Linear Meditation on “For Eleanor Boylan Talking With God” by Anne Sexton
For Eleanor Boylan, Talking With God
God has a brown voice,
as soft and full as beer.
Eleanor, who is more beautiful than
is standing in her kitchen talking
and I am breathing in my
cigarettes like poison.
She stands in her lemon-colored sun
motioning to God with her wet hands
glossy from the washing of egg plates.
She tells him! She tells him like a drunk
who doesn’t need to see to talk.
It’s casual but friendly.
God is as close as the ceiling.
Though no one can ever know,
I don’t think he has a face.
He had a face when I was six and a half.
Now he is large, covering up the sky
like a great resting jellyfish.
When I was eight I thought the dead people
stayed up there like blimps.
Now my chair is as hard as a scarecrow
and outside the summer flies sing like a choir.
Eleanor, before he leaves tell him
Oh Eleanor, Eleanor,
tell him before death uses you up.
God has a brown voice
Jesus had a brown face, unlike the white Jesus in the Sunday School picture who looks like the guys I loved in college: long-haired sons of businessmen and bankers; bearded boys who read Marx, burned their draft cards, and protested against Vietnam; hippies who wore peace buttons, desert boots, and faded jeans. The Jesus we learned about in church wasn’t the flint-eyed Jesus who turned over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. He was the anemic, androgynous Jesus, the pallid, passive Christ who turned cheek after cheek after cheek as I sat in the polished mahogany pew with folded hands, wondering if I was good enough to go to heaven or if I’d be cast into hell with Satan, sinners, and non-believers, waiting an eternity for the sermon to end.
as soft and full as beer
A guy lifts and swirls me around the room as “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” throbs from the speakers. The beer I chugged churns in my belly like chunks in a cement truck. Put me down. I dash to the bathroom and upchuck on the floor, not fast enough to make it to the john. After splashing my face with water and tackling the mess with paper towels, I stagger back to the suite lounge. The phone rings, and it’s my teetotaling parents, one on each extension, calling to see how I’m doing on the first week of school. I enunciate as clearly as I can. I’m fine. Subtext: No, I’m not. Yes, my dorm is nice. Subtext: I’m in the all-male suite next door where I spewed a spray of vomit ten minutes ago on the bathroom floor. I like my classes. No subtext: I do. Do they know I’m drunk? Have I disappointed them? When they hang up, I cry. A blond, brown-eyed boy tries to comfort me, stroking my tangled hair. I cry and cry and cry. An older girl puts her arm around my shoulder and leads me back to my suite. “Put one foot on the floor,” she says, “so you won’t get the spins.” My bed is a barge on a tossing sea, one foot anchoring it to shore, another foot floating on the sheets, until, rocked between two worlds, I sink under the waves and sleep.
Eleanor, who is more beautiful than my mother
No one is more beautiful than my mother. She has wavy dark hair, wide-set brown eyes, high cheekbones, white sloping shoulders. People say she looks like Jackie Kennedy. She’s tall, slim, graceful. My father likes her dressed in blue. He says Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t a good First Lady. Why? Because she got too involved in politics, he says. She was too bossy. Women are supposed to be demure like my mother. Women should be modest and speak softly. They shouldn’t seek the spotlight. My mother’s the kind of woman I’m supposed to be, the Southern Baptist model of femininity. Pretty, but not sexy. Tall, but not taller than her husband. Smart, but not too smart for her own good.
is standing in her kitchen talking
She’s always in the kitchen but often silent, chopping onions, frying cornmeal coated okra in Crisco, rolling dough for piecrust or biscuits. Sometimes she gives me scraps and I eat them raw: flour, shortening, milk. Sometimes she bakes them in the oven, and I pop the hot flaky crusts into my mouth. Secretly, she tricks me into eating an egg by breaking a yolk into a homemade vanilla milk shake. No one worries about salmonella in those days.
and I am breathing in my cigarettes like poison
First, I bum them at parties because I need something to hold, a menthol Salem held aloft in the crotch of my fingers like a miniature torch. Eventually, I’ll inhale my own Marlboros and cough, but soon the smoke will stop burning and will spread like fog through my lungs. I hold it, then release a dragon cloud of breath and smoke. I become my own weather, a channel for acid rain and storms.
She stands in her lemon-colored sun dress
My roommate Patty looks good in yellow, but I don’t. I’m not the dandelion type, all sunshine and smiley faces. Patty has long blonde hair and big boobs; all the boys love her. It’s not just that she’s pretty. She’s funny, too. When we play Janis Joplin songs, she jumps up on the orange bucket chair next to her desk, grips her hairbrush mic, and mimics Janis. Didn’t I make you f-e-e-e-l like you were the only man? Didn’t I give you nearly everything that a woman possibly can? She tosses her hair and stomps on the plastic seat in her go-go boots. Always laughing, always in a good mood. Until the day she tells me she’s leaving. My mother’s crazy, Patty whispers. She chased my little sisters with a butcher knife after they spied her kissing some guy at the tennis court. I’ve got to go home. The next day Patty’s father picks her up in a convertible and they drive away. That was the last time I saw her. You know you got it if it makes you feel good.
motioning to God with her wet hands
A woman once described the years of staying home with young children: “My hands were always in water.” You’re washing dishes, your hands submerged in detergent and suds, scraping grease and gunk off pots and pans with Brillo pads. You’re bathing a baby in the kitchen sink, testing the water from the faucet on your wrist, making sure it’s not too hot or cold. You’re wiping tables and counter tops with a wet sponge, cleaning spilled apple juice and SpaghettiOs. You’re rubbing fabric against fabric, trying to remove a stain from a child’s white T-shirt. You’re down on your knees scrubbing the kitchen floor for the crawling baby who puts everything in his mouth. This labor is your penance and your prayer.
glossy from the washing of egg plates
Scrambled eggs are boogers from Goliath’s sneeze. I put catsup on my mother’s soufflé and hold my nose when I swallow it. Fried eggs are edible only if the whites are frizzled with brown crinkles and the yolks are cooked until—through the magic of kitchen alchemy—they turn into gold nuggets. Poached eggs, soft and slippery with the yolks trembling through a sclera of white, might as well be raw. Sunny-side up? A bleeding bullseye. Hardboiled? Like rubber and sawdust. How can I eat something, I say, with my five-year-old chin jutting and arms crossed over my chest like a bandit’s bandolier, that comes out of a chicken’s butt?
She tells him! She tells him like a drunk
Don invites me to a formal Christmas party in his dorm. When I go home for Thanksgiving, I spend the weekend hunched over my mother’s Featherweight Singer sewing a green velveteen dress. It has an empire waist, short sleeves, and—along with a choker fashioned from ribbon and sequins—I create an Empress Josephine gown. Dressed in a tuxedo, Don shares his headphones with me as we listen to Cream on the stereo. When side one ends with As you said, I’ll never come again, again, again, again, I think he’ll flip the record over, but instead he hurls it like a frisbee across the room. It hits the cement-block wall and cracks. Drunk, we crash on his twin bed. In the morning, he spies his ruined Cream record on the floor. It’s my favorite album! he cries. When we break up a few months later, I’m so mad I throw my hairbrush across the room. It misses his head, but hits the wall, breaking in half.
who doesn’t need to see to talk
I memorized your face long ago. The first time we slept together, I ran my finger down your forehead, nose, lips, chin, as if drawing your profile on paper. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t need touch to read you. Your voice is enough.
