death · neighborhood

Memento Mori

When driving through University Heights today, I ventured past the Buddha Bookstore, which I used to frequent when living on Florida St. The store is a Far-East curio with teakwood furniture and cathedral relics lining its walls. Assorted glass cabinets display ornamenture and jewelry, porcelain elephants and monkeywood sculptures. Hardtack tables sit clothed in damask.

On occasion, I’d purchase items from here: a birdcage or an altarpiece, something to pair with the orchids I grew in my apartment living room. I was always greeted handily, though my purchases were small. One day, near store closing, a bracelet caught my eye. It was a simple piece, a series of ¼” teakwood skulls strung on an elastic band. My mother-in-law had just passed, so I felt the bracelet would be a fitting memento mori.

“Can I see this bracelet?” I asked the lady behind the counter. She walked over, smiling an ‘of course’, and attempted to open the cabinet with a set of keys. None of the keys worked, and—flustered—she confessed, “I don’t have keys to everything. I’m closing for the owner tonight. If you check in tomorrow, I’m sure she can help.”

I returned the following morning to be greeted by a spry, red-haired woman who instantly asked me if I needed assistance.

“I came back to buy a bracelet today,” I replied. “The cabinet was locked last night and I couldn’t buy it then.”

“Oh,” the lady frowned, “Which bracelet?” and I pointed to the skulls behind the curio glass.

The red-haired lady twisted her lips, and said, “Oh. Hmm.”

After a pause, she said: “I just promised that to a woman that came through a half-hour ago. Who did you talk to last night?” She was visibly uncomfortable.

I described the lady I had spoken with, her close-cropped hair and be-jangled wrists.

“Oh,” the owner said. Incense smoke curled upward from its burner, various Buddhas smiled down from their cabinet perches.

“Oh.”

“…”

The red-haired lady unlocked the cabinet and handed me the bracelet.

“Here,” and she placed the bracelet in my palm while holding my wrist with her free hand. She looked me in the eye and lowered her voice.

“It’s yours. The lady that spoke to you died last night. If she promised it to you, then it’s yours.”
I whispered a ‘thank you’ and slid the bracelet onto my wrist. Memento mori. The red-haired lady mustered a smile and opened her mouth as if to say something. She decided against words, and primly turned away while the doors chimed in a new customer.

I still have the bracelet—the skulls at least. The elastic band snapped one day and teakwood heads rolled on the floor like a clattering of marbles. I fastidiously picked them all up and sealed them into a Zip-Loc bag, which I now keep in a dresser drawer. How tenuous everything, skulls wrapped in flesh and hair and fragility, we made to be unmade, this the final truth.

death · family

What is Real and What is Not (unfinished vignette)

“I just pretend it’s not real,” Josh says. “I mean it’s not my family. It’s not my girls.”

The chaparral is flaxen in color. The spring has already been glaringly unkind and things are not green. There’s dry grass and the backdrop of boulders, both very present as we sit in our lawn chairs on an Easter afternoon.

Grasses hollow as they dry, becoming insubstantial straw; boulders meanwhile exemplify what’s solid.

Just ten years ago, within the same landscape of granite, my aunt’s fruit tree drooped with limes and the society garlic gave up onion blossoms. The surrounding hills were verdant and we exploded the suburban lawnscapes with teenage abandon, wielding guns and guitars while playing music loud.  Now we are tame in comparison, and have kids of our own.

Earlier in the day, the kids held an Easter egg hunt, scaling the trees and bending the shrubs in anarchic joy. My eldest, Cayden, dangled from a tree limb, having found the Golden Egg.

“I found it, Daddy! I got it,” and I held my breath, hoping he wouldn’t fall.

“The guy was, like, fetal,” Josh says. He cracks a beer and sets it aside.

Josh hits the marks of ‘tall, dark, and handsome’. He’s my cousin’s husband, clean-cut and athletic with angled jaw and high sculpted cheekbones, something of laconic. He works for the California Highway Patrol.

“He was just curled under the dashboard, like he was asleep.”

Josh doesn’t even blink. There are boulders behind him as backdrop, and we adjust our chairs to get out of the sun.

I ask: “How do you deal with it all?”

Josh shrugs.

“It’s not real. Well, when there’s kids involved it’s more real, I guess.”

He pauses. The guy, fetal, beneath the dashboard, crashed himself into an apostrophic position, beneath the ignition block. The guy actually crashed twice, the second collision relegating him to a mortal trifold.

Josh talks at length: “I don’t think about it. I mean, the accident happens at 2 a.m. and I have to pick brains off the road.” And he says this all, nonplussed, while the kids celebrate their brimming Easter baskets and wrestle in the grass.

“I’m surprised at how cold the brains are—I have gloves and all, but I can still feel how cold it is, you know. There are body parts everywhere.

“Then the sun comes up and the crows start picking at the brains on the roadside, and there’s a piece of skull in the middle of the highway.”

We collectively blanch. The kids are  meanwhile laughing among the geraniums and trading candies.

“But you know the one thing that bothers me? The one thing—the only thing–that gets to me?  There’s a slug, suddenly a fucking slug, crawling across that piece of skull in the middle of the road. And I ask: ‘Why is there a fucking slug in the middle of the road in broad daylight?’”

________________________

 

I won’t forget. My dad and I were in the kitchen and a vat of stock was coming to a simmer. I was teaching my dad how to make chicken soup: sustenance stuff.

