With little to lose, he enrolls at a folk art institute in the Sierra Nevada mountains. There he reaffirms his forgotten values, and vows to find the Monroes again.
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By Bill Kleiser
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Bill Kleiser
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTom Jensen was twelve years old at the time.
He was flat on his back in one of his favorite places, a small strip of grass on the far side of the single car garage where his dad housed the family Buick. This strip of grass was wedged between the garage and a gravel parking lot belonging to the neighborhood grocery store that did business on the corner. Because of its proximity to the parking lot, Tom's father did not pay much attention to this part of his lawn. Tom had done some pretty extensive digging in the area. There were small piles of stones, (brought over from the parking lot), and in several spots the thick black Illinois soil had been exposed from under the grass, and scattered into several cone shaped mounds. There was a miniature excavation going on here. The site was peppered with Tonka trucks. There were Tonka bulldozers, Tonka dump trucks, a Tonka crane, and of course the Tonka pick up truck that Tom drove back and forth, to and from the work site. All of this heavy equipment was plastered with dirt from the work that was ongoing.
During the humid, still months of summer vacation, Tom spent most of his time either on his knees or on his stomach, pushing these trucks through the dirt and rock. His face was always close to the ground so he could see the large rubber wheels of the Tonkas moving through the earth as he impersonated the sounds of engines and air brakes. By the time the five o'clock whistle blew, (his mother calling him in for supper), Tom was as dirty as any man would have been on a construction site. His thick blue jeans had patches over the knees. Some of his most frequently worn pairs had patches over the patches. The cuffs were rolled up, folded over three times as was the custom in that era of the early 1960's. When his mother would unroll them to put them in the wash, a good cupful of dirt would spill onto the basement floor. But before Tom would head in for supper, he would crawl over to his Tonka pick up truck, say good night to his pretend co-workers, and drive off the site to his imaginary home. When Tom pretended, all of his fabrication took place here at the work site. He did not have an imaginary home, or an imaginary wife and children, it was just understood that this was so. The only thing Tom knew for certain was that he wished it wasn't all pretend. He wished he were an adult. He wished his equipment had the words, Caterpillar, Mack, and GMC on their backsides instead of Tonka.
Tom's childhood seemed like some sort of punishment to him. Some type of impossibly long, arduous, time on the bench, waiting to get into the real game. Tom was not comfortable in his role of child. He saw the adult world, the world adults built and controlled, and he knew he was just an ornament in that world. When Tom's parents would go to picnics and family reunions, he would drift toward the groups of adults and listen in on their conversations. He memorized their expressions and mannerisms. He saw hard and calloused hands with long bent fingers rise to the face and massage the beards of men, when they discussed politics or the news. When they discussed the weather, (which was done most frequently), men squinted their eyes and looked out over the horizon, as if they could locate the jet stream and see what turbulence was developing. He often times watched men lean close to one another and talk in a softer voice, one mans mouth directly into the other's ear. These were short conversations, inaudible to Tom, but usually ended with both men laughing loudly and slapping each other on the shoulder. When the topic turned to Chicago's long-suffering sports teams, the group of men would shake their heads in disgust. With fingers pointed in a confident gesture, they would each enumerate the weak points in the Bear's secondary, what the Cubs needed to do to their bullpen, and rattle off the trades the White Sox should make in the off-season. There was always as many diverse opinions on these subjects as there were men in the group, and I wondered if the coaches and managers of these teams knew half as much as these men, as they stood around an outdoor grill rolling hot dogs through a flame.
Tom Jensen was a student of the adult world, and like a student, he was obedient and respectful of his masters. Tom did what he was told. He completed his chores way before his sister and brother even started theirs. If a teacher handed out an assignment, Tom would not rest until it was completed; always well in advance of the deadline. The way Tom saw things; you had to earn your way into adulthood. It didn't just come to you because you reached a certain age. He felt that if he met every adult's expectations, especially his father's, then one fine day the coach would lean down and look at his bench, then shout Tom's name. "Jensen, takes off those ridiculous blue jeans and that Howdy Doody T-shirt, and get in there and be an adult." Tom Jensen lived for that day. Tom Jensen was an adult trapped in a child's world, a child's body, and a child's age.
But as I said earlier, Tom was flat on his back on this fine summer's day. He was taking a break from the rigors of the excavation of his father's back yard, and he was deep in thought.
There are days when you don't have anything particular on your mind. There are no major decisions to make, or problems to solve. But if you suddenly look into the sky on these certain days, the passing cloud parade will apprehend you and lock you in the prison cell of deep thought, and you will thoroughly enjoy every minute of your sentence.
