HAPLESS MALES 35

MR. CARTON CONFRONTS HIS DEMONS

After his recent trauma at his neighbor’s housewarming party, Mr. Carton took renewed delight in his simple house. Comfort at the shades that went up and down with the pull of a cord. Appreciation for the fireplace that accommodated real logs, lit with a match, even though most days were spare the air days. Satisfaction in the brass faucets that turned on and off with a twist of the wrist. Mostly off, anyway. The one in the bathroom leaked but that was a piddling annoyance. Overall his satisfaction could hardly be improved upon, and the same could be said about Charlene’s, despite the fact there had been in the past some sharp words between them about the desirability of a remodeled kitchen, Charlene stubbornly in favor and he stubbornly opposed.

The holidays were approaching. Charlene came home from work with a Christmas tree. If you knew Charlene, you would be as surprised as Mr. Carton was. Charlene was not someone to get in the wassailing mood. Mr. Carton knew better than to ask what got into her. For days the tree stood in a corner like the new kid at the orphanage. Finally Mr. Carton asked if she minded if he put some tinsel on it, maybe a few lights, and Charlene didn’t seem to care one way or another. So he proceeded. With Christmas trees, unless you are a very tasteful person, there is always the possibility, even the compulsion, to add one more ornament, and Mr. Carton had no particular loyalty to tastefulness. He trolled thrift stores looking for curiosities to drape over the needles. After a while a sort of theme emerged. Angels. They were not hard to find. The one he strapped to the treetop played Silent Night on a harp at the press of a button. Others blinked little strobes. Most were just the normal kind with dresses fanning from the velocities of flight.

Themes breed variations. Light needs dark. At one of the stores he found a wooden little devil. The demon’s perch in the needles surrounded by angels would be a kind of visual joke. However Mr. Carton did not stop at one. He began to focus on finding diabolical images of whatever incarnation, trolls, imps, gremlins, many the dreary backwash from Halloween but some with real personality and quirky talents. Eyes that lit up red. One that catcalled. Cute little devils especially excited him, as they do most people.

One evening, cinnamon-scented cider steaming on the stove, Mr. Carton was in his study when he became aware of a sound that, were it not so regular, might be mistaken for a mouse under a cat’s paw. Clearly it was something mechanical. Mr. Carton inspected the panoply of devices umbilically attached to the surge supressor. None of them had gone rogue for years, and he more or less trusted them to keep the peace.

The sound was barely audible but it was never inaudible. It was auditory water torture. He put on a CD of Earth Wind and Fire. The sound came through the music like a needle through a ball of cotton……cheep………cheep.

Mr. Carton took apart his phone. He turned off his printer and then the computer. The sound was louder now. It might be coming from the living room. Maybe from the Christmas tree. He had a moment of panic, fearing that he might have imported into his house an electronic bug under the skirt of one of the blinking angels or in the malevolent intention of red-eyed grimacing gremlin.

Here we should say that Mr. Carton, while proud of his intrinsic rationality, suspected to the point of near certainty that gremlins, virtual but demonstrably real, invaded electrical systems and one had to be vigilant against them. Not that he knew what vigilance entailed exactly but the willingness was there.

The cheeping persisted, every 17 seconds. Mr. Carton was halfway through dismantling the tree when Charlene got home from her Pilates class. After a half minute of reconnoitering, Charlene said, “It’s the carbon monoxide detector. The one in the hall. It probably needs new batteries. Have you changed them lately?”

What a peculiar question. Of course he had not. He had forgotten the device existed. The guy who installed it did so without asking. “You wouldn’t want to fall asleep and wake up dead.” How could Mr. Carton argue against that?

There might be some batteries in the kitchen drawer,” Charlene said. “They might still be good. I’m late for meditation. Bye. By the way, the pot on the stove has boiled dry. Don’t you smell it? One of these days you’re going to burn the house down.”

The demons lounging in the shadow of the Christmas tree mocked him. They would be in their element if he burned the house down. He decided to put them in the trash. They had worn out their welcome.

Change the batteries; that was doable. Double A. Did batteries lose power sitting in a drawer?

