Because there was a giant cardboard Moulin Rouge windmill on top of it, I was driving my sister’s car very slowly. Mardi Gras proceeds deliberately. So slowly people can get in and out of the car/float in progress.
Somebody got in the passenger seat. We chatted about history in the area, Mardi Gras and otherwise. They’d been having Mardi Gras in Kansas City since someone was there. This time of year, people are cold and hungry, he said. They share. We chatted about Lecompton, Kansas, a place that has been circling me since I got myself out there to see it.
And about the West Indian parade I lived so close to, in Brooklyn, and about other festivals of making and beauty, other places. That one, while beautiful, was a little hard for me to see, because I was always a spectator, always would be, and I love events without spectators, dance floors made of dancers.
He was holding sage out the window and a reveler walked by and was like, “Whoa! I aint never seen a joint like that!” and he said, “It’s sage.”
Mardi Gras afternoon, there was: “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield/down by the riverside,” and “ain’t gonna study war no more.” I had no idea how to do that, but it sounded like a good idea.
I jumped out myself, so I could be under the overpass when the sound rings full, physical sound, that tells you how human bodies are like brass and like wood, are wet, smooth, hollow.
I grieved to miss it, the years I did.
I decided to go to services, Ash Wednesday, maybe only because I couldn’t imagine how I would feel if I didn’t go. I had in the back of my mind some unbearable pain I might experience if I really, really, really didn’t believe. As someone who’s been too anxious to get out of bed, I mean, what is worse that that?
The church is two blocks from my house, all wood paneling, no painting, and at night the stained glass windows are dead, as things are, in the dark. The woman sitting in front of me was looking up, I thought at the ceiling, which is the prettiest part, woven with different tones of wood. No, a bird! A bird! What’s better than birds inside? No one knows what to do!
We had chatted about Mardi Grases past: fires, snows. Things I sometimes wish were written, and sometimes I am gladder they could, like all stories, become feeble, waver, recover, fade, grow, reseed.
The priest got up, and he said there was a bat in the belfry. Even better! If it pooped on me, at Ash Wednesday, what a story that would be.
I liked hearing, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Both windmills made it all the way to 18th and Vine (one of the four cradles of jazz, thank you, as I taught all the New Yorkers I taught ). When the party turned, as parties do, we tiptoed out, untied the ropes and ribbons that haphazardly had held the toppers to the tops. Put them on the backseat. And I drove home, and I stood in the warm water and scrubbed and scrubbed my face.
Image: Jeremias Ritter, Powder Flask, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I drove out to my favorite local formerly Confederate sympathizing town last weekend, and sat on a plastic chair in the corner and took notes. There was a lovely lecture being given on a vegetarian settlement in Kansas. The settlement, like many utopian communities, lasted about fifteen minutes, but a lot of other history of early vegetarianism and politics and travel stuck to it.
It was, happily, very crowded, 50 or 60 people, maybe, all tucked into the upper room of Constitution Hall in Lecompton on a sunny, ugly-cold February Sunday. A lot of the audience was older, but not all of them. Working with young people as I have for years, I enjoy time with my elders. They are more likely to know that history is complicated, and confusing, and happening now.
The lecture ended, and I asked the guy sitting next to me about his comments. Some historical sites in Kansas are only open on the weekends, he had said.
“Are you a reporter?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” I said. I’m quite prone to seeing things the way I want to see them, and skimming across inconvenient facts, and most of all, ignoring things I don’t find interesting.
“Oh,” he said, and continued to answer my question, possibly in a less enthusiastic way, but who knew? Would he have been pleased to have a platform, or to know the press was paying attention to this little lecture, or would he, like our president, have attacked me for the spreading of lies to which I had dedicated my life?
(I feel certain it’s the former, but these are our times.)
I do take notes, though I am not a reporter, a professional writer, or a scholar. I like to write stuff down. Sometimes I use it later. Sometimes here. Sometimes not.
Walked across the Brooklyn Bridge
His sneakers torn
In the hour when the homeless
Move their cardboard blankets
And the new day is born
The questions that he’d copied from his heart
Who am I in this frightened world?
Where will I make my bed tonight
When twilight turns to dark?
With my hair as white as the morning moon?
The pilgrim is passing a billboard
That catches his eyes
He’s got a kid on each knee
He’s wearing clothes that he wants us to try….
In my graduate classes, it became apparent I was not a scholar, either. I am really not interested in things that don’t interest me, and when ideas become too abstract, I’d rather have a coffee or make a painting or go for a nice walk.
I do like to do the reading, listen to my kind teachers and fellow students, and answer the low-hanging fruit questions. And I like to chuckle, because I find graduate school a Very Serious Place.
At an inner-city high school, what we thought was at stake was a kid getting shot in the head or shooting someone else in the head or going to prison or going to college, the way we liked to think those events were mutually exclusive. I mean, you have to think that, or you’re not going to be able to show up every day.
I’m very susceptible to Very Serious Thinking, so I try to watch that.
How old are you? a student asked last week. My college students are generally more suave about kissing up. But not always! I’m 43. I think?
Are you a Republican? my students used to ask me. In Kansas City, I said, I don’t talk about that with students. In New York, I said, goodness, no. Cultural differences.
I had to go to the university library to get an assigned reading. The library is a chateau on the outside and an eastern bloc book prison on the inside. As I walked the stacks, I told myself I was enjoying just exploring the library, though clearly at a point I was not, I was wanting the damn book.
I went to ask for help (my least favorite thing to do in the world), and a librarian walked me around. “I’m still not used to the Library of Congress system,” I said, to signal that I was a person of quality who appreciated her and her life’s work.
“Well, it is impressive that Jefferson invented this way to categorize absolutely everything.”
“Have you been to see his library at the Library of Congress?” I asked, actually out of a little concern for her happiness.
“I’ve been there, but I haven’t been in to see the library itself.”
I wasn’t really sure what she meant, but she asked if I had seen it. “Oh, yes,” I said. “They tell you you have to be a scholar to get a library card, but I was like, sure, I’m a scholar.” I told them I was researching John’s gospel, which was certainly true at the time. I think I may have actually been enrolled at a university at that time, who knows.
“I was kind of intimidated,” the librarian said. “Did you want to take the elevator or the stairs?”
We took the stairs.
One focus of the class I’m teaching this semester is inquiry. Where my high school students needed a lot of information stuffed in their heads, my college students tend to have a reasonable amount of info to work with, and need to be persuaded to consider it open to interpretation, and theirs. My high school students considered everything theirs (that is adolescence, its better side) and most things, particularly my directions and ideas, open to interpretation (that is the part that drives one to drink BECAUSE I SAID SO).
Ms Schurman, why are you more likely to get HIV from anal sex?
Ms Schurman, how do you spell ‘coincidence’?
Ms Schurman, how old are you?
Lyrics are Paul Simon, “Questions for the Angels.”
Image: “Compass,” Man Ray, Metropolitan Museum of Art. I flipped it horizontally, which I feel a little guilty about, but not too guilty to do it, obviously.
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men…know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice….they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown….
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
-William Safire, undelivered speech for Richard Nixon, “In The Event of Moon Disaster,” 1969.
Why was Neil first?
He wasn’t first. It was Buzz.
No, it was Neil.
It doesn’t matter who was first.
Oh, my God, Dad, of course it matters!
Neil was first because he was humble.
Humble is like, small?
Humble is small, like, not full of yourself. Not selfish. Did you know he got carsick?
Yes, he got carsick. He got sick in the rockets, in planes, but he went anyway, because he was that brave.
It’s bad to be carsick.
It can be pretty bad. You were carsick when we drove you to camp, remember?
Sort of. I guess. But he didn’t save anyone. Neil didn’t.
Not exactly. You don’t have to save someone.
