Category Archives: Road Trips

The Quenching Waters of Shame

 

Let me tell you about one of the most shameful moments I have ever experienced. Let me tell you about the awful time I wanted to disappear into nothingness because I was so humiliated by my thoughtless actions. Sometimes Truth is a venom and when it works its way into our hearts it hurts fiercely but it also helps if you let it. It can burn away all the fat of reality until we experience only the kernel of humanity that is left.

Let’s begin…

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The heat in Africa is like someone holding a blow dryer in your face on a July day. It’s like eating mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs in a Jacuzzi. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.

 

When you get a bottle of water, you don’t sip it. You slam it. You slam it if it’s cold and freezes your throat. You slam it if it’s room temperature and feels like spit. There is no casual thirst here.

 

And now, standing in the dirt, covered by the shade of our van and wiping sweat from my face, I see Ryan, a Ugandan who’s tagging along with us, kill an entire bottle in no time flat. He wipes his mouth and says, “I know dis guy named Geronimo – he’s a big guy. Will take a whole bottle and just drop it right down his throat into his big belly.”

 

I lift the piss-warm water to my lips as my mind wanders back to America where a faucet gives me ice-cold water and I don’t have to worry about microbes giving me diarrhea and headaches. I say, “How fast you think you can slam that bottle?” Ryan shrugs and I pull the stopwatch up on my phone.

 

“GO.” Ryan kicks his head back and goes bottoms up. The clear liquid birdie-drops past his teeth and he doesn’t spill a drop. “Eight point five seconds. That’s insane.”

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He grabs a second bottle from our stash in the van and hands it to me. “Ready, Johnny?” I nod and watch his thumb hit the timer. I flip the bottle up, trying to imitate his method, but instead water jets up my nose and covers my shirt. I cough and water sprays out of my mouth. Ryan starts to laugh as I go into a choking fit. “Haha! Twelve seconds, Johnny! I win!”

 

No! I can do better! I can do –”

 

But my thought is cut short and the contest is forgotten forever as I realize where I’m standing, as I realize where I am and what I’m doing. “Maybe . . . we shouldn’t . . . do this . . .”

 

Staring at us is a small group of Ugandan children, twelve in all. Some of them are barefoot. Some of them wear shoes that are tied to their feet. One kid has a hole in his pants so big I can see his penis hanging out. Their shirts are either too big or too small for their bodies. Their skin is as dark as a plum and the dirt they are caked in is like a powder. One child has a herniated belly button the size of a kiwi. Their white eyes look at me. Look into me.

 

I’m not just in Uganda. I’m in the slums. I’m down here shooting promotional videos for an organization that houses abandoned babies, an organization that takes infants who have been left for dead inside of dumpsters and places them with new mothers. I’m down here representing them. And I’m down here representing America. And I’m down here representing humanity. And I’m supposed to be helping. I’m supposed to be in the dirt with these kids, giving them the tiniest shred of hope in their day. Earlier I was doing close-up magic—making a small coin disappear—and teaching them secret handshakes and they were chasing me around and hugging me and laughing and shouting, “Mzungu! Mzungu!”— an African term that means white traveler—and a humbling happiness came over me wherein I knew I could not help them all and I knew I could only help in this moment.

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I look at their houses and I see mud walls with tin roofs. I see a canal, an undeveloped sewage system, that is one foot wide filled with human waste running in front of their homes. I see someone from my team open up a bag of suckers and I hear 30 children scream with so much glee that at first I think someone is being murdered. The children run around waving their candy in the air and laughing. I watch a two-year-old drop his sucker in some kind of dark brown mud. I watch him pick it up, wipe it on his shirt, and stick it back in his mouth.

 

I watch the mothers look at me and I know what they are thinking. They know where I come from. They know what I have. They know what they never will. Their mats in the dirt are as good as it gets and are as good as it ever will get. There is a quiet hopelessness that my presence rubs their noses in.

 

A drunken man wanders down the street and begins shouting at us in Lugandan, the local language. I ask Ryan what he’s saying. “He doesn’t want us here. He thinks you’re going to take his picture and make money from it and he will get nothing.”

 

“Can you tell him that we’re going to take the images to raise money for the babies?”

 

Ryan says, “He doesn’t care. Those babies are not in this village. Uganda is a big place. We might help someone but we won’t help him.”

 

We can’t help everyone.

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The man disappears and comes back holding an iron rod. He cranks the volume on his voice and begins waving it around. The man gets up in the face of a local girl and begins pointing at each of us wildly. Ryan translates for me, “Why are you helping them? They are white, and they don’t care about you! When they are done they will leave and forget about you and you will still be here, poor and broke!”

 

It’s easy to paint this man as the bad guy, but the truth is that he’s spent his entire life being treated like an animal as we all come from our homes and take pictures of him in his natural habitat. He feels exploited.

 

When he’s spoken his mind, he stumbles away.

 

In a place like this – where you have so much more than everyone else, where you’re the richest guy in the room and everyone knows it—it’s easy to start thinking of yourself as some kind of gracious Mother Teresa type. It’s easy to start believing that you’re sacrificing yourself for The Children. Vanity moves in fast.

 

“I’ve come from America to save you! Do not fear, simple African people, for I have brought you the best thing I can: myself!”

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I reach out and I take a child’s hand and I look into her eyes while I wonder how filthy those fingers are. How much human excrement is on them? I say, “How are you? What is your name?” while I scan her for any cuts that could infect me with HIV.

 

I’m down in it. For tonight only. And I am helping. But not this kid. Some kid somewhere will feel the effects of this video we’re making. It will raise awareness and it will raise money and that money will help some kid. But not this one. Not any of these. And the guy with the pipe is right. When I’m done here I am going to go back to America and you will still be here. And you will still be poor and broke.

 

But I won’t forget you. He’s wrong about that.

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The sun is dropping down, and this close to the equator it only takes 15 minutes to go dark. The kids chase after us, laughing and dancing, smiling and shouting, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” as we walk to our van.

 

We get to the lot and I’m sweating. Ryan slides open the door and grabs a bottle of water, “I know dis guy named Geronimo—” And that’s how it all plays out.

 

How quickly we forget ourselves.

 

And now here I am, my eyes connecting with each one of the twelve kids. I think I know who they are and what they are. I believe that I am deep enough to understand the sorrows of their culture. And with clean water rushing down my chin and into the dirt, pooling in the dust at my feet, I realize that I am filled with more shit than the ditches in front of their homes.

 

I feel my heart break. Not for them. But for myself. I am baptized in shame. I swing my pack off and reach inside. Please, please let there be more. Please. My hand wraps around warm plastic and I pull out a bottle of water. I push through the crowd to the tallest child and say, “Are you the oldest?” and he nods. I hand him the bottle of water and I point to the crowd. “Share.”

 

Half the kids get a sip as it’s passed carefully between them, and then it’s gone and is discarded on the ground before they all look back at me. Nobody is multiplying fish and loaves here.

 

Our driver hollers. “Suns down. We gotta go.” And he means it. This is no place for a mzungu at night. I jump into the backseat and the kids all press their hands to the glass. “Mzungu! Please! They babble in their native tongue, shouting pleas at me.

 

I can’t help you.

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The engine fires up and the van shifts into drive. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” I press my hand against the glass and we start to move. I thrust my fist into my pocket. Where is it? Where is it? Hurry up! Hurry up, you fucking idiot! You fucking selfish idiot! The pocket is empty. I go for the other one—just a bunch of wrappers and lint. Where is it!? Where did I put it? There! My hand wraps around a single coin worth 100 shillings or about 3 U.S. pennies – the one I was making vanish with my close-up magic.

 

I swing open the door and reach out to the smallest kid, front and center. “Here! Here!” He holds out his hand and I drop the coin into his palm. His eyes turn into saucers. “Thank you, mzungu!” They all see the coin and they look at me and they start shouting, “Mzungu! Shilling! Mzungu!” They reach out for me, 12 dirty hands asking for my help, as the van speeds up.

 

I do them the courtesy of looking them all in the eyes as I slam the door in their faces.

 

I’m sorry. I can’t save you.

 

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HOOTCH

 

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It was supposed to be over one hundred degrees when we arrived in Gulu, a small village in Northern Uganda but, as the locals say, “God has blessed us and brought the rain.” I’m standing on the lip of our cruiser, a ten-person bus that I’ve taken to calling The Iron Donkey, and looking down the street towards Gulu’s own miniature version of The Sunset Strip. The entire length of the block is made up of shanties and lean-tos. Instead of doors, there are curtains. Instead of cement blocks, mud and corrugated steel. Instead of shingles, tin. If the big bad wolf comes around, he’s going to blow this entire place down.

 

Men and women sit under eaves, trying to escape the light drizzle while they wait for locals to buy their merchandise – sweet bananas, passion fruit, yams, mangoes, live chickens, dead chickens, chicken pieces and fry bread. All prices are open to negotiation.

 

Looking down the street I see dark faces and dirty people, individuals that my mind immediately associates with unsavory characters. I brush the thought away, remembering that I’m seeing them through a perspective that has been spoon fed to me through media and pop-culture for over thirty years. This looks like a slum to me, by my western standards, but to them, to everyone here, to these people, this is not a slum. This is everyday. This is what they were born into. This is what their parents were born into. This is the absolute unfaltering reality of their world.

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Ten years ago the LRA was here recruiting children into the Lord’s Resistance Army and forcing them to kill their parents. They’d give a ten year old a gun and tell him to kill mom and dad. The soldiers would come in and cut off noses, lips and ears of children just so that, when they looked in the mirror, they’d remember their leader, Joseph Kony. This street was once ravaged by rape and violence so recently that George W. was still in office when it was happening. Most of the locals are now just happy that those days are over and they can now sell their wares in peace. They can feed their family without fear of a lunatic kicking in their door and making them choose which of their sons would be sacrificed to the LRA.

 

That 20-something guy with the mangoes spread out on the blanket across the street? That’s the world he grew up in while I was kicking back Bud Lights in college, cruising around on my Honda motorcycle in Colorado. I tell people I’ve never won the lottery but I gotta tell you, being born in America ain’t a bad runner up.

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From my vantage point atop The Iron Donkey I can see behind these shanties to the village beyond. This street might be where these people work but where they live is tucked away and kept safe from prying eyes. Over the tops of the tin roofs, I can see a collection of huts – true huts whose walls are made from mud and whose roofs are made from thatch. I try to decide if these people live beyond poverty or outside of it completely. It’s easy to call them poor but perhaps their lives are just simpler than ours, unbound by complications like rent control, electric bills and social media.

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A voice floats through the air and lands in the crook of my ear, “What are you thinking, Johnny?” I turn around. Noah, our Ugandan guide, is looking at me and smiling. I look back at the tiny strip and point to a bright red shack with people sitting out front. “What is that?” He answers, “A pub. You call it a bahrrr.”

 

I picture a bar as I know it – dimly lit, some tables, chairs. There is a bar up front, proper. A mirror, some bottles. Beer on tap, people sitting with their backs to the front door. Pool tables, darts, etc. But this red place – none of that is inside. It’s too small, too contained. I look at the people and judge them by their specific demographic. They’re not drinking Jameson. Hell, they’re not even drinking Black Velvet or Wild Turkey or the soup de jour, Bud Light – and not just because this is an impoverished community but because most places in Uganda don’t carry those brands. So what’s inside? My imagination tries to picture what this place looks like and my curiosity is peaked. Is there even electricity? Is there a refrigerator?

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There are certain places on Earth that I assume I’ll never set foot simply because I would be unwelcomed. You know the vibe – certain places in Detroit, those nasty neighborhoods in New York you’ve seen in the movies, Skid Row at night. We try to make a peaceful world but there are places where a certain type of person just doesn’t belong because it’s private. It belongs to a culture and by stepping foot inside; you are invading it, exploiting it, making a carnival ride out of their personal world.

 

I also assume that this red bar across the street or the huts behind them are one of those places. That is some raw humanity that my cowboy boots and sunglasses would never be allowed in.

 

Still, it doesn’t hurt to wonder. I ask, “What do they serve?” and Noah looks down the street and seems to judge it. “Would you like to go inside?”

 

There is a part of me, inside my head, that shouts, No! Stay here! Stay here where it is safe! Stay here where your group is! Stay here where the bus is! That is the village. Those are the real people of Uganda. Those are the locals. You will not be welcomed. Remember when you got mugged in Nicaragua while heading towards a local bar?

