J. F. NEWMAN

On Decorum

imagesIn our profane twenties, my wife had a signal for when she felt I’d crossed the line at parties. With the stealth of a Lutheran ninja, she would drift toward our host’s front door, where she would begin quietly putting on her shoes. Then she would make eye contact with me, which was sometimes a struggle at this hour of the evening, when the horizon would abandon me, and she would point, ever so subtly, at her feet. She would let her eyes go sad, as if to accuse me, in my boorishness, of both embarrassing her and reminding her how happy she had been in the Midwest, and what a terrible mistake everything had been since.

“Whelp,” I’d say to whoever was still listening. “I really thought I’d pulled up in time. But apparently not. Hope we’re still friends in the morning, ta-ta.” Then I would slip on my boots and spill out the door and flop into the passenger seat, where I would spend the next twenty minutes breathing heavily and farting.

When we really had a humdinger rolling, I would occasionally strip off my clothes and run around in the backyard. Or the front yard. Sometimes through the living room. I was proud of these pure Olympics, as I referred to them in my head. How wonderful it was, to feel confident and athletic as our thirties snuck up on us, how bracing the January air felt on my shoulders. And what wonderful friends we had, that they accepted me, constellation of back moles and all!

I remember one winter night, about ten years ago. We were all twenty-nine. It had been a good party, maybe we’d upgraded from Yellowtail, but probably not. Somebody had turned the Snoop Dogg to eleven, and I was straight feeling it, that gin-and-juice flowing from the fountain of youth right into my soul. And yet, it seemed that maybe not every one was enjoying the bubonic chronic to the level I hoped they would. And why was everyone dressed so nice? That’s not how we do. We keep it real. We remember where we came from.

There was only one solution. The party needed to see me naked. It wouldn’t just be liberating for me (again), it would be liberating for them. It would be my gift to the frolic, I would sacrifice my shame so they could feel renewed in the party spirit. I, in my bodily liberation, would pull the nails from the joists, so that they, in their joyfulness, would be free to tear the roof off the sucka. This cup, that cup, all the cups, passeth not from me. I will be your party Jesus.

Michelle, it is told, saw it all from the driveway. She had been asked to move our car so that two sober friends might leave. Trapped behind the steering wheel, restrained by a safety belt that, even though she was only pulling into the turnaround, her Minnesotan good sense compelled her to fasten, she saw my face alight in the yard with the purest of ideas.

“Noooo,” came her silent lament, trapped behind the windshield. “Don’t you dare,” she yelled again, as my thumbs hooked the waistband of my boxer shorts. But it was too late. Salvation had arrived.

She found me on the porch. Pull your pants up right now.

I tried to explain that I didn’t want to do it, but that I had been called to service.

You have family here.

It was at this hour of the evening that I began to wonder whether my judgment might be significantly out of alignment.

There comes a moment when the woman you love looks at you like you’re the dog who has just shat on the new carpet of life dreams. In an instant, fuzzy memories from a decade of excess come rushing in. Oh, god, you think. I’m sorry. Please don’t tell our unborn children.

And so it ended. Our twenties. My ill-advised liberations. I made a solemn vow that evening, a solemn vow, to never be the naked guy at parties again. And, on the eve of our forties, I can say that I have kept that promise. But still, sometimes when we are chatting pleasantly with the parents of our children’s friends, remarking on the tenderness of the steak or the price of oil, I will look fondly at Michelle’s shoes. I will suck in my gut and my pants will feel loose, I’ll hear the beat in my head, and remember the January air.

I whisper in Michelle’s ear. Maybe, she says, and holds my hand firmly under the table.

 

 

 

Story of My Life

You know, I’m just going to say it. One Direction isn’t that bad.

The blog is back!

Happy 2015! After a brief break for some life and work readjustments, jfnewman.com is back with a cleaner format that makes sharing and commenting easier.

For those of us (most of us) born in 1975, this year brings the forty to the party. So here’s the theme. Identity. We’ve spent the previous two-score years trying to figure out who we are and what we want to be. I’ve been through that cycle a couple of times, trying on identities like holiday sweaters, looking more ridiculous in each one. Rare book guy. Art guy. Joiner. Loner. Farmer. Father. The last one fits the best, thank goodness, but it’s still a little tight. So what’s the through line? What color do I prefer, even if I haven’t found the right size yet?

Writer.

Just last week, we were packing up our lives again, leaving our hometown once more, probably for good. Mom found many things I’d written years ago and gave them to me in a box. I think there are probably a lot of boxes out there, with our true selves stuffed inside. Since we’re forty now, or will be soon, we’ve succeeded or failed, had adventures or haven’t. Everyone is looking for answers. I think the ones I’m looking for (still) are under the soggy cardboard flaps. Where are yours?

