Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Ruby, get the ball"

I lived in Austin, Texas for a couple years in the mid-nineties. I had many jobs over that short time, true to an alcoholic's resumé. I also packed about seven years of a normal person's life into those two and a half years, like a dog has to do.

               Over part of my term in Texas, I had two jobs at once. I had gotten a lovely girlfriend, and she decided to start up a high-end tamale business. I don't particularly like tamales, but I dove into the fledgling company, plunked my hands into it, and I even named it. It was called "Hot Damn Tamales," which came from an Elvis Presley outtake. I am in the tamale 100,000 club. I have extruded, wrapped in husk, steamed, and packaged more tamales than one person could healthily consume in a lifetime. Between my girl and I, we sold, gave away, and traded about a quarter million of those Hot-Damn things. We traveled all over midland Texas establishing our business at barbecues, fairs, and, primarily, farmers' markets. We made these tamales at home, but, to be in accordance with the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, we also rented the kitchen at Captain Quackenbush's on "the Strip," in Austin. After we started renting their kitchen, that horrible restaurant asked if I would help them out as a cook for "a few weeks." Thus came my two sapping jobs. Captain Quack's began at 6 a.m. and ostensibly ended at 2 p.m., and from 6 p.m. to midnight, Hot Damn Tamales would, as we ought, make tamales.
                Don't get me wrong; each job was a good one. They were right in finding me to be a "character" at Captain Quack's, but they paid exceptionally low wages, and I was a tool, bespoken in no uncertain terms by the management after those first few weeks, at a staff meeting. They asked me to be their kitchen manager. Boldly, I responded, "So you want me to order your produce and your Sysco delivery, do inventory, schedule your irresponsible college student workers, work their missing shifts myself, and take the blame for whatever isn't done on time as a result. Oh, and I don't suppose I'll be getting a raise for all that, right?" They looked at each other around the table, wide-eyed, in that false, taken-aback manner and literally laughed about what I had said.
               "Yeah," said the restaurant manager, "That's about what it is."
              I laughed along, but I continued to wake up at 5 a.m.,  show up at 6 a.m., and I completed, daily, what to them was a chuckle.
               The nascent tamale company with my girl was, what? A labor of love for a product I didn't actually like to eat? At least I didn't cut into the profits. She, however, in a somewhat controlling way, was the creative one. I was the muscle, and I had to defer to many of her decisions. I worked hard at both jobs, and we took Hot Damn Tamales to many, many, farmers' markets throughout that Great State, and I enjoyed some of the finest organically grown fruits and vegetables the USA has to offer. Texas grows some of the best tomatoes in the nation, and I love "love apples," as they are known.
               I took one Saturday off from the farmers' markets in lieu, I believe, of a televised baseball game, a consistent case of manic-girlfriend-induced sleep deprivation, or both, and early that evening when she returned, I learned that I had A Third Job. She couldn't have come back with a bagful of sweet corn (although she actually might have) or Fredricksburg peaches, or wild grapes.
               She brought home a puppy.
              I am not a dog aficionado, I am an unrepentant dog lover, and this poor little thing was not yet even a dog. She (an easy call) was only about six weeks old, and I could hold her in the palms of my hands. To tell, at her pint-size, she was some sort of shepherd that any shearling lamb would easily trample, but I knew she would grow into her non-breed's height and weight. My girlfriend beamed. I asked, "Are you going to take care of this little thing? Do know what she needs to eat? Are you going to pick up her shit?"
               "No," answered my lovely date, "I thought you would. She was the last one, and nobody wanted her. Don't you like her?"
              I sure did, immediately. I believe it was that evening that we named that puppy "Ruby," and she was my favorite kind of dog; she was a mutt, and she was the runt of the litter. That makes a bitch smart and tough. She hadn't been properly weaned, so that made her smarter and tougher.
               Tiny Ruby's stomach was distended with the farm-borne worms that had filled her intestines, and on that first frightful night off the farm, I counted her six week-old respiration at around 130 times per minute. I fed Ruby homemade chicken broth (from the tamale stock) mixed with over-cooked, mashed carrots and heavily diluted green tea as a laxative, to maybe poop some of the worms out and so that she might stay awake and not over-pant herself into puppy heaven. Of that Saturday night, cradling Ruby, I could not find a veterinarian by phone. She looked up at me with barely opening eyes in the apologetic way that dogs have when they think they're going to die on you. I cupped her in my hands and kept her warm all night long, in spite of the fact that it was late August in Texas. That night, I cried unashamedly and often over that poor little shivering dog.