It’s casual but friendly
With me, it’s all or nothing. I don’t do the casual, friendly separation and divorce. I warned you from Day One. If you break my heart, I’ll walk out the door and never return. I’m not a ping-pong ball. I don’t bounce back.
God is as close as the ceiling
An omniscient narrator, He watches from above. Isn’t it kind of stalkeresque, the notion that there’s a supernatural being who sees everything we do like Santa Claus knows when we’re naughty or nice? I never believed in Santa Claus. My pious parents wanted their children to focus on the Nativity instead of on a gift-bearing fat man. But I believed in God. I would talk to Him as I lay in bed trying to sleep, staring up at the eggshell-colored ceiling. God, please help me. Give me a sign, just one, that you hear me. But nothing happened. If I stood on the bed and raised my arms to touch the ceiling, what good would it do? Would God stop wars and bloodshed? Would children ripped from their parents’ arms be returned unharmed? Would the hungry be fed or the homeless find shelter? I’d rather not believe than believe in a God who watches dispassionately from his distant balcony as people suffer and grieve.
Though no one can ever know
He said he stopped loving me because I was too angry. If I asked him to please wash barbecue sauce from his hands before wiping them on the clean kitchen towels and to please close the cracker boxes to avoid attracting roaches or mice or if I reminded him to please, please, please rinse the plates before putting them in the dishwasher so egg yolks wouldn’t stick to them like a ceramic glaze, he said he didn’t care about cleanliness and that all I did was nag, nag, nag. Why are you so mean? he said. When I asked him to please go to marital counseling with me, he said no. You’d think he’d want to get such a mean, angry wife on the therapist’s couch so the two of them could fix me, but he wouldn’t budge. If I yelled “Fuck you, Trump! I wish you’d die!” at the TV when I watched reports of children being forced into cages, he said my anger scared him. It scared me that he could watch the news for hours without even flinching, that he’d become so numb to the world’s suffering.
I don’t think he has a face
When I was in high school, I dreamed about a man without a face.
He climbed into my bed and had his way with me. I had to lie very still and not make a sound as my imaginary man entered me. I didn’t care what he looked like or who he was. All that mattered were the waves of pleasure that rippled through me, the sunlight glowing gold and orange behind my dream-shifting eyes. When I woke up the next day, I didn’t remember a thing.
He had a face when I was six and a half
Daddy said God doesn’t have a body. I pictured him as a blob of ectoplasm, a giant quivering blancmange. He had no torso, no arms, no legs, no fingers or toes, but I wanted him to have a face. What kind of face would it be? Mama said, “God is love,” and I sang “Jesus loves me” in Sunday School, but the God in the Bible was always angry, smiting or punishing people for disobeying him. Daddy said, “God is a spirit, a holy ghost,” and I pictured Casper from Saturday morning cartoons, with holes in his flimsy white sheet. Should I draw him with a frown and down-turned mouth, never happy with his bad children? Instead, I drew God’s smiling face on the church bulletin. His eyes were blank like Orphan Annie’s with no sky-colored irises, no black pupils drawing us down into the burned-out stars.
Now he is large, covering up the sky
People send thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers. An all-purpose mantra to cover every loss, tragedy, or atrocity. You can shoot up a school full of kids, but we won’t do anything to limit access to guns. No. We’ll put it in God’s hands—if he had any hands, but He doesn’t have a body—and we’ll send love and light and prayers to the grieving parents, siblings, and friends.
like a great resting jellyfish
A jellyfish or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? A tongue-in-cheek creation of Pastafarians, the Flying Spaghetti Monster extends “His noodly appendage” in a parody of God’s finger reaching down from heaven in Michelangelo’s famous painting. I neither believe nor disbelieve. Maybe there’s a God; maybe there’s not. Maybe there’s a Flying Spaghetti Monster with meatballs. Maybe not.
When I was eight I thought the dead people
In The Sixth Sense the kid says, “I see dead people,” but for me it was the opposite—dead people saw me. I thought they had nothing better to do than spy on a third-grade girl who still picked her nose in bed—they were ghosts, they could see through walls and blankets—and who secretly wished Mrs. Ruby Tharrington would die because she made me stay in at recess when I didn’t know how to subtract 9 from 0 and scolded me when I read ahead in the reading circle and didn’t know what page we were on when she called on me. I felt so guilty for having those thoughts. “Wishing someone dead is the same as killing them,” Daddy once said. More than fifty years later, he denied he ever said it, but I remember, and now I suppose he remembers, too. The dead remember everything.
stayed up there like blimps
Maybe God is a blimp, floating above us to observe our sins. Maybe He’s keeping a record of everything we do or think and rewinds the film to keep tabs on us. Is God tallying our crimes and evil thoughts? Did he see me heartlessly use a glue trap to catch and kill a mouse? Did he see me walk past a homeless person without making eye contact or saying hello? Did he see me scream and swear at my kids? Is it on film? Do the Akashic records exist? Is it all written on a giant Rosetta Stone? Is the future foretold?
Now my chair is as hard as a scarecrow
I’m painting the ladder-back chairs off-white with paint that’s called “Her Dainties,” Valspar’s delicate way of describing the color of a woman’s underwear. I thought about painting the chairs Williamsburg blue or willow green, but as usual, I second-guessed myself and chose the safest option. I wish I could stop doubting myself and go with my first impulse. What difference does it make what color my chairs are? Why must I weigh and analyze every choice from paint color to husbands and lovers to the existence or non-existence of God until I stagger under the weight? In the end, I always have to learn the hard way. Erring on the side of caution is no less an error.
and outside the summer flies sing like a choir
We wore white robes with puffy sleeves and baby-blue bows pinned below Peter Pan collars; even the boys had to wear those bows! I was a soprano then and sang descant, priding myself on how far up the scale my voice could soar. Daddy said I could carry a tune, and I imagined myself bearing a copper cable of rope and uncoiling it as I climbed to the top of the steeple. As long as I could sing the melody, I was happy. Later, when my voice dropped after years of smoking, I couldn’t find the right key. That child’s voice had cracked like ancient Chinese celadon.
Eleanor, before he leaves tell him
Don’t wait for him to leave you. Leave him. I’ve done it more than once. Forty-four years ago, I left the drug-dealing boyfriend who dumped a Coke over my hair and choked me, banging my head onto the arm of the couch until I cried, “I love you, I love, you, please. Stop.” I left my first husband after 26 years. On our 25th wedding anniversary—which was also my birthday—he didn’t give me anything, not even a Hallmark card with his name scrawled beneath a corny message someone else wrote. When I sat on the hotel bed and cried, he said I could take his credit card and buy myself something. Only a few moons ago, I left husband number two. You can’t change a lie into the truth. You can’t undo a broken promise. Walk away. Disappear into the dazzle or drizzle of a new day.