 

But then the other half of me screams, Go! Quick! Go where there is danger! Go where no one else has! Run from the comforts you know! That is the village. Those are the real people of Uganda. Those are the locals. They may embrace you. And you helped rescue a lady during that mugging. If you weren’t there, who knows what could have happened to her.

 

Ah, back and forth. Back and forth.

 

I jump down from the lip and say, “Noah. I would love that. Is it safe?” He shrugs and begins walking, stepping in front of a car that comes to a screeching halt. I jog to keep up.

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Across the street my boot hits mud. Deep mud. Sticky mud. Heavy mud that clings like little fingers that seem to say Now that you’re here, you’ll never leave. I look up and see a sea of white eyes lacking any casual sideways glances. They are staring, no two ways about it. And whether I am welcome or not, I can’t yet tell. I nod at them, give the cowboy quick-chin-down and nobody responds. I try the more street version with the quick-chin-up but still nothing. It’s very possible that people don’t do that here and have no idea what it means. They might think that my head nod is just a nervous twitch. Or they might think that I’m throwing attitude. This is how new cultures are – things you think are simple and straight forward sometimes get totally lost. I walk around a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) with its wheels ripped off, leaking oil into the rain, none of it mixing together. The mechanic sits on a bucket with a rusty tool in his hand. I lift up my arm and hold out all five fingers in a stiff wave. He stares at me, blinks, and then lifts up his hand in acknowledgment. No smile.

 

I tap my left and right pocket. Phone and wallet still there. Check and check.

 

I lift my hand to another person and they immediately respond, meeting my action with the mirrored version. Noah hangs a right and cuts across the street again, putting us kitty-corner from our bus and about a city block away. “Noah, I’m catching a lot of eyeballs here. Are you sure we’re cool?”

 

“We’re fine. Mzungus just don’t come down here.”

 

“Why? Why not?”

 

“They come to Africa but they want the safe and beautiful version from National Geographic. They want to keep their shoes dry and their hands clean. They’ll help as long as it doesn’t put them in an uncomfortable place.”

 

“And where are we going?”

 

“We’re going somewhere uncomfortable. When people look at you, you won’t be able to just drive by and take a picture. You’ll have to look back at them.”

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We approach a blue building and walk past a man sitting out front. Noah says something to him in Lugandan and the guy responds. Noah jumps up the single step and pushes the curtain aside that acts as a door and I lose him to the darkness within. I lift my hand to the man and he ignores me. Standing out here alone makes me feel exposed and vulnerable, like a snail in an atrium without its shell. I step up onto the concrete “porch” and push past the curtain, trying to look casual and confident, trying to look like I fit in, a white guy wearing a white shirt with a white hood and white sunglasses. Didn’t plan that one out. May as well drape Old Glory over my shoulders and sing the national anthem while I’m at it.

 

Inside the shack, the rain is considerably louder, slapping against the tin roof, and the light is almost non-existent. It slips under the sheet that covers the door and illuminates a bit of the floor. Inside, two young girls stand in haunting silence. There are no chairs or benches in the room. Noah says something to them in Lugandan and they mumble something in response. He says something again and the older of the two, maybe 13, shakes her head and points.

 

Noah pushes back past the sheet and steps out into the rain. He strolls past several structures made of rotting wood and tarps. Four doors down we come to the small cell with red walls that I’d spotted across the street. Sitting out front are a number of men, six on each side, lining the benches that lead to the entrance. “Mzungu! Ahh! Haha! Mzuuuungu!” (an African term for white traveler). Their eyes are bloodshot and their limbs are loose. They comfortably lean against one another, all of them drunk. We’ve reached The Pub.

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Noah and I push through another sheer sheet and into a dark red room, eight feet across and eight feet wide. Parting the room in half is a counter. Behind the counter is a heavy woman whose eyes are barely visible above the tall ledge. Noah stands on his tip-toes and says something to her. He points to me. Her eyes shift in my direction but show no emotion. She says something and, in English, Noah says, “How much?” She quotes a number and he pulls out a bill, handing it across the counter. Pudgy fingers reach out and gobble up yellow money. I hear a shuffling, a clinking, a pouring, and then over the counter comes a dirty cup about the size of two shot-glasses filled with a clear liquid. She hands it to Noah, who hands it to me. I’m suddenly reminded of the scene from The Goonies where Mouth orders water in the Fratelli’s restaurant before discovering Sloth.

 

It’s now that I notice another woman standing next to me with a wrap around her waist and a sleeping newborn swaddled into the backside. She smiles at me and I smile back, happy to see a friendly face. I smell the drink, breathing deeply. There is a hint of fruit and a punch of alcohol that burns my nose. “What is it?”

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Noah says, “Tonto. It’s made from sweet bananas – the little yellow ones.” It’s whiskey. Or moonshine. Or hootch. It’s made here. I take a little sip and the lady with the baby smiles. I smack my lips together and say, “It’s sweet. It’s like whiskey.” Noah smiles and signals me to shoot it. “Fast.” I pull in a breath and, on my empty stomach, begin to tilt the cup back. It takes me three drinks to finish it off. I pinch my eyes and pucker my mouth. I say, “Tastes a little fruity. It’s quite good,” and when I hand the cup back to the woman behind the counter, I see a small smile in her eyes. Is it pride? She takes the cup and places it back on the shelf behind her without washing it.

 

Noah says something to the lady with the baby and she nods twice before turning and leaving. Noah follows after her while I bring up the rear. The gray daylight cuts at my eyes and I squint, walking back out into the rain. The drink has gone straight to my head and I can already feel it loosening me up. The men outside again shout, “Yeah! Mzungu! Haha! Woo!” and I smile back and hold out my fist to one of them, not caring how it looks. Not caring about the social implications of lifting my fist or what that might mean here. The man stares at it, confused. Noah keeps walking. I don’t move. I just stare at him and wait for it to click. The drunk man laughs and lifts his fist in return.

 

Bump it.

 

I laugh and the rest of the men in the row immediately lift their fists as I walk past them. Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. Laughter chases behind me as I disappear back into the rain.

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The lady with the baby walks past six doors before taking a sharp left down a narrow corridor. I’m being led back into the quiet places. This is not the place that you see from the car. This is the internal. This is the inner circle. This is their community. Their private life. There is a sense of both fear and honor that mix around in my gut. The thought crosses my mind that it may have been years since a white man has visited. The thought crosses my mind that I could be making history.

 

I step out of the corridor and into a village where Africans in dusty clothes slowly walk back and forth. All eyes are on me, front and center. I lift my hand and say, “Hello. Hello,” being sure to hit each syllable hard. I feel like a visitor from outer space. I mean you no harm. Scattered abruptly around and seemingly without reason are huts. The huts. Real huts. That’s all I can think. These are huts. These are real huts. These are real huts that real people live in. I’ve seen them in movies and books but these are real. The real thing. This is what pre-civilization looked like. This is pre-brick and pre-commerce. I am in an African village. These are huts made of mud and thatch. People live here. This is raw humanity. This is pure. This is honest.

 

I want to pull out my phone and begin snapping photos. Look at me, Facebook! Look where I am! I’m at a hut village! But the idea immediately revolts me. A few yards ahead I see a small circle of people, eight in total. They sit in chairs around a small pot. Coming out of the pot are long straws that the people all suck on – it looks like some kind of water bong but there is no smoke coming from their mouths.

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Noah says, “Do you want to try?” and I say, “What is it? What are they doing?” and he says, “It’s alcohol. It is called Ajono.” We approach the circle and the people all look at me, each of them appearing more haggard than the last. Teeth are missing. Eyes are sunken. Clothes are torn and dirty. Hands are caked in age and filth. I look to my right and see another circle made of younger men, all of them sending me The Eyeball.

 

“Do you want to try it?” Noah asks again. I look down into the blue and yellow striped pot, the size of a basketball, and see a mixture that looks like water and sand and glue. It looks like chewed up sawdust mixed with spit. It looks like ground up peanuts and warm milk. An older woman stands up, pulls her straw out of her mouth and hands it to me.

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This is where the rubber meets the road. This is their culture. These are the hidden things that no one ever knows. You will not find this on a tour bus or a guided walk through a museum. This is a special moment. This is their community extending an olive branch to me. Welcome. This is they giving me a gift. The woman, mid-sixties, taps my shoulder and signals me to sit in her chair, a wooden contraption that’s low to the ground and, after I sit in it, I learn, exceptionally comfortable.

 

An old man across from me holds his straw in his hands and stares at me. Man, what have you seen? What things have you seen? Were you here when the LRA stormed in? What are those scars from? How long have you been here? What do you know?

 

I say, “Hello,” but he doesn’t respond. I look around the circle and see them all staring at me, waiting. Not pressuring me. Just waiting. Observing. Watching me take part in their tradition. There is something nearly spiritual about this. We are cultures combining, an unexpected exercise for both of us.

 

As with most of the monumentally memorable moments in my life, I never thought they would happen when I opened my eyes that morning. There is power in running towards fear. After all, can a true adventure be planned? Aren’t they, by their very nature, an exploration of the unknown?

 

I look back at the pot and the smell hits me. Rotten bread and moisture. I lift the straw to my mouth and think, Can I get Hep A from this? Hep B? I got my vaccines… Can you contract AIDS from backwash? I’m fairly certain that’s not possible. I pinch the straw between my lips and pull, pull, pull. The length of the straw is about three feet but the thick liquid comes up faster than I anticipate. It’s hot, like green tea that is just cool enough to drink without pausing. It doesn’t burn but it warms me. The taste is just bearable enough to take on, just awful enough to put my mind elsewhere while I swallow.

 

Sometimes taste is deceiving – sparkling water, curry and dark chocolate – sometimes you need a second taste to really appreciate whether you like it or not. I pull again and realize that this is not one of those things. This stuff just tastes like soggy bread with yeast. It is apparent that it will never grow on me.

 

I hear a laugh and when I look up, both circles, young and old, are watching me. A woman lets out a long cackle, which acts as a wick to the fireworks. The rest of the old people begin to laugh. They each pull their straws back into their mouths and begin to sip. Noah says, almost as a command, “Take more.”

 

I put the straw back in my mouth and pull deeply. Three, four, five, six drinks. The effect of the first shot is massaging my brain and I can feel this sludge caking my stomach like glue. The young guys begin to shout and I look over. A tall guy that would fit perfectly in the NBA yells something at me. I turn to Noah. “What is he saying?” Noah listens. “I don’t know. He’s speaking Acholi.” The NBA-guy yells something again and the woman with the baby says something to Noah, who translates to English, “He wants you to drink with him.” I say, “Should I?” and Noah tilts his head ever so slightly left to right.

 

No.

 

I don’t know why and later on I forget to ask. I stand up and admire the toothless smiles that shine up at me from these ancient villagers that have seen more tragedy than anyone on my block back home probably ever will. I stick out my fist to the oldest man and hold it. His smile grows ever wider as he pulls the straw from his mouth and bumps my fist. All the way around the circle I connect with each of them. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for this. Thank you.”

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I know, even as it’s happening, that this moment is unique and will play back through my mind for the rest of my life. I know that it will be rare to ever meet someone with a similar story who I can compare notes with. I understand how valuable this is. This experience is irreplaceable and will probably never repeat itself.

 

I turn to the eldest man, the leader, and I say to him, “May I take a photo? May I take a picture?” Noah translates and then the lady with the baby translates again and the man’s eyes shine. He nods his head yes vigorously. I pull out my iPhone, worth more money than they make in three months, and snap a photo of the brew.

 

I repeat, “Thank you. Thank you for this,” as Noah speaks over me, translating. An older woman gently claps her hands together. The NBA-guy yells again and then hoots. The mood is so good. So light. So pure. So human. There is so much awesome connectivity happening that I try to take it one step further. I don’t want it to end. I’m in The Current of All Good Things and I want to watch it all play out. My luck is ripe. I pull in a breath and look at the group of elders. And then I ask, “May I see the inside of a hut? May I look inside?”

 

Noah looks at me and then looks at the woman with the baby. The woman with the baby says something to an older woman. The older woman smiles and jumps up from out of her chair with more grace than I would anticipate possible. She says something that I don’t understand but waves her hand through the air in a follow me gesture. She leads us to her hut, signals one more time, and walks inside.