I could know what my dad didn’t know: where we came from. I was going to find the spot, and camp on the land. I didn’t know who owned it now, or if anyone would see me.
I don’t know why I even believed it was the right spot. My research was not the most thorough. This guy who drinks at my bar did all the research. Eddie’s a great drinker. I don’t know how good he is at genealogy. I believed it was the right spot, though.
Some of the boxes in my family tree had names, some had dates. Some a death date and no birth. Some had locations, and one of the locations was this intersection of roads in rural Georgia.
From my hotel, I could see there was a Target. Across the street and over the enormous fields of parking lot. I drove over, although it would have been a nice walk, this wasn’t a place anyone walked. I parked, walked through their enormous doors when they opened to admit me.
I walked the perimeter of the store. I didn’t see anyone to ask, and I didn’t want to ask anyone. I would just follow the shiny tile aisles around and around the fluorescent trails up and down. It was contemplative. There it was. Outdoorsy stuff. I should have taken our old camping stuff from Dad’s house, our old green tent and our old blue sleeping bags, the blue tarp, the metal sporks. But Dad can’t talk anymore. I can’t ask him where anything is, and when I left town I didn’t know I was going to have this sudden urge to camp out on the land and make it something other than what it was, which was a stranger.
I pulled a rectangular bag off the shelf, the cheapest tent they had. I took two steps down the aisle to the sleeping bags and there was the cheapest sleeping bag. Why was I buying a sleeping bag when I could borrow blankets from the hotel? Those awful bedspreads would be just as uncomfortable as a cheap sleeping bag. I put the sleeping bag under my arm. I didn’t care what anything cost. I am not good with money.
It should take me forty-five minutes to get to the land from my hotel, to the x marks the spot on the map Eddie had printed out for me. I like to have an actual paper map. Long, plain lines, the words for the names of roads, printed in black and white, the river was not blue, it was black. It made it look like the roads were uncomplicated.
I wondered about guns. What would you do if you lived in rural Georgia and some guy was in a tent on your land? I had never even held a gun. I would check out the place, and I would come back when it was dark, so no one would ever know I had been there. I wouldn’t stay. I wouldn’t camp.
A guy, a guy who had a gun, would have it next to his bed at night. When a gun is dark, and it is dark, so the gun and the darkness are one thing, no one would ever see either one, both black. Back home I would be a three sentence article on our newspaper’s website, not even the print edition would I make. The Columbus Ledger-Inquirer: “Intruder stopped,” and the paper back home: “Local man shot.”
I’d die where my ancestors had died. You could do worse. I set my hands on the steering wheel. I pulled out of the Target parking lot and onto the highway.
Pine, pine trees, and a whole lot of nothing else. A tunnel of trees, going on so long, so even, maybe they had been planted that way. They couldn’t grow that way, could they? Trees so similar they didn’t even know they were related to each other or if they were the same. Every once in a while, there was the odd man out, the guy whose needles were browning like a beard greys.
I might bleed out at the emergency room in the Columbus hospital. What would the hospital be called? Maybe Columbus Regional Medical Center. They would declare me dead. “What a weird case,” someone would say, but not so weird that they would remember it when they recounted cases over beers at happy hour after a quiet Thanksgiving shift. I would not become an anecdote. Bleed out, so colorful. He just bled out! I wouldn’t bleed out. I wouldn’t get shot.
I read that certain trees, I can’t remember what kind, are all one big being, that they are the oldest beings on earth, actually, because they are really one, millions of them are one, underground, where no one can see, they are the oldest. Individuals have been cut down, but they, as a group, are ancient. I don’t know if that counts, in any sense of counting.
There were three turns marked on my map. I had highlighted the route in yellow. Go straight west for half an hour, turn. The roads were paved, paved, I kept waiting to get to a gravel or dirt road. I got to the last turn, the intersection of Road EE and Old Georgia 76. It had to be dirt. In my imagination, what I saw when I had closed my eyes on the plane, was a dirt road.
I watched the odometer and drove another two miles. Finally, an intersection with a dirt road, the dirt. There were a couple of regular-leaf trees, whatever those are called. Unlike the pines, they made some shade. I drove into the shade and stopped. The dirt of the dirt road was fox red. There were tracks in the road were smooth, like they were old.
I opened the car door. It was cool. It was a regular heavy hot. I tried to breathe deeper so maybe I would get a smell, and this smell would remind me of Georgia, I would be like Ray Charles, with Georgia in my lungs. Was he even from Georgia? It might be a lie, that song.
This was right where Eddie said I should go, here I was, because of him, actually, what was he doing right now? We had technology for that now, I could know where he was, but I didn’t believe in knowing where people are. He’d found the spot for me. I’d let him know when I got back to the bar.
I unzipped the bag and pulled the tent out of its chrysalis, it was immediately a mess, a whale skin. I laid it out in the shade of the trees. Pulled up what should be pulled up, saw how the poles should be put together. Started pulling and sticking the poles together, corner yank, recalibrate, joint to joint. The moment it becomes three-dimensional, that always impresses me, the flat pieces are actually ribs, and ribs want to be open, to make a blue lung. That happened, it popped open, and I had a tent, a space. I threw the sleeping bag in and followed it. Laid the sleeping bag out.
Except what was I going to do for all these hours? The sun would be up forever. I hadn’t even brought a book. I hadn’t thought about a book. I would have to go back into town and get a book. Well. I had that audio book my brother told me to download. It was something about Napoleon. Ere I saw Elba, wasn’t that about Napoleon? Ere I saw Elba. What did Harry care about Napoleon, or why did he think I would care?
I crawled back out. Rezipped. Got my phone and headphones. Back in the tent. Rezip behind me. Laid on the tent floor and pressed play and headphones on.
Napoleon, though known perhaps primarily as a great military leader, was also a proponent of a variety of progressive causes that the French felt would enhance life for all Europeans. Napoleon was more than a soldier, more than a symbol of the short man with a lot to prove. Napoleon, in fact, stands as a figure who ushers in an era of modernity to a Europe that was still trembling under the weight of feudalism and the aftermath of hundreds of years of fighting over various Christian perspectives that emerged through the Reformation.
I fell asleep.
I was feeling the blue around me as I was sleeping. I know I was helped to sleep by the breathing of the tent, there was enough breeze. It blew in and out a little.
When I woke up, it was still light. It was summer. The days were too long. No one had shown up to shoot me, as I hoped they might.
I never wanted to conquer anything. I wanted to explore. And yet I never go anywhere. When I was a kid, we never went anywhere. My dad designed roads, and we never went anywhere.
Once I found a book called Free Things For Kids at the school library, and I checked it out and went home and got nice writing paper from the letter sorter in the den, and I wrote a proper business letter to NASA, asking for Free Things. The book had a page showing where to write your address, and where to write the address of where you were writing to, in my case, NASA headquarters. Where is that, anyway, I guess, DC? Can you believe that’s a real place?
My mom was in the kitchen, I went in there and asked her for a stamp, and she went to the den and got a stamp from the marble box with the brass top that had a never ending tongue of stamps coming out of its mouth.
She showed me which corner to put the stamp on, which corner to write our address on, and how to put my letter in the bottom two forks of the mailbox to show it was going out, so the mailman would know to take it and send it out.
That same day my brother and I were upstairs playing Trouble, and my mom yelled up for us to shut the door. A squirrel had fallen gotten into the house. Shut the door and stay in your room, she said.
“They’re gonna kill it,” Harry said. He moved one of his blue men.
“They’re not gonna kill it.”
“They’re gonna smash its head. People eat squirrel brains.”
“No, they don’t.”
“Like, in Australia, they do. And hillbillies do.”
“Hillbillies aren’t real.” I moved my blue piece. I was always blue.
“Like in Indiana Jones.”
