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Surrender, Pt. 1

fallingmanI stare at the Kandinsky print on the wall rather than Paul, a subtle maneuver upward, for I’m used to losing myself in the damask carpet, wanting to be part of its pattern, when I speak. The Kandinsky is a pastel Rorschach, a benign something, hung there because it is a benign something, and the office is designed to be inoffensive, non-representational, so that sitting on the couch is to be in some mode of bas relief, not entirely there and therefore not entirely, three-dimensionally, petrified. A cup of coffee cools on the glass table and Paul sits quietly, a blank canvas.

Paul resembles Richard Milhous Nixon, just handsomer, with a broad face and carefully slicked-back bangs that, were they to fall in his face, would reach the tip of his Richard Milhous nose. I imagine he drives a Prius. I imagine his morning breakfast is beige.

“I can’t seem to surrender, Paul. My ambivalence holds me in place. I’d like to, but.” My eyes settle on the bookcase. Paul has the DSM-IV. I know there’s a fifth edition, but I don’t hold it against him. “How does one surrender anyway?”

Paul doesn’t uncross his legs or shift in the wing chair that dominates his side of the office.

“In this case, you have to think of yourself as being in a burning building,” he says levelly, “With the only option for appreciable change being to just jump.”

I am quiet. Paul is quiet.

“You have a safety net. You’ll know you’re safe once you’re caught, but it requires an act of will.”

Incongruously, I say: “I don’t want to leave a Thom-sized hole.” This is an aside mantra, a stopgap, a gambit against erasure. It’s something I say all the time. It sounds right to say, and how we all need our summonses.

“You know David Foster Wallace talked about a burning building, too,” I change the subject while keeping with the metaphor. “He said a man jumps from a burning building not because he is suddenly comfortable with falling, but just because the alternative is so much worse.”

I’m not parrying Paul. I ponder that I may be agreeing with him. I think suddenly of that iconic photo, the Richard Drew one, the North Tower still intact but shedding souls and the idea of freefall is dizzying.

 

I had said, ‘I surrender’ before, at Casa Palmera, to the admissions director who pulled my file with an almost alacrity.

“We figured you’d be back.” He had a self-righteous air, which matched his overall mien; it also matched his car vaingloriously parked in front of the building, all lacquer and gleam. I hated him. While he detailed the terms of my surrender, he fingered a six-year sobriety token between pudgy fingers—seemingly for effect—and I hated him a second time.

“I’m serious now,” I said meekly. I blew a 0.16. I got a bed.

Fear:   Face Everything And Recover. It’s what they teach you there. Else Fuck Everything And Run. Two types of surrender.

“I’m serious now,” I repeated three days later as the nurse tried to convince me to stay. “I’m leaving.”

“Where you gonna go,” the admissions director asked, with a sneersome face worn to resemble tough love. “I mean, you’ve essentially lost your family,” he lied.

“I have places I can go,” I lied right back.

The director was annoyed—this was going to be a ding on the recidivism record, a spot of tarnish on Casa’s otherwise brass finish. The halls were shiny. The food was Mediterranean and served on actual dinnerware. There were salad forks, masseuses, biofeedback options, yoga and meditation. To leave this place was to leave recovery, period, the alternative being no alternative in the director’s mind as evidenced by the waiver I had to sign upon my exit.

‘Against medical advice, the undersigned faces the potential consequence of: Relapse. Death.’

I affixed my signature, then took a black Mercedes up and out of the Del Mar hinterlands, a fine death cab if there were one, and stared out the window as we passed the well-arbored equestrian farms, the gated manors, the eventual coastline. The moon of my breath appeared on the blue window, disappeared, then appeared again. Down the highway there was the fact of a burning building; I folded my hands in wait.

 

 

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Coffee Shop Culture

cafe-terrace-at-nightWhen I walk into Lestat’s West at midnight, Aaron is on stage running through Mingus’ The Clown monologue, sans bass because Aaron’s right hand is atrophied at an angle and it’s presently difficult for him to play. He later recounts two stories, one in which he learned Satan’s Prayer before the Lord’s Prayer having played the Devil himself in a production of Marat/Sade; then, a more comical story of how he unwittingly cursed out Adrian Belew at a guitar camp when he was nineteen. (“Shut up, Old Man! Who the hell are you?”) We find we both have a love for Tom Waits, but can’t collectively remember where Waits was born.

