Monthly Archives: November 2013

Thanksgivinghood

My great uncle Swanny was drunk when he showed up for Thanksgiving dinner at my grandfather’s, but I didn’t know that. I’m sure other members of the family knew, but at seventeen I was too young at the time to know what to look for. My only known exposure to alcoholics up to that point were my father and grandfather, and Swanny wasn’t behaving like a silly man who wanted to loudly argue politics and religion.

This was a rare occasion for me; my father’s family wasn’t close and my grandfather was very much a loner. Sharing a table with some relatives I’d never met and friends of my dad’s side of the family was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. To add to the mix, I was escorting my girlfriend, who saw it all as a grand adventure.

We parked in front of the 1950’s craftsman house in the middle of the 1980’s crack-ravaged Rainier Valley Orcas Street neighborhood in my black, 1965 Rambler Classic station wagon. Neighboring houses on either side sported chain-link fences and airs of random disrepair and neglect that only the drug-addled can generate. My grandfather’s house looked almost perfectly frozen in amber compared to them with its neatly trimmed bushes and swept stoop, with bars on the windows and doors the only imperfections.

A couple of years later, my grandfather was walking back from the bus stop when his neighbor’s pit bull attacked and bit him on the arm and wouldn’t let go. The police were called, and they had to shoot the dog off of his arm. The only explanation for the attack was that he was wearing a blue jacket, similar in color to Seattle police uniforms. Crack house dogs are trained to attack police so the occupants have enough time to escape or flush evidence. The neighbor did not come out to claim his dog afterwards.

We were a bit early, so only my grandfather, father, stepmother, and her friend were there, cooking. They’d obviously been there for a while, as my grandfather was busy re-telling about his trip to the Himalaya and visiting an abbey where the master chewed leaves to get high.

“He said, ‘Your man,’ and of course he meant Jesus by that! ‘Your man disappeared for a few years and he traveled from the Levant to India, and it expanded his mind. How else could he have become saintly?’ and then he’d take another leaf from a silver tray and begin to chew it,” he pantomimed to gales of explosive laughter.

“Wine?” my father offered to me and my companion.

“Uh…sure!” Neither one of us were going to pass up this opportunity.

We helped as we could, mostly by staying out of the way and helping the conversation along as needed.

“Sheisters and thieves! That’s what they all are!”

“Who, grandfather?”

“Politicians!” he’d roar, “Bah! They’re all the same! Democrat and Republican! Liars and thieves!” Then he’d become quiet, lean in closely and with a twinkle in his eye and a slurring whisper say, “It’s time for another Manhattan!”

The ritual was observed.

Friends drifted in and the volume rose. My stepmother’s friend was teasing my grandfather about stockpiling whiskey for his Manhattans as he returned from the basement with another bottle.

He held up his glass and looked down his nose at her, “I don’t stockpile,” he declared with mock offended airs, “I purchase provisions on sale.”

A rapping on the front door was heard.

“They’re here! Let them in!” he shouted.

Swanny and my grandfather’s sister came in, and where Swanny was affable and outgoing, she was quiet and looked like she wanted to hide insider her brown, tweed dress. Swanny held a large bottle in brown paper in his hand.

“Just a little something for the party!” he said, and vodka was revealed and then quickly shuttled to the kitchen for dispensation.

With all actors accounted for, we sat at the table. My father, stepmother and her friend across from us, my grandfather at the head of the table, and the other characters scattered on either side.

“Are you going to say grace?” Swanny asked.

With a wag of his finger, my grandfather replied, “Mon dieu! Of course!”

The table fell silent, some clasped their hands together and bowed their heads. The atheists and Jews smiled at each other.

“Dear Lord, we are thankful for the food before us and thankful that we only have to say grace once a year. Amen!” Guffaws and chortles came from the
unbelievers, pinched lips from the devout.

We tucked in with gusto, and the river of conversation meandered with the freely flowing wine and drinks. Uncle Swanny and my grandfather were doing their best impressions of drunk old men in wooden chairs when Swanny excused himself to use the bathroom, and headed for the back door.

“Where are you going, you old drunk?!” my grandfather called.

“I’m going to piss in your garden!”

“The bathroom’s down the hall!”

“That’s not as much fun!”

My great aunt flushed at this exchange, and become very interested in something on her plate that she used her fork to toy with.

Swanny fumbled with the door and staggered into the mudroom. He had more trouble with the metal door, and struggled with it.

“You’re going to pee your pants; go use the bathroom!”

