Lila and JJ in the Fall with Apples

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The orchard on Columbus Day, teeming with families. A school holiday. Cider and pie and apples. There was a bluegrass trio sawing away and some hippyish kids, unkempt and happy, watched over by their smug parents, dancing their little pagan dances. JJ and Lila, childless and unmarried, neither here nor there, wandered through with cups of strong coffee in paper cups. A grayish day but not too cold. Leaves, yellow, orange, and red, bright against the overcast sky, grass still green and the smell of fall everywhere. A good rich soulful smell, evocative of time passing, making up for the odor-free death-zone of winter to come. JJ’s favorite time of year.

JJ asked, “Ever think of having kids?”

Lila looked at him. “Sometimes I think it would be nice to already have them. But it takes two to tango.”

“Yeah. You’re talking about sex.”

“Do you want to talk about sex?”

JJ was thinking about sex, that’s for sure. As they walked through the orchard, he stole glances at Lila and tried to put out a certain vibe. Hungry, but not desperate. He tried to send out smoke signals, instead of flaming arrows meant to pierce a covered wagon of pioneers.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

His heart did a leap and a twist. In all their on and off years, he had never wanted her more. They had come close almost a year ago. But a deer got impaled on an iron fence and that killed the moment.

“We came close last year,” he said.

“That’s what worries me. Some force is against us. Every time we try…”

“The deer was a freak thing.”

“Yeah, well, what about the other times? The fire in the old school bus? Or that hobo and the heart attack?”

“That wasn’t a hobo. That was Brad. And he survived.”

They both watched a tall man, dressed for an outing from an LL Bean catalog, devour an entire apple, core and all, in four bites. Then he did it again, with gusto, while watching his gypsy children dance to the fiddle.

Lila asked, “What do you think about people who eat the whole apple, core and all?”

“I think it’s arrogant. I think such people are unreliable.”

“You don’t think it shows a certain hunger, a devil-may-care attitude, taking life by the horns?”

“Apple eating is not bungee jumping. Show some fucking respect.”

Lila turned to him. “Do you have a certain hunger? Right now?”

He almost fainted. Mouth dry, he croaked out, “Yes. I have a certain hunger.”

“Then let me buy you an apple,” she said and turned away with a flash of hair, walking toward the stand. She looked back over her shoulder and beckoned with her eyes and he realized he was frozen on the spot, gawking at her jeans with those hips up in there. “Come on.”

They went to the bins of apples. Cortlands, empires, macs, and macouns. Lila picked out a large macoun and showed JJ. “How’s this one?”

She could’ve held up an apple the size of a radish and he would have said it was a good one. Lila picked another and went to pay. He stood and watched, entranced, holding back the worry, trying to outrun the tacklers of fate with a stiff-arm out behind. Things were headed in the right direction. He felt good in the world, more comfortable in his skin. There wasn’t the old morbid desperation to sabotage, to tear it all down. They were in the red zone, a touchdown within reach. He just had to cross the goal line.

Lila was back next to him. “Let’s get out of here,” she said. “Take me to your farm.”

No settling for a field goal this time. Four down territory. They had moved down the field with precision and flare. Fate was tired, hands on hips, gasping for air. What could possibly go wrong?

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Dinosaur Tracks

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“Wow,” Carl said. “They’re everywhere.”

JJ said, “Where? I don’t see.”

“There and here and there.” He pointed at different sized depressions in the rocks that slanted down towards the river. And then JJ saw the three-toed footprints and Carl was right. They were everywhere.

“What kind of dinosaurs were these?”

Carl cleared his throat. “Funny you should ask. These footprints were made by Eubrontes giganteus about 200 million years ago. They were carnivores, predecessors of the T Rex.”

“How do you know that stuff?”

“I know stuff.”

“I know you know stuff. You’re always telling me the stuff you know.”

“What’s wrong with knowing stuff? You know, there’s a long tradition of amateur naturalists knowing stuff.”

“I’m sure there is. For me, it’s enough that they were here and now we’re here 200 million years later in the same spot. That’s reassuring to me.”

Carl looked at JJ. “Reassuring?”

“Yeah. These footprints mean…I mean, they take the pressure off. It’s no big deal. They were here and now they’re gone. We’re here now and we’ll be gone. No big deal.”

They were quiet a moment. Carl spoke. “That’s either the deepest or most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I think there’s two kinds of things in this world. Those that endure and those that flame out.”

“Which are you?”

JJ thought of a time, years before, when he aimed his car at someone’s driveway but it turned out to be an embankment down to a small stream. He caromed down the hill, somehow missing trees large enough to stop the car, and skidded to a halt with the front wheels in the stream. 2:28AM the dashboard clock said, even when he turned the engine off.

