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Monday, June 29, 2009



I applaud the states and localities that have enacted legislation and passed laws limiting or banning the chaining of dogs. I never understood why one would adopt a dog, only to neglect it and tie it up in the back yard year round, day and night, in good weather and bad. Tethered dogs can choke, bleed, or drown from this act of animal cruelty. Bottom line is, if you can’t put your dog in your house, don’t get one, or move to a place where you can.

Other Bill and I once had to take the law into our own hands about this. In rural Virginia, we lived next door to a duplex that housed renters. It was my gathering from the real estate agent who sold us our house that you’re not supposed to say “renters,” especially when you are outside and the renters might hear you. Instead, you merely whisper the word, as one would utter a racial slur under one’s breath. Pete would always speak to us in audible volume, unless the sentence included the “R” word, which was muffled, often with a hand in front of his mouth.

We lived in our big brick house for several years, during which next door renters would move in and out of the units, often changing tenants several times a year.

I never met the landlord, but did speak to him on the phone once. He was an idiot. Wait, let me change that: He was an idiot! There was a beautiful, huge, 100-year-old walnut tree in the duplex’s back yard, and there was a rumor circulating that he was going to cut it down. This tree shaded our tin-roofed sunroom and in summertime, prevented it from becoming a steaming pit of hell. I talked to him on the phone about it. He said he was cutting it down because he was tired of walnuts clogging his gutters. Even though I offered to clean his gutters for him, he turned me down, and in no time, two guys with enormous chain saws came out and dropped the big, gorgeous tree to the ground in just minutes. They left it there for months to rot, until it was finally cut up in pieces and hauled off. It would have made some great flooring or furniture, but instead became firewood.

Apparently he did not allow his renters to have dogs in the house, and since there was no fencing in the back yard, any tenant who brought in a dog usually tied it up, usually but not always, under the formerly-standing walnut tree, which was close to the house, not at the bottom of the lot, where the dog could be easily fogotten about.

There was a rental family that built this ramshackle lean-to for their small mutt to seek shelter under during storms. Made of sticks, scrap lumber and rotting, unpainted plywood, this rat hole was not even big enough for the dog to turn around in. In addition, the dog was tethered to a ridiculously short chain that only allowed it in and out of the hovel.

I had often heard the dog shrieking and had seen the little white trash rental children pick the dog up by the neck and poke it with sticks.

I called the local SPCA and found out that chaining a dog was legal, as long as the chain was three times the length of the dog. How generous. A 20-inch dog could be tied with a chain the length of a shoelace.

Other Bill and I weighed our options. We could speak with the screaming, boozing mother about it and offer to buy the dog a longer chain. We could catch the kids on camera abusing the dog and show the mother and/or the police, but because she was a mean, alcoholic redneck, and we were city-born homos, we knew that this would not garner pleasant neighborly relations. Since she was on welfare and was home all day, we thought that having our house burned to the ground wouldn’t be out of the question. We had never introduced ourselves to her; although we did hear her yelling at her children a lot.

So our only other option was to steal the dog.

Other Bill had a friend who was always rescuing dogs and finding homes for them. She picked up the stray and wounded, or sometimes selected some from the shelter. Nancy repaired them and showed them love and either kept them herself, or farmed them out to friends and dog lovers. Bill called her and asked if she wanted to be a co-conspirator. Without giving it a second thought, Nancy said, “absolutely.”

Late one Saturday night, Other Bill and I got dressed up in all black, including gloves and balaclavas. We loved playing Mission Impossible. I had played the theme song in junior high band, and if someone had handed me a flute, I could have really set the stage.

We had literally mapped out our plan. We would keep the dog quiet with pieces of a leftover hamburger. He would hold the dog by the collar, while I would bend out the clasp on the chain so that it looked like the dog just pulled herself out of it. We were nervous and shaking as we crept down the back yard. We were probably the only residents of the town who didn’t have at least one gun, and people could be nutty on the weekends. I made a mental note to look into body armor in case this was to ever happen again.

The dog, a small beagle-mix mutt, was totally cooperative. She jumped on us and wagged her tail and whimpered a little, and then started chewing up the hamburger. I uncrimped the latch while Other Bill held the dog by the collar. When the chain was free, Bill scooped up the dog, and we ran back up into the warm house.

The dog was a little flipped out, but our dog, Murphy, helped to calm her down. But she was coated in mud and her own shit and had an intolerable stench to her. Plus, she was covered in ticks, some the size of small grapes. We removed the ticks, gave her a nice warm bath with the Shower Massage by Water Pik, dried her off, cut out the mats in her fur, fed her and gave her water, and in no time she fell asleep on our good boxer’s bed. Murphy slept in bed with us that night.

When dawn arrived, I got up, stretched and looked out from our second story bedroom window.
“Oh, my God!” I gasped. Other Bill immediately sprang out of bed, because there is just no way to wake him quietly, especially when you are exclaiming.

“What? What happened? What is it?” he asked, panicking, surmising that the FBI, Canine Theft Division, might be lining up troops in our yard.

