Close encounter of the fourth kind.

A true story.

In the late fall of 1980, I was living in a little, old farm house, at the top of the only hill in the county—perhaps the only hill within a fifty-mile radius. This was farm country. Or rather mega-industrial farm country—flat as the ocean, with fields of corn and soy beans stretching on for as far as the eye can see—and no trees, to speak of, blocking the view of the never ending corn fields. But I’m talking about late fall here. The corn and soy beans are gone, plowed under, leaving only the bleak, black soil beneath the biggest sky in the world. It was huge, and the old farm house was but a tiny, remote speck below it—the perfect location for the unlikely.

I was working for Big Star Construction Company in Herscher, Illinois, ten miles away. I’d get up and ready for work well before my wife climbed out of bed. At 5:30 in the morning, there was not the first hint that the sun would ever rise again. The house was dark and quiet, except for the bright, overhead light in the center of the kitchen ceiling. This was a typical farm-house kitchen. Big. Designed for eating in, and square dancing too, I guess.

I sat down with my bowl of cereal, facing a set of stairs, which led up to the bedrooms where my wife and my baby daughter were sleeping. Off to my left: cabinets and counter-top stretched along the west wall, the kitchen sink in the middle, and above that, a large window looking out over empty, black fields—nothing was visible out there that morning, as was typical. But as I raised my spoon to my lips, I caught, in my peripheral vision, a large glowing object rising from the backyard. I swung around to my left. The hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention, each and every one of them as freaked out as I was. I saw something, just a moment before. I saw a large, well-lit object rise up from below the window sill. But when I turned, I saw nothing, only black.

I was so completely spooked. I sat there at the table at the opposite side of the room, staring toward the window above the kitchen sink, wondering if whatever it was I saw was now on its way to Zukulia. Hoping it was.

No… I told myself, I didn’t see anything.

I went back to eating my breakfast. No more than a few moments passed when it happened again. A glowing object rose up past the window sill and then dropped below it.

All those little hairs on the back of my neck, like stiff, little, Nazi soldiers, were back on their feet, saluting the west. Of course, when I turned, nothing was there. But I knew I saw something, and everything about it defied logic.

I got up, approached the window, and stared out toward the blackness of a cold October morning.

And then it happened.

The wind caught the bottom edge of the storm window and pulled it, a few inches, away from the house. The reflection of kitchen rose, and then dropped as the window settled back into place. It was one of those old-style storm windows; the kind that hinge at the top, and fasten at the bottom with a hook and eye, which in this case had come loose.

Three months later, I went to the doctor for a routine checkup and was told I had a kidney missing. It had somehow been removed without leaving the slightest scar.

(All true—except for that last paragraph.)

 

 

The smell of love

(A composite story, created from the first two chapters of my novel, The Other Mr. Bax.)

Saturday, the twenty-fifth of September, Dana had gone to her mother’s house to help make pizzas. Roland walked the bike-path alone.

To his right was a small backyard orchard where hornets and bees busied themselves feeding off rotting windfalls. A stray gust of wind sent a cloud of leaves fluttering down from the trees. The autumn air carried hints of compost, mildew, burning leaves, and cider. Glancing toward the trees, to his right, Roland drew in a deep breath; the memory of a young girl running off toward the back entrance of a school building skipped along the edge of his mind. She seemed to have arrived on the scent of the wind, on the air’s coolness, its dryness, encouraged by the light, teased by the colors of the leaves, a particular brightness, the crispness of autumn, the season of love and loss. He scanned the scene before him as if he might catch a glimpse of her, but then stopped—the memory vanished, leaving not so much as a trace of her.

Another fall had arrived. A cold, dark winter would inevitably follow. Every year, about this time, these memories resurfaced. But these weren’t the same leaves he’d kicked through in the autumn of ‘63. And it wasn’t the same wind that then whispered through the branches of maples and elms lining the streets of the small, rural, Hoosier community he grew up in. Perhaps the catalyst for these memories was really nothing in particular, but a combination of many things.

