I had waited several hours to press my cheek against the stainless steel phone embedded in the wall of the holding cell. I held a small piece of paper in my hand, written on it the priceless code for one phone call to connect me to the outside world. Punching the code incorrectly would send me to the end of the line to await another free phone.
The world I had moved within with ease until my hands were pulled behind me, held together with zip ties at the wrist as I traveled downtown in the back of a squad car, feeling as if every passing motorist was passing judgment . . . was a world that was no longer mine. I was in a world now defined by a pink ticket picked up in a public park sex sting alleging that I had engaged in an act of lewdness in public. My car was impounded; my belt and shoes removed; my dignity dissolved.
While I waited for the opportunity to place a call and end the mystery of my afternoon disappearance, the list of potential recipients narrowed down as fast as my false hopes that I would somehow avoid the consequences of my arrest. My past actions had separated me from my children -- grown now, but grown apart from me -- and I could not call a son to bail me out. Those who knew the truth about my sexual struggle -- those I had acted out with in the past -- tended to be anonymous and unreachable; such is the situation of the one who has led a double-life.
I pressed into the cold wall, my ear smashed against the recessed speaker, contorting myself in a strange way to be able to talk into a mouthpiece that was built into the wall to keep it from being broken off, and I listened to Lisa's phone ring and prayed it would not go to message, even as I dreaded she would answer. My mind raced to find words of explanation . . . and settled on the truth.
In the greyness of the cell, locked behind a heavy metal door with pacing men in various stages of depression and denial, I knew only that there were two who would still listen to me: God and Lisa. I would spend a great deal of time talking to both.
The ringing ended and the voice said "Thom . . . where are you?"
I had 90 seconds.
Every train wreck begins with a chug.
Our first breath, a priceless gift from God, is followed quickly by another and on we go, sometimes shallow, sometimes rapid, ever-gasping, on through life. If we could foresee the journey on which our first breath thrusts us, if we could know why we end up where we do, why we veer onto courses we would never choose intelligently for ourselves, we might avoid disaster. If we were even aware of the beginning -- but we don't even realize we have arrived -- we might be able to write a different ending. “If.” Is it an abbreviation for “I fear?”
God, even before my first breath on a plain May morning, saw my journey from beginning to end in that Only-He way He has of womb-to-tomb detail. The baby in the bassinet, the boy on the playground, the man in the jail cell . . . everything in-between and beyond . . . all at once, laid out and played out.
Seven years after that first breath, during the long, hot
Decades down that twisted road, I can still see where it all began: the patting of feet on hot pavement . . . the passage of idle thoughts and simple curiosities . . . the small decisions that add up to momentous change . . . the overflow of things that happen whether we will them or not . . . and the gnawing emptiness left by the things we hoped would have happened but never did.
The summer of 1961 unfurled like a lazy cat on a sun-warmed porch . . . but was in reality moving forward like a speeding snake down a wet gutter pipe. To this seven-year-old, there was no cause for concern. Every day was hot and very similar to the one before. Each stood on its own, beginning and ending on the same pillow. I could not have known they were piling up and soon would collapse upon me, pinning me beneath their weight, demanding more of me than I knew how to give. Wandering unencumbered, I was on the verge of being buried, oblivious that long-term near-suffocation was already in process. My life was changing . . . but neither I nor anyone else knew. No one set out on that summer Saturday to make my life a mess, so there was no one to blame. Such is the privilege of retrospect. On that morning, it appeared as just another Saturday. A very hot one.
The sizzling sidewalk baked my feet. The Popsicle melted faster than I could lick it off the stick. Our dogs drooled in the shade, watching for flies, too lazy to play or even lick the purple drips off a little boy's knees.
