Tag Archives: grief

Scoutmaster 

  

Today I’m going to the funeral for my late Scoutmaster Chuck Smith. It generally surprises people to hear this (for whatever reason), but I’m an Eagle Scout. I almost wasn’t. Scouting was fun but also kind of hard for me. I was good at it but I didn’t fit in. I was poor. I had shaggy hair. I listened to death metal. I didn’t like church. I liked to be by myself and read in my free time. Other Scout leaders weren’t shy with criticizing me, and they were downright reticent with acknowledgement of what I could do. I nearly quit Scouts a dozen times over. 

Mr. Chuck was entirely the reason I stuck with Scouts long enough to make Eagle. He didn’t care how shaggy my hair got or that I didn’t believe in God. He praised what I got right and took the time to explain how I could get a handle on what I got wrong. He went far out of his way to make sure I could fully participate in the Scouting experience, and my life is richer for it. To paraphrase the cliche, he was a great Scoutmaster and a better man.

And now he’s gone. Rest in peace, Mr. Chuck. I’m really going to miss you.

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Cheers

old milwaukee

 

With the weather having turned cold and wet, Jonah had grown his beard out, so that whenever Monica kissed him she’d smile reflexively. His whiskers tickled. If he kissed her, she’d turn her head and scratch at her nose, but it seemed like she couldn’t get enough of kissing him on the cheek.

They were leaning against the sink in Kelly’s kitchen, each nursing a tallboy of Old Milwaukee. Monica had her arms around his waist, and was softly rubbing her nose against his thick flannel shirt. She breathed deeply. The fabric smelled of detergent and deodorant and pine needles. She realized the smell of pine needles would always make her cry now.

Kelly passed Jonah the joint. Monica looked up and opened her mouth. She and Jonah kissed, and he handed her the blunt as she exhaled his smoke. When she took her hit she tapped the ash into the sink and handed it off to Will.

“So I’d like to propose a toast,” Will said, feeling the weed and swishing his can overhead. “To my boy over here getting his research post with the Ag Department! Happy for ya, bookworm.”

They thunked cans and drained them. Monica tugged lightly on Jonah’s shirt. “Take it easy, babe,” she half-whispered.

“I’m fine,” he murmured to her, rubbing her arm and kissing her forehead. She scrunched her eyes closed and shrank from his beard with a grin.

“So,” Kelly started, clipping the last of the roach, “what the fuck does that mean, anyway? Are you gonna be farming or something?”

“I’m actually gonna be involved in researching efficiency in animal insemination.”

“What?”

“I’m gonna be watching a bunch of pigs fuck.” He unhooked another can and cracked it open. “So, you know. Same old same old.”

Will’s cackle seemed to make the kitchen ring. “Shit, dude, you gonna be jackin’ ’em off too?”

“Noooo, not me. But I will be watching ’em get jacked off, for whatever that’s worth.”

“That’s some sexy shit, man,” Kelly interrupted. Jonah and Monica scooted over as she made for the sink and washed away the roach. She let the water run a bit to make sure it was good and flushed. She grabbed a couple more cans for her and Will. “You talk like that when you and Monica get it on?”

“Maybe not quite so technical.”

Will was kissing Kelly’s neck and pulling her close. Kelly swigged her beer nonchalantly, like she didn’t notice him. “Hey man, whatever gets y’all goin’. Hey, where the fuck is Devon? We’re almost out of beer over here.”

The painkillers were starting to hit. They mixed with the beer, making Jonah feel a little like he was floating. Or maybe that was the weed? Jonah’s bloodstream was quite the cocktail in that moment.

Monica had her fingers hooked around his belt. Her blouse was like thin tissue. He could feel goosebumps as he ran his hand along her arms.

“So, like,” Will took a deep, steadying breath, “like what are your plans after you get done jacking off pigs?”

“Dunno, man. Jack off cows? There’s gotta be plenty of horny-ass farm animals out there.”

“Is this where you saw yourself going?” Monica asked him, looking up and grinning. She kissed him. The taste of cannabis in her mouth made his heart rocket for a moment. “Seven years of school to be a pig fucker?”

“Well I’m not gonna be fucking the pigs. Just, you know…watching them get fucked. There’s a substantial degree of difference.”

Her grin widened and she chuckled lazily. She was really high and a little drunk. She kissed him again. Out of sight of the others, she slipped a hand into his back pocket and squeezed his ass. He did a lot of walking through the mountains for his thesis. He had a pretty nice ass now.

He could feel her fingernails digging into him through the denim, and a flutter worked its way through his cock. His jeans were pretty tight. Things could get embarrassing in a second if he wasn’t careful.

Kelly coughed and waved a hand through the air. “Jesus, we’ve hot boxed the whole house. If we’re done smoking let’s move out to the back porch.”

Will was staring at her tits, jiggling bra-less in her tee shirt. “Where you lead, I shall follow,” he told her, his voice muffled by the can against his lips.

“Y’all comin’?” Kelly called back, as Will wrapped his arms around her and kissed behind her ear.