Tom often found himself doing time in the clouds. On this particular day, he had just dumped a load of stolen grocery store parking lot stones from his Tonka end loader into the dump truck. He had heard some distant thunder activity while he was busy making truck sounds, and he knew a storm was on its way. He was on his side moving the fully loaded truck through the deep rich loam, always keeping a close eye on the wheels as they negotiated the terrain. Another thunder sound, closer this time, echoed through the neighborhood. The light changed, as if to temper the afternoon. And stillness, a strange and sudden stillness, settled around him.
He turned over onto his back. Folding his hands behind his head, he formed a comfortable cradle. It was his standard cloud watching position. As he looked up he saw the gathering taking place. Above him the clouds were still a pure white, but they were fractured and fragmented, as they moved quickly on their way. Although these cirrostratus clouds were in a hurry, they still had time to impart their mesmerizing affect on Tom Jensen. The dirt and the grass started to emit their own aromas as the temperature started to drop. The rain was now a forgone conclusion, as Tom found the various profiles of animals and other recognizable designs in what was left of this cloud pattern.
His thoughts moved from one subject to the next, as swiftly as the clouds that were parading overhead. He thought about the vastness of the universe, the purpose of life, and if his mother would allow him to cross the street to go to Brandon Drugs to buy a new Sad Sack comic book before dinner. When his Grandfather would visit he would send Tom to Brandon's to buy him a pack of Chesterfield cigarettes. He would be given extensive and redundant instructions on how to cross Dale Avenue safely, which he of course would follow. Once he was safely across, he would enter the store.
To his nicotine addicted grandfather, Tom was running an errand. But to Tom himself, this was a grand excursion. It was a trip across a busy street, and a glimpse into adulthood.
Brandon Drugs was a tall cinder block building that was shaped like the corner it rested on. It was painted a milky white color. The Brandons were two ancient brothers that lived in an apartment above the store. The floors were wood, sagging from too many years of duty. It was sparsely stocked, dimly lit, musty smelling, and dusty. No one ever had a prescription filled at Brandon's Drugs, although the walls were lined with wooden shelves brimming with amber colored glass bottles, probably left over from the Civil War. Brandon's was the store you went to if you needed a new whiffle ball or a pack of Chesterfield's for your Grandfather, not if you needed a remedy for any ailment beyond a runny nose.
The other intrigue of Brandon's was the wooden magazine rack that sat on the right hand side of the store, near the entrance. There was no rhyme or reason as to how the Brandon brothers displayed these magazines. For example the Sad Sack comics were right next to the "True Detective" magazines, as Tom found out one bright Sunday morning when he stopped at the magazine rack during a cigarette run for his Grandfather. As he slowly slipped the magazine upward out of the display rack, he got a good look at the cover. There was a color drawing of a woman, a tall shapely woman with long black hair, running through the woods. In the distance you could see her pursuer. He was a Paul Bunyan looking man, with a three or four day growth of beard, and evil in his eyes. He was wearing tall boots and a red plaid shirt, and he was holding an axe in the air as if about to strike a log. But clearly the artist of this fine work wanted the eye to focus on the woman. Tom's eye did just that. She was wearing very short denim shorts, and her blouse was torn at the shoulder. It was also unbuttoned at the top revealing her ample cleavage.
"Ample cleavage" was not a term Tom had even known back then, but it was ample cleavage that Tom's eyes rested on for quite some time. In fact they were still resting on ample cleavage when he heard the angry voice of Gene Brandon in the distance. "Hey kid, put that magazine back or I will tell your father," he shouted from across the store. Gene was in the back of the store with a dust rag, wiping dust off of bottles of aspirin he would never sell. The Brandon brothers could no longer fill a prescription, or even read a prescription. Hell, they could barely walk from one end of the store to the other, but they had elevated their spying on customers to an art form. They were so paranoid of shoplifters that they became obsessed with watching people as they entered and walked the worn out aisles of their dismal excuse for a business. The moment you entered Brandon Drugs you could rest assured that one of the brothers was on your case. Their elderly eyes would follow you, a scowl on their faces. You were not a customer at Brandon's; you were an intrusion and a threat.
As the sky darkened into an ominous salutation, and a pre-storm wind began to filter its way through the back yard excavation site, Tom continued to stare skyward. His mother would probably not allow him to cross Dale Avenue with this storm coming on. That was too bad, because one of the most favorite things in his world was to curl up with a new comic, and listen to the rain make its comforting music on the roof. He also wanted to get another look at the "True Detective" cover. The woman in distress on that cover had for some reason stayed on his mind. He wanted a closer look. He wanted to open the magazine and see what was inside. He knew it would be far more interesting than any Sad Sack comic, even the end of the year 'gala" issue. He could not decide, as he lay on the cool wind swept lawn, if he wanted to see more cleavage, or if he really just wanted the challenge of beating the Brandon Brothers at a little game of magazine magazine, who's got the magazine.
