It’s hard to believe what he once was. This withering, fleshy stick that stands beside me, hands firmly grasping his walker, is a mere desiccated husk of his former self. Standing now at six feet two inches and a hundred and seventy pounds, he once struck an intimidating pose at six feet five inches and three hundred plus pounds in his prime. He’s an apt metaphor for “America.” A meteoric rise, and an inglorious slide into unrecognizable oblivion. Perhaps that’s the nature of all things. Maybe not. Who cares? Not me. Not anymore.
What a great location for the Veterans Home. Government-owned land immediately downstream of the Nuclear Power Plant that attained criticality for its first unit in 1984. From the surroundings, it’s obvious that a sizable acreage in proximity to the Nuclear facility was requisitioned by the Federal Government via eminent domain, and now a steady supply of Veterans who helped make it all possible, the Nuclear Power Plant and so much more, can stew in the disguised and unannounced fall-out of their blood, sweat, tears and willful ignorance.
Visiting him brings back so many memories. For me it does, at least. Not so much him, because he has no memories. None of his family, at least. He does remember his glory days when he was a star athlete and many worshipped the ground he walked upon. It figures he would remember that, and nothing else. It makes sense. He was a narcissist, afterall, so the most prodigious protuberance of his neural networking would be dedicated to the encoding of his glorification. But I forgive him, even though he asks for no forgiveness. It’s what was expected of him. All he was doing was dutifully fulfilling those expectations, just as he’s doing now.
It’s difficult to gauge what Robert’s thinking and feeling right now. He never really had much of a relationship with Dad. Mom divorced Dad and left with Robert and Daniel when they were very young, and considering they were the youngest of eight children, there was no chance for any kind of lasting bond with Dad, even if it was attempted, which, of course, it wasn’t. Robert’s always been about obligation, or at least, the appearance of such. Like so many others, he’s adept at managing perceptions, and engendering a perception of himself as a person who meets and upholds his obligations. The truth is something other than that, but again, who cares? Not me. Not anymore.
When I bring up to Robert various memories and shared experiences of when we were all together before the divorce, he claims he has no memory of any of it. Like Father like Son, I suppose. His Father doesn’t remember anything either. Am I the only one? Why me? Why must I be the one to remember? Why can’t I conveniently forget? You know what? I don’t want to forget. I like the memories. They’re what make me, me, not some fabricated shell or mask with which to fool the world. I have nothing to hide, and I am not ashamed. I look at those experiences, and most experiences, as priceless, rather than something to be eschewed, or worse, precluded. I cherish the memories and will always hold them dear, Robert and the rest of them be damned.
It was the climax of a visit that went well for the most part, and as expected, if not a bit awkward, but then, that was also to be expected. When Robert and I arrived, they were gathered around a table in the cafeteria. We dispensed with the obligatory around-the-table hellos, and then turned to face the Master of Ceremonies; Dear Old Dad. He had no clue who we were; It was obvious enough to me, and Robert indicated later that it was obvious to him, but with the added caveat, “he never knew me anyway, and I really never knew him, so it really doesn’t matter.” I wanted to say, “well, why did you come then?” But, I already knew the answer. At least he spared his wife and two sons the obligatory burden, and he managed to talk me into excusing my wife and two children. Mine were ready to go, and willing to go. They were curious about my Father, and from a purely sociological perspective, it would have been a fulfilling experience. Instead, they stayed behind at the hotel with Robert’s wife and children. Not next time. Yeah, right, as if there will be a next time.
After the initial greetings, we settled in for a crude version of Kabuki Theater, with each of us playing our little part and tip-toeing around the massive elephant in the middle of the room. I did my best to keep things moving along at a steady pace, careful to interject levity at just the right moments in order to mitigate the obvious. Well, obvious to some, but apparently not obvious to others. Simon knew Dad had no earthly clue who we were. He acknowledged to me later that evening that Dad pretends to know us because it’s expected of him. Since Maggie and Simon are the ones who secured a bed for him at this home, and are also the ones who see him every other week, he remembers their names and that they are his children, but only because they tell him they are. He goes through the motions for them, so he’s as much a part of the Kabuki as the rest of us. Maggie, on the other hand, doesn’t believe Dad has completely lost his memory, and instead, believes he is just being deceptive so as to avoid the onus of uncomfortable social interaction. Seriously, she really believes this, and there is no convincing her otherwise. She believes it is a conspiracy. A ruse. Dad is being surreptitious. The irony is, my parents always thought this of Maggie for the better part of her formative years. They were wrong about Maggie, and Maggie is wrong about Dad. Maggie was, and is, too clumsy to be surreptitious. It was Katrina, not Maggie, who was the sly and surreptitious one, but in our parent’s eyes, it was, and will, always be Maggie. But who cares? Not me. Not anymore.
Katrina’s diagnosis of Dad’s mental state is, like everyone else’s, telling. She believes that he remembers some of us, because, of course, that “some of us” includes her. If she’s said it once, she’s said it thirty times at least, maybe more. “Every time I come into town to visit, Dad remembers me. Isn’t it weird that he remembers me but not other people? I wonder why?” No you don’t, Katrina, you don’t wonder why. You know why, and you know what Katrina, I understand. You need to feel special, and if this perspective makes you feel special, then by all means, continue the lie. You might as well. Everyone else is, including me. Irony comes in waves, and Katrina’s diagnosis is yet another wave of irony following close on the heels of Maggie’s conspiracy theory. No one remembers the following but me. Imagine that. Not even Mom, but that’s not surprising. Unlike Dad, her memory loss is voluntary and selective. This memory didn’t make the cut. It just so happens that when Dad’s Father was on his death bed in the hospital after a short struggle with cancer that had metastasized to his brain, he allegedly called out for my Father at the very end, just hours before taking his last breath. This is indelibly imprinted in my memory because my parents talked about it incessantly after it happened. My Mother was as guilty as my Father of playing it up. “Can you believe that? He called out for your Father! It shows that your Father was always his favorite!” Narcissists, like drug addicts, have their enablers. The moral to that ironic story? Like Father, like Daughter, but don’t tell daughter that. Any of them.
As I sat there, going through the motions, playing Kabuki without the formal Kabuki attire, I couldn’t help but notice the surroundings. The inmates, for lack of a better term, began to shuffle into the cafeteria where we were holding our theatrical family reunion. They were in varying states of physical and psychical decay, many much worse off than Dad. One fellow was just sitting there in his wheel chair in the middle of the cafeteria, smiling at nothing, or maybe it was something, who knows, soaked from the waist down in his own urine. Maybe that was the reason he was smiling. If it was, who can blame him? I’d smile too, if I, and my urine, were in his shoes. There’s nothing like a good piss for what ails you. This guy had it right. You get the picture of the scene. Like something out of The Walking Dead, if you’re not paying close enough attention. Heartbreaking, really. I wanted to ask them, was it all worth it? I’m glad they couldn’t answer. They’d probably say yes, and that’s not the answer I wanted to hear.
