Recent Work By Jonathan Evison

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Drew Perry’s new novel, Kids These Days, is hilarious. I don’t say that about too many books. As Edmund Gwenn said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Good comedy, above all, takes great pathos, along with a high degree of vulnerability, brutal honesty, a capacity for ventriloquism, and a uniquely skewed world view.  If you don’t possess all of the above, you won’t be able to pull off the sort outlandish set pieces Drew Perry pulls off.

Frankly, I’ve received an unfair amount of credit and attention for my affiliation with TNB over the years, particularly lately. Yes, I’ve brought some great writers on board, and I’ve done my share of recruiting, and spreading the word, but Executive Editor? Really? I’m thrilled and honored to have this title, but I always feel a little guilty wearing it, because what I do for TNB is so easy, and such a pleasure, that my title hardly feels earned.

Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen is destined to be an auspicious debut. When my former editor, Richard Nash, asked me to read Zazen in manuscript and told me it would be his first debut at Red Lemonade, I jumped at the opportunity. I knew it would be good. I quickly devoured it, and this is what I had to say (I love quoting myself!): “At turns hilarious, unsettling, and improbably sweet, Veselka’s debut is, above all, a highly engaging, and totally unique experience, which will have you re-reading passages and dog-earing pages. But best of all, in the end, Zazen is that rare novel which dares to be hopeful in the face of despair, and succeeds.”

I admire Ron Currie Jr. for a bunch of reasons, but most of all for the risks he takes. It takes brass balls to write a book like God is Dead, or Everything Matters! And it takes commitment to work a bunch of shitty jobs and believe you can write books and not starve. But by god, Ron Currie Jr. is not starving, and we should all feel good about that. All RC Jr. is doing is winning awards and selling books, and pushing himself (and his narratives) into new places. It pays to get dangerous sometimes. Everything Matters! is about to drop in paperback, and those of you who were too cheap to buy it in hardcover oughta pry a few bucks out of your wallet and buy the PB release.

Here’s a transcript of a conversation we had recently involving a wide range of topics, including books, writing, idealism, cynicism, and the Fitzgerald blues….

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December, 1889

On the afternoon of December 14th, in the year of our lord 1889, the good steamer George E. Starr chugged around Ediz Hook in a driving squall, her bowels belching hemlock and cedar, as she pulled into ragged Port Bonita. When she landed at Morse Dock, nobody clamored to greet her. Only a few tatters of wet silk bunting were left to mark the occasion, when young Ethan Thornburgh strode off the George E. Starr onto an empty dock, clutching a lone leather suitcase, with the wind at his back, and his silver-eyed gaze leveled straight at the future. He might have looked like a dandy to the casual observer, a young man of some distinction, all buttoned up in a brown suit with tails, freshly coiffed, smelling of camphor and spices, his cleft chin clean-shaven, a waxed mustache mantling his lip like two sea horses kissing. But upon closer inspection, visible through the shifting mothholes in his wool trousers, a trained eye might have observed the shoe polish daubed on his underwear, or the fear in his silver-eyed gaze. One might even have glimpsed the yellow blue remnants of a shiner beneath his right eye.

Last summer, the legendary Booksmith in San Francisco made me my very own author “baseball card,” which was too cool, even though I look like a total cheese-dick in the publicity photo. The card said some nice things on the back regarding All About Lulu, and there was a blurb from one of my favorite writers, Tim Sandlin. But no stats!

Daffy Duck was my first role model, and probably my most enduring. Those who know me, will recognize in my person Daffy’s Quixotic optimism, his dogged determination, his wet and unstoppable verbal bombast—in short, his mania. Daffy is a blur. He completely and perpetually defies inertia. Daffy is tireless, his appetites never wane, his energy never flags. Daffy feels best with four hours sleep. Daffy can preach, wax, eat an entire buffet, drink twelve beers, preach some more, peel the labels off the empty bottles, stack the coasters, give you an unsolicited pep talk, tease, hector, and encourage you in the same breath, and when that’s done, Daffy can jump in his car and drive twenty-six hours straight to Tuscon, rouse his friend out of bed, and force him to go bowling.

These are my grandparents, Grandma Sweetie and Papa Owen, standing on their porch in Inglewood, not eight blocks from the Forum, where they lived for thirty-odd years. Allegedly, a white picket fence once stood in front of the house. But as far back as I can remember, the white picket fence just sort of laid there. And it wasn’t white. For the last ten years or so, their house had no front door. Don’t ask me why. Just a screen. No lock. This is Inglewood we’re talking about! But nobody ever gave Sweetie and Owen trouble, and I’m pretty sure that had nothing to do with the fact that Papa Owen looked like a juice man for Santa’s mafia.

 

 

I don’t even know my grandmother’s real name. Everybody called her Sweetie—her family, the neighbors, the mailman. I’m pretty sure her mail said Sweetie. She may have looked like an old bag lady, she may have smelled like stale Old Golds and freezer-burned ham, but Sweetie had the soul of a swan. She was the loving driving force of our family, a tender locomotive, who drank twelve Hamms a day, popped Tums like Tic Tacs, and ate nothing (and I mean nothing) but Swanson frozen turkey dinners, scrupulously avoiding the peas and carrots. If Sweetie was a tender locomotive, Papa Owen was a runaway train. He was ten longshoremen trapped in a phone booth. He was fifteen Cossacks crashing a retirement banquet. Papa Owen had a little dance which he often performed on weekends, which led from the sofa to the bathroom. It was choreographed by Jerry Lewis and a fifth of bourbon, and went something like this: He would lift himself from the sofa, pirouette, trip over a chair, knock over a lamp, laugh, and fall flat on his face. He would then stand, stumble to the bathroom, and hurl the contents of his stomach into the sink. Encore performances would follow, in intervals, until he passed out.

My lifelong love affair with baths began at Sweetie and Owen’s house when I was just a runt. They had this metal contraption that looked like a vacuum cleaner that you could stick in the bathtub. It would shoot out jet streams of hot water. It amounted to a portable, low-maintenance Jacuzzi. I would sit in the tub for hours. Every so often Papa Owen would stumble headlong into the bathroom to finish his dance. He would say: “Feels good on your little pecker, don’t it?” Then he would say: “Aaaawoooolka. . .pfff. . .pff. . . eeeeeeeyaaaaaalka. . .pfff. . .pfff.”