 

Roland’s eyes shifted as he followed the carousel of distant events turning in his mind. A low vibration, like a hum, a moan, left his throat. The memories—most at best were vague, though some were as vivid as the day before: a farmhouse, his grandpa and grandma, the interior of a school bus, swings on a playground, Joyce Rubens—a mix of pain and disappointment, of wanting, and moments of joy. The key events were easy to recall—the big moments, the thrills. But the spaces in between, the ordinary everyday spaces, were hidden—lost among a million insignificant breaths.

An eddy of air shuffled leaves around the smooth asphalt surface of the path—a sound like TV static; they swirled about his feet, skittering like paper butterflies, and then quieted. He targeted a particularly crisp-looking leaf, crushing it beneath his foot.

 

He recalled the farmhouse his parents had rented on Mud Dauber Road, a night in the summer of 1961—he and his big brother, Keith, his sister, Kate, and baby brother, Brian, all lying on a pile of blankets spread out in the grass of the backyard, scanning the crystal-clear, moonless sky in search of a rare satellite or shooting star—those last few days before school.

Accustomed to a life of freedom, Roland was ill-prepared for its sudden denial once the classroom door shut on that first day. He was slower than most, adjusting to the rigid structure, but, like a broken pony, he came to accept it. The girl who sat at the desk directly in front of him unwittingly helped. She was far more interesting than the teacher squawking at the front of the classroom. Her name was Rebecca—the only name he could now recall from his first-grade class. His memory failed to produce even his teacher’s name—only Rebecca, only her first name, no face, only the braid of brown hair that persistently hung down her back.

But then, the following year, while wandering the playground during recess, a girl Roland had not noticed before caught his eye.

He wandered off across the playground, to the opposite end, where two sets of swings patiently grazed like giant stick-figure horses with children swinging from their stirrups. Of the twelve swings, six per set, only one was available, and sitting in the swing to the left of it was Kathy Goodman, a girl he saw nearly every day—her desk being directly behind his. The other girl, the one to the right of the vacant swing, he’d not seen before.

Selma Elementary had twelve classrooms, two for each grade level, one through six, and allowed each level, one at a time, onto the playground. Roland was pretty well acquainted with the faces from the other class, but not this girl’s; he would not have forgotten hers. Framed by a pair of blond pigtails, hers was an exceptionally symmetrical face, painfully sweet, the epitome of innocence. He was instantly infatuated.

At first, he maintained an inconspicuous distance—the unknown girl, seemingly off in a world of her own, pumping her swing even higher—but then, finding it impossible to keep his eyes from her, he moved closer. The swing to her right remained motionless and empty, as though waiting in reserve for someone else. He hesitated. More than anything, he wanted to stare. He wanted to sear a picture of her onto the back of his mind, something he could possess. He fantasized having the power to stop time, imagined himself standing before her, invisible, where he might satisfy this thing, this urge to look and get closer yet—examine her eyes, her cheeks, her hair, her nose, her lips, and perhaps determine just what it was that compelled him to want this.

She caught him. He turned away—quick and obvious.

His reticent peeks, like smelling but not tasting, only fueled his hunger the more. Again he glanced her way; the swing to her right miraculously had not yet been claimed. It was now or never, he realized. He quickly scraped together enough courage to approach the empty swing, and sat. Then, pushing back as far as the chains would allow, he lifted his feet and began pumping. After a couple of self-conscious passes, he turned toward the girl flying by, an arm’s length away, swallowed, and with a most concise greeting, which nonetheless managed to feel unnatural and rushed, he split the universe in two. “Hi.”

The little girl threw a glance his way as she swung by. Did she hear? She may have returned his greeting, and the surrounding pandemonium interfered. Trusting that he somehow missed her response, he waited until she made another pass, swinging by from behind.

“Are you new here?” he said.

The girl leaned back, her legs stretched out before her, an elfish smile on her upside-down face, pigtails flapping to either side of it. She gave a reply, which could easily have meant “What’s it to you?” Roland, however, took it as an affirmative.

“Yeah?”

He pumped his swing to the same height as hers, finding himself as far out of sync as possible, her backside coming as he was going, and vice versa.

“What’s your name?” he asked, as they again scissored past each other.

“Joyce Rubens.”

He began dragging his feet, kicking up sand and dust with each pass. Bringing himself to a stop, he twisted his seat around, positioning himself to face her. From the toes of his shoes, he pushed himself back and forth, studying her through casual glances as she flew by—Joyce Rubens—back and forth.