“NewYork? Chicago? I guess he comes from every city—that’s kinduv the musician he is. Think I heard he was born in the back of a taxi cab or something,” Aaron says hands picking incessantly at his garments. (Waits is from Pomona, CA).

Trent, meanwhile, is rotund and red-cheeked, a 12 a.m. carnival barker with a Mobile accent and a broken volume knob, larger than life and convinced of God lest everything be just “too fucking weird.” He wears an undersized plaid button-up with protruding T-shirt sleeves, is remarkably well-shaven despite his otherwise shambolic appearance, and sports close-cropped hair set above a ruddy brow.

“There’s power in prayer,” he bellows, and I, for one, agree that the Universe operates on suggestibility. Signs and omens, omens and signs.

Sam is the seemingly spider-woven septuagenarian, replete with natty ascot. He resembles Martin Landau, though more anemic, temporal veins tributaries of blue. He sports two hearing aids and has a habit of talking mere inches from his intended audience. He is very tall—one has to look up when he is talking–the only thing not suggestive of height on his person is a meticulously flattened coiffure, near-gossamer threads swept low and to the right.

“I always keep a drunk between me and the bottle,” he says, in explanation of a long-term sobriety, “Meaning, my friend, I always have someone in the way of my scotch. And now I’ve made it, after all these years, to gainful unemployment.” He lifts his coffee mug in salud.

The moon is out and Gilbert, sweet Gilbert, points to it and says: “I was in the Outback a few years ago, and you know the moon is upside-down there because you’re on the bottom of the earth. And I’m alone in the Outback and it strikes me—it strikes me for the first time in my life beneath that upside-down moon—that I am here and belong to the whole of this humanity, that we are together, all here on this earth.”

His eyes brim, and the right-side up moon plays over the patio, and there is a nocturne here, midnight at the café´.

 

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Ghosts in the Machine

home-slider-04Mike asks me, “What year is this car?” while he finishes his cigarette outside the all-night coffeeshop. It’s 1 a.m. and the sky is an expressionless thing.

“What?” I reply while unlocking the door to my Beetle, “Oh—um—it’s a 2014.”

The question strikes me as odd at first, though I quickly amend ‘odd’ to ‘superfluous’, because with his walking stick and ruined eyes, Mike is not seeing the car inasmuch as he is theorizing it. Mike is blind.

Back inside the coffeeshop, Sweet Gilbert had recounted: “This student slipped on a curb and got a cut above his left eye. In four hours he was blind. In six he was dead. What the SHIT is that?” Sweet Gilbert has pork chop hands and uses them to effect. He works in an emergency room, but I puzzle to think of any delicate instrument employed by his meaty fingers that isn’t simultaneously engulfed by them. His hands: they are massive.

“What the shit,” Mike’d echoed.

“And this other guy—he was shot six times by a mugger before he wrested the gun away. He beat his assailant to death, then walked the fifteen blocks to the hospital. What. The SHIT. Is. That?” Sweet Gilbert leaned back in his chair.

“What the shit.”

“Naw, there’s something at work here I don’t pretend to know,” Sweet Gilbert had resignedly said, “I’m not gonna say everything happens for a reason, but if you try to assign reason to it? Because you’re too stubborn to admit there COULD be a ghost in the machine? Well, good luck.” Gilbert is at once a collection of particles and waves, “Good luck.”

“Good luck.

“Hey,” Mike stood up then, rapping his cane against the assorted chair legs, “Anyone got themselves a car?”

Mike looks like Leon Russell, late career, with long white hair and a skein of a beard. He wears a hat advertising Freedom Rock, which he says has the best damned pulled pork this side of the Missouri.

“You must’ve paid a pretty penny for this car,” he says pinching the cherry off his Marlboro, still staring sightless at the now open passenger door.

I look at Mike, then at the car, then back at Mike again.

“No,” I reply, “I got a pretty good deal on it.” I erase the confused expression off my face for fear he’s intuiting it. Mike stands a good six feet away from the car, his cane having stopped its roving.

“Well, good for you. It’s a beauty,” he says, and I am momentarily incredulous as he climbs into the front seat, the moon choosing at this minute to present itself meekly from its hiding place above the coffeeshop marquis.