Harry leaned against the red striped wallpaper. “Whatever. I’m going to be red next time.”
“No, you’re not.”
“How did it get in here?”
“Go,” I said.
Sometimes people say, “in space,” as if we are not always in space, I mean, what other space is there?
I received a manila padded packet full of government-subsidized propaganda related to the space program. I looked at the cover letter, with the signature of the head of NASA (was that real?), and brochure by brochure, booklet by booklet, shuffled through the whole stack. Wow.
I put it all back in its padded envelope, pulled over the chair from our desk, up to the bookcase, stood on it and set the envelope on the top of my bookshelf where Harry could not touch it, at least not without making the noise of moving a chair in front of the bookcase.
The most interesting part, of course, was the nozzles they used to pee in, and the straps that had to secure them to the toilet seat to do their other business.
I had dreams about not knowing what was up and what was down. In my dreams, the ceiling became the floor, I was between and wondered which way to go. Was I a bird, a bat? Was I loyal to the gravity I’d known? I had dreams when the walls were lit but not the ceiling or the floor, and I would reach down with my feet, stretch, and up with my arms, reach to feel something either direction.
My mom eventually told us we could come out. Did they have to kill the squirrel we asked. No, they just caught him and took him outside.
Was there even a squirrel? Maybe something else was going on, something she didn’t want us to see.
In space there is not up or down. It’s a trip to see how the space vehicles are constructed, how they have latches and levers everywhere, and nothing is the floor, really, because the fact of the matter is, we do a job pretending that there is up and down where we are, but we are just doing a job. Up and down are not anything.
Some people, when they are weightless, get nauseous. I was sure I wouldn’t be one of those people. I was sure I could go up, even, in the “vomit comet,” the airplane that would give you just a fistful of seconds of weightlessness. I would be free, not the least bit disoriented or lacking, not that kind of –less or that kind of free, just finally without everything that had been making me complicated, that is, weighty. At least I could do that, to get my start, go up in that plane and experience weightlessness, they always used the word “experience” when they talked about what you needed to be an astronaut. I could have that experience, start there. I didn’t think I could be a fighter pilot. I didn’t want to shoot anything.
Eddie had, for the bargain price of $100, researched my family, going back ten generations. It was good for Eddie to have something to do. It was good for Eddie to have $100. He would spend it on drinks, anyway.
“I’m very happy with how this turned out,” he said, and hands me a binder.
“Good, good,” I said, sitting down next to him and his beer.
“What’s amazing, when you, you get started searching for this kind of thing, for your backstory, for where you came from, what’s interesting is that you learn, soon, that you are from… a lot of places. A lot.”
“Yeah…?” I did not look at Matt, who was scooping ice, that was probably doing what he needed to do.
“What I mean, is, you know, you start, you start, like, going back into history, and these things, they, they expand exponentially, they divide, two, two, two….”
“Like that thing about the king, and the chessboard, and the grains of rice,” Matt said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Exponential, right.”
“Okay, but the bigger point is, there are some leads that just keep going and sprout and sprout like bamboo, you know, and others go stale. Anyway, I have plenty of good news for you, my friend. You have some deep roots in Columbus, Georgia.”
“Huh,” I said. “Okay.”
“On some other branches, I guess I should, I should say, roots, of your family, I got you back to, uh, Ireland, and, to, uh,” he opened the binder and started flipping through the pages of brackets and brackets and brackets of names. “To Prussia, and France, and, uh, somewhere else that was, was interesting, uh, Norway.”
“I knew there were some people from the south, that’s all I knew.” Matt refilled my water with the soda gun. “Thanks.”
“I even found the exact spot, someone else you’re related to, that’s the real jackpot. That’s your dad’s side. Now on your mom’s side, somebody is quite the amateur historian, quite the genealogist, or, maybe, you may be related to some Mormons.”
“Yeah, that’s my mom, she’s done a lot of her side, I know.”
“Huh. Well, on your dad’s side, someone else found this spot that was the family farm in Georgia, GPS coordinates and everything, the spot where the house was.” Two guys came in and started chatting over the beer list.
“The house? Like a plantation house, down there?”
“Yes. Jacob Eliphaz Jordan, here he is. That’s the oldest name I found. Yep, 1730-1770, Jacob Eliphaz.”
“Wow. That’s amazing.”
Matt peeked over before he started emptying the dishwasher. “Cool.”
“Could we get two Pale Ales?” one of the guys said.
I flipped pages in the binder. “Prussia. That’s not real,” I said.
“No, it is! Prussia was…” I looked hard at Matt, but Eddie was already going. “Well, most people don’t have any idea how messy the, the, the history of Germany actually was, it’s no wonder they started all those wars, they were so torn up, such a messy, messy place.”
“Huh,” Matt said, and shrugged.
“Those Germans have had a confusing time.” The Pale Ales laughed at whatever they were saying.
“I hope you’re not related to too many Mormons,” Matt said. “They, are, crazy, man.”
“For a bartender, you’re not a great listener,” I said.
“Plantation is too big a word, I take that back, Jacob, it was, I would say, a modest farm.”
“A modest farm. This is great, man, thanks.”
“He deserves another drink?”
“Yeah, and one for me.”
Sure, Jacob, that happened when I was a little boy, I saw it, everyone saw it.
Where were you?
I don’t remember. Maybe the Walmer house. I remember, huh, being on the couch, but we had the same couch both places. It was orange and scratchy. I don’t know why people made couches in those scratchy fabrics.
What was it like?
Hmm. It was like, this thing you saw, hung in the sky, wasn’t flat anymore.
Like they said the world was flat.
Like that, I guess. It was so grey, all those curved lines, not a straight line or a right angle to be found, you know, when they actually were up there exploring. And they were up there, actually the terrain was bumpy and dug out.
So you believed it?
Why wouldn’t I believe it? Who have you been hanging out with? It showed what we could do, you know, we thought we were ready to get bulldozers up there and start making roads, digging ditches, a colony on the moon.
Why didn’t we?
Maybe we will. Sometimes I guess things will happen in fits and starts instead of the way you think they will, one step at a time.
It seems too far away to get to.
It almost was, until it wasn’t.
Like growing a Santa Claus beard.
Ha. I remember the steps were bouncy, it was hard to imagine that, how they moved, how they felt. It looked like the surface was bouncy, had give to it, but you know, that had to do with the atmosphere, nothing about the surface, the surface is rock-hard.
Bedrock? Is it bedrock?
No, lunar soil, and bedrock way under that, just like here. You can look it up.
They planted the flag, though, like the moon was America?
It was more like, who was there. All the flags are white, now, you know, anyway. Bleached out by the sun. No atmosphere, so the sun bleaches things out really fast.
Huh. A white American flag.
And one of them fell over. The first one. The jets from their little vehicle blew it over.
Oops in front of the whole world, well, I guess, we didn’t see that. They admitted it later.
Well, nobody meant to. And what does it matter? Who can see? A few satellites up there, things flying around, a few people with huge, huge telescopes, maybe. No colony. Nobody.
My dad always wanted to talk about how airports were moved to the outskirts of cities, from the center, and what a bad idea that was. Airports should be in the middle of things, really, although they were noisy, you had to get people to and from the airport all the time, so it should be accessible.
He used to take us to the downtown airport in the Saab and drive around the perimeter with the top down. We would sit a while and watch the little planes take off, and he bought us 50 cent ice cream sandwiches from the vending machine.
People took bikes to the downtown airport, and they rode around in circles, too. The planes sat, prepared, took off, disappeared, the cars and the bikes went around and around. We worked our way toward the foil, unwrapping, unwrapping, vanilla ice cream from the edges getting pushed out, the wind from the top being down making wrappers flap.
“Hold onto your trash,” Dad said. “They never should have moved the airport out,” he said.
