Does it ever exist in a pure form? If we are not deaf, can we really experience it? If we are deaf, do we really experience it at all? I cannot answer for the deaf. Their response may depend on the level or nature of their deafness. It may be that, for it to truly exist, one must have never heard words to have them become thoughts. For the hearing, however, I do not believe it exists. We are only familiar with its silhouette, the mere image of its self. This shadow is what we call ‘silence.’
When it appears that there is nothing present to stimulate our hearing, when we would normally say we are in the presence of silence, something creates a sound. Even when it is just our thoughts, fears, imagination, or blood coursing through our lobes urging a tingling hum, true silence is not there. Its image, however, is a normal part of our lives.
Sometimes, it enters with a sly, tiptoe step; other times, it is so vivid, one would think it is the resounding tromp of a platoon of soldiers. Casual circumstances, anticipated events and unexpected tragedies are all tinged with silence.
Walk with me…into the penumbra….
Overhead, the loudspeaker commanded certain somebodies to go or come to such and such station on the third floor. Swinging doors crashed open and closed, before and behind her. The gurney banged into the delivery-room table, jarring her through the pain, making her wonder, again, if this was all worthwhile.
A multitude of thoughts sped through her mind while she was lying there, exposed with disregard, looking up at the ceiling, pushing, breathing, hurting, waiting. But what about during that pause in her heart’s beating, in that long silence before the doctor spoke, what was she thinking then? Did that interminable moment incubate the seed of anguish or jubilation?
Agitating the silence was the lazy humming of the overhead lights, the clanging of instruments into stainless-steel bowls, the beeping of the baby’s monitor and the rustling of paper gowns. It seemed to go on forever. The silence was too long.
The doctor was quiet, he didn’t say a thing; he just worked. With swift, confident hands he untied the cord from their baby’s neck. Still the silence, a moment more. Did she dare breathe when her child had yet to take his first gasp of air? Could she live if he didn’t?
Finally…the tiny cry! “He’s fine – you’ve got a little boy!” Happier words were never spoken!
He was just standing there, trying to be someone or something that she needed, telling her how beautiful their baby was, how beautiful she was, asking her, awkwardly, how she felt. Snap-shot photographs of the last several months crashed through his mind as he watched with awe, this orchestration of birth. Tears of relief and happiness streamed down his cheeks. The silence was over!
For the last two months of his life, he would have spells where something inside of him would cause him to cry out, almost scream with a nameless pain. At first, they thought it was probably kidney-stones; then, they thought it might be his hips getting worse – they had known for years that they were bad.
Their veterinarian was businesslike in his description of a not-so-uncommon immune-disorder that affects older dogs. This miracle-worker for animals went on to detail the possibilities of tumors, intestinal bleeders, etc., that could be causing the myriad problems.
After their dog was on mood-altering, immune-system-enhancing medications for about four or five weeks, they came home one day to find the evidence of internal bleeding in several locations throughout the house and yard.
One more trip to the vet. One last trip to the vet. The doctor explained how there was really nothing he could do to fix their dog. There was nothing he could do to restore sound health to this old man of a canine they called their pet. It was time for him to go on – to go wherever it is that old dogs go when they die. After that last injection, that last yelp, that last beat of his heart, he just lay there. He was gone.
Normal sounds of life still ring throughout their home. The children and the other animals are still there; the planet hasn’t ceased its orbit; life still goes on, but…it is quieter than it used to be. He doesn’t follow the man up the stairs or down the stairs, out into the yard or around the yard and back into the house again. He’s not there waiting for a morsel to drop to the kitchen floor, not there to nudge a hand for some love. No longer is he heard breathing, lying next to the bed at night. They still step over his sleeping form when they get out of bed, but he’s not there. He is gone. Except for the quaking in his master’s heart, he is silent.
One could describe her life as very busy. There was seldom time for her and her husband to be alone. Hell, there was rarely a minute that she had to herself without interruption, without someone or something demanding her attention. Managing a house-full of children and pets, attending the university with a full schedule and perfect grades while holding down a full time job required an enormous amount of time. A full life. One with many facets. One with many colors. A life with many concerns.
Not a torment, but a near constant preoccupation with the deeper, heart-wrenching aspects of other people’s lives filled her mind. The lives of children. Not only her own kids, but the rest of them too. The ones whose lives were documented in the newspapers and chronicles of the day. Children whose lives were put to paper in big binders with case numbers attached to them. Innocent ones whose lives were casually thrown away by the give-a-damn adults who ran the world. These were the ones who filled her mind.
Most disconcerting to her was the fact that she could not do much for these children at the time. She still had to finish school. Until it was over, she was bound to her current occupation. Nowhere else could she make the kind of money she did and nowhere else could she have the time off from work to do the things she wanted to do. Essentially, she was indentured to her meaningless, mindless, of-no-consequence job. She would continue to be a flight-attendant until she had reaped every possible benefit from the company while pursuing her goal; until school was over.
From her occupation, one would be inclined to think that she liked dealing with people. One would think she was a people-person. One would also think she enjoyed the hundreds of faces and personalities she ‘mingled’ with every day at work. One could not be more wrong. She thought people were okay in the right setting, but not in those amounts and not in the confines of an airplane.
Where is refuge when one is inside a Boeing 737, traveling at 535 mph, at 35,000 feet? Where does one hide from the constant analyzing, discriminating and stereotyping eyes of everyone aboard the plane? Where does one go to flee the leering eyes of half-drunk, red-blooded males? Where does she go to escape? She locks herself in the bathroom. In that closet-sized hideaway, she finds solace from the airborne hundreds. She mutters oaths at the closed door and cries tears of anger and frustration in the company of her only friend, the woman in the mirror looking back at her. Aboard the plane, locked in the bathroom, she finds it. It has been there waiting for her. It removes her from the meaningless chores and takes her home, if only for a few minutes, where she is important, where she is loved. In spite of the engine noise and the storm of people on the other side of the door, it is there. She has found her silence.
They arrived on a Thursday afternoon in the last week of January. Nobody answered their knock at the door, but they knew where the extra key was hidden, so they let themselves in and made like they were home. In a sense, they were. This was where she had spent the last several years of her childhood and this was where they had started their courtship. Now, this was their haven from the adult world. They felt safe here. It was always a pleasure to come home after being away.
He went to visit some friends for a while and she stayed there with the kids, recuperating from the trip. After a bit, her sister came home from school and there was the usual heartwarming reunion that made the long drive worthwhile. It was so good to be home!
An hour or so later, he came home and went out to the shop to put together some toys that her mom had bought for the kids. Meanwhile, the older son was out in the acre, beyond the walled-in back yard, playing with his trucks. The younger son was following her and her sister around the yard and house, visiting and wondering at all the things that fascinate two-year-olds like himself. The phone rang and she and her sister went inside. In what may have been minutes later, the older son called from outside the gate for his dad to come and let him into the yard.
Leaving the shop, where he was still working on the toys, he noticed the big-wheel floating upside down in the pool. He let the older son into the yard and then went to see if he could reach the toy – floating out there, near the middle of the pool. He noticed that the big-wheel was just sitting there, upside down, not moving and not causing even the slightest ripple in the water. Just sitting there. Suddenly, everything was quiet. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something floating near the opposite side of the pool. Not something, but someone, a very small someone, face-down in the pool.
Rushing to the other side, he noticed again the stillness of the pool. How long had his little one been there? What period of time would it have taken for the water to calm after he had ridden the big-wheel into the pool? How many minutes had his son been floating there in that god-damned silent pool? Where was the noise that water is supposed to make when someone falls into it? Why didn’t he hear the silence of the big-wheel? Why in the hell wasn’t he watching his son?
No! What would he do without his son? It wouldn’t be the same. Life would never be the same. No! He couldn’t die! He fought the numbness in his mind and began to do what he’d studied so many times in the past. Just last month he had taken a refresher course and he specifically remembered not to breathe too hard into his baby’s mouth. Pounding on his back as if there was something stuck in his throat, he cursed and prayed for him to come back. God, how long did this take? Over and over again, breathe into his mouth, not too hard. Push onto his tiny chest. Now flip him over and pound on his back some more. Come on! Breathe! Please, come on! Yes! Cry! That’s it! That’s it! Breathe! Come on – that’s it, cry, come on! Damn the silence – Cry!
The excitement of graduation night paled somehow in comparison to the spectacular event that would take place the next morning. She and her family were going up north for a vacation and they had asked him to go with them. Each of her sisters was bringing a special friend – and she invited him, her special friend. The trip was a graduation present from her parents. As a family, they had been to the lake several times in the past, so they knew he would enjoy it.
They left home early in the morning, hoping to reach the lake with enough daylight remaining so they could work on the boat when they got there. In return for letting them borrow the houseboat, her mom’s boss had asked them to replace the carpet and fix some things that needed to be repaired.
The six-hour drive seemed to pass in less time than it actually took. New scenery and friendly conversation caused the miles to slip away without notice. Before he knew it, they arrived at the lake-town, located the boat and started to work.
With all of the work completed and only an hour of daylight remaining, they set off to find a suitable spot to spend the night. When they pulled away from the marina he turned around and looked at the sky. It had been brushed with magnificent hues of orange, yellow, rose and gold. This sunset would have made the sun-god proud.
The whole experience was an adventure to him. In his seventeen years he had never been on a vacation with anyone other than his own family. Now, he was there, at the lake, with his girlfriend and her family preparing to enjoy one of the most memorable events of his life – ten days on a houseboat with absolutely nothing to do but relax and enjoy life and its offerings.
Their days were filled with leisure. They would cruise through the waterways of the lake’s filled canyons staring in awe at the massive boulders and rock lining their passage. At different times of the day, they would pull over to the bank, tie up the boat and go hiking. Climbing the rocks to the highest point they could reach and then just sitting there, admiring it all, wondering at the forces that combined to create such a marvel. Other times, they would get out the inflatable rafts and go off by themselves, paddling along, enjoying the theater of nature before them. Whatever they wanted to do, they did. Sleep, eat, drink or swim. Whenever they wanted to do these things, they just did them. No schedules were allowed.
One of the best things about the whole trip was the time the two of them had together. Uninterrupted, they could talk for hours. If there was nothing else to say, they would sit in the quiet splendor of their retreat and simply be together. Saying nothing, just being together. Near enough to touch, near enough to feel each other’s spirit within them. A time of true communion.
At night they would lie next to each other on the roof of the houseboat and watch for stars shooting across the sky. They felt as if they were in a cathedral, looking up past the darkness of the canyon walls to see the ceiling of stars overhead. It was truly a magnificent sight. The greatest artist ever commissioned to paint a chapel ceiling would have balked at the thought of trying to recreate the incredible brilliance of this heavenly portrait.
To say it was quiet on the lake would be an understatement. Barring all other experiences from their memory, this place would be the origin of silence. There were no clocks or schedules on the lake. There was no screaming society telling them what to do and when to do it. Silence ruled…and because it ruled, they were free.
Once again, I do not believe true silence exists. For a hearing person, I do not believe there is a condition possible where there is absolutely no sound. We can only recognize the shadow of silence, its image. Whether it is tarnished or golden, blatant or subtle, mediocre or spectacular, the silhouette is what we call ‘silence.’
In despair…despair…dispair…despear…deaspear…dispare…disappear…disappare…disappear…dead-spear…die-sphere…dead sphere.