I walk around to the driver’s side and slide behind the wheel. As I’m buckling up, he’s rifling through a billfold, settling finally on a fiver that’s buried mid-wallet. His head is tipped back in a way that is without direction, as if propped up and lolling on a scarecrow post. He hands me the bill and says, “Here’s a five. For gas. I’m on the University side of Louisiana.”

I don’t shun the bill, though it’s far too generous for what amounts to a two-mile drive. This is an earnest transaction, though, he buying my eyes for dependable passage. It’s the witching hour, after all, and what ghosts would condense and materialize otherwise were he travelling by cane alone, without the safety of cars.

“You’ll have to circle back to Adams,” he directs, “Then turn left before Park.”

“Yeah—I used to live on Florida for five years. I gotcha.” And I dutifully guide the car west and away from the late-night storefronts toward the state-named streets, Alabama and Ohio, Arizona and Texas.

We travel in silence for a number of blocks and, just as I make out the Louisiana street sign, my right hand still in hesitation above the turn signal, he announces, “Turn left here.”

“I know,” I say, then correct myself, “Thanks.” The clicker is audible because I have the radio turned down, and suddenly the turn signal seems loud because I’m imagining his ears, surely honed to acuity, registering the click-click, click-click at magnificent volume while the car heads south.

More silence.

“El Cajon Boulevard,” he declares as we, without stopping, travel through green and—indeed—pass beneath The Boulevard sign, lit up phantasmagoric here in the late-night hour. Mike’s eyes are fixed on the passenger-side visor, his cane held flagpole erect between his knees. I’m driving a GPS animate, and I could close my eyes to match his open ones; the car could drive by Braille and suggestion alone.

“Slow down,” Mike raises a finger as we pass various residences, “Aaaand here.” I stop the car in front of a lit bungalow, and I trust it’s his though he never once specified an address. Mike taps the brim of Freedom Rock, and exits the car in a clatter of canes; he then disappears into the house, which I briefly wonder why is lit.

What the shit, I echo Gilbert as I slowly pull away. I turn the radio up in Mike’s absence—it is Thom Yorke singing ‘Down is the new up/Down is the new up’—and as the sky gains expression the more the moon reveals itself off and to the right, I think of ghosts and what machines they must inhabit, and I am harnessed by the thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lyndon

Lyndon was born in the year of our Lord, 1965, so was named after LBJ though he’d later bear no resemblance to the cantankerous Texan, neither by disposition nor mien, but would instead be soft-spoken with a tousle of blonde hair, eyes rendered sightless by a rugby accident that also—in his words—rendered him hopelessly, haplessly, and alcoholically senseless.

The rule was: you couldn’t touch Moses—or say his name even—when Moses was on harness, Moses being the seeing-eye dog that dutifully guided Lyndon through the corridors of the hospital. He was a dark-haired German Shepard who, like his namesake, led his people through the proverbial desert toward whatever milk and honey was appropriate to the moment: a freshly made bed; the cafeteria queue; the chair by the window, which was reserved for Lyndon though his eyes registered nothing of the light that streamed through its glass; the penniless fountain across from the koi pond.

Lyndon’s eyes had recessed in his sightlessness. He bore a look reserved for either the blind or the haunted, maybe both, and he spoke from the seemingly same recess, laconically, with his hands always resting on his knees, palms up.

“I can tell you are kind,” he’d say, with regard to most everyone, and he’d say this while staring straight ahead, rarely turning his head in the direction of his addressee. He wore a large wooden cross round his neck, red, and so seemed an aged pope bestowing anonymous benediction upon the rooms. “You are kind. I can tell that.”

Lyndon, with your unseeing eyes, which for half a lifetime knew sight, with your unseeing eyes and your papal frailty, I wonder I wonder: do you still dream in color?

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Jason

Jason fell down again and again in football practice.

“What’s up with you, Son?” the coaches would ask.

“I dunno.”

I saw Jason at high school orientation. Hadn’t seen him for a coupla months. He was on crutches.

“Didja break your leg?”

He shrugged. “No. I’ve got cancer.”

I told my mom upon coming home.

“Oh, Honey,” she said, “That means he’s gonna die.”

I just slumped against the refrigerator and cried.

She was right, though. He did.

I held a basin for him at his fourteenth birthday party so he could puke. Green bile and chemo medications.

