Saturday afternoon spring sun cast crisp light through the windows of the little house. The wiry teenager found himself home, alone, two events rare enough to be memorable although he had worked up a nice fury to keep him company.
She was to blame, of course. She always was. Power and control were her game and she only played to win.
He cast his mind in all directions searching wildly for a response to equal the injustices arrayed against him but he felt crushed by helplessness. He needed something to penetrate the fortress she had constructed around herself.
By any measure she lived a bitter, self-centered, envious life wherein she loved objects and used people. All were placed on earth to do her bidding and nothing else. On this gorgeous day he was alone because it suited her.
So the boy stormed around the empty house railing against a malice that held a a property he could not comprehend: that it was intentional. Every device of logic and persuasion employed against her had the effect of feathers falling on stone ramparts because she simply did not care.
In his expanding fever state the young man wandered into his parents’ room and in the dresser found the 9mm pistol kept in a drawer. He pulled out the heavy, black holster and sat on the bed.
The oiled scent of the cool blued steel carried with it a comforting familiarity. He had shot it many times – occasionally with permission – and enjoyed the smooth metal, the heft, the potential power. The clip was kept loaded so sliding it into place felt almost automatic. Chambering a round? That suddenly became a different matter.
His heart rate rose a bit.
He rested the end of the barrel on his thigh, finger off the trigger. Was this what he needed to do? Would pulling the trigger get the point across? What was the point?
The right index finger curled around the trigger, carefully assessing the amount of pressure it would take to fire the weapon.
He could move his finger just that much, depressing the trigger enough to cause the firing pin to release, slamming against the primer on the cartridge in the chamber, burning the powder in the round which, when the pressure built up sufficiently would force the bullet down the barrel at a speed exceeding the sound barrier, then into, and probably out of, his body.
Yes, he thought to himself, I could make myself do that.
He placed the phone on the bed next to him. He gathered up towels and a belt to make a constrictor. It was one thing to shoot himself and quite another to die from it. That would ruin everything.
After all, he had to make sure she got the message (whatever it was, he didn’t have words for it) and that would be pretty tough to witness if he was dead. She had to get it and he very much needed to see that she did.
While holding the barrel pointed into his thigh, carefully away from the femoral artery and the femur to minimize the damage and the risk, he began to contemplate the outcome of this dread action.
With clarity came the vision that the ultimate result of flexing the right index finger at this instant would prove far different than the boy hoped.
The flaw in using a bullet as a message-delivery system was complete lack of control over how the message was interpreted. In this case the recipient would conclude that: the boy is careless, he can’t be trusted, he shouldn’t be left alone, or (worse) he is unstable. It would be all about him and nothing about her and that was so backwards it could not be permitted.
The young man let out a primal scream of everlasting frustration that shook the windows. Then he put the pistol away.
Even in this, she wins.
In ninth grade I was not just a member of Drama Club, I was the president. It was my consolation prize after running a very close second for Student Body president. Can’t recall which school official told me it was close – very close! – but these days, well, who cares? Second (best of all the losers, as Seinfeld says) whether by one vote or a hundred, the result is the same.
I licked my wounds and mopped up the Drama Club voting the next week. King of the drama dorks. Yes, I was one of those. So embarrassing but we all do stupid things.
In my defense, I also played every sport for which my parents would buy equipment, meaning basketball and baseball, and they didn’t buy the basketball. More on that later in the program.
The story I told at The Film School was that I landed my first acting roll after pestering the director for weeks to write in a small part for me. I was relentless until eventually Mom gave in. I was three. From then on there was some form of performing arts to participate in every year and usually more than one event.
When junior high steam-rolled down life’s highway auditioning for plays was a given. By ninth grade I was one of the favorites of Pat Butler, the drama/choir director at school, (less so the one at home). I could forge his signature on school passes and he let me. The hall passes were the green ones, just larger than monopoly money. I kept a pad of them with my books.
Pat (not to be confused with his wife, Pat) had become the music director for a program the school district had been running for several years. It was a performance troupe for high school kids started by an ex-Rockette and one of the district administrators. Hiliners. Youthful exuberance, generally, more than honed skill bouncing around the stage, singing and dancing in shows around the region throughout the school year.
Students auditioned every summer and began rehearsals during an intense period before classes began. During the year there were rehearsals every Saturday for five hours which didn’t count the time needed to learn a new routine – that was done on your own time.
