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‘Fore the Rain Starts a-Fallin’

I do this joke. Now that Cayden has free reign of the neighborhood and I watch him celebrate on his bike, where each successive day he gets bolder and repositions himself on his bike-seat when flying past, hopefully on the sidewalk, legs out or lying down on the handlebars, I say: ‘Cayde—where have you been my [brown] eyed Son? Where have you been, my darling young one?”

I quote Dylan. ‘Did you see twelve misty mountains?’ He takes my lead, and responds. He uses Heathcliffe’s voice, “Fahtuh, Fathuh—I have seen these things.” (We use bad accents—it’s part of the joke).

“Did you see the highway of diamonds with nobody on it?”

“I saw it Fathuh.”

It’s a joke, just not when he hugs me.

He’ll get the punchline eventually, hopefully not too soon; in the meantime, when he takes off with his helmet, zoom-zooming, I like his momentum and let him go.

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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 waters.video-featured

 

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.

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

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Shut Your Eyes (Doe je Ogen Dicht)

“Doe je ogen dicht,” my mother invariably said whenever a breast came onscreen, evercruise_mcgillisif silhouetted; she’d say it, as well, when a Hollywood kiss languored for two seconds too long.

Dutch for: “Shut your eyes.” And obediently I would.

Except that I always peeked. Having been already exposed to a bikini-clad Princess Leia; also the long-legged Gillette model that, at every General Hospital advertisement break sank sighingly into a bathtub of shaving cream; my libido was already and irreversibly informed before graduating first grade.

This wasn’t, mind you, warning of any precocious or untoward sexuality, rather proof of a normal one.

Regardless, I did get into trouble once with the playground aide. She blew a whistle on my particular wrapped-leg negotiation of the monkey bars, and she glared at me with an aspersive contempt generally reserved for vicars and Victorians. victoria_4I was banned to the classroom for the remainder of recess, and I was confused for years as to what crime I’d committed, why my head was assigned to the desk.

“Doe je ogen dicht.”

Sexuality is a long-formed identity, not a swift and overnight maturation. Science class had us watching time-lapse films of seeds erupting into germinal tender, then flowers, then back to seed. It was all bad metaphor and precursor to the later conversations we would have about sex, that puberty blossomed as eruptively and quickly as the fast-forward flower on a science reel, that it needed be addressed as such.

Sex-ed was hidden beneath the innocuous term ‘Family Studies’, a pronouncedly sixth grade thing. It was a class to explain the suddenly sprouted hairs and the sudden need for hygienic pads, a week-long discussion only.

One week, then we’d return to the regularly scheduled program of dissecting frog bellies and discussing transitive properties. It was The Talk, school-sponsored, parental signature of approval necessary.

I remember my principal, Windsor-knotted and blazer unshed, responding to a group of playground-sweaty kids. He pulled pieces of paper from the lottery of anonymous questions.

“How does sex feel? Well, it’s nice actually,” he intoned.

The principal used the words ‘wave’ and ‘pleasure’ with little elaboration, unenthusiastically, even; he cleared his throat, then wandered rhetorically back to the idea of ‘responsibility’ before pulling a second question from the lottery. It was about puberty. He seemed more comfortable with the second question: scientific, anatomical, a do-able. Meantime, though, there were kids burgeoning adolescence, wondering, “What do these combined things mean?”

Birds and bees could’ve buzzed the room and landed in the rafters. Meanwhile, we just learned sex was pretty ok and that menses had to do with uteri. There was also something about Eve.

‘Take the Talk Home’ was the suggestion, in which case my dad unearthed his college textbooks and laid them out on the dining-room table every night after dinner. I got The Talk.

The textbooks, they were gross-anatomy textbooks. At the age of nine, and in eye-opening detail, I learned well before most nineteen year olds–the sweaty and unversed drive-in breast-petters–where exactly everything is located. There were glossy and colored diagrams, lines pointing to the mons, all the majoras and minoras, frenula and deferens. femaleanatomyI knew all this years before ever seeing a tri-fold spread. My dad took The Talk seriously. Brass tacks, learn the Grey’s version of things, black and white, before the bees began buzzing too loudly in errant bee-direction.

He was beyond clinical though. It’s something I’ve held onto all these years and where I’ve always been hugely impressed with my dad. Over the cracked textbooks, my dad talked about sex as practice; as an expansive and loving act; not just a curiosity or an anatomic locking of A into B. We talked about sex as function, sex as expression, sex as technique. Imagine Percy Sledge’s ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ paired with an instruction manual.

My dad did beyond well. He could have an emeritus in Family Studies.

I vowed I would do this, too—This Talk—with my own and eldest son. I was nine when I was allowed to open my eyes and understand that blossoming happens in slo-motion, that tender shoots need informative direction well before bolt and bloom. I have sons, not daughters—just like my dad—and I was prepared to pass on my dad’s wisdom.

Except I didn’t get the first chance.

My wife was driving, and my son was eight. From the backseat, and while Mama was navigating the roads, my son described something his friend had shown him. It wasn’t as if the boys had discovered a musty cache´of National Geographics in an attic somewhere, had tittered nervously over the photographs of tribal breasts, or milk-feeding women in Scandinavia–natural, beautiful anthropological pictures, women with mammaries, not ‘tits.’ They had found an internet cache´ instead, involving derogatory terms, crude hashtags, explicit video.

