Responsible parenting and leadership are a start. In between reaching for the sky (Toy Story rocks).

Screw the darkness. I prefer the lightness of Pop.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Retro K: The Men in My Life

The visit to Visalia this last weekend combined with Father's Day being less than a week away has stirred up the sediment of my soul. Fortunately the days of dredging my heart solely to wallow in emotional muck have long since fled.

But I have no control over natural phenomenon.


Unfortunately I haven't had many decent male role models in my life. Those few I've had have been precious to me, honest and strong men who aren't afraid to be vulnerable when necessary. Both my grandfathers, my mom's dad Len and my biological father's dad Newt, left nothing but fond memories for me. My mom's dad especially. He was a good, loving Christian man whose actions and words I held onto like life preservers. And his colloquialisms, no matter how many times his said them, were always welcome:


"This coffee is as hot as a fire cracker on the fourth of July."


"I like three kinds of pies: hot and cold and all in between!"


[Smiling and holding up both fists] "All right, what will it be? Six months in the hospital or sudden death?"


He was a boxer in his youth. Huge hands that were as gentle as a child's. If only he knew those were sometimes my dark wishes as a child.


My cousin Daryl (no, not from the Newhart Show) was another role model for me. He's always been a rock for my family ever since I can remember, and helped us during a dire time in our lives.


My high school counselor, Doug, who wasn't even my direct counselor, but who was a tremendous help to me at the end of high school. Not a pretty time for me, but who's counting?


My boss at San Jose State University, Alex, was another big positive influence on me. An honest straight shooter who put me on the path of straight shootin'.


My boss now, Mark, whose business acumen, work ethic and integrity are impeccable. Plus, he's a nice guy and a good father.


One of my staff members, Andy, who battled cancer 10 years ago and now runs 50-mile trail races. Amazing.


Another colleague, Jonathan, who is a tri-athlete and heavily involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.


Another colleague, Greg, web-savvy with a gaggle of kids and another on the way. Very caring father.


And I can't forget my colleague, Elrond, who's my Battlestar buddy, writing co-conspirator, and wonderful father.


And my old friend and colleague, Scott, who helped open my eyes even further.

Amy's father and uncles, all of whom are good men and have become very dear to me. (Amy's father married us and her Uncle Greg is a Big Brother and I really admire that. Someday I'd like to be one.)


My ex-brother-in-law, Tony, and Amy's sister's husband, Steve, have really good hearts and both have had a positive impact on me over the years.


My friend Charles whose wife Taffy were both high school friends of Amy. His sense of humor parallels mine and if I was ever in a bar fight I wouldn't even have to ask. Charles has two young daughters. (God help the men who date them.)


My friends Troy and Greg, both of whom are fathers. Rush rules and I always sack up.


My best friend, Robby, who survived a harrowing accident in high school leaving him paralyzed, has struggled over the years, but who does his best to live each day to its fullest. "I really want to see what happens tomorrow," he always tells me.


And of course the father I've known since I was 12, Richard, the only real father I've known, who holds a very dear place in my heart, but I'm going to write more about him later in the week.


There are many more friends and family who have also been positive influencers on my life, and for that I thank them.


(What, am I signing year books? Yikes. I guess I have had a lot of role models.)


Sadly those who should've been positive role models weren't, but who's counting? I've included a short story below I wrote about five years ago that encompasses some of the emotions I've touched on in this post. And while it does draw on some of my own experiences, it's definitely fiction.


There's no obligation to read it, so don't worry if you don't. There's never any obligation to read any of my ramblings, but I always thank you for stopping by.


From a sink hole in the mud, I find my voice again.


As a prelude, here's another song for B Notes, "Love is the Answer" by England Dan and John Ford Coley:


Tell me, are we alive
Or just a dying planet
(What are the chances)


Ask the man in your heart
For the answer

And when you feel afraid
(Love one another)
When you've lost your way
(Love one another)
And when you're all alone
(Love one another)
And when you're far from home
(Love one another)
And when you're down and out
(Love one another)
And when your hopes run out
(Love one another)
And when you need a friend
(Love one another)
And when you're near the end
(Love)
(We've got to love)
(We've got to love one another)


Light of the world, shine on me
Love is the answer
Shine on us all
Set us free
Love is the answer


THE LARGEST LIVING THING

Copyright 2008

Kevin W. Grossman


A familiar silence filled the Nova. It poured over the front seat into the back like a freezing mist, pushing Jacob's face against the window. His throat constricted. He wanted to roll down his window but he knew Henry wouldn't allow it. Henry would tell him the air conditioning wouldn't function properly with hot air streaming in. Henry would tell him to relax and enjoy the view. Henry was always telling him to relax.


