The Check Out Line (An excerpt)

…the following is an excerpt from a new collection of essays I’m writing gathered together under the heading of Home.

wagon-train

The Check Out Lane

 

It’s odd packing up a house, a home. This was the third home my wife and I had owned in the Nashville area. It was the home we planned on having our children grow up in. The home they would return too with their own children. We had lived in this particular house for eight years. My wife Sandy and I have never really been a collector of stuff. We both try to be chill with the whole American avarice way of life. Still, we had plenty needing boxes, and boxes needing tape, so off to the store I went.

 

I have always been a fan of names. Nothing beats a great sounding name, and there is something to be said for the meaning of a name. But mostly, I just like the way a good name sounds.  Derek Hoke. Go ahead just say it out loud. That name has a presence. Winston Churchill. Mahatma Gandhi. Jesse James. Betty Crocker. These are great names to speak out loud. I like names, which is why I like name tags on the workforce that deal face to face with the consumer. Anytime anywhere a name tag is being displayed I use it.

“Paper or plastic sir?”

“I’ll take paper, please. Thanks, Gary.”

“Do you have a preferred customer card, sir?”

“I do Edith. Thanks for asking. That’s a great name…Edith. An old name, you don’t hear that name too often anymore. I like it.”

 

“Thanks…it was yes, my Grandmothers name. It took me a while to own it.”

 

“I get it, but you wear it well. And, those black horn-rimmed glasses work perfectly with your face Edith.”

 

You get the idea. We aren’t nameless and faceless generations. People have names.  Sometimes there is a great story along with that name. People have names so I use them when I know them. Name tags help.

 

Her name was Jasmine. She was a black woman within the vicinity of my age. She was running the cash register and ringing up my boxes and tape. I said hello, and she returned a big beautiful smile and a friendly hello. People like it when we use their names. Nobody likes to be called, ‘Hey You,’ ‘Bud,’ ‘Chief,’ ‘Hey Lady’, or any other generic classification. Jasmine asked if I was enjoying the morning. I told her mostly yes, but also a little sad because we were moving. She asked to where and I told her Minnesota to where my entire family hailed from and still lived.

 

In the span it takes to complete a Southern check-out line transaction, Jasmine told me how she was originally from Chicago, hadn’t been home in fifteen years due to a falling out with her mama. How there were too many hurts to go back, “And maybe’ she said, ‘just a bit too much pride to return.’ She pauses, looks right at me, she smiles, and then speaking directly to the soul of the matter she says, “Forgiveness and redemption are powerful things.”

 

Bam! Straight to the heart.

 

She smiled again though not quite as strongly as before and then made the one confession all of us feel, “I wish I believed they were for me too.” She thanked me and told me to have a safe move. Others were waiting with their wares and off I went.

 

Redemption and forgiveness. These two actions were profound in the decision to move back home, back to the family. I have some wonderful memories of childhood, not many, but the ones I do have I keep and treasure. Childhood, however, ended quickly.

 

My father and I did not have a good relationship at all when I was growing up. At all. Dad was an alcoholic, distant, moody, mean and abusive. The only thing predictable growing up was the unpredictability. Our family moved nine times between kindergarten to the middle of my fourth grade.  But the deal was, I wanted a relationship with my father. Over time and distance edges softened and animosities became irrelevant.  I married my wife when I was thirty-three years old. At our wedding, my father told me he was proud of me and that he loved me. It was the first time he had ever said those words to me.

 

For a grown man who is longing for a father, those words are everthing.

 

Still, there is only so much mending that can take place when you live five states apart from one another. Twice a year visits only allow for little steps. My dad isn’t much of a letter writer, and I don’t like talking on the phone. So there you go. In 2013 my dad was diagnosed with dementia. It has been rapidly progressing. Little steps were no longer going to do, some side by side walking was going to be required. Time was a’ wastin’, thirty years of life had to be packed up along with four kids and a dog. If Kenny the cat decides to show up, he can come too.

 

Redemption and forgiveness are powerful things.

 

The morning of packing, taping, stacking, the reality of moving my family and leaving my home for the last thirty years had all my thoughts in disarray. So much so that right outside the box store a young man was selling hot dogs from a small wheeled stand and I decided to get one.

 

Here’s the thing, we all know that we shouldn’t eat hot dogs. Here’s the other thing, if you don’t have the internal intestinal fortitude to on occasion muster up the courage to eat a dirty water hotdog from a street corner vendor, preferably in NYC, then really, you don’t have any business wasting everyone else’s oxygen. Said another way; if you can’t chance to eat a dirty water hotdog every now and again, you have no business living life.  Point being, life is all about the experience. We have come too dependent on having a 90% probability rate of success before we even begin the discussions of stepping out into the ‘unknown’.  I don’t know what’s going to happen when I take that first bite of enriched white flour slotted with a tube of processed meat scraps, decorated in simple yellow mustard and diced onion sprinkles. That’s the point. Everything is a gamble; fruit, love, used cars, traveling by subway through any major metropolitan city, relying on stressed out air-traffic controllers operating on antiquated hackable computer systems…everything is a gamble. So eat a fucking hotdog once in a while, or moving back home, both are a gamble, both could satisfy your belly or make you vomit. Probably a little of both.

 

Ricky didn’t have a name tag, so I asked him his name. After all, he did sell me a hot dog and a healthy bottle of water from the tap down the street. Ricky I suppose was about maybe twenty-years old and seemed a touch agitated. Even though I noticed, I didn’t ask him why. I was moving through the morning with my own set of curiosities.  But as it is, it seems I have a friendly enough face accompanied with larger ears that appear to shout, “I’m listening.” Even though I mostly wear dark prescription sunglasses as a deterrent, it makes no never mind, beans will spill. It’s been that way my whole life for the most part.

 

“Did I give you the correct change man? I’m sorry, I’m a little tired.” Ricky asked.

 

“Yes sir boss, I didn’t ask for any change, the rest was a tip,” I replied. I was getting ready to thank him and then make my way to my truck with my boxes and tape, dirty water hotdog and my clean bottle of tap water, but, I’ve lived in the South a long time, and I move I suppose a bit slower.

