“Great Grandma Died. She Got Better”

My wife’s grandmother died in the winter of 1990 after a slow decline. Our daughter, Annie, was a few months shy of her second birthday.  Judy and I brought her to a small, dark church in Reading to meet relatives who’d never had a chance to see her in the flesh.  We figured that Annie wouldn’t understand the proceedings and be affected, and that the sight of her might dispel some of the gloom.  Relatives filtered in before the service began, and I attended to Annie as folks made their introductions and chatted together in small groups.

I took Annie back to Judy’s parents before the minister made his appearance as we didn’t think that she could make it through the service without causing a disruption.  Annie rarely made a commotion in public, but liked to socialize with anyone sitting near her.  She peeped over the tops of booths in restaurants and once charmed a complete stranger into handing us ten bucks.  He told us to buy a gift for our little darling.  Judy and I imagined her crawling along a pew to canvas mourners for their time and attention.

We had a snack and played on the carpet with dolls and stuffed animals. Judy and her parents came home, and Annie seemed unfazed by her glimpse of death and bereavement.  But she must have absorbed some understanding of the seriousness of a funeral.  A few days later she asked Judy, “What happened to Great Grandma Alma?”  Judy told her that Alma had died.  Annie grew somber and quietly asked her mother, “Are you going to die?”  My wife made a quick decision.  She knew that Annie’s understanding of time, at that stage in her development, probably stretched forward about two weeks.  She could understand and anticipate upcoming events only if they occurred within a short span.  So Judy said, “No, Annie.  I’m not going to die.”  Then she asked, “Am I going to die?”  “No, Annie, you’re not going to die,” my wife reassured her.

That spring we drove to Judy’s parents for Easter.  Judy’s other grandmother, Lily, attended the family dinner.  Someone must have told my daughter that the elderly woman with white hair was her great grandmother.

Annie had developed considerable language skills by that age, but did not know that “great grandmother” could refer to more than one person.  During a lull in the conversation, Annie got her mother’s attention and pointed at Lily.  Annie said, “Great Grandma died.  She got better.”




What Kind of Drugs

I wrote an existential, absurdist dramatization of how burned out I felt as I approached spring finals at the end of my freshmen year in college. I performed it in speech class and used my natural jitters to enhance the edginess of the delivery. It went over well, but one guy came up to me as we walked out and said, “What kind of drugs were you doing when you wrote that?” I said, “I just used my imagination.” He shrugged as if to say, “Well, if you’re not going to tell me…”

Years later I gave an art lesson to an eight-year-old boy, who astounded me with his ability to draw foreshortened animals from his imagination. The kid had a camera in his head and the ability to accurately capture what he saw in his mind’s eye. I told his father, a professor at Penn State, that his son had tremendous talent. The man looked at me in disbelief and mild horror. He appeared to be afraid that his child had come down with a fatal dose of creativity.

About ten years ago I sat down at a party beside an educated woman who counseled children. She stated, for no apparent reason, that artists while making art are in a state of insanity. I turned to her and said, “So, if I’m sitting here reading a book or watching the news I’m sane. But when I pick up a pencil and draw, say, a geranium, I go temporarily insane.” I spoke sarcastically, but she just nodded in agreement. I explained to her that drawing realistically was an analytical, problem solving process, and that it could be taught in a completely rational, step-by-step approach. Surely that was the hallmark of sanity. She answered, “No. When you’re making art, you’re insane. When you teach other people to draw, you’re introducing them to madness.”

I looked at her carefully to see if she was pulling my leg, but she appeared serious. I tried again: “Making art does put you into a nonverbal mode of thinking, but there is a sense of inevitable order as you come to an end of a piece.” “That’s a delusion,” she countered. Last ditch argument: “Van Gogh was completely lucid when he painted. When he was institutionalized during a spell of madness, his painting skills eroded. He was sane when he painted well.” She smiled sadly, cruelly as if she pitied me.

I’m not sure where the tagging of creativity as an abnormality comes from, but I suspect the source is fear. I believe that some folks are threatened by anything that makes them think in unaccustomed patterns or feel unfamiliar emotions.

A woman came up to me at an open house at my studio after she had looked at some of my paintings. I don’t remember what she said exactly, but the underlying question was, “What’s wrong with you?” I told her that I just paint the things that most people don’t want to acknowledge, the ghosts and bogeys hiding in the backs of their heads. She pointed to a painting and huffed, “That’s not in the back of my head,” and marched away. I thought “Oh yes, it really is.”

