I’ll go get them.

So I said, putting down my losing poker hand and heading toward the long, echoing, dimly lit corridor to the Room of Rabbits. I had been hanging out with the full-time venomology lab technicians, who were “busy” monitoring the five-foot tall electrophoresis columns, among other experiments. Given that it would take days for a run to separate the proteins present in a particular sample of venom, they frequently had a lot of time on their hands; poker, pranks, floor mopping, and cleaning lab equipment with ridiculously strong hydrochloric acid that could light a paper towel on fire were their common distractions while watching the clock. As well as, over poker, settling on which of the University of Southern California (USC) graduate students that came and went through the lab were decent fellows, and which were clearly from the University of Spoiled Children, final decision on which was expressly made by Gene, the lead laboratory technician. 

The Spoiled Children had all made the mistake of treating the lab technicians as their personal servants or committing some other slight, and, once labelled, their experiments seemed to always take a little bit longer and encounter a few more technical glitches. No out-and-out sabotage, but definite slow walking, causing the spoiled to conclude that the technicians were indeed not good at their jobs, and not very smart as well. But they were, believe me. The unlucky few never realized that while they waltzed in and out again  every couple of years, the technicians were there for life, and actually ran the place, and put everyone in their proper places according to their hierarchy. Most grad students were lucky to always encounter Gene’s usually glinting eyes, while the few who had crossed him or his staff knew him only as the lab tech with the icy glare, not to be messed with. 

That day, one of the researchers had poked their head into the game room requesting three rabbits. I hadn’t been in the Rabbit Room before, but given that I had veterinary hospital experience, I figured I could handle a rabbit or two. As I headed down the corridor, I could hear the echo of other footsteps rushing to catch up with me, and sure enough, Gene came up to my side, a little breathless, and offered to help.

“Oh, I’ve handled bunnies before,” I started.

“These aren’t pet bunnies, trust me,” he said, hand on my shoulder, smiling. Gene was a bit stocky, sporting mutton chops and a thick mustache, with an equally stout Bull Moose pipe buried deep between his thick lips, large bowled, short shanked, perpetually glowing, so well used that the side from which he always touched the match to the leaf had a noticeable burnt-in gash extending down the side of the bowl. He had been the one to invite me to their semi-regular poker games, in spite of the fact that the Director of the lab had explicitly banned the games while I was there, a high-school student spending his one-month work study to find out what animal research was all about. The Director was worried it would give a bad impression, and that it would come back to bite the laboratory when I wrote my final report on my experiences there. The lab technicians were unfazed, however, and didn’t blame me or take it out on me for a second. I’ve waited 48 years before spilling the beans; I guess Gene could tell I was trustworthy. So, while I was in residence, the techs would only get a game up whenever it was confirmed that the Director was at the main USC campus, rather than here at the Venomology Research lab associated with the Los Angeles County & USC Medical Center in Boyle Heights.

We entered the Rabbit Room together and I headed directly over to the bank of cages. These were no ordinary rabbits; they were all over 16 pounds, uniformly albino, with long, floppy ears. Gene grabbed my arm as I reached to open a cage. He had me put on lead-lined gloves that went up to my elbows, typically used for holding an animal in place under the x-ray machine while protecting your limbs. He then proceeded to show me how to safely extract one from it’s cage. As Gene opened the cage door, the poor creature bared its teeth, and when he grabbed it by the scruff of the neck it kicked like crazy, trying to shred the glove, and Gene, to pieces. He worked it into a long, narrow, wooden box with a lid that exposed only its head and ears. Gene could see the look of horror on my face, and he got the other two as well and loaded them onto a cart. He told me to head back to the game, that Paul never had a good hand if he doubled the pot when it was time to call, and  that he would deliver these. He was right about Paul, of which I was grateful, and I was doubly grateful for his help with the rabbits.

About a week into my stint, but before the Rabbit Room rescue, Gene had come up to me and thrust a broom into my hands, telling me to sweep out the Reptile Room. I said “sure” and took the broom, and headed down the hall. But with each step, I started to resent the request, thinking to myself that I was not a janitor, that this wasn’t what I signed up for. But I did what I was told.

The Reptile Room was where we kept all the venomous animals they were researching: Rattlesnakes, of course, and Spitting Cobras, Hooded Cobras, Water Moccasins, Mexican Beaded Lizards, large Emperor scorpions that seemed almost as big as a lobster,  small Arizona Bark scorpions that Gene warned me to watch out for in my hiking boots before putting them on if I ever went camping in the Sonoran Desert, California Ebony tarantulas, Black Widows, and Brown Recluses, to name a few. It was a very large room, kept very warm, with floor to ceiling shelves on 3 walls, filled with small medicine vials for the smaller spiders, and dozens and dozens of terrariums for everything else. When it was feeding day (once a week the snakes would get mice) and you walked in, dozens of rattlesnakes would rattle in unison; it would make the hair on your neck stand straight up. In the center of the room was a large, black-topped lab table, with a few stools scattered about. The front wall, however, was filled with a giant picture window, probably so that anyone passing by could safely see if some poor sucker was dead cold on the ground without opening the door.

I started sweeping, sliding the stools around and trying to be thorough, while also hoping that I’d ultimately get to be more than a short-term janitor, when my heart rate suddenly accelerated to a thousand beats a second in an instant, and I reflexively leapt back and threw my broom at one of the shelves, all in one motion. I had not yet even consciously registered what I saw, but when I landed from my backward leap I could see there was a coiled King Cobra, hood in full flair, tipped over on its side from the impact of the broom. I thought I was going to pass out, but the fact that the snake was still in full coil, only 90 degrees off kilter, brought me back to my senses, along with the uproariously loud laughter coming from the crowd of white coated lab technicians peering through the window. It turned out to be a freeze dried snake that they had put on a shelf as a prank for my benefit. 

I laughed as well, relieved, and put it back upright, then turned, but all the technicians had vanished. Deflated, I didn’t know whether Gene expected me to finish sweeping, so, to be safe, I did. A few minutes later, even though I clearly had not forgotten about the cobra, my Fight or Flight reflex, from our Reptilian Brain, kicked in again when it once more sensed the cobra at the very periphery of my vision. I involuntarily threw the broom a second time without even thinking, only this time hitting a terrarium, rattlesnake inside, but, luckily, not breaking it. That was enough. After I calmed down, again, I took the cobra by the neck (if they even have such a thing) and snuck into Gene’s office (as lead lab technician he had his own private getaway that he rarely used), and put it in one of the larger, lower drawers of his desk.

I returned the broom to Gene, grinning, who took it like I was handing him a battle sword, solemnly, and put it back in the supply closet. Then he burst out laughing again. I don’t know when or if he ever found the serpent, but it was two days later that he invited me to my first poker game. I didn’t realize then but I do now that at that moment I had been tested, and passed, and confirmed as not a Spoiled Child. I had become an honorary Venomology Lab Technician for life.

Some days later Gene told me to grab my lunch from the fridge, that we were going for a ride, along with two of his staff. We drove out to a lab supply office in Rosemead, behind which was a goat pen on the edge of the Whittier Narrows. There was a billy goat and two nannies loitering inside. Gene had a satchel slung over his shoulder, and when we got to the gate, he told me to climb up on the wooden fence and sit, and give a shout out if the billy goat made his move. He also told me that if Billy made a move at me, to just jump off the fence, on the outer side, of course; everything would be alright. 