“Ah-ha! I’ve got it!” he cried triumphantly as he disappeared into the darkness, the metal door slamming shut behind him.

My grandfather leaned into one of his dinner guests and whispered not so quietly, “He’s locked out, you know. That door can only be opened with a key.” He stuck out his tongue and started to laugh.

We ate and drank for who knows how long before someone asked, “Where’s Swanny?”

“I bet he’s lost in the back yard,” my grandfather offered. “The back door’s locked and he’s probably too drunk to knock or find his way to the front.”

“It’s been a while,” my dad said.

“I’ll check,” my stepmother volunteered.

She returned quickly.

“He’s fallen down and he’s bleeding!” she cried.

Several got up to assist or look – it was hard to tell at this point. My girlfriend and I were trapped in the middle of the table with our backs to the wall, so we just watched the mayhem in mild shock.

My stepmother’s friend was a nurse and she sprung into action. “Call 911! Someone get a towel!” she called as she rushed outside.

Throughout all this, my grandfather was hooting with laughter. Swanny’s wife primly set her silverware down, wiped her mouth, looked at her brother and quietly said, “You’re an asshole,” before getting up to check on her husband.

This gave my grandfather pause for a moment before he roared a guffaw and through tears threw, “Swanny’s taken a swan dive!” back at her. She shot him a dirty look on her way to the door.

The commotion beyond the mudroom grew and I could hear my stepmother’s friend shouting, “Has anyone called 911 yet!?!”

Some began to filter back in. There’s not much show in the dark, cold rain.

“Well?” my grandfather asked while arching an eyebrow at one of his friends.

“There’s lots of blood, and he’s out cold.”

“This I’ve got to see!” my grandfather said as pushed his chair back and then unsteadily wobbled outside.

Throughout all this, my father, who was sitting opposite, just kept on eating dinner. “This is great turkey,” he would say. Already heavily pickled, he watched the unfolding drama with an amused smirk.

“Uh,” I asked, “do you think he’s going to be alright?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, probably. The stuffing’s good, too. Would you like some more?” A grin broke out. “He’ll be fine. More wine?”

Someone started banging urgently on the front door.

“Who the hell is that?” my stepmother muttered as she went to answer it.

Most of the other guests had filtered back in and didn’t know what to do, so they sat back down and started eating. The conversation turned to analyzing Swanny’s decision to pee in the back yard.

“Back here! Back here!” my stepmother called as she rushed into the kitchen, trailing three paramedics. Two of them wrangled a stretcher with a toolbox on top. Their polyester jackets were soaked from the rain and they were dripping wet.

They looked around the kitchen dubiously.

“Where?” asked the man in front.

“Outside! Outside!” as she dashed to the mudroom.

The medics with the stretcher rolled their eyes.

“They got here fast,” a guest remarked.

“They’re just up the street and they know the address,” my father managed through a mouth full of turkey.

The lead medic grabbed his gear and followed my stepmom out. The other two debated what to do.

“Whattya think?” medic one said.

“I think there were a lot of stairs,” replied medic two. “Are there stairs out the back?” he asked the room.

“Only one,” my dad offered.

“Yeah, but that’s a pretty narrow doorway,” medic one gestured.

“It’s pouring outside, and the side of the house looks pretty dark,” said medic two dubiously.

“The bushes are pretty close to the house, too,” my father volunteered. “Man, I can’t get enough of this turkey.”

They shook their heads and rolled their eyes again.

“Through the door,” said medic one as he nodded.

Just then, my grandfather burst back in. “Mon dieu! He’s bleeding like a stuck pig! My doormat is filled with it! That stupid old drunk tripped on the way back in and gashed his head on the concrete step! I need a drink.” He regarded the medics. “Oh, hello!” he said with a smile. “He’s right outside the door.” He pointed helpfully.

They nodded curtly and banged their way out with the stretcher, chilling the kitchen with the open doors.

Swanny’s wife came back in with my stepmother’s friend. She looked pale, and clung to the younger woman as she was led gently back to her seat.

“Turkey?” my dad offered.

The lead medic came back in and sought her out.

“Ma’am, how much has he had to drink tonight?”

“Just a few,” she quietly replied.

“How many is a few?”

She thought. “He had two or three glasses before we left.”

My stepmother’s friend went back outside.

“Two or three of what, ma’am?”

“Vodkas.”

“How much?”

She looked around the kitchen and spied a highball glass. Pointing, “About that size.”

“You know he went outside to pee?” my grandfather interjected, laughing.