“Look at the tracks!” I told him. Indeed, in the darkness of the night, we had left clear footprints in the dew-covered grass from our back door all the way to the back of the lot next door. We jumped in our clothes and shoes and ran outside and started stomping around and running in circles, making other tracks in the dewy grass, so when the FBI came, it wouldn’t be so obvious. Whew, that was close.

Nancy, the dog rescuer, was to meet us halfway between her home in Maryland and our house in Virginia. We stuffed the clean, fluffy dog into my car via the garage, remotely opened the garage door and fled the scene. A little over an hour later, we met Nancy in a Denny’s parking lot, made the drop, and then sped away in opposite directions.

No renters ever posted any “lost dog” signs in the neighborhood. Law enforcement did not come pounding on our door. We were willing to suffer the consequences if they had, and we could always get the dog back, as she lived with Nancy for a couple weeks before she found a good family for her.

And not long after that, to the new owner’s surprise, our stolen dog gave birth to a litter of puppies.

As far as I know, none of the new puppies went to live with renters.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The Race of '72


When I was a little runt I used to go with my mother to the polls every Election Day. They had voting booths with curtains back then, which reminded me of the dressing room at JC Penney, where there were 3 mirrors placed at different angles. I liked looking at the reflection of the reflection of the reflection and wishing that I could just step through all those shrinking mirrors and become really small. I’d imagine all the things I could do if I were fly-sized, until my mother would shout from the other side of the curtain, “Why is it taking you so damned long to put on a pair of pants?”

In the dressing room on Election Day, my mother actually let me press the levers for the candidates and issues she selected. It was a great way to educate me and instill in me the need to always carry an additional outfit on the first Tuesday in November. And when we exited, there was always a polling volunteer handing out “I Changed My Pants” stickers. Or something like that. It was a long time ago.

The '68 presidential election was the last time I went into the voting booth with Mom. The polling volunteers decided, at age eleven, I was too old to see my mother in her underwear anymore and told her not to bring me back.

That was unfortunate, because if I had been able to get in there with her during the '72 election, I would have quickly pressed the McGovern lever and checked her out. She voted for Nixon three times in her life, despite Checkers, Vietnam, and the swelling tide of Watergate. By then my adolescent revolutionary period was in full swing. I had spent the summer with my liberal-agenda Aunt Kay in Denver and stayed up all night watching the Democratic convention on the black and white TV. We both listened carefully to George McGovern's "Come Home America" acceptance speech, which, as far as I'm concerned, is still unsurpassed in the goosebump meter rating. We had a neighbor whose fiancée was missing in action then, and I thought if the Vietnam War were to continue, it wouldn't be long until I could be sloshing through the swamps of the Mekong Delta.

So beginning early in 1972, right before I had to make that terrifying transition from junior to senior high school, I started doing telephone canvassing at McGovern headquarters in Hyde Park in Tampa. After school I would ride my bicycle there, come in, tear off a computer list of Democrats to call to ask three questions:

1.) What do you think of the Democratic candidate this year?
2.) Could you please tell me if you intend to vote for the Democratic candidate this year?
3.) Do you need a ride to the polls in November?

The third question was only asked if question 2 was yes, which was almost never.
Looking back, I see that it’s a pretty good look at how desperate the Democrats were. They didn’t want us to say “McGovern,” because they were hoping, I guess, that rubber-stamp voting Democrats might not know he was the candidate, and would tow the party line. Also, they were relying on 15-year-olds to gather their statistical information.

Apparently, someone had already called all the Democrats in town and said, "Hey, if you hear some kid whose voice is changing call you from McGovern HQ, tell him you wouldn't vote for George McGovern if he were running for dog catcher."

I got that answer a lot. Given the paranoid environment and the dirty tricks campaigns going on, I wondered if all of our outgoing calls were being funneled to one person who fed us back the dog catcher line. It wasn't funny after the first 50 times, so despite the rules, I would go outside the three questions and take issue with the turncoat Democrat on the other end of the phone.

"Well, sir, if you were a more educated Democrat, you would know that dog catcher is not an elected position." Or: "Ma’am, McGovern cannot run for dog catcher. Spiro Agnew has a life-long appointment to that job."

I would even try to trick them and get them to abstain by offering them rides to the polls after the polls were already closed. "Well, I'm sorry you won’t be supporting the candidate this year, but we want to make sure that everyone gets out and votes this year. Will you be needing a ride to the polls? We could pick you up at 7:30 PM."

Click. Slam. Ding.

It was Phone Canvassing Roulette. You would never know who you were going to talk to or predict the temperament of the party whose number you dialed. I learned new obscenities in the summer from men who defiled me when I interrupted their viewing of the World Series. It was a shocking exploration in human behavior.