               I got to the vet on Sunday morning, and was told that I had done a good job keeping Ruby alive through the night. She was poked and prodded, and I got the damn worm medicine. Ruby liked the car ride home, and she seemed to understand that I had to jostle her in my lap while I operated the stick shift.
               She began to thrive, loyal, healthy... but intelligent? True to her farm-bred nature, she was a herder. She was poised and strong. We had a fine backyard, and she did not have to be paper trained. Ruby also liked to do with me just about anything that I liked to do. She ran alongside me when I rode my bicycle. If I ate celery, she wanted to do that with me. She sat, rapt, as I did push-ups. She knew how to pay attention. That is, until it came to the word, "ball."
               I don't think I have ever met a dog or a puppy who was not enthusiastic about a sphere. I have met Chihuahuas who will try for hours on end to get their jaws around a regulation NBA basketball. I have spent time with large-breed dogs who understand as many as thirty commands, look at a blue handball for the three-thousandth time like it was their first-ever experience seeing something they could go and chase, bring back, and do it all over again. When I say "ball," any dog I have ever known widens its eyes and expects me to do something with one and, if I'm not holding one in my hand, will at least make the pretense of looking for one or point me to where one might be. Not Ruby. She learned many words, and she loved to play ball, and I know she wasn't simply being obedient, but I could not, in spite of her overall intelligence, get her to pick up that word. She would tilt her head and gaze at me in wonder. This astounded me. She loved to play with a ball and knew what to do, but she just wouldn't get the darned word.
               Over the days and weeks and months, I repeated the word "ball" to her at least 10,000 times. That count may not be accurate, because it might have been more like 12,500 times. She would not understand that word. Mind you, this was a puppy who, when I said, "No potato chips for dogs," would walk away and sulk.
                "Ruby, get the BALL." "Where's that BALL, Ruby?" "Ruby, go find that BALL." "Here's the BALL, Ruby." "Do you want the BALL, Ruby?" "Here's that BALL!" "Ruby, do you like that BALL?" One hundred and fifty times a day. A guy can't do everything, and I want my dog to go find her own damn ball. I mean, why not? It's one syllable, and what a great toy! On the lawn, on the street, in the house, she gave me nothing but a longing, blank, probing stare.
               One mid-afternoon, I got off from my Captain Quackenbush shift on time, for once, and I walked home. I walked Ruby, brought her home, cracked a can of Lone Star, and I plopped down in a big easy chair. She looked up at me. Just for the hell of it, for the twelve-thousand, five hundred and first time, I asked, "Ruby, where's the ball?" She tilted her head and gave me the perplexed doe-eyes. I thought I was going crazy. How could this seemingly loyal, intelligent, energetic dog not understand the one bonding, desirable word which the most moronic mastiff would comprehend before he could even learn the word "food?" My shoulders slumped. Dejected and tired, for the hell of it, I monotoned, "Ruby, get the ball."
               She started whimpering. I didn't know what to think. She laid her head between my feet and poked her nose under my chair. I had a brief notion that I was not crazy, but that Ruby was. Ruby jiggled her tail, looked up at me, and continued whimpering. It dawned on me that this time, maybe, the ball was under the chair! My kitchen-weary knees cracked as I stooped down to look under there, and I pulled out one of her hairy, dusty, blue handballs from where Ruby couldn't get to it. We had broken through! She, on the twelve-thousand, five hundred and second time, not only knew what I was talking about, but she knew to tell me that she couldn't reach it.
               I almost cried, and I rubbed her pink belly like the first night I met her. We played ball for hours after that, and you can be sure that, upon that afternoon and evening, potato chips were for dogs too.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Scenic Route


              I was six years old today, and I was just beginning to learn what a birthday means. It wasn’t and isn’t only about getting presents and getting attention from the adults around you. It is about having been born. As a child, it is about being borne by the adults upon whom you rely. Later on, you find that a birthday is about the life you must carry with family, friends, acquaintances and strangers who, encompassed, carry you further. It is about what you give to all of them in return.
