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Movement Erases Meaning

Cayden notices my car has developed a bruise, an indentation in the hood, just above the VW insignia.

“Where did that come from, Daddy?”

I really don’t care, had forgotten about it, but have to explain while Cayde and I drive the ten minutes to the Natural History Museum.

“Oh—it’s nothing, Dude.”

(It’s just an unseemly dent, not the end of the world)

“I was parked outside the market, and a guy with a big truck said he didn’t see my car—you know how those trucks sometimes have tire racks on the back?” I attempt a quick explanation.

Cayde’s playing with the AC vent while also surfing a hand outside the open car window—we are measures of inefficiency—and he answers: “Yeah? Go on.”

Story is this: a guy with an SUV reared into my car while trying to navigate out of a parking spot, and it was a panicked lady in a flowered frock who rushed into the market to tell me. To tell everyone actually.

“Does anyone own a gray Beetle?” she implores the backed-up line of patrons, and I’m holding an avocado and a six-pack of Le Croix.

I’m buying the pamplemousse variety of sparkling water, which could be a fine title for the lipstick on the lady’s cracked lips. We could also venture into ‘aubergine’ territory, were we to keep calling fruits by their gallic monikers, and lipsticks by their fruit counterparts.

“Fuck.” I slump my wares down. This obviously isn’t gonna end well. <Clean up on Aisle Three>

“Me. The Bug. That’s me,” I hang my head, then raise a hand as if still in third grade.

“Well, this man hit your car and he’s looking for you and I’m sorry and he’s looking for you. He’s out there,” she says pointing, “And he’s looking for you and I said I’d help.”

“Alright, Ma’am.”

I almost want to grab her hands, because she’s pointing and having her point be a near Scarecrow gesture with this up and down shaking wrist, and a finger that could either be directing me north or south.

“He went thataway, or he could’ve gone thataway.”

“Thank you, Ma’am. I’ll be right back.”

“He’s out there!”

“I’m sure, Ma’am. I’ll be right back.”

There’s a Golden Retriever at the entryway and I give the dog an errant pat while I cross onto the sidewalk, doorway chime reliably signaling my exit. I look both left and right, then decide I just need to go check on my car. I’m expecting a sideswipe or something, a crumpled door.

It’s a good dent, certainly, just on the hood. I sigh. Not too bad.

The perp is one of those Toyota FJ6 numbers, a really obnoxious blue, that’s still parked in front of my car. I eye the tire rack, line it to the dent. It’s a casual case of 2008, me always driving something smaller than the next guy.

A man with a neat moustache and a neater khaki jacket bursts out of the next-door establishment, which happens to be an art-therapy studio.

I guess if you just hit a Bug, you’d imagine you’d be exchanging insurance information in oil pastel. I was at the corner grocer in my work clothes next to the cigarettes and Lotto tickets.

I point my beard at him—“I think you’re looking for me…? Lady in there said something.”

And the guy is so apologetic. He runs his hands in tight circles over fine-clippered temples. For the second time in five minutes, I have to say: “It’s alright.”

“I just didn’t see you,” he offers. He says some et cetera things. He has a pack of Marlboro reds in his jetted left breast pocket, but he doesn’t smell of tobacco.

“Your car—smaller, didn’t see it.”

We were parallel-parked. It would have been hard for him to return to his car, and not realize his boxed-in predicament, but I digress.

I thought instantly of the day when Jenn and I, six months shy of our wedding, drove back from a hospital after her mom’s surgery had failed. Some jackass backed into us though we’d all been queued up at a red light. We all had our blinkers on in this unspoken social agreement that—without any thought toward trickery—we were all going to be turning right. Said jackass broke the social contract, backed into us, decided to open his doors and travel on whatever brave vapors to greet my wife at the car window.

“Wow—we didn’t see you. Your car, ‘s just so small.”

Drunk Guy shrugged—his inebriation was obvious—he turned his head and scratched his nose while halfway inside Jenn’s driver-side door. He then rested his elbows on the windowframe.

He had an SUV, we were in a Nissan Sentra. But we were in all agreement, by manner of traffic light and blinkers in synch, just thirty seconds prior and before any bumpers needed meeting, that we were going forwards, then right. Rules of the road and all. Why was this incident necessary?

Reverse is not usually a direction you volunteer to go.

Drunk Guy sniffed, like some James Franco preview with a broken manner of speech and a purposefully unkempt mop of hair. He turned his head away, then back toward my wife as affect. James Franco is an awful actor; so was this guy.

“So sorry. Just such a bad day,” He then got brave, figuring an easy solution, “Hey—know what? I can pay you for your license frame. I think it’s the only damage.” He pretends to assess Jenn’s grille, his eyes not even making it past the left front tire.

“I can give you twenty bucks,” he sniffs, “Looks like you need to change out the license frame. I mean wow. Just didn’t see you there. SUCH a bad day.”

A twenty is pittance in comparison to a night in the tank, so it was easy arithmetic on Drunk Guy’s part. To his only credit, the only damage did wind up being just a dented license plate frame.

Then my wife did the proudest fiercest thing I’ve ever seen her do.

Cayden would call this ‘SAVAGE’ or whatever new slang it is when you burn someone, else kick karma aside like a bad habit.

My wife—she was wearing a butterfly dress and a cardigan—she stepped out of the car onto El Cajon Boulevard in front of the McDonald’s, just left of the Arco, my wife all of 5’4”.