It was okay to get ice cream on the seats, they were vinyl. We drove around in circles and did not get dizzy because the circles were big.
“Some cars have a sort of tail on the back, a spoiler, it keeps the car on the road, it helps keep it down, actually, it’s not like a wing at all,” he said. “I know, it’s strange, who wants to be more pinned to the ground, but they need to keep the tires on the road, that’s where you need them.”
I visit my dad twice a week. I talk to the staff. I sign the forms. I sign in, I sign out. The orderlies, I smile at them and ask them how they are, hoping this will help my dad.
My dad’s room has a window that is cheap, it has an aluminum frame. The greyness of his hair is all right—I can look past the grey to the brown still mixed in. The way his face is falling is not all right, but who can tell if it is falling when he is always horizontal? They comb his hair. He still has all his hair. Does it matter? I touch his hair. It is soft, rabbit soft, like it’s always been.
They would call me if there was an emergency. There haven’t been any emergencies for a long time.
When I get back to my car after a visit, I see the red plastic tag in the corner of the windshield says the date is way past for my oil change, and the mileage is way past, too.
The only thing you really have to make sure to do with these newer cars is get your oil changed. Just get it changed. It’s not a big thing, it’s not a big deal, and it extends the life of your car so much, keeps so many things from going wrong. You don’t need to do it every 3,000 miles, though, you can go 6,000. That’s fine.
Six thousand miles, he said. I rested my forehead on the steering wheel. Six thousand. I should drive.
The land was not important, after all. I was awake and I sat up in the tent. All around me was blue. I realized there was no reason to be there, it was just a place. It was just some trees, some ground, and if someone who had been someone to me had been there, the someone with the sun, if they had, there was nothing there I even knew to say to him. “I’m one of you,” I wouldn’t say. Not,“I’m from here,” or, “I learned about this.” Those people who used to be there, trying to figure things out themselves, were sleeping indoors, aiming at animals with guns, and sometimes, probably, aiming at each other, they weren’t like me. Living fifty paces from people they thought of as animals, or a kind of half-animal, half-human kind of thing that they had imagined. They will work for us, it makes sense, they are ignorant, but they can work, they will work, to avoid pain, and then they started to see sometimes they were people, had people eyes, and they wondered, do they worry like we do, not animal worry, tense before making a move, but human, knowing, fretting? But they were strong. We made them so strong.
I remembered I had an orange in the car. I unzipped the tent and went to get it. It was sitting in the cupholder. This time, I left the tent unzipped the way you are never supposed to. Bugs will get in, Dad said. I crouched in front of the tent with the orange and still didn’t zip it. I left it open. I dug fingernail edges under the skin of the orange and its scent, a bubble, burst, of orange. I could leave the orange peel there on the ground. There was no reason not to. So I did, in a curled pile of orangeskin, and I ate one section of the orange. It was dryish It miserly held what juice it had. There were some bird noises, there was ruddy ground, and the not good orange, my feet in slip-on plastic sandals.
And maybe there were the ghosts. Maybe people who were as nice to each other as they could have been, considering what they had been born into, or people who were as cruel as people could be. Or maybe when things were over they were over. Maybe it was all gone. Jacob Eliphaz Jordan, even, was gone, and he was the most famous of all these people, from a small farm, fifteen people and their crops and animals and outhouse and only one of them an owner, the owner, Jacob Eliphaz Jordan.
This is what my dad would have told me:
A stop sign is red, red is the universal color of stoppage, probably because of blood, though depending on why you are drawing blood, maybe you want to keep going. A stop sign is also an octagon, in the United States, though not everywhere. In many countries, the stop sign is a circle with a triangle. Which gives it more menace.
American stop signs have a white border that is 20 millimeters across. It is about as wide as the vanilla pushing out of an ice cream sandwich.
My favorite stop sign was the one by my high school, which always used to get its “S” painted over so it would say, “TOP.” Over and over again, “STOP” to “TOP.” My least favorite was at the end of 79th Street, where it was almost impossible to stop when it was icy, especially when taking the kids to school, that always scared me.
In the 1940s, in Australia, stop signs were yellow octagons and said, “HALT.” Which must have made everyone feel like they were living in a comic book.
School busses have stop signs built into them so they can flip them out to protect children as necessary. This is a nice thing, but it still pisses everyone off. Go ahead, kids. Go, go, go.
Stop signs themselves are about a hundred years old. Stop signs in their current incarnation are about ninety years old. Before that, you could stop or go as you pleased. Stop? Go! Stop. Go! Hard to believe.
“This is like what Dad does,” my mom said, pointing to the wallpaper with the stop signs, the railroad crossings, in the book of wallpaper samples.
“I want stripes,” I said.
I called my brother. “Yeah, Dad’s fine,” I said.
“Well, his kind of fine.” I was lying on the floor looking under the bed for my shoes. It was a long, dark, low cavern under there. Who knew what one might find.
“Yeah. You remember the party’s tomorrow, right?”
“Yeah, tomorrow. God, the whole household. Overturned, overrun by party. It’s intense,” he said.
“Pin the tail on the donkey?” I asked, crawling to the end of the bed and waving my hand around down there.
“If only it were that simple. That’s for parents who didn’t love their kids.”
“Right. Right.” A lid from a water bottle.
“Did you watch the George Lucas movie?” he asked.
“Not yet. I’ll get to it.” A penny.
“I bet our Millennium Falcon is in one of your boxes somewhere. You should find it for Leo.”
“Is that where it went? Into my boxes?” Tennis shoes I should have thrown away.
“I think so. You been by the house lately?”
“No,” I said. “What is the kid into now, anyway? What should I get him?”
“Anything with batteries that makes noise would be great.”
“That’s what I was thinking. I know just what you like.”
“Work is good?”
My fingers touched the leather of my shoe, way back there. “Work’s fine. You?”
“You live at the bar, Dad lived at his office, I live at mine.”
“Hey,” I said, as I put my shoe on. “I’m sorry I made you watch ‘Godzilla.’”
“Yeah.” I tied one.
“Okay. You going through something? You are. I’ve just started sleeping again, so now it’s your turn to flip out, is that it? Godzilla? What?”
“Sometimes you just want to get something off your chest.” I tied the other.
“Breathing fire, that was scary. I remember.”
“I thought you would.” I stood up.
“Huge guy. Yeah, I was scared. But I think I turned out okay.”
“You were scared. Trust me. Mom never let us watch shit like that. She wasn’t there, I guess. Oh, and I’ll be gone next week.”
“Business or pleasure?”
“I’m going back down to Georgia to visit cousin Jacob.”
“Jacob plus Jacob. Nobody believes me that you guys have the same name. Isn’t he still in jail?”
“I’m just visiting. Not collecting $200.”
“That’s crazy. You were just down there on your little ancestor worship trip. And we haven’t seen those people for years.”
“I don’t know. He wrote to me.” I went out to the car.
“Why not?” I put on my seatbelt.
“Do you? When we were at grandma’s together. It wasn’t that often.”
“It was nice, though.”
“I guess so. They had a treehouse, right?”
“Yeah, a nice one. Real glass windows from Uncle Jim.”
“Right. I remember.”
“Did Dad go to Uncle Jim’s funeral?”
“Nah. It was after the stroke, like a month after.” I started the car.
“I didn’t remember anything from then.”
“Yeah. Anyway. I gotta go. I’m off to the toy store. See you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow. And no batteries. Don’t be an asshole.”
I hung up.
I bought a play-doh set Leo could use to make hair grow out of an alien head. The Catholic schoolgirl clerk had wrapped it in green happy birthday paper and blue ribbon.
I got it home and set it on the table in the front hall. It was so dusty on the table that I decided the whole house had to be cleaned. I took the bottle of cleaner from under the sink and started spraying everything like there was no tomorrow, and thinking about how that was an odd phrase. Like there was no tomorrow.
