Saturday, February 25, 2006

Frank, The Phone Throwing Guy

We used to call him “Frank The Phone Throwing Guy”. Frank was tough on communications equipment – handsets, headsets, cell phones, pagers, PDAs, you name it and more likely than not Frank has sent it hurling through his office at some point against the unforgiving end of the brick wall that faced his desk at the office.

He didn’t start out throwing telephones. He started by tossing furniture but as he got older and as furniture became more ergonomic this became less and less feasible. He had tried pencils and pens but they lacked the same satisfaction that telephones gave him as they shattered into a million shards. Telephones have always been at the receiving end of abuse ever since their inception. I imagine that after Alexander Graham Bell uttered those famous words “Mr. Watson, come in here. I need you” into one end of his newest invention, that Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell probably shouted down to her husband that she was going to leave him if he didn’t come out of that dank basement playing with all those wires and things. His reaction was most likely to yank the whole device off his desk and toss it toward the cellar stairs in the direction of his wife’s voice.

Ever since then, men and women everywhere have been realizing the cathartic release in that eruptive slam of phone into cradle – complete, final and tight, plastic on plastic, loud certain and sure. The slammer is almost always under the misguided notion that the intensity of this slam would travel over the phone lines filling the ears of the transgressor; hence, enforcing the point of said dissatisfaction. It was an emotional sonic boom of sorts, faster than the speed of sound; faster than that lying, cheating, sneaking voice coming from the other end of the phone call. SLAM. It was goodbye with attitude and yes, it was a fuck you in one brief cataclysmic syllable: over, kaput, finis, done!

So given the history of abuse known to be heaped on telephones it seemed only logical to Frank that the next step in its evolution was that of un-powered flight. The phone’s square solidness in Frank’s sweaty wrinkled hands felt like power. The hook made for a perfect bowling ball grip; the weight was substantive but not oppressive. Its trajectory made for a straight line with no wobble; no uncertainty in its final destination. It gave rise to an orgasm of dismantling plastic, with the cracking shell and slight hint of the ringer. It was anger in the form of office equipment that sailed by the heads of salesmen and consultants who dared to cross Frank’s meteoric sense of justice.

This was such a tradition that Frank had a large storage room built just to house all the spare phones for those occasions when he needed to release stress or register his dissatisfaction with something. People who worked with him never spoke a word, but came in, cleaned up the parts and replaced the now defunct phone with a new one. Frank never liked bad news. Who does? Whenever people came to break bad news to Frank, they inevitably wore that “don’t kill the messenger” look like a fresh, ill-fitting suit. Frank would reach for the phone at some point during every day and toss it with a Sandy Koufax ease, replete with a kick of the rear leg and graceful follow through. Before the days of “anger management classes”, before the politically correct days of harassment, Frank saw things through the filter of his own sense of justice.

No one ever knew for sure if he missed his targets on purpose. On the one hand the sound of the smashing phone was often enough to register his complaint with the other party while doing no real damage to speak of. This alone would frighten the most stout hearted. Still, on the other hand, Frank’s cataracts were legendary so even if he wasn’t aiming at you, he was throwing toward you and that was enough for many. And besides, it wasn’t really the mass of hurtling poly vinyl chloride coming at you that bothered you so much, but more the fact that the phone embodied all of Frank’s rage that a man his age could muster. The sub-orbital phone was really just a metaphor for something Frank could never quite get a handle on: his temper.

In point of fact, Frank was good to me as he really did treat everyone who worked for him well, almost like family. This was a business that he had built up with his own two hands. As quotidian a description as that was when it came to describing every entrepreneur since the inception of capitalism, it really doesn’t begin to describe Frank’s loving dedication to a business that was more flesh and blood to him than his own family.
When his wife had cancer, when he lost his son in that accident, he inevitably found his way into work and sought relief in work the way some men might find it with religion or at a bar. He was always good to me – which is not to say that I carried any exemptions as the target of some sort of flying hardware from time to time.

