Thursday, May 28, 2020

Four Uses for Stinky Salve



Four Uses for Stinky Salve


1

The vibrations from the Harley-Davidson XR-750 motorcycle ebbed and roared in concert with the caged butterflies ripping about Madison’s belly. Confidence radiated down to the masses from a stoic face recalling the gods of fame, wealth, and power. Like a demigod, Madison perched atop a launch ramp on a three-hundred-pound machine, while one hundred thousand eager spectators projected their energy upward.

Small boys straddled the shoulders of their fathers while others waved banners with a variety of images of Madison in action. Cheerleaders urged people to sing and sway with their chants. Gusts of air circulated around the stadium and swooped beneath the cape Madison wore embossed with a leather American flag. The cape was clipped to Madison’s shoulders, and it rose and rippled as it was lifted by the oily air being forced from the Harley’s red, white, and blue exhaust pipes.

“I live for this!” Madison said, snatching a white-starred blue helmet with a clear face mask from an assistant.

“Frenzy time!” another assistant bellowed, removing the cape. That it was. The noise of the crowd thundered as Madison fastened the helmet with the chin strap. Most had come to see history being made, but some were hoping for a wreck. In either case, Madison would not disappoint.

Madison shut out the stadium buzz to focus mind and spirit on controlling the one-hundred-plus- horsepower beast that would launch skyward. Piercing eyes fixed on the ramp that ended at the edge of an Olympic-sized pool. A simple jump over a body of water was not enough for the followers of the Amazing Madison. At a huge cost, the sponsors of this London spectacle had shipped three great white sharks from the coast of Australia and placed them in the pool below. While Madison teased the throttle of the Harley, the handlers emptied five-gallon buckets filled with pig guts into the water. The sharks thrashed violently, and the crowd gasped in unison before falling silent.

“Got ’em!” Madison whispered, driving down the ramp at breathtaking speed. Like a firework shooting into the air, the red, white, and blue blended with flashes of chrome and the all-white bodysuit as Madison launched from the end of the ramp. The audience regained its voice with cheers of relief when the Harley’s incredible height made it clear that Madison would overshoot the pool by plenty.

This is going to fuckin’ hurt, Madison thought. The area behind the pool was too short; the outer wall of the arena would be reached before the Harley had decelerated. The motorcycle came down hard. Madison’s narrow buttocks could not absorb the shock. A rib cracked as Madison was ejected to the right, while the bike continued into a wall on the left. A collective “Ughhh!” came from the fans as Madison slid to a halt and moaned.

***

“Are you okay?” Harry, Madison’s sixteen-year-old cousin, asked, trying valiantly to hold in a laugh. Harry had helped twelve-year-old Madison construct the bike ramp from an old shed door. “I never saw someone pedal so fast,” Harry continued. Rivulets of tears escaped from the corners of his eyes as he cracked up. “You would have cleared the swamp by plenty,” he added.

“I know.” Madison finally spoke, slowly rising from the ground, a hand covering a bloody spot. There was a quarter-sized gash on the lower right side of the torso, just above the hip.

“You better get Aunt Marie to check that out,” Harry said, pointing at Madison’s side. Madison looked at the bike. Everything appeared to be in order, except that the seat pole was bent backwards at a seventy-degree angle.

***

Use of stinky salve number one: to disinfect a gash on an adolescent who idolizes Evel Knievel and emulates him by building a ramp to jump over a four-foot-wide creek filled with frogs, swamp grass, and tadpoles.

2

A crumbling orange-and-red cinder road extended for two miles from north to south, forming Cross Creek Road in a little-known dairy farming community in northern Vermont. Five of the thirteen homes along Cross Creek were farms, the most central belonging to the Porter family. Their three hundred acres of fields, streams, and rolling hills lay on both sides of the road. Plenty of land to be maintained by Milton and Marie’s eleven children.

On the west side of the road was the Porters’ farmhouse with its mustard green asbestos shingles. Tall grass fields grew on three sides of the house: north, south, and east. Behind it, to the west, a large red barn with a silver tin roof sat atop a tree-covered hill. Along one side of the barn, more trees hid a dumping area for household goods. A dirt driveway carved by tractor tires ran from Cross Creek Road past the south side of the farmhouse, up the hill traversing the barn and dump, over to the large fields behind the house, and out of view. Lying in the tall grass of the large field closest to the barn was Madison, Milton and Marie’s ninth child.