Earlier in the day, there had been conversation in the living room. A shooting had occurred—on any day there’s a shooting—but this one triggered discussion. I think it was when Gabrielle Giffords got shot outside the Tucson Safeway. The topic ventured from gun violence to  war.

My dad—he was an OR tech in Vietnam, and not a field soldier. He was always and safely behind cyclone wire so far as the story goes, always in triage, never in the jungle. When he arrived at his station, it was Christmas and celebratory firecrackers syncopated the night air. Carols played from within the base’s breeze-block hallways, but, beyond the fenceline, there were sounds of gun-pops.

Explosions can be confusing. What constitutes a firework versus gunfire is probably a matter of semantics. It’s all saltpeter, just with different intent.

“You weren’t ever in the bush, right Dad?” I asked amid conversation.

I’d only heard stories about him being a doctor to the American soldiers but never shoulder with them in the bivouacs. He talked about white phosphorous burns and brain surgeries; operating rooms behind reinforced walls; refrigerated sheds where amputated limbs were kept. Still, he said nothing about the uncertain jungle, which was decidedly, probably, worse.

My dad cleared his throat in a two-note fashion, looked down.

“Well, we all had our turn in the bush.”

I never knew this, he had never said as much, and I felt awful seeing his eyes go unseeing for a minute.

My youngest, Finn, is the one kid in the family who shares my dad’s blue eyes. His eyes are constellations of sorts, blue with pixellations of white. They’ve not seen much; Finn is four. My dad’s eyes are lighter, clearer, but years older and endure the recess of having seen more.

I love my dad, so don’t press him to elaborate. Later, though, we’re in the kitchen making soup. We’re at that point in the stock-making process where we have to skim and clarify the pot of liquid, rid the bones and spent onion peels. A soggy sachet d’epice barely skates the surface, the thyme leaves separating from the stems.

I don’t ask: “What did you see?” That would’ve been inappropriate.

I’ve had eye surgeries, awake, and I have memories of needles inside my eyeballs. These are things I’ve seen, but anesthetically; things I’ve seen that are procedural, and traumatic in only a very local fashion. They’re not events that happened outside the aqueous humor of my eyes, but in it. How we see things is different.

I settle on asking: “What’d you feel, Dad?”

He pauses, says finally, sighing and placing a spoon on the range-top porcelain. : “I dunno.”

He looks up, has his own skull stories. “I was scared.”

Dropping to a whisper, and with things suddenly and incontrovertibly  real, he says: “I was very, very scared.”

 

 

 

death · depression · people

Bist du bei mir

violin stringThe violinist pauses with the rosin, and asks: “Are you sure?”

When thou art near, I go with joy
To death and to my rest
.”

Misha says, “Yes.”

She wears plumbago on her wedding day, a gauzy dress that she’s had the Maid of Honor secure shy of her left breast; there are spangles that decorate the gown, upward of her navel and in a line down her right thigh.

“It’s our song. He just doesn’t know the second line.”

The violinist raises an eyebrow. “Bist du bei mir. It is pretty.”

She puts away the rosin bag into a narrow case, a recessed compartment, and rests her bow onto her shoulder.

“I’ll play it.”

Misha later draws water in the kitchen, for tea; she’s a surgeon and that she had wine on the day he tried to un-surger his own wrists, was granted three-months leave. She makes tea, has taken up cigarettes.

He emerges from the back room and there’s no spotting on the gauze he wears now as decoration, wrists healed, and because she’s crying he wraps his arms around her. Bach is playing in the kitchen and, because she’s crying, Misha is given a longer hug than usual. He begins explaining the song structure to her, though he still doesn’t know the second line.

“He wouldn’t otherwise hug me, but I was given pass. I was sobbing,” Misha explains. She’d rather not tears for him, but they happen.

Like when he frustratedly unwrapped her on their wedding night, where she felt she could be a treasure unlocked, but where he found pins and hindrance instead, the stars she had placed as if you could choose constellations, where above her sex he ignored the careful and particular twist of her dress that was meant to be revealing when unraveled, these details of intimacy ignored; he fell asleep and she cried.

O how joyous would my end be.”

And Misha presses her face to his collar.

“The continuo part is agitated in this version. You OK, Love?”

“Fine. Just hold me.”

Twice he moves to release their embrace.

If your fair hands
Would close my faithful eyes.

“It’s ok, Babe,” she says. And she wished he would remove the wristbands as they scratch the back of her neck.

The violinist exhales, not exactly ready. She then chords the throat of her instrument as Misha stands at the runway, wiggling in uncomfortable shoes. She raises the bow, shuts her eyes, and begins playing.

 

death · favorites · neighborhood · people · university

Erased (redux)

smoke-17

There’s a lessening in volume come morning, the decrescendo of cricket wings, a change in birdsong. When the mockingbirds finally quiet their clamor, and the doves in turn murmur apologies, Andy throws a cord of wood into the local barbecue joint’s smoker.


 The smoker sits like a galvanized submarine at the end of Thorn St., a black matte thing, cylindrical, and neatly welded. It belches smoke before the neighbors can crack their windows and notice the shift in perfume, else—if windows have already been open to the night air—the smoke acts as a pre-dawn and somehow undetected something. It’s just part of the morning, like the first pour-overs of coffee, or the rustle of corvids, which sound like sheeted plastic when grubbing for palm nuts in the fronds162-palm-crows-on-palm-c2a9swamistream

 Scent may remain the furthest sense away from our notice, yet it’s the best to conjure memory. It’ll be impossible to forget this time and place though the smell of mesquite is presently unobserved in its ubiquity.

