I'm used to having my blood pressure taken five times in a row. When they started taking my blood pressure as a young person, they always thought they were making mistakes in the reading. The nurse would put the stethoscope in her ears, pump up the cuff and slowly let out the air, listening to the veins in my arms, staring at the descending mercury in the sphygmomanometer, and then giving up half way through. They shake their heads. The words, "This can't be right," leak out their ears.

After three times they say, "Other arm," no matter which arm I gave them first. Do that one twice. Then they look at me with squinty eyes and say, "It's unusually high."

Since I was sixteen or so.

For the last six years my cardiologist has made me take blood pressure pills. I take them religiously because we all know high blood pressure kills you faster than cancer. The pills may as well be candy. They take my blood pressure six times now. Three times, each arm.

"It's still high," they say, as if there was something I could do about it. I've lost weight. Given up coffee. Gone to meditation classes.

"Blame God," is all I can think to say.

This last time they took my blood pressure the nurse did it twice, once each arm. The nurse said, "Wait right here." She brought in another nurse who took my blood pressure twice, once each arm. They looked at me as if they'd figured out I was the one who was selling guns to high school kids in Columbine, Colorado.

"This is high," one of them said.

"What's your point?"

"Are you taking your pills?"

I listed the dictionary of pills I ate every day, some in the morning and some in the evening.

They looked at each other. They couldn't pin the blame on me and someone needed to be blamed.

"Go on to work. Expect a call from the boss," one said, the same way my mom used to say, "Wait till your father gets home," when I broke windows with errant baseball throws.

"The Boss" is what they call my cardiologist. Everyone calls him that. He's pretty aggressive about cardiovascular issues. I figure that's who I want on my side in this thing. I don't know who I'm fighting, but I want the goddamned Delta Force of cardo issues on my side and The Boss is the man.

I walk out of his office, through the waiting room, filled with blue-haired geriatrics. I'm the youngest guy there by a couple decades. I figure that's a good sign. Maybe he can keep me alive long enough to have blue hair, too. He says it's not going to be easy, though. He's made that clear. The chances of me getting to 60 are fifty-fifty, he says.

This is why I'm living life, now, rather than waiting to be old enough to be eligible to withdraw from my 401(k) without a tax penalty. The way it seems now, someone else is going to get my retirement savings. That's fine with me, as long as I had fun while I was saving it.

*



When someone dies it's the responsibility of the executor of the estate to file that person's last taxes. For obvious reasons, people who have died have not paid or filed their taxes for the year of their death. Someone has to do it.

Has to.

Obviously, that's what's important in this world.

When my grandfather died in January, I was the oldest surviving male child and so the tax filing duty fell to me, because that's what he wanted. Taxes are pretty easy to do if you're not in possession of a whole lot of valuable stuff. Still, I had to fill out the long forms even though most of my grandfather's income was from social security. I had to put a lot of zeroes on those long forms. There was nothing to report except the meager interest income he made on the life savings he accrued as a barber in Roselle, New Jersey.

My grandfather felt he was Rockefeller when he assigned me executor to his estate. He knew how long he'd stood in uncomfortable shoes, how much small talk he had to make over his seventy years barbering. He knew how much hair he had to sweep to make that money. All the Saturdays he had to work.

"You gotta prepare for this," he told me the last time I saw him. "This is serious, Joey," he told me.

"I know, grandpa," I said, but I doubt he believed me. He thought I was impetuous, but I was all he had in the way of an oldest male heir.

Because I was now in charge, I had to figure out how to do things correctly according to the government. I had to be certified by courts in New Jersey and California to have control of my grandfather's fortune. I had to send L8 certificates to the banks across which he'd scattered his wealth like Howard Hughes trying to keep his pile anonymous.

I wanted to be sure I was doing things correctly so I read the tax law and understood it the best I could. There are a whole lot of pages to it. Estate taxes and K-1 forms and 1041s and Release Bonds. Etc.

I read the law and disbursed my grandfather's wealth across his seven surviving grandchildren. I got enough to pay a month's Visa card debt. My sister took her kids on vacation to Disney World. My brother put a down payment on a new Volvo SUV.

Then Domenick-the-barber's ninety-five years of life's work was gone.