Gene and his team went in, and Billy immediately positioned himself on the opposite side of the pen, bent down and nonchalantly eating tufts of grass, but also never taking his eyes off the guys. The two other techs chased down one of the nannies and held her still. Gene approached and took a syringe out of his satchel, and injected her rump. By this time, Billy had mosied around the pen, positioned himself twenty feet behind Gene’s backside, lowered his head, and charged. I shouted “Look out, he’s coming!” and Gene deftly removed the now empty syringe and stepped aside, the other techs released the nanny, and Billy just kept running straight ahead, head down, until he realized he had missed the lot and then slowed down to a trot, then a walk, then bent down to eat another clump of grass, seemingly unperturbed, but  giving the crew the side eye.

This ballet continued with the second nanny, and when we were done Gene explained that these goats were actually producing antivenom for treating snakebite victims at the Medical Center, and that this was how it always went. I asked him why they didn’t tie up Billy first, and Gene grinned and wondered what the fun was in that? We went back to the lab and he showed me how they would use a centrifuge to separate the venom antibodies from the other blood components, once the goats had produced enough antivenom to extract. 

After my one month work-study ended, I submitted my school report, with no mention of poker but with a lot of action shots of me milking black widows (I squeezed to death the first five I tried to milk with the tweezers I was using because they kept wiggling, then they didn’t), shocking scorpions and tarantulas with electrical contacts connected to a tall, dry-cell battery to get them to eject their venom, and gripping a rattlesnake by the head and squeezing the venom sacs behind its jaw after first taking it out of its terrarium and putting it in a burlap sack, then placing the sack in a refrigerator for 10 minutes to slow the serpent down. That day with the rattlesnake, when I went home, I smelled like I had played four hours of tennis in 100 degree heat from so much fear sweat. They never let me near the beaded lizard; too dangerous, they said, if you can believe it, but I did help move the spitting cobra once, plastic face shield in place, long-handled grippers at the ready, like the ones park rangers use to pick up trash, in case the thing got loose and started slithering away.

A few months later, a meat crisis hit the U.S., driving prices so high there were attempts at a national boycott.  Apparently some enterprising thieves had another idea. I read in the L. A. Times where two of the Rosemead goats had been stolen from their pen, and the newspaper warned the public that they had been used to produce rattlesnake antivenom, and strongly urged that the goat rustlers return them, no questions asked. Interestingly, I knew for a fact that there were actually 3 goats in residence.

I am absolutely certain, to this day, that they didn’t need to return Billy; he was the one they left behind. The only one without any venom in his veins, but definitely a lot in his heart. I can see him now, solitary in his pen, reliving the glory of getting at least one or two good butts in with the goat rustlers before his nannies were snatched away, just waiting for the next human to make the same mistake, and paying the price, icy stare in his eyes.

I hereby christen that old goat Gene.

Do you smell something burning?

So I said, while assisting Dr. Pine as he removed a very large tumor from the chest of an extremely furry Samoyed. The dog was so bushy that we weighed him before administering the anesthesia; usually the veterinarians eyeballed it, but we knew this dog was probably one-third fur and didn’t want to risk overdosing him.

As I prepped the dog for surgery, I shaved off a substantial portion of that thick, rough coat on his left side, sprayed the exposed skin with alcohol and wiped the area clean, then followed that with a spray of iodine. As I put the surgical drape in place, fur continually floated up and landed on top of it and in the rectangular opening in the middle. Dr. Pine noticed and had me remove the drape and saturate the surrounding fur with more alcohol, twice. I won’t go into any details of the surgery, but it was not an easy one for Dr. Pine. Before closing the dog up, he was stopping most of the bleeding with the electro cauterizer.

“Do you smell something burning?” I asked, sensing a not-normal smell in the air.

“Of course you do, you idiot” Dr. Pine snapped, holding the cauterizer in one hand, thrusting it toward me emphatically as if to answer the question, his other hand resting on the edge of the surgical drape. He always got very tense and nervous, and frequently verbally abusive, when performing surgeries.  We called him Major Burns (from M*A*S*H), behind his back of course. Who knew how prophetic that epithet would turn out to be?

He suddenly yanked his gloved hand off the dog and screamed for me to put the fire out. I couldn’t see what he meant at first, but then I saw the poor dog’s fur just disappearing into thin air, after at first forming little back balls on the tips of each white follicle. Dr. Pine stood back with both hands up, and yelled at me to put it out with my bare hands, because the surgical gloves  he was wearing would melt onto his. I realized then that what was happening was an invisible alcohol fire. I grabbed the surgical drape and tamped the fire out, looking for signs of curling fur. When I thought I had gotten it all, I waved my bare hand over the poor dog’s side, feeling for hotspots. Luckily, for me and him, there weren’t any.

Dr. Pine finished closing up the incision, and we inspected for other damage. Fortunately for the dog, his coat was so thick that the fire had not burned down to his skin; however, there was a ring of scorched fur, looking partially melted, like nylon, surrounding his prepped side. I shaved all that off, and now his entire left flank was bald.

We kept the dog overnight for recovery and observation, and the next day, as Dr. Pine was going over the at-home instructions with the owner, he told her that out of an abundance of caution we had shaved the dog’s chest entirely on the left side, to be sure to keep his thick coat out of the wound. It worked. When the dog came back for his stitches to be removed a week or so later, everything was fine, and delicate little white follicles were already starting to sprout, like meadow grass and ephemeral flowers after a devastating forest fire. I, for one, was very relieved.

Ach, sie hat schlafzimmeraugen!

So said Ruth, insultingly, as I slid the cash register drawer closed after ringing up a sale of exactly 1 bra and 2 packs of panties. I was working at one of the last surviving free standing J.C. Penneys that anchored the declining, decrepit Myrtle Avenue  in Monrovia, California, struggling against the double-tsunami of the recent opening of the Santa Anita Shopping Center and the Montclair Plaza, shiny and new in the 1970s, sucking all business, and businesses, away from traditional downtowns.  The Monrovia storefronts were worn out and tired and becoming more and more empty, and  the merchandise within them more so, comprised of rejected, slow selling lots from the big box chains who had decided to put their focus, and good merchandise, into the bright and shiny new malls. Meanwhile, the downtown staff, mostly middle-aged women who had been at this for a decade or two or three but were now seeing the end of the road, were worn out and tired as well, too resistant, or, in the eyes of corporate, too old,  to transfer to either mall. They banded together in a remarkable comradery, driven by memories, helping each other get through their excruciatingly boring shifts, where sometimes all of a half dozen customers would even enter the front door over the course of 4 to 6 hours, and, as likely as not, would wander back out without having bought anything, except, perhaps, the legendary Towncraft brand of underwear. I guess the last thing people want to change is their underwear, brand. 

I was a 20 year-old college kid working my way through school, not worried about the end of the tunnel yet, and all the middle-aged ladies took to me like a son, grateful for anything that might make the interminable hours pass by more quickly. We could only dust, rehang, restack, and sort merchandize that was not actually being all that disturbed by customers for so long, to the point that we would all watch expectantly from the old fashioned central cash-register redoubt as a solitary, listless lady would wander about, take things off the racks, and, if we were lucky, put them back in the wrong place, a medium in the large section, or even on the wrong rack! When she would meander to another department, we’d jump at the chance to swoop in and  rehang the dress, blouse, or pants back in it’s rightful place, anything to disturb the monotony, if only for a half a minute.

