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MEETING LELA | PART 1  

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, 
a long, long way from home.” 

—Traditional 


When I was a kid in Tennessee and Georgia I knew very little about my mother. 

I knew her name. “Lela Matheny” was written in ballpoint pen on the inside cover of all our books. I knew she was a talented artist, too. We had several of her framed oil paintings hanging on our walls. And I knew she was movie-star beautiful. Although Dad was reluctant to speak of Lela, he did give me a single photo of her which I treasured and kept hidden away in a drawer. 

“Lela Matheny” was written in ballpoint pen on the inside cover of all our books.

The only other thing I knew about Lela was that she broke my father’s heart. 

“Shortly after you were born,” Dad explained, “Lela ran off with her lover in the middle of the night. They took my car and went to Mexico. Lela got herself a Mexican divorce and a Mexican marriage to the other guy. As far as I know, they’re still together.” He would repeat this story many times over the years, always emphasizing the words “Mexican divorce” and “Mexican marriage” as if that particular detail somehow signified illegitimacy or proved how unjustly he’d been treated. 

If I felt any sadness over losing Lela I certainly wasn’t aware of it. I didn’t remember her, so how could I miss her? I was a happy kid with a loving father and a revolving door of kind female caregivers. But I was understandably curious about the woman who gave birth to me. I wondered where she was, why she left, what her life was like now. 

Whenever I asked my Dad these things, he would repeat his “Lela ran off” refrain, and would shut down any follow-up questions with “Aw, you don’t want to know about her! She’s crazy!” 
 

I was understandably curious about the woman who gave birth to me.


As far as I knew our only contact with Lela was the birthday card I received each year at Christmas. There were never any messages inside, just “Love, Lela” in the same familiar handwriting. There were never any return addresses on the envelopes, either, but I always noticed the postmarks. Each year the card would arrive from a different place: Key West, Seattle, New York, Santa Fe, Ann Arbor. 

“Looks like Lela’s in Bozeman, Montana,” I said to Daddy Bill after my thirteenth birthday. “Why do you suppose she moves around so much?” 

I expected his customary evasiveness, but this time the old man surprised me. “Son, you’re old enough to know that your mother’s husband is a federal criminal,” Dad said soberly. “They have to keep moving because they’re on the lam. Tom is wanted by the feds.” 

“No kidding?” I asked. “What did he do?” 

“Mail order fraud,” Dad replied. “He sells fake chinchilla furs or somesuch.” 

I had no clue what a chinchilla was, but the notion that half my DNA might come from a mysterious, beautiful, crazy, vagabond artist/criminal? The idea intrigued me. I needed to meet this person.

"He sells fake chinchilla furs or somesuch."

It’s the summer of 1979 in Tucson, Arizona, and I’m living it up in our new Catalina Foothills apartment. Dad is teaching summer school so I have my run of the place. I get to sleep late and have friends over. We do whatever we want, when we want, free from adult supervision.

Our activities are fairly harmless: we crank up the air conditioner, make giant Dagwood sandwiches, drink gallons of sun tea, and watch creature features on the tube. We listen to records in the Den of Iniquity. Sometimes we ride our bikes down to the Circle K for Mad magazines and microwave burritos, or head over to the Coronado clubhouse to play air hockey and gawk at the high school girls sunning themselves by the pool. 

Any self-esteem I lost at Marana has been fully replenished. I now have friends, freedom and, thanks to my paperboy job, plenty of spending money. As if I needed any additional ego boost, they’ve been saying my name on the radio lately (“trumpet solo by Dmitri Matheny”) because I’m playing the mariachi classic “La Paloma” in the Fiesta de los Niños at El Con Mall. I feel special again for the first time since we left Brookstone. 

 

I’m playing the mariachi classic “La Paloma” in the Fiesta de los Niños at El Con Mall.


It’s mid-morning when the phone rings in our dark apartment. I shuffle into the kitchen and wipe the sleep from my eyes as I lift the receiver. What have I won this time? 

“Dmitri?” says an unfamiliar female voice. “This is Lela.” 

“Lela like my mother Lela?” I ask. 

“That’s me,” she says. “How are you?” 

“Surprised,” I reply.

“Listen, I’m in Tucson,” she says. “I live here. What are you up to today?” 

“Nothin’ much,” I reply, bewildered. 

“Would you like to go with me to the university art museum?” 

Half an hour later I answer the door and there she is, the pretty lady from the photo, looking not unlike Suzanne Pleshette in her high-collared lime green pantsuit, white silk scarf, and oversized sunglasses. I lock up the apartment, follow to her car, and slide into the passenger seat next to her. I can’t believe she’s really here. 

Unlike my taciturn father, Lela turns out to be an absolute chatterbox. She talks nonstop as we walk through the museum galleries, jumping randomly from one non sequitur to the next, dramatically whispering then laughing loudly, dropping names I don’t know, passionately offering her opinion on every exhibit. The words tumble out of her but I barely comprehend their meaning. I’m too preoccupied with studying her every move and mannerism. Do I take after Lela? She strikes me as stylish and sophisticated, yet insecure and more than a little phony.  

After the museum we walk across the street to a frozen yogurt shop called the Frosty Frog. Lela orders a mint chip froyo to match the vivid green of her outfit, then lights a long slender cigarette, all the while babbling like the giddy guest on a late night talk show. Something in her affect makes me feel diminished, as if I’m merely a spectator in the movie of her life. It’s only at this moment, looking across the table at her, that I’m finally able to accept the reality of this surreal afternoon. 

So this is my mother. 

Lela orders a mint chip froyo to match the vivid green of her outfit.

When Daddy Bill gets home from work he finds me sitting silently in the living room. 

“How was your day, Bub?” he asks. 

“Well Dad,” I reply, “I think you ought to sit down for this.” 

In my memory the revelation that I’d spent the day with my bio-mom was a complete surprise to Daddy Bill. He didn’t mind that we'd met, but he seemed genuinely shocked to learn that Lela was in Tucson, and mystified by how she got our phone number. In hindsight I suspect he knew more than he let on. When it came to Lela, Dad played his cards very close to the vest. 

I rode my bike over to Lela and Tom’s place several times that summer. Their condo was modest, even smaller than our apartment, but it was brand new, adjacent to a magnificent golf course, and furnished with midcentury modern Scandinavian decor that looked like something you’d see in the pages of a high-end design catalog. 

Lela's husband Tom was an overly tan charmer with “trust me” eyes and a full head of gray-blond Banacek hair. He wore polo shirts and khakis, told silly jokes, brandished a fat bankroll, and flashed blindingly white teeth whenever he smiled, which was often. He spent most of his time either on the phone or on the links. 

“What exactly does Tom do for a living?” I asked Lela, thinking of the chinchillas and whatnot. 

“Oh, this and that,” Lela said with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Tom’s what’s known as an entrepreneur.”

It was the first time I’d ever heard the word. To this day when anyone uses it I think of Tom and his Cheshire Cat grin. 

I expected Dad’s reunion with his ex-wife, and the man she left him for, to be awkward, but the three of them got along just fine. They reclined in their chaise lounges, swilling gin cocktails and playing “remember when” like old friends. Later when we all went to dinner together at La Fuente, the mood was entirely convivial, or so it seemed to me. 

On one occasion Dad invited Tom over to play tennis while Lela stayed behind to give me a painting lesson. I still remember how she taught me to use complementary colors for the shadows, and the way she demonstrated the proper technique for washing a paint brush by making small soapy circles in the palm of my hand. 

