On one of my days off from work, I decided to revisit one of my old stomping grounds, so I made a drive down the 202 Bypass to Montgomeryville, where I took the south exit to Bethlehem Pike. The Bypass was still relatively new, and, despite the fact that the posted speed limit is 45 miles-per-hour, I cruised slightly above the limit to take in the burgeoning colors of fall leaves on trees that had been spared by the developers and enjoyed the wind blowing through my open window. The old familiar suburban smells of fuel exhaust and slow decay of refuse began to waft into my nose as I took the exit. I smiled as the wooded curtains of oak and maple trees swept aside when the Bypass rolled past County Line Road. I pulled onto the Pike and the low valley in which Montgomery County sits opened before me.
It felt good to be home again, to stay, after nine years of self-imposed exile. Like Xenophon and the Ten Thousand marching home to Greece after their lost cause in Persia.
Central Montgomery County hadn’t changed all that much. The Montgomeryville Mall is still there, as is the old 309 Cinema that my buddy Steve and I frequented when we were younger and I was still in college. It’s an AMC movie theater now, but it’s probably just as grungy inside as it was ten years ago when I last watched something there and the kids threw sucked-on gumdrops at the dingy screen when the film was awful. The Whole Foods is still there, as is the Olive Garden I occasionally dined at with friends and family. One notable absence was the old blue historical marker on the side of the Pike, across from the mall, that once stood marking the birthplace of Winfield Scott Hancock, the Union Army’s hero of the Battle of Gettysburg. I frowned.
I drove past the southbound exit to Route 309 and held my breath as I entered Spring House. It’s an old neighborhood in southeast Pennsylvania, inhabited by new scions of old money and a small, diverse blend of outsiders with new money. Some older homes from the colonial era still stand among postbellum buildings, but they’re mostly artifacts holding fast against newer architecture. While not exactly the center of MontCo, it’s certainly the epicenter, where several old roads in the county meet and the older blood quietly mingles with the newer. Some ancient Quaker families still live there, but they’re dinosaurs among migrants settling in. Social and economic mobility is a very slow process in this part of the world, but it occurs. Populations evolve.
South of Spring House is Ambler, an old settlement on the Wissahickon Creek that was named after Mary Ambler, a Quaker woman who heroically helped to save the lives of many victims of the Great Train Wreck of 1856, and a SEPTA regional rail line runs through the town to this day. Much of Ambler was built by Italian immigrants who settled there from Calabria, and my great-grandfather, Vincent, worked there first as a stonemason, then at the asbestos mill. Later in life he worked as a caretaker at the old Lippencott farm in Penlyn before retiring with Nana (who never learned to speak English but never ceased lovingly doting on her family) to his old brick row house down the street from the elementary school. I’d lived in Ambler on-and-off throughout my life and once lived across the street from my great-grandfather’s home after he and Nana were long gone after I came home from Colorado, but that’s a story for another time.
I wasn’t ready to revisit Ambler. I stopped in Spring House because I needed to confront a ghost.
There was once a supermarket chain in the Delaware Valley called Clemens Markets. It was a family-owned business, begun before World War I, and was one of three independent grocery store chains in the Philadelphia region, alongside Genuardi’s and Giunta’s. All three are gone now, having been sold by their recent descendents, many of whom had no desire to continue their families’ businesses anymore. Conglomerates like Safeway, Super Fresh and Giant had bought all the family-owned supermarkets and converted them. The Clemens I once worked at was in Spring House. It had been a Super Fresh store for a few years, but it had been closed along with most of the businesses surrounding it and is now awaiting redevelopment.
I pulled off from Bethlehem Pike and drove through the empty parking lot. I paused for a moment, staring. The old Clemens/Super Fresh building, as gray and nondescript as I remembered it, was boarded up and vacant. The office and retail building across from it was similarly closed off and rotting. I drove into the adjacent lot where Arpeggio’s and Starbucks were still operating and parked my Blazer there. I walked across the lot to where the empty shell of Clemens stood and faced it, silently gazing like one viewing the headstone of a buried body. Fallen leaves and discarded debris skipped across the lot on a gentle breeze, as if blown by soft sighs of departing spirits.