What was most stark of all about this somber setting, was the view out the windows which covered the entire north-facing wall as if the wall were one contiguous window. Filling it almost entirely was the specter of the Nuclear Power Plant with its behemoth cooling towers releasing trace amounts of radiation and no one the wiser. If they were the wiser, I don’t think they’d care, so long as the electricity kept flowing. The lights must stay on at any cost, birth defects and cancer included. At one point, I stared at this veritable portrait so long, I swear I saw it glow. These poor souls. They’re not much more than guinea pigs. Set them up close to the Nuclear Plant in the winter of their years, and medically monitor them for any anomalies. Nah, they wouldn’t do that. Maggie and her conspiracy theories must be rubbing off on me. Who am I fooling, anyway? We’re all guinea pigs of one sort, or another. How presumptuous to pity them, when we’re all occupying varying circles of Dante’s Hell.
A bit of laughter snaps me out of my trance. The glow of the Power Plant dissipates. Dad’s hair and eyebrows gather my focus. My God, he has a full head of gray hair. His hair has never been this long, this dry, and this unruly. And those eyebrows. He’s an Andy Rooney double. He’s not alone. All the males, and even some of the females, wandering aimlessly about are Andy Rooney doubles. Hopefully, I can skip this circle of Dante’s Hell. Anything but Andy Rooney, except Rupaul. I’ll take Andy Rooney over RuPaul any day, but I don’t think I have a choice in the matter. These folks certainly didn’t. Or did they? Something to consider.
Getting back to the hair on Dad’s head, something’s missing. Yes, that’s it, there is no Vaseline. I have never seen Dad without Vaseline in his hair. That’s probably what kept him from graying all these years. It was the Vaseline. Petroleum Jelly is the key to a youthful appearance, and it’s economical. Who would have thought? My Dad, that’s who. And to think, Broads pay top dollar for snake-oil cosmetics that don’t even work, when they could be slathering themselves in Vaseline and basking in the Fountain of Youth. Oh well, their loss. Or not. Who cares? Not me. Not anymore.
Mom. Why is she here, I wonder? She divorced him over thirty years ago and it wasn’t amicable. Their relationship, or lack thereof, after the divorce, was cold and awkward. She can’t really care for him any longer, or have any positive feelings for him at all. But here she is. Why? I don’t know. I can only guess. She’s much tougher to figure than Dad ever was. He was, and still is, an open book. Simple. Easy to read. She was, and still is, a neurotic mess. A Shape-Shifter. Elusive. Difficult to read, and difficult to corner and pin down. If they were trees, and you sawed through them after they had fallen, Dad would have, at most, several rings. Mom, on the other hand, would have thousands. She still has her memory, though, and her wits about her. As for her mental acuity, it’s stellar despite the many lives she has led, or maybe because of all those lives. Something to consider. Maybe she’s here now precisely because he no longer remembers her, so she doesn’t fear his presence. Either way, she’s playing her part rather well, smiling and grinning at just the right moments. I’m not begrudging the smiling and grinning, believe me. In fact, I make it a point to elicit it, because the last thing I want are any of those awkward silences. They may be silent for some, but for me, they are deafening, and must be strategically avoided. Thankfully, we didn’t have any, but there were some close calls.
As our somewhat contrived conversation came to a close, Simon suggested Robert and I stay with Dad a little longer to catch up. What? Catch up on what, exactly? He doesn’t know who we are, and conversely, we don’t know who he is now, either. Fortunately, Dad recoiled at the notion, and suddenly appeared nervous and agitated. Simon, thankfully, abandoned his delusional idea and indicated that maybe it would be a better idea if he, Robert and I accompanied Dad back to his room. We agreed. Crisis averted. Despite undergoing major surgery a year earlier at age eighty six to repair a broken hip, this Old Codger could high-tail it. Sure, he was using a walker, but still, it was quite impressive. Many in their mid-to-late eighties don’t recover from hip surgery. It’s the final nail in the coffin for quite a few elderly. It’s a testament to his physical resilience. He may not be mentally durable, but he sure is physically.
His room was cramped. Well, it’s really not his room since he shares it with a platoon of former soldiers. It looked to be about five or six beds in this space, and each of the inmates had a very modest carve-out separated from the other carve-outs by a curtain, just as it is in a hospital. There was a small bookshelf by the side of Dad’s bed. On it was an assortment of knick-knacks various visitors had brought him over the past couple of years, to include pictures and sentimental cards for various occasions, i.e. Easter and his Birthday. Simon asked Dad, “where’s the picture of your buddy Al, Dad?” Dad shrugged his shoulders as if to say he didn’t know, or else, he had no clue what Simon was talking about, and didn’t know how to respond. I know him well enough to know it was probably the latter. Simon wouldn’t let it go, though. He informed Robert and me that Al was Dad’s buddy, and Dad had a picture of him on his bookshelf. Al had passed away the week before, and now his picture was missing. I searched the bookshelf, and found a picture frame turned backwards on the bottom shelf. I lifted it to take a look, and showed it to Simon. “Is this Al,” I asked? “Yeah, that’s him,” said Simon. Did Dad do that? Interesting. Whether it was a fully conscious act, or not, it certainly was symbolic. In this place, when you’re gone, you’re gone. It’s the last stop before the Big House, if you believe in the Big House. If you don’t, and I don’t, it’s still the last stop. If he did place that picture on the bottom shelf, he understood that, at least subconsciously.
What’s odd is that I cannot recollect hugging him goodbye. As if it matters. He was not an affectionate man. If we wanted a hug when we were young, we hugged him. He never hugged back. You were lucky if in that process, you got a light pat on the back or shoulder. Once I was in my teens, there were no more attempts on my part to solicit any reciprocating affection from him. I considered it a lost cause, and never gave it another thought. Until Daniel’s wedding thirteen years prior. We were saying goodbye at the airport. I was about to turn and head to my gate when he grabbed a hold of me and hugged me. Not a weak, ineffectual hug either. It was a real hug. He meant it. There was something behind it. Of course, I hugged back, but I was completely flummoxed and dumb-founded. This was entirely unexpected. And to top it off, after we released each other from our hardy embrace, he said “I love you, Nicholas.” “I love you too, Dad,” I said. And with that, I turned and headed to my gate to meet my wife who was waiting for me. Along the way, I raised my hand to wipe the moisture that collected just beneath my eyes. It was the last I saw of my Father. What I just visited was not him. It was his ghost.
