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      The savage momentum of the ordinary life . . .
      The signs were hardly auspicious at John Robertson's birth. No earthquakes, no shooting stars or eclipses. He was not born with a caul on his head, and his mother did not die giving him life. Those, in fact, were the days--the early 1940's--when women were heavily sedated against the pains of labor, and John's mother slept through his debut on the world's stage. This should not be taken to presage a mother's indifference toward her son, however. No, both mother and father doted on this unexpected child--John's nearest sibling being a sister nine years his senior--in a way that bordered but did not quite trespass on the harmful.
      The year of his birth, 1942, might have been significant but wasn't. His father had been too young for the First World War and was now too old for the Second, so John did not spend those formative earliest years fatherless, and no waiting-for-the-dreaded-telegram anxiety was translated through the mother's milk to the son. Indeed, the son partook of no mother's milk at all because at that time breast-feeding was beginning to be considered déclassé, and John was bottle-fed exclusively. Still, La Leche Leaguers would probe John's psyche in vain for any effect of this withholding of the mother's breast--except perhaps for the adult John Robertson's preference for large-bosomed women, and in this preference and the resultant very slight dissatisfaction with his flat-chested wife John could hardly be considered singular.
      His parents called him JoJo when he was a toddler and Johnny for a few years after that, and when he was a teenager he went through a spell of wanting everyone to call him Jack. But none of these nicknames stuck, probably because one look at him was enough to realize that he was John, simply that, nothing fancy needed, no use gimmicking it up.
      In school he had some trouble with math but certainly could not be considered, even by a later age obsessed with labels, learning-disabled. In fact, at all stages of his schooling John's grades hovered right at a B average, which meant that he qualified neither for honors nor parental anxiety. His modest grades were also evidence, perhaps, that John never in his youth happened upon an area of endeavor that stirred him with a zeal to excel. Except baseball.
      Until he was old enough to realize it was silly, John passionately wanted to be another Mickey Mantle. It was one sign of his maturing when he eventually concluded that he could live with being another Moose Skowron or, heck, even Gil McDougal. This decline in his expectations coincided with the pitchers he faced ungraciously adding the curve ball to their repertoire and, disastrously, the development of his near-sightedness. Even though the optometrist insisted John didn't need glasses, from the outfield the ball would appear as a sort of hazy disk. He tried first base and found that, much as he devoutly wished to, he could not keep his head down on grounders and throws in the dirt. He stopped playing after high school, tried softball for a couple of years in his thirties, but it wasn't the same. Despite love, marriage, fatherhood, and a trip to the Bahamas, he would always consider the high point of his life the early summer afternoon he hit three doubles and a single and snared a dipping line drive off his shoelaces to end the game. Even late in his life there were moments when smelling sweat on leather, seeing a green field aswim with dragonflies, or hearing a corny organ rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" could bring tears to his eyes. These absurd frailties did not make John eccentric but rather placed him in the company of approximately one half of all American males born since the Civil War.
      The major leagues now forever beyond his reach and there being no academic discipline he felt even a modest passion for, almost by default John decided to major in business at a small public university. He was considered dull but earnest by his professors, who tended to give him the benefit of the doubt come grade time. Like the vast majority of his classmates, he graduated with a record that neither disqualified him nor made him particularly attractive for employment.
      Academic activities were hardly what John--or any other student--would recall first looking back on his college years, however. More memorably, he trained himself to chug a full can of beer and learned to dance the Twist, the Pony, and the Mashed Potato. These accomplishments hardly qualified him as a party guy, of course, but most everyone considered him a likable fellow and the girls thought him homely enough to be almost cute.
