I Showed Her

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My wife told me that she wanted to rearrange the kitchen, to move the fridge to north wall and put a small table in its place next to the kitchen sink.  I said, “No.  I do most of the cooking, and I’m used to having the fridge close to the work counter.”  The argument ended, but when I came back from a short trip to Gainesville the deed had been done.  Judy got our two kids to help her push the fridge to the north wall while I was away.

When I returned I walked in the door, hugged the kids, kissed Judy, and suspected nothing.  But when I went into the kitchen to grab a beer from the fridge by the sink,  I found it elsewhere.  I spun around and saw her smiling at me.  I protested, but she said nothing.  Instead she gave me a challenging look as if daring me to come up with a reason to move it back.  I said, “You know I’ve been planning to paint a mural right where you put that fridge.”

“Mural?  What mural?” she asked.

“A landscape…of a place you like…It’ll be a reminder.”

“The Smokies?” she asked.  “You’ll paint a mural of the Smokies!?”

“Sure.  You pick a picture from our last trip there.”

We pulled out a photo album, and she chose a scene with trees hanging over a path cutting through a wood: dappled light, intricate interlacing of branches and foliage, contrasting textures of boulders, tree bark, leaves, sky and dirt.  I looked at it and gulped.  I knew that a subject that complicated would take months.

“Are you sure you want that one?” I asked.  “What about this distant view of the mountains in fog?”

“No.  This is the best.  Can you do it?”

“Of course I can.” I answered feeling a bit nettled.  Did she think that I was an amateur?  “Now can I move the fridge back?”

“I’ll help you,” she said sweetly.

I began to paint the next weekend.  I marked off the boundaries with masking tape and laid out my composition with a few lines.  I blocked in big color shapes.  Two hours passed, and I realized that I had barely made a dent.  But anything for a just cause.  The fridge must stay in its rightful place.

The mural took three months to complete, and I was weary of the project by the time I laid down the last brushstrokes.  I knew that I could drag it out a lot longer if I felt like punishing myself with a lot of tedious detail, but decided that enough was enough.

I called Judy into the kitchen and said, “It’s done.”  She stared at it for a long time, and then she hugged me and said, “Thank you.”  I knew that it reminded her of a family trip to her favorite place on earth.  I tried hard not to feel  happy for her, but failed.

I put away my paints, and while I cleaned my brushes I tried to reclaim some vengeful satisfaction.  I had thwarted her plans to change the kitchen.  I hadn’t let her get away with a sneaky maneuver.  I had outwitted her even if it had taken a long time to pull it off.

I was the man…in charge.

I showed her.  Yeah, I really showed her.

 

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Big Two-Fisted Introvert

A recently found story by Ernest P. Hemmingway.

Nick rolled out of bed.  Midmorning light bleached the pattern on his rug.  He tucked in the sheets and plumped the pillow.  It was a good pillow.

Nick brushed his teeth and whizzed, put on a clean white shirt and cargo shorts, and sat down at his computer.  He booted the computer, and it loaded quickly.  His screen saver glowed green, silver and blue.  A trout leaped out of a stream.

Nick wrote a short story about fishing.  He liked to write; he liked to fish.  He never got lonely when he fished.  Nick waved when fishermen passed by in boats, but it was good when they turned a bend.  It was good when they disappeared. The quiet of the river swallowed them.

Nick’s phone rang.  The phone was in the kitchen.  Nick waited until the ringing stopped, and then walked to the kitchen: time to make coffee.  His receiver blinked.  He picked it up.  He checked for messages:  one from mother.  Nick deleted his mother’s message.  He had heard her talk before.  He’d heard enough.

Nick drank the coffee hot and black.  It burned his tongue.  The burn stung.  He wanted to swear, but didn’t.  The phone rang again.  Caller ID said that his mother had dialed his number.  He saw her holding her receiver like a fishing rod.  She would pull him in if he took her bait.  She would ask about last night.  Nick did not answer the phone.

