Carlos

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Carlos was probably the scariest-looking human being I’ve ever known.  He spent so much time lifting weights and was so gigantic, everybody at the gym was worried he might explode someday. He was covered with tattoos, some very well done and some that appeared to have been scribbled by a cellmate or a stoned friend. He was about forty years old and his face had recorded every one of them. It was crooked, smashed, pock-marked, scarred and generally beaten all to hell.

If any of the other hardcases in the gym ever thought about challenging Carlos, they were probably discouraged by the thought of where they might hit him. His bull-like thickness made his body almost invulnerable, and he probably wouldn’t care if he got hit in the face. As a wise person once said, “Never mess with a man with nothing to lose.”

A smile might have improved his appearance but I never saw it happen. He was so serious-looking, it was as if his face might crumble and fall to the floor if he attempted to smile. Because of all this, nobody spoke to him or wanted to. Nobody even looked at him. After all, people avoid danger, and Carlos looked dangerous. But it has always been a bad habit of mine to walk toward danger rather than away from it, as if there are answers to great mysteries hidden there, or behind my own fear.

So rather than avoid Carlos like everybody else did, I would always give him a friendly nod when I’d see him at the gym. He didn’t respond at first but after a while, he started returning them. Still, he never smiled and we never spoke until one day when Carlos was leaving the gym while I was arriving. Determined to see if it was possible for him to smile, I gathered my courage, smiled brightly and said, “Hey! How ya doin?” as if we were old friends.

I was surprised to see a big smile spread across his face, and his eyes lit up so wide, his face became almost childlike. And what a grand smile it was. A smile compliments a face that has been kicked around so much more than one that hasn’t.

I extended my hand. He grabbed it, squeezed it hard and said, “Fine! How are you?” There was so much spirit and gratitude in his handshake, I felt like I was handing a glass of ice water to a man wandering through the desert.

Slightly shocked by his friendliness, I said, “I’m doing well. Did you have a good workout?”
“Yeah, real good,” he said. “My back’s bugging me, though. It’s always giving me trouble.”
“Oh, man. Back problems are the worst,” I said. “Well, at least you’re still making it into the gym. You can’t keep a good man down.”
He laughed and said, “Thanks, I’ll try to think of it that way, too.”

I noticed a tattoo on his arm of a young woman’s face in the middle of a heart with cherubs flying around it. I asked who it was. He told me it was his mother, and that she had died five years earlier.
“She’s very beautiful,” I said.
“Yes, she was,” he answered, looking down at the tattoo. “I miss her every day.”

We talked about a lot of things that day. He grew up in Chicago. His father was killed in a construction site accident. Carlos was only three at the time so he had no clear memories of him. He was an only child because his mother never remarried. She kept a black and white photo of his father on her bedside table all her life. He joined a gang as a teenager, which was when he acquired most of his tattoos. He moved to L.A. to get away from the life when he realized how much the violence and mayhem was twisting his spirit.

He said, “I was ashamed of myself for worrying my mother so much just to go looking for trouble with a bunch of fools. I owed her everything. I owed them nothing.”
“That was a wise decision,” I said.
He said, “Yeah, but it’s too bad wisdom demands so much from us, especially time.”
I asked him what he meant. He said he made that decision after spending two years in the Cook County Jail for aggravated assault.
“I’ll tell you, man,” he said. “Jail really worked for me. It gave me a lot of time to think. And you know how many times those puto’s came to visit me? Once. One time. That was all I needed to know.”

When he got home, he asked his high school sweetheart to leave Chicago with him but she couldn’t because her parents didn’t approve of him after he went to jail. But she still loved him and it was a tearful parting. I asked him if he had ever married. He said he hadn’t because he could never find anyone to match her. I could tell he was still carrying her in his heart, preserved there at the age she was when he left her. Time would not find her as it had him.

He said the thing he was most proud of was saving enough money to buy his mother a small house near his own and fly her out to Los Angeles. He said she was like a kid at Christmas when he took her to her new home. He never told her that he worked two jobs for five years to pull it off.

“She was happy here,” he said. “We were together again and she made a lot of nice friends.”

I sensed great sadness and loneliness in Carlos. It became clear to me that weightlifting was a refuge for him, and an escape. I was also reminded of how utterly incorrect outward impressions of people can be, and all anyone really needs is for someone to show a sincere interest in them.

Not everything we talked about was so sad. We had a good laugh comparing my Irish culture with his Hispanic culture. We decided they were very much alike. Both are basically good-natured, quick with a laugh, a little hot-tempered, and of course, they both love their cerveza’s.