My friend and schoolmate Mary Lou made the worst call. The lady who answered told Mary Lou told her she'd gotten her out of her deathbed because she thought it was her daughter calling. Mary Lou was inconsolable. We sensitive Democrats, especially those of us who weren't yet old enough to change clothes in the voting booth, had yet to develop thick hides. I tried to convince her it was probably just a joke. After all, who uses the word "deathbed" anymore, except possibly romance writers? It didn’t work. Mary Lou went home early that night.

The whole volunteer experience was made worthwhile when I called a woman who said she had listened to McGovern's speech on TV, and there was nothing in the world that could keep her from voting for him in November. "I'm 74 years old and blind, but I'd like to come do some work for the Senator. I could stuff envelopes or answer the phone." I put her on hold and went and got the volunteer coordinator to talk to her. I never followed through on what happened, or if she ended up joining the campaign.

It was enough to know that she was just willing to.

I worked tirelessly night after night there, and as the weather cooled, so did McGovern’s chances of winning. Maybe it was the fact that Thomas Eagleton, his first running mate, dropped out when it was learned he had hospitalized, it was reported, for “exhaustion.” Or maybe it was because McGovern was just too liberal for the time. Either way, he never stood a chance. Still, mainly because I was young and naïve, I maintained a glimmer of hope. I thought that maybe the numbers were wrong or that people would come to their senses on Tuesday.

The tiny, run-down, rented building on South Boulevard was packed full of local politicians and business leaders on election night. The media were shining lights and popping flashes every time you turned around. Everyone there was at least a generation older than Mary Lou and me, and the crowd was loud and somehow not sad. The champagne flowed, the local Democrats schmoozed. People even laughed, but Mary Lou and I were brokenhearted and silent. It was my first volunteer job, and I had done everything I possibly could and failed. It was a tough lesson. I called my mom to come pick us up. Even though her candidate won by a landslide, and McGovern only carried Massachusetts and DC, she didn't rub it in.

But I did.

Two years later I was flying back from my summer pilgrimage to Aunt Kay's in Denver. It was August 8, 1974. I got off the plane in Tampa and stepped on the escalator. I saw my mother at the top, and I held up my copy of the Denver Post with the splash headline: "Nixon to Resign!"

I stepped off the escalator and gave her a hug. "Told you so," I said.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Friday, June 19, 2009

People Eating Tasty Animals

Whoever is in charge of publicity at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is a public relations dreamboat. PETA will do anything to get publicity, especially if it’s free, and they are geniuses at getting it.

Their latest publicity stunt involves weighing in against President Obama for killing a fly during a television interview. A PETA spokesperson, one Michael McGraw (certainly no relation to Quick Draw) said: “One thing this has done is raise awareness, that even the smallest of animals, a chicken, fish, cockroach, or yes, even a fly deserves protection.” To set Barack straight, they sent the president a no-kill fly trap.

Wait, back up a second. Did he say “cockroach?”

I have a question for One Michael McGraw, and it goes like this:

“Mike, have you ever had a cockroach, a really big, Florida-sized palmetto bug-style cockroach, fly into your mouth?”

I have, and I’d like to meet you one day and stick a live one in your mouth, and see how you handle it.

I was nine years old. In 1966, there were no such things as plastic garbage bags. We used paper grocery bags to line our trash can, and we didn’t have a garbage disposal, so all of our meal wet-nasties went into the open bag. When it got full, I, having been the sole male in the house for three years, had the responsibility of taking it out to the can.

This was not a task I took kindly to. The garbage cans, made of galvanized steel, initially sat outside our garage. There were always lizards around, and I hated lizards. They scared me and grossed me out when they stuck out that bright orange goiter-thing at me. And I had been bitten by more than one. Not to mention the fact that they loved garbage, and when they saw me coming, they would herd around me as if I were some kind of reptilian Pied Piper, or like feeding time at the O.K. Cold Blooded Corral. They would jump all over me.

The outside location of the cans became problematic. The Farriors, one of the wealthiest families in Tampa, bred beagles like rats, and just let them roam free around the neighborhood, knocking over people’s trash cans, spewing nastiness all over the property. Since I was the one who had to pick up their stinking mess, I successfully lobbied to have the trash cans moved inside to the locked garage.

And that’s when cockroaches became an issue.

Whenever it was time for me to take out the garbage, I turned on the garage light from inside the house at least five minutes before I took out the stinking yutz. Lights make cockroaches hide.
Unfortunately, it didn’t make the cockroaches already housed in the metal trash cans hide. Whenever you opened the lid, there was cockroach mayhem. They would flutter around as if the giant, animated can of Raid had entered their perimeter. Some would flee south into the bottom of the can, some would crawl out, and, because they were Florida palmetto bugs and they could, some would fly out.

One night the can was particularly gamy, and I did as I always did before I opened the lid, which was to bang on the outside of the can to let them know Mr. Raid was about to make an entrance. I could hear them scatter, so I took the lid off, dropped in the soggy paper bag, and then noticed, right next to my face, underneath the lid that I was holding, the mother of all insects, the size of a grown man’s thumb, dark brown and shiny, with flickering antennae and six hairy-looking legs.