Dad invited Tom over to play tennis while Lela stayed behind to give me a painting lesson.

I tried to engage Lela in meaningful conversation but quickly learned that she had no interest in being real with me. Having grown up in the south I'm no stranger to tall tales, but Lela was a full-on fabulist. She seemed incapable of giving a straight answer.

A simple query like “do I have any brothers or sisters” prompted a hyperbolic description of her own brother, a strikingly handsome, independently wealthy, eccentric genius, more clairvoyant than Edgar Cayce, who lives in a mansion and invents rockets for a secret government agency. Ahem. 

When asked about her childhood, Lela launched into a series of Bunyanesque tales about a magical, mythical Cherokee ancestor named “America” who married a Scotsman named “McGee” to become “America McGee.” Each story was more outlandish than the previous, but none shed any light on Lela’s actual life.

Lela delivered these far-fetched family fables with earnest enthusiasm, oblivious to how ridiculous they sounded. Eventually I stopped asking questions altogether and just surrendered myself to her whimsy. 

We saw each other several times that summer but she never gave up any credible intel. Nor did she seem interested in learning anything about my life or thoughts or feelings. I learned what I could about Lela through observation alone. 

In late summer Daddy Bill and I were sharing a bag of Fritos and watching 60 Minutes when he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m glad you’ve enjoyed getting to know Lela and Tom, but you’d better prepare yourself, son. At some point they’ll disappear again, probably without warning. I don’t want you to get your feelings hurt.” 

Dad was right. A few days later Tom’s name appeared in an Arizona Daily Star article about interstate commerce irregularities. I called the condo and, sure enough, the number was disconnected. I rode over on my bike and, no surprise, the place was empty. 

It would be another 23 years before I would see Lela again. 

Lela in 1965 (L) when I was born, and in 2002 (R) when I met her the second time.

 

Next:
MEETING LELA | PART 2

SNAPSHOTS | PART 4 — CHUBASCO 

“Your vibe attracts your tribe.” 
—Anthony Bourdain 

“We go back like car seats.” 
—Harry Bosch
 

It can’t be an easy thing to raise a son. 

It’s a balancing act. To help him find his way in life while also allowing him the freedom to fail. To provide advantages and opportunities without coddling or spoiling him. To encourage excellence without setting unrealistic standards. To teach him both self-confidence and humility. To know when to protect him, when to counsel him, and when to let him face adversity alone. To balance his needs with your own. 

My father did his best. In 1978 when he decided to relocate us to Arizona, he had his reasons. He was heartbroken, depressed, and needed a change. The move proved troublesome for me, but I don’t begrudge Dad needing to prioritize his own mental and emotional health. It was never his intention to sabotage my education or put me in harm’s way. Kids are resilient. He knew I would adapt. 

It didn’t take Daddy Bill long, however, to realize that Marana was no place for either of us. He loved to teach but was spending most of his time enforcing classroom rules and trying to maintain order. I loved to learn but none of my classes were interesting, and I was always on guard, looking over my shoulder for the next attack.

Dad resolved to seek employment elsewhere as soon as his contract was up, and promised he would find a better school for me in Tucson the following year. In the meantime it was my job to survive seventh grade at Marana Junior High. 

Fortunately, life got easier for me at Marana. There was still plenty of student-on-student violence but somehow I was no longer a target. Is it because I carried myself differently after I’d learned a few moves? Possibly, but the more likely explanation is that I was spared because I finally made the right friends. 

I met Jack in Reading class (no joke, the class was called “reading”), and we hit it off immediately. Jack was different from the other kids. Like me, he was a displaced southerner (his family came from Virginia) with an artistic bent and diverse interests. He was smart, articulate, creative, and funny as hell. He was also an excellent writer. In fact, the only time I ever got in trouble at Marana, it wasn’t for fighting, but for laughing at one of Jack’s hilarious short stories. 

 

Jack was smart, articulate, creative, and funny as hell.

 

“Settle down, Dmitri,” said Mrs. Woods. 

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied. 

“Don’t back-talk me! You go to the principal’s office right now!” she demanded. 

I told Principal Dewey that Mrs. Woods had misinterpreted my sincere polite response as sarcasm. “It’s how I was raised,” I explained. “At my old school in Georgia, you’d get in trouble if you didn’t say yes ma’am.” 

“Well, you’re here now. Lose that habit,” he said. “And I still have to give you detention for disrupting class.” 

“Yes, sir,” I replied, true to my roots. 

A few days later my new friend Jack introduced me to his pal Bennie, a charismatic football player with a winning smile and a terrific sense of humor. Bennie had cracked the code on how to flirt, too, and all the girls giggled whenever he was around. Ben’s upbeat attitude was infectious. I liked him right away and the three of us soon became fast friends. It didn’t surprise me at all when I later found out my new companions also happened to be Dad’s favorite English Lit students. 

 

Bennie’s upbeat attitude was infectious.

 

No fights found me after I started hanging out with Bennie and Jack. In a school where sports participation is one of the only real forms of social currency, the two of them were well-liked student athletes. They seemed to get along with everybody, even the so-called bad kids. I must have benefitted by association. Plus, Jack was taller than almost everyone else in our class. Nobody messed with him. 

We were the original three amigos. We hung out everyday at school and sometimes on the weekends. I liked to draw comic books for fun back then and remember creating Jack Fox and Blazin’ Ben as their superhero alter egos. 

For all its faults, Marana did one thing 100% right: almuerzo, or as we called it, lonche. Twenty-five cents would get you a man-sized portion of delicious Sonoran food, served up fresh daily in the school cafeteria. The ladies in the kitchen took great pride in their work and prepared a different main course for us each day: carnitas, tamales, machaca, fajitas, chile rellenos, enchiladas verdes, and more, always with a generous helping of frijoles refritos con arroz. Damn, I loved those Marana lunches. 

 

Damn, I loved those Marana lunches.

 

The other thing that made lunchtime so great was the game we always played. Bennie, Jack and I, and occasionally our friend Kevin, would take turns trying to make each other laugh with ridiculous jokes, silly voices and wordplay. Sometimes we would mimic absurd Steve Martin comedy routines or reenact entire skits by the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Invariably we’d all end up doubled over in fits of laughter. The game never ended until the bell rang or Bennie spit milk out of his nose. Big fun. 

I loved those guys then and I love them still. 

I had no way of knowing, at the time, that Bennie would grow up to become one of the west coast's most popular radio personalities, or that he and his wife would generously let me stay with them while I found my first apartment in San Francisco. I couldn’t have known that Ben would one day introduce me to the O’Jays (with whom I would have the honor of working some years later), or how supportive he would be over the course of my future music career. I didn’t know that Ben and I would remain friends for life. 

And I certainly had no way of knowing, at the time, that Jack and I were destined to attend the same high school in Tucson, become college roommates in Boston, and remain close as adults as we both pursued careers in the performing arts. I couldn’t have known how much time we would spend playing in bands with each other, or discovering music together over many late nights at the turntable, poring over liner notes as we listened to his excellent collection of classic jazz on vinyl. I didn’t know we would one day stand up as “best man” at each other’s weddings, or that we would continue to confide in one another, sharing our troubles and triumphs well into late middle age. I didn’t know that Jack would be my best friend forever. 

All I knew was that I had finally found my tribe. I'm not sure whether I ever told them how our alliance had saved me. Jack and Ben made an otherwise miserable year not only bearable, but memorable in the best possible way. 

On December 25, my father and I celebrated the holiday on our balcony, grilling steaks and listening to our favorite seasonal album, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. After dinner we watched as heavy, dark clouds rolled over the valley, showering the desert with a wondrous cleansing rain. 

