The One Reader

Daily Prompt: Singular Sensation: If you could have a guarantee that one, specific person was reading your blog, who would you want that person to be? Why? What do you want to say to them?

“Hi, Dad.”
“Hi MAK. What’s this?”
“Remember how you used to tell me that someday computers would be as small and as common as toasters?”
“Oh yeah. I remember.”
“Well this thing is my computer.”
“You’re kidding.”
“Nope. That isn’t even the smallest one I have. Here,” I hand him the iPod my friend left in my car. He ended up giving it me after search after search failed to turn it up, and he had bought a new one.
“That’s great, MAK. That’s really wonderful.”
“It’s everything. It plays music, works as a camera, I can run slide shows for my students from it. I can use it to write, keep track of expenses and there’s a thing now called the Internet. We’re connected to people all over the world if we want to be. We can even use it as a picture phone, you know, like on the Jetsons?”
My dad looked amazed, but also a little troubled. “I bet Big Brother is watching all the time.”
“He might be but the interesting thing is that people just give it away. It’s pretty easy for Big Brother. I think we’re heading toward a thing I’d call ‘Social Totalitarianism’ where everyone happily jumps into the soup of homogenization they call ‘connectivity’.”
“So what’s this? Is that you?”
“Yeah, when I was 30.”
“Did you do what I asked? Did you keep writing?”

Oh man, I hate these stress driven “right-before-the-semester-starts-am-I-getting-those-classes” dreams. I roll over.

“So?” Damn. The dream is on the other side of my bed, too.
“I did, Dad. It hasn’t gone anywhere.”
“What do you mean it ‘hasn’t gone anywhere’?”
“You were right, you know, when you said if you don’t have your career in place by 35 forget it. I didn’t.”
“I didn’t know everything. I coulda’ been wrong.”
“No. I don’t think you were. I was pretty confused much of the time. And, you know, I got married.”
“How did that work?”
“I warned you about that, didn’t I? I sat you on my knee and played ‘We’ll Sing in the Sunshine’.”
“Well, Mom said…”
“You need to be free, honey. Are you free?”

In my sleep I feel like an abysmal failure. Yes, I had a strange dad and a strange “dad situation.” He died at age 45 of complications resulting from MS. I was barely 20. The Christmas before he gave me a beautiful pen and pencil set. The tag he wrote in his own scraggly hand-writing. “Keep writing. Dad.”

He knew he didn’t have long to live; he didn’t want to live much longer, either. He was in and out of comas, strung with IVs. That Christmas tag was my dad’s last bit of instruction to me. Keep writing.

“I have been writing this whole time, Dad. Writing and writing and writing and teaching writing. That’s one thing I never wondered about, whether writing was a good thing for me to do or not. It’s always been a good thing.”

“Do you write poetry? When I died you were writing poetry. Good poetry, too.”

“No. Poetry is, well, poetry is,” I paused. How in the world could I explain to my Dad all that poetry has been to me in the intervening forty years? How life itself is poetry, how he is one of the lines that runs through my life-poem? Maybe THE line? I never thought of this before. “I write stories, Dad, and non-fiction stuff. Here, Dad, read this. You’re in it.”

“I’m in it? A story about me?”

“Yes, in a way. A story of the echoes of you, my looking for you all through these years, and finding you.”

That’s enough to wake me up. This is one thing I’d like him to read. It’s a story — a true story — from the early ’90’s when I was living in a “mixed” neighborhood in San Diego (City Heights) and hanging out with a bunch of boys who rode BMX bikes. They were “at risk” kids and, for some odd reason, our lives converged for several years and we were friends. The boys are Jimmy and his little brother, Mikey, and their friends. At the time of the story, Jimmy is fifteen, Mikey ten or so. They used to ride with me in my truck to the BMX jumps at Mission Trails Regional Park. They jumped while I hiked with my dogs.  Jim is my ex-husband.

Born to Be Wild

After he gets beaten up, Jimmy’s mom sends him to live with his uncle in IB, but Mikey is living with his mom, the twins and his little sister in the rickety squat in the alley nearby. When I get home from school the afternoon of the concert, Mikey and his friend Marc are sitting on the front porch, their bikes sprawled across the lawn.

Mikey“What’s up?” I ask, knowing perfectly what’s up. The little boys, age 10 or so, want to go to the jumps. They hope I’m going hiking. I’m always afraid to take them without the big boys who will watch them and care for them in that dangerous playground. I usually turn them down, and this time I have a reason.

“Are you going to Mission?”

“Not today. Jim and I are going to the Del Mar Fair.”

“Can we go?” Mike asks.

“We won’t get home until after midnight. That’s kind of late for you.”

“Why so late?”

“We’re going to a concert.”

“Who?” asks Mikey.


