Decisions

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i watched closely, hoping that maybe just once i would actually see a lightning bolt
or a puff of smoke or something behind his eyes that might explain his wizardry.

i couldn't get around some sprinklers arrayed alongside international drive in orlando, near the southern end of samoan court. the heads were spread out and engaged in multiple fields of interlocking fire. they were saturating a Rosen property, the Quality Inn, according to the red neon letters flashing on the message board out front.
 
the Rosen is one of two purportedly high-end hotels on the I-drive. i suppose the message on the board of the Quality Inn was meant to impress me.
 
it boasted that the rooms were newly renovated. it advertised free breakfasts. it advertised free shuttles to the attractions (reduced to playing sea world without elvis, i wisecracked to myself). free wi-fi was also promised.
 
all i wanted was free passage through the waterworks.
 
it was 96 degrees farenheit at 7:40 in the morning. a lot of my quarter mile walk had been shaded, which meant that those were the parts where it only felt like 104. the sunny, unprotected parts--those stretches that even cockroaches and lizards know to steer clear of--were unbelievably punishing. like a mike tyson jab to the bridge of your nose. like a fat sweaty lady falling on top of you. stepping out into those sunny stretches took supreme effort. my knees balked. my feet rebelled. sweat gushed from every pore upon the first step. the light clothing wilted and felt like burlap. it was impossible to think clearly. the prime directive became forward motion to the shade so far distant. i figured if i were to collapse, i had at least some chance of survival if i made it to the shade. i could easily imagine paramedics pulling up to my body, seeing it puddled there in the killing light, and deciding it probably wasn't worth getting out of the air conditioned cab of the ambulance to investigate. "i ain't goin out there, dood. he's a goner. let the coroner's guys deal with it."
 
so i had just survived a particularly burly stretch when i reached the shade in front of the Quality Inn. my vision was blurred and my fine motor skills were shot. i had briefly hoped that the sauna-like heat would perhaps ease the pain in my shoulder from a rough night's sleep, but in fact tensing up through that stretch actually had made the pain worse. in short, i was a mess.
 
and that's when i encountered the sprinklers fanned out on both sides of the path. i slowed down and squinted. there appeared to be no dry way through. i studied more closely. so perfect was the coverage, i suspected the involvement of some german war genius in this stunning landscaping feat.
 
and i cursed cars in general. this place, orlando, is so american in its reliance on cars that they feel free to water the sidewalks--by design--and assume that such a decision won't put anyone out.
 
i was put out.
 
i was drenched already, sure, but the indignity of having to run this gauntlet was galling. i mean, the idea of wet shoes at the start of a long work day was practically unpleasant. and then there was the issue of a soaked cell phone. the waste of water alone offended me, but then to be forced to get sprayed by it in the bargain...
 
i think i cursed Rosen properties in general.
 
i thought i might just dash into the curbside lane of the I-drive for the 25 feet of kill zone. that's when a late model buick roared by at well over 40 mph. it swerved to avoid hitting a nonexistent object on the driver's side, grazed the very curb i had been eyeing, shredded the sidewall of its rear tire, yanked back to the left and blew through the red light at samoan court.
 
i couldn't tell if it was a brit or a senior citizen driving, but i resolved to take my chances with the hissing sprinklers.
 
i once had a session with an acupuncturist that i neither trusted nor had faith in. he was an uptight control-freak who seemed to have missed his calling as a corporate lawyer. his name was Konopka, which is polish for "sandwich", which is funny because he married a nutritionist, and she became a sandwich, too. which is even funnier to me because that woman could have used a couple of sandwiches, in my estimation. she was as thin as a mantis, and probably the sickliest uninstitutionalized adult i have ever seen. i know some exceptionally healthy vegans. maybe they maintain their health by eating mushrooms; i remember that Nutritionist Sandwich refused to eat fungi because she claimed they were animals.
 
we all make curious choices, i admit.
 
but, anyway, i was laying on Acupuncturist Konopka's table, and he was applying needles along my meridians. i had arrived unimpressed and remained so, even after he put some burning box thing on my back and left the room.
 
that is, until he stuck a needle into a spot on my calf. an intense wave of pain shot from the spot and radiated out to all my extremities. i jerked and yelled. i think Konopka liked that.
 