I lay there with sparkling glass all about me. The sun could blind a living eye with this glaring prism of light that is alive itself. Concrete is warm as leather-soled shoes stop on the sidewalk across the street. Cigarette butts, gum wrappers, and spent leaves lay around me. A paper cup with orange and yellow flowers sealed beneath cracking wax is blown against the curb under his paused foot. The wing-tip is untied and has a hole in the great toe. A white sock peeks out, surveying the air. A lost pebble under the ball of his foot nears him to craziness. No briefcase to put down before he sits to the curb. No hat to tamp against gravity before he leans over to remove the stone. My eyes see him but my brain just lets him be. The metal taste in my mouth is like a penny hidden under the tongue. I can’t spit it out. He looks at me like he’s done something wrong. Hair flutters in his eye, then mine. And mine. Sand from the concrete presses into my cheek as he examines his sock. His mother doesn’t know where he is. Mine thinks I’m at work. Of course, she’s thought the same thing for years, or weeks on end; at day’s end. Days end. For that’s where I was. When I was. When I was there, the world spun as it does now. It still spins. The world spins still; it spins not moving, still. If you can know something like that, I guess that’s what it was doing, when I was, and doing. A feather, still. His old tweed jacket has holes in its holes. Cigarette burns in the arms with the lining appearing without. My ears still ring; the blood yet flows through the tiny capillaries near the surface of my skin; it is still warm. It tingles when a car drives by. A truck makes it louder. And, he sits, not knowing what to do. The wheels on the chair spun for only a few seconds. They were startled, too. And the glass, it was whole and unnoticed when it was clean. Now it’s lost its pane and its absence draws a crowd. It is scared, fallen to pieces, broken near into sand. Lost. He sees the people looking down to the street. He sees the clouds crawl past the horizon. The building leans toward him so he rises and looks about. Not away. She thinks I’m at work. He saw me fall silently to the street. That pain is gone. That pain has severed the feelings that had been severed so long ago. Happiness fled itself. And drawn away. It screamed as I walked past, “Come here!” Don’t leave. Go away. The grit in the street crunched beneath his foot as the siren’s car approached. It left whole for another place, its tail following behind. The tiny hairs picking up the static dust. The lint and fiber of nonsense. Nonsence. Nonsents. Non-scents. Non-cents, he went bankrupt. Fell out of life. I fell to the street. He just fell out of life. And went away. They are lost. Do you look around? Does it sparkle in other places too? The clouds are lowering a story at a time. Birds flew past the ledges without second thinking. They dropped their things in flight and landed in other places. We’re not the same. The chair flew out and took me with it. Anger seized, seized, seized, seased, ceased, teased, teized, seized me. In a rage the clouds swept me up. They tossed me higher and crashed me harder than clouds should. So friendly when viewed from the park grass. They threaten nobody there. So soft, like cotton candy – over-used simile. In the end. His split finger-nails had been chewed down to the quick. Dirty fingers housed the nails and brushed the hair out of my face. The flattened side of my head didn’t feel flat; it didn’t ache either. I saw ants on the sidewalk, undisturbed they were. Undisturbed they were before I saw them, too. I had hidden in the bathroom, sat there so long that my legs had nightmares. The fan overhead drowned-out the speakers on the wall. The walls heard the speakers, but they didn’t listen. They kept on standing there, fastened, undisturbed, too. As dust falls, it sees its friends lying about, keeping a place for anybody else who might happen to drop in. They collect, one by one. Slowly there is a film of their bodies, covering whatever they touch. Are they happy? Water washes them away. They’re weak. The chair just took me like I was weak too. I only meant to hurl it at the window; then it grabbed my tight, angry fingers. White knuckles tensed the blood away. The weight just took me like I was weak, too. I smell vinegar from the mustard on his fingers. There is some yellow, too. The breeze replaces my hair. The breeze misplaces my hair. Our moms ought to get together. His doesn’t know where he is, mine thinks I’m at work. I succeeded today. Now I’ll nev
On this particular morning, for some unknown reason, my hand smelled, for a moment, of hemp or jute and cast me unawares into the past where floods of memories drove themselves into my consciousness. I saw, again, the vapid, gray morning of a camp-out when I was in the Boy Scouts, some 33 or 34 years ago. My own morning sky, presently, is equally a semblance of flat gray, bearing none of the corpulence that would portend of a pleasant, wintry, rain-blessed day. My mind’s eye saw that pale morning light and heard the enlivened pinging of metal on metal as someone’s steel-headed mallet or sledge drove into the German earth, several military-surplus tent-pegs that would secure the tightly drawn ropes of our old, burlap tent. Dozens of years, thousands of miles, and an altered landscape try to prevent the tide of memories from renewing their many selves in my mind. Winter-bright bougainvillea leaves and palm fronds waving through my view, and several species of cacti adorning the neighbor’s yard taint my periphery, boldly declaring that the smoke-laced morning and single, crystal drop of snot hanging, yet again, from my chilled and reddened nose are nothing more than rekindled fragments of embedded thoughts from a time that should be cherished as a carefree childhood.
I would go back there to find that lost someone who might answer the unknown questions I have of myself. I’d like to talk to the little boy I was then and ask him to remember the thoughts that I can’t seem to locate now. For, you see, I don’t remember thinking, really, not back then when I was 12 or 13 years-old. I only have a few ragged recollections of thoughts that may have been mine back then. For example, I can remember thinking that I would never make it to the age of 18 – I had this thought when I was about six. Anyway, I would like to walk, hand in hand, along the dirt roadway with that little-boy-self of mine, on that particular morning, noticing the dull, pewter-shaded cords of weathered, pine logs that some woodsman and taken such care to sort and stack, and ask him, that little boy, to remember for me. Yes, still capture to thought the lonely, wayward peal of a church-bell that found it’s way down the country lanes and over the varied hills into our desolate campground causing our little group of boys to pause a moment and look for it’s source; and, yes, still lay to mind the rich earthy smell of my dirtied, blue-jeaned knees as I rest my chin upon one of them as I re-tie my worn-out, black, Converse tennis-shoe while I think that I’ll have to run to catch-up with my friends who are so far ahead of me on the forest path in search of large, yet tow-able, pieces of fire-wood; yes, keep these recollections there, but give me some thoughts too. Give me something to look back upon when I see, in my mind’s eye, my father, grumbling around the tent in the morning, complaining about the ground being so uneven and the miserable night he had sleeping out-of-doors in a tent – with the happy sounds of young boys joking, laughing, and whispering in the cold air as the dying fire crackled against the night – tell me what you were thinking that morning as you listened to him, as you saw his lumbering bulk move about the campground, as you noticed the adult-coffee smell in the chill, waking light – what thoughts did you possess – what thoughts possessed you? Did you even think? Was your survivor’s mind even able to go to those realms?
Anyway, that’s what I would like to do . . .
Several weeks later, just as Zachary’s hope of finding a Tonka Truck began to grow very thin, he was visited by one of the angels. “Master Zachary,” he began, “Joseph has asked me to bring you to Heaven’s Gate. He said that he has news. You must come quickly!” Zachary jumped to his feet and started running in circles about the angel’s feet. “What did he say? What did he say? Did he find a Tonka Truck for me? Did he? Come on, you have to tell me!” Zachary’s frantic questioning did nothing but make the angel smile. “Let’s go,” said the angel, “take my hand, and follow me.” Grabbing the angel’s hand, and turning quickly to look behind him, nearly tripping himself with the effort, Zachary yelled, “Grandma Lois! Grandma Lois! Come on! Joseph found some Tonka Trucks! Yippee!”
So the angel, Zachary, and Grandma Lois made their way to Heaven’s Gate. Zachary was certain that they could get there quicker if they ran, but the angel reminded him that they needed to proceed at a slower pace so that Grandma Lois wouldn’t be left behind. “Well, can’t you carry us there? Can’t you just pick us up and get us there as quick as a thought?” “I can do that,” said the angel, “but we are only supposed to do that when going down to the Earth, or when we are responding to some kind of danger. Up here in Heaven, we angels are to walk like everyone else.”
Some moments later, the trio arrived at Heaven’s Gate. They found Joseph, as always, just sitting there, rocking back and forth in his favorite chair, humming a little tune. “You found them! You found them! Where are the Tonka Trucks?” said Zachary, as he ran up to Joseph. “How did you get them here? Did one of the angels bring them up from the Earth?” “Slow down there,” said Joseph, “hang on just a minute. I didn’t tell the angel that I found any of your trucks. I just asked him to tell you that I had some news.” With that, Zachary stopped his questions, and with a suddenly very sad face, he just stood there, silent, and unmoving. “What do you mean?” said the little boy, “You didn’t get any Tonka Trucks? That’s not the news?” “Well, in a way, it is,” replied the old saint; “I have found the secret that will allow you to find them for yourself.” Zachary was confused, but when Joseph turned to look at Grandma Lois, the kind woman had a big, beautiful smile on her face, for she, too, knew the secret. “Zachary,” Grandma Lois said, “come here. Come here and listen to Joseph. I know you have already looked in every possible place, but just listen to what your friend has to tell you. He is going to share the secret that we all come to learn after we have been in Heaven for a while. Joseph is going to help you figure it out, so be still, and listen.”
“Zachary,” said Joseph, “come here and sit with me. Climb up here on my lap and sit facing me. There. Now, lean forward and rest your head against mine, like this. We are going to take a little journey, right here, where we are sitting. We’re not actually going to leave, but we are going to go far, far away.” “I don’t know what you mean, Joseph. How can we go somewhere if we’re not going to leave your rocker, if we’re going to stay right here?” said Zachary. “Close your eyes and listen to me,” responded Joseph, “just close your eyes.” Suddenly, Zachary could see inside of Joseph’s mind. “Wow!” he said, “how did you do that?” “Sit still Little One. Lean your head against mine, now, and just sit still.” Again, Zachary was joined with Joseph inside the old man’s mind. He truly did feel that he was going on a journey. He felt almost like he was being carried about on a wing, nearly flying through his friend’s thoughts and consciousness. Zachary felt warm, and at peace. He saw images of Joseph’s life, old people, children, statues, masks, flowers, and an unending sky. His friend was a wonderful man, thought Zachary. He was amazed at all the sensations, emotions, and states of consciousness that were new and strange to his little mind.
After what seemed to be a very long time, Zachary’s feeling of flight stopped and he could see that he and Joseph were standing before a magnificent, ancient building. “Zachary,” the old man said, “we are here.” Looking toward the arch overhead, the little boy, with Joseph’s mind, read the graven inscription ‘hall of answers’ and understood it to mean – ‘Hall of Answers.’ “This, My Little Friend, is where I find the answers to fill all of the holes that Hope brings. It is in this place, that I find my peace.”
In his mind, Joseph took the little boy’s hand and led him up the stairs, through the immense, wooden door, and into the great Hall. Zachary stood in awe of the thousands of shelves, racks, and stands that contained the books of Joseph’s knowledge. The old sage began walking up one aisle, and then back down the next, searching the stacks and piles of monstrous notebooks and ledgers, hoping to find that one hidden something. “Ah! I remember where I put it,” said Joseph, “follow me!” Back to the far side of the building, up two flights of circular stairs, and back again to the middle of the Hall, but on the third floor, the old man led his companion to yet another remote corner of his mind, where they found in a toppled pile, several ancient, cracked, leather-bound manuscripts. “This is it,” said the old man, “this is where the answer lies.” Joseph dug to the bottom of the heap and extracted three small, red, leather-covered books. Their golden edges were dull with time, and in the dim light, Zachary could barely make out the embossed letters of their title – ‘The Contents of Heaven.’
