Closing Penguin

December 5, 2013

There was a night–maybe three years ago–when I had the Penguin Encounter all to myself.  This is a nice way of saying I had to work the closing shift: not always the preferred shift, as it takes you away from the dinner hour and bedtime story-time with the kids.  Closing lends its particular anxiety, too, in that—once the final lock is locked—you essentially sign your name on some invisible contract declaring that the keep is safe, the animals are healthy, and that you’re free to go home where—once in bed—you’ll proceed to worry into the night whether or not you did everything you were supposed to do or if maybe there’s a penguin, mid-Encounter, wondering when exactly his p.m. fish is going to arrive.  Are there eggs, also, left un-turned in the incubator and–for that matter–is the incubator door even latched?  Zookeeping can be stressful.   

This particular night, I was fairly new—new in the sense that, after ten years in the Bird Department—I was only recently returned to the Penguin Encounter.  For six years, I had worked with different manners of feathered things.  Flamingos, pelicans, and waterfowl: half the Audubon Guide.  But the Penguin Encounter was where I started my aviculture career, and where I was again this particular evening, tromping around in the snow else busying myself in the downstairs work areas, readying evening diets.  Outside the building, I had the Department grill dragged out of storage and perhaps illicitly lit (I wasn’t sure if I was breaking rules by barbecuing in the after-hours); home, however, is actualized by the act of cooking things and—seeing as Penguin was fast becoming by new home—it made sense somehow that, in between running mechanical checks of the building’s life support systems and washing herring buckets, I was also flipping a steak and rolling some asparagus on the grill for dinner. 

There was a chick in the nursery, a really important one.  This is why I was here—not just this particular night—but also in general.  Suddenly I was at the Penguin Encounter when the week before I had been casting feed to the moppish and salmon-colored flock of flamingoes.  There had been personnel changes and promotions, a sudden vacuum of seniority with regard to penguin care, and I was asked—‘make a decision quick’—would I like to return to the Encounter to help raise an Emperor Penguin chick?  This is the kind of question that reminds you: work is not always pinstriped and tailored, nor a matter of cubicles and TPS reports.   Sometimes business casual requires neoprene boots, un-heeled, and lateral moves at work sometimes just mean there’s a different manner of beak to feed come Monday.

I said, ‘yes.’  In kindergarten show and tell, after all, I had held up a picture of SeaWorld’s first Emperor hatchling.  I exclaimed in huffed five-year old fashion: ‘This is my favorite animal.’

The way life works—after forgetting you wanted to be a policeman, a paleontologist, an illustrator and a professor—you sometimes return unexpectedly to your favorite things from before you were big.  In which case, for me, there was the fact of penguins.  I got a penguin job in ’99, this after walking through the Encounter’s portal of a freezer door one year prior.  I was a SeaWorld tour guide, and learning the in’s an out’s of the exhibit for presentation purposes.  I was bit in a fairly testy fashion by Lisa, a King Penguin (there’s photographic proof even), and then—draped in a rough-shod parka, but still freezing despite it—came the accelerated-heart-beat realization that this should rather be my office were the chance offered.  Cold air played over the snow, air handlers thrumming their particular white noise, and Lisa had decided my glove was something specific she disagreed with.  Macaronis hopped about in comedic fashion, orange feet making particular scrunching sounds in the snow, and I was sold.  Absolutely and incontrovertibly sold.

Fate doesn’t always take solid form to bite you, let alone by manner of grumpy penguin, but I got bit hard enough to have my life’s path change.  A year later, I had the job and was donning the parka on the regular.  Lisa was my keep, and—in a particular change of heart—she would station herself alongside my bucket while I passed out fish to the fray.  Deciding I was ok, she’d snark at every other keeper that came close, offering needling pokes that said, basically, ‘Stay away: my keeper.’

Penguins have their loyalties, as we do to them.

But back to that particular day, three years ago: I sat on the Penguin kitchen counter, near seven o’ clock, spearing asparagus.  I had on my red jacket and was near incredulous that I was there, by myself. The nursery glowed red, too—like my jacket—and the Emperor chick resided inside warmed by heat lamps.  My boots dripped fast-melting snow and I was staring at a poster of Antarctica I had used earlier to educate a tour about the South Pole–you can’t teach people penguins without teaching about Antarctica—and the thought in my head was, very importantly: “I’m entrusted with this.”  375 penguins upstairs in the Encounter and that was my responsibility.  Also the Emperor kid, downstairs and in the nursery, and everything she meant at that moment.

Having cast my dishes into the sink and having washed my hands, I shouted my good nights to the penguins from the exhibit entryway.  I pulled the door shut and made my way to the nursery.

An Emperor chick, mind you, is the most adorable of babies: a black and white head beaded with widened eyes and a polite beak.  When young, the flippers are insignificant, the belly taut and something stuffie-like, replete with a seam that runs down to the over-sized feet. This day: I said my hellos to the chick (I would be here for five more hours making sure she was ok) and, because it was still the seven o’ clock hour, I took out my phone.  The baby’s food was warm, drawn up in a syringe, and while I scratched the chick’s back, awakening her into a sudden trilling of open-beaked entreaties, I got my kid—three years old—on the phone. 

“Can I say good-night to the penguin?” my son asked.

The chick whistled its five distinct notes which, happily, my son heard because I had set the phone down on the chick’s towels for a second; the chick was taking sup from the syringe and, when not occasionally shaking her head and exaggeratedly swallowing, the chick would whistle again and my kid would laugh, a crystalline thing I could hear from my phone set among towels in this Penguin Encounter, this new and otherwise entrusting home.         

American Trees

November 28, 2013

Cayde is running soccer scrimmage in the front yard, somewhat imaginatively, because Daddy is unavailable while re-potting plants on the front porch.  Cayde plays against himself, personing two teams at once: the Cayde Team vs. the Gray Moles.  Surprisingly, the Gray Moles tend to score more goals and—endall—they take away the trophy.  I find this charitable on Cayde’s part—imaginary friends don’t often get the win.

I’m wrist-deep in soil and transplanting sedges and ornamentals.  Plants colored silver, lime, and merlot (that’s what the tabs say at least) make a sudden and complimentary pretty; meanwhile, Cayde’s phosphorescent soccer ball hopscotches off the sycamore tree, pinballing scattershot over surfaced roots, before escaping the lawn’s terracing and out into the street.  The ball rolls determinedly and Cayde watches from the shade of the sycamore.

