anxiety · favorites · mental health · the road

Glitch, pt. 1

Within minutes of turning on to 85N, and only an hour shy of Scottsdale, I see my first saguaros, cactusgalleryhankes04-56a71b853df78cf772925914white flowers peaking their green and fleshy scales; and I see two hell-bent roadrunners pound the dirt with near-invisible legs. I also watch as a jostling hay-truck explodes a tumbleweed with its grill.

Apparently I’m in Arizona.

I was actually welcomed to AZ a number of miles back courtesy of a buckshot greeting sign just outside of Yuma, this right before the Border Patrol agents with their nausea-green cars and loose-leashed dogs quickly unwelcomed me at the checkpoint.

The left-hand turn out of Gila Bend, north toward the 10 junction, provides better welcome. That’s when the landscape takes on a more Arizonan trope, the kind of landscape you’d find properly and agreeably silhouetted on a license plate; the stuff of gas-station postcards. There’s iconic cacti, the craggy and nearer horizons. Yellow-banded Gila Monsters, you imagine, looking to hitch rides in convertible jalopies through the blown-out countryside.

The 8W-85N convergence is where you leave the desert floor and its blankness. It’s where, too, you retreat from the Yuma silo painted with ‘0 sea level’ markersbeet_8610 (and where, too—despite claims to the contrary—the elevation is actually fifty-two feet). By turning left and north, you veer toward the saguaros and the Pre-Cambrian rocks that rim the deserts.

Camelback Mountain couching Scottsdale is made of the same ragged basalt that outskirts Imperial County. It’s of similar geography to the compressed-fault tombstones signaling Vegas; similar, even, to Antarctica, which though covered in ice, bares the same jagged geographical teeth—in bluish regale, but still remarkably parallel in desolation.

It’s lonely out here. The roadrunners must either be running away or toward something.

The mirrored patches ahead of me on the horizon look like some form of black ice, but it’s a trick of the heat. Arizona’s hot, especially for April. The dashboard thermometer flirts with three digits and I should’ve gotten my vehicle tuned prior to leaving San Diego. The idea of breaking down in the desert is a formidable worry especially with the white road fading into white horizon. It’s a long drive and only sometimes does the chaparral turn a different shade of brown. There is a sense of endlessness.

‘Welcome to Arizona.’ This is certainly not my favored state and, I’m arriving in an equally and altogether unfavorable mode, anxious and alone in the car. I’m just trying to make it to Phoenix on time, goddamn the desert in between.phx



My final destination is the Iris Award ceremony—the Oscar gala of bloggers—and though I’ve nominations I’m really proud of in my back pocket, there’s the insufferable Mojave to cross.

In Greek mythology, Iris is the errand-running messenger of the gods and a minor deity. She’s Hera’s handmaiden, classically symbolized by the rainbow. irisIf you make a slip of the tongue, though, say ‘Isis’ instead of ‘Iris’—well—that’s an Egyptian goddess. Her mother’s name is Nut.

Nut, nutters.

Iris is the daughter of the sky and the sea as mythology goes. This makes the rainbow appropriate symbol if you choose to consider rainbows, which I don’t this deep into an unpleasant drive. Currently everything is white and colorless; rainbows or oceans out here in the desert should be something out of the question. There is, however, the strange fact of the Salton Sea, the one that’s presently drying and dying, precipitating its own salts south of the 10.

(Take Exit 131. It’s about fifty miles north of the dunes).

The Salton Sea pre-dates Palm Springs as a destination. Both have been advertised as paradisiacal oases in the desert. Why we need parentheses of desolation to isolate and qualify paradise, I don’t know. Maybe paradise is made so only by fact of contrast.salton3

Could also be that you can get Eden-rivaling dates in both Palm Springs and the Salton borderlands, fruits worthy of the first Garden.

Either way, to get away from it all you have to literally get away from it all, in which case there are desert islands, or—as proxy—actual deserts. Water’s only a factor sometimes. Remember that Antarctica is a desert, which, if melted, could quench a considerable thirst. Melting the Mojave wouldn’t result in as much: you’d be left with a great and unnavigable sheet of glass, sand in your mouth and grit in your teeth. Still, paradise exists out here in the parch, unbelievable as it sounds.

Gulls Flying over PelicansUsed to be that thousands of birds—four hundred varieties—visited the Salton Sea during the annual Pacific migration: pelicans and arctic geese, terns and stilt-legged cranes. There were also the Hollywood birds with their as-conspicuous gams, their feather boas, and millimenary plumage. They’d arrive with lecherous and Bryll-creemed escorts at their wing, gleaming hair-do’s fast flattening in the sun. Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sonny Bono, the Marx Brothers.

Rock Hudson did a photo-shoot waterskiing the Sea with George Nader. They never co-starred together onscreen, just on Salton waters. Hudson, instead, did a turn with James Dean on the set of ‘Giant’. Dean died soon thereafter in a car crash 28 miles east of Paso Robles, a place near as desolate as its Salton cousin far off to the south.

The fields near Paso Robles and south of Fresno are harrowed and fallow, much like the Imperial Valley outskirts that, similarly, haven’t received much of the Colorado River’s water over the years. The Salton Sea is actually an accident of the Colorado, the River’s aqueducts having overflowed to create the fantastic puddle way back in 1905. Astoundingly the Sea rests just 200 feet above Death Valley’s greatest depths and currently receives only a slight fill from the polluted waters of the American River. Through nature’s mechanics, the Sea’s artificiality has slowly become apparent, precipitated salts and algae blooms winnowing fish stocks over time into just junk proteins: catfish, carp, and tilapia that now garbage the turgid


Man—the Salton Sea used to be so happening. Now it’s nearly dead.