Courtroom Artist

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I stood outside a federal courtroom in downtown Orlando holding a sketchbook.  Two groups huddled a few feet apart near the closed double doors.  I took out a pencil and began to make quick sketches of a older woman talking to a man, a man staring off into space, a young woman slumping against a wall.

The older woman saw me drawing and marched over with a stern look on her face.  “Are you recording our conversations?” she demanded.  I held up my drawings and said, “I’m practicing.  I’m the courtroom artist for Channel 6.”  The woman turned away.

The doors opened a half hour before the hearing began.  The reporter, who had called out of the blue to offer me this job, bustled in on an adrenaline high and told me to sit in the jury box.  A seat in the box gave me the best view of the two convicts as their lawyers entered pleas and the judge delivered sentences.

I sketched as I waited.  The courtroom filled gradually, and I noticed a number of police officers sitting on the left side near the back.  Their expressions looked grim and determined.  The bailiff entered, saw me, and demanded to know what I was doing in the jury box.  I held up the sketchbook again, stated my purpose, and was granted permission to remain.

A woman wearing an orange jump suit trudged slowly with her uniformed escort into the chamber, and she took a seat at a table with her attorney.  The judge entered, and the court came to order.  The judge read the charges and the verdicts, and asked for statements.  The lawyer stood at a podium beside the woman and pleaded for leniency for his client.  He stated that she was a mother of two young children who needed her presence in their life.  The woman’s mother, the lady who had accused me of spying earlier, came up and made a statement in support of her daughter.  Daughter regretted her mistakes and had become a different person, and her kids really, really loved their mother.

The judge listened patiently but with an impassive expression, and he sentenced her to one year.  The woman’s face fell, but she accepted her fate.  A corrections officer led her away.

A few minutes later a tall man shambled in, and the ritual began anew.  He was muscular in a raw-boned way, his hair cropped into short tufts, eyes hollow and dark ringed.  He looked dangerous, but as he stood before the judge at the podium, lawyer at his side, he repeatedly took out a tissue and dabbed his eyes.

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The judge reviewed the man’s offenses, and I found out that he had been a police officer who had worked with drug enforcement agents.  Hollow Eyes decided, along with his wife (the woman just sentenced), to start a marijuana grow operation.  He hired an ex-con as his assistant.  The ex-con had turned him in, and had told police that Hollow Eyes had given him police radio codes so that he could be warned of imminent raids.  The crooked cop had also bragged to the ex-con that he would kill anyone, cop or otherwise, if they messed with his drug business.

The uniforms seated on the left crossed arms over their chests and glared at the back of Hollow Eyes’ head.  The judge’s face looked like a hatchet.

The lawyer began to make a plea for mercy.  Hollow Eyes’ wife had been a druggy when they met, and she had dragged him under.  She had received an easy sentence, and had been the cofounder of the grow operation.  His client deserved equal leniency.  His client had suffered through a crisis, had grown to find police work unfulfilling, and had started an illegal business in misguided hopes of finding new purpose in his life.  The judge took a few notes.  I scribbled away, but was distracted by this thought:  “God, that was pathetic.”

The judge thought so too, but before he responded to the lawyer’s arguments, he addressed an old man seated at the back of the court.  The judge said, “I want to acknowledge the defendant’s father, Judge B–.  Your years of service brought honor to your name and great benefit to our community.  I regret that we are met today under these circumstances.”  The old man nodded to the judge.

The judge shuffled a few pages and began his statement.  It went something like this:  “Federal guidelines give me little leeway in sentencing cases like this.  But since arguments for leniency have been made, I will discuss their merits one by one.  While your wife was a full partner in your grow operation and had a history of drug abuse, she was not a police officer who put his fellow officers in jeopardy by sharing codes with an ex-convict.  She did not declare her intention to kill police officers.  Your level of misconduct is much higher than hers.  As to your ‘crisis’…Most of the men and women who come through this court facing similar charges have not had the benefits that you received.  They did not grow up in stable homes, did not go to college, could not find work in an honorable profession.  You decided, for reasons I don’t understand, to betray your fellow officers in an attempt to “find yourself”.  Shouldn’t police work have been fulfilling in and of itself?  Serving others, putting your life on the line for fellow citizens is as worthwhile a life as any I know.”

Hollow Eyes wiped away a tear, and his lawyer rested his hand on the man’s back. They braced for the inevitable.  The judge said, “I sentence you to ten years.”  Hollow Eyes released a muffled sob.

The courtroom cleared, but the police officers lingered.  They shook hands with each other, smiled grimly, muttered.  Justice had been served.  The traitor had been punished.

