Sweet succulent bitterness
Dark chocolate lava flowing
Enticing with pungent desire
Candy looks sweet to devour
Glossy with sugary delight
Bursting with gummy fruit
Juicy with overwhelming joy
Tempting from behind glass
You’re willing to pay the price
For opening the bag
Of sweet goodness you bought
Not knowing why you want it
You just know that
You like what you see
And what you see is what you’ll get
And all you get is pain
From candy that is sweet and toxic
Wanting more but also knowing
It rips from the inside
Like a scorpion stinging the frog
Taking it upon its back across the river
Because that is its nature
Both drowning and knowing
That the risk was not worth it
Like the frog you knew better
Than to accept the proposal
But you were enticed by sweet images
Of candy behind glass
Never meant to be eaten
Because the hurt the candy will bring
Is too painful to stomach
For the sweetness will bring death
Because it knows nothing else
And begs to be eaten
I had a nightmare early this morning. I dreamed that I was working for Clemens Markets again and I was the only employee working behind the deli counter, like I did on several occasions. This nasty old lady came up to the counter and began screaming at me to shave her a pound of pastrami. I asked her to quit screaming and she screamed that she was entitled to scream at me because I somehow fucked up her previous order. I told her to quit screaming or I’ll call the manager over. She screamed to have one come and fire me.
My manager showed up and oh dear God it was Mrs. B. She told me to shave the nasty old screaming lady a pound of Dietz and Watson pastrami and then meet her up in her office. I sighed, reached into the case, opened a new package of pastrami, shaved it on the slicer, which took about fifteen minutes, and weighed it. Mrs. B was watching me closely the whole time. The nasty old lady screamed that it didn’t look shaved and demanded that I do it all over again.
I picked up the shaved pile of pastrami and threw it past the nasty old lady’s head, where it scattered all over the supermarket floor like shredded guts. Or like wild animal shit.
Mrs. B told me to clean it up.
I told her to go to hell.
Mrs. B told me I was fired.
The nasty old lady screamed that her pastrami was all over the floor. I flung my soiled work apron at her, told her to shut up, and walked out of the store into bright sunshine. Then I awoke.
Actually, that may not have been a nightmare after all. It ended like a sweet dream.
I suppose, in the end, I have to thank the accident.
I’d been living in Pennsylvania for about a month when I saw the thing suddenly appear in the darkness on Route 313, just outside Quakertown. I was on my way home from visiting my parents after working in the Northeast area and I was exhausted. I had dinner with them and my mother saw how beat I was. She said maybe I should stay overnight. It was late October and night was lowering its curtain early. I shrugged. It was after seven and the sun was a dimming pink memory on the horizon. I told her I’d be okay to drive. I kissed her and my stepdad goodnight, got in my fifteen-year-old Chevrolet Blazer, which I’d affectionately nicknamed “The Heap,” and pulled onto the winding rural backroads of Bucks County to drive to my apartment.
Leaves were everywhere, blanketing the road like damp, terra cotta gelatin. I love autumn. It’s my favorite season. In eastern Pennsylvania, it seems too brief as winter is almost always swift to approach behind the doorway of November, but for a couple of weeks the trees erupt in blazing hues of gold, sienna and burgundy, the air is pleasantly crisp, and pumpkins sit on front porches. I took the curving roads carefully, mindful of the leaves turning treacherous like black ice. A single overcorrection could prove fatal.
I made it out of the winding back roads safely and turned onto the main road, Route 611, yawning. Bored. It had been a long, grinding day. Driving to the Northeast and back is always traumatic with the endless, clogging traffic. I was almost home when the accident occurred.
I first saw it as a dark, oddly-loping shape suddenly materializing directly in the path of the Heap, and I yelled, “Shit!” My foot pressed hard on the brake, pretty much standing on it. My tires screeched. The thing, whatever it was, kept moving, and I watched in horror in that strange, slow-motion effect as time dilates proportionately with human sensory intake as the animal, omigod, yes, it was an animal, its eyes finally turning to register what was bearing down on it, positioned itself right in front of me, almost pressed against the windshield, and the front end of the Heap plowed into its flank.
