At Home Depot, I usually blend in. Why is everyone staring at me?

Now that I’m disabled, I think back often to the kinds of jobs I used to have. Not working makes you appreciate when you were of some use … to someone, somehow.  At least worthwhile enough to collect a paycheck.

If that sounds morose, it is. Sorry.

For some people, when they are working, there’s a palpable allure to the government dole. The fantasy floats in your brain somewhere between fear of losing your job and calculating out-of-pocket expenses in your health insurance plan. Collecting a check for, basically, being sick seems like a good idea.

S’not.

In a very short time, you can start feeling pretty much useless.

Of course, I have some healthy distractions: moving with my wife through her travel nursing jobs, visiting our grown kids, doing my best to help get us different places to live and arranging moves — while still messing around with words as a would-be writer. All can reinvigorate to a degree.

Yet, I actually found myself fantasizing the other day about when I did construction work. Could have had something to do with the constant buzz of saws and nailguns outside our apartment in Denver. The complex has been building a new pool and barbecue area, as well as remodeling lots of apartments, ever since we’ve moved in.

I watched the progress with some jealousy. But, I’m not starry-eyed here.

The old days of carrying drywall — we did it on our heads, two sheets at a time, sometimes ⅝ inch thick and 10 feet long — took their toll. As did mixing mortar on break from college for two crazy Italian brothers who loved to do hallucinogens while building brick walls, and laboring for a master carpenter who spit tobacco on the boards he wanted us to retrieve.

But, man, there’s something fulfilling about a full day, sometimes in the sun, working your muscles, ogling the female neighbors and talkin’ smack with blue-collar tradesmen. I did that for some time before getting into journalism, which ended up being my career of 30-plus years.

Although reporting, writing and editing was my day job, I could get my hammer-and-saw fix by working on my house — often with kids roped into helping — during the evenings and weekends.

I still feel most comfortable in ripped, paint-spattered clothes, old tennis shoes and a baseball cap that has caught its share of cloying joint compound. I’m so used to going out like that, usually without much of a look in the mirror, that my wife literally stops me these days and refuses to tag along — unless I reassess my attire.

But, she’s gone at work a lot.

So I do little grooming before heading out to brush shoulders with actual repairmen or women, say at Home Depot or Habitat for Humanity Restore. Those old work clothes help me fit in. I’m usually only in the market for picture hangers, polyurethane or packing tape. But, I still browse the discount lumber, look for “oops” paint that’s on sale and fantasize about buying new tools.

Then, I sidle on over to the register, make chitchat with the clerk and haul away my teeny-tiny plastic bag of, usually, some hooks or screws or the superdooper no-shrink spackle of the week. Nobody gives me much mind. I just observe and go on my disabled way.

The other day, though, I found myself getting more than the typical share of attention. I had headed out to Ace Hardware after a failed attempt at restacking some light boxes in our garage. One actually slipped off the stack, forcing me to hold it against the others with my forehead while trying to find somewhere to drop a broken lamp I was trying to fix. It ended up falling anyway. I hoped nothing broke.

 At Ace, some folks gave me grim looks, refusing to make eye contact. Others smiled deeply, looking like they felt sorry for me. I guess it was my limp. But, this was weird. The odd looks continued.

 I smelled my armpits, checked for ill-placed tears in my pants. Nope, all clear.

In the paint aisle, as I eyed Minwax products that combine polyurethane with the actual color that creates the wood stain. A stranger interrupted.

“Hey, do you know if this would be good for a screen door?” He held a cheap can of spray paint. At first glance, I knew he was only a home-repair dilettante; his clothes were so neat they looked pressed.

 

“No, I’d actually get the more expensive spray. When it comes to coverage, you’re better off.”

He pressed on. “Well, yeah, see I’m doing this door. It has marks, I guess it’s rust but I thought those doors were aluminum. Do you think I need to clean it first?”

“Maybe just take it off and scrape it with a wire brush and …”

“A paint brush?”

Oh boy, I thought. I gotta move on. I tried to point toward the small wire brushes and sandpaper and walk away but he followed me.
“Why don’t you just do it for me,” he said. Taken aback, I looked for a smile, not thinking he was serious. But he came back with an offer of $9 an hour.

Wow, I was being solicited right there under the Daily Specials sign in the Ace paint department. “Naw, I gotta run. I’m …”

“Ok. $10. Figure you could use the cash. It’d only be a couple hours.”

Whaaa?

Oh, I get it. I guess I outdid myself in the clothing department today. I actually succeeded in the down-and-out-homeless look instead of busy handyman.

I pretended someone texted me and had to get away, limping quickly toward the checkout.

Later, at home, after checking to make sure nothing was leaking from that box that slipped off the stack in the garage, I made a quick sandwich, relaxed in my recliner and wondered just what about my attire had triggered the Ace guy’s offer.

Weird, I thought. But then I went to medicine cabinet for my afternoon pills.

This is what I saw.

I guess using my head to try to hold up that sliding box wasn’t such a great idea. I told myself I owed my wife a giant apology for getting pissy about her warnings about going out without checking out my clothes — and, apparently my face.

I wondered just how many people saw me as a poor sap of a hobo, wandering the aisles, looking like I just got whacked for trying to steal another vagrant’s shopping cart.

I wonder what would have happened if I took that guy up on his screen-painting job. I’ll bet he would have given me a tip — or at least offered to let me use his shower.

 

Rocket man. Nope, no women

Strapped in, his arms shackled, his boots locked in, Sid prepared himself.

He wasn’t worried about the headache, the heat, the slam of the g-force — three times that of the colony.

He knew none of that would get to him. He was seasoned, and tough. He had endured Wormslam travel before.

But this cheap excuse for a Retroverve 4000 was different. It had been only used for freight. Not designed for soft human bodies. Sharp corners. Smelly. He couldn’t move his bum knee. Still harboring shrapnel from the XY Revolt, it hurt bad enough in normal circumstances, but here, strapped into this loud bag of bolts, he couldn’t flex it, or stretch it or loosen it up. He should have asked for more morphine.

Not that it would have worked. This Level II Nurse working Control, large and pink from artificial sun, prepped him for launch. She was the worst, going out of her way to administer the first injection into the tender underside of his left bicep, right through the spacesuit. She stood on the highest step of the orange-steel lift platform, far enough away from the small, coffin-sized rocket to avoid the black oil of its outer sheen but close enough to lean within a foot of Sid’s face. He could see the scoping aperture in her artificial left eyeball.

“The medications are prescribed down to the milligram, Mr. Scott,” she said as he winced under the shot. “It’s just enough to keep you from voiding those essential fluids, or as I like to say, pissing your pansy-ass pants like a newling. You should recover enough to be alert upon landing. That is …” She couldn’t hold back a snort “… if you really think there will be a landing.” Another snort and a laugh.

Her cackle bounced around the rocket as she joked about Sid’s chances to survive. Her assistant, a slender male silver cyborg with eyes as big and green as avocados, hung at her soft, fleshy hip. It’s job was to avoid human error, to record everything, to lift and clamp and adjust the ship as needed. The cyborg played the nurse’s little speech back immediately, as per protocol and complete with his best robotic imitation of cackling. He didn’t have the capacity to edit her words.