Rejoice

“Rejoice” appears in the October 2014 issue of Gravel Magazine!

tumblr_inline_nbfdxwHlrj1rhu4gvPeter hands us each a lemonade. He is our most New England friend, his reds faded and wrinkled, and he sits with his legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles. It is the end of August and the afternoon is humid. Our sons play on the grass with Peter’s girls. He looks after them with a queer anguish around his eyes that I haven’t seen before.

“So when did you guys get back?” I ask.

“We went canoeing in Missouri,” he says.

Peter takes a long sip of his drink. He whips the ice from his empty glass onto the lawn. I slide off my sandals and rest the bottoms of my feet on the cool bluestone. Peter speaks with his elbows on the iron table, hands clasped.

Wasps buzz near the gutters.

#

It’s my friend Charlie’s idea, Peter says, my roommate at Washington, the one we visit in Saint Louis every year. The rains had stopped a week before. The weather had been like this, only thicker, so the river should have been down. We load his silver canoe and two kayaks on the aluminum trailer and drive down to the public ramp. The Meramec hooks through this little downtown area—a squat brick prairie oasis that reminds me of Norwich or Willimantic—busted windows and empty, the kind of place that catches the sinners dropped by an angry god.

I help Jenny and Angela cinch up Charlie’s cracked, spare lifejackets. His uncle and nephew join us. I place each of the girls in the middle of the canoe and hand them a baggie of animal crackers. The uncle is bigger than me and won’t fit in the kayaks. I offer him the back of the canoe. He shrugs. I don’t make much of it. He seems like an amiable, go-along kind of guy.

We shove off. The nephew, kid has to be sixteen, his legs are so long that when he folds himself into the kayak, it seems his knees are over his head. He dashes out front. The uncle and I paddle gently on alternate sides. Charlie follows. The river is slow but steady.

This is what I love about going out there, why I went to Wash over Bowdoin or Middlebury. We’re explorers, Lewis and Clark, charting the Louisiana Purchase with the winds of Manifest Destiny at our backs and science in our hearts.

#

“Trust me on this,” Peter says, refilling his glass from the sweating pitcher. “The story skips around a bit.”

#

The Rejoice! evangelical church is over in DeSoto, about two miles from Charlie’s place. He’s changed a lot since college, religion especially. The congregants worship in a beige metal pre-fab monstrosity adjoined to a desacralized Catholic church. The historic stone building is now used for childcare during services in the new space. These two buildings, they’re everything about religion in America. One is a humble sanctuary hand-built by the faithful, the centerpiece of a frontier town. The other arrived on a flatbed and boasts a 10,000-watt audio system and an eight-foot projector screen. Given the exclamation point at the end of its name, it’s impossible to experience Rejoice! and not feel like someone is shouting, “Jesus Christ!” at the top their lungs, all the time.

The minister stands on the stage. Charlie says he’s coach of the local girls’ basketball team. He has one of those small boom microphones in his ear. He fires up the laser pointer and starts showing slides on the screen of a youth mission trip to Nicaragua. The nephew shows up in a bunch—arms around a group of native kids, sleeping on the bus—seems like a popular guy. That’s how we ended up at the service or whatever the hell it was. Charlie wanted to see the pictures.

Most Midwesterners don’t waste words, but the minister, he’s talking non-stop. “I’d like to share some powerful testimonials with you,” he says, “about how Jesus found us in South America because Jesus is everywhere, even with us right now, just as He was down in Nicaragua—amen, praise His name—and how we’re back and He’s still with us, and here’s one young man who grew in Christ just when he felt God had forsaken him.”

Get this—the nephew climbs on stage, hands in his pockets, dark hair over his eyes.

#

I paddle harder on the right. So does the uncle. Don’t think either of us had much canoe experience. We accelerate into the turn, rather than pivot away from the shallows like we should. The aluminum bottom scrapes the sand bar. Our girls grip the sides, nervous. I hop out and shove the boat off the sand. The current grabs the canoe as the riverbed drops off beneath me. My foot gets caught on the gunnel and I flop into the river.

My daughters think this splashing is hilarious. The uncle holds the canoe steady while I climb back in. The cool water feels good in the heat, so I’m fine, if a little more apprehensive about the whole adventure.

“We’ll get her straightened out,” the uncle says.

I try to put some faith in that.

#

The nephew with hair in his eyes, now he’s holding a microphone. He thanks Jesus, praises His name. The audience cheers and shouts amen.

“I didn’t realize how far I’d drifted away from Jesus until I got to Nicaragua,” the nephew says.

You know me. As a sociable Connecticut native, I love fretting about God and conscience while sitting around a dusty bottle of gin and a Triscuit with my fellow Yankees. But this kid is too young for that kind of anxiety.