Frank hired me fresh out of college as an accounting student. He paid me next to nothing and as I gained experience, he knew that I could be running other places and making triple the salary. Still, he gave me great freedom and was constantly sending me gifts. I would be the one to hold the impromptu “come-to-Jesus” meetings in his office – times when I had to make him see that his old school ideas about running a business were creating great disadvantages for the business. He would hate it when I brought new ideas to him, but really I believe that was why he hired me in the first place, though he never admitted that. For him, it was like taking his castor oil – some foul tasting medicine that he knew was going to help him in the long run. Sometimes he hated the advice I gave him and he hated the fact that everything was changing around him and he knew I was right. He was aware of his limitations so he forced things onto himself that eventually would help the business.

But there was no questioning that Frank was the boss though. There was none of this “employee empowerment” or Six Sigma, quality improvement, “I’m okay, You’re Okay” pop psychology in Frank’s place. Despite his great self-awareness, despite the signs of his advancing age and stooping gait, despite all the signs of a rapidly aging tyrant who believed that hurling phones against a brick wall of his office was good management style, he was still not averse to acting childish from time to time. Like the time I had to explain to him why we were losing market share to some Chinese company who made our products at a fraction of the cost we could. He wouldn’t listen. He grew more obstinate inversely proportional to the clarity of the logic I was using to explain the matter to him. He would put his fingers in his ears when he reached overload, usually just before he reached for the nearest telephone or cell phone, wind up and let it fly like a major league pitcher at the start of a no hit shutout. With fingers in his ears he would then chant so as to make it impossible for him to hear me. “La-la-la-la” he would intone as I would follow him around the office imploring him, “Frank, Frank don’t do this.”

He wore the same type of gray oversized business suit as when he started the business. He took off the suit coat every morning and hung it over his chair. His hair thinned and what little was left turned white. He wore his trousers up high almost up to his breastplate the way older men did and in time it almost seemed like he had no hips at all. His walk changed over the years from a bounce when he first started to the gradual shuffle that I came to know in his later years. Never needing a cane or walker, he would start every day the same way: with a walk. His skin developed the looseness that an older person’s skin does, and the hearing aids and thick bottle end glasses had the effect of a fun house mirror on his face. He was not one of those men who denied his age. He accepted it the way he accepted everything that came his way: in a deep quiet. He wasn’t a personal type of person, but you could tell he needed people. He loved to argue. I suppose it tested his faculties. He did things the way he did for irrational reasons, but they were rational to him. . We couldn’t change him and the fact was none of had the balls to suggest he retire, even as his memory began to lapse; even when he ended up in the nursing home; even when he was unable to recognize his wife or even when he was unable to remember where he worked.

Eventually when Frank died and there was a great pallor that beset the office. His son took over and he managed the place in accordance with modern business practices. Soon after that, I deleted the spreadsheet row in the budget that I used to prepare for Frank. It had only the generic description of “Spare Phones” and some dollar amount. I removed the row since we no longer needed spare phones as a separate line item in the budget. With this, it seemed as though I was excising Frank’s very soul from this place, from the financial plan of his very heart; for the thing he cared for the most. It hurt when I actually clicked the “File-Save As” option. As the hourglass came up on the computer reflecting the time it took to save the new budget files, Frank’s memory grew just a little more dim and in the end, we would all be a little worse for it.

Friday, February 24, 2006

POEM - On Certain Days

The mouthful of coffee
Is proof that I did not
Perish during the night -

That I was not
In my sleep by dreams

That forced my head beneath
The blankets long enough
To be entirely smothered.

Coffee and the reading
Of morning obituaries,
Like water added to

Freeze dried eggs is how I
Reconstitute myself
ready for another day.

M C Biegner

Moving Day

When all is said and done, usually more is said than is done.

Jaynie rips the sticky packing tape about an arm’s length that makes a sharp tearing sound. The pitch goes from high to low like a knife tearing through bed sheets, as the piece grows longer.