 

I watch the lady with the baby disappear. And then I watch Noah disappear. I turn my head back to the circles and the old man waves at me. I look back at the hut and realize that this woman is bringing me, accepting me, into the deepest part of her life. This is the deepest privacy this woman has. These huts are only ten feet across and everything she owns in the world exists inside.

 

The only place this woman has with more privacy is her heart.

 

I touch the soft fabric hanging in front of the door and push into the darkness and once again, out of the rain that is now turning my clothes damp. The humidity hits me first. It’s very warm – at least 10 degrees hotter in here than it is outside. It’s also dark. It’s very dark. The rain falls silent. The drape falls and the four of us stand in silence. Noah, the old woman and the lady with the baby all stare at me. To my immediate left is a small bench. At the back of the hut a small curtain hangs, blocking something. To my right another small curtain hangs, blocking something else. There must only be a foot or two maximum between the other side of the curtain and the wall. What are they hiding?

 

I look up and touch the ceiling. I want to say something profound, something that shows how thankful I am to be brought here, to be shown this, to have this shared with me, a stranger who is opposite in every way. The old woman says something, pointing to each area – the bench, the first curtain, the second curtain. The woman with the baby translates for Noah. Noah translates for me. He says, “This is her living room (the bench), this is her bedroom (first curtain), and this is her kitchen (second curtain).”

 

The only decorations are four pictures of Jesus hanging on the wall in the living room.

 

I don’t know how to feel. Sympathy? Pity? Envy? I reach out my hand and take hers. Her skin is paper-thin and she feels like an autumn leaf. Our hands are so different. Young, old. Black, white. She’s spent year doing heavy work and I’ve spent my time sitting at a desk and writing. Our fingernails tell the story of our lives. I stare into her eyes and say, “Your home is beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with me. I will never forget this moment.”

 

Noah translates to the lady with the baby, who translates to the old woman. She gives me a tender smile and speaks a simple sentence. The lady with the baby translates back. Noah smiles and says to me, “You are not like the other mzungus.”

 

I smile.

 

Outside, the same rain that falls on Los Angeles, falls on everyone.

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The Year of The Yes

What did the fish say when he swam into the wall?

Dam.

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You would never mistake my father for an outdoorsman.  This isn’t to take anything away from him since everyone has their own personal interests but he’s never been the type to grab a gun or a fishing line and head out into the woods at 4am to kill something.  Likewise, I wasn’t raised in a home that had guns or knives or camouflaged hats and orange vests.  Our home never had a skinned deer strung upside down in the garage or a set of tools that were made specifically for sawing through bone.

As I grew up I knew of my cousins or close friends disappearing into the wilderness with their fathers and uncles and coming back with photographs of them holding some animal’s head propped up, its tongue lolling stupidly out of the side of its mouth; blood trickling down it’s chin, it’s eyes as black and vacant as outer space.  The deer looks like he’s trying to be funny, striking an immature pose.  Or maybe he’s drunk and his human buddy is supporting him.  Or maybe there’s an arrow through his heart and he’s dead.

There are photos of guys in ice tents and alongside riverbanks and streams, holding up fish that are large and equally helpless looking. Their eyes gaze blindly about while their mouths gasp helplessly for oxygen as they, essentially, drown on air.  A bunch of fish on a bright green rope, each of them stitched to the next, hanging from their jaws, gravity pulling against their slimy bodies.  My friends point to these photos and say, “My dad caught a 12lb fish,” and I say, “He looks afraid,” and they say, “Fish don’t feel nothing.  They’re stupid creatures.”

But still… I can’t help but wonder.

My friends invite me to go hunting.  “You gotta kill something,” they say and I just shrug.  The idea of entering the forest appeals to me, of finding my prey, of stalking it silently.  I love the idea of lifting up a gun and expelling my breath as I line it up in my sights.  My finger on the trigger and then… and then… and then… I simply have no desire to follow through.  I just want to enjoy the hunt without pulling the trigger on the kill.

When I say as much my friends say, “It’s just a stupid deer,” but, as I gaze at the photographs magnetized to their refrigerator, I can’t help but wonder if that look on their face isn’t stupidity, but fear.

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Late last December / early January I decided that I wouldn’t do a simple New Year’s Resolution.  I wouldn’t be losing any weight or quitting a bad habit or picking up a good one.  I wasn’t going to hit the gym or be more punctual.  I had my sights aimed higher.  The clock struck midnight and I stood up and shouted, nay, declared, in my most noble and regal voice, “Let it be known forthwith that the year of our Lord, two-thousand and fourteen shall hereby be known as The Year of the Yes.

I place my chalice of wine down as my family gazes at me with fruit log crumbs falling from their mouths as I explain, “It’s The Year of the Yes.  I’m doing anything anyone asks me to do,” and someone says, “Like that movie Yes, Man with Jim Carey?” and I say, “Uh, yeah, sort of like that,” and someone else says, “You’re going to do anything?” and I say, “Well, not, I mean, not anything but most things.  I mean, there is a very strong possibility I will do something if someone were to ask me to do it,” and then someone else says, “So, it’s like The Year of the Probably-Maybe?” and I say, “It’s the Year of the Most-Likely but that doesn’t sound nearly as smooth.”

Everyone mumbles agreement, takes a sip of their egg nog and the year rolls on.

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Four months later, in the Spring, I find myself camped at the bottom of a large ravine, two hours out of cell phone reception with not a soul for miles and miles about.  Myself and a few friends have taken it upon ourselves to disappear into the wilds for three days and, you know, it’s The Year of the Yes, so of course I’m here.

We pack as light as possible but, even between five guys, our packs are still 70lbs.  Tents, sleeping bags, water, food, black and white television, Macintosh laptop with external hard drives, stereo system with 5.1 surround sound, Xbox 360 and various other necessary supplies.  It adds up quick.

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On our second night we throw our fishing lines in the water with bait and a prayer and wait… and wait… and wait…  Overhead the sun passes through the sky like a lazy comet and, as our shadows grow longer, our hope grows darker.  Nothing is biting, nothing is jumping, nothing is even splashing.  For all we know there are no fish…

Then it happens, Andy gets a bite and screams.  His hat falls off his head as he struggles to bring it in.  The creature thrashes against the fishing line as it’s pulled up, up, up out of the water and into the air.  The four of us stand in a crescent around our brethren and gaze onward as he navigates the hook from the greasy mouth.  He says, “Rainbow Trout,” and I say, “How do you know?” and everyone, including the fish, turn to look at me as though I’ve just asked how you know if something is a giraffe.

Andy shoves a stake through the mouth of the fish, pulls a rope behind it and makes him into the world’s grossest keychain.  He tosses him in the water and I watch as the fish lolls lazily about in the shallows, still alive.  I say, “When do we kill it?” and Andy says, “Later.  After we’re done.”

Hours pass and slowly, everyone catches one fish.  One fish for each man.

Except me.

Because I don’t really fish.

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I stand along the bank and I stare at the four fish tied together.  I look at their eyes and I try to wonder what they’re thinking.  I wonder if they really are stupid.  I wonder if they have any feelings.  I wonder if they’re afraid.  I wonder if they know.  Anything.

Andy pulls them out of the river and says, “Alright boys, I ain’t cleaning these all myself.  We’re each taking one,” and, since there are four fish and five men, and because I lack experience, I easily and obviously count myself out.  As the sun sets, the shadows don’t disappear so much as they envelop us completely.  Flashlights, lanterns and head lamps get clicked on and I watch as each of the first three men clean their fish, preparing them to be laid inside tacos that night.

To my right, one fish rests on a log and, even in the darkness I can see that he’s still struggling to survive.  He’s still fighting and trying and hoping and wanting to be put back in the water.  Call a fish stupid all you want.  When it’s sitting on land with a hook pulled through it’s lip, attached to a string and unable to move, it knows something is wrong.

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Andy looks up at me and says, “Your turn, Brookbank,” and I say, “Ha.  Nah…nah, I’m solid.  I don’t really – I don’t really have any desire to, y’know, whatever.  Cut a fish.  Clean a fish.  Scrub-a-dub-dub it.  Throw it back for all I care.  Or clean it yourself.”

Andy looks at me and says, “Cool.  Hey, next time I see your wife, I’m going to tell her that everyone cleaned a fish except you because you were afraid to dirty your pedicure,” and I say, “Pedicure is your toes.  You mean manicure.  Unless you’re talking a total mani / pedi then–” but he cuts me off, “Whatever!  You know what I mean.  I’ll tell your wife you were a weenie!” and I shrug and say, “Eh, nothing new there.  She’ll probably believe you.”

He slowly sets down his knife and points the flashlight in my face.  I smile and stare back.  “What you got?  Nothing you can say is going to make me touch and kill and clean a fish.  I don’t care.”  And now I can’t see his face because the flashlight is blinding me.  I hold up my hand and try to cover it up but it doesn’t help.  The other three guys look on.

Andy says, “This is The Year of the Yes… and I’m inviting you to clean a fish with me.”

I swallow hard and smile, knowing that he has me.  Me and my stupid resolution-thing.  Me and my stupid big mouth telling everyone about how I’m going to just go all willy-nilly-whatever.  I hold out my hand and Andy shouts and Eric stands up to grab the fish.

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They bring it to me and say, “Grab it here, like this, and it won’t thrash away… you got it,” and then the fish is in my hands and I’m squeezing it in my fist and it’s staring into the distance and then it’s staring at me and then I’m laying it on a cutting board that we’ve fashioned out of a chopped log.  I press it flat on it’s side, applying pressure against it’s, what, midriff?  Chest?  Torso?  And then someone presses a machete into my right hand.

Andy says, “You can use a filet knife and that might be easier–” but I say, “No…” because truly I imagine slipping and accidentally scraping off its face, leaving it alive and screaming.

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I lift up the machete and someone in my ear whispers, “Year of the Yes.”  And then someone else whispers it and then Andy says, “Hang on, I want to take a photo.”  I pull the machete up, into the air and think, “You are 31 years old.  You’ve never killed an animal.  Today you earn your Caveman Badge.”  Andy says, “Pull the trigger,” and I stare into the eye of the fish and say, “Sorry, friend,” and bring the blade down as fast as I can.

There is a flash as the camera goes off and the blade lands with a hard and sharp thunk into the wood and the head of the creature pops off the cutting board and lands in the dirt.  Blood spurts from the wound and the its smooth body gives a quick flap before going still.  Eric says, “You did it!” and someone laughs and shouts, “Year of the Yes!” as I stare at the headless animal in front of me who was just here but now is sort of not.  Andy says, “Now the fins,” and I cut into them, pulling them off and throwing them into the fire.  I slice the fish from tip to tail, yank out it’s guts one at a time and scrub its interior with water until my hands are caked with grime and filth and scales and death and I feel, strangely and wildly, intoxicatingly alive.

Andy slaps me on the back and says, “Datta boy!” and I set the filet knife down, scratching an itch on my face with the back of my forearm.  I did it.  I took life.  It was here with us and I extinguished it.

I pick up the head, caked in dirt and dust and stare at it.  The eyes stare back at me and I still don’t see stupidity.

I still see only fear.

 

I ask Andy to send me the photo.

 

 

 

 

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Lost in Nicaragua… sort of…

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is the second part in a series I’m writing based off of my wife’s and my recent adventures in Nicaragua.  It is unnecessary to read the previous segment in order to read this one since, outside of geographic location, all events are, for the most part, unrelated.

For context to some of my following inner monologues and emotions, just know that we were involved first-hand in a mugging during our initial evening in Nicaragua and it has thrown a bit of a dark flurry over our journey, leaving us suspicious of everyone.

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My wife and I are standing in the lobby of the Hotel Naranja, the place we’d bunked the night previous.  We were just checking out and getting ready to – thankfully – leave the dangerous and violent city of Managua behind for higher grounds on Isla de Ometepe or The Island of Ometepe; a textbook paradise located just 90 minutes by ferry off the shores of Nicaragua.

The woman behind the desk hangs up the phone and says, “I’ve just called you a taxi.  He’ll pick you up out front and drop you off at the bus station.  Take the Rivas Express.  Rivas is a port city.  The ferry from Rivas will take you to the island.”  I nod and she says, “Rivas Express,” and I nod again and she says, “EXPRESS.”

