Friday, September 26, 2008

Birth Order

I am my mother's fifth child. There are six. The firstborn, my eldest brother, is only seven years older than I. That's how cute my mom is.

My little sister is ten years younger. I think it took ten years before it became apparent to my parents that they hadn't gotten it quite right yet.

The oldest—we'll call him "Ken," because that's his name—was always the smartest. Scholarships, class president, front man of a popular rock band. He was hard to hate. As I grew long and lanky like he was, with the same stooped shoulders and head-bobbing walk, I secretly liked it when people called me Ken. I liked it less when, as I grew my hair out long like his, a few people called me Patty. My sister Patty didn't like it much either. As an adult she admitted to me that she had spent a considerable amount of her childhood rifling through my parents' drawers looking for proof that she was adopted.

My dad traveled a lot, and regularly referred to me as KenChuckCherylPatMick, with an instant blink of correction between each name. At least he got everybody in the right order. When my litter sister was born, he got her name right on the first try, probably because he'd had a decade to sort the rest of us out. He wanted to name her Jodi, but my mother refused. They agreed on JoEllen Marie. Everyone calls her Jodi. If Ken were to step out in front of a bus, my family would unanimously name Jodi as the smartest, and not just because Ken was gone, but because, well, how dumb do you have to be to step out in front of a bus?

Not long after Jodi was born, I was cheerfully reciting the names of all the kids in my family, in my little sing-song voice. "Ken, Chuck, Cheryl, Patty…Jodi…"

The sing-song stopped. I knew there were six kids. I went back through the names, feeling a little sheepish at first. Ken. Chuck Cheryl. Patty. Jodi… Who was I missing? After a moment, unstoppable hot tears pressed out of my eyes. I hated myself—how could I be so thoughtless and self-centered that I didn't even remember all my brothers and sisters? In shame I confessed it to my mother, so desperate was I to find out whom I had forgotten that I was willing to reveal to her that I was a selfish cretin.

She waited a few moments for me to figure it out. I didn't. She blinked at me, sweetly at first, then blankly. Out of pity she eventually added, "You forgot Mickey."

I think it is to my credit that the relief I felt to learn I hadn't forgotten anyone outweighed the embarrassment of being dim.

Perhaps someday I'll be the smartest kid in my family, but it's going to take a whole fleet of buses.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pillow Flight

I fell down the stairs.

It wasn't my first time. I have long feet, and my brain is far from them. Once or twice I've overshot a step, my foot slipped off, and my skeleton made that brrrrink! marimba sound as I went down the wooden stairs on my back.

This time was different. Laurie and Laura were hosting a Mediterranean dinner party, and decided it would be fun to move out all their living room furniture and have everyone sit on pillows. I don't know if people really eat like that in Mediterranea, but I know these two will never have a regular dinner party with brats and ketchup paper plates, because that would cheat us out of the fun of moving a couch through a skinny doorway.

I have a huge pile of big, brightly colored pillows in my attic, left over from a previously brilliant home decorating idea. I promised to contribute them. Even with my long arms, it's hard to gather up big pillows, hard to keep ahold of them, hard to see where I'm going.

And hard to find that first stair.

My screams were muted; the pillows were all over me. I felt like a sock in a clothes dryer. It was like having sex with the Sta-Puf Marshmallow Man: didn't hurt, just generally unpleasant.

When I was in high school I worked for a motel, washing bedsheets in an array of giant laundry machines. My friend Odee, son of the motel owner, stopped by to visit me. Watching me work, he decided he could fit himself into one of the industrial dryers. So I helped him in, tossed in a few pillowcases, turned off the burner so he wouldn't wrinkle, and set him for ten minutes. Although I couldn't hear him through the glass door, I though he was having fun because he had the same expression on his face that people do when they ride the rollercoaster.

I was getting a strawberry pop out of the pop machine when the timer rang, so I was a little late letting him out. He was surprisingly mute for as mad as he was: his parents didn't allow him to swear and he didn't really have anything else to say.

I had yet to sucessfully make a noise as I tumbled to the bottom of the stairs and piffed to a landing. My daughter passed by on her way to the kitchen. She stepped gingerly over me, tippy-toe-ing through the scattered pillows, not asking for clarification. She is used to me not making sense.

"I'm fine," I offered.

She replied, "Are we out of milk?"

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

One-Eyed Jim

Today is Jimmy's birthday.

I first met him when I bought the building that was to become Mick's Music & Bar. There are apartments above, and he was a tenant. I thought I should introduce myself, and knocked. Apparently very few people knock on his door. He opened it with an impatient snap. No one told me Jimmy had just one eye, and he didn't happen to be wearing his fake one. I thought I saw his brain. It was not the best first impression.

Jimmy, glass eye in, began hanging out in my bar while I did the remodeling. He was an old union guy, and was full of advice, some of it useful. He'd leave around three o'clock each day, which was when the R-Bar opened. The R-Bar was a tiny little place down the street where retired guys like Jimmy would spend their afternoons. I called The R-Bar his office, and eventually everyone else did too. His mail was delivered there. His legs were bad, so sometimes I'd give him a lift. Whenever I got in over my head, I'd ask Jimmy if he knew a masonry guy or a plumber or whatever. He'd go to the office, and the next day three guys would show up looking for work.

Jimmy began to share in each success, be it installing a toilet or laying tile. He'd shake his head at my fumbling lack of expertise, but his good eye had that same twinkle my dad's used to get when I finally got something right.

When I needed to run to the hardware store, I'd ask Jimmy to keep an eye on the place. He'd pretend to thumb out his glass one, and I'd cringe in disgust.

The day I finished building the stage, we celebrated. It had been difficult. I had struggled with the angles and miters, always a little over my head, but finally got it done to my satisfaction and that of the city inspector. That night Jimmy waddled home drunk from Louis Bar, crawled up the long flight of stairs to his apartment, and teetered when he got to his bathroom. He lost his balance and grabbed the medicine cabinet, which pulled off the wall and slammed into the toilet, smashing the tank. Five hours later his neighbor heard water running and discovered Jimmy still asleep on the floor amid all the broken ceramic and mirrors, water pouring onto the floor. The next day I arrived to find our new stage waterlogged, the wood curled like a potato chip. When Jimmy saw what he had done I think he cried more than I did.

Jimmy had a girlfriend, Zetta. She would give him rides in her huge white Cadillac. Neither of them got around all that well, and they'd check on each other twice a day, at eleven and three. The day Mick's opened, Jimmy insisted on being the guy who bought the first beer, with Zetta at his side. (She didn't drink.) He proudly handed me a framed two dollar bill, which today is hanging on the wall. I didn't have the heart to tell him that the beer he ordered was $3.50. Zetta winked.

Jimmy's routine was so trustworthy that when he missed his eleven o'clock call, Zetta immediately sent George, Jimmy's neighbor, to check on him. George found Jimmy dead on the stairs. No one knows what happened.

But he's not quite gone. I feel him in the bar during the day. When I attempt to fix a clogged drain and skank sprays all over me, I hear him chuckle, and I chuckle too. I notice that things don't break down nearly as often as they used to. Jimmy must have a lot of connections up there too.

Happy birthday, Jimmy. And thanks for the help.