Blue Danube Waltz

I never learned how to roller skate. The one time I tried, I ended up face-down on the concrete of my cookie-cutter tract home’s driveway. I thought I’d knocked a tooth out I fell so hard and so fast. My lip was fat for a week, and I decided then that roller skating was the devil’s activity and work; I would never try it again.

As autumn melts into winter in the southeast, there’s a lot of rain that falls. It’d stop just long enough to get you thinking you didn’t need to build an ark after all, then a new storm would roll in. It was really amazing, the amount of rain. Having grown up in a drought-stricken and rain deprived California anyway, I just wasn’t accustomed to so much water unless it was a river, lake or ocean. It would fall down like these huge, pregnant pods that exploded their payloads into tiny rivulets that ran over all the impervious surface they could find. And when the water couldn’t run off into the drainage ditches or sewer grates, it would collect, rapidly, into deepening pools that spread out over whatever wouldn’t soak it in.

One particularly wet, gray and cool autumn day, we got a rare treat. Money wasn’t growing on trees for us, if you get my meaning, so we didn’t eat out a lot. Occasionally, but not a lot. We could do so more often at Duff’s, which was a smörgåsbord or buffet. I was hitting my teen years, and my body was calorie loading for the growth spurt to come like nobody’s business; I could eat more food than the other three members of my family combined. But, if we kept it cheap – like Krystal Burger, Hardy’s, or Captain D’s – well, then it became more possible more frequently.

Captain D’s, if you don’t know, is – or at least, was – a seafood chain similar to Long John Silver’s. A fried fish and chips sort of dump with decent food and a bit of an eat-in atmosphere, where your food was brought to you if you wanted. So, on that soggy Friday night, we went out for fast food, which was a big deal for me and my brother. I put on my “desert boots” for the evening – which I guess are now called “chukka” boots or something candy-ass like that – and my favorite blue jeans and ran my long, sissy-boy locks under the blow drier for a couple of minutes, and I was ready. We grabbed our jackets and out the door to the car we went.

The trip to the restaurant wasn’t terribly long and was uneventful, because my dad drove. I’m pretty sure the Captain D’s we went to was in Fort Oglethorpe, GA, but I can’t be sure now. There was a couple of them in Chattanooga, too, and who knows how many have come and gone in the last thirty years since I was in the south. At any rate, it was a short jaunt, and we watched the rain clouds dump buckets on us while my parents talked. It must have been one of the times my dad was either off on a weekday, or he was working an early shift, or something like that, because the afternoon still had plenty of sunlight left as we pulled into the parking lot of the little shack. It sat back from the sidewalk a bit, with stout wooden posts poking up to line the walkway of big red tiles that led to the front doors. The posts had a heavy, thick rope running through them all like a makeshift handrail, and those huge tiles, four across, formed a wide entrance to what was a fairly insignificant building.

We walked up the curb and took a couple of stairs onto the tiled area of the entrance, surrounded by rock beds of white and red which sat just beyond the wood post and rope fence. I could hear the rain spattering against the hood of my jacket and was watching my parents lead the way to the door when I saw my mother slip, her hand shooting out to grasp my father’s shoulder. He muttered “Sweet Jeezuz!” and clutched her arm to steady her. “Whoa!” she said in her best I’m-a-cool-parent-who-uses-hip-terms voice, eyes bulging at us as she laughed in relief.

I looked down at the thin skin of water standing over those big red tiles, and I got an idea.

Now, at something like 13 years old, it wasn’t a great idea, I’ll be the first to admit. The front of the building was largely glass, and it was full of diners who had little else to do but watch out the windows at the falling rain and passing traffic. It was a mistake from the get-go, but I was gripped by the idea and it ran with me before I gave it much thought. Like any teenager gives anything much thought, right?

I shoved forward and planted one foot on the smooth tile surface, and skidded gracefully across the tiles almost the full width of the walkway, slowing to a stop just before the rope fencing cut me off at the knees.

My brother Ryan was fascinated, and tried to do it too. His shoes were typical, little kid sneakers, though, and they had too much friction with their rubber soles to work very well. I laughed at him and pushed myself the opposite direction, and again slid along the top of the tiles until I almost tripped over the other rope fence. I went back and forth a couple of times, then I started doing something else …

… I started pretending I was doing an ice ballet.

I put my hands behind me and used just my legs to slide “elegantly” over the makeshift rink, singing “Blue Danube” while I did it.

That’s goofy enough for a 12 or 13 year old to do; but it was far, far goofier when my mother started doing it with me.

She laughed at my antics for a moment, then joined the Danube chorus and began sliding over the “ice” with me, her hands also behind her back. We criss-crossed over each other’s paths a couple of times, and went around my father, who was trying to resist a temptation to tell us we were being stupid and to please knock it off. My brother Ryan was complaining – as usual – about not being able to slide as well, and still struggling to try. He’d push himself forward for a few inches, harder and harder, until finally his weight and momentum would topple him forward when his shoes caught, and he flung his arms wildly to keep from smashing his pudgy face into the ground. I laughed at him, and continued the waltz on “ice”, moving to the time of my vocal orchestra while skidding easily on the smooth, tractionless bottoms of my shoes.