"that's the gall bladder meridian. it's important in decision-making. do you have difficulty making decisions?"
 
swear to god i replied, "no," waited a beat and then added, "well, yes, actually, i guess..."
 
and i wasn't trying to be funny.
 
i do have trouble making decisions, but usually it's about the small stuff. i'm getting better with age, but it can still sometimes be a chore just trying to decide if i should eat before i swim or swim before i eat. i waste a lot of mental energy on stoopid shit like that. as i age, though, i am realizing that my resources are finite and inefficiencies represent a considerable toll on the ledger. i have no trouble making the big choices, mind you. i get paid to make decisions, and i pull the trigger like a spaghetti western sheriff twenty times a day. i have crystal clear vision when it comes to what's right for my son and my close friends, too, and i don't hesitate to act on it.
 
and i've been thinking about decisions on a scale much greater than how to navigate a phalanx of sprinklers or what the bosses want or how can i serve my friends & family. end-of-life-type decisions, you know, like knowing you've got just a little bit of gas left in the tank, and how do you want to use it?
 
decisions like a friend's mom had to make. she had beaten cancer years ago. it came back recently with an unholy vengeance. she had proof positive that treating the disease aggressively could work, so that's what she tried at first. maybe it was because the reserves were depleted this time; the chemo just made her sicker. when she did the inventory, she decided that she would use the last of her energies to coast out with some grace and dignity.
 
less than a year ago, another friend's father had an MRI done that showed nothing abnormal. recently he started bleeding out his rectum. the new pictures showed all kinds of advanced cancers running rampant inside him. he railed and ranted and chastised the doctors. he demanded the most aggressive treatments now-like-yesterday. he was unsatisfied with everything that could be done. when he realized just how little he had left on the balance sheet, he made the decision to use the last of his fight to get out of the hospital. he made it and died at home. the timing of that decision was pretty critical.
 
when i arrived in orlando, i was looking forward to seeing some familiar faces. my company tries to use the same labor companies year to year for the circuit of trade shows i install, babysit & de-install, so i have fast friends in most places i go. it pleased me that two-thirds of my crew in orlando were guys i liked and had worked with before. but the contact guy, the name of the local boss, was not who i expected.
 
i had grown accustomed to dealing with Will when i came to florida. Will is a big ol boy, 300+ pounds with a big head and meaty fingers, a gruff demeanor and a saucy tongue. if he didn't like the way his guys were doing a job, he had no reservations about calling them out and plunging in to demonstrate what he had in mind. he also had no reservations about giving me, the client, all manner of shit. i rather looked forward to his verbal assaults this time down. so, i was a little disappointed to find that Will had been replaced or transfered or transitioned or something or other, depending on who i asked.
 
on the second day of the job, the day of the stand-off with the sprinklers, i arrived at the convention center with soggy shoes. i had thought i detected a narrow window between the various shifting arcs, a brief shining moment when the sidewalk was spray-free. if i timed it right, i could sail through unscathed, i thought.
 
that's what you get for thinking, i told myself three steps into the maw, when every sprinkler seemed to turn cobra-like toward me. bugs bunny would've called it a "massa-CREE". as i got deeper into the nest, i saw banks of sprinklers i hadn't bargained for. i swear even more popped out of the ground the instant i approached. if the scuttle through the sun was a mini bataan death march, this was my trail of tears. i was halfway across samoan court before i escaped their range, soaked from crown to soles, front and back.
 
so i arrived at the orange county convention center on the second day in a foul humor. before the first break, rumors had begun to circulate in the hall. Will was in the hospital, consumed with cancer. my lead guy, a friend of Will's, told me that on a recent job he did with Will in miami, he had been wracked by pain in his arm and back, and had spent a good portion of the show nodding off at the service desk.
 
after a few phone calls to people in the know, my lead guy confirmed the worst: Will was in fact in the hospital, and the prognosis was grim. by the time i left orlando, Will was facing those tough decisions, weighing the options, checking the fuel gauge. words like "hospice" and "palliative medicine" and "pain management" were becoming familiar to him.
 
the guy's about my age.
 