“Thanks, Thom,” he said, wiping his mouth.

I washed the basin out in the sink. Everyone else in the house was asleep.

Jason had the couch; I was in a sleeping bag on the floor. He had one leg at this point, the other having been amputated from the knee down.

Interminable silence. It was 2 a.m. but we were both awake.

“Thom?”

“Yeah, Jason?” He sensed that I was awake.

“What do you think the music will be like in heaven?” and he adjusted himself on the pillows.

“I dunno, Jason.”

“I think it’s gonna be awesome.”

“I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be.”

And we stopped talking. Then we fell asleep.

Jason died two weeks later.

I’ve outlived him now by three decades. His mom called me on the day he was dying.

“He’s on morphine now. He’s comfortable.”

In the background, a wavering voice: “I love you, Thom.” Jason on the couch.

I never said ‘I love you’ back.

I was twelve.

I never said ‘I love you’ back.

I didn’t know how.

I helped carry his body out of church. He asked me to.

There are days I can’t outlive the hurt. There were days in high school I had fantasies of being stricken dead. Cut off my leg, kill me. I wanna hear the music in heaven, too. One beautiful and sonorous note to fill the ever-expanding hole, one note to make sense of it all. An organ blast, something.

“Hey, Jason.”

“Yeah?”

“I love you, too.”

“…”

“Sorry I forgot to say that.”

“It’s okay, Thom. I knew.”

“…”

“Thom?”

“Yeah, Buddy?”

“Just keep living, okay?”

“Alright, Kid. I will.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Ace of Serves

Coach Conneley’s knees cracked when he crouched down behind the baseline.

“Lemme see what you got.”

I nodded. I spun the racquet on its head, then pounded the catgut to make sure the strings were taut. I adjusted a grommet.

I glanced over at Coach. He raised his eyebrows: “Go ahead.”

I bounced the tennis ball a couple of times, then twirled the racquet by its throat for good luck.

I glanced over at Coach again. He smiled.

It was a hot day and so I wiped the sweat from my brow.

<Bounce, bounce>

I squinted at the left-hand box; I was on the right.

“C’mon—you gonna serve, already?” Adam yelled from the opposite side. Behind him was the chain-link fence, then hills beyond that. He was crouched in ready-position.

I never took tennis lessons; no one ever taught me a goddamn thing.

I pointed at Adam.

I let loose the ball, flung my racquet behind my shoulder blades and pirouetted into a serve.

“Phuh!” The ball skidded past Adam and slammed into the fence. Point.

I spun my racquet and switched sides. Coach stood up, and placed a hand over his mouth.

<Bounce, bounce>

I gestured for Adam to back up. He didn’t.

I gestured again. I looked at Coach, who was now standing.

I adjusted my grip on a new tennis ball, turned it until my fingers split the threads. I switched up my hand on the racquet’s shaft until my forefinger was comfortable resting along its topside.

“Phuh!” Second ball joined the first.

So did the third. Then the fourth.

I turned to Coach and rested on the butt of the racquet.

“Wow,” he said, “I go to country clubs and play with people that have practiced their serve for twenty years. Wow. You’re…just. Wow, Kid.” He laughed.

But the thing is, I never developed a game. The serve was the only thing I was good at. Shut ‘em out early, don’t let them see your otherwise weaknesses. For the record, my backhand sucks.

“Thanks, Coach.”

He tousled my head.

“Keep at it, Thom.”

“Thanks, I will.”

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Ms. Bowery

040318_LG_black-hole_feat (1)

Ms. Bowery is setting out the plates. It is 1 a.m.

Ms. Bowery has hair towered into a bouffant, pink at its base, but crowned with an acceptant gray that she’s chosen to leave untouched.  She has stray locks which tangle with her eyelashes, but, unswept, they signify she’s just emerged from a kitchen where heat and humidity have had their play. A menagerie of brass instruments in the backdrop express steam intermittently; a pan of pastries lay proofed in align like a mausoleum of bees encased in their own honey.

“I have polenta crisps,” she offers, which I accept greedily, and she hands me a lacquered patisserie studded with cornmeal, bowed to fit both sides of the plate. I have to crack it with a fork.

“The hotel’s asleep, you know,” Ms. Bowery says; I look up.

