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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Chicks Don't Dig Pitchers' Duels

"Chicks dig the long ball." Well, that was the slogan of Major League baseball in the late 90's and early 00's when common players (those whose baseball cards are worth the obligatory 3 cents) were hitting 10+ homers per year, and the real brutes were clubbing upwards of 60. Things have changed since. Steroid use is closely monitored, and is declining. Advances stats have led to individualized offensive shifts, to the point where 7 position players are cluttered around short right field when Pedro Alvarez bats. Relief pitchers are more specialized; it seems each is bred and nurtured to foil a specific batter. For reasons such as these, offensive production in baseball is down. Here is a short, non-complete list of way to boast offensive production in baseball.

-No catchers. After a pitcher makes a pitch he has to quickly run to the backstop and retrieve the bouncing ball.

-No in-game pitching changes, no in-season roster moves, and no disabled lists. Did your pitcher just have Tommy John surgery a week ago? Too bad—play ball!

-Lower the mound to the point where it’s a 4-foot ditch under the rest of the playing field. (The pitcher would have to pitch the ball as if he's lobbing a hand grenade.)

-No force outs. Only tag outs.

-Shrink the strike zone to: bottom of batter's crotch to top of batter's crotch.

-Bats are filled with explosives. A well-struck ball causes the bat to immediately ignite into mini fireworks. (This will not increase offense per se, but it would be cool.)

-Legalize steroids for positions players only.

-Foul balls that make it to the upper deck are automatic three-run homers.

-Outfielders must walk/jog/run the ball back to the infield on balls in play.

-Allow ex-Pirates General manager David Littlefield to draft the pitchers for every team.

-The opposing dugout can target the other team's pitcher with pea-shooters, in-game.

-The whole outfield must shift one position to the left whenever one or more runners are on base—putting the left fielder in center field, the center fielder in right field, and the right fielder next to the hotdog vendor.

-Two players bat at once: a righty and a lefty.

-Play all games in Coor's Field.



Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A House In The Woods

A House In The Woods

I worked at a Kmart in Williamsport, Pennsylvania back in November, 2001. Williamsport is a city in the mountainous region of north central PA, best known as being the home of Little League Baseball, and lumber capital of the world until the surrounding mountains ran out of trees. I grew up in a much smaller town outside Williamsport's borders, called DuBoistown. DuBoistown is the kind of town where most folk know other folk's business. If Bob is cheating on his wife and Bob is walking down the street, bystanders see him and think "That's Bob, the guy who cheats on his wife." But folk in DuBoistown also grow up with that small town sense of morality; if someone needs a hand, well, by god drop what you're doing and lend a hand. If a neighbor knocks at your door at 3 in the morning because he needs 3 pounds of flour and a ballpeen hammer, you wake up and get him the flour and the damned ballpeen hammer.

***

I was manning Kmart's home center department one evening when I was paged on the overhead speakers concerning an incoming customer call. I picked up the receiver attached to the pillar between the paint shaker and deck wash, and I greeted the caller with the obligatory, "Hi. Thank you for calling Kmart. How can I help you?" The voice at the other end was somewhat meek. "Yes, hello. I have something to ask you. I'm a disabled veteran and I'm in the process of moving. I need a big favor. The doorknob on my front door is broken. Since I can't make it down to the store myself due to my disability I was hoping that you'd be able to purchase a door knob for me and deliver it to my house personally tonight. I'll pay you gas money."

I put him on hold while I processed the conversation. Kmart clerks don't typically take personal orders for merchandise and delivery them to private homes like pizza delivery services. And nothing screams "good idea" about driving god-knows-where to deliver a doorknob to god-knows-who late at night. But this fellow was a disabled veteran who lacked a vital household commodity. I imagined a geezer in a wheelchair becoming more and more disenchanted whenever he tried to close his front door and it invariably creaked back open when the latch didn't catch. I felt like it was my duty to lend a hand. But to be safe, I approached my two friends, Andrea and Dustin, who were also working that night. Normally the three of us would be seeking trouble anyway had we not been scheduled to work. So when presented the opportunity for an off-the-cuff adventure, both were predictably enthused.

I hit the hold button again and informed the disabled veteran that I'd be happy to help. But when the man replied, his voice now seemed quite sinister. "Great! But I don't actually have the gas money on me. You'll need to stop at a buddy's house. He lives near Kmart." Okay. Just a little more adventure, I suppose. "I live out in Trout Run." Trout Run is a hamlet way out where the buses don't run. It's called Trout Run because that's about all that lives out that way, trout. "When you take the Trout Run Exit, take a left and drive about a quarter mile down the road until you see a long gravel driveway that heads deep into the woods. Take it. My house is at the end. Now, I have no electricity, but you'll know it's my house because there'll be a Meet the Parents promotional poster in the front window." Okay. Meet the Parents was a big hit earlier that year. Perhaps he just really enjoyed the film. Regardless, I told him we'd be there by 11 o'clock.

