Monsters In The Night

Thunder boomed, hard. I was half awake, my head propped on several pillows, drowsily cursing the doctors for their curiosity on my behalf. How many more nights, I wonder? I’ve gained 18 pounds since Thursday morning. It’s Saturday night. My appetite, forced anyway, has departed. Depression shoves its ugly way into my semi-waking state. I fight it, drug free, but sleep does open the door, allow a crack of unguarded real estate vulnerable to dreams and intruding thoughts. The past swallows me alive. I remember.

Thunder boomed, hard. I barely knew her name, this slight girl in pursuit of me, hell bent on interference. She angered me. Traffic roared on either side as I gauged the open spaces, mentally preparing for a moment in time, an instant, a fraction of separation in chaos that would allow me to dash across four lanes of late night traffic. The city seemed alive, monstrous, a devil, a demon and fiend; a gaping, slashed hole into the inferno, a place where monsters slightly slumbered. I felt the pull.

Lightening leaped across the sky, forked and menacing. Rain was nowhere, just this infernal heat and smog and light pollution and the pounding music from small holes in space where the lost sought what they did not have, what they could not understand, what they missed. The chasm of their souls.

The girl grabbed my arm. I frowned, annoyed once again. I shook of her hand. Intoxicated, she swayed in the menacing, drenching glow of streetlights buried in late night/early morning pollution. Exhaust fumes sickened me. The smell of burned grease, perfume, crack, meth, pot, cigarettes, booze, and sex – it was redolent. I needed space.

I fixated on one star. Only one. I sought that perfect wink of promise, of morning as I pondered my next move. I was leaving. My old green bag, so faithful, was packed. My cash was once again sewed into the bottom, safe. My bowie knife had been stowed inside, along with some essentials: A toothbrush. My passport and ID. An extra pair of shorts. A linen shirt. One pair of pants. A belt. Raincoat, tied to the outside. Duct tape, wrapped around a water bottle. Aspirin, antibiotics, bandages. Little else.

I couldn’t just leave her here. Predators loomed and scurried in the dark, menacing and overlooked in their shadow of evil. The girl swayed. I took her hand. It was clammy, cold. Desperate. She looked at me, naked in that moment, stripped of her guard, her love for me evident and obvious.

She was crying.

Thunder boomed, hard. My son cried out in his sleep and I was padding up the steps before truly awake. My footsteps, aided by adrenaline born from the ancient instinct to protect your own, were as silent as down before the breeze. I marveled for one moment at my instinctive ability to move so silently in the night, when I chose. A gift, perhaps, from my mother.

My monsters still loomed omnipresent as I entered my firstborn’s room. He was sitting in his bed, his small head, framed by blond curls, cocked slightly as he observed nature’s fury through his window. I ran my hand through his hair and down his back. Comforting.

He grinned at me in the dark. “Blanket, Daddy.” I soothed. “Yes, son, you have your blanket. Don’t be scared.” He looked at me, wide eyed and so full of questions. An unfathomable curiosity ranged in his hazel eyes, more expressive than most. “No, Daddy. Blanket.” I looked to where he was pointing. His blanket had fallen out of his crib. I picked it up, still warm from his embrace. He grabbed it delightedly.

He turned it in his hands, looking for something that I could not see, that perfect place of contentment, something that reminded him of the womb, perhaps. His mother’s heartbeat, as he lay safe and warm, listening to the love surrounding him, inundated by care and peace.

He settled back into his covers and closed his eyes. He smiled once more, then, just like that, fell asleep. One brave little boy in a thunderstorm. He knew no monsters. They had no bearing on his life.

Thunder boomed. I sat in my chair, watching my son sleep. I cried. I don’t know why.

surfing

The cook ducked out of his hut, avoiding the overhanging palm beam that had threatened to brain him since his first day in the village. He walked the stone path with the easy nonchalance of one accustomed to his surroundings, slightly bored, but still alert. He carried his two knives and a steel wrapped in an old dingy apron, once white and shiny, now dulled and frayed, but still clean. The threads of the ties were nearly gone and had been replaced with a length of climbing cord, tied in a simple square knot.

