Near 500 words: Introducing The Writer

Let’s just call him The Writer, or TW for short. Over the next way little while, episodes from TW’s life back in the day will appear each Wednesday.

One Saturday afternoon TW was out and about. During his out and about, he stopped in at Costco for a short run inside. When he returned to his car, a group had gathered around it.

“What did I do?” he asked, feeling as if he had done something wrong. Not knowing what it was sent dread through his body.

He approached his Ford. “What’s going on?” he asked the woman at the edge of the group.

“There’s a cat inside the engine.”

The group turned to him as if he were guilty of something. He wasn’t but they sure made him feel that way.

“What am I going to do?” he asked himself. Then he realized they wanted him to pop the hood open. “Of course,” he said, now knowing what to do.

He opened his car door and pulled the lever, releasing the hood.

One of the men, a tall blond fellow in his early twenties, propped the hood up. A teenager twisted his hand inside the engine. Soon he pulled a small gray kitten out. It continued protesting, its squalling heard across the parking.

The teenager placed the gray kitten inside a small box. He handed TW the box.

“She’s claiming you,” the woman said to TW.

“But I don’t need a cat.”

“The question isn’t whether you need a cat. The answer is that she needs you.”

“But I’ve never had a cat. Besides I’ve always wanted a dog.”

The man who had propped the hood open didn’t have any patience with TW. “Well now you have a cat.”

The group dispersed.

TW looked at the box; the squalling cat looked at him. It was a pathetic needy look. There was a tendency in him to take the cat over to the grass on the other side of the parking lot and let her out of her box. But people were watching.

He crawled into his car and sat the box with its occupant on the passenger seat. He started his car and listened to the engine hum to the beat of the cat’s squalling. It was like cat and engine were singing a choral piece in a concert. A concert that had given him a headache.

With one hand on the cat’s head to keep her in the box, the other hand steered the car out of the parking lot and onto the highway.  From time to time he’d look over at the small creature and think, “What kind of mess have I gotten myself into?”

As he closed in toward home, he pulled into a pet store parking lot. He glanced over at the animal and saw how helpless the creature was. It didn’t seem right in the universe’s scheme of things that such a helpless being should be forced to fend for itself. But what did he know about caring for a kitten? Nada. Nothing.

Maybe somebody in the pet store would take the kitten off his hands.

A store clerk greeted him at the door. She saw the box in TW’s hand. “Can I?” she asked.

“Of course,” he said and passed the box over to the clerk. Maybe, just maybe.

She stroked the squalling kitten as she led him around the store. She stopped and picked up some formula and poured it into a bottle. Then she slipped the bottle’s nipple into the kitten’s mouth. The kitten took the nipple, its squalling over. The woman looked up at TW. She had a “can I keep her” look on her face.

“Not on your life,” TW said as he reached over and took the kitten.

When he left the pet store, his wallet was fifty dollars short.

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Mr. Ives’ Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas By Oscar Hijuelos Harper/Collins, 1995.

Oscar Hijuelos’ Mr. Ives’ Christmas is not just a good novel. It is a meditation on grief. It is also a meditation on faith and weathering the worst of storms a human being can weather. The loss of a beloved child.

And the book is also about commitment, love, family and friends with a little Charles Dickens thrown in. And everywhere there is Hijuelos’ love affair with New York City, its sights and sounds and smells, and its neighborhoods.

A good man, Edward Ives, loses his son, Robert, to a cold blooded murder. Robert is standing in front of a church, talking to some friends. He’s there for choir practice.

A thirteen-year-old kid walks by Robert. He doesn’t like the look on Robert’s face. In an instant, he turns, pulls a gun, and fires bullets into Robert’s body. Robert drops onto the sidewalk. He is dead.

Robert wasn’t just any kid. He was special. He was one of those kids who did everything right. Likeable to everybody he met. Never an unkind word for anybody. Never gave his parents trouble. Close to both of his parents and his sister. But especially close to his father. The next year he was going to go off to seminary to become a priest. That was Robert. And it doesn’t help that his death came close to Christmas.

Annie, his mother, and Caroline, his sister, are devastated. But his father is the most devastated of all. At one point, Ives reflects: “You know what it was like? It was like drowning.” Ive’s grief is a river of sadness, so sad it fills his entire life. As his wife, Annie, puts it, “Robert’s death had become the defining event of his middle-aged life.”

Ives never stops grieving. Annie and Caroline find a way to go on with their lives and live with the grief without it destroying them. But not Ives. He cannot find any joy in life anymore. It’s almost like he quit breathing at the moment he heard the horrible news.

On the outside, his acts are of a saintly man, a compassionate man, showing care for those around him. Even for the murderer of his son. On the inside, he is wounded deeply, walking around in a purgatory that is as much hell as it is life. A purgatory he cannot escape no matter how good he is. His only thought day after day, night after night, is the loss of his son. His grief is immense.

