The Sick Smile On Steve’s Face

This is an old story…

The sun was shining off the sand, hot and white.  My eyes two slits.  I had my buddy Charlie in front of me; we were making our way through the sump path, down to the water’s edge to hunt bullfrogs with our pellet guns.  CO2 powered air guns with a high velocity, our pellet guns could take out a bullfrog in one shot.  The thing about hunting bullfrogs is you have to look for their eyes floating above the water.  You can find them on the shore line waiting in high grass but the most challenging way to shoot them is between the eyes floating in the water.

We walked with soft steps only to see Steve down by the water.  Steve the hyper active only child with rich parents on the corner was never a good sign when you were sneaking around looking for some frogs to hunt.  He had a way of messing things up.

We waited behind the bushes away from the shore line and back stepped when Steve started skipping rocks across the sump.  We watched from above, looking down the steep slope at the little world around us.  We waited on Steve, thought about hunting him and instead waited some more.

As time passed Charlie and I became bored and we made our way down the steep slope towards Steve…  A few ducks landed on the water.  Steve saw our pellet guns.

“Shoot the ducks” he laughed.

“What” I asked?

Charlie said “no”.

Steve wasn’t allowed to have pellet guns or B.B. guns.  His mother wouldn’t allow it.

“Shoot em.”

“It’s a duck, Steve” I said as I flared my arms out.

“So…KILL IT!”

“I can’t.”

“Give me the gun” he insisted.

“You can’t kill the duck either”  I told him.

“Yes I can, give me the gun.”

“No you can’t.”

“Bullshit.  I’ll shoot it right in the head.”

“You’re gonna hit the duck between the eyes?  Otherwise this gun isn’t strong enough to kill a duck.  It’s pellet gun!  All you’ll have is a loud bleeding duck to deal with.  It’s cruel!”

“Let me try.”

“NO” I was getting angry with Steve.

“No wonder your mom won’t let you have a gun” Charlie added in.
From out of nowhere my older brother grabbed my arms and my pellet gun.  He had snuck up on us when we were arguing.

My brother aimed at the duck.  The light twinkled off the still water, the little ripples left over from the ducks landing vanished.  Silence fell upon us.  If anyone would have something to say it would have to be me.

We all watched the male Mallard, its color, the ease at which it cut the surface, the clean gleam of the barrel and the sick smile on Steve’s face.  The cross-hairs steady on the ducks head.

Time stood still as I found the courage to say something to my brother.

He looked down at me as I spoke.

“DON’T! That’s my gun.”
Steve was excited bouncing on his toes chanting out “shoot it, shoot it” in a half whisper.

My brother turned with the gun in his hand and shot Steve in the thigh.  The sick smile passing from Steve’s face to my brothers.  The Mallards, pumping for a short range take off  flew over the barbwire fence; the reflections off the water and the screams from Steve, filled the air, startling everything living within earshot.

Steve went to school with a bruise the size of a pancake on his thigh with a little white center where the pellet was lodged.  No frogs were killed that day and the Mallards found a safer place to rest.  The closest Steve ever was to owning a gun was the pellet he kept, the one the doctor removed from his leg.  The pellet my brother put into his thigh.

Taking Me God Knows where

It was somewhere on the road, the body shook, the tin radio screamed, my feet pressed hard toward the floor that my Dad said “hey that’s your song”.  I listened closely as the words made their way over the confusion of manual shifting and my Dad’s view of what I was. At nine or eight reality does not matter, I was trying to take it all in.

Dad’s Ford rumbled down the road, every twist still in my last second dream scenes.
Dreams that shake me awake.

The lyrics consumed me as he grabbed the road with his new toy under him. His industrious young mind guzzling fuel. Inhaling what’s before him, laying concrete on lichens ground. No spot too small or remote, the Ford spit asphalt. I counted my faults feeling my skin sweat for the first time. My pores opened up as the machine under us charged. The music played.

The lyrics never leaving me.

“I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker I get my loving on the run.”

Riding shotgun with Dad never meant so much.

Riding shotgun means you never get the wheel.

“Some people call me the space cowboy some people call me the gangster of love, some people call me Maurice cause I speak of the pompetous of love”.