“Dad-deee!” 

Cayden is his own petit anarchie, but sometimes he abides by rules.  In this case: we don’t run into the street to retrieve soccer balls.  We rattle Daddy’s eardrums instead until Daddy resignedly puts down the potted germander and trots himself out onto the asphalt to collect the ball, wedged usually as it is beneath the tire of a dilapidated Corolla.

 This time, the ball stops against the opposite curb and–before I can wipe my hands off on the thighs of my jeans and jog down the stairs—a bicyclist rounds the corner and slow-spokes a halt in front the wayward soccer ball.

 The cyclist is matted—dirty even—and, this being North Park, one has to gauge whether or not the bicyclist, with his Pigpen aesthetic, is either fashioning an ideological choice or else showcasing some new irony.  I suppose he could just be dirty.  That’s possible.

The cyclist clicks to a halt in front of the soccer ball, and tripods awkwardly to palm it, bicycle tipped on the diagonal.

He throws the ball back to me.  “Thanks, Man,” I say.  He flashes a smile, yellow.  His beard is very much like the germander I’ve just potted in that it is twisted in knotted tendrils.

“You’ve got a good boy,” he replies.  “Stopping short of the curb like that. Figured you didn’t want him crossing the street.”  I agree out loud.  I like this guy. 

He rights himself and finds footing again on his pedals.  “That’s a beautiful tree, there,” he says in exeunt, pointing to the sycamore that is landmark in front of our house. 

“Isn’t it?”  I wave good-bye and flip the ball to Cayden.  Maybe the Gray Moles will score another goal.

The sycamore in front of our house is certainly a hundred years old. The house is, at least: a 1910 construction with original glass.  Glass that has—over time—shimmied down the panes in slo-liquid form.  The bottoms of the windows remain thicker than the tops and light eddies into the house unevenly.

(Glass is in fact a liquid: you can only know this after an amount of time has passed.  After a hundred years, a champagne flute will not be as pretty).

I guess the sycamore is as old as the windows.  The trunk is solid with edified scars and green offshoots. There are fungal growths, which—arrogantly—pretend threaten the tree before desiccating into mere scabs; the tree is resistant and it grows despite everything.  Currently, it’s a goal post: Cayde creates a soccer pitch out of the front lawn and the tree is kinduv in the way.  It can only be useful as a makeshift marker: “if you kick the ball past the tree, then you score a point.”

The sycamore has been injured by a number of arborists over a hundred years.  It is twisted and has grown back against itself.  Bruises from soccer balls are insignificant.  Cayde cuts it often with cleated feet.

Japanese horticulturists have a particular and damning critique of trees grown in the States.  “That’s an American tree” they sigh resignedly, in reference to centurion sycamores like the one that grows in my front yard.  Classic Japanese horticulturists meditate before cutting, measuring how auxins will inform new growth, and how tree branches might react in response to their particular surgeries. Japanese trees are perfectly formed; American trees, meanwhile, are wild and ill-grown.   This is something ideological, sure.

 Still: the bicyclist takes off down the street, and—even if confused—the sycamore stands beautiful and remains something of remark. 

My kid kicks the ball out-of-bounds again.  Onto pristine asphalt, flat and without fault.      

 

     

 

 

 

 

Exchanging ephemera

November 18, 2013

The porch is brimming with sundry and yet un-potted plants: crimson-tinged sedges; black fringe-flower trees; and silver germanders coiled about themselves, their insignificant purple blossoms play-acting as bees in a hive of branches.

 I ‘bought’ these plants, which—immediately—is a mis-speak.  In actuality: I earned a $500 gift card to Lowe’s for good service at work.  The card was magnetized in such a fashion that suddenly I had purchasing power to the tune of half a K.  With the heavy clunk of Mexican pottery and galvanized tools on the check-out counter—(there also being a random lamp, some picture frames, coils of hose and a gallon of peanut oil for frying)—you would think concrete exchange was necessary, the act of buying not an ‘act’ perse, but rather an action.  Something akin to opening a billfold and presenting splendor-monies, or else negotiating a trade: “I’ll trade you this hydrangea for a shoeshine.  I’ll bake you a cake, as well.  Chocolate, maybe.”  But no.

 I secured my bounty at Check-Out #2, personed by a girl most likely three calendar-days post-highschool: a Breeanna with a tricky spelling I can’t exactly reproduce, someone who just happened to have the same Alvy Singer glasses as me.  I suggest something abstract: ‘Can I buy gift-cards with a gift-card?’ I raise an eyebrow, even. (Amazon cards would be much more useful to me).  I’m almost conspiratorial because the ludicrousness of meta-finance is suddenly a game to me and, even as I’m half-hidden behind a row of yet-to-be paid for bulrushes, the girl decides ‘no’ in tenet with store policy; I’m instantly disappointed in her tattoo which figuratively drips anarchic blood just south of her short sleeve.

 ‘Alright, then.  I’ll just get the plants.’  Kids these days.

 A week later, and my wife and I are in a tax preparer’s office with sheafs of paper, documents heiroglyphed with numbers and red lines; we’re trying to make sense of an audit that threatens us with 2K worth of penalty for mistakes made on ‘09 documents.  We’re just shy of the statute of limitations.

 (On the drive to the tax advisor’s office, a story surfaces on NPR: hacktavist Jeremy Hammond is sentenced to ten years by a federal court.  He is guilty for exposing informations on tax malfeasance and corporate misconduct—information he discovered illegally, sure—but information that discredits Dow and Coca-Cola as parties morally dubious in a world clogged and conundrummed with ephemeral information, numbers and meta-numbers, dupes and duplicity).

 I sit in a chair in the tax-advisor’s office, most likely slouched, because all the mistakes on the ’09 documents are in my handwriting (my fault basically) and I look around the room embarrassed —and when I’m not locking eyes with the nineteen year-old office cat—I’m remarking the décor which is essentially Coca-Cola keepsakes on display, red and white, emblematic but kitsch.  The taxman remarks a number of mistakes on our tax forms and in his repetition of my failed math and in the constant flash of his professionally-veiled smirk, I think: ‘Do taxmen at parties say: this one client of mine—he actually came up with a negative on line 37!!’ 