Resting prone in flattened grass gave Madison the sensation of floating. Gazing up at the impossibly clear sky framed by four-foot-high stalks of grass made imagining living as Gulliver among the Lilliputians easy. The giant took his hand and tore off the top of a tree before placing it in the gaping space between his humongous front teeth, Madison thought while chewing on the broken end of a piece of hay.

One half mile south of the Porters’ farm was the Reeds’. Madison’s buddy, Charlie Reed, said he’d seen a bear on the Porters’ property while riding in the back of his dad’s pickup truck. Madison hated the Reeds’ rusted baby-blue Ford F-150. Its exhaust fumes burned the eyes, and sitting in the truck bed feeling every rock on the route was akin to being kicked by mules. Charlie loved it. He would stand up, close his eyes, and pretend to fly.

“A bear. How silly. There aren’t any bears around here.” Standing up from the cushion of grass, Madison turned to the left and then the right. “Nothing to be seen here.” Walking back toward the barn, Madison’s peripheral vision spotted a darkened area in the field to the left. That’s just the shadow of a cloud, Madison thought. There was not a cloud in the sky. “My mind is playing tricks on me.” The darkened area appeared to move closer. Madison’s steps quickened toward the path between the barn and the dumpsite. What the mind’s eye could see would frighten the bravest of souls.

“That shadow could be the bear Charlie saw…” A breeze rippled through the grass. “Is it coming for me?” Madison looked back. Nothing. To the right were the peeling red boards of the barn, and beneath the cover of the trees to the left was the dump. Looking to the right again, Madison saw that the large barn doors were closed. “Oh, no!” Not wanting to be the person who gets eaten while fumbling to open a door, Madison began to run. Tripped over a rock or root. Somehow regained balance without falling, and then glanced to the dump on the left and saw the animal.

It was a big one. If it stood up on its hind legs, it would approach seven feet. Three hundred and fifty pounds, on the light side, but faster than Usain Bolt. Black pupils set in murky gold eyes bore into Madison without emotion. Without thinking, seemingly without touching the ground, Madison accelerated down the driveway toward the farmhouse.

Tractors with their rakes, wagons, and mowers in tow struggled up the rock-strewn hill leading to the barn and back fields. It was one of those rocks that sent Madison into the air. Escaping the creature resulted in a knee landing squarely on a jagged stone. Supple skin opened wide and deep to take in the coarse meal, the rock’s edges slathered with warm blood.

***

Use of stinky salve number two: to prevent scarring of a long, deep cut on the knee of a child who ran scared from a small porcupine seen rummaging through the garbage on a farm.

3

Although Grandpa Porter was an ornery octogenarian, he was ole Saint Nick year-round with his grandkids. Madison could always count on him for coins when the ice cream truck happened by. A veteran of the Korean War, Grandpa Porter treated everyone as if they were the Chinese soldier who had fired lead into his leg when he was an eighteen-year-old paratrooper jumping into North Korea.

“They ignored the rules of war and were shooting at us before we landed!” he often grumbled. His short, military-cut white hair crowned the top of a round, permanently tanned face with surprisingly few wrinkles. Madison often fell asleep beside him on the couch while snuggling up against his plump belly. Ignoring the frequent insults Grandpa Porter hurled at any CNN host he disagreed with was sometimes hard. “That Robin Meade is on TV because of her tits.” “Send Connie Chung back to freakin’ China!” “Doesn’t Anderson Pooper know that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve?” Madison had no idea who those people were.

Madison’s oldest brother, Dennis, lived with Grandpa Porter in Burlington, Vermont, while attending nearby Champlain College. At six feet, four inches, Dennis towered over Grandpa and their dad. They were both only five-foot-eleven. Dennis had the same smooth golden skin of their grandpa, but his straight black hair was that of their father’s. According to their dad, Dennis had sprung up but not yet filled out. Dennis living with Grandpa was fitting, as Dennis and the old man held similar views.