She rose up, jutted her chin upward, slammed the door, and asked Drunk Guy, “Did your Mom just die today? Did you have to watch your Mom die today? TELL ME PLEASE about your bad day,” these last words said slow and with clenched teeth.

We had been up for hours in rooms with lilac air fresheners and a bountiful supply of Kleenex.

A surgeon had said, not an hour previous, “I’m sorry, but…” just like in a rerun of ‘Emergency’, or ‘St Elsewhere’, or ER’—any incarnation of those medical shows, where every fifteen minutes a white-coated actor with an aluminum clipboard and a failed mark in Method class, says, “We regret to inform you…”

Jenn tried to meet eyes with Drunk Guy. In this short period of time, the traffic light had already turned red again, my wife’s mother was stroking out in similar color, and the goddamn neon signs were buzzing by some magic of inert gas. Drunk Guy ran his fingers through his hair, looking sheepishly downward. He probably got laid a lot, with that hair, but my wife was meanwhile only interested in laying him into a grave-plot at this particular moment with the flashing of her eyes.

My wife gave him one last glare, moved to get back in the car, but then spun around one last time. She held out her palm.

“Hey–sure. You know what? Gimme those twenty fucking dollars.”

He stammered, “Wha…?”

“Give me those twenty fucking dollars. It was your idea.”

He obliged.

“Asshole.” And Jenn slammed the door.

Dave’s Flowers was open across the way, also with a neon sign buzzing, but who’s gonna remember the neon exclamation of flowers while people are meanwhile stopped speechless at the gas station near the intersection—having heard everything—people inching out of the Mickey D’s drive-thru, suddenly guilty of their nuggets and watching us pull away, with a dented license plate frame and a crumpled twenty thrown atop the console.

 “Tell me please about your bad day.”

“We regret to inform you.”

 Cayden and I try to find parking outside the Natural History Museum (the NAT), but there’s a carnival of catering trucks, guys offloading chairs and vases of fake flowers. There’s also a slog of Memorial Day tourists attempting to find parking spaces while simultaneously trying to navigate a different city. This cuts both their speed and ability in half.

There is a sudden slew of hazard lights and cars pulled to either side of the parking lot. I don’t think these people are actually waiting for parking spaces. They’re just suddenly automotive ostriches that need to put their Triple-A certified heads in the proverbial sand for a second. Which is to say, it’s busy.

“Goddammit. When I teach you how to drive, Cayden, don’t do that.” I’m gripping the wheel with one hand on twelve, referring to the Subaru Forester, which has suddenly stopped in the middle of the thoroughfare. I point and drink an iced coffee with the other hand, the one that’s supposed to be manning the two o’ clock position.

Twelve is the mean of ten and two, so mathematically I’m still in the right; these double-parked tourists, meanwhile, need both calculator and compass to negotiate a parking lot.

Cayden smiles—he’s a smart-ass—“’Course not Daddy. Instead I’ll just yell at people who break the driving laws, just like you do.”

I’m such a good example, sometimes, in being both right and wrong at once.

“Well, I don’t do that as much anymore,” I say contritely, nodding in a halfway contrite gesture, still with just one hand on the wheel.

He shrugs.

“I know, Daddy,” he says smilingly, nonplussed. I take a sip of my drink and look at him out of the corner of my eye.

I don’t think he’s fucking with me, but you never can tell.

(He said earlier in the week, also while driving, about something he saw on ‘YouTube’:

“You know I can hear better than you. It’s science.”

I remind him that he likes Marshmelo and Ariana Grande. High court judges would grant me pardon and probably consolatory monies to boot.

“Not to be mean, Daddy,” and he always says this before being invariably uncouth, “You’re almost forty and I’m only nine, so I can hear the high-pitch things you can’t. Your ears can’t hear what mine do. It’s science.”

I could make a really snarky comment because every morning, it’s like he can’t hear my voice, particularly with regard to putting on shoes. 17,400 htz is the usual divide and—he’s correct—it is science, but my voice falls way below the threshold.

“There! Like that!” he suddenly says, pointing upwards, a sticky-haired, nine-year old Archimedes enjoying a eureka moment. “That noise!”

I shake my head while I pull up to a four-way. I wave on an unsure bicyclist.

“You’re making shit up, Kid.”

“No, no!—I could hear that. I bet you didn’t.”

“Those. Are. The. Brakes, Dude. I heard them, too.”

And I pump the pedal a hard second time as emphasis. The shoulder harness catches slightly as he chugs forward a little bit. I smile to myself.

“Guess the brakes need some work, Kid.”)

I have to pull around the Forester and I look longingly at the empty handicap stall just feet away from the museum. I actually have a handicap placard, but it’s only for when Finn’s with me, so says the law, so says my general conscience.

“Wish I could park there, Dude,” I still remark, being pretend wistful.

These tourists with their hazard lights, the offloads of—what’s that?—a potted fern tree? A faux Roman column? Delivery guys push random dollies through the parking lot, their cargo wrapped in pink bubble wrap.

“Why not?” Cayde shrugs.

Cayde—he’s usually the policeman in all this, well-versed on the handicap laws. He’s not the flight-risk, or the kid with extra genetic material. He usually eschews even a feint at cheating. We only use the placard when Finn’s in the car. PERIOD. It’s California state law, and Cayden’s, too.

I raise an eyebrow while pulling around the Subaru. A trademark of the gifted child is an ultimate and nagging sense of fairness. Fatal flaw, really.

Cayde continues: “If a policeman stops us, you can just tell him I’m autistic.” And I choke back a laugh and a gasp at once, because this is an awfully obtuse thing to say, and I stammer: “Wait-what?”

