Lake Homeless

Five designs comprise the architectural variance of my Home Owners Association. We all have red tiled roofs. Our palette of exterior paint is confined to a spectrum of cream.

The streets dead-end against sage canyons. Coyotes yammer in tandem with sirens. The landscape channels the eerie reverberations into the cul-de-sacs.

Our HOA fees maintain three pools and a man-made pond local natives think is a lake. Legislation prevents against its dredging. It serves as a convenient toilet for migratory water fowl.

Blooms line footpaths. Manicured trees contest relentless sunshine. Military and tourist aircraft rend and rumble in the otherwise featureless sky.

I recently adopted a weekend habit of wandering the streets of this suburb at night. Though I lead a lonely life, these walks comprise the brief intervals in which I can relish being alone.

I glide into the dark, giddy with the wrongness of my presence. It feels like stealing out of my parents’ house to convene with friends among the pines that loomed where I grew up.

But everything I do between streetlights now is legal and discreet. I no longer scan yards for homey totems to vandalize. Instead I contemplate the meaning of home. And wonder if I have one.

The difference between houses and homes is most pronounced at night. Some structures beckon, proffering strength. Others are chilly tombs for drowned consumers. The key distinction lies in the degree to which a dwelling exudes unboastful light.

This kind of light remains elusive unless you traverse a neighborhood on foot. It shrinks from revving engines and barking dogs. A thin layer of windshield grime filters it completely. It does not spring, but oozes over curbs.

Many other features complement the glow of a home. Savory charcoal. Sighing dryer vents. Trembling AC units. It’s a recipe that headlights spoil with paranoia.

Wary of this, I steer my haunts into the most remote arteries of my HOA. That’s where I get the most disoriented and revived.

One night I saw a cluster of cars huddled in a sequestered cul-de-sac. I almost backtracked, reluctant to be known to partygoers. But I caught the muffled acoustics of a drum kit, and there was no resisting.

I crept past four or five houses, using yard foliage for cover. The last thicket of groomed cacti and ficus gave way to the brighter plane of a well-swept driveway.

Bass and guitar leaked from the garage in front of me. I tuned my head to the music, but my energies of perception were usurped when the façade over the garage melted from HOA beige to rowdy pink.

Bewilderment. Was something wrong with me? I clenched the lighter in my pocket and stepped off the curb to appraise the property in relation to its neighbors. The stucco of the house in front of me cooled to undulating blue. The place next door stayed beige.

The material explanation I hoped for appeared in the form of canisters mounted in the yard and the eave gutters. I began to digest the spectacle for what it was: The way someone had escaped the HOA covenant and painted their house whatever color they wanted. As long as it was night.

My attention shifted back to the music. An off-key voice rose up between the instruments. The melody carried a twinge of sadness. Some cautious hope. I gave up on confining it with genre.

I tried to fix on the words themselves but failed to align what I heard with either of the languages I speak and which are printed on bank doors here.

But I felt incorporated. Among illegally but considerately parked cars. In front of a shape-shifting house that hinted at what my own could become. Part of an emergent world I have a hand in naming.

***

My friend Rob grew up watching my HOA replace the canyon trails where he used to crash his bike. He preserves the lore of many vanished landmarks. One night, he suggested we try a brewery a mile from my house. The walk gave our broken bone stories time to meander and Rob time to smoke a cigar.

We skirted the lake and ascended the tapered stretch of parkway that doubles as a freeway overpass. The nose of a shopping cart violated the bushes near the Target. More consumer detritus riddled the gutters.

Headlights haloed a fellow pedestrian further down the road. Distance and dark stripped the figure of a face until the hurried silhouette thrust itself into earshot. We paused our conversation and ceded half the sidewalk to let it pass.

I’m guessing she was pretty once, though probably never knew it. Now her smile seeped need. I noted her scant attire and felt my callous thoughts congeal as a question: What business does she have at my lake?

She was ten yards past, and I was already forgetting her, when her voice slid down the hill at us.

To our credit, I guess, we faced her. Rob cupped his hand at his ear to let her know we hadn’t understood.

“Do you know what time it is?” she said.

Unwilling to reveal the contents of my pocket, I did not reach for my phone. “About 10:30,” I guessed.

