I once dated a girl who worked at cheers. Not the real cheers. There is no real cheers. Well, there is a real cheers, but not where you think it is. Would she say we dated? We went to the Bronx zoo once, a few sexless dates in, had a rough go driving back, and never saw each other again. Cheers was how I developed my formless definition of adulthood, and placed it, like the towering dock I was too young to swim to at camp, just far enough in the fiery glare of the lake to ever be reached. Would I say we dated? Not now. Not with the erosion of experience. Back then I waited for the push of adulthood to announce itself, like the pressure on my temple from the breast of a dental assistant getting a better angle. The story line wasn't linear. Coach died off screen because he died in real life. I was suppose to marry Diane, but things change. When I was finally old enough to swim out past the ropes my parents didn't make me go to camp. But still the sirens call me from that lost continent. Norm. Norm. Norm.
From the shower I see a chickadee in my new backyard, puffed up and pecking at his armpit with exacting jabs. There's a professional rhythm to it, ticka ticka tick tick tick. Like the three generations of smiling women in the window downtown, mending shirts with round fingers at tremendous speeds. "They are queens in their castle" dad would say when I would mock them. He looks dressed down, like he's had a few drinks at a wedding. He stops every three or four seconds to look for cats, or me, or the woods beyond. Suddenly his suit tucks in and he flys over my house and away. No head jerk, no warning. Had he been planning his escape the whole time? Does he think the world moves by him while he stays still? I wash my hair and turn the shower off. It was later than it seemed.
The thing that shocks you about Shoulder God is his human hands. But he needs them. He needs them to sit on your shoulders comfortably. Talons won’t work long term, you know that. Also, the human hands register with you subconsciously as a warm feeling from childhood, when your father would rest his hands comfortably on your shoulders as he looked for an item in a department store, or the car in a parking lot. You know that.
When you get to know him, you might ask, “Why does Shoulder God look like a vulture?” Shoulder God has a job to do, and much like a vulture, it is a necessary job, but not glamorous, nor even sometimes palatable. Shoulder God did not take on the form of the vulture, but instead, took on the form best suited for his job, which happened to be a very similar looking form to the vulture.
You might think the next logical question is “What can Shoulder God do for me?” but this is misguided, although Shoulder God knows you are coming from a good place with it. Shoulder God won’t do anything that you can do, that’s the whole point. He is there, resting on your shoulders, to take away the things that have been deemed beyond human control. You don’t need to ask Shoulder God which are which, he knows. He can feel in your muscles when there is something he needs to take away. When this happens, he gives a quick squeeze to let you know he is leaving, and then flies off with the offending issue.
For instance, on a warm July weekday you are failing to tune up your never used bike in the driveway, exposed to the neighborhood like a titmouse in a freshly mowed field full of hawks, when a neighborhood youth and his girlfriend go by, her on a skateboard, him walking beside, holding her hands to guide her. Her loose shirt is furling just above her belly button, touching skin and then billowing out, creating a vacuum that can only be filled by the thought of running ones hands up her smooth belly to her breasts. In that instant you realize that you have wasted half the summer and this bike will never be fixed. Your shoulders raise and you freeze up where you are sitting. This is where Shoulder God comes in, giving an almost imperceptible squeeze. He takes the thought from you and flies off above the fragrant pines into the sticky summer heat. In turn you stand up and go for a walk around the neighborhood in the light of the setting sun. On the edge of the woods you see a deer, and the deer sees you. It pauses for a moment before bounding back into the wilderness beyond.
At this point you might be asking yourself, “Is there anything else Shoulder God is good at?” And, although your question is impolite, the answer is, “Yes.” Shoulder God is an expert at giving and analyzing haircuts. Some say it’s from all the time he has spent around the head, but others say that they’re unrelated. With only a few lunges up and down each side of the head with his bulging eyes, he can tell you, for instance, that you’re haircut, tight cropped in the back and loose and flowing in the front, is a sign that you are concerned about things you have no control over, and have little care to control the things you can. His analysis of a tightly bound ponytail is similar, if a little obvious, but his insight into perms and afros is groundbreaking. When the analysis of your haircut is finished, he can then give you the haircut that is most appropriate to you, or the haircut of the person you strive to be.
With all this new information you may wonder, “When is Shoulder God with me?” and the answer is, "Always". He is there when you don't need him, sitting on your shoulders, absorbing the details of your life. He is there when you need him most, picking through issues like a vulture picks through a carcass, leaving you the most digestible parts, and flying off with the rest. But there are times when his presence is most obvious. You will feel Shoulder God with every overdue pee, every post-resolution cigarette, every conversation between friends clarifying some opaque drama. You will feel Shoulder God's work in action in a crowded plaza, half lost, on the way to a date at an observatory, you raise your hands to avoid bumping into a stranger in front of you, while behind you another stranger gives you the gentlest touch on the back to let you know that they are there, and in that moment you immediately realize your place in the universe, and how you are the same as everyone else, and that there is something bigger than you, a swirling mass of people touching and passing and creating something huge and dynamic. You are the man standing in the plaza and everyone around him, the fiance waiting for him at the observatory, the wedding dress that cost too much, and which she has fretted for months about fitting into, and all the stars in the sky.