“I used to think I would flame out but now I think I’m going to endure.”

“That’s not always a good thing. Think of the Rolling Stones. Or Dick Cheney.”

“True. But I’m thinking more like an old oak, like that one over there.”

“That’s a maple.”

Some people were coming down the path to the footprints. They were laughing and clowning and shouting conversation. “Fuckin” this and “that’s bullshit”. One of them dropped a cigarette on the rocks and stamped it out. Another yelled, “Wait, wait.” And he reached down to move the cigarette butt into one of the footprint depressions. “That’s what killed the dinosaurs!” Moronic guffaws. They didn’t even notice JJ and Carl.

Carl said, “My point is, there’s a third type of person. Those who should flame out but endure anyway. Don’t be one of them.”

“I’ll try,” said JJ. “I’m trying.”

“I know. Now let’s get outta here before a meteor hits those jackasses.”

“I think we were those jackasses once.”

“Nah,” Carl said. “We would have been quieter.”

“You mean more stoned.”

They walked up the path away from the river, away from the triassic tracks, emerging from the trees into a 21st century parking lot.

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Side Door, Ajar

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JJ got home, walked onto his side porch, and noticed the door was ajar. He froze. What the hell? Did I leave it like that? Did someone go in there? Is someone still in there? He made himself very still and listened as hard as he could. Insects in the woods and field. A slight breeze in the leaves. A truck in the distance and some leaf blower off to the left, down the hill, near the cemetery. But, what about the house? He thought he heard a creak inside but the house was old. “Old houses settle”, his father had told him when the old house of his childhood unsettled him with its creaks and groans. Then Knuckles the cat slithered through the ajar door and he almost jumped off the porch. His heart pounded. “Fuckin cats,” he said as the cat came over to rub against his legs. He wanted to kick Knuckles but, as he calmed, realized it was good to be with someone.

The listening spell broken, JJ chuckled and reached for the door knob. He must have left it ajar when he rushed out that morning. He was forgetting a lot of things lately. But, before he could open it all the way, a car turned into his driveway and a horn tooted in greeting. JJ squinted at the windshield of an old Toyota or Honda sedan, but the sun glare was strong and he couldn’t see inside. The driver threw something out the window which landed with a thud on the driveway. JJ heard the gears shift to reverse and the car backed away into the road and continued on up the mountain. Now he was torn between opening the door and checking out the driveway package. He knew it was probably a phonebook but, the way it had landed, it sounded weightier, too dense for a mere list of names and numbers that nobody used anymore. Books that land on your driveway with a thud are hard to ignore.

JJ chose the door over the book and opened it, pushing through his unease and stepping over the threshold. He went into the kitchen and saw the remains of his rushed breakfast, English muffin crumbs on a plate and an OJ glass, still on the kitchen table. He knew for a fact now that when he rushed off that morning the latch didn’t engage all the way. The door had popped open from the cat or a breeze. Or some kind of settling.

That morning his cell phone buzzed as he lay in bed warming up to masturbation, that 7-11 cashier with the pink hair and those jeans on his mind. He hadn’t recognized the number and almost didn’t answer it. But, he was trying to do the opposite of what his instincts told him to do these days so he took the call. It was a guy named Kurt he met two weeks ago.

“I need help,” Kurt said.

“Are you OK?” (Did you use? Are you gonna drink?)

“I’m OK but I just found out my sister’s in the hospital and I can’t talk to my family and I need someone to just hang with. You’re the only one who answered.”

“Where are you?”

“Home but I want to go out. I need to go out.”

“OK. How about Dunkin Donuts. Half hour or so.”

“OK, great. That’s good. Thanks. I’ll be there.”

And JJ had pulled on some clothes, made a quick English muffin, had a glass of OJ, brushed his teeth, and rushed out the door, not engaging the latch, thinking of someone else for a change.

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Downing Tote, $168.00

Dear Dave is a series in which I address poor reviews of consumer goods in the advice column tradition of Dear Abby or Dear Sugar. Aren’t most online reviews a cry for help, anyway?

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Dear Dave,

I read over the description of this tote several times and didn’t realize there was no inside pocket. I was disappointed because the leather is so soft and the flat bottom makes this tote useful. There is an attached wallet but that is just too inconvenient for cellphones, etc. The strap length is good — can be easily put over shoulder but also comfy to carry with the handles over the arm. The quality is good. Just one pocket inside would make it perfect.