A freakin’ robot giggling at my possible immolation, Sid thought. He liked that word, immolation. Yes, he would be sacrificed. No, this was not a sentence, or a punishment. It was a sacrifice. He refused to accept their law, their trials, their legal mumbo jumbo. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He called it, if anything, civil disobedience.

Wasn’t it morally sound to break the law to save a life? No, the tribunal had said, predictably. Guilty. Capital punishment warranted.

Immolation. Yes, that’s a good word. The immolation of Sid Scott. Would make a good book.

Sid tried to recall some other long, odd words from his time at the university — pyrotechnautical, carbonzerocomical, hypochondriavatar. Anything to get that nurse’s cackle out of his ears. He played a mental game.

                                                                                                        Which was more aggravating? Her voice? Or the smell of rotting sorghum ethanol from the engine block. Couldn’t she just shut up?

But the Control Nurse had a job to do, and she enjoyed it. She puffed out her chest, took a deep breath and read the order from the tribunal, one more time, as per the law. She held the writ in one scrubbed-raw hand and kept the other on the hatch, ready to close it as soon as her declaration ended. She spoke very quickly; the words ran together and Sid had a hard time hearing them.

That’s because his helmet hung in place above his head, designed to lower automatically when the hatch was shut. It partially covered his good ear. He could hear enough, though, to tell himself that this lady wasn’t reading. She knew this by heart; she had done this way too many times before.  He memorized her face — just in case he got out of this jam — as the cyborg repeated her words.

“We the women of Galaxy Senecom the powers granted to us by the Intergalatic High Treaty of 3025, do hereby sentence one Sidney Oliver Scott to Experimental Transworld Relocation, as was his choice, in line with Universal Code C, Title 18, Sub-statute (b) 101, under the heading of High Treason.”

Ha, that accent on the first syllable of Galaxy makes a helluva lot of sense, Sid thought. The big Gal in charge certainly had control now. He tried to count in his head all his brothers-in-arms who had been caught and sentenced — wait, immolated — in this latest so-called “XY Re-education Process.”

All guilty. All sentenced. Never heard from again.

Before the roundup, which the men knew was coming, they had made the joint decision to opt for the Transworld travel, but Sid figured some — especially the older ones — just gave up and took the needle. If he were older, he might have to. A little easier than burning to death in rotting ethanol.

                                                                                                          Still, he held on to hope. Maybe some of the other launches made it past the tri-uranium rings that circled this godforsaken planet …  through the asteroid clouds … past the Oscillating Westerly  Wormhole … to the landing. But, where?

The men had no idea. The cyborg defense attorneys had revealed little except the chance at survival. Why not relocate to a habitable place? They asked. Again and again and again. Yes, it supported life. The cyborgs were not programmed to say anything more.

And, of course, the women never reported back on the outcome of launches, how many succeeded, if any.

Of course, Sid told himself, success is in the eye of the beholder, eh? What was a successful launch? Immolation? Why had the women offered this travel plea bargain? It couldn’t be just to kill the XY Movement. It wasn’t just capital punishment. There were cheaper ways to do that.

Maybe they needed data on how well these recycled ships carried a pilot? Maybe the ships’ recorders reported back radiation readings just before these guys turned into bacon? Maybe the Geek Gals needed more brain data on the Wormslam Rebound Effect?

Did they really want these rockets to land?

It was worth the chance, the men had decided. As for Sid, at 33, he was too young to roll over and give up, though his knee felt decades older. The clamps around his upper thigh made the throbbing worse.

Over soon, he thought. Everything, including the pain. He wondered if he’d be alive long enough to see his flesh and bone melt away to expose that shrapnel. He wanted to see it.

At least — he turned his mind from the macabre — the launch would give him one final chance to feel that surge in his spine, to see that moonfire on the horizon, to … the creak of the hatch interrupted his fantasy. It was time.

He began to panic, but he forced himself to think positive. Maybe the other guys made it. Maybe they learned to live wherever the heck this tin can was headed. Maybe, just maybe, they learned to hunt.

He wished the cyborg would talk again. At least it had a male voice. It had been months since he even saw another XY.

Jeez, wouldn’t it be something if Hoghead survived, or Rundown or Caliph … the hatch squeezed closed, loosing a spray of palm oil as rotten as the sorghum.

Sid’s helmet lowered as planned. That’s something at least. Scratches marred its visor. There was a date from 2031 and — huh? — a crude penis cartoon. The largest word scribbled, Resist, made Sid laugh out loud.

He saw the nurse through the porthole. As the heavy fire door to the elevator closed, she smiled and waved. Then she quickly flipped her hand to give Sid the finger.

The cyborg, giant eyes closing in a lazy blink, wasn’t programmed to insult.

As the ship quaked with ignition, Sid saw him wave.

Is your kid too fat? Call the police on him.

There sure are a lot of chubby kids in America today.

You’ve probably read some of the attempts to explain the phenomenon. Too much time sitting around with electronic devices. Parents too protective to let the kids play outside. Big Gulp soft drinks.  

Well, I have my own theory: Too many playgrounds, and they are too nice.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive. But hear me out. Yes I happen to live in Denver right now but I’m not stoned.

My point will make sense after I recount a little history.

Anyone over 50 will remember, maybe even 40.

We spent a lot of time playing outside as kids but that’s not the main reason we stayed lean. It wasn’t that we were allowed to play unsupervised in playgrounds. We also had to build them.

No, I’m not kidding. Tree branches trimmed like monkey bars and ladders in the sky. Holes in backstops mended with old garden fences. Batting cages improvised in grocery store parking lots.

I’ll bet at least one of our sloppily painted rectangular strike zones is still visible on one of those walls in the old neighborhood where we played “Rubber Ball Fast Pitch.” One pitcher. One batter. A $1 hard rubber ball and you had hours of one-on-one competition. So what if you had to chase foul balls to beat them to the sewer grate. Just made us faster; kept us from putting on the pounds.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I grew up without any parks at all nearby. There were some, but they didn’t get much tender loving care. We had to maintain them, soften some of the sharp edges, keep them from falling apart.

We didn’t just spend hours playing sports, we spent hours doing the pre-game work just to have somewhere to play.

We fixed bent basketball hoops. We shoveled snow off courts. We swept up broken RC Cola bottles.

A self-appointed municipal repair crew, we had to get creative.

We used wire and old metal signs or rusty backyard gates to repair holes in chain-link fences, to block off those ball-gobbling sewer drains or to mend — at least while the game went on — that pesky hole that could cost us so much time with every high throw to first base.

Fences,  oh so many fences.

We were always crawling under them, climbing over them to retrieve lost balls or wrestling with them when they came loose.

??????????

With time and weather, sections of chain link would tear free of their galvanized-wire bonds and spring upward like scoops of giant backhoes interfering with anyone trying to shoot from the corner. Or, they would curl away like frozen surfer waves or cartoon octopuses trying to squish Olive Oyl and Popeye. They grabbed at your feet, your pants, your bike spokes, your rubber-coated hardball, your football, your bright orange smooth Spalding basketball that, after five years of sanding by the asphalt, really didn’t need any more challenges.