“Oh, I know,” I respond, as she leans up against the counter with weighty arms.

I’ve been wandering the hotel since most the doors have closed, following the hallways and remarking the damask carpet.

I gesture with my fork. “This is the best time of night, though.”

“Tell me about that,” Ms. Bowery says, and she turns in her pinstripe uniform to scrub honey from a spent tray of rolls.

I play with my food while she dutifully scours the pan, the back of her arms in constant up and down motion above the sink. The crisp is like the crust of a crème brulee, Ms. Bowery suddenly the alchemist. The polenta falls into candied shards upon the plate, like teeth falling out tink-tink into porcelain.

“I dunno, Ms. Bowery. There’s the side-yard, first of all.”

“Oh—you’ve been there?” she smiles, turning around briefly, before returning to her scrubbing.

“That and the downstairs lobby. I turned a corner, and I at first noticed the chandelier.”

Ms. Bowery shrugs.

“Well hear me out. I noticed the chandelier, but that wasn’t it. Every hotel’s got a chandelier. There were those two hallways leading to the back.”

“Which one did you go down?” Ms. Bowery, asks, shaking the pan dry.

“The left one.”

She nods, returns to the counter, and places her chin in hand.

“Good choice.” She looks down.

“You done with that?” she remarks, gesturing to my food, which is tilework on my plate. I haven’t been eating well.

I push the plate her direction.

“The left hallway had all these intricate balconies—wrought-iron balustrades done up like Spanish moss—wall-hangings, big potted plants. All these voices from the rooms, like, they were condensing on the under-leaves of the plants, and the carpet was thick and I was bare-foot and it was nice.”

“Hmm. Thanks for staying up with us,” Ms. Bowery says, simply, while clearing my plate. She returns to the sink and it’s just me and her in the lobby. There’s the sound of porcelain banging against the aluminum basin.

I try a half-hearted sneer. “Well, if I didn’t stay up with you, then you wouldn’t exist, y’know.”

She returns to the counter and sighs, shakes her head gently. “The quite opposite is true. You realize your eyes are closed, don’t you?” She cocks her head leeward and looks at me sadly.

“I know,” I admit.

“What’d you see in the side-yard?” There’s no lobby music playing.

I take Ms. Bowery’s hand and sigh.

There’s the nothing-sound of a great machine stopped, the otherwise expression of steam from one of Ms. Bowery’s brass contraptions.

Ms. Bowery’s hand disappears and I’m in a field of grass gone silver in the crepuscular light. The sun has slipped its chariot and the night emerges little by little until the sky is just a field of uninterrupted stars. I can’t make out the constellations; I am looking through the long arm of the Milky Way, so it’s as if I’m pressing on my eyes and seeing my retinas explode in multitudinous dots, yellows and greens and blues, that encapsulate and exceed vision at once; and there are crickets which play metered time in the humus beneath my head, a soft timbre that is not a stopwatch, nor a lullaby, but a reminder still of moments passing while stars fall from their orbit in a series of sky happenings, as the horizon gets darker, as the moon grows brighter, as the silver grass grows more illuminative with 1 a.m passing, then 2.

“It’s a good place, isn’t it?” Ms. Bowery asks.

I nod my head. She tucks a curl back from her brow.

“Come back anytime. This hotel, it is yours.”

 

 

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School Pictures

Cayde sat opposite the couch from me mired in spiral-bound notebooks and three-ring binders. He had one ear bud in, the cord of which trailed to the computer, and there was the small tintinnabulation of EDM playing incessant 6/4 time while Cayde typed on the keyboard. His face was illuminated by the laptop screen, underlit like a boy playing with a flashlight beneath the covers, eyes and nose done up in alien shadow. I studied him from across the way, surreptitiously, so as not to interrupt him with my gaze. In between keystrokes he’d reach over and pluck a few grapes from a plate next to him, else crunch on a pita chip dipped in hummus: just a boy doing his homework, without rile. He could almost be described as inexpressive, which made studying him that much more an objective exercise; me tracing the lines of his face with my eyes; following those rounded cheeks down to the jut of his chin; remarking his brow, smooth, yet to be furrowed with the worries of age. The block of his hair fell weightily to the right and threatened need of cutting. Behind Cayde, the living room window reflected the night’s Spanish homework, now beyond my reading level, but Cayde’s eyes flickered along comprehendingly, and the window flickered as quickly, displaying flashes of light and color while Cayde parsed through the various screens.