They headed east into the mountains. Jacob smelled burnt oil in the frigid air. It blended with Henry's sweet cologne, forcing its way into Jacob's nose and mouth. He wanted out of the car. He began to hyperventilate, fogging up the window, and then he quickly looked into the rearview mirror, only to find Henry's eyes. Jacob hated those blue-eyed slits. Every Sunday morning at First Calvary, as Jacob sat in between his mother and little brother, he could feel Henry's eyes upon him like wet hands.


Jacob broke free from Henry's eyes and stared down at the dash. There it was, half-hidden behind Henry's broad shoulder. Its skin was tanned leather, warped and stained. It used to be comforting, like when Jacob's grandmother would stroke his hand while she read stories out of it, each verse a gentle brush from her fingertips. He couldn't see it, but he imagined her name embossed in faded gold script in the bottom right-hand corner. He remembered flipping through the pages when no one was around. They flowed one after the other like a clear stream over polished stones.


But his grandmother was gone. Now Henry read from it every Sunday after passing the collection plates among the congregation. His words were nothing like Jacob's grandmother's, though; they were a mountain slide that buried Jacob daily, making him wonder why God let bad things happen to good people, why his grandmother had to die, and his real father, too. Jacob prayed each day for an answer.


Jacob's brother David slept in the seat next to him, his seatbelt lying undone by his side. David slid back and forth across the back seat with every curve in the road, his mouth open, saliva oozing out of each corner. He slid across the seat again, and this time tipped over and rested against Jacob's shoulder. Jacob put his arm around him, held him tight. He thought of the folded up page from David's Bible coloring book tucked safely away in his back pocket—a picture of Jesus dressed in a flowing robe and sandals, his arms open wide to a dozen children gathered around him, and a smile on his face. David had colored in the robe with a rainbow and given it to Jacob the night before.


Jacob looked out his window as they drove farther into the chaparral-covered foothills. Blue oaks glowed in the shimmering heat. Broken granite exposed itself in the yellow grass. Jacob's mother coughed and he focused his attention on the back of her head. She fixated on her own view of the landscape moving past her window. He wondered if she saw the same things as he, and if she knew.


The silence continued to grow until it felt like the pounding heartbeat inside Jacob's head. In the rearview mirror, Henry's cold eyes met his again. He wished he could go to sleep, but he knew it wasn't going to happen with Henry watching him.


The car slowed, then stopped. Jacob released his brother who sat up and yawned. His mother turned and gave Jacob a weak smile, her swollen red eyes visible above her sunglasses.


They had arrived at the entrance to Sequoia National Forest. Henry paid the entrance fee and continued driving up the winding road. They passed an elevation sign: 4,000 feet. In the mirror, Henry winked at Jacob, causing Jacob's stomach to cramp.


"Goodness, it's just too quiet in here. You'd think we were still in church," Henry said.


Jacob jumped at the sound of Henry's voice. David rubbed his eyes. Henry turned on the radio.


"—going to be another scorching Sunday in the south valley today. Hot, hot, hot! Plus, big thunderstorms are brewing in the Sierras this afternoon, so I suggest you all stay inside with those swamp coolers cranked up high. Let's cool things down a bit by taking a trip along the Mississippi with a new one from the Doobie Brothers. You're listenin' to K-R-K-R, nine-seventy AM, the rocker!"


"Now, that's more like it, don't you think, Ruth?" Henry said.


She didn't answer. Henry chuckled. He looked in the mirror at David, then Jacob.


"No, there can't be any storms happening up here today. It's just too beautiful outside."


When no one replied, Henry continued. "Oh, and don't you boys tell Miss Foster we were listening to any rock and roll. Do you understand me?"