Oh, Eleanor, Eleanor
How could you have known your friend Anne would give up? That the pain of living would be too much to bear? That even her golden words—the Grimm-inspired poems, the signature bare-armed witch in the cart that was her and not her, couldn’t save her, that God wouldn’t rescue her? That she’d sit in her car with the motor running and wait for the carbon monoxide to kick in? That she’d already lost her friend Sylvia to Gretel’s black oven? That to be a woman growing old is to become invisible? tell him before death uses you up
Once, many years ago, he said a perfect circle surrounded us, and I believed our love would last. I believed him like I once had believed my father when he said that God is everywhere. “How can God be everywhere at the same time?” I asked, and Daddy said, “God isn’t limited to the boundaries of time and space.” I believed God cared about children, that he would comfort and save those who suffered. I believed that love would be enough, that we would be safe within the sacred circle. The wedding ring he once slipped on my finger now sits on my chest of drawers. Every morning as I get dressed, I stare at the hole where my finger used to fit. It’s a cipher now, a gold “zero at the bone.” Still, after all the tears and rage, I want to believe that somewhere beyond death our holy union still exists, maybe as a hologram or an echo, and that every kind word or gesture resonates in the universe, even inside detention cells and in cages with cold floors and soiled Mylar blankets, and that there is no love or faith that can be permanently undone.
Rainbows & Widows: Brokedown in Dodge City
It was the Summer of 1991. We were driving through Western Kansas, just about to get on highway 50, east of Dodge City. We were in our new car, only it wasn’t new-new. We traded our huge, 1955 Orange-Monster-Milk-Truck-Motherfucker for this Janky-White- Pimpin’-Oldsmobile-Cutlass-Supreme, a hoopty that looked like it just bumped on out of a Vanilla Ice video.
I was sixteen years old.
We’d bartered with a guy we’d met at a Rainbow Gathering in Colorado. He was cooking road-kill venison stew over a fire, thanks to some folks who’d nailed a deer on their way up the mountain, when we met him. We were in a National Forest; I can’t remember the name. I can’t remember the name of the guy, either, but it doesn’t matter. He needed a home and we needed a running vehicle.
So, we were riding along in this big-ass car, Ryan drumming his fingertips on the steering wheel, singing along to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. We were on our way back to Wichita, hoping to make a little money before the Grateful Dead’s Fall Tour.
It was late in the afternoon when we broke down. The air was hot, like oven air on my face. The sunny sky was a rubbed, hazy pink from the dry, dusty air. My mouth was so dry it was hard to swallow; like cottonmouth, only worse, my mouth felt dirty.
We’d only had the car twenty-four hours and we were stranded on the side of the road. Jason was sleeping in the back seat; he sat up, pulling his long, golden hair carefully back from his face, staring numbly through the front window at the nothingness before us.
Ryan held his cigarette out the window; black ash blew back into the car settling on his legs. He stared straight ahead with a look of determination, one hand on the wheel. He tried to start it again, listened, tilting his right ear toward the front of the car.
“I think it’s the alternator.”
I stared at the map in my lap, running my finger along highway 50 toward Dodge.
Jason pulled himself forward, so he was looking down over the seat at us.
“What the fuck? You think he knew when he traded?”
“Doesn’t matter now.” Ryan rested his forehead on the steering wheel, his brown dreads covering his face.
I looked out my passenger window at the gangly rows of scarecrow-like sunflowers.
“We can find a payphone, call a tow truck. You’ve got that AAA membership your dad got you.”
Rain pawed at the door to get out. I rubbed her head.
After walking for about fifteen minutes, we found a brick ranch-style home surrounded by farmland, but nobody was home. The three of us, shielding our eyes from the bright sun and gritty wind, looked around. Gaudy and tacky, these were the words that my dad would’ve used to describe the yard surrounding the house. There was hardly a spot that wasn’t accounted for: gnomes, bird feeders, bird baths, weird giant marble things, and religious statues poked out from the ground like tombstones, along with some leftover Christmas decorations.
Jason peered through the front window of the house, leaving fingerprints on the glass. I stood near the edge of the porch watching the road; corn and sunflowers all around us; pale, pastel sky overhead.
The sun’s brightness seemed diminished by the powdery glow of dirt and dust. The land marked by rustling green ribbons the color of my mother’s eyes, the color of my eyes. Cheerful yellow petals surrounding mustardy sunflower faces—like groupies—they danced and swayed to their nature-God above.
“I think we should stay here and wait,” Jason said, his pale skin reddening under the sun.
Ryan looked at the house, then at me, then at Jason. “What if they don’t come back?”
I lit a cigarette. I could feel an argument coming on.
Jason pointed with his open palm toward the house, shaking his palm at the house like the house had done something wrong.
“Why wouldn’t they come home? They’ve got to come home some time.”
I thought about saying something about moving to the shade. It must’ve been close to a hundred degrees out.
“They could be out of town,” I said, holding my cigarette out to him. “We could be waiting a while.”
Jason took a drag of my cigarette, considering.
Ryan whistled for Rain, who was sniffing around a shed.
“I think we should go back to the car. We can sleep there tonight and try to catch a ride into town in the morning. It’ll probably be too late to get it towed or get parts.”
I wasn’t looking forward to sleeping in the car again. “Do we have enough for a room?”
Ryan looked at me like he knew he was letting me down. “We probably don’t even have enough to fix the car. We’ve got just enough gas to get to Wichita. I’m gonna call my dad, tomorrow, see if he’ll wire me some money.”
Ryan and I started down the gravel driveway toward the dirt road.
“Wait. We should see if there’s a way inside.”
Jason stood with his arms crossed and his legs apart, looking like a child getting ready to scream or cry (it was his turn to sleep in the front seat). “Guys, I’m really thirsty, maybe we can get some water and food, use their phone. Maybe we can stay here tonight.”
“They could be back anytime,” I said, feeling annoyed. “We’ve got water back at the car. C’mon, it’s gonna be dark soon.”
Ryan took my hand and we started in the direction of our POS car. I knew we were both thinking the same thing: we gave up carpeting, bunk beds, and a couch, for a push-button-hoopty that won’t even run. So, what if the orange beast only got 5 MPG? It had beds.
Jason walked behind us like a third tricycle-wheel. I felt kind of bad for him.
We were just climbing back into the broke down POS when a truck pulled off the highway and parked behind us. I took a quick look inside the car to make sure there was nothing illegal out in the open.
An older man in a Royals cap and worn denim overalls, a toothpick sticking out between his thick lips, walked leisurely toward us, his arms hanging at his sides in a relaxed way, hands in his pockets. He used his left hand to hold his toothpick and his right to shake each of our hands.
“I’m John.” He wanted to know what the trouble was. “Umm, hmm.” John nodded, listening intently and holding his toothpick in his mouth as Ryan described how it sounded when the car broke. “Sounds like it might be yer alternator.”
Ryan smiled. “That’s what I was thinking.”
The man studied Ryan and Jason in an unguarded, unprejudiced way, and then he turned to me. I recognized the look of worry in his deeply creased eyes. He glanced down at my broken shoe which was held together with duct tape.
“You okay, Miss?”
I nodded, readjusting Rain in my arms.
