One Christmas I Dined Alone
by David Lambert
A month before Christmas ’76 I hired on as a writer for a small newspaper in Burien WA, 20 miles south of Seattle. Back then Burien was a slow-life bedroom community that fed the newly awakening Seattle metro. I was a reporter with flair for soft news, features — and I was the new guy from The South. My editor was Ed Penhale, a skinny guy with Woody Allen lips and a scraggly beard. Penhale was a Live Free or Die New Hampshirean with a big heart and a quick laugh. I enjoyed working with him and he was a very competent editor.
And editor Penhale, God love him, was a music freak—a progressive post hippy brainiac from the Woodstock era who still clung to the best of the flower power ethos. He’d been given a set of tickets for dinner and a performance at Seattle’s old Pioneer Bank, a 19-century architectural relic that had survived both fire and quake. The building sat amid the concrete tats of other times in the Northwest. Downtown Seattle — cool place if you like architecture and history. I did and I do.
Penhale knew I’d be alone that Christmas. New to Northwest and new to my job, I’d had little time to make new friends, and the ones I’d begun to regard kindly were leaving for home and holiday. So before he took wing, Penhale gave me those tickets for a Christmas Eve repast — drinks, dinner and a ticket to see jazz violinist Joe Venuti downstairs at the Pioneer Bank. This, by the way, compliments of the news edit desk.
Early Christmas Eve 1976 I dressed in my only coat, a worn and drafty woollie, and drove deep into Seattle, deep into the cold and hilly downtown, which like me, wore its old and only Christmas finery. This was the year I’d eat Christmas dinner alone.
Pioneer Square was alive with last minute shoppers, and there were plenty of revelers, so I was alone but not lonely. I sat down to a near-Authurian repast, lamb with mint and a pear chutney, golden roasted birds with golden roasted vegetables, great slabs of juicy beef that leapt from the carver’s knife, and oyster dressings and tangy white cheeses and hard crust breads and fruits of all roundness and flavor, all of which I doused with bricky, rich red wine.
And the desserts, my God, the pie crusts alone were art — rhubarb, mince, apple and cherry and pear. But I tasted none of these because my heart was set on one dessert only, a simpler prize — bread pudding.
Is bread pudding not the most democratic of desserts? A sumptuous aggregate of throw-aways and have-arounds — stale homemade bread, raisins, milk, and cinnamon — covered with a buttery sugar and bourbon sauce. Only this dessert seemed reasonable after the lordly meal at which I’d just spent hours.
Pioneer bank was dressed in lush Christmas tones, fat golden bows and ribbons of scarlets and forest greens. The staff had done the old girl up. Still, regaled or not, most diners abandoned the place after their feast and before the music started.
Around 11 p.m., with a swollen belt line and a body on the verge of revolt, I pushed away from the rich coffees and post-dinner brandy and walked downstairs to the little show venue, not much more than 50 seats and a stage. I heard Joe Venuti’s twirly, rollicking jazz violin before I could see the group. He was on stage with two sidemen, a pianist and a stand-up bass player.
The band was in mid-song and it was very dark so I grabbed a quick seat in the rear. The song finished and the stage lights perked up to show that I was the only body in the audience. It was me and the band.
Venuti looked at me and said ‘Merry Christmas, you by yourself?” I said yeah. “Like jazz?” he said. I said yes sir. “Come on up if you want.” I did, moved myself to the front row.
I stayed for two sets. I bought the room a round of drinks, but the band were pros, which means they politely tasted their drinks then set them aside. It was Christmas, what the hell. They were on the road and I was away from home and I was just tanked enough to not be intimated. . .much. I figured they knew I couldn’t play by the way I talked. If I had been any kind of player, they might have had me sit in.
At midnight the band came back from a break and Venuti had the house bring out a bottle of champagne. We toasted Christmas 1976. The band cranked up for another set. I stayed for a final drink and in between songs, I bid my farewell. I told Joe Venuti this was maybe my most memorable Christmas and I thanked them for their kindness and friendliness. Now when I think back over my many holiday seasons, I think maybe what I told Joe Venuti and band was right: 1976, the Christmas I dined alone.
Our Dance in the DDT
by David Lambert
In the 50s all the boys in our neighborhood emerged from the womb in the same year, or so it seemed. Our fathers grew to adulthood in the strange and distant theatres of the War. They came home en masse and mounted our mothers en masse and voila, the many were born. And our mothers? They were poorly equipped to deal with soul-sick husbands and a mounting number mouths at every meal. Many found satisfaction in or solace from scotch or Psalms, sometimes both.
Television was newly on the scene, but it remained an oddity in our neighborhood, a luxury as long as the family had only one car. In the evenings our parents listened to radio and sipped at cocktails behind open jalousie windows. And every window was open. The more wealthy or less pragmatic enjoyed the new technology of air conditioning, which mitigated the sweat of summer and made suburbia in the South a coming quick future.
But we children knew none of that. This newly turned clod of dirt was our shiny suburbia and it offered lots of kids our own age to play with. Getting enough gloves for a sand-lot ball game was a breeze. Age segregation came to us later in our young lives.
In the evenings we kids entertained ourselves by assembling quick to run behind the DDT trucks which came grumbling down our black tar roads, those still soft from the summer sun. The spray trucks came most evenings of the late spring and summer. When they did we were bug free and happy, and there was no worry of what might come from our dance in the DDT.
At the dinner table our ears strained for the low rumble of the fat barreled spray trucks and we abandoned our forks at the first chance. The trucks spewed a blanketing white fog, surprisingly deleterious we later found. They progressed so slowly that even the most rump-sprung among us could keep pace.
Our parents, fresh from the war, but more freshly from work and worry, ignored and even encouraged our games behind the truck. Most dangerous was a game called Headlight. We boys would hide in the bushes along the side of the road, obscured by the DDT fog, then dart across the street through a car’s headlights. The brighter the illumination, the better the run, but also the closer the car. Winners, chosen each night, were expected to defend their title the next evening.
The game was dangerous, but the milieu was more so. Here’s a poem recent from me brain:
We danced in the darking,
white fog and red taillights,
a high-beam team tag
in a killing veil mist
with no known half-life
Innocents or innocence?
God and our parents were unclear.
Cocktails for two, m’dear?
© 2009 DL
Feather Found on Wood Walk
©2013 by David Lambert
Here my love
a tiny feather
a bird gift just for you
Placed just here,
just so, just now,
just right to catch my eye.
Did some alliance of bird and breeze,
some luck of chance and gravity,
lay this tiny wisp of wing
this fluff of fledgling flight
for me to find this early day
and carry straight to you
Or is there somewhere
in the scripting of our days
a hasty scribble,
a margin note,
an author’s jot that says
He finds the feather
and picks it up
then he walks to her across the stage
and places it in her hand.
by David Lambert
He sits hard at the edge of the sea, exhausted and voiceless. Adrenaline pulses through him and his head throbs. His wife hovers near. It is his wife they talk to.
Colors whoosh red and black behind his eyes, and little things, silvery white, float through his field of vision. Around him, commotion, foot falls, shuffling sand. . .and bodies moving, but he hears none of it, only the thud of blood pulsing through his brain and the muffled voices of his two young sons somewhere behind him.
