It’s early, the marine layer still a curtaining veneer over the city, when we park the car just shy of the suspension bridge. The day promises to be hot but, at this hour, the sun hasn’t gained full expression yet. It remains a suggestion of itself, a lazy and featureless chariot, arcing somewhere low and behind us.
Cayde is dressed like an 8 year old wholly unaccustomed to hiking. It’s my urban failing, and arrears are still owed to the campfire gods for Cayde’s lack of trailhead savvy. To this day, kindling is less tinder to him than it is tablet play: Amazon Fire, Amazon Kindle. There are levels unlocked on Minecraft but nothing of greater Promethean practicality. Fires remain unthieved.
Although Cayden’s green, he’s earnest in his preparations. He’s packed some trail mix for the morning outing, which he figures as necessity. The road—the idea of it, at least—is stamped on the cellophane packet. He also carries a thermos of water, heavier than is wieldy. Cayde’s chosen a nylon drawstring knapsack to carry his all collected wares. It’s emblazoned with a smiling Pooh decal and Cayde gets tangled in Winnie’s ropes stumbling out of the car.
“The suspension bridge—awesome, Daddy!” He pokes at the nosepiece of his specs.
The suspension bridge is a hidden urban treasure, off the beaten path only in the sense that it’s hidden over Banker’s Hill dried-up arroyos. It’s nothing out of town, but rather in town, surrounded by established trees and near-century old buildings on Balboa Park’s left-hand side. I thought Cayde may’ve been disappointed, but an adventure’s an adventure and I’m only five days out of the hospital.
Cayde looks like my wife Jenn, more and more, but he presents as me. He wears falsies to approximate my thick-rimmed spectacles, grows his bangs long; he speaks nervously in the dark sometimes wanting only Daddy, Daddy, to share the sheets and talk down the fear.
The current light, the muted heat, is a consequence of the low-lying but evaporative clouds that overhang the mesas. The neighborhood is quiet both here and across the canyon, and the morning jetliners are rare. The skyway commute has not yet gained momentum.
Cayde slams the door of the car, and the jacaranda tree we’ve parked beneath releases a lavender sepal in seeming response. There’s no breeze so it falls both sun-struck and leaded, a straight drop to the hood of the car, where it skates to the asphalt, one flutter before settling among the already accumulated leaf-litter, the purpling of the sidewalk.
“Let’s go, Daddy!”
Light lingers behind us and, with foot-traffic at a minimum this time of morning, the suspension bridge is relatively staid. It can be known as the ‘Wiggly Bridge’, an unfortunate though accurate moniker: it’s a 375-foot span suspended by only two steel wires and two concrete piers. The fewer the pediments, the more and uncertain the movement. It’s 70 feet to the bottom of the arroyo. The eucalyptus grows 30 feet above it to either side.
Cayde stops at its base, turns to smile at me. I’m open-carrying a cup of coffee, having not fooled myself with trail-mix. I smile back.
Crossing eastbound are freshly-caffeinated dog-walkers, youth implied in their cotton and nylon ensembles: sweatshirts emblazoned with collegiate block letters, and tear-away pants. They sport unlikely-colored trainers, sockless.
A terrier pulls at the leash. It’s dog-walkers’ first kid, surely, all sorts of big-pawed rambunctiousness and over-eager nose. As with all first kids, it’s unruly, but then again, no one knows how to parent the first time around. The terrier tries to navigate the bridge, stamping its forepaws on the wooden planks, straining against the straps and making the bridge sway slightly. The dog-walkers walk by discussing either HOAs or DAs; I’m projecting acronyms. The terrier pushes a wet nose against my hand and wiggles in presage of the bridge.
Cayden runs to the first pier and instinctively looks down. On a bridge no one glances up to see how close they are to the overhead; instead they look to see how far they are from the ground.
Below, the arroyo basin is an unwelcome sight, littered with green and amber bottles, spent cigarette packs around a sign that proclaims it’s against the law to litter. Should’ve told the kid to look up. Regardless, the litter is like a bed of needles so far as Cayde is concerned. He’s used to alleyways and manicured parks; whatever wild is simply wild, shards of glass like broken dragonflies.
A silver-haired gentleman walks by, westward, and doesn’t even displace the air in passing. He is wispy, shin bones in sharp relief south of his gym shorts, tibial and saphenous veins coursing rice paper legs. The man’s shirt advertises some 5K—he’s sponsored by vitamins—and the shirt is designed to wick moisture away from his body.
Sad Bill wore similar shirts in the hospital, most his time spent in bed half-dressed. The athletic tunics he wore stretched across broad shoulders and suggested an oarsman’s past, these lycra shirts made to expand with both swollen chest and biceps that were the size and approximation of mangoes. His wife had left him after forty years, his house half-evacuated in a slow and figurative fire.
Sad Bill’s Librium sleep moved in catch, drive, and release; blades feathering the water with constancy; dreams in lurch, the relentless slapping of water against the rigger, the repetitive sound of oarlocks carrying him through a sea of troublesome delta waves. Always asleep, always sad, sad Sad Bill.
The silver-haired man brushes past, out on his morning constitution. He’s most likely a resident of the deep canyon, where the houses are singular and identifiable, trophies of successful careers hidden in the groves of mellaleuca. The canyon is called Arroyo Canyon, a near redundancy when translated, a dry riverbed so dry as to feature only drought-tolerant plants, lantana and buddleia, woody things shot through with bright flashes of color.
Cayden runs a spell, then hopscotches the bridge’s planks.
Silver Man disappears into the neighborhood behind us having crossed the bridge opposite the dog-walkers. His house is maybe a concrete and stucco construct, an Irving Gill affair; I imagine a pea gravel driveway, cabinets full of Heath ceramic; pantries of wheat germ and wormy quinoa; a labial orchid in every room.
His nylon breaker swishes and his knees knock in determined retreat.
“Hold up, Kid.”
Cayde sways on the newly vacant bridge and looks back.
“There’s a trail down there, Daddy.”
“We have to get across the bridge, first.”