“Well, ya’ll better come along with us. I’m sure Randy’s got plenty of vacancies tonight. We’ll get ya’ll taken care of.”
Speechless, the three of us followed him to his truck. As he opened the front passenger door, an older woman took his outstretched hand and stepped down out of the truck.
“This is Lilly. Lilly, this is Jason, Ryan, Tracy, and…” John scratched Rain on the head… “I didn’t get the pup’s name.”
Lilly wore old blue jeans and a floral button-down-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. Her arms were tan, dark spots all over them. Her soft white hair, neatly held back with silver barrettes, hung just past her shoulders. When she smiled at us her blue eyes looked bright but sad.
“Well, I’m going to need a name for this one.” She extended her hand for Rain to smell, then rubbed her gently under the chin.
“Rain,” I said, just above a whisper.
“You look like you’ve got some Lab in you.” Lilly ran her hand down Rain’s back.
“She’s a mutt,” I said.
“The best kind of dog,” Lilly said, her nose close to Rain’s.
The wind had picked up, my hair whipped around my face. The temperature felt like it had dropped about twenty degrees in just a few minutes. Lilly looked me in the eyes, and, without saying a word, I felt safe.
The sky looked bad-guy-dark.
I watched the dusky storm clouds over my shoulder through the window. They raced to catch us as we approached the deceptive safety of town. A looming, rolling, resounding ferocity that rushed across the sky, like something septic, something spilled. A kind of blackened fall-out; the wide sky splintered by a fist of showy lightening.
“It’s a good thing we saw you.” Lilly turned to face me. “Supposed to be a bad one tonight.”
Before we pulled into the convenience store parking lot, where Ryan called his dad, Lilly told us how she and John met. She said that she and John knew of each other most of their lives but had never actually talked. Both had been married more than forty years when their spouses died. They met in a support group for people who’d lost a loved one to cancer.
John looked at Lilly. “It was love at first sight. As much as I loved my first wife, Lilly is my soul mate.” She smiled when he said it and they reached for each other’s hands at the same time. The way they looked at each other made my throat ache.
John and Lilly insisted on buying us dinner as well as snacks and drinks to take back to the motel. They even bought Rain a couple of cans of dog food. We pulled up in front of the old brick motel. John said he’d be right back, he was gonna talk to Randy about a room.
“What about dogs?” I asked.
“Where Tracy goes, I’m guessing Rain goes, too.” John winked at me, pulled his hat on a little tighter, then stepped out into the pouring rain.
Lilly wanted to know where we were from and where we were going. She’d never heard of a Rainbow Gathering and was genuinely fascinated when Ryan told her that’s where we’d just been. When he told her that we were all from Wichita, she clapped her hands.
“I love Wichita!” Her eyes lit up. “We visit all the time.” She asked what our last names were, cocking her head at me when I said my last name.
“There’s no way you’re related to Bob Getz, the newspaper writer?”
“He’s my dad.”
“Well, goodness gracious! We love his article! We read every single one. We even clip and save some of them. Holy smokes! John’s not going to believe it.”
I wasn’t sure what to say, my dad and I weren’t speaking, so I just smiled politely.
“Isn’t that something,” she said, shaking her head.
Jason, who hadn’t said a word since they picked us up, cleared his throat.
“We really appreciate everything.”
“You’re very welcome, son.”
In the darkness of the backseat, I untied a bracelet I’d made from around my wrist and held it in my hand. It’s been on my wrist for close to a year, the colors had faded to many shades of dirty. I wanted to give it to Lilly, but it was rather pathetic looking. I pushed it down into the pocket of my jean-shorts, feeling a swelling of love in my chest that I didn’t know what to do with.
Lilly insisted on seeing the room—said she’d never been inside Randy’s motel before. She and John stood just inside the doorway. Even with the door closed behind them we could hear the rain: a distorted, too close to the microphone sound, a muffled pounding all around us, loud and obtrusive; it sounded like the Earth was complaining.
I’d found Rain in the Rain. I first met her in the back of a van. I was at a Dead show a few months earlier, before we had the milk-truck. We had a little Toyota Celica and nowhere to sleep. Someone offered to let us sleep in their van. I woke to a dog vomiting on my feet. The pup had been wandering out in the rain and the van owner felt bad for it, gave it a place to sleep for the night. I think it was Albany? No. Anyway, we headed to the next state, the next shows. I think it was Michigan. I saw this guy walking around looking for his black and white dog. College kid. The description matched vomiting dog. I told him that I’d seen his dog, and that the bro who’d found him would be at the show, gave him the van description. The kid said he was leaving and wasn’t supposed to have a dog anyway. Told me to tell the guy to keep it.
I ran into van-bro later in the day. He had a rope tied around vomit-dog’s neck and was wandering around asking if anyone wanted the dog. I wanted her.
I rubbed Rain’s head, remembering how sick she’d been: worms, kennel cough, fleas.
Lilly used the back of her hand to wipe some dampness from her cheek, glanced around the room, appearing unimpressed, arms crossed, lips pinched to the side as she eyed the ratty comforter and stained carpet; she slowly slipped her arm through John’s, looking up pleadingly at him, like she didn’t want to leave us in such a place. I’d seen much worse. John touched her arm gently, looked down at her, biting his toothpick. Then he wished us well.
The three of us stared, stunned by their kindness.
Lilly said something to Ryan and Jason about watching out for me. She pulled a twenty out of her wallet, walked over and handed it to me, whispering, “In case you need some tampons or something.” She stared down at me. I was sitting on the edge of the bed with Rain next to me, her chin on my lap. I wasn’t sure if she wanted to hug me or not. I was visibly unclean. Probably not. I didn’t move. Lilly turned to go. John reached for the doorknob. I remembered the friendship bracelet in my pocket.
“Lilly.” I stood, pulled the bracelet out of my pocket, held it out to her.
She didn’t hesitate to take it. She smiled, holding my sad bracelet up for John to see.
“I always wanted to be a hippy.” She laughed, sounding child-like. “Did you make it?”
“I love it.”
We watched John struggle to tie the bracelet with his big fingers. He patiently worked at it until it was securely around her wrist.
Lilly took me into her thin arms. I felt my body relax, my being melting into hers.
“Thank you so much for everything,” I said.
She hugged me tighter.
“I always wanted a daughter,” she said in my ear.
I sat on the bed listening to the thunder crashing outside. Ryan was next to me flipping hurriedly through TV shows with the remote. He’d been through all of the channels, twice. He finally settled on an old episode of The Twilight Zone. It was the one about the guy who breaks his glasses after being in a bunker while the world comes to an end. The only thing he wanted to do was read in peace and quiet. Then he steps on his glasses. And he’s alone.
We sat quietly, watching, eating, drinking. I would even get to take a bath.
“It’s like we’re in a fuckin’ Twilight Zone episode,” Jason said, his eyes stoned-ecstatic.
Ryan nodded. “Fuck-yeah it is.”
I looked down at my bare wrist.
“Do you think we’ll ever see them again?”
They answered simultaneously.
Rosaries Like Lightning Bugs
“Yo, man, there’s Father Gabe,” Eric shouted over his shoulder
as he jumped up from the table where we were working and rushed
towards the priest.
