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Dogs & Cats

Molly & Dylan sleeping

Molly & Dylan Sleeping photo by Bill Fletcher

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

An Inter-Species Holiday Fable

Myra Eberhardt is a self-avowed cat person—the kind of cat person who finds dogs and most of their people wanting in grace and civility. A stickler for neatness and punctuality, always up-to-date on the latest fashions, and something of a snob, Myra is forty-four, attractive, bright, and successful in all things save marriage. Men are attracted to Myra like bees to maple syrup, but the apparent faults of these fellows inevitably transcend their charms, and Myra despairs of ever finding her match. Thus her three cats, Bingo, Butch, and Groucho are more than pets to Myra, they are her children and Significant Other(s).

As one of the top wedding facilitators in the greater Bay Area, Myra frequently auditions musicians seeking work in that relatively lucrative field, and in mid-November, a slow time for weddings before the usual outburst of Christmas nuptials, Myra has the extreme pleasure of auditioning an accordion player named Michael O’Reilly with whom she falls head over heels in love.

Michael is a loose-limbed easygoing fellow of fifty-four with an uncouth head of wavy brown hair, his parents born in Ireland, he in San Francisco, his brogue slight but charming, and he is an absolute wizard on his squeeze box, his vast repertoire of songs spanning every known genre and then some.

“I used to say I could play anything from Bach to the Beatles,” Michael explains to Myra after wowing her with a medley beginning with Mendelssohn’s wedding march, climaxing with a Piazzolla tango, and finishing with an irresistible hip hop version of The Girl From Ipanema, “but we’ve entered an era when both Bach and the Beatles are considered classical music, so I’ve had to expand my genre base, as it were.”

“I’m sold,” says Myra, struggling to keep her professional persona distinct from that of a deeply smitten woman. “I’m sure I can come up with plenty for you to do. Weddings, I mean.”

“Great,” says Michael, returning his accordion to its case. “To that end, here is my brand new business card.”

With a graceful bow, Michael hands Myra an obviously homemade card featuring the faces of two smiling dogs.

Myra stiffens. “What…why dogs?”

“Oh, that’s Rex and Ziggy,” says Michael, gazing fondly at the likenesses of his beloved pooches. “I have a show for children, too, with Rex and Ziggy as my co-stars.”

“I see,” says Myra, commanding her frontal lobe to terminate infatuation. “I trust that for weddings…”

“I hope you won’t think me impetuous,” says Michael, impetuously interrupting her, “but would you like to go out with me? Food and jazz at Yoshi’s? I’m rather taken with you, and that’s a colossal understatement.”

And the sweet musicality of his voice and the electricity flowing back and forth between them like a sideways Niagara makes Myra blurt, “Yes!”

õ

Two evenings after their initial meeting, Michael arrives at Myra’s impeccable Berkeley bungalow driving an old station wagon outfitted for canine transport, and Myra invites him in for a drink before they zip off to Yoshi’s.

“I have three cats,” says Myra, sitting not too far from Michael on her brown leather sofa and wondering if he’d be open to suggestions regarding his hopelessly outdated wardrobe. “But you won’t see them. They hide whenever anyone comes over.” She laughs. “Your classic scaredy cats.”

“I love cats,” says Michael, sighing in admiration of Myra. “You are one beautiful woman.”

“Thank you.” She blushes. “Wine? I have an excellent pinot.”

“I’d love a beer,” says Michael, nodding hopefully. “I’m not much of a wine drinker, but I love beer. Dark if you have it.”

“Sorry,” says Myra, her hopes of a wine connoisseur dashed. “No beer.”

“Tea?” suggests Michael, grinning at the approach of three big kitty cats, Bingo appropriating Michael’s lap, Butch and Groucho rubbing and snuffling against Michael’s shoes and pants, the doggy scents irresistible to their inquisitive noses.

“This is unprecedented,” says Myra, dazzled by the sight of her cats fawning over Michael. “They always hide when I have guests.”

“Oh, if I had half the way with women I have with animals,” says Michael, petting the adoring felines, “I’d probably, oh God…”

“Yes?” says Myra, laughing in delight as she forgets again that Michael features dogs on his business card. “You’d probably oh God what?”

õ

On Christmas day, Myra goes to Michael’s house for the first time. Having fulfilled their separate obligations to friends and relations that morning, and with their romance now well into the kissing phase, Myra braces herself for a front yard akin to certain unfortunate dog parks, rutted and muddy. But as she nears his house, she is stunned to see a Shangri-la of rose bushes and fruit trees with nary a sign of canine trampling.

“Must have sacrificed the backyard,” she murmurs, hurrying through the rain to the front door and wondering why she doesn’t smell anything particularly gross and doggy about the place.

The front door is ajar, the house resounding to Nat King Cole singing Christmas songs, the scents of freshly baked gingerbread and bubbling spaghetti sauce mingling surprisingly well.

“Hello?” says Myra, stepping into the piano-dominated living room with her big box of gifts for Michael, knowing she’s probably gone overboard on the shirts, but what the hell. “Anybody home?”

