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The Family Fate Ate

So my best friend Sandi Kimsky and I were born during the same week of the same summer in the same hospital in the same sorry little San Joaquin Valley town, home of Janet Leigh, Chris Isaak and Maxine Kong Houston . . . I mean, Maxine Hong Kingston. It was Stockton, California, and it was 1951, a time as bald and nearsighted as the President of the United States.

Stockton was a darkskinned burg an easy hop from San Francisco filled with Mexicans to the South wearing forbidden colors like purple and black, filled with Jews to the North in a huddle giving parties for mainly themselves, filled with ten of every single kind of AngloSaxon.

Stockton was an aggie town, a cowboy town, a Gold Rush town, a river town, a trading town, a town that turned into a 7-11. The average yearly Stockton temperature was about 112 in the shade. There were those green, hairy caterpillars on the pavement and they were frying. There were crickets in a countywide chorus every night giving thanks for the sleep of the hot Stockton sun singing, Thank God, that sun, she finally went down, oh year, oh yeah.

Sandi Kimsky's mother Sherry and my mother Libby were the type of women who spent their week in the maternity ward wearing beautiful bed jackets with beautiful buttons. They were pretty Jewish wives, young mothers, planning to be very good at both, and then go out to lunch. It was a way to be, supposedly.

Their men, our dads, were New York Jews. They were postwar pioneers. They were men who came West to lay brickwork for dreams they'd envisioned during war. And such a war. That they survived pumped up their big dreams like a bellows, just as any quick glance at evil is wont to do.

Sandi Kimsky's father Harold was a medium man with a medium chin, a lowbodied laugh, and a surprising streak of sweetness. My father Hank was the darkest of the Jews. On his good days, he was burnished and gleaming. On his bad days, he was bilious and green. He wore tropical ascots and cowboy string ties with gold nuggets. He wore a French wool beret. He smoked thick, brown cigars and drove huge, pastel Caddies. On his good days, his mouth was voluptuous, but on his bad days, his mouth would shoot ugly and mean like a gun spitting BBs, like a baby spitting gin.

My mother, always tailored and cool, would sit there blackhaired, greeneyed, crosslegged in the chair, sopping with annoyance, her slender ankles jiggling, bracelets jangling.

On his bad days, my father sat at dinner and stirred up his cauldron of anger and hate. It was a thick broth for all the other men in town. And then he'd spoon it to the family. He'd call my brother a dummy, my sister a fool. He'd shoot a word so fucking filthy at my mother, no one dared to even look.

My best friend Sandi Kimsky's mother, Sherry, on the other hand, was lulling like an ember. She had soft, rounded hair and soft, rounded breasts and tight, pink capris that showed her softness. And she had such artistic flair. I just loved how she decorated their house. I mean, Sandi's room was like a dream come true.

Sandi had a canopy bed the color of lilacs. She had lilac lace curtains and lilac satin bows. She had an antique wicker mirror with a filigreed frame. And she had a glasstopped vanity table with a luxurious lilac skirt and about a hundred breathtaking bottles of bathsalts in undersea colors. Every time I spent the night at Sandi's house, I woke up really early and just lay there wishing it were mine, all mine.

At my house, there weren't any canopy beds. There was just getting up every morning at 6 a.m. to practice the piano, awakened loudly by the big, booming voice of my father.

By the way, my best friend Sandi's little brother, Little Sammy, was a piano prodigy just like Mozart. He was also very tiny for his age. When Little Sammy was 4 years old and about the size of a walnut, his father bought him this big, beautiful baby grand piano. And Little Sammy would scramble up onto that piano bench, his little legs barely reaching across. And he would play Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, even Rachmaninoff. And his little fingers, like joyful spiders, would speed across the keys, whirring until they blurred. And everyone would stare in amazement. No one was even jealous.
Sandi, on the other hand, was a chubby girl. It was a problem with which the whole family was always dealing. Sandi always had to go to special gyms and put her legs up on special wooden rollers. She had to eat special foods and wear special clothes that were slimming. I mean, Sandi had outfits with vertical stripes and stirruped stretchpants in so many colors, you can't even imagine.

Sometimes it felt like Sand Kimsky's family liked me better than they liked her.