It did feel good on my little pecker.

The photo you see here is technically the only photo I have left of Sweetie and Owen—the only photo anyone has left of the two of them together. But there’s another image of them which is indelibly burned into my mind’s eye, an image which is nothing less than my grandparents’ story. The third act, anyway. In this other image, the one that no longer exists outside my mind, Papa Owen is slumped at the kitchen table with Sweetie, who is wearing her customary nightgown (agoraphobic, she never got dressed or left the house). Her hair is the wasted gold of a burnt lawn. It got that way from cigarette smoke. Her eyes are downcast. Not from wounded vanity, but from what appears to be a long preoccupation with something doomed and oppressive. Her hands are hidden beneath the table. You get the feeling she’s wringing them under there.

Papa Owen is seated to her right with one elbow propped on the table, which appears to be the only thing holding him up. He looks waxy, slightly transparent, embalmed. He’s wearing a light blue shirt, which is too tight at the arm pits. The collar was probably stiff once. Yet, somehow, Owen manages to make it look like a white shirt with no collar at all. He wears, as always, his elfin beard, coarse and wiry. On top of his beard sits a handlebar mustache which, like Sweetie’s locks, is tobacco stained. His hair looks unkempt but upon closer inspection one notices that it’s in fact combed. His eyes are beady, blue-gray, and laughing. Not the impish laughing eyes of mischief, rather the pointed laughter of a small but hard to swallow defeat. Still, there’s an unmistakable glimmer of determination in those laughing eyes that is only enhanced by his smile which, though half obscured by beard and mustache, seems clearly to have dirty jokes leaking out the side of it.

Taken together, these two venerable, slumping personages strike a balance that is not symmetry.

The kitchen is murky, but lighted just well enough to discern Owen’s shadow, though not Sweetie’s. Behind them, fastened to the faded floral wall paper above their heads is a bulletin board. There’s all manner of cards and papers fixed willy-nilly to it, although looking at Owen and Sweetie and the general state of things, it’s hard to imagine the significance of these artifacts.

They’ve just finished dinner. Owen has cleaned his plate. Sweetie’s plate, pushed to the side, is still half full. The table is riddled with dirty platters, coffee cups, a disproportionate number of forks, and a sticky bottle of salad dressing. In the very center of the table, the dramatic center of the photograph itself, as though it were placed there like a statement, is a heaping bowl of spent chicken bones and gristle.

I think about this picture often, and from time to time I hold it in my hand. Recent years and a number of circumstances have allowed me to penetrate this photograph in greater depth, to identify nuances so subtle as to be invisible to the outsider. And the more I am able to distinguish within this picture, the more I am haunted by that damn bowl of chicken bones.

Writing caregiving essays recently, has put me in the mind of my first marriage, and its disastrous conclusion (recall the surfing Buddhist who happened to be my best friend), which in turn got me to thinking about its disastrous beginnings, which got me to wondering how we ever made it six years in the first place.

In a future post, I hope to treat you all to a little archaeological expedition of my former life, wherein together we will sift through the rubble of my first marriage (laughing at my sadness and folly), its rapid decline, and my subsequent foray into to bikram yoga, hair dye, and ragtop convertibles.

But today, kids, I want to talk about foundations, and how not to build them. In the spirit of non-fiction, I’ve changed only the name of my former wife, who will not kill me if she reads this. I hope. She’s pretty fair in that respect.

Molly got pregnant two months after we met. The next week I left for Greece.

You see, there was this other girl, her name was Sarah. She had freckles and a big messy head of hair and she liked to drink red wine and get naked and paint bowls of fruit. Sarah once loved me madly, a long time ago in Tucson, but I hadn’t loved her back. She was living in Athens now, where she drank red wine and got naked and painted bowls of fruit. I don’t know what made me change my mind about loving Sarah, but I did. So I bought nonrefundable tickets to Greece, and I bought them months in advance, before I’d even met Molly, let alone got her pregnant.

So you see, I wasn’t running from anything.

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When I arrived in Athens, I wasted little time in
informing Sarah that I loved her, that in fact I’d always loved her but hadn’t known it, and that I was prepared to keep on loving her until the industrialized world were in ruins, or the Chiefs won the superbowl, and that I hoped, I prayed, that she still felt the same way.

Sarah said that I hadn’t just said what I’d just said, or at least that she hadn’t heard it, and how dare I say it, and that I was never to say it again ever. And that I was welcome to stay so long as I understood this.

I took that as a no.

And from that moment forward, her studio apartment began to seem awfully small. What with all those bottles of red wine and all that fruit, there wasn’t much room for the two of us. I didn’t want to stay, yet the prospect of leaving that apartment was among the most desolate I’d ever known. I couldn’t afford a hotel or even a hostel if my money was going to hold out, but fortunately ouzo was well within my means, so I took to the streets, getting lost nightly, falling down stairs, pissing on ruins, speaking my six words of Greek to anyone who would listen.

Nobody listened.

I was heartsick and homesick and I ached in my belly with a hunger for something vague and incomprehensible, something that either had been and was no longer, or never was, or perhaps something I’d only tasted. Maybe it was food, maybe it was more ouzo, but I doubt it. The latter seemed like a reasonable solution, if nothing else.

Ouzodoll

So I drank ouzo until I was flat on my back and I howled at the spinning moon and nobody howled with me. I kicked cans down empty streets at dawn and turned my collar up against the chill and tucked my hands up under my arms and plodded on with purpose and determination through the Grecian night to absolutely nowhere.

I begged the Gods for a sign and one fine afternoon they delivered me an alley cat half-crazy with starvation, and I watched the wretched little creature fight for her life and give birth squeeling beneath a porch, only to die with a whimper. And I watched a barrel shaped old woman in black knee socks and orthopedic shoes snatch up the litter with expert dispassion, and stuff them pink and squirming into a pillow case and drown them in a nearby fountain in the name of mercy.

And I walked on.

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And the only thing that brought me comfort, the only thing that offered me ballast in these mutinous and uncharted seas was the thought of Molly and I together, six thousand miles away.

And so it happened that I was half a world away when I fell in love with Molly MacDonald and her silver tooth caps and her books about Entomology and the tiny pink scar running diagonally across her forehead. And I was six thousand miles away when I fell in love with our unborn baby.