Simon, Robert and I made our way to the elevator and took it down to the lobby. Along the way to the front door, the path is set up in such a way that it resembles a gantlet. At the narrowest point of that gantlet, you must stop and pay some form of tribute to the troll to mean, you must turn in your visitor badge and listen to his antics. Sorry, I mean the security guard. He is troll-like because of his obvious attitude. He’s a little man who enjoys what little power he has in this position. It’s a position of authority, albeit mostly symbolic, but nonetheless it’s authority, and this otherwise pathetically insecure man milks it for all it is worth. He’s one of those types who likes to joke, but his jokes are not funny. You couldn’t convince him of that, though. He cracked a few when we entered the building, and he did again when we were exiting the building. I cannot remember any of these jokes because they were so dull and unremarkable. What I do remember is the last one he cracked was blatantly over-the-line and at the expense of the only female in earshot. It made me uncomfortable, and judging from Simon’s and Robert’s expressions, it made them uncomfortable. Not that it mattered to this little man. What a weasel he is to use the cover of his authority to disrespect and ignore personal boundaries. I wondered what his fellow employees thought of him. Surely, some of them hated his guts but had to swallow back their disgust in order to make it to retirement and the Government pension pot at the end of the dubious rainbow.
What is the point of a security guard in a facility of this nature? From the looks of these inmates, and let’s face it, they are inmates because they are not here by choice, and they are not free to come and go, even if they had the wherewithal to do so, they’re not going anywhere, so why the added precaution of an obnoxious troll with a gun and badge? Is it the result of nine eleven and all the ridiculous draconian legislation that followed in its wake? The legislation that had already been crafted many years in advance and was waiting for just the right event to come along to implement and put into force? That could be it, but I don’t know for certain. If it is the case, it sounds rather absurd to think Muslim terrorists would fly planes into Veterans homes, or bother to blow themselves up in Veterans homes. That would be mercy killing, and according to conventional wisdom as imparted by the Western mainstream media, Muslim terrorists are not known for their mercy. A more likely target of the Muslim terrorists, using their favorite weapon of choice per the mainstream media, the jet, would be the Nuclear Power Plant, the seeming portrait of which fills the entire set of windows of the fourth-floor cafeteria. But hey, who am I to question? Little men need jobs. Otherwise, little men get violent and beat their wives and children if they have any, and if they don’t, they find someone else to beat and maybe even murder. Maybe Barney Fife’s not here to keep the inmates in, or the Muslim terrorists out, but instead to keep the drug addicts out. This is a quasi-hospital environment, and as such, it no doubt carries a host of drugs. Drug addicts are brilliant at sleuthing and reconnoitering all potential repositories of drugs. I know this because I watched Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy starring Matt Dillon. If I had to guess, Andy’s sidekick has his job for a combination of the reasons provided above, and maybe a few reasons I left out. Either way, I’m glad I don’t have to work with him or see him ever again, but unfortunately, there are clones of him everywhere. They’re ubiquitous. They’re unavoidable. Who cares, anyway? Not me. Not anymore.
I’m being unduly harsh on this poor guy, perhaps. I have a tendency to think the worst, and often as a result, I’m pleasantly surprised because the worst, or anything even closely resembling it, rarely manifests. So, take that all those who say “look at the glass as half full.” This way works well for me. It keeps a REAL smile on my face, not that Miss America, contrived smile that looks like it has to be replaced every so often like contact lenses due to wear and tear. What’s he like outside of this place? Is he like so many others, rather unremarkable? Most likely. Maybe he’s a Shriner. Come on, you’ve seen them, they wear the funny hat that looks likes an inverted Dixie cup with a tassel dangling off it. They collect money once or twice a year at major, or not so major, intersections. He could be an upstanding member of his church. The coach of his daughter’s softball team. Or, he could have a secret hideaway in his basement where he keeps chains, whips, lots of leather and ball gags and The Gimp. I’ve always been curious as to how many of the latter we run across in our lives. Remember the picture of Rosalyn Carter and John Wayne Gacy? Had Gacy not been caught, the First Lady never would have known that she was in the company of a murderous psychopath. The same holds true for her brush-up to Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī, another murderous psychopath.
They said it couldn’t be done! We’re finally breaking free of this place, and pulling away from Barney Wayne Gacy’s orbit. The finish line, meaning the front doors, are just a few paces away. Cue the Chariots of Fire theme music. It’s been a tremendous triumph. If we had stayed much longer, we may have caught incontinence. The dreaded, deafening silences were avoided. The picture of Al was reoriented to its rightful place. I don’t think the security guard has my address, and if so, once we’re through those doors, I, nay we, escape the possibility of his hideaway with its hellish cache of torturous implements. Another pleasant surprise. Life is full of them when you view the glass as empty.
Hold on! Cut the Chariots of Fire theme music! Something’s not right with this metaphor. It’s Simon. He doesn’t fit it, quite literally, or more appropriately, the metaphor doesn’t fit him. Sure, Robert and I from a distance, fully clothed, could pass for Olympians, at least in the Curling competition. But Simon? It’s not happening. There’s not one single word that can describe his appearance, but several will help paint this prodigious picture. Gelatinous. Rotund. A massive, shapeless enormity. That’s right, Simon’s FAT. I know, I know, we’re not supposed to say anything about fat people. It’s now a disease, like everything else. NO, it’s not!! I don’t accept that politically correct nonsense. Obesity is not a disease. In fact, let’s drop the euphemism obese, and call it what it is. It’s fat. They’re fat. And, they’re fat because they have chosen to be fat. They’re fat because they’re too lazy to address their gelatin.
It would be somewhat forgivable, and some mercy would be tendered, if Simon wasn’t such a vituperative curmudgeon. His blunt, brash, pugilistic contrarianism coupled with his unsightly and unhealthy physical dimensions condemn him to double jeopardy without the protection of the fifth amendment.
