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.’

Upside-down Flowers

In which case, I sit with my Grandma in her living room and we discuss Mother’s Day because that’s when my brother’s supposed to visit with his new daughter. He is estranged, and my parents will not be attending dinner with the family; they will instead and noncommittally meet for a Mother’s Day something or other with their new and only granddaughter, and surely it will be just formality, and my mother will fear being hurt as she has since she was six and when my grandfather disappeared for a month and without reason. This is to say, there is no blame–that being the hardest lesson–and why I’ve learned to instead love everyone.
There probably will not be a lot said or repaired, my grandma and I agree, and while my grandma talks and has cancer. The clock rings twelve and I can’t hear her because the tumor presses on her vocal cords.
“Should I tell your brother? About the cancer?” My Grandma is 89; I’m 37. We consult.
Finally: “He should know before he gets out here, I think.”
And I have a McDonald’s cup of coffee in hand because, anxious, I drove past my grandma’s house on the first run and found myself in a foreign parking lot, and so why not buy coffee. It’s decaf. There’s that. Wouldn’t want to trigger any nerves.
My grandma points out a quilt that she’s displayed in her front room forever.
“That’ll be yours. There’s a mistake in it, though.”
She proceeds to tell me how she’s made these errors in all her quilts, some that she’s painstakingly corrected with scissors, needles, and thread before her retinas finally gave out.
She says she misses hand-quilting and I say that I get it. If you took writing away from me, I would be empty and how dare life grant you a passion and take it away so that you die with your hands tied behind your back or that your nose be given a needle, or that you must hold a nib between your teeth.
She tells me, forgivingly, that she knows I see things different, but that God’s carrying her through this; I was the only one crying. With a fucking cup of McCoffee. Which is far less poetic than one set of footprints.
I tell her that in every Persian rug, the crafter makes exactly one purposeful mistake. That perfection belongs to God or something and how arrogant to make something perfect.
We are excusing imperfection and there was that time I took care of her garden when she broke her hip and I under-watered her plants.
(She is Stage IV. I know this already. The doctors will tell her this two weeks away from today. She has headaches. Really bad headaches. I know it’s Stage IV–I’m sure of it).
I tell Jenn I don’t want to cry in front of Cayde yet. My grandma says she’s not panicked and that she’s 89 and has had a long life.
I work with birds, and panic causes myopathy, in which case trauma shunts blood to the core, and wings and limbs turn white and lose their use. Blood rushes to the heart, which once protected by blood, eventually gives up because of too much blood and then the heart breaks and it stops.
I took off my glasses at some point and my grandma told me that all will be ok. There’s no one not dying in my family that would say said same. And can you imagine that?
I will inherit a quilt and stitched into it is a flower patch that is unerringly and certainly upside-down.

Disjoint

Conference Room 125 in California’s State Capitol Building is outfitted with ten-foot doors and ornate molding, and there are chairs upholstered in green leather with applied nailhead trim. The framed paintings are oil–not replicas–and only the conference table, by comparison, is something of disappointment. One might expect mahogany but it’s crafted of a more pedestrian wood and sheeted in glass overlay.
We’ve invaded the place, visiting with a menagerie of animals. A Eurasian Eagle Owl perches with an air of regality on a stump in the corner. All day I hear interns and politico handlers make jokes comparing the zoological and political professions. Stumping, handling, the fact of animals as part and parcel to each respective vocation.

Inventory includes: a kinkajou, an opossum, a porcupine, two owls, two penguins, a dragon. There’s a kangaroo, too, that takes repose in the assembly room, and on a jacquard carpet. She has a joey that’s now so big, its ears and legs don’t fit the pouch anymore. Instead appendages stick out in rakish and adorable angles. The joey’s along for the ride and her mom paws at the carpet as she did the lawn outside the capitol, grubbing in the green threads as she would clumps of grass. The mother roo is so earnest in her affection of people that navigating the office furniture is something both nonchalant and eager; she accepts every bid for attention while carrying around a fulcrumous tail that gives all movement an unexpected grace. Incidentally, kangaroos are the only animal on the planet whose heart rate slows when in motion.