It’s how you as a parent fear so much easy access. What do you say, when The Talk seems usurped by broadband? The trick is—and it’s not a trick—you keep talking. You talk talk talk.

My wife was driving, so the conversation was necessarily obstructed by means of a headrest.

“That’s not exactly Love, Sweetie. That’s fake,” and my wife had to look into the rear-view to make her point, worried, and with hands gripping the wheel all the more tightly.

“That’s people pretending they’re in love.”

I tell Cayde later, “It’s ok. There’s a lot to learn. We’ll keep talking.”

I have to tell him sometimes: “That’s to yourself,” and I never chastise him, though now he knows how babies are made and his bath-time is his.

At the Home Depot, Cayde plays a game of ‘Hot Lava’, and he occasionally hurls himself onto a pile of fertilizer, the concrete floor something imaginarily magma. There are rows of plants, perennials and annuals, and I explain the difference.

“The perennials seed but keep living; the annuals don’t.”

He sits on a bag of compost.

“I never choose annuals, Kid. I don’t like ripping out dead flowers. The annuals only last a few months.”

“This,” and I finger a bladed Strelitzia, “This lives, right?” When you tap the purple on a Bird of Paradise, the seeds get exposed.

“Seeds, Dude.”

He smiles.

“These make more flowers, Kid.”

He nods; he literally sits on manure, but his feet are clear of lava.

“You and me, Kid, let’s pick out some more plants.”

He runs off.

“Hey! The ones that haven’t blossomed just yet!,” and I roll my fingers to rid the seeds and they drop on the concrete.

He picks a flower–a phaelonopssis–with a stalwart stamen and a bit something Georgia O’Keefe. The Talk, then, must continue. orchid

 

There is an incredible online resource now with videos that aid in The Talk: amaze.org. Great and accessible videos, which can help you with what is, always, a difficult conversation. You can follow the Amaze parents for #MoreInfoLessWeird on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AMAZEparents/ I have been compensated for this post, but all the views are my own, particularly the admiration I have for my father in doing The Talk well, and in hopes of continuing the same conversation with my sons.

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Plank Pose

plank-right1“You will need these blocks. No, no. Beneath the shoulders. This one, your hip.”

She taps my waist without permission, and suddenly I’m suspended on blocks in a pose I used to be familiar with–one I could do by myself–but now I’m pilloried by Styrofoam bricks. It’s a bad day when your yoga instructor has seemingly forgotten that breath is the most important thing and instead positions your legs and arms A, B, & C; when she positions you like a wayward starfish in a recessed tide, and you’re left holding your air in a darkened studio.

My wife does a headstand against the mirror. She used to be a hundred pounds heavier, a weight which has somehow transferred its molecules to this part of me which doesn’t show its gain, but sits heavy regardless.depression

We change poses and the instructor is relentless. She slides a metal chair my direction because she thinks my Downward Dog is somehow inaccurate. All I want to do is breathe, so I can continue breathing, but she keeps making me stop. My diaphragm holds a hitch and I try not to cry. We’re not in Child’s pose after all. Can we just Shivasna already?

She positions my hands on the chair, and it’s embarrassing. She murmurs, half to herself, “You’re not having a good day,” which is superfluous because she’s having me plank on a folding chair, telling me to straighten out when one look at my spine would inform her that I’m completely and irreparably crooked.

“Better?” she asks.

How do I say, ‘no.’

“Sure. Better.”

At the front of the class, Ann demonstrates a perfect and unsupported headstand, a straight and poised line, and I want to be her for just a second, in order to feel some sort of alignment, which my body can’t seem to handle at present.

I draw up a plan to somehow survive this class; I draw up a plan, and it takes me a few days to find my breath, but part of the plan requires not quitting.

yoga2

 

 

 

 

 

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Erased

The morning is meant to begin somehow, a reckoning, or change in birdsong. When the mockingbirds finally quiet, and the doves murmur apologies, that’s when Andy throws a cord of wood into the pit’s smoker, which 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, else—if windows are cracked—the smoker still acts as a pre-dawn and somehow undetected something, just part of the morning, like the first pour-overs of coffee, else the rustle of corvids sounding like sheeted plastic when grubbing for palm nuts in the fronds.

Scent is the furthest sense away from our notice, but the first to conjure memory. Which means I will not forget this time nor place though I ignore the mesquite, the early waftings like fire in milky brush, the sap having to sizzle away before the wood burns correctly and without any startling snap; you don’t hear it except when nearby stoking the fire.

You have a sense of smoke, but that’s also the sunrise rising, and everything 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.

It’s the crickets that you realize have been ceaseless—for how long? They rise and fall in volume, yet exhibit a particular algebra when they saw legs, when you want sawn logs, and when there is nothing of difference.

It’s morning, and you smell it, morning and mesquite, both the same.

“I have this idea,” Chris suddenly says.