In response to her question, an enormous hound of complex origins appears on the threshold of the kitchen, wags his colossal tail, gives Myra a goofy smile, and sits. This is Rex, and he knows very well that his great size gives any human pause, but that he is especially frightening to people with an aversion to his kind.

A moment passes, Myra frozen in fear, and now Ziggy, a Lab Collie Whippet Poodle, joins Rex on the threshold, wags his tail, smiles, and sits, too.

This can’t possibly work thinks Myra, admitting to herself for the first time in her life that what she fears most about dogs is they are so much like people, and people have never been her forte, whereas cats…

At which moment, a third being appears on the threshold, this one a feline of many hues, a gorgeous calico named Miro who does not tarry with the dogs but approaches Myra without a whisker of trepidation, swirls about the woman’s legs, and communicates loud and clear (on the psychic plane) Pick me up, honey. I love women.

And as she cradles the sonorously purring Miro against her bosom, Myra’s heart breaks open, as healthy hearts are made to do, and Rex and Ziggy feel Myra’s heart opening as their cue to cross the room and greet their master’s beloved—Michael recording the sweet miracle with his camera.

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The Gift of the Old Guy

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)

1

Ray, a slender man of eighty-two, his white hair sparse, gazes out the bus window at the passing fields. He is lost in thought, truly lost, unaware of who he is or where he’s going. Ray’s wife Vera, on the other hand, knows exactly who she is and where she’s going. A buxom gal of seventy-nine, her fantastically curly hair tinted pinkish blond, Vera is Flo’s mother and Otto’s grandmother, and she and Ray are on a Greyhound bus going to Ukiah to be with Flo and Otto for Christmas, which is only two days away now. She sits so her shoulder touches Ray’s as she knits an orange and black afghan, her mind crammed with gift lists, recipes, and words of wisdom for her grandson.

“We should have driven,” says Ray, frowning at Vera. “How are we gonna get around without a car?”

“We don’t have a car anymore, dear,” says Vera, smiling at her husband. “Remember? We sold it three months ago. Since I don’t drive and they took your license away, there wasn’t much point in keeping it.”

“Must you remind me?” he says with mock indignation. And then, straining to remember, “Why did they do that?”

“You had another accident. And thank God no one was hurt.”

Ray frowns. “The light was green. The light was not red. I don’t care what anybody says. The light was not green.”

Vera nods. “Yes, dear.”

Ray glares out the window and remembers the light was red and that he had every intention of hitting the brakes. But his foot went to the accelerator pedal instead of to the brake pedal and…he closes his eyes and braces himself for impact.

Vera watches Ray for a long moment before returning to thoughts of turkey and pies and gingerbread and all the stores she wants to go to when they get to Ukiah.

On the edge of sleep, Ray hears a man’s voice, a voice his doctor calls a primary symptom of Alzheimer’s. Sometimes Ray thinks the voice is God, but other times he knows the voice is his memory.

“Hello Ray. Would you like to be Santa Claus again?”

Ray shrugs and says, “Sure. Why not?”

Vera looks at her husband and sighs with relief to see him temporarily content.

Ray is a department store Santa again, sitting on his red throne, a line of children stretching out of the toy department and snaking past Sporting Goods before making a sharp turn at Beds, which is where Ray loses sight of the line, though he knows there are kids lined up throughout the store and out the doors and down every road to the sea.

A little boy climbs onto Ray’s lap and says, “Where’s my candy cane?”

Ray says, “Ho ho ho! Have you been a good little boy?”

The boy grabs Ray’s cotton beard and pulls off a big chunk. “You’re not really Santa Claus!” shouts the boy. “You don’t even know where I live!”

Ray wakes with a start. Vera puts a calming hand on his arm.

“I could kill him,” says Ray, looking at his wife, unsure of her name, wondering if she can be trusted.

“Time for your pills,” explains Vera. “That’s why you’re cranky. I thought we could wait until we got there, but we can’t.”

 2

Otto, verging on seventeen, pushes the old station wagon up over seventy. His mother Flo arches an eyebrow. Otto slows the old wagon to sixty. He wants to stay in good with his mother because he needs the car tonight for his big triple date with Zak and Josh and their respective Awesome Babes.

“Think Gramps will like my blue hair?” asks Otto, making sure to signal when he changes lanes. “Remember when I had it real long and he said I looked Arthurian?”

“Fortunately, your grandfather is color blind,” says Flo, finding it impossible to relax when Otto is driving. “And your grandmother thinks anything you do is fabulous, so…”

“Um…” says Otto, clearing his throat, “about tonight?”

“I said you could have the car,” says Flo, rummaging in her purse for lip balm. “I want to take mom on the bus. That way she’ll be limited to buying what we can carry.”

“Um, mom?” says Otto, exiting the freeway at the suggested speed and hoping Flo is impressed by his magnificent show of self-restraint. “I was wondering about a slight advance?”

“On your inheritance or your allowance?”

“Very funny,” says Otto, flooring it through an intersection to beat the red.

