Grand Marshal of the Gypsy Lemonade Stand

Last week, I looked up from my perch on the couch and saw Optimus Prime cross the street. Following suit, and clutching tight the waistband of some ill-fit harem pants, was a pharaoh in need of a drawstring. The Angry Bird, meanwhile, looked like he had swallowed a coat hanger, arms splayed like a starfish in his nylon get-up.

There were light sabers and ankle leggings, headsman’s axes and Medieval things all done up in plastic—just no jack o’lanterns, though a trip to CostCo predictably confirms that Halloween is already retailing, and at Labor Day prices. You can buy all things black and orange while still fashionably wearing white, and—wait a week—pencil sets will soon be on back-to-school clearance before the first morning bell even rings.

Cayde and his friends had been bursting home from summer camp all last week, hastily discarding backpacks and art projects on the front porch before rushing next door to rifle through the bedroom closets. This was their diversion du jour: digging up costumes to play a go-round of Halloween in August. Broad daylight was absolutely necessary to the game, spectacle being the point and absurdity its sportive vehicle. The more absurd the better. Channel the surreal! Be a carnival! Turn the neighborhood on its head and make every passerby with a stroller or a Fit-bit or a too-consuming cellphone forget their adulting for a minute and take a second look at childhood on parade.

Cayde ramped up the game, leading the plastic menagerie with his Kindle playing at full–if tinny–volume. MC Hammer’s ‘ U Can’t Touch This’ for the most part because Cayde was the pharaoh with the harem pants. Anybody who offered the kids a smile would be offered ‘Hammertime’ lessons in return, Cayde demonstrating the trademark side-shuffle in truly awful fashion. He never landed a dance partner—no trick, no treat—but the gypsy lemonade stand caravanned regardless, past all the bungalows and dying summer lawns, a Rick James disco groove the unlikely pied piper of it all.

Later, down at the corner market, I pushed Finn around in a grocery cart, picking up sundry and unrelated items. Grapefruit water, tomatoes, aluminum foil. Just a trip, really, to get out of the house—maybe grab an iced coffee at Santo’s—to otherwise kill some time before evening turned the switch on the oppressive afternoon heat. On our way to the store, Finn and I had walked beneath the bougainvillea hedge along Thorn Street’s south side. The hedge is manicured in such a fashion that it arcs up and overhead like the curl of a wave. In its tunnel, you can look up and see the network of interlaced brambles trained outward, the spangle of violet sepals like crepe paper lanterns. Finn pointed out the flowers much the way Cayde did when he was younger, when Cayde was still strapped to my chest and when mutually pointing to everything was our shared language. We point before we talk, we remark things before we have words.

When paying for the groceries, Finn bounced in his seat and again pointed.

“Day-den!”

Cayden came bursting through the door with Optimus Prime and Angry Bird in tow. This time, Macklemore was playing on the Kindle and Cayde danced on by, barely waving a hello, as Finn turned in his seat to watch the coterie of misfits bypass the grocery cart on their way to the snack aisle. Optimus had a five-dollar bill: trick or treat after all.

“Hi, Daddy!” (Nine years later, I’m still Daddy—that counts for something). I got a closer look at Cayde’s costume as he pranced toward the soda section. His harem pants were actually makeshift—a Cleopatra blouse worn upside-down—and he wore jeweled cuffs and a matching crown of dangling plastic snakes. It was the neighbor lady’s costume from a couple years ago, I remember—Queen of the Nile.

“What is this—Halloween?” the clerk asked. He said it twice in a numbing display of unoriginality.

“They’re just playing,” I offered, and I stuck around to halfway censor the growing bounty of Ring-Pops and Doritos that the boys were amassing, all the garishly-colored packages they could grab. This was the celebration of their absurdity, hijinks having been rightly conceived and achieved. I naysayed Cayden’s selection of a 16oz. Mountain Dew before quietly walking out, leaving the clerk to say again, “What is this—Halloween?” while Optimus waved money at the register.

Finn and I walked back through the bougainvillea tunnel with our suddenly saggish and adult sack of groceries. Finn pointed out the flowers again and I nodded.

“Yep. Flowers, Finn. Flowers.”

We exited the tunnel, the boys far behind and spilling their carnival onto the street. I wouldn’t see Cayden for another hour or so, I was sure.

“I used to lead that parade,” I told Finn.

‘If two can count as a parade,’ I don’t say, suddenly feeling the absurd length of sidewalk on the short walk home.

 

A Red Belt, and When

“What’s this one, Finn?”

“Su-chle.”

“This?”

“Ye-wow.”

Circle, yellow.

I’m doing flashcards with Finn because he pulled them out of the closet and suggested playing. I have no need for him to get every answer correct, and he doesn’t.

“Red!”

It’s a red belt and the flashcard says ‘belt’. He is half-correct, or maybe all-correct.

He smiles and we say, “Red! Yes!” We move on to the next card which is a square, and he says ‘squawre’, which is just as correct as saying, ‘red’ when shown a picture of a red belt.

We had his Individual Education Program (IEP) meeting today, and the entire team of us–parents, teachers, aides–sat around a low table while in kiddie chairs discussing evaluative needs and benchmarks. Finn slept in his stroller. I kept him up all morning so that he could sleep during the meeting. It’s funny that we were all in those low and plastic chairs–especially the principal in his full suit and tie–while Finn was sprawled out, comfortably and regally napping. We were hunched around a table and planning, talking in big words about everything, and there was something in the IPE about Finn understanding the ‘whats’ and ‘wheres’, but not exactly the ‘whens’ just yet.

Which is perhaps incorrect. I showed Finn a picture of a plant today; he said <sniff> while bringing a hand to his nose, after which he signed ‘flower.’