Chris is dead. So is Italo. In different ways, they are dead. Italo, though,–he crafted a monkeywood sculpture that still sits at the local Thai place. Italo had the clever idea of soldering chain-link so that it stands forever upright, so it never collapse into coils on the floor. Has its place next to the monkeywood sculpture. This is cunning immortality, if you think about it.

The chain stands frozen next to a five-foot pillar of a statue, a human figure with limbs still congealed in media, arms frozen to hips as with alabaster chessmen. The whole thing’s done up in tempera. Italo liked tempera.

“It is stupid, tempera.” He’d lean in. “The Acropolis was a whore. Painted up with color thousands of years ago. All this garish egg paint. It’s white now,” he’d say dangling a demitasse from his pinky. He used fresco recipes to slapdash whatever sculpture he could unfinish, knowing that the tempera was bound to fade. Apparently some Rembrandts, the deep dank Rembrandts, are still wet beneath six inches of oil redux.

“I order all these monkey-men 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, then people will think I’m genius.”

He said, “Here, here,” 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 that still had paper-thin bark.

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

“Make things ugly first, on purpose,” he gnawed a half-bagel. “Make ugly things.”

“Tempera,” he points suddenly and inexplicably upward, “I use it. It is the best disappearing ink.“ Chris hooked half a bagel toward himself and chewed laconically.

Chris disappeared in Czechoslovakia, when ten pairs of Levis could afford you decent digs, and when Prague was advertised as the city of spires and bridges. All these cantilevered and beveled constructions, romantic in their concrete and wire defiance of physics, leaden exercises 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, else cut off, because he was dead before the postcard arrived Par Avion. He 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 pocket and left Chris without any ID, which had him 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 and cyanotically discolored his cheeks.

“I have this idea,” Chris says, leaning against the porch railing. His idea was more an observation that, like loosely drawn curtains that can either be open or closed, didn’t solidify him in any tense except the soon to be preterite.

“These vans that go by,” and we are near the University, “They have ‘Information Destruction’ written on their sides.” And he 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?”

“You sound high. They just get rid of all the files and shit.”

“No, no. Like, wherever they drove, everything just disappeared.”

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.”

“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.”

“That’s not what the trucks mean.” I pause, then nod approvingly. “Still it does sound delightfully sinister.” He lights a cigarette.

The crickets are forever chirping because the house is situated over a crawlspace and 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 used to the mockingbirds so much 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 was maybe 5’7”, short of average and with forever-sleepy eyes that seemed sleepy as affect. Always the thrift store cardigan, the threadbare canvas shoes, and unkempt hair. He was unpolished to perfect blemish, insouciant and under-eye bruisy. He was from Santa Cruz, and pincered his cigarettes accordingly. Chris boiled water for tea thrice daily in his kitchenette.

“Tea. You?”

“No, thanks.” I have my coffee.

“Fixes nothing, you know, you Degenerate,” I remark.

“It’s not supposed to fix anything,” he smiles, “But why not pretend?”

And the cars sit monumental, temporarily stopped. Andy throws the first logs into the fire to stir the air, which in actuality is just contribution to the morning, a new piece of the fabric. If the fire weren’t there, the morning would be incomplete. If I stopped waking up, as Chris did, the world would cease.

The mockingbirds of recent attention have stopped mimicking other birdsongs. They’ve taken to reproducing ringtones.

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.

“You’re obviously not DeKooning, Friend. ‘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.

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

“Oh, shut up.”

The cars will sit for another hour, motionless, designed to look in motion even when stopped. It’s like a car can’t even be parked anymore, aerodynamic to the point of improbability.

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 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 just rocking in his perch briefly, and he ponders a sip, rubs the side of his nose.

“Whatever.”

Italo would pace the classroom, and 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, the cuffs ragged at the bottom, and burnt marshmallow loafers.

His studio was set up in an abandoned water tower, a literal 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?”

He’d walk across the room to readjust a needle on a turntable.

“I love Phillip Glass. All this modern jazz —no return to theme. 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 distracting, and all these cars. Yellow. Why?”

He slapped Chris upside the head.

“Dopey.”

Chris grinned, and ducked accordingly.

“Just exploring the media, Prof,” as he squished clay into another unrecognizable mess.

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

“Was kidding about Karen, y’know,” I tell Chris.

“Oh, I know.”

Wet twigs make for bad perfume.

“Sorry—didn’t know she was your girlfriend.”

“Yeah.”

The crickets chirp, now I realize in chorus with the ceiling fan, the thrumming of regular noise, which by its constancy, fakes a rise and fall in pitch. There is actually no greying of white noise; it exists as an operant singing through radiator vents and conduits. The fan pulses, less helicopter than suggested; it’s the inconsistent buzzing of a light bulb fritzing out, the grinding and electric noise of insecure things. The fan swings on its swivel.

Chris ponders his tea, and points.

“Rauschenberg erased that DeKooning canvas, remember?”

I nod.

“Made it his own by erasing it.”

“Balls.”

“Erased DeKooning,” he announces, as if having erased the canvas himself, stupid art student.

Chris died on the 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, which made 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 taps the overhead lamp; it’s flickering. “Karen—I really like her. I’d really like to be with her.”

“I don’t doubt you, Dude.”