 ‘Kids these days!’ <clinking of glasses, and hearty laughter>

 There is a backwards logarithm that the advisor–smart and clean and handsome,–utilizes when comparing my numbers to the ones forwarded by the IRS auditors.  He sits in-between two oversized monitors and there is the at once soothing but discomfiting clack of a counting machine.  He raises an eyebrow at one of my mistakes, and then finds one made by the IRS.

 Fed, State, me and my fuck-ups: it’s a volley of numbers and as the mosaic of tax forms becomes more and more complicated, the taxman actually minimizes the complication to a single mail-out form which godspeed, shall find its way to the tax-advisory board, post-haste and certified. The exercise seems less handiwork on the taxman’s part, than a graduated and polished rote.  He is good. 

 We stand to leave and—still—I’m finding new and interesting Coca-Cola things to look at.  (Hammond, jailed, crosses my mind briefly).  Between monitors, audits, and facsimiles, I remain confounded: we’ve exchanged ephemera today, illusory numbers, and I’m insecure knowing that the Treasury creates money from thin air, in unremarkable rooms littered with Snickers wrappers, digital alchemy done with a touch of a button.  It’s all confusing and rather cirrus in nature.   

Meanwhile, the plants sit on the porch concretely and in need of water.  They busy themselves making rather something out of nothing.  The fringe-flower has already taken to blossom, even.

It’s 2 p.m. and despite the glut of one extra hour come Daylight Savings Time, Finn’s eyes are purpled and mine most likely, too. Having finished a bottle–an emergency bottle, because Finn would have nothing to do with his breakfast of chicken and peas–Finn is relatively content and we sink into the orange leather chair together, a kinetic sighing of sorts;  it’s been a long morning–long weekend actually, (weekend also meaning week-beginning because there’s no rest here as we just keep on going, prepping at day’s end for the next one, ad infinitum)–and I play ‘boop’ on Finn’s button nose.  Finn laughs at this game which is simply a game of wearied dad just pressing a tired finger to his son’s available nose; he laughs and I’m smiling for the first time today.  Here at 2 p.m. it seems a very long time from having first been caffeinated or otherwise coherent and here, at 2 p.m.– and were this work–I’d have to punch out on the time-clock, then punch right back in again because the second shift is suddenly and conspicuously now.  There’s soccer practice for Cayde come 4:30 and as much as  I congratulate myself on Finn being especially cute today in his grey cardigan and with neatly combed hair; (there also the fact of homemade baby-food in the fridge and a lentil cake cooling on the range-top); I will be dropping Finn off with Mama soon and ferrying Cayde to Morley Field where it’ll be soccer practice beneath lights, something I don’t think either Coach John or I thought about with the time change and all; soccer practice suddenly nighttime with the lights buzzing on and swaths of moths illuminated in halogenic purple, the sun setting real purple opposite our particular stretch of grass, orange cones deposited in a square, practice-practice, and Cayden just asking at the end of it all: “Did I do good, Daddy?”  On all accounts, yes.

Me and Finn–we hit up the neighborhood markets today.  We always wagon and Jami down at Ripe told me I should write a cookbook.  (I didn’t tell her, but she had a fleck of parsley in her hair).  I was flattered, but: when is there time.  This was midway into Shift 1 and already there was too much to do.  Coming home from soccer practice, in which case Shift 2 was damn near lunch break–and when I was realizing I hadn’t eaten since yesterday, yesterday when Jenn and I split that sandwich and I remarked something about ‘too much mustard’–there was still a chicken to roast, kids to bathe, kids to put to bed.  There’s a text on my phone: I’m flying to Las Vegas next week for work–which is nice, on one hand, because hotel rooms are square and empty and agreeable to me–but I’m nervous because I’m suddenly the senior-most keeper at my job and were there a way to alleviate some responsibility I might say ‘yes’ but most likely ‘no’ and just:  well, just.

I am busy, this is me.   

The wagon is currently parked and Cayden and Finn are in bed.  Jenn had the right idea: she went to hot yoga tonight.  I take a minute to step outside and water a fledgling lime tree I planted a coupla weeks ago.  It hasn’t grown much and–being overly proud of my own productivity–I veritably sneer at this lime tree’s lack of effort.  There are some newly sprouted branches–nothing much–but, in watering it’s roots, I very quietly say: ‘Uncle.”   

 

 

Reagan

November 4, 2013

We’ve kicked the ball over the fence.  Well, Cayde has actually, in a spirited game of backyard soccer.  We’re at my brother-in-law’s house and the Chargers game is on in the vague background.  We do a spirited march next door–me and Cayde and my niece, Bailey–in hopes of retrieving the wayward ball.  The doorbell is answered only by the yapping of a small dog, most likely something ridiculous, but we can’t see past the pebbled glass entryway to know.  

A single-prop plane passes overhead and we look up instinctively.  “No luck, kiddos.”  A dance back across the grass and I stoop to pluck a dandelion.  Bailey’s beaten me to it–she has two in hand–and Cayde follows suit.

“What are you gonna wish for?”  At first Bailey protests because telling would mean risking the wish.  Spit on your palm when you see a hay-bale-truck, wish on the falling star, close your eyes and blow out the birthday candle–just never tell.

But she changes her mind. “I want a Barbie play-set,” she announces matter-of-factly.  And she looks really cute in her dress-up dress–a velvet thing–with two dandelions in her hand.  Cayde chimes in: “I want the Pegasus Bey-Blade.”  The Bey-Blade: it’s a newfangled toy with a cartoon to match.

“Nooo,” I say, “C’mon–wish for something better.”  And Bailey thinks and finally responds by saying she wants a first-place medal in her next feis–an Irish-dancing competition.  She’s an earnest dancer and medalling is important.  Cayde says: “I want to be the best student ever and get awards at every assembly.”

The plane lands somewhere behind us and both Bailey and Cayden *pfoof* at their dandelions; I’m strangely relieved when the heads remain intact and only a few dandelion fuzzies float over the grass, wishes speeding ground-wards.  These are suddenly tall orders and the wishes, they weigh both heavy and light in the grass, little fuzzy pollen-somethings.

