Passing the Torch

(Courtesy of Vocal Media) Every family needs the tie that binds. That event or hobby which brings generations together. For my family, it had always been fishing.

We fished for fluke in the bays off the coast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey on a tiny boat with an engine more suited for a moped. The three of us—myself, my father, and grandfather wedged into the little boat laden with garage sale-purchased gear and the ubiquitous Styrofoam cooler crammed full of turkey and cheese sandwiches on Wonder Bread and pony bottles of Rolling Rock beer. Any hint of a breeze would send the lid cartwheeling across the boat, occasionally skipping like a stone on the water. As a rite of passage, I was offered a celebratory swig of beer whenever we caught fish—provided I wouldn’t tell my mom. The foamy, bitter soapiness of the beer lingered in my mouth long after we had reached the shore.

Eventually, my father earned enough money to move us out of my grandfather’s house. We settled into a two-bedroom apartment which seemed palatial at the time. My mother had free rein to decorate the apartment in whatever whimsy of the moment took hold. With its lush Kelley green shag carpeting, I reenacted intricate military jungle campaigns with my plastic army men. My father indulged her with only one caveat—he would be allowed to “repurpose” the hall coat closet.

The coat closet ran underneath the stairs leading to the second-floor apartment. It was a deceptively deep room that tapered down to the floor. My father came home from work and utilized rudimentary carpentry skills to add shelves and a desk while I was deep asleep.

And then it was complete.

Like a passage stolen from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, when the coats were pushed aside, my father had created one of the earliest known man-caves. It felt like an actual cave, given the slope of the ceiling and the claustrophobic feel of the coats that draped over you as you entered.

But it was here where he indulged his greatest passion, carefully crafting his own ties for fly fishing. I sat enraptured as his nimble fingers worked the scissors like a symphony conductor. He cut threads in a spectrum of fantastic colors and wrapped hooks, turning them this way and that. Wings and tails purchased from a store specializing in fly fishing tackle were trimmed with the expertise of a surgeon. The unfortunate Blue Jay or Cardinal that met an untimely demise in the apartment courtyard found its way into the closet. The stench of the telltale decomposition enraged my mother enough to invade the closet, wielding multiple cans of Lysol.

Few words were ever muttered in the closet. The ever-present snip, snip, snip of the scissors punctuated the air, followed by a Neaderthalic grunt of approval. The smell of the model cement he used to bind everything to the hook became intoxicating. We would leave the cave and sit outside on our stoop, staring at the night sky. We reminisced about fishing trips past and planned for the future.

After college, I didn’t get to see my father as often as I liked. We still managed to fish at least once a year. His patience with fly fishing in New Jersey had worn thin. Native rainbow trout populations had dwindled. The urban exodus that unleashed suburban gentrification encroached upon all of his favorite “secret” fishing holes, which had become places where rowdy, lust-laden teens full of liquid bravado courtesy of wine coolers scared away whatever fish still lingered.

With the financial burden of college shed, my father treated himself to the one luxury that ever mattered. He bought an 18-foot Chrysler Sport Runabout. My mother acquiesced, having discovered the joy of sitting on the docked boat and gossiping with the other sea-wives on neighboring boats as they passed bottles of white zinfandel.

My father named the boat “Sea Biscuit” in honor of the tenacious, undersized racehorse of the same name. True to its namesake, the little boat worked harder than ever intended, my father frequently taking it out beyond the bay and into the rolling shipping lanes of the Atlantic.

The boat felt like an amusement ride that was less amusing and far more terrifying than I would let on as it rocked in the four to six-foot chop. Legs braced and deftly working the scissors, my father trimmed lines and cut pieces of squid for bait. The plastic handle’s blaze orange color was more pronounced against the deep summer mahogany that graced his hands and forearms.

It didn’t matter if we caught fish on those trips. A newfound sense of inner peace imbued my father, and I was appreciative of capturing these moments of quiet honesty and reflection. Shared life stories about raising kids, paying mortgages, and the inevitable passing of time.