He replaced the old ones. Another cheep, louder, angry. He had one battery upside down. Sorry, he righted it. Cheep it went again. Aggressive. Cheep. Mean. Cheep. Hostile. He took the batteries out and was relieved the infernal device shut up. Two minutes of silence ensued. Balm in Gilead.

He was exhausted. As he usually did this time of evening, he sank into his easy chair and was about to cast off into oblivion when he sat upright with a start. What if the device was trying to tell him something? What if his snooze was the carriage that would bear him into eternity? He stood up quickly and opened the door to a cold blast of air, breathing in rapidly. It was raining, and drops were splashing onto the refinished oak floor. Charlene would kill him if it got water-stained. He closed the door and wiped the floor dry. The wall heater crackled, kicking back into operation. Was it trying to kill him?

Despite the risks, he sat back down in his easy chair to consider his options. It was raining heavily now. If he cracked a window would it make a difference? He stood and walked around the room. Did he feel like his own electrical systems were blinking out? The only feeling he could identify was an incredible sadness for himself. He was not ready to die and leave his happy home and his beloved Charlene, but he couldn’t keep walking around opening doors all night. He sat back down.

When Charlene got home, she tried unsuccessfully to rouse him and send him off to bed but she couldn’t. It was between two-thirty and three a.m. when his being heaved up into consciousness. His cellphone was insistently signaling a depleted battery. He usually hated the way it would always wait to do this until the wee hours of night but now he was so grateful to it for letting him know he was still alive.

HAPLESS MALES #34 (The reappearance of Mr. Carton)

OPEN HOUSE

“Stick Eastlake Cottage Style” was definitely a misrepresentation of the house as well as a potential marketing blunder. Mr. Carton had been friendly to the previous owners, the Ryans, and had visited the house on more than one occasion. He knew it had at least four, maybe five bedrooms and at least two and a half baths. It was not a cottage by any standards, as if people were looking for cottages. They were not. If it was a blunder, it was inconsequential. The house fetched a stratospheric price, paid in cash by a Twitter mucketymuck who, despite the price tag, decided it was alarmingly small and merited complete gutting. How can one live in a house without a four-car garage, a gym, and a solarium?

Caterpillars and trucks and cement mixers, most of which exceeded size and weight restrictions groaned up and down the steep hill, day after day after day. A mudslide put its reptile tongue into the street. A crane tipped onto a well-meaning Subaru. Oil shimmered on the asphalt in rainbow colors. The only thing that gained consensus on the block was the Twitter guy was a twit. That was Mr. Carton’s witticism.

Neither Mr. Carton nor his wife Charlene were willing to scuttle their resentments—four years is a long incubation—when one day they received in the mail an elegant invitation to a housewarming. The house was finished at last. The invitation made a stab at being ingratiating, acknowledging the disruptions of construction, adding a breezy plea for forgiveness. It came across as flippant. Charlene said at once she would not set foot in that monstrosity, but Mr. Carton hedged. It seemed a moral dereliction not to get some compensation for their inconvenience. A little was better than none. The spread would be extravagant, the wines premium. Mr. Carton was not one to get snooty when it came to a buffet.

He was, naturally, curious about the house too. What took four years? How did these young masters of the universe spend their mega-bucks?

Once inside the house it took about five minutes to come to a conclusion. Everything in the house was wired. The silvery blinds were opened and closed by sensors. There was news from electronic messengers in nearly every surface. Mr. Carton had been reading about houses like this, that it was the wave of the future whether he wanted a house like that or not. He was sure he didn’t.

The party was mostly happening on the patio. The mucketymuck—Mr. Carton assumed it was him—was lording it over a grill so hefty it had tractor wheels. Some of Mr. Carton’s neighbors, several of whom had been the most vituperative about the remodel, were basking in the charcoal glow of Mega Bucks. Mr. Carton didn’t bother to present himself.

The garden surrounding the ballroom was surreal in its colorfulness, as if someone had just bought out Berkeley Hort. On a long table in the ballroom festooned with floral arrangements was the spread, grand as it better be. Mr. Carton could barely pull himself away from the cheese plate. Plates.

All the doors in the house were open and nobody seemed to mind Mr. Carton snooping around. The glass side table he put his empty plate on had embedded wires. What marvels did the table accomplish? Mr. Carton tried to access his deepest desires regarding how a table might behave when being an ordinary table was too lame a destiny.

