Carlos

Cayde was well intended. He had done his research and had decided that Carlos should eat only flies since that’s what Carlos would otherwise eat in his natural environment. It was noble thinking on behalf of an ignoble but beautifully-finned fish and so today, Carlos—a Betta, a junk protein which can otherwise live in oxygen deficient rice paddies, drainage ditches, and desktop bamboo vases—floated atop Cayde’s fishtank, thin in the sides, once splendorous tail accordion-folded like a shuttered fan.
“Did you feed him, Dude?”
“Well, kinduv. I gave him a fly yesterday.”
(And our house has been host to the usual Labor Day swarm of winged-things, buzzing stupid against the windowpanes; catching flies for Carlos has been a fun task for Cayden in some junior zookeeper fashion).
“Did you give him any of the flake food? Like I told you?” I’m not being accusatory.
Cayde starts to cry, simultaneously shaking his head ‘no’ while wiping tears on the thigh of my jeans. I’m holding a dripping fishnet and Carlos is brick-red now when he used to be a fairly handsome vermillion.
“I’m sorry, Monkey,” and Cayde cries jaggedly, and we make this into a lesson before Carlos—full name, Carlos Danger—swirls clockwise into the watery mausoleum that is the charge of the San Diego Water Authority. There are no words, no attendant priests.
Later at lunch, Cayde and I share a bowl of ramen, in which case we’re fighting over the oxtail dumplings and it’s explicitly communicated to the front of the house that we need TWO eggs lest the meal be somehow unequal. Finn’s not too enthused about his bao buns and Cayde nearly jabs me in the eye with his chopsticks while we lean over the bowl.
“Ramen!” Cayde noms. He asks, once the noodles are done, what is ramen exactly? And I’m kind by not mentioning how traditional broth is made with bonito flakes, the same stuff Carlos exactly wanted.
On the way home, we take the alleyway, which Cayde has expertly mapped over the past few months while spending further time outside the house: here is where the water puddles after a rain; here is where you can bunny-hop the broken concrete on your bike; here is the mini-ramp that loops around the row of apartment trash-cans and—incidentally—where there are discarded things, not exactly treasures, but chairs and faded couches left as offerings to whomever the taker.
Behind our house, a bougainvillea vine commingles with an overgrown ficus, just above the broken fence.
I flushed Carlos, and Cayden cried, but he turned off the aquarium light right away, also the filter, then he ran ahead in the alleyway and hoped that someone, one of his other friends, was perhaps home.

‘K’

The iPhone uses ‘capacitive’ technology, I’ve read, which means it’s touch-sensitive and altogether too easy to use. It’s not necessarily easy on the eyes, I discover, when Finn–spying me in deep-squint on the phone, the tablet, etc.,–wrinkles his face comedically, reminding me I look silly with my glasses discarded and with me, seemingly mid-snarl and deceptively carnivorous in face, writing a letter all squinchy-eyed, else perusing the most recent Trump faux pas on-line with a furrowed brow and a mess of hair falling into my eyes. Trump’s stapled head, meanwhile, currently hosts a dead vole, a domestic thin-haired one, I think. It’s unnaturally orange at least.

There’s ‘capacitive’, but also ‘capacity’–potential–which days innately contain. The trick is tapping into it, like figuring out the ‘K’ coefficient in a physics equation, like: how will momentum exist today?

At Speech, Finn counts ‘one-two–threee’ and slides down slides and throws himself onto mats. He taps his lower lip and sounds out sounds, cueing himself. Forwards, certainly, but Rady’s Hospital is sometimes a drag-some place even with all the forwards momentum, I won’t lie. Where’s the ‘K’ for the day?

(Incidentally, the bahn mi joint down the hill burnt down this week: it was named ‘K Sandwiches’, because irony).

Also, and considering Rady’s has its share of institutional bulbs and miles of linoleum, don’t we all just hate fluorescent? Like a basic human fact? Like that last time you tried on a shirt in a changing room, and your skin was green in pallor, but also weirdly pink and you really hated whatever mall gods made you defeatedly sag your shoulders in the mirror? Rady’s is very fluorescent.

We get home, and Finn is appropriately zombie. Jenn’s home, too, and it’s an afternoon where the sky is clearing blue. Because Finn is due for a nap, I sling on my knapsack and take a walk, the five-block exercise in the sun being that small convalescence, fluorescence winked out, and where I fold a paperback against its spine and try not to get hit by cars in the alleyways while reading.