My young son joined us on fishing trips late in my father’s life. He would wrinkle his nose as my son boarded the boat with his bright pink tackle box in tow. My son had picked it out himself and said the color made him happy. I refused to argue with either one. As long as we were fishing, gentle ribbing was allowed.

As the hands of time sped up, my father’s hands slowed. The scissors with their glossy orange handles glowed over his mottled skin and the faded Marine Corps tattoo on his forearm. The scissors remained forever reliable, but his gnarled knuckles and unsteady hands betrayed him as he attempted to cut pieces of squid.

I fought back the tears as he held out the scissors to me in silence.

The scissors had become my birthright. He was handing off a piece of himself. The scissors were a gift that would never have made its way into his will but were more precious than anything else he owned. It was a piece of history. A witness to history.

Today, I take solace in knowing that the scissors continue to be put to good use. They remain a constant reminder of my father’s presence. When they are not being used, they are safely tucked away in my son’s newest tackle box.

The orange handles compliment the tackle box’s hot pink exterior.

Summer Lovin’

(Courtesy of Waterways Magazine)

I was 11 years old when Grease came out in 1978. My crush on Olivia Newton-John was immediate and all-consuming. I didn’t know which version of Sandy I loved more; the charming doe-eyed cheerleader who I longed to date, or the leather-clad, bad girl that stirred up feelings I didn’t quite understand.

I knew little about her other than she was from an exotic land called Australia. All I knew about Australia was it was a vast desert and everything there was trying to kill you; sharks, snakes, and spiders. She was the greatest export the country could have imagined; I assumed everyone looked like her. 

I created a special fund from a portion of my allowance, which became a portion of my summer jobs in high school, to cover the cost of a transpacific journey. I would one day find a “Sandy” of my own.

Despite my best efforts at saving, it was quite apparent that Australia was:

A. Very far away.

B. Extremely expensive to get to. 

Why was it so expensive to visit a vast desert overrun with koalas, kangaroos, snakes, spiders, and surrounded by sharks? Evidently, thousands of other teenagers knew about the goldmine of blonde hair, blue-eyed girls with exotic accents just waiting to be discovered. The risk and cost were worth the undertaking.

In high school, I made a second investment- in myself. I got a gym membership once I realized that no good Aussie woman wanted some gangly teen when you had the likes of Crocodile Dundee running around all bare-sleeved and wielding a machete. 

I realized that if it took longer than thought, it would be important for me to be somewhat appealing for the girls of boring old Austin. The only thing they shared in common with the Australians was the first four letters of the respective destination.  Beyond that, they were both literally and figuratively worlds apart. 

My Australian fetish earned me the nickname “Crock Dundee.” I went through alternating stages of being flattered and embarrassed. While most kids fell into the deep 80’s goth vibe and worshipped at the altar of Robert Smith and The Cure and Sisters Of Mercy, I went all-in on Midnight Oil, INXS, and naturally, the guys who practically created the new Australian National Anthem, Men at Work. 

As a teenager, I remained diligent in my savings. College loomed on the horizon and a potential semester abroad in Australia was not out of the question. Worst case scenario, I could use the money to buy a bunch of cans of Foster’s and live the dream from my dorm.

At the University of Texas in Austin, I studied International Relations. I looked at the school like it was a community college since I was from Austin, but it held the key to my happiness. 

At the beginning of my junior year, my dream presented itself as a reality. Through a joint program with the University of Melbourne, I would be able to do my spring semester abroad. Australia and “Sandy” were closer to becoming a reality; I could put my obsession with Olivia Newton-John and Kylie Minogue aside (for the time being.)

I could barely contain myself on the evening of the informational meeting. I wasn’t a nerd in the traditional sense, but I sat in the front of the class, ready to answer any questions and share the depths of my knowledge with the rest of my classmates. Perhaps I could be the professor’s assistant, given my background and inherent qualifications.

From the back of the class, a voice called to me. Wild Tasmanian honey; sweeter than Olivia Newton John’s, laden with the promise of the treasures from the land down under. I held my breath as she announced that she would be the professors’ assistant for the semester in Austin. It was a subtle blow but immediately forgotten as she lured me in with her Siren song. She would be accompanying us in our Melbourne study program, and serve as the coordinator in Austin. 