Patio umbrellas are long folded, and meanwhile the bioaccumulation of selenium in the Sea’s fish stock has left a shoreline of limpid birds with botulism. Poor birds. The sun is a constant and evaporative thing.

I drive over New Wash just past the dunes, and there’s a change in the guard railing, a change, too, in the color of the road: the asphalt turns from black to white. The New Wash is just cracked earth and chaparral when I blow by at an 85 mph clip.

2-600x435When James Dean died, it was because his Porsche violently slammed into a roadside guard railing, also at 85 mph. Alec Guinness—future and sage Obi-Wan—warned James that he’d certainly die in his ‘sinister’ vehicle a week before Jimmy actually did. Dean crashed avoiding an oncoming Ford Tudor, while purportedly muttering: ‘That guy’s gotta stop. He’ll see us.” Famous last words, and tidy fulfillment of Obi-Wan’s prophesy. Dean’s chassis was found face down in a gully, James’ neck broken twice over. He was declared dead before the ambulance could make it to Paso Robles.

Coincidentally, they sell date shakes on Route 466 just past the marker where Donald Turnupseed’s Ford Tudor nearly met James Dean’s Spyder. There’s a fifteen-foot cardboard poster—Jimmy in his red leather jacket—featured at a gas station just half-mile shy of the crash site. It’s that spooky Salton Sea vibe all over again: the ghosts of Hollywood past, the fact of Eden-worthy dates in the oases.

I think these things at 85 mph when leaving Salton in the rearview, the peril of the road and its left-behind ghosts, James Dean and his broken body, his internal injuries. I think: we all suffer from internal injuries; it’s just that James Dean died from them.

turnupseedTurnupseed, meanwhile, survived the crash. His Ford Tudor just wound up facing the wrong way in the westbound lane. How about that—the road spares itself some lucky trespassers. You should see where all this happened, where James met his fate that night and where Turnupseed walked away unscathed. It’s a really really forgettable place.


There’s a change of guard-railing when passing over New Wash, and the sudden appearance of thin grasses. There’s supposed to be overflow from the Salton Sink here too, but the tributary veins that bleed the Salton Sea are dried up. Chamise blooms in the arroyos, which means it’s existed in the wash for at least seven years without having once been drowned. chamise022Chamise, after all, takes seven calendar cycles to mature before it becomes dusty, musty, and white-flowered—seven years to muster just one blossom; meanwhile, the chamise I drive past is on full display.

The fact of the New Wash has me curious if there’s an Old Wash. I also wonder what constitutes a gulch versus a wash, if an arroyo is the same thing. The air conditioner hums as I ponder, providing the minor miracle of cold air as the temperature guage on the dash clicks past ninety. Dressed in a light shirt and rolled up jeans, I even consider being cold. I look down to see my hand is trembling. Goddammit. I turn down the AC, but, as my hand continues its St. Vitus dance, I suspect this will do nothing to stop the mounting shakes. Not the tremors. Please, goddammit, any other day. I’d rather this not be more difficult a drive than it already is. Just get me to Phoenix.

San Diego to Phoenix is actually, should actually, be  incredibly easy. By GPS account you take exactly three turns over the span of near-four hundred miles before arriving at Camelback’s base. phxsanRegardless of uncomplication, there’s still the steep and plummeting spiral toward the desert floor, then the white hot spaces with white skies in between: perils of the 8. There are also the stretches of bleached asphalt–too long–before any welcome distance markers. It makes me nervous to say the least. Too many miles of road separate nothing from nothing. Might seem romantic to some, these wide open spaces, but I’m not enamored with anything less than a green freeway sign remarking, ‘You are here.’ sealevel

I hate the Imperial Valley despite the occasional ibis that happens in the occasional field, or the spectacularly white dunes that occur briefly on the way to Yuma. A trailer park outside El Centro proclaims ‘Shangri-La!’ and, glitching, I all too handily call its bluff.









anxiety · depression · favorites · mental health · people · the road


Thorn St. Brewery is all distressed wood, chatter-shot floor plank rearranged into ceiling beams, French-bled and cross-wise. There’s a skylight with a retractable panel.

It’s been raining the whole morning through, a hot rain informed by tropical storm Claudette just off the Gulf Coast. Humidity moves over the city in dervishes and a collision of weather fronts has the clouds discharging electricity in a rare show of lightning.

Lightning strikes twice on the sidewalk in front of Alexander’s, the Italian joint just west of the tavern.

Alexander’s is exactly four blocks from my house, upon exit out the back door and up the alleyway. The alley’s overrun with bougainvillea and the neighboring magnolia is meanwhile choked with magenta sepals, high above the fence line. Behind the fence there’s that barking dog, always fucking barking.

The alleyway’s white concrete is buckled because the roots underneath are tuberous and over-tumescent, one hundred years in the growing. The kids jump their bikes here, without oversight from Parks and Rec. A broken street can be a fun playground, just sometimes littered with discarded mattresses and unclaimed dresser-drawers that Waste Authority refuses to pick up.