There are actually bridges beyond bridges. The closest one, within our vista, is a steel-trussed affair with an ellipsis of arches. And, from its concrete deck, girded with both wrought and cast iron rails, there is promise of yet more views, more bridges, most prominently the sinuous arc of Coronado floating atop massive concrete pylons over the bay. We can’t see that far, however, since the mesas overlap in a shingled manner and perspective is lost in the avenues.
“We can get down there from across the bridge, right?” Cayde looks at me with a face that belies his age. His forehead, like his mother’s, is unfurrowed, stretched tight on his skull, his eyes the expressive things, brown, with the irises inordinately large and almost aqueous.
I figure the Silver Man emerged from somewhere up the gully, and certainly the accumulated litter at bridge’s bottom didn’t create itself. Also, in the distance down below is the antemeredial sound of a landscaper’s hedge-trimmer, a morning mosquito in its persistent nuisance. There has to be a way down.
“Sure, Kid. I’m sure there is.”
Cayde jabs at his glasses again and rearranges his knapsack straps into greater knotsbefore happily trouncing down the bridge.
In repudiation of the Boy Scout motto, meaning preparedness is not my strong suit, my coffee cup has no lid, and my shoes are new and suede. I just wanted to take the kid to the bridge and wasn’t expecting a tromp into the underbrush. ‘Hike’ was a term to get us both out of bed. I never could sleep like Sad Bill, but I’m expert at staying under the covers.
“Here’s some Temezepam,” the nurse said at midnight, ripping the Velcro of the sphegnometer loose from my bicep. “You’re a bit tense—blood pressure’s a little high.”
I was in jeans, no shirt, restless and clammy. Didn’t anyone else notice that the clock hummed, that if you concentrated on it’s incessant buzz, you could tell its batteries were most likely awry, that there was a wasteful arc of electricity seeking a bent contact point somewhere? Blackened copper, blue spark–anyone could hear this.
I accepted the pill, a small thing in a corrugated paper cup. Temezepam, benzodiazepine, Prozac: all these ‘Z’s but no sleep. The hospital was, despite the buzzing clock, quiet.
It used to be that I dreamt of insomnia, that I would wake up tired, not having ever crossed bridge into meaningful slumber. Eventually insomnia dispensed with the subterfuge, and it was no longer that I dreamt of sleeplessness; I was instead wide-awake, never dreaming.instead. How often I’d hear the birds change shifts, the pauraque and mockingbirds’ din fading into the crepuscular murmur of dove-song, the morning never a new thing, but rather an insistent malcontent repeating its tiresome complaint of the night, again and again and again, glaring the windows, never satisfied.
I pressed my eyes to see stars. The door clicked shut quietly, Sad Bill oared magnificently to somewhere far and away from shore, flipping his pillow and resettling into the bedsheets.
“What are these locks, Daddy?” The bridge cables are decorated with promise locks, initialed locks left there by young lovers symbolically fastening their love into place. The bridge, precipitous and suspended, becomes a place where names linger defiantly in the air over threat of canyon-fall.
“There’s a bridge in France, Cayde…,” I begin explaining. I think of elaborating on the Ponts de Arts, the story of the locks. Then I remember all the promise locks had been removed from the Ponts after its parapet had fallen beneath the collective weight of symbology. I say simply, “The locks mean people love each other. They’re like wedding rings you don’t wear.”
This is a sufficient explanantion. Cayde jumps twice on the planks.
“You almost kissed Mommy here.”
“You’re right, Cayde. Good memory.” It’s part of our family’s history, the long ago tender nights and places.
It had been our first date and someone’s lips grazed someone’s neck. I forget who breathed in whose pulse, just that there were warm coats and upturned collars and the same eucalyptus trees Cayde and I were currently regarding, only moon-illumined. The skyway had been empty and fingers brushed shyly; Jenn and I, we froze warmly in suspense.
“If you didn’t have a wife, would you fuck me in that supply closet?” Janet whispered, and she pointed with her eyes to an auxiliary room just left of Group Conference. The front desk nurses were bored at their station, and the vitals monitors were white and plastic and parked in current disuse in the hallway. It was a time of night marked by infrequent speech, the dry-erase board featuring a dead and alcoholic idiom, the coffee table littered with crosswords and stupid coloring books, the NY Times.
There was a water dispenser with floating lemon slices.
I looked straight ahead, and gaped, once, grunion-like and stupefied, then exhaled. I pulled Janet into my shoulder and kissed the part of her hair, then rested my temple against the crown of her head.
“That’s not allowed,” said the nurse, shaking her head. “Not allowed,” while the vitals machines sat continually plastic.
“Janet, you go to your room, I’ll go to mine. Walk slow.” We excused ourselves from the Common Room and this was not a romance. We were due for pills in an hour, it couldn’t have been a romance, though I liked, intensely, the smell of her hair, her particular and Roman nose.
Cayde jumps two more paces and the bridge obligingly swings. Winnie the Pooh is so confused on Cayde’s back; the one decaled eye is almost pleading help. Cayde sits and swings his legs over the gully, as if debating a playground slide.
“Love you, Daddy,” which is what Cayde says when fine and perfect and otherwise excited. He wears Adidas, actively untangles himself from his bag and takes from the thermos, pumping his legs over the arroyo.
“Love you, too, Kid,” my coffee going cold.
The marine layer is burning off, and there are mosquitoes in the evaporation, not just the mosquitoes of leaf-blowers down below, but real and annoying things. I sit down next to Cayde and pick a gnat out of my coffee.
“We can go down there, if you want,” I say.
Cayden takes a draw from the thermos, hands it to me, and wipes his mouth.
The doctor palpated my lower left. He nodded approvingly.
“Yes, yes.” He adjusted my covering, examined my collar.
“Some spidering—this should fade,” he remarked, peering down through bifocals while tracing the angiomas, like brachia, which branched upward out the sternum.
He patted my shoulder.
“You’re good.” I readjusted on the crinkly paper.
I’m in fucking detox.
He said again, “You’re good, enzymes are fine.”
Enzymes break down things, so my negatives are in a positive.
“Ok…,” I said, readjusting the neckline of my gown.
“It’s early—go have breakfast,” and the physician’s face is a cherubic and pink marshmallow, a Hostess cake. There were the floating wafts of sweetened coffee which informed the otherwise aspirin hallways; bitterness faded, like the scent of disinfectants, and I held my gown in place while leaving the examination room.