Rob and I tried to renew our momentum down the hill, but she called out again. Now she was narrowing the buffer of neutral sidewalk. Her posture spoke covert trust. “Do you have anything to sell?” she said.

I signaled for her to halt by splaying my palms to the ground. “No, thanks,” I said.

“I have cash,” she said, fumbling with her clutch.

“We’re good,” I said. “Take care.”

She expressed no disappointment. Just resumed her ascent toward the pond and blended with the dark.

“Now I’m looking for her associate,” Rob said.

I scanned the shadows across the street.

Rob looked over his shoulder in the direction we had come from. “I think people might hang out around the lake at night.”

***

Sometimes, eight cars or more bear affiliation with individual houses on my street. To whom do these little fleets belong? Struggling cousins? Grown children?

My daytime jog loop around the pond has acquainted me with a parked station wagon fitted with ludicrously unnecessary snow tires. A United States Air Force sticker peels on the back window.

On my weekend errands, I see the unmistakable car in shopping center lots. The driver’s door is open, serving as a wood-paneled curtain. Below its rusting hem, a pair of feet rest on the asphalt.

One afternoon, before the quarantine, I was at a communal lawn a few bends in the street from my address. I had taken my toddler there to coax him up the stairs and down the slide of a play structure built on transplanted beach sand.

My son’s clumsy efforts elevated my awareness of threats. Every step he took was precarious. Watching him confront risk and back away from most of it made me wonder if my hovering was quelling his courage.

I stepped out of the sand and back on the sidewalk. I pretended to not pay attention to him and turned my eyes up the street.

The familiar station wagon limped into view and see-sawed into a space against the lake loop curb.

It requires some discipline to be unobtrusively observant of two concurrent dramas.

In one periphery, mismatched sunshades went up in windows not already blocked by jetsam.

In the other periphery, my son was deliberating at the top of a slide.

The driver did not emerge from his ragged privacy.

My son joined the amalgam of natural laws.

***

Homes glow. Mere houses stand cold.

But there is a third kind of address I’ve met on my ambles in the suburban dark. I rue their harsh assertions.

On the night I first canvassed the neighborhood alone, my eyes were roving over porches and palms not far from my front door. I was easing into these details and drawing confidence from them. It was the most significant I had felt in months.

The pleasure was brief. Sensors read my presence and loosed a sudden flood in defense of the sidewalk. My calm crystalized into self-consciousness. I hastened from the spray of the motion light that had marked me as a threat.

Who had the right to infect the street with such intensity? What were they so afraid of? What were they protecting?

Bleak realization bubbled from under my assumptions. A sad and humbling fact:

A motion light defends my house too.

Its righteousness guides me back inside when I roll out the garbage on Monday nights.

I did not install the light. Previous owners did. An elderly couple.

Three years ago, when my wife and I put in our buyer’s bid, our offer was not the strongest on the table. But I bolstered our stakes with a letter. I promised to maintain the home to the best of my ability. I offered assurance the address would remain a place where children feel love.

I try to make good on it all.

But I am ashamed of the blinding apparatus the kind old couple left above the garage. I mean to replace it with something gentle and steady. The distinctions I’ve collected on my walks have made me more conscious of what I spill into the darkened world.       

So I make a point each night to light the window lamp in our sitting room—a seldom-used space filled with inherited furniture. The lamp glow hardly breaches the blinds.

Sometimes on garbage night, I defy my unscrupulous security light and remain in the street until its glare fades. I hear splashing and singing. Bath time upstairs.

This is where I live.

My dwelling is not as mature or self-assured as some of the other properties I evaluate on my walks. But it’s not a tomb either. If not a home, then at least a place where healing happens.

A work in progress. Where maybe something redemptive and restorative will be born.

A Place to Elevate

Back in March I hung two strands of quarantine Christmas lights along the back fence. I thought the color might cheer the neighbors on the opposite rim of the brush canyon. Also, my family would be in the back yard more than we used to. The place needed some spirit.

My wife thought so too. She online shopped a 7-foot diameter trampoline for our son.

When she described the purchase, I did not celebrate the prospect of assembling it. Because I don’t like following directions. And I don’t have very much patience. And I’m clumsy with tools.