Flo winces. “Since when is it a sin to stop at a yellow?” She clears her throat, remembering the family therapist’s admonition: Try not to be too hard on Otto. What with his father moving out and the ensuing emotional confusion…“How much do you need?”

“Forty?” he says, forcing a hopeful little smile.

Flo forgets all about the family therapist’s admonition and says, “Who do you think I am? Donald Trump? You think I’m made of money? I gave you forty dollars two days ago.” She sighs. “Long gone, I’m sure.”

“My skateboard was shot,” says Otto. “It’s how I get around. I needed…”

“Nothing,” says Flo, unable to restrain herself. “You get nothing more from me. And I want you to fill this car with gas before you bring it home tonight. Zak and Josh can chip in.”

Otto frowns deeply. “Are you serious? It takes fifty dollars to fill this old hog.”

“That’s right,” says Flo, her eyes narrowing. “And I work forty-eight hours a week. I bring home nineteen hundred and sixty-seven dollars a month, from which I pay the rent, insurance, utilities, food for you, clothes for you, music lessons for you, school supplies for you, an allowance for you.” She’s screaming now.  “…and every time you take the car out, it comes back empty, which means fifty more dollars, doesn’t it? And every time you go out with your stupid friends you want forty dollars on top of the fifty I just spent to fill the fucking car. And I can’t afford it. Okay?”

Otto is confounded by the intensity of his mother’s anger. “So you want me to get a job? Flunk out of school?”

Flo squints furiously at him. “No. I want you to get a job, stay in school, stop watching television and diddling your cell phone every second you aren’t skateboarding, and start being some HELP!”

Otto thinks for a moment and replies, “Okay, then. How about thirty dollars?”

 3

Ray sits up front with Otto, while Vera sits in back with Flo. Quietly, so no one up front will know, Vera hands her daughter a wad of cash—five hundred dollars. Flo kisses her mother’s cheek and whispers, “Thank you, mama.”

Vera holds Flo’s hand, gazes at Otto’s blue mop and says, “I find your coiffure positively daring.”

“You should see my friend Zak,” says Otto, relishing her praise. “He totally shaved half his head and dyed the rest magenta.”

“Daring, indeed,” says Vera, feigning delight. “Will we be meeting your girlfriend tonight?”

“You better believe it,” says Otto, winking at his mother in the rearview mirror.

“And her name is?” asks Vera, already knowing from Flo.

“Natasha,” says Otto, nodding emphatically. “Natasha Svetlana Jones. Her mother is like half-Russian and her dad is like Ukrainian or something, and, uh…I should warn you she’s got a massive gold spike in her right nostril.” He pauses dramatically. “Well…massive is like a relative term.”

“I can’t wait to meet her,” says Vera.  “And I just love how colorful and poetic your speech has become.”

“Is this girl a cannibal?” asks Ray, unsure of what anybody is talking about.

“No way, Gramps” says Otto, grinning. “On the contrary, man, she’s actually a vegetarian.”

“So why the spike?” asks Ray, touching his nose and wincing.

“It’s the fashion these days, dear,” Vera explains. “A fashion statement.”

“Or something,” says Flo, rolling her eyes.

“A statement of what?” asks Ray, frowning at Otto.

“Like her personal statement,” says Otto, nodding thoughtfully. “You know, like her personal belief about being able to like…express yourself.”

Ray surveys the suburban sprawl and he thinks they’re in Los Angeles in 1976. He frowns at Otto and says, “Jesus, Frankie, we’re supposed to meet those guys on Wilshire in ten minutes. Step on it.”

“What’s he talking about?” asks Otto, confused by his grandfather’s confusion.

“Don’t ask her,” says Ray, slapping his grandson’s arm. “Listen to me. This deal is as good as made.”

“His Alzheimer’s,” says Vera, nodding sadly. “He thinks you’re his old business partner, Frank Lazuli.”

Otto looks at his grandfather and says, “Gramps. I’m not Frank. I’m Otto and it’s two thousand and twelve and we’re in Ukiah. Okay?”

Ray blinks a few times as he returns to the present, turns to look at his wife, and says, “Like I was there again, honey. Just like I was there.”

 4

After supper, Otto’s girlfriend, Natasha, petite and pretty, her long hair maroon, her purple belly shirt revealing a big silver ring piercing the rim of her navel, explains the thrill of thrash dancing to Vera.  “It’s like…” she says, staring into Vera’s eyes, “it’s a way to get past societal repression into a state of physical bliss. I mean…after I thrash for like ten minutes I’m just totally free. I’m like totally…uninhibited.”

“We had Elvis,” says Vera, taking Natasha’s hand. “And then going wild at the Fillmore with Quicksilver and the Airplane.”

Flo shows her father how to operate the automatic channel changer. She points the device at the big screen television and the images jump from starving Africans to the Marx Brothers to somebody selling used cars to a woman taking off her clothes to a Canadian weather report to Australian soccer and back to the Africans.

“Can’t I just get up when I want to change channels?” asks Ray, sneering at the little plastic thing.  “It’ll be the only exercise I’ll get today. We missed our walk.”