This is not a novel written from the head. This is a novel written from the heart. With detail upon detail, Oscar Hijuelos has mustered all his tremendous talent to breathe life into the Mr. Ives of the title. In so doing, it’s possible to believe that Hijuelos suffers with Mr. Ives.

Ives with his memories of his beloved son finds himself in a lifetime of solitary confinement which he cannot escape. He cannot bring himself to love again, even his wife and his daughter.

Not once does he ask, “What would Robert want?”

So Mr. Ives grows into a bitter man despite everything he tries.

On that day the kid murdered Robert, he had a second victim. Mr. Ives. Robert’s death was instant. Edward Ives’ is long and slow and torturous. Mr. Ives is a good man, but  goodness is not enough to heal all the grief that he carries.

In the end, Mr. Ives emerges from a long dark night. For Mr. Ives, the sunrise comes from a place he least expected.

At the end, I realized that this is Osar Hijuelos homage to the great Charles Dickens. It seems like Dickens is hovering above every page of this novel, encouraging Hijuelos to write on and smiling when the writer had completed the journey of his story. As I finished the novel, I began to think that Edward Ives had a lot of Bob Cratchit in him.

In 248 pages, Hijuelos has packed the life of one man and his family, his faith and his love affair with life, and then the great tragedy. When the novel is over, I was left with a love for Ives and Annie, Robert and Caroline, Ramirez and Carmen and their son Pablo. I will miss them. But Hijuelos has left me the opportunity to dig into their lives again. All I have to do is open the pages of Mr. Ives’ Christmas.

Uncle Bardie’s Movie Spotlight: The Light Between Oceans

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Spotlight Movie is “The Light Between Oceans” (2016):

If you had to choose between the one you love and your conscience, which would you choose? This is one of several themes of “The Light Between Oceans”.

Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) returns to his native Australia from the battlefields of World War One. He is a wounded man and he knows he is a wounded man. He can’t get the war out his head. To find some peace, he volunteers to be a lighthouse keeper. The lighthouse is on an island miles off shore.

Running away from life, he finds life in a woman who lives in the Western Australian town that is the jumping off point to the island. Isabel (Alicia Vikander) falls in love with him and he with her. Alone on the island, he realizes he wants to say yes to her proposal of marriage.

Tom and Isabel are happy on the island in the early days of their marriage. Their life together on the island seems perfect.

On the island, Isabel loses both of her babies during pregnancy. Then a row boat comes from the sea. On it are a dead man and a baby. Isabel wants to keep the baby; Tom wants to do the right thing and report what they have found to the authorities. This is where Tom’s dilemma begins.

At the end of the movie, I still can’t answer the question of whether I would have made the choice Tom makes. Just like I don’t know which child I would have chosen if I were Sophie in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice.” Or whether I would have made the choice Scobie makes in Graham Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter.” Would I have chosen the choice Danny’s father made in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen”?  I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Perhaps this is the moral of “The Light Between Oceans.” There is no right answer and there is wrong answer. There is only a human answer.

Near 500 words: Parrot Speaks

When Ada and Ty returned from their honeymoon, Ada introduced her new husband to her parrot. He was gray with red trimming.

“His name is Parrot,” she said. “He was my dad’s before he died.”

Ty had always wanted a dog or a cat, but he’d never imagined a bird. Ty, being in love with his new wife, decided a bird might not be a bad thing.

When Ty came home from his jewelry business the next night, he noticed Parrot in his cage over in the corner. The bird never tweeted or sang or talked. Not one word out of him. He just sat in that cage, watching. Ty wasn’t sure he liked it, but he didn’t want to say anything. Ada loved the bird, almost giving Parrot as much attention as she gave Ty.

Then late one night Ty woke up to a sound coming from the living room. He pulled himself out of bed and slipped into the living room. Across the room, Parrot muttered, “Got to have dinner ready for Ty. Have to contact Sara. Make an appointment for the hairdresser.”

Ty slipped back into bed beside Ada.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“Yeah. It’s the bird. Sounds like he’s repeating something you said. First time I’ve heard a peep from him.”

“Oh, that’s normal. He talks in his sleep.”

Ty laughed. “What? He can’t talk when he’s awake. When he’s asleep–”

“That’s about it. Talks his head off when he’s sleeping.”

Over the next few weeks, Parrot talked every night. Things Ada said. Things Ty said. Things friends said when they came over.

One Saturday night Bob and Helen Hardy, two friends of Ty’s, were over for penny ante poker.  After the couple left, Ada went off to bed. Ty wanted to finish a book he was reading. Dozing off, he was wakened by Parrot.

“Oh, Bob,” the bird said. “Not here. We’ll get caught. Come over Tuesday night. Ty will be late.”

“What?” Ty said. Was that what they were doing when Bob was helping Ada in the kitchen?

The bird repeated himself and added, “Now stop that.”

The next morning Ty didn’t say anything. Maybe he had imagined the whole thing or maybe Parrot was dreaming. He let the matter go. After all, Ada was as affectionate as a wife could be and Bob was his best friend.