After an hour or so, we said goodbye, and he smiled that big smile again. After that day, Carlos and I always talked at the gym. We even worked out together a few times, though I could never match his strength. People always seemed surprised to see the medium-sized, conservative-looking white boy hanging out with the big, mean-looking cholo. And only I knew that he wasn’t in a gang anymore. Only I knew the sad and lonely man beneath the intimidating appearance.

A little while later, I went to Europe for six months. I got Carlos’ address and told him I would send him a postcard or two. I did. One from Rome and one from Athens. When I came home and went back to the gym, I asked if anyone had seen Carlos. Nobody knew him by name so I had to describe him.

“Oh, that guy?” somebody said. “He died. Suicide or something.”
“What? When?” I asked.
“A few months ago,” he answered. “Who cares? The guy was a jerk.”
My shock turned to anger.
“He was a friend of mine,” I said.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know you knew him so well.”

Everybody went back to their workouts. I felt sick so I went outside and walked to the spot where Carlos and I had talked that day.

“God damn it, Carlos,” I whispered.

The tears welling in my eyes were caused by anger at him but also shame with myself for not reaching out even further to him. I had been unable to grasp the full depth of his despair. For a moment, I thought if I hadn’t gone away, maybe he would have had someone to talk to. Maybe he wouldn’t have . . .

I brushed that thought away. There was no point in thinking such things now. I went back inside and started working out again but my mind was on my friend. His spirit was everywhere, the spirit only I knew. Again, I thought about how wrong surface impressions can be. Carlos was the strongest man in the gym, but only on the outside.

He was already forgotten here. Nobody would miss him, nobody except me, because I remembered the guy with the big smile, the guy who missed his mother every day, the guy who squeezed my hand so hard, it was like I was handing a glass of ice water to a man wandering through the desert.

 

Thinking of Someone Randomly

I was reading Highlights for Children to my daughter last night and suddenly thought of my old boss. Strange how that happens. He just popped in there. There must have been something subliminal in the story that brought him to mind.

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Messin’ with Mark, God’s Sitcom. Episode 9 – Mean, Thieving, Sneaky Seagulls

 

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Welcome to episode 9 of God’s sitcom, Messin’ with Mark, wherein He pranks me for His amusement and that of His heavenly host of angels. They say one year on earth is about a thousand years in heaven, so I suppose they need to pass the time somehow. I just hope I don’t get detained at the gate when it’s my time to go to heaven. There should be some payoff for this harassment. 

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Seagulls were once great birds of the sea. They are still celebrated by most as majestic and graceful. Well, I say it’s time we take them off that pedestal. We all know they have no respect for anyone.

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They don’t even respect authority figures.

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Their indiscriminate pooping is so legendary, games have been made about it.

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And hats.

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Even candy!

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And we all know that, like pigeons, they have a poop color adjustment knob somewhere on their anatomy to adjust to the color of the object they’re pooping on.

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I may sound a little resentful. Allow me to explain.

I was at the beach one day with the wife. We were relaxing on our towels and opening our picnic basket, preparing for a lovely day. The kiddo’s were building a sand castle nearby. Everything was perfect. One of our girls decided to walk to the water’s edge so we both jumped up to hold her hand. We weren’t gone thirty seconds before seagulls by the dozen swooped down on our lunch and devoured everything. The drinks had holes poked in them and were leaking out onto the sand, the bananas were mush, the potato chips were all over the beach. And as we ran toward them screaming and frantically waving our arms, they swallowed chicken bones sideways just to get as much into their beaks as fast as they could. 

Undignified, and not befitting their reputation as glorious, graceful seabirds.

But that’s not all. Oh, no. Later in the day, my wife went to look at her iPhone to see what time it was and a bird pooped right on the screen. 

Think that’s it? Not by a long shot. I started laughing (I mean, what else could I do?) and as I leaned back with my mouth open – yep, right in the pie hole. I used an entire thermos full of water to wash it out. Kind of like this guy –

And yet we persist in thinking of them as beautiful and serene.

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We continue to be concerned about their well-being no matter how many times they poop on us and our stuff.

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But look at them. Look closely. What do you see? Love of humanity? No. Meanness and sneakiness! That’s what I see! 

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If reincarnation is real, I’m going to settle this score, and I know how I want to come back.