I order albacore tataki at the neighborhood ramen joint: a white plate with a liberal ladling of ponzu, daikon sprouts, and scallions decorating neat tiles of tuna. The tuna is raw and seasoned with sichimi tagarashi. It’s all pretty and I dribble some sesame oil down the domino row of albacore. It’s an easy meal, fresh and clean.

The bar-back tells me to ‘Try this” and “Also this” while I scribble in a notebook, so I taste tasters while writing. Bar-back calls me ‘Brother’, which is guy talk.

The cashier next door—he calls me, ‘My dude.’

Gabe at Parkside: ‘Hello, my Friend.”

Mac at Thorn St.: ‘Hey, You.’

Glenn, Ripe Market: ‘Hi, Thom.’

Barista: ‘☺’

Cindy at the produce stand: ‘You doing a fly-by, or what?’

Me: ‘Getting some lemons?’

I scribble on the back-sheet of a paper that lives in my satchel—it’s a copy of an essay I read at a writers’ conference and I scrawl in scratchy blue pen while dredging a tile of tuna in ghost-chile relish.

I write about a tile of tuna in ghost-chile relish while writing with a scratchy blue pen.

This place is an al fresco space, and the myrtle trees outside the parklet are green, not gray, now that the marine layer is lifted. A natural light. And when I bus my tray: ‘Hey, brother! Good talk!’ The pourer tosses a chin. I check my phone, which is fractured and inexactly capacitive, but heading back home, and heading down the white alleyway, which Cayden always insists we walk, the day collects net, ‘K’ having done its thing and I’m full, near to capacity.

Lift

The line on the horizon seems drawn with a light pen, the line necessarily one mile out by nature of optics, but exactly where the sun is shining through a break in the clouds. The horizon sparkles in measured beads of gold: a line that grows tauter, its span shortening, as the space between dusk and dark lessens.

A parallel and low-hovering line of pelicans returns somewhere, here, at the same time. The clouds take over and the pelicans are still flying left and southward. By count there are nine beaks, eighteen wings outstretched and cambered, all in silhouette.

(It’s summer. There have been three diagnoses in as many months, in as many people: Hodgkin’s lymphoma, adrenocortical carcinoma, papillary thyroid cancer. These are strings of malignant consonants, words that metastasize into moods. Moods. Moody-mood moods).

There are the numb places and also the sudden places. The sudden places where you suddenly come to, finding yourself staring at insignificant things like pillow seams or clock faces, capacitive screens, else the nothing-spots that exist up and to the left of your vision: those intermediary spaces between you and the wall.

The beach, meanwhile, is nice. The water is seventy degrees. To the north is the Agua Hedionda lagoon, and a concrete tower shepherding its fishery. The lagoon hosts now-barnacled dikes and young fish, fry and fingerlings separated; the lagoon is just up the shoreline. You can see the tower from the coast occasionally belching steam: it’s sentinel for the Encina Power Station and part of the coastal architecture. Not exactly postcard, but something of report at least.

Cayde plays in the water. His rash guard is so boy-stained, even the ocean can’t do the trick of returning it to white. From the shore, I can see the gaps in his smile—those square teeth and square non-teeth all jack o’ lantern—while he pushes a body-board about. I smile in return, wave.

“Hey, Daddy!” he shouts, which is how he starts most sentences.

“Hey, Daddy:

“If you had a pet shark, what shark would you choose?”

“Hey Daddy:

“What’s 53 x 47?”

“Hey, Daddy:

“How does light work?”

“What’s your favorite song?”

Unanswerable questions, but always the: ‘Hey Daddy.’

“Hey, Daddy:

“I love you.”

I should like to be ‘Hey Daddy’ for a while, at least forever I think; my sentences don’t begin near as absolute because I’m not seven anymore, haven’t been since before I was seven. I try and answer every question, though, as Daddy, and since I’m asked. Being not-asked is the worst.

For the record ‘53×47’ is 2491, and light works whenever you flip a switch, or else when you tousle your kid’s hair and say ‘I love you’ back.

(Sometimes there are low blood sugars and sometimes you find yourself slouching outside of yourself, once removed. This could be a Tuesday, or a Wednesday—any day an empty vessel is supposed to be lighter, but on any given day laws can be reversed as with a magnetic shift: empty can easily be something heavy instead).

The pelicans fly past, their wings irregularly shaped, and irregularity being the science behind lift. The leading edge of the wing is thicker than the trailing end, there is an airfoil, also net forces with the upward and forward subtracting the diminutive downward.

This is how you fly.

