Tuesday, May 31, 2011

2008 Volvo…Monday…2:17 a.m.…77 m.p.h….

What is there to say when the unspeakable is…?
The phrase escapes me. Ironic, given that I earn my living telling corporate stories, crafting annual sagas illustrated with compelling financials for the benefit of key stakeholders, these being consumers and investors.
Visited—that’s the word.
When the unspeakable is visited upon you.
Upon your family.
Your child.
            Like the rest of America, I’d read the headlines, watched the crime docutainments, consuming the re-warmed cold cases and counting the minutes before the doors were kicked in and justice was served at the top of the hour. But it was all at arm’s length—or farther—viewed on silent screens while I emailed clients from airports where men like myself—husbands and fathers on vacation—grew annoyed with looping questions from their children.
            Kids like my son.
            I have nothing but questions of my own now, endless fodder for frustration. But the irritation isn’t there. Where is the anger that once smoldered around me every morning on the drive into Manhattan and lingered after heated discussions with finance guys?
            What I wouldn’t give to be pissed off right now.
            Gwen has her yoga, her women’s groups, her centeredness.
            I have inertia.
            Just north of Stamford, a sign along I-95 announces Vacancy at a motel with an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. Proof that there’s nothing like the hospitality of the American road.
            In this spirit, I extend an invitation to rage:
Come on in.
Visit anytime.
            But I already have a guest—my conscience—a presence both quiet and unfailingly polite.
            I pray that riding shotgun with me will change that.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Hank's mother was gone by the time he woke up. It was a Saturday, a day when his mother no longer had to press cotton factory uniforms and institutional linens. Mr. Duvall had told her she was too pretty to be stuck in a laundry on a Saturday afternoon. After that, his mother worked on the weekday shift. Usually, she would be in Aunt Lily's kitchen on a day off, the two women still in their robes, talking while they warmed their hands around cups of tea. In the afternoons his mother sometimes sat on the porch, wearing trousers that had legs like old balloons. Riding clothes, she called them.
            There were two coins by Hank's place at the table that morning. A nickel and a dime, and a piece of yellow paper. It was a note from his mother. Here is money for the pictures and a sweet. Mind your uncle Rollie. Mother.
            Hank sat at the table and ate a piece of bread, pulling the crust off with his fingers. He ate a second piece with currant jam, taking care to not use too much. They were guests in this house, his mother said, and they were not to take advantage of his aunt and uncle.
            Hank heard his uncle get up from the blue chair in the front room. Uncle Rollie's chair. He could hear his uncle fit his arms into the padded cuffs of his crutches. Uncle Rollie's arms were like legs. His thick-soled shoes squeaked like wagon wheels as he came through the front room, then down the hall and into the kitchen.
            "They've gone out, the pair of them," said his uncle. "Out before a man could get a lick of tea." Uncle Rollie was from Belfast, as were his aunt and mother.
            Hank knew to light the stove and put the kettle on to boil.
            "What's it coming to when a boy of seven makes tea for a cripple of forty? Can you tell me that?"
            "Do your legs hurt?" said Hank.
            "Like the goddom devil. A bit worse today. No figuring why. But don't you mind, you'll be having a life of your own soon enough."
            Hank swept the coins off the table into his cupped palm, then slipped them into his pocket.
            "So you're going to the picture show," said Uncle Rollie.
            "Ma said I could."
            The kettle began to warble softly.
            "I'll walk you then, if you don't mind me dragging."
            "I'll wait," said Hank. He splashed the hot water into the teapot with the spiderweb cracks. He let the tea steep a full three minutes the way his uncle liked it, then poured a cup for the old man.
            "That's a lad, Hank." It sounded like honk the way he said it. "A cup and we'll go."
            They walked along Hinckly Street, stopping at every other corner so his uncle could rest.
            "I was a keen one for the football when I was your age," said his uncle. Hank knew it wasn't really football, not like they played in the States. "Oh yes," his uncle went on, "but my bones got rusty, just like a machine."
            His uncle stopped again when they had walked as far as Tack's. "Tell you what, Hank," he said. "I'm not one for the picture shows. Too fancy for the likes of me. So you be a lad and run along now. If you're quick, you'll have your pick of the seats and you won't miss the Mickey Mouse. You can tell me the story when it's over. I'll be waiting."
            "I'll run straight back," said Hank.
            "No need to run, lad. I'll be here."
            Tack's served hamburger sandwiches and there was bowling in the basement, but his Uncle Rollie never ate the food and liked to sit upstairs. He would listen to the radio and drink Ballantine Ale with his crutches beside him.
            "Off you go," his uncle said. Rested now, he clumped up the stairs and pushed through the door.
            Hank bought his movie ticked with the dime in his pocket. The man in the booth asked him how his mother was.
            "Fine," Hank said.
            The man winked back at him and fingered the brass buttons on his usher's uniform.