The nephew keeps going. “Lately, my legs have been feeling pretty tired,” he says. “There we were, in this beautiful country with these amazing mountains. I wanted to hike all of it and I couldn’t and I wondered whether Jesus was trying to tell me something. Santiago, our mission host, found me praying and he gathered his cohorts together and they laid their hands on me. They said, ‘Jesus will heal you and you will heal others in His name.’”

Nearly the whole church shouts amen again, louder than before.

The kid knows he’s got everyone just hanging on his words. “When I woke in the morning,” he says, “my legs were full of energy and life. I ran with joy into those mountains. Jesus was telling me that I needed to trust my body to Him, trust everything to Him. That,” he says for emphasis, “is my testimonial.”

The congregation claps and hoots and several people in American flag t-shirts throw their hands in the air.

#

The Meramec turns and folds back on itself so much I forget whether it flows east or west. The next bend, there’s another sand bar on the right. On the left, an old birch has toppled from the bank into the water. Those rains, they’d turned most of the soil into sponge cake.

“Let’s swing her left here, get around the shallows,” I call to the uncle, “then hit it hard to the right, stay off that tree.”

We overcompensate. We bring the bow left in a hurry—too much, too fast. We’re pointing at the taproot of the downed tree, the river pushing us faster into the narrow space between the sandbar and the trunk. I switch sides with my paddle and shout to the uncle to drag it hard so we can avoid the hazard. She comes around right a bit, but not enough. The children begin to yell.

A large limb, eye-level, sticks out over the water. I hold up my oak paddle crossways and lock my arms, thinking I might be able to stop us or at least shove the canoe away from the tree. The flow of the river is too strong. The oar flies over my head and I’m pressed across the gunnel. Leaves brush my chest. As I fall into the river, I worry the limb will hit the children.

The current takes me immediately. I surface ten yards away. The water isn’t deep and I can feel the silt under my sandals. The children are screaming, with expressions of honest terror that I’ve never seen before. In the chaos, I am moved by their fear of losing me. It’s like death has absolutely never occurred to either one, and somehow there’s an instant where I mourn that lost bit of their inexperience.

I’m determined to return to them, even if I have to swallow the whole river to do so. I grab some thin branches, the top of the birch, and pull myself up river to the canoe, now stuck in a tangle of limbs.

The uncle is standing in the water trying hard to hold the boat steady. Jenny and Angela are both crying, little hands grasping the sides. I am a yard away when the stern—right, the stern?—comes around, despite the uncle’s struggle.

“Don’t do that!” I shout, to the uncle, to the river, to whoever is listening. But it’s too late. Soon as the canoe spins perpendicular to the current, it flips. Four pink feet flash up in the air before going under the water. The children disappear.

Jenny pops up right away, soaked and screaming and miraculously still wearing her new red glasses. The uncle grabs her. But we can’t find Angela. One second. Two seconds. I yell for her. Three seconds. The silver belly of the canoe begins to float away. I realize she must be trapped underneath.

We lunge for the canoe and turn it over. Angela is there, eyes bright, her hands reaching for us. I grab her. Her arm shoots around my neck and locks tight.

#

That next day, Sunday, we’re sitting on Charlie’s deck after the church service. The uncle and nephew have gone home.

The house is built on a hill. A small lake rests in the hollow, past which the prairie stretches green and gentle to the west. A breeze rustles the soybean crop and young corn. The leaves move like the river, quiet and steady.

“What did you think about my nephew’s testimonial?” Charlie asks me.

I’m holding Angela in my lap. She has a small cut on her shoulder from our adventure the day before. Her head rests on my chest.

“Did they do any humanitarian work down there, maybe pick up a hammer, or was it just a lot of evangelizing?” I ask.

Charlie sips from a beer. “He’s good at things, my nephew. He runs fast, jumps high. Forward on the soccer team. The leg thing? He’s just diagnosed with some kind of ataxia, one of those diseases where your body just quits on you. Doctors say there’ll be peaks and valleys and room for praying, but it’s still three years to the wheelchair.”

#

After the accident, the uncle and I get the kids onto the riverbank. The nephew pulls his kayak onto the sand bar and waits. Charlie joins us on shore.

“We have to get the kids back in the canoe,” he says.

“Absolutely not,” I say. “They’re terrified and soaked. We’ll walk to the road.”

Charlie doesn’t hesitate. “It’s miles to the nearest street, across acres of prickers, bugs, snakes, brush, everything. The river is the only way.”

If this were college or any time in the decade after, I would have told him to you-know-what himself. But we both have families, and there was a good part of his family staring at a good part of mine, and it was like everyone felt a little bit responsible, but somehow the whole country still got between us. That friendship was just gone, you know?

