I saw your face and thought of a name, but was it yours, I wondered, and couldn’t say for sure. Was it at work, in the clinic, in front of the vet, or down the road at the gas-station, the gym, or…? I know, I remember now…it was when you were getting out of your car that day with your little ones in the grocery store parking lot and I hesitated before pulling into the spot next to you because your kids were standing there with big eyes looking at the car, my car, that was coming at them. I just sat there in my patience and waited for you to grab their hands or usher them in some other way out of “my” spot. You looked up and glared at me and angrily waved at me to drive on in. I still waited, as I do, for you to get the little ones’ hands, to offer them your security, that sense of “Daddy’s got you, so it’s ok” before in continued in with my car. You were swearing at me when I finally parked and you were walking away, little ones in tow. As my car alarm beeped in my leaving, your words of “What the fuck are you looking at?!” bounced into my ears and around in my head and I couldn’t imagine “what the fuck” you were talking about. I shouted “Hey!” and you yelled “What, bitch?!” and I said “I was waiting for your little ones to move.” You suggested that I “stop being such a fucking idiot and park your goddamned car” as your little ones’ eyes went from you to me as they were being tugged bodily up through the asphalted parking lot and into the store where the air-curtain above the door wooshed and splayed at their hair and yours and mine as I followed, not following, per se, just going in the same direction.
And it’s you I see again one day, inside of another store, with you waiting in line for the lady to ring-up your stuff and me walking past to go into another aisle. Your kids aren’t with you and we, consequently, have nothing to talk about, but you see me and I see you and I remember very clearly where I know you from. I see you looking after me as I turn into the aisle and my face is calm and your brow is furrowed. “Where do I know you from?” you’re wondering, maybe, as you were wondering, still, when I left the opening to the aisle and was gone again.
Today, literally, these years later, I still see your little ones’ eyes. Their tiny, large brown eyes looking at me through long and curly lashes and framed with clean black hair. I see them looking at me behind the windshield and then walking through the parking lot, seemingly at and after them and I wonder at their wondering. I see them looking up at you and your full brown angry face and silver black hair, first one and then the other, and then back at me. I see their little arms tugged in their tiny t-shirts as you hauled them out of the parking spot and across the lot and into the store. I see them still.
We get into our habits and routines and go about our lives in the steps and ways that become familiar to us and comfortable in their sameness, or we live differently and make chance and opportunity exciting, grabbing at anything different and charging full-steam toward that unknown end, relishing in the adrenaline of “what if” and laughing all the way to the inevitable end with whatever conclusion comes, made by our hands or not. We might find peace for our souls in that raging unknown, the unpredictable change or risk that we embrace in our fullness to invigorate our modern selves and lives…throw us into the wild and unknown to make us know that we’re alive…make the ledge we’re standing on give way beneath us and drop us those several yards or meters with our hearts hanging and nerves tingling in anticipation of what’s going to happen when we hit the ground again, and when we’re finally there intact and whole, we can look back up to where we’ve fallen from and have all of our senses awake and alert and buzzing with that rush of living, of being alive in that moment.
And then sometimes our habits and routines become too known, or at least observed enough by shadowed opportunists who contemplate our rhythms and mark us as prey, knowing when we’re here or gone, home or away, and how we go and return, on foot or bike or in a bronzed-colored four-door returning at this and that time, at night when the lights are out and the sun has fallen in its course or in the graying dawn when it’s rising again from its sleeping….
A few years ago, and in the second week of October, I returned from an evening class at the university to find the screen from the front window of my house propped-up against the outside wall next to the front door. I had never seen the screen in that location before, and in that immediate rush of thought and memory and consideration of the screen in that unusual spot, I knew that I hadn’t left it there and that nobody else was living in the house at the time who might have done so either. My wife and kids were living out-of-state for a while and it was just the dogs and cats and me residing in our home and house.
I had turned-off all the lights when I left for class some four hours earlier, knowing that my housemates wouldn’t need them. Why have the lights on when nobody’s there? Maybe the answer to that is precisely because nobody’s there. I/we want to give the illusion that someone is actually in that sacred place keeping watch over all that is special and dear and identifying and wrought with the history and histories of the people who live and have lived within those several walls. We want the boogie-man to understand that it’s not ok to come in right now because we’re actually there, even when we’re not.
I backed-out of the driveway a little bit and then pulled back in at an angle so the headlights of the car would be pointing toward the front door that was tucked into its alcove and darkness. As I then walked up to the door, I saw that the window whose screen had been removed and placed so neatly against the front wall had been kicked-in…kicked-in and inward and glass lay all about the tile floor of the entry-way and even up the stairs, and I could see that the “security” door was unlocked and opened, as was the front-door proper…the means, of course, of the bad-guys’ exiting the house. They were too encumbered to step or climb through the broken-out window frame with all of my “stuff” in their hands and arms…actually in my pillowcase and the seat cushion cover from “my” seat. My heart was pounding and my mind racing as I walked back outside after turning-on the front porch light. I called that ever familiar “9-1-1” and told the folks that I had just arrived home and found my front window kicked-in and didn’t know if anybody was inside or not. Those were the key words, I knew, from working where I did and “answering the call” when people called 9-1-1 in the city where I worked. “I don’t know if anybody is still inside.” I didn’t hear anything, and given that I had been gone from the house for over three hours, I didn’t know if they had just left or had been gone for hours. At any rate, my town’s cops were there in less than five minutes, really, and were rather professional, in their way, as they walked their dog through the house (on a leash so he/she/it wouldn’t attack my cats) and then had me walk through with them to identify what was missing or otherwise damaged or out of whack.
