Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Vernon Hardapple

Back when my wife and I were first dating, she introduced me to the film, Wonder Boys. At the time we were still quite amorous and our physical urges kept us from finishing the film . It actually took us three sittings to watch the entire thing. The patience was worth it. Not only is it a compelling dark comedy with the professional writing world as a back drop, it also introduced me to Vernon Hardapple.

For those who have not seen the film, I will toss you a spoiler. Vernon is not Vernon. Rather he is a patron in a neighborhood tavern who, while sitting in a booth minding his own business, becomes a blank canvas in a game of verbal pin the tail on the donkey.

Michael Douglas plays writer Grady Tripp, a university professor who relies on his notoriety as the author of a popular novel published years earlier to keep him relevant to his students. His latest work in progress is at 2,000-plus pages and climbing with no end in sight and his drug use problem leads him to frequent spells of unconsciousness.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Tripp's editor Terry Crabtree who is escaping his own lost glory as he is scorned by younger and more successful editors. Self consumed and desperate, he hopes his visit to Tripp's university during it's 'Wordfest' will turn his fortune around, possibly with Tripp's new novel under his arm.

Toby Maguire plays one of Tripp's students, James Leer, who is, well... he just isn't right. He is part literary genius with a gift for writing and part John Hinkley, appearing at the University Chancellor's home packing a pistol which he uses to shoot the Chancellor's dog as it is attacking Tripp. Every question asked of Leer is answered with unique complex narratives, each fit to be the introduction of their own novels.

In a particular scene, Tripp and Crabtree sit in a crowded booth in a neighborhood tavern. Beside them is  an unconscious Leer. Crabtree suggests that he and Tripp play the game, and stare at the unique looking man in the booth across from them. The game involves creating a character background for the unwitting suspect. The first move in the game is to name the character. In this case, the name chosen is Vernon Hardapple (pictured above).

The writing of this scene is brilliant and reveals more about the characters speaking than it does of Vernon. Especially interesting is that Leer, who still has his eyes closed and appears to remain unconscious, adds the most interesting palate of color to the character picture.

As a writer I would love to have this opportunity on a daily basis, to find such a distinct victim for my imagination, but seldom does this type of physical manifestation exist in my world. When it does however, I take notice. My Vernon Hardapple is Vincent Ambrose, and I saw him at McDonalds as I ate a snack with my sons at ten o'clock in the morning after we were done with meet the teacher day.

Vincent sat alone at the end of a long counter shaped table with his back to us. In front of him was a neatly folded newspaper which laid flat on the counter, it's edges aligned to be parallel to the table's edges. A coffee cup rested upright on one corner of the newspaper with the cup's lid placed upside down next to the cup. Vincent wore a clean, pink, short sleeve, button down shirt and khaki pants. The cuff of the pant legs seemed to ride higher than normal on his legs, revealing green socks with grey stripes leading to inexpensive looking black athletic shoes with a white bent line on the side, appearing to mimic the Nike swoosh.

Vincent's legs were spread apart and his knees bounced up and down in rhythm with the Bonnie Raitt song playing on speakers in the ceiling. His greying hair was cut short along the sides with the top cut longer. Where the different lengths met there was a distinct ledge formed around the perimeter of his skull. Vincent's left hand rested on the counter and his head bobbed periodically, a motion needed as he licked the ice cream cone he held in his right hand.

Vincent's look of loneliness belied the abundance of people in his life, most of whom he encountered at the nearby laundromat where he used to work. His father Tony purchased the laundromat thirty-two years ago when he was no longer able to work as a fireman. A drunk driver had run Tony down while he was connecting a hose to a street-side hydrant causing damage to his pelvic bone that prevented him from readily climbing a ladder. After less than eleven years of service in the fire department he was discharged with meager compensation which, along with the profits from the sale of their house, would become the down payment on the laundry building which would become the home for Vincent and his parents.