“Yeah, we’ll be out there in a second!” Monica yelled as the screen door slammed shut. When they were out of sight she looked up with a closed-eye grin and kissed him again. Her tongue filled his mouth and she worked her hand down the front of his pants. He could feel her working her fingers around him. She got horny when she got high. She took the hand that was in his back pocket and ran it through his shaggy hair. She thought it made him look like James Brolin. She liked to tell him this when they had sex.

He was smiling as he kissed her. Master’s degree. New job. Horny girlfriend. ’78 wasn’t a bad year. It could’ve been a hell of a lot better, but right now…things weren’t so bad.

Okay, he was feeling the weed now. Smooth, cutting down the sharpness to his drunk. He tipped the can and took down a few more gulps.

“Heeeey.” He looked to her, and the mischievous grin was gone. She was pouting now, wrinkling her forehead in worry. “Hey, babe. Maybe you shouldn’t drink so much.”

He took an even moment before taking another sip. “The beer didn’t put the tumor there, babe. Either of ’em.”

Her hand had gone still. “They found another one?”

He nodded. “Two more, yeah, right next to each other. Brain stem now. Uh…” He didn’t know how to finish the thought other than simply saying: “Malignant, but I guess that’s obvious now.”

She pressed her face to his shirt, bobbing her head to wipe an eye against the flannel. She was going to hate the scent of pine needles for the rest of her life.

He rested his head on hers. The smell of her hair made him think of Jeep rides in the open air.

He had to fight to keep from telling her he loved her. He’d told her that when he’d found out about the first tumor. She’d cried all night and into the morning. If he said it now, she might break down. Besides, saying it out loud was just redundant.

He could ask her to marry him again, but he knew where she stood on that. So he stood there and let her hold him, while he was still there to hold.

At some point they’d have to tell the others, but right now all Jonah wanted to do was party.

“Hey,” he told her. When she looked up he kissed her. His breath was deep, husky. He kept kissing her. Eventually she was kissing him back.

They stumbled past the screen door and down the hall. They ignored the light switch as Jonah kicked the guest room door shut behind them. Neither of them thought to turn the lock. How could they think of it, with her nipples firm against his ribs, and his fingers running down her spine?

Luckily, they didn’t need it. Their friends heard them through the thin walls, but the door stayed closed. Devon made it back with the beer, and as Monica and Jonah rolled around in the dark, the others hollered and slapped at the closed door. They screamed and laughed, a chorus exalting in vicarious celebration.

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Dead Cat

cat carrier

I let myself into my parents’ house through the front door. Paper towels litter the carpet, sporting brown and yellow stains from hairballs my mother hasn’t gotten around to cleaning away yet. I count about ten before disgust compels me to just ignore it and step over.

Spotty is lying on the couch. She’s so thin I can see her skeleton in clear definition beneath her fur. The brilliant orange and white pattern of her coat contrasts less sharply than I remember it. The orange is dimmed, the white is yellowed. She’s growing more muted with each day.

Her breath rattles in her ribs. I pet her behind the ears and it’s a full minute before she acknowledges me. She strains to look up, with eyes clouded over with discharge. I stroke her softly, and she makes a hacking sound before lying her head back down.

My father’s cat leans beside her. She’s old too but not as old as Spotty. Every few moments she leans over and licks Spots behind the ear. Dad’s sitting on the couch beside her, sniffling.

“Is the carrier ready?” I ask him.

He takes off his glasses and makes a show of wiping at his eyes with his finger before answering. “No, not yet. I’m gonna grab a quick smoke before we head out. I’ll grab it when I’m done. Give ya some time to say goodbye.”

I don’t want to enable either addiction, so I just walk into the kitchen to the pantry. The cat carrier is tucked behind the trash can, and I grab some old newspapers to line it with.

“Oh, I can do that,” Mom says. She scurries over. “I think your daddy wants you to be able to say goodbye to Spots.”

“I know what he wants.” I stuff paper into the carrier. “But we can’t sit around. The vet closes in thirty minutes and it’s a holiday weekend. We have to get this done quick.”

“Yeah.” My mom pauses for a bit, then asks: “I just wish I knew we were doing the right thing.”

“We have to, Mom. Her kidneys are shutting down.”

“I know. I just wish we could know one way or the other if she was going to get better.”

“No, it’s old age, Mom. She’s not sick.”

“What about that medicine he gave us?”

“It didn’t work, remember? That’s how he knew it was old age. He can’t treat her. Her kidneys just don’t work anymore.”

“Didn’t you say something about him suggesting surgery?”

“There’s nothing to repair. They just don’t work anymore. The vet said outright it’s just old age. You can’t treat that.”

“I guess.”

“No, you know. She’s old.”

“Missy was twenty-one before she died.”

“Yeah. Missy was really fuckin’ old too, Mom. Cats get old.”

Oh, I wish you wouldn’t swear!” she whines, and I ignore her as I make my way back to the living room.

“You ready to go, Pop?”

“Don’t you want to hold her a little bit before we go?”

