Big thanks to Jennie Friedman for the opportunity to write this article and to Kelly Babcock, for helping make it happen and look so good.
CLICK BELOW to hear this song, “ADHD HypoManic Alcoholic SOB, written by me, Aaron Raitiere, and Colin Raitiere and recorded by Aaron in Nashville December 12th 2012.
I’m posting this again as a kind of celebration of my 14 year sobriety anniversary this month.
Aaron Raitiere is one talented SOB – that’s him on the right with the guitar, listening to me blather on.
Aaron’s on Facebook with a bunch of info on performance dates, and links to his music: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=38421175&fref=ts
I wrote this for Memorial Day last year. I don’t think I can do any better, so here it is again. We miss you, Dad.
It’s last summer and I’m at the bottom of our back yard forested hill in Georgia raking up piles of dead leaves, pulled weeds, tree-killer vines, and trimmed branches and piling them into the wheel barrow. Full load, so now back up the hill to add to the mountain of dead vegetation at the front curb. Hope to god I pulled the gate closed after the last load or Danny Boy, our standard poodle will have escaped and the rest of the day will be spent running him down through our neighbors’ yards. According to Danny boy, obedience training doesn’t apply if you break out into the front yard – it’s all Easy Rider and wind flying through your floppy ears.
Halfway up the hill, I pause beside the only large tree that I have to cut down this week. It lost a major branch in a storm a couple of years ago and is down doing the slow old tree lean – looking for support from its younger brothers, who want nothing to do with him and his old greedy sun-grabbing leaves. I’ll grab the chain saw on the way back down and get it over with. When I grab the handles of the wheel barrow and start back up the hill, my heart starts racing and I’m short of breath. I set the wheelbarrow down again. There’s no cardiac issue here – it’s just another panic attack. This isn’t scary – it’s just damn irritating.
And I had these handled. Hardly had any during the terrifying months leading up to and after my sister-in law’s death last fall. Maybe it was because people needed me and I was distracted from my favorite subject – me. But now this spring, they come in unpredictable flurries. There’s no rhyme or reason to the onset; you could be peacefully reading a fulfilling book, or watching a classic movie on TV with growing irritation as it’s chopped into non-sensical scenes by erectile dysfunction and reverse-mortgage commercials. The solution is the same – deep breathing, conscious calm. Or last resort – Xanax; not a good choice if you’ve got pressing lumberjacking plans. Which are plans I know I could just not do. I could reschedule, take a break – but I really can’t – I have to accomplish this today. I have to push through my own bullshit and accomplish something worthwhile and visible. And Danny Boy might be out the front gate I left open, he could be hit by a car all because I’m wasting time with my self-obsession.
So I dash up the hill pushing the wheelbarrow, ready to face whatever disaster I’ve caused. But the gate is safely closed and latched. Danny Boy raises his head from the warm sunlit bricks on the other side of the patio – checking if it’s anything important. It’s just crazy Frank panting and wild-eyed, so he sighs and lays his head back down. I unlatch, go out with the wheelbarrow, push the gate closed with my foot, and roll toward the curb with the branches, leaves, and weeds.
My wife, Margaret and my therapist, Dr. Ellis say the panic attack flurry is part of the grief I’m feeling since the death of my father a couple of months ago. I guess that makes sense, but though I love him still and spent my life with his overpowering intellect, courage, and strength as a frame to model and build what I could out of my life, I’d recently seen a whole other side of him. And I felt myself pulling away even as I helped care for him. His constant drinking clashed with my sobriety. His increasing dementia scared me witless. My ADHD leaves me scattered and memory-challenged continually and trying to help my mother and my dad navigate his own mental and emotional wilderness made me feel like I was stumbling into a dark passage of confusion, blame, and regret that was destined be mine as well, dragging my own wife and children down with me.
Doesn’t sound like grief to me. At both of his funerals – the one at the local church and the military service at Arlington National Cemetery, I felt my grief was for my mother and brother’s loss, not mine.
I realize I’m standing, staring vacantly at the street, like Boo Radley. I shake my head clear. All this obsessing about my dad isn’t helping me get the wheel barrow unloaded. Focus on getting the load on top of the pile, so you have room for the next. Pull up, and good. “Nice job son,” my dad says. I can feel that big hand pat my shoulder when I was twelve after stacking two cords of firewood behind the garage.