So as I delved into the trampoline’s massive shipping box, I was not thinking of my son. Instead, my brain commandeered my wife’s voice and made it shout the instruction manual at me. The same voice scolded me for putting off an eye exam.

The trampoline company had lubricated the frame tubes with thin oil for easy joining. The courtesy caused more problems than it solved.

I took a lot of thrown-tool retrieval breaks, during which I caught excerpts of my next-door-neighbor’s side of an outdoor phone call. His presence made me self-conscious. He’s a sailor on leave and wouldn’t blink at the profanities breaching his fence. But he would never forgive my inadequate wrist torque.

Eventually I went in the house for water. And to make sure my family knew how bad I was suffering for their benefit.

I muttered at the incomplete trampoline through the kitchen window. The thing was the antithesis of joy.

My son roused me from my dark musings by smashing a toy push mower into my Achilles tendons. Oh yeah. That’s why I was doing this. To mitigate a confined toddler’s capacity for destruction.

I resumed the travail. Newly committed to keeping my composure. But resolve rarely lasts. It’s why there should be traffic directors in the parking lots of churches, yoga centers, and massage therapy studios.

What rekindled my primal angst was the unmanageable bulk of safety netting. There was no way I was going to ask for my wife’s help at this point, though. Her insight would for sure be helpful. The last thing my ego needed.

The second-to-last thing my ego needed was the percussive shockwave of confident music that leapt the canyon all of a sudden. The bravado conveyed by the lyrics made me feel weak. And was totally unsuitable for the children of the neighborhood.

Me 20 years ago wouldn’t have liked the quarantine iteration of me that strode to my fence to gather intelligence of my noisy neighbors.

The music was flowing from the property right across the canyon. From the vantage that benefitted most from the happy illumination of my Christmas lights. A half-dozen adults and children were animating the yard with concerted labor. Their work looked mysteriously urgent.

I indulged in a few moments of self-pitying contempt for their efforts. But I was sweaty and hungry. My reserves of ill-will are finite. I directed my ire back at my more immediate nemesis. The trampoline.

The final push took another twenty minutes. I walked an evaluative circle around the finished project. Sound and symmetrical. An inviting venue for risk and recovery.

The neighbors’ music was quieter now. I drew a mental sketch of the matriarch who was undoubtedly responsible for the polite adjustment.

I combed the grass for scattered tools. Replayed the events of the afternoon. Realized my impatience and hypocrisy had been symptoms of faithlessness. Mostly in myself.

I went in the house. My son saluted me with a chicken nugget. Suppressed laughter brightened my wife’s eyes. She knew an apology was coming.

After we put the kids to bed that night, I treated my sore limbs to wine in the back yard. Let myself enjoy the silhouette of the trampoline, backlit by our quarantine lights.

Music was still wafting over the canyon. I went to the fence again, this time more generous with good-will for my boisterous neighbors. Something had given them license to celebrate in the face of the bleak unknown.

What I saw across the canyon demolished another wing of my self-importance. A bright line of colored bulbs. Running taut across their fence, inflicting damage on the dark.

So that’s what my neighbors had been up to this afternoon.

I raised my wine to the rainbow vein and resolved to give everything in the universe the benefit of the doubt forever.

A potent sentiment I wish I could always hang onto. But it seems to want to come and go.

Stupid Game

I used to play a video game online to unwind.

Invested time. Got okay at it.

One afternoon I landed in a match with cheaters.

They had a mod to weaken me. If they shot me once I’d die.

I’d re-spawn across the map.

But they were there waiting.

Two seconds later my avatar lay twitching again.

Over and over. Like twenty times in a row. I couldn’t do anything.

I should have left the game and gone for a walk.

But it was winter.

I stayed in the rigged contest and kept trying.

I was almost crying by the time it ended.

The stats appeared. Quantified humiliation.

Nobody but me and the modders knew what’d happened.

The other players just thought I sucked. Laughter sogged my headphones.

I spiked the controller on the carpet.

Stomped it until its shell splintered and wiry guts fell out.

Felt ashamed. Hated myself.

Never played that stupid game again.

I Used to Know and Do Things

The guy sits halfway down the service road on the far side of the canyon.

No mangled bike below him. No gesture of distress.