“In each of us,” said Joseph, “there is a precious, secret place that tells us of Heaven. These little, red books tell of my Paradise. Now that you have made the journey with me, Zachary, you are prepared to take that same trek inside of your own, little self.” Joseph’s tiny friend just stood there, hugging the old man’s leg, softly crying to himself, being overcome with the emotion he felt for his wise friend. Then, slowly, Zachary began to smile with the youthful realization that he could now find the Tonka Trucks that he so dearly wanted. “Can we go now?” said Zachary. “We’re already there,” replied his old friend, “just open your eyes.”
Later that night, many hours after Grandma Lois had tucked Zachary into his bed, the unconscious self of Heaven’s little wanderer continued to search the far reaches of his mind, hoping to find his own, ‘Hall of Answers.’ Whether or not he actually found his own ‘Book of Heaven’ is unknown, but it is my understanding that, shortly before waking the next morning, Zachary dreamed that he had found his beloved Tonka Trucks.
Jumping from his feather comforter, Zachary awoke with the full excitement of his discovery. “I know where they are!” he shouted. “Grandma Lois, I know where they are!” Running out of their cottage and down the path through the Cottonwood forest, Zachary continued running, skipping, and hopping until he came to Heaven’s Gate. “Joseph, I know where they are! I know where to find the Tonka Trucks!” And on he went!
One day, not too long ago, a little boy died whose name was Zachary. I wish I could tell you that he passed quietly in his sleep, that his little soul just couldn’t stay here on Earth any longer and had to leave, to go back to that splendid Heaven from which the souls of all the little babies come to us. I cannot tell you this, for it did not happen so.
In recounting this tale of truth, I must confess that the little boy died from wounds he received at the hands of a horrible monster that attacked him over and over again. The details of his death are too sad to repeat here, but let me say that he felt no love at the time of his passing. Never more alone did Zachary feel than when his little soul finally left his battered form to begin its journey home.
Where were the guardian angels, you ask, who were supposed to protect his life while on this planet Earth? That, I do not know for sure, but I believe they were there, for I have been told that their powers were greatly diminished by the same evil that consumed the monster who took Zachary’s life. The angels’ remaining strength was used to take Zachary home to Heaven, where he is to this day.
We have heard since the olden days that the pearly gates of Heaven are guarded by gloriously fierce angels with bright, flaming swords, who are ready at an instant to slay any evil being who might try to enter there. This is just a story, we find out now, that was created by some old, gray men who don’t like children, puppies, and the morning sunshine. The truth, we know, is that Heaven does have a gate, but it is not adorned with pearls. It is, instead, an old wooden gate with one of the boards missing. Furthermore, it is surrounded by brightly flowered bushes and has a spring to help it close so none of Heaven’s puppies and babies get lost.
The returning souls are greeted by an older, soft-eyed gentleman who is rocking there in an even-older, cane rocking-chair. On an overturned garden bucket, setting nearby, the old gentleman, Joseph, has a big book, and a balance. “Let me see your heart,” he says to the approaching wanderer. “Let me see whether you’ve been good or bad in your life on Earth.” You see, this is how a soul is really measured for entrance into Heaven. If one has lived a life of goodness and sorrow, their hearts will be heavy with love and suffering. The scale will tip and release the latch to the old wooden gate, allowing it to open, welcoming the traveler home. If one has been mean in their life on Earth, and has felt no sorrow, their hearts will be empty and the scale will not move. Joseph will tell this errant soul to go back down that long, hot highway to Earth and live there, yet again. When they have learned how to be kind, and how to feel the sorrow that saddens other people’s lives, they may return to Heaven and have their hearts weighed again. “I will gladly let you in,” says Joseph, “when you have learned. Until then, you must spend your life on Earth.”
This is where we find Zachary, now, standing before Joseph with the weakened, tattered angels at his side. “Hello, Little One,” came Joseph’s soft voice, “What are you doing here so early? Are you sure it’s time for your arrival?” Zachary’s tear filled eyes gazed at Joseph with an extreme sadness and bewilderment. “Master,” said the closest angel, “our little friend has come home. He was sorely abused by the Evil One’s monster and it was only by the slightest chance that we all escaped. Please weigh his heart so that he can enter into his rest. You must know that his has been a long journey.”
Leaning back in his rocking-chair, Joseph closed his eyes, and with a slow sigh, finally said, “You are right, my faithful friend, let us delay no longer.” Sitting forward now, Joseph called to Zachary, “Come here Little One; tell me about your life. Let me see what kind of child you have been.” Zachary slowly walked up to the old man, and putting his tiny hand into Joseph’s, climbed up onto his lap and leaned back as if to fall asleep. With his head leaning against the gentle gate-keeper’s chest, Zachary began to cry, saying that he didn’t know what he had done wrong, but it must have been terrible to receive the punishment that he had. Joseph tried to sooth the little boy, softly humming a tune, and gently smoothing his tousled hair. “Let’s see what the book says about you, Zachary.” Joseph flipped through several pages of the mighty book, and at last came to the entry about little Zachary. “What it says here, Little One, is that you have done nothing wrong. You have committed no offense, and your heart is full of sadness and suffering. The short life you had lived was little more than strife, neglect, and abuse.” After a pause and a click of his tongue, Joseph stood-up with Zachary in his arms, and held him close. Standing thus, the love from his heart passed into the tiny, sad heart of Zachary. Then, slowly, as if he were coming to life, yet again, Zachary stirred, stretched, and raised his head to look into Joseph’s eyes. “You are safe now, my little friend. The struggles of your life are over. From this day forward, you shall live in paradise, no longer tormented by the Evil One.” A beautiful smile slowly spread across Zachary’s face, lighting Heaven’s entrance with a glow that it hasn’t seen for many lifetimes. “Welcome home,” said the kindly saint, “enter into your rest.”
With these events, Zachary began his new life in Paradise. You may think that his “life,” as we know it, was over once he had perished, but for this new resident of Heaven, he was still a little boy, and his life was just beginning. Zachary could now run, and jump, and swing to his little heart’s content. Day after day, this little wanderer ran throughout Heaven, playing as he had never played before. In his running about, though, Zachary was searching for something that he just couldn’t seem to find. No matter which expanse of Heaven he explored, he still came back a little disappointed, again not finding the secret thing for which he searched.
One day, after a particularly long romp through the fields and by-ways, Zachary returned to Heaven’s gate to talk to his old friend. “Hello, Little One, how are you today?” Without slowing down to provide an answer, Zachary climbed onto the old saint’s lap and blurted out his burning question – “Joseph, are there Tonka Trucks in Heaven? I’ve looked everywhere, and I can’t find any.” Somewhat surprised, and particularly amused, Joseph glanced around and replied, “Well, I don’t know Zachary, I’ve never looked for Tonka Trucks in Heaven.” With a dejected air, Zachary slumped back into Joseph’s chest and mumbled, “I don’t know what I’m going to do then, that was my favorite thing to play with down there.” Joseph just sat there, rocking back and forth, humming his little tune, waiting for what Zachary might say next. After several moments, and with a certain burst of excitement, Zachary nearly shouted – “Do you think you could get someone to bring some up here the next time they go down to Earth? Could one of the angels bring me one?” “I don’t know,” Joseph said, “we’ll see what we can do. It may take some time, and I can’t make any promises, but we’ll see.” This satisfied Zachary for now, so he hopped down from Joseph’s lap, said goodbye, and skipped away, looking for another game he might play.
A short while later, when Zachary was running through the palm groves, he happened upon a dog sitting in the middle of a flower garden. Crawling behind a bush, Zachary lay down and pretended to be spying on the dog. It was very fluffy with gray and tan hair, had pointy ears, a black snout, and a curled tail. Our little spy was starting to come out from behind the bush when he noticed that there were two cats sitting there as well. The smaller one, colored orange and white, was leaning against the larger cat, who was gray, orange, and white, as if she were her mother. While Zachary thought the bright pink flowers looked like a comfortable bed, and couldn’t blame the animals for lying in the flowers, he was wondering why the dog wasn’t chasing the cats up a tree, “or something like that,” he said aloud. “Because they are friends,” came a voice from behind one of the trees. “You can often see them sitting or walking around together.” Turning quickly, Zachary saw an older lady leaning against the tree. “What? Hey, where did you come from?” said Zachary, “I didn’t see you before.” Stepping forward from the tree now, the woman replied, “I said they are friends, so that’s why he isn’t chasing them around.” “Oh . . . but who are you?” “I’m sorry,” said the woman, “My name is Grandma Lois, and I am the keeper of Heaven’s pets and birds. I’ve been following you since you left Joseph at the gate. I had heard that you were up here, Zachary, and I’ve been looking for you for quite some time now.” Zachary turned around again, and looking more perplexed than he did before, peered behind the tree, then glanced at the dog and cats again, who were just sitting there, looking back at him, and smiling as if they were part of some secret joke. “But, how do you know my name, and why were you looking for me?” “Zachary, I know all about you,” said Grandma Lois, “because I have been watching my granddaughter down on the Earth. She knows all about you, too, Little One, and by watching her, I have come to know you.” Sensing Zachary’s growing unease, Grandma Lois tried to comfort him. “Come here Zachary and let me explain. When a loved one dies and comes up here to Heaven, they are able to watch their family and friends back on the Earth. And sometimes, when we see that they are having trouble, we are able to help them. Well, my granddaughter has been trying very hard to fight the Evil One, but sometimes she gets tired and I need to help her out.” By this time, the animals had come over to get some love from Zachary and Grandma Lois, so while Zachary was contemplating the things he was being told, he absently scratched the dog’s ears and petted the cats, alternating his gaze from the animals to his new friend. “Grandma Lois,” said Zachary, “can I help your granddaughter too? Would I be able to help her be strong and fight the monster that hurt me?” The old woman reached down, picked-up the little boy, and held him close to her breast. With great big tears spilling from her eyes, Grandma Lois softly whispered, “You already do, Zachary . . . you already do.” From that day forward, Grandma Lois and Zachary were the best of friends. Whenever you saw one, the other was not far away. To be continued….
Surrounding my former place of work are enough signs of societal starvation and decrepitude, that one could fill a library with the sad stories of the lives that revolve in and around it. To the west of our ‘campus’ is a schoolyard that, at times, is filled with little kids, some Hispanic, some black, and not too many white. The school is called ‘T. A. Edison School.’ Would Thomas Alvin be proud today if he happened to wander past? Would he look across the street to the south of my work’s building and peer into the depravity of the government housing projects that are filled with undreamed dreams and thoughts of what could have been, only if…?
On the east side of our compound is Edison Park, another shrine to the great inventor. This is the main source of entertainment for those children who were born, or otherwise brought into the Duppa Villa Projects. Our northern border is Roosevelt Street, named after the two wonderful cousin presidents. Little did they know that a street bearing their name would one day border the health department, the welfare office, the county hospital, the cemetery for the state hospital, and an inner-city, low-income housing project.
If only the president cousins could know that if they traveled just a bit further down their street, to Fifteenth Avenue, at the six-points intersection, they could pick up whatever kind of low-rent prostitute they could imagine having, what would they think? When they were done with her, they could also buy her a piece of rock-cocaine and celebrate the odds that they just gambled against in catching syphilis or HIV. Proud presidents they would be, having a street named after them that is nearly identical to another one that is just a bit further south from the health department, Van Buren. I haven’t read enough about him to know what the guy accomplished in his term at the nation’s helm, aside from sending thousands of Native Americans to their deaths on the Trail of Tears, but his namesake street has kept my department busy for over thirty-some years. It’s not the presidents’ fault, though, that the streets named in their honor just happen to be in the center of the town, where also, coincidentally, are much of the vice and crime. May they not turn over in their graves.