There was a sickening thump! as the Heap struck it and I felt myself pitch forward from the sudden deceleration. My airbag did not deploy, thank God. Those things are designed to kill you, not save you. The animal abruptly disappeared from view and for a moment of revulsion I thought it was trapped under the vehicle. Oh, great, I thought. Instant venison. The Heap came to a complete stop and I sat there for a moment, gasping. Numb. I pulled the Heap to the side of the road, left the engine running, and got out to inspect the damage.
I felt okay. No pain. I walked around to the front of the vehicle and swore. The grill had been completely smashed, half of it hanging loosely at an angle. The left headlight glass was shattered but the bulb was still lit. The left front blinker was partially smashed and hanging from its cable like a strung-up carcass. The chrome Chevy bowtie logo was completely gone. Cars and trucks whooshed by, not stopping to see if anybody was hurt. I could hear their tires crunching over scattered glass and plastic debris from the Heap. I took out my smartphone and took a few quick photos of the damage to the front end before I happened to look up and gaze at the other side of the road. And I saw it.
The animal lay on its side, facing away from me. Its brown hair seemed to ripple as it struggled to sit up and its slender head turned to look at me. It was a female deer. A doe. It stared at me briefly with black, vacant eyes and I stared back. Then it rolled over, managed to stand up, wobbling, and by its jerky movements I knew that it suffered broken bones and other internal injuries. Deer are common like rats in Pennsylvania, mindless, oversized vermin. They’re not predators, and with the disappearance of wolves, bears and other large animals with teeth from the region, their only natural enemies are people. People driving cars.
“Bitch!” I yelled like a lunatic, furiously shaking my fist at it. “You wrecked my car!” I gazed at it in contempt. The doe shook its head, glared back at me with those coal-black eyes as if saying Fuck you and abruptly disappeared into the darkness. I angrily cursed again, then sighed. I got back into the wounded Heap and carefully pulled back onto the road, listening. The vehicle didn’t sound damaged, but I went slowly, driving about a quarter mile up the road until I pulled into a middle school’s parking lot, under the harsh light of a street lamp.
I swore again. The deer left a cute little turd on my fender when I hit it. Shit upon impact. Insult successfully attached to injury. I took more photos and stood staring at the damage for a few minutes. Coalescing.
I’d been in worse vehicle accidents. Remind me to tell you about the metal sandwich I found myself in nearly twenty years ago on Bethlehem Pike and how some Montgomeryville cops can be a bunch of assholes. Very entertaining. But this was the first I’d had since that gem. Kinda fitting, I thought, that my return to Pee-yay should include a congratulatory welcome by the local wildlife committee. I was still shaking when I called Allstate to report that, yes, the Great Golden, collector of the Safe Driving Bonus for ten straight years, triumphantly returned from exile, got himself a roadkill trophy. I had to redial three times because my fingers were trembling.
“Hi,” I greeted the agent who picked up. “I just had an auto accident.” I gave him my insurance number off the Allstate card I carried in my wallet. I made sure to transfer my coverage as soon as I signed the lease on my new apartment in upper Bucks County. The act almost made me feel like a PA resident again.
“Mr. Golden, are you or any passengers hurt?” the agent, whose name I forgot, asked courteously.
“No, I’m okay. I was alone and no other vehicles were involved. And I’m not drunk.”
“That’s good,” the agent said, sounding relieved. “Did you call the police?”
“No. Should I?”
“Not really. If there were no other vehicles involved, there’s no need.”
“Good,” I said, exhaling. “I don’t like to get them involved. I don’t want to get shot.”
“Ha. What kind of accident did you have?”
“I hit a deer.”
“Did you get the deer’s insurance info?”
Despite my anger, I let out a prolonged laugh that made most of the tension vanish. Oh wow. I actually had a comedian on the phone. Radiant. I grinned hard enough to make the muscles in my face hurt. “Uh, no,” I fumbled. “I didn’t. It ran off right after I hit it.”