We carried on like fools for maybe five or ten minutes. As the crescendo of Danube approached, I began to get fancier with my maneuvers, spinning and sliding on one foot even. I was actually seeing the crowd, flash bulbs popping, applauding after each increasingly more difficult move. I thought for a moment that maybe not knowing how to roller skate was an erroneous idea of mine; maybe I did know how after all.

As I wound the song up, I launched into the air, spinning around as many times as I could and trying to land on one foot like a bona fide ice skater would, my arms outstretched for balance.

I hit the ground and promptly landed flat on my ass in the rain in front of a restaurant full of people.

The splash of my butt hitting that pavement and the standing water that made the spectacle possible was a lot bigger than I would’ve imagined possible. Water reached all the way to my glasses and speckled them with droplets. My pants soaked through to my drawers in a split second. Despite the greater friction my jeans skidded a couple of feet before stopping so that I was facing toward the windows of the building when I finally came to a stop. I blinked a couple of times, and my parents were laughing hysterically at me.

I laughed too. It was funny. I got up, swatting what water I could from my soggy ass, and we all proceeded into the front doors of Captain D’s for dinner.

I nearly screamed in start when the entire restaurant exploded
into a thunderous round of applause when we walked in. Some of the diners even stood up to ovate us.

When I swallowed my heart back into my chest, I saw my parents were hanging their heads and laughing softly, both of their faces glowing beet red. As we were seated, I tried like hell to hide behind my menu so that no one would see me. It didn’t work; some people told me I put on a great show as they passed our table on their way out of the restaurant.

I guess that was my fifteen minutes of fame.


And the Waters Parted …

The roads in Georgia are hilly. The rains in Georgia are heavy. That means that, from time to time and in some places, rain is going to collect into small and isolated pockets of water in the troughs and valleys between the hills and peaks of the roads: puddles.

The rain came down steadily, but it wasn’t the “toad strangler” or “frog choker” of earlier that day. That’s what my dad called heavy rains: “toad stranglers” or “frog chokers.” I had no idea why an amphibious animal would “strangle” or “choke” in the heavy southern rain; seemed to me if that were true, there’d be no more frogs or toads in the southeast in just one season, because it starts raining and the storms can come often and heavy. Any beast subject to strangling or choking in that kind of weather would surely die or split for better climes.

Anyway, that day the rain was coming down steadily. Earlier that morning, it had been the gushing, almost opaque sheets of water from the sudden and violent storms that sprang up from nowhere. The drainage ditches on either side of Bell Avenue were brimmed with the run off from the torrent, and didn’t show any sign of receding as the day wore on.

Time to go to the grocery store.

Anything could happen on a trip to the grocery store with my mother. You might avoid a squirrel and narrowly miss injury or killing someone. You might end up in that beckoning, gaping drainage ditch. You could slide down an access road into the parking lot, avoiding oncoming traffic only because God wanted you to. Who knows what adventures awaited on a trip for bread, milk and butter. You took your life in your hands every time you climbed into the car … and that was when she hadn’t been drinking.

The slate-gray sky was an unbroken sheet of marble that hung low over us and stretched away beyond the rolling horizons on both sides. Onto Bell Avenue the huge, baby-blue Olds backed, and then lumbered away down State Line Road toward Cross Street. So far, so good.

The car came over a rise and my mother gasped; from the back seat (it was Ryan’s turn to ride shotgun), all I saw as the car tipped forward was what looked like a river snailing its way across the narrow, two-lane road. The front of the car surged into the water and parted it like the prow of a tugboat, launching white walls of water over the top of the vehicle on both sides. I flipped around quick as a wink to watch the water rush in around the hole the car plowed through the enormous puddle, and saw those high-arcing rooster tails crest over on themselves to either side of where we’d been. It was like watching a scene from The Ten Commandments, with Charleton Heston parting the Red Sea. As we rose up another hill, the water pooled back into place, foaming where the walls of water had collapsed beside the pavement.

It was spectacular. The water must have been two feet deep or more, but it was no match for the heavy GM behemoth. I turned back to face forward.

“That was bad,” I grinned in my sassy 13-year-old way. In those days, “bad” was “cool.”

My mother laughed, but I could tell it had scared her; the car probably hydroplaned over most of that puddle, and had it been any deeper, we could’ve stalled.

On we rolled, finally turning left on Cross Street to take us south to Fort Oglethorpe. The Kroger was down this road a few miles, and that’s where we went when it was major shopping time; for smaller, quicker trips, the M&J Market was closer. Since we were bound for Kroger, I suspected this was to be the shopping trip for the week’s supplies, and we’d be gone for some time.

Tiny dips in the road were filled with puddles that sputtered and hissed loudly against the bottom of the car as it crushed through them, scattering them into mist and ripples before they could recollect and regroup. Once in a while, a larger puddle would put up more of a fight and the car would drag and slow as it ripped through the deeper water, sometimes sending miniature versions of those initial rooster tails away from the car at window height. My brother and I laughed and “whoa”’d through the bigger ones as we made our way toward the store.