In our constant battle with chain link, we armed ourselves with Converse shoelaces, coils of wire, ripped shirts or used inner tubes.

You might think this exaggeration. Ask your dad or your grandpa, especially if they grew up in the city. I’m sure rural folks had their challenges, too, because some of them endured even tougher economic times.

It was not like today. Everywhere you look seems to reveal another perfectly groomed grass field, crater-free tennis court or castle-sized playground with — we can’t forget! — those protective ground surfaces, the soft interlocking tiles, the rubber mulch, the spongy turf.

We played on asphalt, a lot.

Closest to our house was the old tar field — it was notched into a hill and had high fences, high concrete walls, a baseball diamond (more like a trapezoid because of the very short right field) and two full basketball courts (usually with only two working rims and backboards). We had no grass fields within 10-or-so blocks and going to one was risky. That meant crossing into very different neighborhoods — different bullies, different mean dogs and old people whose demeanor you could only determine after your basketball rolled on to their front lawn.

Sometimes the trip to those more popular fields would be fruitless anyway. Far too often, some kind of organized finicky group had a permit to use those grass fields, and — we found out the hard way — strangers weren’t allowed to squeeze in alongside them.

Sometimes even the tar field was unavailable, either too crowded with older kids or used as a temporary parking lot by the nearby school.

Did we go home to watch cartoons? Play board games? Ogle Mary Tyler Moore on the Dick Van Dyke show? Nope, if it wasn’t sleeting, snowing or freezing, we moved our games to our  backyards or the streets. The street where I grew up, about 20 feet wide, with one long curve straightening out just long enough in a couple stretches, became the field for touch football, rundown, freeze tag and all kinds of chase games.

 It’s been more than 50 years ago, but I still remember seeing — and smelling — the city put the first tar on that street. It was just about the time the street became one-way. It was like a miracle, like Jesus himself had delivered a coal-black swatch of playground to our doorsteps. We only had to worry about cars coming at us from one direction and those slippery old uneven gray bricks were history.

It was like a holiday. For everyone on the street. Bicycles came out of nowhere.  Skateboards. Old people tried out those collapsible metal shopping carts with two wheels.

Who cared if some errant tar, still bubbling in the heat of the day, stuck to your bike tires, your shoes or your ankles. It came off, eventually, or you could always grab an old rag and siphon a little gas from the lawnmower to do some cleanup.

If we wanted more Olympics-like competitions, we headed to the trees in the yard. We climbed with bull rope to hang swings and build Robinson Crusoe tree houses. We used old refrigerator boxes, broken down to flat, as sliding boards on sloping hills.

We learned how difficult it can be to pole vault. But we tried using any old pipe we could scavenge, or bamboo poles or the trunks of smooth Sumac trees, once they got thick enough.

In nearby woods, we dug underground forts. Talk about exercise.

As you might expect, we could not always find materials for our fix-up work. Sometimes, yes I can admit this now that the statute of limitations has passed, we had to resort to illegal means. It never felt like out-and-out theft, more like liberating supplies not being used.

Rope, pipe, steel signs, wire, lumber … all could be found unsecured in piles that were, technically, the property of our neighbors, the city municipal crews or businesses. The town dump offered limitless opportunities.

We also scouted playgrounds in richer parts of town for — well — unused supplies, or those not being used to their full potential.

Like basketball nets.

Getting them involved real exercise, shimmying the poles to reach the nets,  holding on with just your thighs and calves to untie them, escaping when chased.

That led to the challenging and exciting game we played too often than I’d like to admit: Running from the cops.

Seems like someone was always ratting us out for something, especially when we had to stay close to home and create games. Touch football upset some neighbors if we happened to veer off course and run even a foot on to their front lawns. Playing with any kind of baseball in the street could lead to a broken pansy or two. And some traffic interruption inevitably came with the popular and rowdy after-dark game of Prisoner Release.

The corner, where our street curved in front of my house, was lit by a street lamp. It usually served as the jail, the center of the action. Everyone who was chased down and caught had to be forced into that area, with their already-captured teammates forming a chain to try to pull the captors inside. If any “captor” got pulled over the line, all “prisoners” went free and had to be chased down again.

It wasn’t the tamest game to play after the streetlights came on. But hey, we were kids.

Who knew the neighbors had such maniacal devotion to peace and quiet — or to keeping their Ford Falcons, Buick Skylarks and Pontiac Grand Ams totally ding-free? 

We usually could see the cops long before they saw us. With kids living all along the now-one-way street, the warning would start almost two blocks away and filter down to the offending kids quickly, we were like outlaw cowboys lining a canyon to watch for the sheriff’s posse, or Indian scouts hiding in the rocks to whoop those tricky animal noises when they spotted the cavalry.

With all the study, money and energy being spent on how to make today’s kids healthier, maybe we ought to consider using the chubbiest little ones for police training.

Tell that sinewy cadet hoping to be a homicide detective that he or she has to catch Big Joey. He just ran through Mrs. Pack’s tulips, bumped into her car to trigger the alarm and gave her the finger while running away.

See if Joey loses a few pounds before his arrest.

Hey, this obesity crisis calls for extreme measures, right?

Given a little challenge, kids today would rise to the occasion, I think. What kid, even the chubbiest of today’s crowd, wouldn’t like to figure out how to make backyard javelins out of old PVC drain pipe or sharpened curtain rod?

Parents would have to stop hovering, though. And they’d have to prepare themselves for some injuries.

We did not escape our vigilante playground building without injury.

Trolling the dump, a hill of broken glass, old lumber, asphalt shingles and rusting metal, held its challenges. Seems like somebody was always getting a Tetanus shot after stepping on a nail or ripping a thigh on corrugated metal siding. Asphalt is not forgiving either, especially if you’re tripped by a Cyclone fence while going for a lay-up.

Trial-and-error construction of those backyard obstacle courses, forts and tree houses also led to some stitches.

Did you know that you cannot jump on a seesaw made of concrete block and a plank of old scaffolding without the free end flying up to hit you square in the face? Me either.

All in all, the payoff outweighed the risks. We were lean, lithe and quick, even if a bit hobbled from time to time. Stitches, though, were a badge of honor.

Of course, on second thought, our parents also had health insurance. A trip to the emergency room didn’t mean foreclosure on the family homestead.

Today’s kids? Who the heck knows? Maybe my idea here needs a bit more thought.

Rest easy, chubby little Charlie. At least for now, your Sony Playstation Pro 4 is safe.

Play on.

At least until you’re too fat to flex your fingers.

Yes, sometimes, a cheeseburger is paradise

First, the numbing Lidocaine hydrochloride mouthwash. Then, eight ounces of vanilla Ensure nutrition shake.  The morning’s pills in a Dixie cup on the side. Enough water to try to get them down.

And, ah! The must-have. The desserts in that shiny foil wrapper. The one bright spot on those bleak mornings: soft, untoasted, Frosted strawberry Pop-Tarts. 

