Saturday, September 30, 2006

Three Vignettes of No Particular Order (second in a series of 10)

I. Impact

It is not so much the impact you feel as it is the slow motion slideshow you experience a millisecond before. You feel the impossibly long slow drown of grief of family and friends and people you’ve met in passing. Folks you never knew. A grocery clerk. An unmet neighbor. You feel the pain of love and of having loved. The excruciating pain of incompletion. It is surpassed only (and at once) by the welcome end of things.

By the euphoria of nothingness.

II. Appointment

“Well,” I start after a long silence, “there was the summer I went a little crazy, I guess.”

She appears to write something in the notebook that I’ve long suspected is actually just a prop.

“Is this the time about the girl?” she asks, still writing. She does not look up.

“That’s right.” My smartass smirk sticks to my face like graffiti. I cannot will it away. “She had interesting nipples and we used to rob convenience stores together. Her father wanted me to join the family business. But I was only 17 and I told him, ‘No, Rich. I’m gonna be a dancer. I’ve got the footwork and the drive. So, a dancer. Or a Presbyterian, maybe. Sometimes I feel the Lord behind my knees when I walk.’”

She writes some more. Casually.

“I thought you were an atheist,” she monotones finally.

“Agnostic,” I correct.

“Atheist. Agnostic,” she says. “They’re both empty attempts to stave off belief in something greater than yourself.”

“Says you,” I grin.

“Yep. Says me.” She appears to be drawing.

“So what do you believe?” I ask, not really caring.

She looks at me. Expressionless. Finally, she says, “I believe you’re trying to use sarcasm to avoid the issues that haunt you. I believe that your pain resides so deep that, for now, you are incapable of embracing it or using it. I believe your entire carriage is an unsuccessful defense mechanism.”

“Are you saying I never wanted to be a dancer?” I ask.

“That’s right, Ray.”


“Have a drink with me,” I say. “You can bring your notebook.”

“I don’t drink with Presbyterians,” she says.

“Actually, I’m Catholic. Never did convert.” Pause. “C’mon, Doc. Let’s go find the Virgin Mary in a glass of bourbon.”

“I’ll have to pass, Ray.” She writes some more.

We sit in silence. It is quiet as a womb. I start to say this just for the reaction but do not. Instead I wait.

III. Spider

It is there. Unmoving. Its body the size of a quarter dollar. Add the legs, it becomes a fifty cent piece. I imagine its many patient eyes sizing me up. Its advance on me is nearly indiscernible. Like a minute hand. I watch it watch me. It has been 33 minutes, eight seconds. I have to pee but dare not get up. It owns me.

The currency of the moment is hyperbole.

Hyperbole and then some.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Fall and Autumn (or Things to Do on Your Summer Vacation)

With the grandeur of Tennessee fall in the air, it is nice to reflect on what was by most counts a good—albeit fast—summer. Fall (or “jean-jacket weather” as I called it while growing up), has long held a special place in my heart. It has never been the end of something. On the contrary, fall is, for me, as spring is for many others. It has always felt so full of promise. Like the beginning of something special. The first few weeks of a relationship. Adolescent kisses sneaked high in the bleachers.

All that brilliance as leaves run like watercolor. It is birth. The possibility of possibility.

Often a walking contradiction, I find myself in stereo with summer as well. That southern, stifling, wet summer. The one that thieves my breath and mugs my sensibilities. I’m not sure how it is that I appreciate them both as I do. But I’m okay with not being sure.

Emerson asked me last week, “Daddy? Is it Fall yet?”
(I like the way his head works) “Nope,” I said. “Next Saturday. In about nine days.”
“Oh!” he said. “Daddy? You know what my favorite seasons are?”
“No Boy. What are they?”
“Ummm. Fall and autumn and….ummm, what’s the udder one?

The seasons become more special when you have an Emerson. Time in general becomes more special. The passage thereof becomes an ache and you find yourself scrambling so as not to waste any. It is futile you know. But we’re making memories here. Daily.

