TABLE OF CONTENTS
BOGGS FICTION PRIZE
Max Carp for “Bobblehead Buddha”
High Wire Suite
I Seen You
Release From Small Town America
Yvette A. Schnoeker-Shorb
In These Unbearable Times
Ronald J. Pelias
“We Shall Overcome”
Ronald J. Pelias
The taking of momentary permanence
Long, Long Road
life still moves in quarantine
Drowning in Place
The Thrill of Travel
E. Martin Pedersen
James K. Zimmerman
Social Distance in the City
The Expiration of the CARES Act–Eviction Protection
My Soul is Always Mated
Eva Maria Sher
For Walt, in April
The Phone Call
Everyday, You Say
End of Day
Standing Still for Survival
Lost Again in the Ghosted Wilds
Enough of the Land is Burning
Lines Written in Old Age
Lisa Elaine Low
A History of Patriarchy, Faerie Style
Katharyn Howd Machan
A Soldier’s Dream
Teton County Resolution
Laying the Stone
Jane Ann Flint
The Man Who Made Money
Yvonne Higgins Leach
It Must be Nice
Lourdes Dolores Follins
Logic of Negation
Us, and the Rain
Virtual Sermon, Easter 2020
Somewhere on the Other Side
Rainbows & Widows: Brokedown in Dodge City
An Adventure Palette
Rosaries Like Lightning Bugs
How Much Can the Heart Take
Delivering the News
Halfway Twice is Yet Not Once
David J. Frost
TEXT and IMAGE
See What I’m Saying
BOGGS FICTION PRIZE
“Now the time has come for you to seek a path.”
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
In the pitch-dark room there were signs of life. A deep sigh flushed out like the last words of a mute. The mattress squeaked, followed shortly by light footsteps and then complete silence, that grim augury before a major earthquake, which is what that moment felt like to him, a life-long Los Angeleno.
He parted the drapes and a flood of California sunlight nearly blinded him where he stood. He shielded his eyes in defense, annoyed by the intrusion in what would otherwise have been a rather complacent state of mind. He could read the signs when dialed in, as he was now, and he was quickly overcome by the portents of a nefarious presence floating in the air around him, an Asura monster poking at the outer edge of the visible world.
Perhaps another fateful day for Landon Briggs, in other words.
Well into his thirties, Landon fancied himself a man of the world. There was an “Om” tattoo on his neck, forming the centerpiece in a flower-of-life type of symbol. He got the seed of that tattoo not long before he left the roost and went to conquer the world. He was about sixteen at the time, lived for rock ‘n’ roll and thought, with the innocence of youth, that a sound-of-the-universe symbol on his neck would curry favor with the music gods. That wasn’t the craziest thought to ever cross his mind.
He’d constantly worked at embellishing the tattoo and, if not for Time, it’d probably end up covering his entire body like some kind of Buddhist version of the Illustrated Man.
“What did you tell him?” Landon asked the naked woman lying in bed. He turned to study her as she picked her clothes off the floor, the yellow light making her look like a Greek goddess in some bucolic Arcadian landscape. Melanie looked even better now, he thought, than when they’d first met ten years previous. The blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things, yet a span of Time containing most of his adult life. Major events nestled in like rosary beads, one for their brief courtship, one for the wedding, one for the pregnancy, one for the birth of their son, one for the divorce, and now another bead for her engagement to a man he loathed. And so on.
“The truth,” Melanie said, “had to go to a funeral.”
“I’m sure my old man appreciates that, wherever he is,” Landon said. “Thanks for coming.”
“Someone had to,” she said.
Funerals always filled Landon with a sense of embarrassment he couldn’t quite place, and his father’s funeral was no different. It was almost as if he felt shame for the deceased, like they’d suddenly lost their day jobs and were soon found roaming down Skid Row at night, glugging a slug of Skol out of a brown bag. A change of status that he didn’t want to be associated with, as he’d always learned to keep it positive, if only to alleviate the feeling of being constantly cursed. But it wasn’t that, of course. It was just fear. Overwhelming fear.
“Y’know, I been thinking,” Landon said, immediately putting Melanie en garde with that last word, thinking. “Don’t marry that guy. I wanna come back home. A boy should grow up with his dad, don’t you think.”
“Nevermind Tyler, don’t bring him into this,” she said.
“His birthday’s coming up, when, Tuesday.”
“Wednesday. Let’s spend it together, the three of us, way we used to.”
“You get him something?”
“’Course,” Landon said, “it’s a surprise.”
Melanie rolled her eyes, accustomed as she was with his equivocating ways. She moved her hair out of the way as she fastened her bra.
“Okay, nevermind Tyler,” he said, “this guy you’re gonna marry, you ever had any doubts about him?”
She pointed to the bed like a police detective would the scene of the crime. “What do you think this was all about?” She came up behind him real close, not hugging or anything, just stood there and Landon again felt that warmth between them, like a tangible physical presence with a consciousness of its own, although he couldn’t tell if it was birthing itself on the spot or if it was something recalled from happier times.
“Do me a favor, don’t tell Tyler about my old man,” Landon said. “He never even met him, y’know, don’t feel like answering a thousand questions about the afterlife.”
As they shuffled into the sparsely furnished living room of this two-bedroom walk-up apartment in Sherman Oaks, Melanie reached for an envelope resting on the IKEA coffee table and handed it to Landon. He still received the occasional mail at this, his old address, and he picked it up on his weekly visits to his son. Landon took a quick glance at the envelope. Probably some junk mail from the Army, he guessed, as he ripped the envelope open only to quickly realize that the letter was anything but junk. It had the official “Department of the Army, Headquarters California Army National Guard” header, addressed Memorandum to Landon Scott Briggs, so there was no mistake about it. Landon’s eyes quickly slipped down the page as his worst nightmare was confirmed.
He’d heard rumors of ex-soldiers having been asked by the Army to pay back their re-enlistment bonus but thought it was some kind of mistake, that something like that could never happen in this day and age. And yet, there it was, a letter to the effect that he had to pay back his $21,000 bonus, the very reason he went back to that Middle Eastern hellhole in the first place. The letter said that the payment was made in violation of DoD guidance, and in violation of federal law, as if it was Landon’s fault that he was offered the money. The sheer injustice of the bait and switch ruse left Landon frozen. His mind went racing to images of carnage and mayhem, all within state limits.
Tyler’s room was a shrine to horses. Pictures, posters, netsukes, even a used old saddle, a B-movie prop Landon found at the flea market on Melrose. He’d asked the seller for a certificate of authenticity but none was forthcoming and with his son crying his heart out for everyone to see what a neglected little squirt he was, Landon reluctantly shelled out the money. A few days later he caught that western on late-night cable and suffered through two hours of gay cowpokes spewing stilted lines but, to him, spotting his saddle was like looking for a stolen bike in Tiananmen Square.
Tyler had his ear buds on, watching pixelated horses jump over pixelated hurdles in a looping simulation game that struck Landon as uncannily life-like in its repetitive tedium. The child looked preppy, with his reading glasses, a button-down shirt, khakis and a V-neck vest, a look Landon didn’t approve of but had to concede it matched Tyler’s temperament and general disposition. Landon removed Tyler’s ear buds, startling him out of his alternate reality, “C’mon, bud, they’re about to open the gates.”
He shuffled Tyler out the door, lagging behind just enough for an aside with Melanie. “Hey, Mel, can you do me a favor? I didn’t get a chance to swing by the bank this morning.”
“Sixty okay?” she asked, springing for her wallet, as per usual.
“You mind?” Landon said, grabbing the cash like yet another lifeline, already thinking of cutting into his new debt by the end of the day.
* * *
The Santa Anita horse racetrack always held a special place in Landon’s heart. It was the scene of some of his most glorious moments, stories he’d kept repeating ad nauseam, constantly embellishing them until even he started questioning their veracity. Alas, it was also the place that had seen the worst of Landon, days he’d rather forget. The days he lost money, and there were plenty of those, didn’t bother Landon in the least, as he had no attachment to accumulating wealth or even something much simpler, like a nest egg. No, what really messed with his head was that empty feeling the morning after a big win, the moment he realized that, had he set his mind to it, he could have every little thing in the world and yet could never have it all. He saw himself as a mythical lion taking a bite out of Earth, wanting to relish every flavor, every feeling, every thought, all there was to know in this realm of experience.
He wanted to swallow the Moon and spit out the Sun.
Landon showed Tyler how to fill out a betting form but the kid found it hard going, like he was running on diesel fuel or something. The child nodded like a good soldier and Landon slammed sixty bucks on the counter to announce his presence in the Great Hall. Soon as he got his tickets he had Tyler kiss them for good luck and that finally got the boy going.