I purchased a door knob prior to punching-out for the night, and I stuffed it inside my car's glove box. After work I followed the veteran's directions to the gas money pick-up point four blocks from Kmart, with Andrea and Dustin in tow. Throughout the drive the three of us joked about the preposterousness of our mission, which already seemed akin to a warped kind of scavenger hunt. When we arrived at the street address, I pulled to the curb along an inconspicuous residential street. Taped to the front door of the house in question was a white envelope with the name MATT written across the front in black marker. Frankly, the errand now seemed more like a booby-trap. Of course, none of the three of us volunteered to be the sucker to approach the front door and be ensnared by the giant net in waiting, or clip the trip wire en route, or succumb to the boogey man waiting inside the front door, who’d spring out and snatch whoever dared remove the envelope from its resting place above the knocker. Being adults, we submitted ourselves to the only fair way to determine the victim; we played paper, rock scissors. Andrea lost. So the only woman amongst two men leapt out of the car, sprinted to the door and snatched the envelope, and then rushed back as though she were being chased by a pack a giant rolling boulder. But sure enough, inside the envelope was 10 bucks for gas money.

Moments later we were climbing the on-ramp to Route 15 North, toward Trout Run. Andrea was still huffing and puffing; her heart was decelerating to normalcy. The Williamsport city lights gradually dimmed in the rearview mirror as we traveled amongst the rugged foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Moonlight cast a pale but widespread glow. Ahead, man-made illumination was scarce: a porch light on a faraway farm house in the hills, or a flood light outside of a silo. We mused about who exactly we would encounter when we arrived at the house in the woods. Andrea expected no one less than a secluded wild-eyed veteran turned Michael Myers. Dustin imagined a cockeyed but innocent hermit. Me? I still figured the mysterious veteran was just a little old man in a wheelchair, hoping to repair his front door.

We exited the highway at the sole Trout Run exit, four miles beyond the prior exit and four miles before the next. The last sign of life we'd encountered was a car southbound, about five minutes ago. We moved along the narrow road for about a quarter mile until we arrived at a driveway that headed into a cluster of skyscraper-like trees. I turned right unto the driveway, as instructed. We rolled along slowly. Pebbles popped underneath the tires as the car gently bounced along the rutted terrain. Eventually, two hemlock trees parted revealing a decrepit house awash in moonlight. Shingles were dislodged from the roof; gutters sagged; the chimney was slightly bent. As described, no lights were on despite the presence of porch light globes adoring the doorway. But, in the front window, an apprehensive Ben Stiller was taking a polygraph test from a scowling Robert De Niro. Believe me, there's nothing more intimidating than a scowling Robert De Niro in the moonlight, especially when your nerves are already on high alert. "This must be the place," I said as I stopped the car.

I plucked the door knob from the glove box. Then the three of us slinked on to the front porch, which creaked in meager support of our weight. Meanwhile, the scowling De Niro's eyes seemed to follow us like the eyes in those creepy Jesus paintings. I knocked on the front door, rattling paint chips dangling from cobwebs sagging off the door frame. Footsteps trudged toward the front door—not the sounds of a wheelchair rolling along hardwood. The doorknob turned. Yes, the door knob TURNED. The veteran pulled opened the door, revealing himself. He was clad in camouflage from his black combat boots to his leathery neck. His head was topped with a black bandana; bushy white hair exploded out the back. He wore Rawlings batting gloves on both hands. RAWLINGS BATTING GLOVES! He held a metal flashlight—one of those industrial strength ones that holds four D batteries long-ways—in his hand. This provided the only light in the house besides the moonlight pouring in above the scowling De Niro in the window. Behind him were several stacks of cardboard boxes scattered about the kitchen floor; each box was sealed at the seams with duct tape. A dining table rested in the corner beside a tilting bookshelf. In the opposite corner was a rusty Mad Men era oven between scuffed countertops. Everything was covered in dust.

The veteran turned the flashlight toward us and probed us with his eyes. His face was wrinkled and coarse; he had the eyes of a man who'd seen some shit in his day. Jack asked…I'm going to refer to him as Jack from now on, in honor of the scowling De Niro. Jack asked, "Do you HAVE the doorknob?" I held it into the oncoming flashlight beam. He smiled subtly and nodded. "Good," Jack said as he grabbed the doorknob and tossed it on the kitchen table. Dust kicked up. "Come on in," he said, motioning us toward him. We slogged forward a few steps. Jack brushed passed us, closed the door behind us, and then locked it. Andrea gasped as the deadbolt clicked. The DISABLED VETERAN who desperately needed a new door knob WALKED to the door and LOCKED THE DOOR behind us. We were prisoners now.  