Last night Mother made a meal for him.  She served it on china plates.  The silverware was silver.  Candles lit the room.  They ate roast beef, boiled potatoes and green peas.  The roast beef was dry.

Nick drank too much whiskey.  He often drank too much at Mother’s.  Mother talked.  Mother invited women to dinner, women she wanted him to marry.  Nick did not want to marry.

Nick was not gay.  He liked women when they were quiet.  He liked women who fished.  He liked lying with women on sun baked pine needles on paths in high mountains.  He liked to “make the earth move”.

Last night Miriam talked more than Mother.  She talked about dresses, her hair, an article in a woman’s magazine.  Nick’s finger itched as he ate his food and listened to her talk.  He wanted to kill himself with his shotgun.

He knew that Miriam was not talking about fashion and cosmetics.  She was talking about babies, houses, insurance policies and retirement plans.

Nick did not have a retirement plan.  He did not like babies when they cried.  A man did not need insurance, and died before he retired.  If he grew too old to be a man, he went deep sea fishing in a leaking, rickety boat, he ran with the bulls at Pamplona and let the bulls catch him.

Right now Nick had hunting, fishing, and writing.  He had what he wanted.  He did not want Miriam.

The phone rang again.  Nick went to the case in his study and pulled out his 12 aught shot gun.  He rubbed the steel barrel with an oily rag.  It glistened cold and deadly.  He slotted a shell into the breech.  He walked twenty five steps to his kitchen.  Nick shot his phone.

Nick sat down at his computer.  He poured two shots of whiskey into his coffee mug.  It tasted better that way.  He reread his story.  It was good.  Nick smiled.  He was alone.

 

God Bless You, Father Shine

The Cincinnati archdiocese assigned Father Shine to our parish as an assistant pastor around 1970.  He had been acting as a hospital chaplain, and before that served as a teacher in a boys high school.  A thin man with a large nose, pale skin, jet-black hair and sunken eyes, he trembled at the pulpit when he delivered sermons.  Sweat slicked his forehead and his hands shook when he raised the host at consecration.  He stammered, “B-b-body, body of Christ,” when he handed out communion.

Most of the congregation understood his terror of speaking in public and forgave him his faltering interpretations of Holy Scripture.  We felt sorry for a well-meaning man trapped in a job that ran contrary to his nature.  We also sensed a sweet nature hidden behind the nerves.  The man was ready to forgive sins in the confessional before a penitent uttered the first word.  He never spoke harshly or with cold judgment, and remained unfailingly patient and kind when dealing with folks one on one.

No one knew how the nuns and head pastor viewed Father Shine, but someone with a cruel streak gave him an assignment designed to torture him:  a sex-ed lecture for the eighth-graders.

We were ushered into the library and told to sit on the carpet.  No one told us the purpose of the assembly, but whenever our two classes gathered it usually meant a tongue lashing from the principal.  We were somewhat rebellious, and our budding sexuality sent one of the nuns into spasms.

It didn’t take much to bring Sister M.M. to her knees to pray for our immortal souls.  One flagrant problem that raised her blood pressure:  some of the eighth grade girls had tired of us boys and decided to take up with seventh graders.  Older hussies were seen walking with younger boys on the playground at lunch.  They held hands.  The horror.  The utter horror.

We were surprised when Father Shine shuffled into the room.  He sat down in front of us, but didn’t say anything for several minutes.  He appeared to be morbidly fascinated by the texture of the carpet.  A nun standing nearby whispered a few urgent words to spur him into action.  He looked up for a split second, returned his gaze to the floor, and wiped his forehead with a trembling hand. The nun whispered again, and Father Shine began his address.

“I taught for a few years at a Catholic school for boys in Cincinnati… Cin-Cin-cin-cin…nati…I, uh, the boys, uh….One day there was a dance.  The boys invited girls from a nearby high school for…girls.  Girls…Uh…I taught boys in Cincinnati…dance…There was this dance and girls were invited to come to our gym and…dance…And the boys, the boys…I taught at this school and…”

At this point Father flushed deep red and slumped to one side.  He covered his face with his hands and his shoulders shook.  I feared that he verged on a nervous breakdown.  The nun stepped in, put a hand on his shoulder and helped him to his feet.  She led him from the room.  End of assembly.