So sweet. Dry. Flaky like the crust of a homemade pie. No acidic juices to burn into the lesions in mouth, on my tongue, boring into my cheeks. Nothing too crispy to scrape against the crater eroding the right side of my throat.

Sure, the breakfast treats also caused pain. They went down hard like anything and everything I tried to swallow back then. But pain, I’ve learned, is oh-so relative.

“What is it? On a scale of 1 to 10?” I asked myself the same question that nurses and doctors had asked me for months, sometimes 10 times a day during those weeks in the hospital.

Pop-Tarts? Oh, about a 4 or a 5.

Bad, you say? Not when everything else, even water, is an 8 or 9.

Besides, the treats helped me swallow the pills. And I needed them, especially the Oxycodone, to fog up the morning, to numb the mind and body, even if just for a couple hours.

After that, lunch — more Ensure, maybe a full can of Campbell’s Chicken Wonton Soup, with those soft tiny pillows that ease down the throat like wet leaves through a downspout.

I dreamed of real food then. I vowed that, once I got better, if I got better, I would chew slowly and enjoy every bite. I vowed to not take food for granted. I would relish, well, even relish.

During those Pop-Tart mornings, I took solace in at least being in my own home, where I could try to feed myself. Or, my beleaguered wife would try to come up with something I could swallow that was more appetizing than Ensure.

In the hospital, eating, or trying to eat, was worse, much worse. Not that the staff didn’t try to help. The kitchen workers at one point molded some sort of protein mush into the shape of a pork chop, hoping that would be more appetizing.

They were trying to help me fool my mind. But I couldn’t fool those ulcers.

I had to have a feeding tube through the nose at one point. That, or get a hole in my side, a procedure called a gastrostomy. Lyrical sounding maybe, but … 

The thought of being cut, not only through the skin but through the muscle and stomach, too, and leaving the opening for days, maybe weeks, made me nauseous. And I had nothing in my stomach to make me nauseous.

Hold that thought, I thought. It’ll help you get through the pain of the placement of the other kind of tube, the feeding tube. No surgery at least. Through the nose, scraping those ulcers, down the throat, arghhh!

 As two nurses worked, I meditated on the mental picture of the hole being cut in my side. I breathed deeply, following the instructions of the nurse trying to snake the tube through my nose. She talked to me calmly, coached me to suppress my gag reflex, told me to think of the plastic as food, to swallow deeply to send the tube down the right path.

Afterward, the thing has to be taped to your face to stay in place.

I had expected something more sophisticated.

OK Dave, feeding time. We will hold the food bag above your head, open a clamp and let gravity work. Here comes dinner!

I awoke one night to that damp feeling near your crotch that you never want to have, especially in a strange bed. A valve or clamp had opened up during my 3 a.m. feeding and I ended up with something wet all over my lap. The nurse who tended to me in the middle of the night said she hadn’t seen it happen and I was too drugged to realize it til morning.

It was still dark when I realized I was soaked. I couldn’t see the liquid, so my pessimistic brain immediately went to blood. Whew, OK, at least not that.

Everything’s relative, remember?

Still, rubbing that chalky liquid between my thumb and forefinger while buzzing the call button for help and wondering if they would let me shower made me start to reconsider that hole-in-the-side idea.

 

 

Eventually, I got better at home. I didn’t overdose on breakfast treats. Or the Oxy.

With steroids and time, I healed enough to eat real food again. Many weeks after that hospital stay, with great pleasure and with my wife as an elated, smiling witness, I chewed my first cheeseburger.

How was it, you ask? On a scale of 1 to 10?

OK, I’ll bite. It was definitely a solid 9.

But, you might wonder, why not a 10?

Well, to this day, I save my highest score for, you guessed it, breakfast treats.

Yes, Pop-Tarts. Untoasted. Strawberry and with frosting — of course.

 

 

Where there’s smoke, there’s Trump. A note from a native Pittsburgher.

Thank you President Trump. You did it.

Despite worldwide pressure, you stuck up for USA towns like Pittsburgh, where I was born, spent my early years and still have many relatives and friends.

You gave a finger as big as the Eiffel Tower (who said you have small digits?) to that uppity French city that also begins with a “P.” You said c’ya later to all those rules and regs about what we can burn and when, and how.

You gave many big-picture reasons but you also did me a big favor. You gave me incentive to finally get back to the city of my birth.

I wanna return to those dreamlike  days of soot in the snoot and phlegm in the throat.

I wanna go home and start burning the garbage again!

Man, in those days we were really free!  You did what you wanted in our backyard. Forget those expensive garbage bills. All you needed was a backyard burn barrel. Me and my little brother, neither of us much taller than that barrel, were nonetheless entrusted with the waste incineration. The girls didn’t have much interest, and we feigned dislike at first, but it was reverse psychology.

 Once we got out there, out on that little flat before the yard’s last hill, we had free reign, and lots of Ohio Blue Tip matches.

It was something to see, for sure. Our little round white faces lit up by flames six, seven, eight feet high some times.  Us, hypnotized by volcano-like honeycombs in the corrugated cardboard … that glow of a puddle of plastic … exploding cans of hair spray and spray paint!

There is simply no sight on this warm earth like a flaming Clorox bottle on a stick, dripping purple,  blowtorch-blue and hot orange into the fresh snow. And that sound! Like Satan himself playing a melting oboe, each sizzling plop a microcosm of a falling star.

We burned everything. There were pyres of polystyrene, polyester, aromatic hydrocarbons and, man, that mysterious, zany family of “enes.” Benzene. Toluene. Xylene.

Did you ever see a half-empty, punctured can of VO5 spinning like a fiery pinwheel on a wooden Pepsi crate? No? Ha! You haven’t lived.

Trump’s given you another shot, though.

By announcing the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris accord, our Conflagrator in Chief has opened the door to the return of all that warm and fuzzy fun from Pittsburgh’s past. The “Smoky City” is back!

Pittsburgh at noon around 1906
Pittsburgh Then and Now, University of Pittsburgh Press

I’m going to start researching real estate prices — maybe my wife and I can buy back the old Iseman homestead that we all had to abandon after our neighborhood never really recovered  from the recession of the early ’80s.

When I was young in the ‘Burgh, you couldn’t see the rivers through the bustling, bulky steel mills. But, factors like foreign competition, a failure to innovate with technology and labor unrest eventually caused most of those giant steel plants to close.

Gone was that beautiful dragon breath that massaged the Monongahela River. Gone was the red sulfur dust on the cars in the morning. Gone was the warm hazy glow that hung over the South Side way past dark.

And, you guessed it,  gone was the garbage burning.

Outlawed by those environmental do-gooders.

They had gotten all hot under the collar in part because the media in our area made a big deal about the oily Cuyahoga River in Cleveland repeatedly catching fire.

 Yeah, sure it was burning river. But talk about a freak-out. The last time it happened, the flames were doused in about half an hour.

But, the damage was done. Everyone worried about pollution. The water was monitored. The air was monitored. Even the garbage had to be buried just right.

Instead of my brother and I rushing with excitement out to the burn barrel, we had to pack up the cardboard, tie up the newspapers and wash out the plastic. That’s like telling kids they have to go to the library instead of the fireworks show.