Jack spun back around and perched his weathered eyes on mine. "Want to see my daughter," he asked. I gulped. His daughter!? She's in this house!? Is she locked in a dark, dark room? Is she chained up outside in a shed? Oh my God! Is she in pieces in the boxes on the floor? Rather than ask the obvious questions, I simply nodded. "Follow me," Jack said. He followed his flashlight beam to the bookshelf. I followed Jack, wincing with each step in anticipation of whatever crazy shit was about to happen. Andrea and Dustin followed me, walking slowly like they wore cinderblock shoes. Jack pulled a binder from the glut of other binders and hardbound books on the shelf. Then he turned his flashlight downward and opened the binder. It was filled with assorted letters written in pencil on tablet paper, and clippings from various publications. "There she is. There's my daughter," he said, almost proudly. He held up the binder, displaying a newspaper article from the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. The paper on which the article was written was wrinkled and yellow. I skimmed the piece, a human interest story about the owner of a newly opened pizza shop in downtown Williamsport. Accompanying the story was a low resolution photograph of the owner, a smiling woman with dark shoulder-length hair. I felt like I was looking at the missing person picture on the backside of a milk cartoon from three decades ago. The woman in the photo MAY have been his daughter, but she was long, long gone.   

Jack directed the flashlight beam over my shoulder and toward Dustin, who was hunkering behind me. "You. I want to show YOU something," Jack said. I had never heard such a foreboding statement. Dustin's eyes widened. Then Jack turned the flashlight to the opposite corner of the room. Dust slowly drifted through the beam. "See that red trunk. I want you to go open and it and see what's inside." When I recall this moment now, I imagine Jack is licking his lips and salivating. Dustin eyed the cumbersome red trunk and took a deep breath before uttering a single word, "Okay." Jack crept toward the trunk. Dustin followed, and stopped when told, a feet in front of the trunk. "Go ahead. Open it," Jack said. Dustin closed his eyes for a moment, as though he were thinking "Okay. This is it. It all ends here." Then he slowly bent down and slipped his fingers underneath the lid. Jack turned off his flashlight and set it on a stack of boxes. Moonlight enveloped the room. Jack proceeded to snatch a wrench from the nearby countertop, and gradually raise it above his head. I got a good look at the wrench in the moonlight as it hovered above Dustin's skull; this was the wrench a plumber would refer to as his "big gun."

I glanced over at Andrea. She was standing still, like a mannequin in a Macy's department store. The look on her face was just as blank. I slowly tiptoed backwards toward the front window, where the scowling De Niro still watched over the front porch like a guard dog whose master toyed with his prey.  Thoughts—rather survival plans—darted through my mind. Should I yell for help? No. Only the forest would hear me. Should I tackle Jack and save my friends. No. I'm too scared to play hero. Should I somehow muster the strength to thrust my elbow through the window behind me and run for dear life? Yes. If I must, I must. Then the thought occurred to me: I never told Jack I was bringing friends. He expected me to appear alone! I'm the one who is supposed to be moments from being bashed in the back of the head and stuffed into that red trunk! Because I decided to do a guy a favor, now my friend is going to be murdered.  

"See what that is?" Jack asked as he leered over Dustin, poised to strike. Only the sound of Dustin panting answered. "That's an Andy Gibb's guitar. He played it in concert," Jack said, lowering the wrench.

WHAT!? THAT'S what all this was leading too? This "disabled veteran" lied about needing a doorknob so he could lure us to no man's land to lock us in his house and scare the living shit out of us every which way, only to ultimately brag about owning teen icon— younger brother of the Brothers Gibb—Andy Gibb's fucking guitar?

Dustin was wobbling, a heartbeat from fainting. Andrea remained frozen. My elbow was cocked inches front the window, prepared to shatter it. Jack simply smiled. It wasn't a "gotcha'" smile, rather the seemlying proud and innocent smile an Andy Gibb's fan would flash upon displaying his prize possession.  He proceeded to grab the flashlight, turn it on, and then point it toward the front door. "Okay. I think you guys should be leaving now," Jack said, walking to the front door and unlocking it. Andrea Dustin and I all exhaled at once.   

As the three of us scurried through the doorway, Jack asked, "Hey. If the doorknob doesn't work can I bring it back to Kmart?" I chuckled, however nervously, as I thought to myself, "Oh, YOU can take it BACK to Kmart apparently, but you need a stranger to personally deliver it to your home." I stiffened. "No," I replied. "You can't bring it back. It's not Kmart's policy to take back defective merchandise." Of course Kmart takes back defective merchandise, but I was so disoriented and downright pissed-off concerning the night's events that I needed to feel empowered as I walked away. I closed the door behind me before Jack could do the same.