And the headache, the headache. An offer of water comes, a towel, some ice?
The long sun rests hot now against his back and turns the salt to crystal that crinkles against his skin. There, on the verge of the tide, seawater erodes the wet sand beneath him; both find their way back to the sea.
‘Home,’ he says, and he pushes up to stand. He is unsteady, unaccustomed to his feet it seems. Tentative steps, a brief catch of balance. The crowd opens and he moves toward home.
Near the dunes his toes cleave the fine powder, hot still from the summer sun. He mounts the wooden walk that crosses to the street. Old wood, this ramp, silvered and splintery, with ridge-heaves from the salt and heat. Back there someone is yelling. His eyes sting. Sun and sweat, salt and sand. He wipes them with the back of his hand where the sand is least.
The sun has angled more now and cars pass, neighbors coming from work. Normal neighborhood, his, the noises, the movement; but the sameness strikes him as odd. He wonders about this until the pounding intrudes and overtakes his thoughts.
His wife moves beside him and takes his hand. The boys walk behind quietly.
‘You alright?’ she asks. He nods but does not answer. She understands, accepts his quiet, kens his exhaustion, and she does not ask again.
Their house is six back from the ocean, one short block, two cross-streets—-a long walk today. It faces east toward the Atlantic. Houses on the street form a gantlet, a wind-tunnel that directs Atlantic breezes to their doors. Nearly every day their window curtains billow.
Theirs is an old house, cypress, a house not built for air conditioning. He has been fixing it now for 10 years, weekends mostly, and evenings, fixing it while their kids grow. This house has a singularity, a smooth brick floor that stays cool in the summer; a floor that won’t warp or wash away if a rogue hurricane pushes water up over the dune, down the street, down the thousand feet to their door. It was his grandmother’s idea, this floor, and it was a good one.
This late day he steps on the patchy grass of their yard. Near the house, near the low palm, he has rigged a shower, a galvanized steel rod with a plastic head to wash off the sand and salt. He walks past it today and opens the screen door. Inside is dark and the brick cools his feet, hot from the warm tar road. Did he lose his flip-flops? Leave his sunglasses on the beach?
Inside, in the cool dark, his body drains down and his knees take on signs of betrayal. He sits quickly as his boys come through the door. He is wet still with sand clinging lightly to his shorts and legs. Today his wife does not complain about the salt or the wet; she does not mention the upholstery, the fine wood.
His boys give him side looks as they walk by. His youngest looks scared. What do I look like that scares him, he wonders. He forces a smile their way. I’m o.k, the smile is meant to say. And he is o.k., mostly, and for that he is thankful. Except his head pounds.
He sits there a moment cooling his feet on the brick. Parts of the last hour play keep-away in his head, popping up between throbs. His running on the hard sand. Diving deep through the crushing whitewater. The small scared screams. The judgement of current and the rip, the big waves.
But the throbbing returns and he wonders if he’ll throw up. Aspirin, he thinks, and he walks to the bathroom.
Here the walls are stark and cool. He turns the shower on and spreads his hand against the tile. He leans his forehead into the water and he does not think of the sand and salt or what the water takes away.
He does not think how much he loves his family or this old house. And he does not think of the young mother back there on the beach, who was, for that one long moment, idly toying with her infant child while her two young daughters played in the clasping currents of the big September surf.
We are a busy people. By contrivance and convention our lives are hurried and our minds groove in high gear from the moment we get up. We fill our world with all manner of diversion, from electronics and relationships to work and worry.
Every now and then our brain needs a timeout, a respite from the motion and commotion, a moment or two of simple peace. But how does one find a simple peace in a whirling, whipcrack, workaday world?
One short answer comes from the film “City Slickers.” Actor Jack Palance holds up his index finger and delivers this singularly simple life lesson.
“One thing … just one thing,” Palance says. “You stick to that and everything else don’t mean [squat].”
What Palance means here, of course, is that the path to simple peace is found in singularity of purpose, in doing one thing and one thing only, to the exclusion of all else.
That focus takes a bit of practice, but it’s not hard and you can do it anywhere – at your desk, in bed, during your commute, as a break from TV … anywhere.
Here is the process: Breathe deeply and long for 10 minutes … and while you’re at it, put your mind on hiatus; that is, no thinking for 10 minutes either. Focus solely on the sound of your breathing.
That’s it. Seem easy? That’s why it’s called simple peace. The breathing part is easy, but it takes practice to clear your brain of thoughts. What you’ll find is, when you practice to find simple peace, you find it. The astonishing simplicity of it is this: Simple peace comes simply from the process of looking for it.
And that process involves doing one thing … just one thing, just like Jack said.
aug 2011 – David Lambert
by David Lambert
Ninja Man moves lightly over the sidewalk that runs alongside the dune woods. He is a man with no baggage, a man of few belongings, a man devoid of encumbrance except the infrequent neural quags which, when they come, unfurl his thoughts like a backlash, splaying them, laying them at right angles to each other.
When this happens his thoughts carom like pingpong balls from the bounds of his scull and the blood whooshes through his temples and settles behind his eyes. Everything he sees softens at the edges and his visible world becomes a scarlet pastiche as though viewed from a distance.
When this happens Ninja Man prays to be invisible.
Ninja Man is a man you might see any day trading the cool shelter of the library for the wet coolness of beach sand just after the tide recedes. If weather or his wits become an adversary Ninja Man moves directly to his badtime shelter under the Intracoastal Bridge, a place where light darkles unevenly, where his eyes find focus on the softness of shadow edges and the Doppler hiss of tires on pavement provides an aural lean-to, a soothing white noise, a calmative, fingertips on his forehead — a place where he can weather the storms, emotional or atmospheric.
Local taunters, kids and shitheads, they call him Ninja Man because he wears only black, every day, toe to wrist, ankle to neck, black, even in the sticky, sweaty swelter of the southern August sun. Ninja Man. He likes the sound of that. Ninja Man — not a taunt, a tribute; yes, a tribute, that — a history, a title. Ninja Man, he likes it alright; he can take care of himself, just look how he walks when he hears his name.
Ninja Man walks like a cat, every step a tiny exhausting of spring steel, each motion a controlled release from a coiled center that lightens his step and pulls the muscles of his hands into a repose so sublime that they angle slightly akimbo as he strides, as if they rested on an ergonomic keyboard awaiting the big idea.
As he walks his head does what? Bob? No, Ninja Man is no Mister Natural; he does not truck, he glides as he strides, lifting lightly from the balls of his foot, like. . .what? A dancer? No. . .a cat. Yeah, a cat, a puma. A panther. Awaiting the pounce. And as he strides his head moves in coordinated balance, punctus contra punctum, gimbaled to his graying and grizzled neck like a bobble-head doll velcroed to the rear dash of his Dad’s old Buick.
Ninja Man is a walking gyroscope, a jowly, jaunty tom who, when he is right — and that is most of the goddam time!! — thinks of his mind as a throttle to be juiced or slackened as the as the occasion requires. His body, his temple, a tool to employ at will, as needed, whenever. Ninja Man is a. . .wait, wait. . .his Dad’s old Buick? What a piece of crud car that was. Rusted with a bad AC and cigarette burns in the upholstery. Brown too. Ninja Man never liked that car. What was it? A Tempest? Ninja Man can’t remember. . .