“But dad, there are over two hundred channels to choose from. Part of the fun is channel surfing.”

“Fun for you maybe,” says Ray, reluctantly accepting the changer.

Otto, wearing his razor blade earring, ripped combat jacket and purple combat boots, gets the car keys from Flo and proclaims, “Hey everybody, be happy. I’ll be back by midnight for sure. Or so.”

When the young ones are gone, Vera says, “I like Natasha. She has a wonderful energy. Says she wants to be a veterinarian acupuncturist. Do you think they’re having sex?”

“What?” says Ray, glaring at the television. “Who?”

“Sex,” says Vera.

“Not now,” says Ray, winking at her. “I’m busy pushing little buttons.”

5

Vera and Flo catch a bus downtown, and when they are settled in their seats, Vera brings forth her list of things she wants to buy. Flo leans her head against her mother’s shoulder and says sadly, “He’s much worse, isn’t he?”

“Day by day,” says Vera, nodding. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to handle him by myself.” She shrugs. “Two weeks ago, he got up in the middle of the night, went outside without his pants on and tried to flag a cab. He thought it was 1973, the year he lost a fortune on all that desert land.”

“What will you do?”

“What can I do? I’ll have to put him in a home.”

“Oh, mama, I’m so sorry.”

“Let’s not think about it now. It’s Christmas. Let’s spend some money.”

6

Back at the television, comfortable in a recliner, Ray is stuck on MTV, dazzled by beautiful young women with long legs and perfect bodies. He forgets he’s watching television and thinks it’s 1972, the Starlight Lounge in Vegas. He and Frank Lazuli and Murray Cornish are celebrating closing a big deal—a new shopping center. They’ve got money to burn. Vera and Tammy and Twyla have gone to bed and left the boys to blow off steam and chase girls.

The phone rings and rings and rings until finally Ray emerges from the past to answer it, a voice saying, “Gramps? It’s Otto. Is Flo there?”

“Flo lives in Ukiah now,” says Ray, feeling rather proud to have remembered this new information.

You’re in Ukiah,” says Otto. “Remember? You came up for Christmas. We picked you up at the bus station today.”

“But of course,” says Ray, remembering nothing. “Hold on a minute.”

He wanders through the house, but finds no one. He vaguely remembers that Flo and Vera went somewhere, but by the time he gets back to the phone he thinks Vera has left him for another man.

“Hello, Frankie?” says Ray. “You still there?”

“This is Otto.”

“Where’s Frank?”

“I don’t know. This is Otto. Your grandson. Is Flo there? My mother?”

“No!” says Ray, glowering at the television—someone dunking a basketball in slow motion. “And if you don’t stop harassing my daughter, I’ll have the police on you so fast you won’t know what hit you.”

And with that, he slams the phone down and goes back to the Starlight Lounge.

 7

Otto, Zak and Josh come up with a plan for getting money so they can fill the station wagon with gas and take their girlfriends to a dance club in Santa Rosa. The plan centers on Ray. Otto parks the station wagon in Zak’s garage and jogs the seven blocks home. He finds his grandfather transfixed by The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda, a little green person with pointed ears, is speaking to Ray.

“Hey Gramps,” says Otto, full of false joviality, “you figured out how to use the DVD player. Cool.”

Ray says nothing.

Yoda says, “You will only find what you take with you.”

Ray replies, “Your color is bad. You should see a doctor.”

“So…Ray,” says Otto, “I’ve got a little business proposition for you.  Interested?”

Ray clicks off the set, turns to his grandson and says, “Frankie, I’ve had it.  Vera’s left me. I can’t do this anymore. The Wilshire deal wiped me out. Took me months to find a steady job. It’s not much, but it’s steady, and I want her back.”

“Okay,” says Otto, taking a deep breath, “but if you can front me a hundred dollars, I’ll turn it into ten thousand by Christmas morning and wrap it up in a little blue box and put it under the tree. Promise. It’s an absolute sure thing.”

“I’ve heard that line a thousand times,” says Ray, shaking his head. “Hell, I’ve said it a thousand times.” He grins at Otto and winks. “But okay.”

He fishes his wallet out of his back pocket and gives Otto all he has—five twenties. Otto tries to thank Ray with a kiss, but Ray shoves him away and says, “Don’t get queer on me, Frankie. Just make the deal, okay?”

“Okay, Ray. Okay.”

8

On Christmas morning, Vera is in ecstasy and Ray has become addicted to watching Otto play a video game in which he attempts to conquer an alien civilization. Flo is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

“We have some big news,” says Flo, smiling wanly at Otto as they gather in the living room to open presents. “Vera and Ray are moving to Ukiah, and so for a few weeks…until we get them settled nearby, they’ll be living here.  Won’t that be great?”

“Here?” says Otto, shocked at the prospect. “We only have two bedrooms.”

“Oh, it won’t be so bad,” says Ray, winking at his grandson. “And now we can turn that ten thousand into a million. Right?”