For the first ten minutes on the return drive to Williamsport silence was in command. Our psyches required time to ease back to equilibrium. When we finally came to we pondered Jack's true intentions. Was he truly a disabled veteran, but his disability purely of the mental sort? Is shellshock still a condition? Possibly. Was he actually planning a murder tonight, but decided at the last second to spare Dustin his life, possibly upon realizing that two unexpected "guests" might either be witnesses or complicate the plot too much? Perhaps. Or maybe, just maybe, Jack really was a just huge Andy Gibbs fan, and concocted a ploy to unleash his repressed fandom and flaunt his precious guitar that was once plucked by Andy Gibb's fingers.   


 Life had seemingly returned to normal by the preceding afternoon. I was again toiling in the Kmart’s home center department, mixing paint and recommending drill bits, when I was paged to the customer service desk. As I approached the desk, a mixture of rage and anxiety overcame me. Jack was leaning on the countertop, doorknob in hand. Of course, he still sported the camouflage outfit, bandana and Rawlings batting gloves. Cheryl, the customer service lady, motioned me over to the service desk. I obliged out of misguided loyalty to Kmart. Cheryl questioned me as to why the gentleman before her was told by me that he couldn't return the dysfunctional doorknob I so graciously delivered to him. I glanced to Jack, who sneered. That pushed me over the edge. "You can't return this doorknob," I repeated. "I told you that last night. You need to leave the store."  A look of sheer wildness overcame him. If Jack indeed was prone to shellshock, he must have suddenly thought he was back in the jungles of 'Nam. He stepped toe-to-toe with me and cocked his fist behind his head. "I welcomed you into my house. I showed you my daughter. I showed you my Andy Gibbs guitar. And this is how you treat me?"

Jack seemed totally pathetic now, almost sad. Had I raised a combative hand myself, I would've appeared to witnesses like a young asshole retaliating against someone who was clearly, at least in the broad daylight beside the service desk in a crowded Kmart, a disabled veteran just trying to return a defective doorknob. So, I just turned and walked away.

***

I grew up in DuBoistown. I was raised to help others when others need help. I still believe that, mostly.  But when red flags abound, perhaps it's better to just turn and walk away, and help yourself instead.  


Monday, June 9, 2014

Don't Give Me Reason To Ghost Ball Punch Your New Husband

Last Saturday evening Kait and I took a stroll through Calvary Cemetery in Greenfield. Along the bend near the main entrance, beside the newly built three-story mega-mausoleum, I noticed a large weathered tombstone with the last name BUTERA embossed across the front. (all names have been changed to protect the dead) Underneath the family name were two other names and dates: John Butera 1902-1943 and Cynthia Butera 1906-    . Initially I thought, "Man, Cynthia is old as crust." A few steps farther down the cobblestone path the truth reared its slobbering maniacal head. Cynthia died a long time ago, remarried, and left John to rot alone. Cynthia is buried alongside another lover!

I'm not going to begrudge Cynthia the decision to remarry. But poor John! Imagine his ghost wandering the cemetery, whistling Dixie and kicking a crumbled Sprite can every three steps until he stumbles upon the BUTERA headstone: his name and death date, and his (ex) wife's name and blank death date, open-ended like she's a weekend party (Cynthia 50's Beach Bash. Starts: 1906. Ends-???) If I were John's ghost, I'd make it my mission to seek out Cynthia's other headstone and land a haymaker squarely in Cynthia's burial mate's ghost nuts. Granted, Cynthia's new life (death) partner retains no fault, but John surely deserves to unload his eternal frustration in the form of a hereafter sac punch.
Of course, perhaps John was an abusive asshole in life and deserved to be buried alone, but anyway...


I truly felt sad for John. He's been forever left at the alter, so to speak. When John was on his death bed he likely truly believed that his beloved wife Cynthia, who might've kissed him on the forehead amid his dying breath and whispered that they'd lie together again someday, would live-out her remaining days in celibacy in lei of an eternity together with her dearly departed husband. Sorry John; she loved someone else more. Now every passerby who examines the BUTERA tombstone and does the math should feel sorry for the poor lonely son-a-bitch under their feet.  I wonder how Cynthia felt whenever she and her new hubby walked passed the BUTERA plot amongst a Sunday stroll. If she possessed but a crumb of decency she should've felt like a heap of cracked eggs for the poor lonely son-a-bitch (who used to cuddle her during thunderstorms and stroke her hair in the beds of pick-up trucks during fireworks displays) under her feet. But like I said, I don't begrudge her decision to remarry. Not to dump eight pounds of salt in a festering chainsaw wound, but John is certainly partly to blame for deciding that the pre-death joint BUTERA headstone was a jazzy idea.

At this point in the (what was supposed to be) leisurely walk through the cemetery I made Kait promise that she'd never request a headstone built for two, or, tandem-tomb. When I inevitably die 25 years before her I don't want her to feel the BOWER headstone is an everlasting reminder of a (now-defunct) vow or a landing spot for her beautiful corpse.  

Live it up baby; you ain't dead yet.*

*And I certainly don't want to spend eternity seeking to ghost ball-punch your new husband. I'd rather spend it whistling Dixie and kicking a crumbled Sprite can.




Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The World Is A Framed Velvet Elvis

Last Sunday morning was stereotypically gorgeous. The sky engulfed the twin oak trees on the hill as though the color palette had tilted and the blue paint had oozed into the green, and dried. The few clouds looked like dissipating jet exhaust. I'm sure the Wunderbread delivery truck was idling at the Giant Eagle loading dock nearby but I only noticed the tussling robins either being playful or dueling over a doomed earthworm.

I sat on the rocking chair on my front porch. The chair was left by the previous owner of my home. I kept it because my porch doesn't feel whole without the rocking chair to break the monotony of empty space outside my front door. When I moved into the house six years ago I discovered the chair atop the asbestos floor in the finished basement room—what is now my den—facing a large painting of an unfamiliar village on an unfamiliar hillside that hung crooked on the wall. The painting could've been perfect yard sale bait alongside a framed velvet Elvis, and another framed velvet Elvis. Anyway, the basement room was otherwise empty. I imagine the old fella', whose memories must linger in my home like arthritic ghosts I unceremoniously stomp daily, sat there rocking dawn to dusk and fixating on the painting until he was overcome by double vision or legal blindness.  

Sunday morning I sat on his rocking chair. I stared at the gorgeous morning like I imagine the old man stared at the painting.

I could see a slice of backyard behind the duplex across the street. A young girl—too young to color in the lines—was dawdling about. She was holding a helium filled balloon. Something happened that caused the balloon's string to dislodge from her weak grasp. Perhaps she stepped on a bumblebee. The balloon ascended skyward like a Mylar Jesus who'd rethought the second coming and figured "Screw this place. I'm going home." The girl began wailing. I watched the balloon climb until it became swallowed by the sun's brilliance, as were my pupils. Darkness momentarily overcame me. She continued wailing. As the gorgeous morning returned to focus it occurred to me that there is nothing else in the little girl's world at this moment besides the tragedy of the escaped balloon. That is it. Nothing else.

I considered what was going on in the adult world I inhabit, the world supposedly mature enough to color within the lines? What vile headlines raced leftward across the ticker to disappear off screen only to reappear from behind like a rabid Pac Man chasing his tail? Behold cackling warlords waiving semi-automatic weapons and directing amateur beheading porn somewhere on the dusty side of the globe. And international dignitaries as deserving of being heads of state as Justin Bieber being a life coach, despite wearing lapel pins and flashing credentials permitting access to the shitters at the UN Headquarters. And school girls kept under floorboards in an African dessert, awaiting god's command to be hawked to Jihadist pimps. And a rampaging virgin leaving bodies like breadcrumbs on the Santa Barbara streets, marking the trail back to a rejected kindergarten kiss. And evangelical missionaries exorcising condoms from the shanties while gleefully counting down the days until the rapture using AIDS babies as beans. And knucklehead politicians believing 99.9% of climatologists are puppets to renewal energy companies that years ago paid-off the CIA to shoot Kennedy brainless so the Hollywood elite could film the lunar landing in an underground soundstage to instill a "can do" attitude among millions of Americans including a young David Stern who pursued the NBA commissionership solely to rig the 1985 entry-level draft enabling the New York Knick to select the "Hoya Destroyer" Patrick Ewing while the Indiana Pacers front office wept for a better tomorrow.

My senses returned to the sobbing girl across the street. Somehow the balloon's escape was more harrowing to her than the totality of every desperate headline. But the balloon had disappeared long enough that her spirits gradually rose back to a naïve sea level.

I leaned back into my rocking chair and took a deep breath. Some peeling varnish stuck to my bare back. When I leaned forward and exhaled the varnish specs ripped from the cracked wood. I returned to admiring the gorgeous morning like I imagine the old man admired the painting. Aw yes, the balloon is gone.

The world is a framed velvet Elvis anyway.     

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Tin Man Responds To The Parole Board

Will I kill again?


I don't know. A smoker quits cold turkey because his cigarettes are taken and kept for 43 years. After that long you'd think the urge to smoke would vanish. Then one day he's labeled as reformed. They toss a pack of Marlboro's in front of him and say "Be on your way friend." A week goes by. A year goes by. Hell, maybe only a day goes by. Would you be surprised if the reformed smoker unwraps the pack and lights up? He relives the ecstasy of inhaling. Pretty soon there's 20 butts singed butts in the ashtray. The cravings are back.

I was a mannequin in that forest for damn near a hundred years. Think 43 years in a maximum security penitentiary is a lifetime? A HUNDRED YEARS! My rusted body was a cell but my mind was perfectly lucid. Birds perched on my oil can hat and shat in my eyes. Squirrels burrowed through my corroded rivets and hibernated in my gut. The trees mocked me every day. They tossed apples at me like I was a dart board in a dive bar. "Why don't you chop us down," they'd mock. "Comon' tin woodsman, swing that ax." Just look at these goddamn apple dents. The best auto body repairman in the world wouldn't touch me with ten foot butane lighter. Trust me; years of submitting to a fellow convict who had his fun on me with a can opener during laundry duty was nothing compared to being frozen in that god forsaken forest.