Cayde is already halfway down the hill, scooting on his bottom. Poor Winnie is getting dust in his eye, and goddamn why did I wear my new shoes. I follow suit, holding my coffee cup overhead and displacing the dirt with my heels on a slide to the river floor. I land on my feet and look up. The bridge is above us, a now silhouetted thing, sun shining through the slats. We’re among the broken glass and trailers of volunteer grass. ‘No Littering’ the signs says again, just closer, and there are Pall Malls in the crabweeds.
“Where, to, Kid?” I point with my deftly unspilt coffee: “Left?” Cayde has dirt all up his back.
He turns and smiles at me, aware that, with his dusty seat, we are now a plurality of messes. I cock an eyebrow.
“No,” he says. “Right,” with undue emphasis; and he scrambles off to the nearest and felled log to pretend Lord of the Flies.
“You think of trying sobriety instead?” Dr. Morrow asked, sighing over my petition for antidepressants, the line he may or may not fill out on Box 2. His key fob sports a BMW insignia and why didn’t he put the keys into his pocket. You put the keys in your pocket. It’s six a.m. You put the keys in your pocket at 6 a.m. when wresting patients from their beds, fuck you and please.
He double-clicked his pen.
“It’s a long-standing joke, Dr. In my family runs anxiety, depression, OCD, manic depression, dementia…”
He double clicked again.
“Rimshot, Dr.,” and I take comedic pause, “Longevity, too.” I’m very funny.
He sighed and puts an ‘X’ in the box. The morning’s too short for long suffering, especially if you have a tee time and no gallows sense of humor.
“They’ll start you on Lexapro by the afternoon.” He has a bad haircut considering his means, and he gathered his keys in a fashioned swipe.
Replay: he grabs his keys between middle and (un-ringed) ring finger, the BMW pendant scraping the desk like a dog dragging its piles; I say, “Have a good one,” before he can. My nicety is non-tax reductible, and Dr. Morrow clicked before saying anything, words taken out of his mouth. He finally nodded agreement, and left.
“Yes, yes. Uhh. Just try not drinking so much.” Click-click. It’s so easy. Like a Par 3.
And he walked out, 6:07 before coffee was available, and I rejoin Sad Bill back in the room.
The hedge-trimmer, it turns out, is manned by someone in orange and apiarist gear, white netting draped over the face as protection. The plumbago is innocent, but gets the Jacobin treatment anyway, blue-lavender blossoms falling away in spent heads, and there’s pea-gravel as expected.
A Prius replaces the Saab and I’m envious of carports. Such a nice house.
The squared hedges release buggy things, paper and triangular moths, chartreuse grasshoppers. The moths are yellow-white and choppy fliers in the mid-morning sun.
Cayde picks up sticks and beats at things, his knapsack sagging beneath the weight of the thermos. There’s an enviable bounce to his step, incongruent like the exodus of moths. He is growing up too fast, still the child in him is on full display; were that I could reclaim that myself, the noontime of youth, this could all be different.
It is now officially hot. Didn’t take long. Cayden readjusts the knapsack for show and I instinctively know I’ll soon be handed the thermos. Kids are easy and too quick to release their burdens.
“How would you describe this?” Peg asked from her therapist’s chair.
I rotated my cup of coffee counter-clockwise, sitting in a pantomime of ease while looking down at the carpet. The carpet had Thracian design, burgundy and blue, the colors—and I remember this from my art school days—you layer to create depth and shadow. There were curlicues of flowers and forest-colored accents
“This?” I asked. She nodded.
Behind her are books. I don’t remember how the room was lit, what light source, if there was an overhead fixture or a lamp; the room was always half-illumined with a peek of sunshine and garden shining through a partially-drawn curtain.
“This,” I sighed. I tap the rim of my mug. “This, this, this,” I trailed off.
I chose to describe a clock, which was mounted in my parents’ peach-colored kitchen. It was a kitsch owl-themed thing, a plastic owl with a clock-belly and orange glinty eyes. There were plastic owlets on a plastic branch, the whole chotchke shaped much like the state of Kentucky, with unreliable clock hands and a yellowed clock face.
“I remember these things, suddenly. And then think how long ago that was.” I readjusted my posture, and resumed talking with my hands.
“I remember these things, or else get suddenly aware of how fast the boys are growing up, and everything I think of becomes painful. Like I’m tearing off calendar pages and they instantly burst into flames and fly past me and I can’t stop it.
“I get nostalgic.”
“But nostalgia’s sweet, right?” Peg said, nodding assuagingly, smiling.
“No. The Latin. Means: pain of remembrance. Nostalgia’s being fucking homesick in your head and I feel it all the goddamn time. I get nostalgic for an hour ago.”
As expected, Cayden hands me the big orange thermos.
“Hold this, Daddy.”
I am a purse. We pause in front of a wooden sign that welcomes us to the neighborhood—Arroyo Canyon. Again that tautology—and we’re just as quickly unwelcomed by the list of rules regarding trespassing, parking, where you’re not supposed to walk. A butterfly lights on the sign, a six-legged postcard of an insect. The wooden sign is carved in bas relief and the butterfly navigates its surfaces effortlessly with flitting wings. Butterflies have it easy. The hedge-trimmer is busy manicuring the hedges in shallow cuts and the sun is increasingly warm.
“Can I ask you something?” I say leaning over the front desk, meeting eyes with the head nurse before looking conspiratorially sideways. I had just helped my Roberto with his paperwork and was getting used to this place. There were coins of cucumber in the water dispenser, and—in bare feet—this was feeling more and more like a hotel.
She looked up, smiling, and tilted her head to the left, a suggested ‘yes’.
“Do you have my bloodwork on file?” She looked behind her at the other attendants working their stations, then returned to her keyboard. She held up a finger and clicked through a few screens. She adjusted the monitor toward me.
Proteins, globulins, Hg, potassium, sugars, Fe. I scanned the list. Not great on the pancreatic numbers, but I hadn’t eaten for two days when the phlebotomist stuck me. Good proteins ok, inflammatory proteins as expected, iron fine. Cholesterol alright, lipids normal.