Then I notice Jenny surveying the canoe and our gear. She looks up at us and says, “it’s okay,” with the same affable shrug as the uncle, like she’d learned something from him I couldn’t teach her in a thousand years. There’s no panic in her eyes, no more tears. Her courage calms Angela right down. Sometimes it seems like your kids grow up when you’re not looking. It’s a wonder when you get to witness.

It’s decided. Charlie walks the canoe past the fallen tree, to a sandy dip in the bank. Without waiting, Jenny, despite losing her flip-flops in the accident, marches off through the brush to catch up with him.

We realign. Charlie talks over steering the canoe, the uncle sits in the bow. Jenny is between them. We ferry Angela to the nephew’s kayak. She squeezes in between his legs, where she’ll be safer. I climb in Charlie’s kayak. As we shove off again, Jenny asks whether she can have more animal crackers when we return. As many as you want, I say.

The water seems quieter from that point on. We pass more downed trees, but only when the river is wide and straight. I’m still angry—at Charlie for not knowing about the debris in the water, at the uncle for not steering us, at the river, at myself most of all for taking a chance with the kids in the first place. I take the lead to hide my darkened face. It feels good to be out front, like I’ve regained some control. A minute passes. Then I bash my paddle on the deck of the kayak and shout, goddamnit.

Just then, a giant bald eagle swoops down over the river from the canopy above, its wings outstretched and full of grace. The bird glides silently ahead of us. I’ve never seen one so close before, and I am shocked by how still its feathers are, like it’s not the wind keeping it aloft but something else. The whole river is quiet.

“Follow it!” the nephew shouts.

I watch the eagle for a moment, rapt, then it banks to the right and is gone.

The anger flies away and I breathe again. Charlie is a solid friend, I remind myself. His good nature made this New England kid feel at home during my four-year self-exploring expedition to the Middle West.

It’s no one’s fault. Rivers do what they do. The children are safe. That is all that matters.

#

A few days later, we drive home to Connecticut. Carla and the girls are sleeping. As Indiana blends into Ohio, I keep thinking about the nephew and his legs, about Angela under the canoe, about the eagle over the water. I decide that I hope the boy keeps his faith, even while mine is still knee-deep, like the shallows of the river.

What a marvel to have such trust, don’t you agree? Those people have something we don’t. I don’t know if it’s innocence or just an unwillingness to really study the damn Bible or a belief that Christianity is like your underwear drawer, you just grab what you feel like wearing that day. But it works for them in a way it never could for us, living with the ghost of Jonathan Edwards down the street. But, sometimes, I think I might want to let my spirit rejoice. Wouldn’t it be great to stand up and shout, “amen!” and have a bunch of people yell it right back to you?

#

“Peter, that’s incredible,” I say, placing my own empty glass on the metal table.

He leans back in his chair. A patch of sweat is visible in the center of his blue shirt. “Tomorrow’s Sunday again,” he says, looking after his daughters.

A wasp lands on the rim of the lemonade pitcher. The children are playing tag. One of our boys pushes Angela hard and she hits the ground. You’re dead, her sister shouts. I am not, she says, rising up.

The wasp completes its circumnavigation, then lingers for a bit, rubbing its legs together. By the gutter, its brethren drone on, tempted by the sweetness but still ignorant and afraid.

Now Batting, Number Two

jeterRC

I didn’t watch the Yankees last night. After nearly three years of long goodbyes—Posada, Pettite, and Rivera—it finally seemed liked too much. This franchise I learned to love in the 80s, deluded by youth, and again in the 90s, when the improbable wins beat back a young man’s natural cynicism, had become a lumbering juggernaut. My disinterest wasn’t entirely Rodriguez’s fault, though that nonsense played a part. Mostly, I was older, they were older. It just didn’t seem to matter as much to either of us.

In his eighties, our grandfather, whom I’ve written about before, moved out of the house he built into a small apartment above his garage. In his tiny living room, we, the grandkids, would sit on an old couch, springs stretched beyond usefulness, and watch the game with him. As we got older, sometimes we’d share a beer or jug wine poured in a juice glass.

He died in the spring of 2001, before September 11th and before the Yankees lost the seventh game of the World Series in the bottom of the ninth. In retrospect, a lot of things ended that year, and sometimes it seems we’ve been trying to find our way in the dark ever since.

The cynicism won out in the end, and that is perhaps my greatest flaw. I tend to think people are never as smart or altruistic or genuine as they seem, including myself. Definitely Alex Rodriguez. And perhaps even Derek Jeter, too.

Yeah, Jeets. Here’s a gift basket.

I mean, c’mon, right?

Many of us have kids now. I marvel at the families that are able to dress their children up in the jerseys of their favorite athletes and settle down for a nice afternoon or evening to watch the game. How do you people have the time? Don’t you have soccer practice or gymnastics?