The taxi driver arrives in an unmarked minivan and pushes both my wife and I into the backseat where the cushions are ripped and springs and yellow stuffing are jutting out at odd and painful angles.  The man speaks nada English and drives like a Latino Jeff Gordon.  He blazes through the city, swerving, honking, skirting around bicyclists and pedestrians.  He cuts corner and takes shortcuts, driving with the finesse of a paramedic.

The city flies past us in a frenetic buzz, the buildings and homes broken, vandalized and decimated.

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ABOVE: A completely operational business.

The taxi driver turns into a buzzing market place and stomps on his brakes in the middle of the street, slams his car into PARK and exits the vehicle as a group of strange men (also in unmarked clothes) begin to descend upon us.  Jade squeezes my hand and says, “What’s happening?  What’s happening?”  I square myself off against my wife, blocking her from our assailants as they slide open the door and tell us to exit the vehicle into a crescent they’re forming with their bodies.

Jade echoes herself, “What’s happening?” and I, powerless against them, slowly exit the minivan, preparing myself for the worst and snapping my pack to me so it can’t be stolen.  Jade hesitantly exits, staying near to me while the men begin to bump into us and shout words I can’t understand.  Noises come from every direction.  People are everywhere.  Buses and cars fly by.  Information and stimuli are pouring in from every angle and I’m trying to look for knives and thieves.  My personal bubble is being infiltrated and molested by a variety of strangers and I don’t know how to answer any of them.

A large school looking bus pulls up next to us and I suddenly hear a word that makes sense to me.  One of the large men shouts, “RIVAS!  RIVAS!” and points to the bus.  I say, “Rivas?” and he says, “Si!  Si!”  I push through the men towards the bus and onto the steps leading inside.  My wife shouts, “Johnny!” and I turn around, anticipating her to be following me but instead seeing her through the bus window, still standing on the concrete, surrounded by strangers.  I shout, “Come.  ON.” and wave my arm through the air.

She says, “Are you sure this is the right bus?” and I say, “Rivas?  Rivas?” and the group of men, whose roles in this I still don’t understand, all nod and say, “Rivas!  Si!  Rivas!”  I wave my hand through the air again and say, “JADE.  Come on!”  The bus driver and all of its patrons stare at me as I hold up the show; the bus not being at a stop but at an actual stop SIGN, just getting ready to pull into traffic when I hijacked it.

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ABOVE: ALTO / STOP

Jade says, “Is this the Express?” and one of the men shakes his head and says, “No,” and Jade says, “It’s not the Express!” and I say, “It’s Rivas!  We have to get on!  Come on!” and Jade, finally bending under the pressure, gets on the bus and we both take a seat together halfway down the aisle as the bus turns into oncoming traffic, swerves, and picks up speed.

I turn to Jade and say, “That was intense,” and she says, “Yeah.  Who were those guys?” and I shrug.  The bus stops and some people get on.  Others get off.  The city passes and then falls away.  The bus stops.  People get on.  People get off.  The country engulfs us; acres and acres and acres and acres of wild life as far as the eye can see.  Everything is overgrown and lush and green.  The bus stops and people get off and people get on.

Jade says, “How far to Rivas?” and I say, “I don’t know.”  I nudge the woman in front of me and say, “How far to Rivas?” and she says, “Rivas?” and I say, “Yes.  Uh, si,” and she says, “Si,” and points forward.  I have no way to communicate the simplest thoughts to anyone and this is both frustrating, exhilarating, challenging and also a bit scary.

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ABOVE: JB & JB ridin’ dirty on the bus to Rivas… like, literally filthy.  Everything is sweaty and caked in dust.

I reach into my bag and pull out our Nicaraguan Traveler’s Guide and flip to the translator in the back which gives you general phrases like, “What time is it?” and “That is too expensive,” and, “How far to…”

I nudge the woman again and say, “Cuanto kilometers… Rivas?” which I assume translates roughly to, “What is the quantity of kilometers to Rivas?”  The woman blurts out a few words and my wife and I turn back to our book, trying to figure out what noventa means.  We cross reference every ten digits until we come to ninety and sigh with relief.

We’re definitely on the right bus and we’re definitely heading the right direction.  90 kilometers.  The woman tells us two hours.  The bus stops, people get off, people get on.  To our left, a bus filled with white people passes us.  Jade says, “I think that’s the Express to Rivas.”  Our bus stops again.  More people get on.  More people get off.  The Express Bus never stops.  The Express Bus disappears into the distance.  The Express Bus is gone.

A woman selling snacks from a basket gets on and begins to walk up and down the aisle, chanting her inventory at all the passengers.  The woman in front of  us purchases some candy for a handful of shiny coins.  The merchant gets off at the next stop and more food distributors get on.  They sell bread, drinks and snacks.  People come and go.  The bus never breaks forty miles per hour.  I turn to Jade and say, “Do you think that Express bus just goes from the station in Managua to Rivas?” and she nods and I say, “This bus is way better,” and she nods again.

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ABOVE: Sack o’ Fanta… that I bet the regular ol’ Express Bus didn’t get to try out!

The woman in front of us turns around and offers us some candy.  She holds it out in the palm of her hand and says, “Esposa?” and I take the candy and say, “Que?” and she repeats herself.  She holds up her hand and points to her ring finger.  “Esposa,” and I say, “Oh!  Spouse.  Wife.  Husband.  Yes!” and I lift my hand and show her my pure gold wedding ring but quickly drop my hand, afraid somebody will try to steal it from me (both my ring as well as my finger).

The woman says, “Ninos?” and Jade says, “Tre.  Uno nino.  Dose nina.” or,”Three.  One boy.  Two girls.”  This is how total immersion into a foreign language works; you take the little you know and you begin to incorporate.  Over the next week we’ll add a few words to our vocabulary every day until we’re able to function as tourists on a relatively socially acceptable basis.

The bus stops and the driver shouts, “Rivas!  Rivas!” and I say, “Rivas!  Let’s go!” and The Candy Woman says, “No!” and we sit down.  The man repeats it and I realize he’d said, “Arriba!“, which I believe means “Hurry up.”

The bus enters another city and Jade says, “Is this Rivas?” and I say, “I have no idea.”  I look for signage but can’t find any and, the boards I do find, I can’t seem to read.  At one point I see the word Rivas with an arrow but no numbers or mileage / kilometers next to it.  It’s at this point that the thought crosses my mind that we could actually miss Rivas.  We could actually slide right through it, right past it.  We could end up in an even more foreign land and have no idea how to contact anyone.  The internet doesn’t work on our phones so we couldn’t YELP a taxi cab.  We could enter a business and hope to translate “lost” and “taxi” and “help” and… the sun crosses it’s peak point in the sky and I imagine being stuck in a small village at night…

I ask the woman in front of us where she’s heading and she says, “Costa Rica,” and I nod and say, “If we hit Costa Rica, we’ve gone too far.”  Jade exhales and takes a picture of something with her phone.

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ABOVE: Our Bus Buddies.

Every ten minutes, every fifteen minutes, the bus stops and passengers are traded.  I say to Jade, “What are these places?  Where are they going?” and she says, “I don’t know.”  I look at the bus stops and they’re nothing more than benches in the middle of nowhere.  A random hut or trailer stands all alone in the distance, completely disconnected to any sort of civilization for miles and miles and miles around.  Getting off at one of these places was completely out of the question.

If we passed Rivas, we’d be onto the next city… whatever it was.

I imagine where The Rivas Express could be right now.  I imagine all those tourists hopping on a ferry and laughing and smiling.  I wonder if this is how the entire trip will play out; us trying to do something and failing miserably; us trying to do The Tourist Thing and instead doing The Nicaraguan Thing; us trying to dip our toes in the pool and instead falling in completely.

I honestly can’t say it’s a terrible way to experience a new culture but there is a fear involved in it that coincides with the excitement.  This is more than hitchhiking to Denver.  This is more than going for a stroll through Strange New York.  This is more than taking a road trip detour through Salt Lake City.

This is complete isolation from your culture, from a way of life, from standard and safety.

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When we typically travel we like to Give In To The Process and let happen what may; let the journey bring things to us and carry us through and allow it to live on its own, to be alive but this process and this journey was completely different.  This wasn’t Giving In to the art of acupuncture and letting the weirdness wash over you; this was someone asking to do acupuncture with machetes.  It was the complete unknown with no guidelines, roads or basis of comparison.  We had no contact to any one to ask for advice and the contacts we had, we couldn’t speak frankly to.

I turn my head and look out the window, watching more countryside roll by; more broken homes, houses and yards, wondering how much further.  How much further?  How much is ninety kilometers?  How much is one kilometer?  A half mile?  Two-thirds of a mile?  Everything is foreign.  Even distance is strange.  I can’t even get a grasp on time.

We wait, completely at the whim of Fate and Travel and Journey.

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Suddenly, The Candy Woman turns around and, choking on her excitement for us, says, “Rivas!” just moments before the bus driver shouts it.  We stand up and I say, “Gracias!  Gracias!” and walk off the bus, having no idea how to get a taxi, how to call one, how to get to the ferry from the bus station, how far it is, how expensive it is, how, exactly, the translation from U.S. dollars to Nicarguan cordobas works.  Everything is Grey Zone.  Everything is Unknown.  And I’m jumping off the bus directly into it.

I step down into the dirt and a heavy set man in a red polo approaches me and says, “Ferry?  Ometepe?” and I say, “Si,” and he says, “Taxi,” and points to himself.  I say, “Si.  Cuanto costa?” and he says, “Ocho,” and I say, “U.S.?” and he says, “Si,” and I say to Jade, “Eight bucks to the ferry?” and she says, “Sure.”

We hop in and he blasts Hispanic techno music while driving with his knees and texting on his old-fashioned-Motorola-Razor-looking phone… and I’m positive he’s texting his Boss, telling him he’s got two Gringos in the backseat that are prime meat for the Sex Shop.  I’m sure he’s thinking to himself, “Score!  The first one has beautiful features, soft hands and a delicate voice… and his wife ain’t bad neither!”

He sways into on-coming traffic, over corrects and begins to veer towards the sidewalks, corrects again, evens out, puts down the phone and turns up the music.  He turns onto narrow streets populated by abandoned homes, dark garages and people that look like they’re capable of bad things.  I mindlessly reach for my right pocket where I always keep my pocket knife before finding it gone, realizing too late that I’d left it at home to avoid the TSA from confiscating it from me.

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ABOVE: The airport exiting Nicaragua works on the honor system.  “Dear Passenger, please deposit any prohibited items into case.”  No further inspection required.

The man turns down the music, turns to me and asks something in elongated Spanish.  I say, “Hahah, poco espaniol,” or “Hahah, small Spanish.”  I hold up my forefinger a half inch from my thumb, indicating just how poco.  The man laughs and says, “Ah… Ometepe, si?” and I say, “Si,” and he says, “Cuanto dias?” and there’s that cuanto word again!  I know this one!  I learned it on the bus!  He’s asking how many, how many, how many something.  Dias.  I know that.  It’s familiar.  What is it?  Buenos dias.  Good Day.  Day.  DAY.  Cuanto Dias.  Quantity of days.  He’s asking how long I’m staying.  I cracked the code!  And that’s how it feels every time you figure out what someone has said to you – it feels like you’ve just decrypted a super secret real life code and the message is out and it’s yours.

I, counting silently in my head while staring at my fingers say, “Cinco?” and he says, “Cinco, si, si,” and then we drive in silence until he stops at a tall fence blocking a huge body of water.  In the distance I see the two volcanoes that make up Ometepe.  They are majestic and…. other adjectives will just poison them.  They are truly majestic.  I nudge Jade and say, “Loooooook…”

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ABOVE: Ometepe from the ferry.  On the left is Volcan Concepcion and on the right is Volcan Maderas.  The second is dead, the first just sleeping.

I pay the taxi driver ocho dollars and he gives me his name and phone number so I can call him in cinco dias.  (See, you’re picking it up too!  It’s fun, right?!)

Jade and I walk through the gate, find a poco restaurante and purchase lunch; a single plate of over easy eggs, rice and black beans that we share and jointly chase down with two beers; a Victoria and a Tona, the two major beer brands of Nicaragua.  We don’t know it, but this is what most of our meals will consist of.

The rice and beans are unlike any I’ve ever had.  While I find most rice and beans to be completely bland and underwhelming, this combo was delicious and we would intentionally go out of our way to find some.  I suppose that when it’s your major crop and food source, you find ways to make it more palatable.