Sure, the neighborhood eventually smelled more like grass than gas, and asthmatic Amy from the neighborhood didn’t have to stop for breath as often walking up Holzer Hill. But look at what we lost?

The freedom to burn.

The freedom to wait for just the right wind off the back slope to whip those black clouds of burning plastic toward that hated neighbor’s house. The freedom to breathe the fumes from the melting nylon and polyester pile of the old bathroom carpet that finally got replaced. 

The freedom to make ourselves sick if we wanted to. No matter if we had the means to pay the hospital bill.

Our new president. He’ll take care of that, too.

Like everyone’s saying now: He’s a man of his word.

No matter if Pittsburgh’s mayor isn’t buying Trump’s latest move on the climate front. The prez is still a hero to many in the Steel City.

I say they bring him in to throw out the first pitch on opening day for the Pittsburgh Pirates next season. Sure he might be busy answering subpoenas or hobnobbing with some sheikh, but no worry. The Pirates can just pretend it’s him.

Chances are, no one will be able to tell through the smoke.

For richer and poorer, in sickness and … the U-Haul

At a recent wedding, my wife and I found ourselves among dozens of married couples on the dance floor as the DJ used a game to fete longevity in relationships.

You’ve probably seen this at a wedding before. Everyone who is married is asked to participate and the DJ winnows out the crowd by shouting out numbers — “Who’s been married 10 years? Fifteen years? Twenty?”

It’s an elimination process. It’s a slo-mo, kinda arthritic dance-off; the couple married the longest stays on the floor the longest and becomes the winner.

My wife Lynn and I found ourselves finalists. I scouted the eight or so other couples still in the running  and saw we were probably the youngest.  I had an idea — a plan to cheat.

I told Lynn I was going to mimic the DJ’s voice and shout: “Now, only stay on the dance floor if you’re still having sex!”

Lynn disagreed with that plan rather strongly. Her reaction is caught in the photo you saw as you started reading this.

We didn’t win. But we were among the last standing.

We have been married 36 years.

During those decades we’ve raised five kids and weathered some typical and not-so-typical challenges. We’ve learned to communicate pretty well by now. We’re often on the same wavelength. Sometimes I find myself telling her “That’s what I was just gonna say!” and vice versa.

But, recently, our psychic connection has developed some cracks. We’ve had more disagreements. We’ve argued, loudly, over things that should be trivial: A misplaced comb … an inadvertently shared toothbrush … whose phone is giving the best route to the restaurant … how Wifi works … who changed the freakin’ password for the bank and didn’t write it down?

It’s not that we’ve grown apart. We’re closer than ever. By that, I mean closer together, habitating in smaller spaces. We just downsized, again, after downsizing only six months prior. We have now moved from a four-bedroom house with a garage and backyard to a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor.

I’m disabled at 61 and my wife has become a travel nurse at age 60. We have picked up — and packed up — to move three times in less than a year.

This has given me an epiphany. It’s easier for spouses or partners to get along when you can hide from each other in a big house. Think of the popularity of man caves, gardens, SUVs, big porches, worksheds and even fancy SUVs.

Living in a smaller space, with few escape rooms, has caused some friction. Add the stress of moving, and the debate over what we really need and can discard. Try doing that after collecting things for about 30 years and see if you can actually name all the bric-a-brac, let alone discuss getting rid of it.

We’ve been forced to hone old skills: Precise communication, cheeriness under duress and close-quarter maneuvering without knocking each other over.

Still, we slip up and digress into conversations like:

“I thought you said you paid the garbage bill in California.”

“We didn’t have a garage there.” I answer over the deep rumble of the washing machine in the closet.

“Garbage!” Lynn tries to clarify; I take it as an insult  and yell.

“Man, you don’t have to jump on me. I’m telling you the rental in California didn’t even have a garage.”

Silence. Exasperation. More silence.

After this most recent move, it’s become quite apparent to me that, despite our decades together, there are some things I can still learn about my wife.

Like the names of her cooking utensils, or at least the pet names she has given them. What she calls her clothes (summer stuff, hanging stuff, yes, yoga pants are different than tights). And what specifically drove her to label one giant moving box as “Hall closet, miscellaneous.”

The last time we had a hall closet was three habitats ago.

Writing on moving boxes — when to write on them, how to write on them and where to write on them — has been a difficult learning process all its own. I think it’s been tougher than premarital classes, birthing classes and that seminar we decided to take that year we were screaming so loudly at the kids we decided we needed some professional advice about communicating as a family.

We didn’t know most of the parents would be there under court order.

For some reason, when it comes to cataloging our possessions, my wife cannot understand that boxes must be marked — exhaustively and accurately — on all sides save the bottom. That’s because you never know how they might end up piled up, spun around or spread over the floor.

She, of course, argues that most boxes will be emptied out anyway so … ah, here’s the rub: We’re still hauling around so much stuff we don’t really need that we’re not actually sure which boxes we will be emptying out after each move, or when.

To be fair, my wife is not the exclusive problem. She has many legitimate grievances against me, too, as I try to adapt to our new lifestyle.

I tend to over-communicate, especially when other U-Haul trucks seem to be getting awful close to ours while Lynn is driving. On another front, I now realize I have been blissfully ignorant for many, many years about how food was prepared before I shoved it in my mouth.

 I’m also pretty bad at paying bills.

Even though I’ve designated myself the stay-at-home lout responsible for many of the domestic chores, I’ve had to call on my wife for tutoring. I’ve had to endure several quasi-pedantic seminars about starting and canceling Internet providers, monitoring gas and electric companies for over-billing, using Yelp to help decide where to move, deciphering medical bills and insurance benefits and somehow reading her mind to figure out what brands of food are best.

I’m getting better, though. Someday, I’ll even answer those bank personal security questions correctly before being tossed off the system.

 You have to admit they are tricky. Quick, who was your best friend in childhood? Quick now, Jesse or Paul? Don’t get it wrong! Three strikes and you’re bounced!

I thought being a newsman all those years was high-pressure.

Lynn’s getting better, too. She now does some of the things I at one time handled almost exclusively, like driving U-Hauls, carrying the beer and bringing home the bacon.

We also have a balm if we start to get overwhelmed: We think back to the really nerve-wracking times, like when all five kids had chicken pox at the same time, over Christmas.

There’s also a good side to all of this.

Moving at our age, while challenging, brings thrills. We’re out of the slow-moving and often judgmental Missouri after a decade — on to navigate city traffic and technology that changes as fast as the Missouri weather.

We’re also getting out more, mixing with the the fascinating, quirky, beautifully diverse human crowds of today’s urban centers.

It’s easy to retreat into your home (especially if it has lots of space) once you’re married, and especially when you older.

When we were younger, parenting our five kids forced us to get out and about and meet lots of people. Attending all those sporting, artistic and academic events, we couldn’t help but mingle with other parents, developing friends and forging relationships.

Now, living in a smaller place creates a different kind of forced socialization. You can only stay so long in a two-bedroom apartment, no matter how nice. Our Southern California apartment sat in a gated community. I blame my urban upbringing, but those prison-like bars created a primal urge in me to escape. 

