Saturday, January 27, 2018


This is the first of a series of vignettes about growing up in the American Midwest that I'm currently writing and hope to publish as a collection later this year. 

Whitie didn’t drink. Reba Mae was always glad he didn’t. Said with as obsessive-compulsive as he was, he’d be a drunk for sure. But sometimes I kind of wished he did.
I’d have liked to have seen him chill out, relax, kick up his heels, enjoy life a while. Instead, he spent the major part of his precious time depressed, worrying, upset, intense with negative emotion. In and out of psych wards. Holed up in his room in the dark for weeks on end. During those somber days, I figured he might as well be a drunk. At least then, he could numb the pain.
He seldom was worried about anything that was happening to him right then. He was generally worried about what could happen to him later on. He futurized. And the visions he foresaw were always bleak and catastrophic.
Often his worries stemmed from something good that had happened. A new home. A new car. A dream vacation. Then his Great Depression boyhood would kick in, and he would be consumed with guilt and fear over having spent so much money, having risked his future, having tempted the fates.
You had money if you didn’t spend it, he reasoned. And spending it was the best way to get the well to dry up. If you demonstrated that you didn’t care about saving money, that you didn’t respect money, you were playing with fire. Luck would get you for that. Saving was a natural state of affairs—correct, intelligent, like cleanliness and godliness, the right thing to do.  
Spending was the opposite. A wanton act. Wasteful. A sin! And you paid for sins. Call it karma. Call it whatever you wanted. You paid. Spend today and you’d be destitute tomorrow. That about spending money to make money was all a crock. The trick was to make money and keep it.
But there was a tightrope that ran across the abyss between making and saving. And sometimes he would try to close his eyes and rush across that tiny hemp bridge before the Devil saw him pass. Sometimes—manic times—he stepped out of character and took a shot. Like the time he put a large part of his savings into junk bonds, and, for a while, when they were booming, he racked up fifteen, eighteen, twenty percent returns or more a year. I’ve never seen him happier.
Then came the bond trading scandals of the 1980s, the fall of Junk Bond King Michael Milken. And this time Whitie failed to listen to his Great Depression boy’s voice. Kept believing because he wanted to. Kept thinking it was just a glitch in a positive earning trend that would last for years. Forgot that the billionaires always hold the cards, and the ones they don’t deal themselves are up their sleeves.
By the time Whitie panicked and sold, the bottom had fallen out of the high-yield bond market and he’d lost a lot. Not everything. Not what he needed to live on. But enough to worry him and make him feel a sense of loss and failure for years afterward.
Like always, he blamed himself. Not the Milkens who were scapegoat-convicted of fraud, of insider trading, of scamming the little investors to fill their billionaire pockets (while other less high-profile billionaire scammers got away with murder). No. He’d sinned. Gotten greedy. Risked his savings and winnings. Stayed at the blackjack table too long, when he should have known when to say he’d had a good run, cash in his chips and walk away.     
As for Milken, he served two years of a ten-year sentence. He’s still worth two and a half billion dollars today. I figure several tens of thousands of those dollars came out of Whitie’s pockets...
* * *
When I say Whitie didn’t drink, I mean not habitually.
He was an occasional drinker...very occasional. But when he did drink, hardened whisky lushes could have taken lessons from him.
Like the time they were having a little Christmas Party at the family soda fountain and grill that he’d started in our town with two of his brothers after the war and then went on to own for the next twenty-five years. All the “girls” who worked for him and Reba Mae brought their boyfriends and husbands and after the place closed on the twenty-third, they all got together, cooked up food, cracked the seals on bottles of whisky, gin, rum and vodka, and prepared mixers from the soda fountain.
The holiday season was always crazy. Lots of people out shopping—town was different back then, lots of shops, even a J.C. Penney’s— and then stopping by for lunch, supper or a snack. Whitie was over-tired. So were the girls. So was Reba Mae. So was everybody.
But the girls were more fun than a bucket of puppies. Chizz, Linda, Carol and El were the orneriest, always plotting some harmless practical joke and saying and doing the most outrageous things to make you laugh. They were a little more subdued on this particular night because they were with their significant others. But El hadn’t been able to resist the temptation of a crank gift for Whitie.
Nobody’d said anything about gifts, but El was like that. Nice and generous to a fault. But also mischievous as she could be. So in a sweetly decorated box for Reba Mae, there was a pretty scarf—tasteful, sober, the sort of thing she knew Reba would wear. But for Whitie (El’s husband’s name was also Whitey, but spelled with a “y”), there was a mysterious little box about the size for a wallet, all wrapped in shiny foil with Christmas bells on it and tied with a pretty red ribbon.