Ryan and I are still at home when there’s a remarkable crack. Then another. I’m awakened twice. I’d been restlessly day sleeping in the bedroom, pouring sweat into the mattress with windows half-open.

The rain has proven unbearable, its pressure system uncoiling in a clockwise fashion. It’s a Coriolis effect, sent via the Great Basin and with all the Sonoran, Mojave and Chihuahuan deserts combining meteorological efforts. Moisture is pushing from both the Gulf of California and the Sea of Cortez, the combination of heat and humidity something particularly Southwestern, an isolated and specifically Arizonan phenomena.

(The classic monsoon prototype hails from Rajansthan, but that’s half a globe away).

The street begins flooding and, as quickly, slows to a trickle.

Squalls obscure certain highways. The 95 way out east, well before it hits the 8, is surely replete with traffic warnings. No doubt there are parking lots of red taillights somewhere across the Anza-Borrego.

Meanwhile, cumulonimbus clouds accumulate upwards. Big boomers on the horizon.

“I dunno, Man. Sometimes waking up. Fuck.”

We exchange the word: ‘dread.’ Of the existential variety, with a modern-day Sisyphus eternally pushing his boulder, clutching a Day Planner that is simultaneously empty and overbooked.

Outside the tavern is a spattered sidewalk. The evidence of rain fades as the lightning advances seaward, and a bar back on break smokes in the stairwell, hair already dry.

“I’ve always said anxiety’s like falling upward. You wake up and you’re already on the ceiling. Depression, though…It’s like prodding the air every morning and asking, ‘Are you here?’ It’s got form. You wake up, hoping to Hell it’s not there, but then you feel the plummet. It’s so physical.”

I order the IPA, and Ryan gets the brown.

“Both are, really—physical, I mean. Anxiety, depression. You just fall in different directions depending on which one you wake up with.”

It’s all vertiginal, as when Ryan quick-shook his head on the walk here, realigning the humors that otherwise keep him upright and in a straight line. He widened his eyes briefly, shaking it off, trying to shake off that something we’re both currently having a really hard time shaking off.

We’re best friends.

“I’ve been getting that lately,” he said, apologizing for, else explaining, his vertigo. I confessed to routinely having tremors, this exchange reducing our neuroses to trading cards.

The physical side effects are new and distinctly middle-aged. He has sciatic issues, mine are lumbar. It used to be that the body would massage out its own pains, a self-lubricating machine, but there’s the recent sense that the body is beginning its protracted stop, rust collecting in the gears. The grey hairs are simply filamental reminders, strawberry days being over.

We have our pints. Foam laces down the glass in neat concentrics and where we sit is a roughshod table, south of the skylight. Pothos plants are tucked high in the corners, too high to water properly; all with anemic leaves mottled white and trailing into smallish limbs.

Thumbs in the house apparently lack green. The glasses pile up as the TV plays the current soccer match.

Mac collects our empty Shakers, says ‘hey’. She’s attractive in her always-tight jeans, and a welcome distraction.

(The first bolt was blue, a straightforward discharge hitting the sidewalk in a frizzled mess of spent ions. The second was its kinder, gentler rejoinder).

The lightning isn’t fancy—it doesn’t fractal or make for anything more photogenic than a bright flash. It’s just determined energy, hitting the earth outside Alexander’s where, currently, there’s a wine special, and where—on Valentine’s Day—lightning is meant to strike exactly once, sealing the deal for patrons patronizing the window-plate tables, having just met, having dinner and sharing the tortellini. Young people, young in love.

Alexander’s is the Italian restaurant with graphics of Vespas on the frontispiece. It’s ‘the most romantic spot in town’ with white trim, white tables and faux marble. The ivy along the sidewall is halfway established, tendrils finding little anchor in concrete, the ‘A’ of ‘Alexander’s’ still only half-covered in leaves after ten years.

Next door is a waxing clinic and the sign features a graphic with a star in replacement of the waxed parts.

“I dunno,” I say fingering my glass, “When I feel my worst, when I relive those worst moments, I imagine a gun to my head. I pull the trigger exactly twice.

“Just, you can’t pull a trigger twice.

“I take it to mean I don’t really want to end things. Mostly, I don’t like myself.”

I pause. “No, that’s not it—I just don’t like how I feel. Not the same thing as not liking myself.”

I like myself, I think, and say so. How different it would be if I could say it more resolutely.

With the lightning still moving, wandering westward and over the ocean, the skylight opens. Everyone applauds. There are residual thunderclaps, overheated air from the electrical discharges trending away. The sun peeks out. Lightning changes color as the air also changes: blue to green to pink. Clouds dissipate and the sidewalk outside the welcome mat is suddenly dry like the bar back’s hair.

On the sidewalk outside Alexander’s, there are fern-like patterns, looping Lichtenberg figures where the lightning has hyper-heated the sidewalk, alchemically converting sidewalk sands to delicate tubules of glass. These form because lightning is amazingly hot and has a remarkably arabesque signature.

I forget who says: “You just wake up knowing there’s so much to do and you just can’t. Like, terror.”


I have a photo of me and Ryan and we’re smiling in the grass, smooth-faced and awkwardly adolescent. There are a thousand—a hundred thousand—photos like this in memory, with him and without; the accretion of minutes in snapshot time. It all suggests life is long, so varied in color and contrast. It would take forever to sit through the slide show: green grass, brown grass, scutch, and then chaff. Young face resolving to crow face.