Landon loved his son to death and he lived for moments like this. In layman’s terms he wanted to shower his son with the love and attention that his own father never bestowed on him, and in so doing, Landon would gain the respect of at least one human being and also prove to himself that he was at least good at something. Something like hitting a trifecta, so to speak. While not overly attentive to the particulars– he once got Tyler the wrong and, dammit, non-refundable, prescription glasses– he did remember each and every experience they shared. Landon liked to recall a story he once heard from an itinerant Buddhist monk, or whatever his correct nomenclature was, down at the Venice Beach boardwalk. The monk showed him a crystal-like bead that he carried in a small velvety pouch and said, with an authority beyond Landon’s ability to fully comprehend, that it was one of the most prized relics to be found on earth. “It is called a śarīra,” the monk said. “The śarīra are to be found in the cremated remains of the great Buddhist spiritual masters,” he said, holding the sacred object in the sunlight for emphasis. “They cannot be found in the ashes of ordinary folks like you because, you see, the śarīra are made up of elements not of this earth.” After much cajoling, the monk let him touch the śarīra but to Landon’s disappointment it felt no different than rubbing a glass bead. Just the same, the story stayed with Landon and he came to think of his entire life boiling down to the times spent with Tyler, his only śarīra able to survive the cauldron of his tumultuous existence.
Tyler got a mark on his forehead from pressing too hard against the rail, sticking his little arm out to touch the galloping thoroughbreds, like so many purple unicorns, as they warmed up before the race. “They go by too fast, daddy,” Tyler said, nearly dropping his ice cream cone.
Landon took Tyler on a spontaneous tour of the quarters, filling in the dead time with stories about the rules of the game, and how they name horses and how the meaning of those names oftentimes decides a horse’s fate before even running a single race. Much like with people, he thought, but kept that to himself. He then walked Tyler into a stable for the big reveal and watched the boy’s face drop as he realized that there was nothing impromptu about their tour. Landon introduced the boy to his old buddy, Big Ben, a jockey he’d met in AA a lifetime ago, and his racehorse “The Lion’s Den”.
“How you feelin’, Big Ben?” Landon asked.
“Feelin’ pretty good. If I were you I’d bet everything on this guy,” Big Ben said.
“Not crazy about the name, The Lion’s Den,” Landon said. “Like my life’s in danger or something.”
“Kinda name makes you think.”
Ben checked Tyler out, the two looking like classmates height-wise, ages apart in worldliness. “Don’t be shy,” Big Ben said, and grabbed Tyler’s hand and ran it over the side of the horse and then over his wet nostrils. “He likes it when you do that.” For Tyler it felt like a communion of sorts, completely natural yet far removed from his daily experience. “Can I get up on him?” Tyler asked, a glitter of childlike excitement in his eyes. Big Ben got one of Tyler’s feet up on the stirrup, and the boy helped himself onto the saddle for a view of the top of the world.
“Why don’t you get your boy a pony, Landon?” Big Ben said. “I know someone has a Chincoteague pony for sale. Cute and friendly, considering.”
“Considering what?” Landon asked.
“They’re born in the wild, on an island.”
“How do they end up here?”
“Local firemen herd’em across the shallow waters at slack tide. Take’em from one island to another, then auction off the foals. Rain or shine, they go swimming across that channel, into the unknown.”
“Oh, man, I bet you that scares the hell outta’em.”
“They ain’t exactly going to the slaughterhouse, y’know.”
“Yeah, but they don’t know that.”
“God knows what goes on in their little pony heads, but it’s a sight to see.”
Landon felt a pang of sadness over the fate of the Chincoteague ponies, and was about to make an offer, or rather the promise of an offer, when he heard a familiar voice booming over his right shoulder.
“My horse just got over a case of the colic, now you turned it into the main attraction at a petting zoo?” the intruder bellowed.
Big Ben brought Tyler back down to earth, literally, and turned his full attention to his employer. “Mr. Rocanna, sorry, sir, I just–”
“Outta the way,” Mr. Rocanna said. A middle-aged man dressed in a crisp white suit, knee-high leather boots, straw Panama hat, he hopped on the horse like he owned it, which he did. The wall behind was painted pale blue, and the man appeared like a war hero from a middle-aged painting, rallying his troops against the backdrop of an innocent azure sky.
Landon was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of déjà vu at the sight of Mr. Rocanna. He’d seen him around the course and up in the club, had spoken to him on several occasions, the conversations always taking strange turns into the abstract, but didn’t recall ever seeing him in the barn. And yet, the feeling was unmistakable, and Landon felt a rush of nausea take over him.
Mr. Rocanna leaned forward, as if to listen to the horse. While deep in metaphysical quicksands, Landon heard Mr. Rocanna’s words before they were even uttered. The sounds came at him from all sides, front, back, above, and below, all at the same time, disorienting Landon into paralysis.
“You people got him spooked,” Mr. Rocanna said. “Make sure you loosen him up before the race.”
“Yessir,” Big Ben said, all business.
Landon looked away from the blue aura enveloping Mr. Rocanna and glanced in the direction of the white light coming in through the barn and leading up to the track. He quickly regained his balance, just in time to notice the confusion on Tyler’s face, a sense of disappointment difficult to hide. “The gentleman owns this beautiful horse,” he said to his son in the way of explaining the balance of power. “I got your horse singled, Mr. Rocanna. Put all our money on it,” Landon said, like it was some kind of accomplishment. “Didn’t we, Tyler?”
Mr. Rocanna whispered something in the horse’s ear and the horse turned its head, one big eye fixed on Landon. Mr. Rocanna sat back up straight on the saddle, his eyes glowering down on Landon, who must have felt like he was looking up at the marble statue of a vengeful god, or an avatar to say the least. That spooked Landon and Tyler both.
“Oh, they’re still here?” Mr. Rocanna said to Big Ben, meaning Landon and Tyler. The child looked down, embarrassed. He tried to gently nudge his dad out of an increasingly uncomfortable situation.
“Wait now, sir, we didn’t come here to–” Landon said, just as a bell sounded in the distance.
“Did you hear that bell? Means it’s time for you to go gamble away your rent money,” Mr. Rocanna said.
“Okay, I see what you’re doing,” Landon said, spotting another ruined moment in the rearview mirror. Big Ben grimaced at Landon, in the way of an apology.
“A nice lesson to teach your child. I see the likes of you here all the time, and I know all about you in particular,” Mr. Rocanna continued. “Don’t act so surprised.”
“We have to leave now, Tyler,” Landon said, but his body didn’t follow his mind’s command.
“What is your name, young boy?”
“Tyler Gordon Briggs.”
“Well, Tyler Gordon Briggs, the reason I’m sitting up here is because I have a nose for winners, a flair that extends, many would agree, to people. And in your father I’ve seen, in our past conversations, that special sparkle in his eyes. You know the kind I’m talking about? The spirit struggling in human form. The spark of life, the pneuma of deus absconditus for us grown-ups. Look at this horse here, a beautiful animal, but study its face closer and what do you see? Dead eyes. Look at Big Ben now, a winning jockey and honorable drunk, but take a closer look. Dead eyes.” Big Ben nodded in agreement, resigned to his fate, as Mr. Rocanna carried on. “But your father, Tyler, is a different breed. He’s at heart a street philosopher, the best kind of philosopher, and yet he’s wasting his life away at the tracks. I think he ought to know better lest you, young stud, wish to continue his legacy. Like father like son. And is there any reason in the world why you might want for that, my dear Tyler Gordon Briggs?” Mr. Rocanna said.
The child shook his head, near to tears, and looked down. “I wanna go home now, dad,” he said, gently tugging at his sleeve. Landon kissed his son the way he’d done in the past when he would hurt himself during a game of catch, or fall off his bike and get a bruise, but this time it was different. Landon looked at his son and realized that the walls surrounding his innocence had just caved in and the child standing in front of him was no longer the child he’d brought to the track that morning. That child had died to childhood.
At the same time, Landon couldn’t help but notice that something inside himself turned too. He’d heard the type of cautionary words spewing from the mouth of Mr. Rocanna before, as he’d been the subject of many such well-meaning yet ineffective interventions. The weight of Mr. Rocanna’s words, mere platitudes in another context, registered not in the words themselves but in the whole experience, which Landon suffered through to the innermost particle of his being. It was that rare time where the lines between the physical, the moral, and the spiritual got completely blurred. Matter of fact, Landon had to think back to reassure himself the whole thing wasn’t just the effect of some late-kicking pill someone might have popped into his mouth the night before, which incidentally was also a blur.
* * *
“Had fun at the park, Tyler?” Melanie asked, but all she heard was the sound of the door closing behind the boy.
“I think he’s coming down with a cold or something. Been cranky all day,” Landon said. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
“Can you watch him the rest of the evening?”
“Naw, I gotta go see Frankie about something. Why?”
“I got a shipment of cigarettes coming in.”
“See what I mean, this Ray guy’s a fuckin’ prick. Makes you work on a holiday. Don’t know what you’re doing with him.”
“He promised us health insurance.”
Landon rolls his head back in a dramatic gesture, like someone just laid a trump card on the table, leaving him to count his losses. “Well, can’t beat that.” She’s heard enough already, and she opens the front door for Landon to take a hint.
“You see the price of cigarettes lately?” Landon said, thinking out loud. “That load must be worth a million bucks, huh.”
“That’s why I have to be there myself, make sure it doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.”
“That liquor truck got boosted last year, word on the street is Ray did it himself. Sold the goods to a Chinese fence and later collected on the insurance, doubled up on it. Way to pay for your fancy wedding.”
“Forgive me if I don’t believe the word on the street.”
“He’s just another crook, Mel. No better’n me.”
