle is like the tide. It ebbs and flows and the best we can do is float. If I were to choose the artist to paint the landscape of my life, it would, of course, be my favorite, Claude Monet. Unfortunately, I can only afford Ernst Richterfuzen. Exactly. No one has heard of him. Financial security. There is no other reason the past six weeks, post surgery, have been eye opening. This day was the most of all. It was a Saturday and I slept in. Hugo and Cody, their little bodies lying next to me with subtle breaths, were still. The plan was to wake early, putter around the house and knock out my Physical Therapy. After, and since I am able to drive, a visit was overdue with my nephew, Christopher. 

The plan changed when Maria texted and asked if they could visit me instead and swim in the pool. Elated, I agreed and headed for home. As I passed the “Field View Farm” the sign out front reeled my car in. “Ice Cream”.  On a scorching summer day what could be better? “What flavor ice cream” my hands texted quickly as I sat before the dairy farm barn with its sliding window for orders. How could Chris visit without a special treat, not to mention I’d wanted to try their product out. And then, it was before me. The bold lettered sign. “CASH ONLY”. This was a problem.

While working, I am never without cash. It lives in my pants pockets, my car and on my person, but since not working because of surgery, it is non-existent these days. I had two options, plead poverty and hope the high school girls behind the counter took mercy or scour the car for any remnants of cash leftover from six weeks ago. Opening the glove compartment and tearing through papers and sunglasses cases, there was nothing. My head, while not small, squeezed under each seat, my arms violating the space in assault mode. Again, nothing. In the console, so deep,  I was seemingly digging a burial plot. And there they were— three one dollar bills. This was a start. Ripping through papers, receipts and the cleansing hand wipes, at the very bottom, between a folded receipt, mercifully, was a ten. I had a total of thirteen dollars and was elated—thirteen was the “new” lucky number.

“What are some favorites?” The young girl with the curly hair suggested “Moose Tracks”, a concoction of vanilla ice cream, hard fudge and Reese’s peanut butter cups. “Sounds good, he’ll like that. What about the chocolate chip?” She smiled and said, “Can’t go wrong,” and started to pull the containers. “That’ll be 15.40.” I stared at my palm holding the thirteen dollars. Was this really happening to the king of cash? Suddenly a Xanax was in order. Actually an ATM would have been better.

“I only have thirteen dollars.” I can’t imagine it actually but it was like a bullet shattering my cranium. She most likely wasn’t,  but I felt her pitying me. “I didn’t know you only took cash.”

It was a semi-truth created to sound as if I was not impoverished. I hadn’t been this uncomfortable since the salesgirl at Goodwill, after purchasing a four dollar gown for Halloween, asked, “Would you like to become a ‘Frequent Buyer’…It can save you twenty percent off this purchase?” That eighty cents could have come in handy right now, had I not been an imperious snob.

“ You can just buy one pint.” That was an option except it wasn’t, but she did not know me.  I needed choices for my nephew and quite frankly me. I stared at the ten and three ones as if it would compound there in my hand the. Turning again to the price list I noticed two large cups with lids was affordable. A resolution at last.

“That’ll be $12.75,” she announced and, lifting the window screen, collected my fortune. I noticed a plastic container on the counter with the bold words, “TIPS FOR COLLEGE EDUCATIONS”.   

As she handed me the change I dropped the dollar and several coins into the tip cup. “I’m so sorry, it’s all the money I have…or I’d give you more.” My apology made no difference to her. 

“We appreciate any donations, thank you.”

Collecting the ice cream, I entered my car and started the engine so the coolness would come quickly. After that episode there could be no risk of it melting. Besides, I couldn’t afford to replace it. Pulling away laughter overtook me. As my Jaguar SUV pulled away, down the dirt and pebble driveway,  I wondered if they were thinking, “He lives way beyond his means…and he’s cheap.”

These past weeks, and the months to come, have been invaluable. Driving home I thought of my parents, sound, secure and happily middle class. On a warm day, not unlike this, my father came home from work. He told my mother, “It’s over. I don’t have a job after next week.”  He’d dedicated his life, forty years or better, to a company and when the sons of the owners took over they let all of the “old guard” go. Our parents had not denied us anything within reach, but now, a once solid world became like the Jell-O molds she’d create for summer picnics, shaky.

They survived. Certain choices were made to economize. We pitched in to help and ultimately I gave a position at the salon to our mother. My father took in work for the men he’d done business with and the tide turned. It was a lesson in the art of being humbled and the art of appreciation. Today, I am humbled. I have a better understanding of those, who not by choice, live modestly. And while mine is hopefully temporary, it showed a new perspective.  I haven’t great wealth but have gained knowledge, very much the equivalent. And I have, at the end of the day, like so many, simply floated in the tide.

