the-staked-plains-coverThen said I, O my lord, what are these? And the angel that talked with me said unto me, I will shew thee what these be.

She was a bad psychic when she arrived in Querosa, New Mexico, not because she didn’t possess the powers, but she couldn’t control them. Her husband moved them to the small town to teach at the college and she didn’t have anything to persuade him not to. “We’ll make it fun,” he promised, and after thirty days on the High Plains, the Great Drought began. People seemed friendly.

Stefankiesbye… also in The Staked Plains. What you say about how you can read society by the way it treats its dogs. It’s a massacre. By the way, what are goatheads?

Goatheads are small stickers that look exactly like small goat heads. They are so common in New Mexico that many people avoid walking barefoot across their lawns. Every summer and fall they seem to multiply. To me, they signify how unwelcoming the New Mexico landscape can seem at times.

“It is erroneous of the public to believe that the crusades’ only goal was to drive Muslims out of Jerusalem and the Holy Land,” Scott McElroy, a 57 year-old computer consultant of Las Cruces, New Mexico, exclaims. “The crusades were launched against all enemies without and within. Take the Albigensian Crusade, for example. The church had to fight Cathar heretics to preserve itself. These deviants lived in France, in the heart of Western Civilization and Christendom, but they had it all wrong and had to be uprooted.”

McElroy is soft-spoken, and only an occasional widening of his eyes betrays the fervor with which he pursues his dream of calling Christians in America to arms and fight all those, “who condone evils in His Church.”

McElroy was a hardworking family man in his early forties, when a spiritual crisis shattered his peace. “I was looking around me, and I couldn’t fathom why I wanted to lead this life I was living at the time. Sure, my kids gave me great pleasure, but beyond my doorstep the world I had once loved had ceased to exist. Teenagers listened to aggressive and loutish songs, my next-door neighbors were homosexuals living openly in sin, and strip malls were covering every inch of open space. Abortions were legal, people had premarital sex and spread AIDS, and I thought, I can’t go on doing nothing about all this.” His priest was understanding, but even in the ranks of the clergy McElroy sensed “the presence of homosexuals and deviants.”

In 1985, on his way home from a convention in Albuquerque, his car gave out. “There I was, stranded on the side of the road, and I’d had enough. I screamed, I kicked the car, I actually took a screwdriver from the toolbox and punctured the tires.” McElroy laughs, shaking his gray head. “I went nuts. But then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a voice said to me, “It’s not your car. It’s your life.”

McElroy turned and his anger subsided. He stared at the figure in front of him and fell to his knees. “He looked exactly how I had imagined Him,” he says. “Long hair, beard, white gown – all the portraits I’d seen of God’s son in church, they were true. They got it right.”

Jesus told McElroy to walk away from the car, into the desert. After about a mile, He bade him to kneel down. “And this cactus in front of me, whoosh, it goes up in flames.”

Jesus then instructed McElroy to take the cross against homosexuality, abortion, and bad education. “AIDS is a plague and shall continue as long as you condone homosexuality. There will be suffering and it shall go on until the sinners have been stopped. AIDS is a penance from my father, the Lord, and the sinners will either see the evil of their ways or perish.”

Then Jesus continued to bemoan the fall of education, abortion, and euthanasia. At last he ordered McElroy to gather true believers and fight these evils. When the cactus had burnt down, Jesus disappeared, but not before demanding, “Pray! Pray, but act, too. Prayers without action are like placing a feast on a dead man’s grave.”

McElroy has built a shrine at the location of his first meeting with Jesus, and he returns often to the site, to speak with Jesus and ask Him for guidance.

He had heard of the crusades, but it took him several months to research the holy wars and to figure out a way to start his own. “You know, these lords and knights had large estates, sold land to afford the pilgrimage. So why had Jesus chosen me? I was a computer guy.”

He started out by printing flyers and mailing them to churches around the country. The first few years were quiet, but slowly, he says, “a storm was gathering.” Every month he was receiving messages from Jesus and the Virgin Mary at the shrine in the desert, and he mailed them diligently to his subscribers.