Otto blushes, stunned that the old man remembered that two-day-old con job. “Whatever, Gramps,” he says softly. “Whatever you say.”

Flo hands the first present to Vera. She unwraps it carefully to preserve the wrapping paper.

Ray peers at the presents under the tree and sees no little blue box. He frowns at Otto and says, “So…things didn’t work out so well, huh?”

Otto stiffens. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Vera shrugs. “Don’t worry, honey. It’s just his Alzheimer’s.”

“No, it’s not,” says Ray, feeling remarkably lucid. “I may forget a lot of things, but I don’t forget a business deal.” His eyes fill with tears. “You promised me, Otto.  You promised me.”

“This is too weird,” says Otto, standing up. “I didn’t promise him anything.”

“I’m sorry,” says Vera, bowing her head. “Maybe our staying here isn’t such a good idea.”

9

Otto sits on his bed feeling guilty and cruel. He talks quietly to a large smoky quartz crystal, a Christmas gift from Natasha. She says the crystal has the power to convert negative reality into positive reality.

“I never should have lied to him. I hurt him. I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think it would matter to him. I always loved him when I was a kid. I really did. So please, please make this all okay.”

Having said this, Otto has a vivid memory. He is seven years old, walking with Ray along a beach at Lake Tahoe. Suddenly a huge dog rushes toward them, murder in his eyes. Otto wants to run away, but Ray holds onto him and says, “It’s okay.”

Now the old man squats down, holds out his hand to the dog, and makes kissing sounds. The dog becomes docile and friendly. Otto is astonished by the transformation of the beast. Ray explains, “They get aggressive like that because they’re afraid, not because they really want to hurt you.”

Someone knocks at Otto’s door and he expects his mother to come in, angry with him for robbing his grandfather, but it’s not Flo, it’s Vera.

She sits beside Otto, runs a hand through his blue hair and says, “We’ll only stay if you want us, honey. We certainly don’t want to intrude on your life.”

And Otto is about to confess his crime and ask for forgiveness when Vera adds, “Oh, and by they way, did Ray give you the money I gave him to give you? The hundred dollars? Or did he forget?”

fin

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Yes, But…


(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“If there’s not drama and negativity in my life, all my songs will be really wack and boring or something.” Eminem

For many people, December is the most neurotic month; and Christmas marks the apogee of shame, jealousy, disappointment, and self-loathing. Indeed, most psychotherapists aver that Christmas in America might as well be called Crisismas. One can theorize endlessly about why Christmas/Hanukah (and the attendant mass gift buying) inflame the dominant neuroses of so many people, but the picture that sums it up for me is of a child surrounded by dozens of presents she has just frantically unwrapped, not one of which satisfies her craving to be loved.

“The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

When I embarked on my first experience of formal psychotherapy, I knew my parents had abused me, but I could not clearly elucidate the rules of behavior instilled in me by their abuse. My therapist suggested I try to write down the basic rules governing my behavior so I might gain a more objective view of how those rules impacted my life.

One of the most deeply entrenched rules I uncovered was: Nothing I do is good enough. Sound familiar? I ask because I subsequently learned that this rule runs many people’s lives. And though I doubt our parents ever came right out and said, “Nothing you do is good enough,” I know that in myriad other ways they repeated that message thousands and thousands of times; and repetition accomplished the entrenching.

For instance, my mother used “Yes, but…” responses to everything I did or said. “Yes, but…” responses are characterized by positive (though insincere) opening statements followed by the word but, followed by subtle or emphatic derogatory proclamations. Here are a few examples of the thousands of “Yes, but…” responses I received from my mother over the course of my life.

Following my performance in a high school play, my mother said, “You were very good, but…you’re not going to be in another play, are you?”

Upon hearing about my very first sale of a short story, my mother said, “Well, that’s good news, but…they didn’t give you very much money, did they?”

And after meeting my girlfriend(s) for the first time, my mother opined, “Well, she seems nice, but…maybe just a little cuckoo/not too bright/might have a weight problem/might be anorexic/seems rather young for you/seems rather old for you/never finished college/works in a restaurant/rides a motorcycle/do you think she takes drugs?/she sure can drink/she wears an awful lot of makeup/why no makeup?”

Children who are constantly bombarded with “Yes, but…” responses grow into adults incapable of hearing or believing positive responses from anyone. If such a bombarded person sings a song and a friend responds, “That was beautiful,” the bombarded person will assume the compliment is false because in their experience honest responses (which are always negative) only come after the word but. Indeed, a statement not followed by but and a negative comment has no meaning at all to a person programmed to believe Nothing I Do Is Good Enough.

Some people grow up with “Yes, but…” fathers and non-“Yes, but…” mothers, or vice-versa; and these people tend to have mixed views of themselves as partly good enough and partly not good enough. Their versions of the Nothing I Do Is Good Enough rule are Nothing I Do Is Good Enough for Dad (men) or Nothing I Do Is Good Enough for Mom (women). However, if both parents employ “Yes, but…” responses to everything a child does or says, then that child will become an adult with serious trust and intimacy issues; and he or she will almost certainly fear and loathe Christmas because no matter what he or she buys for anyone, it, the present, won’t be good enough. How could the stupid thing be good enough? Consider the source!

