Signage

Leaving was particularly difficult, totally by surprise. The best caregiver of the tribe arrived, scrubbed. I wore 50 minutes of stage 4 sleep on the front of my shirt, the stain of a precipitous slumber after staying up all night staring at the fischer price intercom as it faithfully redlighted every cough on the inside and every auto on the outside.

The caregiver looked at me, caregivingly, and asked directly: how are you? I listed all the super-readiness of meals, laundry, utensils, detritus, stopping midway to hear her question for the first time during my shipshape litany.

Oh I’m terrible, thanks, but I believe you’ll finally have enough spoons for one day.

Spoons are important. Running out can be a real drag. She had made her point, though, and I took my coffee in and sat on the bed to have it with Ma.

She demonstrated emotional lability, which invariably includes some dead-on unfiltered true thing about The World In Which We Live, so I listen, quite on the edge of my seat. This is kind of like, at least I like to think, climbing out on the bow of the boat in case something beautiful is contained in the tempestuous spray you are bound to find there.

Her sadness is profound. It stems from gratitude. She cannot be consoled.

I think your hand is connected to your heart, I say, smoothing out the withering limb, it curls when you do.

Slipped into the traffic standing still outside her house and edged toward the critical intersection of the great migration downtown. I was leaving town entirely and just didn’t belong. With no makeup, cellphone, laptop or child to tend, I saw the sign far in advance of my five lane pod brethren:

A man walking around the conflux of 24 lanes of traffic at rush hour. A painter, spattered down to his shoes. His sign was about three by four feet, coming out of the will-work-for tradition of calligraphy:

Bob Cook Wrote Me A Bad Check.

I felt satisfied I had encountered the truth as I had hoped I would. Armed with the right knowledge at long last, I brought the radio to life, lifted the coffee and took the healthy gulp, checked the side mirror, and took off for home.

I Throw My Own

I have this history of designing my own birthday experiences.

What brought it on? Being last of five overachieving children, I thought. Four people have already turned five. What’s impressive the fifth time around? My mother’s quiet relief? I was unaware at the time. I just remember silly soap in the wading pool and convincing everyone I knew how to speak French.

In order to celebrate turning nine, I designed, implemented and resisted winning a scavenger hunt for eight bewildered peers. If it sounds like resume material, it’s because I’ve always wanted to put it on there and have taken to using that sort of language when describing it, just in case I ever develop the nerve to come out of the scavenger hunting closet and act proud. No sign of this so far. But nine was good. I became acutely aware of my parents’ lack of a priori knowledge of the universe, and, for the first and last time for what would be many years, forgave them for it. I remember nine as a year of squinting in disbelief and holding my hand to my brow, casting about for confirmation from anyone else in the area. Of course none was ever forthcoming, and I’m almost accustomed to the fact.

Got home in time to turn 18 and staged a barbecue in which I invited primarily mentors, although I have not really conceived of it this way until this very moment. It’s true, though: My friends were not there, being variously dead, incarcerated, far-flung or being treated for hepatitis. I treated myself to a haircut and facial the day of the party, and my sister, eight years senior and very femme, mobbed me upon arrival to see what sort of base I was using. My embarrassment triggered an explosive rage in her which I remember in heart breaking detail. I had to wash my face to disperse the tears, but felt about ten pounds lighter afterward. Make-up, someone had neglected to tell me, weighed. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the lawn, and feel the light abrasion of the diving board where I set up the food.

Turned 20-something one year on the proper day: Friday the 13th. In an otherwise empty room six pedestals sported six black and white monitors that broadcast an animation synchronized to the soundtrack I had painstakingly engineered. This represented my last, most caligula-like perversion about homemade party tapes, which admit it, are only good ten years on when you play them on a road trip, buckling in hilarity as you shout: Can You Believe We Listened To This Stuff? I was very gratified to see the police (consistently the last guests to arrive at all of my parties) shut it all down after Colin lost his grip on the bat and sent it whirleygigging into the darkness in the street. It was amusing, but he fully missed the pinata.