The thirteen year old Vincent did not like living in the apartment over his father's laundromat. The heat from the dryers in the summer beat back any breeze that might have found its way to his room that overlooked the alley next to the bakery below. The customers were often rude, a situation made worse by his father's diminished self esteem. With the change in domestic environment, Vincent watched as his mother Esther became less affectionate, trading her gentle caring disposition for the greed and desperation of a business owner. Nightly he would help Esther collect the coins from the machines, sorting the nickles, dimes, and quarters into canvas bags. Gone were the simple days of childhood. He still attended school and did homework but playing in the park was replaced with managing a coin laundry along side his parents.

Tony died five years after purchasing the laundromat. At age 18 Vincent found himself taking over for his father, following instructions from his mother, and operating a coin laundry. His entire world centered around the narrow stairway leading from the first floor to the second floor, from his bed to the small counter where he and his mother took in the drop-off laundry customers clothes. He envied the people whose lives were so busy they needed someone else to do their laundry. In Vincent's life, the only thing he had time for was doing laundry. If there was anything he needed help with from someone else it was actually living his life. Vincent never went to College. His mother did not attend his High School graduation. When it was over he laundered his gown and returned it to the school. On the way home he picked up more canvas bags from the bank.

For thirty years Vincent and Esther cleaned lint traps, pressed suits, collected coins, and inhaled detergent dust, all to pay off a mortgage with nickels, dimes, and quarters. Two days after the mortgage was paid off,  so was Esther. She died in her sleep. Vincent had gone down to open the laundromat in the morning and didn't notice until lunchtime that his mother hadn't joined him. Although he suspected she was gone, he didn't close the laundromat to check on her for fear she would be angry they were missing customers. At seven in the evening, after collecting the coins, Vincent climbed the narrow stairs to see his mother. He placed the coin bags at the foot of the bed and sat next to Esther's body. He took her cold hand in his and tried to offer a loving son's touch. He looked at her eye lids which drooped open slightly at the ends, revealing a matte reflection, and he smiled. "You're free, Mamma," Vincent said as he rubbed his hands across his head, feeling the uneven haircut his mother had given him the week previous.

Vincent arranged to have the visitation for Esther in the laundromat. Her coffin was laid out on the counter where she and Vincent had often sat together taking in other people's clothes for cleaning. As the scant number of mourners passed by Esther, they often had to stop to make room for a customer unloading wet clothes from one of the high-capacity washing machines. Vincent knew his mother would have wanted it this way, Thursdays were always very busy and closing the laundromat would have made her upset. At seven o'clock, the undertaker wheeled the coffin out the front door. Vincent remained behind at the counter folding a rush order.

As he delicately creased the shirts and pants he considered his parents' lives and how now at 42 years old, he could finally do whatever he wanted. After pausing a moment, Vincent decided what he wanted to do was fold the clothes. Not long after he was done, there was a tapping at the front door glass. Vincent picked up the two bundles of laundry he just finished ans walked them toward the dark figure on the other side of the door. Placing them in a rolling cart, Vincent unlocked the door and greeted the familiar face. "Sorry I'm late Vincent, is that my order?" the man asked, pointing at the cart. "Yes, I just got them done," Vincent answered without a hint of sadness or mourning in his voice. Picking up the bundles, the man attempted small talk as a way of further apologizing for being late saying, "Anything big happen today?" Vincent stared blankly back at the man and answered, "No... nothing big..." Vincent paused to consider an idea that came to him in the moment and continued, "not yet, anyway."

Vincent locked the front door to the laundromat and retrieved a can of tetrachloroethylene dry cleaning fluid from the back room. He opened it and placed it on the floor, near one of the gas fired dryers by the door that lead to the up stairs apartment. "Give me a hand with this one, Dad," Vincent said as he kicked over the can and entered the stairway. With each step Vincent took up the stairs, more fluid belched out of the can. The vapor was heavy in the air as Vincent went to his room. He looked at the decorations on the walls, old baseball pennants and drawings transplanted from his previous house when he was thirteen. He picked up a picture of him and his parents by his father's old fire engine and clutched it to his chest. "Time to go," Vincent said as the pilot light of the dryer ignited the dense, volatile air of the laundromat. The hungry fire burned the air rapidly and sucked all it could from the apartment above, pulling the curtains of Vincent's room open as if being held aside by two unseen angels.