McElroy’s project experienced a quantum leap with the advent of the Internet. It allowed him to post holy messages as soon as he received them, and to reach people who were not organized in churches. “I finally knew why Jesus had chosen me,” he confesses. “I knew what to do with the new technology.”

“What doomed the crusades of old,” he explains, “is that it was never a grassroots movement. The popes and bishops, they didn’t want everyday people to join, because they couldn’t fight, couldn’t afford horses, and held up the warriors on their way to the Levant. So it was only an elite fighting to free Jerusalem. And Jerusalem was lost again soon enough.”

McElroy adds, “Today, everyone can afford arms, can afford to travel, and we will seize that opportunity. I’m not a preacher, but the web allowed me to reach out to my brethren. The Brotherhood of the New Knights for Christ is ready to strike.”

In many states, an armed militia, with secret meeting places and hidden weapons is taken for granted. McElroy spoke to many militia leaders in Michigan and Oregon and was impressed with their organizations’ degree of sophistication. He and Siegfried Newman, the brotherhood’s treasurer and owner of a regional chain of supermarkets, keep in close contact with militia leaders to learn about modern warfare and guerilla tactics.

“Once we’ll call our knights to arms,” Newman, one of McElroy’s first followers, declares, “they will turn out in great numbers.” The brotherhood is said to have armed members in all fifty states. They intend, in Newman’s words, “to rise and root out evil, drive it out of our great nation and back to Hell.”

The crusades of the Middle Ages were sanctioned by the papacy and carried out by kings and emperors. Who will legitimize the brotherhood’s crusade?

“You’d be surprised,” Newman says during a recent meeting in the living room of his comfortable home on the outskirts of Las Cruces. The air conditioning is fighting off the 110-degree afternoon, and three glasses and a giant pitcher of iced tea have been set out by his Mexican-born maid. Newman is in his fifties, dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and red tie, despite the weather. He carries a pronounced paunch and has a red face, and his every gesture seems forceful and determined. “Politicians at the very top want us to succeed,” he says, without divulging names. “We have brothers in state legislatures, in the courts, and even on Capitol Hill.”

Once the Brotherhood of the New Knights for Christ becomes active, McElroy and Newman imagine, their first target will be the city of Las Vegas. “It will be our first big test. We’ll shut down the brothels and casinos. We will be merciless against everyone who stands in our way and raises their hand to interfere with our cause,” McElroy says between sips of iced tea.

The new crusaders will drive armored pickups, Humvees and trucks, and will carry handguns and rifles, machine guns and light artillery. They don’t expect casino owners to lie down without a fight, but “once we take Las Vegas, our numbers will increase dramatically. People will realize how strong we are and what we are capable of doing. We’re all about character, and the good Lord is with us. We’ve had four million red cloth crosses shipped to our brothers in arms, and we will wear them as proudly as our forebears. Who can stop us?”

Skirmishes with police, the National Guard or the Army, McElroy hopes to avoid. “Will people get killed? Sure,” he admits. “Will innocent, righteous people be harmed? Absolutely not. Once the government recognizes that we are after the heathens, the deviants, and evildoers, they’d better back us. We are strong enough to even march against Washington if that is the Lord’s will.”

Newman even counts on support from the armed forces. “Soldiers are Christians too and hate to see our nation defiled by smut and people who close their eyes to lewdness. In the end, we will fight side by side. This is a big movement, not a flash in the pan. Forget Waco, forget McVeigh. That’s not us. We are businessmen, family men, we’re the people. We will be the tidal wave that sweeps the dirt off our nation.”

After Las Vegas, Newman expects to take Los Angeles. “Maybe it’s an obvious choice, but think of the Big Whore of Babel. Would you spare Babylon just because everyone knows how bad things are? Of course not. Los Angeles will once again become a desert, without celebrations of black masses, and voodoo priests dancing through rings of fire in producers’ mansions.”