On my 30th birthday I felt absolutely certain everyone would immediately begin taking me seriously. To celebrate, I rented a honkin lincoln continental and put Z in the passenger side, me behind the wheel, Zappa in the over-ornamented tape player, and set the cruise control to 91, the sum of my age plus the year I was born. A birthday weekend ensued, just the two of us. When I came back, now 30 plus 3 days, no one took me seriously. I mean, not even. I set my sights on 35, while my friends, being variously climbing or climbed upon, asked me not to bring up the fact we were all aging rapidly. You don’t get it, I said with, now that I think about it, child-like enthusiasm: Old Is Good. Old Is The Door To Wise.

Renting the jumphouse was the easiest part of turning 35. So was putting the ice in the trunk of the Buick and storing the kegs there, while using the expansive hood for a fruit smoothie preparation surface, and the spacious interior for a hot box. Saved all year to finance The Sushi Moment, in which a perfectly nice group of people turned into sharks once the laquer trays appeared. It wasn’t until my 14 year old niece went wide-eyed during the performance of the 11-piece sex-positive dyke punk band that I realized I may have invited guests from too many disparate places to enjoy too many disparate kinds of birthday fun. I thought it over while stealing a few hops in the jump house while the band climaxed in it’s own way. I vowed to tone it down in order to let the love shine through. I also made myself sick from contemplative hopping.

This year I’m going to the Upper West Side to co-celebrate with Z’s niece who turns eight. With her birthday a day before mine we are both embarrassed not to have considered this arrangement before. Now’s the time, of course. This is her last year of unconditional belief in the power of adults around her, and I see her urbanity culminating in a bored yawn on the horizon. We’re rushing toward it, cruise control set to Infinity.

Cake. Curled ribbon. A momentary sense of entitlement. A backdrop of mortification.

Go ahead. Make your day.

The Water Knows If You’re Silt Or Stone

April. Cruel. All that.

Came home kinda psychically soaked to the skin, clothes clinging and stained with whatever it was that hit me. A big limp from a barked shin. Shoulders quaking in those seven-year sobs. Z looked outside at the sunny day, the bright future, the westward ho and peered down at me, now about 3 inches high.

He had his work cut out for him.

It isn’t the aging parent crippled by stroke. It isn’t the footnoted catastrophe of right hemisphere brain damage that removes musicality. It’s not the fork in the road now receding in my rearview mirror, the one pointing toward imminent funding by chip makers. It’s not the trade-in of my job for something longer-houred and lower-paying. It’s not the family culture writ large during crisis, each of us acting our parts in monumental proportions. It’s not the fact I have three cars and none of them will travel more than 12 miles without breaking down. It’s not time, but here comes time anyway.

And gone again.

I just let the tears come: huge, i’m-just-fucked tears that I had prayed for but kept getting jaw squares instead. Years of tears, right through the dinner hour, so that we had to set out for the venue and hope the hippies had fired up the kitchen.

While I howled from the passenger seat in the car, this went through my head:

Recently I began researching where I could go to make that quiet, introspective, weekend retreat. Which zendo where? Could I take a vow of silence and keep it? Would I be spoken to? Would I have to sit until my back broke? My feet puddled up in sleep? I began designing a Perfect Retreat Concept that included talking to no one and having no one talk to me. Meals included, no food noises. I experimented while Z was in NY, keeping my yap shut for entire evenings. Croaking into the phone after a day of reading and not talking, as if my vocal chords had been overrun by weeds in the short time since the tanks stopped running over them.

It didn’t work. I wondered if I didn’t want silence, rather I wanted a license to be sad. Extremely sad. Grieving and purpled. I thought about attending other people’s funerals (mine was out of the question), or watching a few soaring television advertisements for cotton. Good, but constricting. Have to wear a dress to blend in to funerals. It would occlude my sadness to add embarrassment at not remembering how to walk in heels. Television is worse in its fashion: have to tie my butt to the couch in order to catch a glimpse of the treacly stuff. Besides, I have a huge sadness, much larger than my silence. With this much sadness, I need space. I revised my Retreat Concept to include an extremely high fee, which is humiliating, and an extremely hurtful remark from a staff member upon arrival. This would be the catalyst for my retreat experience: Uncontrolled Sobbing Camp. I need to compensate for years of blinking back and moving forward. I just want to cry, but someone will have to really smack my elbow to get it all started.