His first day off in 24 days had begun two evenings ago at around nine. He had fled the kitchen and its grinning cooks with a passion born of travel and study, studying the surf, which had been pounding since his arrival, until night stole the light from the sky and stars winked overhead, unshrouded by light pollution, as they had for a millennia. He left his perch on the short rock outcrop for the village bar, in search of a score.

He had arrived in the village from points north, broke and injured, a nasty cut along his rib cage from an attempted mugging. The rusty knife had chattered along his rib cage as the assailant tried to rip his pack from his back. The point failed to find its mark between his ribs just over his liver. He had managed to get in one hard, lucky punch and a kick to his assailant’s groin before beating a hasty retreat to the nearest bus stop, where he had dressed his wound as best he could with bandages pulled from his dwindling first aid kit. The bus ride over seemingly impassable roads, rutted heavily and drowning in spring rains, had done little to allow his cut to heal, unaided as it was by the lack of stitches.

The doctor had grinned at him, then mercilessly sewed up his cut unaided by much in the way of painkillers. The further south he went, the more macabre the doctors. The sky had been an impossible pink that evening, and a loud native band thrashed and abused a damaged guitar and drum set in a ramshackle bar filled to the brim with grinning Nicos.

He had awakened the following morning in a strange bed, at daylight, as was his habit. A soft, gentle breathing and the smell of clean hair alerted him to her presence. She opened her eyes sleepily as surf pounded on the beach, only a few hundred yards away. Her fingertips traced a path along his back as he stretched out some of the kinks and cleared his fuzzy head.

The wave was amazing. He surfed all day, coming in only to guzzle water and munch on goat tamales.

The restaurant had hired him the next day. Twenty-four days ago.

Now he made his way back to the kitchen, mentally dreading the moment he would arrive to the bedlam of corruption he had survived for nearly a month. The surf the day before, his day off, had been flat. For twenty-four days, he’d listened to the blue-green water pound the sand-covered basaltic outcropping that thrust up the water into a ridable wave, pearling along its lip and dropping its secrets, born thousands of miles away in the Pacific.

His one day off. The ocean had turned into an empty space, devoid of movement, the surf gone as if it had never existed.

Now, it was booming again. Judging from the shouts and crows of accomplishment, it was really cranking. His depression, imagined only a few moments before, blossomed into its own malignancy. The stones under his feet, worn by an untold millennia of tumbling about in the ocean, thousands of miles from their Andesite depositional environment, seemed far away, just out of reach of his lurching feet.

The kitchen door burst open and a Honduran cook threw a pan of scalding water, festooned with shellfish parts and pungent bones from the stew the night before into the morning earth. The green, ripe, pregnant smell of the rain forest was contaminated with the scent. The cook squinted at him in the early morning hazy sunlight. His teeth were set at crazy angles, rendering him threatening even when smiling. Which he rarely did.

They pass with barely a word. The kitchen door slams behind him as he ties on his apron, Chaco sandals on his feet, barely clad against the onslaught of heat. He hones his knives and sets about re-positioning his mise en place, glancing quickly at the work list to gather the ingredients necessary to placate a group of eco-tourists, vegans all. He simmers a haunch of goat in a huge cast iron pot, marveling once again and the enormity of the thing, the sheer weight of it. It took three of them to clean it properly, which they rarely did. Rust flakes mix with the fat and detritus of the barely cleaned goat, the base for the vegetarian soup to be served later to the unsuspecting white people in overpriced shoes and weather proof shell jackets, their glasses fogged over with humidity.

Eighteen days later, he stands once again by the beach, his pintail surfboard thrust into the sand beside him. How he has managed to hang onto that board is beyond him. His depression is worsening, born on the walk to the kitchen. The surf is once again flat. The girl, a brief repository of feeling, has moved on, holding one of the billionaire eco-investors hostage with her smooth skin, full breasts and grinding hips.

