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Surrender, Pt. 1

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

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

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

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

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

I am quiet. Paul is quiet.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Coffee Shop Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Ghosts in the Machine

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

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

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

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

“What the shit,” Mike’d echoed.

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

“What the shit.”

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

“Good luck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More silence.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lyndon

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

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

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

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

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

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Jason

Jason fell down again and again in football practice.

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

“I dunno.”

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

“Didja break your leg?”

He shrugged. “No. I’ve got cancer.”

I told my mom upon coming home.

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

I just slumped against the refrigerator and cried.

She was right, though. He did.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thom?”

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

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

“I dunno, Jason.”

“I think it’s gonna be awesome.”

“I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be.”

And we stopped talking. Then we fell asleep.

Jason died two weeks later.

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

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

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

I never said ‘I love you’ back.

I was twelve.

I never said ‘I love you’ back.

I didn’t know how.

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

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

“Hey, Jason.”

“Yeah?”

“I love you, too.”

“…”

“Sorry I forgot to say that.”

“It’s okay, Thom. I knew.”

“…”

“Thom?”

“Yeah, Buddy?”

“Just keep living, okay?”

“Alright, Kid. I will.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Ace of Serves

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

“Lemme see what you got.”

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

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

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

I glanced over at Coach again. He smiled.

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

<Bounce, bounce>

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

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

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

I pointed at Adam.

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

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

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

<Bounce, bounce>

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

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

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

“Phuh!” Second ball joined the first.

So did the third. Then the fourth.

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

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

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

“Thanks, Coach.”

He tousled my head.

“Keep at it, Thom.”

“Thanks, I will.”