 

“That’s right.” He offered. “I’m just tired. We had to put my little sister in the nut house last night. She was freaking out. Really a bad deal.”

 

The Nut House is one way of describing it I suppose. “I’m sorry to hear she’s in the hospital.”

 

“Yea, she’s actually my twin sister, but since I was born first, I call her my younger sister.” He says this with a slight fond smile. His eyes are far away. “Yea, she’s always been kind of different, she can draw really good. I mean like really good. Uses ball point pens, and you’d think you were looking at a real camera picture. She’s amazing. But, yeah, she’s whacked in the head.”

 

Hasn’t it always been this way? The artistic ones, those who see and hear the world differently than all the rest. The conflicted ones, the defiant ones, the visionaries, the spiritual, the addicted, the abused, the already tortured ones, the ones that create beauty with ballpoint pens, these are the ‘ones’, that we label and confine… actions we assume are for the safety of all, especially themselves.

 

“Yea, she probably needs medication and all, but who can afford the Doc? Medicine is expensive without insurance, you know?”

 

“No doubt about that.” I offered. I also would have offered how Big Pharma has us all by the short hairs, but I didn’t think that comment would register, so I put my hot dog and chips in my ‘buggy,’ which for you folks above the Mason-Dixon Line – a buggy, is a shopping cart. I was ready to roll out into the paved paradise of the parking lot, because, where else is this conversation going to go?

 

“Yea, my girlfriend was really freaking out last night about the whole thing so I finally had to ‘put her in check.’”

 

He said it so easily. I doubt if he even knew the connotation of that little phrase, ‘put her in check.’ It was a phrase I was familiar with. It’s a phrase that is common in relationships and households where abuse is present. When you ‘put someone in check’, you are essentially exerting some form of physical force to create an atmosphere that is more conducive for the limited range of emotions the abuser is capable of processing. Smacking someone in the mouth in order to stabilize some silence is the standard modus operandi.

 

Here’s an example of ‘putting someone in check’.  For a few seasons when I was younger my family would go camping. We had an old 16 foot camper and during the summer our family and the family across the street would go camping. Not too far and to no place elaborate. A little camping ground about ten miles away that had acres of wooded trails, a river and an old mini zoo for animals that couldn’t return to the wild. In particular, I always remember there was a smaller black bear there at the zoo. The story was the bear had a lobotomy of some sort and consequently the bear was left to only stare straight ahead through an iron cage while pacing back in forth which consisted in the bear taking all of three steps before turning back. That bear always intrigued me. During those times we were camping, and everyone else was pre-occupied with something else I would walk over to the little zoo and sit cross-legged on the ground in front of the bear who was imprisoned in his own mind and completely oblivious to me.

 

One camping trip the neighbor boys and I were engaging in a water balloon fight. We were getting raucous and loud as twelve-year-old boys are prone to do. I remember they were great balloons. Thin skinned and strong, attributes the adult version of me likes to see in a condom. Only these balloons would explode on contact. Not what I’m looking for in a protective prophylactic wrap. Anyway, everyone is having fun. All of the adults that were present were a bit wet as well. It was a hot day, we were camping, no one minded that we were loud and running around. As a matter of fact, I think our families were the only ones in the campground.

 

I remember smiling. I remember our little-faded beige camper was parked under a small canopy of Black Walnut trees. Opaque colors of red and blue, green and yellow, were ripping through the sky like jellyfish slung through a slingshot. It was a grand enough moment for a boy to remember. Even the neighbor Dad, who could be a bit curmudgeonly with his ever present filter less Chesterfield cigarette hanging from his mouth, was laughing and sporting a white wet tee shirt and sixty-year-old man breasts. He was cupping his Chesterfield trying to keep it dry which was useless. I always remember that cigarette dangling from his mouth wearing the wet white tee shirt and some sort of bronze colored plaid shorts, extremely white legs, black crew socks with campfire slippers and whipping a full water balloon at his son like he was Nolan Ryan or something. It was a perfect throw connecting with his son Bobby’s chest and exploding right up into his face. Of course, this brought a huge uproar of hoots and hollers from all of us.

 

It was then my dad came walking around from behind the camper. It was then in my joy that I chose to throw a water balloon at my dad who had not been previously participating. I remember throwing the balloon tentatively. I didn’t want to throw it too hard and surprise him. The water balloon caught him on the upper outer shoulder, enough to give a spray of hello but nothing more than that.  My father’s reply was to grab this blue ceramic soap dish from the picnic table and in turn made his own Nolan impression and through that blue ceramic soap dish right at me. I had enough time to turn my back and take the pitch. It hit me square in the spine. Oh, it hurt. It was downright painful the ceramic connecting with bone. I wanted to cry out it hurt. I wanted to cry out, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” I wanted to cry out and crumple where I stood. Instead of all that, I just walked away with my eyes closed crying out on the inside. I hadn’t taken but one or two steps when I heard my dad say, “He was getting out of hand, I had to put him in check.”

 

The incident of the flying ceramic soap dish was never mentioned. No one said boo to me about it. There were a lot of ‘flying ceramic soap dishes’ that no one talked about.

 