He tucks his board under his arm and grabs his bag, his constant companion of so many years. His knife roll, tied tightly to deter thieves, is barely visible and he subconsciously tucks it away. The tools of his trade. He melts into the tree line, his swarthy skin and silent tread causing one to look twice, if you noticed at all. His breeding showed.

He never liked this village anyway.

“Little old man.” Isn’t that such a derogatory term? But we use it so much, too describe those members of the greatest generation, the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy, who island hopped through the Pacific Ocean in the single greatest military operation still known to man in recorded history. They fought wars, went to the moon, married, divorced, loved and lived, just like we do today, but they are different, aren’t they? They still proudly wear their ball caps, stiff and unbroken, perched high on their wizened skulls, emblazoned with the heirlooms of their forgotten stations. Fighter pilots, solid state rocket fuel engineers, Frogmen, the Marines, the Shipmen, the Seabees, the Airborne – men who were proud of what they did, who embraced their past brutality as something that had to be done in the name of war and freedom. The highest number of fatalities ever suffered in military campaigns were absorbed by these men, who fought on every continent, from the sands and screeching heat of the tank battles in Africa, to the killing fields of France, to the mosquito-laden hell of the South Pacific, they were there. These same men ignored the consequences of Post-Traumatic Stress, motoring on in their new lives, living sixty, seventy, eighty years past the traumas of their youth.

Now, they are the little old men. One such man, named Dave, collapsed this morning in a little diner that I like to frequent for breakfast. It’s a throwback, an unapologetic place that serves dishes such as two eggs, meat, potatoes and toast. With coffee. Or two pancakes, with meat. Or just meat. Or oatmeal. I like it. It’s real. The staff know you by name. I have a bottle of hot sauce there with my name written on it. You meet men named Bob, Bill, George, Chris, Stevenson and, in this case, Dave. Dave struggled to his feet and breathed carefully through is mouth and nose, alternating breaths. I could tell it was something he had done before.

The staff were courteous, leaving his pride intact while offering him an arm to help him outside into the still cool morning air, where he rested briefly on a bench. The waitress didn’t say much. She just patted his arm with an absent tenderness that bespoke of experience with such things, and of love and understanding for the people around her. Inside, I watched from my bar stool, pinned and silent with respect for the scene unfolding in front of me. The customers carried on about their business, but remained attuned to the man outside, resting his weary soul, lonely in his final years, with the silent young woman by his side, providing what comfort she may.

One by one, the customers filed out, many, I noticed, without paying. I was in that latter group, I’m afraid. I was so close to tears, and so moved by the respect and homage paid to this man of stature that I had nothing to say. They patted Dave on the arm, spoke briefly to him, but did not offer pity. Instead, they showed him respect. When he indicated that he wanted to return to his truck so he could go home, no one resisted. No one suggested they should call 911, or the police, or his family, or drive him themselves. Instead, the waitress, who, in my mind, was now an angel, assisted him to his feet, and waved goodbye as he shuffled to his car.

I was now torn, tears welling in my eyes. Only a few days before, I had wallowed in self-pity over my own weakness, brought about by what many doctors predict will end my days here on this earth, that illness that I have fought for two years now, tooth and nail. But some days, I despair.

Watching this mighty man, still standing straight despite the years gone, the memories faded, the visages of battlefields and arenas of war rounding through the twilight of his final trips around the sun, I feel lost, and loathing. Not for this hero, who swings into the cab of his truck with an unsteady hand, but for myself. For all of those like me, who dare look up at the spring sunshine, the summer storms, the winters cold frost, and complain. Who am I, to question my days here in this realm? Who am I, to be in despair for a potential shortening of my time here, when in fact there is so much to enjoy, every single day?

A little old man. If only I could be just such a person. To fade into the afterlife with my pride and memories and without shame – that is all anyone could wish for. Is that not enough?