      He fell hard for outlandishly beautiful Joy Ingstrom. He worshipped her from afar one whole semester, always made it a point to be in the student union midafternoons when she liked to come in for a Coke and fries, and at football games sat behind her in the stands so he could watch the way her blond hair caught the sun. The next semester he had the miraculous luck to sit next to her in Art Appreciation. They began to talk, and by the end of the semester he thought he could claim that they were sort of friends. The next semester--another miracle--he sat next to her in Speech and finally worked up the nerve to ask her out. "I'm sorry, John, but I already have a beau." Beau. It was a quaint, old-fashioned word that John would thereafter loath and could not hear without blushing to recall the scene of his demise, for he understood too late that the Joy Ingstroms of this world simply do not date the John Robertsons.
      Joy had a roommate, though, Karen Brown, whom John had always thought of, when he thought of her at all, as borderline mousy. But now he saw her as petite and from certain angles almost pretty. Even then John understood that Karen's transformation was due to her proximity to the now forbidden Joy. No matter. John and Karen began to date. By his senior year they were still dating, and John was startled and somewhat frightened to catch her, upon occasion, looking at him in a way he could only describe as adoring.
      John graduated in the spring of 1964 with a degree in business and that summer got a job as an assistant department manager in a small Sears and Roebuck and married Karen Brown. Joy Ingstrom came to the wedding, and at the reception John danced with her to a surprisingly faithful rendition of Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet." Afterwards, he sat in the men's room for close to half an hour undergoing what we today would call an "anxiety attack."
      Despite having checked "yes" on the "Have you had sexual intercourse" question on the General Psych survey his sophomore year--thus contributing to the chronically inflated figures concerning sexual activity among youth--John had no first-hand experience of anything below a female's waist until his honeymoon night. As is the case with well over eighty percent of virgin couples--an estimate far more reliable than those produced by the aforementioned sex surveys--John and Karen's honeymoon night was memorable only insofar as trite disasters can be said to be so.
      Eventually, they got the hang of it.
      The first few years of their marriage were difficult, as the first years of marriages so often are. It didn't help that they'd hardly settled into anything like a routine before John's parents were killed in a car wreck. John felt less grieved than stunned, rudderless, orphaned. For months afterward, when by accident he caught a glimpse of himself in one of the men's apparel mirrors at Sears, John would see an almost comical expression of puzzlement on his face. But if death--even sudden, unexpected, violent death--is a calamity, it merely placed John among the swelling masses who would like, if they thought it would be witnessed by the perpetrator of the crimes, to shake their fists at God.
      Karen was especially solicitous of John during this period, which irritated him no end. John eventually came to a number of conclusions: that their marriage had been a mistake; that he'd married the adoring Karen to do her a favor; that although Karen seemed willing to do anything for him in bed or out, she was flat-chested and could never do the one thing that would make him happy--become Joy Ingstrom. He knew that all of these conclusions were unkind, even cruel, and certainly juvenile, but he couldn't help himself. He'd never quite rid himself of the assumption--relic of a childhood spent with doting parents, no doubt--that the world was out of joint whenever it was not wholly intent on making him happy.
      He tried to blame his dissatisfaction with his job on Karen, too, but it didn't work. No, what disturbed him most was the realization that if he'd not married Karen Brown he'd still be an assistant department manager at Sears. There were moments when, thinking about his future, he could hardly breathe: he was only twenty-five, and what did he have to dream about? What could he conceivably dream about? Fighting and clawing his way up from assistant to department manager? Ha! Becoming--steady now--store manager, like Mr. Newell, a fussy little man who was held in contempt at the same time he was feared by his employees? My God, to be twenty-five and bereft of parents is one thing, but to be twenty-five and bereft of dreams?
It was about then that the Vietnam War was consuming the nation. John wasn't especially political, though, and, being almost past the age to be drafted, didn't pay much attention. But suddenly in July of '67 he was reclassified 1-A, in August received his draft notice, and in September rode with a bus-full of eighteen and nineteen year olds to their induction physical, where it was discovered he had an enlarged heart and was unfit for service in Uncle Sam's legions. He'd dodged a bullet, he supposed.
