Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Life Goes On

I open my eyes and there isn’t much difference. It’s dark and grey and soupy outside. Not my favorite way to start the day. I roll off the couch, wake the kids and start my morning routine. Once dressed, I tell the kids to head on down to the car when they’re ready and I make my way out of the apartment.

The damp sidewalks show spots of drying, which is a good sign. My main vehicle, a silver ’99 Chevy Metro, likes to sleep in when it rains, so any sign of moisture taking a hike pleases me. I’m getting a head start on the kids this morning because the car has added a number to its repertoire: If it hasn’t been started in a while, say overnight, it likes to choke and sputter and run unevenly for a few minutes before everything evens out. Not a big deal, but I figure I should get it started before the kids come down to keep things efficient.

I plop down into the driver’s seat, set my book on the passenger’s seat, put my wallet and notebook on the dash and key the ignition. In a tiny surprise, the car starts right up. Alright, I think to myself as the car gurgles and pops; this is excellent! No sooner than this thought completes itself in my head, the car dies. No biggie, I think; it started once, it will start again.

Or not.

Okay, it’ll start in a couple tries. Like I said, it started once, it’ll start again. By now, David has come down and slithered into the seat next to me. He puts his backpack at his feet and flips his iPod on. As I give the car a moment to regroup, I notice that I can faintly hear the Beatles' “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” escaping from Dave’s ears. I give the ignition another turn…to no avail. I guess someone’s trying to tell me something. Clever.

Samantha has now appeared and is coming around to David’s side of the car. As he opens the door, I tell her to hold on just a second. I crank the ignition one more time and get bubkes. Okay, this is getting annoying but I still have options.

“It’s not working,” I tell the kids and they peel away from the Metro. Fortunately, I have another car, a bright orange ’74 Chevy Chevette. Unfortunately, it overheats when you run it for more than about fifteen minutes. But that’s okay in this instance because all I need it for is to take Dave to school (a five minute round-trip) and then I can come back and get the Metro, which, historically, has started up after a brief respite.

So, we pile in the Skittle (as it looks just like the orange version of that candy) and take Dave to school. I’m cursing every stop light because I need to maximize the efficiency of this trip to ensure I make it back home without the car overheating. I cut the engine every time we have to stop, hoping it keeps the temperature down. We make it to school and as Dave hops out, I tell him to have a good day.

“I will. Good luck with the car.”

“Thanks, Dave.”

Samantha and I hustle through the parking lot, cutting corners to avoid sitting for too long. We only get caught by one light on Johnson Drive and drift, powerless, most of the final quarter mile to my apartment.

We shuffle our things and ourselves back into the Metro and I give the ignition a twirl. Nothing. I let out a choice expletive and bang the steering wheel with my fist a couple of times. Samantha, who has seen this routine before, remains unfazed. I unbuckle my seatbelt and Samantha follows suit. We each get out of the Metro and stand still. I try to decide if I can risk a run to Samantha’s school in the Skittle without it blowing up. I finally decide that it will make it and climb inside. Samantha completes the game of musical chairs and pops in.

I figure that if I can make it up the two hills between us and the school, I can coast down them with the engine off and buy enough time to make it back to the apartment for a final shot at the Metro. Upon beginning the ascent of the first hill, some numbskull decides he can’t wait two seconds for me to pass and pulls out of his driveway right into my path. More choice expletives are directed his way as we coast down the first hill. Looking across Shawnee Mission Parkway, I see a trash truck in the left turn lane to 63rd St., which is where I want to go. Another slew of expletives. Miraculously, the garbage truck doesn’t make any stops as we climb the hill. Not-so-miraculously, a school bus coming the other direction has made a personal stop at some stupid (as I called him) kid’s house, in turn making us stop until he safely boards. Thankfully, the stupid kid is smart enough to find his seat quickly and we’re off again.

The rest of the way is mostly downhill, so I manage to cut the engine again for a good portion. I dump Samantha at school and decide to give the engine a six minute rest. Arbitrary, but necessary. The return trip home goes, Praise God, without incident.

I hop back into the Metro for the third time this morning expecting victory. I should know by now that the determination of success rests heavily upon the preceding expectations. As it happens, victory is not to be mine this day. But, former Boy Scout that I am, I still have one option: the bus.

The Johnson County Transit System or “The Jo”, for short, just happens to have a base three blocks from my apartment and the route I take runs right past my office building. So I head out for the bus, book, wallet and notebook in hand.

As I come upon my bus, I see that the driver is heading inside briefly before making way. I’m a tad early, so the driver will probably be back in five minutes or so. I feel awkward and uncomfortable not paying the instant I board, driver or not, so I take out my wallet and notice that I only have a five- and ten-dollar bill. The fare is two dollars each way. No big deal. The machine that accepts my money doesn’t give out change, but it does spit out a card with credit on it that I can use for the ride home. So I slide my five-spot in the slot and wait for the card to pop out. Waiting...waiting… Seeing that nothing is happening, I press each of the two buttons in my view to expedite matters. Nothing. Okay, well, I’ll just wait for the driver and he can rectify things.

After a few minutes, the driver returns and I instantly stand to greet him:



“I put a five dollar bill in there," I said, pointing at the fare collector. "Just a couple of minutes ago.”

“Well, it’s gone now,” he abruptly replied.

I am momentarily stunned but before I can react he says,

“I need to push the button for you to get your card.”

No shit, I think to myself. “Well, would you mind, then?”

“Oh, after a minute or so, it just sucks the money in and keeps it.”

