7:21 am. Right on time. As she always was. Heather Jones walked down the sidewalk holding her books in her arms, her strawberry reddish hair swinging from one shoulder to the other, her freckled-tan skin glowing in the morning sun. Gilbert stepped back from his bedroom window, and watched furtively as she crossed Maple Avenue, hopped the curb, and continued down the opposite side of the street. God, she was pretty, Gilbert thought. The prettiest senior at Hanbrook High School. Everyone thought so. She approached the front of his house, her long strides quickly taking her passed the stone walkway, then she disappeared behind the neatly-trimmed wall of eye-high bushes that surrounded the property. He craned his neck to catch one last glimpse of her before she took a left on Stanfield Road and continued on towards the high school. And that was it. As it was yesterday. And the day before that. And nearly every day of the past year. So he moved to his closet, pulled on a pair of underwear, a pair of jeans and concert T-shirt, then, eventually made his way to the kitchen for breakfast. Maybe later he'd see Heather in school. Pass by her in the hallway. Watch her from across the auditorium, or as she went into a classroom. Or maybe he wouldn't. But at least he saw her this morning.
I didn't take a shower this morning.
I know, what an odd way to open up a ten-minute writing session. But it's more than just the idea that I'm feeling a little sticky at the moment. And a little itchy. Which, when you think about it, is really a first world problem. I doubt I smell. But then again, as they say, if you do smell you're usually the last person to know. But I'm going to assume that with the, literally, tens of thousands of showers I've taken over the course of my lifetime that my body is so used to be clean all the time that even when I decide not to take a shower for one morning it can magically reset to a previously-showered state.
The reason, however, that I bring this up at all is not to give you great insight into my hygenic habits, but to note the (very) mild thrill that I get out of not showering is that it's one of the few times when I, as an adult, get to do something out-of-the-ordinary. I've been conditioned--again, a first world problem--to get up every day, pee in a clean bathroom all my own, brush my teeth with some space-age toothpaste, and take a shower in water that is always hot--or mildly warm, as I like it. Then I get dressed, choosing from a variety of clothes, that are also very clean and drive to work in a car that, while not extravagent, is serviceable, perhaps to some, even enviable.
Life is mundane, structured, and risk-less. Not always. Just 99.9% of the time. So my big escape from the chains of modernity in 2019 America is to forgo a shower for one morning and pretend to live like my Stone Age ancestors.
Of course, maybe I am a little ripe right now.
I could use a little Irish Spring.
He noticed her. How could he not? Her wispy blonde hair blew off and around her shoulders in the light breeze that brushed along the busy inlet in the warm afternoon. The golden sparkle of the blue-green water matched the sun's glint off of her hair. She was tan, but not obsessively so, and the way she held the mug in two hands as if she were sitting outside an Aspen coffee shop in November, instead of early May in Sounders Beach, was so damn cute. He couldn't keep his eyes off her. As much as he tried to concentrate on anything else--the menu, the adorable little girl at the table next to him waving her hands at a butterfly, a motor boat idling nearby--he kept glancing back at the woman. Then away. Then back at her, once again.
Christ, what's the matter with you? he thought. She's going to think you're some kind of stalker, just another wannabe monied guy in town to scam chicks out of their alimony, and their panties. But that wasn't it for him. He saw something in her face. Something the wire-rimmed Janis Joplin sunglasses couldn't hide. A pain. She had been there. The kind of place where adults find themselves, even when they've tried a lifetime to avoid. That cavernous pit of hurt that takes what seems like forever to climb out of after someone you've given every bit of your heart and soul and body and mind and breath to has tossed it away so haphazardly and callously that you question every relationship, no matter how shallow or deep, brief or long-running, transient or significant, for the rest of your life.
Hey, Old Man, I've become you. I stand before you, and above you, looking down at the man who used to feed me, cleanse me, coddle me. And when I grew a little older, protect me, teach me, discipline me. And when I thought I had come into my own, guide me, support me, vaildate me. And when I thought I was a man myself, spar with me, clash with me, then, eventually, push me away. And when I was, in fact, a man, watch me from afar.