 

We watched as heavy, dark clouds rolled over the valley,
showering the desert with a wondrous cleansing rain. 

 

The winter cloudburst felt auspicious, like a baptism or benediction. 

“Merry Christmas, Daddy Bill,” I said. 

“Happy Birthday, Bub,” he said. “You’re a teenager now.” 

“Yes, sir,” I replied, true to my roots. 

Next: 
SNAPSHOTS | PART 5 — CHEVY MAN

SNAPSHOTS | PART 3 — TANGLE 

“The beginning of things is necessarily vague, 
tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. 
How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!” 

—Kate Chopin 

 

By summer’s end I’ve discovered much to love about living in Arizona. 

The regional art, music and food are outstanding. The laidback lifestyle suits my temperament. The arid landscape is as vast and peaceful as the ocean. I like the way hawks wheel and keen overhead as the majestic saguaro watch silently like sentries. And most of all, I love the glorious sunsets. 

Some part of me knows my future lies elsewhere. If books and movies have taught me anything, it’s that one day the call to adventure will require me to leave this desert. In the meantime, this seems like a good place to begin the next chapter of life’s journey. 

 If books and movies have taught me anything, it’s that one day 
the call to adventure will require me to leave this desert. 


Today is the first day of school. Daddy Bill and I are up early for our commute to the town of Marana, just northwest of Tucson. The drive is pleasant. The sky is overcast so it’s a little cooler than usual. The university jazz station is spinning some classic Miles, always a good omen, and our little Toyota still has its new car smell. 

My spirits are high. I’m excited to begin seventh grade, although I’m not entirely sure what to expect. None of the kids in our 22nd & Craycroft neighborhood go to school out there. I only know what Dad has told me, that it’s a public school in a rural area which takes its name from the Spanish word “maraña,” meaning tangle. And last week I overheard Dad on the phone saying something about “teaching basic English to the children of migrant farmworkers.” 

This morning as we travel the long frontage road past dusty acres of alfalfa and cotton, I begin to understand. “Things are going to be a little different here than they were at Brookstone, son,” Daddy Bill says. “Just be patient and keep an open mind.” It sounds rehearsed, like a prepared speech. I have the feeling he’s talking to himself as much as to me. 

 As we travel the long frontage road past dusty acres
of alfalfa and cotton, I begin to understand. 


Dad was an important man at Brookstone School, and because of his position, I pretty much had my run of the place. I literally grew up there, kindergarten through sixth grade. I knew everybody, even the high school kids, and always felt safe and supported. Saying goodbye to Brookstone was the most difficult part of leaving Georgia. 

My favorite class at Brookstone was a sixth grade social studies elective called MACOS: Man A Course of Study, in which we compared innate and learned behavior in humans with that of other primates, then presented our findings to a panel of university graduate students. Our instructor James Stockdale, son of the homonymous war hero, was my favorite teacher. He taught us to be curious, question all assumptions, and believe in ourselves. 

Brookstone School cast a long shadow over my life. I thrived there, but since it was the only school I’d ever known, I took its brilliant faculty and innovative curriculum for granted. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to attend such an elite private school. I wasn’t aware that we were poor, that my classmates were rich, or that my tuition had been waived as part of Dad’s teaching salary. And I certainly couldn’t have known, at the time, the degree to which being part of that nurturing scholastic community had shaped my nascent love of learning, positive self-image and sense of entitlement. 

Brookstone School cast a long shadow over my life.


I only knew that I enjoyed school. Or so I thought. 

For Dad to describe Marana as “a little different” would prove to be the understatement of the century. Far from the stately red brick lecture halls and leafy woodlands of Brookstone, the Marana campus is little more than a few cement buildings and mobile classroom trailers surrounded by dirt, asphalt and gravel.

Based on the school’s exterior, I’m prepared to be underwhelmed by whatever awaits inside. But nothing could prepare me for the physical and emotional trauma I’m about to endure at Marana Junior High School.

I show up guileless and confident, ready to hit the books and eager to make friends. But for the first time in my young life, I simply don’t fit in. Back home I was a popular kid who excelled in music, art and academics, but my study skills and work ethic are meaningless here. The only things that seem to matter at Marana are football and fighting. 

There are fist fights every single day at Marana. Clashes erupt spontaneously, for no reason and without warning.

For the first week I’m able to keep my distance. I watch with detached curiosity as the other students beat each other’s brains in. I wonder what Mr. Stockdale would think of all this violence. Is it innate or learned? And why don’t any of the teachers try to put a stop to it? 

 There are fist fights every single day at Marana. 


Later I would learn that Dad had actually tried to separate two kids who were fighting, only to receive a dressing down from his boss. “Never, ever lay your hand on a student for any reason,” Principal Dewey cautioned, “or we could be sued.” Dad was flummoxed. “Even if they’re about to kill one another?” 

I’m mystified by all the aggression, but naively not afraid for my own safety. I’m new here. I’ve made no enemies. Plus my dad is on the faculty. No one would dare. But the main reason I feel secure is because I’m a good boy. I don’t get into fights. I get along with everybody … right? 

Wrong. A skinny little southern boy with no friends who doesn’t play football? A teacher's kid, who struts around with his nose in the air, talking funny, using big words, acting all cocky and superior? At Marana Junior High this is a kid who needs a beatdown. 

 At Marana Junior High this is a kid who needs a beatdown. 


I’m walking to my locker after gym when out of nowhere someone shoves me against the wall. “What the hell?” I react, more startled than afraid. But before I can even get a look at my assailant he's knocked me to the ground. 

The jackals encircle us, laughing and cheering. By the time I realize we're fighting it’s too late. The kid's knees are already pressed against my upper arms, pinning me to the concrete floor. I can't move. I'm practically immobile as he punches me repeatedly in the face. 

Nobody stops the fight. Neither of us are punished. I’m literally saved by the bell as everyone goes to class, leaving me alone and vanquished. I never even learn the kid’s name or what motivated him to attack me in the first place. 

After my nose stops bleeding I wash up and change my shirt. No cuts, just a few bruises. My head hurts and my ears are ringing, but I don’t look so bad.

On the drive home Dad doesn’t even notice that I’m hurt. This is a tremendous relief. I don’t want to get in trouble for fighting, and besides, I’m ashamed. My father was a champion boxer. If he finds out I can't defend myself I’ll be humiliated. 

But I have bigger problems. Word gets around: the new kid doesn't know how to fight. It’s open season on Georgia Boy. I now have a target on my back. 

Every few days somebody jumps me. It’s not like I’m being bullied, not like on TV. It’s never the same person and there’s rarely any preamble. Nobody threatens me or tries to take my lunch money. They just start shit. I never know when the next sucker punch is coming, or from which direction. And it’s this, the sheer senseless randomness of it, that terrifies me so and makes Marana my personal living hell. Never safe. Nowhere to hide. 

I hate this school. I’m learning nothing here except how vulnerable I am. Some of these big, mean-looking boys with facial hair are obviously older kids who’ve been held back. One of them is so strong that he comes up behind me, picks me up, and throws me against the lockers. 

But it isn’t only the big kids who pick fights. One day after school I’m walking to Dad’s janky classroom/trailer to practice my trumpet. I notice a group of athletes in my peripheral vision, but they’re all walking in the opposite direction so I pay them no mind. Suddenly a short freckle-faced kid with red hair breaks from the pack and runs straight at me. I flinch but stand my ground. I’m bigger than this one. He doesn’t scare me. 