I got into the bathroom. I was really going to town. I was wiping down the wall and I felt the cleaner lemon infusing my lungs, and I opened the window. I took off my shirt and my pants and threw them in the hall. I took the sponge from the side of the tub and started with the shower walls. My little hairs, two or three inches long, occasionally on the colorless tile. Why did anyone choose this horrible nothing, this color of the desert, for a bathroom, it would be better if it was brown, even. Up one row, down the next. I moved the shampoo bottles and wiped down the sides of the tub where all kinds of nameless smears had accumulated.
Godzilla was called “King of the Monsters.” He was sort of a dinosaur, and what kid doesn’t like dinosaurs, and part dragon, again, awesome—but then also a monster. I wondered if Harry was giving his kid enough monsters. I should have gotten Leo a dinosaur thing. A hard plastic one. A big one. Maybe a puppet, so I could talk to him through a dinosaur.
I turned on the tap and stood in the water as the bubbles started flowing around my feet, rinsing off whatever I’d scrubbed. Godzilla was huge, huge, too big to imagine. So big he could go after a city, when, as a kid, you couldn’t even go after “Mom” or “Dad.”
I pulled up the metal piece on top of the tap, and aimed the shower head around at the walls to rinse some more. My feet really looked terrifying. Not Godzilla terrifying, maybe. Not that bad. But there was dark hair on them. They were creepy, weren’t they? I turned off the water. My finger on the bottom of the tub made a squeaky sound when it slid along.
I went hands and knees on the floor. The floor wasn’t white, either, but it shouldn’t be this greyish. My t-shirt was not so much the color it should have been, either. No, for that matter, I ought to get rid of this t-shirt, too, and I would, once this floor was clean. I would put it in the kitchen trash, where I wouldn’t be able to take it out later when I lost my nerve. The present for Leo was all wrong. What did he want with hair?
They almost didn’t make it. A pen saved them.
And a kid.
What did the kid do?
He put grease on this thing so it would work again. He was on this tiny island in the middle of the ocean, and the phone stopped working, the phone to the astronauts in the rocket.
Why was he on the island? Wait, who was on the island?
The kid and his dad. The rocket was right above the ocean, and that’s the only place they could get the phone call.
Why didn’t they have wires?
It’s complicated. Anyway, the phone got unplugged, and this kid had to climb under into this tiny space and plug it back in, and that’s the only way they could talk to the astronauts and get them home.
And the astronauts got home.
That was the number of the mission, remember they had numbers? Apollo 13.
I bought a ticket to Atlanta. This is why I shouldn’t own a business, see. See? I don’t care how much things cost. I just clicked, “Buy.” What kind of a capitalist could I ever be? I was going to visit a felon, what kind of citizen was I?
I left my car in Long-Term parking, though I was only planning to be gone for a couple of days, it felt long term. I waited in a glass booth. It was dark. I was by myself. I could see the bus to the terminal coming from far away. The headlights.
I checked in. I went through security, with all the other barefoots. I put my shoes back on and went to my gate. I got up when they told me to. I lined up. I followed. I found my row. I sat.
Why was I doing this, again?
I took out the in-flight magazine, and then I put it back. I took it out again. I put it back again. The only interesting thing in those magazines is the floor plans of airports around the country, or around the world.
The last time my dad spoke to me, he called me my brother’s name.
A teenage girl came and sat down next to me. She had headphones on when she sat down, and she didn’t take them out. Now she was sitting next to a creepy guy like me. What a day she was having. Her face was baby chubby. She wore a plain red t-shirt.
All the plane noises of taking off shifted to the noises of going up in the air, from the sitting sweating doing nothing noises to the we-can’t-possibly-be-moving hum.
I reclined, though one shouldn’t.
But what about the pen, right?
Yeah, the pen?
Buzz, the second man on the moon, he bumped up against a button in the space capsule, pressed it accidentally, and he couldn’t unpush it, you know, he couldn’t undo it, get it back up again, and something terrible was about to happen, and he found a pen, just a regular, ordinary pen, and he got the button up again, and they were okay.
A pen. I thought pens didn’t work in space.
It depends on the kind of pen. And this one worked for just the right thing, right? So I guess it sure worked?
That’s a good story, I’m glad you remember it.
I picked up my rental car from a guy with sweat stains in his pits, and I struggled like everyone does to figure out how the hell to work the radio and ended up with “My Cherie Amour,” which was way too cheerful.
I thought my dad should see photos of the land that our ancestors lived on, and there is no good reason why I should think that. He never lived there. And he doesn’t really open his eyes much anymore.
Maybe seeing the photos, or maybe eating some of the dirt from that spot, he could remember something of the flavor of something. I was going to go get some dirt. I was going to figure out how to feed dirt to my dad.
I wasn’t going to do to that. What if one of the aides caught me feeding him dirt? What if they cared? What if I knew any of their names? What if they stayed at that job long enough to know everything about me, or I would know anything about them except that they turned my dad’s body, they set pillows beneath him and removed them, they removed his IV and replaced it with a new one, they noted his pulse, they pushed his meds, plunger into the plastic line, they wiped his face, they pulled a line out of his penis and when his eyes were open. I bet that would open your eyes.
The rental car was blue, or grey, I wasn’t even sure– a color so no color I knew I knew I’d have a hell of a time finding it in a parking lot.
I would have taken my dad with me to visit the other Jacob, and he would have said, In Ethiopia and Israel, the stop sign is red and octagonal, but instead of the word “Stop,” it has a hand on it suggesting, “Whoa, buddy.” It’s more friendly. Some American stop signs used to be yellow. Then we decided that yellow was the color for, “Check yourself,” not the color of “Now.”
Our yield sign is not yellow. It is red, even though its message is much less dire than the stop sign or the red light. Like someone’s face when he is embarrassed, or angry. My favorite yield signs are around traffic circles, when you can sometimes just ease into the circle, and then ease back out, without making any big moves.
I flew into Atlanta, and then I drove to Columbus. I wanted the interstates, for a while, although no movie would show you driving on an interstate, although the knowingness of the signs is supposed to be unworthy, I was ready for some of that. I liked sign after sign of where restrooms would be. I liked signs that said, “MODERN RESTROOMS,” whatever that meant.
Do you want to know where rest stops are? Great rest stops. You may get to listen to a weather radio playing in the hallway. You might like to wash your hands in a stainless-steel sink, in a room with ventilation but no air conditioning, and look at yourself in a mirror that doesn’t give you your appearance so much as it assures that you are wearing a shirt and you have hair. Do you like to be welcomed to the state you have just entered?
Do you want to know exactly where you are, what mile marker? Do you want to know you could just as easily get help with your flat tire as a ticket? Do you want to know that 45 is the minimum speed? Do you want snow plowing, salting? Do you want to know that the signs with city and street names will all be interstate green, a white stripe around, do you want interstate white numbers and interstate red crown on top, and interstate blue background?
How dickless of people who would say I was nowhere, on the interstate. Only people who have never actually been where they are would say that. I liked how the hum of the car went on forever and I wished I never would stop.
What did they want, people? They wanted to understand things? They wanted reds to be redder? They wanted mountains without valleys, you know.
Wendy’s. There were four ladies in line ahead of me. It was Sunday. They must have just been to church. Ladies in blouses and capri pants and knee-length skirts and good shoes, round-toed. One of them ordered chili, although I thought it was too hot for chili. One of them said, “Today?” in the gentlest voice, and it was what my mom would have said.
What did they leave on the moon, Dad?
A patch, a branch, a flag, and a message.
A patch, a branch, a flag, and a message. What did the message say?
It said, We come in peace.
We come in peace. What was the branch?
It was an olive branch. It means peace.
And the patch was for the astronauts.
