Echo Hall, KCJD, I

 

Incident reports feather from an accordion binder that looks like it’s been through a war.  Incidents report from the mouths of children who look like they’ve been through a war.

 

The late October sun slant is as unexpectedly bright as the canary cell doors in this hall; I’m no longer surprised by the brightness of the kids that parade march down the linoleum to tell deadpan truths about shit that would make a dedicated stoic act straight up histrionic.  Something that I’ve learned, though, is that the durability of the veneer measures not necessarily how long they’ve been locked up in here, but how long they’ve successfully locked up their hearts and, thereby, their expressions.  A kid might be on his first stint in the mildewed chill of Echo Hall, but wear the face of a lifer because of what’s happened on the other side of bars.  Just now this corn-rowed kid with baby fat read his poem aloud; a kind of cucumber-cool dirge for the fact that he doesn’t trust a soul and won’t, ever.  I thanked him for his honesty, his realness and he gave me a look that is, as they say, the opposite of love—not hatred at all, but an indifference that was monstrous.  Of course his poem had already said it all.

 

 

There’s a tomboyish brunette with hooks for elbows, nose and knees who writes solely—two weeks running—about her boyfriend, who is just down the corridor in L Hall.  The way that juvie is laid out roughly mimics Jeremy Bentham’s 18th Century panopticon, designed for minimal privacy and maximal surveillance.  Plexiglassed triangle courtyards reveal the contents of all the halls to many angles, to roving guards, to a series of control posts stashed like machine gun nests down the length of the place, so the kids can see each other at random moments, from random positions.  Sometimes, she says, she can see him getting ready for a shower, or playing cards or, sometimes, staring at nothing while she stares at him.  Eye contact between the genders gets quashed in the corridors severely, so the whole affair—that’s already strung out over two years on the outside—has borrowed an air of illicitness that clearly excites her and kindles a forbidden romance that perhaps it never had before.  Clearly, the fact that they are both locked up enhances her love for him, multiplies her longing and doesn’t trouble her in the least.  But people in love are separated from one another by any number of barriers and I don’t suppose that steel and concrete and plexiglass are any less romantic than restraining orders, stress, parenting discord, resentment or boredom.

 

 

Trauma and love, resignation and hope, poetry and obscenity, uniformity and wild heartedness: they mingle here like a crowd at a singles’ dance—all vulnerable, all defended, all naked children holding nothing but swords.

 

Weds. Words.

Shadows of an Indian summer scribble the mad, wrong options on eyelids stubbornly closed in tribute to a woman that had to see—and could not rest. 

 

5:00, Starting Time, my boy kaleidoscopes through the front door and sorrow gets deposited in a fireproof safe in the depths of my belly.

 

It’s true, I may have tried, A), to ask him what he’d prefer for dinner, B), not asked him if he wanted bubbles in his bath, C), tried to reason with him about the duty of clean teeth.

 

But, still, failures are as relative as seasons; still, I live with him, for her with some success and he is sleeping sound before my light slips again.

FIRELINES

 

My mother emailed me this morning to say that the house in which we were living when I was born, up Four Mile Canyon outside of Boulder, CO, had burned in the wildfires.

 

 

 

When I was eighteen years old, I drove there with my best friend in a jointly-owned VW van and sat in the dried-up yard near a bubbling brook and wrote my parents a twenty-page letter, accusing them and forgiving them of many things; I later found out I was sitting in the wrong yard.

 

 

 

Last week I left my little brother in his new chic shotgun house in the lower Garden District of New Orleans where he is starting out as an ER doc, a choice made not least of all because that is the city where our parents met and fell in love when they were much younger than he or I are now; last week we joined our father’s ashes with the Mississippi to bring him back to that place and welcome KC to it; on my way home my flight route traced my parents’ trajectory of the middle 1970s, northwest from Louisiana to Colorado and as we banked a turn out of Denver, the pilot announced a pretty spectacular view of the wildfires off the left side of the jumbo jet, but I was sitting flush with the right window and as the plane tilted up to offer the view of the destruction below, I looked north, away.