Chacos. Right Now.

I bought my first pair of Chaco Sandals in May of 1997. A seemingly meaningless purchase, it nevertheless had outstanding repercussions for the rest of my life.

Until that particular moment in time, which occurred while I was standing in Back Country Outfitters in Blacksburg, VA, my wardrobe had been noticeably dated. Sort of like the 1980’s met with K-Mart at a Holiness Tent Revival and bought some clothes. Serviceable enough for hard labor, jeans mixed with the appropriate flannel or t-shirt for everyday wear, jeans with white shirts for church. There was also the requisite Carharrts for the work I did; coal mining, heavy construction, farming, cooking, and all the brutal exercise associated with those tasks.

Interesting enough, the clothes I purchased for work were the most expensive items in my closet, or more accurately, on the floor of my closet and some would argue the most stylish. There was also the omnipresent pair of camo shorts, rarely worn except to class along with white socks and tennis shoes. Or work boots. I was hopelessly unaware of fashion trends or anything even remotely related to such a thing.

That unseasonably hot, sticky May morning in the top floor of a gear shop was the beginning of a change in my life. I had long been chaffing at the predictability of my future, realizing with an ever-increasing sense of dread that my entire life was unfolding before my eyes, a path, well-trodden by my family and all those others in the small area of the Coalfields of Virginia. I was married, too young. I was graduating from college, too late. I was only a few years older than my peers at Virginia Tech, but I felt ancient and out of place in the classrooms and laboratories where we shared assignments and peered at minerals through microscopes and broke rocks with shiny new hammers purchased from the bookstore. My hammer was worn, rusted, beaten and well used. The grip on the handle was nicked and slick with use. The pointed end was already worn away noticeably by the thousands of rocks I pulled from the top thousands of feet underground, sweating and gasping in the summer, freezing in the winter.

My clothes reflected who I was. I meant to change that. I was uncertain in the store, wondering which shoe to buy and not wanting anyone to know, those suddenly hip workers with their dreads and stinking gear and bare, calloused feet clad in their cool sandals. I felt hulking and hot amongst them, burdened by my jeans, pressed and suitable for church, tennis shoes and long-sleeved lightly starched white shirt with a button down collar. L.L. Bean. A gift from my very soon to be ex-wife.

Subconsciously, I was gearing up for a total shakedown of my life. I had liquidated every asset that I could for cash. I was surprisingly cash rich for a guy not quite graduated from college who was from one of the poorest places in the U.S. I had scrapped, worked, and saved since I was a kid. I picked and sold berries and jam, chased down honeybees through the mountains to rob their hives, fished for catfish which some would still eat, pulled from the still depths of the dying river, stiff with disease and ruined by heavy metal and acid mine runoff. I split wood and fence rails, mowed yards, dug ditches, sold hay, collected metal, worked for my family in their cinder block factory and mining operations.

I swept and cleaned my school after hours, hoarding every dollar I could. I had bought a small parcel of land soon after marrying, a purchase that I made reluctantly, under the advisement of a zealous father-in-law who insisted that I live with his daughter next to his farm. For the rest of my life.

My new Chacos stayed in their box for a few weeks. Maybe even a couple of months. The mining company I worked for rewarded my efforts in obtaining a B.S. in Geology with a huge raise and more responsibility, more hours, more work. My wife set about the business of spending everything she possibly could of my new paycheck. I discovered just how much a redneck girl could spend at Walmart. The answer: All of it.

We somehow ended up with a singlewide house trailer on the back 40 of her daddies’ farm. I worked increasingly insane hours, desperate to save up enough to escape from this prison I was somehow incarcerated in. The money vanished as quickly as I made it.

I still had my stash of money, well hidden in my little sisters bedroom. She is many things as an adult, but then, we were very close. She would have not given up any information on me under the threat of death. All my secrets were safe with her. Her learning disabilities, which troubled most, bothered me not at all and never interfered with our relationship.