Yep. That’s right. That’s right.
I ate dinner at the Chinese restaurant around the corner from the hotel. It looked like every Chinese restaurant. It was red, everything was red and gold like every red and gold Chinese restaurant in America, or maybe even the world, I haven’t seen much of it. I don’t know.
The girl who came to take my order was not Asian, which worried me. She was so not Asian, she was blonde. She took her pad out of her black apron. “What can I get you? Eggrolls, crab rangoon?”
“No, thanks,” I said. This would not be good. “Egg drop soup, just a cup, and I’ll have the General Tsao’s chicken. You have brown rice?”
“Brown rice?” she said, like she had never heard of it. “No.”
“And you have drinks?”
“Drink specials are on the back,” she said. She was writing down what I had ordered, every single letter, the whole name of each. This was not going to be good.
Drinks were a good idea. But who wanted a drink? “I’ll have tea.”
I ate my soup from a tiny cup. It had corn in it. It was good, actually. I remembered the postcards. I went out to the car to get them, wondering how I should signal the waitress that I was not running out on my bill. She had disappeared, though. I ran in and out, and the family eating in the other corner was still eating peacefully, they had not called the cops to tell them I had stolen $2.50 worth of egg drop soup in my stomach.
I took a pine forest postcard out and started writing to my dad, although he can’t read. Dear Dad, My hotel room has two double beds, a dresser, a TV, a desk, and a chair,
I stopped. Under the postcard was the red placemat with the Chinese zodiac. I am a goat. Not a tiger or a dragon, not a rat. I read about the goat. Goats are loving, committed partners, but tend to be insecure. A goat is nourished by time in nature. Many goats struggle with being disorganized, but they are very affectionate.
When I was done with my food, I sat there with the bill and my credit card a long time, circling the words on the placemat that sounded funniest to me. Cheerful. Placid. Invigorating. I saw the family who had sat on the other side take their tab up.
I went up to pay. On the counter there were three cans with slots in the top for three charities. Two had photos of kids on them, one had a bike on it. And then there was a plastic bin of York peppermint patties with a slot on top, and a handwritten sticker that said 25¢. I pulled change out of my pocket while I waited for the credit card to run. The first can got a quarter, the second can got a quarter, the bike got a quarter.
“Here you go, sir,” said the lady, who wore a black t-shirt and thick rimmed black glasses. “Thank you very much.”
“Too many choices,” I said. “Gotta hit ‘em all.”
“Okay.” She said. “Thank you.”
The two cups I had not used were still in their wrappers next to the sink.
I finished the postcard.
My hotel room has two double beds, a dresser, a TV, a desk, a chair, one of those cheap folding luggage stands, two framed pictures of mountains, two shrink-wrapped plastic cups, a little square bottle of shampoo, a little square bottle of lotion, a shower curtain that is creepy thick, two bedspreads that are itchy, and beige carpet just like we have. The bottle of shampoo says, “Shampoo,” and the bottle of lotion says, “Hand lotion.”
Your loving son,
The prison outside of Columbus looked like a college except that it had barbed wire around it. I parked the car, noticed that a tree with red blossoms was in front of the car. Inside there was a desk and a lady in a uniform. She had me sign my name in a book and looked at my ID and handed me a sticker to put on and then go through the metal detector, just like the one at the airport, except grimier and I didn’t know what would happen if it went off. It didn’t go off.
Godzilla would destroy things with his tail as well as his feet. He bumbled around, sure, without even being angry, and then there was the tail doing things he didn’t even know about. That was the most tragic part, actually. A tail, and you don’t even know what it’s doing?
They gave me back all my quarters after I went through the metal detector. Ten dollars in my left pocket, ten dollars in my right. It felt like sandbags, like someone was going to worry I would float away, or be washed away. It was what my cousin Jacob had requested, and it seemed like a small enough thing. I guessed they used the quarters for vending machines. Or maybe he was in a poker game. Or maybe he was going to smelt them down and turn them into a shank and fight his way out. But probably not. He only had five months left. It was not the right time to stab someone.
The visiting room had the folding-up tables had those round, attached seats. I sat down, and Jacob, who looked something like me, sat on the other side.
“Thanks for coming, man,” he said. The wall behind him was an ocean scene, lots of yellow fish who looked just alike, like they had been done with a stencil, and then a few zebra fish, and some grey plain looking tuna things.
“Sure,” I said. “How are you?”
“I’m all right. I’m all right. How was your trip?” I guess I was expecting him to look crazier, or feel crazier. It seemed like kind of a normal conversation.
“And you found the place okay?”
“Yep.” I tapped my fingers on the table like I was bored. “It’s good to see you.”
I had to buy gas on the way back from the prison. I went inside the convenience store. I don’t know why. I walked around the place, maybe thinking about how I could walk around there and other Jacob couldn’t. I decided to buy some gum so it would seem like I had gone in there for a reason. I thought about buying Big League Chew, but it was just too ridiculous for a grown man to buy.
I picked up the Bubblicious instead. Goonberry Bubblicious was not as far as Big League Chew, but pretty far. The package was a neon green. I set it on the counter, and I saw there were postcards for sale, too. I bought three that said GEORGIA, one with peaches that looked pretty sexy, one with big white flowers.
I swiped my credit card for the lady. I went back to the car. I hadn’t asked any of my questions about if prison was like prison. I wished I had.
“A lot of guys get their GEDs while they’re in here. It’s not the worst place. I feel like I lucked out. I know. That’s a weird thing for a guy in here to say.”
“Maybe. But that’s good.”
“I do landscaping, too, I actually get out of here, now. I worked my way up to here. If you can believe that.”
I nodded. “Sprinkler systems, like building stuff, or planting?”
“All of it, whatever. Not bad stuff to know. I didn’t know much about it, but now, wow, I could have some kind of yard if I wanted. I don’t know that I ever would want that, but….”
“I never had a yard. There are some plants in the bar, though, I always thought that was a nice touch.”
“Yeah. What kind of fancy place you have, anyway? Plants? Or are they plastic?”
“It’s not nice. Trust me. But they are real plants.”
“I’d love to see it,” he said.
“I’d buy you a drink,” I said.
My dad had a lawyer. I didn’t really know the guy, just that my dad had gone to college with him, and that if someone needed to see a lawyer, my dad would tell them to see this guy. And I figured this guy had my dad’s will filed away somewhere. Somewhere in his office I was going to.
I was eating a banana when I decided I had to call the lawyer. I put the banana down on the kitchen table, I had to do it now or I would lose momentum. I punched in the number, which I had been carrying around on a scrap of paper instead of putting it into my phone. It was snowing like cold falling stars were falling and someone answered and I asked for an appointment, For what? she said, and I said, I’m not sure?
How did you learn about our office? she said, as if she was concerned I would arrive wearing a bomb. Which was a great idea, I should arrive wearing a bomb and say, “Help or else.”
You did some work for my dad. I mean, he did some work for my dad.
Oh. Good then, we’ll see you in two weeks.
Could you let me know, if, you have anything, uh, sooner?
I could. At this same number?
We don’t have many cancellations, but I will call you if we do.
If we do, if wee dew, I thought of the sound of the words. If wee dew. If oui dou.
Thank you, I said, as if I was someone who was fine, not someone who was about to file for bankruptcy after he ate a banana and shoveled the driveway. Like I didn’t know what I needed an appointment for.
Godzilla attacked the banana and it squashed it something as amazing as everything David Letterman ever dropped off the edge of a tall building. I married the banana and we had three children.