I talk with Speaker Toni Atkins who, briefly, has a kinkajou on her shoulder. She is saved disgrace when the kinkajou’s keeper notices a raised tail and when he—in deft motion—removes the kinkajou by its prehensile extremity, simultaneously palming a sudden and voluminous scat. Animals are what they are. Atkins is preoccupied with the penguin and doesn’t notice.

In the executive room, there are more visitors. I’m asked to bring a penguin to the governor’s office, in which case a meeting of the Executive Fellows is interrupted. The gubernatorial conference room features a long farmhouse table, but also sundry dog bowls because Governor Jerry Brown brings his corgis and borgis to work. The table is lined with well-tailored and surprisingly young professionals, shouldered in almost ridiculous fashion round the workings, hunched over papers and wafting a soft cumulus of bergamot and agarwood.

Governor Brown is nonplussed, though he certainly has been disrupted, and he invites the penguin to the table. He exudes a James Caan gruffness and has particularly close-cut hair. The surreality of a sudden penguin in the room deserves remark, and I say as much to the Governor; but then we exchange identical wounds, which are not surreal but matter of fact, he having been bitten by his new borgi pup this morning, and me having my wrist reddened by a penguin nip a few hours prior. He shows me his bandaged purlicue, white tape in between the thumb and forefinger.

“You know those puppies, how they have soft teeth.”

The penguin runs up and down the table to much amusement, its tamping feet making their particular slapping sounds, and I hope to God my bird doesn’t shit on any important legislative papers. Instead, the penguin suddenly finds a centerpiece she needs do battle with—a basket of antlers and wicker balls that grabs her attention—and she pecks at it determinedly.

Governor Brown’s borgi trots into the room and we conclude there, feathers and fur in the same room and with the Executive Fellows laughing, cell phone cameras on point.

The day will end with my second time on an airplane in less than twenty-four hours, leaving SMF for SD when in the morning it had been a more alphabetical affair, SD to SMF.

But midday, my colleague Lara and I sit in the shade outside the Capitol Building for a lunch away from the animals and—it being the late spring growing season—the Capitol arboretum is rife with new and verdant leaves, something we both remark as we laconically gnaw our sandwiches. We’re sitting in the welcome shadow of a needle-leaf tree next to a bronze statue commemorating the Sisters of Mercy.

There is the disjoint of buildings surrounding the Capitol: roofs with patinas,also dilapidated gables. In between there are pre-cast concrete facades and curtain walls of reflective glass. It’s an interesting downtown, certainly incommensurate, like there being a rusted-out fire escape across from the new and sleek sushi joint. The bicycle racks outside are something also soft-toothed.

In the ascent leaving SMF there are fields like geometry outside the window, acres of humus dissected in neat right angles by aqueducts, cruor-browns bordered in cypress green. There are tall tree lines planted to block the wind, just opposite of what we need, we being also a tall thing only up up in an airplane and where wind is necessary. Things wink out of sight once we pass the clouds and when already it is dark.

I’m reading an old book of poetry to pass the time—Sharon Olds—and I’m writing down the words and phrases I find interesting.

‘Palimpset.’

‘Lacteal.’

‘Taut percale.’

‘The craft of oblivion.’

At 39,000 feet, the pilot announces that we’re at 39,000 feet and I read: ‘He looks at me the way Houdini studied a box to learn the way out, then smiled and let himself be manacled.’

I hate being trapped this high up and in a fuselage. I have leg-room which means I’m nowhere near an exit door, but on the way down and when the avenue lights are acceptably in focus, I feel ok–commensurate–and my penguin calls a quiet ‘hoo.’

Anniversary

Twenty years ago, I punched my first time-card. The clock was a boxy metal affair and aligning the card just so was a mathematic I proved bad at. My time-in/time-out punches were often overlaid in the same cell, and in mimeograph purple; the cards themselves were of the same card-stock you’d find in library card catalogues: manila. Mimeographs and manila are card catalogues are all fast-dying things.

Before my SeaWorld job, I worked under the table and got paid in twenties. I wrote essays for my high school English teacher and did research for her in university libraries. There was also that one summer I helped my friend’s dad build a two-hundred foot retaining wall in his backyard and it was the first time I found myself trim after a prolonged and adolescent pudginess.