There are those rocks we used to climb, mercurial red, sandy-textured like the ladder-steps up the playground slide, rough-surfaced just like the grip-tapes of the ascendant diving board scaffold.

Gravity used to be a plaything, when falling down or diving in was fun.

We sit across from the CCV’s that contain the wort, cylindrical vessels, which take up space in the tavern.

“They say if you know the end of the story—and most people read the last page first—it’s like 60 percent or something positive saying you’d rather know the end. That the story becomes better, automatically. Attractive. Like you can amplify your own happiness by knowing the end.”

The digital read-outs on the fermentation vessels flicker back and forth. Red numbers climbing and falling, keeping something in stasis. Occasionally there’s a negative number.

“I’m gonna go get another.”


I visited Ryan’s house in summer and the philodendron was untrained in the corner. There were apothecarial details like dried and browned lemon halves in the windowsill—dried flowers, too—earth-toned things decorating the house. The cherry tree was cherry-picked by the mockingbirds and corvids, the garden in need of staking. Ryan showed me his bed of collard greens and flagpole beans, which regardless of everything, was sprouting.

There was still green grass despite the drought that had extended northward. Any green was welcome respite from San Diego’s chaparral where a verdant lawn was recent cause for neighborly suspicion.

Our first day was spent traveling.

“I think we need to be on a mountain,” Ryan announced. This meant driving east and we spoiled ourselves with the rations:

Finnochionna salume, sweet coppa. Cubano sandwiches and pork-fat frites. Baguettes with a walnut pomegranate spread, raw-milk brie.

We rumbled down a road that was persistently green, down a road that Ryan drove fast since it was one he’d frequented most his life. The road’s a one-way by virtue of its ten-foot width. Ryan drove fast, but there was no one driving the other way, so we were safe.

Earlier we had passed the basalt of Steven’s Pass, the amphitheaters still-snowy two hours east of Seattle, even with it being June. It had been weeks without precipitation but the snow clung fast. We wound up at a campground off of Highway Two. After navigating narrowing riparian switchbacks, we parked at a fairly primitive campsite above a waterfall.

The waterfall’s a cataract rushing precipitously downward, dangerously, the whitewater made more impressive by its three-angled course over graduated walls of boulder. It’s somewhere you wish to keep your balance, and where, actually, Ryan’s birth father didn’t when Ryan was just three weeks old.

On that fateful camping trip, near forty years ago, Ryan’s dad fell in, having slipped while dancing stupid on a wet boulder. He wasn’t exactly sober and he was above coursingly lethal water. He actually survived, though his ligaments were twice stretched over, twice having been subject to cascading breakwaters. He could’ve easily been broken in a variety of manners, but he survived. Just his soft-tissues were damaged, stretched and purpled; all his calcium things remained intact.

Lucky sunovabitch.

Ryan and I set up camp above the moss-hewn boulders at the crest of the river, where the water takes its first dramatic turn. We were the only two people populating the place. It was a Wednesday. The yew had new and chartreuse growth, matching the phosphorescent lichens. Our campsite was above the waterfall, and across from tall trees.

Ryan built a fire, fueled it with dried branches while carpenter ants fiddled their antennae at the general goings-on. We weren’t exactly roughing it. We had speakers and music, toasted hazelnuts and dark chocolate, also a full and varied ice chest. Our campsite was given border by a sturdy and smoothed log, which we alternately sat on while the waterfall remained constant.

The sky was on full display. I’ve only seen the full sky with Ryan, not with my kid yet. The skies had been cloudy in Yosemite, also Tahoe, when I took Cayde to places I thought would be appropriately dark.

“The stars will be out tomorrow, Cayde,” I’ve promised, and he still hasn’t really seen them. That the dark can be polluted by light is an ironic phenomenon not lost on me.

In sleeping bags years ago, Ryan and I saw the sweep of the Milky Way. We were kids visiting Arizona. We saw what seemed the whole of the sky, which actually is just an obfuscated view of the universe interrupted by stars. We remarked the satellites unblinkingly coursing the horizon, lapping the slow-dial stars doing their clockwise slow-creep.

Above Highway Two, it was the same: the constellational arc, satellites replacing falling stars by being failsafe and fair-navigating things, nothing you would actually wish upon.

They fall to the peripheral right, these satellites, disappearing, until reaching the apogees of their orbit, furthest from their centers of attraction. Far away but still tethered.

(Satellites land on outgoing comets these days, the newest metaphor for something).

Ryan was looking up at the stars. He’s always been the handsome one, always well tailored, and his hair has since grown long like back in high school. People called him Jesus then. He was the first to point out to me that I had an absurdly long neck, which I hadn’t considered until he said it. The mirror confirmed the truth.

I guess sometimes your neck is a kite string, floating your head, and sometimes your head floats to that apoastic point, ‘apoastic’ just simply that outdated term bandied by astronomers, meaning, in the end, ‘You’re faraway from Earth.’ Just short of leaving orbit.

Ryan and I remarked how bright the moon was before realizing it was the sun rising. We went to bed in sleeping bags again, like when we were kids, just with it being morning. The orange tent smelled of ash.


At Thorn Street, the lightning having passed and quickly, it’s another afternoon. There are the neighborhood neighbors, their loosely tethered dogs getting tangled up in the barstool legs while greeting each other. There’s a feeling of present tense as the place fills up, women in calculated skirt-lengths and ankle boots, guys with beards and ironic t-shirts. Orders are placed and delivered while the soccer guys kick a ball back and forth on the screen.