On the alley pavement below landed Vincent's picture and several articles of clothing. Then Vincent landed alongside. As he stood up he saw his shadow highlighted by a brilliant orange light from behind him. The laundromat was burning. Fire fighters spent the night containing the blaze to protect the adjacent buildings. Vincent watched from the safety of a chair by the back door of the bakery, thinking of his father and mother. By dawn, the fire was reduced to smoke and steam. The apartment floor had collapsed onto the laundry machines below and the bare, scorched brick walls rose up like canyon walls either side. A firefighter approached Vincent carrying two blackened canvas bags. He cleared his throat of inhaled smoke and said, "We found these sir... thought you might need them." Vincent muttered "Thanks." By the shape of the bags he could tell they both contained quarters and the approximate amount was $250.00.

Using a garbage bag borrowed from the bakery staff who had arrived before dawn, Vincent collected his clothes and the picture. Hoisting it over his shoulder, he stood up. He picked up the coin bags and walked down the alley. Twenty minutes later he arrived at the only other laundromat in town with drop-off service where he deposited his bag of clothes to be cleaned. He sat on a bench outside the laundromat with the coin bags next to him, looking at the photograph. He studied the faces of his parents and was warmed by their smiles. He looked at his face, at the happy, thirty two year younger version of himself, at the boy whose adolescence was stolen. A sudden noise broke his concentration. It was the owner of the candy store on the corner opening his shop for the day. The brass bell attached to the coiled spring on the door rang and the door closed. Vincent looked at himself in the picture and longed to have that smile again.

The bell on the door rang again as Vincent walked into the candy shop. He was carrying the two coin bags and the picture. Timidly he said to the aproned man who stood smiling behind the glass lined cooler,  "I think I would... yes, I would like an ice cream please. In fact, I would like two."



Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hello, Darlene

Until the day comes when I am professionally subsidized by my career as a writer of children's picture books and middle grade novels, I will more than likely continue working with my father as a civil engineer.

It is a job I feel like I have had for ever. When I was 14 I got a work permit so I could actually get paid by my father for drafting and surveying. Now at 45 I am a licensed professional engineer and sit at a desk about 30 feet from my father's. He is 84 now, and still going strong. I like working with him, even though every day usually ends like family thanksgiving with one of us yelling at the other. Still, we are close in a strange father son way. I was never in little league with dad. He never took me to cub scouts. We just didn't do those things. My childhood is as my adulthood, learning from my father about what engineers do.

My relationship with my mother is also not typical. She is, for lack of several better words, obsessive. It is probably why I grew up with a weight problem. Mom cares and caring to her means being able to show the world how much she gives to her kids. Weekly she still comes to my desk and slips me a few dollars. She is always asking me if I am hungry and if she can buy me lunch. At 79, she is showing no signs of stopping. I resist, sometimes loudly, and she pushes back. That is how it works.

Since becoming connected via cellular phone, her obsessions cast a wider shadow. Mom never used to call me on my cell phone. She always presumed I would be driving and that her call would cause me to be involved in a fatal accident. Since I explained the workings of voice mail, that is no longer a problem. Now she calls whenever she wants and sometimes it is actually for a reason besides the offering of food. Today mom called with a starkly cold message. "I need you to come up, someone was trying to get into the house." That was what she said when I answered the phone.