Anyway, anyway. . .Ninja Man’s police rap sheet accords that he is fully aware, self-acknowledging, consistent in his responses, capable of gainful employment but given to periodic mental lapses. A scrawled notation rests diagonally on the edge of his rap sheet. It reads: ‘Not violent! Usually cooperative.’ But the ‘usually’ is underlined heavily in blue pen and punctuated by an exclamation mark.
Sometimes Ninja Man’s mind goes scarlet and he forgets to get along. He’s pretty sure that’s what the ‘usually’ is about. When he finally remembers he needs to get along, he feels pretty bad, like a kid who shoots a bird, then holds it in his hand while it’s dying. That’s why he needed a place like his bad-time place.
Ninja Man views the trips to his badtime place as parentheses around the short asides in a running dialog of his life. Sometimes in his mind he can see the outward curves of the punctuative brackets and watch as the old bad-time events unfold in text behind his eyes, like the opening scroll of Star Wars
. . . A Long Time Ago in A Galaxy Far, Far Away.
White words on a black background, slowly scrolling from top to bottom. With little pinpoints of background light, and . . . wait, wait, goddammit!! . . .scrolling from bottom to top. Ninja Man never gets that right.
White words calm Ninja Man, even when they emerge from the top. White words have letters and letters have edges and edges are boundaries and boundaries create form and the form becomes a word and a word has a definition. Ninja Man embraces definitions. String a few together end-to-end like pencils and they make a sentence. Sentences start and end and start and end and start and end. Sentences have meanings and they form paragraphs and paragraphs are indented and new chapters start on a right-hand page.
These are things Ninja Man knows: letters and words and sentences are synaptic solids with bulk and mass and meaning; they are bricks behind which he can barricade the past bad times; they are blocks which keep the new ones at bay.
Ninja Man owns these words during badtimes and during his infrequent visitations to them; words are his alone to be held. And he does hold them, in two hands like a favorite blankey or, or. . .what? What? A sword? With a scrolled gold handle? Yeah. Ninja Man holds words like broadsword. With two hands, in front of him. Stand back. Trust me, Ninja Man can use a broadsword.
Ninja Man holds words like a broadsword when he can not hold much else — and when he has not much else to hold.
Images, though, images can cause Ninja Man trouble. Images sometimes appear amoebic, as amorphous blobs with evaporating edges that trick him by melting into each other like wet tissue paper, so he can’t tell where one begins or ends. Ninja Man sometimes doesn’t like images.
We are not talking about photographs here, not art school!! Not something from National Geographic or Life. No! Goddammit try to keep up! We’re talking about brain images, little ninja thoughts that sneak secretly into his brainback from behind the Wall of Brick Words. All this while his front brain is not looking. Images from that part of his mind. Images sneak into Ninja Man’s mind from out of nowhere, headfake thoughts; they point one way, then, when Ninja Man looks, they sneak into the dark theater behind his eyes. Sometimes Ninja Man knows he’s being headfaked, but he looks anyway.
Sometimes. Not often, not often, dammit, but sometimes! Sometimes they sneak in on scarlet scarves, all undulating and wavelike that scatter in layers throughout the theatre and eventually strangle the scrolling words in his head.
When they sneak in, though, Ninja Man sneaks out. He leaves quietly, too; no one hears. After all, he is Ninja Man.
© 2011 David Lambert
Late Night Calls
by David Lambert
Odd how a late-nite phone call gets your blood flowing. Seems like they’re never good.
Friday morning, 12:30 a.m. My cell phone rings and it’s my son Geoff. He’s in Nicaragua — and he’s very anxious to leave. Three hours earlier he employed a local taxi to cart him and his pal three hours through the jungle to catch a night flight to the States.
A problem erupted when he went to pay for the ride. Visa would not accept his card, nor would it let him cash out. Actually it was Annie’s card, given for emergency purposes, which this now seemed one. So the card crashed and they’ve got an angry local demanding $150 American, and he’s drawing a crowd.
Understand that we’re in Lee, FL, 40 minutes from anything — even that’s not much — possibly the least accessible area of the Sunshine State, and it’s past midnight. Nothing we can do. Visa suspected fraud, caught unusual out of country activity, and shut down the card, but we do not know this until mid-morning the next day since we do not have the Visa card number with us and the fraud line is automated-response only.
“Look for Travelers Aide in Managua Airport,” I tell him. “Or, if the situation gets really hot, call the US Embassy,” I say. “Or call your friends in the Sanctuary Surf Camp. Or find a priest or person of authority who speaks English.”
Or, I think, give the taxi guy your I-Touch — or your surfboard. Or anything you need so that you do not involve the local Policia or the Policía Nacional. You do not want to have this discussion with the local Policia. They will not like you and they will not treat you like kindly, especially if they think you ripped off one of their own. Give them whatever is necessary so you can get aboard your plane
. . . and stay out of the Nicaraguan jails. They are unlike anything like you have ever experienced, nor like anything you can have imagined. You do not want to go there; their confinement is much more, and none of it is designed for your comfort.
All of this I think, but do not say. It’s late; Geoff has a real issue on his hands. Nothing I can do. Nothing. He is frustrated, unsure, angry, confused. He is on his own truly for the first time in his life. He closes the phone call with the abrupt reality that this situation is in his hands only.
And suddenly our night seems very long and our worries have a stark focus and the darkness is nearly tangible.
Epilogue: Geoff made it out on his scheduled flight. We’re not sure how yet; the details are sketchy. The photo is of Geoff surfing in Nicaragua the week before.
Lyda Wants to Weep
by David Lambert
Lyda stands crumpled in a wrinkled sleeveless shirt. She faces the sliding glass that opens to her downstairs porch, the brown yard, and beyond, the sand dunes which hold off the great Atlantic Ocean. The morning light softens her edges, gives her an aura, and specklings of silver dust dart around her in the light.
Lyda’s body is leaden with age and her hair shapes a wiry garland. Both hands lay quiet by her side and she makes no large movement. She is still except that her shoulders buck slightly, almost imperceptibly, and she is silent.
He watches her for a moment in the angled light and then he understands that she is crying—not a hammering sob from some new and hard-edged grief, but a tiny quiet crying that comes from deep down, a small leak that has sprung from the soul.
Lyda’s sorrow is quiet but it carries its own gravity; it is a force that tugs at her face and rounds her shoulders and her sorrow carries the weight of false years.
She weeps softly this morning because, in this brief moment, in the klieg of this harsh and streaky sun, Lyda has a rare moment of acuity, a clarity of mind which normally alludes her. And during this moment when her mind mists are gone, she remembers that she cannot remember. This awareness makes her sad and she is scared of what she will become.
But the tears today are mostly not for her; today she cries because she will not remember that a very sweet and good friend has just died suddenly and at a relatively young age and Lyda went to her funeral yesterday. She remembers the funeral just now, the sadness of the surprise and the sorrow, but soon she will forget.