I’m talking to my friend, Ryan, later.  A good way to end a Sunday: with the light going down correctly, and a phone cradled to my shoulder while walking up and down the driveway.  Mid-conversation, I get a text and I check it while just talking.  And it’s an important text because it involves someone dying.  But–in this moment–I just close the phone and let it blink back into darkness somewhere in my pocket. I refuse a sob or even a hiccup; I keep talking.

 

I hadn’t spoken to Ryan in a while.  There were wishes already heavy in the grass, most likely soddened by sprinklers at this point, and my friend on the other end of the wire and a light that was nice.  But there was also someone–in that same moment–steadying a thumb to text the words: ‘Reagan died comfortably and peacefully this morning..”

In which case, you have to note something, something of the moment to acknowledge that the universe just happened, quite unfairly, and what is there? but a dumb sunset and the notion that wishing for a ‘Barbie playset’ was just really very much ok. 

Love Letter.

September 23, 2013

The car and all of us in it reside presently at red and, insofar as the cars ahead of us don’t creep impatiently forwards, there is the accidental view we have of the alleyways to the right of us, perfectly aligned, so that we see the backs of apartment tenements for blocks and blocks; sidewalk lines meter away and toward a horizon point, to, in fact, a cross street where the horizon is interrupted by a passing of cars, blue and grey. The alleyway is empty save for the new autumn light, which is suddenly and alchemically gold.  The light: it fills everything.

 

A sign warns:   ‘Danger.  Overhead power lines.’  These lines spool perpendicular to the alleyway, downward even towards some ground-level posts (hence the warning sign) in an act of triangulation. I am reminded of driving home—years ago—when I’d tip my car over the steep grade that was Polk Avenue’s biggest hill and watch as power-lines went from an eye-level perspective to something overhead.

 

We lived on Florida Street then, in a small space—we, it seems, have always been loyal to small spaces—and it was a street trafficked by few save for an erstwhile man we dubbed ‘the Florida St. Boo Radley.’  He was this short stocky figure with an incomplete face, incomplete in that his nose met his brow without any suggestion of curvature.  His mouth was a small slit, and his chin jutted determinedly forwards, square and blunted.  He was always walking.

 

Florida Street had its resident pigeons, too.  Among the tracery of power lines, they’d explode upwards in some scattershot orchestra, clumsy in trajectory but always returning to coda—in perfect alignment—on one of the many cables gridding the neighborhood.  There was one brown pigeon in the flock, unremarkable until autumn would arrive with its low-arcing light in tow.  Suddenly, come September, the khaki-colored pigeon would be something luminant, what with the southerly sun glinting remarkably off his white underwings.

 

Jenny and I moved into our Florida St. digs a few months after playing house in a South Park bungalow.  The South Park housesitting gig was our first shot at residing under one roof (albeit shared with my dearest college friend Krista).  We were inexpert at the whole co-habitation thing—those matters of grocery tabs and dinners of amateurly-prepared gnocchi, elastic and glopped with store-bought alfredo sauce—but the days were almost saccharine in their sweetness.  This was a wood-panelled house–not just floors but walls too–with a piano in the corner, window nooks and an impressive armory of books displayed behind Mission style cases with leaded-glass panels.  A wicker basket in the front room was a bounty of cassettes: mix tapes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. We would play these in the evening and I would try my damndest to annotate my way through a book on ‘Modernism.’ This was surely the ticket to grad-school—knowing all the –isms, that is, my other reader being something Foucault—and Krista would occasion the piano or else make pasta with margarita salt.  She had a penchant for salt.  I think I gave up on ‘Modernism’ somewheres just past Eliot, but spent some evenings with Jenn writing to her from across the table—her idea—to write love letters to one another in each other’s presence.

 

There was the porch; my absolutely ridiculous ensemble of long shorts, a terried Johnny-collar shirt; Doc Martens and a guitar.  I had a habit of writing bad songs played expertly.  When there’s a porch to strum on and it’s nighttime and the crickets are otherwise playing to empty theaters, anything sounds good. 

 

This borrowed house was borrowed from people I never met.  They were Krista’s friends, an artist and his wife.  The wife was from Belgrade and, reportedly she had sad eyes and a sighing need to return home.  In the time Jenny and I house-sat, said couple was in Yugoslavia (back when it was called that), working things out as it were, while Jenny and I slept comfortably in their bed.  This is all strange in retrospect, and I can—after the fact—consider myself somewhat of an intruder.  But a welcome one, I suppose, if there can be such a thing.  Krista, who had a habit of spoon-feeding the romance Jenn and I were fostering, remarked often (and witchily) that she felt an aura emanating from our temporary bed, the one abandoned by the artist and his wife.  The bed: it was set-up in a Spartan room, white, with a clumsy TV/VCR tower that we utilized to play ‘Henry and June’ on repeat; the window was uncurtained.  It was up high, though, and, as summer waned, it transferred the light perfectly.

 

The artist’s wife—she never came back.

 

Before moving to Florida St., there was September, and Jenn and I had copies of keys from our house-sitting adventure.  We were kids.  We had started looking for apartments and keys of our own.  Our ritual, already established, was visiting the cliffs above Torrey Pines right about the time the light changes and the air suggests crispness.  The chaparral grows high there in the fall.  There are grasses you can weave a hand through while walking a moonlit path toward the ocean.  It’s a pathway routined by college kids from the University across the street, kids outfitted with makeshift bedrolls who nod at you in passing, knowingly, because at the end of the dirt road is the ocean, far and below sandstone cliffs where mattresses are improvised on the regular and where there is the white noise of waves hitting the shore.  Things are whispered there, both in naivete and earnestness—sometimes one in the same—and the air is sticky and full with buckwheat, with sex and with salt.

 

Jenn and I took our keys to the cliff, keys to a house that wasn’t ours anyway, and threw them down the precipice. It was our homage to a summer passed and, as the keys made their particular tintinnation down the cliffside—tink-tink-tink—there was promise to find a home that wasn’t exactly borrowed.  

 

We located an apartment on Florida and, as Krista would laugh, it was just north of the F. Street adult bookstore. But it was a good start, or perhaps a second start, seeing as our beginning resides most certainly in that South Park bungalow.