David nodded, but Jacob only looked out the window. Miss Foster, an obese woman who always wore sleeveless flowered dresses, played the piano and organ at First Calvary, and was also the center of the universe when it came to church gossip. Jacob wondered what would happen if he told her everything, but his fear of what Henry might do kept him quiet.


"Henry, the boys—they want to go to Moro Rock this afternoon—please," Jacob's mother said. Her voice squeaked in staccato tones.


Henry shook his head. "Well, we're not going there. You know I can't climb up that thing. Goodness, I'd get vertigo and pass out."


"But they—they really want to go."


Henry exhaled. Jacob's soreness flared, lighting a fire in his gut. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.


"All right, all right, we'll go to Moro Rock. I'll just wait for you all in the car. But first, we're going to see the General Sherman tree. I've wanted to see that tree again for a long, long time. Haven't seen it since I was your age, David. Did you know that it's one of the largest living things on God's green earth?"


David shook his head. Jacob kept his on eyes on his brother, but didn't move or say a word.


"Well, it is. Anyway, we'll be there soon."


Henry turned the radio up. Jacob rested his head back against the seat. The song lulled him. He dozed restlessly, recalling events from the night before.


It was after midnight when Henry pulled into the driveway. He'd been working late at the church again, or that's what he always told them. What he really did there at night, Jacob didn't know, and he didn't want to know. He prayed for Henry to never come back, to just disappear. Maybe Jesus didn't appreciate that kind of prayer, but Jacob knew God did. He read the Bible. He knew the difference between the Old Testament and the New—that God could summon vengeance, but his only begotten son forgave.


He heard Henry walk up the steps to the front door—open it, close it, and then enter the kitchen. Jacob wanted to hide, but he couldn't move. He listened intently as Henry walked down the hallway. Henry yawned and stopped in front of Jacob's bedroom door. Jacob held his breath and prayed even harder, but Henry entered his bedroom and closed the door. Jacob whispered, "No," but that's all he could get out, his throat as dry as if coated with burning sand. Henry whispered back, "Relax, Jacob. Everything is going to be all right. It's God's will." He approached Jacob's bed, sat down, and took hold of the boy's arms. Jacob didn't fight—he was paralyzed. Henry was too strong. Jacob tried to scream, but nothing came out except a painful rush of hot air.


The car stopped abruptly. Jacob's head snapped forward, waking him. He blinked, rubbed his neck. When he looked out his window, they were in a graveled lot. Dense groves of pine and giant Sequoia replaced the oaks and grasslands. Ferns and shrubs grew lush in the shady pockets under the trees. Jacob tumbled out of the car. He breathed deeply, the pine air cleansing him temporarily of the memory. In the breaks between the treetops, the sky was still chalk blue. He couldn't believe a storm was coming.


Henry got out of the car, all six-and-a-half feet. Jacob stood away from him, avoiding eye contact.


"Welcome to Giant Forest, boys."


Jacob watched as David got out. He gazed at the giant trees, and then high up into the canopy. He clutched Jacob's hand and squeezed.


His mother got out of the car last, her left hand holding her side as if in pain. She stared at Jacob and David, her face gray. Jacob wondered when she last slept. She drifted ghost-like in her paisley dress. She looked up at Henry and bit her lip.


Henry snorted. "Goodness, what are you all waiting for? Let's go."


Jacob's mother put her arms around both him and David. She squeezed their shoulders. Jacob thought he heard her sigh.


"Let's go," she said.


Henry led the way towards the General Sherman tree. David, Jacob, and their mother followed five feet behind. Families were everywhere: excited children held their parents' hands, pointing at the massive Sequoias with their free ones. Tourists from around the world weighted down with cameras and backpacks took pictures of the trees and squirrels. Kids covered in dirt screamed and chased each other in and out of the redwood giants.


Jacob didn't pay much attention to them; he was trying to plan an escape. He didn't know how, but he knew if they didn't get away from Henry soon, Henry would hurt David, too. He couldn't let that happen, no matter how scared he was of Henry. He kicked at pinecones while they walked, imagining they were Henry's head. Each punt sent up a plume of dust that settled on the front of his jeans.