39

My therapist asks me again: “Did you turn forty this week, or thirty-nine?” (We are new at this).

“Not that you look forty,” she quickly corrects, but I’m in the habit of always playing with my beard, in a sense pointing out to everyone that my body is now melanocytically deficient and that it sprouts white on the regular.

Of course I look forty, then some. As an exclamation point I’ve already had cataracts surgered.

“Is that a big thing for you, getting near forty?” she continues. I raise an eyebrow her direction.

“Of course it is,” I retort. But I make a joke of it. I say I’ve been forty since I was twenty, and she confounds the whole mathematic by saying she really had problems turning sixty, three sets of twenty. Perhaps it’s because I grew up when I did: I can’t imagine not having been terrified before twenty-five. Forty, already, portends its own particular brand of catastrophe.

There’s ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, there’s: ‘Is it possible getting to 64?’

‘Only existential at sixty?’ I think to myself. ‘What nuclear crisis was she unconscious through?’

(I kid, though. I very much like my therapist, and she is Cuban: by nature of 1962 she trumps my Reagan-era ill at ease automatically).

This past week, Heimlich had a first chance at using his own patented maneuver to save someone’s life; Heimlich is 96. I think: we choke and laugh at the same time, get scared at getting old, save each other regardless the age we ultimately admit to.

I tell my therapist, “I’m thirty-nine.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, and we go from there.

 

Boys on the Double

Jenn goes to GFit more evenings than not. When the car leaves the driveway, Cayde inevitably announces–‘it’s ‘Boy Time!’ while Finn toddles the house and creates new and geometric sculptures out of his toys, stacking cars and dolls and otherwise plastic pieces into the shelves and hollows of our home. He’s very determined in his task, always, chin down and lower lip protruding. The entire house gets decorated in Hasbro. I try to play records on the stereo, but Finn stomps the rooms straight-legged and diplodocus-like; meanwhile Cayde cannot contain his urge to spontaneously back-flip into the couch cushions. The records always skip in time with the boys’ seismic mismanagement of things, and I wind up just having to stop the needle.
“What’re we gonna do, Daddy?” Cayde asks, upside-down on the orange recliner, his hair all fanned out.
Boys. Jeezus. I rarely was one, or maybe I’ve just been grown-up for too long.
The other day I took Cayde to the park for pitching practice–Friday–and the field was abandoned. I had new bifocals, and the mound was freshly manicured. I told Cayde to wait a sec, and leveled my shoe against the rubber. I hadn’t been on a mound in thirty years, but threw five straight strikes before attempting a side-arm curve-ball that went way left of orbit.
Way left.
Cayde laughed at me. We practiced and wound up running into some old SeaWorld friends who were there to do hitting practice with their son. We relinquished the mound and shagged balls till near sun-down, this kid pounding flies relentlessly to center and Cayde pumping his legs in attempt to get them before they bounced over the fence.
“I shagged fourteen!” Cayde announced, only three having skipped the boundaries of the diamond, over the chain-link and into the grass beyond the home-run line.
I’m not usually this energetic. Cayde’s near nine; I worried I’d have broken him by now. Eight was the age I was irrationally scared of, age eight being the diving board quivering over the fact of nine and ten, that hesitation before the teenage years, before the drop into the acerbic and chlorine-blossomed world of adolescence. I panic over losing my boy. Meanwhile, my eyes are noticeably older.
“What’re we gonna do?”
I snap on the burners and harbor the kids into the kitchen. Finn wants some grapes and gets them: “Tank you da-da-daddy-pa-pa.” He doesn’t know when to stop the syllables. He cuts the grape in half with his teeth and it’s the best sound.
I make a molé quesadilla for Finn, throw some pans around and do a black bean chicken burrito for Cayde. This I’m good at.
I let Cayde pick out some songs on the iPad and Finn wanders away from his dinner to jump–his new-found joy and ability–and Cayde follows suit, dancing in the kitchen. I’m still flipping tortillas on the range and browning what needs to be browned. I stop at saying, ‘Stop.’ I forget sometimes being a boy. I don’t tell them to get back in their seat.
We resume, we happen. We stomp and air guitar, forever high on the neck, playing our trouser legs like Les Pauls, occasionally thrumming an always low-slung bass–too cool to play it high and to the chest–just being boys, boys on the double, and  before Mom gets home.

Ships

The one agreeable ship on the horizon is a cargo freighter, its leaden silhouette gaining color as the sun dials upward. The bulwark is a rusty red, the upper parts gray. Because it’s the safest boat one mile out, there are a number of sail-ships surrounding it, small flecks of triangular light—near fifty—rounding its bulk and flashing white. It’s a beautiful day, and despite a surf advisory, both low and high tide still remain within reason. Cayde mounts the surf, immune to the cold, and gets his shoulders wet, eventually his hair

I count: there are three amphibious landing vessels, two destroyers, and a single cruiser also marking the horizon. They’re in a particular tetris. Some are aft-forward, others remain parallel to the shore.

You forget, sometimes, this is a military town; rather you forget that it’s actively military.

The coastal architecture is usually a line of staid ships, anchored and matte gray: an unmoving buttress, typically. The ships almost count as a line of vacant tenement buildings. In other cities there are the gantry cranes and freight containers all robotically alive, factual even, in the heft and physics of industry.

The San Diego Embarcadero, meanwhile, features a series of moored carriers and cruisers. In between are museums to the fact of retired carriers and motionless battleships–empty conning towers and stopped radar dishes.

There are so many antennae on point. The pelicans, contrarily, float a lazy line, catching the draughts. They else circle upwards on the thermals.