And from six thousand miles away I could see our future. We’d be poor, but that was okay, because Molly could always smile and illuminate the world with the flash of her silver teeth, and we could push the stroller down to the park together and loll around in the grass in the shade of an alder and have picnics, with peanut butter sandwiches cut into tiny squares and cold canned green beans in little plastic bags, and the whole world would be beneath the shade of an alder. And when we were done we could stuff the sticky bags into the sticky plastic pocket in the back of the stroller, and go home and put the baby down for a nap and make love and read E.E Cummings aloud and eat dinner for the rest of our days.

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What I remember most about Athens, more than its crooked streets and billboards and crumbling walls and eight million cats, is its phone booths. The fact is, I’m nothing less than an expert on the subject of Athenian phone booths. For, not only did I sleep standing in phone booths, I started calling Molly collect at all hours of the day and night, from all quarters of the city, so that thumbing through my psychic photo album now, I find nary a shot of the Acropolis, nothing of the blue Agean.

Just phone booths.

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Here I am in a booth on a windy back street near Plateia Karaiskaki, where I’m begging Molly not to have the abortion. But I’m too late.

There I am in a phone booth amidst the chaos of the Plaka, with its smell of cat piss and onions, where Molly’s telling me she’s met a guy from Los Angeles named Sal who owns a bar.

Here I am in a port authority booth with a spider web crack in the glass and the initials Chi Epsilon carved into the reflective metal above the keypad, where Molly is telling me she’s moving to Los Angeles.

That’s me in the shadow of the Parthenon, where tourists from Edinburgh and Boston and Yokohama are mulling about, while Molly tells me she’s slept with Sal, and I imagine him with a uni-brow, stinking of Leather cologne, emptying himself inside her with a grunt.

And there I am a day later in a murky hotel lobby in Psiri, beneath the watchful eye of an Albanian clerk, where Molly confesses that she hasn’t really slept with Sal, that she’d only been saying it. Either way, I believe her.

Here I am on a side street off Athinas near the Hotel Attalos, outside the scariest Chinese restaurant ever. The guy behind me in the wool cap is wheeling about the booth like a turkey buzzard trying to hurry me off, as I beg Molly to forgive me for leaving, and for not having said a few simple words in time. The phone reciever smells like my grandfather’s aftershave, as I beseech her not to move to Los Angeles, not to move anywhere, without me. I beg for forgiveness, for absolution, for a future with or without babies.

For two weeks in Athens the phone booth was my confessional. For two weeks I called Molly collect. For two weeks she accepted the charges.

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I’m no fashion maven, but I know what I like. And it’s not paisley dresses. Molly was wearing a paisley dress when she picked me up at the airport. We clumsily embraced. There was no kiss.

At first we drove in silence but for the rain and the swish of the tires and the thrumming of the wipers. Somehow the conversational fare reserved for such reunions simply wouldn’t do. How was your
abortion? Fine. How was your lover?

Thanks for picking me up, I said at last.

Sure, she said, staring straight ahead.

That was it for awhile. Gazing goggle-eyed out upon the luminous sprawl of Renton, I began to wonder if my optimism had not duped me again. From six thousand miles it all looked manageable.

You look great, I said. I like your dress.

I hate it, she said.

We drove on. The wipers started squeaking.

As we rounded the back side of Beacon Hill and the skyline burst upon us, I felt somewhat at ease. I was home. I never wanted to leave again.

I’m leaving next week, she said. I’ve got a job set up.

You mean–

No, something different. Something through Kelly.

You mean the one that pisses her bed? I said.

No, the one with the big tits, she said.

Oh.

I had a dream you fucked her, she said matter of factly.

Fucked Kelly?

Yeah.

Uh . . . okay.

You like big tits, right?

Well, yeah, I guess.

Does Sarah have big tits? Did you fuck her big tits? Did you get her pregnant?

And how about Sal? I said. Does Sal have a big dick?

I wouldn’t know.

Didn’t that hurt? Two days after the–

I said I wouldn’t know, she said.

We drove on. She stared straight ahead, gripping the wheel fiercely.

I didn’t touch Sarah, I said. She’s just a friend. I told you that.

Friends, she said.

The rain was letting up as we hit downtown. Molly killed the wipers. I cracked my window some. The fresh air was good. We took the Seneca exit and came out on Sixth Avenue. It was still early.

You wanna get a drink? I said.

Where? she said.

Wherever.

Molly swung a right onto sixth, and we headed north from there. For awhile, anyway.

Part Two: Clusterfuck In Quito; JE In Ecuador

I am inspired by Ecuadorian inefficiency. The average Ecuadorian citizen spends roughly forty percent of his life standing in line. If I went into the postcard business, and I was going to design a postcard for Ecuador, it would be a bunch of poor schlubs standing in line at the Mega-Maxi. And maybe a couple rich people cutting in front of them. And grocery carts stacking up everywhere.

We went to a Christmas Eve banquet in Quito with Lauren’s folks. Pretty nice spread—one that got cold awfully quick when the priest dumped his motorbike getting to the hotel. The little dude arrived a half-hour late, sweating profusely, though otherwise intact, and wrestled his robe thingy over his head. He began placing all his sacrosanct goodies about—his bible, his candles, his music stand, his ghetto blaster. We were looking at forty-five minutes time he got to praying.

And praying.

And  praying.

My blood-sugar was getting low, so I had no problem being the gringo ice-breaker when they gave the green light on the vittles. Here’s the deal: they’ve got like twenty-five steam tables stretched out across the room as far as the eye can see, and one poor dude standing behind steam table number one. No  problem, you say. Must be a self-serve deal like that $7.99 Sizzler buffet—that guy’s only there as courtesy, in case someone drops a spatula or has a question about the sauce on the pork loin. Oh no. That guy is the server. Singular. He serves everybody everything, one steam table at a time. You want this? This? How about this? Papas? Pescado? Curly fries?  Meanwhile there’s at least seventy people in line— little old ladies, squirming kids, one guy who looked like Brando. Do the math. Some of these people were waiting for an hour and a half to eat, and that’s after an hour of praying. Ouch. And I’m telling you, there was no shortage of help. They had one guy just for mineral water. They had a whole staff of bussers standing around restlessly in white aprons, practically itching for plates to bus— plates that were coming off the line at a rate of one every five-and-a-half minutes. Papas? Pescado? Curly fries?