i was sick with worry for Will and his family, including the tradeshow family. the business is particular and insular enough that the communities remind me of small towns, with their gossip and transparency and their curious determination of what passes for news. it was a sad time in florida.
 
and, also, at some point, i remember feeling like all the blood was draining from me. it was a moment of sickening panic. the news about Will hit a little too close to home, i suppose. a tradeshow guy in his forties. a smoker. sudden onset of what seemed at first like muscle pain...
 
fuck.
 
not even a week before, i was standing behind the shelbyville historical society's museum, sneaking a smoke, trying to avoid both the evil indiana sun and the gaze of my relatives, who were eating inside. they had gathered there after my uncle bill's funeral. uncle bill had died of complications brought on by smoking. he had fought bravely, but when faced with yet another dicey procedure promising little return, he decided to pack it in.
 
i flatter myself to consider the affinities i shared with bill. we were both eldest sons with a healthy dose of wanderlust and an unquenchable thirst for stories. he himself was the greatest yarn-spinner i have ever known. when i was a kid, he would visit his younger brother, my dad, and i would spend the evening glued to a kitchen chair, watching this god sip coffee and tease out details and layer on the suspense and change his pace and tone, draw up the pitch or adjust the register, then wrap up the whole sprawling immensity like a birthday present, pop, in one outstretched palm, just for me. i watched closely, hoping that maybe just once i would actually see a lightning bolt or a puff of smoke or something behind his eyes that might explain his wizardry.
 
i would stay up too late basking in his magic. the folks would shoo me upstairs to bed eventually, but i always thought of that as the beginning of the second act. on more than one occasion, i fell asleep atop the air grate on the bedroom floor, which was directly above the kitchen table.
 
some of the stories from the second act sailed up the vent and over my head, and some of the scenes might have maybe twisted my young brain a little bit, but the sound of uncle bill's voice filled up a spot in my chest, in there with all my vital organs.
 
he had sprung from high school in rural indiana straight into the army. they sent him to oklahoma, then korea. they taught him to drive heavy trucks and made an artillery man out of him.
 
when he mustered out, bill hit the road. he drove a truck all of his working life. i guess he delivered goods to the west coast and the gulf coast and back, but i always thought his main occupation was the gathering of stories along the way.

bill never sired kids, and to some extent that is why he doted on my sister, brother and me when we were little. his birthday was two  days after mine, which i thought conferred an extra-special closeness to our relationship. bill never failed, even through all my wandering and traveling and rootlessness, to get a birthday card to me, and usually ahead of time.
 
only at his funeral did i learn that most of the people in the room could claim the same thing.
 
bill was married for a spell. she was an odd bird named walda who gave us avon products for gifts. while bill was on the road, walda occupied herself with a home base CB radio. she talked to the other truckers passing through her patch of indiana. one day bill returned from california to find a note on the kitchen table. walda had left him for another driver.
 
she had cleared out all her shit, some of bill's and left with the radio. i don't think the other trucker should have taken that as an auspicious auger.
 
we all make curious decisions from time to time.
 
i suppose some dark days followed for bill. but it doesn't seem like it was too long before he began walking on air. in his forties, bill found marylou. i could trot out a list of cliches so dense it would shut down the server, and all the good ones would be true. those two were made for each other. hand in glove. peas in a pod. all that rot.
 
marylou had kids from a previous marriage. it was a done deal long beforehand, but bill&marylou (as they were henceforth almost exclusively called) married when her daughter, melissa, graduated from high school.
 
i myself had begun high school, then went off to college then wandered the country for a spell, so my physical contact with bill&marylou was spotty and limited. once i landed back in kentucky, bill's health was beginning to fail. it had probably been a year before the funeral since i had spoken with him. and, yes, i regret that deeply. i was a pretty selfish, shitty nephew, i guess.
 
so i was thinking about that, and about how smoking is a really shitty selfish act, and was about to conclude that i am, at heart, a pretty shitty selfish idiot, when i saw melissa walking toward me.
 
this caused me some anxiety. i really know nothing of marylou's kids. but somehow, i was thinking, i should know them. that i didn't seemed like further evidence of my shittiness and selfishness.
 
and then there was the matter of my dad's eulogy. and melissa's performance as master of ceremonies during the second half of the funeral service...
 