As I roll the empty wheelbarrow back toward the gate I think that ADHD isn’t like dementia. It’s not like my dad where your focus arbitrarily shifts and you completely lose track of time and place. He’d have to constantly regroup popping from the present to an ocean liner docked in France after World War II to a train taking an eight-year-old him home to Nebraska to see his grandmother.
Pushing the wheelbarrow onto the driveway I stop to look back across the front lawn at the mountain of yard debris at the curb to check it hasn’t fallen over into the street, and I think that the problem with ADHD isn’t necessarily being distracted away from your focus.
The ADHD problem is keeping everything that’s happening with whatever your focused on, in the moment in front of you – while all the insights sparked by this whatever about what has happened before, and then might happen in the future and what all that might mean to others or you (usually my primary concern.) Keeping that focus while all of these possibilities and emotional traps are going on in multiple intersecting layers – focus on top of focus concentrating on connecting threads so intently that you forget everything that in this process became trivial like rent or flight times or that last year, Memorial Day, I was with my Dad in Delaware, and we took a picture for his few surviving WWII Ranger war buddies.
Oh, great. Now I’m Boo Radley in the front yard staring at the street crying.
Wait, what’s that five-foot long thick branch doing in the middle of the lawn? I didn’t drop anything. I’m crazy as a bed bug but I keep my landscaping neat, damn it. Besides, well, branches don’t move. That’s when I notice the birds screeching and swooping down, and the black head of the big snake rears up, flicking its tongue in my direction.
I stand still, not sure what to do. My first thought is to ask Dad.
Originally published in Frank’s ADHD Dad blog at www.additudemag.com
A year ago today, in the early hours of March 4, 2013, my dad died at home, at peace, with his life-long sweetheart, my mom Bernadeane at his side. He was a strong, funny, intimidatingly intelligent, self-deprecating, demanding, critical, and profoundly loving man. For my brother, Robert and me, Dad was more than an influence; he was a primal force. We studied, imitated, and rebelled against him, knowing that as certain as sunrise he would always be there to keep us grounded, honest, and safe. That he was in fact mortal, has come as a shock we have had trouble accepting.
He was also a prominent physiologist, and a WWII Army Ranger medic who climbed the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day. His service in that war he looked back on with horror, humility, and pride. He spoke to that and more in the last address he gave as President of the World War II Rangers Battalions Association, which I’ve reprinted here.
RANGER MEMORIAL ADDRESS
by Frank E. South, President WWII RBA
Fort Benning, Georgia October, 2009
We are Army Rangers. Our war was World War II.
Like it does in all warriors, war stays alive within us.
You would think it would be the sharp crack of rifle fire and the cutting clatter of machine guns echoing down through time. Or the ground-shuddering thud of shells marching patiently forward, finding their range. Or the fast-closing whine of aircraft dropping from the sky.
All of that was there.
But it is the voices of our fellow Rangers, alive or dead, that live on in us through the years. For in truth, like all warriors, we fought for each other. We fought to keep each other alive.
And now, standing at this memorial, I realize that we have fulfilled that duty. And we will continue to do so. We can do no less.
We are Army Rangers.
Rangers Lead The Way.
Dad was buried last spring at at Arlington National Cemetery, with, family, friends, past and present-day Rangers and honor guard in attendance.
Sung was going to die. He was sure of it. September can be murderously hot in Waikiki, especially if you’re locked inside a parked black Explorer baking in the afternoon sun. Each fading breath burned his throat. But worse, his vintage silk aloha shirt and the crotch of his new cream linen slacks were soaked with sweat.
Sung accepted death, but when he went, he intended to go when he wanted and in style. Maybe seventy-five or eighty, on a first-class cruise, high on oxy, with some big tan white guy’s muscles wrapped around him. Not approaching the peak of his career, suffocating in the back of a detective’s car in ruined sweat-stained resort wear like some stupid drunk tourist.
His hands were cuffed behind him and anchored to a steel ring in the crack of the back seat. How long had he been in here? Sung didn’t know. But he knew that this is how babies die in Florida.