I sat on our small covered porch in the shrinking shade as the sun rose in the sky. Our evaporative cooler jutted awkwardly out the living room window next to me. Woefully inadequate for our large frame home, the heat of the summer sun and the blowing dust of the afternoon mocked the rusty box. My grandfather had excavated the cooler from the far back corner of his garage on an unusual day when he felt sorry for us, sweltering in our house on
Though he was a gifted mechanic, PaPa hadn’t had the time to repair the rusty monster before dropping it off. He unloaded it on the front porch, blocking the screen door to get my dad’s attention, and drove away in his air-conditioned cookie delivery panel truck – after dropping off a few packs of cookies for the grandson -- to visit the air-conditioned stores all over town.
PaPa felt sorry for us, but was torn about the idea of making life easier for us. My mother, his youngest daughter, had married against his wishes. When Mother was a senior in high school, Papa warned her not to marry my daddy, a too-happy-go-lucky
It became easier to accept PaPa as the gruff man he was in later years when he traded in his cookie truck for a maintenance rig and worked in plumbing repair. PaPa’s affection was limited to an occasional grin, chuckle and a brief touch on the top of my head. Fortunately, my grandmother – Nanny-- who was the goodness I knew in my early years, was very good at feeling sorry for us. I thought as a child that her resources were pretty limited, but I learned later in life she was amazingly resourceful.
After Daddy got home from work the day the cooler arrived, he set out to put it in the window, while he put away a six-pack of Lone Star. To Daddy, anything worth sweating for was worth a six-pack or a bottle of cheap wine. Unlike my grandfather, who believed there was a proper tool for every task, Daddy believed he could fix anything by picking up whatever was nearby and thinking creatively. He supported the fan’s huge box outside the window with an old stick he found laying in the flower bed. The stick was a little too short to make the fan level, so he perched the stick on a rock. He proclaimed the cooler “in,” attached the garden hose, turned on the water and flipped on the fan. Water shot through the box, across the rusted fan blades and all over the hardwood floors in our rent-house living room. Mother ran in, said the water would make the wood warp and the curtains droop and asked Daddy what he was going to do about all that?
Daddy muttered something about nothing ever making her happy and he pulled his chair close to the fan and enjoyed the sprinkles.
As the sun dipped and the temperature dropped to 90 degrees, my brother and my two sisters and I crowded around the cooler, fighting to be within spitting range of the small drops of water shooting from the blades. Even that close, we could not really get cool . . . not like real air-conditioning – but it was worth pretending. I was seven. My brother was 12.
“Face it,” he shrugged, “It’s just a fan.”
And not a very good one. The slightly-bent blades clanged against each other as they rotated on the wobbly sprocket. The awkward spinning produced a noise that sent the cat running under the car and the neighbors peering from their cool closed windows. Everyone always wondered what was going on at our house.
That first night, the cooler cried out in a barely-audible shrill metal-against-metal sound. I believed it was the sound of progress, and swore we were all cooler. I even left my pajamas on. I was sure I was sweating less than usual.
The second night, the stick settled deeper in the drip-softened flower bed outside the window and the cooler box shifted just a bit. The blades moaned and cursed and I lay awake much of the night along with my brother, wishing Daddy would pull the plug. He would not. The fan cursed and moaned; the freight trains -- which ran practically right through my bedroom -- roared and whistled. If I could have slept I would have had a nightmare. If I had had a nightmare, I would have cried out but no one could have heard me.
On the third night, the stick broke and the cooler tilted heavily and the window frame split. The monstrous machine hung precariously out into the night and the blades rattled and clanged so badly Daddy finally turned it off, jerked the plug from the wall and shoved it out the window on top of the honeysuckle in the flower bed. The weight of the water in the cooler crushed the honeysuckle and the big rusty box settled into the mud, where it would sit until the mailman a few weeks later would ask my mother if she needed help moving it off the flowers. Together they dragged it to the side yard.
Daddy was through with it the moment he tossed it out the window. It was my grandfather’s fault, he said, removing his undershirt and stomping down the hall. Daddy said PaPa had meant this to happen and that we should have known so all along.
“Another damn lesson he’s trying to teach us,” he yelled, retreating to the garage.