They start jumping up and down and singing, “Born to Be Wild!”

“You know the band?”

“Yeah. It’s my dad’s favorite.” I should have thought. Mikey’s dad is a biker guy who lives in Nevada. It’s clear from looking at their mom that she spent many tough biker-babe days on the back a chopper.

“You have to ask your mom, Mikey, and I need PROOF you asked her so tell her to call me, OK? You won’t get home until maybe 1 a.m., depending on the traffic, and it’s a school night.”

“Yay!” They jump up, grab their bikes and spin home. Minutes later, I’m on the phone with Mikey’s mom.

“Are you sure you want them? They can be a handful.”

“It’ll be fun.”

“What time should they be ready?”

“We’ll leave as soon as Jim gets home from work. Two hours?”

“OK. Do you want me to send them down?”

“No. Jim’s unpredictable. We’ll come get them. I’ll call you first.”

“Great, Martha. Thank you so much. I appreciate everything you do for my boys. I don’t know where they’d be without you.”

I have a lump in my throat. There is nothing generous in anything I do “for” the boys. We’re in it together. Whatever I might do for them, they do ten-fold for me. “It’s nothing. I love them.”

“They love you, too.”

“I know. I just think they’re great. I love their sport. Have you seen them?”

“No. I’m too scared to watch. I saw it on TV once. Still, I think it’s better for them to do that than all the other things around nowadays for kids to get in trouble with, but I don’t want to watch it.”

I laugh. “I can understand that, but it’s very beautiful and they are very good. See you in a bit.”

At 7:00 we go get Mikey and Marc. I knock on the door of this unbelievable house. It’s a white Craftsman cottage from the twenties. The stones and bricks that once held it off the ground have disintegrated or been kicked out of the way. It’s held up, literally, with whatever solid scrap rock and concrete block the boys have found lying in the alley. At one point a plastic milk crate has been pressed into service I’ve contributed some concrete paving stones I found in my back yard to this task. I have never been inside.

I knock. Colleen opens the door leading directly to the kitchen. The room is lit by candles, to save money on electricity. “They’re almost ready.” Marc is ready, standing by the kitchen table in clean jeans and a plaid shirt, grinning, his pale hair wetted and combed flat against his head. Normally, he has a “Dennis-the-Menace” cowlick. When his hair dries, the lick springs back up. Mikey comes out. My eyes are by then used to the dim light and I look around. The room is neat, as neat and clean as it could be. This is a one bedroom house in which a woman and at least five kids are living. The walls are covered, literally covered, crawling with, German cockroaches. I think of an article I read of terrible infections from cockroaches crawling into the ears of the sleeping children, dying there, rotting. I’m simultaneously nauseated and moved to tears over this unnecessary poverty. I’m shattered with respect for this woman who holds her family together and opens the little space she has to all the kids who want to spend the weekend up here with her sons and with me. I feel guilty for never opening my much larger house to them, but then I think it’s enough I have a truck and keep the kids from getting into trouble by taking them to the jumps. It is her joy to offer a home.

“You guys ready?” I swallow the lump in my throat.

“Born to be Wild!” they say together, little fists thrust into the air.

“Their dad loves Steppenwolf. I’m sure they told you.” The year before, this elusive all-but-vanished male progenitor had sent them money to visit him in Nevada. “Me too,” she smiles, and sucks deep on her cigarette.

The drive to Del Mar is the customary mess by which we all earn the right to go to the fair. The stage is set up on the race track and we stand behind the fence, as close to the band as we can. The long summer day drifts into dark; the stage lights come up, and John Kay and Steppenwolf take the stage. The little boys jump up and down in excitement. It’s not only their first real, grownup concert, but it’s Steppenwolf.

They play all their old hits, the long version of “The Pusher” and “Monster” and some songs from the album that came out after the Berlin Wall fell. John Kay was born in East Berlin and had gone back in 1990 and played a concert on the rubble of the wall. Then, the sixth song, “Born to Be Wild.” At the very first chords, the crowd goes nuts. It is iconic. It is Easy Rider, it’s the beginning of heavy metal, it’s a generation of people for whom Strawberry Fields are NOT forever, people who wanted something raw and loud with a throbbing bass line. I was such a one, and at one point in my first marriage, my abusive husband threw my Steppenwolf albums in the dumpster, saying, “There’s more to life than a 10 minute drum solo.” Whatever that might have been, I don’t think he had any idea, none that he demonstrated to me beyond pushing me down stairs and kicking me in the crotch as I lay on the floor. Well, either you like Steppenwolf or you don’t. I do, and I am surrounded by paunchy middle-aged men playing air guitars, young guys who raise their fists in the air, and everyone singing along, badly. I look back at Mikey and Marc, who found a place to stand where they can see better, and see two small, freckled faces, singing ALL THE WORDS at the top of their lungs, absolutely happy. Stunning.