 

The Boo Radley guy: I still see him walking in that determined way of his.  In odd places, too.  In Kearney Mesa where I hit up the Asian markets.  Down in Mission Beach along the boardwalk.  And most recently, and inexplicably, walking across the SeaWorld parking lot.  Just walking.  I don’t get it.

 

I don’t pretend to ‘get’ most anything, actually.  In those love letters Jenn and I wrote to each other back in the South Park abode, we didn’t touch on parenthood, or the fact that our lives could be complicated with syndromes, worry, or with misaligned chemicals.  We just wrote silly somethings, and looked forward to the fall–cardigan weather–and the changing of the light.

 

Now: the light turns green.  Moving forward into traffic, perspective shifts and the alleyways and power cables are no longer aligned.  Jenn mentions that ‘I’m quiet today.’  I tell her I’m ‘wandering around in my head’ to which she laughs.  This is where I usually am, actually, if not for the machinations of the day-to-day and the pressure of continuous performance, working with the hands in spite of the head.

 

This light—I always love it.  We love it.  Me and Jenny.  This light, it fills everything.     

 

 

 

     

 

   

 

 

 

     

Delaney.

September 1, 2013

My friend unceremoniously visited the ‘Toaster’ today–his word–dressed in insouciant finery: a Sonic Youth tee and faded pink denims.  I admire this idea of dressing down for an occasion, even when cremulators and fibered-brick are involved.  RSVP generally calls for black-tie, but flamingo-colored jeans certainly help lighten the mood. 

Dear Delaney:

It’s hot today.  My car broke down in near-one hundred degree weather.

 

Dear Thom:

It’s hotter where I am.

 

Delaney had a wicked sense of humor.  2000 degrees won’t erase that.  ‘Death’ becomes a strange noun at high temperature.  Delaney pronounced it ‘det’ and wrote it as such in notebooks.  ‘In Case of My Det’, he penned.  He made his wife say ‘die’ and ‘death’ out loud.  He figured Americans always anasepticize everything.  Especially things terminal.  ‘Get used to it,’ he said.

 

It’s perhaps funny:  Irishmen don’t pronounce ‘th.’ He made his wife say ‘death’ seeing as it was coming, but he got away with saying ‘det.’  Cheeky monkey.

 

Call it a record: three mornings running and Cayde and I haven’t had an argument.  Perhaps I’ve been inexorably changed through all of this.  Perhaps curbing my caffeine consumption while otherwise reducing sleep has improved my relationship with my child.  In which case, I need a block of cable-time and a catchy name for my new two-step program.

 

Then again, the program might not be very popular.  Step one, after all, involves your friend dying.

 

There’s probably an acronym for this, but ultimately CTFO is really stupid when you think about it.  It doesn’t spell anything and YOLO is frankly more popular and has a better press junket.

 

I’m driving the 94–it’s really hot out–and Im ferrying the boys to Lemon Grove, a grossly named suburb of an Diego.  One plasticized and absurdly large lemon exists as curiosity in the middle of Broadway.  A lemon statue.  There are no lemon groves in the registrable vicinity, proving again that city names are mere successors to things they replace.  Lemon grove is supposed to have the ‘most perfect climate’ in all of the combined states.  That’s Lemon Grove’s ‘claim to fame.’  But it doesn’t.  Climate change is real and the plastic lemon can most likely be thermographed at 100 degrees.  In which case, as my radiator issues steam upon parking 30 yards shy of the statued fruit, and as my car bleeds green and the radiator sends up its particular ghost, I’m left with two kids–one in a car seat–and eighty degrees worth of shade, spilt coolant, and a notion that this is far from where I’d choose to be.

 

Dear Delaney:

Hope you are well.

 

Dear Thom:

How is Finn?

 

Finn coos.  I’m seated against the brick outside of ‘Mario’s Family Clothing.’  I’ve picked up Cayde’s school uniforms and am waiting for the tow truck.  Parking was dramatic.  Having finally found a spot, I pulled into it.  Steam issued from beneath the hood as if on cue.  I pulled the emergency brake and the front of the car bellowed vapors.

 

I calmly closed my door, assessed the damage, and sighed.  Delaney had most certainly met the kiln by now and the sun blazed tremendous; houses sat upon razed hills just to the north of everything.  Cayden asked about SeaWorld.  I said, “Hold on, Cayde,” and walked the length of the car.  Finn sweatily slept.

 

Across the street was an adult bookstore and a business advertising both lumber and pergo.  I set myself down on the curb, watched the radiator fluid flow downhill.  “Pergo,” I said out loud, “Pergo pergo pergo.  Fucking pergo.”

 

Louder, I said: “Sorry, Cayde.  SeaWorld tomorrow.”  Of course he cried.

 

You can’t script this: a guy in a blue polo advertising his sobriety walked up.  He had a tub-full of pixie sicks and was busking for money.  Salvodorean by mention, acne-pocked, near toothless.  The car was still spitting fumes and he waved a hand, pushing aside the smoke.

 

“Dear, Brother”–(he closed his eyes)–“Don’t know if you believe in God (voice rising) but, Brother, let Jesus heal this car and may your children be out of the sun.” He waved his hand over the hood of the car and the steam dissipated for a second.

 

I thanked him and let Cayden have a pixie stick.  “Brother,” he added, “If there’s radiator fluid on the dipstick, then you’ve got a problem.  Head gasket.”  He raised his eyebrows as punctuation, pointed unnecessarily, and walked away.

 

Needless to say, I totally dug this guy, even though Cayde disliked the pixie stick.

 

So now we sit: me, Finn, and Cayde against the brick.  Cayde shifts position, sits on my lap.

 

“Let’s play 20 Questions,” Cayde suggests.

 

“Ok.”

 

I’m not in a bad mood.  This is suddenly important.  Finn claps without any cue.  Clap-clap.  My son’s face belongs to a diagnosis–there’s no getting around this–and he smiles something stereotypic but I rock his car seat, smile back, and meanwhile guess correctly: ‘beluga whale.”  Cayde says, “Yes!” Finn claps and laughs.  The tow truck shows up and twenty questions is suddenly done in less than seven.