So there’s just one of many examples of your Ecuadorian efficiency, right there.

What else? The smog is unbearable, everywhere you look there’s a dog with a tumor, or a dirty-faced kid trying to sell you Chicklets. The drivers are insane. And the building construction is something along lines of paper mache. Perfect for earthquakes and volcanoes and the like. But give this spunky developing nation the right set of tools, and they will build you the biggest, longest, clusterfuck line you ever stood in.

Now the good stuff about Quito. Situated in a narrow valley at nearly ten thousand feet of elevation, the city is besieged by Andean peaks in every direction, including some active volcanoes (fuck if I’m going to try and spell the names of them, though, so you’ll just have to trust me on that one). The vistas in Quito are breathtaking. There are many lovely churches. Beer is cheap. Really cheap. I already told you the beer sucks, but its beer, right? And its cheap. So Quito’s got that going for it.


A few days before I left Quito I went to something called a “hash” where we “hashed.” Hashing is apparently some big global sub-culture that I’ve never heard of. You know you’re old when you start missing whole sub-cultures. Hashers have a motto: they call themselves “drinkers with a running problem.” They do hashes every place imaginable– Fiji, Taipei, Trenton, fucking Godzilla Island. There were people who had done hundreds of these things all over the world. A hash, as far a I can comprehend, is when one guy—in this case an old hippy reprobate with purple socks named “Mother Hasher” runs off into the woods with a tennis ball and a bag of flour, and everybody else runs after him. Without exception, all the hashers wind up getting lost out in the woods, until they happen upon a beer drinking station, where they get tanked and run around some more looking for the dude in the purple socks.


Eventually, everybody finds their way back to the parking lot where the real drinking begins. This portion of the hash quickly devolves into something akin to a fraternity hazing, in which participants (including my father-in-law, along with all virgins, and one child, are forced to drink beer out of their tennis shoes, and in the case of one unfortunate fellow, persuaded by threat of further hazing, to extemporaneously compose a song about how he likes horse cocks. And the guy wrote one. I’ll bet I could have written a better one, though. At least mine would’ve been sincere.

Read Part One: I’m No Travel Writer, but the Galapagos Were Cool

Part One: The archipelago.

I’ve decided I wanna come back as a Galapagos sea lion. Seriously. They’re livin’ the dream. Bountiful food, no predators, plenty of companionship. They loll around in the sand most of the day lounging all over each other, waddle around looking for shade, or a good meaty ass to rest their head on, do a little fishing now and again, take an occasional dip just for the hell of it—seriously, they’ve got it dialed in. They are truly joyful creatures to watch. The bulls are a little surly at times, and downright scary when you get too close to them in the water,  but the mothers and the babies are nothing less than playful when you swim with them—and they’re amazing swimmers, too, totally graceful and athletic. The penguins are amazing swimmers, too,  kinda sprite-like in their quickness, now-you-see-them-now-you don’t. Manta Rays freak my ass out. It’s like somebody ran over a shark with a steamroller then mated it with a flying saucer.

Talk about stealthy. Tiger sharks are lazy fuckers from what I observed. They just kinda hang out under rocks floating there in the shadows like turds. Not exactly man-eaters —though, to be sure, you won’t find me swimming around down there in the shadows. I’m no fishologist, but damn there’s some garish colored fish down there. Bright orange and hot purple and bright blue. Some skinny fuckers, too. They’ll be swimming right at you like a sheet of paper, then bingo-bango , they turn a corner and your looking at an Italian flag with lips. There were these other schools of fish I’d swim through that were almost transparent. You could swim right through the middle of them and they’d swish aside like silk curtains. Fuck if I know what they were called. You’ll just have to believe me. I thought I saw Nessie, too. But it was just a penguin head.

It was pretty cool to see a pink flamingo without a mobile home behind it.

I saw A LOT of giant sea-turtles humping. A LOT. Not all that sexy, really. The dude just sort of hitches a ride on the female as far as I can tell. And they hump for a long time. Longer than I’ve ever humped. Which isn’t saying much. Saw giant land tortoises humping, too. What can I say, there was romance in the air. Not that I got humped. Okay, maybe once. The cabins on our boat weren’t exactly conducive to humping. Or sleeping, for that matter. The food wasn’t exactly conducive to shitting, either. But I loved the cook, Victor, anyway. He was a sweetheart. He had a genius for dry meat. He cooked me a t-bone that would have made a pretty decent catchers mitt. And for the record, hot dogs are the breakfast sausage of choice on the equator. Victor slathered them in an orange sauce reminiscent of Spaghettios. Nobody ate them. But old Victor never got the hint. Can’t fault him for that.



Yadida the bartender was my buddy. Go figure. She had a way of tying a napkin around a beer that was inspiring. By the way, if you’re a beer aficionado, go ahead and skip Ecuador on your brew tour. The local swills are nothing to write home about, but they’re pretty tasty on the deck of a boat after you’ve been snorkeling and hiking all day. And did I mention Yadida’s superlative napkin work? Every beer looked like it was wearing a prom dress. The second mate Pedro was in love with my wife. Poor guy. Speaking of my wife, she was a pleasure the whole trip. Even if she didn’t hump me all the time. I’ll bet you old Pedro got something for the spank bank. Don’t worry, my wife never reads my blogs.

I love my in-laws to death. We spent eighteen inseparable days with Lauren’s folks and it was a joy every minute of the way, seriously. They’re the best. Not too many people I could get along with for that length of time under those conditions.

Other cool animals I saw in the wild: frigate birds, pelicans, albatross, blue-footed boobies, masked boobies, marine iguanas by the hundreds, lava lizards, fur seals, sting rays, eagle rays, and my favorite animal of all, fat ladies from Texas. Can you believe they have fat ladies from Texas with hair like Bill Parcels in the Galapagos? When you think about it, that’s way weirder than lava lizards.