“Yeah—just say I’m autistic. Like that one student Mommy had,” and I think about lecturing him, but moral relativism is the other trait of gifted children, the trait that manifests when it’s fast and frustratingly realized that–wow—life really isn’t fucking fair. When cheating, slyly, and in small portions, is compensation for the bigger letdown that Lady Justice hasn’t really been blind all this time. She peeks with one eye out of that blindfold of hers. Karma’s supposed to be the bitch, but Lady Justice has a backroom reputation, as well.

Since we’re already cheating and listening to Eminem because Mommy’s not in the car (and we’re at that point in the song where Eminem says, “You’re pointless as Rapunzel with fucking cornrows/ You’re like normal, fuck being normal”) I, shrug, hang up the placard on the rear-view, and pull into the slot.

The engine ticks for a second while I sit, keys in hand.

“Cayden—you can’t say things like that. We’ve had so many conversations…You know that Down Syndrome and…You know about autism…You know…”

He looks at me, and this is the same kid who last week came to me upset because some Bad News Bear on the Little League baseball field said, “Hey—you’re that kid with the retard brother.”

He looks over at me, then looks down. We’re parked in a prime parking space at the NAT, and I fathom, for a second, just how confusing this all is for him. His hair falls briefly in front of his eyes and neither of us makes an attempt to brush the offending forelock away. I exhale and we both exit the car, the leather creaking guiltily, which I’m sure that as a forty year old, I can hear and—because science—my kid can’t.

The doors shut heavily.

Cayde rounds the car and inspects the hood again. He rubs the dent and—if he could whistle—might actually do so, like a charlatan mechanic surveying his prey. Selling a carburetor to a guy with a broken cigarette lighter.

“OoO–that’s a good one, Daddy.”

He says the same things when he regards my cuts and bruises from work, from when beaks do their damage. As a zookeeper, I’m obligated to say, “Anything with a mouth can bite, Dude.” It’s both punchline and truth. Don’t touch—you’ll get hurt.”

Or, at least, maybe you will.

Cayde looks up at me, squinting.

“You gonna get that fixed?”

I cross my arms, and regard the hood, pretending to really deliberate the whole thing with a puckered expression.

The statute of limitations is probably up on this one already because you’re supposed to call within twenty-four hours to make a claim. My car got bruised on Monday; it’s now Saturday. The guy was so nice and apologetic, too.

(“I just wanna make this right,” he said, while I shook his hand).

I finally smile, and drop my arms exaggeratedly. “Probably not, Kid. C’mon, let’s go.”

Jenn said, when I showed the car to her and waved off the damage, “Well we’re not Car People,” as if that explained every and all nonchalance. Probably did. Jenn drove around with a dented license plate forever, and I think we drank Drunk Guy’s twenty.

I try to explain to Cayde as we walk away from our illegal parking job:

“If I get it fixed”—and I think of my Bug on blocks, with its hood removed, and with all the estimates and invoices I’d have to sign—“Then that guy who hit me would have to pay a lot of money, and we’d have to pay money, and the people in charge of us paying money would make sure we’d both have to continue paying money…”

I know I’m not making sense to him.

“Make sense, Dude?”

Occasionally, and only occasionally, Cayde knows when to rhetorically surrender.

“Sure, Daddy.” He quickly grips my arm and says, “I love you.” He’s excited we’re going to the museum, so we walk away from the car, and I trust he’s happy.

The Subaru still has hazard lights blinking as if a parking space is going to open up soon.

“But…” Cayde says.

Dammit—always the ‘but.’

“But if you had a Lamborghini and got a dent, you’d fix it, right?”

We’re descending the stairwell to the entrance of the museum, which is actually on the basement level. The first floor has a T. rex sculpture, and the whole first floor is currently being decorated with fake trees and crepe paper. Post museum close, there’ll be a prom.

“If I could afford a Lamborghini, Kid, I wouldn’t have a Lamborghini.”

This is my best off-the-cuff and Mobius philosophy. Either that or a platitude you’d read on a Good Earth teabag. Take your pick which. Keep in mind, I’m a coffee guy.

Cayde jumps down three steps before grabbing the handle of the door, and I throw out my spent Americano while catching up. He’s quick to measure me up suddenly.

“You’re right, Daddy.” He affixes a hat to his head. “If I had a million dollars, I’d spend it on traveling the world and eating good food.” Then he opens the door to where the ankylosaurus statue resides and darts in.

I pause, door cocked. ‘Did I just teach a lesson, or get completely schooled?’ I can’t figure out if he’s being placative, or sarcastic.

These are the things parents have to worry about. Do I call this one into the as yet fictive Dad Insurance Co.? Give my SSN and offer up my parenting license as evidence I’m capable of doing this?

“Excuse me, Operator, I think my kid’s smarter than me. He also mentioned unattainable sports cars, and we live in a 900 sq. ft. bungalow.”

“Hold please.”

No-fault insurance was a popular concept when I was Cayden’s age. Sounds the easy solution. I walk into the museum like a flat tire.

I find Cayden by the Foucault pendulum, where a brass globe—suspended by a cable and artificially swinging in perpetual motion—methodically knocks over wooden dominoes. Cayde is hanging over the railing with his flat-brimmed cap on point, and he’s making like he’s going to try and keep the pendulum from moving.

“Dude, don’t,” and I yank him backwards by the belt loop. I jab at the sign that reads, ‘Don’t touch.’