Mr. Carton’s curiosity was not yet sated, though his stomach was getting there. Alone inside the edifice he climbed the white-carpeted staircase slightly worried he might be tracking in something and that as a consequence the house would have to be gutted and begun anew.  Who in their right minds would put in white carpets?   At the top floor, the Variance that had been a flashpoint of neighborhood anger, he discovered what he surmised would become the master bedroom—the mattress on the bed was bare, the closets empty. Windows commanded the cinematic sweep of the Golden Gate. Despite his best intentions, Mr. Carton fell face first into a swamp of awe and envy, both of which he felt compelled to purge himself of immediately.

Wine did wonders for loosening the rust on Mr. Carton’s decision-making machinery. He was on his third glass. He decided on the basic method of purgation, at once symbolic and literal if he wanted to think in those terms.

In the adjacent bathroom—the word didn’t seem quite adequate for this chamber–experimentation succeed in getting the lights to come on and settle into a merciless glare. Which of these pads controlled the dimmer? He tried one and the door slipped sibilantly shut. Mr. Carton made a mental note of that switch. What other surprises awaited? He undid his belt and lowered his trousers, but before he sat he took a second look to make sure he had the correct destination. It may have been the apogee of some lunatic Scandinavian’s design career but it was still by any measure a toilet bowl. As he sat down it immediately flushed, which seemed disconcertingly like an insult he could take personally. He moved his arm and was amused when a decorous length of toilet paper unspooled for him. He repeated the gesture twice more. He couldn’t wait to tell Charlene about this.

The lights went out. Mr. Carton wiped himself and stood , pulling up his trousers. It was very dark. There was no flushing sound. Eventually he noticed a thumb-size light over what he guessed was the lavatory, and took small steps toward it. He put his finger onto it hoping that it do something but nothing happened. He felt his way back to the door switch. Where he thought it was. He pressed his palms up and down the wall. He couldn’t tell if he was hitting the switch or porcelain tiles.

The electricity had gone out. A fuse maybe. Surely a house like this, in  thrall to its gadgets, would have a back-up source of power. He knew that if were patient, his patience would be rewarded.

Mr. Carton could not hear any sounds except for a firetruck, then another, emerging from the station on Stanyan Street. Fortunately Mr. Carton had his phone, and his phone had a signal. He called Charlene, but Charlene did not answer. She was watching television. Her phone was in the bedroom. She was more likely asleep on the couch and would not look at her phone until ten in the morning. He left a message anyway full of the general details of his predicament. Should he call someone else? The fire department? 911? That would be his last resort. If he knew the hashtag of the Head Tweetster he could send him an SOS, but of course Mr. Carton didn’t even know what a hashtag was. LOL.

He thought his eyes might get adjusted to the darkness but there was not enough light to adjust to. His phone beeped but it was not Charlene, it was only a warning that his battery was running down. For some reason, this tossed him right into the deep waters of panic. He pounded with his fist against the porcelain making thumps that no one could possibly hear.

Time flowed like sludge. A half hour? An hour? Mr. Carton’s ears echoed from his halooing. No one came for him. He felt his way back to the toilet bowl and sat down again and in this thinking pose, began to think he was losing his cool. Maybe even a little of his mind. This was a nightmare from which it was time to awake, but he could not. They would find his body in a week. The prospect of this humiliating death depressed him to the point of tears, even though he knew that Charlene would come looking for him in the morning. Unless, of course, the whole grid had collapsed, as Mr. Carton knew it would someday, and here he was, stuck in a john. His sniffles echoed sympathetically from the porcelain walls.

He heard something else. A flush. A lovely sound. He moved his arm. The paper dispenser hummed and dispensed. The lights danced back on. Quickly Mr. Carton stood and punched the door switch and the door slid open. The bedroom was dark. It had become night. The bridge in the distance looked unaffected by Mr. Carton’s ordeal and his glimpse of Armageddon. He resented it as much as it is possible to hold a grudge against an inanimate object.