 

Twenty-eight days:

The days remaining between now and our meeting.

I can’t remember the last time I saw her. I know it was before April of 2001 because that’s when I moved away. We’d known each other for about four years prior to that. She had only recently started working full-time at the art gallery where I worked, though I’d seen her occasionally before—an archivist, and a painter like everyone else. I don’t recall our first meeting, not at all. She was just another face in the crowd, I guess.

Were we introduced? I don’t remember. I do, however, remember the first time I was jarred into noticing her. Sparks flew… but not the pretty kind. Our relationship (I’m going to call her ‘O’ from here on.) started with a head-butt. O stepped into my office one afternoon, interrupting my immensely important work, whatever it may have been, and asked me to move some artwork for her. I just looked at her like, “What? You want me to take time from my exhaustively busy day to move a couple of paintings that you’re perfectly capable of handling yourself?”

Every time I revisit that moment, a burning smell comes to mind—my eyebrows perhaps, singed by her searing glare. She left me with an unambiguous huff as she turned and walked out the door.

A short while later, another one of my female co-workers, one who I’d always gotten along exceptionally well with, came stomping into my office and barked, “Why are you being such an asshole?”

“Me?”

“You should know better. You should know that pregnant women aren’t supposed to do heavy lifting.”

“Uh… pregnant? Her? Really?”

I felt like such a turd after that. I couldn’t let it stand as it was—me, the heartless, son of a bitch asshole, and O, my poor pregnant victim. I had to somehow make it up to her. From then on, I would be her willing slave.

“Rodney, will you move this two thousand pound sculpture for me?”

“Yes, immediately.”

“Rodney, will you carry this half-empty shoebox down to the basement for me?”

“Certainly. Right away.”

“Rodney, would you please pick up my pencil for me?”

“Oh, my God! Of course I will.” I dropped to all fours and crawled under her desk to retrieve her pencil. And in this way O and I became friends, and eventually ‘good’ friends. We began going to lunch together, out for an occasional cup of coffee and a cookie, and at other times a quiet walk around the neighborhood. We talked, though I don’t recall the topics of our conversations. Perhaps they were too mundane to remember.

Then the baby came—a healthy boy.

Our friendship continued to grow. Though, I think there was something more, something deeper, beyond friendly, like some hardwired instinct stirring beneath the surface. I felt it, but refused to give it definition, the same as she. For the most part we ignored it.

Her baby became a toddler. She’d frequently bring him into the gallery where I’d spend hours entertaining him, giving him rides on my shoulders. He’d grasp my hair with his tiny fists, drool all over me, and giggle and laugh as I pranced from one end of the gallery to the other.

That thing, though, that undefined thing would not stop. Neither of us spoke of it, but I’m certain O was just as much aware of it as I. It was unsustainable and dangerous—a train, with a stuck throttle, headed for the edge of the world. I think she understood this better than I. Something had to be done to stop it. And then something was done. Perhaps she didn’t realize what she was doing; maybe it was subconscious. Whatever the case, she managed to shake things up so thoroughly and effectively that I refused to talk to her or acknowledge her presence for weeks afterwards. I don’t remember what it was she said, but I remember how my reaction left a persistent chill in the air. I think the entire gallery staff was aware of the quiet. Then suddenly and unexpectedly my wife died. My world turned inside out, upside down, twisted, shaken, beaten, tortured, and burned. Six months later, I moved away.

There’s a gap here of nearly twelve years between then and now, and a big, complicated story within it. Twelve years, which I might visit another time.

So, about two years ago, I was in O’s vicinity visiting my daughter who stayed behind when I left. While there, I found myself repeatedly thinking of O, wondering if she was still around and if she’d have a problem with me contacting her. I thought it’d be nice to go out for a coffee or, at the least, say hi—see how she’s doing. I found her address on line, the same address she had when I moved ten years earlier. I didn’t call. I wrote her a brief note and included my cellphone number, then drove over to her house and slipped it inside her door. Days passed. I got no response.

When I got home, I located her email address and sent her another note. Weeks later I got a reply: two short sentences followed by exclamation marks, which I mistook as a brush off. A bit disappointing. But, oh well… I let it go.

