entry_125“Hello there.” My stepfather would say hello to us whenever he entered the room, invariably. I quickly learned–by rote–that a response was expected. It didn’t seem so outrageous, of course. In fact it seemed a friendly enough thing to do, so I tried it myself for a while. “Hello, Mom. People? Hello. Hello, all.” It didn’t take though.

One might think that the socially ungainly youth would take great solace in such ritualized behavior, insofar as it renders the vulgar act of thinking unnecessary. But to the skeptic there are situational subtleties that social doctrine is insufficient to address, so in fact the act of greeting proved to be a lot of work for me. As I grew ever more self-conscious about these automatic, Tourette’s-like utterances–“good morning,” “bless you,” “oopsie daisies”–it occurred to me that there there were an overwhelming array of hidden factors to be aware of. Had you already said hello to someone two minutes before? Had you forgotten something in another room and merely gotten up to retrieve it, and then returned? What if you had to suddenly go to another room, and a detachment from the original room took another route to get to the same destination for another reason? Did you have to pretend? “Oh! Hello there! Ha ha. Fancy meeting you here, when, just in the other room, you were there, too…”

No, I soon discovered that the mental gymnastics required to justify this kind of greeting were untenable. Perhaps it helped my argument then that my stepfather said hello merely as a means of control–something which, for him, would indeed clarify general usage. Oh, it was obvious. It was in the way his eyes would linger on us after a greeting, waiting for the proper response in such a way as to say, “I’m now waiting for the proper response.” The rest of us would acknowledge him then–a small price to pay for a momentary semblance of amity. But if there was little he could do to coax us to greet each other (“Your brother just got home,” he might say, “so what do we say? Aren’t we going to be civil?”), we were still expected to greet him superfluously, and this required keeping track of the man. Which, after a while, I had begun to do anyway, if only so that I could be somewhere else.

It was all very taxing, to the point where I was forced to forego the act of greeting summarily, even in cases where I hadn’t seen someone for a very long time. Greeting, for me, became a loathsome pleasantry. An obsolete social trifle that I looked down upon unabashedly. This suspension of greeting was, in fact, the only viable avenue I had for balancing the scales that my stepfather had tipped so decidedly in his favor. It was a power struggle, albeit an esoteric one that the rest of my family were unlikely to fully appreciate. I was the only one doing anything about this greeting power trip, and when I started getting the rude looks from others, I wanted to say, “Hey, you want a greeting, you know exactly where to go. Because you’re not getting shit out of me.” I felt righteous.

Perhaps like all stepfathers, my stepfather eventually faded from the family picture. But even so, it took me years to get over the stigma of greeting people. To this day I’m still self-conscious about it, and I think that’s quite a legacy to leave for merely entering a room.

For Sale

entry_122I noticed the car only because of the fancy sign propped up just behind its windshield, which was fogged like a cataract. The sign, intricately decorated with macaroni and glass beads, read, “Finally For Sale, $4,000,” like people had been waiting for it all this time. The sign was far more eye-catching than the subject of advertisement, itself a nondescript American make whose paint was of some elusive color between beige and gray. The U.S. does still craft nondescript cars, though the heyday of these little charmers was in the mid-seventies. Many of them didn’t live long enough to see the beginning of the eighties. These were cars made without flourish, lacking entirely any kind of stylistic nicety. And a $4,000 asking price was far too much to hope for.

It was kind of sad, this diminutive slab of metal. Each day I passed by, I gave the car a courteous glance. It was the least I could do, I thought. Surely this inert box, a product created to fill a niche market identified in some long-abandoned boardroom, was our responsibility still, wasn’t it? Or had we pulled this lackluster thing into existence to satisfy some immediate need, only now to leave it abandoned? The possibility seemed irresponsible, but perhaps not so unfamiliar to a good citizen of the consumer class.

Less than a week since I’d first noticed the car, something about it had changed. The sign. It was the same sign, but it now read, “Finally For Sale, $3,000.” Certainly headed in the right direction, I thought. I imagined that someone had talked to the owner of the car, struggling to point out in as diplomatic a way as possible that $4,000 was a little more than anyone was likely to pay. Where our irresponsibility as social creatures was manifest, perhaps we were redeemed in some way by our ability to thoughtfully adapt to market expectation. The thought didn’t necessarily fill me with warmth, but it was at least something I could take as a positive.

Still the car sat, an object of mounting rejection, and I felt the weight of it. Save for the occasional flicked glance I began to avert my eyes. The car stared at me unblinking though. It wasn’t like a puppy who needed a home – I had no interest in owning a car. No, it was more like a knowing look: You who would pass by. You who are fallible. You, lost in your world of interior monologue.