“Oh, you mean if I were to show up here tomorrow with a million bucks you’d send Ray packing and give me a second chance.”
“I’m open to miracles. It’s always been my policy,” she said. “Go, now. Your friends must think you’re dead.”
It was a long drive downtown, hitting the I-5 southbound at peak hour, which only made Mr. Rocanna’s putdown earlier in the day come back into Landon’s head like a killing fields buzzard. Fuck, Tyler’s gonna remember this incident for the rest of his life, he’s old enough to retain these kinds of memories. Matter of fact, to that day Landon still held a vivid recollection of a particularly savage beating he received, courtesy of his own dad, when he was about Tyler’s age. He’d asked his old man to let him move in with his mom, and Mr. Briggs’ resentment towards his ex-wife came to a boiling point. The belt was Mr. Briggs’ (he demanded that his son called him Mr. Briggs) weapon of choice and the metal buckle left two thick scars, like an X, on Landon’s back. “X marks the spot,” his dad used to joke whenever Landon asked about his mother’s whereabouts. A couple years later, he overheard Mr. Briggs talk about her in hushed tones with some of his buddies during a Fourth of July barbecue at the house. It turned out she’d died of some disease or other; Landon never asked, disappointed as he was with her for abandoning him at the crossroads. In the intervening years, her image slowly faded in Landon’s mind, and with nary a photograph to jog his memory, she became as immaterial as a notion, an idea of something that consumed him for not understanding it, yet another hungry ghost in his life.
* * *
A few months prior to Mr. Briggs’ passing, Landon got a call from Cedars Sinai to come pick up his dad, as he was unfit to drive himself home after a round of radiation therapy. It took Landon a few moments to string up the chain of events that led up to that call. He hadn’t seen or spoken to his dad in years and was actually surprised to hear that he was still alive. Mr. Briggs was dying, it turned out, of lung cancer by way of a two-pack a day smoking habit that he’d maintained religiously throughout his adult life. And he listed Landon as the emergency contact on the hospital form knowing full well that Landon would take pity on him in the hope of settling some old scores.
Landon recognized his dad’s old red plaid shirt first before acknowledging the wraith inhabiting the space within. They didn’t speak while Landon loaded him up like a piece of fragile luggage into his car and quickly got onto Beverly heading East towards the 101 Freeway. The quiet unsettled Landon and he kept bobbing his head up and down to a silent tune in his head. It was a nervous tic left over from the days he’d go around wearing massive headphones at all times, blasting heavy metal straight into his astral body.
Mr. Briggs pulled out a cigarette and lit it up with trembling hands. “Hope you don’t mind,” he said, breaking the silence. Landon kept shaking his head as the old man took a deep puff. Landon snatched the pack of cigarettes out of his dad’s hand and tossed it in the back seat.
“Won’t make no goddamn difference any–,” Mr. Briggs said, and promptly burst into a coughing fit. When he settled down a bit he reached into his pocket and took out a couple of small trinkets.
“Went back to Vietnam last year,” he said. “Got this thing here for your son, he’s how old now, seven? Boy loves his horses, don’t he… Saw that on the social media and whatnot.”
“What’s this?” Landon asked.
“It’s a Tibetan windhorse,” Mr. Briggs said.
“What’s a wind horse?”
“They say it’s like the soul. They call it Lungta.”
“Lung-dah, that’s all I know. You asking me what his name is in… American? I don’t know, call him what you want. Tell your son it’s from his granddad, who got it from a Tibetan monk in Vietnam. That’s the story. Tell him that.”
Mr. Briggs then took the second trinket, a bobblehead Buddha, and placed it on Landon’s dashboard, a wicked glint in his eyes. “For you, free spirit,” he said. “Ain’t that the damnest thing, huh? Same monk sold it to me, for a pack of Marlboros,” and started laughing, then coughing, then laughing again. “No reason to hate that place… Vietnam… no reason at all.” Landon’s head bobbed up and down in sync with the bobblehead for a moment before checking himself, feeling stupid all of a sudden for being cut down to the size of a toy.
Landon dropped his dad off at his rent control apartment on Alameda, close to Chinatown, about where East meets West within the city walls. “I didn’t know any better I’d tell you to stay outta trouble,” Mr. Briggs said. He thanked him for the ride and told him he’d call if he needed him, but never did, and with that Landon was summarily dismissed.
Next time Landon saw his dad was at the funeral, where he couldn’t help feeling regret over throwing the horse trinket in the nearest trashcan along with the dashboard bobblehead Buddha and Mr. Briggs’ unused pack of cigarettes. Thing is, he wanted no link to the long line of cursed and short-lived Briggs males but that act of defiance now registered as sacrilegious, save for the pack of cigarettes, which ended up pretty much where it belonged. Landon kicked himself for acting on impulse, as he would’ve liked Tyler to have something to remember his grandpa by. If nothing else, a worthless toy and a cool little story to go with it can go a long way towards explaining a man to a child. Aside from that, Landon could’ve really used a dashboard Buddha. He envied the genius that invented that trinket.
* * *
While in the throes of recalling that particular episode, an idea suddenly popped into Landon’s noggin like a revelation from the ethereal realms and the more he thought about it the more real it became, all the little details falling into place like markers on the road. He saw the path wide and clear in front of him and all he had to do was take it and never look back. He turned the air-conditioning to full blast, trying to cool his brain from over-drive down to a more manageable pace. He could think of only a few other times in his life when he’d experienced that type of tunnel vision, where he could clearly see his future, albeit short-term, laid out in front of him with such mathematical precision. The light at the end of the tunnel was his son. Well, Melanie, too, but the two came as a package deal, he reasoned, and who could blame him. But Landon tried hard not to get ahead of himself for once. After all, he had a heist to plan out and execute that afternoon.
Landon took a seat in the bleachers at the old Derby Dolls roller rink. About a dozen girls skated around the banked track at great speed, oozing aggression. Landon cringed at the sight of the pivot catching a high elbow and ending up on her lily ass.
“You keep flappin those wings you gonna fly right the fuck outta here,” the coach barked out as he rushed to the railing. Frankie DiDio carefully cultivated his boot camp instructor persona, the buzz cut, the fatigues, the phony appearance of having things firmly under control. It did give him street cred, on sight, and leverage with a certain class of ladies, gluttons for punishment, even when his own conditioning was lacking and his weight ballooned for no apparent reason as he was pushing forty. He and Landon were army buddies, and that was a bond that cut through all the mundane bullshit, of which there was plenty to go around. They almost came to blows on several occasions, over either pussy or money or simply as victims of self-created Hobbesian traps, but they always ended up burying the hatchet deep in some WeHo dive bar.
The pivot picked herself up off the floor and rolled back on the track, blonde locks jutting out from under the helmet. Stephanie waved slightly in Landon’s direction before switching effortlessly into a killer on wheels. The name on back of her jersey read “Barbie Drone”.
“I’m gonna get that fuckin bitch,” she proclaimed.
“Yeah, please help yourself,” Frankie said. He turned to take his seat back in the first row next to an open bottle of beer and spotted Landon a couple rows back. “Where the fuck you been, man? Thought you was dead.”
Landon’s head bobbed up and down. “Oh, you know me, just trying to keep body and soul together.” He jumped over another row, got closer to Frankie, and showed him the recoupment letter. “Did you get one of these?”
“Yeah, got mine couple of days ago,” Frankie said. “I say we start a war. Right here.”
“Can you drive a truck?” Landon asked.
“Yeah, I can drive a truck.”
“I don’t mean like a U-Haul or a pickup truck. I mean like one of’em big rigs, eighteen wheeler fuckers.”
“I can drive it forwards, backwards, parallel park it, hotwire it, hell, I can do donuts with the sumabitch. So, yeah, I can drive a truck.”
“Where’d you pick that up?”
“Oh, before my time.”
“Naw, you was there. Holed up in the brig, staying true to your name. It was when we beat up on that ensign, if I recall, scored one for the below-the-deckers.”
“Shoulda been you in the brig, I barely scratched the guy,” Landon said.
“We had a shipment of Strykers, had to line-haul’em into Basra and they were short on drivers, so they trained some of us. Rode the Highway of Death all the way to Hell and back.”
Landon took a swig out of Frankie’s bottle. “I was drinking that,” Frankie protested, before re-directing his anger at the players. “Gimme four laps, fast as you can.”
“You can’t drink,” Landon said. “You’ll be driving a truck in a couple hours. I got a solid tip and I thought–”
“You talkin’ about stealing,” Frankie said with the excitement of a child getting the correct answer in grammar school.
“Why would you steal a fuckin’ truck?”
“It’s what’s inside the truck, dummy. Cigarettes,” Landon said, letting that sink in. “We got no choice, Frankie. It’s written in the fuckin’ stars.”
“Who else is in on it?”
“Just you, me, and a pretty girl.” That’d be Stephanie, fresh off the track, casually sliding onto Landon’s lap right on cue. She was pretty, in a Suicide Girls kind of way, especially with her derby doll gear on, helmet dangling on her hand like a severed head. With no apparent invitation, Stephanie stood up and lifted her skirt, exposing her right buttock to Landon. “Look, I got a fresh bruise right here.” She then grabbed Landon’s hand and dragged him away like a hooker in the lobby of a house of ill repute. She put her helmet back on because, well, she meant business, that’s why.