“How is it I don’t get it?”

There’s laughter, and a new selection on the stereo.

“Why not feel happiness when it happens? I have a problem doing that. I shouldn’t. I feel happiness later, after I’m done thinking about it, after I’m done writing about it.”


Driving back through and past Everett, it was a depressing descent from the mountain and west toward Seattle. Yelp suggested cuisine far and away from its home: seafood too distant from the water, pho buried in strip-malls. Back in the city, nearer to the lakes and Locks, we found a place where one chef manned a single-burner, simultaneously churning out okonmiyaki and Zabuton steaks. We ate there, joined by Ryan’s girlfriend and her noteworthy cheekbones. We devastated the menu and over the course of the dinner decided to swim the bracingly cold lakes the following day. We also decided to visit the spa. Some place we could sit in hot baths and cold plunges, sit in hot rooms to make us ok. Quick changes in temperature do well for the circulation.


At the Korean spa, the bath table presented as a mortician’s slab, resolutely concrete, there being a garden hose and a five-gallon bucket over-foaming with lavender froth. I’m gestured to lie down, naked. The Shinto tradition is about the trinity of thinking as with all other religions, and so the masseuse claps my back three times when he’s done scrubbing my back. He seals his treatment: clap-clap-clap, three times the cupped hands on the large of my back before flipping me over with smoothed palms. Years of water and oil have his plantar pads sealed, like seal-skin, like raccoon paws, and he ladles water onto my chest, then pelvis, before adjusting my penis aside as if it were an afterthought, moving it aside with a sideways brush, covering it unnecessarily with a terry-cloth before scrubbing my stomach in broad strokes.

I’m silent, prone. My skin falls off in small measures and later I sit in a robe in a heated room. The second masseuse places me in angles, beneath an oven-warm sheet, and mashes a palm against my shoulder, trying, and trying and trying again to get rid of something, that something which is beneath the sheet and somehow seated south of my head. There is the scent of cedar and I go ahead and let her just fucking try.

family · favorites · prisons · the road · writing

Letter Never Sent, 2004.

pen blueM—:

It’s been a long while since I contacted you. I’m sure that puts question marks above your head.

“Where are you?”, you may ask.

I ask the same question most every day. Not out of geographic curiosity.  I know where you are and I’ve an idea of what your walls may look like: the beds, the barracks. The sea of prison blue. I know you’re situated in the middle of King’s County with a sky that must be devastatingly incredible.

I’ve driven the 5 a few times over in the time you’ve been gone and have seen the tired pistoning of oil pumps; the ruminative cattle; and the white, white haze which seems to jump senses into whiter noise.

The last time I sped through King’s County was with Bradley in a U-Haul truck. A trailer shimmied behind us bearing a vintage car and three bristling, sleep-deprived cats. The cab smelled of Kamel Reds and spent coffee cups. By mid-morning, just beyond the King’s County HP Station and directly beyond the rutted half-roads which finger out into the farmers’ fields, I felt I couldn’t concentrate any longer on the highway lines. We pulled over and slept on the grass beneath these wispy clouds that promised an unerringly still, cricket-shivering night. Brad slept on the trailer rig and, when he awoke, pointed out that I had slept in the grass beneath a sign reading: ‘Dog Lawn.’

I thought about Christopher, the editor of the now-defunct CH Press. I call it defunct because although the long-awaited Roque Dalton issue finally came out, I’m gone and Dave is gone and Maggie is left with a pile of manuscripts and a glass of scotch and an absence of her two best editors. Anyway, I thought of Christopher there on that dog-piss grass: I saw him last in the SD Jail. Maggie sobbed in the periphery of the visiting room and I took up the phone that lay unceremoniously on the steel-grey table. I picked up the receiver and looked at Christopher behind the glass–he was all slicked-back hair and waxed moustache; he wore a tight-lipped expression. By his admission, he was on a diet of heavy metals and liver medication. He wore thick glasses which made his eyes look disproportionately huge and wallowy in the otherwise context of grey brick and cold, cold light. Maggie sobbed and she sobbed. I held the phone to my ear and didn’t know a goddamn thing to say.

Christopher spoke and said that my wedding was beautiful. He had crashed his car in Arizona, spent his money on meth. He had dodged the law and lost the rest of his money on smoky poker games somewheres in the Southwest. But he somehow made his way back to my wedding–Maggie’s date–and he cried and held Maggie’s hand when we released butterflies and read Ferlinghetti. Behind the glass he was frail, a mere exhalation of breath. He thanked me for taking care of Mags; I thanked him for being in the audience at our wedding.

I first met Christopher on the phone 3(?) years ago when he corrected my pronunciation of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. And here we were again–on the phone, but face-to-face. “Thom, take care,” he said. “Take care of M.” I took care of Maggie by kissing her in some hopeless manner on the cheek, and leading her out of the Piranesi-inspired civic building, phone hung-up and Christopher disappeared.

I remember when Christopher was released for a brief time and how he held forum at Maggie’s house in front of an ashtray. He was smoking a long and almost effiminately thin joint. Which was “safe” he confided, because “California only looks for uppers in my system.” His hands were strange deep-sea jellyfish, fingers not unlike wavering tentacles. “California is a river of blue, ” he said tapping out an ash, “It is punctuated by a braking of buswheels and penitentiary-blue lights.”