Most of my father’s responses to me began with, “You know what you really should do?” followed by a lecture about what I should be doing as opposed to what I was already doing. In this way he re-enforced the Nothing I Do Is Good Enough rule with the I’m Never Doing What I Should Be Doing rule.

At best the family teaches the finest things human beings can learn from one another— generosity and love. But it is also, all too often, where we learn nasty things like hate, rage and shame.” Barbara Ehrenreich

I vividly remember the day before Christmas when I was twenty-two, a scruffy lad hitchhiking to my parents’ house for our annual festival of neuroses starring my brother and sisters and parents and moi. This was during the vagabond phase of my life—a cold and rainy day in California, the oak trees rife with mistletoe. I was standing on the western edge of Highway One, about ten miles south of San Francisco, the rain drumming on my gray plastic poncho, my backpack and guitar sheltered under a silver tarp, my soggy cardboard sign reading Half Moon Bay Or Bust. I was dreaming of a hot shower and a good meal and a warm bed, and trying not to think about the de rigueur verbal abuse that would accompany such parental hospitality, when a tie-dyed Volkswagen van stopped for me.

The driver was a loquacious fellow named Larry from Galveston, Texas, his coach reeking of tobacco and marijuana, his voice warm and comforting. After a few minutes of back and forth, he said, “Hey, man, I like you. Why don’t you come to our house for Christmas? Stay a couple days? We live right down here in San Gregorio. Kind of a commune, you know? My wife Suse is cooking a big turkey, my sister Clara’s making yams. Bunch of artists and musicians.” He bounced his eyebrows. “Lots of pretty women. You’ll dig it, man. There’s plenty of room to spread your kit.” Then he grinned enormously and added, “It’ll beat the shit out of mom and dad, guaranteed.”

As the child of two alpha “Yes, but…” parents, I was certain there was an unspoken but attached to Larry’s generous invitation—a problem or multiple problems. Larry’s wife might become violent after her third glass of wine, and the wine would probably be cheap and give me a headache. Their dog would bite me or give me fleas. Suse’s turkey would be overcooked, Clara’s yams inedible, and I’d become constipated or get the runs. I would hate the music Larry and his friends played, and Larry and his friends would hate my music. The women would not be pretty and the whole affair would be a disaster.

“The thing is,” I replied, hating myself for turning him down, “I promised my mother I’d come home for Christmas, and…she worries about me. I haven’t seen her in a year, so…”

“I hear you,” said Larry, nodding sympathetically. “But listen, man…if it sucks, you know where to find us. We’d love to have you.”

We parted ways at the San Gregorio general store and I hitched the last thirty miles to the festival of neuroses at my folks’ house. And that festival did, indeed, totally suck. So the next day, Christmas, despite the howling wind and torrential rain, I hitched back to San Gregorio, found the dirt road to Larry’s and Suse’s place, and arrived at their little farmhouse to find Suse storming around in the wreckage of her kitchen and raging on the phone at her mother in Los Angeles—Larry sitting in his van with his five-year-old son Lance, Buffalo Springfield on the stereo singing, “Listen to my bluebird laugh, she can’t tell you why. Deep within her heart, you see, she knows only crying. Just crying.”

“Hey,” said Larry, rolling down his window and smiling at me. “You came. Right on.”

“Is it still okay if I stay here tonight?”

“Absolutely,” he said, turning to his son. “Hey, Lance, this is Tom.”

“Todd,” I said softly. “Merry Christmas, Lance.”

“I got four books and a ball and crayons,” said Lance, nodding seriously. “What did you get?”

“Fifty dollars,” I said, thinking of my unhappy mother slipping me the money under the table so my dad wouldn’t see, and how, despite her disapproval of everything I chose to do, she loved me; if only I would be someone else.

“Suse is seriously bummed,” said Larry, shaking his head. “Bullshit with her mom. You don’t want to know. So…I think maybe you better sleep in my van tonight. Should be better in the morning.”

“I think I’ll just come back another time,” I said, taking a hit from the proffered joint. “But I thank you for the invitation.”

“Oh, stay, man,” he said, nodding encouragement. “This, too, shall pass. Besides, we need you to help us eat all the leftovers. Right, Lance?”

“Right,” said Lance, nodding emphatically. “There’s tons.”

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The Dreidel in Rudolph’s Manger

(I first published this story several years ago in the Sacramento News & Review and it eventually ran in dozens of free weeklies and even in a few daily newspapers. I present the story here for your enjoyment as we officially enter the so-called holiday season. My reading of the story, with appropriate accents, is on my story CD I Steal My Bicycle and other stories available from Underthetablebooks.com and downloadable from iTunes.)