Sometime after Henry left his room, Jacob heard him yelling at his mother. She cried and pleaded. Jacob shoved his head under his pillow, but it didn't help. Henry called her horrible things. Then it sounded like he hit her—a clap of thunder inside Jacob's head.


David crept into his room crying, a piece of paper dangling from his small hand. He gave Jacob the picture of Jesus and Jacob held him until he calmed down. When the fighting finally stopped, David continued to cry and Jacob stared at the ceiling listening to the house groan.


At some point David went limp in Jacob's arms. His heart sped up, thinking that David might be having another seizure, but he had only fallen asleep. His relief was short-lived, though; Henry laughed loudly from down the hall and said, "Well, well, looky here. Goodness, what are you going to do with that gun, Ruth? Are you going to shoot me? Well, go ahead, shoot me. Shoot me! You're all nothing but a bunch of—"


"Lost little souls."


Jacob flinched when he heard Henry's voice, bringing him back to the present. He stood next to Henry in front of the General Sherman tree. David and his mother were only a few feet away. A Mexican man and woman with five kids walked in front of them. David and his mother waited until they passed, and then she pointed into the tree, explaining something to David, his eyes and mouth wide open. Jacob desperately wanted to join them.


Henry slapped Jacob on the back and nodded towards two giggling teenage girls wearing tube tops and cutoff jeans. Jacob thought they seemed so happy—too happy.


"Watch out for girls like that, Jacob. They're all just temptresses—Satan's little tricksters. You make sure to stay away from them, do you hear me?"


As if on cue, the girls stopped giggling and ran down the trail away from the tree. Henry put his arm around Jacob. He pulled him into his side and Jacob stiffened.


"Relax, Jacob. No need to be so tense. Here we go, this is what I wanted to see, all fourteen-hundred tons of it," Henry said, pointing to the General Sherman.


Jacob looked up and down the tree—it was huge. The base of the tree alone was the biggest thing he'd ever seen. Its thick branches of green needles soared nearly two hundred feet off the ground, and its wrinkled bark was the color of dried blood.


"This tree is over two-thousand-years old, Jacob. It's seen more history than you or I could ever dream about. Goodness, it was just a sapling when our savior was born."


Jacob slipped out from under Henry's arm. "Can we go to Moro Rock now?"


Henry stood up straight and crossed his arms. "I hope you appreciate everything I do for you, Jacob. All right then, let's go. Ruth! David! It's time to go see the rock!"


High above the General Sherman, Jacob watched as dark clouds engulfed the blue sky. A gust of wind blew back Jacob's hair. The storm was coming after all.


Morning came, but Jacob hadn't slept all night. He just laid there in bed with David by his side. He didn't know what to do, but he knew they couldn't stay there anymore. He wished his dad were still alive. He'd take care of Henry. Jacob knew he would.


Someone coughed in the hallway—it was Henry. Jacob pulled David in closer to him. He moaned and buried his face deeper into Jacob's armpit. Henry walked a few steps and stopped. He opened the door to David's room, laughed, and then closed it. Henry took a few more steps until he was right outside Jacob's door. He turned the doorknob; Jacob held David tighter. Henry wasn't going to touch his brother, ever. But after a few excruciating moments, Henry didn't come in. Jacob stroked the picture of Jesus next to him, and a half hour later, fell asleep next to his brother.



"Here we are, boys, Moro Rock."


Jacob couldn't see the rock yet. Henry parked the Nova next to a yellow Volkswagen van, painted with rainbows and shooting stars. The van's sliding door was partway open. From where Jacob sat, he could see hanging beads and apricot-paisley upholstery.


When they all got out of the car, Henry opened up the trunk and rummaged through an ice chest. Jacob watched as Henry yanked a pull-tab off a wet soda can. He tossed the pull-tab to the ground, took a big gulp from the soda, and belched with his mouth closed.


"Poor sinners—they know not what they do," Henry said, staring at the van.


David and his mother walked around to the other side of the van. When they were out of his sight, Jacob stood directly in front of the van's open door. Three longhaired bearded guys sat inside, drinking beer and listening to music. They passed a small pipe back and forth, taking puffs off of it. The strong smell reminded Jacob of when Henry burned piles of bottlebrush in their backyard.


