Dec 31, 2009

Car Keys

… the nonsense of men is called business; the nonsense of boys, though exactly alike, is punished by those same men: and no one pities either boys or men.
– Augustine of Hippo


Measuring my life by how many times I locked keys in the car would be appropriate because I have done it since I was a kid. One vivid memory was at my brother’s soccer game, eleven years old. I had gone back to get something out of the family car, a book or somesuch, and no sooner had I slammed the door shut that it hit me like a panic — I had locked the damn keys in the car. Now, remember I was a kid. I stood still for a few seconds, my mind racing inside, the thud of the slammed door still thudding in my chest.
It had happened -- locked keys in the car -- but I wanted to make sure it really had happened. I jostled the door. Realization. Reluctance … a quiver … it had happened. I could see the keys positioned comfortably on my dad’s vinyl seat. Shit. I started to pace, indecisively; I surmised if I paced long enough I would either
1.) disappear or
2.) the car door would miraculously unlock itself and all would be put right. Nothing like that happened. I wiped my hands on my shorts. Checked my pockets. I tried all the doors a second time to see if one of them would open. A large lump in the gut of me; the feeling of swinging on a tire, a tingling that tintinnabulates in your groin.
If only I could move mountains, I thought to myself. Like Jesus. Only weeks ago I had convinced my buddy Jeremy Accuri that I could uproot our family White Oak. The familial quercus alba that my mom had planted to measure out the life of the Roselli family, I wanted to aggressively uproot. When Mom had planted the tree, it was a youngster; by now it is either mowed down or handsome. But I can remember Jeremy Accuri and me invoking God’s aid for about an hour to no avail. If only I had faith the size of a mustard seed, I thought to myself. I was really disappointed, not that I thought that I could really do it, but I expected something would happen. A manifestation. An epiphany. But no epiphanies, so Jeremy and I went to his house to eat ham sandwiches his mom had made. I can remember how amazed his mother was that I ate everything on my plate. twice. If only she knew how defeated I felt.

And empty.

The emptiness I felt in not being able to uproot our tree was less than the despair I felt in locking my parents’ keys in the Ford. It would not have been so bad if they hadn’t told me, “Don’t lock the keys in the car, Greig.” I had done just what they had told me not to do. Maybe if I had been an adult it would have been different because no one would have had to know, only the lock smith whom I would have called up to come over, maybe exchange a few words; heard his consolation, mitigated any humiliation because I could pay him, say, fifty dollars and it would be done with; or I could have been a responsible adult and signed up for AAA road side service as a part of my insurance plan. But as a kid, I was helpless, at the mercy of my parents’ seeming authoritarian judgment. I was powerless, not only by a locked door, but by own ineptitude to do anything to change my state of affairs, as useless as a jailbird.
I scraped the gravel with my shoes, again. After much consultation with myself, God, and the ground, I finally approached them. I could see my mother’s festive back, "Go Chargers," stenciled in red. Mom and Dad were lined up on the Chargers’ side of the field, belting out affirmations, curses. It didn’t make a difference, just as long as they yelled. I saw my little brother Nicholas strutting around the field like Pélé. He looked so comfortable and at ease in his world, compared to my own self-inflicted dismal plight. Even if I hadn't locked the keys in the car, I didn't see myself as graceful as Nick; I hated sports. The only time I was on the soccer team was age 8; the coach told us to be aggressive and I never forgot the word. Aggressive. Aggressive. I had an inchoate idea of what the word meant: mean, rough, not reading a book. He had us in a huddle, "You boys gotta be more aggressive!" I felt like he was looking straight at me: the boy who preferred to pick through the crimson clover patch by the goal post. Our soccer shorts were like two lollipop colored paper bags filled with air, strung around our puny legs. We bared our chests through a V-neck cotton shirt, about as much bravado as you can get from a pack of pre-pubescent boys. A fury of boys. And me. Furious in my own way; I even brought a book to read, once. How did I manage that? Dad yelling, "Keep your eye on the ball!" and Grandma not minding if I read entries to her out loud from my dictionary, as long as the team was on the other side of the field. I couldn't understand the point of the useless fumbling, so I kept on reading.