My hand tightens on the handle of the plastic push-car my son is outgrowing.

I don’t want to worry my wife. I close the gap she’s opened with the stroller.

The weirdo in the canyon dissipates against the bulk of other thoughts.

Then yesterday I take my son to a trailhead at the affluent edge of the development. He wants to hike the residential street instead.

45 minutes. One block.

He picks up clusters of brittle berries and crushes them off the stems. Twice I tell him not to put them in his mouth.

Let’s call it home school.

It soon makes sense to sit down on the curb. In long underwear and painting shorts. The bushes rustling behind me.

Polite suspicion warps the smiles of walkers who distance to the street.

They resemble Heisman Trophies when they wave.

They scan the gutter for a mangled bike.

My son emerges in his Lightning McQueen hat. Lends me credibility.

I’m lucky for his company in these fresh venues for repose. Where “you can’t eat that,” may or may not be true.

The unfazed components of the landscape team up and dwarf my sum of knowledge.

The word for the thing that holds pine needles together at the base?

Whether I’ll hug my parents again?

The difference between ravens and crows?

I handle fallen artifacts of trees. Not sure if I am basking or drowning in this stasis.

Until I stand and say, “It’s time, pal. Let’s go home and wash our hands.”

Plague Daddy

I wish I didn’t see the fever cloud mounting his eyes.

But he hits the 100s F by noon. Coughing.

My wife and I trade heavy words about the risks of waiting rooms.

He thrashes and screams at bath time. Soaks my jeans.

I try to coax him into Cookie Monster PJs. In his frenzied resistance, his own fingernail summons blood to his cheek. He clips his head on the dresser leg.

I spank him. Our fevered two-year-old. Because I don’t know how else to protect him.

Another reason to loathe myself this week: I say the words “Shut up, baby.”

I say it because touching our sick son and our newborn daughter in succession could put the baby in the ER and we just got out of the NICU.

We’ve set up quarantine inside quarantine. We’re mortgaging a Russian doll.

In an alternative universe, I pause Netflix to pet the labrador. Maybe take up sewing.

But in this universe, my mirrors will soon be Civil War portraits.

My wife sequesters upstairs, turning stress into breast milk. Wincing to protect her C-section from sneezes.

The doctor’s office has not called back.

I take our sick boy for a drive so my wife can hold the baby and watch Gilmore Girls or something.

My son sits listless in his car seat. Then perks up to point at a flag rippling above a McDonald’s.

I let his interest lead us and we end up in a cemetery. A flag-enthusiast’s jackpot.

We loop the grounds twice because my boy also likes flowers. Thlaüws was one of his first words, in fact.

Visitors are standing at graves.

“The flowers help people remember their mommies and daddies,” I tell my son.

I don’t try to explain flags because I’m not sure what flags mean anymore.

The doctor’s office finally calls. They have an open slot.

The nurses’ eyes are wide and shining when we arrive. But their masks are off and they are smiling when we leave.

When we get home the baby is asleep upstairs.

I need a minute. My wife needs our boy. I go out to get the mail.

A wail arrests me on the porch.

The timbre is different than my daughter’s, though.

I drift out to the lawn. The cries are coming from a house across the street. I didn’t know they had a baby.

A week ago its crying would have unnerved me.

Now it makes me feel a strange kind of better I’ve never felt before.

I Might Be Out of Toilet Paper Soon. Keep Your Distance.

Yesterday I visited Costco to get baby formula. I thought I’d be checking that off my list before things got crazy.

I arrived five minutes after the store opened. The lot was packed. I live in a part of the world where it almost never rains. It was pouring. A line of drenched members snaked from the carts to the tire center, wound through the food court, and split in two at the roll up door.

After a few minutes, the initial wave of consumers began exiting the store and finessing their toilet paper-laden carts through the perimeter of those of us who still hadn’t gained entry. I admired the strangeness of the scene. I wondered if the self-interested hoarding that soon might make it complicated to wipe my butt would also soon make it hard to get hooked up to a ventilator.

I was surprised out of my musings by a cry of distress and pain. Almost a scream. The line in front of me murmured in response.

I pulled my hood back to better survey the environment. A woman was kneeling on the soaked asphalt. She struggled to get to her feet while clutching an umbrella and two children under the age of five.