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Next to the restaurant is a dirt… road?  Path?  Trail?  Running along… houses?  A school?  Businesses?  Everything is very vague and nebulous; unlabeled but obviously operational.  Buildings.  People.  I’m not sure what they’re doing.  Stray dogs run rampant along with herds of cows and several chickens.  Everything passes right by us, at our table, careless to our presence.

Everything is so different here, even the animals are strange.

We pay our tab; an unheard of three U.S. dollars for both of the beers and lunch and make our way to the ferry; a beat up sea coaster that’s made this journey innumerable times.  We find seats on the very top and gaze down on the land as we slowly pull away from the mainland, pushing out into the body of water, feeling the gentle rocking pushing from beneath us and the vicious sun beating down on us from above.

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We move on and on but Ometepe seems to become no closer.  Jade falls asleep.  I fall asleep.  I wake up.  Jade wakes up.  We take pictures.  We see birds.  A woman sitting next to us drops her digital camera in the water.  Her boyfriends laughs at her.  A bird sits on the rail of our boat, allowing himself to be tugged to the island as well.  Maybe he knows there is better fish over there.

We both fall back to sleep and when we wake up, we are in spitting distance… and everything is amazing and stunning and beautiful and unlike everything we’ve seen so far; it is a land all its own, completely separate in every way from both Managua and Rivas.  It is stunning.

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The steel plank drops.  The engine is killed.  The boat is tied off.

We have arrived safely at Ometepe.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

Next week our adventure continues.  We still have a gypsy circus, The Beach at the End of the World and a man named Urine to discuss.

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ABOVE: First photo taken at the port of Ometepe.

 

“How I Was Nearly Beaten, Mugged and Kidnapped in Nicaragua” … OR … “How I Spent My Wife’s 30th Birthday”

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For the longest time I’ve had this ridiculous hero fantasy wherein I find myself in a hostile situation with various other civilians – the two most used locations in my brain are a gas station robbery and an airplane during a terrorist take-over.  I hear stories about these things happening all the time; I read the news articles, I’ve seen the YouTube clips uploaded from security cameras, I’ve watched the Caught on Tape! TV specials.  Everything is calm and then, just like that, you’ve got a gun in your face, piss in your pants and the register is hanging open.

I always hoped that if I were to find myself in a real life crime-drama scenario that I would be the guy who Did the Right Thing.  I tell myself that I would act honorably and valiantly but there’s a little voice in the back of my head that says, “When sword meets steel, you will fold.  You will hide behind a rack of candy bars and sports car magazines and you will squat down and shiver and pray and wait for it to be over.”

I tell that voice that it’s wrong.  That I’m made of better material but… until it happens… you never know what you’ll do.

Two and a half weeks ago while visiting a foreign country, I finally got to see if The Voice was right…

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For my wife’s 30th birthday we wanted to do something exotic… something extravagant… something adventurous.  We talked about Red Lobster but said, “NO!  Bigger.”  We talked about skydiving but said, “NO!  Bigger.”  We talked about having a Latin American themed birthday party complete with pinata that looked like Jade but we said, “NO!  Bigger…. but let’s save that idea for 31…”

BELOW: A photo journalistic approach to some of the awesome things we thought about doing for Jade’s birthday…

Petting a camel.

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Having a staring contest with a seal.

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Going camping.

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Wearing masks.

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Breaking things.

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Around this time we serendipitously ran into a couple at an ice skating arena one night who told us they’d just returned from honeymooning in Nicaragua.  “Nicaragua?” I say, “Isn’t that a war-torn, poverty stricken, wasteland?”  The husband shrugs and the wife says, “Yes and no.”  They pull out their iPhones and show us pictures of an exotic paradise, photos of extravagant beaches, videos of adventurous hikes, swims and ferry rides.

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We were sold.

“The only thing you gotta remember,” they say together ominously, “Is that everyone there is really poor and they’ll steal things from you… not because they’re violent but because it’s a course of survival…”

Two weeks later we’d purchased our tickets and two weeks later again we found ourselves airborne, somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, heading for a land who’s foreign tongue we did not speak.  I felt like Indiana Jones and my wife was that short Asian kid that follows him around, always helping him out of trouble.

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Neither of us had experienced international travel before besides the one time my wife visited the Bahamas and the single time I was in southern Texas so neither of us really knew what to expect.  Everything was new and revelatory; virgin territory.

On the plane I sit next to a Jehova Witness who just retired two days ago.  To celebrate she was moving to Nicaragua for three months.  Thinking about her I realize that she’s still there now (at the time of this writing) and it makes me jealous.

The captain buzzes over the intercom and tells us we’ll be landing in twenty minutes.  Jade and I push up the window, expecting to see Strange and Foreign Nicaragua, a land covered in jungles and vines and explorers carrying machetes but instead we only see a phosphorescent orange glow emanating from the city; a color that screams the word “HEAT!”  Traffic slowly crawls below us, cars and trucks and motorcycles.  From above it looks like LA at night… or Miami at night… or New York at night….

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ABOVE: Nicaragua by day, which is more what I was anticipating when I opened the window.

The plane lands, everyone stands up, Jade and I grab the only thing we’ve packed – a backpack per each of us – and exit the plane.  It’s then, as I step into the terminal, that it all hits me very hard.  I am in a foreign land.  I don’t know anyone and, most noticeably, I can’t read any of the signs.  Letters that I have been familiar with my entire life strategically reorganize themselves to stand out like strangers on boards that might as well have been blank.

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ABOVE: Bookstore in the airport.

The airport is quiet.  There are few people and no security.

Outside we find a man that the hotel has sent.  He holds a sign with our name on it and, as we approach, he introduces himself as, “Mumble-Mumble, I speak very fast Spanish.”  I place my hand against my chest, feeling like Tarzan, and say, “Johnny,” and he says, “Yonni,” and I nod.  My wife says, “Jade,” and he, like everyone that’s ever met her, says, “Jane.”  It’s good to know that the mistake transcends language and culture, making us feel right at home.

He takes us to an unmarked car and opens the doors for us.  PS, we’d read stories about taxi drivers picking travelers up, driving them into dark alleys and mugging them so i was ready for his attack… if it were ever to come to that…

The man, Mumble-Mumble, drives us through a large city called Managua and it’s unlike any I’d ever seen.  Homes and businesses in various states of disrepair are found on every corner.  Domiciles that most would find uninhabitable are everywhere; we see toddlers walking in ruins, families eating in filth, couples enjoying the night air, surrounded by debris; corrugated steel, cracked wood and rubble.

We pass a street corner where a small gang of eight year old kids are washing windshields for money.  On the same corner are women covered in short dresses, long hair and thin sheets of sweat, selling themselves on a humid night.

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ABOVE: This picture was not taken at night… but all the pictures that were taken at night were dark… so you get some day time photos.

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ABOVE: For the low, low price of just 85 cordobas, you too could enjoy the processed goodness of a quesoburguesa doble!

Jade and I begin trying to converse with our driver.  The three of us speak slowly, trying to find familiar words and phrases; shaping things with our hands.  He tells us he has diez hermanos or ten brothers.  He tells us that the children working the streets are the children of drug addicts who can’t take care of them.  He tells us that Marc Anthony is playing a show in town tonight.  He tells us we should go.  He says, “Trabajo!  Trabajo!” and snaps his fingers and dances but I don’t know what it means.

He turns off the main road onto a dark street and the solitude of our situation creeps under my skin.  We pass abandoned garages and dark homes and broken windows; patched up fences and homes with no doors.  A group of six motorcycles blow past us, their engines tearing through the silence of the night and the driver tells us there will be a motorcycle convention in the center of town tomorrow but all I hear is “There are motorcycle gangs everywhere.  Watch out!”

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ABOVE: The outside of our room at Hospedaje Naranja.

He takes us to Hospedaje Naranja (Hotel Orange), where we’re staying the night, and walks us to the front door, who’s gate is locked from the inside.  A woman cautiously peeks around the corner before recognizing her friend, smiling and pulling the dead bolt.  Jade and I step inside and the woman quickly latches the door behind us with a nervous giggle.

She speaks fluent English, checks us in and asks if we’re hungry.  She suggests three restaurants and, little do I know, but this is the first of several choices that will ultimately lead me to an undesirable end.  We choose the closest; a Peruvian place three doors down the street and our fate is sealed.  The woman says, “Very close.  Very safe.”

We put our bags in our room and walk the half a block to the restaurant.  It’s now 9:30pm and dark.  Every car I hear approaching is a kidnapper, a thug, a villain ready to Do Crimes.  We enter the restaurant and order our food in the best Spanish we can muster.  Jade orders wine and I get a shot or trajo of whiskey.  We order a pasta plate and share it.

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The woman who owns the restaurant approaches our table and asks where we’re staying, asks what our plans are, asks how the food is.  She sits down at the table and tells us that her tablet (knock-off iPad) is broken and it’s erased all of her family photos.  She says something about batteries and RAM and wireless signals.  She asks if we’d like her to pull some herbs from her garden to make us a fresh and delicious tea but we decline.  Jade, because she’s genuinely not interested, me because I’m afraid she’s going to slip me some kind of date rape toxin that will render me useless before I wake up handcuffed to a bed with a man named Tony rubbing his dirties all over me.

The woman sighs, disheartened, and then we take another turn closer to the pit.

I say, “Is there a bar around here?”  The woman looks at me quizzically and says, “Bahr?” and I say, “Yeah, uh… drinks?  Beer.  Cerveza?” and she says, “Bahrr?  AH!  Pub!?” and I say, “Yes!  Si!  Si!  Pub!” and she tells us that there’s one on this very block.  She draws an invisible map on the table and says, “Go right and right and right.  Not far at all.”

The night is young and, maybe it’s my one shot of whiskey or the fact that I’m realizing that my fear of all Nicaraguans has been unfounded and that everyone truly is kind and gentle but the pub sounds like a good idea.  The taxi driver was friendly and helpful.  The woman in the lobby was generous and wonderful.  The restaurant owner and our waiter were both smiling and genuine people.

“This is Nicaragua,” I think.  This is how life should be.  I’m projecting my anti-trusting violent mindset onto these people.  I’ve watched too many movies.  Seen too much TV.  People are people and people are kind.

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The woman says, “I will take you there,” and we say, “Okay,” and she grabs her coat and then we’re in the dark street and then we’re walking towards her SUV and then Jade is saying, “Wait, what is happening?  I thought she was walking us?” and then I say, “Yeah, but she’s driving us.  It’s okay.  She’s nice,” and then the woman is on the other side of her car and Jade and I are standing in the dead street with both doors open and Jade is whisper-shouting, “We don’t know her.  She could take us to some factory and sell us into sex slavery and men will stick it to your maize-hole,” which of course is a Spanish joke if you can translate it and I say, “Don’t worry.  Everyone is so nice!  She’s just going to give us a little ride!” and Jade says, “I don’t want to.  I don’t want to go,” and, looking back… I’m really amazed at how stupid and careless I was about to be, crawling into a car with a stranger.

Luckily, we never saw how that story ended because, like all good stories, the unexpected occurred.

Suddenly, the woman, out of my line of sight on the driver’s side of the car, screams.  SCREAMS.  She hasn’t stubbed her toe or slipped or broken her ankle.  This scream tells you immediately that something nasty is happening.  Again.  SCREAMING.  In my mind, I remember it all in English, but I have no idea if that’s true or not.  It seems like she would have shouted in her native tongue but all I can recall is, “Stop!  Stop!  Stop!  No!  Stop!”

Jade says, “What-” and I begin to hesitantly walk towards the back of the car… and then from out of the darkness a man appears, slightly heavy set, Latino fella.  Late 20s.  The image is blurry and I’m having a hard time processing what is happening; everything has gone from calm and unsure to chaotic and unsure in literally seconds.  I see the man and I see the woman and they are struggling.  The woman is hanging onto something – her purse – and the man is pushing her away from it, trying to break free.  She’s struggling like it’s her newborn child he’s trying to pull away and, finally, he succeeds.  He grabs her dress by the shoulder and violently throws her to the ground.

The entire exchange happens in one or two seconds; I walked around the back of the van and then saw a man overpower a woman and throw her to the ground.  It was very fast.  Everything else moves at an incredible rate… everything else moves faster than I can process; faster than I can make decisions or weigh pros and cons.  It all just…. happens.

But this is my moment.  The one I’ve been waiting for my whole life.