Cayde is excited that we’re going to the beach, more so a beach where there is an actual shipwreck. A shipwreck!

The El Nino has stripped the Coronado Shores of sand, and with the vernal equinox having just passed, the white and daytime moon pulls the water back like a neatly- peeled bed sheet. The tides are recessive and revealing.

The remains of a gambling boat appear, the barge a now shipwrecked thing buried in the sand, trefoil in shape, all patina and barnacle. Red algae furs the hull. When standing on the bow, Cayde points a hundred feet west out into the water, and there’s the prow’s figurehead barely cresting the waves, tangled in sea grass and an eddying foam.

This was a Prohibition boat, liquor and loose petticoats. You used to dodge the law by leaving land and taking your vices toward the horizon. There were no handcuffs, no anchors.

We’re on the beach with friends. We stash a bottle of Grigio and a bomber of IPA beneath the stroller and shield the bounty with a towel. Alcohol on the beach is still illegal here. Sand clings to the bottles’ hips, making Braille of the perspiration. On the horizon and swiftly travelling north, an aircraft carrier passes the Point.

I say to myself: this is all an exercise.

The sailboats stay out of the way, still circling the freighter moth-like. Small ships circle big ships, a curious reaffirmation of molecules and how things are held together.

We’ve set up a canvas teepee for Finn as sunshade, and Jenn’s whimsically decorated it with seagrass, dried to a leathery crepe; also ropes of kelp. Seashells and ocean-polished rock comprise a walkway, and the ‘front yard’ is littered with plastic toys. Finn putters on the beach, thankfully no longer eating the sand as he did when he was two, when his mouth would be ringed in dirt that was both dark and sparkly at once. Putter-putt-putt.

His teepee is a curious homage to this particular beach. We’re south of the Hotel Del Coronado, made a National Historic Landmark the year I was born. When John Spreckels owned the hotel a century ago, a tent city sprung up along the shoreline, a series of either thatched or striped affairs furnished with beds and rocking chairs, washstands, linen and lamps. There was a provisional theater; a reputable steakhouse serving twenty-five cent rib-eyes; a menagerie of ostriches, monkeys, and seals. A diving horse performed four times a day.

Daily registers featured Pacific Steamship timetables as well as railway schedules.

At 12:45, after two hours of serving vague menace, the destroyers break position and travel in opposite directions. The amphibious vessels stay stubbornly in place. The cruiser is gone and I’ve never seen a carrier, in all its enormity, round the Point so quickly as to become disappeared. This is broad daylight and the sun is apparently a vaporizing thing.

Cayde and his friend Bear are exclaiming the shipwreck, constantly boomeranging its way, from towel to tide, with their feet making running slapping sounds in the slurried sand.

“Shipwreck!”

“Let’s go!”

It’s boys being two-parts excited and one-part piratical, looking to conquer either which way.

They grandstand on the stern, Bear with his skinny white arms flexed and Cayde yawping and jumping into the surrounding puddles with resolutely flat feet. It’s as if they sank this boat themselves, their collective and boyish enthusiasm a victory flag.

(The gambling-boat is, meanwhile, a century-gone thing, a relic greenly bronzed and stuck in mud. An old man resting in a sandy mausoleum).

Jenn is new-bodied, and she holds down her dress against the wind. She’s long-fingered like her Grandma—she actually wears her Grandma’s wedding rings seeing as they fit her better than the ones I granted her—and wears big sunglasses and a floppy hat. She shares a name with her friend: they’re Jenn and Jen. The lot of us weild red cups with varying amounts of spirit. Behind us are seven buildings, the buildings named after the shores they replace. They’re ‘Coronado Shores’, white buildings that beg a Miami comparison. They’re too tall and wouldn’t have been built were the Coastal Commission had been instated three years sooner.

I try and figure out why the buildings are angled as they are, silly dominoes that can maybe end in collapse given the right seismic push; I had my first kiss here, late in adolescence and late in the sand; earlier, Orville Redenbacher was lifted out of the whirlpool where he had expired and where he was found at 7 a.m., cold in the hot tub.

Coronado has its history: Frank L. Baum and Charles Lindbergh and Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn and her bare midriff in ‘Some Like it Hot.’ My first kiss here was nice, the later kisses nicer.

Finn runs out to the surf, then back. We make a game of not touching the water. He stomps the foam, runs a fast reverse. He laughs the same as when he was a few months old, the water touching his toes, him inhaling his laughter.

Cayde and Bear mount the shipwreck, and I run Finn back and forth. Jenn is pretty, her torso an upside-down fleur-de-lys.

I’m reading Hemingway, this story where Nick avoids sleep by writing somnambulistic narratives; it’s supposed to be wartime and Hemingway writes it like it’s all about stopped rifles, but really it’s about realizing you can’t always sleep, and how you make up things when you can’t sleep. Hemingway wrote this as a late-stage alcoholic, no sleep being a side effect of excess. Fitzgerald wrote something similar, so did Cheever. They were all swimmers. They all wrote about water. They all wrote about drowning.

(At one point, Hemingway emptied his lungs of air, deep into his liquor, and slipped off the back of his ship, Pilar; he remembered he had three sons, and, resurfaced, gasping)

Cayde makes his way to the prow, atop a ship. And the ships both go away and stay on the horizon. All these vessels at once.

The amphibious boats sit heavy, their bellies un-deployed, and the sailboats remain light and away, white flags upon white flags.

Cayde jumps up and down on the stern. You can’t tell it’s a stern.

“Daddy!”

“What, Cayde?”

“Take a picture!”

I do, the ship maybe buried and pointed north.