It’s good to get out of the house, try new things, see other people, especially those of similar age. That way, even with all my flaws, my wife can see how extremely lucky she is.

And yes, of course, “vice versa.”

Lynn out and about in downtown Denver.

Our adjustment problems pale in comparison to the thrills of our new adventure.

How important is it, anyway, that I cannot fathom how “hoodies and purses” can fill an entire medium-size moving box. Who cares if my wife cannot read any of the sloppy words I’ve scribbled on all six sides of the boxes I packed.

We’re getting through this, and, like I said, it’s brought us closer. Which has its perks, too.

The more your space is constricted, the more you bump into each other. And, sometimes, as most people with partners understand, a bump can lead to a grind, and a hug, then …

You get the picture. No need to get graphic. Especially at our age.

At the next wedding we attend, however, I will definitely have more motivation to shout out my ribald new rule for the couples longevity game.

Bedtime for bigots

Ever been stuck with your elders? Your extreme elders? Like great-grandpa and great-grandma?

More and more people these days provide care for their parents, grandparents or other aged friends or relatives, some of whom are, well — there’s no way to sugarcoat this — selfish pigs mired in bigoted opinions from years ago.

They revel in sharing them, loudly. That’s especially grating when, not being a 1 percenter, you get home after a long, hard day at work. You need them to just shut up, right?

So, whaddyagonna do? I have a solution. It’s called politically incorrect bedtime stories for bigots. Try one of these. They’ll help you lull these crotchety oldsters into smug, satiated slumber. They’ll be out for hours.

You’ll be able to sneak out to the den to smoke some pot, head to the bar to listen to the latest Beatles tribute band or meet up with your buddies going to the Change.org party down the street.

Get gramps or grammy comfy, feed em a tablespoon of bourbon and speak in a soothing voice, like Charlton Heston in Ben Hur. Here’s an example:

Once upon a time, after winning all the wars and building the industrial complex, the Greatest Generation finally got a well-deserved rest. But tension remained, a new unease. a new threat.

In the mountains rising from the quiet retirement beaches … in the woods behind the RV parks … in the kitchens of the all-you-can-eat buffets, a great evil festered. Many thought it dead years ago.

But they were wrong as a translator who needs hearing aids. The threat was back. Young people, likely infected by Communist sympathizers, were spreading crazy, dangerous ideas again: Mind-altering drugs, protest, resistance, peace instead of war and Free Love 2.0 — even between people of the same sex!!!

Well, this simply would not fly. It had to be stopped. The Greatest Generation remained great but, man, after all those years, everyone was just plain tuckered out. They needed a champion.

Enter a brash new character, super-rich, super-cocky and super-angry. Yes, an American hero. Donald Trump, known for his success in business and with pretty women, would fix everything.

Word spread quickly, like when Viagra was invented.  Everyone paid attention, ignoring even The Price is Right.

Trump mocked Obama. Trump tossed people out of his rallies he didn’t like, no matter if they were black. One bit of popular lore had Trump himself grabbing three protesters by the dreadlocks, and, in a super-Judo move, spinning them in the air so fast their handmade signs blurred into a pinwheel. And guess what color it was? Yup, red, white and blue!

Everyone cheered and coughed, and spit out phlegm.

Trump was braver than a one-legged ass kicker. He ridiculed uppity lesbians, weak-hearted peaceniks and a disabled guy cocky enough to think he could be a reporter.

This president-to-be even had the balls to brag about his, well, balls — and other nether regions. “I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.”

He was the greatest, promising the greatest. He was the cat’s pajamas and the kit and caboodle, with hair that never turned gray.

His only weakness, and this certainly could be forgiven in a man with such a high calling, was a penchant for exaggeration. Sure, he told a whopper or two, but he lied with good intent: to befuddle the liberals.

And befuddle them he did.

All the way to the Office of President of United States of America, with the overwhelming voter support from those old, weary warriors from the Greatest Generation.

Once in power,  he got rid of all the dirty Mexicans, cowed the Europeans, called on men to be men, for women to be sexy. He put a coal mine in every backyard.

Millions now pay homage. Every night, even as adult children sing themselves to sleep.

Hush you seniors, time to relax.

Trump’s gonna cut your income tax.

And if that tax cut is too small,

Trump’s gonna build you a shopping mall.

And if that mall should fall apart,

Trump’s gonna buy you a new golf cart.

And if that cart don’t run no more,

Trump’s gonna start a brand new war.

And if that war just can’t be won,

Trump will  start another one.

And if that war kills too many people,

Trump will build you a new church steeple.

And if that steeple comes tumbling down,

You’ll still be the greatest generation in town.

Using deadly force with a cloak of secrecy — in America

Did you know that some American lawmen can kill in the line of duty and keep their names secret?

These men — or women — can use deadly force and not face any publicity. They can take a life anonymously.

That’s true, even in this age of high scrutiny of police shootings. Even as groups like Black Lives Matter demand more accountability. Even as many in this country push to publicize not only the names of officers who use deadly force but also their images, especially dashcam and copcam video that is often generated when shootings occur.
So why the special treatment for some officers of the law?

They’re federal employees, that’s why. Different laws and policies apply to them.

U.S. Marshals often work side by side with local police but have more privacy protections than their partners in blue. The marshals can, and have, used deadly force and kept their names from newspapers, Web accounts and TV.

How? They rely on an exemption in the federal Freedom of Information Act, and a Marshals policy protecting those who use deadly force.

Nah, can’t be true, you say. Gotta be another urban myth, a liberal exaggeration.

Nope. I’ve seen this policy in action. I tried for months when I was a journalist to get the name of two deputy marshals who, along with county deputies, shot to death a 23-year-old, gun-wielding man in Missouri in 2009. I fought, with the newspaper’s help, for disclosure of the names by filing Freedom of Information requests and by writing about the secrecy.

Bizarrely, the names would have been quickly released had the shooters been county deputies or city police. Local police departments usually have policies that call for release of the names, based on a theory that full disclosure helps the public understand the reasons behind the use of deadly force.

Full disclosure can end speculation and rumor-mongering.
Any kind of secrecy can mask error, in my opinion.
The first roadblock we ran into in 2009 was a directive from the United States Marshals Service under the category “Shooting Incidents.”
It says: “The names of USMS personnel involved in a shooting are NEVER to be released to the news media at the district/field office level.” The capital letters for emphasis are contained in the directive. It goes on to say marshals’ names are released to local or county investigating agencies “with the understanding that they cannot release the names to the news media.”

That might seem reasonable if the goal of the Marshals Service was to release the names through marshals channels. That wasn’t the case, though. After first holding up the directive to block release, the marshals service then pointed to an exemption in the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
That privacy exemption basically allows the government to close records that could create “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” In this case, the government acted in line with a theory that still exists today in the marshals service.
The agency believes that when marshals do their jobs and do them well, they should not be subjected to publicity.
Of course, the crux of that thinking relies on the assumption that publicity is bad for the officer. The argument could be made, as is often done when lawmen and women receive awards, that their actions in the line of duty are heroic and deserve to be praised, publicly.
The secrecy also raises this nagging question: How can the public or news media monitor the conduct of deputy marshals if they don’t know their work history, their previous use of force or even their names.