I noticed then something I hadn’t before; a stretch of road that gave no puddles to destroy. A slow, steady rise up a gentle hill. The car’s own weight tugged at it and my mom goosed the accelerator slightly. The car cleared its throat and then growled meanly up the slope, which was so mild I’d never even noticed it was there before.

Oh my God!” I heard her exclaim, in that “I’m freaking out but don’t want you to know it” voice that parents use to say things around their kids.

The car breached the top of the hill like a whale breaches the ocean’s surface, and started the descent toward the valley beneath it.

Which, naturally, was filled with water.

The puddle was a pond, spreading across both lanes and swallowing the helpless drainage ditches on either side; they were completely overrun. The smooth, unbroken water’s surface reflected that marbled gray sky at us like a mirage, and stretched far ahead until the asphalt emerged from it’s depth like a sea serpent slithering from Loch Ness. The opposite side of that mini-lake seemed to be light years away and we had no way to know how deep the water was.

I looked across that huge pond just in time to see the tan-clad figure step out of the State Trooper car and swagger his way over to the poor sap he’d stopped along the side of the street, just beyond that lake in the road. He didn’t see us hurtling toward them as the driver rolled down his window and the trooper adjusted his dark aviator’s sunglasses lazily to check the documents.

“Cop!” I shouted in panic, “Slow down!”

“We can’t!” my mother breathed, and mashed the gas pedal. The car obediently lurched ahead while Barney Fife in his Smokey the Bear hat, carefully draped with a plastic bag, took the ticket pad and his shiny silver pen from his shirt pocket. Ryan whined.

The big Olds hit the surface of the water with a thunderous splash and slowed a bit, but pushed forward anyway, the blunt front end pounding against the water’s surface and bulldozing it backwards.

On each side of us, those really cool, really high and really white walls of water careened off the car doors and fenders, shooting higher and higher, far over the car, the tops eventually curling over to fall slapping onto the ground somewhere behind us.

We cruised through that puddle so fast the car didn’t have time to stall; it hit the water so hard none of it could flood into the carburetor or distributor cap or whatever the hell makes a car stall in deep water. And just behind the rear view mirrors, just in front of my door, the walls of water launched themselves skyward and outward, like the car was trying to grow wings and fly over the landscape.

The roar of the engine and the white-water rushing sound of the retreating lake around it made the driver turn to see what was coming. Barney Fife was busy studying the man’s driver’s license, standing at the open window of the car. When that moving violator saw that runaway comet of blue metal and white watery tail rocketing toward him, he grimaced in panic and began to frantically roll the window up, right in the cop’s face.

When he saw what the driver was doing, Barney seemed stunned for a moment. Then he saw us in the reflection of the car’s window, and he turned around slowly in stunned disbelief.

His face went slack, sinking as he figured out what was going to happen.

If that cop was six feet tall, then the water was twelve feet high. It towered over him like a proud Hawai’ian surfing wave, rising up as we whipped by and then curling down, forming a hollow over his head before it came crashing down on him.

I jerked hard to turn around in my seat, my jaw open and eyes wide, giggling like a maniacal hyena as I watched that wave melt over ol’ Barney, the car he’d pulled over, his own vehicle with its driver-side door standing open, and crested off into the field beside the road where the gravel shoulder disappeared into trees and grass. It sloughed off the broad bill of his trooper hat, his clothes dark and clinging, sopping wet, his ticket pad drenched, his face and arms dripping water in sheets as it flowed off him.

He never looked up, never made a move to go back to his car; he just stood there staring at himself soaking on the side of the road, shaking drops and rivulets off his hands. As we shot up the other side of the rise and down again, out of the line of sight, the driver was rolling his window back down, mouth agape with his laughter.

We finished our shopping – which took a really, really long time – and went home without passing that cop again.


Alien in the Yard

I used to be a really great mimic. Anyone who knows me will tell you, I can make some of the strangest sounds, and if I hear a noise or voice that’s even remotely interesting, I am compelled to see if I can reproduce it. I often can. That talent began to really emerge in 1979, when I was not yet 14.

1979 was a great year for Science Fiction movies. Both Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien were coming out in theaters that year.

Alan Dean Foster’s classic suspense/horror work about 7 tugboat crew members returning from a deep-space asteroid pick-up and encountering the ultimate alien predator was nothing short of fantastic. And it was funny, because not that long before it was released, my mother read the book to us aloud. We found the book somewhere – a grocery store, I think, on the rack with the other novels – and she read from it every time we were in the car, or sitting at home with nothing to do. It was hysterical, because she’d start reading in this strained, frightened voice, eyes bulging from her face, body tensed, and then she’d gasp and go silent until we all cried out “HEY!” or “WHAT??”

It was a really great story, though. We struggled along with those 7 crew members, each going extinct before the eyes of the survivors, and we all cringed and tensed at the building drama and horror with each passing page.