“Wanna beer?”

“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 forehead against crossed forearms. He turned his head to exhale and let his right ear fall against the recess of his elbow. Cleared his throat.

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

Red. Purple.

Green, green with one eye open, the outline of the jersey in luminescent green as his pupils penned.

Please, back to purple, please, not green, please, back to purple, 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.

Green.

Chris was served an absinthe, on the house, while his cheeks turned blue.

“Yellow,” Italo announces, and seeing Chris’ gaze, “No, no, no. Have some more bagel.”

Chris picks at the crumbs, dislodges a cranberry for inspection.

“Yellow is dopey. Make nothing dopey. Yellow is the worst color, hard to erase. I like green, but that is me,” and he situates his coffee cup next to a small plate.

“Still–it must be erasable.” He crosses his arms. “There are colors you can’t forget; to be forgettable is the way to memory.”

“Do you ACTUALLY believe yourself, Italo?” Christopher asked, smiling, 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?”

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, a postcard of regret, a condolence, her fingers touching my shoulder.

“His parents were a wreck.”

“I imagine.”

I always have a hard time remembering his face, and 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.

 

 

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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.

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Rachmaninoff Hands

rach handsThe surgeon who fixed Finn’s heart had Pygmalion hands, well scrubbed and seemingly cast of marble. Hands you’d want to see in a surgeon, with long fingers, tapered at each knuckle, nails buffed and professionally rounded.

These are hands you’d allow into your child, because—as the surgeon explained a day prior to procedure—this surgery necessitates a cracked chest-bone and exposed viscera. So far as infants are concerned, the heart rests close to the spine, a fact you realize once the rib cage is open like a grotesque and calcified blossom. The heart beats slow and sedated while awaiting the scalpel.

You’d like ‘nimble’ to be a resident fact on the doctor’s CV.

This isn’t like junior high when you’re slicing into frog alimentaries with a dull X-acto and making off-color jokes with your tablemates.

 

Finn’s surgeon could have passed for a Bond villain. I say this approvingly. He sported a Vanderbilt haircut; a Slovakian name; hands you could envision, within a different context, cinematically threading a silencer onto the barrel of gun. No apparent emotion, his only obvious proclivities being a surgical precision of language and a double-starch of the lapels.

You want an assassin when it comes to life and death. Assassins have good trigger-control.

“It vill be fine,” he held up palms. I thought of Rachmaninoff, who himself had long and expressive hands, the result, perhaps, of acromegaly: a genetic defect of human growth hormone. Genetic defects had been on my mind for the last three months. Finn was diagnosed with Down Syndrome shortly after birth.

The surgeon was either unerringly decaffeinated, else a Batman-type who maybe woke early everyday, breakfasting on half a grapefruit sprinkled with cinnamon; a neat and measured demitasse of espresso; and a plain hard-boiled egg. He was a man who had control of his faculties, who would maybe finish his evening with ten sets of rowing exercises in a cedar-lined room before retiring cross-armed to a mattress. He wore no ring on any of his impressive digits.

Me, on the other hand—I have dumb and stubby fingers. On the day Findlay was born, I sat in a fluorescent-lit hallway, too early, fumbling a Nikon camera and checking the light registers by taking pictures of the ‘Exit’ sign.200px-Old_exit_signI was in the hallway because hospitals sometimes make dads tourists in the birthing process, especially when C-sections are involved. The hospital either aids else emasculates Dad by curtaining him off from his wife before she’s cut open. Both my kids were born this way. I’ve therefore seen my fair share of hallways and surgical drapes, spent much time twiddling my clumsy thumbs.

‘You can’t handle this. Go sit for a spell.’ Take the pictures, cut the cord, be the et cetera, just don’t be here to hold any hands. We’re literally going to remove your wife’s insides for a minute and set them atop her chest.

<Click> ‘Exit.’

I can actually handle these things, just like I could’ve held the surgeon’s hand while he knived tissue from my son’s pericardium to later sew into his heart. I can, I could’ve. These are heart and gut things, and I specialize in heart and gut things. I’m still bad with a camera, though.

<Click>

The obstetrician who delivered my son had massive hands, a celestial exaggeration of his calling: a guy engineered to pull life into the world on the regular. The backs of his hands were neatly haired, fingers smoothed by pumice and iodine, still masculine despite their polish.

When he lifted my son into the world, he held a red-haired, flap-eared raisin up for review, and my initial and guilty thought was that Findlay was not as beautiful as Cayden upon leaving the uterus.

The obstetrician was triumphant, hands clasped around Finn’s waist and the baby was passed to robotic attendants who were eager to wrap Findlay’s frog-belly into swaddles.

“Dad—come here for pictures!” And I cut Findlay’s cord like I hadn’t with my eldest son, Cayden. The nurses had me fake cut it a second time because the first picture came out blurry.

“Why isn’t Dad cutting the cord?” cuttingcord attendants had asked five years prior, and from behind surgical masks. With their mouths covered, you could only see the nurses’ raised eyebrows. There was a table lined with blue huck cloth and neatly autoclaved steel, but goddamn if the only instrument they cared about was the camera. How you complete memories with the only unsterilized gadget in the room.