I left my cart and jogged to her. I asked if she was okay. I took one of the kids from her arms and carried him awkwardly. I offered the woman my cart and place in line. She declined. She limped away. She was crying.

I was initially baffled and somewhat proud of myself that I was the only person who moved to assist her. But after thinking about it for 24 hours, I don’t feel self-satisfied anymore. I instead wonder. If I had been hungry, or thirsty, or even just a little bit scared, would I have left that lady on the wet asphalt and guarded my place in line too?

Probably.

My primal anxieties surface in even the most inconsequential scenarios. A missed green light. My speaker losing contact with the wireless. In the privacy of my car or my living room, these petty inconveniences provoke words and behavior I would never let slip in public. Whereas the company of others invites me to pretend I am better than I am.

And now the concept of social distancing is embedded in our lexicon. Assembly with strangers for a common purpose is cancelled indefinitely. Communion is stigmatized.

For now, this is prudent. I guess.

But my biggest fear is that during this quarantine we realize nothing is much different. Through technological channels we don’t fully understand, our stoplight swearing long ago spilled out of our cars and saturated our culture. I have felt isolated and lonely for a long time.

In the coming weeks or months, maybe we will experience a renewed understanding of cabin fever as we languish in our living rooms wallowing in our uncouthness. There will be tension in our families. Many of us, it appears, have grandiose ambitions for wiping our butts.

When we emerge blinking at the new world, another stage of human evolution will have occurred. My hope is that our response to this crisis yields more than one type of cure. I will go out looking for others who are also ready for something new. I don’t want to be socially distanced anymore.

I’ve Lost It

Some weeks ago, I was home. Or what used to be. My dad texted me to politely ask if—while I was in town—I would be willing to excise all traces of my childhood from his basement. His request was both reasonable and healthy given that I have not spent a night under that roof for two decades.

So over the course of a few days, whenever my wife and son retreated to simultaneous and well-deserved naps, I examined and weighed the emotional value of hundreds of artifacts that were stowed in a remote closet at my dad’s.

About ten years ago, I had carried out a similar purge, mostly to remove any incriminating relics of my adolescence. That time around, I had disposed of an extensive collection of empty chewing tobacco cans, pages torn from magazines I had acquired before reaching the legal age to purchase them myself, and the bones of a dead animal I’m pretty sure was a cat.

(I had no hand in the cat’s demise, but its skeleton fascinated me and freaked me out when I was twelve or so and discovered it during an independent excursion in the woods. It stayed in a shoebox for years because at least then you don’t have to explain to a disbelieving audience why there is a dead cat in the garbage can, or your backpack, or your car, or wherever you happen to be when someone confronts you about your attempt to dispose of a dead cat.)

But this time around, sifting the remaining items in the basement was a more complex reckoning with emotion.

I took the time to handle valentines signed by my third-grade classmates and wondered what theme I had selected to summarize my affinity for those friends. Transformers? He-Man? Maybe Garfield.

I found an un-cashed birthday check from my grandfather and experienced fleeting guilt, then enduring amusement, that I’d sent him into the afterlife with his finances slightly awry.

I revisited a painting of myself and considered how long the painter must have regarded a photo of me with tender honesty in order to produce such a work.

I smashed down everything I just mentioned into the garbage moments after caressing each item for the last time. It was not pleasant. I simply had to make some difficult decisions, and I did, and some of them felt cathartic, and some of them didn’t.

What I deemed worthy of preservation fit into two yellowing cardboard apple boxes. I transported the boxes to a nearby UPS store and paid to have them shipped to an address in another state where I currently live with my pregnant wife and two-year-old son.

One of the boxes contained cassette recordings of bands I played in. Baseball cards and comic books I will divide among any of my progeny who wants a stake. A lot of letters I perused one by one as unconscious and abstract impressions solidified into concrete assertions such as:

  • my brother is a strong contender for best man alive on this planet
  • if the Comfort boys approach you, pick scabs off their elbows, and offer to become your blood brother, that isn’t just some bullshit
  • no matter what my mom writes on a piece of paper, she is telling you she loves you
  • you want PFC Daniel P. Quinn with you in a foxhole
  • every ex-girlfriend was necessary practice for finally meeting the woman who has the patience and understanding and courage it takes to become the wife of someone who secreted the remains of a dead cat in his closet for a good twenty years

(I googled “dead cat meaning” after writing that last part, and now I wish I’d been brave enough to just leave it in without googling it. It also occurs to me that I have another, even more bizarre and detailed story about a deceased cat whose gruesome and improbable end I did not witness but whose disposal became my personal cross to bear. Until now I had never connected those dots in my life.)