      Until then, it had seemed he'd spent his married life battling some inner demon who wasn't especially ferocious but was a tiresomely insistent nag. With the possibility of military service behind him, though, John settled into a routine that was not entirely unpleasant. He especially enjoyed Friday and Saturday nights, when he and Karen would go to a movie or a cheap restaurant or a ball game. They began to take occasional short vacations--a long weekend or even four or five days--which John said he needed to "recharge his batteries." While these vacations did not reinvigorate his desire for work, they certainly did reinvigorate his desire for vacations. Most pleasant of all, for the first time in his marriage, John found himself frequently looking forward to having sex with his wife. (When buxom Dottie Hicks, sales clerk in the Sears jewelry department, invited him over to her place after work for "a drink and, who knows, whatever," John turned her down. Thinking about it afterward, he was bemused to realize that he'd been less tempted by Dottie's offer than frightened and even, yes, repelled.)
      The transforming event of his marriage occurred on the third weekend of May, 1969, during a trout-fishing expedition with four of his buddies from work. John had looked forward to the trip for weeks, had bought a new fly rod and borrowed a pair of waders from his neighbor. On the two-hour drive up to the trout stream with the boys, he'd drunk Schlitz, eaten fried pork rinds, smoked a Swisher Sweet, shouted dirty limericks, and joined in the general consensus: "It doesn't get any better than this." That night, though, he had a hard time sleeping, and not just because of the musty sleeping bag on the hard cabin floor. The next morning, standing waist-deep in the frigid stream, a heavy mist falling about him, John felt miserable but also almost fearfully expectant. Something momentous was coming, was about to hit him, devastate him, and then it did hit him, and it was devastating: the realization that he missed Karen. Not just missed her, no, that was too weak, too cowardly a word. He was afraid to say the correct word to himself, but there it was anyway. He loved Karen, loved her in a way that only the unblinking truth of the cliché can capture: His heart ached, his heart ached for Karen.
      The realization that he loved his wife did not, of course, make their marriage perfect, but it did make it a marriage.
      Whether because of this development or because it was in the nature of things, John and Karen began to want a child. They "tried" for a year, toward the end of which they resorted to a thermometer, certain positions more comical than inspiring, and finally something involving an ice cube--all to no avail. They consulted a fertility specialist, who checked them out, pronounced them fit, and advised them to relax and enjoy it. They relaxed and enjoyed it and in three months Karen was pregnant.
      John thought he wanted a boy, but when Melody Ann was born one wet March night John took one look and was blackjacked by love. He never recovered. When Ashley Marie was born two years later, and John assumed that two children would dilute his love, he found instead that it had increased and deepened. This was not an unalloyed blessing in his life.
      He thought he had known worry before, and fear and despair, but love proved all of these to have been impostors. This John Robertson who had been the spoiled darling of his parents, and then a self-centered man-child into far too many of his adult years, now went days and weeks without a thought for himself but instead was burdened with worry that even his promotion to department manager would not provide the wherewithal to meet the needs of his growing family; fear that Melody wasn't just shy but was in reality "slow"; despair that the only girl in Ashley's first grade class who did not have a speaking part in the Christmas play was, yes yes, Ashley, his little Ashley.
      The years flew. Overnight, it seemed to John, Melody become a young lady neither shy nor slow but fiercely introspective and independent. The little girl who once ran to him--"Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!"--at the first hint of a hurt now merely tolerated his worry and ignored his counsel. She wrote poetry and hung out with friends to whom she never introduced her parents and, years before she left home for college, was mostly gone from her father's life.
      Little Ashley, of the skinny arms and legs and oversized black eyes, found an old tennis racket of her mother's and began to beat a ball against the garage door when she was eight years old. Soon she was walking down to the courts in the local park and nagging older girls and even boys to play her a game, please, a set, a match, play her all afternoon. She joined the neighborhood swim team, played shortstop on her grade school softball team and kept her head down on grounders, then, even though she stopped growing at five-foot-four, became a ferocious, ball-hawking guard on her high school basketball team. Karen theorized that Ashley was trying to be the son that John never had, but he knew that wasn't it. In her own way Ashley was as independent as Melody, was generally unmoved by his interest and praise, and would become enraged when he hollered down from the bleachers at the referees.
