Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Telephone

She sat on a cement bench with no back. Her feet, masked in shiny boots of leather, were touching, the proper position, her mother had always told her, for a young lady to sit. Her knees pressed together tightly, though now, with years and training, she hardly felt the pressure on the inside of both knees. Small pinkish white hands were folded in her lap, like a simple cloth napkin on a dinner table.
She was refined and cosmopolitan, like the crisp red wines she would sometimes sip in warmly lit bars that held soft laughter. Towering buildings stood behind her, all shiny and glittering with the bright sun. They whispered at her back, telling tales of newly-scented clothes, filling her ears with the familiar sputtering noise of a credit card machine.
She was this city’s Woman. She was the product of careful breeding, of clever advertising; the result of meetings in high offices around wooden tables. A fashionable wool sweater draped artfully over her shoulders, her thick legs were covered in thin black cotton that did not leave her shape to the imagination.
She was solid, but soft, a modern Amazon covered in expensive fabric. The strap of a sleek black leather handbag rested on her right shoulder, within were the contents of her world: a makeup bag filled with lipsticks and lotions and eye pencils. A tube of lotion, a tube of hand sanitizer, her cell phone, a little plastic bag of clean tissues, her red wallet, stuffed with plastic cards and yellow receipts.
She was the woman of the city, the pretty picture of Female, Wealth, and Urban. She was the photo, the living vision.

And there, on the other side of the train tracks, filling her world with the pungent stench of decay, was a man. He was not what they had envisioned. Not there in the board rooms or the executive meetings. He was the one that had fallen through the cracks, whether by sickness, luck, or habit, he was not what they wanted to see. No one wanted to see this.
He was a man fit for hospitals and drugs and white-walled rooms. But there were no hospitals now, no women in clean uniforms that cared. There was nothing for this man but the streets and the whims of his madness. In one body, he was the product of a rotting culture, a civilization in decay. He was a man with no home, no bathroom, no razor, nothing but voices and filth.
She had watched him for fifteen minutes, the entire time she had been waiting for the L train. She looked at the overhead sign again, blinking with the times for in-bound trains. Another six minutes to go. She judged the man to be about 40, but he was weathered by time, like a badly battered shell that had lost all its shine in the ocean’s tumbling surf.
Gray hair along the side of his temples merged into the black matted mess that was the rest of his hair. A scruffy salt and pepper beard looked like it had last been trimmed with a pair of rusty scissors. His feet were dark brown with soot and the street’s mess. She wondered what had become of his shoes, how long it had been since he had had any. The stained jeans he wore hung on his hips by a piece of string as thin as a shoe lace, maybe that is it was. She pictured him stealing the lace from another man in the middle of the night, someone just as dirty and forgotten.

He sat on the brick floor of the station, his back pressed to the wall. Beside him, on the glossy brick wall, was a telephone. It was a phone to be used by train-system employees, not one that could access the outside world.
Every few minutes, the man would rise, pick up the phone’s receiver and speak into it. Sometimes he would speak calmly, the next time he would yell, the next he would cry. She watched him from afar, watching the loop. She was a little afraid of his erratic behavior, but slightly intrigued and unable to look away, even when she tried.
He didn’t seem to notice her. He shouted into the receiver:
“I told you I’m coming! I’ve got all my stuff. I’m coming right now! Stop bothering me!”
It was the loudest he had been, a few other people in the station turned to look. She felt thankful for the train tracks between them, somehow feeling safer with the distance and metal rails.
The man sat back down on the ground. Looking agitated and worried. She wondered what he heard, what he thought, what he would do.
Her hair started to blow slightly and she heard the swishing sound of a train arriving. The metal doors opened and she got in, taking a seat by the window and looking out, to the man that she would soon forget.
He got up once again and grabbed the receiver, shouting into it. She watched him talking as the doors closed and the train took her away from his madness, from the telephone, from the glimpse of what she might one day become.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Wandering In The Shadows