 

A man walks by as I get up.  He points to Finn in an enthusiastic way–he’s a whistling, smiling kinduv guy, obviously–and says: “Number one reason for world peace right there!”  He may have even made a clicking sound as he pointed.  I wave a hand a smile as thanks; the asshole part of me wants to bring up Syria, but a whistling-smiling guy doesn’t deserve that and, although I’m not in a bad mood, I recognize that piece of me, that one unchecked coal which which hasn’t yet ashed to white but smolders instead on the constant.  I’m not in a bad mood, but part of me is angry and it’s hot; we’re in a Lemon Grove–a city I’ve always hated–and those houses atop the shaved-bald hill are repugnant.  Delaney is dead, I’m in a remarkably good mood, and Cayde reports that the radiator fluid has since seeped to the end of the parking lot.  I should be breaking down.  Instead my car has, by manner of proxy.

 

Fidel’s the tow-truck driver.  He’s small, Fillipino, and wears a sand-camo hat.  He assesses our situation and says, “Oh, wow, Boss–you got a ride, right?”  Jenn’s on her way.  I say, “No worries,” sign what I have to on a clipboard and let Fidel do his thing.  Cayde and I continue our game of 20 Questions while Finn continues being happy, irrevocably so; I guess ‘squirrel,’ ‘bean burrito,’ the color ‘green’ while Fidel chains my car’s wheels to the rig.

 

Cayden’s bouncy-happy.  The tow truck is exciting and he almost stumped his dad on ‘sperm whale.’  He skips around–he can never sit still–and he keeps flicking his head up and to the left.  He still thinks he has long hair though it’s since been cut and his bangs don’t fall anymore into his eyes.

 

“Daddy–” he jumps into my lap again, “–it’s really sad we can’t go to SeaWorld.”  He says this with protruded lip–certainly affected–and a sorry tone. I kiss him on his tousled hair because I know he’s faking it.  “‘Nother day, Monkey.”

 

We’re having a good day.  Fidel collects eight dollars from me for overage fees–it’s eight miles back to North Park and not Triple-A’s allotted seven–and he drives off.

 

With the heat and humidity, clouds form loomingly to the east.  A few nights ago, when I had the intuition that Delaney was on his way out but before I spent the next two nights trying to write a letter–that last letter–to him, feverishly hot and waking up to only a blinking cursor at 1 a.m., 3 a.m., and 5; me and Jenn and Cayde sat on the front porch a nighttime and watched faraway east horizons rumble magenta.  Cayde put arms round the both of us and pumped his legs as lightning illuminated the insides of clouds.  Cayde laughed.  I inventoried the weight and heat of Cayde’s hand on my shoulder, Jenn’s smiling presence, and the creeping salvia at my feet.  I remember those clouds perfectly, but also the sudden and exact realization I had at that moment:  I’m not ever going to meet Delaney.

 

Cayde points to the clouds today.  “That one looks like a ramp,” he says, “And you jump from that cloud to that one.  That one looks like an Imperial Star Destroyer, right Daddy?”

 

I say: “Yes.”

 

“And then you jump from that one to that one and it goes on forever.”  I hold Cayde in my lap.  Fidel has driven away, and once Jenn picks us up we’ll have ‘In n’ Out’.

 

It’s hot.  I’m not in a bad mood.

 

Dear Delaney…

 

Dear Delaney…

 

Dear.  Delaney. 

 

Easy

August 25, 2013

Today I enjoyed the rare occasion of having the morning to myself.

Well, this is not entirely true: I had Finn to take care of, if only for a short while before Jenn was to return home from a circuit of errands and visits.

Cayde was away at a friend’s place, his mere absence from the home enough to seemingly de-person the house by three. Quiet is a creature unknown to the parent of a five year old, much less a five-year old possessed of a precocious yin and yang. This is to say, Cayde embodies a big personality, alternately sweet and sour. The vinegar and honey we find so favorable in combination on the palate is sometimes less so when extended to matters of temperament.

So when Cayde is gone I miss him both terribly and fondly. Terribly because his amber sentiments and otherwise honeyed ways are suddenly absent. No blond hair decorates the rooms. The sweetness he engenders is lacking, as are the hugs and the spontaneous games he creates to pass the time. But if I miss him terribly, I also fondly miss him because—in that vacuum of time while he’s away—the acid parts of his behavior are also away and missing him becomes easy and sentimental.

One of my favorite song lyrics is: “I miss you when you’re around/ I’m never lonesome when I’m by myself.”

This morning it was Finn and me. And Finn is as much an easy complement to the a.m hour as a prolonged cup of coffee or a leisurely read of the dailies. Given a highchair session (in which at session’s end, Finn will list starboard in his seat and entreat ‘more more more’ with a clapping of hands) and an ecstatic jumpabout in his bouncie, Finn is predictably ready for a nap. Naptime is usually signaled by a series of yawns, some light fussing, and—upon being picked up—a burrowing into the shoulder.

Today was no different. Being hypotonic—having low muscle tone—Finn accordion-folded easily into my neck like a well-creased sheet of origami paper. It’s sometimes what people find precious about children with Down Syndrome: their low tone lends agreeability to a hug. There is no resistance, just complacency; and as we want things to be easy—always—this seems a gift. Finn is easy.

The refrigerator hummed monotone this morning once I put Finn down: a white noise and the only registerable sound in the house. Usually, there is music playing in the kitchen, but melody was on lockdown this particular a.m. Given to white noise—the thrumming of the fridge, the drawing of a bath—there was room to think and thoughts pulsed along with the chevron up and down of some quiet and background orchestra.
I remembered being a kid some years ago and listening to the vent of the heater come 6 a.m., snuggled in blankets and hearing a near chorale of voices ride in on the warmed air.

Because: white noise becomes many-colored when given an ear, and single tones spiral into a multitude of accidental tenors if given the concentration. There always exists a chorus in one steady note.

I used to lie in bed, my six-year old self, and stare at the popcorn ceiling. That old acoustic-applique–that Seventies’ thing–craterous and conducive to imaginary images suspended above the bed. Morning would sneak in through the sycamore leaves just outside the window and, while the heater persisted, senses would jump ship one deck to the other: a dip in the heater’s register became a spangle of color, the grey-tones of the ceiling would shift suddenly into something tenorous. And then—you probably used to do this, too—I’d press thumbs into my closed eyeballs until I saw colored spots. I’d open my eyes and there’d be chains of reds and blues obscuring parts of the ceiling, and the shadows of the sycamore leaves were suddenly multitudinous notes in the one-note drone of the heater. Until the heater shut off: then the spangles became ellipses and all would be quiet.