 

 

 

Accidental Volcanoes

Cayden suggests an experiment.
“Let’s erase copper from the pennies!” (It’s something he saw on Bill Nye). Not one to disparage curiosity, I agree to his recipe.
“We need a jar.”
“Ok.”
“250 millimeters of vinegar. That one you have.”
“I have all sorts of vinegar, friend. White, probably. Also you mean milliliters.”
“Yeah–millimeters.”
“Milliliters.”
“That’s what I said: millimeters!”
I just shrug and pour into the Pyrex: 250 mL.
“What next?”
“Baking soda.”
“Baking soda?”
“Baking soda.”
“Ya’ wanna get me a lid, dude? How much?”
“A tablespoon.”
“Are you sure?”
“YES!”
“You’re making a volcano–you know that, right?”
He drops in two pennies, I drop in the baking soda and screw on the lid as fast as I can. Cayde bangs his head on the cabinet door jumping back.
“You ok?” and Cayde is laughing, the science experiment puddling the floor, also all in his hair.
“Yeah.” I’m glad he’s laughing. “I’m gonna go take a bath, Daddy,” he says.
Toweling off in his bedroom, I hear Cayde all of a sudden say, “Hey!”
“What, Cayde?”
“Salt! I meant salt, Daddy–not baking soda.”
The pennies are still very coppery in the jar in the sink. Science and all.

The Theory of Gravity

We’re descending Pershing where spring is early. The sour grass and ice plant have bloomed courtesy of the rain, and the resulting palette is fuschia, yellow-green. It’s my favorite and clashingly neon combination. The aloe should sprout soon, too, adding vermillion to the mix.

We’ve established that Daddy likes the song on the radio—not because Daddy has said so —but because Cayden has employed a particular logic in determining this.

“Do you like this song?”

“Yeah, it’s one of my favorites.”

Cayde smiles, self-satisfied, and talks fast as he always does when rushing to a point.

“I know because you said you like every song by Interpol and this is Interpol so I know you like this song.”

He smiles and looks left out the backseat window.

The transitive property: ‘If a=b and b=c, then a=c.” Logic, as we pass plants where bright flowers spring from otherwise grey under-leaves.

The military hospital is in view to the right and across the canyon. A few weeks back, when returning home from the a.m. school drop-off, I was vigorously waved up Pershing by a battery of white-gloved police officers. The news was reporting a live shooter in the hospital basement. Traffic was stopped in the canyon by black and white cars and red flashing lights. The otherwise ascending traffic, the line of cars headed up Pershing, was hurried up the hill—go go go.

“Thanks for taking me to school early,” Cayde says. He has plans to meet his friend before the bell because, as Cayde announces, “We’re writing a book.”

I’m proud, therefore punctual.

“We want to publish it when we’re done.”

The view of the hospital recedes. Turns out, there was no shooter in the basement. Later that day, after the police cars dispersed, the only shooters were the guys with tripods and telephoto lenses set up on Pershing’s west edge, innocuously shooting the hospital for news that didn’t exactly happen.

“I think you told me, Cayde, but what’s your book called? ‘The Theory of Gravity’, right?’

We’re at the stoplight, at the bottom of Pershing and waiting for green. Cars are turning left into the canyon and toward the hospital. I’m thinking of last night’s Florida primaries, which were disappointing. The canyon’s name, incidentally, is Florida: simple Spanish for ‘flowered’. Cars turn toward the brick hospital where the basement was found empty of spent shells, but where there was still resonant fear. The transitive property, kinduv.

At the stoplight, and by the still-dormant aloe, is a guy with a hand-lettered sign saying, ‘Anything can help.’

“Yeah, but I think we might change the name,” Cayde says. “Maybe just ‘Gravity.’

“Why’s that?”

“Well ‘theory’ just means you’re only thinking of something, that you don’t know something.”

“So what are you sure of then?” I ask, curious. “What’s your book about?”

We’re driving through the green, and I have to swerve the car slightly because there’s a CalTrans truck with lights blinking, a group of orange-vested workers jumping off its trailer and tossing hazard cones into the street.

“We’re writing about why the earth has more gravity than the moon.”

“That’s cool. I like the ‘Theory of Gravity,’ though. It’s a good authorial title, “ and I say ‘authorial’ Alistair Cooke-like, amusing myself, knowing Cayden doesn’t know how I’m being funny. I click the blinker to turn left, signaling a drive up the B St. incline.

“Well, ‘theory’ is like ‘hypothesis’ and I’m positive there’s more gravity on earth than the moon,” Cayde insists.

Cayde’s assured of something. I try and explain the scientific method to him while driving up B St., past the reconstructed houses in this fast-gentrifying neighborhood. The windows on the delipadated Victorians have recently been un-shuttered, and suddenly there are ‘For rent’ signs.

“Well, a theory’s means more than a hypothesis. You start out with a hypothesis, and then you do your experiments, and it becomes theory. You know—the theory of gravity, evolution. Theory’s something just short of fact.”

Changing gears on the uphill, I ask: “So why’s there more gravity on earth?”

We’re halfway up B, and in some strange loop, the CalTrans truck reappears from a cross street, still cordoning off lanes with signs and cones.

In the rear-view, Cayde’s hair is in his eyes. “Well, because the moon has no atmosphere.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” I test him. If this is going to be a published work, there needs to be peer review.

Finn speaks up for the first time, otherwise having been pretzeled in the back-seat, feet by his ears.

“Thing!” he yells, “Tzing!”

“Because there’s no oxygen on the moon, Daddy,” Cayde says matter-of-factly.

I continue to test him as we drive past 21st: “What does oxygen have to do with physics?” (What does this have to do with breathing?)