He starts shuffling around with a folder while I try to figure out why I ever woke up this morning. He starts to pull something out of his folder that I assume will be a pass.

As he hands me a business card for the Jo's offices, he says, “Here, you can call this number and they’ll get you straightened out.”

That’s what I get for assuming. And, fat lot of good that does me to get back home. Ugh.

“Okay,” I say. “Thanks.”

I sit down and try to read a little bit before giving up. I can’t concentrate because I’m reliving all the events of the morning and trying to figure out why I’ve become such an idiot. While no adequate answer is coming to me, I decide to stare out the window.

Twenty minutes late to work (and forty minutes after I prefer to get there), the bus approaches my building. I pull the cord to signal the driver my desire to exit the bus. There is a driveway just ahead that I would prefer to be let off at since the overnight rains have made the grass and ground quite soggy. But the bus driver pulls up short of the pavement, leaving me with the choice between dodging traffic on dry ground or slogging through the grass.

I thank the driver and depart. I sigh and remember the song I heard earlier this fine, fine morning:

Ob-la-di, ob-la-da…

Friday, September 04, 2009

I Lost Myself

The following is an amalgam of an image I saw in a dream last night and my attempt to fill in some of the missing pieces. I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean, if anything. All of this is happening while the haunting refrains of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and Ian Brown’s “Set My Baby Free”, respectively, float repeatedly through my head. I realize the contexts of the songs probably have absolutely nothing to do with the setting I’m describing, but delicately extracted and isolated from the main body of the song , they feel like they have meaning here. I post it because I don’t want to forget it:

A young woman stands in a backyard, a Polaroid picture held at her side in a trembling hand. The look on her face straddles the line between confusion and despair, an overcast expression on a sparkling, crystal afternoon. The grass under her feet hums a radiant green. Slightly behind her and to her right sits a classic metal swing set. The slide and swing furthest from her sit unoccupied. The swing closest to her is also empty but hangs suspended in mid-flight about three feet above the ground.

Slightly behind her and to her left stands a man, maybe a few years older than the woman. He is inanimate, not appearing to move in any way, not even the gentle rise and fall of breathing shoulders. His face looks like it just rolled off a mannequin production line, completely neutral. He stares ahead into a distance only he can see.

A few feet in front of her, a trio of children stand motionless, side-by-side, facing away from her. From left to right, they stand in order of increasing height and age. The youngest, a boy of about three, stands at the right hand of his sister, a girl of about five. She holds the same position next to a boy of seven, her older brother. The two on the left have mousy brown hair, the boy’s curly and unkempt, the girl’s long, wavy and wispy. The thick, sandy-blonde hair of the eldest rests like a snug helmet just an inch or so from his eyes.

The woman brings her quavering hand up to study the Polaroid. Her eyes move from the photo to the children and she steps around to face them. Recognition passes over her face and she moves her empty hand to her lips. After a slight pause, determination replaces recognition. She takes another look at the picture and carefully slides it into the breast-pocket of her blouse.

The woman steps toward the youngest and picks him up underneath his armpits. His position and expression do not change. She carries the rigid boy to the enchanted swing and lifts him up. She must reach high to clear the swing with the boy’s stiff legs. Once clear, she lowers the boy to the swing, angling him slightly toward her. The backs of his legs rest on the front of the swing and she bends the boy forward at the waist into a sitting position. She then bends one arm into position to hold the chain, molding his fingers around it. After repeating this with the other hand, the woman cautiously removes her hands from the boy and moves in front of him. She pulls the Polaroid halfway out of her pocket and quickly slides it back in. She bends the boys knees just so and moves close to his face. With her index finger and thumb spread apart to measure about an inch, she moves her hand to his eyelids and expands each of them. She uses both her hands to shape his mouth into a long “O”. The woman then takes a step back and observes what she’s done. Her hands immediately cover her face and she bends slightly forward.

I want you to set my baby free…

Recovering quickly, the woman moves her hands to her sides and shakes her head twice, as if to fend off a curious bee. She picks her head back up and quickly removes the Polaroid from her pocket. After studying the photo, she places it carefully between her lips and moves toward the other boy. In the same manner as his brother, the woman molds the oldest into the corresponding image held firmly in her mouth. The boy is pushing hard off his left foot, his right pulled nearly to his chest. He balances impossibly. She twists his torso to the right and gently moves his head to look over the right shoulder. With care, she creates a look of anticipation and joy on his face.

The woman again consults the photo, slips it back into her pocket and then carries the girl into position just behind her brother, hand reaching but not quite catching the object of her pursuit. The bottom of the girl’s dress hovers behind her on an imaginary wind. Her eyes are closed, yet somehow twinkling, a timeless giggle formed on her cheeks.

The woman wipes an eye and nimbly steps around the pair of frozen runners. The man stands in front of her, as lifeless as a telephone pole. She stops and gazes at him for a long moment. While still looking at the man, the woman slowly pulls the Polaroid from her pocket. She puts the picture in front of her eyes and studies. Her hand moves gradually to her side and she lets the Polaroid drop to the ground.

She moves to him and presses close. She takes his left arm and wraps it around her waist. Her hands tilt his head back almost imperceptibly and begin to sculpt his face. His eyes are squeezed into a flickering squint, his mouth wide open to allow hearty laughter to pour silently out.

But for all the manipulation of his face, she cannot manage to equal his jubilant expression. Hers verges on crumbling down her blouse. Finally, she buckles into a heap on her knees, elbows bent, palms flat on the ground, chin buried in her chest, straw-blonde hair enclosing her face.

I lost myself, I lost myself…