It’s difficult now to imagine what he once looked like. It’s a complete transformation. He was, once upon a time, a handsome lad at six feet two, one hundred eighty-five pounds with thick, full brown hair and Aryan blue eyes. It’s amazing what thirty years of negligence, supplemented heavily with stress and high-fructose corn syrup, can do. Simon, amongst other things, is a paean to the insidiousness that is Corporatism. Unlike obesity, Corporatism is a disease. A scourge. A pox upon this house. Simon is the end result of a life of servitude to his lord and master, the Corporation. It gave him high blood pressure. It gave him Type II diabetes. It gave him Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It took his gall bladder. It took his health. It sucked every last drop of lifeblood from him and destroyed his soul. And still, he worships it daily. He now resides in Bentonville, Arkansas, the Mecca of Corporatism, and is in the employ of the Grand Ayatollah of corporations, Walmart. No doubt, they’ve taken out a Dead Peasant policy on him. But hey, it was all worth it. He’s raised three children that would make the leaders of the Third Reich brim with pride and envy. The perfect Aryans, in both appearance and character. He whipped them into shape early on. Sports and good grades were mandatory. Any form of rebellion was out of the question, and was not tolerated. He went three for three. All three are dutiful soldiers. Complete obeisance. No critical thought. Onward they march. Their father perfected in them what he wanted most for himself, but fortunately, Mom and Dad weren’t up to the task, or else, I would be brimming with pride and envy at his children just like Hitler, Himmler, Göring and Goebbels are from their graves.
With each additional pound, Simon has lost an equivalent measure of his masculine essence. And, the same holds true for overweight women. Each extra pound beyond optimal weight inversely correlates with the magnitude of feminine essence. Fat people, despite their gender, lose their sexually defining features and appear asexual. Oddly enough, this has resulted in Simon closely resembling our oldest sister, Joanna. She’s also fat. Very fat, just like Simon. In fact, so fat, she had the trendy lap-band surgery performed on her to help her lose weight because she couldn’t do it without the intervention of the surgeon’s scalpel. She has succeeded in real estate, but gelatin is just too formidable a foe. I will give credit where it is due. The surgery has resulted in her losing approximately eight pounds. Only one hundred and fifty to go. Woo Hoo!! The issue of their weight is off the table, by the way. It’s a taboo topic. Isn’t that convenient? By precluding criticism, as constructive as it may be, they can ignore their inadequacy. I guess most people do the same thing with their own ignored pet issues, me included. Who cares, anyway? Not me. Not anymore.
I’m sure by Simon’s standards, he’s a resounding success. Mission Accomplished, and yet he’s still here, attempting to do more even though the Corporate Vampire has taken everything Simon had to offer. He’s now taken on a new role. His children have been absorbed and assimilated into the mainstream. The goal is that they too will make the same offering as him, but there is never any guarantee, just probability. Perhaps this miserable sot is sticking around to grease the skids for that offering expected of his progeny. He now has grandchildren. They must not be allowed to stray. Simon will stay as long as it takes for the baton of total sacrifice to be passed successfully, and if it’s not, at least he died trying.
The reality is, even in conventional terms, Simon is a disappointing underachiever. On paper, for whatever it’s worth, he is far and away the most intelligent of us eight children. He was the model student before he was hit with an illness in his freshman year of high school that nearly took his life, which was quite impressive when I look back, considering Mom and Dad no longer supported achievement of any sort. After the fourth, or perhaps the fifth, child they simply succumbed to the terminal chaos, and didn’t even bother to maintain the illusion of control. He was a straight A student, dutifully completing assignments and projects on time and never missing a day of school. That all changed when he fell ill with a raging fever and developed a severe rash of pinprick-sized red dots over his entire body. The family physician, one who still made housecalls, had no diagnosis so he referred him to a specialist in the local area. It was determined Simon’s kidneys were malfunctioning and they ran batteries of tests to determine the cause of the fever and rash. The local specialist capitulated after failing to diagnose the illness and referred to specialists at a reputable hospital a hundred miles away in the City of Brotherly Love. Once there, after another prolonged battery of tests, Simon was diagnosed with Aplastic Anemia, a condition that occurs when your body stops producing enough new blood cells, leaving you feeling fatigued and at higher risk of infections and uncontrolled bleeding. With current medical advances, this is rarely a life-threatening disease, and the prognosis for those who are diagnosed with this affliction is quite positive. But that was not the case in the early seventies. The prognosis for this condition at that time was not positive, and Simon was not expected to live.
At the time, I was eight or nine, so it was difficult to grasp the enormity of the situation. All I knew was Simon was sick and wasn’t at home. What was serendipitously favorable about it was my parents were distracted and I was left to my mischievous devices. When the cat’s away, the mice will play, and play we did. Those were blissful days. I wreaked havoc and was never held to account, all thanks to Simon’s sacrifice. Simon was throwing himself on the alter from an early age as you can see, albeit this particular throwing was involuntary. Still, I was grateful, but it wasn’t all good.
As the oldest child, my parents leaned heavily on Joanna to help keep the litter in line. When Simon initially fell ill and was hospitalized, Mom and Dad informed her that she would not be able to attend her Senior Prom. She was furious. The Prom meant everything to her. She had anticipated it for four years, or longer. She had picked out the dress and secured her dream date, and now Simon had to go and ruin everything. She lashed out at my parents and in the heat of the moment said what should never be said, and thought what should never be thought. She said, “I hope Simon dies.” In the silence between the utterance of that selfish and callous statement, and the scorned fury it was about to unleash in Mom and Dad, especially Dad, you could have heard a pin drop. It may be the reason I have an aversion to deafening silences, so traumatic was this incident to me. Needless to say, Dad beat her to a pulp without leaving a physical scratch and/or bruise on her. He was quite adept at manhandling you without actually physically harming you. The psychological impact was the same as being bruised and/or scratched, but with the benefit that there was no evidence trail left behind for the department of social services to base a case upon. Joanna laid motionless on the floor for hours after that beating. Periodically, I would come close to see if she was still breathing and when she noticed my presence, she would start to sob and say, “Nicholas, please help me.” What was I supposed to do? Kill Simon for her? Instead, I stroked her hair and told her I was sorry Dad did that to her. I was too young to detect melodrama. Joanna was the queen of it.