There’s a liquor store on the corner of 22nd and we’re pulling to a stop at the top of the hill.

Cayde frowns. “Oh, yeah.” He mumbles, “Physics. Inertia. Momentum.” He counts on his fingers. He’s too smart; I worry.

There is the coefficient K and we’re at the top of the hill.

(When Cayde was three, we sat in a splintery jungle gym in the backyard, and the sun hadn’t set. There was a chalky white moon, halved, on the horizon above the yucca tree. It was the Children’s Moon, the premature moon, which kids can see before the sunset.

‘You see that?’

‘It’s pretty’).

What does physics have to do with anything, or with the new ‘Rent’ sign in the window.

I see a jet way high, too high. I get nervous seeing the contrails, a vessel above the clouds. The higher the plane, and the smaller the plane, the more anxious I become.

I kiss Cayden when dropping him off.

“Love you, Kid.”

“Love you, Daddy!”

Driving home, and past the hospital, there are no white-gloved officers. It’s nice being on land, but the news is still and always bad. I bypass Florida, the sourgrass and the iceplant, the news on the radio less than the flowers.

“You remember that Einstein was righter than Newton?”

(I can’t believe I’m saying this to an 8yo)

But, Cayde says, “Yeah.”

According to the theory of gravity, mass displaces everything, like a round object dimpling a swath of fabric. Gravity isn’t a pull, not a push, but a weight.

It’s unbelievable: on the way home, I have to re-arrange my route. The CalTrans guys are still grinning and tossing cones onto the street, spring-heeled and leaping from the flatbed. I have to go down 16th instead of the big hill, turning past the chain-links where there are no cones, just a simple downhill coast, where I turn at the bottom, not having to stop once.

Righting the Morning, Later

Cayde wandered into the bedroom this morning, rubbing his eyes. He asked Jenn: “Where’s Daddy?”
“At work already, Baby,” she said. Cayde burst into tears.
“Why didn’t he say good-bye to me? He ALWAYS says good-bye to me.”
I do. I always climb into bed with him for at least one minute to connect in the morning, to make the day right before it becomes un-right. Days tend to un-right, the nature of things.
I’d put the kids to bed the night prior, all of us in the lower bunk,and Cayde fell asleep with his face pressed firmly to the wall. Found him in the same position this morning, still sleeping. I kissed him on the head while I juggled my coffee, the morning acrobatic of either needing coffee, or just needlessly caffeinating myself. He stirred a second.
“Cayde,” I said over the phone a few hours later, “You know I did say good-bye. You were just asleep.”
“Ok, Daddy.” He wasn’t convinced.
When I get home, he’s playing with a football outside. The next door dog is puking on the lawn, and Cayden grabs me to inspect the mess.
“You’re good with animals, Daddy,” he says, wanting me to diagnose this.
“It’s alright, Cayde,” I say, “He was just eating grass.”
Cayde was afraid the dog was dying, and in that 8yo way got scared that everything was soon not going to be there, like kisses good-bye in the morning.
He made me promise double-snuggles tonight. I was supposed to leave the bed once, then return to make twice the cuddles–his mandate. But I didn’t do that exactly. Just held my boys both at the same time until they fell asleep.

Groom and Bride

Jenn is half-dressed this morning, and we’re ferrying kids from room to room in the impossible task of readying everyone for school.

“Seriously, Cayde—get up. Mom has to turn in grades.”

He’s bunched into a blue blanket with a sad-face on.

“I have a stomachache.”

I don’t doubt him actually, considering the messes I’ve had to clean up this weekend. Still I know when he’s putting on the pretend.

“Get UP, Dude. You can stay in the nurse’s office or something. I hafta go to work, too.”

Finn is saying, ‘Mommy’ on repeat, Oedipus ad infinitum. I tug him into a long-sleeve because it’s raining out.

“Mommy, Mama.”

(Yeah, yeah).

The diaper’s changed and most the uniform on before Finn squirms his way out the room, his feet little dinosaur poundings on the floor.

The kettle whistles. Cayden is suddenly dressed and wanting to explain a math problem to me in great detail. His hair’s a problem, but I need to catch a shoeless Finn who’s reaching for appliances and making a game of throw-everything.

Jenn and I meet rolled-eyes in the living room, she still just in a cardigan, jeans, and a bra; hurrying. Needs to curl her hair. The handyman will be here at nine and grades are due at 8:15. I have a shift that’ll end at dark:thirty.

This is the morning and not night, but we’re ships passing. I stop and catch Jenn by the shoulder. She turns around and spontaneously I sweep her up and off her feet. She’s light now. I can do this.

Cayde says: “Hey! Are you groom and bride or something?“, wanting in on the hug. Finn crashes into my leg wanting the same.

Jenn and I crossed the threshold years ago, met the threshold a few times since.

In which case, I simply tell Cayden, “Yes.”

 

How to Make Tomato Soup in the New Year

When dragging in the fire hoses, I knock over a penguin and penguins—being like bowling pins—are easy to knock over. Also like bowling pins, they’re not quick to right themselves. They make instead a display of their frustration with flailing pink feet and wings doing snow-angel things in the ice.

“Goddammit.”

I right the Adelie, tugging on his flipper and setting him upright.

“Get up, Kid. Sorry.”

The Adelie chaws his disagreement, eyes widened and head feathers splayed while I ready the hose.

I like this particular penguin. He certainly doesn’t like me currently, and says so.

I’m not caffeinated enough.

When properly righted, the Adélie stretches to his full length, blue and gleaming-bodied. He defiantly pins his wings to his sides and begins a reprimand. His crural feathers are in disarray when standing on tip-toe, with a head gigantic and eyes big.  The rest of his body is evolutionarily trained to look compact and impenetrable. He’s mad and fisticuff-ready.