Father Shine recovered and returned to his duties as assistant pastor.  He said masses, heard confessions and visited the sick.  I was glad that his attempt to speak to us about sexual morality hadn’t damaged him in any permanent way, and relieved that we had escaped another tirade about a subject I found troubling enough when contemplating it on my own.  My feelings of relief were premature.

Eighth-grade classes usual went on a spiritual retreat to a park-like Catholic center south of town.  Sister told us, to our chagrin, that our retreat would take place on campus.  Her stern look and threatening tone warned me that my classmates and I would probably need a retreat from our retreat.

A balding priest wearing a black cassock, black shoes and socks, and black plastic framed glasses met with us in the library one morning.  He wasn’t afraid, shy, or embarrassed.  He appeared, instead, to be driven by outrage.  He barked at us for an hour about our sinful natures, and his face turned purple with anger.  He scorned our obsession with sex.  He sentenced us to eternal damnation if we thought about it, masturbated, or allowed ourselves to enjoy accidental sexual feelings that occurred at random moments.  The only Catholics allowed to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh were married couples (heterosexual, it went without saying).  And even these lucky few were supposed to reluctantly engage in the act for the sole purpose of making more Catholics.

He spent the rest of the day with us, “celebrated” a mass featuring a sermon that underlined the grimmest points made in the prior assembly, and glared at us with arms crossed at his chest during a break at lunch time.  Father Damnation appeared to be standing in for a watchful, vengeful God.

The eighth-grade girls stayed away from the seventh graders that day, but resumed their assignations the next week.  We knew that Father Damnation wasn’t coming back.  And most of us had figured out that his reign of terror had been one more attempt to bludgeon us back in line.  There had been plenty of those, and we had grown used to threats and hysteria.

Looking back, I have to say that I’m grateful to both priests.  Father Shine showed me that there were some clerics in the church who genuinely cared for their congregants, who tried their best even when stretched beyond their natural limits.  Father Damnation showed me that the church ranks had their share of crazies and militants that were best ignored.

God bless you, Father Shine.  Get bent, Father Damnation.

Lost: I Blame the Elves

Lots of things raise my blood pressure:  political news; financial uncertainty; computer glitches; and health concerns.  Sometimes I’m able to reason my way out of an anxious funk.  But misplacing something drives me crazy.  I’m plagued by the feeling that my inability to manage my possessions is a sign that my life is about to descend into chaos.

When my children were little I could blame an unexplained disappearance on them, but now that they’re grown and gone I have two options:  elves or the onset of dementia.  I choose elves.

A friend of mine named Jean had a third option.  She blamed the disappearance of a ring on a ghost.  Her Victorian house was haunted by a friendly spirit who once, according to Jean, brought her a cup of tea when she was in bed with a high fever.  Jean eventually decided to move to a new house and asked the ghost to come along with her.  He shook his spectral head and told her that he couldn’t leave the premises.  On the morning Jean left she found a ring in the middle of the floor of a room she had emptied the day before.  She understood, by telepathic means, that the ghost had taken it several months back as he admired the gemstone’s beauty.  He apologized, and she forgave his thievery.

One of my incidents usually begins with a search for an object in its last recalled location.  For example, I look for a pocket knife on my dresser where I’m sure I’ve left it–not there.  I look in the next obvious location and note my growing panic as the knife remains perversely absent.  I expand the circle of my search outward until I’m pawing through tool boxes, opening drawers in cupboards seldom used, looking under sofa cushions where I’ve not sat in months.

I eventually rummage through shoes on the floor beneath the dresser, the pockets of pants in the laundry, the dust bunnies under my bed, but discover the knife hidden underneath a piggy bank on top of the dresser where I first made my search.  I had neglected to take into account the elfish predilection for shifting things slightly to one side.