This led me to another idea: I’m not just sad, in my own quiet way, I am furious. Hearing a radio show led by a earth mother nutritionist in the next room, callers kept referring to their “rage” and how they controlled it with herbs administered in close connections with their cycles. Rage? Where have I been, all these cycles under my belt, having never heard the term “rage” associated with it? Is it possible I’ve isolated myself in my feelings? Egotistically excluding the possibility that I suffer from a common affliction? But not one caller defined “rage”. They kept taking “rage” for granted, as if everyone knew what it was and it didn’t need explaining. It was as if “rage” was right there next to “bloating”. But it never has been there for me. “Hershey’s” is next to “bloating” in my cycle. I found myself getting really steamed, and pictured myself calling up the host and screaming into the phone: just who did they think they were, talking about rage and not defining it?

A wee entrepreneurial part of me thought about setting up The Really Angry Retreat for groups of 15 or more. Arrive at the lodge and get your safety glasses, a 16-lb sledge hammer and an almost-empty tube of Ben-Gay. You’re led out of the foyer into a god damn junk yard and told to smash everything to bits, somebody else will clean it up. Thoughtfully, some of the items have been covered by crass photocopies of the faces of people who annoy the hell out of you.

That was me, wailing unabated as Z’s window went down at the toll plaza. That was me, staggered against the chain link wondering how a person of my tears could attend a public performance. I fitfully ordered the veggies, rice and chicken leg and scoured for a place that had both a chair and a light so I could, just to torture myself, see what I was eating. I failed six or seven times before pitching my dinner into the trash and remanding into the balcony. I put my head in my hands and flooded my area with more tears, creating a greater radius of empty seats around me than if I had vomited. Z showed up, pushing a smuggled dinner roll and bottle of water at me, which I waved away, hopeless and snot-faced. He sat compassionately, saying little, being near, greeting my eventual move to the center of reality with little fanfare, as if he trusted I was not far from it all along. This compounded my pain: how persistently positive this man is! what a shame given the circumstances!

It wasn’t over. About 20 minutes into the show I had cleared my sinuses enough to realize someone, somewhere near me, had stepped in something before they came up here. Over the next couple hours I moved from seat to seat, escaping and then succumbing to its hideous waft. Christ Z, I said, where is it and why is it following me? Is it possible to have a pigpen-style cloud over one’s head? Wasn’t that simply a line drawing? Clearly someone has had a horrible accident, he assured me, and the ventilation system is a little too efficient, carrying the evidence everywhere. I had to trust him on this one. It was devastating.

I made it back to the car and relented: sitting on the hood I slowly turned my own shoe upward, the new one I had bought the day before in a matched pair. Yes. Yes. I had disgraced myself somewhere along the way, blundering into dog doo as salt water shot out of my eyes, then spending a whole evening whirling around in the darkness to find its source.

Why I had not already selected this as my unifying metaphor I could not say.

But it seems so right.

Lightning On Demand

You know what?

The run of the mill Frankenstein movie has tesla coils about the size of a magic marker sending that swirly zapping electricity toward our poor fool’s head. We hope for the best, because we’re prone to that kinda hubris. He lurches to life and makes us all sorry we ever thought it up in the first place. What a monster. What a mess.

So when the call came out, all underground-y like that, that the hard working scientists had built one about three feet long and esconced it in a shed with three story tower on it and a brutal metal sphere on top, we immediately forgot all about the bad moral mamajama about reanimation, and headed out to Hunter’s Point after dark.

I don’t know what’s more peculiar: Making a device that, under the direction of a sure hand on a high chrome evinrude throttle, spririts 40 foot lightning bolts into the sky, or )commissioning( such a device. We stepped aside as the warning bells sounded, leaving that 30-degree swath in front of the shed entrance that is required if the contents explode again and shoot out at 200 miles an hour. We looked upward, hopeful as the whine began to become unbearable. We all cheered when the first bolt bled out the side of the sphere, a very mystical substance.

It was fuschia colored. It appeared solid at the base. It spurted into the air like a sperm over roe. It forked into spikes, becoming pure light. This took about a second, although I’m sure it was much less. It represented 120,000 volts.

Do it again! we shouted, hopping around like toddlers discovering a boozy but effective clown.