“Need the tape?” she asks me but what she really means is “Can this be right?” I take the tape after marking the box with the word: “KITCHEN”.
“Thanks,” I tell her but what I really mean is “I can’t wait to be out of here.” I mark my box with the word: “OFFICE STUFF”.

Jaynie pushes the box she just closed, heaving a gentle grunt as she does so. “One more box down…”, she starts and then suddenly quits but what she really means is “I am not going to miss this place.”

I smile at her and begin loading the bone white everyday dishes into another carton. “Yeah, I know,” I tell her but what I really mean is “What is the point of staying?” She marks another box with the word: “SUNDRIES” and remarks: “The new place – do you think – I mean – do you think it can – I can – we will be happy there?” But what she really means is “I feel dead inside. Don’t you feel dead inside? How come you don’t feel just a little dead inside?”

I wrinkle newspaper and stuff it around the dishes when Jaynie stops and gets up. I tell her, “You know we can call someone. I mean, there are people…” I stop but what I really mean is “How are you going to get better if you don’t try?” I write the word: “BEDROOM” on the box I am closing up.

Jaynie waves me off like I am a fly, touches the windowpane and begins to scratch small spirals into the ice that has formed on the inside of the glass. “I hate winter,” she says but what she really means is “No! No one can know about this.” She writes: “LIVING ROOM” with the fat end of the marker, holding the cap in her teeth.

. “It’s just the season,” I tell her, “It will be spring soon but what I really mean is “How could you let this happen?” I mark another box: “UTENSILS” and tape it up

She smiles softly and goes back to packing. She picks up a picture frame and in it is a picture of a little boy and she fights back tears. “I can still smell him,” she says but what she really means is “Fuck you! Fuck life! Fuck God and fuck everything!”

I touch her gently, probably for the first time since that day; that day when the noise stopped coming from that room. “Jaynie, don’t do this,” I say but what I really mean is “What more do you want from me?”

She holds up her hand again pushing me away in gesture then tries a forced smile. “I know, I know” is all she can say but what she really means is: “How on earth am I supposed to go on living the same way?”

We go back to packing and I make another box and label it: “GLASSES”. I say to her without looking at her, “When we get to the new place things will be different. You’ll see. Everything will be fresh,” but what I really mean is “Christ! I am carrying twice the mortgage on this new place – what do you want from me? Can’t you see how I am hurting too? And anyway, he was my fucking son too!” I close up the box I am working on and write: “KNICK NACKS”

Jaynie goes to pack a framed poem by Mary Oliver and reads one line out loud: “Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?” then she just stares again out the window.

“I really hate the winter,” she says but what she really means is “I am so scared right now about what I might do next.” She hesitates before she writes the word: “MEMORBILIA” on the side of her box.

I carry another box labeled: “BLANKETS” over by the door, place it neatly in the pile and say, “Yeah, me too,” but what I really mean is “Yeah, me too.”
M C Biegner

Sunday, February 19, 2006

POEM - Television Always Adds Ten Pounds (or Things Are Never What They Appear To Be)

In war the bullets don’t really riddle
The flesh with small holes the way we are led
To believe by TV and the movies.
Rather, they detonate like summer fruit
By fusillades of searing ordinance.

This is not the war we played when we were
Little boys turning felled branches into
Ersatz guns:
Whole limbs were never sheared off,
Whole organs never removed or displaced.

This is not the war we are promised that
Will turn us into an Army of One;
Will help us to be all that we can be;
Will transform us into the few, the proud.

The fog of war makes for a great romance.

What war does to us must be shared through the
Eyes of every victim but no one is
Spared: not the ones who return lame or blind;
Not the ones unscathed, who seem so complete;
Not taxpayers, cultured in ignorance;
Not the Republicans or Democrats;
Not Islam’s passion or staid Christian soul;
Not my innocent grandchild, yet unknown
To this world, and not your grandchild either.