So it was that I showed up on my parents back porch one day. They were moving, had sold the family farm. The place had belonged to the Matney’s since way back. My father, under orders from God, sold his birthright to move his beleaguered family to a small shack a mountain or so over. I was wearing my Chacos and my camo shorts. My canoe was on top of my truck, along with a bag of clothing, gear, workbelt, boots, work clothes, and supplies. My sister retrieved the box, stony faced in her shock. She had never shared a bedroom in her life. Now she was to be lumped into a small room with her two baby sisters, a prospect that had her terrified. I took the box and counted out her take. She shook her head no, quickly, and hard. I saw the last of the fight go out of her blue eyes as she prepared herself for the life I was fleeing at that very moment.

Twenty years later, I just bought my third pair of Chacos. They are amazingly tough shoes. I unwrapped the box from Zappos and breathed in the good smell of new rubber and non-slip soles with their network of confusing straps that ensure the shoe stays on your foot, no matter what. I did a bit of a happy dance. My life has changed yet again, as my wife and companion of ten years and our new son journey with me into the uncertain future. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and we have learned to make five year plans with no small amount of humor.

We are not rich. My penchant for making money seems to have evaporated over the years, along with my old wardrobes, relationships and ties to my childhood. I say good riddance. As I discovered long ago, with the box of cash under my arm and no plan beyond the next day, life is too short to become entrapped. Live for the now. Right now.

With Chacos strapped to your feet.

Travels to SWVA

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My front stoop on our old house, now on the market.

My front stoop on our old house, now on the market.

Last of Fall Produce

Last of Fall Produce

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I feel like I’m missing something. Once largely regarded, for those who even knew it existed, as the backwaters of a terribly misunderstood state, Southwest Virginia has quietly become ground zero for all things good in the world of food. Restaurants like River and Rail in Roanoke, The Palisades in Eggleston, Mountain Lake Lodge in Newport, Lucky’s in Salem, The Black Hen in Blacksburg, Metro! in Roanoke, Cuz’s in Pounding Mill, and a plethora of others are cooking on the cusp of the envelope. Chef’s such as Aaron Deal, Ashton Carter, Kevin White, Devin Giles, and so many others are unassumingly working on the edge of Southern Cuisine, infusing their own experiences and relationships with farmers into their menus, changing things up almost constantly in response to what is available. Food once thought of as trash, Appalachian cooking techniques and all things local are turning up on tables everywhere as people increasingly join the ever growing ranks of individuals who are grouping together in their appreciation of what the Appalachian Mountains, with it’s high meadows and cold, clear creeks, have to offer.

In a fit of homesickness, I have decided to re-visit my homeland and some great friends, enjoy some amazing food, split some wood, warm my bones by a wood fire in a cottage deep in the mountains, check out signs of an early spring and clear my brain. I’ll work hard on this post, and I promise you won’t be disappointed!

On Forgetting

The chainsaw is exactly how I left it. Its cutting chain is bright with edge and lubricating oil. The tank is full. I’m standing in my shop with a Phillip’s Head Screwdriver in my left hand and a tape line in my right. I have boots on, but they aren’t laced. My jacket is where I left it, I think, somewhere inside. I’m already shivering, even though I’ve only been in the shop for a few minutes, but it is as cold as a meat locker in here. A pile of half-finished projects sit before me, taunting me a bit, I think.

So far, I’ve begun to work on seven different tasks since I got up this morning. The irony is that I don’t remember what I started with in the beginning. I know there are seven, for I am wearing seven different rubber bands on my wrists, reminders that I am working on something. I walk with great purpose towards the workbench, striding even. I learned over a year ago while I was in a kitchen it was important to never show weakness, to never appear as though I had forgotten what I was going to the walk-in to get. By the time I made it to the actual refrigerated space I had usually remembered what I went after. If not, then I could save face by grabbing something that I’m sure I needed, such as garlic, shallots, scallions, potatoes (I always needed those, it seemed) or green tomatoes. If I ever ran out of anything to do, I could always slice and bread tomatoes for the freezer to be fried later. We never had enough of those.

