8. Alive



Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. 

Proverbs 18:1


Austin and I wandered through an emotional desert for many years. Much of this time was a blur. We were caught in an odd mix. We preferred our home in Sammamish but stored animosity towards mom and Lee. We loved dad but hated visiting his residence.

When we first arrived there, the only visible structure directly in front of us sat a 10’ x 12’ shed with a wood placard. On it a carved message read, “Dave’s Den.”

“Is that it?” I asked.

“Hah! No, that’s my shed. The house is down the hill.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an intentional gag.

Looking down the hill to our left, lay a mobile home tucked in a half-circle opening. A curved dirt path met a riverstone laden alcove in front. The half-moon pathway connected the gravel road’s dead end to his stony front yard. The roughly fifty grade hill to our left between the beginning and end of the trail warmed itself with a blanket St. John’s Wort. The herb cluster tried in vain to entice the sun to break through the summer clouds with bright yellow flowers.

Following behind dad and Austin, I scuffled down the relatively steep dirt border of St. John’s territory, starting between the shed and hill. Before the path veered sharply to the left, we noticed a blackened pit with burnt wood in a clearing ahead. After a final left turn, the decline met the base of the hill with six dirt stairs buttressed by thick wood beams.

The first steps through the entry of his home landed between a closet containing the laundry machines to our right and the kitchen to our left.

“How do you like it?” dad said with a smile. “Come on in, take a look around.”

I walked towards the open living room past the laundry, stopping first to look down the hallway to my right. I recognized our red and blue aluminum bunk bed in the open doorway at the end of the hall. Looking back towards the living room I noticed a large wooden deck through two tall windows. I walked through the back door adjacent to the windows.

Upon exiting, dozens of evergreen trunks filled my view. Four steps later, I leaned my chest against the handrail and wrapped my hands around. After a few seconds, the sound of a metal scrape and a stretching spring caused me to look behind.

“You can see the lake from up here,” dad said with a grin as he and Austin joined me.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said, pointing straight ahead through the wall of trees. “See?”

I turned my head forward, shifting side to side. He was right. Looking intently enough and with great effort, slivers of water were visible between the evergreen blockade.

Dad spent a lot of time in his room, which he strictly told us was “off limits.” So Austin and I watched cartoons on Saturday mornings and many others that dad recorded on VHS, most notably Tex Avery vignettes, Warner Bros. Tom & Jerry and the Simpsons.

While watching television one evening, dad stumbled out of his room in his whitie tighties and mumbled somewhat irritated, unintelligible words to us before staggering back to his room.

“What’s up with dad?” I asked

“I don’t know, he’s acting weird,” Austin replied.

“We didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Yeah and he smells weird too.”

A few times dad brought us to paddle his canoe on Ames Lake but more frequently we visited Pine Lake in Sammamish near mom’s house. He taught us how to catch and clean fish. I caught and gutted a few. He also bought two large magnets that when combined were about the size of a brick. Dad wrapped them in a net tied to a synthetic rope. Almost every weekend we spent with him we’d bob the contraption off the edge of the dock seeking metallic trinkets and finding the occasional pocket knife.

Sometimes Dad brought a large opaque plastic mug with a cap on it while fishing. Thinking it was soda, I took a sip and nearly gagged.
“Ryan, don’t drink that!” He snapped. He didn’t need to say anything, the drink tasted like piss.

The most dreaded hobby dad yanked our shackled hands through was shopping. He dragged us to and through every second-hand store, garage and estate sale in the greater Seattle area. While he drove, Austin and I would pray against garage sales like an exorcist casting out demons. Every time his radar detected one, we’d groan as we plastered our faces against the car window in dismay. Our morale would sink furthest when we’d almost be home and a sign took us on a detour that could last hours.

We spent long stretches at GoodWill and Value Village, hating every second of it. The musty smell from generations of sweat and dusty rooms fills these walls to the brim. No amount of washing or sanitizing recycled goods could prevent the odor.