My hands were busy holding my wife’s hair in a bundle. She was puking into a plastic depository, and my hands were better deployed holding her sweaty ponytail, while the surgeon re-threaded her fascia and peritoneum back together with God-knows-how-large a needle.

“Guess, Dad’s not cutting the cord,” the nurses shrugged, while my wife retched for a second anesthesia-induced time.

Fast-forward five years and Findlay’s obstetrician, triumphant, hadn’t noticed that he’d just delivered a baby informed with excess, noadisjunct chromosomes. Essentially: Trisomy-21, in a womb-soggy, redheaded vehicle. Findlay had these constellated eyes that still and stubbornly remain Sinatra blue. They were open.

The OBGYN passed off Finn to the attendants without remark. It was akin to having just delivered a unicorn while deeming it a horse.

Children with Down Syndrome often have Brushfield spots,down-syndrome-ppt-for-ugs-22-638 these stars that ring the iris. It’s a trick of the tissue, something buried deep in the 21st chromosome, and it’s a tell–an obvious one. Kids don’t usually have galaxies for eyes before getting their first astronomy book.

Obstetricians aren’t palm-readers, either, nor do they always look deep into infants’ eye upon birth. Doctors have flesh to sew, which is a real and corporeal thing, especially when narrowly looking through the fenestrated window of a surgical cloth. There’s the room full of bustle and the next appointment to consider.

Also, the lights in the OR are bright. They don’t always reveal the miracle of birth or its sometimes accidents. I’m sure the lights better highlight the work left to do, the reds and yellows of things left to close, the blue nitrile gloves and the Betadine-swabbed torsos. I figure the obvious is most likely ignored when urgency takes precedence and the attendant nurse hands you a stainless-steel tray of sharp things.

“He’s healthy! It’s a boy!” There’s the declaration, but then the obstetrician has to duck back down, thread a needle, and remember the stitch-loops he’s practiced on apple-skins back in med-school (form a bight in the end of the line, and tie an overhand knot, form a bight in the end of the line and tie an overhand knot…).applestitch

These things we do with our hands.

We generally always see the backs of our hands, never our palms, when working. Unless, of course, we’re juggling. But juggling is a trick, and work is not. Palm-reading is also a trick, but as mentioned, doctors aren’t palm readers.

When a doctor delivers a baby by C-section, the doctor’s thumb is perhaps the first thing the baby grips. The baby wraps his hand around any of the doctor’s available fingers, and hides his palm by enfolding it around the digits that delivered him.

The OBGYN didn’t see Finn’s eyes, or Finn’s single palmar crease when delivering my son. Finn, like a good blackjack player, hid his ‘21’ when holding the doctor’s thumb.

‘Always hide your hand,’ is the advice.

Finn, apparently, knew as much in the womb. The single palmar crease, like the constellated and almond eyes, is an obvious tell that a newborn has Down Syndrome. It wasn’t until the Recovery Room that these things were noticed. The attendants there were better palm-readers.singlepalmarcrease

As far as fortune-telling goes, Finn’s diagnosis came with its predictions, less psychic than scientific.

“He’ll most likely have a heart defect.”

“He’ll most likely need surgery.”

“His heart will most likely be ok.”

At the hospital, days before scrubbing in, they show you a plastic doll with a multitude of wires trailing from its pretend heart-space. It’s a mock-up so that you’re prepared to see your baby hooked up to as many, if not more, cords and filaments and sensors immediately following surgery.

The sight is enough to make your own heart feel suspended by wire, cruelly commandeered by some unseen marionettist.

Finn’s cardiac surgeon, our man with the Rachmaninoff fingers and heavy accent, explained the procedure one day before surgery. He was clinical, matter-of-fact without somehow sounding clip or cold. His voice had right angles; his hands, however, posed as they were in various ways to demonstrate Finn’s heart and how it was to be fixed, had softness to them. heartmodelI imagined the surgeon cupping Finn’s heart as if it were a newly feathered thing, a fallen sparrow, a creature to be gently returned to its proper nest.

The plastic doll had my wife and I in tears; the surgeon’s pantomime of Finn’s heart, to what nest it would be returned, had us dry our tears just as quickly. There is comfort to be taken when gestures alone conjure confidence, when panic is disappeared through a particular and subtle kinesic. The surgeon, for lack of a better term, presented as suddenly and consolingly able.

When Finn’s gurney was hurried down the hallway following surgery, there was a coterie of nurses running alongside the rig like a team of gowned Secret Service agents. Four sets of hands on the transportable bed, more steadying the rack of wires, the swinging bladders of dextrose and lactated Ringers. All ran in soft shoes, their orthopedics still covered in surgical slip-covers. It was a near silent 100-meter dash from OR to ICU. I leapt up from the waiting room couch in order to join the controlled footrace. The surgeon followed the gurney at a moderate distance, his surgical mask removed and dangling loosely like an awry runner’s bib. I searched the nurses’ faces for sign of an outcome, for assurance that our quickstep down the corridor was one of expedience and not urgency. They, however, were a hive of back and forth buzzing, a language of numbers and stats fluently exchanged. Any edgewise word would’ve seemed an interruption, though I am the father.

