Mardi’s mom’s name is Rose. A long-standing family tradition has her dad selecting one yellow bloom from the bush he cultivates near the swimming pool and presenting it to her each morning. “A rose for my Rose,” he says. I don’t know what she replies, never having witnessed the ritual. Maybe it doesn’t happen every morning but only often enough to keep an old tradition alive — or the memory of one?
“A rose for my Rose?” I ask Mardi, saluting with the fresh beer she hands me. “Does that still happen, the old tradition?”
Mardi pauses, stares at her feet. “You know,” she says with uncharacteristic uncertainty, “I don’t really know. I haven’t seen it, but, well . . . anyway, I always do the talking. You talk. Tell me, what happened next, after the basketball miracle?”
“Well, it was my last year at the chalet school. I’d be going to a consolidated high school some twenty miles away from home.”
“Did you look forward to it?”
The truth is I was scared spitless to leave the warm nest I’d cozied into for about half my life. Now I’d have to find my way in an alien world, a world of strangers, not all of them friendly, a world of hard schoolwork . . . and football, real 11-man tackle football with full pads and helmets. We’d be breaking in with more experienced groups, but Evers, DeMiero, and I were gonna give it a shot. And high school girls, from what I’d seen, were sexy as hell, and Byerly’s older brother said some of them would let you do whatever you wanted. It was a heady mix, enticing and scary. Heady, hearty, healthy — who knew? If a high school girl let me do whatever I wanted, what would I want?
Eighth-grade graduation and Lutheran confirmation take place more or less simultaneously and leave me with a very real sense of a hugely expanding universe, of infinity and eternity and the mystery that is the future. While I believe I will endure and prosper, I am sure it will not be easy and might not be possible without strategic doses of Divine Intervention on my behalf.
Staying on the right side of things, I keep up my nightly Scripture readings of five chapters per session, plus reciting The Lord’s Prayer and The Ten Commandments each morning and evening. It gives me a kind of vicarious self-confidence to read about all the iniquitous behavior the Old Testament folks got away with just by managing to keep Yaweh on their side — seas parting, walls tumbling — whenever it came down to survival. There was always somebody who stayed tight with God and pulled them through perilous straits whenever they popped up — Noah, Moses, David, Solomon, etc. I get it.
Really, I think I’ve got it all figured out, how to get God on my side and maybe keep Them (Father, Son, Holy Ghost) there for my protection and benefit while still enjoying the benefits of life’s little goodies along the way. Have it both ways, you might say.
You might also say hypocrisy, but I will not agree. A hypocrite would pretend to be a believer in public while carrying on a very dissolute private life. I will not do that. I will carry on a very dissolute public life — cursing, drinking, pissing in the street, passing on corners, girling (teen-age womanizing), and never going to church, an option Whitey allowed once I achieved confirmation — instant spiritual adulthood.
So I will have it both ways, not in any hypocritical sense but in a way that allows rebellion and experimentation, prefers it, in fact, over unexamined acceptance and compliance. Check things out a bit before you try to be too good. What if just being good is not the way to go? How will you know without checking out the other side, see what you might be missing out on by denying yourself a few simple pleasures, sins of omission, really, and because you have to go out of your way to avoid them — they start looking a lot like no sins at all, like who’d even want to be around . . . well, you know where I’m going.
I keep reading Scripture and saying my prayers in private but stop gong to church entirely and am careful not to publicly reveal even incipient traces of piety. (As the Venerable Thurber reminds us and as I remind students, you can look it up.)
“Do you mind if I run through the rest of this kinda fast?”
Ice cubes clink as Mardi sets down her iced tea glass. “It’s your story, Sweetheart,” she says. “Tell it the way you want. If I have questions, you know I’ll ask.”
“OK,” I reply. “I make the football team.” Not only make it but am starting quarterback on a winning freshman team and am rumored to be first in line for varsity QB next year. As a sophomore! I make the basketball team as a first-off-the-bench sub and make the baseball team but barely play because of a badly sprained ankle.
The school part of school goes well enough, especially considering the vast amount of conscientious studying I avoid. Guys want to be my friend, I get invited to parties, get drunk, make out with girls, ride too fast in cars, take the name of The Lord in vain, long to commit adultery but generally not to kill, steal, covet, or bear false witness. English teachers like my writing, and I enjoy reading books they recommend, though nobody thinks I work hard enough. Then FLASH! I get a girlfriend.
My girlfriend is a year ahead of me in school, though only a few months older. She is very beautiful and vastly experienced. I learn many interesting things from her and eventually learn to be grateful not to have impregnated her, as I later learned she wanted. Her father, a preacher, does not like me and never tries to hide it. Her mother conspires to give us a lot of time alone together. Whitey sees what’s happening, doesn’t like it, and gets me a summer job at a cousin’s car repair shop in Port Angeles, over a hundred miles away. Difficult but hitchhikeable. Busy times.
My athletic career is a mix of promise and disappointment. In varsity football, I start at QB on offense and halfback on defense for all three years, but a chronic back injury slows me down. I play forward in jayvee and varsity basketball without distinction (except for that drunken mid-court swisher against Sequim), and manage to chalk up several solid wins, including a no-hitter, as a pitcher on the varsity baseball team, a career that ends one year prematurely.
I get a job selling clothes and swabbing toilets, buy a car, quit the job, wreck the car, am elected Homecoming King, ace the SAT’s, think about college, quit my old beautiful girlfriend, buy a ’49 Chevy, get a new beautiful girlfriend, graduate from high school, work the summer at Boeing Plant 2, quit Boeing, enroll in community college, make the honor roll, impregnate girlfriend, become a logger, a community college grad, a marine machinist apprentice, a father, a UW junior, a Boeing Field night man, a father again, a UW grad, a high school English teacher, a 1951 Chevrolet owner and family dynasty builder, an apostate, a divorcee, a seeker, a traveller, a loose . . .
“Cannon?” Mardi suggests, “or a time bomb ready to go off?”
“Nothing that explosive. More like contemplative.”
It’s starting to seem important to me— or at least relevant — that all during what was probably the most vulnerable period of my life, a time when I made more mistakes and questionable decisions all the time, my life continued to be richly rewarded with success after success. And all during that time I kept reading Scripture and saying my prayers.
Finally I have to ask myself whether I will spend the rest of my life mumbling in private to some non-existent entity, some childish manifestation of the human imagination with no more basis in fact than the man in the moon? As a college graduate, professional educator, and successful head of a thriving family, isn’t it time to stop the personally embraced by God bullshit that takes full but illegitimate credit for the personal hard work and self-discipline that has assured my success? Am I not special because I’ve made myself special? Of course. It’s obvious. Take a hike, God. From now on I’ll plot my own course without any help from lower-case, nonexistent you.
“And this is when things started going to shit, though I don’t recognize it yet.”
“Like everything. Nothing feels good anymore. It was money, I thought, the lack of it. I work two jobs during the school year and head for Alaska to work summers. She works nights. We don’t see each other except at shift changes. The kids? Yeah, well, the kids. We don’t like each other anymore, so what about the products of our tainted relationship? What about them, what about us? What about any of it?”
“What about it?”
“It’s what brought me here.”
The pool still sparkles as the shadows slowly lengthen and encroach. “How about one very last Lone Star?” Mardi offers.