"Who's trying to get in the house?" I asked. It seemed the most appropriate question. "There's a woman who says she lives here," mom answers. That was all she needed to say for me to understand what I needed to do. I have known this woman for 45 years and the tone in her voice coupled with the hardness of her native Austrian accent meant she needed my assistance but everything was under control. I presumed someone was seriously lost and replied, "Mom, I'm gonna call the sheriff. Is this woman older than you?" "Yes," she answered, sounding like she didn't want the woman to know who she was talking to or what I was planning to do. "Is she confused mom?" I asked. "I think so... Would you please come?" she said sounding like she was forcing a smile and nodding toward the woman.

I got off the phone with mom and called 911. I told the dispatcher what I had going on. I gave her my cell number and headed up to mom and dad's house to see what I could do to help. Dad stayed at the office, glad that I was going so he could stay at his desk. After all, he is happier there. 

It is a short drive to my parent's house and while behind the wheel, I said a little prayer for guidance and the ability to say the right things to the confused woman who tried breaking into my parent's house. Hoping this was not a crack addict I was going to meet, I wished the ride, and the prayer, had been longer. I felt ill prepared for the task at hand, and yet the writer within was already taking notes. Mom needed me so it was time to man up, social worker style.

When I arrived, I found my mother was still in her car. My sister who had just returned from taking my nephew to soccer practice happened to be driving by and stopped briefly to see what was up. When she saw me she decided to bail and get my nephew home. I parked my car. Eyes were on me, as if I had all the answers. Man were they wrong. Not knowing what else to do, I walked over to the strange woman standing by my mother's car and with an open hand and said, "Hi, my name is Ed... and you are?"

 The gaunt, tall woman had an expressionless face and with a hint of embarrassment she answered, "Darlene." Based on her reaction I decided to keep it light and friendly, probably more to calm down my mother than anything else, I motioned toward mom and dad's patio furniture and said, "Darlene, why don't we sit down in the shade while we figure out how to get you home."

Last week I had an upsetting situation take place in my car. On the way home from the county fair, our 5 year old was asleep, that is until he threw up. "Guys, while I was asleep, I threw up," he said. Then he threw up again. This is my wife's first child but I have a 14 year old from a previous marriage so I am no stranger to the slow motion, sepia tone vision of paying attention to the road while assessing the crisis in the back seat. I am always amazed at the calmness that over comes me when I need, really need, to be the best parent in the moment. Knowing there was nothing I could do and that vomit filled with corn dogs and soda was already pooling on the backseat floor, I offered a sympathetic and encouraging, "That's okay buddy, let it out, you'll feel better." He threw up again. My wife, on the other hand, rolled down the window to avoid getting a whiff of the unpleasantness. I did not know it at the time but this was a dry run for my first meeting with someone suffering from dementia. The key I found as with any crisis, from your wife announcing she was leaving to crapping your pants, was to just stay calm.

"So Darlene, can I get you some water?" I asked to break the ice. She was sitting in the shade now and I asked about the water because I had no idea if she might be dehydrated or not. My parents live about a mile from the nearest town and their hill is surrounded mostly by farm fields. Perhaps she had walked through the countryside, maybe from one of the older farmhouses in the area to get here. Dehydration was a real possibility. "No, I am fine," Darlene said pleasantly. Her mind seemed stuck in, 'wait a minute, something doesn't seem right,' mode. "Okay Darlene, but if you get thirsty, you let me know. Now Darlene, I called someone who is going to help you get home. He should be here soon." It's all I could think to say, as a way to prepare her for the eventual arrival of a sheriff's deputy. Not being familiar with how her mind worked, I presumed surprises would not bring happy results.

I continued, "So are you from around here Darlene?" "Oh yes," she said rolling her shoulders to the side and patting her lap with her right hand. "I was born right here in town." When she said, right here, she pointed at my mom and dad's house, which sits about 200 feet off of the highway, on a simple gravel driveway, by no means any part of the nearby town. "Do you live alone?" I asked Darlene. "No, I live here with my son David. Do you know David?" Darlene asked. "The name sounds familiar," I said, rather I lied, to Darlene. "So where is your house located?" I asked. "Right here on South Street," Darlene said, again motioning to my mom and dad's house.