“Tough buck,” the agent remarked. I didn’t have the strength to correct him regarding the animal’s gender. The agent said, “Let’s get your claim started, then. How badly damaged is your vehicle?”
“It’s drivable, but the front end is smashed up. Grill is shattered and left headlight and blinker are smashed up pretty good. Definitely won’t pass inspection.” My words hung in the air like frost. The Heap probably wasn’t going to pass PA’s draconian vehicle standards even before this. I flung my gaze at the battered sport utility vehicle I’d depended on for over eleven years as my personal transportation with a gloomy sense of departure.
I bought it used from a Chevy dealership in MontCo and, from the start, it was damn near a lemon. Pretty much every year I had it, the thing took a GM-sized shit. First the coolant system broke down. Then the muffler needed to be replaced. The alternator and battery left me stranded in Plymouth Meeting one night. The fuel pump disintegrated, and the starter relay quit soon after that. I later found out the Pittman arm needed to be replaced, as well as my front axel ball joints. Then, finally, like a harbinger of doom, the transmission began slipping badly earlier this year, before I seriously contemplated moving back home from Virginia.
It had never occurred to me before that crisp October night that I might have to let it go soon. I thought, Maybe you came home to retire, you lovable piece of shit. Or die.
“Is your Blazer still registered to Virginia?” the agent suddenly asked me. My belly grew cold at the question.
“Yeah,” I said. “I was going to get it registered here in Pennsylvania soon. Is that gonna be an issue?”
“No problem with that, Mr. Golden. Just checking. Here’s what we need to do…”
The agent gave me several locations to take the Heap for damage appraisal by a licensed adjuster and as he spoke, I gazed down at my Virginia driver’s license, at a pasty white face smirking into a camera seven years ago. The cheeks were bonier then, the jawline pronounced from losing about ten pounds, weight that had been put back on and added to in the ensuing years. The gray-green eyes were impish, the dark eyebrows threatening to arch in irreverent humor.
I became supremely aware, in that moment, that I was an illegal alien in my homeland, my feet feeling foreign on soil that harbored my birth, my lungs drawing air that somehow seemed borrowed. I’d come home, was with family again after being away nearly a decade, but I wasn’t a Pennsylvanian yet. I was still a Virginian, with no intention of ever returning to Virginia. I had every intention of registering the Heap and transferring my license, but until then, I was practically driving around PA illegally. The knowledge hit like a cold hand across my cheek. A million wasps stinging.
The grip of necessity tightened.
* * *
Attaining a driver’s license in these United States is a rite of passage for nearly every American teenager around the time they enter their sophomore year of high school. Oftentimes it can be a slow, painful process of learning driving laws in his or her state, taking the visual test at the local Department of Motor Vehicles center, then attempting the road course. And scaring the crap out of parents everywhere.
Success grants entry to Elysium, that special place of triumph befitting those whom determination withstood the test of pressure. Most high schools offer a driver’s education curriculum, which can definitely aid in getting a license to operate a motor vehicle. A high schooler, even without a car, can gain entry to coolness on campus with a glossy, state-issued card granting him or her the privilege to harness the power of the internal combustion engine to whisk them along America’s roads nearly at will, anticipating the feeling of the wind rushing in from an open window, waving at the bus riders and walkers.
Failure grants descent into Hades. Existence can be reduced to wearing out the soles of shoes pounding the concrete on sidewalks to get everywhere within reasonable walking distance, bumming rides off drivers, or waiting over an hour for Mom or Dad or Other Family Member to pick you up. There’s also a strange stigma with failing the road test that only high school can generate. It’s uncool. In the absurd car culture that exists in this country’s youth it’s very easy to feel like a parasite or worse. Then there’s the painful sting of rejection, of exclusion from the elite of campus society. Bitterness. It’s especially bad in affluent areas like the one my school was in, where outsiders were shunned. And I was an outsider who couldn’t drive.