On any given rainy afternoon, you can walk into either of our parking lots and look to the eastern sky, where you will, sure enough, find a rainbow. If you look further, into the school-yard and the projects, and even over to T. A. Edison Park, where the winos often try to sleep off their latest buzz, you will find other souls looking skyward, searching out that historical myth-given promise from above that we won’t be destroyed again by the flood. Some of them however, will be looking further away still, trying to glimpse the end of the colored arch where another fable tells us there is a pot of gold awaiting the lucky finder. The neighborhood is full of rainbow seekers. The people who work in the dilapidated buildings of the health department and the welfare buildings who are our embryonic twins, evil stepsisters wrought in the same low-funded womb, also step outside to look at the beauty that has transformed the sky. The people here are often the ones who haven’t looked beyond too many fences to find what they might of themselves, but they will gaze skyward for a moment, hoping for whatever fulfillment that bow represents. They may wish upon the lacy reminder, hoping that it will bless their drawing of the night’s lottery numbers, or bring good luck to their four-year-old who will be performing in the lunchtime play at the school next door.
Who doesn’t wish for the better things that they don’t have? Who doesn’t yearn to be the lucky one to stumble over the pot of gold hiding beneath the Scottsdale or Tempe horizon? How many of our lives would be better if we only had that little-bit-extra that we are always wanting or actually needing?
I had a friend whose life was forever changed by an event that occurred on that Roosevelt Street that glides past our work-place. My friend went out to lunch one day a few years ago and ended up not making it to wherever he had intended to go. He had a diabetic seizure about halfway to wherever, and managed to turn the car around and get going in the direction of the clinic. The high curbs kept his car traveling relatively straight as he sped down the street, eventually plowing through a group of mothers and children who happened to be waiting for a bus. My friend’s car took out a light-pole and then came to rest against the side of one of the ancient palm trees that line the former K-mart, and present Ranch Market parking lot that was and is a favorite shopping place for many of the area’s people. Killed in this horrific scene were two mothers and two children. One other child managed to live somehow, and is now left with only his father.
I happened to drive past the backside of the scene that September day when the accident occurred. I drove through the K-mart parking lot and saw the smashed baby stroller lying in a contorted heap. I didn’t know the people whose bodies were covered with the yellow tarps by the fire department workers. At the time of my seeing those bodies and the stroller, I didn’t know that it had been caused by my friend whose car it was leaning into the palm tree.
I can imagine that the children used to run about the school playground; their families had picnicked at the park on Saturdays. The one woman’s aunt might have even lived in the projects nearby and had helped them make it across from Mexico where they had first seen their rainbow. Golden dreams that might have been assisted by the welfare check and food stamps issued from the building just outside of our back door were suddenly awash in the blood and life that had spilled into the street. Our little world of Eighteenth Street and Roosevelt had spawned, nurtured, and later, witnessed the death of the dreams that had begun right there in the craning necks of our very own rainbow seekers.
How life had changed in that first year after the accident. How our neighborhood had changed, in that year. For nine days and nights, we witnessed the mourning of the departed souls. The shrine that the locals had arranged reminded us, everyday on our way to and from work, of the ghastly mishap that had occurred there. Our friend was gone for two months. His work piled up some, our work piled up some. We had a fire drill and stood on the lawn of the welfare building to the south of our building, where, if we stood on our tip-toes and stretched our necks, we could see past the yellow honeysuckle-covered parking lot fence, and almost hear again the crunch and bump of a car moving over bodies and curb, light-pole and palm tree. If we looked, we could remember. If we looked, we could see their rainbow, lost, blowing away with the torn plastic K-mart bags, getting stuck for a moment on a stray tumbleweed, and then gone forever to that place of the unknowing unknown. We would have seen this, if we had looked.
The school has a new parking lot, and our parking lot has a new electronic arm to keep out uninvited visitors; the projects have a new lawn mower that swings through the open, grassy spaces between the barrack-type buildings and makes the if-watered-grass look like a cemetery with large yellow head-stones that say, “Here lies an undreamed dream,” and, “here lies an unfulfilled promise to ‘come back and get you and the kids,’ two generations late.” Markers of time and their undead dead.
Within the city real estate that lays between First Street and First Avenue, our Roosevelt cousins would find what the locals refer to as the ‘Triangle.’ Within these few blocks, at various times of the day, one can witness the vending of transvestite bodies. Here is a place where it is common for this special group of people to gather and see what types of business arrangements can be made. At other times of the day or night, the hustlers, or very young, male prostitutes, will barter their wares. Somewhere near is the den of different dreams. For reasons that we may never understand or want to know, this particular handful of men want to be women, so that they can be with men, naturally. They are held captive, meanwhile, in biological chains that are not of their choosing, and they, too, seek the eastern sky on rain-quenched afternoons. Who knows what they see there, while they wonder the same of us, standing in our safe parking lot, wondering at whatever whomever else is wondering at, together, in unison with the rest of us, rainbow seekers, all.
Some while ago, I met a young lady, Denise, during one of my many jail interviews. She was a prostitute who had syphilis and, maybe not so remarkably, came from our same cousin-presidents’ street. I spoke with her of many things that November morning, and finally, after much time, I asked Denise how it was, exactly, that she came to be involved with the drugs and prostitution. “I was eighteen years old, living in Texas with a man I had married for the wrong reasons. I had recently delivered a baby and had given it up for adoption without ever having seen it, didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl. Shortly after I had the baby, my husband and I got divorced. Seeing as how my life was turned upside-down, and some friends had, several months ago, moved out here to Phoenix and suggested that I join them, I decided, ‘What the hell,’ and made the trip. After driving for two days, I finally made it here, and the only thing I wanted to do was to crash, and die to the world. So that’s what I did, I smoked a couple joints with my friends and then fell dead asleep. When I woke-up the next morning, I found that my ‘friends’ were gone. They had taken everything…literally. Every possession of mine was gone except the nightgown I was wearing. They had loaded my belongings back into my car and then drove off with all of it. Who knows where they are today.” They coveted what was not theirs, and given the first opportunity, they took it for themselves. What pieces of a dream were carried away in that one episode of thievery? How many fragments of the rainbow did they forever dislodge from the hopeful wonderings of that young woman? Considering that she was then viewing the world through the barred, jail windows that were between her and the rain washed skies of Phoenix on that particular afternoon, I think the shining bow may have been somewhat dim, if even glowing, in her eyes. I could be wrong, for after all, there is still tomorrow.
There will be another rainy day and the promising rainbow will again be seen arcing over the Phoenix horizon, and depending on how occupied we are with our work or other ventures for the day, or whether or not we might happen to need to stretch our legs for a minute or so, we may find ourselves outside or staring through a window with our eyes cast skyward making our own little wishes. It may be for worldly or material gain, safety for a loved one on a journey, success for struggling children or family members, an end to world strife, or for peace in our own hearts, but we will be there, looking toward the promising sky, seeking the rainbow, yet again.
My wife shared with me the other day that she had a dream in which she asked me to write about the quantification of love…she said she didn’t know why it came to her in this manner, but once she offered the suggestion, it was strong enough to keep me awake for quite a while that night, tossing and turning with the rampaging thoughts of what I might do with the topic. I looked for parallels and analogies in some of the arenas of my life where measurements were taken and given, shared, discussed, and relied upon for whatever reason…and I couldn’t help but come to the idea of comparing the quantification of love to the act of measuring or marking the intensity of a syphilis infection. Yeah, that’s kinda strange, but it seems to work…a little, anyway…kind of…we’ll see.
A revered book and source of comfort and wisdom for many people, the Holy Bible, says in the King James Version of John 15:13 that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” I’m not asserting that the book offers an accurate standard by which to measure things like love, because I’m only too aware that the same book also describes a certain god’s exhortation to a certain people to go into the lands of several other certain peoples and kill them, and it tells parents to stone their impudent children, and it tells husbands to kill their disobedient wives, and it tells the tale of the last godly man in a ‘wicked’ city offering his virginal daughters’ bodies to the nasty (male) denizens so they would stop bugging him to let them have carnal-knowledge with his angelic visitors, and it tells of…well, you get the picture…but for Literature’s sake, the Psalms, Proverbs, and the book “The Song of Solomon” are mostly beautifully written and offer much in the way of describing love, compassion, devotion, etc. So, having said all of that, when we go back in time and reflect on the above saying, that there is no greater love than a man laying down his life for his friend, shouldn’t we look into the context of the writing? Shouldn’t we evaluate the saying against what we know of the people or society and literal time in which it was written? Can we also evaluate it against what we know of social relationships in other parts of the present world that are still ‘morally governed’ by yet other holy texts that are as relative to the same Abrahamic God as is the chief personality in the Christian holy book? If we’re allowed to do that, then we can look to parts of the predominantly Islamic Middle-East and see men walking arm-in-arm with each other while their wives walk behind them…. So, was the Biblical verse, John 15:13, in reference to only a man laying down his life for an adult male friend, or was it speaking symbolically in referring to anybody laying down their life for someone else, i.e., male, female, child, friend, or stranger? And, before we leave this point, can we assume that the man who would lay down his life for his friend would do the same for that woman or child who walks behind him? We know the Bible speaks harshly of women and children’s lesser roles, lesser value, etc, so can we align this concept within this context, as well? Maybe this is taking things too far….
We can also consider a mother’s love for her children, or a father’s love. We know that women will/can instantaneously develop a blind, animal rage and herculean strength to protect their children from immediate dangers and fathers will forget the civil order in meting out punishment, themselves, to those others who have harmed or abused their children…we know these things…but how do we measure them?
When diagnosing syphilis, as opposed to love, medical practitioners can clean the crud off of a lesion and express some of the clear fluid from within to examine under a special microscope and then actually see the little cork-screw shaped bacteria, called treponemes, which cause the infection. They can also perform a blood analysis where the sample of blood is spun, separated, and then treated with a substance that will react to the syphilis antibodies in quantities that can be presented as ratios, with the stronger or higher ratios indicating a greater immune system response, which we typically translate into meaning a larger or more profound infection. As communicable disease investigators with the county’s public health clinic, my partners and I would get excited when we found a person with classical symptoms who also had really high ratios or titers on their blood tests. It meant that we had found a likely source or a spread from a particular disease incidence we were investigating. Typical reactions on the blood tests would range from a ratio or titer of 1:8 or 1:16 to 1:32 or 1:64, with the numbers doubling as the strength of the reaction increased. Occasionally, when a person tested as high as 1:512 or 1:1024, we’d get really excited. We’d hit the mother-lode! Imagine our wonder and amazement when we had the one patient with a titer of 1:8192! Holy shit, let’s go find some more cases!!! If only we could perform a similar test on someone, or ourselves, when we wanted to see how ‘in love’ we were.
The ability to quantify love in the same manner that we quantify a syphilis infection would give us the scientific and statistical means of identifying and comparing strengths and types of love. We could measure love’s strength between individuals in a romantic relationship, male or female, straight or gay, young or old, people in one national or geographical area against another, platonic love among same sex and opposite sexed individuals; love for parents, siblings, biological children versus adopted children, step-children, step-parents, (pets – cat lovers vs. dog lovers?) etc. But this probably isn’t going to happen.
We might have the scientific ability already to map the intensity of a brain’s neurons firing when the patient/subject is shown certain visual stimuli or told to think about a particular person or topic, but how will we apply this to love itself? Will that mapping be able to account for the cultural and familial differences between people who were socialized with different concepts or notions of love and its expression? Will it be able to discriminate through the healthy and unhealthy life experiences of the individual being tested, weighing the good against the bad, or whatever? I don’t know. Imagine the following from a respected medical or psychological journal: “According to Smith and Jones (2009), people from the United States have an average ‘self-love’ titer of 1:32, while Japanese have a titer of 1:4. The same study revealed that Irish adult males have an average titer of 1:8 in love ‘between themselves and their male childhood friends,’ while adult males from Labrador Island demonstrated an average titer of 1:2 in the same category.” Hmm…it’s probably not going to happen like that.