The reporter met me outside on the courthouse steps, and I showed him my sketches. He seemed pleased and excited.  I had just witnessed the final act of a tragedy and felt otherwise.  I said, “That was grim.  It was like watching a slow motion train wreck.”  He just smiled an all-in-a-day’s-work smile, marched over to his camera man and barked orders.


Race Relations and AC Repair

Last week I woke up one morning to the sound of my heat pump/air conditioner in its death throes.  The fan in the outside unit clicked on.  A noise best described as “ZZZZRUMPFFFF!” followed.  The unit clicked off, then tried to function again a few minutes later.  Each zzzzrumffff made the light on my dresser grow dim.

The AC tech came out that morning, hooked up meters and told me to turn on the cooling function at his signal.  I hovered for a bit, but left him alone when my presence appeared to make him nervous. I got the feeling that he thought I didn’t trust him.

He ran a series of tests and told me that the motor on the condenser was seizing up each time it started.  Extra power got pulled out of the electric line, and a kill switch turned off and reset the unit for another attempt a few minutes later.  He told me that he couldn’t give me an estimate for a new model (he just did repairs), but added that my upcoming purchase of an air conditioner would be the last one that I’d ever make.  I asked him, “So, how soon do you expect me to die?”  He could tell that I was teasing him and started to laugh.  I added, “Just how old do you think I am?”  He covered his mouth, turned away and laughed again. “You sound just like my uncle,” he said.

Somehow the conversation drifted to genealogy.  He mentioned that he had Asian ancestry and that he wanted to retire somewhere in Southeast Asia.  He had grown up on Trinidad (his accent had a Caribbean lilt), and had lived in South Florida where he experienced little racial discrimination.  When he moved to Orlando he found himself singled out and abused more.  He told us that when he visited the Philippines he blended in with little trouble.  He wanted to find a place where he could live in peace and do a bit of farming.

He looked intently at my wife and me and seemed to struggle as he tried to reconcile our friendliness to him with our skin color.  He finally said, “You guys look European.”  I said, “Judy’s people came to America in the 1700s, and I was born in Ohio.”

He tried to process that information, but returned to his default setting.  “Yeah,” he countered, “but you look European.”

“We don’t look like our ancestors came over on the Mayflower,” I tried to clarify.

“European,” he said.

I decided that he meant that as a compliment, and we parted on good terms.  Later in the day it occurred to me that European countries had colonized huge chunks of the Orient in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Native populations had been mistreated and exploited.  Some of those invaders must have looked like me.

Judy’s folks originated in Alsace-Lorraine, and mine in southern Germany.  Maybe we’ll retire some place in Bavaria, blend in and do a little farming.  But I expect someone will eventually come up to me and say, “You look Australian.”

Fighting Roommates and Wayward Dogs

My neighbor from the rental on our east side is walking up and down the street yelling, “PACO!  PACO!”  His pit bull, the one who never gives a warning bark and moves in a blur once a target has been sighted, has escaped again.  Paco made his move tonight around 8:30.  Breaks for freedom usually occur around three in the morning when Joe, his owner, is drunk and lowers his guard.  One can tell how drunk Joe is by the slurring of his “Paco”s as he wanders up and down the road calling for his missing doggy.

I used to worry about Joe and his haphazard lifestyle.  He lives at loose ends and tends to run through roommates at six month intervals.  They usually leave following late night shouting matches.  The language gets loud, abusive and threatening, and I sometimes wonder whether I’ll wake one morning to discover police cars and yellow tape next door.

The latest blow out happened a few weeks ago, and it began when I heard scuffling sounds followed by Joe saying, “Now where do you think you’re going?”  I assumed he was wrangling his dog inside his gate to his back yard, but instead it was his roommate attempting to run from Joe at five in the morning.  I couldn’t make out what they were arguing about, but the fella shouted, “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you!”  Joe mocked, “Oh sure, you’re gonna kill me.  Yeah, why don’t you try it?”  Roommate sputtered in fury and slushed, “I’m gonna slit your throat!”  Joe mocked him again and said, “You owe me $150, bitch,” and, “This is my house.”  I heard more scuffling sounds, and a woman stepped out onto the carport and yelled in a high pitched whine, “Stop it you guys!”  Roommate must have broken away–I heard his work truck door squeak open and the motor grind.  Joe attempted to stop him, but the man drove off.

He returned an hour later, and Joe and he sat outside and made their apologies.  Peace at 6 a.m.  Yeah.