I stood staring at the decaying building for God-knows-how-many moments. In my mind’s eye I saw former coworkers and friends in their pinstriped Clemens aprons scurrying around in their duties or clickety-clacking away at keys on checkout machines, saw Aunt Becky (she was everybody’s “aunt” and, dear God, we all loved her so much) bagging groceries and cheerfully bidding the customers a good day as they paid for their items and departed. I saw Betty in the produce section, her ebony features bright and smiling as she unpacked apples to place in the bins. I saw Pat in the deli as he groused and grumbled while assisting with slicing lunch meats and throwing a sly grin at me as I gazed back through years of memory.
Then, inevitably, I saw her.
Mrs. B, the store manager, tall, pale and dark haired, her onyx eyes fixing intently like a swift-moving predator’s, loped from the shadows like a wraith in a haunted house, wolf-like in manner, her face grinning self-consciously with vapid malevolence. She always dressed in dark clothing. Mrs. B was feared and hated by nearly everyone who worked there at Clemens. I had never before met a pure Machiavellian sociopath like her, a power-crazed tyrant who lived to break and control the spirits of those who were under her employ. I used to be afraid of her. I used to hate her. I worked under Mrs. B for five years before circumstances compelled the company to transfer me to their Whitemarsh store, where things were only slightly better. Now, staring at her ghostly husk of a figure who used fear and intimidation to build herself into a foreboding nemesis, I felt a measure of vindicated disgust.
She smiled at me soullessly, and I looked back. I was smiling, too.
“I beat you,” I whispered to her leering ghost. “You didn’t break me. I survived you, and I know others did, too. No matter how hard you tried to make everybody under you as miserable as you possibly could, your time is over. I don’t care what you’re doing now, whether you’re working somewhere else or not, or you’re divorced and worming your way into someone else’s heart, or you got caught embezzling and serving time in jail now, or you’re sitting alone somewhere, plotting, seething, gnashing your teeth in rage and regret…you didn’t break me. You never could.”
I knew I was talking to an empty building haunted by harmless ghosts, one of whom leered impotently from the shadows. My words meant nothing to the rotting wood and dusted glass of a former place of nightmares. But my words meant everything to me.
“I’m glad you’re gone,” I spat, and walked away. Nothing tried to follow me.
I went into the Starbucks and sat for a few hours, sipping a latte and relaxing, working on my novel. It was a beautiful late summer day outside and the sun blazed harshly through the shaded window, bathing me in thermonuclear warmth. I hadn’t really intended to come to a hated place to exorcise a ghost, but I needed to make sure I was strong enough to confront it after my Anabasis. It had all the satisfaction of visiting a vanquished enemy’s grave. And gloating.
We all need at least one moment like that to remind ourselves why we need to fight.
Today is Labor Day. I have exactly two weeks before I move from Virginia Beach to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I’ll be staying with my mother and stepfather for a short while (hopefully) before finding a place of my own again. I was able to successfully transfer in my job to another location. It’s something I’ve been trying to do for a long time, and my efforts finally bore fruit.
I’ll be going home.
For the first time in eight years, I’ll be able to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with my family. I’ll be there for the birth of my new niece or nephew in October. I will be able to see my nephew, Gabriel, attend kindergarten. My other two nephews, Brendan and Logan, are excited to know that Uncle Andrew is coming home to stay. My brother and sister are, of course, ecstatic. My mother is anxiously counting the days until I’m finally there. I’ll be seeing old friends again, maybe a few I haven’t seen in decades.