“There are places that shouldn’t even be there,” McElroy chimes in. “L.A. was built in the desert as a toy for the rich and perverted. Does anybody need the city? I don’t think so.”

Once Sodom and Gomorrah have been razed, how long will the New Knights fight their holy war?

“Is there an end to the War on Terror? To the war on vice? I think the answer is No,” Newman says. “And we will not stop until homosexuals will repent, until the Bible will be taught in our schools again. And then we might be able to put down our arms and once more let our president lead the country, a president who believes in God and His kingdom and is willing to sacrifice the few for the welfare of our country.”

“But that is the future,” McElroy concludes. “Today we must fight. It is time to get down on our knees, pray, and take the cross once again.”

Hard to get sentimental about a big box bookstore, especially when it was partially responsible for forcing independents out of business. And still.

When I moved to LA, Borders was already on the ropes, the one closest to my apartment a ghostly affair, a museum of unloved titles; they were too expensive to ever find a buyer who would want them enough to forgo Super-Saving Shipping on Amazon. You didn’t even feel like staying to browse magazines.

Money: it’s not the Mark anymore, obviously, but the Euro. It comes with a slew of coins, of which I have countless every evening, because I’m not used to coins anymore. Having lived in the States for fifteen years, I’m also not used to the different-color-and-size bills, which my memory doesn’t accept as German. The other Germans do however, and once called the Euro the Teuro (the Expensivo). They don’t use that nickname anymore. Starbucks Latte starts at $4.50.

Toilets: Few of the truly Teutonic bowls remain, but I happen to have rented one with my apartment. New bowls don’t swirl water the American way but push it, dump it. But they do look pretty much the same. Old bowls however have a step, a throne, on which things rest until the flush. “Good for taking samples,” a friend remarked.

Sports: If you don’t like soccer, you’re out of luck. There’s a bit of tennis in the news, a bit of Formula One (see above; hey, a German is the reigning champion), and the rest is soccer. Oh, there is also handball (soccer with the hands). Every other sport in any other country is dutifully ignored to talk some more about the dismissal of the Bayern Munich coach and the re-hiring of one of his predecessors. I’d rather watch Clippers games.

Cars: I thought I loved Audis. After five weeks in Germany I’m looking forward to seeing Crown Vics. Imagine a school full of Little Princes.

Speech: There’s a strange wordy meekness in colloquial, and now even written, German. What in English would be a hearty “Let’s do it,” becomes a “Ja, das könnten wir schon auch noch mal machen.” It expresses weariness and the not-so-secret conviction that things will not be possible. It’s the same pattern used for complaints about life and work.

Recently, while scouring the sports pages for reading material (I’m not a soccer fan), I came across this sentence, describing the problems Ferrari is having with its Formula One team, its small steps of progress, and the fans’ impatience: “Für einen so vorsichtigen Aufwärtstrend wie Ferrari ihn mit dem Brasilianer Felipe Massa auf Platz fünf und dem Spanier Fernando Alonso auf Rang sechs in Malaysia andeuteten, findet das in größeren Kategorien tickende Temperament Italiens tatsächlich keine wirkliche Nuance.”

Translated, the sentence means, “Ferrari fans were not impressed.”

Heating: It’s hot and dry in German houses, hotels, galleries, and apartments. In the 80s and 90s, old apartments still had large, tiled coal ovens to heat the rooms. They kept rents affordable and every surface dusty-red. If you came home in irregular intervals, you found your home icy-cold and it took two hours for the oven to heat up again. Windows were crappy too, and my flowers always had fresh air, even after I had sealed the frames and cracks for the winter.

Nowadays, central heat rules even the German capital, and only the staircases remain as dark and damp as ever, emanating the dank smell of Protestant churches. Inside it’s hot and dry. In bathrooms, the heaters are ladder-shaped, great for drying towels, socks, etc. The windows are new and airtight. When I wake up in the small apartment in the geriatric district of Steglitz I feel as though I’m having a nosebleed. My tongue can only be removed from wherever it’s stuck with force. I hang wet laundry everywhere. It dries in mere hours.