 

On the Levee

When my cabbie called me at 5:20 this morning (he needed to get there early to stay ahead of that rain, he said), the jeans I pulled on were still rolled to the knee from wading into the oily waters of the Mississippi last evening.  My brother KC and I drove out to the levee with Steve and Kim Hunicke, our parents’ best friends from Tulane University who have never left the Big Easy no matter how hard it got.  The sun had started falling and the oppression of heat began to lift. On the rolling green bank, ambitious men did bear crawls and bunny hops and parked hands on their hips and heaved their chests every few seconds, framed by post-Katrina graffiti and train tracks.  We carried a bag of beer and a box of ashes, letting bicyclists weave around us, keeping KC’s pooch, Cole, clear of their path by hurling his ball repeatedly down the far side of the levee.  We accessed the river on a sandy beachhead intentionally, finding what Steve and Kim at least remembered as the same location at which a cherished picture of them and our parents as twenty-something revelers was snapped some four decades ago.  A fat nest of parakeets sang on a power tower behind and barges pushed upriver like mastadons. A drunk Brazilian fisherman emerged from the foliage to bum a cigarette before we got started—handful by handful and tear by tear returning my father to the river he’d often watched (and into which his own dogs had tumbled after tennis balls) with eyes not yet dulled by all that was to come.  With eyes, in fact, many years younger than even KC’s are now.

 

I like to think that we did more than return my father to a place that he loved deeply, in the company of people that he loved deeply.  That we did even more than bring my father with KC as he starts his own life as an ER doc there.  I like to think that we returned a time and a place to my father as well.  Just as there is more than simply synchronicity in KC making his way back to the wild, hot city where our parents met and fell in love—and as there is more than metaphor in his arrival coming after a storm that nearly destroyed that city—there was more than simple ritual in watching the gray handfuls of ash vanish in the brackish current.  There was a gesture of hope in it, too, an appeal to ourselves to remember my father in his youth, to remember him unbroken and full of dream still.  My father died, out there doggedly dreaming again, unwilling to stop, and that makes me proud.  But particularly at this time in life, as I stand on the precipice of the bridge from youth to middle age, I want to remember him as a man younger than myself now.  I wanted my brother to take my father home, to take my father with him.  But I also wanted to remind myself about dreaming and about building the determination to always do so, even when youth is gone.

Leaving the Canyon (Part I)

 

Sometimes I feel like the city is watching me, like the skyline with its zillion blazing bulbs was built there just to survey my life.  The fact that I leave the curtains wide and walk room to room naked has less to do with feeling comfortable than feeling defiant.  If New York judges me, the verdict doesn’t concern me—or at least that’s what I tell myself.

 

I remember the moments before he called: the winds riding up the Hudson made the white drapes dance.  They billowed up around the windows like a ghost was entering the apartment.  A purple swelling over the city rumbled and flashed, but Manhattan ignored the threat.

 

After a particularly large boom of thunder, my little red mutt, Knox, belly-crawled from the closet to where I sat on the sofa.  I invited her up into my lap and rubbed her ears.  Thunder always stirs her up, and I always feel a bit guilty because I love those violent spells of August; there’s something about the power of a thunderhead that can make even the colossal achievement of the Big Apple seem silly.   And that’s nice, somehow.

 

My feelings about the city are mixed.  On the one hand I love the anonymity.  To be able to move down a street, past people you’ll never see again, knowing one another only like blurs, is kind of comforting.  On the other hand, especially after four years at a small college, I’d had my fill of people, period, and maybe I should by now be living on a prairie somewhere in the great American west, which I do miss savagely.  Trade anonymity for seclusion.  Overall, I suppose I believe that people just suck—given a real test nine out of ten will always blow it.  For the record, I count myself among the nine.  When you’ve got to know how to love right, most people flee—or just turn away.

 

Big sheets of rain started lashing the city, distorting all the skyscrapers.  The storm was headed my way across the river, but I didn’t close the sliding glass door.  I wanted it to lumber full force into me.  A big, drawn-out clap of thunder shuddered the walls like a burp from God and five-fingered lightning palmed the polluted sky.  The candles all guttered and Knox pushed her snout between my thighs.  I took a long drink of the Bordeaux, straight from the bottle.  And then the lights cut out without even a flicker.