 


One of my favorite moments in the Galapagos involved a fat lady from Texas. She had hair like Bill Parcels. Positioning herself behind a baby sea lion for a photo op on Isla Santa Fe (okay, I admit it, I don’t remember which damn island it was—its all a blur of colorful fish and napkined beers), this fat lady from Texas was standing on the beach with a big shit-eating grin, looking like Bill Parcels after a third down conversion, totally unaware that the mother had waddled up behind her. She took a step backward and tripped over the mother sea lion and fell flat on her big Texas ass. I know it’s wrong, but I almost pissed myself. You should have seen it! The sea lions were laughing.



My own crowning moment as a gringo involved six margaritas and a hollowed out tortoise shell in a bar on Isla Santa Cruz (and I know what island it was, cause it was the first night). This particular scenario pretty much sums up all of my ambivalence about human impact on the Galapagos. Let’s face it, that’s fucked up. But wouldn’t you wanna get inside a hollowed out giant tortoise shell after six two-dollar margaritas and walk around a bar like that if you had the chance?

As I was saying, I’ve been catching flashes of you today, curlers in hair, pushing that ancient lawn mower over our ancestral land (an acre of swamp), when there was nobody else to do it, so that I might muddy myself in it–playing football, groping neighbor girls, and whatnot. I’ve been catching sour whiffs of your dreaded stuffed bellpeppers today, your inedible spaghetti sauce—oh, and that other gruel, the one with the lima beans—and it actually smells good all these years later. Okay, better, it smells better.

Peppers

There’s a certain way you talk to Georgie if you want results, and by results, I mean cooperation, I mean if you want to avoid a black eye, or if you don’t want him fleeing out the basement window when your back is turned, or biting your thumb off at the knuckle, or throwing one of his celebrated fits in the pizza aisle of QFC, or pushing you through a sliding glass door.

For a ten-year-old with the adipose cheeks of a cherub, speckled blue eyes and a heart-shaped mouth, Georgie can be a holy terror.

Georgie’s problem is that he knows exactly what he wants at any given moment. In this respect, you might call him lucky.

The doctors have another name for it.

Georgie likes lists. Detailed lists, lists like roadmaps, invariably leading to his desired destination. Talk to Georgie in lists, and you’ve got a chance.

“First, Georgie and John the Boss go to school and see Miss Deb. Next, Georgie and John the Boss go to library. Georgie picks out one video. One. How many videos does Georgie pick out?”

“One video.”

“Good. Next, Georgie and John the Boss go to the—”

“No go to! Cheese pizza!”

“No, not quite. First Georgie and —”

“No first! Cheese pizza!”

“Almost. We’re getting to that, I promise, but first—”

“No almost! Only cheese pizza!”

“But—”

“Noo! First Georgie have cheese pizza!”

I said you had a chance, I didn’t say you’d succeed.

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Then there’s another way I talk to Georgie, those times when he’s stationed like a mushroom in front of the television in a dead-wall reverie, entranced by Sacred Planet or Springtime with Roo, his speckled eyes wide, the crust of his pizza scattered all around him on the soiled carpet like a fairy ring, dried tomato sauce caked to his face.

Those times when he’s not wanting.

“Georgie,” I’ll say. “What if we all went about screaming and biting every time we didn’t get what we wanted? What then? What if John the Boss decided to escape out the window? Who’d buy you cheese pizza, then? Daddy Serge? What if your mommy never came home? What if Vera and Willie never came home? What if one day I just up and quit being a caretaker because, you know Georgie, I never wanted to be one in the first place, never wanted the black eyes and the bruises and the nine-hundred-and-forty-three dollars a month, never wanted all the shouting matches with Daddy Serge, never wanted to give Willie my old shoes that weren’t really old, talk to sweet humble Vera in closed quarters and wonder why she smells like fish, why everything smells like fish, never wanted to buy cans of dog food for someone else’s dog, or buy a used refrigerator for someone else’s food, never wanted Daddy Serge to accost me down at Doc’s on a Friday night and force me to shoot vodkas and look into his steely grey eyes as they cut me to ribbons, and tell him for the third and fourth time just what it is I see in Georgie, and why it’s not weird for me to take such an interest in someone else’s boy. What then, Georgie?”

Georgie’s not much of a listener, though.

Lists, maybe. Details, yes. But only on his terms.

When I talk like this, Georgie only shushes me.


I am many things to Georgie, he just doesn’t know it. To Georgie, I am only John the Boss, purveyor of cheese pizza, provider of details, chauffeur, keeper of the coveted library card.

Georgie does not know, for instance, that I am Walt Disney, or Sterling Holloway, or Shir-Kahn, when every afternoon like clockwork we phone Walt Disney Studios in Orlando, Florida (same phone number as me, go figure), and I duck down into the fetid air of the Federov basement, where Tolstoy has just finished fouling the floor, and whimpers sharply like a wooden gate on its hinges. And with my cell phone I proceed to personify Mr. Walt Disney himself (who sounds exactly like John the Boss with a slight echo), enumerating the minute details of the Federov family trip to Orlando that will never happen, because last summer became this summer. Already this summer has the look of next summer.

And in between lay a lot of cheese pizzas and a lot of yelling and biting.

But mostly a lot of lying. Because the only thing there’s not a lot of is money.

Cheese pizza costs money.

We won’t talk about library fines.


Says Daddy Serge: “Orlando, Florida! Ha! Focking bullshit! All za time, Orlando, Florida! Fucking cheese pizza! Who pay for cheese pizza? Georgie pay for cheese pizza?


Federov_basement


But never mind Daddy Serge.

“Well, first,” Mr. Walt Disney of Orlando, Florida says, “Georgie and Mommy and Vera and Willie and Daddy Serge will come to visit me and my family at—”

“No Serge! John the Boss!”

“Very well, John the Boss. Georgie, Mommy, Vera, Willie, and John the Boss will come visit me at Walt Disney Studios in Orlando, Florida. We’ll have pizza and sodas for lunch.”


Wd

 


“Details, details!”

“Cheese pizza. And Pepsi cola. Icy cold, with little dew drops racing down glass.”

“What glass?”

“The kind that’s fat on top and skinny on the bottom.”

“Next!”

“And after lunch, we’ll go to Universal Stu—”

“No, no Universal Studio! MGM studio!”

“MGM Studio. And then to Gatorland for—”

“No, no Gatorland! Next to Sterling Holloway’s house!”

“Yes, yes, Sterling Holloway.”