Anyway, the first box actually made it here. It’s sitting in the foyer. I haven’t yet decided where I’ll store it.

But the second box.

Gone.

In addition to a childhood teddy bear with which I associate resentment, a framed print depicting a rag-doll clown holding a newspaper with my birth date on it, and some other flotsam I should have thrown out to begin with, that second box contained the bulk of what I imagined would someday be the touring and posthumous J.P. Kelleher exhibit at prestigious museums. After I had enjoyed several decades of financial success and personal contentment as an author.

Maybe the loss I lament most is my 2nd grade “Story-writing” notebook, where I produced short responses and illustrations based on prompts our teacher wrote on the chalkboard. A typical page contained something like, “If I were a pencil, I would be a missel and I would kill people.” The accompanying drawing portrayed the human form impaled by a pencil enlarged to dimensions that certainly qualified as military-grade. The gore and sense of motion specific to such an event were effectively conveyed by the image. My teacher had written “How sad” in the margin and circled my misspelling of missile.

Also lost were at least a dozen other notebooks and folders full of song lyrics, poems, short stories, the overview of a derivative fantasy series I plotted out when I was probably in 5th grade, a bunch of high school and college essays, brief and futile adolescent manifestos, confessions, jokes. Pretty much everything I ever did to warm up for my dreams to come true.

So here I am. Finally a man, I guess, now that I got everything out of my dad’s house. A man who suspected he was a writer for some while. Yet who possesses minimal tangible evidence that such a proposition is true, now that an apple box has disappeared in transit from the past to the present.

Why does this new reality feel surprisingly refreshing? Why does it feel so liberating?

Where to go from here? What to do now?

This, among other endeavors, I suppose.

Donny Parker Is On the Map

I employ Google Maps to navigate new streets. It’s also good for time travel, kind of.

I open my Mac and in seconds I’m at the curb of my dad’s house. Thirteen again.

I attend to subatomic emotions.

Then off to a blurry field of grass.

The photo stream on the left lets me browse medium-quality postcard shots.

There are the falls. There is the clock tower.

But what?

I’m really mad all of a sudden. Mad at photos taken inside a hardware store.

Hand tools. Light bulbs. Heavy coats associated with seasonal unemployment.

Not what I came here to see. The time I carved out for nostalgia is ruined.

A swift and superficial investigation reveals that the responsible entity bears a name:

Donny Parker.

I ignore my wife and son for forty minutes to repeatedly paste a complaint into the report a problem feature.

I inform on Parker many times.

Because evil will reign in the world if good people do nothing.

A week goes by.

I feel like revisiting my childhood again.

Parker will be banished by now for sure.

I open my Mac and prepare to settle in.

Jesus. Motherfucking.

Now I have to really reconnoiter Parker’s profile.

Full immersion in his extensive cache evokes mingled dismay and awe.

It appears Parker uploads redundant documentation of every place he visits.

The abundance of photos complicates efforts to verify his personhood.

The most detailed evidence to date:

Human or not, the consequent assumptions following exposure to Parker’s catalogue are many.

Some are true. Most are uninformed.

My own perspective yields to the figures:

Parker’s 12,000 photos of roadside motels and Sizzlers have garnered over 15 million views.

And counting.

I decide to interpret Parker’s work as the product of a compassionate optimist.

A gallery follows.

Of places one might have enjoyed congress with Donny Parker.

Ricardo’s Restaurant, Bellevue, WA
La Fruteria Tropical, Brewster, WA
Hi-Lo Cafe, Weed, CA
Lowe’s Home Improvement, Pasco, WA
Ramada Limited, Redding, CA
Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, WA
The General Store, Spokane, WA
O’Reilly Auto Parts, Pasco, WA
Big Lots, Wenatchee, WA
The General Store, Spokane, WA
Wendy’s, Moses Lake, WA
Griggs Department Store, Pasco, WA
Salvadorean Pupusas, East Wenatchee, WA
Rogue River/Siskiyou National Forest, OR

Puzzled Bachelorettes

My wife and I used to have big nights.