 

**Just a footnote: My father had done business as a gentleman and forged relations with companies his former employers relied on. When the “old guard” of those companies stopped doing business with his former employer’s sons the sons asked my dad to return on a “case by case” basis. My mother gave my father advice. “Tell them to go to hell.” And he did. Two years later the company filed for bankruptcy and ceased operating.

“Because…”

 

He was “Dad” to my brothers, “Daddy” sometimes, Henry to most and Hank to his co-workers. How could one average sized man carry so many aliases? To me, one on one, he was “Pa”.  It wasn’t tradition nor a moment when as a child I could not pronounce something. The term of endearment came after watching Gerald O ‘Hara, the raucous, poker playing, horseback riding father in “Gone With the Wind, take charge of his property. Henry was, when his wife allowed it, the master of the house. I liked the sound of it and it stuck. “Pa”.  

My father was not loud but I hope this story is. My mother generally received my accolades and admonishment. It wasn’t that she loved more or nurtured more, she simply talked more. No one could accuse my father of talking too much unless the topic caught his interest. It was clear whose son my brother Randy was. Not one person ever came up to me and said, “Your dad is the life of the party, he never shuts up.” There was no condolence card after losing him which read, “The thing I’ll miss most was his boisterous nature,” or “The world will be a quieter place without him.” That honor, when the time comes, is reserved for Dennis, more our mother in that respect. Several words did however resonate—gentleman, friend and master craftsman.

“Pa, why do work so much?” It seemed a fair question. Normally  my father would leave the house around six in the morning, well groomed and tidily dressed, then return around five-thirty. There were those Saturdays when he would leave us, usually when the company had “a big job” to finish up. He’d look at me, Raisin Bran in bowl, spoon in hand and simply say, “Because.”  

Because? That wasn’t an answer and defined nothing. It wasn’t until today, nineteen years after his death, that simple, single word defined everything.

If you need to fix a flat tire don’t call me. I’m not the one to install a railing or build an outdoor structure. If your kitchen needs renovation or table needs refinishing delete my number. The man you wanted was Henry. There was nothing he couldn’t do and no one he wouldn’t do it for, though to my mother’s dismay it all would be done “gratis.” 

“Your father’s a fool,” she’d say, “He gives his talent away.” 

During my impressionable years, statements such as that left an impact. Could we have lived better had he been less generous? Did the fact he gave of himself make him weak or strong and what was the litmus test for that? Money? I’d never known him to publicly want more. Cars? He preferred his Ford pickup. Clothing? That wasn’t his “thing”, it was my mother’s and mine. So what motivated him? 

“Pa, why don’t you charge people when you build them stuff? Why give it away?”

“Because.” He never hesitated. Because.

Again with the one word answer. It was frustrating. Did he not think himself to have value? Did he not think of the Cadillac I wanted him, and ultimately me, to drive? It seemed a weak trait. There is, after all, value in your skill and with value comes compensation. And then one day…

 I was 30 years old when my parents renovated their swimming pool. The old deck and filter house had been torn down and a new pool house was needed. Taking pencil to pad I sketched. “This is what you need, it should have columns and a changing room. Maybe a kitchen. Yes, a kitchen.”

“Slow it down, we don’t need the kitchen. But a changing room would be nice.” She saw herself continually prepping meals poolside. It was unappealing.

My dad, a carpenter, agreed and my mother thought it a good idea for me to be part of the process. I’d never built anything in my life except model planes, some rockets, Lincoln logs and LEGO houses. Not exactly an impressive resume.

“Your father will guide you.  Listen to him carefully and he’ll show you all you’ll need to know.” 

She had been my mentor. I could sew, put together a smart little cocktail party, cook a spontaneous dinner and even give a crackerjack manicure if necessary, but carpentry? That was more Dennis and Randy’s schtick with our father. 

He handed me the hammer. “Strike it like this,” he said, hitting both metals together with accurate precision. He was a sharp shooter. “Once, twice, three times. And watch your fingers.” 

It was as if he’d cursed me. The first strike caught my thumb. With the second it would bend to the left. “No, watch me.”  I studied the rhythm carefully and caught it. After five more attempts I could “tow” the nails and it wasn’t long before we used a level as God, or Stanley, intended. I never knew the satisfaction of corners that were plumb. Sweat and a tan came under the hot summer sun while shingling the roof. Together we installed the glass front  door and side windows and did it all with only minor skirmishes. It was while  working to fortify the walls, when he held up two different fasteners. 

“This is the female and this is the male.” In his voice was great seriousness.

“You’re joking.” The day had suddenly become awkward. 

“Are you going to take this seriously or not, because I’m not going to waste my time.” It was the most he’d said to me in six months.

I looked at my mother who shrugged her shoulders and pointed toward my dad. 

“Listen to him.”

“So you put a little Vaseline on the male.” He was lubricating the long piece between his fingers and I wanted to run. “Now, slip it into the female. There. That’s how you do it.”