If only he were an adult he could walk right into Brandon's, slap fifty cents down on their worn out counter, and walk off with a crisp fresh copy of "True Detective" to read at his leisure.
Now his cloud ridden thoughts turned to this familiar subject. He lay there taking in the theatre of the heavens. It was as if the sky was between acts and the stagehands were moving the sets. The white clouds were being moved off stage, and the dark rain clouds were being quickly put in place for the next scene. This was the 'severe Midwestern thunderstorm" scene, and everything was ready for the curtain to be raised. He could hear pre-storm activities around the neighborhood. Wash was being taken down from the clotheslines and thrown haphazardly into baskets. Mothers were yelling for their children to come in. Bikes were being collected off lawns and placed on front porches. Tom remained fixed and fixated. He thought about the various milestones of adulthood. He knew the age of twenty-one had some significance. Also, he had heard his mother say, "Life begins at forty' several times. He figured his parents were somewhere around that age. He wondered what he would look like at the age of forty. Would he have a sense of relief and joy that he had 'arrived"? Or would he have the tired, worried, "don't cross me' look that he saw on most of the adults in his life.
A bolt of white lightning suddenly seared the sky. Tom waited for the thunder to crash, and when it did, he sat upright and at attention. He could now hear his mother's voice, (had he sensed a tinge of anger in it?), calling for him to come in the house. He hoped there were no tornado warnings. If there were, he would be headed for the basement. This was the rule. His mother would march he and his sister down the stairs, and then go back up to get his little brother who was too small to negotiate the stairway. She would then return with Tom's brother in one hand and a large wooden crucifix in her other. She would set his brother down and then slide open the crucifix. From inside the little secret compartment, she would gently lift out two Holy candles. She would place them in candleholders and set them on the yellow metal table that sat in the middle of the basement. Tom and his family ate on this table most nights during the hot summer months, because it was always cooler in the basement. After the candles were going, his mother would pull three rosaries from the crucifix and hand them to Tom and his sister. At this point, if his father was home, he and his mom would have an argument about whether you were supposed to go to the Southwest corner or the Northwest corner of the basement to avoid being swept away to a certain and horrific death. While they debated this precaution, Tom would always slip over to his train set and begin a continuation of his pretending. This time instead of being an adult earthmover, he would be an adult train engineer. But ultimately during a tornado warning, Tom would find himself on his knees, running through the "Hail Mary's' one after the other, until the family made it around the entire Rosary, or the weather service lifted the warning, which ever came first.
With heightened activity around him, his mother calling, (definitely anger in her voice), and the winds erupting in defiant gusts, Tom still contemplated the thought of himself as a forty year old man. Then as suddenly as the lightning appeared a moment earlier, Tom had a new question to contemplate. "What will it be like to be fifty, no, fifty seven years old?" What a strange age to be, Tom thought as he felt the wind roll up the pant legs of his blue jeans. His mother's voice ascended again from the other side of the garage. Tom slowly rose to his feet. He gathered his Tonka equipment and moved it to the shelter of the little metal building that housed the lawn mower and the snow shovels. As he made his way to the kitchen entrance of his small house, he felt the first oversized drops of rain hit him on the shoulder. He looked again to the sky, "fifty seven', he thought, 'what a strange age to be."
Chapter TwoThe rain that had started slowly suddenly began in earnest. The large glass picture window was being blasted with wind driven drops. Drops of rain danced off of the concrete sidewalks, bouncing five inches in the air, and then free falling back into small pools. Tom was fascinated with this sudden display of Mother Nature letting off a little steam. He looked around the room, and noticed that everyone else was involved in the meeting. It appeared to him that no one even so much as turned around to look at the storm. A crack of lightening sounded in the distance and the lights in the room went dim. "That will make them notice", Tom thought, "When their frigging lap tops go dead, they won't have their streaming data any more, and maybe this God damn meeting will finally be over."
Tom had been in this room since seven thirty this morning. It was now nearly four in the afternoon. His boss had someone order sandwiches from a local deli that delivered them to the office. This way they could continue crunching numbers, and "thinking outside the box" with out stopping. It looked to Tom that occasional urination demands was the only thing that was going to get him out of this room at least long enough to stretch his legs.
Excerpted from THE SPOON by Bill Kleiser Copyright © 2011 by Bill Kleiser. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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