“The goal is simple but difficult to comprehend.”
Older Brother said it in carefully measured tones and his eyes widened to emphasize the weight of his words.
I had begun to suspect that the goal transcended any words that he or I could utter, that it was hiding right in the corner that we refused to look at, that it scampered in the shadows that our conversations left behind them with every verbal turn.
But I wanted to hear what he had to say. Right then, it was my goal to listen to him and to take in his words even if their effect within me was not what he had intended. The timbre of his voice was as crucial as the rhythm of the syllables that rubbed against each other like tiny silver stones.
“We must find a way to rise above the circumstances that surround us, to banish the forces that seek to cage us in. We must disrupt years of mechanized conditioning and find a way out, a way out of the prison, a way out of the cage.”
I nodded and sincerely agreed. It was never what we said but what we didn’t say that left me with a gap in the pit of my stomach. There was something that we had been avoiding, and we had been avoiding it for years, together. We had shared years of looking elsewhere, years of carefully tracing our steps around a gap in our understanding that pulsed and breathed like an angry stingray.
I couldn’t point to it because I was avoiding it as much as he was. And even if I did point, it would only shift quickly into a different corner and our conversation would continue and soon I would once again feel it pulsing at my back. I could only sometimes call attention to it but even the call itself would soon be swallowed in the vortex of our endless stream of words.
I remembered all of this in the darkness, even if it seemed to mean little if anything to me now, even if it was all incomprehensible to the one that now walked alone in the Old House, trying to ascertain where things were and what meaning they now implied with their existence.
At first, I could only see the outline of everything, like thin lines drawn on black paper to suggest a wall or a desk or a painting. I didn’t reach out to touch anything because I didn’t want to find out that there was nothing there for me to touch.
I was standing over the second stairway, looking all around me and wondering how I came to be here. Was I remembering Older Brother while I walked through the Old House in the darkness or was I thinking of the Old House while Older Brother talked to me about leaving the past behind?
Here was the past itself, in clear and distinct shapes and heavy massive volumes. Here was the long white wall that ended in gray river rocks, spread out in random patterns over an ocean of sand, subtly vibrant with implied whispers of endless suffering, of a place where old soldiers went to die, where they vanished forever after a long life of battle and hardship. Here was the oval shaped dinner table which was also an ancient city full of criminals, here were the dark wooden stairs which were also an old port full of ships and soldiers.
I turned around and I could see the long open windows that surrounded the corner of the upper living room, and I could see the dim lights of a city that pulsed with an angry desperation that reached through the glass like a giant invisible hand covered in rough hair.
I looked up towards the long and final corridor. There was a light in Father’s bedroom. I couldn’t stop myself from believing that it was him, that he was up there and awake and that he was bound to notice that something or someone was wandering out here in the darkness. But it was only a light, a dim yellow light in the middle of black emptiness.
I moved slowly through the open space that surrounded me. I looked up towards the slanted wooden ceiling and the Old House overwhelmed me like an ancient temple. For me there was nothing, there could never be anything, more ancient than the Old House.
The Old House was the place where everything began and it would have to be the place where everything ended. As I looked up, I could sense the walls and the roof rise up above me, or maybe I was just shrinking as I fixed my attention on the apex of the wooden pyramid. The more I looked, the larger the Old House became, the more it spread out in all directions.
I pulled away from that vision and stepped into Grandmother’s room. It was a small white barren room just to the left of the last set of stairs. There was no one there. Nothing but shiny white bricks and open windows. I looked towards the house next door and I thought I saw a light there, but it could have been nothing, a firefly, a match, maybe even just the reflection of the light that was still shining in Father’s room, calling to me without spoken words.
I was by then convinced that Father was there, behind the closed door at the end of the final hallway. I had to make certain that he didn’t see me. I had to make sure that he never became aware that I had come here in the darkest hours after midnight and that I had wandered through his house like an intruder without any apparent purpose, moving little things that should have remained still. I had to be careful to leave him undisturbed and to eventually find a way back and out that didn’t leave any trace of my presence.
“We must find a way to break the chains that have held us. We have to work on this. It won’t be easy. Nothing that truly matters can be easy. “
Older Brother said it and his eyes were as wide as before. As always, I listened and agreed, for there was nothing that I could disagree with in what he had spoken, there was no impulse within me to disagree at all. The words flowed out of him and into me like water and water easily changed shape to fit a new container, leaving behind any previous form it might have held.
I spoke for the first and only time to him that day and I said:
“It is only because of the memory of what you once were that it is still good to see you. You once were something truly great, so great that some of it still slips through what you have now become.”
I thought that maybe that was why we would recurrently return to our past, to reexamine our childhood. Maybe it still held on tightly to that which we valued above all things. Maybe that was why I found myself in the Old House now, wandering through the darkness, hiding from the light.
I lifted my eyes towards the slanted roof again and I allowed myself to float upwards. I rose up slowly, feeling the sensation of freedom rise within me as I released my hold on the floor. There, at the very apex of the wooden pyramid, that is where I would find my escape route.
I saw the empty garden in the distance and the long wooden doors with their rattling little glass windows. I heard a lonely car roaming the empty streets outside, moving slowly from corner to corner, maybe looking for something or someone they had lost. I rose towards the apex, feeling sure that I would soon leave this place behind.
Maybe then there would be no Father. Maybe then there would be no Older Brother. I didn’t know what waited for me on the other side of that wooden barrier but I was eager to face it. I had been avoiding it for far too long. The darkness grew deeper around me, heavier and more oppressive. But it couldn’t bother me. It was now a thing of the past.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Angel Of Death