“Hey, Eric, wait up. Sorry, Mr. C., I’ll be right back,” Jamal apologized,
heading in the same direction.
I was in C Block’s dayroom doing some extra tutoring with Jamal
and Eric, two of the slowest readers in my
jailhouse class at the county penitentiary,
when Father Gabe, one of the pen’s chaplains,
put an end to my already futile efforts.
The Franciscan was the great purveyor
of plastic rosaries, and he was democratic
about it. He passed them out—black ones and white ones and, if you
were lucky, the mellow-yellow luminescent ones—to any inmate, Catholic
or not, who asked him. Everyone was wearing them, from the stooped,
white-haired old-timers (“pops” everyone called them, hobbling down
the halls) to the snarly, baby-faced teenagers who swaggered into my
classroom every day.
It was no surprise that Department of Corrections wasn’t happy about
those rosaries. Safety and security, they complained, gang affiliation, they
cited, and slapped on all kinds of restrictions. You couldn’t wear them
outside your regulation orange top. You weren’t allowed to wear more
than one pair at a time. Only certain colors were permitted on certain
days. But no matter what they did, DOC never managed to completely
ban them, and so, those cheap plastic beads became almost as valuable as
the pen’s other contraband of drugs, cigarettes, jailhouse hooch, and porn.
“Shit, man, this is America!” the jailhouse lawyers never tired of arguing.
“Everybody knows about religious freedom,” the last word spit out
with well-worn contempt. Those guys knew their stuff and they knew
they had Corrections by the balls.
And so, Father Gabe passed out those rosaries as though their roughhued
beads and cheap string were a direct line to the Divine.
From where I was sitting, I could barely make out the priest’s brownrobed
figure at the center of that orange hive of guys swarming around
him, pushing, reaching over each other, trying to get at the priest, their
faces twisted with greed.
Father Gabe didn’t seem to notice any of this. His balding head kept
disappearing as he bent over to reach into his deep pockets and pulled
out rosary after rosary, passing beads out like handfuls of rice to the hungry
Seeing those starved faces, I remembered another scene, a street scene,
that Derrick, one of my brighter students, had described to me.
“You never seen nothing until you seen a crack dealer pull into the
projects,” Derrick said, shaking his head like an old-timer who had seen
it all. Which he had. At 19, he had spent years working the streets, and
years in jail paying for that hustle.
“Some big-time dude comes strolling up, his man watching his back
in a car a little ways down the block, and, BOOM, out of nowhere, all
these crackheads come flying off park benches and outta the buildings.
Night of the Living Dead type shit.
“Funny thing is? Most times they can hardly stand up. But when they
see him, they’re after him as soon as he pulls up. They don’t give a shit
who’s watching the corner—cops, Feds—they just wanna score.”
“No, No. Sorry, men, sorry,” Father Gabe shouted out over their heads,
“but I’m all out and I won’t have any more of the ones that glow in the
dark for a while.”
He shrugged his apologies, then raised his hand in a final blessing.
But as soon as they heard that the priest’s pockets were empty, they
turned away, even before his arm was back at his side. They didn’t want
his blessing. They wanted those goddamn beads.
Then Father Gabe slipped out, and Jamal and Eric stood staring at the closed door like puzzled toddlers wondering where everybody had gone.
When they finally made their way back to me, they threw themselves
down into the plastic chairs.
It was always hard to get Eric and Jamal to settle down and
concentrate, no matter where they were. But on the block was worst of
all, with its constant chaos of shouts and curses, of blaring TVs—one in
English and one in Spanish—the squawking PA system, and the thunderous
flush of the open toilets. Sometimes even I had a hard time focusing
through all that noise. So, after the disruption of Father Gabe’s visit,
I knew that the rest of our hour was shot.
“Ah, man, that shit ain’t fair. Wilfredo’s already got at least two pairs
that glow in the dark,” Eric grumbled. “Now he’s got fuckin’ three.”
Eric was a scrawny 15-year-old whose beaked Adam’s apple, sharpboned
wrists and high cheekbones made him look younger than he was.
His wooly hair was knotted, his dark brown skin was dry and gray, and
the boy never washed—anything.
Which was something that Ramos, the classroom officer, tried
to remedy. Ramos was one of the few COs I liked working with. He told
me once that he had stolen cars when he was young but that he’d been
lucky and had never gotten caught. But that luck didn’t make him smug,
the way some COs were who had had their own close calls with the law,
brandishing their jail keys, their heft and clatter letting everybody know
who had the power. But not Ramos. He was grateful for that second
chance, and he respected the young inmates he worked with, looking out
for them when he could.
At least once a week Ramos would pull Eric aside after class. “No offense,
papi. I hate to say it but you stink. You gotta do something. Shower,
wash your orange scrubs. If you want me to get you some new oranges
just let me know. But jeez! Come on.”
But nothing Ramos said made a difference.
Eric would still smell of musty clothes and funky butt. He looked like
a kid who’d been neglected, who’d never been taught how to take care of
himself. And that was the problem. He had been his own neglectful parent
ever since his mom abandoned him at five and child welfare scooped him up
and pinballed him from placement to placement, his incorrigibility
the only salve for his nameless grief. So it was no surprise that he
couldn’t keep himself clean, let alone out of trouble. Which was where
Eric was headed right now.
“What’s wrong with Father Gabe?” Eric jumped up and jerked towards
the door, like he was ready to fly out after the priest, rough him up,
and rifle through his pockets. Or cry on his shoulder.
“Take it easy, bro,” Jamal tried to distract him. “Cm’on, we got
work to do with Mr. C.”
Even I thought it was a pretty lame excuse, but I appreciated his efforts.
It certainly didn’t work with Eric. It rarely did.
“I’m tired of this shit with Wilfredo,” Eric griped, getting louder
and louder, and shaking Jamal’s hand off his arm. “He’s always grabbing
something for hisself.”
“Yo, chill, man, CO’s looking over here, all pissed and shit. You know
what Targus is like, he’s always ready to get somebody fucked,” Jamal
But he knew the signs. Eric was working himself up to a fight.
They hadn’t known each other out in the world. They’d only hooked
up in jail, the youngest, the smallest, the scrawniest kids on the block.
At first, they were like feral cats with one another. They sniffed, they
scrapped, they circled around each other. Until they eventually realized
they were from the same woodpile. Young, black, and parentless, they
quickly became buddies.
Jamal was always throwing a rope out to Eric, trying to pull him back
from the brink of some trouble. It was a strange place for Jamal to be. He
was barely able to take care of himself. But he did better than Eric. He
could keep his head shaved and his chestnut complexion smooth with
lotion, and he knew something about toothpaste, soap, and deodorant,
even if it was the stuff the Salvation Army gave you if you were “indigent,”
a word even the most illiterate inmate knew—and despised. As
much as he hated the relatives who passed him around after his mother
died of AIDS, greedy for his SSI check —an uncle he barely knew, a
grandmother who never liked kids, and cousins he wasn’t even sure were real cousins
—still they had kept him alive, and the rest he taught himself.
Although he hadn’t figured out yet that weed was smoking his brain like
cured meat, he had learned to spot trouble when he saw it coming.