 That sense of smoke. It’s just the sunrise rising, and part of everything else dissipative in the morning: the steam off a cup of coffee; the new clouds, which the night made old; the water heating the brass fixtures, the brass heating the shower.

 Morning erases itself without notice.


“I have this idea,” Chris suddenly says. We’re in our shared apartment, east of the university.

“What now?” I respond drolly, still nursing a coffee from an afternoon lunch with our sculpture professor, Italo.

It should be noted Christopher’s now dead. Italo, too. In different ways, dead.

Italo, though—he has a sculpture down at the local Thai place, which still stands years after his passing, a monkeywood and metal affair. Scanga-Meta_VI-SaxophoneItalo had the clever idea of soldering chain-link into a frozen-upright position, so that it never collapses into coils on the floor. Cunning immortality, if you think about it.

“I hope it involves actually finishing one of those ready-mades you were supposed to’ve done last Wednesday.”

I flip through a back issue of Art in America.

“Then again,” I reconsider, “A ‘ready-made last Wednesday’ is hardly a ready-made.”

“I’m just exploring the media,” Chris smirks.

Chris is maybe 5’7”, short of average and with forever-sleepy eyes that seem sleepy as affect. Always the thrift store cardigan, the threadbare canvas shoes, and unkempt hair. He is unpolished to perfect blemish, insouciant and under-eye bruisy.

“Ex-plore the media,” Chris says, his best imitation of Italo’s heavy Calabrian accent. “Why yoo rush?”

Chris stands on the balcony overlooking a view of nothing much, boxwood hedgerows and a climbing jasmine with autumn-extinguished blossoms still clinging to the vine like paper.

“Man, I love Italo,” Chris says, a wreath of cigarette smoke settling over his head like an effete crown. “He’s full of shit.”

Italo’s infinity chain down at the Thai joint stands frozen next to a five-foot pillar of a statue, a human figure with limbs still congealed in media, arms frozen to hips like an alabaster chessman. The whole thing’s done up in tempera, Italo’s preferred paint.

“Tempera,” Italo announced over coffee today, gesturing with his half-gnawed bagel. “It is stupid.” You could never tell what Italo meant by ‘stupid’, whether disparaging or not. “You know the Acropolis was not always white? Used to be a whore, acropolis color2done up in color thousands of years ago. All this garish egg paint. It’s only white now,” he said dangling a demitasse from his left pinky.

Italo would use fresco recipes to slapdash whatever sculpture he could unfinish, knowing that tempera was bound to fade. By contrast, museum-piece Rembrandts, the deep dank Rembrandts, are still wet beneath six inches of oil redux.

“I order all these monkey-men statues from a warehouse in Tibet. I say, ‘Give me all of them, give me all the monkey-men.’ I love them, my little soldiers,” he scratched his temples, the seemingly only well-groomed part of him. “Let the monkey-men turn white again, after I’m done painting them. Then people will think I’m genius.”

“You think he’s genius?” Chris asks, drawing the last of his cigarette with pursed lips. “Italo, I mean.” Chris extinguishes his smoke against the railing, letting the cinder drift to the downstairs patio. He exhales blue, then waves off his own question. “Probably.Joseph_Beuys_ff_I_like_America_and_America_likes_me_kidsofdada_article_grande

I flip a page in Art in America where another Beuys retrospective is featured on page 43. Something to do with a coyote and a walking stick.

“He’s got tenure. You’re a ways off. You tell me.”

 

“Here, here,” Italo said to me and Chris, “I love these cranberry bagels. Have some. You are my protégés. We share coffee.” We sat in a grove beneath old-growth eucalyptus with its paper-thin bark and creaking limbs.

Italo wagged a finger and spoke quietly, “The Parthenon is a beautiful thing because it became beautiful by accident.”

“So make things ugly first, on purpose,” he chewed his half-bagel and thrice shook his finger. “Make ugly things.”

“Why I use tempera,” he says again, “It is the best disappearing ink.“

Chris hooked half a bagel toward himself and chewed laconically. He looked bemused, else bored to death in his chair.

It was a year later when Chris disappeared in Czechoslovakia, when ten pairs of Levis could still afford you decent digs, and when Prague was advertised as the city of spires and bridges. All these cantilevered anddusk-skyline-of-prague-czech-republic beveled constructions, romantic in their concrete and wire defiance of physics. The city was a leaden gray exercise in suspension.

“Hello from Praha,” Chris would at some point write to me, a postcard done up in dumb paint with scrawl on the back. He had an upcoming art show. “In beautiful Czech Krimsky R—-“. The R— word was illegible, cut off by an airmail stamp. Chris was cut off, too–dead before the postcard arrived Par Avion.

Chris was found face down in a bar, supposedly having slipped on ice outside the absint establishment, which placed a half-pour in front of him as subterfuge before the coroners could collect him. The bruises, though, were obvious on the soft of his neck, two heady whacks to the brain stem, which loosened up the passport from his back pocket and left Chris without any ID. He was shelved for three weeks as John Doe in the morgue before his parents began their Transatlantic search.

“I feel…,” he said before the blue set in beneath his eyes cyanotically discoloring his cheeks. He was 23, which I suppose is as viable, die-able age as any.

“So this idea,” Chris says, leaning against the porch railing. “Well, this thought…” Chris has a vague manner about him always, a loosely drawn curtain neither open nor closed. He doesn’t ever seem solidified in any tense, and won’t be until he later becomes preterite.