 

The water started beating percussion against the walls and sent a thin spray through the screen.  The first time I heard the phone ring, I didn’t bother getting up—the storms can sometimes rattle the ringer, a false alarm.  But when it rang again I dumped Knox, slid the door closed, and felt my way over, hoping it was not this obnoxious illustrator I’d worked with once or twice, Warren.  He’d been hounding me to see (read: fuck) him every time his wife went out of town.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hey.”

 

And that was it: three letters, one syllable.  The avalanche of years, to say nothing of the land that had come between us, vanished like sheets of paper handed to the wind.  He was back in my ear, back in my life, and, furthermore, I knew that he was very near.

 

“Hey, Leo,” I said.
My heart pounded and anxiety spun in me like a propeller.  I dragged my arm across the sudden humidity on my face and tried to clear my throat of wine and surprise.  But my voice didn’t betray anything; it was the one little part of me that kept cool.  And he noticed.

 

“’Hey, Leo?’  That’s all you have to say?  Aren’t you surprised?”

 

“No,” I told him and I wasn’t really, either.

 

Already the rain was dying down to a sprinkle.  I could hear the heavy static and background chatter of crossed lines, like ghosts whispering.

 

“Looks like the storm has passed on to you,” he said, deadpan as always.

 

I wasn’t shocked that he was so close; inside my head it was more like a tangle of excitement, fear, and some amount of joy.  My voice stayed loyal.

 

“It’s already dying even over here,” I told him.

 

The static and the ghostly voices flooded the line again for a minute.

 

“Come and get me, Sher,” he said.

 

“Yeah, of course,” I said.

 

“It’s disappointing that I have to ask, you know.”

 

“No, no, you don’t.  I just…where are you?”

 

“Twenty-sixth precinct.  It’s on Eighth, near the Apollo.”

 

I sucked a breath in and my cool broke and I could only stammer that I was on my way. I killed the candles and grabbed my keys.  As I found the doorknob, the lights came back, again without a flicker, like they’d never been gone.

HAPPY CONTINUATION DAYS

Yesterday, in my way, I said goodbye to two very important people forever: my wife’s grandfather, Al “Yayo” Sperry and Paula LeFavor.  Paula had already been gone for a day and, in fact, Al is still sipping air in a hospice bed in the blue light of his condo as I type this.  But I chose my moment, as we must do, after holding Al’s hand and choking out a farewell.  I didn’t have the privilege of doing so with Paula, whom I hadn’t laid eyes on in a couple of years.  I stood before a fountain in a Reno medical plaza and flipped two coins up, into the high desert sun.

 

Al Sperry wore the best elements of his generation as easily as he wore his pressed blue jeans and starched shirts (even in the Cascade Mountains): he was chivalrous, hardworking, brave, loyal, and humble.  He was one of those men who would have insisted on standing in the back row for a snapshot of the Greatest Generation, though everyone that knew him would have pushed him to the front.  But there was a lot more to Al than those archetypical traits listed above, traits that all too often have composed men that also bear the sorrowful undertones of their era: irremediable sexism, racial prejudice, rigidity, blind patriotism—basically a boiling fear at the rainbow tumult their country has fast become.  Al was different.  He made himself an ally of the future and of change.  He drove a Prius until he couldn’t drive anymore.  The only times I ever saw him angry—slightly flushed, shaking his head, a modicum of frown—was when he’d listen to the babbling heads of the Right on “the boob tube.”  Otherwise, even the most stressful or infuriating of events he’d turn to dust with a shrug and a chuckle and, so very often, a perfectly timed joke—either something antiquated that his wife Josephine would roll her eyes and giggle at, or else concocted on the spot by the bright levity that whirled in his mind.  I can see him lifting a finger, his bushy eyebrows going up as he asks without asking for just a second, to hold on, because he’s just come up with something to slow everyone down and make everyone smile.   The most powerful example that Al set, though, was the humor, humility and courage with which he faced—and in fact is still facing—his own mortality.  Dinners were not complete without a chuckling reminder to all of us that he was ready to “take the big bus” anytime now (well, that a fair measure of red wine).  He didn’t want a fuss about it and he didn’t want anyone mourning anything as blessed and joyous and lengthy as he viewed his own life to have been.  When I held Al’s hand yesterday and told him I hoped his agnosticism would permit me a faux-Buddhist farewell, he grinned as best he could.  I said, “Happy Continuation Day” and told him I knew he was simply moving on to the next party.  He said he knew that too and stroked my son’s face and tried to get in a last tickle with fingers enfeebled by IV lines and narcotic.