Love the leather

Louisiana, USA

Dear Love the Leather,

Guess what? Totes, (a strange word for boyfriends, but curiously accurate in many cases), do not always come as advertised. I know you love that so-soft leather. (We usually refer to that as skin.) Flat bottoms are nice, too. (You said “useful” but I’ll leave the utility of a flat bottom to the reader’s imagination.) You may be a little too interested in that attached wallet, however. Chasing the money is not always a good idea. Why do you want to keep your cellphone in his wallet anyway? You certainly have no problem with imagination, Love the Leather, and that’s why I chose your letter out of the thousands I receive. Imagination can be good. Or, not so good. Sometimes we need a mini-vacation from our daily lives in which imagination plays a vital role. I fully support those daily flights of fancy that rejuvenate a tired soul. Maybe a walk in the woods or some quiet time just sitting and daydreaming. Maybe even a little reverie in which our loved ones are our handbags. A little consumerish, maybe, but it’s your fantasy! So, your boyfriend is of good quality and easy to haul around but he won’t hold your cellphone, etc.? I suggest next time he’s draped on your arm to go shopping or see some vapid Rom-Com, you consider his imagination. He may be thinking of something supple with a good bottom as well. And, I guarantee you, strap length is not that important to him. My suggestion: direct your imagination to who he is and away from what he can carry. Oh, and men are not beach bags either. Or clutches. Before you go there.

Best,

Dave

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JJ Prays and Dreams

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A humid summer day. JJ knelt beside his bed and tried to pray. He heard a noise and jumped up, embarrassed, and looked to find the cat peering at him from the door. Good ol’ Knuckles knew something was amiss. JJ threw a balled-up sock and the cat scurried away, but not without a look back at the praying lunatic. After a moment, JJ kneeled back down.

“Dear God,” he began. And there was nothing beyond that.

“Just pretend,” Professor Tom had said. “Say thanks for the day, thanks for a sober day, and wrap it up. Keep it simple.”

That was Tom’s favorite slogan from the pantheon of AA slogans. Keep it simple. Ok, then.

JJ said, “Thanks God. Thanks for helping me today.” Then he jumped to his feet like he was caught doing something cruel on his knees, maybe frying ants with a magnifying glass. Once, at nine or ten years old, he had tormented a frog he found, eventually dropping a rock on it and crushing it. This was observed by his father, who was on him in a flash. His father only hit him twice in his life. That was once, a smack right up side the head that left him sprawled in the grass with his right ear ringing. The other time was when he climbed to the top of a tree and refused to come down for the babysitter. He stayed up there until it got dark and the babysitter had no choice but to rat him out. Later, he sat in his room and listened to his mother outside the door. “You go in there and strap him. Take this belt.”

“Jesus, Karen, he’s just a boy doing stupid shit.”

“Strap him! The whole neighborhood saw him up there. They heard him up there.” His father came in and delivered a lukewarm strapping as JJ jumped on the bed, crying and dodging. He remembered the confusion of being relieved that it wasn’t severe but ashamed of his father’s weak brutality. After all, he had probably deserved many a good strapping.

“Great memories,” JJ said to his empty house. “Praying is wonderful.”

Later, restless and tired, JJ lay back on the couch, tried to read, but dozed off. He dreamed of that summer day, crouching over the rock that covered the dead frog. He knew he was going to lift it but was afraid of what he’d see. When he did lift the rock, there was nothing there, just matted grass. He heard a sound and turned, cringing, thinking his father was going to hit him, but it was just Knuckles the cat, looking at him from under the porch. JJ crawled under the porch and that dream thing happened. He emerged into Grand Central Station, in the big room with the booth in the middle and the vast ceiling with the stars. There were so many people streaming in from train tunnels and mingling in a teeming mass, but he was above the fray, on one of the balconies. Then he saw Lila in the crowd, near the booth, distinct among the strangers. And then he saw his mother, dead now, near the ticket windows and he thought maybe this was some purgatory or parody of heaven.

He woke up, sweaty and befuddled, and found his phone. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Are YOU? You sound far away.”

“I’m ok. I’m good. Just woke from a nap, a little disoriented. A bad dream.”

Lila was quiet for a moment, “JJ, it’s ok. I’m ok. Life is going to be ok.”

“Ok,” he said. “It’s ok.”

“Good. Now wake up and come take me to dinner.”

“Ok. That sounds good.” And it was. It was better than ok. It was just right.

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Pumping Heart Model, $39.99

Dear Dave is a series in which I address poor reviews of consumer goods in the advice column tradition of Dear Abby or Dear Sugar.  Aren’t most online reviews a cry for help, anyway?

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Dear Dave,

Please DO NOT Purchase this product for demonstrating pumping of blood in heart. You may use it just to show a 3D diagram of heart and lungs connection_ but the pumping model does not show the difference in oxygenated and de-oxygenated blood nor does it show how the blood is pumped from one chamber to another and then to the lungs and back accurately (not even remotely accurate). The simulated blood (red-colored water) just flows erratically with NO resemblance to how a heart pumps blood. I wonder who designed, tested and recommended this product!