“Yo, bro, you just got off two weeks lockdown. You don’t want to
spend any more time in the box, do you?” Jamal said, trying to push Eric
back into his chair with his words.
Suddenly, Officer Targus jumped up behind his desk, kicked back his
chair, and stared over at our table, the long, jagged knife scar along his
light brown jaw blazing red with rage—a scar, I knew from Ramos, that
Targus had earned when he cut his ties with the Bloods and moved out
of the Bronx even though he hadn’t graduated from high school yet.
“Yo, Sandlemen, keep it down,” Targus shouted over the general roar
of the block. “Listen to your teacher for once. And if you don’t listen, I’ll
make you. Now shut up and do something for a change.”
But Eric wouldn’t give it over. He never gave anything over. It’s what
got him arrested, and arrested, and arrested. Any cop who might have
wanted to cut the kid some slack—after all it was only trespassing; only
goofing on the old guy who sold produce under the train tracks—would
end up throwing him into the back of the squad car and hauling him
down to the precinct. Because by the time Eric finished mouthing off at
him, cursing him out, insisting he was innocent, the cop wouldn’t give a
fuck. The little bastard was just plain annoying.
Jamal grabbed Eric’s arm and yanked him down into the chair, just as
Targus circled to the front of his desk, stood there with his arms crossed
and glared at Eric.
Eric glared back.
“I’m feelin’ ya, man,” Jamal said and punched his friend’s arm
so that Eric swung around and glared at him instead. “But you know
Wilfredo. He’s gonna trade ‘em up for soups or some honey buns. He’s
just like everybody else in this place. He’s always got some kinda hustle.”
Jamal sounded pretty savvy for a kid who couldn’t decode two syllable
“Besides,” I jumped in, seeing how hard Jamal was working. “You don’t
want to get lock-downed for a pair of plastic rosaries.”
“You don’t understand,” Eric sneered, not even bothering to look at
me. By then I had become just another old, white guy who had never
seen the inside of a cop car, let alone a jail cell, and who bugged him every
day to do stupid schoolwork. Just another honky working for “the man.”
But Eric was right about one thing. I didn’t understand. I didn’t get the
appeal of those glow-in-the-dark beads. What was the point, since the
block was never completely dark? The high ceiling lights were on from
the early morning call for chow until 10 at night. Even after lights-out,
the bathroom stayed lit up, and the guys complained that they couldn’t
sleep with the block’s mandatory low-density security lamps shining
down in their faces unless they buried their heads under their pillows.
The rosary’s phosphorescence was lost in the jail’s constant glare.
Of course, those beads had another, more important appeal. Everybody
would see that string of mysterious energy cells around your neck
while all the other guys had to settle for the dull black or milky white
ones. And, of course, you could always trade them up the way Wilfredo
But I liked to imagine that if Jamal and Eric got a set of those glowing
beads. They wouldn’t barter them away for beef jerky or a jar of peanut
butter—not even for some of the weed Eric was always craving. Rather,
I pictured the two friends huddling together in some dim corner of the
block to make the magic charms glow.
They would have a tough time finding an overlooked tatter of shadow,
a swept-aside patch of darkness in a place like C Block. Maybe under the
stairs going up to the tier where the long-timers worked their cargo-ship
muscles doing morning pull-ups? The back corner of the last open toilet
stall? Or, if they got really lucky, they might be able to sneak up to the tier
without Targus seeing them and hunker down between two bunk beds.
Whatever shelter they did find, they would still have to create their
own darkness the way those beads created their own light. First, they’d
huddle their bodies together to form a cave. Jamal would cup his hands
around the coil of jade-colored beads to make it even darker. Then, he’d
whisper to Eric to peek into the small opening he’d left between his
thumb and palm so his buddy could see that mysterious glow.
If Targus spotted them, crouched like that under the stairs or up on
the tier hiding near the bunks with Jamal’s back to him and Eric looking
suspiciously over his shoulder, he would suspect the worse. He’d start
sniffing the air for dope or the rotten fruit fumes of homemade hooch.
He’d yell up the stairs at them, tell them to break it up. “Don’t make me
go up there. Move it along.” But if he had worked a double shift and was
worn down from being locked up for 16 hours straight with the same
bunch of jail-crazed teenage boys, he’d threaten to call a code, to get the
emergency response team in there.
“I’ll have your raggedy asses hauled outta here for a couple months
lockdown,” he’d snarl. “Give me some friggin’ peace for a change.”
Or maybe he’d save all his fancy talking, and just flat out tell them he
was going to beat the shit out of them if they didn’t cut the crap. Now!
But Targus would never have guessed what was really going on. That
Eric, this major pain in his butt, was just keeping lookout because he
was afraid that Grunge, that punk pussy skag from Brooklyn who was
always extorting food from him, might creep up and snatch their glowin-
the-dark rosary. Or that Jamal just had his hands cupped around some
plastic beads and not around some barely-burning jailhouse match ready
to spark a joint.
Targus would certainly never have imagined that Eric and Jamal were
as innocent as two little boys running around in the dimming twilight
of a late June night, just trying to catch lightning bugs, and, once caught,
cracking open their cupped hands to show their best buddy a palmful of
The truth was that neither Eric nor Jamal—or for that matter, Targus—
had ever had the chance to do something so frivolous. They had all
grown up in the projects where light and dark were more matters of life
and death; where there was only danger in the darkness; where the only
thing that flashed in the shadowy world of half-lit hallways, abandoned
buildings, and weed-strewn parking lots was the glint of a gun, the gleam
of a knife, or the fractured strobe of cop car.
No. Eric and Jamal—locked up in county corrections at 15, boys who
might not be able to read or calculate or stay out of jail, but who would know
magic when they held it in their hands—were left coveting a pair
of cheap plastic rosary beads that glowed in the dark.
But there was no more time for my musings, or for Eric and Jamal’s
grumblings. It was three o’clock and Targus was shouting over the block’s
din, calling for change-of-shift lockdown.
“Mr. C, I don’t mean to be rude but it’s time for the count,” Targus’s
polite way of telling me to get out. “These hooligans have to be on their
bunks for count by 2:50.”
“On my way out, Officer,” I answered and started picking up books
and papers, counting the pencils—potential weapons—I’d brought.
“Now look, Eric, you got to give me your word that you won’t do anything
stupid. You don’t want to get locked down over a pair of rosaries.
You, too, Jamal.”
“I’ll keep him straight, Mr. C.” Jamal reassured me. But Eric wouldn’t
even look at me, didn’t bother to give me his usual look of disgust when
I got all “white and preachy.” Instead, he slouched up the stairs to his
bunk, silent and, I was sure, already scheming about what he was going
to do to Wilfredo to get those rosaries—and to get Targus out of the way.
Leaving the block that day, I didn’t feel good about what I’d hear the
next morning when I came into the jail. The news is rarely good.
Eric may have backed down when Officer Targus locked eyes with
him, but I suspected that he was belligerent enough, and young enough,
not to let the challenge go unmet. He’d hassle Wilfredo for those beads
and get in Targus’s face until a code was called.
After that, the only light that Eric would see would be the light off the
visors of the helmeted emergency response team—six beefed-up stormtroopers
dressed all in black, black combat boots, black shields—as they
took him down, handcuffed him, and dragged him off to solitary.