After a game we were standing around the merry-go-around. The dust in the air swirling around in nonsensical motes. A bigger kid appeared from nowhere. “Lemme see that book.” “No,” I said. “Come on,” he said and took my book. “No,” I said, “Give it back”. “I’m just gonna look at it. Geez. Get a grip. pussy.” Johnny, with thicker legs than mine, interjected, “Yeah, Greig, just let him look at it; he ain’t gonna hurt it.” I eased up and said sure; I wanted the book back, though. He read from my book. But not the real words. “And Greig eats pussy. Says so here. And weenies and boogers and ass wipes. Man. This is good shit.” Hahhhahhhh. Thay all laughed. Spat on the floor; looked like blood clots on the concrete. And just like that the bigger kid tore the book in shreds and deposited the pieces, like confetti, over the playground, the husk of the book sprawled on the ground like an emasculated man; its flesh swirling in the dust. “Don’t like your book, sorry,” and he laughed. Then they were gone, the bullies, as quickly as they had come. Alone again, I gathered up the pieces I could find, sat down, and tried to put the pages back together. My hands shaking, I tried to calm down. The other children in the playground comforted me after the bigger kids had left, laughing. Sitting cross-legged, a boy my age told me not to worry about it; I could get another book. By this time, ten or twelve other kids had gathered around me to see what was wrong – why was Greig so sad? – I had gained some composure, got up, as if nothing had happened, stuffed pieces of the book into my soccer shorts (maybe I could save a few words) and to no one in particular, I said thank you. We played in the crimson clover patch until it was time to go home.

But this time, with no keys, I couldn't escape to the crimson clover patch. There wasn't a book available to swallow up my problem, to outline how to get out of locking one's keys in the car. I began to feel really horrible. I remembered with acrid humiliation that one time at Jeremy Accuri's we were playing in the empty lot next to his house – filled with cans, nails, rotted pieces of wood. On the edge of the Mississippi. The interstate humming. His little sister tagging along. The neighbor too. Josh. I forget his last name. He was skinny and punctuated by a raggedy set of tears in his clothes, torn holes in his torso and thigh. Suffering from a cold, he coughed at us as we played, snot pasted to his cleft. I don’t know what triggered inside of me my coach’s mantra to be aggressive, but in the middle of hide-and-go-seek, I hurled a rusty, empty can of USDA peaches right at him; hit him square in the forehead. Blood was everywhere. Jeremy couldn’t believe it; ran to tell his mom. His sister screamed. Josh stood still for a minute. I thought he was going to topple over, dead. But he lunged towards me, angry. When he caught me in a grapple he couldn’t do anything except bear hug me to the ground; I pushed him off and we both walked to the house, both of us sniffling. In shock, not believing my own aggression, I was horrified that I had hurt him so badly. Blood was smeared on his head. Jeremy’s mom saw I was upset and told me everything was going to be all right. “Do you need a hug?” she asked me and I said, “Yeah, I think so.” And I tipped toed to clutch her broadly for a second then let go naturally. I was relieved that the adults seemed nonplussed. Josh went to the hospital. Got stitches. They didn’t call my mother. I never saw Josh again, on purpose. If I saw him on the playground, I avoided him. I didn’t even go back to Jeremy’s house after that. I was afraid of seeing them again; fearful they would remember the day I broke open a kid’s head.


***


When I finally told them I had locked the keys in the car, it was as if I had thrown a rusty can at my dad’s head or -- I couldn't quite tell from Dad's contorted gesture - they didn’t understand me. Mom mumbled something; She wanted to hit me. She had told Dad before, “I feel like I want to hit him sometimes,” and Dad leapt from his lawn chair and yelled at me louder than the other parents’ cheers. Everyone turned to look at us briefly, but the excitement of the game eventually won over, so it was just Dad and myself. Dad was a big man, so I remember his puffed up red face and bulging nub; he didn’t hit me, but he dragged me by my head to the car – to see for himself the nasty reality. When he finally released his hand my head cooled a bit and I felt relieved and dizzy.