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The Devil’s Best Tool – For Anyone with a Drug-Addicted or At-Risk Friend or Relative

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I usually try to keep it light but I was thinking a lot last night about my older brother, Paul, who died twenty years ago of a heroin overdose. He always used to say, “I’m only hurting myself”, either oblivious to or in denial about the pain he caused our parents and I watching his gradual decline from a bright-eyed, intelligent kid to a tattooed, toothless living ghost. Of course, his death, though expected, wasn’t pleasant, either, being our worst fear realized. The years since have been hard, too, and may have contributed to my father’s death. He told me that at least once a day, he would get a terrible heaviness in his chest, wondering what he might have said or done differently to prevent Paul’s tragic life. That’s a hell of a legacy to leave the people who brought him into the world.

I wrote the poem below to try to demonstrate that drug use doesn’t hurt only the user – in fact, it emanates outward from him/her to family, society, and the world. Every thing we do does. Every product we use, including drugs, has reverberations into places we’ll never see and lives we’ll never know.

I was at a party shortly after my brother died and saw a group of people lining up cocaine on a tabletop. They saw the look of disapproval I gave them and asked if I wanted some, probably worried I was a cop or going to call one. I said no, impolitely. One of them asked if I had a problem. I said, “Yes, I do. Cops are being killed all over the world and here in America, and children are being decapitated in front of their parents by drug cartels so you can have your little recreational drug. You’re ignorant.” Things escalated. Friends got between us to prevent a fight. I guess I ruined their high. I hope so.

Anyway, here’s the poem. It has been used by DARE in schools. I hope it has done some good. If you know someone who thinks drugs are harmless fun, please share it with them. Preventing tragic lives and deaths like my brother’s is my way of making his life mean something. Thanks.

The Devil’s Best Tool

Can someone please explain to me
why kids think drugs will set them free?
Instead of reveling in their youth,
seeking health and art and truth,
they waste it all for some false high
as their golden chances pass them by
for success, pride, and the joy of giving,
all the things that make life worth living;
a victim of their own selfish needs
while everyone who loves them bleeds.

Yet users say, “I’m only hurting me”,
oblivious to the pain in their family.
They constantly whine and complain
about how their lives are full of pain.
And they have my sympathy, but here’s the rub –
If their lives are hard, they should join the club.
Many of us have lives that are filled with pain
but we don’t deal with it by destroying our brain.
We work hard and study and pray and fight
to conquer the demons that plague us at night.
We get up early each day and work hard and long
to make our lives better, to be noble and strong.

What good does it do to bury pain in that way?
The problem’s still there when the drug wears away.
How long can confronting it be postponed?
How long can such laziness be condoned?
There is sorrow and pain in life.  On that, I’d agree.
But beat it, don’t run from it, if you want to be free.
Using drugs just says that you’re helpless and weak
and shrouds even further the answers you seek.
Aside from the fact that it’s foolish and wrong,
it tells everyone that you’re not very strong.
Not strong enough to face life straight;
Not in control of your own fate.

Do you really think drugs are just harmless fun?
Then why does your dealer always carry a gun?
Have you ever really stopped to think it through . . .
The mayhem drugs cause on their way to you?
The habit drug users call “recreation”
causes death, despair, and devastation
in impoverished countries that they’ll never see
and right here at home in the land of the free.
But the land of the free has no room left in its jails
and the home of the brave is boarded and nailed
to keep out the rising legions of hell;
to hide in our sanctuaries and pretend all is well.

The experiment of America is becoming a sham
and drugs are the biggest chink in the dam.
All our institutions are beginning to fall
and if we lose our children, God help us all.
But day after day, the death toll repeats.
Dealers killing for control of the streets.
Gangs turning neighborhoods into war zones
where folks are afraid to leave their homes.
And when their only concern should be getting grades higher,
children have to worry about getting caught in crossfire.
In their lives, the specter of death always looms.
They don’t even feel safe anymore in their rooms.
Their sleep is uneasy when nighttime falls,
worried the bullets will come through their walls.
And peace officers, every day, have to die
just so some ignorant fool can get high.

If the buyers stopped coming, all this carnage would end
so if you have to keep using, at least don’t pretend
that you hurt no one else.  That’s an idiotic deduction.
No, you’re just one more stop on a trail of destruction.

My words may sound harsh but they’re written with love
because I can either hug you or give you a shove.
I’ll say anything to you and do whatever it takes
because if you gamble, you should know all the stakes.
I’m not a preacher or some self-righteous fool
but it seems that drugs are the devil’s best tool.
Drugs turn young boys with eyes clear and bright,
into homeless men sleeping in alleys at night.
Drugs make young girls start turning tricks,
selling their bodies for one more fix.
Drugs enter your life as a fun-loving guest
and slowly but surely rob you of your best.
You hardly notice as they become your master,
turning you and your life into a disaster.