When the movie came out, we saw it on the marquee of a theater in some mall – I think it may have been East Gate Mall, in Chattanooga, a short trip from our Bell Avenue home in Rossville, GA. The sign said, in HUGE lettering on a lighted background, “ALIEN IN DOLBY.” My brother and I squealed in delight at the sight; my mother said, “Where’s Dolby?” We had to explain to her that the sign was advertising that the movie, Alien, based on Alan Dean Foster’s novel, was being played at the theater in Dolby sound – a new technology at that time which was advertised to enhance the movie going experience with sound such as never had been experienced prior. My father agreed to take us.

Oh, what fun we had that day! My mother, not drunk or able to get drunk in theaters, can be a real spectacle at movies. We used to go to drive-ins, when they were in vogue, and we’d hear her scream at the scary parts and call out to characters on the screen. And, if I haven’t already told you, my mother’s scream was a wake-the-dead, chill-the-blood, curdle-the-marrow, murder-victim-in-the-movie type of scream that would make others jump in horror. It was great; you never saw so much flying popcorn and spilled pop in your life. Objects d’movie were flying all over around us, and the entire experience was one of the most positive I’ve had in a long time at the movies. Maybe ever.

We were chatty and wound-up on the way home, Ryan and me, rattling on about “did you see that part where …?” and “remember when this happened?”, as if the other weren’t there. The movie was vividly locked in our memories as we made the jaunt home in the dark, quiet southern night.

It was cool but not cold when we got back. Bell Avenue has exactly one streetlamp, and it was down the street from our house about half way to State Line Road. It glowed that warm yellowish tone of a really, really old incandescent bulb, and burned at what seemed like 60 watts. Dimly it tried to push back the moist Georgia air, but it ended up being a fairly useless halo of light unless you were less than fifty feet away from it. Ten big candles might’ve lit the area better.

So, near our house, you could see the light glowing like a firefly in the darkness, but it wasn’t doing much to light our yard. The grass was wet with dew and my parents milled around the yard smoking, my mother trying to marshal her courage to go in and go to bed. She had her arms folded over herself in a half-embrace, clearly shaken from the vivid images which later won best special effects at the Academy Awards, beating out Star Trek for the honor, to the dismay of Trekkies everywhere. Her light windbreaker zipped and zopped as she moved about the blackness, and the only way we tracked her was the sound it made and the glow of the flame from her cigarette.

Finally, my dad went inside the house and began to turn the lights on, though they did little to penetrate the tar-black outside the windows. Tiny islands of light emerged on the sloping lawn from the windows but they failed to offer refuge in the sea of darkness. My mother walked skittishly about the house, to the backyard between our minty-green asbestos shack and my grandmother’s old white farmhouse, passing the massive tangled bushes that burst through the ground near the ancient structure’s foundation as though they’d grown wild. She’d vanish into the blackness like a ship in the fog and then her sole, orange-ember cigarette fire would blip on like a beacon as she dragged hard on the smoke before fading back to the blackness.

I watched in deep fascination as the tiny fire lit my mother’s face into a hideous mask twisted in the pale light then dissolved it again to black. A moment later, a puff of smoke drifted like a lazy fog into the waterfall of light streaming from a tiny window in the house and then vanished into the dark again.

And I realized, that very moment, that she was a considerable distance away and couldn’t see me in the soupy dimness.

I giggled, stifling it hard beneath my sleeve, and did a quick cartoon sneak behind a bush between the window and me. I checked quickly for languishing spiders waiting to devour stray dogs or humans that wandered into its tangled web, then hunkered down out of the line of sight.

I heard the shuffling footsteps as she moved up the yard again toward the front door. There was no back entrance; she’d have to go right by my hiding spot.

Again I stifled a giggle that threatened to burst out of me. I could hear her stop, nervously and quietly calling out to my father, then me, then my brother. Of course I said nothing, whatever, to let her know she wasn’t alone out there. I heard a strangled, nervous sound come from her as a bout of the heebie-jeebies took her. I tensed. A half moment later, she walked past me, trying to be calm and rational under the strain of her imagination.

I tip-toed out behind her, set to spring, ready to pounce, about to jolt her with my hands and
cry out to startle her like she’d never been scared before.

Then, at the last minute, I lost my nerve.

“Is anybody out here?” she whispered hoarsely into the dark, the voice of someone trying to be heard over distance without using full voice. I nearly burst out laughing again, and suddenly, that very moment, that split-second, my resolve steeled.

I gripped her shoulders firmly and issued a sound exactly like the alien creature in the movie.

She tensed for a fraction of a second and her head jerked as a sound came from somewhere around her navel and erupted up onto the roof of her mouth, then smashed like a runaway freight train through her teeth. It forced her mouth open into a gaping maw and the sound tore free of her in what I swore were waves of audible tide that you could see even in the dark. It rattled roof beams and vibrated windows across the street and rolled like a comet down the street toward State Line Road, hopped across the street and I’m sure is still ricocheting today in the Tennessee Valley. It was a scream from the pit of hell, a Jamie-Lee-Curtis-would-envy-this-sound scream, a scream that would have torn a hole in storm clouds, one that was audible from space. My heart exploded into shards of bloody flesh as the auditory tsunami ripped it from my chest, and flung it still beating to the ground in front of me.