He'd seen hippies before, usually on TV protesting out in front of some courthouse somewhere, but never in person. The largest of the three hippies wore an over-sized tie-dye with a rainbow splashed across the front.


Jacob's eyes widened and his breath quickened.


It was Jesus.


"Hey, little man," Jesus said.


"Hey."


"What's your name?"


"Jacob."


"Mine's Art. You guys goin' up on the rock?"


"Yeah."


"That's cool, man. Have a good time."


"Thanks."


Jacob smiled. It didn't matter that his said his name was Art; God had sent his son to help them escape. He opened his mouth to say something else, but Henry grabbed his arm and lifted him off the ground. He set him down firmly behind the Nova.


"Don't talk to them, son."


Jacob freed himself from Henry's grasp. "I'm not your son!"


He couldn't believe his outburst. He felt an active heat growing out of his stomach, igniting every blood vessel in his body and filling him with confidence. He expected Henry to hit him.


But Henry only laughed. "Go on now and climb up that rock, and then we're going home."


Jacob fumed, but then began to shake nervously, as if his skin was about to boil. He turned to look for his mother and David. He would get them alone and tell them his idea. They weren't that far away, both staring at the backside of Moro Rock. Jacob had learned in school that it was a large granite dome formed by thousands of years of the earth forcing its way up—


Henry wouldn't go up on the rock! That's where Jacob knew he could tell his mother and David about Jesus helping them escape.


The sky grew thick with gray clouds that pushed down on them. The wind picked up, sending brown pine needles skidding across the road. Thunder boomed in the distance.


Jacob walked towards his mother and David. His heart felt stronger and lighter. When he reached his brother, he put his arm around him.


David went limp instantly and crumpled to the ground. His face turned from white to red to blue. His tongue poked in and out of his mouth spilling saliva out over his bottom lip and chin. The thunder roared again, closer this time.


"Jacob, he's having a seizure!" his mother shouted. She dropped to the ground next to David.


David's eyes rolled back in their sockets. His mother stroked his arm. Jacob stroked the other one.


"It's all right, my sweet little baby. It's going to be all right," his mother said.


Henry ran over to them. Jacob stood up, his fists clenched.


"Stay away from us!"


Henry backhanded Jacob and knocked him to the ground.


"Don't you ever speak to me like that way again."


"Jacob—don't," his mother said.


"That's right, Jacob. You better listen to your mother."


Jacob scrambled to his feet. He ran at Henry and punched him in the stomach as hard as he could, but it was like hitting a backstop. Jacob cried out, cradling his hand while Henry laughed.


"Goodness, what do you think you're doing?"


Jacob shook his other hand in the air. "Don't touch my brother!"


"Can't you see I'm only trying to help him? I'm his father, Jacob. And yours. Now get out of my way."


"No, you're not!"


Henry flinched. He stepped back, looking confused. But then his eyes narrowed and he reached for Jacob.


"I told you not to speak to me that way, Jacob."


"You're not going to touch him! You're not going to hurt him like you hurt me and Mom! Get away from us!"


Henry grabbed the front of Jacob's t-shirt. "You're pushing it, boy."


"Henry, please don't—don't hurt him."


"All right, all right," Henry said. He let Jacob go and straightened his shirt.


Jacob bent down next to his mother. David's face faded back to white. His eyes opened and he blinked.


"Where's Mommy?"


Jacob held his hand. "She's right here. Can you stand up?"


"I dunno."


"Jacob, he needs to rest—don't move him," his mother said.


The hippies approached, Angels Jacob thought, with Jesus leading the way. Jacob waved them over, thanking God repeatedly under his breath.


Henry laughed again. "Let's all calm down. No need for all this commotion. We're just worked up over David's seizure. Praise God he's all right. Let's get in the car and go home. Come on now, Jacob, let me help you with your brother."


"We're not going anywhere with you! Leave us alone!"


David pulled himself closer to his mother.


Henry bared his teeth. "You'd better stop this nonsense right now."


"I said leave us alone!"


Henry crouched as if to spring at Jacob.


Art took hold of Henry's arm and yanked him back. "What the hell are you doin', man?"


Henry spun and punched Art in the nose. He staggered back and covered his face, blood seeping through his fingers. Jacob picked up a rock and threw it at Henry but missed.