 

Al Sperry was the only grandfather I ever really had.  My own passed away in their early sixties and seventies and were separated from me by generational fogs and the bulge of America during my first decade of life.  I sat down to an American Thanksgiving with Al and Josephine outside of Barcelona in 2006 and became a grandchild again—or for the first time.

 

Brian LeFavor was my best friend for most of the time between the ages of about 7 and 14; his mother, Paula, was more like a place than a person to me.  I don’t know how many hundreds of nights and weekends I spent in her custody, but I know she kissed scrapes that had me bawling like a baby and was still there when it was time to for me to awkwardly fumble with the terrifying specters of women-girls in the long, darkened hallways of her house, listening from above so she might tease us over buttermilk pancakes in the morning.  Paula was a mother from another generation, all magazines and Winston 100s and perfume and diet Coke and easy chuckles and a total pushover before the typhoon whims of a pair of growing boys.  She lived like it was easy but when cancer came she fought it like a Zen warrior for nearly two decades.  And she won but ultimately bowed to the massive stroke that ambushed her last week.  She lived like it was easy, but the world she allowed me to enter saved me from the harder edges of myself that I was too clumsy to handle—to say nothing of the hard edges of my life at home.

 

I don’t want to celebrate Al or Paula as symbols and I don’t want their lives or their deaths to be about me.  I write this and I cast it out into my miniscule inlet on the Internet ocean as a way to pin portraits of them on my world for others to acknowledge.  But there’s no way around the fact that they were symbols to me that filled voids that otherwise would have—and might still be—howling.

 

Happy Continuation Days.  I am so grateful.

DEAR NORTH CAROLINA,

 

Especially at this time of year I miss the violet explosions of your Azaleas; I miss your dogwoods; I miss your Spanish Moss and Live Oak and cicada chorus lines and the first drops of the syrup in the night air that will become an unbearable garment by July; I miss the long, tapered filets of your catfish and the spark of vinegar deep in the soft flesh of your hogs; I miss the feral cats that used to swarm up and down the trees of my block, the ancient porch sitters that would lift a hand like a flag in greeting; I miss the riotous crews of squirrels that my dog, in her earlier years, would make a career of watching and pursuing; I miss the roots-broken sidewalks and creaking boughs and crescent moons and black water; I miss your ghosts—the Confederates and the abolitionists and the slaves chattering out their warring versions of history in the breezes because their bodies are no longer present for one another to break.

 

At this time of year I often feel the bully of nostalgia stepping on my heels and I start to talk to my wife about moving back someday or I start making plans for a raucous weekend on the Cape Fear to try to relive something of what I used to know.

 

I was never oblivious North Carolina, even amid the buffering liberal literature crowd, that you were bound tightly to the hatred that painted an ugly history across your lovely face.  I expected to be shouted and shouldered down speaking against war there; I was merely dismayed to hear whispered nigger this and nigger that between exhalations of smoke and the sliding stripes of neon in your night club windows; I lived not a stone’s throw from where the massacre began, just two years shy of the 20th century and I read countless books in the alcove of a library named for one of the executioner’s family.

 

There is no cause for surprise at the passage of Amendment 1, and in a way, that’s the realest, deepest shame, North Carolina.  Had there been surprise, there would be outrage and momentum (and perhaps there is in some quarters).  Instead there are sighs and shrugs and a vile curse or two from those of us who sure would like to get a peek at you stripped bare of all your conservative clothing, North Carolina.  And there are tears from those who hunger for the recognition of their love, their families and maybe even, like me, irrationally harbored the fugitive of hope that you weren’t wearing that Belt quite as tight as it often appears, North Carolina.