I never did find pompetous in the dictionary and I am pretty sure my Dad never gave that song much thought.
But I understood what joker and midnight toker meant and I felt no need to argue over the wind blowing through the windows. I was sure if I could be anything in that song a joker and midnight toker wasn’t a stretch.
The truth is I have not recovered from the gas crisis of the 70’s and my fathers blatant disregard towards the fragility of the planet.

Later in life I found out Steve Miller didn’t make up the word “pompetous” someone before him did. His name was Green, green like I was in that car. So much is not what it seems when your nine and your Dad is taking you god knows where.

A tin ford rumbling and shaking peach trees.
Riding shotgun with my father, crossing over the back bays. The smell of sweetened coffee, saltwater mingling with rolling clouds and the haze of the past captured from thousands of days forgotten. Water colors painted with a child’s hand on the back walls of dreams. Crossing over bridges to beaches, my dad’s right hand man.

The Space Cowboy.
 

 

The Crew

 

 

 
As a New Yorker this seemed like no big deal to me. Ethnic diversity was just a part of growing up.  While most of us have moved on and some of us are dead, the hardcore center of The Crew are still alive and keep in contact.

Growing up in New York AKA The Melting Pot is a blessing.

I heard a comedian once say New York is no melting pot it’s a salad.  Comedians may be the best philosophers we have in the modern world.  You have a chunk of tomato here, cucumber there, a bunch of lettuce and some onions.  After all, in this picture you have Spanish, African, Irish, Italian, Puerto Rican and god knows what else. New York is a salad. It’s segregated and integrated at the same time.  We are all different but we mix well with each other.

I have friends of every ethnic and religious background, and I have dated women from every ethnic and religious background.  In the words of Larry David “I go anywhere from, like, albino to, you know, Heart of Darkness Africa black.”  Both friends and lovers have never been judged by me for anything other than what is in their heart.  Although when it comes to women I am an ass and leg man.

See we have more in common than we don’t.  Do not get me wrong I am not trying to sell you that crap concept the we are one race, the human race.  The facts are we all love and our proud of our race/ethnic background and we should be.  We have so much to learn from each other and plenty of common ground to work with, without having to give up our individualism.

Being Irish Catholic, I grew up with a tribal violent mentality.  After all, it was that mentality that helped the Irish keep their own traditions while the English were taking over the world. The Irish are just across the sea from the English and for 800 years “we” fought to hold on to what we are.  My Grandma had a bumper sticker on her car that read “Human Rights for Northern Ireland”.  Her family was a part of  the IRA and it cost them dearly. I was reminded daily about oppression and the need to stand up for what you believe in.

Out of all the guys in The Crew, I was the brawler.  Growing up right down the block from a black neighborhood I was often targeted for being white.  It was the same thing with my friends who crossed into my neck of the woods.  But that is what we all had in common; we didn’t give a fuck what others thought of us no matter where we were.  It was our friendship that mattered not the color of our skin, religious background or sexual orientation.

Being a good fighter has nothing to do with the color of your skin.  It’s a skill you learn. I had three older brothers and a father that was special forces.  I learned to lead with my left by kindergarten. My brothers kept me in training with beat downs and by backing me up on the streets.  But as a white guy hanging out in a black neighborhood I was often judged as being soft because of my skin color. Those who judged this book by it’s cover learned the hard way that I had a ruthless right.

My dad loves this saying “Where your rights end, mine begin”.  I love that concept as well.  What I picture when I hear those words are people stretching out their arms with just their fingers tips touching. Individual links forming one chain. Each person holding onto what makes them unique but respecting the views and rights of others.  The world could learn a lot from New York and a little gang of guys from the 80’s known as The Crew.

As I grow older, I realize violence isn’t the answer, but I also know that it’s tough to find common ground when all you see is your side of the tracks.  Open your eyes people and seek out those that seem different from you.  You may find out that you have more in common than you realize.  It’s a belief worth fighting for.
 

 

*Picture copyrights Eddie Rodriguez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broken or New?

 

 

Walking on buildings in the suburbs leads to flashing lights and long dashes for cover.