Ruth was particularly proprietary about Women’s Foundations, handling it as her personal fiefdom. She was as stereotypically gruff a German as you could get, and would offer to help the ladies size their bras in a manner reminiscent of a stocky East German gym teacher issuing jock straps to high school boys, and she still retained a harsh German accent despite decades in the States. She came over right after World War II with her parents, never married, piled on the pancake makeup and lipstick on her face ever more thickly every passing year, with a hairstyle set in such severe, tight curls that they looked like they would crack if you touched them, like crispy cannolis. She had never worked anywhere else but this J. C. Penneys, where she had gradually learned English over the years at the counter, and which was dying before her eyes. She took a particular liking to me, given my German ancestry and my ability to toss off basic conversational German phrases, albeit imperfectly, from my four years of high school German.

A girl about my age had come in, with long, straight hair obscuring her face, frayed jeans, flat sandals, and a tie-dyed T-shirt, browsing the Foundations. Typically, Ruth would have been over there in a second, gruffly examining the specimen, sizing up her “dimensions” and telling her exactly what she needed by taking it off the rack or shelf and thrusting it into her hands. But Ruth did not like the younger generation much, especially anyone who might hint at being a hippie, so she intentionally left the register garrison and went into the back stock rooms. 

Linda, another clerk manning the registers, was a lively, always laughing and smiling 42-year old brunette with 3 kids older than me, her hair done up like she was going to a mid-1960s prom every day, loose curls flowing over her forehead and cheeks, like Dusty Springfield 10 years too late, wife of a Greek long-haul truck driver. She loved her family fiercely and totally. Her eyes always sparkled and smiled, and she walked surprisingly lightly on her feet given her large frame. She immediately saw the potential of what was shaping up in Foundations, so she slipped out of the fort, winking at me and whispering “she’s all yours” as she went. 

We had a rule that Fort Knox,  the central cash register area, could never be left unattended, and, besides, I had no clue about ladies foundations (at that point in my life, virtually true personally as well), so I just stood there and watched, embarrassed, straightening up the pens, refund slips, and stray hangers strewn about the counter. But not as embarrassed as the girl, who had made her bra and panty choices and was heading over to pay, only to glance up and see that I was the solitary clerk within eyesight. She veered sharply to the left at the last moment, bumping into the corner of the counter, and took a very exaggerated interest in a rack of  pastel-colored, polyester blouses that no one under fifty would be caught dead wearing; she then padded over to the polyester pants, then the raincoats even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, head down and frequently glancing sideways through her long bangs to see if any female clerks had come to her rescue. Linda was hiding in Shoes, peering through the racks. Ruth was nowhere to be seen.  Finally, the girl relented and came over, she and I both blushing, and made her purchase. I had to look at the tags for the prices, which also revealed the items’ dimensions, and if it was at all physically possible, we both blushed even deeper.

The moment the poor girl cleared  the front door and headed down the sidewalk, quickly,  both Linda and Ruth materialized from out of nowhere. Linda was grinning and giggling, and Ruth was shooting dagger eyes at the now empty storefront, just in case the girl would have had the nerve to decide to come back in.

“What did you think?” Linda asked mischievously,  to which I replied, trying to play along, awkwardly, “She’s pretty cute.” “Nice, nice freckles on her arms,” I added, since I hadn’t been bold enough to glance at her face once she had arrived at the register. Ruth offered “Ach, sie hat schlafzimmeraugen!” (“Ugh, she has bedroom eyes!”)  as an insult, shooting those dagger eyes again, but softer, toward me, more out of disappointment and reproachment than disgust. I grinned back and said “Ya! Ausgezeichnet augen!” (“Yes! Excellent eyes!”; lame, I know, but my German was what my German was.) I hadn’t really looked at the girl’s eyes, but somehow at that moment Linda had inspired me to go all in. I glanced toward the desolate storefront windows as well, hopefully.

I believe it was at that very point in my life that I decided that from then on I would look girls right in the eyes, especially cute girls. Thank you Ruth! Thank you Linda!

Hey kids, come on out and watch Paul Bunyan!

So said I, jauntingly toting my chainsaw in one hand, sledgehammer slung over my other shoulder, and a bucket of plastic felling wedges dangling from the hammer handle. I strutted out to the front lawn, eyeing the 40 foot tall snag, all that remained of a once massive oak tree, it’s crown sheared clean off by lightning the year before, burned black and jagged at its peak.

I had been itching to try my luck at actually felling a substantial tree trunk, after a decade of bucking already fallen oak towers into splittable rounds. This one was a good 3 feet in diameter at its base, a bare, straight trunk as tall as an uncarved totem pole; if left to its own to decide when to surrender to gravity and root decay,  it could easily reach the corner of the house, and do considerable damage to the girls room, and, potentially, the girls. Something had to be done, I gleefully decreed. 

I studied  my chainsaw owner’s manual intensely the entire winter before, visualizing slicing the notch cut that would guide the trunk to fall away from the house, followed by a straight, neat felling cut on the opposite side, creating a natural hinge deep inside the trunk in the process. Then working wedges into the deepening cut to keep the trunk from pinching back on my saw as I went deeper, and to persuade it to keel over in the proper direction. However, in my mind’s eye during those long winter evenings, at least half the time disaster struck; the corner of the house crushed like a cardboard box. I decided a can-do attitude was all that was needed.

On that fateful day, when the daffodils started poking their impatient heads through the softening earth of early spring, and the long frozen trunk had thawed, Judi and the kids poured out the front door to watch, at a safe hundred-foot distance. I asked her to give me a wave if the trunk started falling back on me instead of into the open expanse of our front yard, so I could get the hell out of the way.

I cut the notch cleanly, and knocked it out with a couple of hard wacks of the sledgehammer. As the wedge slid out and plopped onto the ground, it looked like it had been carved from a giant cheese wheel. I almost picked it up to wipe the dirt and sawdust from it and to bring it inside; the inner wood still had a fresh, pale yellow hue, like a nice triangle of Fontina cheese. Then I remembered I was standing right in front of the notch and I dropped the cheeseless wedge and let it be.

I carefully started the felling cut on the backside, hoping to form a nice, straight hinge about a little past halfway through the trunk. I drove plastic wedges in deeper, and then the gap in the cut began to expand ever so slightly on its own as I worked the saw further in, so I yanked it, stood back, and looked up. It was just starting to tilt, ever so slightly, so I eyeballed the corner of our house and imagined the trunk’s path, and was relieved to see that it would crush only our Freedom Lawn. I smiled and looked over at my family, feeling pleased with myself, but they  were all waving frantically, pointing at the top of the tree. 

To my horror, a nest of squirrels had taken up residence in the hollowed out top, and were now bailing out as the trunk accelerated, frighteningly, hurtling toward the ground. For a millisecond I took the beginning of a step toward the trunk, as if I could somehow stop it’s fall and set it back upright. Instead, though, I stepped back, helpless. It made a tremendous crack like a rifle shot as the hinge snapped, the trunk slammed to earth with amazing force, the ground shook, and everyone continued to scream. I was breathless with one form of relief, and more so with overwhelming dread. Judi was trying desperately to herd the kids back into the house, and to keep them from looking backwards at the carnage on the ground.