“Thanks, Sister,” I said, and she turned the monitor back to its appropriate position, tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear and continued working.
What the hell am I doing here? What the fuck am I doing here? I just called the nurse Sister.
I padded off in bare feet and, expectedly, Sad Bill was asleep in bed, his running shoes inexplicably on, and the curtains drawn.
I sat upright in bed and crossed my arms, glanced at the clock and watched only the second hand click; I tapped the flesh of my upper left arm with the fingers of my right hand, re-crossed my ankles and looked to the ceiling. I imagined my lipids unemulsified in the blood, yellow capsules like iu’s of Vitamin E swimming in capillaries, amoeboid and moving, moving in circulation, my heart a fleshy muscle flapping stupidly and sending beads of amber down their uncertain avenues. This is how you go to sleep.
Roberto had said I looked smart as he proffered me a pen; I helped him with his information, the triplicate forms, while I wore glasses and we manned the Group Table. There were pink papers, yellow ones, and white ones.
“Sign this here,” I pointed.
“Your initials in this box. There—finito.”
We sat up simultaneously when all paperwork was done.
“Thanks, Man!” Roberto beamed as we shuffled the rainbow of paper into a neat pile.
I didn’t know what to do—I gave him a hug. He had briefly died on Fentanyl and needed a halfway-house.
‘It’s hard coming back to life,’ either one of us could’ve said as I took off my glasses.
“Really, thanks, Man.” I waved a whatever wrist, squeezed the bridge of my nose and pushed back my chair.
“’S cool, my friend,” and we bumped fists as I went to go find Janet.
The second house Cayde and I come across has a running and penniless fountain, three peach and stuccoed stories, and plotted lavender surrounding the perimeter. Burgundy dracaenas mark the doorways where alabaster lions could easily have perched.
“Wow!” Cayden remarks, and he pauses with his stick because the lavender is full of bees. There’s an actual arcade running the side of the house, porticoes and flying buttresses; I point and explain the buttresses—the physics in the exposed wood—and any minute I expect a hipsome Lady Godiva to walk out the house, stretching yawningly, long and red hair shielding crème-colored breasts, in desperate need of a horse. This is a house where you recline naked, a Titian half-shell existence, no need for clothes. The house is sealed off, and the fountain runs its circulated course.
“The bees, Daddy.”
“What about them, Dude?”
He prods a lavender bush, and the bees buzz their discontent.
I feel sorry for the bees. Cayden just shortened their lives. Bees lack regenerative protein, so their lives are measured by distance, not days. They die skinny and used up. The more they fly, the faster they die.
“Don’t bother them, Cayde. Flowers.”
This is a strange sentence; I’m connecting dots in my head while voicing nothing of a bridge. Lady Godiva never makes an appearance, and the hollow porticoes speak of absence. Three stories, all peach-stuccoed.
Nervous Luke had his own horse—an aluminum one—which he was mandated to use when navigating the hallways. He’s a ‘fall risk.’ On the nurse’s charts this is signified by an ‘F’ and a circle. Nervous Luke would sit in the Group Room when most everyone had gone to bed. He hated his walker—embarassed by it—but he had passed out violently drunk before being admitted, ingloriously smacking the soft of his neck on the porcelain lip of the tub. He bruised the tender spot where his brain stem was busy that night being drowned. Double blackout. The doctors, being cautious, gave him a walker. They worried that he might experience delayed seizures else throw an undetected clot. It can be a long way to the floor, after all, or, when brains are involved, a short journey. Better safe than dead.
He hated being here, hated having to scoot around manacled to something so convalescent, so beyond his obviously young age. He only came out at night, outside of watching eyes, always in socked feet. He shuffled past the nurses with his aluminum horse, but then dragged it clatteringly behind him when corners were turned, hitching it, always, to his post-meridian post in the Group Room.
“So long as I keep it near me,” he shrugged, gesturing to his walker while Janet, Luke, and I alone inhabited the Group Room. It was Nighttime Teatime, packets of decaffeinated oolong and mint fanned out on the table, a carafe of hot water at easy reach. Cottonballs soaked in essential oils sat in Dixie cups as some semblance of potpourri, and I’d taken to dabbing my moustache with the puffs, chloroforming some relaxation. A tinted window partitioned off the Nurse’s Station and silhouettes behind the amber glass moved in shadowy motion, the blue of computer screens occasionally eclipsed by the shuffling of files and clipboards.
I was elbows with Janet and we were trying to convince Nervous Luke to come down for meals, at least. He still had sandwiches routinely dropped of at his door, room service of sorts else something more akin to a thrice-daily delivery of bread and water. His room had no view, so he was inclined to think the latter; nurses have keys like jailors and, considering his sheepish view of himself, his nocturnal walks of shame, I didn’t blame him.
“We’re all in here for the same reason,” Janet said. She’d occasionally rouche the cuffs of her three-quarter sleeved cardigan, yellow, and replace her arm casually against mine. I was busy scratching away at some writings. The head nurse had allowed me earlier access to the counselor’s office, locking me in surreptitiously so I could print out some pieces I’d been working on. This wasn’t allowed, and she made sure to usher me out before the doctors hit the floor for rounds. I was beginning to think of her more like a concierge than an RN.
“’S true, Friend,” I said, marking up some margins, Janet and I suddenly Good Cop and Good Cop. None of us were having tea.
Luke fingered the fuzz of his upper lip, a blond and anemic moustache, and explained the extent of his champagne evenings.
“It got to where I couldn’t eat,” he said. In the medical manuals, it’s said that alcoholism is eventually a nutritional disease. I glanced up over my bifocals.
“I’ve written about that, Luke.” I shuffled my papers and found a piece I’d penned about being only occasionally hungry, this while always maintaining a constant thirst. I began reading.
Janet was acting funny. She had received permission to lotion this evening, these permissions and substances that must be granted, and she was fastidiously applying her ablutions. I read to Luke and Janet rouched her sleeves again to the elbows, quietly laughing to herself. She dabbed my exposed knee with a dot of moisturizer and began rubbing it clockwise into my skin with one finger. I kept reading, trying hard to keep eyes trained on Luke else the computer printout.