A while back we had a preemie and a big hospital stay.

We discussed ways to renew. Something intimate and connective. A guilty indulgence to relish in our low lit home after our boy is asleep.

I did not expect the proposed solution of jigsaw puzzles to spill from my mouth.

My wife and I rock paper scissored. I won the privilege of driving alone to Barnes and Noble.

I drove slow. I tried to hit red lights. I coasted into the mall parking lot, ceding the right of way to everyone.

The chain restaurants were filling up. I caught a glimpse of a group of women wearing summer dresses and crossing their legs against the breeze at an outdoor table.

Jealous contempt flared in me. I envied these bachelorettes and their freedom. I wanted to hop the low fence and lean on their table.

“Enjoy this,” I would say. “Someday soon, you’ll be doing jigsaw puzzles for fun.”

And then I’d buy them all drinks. I would be a heroic sage.

This was the mental vignette that entertained me as I edged into a parking space.

I decided on the long way to the bookstore entrance despite a recent knee injury. I wanted another look at the bachelorettes. Maybe suck in my gut and catch one or two of them checking out the silvering fox.

But by the time I got back to the bachelorette patio, my knee was killing me. Every time my left foot touched the ground, I stifled grunts that almost qualified as whimpers.

I composed myself for the last few yards.

Then, from nowhere, a pair of elderly couples sauntered into my path. Like all octogenarians, they did not give a fuck.

They surrounded me with effortless, eerie precision. It felt like some kind of police maneuver, as if they had rehearsed the exercise for months.

My aching knee prevented me from dodging out of their midst.

So I drifted invisible past the bachelorettes, camouflaged by an escort of elderly couples who were also limping, just not as badly as me.

But I did get close enough to observe that the bachelorettes were not the naïve twenty-somethings I had presumed. They had already done their fair share of jigsaw puzzles.

This new knowledge of them granted me both disappointment and a relief I still do not fully understand.

The footpath opened up, allowing me to break free of my wizened escort.

I took a moment at the edge of the grass and watched the old couples weave away drunk on experience.

And then I resumed my errand, leaving the bachelorettes to their cocktails and the elderly to their own mischief.

My wife and I still needed a puzzle.

I let the path guide me down a gentle slope to the bookstore and melted into it.

The puzzles were displayed in the heart of the store. It occurred to me I had probably never purchased a jigsaw puzzle. The selection overwhelmed me.

I started taking photos of contenders, then loaded up a message with the following images:

  • A thatched cottage at sunset. Minnie Mouse kisses Mickey Mouse in the yard.
  • A collage of iconic Disney characters. An American flag peeks out between Pluto and Captain Hook.
  • An early 20th century American village. The fire station dominates the foreground. A stooped, bearded fireman appears to fist bump a small boy wearing knickers.
  • A rainbow. Belle and the Beast dance beneath it.
  • Another rainbow. Cinderella and Prince Charming dance beneath it.
  • The Amalfi coast at twilight.
  • An Austrian mountain village.
  • Dumbo grinning in a bubble bath.

I sent the images and invited my wife’s input with the typed question “Which one?”

Right away I realized I had not only sent this gallery to my wife, but to the ladies who operate my son’s daycare.

I hastened to un-creep out the daycare ladies. “Oops, wrong chat,” I typed.

One of them quickly sent me her pardon. “Hahaha no worries,” she said. A few seconds later, her co-worker granted me a pair of emoji monkeys covering their eyes.

I imagined the texts they were now assuredly exchanging.

Then I seized on a puzzle, one that was not in the tainted menu I had just sent to the entire cohort that tries to teach my fourteen-month-old son not to punch people in the face unless duly provoked.

I declined a bag at the register. I saw no point in hiding my jigsaw puzzle from the judgment of bachelorettes.

I hobbled back to my car and drove home.

Over the course of the next two nights, my wife and I settled into a system for building our slow image.

Sometimes our hands touched. Once or twice her hair grazed my face.