Sholowayweb


Here, Georgie produces a rendition of his own, the aged Disney announcer at the end of two dozen Winnie the Pooh tapes. “Beloved voiceover talent Sterling Holloway. Voice of Winnie the Pooh, Kaa, Amos the Mouse, Cheshire Cat, and many more of your favorite Walt Disney characters.”

As far as I know, Sterling Holloway is dead as a stump. But it might please his ghost to know that he’ll never have a bigger fan than Georgie Federov. Never. Georgie has destroyed countless Winnie the Pooh tapes in the name of Sterling Holloway. So many in fact, that his library card is on probation, a point of violent contention in recent days, which has resulted in a broken rearview mirror and some soiled underpants (his).

First, he deftly breaks out the little plastic window on the middle of the tape. Next, he stuffs the tape in the machine. Next, he forces his sticky fingers into the slot of the VCR and manipulates the little spools, accounting for five busted VCRs (all used or donated) in the past three months. But Georgie achieves his desired result. Sterling Holloway’s Winnie the Pooh arrives in a warbled underwater tenor which Georgie refers to as “slow motion camera.”

I am often forced (by virtue of Georgie’s hair-raising decree), to speak this language myself for hours on end.

No, no, Slow motion camera! John the Boss say, ‘Walt Disney Studio presents’ with slow motion camera. Again! With slow motion camera!

Some evenings I come home hoarse.

My waning moments in the Federov homestead are always the same.

First, Willie and Vera arrive home on the bus. Willie is slump-shouldered under the weight of something besides his backpack. And Vera, God bless her, always clad in some hand-me-down dress with a floral pattern or fraying beadwork that’s tired at the edges from mending. She totes three dirty book bags and a used clarinet.

She’s got a song in her heart in spite of everything.

Next, someone invariably leaves their shoes in the hallway, their book bag on the kitchen table, tracks mud in the dingy foyer, or commits some other transgression which never fails to escape my notice.

Next, Daddy Serge arrives home at dusk, his truck headlights sprocketing the treeline as he rounds the corner.

Next, the truck door slams with a little too much reverb.

Next, squishy footfalls up the muddy walkway.

Next, four clomps on the sagging steps.

Next, Daddy Serge’s grand entrance. With drywall in his hair, sounding and smelling like three beers, he issues his standard one word greeting to Georgie—Out!, before berating the offending boarder like a drill sergeant for whatever shoe, bag, or musical instrument has strayed from its station.

Next, the questions: Why your mozzer not here? Why all za time she is late?

And last, John the Boss takes flight in his dented red Suburu wagon with three hubcaps. Down and around the bumpy driveway. Into and away from the gathering darkness.

Always with a sense of relief.

 

At dusk Georgie likes to shut his grimy curtains with pizza crusted fingers and squat in the corner on his tired mattress under the window. He turns off the lamp and holds his transistor radio right up to his ear and tunes it in between stations so that it hisses and crackles like a theremin in hot oil. Here, in the half-light, his speckled eyes are at their widest, his little red lips are parted slightly. But when I ask him what he hears, he only shushes me.

If I’m going to be honest with myself, financial necessity delivered me to my present occupation as a caregiver more than any humanitarian impulse. I was broke when duty called me to minister those less fortunate than myself, so maybe I’m no Florence Nightingale.

But I’m wiping butts.

That seems like the important thing.

Don’t get the idea that anyone can be a caregiver. The state requires certification classes. Everything I learned about proper caregiving, I learned from The Fundamentals of Caregiving, a twenty-eight hour night course I attended at the Abundant Life Foursquare Church right behind the Howard Johnson’s in Bremerton.

There, in the impossibly stuffy environs of a church basement, accompanied by the belching of an ancient radiator, I consumed liberal quantities of instant coffee with non-dairy creamer as I (along with fourteen middle-aged women), learned how to insert catheters and avoid liability. But mostly I learned about professionalism.

I learned how to erect and maintain certain boundaries, to keep a certain physical and emotional distance between the client and myself in order to avoid burnout.

I learned that caregiving is just a job.

Trev is my only client. I spend anywhere from twenty to thirty hours a week with him.

We eat together, shop together, and even go to the bathroom together, sort of. He’s twenty years old and currently unemployed and doesn’t really want to go to college. Trev’s already enrolled in the college of life. He still lives with his mother, who juggles three jobs and ought to wear a cape.

His father ran off when he was three years old, two months after Trev was diagnosed.

Funny how that works.

There are a thousand questions I’d like to ask Trev– Are you scared? Are you bitter? Why not?— but somehow I can’t. Perhaps because my professional credo forbids it. If I should overstep my boundaries, I need only recall this helpful mnemonic:

Professional

Reliable

Objective

Or this one:

Honor

Encourage

Listen

Provide

If there’s one thing you should know about Trev before I tell you anything else, it’s that he’s very particular about his shoes. The shoes make the man, he insists. He’s not so particular about his shirts and pants. In fact, all his pants are green and all his shirts are blue. But not his shoes. His shoes are a different matter entirely. They’re aligned neatly on three shelves running the length of his double closet: footwear for every conceivable occasion, from clam digging to salsa dancing. He even has cleats.

Shoes are the nexus of our morning ritual.

“What’ll it be for shoes today?” I’ll say. “Wingtips?”

“Nah.”

“What about the white Chucks?”

“Not after Labor Day.”

“Docs?”

“They don’t breathe.”

“Beatle boots?”

“Not in the mood,” he’ll say.

I reel them off. He declines them. It’s our daily exercise in independence.

Shoes_closet

Trev has never salsa danced. The fact is he stopped walking ten years ago. Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is tying him in knots, twisting his spine and tightening his joints so that his ribs all but rest on his hip bones now, and his legs are bent up toward his stomach and his feet point downward and his toes curl under and his elbows are all but locked at his sides. A pretzel with a perfectly healthy imagination.

“Look at the turd-cutter on her,” he says. “How would you like to throw a snot on that?”

“Hell yes,” I say. “I’d tap that. But I could do without the poodle hair.”

Poodle_hair_2

We’re sitting in the food court at the mall, where we’ve come for the express purpose of engaging in such hypotheticals. We never eat here; we always eat up the hill at Red Lobster. We just come here for the sights.