Lady in Orlando locks Junior in the car, runs in to get her dry cleaning, starts in with some other fat white woman – yapping, smoking, and crunching potato chips. By the time she gets back to her car – stick a fork in Junior, he’s done. Sung considers his size. He’s small, even for a southern Chinese. Junior-size. He blinks away sweat dripping from his forehead. Forget the cruise. Forget the haole boyfriend. Forget all of it. Death has him now.
The Orlando lady runs out and sees him. She screams and tries to open the car door, but she burns her hand. She gets a baseball bat. She smashes the window and reaches in. Now she’s got her burned fingers on his shirt. She pulls. No no no. He has style. He is gay. He is Chinese. He will not live with mayonnaise and stretch pants. Bodies slam into the side of the car.
“I am not Junior, lady!” Sung screamed. “I am not dead! I am Chinese!” He jerked his head back and forth, gasping, his eyes slamming into focus on an irritated Japanese man’s face telling him to shut up for Christ’s sake.
The Japanese man was Paul Tanaka, a Honolulu Police detective pulling him forward by the front of his wet shirt to un-cuff him.
“What’s the matter Sung? Victims come back to haunt you?”
“I am the victim! I almost died in here. I could sue. Take your badge.”
Tanaka pulled him out of the back seat. “Fine by me,” said Tanaka, “I’ve been looking for a way out for years.” Next to Tanaka was a woman Sung recognized as Crystal, the hottie hard-ass owner of a local strip club. She laughed.
“Bullshit, Paul. No one could get you off the job.”
Tanaka slammed the car doors shut. “Doesn’t keep your sister from trying,” he said.
“She’s your wife. She worries about you…”
“Now who’s bullshitting?”
Crystal pulled Tanaka away from the car. Sung couldn’t hear what they were saying, so he took stock. The detective had relocated him to the front seat, and re-cuffed him. But not anchored to a cuff ring, an upgrade Sung appreciated. Tanaka had also deposited two bloodied greasy tourist lumps in the back, cuffed and anchored. The lumps slumped against each other, groaning and breathing in and out like the big wet seal lions Sung had seen on a PBS environmental special. Sung thought these two probably never watched PBS. Some criminals worked to better themselves culturally, some didn’t.
Tanaka got behind the wheel and looked across Sung to Crystal on the street. “I’ll call you later,” he said.
Crystal smiled at Tanaka. “Thanks,” she said. Tanaka looked at her a beat, returned her smile, nodded and then pulled away. Sung filed those smiles away with the bits of their conversation. You never know. Tanaka shot a look at Sung. “You’re up here just ‘til I take out the garbage. Don’t get cute or I’ll knock those shiny new capped teeth down your throat. Got it?”
“Got it, boss.” Sung looked down at his Ferragamo loafers, pulled one foot out admiring the pedicure he got this morning. Those Koreans sure know their feet. “I won’t sue,” he said.
“Good. Sit there and mind your business.”
That was cool by Sung; he sure didn’t want anything to happen to his new teeth. They were key to his smooth-money look. No one suspects their wallet’s been lifted by a man who looks richer than they are. He was already the top dip in the islands. Now he was on the brink of taking his class-act skills worldwide.
Then Tanaka showed up out of nowhere and caught him with his hand in that German frau’s purse. What was a cop doing at the Waikiki Surf seafood buffet anyway? Sung had two previous convictions. This arrest could seriously screw up his career. But he would wait, see how Tanaka played it. Chinese were infinitely more patient than the Japanese, a fact that every Chinese knew, but the Japanese like this detective, were too busy being busy to notice.
Tanaka turned by the zoo and then took another left on Kuhio. Frankie, the smaller of the two busted-up tourists in the back seat, leaned forward. Frankie had a split lip and his face was bruised and starting to swell. But he managed to approximate the dignified, friendly tone he used when he got in trouble back in Philly.
“Detective, my Cousin Anthony’s really sorry he grabbed that girl. I was hoping maybe there was a way, you know, we could work things out.”
Tanaka swerved around a tour bus and kept going down Kuhio. Frankie pressed.
“No question, Anthony and I got a little out of hand in the strip club. But then again, the bartender and that bouncer chick lost their shit too. But forget them. You got pulled into the middle, and the way I see it, that’s not fair. So Anthony and I want to put things right. And fortunately we have the means to do that, to reimburse you for all your trouble. So, think about it, it’s just a thought, but understand, I’m talking about substantial means here, Detective.”