Working where I did, I had taken probably a couple hundred calls or more from people who were reporting that their homes or businesses had been burglarized. The situation itself sucked, listening to someone describe how they felt violated, how they were frustrated that the cops were not going to rush right out there, and then how they felt that someone had stolen more than their property from them. The people felt and knew that their sense of security was stolen, too. I suppose, in truth, their “illusion” of security had been stolen. They were probably never really secure to begin with, but it was comforting to them to think that they had been. And now the shoe was on the other foot, so to speak. I had made that call. I had asked for help. I had beseeched those armed and uniformed somebodies to come and check my house to see if they could find the bastards still inside who had the gall to break-in and steal those fine and important things that they had stolen. I wanted my city’s “finest” to loose their dogs on the shit-head who had stolen my illusion of security. I wanted to hear them clear on the radio and say “Hey Boss, we’ve got to do some paperwork tonight,” which would tell me and their boss and their dispatcher that the dog had found someone inside and taken a bite or two out of him. That would have been sweet.
So, aside from the two computers and monitors and modems and router and pillowcase and seat cushion cover and DVD player and birth-certificates for myself and my older sons, and the adoption papers for my older daughter, and my and my wife’s marriage certificate, and the savings-bonds for my little one and the CD case with the hundred and more CDs and the intact window…the bad guy or guys also stole my sense of safety in my own house. Actually, I don’t think I was fearful that they would come back when I was home, but I never drove away without wondering if they were going to come back when I was gone. Nobody else was going to be living in the house with me and be there during my odd hours away for another ten months or more. My “stuff” was going to be as vulnerable to being stolen again as it was the day or hour before it was stolen this first time.
I did manage to sleep that night. After the “emergency board-up” window/glass guy left sometime around midnight and after I had managed to clean-up probably 98% of the glass that had been kicked into the corners and crannies of our furnished living room, my racing heart finally settled and the waning level of adrenaline finally allowed my mind to slow to a calming pace…sleep finally came to my wondering self and brought a needed semblance of rest.
Morning found me walking through the house again looking for what I might find that would help in identifying the person or people who had broken-into my house, my home…our home, my family’s and mine, the sanctuary in which we worshipped and loved the people who were and are dear to us…the hallowed place where we believed we were safe from the evils and uncertainties of the world…that sacred place that had been violated by some unknown person or people who had left behind a single glove in his or their passing. He took all my stuff and only left me his glove and a sense of being wronged, a sense of wondering each time I drove away, what I would find when I returned, a feeling that hasn’t left me yet…three years later.
The morning light revealed the black smudges of finger-print dust that the cops had left behind after their attempts to find identifying clues as to who had been there when I was gone…black smudges and powder on my bedroom closet door, on the drawers to the filing-cabinet inside the closet, and on the front door in the living room. It also caught and reflected itself from and in the many tiny shards of window glass that I had missed the previous night. I found splinters for months, tiny pieces and large, laying under furniture and in the cracks along the baseboards…clear across the living room and under the piano, four and five steps up the staircase in the thick carpet…tiny sharp prisms of who’s been here and gone.
So what then and what now, these few years hence? I would drive away and wonder, as I do now. Living in the solitariness that my current situation demands, I know where everything is in my little apartment “home.” I know when I leave a closet door slightly ajar and remember where I laid the remotes the night before when I turned off the TV. And I have the serial numbers and model numbers for everything electronic and so labeled with those numbers of identification logged in their special place so that if they’re taken again, I can say which exact one is mine and ours. The phone calls I took from complaining citizens after I had been in their shoes were slightly different from the ones I had taken before…as I understood in my core what they were going through. I knew what they meant when they said they felt more wronged by the act and intrusion than they had ever felt before. I understood the loss of the illusion of their security…their extreme sense of violation, as it was also mine.