I redirect: “What is the pendulum about?” (We’ve been here before, and we know the pendulum, the hall of skulls; we’ve gone through the photo exhibits where I hide the placards and quiz him: ‘What animal is this?’ while we circle the gallery, sometimes running. I point upwards at the suspended reproductions and he’ll say, “Megaladon. Gray whale.” These are easy games. He doesn’t read worth shit, but he knows his science.

“The pendulum? It means there’s gravity, that the earth is moving.”

“Yeah, but how, Kid?”

I’m not going to let him off easy.

“This stays in place,” he points vaguely at the pendulum, which is staid in its arc, “But the earth moves, and so the blocks get knocked down.”

Two blocks have already been knocked down. His is not the best explanation, but I say, “That’s right, Dude. Good job.”

He runs off to learn about tectonic plates and I don’t want to explain earthquakes today, still I do. This while Foucault’s pendulum proves, superfluously, metronomically, while trapped in harnessed motion, that the earth is spinning like fucking mad.

“Daddy, you probably shouldn’t talk like that,” Cayden says on the way home.

“You told me you were going to yell at cars, too, when you grow up.” I glance over at him. He’s smiling.

“Oh,” I smile while looking in the opposite direction. “You were being ironic.”

Welcome to the Big Spin, Kid; I easily blow the needless stop sign at the top of the hill.

Welcome to movement erasing meaning. I think you’re ahead of me on this one, Son.

 

 

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Of Socks and Civilisation

Cayden pulls on socks getting ready for baseball practice. His are always knee-high, with exaggerated prints: the pizza socks, the Hamilton socks, that Patriots pair, the striped number he stole from my drawer.

He’s inching his Einstein socks up and I remark the fact that, “Dude—you’ve a huge hole in your heel.”

He shrugs.

“Einstein never wore socks, so I don’t think he’d care.” And he goes back to the business of finding shoes and remembering how to tie his laces.

“He didn’t wear socks?”

“No,” Cayde shrugs. “Everyone knows that. Einstein didn’t wear socks.”

I don’t wear socks, but I’m not Einstein either. I just like natty loafers, and wear my pants rolled half up the calf. Socks are not in my sartorial bag of tricks.

I didn’t know Einstein never wore socks. I knew he played violin, was a chain-smoker, married his cousin, was impressively depressed. I didn’t know E=MC2 had a dress code or lack thereof.

“Really? No socks? Ever?”

Einstein’s face is torn in half, his white hair exaggeratedly contouring Cayde’s ankle while Cayde stress-tests the thread count. He yanks and yanks.

“Nope. He didn’t like socks.”

“Don’t pull them up too much, Dude—you’re gonna rip them.”

“I’ll have my cleats on. Doesn’t matter.” Cayde is providing me a sneak preview of adolescence while lacing his Pumas. In five years, the waters will be rough, I’m certain.

‘Even on the most solemn occasions, I got away without wearing socks and hid the lack of civilisation in high boots’, Einstein wrote.

‘Of Socks and Civilsation’ could be a good book title, else a manifesto. Footwear is a low benchmark when it comes to measures of civility—just ask Jesus, or Ghandi—so I let Einstein’s yarn-torn face go, and let Cayde tug on his shoes without further nagging.

Cayde’s so big now. He’s so big, nearing clumsy with his growing body and pre-adolescent lack of decorum. He has thick limbs and expressive eyes, eyes full of brown, irises doe-like. When we’re mid-argument, he opens his blinkers wide—tries always to get the last word in, as if my tumult of verbage is a car coming and he has to stand, freeze, and deliver one last deer-grunt before getting run over by a grille chromed with rhetoric.

“I’m sorry, Kid. I’m sorry.” I say this to myself later—not to him–when I have a bed-sheet around me, when I’m contrite and looking at the ceiling, arranging pillows. I’m pretty good about apologizing in real time, just not always. It hurts. It really hurts to fuck up. My job is not to fuck him up.

‘When I was young,’ Einstein wrote in another letter, ‘I found out that the big toe always ends up making a hole in a sock. So I stopped wearing socks.’

 There are pragmatics involved, apparently, when measuring civility. Einstein’s big toe was unnaturally long, and footwear became a problem. So he forewent shoes and wore sandals instead. Sandals with suits. Not exactly GQ, but it worked.

Next to being bare-foot, he laid out a blueprint as to how the universe was founded, how it could function on certain rules, some being quantum and not exactly understandable, but he took walks and smoked his pipe and blew blue smoke in the Austrian hills, thinking.

I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.”

 We all need to calm down, habits or no. Scientists are crazy when they say, ‘Objective.’ Same with writers. There is nothing that universalizes everything. The world’s just a fantastic and varied place, and there is nothing that makes for an even playing field, regardless of smarts, tarts, and, in the end, difference.

I could shout at the rim of a canyon; the echo supposing to be my own voice. Should be. Most likely it won’t be. People yell back.

Cayde puts his cleats on.

“Daddy…”

I stop him there.

“You’ll do good, Kid.”

I don’t want him to say anything else. Nothing else.

“You’ll do good, Kid.”

“But…”

And I stop him.

“You’ll be FINE, dude.”

People don’t believe in me, I believe in him, so this is a halfway solution. Blind leading the blind; I help Cayde with his laces.

“You look great, Kid.”

“Thanks, Daddy.”

“Love you, Kid. Let me help you with those shoes.”

And civilisation is lost, apparently, as the shoes go on, the forfeit of socks; still‘E’ continues to equal something.