The Hiliners faced the same challenge as every dance group: finding enough males. That year, 1974, the problem was more acute than ever with the additional hurdle that the “company” (being generous here) was committed to a week of performances at the Spokane Expo in July.
You don’t have to tell a boy that dancing is for girls. There’s no class where that is taught, no secret training session or note passed in class. We know it without being told. It is programmed into our genes and requires an even more primitive reason to overcome.
In the spring of 1974 the Hiliners came to our school to perform. As Drama Club president I was drafted to help with important tasks like pulling the curtain at the beginning and end of the show. The Saturday before the school show the group held their practice on our stage so they would be familiar with it and I was there for the entire rehearsal.
Of course Pat was up to something. He wanted me to see what the Hiliners were like, what they did, how they did it, so that when we had our little talk later I would have that information tucked away in the back of my mushy little brain.
Pat wanted to recruit some of his male students into the group in a kind of early-entrance program. The idea was to fill out the ranks of the boys in time for Spokane.
He sneakily had some of the kids ask if we wanted to try out one of the routines. You know, just for fun. So they showed us some steps and we did our best to learn while the adults casually kept a close eye on if we could move our feet without tripping.
Bill Marsland, fresh off of breaking my nose in a lunchtime basketball game (sorry, Bill, but I do like telling the story) was included. Mike Golden probably was there but he was still growing into his legs. Some others I can’t recall.
So after the show, Pat asked us if we wanted to join up and go to Spokane. I can’t speak for the reasoning behind the others’ decisions but I do know about my own motivation. Frankly, I do not understand why it isn’t used more fully on boys facing similar invitations. I chose to join Hiliners for several carefully and deeply thought-out reasons.
Girls. In tights. As partners. Five hours. Every week. Plus performances. Performances with back-stage costume changes.
How many ways are there to say, “Duh”?
I loved playing baseball and basketball, really wanted to learn fencing and skiing (even after the broken leg, the cast for which had just come off) but none of them offered what dancing did. Girls. In. Tights. Plus, I didn’t even have to give up the sports! Nothing but wins!
Over the years we performed in Long Beach, WA, all over the Seattle area, including the Opera House and for the Western Governor’s Conference, among many others. Seemed like a show every month or two. Loved it, every minute. Why not? Surrounded by lovely, talented girls every week, singing, dancing, practicing. Sigh. Oh, yeah.
I remained with Hiliners until my fateful Senior year and the move to Denver, as chronicled elsewhere, but the story isn’t quite over yet.
First semester of my senior year, East High in downtown Denver, I chose a strength training class taught, it turned out, by the football coach. It was a fun class which the coach used to help his players. He also had other reasons.
Near the mid-point of the semester Coach announced that our class would temporarily merge with the girls to try out a new fitness concept, called ‘aerobics’ or something. None of us had ever heard of it before but it turned out to be, well, dancing. Hell, it was for only forty minutes or so. Easy. The ball players were dying within minutes, though, hating the whole thing but there I was – again – dancing with the girls.
Near the end of the semester Coach casually approached me after the timed mile run. “You’re turning out for football next year.” It was clearly not a question and it caught me completely by surprise. I knew almost nothing about playing football.
“I’m a senior,” I explained which was answered by a not-very-suppressed curse. I didn’t even know enough about football to ask him what position(s) he wanted me for. Best guess: cornerback, maybe wideout. I’ll never know but it would have been fun.
Just not as fun as Girls In Tights.
Grandpa Machen died of stomach cancer a week before the end of my junior year of High School. Mom flew home after attending to him through his final days. The three of us (Jeff filled out the passenger list) drove to Idaho Falls for the services in the blue Pinto.
The Pinto was the car Mom & Dad bought when the house by the airport sold and we moved to Federal Way. I insisted on continuing to attend Mt. Rainier in Des Moines so we needed another car and the Pinto was the choice. It was a fun car; four speed manual, glass pack muffler, headers, aluminum mag wheels, low profile tires, white racing stripe. Best feature: I was the only driver. It wasn’t “my” car but it was my car.
After the services and the mandatory family visits Mom suggested we continue on to Denver to pay a visit to eldest brother Lynn and his family. The summer stretched out before us like a never-ending joy ride so we gladly agreed.
We arrived in Denver to find Lynn & Co. in the midst of changing lodgings so we became conscripted to the project. Not simply moving contents but repainting the “new” place, stripping paint from ancient brass fixtures, etc. We pitched in, although I’m certain there was a good amount of reluctance, expressed or implied.