I sat in my truck eating my hotdog wondering exactly why it is I was going back home again?  Whether I liked it or not, I was returning back to the scene of a lot of shitty memories. Memories are important. They aren’t meant to be lived in, but still useful in the journey.  We have to move forward; we have to live in such a way that we are creating new memories. Memories create patterns and pathways in our brains that can either propel us forward or hold us back. We all know the saying, insanity is not changing what you’re doing and expecting a different result. My memories of family aren’t all that great. I’m not altogether convinced the memories I’m creating with my own family aren’t all that great. So, perhaps it’s a call deep and innate within me that guides me back home. Perhaps it’s because the land and the people are my heritage. Perhaps it’s the first born son of a first born son of a first born son…who has now his own, first born son. Maybe it is bringing together these generations of first born men to affect the change needed for future generations.  This, of course, requires being present on a day to day environment. My father is seventy -eight years old now. He is slow and forgetful. He takes a lot of naps. My oldest son only knows his Poppa as a relatively docile cat, contrary to how I knew my own grandfather, who was, you guessed it a hard, hard man. Hard working, hard drinking, quick to the bottle and quick with a hand. Do I have these same tendencies slamming around inside of me bursting to get out? Of course, I do. Do I let them out? Of course, I have. Have I ever let them out on my wife and children? No, I have not. Granted, I’ve cussed the shit out of my oldest son, of which I am ashamed. But I have never laid a hand on him, and I’ve loved him well. Or as well as I can. Most people would say I am a highly engaged dad, and I am to all four of my children. But I am far from perfect. It’s fair to say that I’m even inconsistent in my moods and my ability to always stay calm in the heat of the moment. But I’m working on it, daily, all the time…because I want my family to have a different modus operandi than the one I grew up with. I wish I could paint a picture here of how awesome it all is, family, but it’s not always awesome. It’s damn difficult most of the time. Marriage ain’t easy either. None of it is for the faint of heart. The faint of heart need not apply.

 

Change must be intentional. Change must be experienced. Change forces us to grow whether we like it or not.

 

I started up my truck and drove out of the parking lot. On the way home I forgot I needed a toilet plunger. So I stopped off at the other box store which was conveniently located across the street from the other box store. Streets of box stores are what happens when city planners and eager young developers are raving mad capitalist who both forgets about all the other things that make a city great like sidewalks, parks and trees and shit like that.

 

Back to the Check Out Line. I’m standing there with my plunger which I hand to the check-out lady. She is an elderly woman. She has the look of a kindly church lady. I look at her name tag expecting again to see the name of Edith stenciled across, but nope, her name is Gabriella. Gabriella. Go figure.

 

“You got toilet troubles Sugar?” She asked. She was grinning. I think she was hoping I’d say yes. I immediately liked her.

 

“No Ma’am. Actually, (and by this time of the morning I was already having second thoughts, doubts, well, more like a, what the hell am I doing?! Moment) well, I’m moving.”

 

“Well isn’t that nice. Y’all getting yourself a bigger house?”

 

I thought about Gabby’s question. I was moving from a 4 bedroom, 4 bathroom, 2 car garage, 3100 sq ft house with a one-acre lot, located on a forgotten quiet circle across the street from Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, TN. My family and I for at least the time being, were moving to a 5 bedroom, 2 bathroom, 1800 SQ foot 100-year-old farm house with 4 acres, a river, located in a small town in Minnesota with the population 1,200 scattered souls. A village actually, with two stop signs and no stop lights. I had no idea if I was indeed moving into something “bigger”.

 

I looked at Gabriella with a bittersweet taste in my mouth and said, because I really felt it at that moment, “Unfortunately, I’m moving up North.”

 

“Oh my God!” she said while grasping at the locket hanging around her neck. With such a dramatic reaction one would think she just came upon her calico cat on the road smashed and ground dead. Totally unrecognizable except for the cats little bright blue collar and a name tag that contrasted so pleasantly against the asphalt.

 

“Where in God’s name are you moving to?”

 

“Minnesota.” I hung my head, almost holding back a tear.

 

“Minnesota.” She whispered back to me, barely even able to say the name. She practically lip-synched it.

 

Gabriella had that warm, inviting smile and that warm, slow easy hello that all true Southerners have. She reached out and clasped both her hands around mine. She looked up at me and into my eyes. Her eyes,  were so kind and gentle and in them, I saw all that I have grown to love about the South. After all, I have lived most of my life in the South. At this writing well over half my lifetime, and twice as long as I used to live in Minnesota previously. I wanted to cry. I think Gabriella, in her wisdom and age, and being a woman, perhaps she instinctively knew that. She smiled ever so softly and said with even a hint of sorrow in her own voice, as if I was going off to fight the war of Northern Aggression she said the words I’ve heard a millions times before, “Well, bless Your Heart.”

 

Which is a traditional Southern euphemism when correctly sugar coated means, “I’m, so, so sorry…I’m glad it’s you and not me.”

 

This isn’t true of course. It really means, “You sorry sap.” No, it doesn’t mean that either. It just means, “I’m sorry.”

 

As I walked out through the box stores sliding glass doors I heard Gabriella call out that ol’ Rebel yell, “Give ‘em Hell!”

The Check Out Lane

 

It’s odd packing up a house, a home. This was the third home my wife and I had owned in the Nashville area. It was the home we planned on having our children grow up in. The home they would return too with their own children. We had lived in this particular house for eight years. My wife Sandy and I have never really been a collector of stuff. We both try to be chill with the whole American avarice way of life. Still, we had plenty needing boxes, and boxes needing tape, so off to the store I went.

 

I have always been a fan of names. Nothing beats a great sounding name, and there is something to be said for the meaning of a name. But mostly, I just like the way a good name sounds.  Derek Hoke. Go ahead just say it out loud. That name has a presence. Winston Churchill. Mahatma Gandhi. Jesse James. Betty Crocker. These are great names to speak out loud. I like names, which is why I like name tags on the workforce that deal face to face with the consumer. Anytime anywhere a name tag is being displayed I use it.

“Paper or plastic sir?”

“I’ll take paper, please. Thanks, Gary.”

“Do you have a preferred customer card, sir?”

“I do Edith. Thanks for asking. That’s a great name…Edith. An old name, you don’t hear that name too often anymore. I like it.”

 

“Thanks…it was yes, my Grandmothers name. It took me a while to own it.”

 

“I get it, but you wear it well. And, those black horn-rimmed glasses work perfectly with your face Edith.”

 

You get the idea. We aren’t nameless and faceless generations. People have names.  Sometimes there is a great story along with that name. People have names so I use them when I know them. Name tags help.

 

Her name was Jasmine. She was a black woman within the vicinity of my age. She was running the cash register and ringing up my boxes and tape. I said hello, and she returned a big beautiful smile and a friendly hello. People like it when we use their names. Nobody likes to be called, ‘Hey You,’ ‘Bud,’ ‘Chief,’ ‘Hey Lady’, or any other generic classification. Jasmine asked if I was enjoying the morning. I told her mostly yes, but also a little sad because we were moving. She asked to where and I told her Minnesota to where my entire family hailed from and still lived.