It occurred to me suddenly, that though Cayden was wrapped in his custom makeshift nest of cushions, pillows and blankets, obviously at home and content; that though his mom and dad were in the room and reflected in the window screen as well; that I didn’t know exactly who Cayden looked like anymore, that I could’ve been looking at a stranger across the playground. Perhaps it was the under-lighting, the martian glow provided by the computer, but suddenly eleven seemed a world away from every myriad age Cayde had been up until this evening, back when his features were recognizable morphs: my eyes, Jenn’s nose, his grandmother’s cherubic cheeks. Now he was just Boy, caught somewhere in between features, on his way to something pre-adolescent and independent of his heredity, if briefly. As if his genes were unloosed and given free expression for a moment, allowed to rearrange to their own liking.

I cocked my head and tried looking at him from a different angle, trying to take him in. I was reminded of the time I visited the Grand Canyon when I was in high school. I was with my friend Ryan, and we were perched on the East Rim overlooking one of the canyon’s sprawling vistas. Unlike anything embossed in miniature on a postcard, the Canyon was immeasurable, irreducible, and no matter of perspective allowed the eye to capture it at once. So, too, looking at Cayde was like trying to minimize something far too expansive to take in at one time. I searched his face for something essential, something recognizable, that would frame him in the moment, as readily as the windowpane behind him squared his figure on the chaise, the reflections in the glass haloed his head in illuminative graphics. He continued typing on the keyboard, occasionally shaking the bangs loose from his forehead; I studied his mannerisms, still careful not to disturb him with my stare, and slowly Cayde emerged, by nature of his small movements. It was like watching a painting come alive, a two-dimensionality wrest its away into the unlikely third, and it was the gestures, the particular way in which Cayde reached for his grapes or the way in which he adjusted the laptop screen, that reminded me of my boy. Still, I couldn’t see myself in him, his mother for that matter either.

On cue, Jenn tapped me on the shoulder from her perch behind me on the orange recliner. “Take a look at these.”

“Hmm? What?” I asked, woken out of my reverie. “Oh,” and I collected a portfolio she had handed me.

“School pictures.”

I slid the photos from their sheath, and there was Cayde’s face in multiplicate, matte and frozen in smile.

“Doesn’t he look like my dad?” Jenn asked. “Like young pictures of him,” she elaborated.

“I dunno,” I said, squinting. “I was just wondering that I don’t know who Cayde looks like anymore.”

Cayde looked up from his screen, face still illuminated in silver light, and deftly held up his hands between philtrum and his chin. “From here to here, I look like Mommy,” he announced, before returning to finish his Spanish.

His self-awareness is sudden relief and once he closes the laptop, the light-show turned off so that there’s just the nothingness of the window behind him, I in part recognize him again, and he looks up at me which are my eyes, surely; headlamps are passing vagaries in the street and Cayde is occasionally silhouetted, and we look at each other with shared eyes and I slide the school pictures slowly back into their sheath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Think, Feel, Behave.

“Coach, two,” I say to John who’s barking at his boys in a Ugandan accent. He nods assent while I toss him deuces.

I sit against the chain-link behind Cayde who’s the itinerant goalie, pink shoes and leather gloves.

Cayde glances at me, then returns to the game, which—considering the practice lot’s vicinity to the street—is really just a keep-away game from the cars. He tugs at the thumb of his left glove with front teeth and readies himself for another drive.

“NOW NOW NOW!” and Coach John urges his mid-fielders forward toward Cayde’s cage. There’s the inimitable sound of a ball being punted, then the sound of Cayde crashing to the grass with an <oomph> having deftly caught it.

“Alright, Cayde. Let’s go. End on a good one.”

I shake the coach’s hand.

“Gotta pull him early, Coach.”

“Awight. YOU GO GOOD.” Coach has no volume button. I’m being instructed to leave early, well, though I asked permission. Story of my life. I have a deck of cards in one pocket, a pen in the other.

I show Cayden to the car, which is parked to the side.

“Where are we going?”

“Not sure yet.”

We drive.

“Why’d you cut seventh period, Cayde? And why’d you destroy your phone?”

(This is all my fault).