SeaWorld was my first real job in that FICA was involved and I was cut paychecks on the regular. I made exactly $4.25 an hour. My job involved sweeping popcorn hulls in the varied stadiums, directing people traffic, selling fish in the feeder booths. I loved it, especially retiring to the car at near-midnight on summer nights and when there was a parking lot culture beneath the fireworks. The nights were always salt-air sticky and how many late night/ early mornings I spent talking far past my scheduled shifts with accidental friends when leaning against car hoods. There was a Denny’s down the street which is designed to be the after-hours hangout. The waitresses knew us by our ill-fitted windbreakers and obvious name tags.

I met my future-wife at company orientation. She chose a seat next to me because I looked like someone she’d like to know. (On a serendipitous note, and a story I like to tell, I had a picture of her dad hanging on my wall for most my childhood: he was the athletic trainer for the Chargers when they were at their winningest, and I had a thumbtacked poster of the ’84 Chargers on my bedroom wall).

The lack of responsibility while first understanding responsibility was a great and questionable suspension, like a bridge to nowhere exactly soon. So much fun and abandon, those days.

I worked Park Ops and the Education Department. I worked Employment (I actually ‘hired’ the people who would later be my tutors in Aviculture). When finishing college, I had late-night gigs at Shamu stadium overseeing the killer whales. There were absurd moments I had my typewriter at orca poolside, finishing essays before clocking out at eight o’ clock in the morning and driving up the freeway for a full day of university.I knew all the orcas by their particular respirations. Kasatka was my favorite. I’d lean against the glass with my typewriter and she’d hover above my shoulder, my essays on Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ being THAT interesting. She’d read my writing and, occasionally, she’d spit a squid over the plexi-wall which was either complaint or particular playfulness. She had a habit of sticking her tongue out, curled, and this was her laugh. She talked in an echolocative whisper, which, most people don’t know can in fact be a whisper.

I got the penguin job. Things happen when you’re busy making other plans. This was certainly temporary, I would say.

That was sixteen years ago.

At lunch a number of months ago, we were talking beards, facial hair having only been allowed at SeaWorld a few years back. I grew the first beard of my life because all the guys are supposed to grow one at the Penguin Encounter. It’s just the thing: the Polar Beard. And my beard was red for exactly a year before it’s fast disappearance. My friend, a younger keeper, called me out on my self-chastising, me eschewing my wrinkling eyes, and the fact that my beard is growing in it’s whiteness.

“Dude: it’s iconic,” he said, meaning my beard.

The red has certainly retreated, and the white has claimed all my chin. The left side of my moustache is currently (ant)arctic-frosted and I’m losing color fast.

On and along a PR trip, another friend said: ‘We’re kinduv elder statesmen, now, in our jobs’ which is an interesting bent. I used to sweep up popcorn, but know I have an enviable keep and it’s easy for me to talk keeper talk, there being no stadium chains to pull or people to necessarily be polite to. Globulins, hematocrit, albumin, WBC, You gain sophistication and you lose pigment and penguins are your friends.
You find yourself twenty years later and ask: ‘how did I get here?’ I open the PE door with its solid ch-chunk. Never gets old. Walking into the exhibit, I mean.

Little Man, my favorite penguin, explodes into an ecstatic display once I step onto the ice. You don’t give this up for anything.

I have my favorite animals; I also have all the people I’ve met along the way, and they remain. SeaWorld: thanks for the twenty years, and my wife and the half my life. I’d probably still clock in wrong on the old machines. 1995 and 2015 would probably be transposed on the same line.

The Opposite of Smooth

I prod my friend Kayla at work when she pouts over some unachievable fairness.

‘You’re such a GATE kid,’ I joke.

GATE kids have an overdeveloped sense of wrong and fair and right–it’s a trademark of the program.

Kayla was a GATE kid; I’m a GATE kid, too.

When taking the admission test years ago, I was given an antonyms quiz outside of room three. I missed one question:’What’s the opposite of smooth?’

‘Bumpy.’

‘Bumpy?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Not rough?’

‘Bumpy.’ I shrugged. I was in first grade and about to skip second into third.

The proctor check-marked the question in red, but smirked. It’s cute when you’re a few degrees shy of perfect and all of five.

Cayde scored in the 99.6th percentile today on the GATE test.

I had some tears, mostly because I was proud, Cayde’s brain and heart having been proven equally big; but I also had tears because ‘bumpy’ is the opposite of smooth, and life is never ever and certainly not fair.