“I’m gonna kick your ass,” he says.

“I don’t even know you,” I say. “What’s your problem?” 

“I think you’re a wet bag and a pussy” he snarls. 

So I’m standing there looking at this little ginger lunatic, wondering what in the hell a wet bag could be, when he knocks the horn case out of my hand and tackles me. By now I know the drill. There’s no reasoning with these idiots. I land a few solid punches, but the impact does more damage to my fists than his face. The kid is small but he’s fast and knows how to grapple. He gets the better of me again and again. I can’t believe it: I’m losing this fight, too. 

That evening the drive home is tense. Daddy Bill is silent and agitated. I look over from the passenger seat and notice he’s gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles are white. He's pissed. Did he see the fight? Am I in trouble? 

Suddenly Dad pulls over, gets out of the car, and says “come here, dammit.” And right there, in the twilight, on the shoulder of the highway, my Golden Gloves-gone-pacifist father gives me the first of several lessons in self-defense. He shows me the boxer’s stance, some footwork, how to block and parry, how to throw a jab. 

 Right there, in the twilight on the shoulder of the highway, 
my Golden Gloves-gone-pacifist father gives me 
the first of several lessons in self-defense. 


“Don’t hit ’em in the head,” Dad says. “The head is hard. Hit ’em in the kidneys!” 

The old man is full of surprises. I should have gone to him from the beginning. 

Maybe I will survive this place after all.

Now all I need is a few friends. 

Next: 
SNAPSHOTS | PART 4 — CHUBASCO

SNAPSHOTS | PART 2 — FIRST CONTACT 

“What makes the desert so beautiful 
is that somewhere it hides a well.” 

—Antoine de Saint-Exupery 


Four days later we arrive, hot and tired, in the Old Pueblo. 

Daddy Bill pilots our dusty U-Haul into an open parking space and squints upward through the windshield. 

“I think that’s it, right up there,” he says, pointing to the third story. “Let’s check it out.” We’re both curious about this new apartment. Dad arranged the rental sight-unseen through an agency in Georgia. He mailed a check; they mailed the keys. Now we’re here. 

I open the passenger side door and am nearly knocked over by the oven blast. “At least its a dry heat,” Daddy Bill says with a wink. “We’re definitely gonna need this,” he says, removing our portable ice chest from the front seat. 

It’s late afternoon. The air is stifling. Cicadas buzz in the palo verde trees. We climb the exterior stairs, our footsteps echoing in the hollow cement stairwell. 

The building itself is unremarkable, a typical example of the stark desert brutalist style of southwest architecture. Poured concrete blocks are stacked atop one another, textured with adobe and stained in shades of beige. There are rows of identical square windows, but nothing decorative, no arches, gables, or distinguishing features of any kind. This drab utilitarian structure could be anything: a factory, a hospital, a prison, you name it. 

When we enter our apartment, however, I know we are home. On the opposite wall, sliding glass doors open to a balcony with a spectacular westward view. Brilliant hues of orange and violet paint the sky. 

“Damn,” says Daddy Bill admiringly. 

“What do you say we wait until dark to unload the truck?” 

He reaches into the ice chest and hands me a cold one. 

Watching the sunset from our balcony became a regular thing for us that summer, just as walking in the rain had been our routine down south. 

Most mornings Daddy Bill would get up at the crack of dawn to go birding. “Gotta beat the heat,” he explained. Dad was smart that way, adapting to the climate, timing his excursions in synch with nature. 

I, on the other hand, would blissfully sleep until noon, alone in the cool, dark apartment, lights off, blinds closed, swamp cooler cranked to the max. By the time Dad returned I would be on my second bowl of Raisin Bran and just about ready to start my day. 

Like a fool I spent my afternoons outdoors under the relentless Sonoran sun, riding my bike, exploring. Whenever the heat became too much to bear, I would stop at the corner convenience store for a cold drink and a rejuvenating jolt of refrigeration. It was during one of these air conditioned interludes, standing in line at the Circle K, that I made first contact. 

“You want a saleedo?” asked the girl.

She was blonde, tan, slender, freckle-faced, a little taller than I, and pretty, in a tomboyish Tatum O’Neal Bad News Bears sort of way. “I’m Cheryl,” she announced boldly, handing me a small, shriveled nugget of mysterious origin. 

“Is it food?” I asked, dumbfounded. I studied the curious morsel she had placed in my hand. It was brown, misshapen, about the size of a buckeye, and dry as a bone. It looked like a piece of petrified animal scat. 

“Just suck on it,” she giggled, popping one into her own mouth to demonstrate. I smiled. She smiled back. 

Saladitos, for the uninitiated, are a Mexican snack of dried salted plums coated in chili and lime. Today you might find a sample in the international section of your favorite specialty food market. But back then, in the Summer of ’78, saladitos were a staple at every mini mart in Tucson, usually stored in a large glass jar right next to the cash register. 

Cheryl consumed them like candy. “The best way to eat a saleedo is with a lemon or orange,” she stated matter-of-factly. “You cut the fruit in half, stick the saleedo in the middle, and suck out the juice. Soooo yummy.” 

After that, the two of us were inseparable, riding our bikes every day on the street, along the sidewalk, and down the dry river beds, called “washes” by the locals. Cheryl was unlike any of the girls I knew back home. She was a wild child, free-spirited and fearless, always taking the lead, often getting into mischief, never waiting for permission to have fun. I was smitten. 

 

One sweltering afternoon, Cheryl suggested that we go for a swim. “Do you know anyone with a pool?” I asked. “I know a place,” she answered cryptically. 

To say we “snuck” into the Doubletree Hotel would not be accurate. Apparently a cute girl in a bikini can pretty much go wherever she pleases. Cheryl and I simply walked right in the front door and straight through the lobby, no questions asked. I was wearing running shorts, not swim trunks, but nobody cared. We parked ourselves poolside like hotel guests, ostensibly the entitled children of errant parents. 

We had a blast splashing around in the Doubletree pool, teasing and taunting one another. I poked fun at Cheryl for being a juvenile delinquent, and she playfully mimicked my southern drawl, calling me “Jimmy Carter” and “Georgia Boy.” Eventually I remembered my dad and our sunset ritual, saying I should get home for dinner.

“Why don’t you come to my place?” Cheryl asked casually. “Just you, not your dad.” 

The invitation took me by surprise. In all the time we’d spent together, Cheryl had never mentioned her home, and was weirdly evasive whenever I asked about her family. To me she was Feral Cheryl, untamed desert denizen. For all I knew she could have been a runaway. 

We got on our bikes and I followed Cheryl home to a charming hacienda-style bungalow surrounded by colorful desert flowers, cacti in terracotta pots, and a welcoming ristra of chiles hanging over the front porch. 

We walked around back and left our bikes by a large mesquite tree before entering the cottage through a side door. “Hellooo,” Cheryl called, kicking off her flip flops. There was no answer, but I wasn’t surprised. Something in the girl’s breezy, uninhibited manner told me what she already knew: we were alone. 

“You hungry?” she asked. “I could eat,” I replied, trying to sound grown up. “I’m not ready for dinner just yet, but let me fix you something,” she said. 

I then watched in amazement as my friend, still in her swimsuit, expertly prepared a cheeseburger just for me. I marveled at her casual, effortless skill as she sliced the ripe tomato, lightly toasted the bun, and browned the juicy burger in a cast iron skillet, all the while chattering away, hand on her hip, no big deal. 