“These vans that go by,” and he gestures past the boxwoods toward the University, “They have ‘Information Destruction’ printed on their sides.”Vehicle-Graphics-Lettering-Vans-01 Chris half-heaves himself over the railing, anchored by his elbows. He lands back on the concrete in soft sneakers.

“What if they actually vacuumed up everything?”

“What do you mean? They’re just paid to get rid of all the university files and shit. All the tests and whatever else from the regents’ office. You sound high.” I look up at Chris with mock-concern. “Are you high again, Chris? And why are you not sharing?”

“No, no. Think of it like this. Wherever the vans drive, everything just disappears.”

Chris scoots a geranium pot from one side of the porch to the other with a scraping sound and does the same railing trick, just backwards this time.

“Like, gone,” feet landing on the ground again, “And you could drive one of these vans and get rid of stuff, just erase everything.”

I examine Chris’s face. “Yep. You’re totally high.”

He twirls against the railing. “They’d play ice-cream chimes. Minor key. And, <shwoop>, no more dog-walkers. No more cars. Complete takeaway of information.”

I pause, then nod approvingly. “It does sound delightfully sinister.” Chris lights another cigarette and resumes staring into the not much at all.


It’s morning, the mesquite burns correctly without the snapping of sap. Andy works the barbecue pit smoker in the near distance, stoking the flames and releasing occasional fireflies of cinder into the air. smoke-17

Chris’s postcard is tucked into a book, so neatly shelved away, I forget where. The crickets are forever chirping because the house is situated over a crawlspace. It’s easy for them to seek shelter up through the pantry and into the warm corners behind the fridge. You get used to them, eventually, just like you get so used to the mockingbirds that you no longer notice when they become doves; or when the juncos start their flitting and antemeridial search for bugs to feed the cowbirds crowding their nests, the children that don’t resemble them but which the juncos take care of anyway.

Chris boiled water for tea twice daily in the kitchenette.

“Tea. You?”proust

“No, thanks.” I have my coffee.

Chris is still musing the Information Destruction vans.

“I suppose it could be sinister,” he smiles, “But why not have fun pretending?” He opens the cabinet to rummage for honey.

“Call it wishful thinking. That you have the power to erase.”

The cars sit monumental curbside, temporarily stopped. smoke-17The cars will sit for another hour, motionless, designed to look in motion even when not moving. It’s like a car can’t even be parked anymore, aerodynamic to the point of improbability. Soon there’ll be the morning commute, the coffee, the cell phones on point.

 Andy throws more logs into the fire to stir the air, his contribution and making of the morning. If the fire weren’t there, the morning would be incomplete. You’d notice the fire in its absence, the scent of the ante meridian all wrong. If Andy stopped, the morning would, too. If I stopped waking up, as Chris did, the world would cease.

“What the hell is that? Never noticed it,” I jut a chin Chris’ direction.

Hanging above the tea cannisters is a painting in unlikely color, something Chris has tacked to the inside of the cupboard. The woman depicted is ugly, else the painting is, and the fingers are prominent.woman

“You’re obviously not DeKooning, Friend,” I say, “Though it looks like you’re trying to murder the female form all the same. ‘The fuck is that piece?”

“Karen,” Chris says, stirring honey into his tea. “Her name ‘s Karen. She presides over the Darjeeling.”

“She’s goddamn ugly.”

Chris taps his nose and acrobats onto the counter with a brimming mug, barely a slosh.

“Sure,” he says, “But she’s got mighty fine fingers,” and he pats his crotch.

“Oh, shut up, you degenerate. That the girl you’re seeing? I’m sure she’s not flattered by your pedestrian use of paintbrush.”

I return to my magazine. Now Beuys is draped in a blanket and the coyote’s pissing on a stack of Wall Street Journals.beuys1

Chris dangles his legs over the bar, the tea a medicinal effluvia of wet twigs. He scratches his scuff.

“Knew her in Santa Cruz. She’s down here now. Thought things could maybe work out.”

He shakes his head. “Didn’t work out, but…” he trails off, touches his chin to his chest and rubs the back of his head. He moves his hand to cover one eye, then looks up to grin impishly, holds the tea cup at chin-level.

“Whatever,” he finishes. He inhales a laugh, which has him rock in his perch briefly. He ponders a sip, rubs the side of his nose.

“Whatever.” He shakes his head and draws from his cup. “Ready for Italo’s class tomorrow?”

Italo would always pace the classroom while we worked. On unexpected days, he’d replace his belt with a braided rope. Always the same corduroys though, with wide waling and three colors of brown flecking the pants, cuffs ragged at the bottom. He invariably wore burnt marshmallow loafers, like some Calabrian Bilbo Baggins.

italo-scanga

His off-campus studio was set up in an abandoned water tower, a galvanized cylinder where you could walk literal circles around your work. It was junked up with monkey-men and chains and salvage-yard finds.

“That is DOPEY,” he’d berate a student occasionally. “You’re not dopey. Why do you make dopey?”

Like when I first came to New York. I thought: why does everyone in America like yellow so much? Yellow is the worst color, so dopey, but all these cars. Yellow. Why?”

He’d slap Chris upside the head.

“Dopey.”

Chris would grin, and duck accordingly.

“Just exploring the media, Prof,” he’d say as excuse, squishing clay into another unrecognizable mess.

“They were taxis! I thought everyone just liked yellow cars. You people. But I like your UPS trucks, you know. UPS brown: THAT is a fantastic color. Should all taxis be like that.”