And scattered as ever, my whiskey-dipped mind is replaying a soundtrack of the satisfying summer. The random play suggests to me it was a good summer. A summer spent largely with my head in and out of the sand, casually looking for who I once was. It was one both busy and sedate. Full of surety and insecurity. Of resilience and new found confidence. It was contemplative and mean; contemplative and sweet. One of looking for and finding my laugh and passion. On a one to ten, I’ll give it a hearty seven and a half.

Regardless of meaningless scores and scoring systems, it occurs to me through wisps of cigar smoke that there are certain things a guy should do during his summer…

1.) If you agree to let your child leave you for ten days to visit Washington, D.C., Baltimore, then South Carolina, and Georgia, be prepared to act like a lottery winner upon his return. Go to dinner together and listen attentively to every minute detail of his journey. When you get home, take off your shoes, cue the stereo, and dance together like motherfuckers to the Gap Band’s Burn Rubber and You Dropped a Bomb on Me. And when you are exhausted and sweaty and grinning so big you fear your faces will break, put on the Violent Femmes’ Jesus Walking on the Water and do it all over again. It’s a wonderful way to spend a night.

2.) Go home. Grab enough shit to get you by for a week and take your Boy home. Deposit your job in a dumpster and drive 400 miles home. Sneak rear view mirror glances at your boy as he sleeps with confidence and again as he awakes and stares out the side window like a poet. It will make your heart sing, I promise. Make sure the drive is a relaxing adventure and not a chore.

Watch a grinning Nigerian gentleman gliding down the sweetest hills of Monteagle burn out the brakes of a brand new Volvo big rig. Try to tie together the humor and sadness of the event and explain the acrid smell that envelops your Jeep for the next 10 miles to your Boy. Recognize that hilarity and misery are such close cousins. Minimizing that for a four-year-old’s consumption is difficult (i.e., laughing at another’s misfortune is rarely advisable but sometimes unavoidable). It is okay to laugh at the absurd and hope that no one gets hurt.

When you get to the driveway of your childhood home, watch your son bound into the arms of his grandmother. Try to measure the mutual love as seen in a single embrace. Realize that it is immeasurable.

Sit up all night with your younger older sister. Dance around subjects you aren’t able to talk about yet—the ones that sit in your throat and taunt your soul. Turn her onto Loudon Wainwright III. Casually pick out a dozen CDs that she will burn for you and send later.

Share Father’s Day with your Dad and your own son and marvel at the idea of three generations at a single table.

Go pick out cigars with your mother and son.

Take your son to the old Lock and Dam. Watch the water that created your hometown all those years ago. Watch turtles take choreographed leaps into the still canal. Point out and avoid the ubiquitous poison ivy. Watch your son and mom find a black and green beetle the size of a silver dollar and make it a trophy.

Appreciate that the summer heat in Augusta is unique. Independent of all summer heat anywhere.

Go see Roger Enevoldsen play his guitar and sing his songs because you have done this for over 20 years and it makes you happy. Drink like a college student and smile as he plays Rocky Raccoon for you just as he did when you were a kid, heartsick and young. Years ago. Stay up until 4 a.m. Be shameless if you can’t be carefree. Notice the bartender. Her slight wrists and waltzing eyes. Her slight figure and mischievous smile. Acknowledge that you’ve not been dead for so long that you cannot recognize flirting. Then acquiesce. Take pleasure in the knowledge that you can still feel like that. That hint of heat that is not summer. Talk to her and pocket her voice that tells you to please come see her when you are back in town.