I think we might simply be left with the wisdom and truisms that we already have in such songs as Randy Travis’s Deeper than the Holler:
My love is deeper than the holler, stronger than the rivers
Higher than the pine trees growin’ tall upon the hill
My love is purer than the snowflakes that fall in late December
And honest as a robin on a springtime window sill
And longer than the song of the Whippoorwill
Ok, or maybe from the children’s book Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney, or Love You Forever, by Robert N. Munch, or maybe better yet, we’re left with the old argument of – “I love you more than you love me,” he said. “Not so, I love you more than you love me…,” she responded, or, “Why don’t you love me the way I love you?” And on it goes….
Maybe we should just leave well-enough alone and go with what Paulo Coelho said in Warrior of Light, “…love is neither great nor small. You can’t measure a feeling like you measure a road,” or syphilis…. J
Lightning raked the blackened sky with magma-colored, crow-footed veins of twisted light while the spirited wind crashed through the trees and swept the loose leaves from the corners of the yard, throwing some in the pool and others into the neighbors’ yards while whipping the ragged and decayed limbs from the moribund cottonwood and spattering them across the lawn and into the trampoline’s net. Bougainvillea leaves bright cranberry red and purple flying up beyond the palm branches and away into the raging night, blown with dust and fright in the wind as it whips into the rooftops and against the windows and patio-covers. The streetlights dance to and fro as they are pummeled by the strange and infrequent visitor as their golden skirts move in chaotic rhythms that match their swaying…undulating hips of light-pole dancers. The pool motor hums a lighter tune as the filter consumes its debris and fills its roiling stomach, pulsing water through its joints as the pressure rises while lawn chairs scamper across the pool deck with their plastic feet tap tap clacking and dive akimbo into the dark waiting water where they float like drunken manikins, bobbing in the wake and wind and fighting against the vacuum as it absently strains to make its circuit along the walls; spit is flung from the night sky as it talks excitedly with its booming and flashing mouth, marking the banished cars with dusted spots and splashes that belie the storm, evidence of what didn’t occur despite the howling and boasting of the wind. New palm branches are bent and cracked against their moorings, flailing like disjointed limbs on crash-test dummies as their bindings strain against the poles and trunks, yawning and receding and jumping with raised hands and flung hair, this way and that way, up and down, against the wall and down to the ground, slashing and crashing back and forth with tangled strands, bending and folding and creasing stalks and stems rocking and pulling roots against the new dirt and old; and birds’ nests from the older palms take flight on their own and crash empty in the uncaring rocks and dirt and scat and wind-trash in their yard or others’ beyond and people come out to marvel at the fierceness and might, trembling with joy and excitement at the storm that finally arrived, some curse the destruction and mess while others sing and dance in their wonder, rocking on porch swings and laughing to each other over the chimes that bong and tinkle and resound in their discordant melodies like mendicant musicians tuning their instruments for an alleyway symphony.
At least three times in a particular two day span at our workplace, someone’s death has transformed the lives of those around them. We’re not really in the position to know the extent of transformation that occurred, but we know that it happened. As police 9-1-1 operators and dispatchers, we cannot remove ourselves so completely from the human element of our job that people’s deaths mean nothing to us. I’m not suggesting that any of us actually view their deaths as nothing, but I am hoping that we remember the people, at least for a moment, as having once been living, thriving, breathing, needing, despairing people who probably had someone, somebody, or something loving them, somewhere. I want to believe that we really care, in spite of our gallows humor and what we say sometimes.
There was a collective, genuinely sad “Ohhh” as one of us announced that a teenager was just found who had overdosed and was alone when he died. Fire gave us the call. How they got it before we did, if they did, I don’t know. At any rate, I was touched that we would suddenly, as one being, feel for that moment, the sadness or despair that the grown child had felt before he took his life. If, indeed, that was what we were all feeling.
And nobody was home. Rather, no parents were there. Where were the parents? Did only Mom, or only Dad live there with him? Had there been family problems, things that only the parents could reveal to us if they had the opportunity? Had he been to counseling? Had the parents been to counseling? Was the kid just off his medication and this was a freak thing that happened? The incident-history on the call said that a friend was in the house. Was it a girl-friend, or a boy-friend, or just a friend-friend? Did that friend get there before it happened? Did the friend find him dead, or did he sit there with him while he passed-away? Were the parents at work, school, at one of their friends’ house getting high? We aren’t going to know these things. It isn’t our place to know them, but they are still significant factors. They are still things that have contributed to the one line that we have on our call page – “JUV OD’D NO PARENTS AT HOME”…even our remarks don’t end with a period…it’s like we know the picture isn’t finished with our meager description. Well…that’s the way it seems to me, anyway.
And then there is the one that gets really wordy: “COMP SAYS HUSB’S FRND JOHN L. HAS HANGED SELF IN BKYD…SUBJ HAD DUI & WIFE LFT HIM…FIRE 1017 (enroute)” – again, with no period for an ending. I know that periods are not our normal fare given the peculiarities of our computer-aided dispatch system, but here it is again, that ending without an ending. Our ‘Unknown-Trouble’ had a name, he wasn’t just a third-person entity swinging from a branch…there was someone who might have loved him…or maybe not. Why did he have a DUI? Why was he drinking? Was his father or mother an alcoholic? Was he drinking last night or early this morning when he slipped the noose around his neck…or was he sober when he took the final step in trying to right his problems?
We can imagine the body swinging from a branch that may or may not be creaking under his weight. We can imagine that the face on his oddly tilted head is all purple with old, deoxygenated blood and that his body may be starting to stiffen a little already…but we don’t know. The two lines dedicated to JOHN L.’s death don’t include that type of information. They don’t tell us if the complainant and her husband saw him do it, or whether or not they had a suspicion that he was going to do it. The call doesn’t tell us whether or not JOHN L. had children at home who may or may not miss him tonight. Maybe he was saving the children from repeating some of his mistakes by removing his bad example. Maybe he was tired from a long list of failures and now couldn’t bear to live without the one thing, or person, who had stood behind or beside him through all of those failings. Maybe…again there is just too much that we aren’t going to know…that we don’t need to know to do our jobs.
“There’s a body swinging from the complainant’s tree in her back-yard and we need to get our officers over there to get it down so she can have her yard back from that nasty bitch named death.” Did someone possess those thoughts, maybe, but probably not. Did our complainant’s morning routine of drinking coffee on her back porch get messed-up by her husband’s friend JOHN L. hanging himself in her tree? Are the birds still going to alight and sing in the drought-bare tree after the sirens and lights and activity have ‘died’ down? They probably will. They’re probably there now, sitting in the upper branches looking down at that bit of frayed, yellow rope or sun-bleached, green garden hose that is still attached to that one limb down there.
And what about us? What about the operator who typed the keys for the radio code of the unknown-trouble? What is that person thinking, right now, about the information they tapped into the computer and sent on its way? Did they go home and share the story with one of their family members? Did the Tactical-channel operator who hit the ‘Alert 1’ button to summon the officers go home and mention it to anyone? Did they think about it while they drove home from another night on the ‘graveyard’ shift? How about when they stopped at Fry’s to pick-up some milk for their kids’ breakfast? Did it intrude into their thoughts as they were considering that they could buy two gallons for three dollars even though they only needed one gallon but the sale would end by the time they needed another? And did they already forget about it by the time they dried off from the shower and climbed into bed? Was it still in their mind? Was their heart saddened with the despair that this JOHN L. must have felt as he stepped onto that milk crate or discarded dining-room chair, hooked the noose over his neck, and then kicked the crate or chair out from under his feet? Did the operator feel that despair? Did the call-taker have to pause a moment after completing their two-line hot-call to collect themselves after their in-calls button was free again? Did they think about what the wife might be thinking? Is she relieved? Is she sorry? Could she and JOHN L. have worked things out? “How am I going to tell the kids?” Or is it one of those ‘Thank God’ situations? Is she thanking her guardian-angel for rescuing her and the kids from the monster who hung himself?
Yes, as 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers we have to remove ourselves from the crushing despair, but to what extent? Isn’t life sacred? Aside from what our Sunday school lessons or catechism taught us, even removed from God or religion, isn’t it still sad? But what if he needed to die? Is it still sad then? And what about his last thought – was it “Oh, shit!” or “Thank God” as he swung there from the creaking or non-creaking limb on that drought-bare tree?
And finally, what do we do about the five year-old who drowned in his own vomit? How do we deal with this? And how did we present it to ourselves in the line of our work? Again, we only needed two lines. From our colleagues at Fire, the call very succinctly described this lasting picture: “5YO CHILD IS 901H (dead) SPAN SPKG FATHER SAID HE VOMITTED [sic] IN SLEEP: FIRE ALREADY 23 (on scene) NEEDS US THERE – right, and with no period, again. This story won’t end. It cannot end. The emptiness in someone’s heart will not be filled. Ever. Never, will this problem be fixed. The smell of vomit will forever bring to mind the quiet face of their baby. They won’t be able to wash his sheets and put them on the bed again. His little tennis shoes, the ones sitting near his closet door, blue, or black, or white, little tennies that won’t be handed down to his younger brother or sister, or cousin…they will remain empty, the way this little one has left them. Why didn’t the child turn on his side when he threw-up? Why did he just lay there? Why didn’t the parents hear him getting sick? Why was no-one watching him…didn’t they know he was sick? Couldn’t they hear him gasping, gulping, inhaling, and aspirating his vomit down into his lungs? When you picture that, can you see his horror-stricken face, knowing that everything was happening all wrong and that he couldn’t stop it? Can’t you almost see it? Oh…what a horrid thought! There’s no romance in this death, is there? And is there peace, knowing or thinking that he’ll be in a better place? No…there is no peace here, not if we understand that he’s just gone – simply not alive anymore, and not even if we imagine that he’s in our Savior’s arms, not really. Right now the thought is that he’s gone – without a period, just gone, and forever.
The call-takers did their job. The dispatchers did their job. The officers and paramedics did their job. And the episodes are essentially done – for those of us who were externally involved in the situations. And we can go on. We will go on. The tone will beep in our ears, or over our radios, again and again. Each following call will help remove the one we just completed, or cleared from our stack, or frequency…and we’ll go on. Our hearts are already hardened; our attitudes are somewhat jaded or cynical. Or are they? Maybe, and maybe not. Will we remember these people – the overdosed teenager, JOHN L., the five year-old? Will we honor their existence with a moment’s thought, or more? Or have we become immunized to the pain and ‘not care’ about what happens on the other end of the phone, or radio waves?
I believe that the bottom line, in the end, is that we only do our jobs, on the 9-1-1 phones and police radio, because we DO care. We want to help people; we want them to live to be happy another day; we want everyone to go home safely at the end of the day.