In those many orbits around the sun, and the moon around ourselves, in that figment of time and space that we call months and years, and in those days of our passing, in that time that I’ve been gone from that place where I had worked and worked and wondered for other years and gone, things changed and progressed and grew and became other things that someone else had imagined. Technology and practice and practice became new and better and more precise and less invasive in a personal sense, for some, for those in the practice of this medicine and art and then. Time has changed some of the occupants, too, of the circles in which and around which the plagues are passed and given and shared and transmitted in knowing and unknowing senses all. While some advances have been made in several of the related realms, some of the old and tried and true remain and serve as beacons and exemplars of what works and what lives still in our humanity and theirs. A handshake and an eye-to-eye look of greeting and acceptance or a touch on the arm or shoulder or a shared smiling frown still connects their lives and ours as we mix and meld in our humanity and striving so. There is the unknown and the fear and the real pain of their physical pain and non-understanding and guilt and shame and glistening eyes and downcast, as they ask questions and await answers as they stare at the lines in the tile on the floor. No quivering today in that unshaven and rugged chin on that young man, little boy, who described his estrangement from his parents, their disapproval of his life and his mom’s fears for his future and health and physical living. He spoke of church bonds that are harsh and unforgiving and uncompromising and are tied harder and faster and sharper than a love for a child. He said, too, that there is a sister of mom or dad who still loves and accepts him and will always be there. He wonders at what a test result might mean, in that it changes the way even friends look at you. They don’t joke the same, can’t tease the same way…maybe like stepping on an un-dug grave, so he couldn’t share it with them either. “You are so young,” I said, “and that is both good and bad. You believe in your invincibility, still, and in your right to conquer the obstacles in front of you, but you’re not old enough to remember your friends wasting away and dying from what they contracted during the fun and love of an earlier time. Your brain tells you that the others’ memories are true, but you live in your actions as if they aren’t.” We think it can’t happen to us, he said, unconsciously squirming at the sensation of what was leaking out of his front and back-sides as he has waited so long to come in for a simpler malady. He was quick to respond to my call that he’d been exposed and needed treatment. Whatever he had scheduled was suddenly less important because he now knew and understood that what he had been feeling for weeks and weeks was real and could be ignored no longer. And so he was there…and so was I.
No radio was in the background and I had no concern for a status-list. I couldn’t feel a headset cord at my side and there were no black-banded badges or shields on posters on the wall reminding me that it wasn’t how they died that made them heroes, it was how they lived. My heart wasn’t beating with an anxious pulse waiting and waiting for someone to clear that it was Code-4, it was beating in sympathy and empathy for the distraught young man who sat in front of me who was wondering at test results and the fact that his father hadn’t spoken to him in over three years because of who he loved, yes, both the father and the son, the “he” in their each and solitary selves…and the men they loved.
Many things have remained the same…since I’ve been gone.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you might remember the posts Daydream, To go Away, The Remove, The Stuff of Life and…maybe not. I suppose it doesn’t matter, either you’ve read them or you haven’t, either you know me or you don’t, and that probably doesn’t matter either. Run, run, run away….
Life is moving hard and fast in the direction of great change. I am on the brink of leaving what I have known for ten and twenty years and starting all over again somewhere else, returning to a slightly familiar place where I will no longer be a visitor and returning to an occupation that I have once loved and hope to fully embrace again. I will not be a novice this time around, but things will be so different and in such a different place that my experience will only be a foundation for new learning.
The excitement of the past few weeks and the anticipation they held have been tucked under the emotional costs that I will soon pay for making the change. Rather, the excitement has been tucked under the “realization” or “coming to fullness” in acknowledging that cost, naming the faces that I will be leaving behind for good. Yes, I will be leaving my spouse and children for a time, but I will see them at intervals over the next few months, and the expectation is only that we’ll be separated for six months at most…but given the realities of life as I leave a part of it behind me and the circuits in which the loved ones travel, there is a strong likelihood that the six months will become only three or four and we will be joined again in our family fullness. The others, though, the friends and co-workers who have become special over the past years will likely be left behind in those worlds of our collective past where we existed together. Sure, we’ll see each other on Facebook and in occasional or seasonal emails and cards, but the truth and reality of life will probably dictate that we are going to exist more as memories than participants in our continuing lives. That is what the past tells me, anyway, those other laps around the proverbial block.
A week or so ago I went to dinner with two old and dear friends from a previous time in my life. The occasion for the dinner was to have one last get-together before I launched out into that other city and state that will likely be my home until I am no more. We had a nice couple of hours together, eating chips and enchiladas and drinking beer while we shared new stories from our lives since we parted and recounted memories from our time together. And when the evening was done and we all drove away in our different directions to our separate sides of town, it struck me that we had already parted. We had already made that divide of hearts and emotions and this new parting wasn’t sad, which at first struck me as sad in itself, but then just left me feeling a little empty somehow, like maybe anticlimactic, or post-climactic, if that’s an appropriate word. In truth, I guess that’s what it was. We had already parted; we had really already said goodbye. We had shed our tears eleven years earlier when I had first left them in our common workplace and had gone on to my new one. Even though we met probably half a dozen times or more in these past years, the hurt of the leaving had already been felt, we have already mourned; it’s done already…and it’s time for that whole experience to happen again with another group of people…another group of friends. We are cutting the cords, the ties that have bound us to each other for these past and passing years. I suppose I am cutting the cords and ties. It is my action, again, that is doing this, and then goodbye…. You have peopled my world, tugged on my heart, and will now live on in my memories and occasional contacts. I miss you already.