The doctors were wrong. Simon did live. They said it was a miracle, but sent him on his way with the caveat that his life could very well be shortened as a result of the illness. Allegedly, they pulled Mom and Dad aside, and in the strictest confidence, asserted that Simon may not make it to forty, fifty max. That confidence was consistently betrayed over the years. Simon’s Sword of Damocles became a Red Badge of Courage, and Simon was rendered untouchable. No one was allowed to criticize or challenge him in any way, but he had carte blanche to run rough shod over you, and you had to take it because he was going to die before the rest of us. It’s true. I put it to the test, and ironically, Joanna played surrogate to my parents in doling out the punishment. Simon had come back from the hospital and was still very weak and frail. A party was thrown for his return home, and our cousins, who I adored, were invited for the occasion. I was in a giddy mood because the cousins were there and I lost control of my impulses and made a joke at Simon’s expense. It was inconsiderate and wrong of me. There is no disputing that, but in no way was it the equivalent of saying “I hope Simon dies.” I can’t even remember what I said, exactly, but I do remember what happened next was not in proportion to what I said. Before I knew it, I felt a sudden and stark pain in the periphery of the top of my skull and my head was jerking this way and that, involuntarily. Joanna had grabbed me by the hair and jerked me out of my seat. She then proceeded to smack me in the face whilst continuing to shake me around by the hair all the while saying “how could you say something like that you inconsiderate little brat. He almost died, you know, and here you are making fun of him.” Of course, I began to cry, or maybe even shriek, more so out of shear embarrassment, although what she was doing did physically hurt. Dad’s beatings didn’t evoke as much pain as this. His beatings were perfunctory. This beating had some passion behind it. Either way, it was enough to get Mom’s attention, and she quickly made her way over to us and pulled Joanna away from me. At the time, I could not understand why Joanna did what she did. It was the first, and the last, time she ever did anything like that to me. I now know why she did, but at the time, it was a mystery, and for the longest time thereafter, I held a grudge against her for it. She was projecting her guilt onto me. The irony is, she never did apologize to Simon for saying what she said about him, but I was made to apologize to him that day. She was eighteen. I was seven or eight. Where’s the Justice in that? Nowhere. Justice in our house was random and arbitrary. You couldn’t predict it. More often than not, you were made to pay for the sins of others. The perfect Catholic family.
Simon was never right after that illness. He still remains innately intelligent by conventional standards, but he lost his will to achieve excellence. He withdrew into a shell. I actually felt sorry for him in those initial years after the illness. He became an introverted geek. Until his second year after graduating high school when he decided to remake himself and form an image. That’s the best way to describe the transformation I witnessed. He created an image. It was purposeful. He did not go to college, which is astonishing considering his past achievements. He went to work for Dad in the grocery store next to the Buick dealership (I would spend countless hours roaming and exploring this place as though it was a new planet) and across the street from the recently constructed Pantry Pride Supermarket. He earned enough money to get a new car; a 1976 Monte Carlo, burgundy with a darker maroon landau top and two-tone deep maroon accent on the wings. I loved that car and felt proud when I was with my friends and they would “oooh” and “ahhhh” when he drove by. “That’s my brother,” I would proudly think to myself. He then proceeded to teach himself how to drink by locking himself in his room with a fifth of vodka and a frozen container of limeade. Most of the time, he would stay in there all night until he passed out. Sometimes he would come out and get in the car and drive somewhere. “There’s a killer on the road.” He bought a completely new wardrobe and an entire selection of popular eight track tapes to include the dreaded Meatloaf. He started smoking. Marlboros. He was a new man. He even developed a new hairstyle. He was coming out of his shell in style, leather jacket and all. He was ready to tackle the mean streets after a long hibernation. The rest is history. Look at him now. He didn’t tackle the mean streets. The mean streets tackled him. Who cares, anyway? Not me. Not anymore.
As we exited the building, Maggie, Katrina and Mom could be seen conversing several hundred yards away in the parking lot. It was cold and damp, and the light mist-like precipitation that shrouded us annoyingly coated my glasses, forcing me to squint to see between the proximate drops of condensation adhering to the lenses. I need Prelex, but the fifteen to twenty grand is difficult to justify when other more pressing needs are in line before it. I suppose I’ll have to wait thirty more years for cataract surgery covered by Medicare. Yeah, right, as if Medicare will still be a viable program by then. As if this will still be a viable planet by then.
It’s gloomy and depressing, especially after that visit. A subtle but offensive odor has alerted my olfaction, and an odd metallic taste has settled in my mouth. Perhaps the trapped air from the low is concentrating the industrial pollutants as is characteristic with weather systems such as this. Whatever the case, it’s nasty and noticeable, and unlike any pollution I have experienced heretofore. I sure hope this clears in time for Joshua’s wedding in Tom’s River. The forecast indicates it will, but you know how that goes. An ominous prelude, nonetheless.
This was atypical weather for the second week of July in the Northeast. A blast of Arctic cool air in the form of a low had stalled for a day or two, and cold air was trapped at the surface with thick cloud cover serving as an SPF 1,000 sunblock. The highs and lows during this occurrence were practically equivalent, hovering in a range of fifty-five to sixty degrees. We didn’t pack for this. The weather just days before was record high temps. High nineties during the day and middle seventies during the night. The cloud ceiling was very low, and visibility was greatly reduced.
We battled this rain the entire way from Manhattan yesterday. The weather coupled with the traffic made the drive an exhausting challenge for someone who takes their driving seriously. Why people can’t go the speed limit or greater, I don’t understand. If you can’t hack it, then don’t drive. Leave it to those who can, and we could eliminate much of the traffic. That, and make it a requirement to ship most things by rail rather than truck. The truck traffic on the highways these days is absurdly hazardous. It is insanity.
It was our fourth visit to Manhattan in six years. I love New York! Yes, that’s cliché, but it’s true. I guess I should say WE love New York. Gabriella, Erin and Sydney are equally enthusiastic and appreciative of our pilgrimages to the Big Apple. This year did not disappoint. We decided to drive in versus take the train from Philly’s 30th Street station. We approached Manhattan at approximately ten o’clock in the evening. The view was spectacular. “City at night. City of lights.” We used I-78 to the Holland Tunnel, and once in Manhattan took Water St. south toward the financial district where we picked up FDR Expressway. We took FDR around the Southern tip of Manhattan and proceeded north up the East Side to the Marmara apartment hotel at East 94th St. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to experience the view like the passengers. I was often distracted navigating the bustling New York City traffic, but I did sneak glimpses here and there, and that partial satiation was enough to make me anticipate an exciting stay.
The Marmara was a great choice. Quite a juxtaposition from the New York Palace where we stayed on our last visit. The rooms at the New York Palace are typical, but the lobby and courtyard are swanky, and of course, right across the street is the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral where the blood of the lamb flows in perpetuity, absolving the brethren of the innumerable little murders that occur daily in the name of the Father. The owners of the New York Palace sunk some cash into the veneer, no doubt to capitalize on first impressions. For most, it probably has the intended effect, meaning they’ll overlook other obvious flaws, but not us. Despite the ornate decor of the lobby, it is just a hotel, like all the others. The Marmara, conversely, has a no frills lobby. It was previously an apartment building reconstituted into a hotel. The rooms are not those of a typical hotel. They are like, well, like an apartment. Go figure. And the feature that impressed me the most was our own private balcony; something not too many hotels in Manhattan offer in this price range.