 

Especially at this time of year I miss you, North Carolina.  I will leave it to those truly impacted by your fealty to a history of division and oppression to speak to a political or social silver lining.

 

For me I can only say that I miss you a little bit less.

THE MILITARY MOM FOUR MONTHS AFTER

Near midnight sometimes

I hear the whine of their backdoor

An instant before the security bulb

Produces the trick of day

Upon the dogwood and shrubs

And she stands there, looking out

Maybe at a toddler tumbling

In a pile of autumn leaves

And she turns her hands over

In the wash of light

Like fresh spring blossoms

For a moment

ON THE WAY TO THE THERAPIST

“I’ve been thinking…”

 

“Historically, a hazardous notion.”

 

“See? Now I’m going to say something all wounded and you’re going to say, ‘Christ, it was in jest,’ or something.”

 

“It was in jest.  But probably not the way you think.  I meant that ‘historically’ it was a hazardous notion for people, not you.  I was being caustic about humanity.”

 

“You’re being caustic about humanity.  Before ten a.m.  That’s what I mean.”

 

“Is there an appropriate hour at which to be caustic about humanity?  And I’m not sure I follow what you mean by ‘that’s what I mean.’”

 

“No!  There’s not.  I mean there’s not an hour.  What the hell does all that cynicism do for you other than keep you from having to give back at all.”

 

“Ah, ‘to give back!’ A wonderful platitude, equally applicable to…volunteer dog walkers and Red Cross surgeons.  Also very hip.  I think your latte ‘gave back’ something to Africa when you bought it, no doubt making it more delicious.  Still, you haven’t said what you mean by ‘that’s what I mean.’”

 

“Jesus Christ!  You can’t negate the worth of action just because it eventually gets widely embraced!  That makes no sense! Are you cynical about recycling because the city does it for us now?”

 

“I recycled in an era in which I had to load my Toyota Camry with filthy boxes and drive nineteen miles south.  There was significance to that; there is meaning in effort.”

 

“Uh-huh.  And that’s why I can’t get you to wash out a can for the bin now—it’s not that you’re lazy and just want to dump it, it’s because you don’t feel ‘significant.’  Is that it?”

 

“Not precisely.  As you know, it’s my belief that we’re collectively past the point of no return—recycling is not going to tip the scales back in our favor.  It’s a not a question of my personal significance.”

 

“So, you’re hopeless.  That’s what I mean.”

 

“‘Hopeless’ as applied to someone sounds quite pejorative.  If you mean that ‘I am without hope’ with respect to humanity’s survival, well, yes, perhaps. What do you mean by ‘that’s what I mean?’”

 

“…I think it’s time to split up.”

REFLECTIONS

 

 

 

 

 

For Pongo Teen Writing mentors and youth, 2011-2012

 

There are funhouse mirrors arranged in these cell blocks that we do not see; maybe it’s a trick of how the light falls through plexi-glass or just the angle at which they are positioned but only the youth catch glimpses of themselves in them and feel the implicit instruction not to mention the existence of these mirrors or maybe merely sense the futility of doing so and instead they begin to talk:

 

of older boyfriends who close their fists, of mothers who turn their backs, of childhood friends who have turned to enemies, of dead little sisters’ siren songs from beyond and yet newborn sons that need a man in their lives, of the boyfriends of moms who give merely a whipping or take as much as a soul, of tokes and shots and slugs and pops that serve as concussion grenades in lives where clarity has seemed a liability and blur a virtue but

 

also they speak of collecting the gravel of wishes, of shaking awake hope like a pill and booze fallen homie up off the rug, they speak of kicking in the spokes of the cycle and taking an eraser to the dark plans issued them, they speak of bubble gum ice cream and homemade tortilla soup, they speak of days before the pain and lay claim to more to come, they see choices and changes as plainly as scars and convictions and gravestones, they believe in worlds they’ve never visited, in visions more than memories because they are children and can still imagine and because they know that the funhouse mirrors arranged in this place are tricks and traps and each in his own way turns his face away, to the window, and dreams.