As I mentioned, the case I watched was from 2009. I checked back with the marshals service late this month (March 2017) and was told there has been no change in policy or the directive to keep names secret.
The service still considers it sound to argue that, even though most police agencies release names of officers involved in shootings, the marshals deserve more protection.

Why should we relinquish our marshals’ rights simply because local and city police have not worked hard enough to protect theirs? That’s a tenet the marshals hold to tightly.

In the Missouri case, I have to admit that we did not fight all the way to the top to try to get the names. We were delayed by red tape, our readers expressed no outrage at the secrecy and we gave up after months of being stymied. We could have sued.

We might have won, but there are no guarantees. When a suit is filed, the marshals service has to convince a court that the need for privacy outweighs the public interest in names.
I should stress that we made our request before the wave of highly publicized controversial police shootings of recent years.

One official with the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press believes the heightened public interest in police shootings — exhibited profoundly after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri — could work against any Marshals’ argument for continued secrecy. The greater public interest could help sway a judge in today’s climate to release marshals names.

I couldn’t find any recent case to determine if the names of deputy marshals have surfaced in shootings that took place after 2009.

Unfortunately, I have to guess in our country of heavily armed civilians that a shooting will happen soon. And, unless marshals are found to have acted badly, or are prosecuted, their names will remain secret.

Unless someone fights in court to have them released.

Meanwhile, the names of local officers continue to be released and they seem to handle it well, especially when facts and circumstances support their use of deadly force.

In the case I watched, we still have no idea if the officers involved had shot anyone previously or since. That seems like bad policy in the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

Are these courageous public servants really afraid that publicity will harm them? Or, is the marshals service sticking to a policy that’s out of touch with progressive law enforcement in today’s America?

Bubba and the beach

“How about ‘Bubba goes to the beach?’ ” I asked.

My granddaughter Mimsy and her two sleepover friends looked at me skeptically. Their faces showed they hoped for a bedtime story with more pizzazz, some magic maybe. I was taken aback, maybe even a little insulted.

I thought they would be excited to hear the next story about “Bubba,” the nickname for Mimsy’s mom when she was a chunky baby. Maybe the two “Bubba” stories already told had been enough.

Mimsy asked: “Isn’t the beach boring to a baby? Especially one that can’t even crawl yet? We don’t want to hear about her just scooching around.”

“Can she get swallowed by a whale?”

I shushed her, and told them to relax and settle in, to just listen.

Once upon a time, a baby was swallowed by a whale … but the whale had to burp. Bubba came flying right out and landed on the beach, where she just scooched around bored for hours and hours and …

“You’re teasing, Grandpa,” Mimsy shouted with pretend anger, giggling.

“OK, OK.”

Once upon a time, I took Bubba to the beach on a foggy, windy day. I should have known better.

I should have listened to the weatherman. But it had been so sunny inland, where we had started our drive. Besides, Bubba’s big brother Luke really wanted to try out his new snorkel.

We found ourselves set up in a spot close enough for me to watch Luke but far enough away for Bubba to lounge on her blankie, playing with her soft squeaky rattle, watching the seagulls swoop out of the fog and dive, fighting for whatever scraps of french fries or chips they could find.

Bubba smiled at a big gull as he hovered nearby, scouting out her rattle. She gave a belly laugh when he swooped down to grab a black, sea-soaked stick, thinking it was food.

I positioned myself between the two kids, my head swiveling like I was watching a ping pong match: Luke in the low water, Bubba on the blankie. Luke floating on his belly. Bubba trying to reach the bag of taco chips.

I went over to grab one of those chips just as a swell of water hit Luke. He was a good swimmer then but I hustled toward him, just in case, tossing the bag of chips near Bubba’s feet. I didn’t see it spill tacos in a line all the way to her belly.

Luke surfaced, coughing, and I ran to him, worried.

Bubba, chips within reach now, turned to her left and grabbed a tiny handful. The big seagulls squawked to his buddies that he had food within sight. Five circled, but pulled back when a big wave hit the shore, pushing the sea close to all the blankets nearby.

A Cabbage Patch Doll, it’s round head bobbing like a balloon in air, washed out to the ocean. Bubba thought it was a …

Mimsy couldn’t stay quiet. “What the heck is a Cabbage Patch Doll? Vegetables?”

“It’s a kind of doll that was very popular back in the 1980s. People collected them. One time, so many people went at the same time to buy them, that a big … wait. Never mind. That’s a story for another day.”

Mimsy’s friend Sh’E’Qual asked loudly? “What happened to Bubba? Did she really have to fight a whale?

“Sh-sh-sh Sh’Equal.” Once I had learned how to actually say her name (she equal) I loved saying it. Her mom and dad wanted her to know she could do anything a boy could do. I started trying to think of a plot of a story with her as the star, so I could say her name a bunch of times.

“Grandpa! The story!” Mimsy said, seeing I was staring at the nightlight on the wall.

“Oh yeah, back to Bubba.”

Well, as you might expect, I was scared for Luke more than worried about Bubba, knowing we had placed our stuff further away from the water than the other blankets. Still, the waves kept coming, knocking Luke down before he could adjust his snorkel.

I helped him to his feet, and we both got slammed by the next wave, sending us sprawling.

The gulls circled Bubba now, at least 10 of them, with one grabbing a taco chip as big as a small fish and swooping away with it. Water chased away almost everyone who had been sitting near us.

Bubba saw that Cabbage Patch Doll roll back up to the sand, waterlogged and covered in seaweed.

She grabbed some taco chips in both fists, and pushed both them behind her back. She looked like she had run into some bad Missouri police officers who thought they had to handcuff a baby.

“Whaa-aat? I thought you said police were the good guys, Grandpa?” Mimsy said, accusingly.

“Yeah, yeah, you’re right. Forget that. Let’s replace that with ‘Bubba looked like she was playing that game where you try to guess what hand someone is holding the quarter in.’ ”

“Who cares about a quarter? How about a dollar?” Sh’E’Qual said.

“Never mind. Never mind. Don’t you wanna know what happens next?”

Mimsy’s third friend, her nickname was Nellie, put her hands up to the mouths of the other two girls. “Whoa,” Nellie said.

I continued.

Waves rushing. Birds circling. Me helping Luke to try to get back to Bubba. The Cabbage Patch Doll sucked back out to sea. A fat lady running away and sliding backward over a sand dune into a sandcastle.

Luke got so worried he ran faster than me toward his baby sister.

We shouldn’t have worried. Bubba had a plan.

Those hungry sea gulls had tried so hard to get to those taco chips in her hands that they dug and dug at the blankie until they saw they had to clamp onto it with their strong beaks. Then, they flapped their giant wings as hard as they could.

Away went Bubba flying in the blanket, just far enough off the ground to miss the sand dunes and to be set down up the beach, gently, away from the water. She looked like Aladdin on his carpet.

Bubba just belly laughed at me and her brother, pulling those fists from behind her back and tossing the chips to her hungry friends, the birds.