I must admit, the balcony also scared the shit out of me. If I warned the kids once, I warned them ten times or more; “don’t play around on the balcony.” “We don’t want to suffer the same fate as Eric Clapton.” True to form, they didn’t listen, and I had to admonish them right away. I holler because I care. I had a t-shirt that said that. I used it as a nightshirt. It’s now in a landfill somewhere. Who cares? Not me. Not anymore.
Syd, like myself, apparently has a fear of heights, but Gabriella and Erin were like The Flying Wallendas. The height didn’t bother them a bit. Syd and I, on the other hand, were like Dr. Richard Thorndyke in High Anxiety, remaining as close to the sliding door as possible when out on the balcony and holding on to anything affixed to the side of the building. At moments like this, I get a feeling that’s difficult to describe. It’s a feeling in my crotch, as though my manly parts are vulnerable and about to be removed. I know that sounds odd, but it’s true. I don’t know how else to describe it. Maybe it has something to do with chakras, or a permutation of castration complex. Maybe I should wear suspenders when I’m out on balconies. Something to consider.
I don’t sleep well on trips, but the Marmara was an exception. Why, I can’t be sure. The bed was exceedingly comfortable. Not a typical hotel bed. And the temp in the room was perfect for sleeping, but both those things still do not explain why I slept the sleep of the dead. Gabriella did too, so it wasn’t just me. Syd and Erin? They always sleep the sleep of the dead, so they’re no indicator. Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen in the Manhattan air. As much as we love the city, it’s highly polluted, and considering the sweltering temperatures they’d been experiencing this summer, you know the air pollution was at highly concentrated levels. Yeah, not quite Beijing, but they’re trying. Or, maybe the Marmara staff is pumping a gaseous form of melatonin through the air conditioning system. That would be cool, and a lovely gesture aside from the liability concerns. I can see it now; melatonin-addled sleepwalkers making their way to the balcony and plunging to their excruciating concrete death thirty stories below.
Elevators are awkward. Who wants to be cramped in a small moving box with perfect strangers? Okay, they’re not perfect. That’s obvious, and it’s what makes elevators practically unbearable. So, I avoid them if I can. Even though our room at the Marmara was twenty some floors up, I managed to take the stairs half the time, at least, and Syd and Erin got in on the act. Not Gabriella, though. That kind of cardio is anathema to her. The women in her family eschew extreme physical exertion, especially the aerobic variety. It’s a Southern thing, in my opinion. Talk about getting your cardio. You don’t need a gym. Just walk the damn stairs every day and you can avoid the senseless gyms that are as awkward, if not more so, than elevators. I don’t know, some people like being in close proximity to others. Pick pockets, for example. Their profession requires physical intimacy. Molesters, too. Elevators and crowded compartments of any sort are most likely a dream come true for molesters. Something to think about the next time you’re on a crowded train, or in a crowded elevator. Beware the touchy-feely types. Also, there are those who are oblivious and indifferent. To them, a muffuletta is a hoagie. It most assuredly is not. The train ride to Buchenwald and Treblinka would have been manageable for people like this. For me, I would have died just at the thought of getting on those trains for all the reasons just mentioned, and some.
Speaking of the elevator, the first morning at the Marmara, I decided to take it, and unfortunately the occupants of the room adjacent to ours decided to do so, concomitantly. There was an eclectic mix of people seeking shelter at this establishment. More than likely, it had something to do with the fantastic deals they were offering because the construction work on the long-awaited Second Avenue Subway (SAS), planned since 1929, was hampering occupancy rates. They were two males who looked characteristically blue-collar. I waved my hand in a gesture for them to enter first. I followed them in and checked to make sure the button for lobby was pressed. “Good morning,” I extended. “Good morning,” both mumbled in synchronicity. The accent was foreign, perhaps Serbian or Bosnian, maybe even Ukrainian or Russian. It was guttural. They were rough around the edges and none too friendly. “Nice hotel,” I mentioned. “Ahuh,” they replied, once again in near synchronicity, their utterance barely decipherable. These were men of few words, obviously, and it was clear they didn’t want to talk, or at least the alpha didn’t. The non-dominant partner appeared to be interested in conversation but knew better than to push the alpha’s buttons. Isn’t it peculiar how certain males bond in pairs typical of these two? Fred and Barney, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the list goes on and on. These two were an iconic caricature, and they were making me a bit nervous. “Is this how it’s going to go down,” I thought to myself? I didn’t expect it to be like this. Joubert in Three Days of the Condor told me it would happen this way: “you may be walking, maybe the first sunny day of the Spring, and a car will slow-up beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car, and he will smile, a becoming smile, but he will leave open the door of the car, and offer to give you a lift.” I knew I shouldn’t have listened to him. He’s an assassin. You can’t trust assassins. Are these two my assassins? Is this really the way it’s going to go down, and I don’t mean the elevator descending to the lobby? The former director of Humint demanded my name and address when we squabbled on his blog a couple of months prior. He indicated that he and his special ops would do to me what they did to Che. I thought he was just a washed-up, blustering bluffer, but maybe not. Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, the floor indicator light blinked in succession. My heart started to race, and I hadn’t even had my coffee yet. I could feel the pounding in my chest. Adrenaline was coursing through my arteries, scraping off microscopic flecks of plaque along the way, none large enough to cause a clot further on down the line. Cut! Stop rolling! Hold the phones! Why am I worrying? Who cares, anyway? Not me. Not anymore. The floor indicator light illuminated L, the doors slid open, and I bid the two parallel universe assassins adieu as we went our separate ways, never to see each other again in this world. Yet another crisis averted. How long can I keep dodging these bullets in the crossfire of life?
I exchanged niceties with the front desk clerk as I approached the front doors, leaving my rococo paranoia in the lobby to be picked up later, no claim ticket needed. Upon exiting the building I offered a “good morning” to the doorman, who reciprocated in kind. He was an amiable fellow, and not just perfunctorily; he seemed genuinely friendly, to me at least, maybe because I broke down the formal barriers of the employee/customer relationship, letting him know without expressing it explicitly that he didn’t have to pretend with me; that I didn’t expect it or appreciate it.
My mission, should I choose to accept it and I did, at this early hour was to seek and secure the essence of our joie de vivre; morning coffee. Gabriella and I have one big cup a day early in the morning upon waking. We’re both agnostic, and I would like to say irreligious, but this ritual of morning coffee coupled with a number of other select rituals are so spiritually affecting, they have become a religion in their own right; so, we’re religious, just not in the conventional, or traditional sense.