The parking lot spun around like a top; I couldn’t quite tell if I had exited reality or not. My dad became a caricature of himself, a cartoon swimming in circles with rage. I remember he was bloated with fury and mean, red all over with blotches of yellow and green. He was talking out loud, saying, “I told you not to lock the keys in the car, didn’t I? Do you have any idea how much it costs to pop this lock? Huh?” He banged on the red door. A loud thud. He banged again. The prospect of getting a coat hanger to fish for the lock was unbearable to him, so he eventually had to call a locksmith. When Mom arrived on the scene she merely glared and folded her arms like a sentry, lips pursed, eyes meaner than a basilisk. “I can’t believe this, Anthony,” she whispered, but staring at me, intently. She didn’t mean it, I don’t think, but she said, “I’m never taking those bastards anywhere ever again.” Dead forever was any future bestowal of responsibility. And my brothers by default. They would never trust me again. I wanted to challenge them raw until nothing was left. I had forgotten that one summer Mom had forgotten Amanda in the car for about an hour while she talked to Aunt Evelyn, until finally someone asked “Where’s Daphne?” They finally found her. There she was, stuck in the back seat of the car where Mom had left her; still asleep, but trapped. And then there was the urban legend I had heard about of a dad who uncharacteristically was supposed to drop his baby off at daycare before he went to work, but forgot to do it, parked his car in the company garage on a hot day and left her there to bake; found her dead at the end of the work day; didn’t even realize she had been there the whole time, silenced. What goes through a man’s head after such a horrible thing? Does he ever recover? Is he ever forgiven? A memory never goes away, completely. It’s embodied, like a renegade bullet lodged in a man’s stomach. You need a surgeon with antiseptic instruments to cut it out from the flesh. Then with stitches you can begin to recover.
I don’t think you can escape from the ravages of childhood.
For some reason or other, I never recovered; never could keep things in the right place. I can count five other times I locked keys in the car after that soccer incident. Once in a supermarket parking lot in 1996. Another at a drugstore a few months later. And to my chagrin, because someone had to fish for the lock with a coat hanger, in front of church in 1997. Another time in front of Veronica’s house last year. And again at home a few weeks ago. To retell them would be prosaic, if not repetitive. Suffice it to say, that first mishap left a scar on my psyche, which probably left me numb and disillusioned to my own self-worth, much less my confidence in the suburban patriotism surrounding soccer games. But there is something deeper. I went further inside of myself. After that day, instead of joining everyone else at the sidelines to cheer for my brother, I sought solace by walking in the woods behind the fields. I pretended it was Narnia, past the lamppost. This did not do well for my reputation though, because I would get lost in my own thoughts and dreams and by the time I had left Narnia the game had long been finished. Mom never called the cops on me, but she was furious. It happened so many times I think they just calculated I would eventually show up. The last car in the parking lot to leave. “How would you like it if I left without you? What if I had called the police?” Mom would say with her arms folded, tightly. I didn’t know how to answer her, “Where were you?” invectives so I usually just stood there feeling guilty, honestly not knowing where all the time had gone and feeling sorry that mom and dad had to worry about me so much. “I dunno. I wuz reading, I guess,” I would mumble. I wasn’t lying because there was the proof: a big fat ochre sci-fi yarn in my arms; my own name scrawled on the frontispiece. The car ride home was silent and bitter and I went to bed early.


One summer afternoon we had just watched that Bette Midler tearjerker that had just come out on VHS which we could play on a VCR checked out from the library, a momentous black box affixed with a manila pocket stamped: 5 JUL ‘82. Something moved inside me after the movie. The gods heard my muses. I was outside in the yard; I was ten. I remember it was hot and humid and everyone was inside but I stayed outside feeling emotional after having just watched Beaches. I lifted my arms up in the air and I was yelling, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty I’m free at last!” There is a scene in the film when Bette and her roommate shout out loud, “free at last free at last thank god almighty I’m free at last”. Something about not doing what her father said. She feels liberated. I really didn’t understand all the adult complexities of the scene being only ten, but something about her energy struck a chord in my little heart. So, I shouted just like her. All my frustrations. All my inarticulate sufferings. Learning to love. Myself. Being me. Which never felt so difficult before. But now. Free at last. Free at last. I must of been out there for God knows how long, but I was alone, everyone else in the midst of their own routines. But for me the yard was my world, around that tree; my dad’s neatly trimmed yard, fertilized. Mom’s sun tea heating on the air conditioner. It will be ready by dinner, I thought. Then the epiphany. A manifestation. I felt it on my head. The flap of bird’s wings. The holy spirit. On my head. I heard the chirp and the frantic rush of wings. The holy spirit had landed on my head. The gods had heard me. I ran into the house and the goddamn bird held on. “Mom Mom Mom. The holy spirit landed on my head.” I yelled and yelled and the bird still hung on. A parakeet. It finally yanked itself out of my hair, flew around the room and landed back on my tousled head. We decided to keep it and named it Pretty Boy. A few months later we found sterile eggs in her cage but didn’t change her name. She died after six years; a faithful bird, very quiet and low maintenance. And believe it or not, the story still circulates around the family about me and that bird. And the white oak. And the Chargers. And picking crimson clovers. And Maggie at the zoo, Lavern in the store, the dimpled red dots on Faith’s face … stories circulate.


Recently, I took Zach to the bookstore and Lorie freaked because we didn’t make it back in time. She did call the cops. After all those years of disappearing no one ever called the police on me; no search parties scouted me out. And I have been lost many times. I chortle at the absurdity of keys and time, of lateness and wrong turns. After all those years of disappearing no one ever called the police on me; no search parties scouted me out. And I have been lost many times. Three times in the woods (Maggie saved me); once at the mall; once at school; once at the spillway and five times in my own room (don’t ask). If only I could be so lucky to have a search party.

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