The reaction was a bit delayed as the echoes rolled away into the distance of geography and history; first my father’s head popped through the door of the house, his bushy brows knit over the top of his glasses, his mild voice intoning “What the hell’s going on out here?” Fractions of a second later, lights popped on in the house across the street; then another a few houses down, the next door neighbor’s house, the house behind my grandmother’s, and a succession of others along Bell Avenue. I couldn’t stop laughing, I couldn’t breathe, and I hobbled doubled-over into the house with my face purple and my eyes watering mercilessly. I heard my mother’s choked sob-laughs as my father (quickly) ushered her into the house before the bang of storm doors began to tattoo the beat of good, Christian people coming to check out the scream.

I don’t know if I ever laughed that hard again in Georgia, and I don’t know if I’ve laughed that hard again in my life. It was glorious.

We stayed up for hours after that, laughing and talking and being a semi-normal family. When at last we fell asleep, I remember thinking that it was, perhaps, my crowning moment for pranking. And to think, I nearly chickened out.

You know, I’ve never been able to make that sound again.


Calm Before the Storm

I’d never seen rain like I saw in Georgia before.

It just doesn’t rain like that where I grew up. My first exposure to the powerful, ear-drum splitting, head-throbbing, hair-standing lightning strikes of storms in the eastern US were on our trips across the country to visit my paternal grandmother. The very idea of rain in the summer is just strange to those that grow up in California. It just doesn’t happen. And, during the 1970’s, there was a drought and water shortage, which meant water rationing and even less rain than normal. So, to me, the amount of rain that fell while we lived in Georgia was biblical. Torrential downpours sheeted down from huge, flat-topped black clouds locals called “thunderheads.” They looked like huge anvils rising miles into the sky to flatten off; and the invisible metalsmith working on those mighty giant anvils banged his hammer to forge steel, sending sparks of hot yellow and white and purple lightning arcing and dancing to earth. The snapping crack of thunder peals would buffet you with their force and then roll off into the distance like a cannon ball fired from the storm.

Once, during a particularly violent and active storm, I was sitting in the living room on the scratchy, ugly sofa that my parents had my entire life and staring lazily out the window. The springtime wasn’t hot, and was less humid than summer, and the storms rolled in on a regular basis. My brother and mother were there, and we were probably watching TV and passing time. My father wasn’t around. He almost never seemed to be, now that I recollect, but that was probably due to the fact that he did shift work at the M&M/Mars plant in nearby Cleveland, TN.

Anyway, I was on the couch next to that open window that looked southward into a bramble of brush dividing our yard from that of the next door neighbor. The sky was so dark, it was like twilight. The air was heavy, pregnant with impending rain, and the storm clouds piled higher and higher into the heavens while I watched. I was fascinated with their speed and sheer size. They were monsters rising, huge dragons heaving their bulk from the earth in dark piles of black smoke to blast their fiery lightning-breath at the cowering humans below.

Suddenly, in the distance, I heard a roar as a wave of sound tumbled over the landscape and sped off to distant places. A wind picked up and shook the lazy young leaves awake on the limbs of the sturdy old trees lining the streets, standing sentinel in the yards of those ancient, creaking houses of cracked, spider-webbed paint and rotting, sagging lumber. I perked up a bit, and waited; a flash in the sky, that seemed to come from no one particular location, strobed outside. I counted – one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, f-

… the peal of thunder clapped and made me jump, cracking as sudden as a whip snapping unexpectedly behind me. I became more alert, watching the skies for more lightning. Gently, off in the distance, I heard thunder roll like a growing avalanche and then die on the horizon. I still watched. I could hear the wind now, cool but not cold, pushing against the old guards’ trunks and limbs, pushing the last seeds to the earth for them, bending them before they sprang back to reject the breeze trying to gently topple them. I heard birds as they whizzed by, but didn’t see them, but then the earth seemed to grow silent and stealthy, scheming and plotting.

It was still as a church at night. Only the wind, starting to rush through the trees now, broke the stealthy quiet.


A mighty blow of thunder ripped through the thick air and violently struck the house like Thor’s hammer, seeming to crash so hard into the tiny old structure as to knock it from its foundations. I yelped like a kicked dog and felt that hot blast of adrenaline burn my palms and cheeks and soles of my feet from the start, and simultaneously my mother screamed. I laughed. I always laughed. In an instant, my brother and mother were laughing too … but I could see fear and the edges of panic creeping into Ryan’s expression.

My mother put her hands over her ears. She didn’t like fireworks, either.

The sky impossibly darkened more, and there was another strobe-light flash that lit the room. My mother tensed, squeezing her eyes shut, and pressed her hands harder to her head. I braced, but refused to cover my ears. That was for chickens, and I was no chicken. I was determined to face the storm, to brave the thunder and lightning, to stand defiantly against the —

I almost wet myself when the sonic boom smashed against the doors and window panes, buzzing them loudly in their frames. The sound was indescribably loud and sudden, and I felt myself leave the surface of the sofa when I jumped. I was sure that if I looked I’d see my skin laying next to me, still in the spot where I’d been sitting when I leaped out of it.