The bird chatters a long discontent and I say again, attaching a nozzle to the length of the jacketed hose, “Sorry, Dude.”

Also: “Oh, shut up.”

I’m agitated.

I’m in the penguin exhibit and needing to thaw out the ice that I laid down yesterday for the birds—a few tons of it—needing to erase things down to concrete before laying on more snow. There’s always this process of whitening the exhibit. ‘Rinse-and-repeat’ and ‘do-it-again.’ The birds are goldfish-like, rediscovering the castle every time. They bury their heads in the fresh laid drifts as if the snow were something irretrievably new.

The Adélie’s still mad with white eye-rings dilated. He menacingly snakes his head back and forth in a prolonged and disgruntled filibuster.

The bird’s equal to my boot-stop, somewhere mid-calf, and remains the source of many bruises. A long time ago, he memorized the start of my calf—just north of where the boot ends—and has capitalized on his discovery. He’s a small and angry creature, growling with what sounds like a bone in his throat. His beak is a weapon. My purpled calf can be submitted as evidence. I start the hose and work on thawing the ice.

(It’s said the Inuit tribe has forty different words for forty different types of snow. I appreciate the lexiconical thoroughness. Snow certainly has different forms. There’s ‘aput’ and ‘piqsirpoq’—’pack snow’, ‘drift snow’).

Meanwhile, we have a machine that creates ice for the penguins, a gigantic set-up, with these digital read-outs that analyze conductivity within the briny wellspring, probes that measure salinity and temperature. The snow collects upwards in a large silo before finally being delivered into the exhibit.

The Adélie settles, folds his feathers back upon his ears. Our standoff is temporarily over. I continue thawing the ice and need deal with the snow machine later–more hoses, unfortunately. Always the lugging of things back and forth in this penguin neé goldfish forgetfulness game.

Thawing the ice takes a few hours. It’s time enough to think, which can either be good or bad dependent on ‘aput’ or ‘piqsorpoq’, those specific Inuit words for snow. It could also be good or bad depending on whether or not the pillow was kind the night prior.

My mind wanders. I remember this article I read regarding the fast-melting glaciers, the ice caps that have been disappearing for years. In recent times, the thaw has been more sudden. Everything is in quick-dissolve it seems. The guano-stained snow I’m currently flushing down the drain entertains a currently dumb and nascent parallel.

Bodies and artifacts are unearthed with the glaciers melting, leathery corpses the color and wrinkle of dates.  The bodies are sometimes big as mastodons. Also exhumed are the long-hibernated pathogens—these needling and small things—,which can suddenly aerosolize, becoming renewedly dangerous after eons of rest. Long after we’ve lost immunity.

(Jenn asked me over dinner one night: ‘What happens when it comes back?’ which ruined the cheese course. It was, however, an important question. Things have a way of returning).

While finishing the thaw, the once-buried herringbones collect over the drains. They are later the things penguins will pick at as items of both morbid and culinary interest. Meanwhile, the Adélie is no longer agitated; I lug in the snow hose to blow snow, hopefully to keep things frozen.

**

The light’s streaming from the east, the sun arcing higher now in the New Year. I’ve always disliked the easterly light. Its shadows cast westward, reliably short beneath the front and east-facing windows. Shadows get stuck in the gable and beneath the plants.

It’s a stubborn circadian thing, my dislike of the morning. I’m not synched up to the dawn. The sunrise to me is exposure, never a new beginning. I prefer the deep and bas-relief a setting sun instead provides. It carves new places to hide comfortably.

When Jenn and I moved in together, there was a particular homesickness that accompanied our living situation. It was our first run at adulting, us trying to afford a futon, a bed, groceries even. There were weeks when the bank account was whittled to $3.95. Less than a fiver to last us until the following Friday. Jenn would often retreat home on the weekends to do laundry in a house peopled by her brothers, her mom and her dad. It was light there most hours. Our apartment, meanwhile, was always dark, even in the daytime. Sandwiched between two neighboring buildings, the apartment was forever in a constant and concrete eclipse. Even the fern died, though I watered it religiously.

The real dark was best, come 6 p.m. or so. Out the front window, the step-stairs disappeared and the next-door lights clicked on, visible only between slats in the fence.

The under-girding of the upstairs balcony partially blocked the front window, so the view was minimal: picket boards, two erstwhile hawthorn shrubs and an anemic bougainvillea snaking its way upward from our doorstep to the second-floor railings.

Nighttime was relief. Always the stereo on and a record spinning, shallots and garlic hitting the pan in my first attempts at cooking. The kitchen was stubbornly ‘Harvest Gold’ though it was 2001.

(I won’t mention the cockroaches–the ones that had made their way into the oven displays, eventually getting stuck there in the little windows, unable to get out, regardless looking comfortable).

Get old enough and you realize there may be only certain intersections of time and geography where you feel comfortable. All this while  your chemistries require accordance to a specific set of spatial and circadian demands.

Is it just me?  I’ve historically disliked 3 pm. I dislike eastern light, too.  Also flat places–those cursedly flat streets with houses graded on the equal. I become agitated, almost agoraphobic, without walk-ups and the cover of trees.

When first looking for a rental house, Jenn increasingly pregnant, Jenn called me at work and said she’d found a place. THE place. It was on Greg Street, and the house was nice enough, but with a pink ceramic bathroom and a screened-in back porch needing repair. The house was on a horribly even street, one block up from where an airliner had crash-landed the year after I was born. The plane: it scraped the street greater than level.