 

In the span it takes to complete a Southern check-out line transaction, Jasmine told me how she was originally from Chicago, hadn’t been home in fifteen years due to a falling out with her mama. How there were too many hurts to go back, “And maybe’ she said, ‘just a bit too much pride to return.’ She pauses, looks right at me, she smiles, and then speaking directly to the soul of the matter she says, “Forgiveness and redemption are powerful things.”

 

Bam! Straight to the heart.

 

She smiled again though not quite as strongly as before and then made the one confession all of us feel, “I wish I believed they were for me too.” She thanked me and told me to have a safe move. Others were waiting with their wares and off I went.

 

Redemption and forgiveness. These two actions were profound in the decision to move back home, back to the family. I have some wonderful memories of childhood, not many, but the ones I do have I keep and treasure. Childhood, however, ended quickly.

 

My father and I did not have a good relationship at all when I was growing up. At all. Dad was an alcoholic, distant, moody, mean and abusive. The only thing predictable growing up was the unpredictability. Our family moved nine times between kindergarten to the middle of my fourth grade.  But the deal was, I wanted a relationship with my father. Over time and distance edges softened and animosities became irrelevant.  I married my wife when I was thirty-three years old. At our wedding, my father told me he was proud of me and that he loved me. It was the first time he had ever said those words to me.

 

For a grown man who is longing for a father, those words are everthing.

 

Still, there is only so much mending that can take place when you live five states apart from one another. Twice a year visits only allow for little steps. My dad isn’t much of a letter writer, and I don’t like talking on the phone. So there you go. In 2013 my dad was diagnosed with dementia. It has been rapidly progressing. Little steps were no longer going to do, some side by side walking was going to be required. Time was a’ wastin’, thirty years of life had to be packed up along with four kids and a dog. If Kenny the cat decides to show up, he can come too.

 

Redemption and forgiveness are powerful things.

 

The morning of packing, taping, stacking, the reality of moving my family and leaving my home for the last thirty years had all my thoughts in disarray. So much so that right outside the box store a young man was selling hot dogs from a small wheeled stand and I decided to get one.

 

Here’s the thing, we all know that we shouldn’t eat hot dogs. Here’s the other thing, if you don’t have the internal intestinal fortitude to on occasion muster up the courage to eat a dirty water hotdog from a street corner vendor, preferably in NYC, then really, you don’t have any business wasting everyone else’s oxygen. Said another way; if you can’t chance to eat a dirty water hotdog every now and again, you have no business living life.  Point being, life is all about the experience. We have come too dependent on having a 90% probability rate of success before we even begin the discussions of stepping out into the ‘unknown’.  I don’t know what’s going to happen when I take that first bite of enriched white flour slotted with a tube of processed meat scraps, decorated in simple yellow mustard and diced onion sprinkles. That’s the point. Everything is a gamble; fruit, love, used cars, traveling by subway through any major metropolitan city, relying on stressed out air-traffic controllers operating on antiquated hackable computer systems…everything is a gamble. So eat a fucking hotdog once in a while, or moving back home, both are a gamble, both could satisfy your belly or make you vomit. Probably a little of both.

 

Ricky didn’t have a name tag, so I asked him his name. After all, he did sell me a hot dog and a healthy bottle of water from the tap down the street. Ricky I suppose was about maybe twenty-years old and seemed a touch agitated. Even though I noticed, I didn’t ask him why. I was moving through the morning with my own set of curiosities.  But as it is, it seems I have a friendly enough face accompanied with larger ears that appear to shout, “I’m listening.” Even though I mostly wear dark prescription sunglasses as a deterrent, it makes no never mind, beans will spill. It’s been that way my whole life for the most part.

 

“Did I give you the correct change man? I’m sorry, I’m a little tired.” Ricky asked.

 

“Yes sir boss, I didn’t ask for any change, the rest was a tip,” I replied. I was getting ready to thank him and then make my way to my truck with my boxes and tape, dirty water hotdog and my clean bottle of tap water, but, I’ve lived in the South a long time, and I move I suppose a bit slower.

 

“That’s right.” He offered. “I’m just tired. We had to put my little sister in the nut house last night. She was freaking out. Really a bad deal.”

 

The Nut House is one way of describing it I suppose. “I’m sorry to hear she’s in the hospital.”

 

“Yea, she’s actually my twin sister, but since I was born first, I call her my younger sister.” He says this with a slight fond smile. His eyes are far away. “Yea, she’s always been kind of different, she can draw really good. I mean like really good. Uses ball point pens, and you’d think you were looking at a real camera picture. She’s amazing. But, yeah, she’s whacked in the head.”

 

Hasn’t it always been this way? The artistic ones, those who see and hear the world differently than all the rest. The conflicted ones, the defiant ones, the visionaries, the spiritual, the addicted, the abused, the already tortured ones, the ones that create beauty with ballpoint pens, these are the ‘ones’, that we label and confine… actions we assume are for the safety of all, especially themselves.

 

“Yea, she probably needs medication and all, but who can afford the Doc? Medicine is expensive without insurance, you know?”

 

“No doubt about that.” I offered. I also would have offered how Big Pharma has us all by the short hairs, but I didn’t think that comment would register, so I put my hot dog and chips in my ‘buggy,’ which for you folks above the Mason-Dixon Line – a buggy, is a shopping cart. I was ready to roll out into the paved paradise of the parking lot, because, where else is this conversation going to go?

 

“Yea, my girlfriend was really freaking out last night about the whole thing so I finally had to ‘put her in check.’”

 

He said it so easily. I doubt if he even knew the connotation of that little phrase, ‘put her in check.’ It was a phrase I was familiar with. It’s a phrase that is common in relationships and households where abuse is present. When you ‘put someone in check’, you are essentially exerting some form of physical force to create an atmosphere that is more conducive for the limited range of emotions the abuser is capable of processing. Smacking someone in the mouth in order to stabilize some silence is the standard modus operandi.