"Don't hurt Jesus!"


Henry spun back to face Jacob, but Art's friends were all over him now, forcing him to the ground. Henry roared as he fought them off. Jacob met his mother's gaze; it was both angry and confused. He wanted to run and lose himself in her arms, but he didn't. He scooped David off the ground and ran towards the rock.


"You come back here right now, Jacob!"


Jacob froze, his courage wiped away by the violence in Henry's voice. He turned slowly, David's weak body in his arms becoming heavier with each second that passed. He wanted to sit and rock his brother to sleep, to rock himself to sleep.


Henry beat the hippies off and jumped up to charge at Jacob, but his mother kicked Henry's shin as hard as she could, sending him back down to the ground. He fell, unable to stop himself with his hands, hitting the side of his face on the road. Blood sprayed from his nose and mouth.


"Run, Jacob, run!" his mother yelled.


Jacob's strength returned and he raced towards the stairs that led to the top of Moro Rock. Strong winds hit him head on. He heard distant shouting behind him, but he wasn't going to stop to see if Henry was running after them.


An old white truck skidded to a halt across Jacob's path. It startled him but he didn't stop. He veered to the right to avoid the truck, David bouncing in his arms, and just as he passed it he read the words "Park Ranger" painted on the door. He heard the truck door open and slam shut.


"Hey—are you boys all right? Hey! Come back here! You can't go up there right now! It's too dangerous! Stop!"


Jacob didn't stop. When he reached the stairs, his lungs burned and his heart felt like it was being forced into a box half its size. Sweat rolled down his face. Thunder growled overhead and the sky boiled. He saw a bright flash, followed by a loud crack that sounded like a tree splitting in half. He bounded up the steps without slowing. It was a quarter mile to the top: four hundred steps blasted into rock that wound up and around to the summit.


"Jacob, put me down."


Jacob didn't stop: twenty steps, thirty steps, forty steps—his knees and ankles ached.


"Jacob, I feel better. Put me down."


Fifty steps, sixty steps—he couldn't feel his shoulders or arms. His back bowed until he thought it would snap.


"Jacob! Stop!"


At seventy steps Jacob collapsed. He fell on top of his brother, then rolled off him and hit the metal railing. He couldn't control his breathing and his dizziness made him sick. He clung to the railing, his vision blurred as he looked out over the six-thousand-foot drop.


"You okay?" David said.


"Yes—yes—I'm—fine."


"Is Henry following us?"


"Don't—know—keep—going."


Jacob stood, teetering back and forth, his lungs fighting for air. He took David's hand and they slowly started up the stairs again. He and David were going to be all right, for now, even though their mother was still down below, trapped with Henry waiting at the foot of the stairs.


But Jesus and his angels were down there too, and this gave Jacob hope.


The storm swirled all around them as they reached the summit. To the east, the twelve-thousand-foot peaks of the Great Western Divide, half-hidden in the storm clouds, dropped off into the Kaweah River that threaded through the rocky canyons below. As he looked to the west, the Sierras tumbled down into the foothills and the Great Valley beyond, vanishing in a gray haze and the fading daylight. Jacob had no idea what time it was.


"Jacob, you think Mommy's okay?"


"I don't know," Jacob said, wiping sweat from his forehead.


"Is Henry coming to get us?"


"I—I don't think so."


"What's going to happen to us?"


"I don't know, David."


"How long are we going to stay up here?"


"For a little while."

David sniffed twice and ran his hand along the railing.


"It's beautiful up here."


"Yes, I know."


"Love you, Jacob."


"Love you, too."


They sat together on the rock with their legs crossed Indian-style. Jacob put his arm around his little brother and David rested his head on Jacob's shoulder. They listened to the cry of thunder, watched the lightning dance. It began to rain.

3 comments:

  1. Very touching and honest post. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Your post made me think of this book I'm reading right now called The Shack by William P. Young. I think you might enjoy it. I liked your story. Were you meaning to allude to the bible story where Jacob climbs the steps to heaven? Or where Jacob wrestles with God?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I will check out that book. Thank you, Lauren. And yes, I was alluding a little bit to Jacob. I'm glad you liked it.

    ReplyDelete