He looked at me smiling. Had I just watched my father engage in construction foreplay? I’d never even seen him leave the shower. I looked to my mother who looked mockingly at him. 

“You know Henry, twenty years ago that kid came home because Parker Johnson told him you put your penis in me and babies came out. Where were you then? NOW, when he’s 31 years old and it’s too late, you finally step up to the plate.”

                                       *****************************

It’s amazing what you can do when you must. After one year of staring at the peeling paint of the pool house we’d built, I gathered my “Pa” motivation. From the garage came two paint rollers, a brush, a pan and one gallon of pure white paint. Along with them a ladder, rag and pruning shears for the wisteria which climbed vigorously over the trim. It had been a gift to my mother. I set up and began to work, dipping the roller in the paint and feeling the smooth sensation as it glided along the wood. 

Bit by bit, roll by roll, the pool house seemed to come back to life. Each column was renewed, gleaming and seemingly thanking me, though my skills are at best mediocre. I looked at each board, the glass front door and window trim and remembered putting the entire puzzle together. But it wasn’t until I looked at the nails, driven superbly into the wood, that the greater puzzle took shape. 

Stepping back I looked at the small, modest pool house. There were many times, even recently, when the thought of tearing it down and having a new one built arose. The wisteria, wild and twining, should be  replaced with something less invasive and more maintenance free. Suddenly, while gazing at my slightly sub-par painting, the full sentence comes to me. Why do I keep this as is and waste my time repairing it?

Because. Because I love it. Because I loved him. Because it gives me pleasure. Because it respresents who he was and who I hope to be. I do it because he loved doing it. Because helping others is compensation enough. Because he was generous. Because like so many other times in life, we don’t always see what we have. Until we have to paint it.

“The Thing about Spaghetti”

This is one week early but my mother, Edith, lived by a code: “If you can’t honor us every day then don’t bother on one day.”  I wrote it with my father, Henry, in mind and decided, “Why wait until Father’s Day?”….So “Happy Day” to all the great dads out there…and thank you for being the men you are….Love, Keith

 

Some did, some didn’t.  We didn’t. My friends and schoolmates would speak of spaghetti and meatballs but I hadn’t a clue. Of course I knew meatballs. I actually had an affair with them once, if not twice a week. If we could have rented a hotel room, my mother’s meatballs and I, it would be used wisely for making love to them,  as they deserved. But spaghetti? That was not on the menu. I never twirled the long strands of pasta, like Lucy Ricardo at “The Brown Derby”, until later in life. My mother’s “go to” choices were either Rigatoni or Mostaccioli. Occasionally, as a treat, she would slip in Perciatelli or Bucatini, but it was rare. With its length it bore a strong resemblance to its cousin and was therefore banned from her kitchen.

Perhaps I was six, perhaps seven, the day I blasphemed. On bended knee, most likely with tears, my favorite tool, I pleaded for Franco-American SpaghettiOs. The canned pasta was advertised on television during my favorite shows. Exuberant children scooped up the saucy little “Os” as the catchy jingle, “The neat little pasta you can eat with a spoon. Uh-oh! SpaghettiO’s” played in the background. Campbell’s was catfishing. They drew youngsters like me in, hook, line and sinker.

“Can I have SpaghettiOs? They look really good!” It took three men to lift my mother off the floor after fainting. 

“Are you kidding? You want to bring THAT into my house?” When anything challenged her rules or cooking she took full ownership of the property, omitting my father.

“It’s on TV….kids love it. Please, please, pleeease?”

“Not happening. Let’s go.”

We left, the wheels clacking, as I gazed back toward my loss. It was a Film Noir moment.

There were three more attempts. After shedding my last tear and furrowing my brows for the final time, the wall tumbled. Against her will my mother, with no love, placed the red and white can with the little orange circles in the cart. I thought I’d won. She knew she had.

“Can I get the one with the meatballs?” Kudos to a little boy who was pressing  his luck.

The label sported a picture of tiny round balls of meat resembling rabbit turds lying among the pasta and sauce.

“Absolutely not. You’ll have diarrhea for a week.”

At home she set a pan on the counter and opened the metal can. The slightly coagulated contents slid out as my mother winced. On the stove it began to bubble up as did my excitement.  My lunch came in a ceramic pasta bowl, as it would any other time. She was clear about pasta propriety. My mother sat across the table, staring and waiting, a defendant on trial. The first spoonful held a vaguely familiar taste. Ketchup? Perhaps. Sweetness? Definitely. Tomato soup? Without question. It was tomato soup with pasta in it. This bore no resemblance to the hours long cooked meat sauce my mother and grandfather prepared. My curiosity was over.

“Satisfied?”

“Yep.”

“Should I run out and buy more cans?” Sarcasm. Her favorite.

“Nope.”

I hated it when she was right.