Ryan screamed like a school girl at a horror movie and raced to my mother, who was the very visage of panic and disorientation. She was nearly in an upright fetal position, sitting on the love seat next to the couch, embracing herself for comfort. A fountain of strength, a port in that crackling storm, was she. She clutched Ryan tightly in front of her and pretended to be comforting him. I knew she was hiding behind him, though. Nothing like being a human shield for your mother. Ryan was too stupid to know better.

Tiny, whimpering sounds of tension-built fear were streaming from them. It was like being on a roller coaster before that first, big, stomach-extracting, gut-smashing, face-peeling fall down the incline. The suspense was as charged as the air. I braced – any minute, now, I thought, any doggone minute … the lightning’s coming, and then the thunder, and dang it, don’t jump, do not jump, don’t you DARE jump, don’t be a —


I jumped like I was skipping rope, just like the sissy I was telling myself not to be, and probably yelped too. I hoped it was lost in that landslide of sound that shook the house like you’d shake a wet umbrella in the foyer, but I can’t be sure. I am sure, though, that it was lost in the shrieks of terror my mother and brother let loose. They were long, sustained notes, like people on a thrill ride, the notes discordant like a car horn and ending simultaneously.

The house stopped shaking, and the thunder rolled away into Dixieland. There was a sound, like the wind only growing, and a familiar, pleasant smell.

Rain. It came on softly, a gentle spring rain from that granite sky, tiny splashes bouncing from the concrete porch and the asphalt on the blacktop ribbon of Bell Avenue. Gradually, the water began to trickle over the side of the road’s surface. But the sound grew fr
om a gentle rain, to a heavy rain, to a torrent, to Niagara South. The fat, oblong drops of water crashed viciously into the earth, exploding into a miniature fountain before collecting again into streams that gushed into the ditches and began to raise the water level. Faster, thicker and harder the rain came. In moments, I couldn’t see the other side of the street.

There were random booms and rumbles from the distance, and every once in a while one would pop nearer, a brief flash lighting the darkened room and blazing over the trees and grass outside. It seemed the worst had passed.

I started thinking, then, about something my father had once said. He said that he met a man when he was young who told him he’d been hit by lightning. He said that he felt kind of tingly and pins-and-needle-ish, then there was a blinding flash and he went black. When he came to, people had gathered around him and were leaning over him, murmuring and covering their mouths with their hands. He told my father the last thing he remembered was that all the hair on his body stood up on end, just before the bolt struck.

BOOOOOOOOOMMM! The lightning responded to my thoughts. I shuddered, a creepy chill shimmying its way down my spine.

Then the lights went out and the TV snapped silent.

Another shrill banshee cry from the two huddled on the love seat, and I again left my epidermal layers beside me when their screams and the sudden dark startled me.

Heart pounding, ears ringing from the chemical rush, and my insides all jelly and quivering, I dropped myself onto the couch again, and listened to that driving, punishing rain beat the road, the trees, the roof of the house and the yard. It was a percussive cacophony like white water rushing just outside the window.

Just then, I felt an odd sensation. It was an itchy, faintly tingly and burning feeling in my hands, my feet, my scalp. And then it happened.

The hair on my arm started slowly standing on end.

I watched in growing horror as the tiny little strands stood as though in a trace, all in unison, reaching slowly up like blossoming flowers.

“OHMYGODI’MGONNADIEI’MGONNADIEI’MGONNADIIIIIIIEEEEE!!” I shut my eyes and jumped, diving as quick as I could for the floor, toward the center of the room, away from the dreaded open window that would let the snake of electric plasma leap in at the speed of light and fry me to a burned cinder like a child’s marshmallow over a campfire.

The thud of my landing was huge and I tucked into a tiny ball and held my breath —

… and absolutely nothing happened.

I opened my eyes, slowly, gingerly. My mother and brother were staring at me with wide eyes, jaws hanging open as I moved my arms away from shielding my face in slow motion.

“My hair … it was … standing up … the lightning …” I stammered.

Only the rain, easing back into a gentle springtime song, answered me.

Way, way off somewhere, a thunder ball rolled down over the landscape, barely audible over the rain through the windows.

It rained all night. I didn’t see any more lighting, though.


A Rose, by Any Other Name …

We hated that dog across the street. He was mean, conniving and mangy. He was sneaky, ugly and cunning. But most of all, we hated him because he was so damned loud.

He’d start barking, whether at a passerby or a vehicle or an animal or whatever, and he’d keep on barking for what seemed like hours. He just wouldn’t let up. The people in the house seemed to be blessedly oblivious of the ruckus he raised, but the rest of the neighborhood certainly wasn’t. It was one of the first times in my life that I realized that ignorance truly IS bliss. More ignorant people I’ve never met in my life. Those dirt-smudged, grubby kids and their waddling, ball-cap-wearing old man with his nervous hair-sweeping habit couldn’t have raised their I.Q.’s with a floor jack, and that dog never seemed to bother them.