Before the move reached the zenith Mom took a call from Dad, who was working…somewhere. Nashville? Hard to keep track. Dad was an NC programmer job shopping (contracting) around the continent. His job had ended suddenly and he was about to move to…somewhere else. Columbus? Mom jumped on a plane to lend a hand with that effort.
I begged Mom to leave the Chevron card with us. Driving the Pinto around Denver was essentially our only entertainment option. Reluctantly she agreed, although this story would later change but it is a key point.
Remember, kids, in these days phones had fixed locations. If I wanted to call a friend I had to know the number and the friend had to be at the location at the time I called. It was hit-or-miss, mostly miss, and leaving messages at the other end was never a reliable option. No email, no SMS. The telephone was the only instant communications option. Mail was snail mail-only.
So once Dad and Mom abandoned the phone at the known location they were cut off from us until they initiated contact from the new location. We had no means at all of finding them.
Suddenly, the weeks began to fly off the calendar with no word from the parental units. That long, fun-filled summer leading up to my senior year was turning into babysitting my niece and nephew, playing (very badly) tennis, and cruising in the Pinto. We had no money, only the gas card. My friends back home had time to write and receive many rounds of hand-written mail. They were becoming increasingly distraught at the length of my absence. Eventually they pooled their resources and mailed me $40 (tank of gas: $5) to persuade me to come home. Thank goodness they did.
I felt stranded, abandoned. I should have been whooping it up with my friends and getting ready to do as little as possible during my senior year of high school, something for which I had a practiced hand. Instead I was bored to death in Denver. Lynn worked nights as a security guard while taking college classes during the day. His wife, Robin, cooked for an oil executive in the evenings. Jeff and I helped out by watching Oliver and Anadine while Robin worked.
One day Lynn presented us with a pair of tickets to the local minor league baseball team. It was a Thursday evening game (I still have the tickets) and they would get a sitter so we could see the game. Now, with this change in schedule a plan began to form. Jeff and I talked it over and worked out the details and agreed to do it.
We decided to run away to home.
The timing was perfect. Lynn was asleep before his night shift, Robin off to work. We had spent the day quietly packing so we could load the car in one or two trips. I wrote a note to Lynn and left it in our room. Then we hit the road. With luck the note wouldn’t be discovered until we were in Wyoming.
Ah, the relief we felt was thrilling. The open road ahead called out to us to hurry, like I needed any encouragement.
Late in the evening we drove into a thunderstorm in Wyoming so heavy I couldn’t see past the hood of the car, not even to pull over to the shoulder, so I just took my foot off the gas and coasted. Thankfully the highway at that point was arrow-straight for dozens of miles.
Somewhere in Eastern Utah we pulled into a rest stop to grab some sleep but found it impossible so we started again. Just before sunrise I let Jeff take a turn at the wheel for an hour or so to give me a break.
Near Jerome, Idaho we stopped for gas at a Chevron station that was just turning on the lights for the start of the business day. One of our biggest fears was that the card had Dad’s name on it and some operator might call us on that fact, maybe take the card away. The station operator gassed us up and I signed the receipt and was about to start the car when he turned back to us.
“Hey, wait a minute!” he shouted. My heart leapt into my throat. “Which one of you is Gilbert Miskin?” Here it comes. This is the end of the journey and we’ll be stuck in an even worse position than we had in Denver.
Nervously, I managed to squeak out an answer. “That’s our dad.”
“No kidding? My wife went to school with him. Tell him I said hello.” I agreed to do just that when the opportunity presented itself. It took several miles before the adrenaline started to recede but it didn’t last long.
Somewhere between Jerome and the Oregon boarder I got snagged for speeding. They had a nice little racket going, too. Nab the speeder then follow the cop to the nearby weigh station. Here they’d perform the shakedown for cash. Sign a form, pay the fine on the spot and I wouldn’t have to come back for court. The fee? $40.
After that the trip was quiet but long. We arrived home in the early evening. Sylvia was home and surprised to see us. There was, apparently, a huge uproar in the family over our exploits. More importantly, we found out about a dance that evening so we showered and hit the road again, after being up for 36 hours already.
I guess Mom took some heat from Dad about the gas card so she threw us under the bus, to use the current vernacular, claiming I had stolen it from her purse. Norm and Lynn were furious with us and I still can’t understand why. It’s not like we went for a road trip to Mexico. We went home, for crying out loud.
I don’t know how much that little stunt played a role but a little while later Mom came home and announced she was going on the road with Dad. The house would be rented out. I could go with them or stay with one of my older siblings.