I begged internally that my brain would oxidize. I couldn’t be so lucky. But then the orphan came skipping down the yellow brick road, that clumsy scarecrow in tow. She rapped on my chest, the little brat. That shit hurt. Then she greased my joints. My body awakened from a coma. I could move again! She greased my mouth. The taste of fresh air was nearly recognizable. But when my fingers curled around that axe handle the urge to split every damn thing in that forest coursed through me. Just start fuckin' hackin’. But I couldn’t. The orphan’s voice was so soothing. Emotions rushed back. I wanted to hug her for saving me. I wanted to kiss her on the check for freeing me. I was so ecstatic I did a dance, and sang about an urge to love. I even banged my stomach and tooted my oil can hat. I only ever did that on holidays when the kids were around. When the orphan said I could join her and the scarecrow on a journey to a wizard who could grant me a heart, I nearly blew my bolts.

A wizard who could grant me an honest-to-goodness heart? Huh! The world would’ve been better off had I stood between two industrial junkyard magnets that day.

You know most of what happens next. The heart I was promised—the heart I risked my life for when I assaulted a guardsman and stole his wardrobe to sneak into a castle and help murder a witch—was nothing more than a clock. A fucking plastic clock on a chain! I had half the mind to cleave the wizard’s head the second he handed me that hunk of shit. Of course, I acted thankful. If I wanted to wake earlier than the flying monkey crows I’d be fine, but if wanted to love...

I did want to love.

That orphan got a ride from Oz all the way back to the states. On a fucking hot air balloon! Who travels like that? What’s more, she actually tells that blundering scarecrow that she’d miss him most of all. I was standing right fucking there! If the heart were real, it would’ve shattered. The dimwitted lion didn’t catch the subtle kick in the lug nuts.

After the wizard and orphan scrammed and all the merrymaking ceased I was on my own again. I wasn't even offered a carriage ride back to the forest, let alone on a damn balloon. By the way, the horse of a different color is bullshit brown six days a week, but I digress. I walked back to the forest, alone. I'd mention how many hours it took but the damned heart clock stopped ticking. I tossed the fucker into a ravine.

Do you know where I ended up? I walked back to the only place I recognized, where I was frozen all those years. After everything, you'd think I'd finally unleash my frustration by hacking to hell those trees that bullied me. But I didn't. I was so letdown I didn't have the motivation. When you're convinced you're getting a real heart, especially after all I went through, and then you get bamboozled…

I wanted a goddamn heart so bad.

I stood in the exact same spot, in the exact same position. And I waited. I could hear the young lovers merrily skipping down the yellow brick road. Of course, they noticed the poor immobile tin woodsman, and stopped to take a good close gander. The fella' was wearing a letterman sweatshirt. The lass smelled like a strawberry milkshake. I remember it so well. When she leaned in to knock on my chest, I lunged. "Tiiimberrr," I yelled. The next few minutes are a blur. When I came to I was standing over her body, a big fucking hole in her chest. I held her bloody heart in my hand. It was so warm and squishy. Finally, a real heart. Finally, I could love. The boyfriend had fainted. He woke up screaming like a pussy. I pried the ax from her chest and went to work on him too. Twice the heart, twice the love.

Will I kill again?

If you unlock my cell and say "Be on your way friend," my first stop will be at Home Depot to purchase an ax. I'm a woodsman. Then I'll return to the forest and hold that ax. A week will go by. A year will go by. Hell, maybe the rest of my free life will go by. But I already got stained teeth and black lungs, boys. If you release me back into this cruel world, you best pray I resist the urge to light up again.





Sunday, March 30, 2014

Baby's First Outing


In my son’s baby scrapbook there’s a blank page with the heading “Baby’s First Outing.”


My wife Kait gave birth to our son Uriah 20 months ago. Along with the joy of being a new parent came equal amounts of dread. In the early days Uriah’s life on Earth thoughts banged around my head of the incalculable number of things that could go wrong: I imagined holding him and getting my foot caught on the corner of an area rug and he goes flying out of my arms, or I'm unknowingly feeding him a bottle of rotten formula that causes his skin to become green and scaly, or I'm playfully tossing him into the air but I've forgotten about the living room ceiling fan whirling in the danger zone overhead.

So, for the first 2 weeks of Uriah's life he was kept safe and sound in his bassinet while his nerve wrecked Dad simply stared down at him.