After beaning the kid across the street with a rock-loaded snowball that winter, I didn’t see or hear much from them anymore for a while. When the weather turned warm, we kept to ourselves except for school, and they didn’t seem to emerge from their den until later either. But the dog let us know they were around. Always barking and yapping about something, he’d eventually be silenced; and he didn’t spend the night outdoors that we could tell, so we assumed those mole-rats across the street were still around.

This particular day seemed different. My parents had gone out shopping and left me with Ryan. They didn’t have to worry, in those days, about someone grabbing us and holding us for ransom. And they couldn’t have paid it anyway, so it made no difference; but things were different then. We could play out in the yard or in the street until late, travel back and forth to friends’ houses (if we’d had any within walking distance), and do kid things without having to worry about some psycho doing something Stephen King to us. So, Mom and Dad left us on our own quite a bit.

We decided to go outside that day. I’ll never forget it; I had on my “Jaws” T-shirt, tie-dyed blue and white to make it look like water, with a big, iron-on decal shark’s head on it from the cover of Peter Benchley’s novel. It came from Universal Studios; my maternal grandmother got it for me when she went there shortly after the movie was released, and it was easily three sizes too big. I was wearing my favorite blue jeans and my black Chukka desert boots. Man, I was the epitome of cool that morning, with my flowing blow-dried locks, geeky, thick-ass glasses and gapped front teeth. Sexy to the core, that was me. So I strutted my bad self outside to show the world what I had going on.

The dog across the street was barking, as usual, and I was hanging around doing whatever 13-year-old boys do when there’s nothing to do. I don’t remember specifically, but it wasn’t anything interesting or productive. Ryan was outside with me a few minutes later, and we were still doing a whole lot of nothing when I noticed something I’d never seen before.

A kid – bigger than the one that threw the snowball at me – was in the yard across the street with the other dirt-child. His hair was darker; almost as dark as mine, but not quite. My hair’s always been about half a hue lighter than Raven. But he was dark-haired, where the others had hair that was light brown or dirty blond. Or just dirty. Anyway, he caught a glimpse of us looking at him, and then leaned over to the kid I drilled with the rock-ball.

I knew something was up and it probably wasn’t going to be good.

Ryan was kicking around, twiddling, but I kept my eyes on those two guys across the street. I tried to do it like I wasn’t watching them, but how sly is a 13-year-old nervous kid?

Not three minutes later, those two barefoot, bare-chested dirt bags started crossing the street.

I stood up. I figured I was in trouble, because the new kid looked like he was kind of muscled-up a bit. Me, I’m a geeky dweeb at 13; I’ve got long hair, thick glasses, badly-stained gapped teeth, and I’m scrawny-armed and thick-middled. Kind of like my mother is built, actually. I wasn’t real athletic or fit, and this guy looked like he’d been playing Pee-Wee football most of his life and spent the rest of his time doing push-ups or chin-ups or something. He was well-defined and sort of intimidating.

As he got closer, I could see he was just a hair shorter than I was, but not much. It didn’t make me feel any better. I was nervous and twitchy. But I had to play it cool. That’s what you do when you’re from California; you gotta act cool. So I just sat down on the concrete slab porch and pulled petals off the wild rosebush that grew about a foot away and to the left of it, while they strutted through the drainage ditch and up to me.

“Hey,” the new kid said. He seemed friendly, but I knew better. Ryan wandered over to us.

“Hey,” I replied. I didn’t make eye contact. I was afraid he’d see I was scared and pounce. Instead, I stood up – real casual-like, so as not to give away being jittery – and walked a couple of feet to my right. Very nonchalantly, of course.

“What’re y’all doing?” he asked. The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

They moved to sort of follow me, but not outright follow me, if you know what I mean. Shadowing my movements, keeping me in range. Unfortunately, I’d dug myself a hole and let them get between me and the front door to my house. I’d cut off my retreat.

“Nuthin’,” I said casually, “what about you guys?” I patted myself on the back. Man, that was cool. Then I moved down the walkway that wound around a gargantuan mutant bush of some kind to the gravel driveway. They took another step closer to me; Ryan was between me and the front of the house to my left.

“Nuthin’,” he said back. “Wan’ do sumthin’?” I could barely understand him through his hillbilly dialect. I kept eying that front door, wondering if I could get by them to get in if I had to. I felt like a rabbit surrounded by foxes. Ugly, dirt-smudged, barefooted foxes with thick southern drawls and cut-off shorts.

I shrugged. “How about hide and seek?” my brother spouted.

“Nah, that’s fer bay-bees,” the kid said, sneering at Ryan. I tensed even more. If I got any more tense, I’d be brittle. But I knew something was going to happen; this situation was a kid powder-keg.

“What then?” Ryan said, getting a bit uppity. I inwardly cursed him for being just the type of jackass that would let his mouth write checks my ass would have to cash.