A week later the sign caught my eye. The price had gone down again, this time to $2,500. It was like watching a bedridden relative waste away. A few days later and the price was set at $2,000. And the beginning of the next week saw it dwindle to $1,200. By then I was ready to write the whole experience off as just so much noise, until the third Thursday when I saw in the car’s window, “Finally For Sale, $971.”

$971? Seeing this provided a strange relief, an excitement, and it quickened my step. Perhaps it was just enough to cover the cost of a drunken dog-buying binge. What had they been thinking that night? Or maybe $971 would get them that home laparoscopy kit they’d had their eye on. But in truth I suspected something much more clever. The fact is that 971 is a prime number, alone and iconoclastic. It doesn’t even pretend at playing with the other numbers. And so it was that I suspected the seller had finally experienced a breakdown of some magnitude, and this price was the result: a coded call for help that none could hear but me. Like gravity though, such calls are a weak force in the face of the commuter’s momentum. I was not immune to a pang of guilt, but my gait afforded me escape velocity from the woe around me. Anyway, I am at heart a voyeur, not a savior – I savor the thrill of the watch.

So, fine, I was not willing to intervene, and the seller’s silent struggle would have to go unassisted. Imagine, then, my surprise when I passed by the sign that read “Finally For Sale, $1,033.” I wondered at it long after I’d passed the car by, and well into the afternoon hours. Was this some play on the dynamic of market psychology? Thinking about it, I felt watched. Someone was watching to see my response twice a day as I passed by, and I was the unwitting puppet. But I didn’t have long to obsess over the point, because both car and sign were gone the next day.

Someone for whom $971 was too small a sum deemed $1,033 the perfect rate for their ticket to independence. And for the seller, that $1,033 had proven to be the sweet spot. But what about the rest of us then? What about me?

The patch of gravel that remained seemed all too empty, and hungry, and I felt – really felt – a tug as I walked by. How silly and sad this had all been then, this drama, this distraction, half conjured to engage otherwise idle synapses. And, if it was possible, I felt a little embarrassed at myself. It was like waking to a sound only to realize that the sound was your own snore. No harm done though, right? And thus chastened I determined that it was the right time to move on anyway.

So I’ve been staring at other things.

Summer of Shrunken Heads

entry_121The neighborhood where I grew up lay on the border between the old quarter and the new. The natives to the land were descendants of those left behind in the frontier days, themselves too unfit physically, socially, or mentally to make the trip westward. The late twentieth century had seen the rise of suburban sprawl and expensive homes, and with that came the lawyers and politicians willing to pay any price to live outside the nearest city. The divide between the old and new was a constant source of fascination for me, especially as tensions flared. On weekends I could hear them both from my bedroom window. To my left the bucolic rhythms of jaunty jug bands and the synchronized slap of bare feet on floorboards echoed into the night, and the morning brought fire and brimstone sermons and wails of repentance. To my right the antiseptic strains of classical music accompanied barbecue gatherings that spiced the air until dusk, and the morning brought the chatter of televisions to keep families safe from conversation and lawsuits.

Daily I watched the uneasy interplay of two cultures brought together in a time of transition, like tectonic plates, one steadily subsuming the other. And though it was this dynamic that was the source of many of my childhood amusements, there’s one memory in particular that I still hold most dear.

The redneck kids decided that the measure of one’s coolness was a factor of how fast they could drive their pick-ups over the neighborhood speed bumps. These latter, like the pavement itself, were an innovation of the “fancy folk,” and a novelty to a people raised on packed dirt and warped porch wood. Of course coolness, like any drug, is something that must escalate in order to remain potent. I was witness to this very phenomenon as, over the course of just a few years, the rednecks went from barely slowing down to actually accelerating as they approached the speed bumps.

Now, it so happened that one of the most unforgiving speed bumps was right in front of my family’s house, which was good fortune for a curious child such as I. So steep was the mound that I would come home from school each day to find my yard littered with the detritus launched from the rear of the rednecks’ pick up trucks as the tires bounced over the incline. Jews harps, corn cob pipes, spent rifle shells, bandanas smelling of gasoline and sweat, old photographs of proud grandmothers grown solemn after their husbands fell for the Confederacy, and a myriad of carved containers.

I was like an archaeologist, poring over the exotic relics from some foreign, but not so distant arcadian land. I’d started a collection, exhibited in our otherwise unused guest house, and my friends and I took to calling it The Museum of White Trasheology. We would take refuge there from the unforgiving heat of late summer, and invent stories to explain the paraphernalia, and we would practice our hillbilly accents while pretending that our lemonade was really moonshine from a still.

A week before school was set to start, our play became more frenzied and our laughs more shrill, but as the last few days of freedom dwindled we could no more deny our lethargy than a death row inmate making his final walk. As summer grew moribund the world we’d created for ourselves had grown more fragile. But I remember the renewed sense of hope I felt on the day I found the long cardboard carton lying intact on my lawn. Rather than opening it where I stood, I instinctively checked to make sure no one was watching before taking it to The Museum.