I opened the front closet, took out the shovel, stepped outside, and started shoveling the snow, it was not heavy enough to please me, it was much, much too light, and my hands were getting red right away, I didn’t need to look at them, I could tell they were getting red, and I couldn’t tell the snow falling in my hair, but it was, and the metal shovel scraped against the sidewalk too soon, and the snow was too light, and I kept shoving, and throwing the snow just a foot away, why do we even do that, why shouldn’t it be where it was? My hands hurt until they didn’t hurt, three-fourths of the way to the street, and then I dropped the shovel because I couldn’t feel my hands or hold anything. I looked down at all the white, the only color the stop sign at the corner, with white all around it it looked paler than usual, dimmer red. I picked up the shovel again with the red open square of the end of the shovel, and I took it inside, and instead of using the red open square on the end, I just set it against the side of the closet, and it was going to be there, dripping, making a mess where I wouldn’t clean up, a puddle in a closet. I left it there and I stood and looked at the closed closet door, and I didn’t care.
Last year I visited my mom. She lives in San Diego now. She picked me up at the airport and we went to get tacos on the beach. “It’s just so beautiful here, I’m still not used to it. I hope I never get used to it.” We sat at a picnic table with the Pacific all there to look at if you weren’t used to it.
“It’s really nice,” I agreed, and picked up my taco. “You know, I was thinking of doing some research about our ancestors, so I wanted to ask what you know about your side.”
“That would be interesting. I know some things. My mom’s side was British.”
A bunch of teenagers laughed and squealed past us, feet tumbling. Bikes went by, bumping down the boardwalk.
“Then another branch, one they married into, the Bergens, ended up naming Bergen County.”
“Wow, so we could get discounts there, or get crowned, or something?”
“I’m not dying to get to New Jersey, exactly. I’m sure it’s perfectly nice. But.” She smiled.
I took a sip of beer. “Anyone else famous?”
“Farnsworth, inventor of the television. I think. Probably. Not directly, but we’re related to him somehow.”
“Huh, that’s cool. I didn’t know who invented TV.”
“Well, he had a terrible life, and he really got nothing out of inventing TV, but it is still interesting, isn’t it? You should look him up.”
My mouth was full of taco. I swallowed. “No kings or queens, though.”
“No.I believe there was a guy who won a prize for the largest pumpkin in Kentucky.”
“Not exactly a king.”
“King of pumpkins. But it helps you to think about who you are, who you could be, where you came from.” She smiled.
“Why did you name me Jacob?”
“Huh. I think your dad had a relative, way back, with that name, that he liked. I think. it was your dad’s pick, and I liked it. I love the name Leo, though, isn’t that a good one?”
“Then Aunt Susan named her baby Jacob, too. I guess it worked out. Do you know how he’s doing?”
“Huh. I wonder.” We looked at the ocean. “It must be hard.”
Some places you need to stop, to know to stop completely, and other times, you just have to look out. There are different kinds of crossings, the different ways that people can show each other where to cross a street: the zebra, the ladder.
When I cross the street, I think about whether it is a zebra or a ladder. Strictly speaking, the difference is whether the stripes are perpendicular to the street, or slanted at an angle to the street. Different countries make their decisions about color and how far apart the stripes should be.
There are crossings that are called Pegasus crossings. They are actually for horses, not flying horses, who wouldn’t need crossings. The more usual ones are crossings for children and for schoolchildren, or for blind children, in particular.
A crossing for pedestrians and bicycles is called a toucan crossing. Do you feel like a toucan on a bicycle? I guess you could.
There are jokey crossings for ducklings and aliens. Deer crossings I can’t joke about, as my pediatrician’s son was killed when she hit a deer with her car. Afterward, instead of smiling when she gave you a shot, to distract you, she looked into your eyes.
It was also snowing two weeks later when I went to the lawyer’s office, and I slid right into the space in front. I might be stuck. But I was parked.
In the office it was so warm I felt like a chocolate chip cookie getting baked. I told the lady who I was. I took off my hat, messed up my hair a little, put my hat in my coat pocket, hung it on the coat rack. I sat on an upholstered chair. There was Mozart playing. It was a famous piece, I think, otherwise how would I know it, but I couldn’t remember the name of it or anything, not from music appreciation class so many years ago. It seemed like a good, fair, and balanced sort of thing to play at a lawyer’s office, though.
I was sweating through my sweater so much I thought the black of it might be blacker, on my chest. The woman behind the desk kept clicking her mouse. I wished she would type instead. That would be more soothing. I wished it was fifty years before and she was typing on a typewriter. That would be even better. Clack clack clack.
I wished I was not thinking about what the bar looked like. I wished I didn’t know that our signage was Heineken, that I had refused any and all Bud Light merch because it was ugly, that there were five taps and one of them, currently, had an empty cup on top of it. I knew how many strokes it took to clean the mirror, and how careful you had to be, to spray the cleaner on the rag instead of on the mirror because you might get some, just a tiny bit, even on the bottles or on the glassware or on the ice in the bucket. I did not know which CD Matt had most recently put into the player. Whatever CD was in there, would be in there a long time because it would be forgotten about. The CD that was in there might end up being the last CD that would ever be in there, how could a CD player be such old technology as a typewriter was, I remembered going to the record store, which was not a record store, it was a CD store, but we called it a record store, and buying my first CD, and I remembered how it came in a long cardboard case that had shrink-wrapped plastic around it, and how I had borrowed one my dad’s CDs first, I had borrowed the White Album to see if my new CD player worked, and now I knew it did, so I went to buy the CD I wanted with the other $15 of my birthday money and it was “Nevermind,” what an unoriginal choice.
I knew how to work the cash register at the bar, I knew how to teach people to work that cash register, I had taught Matt, I had taught Halley, I had taught Annie. I knew that the key on the upper right stuck, and I knew we just should have gotten an iPad and the little scanner deal, but I had already bought a cash register. Maybe it would have been better if we had bought a big brass machine with those little tickets that fly up to show what you had bought, except instead of 5 cents and 10 cents and 25 cents, the flags that came up on the plastic Fisher-Price cash register that Harry and I had, it could have had flags going up that said, “Beer” or “Mixed Drink.” That could have been cool. It was all going to fail anyway, and we could have had more fun before it did. We should have just given all the drinks away. I could have had so many friends. I could have paid everyone twice as much. The receptionist got up and walked into the back.
Who knew but me about how the drain rack under the taps had to be cleaned? Who knew when it had been last cleaned? Maybe Matt and maybe not. How it could actually get very shiny if you got in there, and yes, I know, it would only last a little bit, this shininess that it had, but it was what separated us from the animals, wasn’t it? Making thing shiny. I had chosen the black rubber things that went along the edge of the bar, the bumpers, where you set drinks, and I had chosen Jameson Black Barrel of all the choices for bumpers, not that there were a hundred choices, there were not, but I chose that one, I like whiskey, and I like the word “Jameson,” and I like the sound of “Black Barrel,” although I don’t recall selling much of it.
And who would know how many napkins were left, and how many books of matches, such an old-fashioned thing to have, too, you know, not typewriter old fashioned but old, still, there are smokers who would use matches, they are desperate people. And the candles. We were running low on candles, and now it would never be an issue, stupid me thinking candles were something we should buy, the bar was never that nice, never a candle place.
The coins my brother and I used were fat and plastic, they said 25 and 10 and 5, instead of being a quarter and a dime. Fat, plastic coins, tomato red, yellow, sky blue.
When I bought the bar, that is, the actual furniture piece of the bar, the bar for the liquor to sit on, the bar for the glasses to sit on, for people to lean on, I liked the stained glass, but I also liked the bar itself, of course, it was thought to have been brought by train from Boston, because it had to be crafted by the right people, although what the right people were doing in Boston, I’ll never know. The stained glass was red diamonds, white squares, yellow circles. There were green leaves, too, but no fruits, no flowers. The wood was dark. There was a mirror, and it was not too smoky to see yourself in. I bought it from a guy in Kansas City and they had to take it apart before they shipped it, and I paid guys to put it back together.
