Monday, October 23, 2017

I Can't Help It If I'm Lucky

                                                 PART ONE

I have never been to the emergency room in my life. I have come out of one once—when I was born. But that’s it. Sure I’ve had plenty of doctor visits for this and that, but never the hospital. So, there I found myself in Collingwood General & Marine Hospital patiently sitting among a dozen others waiting to be called, instinctively eyeballing the others to see who was here before me and who arrived after me. Everyone looked fairly normal, no visible deformities, no hacked off limbs, no wailing. It was eerily silent until a young girl came in and started eating a box of Nerds, restlessly tottering around the waiting room looking at the vending machines.
          One grizzled, older guy was wearing a dark blue auto shop uniform with his name stitched calligraphically onto his breast: “Robert.” He had white gauze wrapped around his hand. Seemed like he had a cut of some kind. He was a dead ringer for Jeff Bridges and I wanted to ask him if anyone had ever told him that before. He must get it all the time.
I stuck my nose back into to my copy of Moby-Dick and waited some more. The book is over six-hundred pages, full of digressions, and I was in the mid two-fifties. It was at once a well-crafted book with sparkling prose, and a long trek through molasses. The book was released in 1852 when turgid, maximal sentences were de rigeur, when books were a primary form of entertainment, so Melville takes a long time to explain things which could easily be summed up in a few words, yet therein lies the beauty of the writing—it’s bloated and stretches on forever like yanking a huge piece of chewed gum, but it’s full of richness and meaning, so it’s worth the effort in the end.
There’s a huge difference reading Moby Dick in 2017 versus 1852. Reading about a whaling adventure and the anatomy of these leviathans in minute detail late at night while the whale oil lamp burned must have been exhilarating. To a reader in 1852, a sperm whale could very well be Godzilla: A humongous monster lurking in the depths willing to unleash destruction upon mankind. Even with the elucidating descriptions of Sperm Whales by Melville, the mind runs away with itself because whales are ultimately unfathomable mythical beasts.
Many men were lost to the powerful flukes of the Sperm Whale smashing against whaling boats. You may drown if the boat is damaged; or if the whale was hit with one or more harpoons, sharks would swarm the area and you could be attacked. Imagine being flung into the open ocean with no land for hundreds of miles in all directions, only an endless flat horizon, resting your arms on a piece of floatsom to stay afloat, some shattered, jagged wooden plank. Sharks are all over, right below, circling around, too many to keep track of.

After about an hour, an obese young woman, who was the only person in the ER before me, was called and she disappeared through a door into the bowels of the hospital. The uppermost section of her butt crack was visible, peaking out of the waistband of her jogging pants. A woman who walks around with her crack showing is like a guy who walks around with the bottom of his rotund gut eclipsing the bottom of his shirt.
“Douglas?” a voice called out, and I looked around, somewhat confused. “Uh, that’s my middle name,” I called out. “Sorry . . . Taylor? The disembodied voice called out again.
I got up and walked towards the door that was held open by some administrative assistant. “Sorry, I have to go slow,” I said, limping horribly. “That’s okay, take your time, honey.” Ah, small town Ontario, where at the hospital they still call you ‘honey.’
“Okay, we’re going to go down this corridor.” She slowed her gait down so as not to get too far ahead of me. The place was a maze of hallways. We proceeded under a sign that read ‘X-Ray’ and I thought to myself, I don’t need a goddamn X-Ray, I didn’t break anything. It might feel like my foot is broken, but it’s not like that. We turned another corner, and then into another waiting room where most of the people from the previous waiting room were seated. They all glanced up at me with the same stares—like ha!, you’re just one of us again—and went back to looking at their phones, except for rural Jeff Bridges, who sat silently listening to his thoughts.
We all went through the rigmarole until it was, again, my turn.
I found myself in a tiny room, with lots of gadgets pinned against the wall, and a yellow medical waste receptical. There was a bevelled examination chair with translucent parchment paper draped over it, and what appeared to be an eye examination station. Fifteen minutes later the doc came in asked what he could do for me. He was a healthy looking middle-aged man with a slight Eastern European accent.
“Well . . . I know that self-diagnosing with Google is the bane of your existence,” I began, as a wry smile crept across his face, “but I’m pretty darn sure I have Gout.”


Like Scurvy, I always thought Gout was something that pirates got in the 1800s. I didn’t know it was a type of arthritis that makes your foot swell up causing intense pain. A Gout attack occurs when uric acid builds up in your extremities, typically your feet, and more specifically, the joint in your big toe. Uric acid flows through your blood and can build up in any joint . . . your fingers, elbows, knees, but it will usually hit you in the feet. If your kidneys are functioning properly, you will flush out the uric acid in your urine. But, for genetic and lifestyle reasons, if your body can’t clean out the acid, then it builds up and manifests itself as thousands of microscopic, needle-sharp crystals that cut into the nerves around your joints. The joint then swells up and the sufferer is in the midst of an attack, which can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. It can disappear for months, even years, and then hit you again, or it can hit you again only days after the last attack. Aside from the debilitating pain, one lives in perpetual fear of an attack because it’s difficult to judge what will tip you over the edge, there’s a maddening arbitrariness to the affliction, and you never know just where the devil lurks waiting to sink his teeth into your foot. Now, certain things most certainly will precipitate an attack. Foods rich in purines, the precursor to uric acid, such as shellfish, pork, pop, desserts, and red meat are bad, as is alcohol. They call it the Rich Man’s Disease because years ago, only wealthy people could afford to eat and drink so gluttonously. Cheers Henry the VIII!
In modern society, even poor people can get Gout.
          There is also a genetic component to Gout. My Dad gets the occasional flare up. My Mom has it really bad, too, where her foot almost doubles in size; and it’s rare for women to get Gout. Estrogen plays a role in clearing out uric acid, so it does affect older women in particular.
My Grandfather had it really bad. Apparently, he would be bed ridden for days with an attack in his feet and elbows. I think Grandpa liked his rum a little too much.
A lot of sufferers aren’t eating lobster and drinking twelve-packs of Keith’s every day—they actually lead healthy lives, they’re simply genetically predisposed to certain arthritic conditions like Gout. Their kidneys are defective in one important regard: they can’t process uric acid properly. And what an important function to malfunction! They have one rib-eye steak and a beer at a bachelor party, and they’re limping like a gimp for the next week. And that’s what really bothers me about Gout—besides the crippling pain— it’s the bad branding. If it was called ‘Osteoarthritis’ or ‘Inflammatory Arthritis’ people wouldn’t snicker at you as if you live like a decadent Tudor king.  They wouldn’t think you’re a bloated troglodyte who doesn’t understand exercise and diet. Now, I drink like a Tudor king, but I’ll get to that shortly.