 

Here’s an example of ‘putting someone in check’.  For a few seasons when I was younger my family would go camping. We had an old 16 foot camper and during the summer our family and the family across the street would go camping. Not too far and to no place elaborate. A little camping ground about ten miles away that had acres of wooded trails, a river and an old mini zoo for animals that couldn’t return to the wild. In particular, I always remember there was a smaller black bear there at the zoo. The story was the bear had a lobotomy of some sort and consequently the bear was left to only stare straight ahead through an iron cage while pacing back in forth which consisted in the bear taking all of three steps before turning back. That bear always intrigued me. During those times we were camping, and everyone else was pre-occupied with something else I would walk over to the little zoo and sit cross-legged on the ground in front of the bear who was imprisoned in his own mind and completely oblivious to me.

 

One camping trip the neighbor boys and I were engaging in a water balloon fight. We were getting raucous and loud as twelve-year-old boys are prone to do. I remember they were great balloons. Thin skinned and strong, attributes the adult version of me likes to see in a condom. Only these balloons would explode on contact. Not what I’m looking for in a protective prophylactic wrap. Anyway, everyone is having fun. All of the adults that were present were a bit wet as well. It was a hot day, we were camping, no one minded that we were loud and running around. As a matter of fact, I think our families were the only ones in the campground.

 

I remember smiling. I remember our little-faded beige camper was parked under a small canopy of Black Walnut trees. Opaque colors of red and blue, green and yellow, were ripping through the sky like jellyfish slung through a slingshot. It was a grand enough moment for a boy to remember. Even the neighbor Dad, who could be a bit curmudgeonly with his ever present filter less Chesterfield cigarette hanging from his mouth, was laughing and sporting a white wet tee shirt and sixty-year-old man breasts. He was cupping his Chesterfield trying to keep it dry which was useless. I always remember that cigarette dangling from his mouth wearing the wet white tee shirt and some sort of bronze colored plaid shorts, extremely white legs, black crew socks with campfire slippers and whipping a full water balloon at his son like he was Nolan Ryan or something. It was a perfect throw connecting with his son Bobby’s chest and exploding right up into his face. Of course, this brought a huge uproar of hoots and hollers from all of us.

 

It was then my dad came walking around from behind the camper. It was then in my joy that I chose to throw a water balloon at my dad who had not been previously participating. I remember throwing the balloon tentatively. I didn’t want to throw it too hard and surprise him. The water balloon caught him on the upper outer shoulder, enough to give a spray of hello but nothing more than that.  My father’s reply was to grab this blue ceramic soap dish from the picnic table and in turn made his own Nolan impression and through that blue ceramic soap dish right at me. I had enough time to turn my back and take the pitch. It hit me square in the spine. Oh, it hurt. It was downright painful the ceramic connecting with bone. I wanted to cry out it hurt. I wanted to cry out, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” I wanted to cry out and crumple where I stood. Instead of all that, I just walked away with my eyes closed crying out on the inside. I hadn’t taken but one or two steps when I heard my dad say, “He was getting out of hand, I had to put him in check.”

 

The incident of the flying ceramic soap dish was never mentioned. No one said boo to me about it. There were a lot of ‘flying ceramic soap dishes’ that no one talked about.

 

I sat in my truck eating my hotdog wondering exactly why it is I was going back home again?  Whether I liked it or not, I was returning back to the scene of a lot of shitty memories. Memories are important. They aren’t meant to be lived in, but still useful in the journey.  We have to move forward; we have to live in such a way that we are creating new memories. Memories create patterns and pathways in our brains that can either propel us forward or hold us back. We all know the saying, insanity is not changing what you’re doing and expecting a different result. My memories of family aren’t all that great. I’m not altogether convinced the memories I’m creating with my own family aren’t all that great. So, perhaps it’s a call deep and innate within me that guides me back home. Perhaps it’s because the land and the people are my heritage. Perhaps it’s the first born son of a first born son of a first born son…who has now his own, first born son. Maybe it is bringing together these generations of first born men to affect the change needed for future generations.  This, of course, requires being present on a day to day environment. My father is seventy -eight years old now. He is slow and forgetful. He takes a lot of naps. My oldest son only knows his Poppa as a relatively docile cat, contrary to how I knew my own grandfather, who was, you guessed it a hard, hard man. Hard working, hard drinking, quick to the bottle and quick with a hand. Do I have these same tendencies slamming around inside of me bursting to get out? Of course, I do. Do I let them out? Of course, I have. Have I ever let them out on my wife and children? No, I have not. Granted, I’ve cussed the shit out of my oldest son, of which I am ashamed. But I have never laid a hand on him, and I’ve loved him well. Or as well as I can. Most people would say I am a highly engaged dad, and I am to all four of my children. But I am far from perfect. It’s fair to say that I’m even inconsistent in my moods and my ability to always stay calm in the heat of the moment. But I’m working on it, daily, all the time…because I want my family to have a different modus operandi than the one I grew up with. I wish I could paint a picture here of how awesome it all is, family, but it’s not always awesome. It’s damn difficult most of the time. Marriage ain’t easy either. None of it is for the faint of heart. The faint of heart need not apply.

 

Change must be intentional. Change must be experienced. Change forces us to grow whether we like it or not.

 

I started up my truck and drove out of the parking lot. On the way home I forgot I needed a toilet plunger. So I stopped off at the other box store which was conveniently located across the street from the other box store. Streets of box stores are what happens when city planners and eager young developers are raving mad capitalist who both forgets about all the other things that make a city great like sidewalks, parks and trees and shit like that.

 

Back to the Check Out Line. I’m standing there with my plunger which I hand to the check-out lady. She is an elderly woman. She has the look of a kindly church lady. I look at her name tag expecting again to see the name of Edith stenciled across, but nope, her name is Gabriella. Gabriella. Go figure.

 

“You got toilet troubles Sugar?” She asked. She was grinning. I think she was hoping I’d say yes. I immediately liked her.

 

“No Ma’am. Actually, (and by this time of the morning I was already having second thoughts, doubts, well, more like a, what the hell am I doing?! Moment) well, I’m moving.”