It was well past 10pm when Jeter stepped into the batter’s box for the last time at home, the recorded voice of Bob Sheppard introducing him from beyond the grave. I guess that’s what you’d call it, home, but Yankee Stadium isn’t what it used to be, either. It’s not The House that Ruth Built, it’s not where Lou Gehrig cried into a microphone, and it’s not where my brothers and I sat with the Bleacher Creatures because those were the only tickets we could afford. The new stadium is a marketing temple with a baseball problem, where the cost of beer could probably be blamed for the mortgage crisis.

While Jeter was digging in with a man on second, I was watching an indie film with an iPad on my chest. Occasionally I’d check the box score. My kids had been asleep for hours. I don’t know if my brothers or cousins were watching. I haven’t had a beer in weeks because, you know, carbohydrates.

After the film, I hit refresh and saw that Jeter had rapped a walk-off single to right in his final home game as a Yankee. My first thought was, now he’s definitely not playing in Boston this weekend, not unless they trot him out for a goodbye wave in the top of the first.

I tapped around, looking for some video, until I found the YES feed. Jeter used to jump higher when they’d clinched an important game. For an instant I thought, that’s okay, Jeets, I used to feel it more, too.

Then the camera panned over to the first base dugout. On the grass out front stood Posada, Pettite, and Rivera, joined by Martinez, Williams, and Torre, all inexplicably stoic like marble gods at a temple. They were literally waiting on the other side of the white line for Jeter to join them. All Yankees go to heaven, do they not?

And somehow, in the mist surrounding these legends of the fall, I could see the ghost of the World Trade Center, of the old Yankee Stadium, the U.S. economy and our national pride, the echo of Bob Sheppard, and, of course, our grandfather. Everything we’d lost was there, just off the field.

Our grandfather, he’d played ball in the 30s, in the town league out on Long Island. Catcher. A good one. Rumor has it the Yanks wanted a look. Who knows if that’s true. But I remember sitting next to him on the busted down couch, watching a game one summer in the 90s. This kid, Jeter, he says. He’s a ballplayer.

And that’s all it took to weave all these things together. Now that thread is cut. There’s only the sweet memory of one more frozen rope to right to hold onto, while we search for something else to believe in.

What a Hammer Can Do

“What a Hammer Can Do,” will be published in an upcoming issue of War, Literature & the Arts.

tumblr_inline_n6rgp3u4ZQ1rhu4gvOur grandfather was a carpenter. A short man, shaped liked a barrel. When I visited him and my grandmother in the summer, I often found him at the workbench in his “shop,” a long, low outbuilding between his backyard and his garden. The shop always seemed like something of a bunker. Inside it smelled of dirt and oil-based lubricants, like a fox hole might, minus the blood and shit.

During the Second World War, this man at his workbench served in the United States Army Transportation Corps. We listened to his stories, about Joey Navarro, a bricklayer from Medford, or Danny Saltamacchia, a plumber from Brooklyn, who looked like a cross between a window-shade and a traveling salesman. Nobody in my family knew what that meant, but it sounded good, so we repeated it a lot. I’m not sure that Navarro or Saltmacchia are the real names he spoke, I just remember they were Italian-sounding and full of vowels.

By the time I turned twelve, I was convinced that World War II was mostly a bunch of wise guys sitting on Willys tearing off hunks of warm bread, surrounded by the grateful daughters of French farmers. This was untrue, of course, but our grandfather rarely spoke of the other, more horrible stuff.

He did tell me one story, about the Allied push into Germany. He was assigned to a rail yard instrumental in keeping supplies flowing from the beachhead in Normandy to the front. Trains would chug in and need to be unloaded rapidly, both to preserve them from attack and return them for another run. They were long, and it was wasteful to unload one at a time, when there were up to three waiting on parallel tracks. “‘Corporal,” our grandfather told us he said to the man in charge, “line up the damn box cars, and we’ll build platforms between them. Do them all at once.’ That got them going all right.”

Our grandfather spent most of his later years in his garden, where he grew tomatoes and cucumbers and corn in peace. Outside, he hardly used any tools, at least none that I remember, instead preferring to push the soil aside with his hands, plant with his hands, weed with his hands, to the point his hands would be so covered in dirt it seemed as if he himself had grown straight out of the sandy ground. I watched from the end of the row, sweating in the summer sun, not wanting to help because the feeling of dried dirt on my palms gave me goosepimples. He never chastised me for my laziness. “You okay there, zippy?” he’d call over his shoulder and I would nod. Sometimes I worried it was so hot he’d fall over dead.

In these later years, he wore green or tan. Tan work pants, green button-up shirts with his name in yellow thread. They were leftovers from his job at the highway department, but I knew at twelve that green and tan were the colors of the Army and so I imagined them as relics of his uniform, as if he couldn’t bring himself to take it off.