I stayed best friends with Sandi Kimsky until high school when I thoughtlessly dropped her like a worm-seething peach. Apparently hungry for social success, I was apparently willing to stop at nothing to improve my odds.

I mean, it was California. And it was 1966. It was the Beach Boys. Dennis Wilson. It was hair that turned golden in a blazing, summer sun. It was freckles misted sweetly across a cute, upturned nose. And there I was--short, dark, stubby, blackhaired, academicallyinclined. Apparently, that was apparently enough.

(Dropped her like a hot potato.)

In 1971, I heard that Sandi Kimsky married an excon from Fresno and was living in a trailer outside Crow's Foot, Nevada, with two girlbabies named Peggy and Rue.

In 1983, I had dinner with Sandi Kimsky at Costanza's. She said she'd divorced the excon from Fresno, and was now married to an alcoholic printer from Milpitas.

She also said she'd had her stomach stapled to lose weight once and for all. And she'd lost over 90 pounds in less than 6 months, but then she had to have her stomach unstapled when all her levels got confused.

And then she asked me why I'd dropped her like a buginfested pillow in high school after 15 years of friendship. She said it had broken her heart.

She said that.

My muscles turned to glass.

Remorse gushed through my body like lube slag on speed.

I hadn't even thought of Sandi Kimsky.

After several silent bites of slimy ravioli, Sandi, as if already haven forgiven me, told me that her little brother, Little Sammy, was now a pianoman in Nashville and Vegas. She said Little Sammy was touring with Loretta Lynn. She said Little Sammy had struggled over women and drugs all these years.

She said Little Sammy was still really little, though married for the fifth time to a sixfoot Spanish redhead who sang backup in the back. Oh, I could just see Little Sammy in a shiny, tiny tux, highheeled snakeskin boots, his little fingers splaying.

But then on a broiling hot Thursday afternoon in 1993, little Sammy Kimsky dropped dead in his parents' wellappointed guestroom. "Heart attack," was what they were saying. They were saying Little Sammy had come home to clean up, saying Little Sammy had cleaned up, saying there seemed to be new hope for little Sammy. But then on this one broiling hot Thursday afternoon when Little Sammy was late for his new gig playing piano down at the West end of the Weberstown  mall, well, his mother Sherry went in to find him. And there he was slumped against the daybed. Dead.

Nobody could believe it.

The minute the Kimskys saw me at the graveyard, they all started whimpering. And then Sandi ran up to me and clasped me with such ferociousness, I mean ferocity, that I got scared. Sherry was just standing there moaning like a seal. And Harold just stared with dark pools in his desperate sad eyes.

When the men began to lower Little Sammy's coffin into the ground--into that broiling hot Stockton earth on that broiling hot Stockton day--his mom Sherry let out a wail that was so drenched with ancient, human grief that the skiThe Lemon and the Lama

The Lemon & the Lama

The day the dalai lama came to town
I woke up jawing a large wedge of lemon.
A despicable fly scraped his whiskers
between the screendoor and the backdoor
of my heart.

Sour and scratchy, I went to see him anyway
taking less time than I normally would
with my hair. An odd Dalai Lama defiance.
The adorable lama stood grinning
from a storebought pagoda
in the middle of the square.

I was standing on a bench with a rare clear vision.
There were thousands of people who were gathered to behold him.
There were mothers below me who were handing me their children.
Hoping I might field divine blessing like a frisbee.
There were wheelchairs and epidemics.
There were Christians in a state of livid bliss.
There were Jews                                still waiting.

One of the lama’s sweet arms was thoroughly bare.
It was soft and very creamy.
His little hairs were dark and curly.
You could see his little armpit.
It was sweet and somehow so appealing.

The dalai lama, he was draped in cotton, folds of vivid berry.
His ageless lips were up and waving.
Crinkled eyes like homemade ragdolls.
Silly, in simple stitches, with the shiniest thread of sad.

    He said Peace is more than the absence of violence.
    He said Peace is also action.
    He said Compassion grease the wheels.

On the bike ride home back over the river,
I couldn’t get “Hello, Dolly” out of my mind.
The Carol Channing version.
It had me laughing the whole way home.
es, as if in response, turned dark, cracked open, and a bolt of lightning struck and illuminated Sammy's grave.

It was beyond cinematic, baby.