What I would tell my parents? I hadn’t even stepped foot on the soil of my obsession and already found the woman of my dreams. Surely she would want to introduce me to her family while we studied there. Attempting to appear nonchalant, I turned in my seat to see my angel whose every sentence had an upwards lilt like she was asking a question.

I was stunned by the vision before me. Thick, black, ropy hair. Her skin the color of pure coal, with piercing black eyes that radiated joyous mischief. She looked like nothing I had ever expected, and yet, as she waxed poetic about her family’s native aboriginal lands, I was wholly consumed by her passion and fire.

As the semester went on she taught about the parallels between the treatment of America’s Native Americans and Australia’s Aboriginals. She spoke with fierce pride and generations of knowledge. I was in love beyond compare. 

Under the pretense of class-specific study help, I asked her to join me for coffee. Coffees became beers, beers became intimate dinners, then weekends exploring Texas. By the end of the semester, she was as enamored with me and Texas, as I was with her and Australia.

We sat hand in hand as the plane taxied down the runway. I was 23 hours plus a layover away from my wildest fantasies coming true. When the program ended, her family invited me to spend the summer with them. 

At the end of the summer, I had mustered up enough courage to ask her father for her hand in marriage. It was an antiquated gesture; she would have made up her own mind without his input, but I wanted to show respect. His initial response was less than favorable, but over time, I wore him down. With a promise of waiting until after graduation and graduate school, he gave me his blessing. I was going to be an anthropologist studying in the southern hemisphere with his daughter in tow. 

A few years waiting was water off a duck’s back. I had already waited a lifetime to meet her and make my dream a reality. Her name was Boondie, which was Aboriginal for “hardened clump of sand.”

I had met my “Sandy” after all.