On a gloomy Summer morning, the kind that forces pants on you, even though you know it will force them right back off before noon, I was walking back from my dentist, Dr. Alan Haman D.D.S.’s office. I was just past the Lloyd Mall, walking west on Weidler, right near that strange apartment building with all the pharaohs and hieroglyphics carved into the architecture when the feathers started coming down. I couldn’t tell if they were coming from the roof of the Egyptian apartment building, or from some nearby tree. They poured down towards the street like gray and white bubbles, and the breeze carried them towards me. I reached out my hand and the first one of the bunch landed in my palm. It sat there for a second, looking like the thinning gray hair of Dr. Alan Haman D.D.S., and then the breeze blew it away, to someone else’s hand, or maybe to the gutter. The mass of feathers partially blotted out the sky, making it feel like a storm was coming. I imagined that there had to be 20 or 30 bald birds somewhere to be able to produce this many feathers. Did a deranged person store them up in a bag for years, waiting for this moment to release them and watch? I didn’t know whether to keep letting them land on me and fly away, or try to collect them. If I decided to, I could take my sweatshirt off and use it as a makeshift bag to collect them in. My life had been completely devoid of feathers up until then, and I didn’t know what the future held, but following experience it seemed pretty feather-less too. This was my one chance, perhaps, to gather these feathers up and have them to look at on days that were particularly in need of feathers. But, on the other hand, there was also something nice about watching the feathers land of me, cling briefly to the cotton of my sweatshirt, and then fly off past the parking garage to somewhere that I couldn’t see. If I kept it this way, if I didn’t collect them, I wouldn’t have to find a spot in my house for a sweatshirt full of feathers when it wasn’t a day particularly in need of feathers. Would they smell? I imagine at least a little bit, like pet dander. This situation seemed similar to the one I was going through with the death of my Uncle Greg. He was different than the rest of us Bentons, because he was completely covered in feathers, and because of that, and his longer than average arms, he could fly. His death is still a mystery. They found him in a field in Mcminnville with bruises on his head and body. Most of my family thinks that he was hit by a low flying plane, while a few rogue aunts think that he was shot down by a hunter and the police are covering it up because they don’t know how to file his death. It wasn’t until he died that I realized I hadn’t spent enough time with him. I think he scared me when I was in Elementary School, and then in Junior High, when apprearance mattered so much, I was somewhat ashamed of how strange his was. Once my mom asked him if he could bring me to my karate lesson because she had to pick up my sister Beth from a cancelled sleepover. I was so nervous the whole ride over that all my friends were going think I was a freak for being his nephew. He overcompensated though, hugging everyone with his long arms, playing the tap-you-on-the-other-shoulder trick with all the kids, and making light of his feather situation immediately. After karate, as the sun was setting, I asked my uncle if I could fly with him. He was hesitant at first, but I could see in his rustling feathers that he really wanted to. He told me to climb on his back and wrap my arms around his neck. All of a sudden we were in the air. When I looked down I could already see the roofs of all the houses. His giant arms felt like ocean waves underneath me, cresting and receding, cresting and receding. When we were up high enough that all the evening lights looked like holes in construction paper he said that I could come around and lay on his belly while he glided on his back. I crawled around and could see his were eyes half shut and his skyward smile was beaming. He looked happy the way an immigrant looks happy, happy just to be there. Breezes fluttered through his feathers like through blades of grass on a prairie. He was doing an aerial backstroke with his long powerful arms, and sometimes, when he peeked behind his back and saw a tall tree, he would dip in, and touch it ever so lightly with his foot, and pretend to use all his effort to push off of that one tiny branch at the top, and up we would go, back into the sky. It seems appropriate now, but at the time it seems strange that he asked me what I would think of him when he died. I told him I didn’t know. He asked me if I knew what a hippie was. I sort of did, so I said I sort of did. He said that he was a hippie now, and as a hippie he believes that he is from the earth, and to the earth he will return. He said, once he’s dead he doesn’t want all of us talking about him, or being sad that he’s not around anymore. He said, I’m here when I’m here, and I’m not when I’m not. I asked him if maybe I could tell new friends that I had an uncle that could fly. He said maybe, if I’m telling them in the right spirit, the hippie spirit, which is all about respect, and not about bragging or one-up-manship. The night was getting late, and I was getting sleepy. I asked my uncle if I could take a nap on his back while we flew home. He said that it’s good to listen to my body, when I’m tired I need to sleep, when I’m full of love, I need to love. I woke up the next morning in my bed, and almost forgot that we ever went flying.