Today marks eight years since the terrorists flew the jetliners into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and the countryside of Pennsylvania. I think I only began to write about that horrible day once in the days immediately following the attack, but my words felt canned, insignificant, and desperately lacking and empty in the context of what my eyes beheld on the television and what I think my soul experienced on that day. My mind was awash with the images that had been assaulting our consciousness during the previous few days. Those few days past in which everything that we had known as security and as the semblance of normalcy in our country, in our little states and parts of society in which we had found ourselves, had come to a serious and mighty change. With the crashing of those four airplanes into the symbols of our freedom, military superiority, and tranquil countryside, we came to realize, or at least consider, that our supreme strength and defenses may not have been as mighty or impregnable as we once thought they were. A sneaky foe had come into our lives and changed the face of our country’s landscape and sense of who we were. The television and radio told us that we were even more proud of our essence as Americans as we saw pictures and heard stories recounted of renewed patriotism and zeal for our nationhood…but were we not also a bit shaken despite the swelling of our hearts in the shadow of our adversity? Were the smiles of encouragement as sincere as their bearers wished them to be? The tears and anguish of the families and friends and reporters and rescue workers were real. The mountains of rubble and waste were real, and the pictures were more full of sorrow and emotion and horribleness than any words could ever express. Two nights after the attack, a reporter on CNN was talking with the family members about the loved ones they were missing. In her conclusion, barely able to contain her own grief, she spoke with tears running down her dusty face and her chin quivering at the sadness that she couldn’t help but feel after her days of communing with the hopeful and dreadful despair that surrounded her.
I can’t say whether or not this is an appropriate time to write what I want to share, eight years later, but I can’t say that it’s not, either. I also cannot attest to how much of what I will write has not been effected by what others have said and written. How much of it will be pure and original thoughts from me alone? I don’t know. There was a deluge of information in the days, weeks, and months following the incident which I couldn’t help but absorb and think about. Some of those topics or thoughts have probably become so ingrained that they may feel like they’re mine now.
The observation and participation in the totality of the events of 9/11 was a national experience, and while I was a part of the United States of America, and of Arizona, and of Phoenix, and of my own little American family, I don’t necessarily remember feeling those particular things at the time, in those particular words. Maybe I took it for granted…like I and we take so many ‘commonplace’ things for granted in our everyday lives. In observing the events, I felt that I was witness to something that, in its enormity, was possibly even beyond a state or condition that could compel patriotism because of the immediate sense that an overwhelming crime had been committed against the whole of humanity, as it was symbolically encapsulated in the context of those buildings and planes. I did want to put a flag out in front of the house, however, and to find a respectably-sized one to put on my car somewhere, so I guess I was feeling patriotic, but I think I may also have felt more of a sense of connection to the victims as only victims that might be described rather loosely as a sense of participatory, grief-driven voyeurism that could have had more to do with being human than it had to do with being an American, I don’t know. Somehow, though, I don’t think I would have felt the same had it occurred in Bangladesh or Ireland. I don’t remember these feelings when hearing of the Sarin-gas attacks in Tokyo or the bombings in London and Madrid, but did sense something very similar with the Oklahoma City bombing, although the similarity faded when I continued the thought and came to the identity of the person who wrought such a disaster in his own figurative back-yard. With the other atrocities happening across the world and not on American soil, there was enough of a removal from my status as an American to have it feel less personal.
This attack in the middle of our Americana was intensely personal, though, and incredible in the most complete sense of the word – it was not something that could be believed until each passing moment and flash of the images on our TV screens caused it to become excruciatingly believable…believable in a more frightening and immediate sense, to me anyway, in that my wife and I were going to have a baby in the next two months and I and we wondered at his safety in a future whose foundation of security had just been rocked like nothing else in our lifetime…and images of airlplanes slicing into burning and exploding and telescopically collapsing buildings and jumping and falling bodies and pieces kept assaulting our conscious and unconscious minds over and over and over and the falling dust and ash and papers and huge airplane wheels laying against the crumbling curbs of downtown Manhattan…with firefighters and police officers sitting on ambulance bumpers and crushed Nissans with oxygen masks strapped to weary and awesome faces, beauty in the horror of the unknown…and…massive fire engines that used to comfort us with hope and safety lay crushed and broken with shattered lights and muted sirens under tons of rubble and shit and detritus from collapsed mountains of modernity and life and…
Those were airplanes loaded with fuel and lives that were slammed into buildings that were also full of lives, tens of hundreds and thousands of lives. How could anyone imagine doing such a thing? How could a mind devise something so fuckingly horrendous in scope and magnitude? When this first happened, we wondered if the entirety of the act was nothing more than a miscarriage of religious zealotry, but soon learned that it was a jihad, a present-day parallel to the Crusades or the holy-wars of the earlier centuries with the modern warriors using whatever weapons were available and necessary to cause the most harm to their foes at the least cost to themselves.
With the reference to a modern jihad, we might almost find it impossible to conceive of the thought, today, in the year 2009, that the Catholic Church would underwrite a bloody, holy war by sending armed soldiers into the Middle East to retake the literal and symbolic birthplace of ‘Christianity’ from the terrible Islamic infidels. The Church wouldn’t do it today, not in our present ‘today,’ but ‘The Church’ did do it in someone else’s ‘today,’ albeit a few hundred years ago, and several times spanning a couple centuries in other parts of the world…the Church did that. And here, in the collective events of 9/11, it happened again, but with another ‘church.’ One that ‘today’ we view as extremist, one that ‘today’ we view as militant, one that ‘today’ we view as absolutely, stone-cold wrong in doing what it did, and one that ‘today’ viewed us as the infidels, those short eight years ago.
In our ‘today’ of 2009, we remember that around 3,500 people from 90 different nations (and likely representing at least a couple dozen churches and maybe half as many or more different faiths) died as the result of some dedicated religious followers committing an atrocious act of terrorism, (should we say ‘church-sponsored’ terrorism even though the majority of the Muslim world didn’t actively participate in the heinous deed?) in their own version of a ‘Crusade.’
Now let us consider the American response to this Crusade-like act. Led by our former president, doesn’t the retaliation somehow resemble another religious war, but this time of a ‘national-religious’ type? A war that, according to the Washington Post on 9/8/09, has consumed another 5,130 Americans. Did we not feel a certain religious-ness in being an American in those days and months following 9/11? Hasn’t ‘Americanism’ become the national religion? We, as a nation and probably also as millions of individuals, sought the blessing of our national God, the God of the United States of America, the one and only God, to whom everyone prayed, the One to Whom everyone prayed after the tragedy, in a strange but not unexpected ‘revival’ of our image of ourselves, maybe even only to ourselves, as a ‘Christian’ nation…no matter how exclusionary that sounds and is.
In the aftermath of the terrorist acts, people who looked like they might have been terrorists or terrorist-sympathizers because of their physical properties were discriminated against, threatened, and sometimes even killed in the personally wrought continuation of the new holy war. Another holy war conceived in the differences of opinion, ultimately, over the differences of gods – those man-made constructs to which millions of people blindly dedicate themselves, through faith - belief without evidence.
You might be wondering why I would publish something like The Parking Lot? Why would I even write it? I guess I wrote and published it because my observations there, in that literal parking lot, made a profound impact on me. It caused and continues to cause me to wonder if we’re not too comfortable in our lives sometimes with our taken-for-granted reality that doesn’t begin to resemble what is ‘real life’ for some or many other people. We may see violent movies on TV or read of violent acts in the papers or in work-related documents, but we aren’t really exposed to those other lives with our core senses.
Aside from growing-up in a military household that was governed by someone from the old ‘brown-shoe’ days of the service and living under his heavy hand and all that it entailed, I had never been exposed to the type of life or violence that I encountered in The Parking Lot. I had been relatively ‘sheltered’ in that military family and in a church life that prevented me from seeing anything resembling this, which is probably, or might be good. When I was leaving the Air Force and interviewed for the position with the health department, the person leading the interview session asked me how I felt about having to work with street people, prostitutes, drug abusers, and jail inmates. I responded that I would be fine with it, that I welcomed it and wanted to experience this side of humanity that I had never been exposed to. My interview was successful and I left the comfort of the Air Force and the things that I had known for my entire life of 27 years, and stepped into a place where I worked for 10 years, witnessing and absorbing the spectacles of sadness and other events that I would never have encountered under the sheltering umbrella of my earlier life.
I wrote The Parking Lot to present that other view of life, to provide another mark on our rulers that measure what is good and bad, true and false about our perceptions of our realities. I’ve said before that life is bigger than any rule or policy that we might be compelled to follow. Life is also bigger than the little spot that we, you and I collectively or singularly occupy. Life isn’t really a Nicholas Sparks novel, however sad some of them might be. Sometimes life truly sucks. We sit and complain about our difficulties with paying the bills, refinancing the mortgage, kids, spouses, mates, etc, and think that our lives can be and are hard…and no doubt, they probably are, within the context of the physical and emotional comfort of our lives.
We are also at ease or comfortable with what we perceive to be our eternities as we drive around with our Christian fishes or ‘CCV’ stickers on the back of our vehicles and accept that our views are the correct views, that our God is the right, holy, infallible, etc, while other people look around and can’t see even a speck of their existence that is owed to God, and if they can or do equate their life status to God’s blessing, they think He is either really pissed at them or that they must not be worthy of His notice or attention.
The things I wrote in the earlier two pieces were true in their content. I shared actual lived moments with those people and felt their alone-ness, hopelessness, and isolation from whatever might be good in life, their separation from the ‘good’ that I learned as a child came from God. If these people’s station in life was because they were receiving punishment from God to draw them to or back to Him, then that is just sick. The woman’s questions stir me to the depths of what we might call my ‘soul,’ the core of my being…how could an omniscient and omnipotent God possibly exist and do absolutely nothing when a little girl is being so abused by her father, or any other person? How can He exist? We should not delude ourselves in believing, let alone thinking that God’s ways can be so mysterious as to defy the principal characteristics that He is purported to possess, those of love and compassion.
The psychological literature of the past several decades documents how people’s (women and girls especially) lives are damaged so horribly by the events described earlier. There can be no higher purpose…these things cannot be God’s will. Please! Look me in the eye after reading the medical records and social worker and psychologists’ reports about the physical and emotional damage inflicted during these soul-killing abuses and tell me, rather, tell the little girls and women that God allowed it to happen. I realize that this is probably one of the simplest arguments against the existence of God, but it works.
So, those are my thoughts and opinions as they have been informed and developed by some of the things that I have seen and experienced in my life. Your thoughts and opinions might be different.
I’m not sure if the parking lot of the Navajo Hotel still actually exists as it did back then, but it remains so in my memory.
Where now? To the pile of clothes or to the neatly placed cans of Chef-Boy-Ardee Beefaroni and Ravioli that somehow, when forgetting the six-year-old sister, has the resemblance of baby food? Where do we stop allowing our eyes to roam? When do we tell ourselves that we have seen enough and turn around to face the sun and allow the residents some privacy? We don’t turn. We still stand there. We see what life is offering to another person and see what they are doing with it. Was it offered, and then taken by them, or did they have it shoved into their faces to accept or die for refusing to take it? What hopes of change are nestled in the dirty corners of that oh, so small room? ‘He’s going to be on the cover of a magazine someday.’ I know he is – he’s beautiful…. His smile is enough to wake the birds before the dawn. It’s bright enough to send the gray clouds scattering to allow the sun’s rays to warm the earth, our souls. There must be something that can be done. There must be something that can be done? Must there? Must there be something that can be done?! Was he predestined to this lot? Curse the thought! Curse and god-damn the thought that this must be true!
What about the argument from evil? Where is the scholarly, religious mind that can refute the necessary claim that there is no God? Where is the man or woman who can prove to this little boy’s satisfaction, nay, to his daddy’s satisfaction, that there is a God in spite of the evil horrors and shit that exists in his life? Where is that person? Where is he cowering, right now, from the responsibility that he shares, if he does believe such? He is as guilty, then, of the offense, as is the Biblical God who supposedly created or allowed this mess. He, or she, is as guilty of the blood that has been shed and the tears that have been wept in molding this eternal cauldron in which we all brew. If His words are true, then it is a cauldron, boiling now to consume the lives of the unbelieving and unknowing alike. The big black pot that holds our souls; the death-bowl, fashioned by the same hands that created our eternally damned souls. His Great Love! His infinite wisdom, omniscience, has provided that He knew the future before it existed, yet He still allowed it to occur knowing full well that there were going to be The Unknowing, and He still created them. He still created them! For what Purpose? To see them burn, to see them toast forever in that unforgiving Lake of Fire? His eternal Love? His ever Love!? I don’t think so.
