Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Manny Diaries, Chapter Fifteen: The Pushing of the Swing

“in the cupboard sits my bottle

like a dwarf waiting to scratch out my prayers.

I drink and cough like some idiot at a symphony,

sunlight and maddened birds are everywhere,

the phone rings gamboling its sound

against the odds of the crooked sea;

I drink deeply and evenly now,
I drink to paradise

and death

and the lie of love.”
—Charles Bukowski, “SoirĂ©e”

No more cliffhangers. No more chapters to be delivered. This is the final chapter. It’s the end of fifteen parts, both sad and fierce, and the end of a eulogy that began with the very first chapter, although I didn’t know it then.

The Manny died on Tuesday, July 7, 2015. We don’t know the hour. His relentless talking, both the internal dialogue and the external monologues, had already presumably gone quiet. He had left Mexico to renew his visa, which he did periodically. After crossing the border from Guatemala into Mexico by bus, he suffered a seizure, collapsed, and fell into a coma. A good Samaritan pulled his passport out and called the American embassy in Mexico City.

This is he.

Oh, you would so mad if you knew I shared any photos of you, but this one shows you at your happy, smiling best so i'm going to pretend you never said anything. You look happy. Besideswhich, you can't git after me me cos you are dead! (Oops, sorry, trying on a bit of your style of humor.) The text caption for this one read; "Look, Miss Jennifer, I got a haircut!"
My husband had spoken to Manny on the previous Friday afternoon and he was right as rain. Sober as a judge. They were catching up after not having spoken for a month, and they talked for an hour and a half. The conversation was so innocuous that my husband can’t clearly remember any specific details. There was no “Lupita the beautiful Mexican girl, who stole my Chipmunk puppet but whose skin was so soft, so very soft.” There was no talk of missing pants or missing chunks of tongue or angry landlords or roaming oxen or stopping up the toilets or avocados falling like manna from the trees. (When he was sober he might have, I dare say, been a bit more ordinary. But one might say that he was reasonably happy. A decent trade-off.)

On Sunday, my husband received a call from the embassy. Some years back, he had helped Manny obtain a passport, and his name was (eerily!) still on record with the state department as a result. They told him that Manny was in a coma and that the doctor had stated that, “the prognosis is not good.”

Two days later my husband placed a call to the embassy and received word that Manny was gone, his ever-present nattering and wild speculations silenced and darkened forever. He was dead of “unknown causes.” Unknown except for the dubious devil of drink, which may have finally killed him in the end. Perhaps he had tried to stop again. Perhaps he had tried to begin again. We don’t know, except that he had quite suddenly ceased to exist. It was what we had expected, all along. I knew I’d never see him again, and I won’t.

He had often said things like: “But what if I die, Miss Jennifer? What if I were to die?” He was truly afraid of dying. He knew in his heart it was a constant possibility. Some people are hyperbolic, prone to doom-filled mental wanderings, and hypochondria (myself included). He was all that and more. He knew he was going to die. It was just a matter of time.

You think you’ll have a chance to prepare, to say your goodbyes. You’re hoping for movie lighting. But then you step off a bus and fall down in a parking lot, or a dusty field, and no one notices but for a kind stranger. You’re there and then you’re not. You’re nowhere. You’re torso-deep into a bush with your pants missing and still have the grace to guffaw about it.

Manny, in the year that you lived with us, you crafted us near 100 meals, probably more. But you’ll cook no more. Where is your sunburnt smile under that ridiculous hat, and where are your 14 chickens that you bought for a song? I think you named three of them the Big One, the Middle One, and the Little One, after our boys.

His name was Mark. I’ll stop calling him Manny, but I’ll leave his last name off the records. His last name—the name we knew him under for many years—was real. He often went by another name, Frank, by which many of his friends knew him. But it wasn’t real. Many other things he told us weren’t real.

He was 54 years old, and not 63 as he often told us when he was drunk. (This had caused confusion, as my husband knew his true age by his passport. However, he [that is, Manny] had told us that Mark was also an assumed name. His real name, he said, along with the person had been when he was born, was long buried and forgotten. He had intentionally aged himself by 9 years.) He never served in Vietnam. He never killed anyone in combat. He was not adopted. His parents were not shot by Stalin’s goons as he cowered under the bed. He had a daughter, adopted, from a short-lived marriage. He adopted her in 1999. She’s sixteen now.