“Here, Whitie,” she said all smiles. “I knitted something for you,” as her own Whitey drew close grinning his bad-boy grin and watching the other Whitie to see what his reaction would be.
At first glance, it almost looked like El had knitted him a pair of baby booties—delicate white with a touch of red trim. But then Whitie took the item out of the box and laid it on the table and it was plain as day that it was knitted to simulate a perfect set of male genitals. A drawstring sack with dual fitted knit globes attached to something that looked like the long large middle finger of a delicate wool glove—white, ending in a contrasting Christmas crimson tip. (You had to admit, the girl really had a knack for knitting).
Now everybody was gathered around. And after a brief pause, they all burst into laughter.
“What the hell’s this?” Whitie chuckled.
“It’s a peter-warmer! Like a pullover for your whatchamacallit!” El said excitedly, her cheeks red with embarrassment but still grinning from ear to ear.
“Well, it’s too damn small!” Whitie said, and then after holding it up for everybody to see, he put it carefully back into its box and handed it to Reba Mae for her to put in her purse. For years afterward, the item remained neatly folded in its box in White’s underwear drawer at home. Clearly, he appreciated it that somebody had expended that kind of thought, creativity and talent on him—even as a joke.
That kind of set the mood for the rest of the party and things got way rowdier afterward. Whitie drank everything but the water in the Christmas tree stand and was clearly having a high old time, kidding the girls, whispering things in their ears that made them giggle, joshing their boyfriends and husbands, telling jokes and generally cutting up.
Then he mumbled something about having to take some crates out back or something and, suddenly...he was gone.
But gone!
Reba Mae kept glancing toward the kitchen to see if he’d come back in through the side door, but he hadn’t.
“Hey, where’s Whitie?” somebody asked after a while.
“He said he was going out back,” Reba Mae said, “but he’s been out there an awful long time. Did he have his coat on? It’s only twenty degrees out!”
Somebody went to check.
“Car’s gone,” they said when they came back.
Reba Mae looked up with a start. “The car’s gone?”
“Yep. Tracks in the snow heading out the side exit.”
They were talking about Whitie’s big ’56 Royal Crown Imperial, the longest car Chrysler ever made, so long a foot and a half of it —with lantern-like tail-lights perched on its prominent back fins—hung out of Whitie’s garage and wouldn’t allow him to close the door.
He loved that car, and had former Indy race driver Leon Clum as the mechanic for it. Leon thought it was a hot car too, and whenever he worked on it, he and Whitie would take it out for a spin—Leon-style.
“Well, he shouldn’t be driving!” Reba Mae reasoned. “And how the heck are we going to get home?”
“Don’t worry,” the other Whitey said, “we’ll drop you off.” Whitey and El lived in nearby St. Marys.
By the time they’d closed up and El’s Whitey had made good on that promise, Reba Mae was desperate. Where could Whitie have gone? She didn’t know what to do. Whitie’d be furious if she called the Highway Patrol.
So she waited. But not for long. In less than half an hour, El called.
“Reba, Whitie’s headed your way. Yeah. He passed us out on thirty-three, and he was going fast! Whitey said he figured a good ninety or a hundred.
When Whitie pulled in a few minutes later, Reba Mae was standing at the door waiting for him.
Grinning a sloppy, boyish grin, he said, “Hey, how ya doin’?”
“Where the hell have you been?” Reba Mae demanded. “I was worried sick! I almost called the Highway Patrol, ‘cause I thought you might be dead in a ditch somewhere. Where were you?”
“Just took the Imperial for a little spin,” Whitie snorted and then gave a breathy little laugh. “Boy will that sombitch go!”

Saturday, January 13, 2018


A few weeks ago, I wrote here, for the first time, about my birthday. I suppose one of the reasons I’d been thinking about it more than usual was because of the reading I’d been doing. It was reading that had gotten me thinking, not only about my own birthday, but about everyone else’s as well—about what birthdays in general meant, if anything, and about how different people celebrate them, face them, shy away from them, ignore them, or cope with them.
I’ve kind of concluded that, whether we pretend to ignore them or not, if birthdays have any major importance, it is that they are mile-markers, and as such, they qualify as “special days”, days on which we take stock—consciously or subconsciously—of our lives.    
Recently, on the long flight to the US from Patagonia, where I make my home, I began reading a rather odd collection of short stories. The anthology was the brainchild of renowned Japanese novelist, short-story writer, essayist and translator Haruki Murakami. He had selected, introduced and contributed to the collection, for which he acted as editor, and which he called—rather unremarkably—Birthday Stories. (Vantage, London, 2006, © 2002 H. Murakami)

If the title was unremarkable, however, the idea behind this 2002 project wasn’t. Murakami started out by considering his own birthday in 1949 (the same year I was born), and how his attitude toward it had changed since the progressive days of a Japan ravaged by war and nuclear holocaust that picked itself up out of the ashes and re-tooled into a major world industrial power within a short couple of decades. He traced the change in his own perceptions from a youth replete with idealism and rock ‘n’ roll to this time in 2002 when he was in his fifties and was no longer especially glad to be marking each new anniversary of his birth.