But what of spaghetti? Why was one pasta foreign to us, an Italian-American family, yet so familiar to the rest of the world? I needed the answer. 

“Your father’s mother died when he was barely three. His father married a woman who didn’t like daddy. She fed him spaghetti everyday of his life until he moved out.”

As I grew older, the details of my father’s early life emerged. It became more transparent and painful but I had my answer. It seemed inconceivable to me, a little boy, that anyone could eat one thing every day of their life. Beyond that, how could anyone not like my father, a gentle man, especially as a little boy?

“So when we got married he had one rule. No spaghetti. Understand now?”

I did. Each strand reminded him of a time he left unspoken. A time we, his sons, would never know. My father would never allow his past to be repeated, more so, resembled, in any way.

Years later, in New York, with my friend Marti, I broke the Cardinal rule. As we dined at an elegant Italian restaurant, I studied the menu. 

“This place is known for their Spaghetti a la Puttanesca. It’s amazing.”

I trusted her recommendation and it did not disappoint. The first twirl of the long, thin pasta felt exciting as it entered my mouth then passed over my tastebuds. It was an unforgettable moment. Why? I don’t know. Was it peer pressure all those years or had spaghetti simply been against the law so it was more desirable? It may as well have been cocaine. The briny, acidic sauce played perfectly off the pasta and sang an aria. When finished, like anything kept from you, I wanted more. But the compassion and loyalty for my father felt tested. All this over flour, water and eggs. It was a conundrum.

 

*********************************************************************************

 

With the passing years, and recipes such as Puttanesca, Aglio Oglio, and  a la Vongole,  Capellini found its way into my mother’s kitchen. It wasn’t a complete healing of the soul for my father but it was a step in the right direction. I understood, as my life grew in knowledge, the symbolism and pain spaghetti had caused. He was not one to speak negatively nor wear his past hurt on his sleeve. He was not the kind of man who issued ultimatums or insisted we obey him lest corporal punishment await us. He was sensitive, generous and kind. He would never be the one to deprive us or or make us feel deprived. If need be he left that to our mother. He loved and was loved in return. He broke a potential cycle.

So when Henry Proto asked that spaghetti not sit at the dinner table with those he protected and loved, it was for a very deep reason. And his wife obliged. Spaghetti can be the perfect accompaniment to a perfect sauce. It can bring people together as the vessel to which things, even emotions, adhere. Like my father, my experience with spaghetti has lasted a lifetime. It’s embedded. That’s the thing about spaghetti. It doesn’t claim much on its own, but once twirled it may, mentally, emotionally or gastronomically, never let go of you.

“Milk and Cookies”

“This is just a simple “Keith-short”  I spontaneously wrote while recovering from shoulder surgery. I want to include some shorter, light works in the mix. I hope you enjoy it…Love, Keith

There it was. A Facebook post about kindergarten naps caught my attention and it isn’t long before “she” comes to mind. In my little blue knapsack, slung over my shoulder, was my favorite yellow “blannie”. After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and using the extra wide Crayola crayons for some artwork, our kindergarten teacher, Miss Walczak, would shut down the harsh, fluorescent overhead lighting. As we lay our heads on pillows, on the polished floors, to refresh our young bodies, the day would drift off. While it seemed an hour it was a mere fifteen minutes of quiet solitude among thirty boisterous children. It was never my intention to frighten her, but everyday I’d try to position my soft, yellow blanket next to hers. She was the first female to captivate me. Today I would most likely be expelled for entering her personal space, but in hindsight it was a risk I was willing to take.

She was neither American nor a citizen, her father was here on a work Visa. Her words were crumbled bits of the English language, pulsed together like butter and flour in a Cuisinart before baking. It made no difference, for love is the universal language. I can’t remember the details of her entry into the United States but she was Swedish, from the top of her towhead hair to the buckles on her MaryJane’s. Her name was Helena and I fell for her. Helena wore her hair in tightly spun pig tails. Each fell on either side to her shoulders, bouncing with every movement she made. 

Her skin which clearly had little exposure to direct sunlight, was alabaster, in direct contrast to my cousins, who were of an olive complexion. I’d pretend I too had the same hair in the privacy of my bedroom, disassembling the string mop head from its base and placing it on my head. Pulling it evenly from side to side I’d form perfect pigtails. It smelled of Mr. Clean but what of it? It still lives as a mystery to me whether I loved Helena or the idea of “being” Helena. 

Now, as nap time concluded, we returned to our seats and our daily lessons. Helena and I abutted a corner, allowing me close proximity to her. As the teacher passed out the small, waxed cartons of whole milk and graham cracker cookies, I made my move. Creeping toward her, my small index and middle fingers walked across the desk in order to make contact with the delicate skin. There was no question this was an overt profession of my love. As they walked across the high urethane finish of our table, she raised her hand and, in a moment of heated passion, slapped mine. Not once but twice. I recoiled. Her face twisted into disdain, her brows furrowing. She came at me and slapped my hand again. Devastated and dejected, I withdrew. Heartbreak. My hope was that no one had seen the altercation, moreover the humiliation in me, but I knew that was not the case. I never attempted to woo my first love again. 

