Monster Models

The fluorescent lamp poured its wan flicker over the workbench. The window looked out to our backyard at ground level. Its pane faded to black as we worked. Silhouettes of treetops and the slow blink of an occasional Cessna were all I could see from the angle of my four-foot vantage point.

A few incandescent bulbs lit the cavernous, L-shaped basement. The cedar closet and concrete floor, along with dope paint and airplane glue blended their fragrances into a sort of manly potpourri. This was my Dad’s space, and I was here by invitation.

His workbench was a converted ice-cream counter. Its wells were no longer filled with pistachio and chocolate swirl, but rather nuts and bolts, and salvaged bits of stuff that might prove useful someday. To the left was his gray-green toolbox, heavy with neatly ordered tools. The evening’s project was to assemble a monster model.

From time to time, my Grandmother would treat me to lunch at a place called The Bowery Dugout. Their shrimp cocktail was outstanding. The Dugout happened to be near Woolworth’s, where our lunch dates often culminated with the purchase of a new monster model to add to my collection.

My Dad showed me how to trim, glue and paint the molded plastic sections. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, Godzilla, King Kong, and the Mummy came to life in the basement. Once finished, each assumed a place of honor in my bedroom on shelves my Dad built. They were scary, but not too scary for sleeping.

Eventually, the monsters weren’t very scary at all. And as their terror faded, so did their appeal. They actually seemed to shrink. I was only partly aware that it was me that was changing, not them.

Other things were different too. I outgrew my Nehru jacket and tie-died bellbottoms and started wearing frayed jeans and gauze shirts instead. I listened less to my old Monkees records and more to The Association and Jesus Christ Superstar.

The monster models were artifacts of the little kid I didn’t want to be anymore. I wanted clear separation. So I sacrificed them at the altar of the teenager I hoped was inside me. It was time for differentiation, and I went at it with panache.

I drilled a hole in King Kong’s chest with a jackknife, inserted a Black Cat firecracker, and blew him to bits. Godzilla fell to my BB gun, and Dracula to a dowsing of lighter fluid and a match. One by one, the rest of the monster cadre met similar fates.

It was only recently that I stopped to consider the investment my Dad made into those projects. The monster collection was material evidence of his presence in my childhood. They were emblems of his genuine desire to spend time with me, teaching me things and having fun on my level.

Today there’s nothing left to touch – nothing wrapped in old newspaper, waiting to be lifted gingerly from a dusty cardboard box. I regret that. Thankfully, my memories didn’t perish in the plastic shrapnel; they remain vivid, painted in dope.



The brass-colored sun looks like the bell of an immense trumpet, blaring a single sustained note. Shadows stretch to absurd lengths and taper at the end like Dr. Seuss figures.

The heat of the day lingers into evening. Not long ago we had a hundred consecutive rainy days, but this summer has given us a record streak of days over seventy degrees. Now that it’s September I feel a little disoriented by the nice weather.

My dog, Boomer, and I are walking westward on our favorite trail. The mountains are smudged with a million shades of purple, peach and gold. Two chestnut-colored Vizsla Hounds glide up the hill ahead of us. They move as if they’re weightless – as if they might take flight at any moment.

I’m fascinated by the contrast they provide to Boomer’s heavy, “ground-hugging” gait. His Bulldog and Terrier genes anchor him to the earth.

The Vizslas and their chaperone disappear over a rise. Boomer plows through the taller, greener grass along the side of the trail. With the cooling of dusk a lavish banquet of scents comes loose from each tuft. He wheels around and crashes again through an especially fragrant spray of straw.

Boomer seems happy with his dense musculature and earthbound stride. He wastes no time wishing he were a Vizsla. He grins at me as if to say, “Isn’t this great!” Then, with tags and collar jingling merrily, tears off in search of another bit of territory that needs marking.

We’d normally turn around and head home at this point. I don’t want to go back yet. The cadence of my footsteps reminds me of something important, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

A smoky-gray cat crouches low and glares at us from the other side of a wire fence. Noticing she’s been noticed, she fades into the shadows under a flatbed trailer.

One day two years ago I walked this trail, sorting through my mostly localized joys and sorrows. The next morning, while packing school lunches, I listened to radio reports of airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers. Then I watched on television as the buildings crumbled. My miniscule joys and sorrows, along with my illusions of American life, were swallowed into those horrible craters.

We descend the long, steep hill to the highway, and wait for a break in traffic. Once on the other side, we set out across the valley. I stop midway to admire a very old weeping willow. Boomer is less interested, but waits dutifully at my side. The tree’s green and gold waterfall hisses in the breeze. It forms a circular veil, concealing a grassless grotto around the massive trunk. I part the branches, enjoying the brush of almond-shaped leaves against the back of my hand.

Within the willow’s sanctuary time loosens its grip. This could be 1967, and I could be playing in my grandmother’s yard in New York. A cascade of memories pours over my soul. I resist the temptation to clutch at them, and surrender instead to their brief, bittersweet comfort.

Crying… That’s what this evening’s walk has been like: Crying… My feet have been hitting the ground like tears that won’t stop. Miles and miles of size twelve tears…

Once discovered, the feeling dissipates. I grope after it, but it’s gone like a rhyme I didn’t jot down at three in the morning.

“C’mon, Boo’ – this way…”

The trail continues up the opposite bank of the river, and snakes into the trees. I very much want to see if it leads to Lake Washington, but the river blocks our way. We turn north instead.

I feel like weeping, but my eyes remain dry. There are too few tears for the task. The sadness of what was lost on September Eleventh is still impossible for me to process. And its long shadow darkens my insides.

The Sammamish is a river in name only; it’s really a slow-moving, algae-laden slough, and after our dry summer its stench is remarkable. A slough must be a river that forgot where it was going.

I feel an urgency to remember where my heart was going before it went into shock two years ago. The slough’s putrid reek makes it hard to breathe. God, don’t let my heart go stagnant! Somehow I have to figure out how to grieve – how to recover the flow of my own sorrow and joy.

Boomer is panting with thirst, but there is no fresh water until we reach the park in downtown Woodinville. I cup my hand to the fountain and deliver tiny drinks to him until he’s satisfied.

The sun has faded completely. It’s dark. My better judgment knows the road is too busy and its shoulder too narrow to walk without a flashlight. So, when my cell phone rings I accept my daughter’s offer to drive out and pick us up.