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I get that. Over the years I’ve shared many a special meal prepared by, or for, a beloved companion. But this was a first. I was just a twelve-year-old kid. No girl had ever cooked for me. The burger was delicious. If Jay could see me now, I thought. 

Cheryl then pulled a styrofoam container labeled “Eegee’s” from the freezer, then led me by the hand to the living room sofa. “This is my favorite thing on a hot day,” she said, feeding me a spoonful of the frozen tropical treat. “Mm, hmm,” I responded approvingly. 

“It’s even better with rum!” she giggles, producing a bottle from nowhere like a sleight-of-hand magician. “Now all we need is a little music.” I see a radio on the side table and turn it on. The wail of a saxophone fills the room with sound: “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. I feel like I'm in a movie.

Cheryl rests her head against my chest. 

She looks up. “Hey, how old are you, anyway?” 

“Fourteen,” I lie. 

“So ... you ever gonna kiss me?” she asks.

Next: 
SNAPSHOTS | PART 3 — TANGLE

SNAPSHOTS | PART 1 — LEAVING 

Childhood memories are like polaroid photos in an old dusty box. 

They don’t provide a cohesive autobiographical narrative, only brief flashes of insight into the murky past. You sort through the random images, shuffling them like playing cards, until one of them finally whispers to you, and a shard of memory is revealed, darkly, like a half-forgotten scent or song fragment. 

It is from these small, disparate clues that you must fashion your origin story. But each time you take the box down from the shelf, there seem to be fewer snapshots inside. 

It’s the summer of 1978 in Columbus, Georgia. A U-Haul is parked in front of our little apartment at Warm Springs Court. Daddy Bill and I are loading our last few boxes into the back of the truck. 

Daddy Bill Matheny | Summer 1978 
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA
 

“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asks. He’s been calling me “Bub Man” lately instead of Little Bub, and it feels right. I’m 12-and-a-half now, not a little kid anymore, and we’re about to begin a whole new life, far away from this place. 

The past year was an emotional roller coaster. Up and down, love and loss. Dad finished his seventh year at Brookstone School on a high note, winning a prestigious teacher’s award from the city and having the yearbook dedicated in his honor. Then he abruptly resigned. Devastated by divorce, he slept for days at a time, rarely coming out of his room. “The doctor has me on tranquilizers,” he explained. When finally he emerged from the darkness of depression, other women came around, comforting him, playing mother to me, and we were happy for a time. But eventually they left, too. 

When Dad’s last great love, Judy Mehaffey, moved to Nashville to pursue a songwriting career, her teenage son Jay came to live with us. Welcoming Jay into our home made sense. Our families were already intertwined. Jay’s mom and my dad, who still loved one another, were now prolific penpals. Jay’s older sister Kim, away at college, had been my babysitter and Dad’s star student at Brookstone. Kim and Jay’s father Lem (divorced from Judy, estranged from Jay) was the landlord of our little apartment complex. 

Confused? Welcome to my world. The important thing is this: for one glorious summer I had a brother. 

I was an only child who never especially wanted siblings. I cherished my solitude and was never bored. Daddy Bill and I were pals, and if I needed more companions there were always plenty of kids in the neighborhood. But Jay’s arrival in the summer of ’78 was right on time. 

We lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment. Jay slept on our couch and made the living room his domain. As a tween on the precipice of puberty, I was utterly fascinated by this confident, lanky 17-year-old now living in our midst. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world, the way he immediately made himself at home, blasting Frampton Comes Alive on the stereo, watching Midnight Special on the tube, drinking Sprite, talking on the phone, holding court. I didn’t even try to play it cool. I thought Jay hung the moon, and he knew it. 

Jay Mehaffey | Summer 1978   
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA 

Dad knew it, too. Inviting Jay to move in may have sprung from a desire to help Judy, but it turned out to be the very best thing for all of us. Jay had a stabilizing influence in our home. His arrival prompted Dad to come out of his cave. Order was restored. We kept the pantry stocked, shared household chores, enjoyed regular meal times, and took road trips together.

Jay showed me how to assert my independence. Prior to Jay, I was Daddy Bill’s little sidekick, not so much a separate entity as an extension of his adult persona. I perceived Dad’s needs as my own; his moods became my moods. After Jay, I was my own man. There were three of us now, each with his own desires and responsibilities. We were a family. 

But Jay was more to me than an ersatz older brother. He was like a cosmic life coach, sent by the universe to guide me through the emotional, hormonally turbulent life transition from boyhood to early adolescence. Our alliance felt all the more momentous because we knew it to be temporary. Summer’s end would mean our separation. Jay would stay in Columbus to finish high school, and I would move out west with Daddy Bill. Dad had accepted a new teaching position in Tucson, so that was where I would turn 13, begin junior high, and meet my destiny. 

If Jay felt it was a drag to have a shadow that summer before his senior year, he certainly never showed it. He introduced me to his friends and let me tag along on their outings. He helped me find a job mowing lawns, taught me how to pop a wheelie on my bike, and hipped me to all kinds of music. At night I would make a pallet on the floor between the couch and coffee table, so we could continue talking into the wee hours. I’d stretch out flat, parallel to Jay on the couch above, and imagine that we were real brothers, sharing a room with bunk beds. 

Our late night heart-to-hearts offered a crash course in what I should expect from life over the next few years. We talked about all the things I didn’t feel comfortable discussing with my father: cliques, crushes, flirting, fighting, parties, popularity, petty rivalry, peer pressure, the prom. I asked Jay all about the rituals of dating and how to talk to girls. He answered solemnly in great detail, stressing the importance of things like having plenty of money (chicks are expensive), when to give a girl your letterman jacket (only if you’re serious), and how to unhook a bra clasp (always use both hands). He spoke earnestly, as if he’d been tasked with a sacred mission of passing along his accumulated teen wisdom. I was riveted and hung on his every word. 

Jay and I haven’t really stayed in touch since then, except to exchange Christmas cards once or twice, the way men do. But I sure hope he knows how important he was to me that summer, and how grateful I remain. 

When the moving van showed up I was ready. Packing up was a breeze. After all, I’m the minimalist son of an anti-capitalist. We didn’t have that many possessions to begin with. Plus, we’d already moved several times before, so I knew the routine: put your stuff in boxes; say goodbye to all your friends. 

Moving days are always bittersweet, but this one felt different. Inspired by everything I learned from Jay, I was committed to reinventing myself. I divided my belongings into two piles. One pile comprised only the essential things I’d need in my new life out west: clothes, books, trumpet, bike. We loaded them onto the truck. The other pile was all the “kid stuff” I would leave behind forever: comic books, action figures, toys.

Word got around quickly and the neighborhood kids descended like vultures. I sold everything I could and gave away the rest, pocketing a little over five hundred dollars.

“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asked. “You bet,” I replied, climbing into the cab.

I didn't look back as we headed west. To the future.

Next:
SNAPSHOTS | PART 2 — FIRST CONTACT

UP IN THE AIR | PART 1 — JOURNEY PROUD 


“There’s no sensation to compare with this 
suspended animation, a state of bliss. 
Can
t keep my mind from the circling sky. 
Tongue tied and twisted, just

an earthbound misfit, I.”
—Pink Floyd

 

I’m not sure when or why I first became fascinated with flying, but I suspect it has something to do with my father. 

Daddy Bill was always looking skyward, peering jealously through his binoculars at the raptors kettling overhead. Like me, he could fly in his dreams, and as a boy he imagined doing it for real. Young Billy wanted so badly to be a bird. According to family legend, he even broke his leg in an attempt to launch himself into the clouds, after the ghost of my great grandmother appeared to him in a dream and encouraged him to leap off the roof of the barn. 