And yet, he thought, what if, at fifty-two, he’d been told he had only a few months to live, and now he was marking his fifty-third or fifty-fourth birthday? That, he indicated, would definitely be cause for celebration! “For that,” he wrote, “I can see chartering a boat and setting off a massive firework display in the middle of Tokyo Bay.”
By the way, I think I failed to mention that Murakami turned sixty-nine yesterday. But what’s important about this is that in his introduction to the birthday anthology, he mentions that he especially remembers one that provided a kind of minor revelation. He was attempting to ignore it, having gotten up, as usual, at about 5 a.m. to write, and turning on the news as he was making his morning coffee. The newsreader is giving a rundown of some of the day’s events and celebrations: “...the Emperor was going to plant a ceremonial tree, or a large British passenger ship was due to dock in Yokohama, or events would be taking place around the country in honor of this being official chewing gum day...” And finally, the newsreader lists famous people whose birthday fell that day, January 12th, and suddenly he is hearing his own name, “novelist Haruki Murakami,” being read. And this was when he realized that his birthday was no longer “just for him,” that it had become “a public event.”
With this in mind, Murakami pours himself a cup of coffee, carries it to his studio, turns on some music at low volume and, with the Japanese winter darkness still surrounding him outside, sets to work. “The day was just beginning,” he says. “It was a special day in the year, but at the same time, it was an absolutely ordinary day.”
The writer imagined that he might indeed someday have a birthday when he would feel like sailing out into the middle of Tokyo Bay and setting off an armload of fireworks to celebrate. And if that kind of a day ever came, he wouldn’t hesitate to do so. “But today, at least, was not such a day. This year’s birthday was not such a birthday. I would just be sitting at my desk as always, quietly putting in a day’s work.”
As an aside, I recall a personality from my youth who intentionally set out each year to make her birthday a special event. And I remember that, at the time, I thought this was a brilliant idea, since it somehow seemed to renew her zest for life each year. This was in the Buenos Aires of the mid-1970s and the woman in question was a friend of my mother-in-law’s. Her name was Susana and she had been an important political point person at the grass roots neighborhood level for the Peronist movement (also known as Justicialism), surely—and still today—the most important and controversial political movement in the history of Argentina. One that is credited and blamed for every good and bad thing that has happened here in the last seventy-five years...depending on whom you talk to.
And even then, in the nefarious early years of the military regime known as the Proceso, when political activists of just about every color, and especially Peronists, were disappearing left and right or being shot down on the streets, Susana could still fill her house with hard-nosed remnants of the Peronist old guard for her birthday celebration each year. But this was more than a clandestine political get-together. Through my wife’s mother, we had a more intimate insight into this custom and it was clear to me that Susana’s birthday parties were a generous celebration of life with all of her friends, Peronist or not (since my mother-in-law, for instance, could not have been more rabidly anti-Peronist).
As such, there were rituals that went with it. She would re-paint as much as she could afford of the interior of her cozy house that stood at the end of tree-lined Plaza Vélez Sarsfield, next door to the Church of the Candelaria, and every year, like clockwork, she would buy all new linen for her bed and bath and all new lingerie to wear over the course of the following year. When I knew her, she was nearly eighty, but the drive to maintain this tradition, this bit of clear-cut coquettishness and sophistication, was as strong as it had been when she was thirty. Nor would she rest up excessively for the big evening party. At noon she would meet up with some of her most intimate women friends for lunch at a nice restaurant, and in the afternoon, after a brief siesta, there would be tea with her sisters.
For Susana, celebrating “her day” was of paramount importance. It was a way of ending one year on a high note—no matter what other moods the fate of that year had entertained—and of kick-starting the next one, to which she always looked forward with courage and a positive attitude. I found her, then, an absolutely admirable person, because she never seemed to treat a single day that she had been given with indifference or disdain. Each and every one was a gift, a “present” (that no past or future could deny her).  
Haruki Murakami
Anyway, this idea of birthdays being special—selectively rather than generally—stuck with Haruki Murakami and presented itself with certain ramifications. “Special” could mean a lot of things, as was clear from two stories he’d read about the time the idea of a birthday anthology first hit him. One was Timothy’s Birthday, by William Trevor, and the other one was The Moor by Russell Banks.