The Dreidel in Rudolph’s Manger

Israel Jacobs, born a Jew, and Margaret O’Hara, born and baptized a Catholic, were married in the spring of 1999. And despite their mothers, they lived quite happily until their only child, Felix, turned five. Then Christmas and Hanukkah loomed simultaneously as they always do, and the whole kettle of fish, gefilte and snapper, was set to boiling once more.

Israel’s mother, Rachel, a small, fiery woman with little tolerance for what she called those “gentile pagan idiocies” insisted that Israel give his son a real Jewish Hanukkah, not some watered down compromise. Margaret’s mother, Colleen, a tall, cheerful soul, didn’t mind a menorah on the mantel so long as it was appropriately dwarfed by a well-flocked Christmas tree, candy canes, and a “high quality manger scene,” preferably on the front lawn.

But the truth was, Israel and Margaret didn’t believe in celebrating either Hanukkah or Christmas. They belonged to a group called Beyond Dysfunctional Religions, and they wanted nothing to do with the rituals of their progenitors, whom they believed to be responsible for much of the world’s woes. However, they had never actually told their mothers of their conversion to this new spiritual course, and now, in the face of their child’s coming of age, as it were, the you-know-what was about to hit the fan.

Felix, an intelligent child caught in the cross-fire of adult madness, had invented his own holiday season mythology. Hanukkah and Christmas were obviously words for the same thing. Grandma Rachel said Hanukkah, Grandma Colleen said Christmas. This was not so unusual. After all, Grandma Rachel said “Oy vey” in situations where Grandma Colleen would say “Goodness me.”  And they had slightly different accents. So what?

In any case, when the calendar said December, Felix knew that he would be getting presents, that there would be a sudden super-abundance of chocolate in the house, and that people would speak incessantly about spinning the dreidel, a fat man named Santa, a reindeer with a red nose, a temple in Jerusalem, and a baby in a manger, whatever a manger was. Grandma Rachel said things lasted eight days, Grandma Colleen sang twelve. Mom and Dad became tense and irritable, and life went on.

But this year was different. This year Felix was no longer even remotely a baby. He was a child, a boy racing toward adulthood. And since Rachel and Colleen had long ago lost whatever power they had once possessed over Margaret and Israel, they were determined to exert their influence on Felix, their one and only grandchild.

On December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, Israel arrived home from his job at the Institute for Drip Agriculture, and found Margaret home early from her job at the Department of Water Resources, her sweet Irish eyes brimming with tears.

“What is it?”  asked Israel, rushing to his wife’s side. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong is your mother,”  said Margaret, looking at her dark and slender husband as if she’d never seen him before. “She’s kidnapped Felix and taken him Hanukkah shopping.”

“Without asking our permission?”  said Israel, truly shocked. “She usually screams and rages first.”

“Not this time,”  said Margaret, daubing her eyes with a red tartan handkerchief. “I went to pick him up at school and they said Rachel had already gotten him.”

“But how do you know she took him shopping?” asked Israel, pronouncing the ‘g’ at the end of ‘shopping’ as only the child of Yiddish speaking parents can.

“Just listen to the answering machine.”

Rachel’s message ran thusly. “Hello Israel. I could stand by no longer and watch you deprive Felix of his birthright. I am taking him shopping. And as we buy our Hanukkah gifts I will explain to him the truth, that Hanukkah is a celebration of the purification of the temple after the Romans…”  Here her voice grew louder and more passionate,  “…after those horrible Romans, who have all become Catholics as you know, forced us to profane our temple, just as you are profaning the temple of this poor child’s mind by allowing him to celebrate the birth of a fraud!”

“Unfortunately,”  said Israel, shrugging, “she didn’t say where she was going shopping, or I’d go get him.”

“You know she only shops at places that sound Jewish,”  said Margaret, glowering at Israel. “We never should have stayed so close to our mothers. We should have moved to St. Paul.”

“A good Catholic town,” quipped Israel.

“Very funny,” said Margaret, grabbing her purse. “You go to Weinstock’s, I’ll go to Loehman’s Plaza.”

Even as they dashed to their vehicles, Margaret to her electric car, Israel to his bicycle, Grandma Rachel was plying Felix with french fries and a milkshake at Max’s Opera Cafe. Felix paused thoughtfully between fries and said, “So then if Jesus was Jewish, why don’t you like him?”

“Like schmike,” said Rachel, shrugging. “It’s nothing personal. He may have been a very nice boy for all I know. Then again he may not even have existed. The point is, he wasn’t the messiah. Look at the mess he left behind. Would a messiah do that?”

Felix found it interesting that mess and messiah sounded quite similar, but he was more interested in his milkshake. Rachel went on about the miraculous cruse of oil that burned for eight days, and Felix was about to request another shake, when who should appear in her green and red Christmas finery, laden with red and green bags full of Christmas presents, but Grandma Colleen.

“Well what a coincidence,” said Colleen, bowing politely to Rachel before kissing Felix hello.

Rachel fixed Colleen with an icy stare. “Don’t tell me you eat here.”

“I’m a fool for their mini-reuben,” said Colleen, growing excited just thinking about the hot pastrami, the sauerkraut, the horseradish mustard burning the back of her tongue, bringing tears of joy to…

“We were just going,” said Rachel, standing up suddenly. “Come on, Felix.”