He smiled with recognition and damn near happiness when he peered through the window this afternoon. He pulled the streaked curtains aside to allow his cherub’s face to shine in the window of my heart for yet another moment of another day. Big, brown, sparkling, hopeful eyes that are blind to the ‘life’ around him. When his sister opened the door, he ran to greet me and then flung himself back, shyly, to the pile of clothes in the corner that had been his stool in his effort to look out the window at me, the unannounced guest. Still in the diaper that must be his regal robe, the mantle of his righteousness, he waved the scepter of a broken pinwheel that cries of his innocence, his childhood. What do you hold, oh Life that will become his? What do you hold? What beastly bastard of a monster do you have lurking behind the corners around which he has yet to walk? How many lucky pennies will you cast into the parking lot of his hotel? And how many of those pennies, those goddamnable tokens of silly foolishness that even grown men stoop to pick up in the hopes of gaining unearned, undeserved riches, will be taken away by the very visitors whose aim is to help his tiny soul?
What say you, Child of God? Where is his kingdom? Where will this little one reign? Your Almighty knows, right? He has it all laid out in front of Him, doesn’t He? Where will the little boy grow to know your Savior whose presence is as obvious as the fairness that molds this human existence? What say you, Child of God? Your eyes roam the sky for answers that will not come to you. They do not come because they do not exist. You have naught! You are as empty of answers as his unlearned father, the man whose eyes are clouded behind the scratched lenses of hand-me-down glasses, the man who is able to start the shit day of His blessing only by first swallowing a can of beer, rather, by swallowing the three half-cans of beer that he picked up in the parking lot. He finds his answers in the calm that the alcohol slowly returns to his shaking hands and fucked-up mind.
Speak, Child of God! Answer forth His holiness! Decree your wisdom by His obvious blessings that He has bestowed to Everyone. Everyone! The Most Holy of Everyone! All of the Holy Creatures spawned by His goodness and mercy! Either we All deserve to be shit upon, or none of Us do, for we are all Holy! We are All the Children of God, or we are not! If we All are, then where is the blessing for All of us?
Speak, Child of God! Answer forth a saving and reassuring utterance that will spare his prostitute mother from having to spread her legs and soul wide open for the beast of the land to defile! His mommy said “No, I don’t use my mouth. My daddy made me do that to him when I was a little girl, so now I won’t do it at all, not on anyone. They can screw me,” she says, “because that’s what the whole world is doing to me now. The whole world is screwing me! Tell me where God was when my daddy made me do that! Tell me where God was when I had my daddy’s fat, stinking body laying on top of me, pounding my little girl self into the oblivion where I had to flee to escape his abuse! How could God let a daddy do that to his little girl? Where was God then?! He didn’t exist, that’s where He was! God couldn’t possibly exist when my daddy was giving me infections in all my body openings! He couldn’t exist when that kind of shit was happening to me and everyone else out there! He’s just a figment of people’s imagination, something they wish was there.”
Child of God! Answer forth a saving Shout from Above! A sudden command that life really is fair and we all deserve what we get, for we have gotten what we have earned, and earned the sweet flavor or knife that now caresses or twists in our souls’ belly. You are mute, Child of God! Your open mouths have not tongues to declare any good and true thing! You follow a gilded snake, a deceiver of the first kind. It is a story, a myth, a dream-like conjuring from your twisted imagination, an unoriginal thought built upon the fables of the past thinkers, the wanderers who connived to create a world in which they were the favored ones and the rest were the un-chosen. I know you, Child of God! I see your deceptions, your ruse!
I looked around again and then headed back to my car. Crossing the distance from the boy’s room to the little Toyota, I glanced downward to see what coppery gleam had caught my eye. There were three pennies laying in a sloppy triangle and I had to stop myself from reaching down to get the one that was laying face up….
As I expected, my car was a little harder to start…but it did…and I drove out of the parking lot of the Navajo Hotel. To be continued….
Whiskers from palm fronds; cigarette butts; Miller’s deceitful ‘High-Life’ splintered into gleaming flecks among the oil-stained asphalt detritus; almond-sized pigeon scat; someone’s loosed screws, bolts and air-filters; open, shit smeared swaddlings abandoned, face-up, to dry in the sun; cracked and rotted wiper-blades no longer able to free the slightest drop from a windshield; one soiled, New Freedom panty-shield laying interestingly close to a Lifestyle’s spermicidally lubricated, ribbed ‘for her pleasure’ condom envelope; palm kernels, dying, drying, baking on the unfertile, black, cracked expanse of the Navajo Hotel’s cul-de-sac parking lot.
My tired Toyota ambled onto the property, came to a stop and coughed that familiar diesel chug eruption that told me there might be less miles remaining in the fraying, stretched-out timing-belt than I had originally thought. Quiet. It will be a little harder to start when I want to leave, but it will start; it always does. It will shortly remove me from this haven of prostitutes and modern-day pirates and drug-runners. It always has.
Unfolding from the little car, I stretch my legs and take an unhurried account of my surroundings. While I turn and reach back into the car to collect my badge and notebook, I continue to look around the buildings, checking-out which doors are opened or closed, trying to find one whose number is still affixed or not painted-over, just trying to give myself a point of reference in case any shit happens. A couple years back, one of my less observant partners stepped into the middle of a pharmaceutical sales meeting. On the ‘board-room table’ was all of the hardware necessary for maintaining a safe transaction, one in which none of the ‘muthafuckas’ was going to get the best of the ‘otha muthafuckas.’ It is an unconscious voice that tells me to keep my eyes open.
Slightly down the road, and across from the recently remodeled Ramada Reservations Center, sits a mid-to-late-twenty-ish-looking businessman type of guy waiting for the bus. He is constantly looking up and down the street, the famed ‘Van Buren’ of central Phoenix. His knuckles are near white with holding his briefcase overly tight. Standing now and taking a tentative step into the road to peer even further, he is searching for what must be a late bus. His lilly-whiteness is loud and his discomfort would make him a likable target for any less than conscientious street thug who might happen to observe his shuffling feet or hear his overly-loud beating heart. He is anxious to get onto the tardy bus and make his way out of this part of town. Does he really not belong here or did he do something that he is going to regret later? Did he just participate in that age-old ‘opportunity of indiscretion?’ What’s up?
A few years ago, while taking a sociology class, I imagined what it would be like to approach a complete stranger and request an interview about any particular subject, a little bit of real life ethnography conducted right there at the bus-stop. I thought it would be a fascinating way to get a glimpse into the mind of the man or woman from the street, projects, barrio, bus-station, or whatever. What made them into the person that I would now behold? What would be their reaction to me? Would they talk? Would they tell me that they were too busy to be bothered, or would they engage me in a rough hour of banter and miscellaneous bull-shit that wouldn’t amount to a pocket-full of lint? Of course, there would always be the possibility that they would tell me to ‘fuck-off’ and leave them alone.
I know that I am a stranger to you, and I understand that you might feel uncomfortable talking with me, but please, listen to my question and then speak to me, freely. If you are still uneasy, try to see that you really have nothing to fear. Since I am a stranger, how will I know what is a lie and what is the truth? How could I know? How can I judge you when I don’t know you and don’t know where you’ve been and don’t know what rotten or wonderful things have made you the person that stands before me? I can’t know these things. Think about it…you’ll probably never see me again, so it doesn’t matter that you tell the truth. Revealing to me, a stranger, the innermost part of your soul holds no danger. Please, won’t you try?
Do you see an utter sadness when you behold the face or life of someone who had not been as ‘blessed’ as you have been? Do you hear the ringing of the unfairness that underlies the most deeply rooted foundation of human existence? If you searched your soul and came to the point where you could only be honest, how would you respond? Would it hurt when you looked into their eyes? Would you ache to the core because you wanted to do something that you know you haven’t the power to do? I ask you this because I wonder at it myself. I sense that the entire context is wrong and that there is not one shred of fairness and I don’t know what to do with this feeling; I don’t know where to go with it. I’m only asking you to share the truth, your truth, that’s all. What do you think? How does your inner-soul agonize when considering their un-blessing?
Are we right to assume that there is no Supreme Being? What level of fairness has He meted out to us? Is He even there to do something so human-like? Does the absence of fairness also indicate the absence of His unerring holiness? Is it wrong to declare that He doesn’t exist just because we can’t see His hand in every single thing and in every facet of life? Or are we in error to assume that He isn’t there simply because everything isn’t as rosy in the rest of the world as it is in our own little part of it, or vice versa? I don’t know the answer; I am only familiar with the disparity of the blessing. I only see the results of what has happened as a consequence of what I’m told is, or was man’s ‘original sin.’ The entirety of humanity is now being held accountable for one man’s errant ways? Oh, Preacher, speak; answer my longing to know! Is all of this the result of a bad choice, one wrongly made decision? Tell me you’re kidding; tell me it’s a joke, an ill-timed revelation of a conjuring from the infantile history of humanity where snake teeth or sheep knuckle-bones were shaken and tossed to predict the future or read the past. Tell me, Preacher! Please…!
If the child had been butchered ere it breathed, would that have been less cruel than to allow it to live through what he has no choice, now, but to endure? Is not enacting death sometimes more humane than letting the life continue, or begin? If I had been given the choice by an All-Knowing Force to choose to have my life so snatched from me before it was even mine to possess, or to live it in a hellish, nightmarish existence, which would I have chosen?
Now, behold the child of golden, brown-sugared skin with gelled ringlets bouncing about his crown, clad only in a diaper and bare feet. Somehow he has become wise, at only two years, to avoid the oil stains in the parking lot. This tiny man navigates through the broken glass and beer cans to follow his daddy across the parking lot to some other door, some other portal to a ten by twelve hovel called a hotel room. The hinges concede and allow the many times painted-over door to swing open and release light into the stale air of the over-heated room and thick odor of sleeping bodies. This shitty life has gone past the comfortable point where we would stick our heads under the covers and smell the warm body of our self or loved one in bed next to us. The smell of clean sheets and often-bathed bodies’ oils mingling with the scent of slept-in flannel pajamas is a comfort to the soul. But when it’s mixed with compounding days and weeks worth of wear and scarcity of water, there builds an odor that is at once repelling and engulfing. You are simply surrounded and taken in to the den of whom or whatever it is that has been hibernating there. Halt your breath and still the unease in your stomach and experience the life of someone else. To be continued….
He snapped alive with a sulfurous urging in his hallowed place, reflecting then on those around him. He pondered, considered, and postulated about what they and he might be. “What am I that, or who, is able to exist only softly, attached for life to my waxen, wick-ed anchor, knowing only what…I don’t know. Of what am I comprised? What constituent parts have been arrested to make my whole? What molecules render me soft enough to flee like a thought in a slight breeze? What have I to do, but to live and reflect? Who is to know? Who. In a dark room, were I to be placed upon a post to shine from its center, would I be as bright as if I were placed next to a mirror at the side of the room, with only half of my light being real and shining as from my soul? Is that solitary, yellow dart of my being enough to light in half, though reflected, as though from that post in the middle of the otherwise dark room? What design orders this? Why do I live only anchored here and not aloft in the sky? Why do those around draw away from me as if in fear of harm? I am a solitary, gilded whisper of light, shining upon those from whom I am ordered, without will, or otherwise. My stepward cousins and unrelative conflagrations burn with an unintelligible force, magnified and multiplied beyond reason, my small frame. What soft caress would touch my delicate skin? What gentle lace would adorn me? In the place of never-thought would it live beyond my kiss. It is unknown. For it is, and not being. If a scientist were to analyze my being, would he find only the mist of paraffin, or the shadowing remnants of tallow, rendered from the fatted calf? What am I? And why does my touch bite? I cannot win friends; I cannot feel the embrace of another. If I am drawn nigh unto my own kind I am lost and shall never be regained unto myself. Am lost.”