I look up at Chris, flinging Art in America onto the coffee table. “Yeah—I finished up my ready-mades. Still have that wire sculpture left to do.”

smoke-17Crickets chirp in chorus with the ceiling fan,  a thrumming of regular noise, which by its constancy, fakes a rise and fall in pitch, white noise pretending grey. The fan pulses, less helicopter than suggested; it’s the consistent buzzing of a streetlamp, the drone of a heater pushing air through the vents. The fan swings on its swivel.

Chris ponders his tea, and points.

“Rauschenberg erased that DeKooning drawing, remember?”

I nod.

“Took one of DeKooning’s drawings and fucking erased it. Signed his own name in the corner.”dekooning

“Balls.” I again nod.

“Erased DeKooning,” he repeats. “Man, that is balls. Better than Duchamp’s urinal.

“My work is going nowhere, you know,” Chris continues, tapping a spoon on the counter. “Maybe I should just erase all of it, too. You can sign your name. I’ll go to Europe or something.” He tosses a spoon into the sink where it noisily lands face-down.

“Maybe Prague. I hear it’s happening.”

Chris died on a Praha street; in actuality he died in the bar, but his life escaped him on the street, that moment he crumpled and wondered, on hands and knees, what had hit him exactly—what was fastly deleting him. No blood, just a purpling contusion that surrounded his brain stem, making him less likely to breathe, more likely to sleep.

When you don’t what’s hit you, there’s nothing to struggle against. It’s the cheapest, least fulfilling manner out.

Chris sighs. “Karen—I really like her. But,” he shrugs, “Guess that ship has sailed.” He looks bothered for a second, then perks up.

“Wanna beer or something?”

“No—‘m good.”

Chris hit his head on the bar once, fell bodily, pulled himself up a second time and managed a drunkard’s posture with brow resting against crossed forearms, body slung over a stool. He turned his head to exhale, letting his right ear fall into the recess of his elbow.

The end of the bar was hinged, south of a football jersey stapled against the wall, number 38, red and black, the colors which shifted as Chris nestled deeper into his forearm.

Red. Purple.

The colors blurred as his vision faded, pupils dilating.

Please, back to red and black, please not purple, please, back to red, don’t. The number three, no eight, please don’t

“Buddy. BUDDY.” The bartender nudged Chris’ shoulder and Chris’ head slipped its hold, his nose falling bent against the bar. His mouth fell slack.

Purple and royal oblivion.

Chris was served an absinthe, on the house, while his cheeks turned a darker shade.


 

Italo was still lecturing the merits of tempera, but, seeing Chris’ gaze, Italo interrupted himself. “Here, here, here. Have some more bagel.”

Chris picked at the crumbs, dislodged a cranberry for inspection.

“Purple is dopey. Make nothing dopey. Purple is the worst color, hard to erase.”  He situated his demitasse next to a small plate.

“Whatever color–it must be erasable.” He crossed his arms. “There are colors you can’t forget; to be forgettable is the way to memory.” Chris sighed and pushed himself forward in his chair, bent at the waist, elbows on knees. He looked up.

“Do you ACTUALLY believe yourself, Italo?” Christopher asked, smiling, before flicking the cranberry to the floor.

Italo leaned back in his chair. “I remember all the taxis,” he laughed, “But also I don’t. You see?”taxis

Andy stokes the fire pit, and the embers match the orange sky. He rakes the coals to either side, watches them wither from black to white. There is the snap of mesquite releasing its hidden syrup and the brushing of the grill. There’s waiting for the fire to extinguish and the subsequent delivery of smoke, the smoke that eventually wafts past the porch and lingers in the gable as parcel to the morning. The mockingbirds have stopped; now the juncos, now the crows.

Karen told me that Chris was gone, years ago. I met her in line at the coffee shop, and it was an accidental conversation that led me to draw connection.

“You knew Christopher?”

“He was my roommate.” She looked down while worrying her hair with long and remarkable fingers. She bit her lip and readjusted her bookbag.

“We should sit.”

The eucalyptus creaked their sympathies while Karen delivered her postcard of regret over madeleines. Twice she offered condolences. Her fingers touching my shoulder.

“His parents were a wreck.”

“I imagine. Goddamn.”

“You ok?”

“Erased.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” I open my mouth to speak, but settle on breathing.

The smoke eventually rediscovers the coals, dies down to just an accordion wave of heat that radiates from the grill. I think about Chris–Fisher was his last name, that much I remember. I always have a hard time remembering his face, though. The crows pick through palm nuts as if imagining there’s food buried deep within, their feet losing traction on slippery fronds. Cars are stopped, there is the scent of tea; there is signal of a present tense, and the morning begins and begins and begins again. blue smoke

 

 

Cayden · death · family · home · parenting

Magic Sprinkles

magic sprinkles“Can you come into my bed for a second, Daddy?” Cayde asks, “Or Mommy. I want to talk about Grandma Carole.”

Mommy may have been the better choice since Grandma Carole in Heaven is Jenn’s mom, departed; but the opposite could be true in that my eyes would be less wet, my voice less quavering, in talking about her.

I was there when Carole passed. I at least knew her and Cayden’s bothered because he didn’t.

“What I want, Daddy,” and he pauses, “Wherever Grandma Carole lives, I hope she eats something with sprinkles, like magic sprinkles, and that she winds up standing alive on top of her grave.” He pauses again.

“Well she doesn’t have to be where she’s buried,” he continues, imagining this as he goes along, “But she gets to come walking through the door while I’m watching TV or something, and then I get to meet her for the first time.”

“…”

“I bet she was really smart,” he muses. “Her brain was too big, why it probably didn’t fit

in her head.”