By Sunday night it was complete. Our dining room table was a world of horse carts. Pumpkins. Vegetable stands. Crows in a tree. Chimney smoke. A mill stream. A slumbering pig.

Recently Checkmated

Last week I learned how to play chess. Actually, it’s more accurate to say last week my friend Rob attempted to teach me to play chess.

He did a great job of explaining the layout of the board and the various mobilities of the pieces. He showed me the little ritual for deciding who goes first. And even though he won that phase, he offered the first move to me.

“No, that’s cool, you lead off, man,” I said.

“That means you’ll be on the defensive.”

“That’s alright. These black ones look pretty sleek.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t go easy on me,” I said. “I need to get destroyed a few times in order to learn.”

Rob accommodated my request. The game was over in like five moves.

“Let’s try that again,” he said.

By the end of the next game, I had a rudimentary understanding of chess and a new appreciation for Rob’s patience. I enjoyed the experience so much I downloaded a chess app for my iPad when I got home. It’s less pleasant than contending with Rob, though. The computer doesn’t pause to pretend it’s studying your array before annihilating your queen. It flashes the word “blunder” across the screen every two moves or so. It’s a real jackass.

Despite their differences in teaching styles, I owe both the computer and Rob gratitude. The good cop/bad cop combination of their methods familiarized me with the game enough to more fully appreciate sitting in the open air mall in front of the specialty barbershop where we were on the waiting list to get my son’s first hair cut the other day.

Normally, I would have killed time wandering with my wife through the farmer’s market that was getting underway. But I was burdened by crutches and a knee-brace, trophies of an unglamorous injury that reinforced the importance of stretching before any strenuous activity. Like pruning waist-high plants and putting the trimmings in a garbage bag.

Immobilized, I had no choice but to wait by myself and observe the activity around the over-sized chess board in front of the children’s barbershop.

It was a weird place for an over-sized chess board.

It was a weird place for me to be sitting alone.

A mother of three exuded suspicion and contempt at me as her two oldest children—a boy of about six, a daughter of about four—arranged the pieces in an alternating black and white sequence around the board’s perimeter. Their unity of effort did not last long.

“The white horse is the mommy and the black horse is the daddy,” the little girl said. She picked the white horse up by the neck to move it closer to the black horse. Black knight. Her exertions knocked over two pawns and a bishop.

“That’s not how you play chess,” her brother said.

He was right. I knew this with certainty. I knew it thanks to my chess app and my evening with Rob.

Around this time, their mother liberated the youngest daughter—probably about three— from the baby backpack thing that had restrained her. The little girl toddled toward me wielding a coquettish smile I interpreted as transparent manipulation to get a sip of the watermelon juice my wife had left on the table. I granted the little girl a nuanced expression that communicated two principal themes:

  1. You are very sweet.
  2. Get away from my juice.

I learned this expression from women I approached in bars throughout my twenties.

The kids continued knocking over the chess pieces and circling my juice for a few more minutes until their mom herded them elsewhere. Her contempt dissipated in the soft breeze. I finished my juice at my leisure.

I rose and limped to dispose of my cup in a receptacle of other recyclable materials that are probably now in a landfill. Another group of kids assumed control of the chess board.

These kids knew how to play chess. More or less. There was some dispute over which piece was king and which was queen. I interpreted this as evidence of our society becoming more gender-fluid each day.

The oldest of these kids was probably thirteen and the youngest maybe six. But they knew how to play. And by play, I don’t just mean play chess. They got a highly complex game going under their own initiative, gracefully compensating for the lop-sided number of five participants. They conducted themselves with decorum. They tolerated Oliver.

“Oliver, stop it.”

“Oliver, you can’t do that.”

“Oliver, put that back.”

Oliver looked like a pretty fun kid. He reminded me of my friend Rob. The guy who introduced me to the ancient, sophisticated choreography of chess.

Game of kings. Symmetry of strategy and tactics. There it was, in a thoroughly bizarre place, cultivating the minds of children while they waited for haircuts.

After forty five minutes, the barbershop texted us. We took my son inside and selected the chair that looked like a fire truck.

He held onto the steering wheel and didn’t cry.

When they were finished, he didn’t look like a baby anymore. Soon he’ll be beating me in chess.