Clementine

(Courtesy of Black Cat Literary Magazine) The patron behind me stood slack-jawed. It was her fault, but I shouldn’t have been triggered so easily.
Her words reverberated in my head.
“Well now I know what solitary confinement feels like. I’ve had ENOUGH of this lockdown,” she
sniffed.
“Have you ever taken a shit in front of somebody,” I menaced.
I wanted her to bathe in the mystery of my malevolence even if I had zero interest in harming her. I
felt guilty for the outburst and knew I’d have to bring it up with my therapist later in the week.
One step forward; two steps back.
“Have you ever taken a SHIT in front of somebody,” I repeated, louder.
The contorted rictus of horror that fought her Botox-tamed fret lines was priceless. She ached to disappear behind her perfectly perched Ray Bans nestled in her messy platinum-tinted bun. This was the most
satisfaction I’d had since getting out, and there was no way I was going to squander it.
“Eaten nothing but two slices of baloney on plain white bread, three times a day? Talked to groundhogs outside your window because they were the only living beings you could see?”
The steady flow of avocados, dry sea scallops, and soy milk from her cart ground to a halt.
The cashier flashed a beatific smile. His enjoyment watching the preternaturally blonde Stepford
Wife being knocked down a few rungs was palpable. Her only notion of “struggle” was wrestling a stubborn
cork from her requisite midday bottle of pinot grigio.
I wanted her to understand that my inability to fit in created a raging tempest that lurked below the
surface. The occasional desire to split someone’s skull open with both hands like I was cracking a coconut at
the slightest perception of disrespect. Occasionally these thoughts traversed the deepest recesses of my mind
and bubbled to the surface.
Ironic, given I served time for a non-violent offense.
While incarcerated, violence was my companion in the jungle lair that had become my home. Violence eventually manifested itself on a genetic level and remained in my DNA when I left. Perceived injustices and affronts would build to a feverish pitch and rustled like a thousand screaming cicadas trapped
inside my head.
The Stepford Wife couldn’t possibly understand the irony of being released from prison to home confinement, and then being placed on quarantine a few days later. Even God doesn’t have the poet’s touch to
handwrite that narrative. I was free, but I wasn’t out. Weekly trips to the market or church were the extent of
my societal reintegration.
Black Cat Literary Magazine 57
The transition didn’t come easy.
I engaged in overzealous conversations with strangers while waiting for deli meat to be sliced. The
borderline pathological need to feel “normal,” suffocated me. I relished inane small talk about sports which I
loathed, or made up stories about children I didn’t have. All borne from a desire to blend into the intersectional spaces of life where I’m simultaneously seen, yet remained a blur in the background.
How I longed to walk the aisles of the market humming the vaguely recognizable “muzak” without
looking over my shoulder to see if I was about to get busted for grabbing a few stray blueberries. I’d be sent
back for a minor parole violation. This was my new reality.
The patron’s mouth moved but words failed her. She could never comprehend that thoughts of a
freshly sliced pineapple or a loaf of multi-grain bread whose seeds would lodge in your teeth for days, could
arouse more of a carnal desire in prison than anything else.
My misdirected wave of rancor passed. She would leave, ensconced in the safety of her white Range
Rover, and I would be fodder for animated conversations over hard seltzers with other trophy wives, while I
waited for the bus. Forever relegated to the unwashed and unseen denizens that lurked in lurid headlines.
My therapist encouraged me to be more Zen-like. Let things go.
I tried and failed more often than not.
I offered my best roguishly charming smile in an attempt to salvage the situation. If I got one person
to understand my world, maybe the Butterfly Effect would take wing and light upon others in her circle.
My naiveté knew no bounds.
“I recognize that this whole quarantine thing may indeed feel like you are in solitary confinement,
but I assure you, this isn’t so bad.”
I looked at a bag of fruit she placed on the conveyor belt.
“Are those clementines or mandarins? I really don’t know the difference between the two.”
“Clementines,” she demurred.
I turned to the cashier to pay, proud for not needing food stamps even though I was entitled to them.
Far from a drag on society’s teat, I was the epitome of rehabilitation and redemption. A threat to no one but
myself.
The cashier offered me a conspiratorial wink and mumbled, “York Correctional.”
“Danbury Federal,” I nodded. The brotherhood acknowledged.
I grabbed my bags and wished the Lululemon-clad statue an exuberant, “Good day!”
“You… too,” she stammered.
The cashier broke the tension with an overzealous, “And how are you today,” as he greeted her.
“Clementines would be nice,” I thought. I’d have to get them next week.

Harlan

(Courtesy of Mythic Picnic Magazine/ 3rd Place Micro Fiction Contest Winner)

The week before I was remanded to prison, I put my dog Harlan, down. It was as if he knew I was going to be gone longer than the time he had left, and in the noblest act of sacrifice, he forced his organs to fail and left me with no choice.

My son was 8 and didn’t understand the magnitude of loss or how temporal time was. All he knew was that Harlan, his companion from birth who he referred to as his brother, was leaving and never coming back. I was about to do the same; it was neither acceptable nor forgivable.

At prison the groundhogs were as tame as puppies. You could feed them apples smuggled from the chow hall right out of your hand. I named each one of them “Harlan” and begged for forgiveness every time I gave them an apple.

The absolution never came.

The Boss

(Courtesy of Skyway Journal)

Buying a pack of Marlboros for my dad, fifty cents.

The dead eyed, pimple-ridden clerk behind the counter doesn’t question me.

Nobody cares if I’m 13.

Rushing back to the running car, freedom awaited two hours down the blackened asphalt of the Jersey Turnpike.

Plink, Plink, Plink,

Dimes tossed into toll booth collection buckets

A staccato accompaniment to Hall and Oates’ “Maneater” blaring through the Pontiac’s tinny speakers.

Early morning push-ups till my arms numbed so my pubescent muscles would pop when I took off my counterfeit Polo shirt on the beach.

My corduroy Ocean Pacific shorts were legit and made me feel like one of the Beach Boys, even if they chafed. 

Creosote wrapped oily-tar scented arms around me,

Greetings from a long lost friend when we arrived at the boardwalk.