“How is he? How is he?”

The surgical rig disappears through a series of automatic swinging doors, my son and his zipped up chest, closed eyes, and fortune-foretelling palms swallowed up by a secondary corridor.hosp

“How is he?” I turn lastly toward the surgeon, and he barely looks my direction. He says simply, “It vent vell.” Despite having emerged from surgery where the lights were undoubtedly intense and the minutiae of needles and scalpels as stressful, say, as choosing whether or not to cut the red wire—maybe the blue—the surgeon was nonplussed and devoid of sweat.

“He is fine,” and the surgeon, too, disappeared into the corridor leaving me for the second time in three months, the father at bay, staring blankly at a hospital exit sign.

<click>

I looked down at my hands and spread wide my fingers. Rachmaninoff could play C E♭ G C G with his left hand alone. I could maybe duplicate that feat with both hands together, but—as they were—my hands were slightly trembling, and unfit for piano keys let alone otherwise surgical poetries. I curled my fingers into my palms, exhaled mightily, then turned back toward the waiting room.

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_____________

 

The Recovery Room has natural light by means of a large plate-glass window. Though it overlooks the parking structure, the windowed room is welcome respite from the fluorescent halls, the dimly-lit waiting areas, and labyrinthian stairwells.

Findlay lies in his bed, less the marionette than his post-op and ersatz Pinocchio. There are only a few wires still attached, sensors which inform the technician how Finn’s heart is performing beneath all the stitches and an already-knitting breastbone.

Finn smiles—smiles!—atop his sheets, and wraps his hand around my extended finger. He’s effectively hiding that palmar crease again, the one line that divides his hand neatly. My hand has the usual two. The irony, though, of him having an extra chromosome means his body is sometimes made simpler: fewer lines, smoother eyes, an inexact heart. All these things used to scare me. I adore complication, after all. It’s maybe why Finn hid the fact of himself for nine months in the womb, why he escaped detection in the delivery room. Why he held his hand tight close to his chest.

I smile down at him. The surgeon appears in the doorway. Two days out of surgery, and the doctor doesn’t even enter the room anymore. He simply stands in the doorframe, waves and nods, before walking quietly away. His work is done.

Findlay continues to hold my fingers, my clumsy but suddenly capable fingers, and my work is just beginning.

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Jack in the Patrick (Unpop Goes the Weasel)

jackpat.jpgPatrick is holding court on the back patio. A seated Trout, who is reluctantly in attendance and working on the Sunday crossword, is not even sure if the back patio should be open. The cafeteria is closed, and the septuagenarian Ms. Ellen, who earlier taught seated yoga in the Group Room, reminded Patrick that the back patio is available during eating hours only.

She also reminded Patrick to wear a shirt, as there is a dress code. Ms. Ellen, though is retiring in two days, and her day in-day out seated cow-cat doesn’t exactly manufacture authority. Nor do the fact of orthopedic shoes during Vinyasa.

Patrick had been sunning himself earlier, and journaling, out by the asphalt walking path, near the fenced-in pool, which was for who knew what patients. The schizophrenics had the Ping-Pong table in the South Wing; the pool seemed to be for the pool guy only, who fished out the water bugs with a skimmer at 10a.m. daily. The pool was otherwise a failed Hockney painting, bottom-murky.

“Trout—you gotta hear this.” And Patrick was busy punching up texts on his phone.

“How’d you get that phone in here?” Trout asked. “Never mind.” He shakes his head. Patrick is practically manic.

Trout was stuck on 47 down.

James pipes up from his recessed seat near a potted cycad. He’s wearing a black hoodie pulled up over his head and hiding a cigarette. Earlier, he had admitted to being busted twice by the Korean security guard while trying to steal a smoke, but—since he’s withdrawing from heroin—tobacco only seemed fair.smokewire

“What’s up, Patrick?”

James is hiding his hand behind the potted plant, which is already yellow, and there are wafts of illicit tobacco.

“This message—from my girlfriend!”

Patrick is a short-timer, needs a ride to Mojave.

“Fucking hot out there,” Trout says. “Death Valley was 127 degrees yesterday, second highest recorded temperature on the planet. Seven degrees shy of hottest.”

Trout is still stuck on 47 down.

“I know! And Mojave was like a hundred-fucking-nine. I told my girlfriend it’s 73 out here and she told me to fuck off.”

bb94f4ce1a0c3989dffc9eca585bdf6c--wire-drawing-wire-sculpturesEric suddenly appears in a red flannel crew neck and blue flannel pajama bottoms. Comes out of some side door from somewhere, and—like a mad gibbon—moves opposite the caucus and places two hands on the vending machine glass at the patio’s far end. He then disappears behind the vending machine and crouches down.

Trout: “What the fuck?” putting down his paper. His pants are neatly cuffed, his shirt sleeves neater. He’s the asshole of the bunch.

Mike speaks up: “Monkey looking for Freon? Hell if I know.”

Mike is sitting behind Trout’s left shoulder, shirt off, and with a Vikings hat creased to resemble a BDU patrol cap atop his head. He’s a handsome black man, portly, with a neatly trimmed beard. Seated he’s exactly two rolls–stomach and tits—and has deftly sharpened pinkie nails which he hasn’t trimmed after almost four weeks of Program.