Madison was several years younger than Dennis, so speaking when the adults in the family discussed political and social issues was a no-no. Children were to be seen and not heard. Overhearing them once say something derogatory about Trent Southhold, the middle of three brothers living six houses west of Grandpa on Maple Street, Madison heard Grandpa and Dennis laughing. They were talking about Trent’s “preferences” and something to do with a skirt.

Madison did not mind visiting the gruff old-timer. Some of his siblings preferred not to visit, but Madison was there often enough that a few kids in the area became Madison’s close friends, including Trent Southhold’s younger brother, Evan. Evan, Trent, and Chase were known around town as the Southhold Brothers. Chase was closer to Dennis’s age, but he did not attend college. His talent was in his hands. Known as a temperamental brawler, Chase matured when he joined a boxing gym. There he became a Golden Glove contender known as the Force from the North. Fitting for a tall boy with red hair, green eyes, chiseled features, and wiry muscles. Madison did not know much about Trent. Trent had pale skin, shoulder-length black hair, the same green eyes as Chase, and a soft way of speaking. He walked with his hips moving the way girls on the high school cheer squad swayed. Madison did not understand why Grandpa and Dennis hated Trent so much.

While bounding down Grandpa’s front steps, Madison hoped Evan was home. Evan was a chubby boy who looked nothing like his brothers. He was energetic and clumsy, with dark brown hair and brown eyes. Evan would go anywhere and try anything, so Madison always sought him out first during visits to Burlington.

***

Vibrations from the whisper-quiet, turbo-charged engine drew Trent deeper into the beige, baby-soft leather seats of the cherry-red Mercedes-Benz SLC 300 convertible. It felt to him like foreplay as his turquoise press-on fingernails caressed the steering wheel.

“Oh, Daddy,” he murmured, pressing his Jimmy Choo high-heeled shoe down on the gas pedal.

“Pump it, girl,” a baritone voice encouraged from the passenger’s seat.

“As long as you pump me,” Trent grinned mischievously.

Being the younger brother of the Force from the North spared Trent from many neighborhood beatings. Boys and men called him queer, freak, queen, faggot, cocksucker, and a host of other insults, but they wouldn’t dare lay a hand on him. He knew some wanted to touch him in not so nefarious ways, but those closeted few would just go home to masturbate it out of their systems.

***

Madison was lost in thought, walking west on Maple Street toward the Southhold house. Absentmindedly stepping over cracks in the sidewalk. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Wishing that Mrs. Southhold was home to offer some of her awesome lemonade, unaware that Trent was the architect of that freshly squeezed libation.

***

As the strong fingers on the left hand of his passenger worked their magic on his right thigh, Trent turned up the volume on his favorite tune. The 1988 song “Mercedes Boy” by Pebbles blared out of the Harman/Kardon surround-sound speakers. Trent began to sing along.

Do you wanna ride in my Mercedes, boy?

Tell me what you’re gonna do with me

’Cause if you wanna ride in my

Mercedes, boy

There are so many things that I’m

Gonna do to you. . . .

***

Madison mentally listed the things Evan liked to do. Playing Stoop Ball off of the front steps of Evan’s house, pretending to be Tom Brady and throwing a Nerf football at random targets, and frog hunting. Maybe Drew and Christian from Summit Street could join them? They only lived a block away from the university. The school’s nicely cut grass fields and rubber track made for good fun, as long as the security guards did not mind. Madison nearly bumped into a garbage pail on the sidewalk while thinking about tackling Evan on the university’s grass. They could also race their bikes on the track. “How abou—”

***

A sharp pain hammered Madison just below the left eye. In the next instant, all eighty-five pounds rested on the ground. Looking down at Madison in shock was sixteen-year-old Trent Southhold. The handlebar on his cherry-red ten-speed bike had rammed into Madison’s face. A raspberry began to grow under Madison’s left eye, the swelling accompanied by a crescent-shaped puncture. One of the turquoise press-on nails on Trent’s left hand was tipped with blood.

***

Use of stinky salve number three: to accelerate the healing of a puncture wound on an inattentive adolescent caused by a fingernail on a self-absorbed, cross-dressing teenage boy.