I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, nor the boy from the barn. Unlike my Dad, I never watched birds, joined the air force, or injured myself trying to defeat the laws of physics, but I definitely inherited his vivid imagination and impulse to fly. 

Nearly all my childhood heroes were flyboys of one sort or another. There was Shin Hayata of Science Patrol, who transformed into the giant alien Ultraman (cue theme: “here he comes from the sky!”), and of course the space cop Green Lantern, whose alter ego Hal Jordan was a fearless test pilot. Luke had an X-wing and Kirk had a starship. James Bond had his jet pack and James Brown had his private jet. Neil Armstrong’s moon-landing poster adorned my bedroom wall, and Ol’ Blue Eyes filled our home with songs extolling the romance of air travel. 

 

Nearly all my childhood heroes were flyboys of one sort or another.

 

Such notions were not uncommon for children of the 1960s and 70s. We were raised by television to defy gravity. 

Just as the previous generation had grown up playing Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians, my friends and I played Star Trek and SuperFriends. It never would have occurred to me to pretend I was the Lone Ranger. I was more likely to choose Billy Batson (a boy who, by saying a magic word, can transform into a flying strongman), Steve Austin (a NASA astronaut/USAF pilot who survives a crash to become a powerful cyborg that can leap 30 feet into the air in slow motion), or Evel Knievel (a real life daredevil who dressed like a superhero and refused to remain earthbound). 

Could Evel Knievel fly? He sure as hell tried. My friends and I never missed Knievel’s televised stunts, including his disastrous attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in a rocket-propelled skycycle.

Some of my pals were even more obsessed with flight than I. Lance was a space nerd who knew everything about the Apollo missions and could even recite the names of all the astronauts. Jeffrey could tell you what kind of jet was flying overhead just by looking at its silhouette. And all of us were jealous of Payton, whose uncle was a helicopter pilot. 

Commercial airline flights were still considered a luxury in those days, something that only executives, celebrities and rich people could easily afford. This was the tail end of the Golden Age of Air Travel, when seats reclined all the way back and there was still plenty of legroom for everyone. 

 

The Golden Age of Air Travel

 

Passengers wore their finest clothes, dined on steak and lobster, and drank endless complimentary cocktails. Beautiful air hostesses, glamorous as models, paraded the wide aisles with magazines and trays of hors d'oeuvres, pausing to lean and light the cigarettes of ladies and gentlemen alike. But the real stars of this hedonistic theater-in-the-sky were the dashing and charismatic pilots. Pilots commanded respect.

 

Pilots commanded respect

 

If you’ve ever seen the movie Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo DiCaprio, you know what I’m talking about. Meeting an airline pilot in uniform was like shaking the hand of a famous military hero or movie star. I only flew a couple of times with my family back then, when I was still too young to appreciate or even fully recall the experience. But I do have one very clear memory: a friendly, square-jawed Delta Airlines pilot winking at me as he leaned over to hand me my very first souvenir kiddie wing pin. 

The first flight I remember well was not on a commercial airline, however, but a tiny Cessna seaplane that Daddy Bill chartered from Key West, Florida to the Dry Tortugas. The year was 1974 and I was nine years old. 

 

a Cessna seaplane in the Florida Keys

 

Our pilot, shouting over the engine’s deafening roar, pointed out sharks, stingrays, and sunken treasure ships in the ocean below. My Dad only half listened, preferring to focus on the sky and his quest of adding some rare pelagic birds to his North American life list. I just giggled the entire time, giddy with delight as we soared through the air. When our pontoons finally touched down upon the surface of the water at Fort Jefferson, I squealed “Again! Let’s go up again!” 

I would happily go up again and again over the next few years. By the early 1980s, commercial air travel had become significantly more affordable. Small budget airlines were just starting up, and the larger companies lowered their prices in order to compete. Like many middle class families, we chose to fly rather than spend most of our vacation driving to and from our destination. 

On the plane, people were still allowed to smoke, but it was becoming less fashionable to do so, and only first class passengers enjoyed the few remaining perks. They had their own dedicated flight attendant serving cocktails and canapés. Meanwhile, back in the cheap seats, where my family and I were squeezed together, “airplane food” meant stale, flavorless cafeteria fare on a plastic tray. 

The Golden Age of Travel was over, but I didn’t care. I loved flying and looked forward to every opportunity.

Some of the grown-ups teased me for being “journey proud,” a southern expression for folks who get so excited that they can't sleep the night before a trip. 

What can I say?

I’m still that way today. 

Next: 
UP IN THE AIR 
PART 2 — SEASONED TRAVELER

HIGH ANXIETY 

It’s not just about me and my dream
of doing nothing. It
s about all of us!

—Peter Gibbons

Now is the age of anxiety.
—W.H. Auden 

Don’t make me dance.
—Lilia 

 

I’m a big fan of CBS Sunday Morning. The show’s bright, optimistic tone, cheerful sun iconography, and calming nature videos are usually a welcome comfort. But this week’s episode made me anxious. 

The entire show was dedicated to the encouragement of widespread tourism, as if we’re already living in a post-pandemic world. From host Jane Pauley to travel guru Rick Steves to the lemon merchants of the Amalfi Coast, everyone seemed to be singing from the same reckless hymn sheet. There was even a segment promoting revenge tourism, the idea that pleasure travel is even more fun now, as a giant middle finger to COVID-19. 

Are you kidding me? Aren’t we being a little premature? 

 

CBS Sunday Morning is usually a welcome comfort, but this episode made me anxious

 

I dig that people are restless, and I understand we’re all feeling more hopeful as vaccinations increase. But the virus is still surging in many areas, and some of those new variants are scary. There are now 141 million cases worldwide, including 32 million in the USA of which 566,000 have proven fatal. This thing ain’t over yet. Is now really the time to cheerlead for non-essential travel? 

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a travel enthusiast all my life. In the 1970s of my youth, Daddy Bill and I road-tripped everywhere, from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Florida Keys to the Sonoran Desert. In the decades since I’ve had the privilege of making new friends in Azerbaijan, Barbados, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, England, France, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Thailand and nearly every one of these United States. #AlphabeticalHumbleBrag

I'm profoundly grateful for my travels, and I wholeheartedly agree with the late Anthony Bourdain (a personal hero), who contended that travel, if we do it right, is our best defense against racism and xenophobia. You dig? 

 

xenophile hero Anthony Bourdain and friends showing us how its done 

 

Cultural tourism literally brings us together! That’s one of the reasons I chose this career. Travel is the lifeblood of our business. You don’t meet many xenophobic musicians. 

But this year? I’m not feeling it. 

Don’t be surprised. After all, I’m the Proletarian Contrarian. My entire life has been an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Swimming against the current? It’s kinda my thing. 

While most of my friends were leading responsible lives, raising families and being good citizens, I was traveling 57,000 miles a year to honk my horn among the great unwashed. It stands to reason that now, when I feel afraid to venture beyond my front gate, the rest of the world can’t wait to get on a plane!

As one sidelined traveler told the Wall Street Journal, “The moment can’t come soon enough to actually hit the road again. We’re all kind of clamoring for the celebration party.” 

Not all of us, pal. As usual, I’m out of step with the zeitgeist.

I just got my second shot of Dolly Vax.

I’m very grateful, but also anxious. 

 

grateful, but also anxious

 

Some of my uneasiness is just a lingering reaction to the white coat effect. I always experience irrational fear and agitation around doctor stuff. The stakes are higher this time (i.e., deadly global plague), which only exacerbates matters. 