He ignored him. “Uh-huh. And what did he mix it with?”

“Ice.”

“Ice?”

“Ice.”

“Okay. And how full were the glasses?”

She spread her fingers wide in measure.

His eyes widened a bit. “Alright. Is he on any medications?”

The back doors were propped open as the stretcher was manhandled back into to kitchen. Another gust of cold wind blew through.

“There he is!” my grandfather called as they wheeled him through. “How are you, Swanny, you old drunk you? Are you going to wash off my step? It’s covered in your blood.”

A bloody bandage was taped to his forehead and he gave a feeble wave as he rolled by. There was a bit of a commotion as chairs were shifted to let them by.

“Ma’am? Do you want to ride with us, or meet us at the hospital?”

She fretted and wrung her hands. “Where’s my purse?”

My stepmother volunteered to locate it and her coat.

“Watch the stairs!” came from the porch. “The last step is wet.”

“Man, this turkey is great,” my dad said with a smile. “Best Thanksgiving ever, eh?” he winked at my girlfriend.

The front door slammed shut.

“After that, it’s time for another Manhattan! To Swanny!” my grandfather cried.

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The Window

I was an hour late to my grandfather’s death and fifteen minutes early to Milton’s, and the juxtaposition still pisses me off.

Milton, an elderly man, lived down the hall from me and my roommate in an apartment complex that used to be condominiums. He was clearly one of the former owners, because he was old. Before the I-90 trench was cut across Mercer Island, there used to be three buildings and a pool. Now it’s two and no pool.

When Horace and I lived there, it was a mix of aging holdouts, college students, and laborers on the gigantic public works project that consumed the third structure. The on-site property manager hated dealing with us because we were always unfailingly polite, paid our rent on time, and generated a constant stream of complaints due to loud music and our jalopies that leaked oil, had profanity spray-painted on them, and were constantly taking up two spaces as we had them in various states of dis- and assembly with parts spread everywhere.

Milton’s wife had become friendly with one of the work gang whose apartment was next to ours. Horace and I never saw or met him. We slept in too late to ever see hear or see him go to work and we were far too busy drinking and getting high in the evenings to meet any of our neighbors.

We did have friends that lived in the other building, Stan and Oliver. The few times Horace and I ventured out for social calls, it was usually to drink, get high, and play poker and video games at Stan and Oliver’s. Stan owned a Nintendo 64, and we would take turns playing cooperative Contra, drinking at the defeat of each boss level.

When Milton’s wife knocked on our door, we were busy putting the bong together for a poker game later at Stan and Oliver’s. I expected Stan, but was surprised when I peeped through the peephole and saw her. I opened the door. She was clearly agitated and looked uncomfortable, wringing her hands and shuffling her feet on the dark brown, berber carpet.

“Walter isn’t here. Can you come help Milton?” she asked.

“Uh…” I looked away, “Horace, we need to go help Milton.”

A closet divided the entranceway from the kitchen. I heard him put the bong down in the sink.

“Who? Is that Stan?” he asked jokingly.

“Milton. This lady needs our help.”

He rounded the corner, drying his hands.

“Oh. Uh, sure.” He looked confused. “We don’t have to be anywhere right now.”

We followed her out into the hallway and our door shut with a click behind us. The widely-spaced and dim lights encased in textured, light amber glass fixtures cast a yellowish pallor on the hallway, and the popcorn ceiling had flecks of glitter that twinkled as we shuffled to her ajar door.

“Milton fell down, and we can’t get him up.”

“We?” I thought to myself and arched an eyebrow at Horace as he looked at me sidelong.

The apartment was a mirror image of ours, which caused me to immediately feel out of place but comfortable at the same time. A middle-aged woman stood in the tidy living room. She looked distraught and on the verge of tears.

“Over there, over there. He’s over there,” she motioned and pointed to the hallway towards the bedrooms and bathroom.

We stepped forward to look and Milton was revealed to be laying face-up in the middle of the hallway in front of the bathroom door. His ample rounding was wrapped in a brownish bathrobe, leather slippers were on his feet, and his eyes were behind circular glasses. His grey and black hair was neatly combed back from his forehead and his arms were crossed on his chest.

Except for his wheezing, slight tremble, and profuse sweating, he looked like he had just cleaned himself up and decided to take a quick lay-down and stare at the ceiling.

“What the…” I heard Horace say.

“Fuck,” I completed in my mind.

“Dad fell down and we’re not strong enough to move him,” the middle-aged woman said.

“Er, where would you like us to move him?” Horace asked.