He mainly quested to find paintings and antiques. Dad carefully analyzed any item of interest, as he leaned in to appraise each one. Many times we’d leave with some artwork or piece of furniture if he wasn’t also looking for clothes. After each bargain he’d boast about how he recognized the true value of an ignorantly priced item.

To this day I am still haunted by his sink. Every weekend we arrived to find a mass grave of abused dishes; pans crusted with gunk, plates stained with scum, and containers filled with congealed soup. One time a sprig of mold six inches tall grew out of a pot like an alien branch, the likes of which I’d never seen before or since.

“Sorry guys,” he’d say. “I couldn’t get to the dishes. Could you help me out with them?”

We held our breath, rolled up our sleeves and sludges through his dirty work disgusting enough for Mike Rowe feature on his show.

We suppressed the horror of dirty dishes and second-hand stores with the hypnosis of dancing flames, our favorite pastime while at dad’s house. He taught us how to make fires at an early age. After all, he was an Eagle Scout. We’d scavenge the woods for sticks and use his log-splitter with a sledge and axe to create sizable portions and make a fire in the pit.

The blazes entertained us for hours. The ghostly movements, uncertain danger and generous heat made us feel alive. The largest inferno climbed over ten-feet when we lit the Christmas tree ablaze.
It dried out for months as it sat in the burn pile awaiting execution. When we asked dad to burn it he came out with us. No paper needed. All it took was a lighter half way up the tree as it lay on its side. Thirty seconds later the cloud of smoke burst into a pillar of fire.

This was the only full Christmas tree I remember that dad purchased. After this, he never bought a legit one due to the expense. Wanting to have some sort of green object to place presents under, the three of us decided to explore the woods surrounding his isolated bungalow. After failing to find any small object resembling a Christmas tree, we ripped a three-foot appendage off an evergreen and stuck it in a pot. The Christmas branch became an icon of our past.

Austin and I only visited dad’s place every other weekend. He helped fend off his loneliness by seeking the company of a cat. He adopted one from a litter a few houses down the gravel road. He named him Ditty, which was my attempt at saying “kitty” as a two-year-old.

I don’t know of any cat more badass than Ditty. This ferocious feline looked like a pygmy bobcat. Long brown fur swirled with gray and black accented by tufts of elongated fur on his cheeks. As he grew up he got thick, not because he ate too much cat food but because he stalked rodents in the woods like a kitty commando.

My dad gave him disgusting dry food. Ditty barely ate it. This motivated him to tap into his inner tiger. As he caught more rodents his appetite for bloodlust enlarged and muscles hypertrophied.

The amino acids stocking his beefy frame came from squirrels and other rodents. One morning I walked out of my room towards the TV and felt a prick on my left foot. I looked down and saw the remains of an inside-out squirrel carcass licked completely clean. No trace of meat or organs could be found. He caught so many dad began collecting squirrel tails, stacking them like trophies in the windowsill.

Ditty received several Purple Hearts in battle. We’d find him with patches of blood soaking ruffled nests of fur. He came back with a limp several times and even a clawmark across his face sealing his left eye shut with for days. Despite his fearlessness in battle he never surpassed his phobia of paper bags.

While eating food below the rim of a circle countertop in the kitchen, dad snuck up behind Ditty with a paper lunch bag filled with air sealed from his grip. Dad smacked the bag. The pop would have caused Ditty to shoot five feet into the air but the back of his head hit the counter. When his paws reached the floor he scurried for two seconds in place, unable to grip the linoleum. Once he finally gained momentum, he dashed in a blur to the other end of the house. We laughed hysterically.

Eventually, Ditty went out into the woods, never to return again. He wasn’t old enough to wander away and die a lonely death in a secluded cove like most cats do before their endless sleep. He simply left never to be seen again. I suspected his many kills, narrow victories and escapes got to his little kitty brain. He probably thought he could ambush a blackbear and didn’t make it out alive.

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