Today I went on an expedition to find some credit cards.  We had received a new batch just before my wife and I left on a mini-vacation, and I had forgotten when we returned to mail cards to my son and daughter.  My wife told me that my son had asked after his, and I remembered putting them on the desk in the living room.  I made quick searches through bank statements and bills, but couldn’t find them.  My wife noticed the strained look on my face as I redoubled my efforts and began to look in progressively absurd locations.  She said, “We’ll find them.  Don’t worry.”  I replied, “Will we?  I’ve looked in all the places I can think of, and they’re gone.  I’m running out of ideas about where to look!”  My wife looked at me with a mixture of exasperation and pity, and offered no more comfort.  “Those goddamn elves are ruining my marriage,” I thought.

I took Judy to an appointment a few minutes later, and when we returned I made another search of a desk drawer where I believed the cards had been left.  I found the them tucked in an envelope with an auto insurance bill.  They hadn’t been there 90 minutes ago.  Fucking elves.

I sighed in relief.  I bolstered my self-confidence by telling myself that I had defeated my tormentors once more.  The sheer power of my desperation had forced them to return the cards to the desk drawer while we were gone.

The jewel case for my Lemonheads’ CD, “It’s a Shame About Ray”, is next on the agenda.  I’ve turned my studio upside down on at least three occasions, but haven’t yet summoned the eye bulging intensity necessary to intimidate the elves.  But there’s always tomorrow.  I’ll recall all the things I’ve permanently lost over the years and work myself into a monumental froth.

 

Entering Into the Retirement Zone

I recently turned 58, and one of my birthday presents was the realization that I only have 7 or 8 more years to officially belong to the workforce.  I can continue on after that if I still feel some drive to teach and exhibit my work, so the end doesn’t have to be in sight just yet.  But the promise of an upcoming choice made me feel positively lighthearted.

And I had another realization:  my professional ambitions have largely gone unfulfilled.  I am not a tenured college professor, I’ve made nearly no impact in the world of fine art, and I’ve never earned more than chump change selling my art.  If I had known how things would turn out when I was twenty-five I might have chosen to become an accountant or a biological research technician, but I’m happily surprised to say that I’m not bitter about my choices.  I’m largely satisfied by the experiences I’ve accumulated as I made my artwork.  The sweetness of applying paint to canvas is addictive, and I’ve had 30 plus years to scratch that itch.  Teaching has been a trial at times, but helping students still satisfies me.

And it’s good to know that most accounts have been settled, that I’ve gone about as far as I’m going to go.  It’s an odd relief to accept that a final sink into oblivion is probably my natural arc.  I’ve never been a fan of suspense, of waiting for the moment when my professional fortunes would finally start breaking good.  The overwhelming evidence suggests that they never will.

I still remember how I used to torture myself when I was twenty-five about every move I made as an artist, how I questioned and doubted my abilities and potential whenever I finished a painting that didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped.  Now I know that it’s just a matter of averages.  Like a baseball hitter I’m bound to succeed and fail according to a percentage.  I’m happy when I do well but no longer hope that a streak of good work will continue indefinitely.  In my personal life I also have realized that I will inevitably screw up from time to time, and be thoughtful and kind other times.  I have fewer illusions about my ability to maintain a state of benevolence, and also know that I have a penchant for snarky cynicism.  I still feel guilty when I say or do something hurtful, but am aware that there’s another side to the ledger.

It helps of course that I’m married to a woman who accepts who I am.  The one blessing that I desperately needed when I was 25 was to find someone who saw me in my entirety and still loved me. It took another couple decades for me to figure out that she hadn’t made a self-destructive mistake by volunteering to live with me.  Now I finally can relax in the knowledge that we’ve had a mostly happy marriage and have been good for each other.

The next decade or two may consist of a long downward slide, but at least I’ve gotten some altitude (thanks to Judy) from which to descend.  To quote Edith Piaf, “No, I don’t regret anything.”