Stepping into the shower today, a grown man, I began to wash. As the water and frothy shampoo fell from my head the memory of Helena  surfaced. Then, as I played it over, there was an epiphany. 

“Oh my God,” I said loudly, “It was the cookies.” 

Rob looked at me but paid no attention. If I’m not singing in the shower I’m blurting out nonsense. 

I remembered my move into Helena’s space as we were having milk and cookies. It would make perfect sense for her to think I was trying to steal one. Fifty three years later my crime was solved. My ego, dealt a blow at an early age, knew it was all about transparency and perception. I meant Helena no harm but she didn’t know that. She thought I wanted her cookies and worse, wanted to take them without asking. And I, though simply a little boy, had learned three valuable lessons. “Ask for what you want, don’t just take it.” “Be clear, what you are thinking no one else knows” and “Hell hath no fury like a person whose cookies are about to be taken without permission.” All of which have served me well throughout my life.

Hanging Around With Randy

“Talk in everlasting words
And dedicate them all to me
And I will give you all my life
I’m here if you should call to me

You think that I don’t even mean
A single word I say

It’s only words, and words are all I have
To take your heart away”–The Bee Gees

If we could wipe away words as we wipe away tears life would be easier. Tears are easy. They fall from us and a small piece of paper, once a mighty tree, clears them forever. But words, those, my friends, are a different story. Therapy can heal words spoken, soften them and even change their composition, perhaps…but they remain, because they’ve been heard.

The call came in the middle of the night that my brother, Randy, was ill. It was his abdomen and his wife, Maria, was away on vacation.

“Hey, can you come stay with me?” The fact was he, like Dennis and me, was a hypochondriac. Some siblings play ball, some musical instruments, we compare CT Scans. Just a year earlier he was struggling with some form of cardiac disease. In his defense my brothers and I are all wired the same.

“Do I have to? It’s so late…what if I come down in the morning?” I was not only tired but afraid I’d veer off the road in their rural town of Weston.

“Yeah, its okay…I’ll be all right…unless I pass out or something from the pain…but don’t worry…”

Annoyed was the word to describe my feelings. “I’ll be there soon.” Had our mother taught the art of guilt well? Indeed she had.

Driving south, the Merritt Parkway seemed endless. Each bend prompted me to widen my eyes for sleep was not far away. The melodic ring of the cell phone broke the monotony.

“Are you all right?” Worry, our second familial trait. “I don’t want you to get hit by a deer or something. Maybe you shouldn’t be coming.” Was he kidding? Where was that sentiment before I’d left my bed?

The level of annoyance was growing exponentially, my voice terse. “I’m fine. I’ll be there soon.” We’d been through much together, the good, bad and indifferent. I remembered the days of our youth. No one could have predicted the future, but I certainly held the past.

********************************

With a little luck you could have an older brother, several if very lucky.  My parents hadn’t chronologically planned our family well. Having three boys, our mother fancied us a television family, most likely “My Three Sons”.  Aside from the number, there was little resemblance. A tremendous age difference between Dennis and me sent him to college when I began first grade. We could have been closer if the age limit on drinking were lowered to six. Perhaps he could have brought me to college dorm parties and concocted some  inventive cocktail using Nestle’s Quik or Yoo-Hoo, but it was not to be.

Two and a half years separated Randy and me, so mischief and bonding was a natural occurrence.  My mother would coddle me which annoyed my older sibling. When he wanted to leave me behind, excluded from his group of friends, she’d cross her arms, reference the saying, “He ain’t heavy Father, he’s my brother” and force an inclusion.  It felt good to be the object of her affection, not to mention the ease with which it made getting away with just about anything.

Phrases such as, “You know the rules” and “Not as long as you’re living in this house” were thrown about, but for the most part, as the youngest, punishment was deferred onto Randy. His revenge was taken when our parents weren’t looking.  As older brothers do, he’d lock me in the closet, wedging a chair under the door handle so it couldn’t be opened, or lock me in the basement, my small, soprano voice crying for help. Basically he thought of me not so much as a brother but a pain in the ass.  The potential dorm parties with Dennis looked better and better. On the other hand, Randy was my protector and mentor, where this story begins.

He was always much bigger than me in many ways.  His hair was brown, tinged with auburn and his eyes shone hazel. There ran through his veins a different blood than Dennis and me, more of a risk taker, or least he used to be.  If a subject interested him he would speak at great length and his intellect would never retreat, traits he shared with Dennis.  If uninterested his mind went to a private place that challenged him. I never knew where he was but always know how to bring him back– change the subject to one of his great passions– business, home renovation or his greatest joy, his son, Christopher.