“We’re Hanukkah shopping,” said Felix, beaming at Grandma Colleen. “Because Jesus left a mess.”

“I beg your pardon?” said Colleen, her smile disappearing, her eyes narrowing. “He what?”

“But he wasn’t a messy guy,” explained Felix. “He was just…” Felix frowned. “…something.”

“Jesus is the son of God,” said Colleen, taking Felix’s hand.

“And I’m the Pope,” said Rachel, grabbing Felix’s other hand and yanking him away from Colleen.

Outside Max’s, Colleen pulled Felix away from Rachel and ran with him through the parking lot toward her Mercedes. “You see, Felix,” she explained breathlessly, “your grandmother Rachel is confused. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“But why are we running?” asked Felix. “Grandma Rachel can’t keep up.”

“Because she…she could hurt you,” said Colleen, feeling herself about to cry. “She could…”

Felix put on the brakes. He was strong for a five year old. “Grandma Rachel would never in a million years hurt me,” he proclaimed with great certainty.

“Not intentionally,” said Colleen, “but…”

“But nothing,” said Rachel, catching up to them. “How dare you steal my grandson from me.”

“Because you’re ruining Christmas for him,” shouted Colleen, who was not usually a shouter.

“Christmas is a lie!” shrieked Rachel.

“Don’t fight. Please don’t fight,” said Felix, his little jaw trembling, his eyes filling with tears.

“Sweetie,” said Colleen, her heart breaking with compassion for the little lad.

“Bubalah,” said Rachel, her anger washed away by the plaintive voice of her grandson.

Israel arrived a moment later, pedalling hard. As he drew near, his son appeared to be granting absolution to each of his kneeling grandmothers.

In the living room that night, after they’d finished watching The Simpsons, Margaret and Israel asked Felix to recount the day’s adventure. Felix began, “Grandma Rachel came and got me and said I was a good Jewish boy, and then at Max’s Grandma Colleen said Grandma Rachel was confused and might hurt me because…because I was the son of God.” And then Felix began to weep.

Israel and Margaret called their Beyond Dysfunctional Religions support group leaders, Phil and Susan, and told them what was going on. Phil suggested that they come clean with their mothers, suffer the immediate turmoil, and proceed from there. Susan suggested they might want to think about moving far-away.

Israel stayed awake all that night, listening to old Bob Dylan albums and reading Buckminster Fuller. He checked on Felix every hour or so to make sure he wasn’t being troubled by nightmares. Margaret slept fitfully, dreaming that she was wearing a slinky black negligee and was about to make love on a huge bed in a cathedral with her husband dressed as a nun.

In the morning, after a brief strategy session, Israel called his mother, and Margaret called hers. An hour later, the four adults convened in Israel and Margaret’s living room. Colleen sat in a chair by the fireplace, her hands folded in her lap. Rachel stalked the room, refusing to sit. Margaret revealed, with great passion, that she felt her mother had never approved of Israel because he was born a Jew. Israel then made a similar revelation concerning his mother and her feelings about Margaret.

Colleen said this was nonsense and that she had great respect for the Jewish people, particularly Rogers and Hammerstein. Rachel admitted that Margaret was not her ideal daughter-in-law, but that if she would convert to Judaism, all would be forgiven. And then Israel and Margaret revealed their association with Beyond Dysfunctional Religions.

“You are lost to me,” said Rachel, looking at her son and slowly shaking her head. “To think that your father was a cantor, and his father a rabbi.”

“May the lord have mercy on your soul,” said Colleen, looking at her daughter and crossing herself.

“And what will you do with poor Felix?” asked Rachel. “Raise him with no God?”

“He is not poor, mother,” said Israel. “He is rich with our love.”

“Illusion,” said Rachel, bowing her head. “A child without tradition is a boat without a rudder.”

“Amen,” said Colleen, crossing herself again. “A child without God is a soul walking against a hurricane.”

“Well put,” said Rachel, smiling sadly at Colleen and sighing. “Those without faith shall wander unfulfilled forever.”

“Yes,” said Colleen, her eyes wet with tears. “And the unrepentant shall be a source of shame to the Almighty.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” said Rachel, putting a sympathetic hand on Colleen’s shoulder.

And so, at last, the days of Hanukkah and Christmas came, and Israel and Margaret and Felix spent a week with several other families planting trees in a ravaged forest. And on New Year’s Day, Felix got a new bicycle with training wheels. And Grandma Colleen brought him a stocking full of chocolate angels and a red tartan sweater she’d found in the bargain bin at Eddie Bauer’s. And Grandma Rachel brought him a basket of chocolate pretzels and a jacket she’d found on sale at Levinsons. And then they all went to Max’s for some good eats.

Who knows what the future will bring for Felix? Who knows what spiritual course he will choose for himself when that time comes? We only know that Grandma Rachel and Grandma Colleen are friends now, good friends, united in their belief that their children are wrong.

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