Complaints: Not even Germans like Germany. Many of the people I talked to have plans on leaving, dreams of leaving (I heard those same comments in Buffalo, NY. Most of the ones who left ended up in North Carolina).

Germans love to complain about life and their country. It seems in bad taste not to take life hard. I fit right in. It’s as though complaining is a way of showing that you’re in on the joke, even though and because you have no idea what that joke might be. However, they do seem certain that there is one. If you don’t complain you’re either an arrogant asshole, or you are just showing how superficial and gullible you are. Saying you’re enjoying yourself is as bad as admitting that you have three nipples or a second belly button.

Berlin: it’s hard to embrace a city that was 70 percent destroyed and rebuilt on a smaller, uglier scale after World War II. What remains of pre-war Berlin is quite beautiful, yet it feels impossible to fully embrace it. You might find a particular building beyond the park fascinating, even beguiling, until you find out it housed the Nazi court that sent political dissidents to their death. The feeling is close to finding out your beloved grandfather was a war criminal. Here, your whole family turns out to have been war criminals. They’re your family. You love them, especially in the spring, which is always fragile and seduces young couples in parks and by the canals. You love them. They are war criminals. You love them?

Language: It’s difficult for me to speak German, it won’t fit into my mouth correctly. People comment on my accent. Then there are sudden bursts of language, old channels opening and releasing idioms, sayings, and TV jingles I haven’t heard or used in fifteen years. These come with discomfort, as though I’ve sworn or eaten a bag of candy.

I love to think that I love Berlin, but there comes a moment when what your eyes find again is not what you remembered. And when I put the old images on top of the new they won’t fit anymore. It’s a delicious moment, full of hidden longings. I’m trying to see how my lover has grown. But maybe the gap between old and new has widened too much, my mind refuses to fall in love again. Maybe I’m in love with my memories of fragile and seductive springs. Maybe that’s what Berlin has become for me — a place without a present.

I do have coffee a lot in Berlin now, since I’m in Germany for several weeks and have chosen the old and new capital as my base camp.

I lived here for eleven years, fifteen years back. That might explain why I can’t see to get a grip on the city. There are places I don’t recognize anymore, renovated, restored, re-done, over-developed. Those are the easiest, since they are merely new. But there are also tons of places that haven’t changed one bit. Not at all. Or, to be more precise, the places haven’t changed, and according to the circular laws of fashion, the outfits of the people who inhabit these places (take, for example Kottbusser Tor, a major hub in the still somewhat cool district of Kreuzberg, which looks as ratty and lost and crowded as ever) have reverted to 80s Berlin chic – black, short jackets, black boots, asymmetrical and bleached or dyed hair. Nothing looks new or clean. It’s enough to creep me out. I have aged, whereas Berlin has remained the same. None of my life has happened. It can’t have. I’m Pamela Ewing’s dream of Bobby.

Germany produces what are arguably the best cars in the world. Germany also makes some of the best kitchen appliances money can buy. You’d expect flying Minis or VW Polos by now, and they might come soon, but free wifi is another matter. Forget free wifi, internet connections are dreadful in general.

In the free world coffee shops are there to provide wifi and barely drinkable java. Not here. And even if you get wifi, it’s bound to break down at regular intervals, about every 15 minutes or so. I’m drinking a lot of Starbucks for that reason, because they are “experimenting” with free wifi. It’s slow. It’s freaking excruciatingly slow. Do you remember dial-up?

Germany also brought you the tear-free onion-hacker. Try to buy one, though. Half the businesses don’t accept credit cards. Instead they use EC-cards, Euro-Cheque cards. Kinda like debit cards but the money is always guaranteed, even in case of over-drafting. But of course that EC business excludes foreigners, American or otherwise. And I can’t shake the feeling Berliners like it that way.