After all that effort to get out of Denver, three weeks later I was on a plane back. My friends came to the airport for a teary send-off.
I enjoyed the plane ride. In Denver, I found my room again and unpacking required only a few minutes then: nothing. My heart filled with ache and loneliness. I wish I could say I sat in the basement and bounced a baseball against the wall but I wasn’t that clever.
1968, I’m ten years old. Mother and her dear friend, Mildred Emmett, have hauled Jeff and I to see the musical film “Oliver!” at the cavernous Lewis & Clark theater near SeaTac airport. Their excuse was that they wanted to “study” the film for some upcoming production, so we’d get to sit through the 153 minute extravaganza twice. In a row. That’s a good portion of a work-day for those of you playing along at home.
Truth was, they just wanted to get away for a good long while and bar hopping was not an acceptable form of diversion for the two proper church ladies.
The theater and lobby were filled with murals depicting the great expedition. It gave us something to study while waiting for the movie to start.
I’m reasonably entertained early on, except that Mother keeps elbowing one or the other of us to insist that Jeff is Oliver and I’m The Artful Dodger. If she only knew that it was far more than a physical likeness.
Suddenly, I’m shaking like a three-day-old Malaria fever but I’m not cold. The scene playing out is when Oliver has been rescued by his grandfather and wakes up in the beautiful home to servants, cleanliness, and smiles all around. Plus singing, naturally.
There is something terribly familiar about the scene, it haunts me, it chills me to the center. Then Oliver is recaptured by Bill and hauled back to squalor and I’m vitally disturbed by the scene. It has shaken lose memories long forgotten until that moment.
I know this, I lived it, except I was much, much younger and there was no singing.
One of my earliest memories is sitting, more or less, on a large pillow on the floor next to the dining table while Mother typed at the cast-iron Royal. That unmistakable clacking, dinging, ratcheting and zirrring developed a rhythmic pattern.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Writing a play,” answered Mother without looking away from her work.
“Really?! A play?!” I asked, losing ever-more contact with the pillow, whose surface area defined exactly where I must be.
“Yes, a play.”
“Is there a part for me?”
“No, dear, there are no parts for three-year-old boys.”
“But you’re writing it yourself, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” she answered with some hesitation.
“Then you can write a part for me!” Obviously. I don’t know why she needed me to explain it.
Then Mother reached into her sparse bag of delaying tactics and pulled out one that I was too young to understand.
“We’ll see.” The sole definition of which was, “If I say no it will only lead to arguing and I do not want this discussion to continue another minute so we will both pretend there is some chance in the future. But there isn’t.”
The next day was a repeat of the day before: me trying to be good and stay fixed to the pillow while overflowing with curiosity.
“Did you write a part for me yet?” I blurted out when the words just refused to stay inside of me.
“Not yet, dear,” she replied. Clack, clackity, clack-clack.
“Does that mean you will?” Those interested in the concept of Yogic Flying should spend an afternoon with a three-year-old to see how it’s done.
Mother, previously focused on her writing, suddenly realized she’d been out-maneuvered by a child not much more than a toddler. Desperate to secure a few moments of undisturbed concentration, she grabbed the easiest tool at hand.
So it went for days piled upon days. If Mother thought the feigned retreats bought her time to regroup then she hadn’t learned much from the previous five of my siblings. She did, however, stop saying, “Not yet.”
Mother had serious concerns about tossing me and my little brother, Jeff, at the time barely two years old, on stage. Anyone who has attended a dance recital is familiar with the youngest ones who stare out at the sea of faces and then freeze up and/or start crying. I have no idea why she projected this behavior onto us.
Much later, probably three or four full lifetimes as my recollection goes, the scenario played out like Groundhog Day. Except this time there was snow.
“Did you write a part for me yet?” I asked with the full enthusiasm and curiosity expressed on Day One.
Mother stopped typing. This was different. Different is good, right? Right?
She turned to me and said, “It’s just a small part, but yes, for both of you.” The ensuing squealing might have been the source of the cracked window in the living room, although this remains unconfirmed.
Jeff and I hugged and danced and whooped it up until we wore ourselves out.
So it was that at the ripe ages of three and two we began staying out late for rehearsals. Even better, there were girls at the rehearsals. Teenage girls. Teenage girls who thought we two were the cutest things ever. They stood us on a tabletop and crowded around making all kinds of strange teenage-girl-sounds while admiring our costumes. I thought every one of them was the prettiest girl I had ever seen.