I can’t wait. I’ll be home in PA, at the literal end of summer, heading into autumn, my favorite season. I’ll be home in October where the leaves will be bursting into glorious fall colors and the air will take on that peculiar levity which will soon herald crisper temperatures in the evening. The scents of pumpkin and sweet spices will permeate the air, tickling my nostrils. I’ll be at home with my family on my birthday in November as the nights turn colder and the trees grudgingly hold onto their drying leaves as baked turkey and pumpkin pie sit simmering on the family table, enticing. There will be bitter, unrelenting cold beginning in December as snow flurries dance from the sky and the leaves are mostly gone, the trees stripped bare, as the days grow crystalline and the scents of peppermint and gingerbread fill the home. Stockings will be hung and the tree adorned with ornaments commemorating the births of children in the family as we mark the coming of the Savior and await His promised kingdom while heralding the coming new year. Then winter will turn cruel, lashing with its unforgiving tendrils of ice and wind before, with a hateful sigh, retreating as the warmer days begin in April. Then it will be spring, and all the hopes of better days fill the heart as the endless cycle of living in Pennsylvania renews.
I’m raising anchor and preparing to sail back to a familiar harbor. I’ve been away for far too long.
Things will be tough for the first few months, I’m absolutely certain. Maybe even the first year. I’ll be tested. Events may or may not turn out to my liking. I will be depressed. Many enjoyments I take for granted will be gone. I’ll be forced to compromise on many arrangements, even wholly abandon many plans I have. I’ll be completely starting over.
But starting over isn’t giving up. I’m brave enough to face what’s awaiting me. And I’ll be home again.
(Photo courtesy of http://www.reflectionsbyruth.com)
I can honestly say that the last time I experienced something close to an out-of-body experience while watching a movie at the cinema was in 1998, while viewing Saving Private Ryan. While watching Guardians of the Galaxy last weekend, I experienced another one. It doesn’t happen often.
Of course, watching anything in IMAX 3D format with booming Dolby Atmos stereo could make it look and sound pretty good, but to make a great movie, you have to have something a little bit more. James Gunn, the director of Guardians, provided more…and then more. And more. Guardians is a cinematic event, a fully-immersive science fiction/fantasy epic set in Disney’s and Marvel Comics’ Cinematic Universe that will take the viewer to the far reaches of the universe, pulling one along for the ride of a lifetime with some characters who haven’t been this fun or memorable since Luke, Han and Leia. Gunn makes it fast and furious when fast and furious is needed and, with genius timing, slows things down for the heart to catch up and fall in love with a motley crew of spacefaring renegades who find themselves in the middle of a battle that will literally decide the fate of the galaxy.
Give it to Chris Pratt, the star of the show. As Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord, Pratt is dopey slapstick and unbearably, roguishly dashing. He’s a big kid in a cosmic toy store, not wanting to leave when it’s closing time and just smart enough to know where to hide when the employees go home. An orphan, Peter is heartbroken by his mother’s passing from cancer and does what any little boy might do when brutally confronted by such unfair reality: he runs away. As it turns out, Peter runs straight into the tractor beam of an alien starship that suddenly appears above him and is whisked away from Earth, never to return. Pratt plays the adult Peter as a sort of Han Solo/Indiana Jones hybrid hero, sneaking into forbidden temples to steal sacred items and taking on evil (and good) interstellar empires singlehandedly. Of course, he gets caught.
It’s when he’s in jail on the prison planet Kyln that he bonds with four other outcasts: Gamora (Zoe Saldana, who’s damn good), a sexy, green galactic assassin in the employ of the evil Kree fanatic, Ronan (Lee Pace, acting up a storm with an intense Shakespearean bent), the warrior Drax (MMA and WWE champion Dave Bautista, finding ways to exhibit his hilarious literalness and savage cunning), the sentient tree-being Groot (voiced and motion-captured by Vin Diesel), and Rocket, an anthropomorphic raccoon-like hybrid badass voiced by Bradley Cooper. Gamora, Rocket and Groot are in prison by virtue of all three trying to bag Peter for a significant bounty and being convicted of grand scale mayhem on the capital planet, Xandar. Drax wants to destroy Ronan for murdering his family and sees a chance to hurt his enemy by killing Gamora. Fortunately, Peter talks him out of the deed, and, fortunately, Rocket is an escape artist who grudgingly leads a spectacular (and funny-as-hell) breakout from Kyln.