 

 

 

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Christs Descending, and Ashes in the Doughboy

The sky is frustratingly white, no cartographic ripple of gray, no signal of cloud’s end—just white—and seen through the sun-roof of a car while sitting in the driveway, keys in hand.

I remember being in a pool and seeing the ash settle on the surface of the water, the nearby mountain burning while we swam in chlorine blossoms; water bugs finding fate in the skimmer, legs vainly pumping. Cowle’s Mountain burning, Cowles mispronounced cow-les, but actually Coales; with the buckwheat flaming as if in a brazier; Cowles, coals, fire while my dad barbecued, the cinder of both mesquite and chaparral; Dad flipping burgers while being unconcerned about the season’s lilac going up in smoke, the fire traveling north.

Plastic boats, sunken and nitrile rings, dumb beach balls. Wrinkled and unrecognizable fingerprints, all the hours spent in the water, colored by turquoise and vinyl liners.

Cowles burned every three years, and we were safe in the pool.

Through the sun-roof, a high-wire that grazes the garage, co-axial, antimony and rubber. It slices the sky in half, no clouds, white sliced liked a bedsheet, a neat fruit, white, a black cable.

I was told Jesus was coming back, and I didn’t understand omnipresence. I imagined the Second Coming as a thousand Christs descending, because how else was the whole world to know about His return unless the Messiah was duplicative, and landing in many places at once? There’d be many ethereal carbon copies of robes and beards and forefingers circled in pleasantness, a million post-crucifixion Mary Poppins riding parasols, landing with slight bounces of the knees to exclaim homecoming.

Jesus landing in Times Square, Jesus taking the mound at Wrigley Field. Jesus at the Appomattox.

There’d be at least two Jesus’ per square mile, that’s what I figured. I had this calculated out.

“The sky goes on forever, you know,” my Mom told me, and I’d look up, either past palm fronds at the beach, or in the driveway, in both instances Ursa Major being more obvious than it is currently, stars fading while light pollutes and constellations diminish. I would stare at the sky and be nervous, not wanting heaven at all.

I hated the concept of ‘forever.’ It scared me. Looking up at the sky had me looking past the stars, terrified that there was no end to what I was looking at. Always looking past the stars to the in-between place, which is necessarily dark.

I’ve never had telescopic eyes. Between here and Alpha Centauri is nothing, a finite but forever place, the gap between recognizable galactic signposts.

Next rest stop: 4.3 million light years. Scares the shit out of me.

I didn’t, I don’t want forever. I didn’t, I don’t want forever.

Looking up as a kid, I saw past the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt. These stars could actually be dead. We wouldn’t know it until they visibly winked out under our watch, ten million years later, with our planet suddenly irradiated with wind, and wi-fi suddenly unresponsive.

I imagined Jesus landing just shy of the pool, by the camphor trees, shaking out his hair and telling me, “I’m back,” while my kid feet tip-toed bottom in a four-feet pool, arms resting on the corrugated lip of the Doughboy.

“Jesus?”

“Pleased to meet you, Kid,” extending a hand with a hole.

My own hair wet, fingerprints wrinkled, incredulous at the suddenly forever. This being a small pool, ripples fast settle.

I tread water.

There’s my dad flipping a burger, the mountain burning, me diving down to the close bottom to pick up a weighted ring, and—being underwater—forgetting the surface, understanding I have only so much air but testing my lungs anyways, feeling them burn, and knowing, gratefully, eternity doesn’t actually exist, being five and wishing to not go too far, being five scared of forever, being five and grasping the ring, exhaling through the nostrils and panicking thankfully to the top of the water, gasping and gasping, gasping and finally, eventually smiling, thrusting up a red ring to no audience, to no one at all.

 

 

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Myxomatosis

Lauren’s wearing pink, like the shade of Janis Joplin’s hair on the cover of ‘Pearl.’ Her voice has similar gravel, too, something throaty, her vocal cords having had a light treatment of steel wool, else granted a god-given chanteuse husk.

Lauren slings pizza.

“Whatcha want?”

She notices Finn who’s rearranging the labels on the display case. A deep-dish sausage is suddenly a thin-crust ricotta.

“Hey, Buddy. You want some pizza?”

“’Tay.’”

“What’s a venar fricative, again, Ms. Stephanie?”

 “Consonant moved forwards on the palate.”

Ms. Stephanie is wearing a nitrile glove and attending to a plastic baby while Finn pounds a stethoscope’s diaphragm on his own doll. There are pretend heartbeats. It’s speech class, so we provide all the noise.

<bum-boom>

“So ‘K is ‘Tay’?’”

 “Exactly. If you want to make him move back on the palate, you can lie on your back, and make gargling noises with your tongue. Your tongue slides back in that position. If you do it, he might, too. Discover the sounds he can make.”

 “Well, I’m apparently good at snoring,” I shrug, “Guess I could do that.”

 ‘Tay.”

Finn struggles for five minutes to open a Band-Aid, then places it proudly on the vinyl-baby’s knee. He walks to me, places the stethoscope on my lap, and says, “Here, Daddy.”

He tries to put the earpieces in place, but wanders off before my heart is something registered.

Lauren says, “Cheese?” before Finn has a say in the matter. He’s still busy re-arranging the placards. ‘Pepperoni’ is now ‘Jalapeno-pineapple.’ These are minor acts of chaos. I don’t believe in full-time anarchy, but I can get behind part-time rebellion. God Save the Queen, and all that. The Queen’s not on DNR orders yet, nor is mischief.