But that is the past. Now I am here to watch over you. Up close. Grasp your once-muscular arm, press my hand against your pale, sunken cheeks, hold your shoulder tight when your body spasms. All the while, fearing and despising the passing time. It will soon take you. And someday it will take me. And I am humbled and angered and bewildered that there's nothing I can do to slow down that time. For you. Or me. And I wonder, and worry, about who will stand before, and above, me when the time comes for me to lay down under the relentless crush of age and time. Who will I stare up at? Who will I take comfort in seeing, glimpsing that fading familiar face before time stands still? In that one final moment. When I am gone.
It ate at him, clawed at him, took a piece of him forever. A loss. A simple loss. To an opponent. An opponent who he disliked with all of his being, so much so that thinking about him made him nearly wretch. He couldn't possibly count all the hours that disappeared into the ether of time running the match through his mind. His head pounded. Sweat glazed his skin. His heart thumped, and his guts revolted. Like the character Alex in A Clockwork Orange who, sitting in the chair of torture, has his eyes pried open to watch unpleasant films over and over. And every single time the moments of the match flashed in his brain he begged that time clock could reverse and he would be able to fix a move here, change a sudden strategy there, balance what was unbalanced, speed up a shot that was a half-second too slow. But time does not reverse, and his loss could not be turned into a victory. So it continued. Playing its disgusting, unacceptable conclusion every time. Six minutes. With him losing. His opponent's hand raised. And walking off the mat a loser. Through the stark illumination of the ceiling lamp, skulking into the pitch darkness of the gymnasium and fading away.
She moved, not just with grace, but with a sense of purpose. That she knew exactly who she was and that every step, every gesture, every expression indicated precisely her intention. Even if it was, perhaps, for a bit of deception. Which was okay, because she undoubtedly meant that, as well.
She was a manipulator, a trickster (in the most envious way), the type of woman who had you moving one way, when you meant to move the opposite; and think one way, when you really meant another. And she often left you with your chest tight, anxious and thrilled and fearful that you shuffled your feet to the end of a giant tree branch that was no longer so thick and sturdy, and in the back of your mind (or, really, the front) you wonder, not if, but when a gust of wind would blow you off-balance and bring the whole damn thing to the ground.
But that's what you signed up for when she asked you, out of the blue, at a crowded street fair, "Have you seen Jesus in the sun?" and you looked at her quizzically, yet your brain scrambled ferverishly for an answer that would be brilliant, or sardonic, or clever, or in any way be equal to whatever she was testing you for, so that she would not think you were a blithering idiot and move on to some other damn lucky guy at the next table of tchotckes, and you'd spend the rest of your days thinking of what might have been had you come up with the right answer at that fleeting moment.
But you did. And, apparently, it was just right enough.
The crimson-flooded plains shown dull and thick under the steel grey sky. On the horizon, a black checkered mass serpentined slowly, but menacingly, through the valleys, and when we listened closely we could hear the enemy's war cries piercing the beckoning winds.
We stood shoulder-to-shoulder, breathing in the tangy stink of iron that hung over the landscape, shields of manhood bouying us in the face of our inevitable fate. And, as the enemy marched ever closer, we could feel vibrations, like earth tremors, tingle up our feet and legs. I took in a deep breath, but my lungs were scarred with fiery smoke and clenched with disease of unknown origin. I shouted at the Lord, but the sound came out choked, and sputtered in coughs.
Starved reeds were flattened from violence and streaked in mud-red, and in places blood made its way like a villaneous river slicing through the battlefield. Bodies were strewn about randomly, sometimes piled haphazardly, often filleted in ragged parts.
I sat at the small round table for two, vaguely looking over the dinner menu, as a Saturday night crooner was trying way too hard, her voice straining awkwardly with a song that I neither recognized, nor cared to hear.
No, I take that back. She was eager. And as professional as could be expected. She wore the part--a silver-sequined skin-tight dress that glinted in the street lamps that lighted the sidewalk--and sang the part, I suppose. But I would've preferred to listen to some oh-woe-is-me wispy pixie draped in a black silk shawl billowing in the breeze meandering off the park across the street, soft-talking her latest attempt at an I'm-a-downtrodden-screwed-over-oppressed-womyn-and-I-hate-men anthem.
Yeah, I was in that kind of mood.
Not sure why. A lot was going on around me, though it wasn't a particularly noisy evening. Nor did it have any kind of 'edge' to it. Just another summer Saturday night at Hamilton Park. Cars passed. Neighborhood residents walked by. A few streets away, a motorcycle engine reved. I watched tennis players getting in a few late night sets just as the day's humidity lifted for the evening.