Gout is on the rise in many countries. As rates of obesity, hypertension, and high blood pressure increase, so does Gout. People are boozing like never before, too. Doctors are seeing double or more the rates of Gout patients than in previous decades. It is now the most common form of inflammatory arthritis. It’s not just a few indulgent men in the annals of history like Leonardo Da Vinci, Beethoven, and that commie Karl Marx. Must be nice writing about redistributing all that wealth while eating like a king! Nowadays, it’s regular people like Jared Leto, Kim Jong-Un, and myself who suffer from it. Gout even kept Benjamin Franklin from attending meetings while the Declaration of Independence was being drafted. Not even the birth of the United States of America could get in the way of a Gout attack. The affliction that charts world history! In fact, there is speculation that Kim Jong-Un received steroid injections to ease his Gout and that ‘roid rage’ is causing him to be so audacious with all the recent missile tests.
Gout: it delayed the birth of America, and perhaps will hasten its demise.
Indulge me for a moment while I attempt to describe the operatic cruelty that is an acute Gout attack. It is, by a wide margin, the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I would say that like most people, I have a normal pain threshold. I’m not like the guys in Jackass, but I’m not a wilting flower, either. When I stub my toe, I yell “Cocksucker motherfucker!” just like you, then rub it a bit and get on with things. But, dear reader, a Gout attack is something else entirely indeed! It’s like there are tiny shards of broken glass stuck in your foot. Like a ten ton Snapping Turtle has clamped down onto your toe and there’s no shaking him off. There is no relief from the sharp, burning pain. Remember when you were a kid and a friend would give you an Indian Burn on your arm? It’s like that, but ten times worse and it never stops. You lay there at night, unable to sleep—because that’s when the pain is the worse, as your body temperature drops—banging on your pillow, pleading with a non-existent God to make it stop. You fantasize about taking a chop saw and cutting your foot off. But then the uric acid in your blood would simply build up in your stump and you’d be like Captain Ahab . . . with Gout. Walking up the stairs is like climbing Mt. Everest. The tiniest amount of pressure on the foot carries with it the blow of a sledgehammer. Putting on a sock is like the NVA pulling off fingernails with pliers.
Don’t take it from me, though, take it from a war vet: “I’ve had crushed bones. I’ve shattered my ankles. I’ve torn out my knees. I’ve dislocated and torn my shoulder. I’ve been shot. I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been bitten by snake, dog, human, and cat. I’ve been sucker-punched. Tasered. I’ve been hit in the head with a beer bottle. I’ve been kicked in the junk. None of that pain . . . none of it . . . comes close to what Gout is like.” Amen, brother.

          An 18th century cartoon by James Gillroy depicting a Gout attack

                                      PART TWO                                       

“I’d hate to be a tee-totaller. Imagine waking up in the morning and knowing that’s as good as you’re going to feel all day.”

-Dean Martin

As I mentioned, there are genetic and lifestyle causes for Gout. I’ve always been in fairly good shape: a lot of jogging and tennis, some light weightlifting. I like my poutine, but I also make sure to eat my greens. I’m at a healthy weight and I love to cook. Gout certainly runs in my family so I’m genetically predisposed to it. But the wrench in my spokes is alcohol. I’m an alcoholic. An inveterate booze-bag; a hooch-hound; an alkie; a beer guzzling gutter bum.
The Kool-Aid man—full of whiskey—busting through the wall: LCBOh yeah!
          Every day I would drink beer and whiskey. It’s not like I’d get black-out drunk, only well and lit. Only drink enough to take me to that special place where you have a great buzz, and still have a couple shots and pint left to cap it off. OK, occasionally I’d watch a movie and not remember any of it. But then I’d watch it again the next night, so what’s the big deal? And sometimes I would try to lie down and read a few pages of whatever book I was reading and the words would be alive, replicating and whooshing about the page.
Who’d a thunk that years of that would take its toll!? The prospect of going a day without drinking terrified me. It was the sheer banality of it all. Cook dinner, play guitar, do some writing, watch some TV, cruise the internet. There is no banality with booze. All these aforementioned activities are worthwhile if booze is involved. I can watch paint dry all day if a few shots of whiskey and a few pints of Blue are involved.
I did go a week without the sauce after the emergency room visit. I took heed. I realized that I hit some kind of semi-bottom; my body sore as I hit a few large branches falling out of the addiction tree. How does one ever really know what the bottom is until they’re in the cold, cold ground?
To my surprise, it wasn’t as treacherous as I imagined it would be. I wasn’t in hell exactly . . . more like one of hell’s waiting rooms, where “Semi-Charmed Life” plays on repeat. The problem with sobriety is that it’s so goddamn boring. My hand reaches out to take a sip of something that makes you feel alive and it’s tea, or water. Where’s Jesus when you need him to turn water into wine?
You have vivid, intense dreams when you dry out, and I dreamt that Jesus’s penis was a hot, veiny, turgid tap, and I tilted it downwards and cold, delicious Moosehead flowed into my mouth. It was the closest I’ve ever felt to the lord. I’ve also had plenty of dreams where I have cocaine in a little baggie and I can’t open it, or the coke falls everywhere, or my hands don’t work to cut up the lines.
Now to add another wrinkle to the story: The doc told me years ago I’m most likely dysthymic. Dys—what now? was my reaction, too. It’s a low level, persistent depression. I don’t have bouts where I can’t get out of bed. It’s more of a monotonous background noise that is always there, like the buzzing of your fridge when you go for a midnight snack. Most of the time I don’t notice it, and then something will remind me it’s there. Oh, yeah, you, you’re always lurking around.
I’ve been taken the damn pills for the last seven years or so. Every day I swallow it and immediately put an ‘X’ on the calendar to quell any possible future doubts that I’d taken that day’s dose. They call it Cipralex. I think the same people who come up with the names for drugs come up with the names for cars. They must bounce around those two industries. Impressive sounding, vaguely medical and foreign, rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t mean much of anything relating to the product. Or if anything at all.
 “What kind of car do I drive? Got me the new Chrysler Cipralex ’18. It’s a beauty.”
“What do I take? Ten milligrams of Qashqai every day. I’ll end the night with one shot of Integra and then off to bed.”
“The company gave me a brand new Zoloft Ranger to drive to work. Sure beats my 2006 Doxepin.
“I posted my Prozac trailer on Craigslist, it’s in perfect condition, and still haven’t heard back from anyone.”
“I used to take a heavy dose of Focus, but I felt too revved up, so I switched to Precis and I’m feeling a lot more even keel. Last month, someone thought it would be funny—probably Dan in sales—to spike my drink with Explorer at a party and I didn’t feel right for days. That X was freaking awful.”
“Yeah, I’m trying to wean off Sequoia but I keep getting these electrical jolts in the back of my brain.”