Getting my license was excruciating. I tried about five times before succeeding when I turned nineteen. I tried twice in South Carolina, where I lived until I was sixteen, succeeding only in retaining my learner’s permit both times. And the instructor on the road test was a nasty lady who asked me if I was stupid on the second try. Ah, southern hospitality. I told her to fuck off, which damn near put me in handcuffs before my parents frantically intervened. I didn’t make another attempt there.
After my family and I moved back to Pennsylvania, I tried the road test once during high school, failing when I tried parallel parking. I didn’t try again until community college. That time I failed when I forgot to look over my shoulder when backing up. I finally succeeded on my fifth try shortly before transferring to Temple University, making sure I looked like a lunatic wrenching my head around in every direction as I navigated the course. The instructor dispassionately passed me, not even looking at my performance. (Jesus. Why couldn’t I have gotten that guy the first time?)
I should have been wearing an idiot grin when I was handed my temporary PA license, but the euphoria of success was diluted by a heavy, overwhelming curtain of relief descending across the light. Getting that goddamn thing took serious effort that I don’t care to ever put in again. I was always glad to transfer it from state-to-state, wherever I moved, whether the stay was temporary or not. It was always my way of saying to that nasty, condescending South Carolina DMV instructor, “Screw you, loser. I beat you.” I’d smile and all the bitterness of years past would fade.
I can’t pin down exactly what made me procrastinate so long to get my PA license after moving back there, but I know a lot of my delaying was dragged down by fear. A lot of it was completely irrational, but my biggest dread was having to take the road test again. I wasn’t sure if former Pennsylvania residents returning to the state would have to go through that. I checked the DMV website and there wasn’t any mention of any testing requirements for returning residents. But the dread wouldn’t go away.
I was extremely nervous when I walked into the DMV office in Dublin one cold November day before work. I had to pick up my mother from her house and take her to work because one of her tires suddenly went flat, and, while driving north from North Wales, I found myself suddenly wrenching the wheel to go up Route 463, toward eastern Bucks County. The Heap ran like it always did. I’d taped up what remained of the grill cover and re-set the left blinker in its place, then put transparent packing tape over the broken glass covering the headlight to prevent debris and rain from getting into it. I’d taken the Heap to the adjuster the day before to have the damage inspected and Allstate issued me a check to cover the repair estimate. I was skeptical of the amount written for me. It seemed way too low.
When I walked into the Dublin DMV, I was astonished by how empty it was. Most DMV offices have a line stretching to the door and are always noisy with activity. This one was unnaturally silent. They called my name right away after I registered. I felt a sharp chill creep down my vertebrae when I sat before the employee, a short, bearded man with weary eyes. He took my paperwork and shuffled through them.
“You’re coming back to PA?” he suddenly asked. His weary eyes narrowed in odd curiosity. Suspicion.
“Yeah,” I replied. I shifted nervously. “I was away for a long time.”
“Do you have any warrants outstanding from the state of Virginia?”
He made copies of my former license, Social Security card and apartment lease, then without looking at me, said, “Visual test now. Look through the viewer next to you and read me line twenty, please.”
I pressed my face against the viewer and winced. Dread coursed through me. I don’t wear glasses, but I began noticing that I have some myopia, probably from being diabetic, or I inherited it. Or both. Either way, I had a little trouble reading the letters on line twenty. I read aloud what I thought I saw and pulled away from the viewer. He wrote something without speaking a word and handed me back my documents. He then handed me a registration form and said, “Take a seat and take this over to the other desk when they call you.”
I looked at the form. In the section describing my visual test results, he wrote: 20/40. I gritted my teeth and muttered, “Bullshit.” But it was apparently enough to satisfy PA’s driving requirements. I sighed in relief and waited for my name to be called for my photo to be taken. It’s a weird fact that the DMV, no matter what state you reside in, almost always takes the worst possible photo for your license. But I felt vindication ripple through me like a tremor when the photo was taken. It was awful, as I knew it would be when I saw the result, but I didn’t care.
When the photographer handed me my laminated temporary driver’s license (they mail you the official one later after they check to make sure you’re not committing fraud by getting a duplicate license under a false identity), I leaped from my seat and danced a little jig as I left the office. I think I even said, “Shit, yeah,” and had an idiot grin on my face. Just like I should have had all those years ago.