Ok, so it’s in the news, they’re here to have negotiations with local government and business leaders after having met with such leaders in Nevada, also. They want to invest their capital in our state that, according to News 15, may help improve the economy and lead to some high-paying jobs. That’s what they’re telling us anyway. The big junta is today, so more news is to follow. And…the Chinese Cultural Center in Phoenix is owned by the Chinese government.
After texting my daughter-in-law to wish her a happy birthday last evening (I know that sounds lame, but we already had a large birthday celebration at our house the day before yesterday…and I gave her a hug, shared endearments, etc, in person), I paused for a bit over the thought that it was also Labor Day, 2009. I had had to work and didn’t give much thought to the day other than to help myself to some of the pot-luck luncheon that we had prepared (the appropriate theme food was Italian – a great labor source in the early 1900’s [Italian immigrants] and continuing presence in labor and, appropriately at our work-place, law enforcement). Also, I knew that the city offices and other police bureaus were closed, so there would be and were less people in the building at work and less traffic both coming to and leaving my work-place.
This isn’t going to be scintillating, okay, but it might not be altogether boring either. When we think about Memorial Day in our country, we immediately or automatically think about the military folks who have died over the years defending what we have labeled ‘freedom’ and the ‘American way of life.’ Sure, they died and are dying for other things, too, like lies (‘misinformation’ ?) about weapons of mass destruction and “Nobody threatens my Daddy!,” but that’s another article or two. When we think of Veterans’ Day, we are quick to think about anybody who served in our country’s military, even the ones who didn’t die and who we didn’t remember a few months earlier. If we’re old enough, we might remember that Veteran’s Day used to be called ‘Armistice Day,’ signifying the end of World War I. The name was changed by certain well-intentioned people after the conclusion of World War II. And then with the new name, there came a new meaning, but that’s already obvious. And we can’t forget Independence Day and all that it signifies to our United States of America; the colonists fighting for freedom from King George, taxation without representation, etc…but what about Labor Day?
What does ‘Labor Day’ mean, whose labor and what kind of labor? The U.S. Department of Labor website (http://www.dol.gov/OPA/ABOUTDOL/LABORDAY.HTM) informs interested viewers that the holiday is “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” I like that; it’s almost stirring, even. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day) explains that civic and labor leaders often give speeches emphasizing economic and civic significance, and that, for most Americans (and these are probably just the Americans who live in the United States of America, as opposed to all South Americans, Central Americans, North Americans who live in Canada, etc), the Labor Day holiday has come to signify the ‘end of summer,’ the last opportunity to take the kids out to the lake, make the symbolically American drive up to Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, etc, before everyone has to buckle-down again and have their collective noses to the grindstones of work and school. I guess it also means that this is the last weekend of the year that well-to-do fashionable women can wear white summer clothes and accessories when they go out to the Hamptons, but that’s rather foreign to my modest working-class background, so I won’t go any further with it. For a last touch on Wikipedia, this informational site informs us that college football starts the weekend before Labor Day, and the National Football League starts their season the Thursday after the Labor Day holiday, and…that most Americans celebrate the holiday with picnics, social gatherings with games, barbeques, etc. That’s all significant stuff to American workers, right?
In my Google search, I found that President Obama (an important civil leader) did give a national address on Labor Day. I saw clips of it on the muted television at work that was programmed to CNN. The footers gave clues as to what the president was speaking of with most of it focusing on the American workers’ concern for health insurance reform and related issues. The Google-revealed article mentioned the above and said that the president gave his speech at a labor union picnic in Ohio that was sponsored by the AFL-CIO, “America’s largest union federation.”
When I checked Google again for local Labor Day activities in the greater metro-Phoenix area, the first two entries were – Phoenix Labor Day Weekend 2009 Events Guide, and The Day Labor Market in Phoenix, Arizona. Wow…so maybe Labor Day does mean something to the Central and South Americans…Labor Day in curious juxtaposition with Day Labor. Wonderful. Rest, relaxation, a bottle of suds, tossing-around a frisbee, cheap labor and exploitation, and aggressive, trespassing Mexican men who want to trim your trees or pull the dead weeds in your yard…for their opportunity for a better American life. Next subject, as significant people walk out of the room to avoid the perpetual arguement….
When I was speaking with my daughter at work yesterday or the day before, I told her that a delegation of Chinese dignitaries was in Phoenix for the weekend. They arrived on Friday and would be leaving on Tuesday, today. She asked why they were here, what were they doing here, and why here of all places. I shared with her that I only knew they were here from a security escort document I had received in my work email, but that there was no information explaining the purpose or reason for the visit. I suggested that they were checking-out the Chinese Cultural Center in east-downtown Phoenix; maybe they had investments there or something, I don’t know. But it struck me today why they might be here. Or rather, it struck me today how odd it is that they were here for this particular weekend of the year. It was probably just coincidence, but here it is anyway, and I could be wrong; probably am, but…we all know what ‘out-source’ means, right? We know what it means when someone refers to off-shore capital investments, globalization, NAFTA, etc, right? In regard to the U.S. Labor Day holiday, we could make the snide connection as being all the jobs lost by American labor to other countries, such as…China. Labor unions became so strong in advocating for workers’ rights, improved salaries, retirements, health coverage, etc, that corporations came to understand that they were ‘losing’ too much money to employees’ salaries and benefits that they could be keeping for themselves…if they could only find a labor pool to do the work for less money, hell…for a lot less money…in say, Mexico and India and Pakistan and Taiwan and…China. I have nothing against the Chinese people, or Mexicans, Indians, Pakistanis, Taiwanese, or any of the other exploited people who fall under this umbrella, nothing, they just want to work…as do the American laborers…who also want to pay less for their goods when they shop at Wal-Mart (yet another article)…what a conundrum.
Anyway, that’s Labor Day, 2009, in Phoenix with its Chinese delegation, day laborers, football season, and work-place pot-lucks.
And Happy Birthday again, Krista!
Sometimes we can’t forget.
Timid fingers tapped the keys at a slower pace than when they were free of anxiety’s constraint. The letters and numbers, slashes, commas and dashes got lost, falling over one another and the mess was horrible. It felt like I was assembling words on the side of a refrigerator with all those many-colored plastic letters that have the magnets pressed into their backs. It wasn’t really that bad, but when things were going wrong and too fast, it was unsettling, and the things looked afright. I’m sure my letters would get fat and turn colors, too, if I closed my eyes and rubbed them hard enough. Not something I need to do when the beep keeps going off. Not something I need to do when it may be the sobbing mother who is calling to tell me that her son just killed himself, or when the one son calls from the neighbor’s house to say that a father is fighting with his two sons and he had a knife until the one son took it away from him.
The call from the mom, while unnerving and sobering, also served as something resembling instruction. I kept the line open as she talked to the other city’s 9-1-1 operator and I had my first opportunity to partake of that particular brand of sorrow. It wasn’t hysteria, but the sobs and agony came from the deeper regions of her heart. The other operator asked her how she knew he killed himself and she answered that he told her that he was going to, and then the gun went off, and then silence. I don’t know if the line went dead, I don’t know if someone hung it up for him, I don’t know anything like that. I do know, however, that this woman had never been touched like she was this afternoon. She told us later in the call that her husband had killed himself years ago, but even so, today was different. This was her remaining loved one. This was the baby she might have nursed, and held, and nurtured, and loved for so many years. Nobody saw the sun reflect in his eyes the way she did and no one’s heart quaked the way hers did when he came running to her one of those days in those many years ago with tears streaming down his face with whatever unknown sorrow. Today was Mommy in anguish, having heard the unthinkable, and with such finality. How does one console a Mommy? How?
And then…call-waiting on the cell phone beeped in her ear…and it was her son, alive and unharmed. I hung-up at hearing this and sat there, dumbfounded. And rage, was there rage?
Thoughts swirl like sifted sand in the wind, taking flight and then stinging as they alight on sensitive skin, thrust with daggers’ force, piercing beneath the protective mask; through the guise donned for defense, my soul rent.
And the pieces of a moment collide with their stronger and weaker members and become one solitary catch in the round of time. The space between the parts of this individual can expand to encompass all thought and eternity. They already have and do. The part of the instance that comes before full realization, understanding, or acceptance came after an equal instance of ignorance, disbelief, or non-understanding and is followed by the later part or piece of the whole moment that is sweet, or haunting, or anything between the myriad selves.
The points meet, and cross, and bend, and blend, and become one within their many convoluted selves. They are thoughts and they know no boundaries, and they bleed into one perpetual, eternal thought; the twisting and upbraiding, reflecting, and re-announcing of their sundry selves; constant recriminations, judgments, appraisals, and evaluations. They depart from one another and then rekindle at the thoughts of their absence from one another. They re-kindred themselves with their many offspring and related trains and inklings of thought. Finally harbored, anchored, and re-opened, like cases of misplaced stowage from some dis-remembered stronghold, with trepidation they are opened, for we have forgotten their contents; we have intentionally misplaced the packing lists and are amazed in terror at the findings when they are revealed.
What more have we than the things that have bred in our minds after our long existences, after the many lives that we have lived in this one lifetime, and what more can we expect from ourselves? Many secrets, and how oft revealed? How do we find ourselves in those secreted fields, those long unturned acres of hidden thoughts and happenings? We are but lonely. We are so very isolated in the thoughts for they must remain hidden; they must remain ours alone, for what damage may ensue at their unveiling? What is lonely like there, inside those darkened corridors of our thoughts? Is it enough to drive us to a snapping, crazy, psychotic unburdening in a rage of shouted words and incoherent ramblings? Do we go stir-crazy in our own self-reflection, having sequestered ourselves for so long inside the caverns of our own construction and device? Do our hidden solitary and several selves meet anew in those reflections and remembrances of things lived and done? Do they question and validate and curse again the disparate happenings and thoughts and things that made them what and who they are, things marked alone and troubled sore?
And then to remember…how does it happen? How does the circuitry respond to the stimuli and recapture the images that were sealed in their compartments and grottoes and then revivify them into the hybridizations of valid recurrences of what once was? How are they tainted with the non-truths that permeate their warped selves? Our guilt, and desires, and wishes, and sorrows, and unfulfilled yearnings so misconstrue the pictures that it would be nigh unto impossible to see the events as they really happened. Then we mix with our own perceived recollections, the stories and memories of the other participants or on-lookers with their biases, and convictions, and wishes, and unlived dreams…and there will never be truth in the vivid snapshots that we think we remember storing away in the albums of our minds.
You reach into the black depths of your soul and draw forth words that are of such newness, so silent and naked that they must be blinking at the light and rubbing their eyes as if seeing it for the first time. They are so weak initially that they remind you of newborn mice, innocent and unadorned, without pretense or expectation – but they grow with such hope at each following syllable and sentence, like tiny hearts beating, that by the end they are roaring in their bold elegance, decrying the forces that barricaded them against life and…they speak of emotions and memories that have been so hidden that they were as lost inside their bearer. And you are there…
To Jay – thanks man…inspiration for an idea and encouragement for follow-through, see you here and there.