Some might wonder why I didn’t call the cops.  It’s a matter of growing indifference.  I did call 9 months ago when Joe and another roommate, Ray, got into a loud argument on their front lawn.  Joe came home at 3 a.m. and started to pound on doors and windows.  He had forgotten to take his keys when he went out on a drinking spree.  Ray didn’t answer right away, and Joe pounded so hard on Ray’s bedroom window that he shattered the glass.  I decided at first to ignore the commotion when Ray burst outside and started to curse Joe.  I thought, “If they want to get into a fistfight, let them.”  But the argument escalated until Ray said, “Oh, you’re the big man with a gun.  Why don’t you shoot me?  I don’t give a damn.  Shoot me!” I called 911.

The cops arrived a few minutes later, and by then the argument had calmed down.  I saw Ray and Joe go in for a man hug just before a squad car pulled up.  No gun in sight.  An officer talked to them and offered to take Joe to a hospital as his hand was bleeding from a glass cut.  Joe declined.  Finally the cop said, “Is everything warm and fuzzy between you two?”  Joe and Ray muttered something, the cops left, and the two men went inside.

I gave Joe a ride to a gas station a few months ago when he needed fuel for his generator.  Hurricane Irma had toppled a tree onto his house that stripped his power line away.  He told me that he had rented next door for seven years.  I said, “Wow!  That long?!  We’ve been here since ’92, and we’ve seen a lot of folks come and go.  We called the lady just before you, ‘The Screamer’.  She was always yelling at her kids at the top of her lungs.  We could hear her inside her house with our windows closed.”

Joe smirked and said, “Well, I bet you’ve heard a lot of screaming from me too.”

“I didn’t mean that,” I said.

We rode on in silence for a minute or so, and then he said, “It’s these roommates.  I can’t get them to pay rent.  This latest guy is two weeks late.”

“That sucks.  And your power’s been out for aweek,” I commiserated.

Joe laughed and said, “Well I just keep rolling.  Whatever comes my way, I just keep rolling.  What else can I do?”

Paco remains at large, and I hear Joe shouting far down the road.  I wonder how many times he will wake me up tonight, but don’t doubt that this could go on for a long time.



An Odd Night Out (The Beer Garden Botch)

I walked into a local restaurant and saw five folks dressed in business attire standing by the bar. A harried forty year old woman wearing a too short German peasant dress rushed out of the kitchen with a platter.  She reminded me of one of my aunts at a family function attempting to manage a crisis.  A long line of tables were pushed together down the middle of the room, and about forty people chatted, drank and picked at their food. The waitress flitted and hovered from customer to customer, but never smiled or offered a pleasantry.  Steamers hung across the room:  cartoon cut outs of German men in lederhosen and Alpine hats were suspended row upon row.

No one greeted or offered to show me to a seat, so I wandered to a table near the back and waited for a server to approach.  Loud German drinking songs played on the sound system, and the odd mix of folksy cheerfulness set to a frenetic martial beat made the tunes slightly unnerving.  No one came to bring me water or a menu, and I realized that while the lone waitress had seen me, she had no intention of coming anywhere near.

I debated leaving, but decided to try the beer.  I strolled up to the bar and saw that they had five selections on tap.  The bartender looked like a 1970s stoner with bags under his eyes, a stubbly beard and stringy, long blond hair.  He poured me a large mug of porter, and I sat at a stool by the window.  I sipped the brew and found it watery but inoffensive.  A middle-aged couple exited, but didn’t head to their car.  The woman sat in a chair in a row of chairs set up on the sidewalk for smokers.  She buried her face in her hands, elbows to knees, and her shoulders began to shake.  Her partner, a lumpy man with a torso shaped like a potato, stood helplessly nearby.  I looked away.

The angry waitress pushed more tables together with the help of the manager (?), and glared at me as she worked.  I couldn’t tell if she had wanted me to help her, or whether she had taken offense when our eyes met. She scurried back to the bar to try to shoo the carousing customers to the tables, but they ignored her, drank their beers and continued their conversation.

I finished my porter and went back to the bar counter.  I asked the bartender if I could order food.  He said, “Sure!  What do you want?”  I shrugged my shoulders to let him know that I hadn’t seen a menu yet, and he grabbed one for me.  I chose a pork schnitzel, a dark honey beer, and a side of a cabbage dish.  He surprised me when he delivered the food five minutes later.  Pre-made and fired up in a microwave?  A man walked up and asked for a Bud Lite, and the barman explained that the restaurant was a micro-brewery and served nothing but the five selections on tap.