            Hank felt the heat of the nickel in his palm as he walked to where they sold steamed hot dogs and candy and lemonade. The candy was a penny a piece, so Hank bought four different kinds and asked the woman to put them all in a paper sack. There was a licorice whip for Uncle Rollie, and orange jelly for Aunt Lily, two Mary Janes for his mother and gum ball for himself; he wanted something that would last.
            Hank wasn't the first one in the theater—he was the fifth. He took a seat exactly in the middle of the theater, three rows behind a girl from school who was there with her parents. She had gotten sick in class once, and her name was Laura. When she saw him sit down, she stared at him for a moment, then snapped her head around, flinging her pigtails. Hank wondered what she was whispering to her tall father.
            Hank's father had been a short man, an Italian. His name was Elario Martinello, but at school Hank wrote Martinell. His mother said that she didn't want people to get the wrong idea.
            Hank popped the gum ball into his mouth when the cartoon came on. It wasn't a Mickey Mouse, but it was funny enough. It was about a porcupine that was lost in someone's house. The people who lived in the house kept sitting on the porcupine, thinking it was a chair or a cushion. The feature was called The Dusty Plains of Amarillo. Hank liked westerns that had a silent Indian scout and a hero who could shoot from the saddle. This one had a crooked sheriff, a band of Mexican thieves, and a half-breed boy who could ride bareback. In the picture, they said the boy was as fast as the wind.
            Hank had liked the sound of that. He repeated the words to himself as he ran to Tack's with the candy rustling in the paper sack. He found Uncle Rollie at the table just inside the door. Hank counted three large wet rings on the surface of the table, two smaller rings and a lot of peanut shells. Uncle Rollie had a fleck of foam on his chin and his eyes were closed. Hank touched him on the shoulder.
            "Dommit now," said Uncle Rollie; he flinched as though he'd been stung by a hornet, then opened his eyes. "You're back early."
            "I ran," Hank said.
            "And you're waiting for me to hobble home with you."
            "Help a man up then, lad."
            On the walk back, Uncle Rollie bit off pieces of licorice and pointed out the Fords and the Buicks and the Plymouths.
            "Do you see that one there, Hank?" his uncle asked as they passed a bluish-black car parked in front of the house. "That one they call a Packard, and she's a lovely automobile."
            The car glowed in the yard like the shell of a june bug. Hank drew a horse and then a teepee in the thin film of dust on the fender. The half-breed boy had held a knife in his teeth and had gone after the man who had killed his father.
            "Wouldn't it be grand to have a ride in her, Hank?" said Uncle Rollie.
            "I don't know. Maybe."
            "Sure you'd like it, a fine motorcar like that."
            "I guess so," said Hank.
            He could see that there were people standing by the windows in the front room. Some were moving about and others were drinking from the good glasses that Aunt Lily kept wrapped in twists of tissue paper. A man in a blue suit was laughing. Hank thought he saw his cousin Jackie, but then he wasn't sure.
            The narrow house was filled with people. His Uncle Jimmy mussed his hair when he came inside, and his Aunt Charlotte kissed him twice, and a woman from Mr. Duvall's laundry told him that he was a lucky boy, maybe the luckiest. A man with a stiff mustache shook his hand for a long time. "That's right," he said. "Manners is what makes a man." The guests stepped aside so that Uncle Rollie could get to his chair.
            His Aunt Lily was alone in the kitchen, taking dainty puffs on a cigarette while she carved pink slices of lamb on a platter. A bright, coppery coil of hair unraveled over the collar of her dress as she worked. It was the green dress, the one she wore to services at the First Presbyterian Church and to the Flora MacDonald Lodge meetings.
            She stubbed our her cigarette when she saw Hank. "Dear Hankie, did you ever see such a lot in this wee house? Thirty-eight souls and more to come."
            "Where's Ma?"
            "She'll be along quick as a cat. Promise. She's got a bit of news for you. A surprise like." Aunt Lily looked closely at his face. "Now you make me a promise. You'll do that for your Auntie, won't you, dear?"
            "Promise you'll stay with the guests and be the fine lad that you are. Go on now, and you'll get a king's slice of this at the table."
            His aunt opened the door to the pantry. There, on a glass plate, sat a tall white cake with two celluloid figures perched on top. A little man and woman.
            "I promise," Hank said, giving her the orange jelly from the sack in his hand.
            "You're a dear, sweet one," said Aunt Lily. She watched him leave, then gave a little sigh as the picked up the carving knife.
            Hank took the paper sack quietly upstairs to his room and shut the door. The sounds of the guests in the front room burbled beneath him like a hidden stream. He pressed his ear to the cold iron register so that he could hear them better. There was talk of President Hoover and a warehouse fire and the new silk factory that had been built along the river; but nothing was said about his mother. Hank heard a man say that the unions were around to help men like Uncle Rollie—men who had gotten hurt filling the pockets of the fat factory bosses. Uncle Rollie laughed at that and said that the unions had their own fat bosses and plenty of them, so it was all the same to him. The man told Uncle Rollie to go to a union meeting, so he could see the matter for himself. Uncle Rollie said he didn't need to join anything that took his money. The government did that already, he said. The man was quiet after that.