i shouldn't be too hard on my dad, really. he was talking about his big brother, his only brother, who was laying in a casket behind him.
 
i'm not sure what he was getting at, and maybe he had lost his place in his notes, but at one point he wound up kinda slighting bill's relationship with melissa and her siblings. there was something that clanked when he tried to parse out some nuance of the word "real". i imagined that if i were one of marylou's children that clank would have seemed like an anvil dropping on my toes.
 
melissa took the podium to facilitate remembrances of bill. she had a businesslike demeanor, and her attempts at humor were a bit brittle. but, i shouldn't be too hard on her, either. as was immediately apparent, bill had been a "real" dad to her. she conveyed that clearly and somewhat pointedly. what at first appeared to be a prickliness or officiousness turned out to be nothing more than a defense mechanism to keep it together while she talked about her "real" dad, who was laying in a casket behind her.
 
so i admit to some trepidation when i saw melissa approaching. she's a strong, educated woman, and i had no difficulty imagining her having the balls to lecture me about smoking.
 
i braced myself, determined that whatever came my way, i would try to appear as unlike my father as possible. i figured that was easy enough.
 
she walked up to me and offered a hand to shake.
 
"and you are..." she said.
 
i told her i was bob's son.
 
"of course, i should have known. you look just like him. except that you have hair."
 
oh boy. stuck in the gate. this is gonna be one long trip around the track, i told myself.
 
but, melissa put me at ease when she pulled out a pack of cigarettes herself. we commiserated on the foolishness of smoking, in light of the number the cigarettes had done on my uncle, her dad.
 
but, we got off onto other subjects, mostly stories about the man. listening to her talk, i gleaned that we are actually pretty similar people. we're roughly the same age. we both smoke, but we both have a mildly serious cycling habit, which is kinda indicative of  a level of comfort with internal contradictions. she's extremely tight with the friends she has gathered to her in missouri. coming up with reasons to be out-of-doors is as important to her as it is to me.
 
so, from that single ten minute conversation, i concluded that if we lived in the same town, she'd be a cool person to hang out with.
 
but what i liked most about her by the end of that smoke was that bill had cherished her, and she him. she obviously got it, she appreciated his magic, his gift of story and the adventures he sought to give substance to his tales.
 
there is no neat package here, no wrapped gift in my palm. that's full disclosure up front. there is no budding romance of the serendipitous kooky variety that hollywood so loves to pedal and which has paid sandra bullock's mortgage. i am, like bill, a man who has been blessed in his forties to keep company with a woman who makes me walk on air.
 
but i felt a degree of solace listening to melissa, like maybe some of my shittiness and selfishness toward my uncle bill might have been mitigated by her presence in his life. just maybe, when i failed to follow through with more thoughts via e-mail on my travels in turkey, something bill was seriously excited by, for instance, maybe just maybe i could imagine him hearing a whopper from melissa instead. it comforts me to imagine it.
 
and it comforts me that he had such an appreciative audience in melissa. i haven't asked her, but it wouldn't surprise me if she had at some point actually witnessed the lightning and smoke that i so eagerly anticipated.
 
i think bill would find it somehow comforting, too, that his daughter and his nephew struck up a friendship after his death. there's a degree of continuity i think the storyteller could appreciate.
 
the dark humor of us furtively smoking together after his service wouldn't be lost on him, either, i don't think.

so, yeah, here i am, back home in louisville, thinking about decisions. we make them every day. some give us peace, and some soggy shoes. some give us hell and we make others before we even have a chance to muck it up by thinking. we pull the trigger countless times every day. that we don't know the full range of consequences that follow, that to me is beautiful.

that, to me, is how we outlive ourselves, because those daily decisions arc out and have a life of their own in the stories we tell and in the stories that are told about us.

really, we haven't got much more than that.

i don't know how much bravery i'll be able to summon when my decline becomes imperative. i hope that i have witnessed enough examples to do the calculus nimbly.

but i may prove to be a shitty and selfish nimrod in the end.

against that eventuality, i now have one more person that might remember to some other person, while sneaking a smoke after my service, the story about how The Big Boy in danville, KY mysteriously migrated to the roof of the mcdonald's one perfect crisp autumn night way back in the nineteen eighty-somethings...

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