The last pelican is gone and there is the sound of Cayden’s laughter. Cayde’s skimming the surf on a body board and he is laughing, pushed forwards by the curdling sea foam. I have Finn in the shallows, jumping the shoals; my hands hoist him by the armpits and he laughs his jagged laugh, eyes squinted to commas in the manner his diagnosis dictates, laughing, with his legs pumping and his orange hair salted already into ropelets of strawberry and blonde. He is signing ‘more’, else just clapping or flapping his hands in a sign that doesn’t have to have meaning outside of excitement; he is three and the waves are fun in and of themselves, never stopping, churning the beach sand and there is quartz glitter between his toes. We’ve ditched our sandals.

Earlier in the day, Jenn dredged a kelp holdfast from the surf, a root-like anchor unleashed from its undersea hold. She cut loose the stipe and brought back the root as trophy, depositing it on the sand. The kids and I parsed through it–other kids from the neighboring beach blanket, too–breaking the amber tendrils and occasionally unearthing sinuating arms of recessed creatures, hidden, deep in the cellulose labyrinths. Sea urchins, brittle stars, evacuated worm tubes, stalk-eyed shrimp. There was foreign alga intertwined with the kelp roots, feathery, and there were occasional crab pincers a sixteenth of an inch long deep deep in the mass. We made a grave of broken kelp parts and saved all the living things inside a plastic bucket.

I showed Cayden a transparent crab on my thumbnail. There are things alive just this big.

I surfed in the morning with my buddy Larry, when the ocean was an early morning half-color. Fought every single wave, trying to remember how to surf the inside sets. The surfboard would yank my wrist and fly away from me, the thing that’s supposed to be my buoy dragging me instead. There were gulls catching light on the ragged undersides of their fraying primaries, and me not catching waves at all.

Suddenly the water rose, in the correct place. There was the proper surge and there’s this lifting when you ride a wave properly, this liquid push from below inviting you to stand on top of everything, which you do, obligingly, lifting as the grebes dive and the pelicans camber along, all the forces of rising and sinking and lifting all there, all there at once and with you on top; it could be you standing, it could be you standing or—in the alternate ending—you kneeling, but there is lift regardless. Lift and lift; there is always lift and also up.

The Perfect Exclamation Point

For a brief second, I see Jenn do a handstand at Kellogg Park where we’ve gone for the morning, ocean in view. Cayde’s agreed to do yoga with his mom at 9:30, the park (not to mention the parking lot) already full and populated with ruddy-faced morning-divers, their wetsuits peeled to the waist and eyes ringed with red lines, their masks having sealed correctly. The true surfers are already leaving and day-campers are setting up the hibachis and volleyball nets. I’m pushing Finn around in the stroller, up through the lawn-spaces, on the right-hand side of the coastline. The boardwalk is all young bodies and today is the day Jenn turns the age I still feel because I only turned the calendar page a month ago.
But Jenn is always younger. On the way to the jungle gym, I see Jenn and Cayde do ‘downward dog’ in tandem, on parallel mats. Cayde bounces some on his heels because there’s no way a boisterous seven-year old knows anything about chakras or breathing space. He resembles a pose whereas Jenn has her palms flat and her knees locked, textbook.
Finn climbs the playground ladders on his own and slides down, laughing. We swing, and have this game where I push him, then tickle him on the ascent and he throws out his arms and throws his head back smiling.
We circle around with the stroller, playground sand in our shoes, and park in the shade to watch the yoga group finish their poses. Jenn is upside down, and the instructor has her fingertips barely touching Jenn’s calves, steadying her; Jenn is upside-down with her hair touching the grass and with arms rigid in a handstand, a perfect exclamation point. Cayde is trying to do the same, tossing his legs akimbo over his head and looking all of seven, toppling ass over kettle more often than not.
It gets to the Shivasna portion of things and Cayden and Jenn hold hands, Cayde wanting to just get to that part where everyone says ‘Namaste’, which you do, appropriately, in virisana pose, virisana appropriately meaning ‘hero chief.’