“I dunno. BUT they were the worst mistakes I ever did.”

There’s a green light on 30th, so I turn. I know about worst mistakes, so I take pause while the intersection clears.

“Lemme get this straight: you like photo class, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Why ditch it?”

“They’re only talking about how cameras are made and boring stuff.”

“Oh.”

I look at Cayde and smile.

“That’s not boring stuff, y’know.”

The lights on University are Green and we circle aimlessly, like the universe is telling me to ‘go’ but I don’t know exactly where. It’s six p.m. and most the reputable coffee shops are closed.

I clear my throat.

“My friend Brad teaches photography, and the first thing he teaches his students to do is to make a camera out of a Quaker Oat box.” I downshift and park.

We exit the car.

“You see, Cayde,” I say, as we leave the car tick-ticking its heat, “It’s not about the instrument. It’s about YOU.”

We’re in front of the North Park Observatory, where Cayde and I saw one of our first shows. A Starbucks is built into its lobby. We’re going to Starbucks.

“Whaddya mean?”

“I’ll tell you. First you tell me why you destroyed your phone. Then we can talk.”

(A note about the Observatory: I took Cayden here when he was ten. Phantogram show. He was excited to be with his Dad. I remembered a TV episode from years back—Black Sheep Squadron—and, TV lieutenant to Major Pappy Boyington: TJ told Pappy he was unsure if he loved his dad, that it was getting in the way of his flying. Pappy told TJ that it was ok if he didn’t love his dad. Hearing that, TJ could fly again.

‘Love you, Kid—Jeezus, just settle down.’ And Phantogram came on, and we struggled to the midsection; Cayde fell asleep on my shoulder while the amplifiers played in clip, and I thought, ‘Fucking TJ. Just love your Dad already.’ Me and Cayde walked home, and Cayde narrated the entire walk back to make me remember why I’m a Dad , and why it is that he will never ever be a TJ).

“Why’d you break your phone?”
“I was angry,” we are dealing gin rummy over a hot chocolate and an Americano. We have met the barista. His name is Tomaso. I instruct Cayden to always introduce yourself to your ‘server’.

(“They’re not your ‘server’, Cayde,” scratching my beard, “You have no idea what they might be outside of serving you a drink or a movie ticket or your groceries. Introduce yourself, always. ALWAYS know their name.”)

“I was angry. It was stupid.”

“Thoughts become feelings become actions, Dude. I know it. You gotta stop at the ‘thoughts/feelings’ part.”

We play gin. The rhythm of the game allows me time to think. Cayde’s gotten pretty good, so I have a worthy partner. ‘Bout being a Dad? You make this shit up as you go, and no matter how smart you are, you need time on the ropes to wipe the blood off your face.

“I’m sorry you….”

Cayde lays down ten cards. “Beat you, Daddy!”

I have no time to finish.

“Yes. Yes, you did.” I swipe up the cards.

I quietly lay a pen down on the table. “What’s this, Cayde?”

“A pen.”

“What does it do?”

“It writes things and makes essays and stuff.”

I shake my head.

“Try again.”

“It writes?”

I shake my head again while I replace the pen in my front pocket.

“It does nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

I re-shuffle the cards, and my Americano is getting cold.

“It does nothing. It sits in the goddamn store until someone buys it and uses it. THEN it means something. It’s why you probably shouldn’t have destroyed your phone; there’s a nice camera on there. It’s now like an unbought pen. Lemme show you something.”

It’s near eight at the Starbucks and the baristas are starting to stack chairs and express steam from the machines. The neon lights have come on.

I walk Cayden across the store.

“Look at our coffee cups.”

“OK.”

“Gonna teach you something. ‘Taught this in New Orleans. Look at our coffee cups. OK? Now let’s walk across the store and look at them again. They’re different, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s walk here.”

“They’re different again.”

“Exactly. Now if I had a pen or a camera, I would take either which one and *note* how things are different while staying the same. I haven’t moved my coffee cup, but it looks different because we’re looking at it from a different angle.”

“…”

“Tomaso is cleaning up the floor. What color is his apron?”

“Green.”

“How does that make you feel?”

“Green?”

“No—gimme a word that describes green.”

“Plants.”

“His apron is not a plant, but you called it a plant. That’s metaphor, and we’ve just seen how things can look depending on where you sit in the room.”