 

“Well isn’t that nice. Y’all getting yourself a bigger house?”

 

I thought about Gabby’s question. I was moving from a 4 bedroom, 4 bathroom, 2 car garage, 3100 sq ft house with a one-acre lot, located on a forgotten quiet circle across the street from Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, TN. My family and I for at least the time being, were moving to a 5 bedroom, 2 bathroom, 1800 SQ foot 100-year-old farm house with 4 acres, a river, located in a small town in Minnesota with the population 1,200 scattered souls. A village actually, with two stop signs and no stop lights. I had no idea if I was indeed moving into something “bigger”.

 

I looked at Gabriella with a bittersweet taste in my mouth and said, because I really felt it at that moment, “Unfortunately, I’m moving up North.”

 

“Oh my God!” she said while grasping at the locket hanging around her neck. With such a dramatic reaction one would think she just came upon her calico cat on the road smashed and ground dead. Totally unrecognizable except for the cats little bright blue collar and a name tag that contrasted so pleasantly against the asphalt.

 

“Where in God’s name are you moving to?”

 

“Minnesota.” I hung my head, almost holding back a tear.

 

“Minnesota.” She whispered back to me, barely even able to say the name. She practically lip-synched it.

 

Gabriella had that warm, inviting smile and that warm, slow easy hello that all true Southerners have. She reached out and clasped both her hands around mine. She looked up at me and into my eyes. Her eyes,  were so kind and gentle and in them, I saw all that I have grown to love about the South. After all, I have lived most of my life in the South. At this writing well over half my lifetime, and twice as long as I used to live in Minnesota previously. I wanted to cry. I think Gabriella, in her wisdom and age, and being a woman, perhaps she instinctively knew that. She smiled ever so softly and said with even a hint of sorrow in her own voice, as if I was going off to fight the war of Northern Aggression she said the words I’ve heard a millions times before, “Well, bless Your Heart.”

 

Which is a traditional Southern euphemism when correctly sugar coated means, “I’m, so, so sorry…I’m glad it’s you and not me.”

 

This isn’t true of course. It really means, “You sorry sap.” No, it doesn’t mean that either. It just means, “I’m sorry.”

 

As I walked out through the box stores sliding glass doors I heard Gabriella call out that ol’ Rebel yell, “Give ‘em Hell!”

The Check Out Lane

It’s odd packing up a house, a home. This was the third home my wife and I had owned in the Nashville area. It was the home we planned on having our children grow up in. The home they would return too with their own children. We had lived in this particular house for eight years. My wife Sandy and I have never really been a collector of stuff. We both try to be chill with the whole American avarice way of life. Still, we had plenty needing boxes, and boxes needing tape, so off to the store I went.

I have always been a fan of names. Nothing beats a great sounding name, and there is something to be said for the meaning of a name. But mostly, I just like the way a good name sounds. Derek Hoke. Go ahead just say it out loud. That name has a presence. Winston Churchill. Mahatma Gandhi. Jesse James. Betty Crocker. These are great names to speak out loud. I like names, which is why I like name tags on the workforce that deal face to face with the consumer. Anytime anywhere a name tag is being displayed I use it.
“Paper or plastic sir?”
“I’ll take paper, please. Thanks, Gary.”
“Do you have a preferred customer card, sir?”
“I do Edith. Thanks for asking. That’s a great name…Edith. An old name, you don’t hear that name too often anymore. I like it.”

“Thanks…it was yes, my Grandmothers name. It took me a while to own it.”

“I get it, but you wear it well. And, those black horn-rimmed glasses work perfectly with your face Edith.”

You get the idea. We aren’t nameless and faceless generations. People have names. Sometimes there is a great story along with that name. People have names so I use them when I know them. Name tags help.

Her name was Jasmine. She was a black woman within the vicinity of my age. She was running the cash register and ringing up my boxes and tape. I said hello, and she returned a big beautiful smile and a friendly hello. People like it when we use their names. Nobody likes to be called, ‘Hey You,’ ‘Bud,’ ‘Chief,’ ‘Hey Lady’, or any other generic classification. Jasmine asked if I was enjoying the morning. I told her mostly yes, but also a little sad because we were moving. She asked to where and I told her Minnesota to where my entire family hailed from and still lived.

In the span it takes to complete a Southern check-out line transaction, Jasmine told me how she was originally from Chicago, hadn’t been home in fifteen years due to a falling out with her mama. How there were too many hurts to go back, “And maybe’ she said, ‘just a bit too much pride to return.’ She pauses, looks right at me, she smiles, and then speaking directly to the soul of the matter she says, “Forgiveness and redemption are powerful things.”

Bam! Straight to the heart.

She smiled again though not quite as strongly as before and then made the one confession all of us feel, “I wish I believed they were for me too.” She thanked me and told me to have a safe move. Others were waiting with their wares and off I went.

Redemption and forgiveness. These two actions were profound in the decision to move back home, back to the family. I have some wonderful memories of childhood, not many, but the ones I do have I keep and treasure. Childhood, however, ended quickly.

My father and I did not have a good relationship at all when I was growing up. At all. Dad was an alcoholic, distant, moody, mean and abusive. The only thing predictable growing up was the unpredictability. Our family moved nine times between kindergarten to the middle of my fourth grade. But the deal was, I wanted a relationship with my father. Over time and distance edges softened and animosities became irrelevant. I married my wife when I was thirty-three years old. At our wedding, my father told me he was proud of me and that he loved me. It was the first time he had ever said those words to me.

For a grown man who is longing for a father, those words are everthing.

Still, there is only so much mending that can take place when you live five states apart from one another. Twice a year visits only allow for little steps. My dad isn’t much of a letter writer, and I don’t like talking on the phone. So there you go. In 2013 my dad was diagnosed with dementia. It has been rapidly progressing. Little steps were no longer going to do, some side by side walking was going to be required. Time was a’ wastin’, thirty years of life had to be packed up along with four kids and a dog. If Kenny the cat decides to show up, he can come too.

Redemption and forgiveness are powerful things.