He had four siblings, all of whom (but for one) had washed their hands of him years ago. “We haven’t seen him in 26 years. Let him be buried in Mexico’s version of Potter’s Field,” said his sisters. One brother still cared, and we found that brother through the embassy. He hadn’t glimpsed Mark since 1990, when Mark had come by his shop to borrow $5,000. The brother wonders if that lousy $5,000 that he didn’t even care about kept Mark away for so long. Mark could have repaid the loan, too—he had the money many times over in the next two decades, when he was doing well financially. His brother would have gladly forgiven the loan just to spend more time with him.

Almost everything he told us, especially when he was drunk, was a lie. And his lies went even further. He had told friends that we owed him because he had paid for my husband’s law school education, and that, despite that, we were constantly “shaking him down for money.” No, simply not true, my husband’s mother paid for it. And we never shook him down for money. In fact, he owed us money. But we didn’t care.

I’m picturing rattling the poor man’s pockets as I “shake him down” and finding only some Dove dark chocolates and shards of broken pretzels and maybe a linty quarter.

Oh Mark, I’d like to swat you in the face with a sheeny-eyed red snapper now, but I can’t. Nor can I ask you what you meant to achieve with your wild fictions and your weeping over the dead you left behind in Vietnam. I now know that you had Muscular Dystrophy as a child, and they had to cut the muscles on the backs of your legs to help the condition (why I do not know; looking it up instantly hosed my computer, as if Mark is gleefully fiddling with the controls from the beyond to prevent fact-checking of his falsehoods).

We learned that your mother doted on you and you were always the favorite. “My sweet Mark. My poor Mark,” she used to say. You outgrew the condition, apparently. You got an apartment and your mother would deliver groceries to you once a week, out of love. But when your mother died in 2013, you didn’t attend her funeral, nor did you attend your father’s funeral in 1996.

And the “wetwork” you supposedly did. Did you ever actually hurt a single living thing? You had so much anger burning you up inside. You had so much pain. And so much love, too.

Why did you adopt a daughter and never speak of her? Despite that, why did you love our boys so much? I have videos of you pushing our children on a tree swing, and laughing. You had a great, big belly laugh. A real laugh that made fake cocktail-party titters seem shameful. You had a deep chuckle.

They amused him greatly, our boys. He let them climb over him and batter him like he was made of granite, despite his aches and pains. He was never dark then, during the pushing of the swing, although the darkness was in him.

I didn’t fully realize the fact of Mark’s death until I saw, a few nights ago, a photograph of the urn that carried his ashes. It had been delivered from Mexico to his brother in Detroit. It seemed awfully small to house such a big man. How can someone so massive be just…gone.  It was a wooden box, rectangular in shape. It made me feel scared for him, until I remembered: He’s not in there. That’s just all the ashes that are left from the pains and sorrows and hungers and loves of that big, ungainly body that never quite fit him.

Mark, you were a real physical presence. You used to startle on my stairs. You toasted tortillas on our stove and chopped endless “guavacados” on the cutting board. In our closet we have your old coat on a hangar, a “Dickies” brand coat. Your old winter hat is wadded-up in the pocket. You used to point at the logo and snigger, “Look, it says Dickies. Hee hee hee. Dickies!” That was your trademark sense of humor. A little juvenile, a little dirty, but we laughed all the same.

He was a mountain of a man—all crags and thorns and gullies and crevasses, a big bumbling sorrow of a man who loved his dog, Gus, so much that he carried the bulldog’s urn of ashes across the country. He cried his heart out over that dead dog, to us over the phone over many weeks. He wept like a baby.

Where is his wok, and his perfect citrus press? I covet that citrus press. All his meager possessions, left behind in Mexico with the landlord who grew to love him, too, even over a short period of time. Rodolfo wept on the phone while discussing the details of Mark’s final months.

Can I think that Mark inspired one of my sons (the “Middle One”) with a passion for cooking that has never wavered over the months? I’d like to think so, yes.