Pina colada-scented tanning oil a heady aphrodisiac as I trudged the grey-white sand strewn with pock marked clam shells like broken teeth.

Thundering waves and braying gulls were drowned out by

Clusters of girls in audacious neon bikinis belting out Cyndi Lauper’s “She-Bop.”

They had no idea it was an ode to masturbation.

I didn’t know that either, but it didn’t matter as I watched them adjust

Black rubber Madonna-inspired bracelets attempting to even out their tans.

My own carnal desires

Torn between the teased-up big hair and oiled bodies glistening in the summer sun and the

Sweetly pungent smell of fry grease from funnel cakes on the boardwalk.

Each promised instant gratification, and ultimately, regret and disappointment.

This was as close to heaven as a 13 year old could get.

Because it was the 80’s

It was New Jersey

Bruce Springsteen told me anything was possible at the Jersey Shore.

The Merry Go Round of SpringWood Park

(Courtesy of Waterways Magazine)

Peter looked anxiously at his watch. The school bus was running late, again. Depending on traffic, the parking lot at the Springwood Parks Playground would be full. It was a crapshoot every week, especially in the early spring. Everyone with a hint of cabin fever was eager to get outside and shed a few layers of clothes. 

He knew Max preferred Zilker Park. It was tough to argue with a six-year-old; the park did have everything. Trying to keep him from riding the Zilker Zephyr was a challenge in itself. The one thing Zilker didn’t have was, “her.”

Peter had no idea who “she,” the young raven-haired mom was. He had seen her on his last several trips to the park. Friendly smiles of acknowledgment were exchanged. The late afternoon Texas sun framed her head reminding him of religious frescoes he studied as an undergrad. 

Her daughter was roughly the same age as Max. He watched them playing on the merry go round together, but never long enough to spark a conversation between the parents. How much of a monster was he hoping that Max would push the merry go round too hard and knock her off? He would rush over profusely apologetic. His son was more of a gentleman than he.

This is what life has become. Hoping his child acts like a sociopath in order to foster an introduction. Well- adjusted adults simply made small talk about how nicely the kids got along, school, or the weather. This is what outgoing, socially adaptable people did. 

Peter was far from outgoing. Introverted to a fault, he would never have met his former wife had serendipity not intervened and paired them as writing partners during graduate school. The trips to the park were her domain. It wasn’t a patrician choice; it was due to his crippling social anxiety. He would gladly handle all domestic chores in the house in order to limit interactions with the outside world.

He was human nonetheless, and had needs. They were kept firmly locked down in the deepest recesses of his mind. It wasn’t so much a suffering of wanton biological urges. He was lonely. The comfort of daily routines was missing. Small talk about the mundane of any given day gave way to shopping lists and half-hearted battles over what to watch on Netflix. It was about the routine and the regular, and he was out of sync without it.

He had long made peace with the angry demons that tormented him. The days of cursing doctors in their white coats with their hushed tones explaining hospice care while holding his wife’s hand among a tangle of squid-like wires had long passed.

Mourning had no timeframe, but an internal clock reminded him of the need for some level of companionship. The opportunity seemingly presented itself once a week when they saw each other in the park. 

Peter noticed she didn’t wear a wedding ring. It really didn’t signify anything, but at least he felt he could approach safely without appearing crass or inappropriate. 

Even if he did approach, he had no idea what to say. Pithy, “Lovely day, isn’t it” or “They grow up so fast” just seemed painfully clichéd. 

These were the thoughts that crippled him on the way to the park. Each week was going to be “the day,” but the courage was never mustered and the opportunity was squandered. 

Today would be different. It was a solemn vow, although he had no idea who would hold him accountable.

The yellow bus’s hulking presence shuddered to a halt, and Max scrambled off eagerly into Peter’s waiting arms. They were both enthusiastic to go to the park. Max chattered away about the highly important second grade details of the day. His enthusiasm was contagious, giving Peter’s courage a further spike.

Pulling into the parking lot, Peter craned his head at the parked cars trying to determine which was “hers.”