Trevor’s story is about a young man struggling with a long-running conflict between the life he wants for himself and the one his parents perceive him to have (despite their vision’s being totally at odds with the protagonist’s reality). The reader is given a glimpse at those conflicting realities (plus a third-party view through the eyes of a friend meeting Timothy’s parents for the first time) at the culminating moment when the young man decides to make a stand and refuses to go to his parents’ place for the rather depressing birthday celebration they’ve prepared for him.
There’s a bitter-sweetness and a heart-wrenching statement on the relativity of time in Banks’s masterfully-written story, The Moor. In it, a late-middle-aged guy out with friends on a snowy evening thinks he sees an elderly woman “giving him the eye” from a table where she appears to be celebrating with people who might be her family.
A regular at this bar, the guy asks the owner who the old lady is and what the occasion is. “The old lady’s eightieth,” the owner tells him. There’s a point at which the guy tells his friends he thinks he knows “the old gal from someplace.” And one of his buddies quips, “Probably an old girlfriend.” At which he laughs sarcastically...but his pal has hit the nail right on the head. And the poignant scenes that follow appeal to the deepest of our youthful memories and emotions.
Murakami also includes a Raymond Carver story in this book: namely, The Bath. It’s the story of a child who falls into a coma on his birthday after being hit by a car. This tragedy is played against the separate and—under the circumstances—surreal perception of a baker who wants to collect his sixteen dollars for the birthday cake that was never picked up and on which he thinks he’s been stiffed. It is a stark portrait of a tragic and sardonic twist of fate as only Carver can paint it.

Contentious baked goods also appear in The Birthday Cake, by Daniel Lyons, in which a bitter, cantankerous old woman refuses to give in to her better instincts and change a sad reality for a single mother and her child, simply by, once in her life, foregoing a set and hollow tradition. And in Lynda Sexon’s Turning, three eccentric elderly ladies tell a four-year-old birthday boy the story of the “Emperor Who Had No Skin” (no clothes, you mean; nope, no skin).
If you’ve ever been a pubescent boy, you’ll identify with David Foster Wallace’s story, Forever Overhead. It’s your thirteenth birthday, you have “seven crunchy black animal hairs” in your left armpit and twelve in your right, you’re having a party tonight, and you’re spending the afternoon at the pool. And despite the fact that your family has insisted on tagging along and making a day of it, you can’t help but notice that the poolside is replete with “girl-women...curved like instruments or fruit, skin burnished brown-bright, suit tops held by delicate knots of fragile colored string against the pull of mysterious weights, suit bottoms riding low over the gentle juts of hips totally unlike your own...”
The recently deceased Denis Johnson also puts in an appearance from beyond the grave in this anthology, with Dundun, yet another powerful and senselessly violent image of the mean-streets world he seemed to know so well. In this case, it’s Dundun’s birthday and he’s celebrating by getting stoned on his birthday present (some gifted opium) and, sort of accidently-on-purpose in a drug-laced haze, shooting one of his erstwhile buds—who’s sitting around dying while the relative merits of taking him to a hospital are being slow-motion weighed.
In Angel of Mercy, Angel of Wrath, Ethan Canin weaves a strange tale of a woman who ends up celebrating her birthday with a lady from the SPCA and a flock of rare blackbirds that fly into her apartment through an open window. And Andrea Lee tells a sexually sophisticated story in The Birthday Present of an American expat living in Italy who decides to fully embrace the idea of “when in Rome...” and give her aging, older husband a date with two high-society call girls for his birthday—with detailed insight into the workings of both her dichotomous inner feelings and of the foreign environment in which she has chosen to live. A similar story but in reverse is A Game of Dice, by Paul Theroux, in which a gambler gives his wife a buff young surfer for her fortieth birthday.
In her simple, cogent style, Claire Keegan shares an introspective birthday moment in the life of a nineteen-year-old boy who decides to take a nocturnal dip in the ocean to celebrate his day. Lewis Robinson’s subjects seem to always have his native Maine as a setting and Ride is no different. It’s the story of a young man, the son of divorced parents, who decides to spend his birthday riding in his truck-driver father's rig. Little does he know that his dad has chosen precisely that day to heist a painting.
And finally, Murakami’s own contribution is called Birthday Girl, and is about a young woman who thinks there’s nothing particularly special about her twentieth birthday and decides to work instead of celebrating, but ends up having one of the strangest and most life-changing moments of her young life.
I can pretty much guarantee that, after reading the Murakami Birthday Stories anthology, you’ll find yourself taking a new look at birthdays and what they mean.     
Whether your birthday is today or some other of the ever-special days of the year, I wish you a very happy one, and many more to come. But “happy” like “special” can mean a lot of things and what I wish you more than anything else is that your special day should be memorable, somehow extraordinary, a day to make you realize that no two days are ever really alike, that every day is a new beginning, that every day that you are alive is truly special, a “present”, because the future only exits in our imaginations.