We’re soon taken to Knowhere, a moon on the edge of the known universe formed by the severed head of a Celestial (legendary Marvel creator Jack Kirby’s subtle hints of a larger cosmos ruled by space gods are generously sprinkled throughout the story) where the gang meets the Collector (Benicio del Toro, aping David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust) who reveals that the mysterious sphere that Peter stole near the film’s start contains a powerful Infinity Stone, an ancient artifact that could potentially turn its possessor into a weapon of mass destruction. While haggling over a price for the gem, more trouble ensues as Drax foolishly lures Ronan to Knowhere to engage in a smackdown and the Infinity Stone is in due course swiped by Ronan’s cyborg lackey, Nebula (Karen Gillan, sadly underused) after an epic space battle that blows away the best of George Lucas’s dogfights.
It’s here that the film slows down somewhat to focus more on Peter and his compassion for his newfound friends, as he very nearly sacrifices himself to save Gamora, adrift in vacuum and dying. They’re miraculously saved (not really a deus ex machina, but close) by Peter’s old abductor/employer, Yondu (played with sneering glee by Michael Rooker, who steals almost every scene he’s in). Yondu clearly knows something about the incorrigible man he kidnapped as a child, but it’s a secret that, alas, must wait for the inevitable sequel. Yondu is pure malicious fun as a space smuggler boss who kicks more ass than Jabba the Hutt simply by whistling, and it’s a weapon that you literally have to see to believe. Oh, and Peter and Gamora create sparks. Big ones.
Then Gunn notices that it’s been ten minutes since anything’s exploded and off we go again. It’s a predictable given, in the vein of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, that Star-Lord and his friends form an alliance with Yondu to save the universe from a now-all-powerful Ronan, who, bristling from years of abuse at the hands of his near-omnipotent master, Thanos (Josh Brolin), turns against the Mad Titan and plans to use the Infinity Stone to first obliterate Xandar, then visit some divine retribution on Thanos. This in due course sets up the final battle in the skies above Xandar as the Guardians of the Galaxy wage a desperate battle that echoes all the hallmarks of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Wild Bunch and The Seven Samurai to put Ronan and his merry band of flunkies away once and for all.
It’s all tremendous stuff and, as much fun as I had, I couldn’t help but feel that there was an enormous amount of muscle that Guardians hasn’t used yet, as Disney and Marvel whisk us away from the familiar confines of Earth to show us a universe larger and stranger than the one populated by Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and Thor. The Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that led up to it set a very high bar for establishing a superhero world that interlinked many characters and story lines into a cohesive narrative. Gunn and co-writer Nichole Perlman lift us high above the world of familiar Earthbound heroes into an unfamiliar, parallel setting that very quickly makes it all familiar and completely engrossing in its archetypical depiction of heroes and gods.
The only link between the world of The Avengers and the world of Guardians of the Galaxy is the lurking presence of Thanos, the insane, death-obsessed god created by Jim Starlin (who also created Drax and Gamora) who had a quick cameo in a mid-credits scene in The Avengers. The other main characters, created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Bill Mantlo, Roger Stern, Steve Englehart and Keith Giffen, may be virtually unknown to most moviegoers (the current comic incarnation of Guardians of the Galaxy, which this film is based on, debuted in 2008), but they’re unbearably endearing, forming an ensemble that invokes the jittery, quirky cast of Joss Whedon’s FIrefly. (A thought: did James Gunn really direct this movie? I nearly felt the telltale hand of Whedon guiding performances from behind the camera…) Star-Lord is an Everyman space hero, Gamora is a sexy murder-goddess with a heart of gold, Drax is a Terminator who reaches into his cold, leathery heart to find the soul that he suppressed for so long, Rocket is a Joe Pesci-like grenade of feral volatility and comedy relief, and Groot is…well, he is Groot.