I’m also anxious about the uncertainty of it all. Maybe I’ll have a bad reaction to the vaccine. Maybe the vax won’t work, and I’ll still catch covid. Or maybe it will work, and the next bug is the one that gets me. See what I mean? 

And it’s not only the pandemic that makes me nervous. I’m justifiably worried over the state of the world. So much vitriol and violence in the news. Racial unrest. Joblessness, homelessness, food insecurity. Explosions. Invasions. Protests. Riots. Wildfires. Floods. Hurricanes. Police brutality. Political corruption. Voter suppression. Cancel culture. Rampant stupidity. Nazis! Four full years of enduring daily presidential messages of hate. (Aren’t we all still suffering PTSD from that SOB?)

Then there’s the hypervigilance. I don’t mind telling you, I’m straight up terrified of catching a stray bullet. It seems every week there’s another random, senseless mass shooting in this country. I’m always checking over my shoulder and looking for the exits. How does anyone feel safe in a crowd anymore? 

Some of this anxiety is grief-related. I’m still mourning the loss of my father. I feel untethered, like an orphan. Facing a world without him in it fills me with dread. 

 

facing a world without him in it fills me with dread 

 

So I’m delighted the vaccines are here, and grateful to have received mine. And I’m glad that people are feeling more hopeful, but not if it means we all have to go rushing back. 

Because if I’m being truly honest here, the main reason I feel anxious is this: I’m simply not ready. 

I’m just not ready to go back. Not yet. I’m not ready for the ambitious workaday world with all its expectations and obligations. I’m not ready to leave the safety and security of my Hunker Bunker. And I’m definitely not ready to resume that relentless hustle and grind. 

I’m here for the music, not the dance.

RECURRING DREAMS 

Since childhood I’ve been haunted by three recurring dreams: the clown, the flying dream, and the shadow man.

THE CLOWN

I know, I know.  

Coulrophobia is is such a cliché.  

But this one’s a bonafide nightmare.  

I’m a small child in a white void, lying on my back, pretending to be asleep. With my forearm draped across semi-closed eyes, I sneak a peek at the only other occupant of this ghostly expanse: a faux-jovial, bald circus clown with a floppy ruffled collar and a cone-shaped hat.

The colors of his clothes and make-up are washed out and faded, almost grey. He reminds me a little of Krinkles, the creepy Post Cereal huckster from Saturday morning cartoons. 

Krinkles, the creepy Post Cereal clown

The clown stands nearby but faces away, cradling a bright blue, plush velvet sofa pillow in his arms. He seems oblivious to my presence as he pantomimes what appears to be a fake television commercial. Silently mouthing his sales pitch into an imaginary camera, the clown gesticulates dramatically toward the pillow as if it’s a wonderful new product.

Suddenly the clown stops smiling and becomes very still. His face loses all expression as he slowly turns in my direction. I sense that he now knows I’m here, awake and watching.

We lock eyes. A terrifying chill runs up my spine. At that precise moment, I awaken, my heart racing. 

I can't rationally explain the terror of this nightmare. What's so scary about seeing and being seen? But to this day, nothing frightens me so much as making eye contact with a clown. 

I endured these nightmares nearly every evening until my teen years when, inexplicably, they ceased. Decades later my mother Lela would mention having taken me, as a toddler, to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, but I have no memory of that experience. I do remember, however, the framed portrait of a grinning clown that she painted in oils and hung on the wall of my bedroom. 

I never much cared for that picture, especially after the nightmares began. 

THE FLYING DREAM

Curiously, my favorite recurring dream -- the flying dream -- centers around the same blue pillow. 

In this one I walk over to the sofa, pick up the pillow and take it outside.

Somehow I understand that this pillow is a talisman, imbued with magical powers.

I clutch the pillow to my chest and begin kicking my legs furiously, like a dog paddling in a pool. Gradually my body begins to levitate a few inches above the ground.

My neighbors watch in amazement. The higher I rise, the easier flying becomes, and the less I need to kick. Eventually I am able to float effortlessly in the sky, still clinging to the precious pillow as I sail above the clouds, over the town and all the tiny buildings and people below.  
 

Why does the same blue pillow appear in both the clown nightmare and the wonderful flying dream?
 

I'm so deliriously happy that I feel my heart will burst from pure joy. I fly for miles, free and fearless, knowing that I’ll remain perfectly safe as long as I don’t let go of the magic pillow. I only awaken when I realize that I'm dreaming.

Although this wondrous nocturnal fantasy began around the same time as the awful clown dream, it returned more frequently and continued far longer, well into my adult years. I’ve flown over the Great Smoky Mountains, the Sonoran Desert and the Golden Gate Bridge. But was I dreaming or astral projecting?  

It’s been a few years since my last night flight, and I miss it.

I swear, if I ever see that pillow again, awake or dreaming, I’m just gonna grab it and give it a go.  

THE SHADOW MAN

I hesitate to call this mysterious figure either dream nor nightmare. He always seem to visit during the hypnagogic twilight state between sleep and wakefulness. 

It’s always the same story: I rouse in the wee hours with the uncanny sense of being watched. I open my eyes and peer around the room into the darkness. 

I'm not alone. There, in the corner, is the Shadow Man, a dark figure in silhouette with no discernible features except for a wide, flat-brimmed hat. He faces me, yet he has no face.  
 

Is the Shadow Man watching me, or watching over me?
 

I’ve seen him many times in my own bedroom, while visiting friends, even in hotels on the road. He follows me in my travels, appearing only at night. He never moves or utters a word. If I speak to him, he doesn’t answer. If I rub my eyes or turn on the light, he vanishes.  

Apparently my experience is not unique. The internet is overflowing with accounts of shadow people sightings all over the world. This is cold comfort for me, however, since it answers none of my questions.

Who is the Shadow Man? Is he real or an hallucination? What does he want? Does he intend harm or protection? Is he watching me, or watching over me? I may never know. 

His most recent visitation was five years ago, when my dog Scout was only a few months old. I awoke to find the puppy shivering at the foot of my bed, staring into the corner, her eyes like saucers. Even before I looked, I knew he was there.

“I’ll be damned,” I thought. “She sees him, too.”

LULLABY 

the smell of the rain 
the sound of the train 
my dog by the fire 
home again
 

As a boy in rural Tennessee, Billy Matheny slept in an attic bedroom, the slanted ceiling only a few inches above his bed. The Matheny house had a tin roof that sang when it rained, and the sound of raindrops would serenade young Billy to sleep. So Billy treasured the rain. And when he grew up, he passed that treasure along to his own son like a beloved family heirloom. 

The rainstorms in Georgia were magnificent.  

At the first thunderclap, Daddy Bill would throw open all the doors and windows of our little apartment, so we could enjoy the breeze and wait for the rain. If I close my eyes, I can still see him, puffing his pipe in that wingback chair, his legs crossed casually, unlaced hushpuppies hanging off the ends of his narrow naked feet.  

Sometimes there would be soft music playing on the turntable -- James Taylor perhaps, or Miles Davis -- but usually we would just sit and listen to the rain as it came down out of the clouds, into the pines, and onto the red clay just outside our open door.  

I remember hearing the peaceful, percussive patter of raindrops on the kudzu, accompanied by the low rumble of distant thunder. The aroma of Daddy Bill’s cherry blend tobacco. The fresh scent of damp earth. A sensory symphony of sounds and smells. 

As the storm grew more intense, Daddy Bill would cheer the crescendo, appreciating nature’s performance.