(This is my particular, but historically accurate, embellishment. A PSA airliner crashed and left a memorial plaque on the sidewalk. A friend of mine lived a block east that exact year. Coming home from a shift at the local hospital, she found body parts on her front lawn. Her shift had already been burdened with body parts so the forearm on her porch was something superfluous).

I expressed my particular and neurotic, “No,” a quiet shake of the head, and Jenn cried in frustration because we’d been looking a long time for a house in this neighborhood. It should’ve been a ‘yes’ from me, pink toilet regardless.

We did find a house, though, on Herman Ave., and only a mile up. It had a hundred year-old sycamore overhanging the roof, also a minor walk-up to the front door. There was a gable, and the house was elevated. Had there been a pergola, some florid cover, it would’ve been perfect. In absence of a roseate bathroom,we signed the lease. Eight years later, it remains our home.

**

Jenn and I switch seats at breakfast. Jesus–this glaring window, the insufferable east light again, and the kids all  ramped up. This was supposed to be the easy and enjoyable part of the day. A Benedict at ‘Great Maple’ before managing a drive through the neighboring hills. North, and slightly east. Finn is wrapped around my neck, Cayde’s something non-stop. There’s also the fact of banging spoons and cutlery on the floor.

Last night, I lost the Great Book Debate. For the nineteenth time, Cayde read ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ in lieu of anything new or substantial. It’s a calorically empty book, and I’m aggravated at myself for being aggravated. Cayde puts down books in speeds I can’t fathom. Cayde’s sometimes like me, other times remarkably not. I’ve gotta stop expecting to see me in him all the damn time.

Shut the fuck up, Thom. Cayde’s Cayde.

(Still, I got him ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ especial and he seemed so excited when I talked it up as much as I did…)

I’m devoting myself fully into hating ‘Wimpy Kid’ while I should instead be enjoying breakfast. There are forkfuls of chèvre-stuffed zucchini blossoms, balsamic tomatoes. Goddamn ‘Wimpy Kid’ and all its stick figure drawings. Now every kids’ book has fifty percent fewer words. I try to focus on the plate in front of me. I’m not doing myself any good.

The potatoes have herbs d’provence and the Benedict is built atop a pop-over, so there is something lavender and airy about the plate, the poached eggs neatly trimmed of their egg-white tails. The tomatoes are roasted properly, but I’m in disagreement with the strawberry reduction.

Cayden, meanwhile, has taken up a coloring book and his crayon is cherry wax-flavored; Finn is tucked into a pancake, and it’s simply got maple syrup, a pat of butter.

I think the pop-over too eggy, the window too bright. On a Saturday morning, this is just way too much grey cloud thinking. Over the top. Arrogant.  Because I find the reduction a quick and neat approximation, not an actual reduction,  my cloud takes on a funneling under-shape. I’m an asshole for judging the line cook. He didn’t reduce the sauce thick enough to properly coat a spoon. Strawberries aren’t even in season.

(There’s only a 180 occupant load currently overspilling the leatherette booths, also the constant and tintinnating sound of forks against plates. The waitress is in training and the coffee–which I’ve had too much of–makes me anxious. I’m sure the line cook has to be hustling back there behind the swinging aluminum doors).

I’m restless. We’re going to look at houses to live in.  I have to switch seats because Finn’s pressing against my face now in his idea of a hug. His breath is something different with new and soft teeth—all puppyish—with his mouth awkwardly open-mawed against my cheekbone and lower-eyelid.

Jenn and I switch seats. I eat my food while the kitchen hastens dishes to the front of the house. I continue to hate eastern light. I continue to be a jerk. I hate myself for this weed of agitation that keeps springing up, this goddamn agitation goddamn.

**

Tierrasanta translates roughly to ‘Holy Ground.’ It exists back and behind the community where I grew up, on the northeastern slope of Cowle’s Mountain. To be more specific, Tierrasanta lies north of both Cowles’ and Fortuna, nestled in the upper plateaus south of the naval airfields. Tierrasanta overlooks a valley that was long-ago both dairyland and floodplain. It’s now an unwisely-engineered interstate with a parallel and adjunct business district, a thoroughfare lined with big-box outlets and mixed-utility complexes.

There’s a murmuration of birds over the Best Buy. We see this from a ridge at the last town home community we’re both visiting and ranking, and the birds do their thing, approximating the respiration of bellows, seeming to displace air when they needle in tight, the flock reducing itself to a line. Best Buy is neon at ten o’clock in the morning, which is absolutely unnecessary in the daylight.

The townhouses are ok. Nice. The brass tacks about living in San Diego: it’s downright unaffordable. We have monies passed down in that guilty thing we call inheritance; and while we meantime make a decent living ourselves, we still can’t buy 800 sq. ft. in a place we want, and really we don’t want much. It’s a certain brand of obscene. The only available option is to buy a house with a shared wall, and with paid-for maintenance; a shrunken patio as excuse for a backyard; and with communal pathways that approximate a front yard.

It could be convenient, and something you might want as a forty year-old, if unwilling to do the fixer-upper dream and while having a severe adversion to mowing the lawn. It could also be just a bummer, depending on how you convince yourself.

It’s this mid-life compromise, when you ask: does it really come down to this? Peggy Lee singing, ‘Is that all there is?’ while you hope the wall you share with your neighbor involves laundry or the kitchen, not the bedroom because keeping things at half-volume seems an unfortunate concession. To be forty and fucking on the quiet seems something adolescent, not something belonging to a responsible homeowner with a mortgage.

“The walkway’s nice.”

“You don’t have to do maintenance, at least.”

“From here it’s an easy drive to Mira Mesa.”

“All the good food’s there.”

“Yeah, true.”