So if you want to be part of the coolest crowd,
look for the people who are strong and proud.
Take it from me if you won’t from another.
because drugs took the life of my only brother.

For Paul William Rickerby – RIP

The Tips of the Tallest Trees – For Hikers, Forest Lovers, and Anyone Struggling

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After years of writing poetry
and struggling to break free,
I found the perfect metaphor
for everything I want to be.

It came to me by accident
as good things often do
and my task now, as a poet,
is to tell the tale to you.

I was feeling tired and beaten,
worn-out and weary to the bone.
I hadn’t left the house in days,
shut off from the world, alone.

When something deep inside me said,
“That’s enough!  Get out of bed!
Stop feeling sorry for yourself
or you’re as good as dead!”

After being buried in despair so long,
I wondered from where this voice had risen.
It was like a visit from a long-lost friend
after many hopeless years in prison.

So I opened up the dusty curtains
and let the bright sunlight flood in.
And as every poet will attest –
when one looks out, one looks within.

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The street outside was bustling.
Lovers laughed and children played.
And I couldn’t help but realize
how far from life I’d strayed.

My world seemed so dark and small
next to the one I saw outside.
In a moment, I felt all I’d lost.
The dam broke and I cried.

I knew I had to find a way
to purge this sadness from my soul,
dust myself off, rejoin the living,
and make my fractured spirit whole.

So I splashed my face and went outside.
It was a beautiful, windy day
but my heart ached with melancholy
that just would not go away.

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I walked and walked for hours
like a tortured, restless ghost
for when we confront our demons,
that’s when they attack the most.

I don’t know how much time had passed
when I reached the base of a hill.
Determined to walk the pain away,
I pressed on further still.

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I have always loved to climb
because of how it clears the mind
but I had no peace within that day
so what peace could I hope to find?

I remembered an old line I heard once
and it rang in my ears from the start . . .
“You won’t find your heart in a temple
if there’s no temple in your heart.”

Faith has never been easy for me.
Nature has always been my church.
I didn’t know what I was looking for.
I only knew I had to search.

I climbed until my muscles ached,
not even sure what I was proving
or what I was running to or from.
I just had to keep on moving.

I was thoroughly exhausted
when I finally reached the top
but I saw a taller hill beyond
and my soul wouldn’t let me stop.

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I suppose I was tired of quitting,
of feeling beaten, small and weak.
I couldn’t let myself give up
until I reached the highest peak.

These were not just hills.
They were everything I’d ever tried.
They were every half-accomplished goal
begging fulfillment, deep inside.

Many of my tears, that day,
mingled with the dusty soil.
The hills had come to represent
a lifetime’s travail and toil.

I cried for all the love I’d lost
and for all the wasted years.
I cried for every broken dream
on this, my trail of tears.

I finally reached the second peak,
so high, I felt like I was flying
or I could reach up and touch heaven.
The howling wind was like God sighing.

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I was now the highest living thing
but for the tips of the tallest trees,
pitching and swaying magnificently
in the gentle Autumn breeze.

The stars were beginning to twinkle
as the fiery sun set in the west.
I laid down in a bed of leaves
to grant myself some rest.

And when I looked up to the sky
framed by the towering trees,
a strange quiet filled my soul
and this thought came to me . . .

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The trees, though firmly rooted,
never stop reaching for the sky.
They don’t worry about what falls away
or how fast the years pass by.

They don’t complain about the weather
or struggle against ferocious winds
yet they’re still standing proudly
when the calm returns again.

This is a very, very old idea.
It surely did not begin with me.
A poet once said she’d never see
a poem as lovely as a tree.

And I hate to repeat an old cliche
but truth always stays the same
though it comes from many places
and travels under many names.

I’d heard this philosophy so often,
I considered it “nickel and dime”
but on this strange and soulful day,
it was like I’d heard it the first time.

A poet lives on metaphors.
They’re his lifeblood, you see.
So I was happy to truly discover
the ancient lesson of the tree.

To stop fighting and agree with life
and whatever it happens to bring
for a soul tormented by loss and pain
can never learn to dance or sing.

To have a strong foundation
while always reaching out.
To keep growing, no matter what.
That’s what life’s about.

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These strong and noble giants
whispered a message for me to keep
and under their sheltering canopy,
I slowly drifted off to sleep.

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I awoke to a bright, new morning
and made my way back down the hill
and everywhere a tear had fallen,
a flower stood, serene and still.