Of all the heroes, Groot immediately became my favorite. He’s a wonderful movie creation, warm and nurturing, yet savage when he needs to defend his friends. From creating luminous, firefly-like bugs to light their way in the dark or enveloping them in a protective cocoon to save them from harm, Groot will steal your heart and Vin Diesel’s minimal expressions of how much he cares for his friends are amazingly accomplished, very sublime. It’s one of the best performances of a CGI-created character I’ve ever seen. Whatever faults that exist in the movie are brilliantly made forgotten by the sage-like grace of Groot.
Despite being a companion piece to the world of The Avengers and other, iconic Marvel Superheroes that Disney has planned for future films, Guardians of the Galaxy solidly delivers with its cosmic scale, witty dialogue and epic flourishes. It’s engineered to help set up a future, larger cinematic story, to be sure (possibly incorporating the Infinity Gauntlet plot), and no doubt the paths of the Guardians will soon cross that of the Avengers. It’s not a movie about The Main Guys. It’s a movie about The Other Guys.
And I wanna see more of The Other Guys.
It’s June 21 today, the summer equinox, the longest day and shortest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. It’s 73° F, cloudy, and threatening to rain. It doesn’t feel like the first day of summer. It’s more akin to late September, the way the air feels heavy with moisture and the sun struggled so mightily to break through the clouds here in coastal Virginia. It will still be bright enough outside to read by 8:00 pm tonight, and the climate will still be pleasant enough to enjoy without resorting to heavier dress. Today certainly hasn’t broken any low temperature records for the first day of summer and will not.
It’s still Summerday.
I always dreaded this day because it’s the beginning and the end of summer. Sure, the days will certainly be hot and oppressive with the humidity here until roughly the first week of October, the way that the season simply refuses to die in Virginia Beach. Somebody once told me that, here, it goes from summer to winter. Not exactly true, of course. But not quite an exxageration, either, depending on who you talk to. Virginia Beach gets all four seasons, although the summers here can be long and tormenting. Today, however, almost feels like it went from summer to fall. It gets like that here, and anybody who’s lived here long enough could tell you that days like today aren’t exactly an aberration. Hyperbole aside, today is typical of the kind of rainy summer weather that occasionally rolls into coastal Virginia. One quickly gets used to it and thanks the jet stream for providing relief from the Iberian heat.
But on this Summerday, it feels different. Today almost feels too forceful a push over the peak into a quick decline toward the shortening of daylight and encroaching supremacy of night. Independence Day and baseball’s All-Star break aren’t until July, but the oncoming rush of the dog days of summer seems somehow too quick, the promises of further fun days in the warm sun and sandy beaches ringing somewhat hollow. The joys of warm summer fun seem fleeting, dancing out of reach as today begins the slow ending of longer sunshine and safety from bitter winter.
I know: I’m getting older. The boyhood joys that I looked forward to from the warmer spring showers of the last days of April until the ripening apples of September recede further into memory, gazing sadly at me from a distant horizon as I feel my footsteps grow heavier, my sinews protesting louder as I briefly pretend I’m still ten again, recalling the joyful memory of dandelions sprouting in the grass, of coming home from school for the final time, when a road of endless boyhood possibilities yawned wide beyond a forest of scholastic drudgery. For three months, as a boy in Pennsylvania, it was fun to be free, to go on fishing trips with my father to Green Lane or Peace Valley, to go with my family to the Jersey shore to play in the warm surf, to ride my bicycle to the comic book store in Abington and sneak down to the creek to hunt for salamanders with Rico and some of the other local boys.
I’m not young anymore and those days are long past. Memories of being a summer youth sparkle wistfully like fireflies in the humid darkness.
But for a time, until Summerday, it’s still more than fifteen hours of sunshine, with a whole day ahead of me to feel like I can be a boy of ten again, to know that it won’t be dark in the baseball stadiums until after seven, and the cool water of the community pool or roaring ocean waves will feel refreshing from the cruel heat. After Summerday, those joys will still be there, but will come at an expense of time that will eventually be borrowed, until they slip away.
Until next summer. Until the next Summerday, when I’m reminded that I should take better care of the spending of my fleeting summer time.