Then he’d look over at me with twinkly eyes and say, “Welp, it’s really coming down out there, Little Bub. Let’s go for a walk.” 

And just like that we would venture out into the storm, splashing along the sidewalk together. No umbrellas. No slickers or galoshes. Just the two of us, man and boy, in our street clothes, soaking wet and laughing. The neighbors must have thought we were out of our minds.

Dad and I moved from Georgia to Arizona in the summer of 1977, just in time for monsoon season.

The Arizona heat was exactly as advertised -- damn near unbearable -- but those dramatic summer storms were something else. They cleansed the land, revitalized flora and fauna, and replenished our spirits. 

We knew that rain-walking would be a bad idea in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson. The topography is flat, vegetation is sparse and low to the ground, and lightning routinely strikes anything vertical.

No matter. We were thrilled to appreciate the monsoons from the safety of our screened-in patio -- an exhilarating, fully immersive experience.

The rain would pour down all at once in a heavy torrent, punctuated by brilliant flashes of crackling electricity that filled the sky, turning the saguaro cacti into stark silhouettes. The river beds filled up and overflowed their banks, flooding the roadways. Sheets of rainwater pelted our windows relentlessly. Peals of thunder rattled the adobe walls.

It was glorious. 
 

Over the years, no matter where I happened to live or travel, the rain has remained a loyal friend.

At Interlochen I would sit on the dock and watch raindrops dance on the surface of Green Lake. In San Francisco, where I lived for 20 years, it wasn't uncommon for the entire month of January to be wet. Even in Boston’s Back Bay, where winter weather vexed my college years, thunder showers were a rare gift. I would sit at the Trident Bookstore Cafe, writing letters, drinking coffee and daydreaming as stormy skies benevolently baptized the red bricks of Newbury Street. 

Rainy weather has been my welcome companion on the road, throughout the Americas, and around the world. Whether gentle or tumultuous, her arrival always feels like a personal message of support from the universe, assuring me that everything is going to be just fine.

Here in Washington State, where I now live with my girlfriend Sassy and our dog Scout, I have fully embraced my birthright as an avowed pluviophile! We receive about 73 inches of rainfall annually -- nearly twice the national average -- yet folks here seldom carry an umbrella. In the Pacific Northwest, rain is simply a fact of life. 

Now when I go storm-strolling with Scout, the neighbors don’t even bat an eye. They just wave to us as we splash along happily from puddle to puddle.  

Last month, we lost my father to Parkinson’s Disease. I miss him terribly, but I also feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for everything he was and will remain, in memory. Among his many life lessons, Daddy Bill taught me to love the rain.  

Shortly before he died, I received a surprise early birthday gift from Sass: my very own tin Rain Roof, professionally installed, affixed to the awning over my bedroom window.

Such a thoughtful gift. What a tribute! What a solace!

No one knows what the future may bring, but at least for tonight, all will be well.

Tonight the rain will come, and she will sing us a lullaby.

Tomorrow is a new day.

Sassy's Spicy Hoppin' John! 

Sassy's Spicy HOPPIN' JOHN is almost ready!

Here at the Maricopa Cabana, Hoppin' John is one of the ways we celebrate the beginning of a New Year. Traditionally served with cornbread and greens (collard greens, mustard greens, chard, kale or cabbage), the main ingredients in this delicious winter dish are black-eyed peas, rice, chopped onion, country bacon (ham hock or fatback), green peppers and spices. Sassy always adds a little Arizona Gunslinger for an extra kick. Enjoy Hoppin' John on New Year's Day for good luck and prosperity throughout the year.

Be sure to eat your fill: the peas represent coins, the greens are cash, and the cornbread, gold!

FOREVER FREE 

 

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln issued on January 1, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. The document declares that all those held as slaves within any state, or part of a state, in rebellion "shall be then, thenceforward and forever free."

SASSY'S HOPPIN JOHN For New Year's Day 



Prep time: 10 minutes, Cook time: 50 minutes

INGREDIENTS

1/3 pound bacon
1 celery stalk, diced
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 small green pepper, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 pound dried black-eyed peas, about 2 cups
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 heaping teaspoon Cajun seasoning
Salt
2 cups long-grain rice
Scallions or green onions for garnish

METHOD

1 Cut bacon into small pieces and cook it slowly in a medium pot over medium-low heat. Once the bacon is crispy, increase the heat to medium-high and add the celery, onion, and green pepper and sauté until they begin to brown, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic, stir well and cook for another 1-2 minutes.

2 Add the black-eyed peas, bay leaf, thyme and Cajun seasoning and cover with 4 cups of water. Cook for 30 minutes to an hour, or longer if needed, until the peas are tender (not mushy).

3 While the black-eyed peas are cooking, cook the rice separately according to package instructions.

4 When the peas are tender, strain out the remaining cooking water. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Taste the peas for salt and add more if needed. 

Serve the dish either by placing a ladle-full of black-eyed peas over steamed rice, or by mixing the two together in a large bowl. Garnish with chopped green onions. Serve with collard greens, kale, beet or turnip greens.

THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER 



On this day in 1940, one of my favorite authors, Carson McCullers (from Columbus, Georgia) published her first novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

The Heart is often cited as one of the great masterworks of the Southern Gothic genre for its exploration of spiritually isolated outcasts in the American South. McCullers' primary message, however, is a universal one. As expressed by Tennessee Williams, "Carson's major theme is the huge importance and nearly insoluble problems of human love."

The misfits who populate McCullers' novels (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Member of the Wedding and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe) are so compellingly real that I often think about them as if they are actual people I know personally today, rather than fictional characters I became acquainted with over 30 years ago.

If you haven't had the pleasure of reading McCullers, I recommend her wholeheartedly.

DIY MARDI GRAS KING CAKE 



INGREDIENTS
  • 1 can of cinnamon rolls, with icing
  • 3/4 cup of sugar, separated into 3 parts of 1/4 each food coloring
  • plastic baby (available at most party stores)

DIRECTIONS:

  • Separate the cinnamon rolls and roll them out by hand so that they look like hot dogs. Then attached them by pinching the ends together  into one long roll and shape into an oval by closing the ends together with another pinch. Place on a cookie sheet. Cook as directed.
  • While it is cooking, use food coloring to dye sugar. Make one part purple using blue and red, one part green, and one part gold using yellow.
  • When the cake is finished cooking, ice the top with the white icing.  Then sprinkle the different colors of sugars alternating as you go around the oval. Place the baby inside the cake after it cools. Enjoy!!

CORN PONE 



Whooo, I've been craving CORN PONE all day!

For my yankee friends, corn pone is one of the most beloved comfort foods in all of southern cuisine: a thick cornbread that's been cooked over a fire in a cast iron skillet.

There are many ways to enjoy corn pone. Some folks like to bake it in the oven and serve it with a bowl of beans or hearty stew. Others like to mash up warm chunks of the stuff into a cold glass of buttermilk, then devour the entire mixture, dessert-style, with a long spoon.

As for me, I like corn pone best when it's been fried in butter until the edges are as brown and crunchy as hushpuppies.

Readers of Mark Twain (not to mention friends of my Dad) are no doubt already familiar with "corn pone humor," the southern gentleman's ready penchant for pulling your leg, making silly, off-color jokes and telling the tallest and most ridiculous of tales.

As you might have guessed, people can be corn pones, too. Southerners affectionately tease unsophisticated country folks for acting "like a corn pone."

More often than not, the designation is intended not as an insult, but as a term of endearment for the best kind of friends — the ones back home who never put on airs, like you for who you are, and get along easily with just about anybody.