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The Right Thing

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Sarah Kunkel closed the blinds and pulled back the sheets on her double bed.  She sat down by the pillows, took a damp hand cloth from a bowl on her night stand and lay down.  She gently pressed the cloth to her forehead and closed her eyes.

Her migraine rested like a sleeping porcupine on the right side of her head, but sent out sharp quills to probe the back of her eyes every minute or so.  Sarah felt as though her head would eventually split in two when the malevolent creature woke up and clawed again at the tender connections inside her brain.  She hummed a lullaby in the hope that she might fall asleep.  Her mother sang it to her when she was a sick little girl, and it had worked like magic.  But Sarah stopped when the vibrations on her lips became vibrations in her skull.  Pulsations of dull pain already thudded in time with her heartbeat, and she couldn’t bear adding another rhythm to the mix.

She began to feel blessed sleep descend upon her ten minutes later.  The few remaining unaffected corners of her mind rejoiced as her limbs grew heavy and her breath began to slow.  She saw a vista open up before her of mountains topped with glaciers and Alpine meadows filled with flowers.  She took a deep breath and smelled roses and newly mown grass, honeysuckle and lilacs.  A figure clothed in dazzling white robes walked toward her.

But then the door to the bedroom opened a crack.  A shaft of light from the hall pierced the darkness.  The door swung in, and a man stood in the doorway but didn’t come into the room.  His back lit silhouette looked familiar.  But he wouldn’t dare, would he?  Not again?

The silhouette spoke in a low rumbly voice.  It was Jeff, of course, but she couldn’t quite make out his words.

“Oh for God’s sake, Jeff!  Close the door and a leave me alone.  Can’t you see I’ve got a migraine?”

“Mumble, mumble, mumble.”  He stood there and faltered his apologies.  She couldn’t take it.  He had visited every single night since that horrible day last week when their marriage had fallen and shattered into a thousand splinters of betrayal.  Now the shards were embedded inside her skull, and his visits just pushed them in deeper.

“Jeff!” she screamed and regretted it instantly.  A bloody tsunami swelled in the back of her head and raced forward to tear at the roots of her nerves.  She held her head, moaned and nearly passed out…If only she could pass out she’d praise the gods forever…When she was able to speak again she said, “Come closer so that I can hear you.  You’re killing me.  Tell me what you want and go away.”

He shuffled into the room with his head down and sat near the foot of the bed.  She pulled her hand away when he took it, but he persisted.  She was too weak to fight him.  He leaned closer and whispered, “I did the right thing.”

“I know what you did,” said Sarah.

“Please listen,” whispered Jeff.

“You cheated on me.  That was the wrong thing, stupid.  You can’t talk your way around that.  It’s over and done.  You can’t take it back,” said Sarah.

“I slept with Rhonda, but I did the right thing.”

“Rot in hell, Jeff.  And please, please go away.  Why are you torturing me?  What did I do to you to make you so cruel?”

“You don’t know the whole story,” Jeff insisted.

“What?  You’re going to tell me that it was just a mistake?  She came on to you and you felt sorry for her?  She told the cops that you were the one who wouldn’t leave her alone.”

“I didn’t feel sorry for her.  I just wanted her,” admitted Jeff.

“I see.  Now we’re being honest.  At long last we’re being honest,” said Sarah.

“I didn’t come in here to apologize for the affair.  I know that you’re never going to forgive me for that, and I don’t expect you to,” said Jeff.

“So?”

“I just want you to know that I didn’t want to leave you.  That was never my intention,” said Jeff.

“Bullshit.  The moment you went to bed with her was the moment you left me,” said Sarah.

Jeff released her hand and turned away.  Over his shoulder he said, “You’re not angry because of the affair.  You’re angry because I’m leaving.”

“Shut up Jeff.  Go away.  Make me happy and leave.”

“Not until I tell you the whole story.  I promise I’ll go away and never return after I say what I have to say,” said Jeff.

“That’s a deal, but keep it short.  My head’s about to explode.”