Both of us reluctantly accepted a downside of this vacation, or most any vacation, would be the quality of our morning cup. Sure, other things would make up for it, but the spiritual satisfaction of the morning coffee ritual correlates positively with the quality of the coffee, and we had, or should I say I had, become quite the barista, and both of us quite the coffee connoisseurs. We so perfected the morning cup, most any other offering just couldn’t compare; we had to settle for second best, maybe even third or fourth when on the road.
That perfect morning cup was an evolution over many years that started with the Eight-O’clock brand, believe it or not. From Eight-O’clock we evolved to Starbucks and a French Press until the French Press shattered and we returned to a Braun KF 40 Aromaster 10 with a Krups F203 fast-touch bean grinder. The Braun was a durable drip machine that provided us many years of reliable service and it brewed a decent, but not excellent cup of coffee. Eventually, I found an online coffee shop that delivered a variety of whole-bean coffees superior to Starbucks. Even though Starbucks has made strides to diversify its offerings, its trademark coffee is over-roasted, in my opinion, and Gabriella and I no longer care for it, although we do seek it out as a substitute when on trips because it’s still a second best, or maybe even third or fourth.
When the Braun finally succumbed, we replaced it with a Bunn Velocity Brew GR whilst experimenting with a variety of beans over the years. The Bunn, although lightning quick compared to the Braun, didn’t stand the test of time; it quit on us after only several years, so I painstakingly researched for a superior replacement. We decided on the pricey Technivorm Moccamaster H-741 from the Netherlands. It’s function over form, so the aesthetic of this model will not appeal to the superficial, but damn, does it ever produce an excellent, flawless cup of coffee, and it does it nearly as quickly as the Bunn and it’s as silent as a Bosch dishwasher. The appearance is industrial and some reviews noted that it hasn’t changed since its introduction in the nineteen sixties. We think it looks better than the overwrought styles of the glitzy, gimmicky brands. It keeps the temperature of the water just below the boiling point of two-hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and incorporates a hollow mixing tube into the lid that extends to the bottom of the glass carafe to mitigate stratification. The brewing spout also contains a flow control knob so you can allow for variable coffee grind immersion times.
Several months prior to taking this trip, we had settled on the perfect bean combination; four scoops of Mocha Java coupled with two scoops of Indian Mala Monsoon and a heaping teaspoon of roasted chicory ground using the same model Krups bean grinder which we have learned over the years works best with paper filters, otherwise the fine grinds seep through into the carafe and into your mug. Mocha Java is the world’s oldest coffee blend, merging Yemen Mocha beans with Indonesian Java beans. Of course, rarely do you find this traditional combination any longer, but suitable and oftentimes superior bean combinations approximate the traditional complex flavor and use the traditional name. The result is nothing short of fabulous, and if you haven’t tried it yet, you must. The marriage of beans, coincidently, really does render a flavor reminiscent of chocolate, even though the name Mocha is indicative of a port in Yemen and has nothing to do with the cocoa tree. Our mugs are large enough that together they hold ten cups per the measurement on the glass carafe. To that, I add two heaping tea-stirring spoons of turbinado sugar and four tablespoons of half and half. It’s pure bliss. Heaven-sent. Liquid perfection in a mug. You become one with it; a slice of fulfillment. Starbucks will be an injustice.
I headed west up 94th St to 3rd Avenue. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I knew I would find a Starbucks within several minutes of walking, so ubiquitous are they. The air was humid, and although polluted, was mildly pleasant at this early hour with a nice breeze blowing. I was surprised at the number of cynophiles I encountered walking their best friends, and picking up their poop. You would think this is Paris absent the delicious bakeries if you weren’t paying close enough attention. I never realized so many people in Manhattan had pooches, but then again, we’d never stayed in residential parts of the city previously. Since the Marmara was once an apartment building, it was nestled in a residential section of the upper east side. It was an interesting change of scenery for us; offering a chance to see how another slice of Manhattan lived, being it’s such an eclectic mix of people.
Just as I surmised, not even five minutes of walking had passed before I located a Starbucks at the corner of E. 97th St. and Lexington Ave. As I approached, I made a wide berth around a woman and her Golden Retriever, the latter of whom was in the midst of its morning bowel movement. It, the dog I mean, stared at me ever so pleasantly and calmly as it dutifully went about its business. I’m glad humans aren’t so unflappably nonchalant about where and how they relieve themselves. If they were, Manhattan, or any city, wouldn’t be quite the same, Mumbai aside. Thomas Crapper is a saint; blessings to him for his wonderful contribution to humanity.
Dogs and cities don’t belong together, especially larger breeds like Golden Retrievers. We have a Golden, and I couldn’t imagine it in Manhattan. It’s downright cruel if you ask me, just as it’s cruel to cage a bird and clip its wings. Birds were meant to fly, and dogs were meant to run and chase. From the looks of the dogs I’ve seen on this short walk, they’re neurotically deranged. It’s bad enough we domesticated these former wolves and in doing so bequeathed them with all manner of psychological quirks, but to add further fuel to that fire by confining them in tight quarters is not much better than confining a calf in a dark box to render veal. Be that as it may, I could not, and would not want the repulsive task of picking up the dog’s shit and disposing of it properly. I cringe, and laugh, when I see people doing this, but I suppose it’s better than stepping in it; but still, what about the residue left behind? If we were to spray the sidewalk surfaces with a solution that revealed the residue of the dog reliefs, we’d soon realize we’re all stepping in it anyway. I thought I left the rococo paranoia in the lobby, but alas, it follows me wherever I go. “Think positive thoughts; you’re on vacation, remember?” Nah, who cares anyway? Not me. Not anymore.
Starbucks was in the process of coming alive, but not necessarily the employees and the patrons. They were more like zombies. Perhaps years of city life have inured them to all the city has to offer. They’ve learned to protect themselves from the stimulation overload by switching to zombie mode. The effect on an outsider looking in like myself, is likened to being on set in the shooting of The Stepford Wives. “I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe.” Alright, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but without any notable exceptions yet, they’re all on auto-pilot and the vivacious, engaging side of them, if they have one, has been sequestered in a locked file somewhere in the remote reaches of their neural network.
You have to chuckle at the absurdity of Starbucks. All I wanted was a simple, sizeable, quality cup of coffee, but the corporate business model doesn’t accommodate such inane, simplistic notions. Instead, they have to hide that simple, sizeable, quality cup in a sea of absurdly pricey and distracting product offerings. Unless you’re familiar with the set-up, this is not an easy endeavor, so make sure you step aside and figure it all out before you get in line and get up to the counter. These people, both the zombified employees and patrons alike, mean business, so there can be no hesitation or questioning. You know what you want, say what you want, pay for it and get out of the way, or else suffer the searing scrutiny of a thousand consternating stares.
