Pages from the memoirs of a lucky man

Hang on, they told me, but I didn’t. It was lovely, lying in the bed of the truck, to watch the tops of the trees passing overhead and imagine myself striding through the air on stilts like the feelers of a moth. Skating through the seamless sky: less like a Marvel Comics superhero than the one puzzle piece that just doesn’t seem to fit. That sad bit of misfortune the old-timers used to warn about: bad penny, wooden nickel, one thin dime. Shave and a haircut, we used to rap on any handy wooden surface, and pause to see who would be the first to succumb to the tension and supply the two concluding beats/bits. We called that, for some reason, the Queer Call. As if the essence of queerness lay in following the heart’s imperative rhythm instead of some disembodied Reason. But our revulsion at the prospect of being an automatic follower had other roots – and sounder ones, I’d say.

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Spring and fall, our mountain was (and is) on a major migration corridor, and we spent many hours outside with binoculars, watching the hawks, vultures, and occasional eagle soar past. If any of those raptors had been telepathic, they might’ve felt our longing thoughts crowding in on crows’ wings – chasing, wheeling, diving with open beaks.

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Vignette from the age of eight: After many hours, I suddenly recall the empty overturned flowerpot and the half-grown toad I had trapped inside. I race over and pick up the pot – and he takes a single hop. Well, what did I expect? Fairy tales to the contrary, a toad is never anything but a toad.

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We collected things. In fact, my brothers and I opened a museum to show off our collections in the unused half of the building that also contained the chicken coop. For all the years of its operation, we fought a losing battle against the dust created by the constant scratching of forty hens and roosters in their straw bedding. It seeped through the walls and around the stapled plastic sheeting and settled on the florid conches, the trilobites, the horse skull, the antique winnowing machine, the rows of bottles we had excavated from the old farm dump. In less than a week, you wouldn’t be able to tell which whiskey flasks had been pale green and which – my favorites – had been made with that glass that turns more and more purple with age.

The one exhibit where this didn’t matter was the forest floor diorama. I had enclosed a weak spot in the shed floor with a sturdy wooden railing, then covered it with fallen leaves, a rotten log, and a couple of mossy rocks from up in the woods. I tossed in a crumpled Schlitz beer can for an extra touch of realism. This was the last stop on every museum tour, and for some reason it always made our visitors laugh.

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“Say Uncle!”

“No! Get off me!”

“Say Uncle!”

“Owww! Uncle!

Now that I am twice an uncle, I often think about this.

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Once, I stuffed several monarch caterpillars and a bunch of milkweed leaves into a five-pound honey jar, pounded a few nail holes in the lid, set it down on the barn floor and promptly forgot all about it. Several weeks later I had to go in the barn for some reason, and there it was.

Admit it: you’re expecting some sad ending to this story, with a stern if unstated moral. But the truth is that, by sheer luck, there must’ve been just enough leaves in the jar, and I must’ve found it on the very day of emergence, because it was filled with nothing but sunlight and the flapping of perfect, untattered, bright orange wings. I carried it outside, unscrewed the lid and stood back. The butterflies rose from the jar in quick succession, danced together for a second or two and swirled apart, like a genie unbound by any obligation to serve a human being’s thoughtless wish.

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