A wave of the hand, a drag on the tightly-rolled cigarette. “California is blue.” He looked pleased because, above all, he was a poet.

And, as a three-time loser on his way to Corcoran, he saw the rich blue of prison lights as the only matter-of-fact thing of beauty left in his world.

Christopher is now gone, above the law I think. Somewheres south. I’ve held Maggie in the meanwhile when she was overly aware of the gun in her nightstand, when the television flickered late-night Donald Sutherland movies, and when the sounds of the house shook her awake. I sat in her bed all night like a sentry, sucked the scotch from her tumbler of ice cubes set aside on the nightstand. I laid next to her, wide awake, and smelled the smoke of her dressing gown and heard her murmur resignation in her sleep.

She told me about Mayakovsky: how he left his wife because an admirer had, at an intellectual’s party, recited–word for word–the full extent of his 900 line opus. Mayakovsky left his wife to embrace this young admirer. Still–a few years later, he took a gun to his head and left the girl with 900 lines of regret.

I’ve not seen M. or Christopher in a long time but–there in the grass of King’ County, a short drive away from the tired city you’ve called home for the past few years–I thought of you arriving at Avenal, looking up from your handcuff-fisted lap, and seeing stark blue lights against a long-ignored landscape.

Christopher said California is a river of blue and I will never think of it differently.

I’m writing this letter. I need for you to hear me, or at least the story of the past three years–those you spent within labyrinthine corridors of concrete. Consider me a conduit. When lightning strikes a tree, its fires are shot through a thousand tissues and limbs fall in beautiful wreckage and the ground crackles a hundred feet around. In the end, the tree bears a scar and it continues wrapping rings of growth around its most blackened parts. The tree keeps growing but it will always have, coiled in its history, proof of of its damage.

I’m damaged. You are damaged.

We’ve both ushered that fire into the ground in different ways, but both bear darkened rings. We’ve both been conduits and have had the lawn throw up sparks beneath our feet. We’ve both had fire run through us, and wait for the ground to speak its response.

Still love you.  Take care.

Cayden · childhood · family · favorites · Findlay · parenting · the road

Everything is my fault.

sky-webWe’re driving over a bridge expanse, and the cable-stays are lit periodically with lantern effects.  This means I see Cayde in occasional relief as we pass beneath the lights.  Every three hundred feet or so, I catch glimpse of those brown eyes, the wrinkled brow he’s affected from me.  We’re sharing the back seat while Jenn drives.  Cayden finds something novel about riding so far to the posterior: he enjoys the wrap-around glass of the rear-window, the seat that is proportioned to his measurements but not mine.  I’m knotted a few times over, legs straining to find approximate repose among the middle seats.  We’re driving over a cantilevered bridge, so tension seems appropriate.

“Daddy: what’s 6×2?”

Here we go.  In Cayden’s world, ‘what’s 6×2?’ is a conversation starter, the equivalent of a ‘how are you,’ or, ‘how about this weather we’re having?’  We’re heading out of Napa, passing over the waters that fuel the ‘C&H’ sugar factory east of San Fran.  We’ve had Thomas Keller’s ‘Ad Hoc’ for dinner and I’ve yet to shed the cardigan, blazer, and tie I wore for the occasion.  It’s increasingly warm at the back of the van.  I can’t impress upon Cayden why it is I’m so dressed up, Ad Hoc being a bucket-list restaurant of mine.  I actually saw Chef Thomas Keller today, just a few doors up the street.  We had stopped the van momentarily so I could take a picture of The French Laundry, Keller’s famed four-star establishment.  He was on the back patio in chef’s whites addressing the service staff.  All of the linemen and souxs—they had their arms crossed behind their backs, blue stripes ringing their coat-sleeves like culinary admirals.  The van idled.  I didn’t dare shoot a photo of Keller—he garnered applause from his staff beneath a vine-strung pergola—and it felt more appropriate for me to just document the middling flax garnishing the ‘French Laundry’ nameplate instead.

Hey: Keller won the Bocuse d’Or.  I just make a mean risotto.  Back to the van.

“Daddy: what’s 6×2?”

“12.  You know that.”

“What’s 40×10?”


And so on.  The bridge is soon over and so are the base-ten questions.  Cayde escalates the math.  He is fond of the numbers ‘42’ and ‘68’.  Usually, he wields them in magnanimous fashion, the numbers representing his immense ‘like’ of something.  As in: “Daddy, I love you 42 68 eleventy BILLION.”  Which is always a nice affirmation to hear: a Euclidean thumbs-up of sorts.  But tonight, it’s ‘what’s 42×68?’ Like a challenge.

I remove my tie and cardigan.  My belly’s warm.  I’m not used to eating so much, so late.  But despite the food and the IPA flight, I answer correctly.  I’ve forgotten my calculus over the years, but not my arithmetic.

“2856.  Hey, Cayde: why all the questions?”

“What’s 6×1000?’

‘6000.  Seriously, Cayde—the questions.’  We’re passing through green hillocks, now nighttime grey.  Oak trees fast become street signs. I rest my head against the back seat.

“Daddy—you know all the answers.’

I pointedly look at Finn who’s snoring in his chair, sleep masking his almond eyes, his extra chromosomes asleep.  No, I don’t.

Silence for a while.

“I just wanna know all the answers before I’m in first grade,” Cayde announces. This seems a reasonable timeframe.  Why not.  That’s when I knew all the answers too, by virtue of there not being that many questions.