Why? Well, when I arrived I tried to buy a Handy (the, umh, German term for a cell phone). Turns out, pre-paid phones need to be registered to an owner, and in order to become such an owner, you need to have a Personalausweis, the German ID card. I pulled my passport, it’s truly German, but that wouldn’t do. ID card or bust. With pride, the young sales clerk said, that this system ensured that terrorists could not make anonymous, unregistered calls, the way they can in America. He was beaming. I was not. But our faces were both red. My friend bailed me out. I do have a handy now, and if I should use it for stalking people (the clerk was also happy to prevent that), or try terrorizing Germany, my friend will get busted. I tried to pay with credit card.

Germans love soccer and the newspapers’ sports pages are devoted to soccer alone. Well, okay, there’s ice-hockey (yes, they call it that), handball (another sport without an American future), and tennis (but only if a German player defeated a much better foreign player. The devotion to soccer extends to the fitness club I joined here on a very expensively temporary basis, but where they do serve a mean coffee. The urinals sport small goals (yes, down there), with tiny soccer balls dangling from the goal post. You aim, and, if it’s strong enough, “Goaaaal.” If you drink a lot of coffee, as I do these days, you score a lot.

Sport wagon, that is. SPORT wagon, to be more precise (shown above). If there was an astonishing trend to be observed during this year’s L.A. show, it was the return of the wagon. Cadillac has its CTS wagon (picture), Acura is throwing a TSX wagon in the mix (called sport wagon), and Audi offers a slew of them (but I could do with all this letter salad. Gone are the days luxury cars had names. Sigh!) For me, that’s welcome news, even though I won’t be able to plunk down 50 Grand for a Cadillac – my own car will look less dorky. You just wait and see! Only fourteen years to go until I own a classic.

Shades

It’s six o’clock in the morning, way too early for me. I’m not used to not seeing the sun yet. I wore sunglasses when I left the house, but it’s too dark for them. So now I’m wearing the sunglasses tucked behind my shirt collar, because the sun will come up soon. It’s my dog Dunkin’s first walk and so he poops. We’re on our way to the parking garage, and so he poops in front of the highrise condo tower. As always. When I stoop to collect the poop with my hand in a blue plastic bag, my sunglasses slide out from my shirt collar. Onto the poop. It’s too early in the morning to be angry. Or to laugh. I stare at the glasses sitting on the poop and think about abandoning them. But I do like them, I’ve had them for ten years.

Confession

I didn’t want a dog. I really didn’t. I wanted one when I was six, seven, eight, nine, and ten years old. My mother didn’t budge. Because of the germs. The slobber. The dirt under the paws. Because I was at school all day.

Dunkin fell in love with Sanaz, my wife. He’s okay with me, but it took him two years to be okay with me. It took me two years to be okay with him. Maybe longer. When he’s alone with me he looks depressed.

We have an understanding now. We both understand that I will never match up with my wife. It’s our little joke. I’m happiest when, before falling asleep, I can hear him snore.

Smell

Dogs can smell death on people. Even Hemingway knew that and put it in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Whenever Dunkin avoids me or won’t come close, I get nervous.

 

Belt

When we got Dunkin he was already four years old. When we moved to L.A. he wouldn’t come near my closet. I would open the closet and he would leave the room. It took me a month, two months to realize the closet was the place where I hung my belt. My pants have been sliding down ever since.

 

L.A.

In Michigan, he was just a dog. In L.A. people come up to touch them. They ask his breed. His age. They run their fingers through his fur. Women coo, smile as though he’s been winking at them. They ask to be photographed with him. They forget about me while I’m taking their picture.

Chinook

The first three years my wife and I had our dog, we believed him to be a mutt. That’s what they told us at the Humane Society on Cherry Road in the Michigan backwater. Part German Shepherd, part Golden Retriever. Tan and white. He was found in Detroit under a bridge, ribs showing through his coat, keeping a dead dog company. I loved that story as much as our actual dog.