I froze and screamed, and the instant I started screaming, the bug took flight and landed right in my wide open, screaming orifice. As quickly as I could, I spat it out, stomped on it, and ran inside to find anything that would rinse away this memory forever: mouthwash, bleach, sulfuric acid, electroshock therapy. Needless to say, nothing worked.

It is still one of the top ten worst memories of my childhood, possibly even number 2. I realize that in the scheme of possible childhood traumas, this is petty, even insignificant, compared to, say, contracting leukemia or polio. Nevertheless, it’s something you never forget.

So Mr. One Michael McGraw, I invite you to be a guest at my home here in South Florida. I’m sure that if I let my exterminator skip a spraying, I could find a nice juicy one for you. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get a female with a nice, fat egg case popping out of her abdomen.

Now you just sit back and relax while I let this adorable, defenseless little animal roam around the depths of your outspoken, publicity-snaring mouth. I want to watch you as you calmly grasp it with cotton-padded tongs, place it in a luxurious, dark shoebox full of rotting refuse and then go out find a nice adoptive family for it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Typing with My Vagina

Unless your career goal was to clip the beaks off of baby chicks, slaughter poultry or work on a manufacturing production line, the Shenandoah Valley was not an easy place to find work in the 80’s.

At that time, I had managed to get myself in a Green Acres-type situation. The man I was pretending to love insisted we abandon our practical city lives in DC and move to this dumpy weekend place we had bought outside the tiny town of Shenandoah, Virginia (see photo, above). You are my wife. Goodbye city life!

I lived on unemployment for several months while working on rehabilitating the house. When it became clear the money was going to be gone before the house was completed, I went job hunting. For a man who had very few real-world skills other than word processing, I was in a bind to find work.

That part of Virginia is a hotbed of Republican, fundamentalist Christianity. It was not the place to be a shy homosexual with a history of administrative jobs with big companies. Nevertheless, I managed to snag an interview at James Madison University. The man who interviewed me had no intention of hiring me after he learned I didn’t attend church. How, you might ask, did he know that? Why, he asked me, of course. “What church do you go to there down in Shenandoer?”

I quickly figured I had three choices: I could lie, but I didn’t even know the name of a church; I could politely say my religious beliefs were private, or I could tell the truth, which was that I didn’t go to church. Translated, to him that meant: Satan worshiper.

The correct answer was: the Shenandoah Valley Pentecostal-Baptist Zealot Independent Church on Shifflett Hollow Road (motto: Repent or we’ll kidnap you, tie you to a herculon recliner and force you to eat pork rinds and watch episodes of Hee-Haw.)

I answered with the truth--no churc--and that was the end of that. No church, no job.

Money was running out, and I was getting desperate. Even though I only had one marketable skill, I could type like a sumbitch, as they used to say in the Valley. I had been a phototypesetter for many grueling, boring years, and I could hit 114 accurate words per minute on a good day. Surely someone would hire me.

The last place anyone seeking full-time employment goes to is a temp agency. The pay stinks. You’re always given the shit work to do. The stuck-up permanent employees assume that you’re inept and better than you because they have benefits. Signing on with a temp agency is the last, desperate act of the unemployed. And temp agencies thrive on people with low self-esteem. Perfect for me at that time in my life.

So I called Manpower in the nearest city with a stoplight to ask for information. They told me to mail in a resume, and they’d get back to me.

This was 1985, before everyone had computers and administrative work was, at least in the Valley, a woman’s job. I was so sure that, because of my gender, I wouldn’t get an interview for an office job, I sent them a resume that didn’t have my first name on it; only my initial. I also highlighted my typing speed. I realize now that this would have made for a great sitcom episode.

To my surprise, I got a callback. The first thing they requested was my first name, and I told them it was Billy. (People always think I’m a girl on the phone; I hate my voice.) I never go by Billy. But I hedged my bets by using the ambiguous nickname, hoping that they’d think I was Billie and not Billy. They never asked what sex I was, and they asked me to come in.

So I showed up early to my appointment, and it was immediately clear that I made the receptionist nervous, possibly because there had never been a Y chromosome in that room before. She was actually shaking when she was giving me the typing test.

After I produced over 90 words per minute for her, she pressed the intercom button on her phone and said, “Billy Wiley is here.”

She gestured toward the door, and I went in. I was nicely dressed in a blazer, shirt and tie, but back office lady looked at me as if I was an oozing, festering, pus-filled carbuncle.

“You’re a man!” she shrieked.

I blushed and said, “Yes.”

“Well I can’t send you out on any assignments,” she said.

“Why is that?”

“Well,” she snapped, “because our clients would just die!”

Even as a person with low self-esteem, I started to get mad. I ground my teeth.

“Why would they die?” I asked her.

“Because you’re a man!” she said, instructing the receptionist, with a sweeping hand gesture, to get me out of there.