Judging by the way the next episode unfolded, or didn’t unfold, depending on perspective, if Stephanie were the paying party she’d be entitled to a refund. She did let out some moans, facing the wall of a dark hallway leading to the locker rooms, but they signaled exasperation more than anything, seeing as Landon was fresh out of vital fluids, having just tapped out for his ex inside the hour. He pulled his pants up and stepped away graciously, the least he could do. “Sorry, my mind is elsewhere,” he said, his ego in the basement, “but I can eat you out.”
Stephanie took her helmet off and tossed it, hitting him squarely in the chest. “I hate hating, but I’m hating on you right now,” she said.
Theirs had been a volatile relationship from the beginning. They met at a Halloween Party in Hermosa Beach the year before and instantly connected when they played the old parlor game “Who’s your favorite Buddha?” At the count of three they both blurted out “Buddha Amitabha!” and then shared a long, warm hug where no words were spoken, or necessary. Buddha Amitabha’s nineteenth vow was to appear before those who called upon him on the moment of death and offer them protection and safe passage to his Paradise of Ultimate Bliss. The idea appealed greatly and equally to Stephanie’s New Age hipster friends and Landon’s North Long Beach ghetto brothers alike, as it promised safe spiritual refuge after a life lived at one’s contentment, a philosophy of life akin to riding a roller-coaster into the Big Nightclub. All they had to do was remember the password to this ultimate VIP lounge. Easier said than done, as Landon found out during his first tour in Iraq when a bullet pierced his right shoulder and all he could think of was, first, was he still alive? Check. No limbs missing? Check. Cock and balls? Triple check. Repeat. Then for the next hour, as he was being medevaced to Camp Arifjan out in Kuwait, his thoughts revolved around how soon he could leave the theater of war and return home to catch his son’s first day of pre-K. Not for a moment throughout this whole ordeal did he think even once of Buddha Amitabha. It was only on his flight back home while gazing out the window at an ephemeral formation of noctilucent clouds that the thought crossed his mind and he reproached himself in silence, and promised to do better next time, as he understood that he had just been tested.
* * *
The railroad track fed into the depot terminal and a crane whirred and screeched as it lifted a trailer off the train car. Landon and Frankie observed the action via binoculars from the comfort of Stephanie’s Mustang Shelby convertible, limited edition. They spotted Melanie as she walked around the terminal holding a clipboard. A young, burly truck driver signed the delivery papers for her. The door to the depot office opened and Landon cringed at the sight. Ray Barbas, a middle-aged man dressed sharply in a crisp suit, walked up to his fiancé, Melanie, and the two had a brief chat. Just before they went their separate ways Ray grabbed a handful of Melanie’s ass. She feigned disapproval.
“Ouch! That’s your ex, huh,” Frankie said, needing no binoculars to spot the infringement. “Now I get your disappearing act.”
“Fuck you guys talking about?” Stephanie asked, stifling a yawn.
The Mack tractor backed up and rammed under the marked trailer. It wedged the kingpin locked, and the coupled unit rocked back and forth to secure the lock.
“Damn, this is gettin’ me horny. That weird?” Stephanie said.
* * *
The speedometer on the Mustang hovered at around forty-five, Stephanie’s goldilocks blowing in the wind like flocks out of Medusa’s head. A car honked as it passed her, but she didn’t turn, she just smiled like she’d spotted a sign that said the plan was going to work. Her eyes were glued to the Mack truck in the slow lane in front of her. She caught up with the truck and drove alongside it, hooning like crazy, just maybe a nose ahead, enough for the truck driver to take notice of her. She casually looked up, as if by accident, and caught the trucker’s eye. She waved, and he grinned like an idiot. All she had to do now was reel him in.
She accelerated ever so slightly and the truck stayed with her. She turned and flashed that beautiful Cali smile again. The trucker tipped the brim of his greasy hat, feeling like he had a real chance there.
Landon, driving a beat-up Corolla a few car lengths behind, Frankie riding shotgun, kept a close tab on the action.
Stephanie looked up at the trucker, waited until there was eye contact, then pointed to the back of his truck. The trucker shook his head, confused. Stephanie flailed her arms, signaling that something was wrong with the truck, possibly a flat tire, hard for anyone to understand what she meant.
The trucker adjusted his rearview mirror, rolled down the window, but couldn’t quite make out the damage. Stephanie honked a few times to make her point before speeding off into the sunset like a good Samaritan.
Landon slowed down and edged into the lane behind the cargo truck. “C’mon, man, pull over.” Landon was familiar with this area of Long Beach, what he called Baghdad by the Bay, and he knew that once the truck hit the freeway it wouldn’t stop until it reached destination.
Landon kept his distance until, finally, the truck signaled for a turn. The cargo truck pulled up on the shoulder, close to an overpass, hazard lights blinking. The trucker stepped out and proceeded with a quick inspection. He bopped the tires with a mallet, checking for flats. As the trucker circled around the back, Landon pulled up his car roadside of the truck and Frankie rushed out of the passenger seat and into the truck’s cabin fast as a jailbreak.
This is when Landon noticed a strange figure standing tall in the middle of the overpass, looking down on the action. The lanky, swarthy man wore a long, dark overcoat and top hat, a strange getup for that neck of the woods and that time of day. Odder yet, he was carrying a suitcase. Not a briefcase, mind you, but a suitcase. But what unsettled Landon most was the fact that this mysterious Traveler was not trying to record or photograph the thieves in flagrante delicto, he wasn’t there to witness, he was there in judgment. Landon had no doubt about it and, as omens go, that was as bad as they come.
To Frankie’s delight, the keys were still in the ignition, as expected, and he peeked out the window and gave Landon the thumbs up. He pushed into the clutch, whacked a red button on the dash and the truck took off with a whoosh. In the oblong side mirror he spotted the truckless driver jumping up and down for some reason.
Landon looked up one more time before clearing the scene but the Traveler had already vanished. He spotted a rainbow in the horizon, although it hadn’t rained in months, the holy fires were raging from Siskiyou County to Shasta to Sylmar, and the bone-dry earth was crying for thunder. He wanted to call Frankie for confirmation of what he’d just witnessed but the rattle and hum of emerging traffic soon closed in on him like an iron maiden and the moment was gone forever.
Landon ditched his car in a CVS Pharmacy parking lot a couple exits North on the 710 and hopped into the truck with Frankie. They took on a labyrinthine route, not so much for evasive purposes as for buying time to hatch a plan to sell the booty, and they both put on their sunglasses in unison as they hit the 10-West, once it was decided that Chinatown was their only option.
“This is the Chinaman who hacked a dude in half right in front of his restaurant,” Frankie said. “In broad daylight.”
“Rumor has it,” Landon said.
“Over nothing, guy owed him a jade turtle or some shit. And you trust him.”
“I’ve dealt with him before. Guy’s fair as a fairy. He’s got like an army of vending machines all over town. He’s gonna sell these for top dollar.”
“I don’t even know what I’m gonna do with all that dough. You think about it?”
“I got debt collectors breathing down my neck. I wanna settle.”
“That’s just plain stupid, man,” Frankie opined. “Not to mention un-American.”
“Every now and then you gotta balance the books, or someone’s gonna do it for you.”
All the while Landon had a grin on his face. He’d just thought of the best birthday present for his son. He imagined the whole day in detail, how he’d buy the Chincoteague pony in the morning, have it transported to Melanie’s place, though not inside her apartment, that’d be dumb, but rather tie up the pony to a parking meter across the street, then drag Tyler downstairs on false pretense and reveal the big surprise. Landon got carried away as he pictured his little boy’s joy, and the sweetness of that simulated moment felt almost real, even though deep down he knew he wouldn’t live to see it.
“You realize, we just done start a war,” Frankie said, “Fuckin’ love it.”
“How do you see this ending?”
“Can’t worry about that… like you said, it’s already written in the stars, innit?”
The truck changed lanes to overtake a slow moving bus. It swished gently and Landon noticed for the first time a moving object in the middle of the dashboard. It kept shaking its head, a dashboard bobblehead Buddha, much like the one Mr. Briggs had given him, swaying with the turns in the road. And not just any Buddha, it dawned on Landon, but Buddha Amitabha.
“You ever think of dying?”
“It’s a funny thing, you know. Much as I try I just can’t picture myself dead. Why do you think that is?” Landon asked and glanced over at his buddy to demand an answer. None was forthcoming.
An earthquake expert on the AM radio station was ringing the alarm bells for the imminent Big One, being not a matter of if but when. Landon turned the radio off and eased his mind into the hum of the West-bound traffic, which presently came to a halt and, as he looked at the road ahead to see a mile-long snake of cars heading mercilessly into the mouth of the sinking Sun, his attention rested on the bobblehead Buddha nodding in a rhythm that would appear, at first glance, chaotic and random, but which belonged in fact to a higher order, one that effortlessly set the score straight between the past and the future, and for one brief moment Landon felt at peace with the world.
He spent the rest of the ride in funereal silence.
Remarkably, DreamWorks’ “Antz” and Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” were released within six weeks of each other. Both films have worker ants as heroes, saving their colony and falling for a princess in the process.