“This was the best night of my LIFE!” says Mikey.

“Mine too!” shrieks Marc.

They’re still jumping up and down as we thread through the carnival to the exit.

“You wanna’ ride something? You wanna’ ride that?” I point at the Bayern Curve.

bayern curve“Is that a roller coaster?” asks Mikey.

“Kind of, but faster.” I realize it’s a LOT like a very fast ride on a BMX bike over several jumps, one after the other.

Jim never rides these things, so we hand him our jackets and packs and give the carnie our tickets. No one else is riding. “Sit between us!” says Mikey.

“You don’t want that. The guy by the door gets smashed. It’s better if you smash me than I smash you. You’ll understand when the ride gets going.”

“Pull the bar down, guys,” says the carnie, and the little boys pull the bar down. “OK kids, hold on!” The carnie shouts switches on the ride. The first circuit is slow, the next a bit faster then the ride gets going, faster and faster. The little boys’ bodies slam against my side. Their mouths are open in huge scared-happy smiles; their cheeks are pulled back by the spinning force. Their carefully combed hair stands up and back from their foreheads. They scream and yell and we go around and around and around. Too soon, the ride comes to a stop.

“You guys wanna’ go again?” asks the carnie. No one is waiting for the ride. “I’ll let you ride for free.” This is some kind of perfect night, Steppenwolf and free rides.


The ride starts up again, slow, faster, fast. This time, the boys know what to expect and anxiously wait for that first fast loop. The ride runs for a full ten minutes. I am loving it as much as the boys are. Fighting the “G-force,” I turn to look at them. Somehow, my dad is reflected in their freckles, their grins, their joy at the wild ride. My dad loved a roller coaster, but I never rode one with him. By the time I was big enough to ride, he was too ill.

My heart skips a beat. I had recently dreamed about the boys, and, magically, about my father. In the dream, I sat on the tailgate of the truck on a Friday afternoon, waiting for the boys to show up. They came down the street, whizzing dragonflies on their bikes, brightly colored jerseys, white-painted cardboard with black numbers fixed to their handlebars with twist-ties. Jimmy rode up to me and said, “I made a new friend. He wants to go with us.” A kid with dishwater blond hair was behind Jimmy. He rode the same put-together bike the others rode, with a homemade race number,  wearing shin guards made from a thrown away diving suit.

“Sure. There’s room in the truck,” I tell Jimmy in the dream.

The kid looked up at me from under his baseball hat. I recognized his snow-shadow blue eyes, the curl in the middle of his forehead, the freckles; I knew that face, but whose face was it? He smiled. The broken front tooth. “Hi, MAK,” he said. It was my dad. It was my dad as one of these wild boys. “Well, of course,” I think later. “This is just the kind of boy he was, a boy who ran away from his brutal, drunken dad at 13 and hopped a freight to Canada. If he were alive now, here, and this age, he’d be Jimmy, or Mikey. Another wild Irish boy lost in America.” I woke up from the dream realizing that I was nearly the age my dad was when he died and that the life I would live would be years, a part, a transition, my dad had not lived, and that, miraculously, I’d been given the chance to live this wild boy part, too.

As we spin around the Bayern Curve, I feel my dad is in the car with us. “Live this with all your heart, MAK,” he says inside my heart, “this is the part of life I never had.”
My Dad finishes reading and looks back at me. “Oh MAK,” he says. “Thank you.”

25 thoughts on “The One Reader

    • Thank you, Olga. I hope he’s at least half as proud of me as I am of him! He was an astonishing, brilliant and courageous man. I’m glad he was my dad.

  1. I loved all of this. I loved the conversations with your Dad and the story about the kids. Beautifully written!!!! Thank-you.

    • Jimmy’s dreams have come true (because he worked hard for them!) He wanted to be a dad and have a nice wife and a nice house and he has all he ever wanted. Two beautiful kids and a wonderful wife. ❤ Mikey is a little more messed up, but has a good living and a wife and three kids. He has a drinking problem he struggles with. All the kids in that family have come through pretty well. 🙂

  2. Oh, Martha,

    What a wonderful tribute to your Dad, those boys, and a woman of boundless love, compassion, and appreciation for the absurdities of life and the capacity to take them as they come. Anyone who thinks along the lines of “there’s more to life than a 10-minute drum solo” obviously has never seen Neil Peart live!

    Next time you run into your Dad in dreams, tell him that not only are you still writing, but you’re still teaching about writing and still influencing other writers. You helped me become a better Blogger, and I’ll always be grateful for you.

    Just make sure you tell him before you roll over, in case he isn’t on both sides next time!

    Sweet dreams!


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