I had sunk to a new low. If I couldn’t even get a job at a temp agency, I was unemployable. I went home and moped. Whenever I felt especially blue, I would call my mentor, my Aunt Kay in Denver. She could always cheer me up. She’s the one who once told me, “I’m so old and deaf I can’t even hear myself fart anymore.” She was 77 when I told her about my event at Manpower that day. She was as disgusted as I was. “Did you tell her you don’t need a vagina to type?” she asked.

I laughed. Of course she was right. And when you stop to think about it, wouldn’t it actually be easier to type with a penis?

A few weeks later, a copy shop advertised for a phototypesetter. I hadn’t set type in years, but I was willing to do anything, even the ultra-mundane. I ended up being hired at $5 an hour, a salary approximately two-thirds less than my job in DC. And I was grateful to get it, especially since I was a man and the owner didn’t just die.

It was a tiny shop you could barely turn around in. Like most Valley people, the owner was very religious and insisted on having prayer circles every so often to start the workday off right. He also had missing fingers, cut off during wood shop in high school, and was fond of putting his remaining fingers on some of the female employees who didn’t like it a bit. He also insisted on giving them hugs. He had a violent temper that he would display for his little children, who, along with his wife, stopped by often just to hang out and get in the way. There was always spanking and squealing and yelling whenever they were around. I worked there for several months and hated it.

Because I lived at the poverty level, I supplemented my income by breeding substandard golden retrievers and publishing gay pornographic fiction. One Monday morning my dog went into labor, and I called the office manager (a woman who let herself get touched for money), and I asked her if I could come in late, because I had to assist in the whelping of a litter of puppies. She said, “no problem,” and I guided my dog into the whelping pen and watched the birth of seven hamster-sized puppies. At least one of the pups would have died had I not been there.

When I walked in to work about 11, the office manager glared at me with a frightened look on her face, while Mr. Fingerless came at me, grabbed me by the arm and took me outside.

One of his clients was a numbers runner who every week brought in his pick cards that he distributed to illegal gamblers. The backup typesetter had not been in that day, so there was no one to do that work except Mr. Fingerless. This was basically just typing a few dozen words, printing it out, and giving it to the graphic artist to cut, paste up, and photocopy. To be fair, it was probably more taxing for him and took him a while to do it, due to his missing digits.

He read me the riot act. Words like inconsiderate, selfish, evil, un-Christian, as well as stupid asshole came flying out of his mouth. He told me he was writing me up, and it was going to go on my Permanent Record. Of a company that employed a whopping seven people. How would I ever work again?

I was humiliated. That night I went home and was too unnerved to have fun with the seven new mutts. And for the first time in my life, I let my pride overrule my need to eat. I went in to work the next day and, without any employment prospects, gave him two weeks’ notice. That would give me enough time to typeset a nice resume and embezzle reams and reams of good 100% cotton stock. He was stunned and apologetic and asked me to reconsider.

During the handholding prayer vigil on that Friday (or in his case, half-a-handholding), the boss asked Jesus to guide me to change my resignation decision and stay with his copy shop family.

A week later on my final day, I had failed to hear from Jesus, probably because I didn’t attend church, which had gotten me into trouble before. In an attempt to make me feel worse, Mr. Missing Digits told me that he had given raises to the six other employees that day, and if I had stayed, I would have received one, too. Perhaps Jesus had guided him to be so retaliatory. When five o’clock rolled around, the owner had been missing (like his fingers) for a couple of hours, but I tracked him down, hiding in the dark room, behind a locked door. I banged on the door, and he didn’t answer. I banged again, calling his name. He finally came to the door. I told him I wanted to thank him for the job and that I had no hard feelings and wished him well, even though that was a lie. He wouldn’t even look at me through his tinted glasses.

I got my next job, which lasted only weeks, because I was sleeping with the boss. When he was fired for abusing his expense account, so was I.

A high-paying Fortune 500 company had come to the Valley, and I had spit-shined my resume, which was fraught with hazy recollections and falsified timelines It completely omitted the previous job, and the copy shop job, because you never know when that Permanent Record might raise its ugly, puppy head. But there were tens of thousands of applications for only a couple of hundred jobs, so I considered that a sailed ship.

Once again I was nearly destitute and certainly desperate. I thought if I went over the mountain to the big city of Charlottesville, I would have better luck finding employment. Since I was still a bottom-feeder, I started at the bottom. Driving to another temp agency and pumping myself up along the way, I decided I was going to follow Aunt Kay’s advice if they pulled that “you’re a man!” crap again, because I really didn’t have anything to lose. Driving over the mountain, I rehearsed the line using different attitudes. (Pardon me, but I don’t think you need to have female sex organs to type. You need fingers, not a vagina to type. If you needed a vagina to type, the keyboard would be a lot bigger and curved, like a saddle. I didn’t type those hundred words a minute with a vagina, you know.)

Miraculously, this temp agency loved the fact that I was a speedy typist, even if I was a man, and they hired me on the spot. To be honest, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to say “vagina” in that office, but I quickly got over it. They sent me back to the Valley to work at the new Fortune 500 company that previously would not hire me directly, and I became, I am loathe to say, a Kelly Girl. But I was not just any Kelly Girl; I twice achieved the rank of Kelly Girl of the Month (possibly the only Kelly Girl without a vagina to do that). That honor came with a ten dollar bonus and a crappy certificate. I wish I still had them.