The party was still going on. Everyone was still outside hovering around the thirty-six burners of the outdoor grill. Mr. Carton snatched a bottle of wine from one of the metal horse troughs, hid it under his coat, and went home.

A LAKE OF ORDINARY BIRDS

Lovely though man-made

this blue platter reflects a sky

unsullied by history personal or otherwise.

A phalanx of sea gulls

stares in one direction, as though the future

were there. And ducks, modest in apparel

honking their opinions and preferences.

A flash of teal at the neck makes me aware

I am not seeing everything

I might be seeing.

There are other birds, crows of course

and inconsequential darters in willow thickets.

The heron has returned and is

re-thatching a nest in the cypress.

How ordinary, this existence.

BELLOWING IN THE WIND

It starts with one of us saying, “I’m not going to talk about it,” and then a little tendril, a phrase, and you’re in the Trump jungle. Medicare. Deportations. Sessions. Bannon. The affronts come so fast and thick there seems to be no adequate defense. How to respond? Jennifer, my accordion teacher, gives me the sheet music of “This Land is Your Land” saying that at some point we’re going to have to march and when we do she’s bringing her accordion and she’ll expect me to bring mine. Bring down the Orange Crush with my arrhythmia. But it sounds like the best idea I’ve heard so far, the accordion revolution. Everyone who has one show up and step to it. What do you suppose the fireeaters would make of that? Would they polka along?

FUN WITH DOROTHY AND FRIENDS

That explains it, the inchoate sense of dread that I grew up with. There was a terrorist in the house. In the refrigerator, to be more specific, and a back-up on the shelf in the cabinet. In a recent article on the sfgate website, http://m.sfgate.com/news/nation-world/article/Possessed-salad-dressing-causes-over-2000-10610567.php Divel McLean testifies: “I heard pop pop pop and I looked up and [the dressing] was possessed. It was going crazy. It was shooting up in the air, to the side. It sounded like a firecracker going off in the house…I will never eat Dorothy Lynch again. That stuff is crazy.” Acccording to the article, the estimate of damage to Ms. McLean’s house and property is $2,500.

In restaurants in Kansas where I grew up, you are given a choice of four dressings, “Ranch, Thousand Island, Italian, and Dorothy.” Both my parents always chose Dorothy. That explains the bottle in the refrigerator, and the back-up on the shelf. I suspected back even then that Dorothy was a health hazard. I am oddly relieved that it wasn’t paranoia.

In the current political mindset paranoia may be appropriate. I doubt Dorothy will be brought to justice. There are rumors she and Sarah Palin are neck ‘n neck for Secretary of the Interior. You don’t know what to believe, what with all the false websites. Someone in my Facebook feed sent me a link with explosive news: Dorothy is having an affair with the Pillsbury Doughboy. Will that disqualify her? Certainly not. Age inappropriate sexual congress is now enshrined as a family value. And, she is orange. Plus, it will cement her credibility as a military hawk. She may even be jockeying for Secretary of State. Rudy Giuliani is starting to feel her breath, her sweet sweet breath, on his neck.

PUNDITIOCY

Just the person I wanted to see” Anita says.

Why?”

I need a hug.”

All over town people are hugging, a hold-on reaction to a tsunami. The flotsam of junk we thought got dumped safely away riding the wave back into our lives. I know, I shouldn’t talk about people that way. Christie. Gingrich. Palin.!!!?????? Budding Buddhists, and the city is full of them, try to find refuge in the Teachings. Go for a walk, let the trees convey their wisdom. Hate will never be overcome by more hate but only by love. Listen to the peace prayer of St. Francis. Make me an instrument of your peace.

Every morning you wake up and think, maybe it didn’t happen but there it is, stuck like a bean in your ear. My computer opens to the front page of the New York Times, a disturbed hive. The quiet morning is forgotten. Here is Paul Krugman: “Quietism has its appeals.” but concludes, “I couldn’t live with myself if I just gave up” Pundits line up with lists of things to do. Five things. Seven things. Five more things. (I apologize, Michael Moore, for calling you a pundit.)