Ants swarmed over our porch ceiling like discordant musical notes released from their scales. They raced down the wooden pillars and over the cracked concrete floor. Out of nowhere and suddenly. One ant played the fife, another limped, and another played drums. Somewhere, a queen had given the signal.
Or maybe that was in a movie about ants I saw with my kids when they were young. Two ant movies—Antz and A Bug’s Life, animated by rival studios—came out at the same time, confusing everyone. Which fast food joint was giving away toys from which movie? They seemed to have the same plot: a misfit ant who finds God. We saw them both, but I wasn’t paying much attention back then, half-asleep in a dark theater of screaming children. I would fail the Bug’s Life vs. Antz showdown trivia quiz. My kids, Sid and Anna, might do better, but it’s not something we compare notes on in our random and infrequent phone calls. Antz. That z jazzed up such a pedestrian word. I started uzing z’s instead of s’s because I myself needed to be jazzed up. The marriage was dragging, or I was dragging it down, slumped into a nostalgic torpor for all my bad habits abandoned. In a way, I’d cleaned up my life. In another way, everything I’d sucked up sat inside me like a vacuum cleaner bag overflowing with dust, but I had no new bag to replace it with.
The kids are both mostly grown and living time zones away from Pittsburgh, where we take comfort in the lack of clarity—hills, clouds, limited vision. They’re off with their mother, sending back beautiful pictures of their beautiful lives that will not fade, unlike the cheap color photos we took when they were children. The color faded to an indistinct pinkish hue in the old albums—the ones with the dried-up stickum that failed to hold the photos in place any longer. When, in my nostalgic moments for the tiny ants that only showed up for crumbs and sweet stuff, I pull out one of the albums shelved next to the dusty cookbooks, all the photos slide loose out of the pages like those ants boogie woogieing down the pillars—like “Surf ’s up, Dude!” The neat lies of those ordered albums tumbles into a realistic mess on the floor.
The real ants—big black carpenter ants—are here, quietly invading in their bumbling yet direct script across the gutters, soffit, fascia, down the pillars, and over the cracked cement I’m standing on.
I’ve always enjoyed killing ants. Even outdoors, which can fairly be considered their turf. I used to sit on my parents’ porch on hot summer days smushing ants with a popsicle stick after I’d finished slurping down the colored, frozen sugar water. A couple of sweet red drops melt to the cement, then word gets out, then Squish. Squish. Like the grim pleasure of pouring hydrogen peroxide on infected cuts to watch it foam up, or popping pimples as a teenager, despite all warnings against it. One of my kids, Sid, was/is? a cutter, which horrified me and my second wife Del, the kids’ mother. We did a purge of every sharp thing in the house, though missed a tiny yellow pencil sharpener the size of a large grape. And we missed the great outdoors, and every sharp thing that cut him out there. And every sharp word in our failed marriage.
Last I heard, my first wife Clare’d gone to Bazookia as a missionary for a year. Too busy keeping track of Del and the kids and negotiating through the losses. We all agreed on one thing: the divorce was my fault. Del used to tell me that if I had an affair, she’d cut my balls off. At least she didn’t do that. The kids were at the opposite of perfect ages for something like that: 12 and 13. They knew exactly what I did. I think I had my own death wish about marriage. That was the squeaky hinge on my life—the end of ten years of marriage.
Okay, listen, Anna and Sid. I’m just trying to explain why I lost track of Clare. I’m not blaming your mother.
Why did I take such pleasure then? Why do I take such pleasure now? Maybe because it’s a small cruelty you can get away with—the lack of blood, the miniscule and brief evidence of their existence. The easy justification—the little ants eat our food, and the big ones eat our houses. The traps. The poison.
The poison that kills them, the poison we feed on. There’s a whole series of horror movies about giant ants due to guys like me. Ants getting revenge. We are ants, too, though. Somebody’s ants. And if you believe in God, we are God’s ants and God holds the popsicle stick, and sometimes it drips down some sweetness and we briefly imagine a place called heaven.
I’ve never been a fan of heaven, and even today, when we’re burying Clare, I can’t imagine her there. She’d be miserable. I’ve always hated when people say what the dead would have liked or not liked, but Clare, in heaven? Traditional heaven? With no vices to lean on, she’d lose her balance and fall all the way through purgatory and down to hell, where I can see her smiling, conspiring to drive Satan crazy.
Clare had a death wish, but it was like a carnival ride that goes amok. Enjoyable at first, adrenaline pumping, wow, this is fun, I feel so alive, then it goes off the tracks into space and you’re asking, Is it supposed to do this? Like the cartoons where the coyote runs off the cliff into air and doesn’t fall until he looks down.
The moral of that story is supposed to be “don’t look down,” but I believe you have to look down. Which is why I’ve never been a fan of heaven. What’s heaven if you can’t look down on someone or something?
Clare looked down and saw something she didn’t like.
Eternal life vs. Heaven, 12 rounds, championship bout, cage match.
Big. Black. Ants. Carpenter ants eating their trails through our soft ,wet wood due to roof neglect. Us, my current partner Robin and I. Del (Delphinia) was my first real wife, I liked to tell people, but I’m not going to throw Clare under the bus. She threw herself under the bus.
I’m pausing after that mean thing. Meaner than you think. Suicide. Meaner than that, given various chances to intervene. Del was my excuse to avoid Clare, during and after that marriage. I couldn’t afford another kid. I had my own problems. I had a cutter loose in the house.
Some churches say you’ll go to hell if you commit suicide. They probably say that because otherwise we’d all be killing ourselves to get to heaven sooner, right?
One early evening in late April years ago, I was walking alone on a trail in the park across the street—a trail I still walk on after work— working the same job I worked then—”Mr. Handyman,” where I am one of many, not the Mr. Handyman, who signs my checks Ricky Stewart. When I came over the slight rise up from Panther Hollow, I ran into Sid walking the other way with another boy—maybe thirteen, both of them. Looking at them together, I suddenly saw everything clearly: they were looking for a place to have sex in the rising greenery of spring in that large, urban park full of hiding places. Who would’ve thought they’d run into old Dad taking his constitutional? “Hi,” I said, and kept walking, and neither of us said a word to each other or anyone in the family about that ever, but shortly after, he started making those cuts on his arms and legs. I, ex-junkie husband of junkie Clare, never noticed all his long sleeves of summer.
Hey, I used to shoot heroin. At least you’re not doing that. Never do that. Hey, we have something in common, isn’t that cool? I used to shoot up between my toes, can you believe it, ha ha ha. Don’t do that. Stop cutting. Start talking to me. Your mother saved me, but that didn’t save our marriage.
Here’s what I did tell him: We’ll find someone for you to talk to. I was a handyman by default. Something I learned on the fly once I stopped stealing from my own family. Once I dropped Clare off at rehab and drove away forever. Who said talk is cheap?
I was so used to sweeping up, leaving no evidence. It’s never that simple. For example, I did not drive away forever. Forever in my imagination. In my revised version where ants aren’t raining down on me.
I was on a first-name basis with the exterminator, Metallica, due to previous encounters with the entire range of invasive urban insects. I even had a customer loyalty card, a 3×5 blank notecard that he’d punch a hole in every time he came out.
Despite spraying with my over-the-counter stuff, the reinforcement ants emerged from wherever the nest was up there, and I gave up and made the call. Metallica clearly does not give a shit about self-poisoning. He wears no protective gear. Lugs around his tank of poison with his gap-toothed smile. I know a lot of people like that, given my personal history. But bug killer doesn’t even get you high.
“Dude,” he said, clanking up the steps, the tank bouncing off his leg. He shook my hand forcefully, perhaps to remind me that we’re in this together somehow. Remember to wash your hand, I tell myself.
“Might want to fix that roof,” he says, peering up at the wet, rotting boards. “Aren’t you the Handyman?”
“I am just one of his minions,” I said.
“You’re one deep motherfucking bullshitter,” he said, spitting his poison saliva over the porch railing for punctuation.
As he sprayed into the holes he’d drilled, the ants came raining down. That’s not just an expression. It was a storm of ants, falling to their deaths, having all looked down.
“Impressive,” I said from behind the screen door.
“You’re gonna need an ant umbrella to come out here,” he said.
I didn’t want to let him into the house. I handed off the check in the doorway.
He smoked as he worked. He had a precision trigger finger on the hose, but his smoking fingers always had a tremble to them.
“It’s not my fault they came back,” he said as he punched my note card again.
I never told Robin much about Clare. I told her Del was my first real wife. Clare, Del, then Robin. Don’t mix them up like I have.
When Robin found me crying in the bathtub, she had a few questions:
“I thought she wasn’t a real wife?” Not exactly a question, but a comment that demanded response. I didn’t cry much, but when I did, the bathtub was my go-to spot.
“She had an in with God and got us annulled,” I said.
“I thought that meant you just lived together. What other secrets you got for me, Bathing Beauty,” she said. That wasn’t a question either.
I tore some toilet paper off the roll and blew my nose into it.
“I was high most of the time, so I’m sure I forgot a few things. You’ve never seen me high. Consider yourself lucky.”
“Lucky is not the word for what I’m feeling,” she said. “I’m never jealous about Del. It’s like we’re even—with me and Teddy Boy. Now, you’re one up on me.”