He winked at me.
I winked back.
He e-mailed me.
I e-mailed back.
He called.
We talked for two hours.
The next night we agreed to meet at Jack's Bar and Grill.

It seemed like a simple conversation at a normal bar and grill with a few flashing neon signs on the windows and the pungent smell of French fries and stale beer mixed with diluted chlorine bleach. I knew differently. This wasn’t just normal. This was the place. The eternal chamber. The loud murmur of dozens of conversations, the waitresses in matching black uniforms that resembled casual wear. The smell, that left-out-all-night smell. The thin red carpets. The dark space lit by the glow of many small lamps above our wooden tables. Amid the diners, there were others that came and went. Stopping for a quick beer before heading home. A couple on their first date. It was clean. It was comfortable with its soft booths and relentless drone of plates that meet utensils and muffled conversation. It was comfortable. A little too easy, like slipping into a warm pool. Like climbing into a warm bed.

Michael was very charming. His eyes seemed to sparkle with mischief and sexual thoughts. I looked at him with desire. With heat that came up rapidly from my core. It spilled out of my eyes, into his. He seemed to catch my wishes with his eyes, he held them there, saving them for later. He sat across from me, a mug of chill beer gathered a small pool of condensation where it met the table. Shadows from the soft overhead lamp danced on his well-worn cheeks. We laughed and talked. We joked. I watched a few tears make their way across the long landscape of his face. He lost his son, sister, dad, mom and 27 brothers in 'Nam. He said:
“In 'Nam I was just a kid, and the other kids are laying in your arms, dying, crying, pleading ‘Don't let me die, Michael. Don't let me die!!!’ But there was nothing I could do. They died.”

When his father was sick in the hospital, he walked into the white walled room, into the white light of an early afternoon that found its way through the window. His father was in bed, the old man looked at him and said:
"Are you an Angel?"
Michael replied, "Dad! It's me, Michael, your son!"
And with that, his father passed.

Michael served in Vietnam in 1972. He was in the Army Special Forces. Their motto, "De Oppresso Liber.” To liberate the oppressed. He did reconnaissance missions to rescue POWs. He had 38 confirmed kills. The child he once was never left the jungle. He went with those 38 bullets. He went with every bullet. He went with every curse, every insult. He went with every young white face he saw fade to blue.