I sat at the bar and stared at the evening news on a wide screen TV, sound muted, while the room buzzed with conversation and the German drinking songs plunged forward one after another.  A sign at the back of the bar read, “If you’re still standing, you need another beer.”  The schnitzel tasted okay but required dedicated sawing with a dull knife to tear off a chunk.  The cabbage had been spiced with chilies and melted in my mouth, but the beverage had the flavor of a lite beer spiked with honey.

The angry waitress came to the bar and directed her formerly suppressed rage at the bartender.  They exchanged curt snarls in a running skirmish.  Once the waitress looked past the barman to the window and called out in an accusing tone, “Hey, has anyone called an ambulance yet?”  I turned and saw the woman who had been sitting in a smoker’s chair lying on her back on the sidewalk.

A man, not her partner, knelt beside her and held her hand.  Another man draped his arm across the comforter’s back to comfort him.  The woman stared at the sky, and her eyes looked glazed.  Some customers standing near the door ignored the drama outside and stood sipping and chatting about sports and business.  They were about ten feet away from the stricken woman, but studiously ignored her.  Next to me at the bar, a young business woman with black lacquered hair and bright red lipstick flipped through screens on her smart phone and muttered about so called friends who had failed to meet her.

An ambulance arrived, and a paramedic gave the woman on the sidewalk an injection.  When they lifted her onto a gurney her head lolled toward me, and her eyes were half closed.  They loaded her into the ambulance and closed the door, but didn’t rush off.  A paramedic stood with the potato torso man and took notes for ten minutes.  Potato man looked worried, weary, but not panicked, and I got the impression that similar scenes had happened before.

I paid my bill and left to run a few errands.  I picked up a good porter at an ABC on Semoran and headed to a Walgreens to fetch prescriptions for Judy.  I had hoped for a night out with a bit of a diversion, but as I drove home I kept thinking, “I like my wife.  I should have stayed home with her.”

I felt like Dorothy Gale wishing for Kansas.

Don’t Mess With Gramps

In the 1930s, my grandfather lived down the street from a beer garden.  He wasn’t a teetotaler and didn’t mind if others had a good time, but grew tired of the disruption of hooting and hollering drunks and the debris they left behind.  One summer night, a car full of women pulled up in front of his house.  He sat on his porch smoking a cigarette and heard their drunken conversation as they got out.  He was hidden in darkness, and the women had no idea they had an audience.  One lifted her skirt, squatted down and left a deposit on the lawn.  They laughed as they tottered away to top off their evening at the beer garden.  Grandpa fetched a shovel from his garage after they had gone, scooped up the pile and deposited it on the back seat of the ladies’ sedan.  A few hours later he heard a car door slam followed by screeching, cursing and crying.

Grandpa and Grandma rented for many years before Grandpa’s business began to generate a comfortable income.  Grandpa liked to fix things and to garden, and he left every house in better shape than he found it.  One time he put new tile down in the kitchen.  The landlord came by for the rent, saw the improvement, complimented Grandpa and thanked him.  A month later he evicted them.  My grandfather figured out that the landlord wanted to use the gleaming kitchen floor as an enticement to lure renters willing to pay more.  Grandpa moved his family out to a new location, but before turning in the keys he tore up the tiles and left the broken bits for the landlord to clean up.

Grandpa eventually bought a house on Pritz Avenue.  Ten years later, the city of Dayton put an east/west highway through the town, and bought out the place through eminent domain.  Grandpa got less than the worth of the house, but made do with a story-and-a-half he purchased a mile away in Belmont.  The new house sat on a corner, and Grandpa found tire tracks running across his lawn on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  Some motorists liked to cut the corner.  Punks in a hot rod made a point of churning deep ruts into his lawn one night.  Grandpa began to collect stones about the size of bowling balls.  When he had ten or so, he placed them at intervals at the edge of his lawn along the corner where cars cut through.  He painted them white to give the wayward drivers fair warning, but took some satisfaction when he heard tires blow and axles grind late at night.  Word eventually spread, and Grandpa’s lawn went untouched.

My Grandpa’s shop sold and installed Venetian blinds, curtains and valances.  One day during the beginning of a hectic holiday season, a woman wearing a fur coat and pearl earrings came up to the counter and gave Grandpa a list of demands.  Her house had to be redecorated before Christmas, and Grandpa must put aside his other jobs and give her preferential treatment.  She was an important person.  Grandpa told her that she’d have to wait her turn, that he wouldn’t bump other orders.  She exclaimed, “But my family is coming to town and I need this!”  Grandpa put down his pen and pushed aside her order form, pointed to the displays in the showroom and said, “Lady, there isn’t a single thing in this store that you actually need.