            I attended Lincoln Elementary School, in Augusta, Maine. I had a new mom and a new home. I had a baloney sandwich with mustard in a brown paper bag, because it was any day other than Friday, the day when we Catholics had to bring tuna fish sandwiches or at least meatless lunches to school. I do believe that bagged lunches helped all Catholic moms remember which day of the week it was. I also had an apple in the brown paper bag. I had little youthful trust in my new mom, but, heck, she had my lunch ready most every morning, and she made Maypo for breakfast most every day.
Who hoards brown paper bags? Ecologists? Puppeteers? Practical moms? Many women are expected to be all three. I guess my new mom was getting to the end of the under-sink, brown bag reserve that day, for the bag was huge; she had scissored it down to a manageable height, but it still had far more interior than a boy’s lunch would ever require.
            I was six years old today. I ate my Maypo, got my big bag of lunch, and headed off to school. I decided to take a shortcut and eat the apple as I went.
            Dearly I ask you, do you know what a shortcut means to a six year-old boy? In all practicality, I needed simply to take a right turn out the front door, walk down Prospect Street, take Winthrop Street straight downhill for about a quarter mile, and go left at the huge, red brick public school. Not on your life. I knew then what I know now about shortcuts, and those in-the-know call them “the scenic route.” Eating my apple, there were fences to hop, brambles to untangle, neighbors to meet, and, eventually, thistles to pull from my socks, shirt, pants, and hair, as I would stand line for the morning bell.
            How is school for a six year-old boy? If one may not have an adventure in transit, one must make an adventure of the classroom itself. To my experience, most schoolteachers are dismayed by young boys’ school day “adventures” in the classroom, so we try to get them while we can. That morning, I first decided to take the shortcut though Mrs. Spencer’s hedges, yard, and driveway. Mrs. Spencer and Betsy were a latter-day pair of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Mrs. Spencer had dementia and an Oldsmobile 98 with the original Maine State license plate of number 99. Betsy drove the Olds and was Mrs. Spencer’s caretaker. My shortcut had me climbing over that car to get behind their house where there was an embankment I could slide down on last autumn’s slippery oak leaves.
            “What are you doing out there, boy?” Mrs. Spencer shouted through a window, “Bring about my horses!”
            Of course, there were neither horses nor a stable boy since she had been a young girl. Now it was just the Oldsmobile 98 and Betsy. I slid down the hill on the leaves and lost my half-eaten apple. I dug around for it for a few minutes and gave up. I stuck some acorns in my pocket instead. My butt was muddy and wet. I crawled through some brambles, stood up, reached up, and tugged down a handful of lilac blossoms. I would suck out their pollen later. I put them in with my lunch, and then I crossed the street at the bottom of the hill. My shortcut continued toward an expanse of front, side, and back yards; there were quite some neighbors to meet and fences yet to climb. I ran through an open lawn toward an apple tree. It was near a short chain-link fence leading me to the next yard. I figured jumping from the crotch of the tree would get me over the little fence. It did not. I caught my pant leg on the top of the fence and plonked my head onto a spongy lawn. A woman wearing Bermuda shorts, an oxford shirt, a pith helmet and gardening gloves, holding a pair of pruning clippers, looked up from her gardening.
Stuck on the fence, my feet pointed to the sky, I had an earful of sod. She walked over to where I was hanging. She smirked.
“So, what’s up?”
            “It’s my birthday.”
            “Let’s get you down offa there.”
She unhooked my pants from the fence. I stood up and rubbed my ear.
She looked at the driveway toward a motorcycle. “You know, I have a boy a lot like you,” she said.
 I saw where she was looking. “Is he still in bed?”
            “No, he’s in Viet Nam.”
            “Oh, is he in the army?”
            “Uh-uh. He’s a Marine.”
“I wanna be in the army.”
“I want him to be a doctor.”
“Okay, well, I gotta go to school.”
She ruffed my hair. “Yes, my darling, you really do.”
“It’s my birthday.”