Tall ones, fat ones, black ones, brown ones. Trev and I are both a little girl crazy. Me, because no matter how hard I try I can’t forget the thrill of being sheltered in Molly’s arms, and Trev, I suppose, because he’s yet to taste the thrill. But we never really discuss it in those terms.

“Would you bang her?” I say.

“Sure, I’d bang her.

“You think you could handle all that woman?”

“What do you think?”

“I’m asking you.”

“Should I ask her out for a pizza and a fuck?” he says.

“A fuck and a pizza,” I say.

“How about just a fuck?”

“No, the pizza’s classy. Trust me.”

Poodle Hair breezes by toting two Cajun corn dogs and some curly fries, with a boyfriend trailing in her perfumey wake. They take a table in front of Quiznos and begin eating together silently, as though they’d been eating together their whole lives. I’ll bet Molly and I used to look like that when we ate together. I know we were silent, anyway.

“What is she doing with him?” says Trev. “What a tool.”

I wave them off. “Screw it. She’s probably a psycho.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Probably.”

We lapse into silence, alone with our hypotheticals.

I once asked Trev what he’d do if he awoke one morning with all of his muscle functions, which is about as hypothetical as it gets since his condition is progressive and incurable. I was thinking: climb a mountain, run a marathon, chase a butterfly down a hill.

He said: Take a piss standing up. He grinned, but he was serious.

Poodle Hair and I exchange a brief glance. Or maybe I’m imagining it. But it felt like a glance. As a rule chicks with poodle hair dig me. It sounds arbitrary, and I don’t know what it says about me, but I swear it’s true, chicks with poodle hair almost always dig me. When I go fishing for a second glance, Poodle Hair is evasive. She’s getting cuter by the second. She has nice teeth. She looks good holding a corn dog. I’m now convinced I could spend the rest of my days beside her. Even if she got a little fat. But first she needs to look at me again.

Bingo! We lock gazes. But what’s this? Now she’s whispering something to her boyfriend who lowers his corn dog mid-bite. Now he’s staring holes in me. Now I’m looking at Trev, now at Trev’s shoes, checkered Vans.

“What?” says Trev.

“Movie?” I say.

“Yeah, all right.”

And without further delay, we stand to leave, well, I stand to leave, anyway. Hunching his shoulders to buttress the weight of his head, Trev clutches his joystick with a knotted hand and whirs around in a semi-circle, piloting himself toward the exit.

“Regal or Cineplex?” I say.

“Regal.”

 

Trev loves movies. Until recently, when he started losing some of his finer digital functions, he was a ticket taker at the Regal Ten, where he still enjoys free admission. We see at least two movies a week together.

He likes action adventures the best, because of “All the ass-kicking and cool exploding shit.” But secretly I think he likes the heroes because their strength always begins and ends with their weakness. Or maybe I’m projecting.

Today we see Hulk. Every time Dr. Bruce Banner gets mad, he turns green and swells up to double his size, and starts kicking ass. He gets mad a lot. Hulk has no interior life. I guess that’s his weakness. As is our custom, Trev and I discuss the film afterward on the walk up to Red Lobster.

“If he’s angry, why doesn’t he turn red?” says Trev.

“Got me,” I say.

“And what happens if Bruce Banner is banging a chick and he gets angry? Like, if he’s balls deep in a chick, and she scratches his back too hard?”

“I guess he’d probably start crackin’ some ribs with his fat hog,” I say.

“That’s fucked up,” he says.

I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever grow up. It often occurs to me that Trev never will.

As we work our way up the hill past Home Depot and Target and Red Robin, the conversation turns to Molly. I turned it there. I’m still trying to order certain events in my life, particularly events concerning Molly and a certain surfing Buddhist, who also happened to be my best friend. I have a lot of questions. Trev is less philosophical.

Redlobster

 

“Fuck her,” he says. “She was a slut.” He knows it isn’t true.

“I wish it were that simple,” I say.

“Mm,” he says.

“You gotta understand, I thought I was gonna grow old with Molly.”

“Fuck her,” he says.

 

According to the Fundamentals of Caregiving, Trev doesn’t need to know that my wife ran off with a surfing Buddhist who just happened to be my best friend, or that I’m a grad school dropout, or that I’ve practically never had a job that paid more than $8.43 an hour, or that I can be reduced to this helpful mnemonic:

Scared

Hopeless

Lazy

Unambitious

Born loser

 

 

We’ve arrived at the Red Lobster, where we’re standing in the foyer. The hostess appears, clutching a pair of oversized crab-shaped menus. She wears a red polo shirt with big boobs inside. Trev’s looking them right in the eyes.

“Two?” she says.

“I’ll say,” says Trev, a grin playing at the corners of his mouth.

The joke’s lost on her.

Trev orders the fish and chips like he always orders the fish and chips. I order the surf and turf.

“Did you see the funbags on her?” he says.

“Yeah. But think about it,” I say. “For years I broke bread with the guy. We went surfing, camping, you name it.”

“Get over it,” says Trev. “Pass me a straw, please.”

“I just don’t get it,” I say, passing him a straw. “How could he do that?”

“Fuck him. Could you take the paper off?”

I unwrap the straw and pass it back. “What the hell did I ever do to him?”

“Look,” says Trev. “Here’s what you do. Ask yourself what Hulk would do if his wife had an affair with his best friend?”

“Hulk doesn’t have any friends,” I observe bleakly.

“Whatever,” he says, an edge of impatience in his tone. “Get in touch with your inner Hulk, dude.”

“It’s a little late, don’t you think?”

He shifts ever so slightly in his wheelchair; his heavy head lolling to one side, his forearms dangling out in front of him like a tyrannosaurus.

“Poor you,” he says.

My old man in a nut shell: he’s too proud to wear a hearing-aid, yet he has no qualms whatsoever about donning a Donald Duck visor with two squares of cardboard fastened behind his ears, and strolling down Viking Way on his afternoon errands.

My_old_man

 

His errands consist of things like buying a piece of sheet-metal that he can bend into a box for the prototype of the sonic ant-deterrent he recently invented.

He calls the cardboard squares behind his ears his parabolic reflectors. They actually work. Try it sometime.

My old man’s a tucker. He tucks everything in– his fucking jacket. He’s also got what I consider to be an unhealthy relationship with Velcro. He wears it everywhere. He fastens his shoes with it, his jeans. He fastens the curtains in the old Nash station wagon he drives with it—and that’s so he can use the porto-potty he installed in the back, which he practically has to fold himself in half in order to utilize, because there’s only about three feet of vertical space back there.