In that solitude there will be quiet and pain and the tinkling of only one spoon in the cup, one plate on the table, and only one head on the pillow. Shared voices will be found only on the telephone or in the crisp letters that travel through space and time and appear on a computer screen in an email at home and back and on the tiny text page of the phone. The nuances of expression will be gone and nobody else will wake with my stirring. The sounds of breathing will be my own and the thoughts abounding will all sound familiar.
And I am here and finally and up in the great northern place to which I have been yearning for all these months and weeks and days. I found myself here yesterday afternoon after only four hours’ sleep and about ten hours driving and the wind was blowing and the sky clouded with the salt plumes from the northern part of the landed city. I was hungry and tired and actually worn-out with what I had just done and I wondered what the hell I had actually done. I wondered if things were a mistake and I hadn’t even started the adventure. I’ll correct that…I have begun the adventure, as I have left family and friends and have stepped into the great and wide unknown that is up Here.
The wind has ceased in its craziness and is now just a strong breeze. The morning was quite chilly as I waited for the guy to arrive and connect the cable and internet services. I had the door open in waiting for him, along with the windows to create a cross-breeze that would do better at cooling the apartment than the central air-conditioning. And the day is now in its winding-down stages, coming to an end with only the evening remaining. My “house” is now as furnished as it needs to be to sustain me for these months, minus a chair-side table to hold my drink or remote, but otherwise, operational and looking something like a home, as it is known in the common sense.
I am feeling further out of sorts in my new surroundings. “Discombobulated” is a good word, I think. I know where I am, know why I am here, know where everyone else in my family is, and know when they will be joining me, but even with the familiar things in my little apartment home, the great outside is so different, the apartment is different, there are no pets, no kids, no wife, no backyard and no pool, and no police radio echoing in the background of my mind as I sit here in my late Sunday afternoon. I am feeling disjointed and un-centered…out of whack, out of sorts, half a bubble off plumb (in my life orientation, not my sanity), and maybe even like a ship without a rudder. I think that might speak to more serious problems than I really have going for me at the time, but it almost fits. I feel off. My bride told me that I should go for a drive or a hike to remind myself of the wonderful things that are here for me despite the aloneness I mentioned to her when we wrote each other earlier. So I did that…I went for a drive…down to Smith’s…where I had been so off kilter earlier that I left part of my groceries and other items there when I walked out of the store. I kept going, afterward, of course…drove southward down State Avenue to its end…some two or three towns south of my current home…my home away from home, my new home in transition from my old home…the home that I will call mine until my family gets up here in a few or several months…and then.
And later…I am in that strange and other place now and have left behind those I love and hold dear in different ways. It is a strange place and kind to my previous desert-dwelling soul, with morning kisses of chilly and promising breezes. My new home is only temporary, but it is and shall be my lodging and launching point as I head out into the wild beyond that shall nourish and sustain me until loved ones arrive in their time. There are familiar things here in this new and quiet place: my chair and music and pots and pans, the loving faces on the wall that have followed me and smile into my eyes as they will.
The quiet here is familiar, yet new and thick; there are no voices in the place, no cats to meow; only my thoughts populate these several walls. I should allow here that there are now voices and sounds, however, but they belong to people I haven’t met or seen; they only walk past my opened windows and talk as they get into the vehicles with the slamming doors and drive away to places I don’t know. The footsteps and sounds of a bath above me are from strangers, too. They are not of my children or kin and they exist as sounds only in this new world of my making.
Tomorrow will dawn and direct and urge me into another familiar unknown place and occupation. It will present new strangers to me and introduce new worlds that are waiting to be born. Time in its marching, plodding, and shuffling-along will open other doors, reveal new or different pathways, and bring experiences and lessons and stories of different shapes and hues.
“Goodbye brothers! You were a good crowd. As good a crowd as ever fisted with wild cries the beating canvas with a heavy foresail; or tossing aloft, invisible in the night, gave back yell for yell to a westerly gale.” – Joseph Conrad
“Here lies my past. Goodbye I have kissed it; Thank you kids. I wouldn’t have missed it.” – Ogden Nash
“No distance of place or lapse of time can lessen the friendship of those who are thoroughly persuaded of each other’s worth.” – Robert Southey
“Can miles truly separate you from friends…. If you want to be with someone you love, aren’t you already there? – Richard Bach
“Not to understand a treasure’s worth till time has stole away the slightest good, is cause of half the poverty we feel, and makes the world the wilderness it is.” – William Cowper
“Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.” – George Eliot
“The reason it hurts so much to separate is because our souls are connected.” – Nicholas Sparks
“You and I will meet again – when we’re least expecting it – one day in some far off place – I will recognize your face – I can’t say goodbye my friend – for you and I will meet again.” – Tom Petty
“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.” – Flavia Weedn
“As contraries are known by contraries, so is the delight of presence best known by the torments of absence.” – Alcibiades
“Absence diminishes little passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans a fire.” – Francois Duc de la Rochefoucauld
“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” – Kahlil Gibran
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” – Theodor Seuss Geisel
“Sweet is the memory of distant friends! Like the mellow rays of the parting sun, it falls tenderly, yet sadly, on the heart.” – Washington Irving
“If I had a single flower for every time I think of you, I could walk forever in my garden.” – Claudia Ghandi
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard to do.” – Carol Sobieski & Thomas Meehan
From a couple months ago….