Anthony leaned his head back against the seat, trying to stop it spinning right off his neck. Anthony didn’t care if the Jap cop bit on Frankie’s dip-shit routine or not. He didn’t care if they got thrown in the can. He didn’t care about his cracked jaw, broken molars, bruised gut, cracked ribs or his eyes swollen into slits. The only thing that mattered to Anthony was that back at the club he went out like a man. It hadn’t looked good right up to the last play in the last half-second, but that’s the moment when champions are born.
Only because Anthony was distracted by the stripper, that bouncer-bitch Crystal had slipped Anthony into some pressure-point shit ju-jitsu hold that put his whole right side into a paralyzing fire, and two seconds later she was frog-marching him toward the exit, with Frankie skeezing along beside her doing his kiss-ass apologizing for Anthony, basically calling him a retard. When they cleared the bar and were just that half-second to the door, an epiphany hit Anthony on the head like a twenty pound sack of flour dropping from a stack in the back the of his Uncle’s bakery where he was wasting his life waiting for a chance to do collections.
Suddenly he could see it now in Super Bowl slo-mo: It was Frankie’s idea to come to this strip joint. It was Frankie feeding him drinks and goading him up on to that stripper’s runway. It was Frankie who was going to tell Uncle Vito and the boys in Philly all about how Anthony got handled by this cooze. If Anthony let himself be bitch-slapped and led out the front door like this, his life was over.
Anthony now knew he had absolutely zero to lose. That cold brand of insight can free one’s mind up to a whole range of options. Anthony went with the psycho option, and nearly getting his arm ripped out of its socket in the process, threw himself to the floor aping a violent epileptic fit. Then, before anybody could spot the fake, jumped up raving and slammed into that six-foot dyke bouncer, running her backward fully intending to snap her back in half against the bar.
Mark Homea had bartended in the club since forever and had seen Crystal handle any situation that came her way with a seamless smooth professionalism that he envied. There had been a rare time or two when due to sheer numbers, she might need a hand. But he had never seen any situation anywhere get so bad so quick as the one that Crystal was in the middle of with these two goombas. He knew the drill though, so as he vaulted over the bar with the taped up aluminum softball bat, he hit the speed dial on his cell.
Anthony didn’t manage to hurt the jujitsu chick much, but shit, he went down fighting. They had to bring the fucking bat. He laughed, thinking about it. Laughing wasn’t good for his busted up gut.
Tanaka turned into the parking garage of The Beachcomber. Frankie was pumped. This was their hotel. He had gotten to the cop. Frankie was figuring how far to lowball the Jap when Anthony started making wheezing sounds, then gurgling sounds, and then heaved beer and spicy Buffalo wings with blue cheese dressing into the foot well. This was going to cost Frankie a fucking fortune.
Sung watched Tanaka turn the a/c up high, lower the windows, take a parking ticket from the machine and cruise up the ramp like nobody else was in the car at all. Sung was impressed. It’s hard to stay focused when people are puking in your car and trying to bribe you at the same time. Tanaka kept going up past empty parking spots, the car’s tires squealing on the tight turns, until they broke through to the sunlight banging off the concrete of the deserted roof lot. He parked the car at the edge, seven stories up.
Tanaka was tired of people like this. Why fly six thousand miles to get into a bar fight? Why didn’t they stay home and terrorize their own strippers? He shook his head. He’d been on edge since he rolled out of bed this morning, probably because it wasn’t his bed. His wife was flying home tomorrow. How could he tell her he was in love with her sister? He would have to end it with Crystal. Things were not in balance. Balance was important to him. When Tanaka was ten, his father sat him down and unwound a roll of old white cloth. Inside was a polished hardwood stick about four feet long. There were old nicks and scratches under the polish.
“This once belonged to your grandfather, a policeman in Tokyo. It was his jo. It was his weapon, and it was him.” The jo looked alive. Tanaka stared.
“Go ahead,” his father said, “Pick it up.”
He did. It felt warm. Familiar. His father stood in front of him, his arms crossed. “Your grandfather was proud of being a policeman – of defending the law; more proud of that than of anything else in his life. Justice was his passion. No matter who opposed him, he would not bend. Power, connections, wealth meant nothing to him. So, they killed him.”