Once they were all safely inside, and away from any south-facing windows, I did what I needed to do out and came back inside, dejected and disappointed that my triumph was ultimately a tragedy. 

I knew then and there that my felling days were finished, before they barely began, totaling all of one tree. Even though there is another perfect snag,  albeit far shorter, patiently standing guard at the edge of our woods, mountain laurels and lilies of the valley at its base, the trunk has now been, for years, popular with industrious pileated woodpeckers hunting for bugs and grubs hidden in it’s now softening wood, and I am certain something is living, warm and cozy, in it’s jagged top. Undisturbed. 

Do I have to go in?

So said Dave, looking up from his beach chair set smack in the middle of his driveway, legs splayed out in front of him, faded and worn baseball cap askew, blue can of Busch Ice in hand. The russet glow of another rural summer sunset was turning his whitewashed barn behind him a beautiful burnt orange, like a marshmallow perfectly roasted over a campfire, but I was in no condition to appreciate the daily miracle, not that day.

The kids and I had set out on our bikes to our village’s Turkey Hill mini-mart, a couple of miles away, for ice cream. I was riding my collapsible Dahon, with small, 20 inch wheels, a low frame and a very high center of gravity, which makes it twitchy and darty under the best of conditions; think of it as a clown bike, for amateurs. And I, of course, decided to pop a wheelie, which I have never been good at, but dads have to impress, no? I zoomed past Sully, but things began to go wrong, very fast. I came down askew, with the front wheel and handlebars aimed to the left rather than straight ahead. The bike darted that way, hard, but my body kept going straight, and fast, catapulting off the seat and sailing over the right handlebar grip, catching my ankle on the shifter and pitching face first toward the pavement. I managed to twist as I saw the grey and black gravel looming toward my face, looking more and more like sharp shark’s teeth every millisecond. 

I crunched left shoulder first, then bike helmet, then left elbow and left hip, physics trying to drive my creaky body deep into the hungry macadam, tearing up my left side. I rolled over, and could immediately tell something was very wrong. My left arm, reflexively and insistently, demanded to be tucked across my belly and be cradled by my good right arm. Other than that, it refused to move. Any attempt by me to do so was met by burning hot pain. I touched the top of my left shoulder and could feel the tip of my collar bone protruding at least an inch or maybe a foot or two higher than it should have been. There was blood, but not a lot; I expected far more, since I thought that my collar bone was now protruding angrily through my skin. Luckily, it was not. Just the blood of serious scrapes.

I could barely walk, to say nothing of going home and driving myself to emergency. My mind’s eye remembered catching a glimpse of Dave in his driveway when we had pedaled past, a mere minute ago. I cradled my arm and limped back up the winding country road, and there he was, relaxing at the end of another long day as a dairy farmer, six pack at his side. Behind him, he had just finished pitchforking flakes of pale green alfalfa for his cows, who munched and snuffled contentedly, using their surprisingly nimble lips and tongues to select the most tender and tasty stalks spread out in front of them on the galvanized hay rack.

I struggled up his driveway, and from a distance I could see Dave was clearly perturbed by the intrusion, and when I got near, Dave leaned forward in his chair, but did not get up.

“What happened to you?” he asked, a little miffed.

“I fell off my bike,” I said, between pained breaths. “I think I broke my collar bone.”

“Do you think you could make it home?” he asked, not helpfully.

“To be honest, no.” Home was over a mile behind me. “And if I could,” I said, anticipating his non-offer to drive me there, “I couldn’t drive myself to the hospital anyway.”

“Couldn’t, couldn’t Judi drive you?” he asked, sitting back in his chair now, thinking he had found the least bothersome solution.

IMG_0774

“She’s not home,” I said, getting a bit impatient, playing a thousand questions while standing there cradling my arm, hyperventilating. We had welcomed Dave and his wife and some friends into our house during the prior winter’s massive blizzard, when everyone had lost power but our wood stove glowed warmly. We improvised with vodka, tonic water, and orange juice, and christened the concoction “The Wagoneer”, after the vehicle my friend Mick had used to gather the entourage, and the supplies, to our house. The name seemed more and more brilliant after every additional drink.

“She’s 45 minutes away,” I said. “Look, what I really need is a ride to Emergency. It’s only about 10 miles. Could you, please?” 

He tucked his long, lanky legs in and got up in that manner that only farmers do, as if it was the last time they’d ever be able to manage such a feat, and yet they will continue to somehow manage to stand up for the next 3 or 4 decades. When he reached his full height, he leaned down to take a good look at my shoulder, then flinched.

“Do I have to go in?” he asked.

“You can just drop me off at the door,” I offered, standing there, hoping that the mere sight of my shattered body would touch something in him.

He took the time to drain his open can, picked up the other five by the empty plastic ring, and dragged his chair off the driveway. I asked the kids to take my bike home and to call Mom and have her meet me at the hospital.

I followed Dave to his faded red Ford F150 pickup; it sat high off the ground, as a 4 wheel-drive-farmer’s truck would need to, and it was a struggle to reach up and open the passenger door and pull myself up and in, one handed. The vinyl bench seat wasn’t filthy, but it wasn’t exactly clean either; this was a real working vehicle. I wondered about my cuts picking up tetanus or some other form of infection. Dave was already in the driver’s seat, and as I scooted gingerly onto the seat, cradling my arm,  he asked me to try to keep blood off the seats as he turned the key.

The ride was silent, rough, and fast, jarring my collarbone at every bump and turn. But I don’t think Dave was rushing on my account; he had 5 beers getting warmer by the minute at the edge of his driveway. When we finally got to the emergency entrance, I struggled to clamber out on my own, and when I twisted around to close the truck door, Dave was already pulling away. I barely reached it with the tips of my fingers of my right hand and slammed it shut.

A shot of morphine, a sling, and about a week convalescence later, I resumed my train commute to work. I was standing at the Malvern station, waiting for a transfer, still learning how to pull myself up the steep metal steps one handed to get onboard. Most of the stations on the line were so old there were no raised platforms, and the regional rail did not provide 2-step benches, like the Amtrak conductors did.

Two train regulars noticed me from a distance on the platform. The first time I had noticed them, months prior, and every time thereafter,  they were restlessly milling about in the corner of the station, seemingly incapable of standing still, covered head to toe in fine white powder, the orange of their Carhartt coveralls barely discernible. I immediately pegged them for not being from around there, certainly not from the blue-blood Main Line of Philadelphia, locale for the Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn classic The Philadelphia Story.  I thought to myself that they would have fit in much more comfortably in my village, Cochranville, Pa., population 651. I labelled them, unkindly I’m ashamed to admit, “First Darryl and Second Darryl”, from the old Newhart show. 

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I later came to find out that the two Darryls were brothers who worked together at the last operating quarry in Chester County. They were flagmen in charge of stopping traffic as giant haul trucks full of rock periodically groaned across a public road that bisected the quarry into two massive gravel pits. They were a team, inseparable. They were also responsible for clearing and securing the safety perimeter surrounding blast sites at the quarry, which would periodically rattle the glass of nearby buildings. 