They did it again, but only in the context of their testing testing testing. It wouldn’t do to saw it off and ship it to the private collector in New Zealand if it was not exactly perfect, although at this level, what exactly would exactly perfect be? I thought long and hard about this during the rest of the night’s firings. The bolts sought out the adjacent lamp posts. The prepared people saluted from afar with neon and flourescent tubes that sang a dim song everytime a bolt revolved their way. Farraday’s Law was proven again as the scientist stood in the sphere as it fired the plasma. Anxious federal officials insisted vehicle license plate 2mumblemumbleCharliesomething be moved immediately from the middle of the road. Restricted from smoking, drinking, taking still or moving pictures or investigating the dark areas roped off by caution tape, everyone continued to smoke, drink, take still and moving pictures and tromp over the caution tape on their way to look for a place to pee. I felt the whole crowd swirl into a visual cushion upon which I could rest my heavy head.

Who, I thought in that murky softness, wants this thing?

So with eyes locked on to every forky sputter, every jizzed power blurt, every pink thing in the night sky, I painted a picture of the man who wanted lightning on demand in his big back yard in the low end of the pacific ocean.

Could I go there? Knock on the door in a year’s time and say: “Hello. You don’t know me, but I know your lightning. I’m just stopping by to see how it’s doing.”

Would I be barefoot?

Hungry?

Electrified?

Neal and Jack and Me

eaPaul asked me how the reading went and I had to make a positive noise. However, I quickly added, the wierdest thing happened:

We had cleared the floor, staggered the loudspeakers, clipped the lights on the sprinkler pipes and painted the pallet black, hoping it would give each reader a sense of presence without giving them an episode of vertigo. They had milled about and worried their work. Z had tracked 60 cycle hums through the system. The cat had climbed into the loft, into the 2-drawer cabinet that was missing its drawers, and taken position in the very back of its recess behind the SCSI cabling.

That’s a show, waiting to happen.

Then Beat Progeny John showed up with a fellow traveler and while no one turned deferential exactly, for that would be a dead giveaway, everyone ratcheted up a bit, while being sure not to. Know what I mean? But John was like so many people I had seen in the parking lot: grandfurther trucker’s lid, face lit up by drink, bad surfer hair, a keen sense of when parties were much, much better but glad for the opportunity nonetheless. A very likeable person, I’m trying to say. One you could count on to give you a bear hug to bring you back down after a particularly unexpected effect from the garbage bag full of nitrous.

And I missed this part of the email exchanges between all the participants: I had been identified as the house drummer. Rhythmatist, maybe. Beat source, if you will. Sonic landscaping, ambient swirl. Drummer had a thunk to it that I couldn’t undo. It was just an unadorned way of looking at things and I dared not protest too much.

So when John and singer-songwriter JB and writer Levi set up and began to rehearse, I acted polite and played my shoe, the way drummers do when passing the time. Then, over the course of the rehearsal, just… layed something small down.

How happy they were! How supportive and encouraging! John kept egging me on, calling me Ringo to make me feel as egged, or egg-y, as possible. I kept leaning around my kit to send wide-eyed alarm looks to Z. Someone is calling me Ringo! the wide eye to the left said, twirling clockwise. The distance between my impression of Beat Progeny (long cultivated) and my experience of Beat Progeny (20 minutes old and rising) is very great! the wide eye to the right said, twirling counterclockwise. Z turned the gain up. Z turned the reverb down. Z scowled at the 60-cycle thing and traced his plumbing for the hundredth time.

Plus!

They were playing a traditional song (sam collins ’31; woodie guthrie ’40; grateful dead ’71 and forward), and I lowered my head to my snare, hoping I would suck bad enough to be left out of the performance.

I didn’t.

So I hoped no one would know how bone-crushingly just it is to have me play this music after years of honing my critical dismissal of it.

Sometimes you just have to finish a gig. No one is interested in your process.

And John just kept talking: first about ’71, then about Ringo, then about his job, then with Levi, then gripping shoulders of friends and posing and taking snapshots, bravely announcing: Just Like Neal & Jack, Huh? I just blinked around the room for confirmation from any of the others, none forthcoming. I thought about what it would be like to be a software engineer with a flagged musical career and a famous dad and a way of drinking dinner on Saturday night. Z headed out to the taqueria with John and JB and got to hear how much wilder Alameedy was in the 60s.

Even with that many authors tossing words from spotlit mouth to shadowed ear, I kept lip-biting over what was happening at my house. This is a good example of what it’s like to be a perfect head case, in case you want to try it out on your own.