But one can only stare at a baby for so long before things get a bit dull for all parties involved. For Kait and I that time was about one month. We figured it was time to get little Uriah out of the house. We decided that baby’s first out would be to…The Monroeville Mall. What baby wouldn't love to hear one day that his first time out of the house was to a corporate facility that housed a mock Mister Rogers neighborhood, an expansive zombie wax museum, and a Payless Shoe Store? For me the allure was that a trip to the mall was relatively low risk.

We dressed Uriah in his tiny dinosaur hoodie, with the row of green spikes on the hood. Then we strapped him into his Graco baby seat, which is built like a Sherman Tank. I settled in behind the wheel of the Hyundai Elantra. Kait sat in the back beside the baby seat.

And off we went.




We live in the Greenfield neighborhood, next to Squirrel Hill. For those of you unfamiliar with that part of town, the on-ramp to 376 there is a steep decline to a stop sign where you have to stick your head out the window and look BEHIND you like a dog, and wait for a gap in the cars passing at 60 mph and then gun it and weave into traffic. Nerves had already taken hold of me on the short drive from our house to that on-ramp. I'm going about 15 mph. I'm putting my blinkers on a half mile ahead of time. Basically, I'm driving like it's my driver's test and a sneering instructor with a red pen and a clipboard is riding shotgun.

After an unscathed first leg of the rip, we arrive at the ramp. Now, I've managed this ramp probably a thousand times in my life without incident. I patiently wait my turn while the vehicles in from of me pull one by one on to 376 East. Occasionally I glance into the rearview mirror to observe Kait playing peek-a-boo with Uriah. How adorable! Eventually, my turn to ease toward the stop sign arrives. I roll down the window and stick my head outside to gauge the oncoming traffic behind me, and I wait until a chance to pull out. When I do I gun it. But when I snap my head forward to take stock of the rapidly approaching Squirrel Hill Tunnel, I see we're careening toward a black minivan that I hadn't noticed was still waiting on the ramp ahead of me. In that moment it's not my life that flashes before me, but Uriah's. And it's just a month of lying in a bassinet and being stared at.

BIFF!                                                                                                                                     

The collision is barely a fender bender. But my wife immediately explodes. "My car!" she says. "The car? What about our baby?" I reply. We’d taken so many car rides alone that she momentarily forgot we had a newborn with us. "Uriah! I swear Matt, if you hurt my baby…rah, rah, rah." She tore into me. Her chastisements flood my ears so rapidly that I can't decipher the words.

I exit the car and approach the driver of the van, who is also bitching at me. I apologize and tell her I screwed up, wasn't paying attention, and so forth—just a longwinded way of saying "my bad." Meanwhile cars are beeping and driving around us on the ramp to get onto the highway. Eventually, the other driver settles down and forgives me, and drives away. I return to the Elantra, and the firestorm within. By this time, my wife is on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. Now, Kait is taking turns between berating me and describing the baby's condition. "He looks okay but I can't tell…Oh my god Matt, if you hurt my baby…Send paramedics right away…You idiot Matt, if you hurt my baby…"

I have no choice but to pull on to the highway and get off the next exit literally 50 yards away. We end up right back in Greenfield. Meanwhile Kait is still unloading on me "The dispatcher said we aren't supposed to move the car because the baby's neck might move. If you hurt my baby..."

I pull to the side of a residential street only about 5 blocks from our house. While the verbal bombardment continues I lean back and get a good look at Uriah. He seems to be sleeping peacefully.

We wait along the road while the evening gets darker and darker. Finally, a cop car pulls up behind us, red and blue lights flashing like crazy. My neighbors in the surrounding houses are drawn to the flashing lights and start walking onto their front porches to check out the scene. I get out of the car again and approach the cop who is talking into the receiver on his shoulder, as they do. I only catch the words "situation" and "back-up."

After a little longer the paramedics arrive, red and white lights flashing like crazy. More neighbors peer out their windows or mosey on to their porches. Kait is still in the back seat, crying and rubbing Uriah's cheeks. I'm just standing there on the sidewalk watching, and hoping to shrink to nothing.

Finally a fire truck shows up, red and white lights flashing like crazy. Within seconds, cops, paramedics, and fire men mull about the Elantra. People are starting to line the streets as though they are expecting a parade. This is a major neighborhood event now. I honestly half expect the KDKA news helicopter to come hovering overhead.

At this point I'm just another onlooker. It's pretty dark now. I peer through the Elantra's back window. One paramedic shines a flashlight on Uriah while another places his calloused stout finger on Uriah's smooth scrawny neck. "Heartbeat normal," the paramedic says. A third paramedic places the cold business end of a stethoscope on Uriah's petite chest. "Breathing normal." The whole time Uriah remains asleep. I'll never forget his tiny face, disappearing and reappearing in all the flashing red, blue, and white lights. The row of stubby green dinosaur spikes atop his head are coming and going too. The poor dude has no idea of the commotion around him. He looks just as he had while sleeping in his bassinet the month before this giant mess.