I can remember as a child being more fascinated by the janitor on the roof than the subject in class. The flag snapping and rolling in the wind, the “A” frame ladder over Mr. Foley’s shoulder, long steps in the direction of the gymnasium and his detailed image washed out by the bright light of the sun.

Before the roof it was the woods. My brothers would take me to the old fort, the pit and the tree.  We watched dirt bikes, captured snakes and found turtles.

How times have changed.

Change takes place right before your eyes and rarely when you are looking.  This time it was looking us square in the eyes.

I felt the change but didn’t know what to do about it. Every kid on the block felt it. Out of anger we broke the windows in the new homes that vandalized our natural world.

I can remember the kid who’s parents purchased the house behind the playground at school. The last bits of the woods within walking distance of me were  gone, sold. The sandpit I climb a thousand times  covered with manicured lawns and rich people I could not fully understand.

In the end, by junior high, all the woods were gone and we were being chased by the cops for riding our dirt bikes on the streets where trees once stood. Turns out it was a rich guys woods by the name of Hicks and I would have to spend my school years socializing with the rich.

The rooftops became our final sandpit to look out from, our last high spot to see or start trouble from. We had to travel a town over for a rooftop the cops couldn’t catch us on.  A closed down mental institute.

Within a few years the state imploded the old closed down mental institution.  We were forced to come down to ground. My friends and I looked out over a landscape covered by homes and the sparkling dreams of capitalism.

From the rooftops of public buildings thoughts of trouble rush forward in my mind and what I see is a flag snapping and rolling in the wind against a blue sky, the bright lights of strangers homes and a sandpit filled with dreams, broken and new.

 

A Sense Of The Surf

I am standing alone in hard rain and up to my stomach in dark water. My waders hug my body and thousands of fat raindrops splash, bounce, and cascade off my brimmed hat. There is no better place to be.

Today is one of those days when no one is on the beach but me and the hunkered down laughing gulls who are too uneasy to speak. Most fishermen will come out when the weather isn’t exactly nice, but today it’s outright bad and I’m the only one on the beach. This may not be a good thing, but it won’t stop me. In fact, it draws me to the surf.

I walk through the gray haze and wet air covered in neoprene and plastic with the weight of the Long Island Sound around my stomach, resisting my forward progress. As I lift my feet in the surf, they wave like branches in a strong wind, bumping and slipping on green-fleece covered rocks before settling into soft sand. With unsure steps and body that feels like it can be blown away by a wave, I stalk my prey.

The wind blows at my back and the saltwater sprays against my skin. The tide pulls on my body and the rain washes away the salt from my face. The water on my glasses hampers my vision. I feel like I am looking out of a car windshield, the wipers aren’t working, and I’m in a thunderstorm.

I reach into my canvas surfbag and pull out a Creek Chub. I match it to the sky, gray with a little blue. I tie on a leader, snap on the lure, and let it rip through the wind. My line arches behind my lure in the shape of a wavy rainbow. It’s a beautiful site.

The ounce and a half lure splashes on the surface of a long rolling swell. At the same time, my hand cranks the handle on my Penn reel, the spool turns, and my slack line straightens tight. With a quick snap of my seven and a half foot North Shore rod, the artificial lure comes to life. Its gray and blue body breaks the water’s tension then slowly sinks.

The casting, cranking, and popping puts my mind at rest. I watch the lure, a magical marionette. My eyes scan the water, looking for any unusual movement, splash, or shadow. Nothing grabs my attention.

My mind follows my eyes over the open water and sky. Thoughts flicker from What the hell am I standing on? to When the unknown becomes real and what is reality needs to be re-examined, does truth get closer to fact?

I come back around again, nice splash. My eyes dart from side to side trying to catch whatever that was in my peripheral vision, but I find nothing unusual. Again, I start to float away. How come when you go upstate they put mustard on their burgers?

The water explodes. My popper disappears. My biceps flex. My forearm and wrist take on the weight. The drag on the reel strains and screams as the fish heads for deep water. With one solid back sweep, I set the hook. The rod bends like a divining rod over an underground lake. The drag drones in pain.

I wonder about my little reel. Is it up to the task? I start to question my knot’s strength. The line slices through the water from left to right, pulling out yards of monofilament line. A bluefish? Maybe I shouldn’t be using such light action gear? I can’t help but second guess. After all, a rod less than 8 feet is better suited for fresh water.

