On Turning Forty 


Chapter One: Eleven O’clock Tick-Tock

Two memories. The first: A stoop. The one into our back yard in Cincinnati, if I haven’t reconstructed the memory too much over the years. Dad and me. Imagine it shot like an after school special showing you the “good years” before a tragedy. Cute, skinny little kid a little small for his age but a helluva baseball player. A man handsome in a Charles Grodin kinda way, brown hair just beginning to show streaks of gray; oval glasses like one of his heroes, John Lennon. The year? 1986. Atop the brown, three step stoop they sit on the landing in front of the kitchen door. The boy has heard his Dad talking about turning forty, or as he calls it, “the big four-oh.” The boy can’t imagine such a big number because he is struggling with his own. This is the end of single digits, like forever, he thinks in the words of a nine year old. I can never go back. 

The father notices his son pensively staring to the house next to them. Not the Staples’ place, which is on the other side, separated by Priscilla Lane, or as Dad jokes, “the less successful sister of Penny.” The neighborhood is an uncomfortable mix of working class and affluent people. The family’s move from the house will be part of a larger transformation of the neighborhood. It is the end of an era. So the boy stares at another one of the houses that will later be fixed up and flipped to make people never connected with the area lots of money as those trying to hang on in the middle class either continue their slow climb or go sliding back into the poverty from which they came. The boy is staring. The house that got rabbits stuck in the walls and from where a woman known only as “Grandma” comes out in a housecoats and slippers to yell at her son who is always drunk or looking to get that way; cars line their driveway from the garage to the sidewalk, enough room to fit four cars. The boy has heard neighbors talk about the family with hushed tones and shaking heads. He stared at a Nova that had remained in the same spot for the eight years they lived there.

“What’s up, son?

“It’s a big deal.”

“What is?”

“Turning the big one-oh.” The boy looks up at his father who, despite his best efforts, bursts into laughter. Loud,wall shaking laughter. Laughter that still echoes three decades later.

The boy’s response, as will be the wont of upcoming years,is to have his feelings hurt. To feel shame. But the father throws his arm around the boy’s shoulder. Imagine he toussled the boy’s hair. Maybe not. No, yes; let’s imagine a playful rub of the spot that once was a fontenell. Toussle, toussle. That is all.

“Wanna play catch?”

“Is the Pope Polish?”

Second memory. Same year, but earlier I think. Either fall or spring. Soccer season. I had been obsessively listening to U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky, a live album from Red Rocks. I had been introduced to U2 in 1983 and was hooked. I listened obsessively to their albums, but I was only allowed to do that when Stephen, my brother, was home. He would punch me in the nuts if I touched his stereo. So the only thing I had was a tape with the live album on one side and The Unforgettable Fire, without question my favorite U2 album, on the other. I had a self contained tape player, in which one half is the speaker and the other is the cassette carriage. A handle makes it portable. See it? I carried that thing around with me so much, I actually convinced myself that I had sung along so many times that the tape was imprinted with my voice, which I heard as Edge’s falsetto.

Yeah, from a young age I have been kinda strange.
While I loved playing soccer as a kid, and did so in high school, I was not good. Not really; I wasn’t awful, but all I was good for was slide tackling other players and passing the ball. I rarely played varsity, mainly because YS dominates at soccer and has for decades; there are incredible players and coaches around here, and I never put in the time. But part of the issue was that I have always played defense because I’m physically incapable of anything more than a brisk walk. I fear what you think is, “Okay; I’m kinda slow, too. No biggie.” This will not do. Allow me to remonstrate: I once had to run the 100 yard dash at a track meet because I was a shot putter and we were two runners short for being able to meet the meet quota, or something like that; all I remember is, coach told me I had to run so I did. With one other kid who had once encircled me with his and his friends’ bikes to tell me that my father had given him permission to kick my ass. Of course, I believed it. But that’s another story. On this day, no fighting. Just running. We were the only two in the blocks when the pistol sounded. And he was not as challenged as was I in the arena of foot speed. Ten yards into it, I was 10 yards behind, and kids in the bleachers were openly laughing at me. One kid said, “I can run faster than that backwards!” So, I did what any self-respecting chunky kid would do: I faked a hamstring pull, came up lame, and limped the rest of the way so that we would both fulfill the requirement and so that the kids laughing at an apparently injured runner might get in trouble. 

That’s what I mean by being slow. With the running.
But back to the action. I spent most of my soccer years in the backfield, which can be exciting when you get to the level of players approximating something like soccer, but this day was not host to such a level of playing. Kids were hacking at each other’s shins, kicking balls downfield only to run after, gather around the ball, hack at one another’s shins some more,, until someone else cleared the ball the other way and the whole thing started over. I spent a lot of time that day wandering around in circles, getting yelled at by the goalie, who was clearly more serious about this than I was, I think because he had already scored an own goal that he tried to blame on me. I don’t quite remember, but I know I was zoning out. There was a clock tower that broke over the canopy of the trees, and  I was looking at it when its bells started to ring out the hour of eleven. I can’t swear that I was singing out loud, or at least not any louder than DJ’s friend Elijah, but this was my main focus, not the soccer  game:

I think I was getting to the part in which Edge and Bono start singing off of one anothe; I was trying to do both parts and I like to believe that there was an air guitar in the mix but I can’t be sure,  when I heard the goalie screaming at me. I looked up to see a kid with the ball go right past me. He easily tricked the goalie, who was still more interested in yelling at me than in defending the goal face, and sent the ball into the back of the net

I hadn’t thought of this memory in a long, long time. As I drove to get the tattoo featured in the image above, I decided to drive with the windows down and Under a Blood Red Sky blasting on my sensible Prius speakers.

Tomorrow I turn the big four-oh.

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