“Not according—” I was going to make a joke about the Pope, but started crying again. I was holding something in, and cutting myself or injecting myself wasn’t going to let it out. Because it was in me—a version of myself I had to own up to and mourn at the same time.
I once got up in the middle of the night to pee and found two-year-old Anna sitting in the empty bathtub in the dark.
“Oh, hi Dad,” she said, like I was dropping in on her to borrow a cup of bubbles. She seemed so at home there—to have life be that simple again, sitting in a bathtub in silent darkness. Safe. She knew she was safe there.
“Oh, hi Robin,” I said, once I stopped that crazy shivering shoulder thing I get when I’m on a crying jag. Which happens only every time Hailey’s Comet passes by.
“We got married on a dare and enough drugs to keep us awake till we got to Vegas.”
“And that lasted exactly how long?”
Robin wasn’t the jealous type. She’d survived her own bad marriage and had no interest in tying the knot again. She was asking more out of curiosity, I hope. She made a good living as a family court judge and didn’t want me suing for support, since my odd jobs resulted in an odd level of income much less than hers.
“We’d lived together for a year or so before getting married, but marriage was the kiss of death and we—well, actually, she—got it annulled. They didn’t have computers back then, but you can see the remnants of our marriage on some erasable typing paper up in the attic with the bishop’s signature and seal.”
“In the eyes of God,” she said. “You weren’t married in the eyes of God.” Robin repeated with an eye roll. She inherited cynicism from her father, an immigrant who had seen bodies stacked up in churches back in Croatia after World War II.
“Isn’t God blind?”
“That’s Justice. And that’s a lie, too.”
Robin had no faith to lose. Clare, on the other hand, found God back in a jail cell, and God told her to dump that loser and get straight, and so, annulment.
“In light of recent events, God wasn’t enough,” Robin said.
I got up out of the empty bathtub, fully clothed. “I hate that phrase, ‘in light of recent events’,” I said.
She looked at me like she was going to respond, her lips briefly parted, to defend that phrase, but we had been together for three years, and she knew that the phrase wasn’t what it was about.
I stormed out onto the front porch to have a little talk with the ants.
Clare was 33. Not the 27 club, but the Jesus club. When we die young, suddenly it’s a contest to see who can grieve the most. To possess the death. The ants carry away the dead bodies to be consumed back in their crib up in my rafters. When we die young, it’s like somebody spiked the funeral home Kool-Aid with grief pills. The spiraling wailing, the
random fleeing, the grieving bodies bouncing off walls like the blind, colliding into each other and comingling tears. It’s a swamp of grief, all kinds of shit growing in the fetid waters. The ant-like frenzy in response to poison, the sudden spazzing into death.
Above the ants this humid morning, a hawk drifts effortlessly on breezes we’re not feeling down here. Why don’t we have a more effortless word than “effortlessly”? It stumbles out of our mouths, trips on sidewalk cracks.
Clare, who I am mourning later—mourning now—is like the one ant circling the porch after the magic poison is sprayed, as if saying, ‘Hey, where’d you guys go? I’m all alone down here.’ The overeager kid wanting a playmate. Good luck with that, Metallica would say.
No, when she killed herself, she was saying, no more playmates for me. I’m blowing this pop(sicle) stand. You can buy that on a mug now. They should put a warning on it: Do not drink poison from this cup.
We are all cannibals, of course.
Hey, ant, come over here so I can squish you and you can join your friends!
I sweep the dead ones off the porch, and they land on the driveway, little crunchy commas splicing apart complete sentences.
The ant carries around the poison powder on its little feet, then slows down. Then stops to think about the meaning of life.
If all the ants die, who will be left to eat them? I admire the ants for dragging their dead off the battlefield, even if it is to be their dinner. Get rid of the bodies. Get on with it.
Clare wasn’t young and wasn’t old. She fell and keeps on falling, her mad whisper keeping that hawk aloft.
If we all think hard enough, we all hurt somewhere, right?
RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.
I sprained my ankle last week, tripping over some a pipe in a bathroom I was fixing. A job I still need to finish, according to a phone message from Mr. Handyman. I’m wearing one of those stupid black medical boots that make you limp.
I’ll be clomping into the funeral. They call them celebrations of life these days, but she wasn’t exactly celebrating life when she took those pills. It’s what her parents are calling it. They, who wanted to know if we lit the Unity Candle at our wedding. We come back from Vegas wearing cheap rings, and that’s what they want to know. Elvis didn’t have one, I said. Didn’t they know we were a couple of pyromaniacs? They knew me from when I was a popsicle boy.
Will they ask me about the ankle? Will they want me to say a few words? Will they speak to me at all, the survivor of sadness, the duke of denial, the king of cocaine, the asshole of AA?
Her next guy—she never married again—called me up when they split to tell me he was going to piss on my grave. Apropos of nothing except having heard some version of our life together. Who was he to say?
“She can piss on my grave,” I told him, “but you can’t. I’d prefer dancing on graves rather than pissing,” I said, “though I realize that from my grave I will have no say in this.”
“Annulled, my ass,” he said, and hung up.
The last thing she said to me was, “Shut up and get a tattoo.” Advice I have tried to take. Tattoo, check. Shutting up, no check. Tattoo of a series of concentric circles on my forearm. A target I once hit without fail. Bullseye!
Recovery is not some kind of neat acronym that follows a precise order. Ditto with the stages of grief. But I guess they don’t spell anything to begin with. They can’t even agree on how many stages there are—five? Seven? As if there is ever a final stage: DABDA? SPADTRA? Will all those vowels, they should have been able to come up with something. YABBA DABBA DO!
I’m starting with I:
The last time we spoke was at a potluck housewarming for our mutual friend Sam. I brought death-machine pie from the supermarket. Too sweet, like always—store-bought pie, what was I thinking? I also brought vanilla ice cream to put on top to make it even more too sweet. I have a sweet tooth. See popsicles above.
Those in recovery usually find each other at gatherings like those. It’s like llamas who smell your breath—you can feel it in the hesitations and discomfort. In the stepping outside for cigarettes. In the fact that they are not holding a brown bottle or stemmed glass. The way they trail their hands through the melting ice in the cooler as if fishing for a miracle to drink.
The way they hold those cheap plastic water bottles that crackle when you squeeze them. The frequency of crackling. The labels floating in the cooler, the cheap glue useless—how quick it can happen, the release of the label. Then anything can happen.
For a grown man, I still eat a lot of popsicles. So many flavors these days! Mango! Watermelon! Coconut! Happiness! That kid on the porch stuck with grape, orange, and cherry—and he only liked cherry. And he never got up the nerve to walk across the street to talk to the cute girl on her porch whose nervous twitch he could spot, even from that distance. Not until he started drinking and redefined sweetness into an unpopular flavor that she fled from, only to get pregnant with a football star’s baby. Kid! Kid! Maybe she would have squished some ants with you! Maybe you could have shared how good it feels!
Clare’s parents took care of the baby, as in taking her to Canada to have an abortion. She said he raped her.
He raped her.
Okay, Clare was that girl on the porch. Okay, okay. Ice is good for numbing. For a time, I was addicted to cubes. I bit into them and drove Del crazy.
We kept some of those plastic Bug’s Life/Antz McHappy Burger King meal giveaways. How do you make an ant smile? Bright lime green ants. Tossed in the blue plastic barrel with the cowboys and army men and thrown away en masse during one of the many purges. Or, maybe they’re in Del’s basement—she had the sentimental gene. The savior gene. But once I was saved, then what? Dullsville, and even giant fluorescent ants couldn’t make life interesting once the kids were teenagers. Even if you stepped on them.
Clare brought Downer Salad and ballistic dressing to Sam’s. We made small talk for big kids. Clare. “There’s no I in Clare,” she always told me and everyone else.
“When did you first hear the word “balsamic,”” I asked. “When I was a kid, balsamic was a variation on Greek Orthodox, and nobody I knew was Greek.”
She sighed. “I know I shouldn’t care,” she said. “Why won’t you talk to me?”
“You shouldn’t,” I said. “If I didn’t care, I’d be talking to you.”
“Oh,” she said, “It’s the old, ‘it’s me, not you.’”
“I didn’t say that yet,” I said.
I did not want to admit I couldn’t keep up with her mania—a common path, I know now, from drug addict to religious zealot, from murderer to religious zealot. The Wing and Wang of addiction and belief. She wasn’t going to hold still, even for Jesus. If I died, she would’ve abandoned me on the side of the road, I’d realized, my inability to keep up seriously compromised by death. Then they’d come by and scrape me up and throw me in the back of the truck with the other dead bodies. The Antz, just on a larger scale. And maybe that was okay.
“Are you eating a lot of carrots?” I asked. “Your skin looks orange.”
“It’s called healthy, Rick.” She rolled her eyes. “You were just used to the junkie pallor. I’ve moved way up on the color wheel,” she said. “You still look kind of invisible,” she said. “No offense.”
“I still feel kind of invisible,” I said, feeling one of those old love pangs again, love slivers that never quite get removed. Slivers of slivers dug in deep. “It’s a different invisible. The wife-and-kids invisible.”
“You’re not happy? Wasn’t that one wife ago?”