Catching Up

Before work, I always take a minute with Cayde and–these days–it’s fun because he sleeps on a top bunk and I get to leap from the ladder and onto his mattress, essentially waking him up.
“Daddy, stop,” he smiles.
I get his first thought by virtue of rousing him awake. Today: “I liked that I caught up with you yesterday.”
Dr. Narg, our OBGYN, asked me and Jenn upon meeting: “What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher.”
“I zookeep.”
Dr. Narg sat back in his chair. “Really? Your kid’s got it made.”
And he does. Cayde goes to Jenn’s school; he’s learned a second language. Also, Cayde’s grown up with animal experiences beyond measure. When he was three, he would call me up at the Penguin Encounter and ask to talk to the penguin chick. I would oblige, getting the penguin chick to vocalize. He’s also fed Shamu and visited dolphins, polar bears, walruses, sea lions, all the animals.
I was at work yesterday, Cayde was visiting and lunching–he saw me a hundred yards away.
“Daddy!” Mid-chew he ran ran down the pathway and jumped on my back.
“Daddy!” He caught up with me two football fields away.He ran that long to say hello. I held him and he’s heavy now.
This morning: “I’m glad I caught up with you, Daddy.”
Yeah–me too.

How Things Just Are

Organizing the fridge is calming to me, which is dumb, and otherwise there’s a frittata going on the stovetop. Jenn’s away at the gym, I being a sortuv-Crossfit widow, and I miss the gym myself but prefer her going, since–during the entirety of our twenty years of us-ness–I want her to be happy with what she sees in the mirror, even though I’m happy with the ‘her’ that I don’t need a mirror to see, and never have.
I’m arranging the produce drawer when Cayden breaks our agreement. We were supposed to have a game of Battleship, and caveat to the agreement is that he would have six ships, me five–but his friend is outside because it’s still light out at bedtime–and I let him go. The frittata breaks upon de-panning and Cayde’s late checking in.
We don’t have our game, and it’s bedtime.
He’s new on the new top bunk of a new bunk-bed. He has a T-Rex pillow.
“Daddy–Mommy says you’re not allowed up here. We can’t snuggle anymore.”
But I’ve read the weight specifications.
“Nope–we can still snuggle,” and were that not true, I’d still danger breaking the bunk.
“I still can, Dude. Mommy’s wrong. The bed’s pretty strong.”
(We together don’t weigh enough to break the crossbeams, even though I have this extra ten pounds recently, which bugs me despite that I’m this punchline of being too skinny, with too long of a neck, and with too tremendous an amount of hair).
Cayde snaps on his light, him reading now.
I parse out the parsnips in the produce drawer, separating them from the leafy greens, and to change the laundry I have to walk out the front door and circle to the rear. Birds have nested in the hollow porch light above the back door–there being no bulb and the sconce being hollow. If you open the back door, the birds immediately flush with a particular thrumming of wings. I’ve actually never seen the parents, but the fledglings sit in this mess of twine and leaf litter and make their particular noise. To disturb the nest would be wrong. Instead I hear the kids, wishing I could see the parents. But the parents retreat, and probably to a tree across the way when you swing open the door.. And they rearrange leaves in their nervousness before flying home.
Cayde asks for a glass of water; the birds fly back to an unlit light, and this is how things just are.