The last time I spoke with him, about twelve years on, I was visiting him in hospice. They’d removed a tumor the size of a grapefruit, but the cancer had spread, just a bit, and everyone was wondering what to do next. He was ninety-three, and the new owner of a pacemaker, which they’d put in so his heart could take the surgery.

I helped him in the bathroom the way no one wants to be helped, not ever. “This is some damn thing, isn’t it?” the Army carpenter said to the twelve year-old boy who didn’t want to get his hands dirty. I told him not to even think about it, but maybe lay off the spinach next time. He laughed at that and caught himself on the steel handicap bar. I was struck by how wide he still was, how broad his back. The cooper who made him knew what he was doing.

Afterwards, we sat on his bed. His room was bright and floral, nothing like his bedroom at home, which was dark, with our grandmother’s jewelry still laid out on the mirrored vanity, and where you could hear the echo of the Glenn Miller band. The only thing here was a picture of our grandmother sitting on his knee, him dressed in a baseball uniform, both smiling.

Suddenly, tears began to run down his cheeks and he hid his face in hands, his shoulders heaving up and down. We knew our grandfather to be a crier—he moistened up every graduation and most birthdays—but a brief, high-pitched wail of sorrow told me this was different. I placed my hand on his back and asked him what was wrong, which was a stupid question, because he’d just had a melon yanked from his head and his chest cut open, but there we were.

“I don’t want to leave all you kids,” he said. “I’ll miss you too much.”

I pulled him tighter, and it was an awkward last hug, side-by-side on his bed, him too wide for my arm and me swallowing my own tears and terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing that would make this moment more difficult for him. It occurred to me, just for an instant, that this was the curse of those who came back. You can’t beat back death like you can the German war machine, with something as simple as a few well-placed two-by-fours and some planking.

Years later, I watched a History Channel documentary on the Allied invasion. During one of the voiceovers, they played some b-roll of a rail yard. Sweet Sue from Kalamazoo, there they were—three trains in parallel, platforms built between them, GIs off-loading cartons of ammunition and cigarettes. “Well-timed provisions kept American forces moving,” the narrator said.

But that’s not what any grandson hears.

Your grandpa took one swing with his hammer and bashed Hitler’s teeth right down his own throat, the television told me. Then he went home, bounced your grandma on his knee, and planted a garden.

I shut the television off and went to bed. I stared at the ceiling a long time, thinking of all the things I hadn’t done, all the things I hadn’t been called to. Then it occurred to me. Maybe it’s enough to remember, to tend the garden, keep it ready in case there’s a next time.

Ballston Spa

tumblr_inline_n4wwcnbLJI1rhu4gvNew York State Highway 67 runs north through the farmlands of Ballston Spa. The hay fields and tractors rusting at the margins remind me of my hometown in southeastern Connecticut, but here there’s a sense that the rural gloom reaches all the way north to Canada, west to Lake Erie, and south to the Tappan Zee. “It looks like Donetsk out there,” I joke with my brothers, because the Ukraine has been in the news. In Donetsk, they have tractors and worry, too.

We speed past a tumbledown Victorian farmhouse. In the front yard, nestled among forgotten york rakes and wagons, is a shining silver Airstream camper trailer, its front bumper buried in the green highway berm. It’s up on blocks. We laugh at this. We are used to trucks and cars without wheels in various stages of repair, but a whole Airstream is a little much. “That’s the summer home of the Yellow King,” I joke again, because True Detective has been in the news, too.

In about half a mile, my brother looks up from his phone and says he thinks the house with the Airstream is the address we are looking for. The tires crunch over the highway shoulder gravel as we roll to a stop. We decide he must be right. There are no other homes or driveways for miles.

Approaching the Airstream from the south, the sun glints off its worn silver roof. It looks brighter from this angle, and I think for a minute about hauling it out of the grass, slapping some tires on it, and taking my family on a road trip to California. I am always looking for reasons to drive across the country, because I am unsettled by disposition and I’ve never done it before.

Our uncle is lying on a couch inside the farmhouse. He is awake but groggy. The window over his head is open and the damp air of April blows in. Beside him, a wood stove burns hot. When we enter the room, a blond-haired woman is handing him a bottle of beer with a flex straw bent over the lip. Our uncle labors to lift his head to sip from it.

I apologize for not coming sooner. He holds my hand and forgives me.

The farmhouse is a commune of sorts. The blond-haired woman, youthful and cheery, takes his hand from me and sits beside him on the coffee table. She calls him their founding father. He takes another sip of beer, leans his head back, and smiles. There are other people in the house, rinsing dishes in the sink, shuffling about their rooms upstairs. Through the open window, a kitchen garden is covered with sagging deer netting.