And when it is upon me, I don’t think, “Here is my moment,” and The Voice never speaks up.  There is no internal dialogue of whether I will act or not.  Whatever is inside… just exists.

The man turns and begins to run and I immediately break into a sprint after him, my Dad sneakers slapping the hot concrete like pistons.  And then there is suddenly a motorcycle with a second man in the street, waiting, but I don’t slow down.  I don’t know where it came from or when it arrived or if it was there when we exited the restaurant but I am certain that my runner is heading straight for his getaway driver.

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ABOVE: This was not the robber… believe it or not, we did not pull out our cameras during this ordeal.  This is just a random man on a bike.  Although, the bike looks similar and the man looks similar…. so…. maybe…….

I’m out of shape but The Thief is even thicker in the center than myself so I’m able to close the gap between us just before he reaches the bike.  He pauses momentarily to skip and hop into the air; the plan to land on the back of the bike and his friend to, of course, escape into the darkness with their loot but…

…I don’t know where the truth is in this following section and I don’t know where my wishful thinking is – everything is a gray blur – but I’ll give it to you how I remember it and how I hope it happened.

The Man slows down to leapfrog onto the back of his accomplice’s bike and, as he does so, glances over his shoulder.  This is the first time, I believe, he realizes that he is being pursued… and it shocks and surprises him and causes him to stumble, foiling what would otherwise have been a practiced and flawless landing on the bike.  In the background, echoing, I can hear someone screaming.  Maybe it’s the woman from the restaurant, maybe it’s my wife, maybe it’s both.

The man stumbles and, instead of hopping smoothly onto the bike, lifts his foot up and catches it awkwardly after seeing me.  He lifts his foot again and lands half sideways on the seat, hop-hopping to keep his balance, the back of his left knee draped over the seat prematurely, the driver now struggling to hold things upright.  I catch up to him and, as I’m running, begin to pull my fist back.  I’ve never hit anyone in my life and it’s about to happen.  We are on an impact trajectory, folks.

The Man holds out his left hand, trying to block me and, with his other hand, pulls back his fist and begins to say, “No!No!No!No!” and then this is the first time that everything slows down.  Finally, the fast forward is done and a clarity rolls through my brain.

I see two men standing in front of me that are clearly capable of very dark things.  I see two women standing behind me, the latter of the two pressing 50.  I see myself stopping these two men and then me standing in a street with both of them coming towards me.  I don’t know if they have knives or guns.  I don’t know anything.  I don’t know anyone.  I’m in Nicaragua.

And then I see my children, in my head, clearly.

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ABOVE: The two things that I love most; my children and my hammock……… Oh, and Jade is nice too.

And then I realize that whatever is in that woman’s purse is not worth losing what I have at home.  I don’t care if she has a hundred thousand dollars in there and three gold bouillons and the Busch’s Baked Beans family recipe.  I suddenly realize that that purse is going to go away… and I am completely okay with that.

I pull my punch and take a step back.  The guy sees me hesitate and hops the rest of the way onto the bike.  I assume that our exchange, his entire pause, was roughly seven seconds.  Just enough…

The bike revs and the two men wobble and then take off into the darkness just as a third man appears over my shoulder; this one running directly towards the motorcycle.  Like the others, he too came out of nowhere and it only takes me a moment to realize that it’s the waiter from the restaurant.  He shouts and the bike revs and takes off but he doesn’t stop.  He cranks his arms and chases the bike for a solid 20 feet.  His arms outstretch… the bike picks up speed… he’s closing the gap… as the bike finds its balance… and then just before the bike is out of his grasp, he wraps his fingers into the shirt of The Thief and throws him to the ground, pulling the entire bike sliding onto the concrete with a bang and a hissssss.

Looking back, I wonder if the two criminals were thinking the same thing I’ve been thinking, which is…. seven seconds.  If we’d only had seven more seconds… if that stupid American hadn’t…

In those seven seconds they would have been able to ride free and clear.  As is, they did not.

Two, three, four, six, nine, twelve men suddenly come running from behind me; various restaurant workers who heard the ruckus.  The driver stands up, pulls his bike up, hops on and takes off, leaving his partner in crime lying in the street, alone, as the twelve men encircle him before dragging this would be felon to the curb and begin beating him mercilessly.

Jade and I slowly step backwards, towards the other side of the street and disappear into the shadows, retreating back to the confines of our hotel.  For the remainder of the night we lie in bed and slowly flip through 93 channels of Spanish television, hoping to learn a few phrases for the coming week but the only word I’m able to pick out is ayuda.

Help.

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At midnight I shut the light off and try to go to sleep but merely stare at the ceiling for what feels like hours.  My heart rate has long since returned to normal but I still feel as though adrenaline and fear are pounding through my veins and my brains.  I hear a noise outside and go to the window.  Nothing.  I crawl back into bed and hear a scamper from the room next door.  I listen and wait.  Nothing.  I get up and use the bathroom, make sure the window is locked and secure.  I double check the lock on the door and then peer out from behind the curtains slowly.  I hear a motorcycle approaching and wonder if it’s the same man, coming back to the neighborhood to pick up his limping and beaten friend.

I crawl back into bed, under the cold sheets and wonder what it’s like to live in a world where this occurrence does not throw you into a state of panic and fear and unease.  I think about the men that came running from the restaurants and realize that this wasn’t the first time this had happened.  This wasn’t An Event.  This was A Lifestyle.

This was Managua.

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Kaidance: Epilogue

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Three days after burying Kaidance we’re driving out of town on I-90, pointed for somewhere in Montana.  The van is quieter, cleaner and smells better but neither of us can shake the feeling that we’re abandoning our pet.  Logically, we know we’re not.  We understand life and we understand death but I think it’s the mourning that confuses everyone.  Driving away feels so… permanent.  Real life.

We hit a tourist attraction called 1880s town in South Dakota and stop for lunch.  I let Clementine out of the car and walk around the property with her, unleashed.  I sigh at the simplicity of the process.  Clementine runs up and jumps on a couple of strangers who immediately bend down and begin petting her.  Clementine, always the conversation starter.  She disappears under a dead train to chase a cat while I talk to this older couple about their adventures.  In case you’re wondering, they’re in their 60s, from Wyoming, headed to Washington and then back to Texas.  They have children all along the route.  They have a small camper they’re towing with them.  They’re living in it for the next three months.  I am jealous of their lives and secretly wish to be old.  To be retired.  To have the ability and freedom to run for three months without permission or consequence.

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We order a round of bacon cheeseburgers to go and hit the road.  I turn around and see Clementine staring out the window and suspect that she suspects that something is up.  I shout her name and pat my lap and she jumps into the driver’s seat and I quietly pet her for the next five hours until we arrive in Montana.  I’m fairly certain she’s depressed.

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A week later she’s eaten nothing more than a few scraps here and there.  She won’t touch her food and I’m not even certain she’s drinking water.  I hope it just has something to do with homesickness or carsickness or vacation overload; being around so many strangers and strange houses and strange dogs.  I shout her name and she doesn’t come.  I shout again.  Nothing.  Eventually I find her sleeping under a table in the dark.

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A week later we arrive back home just before midnight after an incredibly long eleven hour day on the road.  We drove from a campsite somewhere in Idaho back to The Valley.  Normally we wouldn’t do this but it just felt like everyone needed some space; cabin fever beginning to set in.

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I open the front door and am greeted with a blast of heat that my thermometer claims peaks around 105 degrees.  My house is not what one would call “insulated properly” so in the summer it’s an oven and in the winter it’s a freezer.  With no one around to open doors, turn on fans or, at the very least, try to battle the heat with the pathetic AC window unit, my home has turned into an Easy Bake Oven / Human Incinerator.  I gasp and fall to the floor, dragging myself, clawing myself over the hardwood and tile until I reach the backdoor and rip it open.  Cross breeze.  It’s incredible how wonderful 92 degrees feels after coming down from the triple digits.

Kaidance’s bed lies abandoned on the kitchen floor, a 2 x 3 ft genuine Orthopedic mattress.  She may have died of cancer / overdose of fatal poison but her back was in perfect condition.  The children still haven’t asked about her, which surprises me.  It surprises me that, even after seeing my brother-in-law’s Rhodesian Ridgeback, they didn’t at least inquire as to the whereabouts of their own dog.  With the proof of the empty mattress I’m certain the pieces are going to click… but they don’t.  Their lack of observation shocks me.

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I pull out Clementine’s dish to feed her for the evening, a task that Rory typically helps me with.  I fill it with salmon tasting nuggets that look like Peanut Butter Crunch and set it on the ground, feeling as though the chore is only half completed.  Rory looks at me and says, “Kadie wants to eat too,” and I say, “What’s that?”  I don’t know why I answer this way.  I heard him.  I heard his statement.  It’s just that, now that it’s here, I’m trying to figure out the best thing to say.  How honest should I be with a 2 year old?

He repeats himself.  “Kadie wants to eat too,” and I squat down and say, hesitantly, “Kadie doesn’t live with us anymore.  Kadie lives with Jesus,” and then, not certain if I should say it or not, I blurt out, “Kadie died.”  Rory repeats it, “Kadie died?” and I say, “Yes,” and he sits down and plays with his trains while I keep crying.  Stupid tears!

I pull out a broom and mop bucket and clean the floor of the last tracks of mud Kaidance will ever make.  With every swipe, I erase a little of her presence from the Earth until… she’s gone.

Six days later we’re still trying to get accustomed to life without a big dog; the baby gate has come down, Clementine roams the house and sleeps with us at night.  Our house and floors are eternally cleaner but there are more leftovers around.  After dinner, Jade jumps in the shower with Quinn, who asks to be picked up.  Jade complies.  Quinn asks for the bathroom window to be opened.  She says she wants to watch Kadie.  Jade sets her down and says, “Kadie is with Jesus,” and Quinn, without missing a beat, says, “I don’t want to live with Jesus.”

Jade strolls into the living room in her dead great-uncle’s housecoat that still smells like cigars, even after 45 years.  Quinn has a towel wrapped around her head and nothing else.  The towel is so heavy, her head tilts largely forward, forced to watch her feet as she walks.  We all lie on the couch together and feel The-Baby-In-Mommy’s-Tummy.  Rory places his hand ever so gently on her stomach and says, “Baby,” and it’s so sweet until he starts pushing so violently that I have to quickly restrain him and wonder if he didn’t purposefully lull us into a false sense of security.

Quinn turns to me and says, “Daddy, Kadie dead.”  I take two breaths and then nod.  This is the empire that I have built, the hole that I have dug.  “Yes, dear.  Kadie is dead.  She’s with Jesus now.”  The following conversation plays out like so…

Quinn: I don’t want to live with Jesus.
Jade: Well, you do… but not right now.
Quinn: I don’t want to live with Jesus right now.  I don’t want to die.
Jade: You don’t have to worry about dying, honey.  Not for a very, very long time.
Rory: I can’t die!
Jade: Uh…….well, honey… You can die…
Rory: I don’t want to die!!!!
Jade: Don’t worry, you probably won’t, not for a long time.
Rory: I can die.
Me: It’s okay, Rory.  You don’t have to worry.
Rory: I can die……but I don’t want to!
Me: Neither do I.
Quinn: I want to live with Jesus!
Jade: Well, yes… but not right now.  Right now… let’s just play with Baby.  Remember the baby in–
Rory: I DON’T WANT TO DIE!!!

Then, my daughter, who I legitimately suspect of being able to see into the spirit realm says, “Kadie does not want to go.  Kadie does not want to leave home,” and Jade says, “This conversation is over.”  We ultimately distract them with Skittles and beef jerky.

It’s been nearly a week since we’ve been home and Kaidance’s dog dish is still sitting on the counter and her bed is still sitting on the floor.  I know that it all has to go but I’m finding it difficult to corner a good chunk of time to walk it all out to the garbage can.

I still suspect Clementine of being depressed, although I think she might be coming out of it.  The Effexor I’ve been crushing up and placing in her food certainly seems to help, although I wish she wouldn’t drink so much.  She has escaped our yard twice from parts unknown since we’ve returned, has rolled in mud / poop once and has taken on a propensity for farting.  I believe there may be a strong possibility that Kaidance, in her last dying breath, expelled the Black Smoke Monster that had been living inside of her for so long and passed the torch to her smaller canine companion.