4

Katie and Billy Carter were siblings who lived on the large farm that bordered the Porters’ to the north. Although a half mile separated their residences, the echoes of the Carter’s doors closing, tractors growling, dogs barking, and children at play mingled with the ever-present noise of the Porter clan. Katie and Billy were “Irish twins,” with Katie being the older of the two. Madison was a few months older than Katie, and she became playmate number one during the long, hot summer. Billy was often homebound with hay fever and other allergies, so Madison and Katie played as a dynamic duo.

Katie always carried the sweet, subtle smell of Ivory soap, despite being surrounded by manure and diesel fuel both in the air and underfoot. Madison loved to stand close enough to fill both nostrils with her essence. Her long, thick, and wavy reddish-brown hair caressed plump white cheeks sprinkled with freckles. Katie’s transparent eyelashes glinted in the sun while splashing her large hazel eyes with light. Her full red lips covered Chiclet-sized pearly whites, and Madison’s skin tingled upon seeing her smile. Mission critical was to make Katie smile every moment they were together.

***

The natatorium was stifling hot. Olympic flags displaying the five interlocking colored rings hung high in the rafters. The raised roof allowed air to flow in from the bank of picture windows around the perimeter of the structure. All the windows were open, but not one flag swayed. Madison waited anxiously for the beautiful and sensuous gold medalist, Katie, to place her toes at the end of the thirty-three-foot-high platform.

There she was. Her one-piece bodysuit accentuated the curves that showed this girl turning into a woman. Katie sprang off the board as straight as a needle. An eye-bending number of turns, curls, and twirls preceded Katie entering the pool, barely making a splash. The loving horde of onlookers chanted, “U-S-A, U-S-A,” as the judges held up scorecards with the number “10.”

***

The air in the hay loft was suffocating. It was hot enough that the local farmers had postponed the field work until after the evening milking. Katie watched with curiosity as Madison broke apart a few hay bales and tossed them out of the loft’s conveyor window. It was fewer than twenty feet down from the loft to the ground below that window, but Katie still held her breath when Madison unexpectedly jumped out.

“Aagh!” she screamed, when her breathing returned. Terrified, Katie ran over to the window, fully expecting to see Madison lying on the ground in a pool of blood.

What her hazel eyes saw when she looked down was a laughing fool playing in a pile of hay.

“Your turn,” Madison shouted up to her.

“No way,” Katie said. She gripped the sides of the window, as if someone were going to come from behind and push her into the abyss.

“You can do it,” Madison encouraged her. “Put your toes on the edge of the window and pretend you’re diving.”

Katie looked into Madison’s confident eyes, felt her body relax, and leaped into the hay. She sprawled onto her back awkwardly but laughed with relief upon landing softly and in one piece. Madison cheered as if she had won a gold medal.

***

Finding the razor’s edge had become a challenge for the Aerial Terminator after leading the Allies to victory in Europe. Flying a Cessna aircraft painted red, white, and blue a few thousand feet up at a New England stunt show raised the Terminator’s adrenaline levels just a smidge. Seeing the throngs of happy enthusiasts take pleasure in simple maneuvers such as looping backwards and gliding upside down merely paid for the costs of flying. It was not enough to satisfy the soul of a flying ace with countless kills.

“What’s that?” To the right, the Terminator saw another plane quickly approaching. “But it’s my turn to entertain.” Confused, the Terminator steered the American Flag Cessna closer to the interloper. It was another Cessna. A pink one, at that. The pilot of the Pink Princess was none other than the long-lost Amelia Earhart. Mesmerized, the Terminator tried to get close enough to touch her. The American Flag’s right wing collided with the Pink Princess’s left wing, and both Cessnas spun toward the earth.

***

“Watch out!” Katie shouted, a moment before Madison’s red, white, and blue bicycle crashed into the banana seat of her own pink bike. It was too late. They became a tangled mess and tumbled several feet down a hill on the cinder road between their homes. Madison flew forward, away from the bikes, arms extended forward like Superman in flight. Unlike the Man of Steel, Madison did not land gracefully; both arms scraped along the harsh surface of Cross Creek Road.

***

Use of stinky salve number four: to soothe and regenerate elbows rendered void of skin after falling from the sky and landing facedown on a crumbling road.