And although John referred to the memoir he would someday soon begin writing, he did so almost by way of apology to the skein of published writers slow boiling in the room. I wanted to tell him it just wasn’t necessary. He should just continue to have the best time he could possibly have. He met someone more famous than he, who nodded and told him: I knew your dad. Tell me about him, John asked.

And my feeling changed.

At a certain point, I started to write down everything he said on my hand.

Experience the Power of the Suit

Standing outside of Sunset Strip (and by that I mean… no clothes), Santa is taking wincing drags while pimp swaggering in that red coat. Another Santa sits quietly on the curb absentmindedly eating from a bag of Thanksgiving-motifed candy corn. Or is it kandy korn. Whatever. The colors were changed slightly from the classic Halloween orange and white to Thanksgiveable brown and tan. Santa to my left just came out of the convenience store adjacent, holding a fresh banana, which he stoically eats next to the XXX sign. My santa hat is erect, stuffed as it is with my kefiyah and perched impossibly on my head. I wanted to be Santa Terrorist, but what was the point? The conical hat was much funnier, but required that I walk super carefully to keep it on. Then I began, for the hundredth time that day, to refer to myself in the third person:

Santa cannot lose the lid, or the whole Santa Mystique will come to an ignominious halt.
True, Santa, said Santa Kandy Korn. Lucky you have not been drinking.
Has Santa been drinking? asked Santa Lid.
Santa nodded gravely.
Santa understands.

John Law appeared in the doorway, glowing. His Santa persona was conceptual: a barely contemptible Tahitian shirt and the knowledge that he would allow himself to be hanged later that evening in a country western bar.

Santa, what’s it like in there? we asked.
A Sea of Red, reported John Law.

I had come outside the strip club, situated perfectly in a strip mall, on Sunset Boulevard, which has a strip, according to legend, to show some of the other Santas how its done. Although some Santas would never follow: they were sitting chin first on the stage, female Santas howling for kisses, male Santas getting that quiet look I did not want to disturb; and some Santas were at the bar, attempting to lift the contents intraveneously and could not be dissuaded. I was reaching out to the Santas on the wall, collapsing their gimlet straws with great pulls of discontent. I could tell: some Santas had never been to a strip club as a matter of Santastic Principle. The goings-on were testing Santa mettle. Santa could not decide between naughty and nice. Santa was about to explode in cognitive dissonance.

The dancers wished Santa had brought more cash. But where could it fit in the red suit? Santa wished the dancers had transferred from the two to the four year program. But dancers are homemakers, professionals and students from all walks of life, as varied in their objectives as Santa is. Santa had an act of Santa’s own, and took the stage with the permission of the house manager who was struggling to quash any visual documentation of the event.

As Tall Conical Hat Santa, I was offered lap dances at each turn of the gang plank. No thanks, I ho-ho’d cheerfully, but Santa wants to give you this glow-in-the-dark superball! Lap dancers were grateful, on the surface. The mints went over better, to be honest. Santa avers that the interior of a strip club compromises one’s breath.

Santa, I said, placing my mitten over the top of the highball glass. If you don’t like what is happening to your economically-empowered naked sisters, you better leave this club. Never mind that the lights go dim inbetween acts, forcing the dancers to blink and scramble for their tips while their eyes adjust to the darkness. See how some dancers dance upstage where the light is already somewhat dim? They aren’t attracting as much attention, but they are plotting where every dollar is landing on their neurotic grid. Never mind that your Santa Other has never seemed happier as he takes in the acts up on stage. Santa can work that out in the hotel room tonight with tears and defiance. Santa better come with me, with all the other Santas who walk it like they talk it.

The bus drivers, great church-going women, were inside the strip club long after all the Santas had been ejected. A hundred or more of us swelled and crested red waves, just as we had done all day:

* In the Fairfax Farmer’s Market, cornering Dickensian carolers and forcing them into singing “Here Comes Santa Claus”. Santa tips generously.
* On the Santa Monica Freeway, bursting out of tour buses because Santa will not be fenced in.
* Down the main drag of Venice Beach, making memories for tourists who had hoped something like this might happen, and making residents relieved that they would not have to make something up for the tourists today. Santa’s ostensible reason for being there (a beach clean-up) was met by the facts (a pristine beach).
* Into the pit at Muscle Beach, announced by the appearance of pink glazed donuts rolling under the feet of the balloon-pinched fanatics there. Santa was bench-pressed by a denizen. Santa did ten pull-ups, eight more than are required of an American Gladiator. Santa got pumped up.
* Up and down Hollywood Boulevard with a descent upon the Winter Wonderland sponsored by the Church of Scientology, a fact that continues to cause Santa pyschotheological distress. Because Santa’s legs were not broken during the heretical outburst, Santa confirms that L. Ron Hubbard is Nice.
* Steeply ascending to Griffith Observatory to act out Rebel Without A Clause, Santa began to run late and only had time for a cheese dog and a peek off the edge into the L.A. twilight. Santa used the bullhorn to announce that if Santa did not get on the bus right now, Santa would be too late to get into the titty bar for free. A hundred red-suits fled the grounds, cheap bastard that Santa is.

Santa wanted to go see the Vandals reunion at The Palace, but only Santa could know what might happen when a hundred red-suits presented themselves to an L.A. punk audience. Police presence was required and the better red than dead Santas discovered the narrowness of their anarchic theory, pointing out teen spoilers to The Man with no compunction. Splitting Santas, we turned one street earlier to find the truck we had strategically parked near by knowing, in a fit of Santa forethought, that the end of Santa’s journey would leave Santa here. A couple with matching ventriloquist dummies were delighted to see Santa. Santa was amazed to note that the ventriloquists dummies resembled in every way the ventriloquists: wearing all the clothes they owned and having no place to go. It was 2am on Hollywood Boulevard and Santa rose to the occasion. The dummies got their act together too.

I managed to find two Christmas Trees not properly disposed of. I took them down to Stair 28 and presented them at the beach bonfire. Santa! everyone shouted. After dancing the trees into the blaze (there is really little hotter than a Christmas Tree on fire in March), I wondered if I should pitch the red suit as well. The fire had tried to get it already. It was unlikely I’d be joining Santa on another rampage, or swimming in another sea of red. Of what use could it be?

I kept it.

It’s really very comfortable.

Bed Offensive

We’ve learned about the sanctity of bed:

no arguments, no full stomachs, no spinning, no smoking, no eating crackers, no horse heads

I’m watching someone make theirs impossibly on a Muni bus stop seating device. The transit authority approved the design: vertical poles holding a 10×4 inch slab on a spit. You position the slab horizontally before you put your ass on it, then use your feet to keep from falling off of it while the bus never comes. This is to prevent people like this one from taking up the uncomfortable bench when fare-paying Muni riders need it most: Never. They have designed a seat no one can sit on, thereby decisively excluding the least favorite people from sitting on them.

Resourceful, likely strong and well-balanced, this one uses the swivel seat spits for his elevated slumbers. I can’t stand the thought of him strung out like this, there’s a perfectely serviceable doorway on the other side of this bus stop that he did not select, so I imagine he’s acting out his past life as a samurai: alone, capable, on the edge.

Where did you sleep? On the side of the hill in a shelf I dug out with my hands, the day hike gone rather awry. Behind the wheel of the van, according to this ditch. In my father’s recliner, waiting for the evil to leave my room down the hall. On my feet in the emergency room, making deals with higher powers. In the sand at the foot of the dunes, pretending to be Achilleus waiting for wind.

Wake up. Wake up.

Bus coming.

Equal Parts Laugh Riot and Heady Noise Foo

Man!

I asked my Ma what she wanted to do in the New Year, besides lose a couple toes. Don’t panic. The toe losing is all completely arranged, one of those maddening episodes where a surgeon whittles away at the feet of her diabetes like all those well meaning pious folk rubbing away at the feet of the Pieta. I took one look at the orthopedic surgeon and realized I should not vocalize this parallel. He would not brook that. I could tell by the tassels on his loafers.

So, Ma, got any plans?

Ma said: I want to live.

Live! I was a little shocked, what in the world do you want to live for?

I want to see how it all turns out, she replied.

Chances are your view might greatly improve if you quit living. Either that or you instantly understand there’s no use lingering to take it all in, a better vista awaits, conceived of an essential structure you simply could not have imagined while… alive.

Right?