Randy was always precocious.  A living encyclopedia, he seemed to know everything about, well, just about everything.  As an adult, I found myself drawn to the telephone when an answer was needed to even the most obscure question or to “bounce” a thought off someone with innate intuitiveness. My mentor and I could, at times, go for extended periods without speaking, not for any reason other than life consuming time, but we were only a press of a button away. The relationship was easy, as it always had been.

My sense of humor? Randy thought it witty.  He’d listen to me, enjoy my stories, and always worry about his “little brother.”  His home, one of his greatest passions, was always open, large, a metaphor for his heart.  He thought me brave, a title bestowed during a private conversation and one returned upon him. When my journey of writing began, a short story of a childhood memory caused him to look at me over his glasses. He jokingly threatened a lawsuit, at least I think he was joking.  I love it and think you will too. It’s about two little boys doing what comes naturally. The motto in our house was, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire and where there’s fire, there’s Randy.”

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I was not more than eight years old or so. Rather than wasting his time teaching me about history, science or math, my older brother was solely responsible for teaching me about art. The art of awareness.  Our three bedroom house afforded my parents the largest, our oldest brother, Dennis the next largest and Randy and me the smallest bedroom. In thinking of it we were strangers really, two souls thrown together, like dorm-mates, for an extended period of our lives. The room was sufficient for two young boys and made for intimate awareness of one another,  lifelong confidants and flowing, sometimes exasperating conversation. Secrecy was an impossibility, privacy unheard of.  From the bunk bed above, in the cool darkness of an autumn night, Randy softly whispered.

“Hey, dick weed, are you sleeping?” I stirred. “You want to do something really fun?”

Lifting my head off the pillow, half asleep, I responded. “What is it?” Logic should have dissuaded me but trust abounded. The printed cowboy pajamas made their way down the ladder. Lying at the foot of my bed he slipped them down and covered himself with the blue crocheted coverlet. Holding up his finger, as an instructor would, he pointed below the blanket as his hand began to move back and forth. By virtue of his non-verbalization this screamed, “Off-limits”. Then, hushed, he spoke.

“Do this to your koots…but be really, really quiet.” (Koots was our “child’s-word” for penis)

Puzzled, my hand followed, touching that spot on myself, the place the Bible forbids, and began copying his movement.  There was no discernible sensation other than being in the bathtub washing myself.  Continuing on, slowly and methodically, that all changed.   Something was very different.  My brain disengaged, floating, detaching itself from my body, my soul lingering above looking down as if from the heavens.  Euphoria began to envelop me and the point of no return was at hand, literally.  For a split second I worried death was imminent, that perhaps this was the reason God commanded us not to touch ourselves. My senses heightened and my body, excluding my hand, seemed paralyzed. My brain lost all capability of rational thoughts, sensing only electrical impulses. My small body was sinking into the the sheets and mattress as the world and my breath left me. I had died… and clearly gone to heaven.

“ I’ve never felt like that before.”

“Unbelievable, right?” Randy nodded with cocksure approval and climbed back up the ladder.

Easily addictive, Pandora’s Box had been opened. This, an act so frowned upon, so irreverent and unspeakable, had the potential to decimate my Catholicism. This could easily escalate me to Gold medal status were it an Olympic event. Why wasn’t it an Olympic event?  I stood on the platform my neck laden with thirty gold medals.  As the American flag was hoisted, the Star Spangled Banner played in the background. I smiled gleefully as a grateful nation cheered my prowess, acknowledging my parents proudly seated in the audience. My parents. My parents?  After much thought we decided secrecy was best.

“We need a code word or something,” Randy said, “How about ‘hanging around’? Its easy.”

“Hanging around” was perfect. No one would be the wiser and with  “hanging around” added to life it seemed complete. We’d “hang around” the basement, our Clubhouse and even in my tree fort in the old Weeping Willow in the backyard. I’d spread the word to friends, some already knew, and the older kids in the neighborhood, Randy’s friends, of course were light years ahead. At the top of our street, the woods, a virtual barracks built by rows of pines, boulders and bushy shrubs, served as a perfect naturalized “jack-shack”. No one wanted this parade to end.

Christmas was nearing, and the snow, seemingly endless, was piling up. At school, our  teacher, Mrs. McRae, helped my class coil together red and green construction paper, creating garlands to decorate our Christmas trees at home.  I presented mine to my mother, who was hard at work making the preliminary dishes for Christmas Eve.

“Well,” she said, “We’re going to put this right on the tree. We can’t just leave it hanging around.”  She was appeasing me. My mother wasn’t one to hang our homemade school projects. Suddenly, out of nowhere, came the words. Perhaps it was the impending holiday, the birth of Christ, performing an Exorcism. Perhaps it was the guilt. Perhaps it was her use of  the term “hanging around”. Or perhaps I simply had a big mouth. My guess is the latter.