I think of cousin Eileen posting Trump videos to put a human face on it. A woman, A feisty woman, and cousin Bernie, a smart woman, their heads stuffed with propaganda. That terrible Obama. But then I think, my sisters are products of that environment and not one of the four would ever ever ever consider voting for Agent Orange. I am trying to summon compassion, as I am encouraged to feel, for the disadvantaged, the left behind and the forgotten who did cast their ballots for him. (This does not include Eileen or Bernie both of whom are doing well, thank you.) Like Garrison Keillor, I give their reasons a big FEH. “Resentment is no excuse for bald-faced stupidity.”

Do something. Sit still. What?

Love trumps hate. For sure it’s going to take a lot of it.

THE RHYTHM METHOD

If I had it to do over, I would choose different parents. Not that mine were bad. On the contrary I believe they would rank in the upper echelon on a success chart of parental arts, They reared eight children, none of whom joined a militia or became a scientologist. Only one became a Republican. We progeny were fed and clothed and spanked when we had it coming. They did well by us, and we were happy to care for them as they aged and died.

Next time I would choose parents with some rhythm in their bones. Rhythm. Isn’t it delightful word? It was the only method of birth control Catholics of that era were permitted to use. You’re saying it’s still true? I doubt my parents even tried to circumvent a stork delivery, but it they did, the were poor in risk analysis. I’m not complaining. I love my siblings. I even sort of loved the Republican before he passed away, giving another boost toward Arizona turning blue.

None of my siblings can keep a beat. Two sisters play the piano but you’d never want to sit them down over a drum kit. Both my parents liked to dance, waltzes, polkas, two-steps. They were adept at that, but that’s as far as it went in terms of complexity. Otherwise Dad was unmusical. I never heard him sing, not even in church, which was probably a good thing. Mom liked to sing around the house, “The Old Rugged Cross: and “The Letter Edged in Black.” Her favorites, as it should be, were songs of love gone bad. When she was at the gateway of eternity the vigilants at the bedside started singing “You are my sunshine” and instead of passing into the Beyond she opened her eyes and sang along, then lived for a few more improbable weeks.

I’ve taken up the accordion. What was I thinking? Not being able to keep a rhythm with one hand, why not try two simultaneously? After six months I still stumble on my hike through the alpine heights of “Edelweiss”. When music happens (“small and white, clean and bright”) immediately I try to grasp it and I choke it off. If there is an audience I play like I’m solving a knotty equation: ponder, propose, erase, erase.

Is it fear? And if so, what of? Fear of mistakes. Fear of exposing the inner doofus. Fear of being unlovable.

I try a new path: make all the mistakes. Go ahead. It’s what Jack, the recorder teacher, advocates. Keep going. For a few minutes I’m skipping along but because I don’t worry about mistakes doesn’t mean that I don’t make them. I do, as many as when I was sweating them. Maybe sweating them wasn’t totally misguided.

It doesn’t answer the question: is it fear related? Or is it plain and simple the wrong genes operating in a vehicle with high mileage.

Here’s another avenue. It’s what I tell my fear-of-water swim students. Feel it in your body. I become aware of my fingertips on the bass buttons. The smooth cool press of the palms on the bellows. The weight straddling the shoulders. Whaddaya know—this helps, too. Briefly. Once again, as soon as music flows, I revert to grasping, and crash, fall off the mountain.

Here’s a truth I am trying to avoid: it’s going to take a lot more practice. I play for forty-five minutes, and then put the black thing down. I understand why real musicians practice through blisters.

This could be what I fear: that I am going to have to, as Chinese youngsters are taught, “eat bitter.” To practice far more. (“Every morning you greet me.”) Do I have the time? I do: the time I spend reading the daily distressing news. If I continue to flub the jump from B-flat to A in “La Martiniana,” then I need to navigate it slowly, methodically, over and over until the mind (especially) and the fingers succumb, until repetition drives it into my body. That’s where the music is born and lives, if it ever will. After having my bitter salad, I can move forward to the next thicket and have some more.

But is it all that bitter? I suppose I could look at that. I constantly remind my swim students: if it’s not fun, don’t do it. Am I having fun? I also tell them learning to swim is a lot easier than learning the accordion. The meme I sometimes reference: it takes ten thousand hours to master a skill. One student grimaced at that. I said to her, “What if it’s ten thousand hours of fun?”

It would be much simpler with well-chosen parents.