Tanaka moved the jo in a small arc. It filled his eyes. “Grandfather was a hero?”
“He was rigid, like that stick. The family had to leave Japan in fear for their lives. He was no hero. He was hard and selfish. He knew no balance.” Tanaka’s father spoke more of the folly of passion and the virtues of compromise, conciliation, concession. And always, balance. Tanaka would hear this hundreds of times through the years, would come to accept it, and then pursue it.
But at ten he didn’t hear much of what his father said. Tanaka was captured by the polished scars of the jo, by the spirit of his grandfather. The passion for justice pounded in his blood, obliterating reason.
Frankie leaned forward. “Detective? You alright?”
Tanaka glanced at Sung. Sung looked back. “Your play, Boss. I wasn’t even here,” he said.
Tanaka sighed. Everybody thinks they’re in a cop show. “Stay put,” he said to Sung. Then Tanaka got out of the car, opened the back doors and took the cuffs off the two tourists from Philadelphia. “Get out of the car,” he said.
The skinny one scrambled out first, and started talking money. Big cash for this. Huge. Uncle Vito can wire it straight to any account he wants. No one the wiser. The heavy guy stumbled out trailing vomit on his shoes.
“Clean the puke out of my car,” Tanaka said. They didn’t want to do that, but Tanaka convinced them to try. They ended up using Frankie’s Hugo Boss sport coat for the job. Then Tanaka closed the car door and handed them back their wallets and hotel key cards. “This is simple, fellas. I’m not reporting the assault, or the attempted bribery. You’re getting a pass on this. One time. My friend doesn’t need reports of trouble with her club’s address on it. It’s bad for the liquor license. Bad for business. You’re businessmen; you can understand this, right?”
They nodded. They were businessmen covered with vomit and beaten to a pulp, but they understood.
“This is one time only. You show your face near that club, or cause any kind of trouble anywhere in Waikiki, I’ll come down on you island style. You hear me?”
Before they could start nodding, Sung leaned out the car window. “That means chopping your ass up with a machete and burying you in a cane field in the middle of the night. I’ve seen him do it, too. Him and his cop buddies. They like it.” The Philly boys ran for the parking elevator and didn’t look back.
Tanaka turned to Sung. “What was that?”
Sung shrugged. “I was assisting you, spicing up your presentation. People respond to specifics.”
Tanaka opened the front passenger door, pulled him out, and Sung took his shot. Sung said he had a reporter friend at Channel 9, a Chinese girl. If he told her a story about a HPD Detective having an affair with a strip club owner, and then letting straight white guys go while locking up the poor gay Chinese man – she would jump on it.
Tanaka closed his eyes and turned his face up to the afternoon sun. It struck him that his father’s reverence of balance was based in fear. Fear of being definite. Fear of revealing what you are, even to yourself.
Tanaka was silent looking up at the sky. It made Sung nervous, so he laid it out quick. If Tanaka let him walk like the white boys – no story. They’re even. Otherwise, Channel 9 blasts it all over. Tanaka stepped toward him. Sung flinched. Tanaka didn’t notice. He stowed Sung in the back seat and locked the cuffs through the ring. Then Tanaka got behind the wheel and looked at Sung in the rear view mirror. “Do what you want, Sung,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to do.”
Tanaka started the car and headed for the station. He’d do the paperwork on this thief and sign out. Then he’d take Crystal to dinner.
© Frank South 2006, 2014
“Since I Lost My Baby”
by Frank South
“I’m going to get another one of these blue drinks. What are they called again?”
She stood up and brushed some sand from the back of her calves. I looked up. The late afternoon sun was behind her new hat. I couldn’t see her face. “Blue Hawaii,” I said.
She knew that. She picked up her straw bag. It had the resort’s logo painted on it, surrounded by palm trees, leis, and a hula dancer, all backed by an orange sunset. “Waikiki Surf” was written underneath in blue like it was supposed to be the ocean.
“You want one?”
She knew I didn’t. “I’ll stick with water.”