M C Biegner

Friday, February 17, 2006

When Daddy Left

When daddy left we had a parade. We danced around red, white and blue streamers and listened to a marching band. We sang ‘America the Beautiful’ and placed our hands over our hearts and pledged allegiance under God, indivisible, for liberty and justice for all. There were speeches and we sat then stood then sat again. We applauded over and over until my hands were raw and I had to start clapping against my leg. Afterwards, they had watermelon for everyone and under the hot sun we let the juice run down our chins.

When daddy left, I hugged him real tight. His body was hard and his face was light. He smelled like Old Spice and he was just so full. He winked at me when I saluted and I clapped in time to the thundering boots of the marching men. There was the cheering that turned the hangar where the party was staged into a carnival and it was hard to hear what we said to each other.

The day before when daddy left, Mom made a big chocolate cake and he tossed the football around with me. He pulled me close to his face, directly into his face, and said that he’d be home before I even noticed he was gone. He said I needed to be the man around here for a while, to take care of things while he was gone. I said I would. I said I would and I knew I meant it. I knew I was able too.

When daddy left, Mom cried, afraid. I held her, with my arm around her waist, the way he might have if he could have, hoping it would help her miss daddy a little less. I read the papers every day after that, hoping to get an inkling of where he was and what he was doing. He called and he wrote. I talked to him, but it wasn’t the same. When daddy left, he gave me a journal that I wrote in every day. In it, I told him everything – about school, about how I’d made the football team, girls I liked, and about all the yellow ribbons hanging up everywhere.

When daddy left, he told me he would return so I waited. Mom doubted, but I waited.

When daddy left, I expected him. Do you know what I mean? I actually expected him to come home. But then they screwed up. Somebody really screwed up over there. When it came time for him to rotate back, when his tour was up, they sent him back but they left part of him over there. They sent back this great big shell. Like a summer cicada molting its skin on a tree, hollow and frail, this shell was here, looking directly at me, directly through me. Daddy didn’t return – just his skin, just his hands and feet, just his big ears that everyone says I got from him, just his toothy grin when he worked out, just his buzz haircut and leathery skin. But daddy was still over there.

When daddy left, he always smiled but now he hardly smiles. He just sits and stares. Sometimes he just cries. Sometimes late at night I hear the angry whispers of Mom and Daddy. He drinks more than he used to and sometimes, every so often, he gets angry enough and hits my Mom. Sometimes, my Mom has to put on extra makeup so as to hide the marks so no one will know.

When daddy left he was so full but they screwed up, those jerks. They made a mistake. They sent back this shell and I want to know how I am supposed to grow up? I want to know what Mom is supposed to do with this shell – this thing that I can hang up in my closet like a heavy winter coat.

I know everything has to change, that nothing can stay the same, but not like this. I know that in war, men die, but not like this.

M C Biegner

Saturday, February 04, 2006

When Walt Whitman Was A Little Girl

When Walt Whitman was a little girl, she’d never let the ordinariness of things box her in. Things others never had time or desire to see. She sat on her swing making up songs for hours until one day, Walt’s mama called out to her, “Walt! Walt, honey, what is that song you are singing?” To which Walt replied, “This is just the song of myself. The song my heart makes with every beat. The one that it sings when no one is looking at me.”

Sometimes Walt would head up to Huntington Bay and sit amid the tall slender grass and she would use her pocketknife to cut away some of the taller blades. Then she would run home all the way shouting, “Mama! Mama! Come see the leaves of grass I got!” and together they would sit and pretend to read poetry from the fronds of grass. Poetry, Walt insisted, which was sent by the universe to Walt. She sat day after day, alone, in among the hushing winds until her father, a gruff alcoholic mass of a man with a vision that ended at the end of his drinking arm, would chastise her. He wanted to know why she liked to be alone so much and why didn’t she have any friends, and didn’t she ever get lonely? Walt just shrugged her shoulders and smiled. She knew it was her destiny to write and that writers were always just a little bit lonely and that it was okay. When her Daddy died, Walt barely even remarked about it.