A lot of people have opinions on anti-depressants. All I will say at this point is that they help me not dwell in the dark recesses. I am free to roam in the semi-darkness. But I booze it up every evening to get my head back in the game. I don’t use alcohol so much to self-medicate—though that’s definitely a part—as to enhance life because I have a very difficult time enjoying things sober. It’s called anhedonia. It’s an inability to feel pleasure and I have a very difficult time enjoying anything while sober, or enjoying things if there won’t be the payoff of drinking booze in the near future. No single moment is unendurable, but whether it’s a BBQ at a friend’s place or staying in and watching TV, I use alcohol to help get me where I belong. Excuses, excuses. Perhaps. But that’s simply what addicts do; they lie and make excuses for their behaviour. They are duplicitous and shady. It’s in their nature—not in mine though. In mine it’s nowhere to be found. My nature is pure.
I’ve had a good life all things considered. My parents never even yelled at each other. Some passive aggressive comments at times, but that was it. There was plenty of food in the cupboards and I didn’t want for anything. The home was a solid, middle-class dwelling. We visited Disney World on multiple occasions when I was a child. The rides, the palm trees, the heat in the middle of January, it was like another world.
I was a Sega Genesis kid and all my friends had Super Nintendo, but that was about it.
I have overreacted to slights and have held grudges for far too long. But I haven’t been the victim of horrible traumas. I don’t drink to forget.
I listened to Jimi Hendrix and At The Drive-In mixtapes while driving Mom’s Oldsmobile around the neighbourhood. The reason for taking the car was always based on the flimsiest premise, delivering a CD or buying a pack of cigarettes. It doesn’t get any better than this! I thought, navigating the winding streets.
One time, I drunkenly stole the car in the middle of the night for no other purpose than to go for a joy ride. I was seventeen. I put the car in neutral and let it slide noiselessly down the sloped driveway. Once I was safely on even land, I turned the ignition.
After an hour of skirting around Toronto on the highways, I wanted to go home. I’ve always had a terrible sense of direction and throw some alcohol onto the fire, and I was hopelessly lost in the GTA highway system. I could have been in North York or Oakville. In a plight of desperation, I stopped at a Shell station and asked the guy behind the desk how to get back to Brampton. There was no one else in the store. The harsh lights shone down upon my weary eyes and the snacks. The guy claimed not to know how to get to Brampton but said I could buy a map, and pointed out the small cluster of Ontario maps near the counter. I left the store in a snit. And people think Canadians are all nice and polite! Ha!
I continued on, thinking that if I took enough turns, or went in the same direction for long enough, I’d eventually find my way home. It was at about 3 AM and the highway was deserted. I could see a cluster of cars and people milling about outside them. I couldn’t make out any specific shapes, just some people on each side of the highway and some parked cars. As my Mother’s white Oldsmobile approached it became clear that it was a checkpoint. It all computed as the car whooshed by the cops and I saw them scrambling in the rear-view mirror to get into their respective cars. “Oh, shit,” I muttered to myself. The lights started lighting up the night. My heart started thumping, at first I thought that they must be chasing someone else. Why me? I’m not doing anything wrong. I pulled over to the shoulder and the few cars behind me stopped as well. One officer emerged and I watched him become bigger and bigger in my side-view mirror. The gun. You can’t ignore the gun holstered on the cops’ hip. Sleek and lethal, it says, “I mean business.” My throat closed up and my heart started racing. I got a seatbelt ticket once when I was sixteen, but that was the only blemish on my young record. I had never been drunk, lost, with a semi-stolen car, plowing through a RIDE checkpoint before.
I didn’t even let the officer get the first word in. I switched into desperation mode. I was frantic, almost hysterical, telling the officer I’m so sorry, I’m lost and don’t know where I am. I didn’t see you guys back there. I mean, it was the shortest chase in Toronto Police history. As soon as the lights started flashing I was on the shoulder. I didn’t just knock over a bank or anything. I gave the cop some bull shit story about needing to get back to Brampton and to my eternal gratitude, he lapped it up and sent me on my way. Cocksucker didn’t tell me how to get back to Brampton, though!
I started the engine and began driving, acutely self-conscious of every move I made, the amount of pressure on the gas pedal, the constant eyeing of the speedometer. Just another guy driving down the highway I told myself, trying to keep it together. The booze was wearing off and I felt tired, barely able to keep the lids from snapping shut.
Then out of nowhere I saw a sign that said “HIGHWAY 410 BRAMPTON”. I couldn’t believe it. The night was almost gone, clouds like black inkblots against the dull blue of the early morning sky.

The thought of going out with friends, or playing guitar, or watching a movie, cooking dinner, doing regular life stuff while sober just doesn’t cut it for me. And lord knows I’ve tried.
I have the Gout real bad. I have been reduced to crawling across my room in screaming agony. So I’m trying to put down the bottle. In a way, the whole issue is absurd: a battle between alcohol and my feet.
A pill every day for the rest . . .
Rain or shine, summer or winter. There is no getting better or weaning off of the medication. It’s a terminal drug. Pill-popping my way to the promise land, baby.
As Tom Waits sang, the large print giveth and the small print taketh away. So it is with booze. When I signed the contract, I skipped the fine print, the part where it says Gout will torture you in the near future for the rest of your life.
Stick around in this world long enough, and life will punch you in the gut until all you can do is go down or cough up courage. I’m trying to muster up the courage to find meaning in sobriety; of being with my unaltered brain and being OK with life in all its messy glory.
Yet still, the barely perceptible hum of meh-amphetamine permeates my soul—Is that all there is? If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing, let’s break out the booze and have a ball. If that’s all there is. 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Trinidadian Babysitter

During the summers of 1991 through 1994, Marty Murray was my Trinidadian babysitter while school was out and my parents were at work.