“Yes, please. And it’s blasphemy to me, Lauren,” I say out of the corner of my mouth, “But gimme a slice of that deep-dish spinach-mushroom thing.”

I mime a shoosh. Deep-dish is not pizza, and Chicago-dogs are dressed-up catastrophes, which celery salt can’t help. Also, don’t get me started on pickles.

The deep-dish is good—I needed the casserole helping of vegetables—and Finn tries to better the experience with shakes of the parmesan canister, the chile flakes, the pepper mill, the napkin dispenser. He throws his Woody doll on my plate, throws the pizza rack on the ground.

“He’ll need help ending his syllables,” Ms. Stephanie says. “They’re a bit messy right now.”

My car is across the street. When crossing over to the pizzeria, Finn dropped Bunny on the street and Bunny’s ears were run over by a passing Mazda. Like on Easter, it’s always the ears first.

Bunny sits, injured, next to the parmesan. We’re ok, though. Finn noms his cheese.

Finn tries to use a fork and knife because that’s how I’m navigating my particular plate. He watches me section a slice and he pounds his utensils into his own helping. It’s a not-even-close approximation, but he’s trying.

Etiquette is difficult. There’s an etiquette program near us called ‘Charm Class.’ (And I only know about cotillion school because I threaten Cayde with it every time he wipes his hands on his shirt).

‘Charm Class’: reverse those words, and you’ve got Finn in a nutshell. He’s a charmer, certainly.

“Pote,” Finn says, knife standing upright in a murder of tomato sauce and cheese.

(He did this with Play-Doh earlier, in Speech)

“Poke, Finn. It’s ‘poke’.”

“Pote.”

“Close, Dude.”

Pink Lauren collects our plates and high-fives Finn.

“Good to see you again, Guy,” she says, lowering herself to his level, and she’s the Janis waitress with a kind bone in her throat.

She says: ‘Pizza’s on me.” I wish her a Mercedes-Benz as I give her a quick hug.

“Thanks, Lauren. That’s very kind.”

“Tank you,” Finn says, throwing a second plastic knife onto the ground. It’s why I tip well. There’s always a mess.

At Speech, Finn has me wear the stethoscope.

“Steto-scope.” It’s a hard lesson today. Big words, big concepts. Finn was asked to say ‘medicine’ at least ten times while offering a syringe to his doll.

“Med-cin.”

“Daddy. Steto-scope.”

I tap on the tympanum. It’s only a plastic toy, but it works. I hold it to his heart and he laughs. He puts it on my knee, which is not where my heart is. I give him credit, though, because the heart is knee-jerk sometimes.

Bunny sits soddenly on the table, ears ruined by Goodyear, wearing parmesan for hair. He should’ve been the patient this morning: ‘med-cin, stat.’

Then again, who can predict being run over? Who’s the sudden and suddenly patient when the wheels arrive too fast?

I pack Bunny away like I pack everything else away, ears dangling out the envelope pouch of my bag, the tire-print proof of damage. I take Finn’s hand and cross back toward the tattoo parlor where my car is parked and where people are currently being scarred on purpose.

Ms. Stephanie asked me to work on the fricatives, with sound being expressed through a narrow passageway. In this case I hold Findlay’s hand and I sigh, and then again, crossing the street carefully so no one gets run over twice.

Uncategorized

Bees in the Pergola

My Uncle John is going to die today. I think he was John VanBerkel the second, maybe the third. I forget. My grandfather was the John VanBerkel before him.

Entering into my grandfather’s house, just past the bee-infested pergola of bougainvillea, there was a framed and calligraphied certificate in the foyer. It proclaimed, I think, my Uncle John’s birth. There were numerals behind the name at least. That’s all I can remember.

Maybe it was a diploma—who knows?

At some point the family tree is just a gnarlsome briar patch rather than something steadfastly oak. There was my Grandpa John, my Uncle John, my cousin Johnny. I literally have three hundred unmet cousins in Holland, many probably named John as well; Cayden, meanwhile, is the last of the family line on the Hofman side.

We’re all Dutch, regardless.

Over the last couple of generations, we’ve outgrown tulip fields. These days, we swing at windmills rather than building them. We’re emigrated, re-established, and generally have way fewer kids. I’m now married to a Scandinavian: red-hair is the Mendelevian new. Delft-blue eyes persist though, like some ghostly genetic memory having recently resurfaced.

I look very much like my Uncle John, especially with age. In fact, the last social media post I saw from John involved him remarking to his sisters how much I resembled my grandfather. Two aunts agreed.

“He looks like Pop!”

The other aunt said: “He looks like YOU.”

They were all correct.

I’m not the third or the fourth or anything. My name is not John. But it could be.

Uncle John’s son Johnny was my hero. He had a spartan bedroom—a mattress, basically—and shelves that were lined intermittently with books and records. Nothing else. Tons of LP’s. He was the DJ at his college radio station.

In high school, Johnny was known for being the slacker kid in the back of the room, always with headphones on. He’d play Mozart and Metallica at random with a cracked Phillip K. Dick book in defiance of every teacher he met. If a teacher tried to best him—call him out on his inattentiveness—he’d stand up, remove his headphones, and school the teacher with an improvised lecture that bettered whatever dullness was stenciled on the chalkboard.

He’d then sit down and reapply his headphones.

He died early—27? 28? Somewhere in that Joplin-Cobain-Morrison range.