The morning of packing, taping, stacking, the reality of moving my family and leaving my home for the last thirty years had all my thoughts in disarray. So much so that right outside the box store a young man was selling hot dogs from a small wheeled stand and I decided to get one.

Here’s the thing, we all know that we shouldn’t eat hot dogs. Here’s the other thing, if you don’t have the internal intestinal fortitude to on occasion muster up the courage to eat a dirty water hotdog from a street corner vendor, preferably in NYC, then really, you don’t have any business wasting everyone else’s oxygen. Said another way; if you can’t chance to eat a dirty water hotdog every now and again, you have no business living life. Point being, life is all about the experience. We have come too dependent on having a 90% probability rate of success before we even begin the discussions of stepping out into the ‘unknown’. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I take that first bite of enriched white flour slotted with a tube of processed meat scraps, decorated in simple yellow mustard and diced onion sprinkles. That’s the point. Everything is a gamble; fruit, love, used cars, traveling by subway through any major metropolitan city, relying on stressed out air-traffic controllers operating on antiquated hackable computer systems…everything is a gamble. So eat a fucking hotdog once in a while, or moving back home, both are a gamble, both could satisfy your belly or make you vomit. Probably a little of both.

Ricky didn’t have a name tag, so I asked him his name. After all, he did sell me a hot dog and a healthy bottle of water from the tap down the street. Ricky I suppose was about maybe twenty-years old and seemed a touch agitated. Even though I noticed, I didn’t ask him why. I was moving through the morning with my own set of curiosities. But as it is, it seems I have a friendly enough face accompanied with larger ears that appear to shout, “I’m listening.” Even though I mostly wear dark prescription sunglasses as a deterrent, it makes no never mind, beans will spill. It’s been that way my whole life for the most part.

“Did I give you the correct change man? I’m sorry, I’m a little tired.” Ricky asked.

“Yes sir boss, I didn’t ask for any change, the rest was a tip,” I replied. I was getting ready to thank him and then make my way to my truck with my boxes and tape, dirty water hotdog and my clean bottle of tap water, but, I’ve lived in the South a long time, and I move I suppose a bit slower.

“That’s right.” He offered. “I’m just tired. We had to put my little sister in the nut house last night. She was freaking out. Really a bad deal.”

The Nut House is one way of describing it I suppose. “I’m sorry to hear she’s in the hospital.”

“Yea, she’s actually my twin sister, but since I was born first, I call her my younger sister.” He says this with a slight fond smile. His eyes are far away. “Yea, she’s always been kind of different, she can draw really good. I mean like really good. Uses ball point pens, and you’d think you were looking at a real camera picture. She’s amazing. But, yeah, she’s whacked in the head.”

Hasn’t it always been this way? The artistic ones, those who see and hear the world differently than all the rest. The conflicted ones, the defiant ones, the visionaries, the spiritual, the addicted, the abused, the already tortured ones, the ones that create beauty with ballpoint pens, these are the ‘ones’, that we label and confine… actions we assume are for the safety of all, especially themselves.

“Yea, she probably needs medication and all, but who can afford the Doc? Medicine is expensive without insurance, you know?”

“No doubt about that.” I offered. I also would have offered how Big Pharma has us all by the short hairs, but I didn’t think that comment would register, so I put my hot dog and chips in my ‘buggy,’ which for you folks above the Mason-Dixon Line – a buggy, is a shopping cart. I was ready to roll out into the paved paradise of the parking lot, because, where else is this conversation going to go?

“Yea, my girlfriend was really freaking out last night about the whole thing so I finally had to ‘put her in check.’”

He said it so easily. I doubt if he even knew the connotation of that little phrase, ‘put her in check.’ It was a phrase I was familiar with. It’s a phrase that is common in relationships and households where abuse is present. When you ‘put someone in check’, you are essentially exerting some form of physical force to create an atmosphere that is more conducive for the limited range of emotions the abuser is capable of processing. Smacking someone in the mouth in order to stabilize some silence is the standard modus operandi.

Here’s an example of ‘putting someone in check’. For a few seasons when I was younger my family would go camping. We had an old 16 foot camper and during the summer our family and the family across the street would go camping. Not too far and to no place elaborate. A little camping ground about ten miles away that had acres of wooded trails, a river and an old mini zoo for animals that couldn’t return to the wild. In particular, I always remember there was a smaller black bear there at the zoo. The story was the bear had a lobotomy of some sort and consequently the bear was left to only stare straight ahead through an iron cage while pacing back in forth which consisted in the bear taking all of three steps before turning back. That bear always intrigued me. During those times we were camping, and everyone else was pre-occupied with something else I would walk over to the little zoo and sit cross-legged on the ground in front of the bear who was imprisoned in his own mind and completely oblivious to me.

One camping trip the neighbor boys and I were engaging in a water balloon fight. We were getting raucous and loud as twelve-year-old boys are prone to do. I remember they were great balloons. Thin skinned and strong, attributes the adult version of me likes to see in a condom. Only these balloons would explode on contact. Not what I’m looking for in a protective prophylactic wrap. Anyway, everyone is having fun. All of the adults that were present were a bit wet as well. It was a hot day, we were camping, no one minded that we were loud and running around. As a matter of fact, I think our families were the only ones in the campground.

I remember smiling. I remember our little-faded beige camper was parked under a small canopy of Black Walnut trees. Opaque colors of red and blue, green and yellow, were ripping through the sky like jellyfish slung through a slingshot. It was a grand enough moment for a boy to remember. Even the neighbor Dad, who could be a bit curmudgeonly with his ever present filter less Chesterfield cigarette hanging from his mouth, was laughing and sporting a white wet tee shirt and sixty-year-old man breasts. He was cupping his Chesterfield trying to keep it dry which was useless. I always remember that cigarette dangling from his mouth wearing the wet white tee shirt and some sort of bronze colored plaid shorts, extremely white legs, black crew socks with campfire slippers and whipping a full water balloon at his son like he was Nolan Ryan or something. It was a perfect throw connecting with his son Bobby’s chest and exploding right up into his face. Of course, this brought a huge uproar of hoots and hollers from all of us.