He lived five houses down from us and my family had known his since the mid-80s when we moved into the neighbourhood. All the neighbourhood kids would play baseball on the street when the weather was nice. The street was a cul-de-sac, with my home forming the bulk of the it, sitting right at the base. The end of my driveway was home plate. We used a tennis ball and Marty Murray’s older brother, Michael Murray was usually the pitcher. He was the oldest kid on the block, about six or seven years older than most of us, who were not even teenagers yet.
To hit a homerun you had to land the ball on a houses roof. Now, because of the cul-de-sac shape of our street, there was already the basic formulation of a baseball diamond. Our street was shaped like a bulbous beaker. One of the houses in left field had a sloping roof and there was nothing better than watching the green tennis ball bounce off the roof and land on their yard. Centre field was problematic because the ball could simply roll all the way down the street, so those became ground rule doubles, unless of course, the centre-fielder made an error and the ball rolled by him, in which the play is still live and he has to run like hell to catch the rolling ball.
Cars were hit all the time, but they were part of the field and all the parents didn’t care. It was only a tennis ball, after all. What can a tennis ball do to a car?
I had so much fun in the summer. No school, my parents out of the house all day working, friends coming over to watch TV and have marble fights in the basement. Who would ever think that couch cushions could be the most entertaining, versatile invention ever? We could build forts with them to stop marble bombs and we could bash the shit out of each other with them, too. Couch cushions: both protectors and attackers. It was this old set of tan coloured couches with two distinct types of cushions. The smaller type was a simple rectangle, and the coveted one was an L-shape. The more scarce L-shaped cushion was substantially larger and the natural boomerang shape made for maximum torque. Take one of those to the dome and you’re going down.
Marty would come over at eight am as my Mom was leaving for work. Dad had to drive all the way downtown Toronto so he left shortly after six am. Marty would greet my Mom cordially. He was a very well adjusted, nice young man; all sixteen years of him. But I knew a darker side of him. He would engage in simple platitudes, but even my twelve year-old ears could see through the sham. He’s putting on this voice and talking so nice and respectful, but I knew that when my Mom left he’d call us ragamuffins and act totally different—beating up on us and talking about sex. Then he’d morph back into the respectful young man when Mom came home at five-twenty pm asking him how the day went, handing him a crisp twenty dollar bill.
The thing is, my friends and I loved the abuse! We’d be building complex forts out of cushions and blankets in the basement and then hide with the lights off. We’d then yell out something like, “Hey bumbaclat! Come and get it!” And then Marty would open the door to the basement and stand on the landing breathing intentionally loud. In the silent darkness, his footsteps down the stairs rang out like thunder as we tried to breathe as silently as possible. The basement was one large main room with two beams near the middle.
Two rooms down a short hallway were never entered. One was a spare room with nothing in it and the other my Dad’s office where he crunched numbers for Sears.
The large room was not a recognizable shape. It was shaped more like something a child would instinctively draw on an etch-o-gram; a rectangle at a Grateful Dead show. Perfect for hiding out and making complexly shaped forts.
There was Ryan hiding in one corner, the short, blonde-haired Irish kid who was way stronger for his size than you would imagine. And the two brothers from a few houses down, Jamie and Kyle, hiding somewhere else. Usually there was at least one other friend, either Waleed, the Palestinian guy from down the street, with four eligible sisters, or Hitesh from a few streets over (who for some reason we all called Chucky), or Johnny, the impossibly skinny Trinidadian kid from one street over. My house came to be a hub in the summer months.
You could hear Marty rummaging around the darkened room. We’d stuff a rectangular cushion into the single basement window to drown out any of the mid-day light that crept through. All of a sudden, there was a howl and you knew he found one of us and they were in for a hardcore tickling and beating appropriate by middle-class suburban Canadian standards. Marty held the unfortunate one down with his knees and gave him the business while the rest of us would wait for some brave soul to take an L-cushion and thwack Marty upside the head with it. There was hooting and hollering as time seemed to almost stop. There was no outside world, only this dark one of cushion forts, truth and consequences.
Even though Marty was technically my babysitter, he didn’t spare me from a brutal tickle-beating. On the contrary, he’d go harder on me just to show the other kids that there’s no nepotism in this underground kingdom.
On this particular day, Waleed was the courageous one who gave Marty a good L-shot to the head as Marty tickle-tortured Ryan, the poor runt of the litter. We were all easy targets for an average-sized sixteen year old, but Ryan was especially so. He was small, but he was the kind of kid you wanted beside you in battle. Maybe not the strongest, but he never gave up and took his beatings like a pro. Ryan laughed and squirmed like a maniac and then –kathumpf!—Marty ate the shot from Waleed and Marty left Ryan supine on the carpet to chase the shadowy attacker. A flurry of silhouettes flitted about the room as Waleed attempted to flee to the safety of the stairs with Marty in hot pursuit. Unfortunately, the hero was thwarted and taken down into a mound of blankets and cushions. His actions were all the more heroic because it was Ramadan and Waleed was on an empty stomach. The sacrifice bore fruit, though, because it allowed Kyle, the largest and slowest of our group, with that weird skin disease that turns it two different colours all over, to escape up the stairs out of the subterranean netherworld, into the light of day. Johnny also escaped and was pushing Kyle’s butt up the stairs so he went faster.
I, too, attempted to escape behind Johnny, but an arm grabbed my midsection and swung me around as I climbed the first step and my head narrowly missed one of the beams as I crashed into a lean-to of cushions and ate carpet. I wailed, “Ahh, haha, ahh!” as Marty laid a tickle-beating on me as the rest of my friends bolted up the stairs towards the light of freedom.