(photo courtesy of http://www.wunderground.com)
I was sitting outside on the patio of the Starbucks I frequent following my work day when the minstrel silently pulled up to the curb on his silver chromed mountain bicycle. He was tall, maybe six feet exactly, but the boots he wore probably added an inch to his frame. The man was of medium build, tanned, and his weathered, leathery features were framed by a long wavy mop of salted brown hair and graying beard. The minstrel’s eyes were deeply set, dark, and glanced around casually as he finished his cigarette and crushed it beneath his heel. His faded black tee shirt clung comfortably to him, familiar to his muscled arms and chest. His flesh was unmarked by tattoos. The blue jeans he wore were faded, frayed, and fit perfectly. His bike was festooned with neoprene zipper bags that hung on over unmoving part. A small towing cart was hitched to the rear of the bike’s frame, loaded with several small zipper pouches. The center bar held a long zipper pouch emblazoned with the logo for Levaquin, an antibacterial medicine. A shiny mahogany Fender acoustic guitar, new-looking, hung tightly strapped to his back as he dismounted the bike and approached the entrance. He didn’t say a word.
I glanced at him, not meeting his gaze, as he walked past the sofa I sat on and went inside. A few minutes later he came back out, holding a small cup of coffee, and silently stepped past me. His eyes looked straight ahead. No smile formed on his mouth. He fiddled with several of his mounted bags and sipped his coffee, then lit another cigarette. He stood silently and calmly gazed around, as if sensing the Earth’s rotation and felt as one with it. Or maybe he was waiting for something. Several moments passed before he finished both his cigarette and coffee. He crushed his smoking end and threw the empty cup in a nearby trashcan. He slowly gazed around once more before securing his gear, tightened the strap on his guitar, and mounted his bike. I watched him silently ride off, receding down Nimmo Parkway until he was out of sight.
I didn’t talk to him. I didn’t ask him what his name was. I had no idea what he does for a living, but I guessed that he was living a transient existence, worked outside mostly, and was in his late forties. The bike and guitar looked new. Perhaps he recently purchased them. Maybe he does have a home somewhere, or lives with somebody. I don’t know. I didn’t bother asking him anything. I was curious, though. He could be bicycling around Virginia Beach as a barroom or coffee shop musician, making a desperate living off the few tips he could collect from people impressed enough by his playing. I wondered if he went into the Starbucks to ask the baristas if he could play for a few hours, for a few dollars, and they politely refused. I don’t know. All I know is that he didn’t ask me if I could spot him some money or sit down opposite me to talk. I wanted to know something about him. But we didn’t talk. Maybe he didn’t want to talk. I would have asked him what kind of music he played, and how long he’d been doing it. I appreciate musicians, especially musical soldiers like him, the kind that Bob Dylan sang about.
But I didn’t. Distrust formed as a coiled viper in my gut, telling me to remain silent. If I offered to talk, he probably would have asked me for money, which I have access to, but I was glad no exchange took place between us. Something in my gut told me not to engage the possibility, lest he turned out to be a beggar. And the way to my heart is by pity. Because I could have been in that situation as well. Except I’m not an artist. I can’t play guitar. I can’t draw or paint. I couldn’t survive in that kind of life. I have a life and mode of existence that are probably so alien to his that he and I would have little common ground.
A wide chasm, unseen, opened in the small distance between the minstrel and I. We live in two completely different worlds. But I may have wanted to know what his world is like. Maybe my fears of strangers are largely unfounded. He was alone, probably lonely. The worst feeling in the world is to feel completely, irrevocably alone. The Levaquin logo on his bike’s center bar could have been a vital clue to what was going on with his health. He could have been ill with something, a chronic illness that requires constant attention. I should have asked him how he was doing. Maybe that’s what he was waiting for before riding off on the bicycle that carried perhaps his entire life.
But I said nothing.
He stoically rode off, to his next destination, wherever that was, alone. I watched him go, and a quiet chill blew into my soul.