And believe me, he utilizes it.

Sometimes while he’s driving, he has to pull over to the shoulder and fasten the curtains and drop a trout, even as traffic whizzes by. You see, he’s got a self-diagnosed diverticulum. It’s like his esophagus runs straight through to his rectum, I swear. He’s got his crap chute timed like a station master. He’s already eyeing the bathroom halfway through the salad course.

He refers to the whole process, invariably in a matter-of-fact tone, as passing his bowels. He refers to it often. After all, it’s just a metabolic function, right?

My old man pretty much ran out on me when I was eight or nine years old. I still don’t consider him a deadbeat, though. He always paid his child support and the rest of it. My sister’s death really took a toll on my parent’s marriage, so I’m willing to cut my old man some slack for flying the coupe.

Like most kids, I looked up to my dad. But I knew from square one he was certifiable. Other fathers didn’t teach their children Morse code, or get them squirrel monkeys for pets. Other fathers didn’t invent humane pest control devices, or make ice cream out of soy beans.

Over the years, my old man has worked as an aerospace engineer, a Methodist minister, a professional bodybuilder, a videographer, and finally, a naturopath. And like Frank Norris, he never “truckled.”

That’s enough for me.

And I’m not even certain what truckled means, but I’m pretty damn sure my old man never did it, or he probably wouldn’t be wearing parabolic reflectors right now.

I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with my father, in spite of the fact that we’ve spent so little time together. Until recently, he’d been living (quite happily) in the back of a cube truck in the high dessert of south-central Oregon, where he spent his days inventing shit in the sweltering heat– eating carrots, reading the scripture. Fastening shit with Velcro.

But two months ago—upon the behest of my older sister, who was beginning to worry about him alone out in that godforsaken desert in a Donald Duck visor— my father relocated to the island my sister and I live on.

He now lives 4.8 miles away.

So, for the first time since I was eight or nine years old, I’m seeing my father daily. We walk in the woods every afternoon with our dogs– me in my sweat pants, with my hangover, and he in his Velcro-fastened shoes and parabolic reflectors. I have to talk REALLY FUCKING LOUD, because I’m usually in front of him, and parabolic reflectors—in spite of their many attributes – are decidedly uni-directional in their function.

During our walks, my dad frequently says things like:

“Old Laddie is getting ready to pass his bowels.”

Or:

“Good Laddie. Good dog. Boy, you really had to pass your bowels, didn’t you, old boss? He hasn’t passed his bowels since yesterday morning. He really needed to pass them.”

But you know, the old dude is pretty interesting—my dad, I mean. He speaks a little Latin, a little Greek. He knows his theology and engineering and nutrition inside and out. And he knows volumes about the human excretory system. We have some good talks.

Last night, was my old man’s 75th birthday.

My sister and her family are up at Whistler for the week, and my brothers live out of state, and my wife was working– so it was just me and my old man for his birthday dinner.

He’s a pretty finicky eater– not because he’s got a sophisticated palette or anything, just because he’s a health nut.

So I made a salad with organic spring greens, goat cheese, walnuts, and blueberries, with a light drizzle of vinaigrette. I grilled some Japanese eggplant. I made some farfalle with wild mushrooms, kalamata olives, and sun dried tomatoes. I bought a carrot cake.

And I bought two bottles of the only alcoholic beverage I’ve ever known my father to imbibe– Manischewitz Blackberry Wine.

Manischewitzblackberry750

My old man is a cheap date, I guess. I generally can’t drink Manischewitz, or I start feeling like I’m slipping into a diabetic coma—and I’m not even diabetic (though I’ve been told my piss tastes sweet – ah, but that’s another post, perhaps).

Well, last night, in spite of my aversion, I drank Manischewitz Blackberry Wine, and it agreed with me for the
first time.

My old man loved the dinner.

He passed his bowels between the farfalle and the carrot cake.

Old Laddie passed his bowels, too– in case anyone’s wondering.

After his second glass of Manischewitz, my old man got a little woozy and sentimental, and began talking about his mother, whom the rest of us knew simply as Sweetie. She was a gem.

I lived with Sweetie in a senior citizen mobile home park in Sunnyvale, California the last two years of her life.

I was going to college.

She was agoraphobic—hadn’t left the house in over fifteen years. She smoked two packs of Pall Mall Golds and drank a half case of Hamm’s a day.

She liked Ironside better than Perry Mason. I’d say that’s a pretty rare quality.

She spent the better part of her days lounging in a bile-colored lazy boy, popping Tums antacids like tic-tacs. She ate nothing but Swanson’s frozen turkey dinners. Two per day– noon and six.

In fact, when I found her dead– with Tums antacids bubbling out of her mouth– there was a Swanson’s frozen dinner on her bedside table. And I swear to God, the thing was untouched except for the cherry cobbler.

She ate the fucking cherry cobbler and checked out! How cool is that?

We buried her with a Hamm’s and pack of Pall Mall Golds. You may think that’s disrespectful– but then, you don’t know shit.

My father started getting teary as he talked about Sweetie, last night.

Sweetie was the only parent he ever really had.

His father died when he was four.

He grew up in a one bedroom flat in Oakland during the depression, with Sweetie and Grandma Rae.

He said they had a single naked light bulb in the middle of the room, and Grandma Rae tied a button on the end of the chain. And my old man said that pulling that chain and watching that light bulb go on and off as a kid was the thing that made him become an engineer.

He said that things were so lean growing up in Oakland, there was only enough money to feed two people most of the time.

And so my father breast-fed until he was four-and-a-half years old.

He said he can remember stomping around the flat banging pots and pans and complaining he was hungry, until his mother took him in her lap.

He had a mouthful of teeth.

Last night, my father started weeping as he talked about his mother.

He just couldn’t seem to get past all the nutrition he’d deprived her of by all that nursing. She lost all her teeth by the age of forty, he explained, due to calcium deprivation.

His doing, of course. She finally weaned him by drawing spooky faces on her breasts.

Poor guy. Poor everybody. There was my father– on his 75th birthday– gooned on Manischewitz, weeping
like a baby about his mother’s milk.