It was then my dad came walking around from behind the camper. It was then in my joy that I chose to throw a water balloon at my dad who had not been previously participating. I remember throwing the balloon tentatively. I didn’t want to throw it too hard and surprise him. The water balloon caught him on the upper outer shoulder, enough to give a spray of hello but nothing more than that. My father’s reply was to grab this blue ceramic soap dish from the picnic table and in turn made his own Nolan impression and through that blue ceramic soap dish right at me. I had enough time to turn my back and take the pitch. It hit me square in the spine. Oh, it hurt. It was downright painful the ceramic connecting with bone. I wanted to cry out it hurt. I wanted to cry out, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” I wanted to cry out and crumple where I stood. Instead of all that, I just walked away with my eyes closed crying out on the inside. I hadn’t taken but one or two steps when I heard my dad say, “He was getting out of hand, I had to put him in check.”

The incident of the flying ceramic soap dish was never mentioned. No one said boo to me about it. There were a lot of ‘flying ceramic soap dishes’ that no one talked about.

I sat in my truck eating my hotdog wondering exactly why it is I was going back home again? Whether I liked it or not, I was returning back to the scene of a lot of shitty memories. Memories are important. They aren’t meant to be lived in, but still useful in the journey. We have to move forward; we have to live in such a way that we are creating new memories. Memories create patterns and pathways in our brains that can either propel us forward or hold us back. We all know the saying, insanity is not changing what you’re doing and expecting a different result. My memories of family aren’t all that great. I’m not altogether convinced the memories I’m creating with my own family aren’t all that great. So, perhaps it’s a call deep and innate within me that guides me back home. Perhaps it’s because the land and the people are my heritage. Perhaps it’s the first born son of a first born son of a first born son…who has now his own, first born son. Maybe it is bringing together these generations of first born men to affect the change needed for future generations. This, of course, requires being present on a day to day environment. My father is seventy -eight years old now. He is slow and forgetful. He takes a lot of naps. My oldest son only knows his Poppa as a relatively docile cat, contrary to how I knew my own grandfather, who was, you guessed it a hard, hard man. Hard working, hard drinking, quick to the bottle and quick with a hand. Do I have these same tendencies slamming around inside of me bursting to get out? Of course, I do. Do I let them out? Of course, I have. Have I ever let them out on my wife and children? No, I have not. Granted, I’ve cussed the shit out of my oldest son, of which I am ashamed. But I have never laid a hand on him, and I’ve loved him well. Or as well as I can. Most people would say I am a highly engaged dad, and I am to all four of my children. But I am far from perfect. It’s fair to say that I’m even inconsistent in my moods and my ability to always stay calm in the heat of the moment. But I’m working on it, daily, all the time…because I want my family to have a different modus operandi than the one I grew up with. I wish I could paint a picture here of how awesome it all is, family, but it’s not always awesome. It’s damn difficult most of the time. Marriage ain’t easy either. None of it is for the faint of heart. The faint of heart need not apply.

Change must be intentional. Change must be experienced. Change forces us to grow whether we like it or not.

I started up my truck and drove out of the parking lot. On the way home I forgot I needed a toilet plunger. So I stopped off at the other box store which was conveniently located across the street from the other box store. Streets of box stores are what happens when city planners and eager young developers are raving mad capitalist who both forgets about all the other things that make a city great like sidewalks, parks and trees and shit like that.

Back to the Check Out Line. I’m standing there with my plunger which I hand to the check-out lady. She is an elderly woman. She has the look of a kindly church lady. I look at her name tag expecting again to see the name of Edith stenciled across, but nope, her name is Gabriella. Gabriella. Go figure.

“You got toilet troubles Sugar?” She asked. She was grinning. I think she was hoping I’d say yes. I immediately liked her.

“No Ma’am. Actually, (and by this time of the morning I was already having second thoughts, doubts, well, more like a, what the hell am I doing?! Moment) well, I’m moving.”

“Well isn’t that nice. Y’all getting yourself a bigger house?”

I thought about Gabby’s question. I was moving from a 4 bedroom, 4 bathroom, 2 car garage, 3100 sq ft house with a one-acre lot, located on a forgotten quiet circle across the street from Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, TN. My family and I for at least the time being, were moving to a 5 bedroom, 2 bathroom, 1800 SQ foot 100-year-old farm house with 4 acres, a river, located in a small town in Minnesota with the population 1,200 scattered souls. A village actually, with two stop signs and no stop lights. I had no idea if I was indeed moving into something “bigger”.

I looked at Gabriella with a bittersweet taste in my mouth and said, because I really felt it at that moment, “Unfortunately, I’m moving up North.”

“Oh my God!” she said while grasping at the locket hanging around her neck. With such a dramatic reaction one would think she just came upon her calico cat on the road smashed and ground dead. Totally unrecognizable except for the cats little bright blue collar and a name tag that contrasted so pleasantly against the asphalt.

“Where in God’s name are you moving to?”

“Minnesota.” I hung my head, almost holding back a tear.

“Minnesota.” She whispered back to me, barely even able to say the name. She practically lip-synched it.

Gabriella had that warm, inviting smile and that warm, slow easy hello that all true Southerners have. She reached out and clasped both her hands around mine. She looked up at me and into my eyes. Her eyes, were so kind and gentle and in them, I saw all that I have grown to love about the South. After all, I have lived most of my life in the South. At this writing well over half my lifetime, and twice as long as I used to live in Minnesota previously. I wanted to cry. I think Gabriella, in her wisdom and age, and being a woman, perhaps she instinctively knew that. She smiled ever so softly and said with even a hint of sorrow in her own voice, as if I was going off to fight the war of Northern Aggression she said the words I’ve heard a millions times before, “Well, bless Your Heart.”

Which is a traditional Southern euphemism when correctly sugar coated means, “I’m, so, so sorry…I’m glad it’s you and not me.”

This isn’t true of course. It really means, “You sorry sap.” No, it doesn’t mean that either. It just means, “I’m sorry.”

As I walked out through the box stores sliding glass doors I heard Gabriella call out that ol’ Rebel yell, “Give ‘em Hell!”

 

 

 

 

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