Hats and the Funeral Parlor

I brought a hat to my Grandma’s service in order to keep my hands busy. It matched my outfit well, with a purple grosgrain ribbon, and with Grandma having loved purple. There was not enough time to get my hair cut (and it’s been six weeks since I’ve seen a set of clippers), so I wore long hair to my grandma’s funeral, just slicked back with hair-paste and–despite the wax—a bit unruly. But you don’t wear a hat in situations that demand respect. Restaurant dinners don’t count anymore, nor other indoor activities where in years past a donned hat would’ve been as conspicuous as an open umbrella in a crowded room. Tally the hatted patrons in your local eatery and consider how times have changed.
Times have changed except in mausoleums and churches, so I fingered the fedora’s brim and turned the hat counter-clockwise by habit, not thinking to place it to my crown. The inside of the hat is dull with wear and the straw is forgiving. A hat is necessarily defined by its creases—it’s what makes a fedora a fedora and a pork pie its own thing—yet the creases, necessarily, soften with age and over time lose definition.
I didn’t wear a hat to my Grandma’s funeral, just purple, which she would have liked. Her closets were filled with every shade of violet.
There was a luncheon after my Grandma’s memorial, but before her entombment, and I didn’t know exactly where to sit
I resolutely sat with my dad at the front of the chapel for the service, and Cayden sat a few seats down, this being a certain catenary chain of fathers and sons. Cayde did well, administering hugs in his usual and occasional fashion, a bow tie clipped to his collar. It was our intention to not hide him from this, exposure not always leading to frostbite. Sometimes it results in the opposite.
Cayde was warm, hugging the line of monuments—Jenn, my mom, my dad—and he held my thigh when we were singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ which, despite me being irreligious, has a religious effect on me: within the hymn is the common G that descends to an unlikely Am7. It’s an unobvious chord progression, but perfect in its unexpectedness. The minor fall and the major lift, another song says.
I tousled Cayde’s hair, which he swore he washed the night prior. He still smelled like ‘boy’ though, which I noted before he darted off to rejoin his mom sitting an invisible number of seats away. He was almost giddy, and there’s a rehearsed quality to his pretend understanding of all this. Play-acting, maybe, like when he iterates and most likely seeks approval in saying, “You know, Daddy—GG may be gone but she’s alive in our hearts.”
I believe this, but I don’t believe Cayden for a second. It’s a pantomime of empathy; he’s seven. He’s on the right track, but still just seven, which is old enough to understand the gravity of things, but too young to even nascently understand that gravity is a fall, which ultimately ends somewhere. He smiled throughout the church service; the pews and flowers and overhead fly-beams being something new; the drama new; the fact that anyone with a wet face would couch him in an arm not new, but yet a fantastic thing. We’d all like to be held close, unconditionally, and to have everyone grab our little-sized hands to feel better about our guilty and big-sized hands. We’d like to forget how we’ve exactly grown up.
To me, the church smelled like a church and there were five bouquets footing the cross.
It came time for prayer, one of three liturgical moments, and the pastor predictably wore white. Even the irreligious should bow their heads in church as, similarly, you should not wear hats. When Cayde pressed his blond head to my hip and purred his particular ‘I love you,’ only then did I tear briefly, the tears lubricating the insides of my glasses, my head being downturned.
My dad patted my thigh once during the service, this being important, too.
I didn’t know where to sit at the luncheon, most seats having been taken and the room complicated. I tossed my hat onto a chair as place-saver, and considered the buffet. I attempted some macaroni salad on a Styrofoam plate and my second cousin heartily laughed when one forkful had me searching for a discreet trashcan.
Ice water sufficed, and having collected my hat, I found a place outside with my cousins, and in the sun. There were latticework chairs surrounding a low table and we talked. Marshall and Peter and I talked a lot about quilts, and the blankets and afghans and beddings we’d received from GG over the years.
“I think that receiving blanket was washed to shreds,” Marshall said.
“Grandma made me a new quilt. Didn’t have heat in the house, so she made me something simple to use as blanket, and not the good one.”
“Grandma gave me what she felt was her favorite quilt,” I say, “And she said there was a mistake in it.” (Still haven’t found it).
Cayde scampered about. He was munching on endless celery sticks, the only agreeable thing he could find on the buffet table.
Occasionally he’d disappear behind a column, crunching a celery heart. “HEE-he,” he would say before moonwalking into notice. His Michael Jackson thing. He’s all over the place.
Talk turned toward Grandma’s wit, which I always appreciated, because clever’s clever, and ever better than never.
Upon seeing Jenn: “How are you GG?”
“Better now, seeing you.”
Upon seeing me: “How are you, GG?”
“Up and taking sustenance at least.”
The cousins and I were giddy, and Peter had a new beard; we grew up together. There were all these jokes and the sun was nice. At one point, I leapt up onto the latticework table.
(I used to walk with Grandma on the beach, and one time she found a piece of driftwood. She was wearing a floppy hat. She stepped up on the knotted log).
I reproduced the moment—pointing with my hat, and on the table:
“I come before you, not behind you!”
“I’ve come to address you, not undress you!” I throw my arms out because that’s what my grandma did, being magnanimous to this invisible audience.
My grandma was funny despite the Duchenne smile and all. We would find sand dollars, and one time, early, there were all these furry purple sand dollars washing ashore, 6 a.m., and we didn’t collect them since they were still alive.
Cayden asked: “Will she have a Dracula coffin?”
“What do you mean, Dude?”
“Well, she could have a Dracula coffin, or—like—that coffin with two latches and with the roof being like this—“ (and he makes a sign suggesting a dome)—“And, where you can lift the lid which goes from here to here (he places a hand on both his head and his heart), and where the rest of the body is here to there (midriff to toe). And, is she naked inside?”
I paused.
“It’ll probably be the one with the latches, and—no—she’s got clothes on.”
The mausoleum is more ornate than I remembered. My Grandpa rests there, too. There are white statues and roseate marble, reproductions of the Pieta and more stargazer lilies than the nose could want.
My grandma didn’t like the stargazer perfume. I don’t blame her—it smells, truly, like a mausoleum.
Inventory: upon passing, my grandma kept few flowers, or fewer than when she was vital. Kalanchoe, African violet, peace lily, autumnal fuschia, Easter lily, plumbago, honeysuckle, rose, aeonium, apple blossom. I would water her plants when she convalesced from a broken hip..
The workers that shoved my grandfather’s casket into the wall wore keys, which is a terrible memory. And my mom forbade keys when my grandmother was likewise buried.
No keys. My grandma was pressed silently into a wall, as silent can be, there always being the rough sound of concrete with workers pushing and pushing a casket to rest.
Cayden cried. I held him, Jenn held him. My mom also held him and she pointed out the flower reservoirs where later Cayde can leave his offerings.
A quilt was spread over my Grandma’s coffin. It was one of her first, and one that everyone remembers. It’s brown, and characteristically complicated.
Cayde said simply: “I don’t want to her to be gone so soon.” Faced with a coffin, he cried, things not being abstract anymore, but solidified in something that is both solid and veneer. The sudden fact of what we are dead in, and how we dress the vessels in which we’re remembered.
We were first to lay hands on the casket. I held my hat behind my back.
Cayde cried.
I returned to my seat. Everyone soon was gone and, when looking down, I saw a black shoe and a neatly tailored slack leg. Looking up, there was my brother. My uncle, saddest, sat to the right of me. Front row, casket gone, there was a stained-glass window with an upwards view of the parking lot, we being on the basement floor. Above the stained glass were the bottom-sides of tires, and there was a different catenary as people shuffled out, and when I sat alone with my brother and uncle. The stained glass said, “Let us pray,” and my uncle remarked how my grandma would pray, daily.
I spun my hat in my hands, looked down. Eventually I needed to check on my son. I stood up, briefly placed a hand on my uncle’s shoulder and looked over at my brother.
“I’m leaving—need to check on Cayde.”
My brother sobbed; I put my hat on my head.