“Fine, Mack. But you’re having cocktails at dinner-– minimum two. And then you’re taking me to a club. We’re going to dance ‘til dawn.” Vacation or not, she was drinking too much. But she didn’t care what I thought. Especially about that. Her perfect legs moved past me on the beach towel. “I’m going to loosen you up if it kills me,” she said.
I turned and watched her walk away. A woman in her forties who looked at least ten years younger. She was wearing the leopard print bikini I liked. It had a skirt bottom that moved nicely as her hips rocked. Twenty-five years of marriage. Though not, by most people’s standards, a great one. I didn’t talk much. Which upset her. I liked things the same. I had a desk at work. I had a desk at home. Three gray pin-striped suits. Oxford shirts. Blue ties. Dockers and polo shirts for the weekend.
Sherrie was a walking Fourth of July. She talked to everyone. Which upset me. She happily swam in chaos, her arms thrown over the shoulders of new friends. Fads, laughter, opinions, gossip, and exuberant bad taste popped out of her like multi-colored confetti. But still. Watching her walk, seeing her live with such reckless heat-– it took my breath away. Three guys in their thirties, sitting at a table by the pool with beers and new aloha shirts, noticed her too. They traded glances with each other, eyebrows working.
She looked back, feeling my eyes. She smiled, her eyes over the top of her sunglasses. She winked at me, turned, and walked around the corner of the bar. I turned back to my book. Stopped. If she was getting another drink, why did she walk past the bar? I shrugged it off. With Sherrie, it could be a million things. When she wasn’t back in an hour, I went looking for her. Then hotel security got into it. Then the Honolulu Police Department.
They found her that night lying on the grass near the pool at the Armed Services Resort about half a mile down the beach. The police said there was no sign of foul play. No witnesses saw her. No reason for Sherrie to be there. No reason for Sherrie to be dead. But she was. The grief was crushing. The pain and helpless fury were beyond endurance. But I did endure. I even indulged a flicker of sick pride at my ability to keep my emotions harnessed and handle things.
My son, his wife, and our daughter came. At first they were stunned I wasn’t taking Sherrie back to be buried in Chicago. Then they were angry. During the first night’s dinner, my children, Arthur and Hailey (“Hotel” was Sherrie’s teenage bible), kept throwing their napkins down and their arms up in exasperation. My son’s wife, Macon, knocked over her martini– vodka, and three olives on a little spear bouncing off my pinstripes– and told me I was being stupidly, boringly, horribly selfish.
I, however, was adamant. We spread Sherrie’s ashes in the ocean from a large outrigger canoe supplied by the hotel. It was something I thought Sherrie would have liked. Since her death, I noticed I had begun to think along those lines more often. An extreme example of “too little, too late” maybe–- but as she often said–- screw guilt. Over my strenuous objections, Arthur insisted on bringing an Episcopal priest with us in the canoe. Sherrie didn’t like ministers or church at all. She said she got along great with God and didn’t need other people’s stupid outfits and opinions getting in the way. But, I gave them that one.
A quirky wind came up when we were out on the water and Sherrie’s ashes blew back over all of us. The priest had an allergic reaction and fell into a gasping coughing fit, and dropped his prayer book overboard. With the Episcopalian turning blue, we had to head back to shore early. Kimo, the Hawaiian waterman piloting the canoe said very little during our burial outing. But he was smiling as he paddled us back.
Hailey, who during their last fight, called her mother “a soul-killing horror-show” and hadn’t been on speaking terms with her before the trip, cried, chain-smoked, and threw-up the entire day. I put them back on their respective airplanes. I told them I’d be home soon. During the first weeks, I tried, but I couldn’t even get myself to leave the resort. Finally, I packed, checked out of The Waikiki Surf, and got a cab to the airport. I got my suitcase scanned, checked it, watched it roll away on the conveyor, and headed for my plane back to Chicago.
Everything was fine until the agent at the gate reached for my ticket. The air around me instantly thickened– as if all the molecules rushed together, sucked into to an impossibly dense invisible mass. I tried to step forward and the air slammed against me even tighter and my ears filled with the roar of wind and crashing waves. Then the mass was alive, and like some huge, furious animal, it bulled me back from the gate. A high-strung little girl let out a piercing scream as I fell back into her and her mother. I must have screamed myself. Water and wind roared in my head– the air was pushing me around. Things were definitely out of control. I was terrified. I ran.