You would think they were identical twins, the way they were always together, finishing each other’s jokes that they told to each other, sharing the snacks they pulled out of their powdery pockets, teasing and wrestling each other like a couple of middle school boys on their first field trip. And this repeated every day on the platform. They took the train to the end of the line, as I did, then disappeared into a tiny, dingy, powder-blue Ford Fiesta, that looked like it might have gotten too close to more than one of their quarry blasts over the years.

The two Darryls kept to themselves, and if your eyes met theirs while glancing around, theirs would immediately dart down, or, ridiculously, up to the sky. It took a while to get them to go beyond “Hello, sir” whenever I would say “Hi” or “Hey” or nod in their direction at the end of the day. But they warmed up to me a bit after quite a few months, like adopted feral kittens who finally decide to accept the common decencies you reflexively and habitually extend to them. That’s how I found out they were both hard of hearing as well, despite the fact that they were probably all of thirty-five years old and had bright fluorescent yellow ear plugs dangling from  powder-covered black cords around their necks.

They were huddled in their regular corner of the platform that day, securely tucked into the “L” of the handrails behind and around them, and were leaning over and whispering to each other. First Darryl finally straightened up and walked toward me, somewhat obliquely, hands together and head down. “Hey, hey buddy,” he said, more to his hands than to me directly, slightly swaying. “Me, me and my brother are just wondering, wondering what happened to your arm?” His head cocked sideways and leaned back as he finished the question, as if my reply might blast him backwards.

“I flipped over my handlebars showing off to my kids, in the middle of nowhere. I thought I had broken my collarbone, but what I actually did was separate my shoulder. Hurt like hell; I never knew how wonderful a drug morphine could be. I had to persuade a local farmer to give me a ride to the E.R.” 

“Farmer? Where do you live?” he asked, raising his head, now truly curious.

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“Cochranville. A little village of 600. Way past the end of the line. Do you know where that is?”

“Know? We, we was born there! Which farmer did you say it was?”

Second Darryl came up quietly behind him to listen, but did not join the conversation.

“Dave Wilson. On Homeville Road.”

“Dave? Dave Wilson?! We went to school with Dave! Wow. You. You from Cochranville? Wow. Dave, he doesn’t do anything for free,” he said, shaking his head. “In high school, whenever, whenever we went to his dad’s farm to chug a case of beer in their hay loft, we first had to feed all his dairy cows and muck out his barn floor for him! And then, then he would drink most of the case we brought!” He paused, and looked up at me. He finally stood up straight. “How did you get him to do it? Wow.”

The train came just then, and the Darryls and other regulars let me get on first, left arm in the sling, giving me a boost from behind. I went left into one of the cars and turned around to continue our conversation, but the Darrlys went right, right into another car; enough social interaction for one day, I guess. They were probably exhausted from the effort.

The next day on the platform, Colton and Kyle (they had finally volunteered their real names) shared their Swedish Fish with me, which were enthusiastically yanked out of shy Kyle’s dusty breast pocket by bold Colton, and the packet then offered to me, both arms outstretched, head down, like an offering. 

 

Tell them I’m not here.

So said the probably three year old little girl, through her barely ajar front door.

Sean and I were on one of our repo-runs for Bill’s T.V., based in Pomona, California. The owner, John, carried his own financing for new Zenith and M.G.A. televisions. This was around 1978, so I’m guessing MasterCard and VISA cards were not as ubiquitous as they are now, because his financing customers spanned the gamut financially. Periodically, John would send me and Sean out to collect back payments on new t.v.s, and/or the television itself, but he preferred that we left the unit in the house, since a new t.v. became a much less profitable used t.v. if it came back to the shop, and was no longer a pipeline for additional payments, even if delayed.

Today’s zone was Claremont, our favorite territory. For the store, we came back with a high percentage of checks that didn’t bounce; for us, it wasn’t very stressful, and we didn’t have to lug that many sets out to the van. People tended to be cooperative, and polite, at least to our faces. And they didn’t want their neighbors seeing us carting out their televisions, never coming back. One time a guy pleaded with us to please go out to the van and get a toolbox, then bring it back out with the television so it would look like we were taking it in for repairs.

This time it was Sean’s turn to talk. We pulled up to a beautiful, immaculately maintained and landscaped mid-century rancher, deep red brick with forest green trim, massive overhanging roof in just the right complimentary dark brown hue, creating an oasis of shade around the perimeter, lush plantings throughout the front yard, and a gleaming black Porsche parked conspicuously in the driveway, serving as much as a monument to success as a vehicle waiting to be driven.

Sean rang the doorbell next to the dark brown door, a perfect match with the roof shingles, and it opened just about a foot. No one was there. Then we both looked down to see the little girl wedged sideways in the door, small shoulders hunched, looking at us then quickly glancing behind the door. She bumped her little forehead on the door edge, and we flinched.

“Hi sweetie,” Sean said, bending over and putting his hands on his knees. “Is your mommy home?”

“Tell them I’m not here,” we heard, in a whisper, coming from behind the door.

“Tell. Them. I’m. Not. Here.” the little girl said, mechanically, looking behind the door as her mother whispered the prompt again, literally word by word.

Sean thought fast. He got down on his knees and told her “I’m going to give you a little card for you to give your mom, when she gets home.” 

He directed that last phrase to the door, rather than the little girl. He raised his voice just a little bit for the rest, to make sure the not so mysterious person behind the door heard as well. “She should call that number. We’ll be back in about 15 minutes.” He handed the little girl the card, and an adult hand reached over, yanked her inside by the arm, and closed the door.

We drove around to find a pay phone, and let John know what had happened. He laughed, hard, and told us to take a lunch break, make her wait a bit, then go on back. If she didn’t call him, he said, she’ll be nervous the whole time about when or if we would come back; if she did call him, she could sit and stew a bit anyway after the little stunt she pulled.

When we came back from lunch and rang the musical doorbell, again, the mother opened it herself; pretty, perfect hair flip, fitted jeans and sleeveless white blouse, showing off her toned and tanned arms. She let us in with barely a word; led us to the sun-drenched den overlooking an in-ground pool, with an immense Zenith t.v./stereo console, 6 feet long, as the centerpiece next to a built-in wet bar; turned, attempting to be theatrical, and said “Take the damn thing. It’s a tacky looking eyesore, and it’s on my soon-to-be exe’s account, anyway. The son-of-a-bitch is shacking up with our personal trainer now. Our personal trainer! Whatever happened to loyalty? I found her first!”

I don’t think we ever walked out carrying such a massive weight with such massive grins on our faces.

 

Now, that hardly looks fair.

So I said, standing by the side of the road, looking down at a police officer sprawled sideways on the ground, gun-in-holster pointing up, in my direction, from his hip, covered in dirt and sand and grit along Baseline Avenue in Rancho Cucamonga.

I had been driving home late at night after a long day of classes, tennis, seeing my girlfriend, skinny dipping in a pool, and a few glasses of wine. I have night blindness on the best of nights, and tend to fall asleep driving day or night, so it was only a matter of time for this to happen.

I was trying to make it home while still awake, in the short but desolate stretch of Baseline between Claremont and Rancho; the pavement rolled up and down, repeatedly, like a children’s roller coaster, over sandy, scrubby hills, with the occasional sagebrush, in a messmerizing straight line. Suddenly I saw police lights in my rear view mirror, and pulled over to the shoulder (there was no curb), which sloped steeply down to desert sand. I hoped I had pulled over enough for him to get by without me getting stuck in the sand.