His art collection in the storage unit had already been sold for pennies on the dollar by the time we learned of his death. We have a couple of broken, antique lamps in the garage, and a collection of photographs he never bothered to return to the art galleries that had loaned them out to him. We have a handful of photos that contain him, the man, the Manny. We don’t have much.

I thought to write, “I wish I could have told him that I never hated him.” No, I loved him. But I think I did manage to tell him that. He read this blog once in an indignant fury (after my husband informed him of its existence) and told us to “fix it!” He wanted it all deleted. He wanted every piece of information about him that existed to be expunged from public record. My husband wrote back, “Suck it up!” We would never delete it, especially now. It’s a record of who he was, both sad and joyous. He didn’t leave much else.

You played a joke on the world, Mark, and maybe you’re still sniggering about it, and we’ll never know why. Lies and deceit and family estrangement and pain and heartbreak and drinking and more lies and even more drinking, but you did something right, because we sit here in the cricket song and the dark night thinking of you, and we are filled with sorrow. You fed us, you pushed our boys as high as the moon, you sent us stupid photographs day after day via text message with inane and obvious captions: Bunny. Groundhog. Fish in River. Goose. Sailboat. Bunny eating weeds.

You and your big fat smile, Mark. That stupid mustache. Those awful baggy t-shirts and your rangy arms. The way you flinched when someone dug their hand into the grated cheese instead of properly using a spoon. The day you wandered up behind me, silent, because I was playing Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” on the piano, and you said, “I always liked that song. I sang that song once.” The day you fixed the broken switch on an old lamp I had, and smiled proudly like a little child who has learned to tie his shoes, and I was grateful.

All of it.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

The April Fool's Day Prank I Pulled on My Mom

My mom has a habit of collecting newspaper clippings about awful tragedies and worrisome things that her children need to know about, putting them in envelopes, and mailing them off to us. 

Over the years I have gotten clippings that pretty much tell me I am going to DIE at any moment because the world is full of dangers. And clippings about bed bugs. My mom may have a specific fear of bed bugs. (One time, in fact, one of her bed bug clippings randomly wound up in a box of clothing that we were trying to sell at a tag sale in our yard. Most unfortunate! Nothing sold, and we could not understand why.)

Anyway, when it came to April Fool's Day I realized that the best person to prank was my own mother. (There will be more blog entries about the pranks I have pulled on my mother, because this is rich fodder indeed.) I decided to prank her with an email, even though she doesn't read email (my dad does, and he prints them out and hands them to her). So I thought, how about a [blank] of-the-month club? What would really give my mother a good laugh, once she figured out the prank? Ideas included:

Bag of Organic Matter and Compost of-the-Month Club
Something Dug Up at an Archaeological Site of-the-Month Club
Things That End in "Ork" of-the-Month Club (January: A Spork! February: Pork!)
Exotic Meat Nugget 
of-the-Month Club

But my brilliant sister came up with the perfect scheme. Bad News of-the-Month Club! (aka Clippings-of-the-Month Club, for more sneakiness). 

NEWS FLASH: I just got an email signed from my mother stating that she "does not wish to receive this service. Please remove me from your list." Maybe the Bag of Organic Matter of-the-Month Club would have been more favorably received?

Here it is:

Dear ______,

All sorts of need-to-know news is generated every single day, and some of it can be quite alarming: Articles about foreign bug infestations, infectious diseases, political plots, malfunctioning children's toys, cars that suddenly accelerate without warning, and so much more. But it's impossible to keep up with all the absolutely crucial stories that YOU really can't miss.

That's why we created Clippings-of-the-Month Club! Our dedicated team of editors works tirelessly each month to comb media sources, local and worldwide, to bring you the stories that you need. We inform. We educate. We help keep you safe and alert to what's going on in YOUR world.

And thanks to a special gift from Anonymous, you've been signed up for a full year of Clippings-of-the-Month Club absolutely free!

Each month, you'll receive a fresh bag of newspaper clippings delivered right to your door. You'll find stories that amaze, educate, and startle you. We guarantee that you'll want to share these headlines with everyone you know, especially your loved ones. It's truly "can't-miss" news. Here are just a few examples of the kind of news you're going to get every single month:

Please tell a friend about Clippings-of-the-Month Club. We hope you enjoy your year of astounding, amazing, and hair-raising news stories.