Our uncle is asleep. The blond-haired woman asks if we are the nephews from Connecticut. We laugh and say yes. It means a lot that you’ve come, she says. We wouldn’t have all this without him.

Beside her on the coffee table is an open garment box filled with photographs. To pass the time, we sift through them. I am struck by how much our uncle resembles our father. I wish I did not view the photos, because now all I can see is our father on the couch.

This is ridiculous, of course, because our father is teaching seventh grade math near home and not dying on the couch of a new-age hippie commune with an arid vegetable garden and an Airstream without wheels in Ballston Spa. I look again at the photographs to see if I could, in those snapshots of their youth, spot the moment where our uncle went one way and our father the other.

A man comes in. He is tall and olive-skinned, with a bright smile. I am Pedro, he says. Your uncle is my friend. Who would like a beer? The blond-haired woman rests her head on my uncle’s yellowish arm while Pedro hands out the bottles.

My brothers and I sneak a look at each other and shrug. The beer is good, the room is simultaneously cool with the air of spring and warm. Our uncle’s little habitat is now crowded with five people—the blond-haired woman, Pedro, and the three of us. Perhaps there are worse ways to go.

It occurs to me that I do not know our uncle well. I know that women entered and exited his life, and that his charisma likely confounded our father. I wonder whether our father feels the same way about our uncle as I do about my brothers. Paternalistic, frustrated sometimes with their choices, responsible for them even when that concern is condescending.

I look again through the photographs and it hits me that our uncle and our father rarely appear in an image together. There is our father on his wedding day. There is our father chopping wood. There is our father building our house. There is a man who looks like our uncle, living the life our uncle could never quite construct for himself or perhaps never wanted. I find it both endearing and voyeuristic that our uncle has taken these pictures, and that he has kept them.

This realization makes it easier to take up our uncle’s hand again before it is time to go. I love you, I tell this man I don’t know, and he smiles and squeezes my shoulder. Pedro says, that is good for him to hear. I hope we will see you again.

Driving out, I think again of digging through the tall grass for some tires and hooking the Airstream to my truck. What a trip it would be if we could fix it. Just me, my brothers, and our father, driving to California. To kill the time, we’d shuffle through the box of photographs and listen to him tell us, here it went wrong, here it went right, and in the afternoon, the western sun would be warm and the breeze off the Pacific cool and full of comfort.

Let it Go

There isn’t a dad in America who didn’t squirm in his seat at minute 3:03 of Idina Menzel’s already-legendary performance of “Let it Go,” the signature anthem of Disney’s 2013 Oscar-contender, Frozen. The character Elsa, until then an anxiety-plagued agoraphobe cursed with a dangerous power she can’t control, finally yanks down her tightly-tucked French braid into a warrior-queen fishtail and shimmies toward the audience belting HERE I stand, IN the light of day-ay, with more lateral hip-swing than Jessica Rabbit.

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It’s been about a month since our second screening of the movie, and my internal monologue as the scene unfolded is still pretty fresh in my mind. At first it was, hey, that’s a pleasant piano intro. The animators really killed the mountain visuals. Going a bit dark, here, but okay, Elsa’s had a rough day. She never asked for magic freezy hands. And there goes the Blue Glove of Metaphor, tossed to the breeze. A little more up-tempo now, you stomp your feet, girl, nice work. I hope my kids develop that kind of confidence. Maybe a little less defiance, but be yourself, good stuff. Do you know how much that cloak probably cost? Not sure that shoulder bounce was necessary, but okay. Cool staircase. Now that’s an ice castle! Who’s your architect, Frank Gehry? Whoa, whoa, slow down. Slow down, piano guy. What’s going on here? Where did those smokey eyes come from? We get it, you’ve got a storm raging on—does she look taller? Down goes the hair and, holy bananas, what is that groove shake and WHO APPROVED THAT DRESS. I am watching this with my daughters! I mean, sure, Ariel was hot back in the day, but I was single, it was harmless, but this, this is another level. I feel dirty and ashamed and now my Milk Duds are all gone.

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The girls, our daughters, are loving it. Abby, all of eight years old and the eldest, looks ready to steal my credit card and go running for Justice. I help myself to her popcorn. Not gonna happen, kid. Not on my watch. You can let it go some other day.

A close reading of the lyrics leaves me wondering whether songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez were conflicted about the kind of song they were hoping to write. In a New York Daily Newsinterview, the duo compares “Let it Go,” to their work on another Idina Menzel landmark, “Defying Gravity,” from the musical, Wicked. That song, evidenced by its title, is constructed around the ideal of ascendancy. Everyone deserves a shot to fly. It’s uplifting, almost spiritual, with vague warnings about pride and selfishness.