The pay was still lousy, but the people where I worked were nice. One morning when my boss found out that my golden was having another litter, and I had left the expectant mother alone to fend for herself, she sent me home to assist. Not much later, I got a permanent position there, and overnight my salary tripled.

With my first paycheck, I gave my dog a great gift. I took her to the vet and had her spayed. She didn’t need a vagina to do her job anymore, either.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Adventures in Wigland

Once upon a time in the sixties, my mother, a brunette, without any warning, came home from work wearing a platinum blond wig. It was so white, it hurt to look at it for a long period of time. It was short and youthful, with a slight That Girl-ish flip at the ends. It looked like the haircut of a modern-day child beauty pageant contestant. That should make it clear.

My sister and I were full of questions. Why on earth would she want that? How much did she pay for it? Where was she going to wear it? Why didn’t she just dye her hair?

These questions were all answered with maximum vagueness. She bought it for her boss’ boss, a man she dated whenever he was in town from Miami. “It’s kind of a joke for him,” she said, without further explanation. It cost “around fifty dollars,” which was a gasp-producing amount. My mother never spent money frivolously. With regularity she paid the bills, bought groceries, cigarettes and bourbon and little else. We were shocked. It was real human hair, and that came at a price far higher than its lower quality synthetic, Dynel sister wigs.

And she was going to wear it to work the next day. We assumed the boss’ boss would be there for the joke, whatever it was.

As for the hair dye question, we already knew the answer to that: Only sluts dyed their hair.

Maybe she didn’t look ridiculous in it if you had never seen her brown-haired self before, but it sure looked goofy to us. And the prep work to get it to look believable was insane. She packed her own hair down against her head with a thin nylon stocking cap, and that had to be adjusted and readjusted so that you didn’t see tell-tale stocking remnants under the wig. She had it professionally washed and styled frequently, and she was always futzing with it, picking at it, combing it, trying to pave over any part that looked wiggish. And I can’t imagine how unbelievably uncomfortable it must have been under there in the humid Florida heat of summer. Nevertheless, she was determined.

She had even bought a wig stand for it. Let’s be clear on this. A wig is like a pet. It’s soft and fuzzy, but doesn’t come without needs. You wouldn’t buy a bird without a cage. We were a little put off by the extravagance of this major investment. We couldn’t get genuine Red Ball Jets sneakers when the generic JC Penney sneakers would accomplish the same foot-covering task. Fortunately, she had economized and bought the plain white Styrofoam Head wig stand, and not the more expensive one that looked like a mannequin head with an aloof expression and slutty makeup. Bitter and resentful in my Penney Ball Jets, one day while Mom was at work, I took the Styrofoam head and drew on it large crossed eyes with giant lashes and oversized lips, colored in with real lipstick. You know: slutty. She was not amused. It became a little creepy having this psychotic-looking blond head in the house, staring down at us from her tall white dresser.

Wigs were a big thing back in the 60’s, and women took their spare hair very seriously. Falls were kept in special round boxes. Switches were popular for making you look like you had more and better hair than you actually did. And dyed-to-match wiglets, from pin-in ringlets to beehive add-ons were popular with the well-to-do yacht clubbing stole-wearers.

The wig remained in our house for a few years, worn more and more infrequently, and finally ignored. It was last seen on my head during Halloween when I was sixteen. I dressed as a prostitute and paraded around the neighborhood late at night, demanding candy. “My God!” one woman explained, “What are you out for tonight, son?” That kind of threw me for a loop, and I immediately pulled out my breast-stuffing socks and ceased my trick-or-treating career forever. (And I still had to tell people, four years later, that I was gay. Were they just acting surprised?)

I was a very naïve child. My mother was morally strict with us, especially with my sister, so I never thought anything about her “dating” Mr. Butler, a married man who lived in Miami and was in town once a month or so for a night or two. The whole time they were going out, Mom insisted that it was all very innocent and genuine, strictly business, and that he didn’t know anyone else in town, so he took her to dinner to pass the time, plain and simple. I was good with that.

And I was shocked to learn years later from my sister that Mom and Mr. Butler were doing it. He always stayed at the Manger Motor Inn, a luxury hotel in downtown Tampa on the Hillsborough River. They later changed the name to the Manger Hotel to class it up a bit. We got to see the inside of his room once. I remember everything being very yellow, including the built-in rotary wall phone in the bathroom. (God, I wanted that!) I never imagined that the opulent Manger had been a house of lemon-yellow sin.

Whenever he was in town, Mr. Butler would come to the house, have a cocktail and chat with us while Mom got ready for her night out with him. He was a nice man, sweet and sensitive, and very engaging with my sister and me. He would always take Mom to Bern’s Steak House, the swankiest, most expensive restaurant in the city. My sister and I had never been there, and we loved hearing stories about it and gnawing on the leftover morsels that sometimes came home in a doggy bag.