I drape my arm over Cayde’s car seat and we’re passing by the Lafayette Reservoir. Were it daytime, the oak trees would signal something of return passage into the East Bay.  The BART line reaches this far and the trains pulse in steady whoosh left of the road.

“Dad-DEE!” Cayde’s looking to find comfort against the constrains of his seat belt and he fingers me as the source of his unrest.  “You’re making me uncomfortable!” It’s not me, of course: it’s the car seat and its tangle of straps.

But this is how Cayde sees me these days: I am at once the source of all answers and the wellspring of frustration. Everything is my fault.  I can only reposition myself in what is already an uncomfortable position.

“Cayde: well—here.”  I loosen Cayde’s seatbelt and hold him in the back seat.  He’s comfortable enough to fall asleep in my arms, bucked forward, while my arms strain against the weight of his sleeping body.  Cayde snores, eventually, in tandem with his brother.  By the time we pull up to my aunt’s house—where we’re staying this vacation–the loropatelum blossoms are asleep and Cayden’s asleep.  It’s a short climb up the stoop, then everyone’s in bed.  My arms are decidedly sore.

I drift off last.  Just after Finn rattles his toy keys one last indiscriminate time and Cayde confirms he is still asleep by rasping a few quiet snores.

Everything is my fault.  I think these things as I try and sleep.  When I’m not the ‘go-to arithmetician,’ I’m simply ‘to blame’.

Listen: if I discipline Cayden, I am told I’m “breaking his heart”; if I dare raise my voice in those heated parenting moments, my portrait is drawn with fangs in chalk on the sidewalk. If I make one mistake in doling out consequence, use one poorly chosen word, I’m the guilty one.  I’m the one that needs reigning in.

“Cayden: this is your own damn fault!” (This may be about relinquishing the iPad or refusing a bath, just something that has escalated into a pitting of wills and the earning of consequence).

“No!  It’s YOUR fault Daddy!”  And as I play into this exchange, it does become my fault.  Like, 48 62 eleventy billion my fault. Because my voice is raised and my chest is tight. I’ve let loose a gratuitous curse and I’ve forgotten the cardinal rule that he’s just testing my boundaries to make sure I’m still in charge and that he is safe.  Guilt becomes something free-floating and, as words are exchanged, that guilt is quickly lent substance. It becomes almost palpable.  I’m screwing it up again.

Listen: I’m too angry, I’m damaging him.

I prop Cayden up in the back seat of the mini-van as he sleeps and I’m suddenly apologetic as the lights illuminate his face in periodic fashion. I remain awake.  ‘Didn’t mean to bark at you, Cayde, when you fell into the garden bed outside Ad Hoc.  You certainly fucked up your Easter linens, though.” (For chrissake: he was being a BOY.  Simply, and without the thought of reigning it in.  Keller’s not gonna miss the loss of a salvia sproutling ).    There’s a smile, then a frown, as we pass beneath lamp after lamp: it’s a nickelodeon of changing expression.  When his eyes flutter, I hope he takes a picture of the moment before fast dissolving back into sleep.

It really is the car seat that hurts him.  I’m propping him up so he can sleep comfortably.  I hope he realizes that this my small sacrifice to him, and—as he passes into Nod—I hope this will somehow sustain him.  At least till morning.

I know what’s ‘6×2’.  And I saw Chef Keller today. Can’t all be bad.

Later, at the Best Western in Mariposa, I watch the traffic pass on the 41.  I’ve sat myself down curbside with a plastic cup of juniper ale.  The cars pass and their brake lights are something beautiful: streaks of red down the highway.  The sky is not what you’d might expect crowning the Yosemite Valley.  It’s muddy and flecked with very few stars.  Not exactly what I was hoping to show Cayden.  The Milky Way is still something he hasn’t seen save for the telegraph points present in our San Diego sky, the stars that barely suggest the galactic sweep hidden beyond our view.  I remember the first time I saw the Milky Way in its full splendor, the moment it really hit home that we were looking outwards through the cosmic arm of a giant spiral.  The stars set slowly in their great arc as satellites traversed the same curvature–just more quickly–and there was the sense that orbits were relative, and circular.

Cayde will not experience that this trip. Circularity instead comes in the form of a highway–the 41—whose curves prove unkind to Cayden’s stomach.  There are mad loops through the redwood forest; I get to experience, first-hand, what a PB&J looks like, homogenized, and strikingly pink in a barf bag.

“Daddy—my stomach hurts.”

“It’s cool, Cayde: don’t worry.”

For the second time, we’re alongside the road.  Cayde tries to cough up in a bed of pine needles.  I’m pissing unceremoniously against a redwood.  “No worries, Cayde.  Take a breath, dude.”  He does.  “Look, Cayde-snow.”  There’s a dirty patch alongside the road, stained brown.  He jumps in it.  I point to a sign pinned to a tree.  “Apparently, bears have been here, Cayde.  That’s what the sign says.”   Stupid me—Cayde jumps back into the van.  His stomach proves ok until we get back to the motel.