Yeah right. It’s been a hell of a year, people. I tried to cover all the bases, improve the odds, do my part, cut my hours, amp my resources, trick my gear, love smarter not harder, show up, shut up, stand up and never gloat, cry, stop crying, cry in defiance of the stop crying order, build it and burn it, and demonstrate by example how to and how not to ever.

My Ma is dying ever so slowly, just like me. After a holiday filled with her sad shame at not being able to afford thousands of dollars in gifts for all of us, she turns around and speaks her mind in the long corridor of the Mercy Medical Complex.

She’ll never know that’s all I ever wanted anyway. Born wanting life and looking straight at my Ma for it, and she supplies.

Just by being herself.

Le Rouge et Le Noir

Did I tell you this already?

Margaret C. Watson and I made our parents furrow their collective brow in consternation one year when we insisted on using the economical train to go back to school after the winter break. Leaves at midnight. From a hut in Davis. This was during the slump in popularity of train travel, not only among parents, but among anyone wishing to arrive safely and on time at their destination.

Like we were in a hurry.

But you know, yes, we were but not the kind you can own up to: In a hurry to leave our parents’ homes because, while we were away, we had drunk the bottles that said drink me and eaten the cakes that said eat me and really just didn’t fit inside those homes anymore: a problem of scale. In a hurry to avoid our destination by taking Old Unreliable, eating meat that could be spoiled due to its storage near the railcar radiator that scalded all window passengers while freezing the unfortunate aisle ones, fingering the teeny envelope of blotter we shouldn’t really, not at this hour, not with this obvious containment we’re experiencing, prisoners really, unable to leave the train whenever we feel like it without falling into the pure and simple blackness that accompanied this train wherever it went: a problem of dread.

So I turned to the Bad Thing: my paperback copy of Stendahl’s Red and The Black, which I was supposed to have read before now and written a paper commenting on. Sadly, no matter where I attached my mouth to it, I–

Well–

Just. . .

Hated it. The characters were pathetic and opaque to their own role in their unhappiness. They seemed unaware of what good advice I could give them. The professor who assigned the text had his homunculi rousted and assigned to my hallucination in anticipation of my, erm, reluctance. There that fucker was: pint-sized patriarch perched on the edge of the book ready to turn a page for me at any moment, my chaperone, murmuring little things and checking my body language to see if I had freed myself from the one sentence I kept reading over and over and over and over again, was I ready? Ready to turn? Ready to finish and write the paper? I slammed the paperback shut, which is in league with throwing a potato chip, and each time I did so the imp leapt out of the way with a whisping sound I wouldn’t hear again until passing by a nephew’s bedroom door and hearing the sound effects of his nintendo 64. I went ashen and steadied myself in the hallway until this whole story I’m telling you played out at about 200 miles an hour: just me and David Lynch driving a Dodge Dart with one headlight through my memory.

Toss. Turn. Pace the rail cars and create Homeric epithets for them based on their smell. Discover the frozen strawberries my mother had packed to keep my meat from spoiling and overdose on their more than thawed super glucose. Love ma and miss her terribly in ways I can never describe to her. Pick up the book. Read one sentence 60 or 70 times. Slam (oh nice going) the book shut. Wonder if the train was damned and day would never come. Admit that suited me fine. Weep. Sleep, but only for 2 minutes with eyes wide open. Ask Margaret C. Watson again if it was actually true that we were doing what we were doing at this very moment and if we had entered into it of our own free will. Pick up the book. Pick up the book. Pick up the book, the only one in my life that had nothing whatsoever to say to me.

Twenty hours later we arrive in PDX and cannot unkink ourselves from the positions we took as a last resort to reading Stendahl. Our gear was everywhere, had fucked and multiplied since we got on the train, and we grabbed a train-issue garbage bag and stuffed it all in like it was the now breathless party-goer no one knew. Fell off the high steps into Stumptown rain. As we walked the million miles home, dragging our garbage bag behind us, I vowed to take a hot bath with Stendahl, dispatch him by morning, manifest my thesis and meet my deadline handsomely.