“These meds are making me feel weird,” Janet announced, and she excused herself momentarily to punch at the Group Room console. “What are we on again?” she called out from the keyboard.
“Librium, Lady. Unless you’re on Atavan, but that’s more for the DT cases.”
Luke ran his fingers through his hair and he reminded me very much of my good friend Dennis. I at once felt fraternal.
“Come to lunch tomorrow, Luke. Please.”
Luke turned his head to the side, then looked down at his hands.
“How do you spell librium?” Janet queried from across the room, pecking at the keys.
“L-i-b-r-i-u-m. Librium,” I repeated, as if winning the Sharp Mesa Verde Spelling Bee.
“Maybe I will,” Luke finally said. “I just gotta bring this goddamn thing with me,” he cursed, nodding sidelong to his walker. “Else the nurses will have a fit.”
Janet returned to the chair next to me.
“I knew it,” she announced.
I wasn’t completely done reading, so set to finish while Janet slid a paper from my portfolio, silently turning it over. She stole my pen, wrote something, then pushed it back into my stack.
Luke decided to go to bed. Tea Time was almost over anyway, the carafe now lukewarm. I glanced over at Janet with a smirk.
“I think I know what you found out?” I nervously laughed, feeling suddenly flush.
Side effects may include altered sex drive.
I shuffled my writings back into their binder. The one turned-over paper read, “I’m pierced” and it was signed with a heart.
Chemicals do strange, sometimes libidinal, things. Janet had been right. We were all in here for the same reason. Chemicals had a definite way with us.
The third house is maybe where Silver Man lives. It’s a Cubist affair with punched up windows, minimal, without the Villa plantings. A lone palm tree acts as sundial, its shadow having a broad canvas to work on: a white and near-featureless wall, west-facing. There are low-lying shrubs otherwise, flowerless and empty of bees. I am more impressed with this house than Cayden is. I appreciate its restraint, the hedges of Japanese boxwood and the asymmetrical slats for windows. The light inside must be focused and well thought out, why I imagine Silver Man has a collection of orchids punctuating his living spaces, phaelenopses on small tables. I further imagine there is a wristwatch perpendicular to bedside reading material, and a water-rower machine on the second-floor. Surely there are soya granules in the larder, and blueberries next to plums next to celery root in the crisper.
He practices self-Tantra in front of a full-length mirror, cleanses his septal chakras. His expired wedding ring sits in a lower drawer and his cutlery has bamboo handles.
“What are you thinking, Daddy?”
“Oh, nothing, Kid.”
I wonder what Cayde thinks; I wonder what anyone thinks. It’s not every day you suddenly disappear. Cayde bustles down the path, Winnie the Pooh still sagging beneath the beltline. I had checked out, checked myself in. It was one bridge crossed, but there were multiplicities of them stringing canyons. It was Luke embarrassed by his aluminum horse and wanting two legs back. It was Sad Bill sad trying to row his skiff to shore. It was me drinking six pints in quick succession at ten o’clock in the morning hoping that at least one would hit its mark; that one would banish this oppressive and governing mortality; that one would finally correct the misaligned chemicals and quell the constant feeling of simultaneous explosion and implosion.
“What happens if you feel you can’t make it another day?” Peg asked from her leather chair.
“I’ll still be there the next day.”
“So, what if there are five days?”
“I hate to think.”
“But you can get through this.”
“Then get through it first.”
On the last day before I disappeared, I hunkered behind the mini-van parked in the driveway while waiting for my wife to get off a conference call. I was done. Done done done. And Cayde, from his couch-perch inside—I didn’t think he knew I was there—hit the panic button on the van’s key, driving me, startled, from my roost.
I met him at the back door. “Why’d you do that, Dude?” my voice quavering. He just shrugged and walked away while I guiltily retreated into the bathroom to brush my teeth. I gripped the washbasin sink and shook, first a tremor, then a full on body-quake.
“No, no, no. Please no.” I slipped my perch and had to sit on the tiles. I held up my hands, palms down, and assessed their inability to quit a bird-like shaking. I sat shivering for ten minutes, my foot planted against the door to bar all entry. I tried not to hyperventilate, but was breathing quick, shallow breaths.
“You okay, Thom?” my wife asked from behind the door.
“Fine,” I managed. “I’m fine.”
Fine, however, is not exploding into pieces, pieces hastening to the floor in leaded condense.
Sometimes you become a shell of yourself. Sometimes that shell, once husked quickly fossilizes into weight before having completely separated from the soft parts. You are left swimming in rock, stuck to an unshed skeleton.
“Rock bottom,” I said when the check-in nurse prodded at my various edemas, my swollen feet. She registered my blood pressure as concerning. I was ashamed. I couldn’t get through it; I couldn’t get through the five days; it hurt too much, and no one likes having fat ankles. I swam in rock.
We crunch through another pea gravel driveway in the dry gulley, me and Cayde, and Cayde stops in front of a lantana hedge to look at bees again. He’s giddy having this adventure with his dad.
He peers like a scientist at a worker deftly navigating the petals of lantana’s impossibly small flowers, collecting pollen on the hair of its legs. Cayde’s bangs fall into his right eye, which he closes instinctively. Makes him look more studious, as if scrutinizing the world through a magnifying glass. He grips the drawstrings of his Winnie the Pooh rucksack at the shoulders, feet planted firmly in the gravel. He follows the bee’s peripatetic buzzing with the whole of his head, neck swiveling comically as the bee dances flower to flower.
“It’s amazing to think, Daddy, that something so small is helping the world a million.” I’m not sure what Cayde means by ‘million’, but I get his drift, this boyhood satori of his. He looks skyward as the bee floats off, pollen-laden and hive-bound.
Cayden’s neck is long like mine, and, with head tilted back, he looks somehow more adult. I remember when he was two, when I explained the Children’s Moon to him from our shared vantage point in the backyard fort. It was the only moon he was awake to see then, a white and limnal disc in chambray sky. I offered him this, the proxy moon, when he was two, its nighttime counterpart a year later; I gave him the moon done up in chalk and silver.
Cayde loses the bee in the burgeoning sun and squints up at me. His right eye is still closed, bangs insouciantly caught in his lashes. He’s the love of my life, there among the bees and pea gravel, in front of a house with unknown residents.