The pot was boiling on the stove and the box of KD was on the counter.
Game day.
It was Marty and my mostly white friends against the Brampton Indians (as they called themselves). The Indians were a group of East Indian immigrants of the same age as me. We all went to the same school and were mostly friends with each other. They all lived in the same neighbourhood and the baseball diamond at the school was equidistant between the two groups. A couple of times a week during the summer months we’d play ball against each other. No cellphones or text messages were necessary, or even invented, merely an agreement at the end of one game to meet again at high noon in a few days. No one wanted to miss it, anyways. It was battle time. Us vs. Them. What better things do twelve year old boys have to do when school’s out?
The memories of last year’s World Series was still fresh in our collective minds. It didn’t matter if you were from Calcutta or Kanata, if you lived in Brampton in 1993 you were a die-hard Blue Jays fan. I still remembered watching game six with friends and family the previous year.
The bottom of the 11th, 4-3 Blue Jays over the Braves. The tension was so thick you could barely watch the screen. Nixon bunted to try to score Smoltz from third base and tie the game. There were two outs and it struck me immediately as a dumb move. Why on Earth did he bunt! The fool! There are two outs! Nixon made contact, the shallow ball lolling in the direction of first base. The pitcher, Timlin, had little problem getting to the ball. It was a routine play but with the World Series in your glove and the braying crowd it was anything but. Time slowed down and it seemed that Timlin hesitated a millisecond throwing the ball to Joe Carter at first base; like the weight of history was impeding his movements. He got the ball to Carter just in the nick of time.
The spastic jumping of Carter, like he was being electrocuted is etched into my mind for forever. Surprisingly, he had no rhythm. On the contrary, he was a flailing mess; the most beautiful flailing mess in the world. His celebration will always remind me of pure, ecstatic joy, the kind that is so intensely frenetic your body is unable to contain it.

Marty dumped the yellow macaroni into the boiling water and gave it a stir. About ten minutes later he strained the pasta in a colander, then put in a clump of butter and some milk and that bright orange magic cheese powder. That processed cheese powder was my homerun fuel.
We sat down in front of the TV in the living room and Marty flipped channels.
11:28 am.
We had to be at the ball park in forty-two minutes. It was a twenty minute walk. “Hurry up, boy,” Marty said, upon seeing my half-eaten bowl. “Shut up. I’m not that hungry. Let’s go,” I replied.
          “Put the bowl in the fridge, I don’t want bugs eating it.”
          I plopped the half-eaten bowl between the relish and the milk and rounded up the gear. All the balls, bases, bats, extra gloves. That was part of the deal with the Brampton Indians: Hey, if you’re going to field this sixteen year-old you have to bring most of the stuff. Not to say they didn’t bring plenty of their own bats, gloves, etc., but in the off chance one of their regular guys couldn’t make it and they had some new guy who had no glove, it’s good to have some back up gear. Most of these kids’ parents were very culturally Indian and so some of them only recently acquired an appreciation for baseball, whereas most our team had been playing baseball for years already, all the way back to tee-ball. They had some good players, but not enough. There was always some ragtag guy out in right field who could barely catch and throw, to the benefit of the left-handed hitters like myself.
          Just about noon most of us were at the diamond, with a few stragglers milling in out of the suburban distance. Our team always took the dugout on the right side because of the direction our guys were coming from was closer and the same could be said of the Indians. The dugouts were caged in benches to protect from rogue line drives and foul balls. There were no formal greetings. Not out of any hatred, but rather because we were boys who only wanted to get on with the game. Subtle social interactions fraught with implication were still some years away. Any pomp and circumstance that impeded the beginning of the game was superfluous. No anthems, no tributes, no moments of silence. Shut up and play ball.
          The first thing Marty did was walk the infield, counting his measured steps and placing some ragged old square cushions down as bases. To keep them in place he drove a railroad spike through a hole in the middle of the cushion with a bat.
With the small end of the bat he marked a small ‘X’ in the gravel right above the base, and would periodically check the bases to make sure they weren’t being moved in any helpful direction.
Marty was the communal pitcher. He tossed the baseball at a batting practice speed. He wanted you to make contact. No curveballs, change-ups, or any of that crap; just straight and true. It was a testament to Marty’s prowess on the mound that there were never accusations about favouritism from the Indians. There were the usual scuffles and arguments about a base runner being safe or out, especially because we had to umpire ourselves. Yet things for the most part moved along smoothly and this day was no different. We clobbered the Indians 10-2. In one inning, their third-basemen, Jindy, short for Harjinder, almost took a line drive from Marty’s bat right on the bubble of his turban. “Lorda Mercy!” he cried as his portly frame got up off the gravel, hand on turban to make sure it was still there. Jindy ducked just in the nick of time, and Marty strolled to second with a leisurely double.
Losing spectacularly over and over is not easy for anyone, let alone adolescent boys.
          “Let’s play Cricket if you guys think you’re Alomar,” Dhillon said from first base, cocking his head to get his whispy bangs out of his eyes.  
          “Cricket?” Kyle piped in from the dugout, “This isn’t India, dude.”
          “It’s only like the second most popular sport in the world next to Soccer, dude,” Dhillon replied.
          “Yeah but not here, dummy, and here is what matters,” Kyle shot back.

Our team spent quite a bit of time in the dugout because we were usually putting players on base and banging in runs.
Marty was on the mound the whole game (except when he batted, when one of their guys would pitch), so Ryan spoke freely of his freshly hatched plan to give Marty a good tickle beating. He wanted us to simultaneously—on some kind of agreed upon signal—all attack Marty in the basement and hold him down. “Tay, you take his left arm; Jamie, take his left leg; Waleed take his right leg; and Kyle, you’re the strongest, you take his right arm.” It was the old switcheroo. The hunted were to be the hunters. “Then we all give it to the rasclat until he can’t take it anymore.”
          “Fucking right.”
          “Sounds like a plan.”
          “We’ll have to do it at the end of the summer,” Ryan went on, “so we don’t have to deal with it, afterwards.”
          “There’s always next summer,” I said.
          “Ahh, don’t be a suck about it. Everyone agrees, right?”
          “Sounds like a plan to me.”
          “Hey, I’m going along with it. I’m just saying . . .”
          And all of a sudden Marty hit the ball so hard, we all just stood up to see how far it would go. Even the left-fielder, Preet, stood casually and craned his neck to watch as the ball sailed over his head and rolled towards the pre-school playground. It kept on rolling and rolling, eventually going out of sight and settling amongst a set of play-school swings.
          Everyone packed up their stuff and headed off in the direction of home. It was another endless summer day girded by a carefree walk home under the mantle of victory. If only the feeling could last forever.  