He had Marfan’s disease. So when he stood up at the back of the classroom, he was 7’2”, with an uncomfortable back-brace. Imagine Lincoln without the stovetop hat, but rather long black hair. Coke-bottle glasses and a Social Distortion t-shirt.

“You’re wrong, Mr. Fields. Paul Revere was forced to resign out of the army after the Penedscot Expedition. And the ‘Redcoats are coming’? He never said that. Don’t get me started about the horse ride. The British captured him and he confessed to everything. American hero? Maybe, but this Longfellow poem you’re teaching is ridiculous.”

It’s no wonder that in most photographs I see of Cousin Johnny, he’s extending a middle finger, made even more expressive by virtue of his Marfan’s. Longest bird you can imagine.

I’m like my cousin Johnny. I’m like my Uncle John. I’m like my grandfather John. Just in different ways.

Uncle John’s heart was so calcified with plaque that a stint failed last night. His aortic valve literally cracked, and he bled.

My cousin, my uncle’s son, was in front of a grocery store in Sacramento—’93 I think—and he collapsed suddenly on the sidewalk, in front of what I imagine a melon display because I like to make shit up. Could’ve been apples. We get facts wrong.

A tousle of black hair on the sidewalk, a long torso. Johnny’s aortic artery had separated from the heart. His stepmother, in an act of grave coincidence, was there to see it, once the ambulances had arrived.

It’s common for people afflicted with Marfan’s, this sudden aortal separation.

Hank Gathers, another Marfan’s sufferer, and a collegiate leader in scores and rebounds at Loyola, 1990, did one last slam-dunk before falling on the court dead. Proof you can literally die of a broken heart. His aorta separated, too, somewhere between air and floor.

At my Uncle John’s house, years ago, I was playing basketball with Cousin Johnny and he was ironic before I even had an inkling of what ‘ironic’ meant. He passed the ball back and forth to me, though he hated when everyone asked him: ‘Do you play basketball?’ He happened to be a foot and a half taller than everyone else, and would flip a bird to anyone that asked about a perhaps basketball career. He had good retorts, too. He was caustically smart. He housed a Wildean wit that was sandpapered with a gritty touch of Carlin.

(“Wow—you’re tall! Think about basketball?”

“You’re fat. Think about Weight Watchers?” )

Still, he would gentle the ball to me, then do a feet-on-the-floor dunk in deference of his ability. We’d get purposely bored and retire to his room to play records and Dungeons and Dragons.

Fuck basketball.

Johnny would clear half the bookshelves and send me home with a grip of sci-fi novels, an occasional record.

“You need to read this,” he’d say, selecting a book, “Oh—and this, and this one too.”

Like I have to do now, he’d look through the bottom of his bifocals to read the spines. His retinas were in the slow process of detaching because Marfan’s has a way of not keeping things together.

Johnny smoked with my Uncle John, also my grandpa. Uncle John, at some point, was smoking four packs of Winstons a day. A pack before work, a few sundries on the way to the office. He worked at CalTrans, was the guy in charge beneath the gubernatorial appointee. All his meetings were held outside. As he’d say: “I need to get a breath of fresh air”, while lighting one up.

My grandpa, too, had the nervous habit of always reaching into his front pocket, looking for a smoke. He started smoking when he was nine, working on the dairies and milking cows with a pipe dangling from his lips. Stooled behind a cow’s haunches, yanking cow tits, exhaling blue smoke upwards into the hayloft. He had a sense of humor and a love of animals. The barn kittens would parade in, and he’d squirt them in the face with yellowish sow-milk until the cats started arriving in coteries.

Later in life he had half a lung removed.

My Uncle John saw my Grandpa be taken away, institution-bound. We still don’t know how. It was supposed to be in secret.

Uncle John said it changed everything.

My Grandpa was flown from California to Bethesda in Denver, Colorado, for a spell. He had local places, too, where he personed the white rooms, briefly, before escaping out windows. He’d arrive home with nonplus and a cane. Then resume where he left off.

No one questioned anything. Or maybe they did. What the fuck do I know? I’m just left with my own particular shades of John, and with three Johns currently gone who is left to properly ask?

I just know it was hard for all parties, that there’s rippling consequence. ‘Sins of the fathers’ is the proverb, but sickness is not sin; it’s not a chosen thing. Especially since all parties involved sat in straight-backed pews at the Dutch Reformed church where pre-determination was Calvin’s guiding doctrine—when exactly do you get to choose your choice?

I don’t know who even to ask about myself: it’s all a sort of an inside-out Mobius, where I’m just left with me at the end of the strip, ad infinitum.

I played chess with my Uncle John years ago. I was eight. He looked like I do now, with a white beard and signal wrinkles around the eyes. He was amused that I’d battle him at chess, and we did in the great room, with my grandfather’s chessboard on a table draped in woolen damask. He was drinking a Pepsi, quick to finish, so that he could ash in the can. He was a Berkeley graduate, had his dad’s smarts. He harbored a lit cigarette in between his thumb and forefinger, the cherry just shy of the palm. The smoke would pass through his curled fingers.

“Your move.”

I moved my pawn—k-chunk—and he chuckled.

He moved his bishop.

I pushed a knight.

He kept moving his pieces into my territory, but I fought him off with pawns. It’s how young kids strategize, unless you’re something Fischer. The family gathered.

I used to play dice games with my Grandpa, which was less of a spectator sport. Roll the bones—did you get twelve? My grandpa would touch the tip of his tongue to his nose, I’d laugh, and we’d keep rolling dice on the green velvet board he stored near the television. Six, snake-eyes, the somehow rare threes. We’d play dice not looking to win. No one can win dice; no one wins Tic-tac-toe. My Grandpa would say something in Dutch and I’d pretend to understand. We’d just roll again and again and there was no competition, only the throw of the bones, the muted sound of ivory on velvet.

