It’s been a long while since I contacted you. I’m sure that puts question marks above your head.
“Where are you?”, you may ask.
I ask the same question most every day. Not out of geographic curiosity. I know where you are and I’ve an idea of what your walls may look like: the beds, the barracks. The sea of prison blue. I know you’re situated in the middle of King’s County with a sky that must be devastatingly incredible.
I’ve driven the 5 a few times over in the time you’ve been gone and have seen the tired pistoning of oil pumps; the ruminative cattle; and the white, white haze which seems to jump senses into whiter noise.
The last time I sped through King’s County was with Bradley in a U-Haul truck. A trailer shimmied behind us bearing a vintage car and three bristling, sleep-deprived cats. The cab smelled of Kamel Reds and spent coffee cups. By mid-morning, just beyond the King’s County HP Station and directly beyond the rutted half-roads which finger out into the farmers’ fields, I felt I couldn’t concentrate any longer on the highway lines. We pulled over and slept on the grass beneath these wispy clouds that promised an unerringly still, cricket-shivering night. Brad slept on the trailer rig and, when he awoke, pointed out that I had slept in the grass beneath a sign reading: ‘Dog Lawn.’
I thought about Christopher, the editor of the now-defunct CH Press. I call it defunct because although the long-awaited Roque Dalton issue finally came out, I’m gone and Dave is gone and Maggie is left with a pile of manuscripts and a glass of scotch and an absence of her two best editors. Anyway, I thought of Christopher there on that dog-piss grass: I saw him last in the SD Jail. Maggie sobbed in the periphery of the visiting room and I took up the phone that lay unceremoniously on the steel-grey table. I picked up the receiver and looked at Christopher behind the glass–he was all slicked-back hair and waxed moustache; he wore a tight-lipped expression. By his admission, he was on a diet of heavy metals and liver medication. He wore thick glasses which made his eyes look disproportionately huge and wallowy in the otherwise context of grey brick and cold, cold light. Maggie sobbed and she sobbed. I held the phone to my ear and didn’t know a goddamn thing to say.
Christopher spoke and said that my wedding was beautiful. He had crashed his car in Arizona, spent his money on meth. He had dodged the law and lost the rest of his money on smoky poker games somewheres in the Southwest. But he somehow made his way back to my wedding–Maggie’s date–and he cried and held Maggie’s hand when we released butterflies and read Ferlinghetti. Behind the glass he was frail, a mere exhalation of breath. He thanked me for taking care of Mags; I thanked him for being in the audience at our wedding.
I first met Christopher on the phone 3(?) years ago when he corrected my pronunciation of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. And here we were again–on the phone, but face-to-face. “Thom, take care,” he said. “Take care of M.” I took care of Maggie by kissing her in some hopeless manner on the cheek, and leading her out of the Piranesi-inspired civic building, phone hung-up and Christopher disappeared.
I remember when Christopher was released for a brief time and how he held forum at Maggie’s house in front of an ashtray. He was smoking a long and almost effiminately thin joint. Which was “safe” he confided, because “California only looks for uppers in my system.” His hands were strange deep-sea jellyfish, fingers not unlike wavering tentacles. “California is a river of blue, ” he said tapping out an ash, “It is punctuated by a braking of buswheels and penitentiary-blue lights.”
A wave of the hand, a drag on the tightly-rolled cigarette. “California is blue.” He looked pleased because, above all, he was a poet.
And, as a three-time loser on his way to Corcoran, he saw the rich blue of prison lights as the only matter-of-fact thing of beauty left in his world.
Christopher is now gone, above the law I think. Somewheres south. I’ve held Maggie in the meanwhile when she was overly aware of the gun in her nightstand, when the television flickered late-night Donald Sutherland movies, and when the sounds of the house shook her awake. I sat in her bed all night like a sentry, sucked the scotch from her tumbler of ice cubes set aside on the nightstand. I laid next to her, wide awake, and smelled the smoke of her dressing gown and heard her murmur resignation in her sleep.
She told me about Mayakovsky: how he left his wife because an admirer had, at an intellectual’s party, recited–word for word–the full extent of his 900 line opus. Mayakovsky left his wife to embrace this young admirer. Still–a few years later, he took a gun to his head and left the girl with 900 lines of regret.
I’ve not seen M. or Christopher in a long time but–there in the grass of King’ County, a short drive away from the tired city you’ve called home for the past few years–I thought of you arriving at Avenal, looking up from your handcuff-fisted lap, and seeing stark blue lights against a long-ignored landscape.
Christopher said California is a river of blue and I will never think of it differently.
I’m writing this letter. I need for you to hear me, or at least the story of the past three years–those you spent within labyrinthine corridors of concrete. Consider me a conduit. When lightning strikes a tree, its fires are shot through a thousand tissues and limbs fall in beautiful wreckage and the ground crackles a hundred feet around. In the end, the tree bears a scar and it continues wrapping rings of growth around its most blackened parts. The tree keeps growing but it will always have, coiled in its history, proof of of its damage.
I’m damaged. You are damaged.
We’ve both ushered that fire into the ground in different ways, but both bear darkened rings. We’ve both been conduits and have had the lawn throw up sparks beneath our feet. We’ve both had fire run through us, and wait for the ground to speak its response.
Still love you. Take care.