I was out in the backyard throwing a baseball up into the air as high as I could while Marty was futzing around with the stereo system. He had our kitchen windows opened as wide as they would go and a wood-panelled speaker placed by each one.
          We started tossing the ball back and forth, moving farther apart with each throw. A voice echoed across the backyard, while Marty mouthed the words: “Six million ways to die . . . choose one.” At first, it was a simple baseline. Like the riff on “Satisfaction” with a Jamaican flavour. Then Cutty Ranks started rapping with dancehall swagger. Marty’s family and mine had lived on the same street for about seven years and were on friendly terms right from the start. I’d known Marty since I was six years old, but this was my first exposure to old school reggae and dancehall. My virgin ears registered it as Trinidadian Voodoo rap. I didn’t like it or hate it too much. It was so laughably alien to me, the music and rhythms were beyond mere liking or hating, a two star or a four star review. I couldn’t imagine how or why you would want to sing like that, but it was intriguing. I heard “A Who Seh Me Dun (Wake De Man)” a hundred times during the summer and the singing remained almost entirely gibberish and bafflegab. Nice groove, though. It sounded so cool. It was fun to play catch to. There was Chinese Laundry and Shabba Ranks, too. The speakers vibrated with the bass to the point that the bass was fuzzy. The couple times I was in a car with Marty, the bass shook the rear-view mirror like a T-rex was approaching. He got into dancehall through his older brother, of course. Michael was the progenitor of our cul-de-sac. Not only was he like six feet tall, not only did he pitch street games and smoke tennis-ball homers by the bucketful, but he actually did stuff with girls. White girls. He liked white girls and they liked him. I saw them surreptitiously around the street and they were all drawn to him like a magnet. Sometimes one would watch us play ball in the street and I would swung the bat extra hard. I don’t know why; she was like sixteen and I had nothing really to say to her, but we never had an audience except for the odd adult stepping out of their house to their car, so if you wanted to watch Michael try to strike me out I was sure as hell going to try a little harder to smash a homerun.
          “A Who Seh Me Dun (Wake De Man)” pierced the thick, suburban summer void. You could practically feel the wrinkled noses of some of the neighbours, as if they came across a dumpster fire.
Marty threw some high banana balls and timed it so the ball would barely go over the backyard fence so I could leap and lean my glove over the borderline and crash into the fence. Sometimes he over cooked it and I had to jump the wooden fence into the neighbour’s yard.
“Oh man, wait until you get into girls,” Marty began after a few minutes of blissful ball-tossing silence. “It’ll change your life, my man. When it happens you won’t be able to control your hips—they just go back and forth uncontrollably.”
He tossed the ball to me and humped the air in time with the reggae. I thought, Huh, that’s odd. It’s pretty easy to control my hips and I can’t imagine not being able to stop them from going back and forth. “Eh, you’re just some island animal,” I said, and threw the ball back with a good amount of speed. 
“You’ll see soon enough, don’t you worry white boi.”
Just then, Jamie came into the backyard and Marty gingerly lobbed the ball to him because he had no glove; while the ball was in motion he ran up to Jamie and started humping him from behind. “It’ll be like this Taylor! But with a girl!”
I started laughing.
“Get off me you fucking ragamuffin!” Jamie howled, crumpling into a shell. Marty eventually let him go. The three of us slid off our shoes and entered the kitchen through the sliding glass door. Marty started to prepare hot dogs and KD, so Jamie and me went into the TV room. We had to turn the volume up on the TV because Marty reversed all the speakers and now Cutty Ranks and Beenie Man bellowed throughout the house. That simple, driving bass line over and over again: Do-do, dah-do-dah-do. Do-do, dah-do-dah-do . . .
          I absent-mindedly flipped through some channels—MuchMusic, TSN, whatever, until Marty called out that lunch was ready. He turned the music low and the three of us sat at the kitchen table. It’s tough to beat KD and hot dogs when you’re twelve years old. Three plates laid out with three forks and a bottle of ketchup in the middle. Marty had two hot dogs and Jamie and myself had one. All three of us had a large dollop of KD.
Jamie said to no one in particular, “I wonder what it tastes like if you put some noodles onto the hot dog.”
          “Well, go for it, big man,” Marty said, barely interested in our senseless, childish mash-ups.
          “I guess, I don’t know . . . I guess it just tastes like a pasta-dog,” Jamie concluded after a bite.
          “Or maybe like a K-Dog?” I offered.
          I grabbed the ketchup and squirted some onto my dwindling mound of pasta, then mixed it all together—the orange and red bleeding together into a brownish goop.
          Halfway through lunch there is a forceful knock at the door, followed by two door-bell rings. There was a sense of urgency or at least impatience on the other side of the door. Marty kissed his teeth and got up from the kitchen and went through the hallway towards the front door. Jamie and myself stopped eating and were watching to see who it would be. I wasn’t expecting any other friends today, and most of the time they’d just walk right in anyways as they hit the doorbell. But who knocks that hard and double taps the door-bell?
          Marty cracked the door open just wide enough to poke his head out. We didn’t have a peephole. A lot of doors in the suburbs didn’t have peepholes, at least not in 1993. There were some hushed whispers exchanged. Jamie and I exchanged puzzled looks, Like what the hell is going on? Then it appeared as if Marty was actually pushing against the door, trying to close it while some opposing force was trying to pry it open. Slowly but surely, Marty’s force was not equal to the outside one, and the door finally swung open. Michael stepped into the foyer like a looming tower and slapped Marty upside his head. There was another person, too, standing timidly behind Michael; it was a girl, wearing tight jean shorts and a white tank-top.
          “Yo! Taylor, bumbaclat, what’s up with you?” Michael yelled out to me.
          “Hey,” I said back.
          This cute white girl with shining auburn hair and red lipstick just stood there with her hands on her hips, while Michael and Marty were having a quiet, yet heated conversation. I could only make out, “. . . no, you’re not allowed,” and “. . . they won’t find out, shut up.”
          Eventually Marty must have relented for Michael and his friend walked towards the basement stairs and disappeared into the darkness.
          “Just ignore them,” Marty said when he came back into the kitchen, “They’ll be gone soon.”
“We’re gonna go watch TV,” I said quickly, and we headed back to the TV room.
“Yeak, OK . . . stay upstairs, though,” he said, preparing to wash the dirty dishes luxuriating in the sink’s soapy bubbles.
I turned the TV on perfunctorily, and for once I didn’t give a flying karate kick what was on.
“Whadya think they’re doing down there?” Jamie asked.
“I don’t know, but we’re gonna find out.”
The front door opened again after a quick double tap. “Yo! It’s just me,” Chucky’s voice said. He slipped off his shoes.
“In here,” I yelled out.
“Marty’s reading some kind of textbook, or something,” Chucky said, entering the TV room.
“Good,” I replied. “He’ll be studying Chemistry stuff for the next while. Now’s the time.”
“What the hell’s going on?” Chucky asked.
“We got company in the basement,” Jamie explained. “Michael Murray is down there with a girl.”
“Man, your parents let him do that?”
“Do what?” I asked.
“My parents would beat the crap out of me . . . let alone him.”
“Are my parents here? Did they approve of this, you bumbaclat? Just shut-up. Don’t you want to see what they’re doing? We got like half an hour left before Marty will be done studying, so let’s go.”
The plan was to stay close against the wall and crab walk towards the basement door as silently as possible. I turned the TV off, and the house reverberated with thumping dancehall.
          Perfect cover.
          I led the way, Jamie behind me, and Chucky in the rear. We slithered along the hallway wall to the stairs that led to the basement. It was bevelled and we moved seamlessly along its contours. I turned around to my accomplices and made the shhh sign with my index finger to my mouth. I knew best that the handle could squeak like fingers on a chalkboard if you didn’t open it right. I gripped the knob and turned it just so, not too fast and not too slow; a pristine whoosh of silence followed. No lights were on, but the basement was flooded with a deep blue. The summer sun was bright enough that the one small window in the main room illuminated the shapes of the couches and the beams.
In a single file, our trio descended the first set of steps to the landing. For guidance, Jamie’s hand was on my back, Chucky’s hand on Jamie’s. I thought I could make out some vaguely human shapes squirming around like tentacles. I couldn’t quite tell if what my eyes were seeing was real, or what was my imagination attempting to connect the dots in darkness.
We were exposed, so I stopped and reversed up the landing, our unit moving instinctively backwards in tandem. “I can’t really see anything, it’s too dark,” I whispered over my shoulder.
There was a row of three round light-switch knobs by Chucky’s head. “Chucky, hit the first dimmer beside you, and barely turn it,” I instructed.
He pushed the tan, plastic circle until there was a small click. A few bulbs downstairs were now live. Chucky twisted the knob ever so slightly until a faint orangey glow grew out of the depths of the bluish dark. “A little more,” I said, taking a peek. “OK, good.”
This prepubescent human centipede again went down the small set of stairs to the landing. With our newfound light, I could see Michael lying on top of the girl, his right foot planted on the carpet. He was grabbing her breasts and making out with her; then he grabbed the meaty part of her thigh.
“Whoa,” I said aloud, some residual KD cheese still stuck to the corners of my mouth.
“What is it?” Jamie whispered.
“I think they’re about to do it, or something,” I whispered back.
“No way. Lemme see,” Chucky said, barely keeping his voice down.
The mix of lights and voices didn’t seem to impact Michael, but the girl, lying on her back, locked eyes with me. She broke off the face-sucking and giggled. “Come on, Mikey, look, he’s watching us.”
Jamie and Chucky were now leaning so hard to get a peak, our heads were stacked on top of one another—like an ice-cream cone with two scoops of vanilla and one chocolate scoop on top. Michael sat up and there was a noticeable tent in his shorts. He sucked his teeth, “Hey, get the fuck out of here, you rasclats.”
The pressure on our pyramid mounted and we toppled over onto the landing, laughing hysterically. Michael got up and made as if to chase us, and that was enough to make us scatter out of the basement, to the safety of ground level.
We spent a few minutes milling about, watching Marty highlight sentences in his textbook. He also had a big chart with a whole bunch of upper and lower case letters together. It didn’t interest us in the least. Within a few minutes were bored again. Sometimes, there are those days in the middle of summer where there’s just nothing to do and you have to use your imagination and make something up.
Chucky said, “I’m going to go blast all the lights.”
“Oh my God, do it,” Jamie said.
“Yup,” I said, knowing it was the single most perfect thing to do in this scenario, and thus required no more elocution on my part.
Marty smiled wryly. Do what you gotta do.
Chucky cautiously opened the door and gave us a final look before he disappeared.
A faint glint of light broke through the space at the bottom of the door, and then there was a scream followed by frantic footfalls thundering up the stairs. Marty capped his yellow highlighter just in time to see the basement door fly open; Chucky flew out of the opening, the door hitting the hinges and swinging back until Michael held out a forearm to block it, in hot pursuit of Chucky.
          Chucky ran down the hallway, heading for the front door. There was no time to grab his shoes. He swung the heavy brown front door open and flew out of sight. Michael ran up to the front door and stopped. “I’ll get ya, Paki-boi!”
          Before he slammed the door shut, we could hear Chucky laughing in the distance.
          The girl had emerged from the basement and was standing there sheepishly. Michael took her arm and they left without a word, only Michael’s extra loud teeth-kiss echoing in the hallway to tell us all we needed to know about the current state of things.