*



The parent of a child who is presumed by law enforcement authorities to have been kidnapped by someone who is not a family member may be able to take the child into account in determining his or her eligibility for head of household or qualifying widor(er) filing status, deduction for dependents, child tax credit, and the earned income credit (EIC).
United States 2003 Form 1040 filing instructions, Page 61


*



When I got my first real job I needed a car. I was still using the Mercury Marquis which was trashed after four years of my driving it to college. And in those days there was something built into each and every American automobile called "obsolescence". The idea was that if the car decayed to an unrepairable state over a period of time, the owner would eventually declare a total loss, commit suicide, ride a bus, or buy a new car. Most cars rusted to dust after ten years, and the Marquis was well on the way.

At 22 years of age, I wanted an Audi. I wanted an Audi because I wanted a Porsche and the Porsches were sold at the Audi place, and I figured if I could buy anything from that dealership, it would lead to my having a Porsche. (Aside: over the past 23 years, my theory has not proven true. Though I have driven Porsches, I've never owned one.)

I could not afford the down payment on my new Audi, and in those days, you needed a downpayment to get car loans.

My father and mother came with me to the Audi dealership. I picked out my burgundy red, bottom-of-the-line Audi 4000 and held out my check for $417.28, which was all I had in the bank.

The salesman rolled his eyes and slapped the desk, making a physical note to the fact he'd wasted his time with us for the past two hours.

Then my father pulled out a check for four-thousand dollars and handed it to him. As far as I was concerned, it was money from heaven. My parents wouldn't let me ask the question I needed to ask--we just finished the deal with them co-signing my first-ever car loan.

When I drove off the lot with my new Audi my parents told me the money had come from the great fortune of the old owl Domenick-the-barber, who had accumulated it at the rate of $4 a haircut, over some geologic period of time.

"Someday, you'll pay me back, but you won't pay me back," my grandpa said when I thanked him. He said something about his grandfather, something passed on to him eons ago in feudal Italy, when he was a boy and dinosaurs roamed in the great cycle of life on earth.



*



Agents of "The Boss" called me at work. It was Barbara, the middle-aged strawberry blonde.

"Mr. Owl, The Boss would like to add something to your meds. But we want you to come get some samples first, to try it out."

"What is it?"

She says an unintelligible chemical brand name.

"What does it do?"

"Well, it lowers your blood pressure."

"No. I know that. What ELSE does it do?"

"Side effects? Well, your legs may swell up. But if they do, you call us right away."

"Uh huh. And what else?"

"It's really well tolerated in these low dosages."

"So, I have to add this to the list of things I have to call you about. If my heart starts racing and I can't get out of a chair, that's the Avapro and I have to call you. If my muscles start cramping uncontrollably, or I can't move my limbs anymore, that's the Lipitor and I should call you, that is, if I can lift the phone receiver with my toes because my arms are paralyzed. And now--let me get this straight--if I start looking like the Michelin man from the waist down, that's this new stuff and I should call you. Can you tell me the name again, I'm going to look it up on the web."

"Mr. Owl--you can make this difficult if you want. We're trying to help you."

As she speaks I get the WebMD verdict on this drug. "And when I'm trying to make love to my wife on her birthday, I just reach for my Viagra and wait half a day for Bob fucking Dole to come knocking because this blood pressure pill has turned me into a goddamned moon jelly. Is that what you're saying? Why didn't you tell me that?"

There's silence. Then a cough. Then some papers rustle. Then. "That's why we want you to try the samples, first."

I say "bye" and hang up. I'm ready to burn down the office building. I'm begging for laser vision so I can melt my telephone. I slug down another cup of coffee. Answer some annoying e-mail. Argue with one of my colleagues at work. Drop another two Aleve to get rid of the endless headache. Try not to yell. I'm at that time of the day when I hate my life. I know it will pass.

*



I walk my dog in the mist of Saturday morning dawn. I put on my baseball hat that says, "McMurdo Station, Antarctica," on it. I grab a doggie pooper scooper bag. A travel mug of Starbuck's Coffee.

We walk to the park where the grass is so wet with dew it seems like it's just rained. Fog hangs over the mountain peaks like a blanket tossed on a mattress. Crows caw. Squirrels gather the acorns that have fallen in the night.

The new blood pressure pills have had an interesting effect. They calmed my body down. Initially, my mind raced, trying to get my heart to keep up with the vein of stress I'd tapped into. But where before I was driving a Ferrari, I was now trying to get a rusted Yugo with two bad spark plugs to highway speeds on shortened acceleration ramps. It just wasn't working. After a week, my brain gave up trying. Things seemed better. Now, I feel like I belong in the mist and the dew. Like I've dropped into the world from a moving airplane.

Now I see a sign on a lamp post. Now I see they're on all the lamp posts. Eight and a half by eleven computerized printouts. Every vertical public object has one.