5

Of Marie Porter’s eleven children, Madison was the one most prone to accidents while playing. The pristine new bike Marie bought Madison for Christmas the year before was bent, dented, and scratched on every surface by the end of its first summer. She made sure that the antibiotic ointment in the one-inch tall, half-dollar circumference, glass with a metal cap was readily available to treat Madison’s injuries. Madison would struggle not to vomit from the smell of that medicinal gel, however, Marie insisted that it travel with them to Burlington when visiting Grandpa. It was used so frequently on Madison that even the girl next door, Katie, knew where it was kept.

Author’s note: My mother was always prepared to administer first aid to me, my seven siblings, and our friends. In the bathroom medicine cabinet, she kept alcohol, iodine, bandages, and a host of other items necessary to put children back together again. One mysterious, unmarked jar containing a clear jelly was also in the cabinet. When opened, a strong medicinal smell would cause nostrils to wrinkle. Our family called it “Stinky Salve.”

2/26/19

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

My Lunch with Ron and Stephen



My Lunch with Ron and Stephen



       On a recent Sunday, the usual dread of returning to the workday grind was absent. Replacing it was a giddiness last felt in my spirit on a Christmas Eve when I was a child of about seven years old who still believed in Santa Claus. Dimples on my cheeks appeared as bookends to a broad smile that revealed thousands of dollars’ worth of dental work. “Oh, I can’t believe this! I really, really can’t believe this!” my internal voice repeated.
       A small handsome Hispanic boy, who was being practically dragged onto the down escalator by a frantic young woman, smiled up at me as I exited Penn Station onto Eighth Avenue. He must have seen the child in me as I skipped by. In November, my birthday will mark half a century, but on this January morning, I am a kid on his way to a candy store.
       Taking the “3” train to 14th Street would have been the quickest way to get to The Butcher’s Daughter Juice Bar & Cafe on Hudson Street, but the walk down Eighth Avenue would calm my nerves. Since the age of 15, anxious excitement has triggered head-splitting migraines for me. Exercise releases those calming endorphins that are desperately needed when having lunch with two American icons: titans in their respective industries. “Deep, slow breaths, Jon. Deep, slow breaths,” I coached myself while my feet placed Madison Square Garden farther behind me.
       The Butcher’s Daughter doesn’t take reservations, so I planned to arrive 30 minutes early for my noon lunch date with Ron and Stephen. Hopefully, I could secure a table and bullshit with the waiter or waitress until my guests arrived. Even now, in his mid-60s with male pattern baldness leaving only a curtain of red hair around his head, Ron still looks like Richie Cunningham from Happy Days and Opie Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show. On first sight, only millennials and younger see Ron as a renowned director and producer. Today, I look forward to sharing with him how growing up middle class in Queens during the 1970s and 1980s was reminiscent of the 1950s Milwaukee of Happy Days. There were tree-lined streets that cast shadows on single-family homes with late-model Detroit steel automobiles in every driveway. My childhood summers were spent on a farm that harked back to Opie’s Mayberry and its more “innocent” times.
       “Oh my God! There is so much I want to talk about. I hope I’m not struck dumb with awe when I meet them.” An elderly Asian man with white slip-on sneakers looked at me questioningly as I approached 23rd Street. I realized my last statement was spoken aloud. If my brown skin could blush . . .
       As I waited to cross the next street, I discreetly placed my nose next to my left armpit and took a sniff. “Still fresh and clean,” I sung out while the blinking white walking symbol gave the all clear. Midway between 22nd and 21st streets, my legs began to shake. A wave of emotions nearly paralyzed me. Nervous sweat tingled beneath the surface of my skin. “No, please, no,” I whispered through trembling lips.
       My subconscious was reminding me of the extraordinary impact Stephen King’s novels have had on my life. After struggling to read until fourth grade in 1980, I was motivated to read Pet Sematary in 1983 when I saw the book on my mother’s night stand. That summer, while at my family’s old rundown farm in upstate New York, I completed the scary tale; my first novel. From that point forward, until her passing in 1999, I read every Stephen King novel published as soon as my mother had finished. It became our tradition. Every Mother’s Day, birthday, and Christmas, I would present my mother with Stephen’s latest offering. My mother and I were both captivated by horror stories. Years before Stephen King novels entered our lives, my mother would attempt to coax me into behaving by telling me fables about awful creatures who carried away naughty children.