Around 4 that afternoon I tried to make good and did: reading sentences sequentially and, once or twice, underlining or turning a page corner down for future reference. Little by little the story of the story began to matter to me, and towards the final 100 pages I eagerly turned to see what was about to happen next, hermeneutics aside. It was here I noticed a rubbed spot on the upper right hand corner: a little scalloped portion. On the following folio it was a little larger, say, by a hair. With each folio the rubbed area grew down, first obscuring the last letter of the last word of the text, in a few pages the last word, further on a couple words of the first two lines, on and on so that I eventually could no longer imagine, through some kinda bad ass gestalt, what the hell Stendahl was trying to say to me. Unlike big bright shiny modern books that have truth sprinkled throughout them, or sometimes exclusively on the title page, this French upheaval thing was saving up the truth for the final pages, the ones that were now half debreded by, and it dawned on me:

dragging the garbage bag through Portland. The book was, of course, the first to be thrown away as we repacked on the rail car and had been the first thing to erode when the bag gave way at the points of contact with the sidewalk.

I had no idea. I was too busy vowing to read the book I was destroying with every step.

By the end of the book more than three quarters of the page was missing, eroded like a treasure map, sticking out from the spine in a shred. Cropped. Useless. I stared at it with rage. I could make out one sentence, which I read over and over and over to try and unlock the context around it. I began rereading the book to see how the first page might structurally intimate the last page. I scoured the house for additional copies, howling at the lack of resources a house of college students afforded. Rode down the hill to the locked and darkened library and collapsed in the special exhaustion reserved for people who etch their own fates.

When it came time to light something on fire and throw it as hard as I could out the window, I had my sacrifice ready and waiting.

It was a sight, for the second time in its life.

When I Say You

I mean… all of you:

Man, woman and child, here in the checkout line, on the opposing escalator, on the stage, emerging from the elevator, three ahead in the queue engaged in a conversation with her, or them. Passing in your car. Looking out your window as I pass by on the freeway. A part of me is constantly derailing and coming to you, pulling you out of the burning coach, stepping between you and your drunken date, catching your subpoena as it blows away, handing you a napkin just as you spill, noticing what you notice and confirming your suspicions: your constant, faithful and anonymous companion.

Outside of Wyoming, or very newly inside, the sky was inky and unforgiving and we were singular on a very broad highway climbing to Cheyenne. At the tops of things we careened through snow flurries. In the bottoms of things we barely pierced the darkness. Ahead I saw a glow and hoped a car would pass to convince me we hadn’t left the planet through a hole in one of the crest-dwelling snowflakes.

The glow descended down the opposing hill and I rushed to welcome it. Hello Other. We are Here, yes? I am not driving Alone. This place is for Both of Us. Uncertainty set in as the glow didn’t grow into a double beam, and the double beam didn’t grow into a vehicle whirring to the place we were just leaving. I instinctively woke the sleeping passenger with a grip of the jacket. She wiped the sleep out of her eyes just as the passenger tire passed us, engulfed in flame, rolling down our hill unattached to whatever car it used to belong to. Ahead: nothing. Behind: nothing. Above: nothing. Below: the song of the blacktop. Burning tires make a warbling sound.

With a morbid quiet overtaking us, we reluctantly crawled to the crest of the hill and plateaued. A shimmering vertical skated across the highway ahead and we slowed in approach. A woman was walking the yellow line in a house dress and cardigan sweater. The window rolled down, and the ice wind flooded our car as we pleaded with her to get out of the road. She muttered and warbled in pain, eyes fixed on the spot where the tire had left her view and plummetted into North Dakota. We promised to send help again and again, but she kept trotting after her tire, little feet in flats.

We passed the scene within a few hundred yards: a loaded late 70’s station wagon with pick up bed trailer, missing one wheel, tilted by the shoulder, a comet trail of personal belongings. Our hearts sank as we waited for the next exit, which came much too late. Dutifully, we ramped it down and came to a rest at a one-pump station where we earnestly explained what we had seen out on the highway, 8 miles back, stranded in the ice wind, tire on fire, cardigan sweater. The attendant listened pokerfaced, a ghoul with a magic finger that he pointed subtlely at a stringy poodle with rheumy eyes. Depending on the movement of that finger, the dog would lie down, sit up, roll over, or attempt to flip backwards and fail, righting itself and licking its maw in a strange staccato. The attendant never spoke to us.

May I use the phone?

As we were getting back in the car, I stung my eyes looking back into the blistering blackness for the underdressed woman, and I followed the idea of her in the side mirror, even after hours of turns, and dozens of snowflakes engulfed us.

I never left her side. Arms around her by the side of the road. Everything’s going to be alright.

Count on me.