The realization finally struck me as I gazed at that awful photo of me on the temporary license: I was officially a Pennsylvanian again.
The ground beneath my feet didn’t feel foreign anymore. I was finally home.
* * *
I bade the Heap farewell a couple of weeks later. To be honest, I didn’t really want to get rid of it. We’d been through so much and went on so many adventures, the vehicle and I, and it was a part of me as much as a lot of me was a part of it. No matter how much I groused and cursed it for breaking down on me, sometimes at the worst possible times, I developed a grudging affection for it. I loved the four-wheel drive and the extra trunk space. Sure, it got only about ten miles to the gallon, but it had the extra torque if I needed it, despite the fact that the need to use it to pull a tree stump out of the ground thankfully never arose.
I think the little voice compelling me to get rid of the Heap began whispering to me the moment I looked at its shattered front end that late October night, right before the injured deer flitted into the darkness. Staring at the wounded Heap, remembering nearly every moment spent driving it, all the repairs I paid for to keep it running, the places I went in it, I felt a descending loss. The “service engine soon” light glowed on the dashboard almost constantly, and I always grimaced when I saw it. The digital odometer never lit up anymore, but I knew there was over 130,000 miles on it. The transmission, temporarily fixed by topping off its fluid before leaving Virginia, was beginning to exhibit signs of slipping again and I knew that the Heap was living on borrowed time. Very borrowed time.
The whispering voice grew louder when I took the Heap to Faulkner Collision to get it repaired. I had made an arrangement to get a rental car and Enterprise Rental assigned a Hyundai for me. The weird thrill I felt driving the compact import around town for the next couple of days while Faulkner worked on the Heap felt like a strange betrayal. My loyalty suddenly shifted away from the very first piece of personal property I ever paid for and owned outright. Indeed, the day I received the title for the Chevrolet Blazer I’d spent five years paying off was a joyous day. I finally owned something free and clear.
But I knew beyond a shadow of pure instinct that the Heap was done. I knew it wasn’t going to pass inspection and the work needed to bring it up to Pennsylvania’s harsh emissions standards would be expensive. And after the repair work was done, I’d have next year’s problems, following winter, to look forward to…
I began looking online for a new car. My sister and her husband endorsed Honda enthusiastically, although I was beginning to grow fond of the Hyundai I was renting. But I read about Honda’s reliability record and commitment to quality, and I decided to check out what the Honda dealership in Montgomeryville had in stock. I met a salesman named Bill there, and he showed me a couple of certified used Civics. I was immediately smitten.
I was used to driving around a slightly larger sport utility vehicle, and the Civic is certainly a smaller car with a smaller engine, but I felt no hesitation in downsizing. I test drove a blue 2012 Civic with Bill that had lower mileage than the other one he showed me, immediately liking the lower angle of turning and sharper handling. Bill talked about the fuel economy and the infrequency of visiting the gasoline pump. My heart was pounding when we returned to the dealership and Bill went over Honda’s certified car program as well as the protection plans they offered. He was speaking about the service program and I interrupted him.
“I’m going to do it,” I heard myself say. My voice sounded like someone else’s.
Faulkner called me the next day to tell me that the Heap was ready and I collected it in the morning before work. The collision center did a good job on it. I dropped off the Hyundai and smiled when I saw the contrast between the old and new parts on the Heap’s front and shook my head. One side looked shiny and new, the other grungy and grayer. Ridiculous. I felt the familiar discomfort of the seat as I slid behind the wheel and drove to work, smiling bitterly. I knew the end was coming. The Virginia plate registration was expiring in three days, and I knew I would be driving illegally after the first of December.
I knew I had to make a decision quickly. My mind was tilting back and forth between buying a new car or getting the Heap serviced. A strange sensation of a huge hand clutching at me, pulling me down, nearly made me vomit. I’m never one to make a decision quickly. Ask my mother. They had to literally pull me out of the womb.