Another marker of time has passed; another milestone achieved; this one was known and anticipated, looked-for and then, but some have come and gone without our noticing. Some have become significant only upon reflection as passed and past, things that caused us to say “Oh, yeah…that was the last time I….” They weren’t esteemed as significant in their moment, their instant of being what they were; they became so only afterward – when they were a nuance, maybe, a wrinkle in our memories, appreciated only in retrospect, not in substance, not in the rich essence of being what they were.
Today was the last day of second-grade for my last child; the last day that he could be included in that group of kids deemed as “K-2” on some papers, flyers, agendas, or other forms of organized little people collectives. Today was another irretrievably fallen grain of sand in the hour-glass of my little one’s life.
Is this significant? Is this day really that big of a deal? Is it worth the recognition that I’ve given it here? Does it really matter? I don’t know. I don’t remember the last day of second grade for my other five children who had a last day of second-grade in their particular lifetimes…and while I can’t guarantee that I will remember this day as significant several years from now, I am noting it as significant today. It is a celebration, a particular and specific something in my last little one’s life.
It’s not that sacred December season, but I could not help but make the connection with all the mayhem that is and has befallen our city in the last evening and early morning hours. I realize this is another somber and distressing post, but I think my cup is full and the meniscus of sadness is about to overflow, as its already feeble boundary or edge of fragile instability sways and quakes in the beating of my heart and tightness in my throat.
I sat there with my headset on and waited for what might come through the phone and happened to look up at the clock and noticed that it was 9:06 a.m. on our Sunday morning at work. In our police radio talk, in our city anyway, “9-0-6” means that we are to send help quickly. When we hear it on the radio, we know someone is either getting their ass kicked or they are about to. It’s not as bad as “9-9-9,” but it means that there is serious trouble and the officer needs help right now, this instant, this moment, immediately…a second ago, please. It’s appropriate now, I think. We need help. Or maybe it’s just me.
I could not help but be affected by my dispatcher’s quivering chin as she fought back the tears after working a suicide call that involved an officer from a neighboring city. “It’s so sad,” this little one said, as she voiced her distress and concern at what might have been so bad in the guy’s life that he wanted to end it all as he did. He had left a note at his computer on the desk in his office, giving his wife very specific instructions as to what she should do. He told her to call 9-1-1 and then take their daughter out front to wait for the police. She called us and said that she found the note and was scared to search the house for him or to go into the garage. She didn’t want to find his body. My dispatcher entered the responding officers’ radio traffic into the call, typing a narrative of what the on-scene officers said, noting the officers’ identifying call-sign, and then what they said. The Air Unit was overhead and did a search of the property after patrol units had arrived and checked the inside of the house. The sergeant said to keep the wife and child out front and to block off the road from passing traffic. The Air Unit’s observer then told the officers standing with the wife to turn-down their radios so she wouldn’t hear what he had to say. He then told the dispatcher and the other listening units, and me, that the officer was sitting on the swing in the northeast corner of his back yard. He said that it looked like a gun lying on the ground by the man’s left foot and it appeared that he had shot himself. The observer said that the guy wasn’t moving and then told us to stand-by; he was going to get lower and check to make sure. A couple seconds later, the Air Unit observer told us that the man was definitely shot. The patrol supervisor told the units to secure the dog in the backyard, and then to secure the handgun and to roll Fire. We don’t leave officers dead in their backyards for hours while we investigate what happened. Roll Fire – get the guy to a hospital, away from the house, from the family, from the swing-set in the backyard.
I wonder what that means, the symbolism in the man taking his life on his six year-old daughter’s swing-set in her backyard? Does it mean anything or nothing? The possibilities of freighted meanings are too much to contemplate.
My dispatcher’s eyes were sad and her voice was calm as she said thank-you as I got her a relief to sit there as she went down the hall for a few minutes after she finished the call. She was back on the radio then, half an hour or so later, and was giving the details of another hot call she was working with a hit-and-run accident victim who was chasing or following the suspect vehicle as it left the scene. She’s ok. She handled everything fine. She copied and repeated what the officers told her and she got it all typed into the call.
And so we go on. “9-1-1, Where is the emergency?”
This was only the second “serious” call of the morning. An hour earlier someone called to tell us that there was a dead transient in our city’s downtown “Heritage Square.” Another hour or so later, a son called to report that he found his 70 year-old father cold and blue in his bed on the west side of town. Another couple hours later, an off-duty fire-fighter and paramedic called to tell us that he found a deceased transient lying against the back wall of a dollar-store on the city’s south side. And almost finally, just before the end of shift, a young man called to tell us that he was hiking at one of the city’s mountain parks and found what appeared to be a 55 year-old man who had been shot in the chest…just laying there in the middle of the hiking path. Officers responded quickly with their lights and sirens and did, indeed, find the man lying there…and with a gun nearby. As I was about to step off the pod at the very end of my work-day, I noticed a message on my computer’s screen notifying me of another injured-person call…a two year-old was found floating in the family’s pool. The message had been there for a minute or two, so by the time I looked at it, the operator had added a couple more lines to the call. The last line said that the baby was awake and responsive…crying. “Code-4, clear it.”