I find my kid with my cousins. Cayde asks, and in front of a statue:
“Why do we still have mythology?”
I adjust my brim, wearing a hat indoors. (Peter will tell him later all about Hercules and the twelve tasks). I say: “I dunno,” which is not my real answer.
On the rid home, I mention my grandma. I also mention, and Cayde having cried at the realness of everything: “You know we have a quilt. We have a quilt—her hands knitted it. That’s all, I guess.”
He wipes his eyes: “Ok.”
“Grandma’s still alive in our hearts,” he says again.
“Sure, Dude.” I don’t believe him, but I also do, at the same time.

Exactly not ever the right word

I was winded on the last lap, and playground sand is always that beige and powdery substrate which records a shoe-print and when you, yourself, don’t want to record school, exactly. Billy punched me in the back of the neck I remember. Just past the backstop and where the hopscotch squares were less than swept. The number ‘two’ was covered in stray sand. Jimmy–he slapped Billy upside the head–and shoved him fierce. Jimmy wasn’t my friend but he hit Billy a second time and said: ‘We don’t pick on him anymore.”
I had made a speech in class. The line I remember–the only one I remember saying–was “I hear you when you make fun of the way I walk.” Mrs. Heath smiled for a brief second at the back of the room, and then she looked away and wiped her eye as if she were correcting her make-up. Rumor was she smoked, and she was always doused in ‘Wind-song’ which is that really awful perfume which has its base note in ylang-ylang, that thing I still don’t know how to pronounce. She used to give me books because she knew I would and very much use them.
One time Billy called me a ‘fag’, and I unexpectedly shoved his head into the drinking fountain. He pushed me, wanting a fight.
I have a certain scoliosis which is why I perhaps walk funny; some have called it cool,me having something of a gambol; others have illogically said: ‘wow you have good posture.’ Truth is, and as my chiropractor has remarked, “If you were a pitch , Man, you’d be a curveball.”
I walk, think, and talk funny.You’d be surprised: you can actually say every curse word with sibilance and you can also walk like you’re looking to be remembered. Not something I’ve exactly wanted or aspired toward, and it’d be much easier to just be the same as everybody else; end-all I’m me.
Billy, he hit me square in the chest. I stared him down. He kept calling me ‘fag’, an impotent word. He hit me in the chest-bone, twice, because I made the mistake of cracking his forehead against the drinking faucet exactly once. He deserved it.
I didn’t raise a fist and what wasn’t a fight was broken up and Mr. Stovall, my seventh grade teacher, put Billy in a corner–perhaps roughly–and told him to, frankly, just stop it.Like Jimmy did later when and after I got punched. A punch in the back of the neck, no less, that punch just something dumb. I only wanted it to stop. Leave me alone, please.
Jimmy told Billy: ‘Leave him alone’, and then he patted me on the back. He was not my friend.
I told my friend Janet today: I like words like ‘dumb.’ ‘Dumb’ is a good word in that it requires your tongue to be thick. Sometimes words are powerful when they’re not specific, when they’re thickish or dull, and when they’re the first epithets you learned, like back in kindergarten.
Sometimes I get in trouble for words, usually when I’m being too specific or otherwise way inaccessible; also when I use words to apologize for other words I just used. Exact words are a ‘thing’ for me. There are all these arguments about how and why you should write, and who for.
What words–that’s a big argument–what words should you use.
Billy shoved me. He kept calling me a ‘fag.’ It inspired nothing in me and I didn’t raise a fist.
My kid had is IEP recently and the school nurse copied to his report this thing our physician penned upon Finn’s birth: “Born with the stigmata of Down Syndrome.”
And because I am madly in love with my kid in a way that I still have not properly expressed, and in ways which people just don’t know; where I have failed as a writer when other people write books and say beautiful and copyrighted things, I got angry. ‘Stigmata’ is not the right word, though it exists in medical dictionaries as a technically exact one.
I ended a social media post toward the nurse with: ‘you solecistic shit’, (since deleted) a combination of both an exact and an inexact word and where Billy could probably have hit me in the chest again, just above the heart, saying: ‘You dumb dummy.’Dumb dummy, shut up.
(If you’re solecistic, it means you’ve used your words exactly wrong).
Finn said ‘boy’ today and made the proper sign. Also ‘cat’ and ‘happy’ and ‘fruit’. I was too complicated. Made words to explain words and there was one word which I lacked success with and that was.