Dunkin is well-trained, well-behaved, timid and patient. How did he get away? How did he get this way? He’s so perfect, it was good to know he was a mutt. Smarter than the fancy dogs. A dog not for shows but for daily use.

But now we’ve learned he’s a pure-bred. A rare breed at that. In 1981, there were only 23 Chinooks left.

It’s as if what you thought was your daily coffee mug turns out to be a Ming vase. What do you do with it now, and what do you use for drinking coffee?

He seems worth more, I like saying ‘Chinook’ and explaining the New Hampshire origins of the breed. We’ve wasted so much time of our time together already.


Last time I did this very, very irregular car column, I griped about drivers. This time, I’m going to reveal what your car says about you — that is, if you own one of the 20 cars listed here. But since LA is not like the rest of the country when it comes to cars (after all, this is the place where only three colors exist (white, black, gray)), I commented twice. If you can’t find your beater on the list, feel free to add your own car to the list. And hey, these evaluations are meant for new-car buyers (all but the last one).

Okay, so after playing this game for several nights now, (and I’m sure millions more have done it too, after it was rumored that Brad Pitt might play Mikael “Kalle Fucking” Blomkvist), here are my suggestions for the cast of the American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But up front three rules I followed for my choices:

My umbrella was stolen from in front of my apartment door, which is all the way at the end of our complex, with a long, separate hallway. It never rains in Southern California, and this week it does. Every day. The thief went off and stayed dry. I’m left to search for a new one. I’m a large guy and large umbrellas are expensive when you try to live on the cheap because your freelance money is stuck in some bureaucratic detour. I reject the small, collapsible ones. They are rickety and barely cover my shoulders. Rite-Aid has a large one, but it’s 13.99 and of inferior quality. The plastic handle feels like the dashboard of my old Escort, the spokes are flimsy despite being heavy.

My mother was as moody as our weather, which, in our small town in Lower Saxony, could be cold even on an August day, and often sent dark rain clouds over our garden and house. She could shrug off the loss of a scarf in school, hug me and tell me we’d get a new one. But an ink stain on my homework could make her tell me how much of a disappointment I was, and opening a box of liquid-filled chocolates on the wrong side and breaking the thin, lemon and orange sticks on our kitchen floor could contort her face and end all conversation.

She was a good-looking woman, short and plump, with brown hair and eyes and a pretty face. Yet her silences were hailstorms and barn fires, and I was grateful for days when she only berated my stupidity. Even my father knew of no way to change her violent moods. Once he had loaned a record to his friend at work and received it back after a few days. My mother played it instantly, claiming it skipped, claiming there were scratches on the vinyl, new scratches, never-been-there-before scratches. My father talked to his friend – he hadn’t even played the record, he said, hadn’t found the time. But my mother wouldn’t have any of it. She requested that my father go back and ask for a replacement. And he did, and he did get a replacement, and he looked terrible when he got home that night. It was a 45, and he did not play it again.

***

Our house was the only one on the street behind the factory and set into an old warehouse that had held ammunition before and during the second war. Sacks of sugar and chocolate powder were lifted from trucks one day and driven to the factory by forklift another. The other side of the street was forest, and forest began right behind our house. Looking up and down our street, it was hard to believe that this was our town’s industrial suburb.

We had moved to this street when I was four, and when I started school at age six, there was no one living nearby with whom I could have ridden my bike into town but my sister. She was two years older and I don’t remember much of her. She was always there and we fought or played with her dolls or watched a children’s show after five in the afternoon. Yet when I try to remember her, there’s nothing left, just a vague feeling that she and I were not of the same parents.

I had two friends in school, Thomas and Thomas, and to keep them apart, and also to emphasize their different qualities, one of them, a blond, gentle, befuddled boy, remained Thomas, while the other we called by his last name, Cramm. Thomas was well-liked, though not very popular. He gave me two of his eggs we had to bring for making Easter decorations, and I took his only white one. I had forgotten to bring any, and Cramm wouldn’t let me have a single one of his.