I tear up, don’t undermine his logic. The surgery hadn’t worked, but he didn’t need to know all that. Not about the bandages that failed to keep her grey matter in place.

“The heart’s supposed to be as big as your fist. I bet hers filled her whole chest.”

“Yeah, Cayde. It did.”

I look at him.

“You look like her a bit, you know. You look a little like me, a little like your mom. Finn looks like me.” It’s good to let him know Carole exists, and in him.

“Now Uncle Timmy, he looks like…”

“Uncle Chris?”

“Yeah, Cayde, Uncle Chris, but Chris looks more like Baba. Timmy and your Mom look a bit more like Grandma Carole,” I explain. “We all look like each other. We’re family.

“Listen, Kid—you know how some women wear headscarves? Dresses to hide their faces?”

“Yeah—like Indian women?”

I don’t want to get into any Cultural Studies–it’s not the point.

“Well, something like that. Anyway, I met this mom and dad once—their kids, too—and she was wearing this headscarf and I couldn’t see her face, but I looked at her and her husband, then her kids and I kinduv knew what she looked like though I couldn’t exactly see her.”

“Not supposed to see her,” I correct. I hope he doesn’t ask why not. All not the point.

“How’d you know?”

“Because. Family looks like each other. And YOU look a bit like Grandma Carole. I remember what she looks like when I see your nose, or Mom’s nose. I can close my eyes and still see her. Momma has her cheeks, so does Uncle Timmy. It’s how I remember Grandma Carole.”

I worry about my analogy, but Cayde seems satisfied and I know he’s following as best possible.

“I wish she was still here.”

“We all do, Friend. It’s ok. You can have those thoughts.” I pat him on the leg and kiss his head.

“Not sure about magic sprinkles, though. We can look at pictures in the morning, at least.

“You, ok, Kid?”

He pulls bedsheets over his shoulder in response and buries into the pillow.

“I’m ok, Daddy. Love you.”

I linger before turning out the light, before the moment comes when it’s dark and I can’t see his face and when, lastly, it’s just the white of the bed sheet as he goes to sleep.

alcohol · death · depression · Maggie · people

Ice Cubes Retaining Right Angles

“And now she wants to fucking sit Shiva!” Maxine says, slamming her tumbler down on the counter, the ice cubes still retaining their right angles, the scotch having been drained.

“My fucking sister!” Maxine pulls on yellow latex gloves to scrub the dishes, which look ridiculous relative to the pima of her Peruvian dress.

Maxine balls these dresses up in lingerie wash bags, then hangs them up still wrinkled to dry off the back porch. The back porch, despite Maxine’s best efforts, is overrun with morning glory and brugmansia. Poison blossoms, she remarks—“Like a fun tea!” (She was at Woodstock after all).

“Shiva! My goy sister!”

And Maxine furiously scrubs a dish, which is barely tainted by her lunch. A faux scampi, and sesame-crumbed seitan. Clean food, clean plates. Maxine, regardless, will later die of a sticky and indelible cancer.

I hold her cat while across the room and glance at a bulletin board Maxine has constructed. It details what birds she’s seen, and where. That sapsucker in Slovakia, the ravens in DC.

“The fucking nerve!”

Maxine scrubs her ashtray, even after two cigarettes, and places every clean plate in the dish holder beneath the kitchen window.

“My mutha never worried about me, goddammit. And now I’m supposed to sit in a goddamn room with towels over the fucking mirrors, because now my goddamn sister—my fucked up oldah sister wants Shiva for the mom…for my mom…” She slumps at the kitchen counter.

Despite everything, the cat purrs. He’s a Norwegian Forest Tabby and prefers clutching your shoulder versus remaining curled in your lap.

“It’s ok, Mags.”

“I’m just tired of being the responsible one, Thawm,” she cries, “Look what happens when you’re the one who was supposed to be ok.”

“’S’alright Mags. I love you. Want me to water your plants?”

I put the cat down, his padded feet thudding on the hardwood floor. He walks away pretendingly nonplussed, the way cats do with ears still held back.

Watering the plants will only encourage the morning glory, but the offer stands. Maxine sobs, not for the first time or last, while I unravel the hose from beneath the back stoop and make sure the door is closed so that only I, not the cat nor anything else, gets out.

Cayden · childhood · death · family · parenting · wife

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.