This caused some problems at the airport and a lengthy visit with the FBI. And although they confiscated my pinstripe suits and the rest of my belongings in my checked suitcase, they were eventually convinced that I wasn’t a terrorist. To them, it seemed I was just a temporarily unbalanced, middle-aged guy crushed and crumpled around the hard dark fact of his dead wife. And I was. But there was something else. Something that I began to realize right before the three airport security guys and the sky marshal tackled me on in front of the Wiki-Wiki bus.
“A brain aneurism. Gotta be a very hard thing to accept-– coming out of nowhere like that.” Detective Tanaka picked up the file on his desk. He clicked his ballpoint pen. Click click click. “But hey, you’ve been holding up okay until recently, yeah? You gotta live with it. Like you said the night we found her—- ‘It’s a tough thing but there it is.’”
I nodded. “Yes. There it is”
Tanaka seemed irritated. But I didn’t know what to say. The airport incident had been two days ago. Things were changing.
“But we still haven’t been able find anyone that saw Sherrie from the time she left you at the beach and when she was found. We found the gentlemen at the bar you mentioned and they remembered her. And then nothing. Three hours nowhere then dead a half mile down the beach on military property. A beautiful woman like that.” Tanaka stepped around the desk and leaned back on it with his arms crossed.
“It’s a tough thing, Mr. Cross, but there it is.”
He examined me like he had found something odd and suspicious in the corner. “See, what happened to Sherrie had a little air of mystery to it, but with the aneurism, and people’s memories after sun and drink, my feeling was that we had a kinda quirky, but natural, death. But then you started getting lolo on us.” He caught my confused look. “You acted kinda crazy. You cremated your wife and stayed on to finish your vacation. Even extended it. You sat on the beach. You ate at the buffet.”
I nodded. I told Sherrie every time it came up that if I wanted to pick over left-over food that other people had breathed on, I’d really save a buck and go out back and dig in the dumpster. Too little, too late-– I went. She was right; the dill shrimp were fantastic.
“You didn’t care where your wife was or who maybe she was with in her last hours. Then you checked out and back in two hours later three days in a row. Then you finally get as far as the airport, where your guilty conscience grabs you by the short ones and you blow a gasket.”
He watched for a reaction. Like we were playing cards. “You see what I’m talking about, Mr. Cross?”
I was looking at his shirt. I liked that the detectives in Hawaii wore aloha shirts instead of suits. His was a pattern of outrigger canoes. “I think so. Yes.”
I remembered the wind. Sherrie’s revenge on the priest. I bit my lip to keep from laughing. Tanaka stared. “What’s funny?”
“I was thinking about her funeral.”
Tanaka looked curious. “You get a laugh out of that?”
I shook off the memories and looked at the detective full on. “You would’ve had to have been there.”
He leaned a little closer like he was sharing boardroom gossip at a dinner party. “You’re a pharmacist, Mr. Cross. Is there maybe some kind of drug that could cause an aneurism? Something a smart guy like you figures he could get past us island folk?”
“I own a chain of drug stores, Detective Tanaka. I push paper, not pills.” The air-conditioner hummed behind me. He kept his office cold. But the look in his eyes warmed. Now he was smiling.
“I know when people are holding back, Mr. Cross. And you’re holding back a whole big nasty bag full. It’s hurting you. It’s time to let go. You’re obviously a good man who loved his wife. But marriage is not easy. I know my marriage isn’t. . But you stuck it out, then finally she went too far. You were forced to act. It wasn’t your fault. I understand. Tell me. Tell me everything.”
Tell him what? What could I possibly say that he could even begin to fathom or accept? That bag wasn’t his to dig into with his childish moral judgments. It was mine. And Sherrie’s. Tanaka sighed, the nice guy mask fell away, and his words came like impersonal slaps. “Your son and daughter told me about Sherrie’s affairs. Your son’s wife says that you were trying to patch things up on this trip but it was too late. Sherrie was leaving you. And that you were dry-eyed during the funeral. That you seemed relieved.”
I kept myself reigned in. They were children.
“I was relieved when they left me to grieve instead of tend to them. I loved my wife. I still do.”
“Maybe so. But I think you killed her.”