“We don’t have time.” I’m not joining his histrionic ensemble piece. I gently pull Spotty into my lap. When she was younger she would race across the house whenever I sat down and dive bomb me, before curling up to go to sleep. She’s completely limp when I lift her up. Limp, but breathing. I lean over and open the top of the carrier, and set a couch pillow inside. I carefully lift Spots and lie her on the pillow. She doesn’t change position the whole time.

“Ryan, did the vet think about her gingivitis?” Mom asks suddenly, bolting into the living room. Her eyes are wide, like something huge has just occurred to her.

“No. Why?”

“Maybe she’s just not eating because her gums are bothering her. I think that’s why she’s so weak. Ask the vet about her gingivitis when you get there!”

“It’s not gingivitis, it’s her kidneys.”

“No, Ryan. Her gingivitis could affect her kidneys.” She affects the idiot note of condescension, the way people do when they have nothing else to stand on. “Gum disease causes a lot of problems.”

“I’ll run the AC in the car a bit.” My dad fumbles with his cane and his keys.

“Dad, I’ll just take her. My car’s right outside.”

“No, no. I…I want to be there.” He forces his voice to crack. My own prescription of antidepressants is nearing his in dosage size. Will I need to supplement them the way he does, with liberal doses of melodrama?

“You’re just going to let them kill her, aren’t you?” My mother’s eyes flash, the way I remember them flashing when I lived here. The cold gray rage she can only briefly mask. I was always guilty of something. Once she told me I rustled my comic book so I wouldn’t have to hear her yell at me. She had to keep me out of school for a week while the bruises faded. “You little bastard.”

I keep myself from laughing so as to avoid a spittle-flecked tantrum from her. She’s 5’1 and stooped. I could probably lift her with one hand and put her on a shelf if I wanted to. It wasn’t bastard that surprised me. It was little.

“You little brat!” Her lips are peeled back, showing yellowed teeth. Half of them are implants. The strays they’ve collected since my sister and I left home scatter to hide. “You never even took care of her! What gives you the right?”

They’ve gathered about twelve strays since I moved out. None of them are sterilized or inoculated. They scratch constantly at fleas. It would have been eighteen cats if not for me and Aggie. Spotty would have been mauled by the strays each of us adopted if we’d taken her out of the house. Aggie’s wrapping up her Master’s, so I foot the bill for her three’s vaccines each year.

“Please!” my father moans. He covers his face with both hands. “Please, let’s not make this any harder…!”

“He’s always criticizing!” Mom snaps to him. “Have you gotten them their shots?” She uses a bizarre, high-pitched tone to mock me, even though my voice is pretty deep. “Like we don’t know how to take care of our animals. We can’t afford to get all of them shots, Ryan.”

That affected condescension again.

“That’s right. You can’t afford to get them shots.”

“Do you see how he does?” my mother screams to my dad. My father wails behind his hands, to hide the fact that he’s not actually weeping. My parents bicker. I quickly slip outside and take Spotty to my car.

***

The vet gives Spotty the phenobarbital and throws the needle into the sanitizing bin. “I’m sorry for your kitty,” he says, and I can tell he means it. He leaves right after. The place is packed and they close the doors in five minutes.

Spotty’s breathing slows. I feel her heart stop. The vet’s aid cries a little. I don’t mind. I wrap Spotty in a towel, set her in the carrier, and walk out.

“Oh no,” one of the patrons moans, when she gets a look inside the carrier. She’s pale, wrinkled, her gray hair tied back but still somehow messy and everywhere.

“I’m so sorry.” She reaches out to grab my arm. “Can I get a look at your kitty?”

She grabs my elbow, and I swat at her hand. Not hard. I swing the way I did when I housebroke Spotty, when I’d pat her on the rump with a newspaper if she peed outside the litter box. My fingertips barely touch her knuckles, but I get the desired result. She yanks her hand back, shocked. I go out into the hot, noisy day with my dead cat. I was fourteen when I first took her to this place. I carried her in wrapped in a towel. When I handed her to the aid to get her fixed, she hooked her claws into the collar of my shirt, and mewled when they finally carried her into the kennels.

***

My mother is silent when I get back, and after a few moments of scowling in the kitchen she scurries down the hall to her bedroom and slams the door. Twice. My father has finally managed to produce actual tears, and he tries to pull me into a hug as I pass. I work my way out of his arms and go out to the back stoop for a smoke.

Mosquitoes buzz just out of reach of my cigarette. Two houses down, I can hear an old woman bellowing about the “Arabs” that live between her and my parents. Her adult son is trying to calm her down. The neighbors she’s complaining about are actually Pakistani, but I doubt she’d appreciate the difference. They live in a house that was only built two years ago, but it looks every bit the same age as my parent’s home. Everything ages fast in this part of town.

The carrier with Spotty’s carcass sits on the bottom step. Tree frogs duel cicadas in the trees. My clothes stick to me. I decide I won’t tell my parents I’ve left when I’m finished. I stub my smoke and grab a shovel from the garden shed. I don’t cry while I bury my cat. I do that later, in the privacy of my apartment. There, the memories of my childhood pet are felt in service to no one but myself. My cats sit in a ring around my ankles while I grieve. Later, when I go to bed, they all hop onto the comforter, and lie across my legs while I sleep.

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