But the lights pulled over as well. I had never been pulled over before, and as I thought what to do, I came upon the brilliant idea of getting out of the car, rather than staying hidden in the dark shadows cast by his spotlight, thinking it made it easier for him to see my hands, and, given my size, see that I surely was not a threat.

Big mistake. As I straightened up from exiting the car, I immediately realized that the pockets of my tennis shorts were hanging out like a pair of bunny ears, because I had put them back on inside out! Needless to say, he noticed as well, and got out of his patrol car staring at those floppy ears, then raised his displeased gaze right into my eyes. He was typically big, with the biceps you would expect, looking like he had just finished pumping iron a minute ago. Don’t all those muscles cause chaffing? He motioned me over to the shoulder, and started by explaining that he originally was pulling me over for a taillight that was out, but now he needed some other questions answered. Had I been drinking? How much? Why were my shorts on inside out? Where did I live? And so on.

While he listened, and looked, very intently, into my eyes, he was actually quite polite. He told me he wanted me to do a field sobriety test, told me not to worry, and advised me that what he was looking for was as much the ability to follow directions as the ability to physically perform the tests, and that he was sure I would do fine. I thought, I got this. The directions could not be rocket science.  But my heart was pounding so hard I could feel it in my ears. 

He started by having me do the alphabet. Dry mouthed, I got rolling, but when I got to “s t u” the next letters to come out were “e h r”, because I was so nervous I had switched to spelling my last name, which I have definitely done more often than the alphabet.  That got his attention.

He next told me to take ten steps heel-to-toe. I lost track, and probably did twenty. Extra credit was frowned upon in this situation, I could tell. He told me to do it again, coming back his way, but not to take a hike this time.  I complied. 

Finally, he asked me to lift one leg off the ground about 6 inches, and to hold it until he said to stop. He even offered to demonstrate what he meant. He was a little further over the crest of the shoulder of the road than I was, well on the downward slope, and when he lifted his leg he lost his balance, got his feet all tangled together, and fell over sideways on his hip with one-hell-of-a-thud and grunt, immediately covered in sand and dust, gun on his hip aimed skyward, fully illuminated by his headlights. He struggled a bit to stand up without having to roll over onto all fours, but, given the slope, in the end, that is what he had to do.

As he straightened up and started wiping the dirt off his blues, I blurted out ,“Now, that hardly looks fair,” trying to break the tension, as was my typical technique in dicey situations, but in this case I immediately regretted it. What was I thinking?! He looked up and shot daggers my way;  but a grin, or maybe a sneer, started to form in the corner of his mouth, and he asked me, looking down at his dirty shoes now, how far I had to go. I told him three miles. He nodded slightly, and there was silence for a second or two, but it felt like an eternity; my ears burned and felt like they were going to burst into flames. Then he looked me straight in the eyes and said “Go on.” 

I went.

If you want it, go on back there and get it yourself.

So said the massive, heavily breathing hulk, gesturing down the dark hallway.

John, the owner of Bill’s T.V., had sent us to the west side of Pomona, an area so bad it was known as Sin Town, to go repossess a television that had been rented by the week but not paid for in months. The shop rented out old, worn out trade-ins or minimally repaired rejects by the week or month, and every quarter would send us out to round up the ones behind on their rent, so the cycle could resume all over again. We didn’t even push getting the back rent; John didn’t see much sense in trying to squeeze nickels and dimes out of a losing rental, whose possessor clearly was barely able to pay in the first place, when it was easier to bring the set back to rent it again to someone else, until they too tapped out. It generated a trickle of cash flow, a last gasp of holding his own in the face of the new big box stores taking over from small business.

Sin Town was so infamous, and notorious, that the local Crips gang proudly appropriated the name, squad cars didn’t even drive through without a backup, and paramedics had two backups, one to watch their backs, the other to watch their vehicle. And it looked like a war zone. This particular complex was a jumbled maze of squat, flat roofed, gravel topped, faded and worn one story buildings, set at odd angles to each other, creating dirt and weed filled acute-angled “courtyards” that came to points as sharp as  knife blades and that dead-ended at their handle ends into overflowing dumpsters and discarded couches. Well, not entirely discarded, since the couches seemingly had second lives, outdoors, as the preferred locales for gatherings, even with their stuffing hanging out: food wrappers, broken bottles, clothes, and who knows what else lay strewn about.

Whenever we were on a repo-run, Sean and I would take turns doing the knocking and talking. This, as luck would have it, was my turn. The job of the talker was to get us inside; once inside, people tended to  relinquish what we came for. Given my stature, there was no implication of force, at all, at least on my part. Sean was about the same size.

We crunched through the broken glass and broken sidewalks, past abandoned apartments with tangles of copper wire hanging out of broken windows, where “recyclers” had torn out all the fixtures and wiring they could dislodge by brute force and sledgehammers.  They didn’t seem to care whether they broke the ceramic sinks and toilets as they reclaimed them; at some spots in the courtyards there were enough pieces left to build entirely new ones.

We came to the front step of our destination, with tattered curtains hanging out of torn window screens on the unit next door. Ours looked barely more inhabited. I pressed the doorbell and it slid to the side under my thumb and fell to the ground. The wires were gone. I tried to open the bent and warped  and torn screen door, top and bottom corners curving out sharply, but it was locked, surprisingly. It couldn’t even keep a fly out, to say nothing of a human intruder. So I tried to knock directly on the bent frame; it rattled violently back and forth with every rap, threatening to fall down upon us. I heard the inner door deadbolt click and the door swung open wide, and, granted, while there was a stoop perhaps 4 inches high, that did fully not account for the fact that I was now staring right into the lower chest of an enormous man, who looked down at me, scowling.  I kid you not, as I craned my head back to return his glare, I could see the ridge of a scar tracing a very pale path from his right ear, down around his jutting jaw, terminating at his throat. I gulped.

“What do YOU want?” he grunted, over my head, and Sean’s. His eyes seemed to be scanning the horizon, if only one was visible through the smog, simultaneously dismissing us as insignificant. I think he must have surreptitiously sized us up from a window prior to opening the door.  Then his gaze landed back on me; I could almost feel the weight.

“We’re here from Bill’s T.V. You have a rental . . . “

“Well I’ll be,” he said slowly, bemused, cutting me off, like Gulliver looking down on tiny Lilliputians in wonderment, making pests of themselves at his feet.

“You, you have a t.v. that hasn’t had payments in months.”

“And that piece of shit hasn’t  worked for about that long too. So. I. Didn’t. Pay.” he said, nodding his head emphatically with each word, then rising to his full bulk.

“Uhm, you could have brought it back for another one. We do swaps all the time,” I said, nervously helpful.

“Now why in the hell would I do that?” he said,waging his head side to side, not so much angry, but as if he was puzzling over why I would even think of such a thing, and why he should have taken the trouble to do it.

“Look, all I know is my boss told us to get the t.v. That’s it. And like you said, it doesn’t even work anyway. Here, here is his business card if you want to call him and work something out.”