death · job

Don’t Fear Falling Happy

deadbeeHere’s what I know.
Bees hatched in winter live longer than bees hatched in summer.
It’s a strange tid-bit of science that has certain traction in the apiarist world, just often without explanation.
So, why?
(I tell my kid, you have to always ask ‘why?’)
Facts mean nothing without background explanation. You must always ask the ‘what for’ ahead of giving facts credence, before you make them law.
Here’s the thing about bees:
They work. You’ve heard the term, ‘worker bees.’ Bees work tirelessly, going from flower to flower, reporting back to the hive with legs draggedly hung with pollen. I’ve never heard of a tired bee.
Here’s what bees do not have that we do:
If we go to a gym and work out our muscles, essentially destroying fibre in the process, our bodies have ways of re-correcting. Our muscles become stronger in the re-build.
Bees don’t have this mechanism. Their muscles waste away without chance of a 2.0. They waste protein when dancing from bud to bud, collecting pollen on their hairy legs, and with the hive on their mind. Eventually, and after so much work, bees just collapse without any re-build.
It’s why you find bees inexplicably dead on the sidewalk.
Summer bees are busy in the readily available sun; winter bees hang back in the hive when the sun is not available.
With more kilometers in their metric, summer bees, busier ones, die earlier, having wasted their wings and legs far earlier than the winter hatchlings that hide in their hive.
Life gets measured, then, by distance and by effort, and not days. Think about that.
A friend of mine died in his sleep a few weeks ago. He’d worked forty years at my company, then died in the middle of the night, his heart stopped.
My boss tells me—and she has plans on retiring to No. Carolina to enjoy her sunset years—“I don’t wanna work, just to die. I want an afterwards.”
Yeah—you don’t want to be the bee on the sidewalk, the dumb fuzzy corpse without explanation, the thing that expired having just worked too hard.
I think of all those Japanese gentlemen who collapse in their cubicles, working so hard that they’re found head down on paperwork, bangs splayed, lungs quit.
The way of the bee is not the way to go.
Borrow a few letters from ‘labor’. Add a few consonants.
‘Splendor.’
Marie-Henri Beyle, pseudonym ‘Stendahl’, went to Florence in 1817. He saw Giotto’s frescoes, their tempura fade, and got dizzy. He fainted.
He wrote later about his case of the ‘nerves.’ He said: ‘Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.’
Blood gone from the brain because the beauty was too much.

But fainting from beauty is much better than being an exhausted shell of something, and why it’s best to not work till you die; be a St. Teresa quilled with ecstasy instead. A statue, a thing stopped in its vibrant recognition of absolute absoluteness. Don’t fear falling happy.

Cayden · death · family · favorites · Findlay · home · parenting · surgery · wife

Fifteen Flowers Later

I made plans to meet with my friend Jason tonight up in Normal Heights. At the end of yesterday’s text thread, I signed off: “See you Thursday, then, in NH!”

“NH?” he queried.

“NH=Normal Heights.”

“Oh you goddam hipsters and your language,” he responded, “Get off my lawn.”

Jason has an unruly goatee, and I reminded him of the fact. Like something Layne Staley might’ve sported had he lived long enough to have gray hair.

“Get off your own damn lawn,” I wrote back. “Your beard is twice as lumberjack.”

Met Jason for coffee and he told me: ‘Hey! Having that fourth kid!’ This came at the tail end of our conversation about getting older, both of us recently with lessening capacity to drive at night. He wears these little James Joyce glasses, and I’m surprised he can even see past the nosepiece.

I gave him a hug. Inside, I felt a slight twinge. I’m working on a decade as a dad, and though Finn’s not yet five, I sometimes feel: ‘Ok, when are the next eight kids coming?’ They won’t be on their way soon..

Jason’s having a second boy, which he and his wife wanted; they wanted that roundness of two girls and two boys, the somewhat Life-game neatness of having an equal number of blue pegs and pink pegs in the little Bradley car. Jason blames his now son for orchestrating everything.

.“He’s been yelling at my wife’s belly and calling the baby a ‘he.’”

“Well, shit—nature operates in weird ways. Maybe he flipped the chromosomes on you—you’ll never know. Zygotes have ears and all.”

“Yeah, but now he’s gonna be super arrogant. Like it was all his doing.” Jason smirks. “Kid’s gonna punch me in the arm later and say: ‘See? See?! I made a brother.”

Driving home, I thought how much I wanted a girl, that pink peg, too. But I’ve got two boys, and I never expressly told my wife’s belly to do any sort of alchemy to prevent this. I’ve got my two boys, and the door may be closed on any more, but I’m happy. The fact of Finn—the diagnoses and heart surgeries and reelsome unexpectedness—threw me for a loop a few years back. My biggest regret is having been so ambivalent after Finn was born. Were I somewhat of Jason’s kid back then, knowing what I know now, I would’ve shouted at Jenn’s pregnant belly: ‘Grow that extra chromosome!’ Because I have Finn today, and were the door indeed closed on any more kids, I’m ecstatic Finn was born the way he currently is. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kids decide the parents, in a way; parents decide the kids. You make each other at least. Driving home, a bouquet of carnations settled in the backseat, paper wrap settling. I had initially bought some purple chrysanthemums, but they weren’t what I had wanted. I explained to the florist that I’d been looking for carnations. They were my mother-in-law’s favorite. All the assorted five-gallon buckets of flowers still available at nighttime (and in front of the florist’s stand) were all fancier, or prettier maybe.

“Oh—you want carnations? I have some in back in the fridge.” The florist wrested a bundle from their corner, and turned away from his otherwise task of snipping spent petals and thorns off some un-bought roses.

“12, or 18?”

And I said: ’15? If I could.”

My mother-in-law passed away fifteen years ago today. Jenn and I had spent the night with my father-in-law in a hospital waiting room while Carole underwent surgery, her brain bleeding. The room was scented with bouquets of lilies and superfluous Glade plug-ins–too much perfume, really—in overcompensation for the hospital’s otherwise iodine-scent. Jenn’s brothers joined us in the early morning, in time for the beleaguered surgeon to arrive with his latest and worst news. Jenn’s dad pulled us all into a huddle, and asked, “What should we do?” He looked at each one of us in turn, said, “I love you. I love you. I love you, and I love you. What do we decide?”

At a stoplight on Florida St., two blocks from home, Jenn and I both erupted crying. It was a brilliantly lit day, with these clouds under-girded in silver, sign a storm had passed.

“She’s not gonna be at our wedding.”

“She won’t know our kids.”