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This letter is to you Clementine.  I’m watching you.  I have my eyes on you.  I know your games.  I learned the rules from The Master.  Behave… because I know a guy that knows a guy… that knows a vet.

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Talking to Strangers: Dale

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I’m standing on a dirt road holding a rifle somewhere in Montana.  There are no bullets in the gun so, as of right now, it’s really nothing more than a fancy club.  I look around and, as far as the eye can see, there is nothing but pasture.  It’s not even farm land.  It’s just… grass and weeds and rocks.  I suspect that people call it “God’s Country” because it looks just like it did on the day He created it.

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I’m at a shooting range just outside Billing’s city limits with my two brother-in-laws, each of them flanking either side of me, all of us trying to gather in the dwindling shade of the SUV’s popped hatch.  The first, to my left, is Jarod.  He’s just entered his mid-30s and has the body of a guy that used to be a wrestler (because he was) and dark wavy hair that covers his earlobes.  When he heard we were going to go shoot guns, he rolled out of bed and hopped in the car, sweatpants still on from the night before.  He holds a coffee and rubs sleep from his eyes.

On my right is Jarod’s younger brother and my other brother-in-law, a red-haired man named Jordan who is one of these people that, once you meet him, you won’t forget him.

Ever.

He has bright red hair that wafts out into tight curls, creating the illusion of sun-fire surrounding his head.  Underneath that, a scraggly red beard encompasses his face, ending somewhere around his collar bone.  His skin is pale and covered in freckles.  He’s one part Ronald McDonald and one part Unibomber.  He also has, what one may consider, an encyclopedic knowledge of guns and gun history and gun production and the mechanisms of guns and gun safety and what, in his opinion, is best and why and why you’re probably wrong.

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As I set the rifle down on the table, Jordan begins walking over the gun with me; Wikipedia giving me my own private lesson.  “This gun is called a such-and-such,”  Frankly, I can’t remember all / any of the details that were being thrown at me in rapid sucession so you’ll just have to bare with me, “This is the safety.  Red means fire.  You’ll see how the ergonomics of this gun works.  Your left hand goes here, your right hand goes here,” and he moves my hands so I know.  “Hug the gun, rest your cheek against the side of the stock and look through the scope.  Let me tell you about parallax,” and he does, “Here is the magazine, it’s loaded, insert it here; pull this back,” click-click, “Okay, you’ve got one in the chamber.  Once you take this gun off of safety, it’s ready to fire.  Keep your finger off the trigger until–”

“HOWDY FOLKS!”

I turn sideways and see a heavy set man approaching our car.  He’s got a shaved head and a mustache that resembles Monterrey Jack from the old Chip n’ Dale cartoon; shaved right down the middle but dangling in waxed shoestrings on either side of his mouth.  He looks like a Mongolian Warlord……. a white Mongolian Warlord.  His cream colored vest has a million pockets and a name-tag attached to it that reads, “DALE”.  He’s got, what appears to me, in my extremely limited knowledge of video game firearms, to be a shotgun slung over his shoulder which he carries around like an electric guitar.

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“WHATCHYOO FELLAS UP TO OVER HERE?!”  He talks like this, in all caps, his eyes enormous white orbs.  He laughs after almost everything he says and his jolly belly jiggles; Santa with a gun.  Jordan steps forward and tells the man that he’s just out here teaching me how to shoot a gun.  The subtext of this statement is, of course, “Leave us alone, we’re in the middle of some stuff.”

“TEACHIN’ SOME GUNPLAY, HUH?,”  Then, noticing the rifle, “OH!  SHE’S A PURTY ONE!  JUST A BEAUTIFUL STOCK!  BEAUTIFUL STOCK!  SCOPE TOO?!  I HAD A BROTHER-IN-LAW THAT WAS A CRYPTOLOGIST IN THE MILITARY BUT THEN HE QUIT AND BECAME A SNIPER AND NOW I HUNT WITH HIM!  THE MAN CAN HIT A GOPHER AT 1/2 A MILE AWAY WITH A HANDGUN……..NO SCOPE!  NO SCOPE!”

Having no idea if this is possible or not, I look over at Jordan, who slowly crosses his arms and says, “Sounds like a real sharp shooter.”  Subtext, “No, he can’t.”

Monterrey Jack continues, “I WAS WATCHIN’ IN MY BINOCULARS!  SAW THE LITTLE CRITTER FLIP INTO THE AIR ON THE FIRST BLAST AND THEN, GET THIS, BEFORE HE EVEN HIT THE GROUND, MY OL’ BROTHER-IN-LAW SHOT HIM AGAIN, POPPED HIM RIGHT UP IN THE AIR AGAIN!  AND SIX BLOCKS AIN’T EVEN AN EXAGGERATION!  BELIEVE IT OR NOT, WE GOT BACK IN THAT CAR AND WATCHED THE ODOMETER AS WE DROVE OVER TO THIS LITTLE FELLA.  1/2 MILE, THERE IT IS!”

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Jordan says, “Impressive,” and then turns around and begins organizing his truck, hoping to shun the man out of existence.  Dale continues, “I WAS IN VIETNAM, ONE OF THOSE TINY BOATS; 1000 ROUNDS PER EVERY HIT OVER THERE!  HAR-HAR-HAR!  TODAY I MAKE MY OWN DYNAMITE!  MAKE MY OWN FUSES AND ALL!” at which point he goes into very long-winded detail about the best way to make a fuse.  Jordan, being a man that re-shells his own bullets and a perfectionist of the art, speaks up and says, “Okay, so you make this fuse.  Certainly we’re talking about human error in the process; how are you able to gauge how long the burn is?  How can you KNOW?” and Dale looks at him and says, “I JUST LIGHT THE SUNNABITCH AND THROW IT!”

Jordan walks away, back to organizing his truck.  His nature won’t allow him to entertain such idiocy.  Meanwhile, Jarod keeps throwing out the casual, “Wow, sounds like you’ve got a great thing – anyway – we’re just trying to–” “I JUST SOLD ALL MY GUNS!  HAD TO MOVE INTO A DIFFERENT APARTMENT!  BOUGHT THIS ONE INSTEAD!  FRONT LOADED, BLACK POWDER, SOMETHING-SOMETHING!”  Me, I can’t help it.  I find the man fascinating, like Daffy Duck with a shotgun, and just keep asking him questions.  “How long were you in the military?  What branch?  How many guns did you sell?  What is this one here?  What is black powder?  You make your own DYNAMITE?!  You make your own FUSES?!  Why do you need to make your own dynamite?  What are you using it for?”

No pause, “BLOW SHIT UP!  HAR-HAR-HAR!”

I give a laugh but it’s sort of nervous.

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“WELL, BOYS!”…. and just like that, he wanders back to his Jeep, presumably to leave.  Jordan shouts at me, “Let’s go, Cocheese!” (side note, I have no idea where this nickname came from but it has become a staple, along with Buford.)  I straddle up along the rifle again and find all the grips.  I shut my left eye against the sun and gaze through the scope.  I find the bright yellow gopher target we’ve placed at the end of the path, roughly 70 yards away, line up my sights and slowly exhale.  I’ve never sighted anything on a scope before and I could count the number of guns I’ve fired on two fingers and everything is silent and the wind is blowing and I’m trying to figure out how much the wind would effect my trajectory and mostly, I just want to nail that fake gopher to the ground and show my brothers (by law) that I can.

I push my thumb against the safety and hear it click.  To my right, Jordan says, very quietly, “That’s a live gun.  Just pull the trigger.”  I pull my index finger off the trigger guard and place it on the trigger proper.  “Lightly,” Jordan whispers.  I raise the cross-hairs from the gopher’s guts to his head.  We’re gonna make this one count.  I squeeze the gun to my body, brace myself, everything goes quiet and BANG!!!  It’s the loudest recoil I’ve ever heard… and I didn’t even have to pull the trigger.

I pull my face away from the sight, push my thumb onto the safety again and look over the gun stock.  Fifteen feet to my right, Dale has just fired his front loading shotgun into the wild.  He’s not aiming at anything, he’s just… firing huge bullets at dirt.

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“YEE-HAW!  SONNABITCH!  WUNNA YOU BOYS WANNA FIRE THIS BABY?  HAR-HAR-HAR!”  We all smile and turn back to our target.  I line it up again, test the wind again, pretend I’m a sniper again, exhale my breath, hold it, kick the safety off, touch the trigger and behind me Dale is yammering on about a magnum and blowing up gophers and the proper boar butter to use on a crossbow and world records and his old gun collection and statistics and how things have changed in the last 30 years and I am silent, trying to aim and Jordan is silent, standing in blatant refusal to partake in conversation with this man and Jarod just drinks his coffee, occasionally spitting and giving heavy sighs that are indicative of him being exhausted with your presence.

There is a blessed lull in the conversation and I take full advantage of it.  Pull the trigger and PHHTT!  The gun pops and barely kicks at all.  70 yards away the gopher spins on it’s stand; a direct hit.  “YEE-HAW!  NAILED HER!  HAR-HAR-HAR!”  Jordan cracks his neck without using his hands and says, “There ya go, Cocheese.  You’ve killed the mama gopher.  Now, while all her youngins are moping around, mourning her death, you need to peg each of them,” and he points at the shattered remains of various clay pigeons.  “Make every shot count.  Clean house.”

I miss all of the imaginary fake gopher babies.

I kill a lot of dirt.

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ABOVE: How I feel when I hold a gun.

BELOW: How I look when I hold a gun.

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I look up and Dale is packing things up.  He says, “I GIVE YOU BOYS MY CARD?” and Jordan says, “Nope,” and Dale says, “WELL, HELL!  WHERE’S MY MANNERS!?” and he snaps a card out of his vest pocket.  Jordan stares at it for a moment before he says, “I knew I knew you!  You used to come into (insert famous Montana Sporting Goods Store here) a couple years ago!  I knew you looked familiar!” and Dale says, “OH, YEAH!  OH, YEAH!  I USED TO COME IN THERE BUT THEY SCREWED ME OVER,” and Jordan says, “I worked there for a couple years.  I knew I knew your face,” and the way Jordan says this makes me think something is up.

“SURE!  SURE!  SUPPOSE YOU DID!  I APPLIED TWICE BUT THE IDIOT MANAGER NEVER HIRED ME!  WHOEVER WAS RUNNING THAT GUN DEPARTMENT SURE AS SHIT DIDN’T KNOW WHAT THEY WAS DOING!” and Jordan says, “Well… Corporate America.”

Dale gets into his Jeep and shouts, “HAVE FUN!” and then he’s driving away, gone forever, plumes of dirt chasing him down the road.

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ABOVE: Guns don’t kill people.  Richard kills people.

Jordan turns around and says, “That man would come into (insert famous Montana Sporting Goods store here) for hours and hours and ramble endlessly to anyone that would listen to his “knowledge” of guns.  He applied twice and the idiot manager who worked in the gun department that refused to hire him was ME.”

Har.  Har.  Har.

As I watched Dale’s car shrink into the distance, I couldn’t help but wonder if all of his puffery were just a subtle F-You to the unforgettable face that wouldn’t hire him.  “LOOK HOW MUCH I KNOW!  LOOK WHAT YOU MISSED OUT ON!  HAR-HAR-HAR!”

I fire the rifle again and the fake mother gopher spins on her stand, leaving another round of imaginary gopher children orphaned.

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The Green Mile

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The phone rings.  The vet is ready when we are.  It’s 5:45pm on Sunday.  We ask her to meet us at The Farm in two hours.

The clock is ticking.  What do you do with your dog for the final two hours of its life?  She’s too weak to really walk or play and she can’t see.  It’s 90-something degrees outside and, since she can no longer control her bowel functions we can’t take her indoors.

We lie in the grass and pet her and talk about her and tell stories about her and I think it’s the closest thing to a funeral you can give a dog.  She moans and wheezes the entire time and I watch bugs crawl all over her body, treating her like she’s already dead.  I put my hand on her ribcage and feel her heartbeat, wondering how many pumps it has left.

I feel mournful and sad but in control.  I feel like I have it completely together but I know the worst is yet to come.  An hour and a half.

Earlier in the day my wife and I had dug a hole.  “Hole”.  A grave.  Kaidance lazed in the grass nearby and slept while we worked.  At one point I glanced over and she appeared to be sleeping with her eyes open.  I shouted her name but she didn’t respond.  “KAIDANCE!” I shouted again.  Nothing.  I walk over to her and nudge her with my foot.  She blinks.  She’s alive.

