Here is what I do: I scan weeklies all over the state and hone in on some good family that for one reason or another catches my eye; it could be a photograph or a headline on the sports page or a couple of kids with the same last name on school honor rolls. Or none of those. The only thing that connects them is that they are complete strangers to me.
I drive to their town and observe them for several weeks; I see the kids waiting for the school bus in the morning. Some days I follow mom to work. Some days, dad. I go along with them to restaurants and movies. I mark down who mows the lawn--and when. I note when the lights go out each night. Eventually I discern who is happy and who is putting up a front. I am only interested in the happy ones.
The job takes 45 minutes at most. I wait until the house is empty. Believe it or not, I often find an unlocked door and just walk in. If all doors are bolted, I simply tape and break a small pane of glass from a back door. (FYI, alarm systems are deal breakers.)
Their homes look like they are always expecting unexpected guests. Donning disposable rubber gloves and surgical shoe covers, I head straight to the parents' bedroom, clear each bureau top with a smooth Fred Astaire sweep of my arm, pull out the dresser drawers, rip and hang a pair of mom's panties on the bedpost. Jewelry and prescriptions are thrown into a pillow case; the cash in dad's sock drawer is stuffed in my back pocket. I then go about trashing the kids' rooms, shards of glass and ripped-up posters and shattered computers piled on their beds, their names scribbled on the walls with mom's lipstick.
Down in the living room I knife the couch, rip family pictures off the walls, knock over the etagere, spear the flat screen with a fireplace poker. You can imagine the kitchen. Afterward I wash up in the bathroom, plug the sink and turn up the hot water.
For my time and effort I keep approximately 50% of the gross monies for food and rent and save the rest for the 22nd Mission Fund. The jewelry I take to the dump in a green plastic bag along with the rest of my daily trash. I'm not in it for the money.
Here's a bone: My father was a minister. We lived up in Butte County. I still see Father at the head of the maple table in his collar and ruddy cheeks, hands together and head bowed as he thanks the Lord for our daily bread. Mother sits to the right. She is wearing an apron. Five-year-old Ruth sits across from me. I am 7. It is morning, the sun lighting up the daffodils Mama had put in the bay window.
The next thing I know Father's eyes are wide open like he'd seen the Devil himself and then he falls off his chair. The next thing I know we're living with my mother's parents in Fresno.
The tedious story of a childhood after a parent dies has been told and retold by so many other orphans that it seems pointless to make a point of it. Would you like to know that my grandfather died soon after of emphysema? That I found him in the backyard? That I tried and tried to be the good boy my mother said my father would want me to be? That my sister Ruth didn't try; at 15, she stole Gram's rainy day money and ran off with 22-year-old Ray Don Walton?
Well, believe any or all of it, if you must. But my intent is not to leave subtle psychological clues alongside the path of this narrative so that shortly after the climax you will smile, nod gravely or raise your finger as if you truly understand. This is not about pathology. I will not allow you that easy consolation.
Instead I offer you the story of the Jostens, my grandparents' next-door neighbors. They befriended me and Gram after Ruthie disappeared and my mom drowned herself in a bottle. (I neglected to mention that.)
So a decade after we fled Paradise for Fresno, I was sitting in Gram's yellowed kitchen with the Jostens right after my high school graduation, eating a white Ralphs sheet cake with a chocolate mortarboard and tassel on top. Mrs. Josten's thick lower lip trembled as she held out a forkful of cake, saying she was so proud that I would be going to the seminary in the fall. Then Mr. Josten, a high school teacher and deacon at the Methodist church, got up from his chair, walked around behind me and laid his thick pink hand on the back of my skinny neck. I bowed my head. "Paul," he said, "each of us has something special to give to others. It is God's plan. Because you have known so much unhappiness in your young life, I think you may have more to offer than many others. Look around and see who needs you."
I dutifully lifted my head against the weight of his moist palm and twisted around. "Your father," he continued, "named you Paul for good reason, Paul. Heed well the words of your namesake: 'Take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when you are weak, then are you strong.'"