We met at Jack's several days in a row. We got along wonderfully. We had the same twisted sense of humor. I found him innocent and childlike at times. Then, like clockwork, after an almost pre-determined number of beers, he would relay his story. He lost his son, sister, dad, mom and 27 brothers in 'Nam. He said:
“In 'Nam I was just a kid, and the other kids are laying in your arms, dying, crying, pleading ‘Don't let me die, Michael. Don't let me die!!!’ But there was nothing I could do. They died.”

After the fourth night his charm took me to bed. We drove to my place. The kids were asleep and we snuck upstairs to my room. I felt alive. I felt giddy. We played on my sheets. We bounced on the bed. We kissed. He gave me what I had been craving. We made love all night. Surprisingly, he had talented hands. He knew where to touch me. How hard. How long. How deep. He moved with rhythm and force. He knew exactly what to do. I wriggled and squirmed under his touch. My body wanted this. My body needed this. And then he was inside me, inside me for hours. We shared ourselves until the sun finally broke free of the black cloth that defines night. This was our pattern several nights in a row until he stood me up when he was supposed to meet two of my sisters and their husbands. Later when I talked to him, he said he had afraid. I knew he was.

One night he did meet my little sister and her husband and my son. He was still very, very afraid. His jokes sprinkled out of him less frequently. His charm was muted by a spattering of self conscious movement and quick nervous gestures.

We met every night. He drank every night. Then, like clockwork, after an almost pre-determined number of beers, he would relay his story. He lost his son, sister, dad, mom and 27 brothers in 'Nam. He said:
“In 'Nam I was just a kid, and the other kids are laying in your arms, dying, crying, pleading ‘Don't let me die, Michael. Don't let me die!!!’ But there was nothing I could do. They died.”

We made love almost every night.

Then I went to San Francisco for a short weekend. I had been gone for less than 24 hours when I got his call, then his text. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something like:
“I knew this would happen, good luck.”
My heart plunged. My stomach hurt. I tried to call him back. I wanted to understand the severity, the finality of his words. I didn’t understand it. It hurt. It hurt like a dull knife, so unexpected, so deep. The air between me and my friends fizzled as my mind skipped 2,500 miles away. My smiles were stained with uncertainty. My jokes could not hide the deep pain that moved up and down, creating a halo of worry around my head.
I knew he was trying to give me an "out.” I knew he had been cheated on. I knew he worried that he could not trust me. He had told me all his problems. He had had cancer. His young boy had died. He was an alcoholic. He had PTSD. He had obsessive tendencies. I thought he had told me everything. He wondered if he had revealed too much. I talked to him early Sunday morning, while my friend and her two little girls slept in the other room. I flew back a few hours later and we met at Jack's that same night. He sat with his hand on his glass, he looked at me.
“I have to go to the VA hospital tomorrow morning for some tests. I’m afraid my pancreatic cancer came back.”
It turned out to be anemia. We met at Jack's Monday night.

When I stepped off the plane I had been eager to see him, eager to settle my queasy stomach. From that moment on I watched my once disciplined habit of exercises and daily activities go by the wayside. I watched it happen. I watched in paralysis as my will slipped through my fingers like a quickly fading dream. I didn't want it to happen, but I watched it all the same. It was like watching a movie. I saw myself, I wanted to shout at her:
“No, don’t go that way…don’t do that!!”
I wanted to warn her, but I was too tired. My limbs were sore from all the positions I was being bent into. I wanted to yell at her, but my voice was hoarse after all the moaning. I wanted to whisper, but I was asleep.

On Thursday we met again at Jack's. Then, like clockwork, after an almost pre-determined number of beers, he would relay his story. He lost his son, sister, dad, mom and 27 brothers in 'Nam. He said”
“In 'Nam I was just a kid, and the other kids are laying in your arms, dying, crying, pleading ‘Don't let me die, Michael. Don't let me die!!!’ But there was nothing I could do. They died.”

He asked me who Popeye's nemesis was.
“No,” he said, “it’s Bluto.”
He used his cell phone to connect to the internet. It said, “Popeye's nemesis = Bluto.” I could have sworn it was Brutus. I would have bet money on it!