And I’m 10-7, goodnight.
No TV tonight…no cop-shows…no news…and hopefully, no dreams about work….
The stars rained tears of gold that burned my cheeks in their falling. I was caught unawares and didn’t know what was happening. The song was playing with some mystical guitar notes that crept into my heart and caused the feelings to come, unbidden and not wanted, yet there and not able to be stopped. They sang of a sorrow that was nameless until the notes captured their substance and melted my aching heart. I longed for release and found it in her notes. That minstrel singing and the echoing thoughts in dirge-like chords wrenched my soul.
The man stood in the doorway for a moment before grabbing the elongated brass handle to open the door. He was looking at the house to the west of his and noticed how the image of the lowering sun was about to touch the roofline. The slate roof seemed to dip in the moment of the sun’s contact, causing the illusion that the weight of the sun was bearing down on the roof, or maybe the roof was molding itself to the shape of the sun to give it a more comfortable resting place at the end of its long day. The sun was bright, of course, but softened somehow in the closer atmosphere and haze of industry and pollen and life that existed above the horizon’s curving line, so the man stood there with unshielded eyes and continued to watch the sun’s dip into and below the roof line. He turned away and the golden glow remained in his eyes as he looked through the door’s glass to find his son. It was time for dinner and the boy was somewhere outside.
The door handle lowered without a sound and the door swung open quietly as the man pushed against it and walked out onto the back patio of the house. As he passed the mustard-colored and rectangular-shaped charcoal grill, he noticed that it still smelled of burnt sugar from the last time he barbequed ribs. It had been a couple weeks or more, but the scent still lingered. The man was barefoot and noticed, too, that the cement of the patio was still warm from the day’s sun, but the grass was cool as he stepped into it and began his search for his son. The man turned to the left from the patio and looked into the back-yard proper, gazing at the rock-fronted embankments that supported the tiered lawn that rose from the yard up to the street that ran behind his house. As he walked toward the front of the house that faced the town’s park, he craned his neck to look further into the yard to where the boy liked to play around the young, conical pine trees that resembled miniature Christmas trees when they were dusted or coated with December’s snow.
The evening was peaceful, now that the neighborhood kids had left the park and gone home or wherever after playing soccer for most of the afternoon. Looking toward the east and over the hills that fronted that side of the town, the man noticed the swallows darting over the park for their evening feeding and play-time. Overhead, the clouds were pink and orange and white and darkening gray with the falling sun and approaching night. Further north, he could still see the white line of a plane’s contrail that was still intact even though the plane had been gone for hours…just the singular, lined cloud was left in its passing. The man didn’t see his son anywhere, not in this side of the yard and not out in the park. He thought about calling-out for him, but didn’t want to break the quiet by raising his voice or yelling. Instead, he retraced his steps around the house, passed the back-door patio, and toward the other end of the yard, the side that fronted their street. The man walked along the low hedge that separated his yard from the neighbor’s and then past the gooseberry bushes and toward the side of the house where he could peek around the corner to see if his son was playing under the cherry trees. His step was quiet in the cool grass and the moss that grew thinly among the grass where he was, but was thicker under the trees.
Because the sun had completely lowered itself beneath the roofline of the neighbor’s house by now, there was no chance of the man’s son seeing his father’s shadow intrude into his quiet play. When the man slowly moved his head around the corner, he saw that his son was sitting cross-legged, facing away from him, and leaning forward with his hands busy at some task. The boy had his tan and green army-men positioned in loose rows and partially hidden in the moss, or situated behind various military vehicles and broken sticks from the trees above him. He occasionally leaned back or to the right or left to straighten a fallen man or to move a truck closer to the grouped men, enacting some strategy or maneuver of protection or attack. The boy even rolled a golf-ball or lightly tossed a shiny, black cherry in the direction of the men, imagining that they were rockets or some other projectile, sometimes knocking over one of the men or coming to rest next to or on top of one of the vehicles, and sometimes not. With the impact of the cherries or golf ball, the boy made his eleven year-old’s version of a soft explosion…a hushed “pkshew!” that he thought only he could hear.
The man smiled to himself as he watched and listened to his son. He saw the purplish-pink stains on the boy’s white t-shirt and imagined the cherry-fight that he had had with his friends earlier in the afternoon…the cherry-fight that he wasn’t supposed to have had. As the man attempted to kneel down into the moss and grass next to the house, his shorts scraped on the prickly stucco finish on the house and startled his son. The boy was in mid-reach across his battlefield and gasped and dropped one of his army men as he jerked and turned around to face his father.
The boy’s heart was pounding and his mouth was suddenly dry. “I didn’t know you were there,” he said. His mind was racing back through his day, wondering at what he might have done wrong, wondering what little or grand sin had been revealed and was now set to ruin what he thought was an otherwise good day, and wondering why, if he hadn’t done anything wrong, his father was there on the side of the yard looking for him…and getting ready to sit down like he was planning to stay for a while.