The lights are off and the pillow is stuffed into the window. The series of forts that were built earlier in the afternoon were still intact. Almost all of us were there, sitting in a circle inside one of the larger forts. It was almost pitch black except for the flashlight Marty held to his face. It gave his face an eerie glow. Waleed’s stomach growled and Marty shone the light right into his eyes. “Shut that belly up, boi!”
          Marty whirled the flashlight all over like it was a disco. “Listen to da mahn. Here me now!” he proclaimed. With a flourish he abruptly stopped and brought the flashlight back under his chin. He licked his lips, going all the way around twice.
          “Everyone here remembers Mr. Harlow, right? He was always messing around in his driveway, working on cars, lawn mowers, stuff like that? Ever wonder how you don’t see him anymore?”
          Perhaps some of us gave a passing thought to Mr. Harlow’s recent absence, but he lived down near the end of the street and, to be honest, young boys kind of live in their own world, anyways. Now that Marty was forcing us to think about it, I recalled that I hadn’t seen him once this summer.
“Well, his brain literally melted one day—just like that,” Marty snapped his fingers and I flinched. “Ha ha, you pussy,” Ryan said.
“Shut up, loser,” I said back.
“No one knows exactly what happened. The hospital said it was the only case they’ve ever seen of a person’s brain melting like candle wax. They wouldn’t even let his family bury the body because it was too important for science. The government even paid for the funeral. Some people think it was spontaneous human combustion, where for no reason, a part of your body just explodes, but that’s usually one of your arms—” Marty squeezed Chucky’s forearm, “or one of your legs—” then he squeezed one of Kyle’s huge legs in a pincer grip, just above the knee.
“Ow!” Kyle cried.
“But this was different,” Marty continued, switching hands with the flashlight.
“Mr. Harlow’s brain just melted and he died almost right away.” He kissed his teeth. “Nothing anybody could do about it. Mrs. Harlow found him lying there in the garage and immediately called the police. No one really knows what happened to his body. There was no body to bury. Some people think the government got its hands on it and is doing special testing. But I heard from the old Iraqi guy who lives right before the wasteland, he says Mr. Harlow was contacted by aliens and his mind just couldn’t handle it.”
“Yeah, maybe he got anally probed,” Jamie said, and everyone giggled. My favourite show on TV was “The X-Files”. There was a period of months where the show had come close to overtaking my life; it bled into my everyday existence. I longed to be Mulder when I grew up. That one day I would tell the Prime Minister that Sir, we need to halt all flights from Pearson Airport immediately! There’re aliens in the skies!
I wanted to believe so hard.
But I couldn’t fool myself—the only smoking man was my Dad after he got home from work. And my Mom was no Scully. She sat in the living room watching TV, sheathed in a bathrobe, smoking DuMaurier 100’s—“bitch sticks” as we called them. Our cat, Ruffy, a tabby with black and white splotching, like a dairy cow, was always licking her toes. Ruffy was an ice queen. She looked down upon everyone who wasn’t part of our immediate family. The way she licked my Mother’s toes was done in the most regal feline fashion, as if she was licking Jesus’s wounds after he fell from the cross.
 “Wait until you hear the rest, youngblood.” Marty said, calm and collected.
By this time I was positively freaking out. I knew where Marty was going with this story; I put the pieces together in my head. Judging by the circle’s reaction so far, I don’t think anyone else knew, or they would have piped up and said something.
Only I knew.
          I was sure of it.
          Marty continued: “Here’s the thing, though. Take a look at Taylor’s face. He’s the only one who gets it. Marty flashed the light on my chest area to illuminate my face without blinding me. I couldn’t really see anyone else’s expression but I felt their eyes on me. He brought the flashlight back under his chin. “You’re sitting on the work of a dead man. He’s in the sockets, he’s in the carpet, he’s in the walls, he’s in the pillars, he’s in the light, he’s in the dark. Mr. Harlow is everywhere in this basement. He did all the work down here!” Marty shouted. “All of it!”
          We had all heard odd creaks and noises in the basement, most of it the product of our overactive imaginations. We joked about there being ghosts in the basement while simultaneously being scared that there were ghosts in the basement. And this freaked us all out.
          “Taylor’s parents contracted Mr. Harlow to do the basement earlier this year. The project took one month, and then one month after he finished the project his brain melted. I’ve heard him walking around down here.” He slowly panned the flashlight across our silent faces. “Haven’t you?”
There were a couple gulps; inchoate Adam’s apples like small triangles, barely poking through our necks.
Ryan tried to get everyone’s attention with his eyes, but the flashlight kept whirring around the fort and no one noticed. Everyone was caught thinking about Mr. Harlow, so he just yelled out, “Now!” and at first we sat there in stunned silence, unable to move.
          “Now wha—” Marty got out before Kyle lunged for his right arm and the flashlight fell with a thud onto the grey carpet and went out.
Waleed yelled out, “I got his left leg!—”
“—You guys are fucking dead, oh my god, you’re so fucking dead,” Marty said, semi-pinned down and thrashing wildly in the darkness. I grabbed hold of his flailing left arm and Chucky clung to his right leg. There was nothing he could do, nowhere he could go.
All of us began violently tickling him.
          And from his subterranean blanket prison, Marty screamed and screamed.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Why Bob Dylan Cracks Me Up