Sometimes the widest, insurmountable chasms between two human beings, between two worlds, are only a few feet apart.
We exist in two places
At more than one time
Sharing one moment
Which may come again
But has already been
I know this
Because I was there
We were together
Even though separated
Together and apart
We live as two
And exist as one
And our time apart
Brings us together
I do not understand
Yet I know
Our particles are the same
Across a vast cosmos
Identical in mass
Charge and spin
Like a butterfly’s wings
A nebula’s glory spreads
As a star dies
Another is born
I reach out to you
You reach out to me
And together we sing
Across space and time
A music only we know
For we live as two
And exist as one
(photo courtesy of NASA)
When I was twenty-four, I boarded a jet plane and fled the sinkhole that was the state of Georgia, my estranged parents and my psychotic girlfriend to spend the remainder of summer in Colorado with my Uncle Mike. I hadn’t seen him in nearly a decade and he invited me to stay with him to get my head back together. I really was a mess. We started my therapy with an almost endless supply of Coors beer, beginner’s lessons in martial arts, and a formal introduction to Denver Broncos football. Hey, name any other shrink who would prescribe shit like that to cure his patient of suicidal ideation.
My Uncle Mike, a font of wisdom and insight unparalleled when he was completely sober (which, by the way, was as rare as a Cleveland Browns championship), began an intriguing conversation with me one evening:
“Andrew,” he said, “If you were suddenly confronted by a guy who said he was going to beat you up, would you stand and fight or run? There is no incorrect answer, by the way.”
I didn’t hesitate. “Probably run.”
Again, I answered quickly: “I can’t fight.”
“Wait…what do you mean by that?”
“I just can’t.”
Uncle Mike blinked, then stared for a few seconds. “You wouldn’t even try?”
I shrugged and sipped my beer. “Depends.”
“On whether the other guy knew how to fight.”
Uncle Mike looked incredulous. “But I’ve been teaching you some hapkido and a few other disciplines. You’re not doing too bad.”
I leaned back on his sofa and thought for a minute. “Well, yeah. I appreciate it. Some training is better than no training, I guess.”
“So would you fight if somebody gave you no choice?”
“What if you were trapped or cornered?” Uncle Mike pressed.
I shrugged. “I’d probably let him beat me up or kill me then.”
Uncle Mike stared in disbelief. “Seriously?”
“You’re going to sit there and tell me that you would just let somebody kill you?” he exploded. The apartment building he lived in sat high on a hill and he left the door open like he usually did to let in that pristine Colorado mountain air. Anybody outside would have heard him. Which they probably often did, when he got sufficiently loaded. He was already famous in the town of Steamboat Springs for his bouncing checks.
“Preferably not,” I conceded. “But I thought there were no right or wrong answers.”
“The question was would you fight or run if challenged?”
“Okay, then, I’d run.”
He shook his head. “But what if you couldn’t?”
I spread my arms out in frustration. “Then I’d let him beat the shit out of me until he walked away. Roll up into a ball. Something. I don’t know.”
“You wouldn’t fight at all?”
“Uncle Mike, the guy who’d want to beat me up would probably possess more fighting ability than me. The fight would be over in seconds.”
“You’re missing the point!” Uncle Mike yelled. It was his favorite phrase, especially when debating with me. I often didn’t see his point, therefore I often missed it entirely. He stepped away from the breakfast counter he’d been leaning on and stood a few feet away from me, his eyes wild. “You either fight…or run. If you can’t run, you fight. There is absolutely no other recourse. You cannot just stand there and let somebody kill you, dammit!”
I finished my beer and set it on the coffee table among all the other dead soldiers he and I had spent. There was more than a platoon of them standing there like silent glass tombstones, mournfully awaiting the resurrection at the recycling plant. I was buzzed and he was well on his way to brown bag mode. The conversation was going nowhere as far as I was concerned, but I knew he wouldn’t let up until he’d made his point in ninety different ways on Sunday. Winning an argument with Uncle Mike was nearly impossible. He always had to prove somebody wrong.