Heartbroken, Edina, Minnesota

Dear Heart Broken,

Was she really that cold? Could she really have been that heartless? Is she nothing more than a 3D diagram? Methinks you are a bit too…empirical?  Relationships are not science experiments.  No one wants to talk about oxygenated and de-oxygenated blood. That’s a conversation killer, like comparing tree species, describing your school project on tapeworms, or championing the benefits of bleach. When we point the finger at someone, we are really pointing three back at ourselves. Annoying adage, yes. But go ahead and try it. Test that hypothesis. See?  Now, isn’t it YOUR blood that feels like red-colored water? Isn’t it YOUR blood that flows erratically? (Normally, I would assume you’re talking metaphorically, except for your letter. If it’s really flowing erratically then go to the hospital. Immediately.) As for who designed and tested that “product”. God did! Duh… Gotcha! Ha! You were ready to start in about evolution and apes and natural selection and Quest for Fire (your favorite movie) and the fertile crescent, weren’t you? Dude, you must lighten up. Here’s your assignment: Set a timer for 15 minutes then sit in a chair and put your hand over your heart. Keep it there and breath in and out slowly. Focus on breathing and the feeling of your heart beating beneath you hand. When thoughts occur, just observe them, and keep still. At the end of 15 minutes say out loud, “I am human. I am alive. And so are the others.”

Or just drink heavily once a week and go act out.  Good luck!

Best,

Dave

 

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JJ watches the World Cup

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They sat at a table on the periphery of a healthy afternoon bar crowd. The World Cup was on TV. JJ had a ginger ale and it felt like a betrayal to the natural order, like a polar bear in the tropics. Carl had a Coke to honor JJ’s awkward sobriety and watched the game with interest. It was Italy vs. Paraguay or Uruguay or Ecuador. JJ could never keep those South American countries straight. “I’m not sure I should be in a bar,” he said.

“It’s ok, I’m babysitting you. We’re just watching the game.” There was a plate of nachos on the table and Carl ate with relish. JJ picked a bit and watched the people watching the game. Tuesday afternoon and all these people watching soccer. Didn’t they have jobs? Carl still worked nights at the bagel bakery and JJ…well JJ worked at staying out of his own way. Carl said, “This is one of those start and stop games. Typical Italy. Small fouls, big fouls, complaining, gesturing.”

Sure enough, players in blue surrounded an officious referee, jostling each other for the right to be ignored. The referee scurried from from the rabble and produced a red card from his pocket, held it in the air, and gestured off the field. One of the Italian players looked astonished and started pleading, hands clasped in supplication. The referee shook his head with an emphatic “NO!” and again pointed off the field. The player turned and walked away in shame.

“What did he do?” asked JJ.

“Took the other guy’s leg, studs up. Didn’t try for the ball. He was warned.”

It all looked the same to JJ but the crowd at the bar was loud and gesticulated much like the players. “South Americans are shit,” one guy yelled. “That was nothing!”

“That’s rich,” Carl said. “Italy’s the dirtiest team there is. Sneaky dirty. The dark arts.”

The game continued, scoreless, into the second half, growing more intense. At some point, a Uruguayan player actually bit an Italian player on the shoulder. It wasn’t apparent at first but replays showed a clear and intentional bite. The biter, a cunning-looking squint-eyed player with prominent teeth, then fell down as if the Italian had shouldered him in the mouth. “He really bit that guy,” JJ said. “He really bit him.”

“He’s going to get suspended.” The Italian player pulled aside the neck of his shirt and was showing the teeth marks to the referee who hadn’t seen the bite. “That was the third time he’s done that.”

“Three times in this game?”

“He’s bit three people in different games. Over the last few years.”

The crowd at the bar was braying for a red card but play continued. Then Uruguay scored a goal and the injustice was complete. The people at the bar were now screaming, “NO!” and “Bullshit!” and all the other things we yell after being fucked by sports and life. A guy bites someone and no one sees it, then a goal for the biter’s team. An uproar, a celebration, then the ball is returned to center, and they start playing again. You win some, you lose some, and you move the best you can. That’s the way of the world.

“I’m starting to like this,” JJ said.

Carl looked at him. “And this isn’t even a very good game. But, yeah, you would like all this other bullshit. But that’s soccer. The bullshit and beauty run parallel and make it great. Like life.”

“Yeah, I kinda get that,” JJ said. “I’m not sure about the beauty part, but I have been know to get waylaid by the bullshit of life. Still, I haven’t bitten anyone. Yet.”

 

 

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