The current political climate in America is odd to say the least, and thankfully a lot of celebrities are seizing any and all opportunities to proclaim their righteousness to the masses, just in case we forgot. But there’s one “voice of a generation” who has been suspiciously silent: Bob Dylan. One of life’s little pleasures is laughter, and what currently makes me chuckle as I stand in line at the grocery store is Bob Dylan. It’s not something he said, or one of his lyrics, though. Quite the opposite, it’s what he hasn’t said that cracks me up.
What does Dylan have to say about Trump? Nothing! The guy is a cantankerous, septuagenarian troubadour who tours endlessly year after year. Bob would rather play to 5,000 fans in Dubuque and mumble his way through a barely recognizable version of ‘Shelter from the Storm’ than go to Switzerland and accept a Nobel Peace Prize. Come on, that’s funny. Imagine Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young in the same position. To be fair, he did write a gracious, poignant speech read by Patty Smith. But the road was calling and there were shows to be played. Next time a celebrity is ranting on stage at an awards ceremony or a rally, I’m going to think about Bob, with a cranky face, looking silently out the window as the world rolls by.
I know Bob Dylan pisses off a lot of people, whether it’s his voice or his anti-social behaviour, and it’s certainly understandable. For example, the guy played “Oldchella” earlier this year in the California desert. Tickets were in the thousands. The Stones and Neil Young and Roger Waters also played. The event was geared towards exploiting the nostalgia of wealthy boomers. I don’t really mean that in a bad way, either—if the demand is there than mine away. So Dylan gets out there and is mad that there was a big screen shot of him so the people farther away from the stage didn’t have to look at an ant-person. He had it turned off. Dylan probably isn’t a fun guy to hang with casually; he’s almost certainly difficult. But fuck it all to hell, the guy is a real character. A true American vagabond. As I sit here typing this, the guy is most likely in a hotel in Stockholm getting ready for his European tour. The man is 75 years old and look at his schedule. He globetrots like Skrillex.
You heard it here first: Bob Dylan is going to die on the road, most likely in a hotel room; or maybe a bus. Heart attack on a bus, a highway outside Pensacola. That’s my guess.