On Telling Cayden

“She will not get better,” I correct Jenn, and when talking to Cayden about my grandmother.
I’m not being unkind.
“Would you like to see her?”
We’ve just made the best scrambled eggs ever, Cayde and me, and salt being the final ingredient—not the first.
Salt is something you pour into a healing bath, else something you rub into a wound. Cayde is too young to know the difference.
One time he specifically requested ‘sodium chloride’ to season his dinner. He’s smart, and it’s salt—sodium chloride—that finishes everything.
Like Lot’s wife. Like scrambled eggs that are done perfectly, with the curds wet and yellow.
“Do you just want to remember her happy?”
Cayde places his head in my lap. He says ‘no’; he then says ‘yes.’ He can’t decide because he’s seven. We’ve just told him about tumors and cancer and these are things he already knows about—we’re not teaching him anything. We alert him to the metastasis, family being involved.
(My friend Jason: he died over the phone, him saying “I love you, Thom,” when he was fourteen and missing a leg and far-retreated. His mother said the morphine was keeping him comfortable. I didn’t say anything back).
I haven’t seen cancer until just recently, and I’m relieved when Cayden says, “I just want to remember her happy.”
On the drive to my Grandma’s house, there’s a blue heron that conspicuously lands a number of feet beyond the freeway exit. It floats up and beyond the sea fig, which invariably lines the asphalt. Where the exhaust settles there are dead tendrils and where the flowers refuse to phosphor.
Cayde says, and before I get into the car, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
He also says: “I hope she recognizes you, Daddy,” because we talked about what happens in the end, and—true to everything, and what it means to die—the jaw goes slack and pupils pin. I see my Grandma’s gold bridges because her mouth is agape and she has strawberry stains on the creases of her mouth.
We feed her strawberry mash–which is in season and seasonably red—also mango sorbet, which houses her pills.
My grandma does recognize me, and we hold hands briefly.
I kiss my grandma good-bye. There are strategies to move her onto the commode and it means navigating the three stairs into her recessed bedroom where the bed is something of percale and where perhaps she can be more comfortable. I leave before any indignity.

Outside that window, that one above the antiquated linen, I picked green garlic and it’s where the pigeons shit and where I watered her plants. Always that one stain on the concrete because the birds used to sit on the eaves and in between houses, cooing.
She: “Can you water the front?”
Me: ‘Sure.’
She mouthed something when I left. She had thin hair. I could’ve pinned a blossom to her skin, it being paper.
I don’t know what she said.
I tell Cayde: ‘She recognized me.’
He again says ‘sorry.’ He’s seven. But he hugs me and there is the weight of his head on my lap and I rest my hand on his skull, which I invented, and I very much believe him.