Lyda wants to grieve for her friend, wants to hurt for her husband and their two daughters, wants to comfort them with her tears, but the mist will return and she will not, and she knows that she will not, and that hurts her more that any broken body. And because she wants to remember, and because she knows that she will forget, she stands there in the yellow light while the quiet tears of her compound sadness form darkening circles on the front of her shirt.
He can see this in her reflection in the big glass door and he knows she wants to be held, needs to feel loved, needs her own comfort in this hard moment. He can see this—and he can sense this, and yet for some small time he resists.
These days he cannot align his emotions with hers. For decades their minds would track similar shapes on all things, a near psychic exchange of the other’s emotional landscape. Recently they have fallen out of sync. He knows it is the dementia, still he is disarmed.
Now he steps into her light and wraps his arms around her, remembers this frame in firm flesh and full bloom. He enfolds her, tries to shush her soft sobs, and he murmurs the words that have become his mantra these past 18 months:
“It’s alright sweetie,” he says. “It’s o.k.”
But it is not o.k. Lyda’s face, creased as it is by time, is not a face for weeping and sadness trowels on extra years.
Today she stands here and lets him hold her and he can feel the rhythms of her soft sadness and the trickle of her tears as they find a path through the hairs on his arm.
He knows that there is nothing he can do to stop these things, her memory loss, her having grown old, or the unspoken—her dying; time will have its way. He can do only this, hold her and comfort her—and tell her these same familiar lies.
And that has become his great weight, and that has become his own great sorrow.
©2010 David Lambert
(Author’s Note: My mother struggles daily in the grasp of dementia. The disease has subdued her personality and stripped her dignity. Her diminishings are painful to see. This story is fiction, although it has been culled from personal experience. The man could have been my dad, had he lived into his sixth decade; the woman could be my mother, or anyone who endures the slow sliding away of one’s memory and one’s mind.)
The Bell Ringer
by Scott Henderson
The Salvation Army apron looked like a lobster bib on my full-figured frame. But I was unsullied as I began my shift outside the local hardware store. Each year I looked forward to ringing the bell for their Red Kettle program, as I always took something truly magical away from the experience.
An old Chevy truck broke the quiet of the crisp morning, and sputtered its way into an available parking spot. A dad, mom, and a tot piled out of the cab and made their way toward me. The young boy was strung securely between his parents hands and was having a wonderful game of what my kids used to call ‘Up, Up & Away.’ He touched down only long enough to push off for another flight into the great and boundless beyond. As they reached the store entrance, the lad took note of me for the first time and began what I’m sure were many questions to his pop and mom about the fat man with the bell and the bib.
I went about my business of greeting, well wishing, and tending to the pot when the same family emerged from the store and said that they’d be back in a little while. I didn’t think much of it, but sure enough, about an hour later, the old Chevy truck pulled into the lot again. This time though, the boy marched ahead of his folks, as if on a mission. He walked right up to me and said, “My name is Miles, I’m three, and this is from MY piggy bank!” On his tippy toes he dropped a handful of pennies and a moist gummy bear into the slot. I was so moved by his act of altruism that I broke Salvation Army code 6-34B and let him ring the bell for awhile.
While Miles clanged away his folks told me they had explained to him what the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle program was all about, and that he had insisted upon helping the needy, too. We all got teary-eyed, hugged, and agreed that the boy had just learned the lessons of charity, benevolence, and compassion –words he would not know for many years, but concepts already well embraced. My little helper handed back the bell after a few minutes, gave me a high five, and returned to the familiar spot between his folks hands.
This time of year many of us get lost in a swirl of store circulars, curt shoppers, and forced sentimentalism. For me, and maybe you, those seventeen sticky pennies represent a fitting reminder of the important things about these holidays.(About the author: Scott Henderson is a humorist, political curmudgeon, anecdotal writer, and the undisputed inventor of the tilde! Additionally, he is a certified environmental ninja, ukulele theorist, and a plus size swimsuit model.)
© 2010 Scott Henderson and Southerner’s Journal
by David Lambert
I write this today as the grown son of Ronald Wybrant Lambert of Louisville, KY and, in later years, Atlantic Beach, FL.
I am proud to tell to you that I am his son, just as I am ashamed to tell you that I never said this to him.
It’s a ghost I wrestle. He deserved better, my dad did . . . from his kids, from his work, from the world, and ultimately from his own body. He deserved better.
I’m proud of him, proud of how he hoisted the family yoke and rolled with the yaw of work and business.
And I’m proud and happy that he finally found his peace and his place in a drafty old beachfront house in a small village on the ocean in North Florida. He was never happier than sitting facing the ocean with a martini in his hand and a day’s or week’s work behind him.
My dad was known as Ron to most, Ronnie to boyhood friends, and he was R.W. on every bill and letter that populated our mailbox. But I knew him only as Dad, or in my teenage years, Pop, (a handle I was never sure he liked).
He died nearly 30 years ago, after a 10-month debilitating bout with bone cancer. His was an ugly dying. For the most part he was fighting out of his weight class; yet he fought strong and smart.
Ultimately the illness sapped his strength and sucked the flesh from his body. In the end he rolled his hands down and bared his vein to the needle . . .morphine. Ronnie’s Cocktail the Hospice nurses lovingly labeled it.
I’m proud of how he fought and I’m proud of how he died. Still, I never told him.
I’m proud of how my dad always played the deck he dealt from . . . and how he skilfully enjoyed the things that came his way, those things that he had. He took whatever came his way with a grain of sand or salt, then recast it to fit the skin of his quirky, humorous and slightly humble sense of self.
Of my father I’ll say this: I never heard him complain; he never groused, bitched, or bellyached. Toss what you would his way and R.W. Lambert would somehow wrap his arms around it and make it his. This wasn’t always immediate, mind you; sometimes he’d have to think on it awhile, but I saw it happen many times.
On this father’s day I think of him and I realize how little he’s populated my thoughts these last few years. And I am again ashamed.
So, this day, nearly 30 years after your death, I say this: Dad, I’m proud to be your son. I’m proud of your five war years and I’m proud you had the smarts and the luck and the skills to get through them. I’m sorry you knew too much of the canvas and the cold water, the primal fear, the wrenching loss, and the horrors of blood and bullet. I’m sorry you had to carry that particular psychic brand on your soul.
But your soul scabbed over, and you outlived the scarring; at least that’s what you showed us.
Later, with a family and four hungry boys, you had the balls to strike out on your own when your fortunes turned anemic. You took a dilemma and made delimmonade. (You’d have hated that joke, I know.) I’m honest when I say I can’t imagine the mountain of doubt you faced, and the mountain of debt.
This day, I want you to know that your sons are who we are because of the choices you made. We learned from you what counts, and what doesn’t. From you, my skewed world view. It’s helped me understand. From you, an appreciation of lyric and song. Music is my bank account. From you, interest in the world outside. From you, my love of word and story. Maybe best, from you, the ability to generate laughter. And from you, the need for laughter. You could always laugh. Even when it hurt; especially when it hurt.
So on this day, 30 years too late, I say to you the things I should have said before you got sick. I am proud of you.
I now understand what you gave up. . .and I understand what you gave us.
Thanks, Pop. Too little, too late, toodleoo.