In that moment I never felt smaller. Never. One month into being a parent and on our FIRST trip out of the front door I'm already convinced I managed to give my baby whiplash, or worse. And whole world within two blocks knows that the distraught guy lingering about the Elantra is the one to blame.

I snap out of my trance when the first cop on the scene approaches me. "Mr. Bower, your baby seems perfectly fine. Please sign the medical report and we can all go home." I smile and nod and I sign the report. He tears a copy from his clipboard and hands it to me while bidding me a good evening. Then he begins to walk away, but stops and turns around and says, "Hey. When I first got here I mean to ask you about the driver of the other vehicle? The dispatcher said your wife was ready to kill up the other driver." I said "No. She wanted to kill me."

Once the flashing lights dimmed and the onlookers disappeared back inside their homes I drive my family straight home. Once back inside the living room and under the comforting glow of the floor lamp, I hold all 9 pounds of my still sleeping son in my arms. For the first time I feel as though he is safe right where he was.


***

If you open Uriah's scrapbook to the page with the headline "Baby's First Outing", there isn't a description of a nice night at the zombie wax museum or Payless Shoes, there's a copy of a medical report.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

7 Questions for the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Season


Despite a wildly successful 2013 campaign that treated Bucco Nation to the first winning season—and playoff appearance—in twenty years, questions still abound two weeks prior to Opening Day. The Pittsburgh Pirates seemed poised for a legitimate postseason push again this summer. But sometimes a can of corn turns out to be a bucket of shit, with the handles on the inside.

1.      Was the entire 2013 a “wag the dog” scenario?
In other words, was the entire 2013 season staged? Were fans treated to a fake winning season to divert attention from owner Bob Nutting’s frugality, or the horrendous breakdowns in the second halves of both 2011 and 2012? Were spectators at PNC Park watching holograms of ball players, and wins scripted by writers? Was Root Sports telecasting a kind-of WWE event, or “sports entertainment”? Does Andrew McCutchen actually exist, or is he just the concocted protagonist in a sick fantasy conjured by the puppeteers in the luxury suites? Are these questions being asked facetiously? Sadly, no.

2.      Who will be the first baseman on Opening Day?
Despite GM Neil Huntington not acquiring a bona fide first basemen in the offseason, the general consensus is that the team does, in fact, need a warm body to fill the position. Unfortunately, a platoon of an uninspiring Gaby Sanchez and pseudo-prospect Adam Lambo seems a lackluster solution. But still, a living, breathing human being should be in the general vicinity of the bag when the Bucs are in the field. Rumor has it that management is toying with the notion of cutting first base from the payroll altogether, and paying the batboy minimum wage to retrieve errant throws from the dugout. The notion would make Dick Groat roll in his grave, and Dick Groat aint’ even dead yet. Hey! Wait a minute…

3.      Will the defensive shift hurt or help the outfield?
Jose Tabata has gained weight steadily since his rookie year. The right fielder has suggested to manager Clint Hurdle that the outfield should shift so dramatically to the left, regardless of the batter’s spray chart, that the new alignment would virtually position Tabata seven feet from the Nathan’s Hot Dog stand. Okay, the word “virtually” was typed in jest; Tabata will be housing weiner dogs rather than taking bad routes to fly balls.

4.      Will Burnett sign with the Pirates?
This question is posed by the same people who think Obama wasn’t born in the US, or that the US government used remote control planes to crash into the Twin Towers, or that flash-in-the-pan pitcher Jeff Locke is ticketed for an All-Star career.  Face it people.  Burnett signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. His contract looks just as legit as Obama’s birth certificate, which means there is a 50-50 chance that Burnett has not signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.

5.      Will Pedro Alvarez strike out 2,794,704,087 times in 2014?
That number seems high, but if you include spring season at-bats, I think we’re in the ballpark. 




6.      Is the Pirate Parrot responsible for the recent string of heroine deaths in the Pittsburgh region?
Connoisseurs of both baseball and opiates recall that the Pittsburgh drug trials of the 1980’s brought media attention and shame to several high-profile baseball players who were outed as drug abusers. Humorously enough, the Pirate Parrot was the pusherman. I’m not necessarily suggesting that the famed mascot has returned to his former illegal habits. However, the sharp uptick in heroine use on the streets combined with several eye witness accounts of a white powdery substance on the Parrot’s beak, a TMZ video of the Parrot sunbathing with 15 scantily-clad Swiss models on his newly purchased schooner, and the recent announcement that the popular hotdog gun has been re-titled the smack gun—which the Parrot will use to fire several ounces of “pure” to lucky fans during the 3rd inning break—really makes you wonder.

7.      Will the Pirates have another winning season?
If by “winning” you mean having scored more runs than the opposing team at the conclusion of 9 innings of play, and having accomplished that feat more than 82 times. And by “season” you mean season. Then yes, the 2014 Pirates are playoff bound again. Let's Go Bucs!