Juniper Crane
Clippings-of-the-Month Club Co-Founder

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Great Shopping Cart Massacre

I used to spend a fair amount of my time stalking shopping carts and photographing them. (I intended to say 100 percent of my time, but that sounded weird so I edited it.)

Winner of "Best in Show" at the International Shopping Cart Exposition, 2011. (Domesticated.)
Why did the carts fascinate me? For one, they are sly. They are quick. They can be quite savage, and can attack without warning. Yet they are also lovely, wild creatures, often filled with candy wrappers and empty bottles of Night Train Express.

The afterlife for me looks like...a shopping cart?
And they migrate! Once a single shopping cart infiltrates a neighborhood, you can be sure that more will follow, as if drawn by the scent of their kind. And as for their reproductive capacity—well, shopping carts will try to mate with almost anything, such as the door of your brand-new car. Basically, they are used to snuggling together in close proximity and, like a sausage and a bagel, fit together like magic. Traditional shopping carts are the randiest of the food and goods transportation mechanisms, unlike the "Four Wheel Deluxe Rolling Thingy," below, which hasn't even bumped wheels with another cart-like entity for at least a year. Sad.

But my scientific interests took a turn a while back, and I took a break to pursue some other topics. My recent scholarly publications include:

Chlorinated Pools: How Come There Is No Plant Life? (The Journal of Well-Funded Yet Incredibly Pointless Studies, 2013)

Wallpaper Moves So Slowly Because It Doesn't Want to be Caught So it Can Kill You in Your Sleep (Reader's Digest Large-Print Editions, 2014)

Goodbye, Doo Doo. Where You Goin' Now? Can I Come, Too? (To be published by The Golden Box for Young Readers, 2016) *Reviewers may request ARCs by writing to me in the comments section of this blog.

Anyway! All of these ventures were deeply boring for one reason or another. Except for the children's book, which was not boring at all but still gives me the shakes and the willies. Have you ever been inside a sewer? All in the name of authentic research, but it's not very nice.

And then today I came across this horror—a multitude of shopping carts, dead in a ditch! Had they flung themselves to their doom because people had been buying too many heavy objects, like pumpkins (out of season) and Big Fat Loaves of Bread and Bacon Bricks? (Note: I purchased a Bacon Brick at De Ciccos on Halstead Avenue last week but no carts were harmed during the event. Bacon Bricks should be the subject of another post. What, you've never bought a bacon brick?!)

The humanity!
What led to this massacre? Please, shield your children's eyes, because these photos are disturbing.

Gravely injured; no hope for recovery. 

I can't even bear to look. Heartbreaking.

Going to kill self now.

Ahhh...glglggjjfjfjjk. Choking on tears.
What led to this horrible event? Was it because I ABANDONED the shopping carts for "more interesting" pursuits?

But no, we must not blame ourselves. In fact, I think this is clearly the work of the notorious Pimples Tuscadero, disgruntled "Stop 'n' Shop" bagger, age 22. Vengeance shall be mine. Oh yes, it shall.

You have not died in vain, my beauties. I will chronicle your majesty once again. Just as soon as I finish my work on Basement Crickets of the 21st Century.

You might also like:

And a whole lotta my older posts, too. Get to it. Life is short, and awfully sweet.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Manny Diaries, Chapter Fourteen: Someone Whacked Me on the Head and Stole My Pants

The Manny has had a spate of bad luck lately, but I want to reassure all his fans that he is absolutely fine, despite the rather ominous tone of this post's title. If I were more verbose, the title of this post would have been "Someone whacked me on the head and stole my pants, shoes, and underwear, and then some ladies found me lying stone cold naked from the waist down in a bush," which is decidedly worse. Because who steals underwear?! And why leave the shirt and take the skivvies?

This is so much more acrobatic than it must have really looked, and my Photoshop is poo, but how long do YOU want to Google terms like "Hairy male legs protruding from bush" before you have to permanently clear your browsing history and take a scalding shower? 
But let's back up. A while back, we got a phone call from Manny, who had suffered a stroke/seizure sort of thing and was slurring and hiccuping uncontrollably. Luckily, the stroke/seizure sort of thing had occurred while his kind landlord, Rudolfo, was on hand unstopping the toilet.