Cramm was an altar boy, the only Catholic in the classroom, and a good friend because not many people liked him. His clothes were cheap and worn, and his pant legs were always too short. Yet he was fierce, and he never believed that anybody was stronger or smarter than him. He died at age twelve, collapsing at the altar during mass, hitting his head on the marble and not waking up again.

In first grade, Thomas, Cramm, and I hung out in the schoolyard with two of the girls who didn’t mind that we weren’t the popular kids. They weren’t popular either and I think we all knew in some half-conscious way that we had no other choice. We pretended to take pity on one another.

My mother had lost her teeth after my birth and what she believed made her a woman, to hysterectomy. She hardly ever played with me and my sister. Rheumatism, low blood pressure, a bad back, those were the things that kept her from playing ball in the garden, or from swimming with us on hot summer days.

Her ailments didn’t keep her from cleaning the toilets every day, cleaning the shower, washing and ironing our towels every day. They didn’t keep her from ironing bras, panties, and socks to get rid of the germs, and she washed the windows every week, standing on a rickety chair outside in the flowerbeds.

She kept the refrigerator and giant freezer stacked. There was always too much food on the table and nothing was thrown away. She begged us to take second and third helpings, begged dinner guests to reload their plates. “Have some more, please,” she’d say. “Don’t you like what I cooked?”

She’d been born just before the outbreak of World War II, and her mother had escaped with her two daughters from East Prussia in January of 1945. After the war, they were outcasts in the West, poor devils, unwanted, harassed. Over dinner, my mother told us many times about moldy pasta, moldy bread, and sour yogurt, then asked us to eat more food.

She experienced one of her worst humiliations when, at age five, I had to take a test to prove I was fit for attending school. I passed easily, but before I was allowed to leave, the doctor who had weighed and measured me and checked my throat, heartbeat, and temperature, said to my mom that I was underweight. “He’s awfully skinny,” he said.

My mother did not reply. She cast her eyes around, as if all the other mothers tending to their small girls and boys were ready to point well-manicured fingers at her. That day, after lunch, she made me eat half a bar of chocolate, and every day at school, there were cookies, chocolate, lollipops, or mint wafers in my lunch bag, and I was not allowed to bring any of my sandwiches back home and too afraid to throw them away.

***

One gray afternoon in May or June, when I was in second grade, the doorbell rang, and Thomas and Cramm stood outside, asking if I would come out and play.

I shivered, my throat tightened and I squeaked, “Mom,” and kept staring at my two visitors. My friends had come to see me. They lived two miles away in downtown Wedersen, and Cramm didn’t have a bicycle. They’d walked all the way to the candy factory to see me.

I boxed them in the chest, I jumped up and down in our hallway, ran outside in socks, then came back to put on my old playing clothes and shoes. I took a coat, then brought it back because it was too warm to wear one, and my mother said, “Calm down,” in a voice that stopped me cold. “Can I?” I asked, because I had forgotten to do so.

“Leave your clothes by the door when you come back in. I just cleaned everything,” was her answer.

I was out of myself that afternoon, walking ahead of Thomas and Cramm through our garden. I wrestled Thomas to the ground, tripped Cramm. We played soccer, took penalty shots, looked for long, straight willow branches and sharpened the tips with Cramm’s knife and went hunting in the surrounding woods with our spears.

We climbed an old oak and let us fall to the ground as dramatically as we could, just like our favorite Western stars. That cowboys didn’t climb trees was of no concern to us.

When it was already turning dark, the gray sky changing to a slightly more merciful color, Thomas, tied with invisible ropes to a tree, died an especially gruesome death being tortured by Apaches for stealing their horses. He writhed in pain from countless arrows piercing his body, but with no cowardly moan coming from the lips of this one tough paleface, when, without warning, he crapped his pants.