            Hank lay down on his bed and drew pictures in the margins of a newspaper. He made a stagecoach and a knife, and then wrote his name three times. Martinell, Martinell, Martinello.           
            Hank's mother was standing by his bed when he awoke. She kissed him on the cheek and said, "I'm sorry I was gone, love, but I have a surprise for you."
            She was wearing a gray dress that Hank had seen before, but with a new hat that dipped low over her eyes. She took both his hands and told him to sit up.
            "I have something to show you," she said.
            "Wait, Ma," said Hank. He shook the paper sack over the bedspread in front of her.
            "Mary Janes," she said, poking at the candy with a gloved finger. "And two of them. Are they for me?"
            "Yes. Both."
            He could smell her perfume as she hugged him; it was strange and sweet, like the smell of a substitute teacher.
            "Close your eyes now, Hank."
            He could see only her mouth and part of her nose.
            "Come on," she said.
            Hank put his hands over his eyes.
            "No peeking," said his mother.
            Hank squinted through the space between his fingers at a plain-faced man walking into the room. The man was holding a homburg hat in one hand and a box wrapped in red paper and a ribbon in his other hand. Hank's mother smiled at the man under the brim of her hat.
            "Look what I brought you, Hank," she said.
            Hank let his hands drop to the bed spread.
            The man stepped forward to give Hank the package, then backed away, gripping his hat with both hands. "That's for you, Hank," said the man. "Hope you like her."
            Hank looked from the man to his mother, then opened the package. Inside was a wooden tugboat with a string nailed to the bow, a baby's toy.
            "Thanks," said Hank.
            "I thought you might like her," said the man. "Maybe you and me could try her out at the park, down by the stream there."
            "Sure." Hank pushed the boat beneath the brightly colored paper.
            Hank's mother sat down on the edge of the bed and said, "Mr. Pikes is going to be your new da."
            Hank looked at the man, not wanting to see his mother's eyes under the hat.
            "Every boy needs a proper father," said Mr. Pikes. "That's the way I figure it."
            Hank's mother stood up and smoothed the back of her dress as she glanced at the mirror on the back of the door.
            Mr. Pikes looked at his watch and said, "We got time, Aggie."
            "I won't be losing our reservation," said Hank's mother. "Not tonight. Come down and see us off now, Hank. We'll be leaving in a wink. Mr. Pikes and I are spending the night in New York City, but we'll be picking you up come morning."
            Hank watched his mother go downstairs, bending her neck to keep from bumping her hat on the ceiling.
            Mr. Pikes leaned back against the door jamb. "I'd like you to call me Dad, but I won't be making you do it," he said. "You think it over some. We'll have ourselves a talk sometime. I figure we got all the time in the world." Then he was gone. 
            Hank heard the voices downstairs as a toast was made to his mother and Mr. Pikes. He listened in the dark until the only remaining sound was a moth throbbing in the lampshade across the room, distant Indian drums.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

VW Westfalia…Monday…7:02 a.m.…68 m.p.h.…

I had a screamer on the phone, a line four deep at the service desk, and Lothar was nowhere to be found. As far as I’m concerned, the German reputation for discipline is as overblown as their pricey beer. They’ve been coasting for years. Hell, most of the cars on the lot were cranked out south of the border in Puebla. It being Friday, I figured our Teutonic technician was at his girlfriend’s place in Port Chester, sleeping off a night of salsa dancing.
When the phone rang again, I handed it to Larry Junior, the dealer’s son, who had just strolled in with his cruller and coffee. LJ, as he prefers to be called, is the nominal head of Sales and Service, though he has no knack for either. His only talent, if you want to call it that, is an ability to find nonexistent problems. He’ll pace around the service bays, sniffing out a faulty transmission on a car in for an oil change or a worn-out universal joint on a job that should call for no more than a new fanbelt. A real trouble-shooter, if you know what I mean. Of course, these issues just happen to be on vehicles still under warranty. After all, the customer is less apt to complain about a whopping service ticket when the manufacturer is paying.
When I got a heated call from a guy who bought a New Beetle for his teenage daughter, I made inquiries. Was it really possible that a piston rod, the gas line and the catalytic converter could crap out on a car with less than 10k on the odometer?
LJ looked up from the game of Omaha high-low poker on his computer. “Don’t make ‘em like they used to,” he said.
“Come on, LJ. I’m not some putz out tire-kickin’.”
“The customer is always right,” he said, “but sometimes he needs to be told what right is.” 
I didn’t say anything right then.
Didn’t need to.
I imagine he got the message 20 minutes later, when Lothar informed him that the new kid, Rodrigo, had seen me driving off the lot in the ‘85 Westfalia that served as the courtesy van...