A year or so after that, I got a Linkedin message, one of those ‘you may know this person’ things. And there she was again. So I messaged her. Weeks went by. I mean, God, reconnecting with this woman seemed as complicated as landing a Chevy Astro Van on Mars. But I did it. Or perhaps we did it. It’s such a curious thing—as if whatever it was that we had long before resisted was still there, lying dormant, waiting. And now it seemed it was pulling us back together. So, anyway, we’ve decided to meet. Though, this time it’ll be under entirely different circumstances; there’s no longer reasons to resist.

Twenty-eight days…

The blob

How old am I?

My grandson, Jory, celebrated his tenth birthday in June. He talked about nothing else for weeks prior to the momentous day − a recipe for disappointment, I believe – though, if that’s what it was, he seemed to take it in stride.

“What’s your favorite day of the year?” I asked, a week before the anticipated day.

“My birthday.”

Today, one month after his birthday, I ask him what he remembers about it. He thinks long and hard, then says:

“I went to Golden Corral.”

I ask, “How about your ninth birthday? Do you remember it?”

He searches his mind, then: “No.”

“Your eighth?”

More searching. “No.”

ect…

I can’t remember my tenth birthday. Are birthdays occasions one should remember? I know that while growing up, most every birthday was acknowledged with a special cake spiked with candles, and then ice cream, cards, a gift, and a song. I’m sure those occasions were enjoyable, and stood out from the days before and after, so shouldn’t I remember them?

Do you remember your tenth birthday? Your fifth? Fifteenth? Twentieth? Thirtieth? I don’t.

It doesn’t really matter to me that I don’t remember my birthdays. They come and go − no big deal. But this day (your birthday) comes once a year. It could potentially act as a marker, like those on a ruler, to provide you with a clearer sense of whom you are, where you came from, what happened when.

My life is one big blob, starting near the end of 1953, and extending to the present. I often find myself wrestling with a particular memory, trying to fit it into its proper chronological place. I want my past to be divided into neat, uniform increments that I can glance at and know where everything is and how it all fits together.  Birthdays should do this, but they don’t. They’re forgettable because they’re too predictable. If I don’t get a handle on this thing soon, it’ll become hopeless. It’s time to start living less predictably.

From Herman to Frank

The amazing crate of technology my dad brought home in ’63 arrived just in time for two hugely historic events. I remember staying home from school in late November of that same year, and watching JFK’s funeral on TV − so somber and slow − blanketed in whispered reverence. I remember my mom crying, and the strange empathy I felt for her and the mourners I saw on the small black and white screen. An image, very similar to the one below, is still within my reach.

And then, just a few months later, after dinner on a Sunday evening, my entire family sat down and watched the Beatles in their first televised US appearance. I don’t believe I even knew who the Beatles were at the time. We were watching The Ed Sullivan Show because this is what we did on Sunday evenings. Maybe it was Ed’s hype, prior to their performance, or the reaction of the audience every time they were mentioned or hinted at, but I recall having the impression that something really really big was happening. I was in the third grade then. The next day at school, all my classmates were asking:

“Did you see the Beatles?”

I believe everyone immediately understood the impact JFK’s assassination would have on the world. And everyone had a sense for their part in this history, like 9/11. But the second event was a birth rather than a death. A lot of people recognized that this was something new, and a lot of people connected with it instantly. It may seem irreverent to compare the arrival of The Beatles with the death of an iconic leader, but try to imagine what the world might be like without either of these. I suspect the world would be a better place today if the Kennedy brothers were allowed to complete their missions, and the world would be a less hopeful place had The Beatles not happened.

The Swiss Army TV-set was moved to New Castle, Indiana, in 1965. Then, in the late summer of the following year, my mom stunned her offspring by bringing home the album, Yesterday and Today. She loved Paul McCartney’s song, Yesterday, and bought the record specifically for it. But really, what was she thinking? I mean, did she expect us kids to keep our paws off her Beatles album. It didn’t last long. LPs were not designed to withstand the kind of abuse we heathen Jones kids believed was normal.

Baby you can drive my car… Beep beep’m beep beep, yeah!