There, buried once again in the “the hole,” for months at a time, far
from the magic glow of those rosary beads—far from any kind of magic—
I worried that this time, Eric would finally give up whatever ragged
ray of hope he had ever held on to, and pledge himself to the only light
he had ever really known—the gun’s glint, the knife’s gleam, the cop car’s strobe.
David J. Frost
Halfway Twice is Yet Not Once
When we were 13-years old, my best friend Matt introduced me to punk rock. The year was 1987 and until then my limited music collection consisted of vinyl records of Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, bootleg cassette copies of Doug E. Fresh and the Fresh Prince, plus cassette tapes I’d purchased of Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now” and “Crushin’” by the Fat Boys.
Hanging out one day in his bedroom, Matt rifled through his milk crate full of records and pulled one out. Its cover art was loud pink and black with an incongruous yellow. I could make out the words, “Never Mind the Bollocks,” which I didn’t understand. Matt put the B-side of the record up and moved the needle to the third track, licking his rollercoaster lips, immersed in concentration. Seriousness decorated his face; his black hair was gelled up in desultory spikes. “Check out the break midway through,” he said and started playing the song “Bodies.”
I didn’t know what it was about. But when the instruments go silent in the middle of the song, and Johnny Rotten screams, “Fuck this and fuck that / Fuck it all and fuck the fucking brat,” my eyes went wide and my mouth dropped open, then lifted into a smile. Matt was now smiling too. This was new information! Could you really say stuff like that? Could we be as rebellious? Could we be as free?
We began to attune ourselves to the possibilities of radical gesture. Later that day, out of the corner of my eye I saw Matt throw one of his LPs out his second story bedroom window. He did it without warning; he hadn’t even said, “Watch this,” as kids do when they are about to do something significant. He just frisbeed it out the open window. I scurried over and saw the vinyl record laying smashed to pieces on the sidewalk below. Looking back at him, he was still holding the sleeve and record cover. It wasn’t Tiffany, or INXS; it wasn’t Huey Lewis, or Bruce Hornsby. What smashed to bits on the street below was actually his record of the Sex Pistols.
If it were me, I would have thrown the Bruce Hornsby record out the window. But that would not have been as radical. Matt did what he did without any irony at all. He didn’t mean anything “meta” by rebelliously throwing out his window what had inspired him to rebelliousness. His actions were not symbolic; they did not represent any idea. Matt never aped rebellion. What he did was just unique, sui generis, like him.
I was reminded of one time during a week-long summer vacation at the beach with my family, when I watched Matt sleep—marveling at him, unable to believe the sight of him motionless, he who had been so zestfully alive during our long day of swimming, playing, eating, skateboarding, gathering firewood, making s’mores. I idolized Matt, his preternatural freedom and elemental self-possession. To me it seemed like there was no gap between Matt’s being and his doing.
I thought of the Sex Pistols defenestration a year and three months later when I was at afterschool soccer practice and I saw my parents’ car unexpectedly coming down the hill to the fields. We had moved to the suburbs and so I didn’t live near Matt anymore. And I had started at a new school. In the interim, Flo Jo had won gold at the Summer Olympics in Seoul, her hands festooned with 3-inch long, news-making fingernails. In Germany, three jets collided at an airshow, killing seventy-five spectators on the ground. The Shroud of Turin had been carbon-dated to be only as old as the Middle Ages. Michael Dukakis had been videoed in a tank, looking like a dork in an overly large helmet barely serving to envelope his overly large head. That morning, October 27th, President Reagan decided to demolish the U.S. Embassy in Moscow after Soviet listening devices had been discovered.
Let it be Bryan Oswald, I thought to myself. If not Bryan Oswald, then let it be Craig Evergreen. But I already knew who it was.
It wasn’t anything supernatural. I just knew.
One involuntarily perseverates in such moments, pausing to look as if from a vantage point in future time and knowing in retrospect that everything is about to change. One disassociates, while at the same time experiencing the world and one’s place within it via an immediate apperception, the newness of which startles. Every tree, every winging bird impressed upon me the fullness of its being.
The setting sun inflamed the tree crests. Mt Hood was a pink pyramid, immobile at the horizon. As the coach surveyed the soccer field, his mirrored sunglasses coruscated, catching the fire of the sun. The perspiring boys’ shoulders glistened with tiny colorless starbursts.
If it’s not Craig Evergreen, then I hope it’s Brian Lawrence.
A man unloaded a bicycle from the roof rack of his Subaru wagon. Two joggers were standing together. One, flirting, did knee lifts and then stretched out to a lunge. The other stood contrapposto, impatient, and adjusted her headband.
If it’s not Brian Lawrence, then I hope it’s Brad Reeves.
I somnambulated past my teammates who were drilling traps, paired off, juggling the ball between them. My field of vision was busy with twenty-four legs marionetting out at odd angles to trap or flick the ball. Everything moving in rhythm with the physics of soccer balls; each boy’s body a puppet on a string; the balls’ trajectories developing in accordance with the universal laws of nature, governing all aspects of the world.
If it’s not Brad Reeves, let be it Jonathan Anderson. If it’s not Jonathan Anderson, then I hope it’s Billy January.
A man threw a Frisbee for his dog. The dog blurred its legs, racing after it, and leapt, legs suddenly still and straight, and his gaping crocodile mouth collapsed on the Frisbee with a scratchy snap—and then landed with a proud flourish. A woman sat in a Gazebo, unread paperback draped over one knee.
My teammates bodies danced with the exuberance of youth. What do 14-year old boys look like? Their faces were like cartoonish woodcuts by a sculptor trained in the provinces, features all out of proportion. Their creaseless faces were still slightly plumped with their baby fat—everywhere else taught skin stretched over lean muscles. The guys’ features were growing in, but each at a separate rate. Some already had their adult noses, eagle beaked, but still had tiny child ears. Delicate features graced the countenances of some; kitten noses and roller coaster lips. Others were rougher. There’s always that one guy who was goofy faced, puppy dog nose, and duck bill lips.
If it’s not Billy January, then I hope it’s Ben Mattis. By midfield, I can discern the chrome detailing of my mom’s two-year old ‘86 Volvo, black and boxy. Eventually it comes to a stop behind the goalie net, still 50 yards away.
If it’s not Ben Mattis, then I hope it’s Chris Hammer.
They get out of the car, leaving the doors open. My mom and step-dad stand in front of the car. They refrain from raising their arms to hurry me over. They do not call out. They are motionless—motionless as a pair of dead, branchless tree trunks. Petrified.
They would not look as stunned as they do if it were merely Bryan Oswald or Craig Evergreen or Jonathan Anderson or Billy January or Ben Mattis or Brian Lawrence or Brad Reeves or Chris Hammer. Please do not let it be Matt Taylor. Let it be Jimmy Sosa. Let it be Dave Bishop. Let it be anybody but Matt. Not Matt.
By the time I’m close enough to see my parents’ expressions, I can read the news on their faces.