“Yeah!”

And I point to his forehead.

“That’s your brain working, Kid. Nothing in this room has changed, except that we’ve moved around it. Good thing I’ve got a pen to write it all down: the simplest, stupidest of all things.

“Don’t wreck your camera. It’s got worth, Dude. Learn how it works, but learn how better to work it. ‘S all important, every part of it. And—seriously—Think. Feel. Behave. In that order.”

I’ve not entirely lost Cayden at this point, though I’m in part talking to myself. We close out the Starbucks and we hold hands on the way to the car, cards neatly tucked away into my pocket.

Think. Feel. Behave. Think. Feel. Behave. Ad infinitum.

Uncategorized

Gunslinger

goodGunslinger night.

Cayde and I just watched the rocket launch out of Vandeberg and have a date to play a few rounds of 7-card before bed. I never ‘let’ him win.

“Is there a strategy to this game?” Cayden asked me one time.

“Yeah, Kid. I’m using it right now, and you’re not gonna win until you figure out what it is I’m doing. By the way, I know you have a seven in your hand so don’t count on me giving up my eight.”

Hard-knocks.

I think back to when Cayde and I used to play Connect-Four; Cayde was maybe five. Cayde would stick his tongue out and make the wrong Tetris time and again—we’d pull the lever and make the chips clatter to the tabletop.  Then, we’d reset and repeat.

I remember the first time he beat me at my own game, having finally learned to think at least two moves ahead (and play a diagonal board, dammit). Could’ve been embarrassing to lose to a kindergartner, but instead I was really proud.

“Let’s go get some food before we play tonight,” the rocket launch fading into the chambre sky, lights muted by a column of clouds.

We stop at the taco truck after stopping at the mom n’ pop for some graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate.

“Dude—the taco diablo,” I say to the cook who’s leaning his head out the window, “’S spicy shrimp?”

“Yes, my friend: spring mix, cabbage, mozza, shrimp and pico.”

“How spicy is spicy?”

“Whatchoo want, one to ten?” I pause, so he just answers for me: “I give you a four.”

“Whoa, whoa—before we agree, whaddya use for spice?”

“Oh—there’s a spicy salsa on the side.”

“No, no—what makes your shrimp a 1-10?”

“Oooh,” he smiles—“Habañero, my friend.”

“Let’s make it a five to start then,” and we give knucks.

Cayde and I make rangetop S’mores when we get home, and I attempt the taco.

It’s a weak five, the cook having buried the shrimp in mozza to suppress the heat.

I return to the truck, Morricone music faintly playing in the background.

The cook smiles and leans his head out the window again, like Frank Morgan peering out the Emerald Gateway in Wizard of Oz.

“Heey—you’re back my Friend.”

“Dude—the taco was excellent, but sling me a nine at least. Less cheese.”

I pass the test: he smiles, retreats to his rangetop, and starts making me some real shit.

“There you go, my Friend,” he passes me a nicely wrapped tortilla. “I’ll see you next week.”

I love cooks—you just gotta know how to play their game.

“Alright, Cayden,” I say dealing the cards. “Didja figure it out yet? The strategy?” We play through half the deck before I gracefully play a five-card straight and lop-side the scoreboard, 100-10. Cayde twists his mouth. I re-deal.

“I go first, Kid,” and I start the game with trip fours. The game goes back and forth and I’ve got some kings and aces in my hand, am looking to go out with a flourish, like the rocket from Vandever, which earlier had sparked brightly in the sky before sneakily appearing further south on the skyline.

Cayde has seven cards in his hand, and I have five—he looks consternated and pretends to be frustrated at the discard pile. I just need an ace to run away with this one.

Cayde pulls a card, frowns. He rearranges the cards in his hand as if rethinking his straights and trips. Morricone music plays again. He discards a three and—just as I’m about to pick up a fresh card—he says: “Hold on, Daddy.”

He lays down a straight and a trip at once, depleting his hand. Like we were playing gin rummy versus seven-card. Card shark shit.

“You have aces in your hand, Daddy.”

I let my hand crumble to the carpet. Two aces, two kings. I’m down fifty points immediately.

Cayden smirks, and I’m proud as can be. He not only swept the leg, he guessed my hand.

“Nice job, Kid.”

<exeunt>