I thought quickly about South Street and remembered there was a South Street in the nearby town, about a mile and a half away. It wouldn't take long to drive that far, but Darlene had no car. She also had no purse, no identification, no keys, and no phone. Considering the walk, the heat, and Darlene's age, getting her to drink some water became a high priority to me. Luckily my sister had returned and joined me, my mother, and Darlene on the patio. She placed a bottle of water in front of Darlene. She drank almost the entire bottle with her first sip.

It seemed like the sheriff was never going to arrive so to pass the time I started talking about things familiar to me in the hope it would put Darlene at ease. I talked about things I remembered from years ago, about prominent local figures, the barber who used to be in town, how the old high school was now the middle school, and such. She smiled in agreement but wasn't able to really add any information. She did explain that she grew up on a farm which is where she learned to be a hard worker. Then she asked me if I knew her son David, again. "I don't think I do Darlene, but how is David?" Darlene told me David was out of work and that she didn't like the way he made coffee in the morning.

I am not sure Darlene understood most of what I was saying. When I would tell a story, she tended to smile when I smiled and often looked to my mother to figure out what she should do to not look out of place. Darlene was a receptive audience of one and she seemed to appreciate my writer's gift of being able to tell a story. Soon it wasn't at all like she was a confused stranger who tried to break into my mom and dad's house. Instead she was a friend who stopped by unexpectedly and was surprised over and over that I didn't know her son David.

The sheriff's deputy finally arrived. I got up to meet him in the driveway and asked his name so I would be able to introduce him to Darlene as if we were friends. After all, she seemed to be enjoying herself and the last thing I wanted was to startle her. He came over and I introduced him to Darlene. Instantly the mood changed. We were no longer the circle of four reminiscing. Now we sat and watched the deputy ask Darlene questions, secretly wishing that Darlene would get the answers right, that she wasn't as disoriented as she really was, that she would just get up and say, I feel better now, sorry for the confusion, please take me home. That was not the case. She could not remember her age, did not know her middle initial, and could not venture a guess as to what day was her birthday.

The deputy returned to his car to contact the police department in the nearby town. I tried to get the conversation back to the cheerfulness it had before but it was no use. We knew Darlene needed more help than a minor cheering up. We feared for her situation domestically and hoped she was not a victim of abuse. We looked at each other and waited for Darlene to be collected. Finally the deputy returned. This time he had information for Darlene that included her middle initial, her birth date, her age, and a confirmation of her address on South Street.

As it turned out, she was one year older than my mother. I could see in mom's eyes that we would be dealing with her worry about aging and experiencing a similar fate soon enough. The deputy announced he was going to take Darlene back to her house where he would meet with the local police. Together they would asses the domestic situation and determine if a trip to the hospital would be in order.

For the first time Darlene took charge of the conversation. She extended a hand and said, "I've had a wonderful time and we need to get together again very soon." It was her relying on the kindness of strangers moment. She smiled as I took her hand and wished her well. Then in turn she bid farewell to my mother and sister.

No longer did Darlene think this was where she belonged, that mom and dad's house was her house. The deputy led her away to his patrol car. I followed to make sure she got in safely. When he closed the door, she stopped smiling. I suppose she no longer had anyone else to mimic and the need to appear that she was fitting in had dissolved.

After about an hour the deputy called me to let me know how it went. He related this was not the first time Darlene wandered away from home and that by the time he got to Darlene's house, acquaintances had already begun to look for her on foot, never once considering calling the police for assistance. David was indeed her son and did live with Darlene. However, his well being was diminished by several past strokes and his ability to keep track of his mother was not keen. The deputy thanked me and hung up the phone.

I still have little or no understanding of the workings of patients with dementia. My belief in the power of prayer is firm as without some exterior guidance I don't think I would have been able to do anything but stare at the stranger named Darlene. Later that night as I told my family about my adventure, I considered how precious the gift of life and its experiences really is. I will remember a woman named Darlene, although I doubt she will remember me.