Thirty years later, the refrigerator and its thrumming white noise failed to make as splendorous a play. The sound was present, but not the grand sensorial show; the mechanical whir of the fridge attuned itself instead to the all-too-usual discomfiting pulse of caffeine; that and its bridesmaid, a steady dose of OCD, that something frenetic, which led me room to room buzzing impotently. The living room was askew. Disconcertingly so, as it was in the process of being redecorated. Bookshelves had lost their alignment and the new couch didn’t yet have its matching rug; the room was segueing warm to cool and with the room not having made up its mind just yet, I retreated. The porch plants needed attendance—the season was changing—and the side-yard begged attention. Aagh.

I checked on Finn. He was reliably asleep. With him being so easy, I should’ve been just as reliably productive. But instead, there was me simply being stuck. Warm light poured through recently un-curtained windows, the chaise lounge proved grey and noncommittally soothing. There was orange chair, old chair, and something purpurea just poking above the front window. I was poised and holding the kitchen counter in pretend support.

These minutes. These certained minutes. While Cayde is away and while Finn is asleep—it should be easy time for me. But currently I’m disliking ‘easy’: something in me recoils at the word, the concept even. Finn is often described, near categorized, as: ‘good’. Which, to me, seems—frankly–a lazy interpolation of ‘easy.’ Cayden is a good kid, too, but far from ‘easy.’

I held on to the kitchen counter unsure. Pausing. My vinegar child was away, my honey one slept. And I’m usually proud of my productivity. (It may figure into the same mental argument I have about ‘good’ vs. ‘easy’). But meanwhile: what to do, what to do. I was balking. Jenn already did the laundry.

Refrigerator thrumming, I pulled a knife off its magnetic strip, and set down a bamboo cutting board. My hands tend to shake when coffee’s involved. I found a forgotten grip of mushrooms in the produce bin, remembered there were shallots in the pantry. Something automatic took over, and there was the wiping of mushroom caps, a snap-click of the burner-ignition, olive oil and a fair amount of chopping. Two fires: one : stock and wine; the other: a methodical offering of ingredients. Creminis and garlic; thyme, shallots, and salt. Season with vinegar—chef’s secret. It’s so simple to me, so practiced.

I generally dislike simple. I dislike easy, even when it quells the shakes in my hands. I worried once that Finn’s demeanor—his agreeability—was flag to his diagnosis. Is his easiness a side effect of his syndrome? He has an extra chromosome: why does this complication, this duplication of genetic material result in something less problematic, less byzantine, than the normal expression of genes? Is he ironically easy? Somehow simple?

(I’m fairly arrogant sometimes. I wanted only smart kids).

Friends I’ve recently met, those who also parent children with Down Syndrome deny easiness. It’s not entirely unique to Finn, but it’s rare. He’s easy not because he’s good or simple or IQ-depressed or because his chromosomes have over-expressed themselves. It’s who he is. Completely opposite his Papa who is high-strung, compulsive, and one shade shy of Alvy Singer.

Finn: he slept this morning, then woke up watchful, happy. Voila: there was a perfect reduction on the stove-top. Finn—he clapped his hands and, with reddish locks curling his ears, signed ‘more, more’ not because—in his high-chair—he was actually celebrating anything I did while he slept. ‘More, more,’ he signed, because nothing while he slept actually mattered.

Instead: ‘more, more.’ As in: more Cayde (‘drudder’) and Mama and Dada. How simple easy things become complicated.

M—:

It’s been a long while since I contacted you. I’m sure that puts question marks above your head.

“Where are you?”, you may ask.

I ask the same question most every day. Not out of geographic curiosity, of course.  I know where you are and I’ve an idea of what your walls may look like: the beds, the barracks. The sea of prison blue. I know you’re situated in the middle of King’s County with a sky that must be devestatingly incredible.

I’ve driven the 5 a few times over in the time you’ve been gone and have seen the tired pistoning of oil pumps; the ruminative cattle; and the white, white haze which seems to jump senses into whiter noise.

The last time I sped through King’s County was with Bradley in a U-Haul truck. A trailer shimmied behind us bearing a vintage car and three bristling, sleep-deprived cats. The cab smelled of Kamel Reds and spent coffee cups. By mid-morning, just beyond the King’s County HP Station and directly beyond the rutted half-roads which finger out into the farmers’ fields, I felt I couldn’t concentrate any longer on the highway lines. We pulled over and slept on the grass beneath these wispy clouds that promised an unerringly still, cricket-shivering night. Brad slept on the trailer rig and, when he awoke, pointed out that I had slept in the grass beneath a sign reading: ‘Dog Lawn.’

I thought about Christopher, the editor of the now-defunct CH Press. I call it defunct because although the long-awaited Roque Dalton issue finally came out, I’m gone and Dave is gone and Maggie is left with a pile of manuscripts and a glass of scotch and an absence of her two best editors. Anyways, I thought of Christopher there on that dog-piss grass: I saw him last in the SD Jail. Maggie sobbed in the periphery of the visiting room and I took up the phone that lay unceremoniously on the steel-grey table. I picked up the receiver and looked at Christopher behind the glass–he was all slicked-back hair and waxed moustache; he wore a tight-lipped expression. By his admission, he was on a diet of heavy metals and liver medication. He wore thick glasses which made his eyes look disproportionately huge and wallowy in the otherwise context of grey brick and cold, cold light. Maggie sobbed, and she sobbed. I held the phone to my ear and didn’t know a goddamn thing to say.

Christopher spoke and said that my wedding was beautiful. He had crashed his car in Arizona, spent his money on meth. He had dodged the law and lost the rest of his money on smoky poker games somewheres in the Southwest. But he somehow made his way back to my wedding–Maggie’s date–and he cried and held Maggie’s hand when we released butterflies and read Ferlinghetti. Behind the glass he was frail, a mere exhalation of breath. He thanked me for taking care of Mags; I thanked him for being in the audience at our wedding.