He’s the love of my life. I feel nothing.
My bridge is only halfway crossed at this point, toxins having evacuated enough room for the nothingness to otherwise settle in. It’s to be expected. The serotonin is gone from my system, a string of chemical pearls unstrung. There will be thirty more days of this leadenness, time to write everything down in absence of feeling, words as proxy for actual emotion. There will be thirty more days, minimum, before the silver light comes back on.
Sad Bill greeted me when I threw my hastily packed rucksack on the hospital bed. The room was Antarctic cold. I espied the thin blankets and sighed. It was going to be a long night. I wanted pills, pabulums of sleep.
“Was just napping,” Sad Bill remarked with a yawn.
“Sorry,” I offered, an apology that he waved off with one hand while stifling his yawn with the other.
“No, no, no. ‘S almost dinner anyways.” Sad Bill cleared his throat of sleep and rubbed the back of his close-cropped head. He widened his eyes to rid them of slumber. “You’re fine.”
I looked around, taking inventory of the drawers and cabinets. I felt a supreme need to put everything away. It was the only measure of control I had remaining.
Sad Bill pushed himself off his bed—he had been sleeping atop the blanket—and arched his back. He was maybe sixty, sixty-five, but still exuded a young man’s athleticism, a purposeful manner of movement. I wondered what was locked into his muscle memory and decided he had been a rower, crew. Probably the coxswain.
“What’re you in for?” he asked slow, a Southern accent detectable, emphasis on the ‘h’: ‘hwut’re you in for?’
I searched for an answer.
He waved again. “I’m kidding. People round here want your diagnosis like it’s a jail sentence. You don’t have to answer.”
Sad Bill looked at me. You don’t check into detox because you’re sad, no matter the barrel you’re scraping.
Sad Bill started toward the door, turned and said, “Me? I was married.”
He closed the door behind him quietly.
“Daddy, I’m hungry,” Cayde says. I sweep the bangs out of his eyes and cup the back of his head.
“I’m sure, Kid.” I point up the path. “This’ll take us back into the neighborhood. We can get some breakfast at Jimmy Carter’s, then get home to Mama. Sound good?”
Cayde nods in agreement and skips up the gully. I follow behind with my erstwhile cup of coffee. I’m drinking coffee these days alcoholically, cup after cup as if searching for something at mug’s bottom. There are these free-floating cravings, which find traction behind my eyeballs, between my shoulder blades. I hold hot coffee in my mouth to quell the keening sensation at the back of my throat. More, more, more; more of something. eyeballs to palate to shoulder blades is a straight line, vague and Vagus. My gut communicates incessantly—naggingly—with my brain, and I wish for a disconnect, a dropped call. I resignedly finish my coffee and follow Cayde up the trail.
We empty out into Mission Hills, a new neighborhood west of the bridge. The avenues here have the same names as the avenues east of the arroyo, back in Banker’s Hill—they just lie differently with slightly different orientation. The imaginary lines connecting Third from Third, Redwood from Redwood, are crooked things, some civil engineer’s ricochet. It confuses Cayden. He doesn’t know where he is in space and harbors, meanwhile, a growing mistrust of street signs.
“Are we lost, Daddy?”
I point left and up a hill. “Not exactly. We have to go that way. We went downhill, now we have to go back up.”
Before he can complain, I offer Cayden the thermos and he takes a long draw. Wiping his mouth, he plunks down on someone’s front lawn and roots through Winnie the Pooh in search of the trail mix. A cat twitches its tail from the nearby porch: absolute suburban reproach.
“Don’t set up base camp, Kid. This ain’t Everest.” Still I allow him a few minutes to finish his snack. I wish I had a canteen to offer, make Cayde feel more the scout. I could maybe give him a merit badge, lend him a neckerchief slide emblazoned with our initials. We are our own little troupe.
When finished, Cayde crinkles the cellophane packet and jams it back into his bag. He throws the last raisin at the cat, hoists himself up, and dusts errant grass off the seat of his pants.
“Ok, Daddy. Ready.” We begin our uphill march.
The nurse began to draw an ‘F’ on my chart.
“What’s that mean?” I asked while the blood pressure cuff mechanically constricted my left bicep. The vitals machine ran through a series of numbers, looking to land on my particular metrics.
Nurse Richard paused. “Fall risk,” he said, meeting my eyes. “You said you was falling.”
“No, no—I said I felt like I was falling upwards,” I corrected. “Upwards—I mean the Librium has me floaty. I’m fine.” My fault for having used picturesque language. There’s no room for poetry in the detox ward.
Nurse Richard looked down, slowly scratching the ‘F’ off the clipboard, then looked up, double-checking my eyes before setting the pen down.
“Alright, Brother. Just tell me if you get too dizzy, a’ight?” He shifted in his stool, ripping the cuff off my arm once the vitals machine had finished its lottery.
“154 over 89.” He punched the numbers into the machine’s computer.
“What do I win?”
“Klonopin. Maybe Ativan. I’ll hafta check with Dr. Morrow in the morning.” Replacing the cuff, he said, “Meantime, Dude, I get you some more Librium. It’s your first night—you gonna need it.” I liked Nurse Richard. Almost as much as the Librium.
Nurse Richard weightily pushed himself off the stool and offered me knucks. He was a good 250, thick in the paunch.
“You’re good, Brother. I take care of you. I’ll getchoo that Librium.”
Librium is a benzodiazepine, cousin to Xanax. It’s an anti-anxiety med and straight avenue to Nod. It’s used clinically to curb acute alcohol withdrawal, sometimes paradoxically. Librium, after all, doesn’t agree with all chemistries—it can induce seizures, amnesia, paranoia as readily can two fifths of vodka given the right conditions. Librium’s also addictive, further paradox of detox. You have to hook yourself on a drug to get off another.
Michael in 324 was on suboxone to taper his fentanyl addiction. Nurse Richard had the unpleasantry of both catheterizing and irrigating Michael at 2 a.m. one night when Michael strained impotently at the toilet, unable to rid his body of junk. Nurse Richard dubbed him ‘Elvis’, the sardonic kind of shit he came up with when pinching off colostomy bags.