3.) Hit the live-music jackpot and score tickets to a Tom Waits show. Gloat like a man who has just invented summer. Work a half-Monday and pair up with your buddy who is nearly as damaged as you. Ease into his beautiful old Porsche 944 S2 and road trip it to Louisville, Kentucky. Relax and be giddy. Flirt again with speeds of 100 mph. Curse and avoid the Kentucky cops and their goddamned unmarked black Camaros. Check into a miserably wonderful downtown hotel at midday. Find a bar and drink draught beer. Mingle with the crowd outside the Louisville Palace. People-watch. Fall in love two dozen times. Contemplate enrolling in the University of Louisville. Appreciate the firm breasts and lower back tattoos. Drink cold bottle beer bought from street vendors. And watch.

And when the show starts, have the presence of mind to realize you are seeing God onstage. His voice is gravel and rock salt. His light show is aurora borealis. His gyrations epileptic. His sense of humor, biting and refreshing. His effect on you….life-altering.

Leave the show in reverie. Uncertain of what you’ve just seen. It can’t be processed yet. Re-find your bar and drink more beer. Watch a heart-stopping siren play fully-clothed in the city fountain. Forget that you are old enough to be her father. Just enjoy her. Her youth and drunkenness and happiness and lack of inhibition.

Walk with your buddy back to your room. Walk past a naked man sleeping in front of a nondescript office building as comfortably as if he were on his own couch. Notice the disinterested cops across the street pretend not to see him and then drive away. Sleep agitated sleep and ride hungover straight to work and put in your time. Continue to process what you saw the night before. Listen as Tom Waits growls in your sea-heavy head like a penance.

4.) Go to a local block party in honor of Otha Turner. Drink free beer and marvel again at humanity. Dance again to Bluegrass music with your Boy. Stand in line for dragon face-paint and balloon animals fashioned by hateful clowns. Take in the best and worst of Nashville society and ponder where you might fit. Abandon the exercise and enjoy the music. Avoid Uncle G.’s friends and agree to not consider them at all. Bask in the music and atmosphere and senses of inclusion and exclusion.

5.) Go to Emory in Atlanta to visit your friend from high school. Muster your courage and strive to be strong. Know that although he walked through the disease and the bone marrow transplant, the resulting GVH may be his undoing. Try to be upbeat and encouraging. Do not be shocked that the disease and treatment have robbed him of his weight and hair and energy. Be strong because this one’s not about you. Walk with him as he tries to do “laps” around his ward to build his strength. He managed 10 the day before but will work through 11 in (and because of) your presence. It will be difficult for him and you will be by his side, close enough to catch him if he falls. Pray he won’t. You don’t want him to be embarrassed in front of you. Allow yourself to feel guilty for going to lunch knowing he is not allowed even ice chips because of the disease. And hate the disease and what it has done to your friend. Allow, also, that the selfish part of you will think of your own recent exhaustion and wonder Oh Christ! Do I have it too?

And though you are sad and unsure, leave with a smile because you will make your friend laugh and feel normal and like this might be something he can beat and say Motherfuck you! to. And when you get home, say a prayer. And try not to cry in front of your son when you hug him goodnight.

6.) Make a friend. Accept the kindness and decency of another. Take your Boy to swim in this person’s pool. Study on the sly how he interacts with his own child and take notes. Recognize that no matter how good you are at something, you can always improve upon it. Commiserate. Ponder at length—without obsessing—the similarities of your respective situations, backgrounds, and experiences. Consider confiding. Ultimately learn how to be a friend again.

7.) Celebrate your birthday with the older of your two sisters. Accept her generosity and sincerity. Be dignified. Enjoy her company and substantial efforts most of all. Sit up until 5 a.m. on your porch and watch as secrets and perceptions spill like an elixir. Compare memories. And interpretations. Be siblings! Trade music and more memories. Work through your hangovers and enter downtown Nashville and embark on the Broadway Crawl. Take your sister to Tootsies and Roberts and The Stage and find a spot at Layla’s Bluegrass Inn and settle in for the long haul. Listen to Bluegrass you could find no where else outside of your own living room 30 years prior. Drink beer and spill bourbon. Watch the uniqueness that is Nashville wash into and out of these Honky Tonks. Introduce your sister to your buddy so she knows you aren’t entirely alone. Make her laugh her wonderful loud laugh by telling crude stories. Even though you do not drink it, convince her to order you a Miller Genuine Draught because she is unable to put those particular words together on this night. Stand in the middle of sidewalk traffic on Broadway with your sister and friend laughing like fools while the tourists and locals weave their paths around you.