Max made an immediate beeline to the merry go round. Peter gave an obligatory, “Be careful” tinged with a hint of dejection. Searching the park, his raven-haired ghost was nowhere to be seen. 

After ten minutes, he let out an audible sigh. It looked like he missed her this week. Perhaps, he may never see her again. His mind dissolved into a series of “what if’s” as the click, click, click of the merry go round mocked him in the background.

Lost in his thoughts he looked up in a panic having lost track of Max. A father’s greatest fear realized as he was selfishly playing house in the long dormant recesses of his mind.

Peter caught a glimpse of Max by in a patch of wild flowers just off the entrance to the hiking trail. 

Max brightened as Peter rushed over face red and ready to reprimand him for wandering off.

“Here, daddy.”

Max handed Peter a miniature bouquet of wildflowers. It deflated the whirlwind of parental anger and anguish that had gripped him. Peter’s face softened; Max scrunched up his own.

“Not for you. For her!” 

Max motioned towards the mysterious mom who was exiting the hiking trail and entering the park with her miniature raven-haired replica in tow.

Before Peter could say anything, Max blurted out, “My daddy got you flowers!”

Sheepishly, Peter approached, the crimson in his cheeks matching the red Hurricane lilies he clutched with a vise like grip.

Despite clearing his throat, Peter croaked out his introduction.

“I see our kids know each other.”

Her radiant smile defrosted the coating of ice that blanketed his heart.

“I’m Maria. The flowers are beautiful.”

Max giggled and raced off hand in hand with Maria’s daughter to the merry go round. 

Goodbye Bowie

(Courtesy of Flash Fiction Magazine)

Jake lay with his head in my lap as we sat in the back seat. His mom had been driving for nearly four hours. Nobody had slept; we existed in the cobwebby Neverland between slumber and consciousness.

“The Man Who Sold the World” played as we took the long drive up to the gatehouse. I preferred Bowie’s original version over the Nirvana cover. Both of them were dead now. They both saw their impending deaths: Bowie by cancer, Cobain by his own hand. It’s a hell of a thing knowing when you were going to die. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. I envied them. I wasn’t close to death, but I was about to enter Hell. Purgatory was years away, at least three to five, according to the judge.

We got out of the car and stretched our contorted bodies back to life. Nobody had spoken for the better part of the ride; there was nothing left to say. Apologies had exploded forth furiously days and weeks prior. Hopeful ruminations at this point seemed fruitless, especially in the shadows of the gun towers and razor wire.

We walked a funeral dirge to the intake building. Inmates on a work detail sized me up in the camouflage of their bland khakis and nondescript faces. I paused before stepping inside and surveyed the surroundings. The gauzy, lemon-butter sunrise over the farms and the hayfields in the distance seemed stolen from an Edward Hopper painting. The sun-bleached maroon siding of the barn was the last vivid color I would remember besides the gentle Delft blue of my son’s eyes.

Bathed in a sallow fluorescent light that died on deadened gray concrete walls, I stepped towards the reinforced plexiglass window and handed in my paperwork. Hunger gnawed at me. Nerves had gotten the better of me, and I’d passed on breakfast. There had been no final meal. My attempt to drown my sorrows and poison myself in order to forget what lay ahead fittingly ended with a spoiled bottle of wine too rancid to drink.

Jake’s grip on my hand tightened as a guard approached. My ex-wife, Jessica, aged in front of me. Pain and anger stripped her of the ability to process the moment and how we got here. Wearing my best liar’s smile, I told her everything would be fine. Jess was a clip-winged angel who walked the earth. Ostracized by close friends and family due to her unwavering support for the person I once was and had the potential to be. I worshipped St. Jessica of the Permanently Lost Cause. She saved my life, and I owed her significantly more than that. Words were the only currency I had to repay her, and I was bankrupt.

I knelt down and locked eyes with Jake as I clutched his shoulders. Mumbled ramblings of impending phone calls in a few weeks, visits once a month. I was his hero, a god in those eyes full of mythic wonder. Now I was Icarus plummeting to earth, and he was a horrified onlooker. His eyes, flashing aquamarine seas, were uncomprehending and raged with denial.