But he was going to lose this one. He wouldn’t see it coming.
“Uncle Mike,” I began, “You’ve known me for a long time. Do you know how many real fights I’ve been in?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. How many?”
“Two,” I replied, thinking about them. The sensation of a bee stinging me and embedding its stinger deeply within my flesh without the ability to pull it out formed in the back of my brain. The first was a real knockdown fight with Danny Gower when I was nine. He was studying karate. And he beat the shit out of me. The second was recent and began as a sparring match, but it quickly escalated to a real tae kwon do exhibition by my roommate. And I was the sparring dummy. I was still nursing the bruises on my thigh and chest.
I stared at the empty bottles on the coffee table and an image of a cartoon character came to my mind: Caspar Milquetoast, the star of a strip called The Timid Soul. I came across Milquetoast when I was researching twentieth century cartoon culture for an art history project at Temple University. He was a weak-willed, frightened worm of a person. When he shot a hole-in-one while golfing and nobody was watching, he didn’t tell anybody because he was sure nobody would have believed him. He had no courage, no strength of personality, like he was milk toast. Hence, his name. He skulked on the margins of society, hiding off the radar because he was weak and he knew it. He represented a psychological stereotype, that, sadly, isn’t unreal.
I was drawn to Milquetoast because he and I are so much alike. I have always been timid like him. Part of my diffidence stems from my stutter, which I have suffered since I was born. Get me anxious, just a tiny bit, and I’ll begin stammering and blocking, spittle forming on my lips, because I can’t form words correctly. Then I’ll begin shuddering in shame and humiliation when the laughing and taunts begin. The derision, starting in early childhood, is like a hot branding iron scarring the gray matter of my brain. It never goes away. Then there was the constant moving around with my family, from one state to another, one city to another, never forming a solid foundation for my upbringing, providing no firm stability. Add to that my already unstable psyche, exacerbated by my stuttering, igniting depression like a lit match being thrown on a lake of gasoline.
I’m a very unhappy, flaccid person. Hardly anything motivates me to win, much less fight, because I can’t be unmade. I am what I am. So if I don’t strive for anything or fight for my dignity…don’t assume that I really have a choice.
I shook away Milquetoast’s woebegone image and said, “I lost both because I made the mistake of thinking that I could fight. There’s more to winning a fight than training in martial arts or boxing, you know. You have to have motivation, stamina and good hand-eye coordination. I have none of those. All the training in the world isn’t going to help me win a fight against a dedicated opponent. So I’d either run…or stand there and accept my fate if I couldn’t run. Fighting would be useless for me.”
Outrage lit his face. “You know, if every Jew in 1938 thought the way you do, there would be fewer Jews alive today. The Nazis got only about six million of them. Can you imagine how many they would have killed if none of them fought back? Not all of them ran, dammit! For Christ’s sake, even if Bruce Lee wanted to beat you to a pulp, you wouldn’t just stand there and let him do it willingly!”
I laughed and said, “If Bruce Lee told you he was going to shit on your chest, the only realistic thing you could do is ask him what brand of toilet paper he likes. And pray he didn’t have diarrhea.”
Uncle Mike stared like somebody watching a man drown from afar, unable to do anything to save him. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “So…you wouldn’t even try. You’d give up.” It was more a statement than a question.
I grimaced and said, “I wouldn’t be giving up anything because I’ve got nothing to begin with.”
He sauntered back to the breakfast counter and propped his elbows on the surface, holding his head in his hands. “You…wouldn’t even…try…” he moaned. He lifted his face up and looked at me with drunken, sad love. His eyes were bloodshot with despair. “You know…this is going to follow you for the rest of your life,” he said with hollow sadness.
I considered. “Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
“I’m just trying to help you,” he said. He actually sounded completely sober as he said, “I don’t know that I ever saw you fight for anything, Andrew. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Yes,” I replied quietly. “It does.”
Maybe the fact that it bothers me means I’m not beyond hope. I want to be remade. Because milk toast is only good for being thrown in the trash. Who eats that crap, anyway?