Soooooo… what was the first record I spent my hard-earned cash on?

I paid 35 cents for the 45.

And my first LP purchase? This was the fall of ’66, as I recall. I could have bought, Rubber Soul, or The Stones’ Aftermath, Dylan’s Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, or any number of great albums, but I held out for Herman’s Hermits on Tour, a little know masterpiece.

I’m Henry the Eighth I am, Henry the Eighth I am I am. Whatever…

Notice the mystical message hidden within the lyrics? “I am I am.” Right, it slipped by me too, but I think it still managed to imbed itself into my psyche. That album woke something up inside of me… just for a fleeting moment, then fell back to sleep. But, hell, I feel like I completely redeemed myself with my next album purchase. You are going to say, “No way!”

But, way! It’s true. Ask my brother.

I was in Kreske’s Dime Store (they had a cool, old soda bar there), on Broad Street, in downtown New Castle, where I saw this on their tiny record display:

Kreske’s probably had no more than a dozen rock albums in their store. I bought Freak Out having no idea who The Mothers of Invention were. I thought the cover was the coolest thing ever, and of course I liked the title. This album really did wake something up within me. A couple of weeks after buying it (perhaps a hundred listens later) I threw away my Herman’s Hermits record.

Sherry baby

As mentioned in my last post, before becoming a author, I was an artist, and one of my inspirations was music. Twist the lid off this jar… There we go. Woowee! What the…?

Many of my fondest memories date back to the handful of years I spent growing up on a farm in Selma, Indiana. I wasn’t really a farm boy. My father was a carpenter. He rented the house, but not the barn or the cows. This place was out in the boonies, which I believe was my mom’s idea. Mud Dauber Road…

I was born in a trunk.

Mama died and my daddy got drunk.

Left me here to die alone

along the side of Mud Dauber Road.

But anyway…

For the first ten years of my life, there was no TV in the house. We had a radio on top of the fridge in the kitchen, though I really don’t recall a lot of music coming from it. I remember day-time soap operas and The Lone Ranger, Zorro, The Shadow − mostly stuff like that.

My dad, who seemed to be gone most of the time, would make an occasional appearance, whip out one of his harmonicas and play a rousing version of Running Bear, Yellow Rose of Texas, or Casey Jones − my siblings and I would dance to near-death. We all took to music like chewing gum to hair.

In the late-summer of ’63, my dad one day showed up out of the blue with a TV console – our first. Not only was it a TV, but also, built into it, were a radio and a record player − something I’d not seen prior to that day – the Swiss Army Knife of home entertainment. He’d bought two long-play records, Satchmo’s Golden Favorites and a Connie Francis album (or perhaps it was Kitty Wells), and also brought home a few 45s; one of them being Boomerang by Michael Convertino. I destroyed that record, playing it so much.

That year for Christmas, I got a build-your-own radio kit. It was a cheap, crappy bunch of wires and plastic that, when fully assembled, was supposed to amplify the signal from your nearby radio station enough to be heard over the blue plastic, ear-plug that came with it. Every part of this thing was made from the same brittle, blue plastic – even the circuit board.

To work properly, the radio had to be grounded. So, once it was assembled, I set it up on a stool by my second-floor, bedroom window and attached the ground wire to the lightning rod ground that ran down the side of the house, from the roof. Fortunately this was within easy reach, just outside my window. I remember my hand shaking, as I went to plug it in that first time. I was half expecting it to go poof, up into a little mushroom cloud, but it didn’t. I shoved the little, blue plastic plug into my ear, turned the tuner knob, and bingo… talking… people yakking. Hey! This thing was showing some real potential. I very slowly twisted the knob as far as it would go one way, found a few spots of garbled hillbilly music and some snowy, hushed gospel. What I was hoping for was music like I’d hear on the school-bus: Blue Velvet, Da Doo Ron Ron, Falling… But only the one station came in clear − just talking. I didn’t care though. It was my home-made radio. I built it, it worked, and I was proud.

But then, that same night, after being sent off to bed, I snuck over to my radio, twisted the little blue tuner knob, and found a top-40 pop station playing Sherry by The 4 Seasons. Like four tiny, lovestruck squirrels whining and moaning into my right ear… and this was only the beginning.