–© David Lambert, Father’s Day, 2010
A Wee-Hour Wakeup Call From The Great Mike Bloomfield
by Tom Ellis III
It was the summer of ’67, but from my vantage point, not exactly the “Summer of Love.” Living seaside in Northeast Florida and working as a beach lifeguard, my days were filled with surfing, girls and lots of parties, few of which could compare to what we heard about from buddies who’d been to the West Coast and indulged. In fact, if there was any similarity between our experience and those in San Francisco, it could only have been the music, the richness of the fare served up by our local AM radio station.
Jay Thomas was the DJ, and he lived in my neighborhood, in a cave-like efficiency a block back from the Atlantic. He may have been working at a tiny 1,000-watt station, but his presence in our minds was huge – his weekday show from 3-7 p.m. and on Saturday afternoon captured our attention in late 1966, when he started playing album cuts from groups like the Beatles, Beach Boys, Stones and other bands who had top-40 hits. Jay was AOR before there was AOR. He supplied a rich soundtrack to high school life, one that led many of us to the record store where we began to see and hear all kinds of albums by all kinds of bands, stuff we’d never heard of and gobbled up.
That summer the music scene exploded across the U.S. Even in my little beach town it was hard to escape the gusher of musical talent that we started to hear about, buy albums by, and turn our friends onto. But something else happened that summer, for me it was momentous – I was introduced to Rolling Stone magazine, brought back from San Francisco by a girl I was chasing.
There it was: The voice of the Bay Area, music central, right in my hands. And as I read those pages – all those bands, the reviews, interviews, the ads for gigs – my musical jones went off the charts. I immediately subscribed.
A few issues later I found an article in which a guy named Paul Butterfield lambasted the Doors (who we were covering in a garage band I was playing with) for their insincere take on the blues. The blues? Paul Butterfield? Who was this guy?
Only one way to find out – I grabbed the keys and headed directly to the Record Bar. One hour later I was on my way home with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band LP lying beside me on the passenger seat. Little did I know how seminal that trip and discovery would be.
I had been messing around with the harmonica for a year or two, never figuring it out, frustrated that I couldn’t understand how it could fit into our band’s covers of the Stones and Yardbirds. I guess my ear was more attuned to guitars. Jeff Beck, Brian Jones, George Harrison and a few other guys defined my ideal of great “soloists.” Rock was all about guitars anyway, right? But Butter totally, totally turned me around.
First, there was the music. So tough. No girls or love songs. Hard emotion, adult stories. And played loud, as the album commanded, the band had a sound that grabbed me much more tightly than anything I’d ever heard. Then there was Butter – the weary voice and that incredible harmonica sound, diving, swooping, punching, weeping, speaking directly to you, not a single note wasted, nothing overplayed.
But most of all there was Bloomfield.
Which one was he in that picture? Big hair or short hair? Who cared? I’d never heard anyone play like that, and I haven’t since.
Blame some of it on my buddy Charlie. His mom had been a jazz singer in San Francisco in the early ’50s, and he was a guitar player in a house filled with all kinds of cool music played all day. Getz, Miles, Coltrane, but also lots of guitar – Charlie Byrd, Wes, the nasty Howard Roberts stuff. My Dad, too – his love of Mel Torme, Sinatra, Basie, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and other vocalists had helped refine my ears a bit beyond the great AM radio we had.
That is what hooked me about Bloomfield. His playing was so exact, so spot-on. There was a lyricism and vocalese to it that was closer to jazz than anything I’d heard on my albums or the radio. But he could cry, too, and give up such sadness. It was so sophisticated, even inside the edgy dynamics of the Butter band. The phrasing was so unique. “Poobah” was one of the happiest, greatest guitar romps I’d heard and it was an INSTRUMENTAL! No words! None of my guitar touchstones could play like that, and maybe wouldn’t dare to. They weren’t even playing in the same park with Mike.
The playing on the first, then second, Butter LP just touched me, and nothing had more resonance than Bloomers. I memorized those solos and played them over and over in my head. Butter became my soundtrack. Time to kick the party into gear? Turn on Butter. Want to impress my music buddies? Drop the needle on East-West. Had a bad day? More of it. I was hopelessly, deeply hooked. Butter would turn me into a harp player, but Bloomfield fed my soul.
For a while it just kept coming. The Electric Flag blew me out. There were guitar lines in the first Super Session LP that were like emotional mazes, the notes twisting and turning in your head, apparently avoiding the possibility of resolution, when, suddenly, MB would pull it all together into one tight statement. Breathtaking stuff. And that tone – no fuzz, no feedback, no attempt to be “contemporary,” to be Hendrix or Page or anybody else.
But access to Mike started to dwindle. Another Super Session LP. The solo album. His brilliant playing for Tim Davis on his first LP. But his name didn’t pop up much in Rolling Stone. As the mid-’70s neared, Mike started to more a part of history than currency. What had happened to him?
By then I was living in Atlanta, writing for a music magazine there, soaking up the burgeoning music scene. I heard live music all the time. But no one like Mike. So, like any fan, I did what fans are wont to: I sat down one night and wrote him a letter. I wanted him to know there were guys out there like me, not residents of San Francisco or California, but guys far removed who hadn’t forgotten him. That solo in “Far Too Many Nights.” Someone who still listened to his work. Who could cite some of his greatest solos, even hum them out loud. I told him there were lots of us out here and we missed not having him playing, right now. Stamped, sealed and addressed to Columbia Records, the message went into the mailbox the next day, probably, I thought, on it’s way to a black hole. But I had gotten it off my chest.
About a month later my first wife and I were wrapping up a long night of partying, both of us dozing off after a combination of too much workday, dinner, friends and alcohol, nightcapped with a bit of the bud. It had to have been 1 a.m. or so, and I had just dozed off. The phone rang. I sat up, pre-hungover, dazed a bit, sensing the anxiety that normally comes with those late night calls (Family tragedy? Buddy in jail? Tom, get down here now – you won’t believe who’s sitting in with the band tonight!)
I said hello. A voice asked me to ID myself. I did. Asked again. I did. Some laughing on the other end. “Who the hell is this?” from me. “It’s Mike Bloomfield, the guy you wrote the letter to,” was the response.
It seemed a bit dreamy, the whole thing. The combination of drugs and alcohol didn’t help, but I remember bits of what turned out to be a 30-minute conversation. Mike telling me how much he appreciated the letter. How he couldn’t believe I had cited so many solos. More laughter as he and a buddy seemed to be partying a bit themselves. Crazy questions about where I lived in Atlanta, if I played music, who were my favorite guitarists. Some sideways comments about Butter, who had by then become my gold-standard when it came to harp players. That staccato conversational attack. Suddenly becoming soft-spoken explanating about why he wasn’t playing outside San Francisco much. Kind of like his soloing – full of emotion, twisting and turning, succinct then rambling. And then it was over. And I was into a deep sleep.
The next morning it was like I had walked through surreal terrain. But I was STOKED. My wife couldn’t figure out why a meandering half-hour conversation in the middle of the night had me so turned on. Bloomfield albums were pulled out and played. All day. All the next day.
And the next month. The next year. Next decade. Last year. Last week. Bloomfield forever, still there, sitting right beside me in the passenger seat.