Our experiment with air conditioning ended and the water cooler again found itself resting in the dark recesses of a garage, cooler than we would ever be.
That was how 1961 would be. Good intentions. Halfhearted fixes. Promises precursors to curses.
I lay in bed with my window open during that long third night, the gentle swish of the soft curtains teasing my toes, an almost-cool breeze blowing through the open house. I could hear the even whirring of the window unit across the street at our neighbor’s house, taunting me.
Daddy worked at Convair, building airplane engines. My mother said he made good money, but she was always reminding us that other people just had a better way with money than Daddy did. And it showed. All I really wanted was a bike with a banana seat, a flashlight of my own for exploring the field on the other side of the railroad tracks and a window unit air conditioner in my own room. As I listened to the air conditioner across the street, I knew whoever was inside was sleeping, probably under a bedspread to escape the chill as he dreamed. All I really wanted was to sleep and dream . . . like whoever he was.
Instead, I lay awake and listened to the sadness of the trains going back and forth on tracks with no beginning or end. I never knew if they were full or empty, almost through or just beginning. They never stopped, they just whistled down the track that cut across our town and practically our yard. Our house was the closest of all to the tracks and our windows rattled as each slid by, unaware we lived there. When a train roared by, I could not hear my parents in their bedroom down the hall. As it faded into the distance, their voices would take its place.
Daddy’s voice was louder than Mother’s, especially if it was his dreaming voice, the one he used when he talked about the big house he would someday own far away from the railroad tracks . . . someday. In the same voice, Daddy would tell us about trips to places he would dream of but where we would never go. And the car he’d seen and planned to buy so he could drive his old Buick off into Bridgeport Creek and park it among the catfish. And the job he'd heard about that would pay so much more than he was making then. Daddy always said “it never hurts to dream a little, now does it?” His dreaming voice was clear and strong and I liked the sound. I wished it was like that all the time. I wished he was always able to free himself that way.
In an earlier day, maybe before she had four children and a hot train-rattled house, Mother had listened better to the dreamy ramblings and would respond with encouraging words; on this night, in this momentary quiet, she was responding with “mmm…hmmm,” and “yes, dear,” which sound like agreement, but are really just acknowledgment that she hears the words, but no longer shares the vision. Maybe she realized he usually said “I” when he dreamt aloud, forgetting that there were five of us in his family, a definite “we.”
Mother may also have had dreams, but if she did, she did so only while asleep and apparently never awake, or at least never spoke of them so anyone could hear. I don’t know what her dreamer’s voice sounded like before it faded away.
No one knew mine either. I believed even then, at seven, that it was wrong to have big dreams, or at least to share with anyone the ones you might secretly hang on to. There was something about listening to my dad’s, and my mom’s responses to them that made me keep mine to myself, as if sharing them would endanger them. But there was something about keeping them to myself that eventually caused them to cease to be altogether. Maybe if I had shared them they might have come true . . . one or two?
I didn’t dream that night. I thought of cooler air and jets . . . and fell asleep. I heard my little sister get up for a drink in the middle of the night. My older brother and sister got into an argument and slammed a couple of doors. Eventually there were no voices. That didn’t last.
“Get up stupid,” said my brother in the doorway and I realized I had overslept. “We’re going to
Whitey was our dog and I knew he would be dead when I went to bed. In the morning, Mike had found “Whitey,” named so because Daddy had said he was a Dalmatian that never got his spots, lying in the ditch between the railroad tracks and our house. Daddy had tried the day before to kill bagworms on our cedar trees by spraying them with a sulphur mixture. The yellow rain ran into the street gutters where Whitey lapped it up and ran yelping crazily down the street like a mad dog. When he came back home, he stood at the edge of the yard and whimpered and then lay down by the railroad tracks.
“Stay away from him. He’s gone mad,” said Daddy. “He’ll be better by tomorrow.”