Mr. Butler was the only man-friend of my mom’s we had to call “Mr.” That was probably because in the office, she had to as well. I liked him. And Mom brought home some scary men, including a falling-down alcoholic who would pick me up by my head and a boozer who tried to explain condoms to me while standing in front of me wearing only grimy pajama bottoms while his member dangled out the fly, unbeknownst to him. (He was the one she ended up marrying.) While my mother was recovering from surgery, Mr. Butler babysat us and took us across the bridge to eat at Wolfie’s deli in St. Petersburg. He knew I was a dyed-in-the wool Peanuts fanatic, and would from time to time bring me Peanuts-related stuff, like the Charlie Brown trash can he gave me. He took an interest, which was more than any other of Mom’s gentlemen callers did. To those guys, children were usually a liability; a roadblock that prohibited remarriage. Mr. Butler seemed to actually return our affection, and I secretly wished that he would get divorced and come to Tampa, marry my mother, and move in with us. I never asked, but I suspected the females in my family were hoping for that, too.

But it just wasn’t in the cards. I realize now that Mom finally grasped that things were not going to change, and the relationship was not going to advance. The last time he came to the house, Mom met him in the driveway and talked to him while he remained in his rental car. I knew something serious was going down as I watched from the living room window, peeking out from behind the new curtains (which were, curiously enough, yellow). When the car started, I quickly moved to another part of the house, and Mom came in the house and wept loudly. I came back into the living room, and she was on the floor, crying into the feather cushion of the camelback sofa. She looked up at me and said, “Do you understand why I’m crying?”

I said, “Because you’re not going to see Mr. Butler anymore?”

She said yes, and continued to weep.

Still naïve about the intensity of their relationship, I thought what she was really crying for was the fact that there would be no more chateaubriand from Bern’s, no more heels-and-stole wearing dress-up dates, and she would miss that. I never surmised that he was the good one she had to let go. The lost prize.

There was one time when I was in my early twenties when my mother and I actually had an adult-to-adult talk. She had come up from Florida to visit me in my apartment in the DC suburbs. It was very confessional for both of us. I admitted to her that I sometimes enjoyed smoking marijuana. She told me about the time when her husband (Mr. Penis-Poker-Outer) had given her an ultimatum: She could be with him, or she could have her son, the homosexual, but not both. Never giving it a second thought, she hopped in her car and left. He later backed down. And she also told me about her love for Tom Butler, how much she wanted him to back out of his loveless marriage and be with her. It was very touching, and I felt badly for her. Of all the men mom dated, Mr. Butler was most like my father. He was bright and intellectual, thoughtful and kind to children; soft-spoken with a delightful sense of humor. And she ended up settling for Mr. Pee-Poke, an illiterate truck driver alcoholic who accused her of raising her son to be a faggot. She sat quietly for a moment after that. Trying to brighten up the mood, I said, “So what was with the wig?”

A grin came to her face. “Tom really had a thing for blond women,” she said.

That was the first time I heard her refer to him by his first name only. “I see,” I said, although I wasn’t sure that I did.

“No, you don’t see,” Mom said. “He was impotent. I bought the wig hoping it would turn him on and enable him to be functional.”

“Did it work?” I asked.

“Not really,” she shrugged.

Some things are better left unsaid. I think I liked it better when I was young and naïve and didn’t realize my mother was teaching chastity to us while having an affair with a married man who couldn’t get it up. Whenever I think of this, I get an image in my head. Mom and Mr. Butler are in the bright yellow Manger Motor Inn with the bathroom telephone. She’s lying on the king sized Posturpedic’s banana-colored sheets, and as Mr. Butler bumbles unsuccessfully on top of her, her head moves down on the pillow, forcing that sweat-making, platinum blond baby-doll wig to inch slowly down over her forehead until she can’t see. Whenever this vision comes to me, I try to block it out with an image of my Charlie Brown trash can.

“Good Grief,” he says.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Pedro McGraw

I did something immature and idiotic the other day, and bought something upon which my financial advisor would probably frown. I bought a plush toy for $69.

You’d think for that I could get a life-sized giraffe, but this one is barely 17 inches tall.

I had two fuzzy things I liked to sleep with when I was small. One was Pedro, a one-of-a-kind, handmade alpaca fur bear that my dad brought me back from Peru. In 1960 my father got lucky and got to go on a press junket to South America. While he was there, he took the opportunity of the outrageously beneficial dollar exchange rate, and he brought my mother home a vicuna stole and an enormous aquamarine ring set in platinum. My sister got a silver necklace with stone settings, and I got Pedro. It was an expensive set of gifts (at least the girl stuff was,) the likes of which we’d never seen before nor ever would see again.

My dad told me he had bought Pedro at an outdoor market in Peru. He had been hanging, pinned by his ears, to a clothesline.