They're falling off. Must have been here for weeks.

The signs say:

Missing Teens


Vanessa Grimley and Bianca Furst have been missing since July 1st, 2004. They are thirteen, and fourteen years old, respectively. Their parents dropped them off at Oakridge, Mall, in San Jose, California, and they haven't been seen since. If you hear of them, you should call law enforcement, or you should call their father.

Ossie and I walk through the cool still air. The flat light amplifies the green of the grass. The Los Gatos mountains seem darker and more jagged.

Os sniffs the bushes. I'm thinking about Vanessa and Bianca. Of how their father must've spent days putting up all those posters. They're on every sign and lamp post, for as far as I can see. How could I have missed them?

There were some early morning tennis players on the public courts. Two little girls watched their fathers play. They came by to pet Ossie, and I let them, being careful not to be too friendly or too aloof. Watching their fathers eye me through the green fence, I moved on. Every man I saw became a potential abductor of Vanessa and Bianca. Of other children to come.

There was the guy going to work at the old age home, in his white shirt and tie--you know the type--they seem calm and legit until you find out they have a torture chamber in their garage. The man sitting in the BMW at the red light, you just know he's dragged some kid into that car and driven off. The father with kids of his own. He's got a double life. His own family doesn't know he's been out raping and killing teenaged girls. That's his cover.

I've been outside this world. I've been missing it. With my heart slowed down I could see things normal people see. Abductions and robbery. It's so normal the U.S. has Tax Laws to deal with it. If your kid is kidnapped, you can only deduct them for the part of the year they were living with you. While they're being raped and tortured, they can only be deducted by the torturer.

If you have a loved one who has died in a terrorist act, you might be eligible to prorate that person's taxes so you only have to pay for the portion of the year that occurred before they were blown up, shot, poisoned, flown into the ground at full throttle. But only if the government acknowledges it was truly an act of terrorism. If it was just random homicidal stupidity, you should treat it as a normal tax year. Read your instructions for the income tax returns. It's all in there. It's normal. Your government wants to make sure you realize it's normal for your kids to be taken. It's normal to be blown up by suicide bombers--even if it hasn't happened yet on U.S. soil, the tax codes are prepared to deal with it when it does.

I didn't realize it until they slowed down my heart. Maybe my blood pressure has been high because I was never supposed to be part of this world.

*



I've been amazed that some people can be perpetually pleasant. Now with my new lowered blood pressure I realize that some people just feel okay all the time. Their bodies aren't pumping fight or flight juice into their veins, so they can sit back and be nice to people. I never knew that lots of people just don't feel bad all the time, or that what I was feeling was "bad". I thought it was normal.

Maybe the world is run by type-A personalities with high blood pressure. I can assure you, there is no part of them that understands being enjoyable people. The bad feelings turn to anger, turn to action and crime and tax law.

*



"Did you see the signs about those kids missing from Oakridge Mall?" I asked my daughers while we were on the way to their uncle's house for Sunday dinner.

"Yeah. But there were four of them. Only the two parents made the signs," one kid said.

"It's because they ran away," another said.

"Because their parents were bugging them," said the third. "We heard about it from a kid who was their friend in school. They went to their mother's house in Wyoming."

I turned in the seat to look at them. "Let me tell you something," the new, calm, me said. "If you guys even think of running away, I will hunt you down. I will spend every cent I have, I will sell the house if I have to, and I will hire an army of the meanest private investigators you ever heard of who will tie you up and bring you to a place in the desert where we'll keep you locked up for ten years in a hot tin shack while we reprogram your little tiny brains. Do understand me?"

They were speechless. My wife gave me one of her, "Oh Jesus, here we go again," looks.

But dad had made his point. I don't have high blood pressure anymore, but I can summon it up for short intervals when I have to.

*



My oldest daughter is going to college next month. I bought her a new car to take to school. It's an outrageous car for a kid to have. But it's a car I wanted and if I was eighteen it would be like heaven to me. I felt so good at the dealership I just spent money like I was Rockefeller.

My daughter drove off the lot in her brand new, give-me-a-ticket red, Audi A4 Turbo, and I felt rich even though I was going to have to sell half my toys and take a second mortgage to pay for it.

I looked into her eyes and said to her, "This is important, sweetie," but she's impetuous and young and who I have for an heiress to the great Owl fortune. She doesn't really understand that life is a great big circle. Things happen over and over. There's a reason for the wheel in the sky.

They can tax you and blow you up, but in the middle is all sorts of real life. I think I can see that now.

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