Amidst the coffee and tea a million ways, to include the bottled Caramel Frappuccino, Cinnamon Dolce Latte, Hazelnut Macchiato, Iced White Chocolate Mocha and Tazo Vanilla Rooibos Tea Latte, I managed to locate a simple, sizeable, quality cup of their brewed coffee of the day, but at Starbucks there are no small, medium or large sizes; instead, it’s Short, Tall, Grande, Venti and Trenti. Whatever. I despise that word, but this is one of the few times it’s appropriate and applies. I went with two Grandes with steamed milk; not a Latte, but instead, a lesser amount of milk steamed in order to avoid curdling and to keep the coffee hot since Gabriella and I wouldn’t be sitting down to enjoy it for at least another twenty minutes. Whew! Finally. All that for coffee. We must be nuts. The things you do for religion. I successfully navigated the pretension and secured the focus of our day-break sacrament. Now, it was just a matter of transporting the blood of our Christ back to the room without dropping it. To drop it would be a tragedy.
Success! I placed the coffee on the altar, in this case the suite’s kitchen table, and proceeded to sweeten my Grande with the requisite amount of sugar. “Through him, with him, and in him.” Stop it. Yes, this is a ritual, but it’s not THAT ritual. Even though I had left the Catholic religion long ago, remaining vestiges will occasionally manifest, to include the prayers priests would recite during various parts of the Mass. As I made my way to the bedroom I took note of Erin and Syd cuddled together, deep asleep on the sofa bed. It touched my heart to see them like this, so peaceful and affectionate with one another. It’s a vision that indelibly imprints in one’s memory, to be recalled when they’re grown and gone, and you withered and lonely.
The bedroom was a tomb, cold and dark, and the sleep machine filled it with the sound of bacteria hard at work amplified a million times. You do not jar Gabriella awake. She must be gently roused with a slight wiggle of the toe, and a languid “it’s time to get up.” If you are abrupt with her in any way, you’ll pay dearly for your transgression. Think Lorena Bobbitt on Angel Dust (PCP). Over the years, I perfected a method of rousing her without losing my penis and I employed that tried and true method before exiting the room.
While she was rising from the dead, I set up the kitchen chairs out on the balcony and positioned myself in the one closest to the door so I could hold on in case the structure was compromised in any way by the former Director of Humint’s Special Ops goons. The weird feeling in my crotch returned and still I had no suspenders. At this rate, I would end up a eunuch before we left Manhattan. The sliding door tugged at my Cold Dead Hand firmly gripping the handle. Gabriella made her way onto the balcony closing the door, with my Cold Dead Hand attached, behind her. She leaned over the railing and took in the Upper East Side. I was terrified for her. If it was a mouse or a cockroach, she would have been screaming, but what’s to fear about hard concrete twenty some stories below? Get over it already.
She took her seat and a sip from her Starbucks brewed Grande. “It’s good, but not as good as ours,” she admitted. “I agree, it’s not,” I replied and added, “if you’d have let me bring our coffee maker from home, we wouldn’t have had to settle.” “I told you before, I didn’t want to take the chance of breaking it,” she rebutted. I relented, “I know, and this isn’t terrible coffee. How about this view?” “I love it, this is great,” she responded. It was great. The sun had risen about a half hour earlier, and Manhattan was changing shifts. The car horns, the jack hammers and drills, the shouts and yelling, the boat whistles and roar of the passenger jets all contributed to a cacophonous katzenjammer that was the heartbeat of the city, and there we were, far above it sitting in the catbird seat, ritualistically at one with our second or third best morning cup. Life is good.
This idyllic first morning portended an ideal and fondly memorable several days exploring Manhattan before hitting the road to the Philly Burbs for a dreaded family reunion prior to Joshua’s wedding in Tom’s River New Jersey. Dreaded, because family reunions were nothing more than competitions where siblings showed off their trophies for being practically perfect in every way; their expensive cars, their plastic husbands, their plastic wives, their Aryan children, their prize-winning pets, their 10,000 square feet palaces and their vast knowledge of the universe and their lofty, hard-earned place in it. The persistent rain that accompanied and harangued us the entire trip from Manhattan didn’t help alleviate the mounting uninvited and unsolicited tension. Instead, it was an omen of sorts, more so than we could ever have imagined.
As we traversed the parking lot, enveloped by the misty, mid-afternoon weather, to our respective cars parked out front of the Veterans Home, we noticed, concomitantly, that everything aside from the sound of our footsteps on the pavement and our breathing had gone silent. No sound whatsoever. No sounds of insects, birds, traffic, horns or the low-level, almost indiscernible and taken-for-granted and generally ignored, buzz of electricity flowing. It was a deafening silence of another sort — the sort you deeply hoped, yet never acknowledged let alone articulated, you never encountered — ever. We all stopped and looked at one another — Maggie, Katrina, Mom, Simon, Robert and I looked around at one another for a few seconds that seemed like a lifetime and we all understood without saying a word what came next. All our faces were gripped with total abject fear, horror and emphatic hopelessness. We knew. “I should be with Gabriella, Erin and Syd,” I thought. Tears began to well up and a few managed to release and scurry down my cheeks before the awesome flash. The misting ceased immediately, the flash was blinding — a light brighter than a thousand suns, or so it seemed. As I screamed “fuck, no…” I could hear Maggie, Katrina, Simon, Robert and Mom screaming their own improvisational exclamations and pleas to a God who had forsaken them. I couldn’t breath — the oxygen was completely eradicated from the atmosphere and in that same instant of gasping for air that no longer existed, there was an explosion so powerful and overwhelming it catapulted all of us to the ground immediately and in that same moment I experienced an overwhelming, intense, inconceivable burning pain over my entire body — then nothing. Nothing. No sensation. No consciousness. No unconsciousness. Nothing — the thing we dread and fear most of all — more so than suffering, mayhem and murder.
No more Dad, Mom, Robert, Simon, Maggie, Katrina, Joanna, Daniel, Joshua, Barney Fife security guard, elevators, Starbucks, morning coffee ritual, Marmara, Manhattan, traffic, Arctic cool fronts in July, Monte Carlo’s, leather jackets, vodka, Aplastic Anemia, hospitals, Senior Proms, Directors of Human Intelligence, rain, mist, dreaded family reunions, weddings, Veterans Homes, nuclear power plants, war, peace, births, deaths, murders, murderers, flowers, trees, bees, birds, insects, animals, love, hate, Gabriella, Erin, Syd and Me. No more Journey. No more anything and no trace it ever existed. All gone in an instant, Just Like That.
In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star. And one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.