“Well, I wasn’t here for very long. What are you doing?”
The boy tried to swallow. “Just playing…Army.”
“Weren’t your friends out here earlier?”
“Yes Sir, but they had to leave.”
“Which friends were here?”
“You said your friends were here earlier. Which ones were here?”
The boy looked across the gravel and grass driveway and out into the park where the swallows were still darting around. He saw a couple boys at the water fountain at the far side of the park. “I…don’t know,” he stammered. “I don’t remember.”
“But they were just here,” the man said, “who were they? You’re not in trouble, Stephan, I’m just asking which friends were here.”
“Hansi and Martin.”
“Isn’t Hansi’s father the butcher?”
“I don’t know. I think so…maybe.”
“Isn’t he one of those older boys that you were playing with in the spring and got into trouble with?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t remember,” the father said, “when you guys stole the bratwurst and then went off into the woods and cooked it? You don’t remember that?”
“Yes Sir…I…think I remember.”
“Wasn’t Hansi one of those older boys?”
The boys had moved from the water fountain and were now kicking a soccer ball out on the field at the park. “I don’t know.”
The man sat down in the grass and moss and leaned against the house. “Stephan…look at me. You’re not in trouble…we’re just talking…ok? You can answer me,” said the man. “Look…here,” he said, pointing to his eyes. “You’re ok.”
The boy turned his head from watching the boys with the soccer ball and met his father’s eyes. He didn’t answer him immediately, but just looked at him. This was unusual for him; the boy…he felt odd, bold somehow…maybe even brave. His father’s manner and voice were unsettling. There was none of the harshness or sarcasm that he was used to…and his eyes didn’t look angry. It looked like his father was really just asking him a question…not investigating an offense.
“Augie’s father is the butcher,” said the boy, “but Hansi was part of the group that did that, yes Sir.”
“Is that Hansi out there playing soccer?”
The boy looked at the two other boys out on the field for a couple seconds and then turned again to his father. “No Sir. Hansi had to go home. He said it was almost getting dark and he had to go in for dinner.”
“Why what?” said the man.
“Why’d you want to know if that’s Hansi out there playing soccer?”
“Nothing, Stephan. I was just asking…nothing. Relax, would you? And stop calling me ‘Sir.’”
The boy looked at his father’s hands for a couple seconds and then moved up to meet his eyes. The eyes were still dark brown and still set deep into his father’s head, but the prominent brow-ridge seemed less severe as his eye-brows were raised in a gentle and almost inquisitive arch.
“What? Just call me ‘Dad’ now. Say ‘Yes Dad,’ not ‘Yes Sir.’ That seems wrong somehow.”
“Can I ask you something and not get in trouble?”
“Yes…ask or say anything you want.”
The boy just looked at him.
“I’m serious…really…anything…you won’t get in trouble.”
“What happened to you in the wreck? I know you broke a couple ribs, but what happened…you know…inside your head? Mom said it went through the front window, right?”
The man looked at his son…intently, gently…and picked a tuft of moss from the ground. He moved his eyes to the moss and then asked, “What do you mean, ‘What happened in my head?’”
“You’re not like you used to be,” said the boy, looking past his father, but still watching him, trying to sense if he was going too far. “You’re different.”
“Almost dying in the wreck like that made me think about my life; it made me think about how I was treating people…how I treated you and your mom…and I decided that I needed to be different.”
The boy looked out into the park again. He didn’t want his father to see the tears that were starting to spill from his eyes. “Just like that…you ‘decided’ that you needed to be different?”
The man looked down and watched his fingers as they slowly tore the moss apart and let it drop back into the grass. “I guess so. When I was laying there in the hospital with my neck in that brace and my face all bandaged-up and tubes sticking out of my lungs, I thought about how lucky I was that my heart was still beating and that I wasn’t hurt as bad as I could have been considering what I had been through. It almost seemed like I was being given a second chance or something, you know…somehow…maybe…to do things right…if that’s possible.”
The boy turned back and looked toward his father, not meeting his eyes exactly, but looking through him at some point directly behind his head. “If you could just decide that you needed to be different when you were laying there in the hospital, why couldn’t you have decided a long time ago that you would be different…why didn’t you decide when I was a littler kid that you weren’t going to be so mean…that you could talk to me instead of hitting me, or that I could talk to you like you were just my dad and not some…kind…of…whatever you’ve been?”
“I don’t know, Stephan. I guess it took me almost dying to realize how much I love you…I don’t know.”
“Oh. Well, that’s when I figured out that I don’t love you,” said the boy, “when you were in the hospital almost dying. I always thought I did, or wanted to, maybe. I thought that if I loved you more you’d be nicer to me, but it didn’t work. So when Mom told me that you might die, I was hoping you would, because I knew I wouldn’t have to try to love you anymore. It would be ok that I didn’t…and now you’re not dead and I still don’t love you.”