(Postscript: Cut to the mid-’90s and I’m deep into a five-part, two-year series on Butterfield, written for Blues Access magazine. Mike’s been gone a while, Butter too, but I’m living vicariously, getting to talk to so many of their musical friends – John Hammond, Musselwhite, Elvin, Sam Lay, Naftalin – and friends – Peter Butterfield, Allan Bloomfield, John Court, Sally Grossman. Norman Dayron asked me to write the liner notes to “Live at the Old Waldorf.” It’s hard to focus just on Butter, with all of these Bloomfield memories swirling around. Someone should write a book!
Someone is – Jan Wolkin! He and I hook up by phone, trade stories, contacts, etc. He and his partner, Bill Keenom, are published and he sends me a copy. I start it, ravenous for more Bloomfield. I’m reading, quickly. And then I’m there, misidentified – but it’s my story, told by one of Bloomer’s buddies – about the late night call to the fan. History corroborates my memory. It really happened. Yes it did. Yes it did.)
(Tom Ellis III has written for a variety of music publications, the Dallas Morning News, and for Elektra and Rhino Records. He is a biographer of Paul Butterfield and he has played the harp for 40 years. Ellis also is a noted expert on vintage American microphones. His encounter with Mike Bloomfield is documented in Jan Wolkin and Bill Keenom’s book “If You Love These Blues.”) Contact him here.
Boat Ramp Baptism
by David Lambert
Over the years my small family has always seemed on the verge financial reinvention, mostly because of the paths I’d chosen and the work I took. We always seemed child poor or college poor, or house poor, or hospital poor, and because of that we were rarely able donate money to those good causes, groups and organizations to which we’d like to have given.
So, about 10 years ago I began to donate ‘in-kind’ to those causes and organizations which we believed were doing public good. I contributed for auction or sale fly fishing or fly casting lessons, and then later added guided paddling trips down a small, pristine stretch of river next to which my wife and I conveniently split our living time.
We offered these to schools, breast cancer clinics, enviro-groups, watchdog organizations and the odd non-profit. Because the river is unlike any other in the state, because it is fed by uber-clear springs and it comprises an odd geology of limestone, chert, and freshwater coral, the trip has become quite popular and has raised good money for those causes—a fact of which I am proud and happy.
A couple of years ago I escorted down our river the purchasers of this trip, the director of Florida Wildlife Association and an armada of friends and associates. The paddle includes a stretch of class 2 rapids, which can border on class 3, relative to rainfall and runoff. My paddlers this day came from varied occupations, in assorted weight classes, and with unpredictable paddling skills. The boats they brought ranged widely as well, from efficient and sleek kayaks to the clunky peddle-yaks that are suited mostly for deep, flat waters, which this river is not.
The trips nears its end as the lovely little river approaches its confluence with the Suwannee. There a physical change occurs; the smaller river warms and takes on some of the Suwannee’s characteristic claret and tea colors. An emotional change seems to occur as well, as though a fight breaks out when these two waters bump into each other. The merger builds a subtle cross current that makes navigating the larger a bit more tricky.
Near the confluence I lagged behind the group to advise them to paddle diagonally across the bigger river, to surf above the faster currents to Suwannee River shallows. There, broken currents provide an easier trip upstream to the takeout—200 yards upstream.
The takeout point on this trip is a long concrete boat ramp that cleaves the banks of the river at Suwannee River State Park. The ramp, and the river it disappeared into, were gauzily cloaked in a blue-white smoke that drifted downriver from hundreds of acres of forest fires north and east of the river.
As we made our scattered approach to the ramp I heard a shouting before I could see it. Smoke and river noise hampered both sight and sound, but on closer inspection I saw a local Pentecostal preacher at the foot of the boat ramp, standing chest deep in the Suwannee. He was dunking people, about 30 of them of assorted ages, body types and attractiveness.
The preacher stood immersed nearly to the tops of his blue bib overalls and the water turned his heavily starched white broadcloth to a translucent clingy mess, exposing beneath a pinkish skin that likely had felt no direct sun for months.
Most of my group paddled past the singing congregation and beached a quarter block north, but I hung back, mid-stream, and watched, fascinated by the lyrical bleet of the preacher and the approximation of song coming from future dunkees and other congregators.
The preacher beseeched his flock to come down and let the lu-huve of Je-he-he-sus wa-hash your si-hi-ins awa-hay, pra-ha-ha-haise Ga-ha-ad. His delivery was Deep-South, a breathy stuttering of verse, mumble and tongue that made four syllables for every one and prompted many in the group to raise their faces and hands to the sky. All of this against a fast disappearing backdrop of smoky blue, a gauzy filtered light.
I will tell you this: I found myself singing along at their final hymn: Shall We Gather At The River?
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river. . .
Who could not sing on such an occasion? And my singing accompanied the throb and gun of motors as anglers who’d been on the river all day circled in increasingly narrow patterns just off the ramp awaiting the close of ceremonies so they could haul their boats, catch, and their crud up the ramp.
The scene, the singing, the worship, the preaching, the hum of circling boats—all were contained by and amplified by river and the smoke, all emanating from the watery stage framed in a disappearing darkening of the reaching flora and vertical banks of the Suwannee River.
This good preacher accommodated every good soul who wished it with a biblical dunking. The recently baptized looked on smiling and singing through chattering teeth. I wondered then and wonder today if the cause of their shivers came from the wetness, the excitement of spiritual cleansing, or from the encroached dark.
© 2010 David Lambert
Dogs Pee, People Use Pens
by David Lambert
Caution: New Word Coming
People are just dogs with less hair. Nature compels both creatures to leave their mark where others have left teirs. The only real difference is that dogs pee to mark their presence; people use pens.
Because the Council of Dog couldn’t agree on a suitable word to describe what people do when over-marking others’ territories, I, as a people, have been assigned to the task.
After more than 10 minutes of deliberate deliberation I believe I’ve developed a word that effectively captures the nuances of this human compulsion — the word is ‘e-tack.’
An ‘e-tack‘ is an awkward, ill-fitting insertion or addendum that people tack onto otherwise perfectly satisfactory, enlightened, or laudable prose that alters it to fit the amender’s political, religious or sentimental position. Take most of the political missals that come by email, they usually will contain at least one e-tack. We’ve all gotten emails that are so obviously added on to as to be laughable. Those addenda, those additions and insertions, are e-tacks.
An e-tack almost never transitions gently from the original work, which leaves it sticking out like a second nose. Nor does it ever adopt the originator’s prose style. Unlike the more obvious at-tack, an e-tack purports to work in harmony with the original thought, when in fact it often works against it. And it’s often used to promote political zealotry or sentimental sap.
So there you have it — e-tack. Now that it’s a formal word, let’s hope the need for it will diminish so that it never matures into popular usage.
I believe the Council of Dog will be satisfied.
Country Music Lament and the Rise of Iris Dement
Real country music has died and in doing so it has slipped from our car radios. Before its final rattle it inseminated pop culture and the union left us with a bastard child, a mundane, semi-musical Mini-Me that is so insipid, so uninspired, that one wonders if it’s worth it to punch the car radio buttons anymore.