“Sometimes I miss killing myself. I mean, almost. Isn’t there a middle ground? I could use just a tad more obliviousness.
“I wouldn’t know,” she said. “I’m still an extremist.” She smiled mysteriously.
She was a killer bee, and in lieu of having someone to sting, she stung herself. I didn’t see it coming, mistaking her energy for invincibility.
“It’s good to see you two talking,” Sam said.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Yeah, why?” she asked.
We exchanged The Smile. Capital T Capital S.
This smile that said I don’t really want to smile, but I just can’t help it. The smile I had for no one else.
My leg tensed on the chair she once sat in. The porch chair that survived her and Del and moved with me to Robin. Clare did not have a favorite chair. I was going to say that she did, but she didn’t. She’d sit anywhere. She was one of those people who preferred the floor. Wrought iron—new cushions, but the same frame. Overwrought iron—the same joke I used with all of them at various points.
My ankle only hurts when I laugh, so I am not laughing. I am resting. I don’t want to go to the funeral. Just like I did not want to answer her phone calls and texts. I wasn’t going to mention them—a little secret from Del and Robin—Clare had in recent weeks been buzzing on my phone and sending cryptic texts like “Howdy Sailor” and not so cryptic like “Call me, you asshole I don’t bit.” She forgot or erased the e.
I was thinking about cutting and pasting some of her texts in here, but it turns out I deleted them all, though I saved some emails from
BEFORE. The peppy, jazzy, funny ones that charmed me. Swept me off my feet like an ant swept off the porch. But then it turns out (the double turn out!) that I have some of them memorized. Random observations like “the wind is as crisp as a hairy coconut today” or “Is your second toe still bigger than your first toe?”
At first, it’s just the little ants, but they get killed off and the big ants show up. Not big enough to eat me, but still pretty big compared to the little ones. The little ones are almost a concept, an abstraction. Tiny punctuation you can almost ignore. They dutifully enter ant traps until you can shake them like maracas.
Did I spill something to attract the big ants? I did not. The big ants, they say, you talkin’ to me? I ain’t going in that dark little trap, chump! Gimme some wet wood pronto!
One of the two stages of life.
a metal tool with movable jaws that are used to hold an object firmly in place while work is done on it, typically attached to a workbench.
She wanted to be swept off the porch, not buried in a box, but I had no official role as the annullee. I was just an attendee.
I’m glad I did not join her in ant land—addicted to poison. But her electric madness shorts me out with grief. Two children on identical shy slabs of cement ran away from the ants only to swallow the poison themselves. How do you warm a house? Not with explosives. Not with spilled blood from precise cuts.
Del called me to inform me of Clare’s death. She thought I’d want to know. Tomorrow I will join the ants on the freeway to the funeral. She’d been living on an organic farm outside of town where all the workers had tattoos that they covered up for their fancy farm-to-table dinners. Some kind of cult, though we’re all in some kind of cult, even if it’s a cult of one. How long will the receiving line be? Not very, I’m guessing. Unless it’s at the methadone clinic.
When my father died, he’d outlived all his friends except for Lenny in Arizona who had given up driving and lived in a retirement home. I was told to call Lenny, a former ice cream novelties salesman from our old neighborhood in Detroit. “I’m the last one,” Lenny said. With a note of triumph, or resignation? I wanted to ask, but his lunch was being served. He complained about the paper cups of ice cream they served. “Not ice cream at all,” he said. “Some fake over-frozen vanilla stuff with the cheap wooden spoon that can’t put a dent in it. They think we’ll hurt ourselves if we had real spoons. Whoever hurt themself with a spoon?” Lenny was a Bombpop afficionado who did not believe in the simple, the colorless, the bland. In truth, my father did not like talking to Lenny in Arizona. My father was not a talker like the ice cream salesman.
“He could sell ice cream to Eskimos,” my father said.
“You can’t call them Eskimos anymore,” I said.
My father made our children shake hands with him. No hugging or kissing. No “I love you’s.” This isn’t an excuse. He believed in a firm grip, and it got him through. We all have to figure that out on our own, not just do what our parents do.
“Lenny, the Bomb pop had a fatal flaw,” I told him. “You couldn’t get the whole damn thing in your mouth, so it dripped all over your hand.”
“Ralph,” he called me, which was my father’s name. “You got a small mouth. You’re full of shit, just like always.”
Then the flies start showing up, then the wasps. I have never seen a movie about cute flies on a dung pile, or wasps in their paper nests, but bees get a pass, due to honey.
What’s an occasional sting if it means honey in the long run? A conundrum of addiction.
Maybe I should stop being such a smartass. That’s the kind of logic that can turn you into a junkie. Clare, nodding off, sprawled in a slumped, insubstantial pose. Human lumps of clay we were, unwilling to be molded into purpose except to obtain more.
Wasp spray shoots up to twenty feet. Or the distance from heaven to earth. The wasps crawl out of their nests like junkies after a bust, then tumble to earth to twitch briefly and die. Maybe I don’t have to tell you, but I enjoy blasting wasp spray across the driveway into the eaves of the garage, safe in the killing.
Life is an ant trap. Safe in the killing.
Cheap crinkly water bottle swimming in it.
ORTHO. RAID. ROUNDUP. HOME DEFENSE. REAL KILL. DIAZINON. DEET. CUTTER. COMBAT MAX with Accushot sprayer. CAPTAIN JACK’S DEADBUG BREW. HOT SHOT with Egg Kill! BUG STO(M)P.
Her parents sent out bounty hunters to find a minister to do the service. Where’s Elvis when you need him?
Del, sympathetic on the phone, wasn’t coming all the way from Houston. She was living with Tom, a friend of both of ours from way back— high school, maybe further. Tom helped her move her stuff out of the house then took her down to Houston to start over. With my kids. What a pal, Tom. They knew Clare from their bowling league. In Detroit, everybody bowls. Church groups, methadone clinics, ice cream salesmen.
Life is full of fallback positions, but we need to get through the first thirty years or so before we have enough of them lined up behind us. Like that fun game where you fall backward and trust someone to catch you. You need a bunch of people back there to increase the odds of somebody stepping up. Some of them are just going to let you fall. Who let Clare fall, finally? Or, who did Clare feel she could finally trust to let herself fall? She was sending out her SOS texts, and I was killing ants on the porch, afraid to step across the street again.
Yes, I let her fall—I’m on the list. I thought she was going to tie her shoe then get up again. I blame it on the naivety pills the doctor has me on. I blame it on me, but that’s our little secret. I have an emergency appointment scheduled after the funeral with the pill doctor.
I need to go to prove to myself that I did not abandon her. That she abandoned me, then circled back, thinking I’d still be there. But then I had kids to take to ant movies and then superhero movies and then teen rom-com movies. Somebody has to buy the popcorn, which reminds me:
Ice it. Ice it or heat it, the eternal debate. Obviously, I made the wrong choice.
The science behind RICE had never been tested. Everybody just likes the mnemonic device. Hell, it took me forever just to learn how to spell mnemonic. Just how many words have an m and n together at the beginning like that?
If ants had dog tags, this battlefield would sparkle with their deaths. Tiny pieces of Safe-T-Glass around their necks.
The brief pleasure of numbness to calm the tissue. To begin healing.
Clare and I, we compressed ourselves together and for a brief time healed each other or distracted each other or sweat and slid against each other as if we could live forever without effort. Without lessly.
Lost in the weeds. I like getting lost in the weeds, hidden in greenery. By greenery. Surrounded by it, off the main road, the uncultivated and wild sprawl. The drugs were hidden there. Lotz of bugz in those weeds too.
I’d put myself in the vice in the first place. Vice—all those definitions squeezed together.
BUGZ LIFE VS. ANTS
I wanted to carry that Z with me everywhere, the simple joy of my kids holding my hands in the dark, but that was just another illusion/ mirage/shadow puppet of God.
I know I am repeating myself. At least I’m not in the bathtub anymore. Am I at the funeral yet? Did anyone eat my store-bought pie?
The funeral—no, I’m skipping it. It never happened or didn’t happen yet or is happening as I speak. She didn’t want a funeral. Her parents were extremely helpful with the annulment, if you know what I mean, so I wasn’t looking forward to seeing them see me, that roughly erased patch in their dead girl’s life.
What am I saying? They’re not going to care about me paying my respects. They’d taken my respects a long, long time ago. To hell with respects, I’d be thinking if I was them. I was thinking it myself. It was hollowing out my chest, even if I was partly grieving for myself. Maybe that’s what Robin knew in that bathroom. I wasn’t heaving my chest like that and stuttering grief for lost love. And not to show off, exaggerate the grief like in that funeral home whose floor was electrified with it. No, it was for me.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In a borrowed urn, they sit. It looks like Jesus was still hanging around until the end. I don’t know what kind of story she told him before she said her goodbyes. A crucifix—
The flies are crawling now, and the ants are flying. How did we end up here?
Once when Del and I were still married, we flew to France to renew our vows.
Don’t ever renew your vows. It’s almost as stupid as throwing a baggy full of speed in the car and driving to Las Vegas to get married.
Del and I did not get married by an Elvis Impersonator.