"Apparently, you're not supposed to put TP in the toilet in Mexico," says Manny. "Because I got it all clogged up. Why do they call it toilet paper, anyway? If it doesn't go in the toilet what kind of paper IS it?"

Manny suddenly keeled over and whacked his head on the floor and commenced bleeding and writhing. He related the story as such:

"I fell flat on my head. I almost died! I was bleeding out on the floor! Rudolfo, he sticks his wallet in my mouth so I won't bite myself. But it's too late. I already swallowed some of my tongue! I mean, a big chunk of my tongue! I think I swallowed it!"

"So anyway, Dora, my landlady, calls the Red Cross. She says to me, you're not going to die today, and especially not in my apartment. Meanwhile, my skull is cracked open. It was too much! Did you know that a quarter-inch of my tongue is missing because of the crazy-ass seizure I had?"

"The Red Cross tell me I have brain enamelies. I was fledge-e-ling around all over the floor. My arms were in the air! I bit my tongue off! My mind is crazy! The Red Cross told me that my tongue will fix itself."

He seemed okay, though, and fairly jolly despite what had happened. The Red Cross didn't charge him a penny. He hiccuped and blamed it on the "brain enamelies." He didn't drink anymore, of course!

He went on, sharing more details of his life in Mexico:

"So then, the lady with the scorpion tattoo calls me. I met her at the Learning Library—all the gringos go there. She tells me about the guy who put scorpions in the Mezcal. He cuts their stingers off. Charges $250 a bottle. Hey, my eyes are doing weird shit. There is a guy here who is trying to sell me an AK-47. I've gotten old, and OLD! One day this crazy German chick shows up at my door. She wants to sleep with me!"

"Did you sleep with her?" one of us asked.

"You know I'm a private guy! I don't like to talk about that stuff! How dare you ask me! Yeah, I did.
See, I'm glaringly honest about everything now. I'm like a retarded child! And I'm not drinking a drop."

Then he started talking about how awesome Mexico was and how we all had to come down and live there because it's so beautiful and so safe and marvelous. He planned to rent a beach house. He hoped that we would serve as his "memory," because his brain was doing weird tricks and couldn't remember things properly anymore. 

It might have had a little bit to do with the night, a few weeks later, when someone whacked his skull with a crowbar and took all the clothing off his nethers. He was lost, walking around dazed in some neighborhood, when someone gave him a whack and left him slumped in the weeds, free of pants and shoeless.

"They even took my underwear," he said. "The Red Cross made me some paper towel underwear. I still have a big dent in my head. Like a HOLE in my head, Miss Jennifer. It was awful."

Disposable undies. Not the finest.
During the incident, the poor man bit his tongue again. Maybe a wee little chunk went down the gullet?

But he's still in fighting form, despite the fact that on top of all this, he had a heart attack not too long ago. The Red Cross told him he probably had the heart attack because he stopped drinking so suddenly that it shocked his system. "Remember that day you picked me up on the side of the road?" he said. "That wasn't alcohol. It was my HEART."

But, mind you, he is not drinking now. Ahem. His landlords are the kindest people possible—much unlike his previous landlords, who kicked him out for giving the Mexican workers free beans and rice. The Mexicans shouldn't "get used to the idea that they get anything for free."

"You don't do that to people, that isn't right," he said. "He told me, you will either be shot or arrested. So I left."

He's a good person. He delivers meat to some of the local men, whose wives reportedly hate him because all they serve is beans and rice, and he shows up with steak and mushrooms.

"My life right now is the best thing that's ever happened to me. I pay $235/month to live here. And they feed me three meals a day," he said. "Oh, and I'm about to get married to their niece. She's only 25, and she likes me. Her name? What? No, I didn't forget her name, I just don't remember it. She likes me a lot! We're going to move into a bigger place. She wants to take care of me!"

Manny had just been to a 9-year-old's birthday party, where he had been offered alcohol, and he vociferously refused. Purportedly.

"I'm so much healthier. Listen to how I'm talking. This is not crazy! I feel so much better. I am healthy! I am not worried about drinking too much. I love it so much here. They knock on my bedroom window at 11 at night and bring me tostadas. This is a good world. This is a good place."