During his lifetime, Pedro suffered massive abuse. My sister gave him a severe shaving in the belly, and his arms would continuously be twisted off until my aunt fixed them with a button and some heavy thread. Stuffing would often pop out from his leather-padded feet, and patches had to be made. He had a moveable red mouth that had little teeth painted on the inside, and you could make him bite by pinching his mouth shut. Otherwise Pedro always smiled and looked very happy, despite the domestic violence and repeated amputations.

Pedro was one of the few things that my father left me when he died, and I did everything I knew how to do to preserve him and keep him fresh.

Regrettably, I didn’t know that any preservation of large, furry animal skin should include mothballs.

It was like a horror movie. In the back of the closet I found I thought what sufficient protective armor for the furry bear: a black garbage bag. When I opened it up, I saw a dead, decomposing body. I think it even had a stench of decay. Swarms of moths flew out, and I gently removed the barely remaining carcass of Pedro. His face had been eaten away, and his small, stone, beady, gold and black eyes had fallen out. His torso had been eaten clean through, and when I picked him up, most of his fur fell to the floor.

There have been few times in my life where I have literally wailed. Other Bill frequently likes to bring up the time when we went to see The Joy Luck Club at the movie theatre, where I made a blubbering fool out of myself during the last scene in the movie. I don’t know what it is, but a combination of the soundtrack and the sad yet happy news at the reunion just rips me apart. I was still bawling after the credits rolled and the lights came up. People stared and pointed. Now, I can’t even think about it without starting to puddle up. It is one of the most embarrassing parts of my personality, and I cannot control it. Therefore, it’s a prime opportunity for Other Bill to use to tease me.

He has the soundtrack on his Ipod, which wakes us up every morning. When that music comes on, instead of a slow, yawny, cuddling wake-up, I bolt out of bed and run to the other room to feed the dog so I don’t go to work eye-puffy and red-faced. It’s a classic Pavlov’s dog stimulus-response. Recorder music > memory of last scene of film > uncontrollable wailing.

And I wailed when I found Pedro dead and beyond repair. I threw myself onto the couch and sobbed until I was dehydrated and hiccupping. The one meaningful thing I owned that my father had given me, and now it was just a mothy pile of South American fluff and North American moth eggs. Now I had nothing to remember him by except his old broken watch and his monogrammed cigarette lighter, neither of which were soft and furry and smiling. I was practically suicidal when I took his body out to the trash can and had to throw him away. I would have gladly offered myself up to the moths. I would been happy for them to chew off my arm in lieu of destroying my precious bear. I called sister and mother and reported it like a death in the family. I was 26 then. I’m sure they were thinking, “Oh, grow up!”

Five years ago I remembered there was a second fuzzy friend I used to sleep with. It was this blue Quick Draw McGraw plush toy. Although I knew that I’d never be able to replace Pedro, I was willing to bet it would be possible to get a Quick Draw clone on eBay.

Quick Draw had been second class citizen from day one. He was probably just a Christmas present from Santa one year, and I don’t recall what happened to him. He didn’t carry any sentimentality whatsoever, compared to Pedro. I assume I just outgrew him and tossed him out or handed him down to a younger second cousin or something. Nevertheless, he was a production animal, so surely there would be replacements available.

And for 5 years, every time anything went up on eBay that contained the words “Quick Draw McGraw”, my eBay robot would send me a message. There were comic books, Little Golden Books, lunch boxes, thermoses, and crappy 21st-Century-Made-in-China-And-Probably-Stuffed-with-Lead plush toys, and cereal bowls. But no blue doll.

And then, finally one showed up. I figured I’d give fifty bucks for it. Someone else paid $165. Then suddenly, more started to appear, hoping to cash in on similarly ridiculous bids. The second and third ones went for over $80. I missed the fourth one, because I neglected to read my e-mail that week. Finally I got one, and he arrived yesterday. A little dirty, but considering he was made fifty years ago, not that bad. His label says he’s washable. I believe I’ll think twice before tossing a $69 investment into my Lady Kenmore.

I tried sleeping with him last night, but he just ended up getting in the way, and I found him on the floor this morning. That is a dangerous place for him to be, judging from the chop-licking and drooling Bungee displays whenever she gets near him. I don’t want to come home and find piles of blue fluff scattered all over the house. I don’t need another horror movie or reason to wail in my house, so he will remain on a high shelf out of that dog’s reach. She’s the world’s biggest moth.

I’m a little sad to think that I am too old to sleep with something old and soft and fuzzy and stuffed. But then I remember I do that every night with Other Bill, especially on salad buffet nights. Really, though, I can only sleep on my right side so my back doesn’t hurt. I could sleep on my back, but that causes snoring, and subsequent poking and shaking and waking by you-know-who.

So you’d think I’d be happy now that I’ve reclaimed a small part of my childhood. If that’s the case, why do you suppose I receive an e-mail from my eBay robot now, whenever there’s a hit for “Peru Alpaca Fur Teddy Bear”?

C’mon. If they sold one, they had surely hand-made more.