He unlocked the screen door and reached around with a mitt of a hand and brought the card back inside, far more timidly than I would have expected given his stature, and closed the screen, keeping his other hand on the knob. He looked around outside again, seemed to make up his mind, then, amazingly, opened the screen door and let us in. He was wearing a grey t-shirt, sleeves torn off and not successfully covering his belly, black long shorts, and flip flops.

The front room was  a darker  mirror image of the courtyards. Tattered couch, trash, food containers, an old, petrifying half-eaten cheeseburger, bottles, clothes, including dirty underwear, were strewn about. We took a couple of steps in and stopped, as if the floor was crawling with snakes. I instinctively looked for all alternative exits. There was a patio door on the far side of the room, but it was closed. To the right was a greasy kitchenette with an overflowing trash can, which probably had given up trying to hold the mound of debri months ago. I decided the front screen wasn’t going to stop me if it came to that.

“Stay here,” he said, pointing at us for emphasis, our business card in his hand.

He called John from his kitchen, and we could hear them arguing about paying back rent because the t.v. didn’t work, John testing to see if he could possibly hit the Exacta and get both the money and the set. John could be brave, he was five miles away. The guy let John talk for a while, and finally cut him off by chuckling “well, that ain’t gonna happen” into the phone, and hung up. He lumbered past us, down a dark hallway, grunting over his shoulder.

“I’ll be back in a minute.”

And we just stood there. We could hear things being moved about in another room, the scrape of furniture on the floor, drawers opening and closing. What was he doing in there? And just as a likely answer started forming in my stunned, numb mind,  he re-emerged, right arm down at his side, something in his hand. I didn’t even consciously form a thought, I just spun around faster than humanly imaginable, intent on tearing right through that flimsy screen door, when I smacked, headlong, face-to-face, teeth-to-teeth, nose-to-nose, into Sean, whom I had forgotten was even there. I saw stars, I thought I had broken my nose, and quite possibly some teeth, and Sean was going through the same pain. I thought I was going to black out.

“Great, now he can just walk right up to me laying on the floor, and finish me off,” I thought.

But I didn’t pass out, and I turned back around to see him standing there, breathing heavily, like he had been out running, with a look like “what a couple of f’ing clowns!”

“If you want it, go on back there and get it yourself,” he said, pointing with a broken television set leg. He saw my pained gaze trying to focus on that leg, so he shoved it into my hands, with a gesture of “here, you take it then.” I took it.

The back room was even worse than the front, and I hardly even wanted to touch the television, which was now cockeyed on three legs. He had cleared a narrow path through the debris to it. A dull, broken football trophy laying sideways on the ground caught my eye. But I blocked everything else out and focused on the set and getting it, and us, out of there as quickly as possible.

We loaded it into the van and strapped it down upside down due to the missing leg, arms and legs shaking, and not just because it had been heavy going retracing our steps through the courtyards that felt like tank traps. As we both got in and slammed the doors we gave each other a look of “What in the hell did we just do, and why the hell did we stick around and do it?” We drove back in mutual silence, absolute silence, dark, angry, scared, silence, confused thoughts flooding through our minds. I’d like to say I looked around and felt the world looked more vivid and alive after our ordeal, the sky more blue, the clouds more white, the flowers more vivid, but, no, I was just so shocked and scared and mad at myself for having stood there for the sake of a stupid rental television from Bill’s T.V.  that had already paid for itself ten times over, temples pounding, that the landscape was just a hot, dusty blur rushing by as I stared out the passenger window.

A few months later, John sent me out again, alone this time, to Sin Town to retrieve another of his cash cows. He said this set was small enough that even I should be able to handle it alone. It was around lunch time, so I stopped at a Bavarian deli, of all things, on the edge of Sin Town to think over my solo plan. I thought about my previous trip, and that huge, heavy-breathing man. Was that football trophy a sign of former glory? Was that scar the trophy of a violent ex-con, or was it the sign of an unfortunate victim, or even of an accident or surgery? Was he hiding out from the police, or just hiding from the world? When he scanned the horizon, and let us in, was he worried about being seen with a couple of squeaky clean white boys, or was he worried about leaving those squeaky clean white boys out in the open in the courtyard? Was there ever actually the potential for violence? He did hand me the television leg, after all, when he saw my worried expression. Was he just a down and out guy, scraping by, his life falling apart maybe, living where no one would ever choose to live, renting a cheap t.v. that then just quit, justifiably saying the hell with it, wanting to be left alone in his shambles of an apartment? Did he even have a car to bring it back? Did the fact that he was huge, and black, and poor, and had a scar, doom our encounter to be colored in the worst possible light? My front teeth started to hurt again.

Making up my mind, I finished my bratwurst and mustard, climbed deliberately into the van, and pulled out of the parking lot.

“No one was home,” I told John at the shop, over my shoulder, gesturing vaguely towards Sin Town with the dust rag I had just retrieved from the cleaning cabinet to wipe down the shiny new display models.

 

Oh, I already changed that.

So said Judi offhandedly as she walked past me in our kitchen, her VW’s rusty and dusty steering dampener lying on the kitchen table. I was in the middle of the never ending project of getting her 1969 Karmann Ghia running, and keeping it running. Judi had bought it in high school in 1975, christened it YOM (from it’s license plate, not yoga) and it has followed us ever since.

Even when we moved cross country, from California to Pennsylvania, YOM got the treatment, and not only from us. We had it shipped; there was  no way we would put it through the stress of a 3,000 mile drive, along with two middle aged cats. I was already in Pa., and reminded Judi to write down the odometer reading before they loaded it onto the car carrier. When YOM finally arrived cross country, Judi was also here to greet it, and she immediately noticed that it was on the very top of the double decker car carrier, rather than the bottom, which is where she watched it, lovingly, being loaded in Tustin, California.  The driver of the car carrier got out of the cab with a huge smile on his face, and immediately thanked us for giving him the pleasure of transporting our Ghia, shaking my hand vigorously. We got suspicious. He explained that he had one just like it when he was in high school, in Missouri, and noted that you just don’t see those around, anywhere, any more. He recounted how much he loved cruising through his small, boring, Missouri town, acting like he was from Malibu, and impressing the young ladies. But there were no palm trees in Missouri, he said, voice fading. We didn’t tell him Judi acquired the nickname “Malibu” in her high school, once she had acquired YOM.

He explained that once he drove off from our place in Tustin and started thinking he moved it to the top front slot, tucked close behind the bug and rock screen, before he loaded any other cars onto his carrier.  He knew that it leaked oil, that the only time a VW didn’t leak oil was when it had already leaked it all out, but he wasn’t going to let some BMW or Chevy or Ford drip any of THEIR oil or grease or gasoline or coolant on THAT car; all those other cars were replaceable! he grinned.  I smiled back, but I was getting even more apprehensive. 

Once he got YOM down from the upper rack, which we couldn’t bear to watch, he went on to explain that during his layover at home in Missouri, there was going to be a hailstorm, so he took our car down off the carrier and sheltered it in his own garage. We thanked him, shook hands, and off he went.  I feel guilty admitting this, but we immediately went and got the slip of paper with the odometer reading, and YOM still had the same mileage as when it was loaded (Ghia odometers don’t do tenths of a mile, really.) What a great guy. Funny what cars, and car memories, can do to you, and for you. For a while there, probably the entire cross-country haul, he was back in high school, wind blowing through his hair, palm trees lining the entire length of Interstate 40. 