The drag stops. I dip the rod tip, reel, and pump. Text book.

The unknown fish and I engage in battle. I change my mind on the type of species several times. It’s a bass. No it’s a blue. My answer comes in the form of one straight long pull.

A striper! I can’t see it yet, but I am sure enough. I pump up and reel down, hoping to get the fish in view. Even if I lose it, I would at least like to know. I start to reel faster as the fish charges me. I can’t keep up. A striper breaks the surface, rattling my lure around in its mouth as it leaps and its tail dances across a breaking wave.

Oh, no, I’ve lost him! The striper’s silver body picks up the scarce light under the gray sky and sparkles as the fish goes back under. To my surprise, I feel the strength of his mouth ripping at the treble hooks. I’ve got it!
Boiling the water, darting tightly, the striper appears an arm’s length from my grasp. I stare at all the fuss and I reach for my pliers.

Selective harvest or catch and release?

The fish stops moving. Its dorsal fin relaxes and it hugs close to my body, like a dog on a cold day. The fish and I have come to an understanding. We are both animals and, for the moment, I have the upper hand. I reach down for its lip and the bass shakes the lure at the thought of my touch. My thumb grips its lower lip and my other four fingers sink into the soft underside of its jaw. The bass is temporarily paralyzed. I take out the treble hooks and my hand is the only hold I have now.

What to do?

Twenty-eight inches is the minimum size limit, but, at thirty-six inches, a striped bass has spawned at least once. If it’s over thirty-six inches, I’ll take it.

I turn for the beach with the fish in my right hand and the rod tucked under my left arm. I pull my surfbag to the side and open it, looking for my yellow measuring tape. I grab a rag from the pouch on the front of my waders, gently place the striper on a strip of white sand, and place the rag over its eyes and measure.

Thirty-six inches exactly!

I promised myself I would keep it, but I measure again. It didn’t grow. I turn my back to the beach and head toward the open water. I stop dead in my tracks and look back to the beach again. I’m looking for something that isn’t there — A reason to keep the bass. I have none.

I walk knee deep into the water. Bending over the dark green water, I release the striper gently. It pauses, finding its buoyancy, then bolts for freedom. The surface of the water breaks and two predators part.

I spend the next hour or so fishing, realizing that I must join the masses and earn a living. I take my last cast and, with a final look over the Sound, decide it’s time to go home and get ready for my night job.

I walk back to my car, thinking about my time spent fishing. I’m reminded that sometimes the odds are against you in life. At other times, the possibilities are endless. You never know what’s going to happen. One day you’re swimming along, the next you see something new and alluring. You give it a try, and Wham! You’re hooked.

There are humans with the same problem, except they end up in rehab — a different form of Catch & Release. Fish wind up on the dinner table. I let a big one go today, but that striper got a second chance at life.

Oh, yeah. It’s good to be alive!

Irish Linen

Two days before the table had been set. The new paint job was on the walls. The holes had been fixed.  The argument that cut our trip short the last time was behind us.

“They did a nice job on the walls” I said trying to act like it didn’t bother me.

“Everything looks so festive…”

The glasses on the table sparkled, the snow white linen was from Ireland.

“They really did a nice job didn’t they” she replied back.

“They sure did” I said.
What I wanted to say, I couldn’t! Instead I smiled. It’s gonna be festive alright, real festive.

My girlfriends mom put her spoon in the sink.

“I see you purchased a grate for the bottom of the sink. Now the spoons won’t scratch the stainless steel. ”

My girlfriend gave me the “eyes“. The “shut the hell up” eyes but I smiled the “no chance in hell” smile back at her.

We had only walked in the door a few minutes before. It was Wednesday and Thanksgiving Thursday felt far away.

Tomorrow is never a guarantee and because of that I have a hard time holding my tongue.

The Delaware River Gap was flooded, the banks overflowed, and all the leaves were gone. My politeness was gone and as hard as I tried I could not forget the last time I was here.