Our parts were brief but Mother knew how to manipulate an audience. The lights were dimmed except for a small spotlight. Then she sent us, these two tiny little boys, out on the vast and empty stage. Alone.
We ran, Jeff chasing, me in a winding, looping pattern from upstage left to downstage right to the place marked by the spotlight, then sat next to each other. The gasps and sighs from the audience were loud but we never hesitated.
I pretended to have something hidden in my cupped hands that Jeff wanted to see but I kept pulling my hands away until finally giving in and letting him have a peek.
At that point an adult came along to shoo us off stage right.
That was our entire debut. People were amazed that we could just go out and perform like that, no fear at all.
For us it was not a foreign place, the stage. It was where Mother worked. It was the only place she was ever happy, or whatever passed for happy in her life. Trying to capture the attention of the older siblings at the dinner table was far more terrifying and challenging. Plus, we got all the hugs and pecks-on-the-cheeks little boys could dream of from the pretty teenage girls.
I was too young to understand the patterns of Mother’s play life vs. non-play life. The play, like every play before or since, ended. Then Mother crashed.
This was church theater although most of the productions were not religious. We did a fixed number of shows, and then it was over after one or two weekends, depending on the scale of the production. It didn’t matter the length of the run, the factor that put Mother into the tailspin was that it was over. When it was over then she was over. There was nothing left to do until months later when another production began to power up.
I remember her locking the bedroom door while everybody else was gone to work or school except Jeff and I. We’d knock gently on the door, for we had been instructed not to bother her. But we had questions! We needed permission for something vital!
We put our faces down to the crack of space between the bottom of the door and the dirty floor to call to her.
We went to the nearest heating duct, because we’d already learned that sound traveled quite well through the metal pipes, and called to her some more. Louder this time, naturally, because our little voices had to go all the way through the pipes to her room.
Such are the vagaries of fame for a three-year-old: mobbed by teenage girls one day, the next your agent won’t return your calls.
Don’t trust me on faith. Don’t believe my words.
Words are for lying. Actions are for telling the truth.
Listen to my actions.
I’m leaving home and I don’t know if I will be back. Seventeen years old, I angrily sort through my meager possessions sorting the “going” from the “staying”. I have a plane to catch.
Still stinging from the decision forced on me days before the start of my senior year of high school, I throw clothes into the gaping jaws of the pale blue suitcase on the bottom rack of the ancient bunk bed.
On the floor of the closet I face the real challenge. Clothes will fit well enough in the suitcase but what about those items?
From one edge of the little closet to the other, standing cheek-to-jowl, are my shoes.
Boys aren’t supposed to collect shoes and yet it is said shoes make the man so for the first time I take inventory of my footwear which seem to be loosely arranged by mass.
In the heavyweight division, the undisputed champion is the pair of massive Raichle hiking boots. These are must-haves, even in the cement forest of downtown Denver. I can’t yet know the vital role they will play in the second semester, carrying me unerringly through the Sonora desert, Rocky Mountains, and beyond. Indispensible.
Black dress shoes, one pair. Cheap, worn, but well-polished. Going.
Black patent leathers, one pair, to be worn with the tuxedo which was the costume of the jazz ensemble I sang in last year and expected to this year. Shoes, tuxedo and expectations: staying.
New Balance tennis court shoes, which outclass my Goodwill-edition racquet (not to mention my skills on the court) by several degrees: going.
Black baseball shoes with steel cleats and white Adidas-style stripes. I love the crunching sound of the cleats on pavement even though it ruins them. Going but I doubt I’ll even put them on.
Converse All Stars, black, one pair. My everyday-plus-basketball shoes. Going.
Holding down the left flank of the formation is the limp pair of black Capizio ballet shoes I’ve worn for three years of Hiliners. A smirk wriggles across my face when I imagine people thinking I can dance ballet when they see the Capizios – I never called them ballet slippers, only Capizios. I love Hiliners and feel the Loneliness Birds hatching more stone eggs in my gut knowing I will never dance with my friends again. Going, but packing no hope with them.
These shoes don’t belong in the same closet together but to me they are one family. They are my story, they tell of the fields, the churches and cemeteries, the mountains, the courts, the stages I’ve trod – some might say trampled – so far in my brief, unremarkable, journey.
The suitcase fails to swallow the meal I’ve selected for it. I deselect items until the latches snap. No shoes were harmed or removed in making that suitcase close.