“Randy and I hang around with our kootses.” To this day I haven’t a clue why I said it. Why did those words come out of my mouth? There are times, in my life, when being possessed is the only answer.

Slowly she turned to face me, her eyes wrapping me like Wonder Woman with her truth telling lasso.  Unsure of what I meant, yet quite sure, she approached.

“Excuse me…what did you say?” The wooden spoon, wet with sauce, was off-putting. Like the poinsettias adorning the fireplace, my complexion turned red as I tried to skirt the issue. Surely something big was on the verge of surfacing.

“I don’t know.” That’s it? That’s all I could say? I was eight and my current skills at “spin” weren’t yet perfected. “I wasn’t really saying anything…just making stuff up.” I winced, a dead giveaway.

My legs were paralyzed as the blue braided rug in our dining room seemed to be made of wet cement.  Pulling one foot from its hold, I built enough momentum to escape the impending doom. The maple trestle dining table offered sanctuary below.  My mother leaned down, her index finger, manicured in a soft pink frosted polish, motioned back and forth beckoning me. How could one finger, narrow and small, house such power? She lured me from my safe room demanding an explanation.

“If it was nothing you wouldn’t be running away.  Come out from under there and tell me what you said…I’m not asking again.”

My mind was pensive. Could I make it through the living room, down the hall and lock myself in the bathroom? It was a long-shot but worth a try. Sensing my thoughts she blocked that exit. Perhaps I could use my soulful brown eyes for exoneration. The years had taught me to use them as a means for a purpose. I was a master at the art of  ocular expression.

“Chip, this is it. I’m not asking again.” Her hand gestured with finality. “No Christmas presents. I’m getting a message to Santa. The end.”

There was no choice, it was over. Leaving the confines of my sanctuary city I faced the Special Counsel. As the interrogation continued there was but one choice, plea bargaining.  Yes, I would sing like a “song bird” potentially throwing my brother under the bus and saving my own ass…and gifts. Or perhaps the truth would set him free as well. It was a long shot and a justification of my actions.

“Sometimes, at night, Randy… well… once he showed me how to play with my koots.  It felt good.” There was no turning back. I was a stool pigeon.

“Play with it?  You mean shake it?” My mother was getting the picture and it wasn’t a pretty one.

“Well, sort of.  You go like this…”  I demonstrated the motion with my small hand, “It gets kind of hard and warm and feels all good.” She put her hand on mine stopping the movement.

“ I get the idea. I’ll kill him.”  I think she meant it.

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Ignorance is bliss.  From behind the eyelet curtains in our living room Randy, his blue snow suit, covered with crystallized water, was playing with his friends in the newly fallen snow. Inside the warmth of our house, his life was unraveling. Looking up and down the street I searched for cars.  Perhaps his sled would slide across Orchard Road in front of one and he’d be killed instantly, a much less painful death than facing our mother. More to the point he could not kill me. The back door opened and the sound of his boots being tossed meant he was very much alive.

“Ma, can you make me some hot chocolate? I can’t feel the tip of my nose. My face is numb.” If only his ass were numb he’d be all set.

“Hey Rand, come here a minute and help me. Leave your wet clothes on the breezeway.”

Edith was cunning, perversely living for the element of surprise. Opening the refrigerator, she took the glass bottle, poured the milk into a small, silver pan and mixed in the cocoa and sugar. As they blended together over the heat, Christmas carols played in the background. Bolting from my fortress, I shot by Randy and hid under the bunk bed until the fireworks were over.  My unsuspecting, soon to be late brother, his face still red from the cold, wondered how he could share my DNA. He didn’t even know the half of it. Yet.

“What’s up with the dick weed.? He’s such a dope.”

“Stop calling him that. Where did you learn that anyway?” Then, as “O Come All Ye Faithful” began she said, “He’s probably in the bedroom just hanging around…why don’t you go join him? That is if your koots isn’t numb from the cold.”  My sense was the shit that hit the fan was all over the kitchen. I hoped it hadn’t landed in his cocoa but feared it had.

Morbid curiosity abounded having never witnessed an execution.  Quietly I made my way toward the battle zone, keeping my distance from the kitchen but able to see Randy’s somewhat ashen face. His eyes, like daggers, caught me and penetrated my very core, sending chills down my spine. Death would come that night, it was evident–he would most certainly bludgeon me in my sleep.

Amazingly he didn’t flinch. Even at a young age he kept his composure, like James Bond. It was impressive. Both sets of eyes locked in a stare down as he sipped his hot chocolate. There would be many more such scenes in the years to come.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said sipping the hot chocolate, “This is good.” My mentor was convincing but not to our mother. Sweat was pouring from my brow as the climax approached.