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I looked back up to the hilltop once
to that place where every tree’s a poem,
said thank you, then turned and smiled
and, peacefully, headed home.

~ Mark Rickerby

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Painting credit – Forest Stars by Anna Sokolova

Messin’ with Mark – God’s Sitcom. Episode 8 – The Lost Key

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For those of you new to this show, let me briefly explain:

God was looking down through the clouds one day and laughing hysterically when Jesus happened to walk by. Curious, He came over and asked, “What are you looking at, Pops?”

“Oh, just pranking Mark again,” God replied.

“Him again!” Jesus said. “Come on, Dad! What do You have against that guy anyway?”

“I don’t know,” God replied. “There’s just something about him. I mean, look at his face.”

Jesus looked down and found himself laughing, too.

“Yeah, I can see what you mean. Look at his face all twisted and anguished.”

They laughed together for a while before realizing that they were, well, God and Jesus. They gradually stopped laughing and looked at each other. God said, “No, wait a minute. You’re right, son. I created that retched soul so I shouldn’t make fun of him. Pranking him is very un-godlike, so I’m going to stop.”

They looked at each other for a few seconds, then said, in unison, “Naaaaaaaa!” and laughed some more.

The pranks became so elaborate and hilarious (to Them, not me) that Jesus suggested making a regular show out of it. They called it “Messin’ with Mark” and every week, all the angels gather around that celestial widescreen (High Def, of course) to catch the latest episode.

Yes, my life is comic relief in heaven. It’s the only explanation.

Here’s another one they got me with. They really pulled out all the stops this time.

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About ten years ago, my wife and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I don’t like to carry all my keys in my pocket during a hike so I took the car key off and left the rest in the car. We came back and I put the key somewhere in the car without reattaching it to the keyring. We made a fire, roasted some weenies and marshmallows, and went to sleep in the back of the SUV.

The next morning, we were cleaning up our campsite when I saw a magpie inside my car. It was the only time I had ever seen a bird of any kind inside the car. I walked over and it flew away. When we got in the car to go home, I couldn’t find the key. We searched and searched, even emptying out the car completely, but it was GONE. 

Then it dawned on me. The magpie must have taken it. After all, they are notorious for stealing shiny things and decorating their nests with them. Keys are shiny. Ergo, the magpie was the culprit! It made perfect sense to me.

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So, cursing the magpie, I set out in search of its nest, imagining it looked something like this.

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The next problem: As everyone knows, the Grand Canyon is a little on the large side. Nineteen hundred and two square miles large, so I didn’t like my chances of actually finding a particular nest belonging to a particular magpie in a particular tree in all that space, but what other choice did I have?

Here’s where I was looking – 

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My wife was not encouraging. She said, “Are you crazy? You’ll never find it! The Grand Canyon is the biggest hole on earth!” I resisted the urge to give the obvious sarcastic response and marched purposefully onward until her derisive laughter faded in the distance.

I struggled to maintain hope as I searched dozens of trees and tracked every singing bird. The old “needle in a haystack” metaphor came to mind.  

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But, oh, how glorious my victory would be when I snatched the missing key from the magpie’s nest!

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After two hours of searching and the onset of hypothermia, I finally gave up and returned to the car to find my wife, the only sensible one in our group of two, relaxing in a lawn chair, sipping a cool drink and wondering why she married me. 

The next challenge was figuring out how to get a new key made. Jesus must have told God to have a little pity on me because another family came through the campsite. They said they were on their way to town. I asked them to send a locksmith out. They promised they would. Five hours later, he showed up. Because of how far away we were, he charged me approximately nineteen times the normal amount for making a new key. The expression on my face when he said the price surely fetched big laughs up in heaven.

The next day, back in civilization, we stopped at A&W Root Beer for lunch. I pulled out the recessed cup holder in my dashboard and the key was sitting right there. Imagine my chagrin. It was the ONLY place we didn’t look. And guess who put it there? My wife! We were actually both to blame because I had pushed the cup holder back in without noticing the key. I got out of the car, looked up at the uncaring sky, fell to my knees, raised my hands and screamed, “Whyyyyyyyy???” 

It was sort of like what tennis players do when they make a game-winning shot, except without the happiness.

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This was the climax of the show, the point where God, Jesus and their heavenly host of angels all laughed their holy tookus’s off. They laughed so hard, feathers shaken out of their wings rained down all over Arizona.

The only “residuals” I receive as the star of this show has been the residual embarrassment of my wife retelling this story at multiple parties and gatherings in the ten years since it happened. 

Nicely played, God. Nicely played.