I still see Detective Tanaka around occasionally. We used to bump into each other at Longs or Safeway every couple of months or so until I got a small house in Waimanalo near the canoe club. He sent me letter a few months after our set-to in his office. He was calling off the dogs after all the tests and all the research he could conceivably do told him that there was no murder. As disappointing as it was to my daughter-in-law, Sherrie had simply died.
But nothing is really all that simple.
It was maybe a week and a half after the canoe funeral. I was still at the Waikiki Surf. The kids were gone-– off being eye-wateringly sincere and over-dramatic somewhere as far away from me as possible. I had eaten at the buffet – dill shrimp. But also a roast beef sandwich that I took with me, sticking half in the pocket of the red board shorts I had started wearing.
I sat on the beach and stared out at the blue water and listened for the breeze to bring me my daily talk with Sherrie. It was really more of a one way thing, though sometimes I whispered back. I’d wait and eventually the wind would find its way around the right palms, bounce off the bar stools just so, and Sherrie would find her words.
That was the first time. And it kept repeating until there was no doubt it was Sherrie’s voice, and I went and got a cold one and sat back down. The days went on with one word messages like “laugh” and “eat” and profane references to copulation. A number of times, toward the end of the afternoon, she said “love you” to me and I whispered it back to her and we went on repeating– over and over. Yes, too little too late-– but it’s what we had and I was getting some big lessons in acceptance.
The afternoon in question, Sherrie had been breezing around with “canoe” and a word I realized over a month later was “Kimo.” Then the wind stopped and I heard footsteps step up behind me. I turned to see who it was and the sun threw my visitor in shadow, just as it had Sherrie the day she walked away.
My visitor, Charley Tessler, sat down on the sand next to me, gave me a half smile and introduced himself. After a couple of uncomfortable beats while he gathered his words, I recognized him. He was youngest looking of the three thirty-something guys at the bar table who had checked out Sherrie in her leopard bikini. He nodded.
“Mr. Cross, I wanted to tell you personally how sorry I am about your wife’s death.”
He looked like he was in some kind of pain. Like he had a cramp. I took a sip of my beer.
“Call me Mack. Her name was Sherrie, by the way.”
“I know,” he said.
I nodded. “I guess everybody does by now…”
He took a breath and plunged. “No. I knew her name then. I knew her. We knew each other. I can’t tell the police. I’m a Navy Officer. Married. It’s been eating at me and, well I knew I’d want to know where my wife was, if, I mean, I didn’t want to, I don’t, but it’s like I have to, so you at least know the truth. It’s like, no matter what, you at least deserve that.”
The words started to bong around in my head like church bells, not connecting, meaning less and less. They had met a day or two before–- just flirting–- escalated so fast–- they had snuck off–- careful– something quick–- time got away–- they were running back–- laughing–- she just stopped–- headache–- stumbled–- then nothing. I hadn’t ever met one of her men face to face, but each one froze me in pain and shame until we could pretend them away. Plaster them into the walls of our marriage. Cover them with time. And it was a marriage-– we had intense, funny, uninhibited and passionate sex. We did. And she loved me. She did.
But when she slipped over the lip, I never had to really know. I never had to see the face. Now this one. This married Navy boy whispering his dirty little secret to me – His dirty little secret that holds my Sherrie’s death in its shameful greasy claw. I walked away from Charley the Navy guy with his two-penny guilt and oblivious wife. Over the next three days I avoided the beach-– her whispers– they were only comforting lies-– you tell them to a child. I was consumed by panic. I didn’t know what to do. The safe, familiar walls she had carefully built for me over all the years finally collapsed. And the chaos swallowed me.
I knew I had to get back to a world of my making: Business. Item and price. Order. And banish her from me forever. Then, at the airport, Sherrie made it clear she was having none of that.
I still talk to Sherrie, but these days it’s often in the canoe. Over these last few years Kimo has taught me much about the big outrigger canoes I paddle with him and the other watermen in the canoe club. Paddling and listening in the canoe, I learn how much more there is I’ll never understand about the dangerous, loving, treacherous, and kindly water that holds it.
Out on the water, when we talk of the funeral, Kimo laughs and imitates the choking Episcopalian, and I laugh with a love and freedom I never had until Sherrie died and let me breathe her bones.