The kid seemed as muscular as a panther to me. He yawned hugely, without covering his mouth so we all got a good, long look at his uvula, arching his back into a great, tiger-like stretch. I couldn’t gauge how old he was, but he had to be around my age.

“I dunno,” the other kid said, “hide-‘n’-seek’s fun.”

“I said it’s for damned bay-bees,” the older kid snipped, and the younger one shrank back a bit.

“You guys brothers?” I interjected quickly – too quickly – trying to ease the pressure of the situation.

“Nah, cuzins,” he said. “You guys brothers? Ya both wear them damned thick glasses and what-not.” He sneered a wry smile at me. My sphincter tightened a little. He was getting to the insulting part; the part where he wanted to start a fight. It was a classic kid strategy: start friendly, become gradually more aggressive and then you have an excuse to beat the other kid up. When the teacher, adult, caregiver or whatever, came to break it up, you could say you didn’t start it. By the time all the explaining was done, it was one big “he-said/she-said” of one kid’s word against the other’s. Neutrality would be forced by the fact that the adult probably didn’t see what happened. It never failed.

“Maybe,” I said before Ry
an could answer. I was a bit peeved by the glasses remark, and it would only be years later that I realized that the hormones that were coursing in gallons through my veins were going to be too strong for any fight-or-flight response I may have had. And that was what was getting my hackles up.

“So you wan’ do sumthin’ er not?” he said again, more hostile, more sarcastic.

“No,” I said quickly.

“Why not?” My dildo brother couldn’t leave well enough alone and was too stupid to know the nuances of the terrorist negotiations taking place here. This was a standoff on par with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he just weakened my position. I gritted my teeth.

“I said no,” I hissed. “Mom and Dad will be home soon. We’re supposed to stay in the yard.” The comment about Mom and Dad was designed to warn the intruders of the arrival of the cavalry.

“We don’t have to leave the yard to do something, it’s boring now!” he whined.

The dog across the street started barking.

The sound burst out sharply as the dog erupted from his rotting-lattice lair beneath the crooked, sagging stairs of their porch. A blur of flying shed hair and spit, he charged to the end of the driveway and yapped so hard his entire body would lift up with the force of the sound. We all looked to see what he was barking at, which was nothing, as usual.

“I hate that dog,” Ryan said absently. He said it every time the dog startled him; we all did.

“That’s his damned dog!” the new kid shouted, and he stepped forward and gave Ryan a shove.

Ryan was what mothers, and clothing designers of the time, auspiciously called “husky.” He was a Butterball turkey, in other words. Plump and pudgy with a round face and the beginnings of man-breasts, his knuckles were always little dents instead of knobby protrusions. I teased him about it mercilessly, of course, and others did too. The one benefit it had, though, was that he wasn’t all that easy to push down. He slid back and toppled, but didn’t go over.

“Hey!” he shouted at the kid, swatting one hand at the attacker while using the other for balance. “Knock it off!”

I don’t know exactly what happened next. I’ve never been a great “big brother” type. I didn’t really like my brother, much less stick up for him. I recognize now that the chemical witch’s brew flowing through my system also contained a magic and powerful ingredient:


I stepped forward with my jaw set and my brows knit firmly on the rim of my glasses. The kid looked over just in time for me to plant both palms right in the center of his chest, one beneath each collar bone. I stepped into the motion and gave a mighty shove, without stopping to think about how I’d respond to a counter-strike. As it turned out, it wasn’t necessary.

Like I said, I wasn’t a large or strong kid particularly, and wasn’t terribly athletic either, but I was better than I thought I was, because the next thing I saw was the gritty, dirty soles of those nasty bare feet as the kid sailed through the air about two feet off the ground and about six feet back.

Right on top of that wild rose bush beside the porch.

For a frozen, pregnant moment, there was silence. Then, there was a scream that came from somewhere around his belly button and erupted from the tangle of arms, legs, thorns, leaves and petals. His hands twisted into hooked claws of agony as the millions of tiny thorns poked, tore, ripped and shredded naked flesh.

The younger kid gaped with saucer-eyes and slack jaw, but the older one couldn’t move – any way he tried shifting dug some group of thorns in deeper. He stiffened into a statue of pain and rivulets of blood, tears streaming down his face and cleaning a trail on his grimy cheeks. He looked at me with genuine fear in his eyes.

And I liked it.

“Now,” I said over the top of his wails of agony, “get off our property. And don’t come over here again. C’mon, Ryan, get inside.”

I strode like a grown-up into the house, adrenaline pumping and pounding through me, ringing my ears. Ryan waddled right behind me as silent as a mouse through the door. I slammed it shut on the sight of the younger boy trying to pull rosebush branches from his cousin’s flesh so he could stand.

I went into our room and started laughing. Ryan joined me, but he didn’t know why he was laughing. He was laughing because I was, but I was laughing because it was the only way I knew to release pent-up tension.

My parents came home about 15 minutes later. They honked the horn in that high-classed way they had to let us know they wanted us to carry in groceries. When I stepped outside, there was no one around – not in our yard, not in theirs … nowhere.

And the dog was not barking.