“Rhonda’s husband George interrupted us last Tuesday.  We heard the car pull up, and I managed to run out the back door.  But he saw my wallet on the floor by the bed.  It fell out when I grabbed my pants.  I heard him roar, ‘Whose wallet is this?!’  She screamed.  I crept up to the bedroom window and saw him slap her.  Then he punched her in the stomach and she fell down on the floor.  She tried to crawl away from him on hands and knees, but he kicked her in the ribs.”

“Stop it stop it stop it!  I don’t want to hear any of this!” wailed Sarah.

“I did the right thing,” said Jeff.  “I went back inside and fought with George.  Rhonda got away.”

“Well good for you.  You did the right thing.  You’re my hero.  Are we finished here?”

“Yes, Sarah.  I’m finished.”

He got up off the bed and walked to the door without looking back.  The light from the hall blinded her, and she closed her eyes.  When she opened them again the door was shut and he was gone.

Sarah woke up early the next morning, and the migraine had retreated.  She snapped on a lamp by her bed and saw the wedding photo of her and Jeff framed in gold on top of her dresser.  It was surrounded by an arrangement of white flowers.  She trudged over to the dresser, pried off the cardboard backing and took out the picture.  She stared at it intently for a few seconds and came to a decision:  she tore it in half to separate her image from his and tossed young, still faithful Jeff into the trash can at her feet.

The scrap landed on a thick piece of cream colored paper scrolled with black leaves and flowers.  Beneath the header was a reproduction of a photo of Jeff taken a few months ago when he and Sarah celebrated their twentieth anniversary.  Beneath that a script of heavy gothic letters read, “In memoriam:  Jeffrey Kunkel, beloved son and husband.”

Valentine for my Wife

My wife and I have long ago abandoned most outward displays of romantic commitment.  I buy her flowers on occasion, but rarely on Valentine’s Day.  And every day isn’t a testament to our enduring love.  We still argue and get annoyed by one another.  We have to work on our relationship.  But when I saw her sitting across the room from me today I remembered a moment during our engagement when we went to visit her parents.  They hadn’t met me before Judy and I announced our engagement, and this trip turned out to be one of mutual inspection:  they wanted to see if I was a good match for their daughter;  I wanted to get a feel for the dynamics and history of my intended’s family.  The second night we were sitting at the table after supper getting better acquainted, and I suddenly found myself listening intently to my fiancee’s voice.  She was talking with great animation with her father, but I didn’t really hear the words.  What caught my attention was the timbre, the rise and fall of the notes, her slight Pennsylvania Dutch accent.  And I was struck by the knowledge that this was the voice that I’d be listening to for the rest my life.

A few years later one of my relatives thanked my wife for being generous enough to marry me.  The woman went on to say that the family thought that I would never get married as I was such a difficult person to understand.  As we drove home that night Judy turned to me and said, “You’re the one in your family who’s easy to live with.”  I felt a surge of love for her while at the same time hoped that she’d never change her mind once she really got to know me.  I had plenty of doubts about my worth.

Her understanding of my personality and character has evolved over the last 32 years,  and I’m relieved to say that she still loves me now that she is thoroughly acquainted with my strengths and faults.  That’s a huge gift, and I sometimes don’t think that I deserve it.  I’m still a bit surprised that she enjoys my companionship, that she smiles at me when I come home from work, that in many ways we feel closer than we ever have before.

Beyond her acceptance she has stood behind me in hard times.  She took care of me while I was recovering from a difficult surgery.  We had only had known each other for seven months, but she made sure that my needs were met.  I’ll never forget how comforted I felt when I saw her look down at me with deep concern and understanding as I lay in a hospital bed.  She was willing to suffer along with me.

And years later she walked out of a church meeting with me to show her solidarity when my motives and character came under attack.  She didn’t hesitate when I stood up, spoke my peace and said, “I’ve had enough of this.”  My wife said, “I’m with him,” and we marched out the door together.

And that’s the crux of it:  she’s with me and I’m with her.