The birds do their thing over the ‘Best Buy’ and the cottonwoods are grown up enough, also the sycamores. The chapparal is relegated to the valleys, the buckwheat repeating its uninterrupted seven-year bloom.

**

When I was younger, all the news coming from Tierrasanta involved kids finding live artillery shells while exploring canyons, exploding themselves—just horrible news—and now Tierrasanta is houses upon houses of development, an implosion of living spaces.

We drive around and there are exactly four strip malls: a pizzeria and a Hawaiian BBQ and a haircut store. It makes me weirdly nervous that there are so many houses and so few storefronts. What would it mean to be stranded in a crowd with so few facilities, and so few people you can greet at the counter by name? A guy at the last complex walks out of his garage with a white beard and a cigarette, and he waves amiably.

Jet-washing jets land across the way and I get the growing sense that I don’t want to live here, but I wave back to the white-beard guy. He seems nice.

**

As a kid, I used to sit on my neighbor’s roof and watch the jets carom over Tierrasanta during practice, the annual air show. At night there were sonic booms, unexplained, because we lived near the airfield and there was the constant and midnight rumbling of secret planes taking off. The B-1’s they wouldn’t tell us about yet. ‘Nighttime planes’, I remember calling them.

(This dream I had. I was in a fuselage, without wings. A metal tube flying low over the ocean, and the ocean below dark save for whitecaps. The whitecaps were in a messy diamond-pattern justfrom the wind’s interference. The ocean was certainly Atlantic, not Pacific. I could tell by nature of its mucky gray-brown color. Suddenly the water threatened the plane, rising, me in a seat trapped. I heard the water hit the undercarriage of the plane in a metallic slap before the pilot finally elevated the fuselage upward. Afterward, there was the sound of an ocean arguing against itself before a welcome subsiding. The plane then rose and rose and while still wingless).

**

At work, the snow is wet and coming out of the hose all wrong. Too much salt in the brine, else too many clouds on the horizon. The humidity throws everything off when making stuff frozen. The penguins don’t care and just revel in the newfound ice. The Adélies bury their heads in the snow and they’re characters: running, hopping, sliding. They wriggle around in the slush, upsetting the snow before it freezes proper to the concrete. Super-alive, they wave their heads back and forth in agreement with this all.

When I clock out, the snow is messied, and an Adélie barks.

I put my bags down and Jenn looks anxious in the kitchen. She wears an apron, which I never do, wooden spoon in hand. I kiss my kids in turn. Finn tromps up and down in place while exclaiming, “Dah-dee!” He always hugs me from the side; Cayde meanwhile hugs me square in the chest, nowadays too hard, and I have to remind him that I don’t like it when he pile-drives me in the sternum, not exactly.

“Gentle, gentle, Dude.”

I sense something is wrong, though the kitchen smells nice, like garlic or browned butter.

I cock my head.

“You okay, Babe?” and she says she just needs to tell me something, ushering me into the room.

(For the longest time, Jenn couldn’t furrow her brow; currently it’s that biggest tell that she’s lost an admirable amount of weight: that she can now perplex her forehead. It’s also a tell that we’ve grown older together, worries like strata finding places just north above the eyes).

The apron she’s wearing is ‘Hello Kitty’, which is cute. She puts her spoon down.

“Thom, Karina  died last night. In a car accident.”

Karina was the girl who opened the front door when we first looked at this house: a cherubic ten-year old with pretty brown eyes and a hint of belly showing, her having ridden up. “Hi!” she said. Her sister was sleeping in a carrier on the table, blanketed in crochet, and with her nose as big as the divot underneath her nose, that being how disproportionate infants are in their disproportion.

“Hi!”

As it would be for years, with Karina smashing her face into the window-screens of the back-rooms: “Hi, Cayde!” “Hi, Finn!” She loved those boys, and her smile was big, her voice bigger. She would hug them with her mantle of dark hair.

The dark eyeliner of her under-lid grew longer and more curlicued as she got older, Amy Winehouse-like, and last I saw of Karina, she borrowed Jenn’s curling iron and fixed her hair in a hurry in the stand-alone laundry-room, the door shut behind her. She said, “Thanks,” and handed me back the iron, still warm.  She ran, ducking down the driveway, secreted by the cover of parked cars, running into the street forever and far away. .

**

It’s on the news, the tail end of the car distant from the streetlight that separated the front of the car from the back, the chassis otherwise crushed upwards with seats against the ceiling. The news was stupid reporting that the kids were alive when they were checked into the hospital. No, they weren’t. God bless them, no they weren’t. They had no idea what happened.

How will our pulses end, how will they; I get scared they end with spines and teeth and things red-colored.

(I get frightened, really frightened for my kids, and that everything moves in near misses and that collisions are sometimes expected; that things are frozen, then dangerously thawed out; that there are extinctions upon extinctions, but also the not-extinctions, when days go maybe according to plan; when it’s sunny out, when the leaves are in  unfurl or could otherwise be crisped).

Cayden: “Daddy: can you make me some tomato soup?”

It’s a simple request.

“Sure, Bud.”

I harbor my bangs into a messy knot. I concentrate–and this is beyond important—I roast the tomatoes, San Marzanos, with Muscovado sugar and thyme. I caramelize the shallots to a purple-brown, I reduce the stock to half; I chiffonade the basil, make a roux. I add cream, white pepper—everything I can that’s a halfway relevant ingredient—while still pretending this is all basic. Carrots.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Cayde.”

(We sit in the nook, which is white and simple, and I’m in love with my kid—something also simple).

“This is the best soup in the world, Daddy. Can you teach me how to make it?”

“Of course, Cayde.”

I say this, knowing I exactly can’t, nor ever won’t. This soup, it’s not simple.