Sandy in 332 was on Lorezapam to calm the shakes; her chart dictated QID electrolytes and Nurse Richard meanwhile played Gunga Dinn throughout the day dropping off pitchers of water at her bedside. ‘Gotta get them numbers up, Sister.’ Sandy’s low blood pressure had earned her an ‘F’.
I was on a slow taper of chlordiazepoxide, an elevator forever creeping upward through an unspecified tower of floors. I never quite touched the ceiling, and the doors never opened to any penthouse; but for my entire stay, it was as if my ghost was in perpetual levitation, hovering always two inches above my skin. I gave Nurse Richard nothing to worry about. I was complacently high in the rerouting of my lows, the paradox of regaining sea level.
Cayde and I crest the uphill. We have the momentary elation of having made our suburban summit, and the ocean is visible in between buildings far and to the south. The Coronado Bridge gleams its particular shade of blue while curving out of view, its girders bolted to massive caissons, which, like concrete islands, rise defiantly out of the Bay.
“Are we there yet?” Cayde asks, the eternal question.
The novelty of the hike is wearing off for Cayden and, despite medications to the contrary, I feel a slight rise in anxiety. Things are wearing off for the both of us. I’d like to be home, but I’m hoping Cayde doesn’t. Not yet at least.
I’d planned this urban hike in anhedonic flatness, the Librium having ceased its effect upon Odysseal return home. There were nights I lied awake next to Jenny in bed, my hand resting on the small of her back. I could almost sense through my fingertips the chemicals that coursed correct and aligned beneath her bedclothes, beneath her skin, the rivers carrying in their current the necessary salts and lymph. I’d told Jenn in the hospital I didn’t want to fucking be sober—those words—though I’d willingly checked myself in. Truth is I didn’t want to feel the anhedonia upon my return home, that unbearable joylessness sure to replace whatever numbness I could otherwise muster imbibing, lotus-eating, sleeping chemical sleep.
I was a practiced lotus-eater. The flowers had just become toxic.
Cayden had to have noticed. He’s Daddy’s Boy. I was the first to hold him in the hospital; I’m always the last to kiss him goodnight. I spent every waking day with him until, suddenly, I didn’t. I disappeared. I promised return in a few days, but disappeared regardless. Upon my return Cayde held me tight round the waist and I stooped to bury my nose in his boyish tangles. He cried, assuring me it was because he was so happy to see me. I believed him to a certain degree while I kissed his head and held him close, but not every spirit is a blithe spirit—there’s always a measure of disquiet when seeing a ghost. I imagined, in the doorway of our house, that Cayde hugged me, and right through me.
“We’ll cross over the bridge to get back to the car,” I tell Cayde. It’s lucky we left early. It’s now burgeoning on insufferably hot and neither one of us does well in the heat.
“Ok, Daddy.” He readjusts his knapsack and punches the nosepiece of his glasses with his thumb. He hasn’t complained about the sun, which has since burned through the marine layer, but I still anxiously await his first grumbles, any proof that this hike was a failure, that I’d somehow lost a piece of my dadness in the hospital. I worry my exit papers bear incomplete signature, that in between Sad Bill’s melancholic contagions and Janet’s Librium-fueled advances, I’m in some way permanently checked into Mesa Verde, the now ghost of room 323.
Cayde doesn’t complain, though. On level ground he takes to skipping again, his shadow stuck to blue sneakers. I relish his joy best I can, try to muster my own. I’m at least more comfortable in this neighborhood with its more homogenous dwellings. Unlike the vanity homes that island the arroyo, the neighborhood bungalows are predictable; they most likely contain predictable people as well.
The houses are ranch-style, Mission, Craftsman—early century affairs like our own back home. Most have gables else awnings overhanging the front doors. This pleases me: I’ve always like recessed entries. They provide once-remove from the street and its peripatetic traffic. How better to hide from the outside world then to lengthen the distance to one’s front door? It’s the same as pouring a pint, same as lengthening the distance between two people through practiced placement of a bottle. It’s akin to opening the hatch while closing a door.
I study Cayden as he trounces ahead of me, legs having to work twice as quick as mine in traversing the cross-streets. He has a boyish flounce still, though his limbs are coming into their own and will soon slow to match mine. Meanwhile, Winnie the Pooh comically vanguards Cayde’s youth, bearishly keeping his innocence though—of recent—Cayde’s questions have taken a different timbre, more mature. I can handle the questions. I can even bear the clumsy advancement of his thickening limbs, the pre-adolescent curling of his hair, but—more and more—I wish to suspend Cayde’s boyhood as if in amber. I’d like to to keep him golden, shining like his bangs today in the mid-morning sun.
I sat in my hospital bed regretting what I’d said to Jenn that morning. That I didn’t want to fucking be sober. We had sat in the courtyard on a bench next to the penniless fountain, the geometric fountain with its recycled water and white noise. It was a hands folded visit, though secretly we were both pawing the air as if testing the elements, deciphering the wind’s direction and the air’s particular viscosity. Still, we had a practiced geometry, and our bodies were touching in align, shoulder to knee, and again recombining at the feet. ‘I don’t want to fucking be sober’ was my way of saying, ‘I can handle this.’ The fountain with its lack of currency, the plastic wristband I wore, said otherwise. But it’s like the song says, before I die I want to make one lie come true.”
Jenn may have looked crestfallen as I expressed my great ambivalence; I didn’t check to see. I instead felt our bodies touch as once they did the night we almost kissed on the suspension bridge. I’ve since securely fastened my padlock to the bridge’s cable, figuratively stenciled our initials, but bridgefall is always the threat. Cables can snap and pediments can fall.
Sad Bill was asleep. Before retiring to his pillow he had the recited the means of his divorce, a hollow story really, nothing more than a verbal shrug. Marriages are sometimes broken with an insipid snap, and his had bowed like a wet twig well before its impotent surrender. His wife had simply moved out, no explanation. Forty years of marriage, more than half spent speaking the language of ghosts. No wonder he was practiced at sleeping.