And I just wanted a plate of pasta.
I hadn't been hungry even a half-hour ago, but now I had a feeling that if I didn't eat something soon I'd be regreting it around the time Saturday Night Live went on. Then I'd undoubtedly half-fulfill that hunger with Haagen-Daz ice cream, or a bagel and cream cheese. So I ordered a plate of Rigatoni Bolognese. I'd get the pasta I wanted and a little taste of meat, which I also desired.
My waiter proved to be quite unenthusiastic. It wasn't an issue since I'd only ordered a Corona and Diet Coke, and the aforementioned rigatoni. But I wondered why he seemed so apathetic. Sure it was a Saturday night, and few people want to work then--except for, of course, restaurant and bar staffers, I'd imagine. It could've been a Monday night, which would be less busy for him, but bring in less compensation. It's either-or.
That wasn't particularly relevatory, since most decisions are either-or. Or both, if you're really fortunate. None of all this took away from the fact that I was enjoying the convenience of sitting at a neighborhood restaurant, among people but happily alone, drinking my favorite beer and favorite soda. Even the singing had grown better than tolerable. In fact, I rather enjoyed the crooner's rendition of "Killing Me Softy With His Song."
"Strumming my pain with his fingers..." What a brilliant way to start a song.
The rest of the lyrics lingered in my mind as I watched, at the table next to mine, an absolutely adorable baby girl trying her best to sing a few bars of "Itsy Bitsy Spider." That, and the rigatoni, made the evening feel complete.
You can't ask for too much more, I suppose.
#HamiltonPark #JerseyCity #alfredcmartino
When my pen stopped scribbling what was pure brilliance (wink, wink) onto the pages of my writing journal, I noticed a Rolling Stones' song playing from the bar's music speakers. At least, I think it was. It wasn't one I recognized, but the vocals sounded like a young Mick Jagger. Back when his voice was velvety smooth, singing the blues.
My waitress had a nose ring and I couldn't help but look at it -- not stare, mind you, but just gaze at it wondering why she'd choose an accessory that took away from what was a rather pleasant face, framed by a generous amount of curling brown hair (she vaguely minded me of Monica Lewinsky) -- while I ordered a cheeseburger ("No redness in the middle, please."), topped with grilled onions, and lettuce and tomato on the side.
She stared me straight in the eyes, as waitresses are wont to do, and said, cheerfully, "I'll get that for you," as waitresses are wont to do, then left me to consider whether the hint of a wink and subtlest of smile she offered after she took a few steps towards the kitchen then looked over her shoulder at me, was an invitation to consider something more from her, or had it already triggered a subconscious (and, now, conscious) decision on my part to bump her tip up from my standard twenty percent.
Unexpectedly, when my order arrived, I found it entirely wrong. Definitely a bit of redness in the center of my burger. Certainly no grilled onions. Not a leaf of lettuce or slice of tomato on the side -- or anywhere else near my plate, for that matter. The mistakes could have, of course, been made by the kitchen. I'd hoped it wasn't my Monica who erred. Unless, of course, it was because that last look over her shoulders towards me left her so flummoxed that I should be thankful she brought a cheeseburger of any kind.
But I didn't bother to point out that my 'order placed' and my 'order received' were quite different. After all, the music was interesting and the burger did taste good. Most importantly, my Monica -- and the waitress who took over her shift, and who could've passed for Michelle Phillips from the early days of The Mamas & the Papas -- let me be, alone at a table in the corner of the bar, to contemplate more pressing concerns.
And maybe that's why I kept any complaints to myself. Because I really didn't have more pressing concerns at that moment.
And that was a good thing.
I wrote the following on Sunday, March 13, 1994. I kind of like it:
"In the darkened silence, I am reminded of human obscurity. There are those people, of which I am one, that live with a restless animal spirit within their body trying desperately to break out for success and freedom and fame. Yet, at the same time, the means for escape does not exist, or, perhaps, it is unavailable. Nevertheless, the spirit scratches and claws, at times energizing me to reach, with the last of my breath, for celebrity, though often draining me of confidence and desire, leaving me huddled within myself in my own darkness."
Alfred C. Martino
Updates from everyday life as seen by me