Thomas opened his eyes. He stood still and opened his mouth slowly without saying a word. We continued firing our arrows and spears, yelling in our highest voices. Yet when Thomas took one tentative step away from the tree, Cramm and I knew something was wrong, and after approaching Thomas and asking and asking, he finally told us what had happened. Cramm and I didn’t laugh.

It was a long way to my house and Cramm went ahead, through trees and underbrush to clear a way for his friend, and I trailed them, out of a sense of responsibility and apprehension.

My mother opened the door, and her face was calm, composed, and I knew I had a chance. I went up to her and explained in a hushed voice what had happened.

“Why are you whispering? I can’t hear you,” she said. “And stop fussing around.”

I explained again, this time louder, loud enough to make Thomas blush even more, if that was still possible.

With her quick, brown eyes she scanned the two boys, then let her curious gaze linger on Thomas’ red face underneath wispy, blond hair. “And what am I supposed to do about it?” she said.

“Maybe,” I said, trying to come up with as clear a thought as possible, “Maybe we can give him one of my undies.”

“You can’t come in,” she said, shaking her head. “Look how dirty you all are.” And I looked down at my mud and grass stained pants and at the equally soiled clothes of my friends.

“He needs to go home,” I said. “He needs…,” my voice trailed off.

Our sky-blue Opel Kadett stood in its garage at the other end of the warehouse, yet I never dared consider asking my mom about driving Thomas and Cramm home. It would have taken all of fifteen minutes to drive to town and back, yet that thought was too horrifying to be thought. All I wanted was a new pair of underwear for my friend.

“I can’t give him any underwear. That’s out of the question. I’m sorry, Thomas, we can’t spare any.” My mother was serious, there was no need to yell and shout. “And Stefan, you have to come in soon, it’s dinner time. Your dad will be home in ten minutes.” Then she closed the door.

We stood in front of my house and looked at each other, Thomas, Cramm, and I, and nobody said anything for minutes, it seems. Finally Cramm said, “Let’s go,” and they started walking down our street toward the candy factory, Thomas making awkward, tentative steps.

I didn’t have to ring the bell again. My mother opened the door before I had made up my mind. She walked to the curb and looked at the boys walking slowly down the road.

I erased the memory of my friends’ visit quickly and cleanly. I didn’t dwell on how easy it would have been for my mother to help Thomas clean up, take the car and drop him off at his house. All that I didn’t imagine, and only a sense of guilt lingered, guilt over having asked for help in the first place and causing Mom trouble.

At dinner, it was Mom who told my dad about the boys’ visit. “You should have seen him,” she said, meaning Thomas. “He walked as if he had a brick in his pants.” She laughed, and my father laughed, and I laughed too, happy that Mom had left me out of her tale. Laughter made me one of them, laughing kept me safe. Childhood was still a new thing, I couldn’t hold my breath for it to end.




It started some years ago, when a female reporter in Ann Arbor, MI was doing research on a piece on Brazilian waxes. She couldn’t find non-geriatric men to give her an opinion on whether or not they found waxing sexy or not. Her editor contacted me, because he knew I no problem shooting my mouth off. The gist of my response was, that while hair or no hair didn’t mean all that much, it was kind of sexy to see trimmed or waxed regions because you knew the woman had thought about showing it to you. The woman had prepared for this moment.

Since then I’ve been wondering – does it work the other way around? Do women appreciate a good shave…down there?

 

When I was sixteen and living in Germany, I sent letters to a former teacher of mine, with poems culled from Cannery Row and any other book I thought of as cool. I was in love, and the poems were strangely explicit, and her responses returned the favor. My parents didn’t ask to read them, nor did they suspect anything. Never fell a photograph from her pages onto my mother’s carpets.

In the fall of 2002, after a brief stint in LA, my wife and I moved back to Michigan. We realized as soon as we got there, that it had been a mistake. Then winter settled in, and we really, really knew it had been a mistake. We had a big apartment, little furniture, and a lot of life to kill.