Daddy always had a simple answer and it usually involved waiting for tomorrow. He never spent a lot of time searching. And when his answers turned out to be wrong, he ran . . . or fished. He was wrong about Whitey. The dog didn't get better. Time to fish.
Mike got the shovel and the fishing poles, buried the dog and loaded the gear. Mother packed a lunch and some clothes for a three-day stay at Aunt Nell’s farm in
Nothing grew on the farm in
What grew best on the farm in
Daddy ran to
As draped in dust and depression as
In the inviting twilight and beyond to , the evening roar took hold . . . the overpowering sound of thousands of huge croaking bullfrogs. They were the staple of Bridgeport weekend dinners – meaty frog legs rolled in cornmeal, fried to a golden crisp and served with fried okra and fresh tomatoes, followed by a home-grown watermelon. I think that may be all we ever ate.
Above the constant croaking of the toads, beneath the uncountable stars and a brilliant moon, I rowed along alone with my dad. One vibrant little boy with a whole world before him; one tired man looking for a way out of the world beneath him.
“Daddy . . . you know what I want to be when I grow up?” I said. “I think maybe I want to be a soldier like you were . . . and fight in battles across the sea.”
“That sounds like a good choice,” Daddy said. “But I hope we won’t have any more battles.” His eyes lost their focus and his hands stilled on the boat paddles as he remembered in silence his days in
We drifted along in the dark, listening to the sounds of the frogs along the banks of the pond and I heard my daddy -- in his loud dreaming voice -- tell me I could be anything I wanted to be. All I needed to do right now was dream.
“Well then,” I said. “I think I’ll be a fireman. Everybody likes firemen. They’re strong and brave and they save lives all day. I would be a hero, wouldn’t I?”
“I’m sure you would,” said Daddy. “You’ll be a great fireman.”
I laughed and kept dreaming aloud.
“It sounds kind of scary,” I said. “And really hot.”
I sat quietly for a few minutes, watching my dad at the other end of the boat, the red ashes from his cigarette glowing in the dark. I could tell he was watching me too. We moved so slowly across the water, I could barely hear the ripples against the boat. I took it all in, the peacefulness, the security, the surety.
“You know what, Dad?” I said. “I think I’d rather just fish with you forever, right here in this boat, on this pond, with these frogs.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Daddy said, even as he turned the boat toward the shore. We gathered our frogs and he helped me through the bulrushes and up the muddy banks of the pond and into the clearing. With his arm around my shoulders, we made our way back to the farmhouse, where he tucked me in for the night. Daddy lingered at the bedroom door before he turned out the light and headed down the hallway.
Relaxed and secure, I dreamed all night of winning wars and putting out fires, but even more so of fishing for frogs, always with my dad at my side.
And then morning came. I awoke from my dreams, rolled out of bed, ran down the hall for breakfast and was told that my father was gone. As ingone. He would not be coming home. We would never fish again.
The bright and vibrant conquering child who had seen himself able to be anything he wanted to be . . . anything he dreamed of . . . was just a little abandoned trembling kid in a wrinkled pajamas, wanting really badly to leave Bridgeport behind. The once unlimited little boy was limp. Wanting . . . and alone. Alone . . . and awaiting rescue. Vulnerable and eager.
In the distance, I heard a train, lumbering across the wooden bride outside
I did not know God. I did not know that God knew me. I'd never heard He never leaves us. My faith had been in my father . . . not THE Father. I did not know that when I hurt and cried, He heard me. I only knew that change had come upon us . . . and I did not like it, want it, or know how to survive it. My instincts would tell me to close the doors and build protective walls, reinforcing myself against anyone who might ever hurt me again. I did not know about the armor of God; I reached instead for a sword of silence with which to cut off those around me. I knew the storm, but not the shelter.
The fierceness I would demonstrate was but a disguise to hide the vulnerability that penetrated to the very soul I did not know I had. Reeling from the profound pain of abandonment, I was ripe for picking, and he -- Mr. Hooten -- would soon come prowling.