The Dying Man Says Only: ‘Red’

The man with the goiter and the one half-mast eye takes my order at Pho Nam Cali. I’m due at my Grandma’s house within the half-hour.
“I’ll have the ‘41’,” I say. “And—excuse me—how exactly do you pronounce that?” I ask, referring to the Vietnamese subtitles. I’m earnest in my inquiry.
(C’om bun tom nuong, mind you, is the ‘41’).
The man pronounces the words carefully but not condescendingly, and then points to each of the individual words in turn.
“C’om is rice,” he says gesturing to the accompanying photograph, “Then ‘bun’: it means pork—or meat—and ‘tom’ is shrimp.” He circles the picture with a forefinger. “Nuong means grilled.” I nod my thank you as he disappears into the kitchen and while Finn in the meantime tries to climb into the lap of another restaurant patron. The patron is wholly amused and laughs as Finn ineffectually tries to navigate the man’s calves. Finn ultimately finds no purchase.
I hoist Finn into my arms and bounce him up and down to settle his busyness. Finn’s eyes find the TV, which is broadcasting an early afternoon news segment. A tongue-tied anchor interviews a transgender military colonel; the anchor cannot keep his identifiers straight. He/she. There are apologies.
The man with the half-mast eye casually returns from the kitchen, glances up at the television, then back toward me. He’s been thinking about my question.
“Vietnamese is very much like French. The first words—‘c’om’, ‘bun’, ‘tom’—they’re modified by the last word, ‘nuong’. ‘Grilled’. The pork and shrimp are grilled.” He has his arms casually crossed behind his back, and I like this exchange. I explain how I’m familiar with this manner of modification, Spanish being something similar.
He takes a rhetorical left turn while I wait for the bun nuong–the shrimp already done I’m sure–and the rice something to be ladled from a pressure-cooker in back.
“Imagine a dying man,” he says, “Knifed in the back and bleeding. And you crouch down and ask him: ‘who did this to you’? If he responds in Vietnamese, it is: ‘the man,red-haired.’ Imagine he dies after one word. You at least know it was a ‘man’. If he responds in English, you only have the word ‘red’, which might mean him referring to his own blood.”
(On the television, I hear another apology and the military colonel doesn’t flinch).
Grammar is not generally this mortal, but it’s an interesting conversation and once given my c’om bun tom nuong, I nod thankfully, tip extra, and carry a now tired-eyed Finn back to the car. There are wafts of fish sauce and I belt Finn into the seat; he’s smiling, albeit with purpled eyes.
At my Grandma’s, everyone is there but–most importantly (to Finn at least)–my uncle, who has frites. French fries. Jack in the Shack shit. I give Finn some shrimp and some spoonfuls of rice, but French fries ultimately win, there being something of historical tongue-in-cheeked-ness at play here. French colonizers governed Vietnam for years.
(A recent restaurant I went to served frites with nuoc cham).
My Grandma’s uncomfortable.
This is the signifier I allow myself: ‘uncomfortable.’ ‘Painful’ is certainly more appropriate, but I use tame words as the necessary analgesia; I’m actually the uncomfortable one, the one not in actual or marked pain. Such are semantics. My Grandma, meanwhile, has a chart with many check marks next to medicines like ‘hydrocodone’ and ‘morphine’. The times in between administrations have trended shorter and, when my grandma tries to sit up, I understand why.
She doesn’t smile for the entire hour I’m there, except when Finn taps the velour footrest of her La-Z-Boy and tries, for the second time, to climb into someone else’s lap. Grandma couches her packet of French fries to playfully tease Finn; she then neglects to uncurl her fingers in recent forgetfulness of her own body. Finn can’t find the fries, yet still hugs Grandma’s thighs in some reverse apology. He rests his head on her knee. All’s well even as the fries grow cold.
We shouldn’t be unhappy if some have a lot and some have a little, or vice-versa: it’s just semantics.
(That’s most certainly a lie; I haven’t yet convinced myself).
The RN arrives and I shrug on my jacket and interrupt the nurse.
“I just wanna say good-bye real quick, ok?”
“Of course, Honey,” and she has on colorful scrubs because that’s the required uniform.
I kiss my Grandma just above her mouth and tell her that I love her, then atop her head where she is now white and on a scalp that used to be red. There are scattered hairs on her shoulder, chemo-sheddings, and I illogically kiss her temple and feathers of her white hair stick to my upper lip; all this while the dying man pools in his own mortality, and in which case the dying man says only: ‘red.’