I first met Christopher on the phone 3(?) years ago when he corrected my pronunciation of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. And here we were again–on the phone, but face-to-face. “Thom, take care,” he said. “Take care of M.” I took care of Maggie by kissing her in some hopeless manner on the cheek, and leading her out of the Piranesi-inspired civic building, phone hung-up and Christopher disappeared.

I remember when Christopher was released for a brief time and how he held forum at Maggie’s house in front of an ashtray. He was smoking a long and almost effiminately thin joint. Which was “safe” he confided, because “California only looks for uppers in my system.” His hands were strange deep-sea jellyfish, fingers not unlike wavering tentacles. “California is a river of blue, ” he said tapping out an ash, “It is punctuated by a braking of buswheels and penitentiary-blue lights.”

A wave of the hand, a drag on the tightly-rolled cigarette. “California is blue.” He looked pleased because, above all, he was a poet.

And, as a three-time loser on his way to Corcoran, he saw the rich blue of prison lights as the only matter-of-fact thing of beauty left in his world.

Christopher is now gone, above the law I think. Somewheres south. I’ve held Maggie in the meanwhile when she was overly aware of the gun in her nightstand, when the television flickered late-night Donald Sutherland movies, and when the sounds of the house shook her awake. I sat in her bed all night like a sentry, sucked the scotch from her tumbler of ice cubes set aside on the nightstand. I laid next to her, wide awake, and smelled the smoke of her dressing gown and heard her murmur resignation in her sleep.

She told me about Mayakovsky: how he left his wife because an admirer had, at an intellectual’s party, recited–word for word–the full extent of his 900 line opus. Mayakovsky left his wife to embrace this young admirer. Still–a few years later, he took a gun to his head and left the girl with 900 lines of regret.

I’ve not seen M. or Christopher in a long time but–there in the grass of King’ County, a short drive away from the tired city you’ve called home for the past few years–I thought of you arriving at Avenal, looking up from your handcuff-fisted lap, and seeing stark blue lights against a long-ignored landscape.

Christopher said California is a river of blue and I will never think of it differently.

I’m writing this letter. I need for you to hear me, or at least the story of the past three years–those you spent within labyrinthine corridors of concrete. Consider me a conduit. When lightning strikes a tree, its fires are shot through a thousand tissues and limbs fall in beautiful wreckage and the ground crackles a hundred feet around. In the end, the tree bears a scar and it continues wrapping rings of growth around its most blackened parts. The tree keeps growing but it will always have, coiled in its history, proof of of its damage.

I’m damaged. You are damaged.

We’ve both ushered that fire into the ground in different ways, but both bear darkened rings. We’ve both been conduits and have had the lawn throw up sparks beneath our feet. We’ve both had fire run through us, and wait for the ground to speak its response.

Still love you.  Take care.

There’s this picture I was hoping to share, but it’s buried in an iCloud somewhere and since I’m no good at technology, I’m sure it’ll float around like a drop of silver iodide in the internet ether to eventually precipitate elsewhere.

Silver iodide is what meteorologists seed clouds with to make them rain (fun fact: Kurt Vonnegut’s brother, Bernard, invented the process).

Clouds are rain and it seems strange we need chemicals to wring them of their tears, but sometimes tears don’t come of their own, I suppose.

So this picture is simple: it’s a crow’s feather left on the balcony of our recovery room the day Findlay Cooper was born.  Sounds portentous, and maybe pretentious if you don’t believe me, but the truth is when Jenn and I finally ferried Finn up to the recovery room after a confusion of squawk-some nurses, we were met by this crow who was quixotically attempting  to enter into our space via picture window, repeatedly pecking the glass and beating his wings in useless fashion.

I took a picture.  By that point, the bird was gone leaving only a feather.  Which is dumbly poetic.  Stupidly poetic.  I have–in this iCloud somewhere–a picture of a lone black feather sitting on the sill of Finn’s recovery room.

The pediatrician entered and I may have shown her the picture.  I exclaimed: ‘Wow–we had a hard time downstairs with those nurses.’  She kept a straight face and quietly told us she would duly explain the nurses’ concern in time; she then excused everyone but me and Jenn from the room to examine Finn.  Finn was floppy, sleepy; and when the doctor held him stomach-side down, he just laid limp and I started worrying ‘O God his brain is deprived of oxygen.’  Dr. Edwards simply said: “Look–I don’t like it that the nurses downstairs don’t tell you their suspicions.  But they told me–and I think they’re right–Finn has Down Syndrome.”

I can’t put into words how that night felt.  I’m working on it, mind you.  But this was a surprise and that night was excruciating and the clouds were certainly wrung of their rain.

I laid on that makeshift bed dads are meant to lie on next to their wife’s bed and I didn’t cry.  I just fell asleep.  Again and again.  And again.  

The one memory I’ll forever keep is waking up–2 a.m. maybe–and Jenn is propping up Finn who, mind you, can only cry incompletely for five seconds at a time; Jenn is saying: “Shh, shh.  It’s ok, Finn.  It’s ok.”  And Jenn is so sad, I can only fall asleep again.

This all may seem like a sad story.  But it’s not.  We left the hospital after a few days’ stay.  Cayde and I got Gatorade from the lounge and we pinched garlic flowers off the society blossoms and bravely ate them and I played The National’s ‘Fake Empire’ on the car-ride home.

That damn crow.  That damn feather!  Nothing can erase that night, but–then again–nothing can erase the time since either.

Crows are ubiquitous here.  By virtue of their commonness, I don’t think their shed feathers mean anything.  It felt like it though that day, especially when Jenn held the limp rag of Finn and shushed him into sleep and I meanwhile slept against the plate-glass window that a crow  greatly tried to break with his bill and we just felt simply lost.

Listen: I love Finn tremendously.  I would have things no other way.  I kissed Jenn to bed a coupla hours ago and Finn sleeps soundly.  I’ve gotten over this diagnosis.  I’ll never quite get over this process, though: it’s strange and profound and dizzy.  It’s Mother’s Day in five minutes and I’m writing to beat the clock because this is my gift to Jenn.

Jenn held Finn in the middle of our most unassured night and she still calmed our son to sleep.  If that does not warrant a ‘Happy Mother’s Day’, I don’t know what does.

I love you, Jenn.  Happy Mother’s Day, Sweetheart. 

 

 

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