The tree line outside the motel is grey and any idea of expanse comes in the form of a full-service Vons at the end of a switchback highway, two blocks down from the Best Western.  We pick up a turkey breast, some crackers, and some libations.  Cayden gets a ‘Lunchable’.  Ask him: he will tell you this is the highlight of his vacation.  Didn’t matter that he experienced both the Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls, his joyful face wet with mist.  End all, he gets a Lunchable, and—after having survived the 41, and after surviving his dad’s lectures to “really quit climbing over every gravestone and rock and fence in Lower Yosemite, Jeezus Christ”—Cayde is delighted. He gets Skittles and some processed ham in a plastic tote.  He gets to swim, too, at the Best Western, 45 minutes from Yosemite.  He’s on Cloud Nine.

We’ve marched up to the pool.  The Mariposa Best-Western is terraced and the pool is hard to find.  There are at least five staircases leading up to the “indoor spa”.  Purple honeysuckle fashion the stairwells.  This really is a fun lodge.  Above our headboards are kitschy paintings of Half-Dome (resembling rounds of Camembert more than anything else) and the pool is an indoor oasis ripe with chlorine blossoms and murals of pine trees.

Once there, Cayde swims ecstatic; Jenn tows Finn in a slow circle.  Finn kicks occasionally and laughs; Jenn laughs too, and I’m situated at a poolside table scrolling through my phone.  It’s an indoor pool and the air is heavy with a bleachy smell.  I should be swimming, too, but it’s 7 pm and I’m content to watch my family suit up while I remain in my road-clothes.  Cayden has a face reserved just for swimming, and he’s wearing it now while he navigates the pool in floaties.

“Daddy!”  Cayden has nothing really to tell me—he just wants me to look at him, and I do, as he splashes about.  His smile is precious.

I wave to Cayde.  I probably look fairly stupid in long-sleeves what with the humidity fogging the windows.  Jenn’s in her bathing suit, and I like the view: Finn’s tugging about, hut-hutting that laugh of his.

This kid appears.  Left of my shoulder.

“Your phone is broken.” (My screen is fractured—let’s call the kid astute).

“Yes–yes, it is.”

“Really broken.   Not my fault, you know.”

The kid has hair combed to the left and he sports a pouted belly.  He’s pointing to my phone, and I register his eyes.  They’re blank, but I know there’s something going on upstairs.  I figure autism.

“Nope—not your fault.”  My feed is stalled on a meme featuring Kate Upton.  There’s ample breasts involved, perhaps not appropriate.  I slowly turn my phone upside-down.

“I didn’t break your phone, y’know.”

“I know.”  I make what I hope is a compassionate face.  “It fell out of my pocket—shattered.”  I shrug.

“It’s not my fault—it’s your fault.  I didn’t break your phone.”  I’m not sure if this is an accusation, and I really don’t know where this is coming from.  I hope he didn’t see that photo of Kate Upton’s tits.  He’s probably all of seven.


“It’s your fault.”  He’s not being mean.  He’s in fact smiling, but de facto I feel the guilt precipitating again.  Like the pool water beading the windows, the chlorine heat finding certain register, the poolside greenery dripping a little.

The kid has vacant eyes and he’s really close to me.


Andy’s dad collects Andy.

“What’re you doing?”  He smirks my direction.  “C’mon, Andy.”

I look towards Finn hoping that Andy’s dad follows my gaze. He doesn’t.

“G’night Andy,” I say.  I collect Finn in two towels. It’s a long walk from the pool to our room.

Finn gazes up at me.  Huge smiles as we negotiate the myriad stairs.  I get lost, then find my way again.  We pass by a ‘permanent’ building, the only building replete with wind chimes in all of the Best Western.  Chickens and doves compete for coop-space in a makeshift construct. Chimes clang; a dove does its neck-thing and coos. I wonder who lives here.

“C’mon, Finn.” There is beaded water decorating his forehead.  He pumps an arm in response.  He’s happy.  He’s always happy.

I wonder about Andy.  And I can’t help but think, at his prodding, that—really—it is all my fault.  Like the pool water finding form on the under-lobes of philodendron leaves, guilt just precipitates, finds home.  Doesn’t matter what I have or haven’t done; that guilt I always feel when disciplining Cayde becomes something real, and it finds deposit in recollections of my guiltiest moments.

I’m sorry I yelled at you, Cayde.  I’m sorry for yesterday.  I’m sorry for this ever-present red plastic cup, the lack of stars, and this highway which is long and too curvy and which makes you throw up.  Sorry, Cayde.  It’s all my fault.  Tomorrow we’ll do better. Sorry I punched a dent into your wall at age 2 and that you actually remember that.

Once I put Finn to bed, Cayde marches into the motel room.  Sans trunks, he is naked and beaming.  His penis is uncircumcised, small in the cold, and he’s laughing and flexing his arms.

‘Really, Cayde?’  I don’t protest too much.  Just roll my eyes.  Cayde giggles and bounces around.  He bounces off the beds in total abandon, naked butt testing the mattresses, little tidbits flapping around.

‘Cayde: get dressed.’  Bounce.

‘Please get dressed.’  Cayde takes two more bounces before saying: ‘OK, Daddy.’

It’s predictable.  As Cayde pulls his shorts up, there comes the question: ‘Daddy, what’s 6×2?’

I would usually say ’12.’ This time I say: ‘nothing, Cayden’.  Don’t worry about the math, Kid.

We go to bed.  We’re asleep beneath a bad mural, and—with everything my fault—causality arcs the way of satellites Cayde hasn’t yet seen.  Circular and relative.  If this is all really my fault, and the night sky is mud: well, ok.

I kiss Cayden a good night.  Let it be my fault.  The stars will be out tomorrow.