Although you despise birthdays and are embarrassed by them, smile at how lovely this one is. Receive flowers and Woodford and cigars and Makers and DVDs and company and be made happy by them.

8.) At the close of summer, take your Boy to the Dragon Park. Run him as though you could actually influence his energy. Learn to distance yourself just so. Grant him that sweet hint of independence whereupon he escapes your sight for a nanosecond. Know that it is horrifying and necessary. Kick the soccer ball with him. Annoy him and laugh with him.

When you leave the park, go to the record store down the road. Treat yourself to the new Tom Petty and Old Crow Medicine Show. Play both of them immediately and justify spending money you do not have.

9.) Set up late night shop on your crippled front porch. Drink good whiskey and smoke fine cigars as if you own the last mild days of summer. As if they were placed upon the calendar solely for your enjoyment. Enjoy how the night makes you shiver a little. Makes your toes cold.

And in a couple days it is fall. The green Tennessee hills will soon sing a new poetry of color. From my vantage I will hum back-up. From the backseat of the Jeep, my son, the Romantic, will sing harmony. “Summer is done,” says someone looking for his jean jacket and pocketful of nostalgia.

“And fall and autumn are our two favorite seasons.”

Friday, September 01, 2006

Three Vignettes of No Particular Order (first in a series of 10)

I. The First First Round

He sat motionless on his front porch, the nightsounds constant and loud as traffic. His thoughts worked the heavy bag to his first professional fight and how the christening straight left jab broke his too large nose. How the blood flowed like water from a tap until the second jab staunched the bleeding and reset the nose. How the taste of his blood made him gag and made him strong. How he drew the journeyman in by dropping his left, weaving right, countering with a body shot. How he felt the old man’s ribs give and give again. And then again. How he was alive and empty at the sight of the man spitting his own blood, unable to answer the bell of the second round.

II. Interrupting Goodbye

It was late. He was drunk. They argued. She was done with him. She had been done before they’d begun. She went for the door. Her confidence was like a third person in the room. He knew he’d lost her. Had never had her. She walked as if underwater. Her hair, long and dirty blonde, was the most beautiful he’d ever seen. It moved just barely when she walked. He watched her cut-offs and the fabric of her white blouse moving away. He loved all the things she wasn’t. He loved those things more than he loved her. And really, he knew, he didn’t love her at all. As she stepped to leave, he spoke his last false words. “If you walk out that door… I won’t be here when you come back,” he said. She paused. She shut the door and returned. After some tears, they made useless love on his mother’s couch.

The clock over the Victorian roll top desk stood forever at 3:30 a.m.

III. Surviving Childhood

A product of that social experiment, busing, Ray’s education away from books and lesson plans began early. ( Should the grounds of an elementary school be enclosed on all sides by a twelve-foot fence crowned with barbed wire?) It was odd but accepted—as is most everything when one is a child. The playground was inviting as a prison yard and as dangerous. A low wall in the lunch room had been smeared with human feces at some point and never was cleaned or painted over. Students lined against the wall prior to being led back to class each day. They nonchalantly avoided leaning flush against the wall. Sometimes a student pushed another so that he brushed up to it. He could then be taunted for the rest of the day. “You touched shit, you touched shit,” they would laugh. Ray was beaten regularly by the black kids. Accused of calling them a word he would never utter even in adulthood. He could feign only so much toughness and was too sensitive to grasp the true horror of his situation. Before his sentence there, he never knew that sixth graders could get pregnant.

He served three years at Ursula Collins Elementary. And he survived. No noticeable scars accompanied him to his later years.

Nothing noticeable anyway.