She pulled a piece of grass from my eyebrow and nuzzled in my ear, “Now it’s mine too, kiddo.”
I thought it strange that we had the same birthday.
I ran out her front yard, making sure that I closed the little chain-link gate behind me. As I did, I took a look back at the motorcycle, and I guess she had just washed it. There was still soap in the sand, and it shone in the sunlight. I hoped that lady wasn’t lonely.
The gate across the street was of blue picket fence, and I hopped it without catching my pants or hitting my head on the ground. I whipped around the house to the backyard and checked that brown bag with my lunch. It was losing its creases.
“HEY!” I heard, “What are you doing?” It was a man, sitting on the back steps, reading the newspaper and smoking a cigarette.
“I’m going to school. It’s my birthday.”
“Oh, is it? Well, let me see what I got.” He went to reach for his pockets, but realized he was still in his boxer shorts. “Hold on, kid.” He stood up and went into his house. He returned, clanking coins in his hand. “Here ya go sport. Happy birthday.”
He gave me thirty-five cents, two nickels and a quarter. I was rich.
“What time do you have to be at school?”
“Well, it’s five after. You’d better run, birthday boy.”
I stuck the coins in my pocket with the acorns. “Thanks, mister!”
Jumping his back fence, run I did. I got to Lincoln School ten minutes late. I scrambled up the staircase to Mrs. Brown’s kindergarten room and knocked on the door. They had already said the Pledge of Allegiance, and I interrupted her reading aloud to the class. She approached.
“Michael. You’re late.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Brown.”
“Wait here,” she ducked her head back in the door. “Class, please behave for a moment.”
She clacked to the first-grade classroom.
“Miss Harden, will you please watch my class while I bring this boy to the principal’s office?”
I was filthy with leaves, soil, and grass stain. I clutched my deteriorating lunch bag. Miss Harden glowered at me and said, “Yes, Mrs. Brown, of course.”
The first-grade class tittered. Mrs. Brown snagged me by the shoulder hem and pulled me back down the interminable stairs and halls to the principal’s office. He was Mr. Jordan. We marched to the front of his secretary’s desk.
“Hello Dorothy, is Mr. Jordan in?” Still holding my shirt, Mrs. Brown waggled me, as much to shake off my accumulated grime and foliage as to indicate her subject. “Michael is late today.”
We could all hear Mr. Jordan through his half-opened door shouting at somebody on the phone, so he was obviously in.
“Let me see,” Dorothy answered. She pushed a button on the intercom.
Mr. Jordan yelled, “What is it, Dorothy?”
“A tardy student from Mrs. Brown’s kindergarten class, Mr. Jordan.”
“Well, get him in here.”
I didn’t know what was the use of the intercom. They could hear each other fine.
In his office, Mr. Jordan was pudgy, seated, wore a dark, wrinkled suit, and his non-neck led up to a bright-red face stuck under the graying, balding pate of a television banker.
“Good morning, Mrs. Brown, what is this?”
“Michael Chandler was late for school.”
Mr. Jordan’s eyes narrowed, and he didn’t take them or his half-glasses off me as he opened a file drawer in his desk. He barely glanced down, and he drew out a mimeographed sheet of paper.
“Should we call his parents?” he asked.
“I think we should,” said Mrs. Brown.
Mr. Jordan looked at the piece of paper, pressed a button on his phone and dialed. “Hello?” he demanded, “Is this Mr. Chandler? Your son was late to school today.”
His face got redder.
“What? No. Who is this? Is Mrs. Chandler there?”
My folks had a party line which we shared with Mr. Burliss, a cranky old man who lived about five doors down and and didn't really know how to use the party line. He picked up about half of our calls. Mr. Jordan’s face got closer to purple.
“Yes, yes, I see,” and he slammed down the phone. He locked eyes with me. “I don’t like this, and I don’t have time for this. Why are you late?”
I looked down at my messy clothes.
“I guess because I took a shortcut.”
Mr. Jordan rose, and his clip-on necktie caught on the key of his top desk-drawer, yanking the tie from his shirt collar. He leaned on his big oak desk and shouted, “What do you think this is?! Your birthday?!!”
I reached into my lunch bag.
“Do you and Mrs. Brown want some lilacs?”