“The bedroom, please. The bed.”

His wife had sat down on the embroidered couch and was starting off into space.

“Um, okay,” Horace replied.

We moved and stood over him for a brief moment, then kneeled down on either side of him. His eyes were hazy and had a far-off look to them. Closer, his wheezing was more pronounced and it sounded like he had wet hair in his throat he was forcing air through.

“Milton?” Horace asked.

No response.

“Milton! We’re going to pick you up and put you on the bed! Okay?” Horace shouted into his face.

His head moved almost imperceptibly and his breathing changed cadence.

Horace looked up at the daughter, “You should call a doctor or the medics.”

“We have,” she replied through tears.

“Grab his armpit,” Horace told me. I did.

Our first attempt was a failure. The fucker was heavier than we expected and we nearly dropped him.

“Let’s try that again,” I said. Horace nodded.

“Okay, Milton! One more time!” The wheezing changed again.

Grunting in effort, we heaved his sweaty, bloated mass up, and with heels dragging, took him to the side of the made bed and unceremoniously plopped his upper body down on top of it perpendicularly with legs dangling. Our second effort was to rotate him into place, and this was accomplished with another shouted alert and mini-struggle.

Milton was finally situated, and our wheezes joined his as we caught our breath. Horace and I had a chance to regard him a little more closely from both sides of the bed.

“He really doesn’t look so good,” I observed. “He’s pretty pale.”

We both leaned over to study his face.

“Hey! Milton! Are you okay?!” Horace shouted.

Milton’s lips trembled like he was trying to say something, but no sound came out except for a deeper wheeze.

Puzzled, we didn’t know what to think. We peered at him questioningly.

“Hey, Milton, are you okay?!” I shouted at him.

His lips moved a little bit again.

“Now what?” I asked.

“Thank you. You can go now.”

Startled, we both snapped up. Neither one of us had noticed his wife quietly enter the room.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yeah, he really doesn’t look so good…” Horace offered.

“It’s okay. Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.” Her face was a calm mask.

“Uh, alright.” Horace said. He leaned over Milton, “Bye, Milton! Take care!”

I gave a friendly wave in front of his face.

“Um…good luck?” I offered to the wife on our way out. She nodded.

The daughter was on the phone in the living room, talking quietly on the phone with tears streaming down her face. She waved to us and mouthed, “Thank you,” as we let ourselves out and shut the door behind us.

We walked to our place in silence.

Back in our apartment, I asked, “What the fuck was that?”

“Why the fuck did you open the door?” Horace asked me pointedly. “That was a clusterfuck.”

“I dunno!” I said defensively. “I thought maybe she needed some furniture moved or something.”

“He was dying, dude! That poor bastard’s last few minutes on Earth were us manhandling him up onto his bed and hovering over him like dumbshits asking him if he was okay.”

Milton’s dying lights slowly dawned on me.

“Oh, shit. You’re right.” My eyes went wide.

“Of course I’m right, dickwad. Let’s go. Stan and Oliver are waiting for us.”

We gathered the bong, bud, and beer into a bag and headed over to the other building. The sun had just set on one of those brilliant Spring days in Seattle. The air was clear and clean.

In the circular driveway in front of the buildings was a Medic One unit and a small fire truck. The men were standing around, talking quietly. They were in no hurry.

“Excuse me,” Horace asked one of the paramedics, interrupting their conversation, “How’s Milton?”

“He didn’t make it.”

“Oh.”

There were a silent few beats for the deceased, and then the paramedic pricked up. “Hey, how did you know it was him?”

Horace, a master at oiling squeaky authorities, replied without missing a beat, “He was the oldest and sickest in the building.”

He squinted at us and looked about to ask another question, but was deflected by a question from one of the firemen. We retreated without taking our leave into the secure building.

“What the fuck took you two assholes so long?” Oliver asked us as he let us in.

“We were in no hurry, and we had to stop to help a dying man,” Horace retorted.

This was very different from when my grandfather died. He was already dead before I left, but I wanted to beat the undertakers. I was in a hurry to see him, and things that normally were of no concern became a matter of death.

I was at my desk at Starbucks eating lunch when the call came. It was my mother. I was not expecting to receive the news from her, but from the nursing home.

I had left instructions with every nurse and nursing supervisor I met there to call me when he looked terminal. I told my mother the same thing in case the nursing home fucked up and missed me. I wanted to be there for him.