She went to school and eventually moved to Brooklyn where she was known as a child who would strike up a conversation with anyone. She celebrated qualities that were different from hers: she sought out vagrants and bums down on their luck, or debutantes in their latest fashions or working men, grimy from their days of labor. On hot summer days, Walt would go to the wharfs and watch the sailors readying ships bound for exotic and far off places. She loved to watch the large sun bronzed backs of the sailors sweating in the sea and land breezes, alternating in and out, morning and evening. She secretly hoped that one day she might marry one of these sailors because to be a sailor’s wife must be a glorious thing, she reasoned.

So then the day finally arrived when Walt had to become a man. He grew a full beard, never having been taught the ways of men. It was said that he filled out softly, more like a woman than a man.

Then there was that terrible war. That war which Walt could never bring himself to call “civil” – for there was nothing civil about this fighting that he could see. True to his temperament, he became a nurse and started caring for the dying and wounded men; these men who needed a woman’s love; these men who needed a woman’s touch. All of this grief simply opened Walt’s heart even wider, like a shoehorn and these men touched Walt’s heart in deeply mysterious ways. They evoked the feelings in him of the times when Walt was a little girl, sitting alone among sand dunes, watching the rising and falling tides and the terns race up and down the beaches. As a little girl, he would catch and race fiddler crabs.

He thought of these things as he made his way through the white bandaged ghostly souls that lay everywhere in medical tents. He thought of these whenever he witnessed another amputation.

Walt never let the ordinariness of things – the simple accidentals of sex, color and shapes - define the universe he bore witness to. To Walt, the great songs he made up as a little girl ran through every electron and proton in everything that surrounded him. Walt felt everything in that accursed war and it took its toll on him. So much so that his hair and beard – now wiry and out of control – turned a doughy white.

Then President Abraham Lincoln befriended the poet and when Abe got migraines Walt would feel them too. When Abe’s melancholy took over, it overtook Walt as well. When Abe and Mary lost their child to illness, it nearly killed Walt as well. But Walt used to think, as he did so growing up as a little girl, that by grieving this way, perhaps there would be less grief for Abe and Mary to consume by themselves. That was just how he thought of things.

Walt and I both are native sons of Long Island. What would he think of his island today? From Sheepshead Bay to Orient point? From Throgs Neck to Montauk? How would Walt’s limitless heart have absorbed the “strip mall” culture that was now Long Island?

When Walt died, his last thoughts were of America and how he grew up as a little girl, hiding among the sand dunes. “The greatest things I ever did,” he was overheard to say on his deathbed, “were the things I did growing up as a little girl.”

When he gave up his ghost she floated downstream, by herself, alone again; making her way through the tall grasses singing another one of those made up songs of the universe; a song, one of many, that made up the universe. This was a song she knew to be part of the song of herself.

M C Biegner

POEM - Lately

Lately everything abused by the snow shows through
Bare, like a wild dog's snarl - a threadbare carpet
As quiet as melting snow seeping through topsoil -
Resembling my dreams – (as if I could sleep!)
The sun rolls over, pulling the dark like
Some bedfellow tugging hard at a blanket,
Trying to make the nighttime bearable.

Lately I am at the mercy of the muted
Tones of a fair and gentle winter which
We seldom see - this robe of silence worn
Through; the urge that pushes the muddy earth
Up through shards and tatters of vagrant snow
Hands me a barrenness, front and center:

Lately, the absence cannot help but come through:
I am worn down to the tundra - now what do I do?
M C Biegner

Thursday, February 02, 2006

POEM - Don't Forget The Sadness

Sadness gets mixed into everything we
do, like your one tear that fell into our
coffee. I think how it was the perfect
miscegenation of spirit and earth
for nothing is ever pure in this world,
but neither is it puritanical:
for we will never abdicate control!
It is just the meniscus of egg white
dropped into a bowl, touching the flour;
it is round globes of oil which resist
mixing with the opaqueness of cold milk;
the separateness of these ingredients
is what we overcome, making batter
our mouths know is true and so inclines us
to earnestly want one more piece of cake.

M C Biegner