“Then let’s call your father and Dennis and see if they know what I mean.”  She’d played a trump card which had our family’s face on it. He didn’t want everyone in on this. “Chip, get in here.” Me? Why me? Hadn’t I said enough?

Shifting slightly to the edge of his seat my brother stood. It was a Marlon Brando moment.  I backed away. He was holding a hot drink which could potentially be used as a weapon. And then, surprisingly, he caved.

“Okay, it’s like this,” Randy gave up the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as our mother turned and went to her stove victoriously.

Surprisingly and disappointingly there were no fireworks. The executioner drew no ax and the preacher gave no fire and brimstone sermon.  God didn’t seek revenge nor was there any throwing of hot chocolate in our mother’s face so we could escape to a far off land. She simply stirred the pot of sauce after my brother confessed his sin.  Was her collected behavior pacifying or terrifying?  The greater question was, did her initial look of disbelief stem from the fact my older brother had taught me to masturbate, a sin in our Catholic upbringing, or had she raised a stool pigeon, a snitch, a sin in our Italian culture? She herded us to the dining room where we sat around my former fortress.

“You’ll go blind you know, if you keep doing that. It’s a sin to masturbate.” Rising, she walked to the living room and pulled two books from the shelves, setting them before us. “Look it up in the bible. Then look it up in the encyclopedia. And go wash your hands, twice, no, three times.” It was, after all, the 1960’s, progressive parenting and social liberalism hadn’t yet taken hold, in our house anyway. To me she said, “And you, little man, have a big mouth.” Randy wore a look of vindication.  Turning on heel she made her way to the kitchen where important business was transacting. As she stood behind the open refrigerator door, her shoulders began bouncing, as if chuckling, her head shaking back and forth.

As he passed me on his way to the bedroom I noted, “That wasn’t so bad.”

Leaning in, my once trusting brother warned, “I wouldn’t fall asleep if I were you… dick weed.”

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As I pulled onto Singing Oaks Drive the night seemed darker than usual. My body was exhausted and my demeanor, truth be told, somewhat dark as well. We’d all been through his hypochondria and like the days of our youth his lessons taught me well. The car negotiated the long, winding driveway and from the window, the large chandelier was ablaze, as if company was expected for a celebration. Parking in the circular portion of the drive, I grabbed my duffel as the front door opened. There, in the doorway stood my brother. For some reason I noted he still wore pajamas. I walked into the massive foyer.

“Thanks for coming.” He looked relieved. Somewhere in my head was our mother reminding me, “He ain’t heavy…” I’d have never turned away from a cry for help yet my irritation got the better of me. And then, that loose lipped little boy came out and I said it.

“You’d better be really sick this time or I’ll kill you.”

At that moment those words, the ones I wish could be erased, those words that I’ve lived with every day since his death, came from my overzealous mouth. It was as if speaking to my mother on that winter day. None of us could have foreseen the future. Though said in jest they foreshadowed the saddest year of being a sibling…and the untold guilt for ever having uttered them.

My brother scoffed, in a child-like voice, as he often did when we mocked his over active mind. “No one cares about me…”

But the days to come would prove him wrong. Time would become precious. Would those of us who loved him still look for answers to our questions and advice from our brother, husband, father, uncle and friend? We would. In the expanse of his bedroom, a far cry from that of two little boys on Orchard Road, nestled among his obsession with pillows and flowing bed linens we’d lay, sometimes not uttering a word, sometimes talking incessantly.

“I wish we could go back,” he once said, his body surrounded by down feathers. “I want to go back to Orchard Road, to mom and dad.” How does one reply? I too wished we could go back, but not that far, so I could “un-say” what I had and change his course, but couldn’t.  And, anyway, my hope was simply a heartbreaking wish.

Nodding in agreement I promised. “Yep, life was easy then…but I take us back…in my writing.” He flashed back to this particular story and many others over his life.

“Great…just don’t make me look bad.” He sounded like our mother.

“I won’t…well…maybe, just a little…” then, “Dick weed.” The brotherly tables had turned and the opportunity to call him that felt good. Ah, justice. “You’re a windfall of material for me you know.” Our thoughts reflected the most private moments of our lives, those requiring a “pinky-swear” or pin prick of blood with a promise of eternal secrecy. Now, thankfully, there were no demonstrations given under the covers and my status had long since been elevated from pain in the ass.

We said, “I love you”, words not spoken from one bunk bed to another, perhaps never, though near the end they were said often. It was in fact true, he was was not heavy, he was my brother. Our mother’s use of that quote had been validated. During that year, the visits, the talks and texts, the shopping excursions, and even the hospital visits, the art of awareness came knocking. While not in the same way, nor with fiery Biblical implications, I was, once again, just  “hanging around” with Randy.

 

*On August 12, 2013 my brother Randy passed away from Pancreatic Cancer. To Dennis and me he was a brother and friend. To his wife, Maria and son, Christopher, he was the world. Randy was 55 years old…