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It would be just like this dog to give me the final “screw you” by being disobedient even in death; passing onto the next world on her own accord when I’ve orchestrated this whole beautiful thing.  I turn around and keep digging, through the top soil, through the clay, through some roots.  It’s a very textbook operation.  I turn to my 8 month pregnant wife – who is using a spade to flatten the edges – and say, “It’s better than I thought.  I thought I’d be a mess but this is sort of cathartic.”  She agrees and stomps on the top of her shovel.

It’s now around 7:30 and we decide to make The Long Walk before the vet shows up; get her comfortable Out There before hand.  I try coaxing Kaidance to follow me but she seems reluctant, maybe even more so than usual.  I loop my finger through her collar and start walking very slowly while whispering, “C’mon.  Good girl.  It’s okay.  C’mon”.  And she follows me.  Off the driveway, through the yard, past the electric fence, into the pasture, towards a small grove of trees.  It’s not exactly The Green Mile but it’s definitely The Green Block and a Half.

This is it.  20 minutes and counting.

The first purchase my wife and I ever made together was a striped comforter.  It’s come with us from house to house over the past ten years but, as we’ve upgraded our home, the blanket has slowly found it’s way to the back of the closet.  Every year or so we pull it out while doing a spring clean and say, “Maybe we should donate it to Goodwill….no….no, it’s too emotionally valuable.  Put it back in the closet.  We’ll talk about this next year”.

And so it goes.

But today we’ve found the perfect use for it.  Today it stops being a comforter with high emotional value and it transforms into a shroud.

We lay the blanket out on the grass in the field about ten feet from the grave and, since she won’t sit on her own anymore, we force her backside down.  I set a white Burger King bag down on the blanket and something turns over in my stomach.  The Last Meal.

I say, “Look what I’ve got for you,” and pull out a Whopper Jr.  I tear it in half and feed it to her.  She swallows it in one bite, barely chewing at all.  I tear the half in half and give her the first piece.  A pickle drops on the blanket.  She sniffs it out and picks it up.  I feed her the final bite of the Whopper Jr.  I pull out a second one and the exercise repeats itself.  My wife and I continue to talk about her and joke about how bad of a dog she is.  I pull out a sausage, egg and cheese breakfast croissant and feed it to her.

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I say, “You’ve never had one of these,” and I pull out a King Sized Snicker bar and unwrap it.  I break it into quarters and feed her the first bite, the second bite, the third bite.  I put the fourth bite in her mouth and my wife says, “Last bite” as she’s swallowing it and I immediately feel a sense of loss, like it should have been cherished more.

But it’s gone.

I start to choke up a bit.  We get her to lay down on her side and I think I hear something in the distance.  I look.  Nothing.  I huddle next to her and I pet her behind the ear and my wife pets her muzzle and I put my hand on her heart and I feel the beating again and I just want it to be over but I feel so guilty for wanting that and then I definitely hear something and I turn my head and I see a truck pulling into the driveway and it’s so real and it’s happening now and panic washes over me and tears start running down my face and I’m sobbing and I’m hugging Kaidance and I’m telling her how much I love her and I’m whispering in her ear and I’m telling her that I’m sorry and she’s so good and everything is spinning around and it’s all so surreal.  The sun is setting and there is a breeze and it couldn’t be more beautiful or horrible.

I turn around and the vet is walking towards us and I know this is the end.  This is what the last week has been leading up to.  We’re here and it’s now and it’s happening.  The vet is blond and tells us that she’s very sorry.  My wife and I are both puffy and salty with tears and we both mumble something about, “Thank you so much for coming out here on your day off”.

She sits down on the blanket with us and hours has turned into minutes has turned into one minute.  The final minute and I’m not ready to let go and I don’t know if I can do this.  I lean down and whisper, “It’s going to be okay, good girl, good girl, good girl,” and the vet pulls out a syringe filled with something intensely blue and she tells us that it’s a high grade anesthetic and that it will be just like going to sleep.  I put my hand on Kaidance’s heart and the vet asks if we’re ready and there’s no way we are or ever will be but we both nod yes and she sticks the needle into her leg and words just start pouring out of my mouth.  “I love you, Kaidance, I love you, Kaidance, I love you, Kaidance.  Good girl.  I love you so much,” and I can’t say it enough.  I can’t get it across.  Every bad thing I’ve ever done to her is flashing into my mind.  Every time I’ve ever yelled at her and every time I’ve thrown her outside for tearing into the trash and every moment of our stupid road trip where I asked her to stop breathing on me and I just want her to stay here and be okay and I just want it over with and it’s done.

Before the vet even pulls the needle out, Kaidance has stopped breathing.  Her heart has stopped beating.  No matter where I put my hand, I can’t find the labored thump-thump.  I lay my forehead against her and I weep.

The vet walks away and Jade and I are left in the field alone with our dog.  We try to shut her eyes but it’s not like in the movies.  They just stay open.  We sit with her for several minutes and we both cry and pet her and say those final words.

Jade picks up the Burger King bag with the old wrappers in it and lays it down on the blanket by Kaidance’s chest and says, “We should bury her with this.  She would have wanted it,” and it’s so stupid but she’s so right.  Kaidance would have wanted an old Burger King bag.  We wrap her up in the Striped-Comforter-With-High-Emotional-Value and we each pick up a side and there is definitely a reason they call it dead weight.  120 pounds is much heavier than I was imagining.  I step into the grave and I grab both ends of the blanket and I lower her in.

We each throw a couple handfuls of dirt on and then we grab the shovels and for the next 15 minutes we move dirt and tell more stories.  When we’re done we stand above the grave, the sun just dipping below the horizon and we say a couple more things.  “Kaidance, we loved you and we valued you.  Thank you for your protection.  Thank you for loving us.  You were a terrible dog but we loved you.  We will think of you often.  We probably won’t miss you, but we’ll think of you often.”  I say the last part mostly in jest because I need to laugh.

We grab the shovels and we begin walking back to the house.

Alone.

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ABOVE: The last photo.

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The Cost of Living

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‘Tis  better to have loved and lost than never to have–”

SCREW YOU, ALFRED TENNYSON!  YOU PROBABLY NEVER HAD A DOG THAT YOU HAD TO PUT TO SLEEP!

It’s 12:30am on Saturday night / Sunday morning.  I have to get up in about 8 hours to dig a hole.

Someone offered to help.  I said no.  Someone offered to bring out a Bobcat.  I said no.  It feels wrong.

This is the only way that made any sense.  This is the only way that feels right.  Doing everything alone.  Somehow making it mine.  It feels like it’s my last gift to her.  It feels like I’m cheating if I do it any other way.

The whole thing; the whole event.  The journey.  It’s supposed to celebrate Kaidance and give her one last “hoo-rah”  before going out… but it’s difficult to have a party when you know you need to kill the guest of honor at the end.

 

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The last two weeks have watched her go from bad to worse.  I would guestimate that she is now roughly 95% blind and equally incontinent.  She’s covered in tumors and struggles with breathing and standing.  A dog that was once a passionate connoisseur of food now can’t even find her dish when it’s placed directly under her nose.  Watching her desperately weave her head back and forth over her dinner breaks my heart and makes me sick.

The cost of living.

I have to splash water under her mouth so she knows where it’s at.  She can no longer walk up and down stairs or get into or out of the van.  I have to lift her up and, at 120 pounds, it’s no joke.  Last night my wife and children slept on the second floor in a bed while I slept on the couch in my mother’s living room because we couldn’t get her upstairs.

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ABOVE: Kaidance in the days following surgery.  The vet said if we removed all of her tumors we could buy her another six months.  Ended up getting us almost three additional years.

 

People kept saying, “You’ll know when it’s time, you’ll know.  The dog will tell you” and… I know it’s time.

It’s 12:40am and this time tomorrow she’ll be in the dirt and the thought of the bugs eating my dog twists my gut.

Standing outside at the farm today Jade says, “Let’s bring her a giant bone tomorrow” and I say, “No.  Tomorrow we’re bringing her a Snicker’s Bar and a Whopper and maybe even a personal pan pizza because… why not?

When she finally goes, I want her to think she’s in Heaven before she actually gets there.

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Responsibility vs. Debt

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AUTHOR’S NOTE:

I was 25 miles away at the time of this incident so the story is being retold from my perspective as it originally happened to Jade, who was my girlfriend at the time but is my wife today.

It’s past midnight.  The moon is just a sliver in the sky making Denver darker than usual.  The year is 2004.  My wife is living in the basement of a 4-plex down the street from Capitol Hill right off Colfax.  The area is sort of a living juxtaposition as Capitol Hill is pretty nice but Colfax is a dump so you never know who’s going to walk into you.

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Something pulls her out of a dream.  Something has lassoed her consciousness and started to slowly tug it towards the surface.  Clink-Clink.  Two people in the dream click their glasses together in celebration.

Her eyes come open and the room is black.  The simple apartment consists of a bedroom, a living room and a bathroom, each darker and dingier than the last; all of them looking like they should belong to Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.  She’s tried her best to gussy it up but still it just looks like a dungeon with some tulips in the corner.  She shuts her eyes again.  Click-Click.  The dream changes to the face of an old robot, its mechanical parts trying to operate a dead system.

The consciousness floats a little higher and her eyes open again.  Click-Click.  She wonders if that noise were in a dream, sort of those lacy tendrils of memory we have when we wake up – the fog of the unconscious waving in front of our brain.  Was it real?  She waits, quiet.  Click-Click.  It’s not in a dream.  It’s in real life.  In her basement.  Click-Click.  She can see the doorknob leading to her unlit backyard from where she lies.  It shakes once.  Pause.  It shakes again.  Click-Click.

And it falls to the floor.

The doorknob falls from the door frame, onto the floor.

Capitol Hill / Colfax.  You never know who you’re going to get; sometimes Buffalo Bill walks right into your house.  Be sure to ask him for an autograph before he sticks you in The Pit.  Get a photo with him before he makes you into a skin suit.  Update your Facebook status before he turns your thumbs into decorative earrings.

Jade’s eyes open.  Her consciousness is full surface.  A large figure steps into the door frame and then through it.  He’s inside the apartment and, just like that, Kaidance is up like a piston.  While Jade is stiff with fear, just waiting politely to be scalped and boiled alive, Kaidance charges straight towards this dark shadow without hesitation.  She doesn’t need questions.  She doesn’t need answers.  She only knows that someone is here who does not belong.  It’s the bravest thing she’s ever done and it is majestic.  She barrels across the floor, all four of her feet lifting off the ground at once, her teeth bared, her head down, her hair up.  The noise emitting from her mouth is neither bark nor growl but a primal language that is very clear.  It simply states, “If I catch you, I will hurt you”.

Kaidance is young and in her prime and for this one act of service I owe her so much.

The Man turns and runs out of the house.  Jade hears the chain link fence in the backyard rattle and then silence.  Kaidance waddles back into the basement with her slow lioness gait, meanders back to her bed and lies down.  No “Thank you” necessary.  No “You Owe Me”.  Nothing.  This is simply the unspoken contract a dog has to its person.

It’s this one moment that I carry with me for the following decade that makes me grateful for her presence.  What did she save my wife from that night?

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Fast forward roughly ten years and Hurricane Kaidance is the the most burdensome creature in my day-to-day routine.  She ruins my house, my belongings, my clothes.  She makes my life more difficult than it needs to be and certainly more difficult than any other dog owner that I’m familiar with.  At one point the “Maybe-We-Should-Give-Her-Away” conversation comes up but…

I can’t help but remember 2004 when Kaidance saved my wife’s….. what?  Life maybe?

Maybe.

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I believe that when you bring the responsibility of a living thing under your wing, you are making an unspoken contract that lasts for the big haul, through thick and thin.  Ashes to ashes and all that.  It’s not always easy, it’s not always fun but it’s yours.  Hanging up the hat is not an option.

Have we discussed getting rid of Kaidance; donating her to another family, leaving her in South Dakota for “farm life”, dropping her off on the side of the road and speeding away as quickly as possible and never looking back free of her burden forever and ever amen?  Yes.  We have.  Countless times.  But we can’t.  Because, even though my personal motto is “’til death”, I owe Kaidance considerably more than a generic PETA themed fortune cookie.

A dog is a responsibility, but I owe Kaidance a debt.

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