Bill never snored, so reading was easy. I had a copy of Cheever’s Falconer cracked, the side lamp on. The curtains were always closed out of respect for Sad Bill’s ceaseless slumber, which seemed somehow fitting besides. Junk up in the dark, get clean in the dark. Emerge in the morning, walk out those doors, shiny and new.
I stopped at a passage on page twenty-five: “I find it difficult to imagine cleanliness. I can claim to imagine this, but it would be false. It would be as though I had claimed to reinstall myself in some afternoon of youth.”
Christ. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to fucking be sober, I thought—it was maybe that I couldn’t. Sobriety seemed an imaginary thing, now that I had adolesced well beyond my first drink and into aquarial middle age. Here I was, birthdate on a hospital wristband, four decades distant from the cradle, and three decades separate from Cayden. At every pill distribution, I was asked my name, my birthdate, and every distribution wound up being a small exercise in arithmetic, reminder of my age. My afternoon was already half-spent. What lunch had I missed while languoring at the cocktail bar, and could I ever rejoin the table?
Cayden pauses in the half-shade, the crossroads of Third and Spruce, and there are jacarandas in full flower outside a concrete tenement. Spruce trees are non-existent. The street is not even named as such en requiem for what the asphalt and curb had replaced; there are groves of eucalyptus, always have been, and jacarandas purpling the property lines. Spruce is just another street in a north-south line of arboreal-themed avenues. All the tree streets are ordered alphabetically—Palm, Quince, Redwood, &c.—and most have their interruptions in canyons. The bridge, though, connects the west end of Spruce to its eastern counterpart—it makes for one of the few true thoroughfares west of Balboa Park. I explain as such to Cayde, and for a second time, but he’s only interested that we’ve come full circle, that the bridge is magical conduit to the other side. This is why jungle gym bridges are forever teeming with kids: they make a to b different.
“Can we go down into the canyon again?” Cayde asks as we walk through the sodden carpet of jacaranda flowers and toward the bridge.
“I thought you were hungry. Also it’s getting warm.”
The sun shines through the trees and, not yet afternoon, it’s still bordering on hot. I glance sidelong at Cayden—we’re now walking side by side—and he remains agreeable.
“Alright, Daddy. Let’s go eat.”
I’m concerned that his sudden agreeability is, at heart, some manifestation of worry—that he’s being placative to avoid upsetting me. Kids are divining rods to tension, their antennae always on point. ‘Yes, Daddy’, ‘Sure, Daddy’. I try to readjust my face to mirror his agreeability, but joylessness is already a mask, and it’s hard staring through two sets of eyeholes at once.
“AnhedooOOonia,”Peg said from her therapist’s chair. “Feels like it sounds.”
It’s actually the state of unfeeling, but at the heart of a ghost story is a simple, apparitional fact: ghosts don’t exist in the afternoon and, without haunt, their number is up.
“Jimmy’s has great huevos rancheros—what do you want?” I ask.
Cayden ponders for a second: “Mexican waffles.” He says this resolutely.
I crack a smile. “Alright—try fooling the waitress with that one.”
Cayde kicks at a heap of spent trumpet flowers, purple, and we walk through leaf litter, less eggshells, toward the bridge.
Cayde suddenly grabs my hand and I start. Christ. I worry the gesture is placative. I want to say, ‘It’s not your fault.’
‘Iloveyou’, Cayde tells me, fast and softly. It’s all one word. I relax. This is his tell. ‘Iloveyou’ is the word he summons both as verb and adjective. ‘Iloveyou’ means he’s enjoying the afternoon, the afternoon I’m trying to return to. It’s a word I taught him in the delivery room; subject, verb and object combined; there is no breath in between.
Two weeks clean. Cayde places the polish.
I knucked Nurse Richard on the way out. He was grunting a juggernaut of water up the hallway, elevator doors slid closed behind him.
“Don’t come back now, y’hear?’ he joked, Southern-fried Gunga Dinn. The head nurse acquiesced a smile, having heard this joke a thousand times, most her keep having come back in some capacity. ‘She must get tired of the faces’, I thought. I kissed her on the cheek in apology as she cut my wristband.
She smiled and adjusted her glasses. The elevator door yawned open, didn’t turn its panels like a revolving door.
“Go write,” she said.
I exited left. The cabin of the elevator featured posters reminding its travellers to eat: faded photos of tomatos and spinach on white plates. The ceiling of the cabin was embossed with fleur d’lis damask, water-stains regardless of symbology; it was a short route down.
I left a book with Janet; I left Sad Bill alone, asleep at the coxswain. I left.
“Take me home,” I told Jenn, the car idling. “Please.”
Cayde runs half the length of the suspension bridge to its middle. On either side of the bridge is old-growth eucalyptus but, underneath the lowest sag of the bridge, there are only freeway shrubs, acacia and cigarette flowers. Admonishing signs repeat: ‘Don’t.’ Don’t trespass, don’t litter. The ground beneath is a depressing thing, parched and mud-cracked. Scales of earth peel back from the gully floor.
“How do you want your eggs?” I ask Cayden as we take a seat, legs dangling over the bridge’s edge. I still have my bounty of travellers’ cups, the thermos and the coffee mug, and set them down empty. Jimmy’s is just down the block.
Cayden kicks his legs over the gulf, deflated Winnie like a lackluster cape.
“Mmm..what’s it called when they’re a circle and runny?”
“Poached. Those’re poached eggs.”
The airways course their first traffic and I pick at my fingernails.
“You ok, Kid?”
I tousle his hair and look back to the gray tenement up the street, the dog-walkers surely home by now and maybe frying up sweetbreads for their pup. Silver Man is having his soya; Godiva is enjoying her porticoes.
I look up, measuring the sky’s distance, and the bridge sways slightly. Cayde kicks his legs.
“Let’s go, Kid,” I say, hoisting myself up. “Trail done.”
Cayde agrees. The eucalyptus do their first sway, noontime’s first push of relief; and though I feel nothing, nothing, upon crossing the bridge, the asphalt is assuring; and Cayden walks ahead of me. The marine layer is evaporative, the bridge is unreasonably steady, and, on the way back to the car, I shed a face, smooth my hair, and watch as Cayde plucks open the car door, the <click> of re-entry, re-entry and a jangle as, digging into my pocket, I remember myself the pilot and ready my keys.