Once, a swarm of bees took up residence between the shutter and window in our garage. We called a beekeeper, who was glad to take them away so they could make honey for him. One person’s pest is another person’s…pest. Who can I call to take away the ant colony?
I keep thinking we should have found a way to live with the bees, who had no interest in us. I should have found a way.
Clare made a death play list, and it was not the sound of bees buzzing.
I might put bees on mine if I leave the world behind on my own terms like she did. I can’t say I won’t. But I want to say it.
I don’t know what’s on her playlist. Sam heard about it from her parents. They trust Sam.
Music has its limitations, though I have been a fan of Wishful Thinking. I have all their albums. I like the warped vinyl of my youth the best. I like when it skips, when it goes back, then forward again.
Sam and his current partner Jan made Coma Playlists, imagining what songs might bring them out of one. They are co-presidents of the Wishful Thinking fan club. Jan admits to sleeping with their lead singer back in her wild days.
In France, the designated driver is named Sam. Del and I had some good meals there before we came home and got divorced. Sam I Am until the end of my days.
Ants tremble in their death throes. Are there any other kind of throes?
I used to be able to catch flies in my hands. Also, a wasp stung me when I opened the empty mailbox when we got home from France. When you leave, there’s always someone else moving in. Nature abhors a vacuum, Aristotle supposedly said, and that was before the invention of vacuum cleaners. Before the abandonment of the word abhors.
I miss the beehive. The sweet dripping buzz.
Ant traps, roach motels, mosquito condos, pigeon high-rises of death. Human fireball death traps. Oh, to go out like a human fireball. Without the pain, I mean. Is life a beehive or ant trap? Do we “check in but never check out” like the commercials say?
I took the wrought iron chair. Clare took a poster of a cat saying Hang in There. The chairs come in pairs. I stole one and left the other one.
Don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill or a pile of beans out of an ant hill.
Love didn’t matter so much anymore. Sadly, I’ve settled. No more crazy Z’s for me.
Since I have nothing to ignore now that Clare has died, I worry about falling flat on my face. I’ll never lean back and wait to be caught. I should stop killing ants. The ants should be smart enough to ignore me. The great outdoors awaits them. All theirs. I concede. The bathtub awaits.
Now, they say swelling up is good. The hawk disappeared into the trees. The extreme heat is killing pine trees. A borer is killing palm trees. Another bug is killing grape vines. It’s still mostly green out there, and I’ll take mostly green.
I twisted my ankle dancing on the head of a pin.
Which brings us to ELEVATE
RICE. Or do I have it mixed up, and it’s really ERIC?
An empty porch chair overly wrought on the porch, surrounded by dead ants curled into specks of mourning. I am the one twitching.
Keep it higher than your heart, they say.
The turning season mutes the colors of summer,
upper rooms appeased by winds that shrug oaks
and alders into autumn. They surge, dip, and rise
over grain bins in Fairfield, dust
the lip of a farmer’s coffee cup, quickening
as if they’ve traveled all year to find him
watching fields, flanked by the snare of briars,
filled with the amber flame of wheat he will harvest late.
Deadfall whirls through his unlocked gate,
its corrosive blooms of rust. Wind draws
from his kitchen window the musty lilt
of late summer wildflowers too long in water.
Tonight, the moon will fracture on his icy windows,
its light a trackless footpath erased by early snow
lived in a town where every other church was named
for Washington Irving. The Rockefellers claimed most
trees & hills. It just goes to show how generous the
ego can be. & all these statues of men. Whatever they
stood for. Whatever they took. We speak of the wisdom
of crowds, & it was a crowd that brought down Jefferson
Davis in the great Commonwealth of Virginia. A crowd
beheaded Christopher Columbus in the city of Boston,
where he became, at last, shoulders above the rest. Over
in Bristol, it was stone Coulson that was toppled. A guy
who grew rich shipping slaves. It’s like a virus, flashbang
fever, a rage of rage. & who cries for these losses? I have
never cared much for figures of figures. Much less,
racists. A world without effigies sounds finer to me.
But not all metal icons are past expiration. Like the big
bronze arm of Joe Louis I looked up to, that first call
to jury duty. Like the Big Green Bitch. That’s what the
National Parks guard called America’s torchbearer, two
beers into a cookout one warm summer day. Maybe we
leave the weeping mothers of God alone, the laughing
Buddhas, the nymphs, & how about the marble smooth
thighs & rock-solid glutes of the ancient troublemakers?
Kids need to learn their anatomy somewhere. & all that
work. All those artists. Maybe we keep the sculpted horses.
Reassess riders. Place the graven images on some island with
guided walking paths. Charge a fee for the ferry to pay the
pilot & the person who runs the slushy machine. Stand pilings at the
shore so some statues seem to walk on water. Let the docent explain.
Things look different tonight. I was expecting
a midwestern apocalypse. The smell of oil rags.
Corn stalks peeled back to black. Roving militia.
Instead, there’s a bitter orange sun, in retreat,
a ring of wildfires in the hills, and the big bay,
an eyeless monster emerging from smoke, sodden
tongue lapping ashy sands, a thing come to drown us
with the very thing the western sky needs.
I am so tired of low-grade worry. Of knowing
there’s an upside to parents’ being dead. To having
no grandkids. And what a thing to feel. The getaway
car is filled with photos, spectrum of ghosts,
black and white and color, fading into psalm.
Saying so, a talisman.
The counter, lined with Clorox wipes, hand sanitizers.
I am so like a pharmacy now, thanks to the virus.
There’s no fill-in-the-blanks worksheet for this
existential test. Just checklists—keys, wallet, ID,
charged cell phone—Alan Shepard took a six-iron
to the moon. Rusty Schweickart slipped quotations,
on onion-skin paper, inside his spacesuit, in case
they found the body—For in the long run those who
change history are not those who supply a new set
of answers, says one—flashlight, battery-powered
courage, water bottles, a change of heart—but those
who allow a new set of questions.
I have to ask myself, What’s irreplaceable?
And it seems to be all too much or nothing at all.
Just look at all the piles of papers and books
and baskets, the floor dust on the cheap laminated
planks, like another planet with seed creatures
and rivulets of hair in high relief.
And that’s the way it is with toads,
Untrustworthy, thick-skinned, lying
In the enjoyment of mud, ready at
The drop of a hat or some other act
Of negligence or indiscretion to tell
A story just so slant that everyone
Will believe it by the way it deflects
The truth with a measure of fact.
Take, for instance, the way a toad
Will loudly croak as the sun sets,
As if the fading light is evidence
Of the permanent growth of darkness.
When all the while every toad knows
The sun is nothing if not inexorable.
What would you like to be when you grow up
was always the question I was being asked
by those who had already grown up, parents, say,
my teachers, the little league baseball coach.
Once after I had made the fatal error that let
the winning run score against us, I sat
on the bench in tears, looking out on the field,
now empty, and to help me to set my sorrow
aside the coach sat down and said don’t
worry about it. What do you want to be
when you grow up? And I never understood
how that would help me, and I was confused
by the question, its timing, the probity
with which he asked it. I think it was the word,
the emphasis on be, as in to be something,
or not to be, as opposed to the implied word,
the understandable word do. What would
you like to do I might have understood,
for certainly I would have wanted to do,
or not to do, rather, the thing that I had done,
throw the ball, that is, over the outstretched
arm of the first baseman allowing the run
to score, losing the game in extra innings.
See, I have always been one to live in
the present moment. But to be? In the future?
It was like asking me to say the difference
between a raven and a crow. Too subtle
for my tender mind at the time, I must confess.
But as I sit here these many years on, I’m asking
what do I want to be or not to be, or, as Hamlet
would ask, do I want to be at all? What am I,
for the phrase I am is hustling round
the infield of my mind. What do I do with words
that flow like sugar through the sieve
that topped the slice of lemon cake my mother
cut for me after the game to sweeten
my bittering heart. What do I do with all of them?
Not being is of course out of the question.
Children and sky, the innocence
of a new spring was felt each round of the planet’s sun-turn
in every blade of grass, in every cloud,
in each song of the sparrow,
humblest of birds, or the nightingale,
that prince of twilight song
whose music wings to heaven
like the pure ringing of bells. This is
the dream of a past girlhood spent climbing trees
in an unknown orchard, eating the pear whose juices
sprang from the seeds of Eden’s fruited bowers.
Now we wander on this misbegotten earth,
a planet of swollen seas and melting ice,
of vanishing tundras and beaches,
of wildfires and seaquakes unknown to our grandmothers,
of fish imbued with plastic and poisons,
and of all the disappearing reefs of blazing coral.
Our songs are the whispers of lost gardens,
of forgotten flowers, the hum of remembered bees
in the mouths of cupped flowers, the honeyed past
of buds and blooms extinguished by carbon’s massive waste.
There is no time
to watch the seas succumb, to mourn our lost youth
in the shadows of an earth
that once was held in the palms
of our outstretched hands. Listen
to the children. Heed
the sky’s vast warning.
Hey, look: I was a Boy Scout in Jersey City
in the ‘50s, so wherever I find myself now
I always remember to look around and wonder,
“What is there here that will be a good weapon
when things go off the rails again?” And also,
“Where is the closest unlocked exit?”
Then I test that door, just to reassure myself,
so I can stop worrying, chill, relax a little.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”