Uncle John fought me hard, though, in this particular chess game, he ashing his Winstons into a Pepsi can, chuckling the whole while. The game took too long and the ash of his cigarette got equally exaggerated, the errant tobacco drifting like spent moth-things as he poised over the board, hand unflickingly still over the damask.

Uncle John—I look like him, down to the stubborn genetic fact that our moustaches and goatees refuse to communicate with the rest of our beards. They retain color. We’re VanDykeish by default.

Van because we’re Dutch, not Von. Von’s are German, and my Grandpa VanBerkel used to—in occupied Holland—sneak out at night with his friends and sabotage the Messerschmitts parked beneath the windmills. I’m not exactly sure how, but he’d stay out late enough to have to hide in trenches, curfew expired, waiting for morning till he could run home unnoticed. Life and death amid the haystacks.

My uncle extinguished his last cigarette and I forget who won. Szzzz. I just remember him smiling impishly, and pushing back from the table.

In one version of memory, I won. Sometimes I’m convinced of this. Then I reconsider.

He most likely won.

I just remember the side conversation, the family watching, and me fighting up the board with my pawns, sitting cross-legged on a chair too big for me, and me actually making it into my Uncle John’s territory, a victory in itself.

Again, I’m no Fischer.

But we’re Dutch, we’re stubborn. You have to earn your win, else tilt at windmills in imaginary triumph. No one’s allowed an easy victory.

I’m sure my Uncle John beat me, his black bishops cutting up my defense.

Meanwhile Cousin Johnny asked me: ‘There’s a demon guarding the corridor—what do you do?’

Grandpa rolled threes. “Yah—you need a five, now,” while swiping for a cigarette, while I shook the ivories.

What are my chances? A kid elbow-deep in the damask, second-hand smoking with a view of the sea figs and eucalyptus just out the window, spent pawns toppled, a blindness to the mirror? I need a five, a king left standing, a demon vanquished. What are my chances? How do I win? Can I win?

I roll the dice; I tell Johnny—“I’m casting a ‘magic missile’.” It misses.

I roll the dice. I get snake eyes, and my grandpa lights a cigarette.

I roll the dice; I fold my king.

All three gambles lost.

All Johns say, “Sorry.” I lose I lose I lose.

My grandfather died one year before the Challenger blew up; it’s how I remember the date. I saw my Uncle John one year later at his home in a Sacramento suburb. It was a long drive for a nine-year old and I pissed myself while climbing the stairs, his Pekingese barking at my ankles. I hid in a closet, my uncle the now patriarch, with me scared that I had ruined his carpet having accidentally stained the stairwell.

I was given reprieve. My uncle was celebrating with a cigarette, his recent radiographs white between the ribs.

“Totally clean!” he exclaimed, ecstatic at the doctor’s latest report. And we got to celebrate with him, and I got to not be in trouble having dribbled up the upstairs.

My grandpa died with COPD, one and a half lungs and black x-rays. My uncle, meanwhile, had luminary radiographs, a gamble won.

Cue Sinatra: “Luck be a lady tonight!”

I was forgiven the piss, but I was scared of my uncle, regardless. He wore a brown leather jacket, which crinkled like his eyes. He was clean like an open chess board, a chess board where the bishop can make a sweeping and diagonal take of a pawn.

I was nine years old in wet shorts, ashamed, and even the dog was barking at me.

Cousin Johnny was upstairs playing records. I was nervous around Uncle John.

But fast-forward a number of years.

“Uncle John—I think about Johnny often.”

“I see him in you. You know, of all the kids you remind me most of Johnny.”

Cancer got Uncle John in the ass, a double procedure on the prostate, which must be one of life’s jokes. Blow smoke up your ass, out your ass—whatever—but have clear lungs after four packs a day? That is a lottery dubiously won, just simply re-mapped. A cartographic flip of the north-south.

I used to bang on my Grandpa’s pump-organ, and he’d tell me that—wow—I’d just played ‘How Great Thou Art’.

My cousin would emerge from his room, loping like some cryptozoological beast, black-mopped and long-fingered, having needed his spine to rest. He would get a glass of water and take a cigarette.

They’d have their smokes on the patio, the three of them.

One time, Cousin Johnny pretended a joke, in which case he collapsed on my Grandfather’s lawn, south of the jade and in the sun, tousled black hair untied and falling in his face. He bit a blood capsule, a Hollywood effect, and pretended to die in the grass, rivulets of red streaming from his lips. We tried for fifteen minutes to revive him, until we actually got scared.

“Johnny?”
He popped upand proclaimed, ‘Boo!’ with a red mouth and stained t-shirt. He tickled us and wrestled us to the ground, and we laughed in the shadow of the pepper tree.

“You remind me of Johnny.”

“He looks like Pop.”

“He looks like you.”

Johnny. John. John.

In that chess game, I fought my damndest. Weren’t we all playing chess, no winners. John saw my grandpa taken away, which is the worst way to lose your king.

Johnny had red smeared on his face and grass on his cheek.

“Boo!” he said with fingers outstretched like a Kreskin, suddenly coming back to life while I fell, surprised, onto my back, short of breath, a car slowly descending the driveway, and there meanwhile being bees in the pergola where my Uncle John smoked and smoked and regarded the fresh air.