In a few short months, the Green Power Ranger would replace me as his hero. A hastily concocted shrine to me, consisting of photos, letters, and random ephemera from movies and concerts we attended, would languish on a shelf.

Jake was perched on a precipice that crumbled beneath him. His nine-year-old brain short-circuited as he struggled for words. To say something. Anything. A sacred mantra that would make this moment stop. He believed he had “healing hands;” his touch could render any harm asunder. He placed them on my heart, then face. Searching for a purchase that somehow would work its magic.

This was a place bereft of magic and hope, where “healing hands” were powerless. The only magic was in the disappearing act the calendar provided.

“Abracadabra;” and a day passed.

“Hocus Pocus;” a month.

His lip quivered; my fingers sank deeper into his shoulders.

“Do not give them the satisfaction,” I gritted through a smile.

Serendipity dawned; recognition registered. I was his hero again. The original Captain America. Impenetrable. A sly grin crossed his lips. Came and passed like a sun peeking out through the clouds during a hurricane.

“Wrap it up.” Neither gruff nor ominous, compassionless and detached.

“One minute.”

I was a waterfall of hushed, urgent platitudes. Be brave, be a good boy for your mom, focus on school, channel your anger into sports. I was imploding, a supernova feeding on myself when I needed to be strong.

For Jake.

For Jess.

For me.

My first impression inside couldn’t be made with tears in my eyes. I hugged him until our hearts touched and cradled each other.

“Let’s go.”

“In a fucking minute,” I barked.

That would cost me. I was allotted the briefest moment of empathy. Maybe he was a father. Maybe there was an ounce of humanity, of decency, here.

I kissed Jake on the forehead; hugged Jess.

We huddled, and I whispered, “Day one is almost done.”

The guard led me away, and I refused to look back. “I love you, Daddy,” echoed and fell from decrepit institutional walls. Love wouldn’t stick there. It stuck to my heart, embedded in my brain.

I raised a fist in defiance. In acknowledgment. I was Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club, our favorite movie.

I was led into a stark concrete room with a metal bench.

“Strip.”

I was already naked in every sense of the word. Jake and Jess hadn’t even left the grounds and my soul was now laid bare.

Day one was almost done.

Bowie reverberated in my mind. Broken lyrics about having died long ago. I was cognizant of my own death. Unlike Bowie, I had the luxury of being born again, baptized in the primordial ooze that was prison.

I’d get the chance the Thin White Duke didn’t have.

Boys of Summer

(Courtesy of Skyways Journal)

Shirts of fuchsia and daisy yellow meant to emasculate us

Instead becoming our new gang colors worn with pride

Old allegiances were forgotten while

New beefs were created

We wore borrowed equipment

Gloves worn with the sweat of ten inmates prior

Bats, rationed under the ever wrathful eyes

Of guards taking leave of their bullying

To be entertained

Shagging fly balls in the summer sun

Razor wire glistened

Marking the left field fence

Every man who stepped on the gravel-infused dusty hard pack

Returned to a lost youth

Once full of promise

The Chief and the Folding Chair

(Courtesy of Resevoir Road Literary Review)

The Chief had enjoyed two successful, medal-bedecked tours in the jungles of Vietnam. He enjoyed being in the thick of things, but a Purple Heart was as good a sign as any that it was time to settle down. He and his seed found a home in blue-collar Boonton, New Jersey. His pregnant wife was the daughter of an ultra-conservative WASP family. The Chief was the perfect vessel for her to raise a middle finger to the draconian, conservative values beaten into her.

Before I was born, the root of The Chief’s disappointment in me took shape on the sonogram. “Doesn’t look like much” was the most enthusiasm he mustered at the shadowy black-and-white image of me in the womb.

When I turned five, he cursed my lack of athleticism and my status as a “mama’s boy.”

At ten, I was an albatross around his neck. A constant reminder of his lack of upward mobility as he skulked from sales job to sales job. The Chief had a propensity for calling superiors “jackasses.” It happened whenever he felt suffocated by management. Which was often.