The last time, my girlfriend and her mother had an argument and her mom wanted us to leave. I was in the middle of painting the house for her. Everything was going well, the walls and hallways looked great just like they do now. But a spoon had been put in the sink and her mom got upset over it. It was a new sink and she didn’t have a grate for it yet. She didn’t want the stainless steel being scratched.

I stepped outside for a smoke.

I liked being outside at her mom’s house. Outside on the porch I was sure I wouldn’t sit in the wrong place or on the wrong furniture. This obsession with material things was new to me.

On the mountains in the Pocono’s was a ghost town. The neighborhood was clean and gated but every other house was in foreclosure or for sale. The grey rocks and course grass, a bare outline of a landscape. I was alone on the porch like the rest of the retirees.

I held my tongue into the next day. We sat down for Thanksgiving. Smiles and prayers, set us off to a good start.  We were having a few drinks and laughs when one of the kids spilled a drink.

The grape juice stained the Irish linen. My girls Mom jumped up screaming “Ohh No No! That’s Fine IRISH Linen! You’ll have to pay for this.”

“I am not paying for you to have that cleaned, Mom. You knew you were having kids at the table.”

Her Mom turned to me “What would they do in Ireland?”

“In Ireland, that linen would be in the closest or wrapped around a Celtic King at his funeral.”

This time my girl didn’t give me the “eyes”, instead the wine shot out of her mouth and nose. I got the “eyes” from her mom instead.  The politeness was gone.

It was the perfect family dinner.

I finally felt at home.

 

The Party


He sat at the table with a glass of white wine. He spoke down to all who came before him. The black cloud pushed his children away into the yard by the picnic table were the barbeque burned and the grandchildren played. All seven of his children were there, only one, the last child really had no idea who her father was. Who we were. She only knows what her father is she never saw the man he use to be.  Six children pushed away and naive number seven was so busy she had to leave. The party had only begun.

He never left. He did not budge from his position. He drank and carried on, one person at the kitchen table was good enough . The wine flowed. The beer cold. The fire pit made of copper.

The end of the world was coming and the middle child was going to drive his motorcycle into a brick wall.

“Enough already….I’M Gonna leave here and do 90 into a BRICK WALL!”.

A few sighs from the women and ribbing from the men, the middle child left his masculinity behind on the table for his father to feed on.

“MY fucking kids they never listen.”

“That’s your uncle?” she asked me and I agreed.

“Yes that’s him. He’s the one”.

At that point my Uncle was on his own.

“He’s all yours if you want him?” I said to my girlfriend.

“He’s the one?” she said as if she didn’t understand.

“Yep, that’s him.”

She walked over to talk to him. Her charm on full, his knowledge endless as I walked out to kids screaming and the smoking barbeque. At least the smoke from the barbeque smelled like chicken. I wondered how long she could sit under his black cloud. After all the world was coming to an end and he knew why.

Detritus Falling

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There has been no snow this winter at least nothing that has stuck. A few flakes in October and the other night in hard wind I watched fat flakes get pushed upwards. There in the night under the spotlight of Suburbia I watched the flakes struggle against gravity riding pushing winds back to the clouds. The snow refused to fall.

My daughter pointed to the spotlight on the side of the house “Look Dad the snow is falling up”.

In the darkness I closed my eyes, stuck my tongue out and hoped for a flake to fall.

“They’re falling up Dad”

“One is bound to fall down and land on my tongue” I told her.

She closed her eyes and waited.

“What are you thinking about honey?”

“I’m picturing one landing on my tongue. What about you?” she asked.

“Marine snow, Shel Silverstein.”

“What?”

I had confused her.

“You said Falling Up like the book I use to read you.”

She giggled. “What’s Marine snow?”

“It’s Detritus”

“What’s Detritus?”

“Well right now I am the bottom of the sea and I’m a crab. It’s dark, I have my mouth open and I am waiting for all the scraps falling down. All that stuff is what feeds the sea. The detritus. I image crabs feel like children when the snow falls.”

“That’s gross” she said as the images appeared in her mind. A snow flake landed on her tongue “EWWWW SNOW”.

“Does that marine snow taste fishy?”
She smiled “Daaaaad!”.

In the moment I did my best to make my hands look like crab claws and I chased her around the yard trying to tickle her. I could feel the sand under my feet.