Luke laid down to give her a hug. He asked if he could try to get the gulls to take him on a ride.

Still worried but amazed, I checked the baby for injuries. She smiled so big I knew she wasn’t hurt.

Luke ran back to the surf to rescue the Cabbage Patch Doll.

Bubba pointed to the fat lady. She had started to sing.

And that, as you know, means the story is over.

“Huh?” Mimsy asked.

Bubba and the bouncy house

“Grandpa, you pro-m-m-m-m-is-sed!”

“OK. OK. If you all get into your beds, I’ll start the story. But, remember, I’m old. If you talk while I’m trying to …”

“Wait. Wait. It’s a baby story, right?” Mimsy shouted, and her two sleepover girlfriends nodded in agreement. “And my momma is in it, as the baby. Remember, her nickname was Bubba.”

Interrupted before I could start, I was still proud. Apparently, the first “Bubba” bedtime story had made an impression. Mimsy liked it enough to talk about it with her friends.

“OK. OK,” I said. “Do you remember the name of the last story? It was Bubba’s Special Backyard Spot.”

“I know. I know,” Mimsy said. “She was called Bubba cuz she was chubby, and she helped save the bunnies. Will she save someone again tonight?”

“Shh, remember, no interrupting. You and your friends will have to just listen. Let me get started. How many times do I gotta tell you that I am really old. And, I’m getting older by the millisecond here … OK, ready…”

Once upon a time, when Bubba was just a baby, I took her and her big brother to a party at a rich boy’s house.

That boy’s family had so much money they gave him very expensive parties, even when the occasion wasn’t that special. He got a party for being out of school for the summer, a party for going back to school in the fall, a party because he had been good when company came, a party after he was bad when company came but promised to be good.

He even got a party for too much time passing without his parents giving him a party.

Mimsy couldn’t hold back. “How much time? A month? A year? A week?”

“Shh!”

This particular party for the rich kid was called ‘A-month-should-not- go- by- without- a- party-party.’

“Does that answer your question Miss Mimsy,” I asked, and she stared at me with a smile, then mock anger. She put her finger to her lips and said in a sing-songy voice, “Shh. Someone is interrupting.”

I continued.

These were not just little parties either. The rich boy’s parents owned a big house with a big yard and they always had something exciting at their parties. One time it was a pony to ride; another time it was a superhero in costume. Once, they even had real clowns who could do magic!

This time, though, it was even better. They had a giant bounce house, and a bouncy slide!

In unison, Mimsy and her friends could not help but whisper “Wow.”

Well, as  you might expect, many of the bigger kids at the party, including Bubba’s big brother Luke, loved that bounce house, and could not get enough of the slide. It took a full hour before they took a break from bouncing to gobble up some cake and drink some juice.

I decided Bubba, who was too little to play with the rougher, larger kids, should get a chance to at least see what it was like inside that house, maybe scooch around while everyone else was busy. She was too young to crawl, I knew, or even roll over, but she would like the bright colors and the smooth plastic floor.

I was right. She smiled as I rocked the floor under her and she giggled when I pulled her around by her legs. I stopped so she could feel the walls, near one of the corners.

As Bubba explored that sun-warmed wall, I heard the rich boy talking angrily. Then he was shouting, then crying out, like a small dog trying to get out the door to bite the mailman.

‘Luke drank out of my soda cup,’ the rich boy wailed. “It has Luke germs now.” Luke shouted back, “I did not you big wimp. Stop your blubbering.’

I poked my head out of the bounce house, and I shouted for Luke to come to me. He turned to walk away the rich boy and his tantrum, but that boy continued his yelling, at Luke’s back.

‘You did, you dumb stupidhead. You stupid dumbhead. I’m going to give you some paybacks.’ Taller and older than Luke, the boy ran at him from behind. I called out for Luke to turn around but it was too late.

The bigger boy sent Luke sprawling on his belly on the asphalt near the garage. He rolled onto his back, holding both knees. They were bleeding.

I ran to him, but was too slow. He already had lunged and grabbed the rich boy by his ankles, growling and vowing revenge.

Bubba in the bounce house, meanwhile, decided this was the perfect time to learn to roll over. Arching her back, trying to feel for more of the wall of the bounce house, she got on to her side. Then she balanced and swayed … slowly … rocking … then to her belly!

Problem was, she was too close to the slippery corner and slid right down into the space between the floor and the walls. She was stuck, like a Sumo wrestler had her in a headlock. Her chubby cheek pressed against the hot plastic and her little right arm wedged in the seam between the floor and the wall.

She cried. She whimpered. She wriggled. Then, she thought back to the time she had to share a crib with her chubbier cousin, when he kicked her, his little round heel glancing off her cheek and coming to rest oh-so close to her mouth. She latched on with the only two teeth she had at the time.

Now, she had four teeth. So she bit hard, harder, then super-hard, shaking her head like a tiny dog who gets hold of the mailman.

The air from the big bounce house seeped out slowly at first, warming her cheeks with breath hotter than the plastic walls. The rip in the plastic spread quickly. Bubba felt a breeze from her cheeks to her chest, then a gust of air right at her plump belly. 

The air rushed around her, filling her little hoodie like a balloon.

By the time Luke and I rushed back to the door of the bounce house, a gust of air so strong  had lifted Bubba. She hung in the air, in the corner. The curved walls kept her from flying higher. She looked like a baby angel, glowing with the orange and yellow of the sun filtering through the bounce house walls, an angry fiery cherub but without the wings.

“My momma was like an astronaut, like a space man!” Mimsy shrieked, jumping up in her bed to bounce in the air. Her girlfriends followed suit.

I ssh’d them again.

“Don’t you want to know what happened next?” I asked, and they settled back into their covers.

I grabbed Bubba mid-air, just as the rich boy and his friends got to the opening of the bounce house. They gasped at seeing their first-ever flying baby. 

They forgot about the rich boy’s yelling.

He didn’t forget. ‘You broke my bounce house,’ he said to Bubba, charging toward me as I held her high.

‘You’re gonna get some paybacks…’

Luke blocked his path, staring, fuming, knees bent into the wrestling stance he learned at the YMCA. He spit at the boy’s feet.

‘Thanks so much for the fine, entertaining party,’ I said quickly, smiling and tousling the angry boy’s hair. ‘Sorry about that bounce house. Must’ve been a squirrel in there or something, or maybe a sharp toy. Who brought that plastic Batman with the grappling hook?’

‘Sorry but we have to leave. I have to get Luke home. Looks like someone caused him to hurt his knees.’

“Oh, I’d like to bite that rich boy,” said Nellie, Mimsy’s tallest girlfriend.

“Whoa, Nellie,” I said. I loved to tease her about her name. “Remember, this is just a bedtime story. All of you, listen carefully. Here is some advice from real life:

— Don’t think everyone who is rich is bad, but watch out for the spoiled rich kids.

— Don’t turn your back on someone who is mad enough to push you.

— Never leave a baby in a bounce house, or a hot car, not even for a second.

— Please, please. Don’t bite bounce houses; they taste terrible.

— Never, ever bite a rich kid. His dad is probably a lawyer.”