In the end, they both fucked up as far as I was concerned. The nursing home never called me because I wasn’t immediate next-of-kin and my mother only called me after she managed to pull herself out of her depression-induced inaction after the nursing home called her the second time to tell her he had just died.

The news of her father’s death must have dislodged something, because then she finally called me.

And I sat there after hanging up the phone, hot tears dripping down into my cold bean and cheese burrito with sour cream, thinking about how fucked up it was that people who I thought I could count on blew me off through indifference, silly rules, and sheer incompetence and had cheated me out being there for someone who had often been there for me.

I hung up. She might have still been talking, explaining why she didn’t call earlier.

My grief ignited into passionate anger at the chickenshittyness of it all and I resolved to see him one last time before he was taken from my sight forever.

I gathered my things and prepared myself for the journey northward on I-5 to Lynnwood, mumbling to my boss that I had to leave. I didn’t wait for her acknowledgement.

Racing to the elevator, I hated the people meandering about with their coffee cups leisurely strolling about the office. They were obstacles to weave around.

The elevator pissed me off with its lackadaisical of appearance and then I wanted to break the fingers of and then strangle every person who pushed a button for a stop on the way down.

I cursed the hike to my car in the hinterlands of the industrial district because I couldn’t afford parking closer in and I railed at the fuckedupedness of traffic jams at 2 PM on a Tuesday.

There was an inexhaustible supply of fuel at the human injustice of being chained to a job that only barely paid enough to keep me off the street and that only paid bereavement but not death watch.

What type of system is it that forces us to decide between our jobs and staying separate or ministering to our loved ones during their ultimate, soulful need? We’re supposed to think that being released to attend to their vacant meat is compassion?

My burrito must have been filled with shit for how that tasted.

And then, and then, rushing in to the now-familiar sour, antiseptic piss smell of the nursing home, nearly knocking elderly aside, imaging the tennis balls on their walkers being knocked off and bouncing down the overly polished linoleum hall, to be too late.

A quiet, empty room. An empty bed, sheets removed. My heritage, gone.

The anger, now sublimated into yawning, despaired failure, propelled me towards a grasping attempt to subvert and deny reality, and filled me with false hope that he was just somewhere else where I might visit with him and fulfill the final duty I had given myself.

“Where is Donald?” I ask at the nurse’s station.

“Who?”

“Donald. Room 136. I’m his grandson. I heard he died. I want to see him.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. Hang on a sec.” She picks up the phone.

“Apples! Apples!” Cries a crone sitting in a plastic-covered chair behind me who I didn’t nitoce before. She smells of piss and looks like Yoda. She smiles a toothless grin at me.

My grandfather’s words come back to me, “There aren’t many men here, so I’m pretty popular with the ladies, you know. Some of the nurses are pretty naughty also.”

“Burton’s has already collected him.”

I’m blissfully shaken out of reviewing geriatric sex lives, “I’m sorry, what?”

“Burton’s has already collected him, but they haven’t left the premises. They’re down at the end of this hall and out the doors into the parking lot. You can probably catch them before they leave.”

“Thank you,” I replied numbly. I start down the hallway.

“Apples! Apples!”

I stop at his door and look in. I look down the hallway. I didn’t want my last vision of him to be in a bag in the back of a truck and decide to sit down in his room instead. It smells faintly like shit.

A mop bucket attached to a janitor appears and stops when the janitor sees me. “Oh, sorry man,” he says as the bucket leads him away.

A nurse enters next.

“I’m Janna, I was here when he died. I’m very sorry for your loss,” she says. I’ve never seen or met her before.

“Was it just you?”

“Oh no. There’s always several of us when family can’t be here. There’s almost aways time to gather others. There was another nurse and some of the housekeeping staff. It was very peaceful.”

“…when family can’t be here…almost always time…” roil through my head like thunder and I think about all the other times my family dropped me when I thought I’d be caught.

Right then and there, after thirty five years, I finally learned the lesson that I couldn’t count on them for shit, and that that was my legacy.

“Thank you.”

“There’s no rush to pack up the room. We understand. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No. Thank you.”

She nodded, and was gone.

To this day, I don’t know if she was feeding me bullshit to make me feel better.

I’ll never know.

Image

Go Ask Alice – A Photograph

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Ouroboros

Olympic Mountains, WA. October 2013.

Capitalism is a devourer
trading time for money
and if you’re lucky
the money for time
away from earning the money.

Life is not a balance sheet
yet we are encouraged to account
for every moment
when our accounting is often sloppy.
While happiness
may earn interest
ennui compounds
more quickly
for the spendthrift.