He’s VA, like Patrick, and they call each other ‘Chief’ out of deference.

“Here it is, here it is,” and Patrick holds up his phone.nudewoman

He reads from his illuminated screen: “Hope you’re ready for me when you get here. I’m gonna fuck your brains out.” He laughs, “Ha-HA!”

Patrick is Nazarene-chic with a caved-in chest and wasted pecs. He wears shirts, generally advertising tequila, and is bandied on all wrists and ankles with assorted beads and twine. He looks like every Donald Sutherland film of the Seventies with bouffant hair and an anachronistic moustache. He wears cock-eyed Ray-Bans with tape on the earpieces to hold them in narrow place.

Trout had a hard time figuring out why all of Patrick’s shirts were ripped two inches south of the collar, but—in keeping theme with the hemp bangles—Patrick also wore assorted necklaces. Two inches south of his collar was a roughly cruciform pendant, battered silver, with a bauble in its center. A poor man’s pave´.

vagMike says: “Nice. Can’t wait to get me some pussy.” James takes a drag from his cigarette, looking around.

James is all hawk-nose and probably could care less about the banter at present. He could only get out of bed twenty-four hours prior.

Trout shrugs. “Good for you, Man.”

Eric comes bounding over from his simian perch behind the vending machine.

“Dude, dude, dude!” he says to James. “Let me have some of that!” James obliges.

It ‘s safe to say that Eric has the dumbest haircut on the planet, a buzz cut of sorts, but with a hairline opposite of receding. His forehead is made small by wolf-boy overgrowth, and he’s got those goddam mismatched pajamas.

Trout figures out 47 down. On to 63 across.

“So how you gonna get there?” Trout asks Patrick.

“Gotta get a bus, but I need my license first WHICH I told my sister to send me.” He punches the air with his contraband phone.

“Wait,” James asks, retrieving his cigarette, ”You need a license now for a bus?”

“Well, YEAH,” Patrick says.

“Like MTS?”

Mike laughs. He usually only talks when pussy is the conversation d’jour, but he’s still a few rodeos ahead of James.

“Greyhound, Dude. Greyhound.”

“I told my sister to send me my license, but then she says she ‘feels uncomfortable’ sending that sort of stuff by mail,” Patrick is exasperated. He holds hands like electrical charges above his head.

“I KINDUV NEED THAT, I tell her.”hartung

“So not MTS?” James asks again.

Mike chuckles, and no one bothers answer.

Eric is reaching for another drag, but James has already extinguished his smoke against the trunk of the potted sago. This is a complete disregard of prehistory. Sagos existed in the time of dinosaurs and well before Sir Walter Raleigh. Tobacco showed up only a few millennia before Christ.

Patrick bounces in a circle with hands still above his head. “Goddammit! I need to get on that bus!”

Trout: “Because of…(?)”

“Tina? No—not just Tina. I need to get into the VA Center downtown—I need my personals.”

“So, like one hundred nine degrees and then a 180 back? To the VA?”

Patrick points emphatically and taps his philtrum, the divot above his upper lip.

“Yes, yes, yes, Trout. I’m supposed to get a bed there. Year-long program. Christ—haven’t been downtown in thirty years. I hear my boot camp is now all shopping malls and shit.”

“Wait, what? Whendja go to boot camp?”

“’80.”

“Liberty Station?”

Patrick taps his nose and prances another circle: “YES!”

Trout laughs for the first time.

“That IS all shopping malls and shit. Golf course, greenbelt, restaurants, playgrounds. That place got closed down in ’86? Yeah—they finally re-zoned it. Now it’s all commercial.”

gunTrout puts his paper between his knees, momentarily. “Where did you serve, Patrick?” He cocks his head, suddenly and keenly interested.

Patrick has bled-out tattoos, green ink on his forearms where the track marks could be, and these are military souvenirs when there aren’t otherwise medals. The pool at the end of the patio is likewise green and nondescript. Moths fly in the low light, to be fished out tomorrow from the shallow end.

“Central America? Iraq?”

“No.” Patrick points, Jack in the Patrick, “No—DC! The whole fucking time!” This is a ribald joke.

Trout picks up the paper again. The last answer was ‘ayeforaneigh’, some crossword nonesuch involving horses and politicians. He decides the crossword is stupid, a dalliance, a needle in the head jerk-off; he folds it away.

Wolf-boy Eric says, belatedly: “Downtown. You can totally score downtown.”

“Greyhound station in particular,” Patrick whirls and, again, points to Eric.

He then reels himself in, reversing his sprung accordion.

Un-pop goes the Weasel.

“Shit.”

James meanwhile has fallen asleep.

“What’s up, Chief?” Mike asks, readjusting his hat, wiping his armpits with his discarded but matching Vikings jersey.

Patrick shakes his head. A Greyhound bus to Mojave would take sixteen hours. By car, six. Ten hours extra is the devil’s time, especially as passenger and not as driver.

Mike intuits something and scratches the side of his nose with his pinky nail.