Call it country-pop, or country-politan, or country-crossover, or the new Nashville sound. Call it what you want, but I call it cou-rap.
The collision of country and pop is a train wreck that could have been avoided, but it wasn’t — now we lovers of what was once a uniquely original American musical form are left to mourn the loss.
New country radio is an ersatz amalgam of manufactured twang and orchestrated ice cream truck bleet. Sadly no wall of sound, no number of earnest string sections can camouflage its insipidity, stupidity, and lack of inspiration. Most country radio ‘productions’ feel the same, all homogenized, all gush and golly, all tears and tilt-back-beers; but there is little in the way of real guts, and certainly very little genius.
That’s why we don’t hear singer-songwriters like Iris Dement on the air waves. Her voice is too real for a country audience that loves the forced twang of otherwise good singers like Jennifer Nettles in Sugarland. Dement’s voice has honest angles and stark pronunciations that perhaps reminds us too much of where we’ve been, is maybe too reflective of how difficult our trip has been from there to here, from then to now. We’ve learned to duck when we find that kind of veracity.
Iris Dement — Born the youngest of 14 children in a Paragould, AR family, Iris Dement’s voice, and no doubt her pen, developed singing along side her devoutly religious and musical family. Iris’s voice is clear as God’s first day and her lyrics have an honest spareness, a sometimes painful, sometimes exalted reminder that none of us is that far removed from the dirt.
Click the link below to hear Our Town by Iris Dement. The song is as honest as her voice is clear and true.
Want more? Click the link below to hear Iris Dement performing In Spite of Ourselves with John Prine. Prine penned the song, a bawdy, loving glimpse at the almost surprising survival of a long-term relationship between a man and woman.
In Spite of Ourselves
John Prine and Iris Dement
It may be that Iris and those wonderful, honest voices and pens like hers, Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, Gillian Welch, will ascend to the top of satellite radio, but I have yet to open my wallet to that siren.
Chemo Room – Day 1
(Three years ago, late in the afternoon on a hot August Friday, the phone rings. Bad news—breast cancer, stage 3. Our life changes, times slows, and we count the weekend in seconds. I wrote this to lay one particular ghost, fear of chemo, so those in that lifeboat can know that the storm is navigable. DL 2010 )
Early Morning: The Port Implant
Annie and I were late for her first round of chemo—four hours late, but they took us anyway. God bless ‘em, they knew it wasn’t our fault.
The agenda was this: Annie was to get a needle-port surgically implanted at 8:30 on this Friday morning, then we’d rush to the chemo lab at 11:30 to start her first round of a nasty chemo combo called A-C (adriamycin+ cytoxan).
We show up at 5:30 a.m; by 6:30 Annie is prepped for the knife.
At 7:15 the anesthetist drops by for signatures and a pre-surgery shot. Annie drifts serenely off. Around 9 our surgical nurse tells us a child’s appendix has burst. “We have to use your surgery room,” she says. We lose both surgery and surgeon, at least until 10:30, she said. At 10:45 a second nurse comes by with another ‘relaxer.’ Annie slips into her second drug snooze and her breathing becomes soft, shallow even.
And there she dozes, peacefully, just south of conscious, mostly dead to the organized chaos of the pre-surgery, the cacophony of carts, clanking instruments, beeping monitors, rushing nurses.
Nurses peek in to check on us now and again. Three times they apologize for the wait. A ruptured appendix will not wait, I learn.
Around 11 a.m. they bring the gurney and wheel her into surgery. She has been down mostly since 7. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, but the doc gives me a hearty no-sweat wink. I walk with her as far as they’ll let me, then they steer me off to a connected waiting room.
The space is full of comfortable seats, and half full with the morning’s waiters — friends and relatives mostly, with the odd pastor or priest popping in. Most everyone here has someone under the knife. Tension is an undercurrent and every conversation a practiced avoidance.
I remember this room from her cancer surgery, the wait, the dread, the worry. I remember benign conversation, the whistling in the dark. I remember watching Annie’s surgeon push open the doctors-only door after a surgery that took hours longer than we thought it would.
That was twenty some odd days ago but it feels like last year.
“O.k.,” he said back then, after the cancer surgery. “Here’s the deal. We got pretty much all of it. I got some clear margins, maybe not as much as I’d wanted ‘cause the cancer was pressing against her lung wall. But enough, enough.” He was tired then, eyes focused but saggy. Annie’s time under the knife that day, 2.75 hours. It was 9:30 a.m. and our surgeon had a full day of cutting still ahead.
He went on to explain that he moved some of the fatty tissue from the her side of her breast to fill the approximately golf-ball sized gouges of muscle and flesh he’s excised, three of them.
“Lucky she has wide breasts,” he says.
I’d always thought so, I told him.
Today, though, my thumbs are tired from twiddling when Annie’s surgeon rolls in to tell me that he has successfully installed her chemo port, her toxic docking station.
No more poking around the tops side of her hands for veins. Yahoo! Seriously, yahoo!
“Go sit with her,” he says. And he leads me through the docs’ door, back into the recovery ward.
As I sit down, the recovery room nurse pokes her head in and asks, “Want me to call the chemo lab again?”
“Yes, please,” I say. It will be the third such call to postpone.
Same Day, 2 p.m.— Intro To Chemo
At 2 p.m. we step gingerly from the elevator into hallway that leads to the chemo lab. This is Chemo: Round 1. Annie is woozy and weary. We’ve had our fill of hospital hospitality and medical missed cues and we are not in a mood to hear of cancellation or rescheduling. Worse still, Annie is tired – stress, anesthesia and surgery have worn her down and elevated her defenses. This is not the optimal emotional space for your first bout with cytotoxins; certainly not the best way to confront the biggest boogeyman of your life.
Our chemo room is a spacious double office that has been dressed in top condo style. A row of comfortable recliners tilt to the outer walls. Leather upholstery doesn’t work for patients here. Leather is porous, tough to clean if a client barfs or bleeds, and disinfecting it is a serious problem; low-aspiration germs grow deadly when white blood cells succumb to the toxic martinis served at this bar.
Each recliner is attended by a tall IV caddy, a chrome pole with wheeled base and a toaster-sized computer half-way up. The caddy’s crown is a shiny silver antler that dangles clear bags of saline and potassium solution – IV bags in Buddha-belly shapes which vary in fullness relative to a client’s time in the chair. A bloated bag means you’re a recent attachee, new to the needle, as it were, or that you’re re-hydrating.
Surgical tubing snakes from the bottom of every bag and every length of tube has a roller-clamp valve which allows a technician to adjust the drip rate of your own personal witch’s brew, chemo combos specially formulated to fight your form of cancer, its aggressiveness, or its likelihood to recur.
A few clients recline in their chairs; others sit upright or find their own comforts in this odd and foreign atmosphere. Most take their chemo in the veins that snake onion clear and blueish on the back of their hands. Double strips of paper tape keep the needle in the flesh and two surgical-tube legs emerge and twist upward to the Buddha bags. The tubes are interrupted by a port, possibly two, into which a client’s special mix is fed through a needle. Gravity forces the toxic cocktail downstream and into the blood.