“Let it Go” is different. It’s not about fulfilling potential or rising to some fairy-tale challenge. The song is a straight-forward narrative description of a young girl entering womanhood deciding who she is, is good enough. There’s no prince, no kiss, nothing but age, experience, and exasperation to hasten the change. It’s what I, as a dad, fear the most. That it’s simply going to happen, without any specific cause or moment. One day she’ll be my little girl and then, one day, she won’t.

And I’m afraid of what lies on the other side of that change, both for myself and for her. I hope my reasons say more about Abby’s maturity than my immaturity, but right now, we can relate to one another. She likes Legos, I like Legos. She likes fried chicken strips, so do I. We finish each other’s sandwiches. It works. We can laugh and roll our eyes at one another, and in the evening, I know I’ll be the one who tucks her into bed. Nothing in this world can get to her without going through me first. It’s a closed system, and one I understand.

Of course, once the growing-up does happen, I want her to develop the power to build whatever castles she may need. That’s what Frozen is also telling us, that the world can be a frigid place. I might be an anachronistic mid-century lunkhead with occasional laugh-track views of fatherhood, but even I hope for the day when she honestly doesn’t need me anymore. I just don’t want her to turn away (from me) and slam the door.

Don’t get me wrong, even at eight, Abby can still sometimes be an ice queen. Especially when it comes to her little sister. There was a moment a few weeks ago when I caught Abby punching Hannah in the shoulder. Maybe she had a reason, maybe she didn’t. But we don’t hit, so up to her bedroom she went. Elsa’s existential no wrong, no right, no rules for medoesn’t fly in this household.

After a few minutes, I went up to her room to check on her—usually when she’s punished, there’s some loud declaration of injustice, followed by a vicious game of dolls where the dad is occasionally maimed, not too badly, in a horrible pink Barbie car crash. But not this time. It was quiet, and I was concerned.

Abby was sitting on her beanbag, head under a green blanket, crying softly. She didn’t seem angry or frustrated by the inequity of the household penal system, just very sad. I sat down next to her and asked her what was wrong. “I don’t know why I do it,” she said, looking at her hands. “I don’t understand. It just happens and I can’t control it. I don’t mean to be angry, then I just am. I’m a horrible child.”

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It was the last line that killed me. I put my arm around her and told her that, while we don’t hit, she was the furthest thing from horrid. You’re wonderful, I told her, explaining that it was a kid’s job to make mistakes, and as far as I was concerned, I thought she was perfect. Maybe that isn’t the right thing to say to a son or daughter from a parenting standpoint, but I wanted to remind her how unconditionally we love her.

A few days later, we were driving to school while listening to “Let it Go”, cranked to eleven, as we had every day for the last month. They’ve known all the lyrics for a while, but that morning’s rendition was, for whatever reason, particularly spirited. As they approached the penultimate stanza, Abby’s voice grew louder, until she belted out:

let it go, let it go, that perfect girl is gone, HERE I stand, IN the light of day, let the storm rage ON, the cold never bothered me anyway.

Just then, I happened to glance back in the rearview mirror and found Abby staring right at me, in some kind of delayed, Elsa-induced defiance. She knew she was singing the illusion of the future perfect, telling me that someday, maybe sooner than later, my perfect girl really would be gone.

That’s when I understood, with cold certainty. The let-it-go isn’t meant for them. It’s meant for us.

TFOCoverThe Freeman’s Oath is an engaging novel about love and history, full of inside information about the world of rare books and documents”–TOM PERROTTA, AUTHOR OF THE LEFTOVERS AND LITTLE CHILDREN.

“Amazing story. Subtle overlapping themes weave throughout the book (beginning with the title) addressing the struggles we all face throughout life. I highly recommend!”–THE CANON.

The Freeman’s Oath offers a fresh plot about a national treasure in a way that’s so subtle that it gets lost in the colorful array of historical richness, reminding the reader that our lives are just chapters in much longer stories”–INDIE BOOK REVIEW.

Meet Jonathan Gray, 27, a struggling Boston rare book dealer. The accidental death of his parents three years ago has him casting about, trying to uphold his father’s bookselling legacy. Meanwhile, Jessie, the one girl Jon has ever loved—whom he dumped with spectacular quickness after his parents’ death, but who can blame a guy stunted by grief?—has suddenly reappeared. Jon’s in trouble. He needs to grow up, fast, or lose everything. When an old customer shows up with a long-lost and exceedingly puritanical document, the Oath of a Free-man, the hope of a huge sale gives Jon one chance to save his father’s business and redeem himself.

From the reviews:

“The dialogue is true and the descriptions are spot on…a tour of Boston’s iconic historic sites and contemporary hot spots, capturing the essence of the city.”
“A fun read for those of us who still need a bit of intellectual stimulation.”
“A rare treat…a refreshing depiction of a modern hero.”
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