I had to pick up my daughter at 8pm. Michael suggested I bring her back to Jack's to meet him. I agreed. I picked her up and brought her to Jack's. Her friend was going to pick her up from there. She was not friendly to him and made some snide comments. Michael was disappointed that she did not like him, I could see it on his face. I was going to say something to her but he grabbed my arm quickly and said:
"Not now, it's not the right time. Talk to her about it later."
When my daughter left she texted me and said that she didn't like him and that she thinks he'll abuse me because of the way he grabbed my arm. I went out to the parking lot to call her so that I could explain why he grabbed my arm. When she picked up, she started going on a rampage. I went back inside. Michael was extremely disappointed. He was sad. He was angry. His feelings had been hurt. He looked into his glass as his body trembled and his teeth clenched and gritted.
“I finally meet someone I get along with so well and some 21 year old snotty brat is going to ruin it for me? The plot next to your father is empty, right?"
"Yes" I replied, caught off guard.
"Well, you let me know if you want me to take care of your daughter and fill that plot," he said sternly.

What the fuck? Wow! He became very strange at that moment. I felt the energy both drain and fill the room. I felt fear. I watched speechless as the twinkle in his eye became a spark of sheer violence. He wanted to hurt someone. He wanted to destroy something. I was fearful, but I was calm. This was survival. For a moment I realized I knew nothing about this man. What sat before me was a lifetime of grief and sadness that needed an explosion and I did not want my family to understand the true nature of his pain. Right then I talked to him very slowly, very calmly and rationally. We went outside into the still-warm night air. We talked for a little while. I became angry that he actually thought he could kill my daughter.
“You know,” I said, “this whole evening is extremely unacceptable and we should call it a night and talk tomorrow.”
He kissed me and hugged me and told me to call him when I got home so he knew I made it home safe. I called him when I got home. By this time, my body had finally caught up with me. The calm, cool, collectedness came out in a sudden bout of diarrhea, nausea and the shakes. I told Michael what I was feeling. I told him the last time I experienced these sensations was after an initiation. He told me the initiation I might be feeling right now is the initiation of the Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He suggested I read the New Testament. I held my tongue and we hung up after what seemed like ages.

The next day I looked up Popeye's nemesis. In the earlier version, it was Bluto. In the later versions, it was Brutus. We were both correct.

I talked to my friend that morning, then I called Michael and told him I was not trained or equipped to deal with what had transpired the night before. He said:
"I was expecting this. Good luck."
I replied "Michael, I hope you find what you are looking for. At this point, I don't think it is a woman. I think it is something far bigger than that." We hung up.

That was Michael, the Angel of Death.

Like clockwork, after an almost pre-determined number of beers, he would relay his story. He lost his son, sister, dad, mom and 27 brothers in 'Nam. He said, “in 'Nam I was just a kid, and the other kids are laying in your arms, dying, crying, pleading ‘Don't let me die, Michael. Don't let me die!!!’ But there was nothing I could do. They died.”