I was an awkward teen; pencil-necked and all ears and nose. I resembled a poorly fired, three-handled mug. Quality time with The Chief was an hour or two on the weekends when we laced up boxing gloves and sparred. The Chief never pulled punches. He wasn’t averse to taking the occasional cheap shot, either.

“Until he learns to block and counter, he’s always going to get hurt. Quit babying him!” 

It was a refrain that forever echoed in my head. Once the ringing stopped. 

“Street fights aren’t sanctioned events.”

Once, I blocked an errant right cross and countered with a left that made his legs buckle. My mother gasped fearing the retaliation.

The Chief drew back, sizing me up. I tensed and waited for an onslaught that never materialized. He made a grand show of unlacing his gloves and marched me to the kitchen. He took out two Rolling Rock ponies and dismissed my mother’s objections with a wave of his hand.

I was embraced with his conspirator’s toast, “She wouldn’t understand.”

He finished the lager in two quick pulls and said, “Remember, you aren’t shooting blanks anymore.”

Our eyes locked yet we remained worlds apart. I choked down the remnants of the bitter elixir that welcomed me to manhood.

My weekends sparring with The Chief were fortuitous. James Glickston tormented me on the way home from school for a week. His younger brother Daniel received a flurry of body blows from me after he attempted to steal baseball cards from my desk. James sought revenge. Four years and the biological advantage of puberty loomed large on his side. James stood six inches taller and was sixty pounds heavier than me. Severe acne boasted the rancid ugliness that lay inside him. 

We stood frozen on my front lawn in the amber-colored late fall afternoon. A dazzling patchwork blanket of scarlet-, tangerine-, and lemon-colored leaves crunched beneath us as we slowly circled each other.

I shrugged my book bag to the ground and sighed. My defiant boxer’s pose excited James.

“You are so dead,” he hissed as he curled into his awkward fighting stance.

My legs turned Judas, eager to betray me and carry me to the safety of my mother’s arms. I maintained our mongoose dance, aware that today was as good as any day to die. It afforded me an existentialist Zen.

I shed the anchor of my father’s disappointment.

James took one step forward, then hesitated as he looked toward my front porch. The Chief walked out carrying a folding aluminum chair. The type with nylon ribbons notorious for leaving chafing, crosshatched marks on your ass and lower back. The Chief sat down, crossed his arms, exasperated. We had interrupted his afternoon plans.

James was confused. “Your dad?” he asked.

I nodded.

He hesitated, expecting some ill rebuke. I prayed for intervention, divine or otherwise. The Chief let out an annoyed snort indicating his displeasure with the lack of activity.

“That’s messed up,” James snarled, and then he launched a slow-motion haymaker. 

An eternity passed as it traveled through the air. I left my body and watched the scene unfold. Instinctively, I slipped and ducked the punch. A rising uppercut connected with his well-exposed, pimple-ridden nose.

I felt The Chief quicken as he drew to the edge of his rainbow-colored seat. The sickeningly sweet feeling of bone driven through cartilage reverberated up my arm, through my shoulder, and into my bloodstream. James was unconscious and listed like a felled tree. He was a hieroglyphic on a maple-leaf-strewn tapestry.

The Chief sprung from the porch and thrust me in the air!

I was Kounta Kinte. I was Simba. I was the pride of his loins. He held me aloft; the world spun and dazzled me. 

I wanted to cry.

I wanted to vomit. 

Most of all, I never wanted this feeling to end.

“We’re going for ice cream!” he declared to the world.

We piled into the Monte Carlo. James remained prone on the front lawn as we left. I pointed and attempted to express some modicum of concern. 

The Chief waved his hand. “He’ll be fine. We’ll bring him back something.” 

Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” played on the radio. The Chief hummed along. I never recalled him turning on the radio. Or liking music.

“I like the key changes,” he said, reading my mind. 

I shared the front seat with a total stranger. The waning autumn sun danced through the broken stained glass canopy of the towering trees. Confused feelings dispersed as I focused on ice cream.

Everything was right in the world if you could sit and share ice cream with your father.