The next night, driving home from Thanksgiving dinner at my mother’s house, I glanced at my rear view mirror at the vehicle that had emerged onto the road behind me. It was a police cruiser. Shit. My breathing felt suspended in cryogenic air as I drove, glancing back and forth between the road ahead and the cop behind me. The police car maintained a respectable distance. I knew the officer had to be looking at my almost-expired plate and maybe thinking about making a stop. I had no real excuse for waiting so long to register the Heap and if I was indeed stopped, the best I could hope for was the cop issuing me a warning.
I missed the turn off for my street, being so nervous. The cop followed me all the way to the main boulevard and I turned left as soon as the light was green. The police cruiser didn’t follow. No red and blue lights flashed. I finally let my breath loose. I’d been holding it for nearly a mile.
When I got back to my apartment, I sat in the Heap for a little, in the cold, my hands gripping the wheel, thinking and not thinking. My decision was waiting behind an unseen door. I could not bring myself to grip the handle. I exited the Heap and numbly went into my place. I immediately went to bed, feeling a familiar dread. I dreaded letting go.
But I already let go of so much, jettisoning many burdens and sweating out many toxins. I let go of my failing marriage, left Virginia, transferred in my job (finally, after many attempts), and came home. I was afraid to do it, sure, but my family helped me with the transition. And the thrill of coming back to what I had always called home drowned away many of my fears. But the one that kept gnawing at me, always threatening to detonate when I couldn’t afford to let it, was the Heap.
I awoke the next morning and decided to let it go. It was time. I drove back to the Honda dealership after work the following Monday and met Bill again. I traded in the Heap, getting $800.00 for it, less than what I wanted but more than what I expected. I chose the blue Civic and felt the odd grip on me loosen as I secured a low finance rate. Bill and the loan officer, a pallid, wheezy guy named Sean, helped me complete the paperwork and request a registration transfer to PA. I know that I’m seriously in debt now, but it’s a pain that I can deal with.
I ran back out to the Heap before they took possession of it and cleaned out all my belongings. I felt great. I felt no fear. I felt no regret. I didn’t talk to it, reassuring it. That would’ve been creepy.
The grip slackened more as I drove home that night, in a cold, steady rain, feeling a huge weight ease off my back. I gunned the engine and grinned as my new car effortlessly made it up the hill that rolled like a sloping wall past the Perksasie exit. Most of my fears were gone. All the dread and uncertainty since the accident quickly faded, and it was then that I realized that blessings come in all kinds of disguises. I needed that catalyst to get moving.
I still felt that tiny grip from an unseen hand, and I realized that it was simply the knowledge that Pennsylvania has me again, locked-up-solid got me, like a granite parent unwilling to let a prodigal son run away again.
But it’s so good to be home again. For better or worse.
Put on the greasepaint to cover your face
The one that only you know so well
Trace the red gloss from your lips to curl up
Making a merry face that will never frown
Because you live to make people happy
Their laughing the food your soul craves
Yet you cannot taste the joy you provoke
Your clown face is thickly caked to hide
The channels of sadness your tears carve
In flesh that is all scars in the light of day
The night is your time when you shine
Like a star burning brightly in the dark
The stage cannot hold your explosion
As you erupt like a hilarious supernova
The giggles sparkle like scattered diamonds
Across a landscape of jagged rocks
You stumble over while making your way
To an exit that you desperately seek
Attempting to escape haunting derision
That you hear inside your head
Mocking you at every turn
Escape isn’t possible
And the torment is intolerable
Because everyone can laugh except you
When you’re alone and in the dark
You think everyone else is in on the joke
And it seems the joke is on you
Irony and misery form the noose
That embraces your neck like lost love
Forever unrequited and always fleeting
So you leave the stage and the lights
And the audience leaves in shock
For who can say anything at all
Once the laughter dies and all is quiet
In the end nobody could ever know
While you could make the whole world laugh
And make unsmiling faces break into mirth
You could never make yourself feel that joy
Which you gladly made the whole world feel
And we are gripped by the sadness of knowing
That you were crying beneath your clown face
(For Robin Williams)
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)