So, back to the dampener.  This cycle of getting YOM fixed started with the intention of actually selling it. It had been sitting in the garage, tires rotting, collecting dust, cat paw prints, and dead flies, going on 8 years. It had been completely neglected once 3 kids came along; it just wasn’t practical, or safe, for car seats and winter weather in Pennsylvania. 

I started by checking the oil, putting in new spark plugs and  a battery, adding gas with lead substitute, and firing it up. And it did! Cranked right up after a little gas pedal pumping, and idled roughly for about 2 minutes. Then just stopped. Cold. Wouldn’t restart for anything. I finally took the carburetor off and took it to an ancient VW  shop to get it cleaned out (the cars, the shop, Corbo the mechanic, Max his bulldog, Tiger his cat, were all ancient. Well, Corbo was older than me by 3 years, anyway.)

I put the carburetor back on, fired it up, ran it again for a bit, and as I revved it up, it quit again.  I wasn’t about to take the carburetor to the shop again, so I found out how to clean out fouled jets myself. I was so excited, and, against my better judgement (I knew then that the fuel lines must have been a mucky mess), gave YOM another chance, and it started fine, then, sure enough, just quit.

I might be a slow learner, but I do learn. I removed the gas tank and fuel lines and jets (again) and cleaned them out myself, this time using one of my hearing aid cleaning wires (times do change, and so do I, apparently), and installed an inline paper fuel filter. When I pulled the gas tank I noticed a very sad looking steering dampener underneath, and figured I might as well replace THAT now that I could get to it.

Once I pulled it out, I sat down with it in the kitchen, searching online for a replacement. Hence, Judi’s comment. I asked her when she had replaced it, somewhat incredulously.

“I think it was before I met you.”

Now, you need to know, Judi acquired YOM back in 1976, we met and got married in 1982, and we moved YOM cross country, with us, in 1992. It is now 2020. She remembered an incidental car repair,  40ish years ago. And it seemed like yesterday to her.

 I  looked at that dampener laying on the kitchen table in a new light; it was a part of Judi and YOM before I had even met her, went on journeys I never was a party to, got replaced without me, and secretly hid under the gas tank, collecting grime and rust from all sorts of exotic places; the Roxie, San Francisco, Oceanside, the Grand Canyon,  Mt. Baldy, Phoenix, Austin, Telluride, Little Rock, New Orleans, Colorado,  Carlsbad, Chino,  god knows where else.  But it also witnessed our dating, my constant repair and care of YOM, it catching fire on the Newport Freeway and me putting it out, every place we’ve lived together, our three children who have never ridden in it. As a matter of fact, I fixed YOM’s parking brake even before we went on a first date, eliminating the need for Judi to hop out quickly and jamb a red brick against the driver’s side tire whenever she stopped the car, guessing which way it was likely to roll. Seriously.

The inconsequential dampener looked more like a memento now, to me anyhow. The time had just flown by; Judi thinking she replaced it recently enough to comment on it. Judi somehow reading my mind.  Of course she did.

“I don’t mind you throwing it out,” she said, gently, hand on my shoulder. I disposed of it,  gently. And YOM is now purring contentedly, and permanently, in our garage, with new, lifelong, antique plates, and a hearing aid wire in the glove box, just in case.

“I already changed that.” Oh, so many things have changed since then. And some things have remained eternally the same.

Oh my God!

So said Dr. Freitas, bent over the stainless steel surgical table, electrocauterizer in hand, in utter shock.

An owner had brought in her pretty pet parakeet to be checked for a growth that seemed to be slowly spreading, threatening to block one of its little nostrils on its sharp beak. The veterinary practice was all dogs and cats, no exotics, but the sight of a birdcage in the waiting room, with a colorful blue budgie flitting about its cage, hopping from perch to perch to wire cage, was a nice change. I made sure I was the assistant in the examining room.

Dr. Freitas deftly reached into the cage and gently held the bird while he examined the growth. I knew he had been a horse vet in the Argentine cavalry before moving to the States, but I was surprised by his sure, gentle touch with such a small creature. While holding it close to his face, he told the owner he did not think it would turn into something to worry about, and that birds were so fragile that it might not survive the surgery to remove the growth. But she was insistent. His last try was to tell her that the surgery would cost a lot more than a new parakeet would cost, but she said that this was her sweet bird and she really wanted us to help it. Dr. Freitas relented and returned it to its cage.

During surgery hours, he called me in to assist with the parakeet. The white cage was at the foot of an immense 6 foot by 2 foot stainless steel surgical table. I asked him how we were going to put it under, and he told me to use ether, and that there must be a bottle of it around somewhere. I looked everywhere in the hospital; it wasn’t something we used every day. Every cupboard, every refrigerator, and I came up empty. I was beginning to worry that I was suffering from my embarrassing blindness to finding things right smack in front of me, which has not improved with age. 

Dr. Freitas remembered and told me to look for a small metal can, with an even smaller lid. I found it in the first refrigerator I tried, and as I returned to the room I asked him why it was in a tin can. He explained that if it were in a glass bottle, and I accidentally dropped it, it would shatter and knock us all out, or worse. Once I heard that, I checked that the lid was on tight and carried it very gingerly, tin or no tin, for fear of putting us all down for a nap, or worse.

He removed the bird from the cage and told me to soak a cotton ball in the ether and hold it over it’s beak until he said to stop.  He had to remind me to close the lid and also to keep my face, and his, clear of the cotton ball.  When the little bird stopped struggling, Dr. Freitas put it at the other end of the table, and it looked so fragile, and vulnerable, but even more colorful against the shiny stainless steel. He swiftly clipped away the growth, and the beak began to bleed. I turned around to get some gauze to dab it, and while my back was turned I heard a zapping sound, then Dr. Freitas saying “Oh my God!” breathlessly.  I turned around to see a cloud of very fine, downy, powder blue and white feathers floating around his head, with the bird still lying on the table. He was clutching his head with both hands, eyes wide in amazement, but he still had the cauterizer in his hand, and his foot was still poised over the pedal switch that activated it. He seemed to be frozen in shock and could not move.

I reached across the table and turned off the wall switch of the machine. “What happened?” I asked, still distracted by the downy feathers. “I exploded the poor thing!” he explained. “I forgot how volatile ether is! Oh Dios mío!” I looked back down at the bird. And then Dr. Freitas started to laugh, a nervous, shocked laugh. I joined in too; it was just too horrible and stressful. It sounds so wrong, but, if you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand. When our eyes met in the middle of the laughter it caught us both short, and we stopped immediately.

Dr. Freitas gently lifted the parakeet-it was still externally intact-and tried to check for a breath, but couldn’t really tell. We thought of a stethoscope to listen to a little heartbeat, but vets don’t walk around with those around their necks like MDs do, so he sent me to go find one. I had to ask Dr. Warner for his, which he kept in a desk drawer, and, of course he wanted to know why, so he followed me back into surgery. Dr. Freitas was still standing there, cradling the bird, hoping without hope that it would suddenly twitch a wing and be fine again. 

“What do we tell your poor owner?” he asked, looking at the bird. Dr. Warner, the owner of the practice, told him to tell her that it had died under anesthesia, and to offer to take care of the body for her.

And he did.