       Gathering myself as I neared the intersection that gently curved from Eighth Avenue to Hudson Street, I reflected that voraciously reading novel after novel prepared me for the four college degrees I eventually earned. During the nearly 20 years since my mother’s death, I have kept up with just about all of Stephen’s books. However, as my eyes grow weary, audiobooks have become my go-to version.
       There is one author who I still turn pages to read. Secretly, I think Joe Hill now edges out Stephen as my favorite writer. I met Mr. Hill in Manhattan during a book signing for The Fireman. I asked him to write “I can’t wait to read your wicked shit.” on the inside of my copy. He was unaware that my “wicked shit” is an homage to Stephen, and it is the first and only novel I have completed.
       Nearing the entrance to the restaurant, I decided not to share with Stephen that I have a flame for another author. There were more pressing issues that I wanted to discuss with Ron and Stephen. Subjects that were worthier of their time.
       The Butcher’s Daughter’s interior appears as an elegantly repurposed barn. A short chipped white ladder hangs on a wall with potted leafy green plants on its slats. Each table is made of polished wood that could double as a large butcher’s block. As a party of four got up to leave, I hustled over to stake my claim on the table. A hefty black waiter looked at me, his eyes shifting to the dirty dishes in front of me. “It’s fine,” I said. “My friends are running late anyway.” It was just a little lie.
       Table secured, I had about 20 minutes to focus my thoughts. From Stephen’s tweets, I knew that he was appalled by the dealings of the current White House and much of Congress. His recent novella, Elevation, honestly illustrated the pointlessness of judging people by their differences.
       Once upon a time in the United States, citizens spoke proudly of being the world’s “melting pot,” liberating Europe from Nazi fascism, and tearing down the “iron curtain.” Many now ask, “What is this country coming to?” Fear and hate are at all-time highs. Fear of black people trying to live ordinary lives, fear of Muslims, fear of Hispanic immigrants. Men who abuse women being rewarded with lofty positions, and mass shootings being perpetrated by white men in suburbia: not by Muslims or blacks.
       Stephen’s critical political tweets, essay titled “Guns,” and voluntary discontinuation of the sale of his story Rage are evidence of a person who cares about his fellow man. And I cannot think of a human condition that has not been filmed by Ron. I had no doubt that they would provide pointed insight to my urgent question: “Where are our better angels?”
       I will share with Ron and Stephen this truth. In the early 1970s, a Harlem-raised African-American couple with eight children living in Queens bought an old farm in rural upstate New York. Each summer, until 1985, their children played with white farm children as earthy as Huckleberry Finn. They engaged with a burgeoning Amish community, and everyone treated them with respect. This happened in a unique place in the American tapestry. Hammond, New York, is no bigger than Mayberry. I was the seventh of those eight children—everyone knew my family, where we lived, and probably our frailties as well. Sharing with neighbors in times of abundance, and caring for neighbors in times of need, was simply part of being human. Hammond provided me with the most wonderful experiences of my life, which are memorialized in my memoirs. If I were to pitch our story for a television series, I would simply ask, “What if the Waltons were black and on Little House on the Prairie?”
       A yellow cab pulled up in front of the picture window. I was surprised at my calmness upon seeing his gruff red beard and partial red halo as Ron leaned in toward the driver before turning for the entrance. As soon as the cab pulled away, and before Ron entered the restaurant, a black Suburban took the cab’s place. A tall, lanky white man in his early 70s stepped out from the rear door of the Suburban. He wore simple glasses and had mostly gray hair with hints of black fading fast. It was Stephen. I took a deep breath and a sip of the water that the waiter had placed before me. “It’s time for lunch.”


1/14/19


Jonathan T. Jefferson is a school district administrator in Long Island, New York, and author of:
Mugamore: Succeeding without Labels — Lessons for Educators
FriesenPress 2013
Echoes from the Farm
FriesenPress 2017

Four Uses for Stinky Salve