I called my friends over, and before long we were assembled around the item like curators around the latest artifact from the field. This moment, staring down at the carton, seemed like nothing more than an idyllic memory even then, and I hesitated, not wanting to spoil it. I remember the steady drone of locusts outside, and how it swelled periodically like violins in a horror movie soundtrack. And when I looked up my friends were all looking back at me. Of course they had been waiting for me.

I fished out my pocket knife and slit the wide tape around the seam, then pried the lid off with my fingernails. Inside were two rows of sealed glass cylinders, each with a single shrunken head inside. All but five of the heads were suspended in clear plasma, and the curve of the cylinders magnified the knotty brown skin, empty puckered eye sockets, and mouth slits sewn shut with coarse black thread. Thoughts of school faded like an old dream as our minds filled with superlatives. In an instant our lives had become larger than summertime – we’d made a genuine discovery.

Leaning in to get a closer look, I turned one of the cylinders in its hollow to get a better look at the label. The hand was crude, but the single word was legible: “Regular.” They were all regular, all save for the last two which were dry as raisins. I turned the jar at the end, and jerked my hand away when the words were revealed: “no sauce.”

“Guys,” one of my friends said, “isn’t Jeb’s that rickety old restaurant up by the creek?” He was pointing to a sticker on the outside of the carton. “I don’t know about that,” said another, peering down at one of the cylinders, “but this head looks just like Lawrence’s father, the divorce attorney? Look, he has that huge bulbous nose, just like Mr. Burtenshaw had.” Mr. Burtenshaw, rumor had it, skipped out on his family a few weeks back. They were still talking about it on the news, because the man had neither packed nor left a note. So there was no doubt in our minds that we were looking at Mr. Burtenshaw now – all that remained of him. “Hey, Lawrence,” I said holding a mock phone to my ear, “we found your dad.” There was a stunned silence, and then we all laughed ourselves hoarse.

By the time school started my life felt like an empty routine. I felt vulnerable because of what I knew, because I had gotten a peek behind the curtain. I had to wonder if our parents – the adults – were complicit in this. Was that the deal they’d made? The so-called “fancy folk” could build their townhome estates and strip malls on redneck land provided the flock was trimmed back from time to time? We watched the sons of lawyers and politicians mingle with the redneck kids, but with a newfound respect. And maybe they sensed something about my friends and me. We were quieter when they were around, and sometimes I’d see one of them touch the brim of their baseball cap and nod in our direction. “They know,” said my buddy. “You know they know we know.”

There was a natural order to things, after all, and it had simply adapted to the times. Adapted to the point where shrunken lawyer heads became a part of the balance, as well as a delicacy.

Of course things are different now.


The lady forgot my hot chocolate. The receipt says I was charged for it, but the product never materialized, and I had a lapse and completely forgot about it until now. I worry over the receipt. So much time has passed, yet the reluctance I feel blooming up inside me must be overcome, and soon. Clearly I was charged, and must right this wrong. Up at the counter I see the shift has changed, so I catch the eye of the new attendant and explain my situation. “I was charged but never received,” I say, and flash a hapless smile. He has no reason to disbelieve me, and in fact probably remembers me from previous visits, so he prepares another cup.

No, not “another” cup, make that “a” cup. The first cup. Because of course I never got the cup I ordered. Or so he thinks. In truth he knows absolutely nothing about me. Maybe I’ve been patronizing this shop for the past two years only to set up this heist. In fact perhaps my nerve is such that – even now – I still have the first cup balled up in my clenched fist, and when the man at the counter passes me the fresh cup I will bean him in the forehead with the balled up first cup, righteous in my judgment that it’s all been too easy.

The thought is so perfect in my mind that it summons a wince, and passers by think I’ve just bitten my tongue. The truth is that I’m feeling guilty over nothing. It’s a phantom guilt. Pangs over what I might have done, or may yet do still.

The veracity of my story is assumed how? Faith alone: a fragile truth, a fragile trust, a bond borne on absence of suspicion above anything else. It offers almost too tempting an opening for disaster. I imagine wheeling around and spraying my hot chocolate on the nearest patron. “There! You happy now? You should have said no when I asked for a hot chocolate! You should have charged me treble! This all might have been avoided!”

Most of the things I feel bad about are things I’ve manufactured, though they’re no less plausible than any truth. And what is truth, really? I may well have purchased my lunch with money stolen from some beggar’s cup, so why not? Two paths lead to the same destination, one a path of virtue, and the other a path of deceit. Who knows which path I’ve taken but myself? Knowing the truth is insufficient to excuse me from the possibility of guilt.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be feeling this guilt at all if people knew what I was capable of, and realized just how flimsy and inadequate an assumption can be. I return to my seat with the certainty that I’ve just stolen a cup of hot chocolate.