Some clients sleep while the drugs drip. A heavy guy across from us snores in staccato, his slumber aided by a blue silk sleep mask and an iPod. He’s about our age but he’s appreciated more restaurants than we have. Drunk better wines, too, by the look of him. I wonder aloud what he’s in for. It doesn’t escape me that this is a question you’d ask a prisoner.
Every person in the chemo room, both client and technician, has squared off with mortality. Adults recognize it and most partition it off, but the kids here still cling to the supposed invincibility of their pre-cancer days. Cancer kids still believe in immortality. They duck their heads and keep their legs pumping. Who can blame ‘em. They’ve got a raptor’s grip on the balls of a concept most of us pray never to know. They seem remarkably happy, not sulky, not morose.
Here and there on the walls posters remind us to embrace the day, seize the moment, live, love, laugh, tell someone you’re sorry, accept an apology, smell a flower, watch a sunset, hope lives, never give up hope, and I hope you’ll dance. Carpe diem. Seize the day. Carpe diem.
The room is bright with afternoon sun and soft bulbs, a cheery condo-esque countenance. But there’s a camouflage quality to it, like an Irish wake, all chat and laughter until the liquor kicks in. Bravado or beard; either way, Annie and I agree: The chemo room is no opium den. The drugs offered here are top-shelf toxins. Nothing but the best. Expensive, too. The latest best new anti-nausea drug is called Ement. The script costs $550 — for 3 pills. Carpe dime.
Our chemo technician is Sharmella. She is black, soft-spoken and comforting. Sharmella speaks matter-of-factly of the often unpleasant, sometimes ugly side affects of chemo. Annie’s is a cocktail crafted to destroy any rogue cancer cell that jumped ship in front of the surgeon’s knife. She tells us that chemo will assault Annie’s white blood cells, too. Her immune system will likely take a hit; she’ll be much less efficient at fighting infection, more subject to bacteria, colds and the flu. There are no positives to a deflated immune system and the odds ramp-up during fall and winter – flu season. These can be especially dangerous for people who work with the public.
“What is it that you do,” Sharmella asks Annie.
“I teach kids – autistic kids,” Ann says. Autistic kids are not keen on personal hygiene.
“Ah, Jesus, honey.” Sharmella says. “Do what you can to avoid their germs,” she warns.
A few of the clients are older, mid-70s or so. One woman near us is slight and sweet, pixy-ish with an uncomplicated smile. Her skin has the gray cast that accompanies rampant cellular division – uncontrolled, possibly uncontrollable. Her head is bare, no scarf, no hat. She has Calvin-and- Hobbes hair – a short, spiky cranial cover, blotches of hair and scalp. A badly mowed lawn, I think. I lean over and tell this to Annie. My mission in this is to keep things light, upbeat, positive. I do the whistling in the dark. Ann shushes me with a stern look.
“That is not funny,” her look says. The ‘not’ receives eyebrow italics.
Pretty is an adjective rarely used when referring to chemo baldness. This baldness is not a choice, it’s a side-effect. Most clients cut their hair or shave their heads before their hair falls out. This is what Annie plans to do. They do this because they’ve found that baldness doesn’t happen all at once. Their hair falls out in clumps, unevenly. Maybe you bent down to clear the shower drain this morning and came up with a fistful of your own hair. Maybe your hair stayed with the brush the last time you brushed. Maybe you woke up wiping cat hair from your mouth, only, when you turned to look, it was your own. However it happens, you always look like you lost a fight with a weed whacker. It’s never all at once and it’s never pleasant.
Better to cut it now and look for a wig, scarf, or hat. Or say hell with it like Melissa Etheridge and go bald. My vote’s for a hat, but it ain’t my punkin haid that will be showing.
I hear the slight, sweet woman talking to her chemo technician: “Brain cancer doesn’t hurt much,” she says. “I’d just like it if my husband were here, that’s all.”
I think it’s pretty shitty of the husband not to show up. I start to go off on this guy in my head. People who go through this need support. A moment later I understand that her husband is dead. She’s a widow, scared, and she’s very likely all alone in this.
This reality fills me with a sadness I almost can’t control. My emotions have been close to the surface for a while, on the verge, but controllable. Until now. Now my throat burns and my eyes fill. I have to go into the restroom to sop my eyes and swallow the swell in my throat. I don’t want Annie to see me cry.
When I come out the slight woman is chatting unconcerned, happy even. This woman is the real deal. All of these people are the real deal. I’ve been a poseur, I realize, an imposter. I pretend to keep things light, not serious, but it’s a ruse, a sham. Of the 10 non-techs in this room, I’m the only one not hard-wired to a chemo bag. I’m here for diversion. I’m the USO – Jerry Cologna, not Bob Hope. I’m here for morale. That’s it; that’s my mission.
As the afternoon pushes on, this feared and unspoken monster, this chemo laboratory, begins to lose it’s scare-power, its mojo. It’s like you were 10 years old and camping out in the backyard. Lightening flashes and night noises send you high-tailing to the house. ‘Made it,’ you think, enjoying relative safety. Then you realize your folks aren’t back from the movie; you’re all alone in the big, dark house. You’re safe, sure, and you’re less scared, but safe from what . . .you still whistle as you move from room to room. That’s what the chemo lab has become. It makes us whistle a scared tune.
Annie begins to relax. Suddenly she’s hungry. The notion pleases her, I can tell. She asks me to go for food.
Traffic fills the road this late in the afternoon, so the food run takes 45 minutes. When I return, I recognize one of the chemo clients outside the building, standing by the entrance door. She lights a cigarette. I surmise that she’s just finished her chemo. I give her a conspiratorial nod. She smiles and nods back. Then she puts the cigarette up to her mouth, draws in deeply and exhausts a slow, smoky plume.
As I enter with our bag of food, the slight woman’s chemo caddy begins a soft beeping. Not an abrasive sound, but insistent – persistent. No one seems to notice. I look at Ann, look around. The beeping continues. Soon a technician rounds the corner and shushes the computer.
“Still hungry?” the technician asks. They giggle at that, an insider’s laugh, a conspirator’s joke.
The chemo tech smiles at the slight woman; it is a warm smile with no hint of pity. They’re on even ground, these two. They may have little in common outside this room, but inside this room their common ground is big as a hospital.
The technician pushes a button and the beeping stops. She hangs another bag, then introduces the new drip to the slight woman’s vein. Below the taped catheter, I see her hand is boney with age, pearly and translucent, scant dermal layers thinly cloak vein, sinew, and bone and give her skin an oniony quality.
The technician holds the slight woman’s hand for a moment, then moves her attention to the IV caddy and the computer. She fiddles with the computer and makes adjustments. As she does, the slight woman remarks that she doesn’t like computers.
“My kids use computers . . . and the grandkids,” she says. “But I’ve never cared for them myself. Never saw the need for them, really,” she says.
Somewhere the irony bell tolls, but I can’t hear it from here and Annie’s drifted back to sleep.
It does not toll loudly.
© 2009 David Lambert
(Addendum: My sweet Annie, still takes cancer drugs daily nearly three years after our first chemo day in the above essay. She has another 2 years to go. She is healthy and happy–and lovely still. And she is more brave than anyone I know.)