I’m trying to save face now, just as I did then, approaching my work bench with great purpose, as though I am a man tasked with splitting the atom, combating a strange new venereal disease through microbe manipulation, or just some dude that needs to hang his surfboard straighter. Admirable tasks, all.

The problem is that none of them are what I set out to do, with my screwdriver and measuring tape. It’s a soft tape, not a hard retractable one: The one I’m holding is a tailors measuring stick, flexible so that it can easily pass round the curves of a human form. Or around a board for more accurate measurements.

I’m not a tailor, and I have no reason to measure my own form for fitting. I’m not planning to buy a suit and I have the proper attire for my brother-in-law’s wedding, the day fast approaching. I puzzle through what I’m working on. A half-assembled beehive sits in front of me, the project on hold until I get consistently warm temperatures for a day or so for painting. My chainsaw is sharpened. My saw is put away. The floor space is swept. I’ve scratched the small humidor project, put aside for the time being by my lack of interest in fine cigars. They seem to be a waste for someone who enjoys it only slightly and would rather enjoy a salty bite of mackerel roe or kimchi if I must live dangerously. A hot dog is preferable to a cigar for me, even the service station type, with its accompanying crock pot of chili from unknown origins, created from cast-offs of bits of meat, fat, spices, beans and no doubt Hormel products. These nuanced flavors, however cast, with raw onions, spicy mustard, jalapenos, all piled on a stale potato roll. This is preferable to a cigar.

Back to the problem at hand: What, exactly, was I doing? I’ve always been a bit scatter-brained, but this memory loss is downright annoying. It is an amusing, if not slightly dangerous side effect of years of drinking, associated comas, medications and toxins arriving, unfiltered, into my brain stem. I used to consume things with little cause for worry in regards to my health – foodstuffs with color additives, artificial preservatives, excessive sodium, hormones, pathogens, ammonia, bacterial strains, antibiotics, aerosols – any of these things, even in small amounts, have a cumulative effect on my memory functions.

It is an interesting task to sit and write without conscious thought, to see where afterwards the path my brain takes, now off the rails without constant guidance. My thoughts wander as much as my attention, with vivid detail in the least of circumstances, then lines and hooks left open and dangling, for the reader to ponder upon after the writing has ended. Even I am puzzled. What exactly was I trying to say? At least my patterns thought are in order least.

But it’s not all bad. All things considered, it is still amusing, but not crippling. I still run on autopilot just fine, remembering, most times, the day and date, how to cook, how to do and be successful at the myriad of all tasks that are required to be human. I am so far trustworthy, able to always be, or close enough, on time for meetings, dates with my wife, and I still have a basic internal clock as do all cooks that ticks in the background when multiple items are in or on the stove or grill.

I’m thankful for that. On more than one occasion, while battling my last real approach to the inevitable course to the big unknown, I cooked meals for people who raved about them. I didn’t remember. One such dinner stands out, as it was for our Nanny. The term Nanny only fits as nothing else really does. Captain? Chief helper and person we now don’t know how we did without? A graduate student in Veterinary Science, she was a more than qualified person to care for our son, and, in a pinch, me. For some reason of her personality, she was able to guide me, despite my innate willfulness, in a better direction when I was suffering most from hepatic encephalopathy. I apparently made a risotto of some sort and have no memory of doing so. She raved about it later.

As long as I stand intact and whole in this world, I have every reason to be grateful. It is too easy to wallow in self-pity and ungratefulness, to develop an attitude of suffering and despair. It is not my way, yet I have to be on guard for those thoughts and feelings which could lead me to further illness.

Wait a minute? What was I writing about? What was I doing? Oh, yeah. Fixing the doorknob on the front entrance to the house. Why do I have my laptop? What day is it?