Tonight, I walked through the back door with my clumsy bundle of flowers to find Jenn and the boys huddled on the couch, and in tears. Cayde had weathered a bad week already, finding trouble when he could. He’s young—his tears are still less salty than they will be later on, and once he knows more exactly the nature of regret or sadness. And Finn—he was inexplicably gripping a football on the couch, crying at the fact of there being crying.

I placed the flowers on the end table, started cleaning the house of its hastily discarded shoes and backpacks and plastic toys. Jenn had photo albums out, open envelopes with long-ago letters, a spread of relics that she’d been showing Cayde.

“I wish I’d known her.”

“What was her personality like?”

“I wouldn’t have been bad today if I knew you were having such a bad day. I’m sorry.”

Prior to me coming home, Cayde had asked probing questions, lending his particular scalpel to the long-ago and failed surgery. I could see it in Jenn’s face, with her brow knit and reddened eyes, Cayden pressed up against her shoulder in nine-year old devastation. Cayden wore a silly top-knot of tied-together bangs: ‘Why, Mama?’ He meant the surgery, meaning why there had to be a decision made in the first place. In his understanding, surgeries have always been successful. Finn is living proof.

“Why did you have to decide?”

“What would it be like if she were still here?”

Jenn pauses. “It would be different,” she says.

Although Cayde focuses on what there was to decide—what he knows about difference simply being, ‘She could be here, she could be not’—Jenn and I know, being there in that room that night, that there was no decision. ‘She could be here’ was really ‘She isn’t here. Not any longer.’ But we posed the question anyway in our waiting-room huddle.

“What do we decide?” More important to that moment, was Jenn’s dad making the pretend-question an affirmation of love, and saying it to each one of us in turn.

Cayde will figure it out. Just like Jason’s kid yelling at his mom’s belly, believing he could actually sprout a brother by sheer matter of will, Cayde still has a certain naivete about him. It’s fading though. We agree to take the bouquet to the water on Saturday, to take those fifteen flowers and place them in the bay, and to watch them drift away, however which way the currents decide.

 

 

 

 

 

death · mental health

Movement, removed.

Yesterday at the gym I rode a stationary bike that was anchored two feet in front of a large plate glass window. Outside the window were three sycamore trees, their leaves already crisping in preparation for the encroaching and inevitable fall. Beyond them sprawled a half-parched lawn, brownish-green, extending toward Friar’s Road in the near-distance. Cars passed eastward in the commute.
There was a devil’s rain at play, something the midday had conjured, with the sun shining simultaneous to the increasingly transient showers.
Had I actually been moving through the weather, on a real bike, I’d probably have been sweating just as much—only differently—with monsoon weather flushing the skin and with the otherwise factor of wind being its own thing, the cooling effect of momentum.
The gym however, was air-conditioned: the wind there is positively pressured and continuously pushed downward through evenly spaced vents. The assorted riders ride nowhere, but the digital read-outs insist otherwise: there are all these measures of miles traversed, spans of time-in, sundry calories spent.
I played this game where I agreed to do just ten minutes on the bike. When that didn’t match up to an even number of calories burned, I figured I’d keep going, pedal toward the five-mile mark. When five miles didn’t amount to an equitable sum of minutes, I continued pedaling, looking for a goal, never of course reaching the plate glass two feet in front of me, nor un-anchoring the cycle; I finally stopped at ten miles, thirty-five minutes, 400 calories disappeared. That’s what the read-out said at least.
Even enough. I stopped the program and dismounted.
The trees hadn’t changed much, but the traffic had slowed and the rain had stopped. I took out my ear-buds, the gym equivalent to parking a bike, and the whoosh of the air-conditioner was immediately apparent: always that substitute wind.
It occurred to me how often we look to digital measurements as something we could otherwise intuit, things we could register ourselves, but don’t; always looking instead to the monitors and LCD displays, the light pollution and digitalized numbers.
When Cayde was being born, the doctor pointed to the monitor left of where Jenn reclined on the bed, epidural in place.
“Look—you’re having a contraction right now,” and what should have been a body-clinching spasm, and where Jenn should otherwise have doubled in pain, the contraction just showed up neatly as a seismographic tic on the hospital’s machine.
Jenn and I nodded as if simply noting a brief change in the weather.
When Carol, Jenn’s mom, was let go in peace, and when we together shuffled into the white-accordioned room to say good-bye—Jenn having gone first and instructing the nurse to please re-bandage her mother’s head as there was a coil of brain exposed beneath the existing bandage—when we gathered around Carol and let her salts find their final shoreline without expectation that a machine stopped could in any way change her condition—she unresponsive, already gone—we still looked to the flickering numbers on the screen to let us know, decisively, that the dwindling electricity and down-trending needles meant she was at last passing, that we were given cue to say our final things, and be allowed exit into the hallway.
It is a modern thing to measure things immeasurable.
At the gym, there are all these mirrors. Self-inventory is recommended, in which case—after a workout—you can remark how your body has changed, if temporarily, by having moved through all these varied yet static stations. The chest is flushed, the iliac crest is pronounced, you have more color, and everything suggests you’ve accelerated to somewhere. Still the plate glass remains, as do the trees outside. The bike stays anchored and on its monitor blinks a heart-shaped cursor—also sensors on the handholds—requesting: please, please, another pulse.
There is the forced air when leaving through the sliding glass doors; when exiting to the parking lot and just walking to the car, the heart either slows or accelerates—however it should when recognizing the familiar lines of the crosswalk or the particular light at whatever time of day. Regardless, it remains its own privately measured thing, this heart: quiet, reticent, beating silently and soundly, always resolute, belonging ultimately and always all to itself.