The Sunday night and the Monday night bird talk was the usual. Meetings, friends, gossip.

It was late when Ty got home Tuesday. Ada was already in bed. Parrot dozed in his cage. Then the bird started, “Oh, Bob, that feels so good. Baby, you’re so good. Ty has never done anything like that to me.”

Ty’s body filled with anger. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He  went into the hall closet and pulled out a .45, then he stormed out the front door.

It was four o’clock in the morning when the detective rang the doorbell. It didn’t stop ringing until Ada pulled herself out of bed, wrapped a robe around her body and opened the door. “What do you want?” she asked, still half asleep.

“Ma’am, we have some news. About one this morning your husband shot and killed Bob Hardy. Before he died, Mr. Hardy managed to get off a shot. The shot was fatal.”

“Oh, my God,” Ada screamed. “Oh, my God.”

A female officer stepped past the detective. For the next while, she managed to calm Ada down.

Finally Ada said, “I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right.”

“Are you sure? I can stay if you need me to. Or do you want me to call a friend?.”

“No-no-no,” Ada assured her.

The officer left. Ada closed the door after her and looked over at Parrot. Wide awake, Parrot said, “Another one bites the dust.” Then he winked.

Ada asked, “When do you think we can sell the business?” Parrot stayed quiet.

Ada switched off the lights and went back to the bedroom. From her bed, she heard, “Three husbands down, but I’m not counting.”

Sir Herbert of the White

Maeve was the faerie queen. For as long as the wood had been, she ruled the faeries. There had been others who wanted to take her scepter but Maeve always came out on top.

One of the laws of the wood was that no adult human saw Maeve. If they did, they were to die. So when Sir Herbert of the White came through the forest, he caught a glance at the queen. He was a kind knight who slayed dragons and saved maidens in distress and did all sorts of just and good things. Still it was the law the Sir Herbert must die.

But how? That was his choice. The faeries went to Sir Knight in a dream and let him choose. Being pure in heart, he chose to die doing a good deed.

When the folk throughout the kingdom heard the good Sir Knight was to die, they were struck with grief. Even the king was struck with grief, and grieving was not something he did often. But tears rolled down his face as he asked, “How can we save our good friend?”

Sir Herbert of the White answered the tears, “I am a mortal man. All mortals must die. When I pass, remember me and urge others to slay dragons and save maidens in distress and do all sorts of just and good things.”

Late one night Queen Maeve sat up, looking at the stars and thinking how so many faeries had given their lives to be one of those stars. It made her happy that they were remembered as such but sad that they were no longer with her.

Then she thought of the dilemma of Sir Herbert of the White. She was impressed that his was a pure soul and the world had few pure souls. She was saddened that such a soul had to die. The law was the law but mercy was mercy as well. Was there a way to circumvent the law, allowing Sir Herbert of the White to live?

She studied and her astrologers studied they came to the same answer. Sir Herbert of the White had to die.

After a bit, she went to the Lake of the Lakes, dropped the tip of her wand into its waters and stirred. The Lake spoke to her, “There is a way if you have the courage to follow it.”

“I have the courage,” Queen Maeve answered.

“You must die,” The Lake spoke again.

Queen Maeve wished with all her heart she might save Sir Herbert of the White. But not enough to give her life. Sir Herbert of the White must die.

Finally Queen Maeve’s curiosity overcame her. Before he died, she must see this brave knight so many were mourning for.

Three nights before Sir Herbert of the White was to die, the Queen of the Faeries slipped away from her court. Alone she went through the forest. She met the Big Bad Wolf and huffed and puffed him out of her path. She met the Three Bears. She wanded them out of her way. They were too big and too small and not just right. She passed Humpty Dumpty just as he fell off his wall. She even passed the chicken crossing the road.

In the distance she saw Sir Herbert’s campfire. His horse was peacefully grazing on the green grass. Sir Herbert was fast asleep. She sneaked up on him as soft as soft could be. And she glanced at the knight.

Her heart was smitten. In other words, she swooned and fainted. Cupid’s arrow hit her so hard she was out like a light. Some hours later Queen Maeve woke up and realized what had happened. There was no way she was about to let her true love die. If it was her life that was required, it was her life that was to be given.

Fortunately, there was a great and powerful wizard passing through the forest on that very night. On his way to a destination that was most secret, he decided to take a detour. He had never seen the forest and it was a must-see in Rick Steves’ Tour of the Kingdom. So he decided he could afford a little off-the-beaten-path time.

He crossed into the forest and a squirrel approached him. ‘O Great and Powerful Wizard, you must save our friend, Sir Herbert of the White.”

As Mr. Wizard investigated the situation, he realized there was a solution no one had thought. Sir Herbert of the White must be transformed into a faerie.

And so it was written. And so it was. And to this day, Sir Herbert of the White rules beside Queen Maeve as King of the Faeries. And there is much rejoicing throughout the Wood.