Friday, March 5, 2010

Turned Against Time

When the sun shone on his back it was hard to imagine the rain cutting into his flesh and thick beard, but it had happened in the past and it would happen again. Nonetheless, he sat on the wall with his shades over his eyes and a fisherman’s hat to protect his face and felt as though this were the only day that he would ever have to live, this afternoon of sun.
Behind him the clock tower of the ferry building rose high and aloof, a reminder of the passage of time, a master so certain of its hold over its subjects that it had no need for chains of steel. It did its binding by merely showing them this moon white face scarred with roman numerals. It was enough to send the ant-like people below scurrying across the streets and in and out of the buildings and onto buses or into cars, or down to underground trains.
Only a handful of black sheep were beyond the reach of this invisible tether, among them this bearded man sitting on the wall under his hat and shades. He had a red suitcase, and some money gotten by skilled begging. Maybe he would take a Greyhound to Santa Barbara soon and lay around on the green grass and stare at the ocean, but these plans were not foremost on his mind.
Like a goose that has made itself fat on the local fish, the tick tock of seconds or even the passage of days did not move him. It was the passage of seasons that dictated his migration, a feeling that would grow in him slowly, germinating under the sun and withering as the days grew shorter and darker. Eventually that withering would manifest in him as an urge to flee southward, away from the chill.
Today, however, was a warm day, an eternal moment of sublime heat and light. He could not have told you whether it was August or June or Tuesday or Wednesday, nor would he sink so low as to invoke any of the numbers, the date or time, even with that towering devil looking over his shoulder. If you had asked him the time of day he would merely have shook his head, never sparing the clock a backward glance, but then again, you, with your wrist bound in a watchband and your eye trained on that grand clock tower, would never need to ask. He would not even presume to know what season you thought it was, you with your calendar announcing the first days of each turn of the year.
His seasons were measured in his bones and they hadn’t names like summer and winter and fall, they were only now and another now and then another. And now he was here and it was warm and he could not even imagine the icy sting of rain, sitting as he was on this wall with his back turned against time.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Silent Call

The road crinkles with my word. I am the crown. The gold. I am the ears of a thousand men, a long lineage of horns and stinking goats and cups of blood. I am the road. I am the cave.

The road spins with my sweat, and I drip.

They are the seeds of my power, the spouting of a new fern, the joy of a new wisp of green.

I have seen the villages along the coast, on each side of the path. Always standing, always waiting for what will never come. They have heard my call, my cry, the horn. They have heard. Those with ears listen as though it was a passing wind, a kiss from a spring morn.

Though it is not. It is the call of the path, and only the children run, letting their buckets and yarn fall to the fields, forever losing the signs of their world. Their mothers look for them in barns, beneath the cows, in the stacks of hay and in the silver shop. They never return.

They follow like the rats of fables, coming though they only heard the song and the promise of something buried within the melody. Blind as they are, they see more than the old maids in the kitchen, more than village after village, stuffed with priests, forever preaching about desires they cannot control.

I come with a sword of liberation. With the stain of blood, with cut throats and twisted bodies.
I come, though liberation is made by men, not kings.

The scepter,
the bones of ears and horns,
the purple cloak that promises in whispers.

Come to me, though you move like zombies through a thick gray haze. This is the time, the one chance to reach through tidal waves, through the mess of noodles and the window shrouded in time.

Come if your heart permits, if your mind, for once, cowers in the corners, unsure of direction. The compass stands steady in the center of your chest. Each chest.

Between white breasts.

Beneath a spurt of hair. Beneath the bones of both. Feel it though the cold wind blows.

I am calling.

And I call, though no answer is expected.

Though no body emerges from the fields of wheat and millet.

Though I hear no laughter and feel only silence.

I see the world, waiting at the horizon, waiting for death to emerge through the clouds. And I know,
it comes. It comes and I walk, sending out my call.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Love Song

You found me,
With a camera,
Staring at the fields of train cars
and the colored boxes that sail the seas.

And I smiled at the clouds

You found me
And you saw me through the scratched glass
You saw me,
through the layers I had yet to scrub
There were doors
Heavy gates
Wooden posts and splinters

And with my camera
Staring at those buildings that passed
The signs
The espresso cup
that revolutionized the world

I saw you
Moving like a black haze through yellow lights
And woolen coats
and all those eyes that never looked

And that camera
The closed lens
The open lens that brought you
The stairs
The door
Open just a crack
That train, forever moving
Back and forth
Back and forth
Moving all of us

Moving me towards you
You towards me

And now the song plays
Now the tears flow like they never have
Now the song plays and the piano dances
And I wonder how
it could have ever been different
I never played
I never danced
I never sang
And now I play
And now I sing
And now I dance
Now there is music
Streaming right in
And your hands move
Through buttons and channels and
I listen
Dancing to your music
Watching as it flies towards me
in great gusts of red and blue
and black.