      It was after an overtime loss Ashley's junior year that John stepped into the cold winter air outside the gymnasium and fainted. They ran an EKG and an MRI, had him wear an ambulatory heart monitor for thirty-six hours, tested his blood. Everything was normal. Except: "There's that enlarged heart, of course," his doctor reminded him.
      The years sped on, John reeling in the momentum of their passing.
      Melody left home for college, and then Ashley. "Hot dog, now we've got our lives back," John said to Karen. In reality, though--and no one could have been more surprised by this than John--he felt ripped apart, sundered, to be without of his daughters. "Classic case of the empty nest syndrome," Karen laughed. She thought it was kind of cute. But it wasn't; it was awful. "My life is over," John whispered to the aging figure in the mirror.
      And he was right.
      It happened at 7:22 a.m., June 18th, 1997, a time, season, and year that lacked significance, was symbolic of nothing. John walked out onto his driveway looking for the morning paper. The damn boy had probably thrown it into the bushes again. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed with a terrible weariness. He bent over, then went down and rolled over onto his back. This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me, he thought. But he was wrong. The next instant something went terribly wrong inside his chest, and he was riven with pain. Worse than the pain was the terror, because he knew this was the end. For one moment after the pain passed, everything seemed to stop. During that moment John's life did not pass before his eyes, but he did remember the sensation of hitting a baseball so perfectly that you neither heard nor felt it, but the ball traveled far. Now, he heard nothing and felt nothing, and everything had traveled far from him. In the last instant of John's life, he saw a light of incredible brilliance, caused probably by the chemical action of brain cells breaking down. Or perhaps caused by God.
      Mrs. Booth, who lived across the street, saw John lying in the driveway and phoned Karen. "I think your husband is having a problem," she said tactfully.
      Karen ran into the driveway, bent over John, just touched his cheek with the tip of her middle finger, and then, being too reserved to scream in public, ran back into the house and did it there. She called 911, then ran back outside and cradled John's head in her lap until the ambulance came. His eyes were open, and he'd stare in whatever direction she turned his head.
      At the funeral home they washed his body, packed his various orifices with cotton, drained his fluids. They wired his mouth shut and sealed his eyelids with cement. They pumped three and a half gallons of embalming fluid into his arteries and suctioned his oatmeal-and-orange-juice breakfast out of his stomach with a trocar. He lay for several hours left hand upon right as his tissues became firm, and then they shaved him with an electric razor, shampooed his hair, and applied cosmetics that made him look as if he had a mild sunburn. After positioning him in the coffin, they glued his hands in place and applied hair spray to the stubborn cowlick that had been the despair of his mother. Now he was ready.
      This strangely transformed John Robertson made his final appearance on the world's stage at the Berman-Davis Funeral Home, where, at the wake, nearly everyone kept their distance. After the funeral service, though, his relatives, friends, and neighbors filed by, took a last look, and, since his life had been most ordinary, made the most ordinary, predictable comments.
      Melody refused to attend the interment, which she described as a "ghoulish, barbaric custom" and made her mother and sister promise to have her cremated if they were around when the time came. Karen and Ashley witnessed the burial and held up as well as could be expected.
           John had loved his family and was loved by them, and they mourned his passing. Ashley especially had a bad time of it, suffering something like a crisis of identity. Maybe after all she had been trying to be the son her father never had. For a while Karen thought she could not go on living, but of course she did, although she wasn't always sure why.
      Time passed as John's body did what bodies do in that dark, private place under the headstone, the plastic flowers, the sod, the heaped earth. Then there came a day when not for one instant in the twenty-four hours did anyone who had ever known John think of him, at which point his annihilation by time was completed.
      Thus, this most ordinary man finally succumbed to the greatest tragedy, one common to us all. We try not to think about that, of course. And, for the most part, we are successful.