The old neighborhood was swarmed with cars. Their house was full of people, but it was quiet and dark. The curtains were drawn against the grey day, with only a few lamps switched on. The light of each lamp did not illuminate beyond the volume of its lampshade and a cone of light going down to the floor, like a dunce cap, like a spotlight on an empty stage, as empty as my mind, blanked out by grief.
No food was being served. No drinks. The grieving kids mixed among the grieving adults. I mean, there had not been established some kind of area for kids set off from an adult area.
Through the wretched shadows of the living room, I was brought over to hug the driver. He locked me in, his chin on top of my head. My arms went around him at his ribs, but I was passive. My face was in his chest, which convulsed like a winded cheetah’s after a kill on some National Geographic TV show. When he pulled back, his curly blond hair fell over his face, which was ruddy, stricken.
I went upstairs to Matt’s bedroom and was startled by the sight of his Trapper Keeper, which had been recovered from the scene of the accident. Its three binder rings were crushed and there was a black tire track on the back cover.
Like an object from another universe, it seemed to sit apart from the rest of his things. It seemed to have an outline around it, marking it as an object of a different kind. The mangled binder was an object from the universe in which Matt was dead. The rest of the bedroom was from the universe in which he was still alive, in which he was still my best friend.
I imagined his parents leaving the room just the way he had left it. I had heard that’s what grieving people do. I wanted it that way too. I saw the room staying exactly the same as time vibrated fast-forward like on a VCR. Dust accrued. At first lightly and then darkly, dust put a drab cloak over the disheveled homework on his desk; grey dust buried his milk crate of music; the windows grew dark and sfumato; cobwebs connected the headboard to the wall; cobwebs enveloped the Jenga-like pile of textbooks on the floor; cobwebs grew over the four corners in the ceiling, empty spaces filled with gossamer—like Miss Havisham’s in the Dickens we were reading at school—and the room turned grey, as grey as my mind.
When I went back downstairs, Matt’s parents sat me down in their TV room. I sat on the couch facing the TV, which was turned off, and Matt’s parents, Howard and JoAnne, both took the large ottoman and sat leaning forward towards me.
“We would like you to be an altar boy for Matt’s funeral mass.”
The connotation was it would be an honor for me. “I have never been an altar boy before” was the best excuse I could come up with to not do it.
But Howard and JoAnn said, “You and Matt were very close and we want his close friends to be able to do something special for him.”
Even though I didn’t want to, I ended up being one of two altar boys for Matt’s funeral mass. When our priest, Father Campbell, said that the angel Gabriel came to get Matt because God wanted Matt at His side, I began to hate the angel Gabriel.
Later I was crouching down with Dave Bishop, holding the big Bible aloft for Father Campbell during the funeral mass. “Am I doing it right?” I wondered. I was afraid of doing something inappropriate. I looked out over the crowded church, the hundreds of people mourning Matt. I have remained up there, at a distance, looking in, ever since.
Elevated on the transept, I could see everyone’s faces in the crowded church. It was strange to be looking directly at people’s faces instead of just the backs of their heads. Looking out, I saw the faces of so many crying girls. It made me think of a story I’d heard. One day, Matt was staying home sick from school and Jessica Martinez and Jessica Hochman—both of whom I had crushes on—actually went up to his bedroom on their way to school and woke him up in his bed. Imagine! I couldn’t get over that one.
I saw everyone in the crowded church wore bright colors as had been suggested by the Catholic school authorities.
But I felt we ought to have worn black to the funeral. There was no point pretending the death of a child is an opportunity for celebration. To the cemetery, I wore a pastel, paisley sweater: shapes resembling amoeba and paramecia in peach, canary yellow, periwinkle blue and a light mint green. The stupid, saccharine outfit made me feel angry and helpless. It was such an obvious lie. Colors? Celebration? Jesus fucking Christ.
If this was religious consolation, the whole business was a sham.
At home I punched the freezer in the garage over and over, making little dents with my bare knuckles, which bruised up a blue brown like wine dregs and dark liver. There. That’s it. Those colors were more like it.
There was a side yard by our house into which no neighbors could see. The neighborhood echoed mysteriously as I hit the trees with my aluminum baseball bat. I discovered that the skinnier trees could be felled with patience. Thwack, thwack, thwack. I slowed down to allow just enough of a pause between swings to coil up with the deliberate swagger of a home run hitter. And then: thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. The bark exploded off the trunk. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. The softer bole took on dents. I started to sweat. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. My hands started to hurt, vibrating with each strike. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Finally the dents made it halfway through and the whole thing bent and fell. I jumped back. Then strutted to the next tree. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
Finally, in a somewhat more classic manner, I punched a hole in my bedroom wall. At that point, my mom and stepdad intervened: I went to a child psychologist. Anger is the emotional reaction to thwarted desire, the psychologist said. Anger is the emotional reaction caused by not getting what you want, he added, or the reaction to having something you cherish taken from you. It would be a long time—years or even decades—before I was more sad than angry. For a long time, they were the same thing.
In the coming months and years I constantly asked myself how Matt’s death was going to affect me, but the answers never came, while over the years the experience took its effects mostly unbeknownst to me. Far from inspiring me to use my time wisely, carpe diem, and “gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” I developed a fear of death, which was paralyzing. It stunned and shut me down. I became so risk-averse that I essentially denied myself access to the thought that freedom required risk. Ever since that time I have been preoccupied with death, as well as just generally preoccupied. My mind is never quite where the rest of me is. Preoccupation and distraction gathered into habits and ways of being, which formed a precipitate of unfreedom.
Three years after Matt’s death I was enthralled with a girl named Rose Roberts. Rose was beautiful and mysterious; a brunette who wore t-shirts and jeans—a little bit of a hippie girl, as far as one can be at 16-years old. She was like my favorite time of day, when the sun is low and gives light like a Vermeer. Her aura was crisp. One day at school, she told me that her favorite street was Germantown Road. I’d never heard of someone having a favorite street before. And I’d never heard of Germantown Road. That night she drove us there in her yellow Beetle. She loved to drive. She would tickle the roof of her car every time they—she and her car—saw another Beetle. We got to Germantown Road at dusk. But we could still see well enough. It is a winding road that goes from the industrial waterfront of north Portland up a steep incline with lots of switchbacks. Cutting through the heavily forested neighborhood, it can take you all the way into Forest Park. It became my favorite street.
We went up Germantown Road and then back down—and then up and down again. Then Rose drove us into the industrial waterfront to the base of an old railroad bridge she said she liked. Passing signs that said, “Danger,” “No Trespassing,” “Keep Off Bridge,” and “Impaired Side Clearance” we climbed onto the bridge. It was made from rusted steel beams layered with chipping-off, silver paint and of enormous old timbers black with soot, tar, and time. There were no lights. We stopped at the middle, the dead center of the bridge.
We looked around silently at the nothing, which was everywhere we looked. Rose kissed me. I kissed her back. The world whirled around me; around me whirled the world.
After a while, Rose said, “Do you want to keep going across?”
I looked down the length of the tracks. They disappeared into black before I could even see the end of the bridge.
“Let’s go back,” I said.
“Sure,” said Rose, without accusation. And when we got off the bridge, back where we had climbed on, Rose said, “David, you walked the full length of the bridge. But you didn’t make it to the other side.”