“My roomie here, Trout—he normal. Right, Trout? You normal?”tumblr_nmq4liuwiP1trjatho1_500

Trout turns toward Mike for the first time. They’ve roomed together for a few days, have ignored each other’s snoring. They’re easy, throw snacks back and forth between beds.

“Relative, my friend. Relative.”

“Yeah, well—we ain’t normal, Chief,” Mike says, returning attention to Patrick.

Eric really should be a baboon. His blue flannel bottoms match a mandrill’s indigo ass.

“Yes! The Greyhound station!” His Librium hasn’t kicked in yet. He murmurs something about meth.

Patrick intones, “Every time I get on a Greyhound—shit—it’s the same story.” There is momentary pathos as the vending machine hums it advertisement of Fiber-One bars and Chobani yogurt—rehab food.

He perks up, can’t be a sad clown.

“It’s always some motherfucker from Corcoran sits next to me—ha!”cage

Patrick pins his chin to his chest and baritones: “Hey—I just got outta Corcoran. Wanna score in the bathroom?” Patrick giggles and jazz hands beneath the outside flourescents: “And I say, ‘Sure!’ Probably where I got Hep-C.”

Trout picks up the paper again, sighs. This is Willie Wonka shit.

“Shooting up in the bathroom of a Greyhound with bus tap-water isn’t probably a good thing. And that’s, like the first twenty minutes.”

Patrick taps his temple, pretending to Scarecrow-think.

“Nope—nope, not a good thing,” he decides.

In a patient-guided meeting earlier in the week, Patrick mouthed every single word of the twelve-step preambles. The preambles—seriously—take up half the time. It’s like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, but with nine extra verses, hand over your liver, not your heart.

“Think I’m gonna go upstairs,” Trout says, pushing himself out of his chair, molded as it were to resemble some Henri Moore sculpture, organic and unlike the asterisk tattoos on Pat’s arms, else Eric’s dumb haircut.

“See you up there?” He gives knucks to Mike.

“Oh wait, wait, wait, Trout. Gotta tell you this. So Pam wanted to shave her legs tonight and needed a nurse to watch…”

“Who’s Pam again?”woman

“The Goldie Hawn lookalike. Goldie Hawn!”

“314?”

“Yes!”

Trout thinks to Goldie Hawn, plays deuces in his head and comes up with a wither some 1.5.

“Sure, Man, sure.”

Patrick excitedly pulls at his ripped collar. “I said: Hell—I’ll watch!”

(Patients can’t use razors without the badges witnessing, eagle-eyed)

“Get this, Trout—I’m gonna go up to the nurse’s station tonight and ask what it takes to get a condom up in here. Funny, right?!”

Trout smirks. “That’s funny, dude.”

“Right?!”

“See you upstairs, my friend.”

Mike calls after Trout: “Hey, Roomie—you always be sitting by yourself at lunch. Me and Chief here—we be repping with the Ladies.” brain

Moths do their peripatetic thing and Patrick finally sits down on a table, strips his Wabo-Cabo tank off and places his fist to his chin, the sudden naugahyde thinker.

His wife died two years ago.

Trout sits with the paper in the upstairs. Downstairs is scary, all DT cases and medical instruments jamming the hallways, whereas upstairs is hotel-like. There is the fact that you can descend the elevator to breakfast, which makes the upstairs Four Seasons in comparison to downstairs’ one-star.

Patrick charges past Trout to the nurse’s station. He speaks quietly but rapidly to the nurse.

“The bus is 186 dollars. I don’t have my license, yet.” The exchange gets quieter and more hurried. After a few minutes, Patrick taps the desk and says loudly, “Thanks, Erica!” and strolls away.

“Hey, Trout!” And he leans in. “I did it.

“Did what?”

“Asked for that condom—ha!”

“That’s funny, Man.”

Patrick strolls off down the hallway. He refuses his pills; Mike, too. Says they’re making things too weird. Everyone’s supposed to have their vitals taken and their pills administered before bed.

But this is all voluntary. All an act of good faith.

id75240_smThe day before, Roberto, the tattoo artist from LA was discharged. Greaser hairline, all-black, svelte, manicured, the words ‘Meat is murder’ stenciled along his brow. Ropy veins and swallows decorating his neck. There was cake in the courtyard, the schizos played Ping-Pong on the other side of the fence. Ten people gathered, wishing Roberto well. Even Trout got a piece of the pie.

Patrick separated himself.

“Hey, Trout.”

“Yeah?”

“Isn’t that beautiful?”

“Sure?”

“I mean, ten people laughing, not one drug. It’s beautiful, Man.”

He fingered his necklace through the ripped collar, the battered pave´.

“I wish, Man, I fucking wish,” he says, slowly shaking his head by the penniless fountain, water in a constant recycle, the sound of white noise.

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Misunderstood

The guy at the pool party had a chest-piece, which looked like spread moth wings. It was bannered with the word, “Misunderstood.” I liked this, thought it was about moths being mistaken for butterflies. He said, “I hate this tattoo. I was eighteen and high.” He then showed me scar-work on his side which was more thought out. It had both Polynesian and Filipino script. I liked them both; said, “I still really dig your moth wings. You shouldn’t hate that.”