The man turned his eyes to watch the neighbor drive past in his blue Saab. He followed the car until it stopped at the water fountain by the corner of the park and then turned down the hill where it disappeared behind the Vivo store on the opposite corner. Then he turned slightly in the other direction and watched the kids chasing each other and kicking the soccer ball for a few seconds. Finally, he looked back at his son and said, “Wow…I don’t know what to do with that, Stephan.”
“I don’t either,” said the boy as he reached for one of his army men.
“I guess I’ll have to work on that, won’t I? Give you a reason to love me?”
The boy pulled a handful of moss and began to gently tear it apart and lay the pieces across his army trucks, camouflaging them against the enemy that was lined-up behind the moss and grass berm that he had built close to the trunk of the nearest tree. He then absently grabbed a cherry from the ground and slipped it into his mouth. He bit down on the sweet flesh and then used his tongue to separate the seed as he slowly chewed and swallowed the tiny fruit.
“Stephan? I said I’ll have to work on that, won’t I?”
“I don’t know.”
The man slowly stood and then leaned over to stretch his legs that had been folded under him while he sat and talked with his son. He said “Ok,” and then turned to walk back around the corner of the house. After a couple steps, he turned around and leaned down so he could see his son better under the cherry trees. “You need to come in now. The streetlights are coming on and it’s time to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
The man raised his voice a little – “Stephan, I said you need to come in.”
Winter finally arrived in our desert valley the other day, bringing cold and wind and rain and a crispness in the mornings that has been uncommon in our easy-bake-oven existence here and about. The day’s early sky was still rippled with clouds of gray and white amid the blue background and aimless sun. When I dropped-off my little one at school, the teachers stood around shivering and smiling and talking about the upcoming holidays and mid-word stopped to blow a whistle to tell the kids to get off the ball-field…you know better than that…the grass was covered in frost and the dirt of the infield was darker with a dew that didn’t freeze. It was the first morning of the year when there was real frost on my windshield that I had to scrape off…so unusual…bordering on strange, for here anyway. My little one commented that the ground would be covered with snow if we were up in Utah…a subject of some contention in the household and family of late…to go or not to go…to be or not to be here or there…to throw caution to the proverbial wind and step out on another risk…a risk-taking in a risky time…but we’re not going…we’re here…and another Christmas season is upon us already. It seems that the kids just started school a little while ago and it’s back again. The lights are up throughout the neighborhoods and the stores are crammed with people who are usually doing other things when I happen to frequent the place…more cars in the parking lot, more cashiers at their stands, more people in the aisles, and more stuff and stuff in the air. I put-up our tree that afternoon and got-out the Christmas CDs and still had them turning on the stereo when I wrote this…Jim Brickman, Josh Groban, and three others making the rounds over and again, shedding their spirit and making me wonder again at this person Jesus who is said to have been born in a manger and all of the rest of it. I think this might have been my favorite time of the year when I was a Christian, a believer, a person of eternal hope and non-thought…someone treading in the footsteps laid ahead for me…pulled along by the ring in the nose…non-thought…anyway, I’m not going down that pathway right now, just wanted to say that if I were still a Christian, I would love the words of the music and the thoughts of the season. As it is, I listen to mostly instrumental music and hear only the tunes while the words echo on their own in my mind….resounding symbols of a previous life. It would be so nice to be able to believe that it was all true because it sounds so beautiful in this one month of the year…so comforting, reassuring, or something…but empty…and even sad…sad at the loss of that wrongly-conceived comfort, and sad with memories of being welfare-poor when our kids were little and not being able to provide them with the tangible Christmas gifts that we thought we should be able to provide…and sad with the memories of being a child and feeling that I didn’t deserve the presents…I wondered on several occasions how I could possibly have anything under the tree, thinking the gifts were supposed to be a representation of the love that was being rewarded in substance for my behavior during the rest of the year…and I knew that I had gotten my ass beaten several times, too many times, innumerable times for shit I did wrong and for lies that I told so that I might avoid the ass-beating…and how could they then give me presents for Christmas…and the gall they had that one year to give me the presents I had found while snooping through my father’s dresser drawers and stealing some of his Lifesavers…he had said he was throwing everything away…and he did throw away most of my toys and all the posters and things I had on my walls and on the top of my dresser…all my special things, trophies, souvenirs, mementoes…every damn thing…the things that comforted me when I was in my room and away from him…and I had discovered a poster of a horse in his drawer…and it was under the tree…like I wasn’t going to remember the yelling, cursing, hateful brown eyes glaring, piercing, stabbing into my soul whenever I saw the poster? Merry fucking Christmas…. And it’s always sad in spite of the good times with all the kids over and the tons of presents for everyone…it just is…too many memories that reach beyond the present and cannot be exorcised even with the passing of time…the shit is still in there with painful gashes that are trying to heal…and making tears run with sad joy at remembering my Thanksgiving morning when my littlest one greeted me first thing with “Happy Thanksgiving, Papa.” He calls me Papa when he’s being tender…when he’s being precious, gentle, loving…. “Papa.” I never had a word like that for my father…and my heart is touched.