The location of the bar: you could sell snow to drunk Eskimos, that is, there were plenty of people who went to that part of town to get drunk, that’s why it seemed like a fine thing to do, to take my dad’s money and put it there, it would flourish, it would come back.
What did I not know? If my dad had not been sick, would he have given me the money? Would he do that in his right mind?
There are sometimes pictures of people which indicate when to cross, when to walk. Other times, other places, there are words that change, that aren’t always STOP, WALK or DON’T WALK.
The walking pedestrian, or the picture of walkingness, is usually white, with the purity of an angel telling you to cross the street, right now would be fine, yes, now is your moment. The DON’T WALK is usually red. Sometimes, instead of a person having his moment, jiving across the street, there is a hand. A palm in front of you is the sign for a fortune teller available, and is also the sign for DON’T. DON’T. Come on, don’t be that way, DON’T. And it will be red, generally acknowledged symbol color of DON’Ting.
Actually, technically, the DON’T is not red. It is “Portland orange.” It is always, and exactly, “Portland orange,” in America.
An innovation is that the sign will tell you how much time you have left to cross the street. It will count down for you. We count down on New Year’s Eve, and we count down for small children, to get them to do things.
The hand will start flashing when it means, don’t start crossing now! Are you crazy? If you are a fit person with fit legs and feet, you can start whenever, honestly. Unless it is two in the morning and you are wearing all black, like a ninja, then I would recommend being a ninja.
In Germany, it is definitely a man who is WALKing or DON’T WALKing. And he is wearing a hat. That’s Germany for you.
In the United States, if the hand flashing lasts more than seven seconds, you will get a countdown as well. So, congratulations. When you see the countdown, actually that sign is telling you: there are more than seven seconds to work with here, let me show you exactly how many.
Are you an old person or a tiny person or an infirm person or a disabled person who needs extravagant amounts of time to cross the street? Well. The countdown is really good for you.
On the other hand, put a countdown on a computer screen, and people start freaking out. You might see one when you try to buy tickets to a show, it will tell you you have only so many more seconds to buy those particular seats before they will be released BACK INTO THE ETHER. DON’T. DON’T. Don’t let that DON’T get you. Buy what you want to buy.
When I bought the bar, I stopped getting drunk. I watched other people get drunk, lightly, slowly, quick, heavy. I observed tipsy, blotto, hammered, blasted, and three sheets to the wind. I I observed intoxicated, fucked up. Intoxicated was my favorite. I liked people intoxicated.
Increasing enthusiasm, millimeter by millimeter, you think you know more than you thought, then, I am talking too much, then I am not walking quite right, not quite, then I am having a feeling, am I?
There is so much room, so much room for everything, why did I ever think anything, anywhere was cramped, there is plenty for everyone, or, that this place is the only place, this person’s eyes, or this person’s hands, hands I am going over to grab, one to shake, or to take.
The doors at the place where my dad lives, the doors to the place are those very slow revolving ones, and every time I go in I think I will punch the glass out, before I am able to be inside. You have to move right with the speed of the door, not too fast, not too slow, but just fast enough. You have to step, but with smaller steps than anyone wants to take. You have to walk like you are on a death march, which is cruel because you are probably going to see someone who is dying and isn’t that enough? It is like Andrew Jackson has sent you around that circle, around your own down-the-drain. You are a lab rat, at their pace. You don’t get to stop, there is no walk or don’t walk, there is just go.
There are revolving doors downtown, in office buildings. There are some at the art museum, I remember, from our school trip there. My teacher told us to be careful or we could get our arms cut off. I saw a painting of John the Baptist’s head on a plate that day, and I had a nightmare about someone. Go back to bed, my mom said. You’re not going to get beheaded. It’s not real, my dad said. And they shut their door.
Some people think the worst thing in the world is when the button you push to trigger a WALK is not real. Nah.
If someone told you you could get your paycheck by just pushing a button, like a hamster, like that guy in “Lost,” you might not be much better or worse off than the person who is pushing that button for no reason. It’s not what happens that pisses you off, it’s what you think of it. Hamlet said this better. Or one of his buddies, or Polonius, I can’t remember.
There’s one more kind of crossing I like: Continental, which is a lot of fat equals signs in a queue across the street. It looks like a sort of reverse, negative-space version of the ladder crossing. Like it’s trying to mess with your mind. It isn’t. It’s just saving paint.
I wouldn’t cross the street at all if you are blind. But if you must, in many places they have not only the bird chirps, but also bumps in the pavement to tell you where the crosswalk is, and/or where you are entering it or exiting it. Can you imagine, people who are blind walk all over big cities, and they even cross streets, very busy ones. They must have some balls.
Another idea new for crosswalks is that a chirping sound will come from different corners of an intersection, to help blind people. What this will do is that everyone will think there is a new and horrible kind of bird, and then the sound will regress to the background noise, depending on how often you walk there.
The day before I was going to declare bankruptcy, Nina came by the bar at 10 AM, and I didn’t have the heart to fuck her there, although that had always been a plan of ours. Instead we had coffee.
I waved my hand at my former kingdom. The stools, the booths. “This is what I had. How am I going to get laid now?”
“I’m going back to Columbus, anyway. First.”
“Right. Getting your doppleganger from prison. Can’t somebody else do that?”
“They can, but I will. He’s not my doppleganger.”
“The Hindenburg, you know, that footage?”
“It’s pretty. Can we drink now?”
“I guess. The Hindenburg. I haven’t always been this depressed. I might not.” I got the bottle of the best scotch, which wasn’t that great, just okay, and poured us each one.
“You would. It’s like this great grey whale, with the sky behind it, blimp, the first part is the sky and clouds and the blimp, that word sounds so wrong for it, the airship, yeah, the airship, huge, but soft, floating, and then it just switches.”
“It blows up.”
“They don’t show that, it switches to just after it blew up and they turned the camera back on, I guess, and then it’s all black behind it, smoke, and the frame of it and the flames and the smoke, and these tiny guys walking it looks like they are so slow, like they’re not worried at all, watching it burn and picking stuff up but not really doing much, you know?”
“Where did it happen?”
She drank. “New Jersey.”
“Everything fucking happened in New Jersey. Everybody died?”
“Oh, no, like half the people. Some of them were okay.”
“I don’t know.”
She lay back on two of the tables with her empty martini glass at her waist and wrist flopped over and she had told me she put on perfume for this ceremonial last drink. I sat in the booth and thought about touching her.
“It’s good to see you.”
“Didn’t you use to own a bar?”
“I knew a guy who….”
I was going to whittle. I would grow rare cacti and persuade them to flower. I would train rattlesnakes. Invent a new kind of electric blanket. One that never made you sweat or roasted you if you fell asleep under it.
My dad is always cold now. Always. How can he be so thin when he doesn’t ever move around? He had fleece blankets with red maple leaves, embroidered with names of colleges no one’s heard of, fleece socks, even rainbow ones, the muddiest brown fleece hat, fleece jackets that fasten up the front because otherwise it would be too hard for the people to put on him. I try not to look at his ankles, which clearly could not support the weight of any body. I don’t look at his upper arms, naked and finished like chicken breasts under plastic.
The potato was almost soft enough to give up on, but no. Would Frank Sinatra give up if it was almost too soft?
I suddenly wasn’t sure how to bake a potato. I would make a steak, yes, and bake a potato, like my own little steakhouse would be happening. I didn’t know how to cook a potato. I had to move a tall stack of mail from a chair to sit at the desk and to google “bake potato.” There you go. What an age we live in.
I turned on the kitchen faucet and scrubbed the almost-too-soft potato with a puff of steel wool, until I realized that was too harsh, it was taking off some of the skin of the potato. I took it easier on the poor thing. I got a fork from the dish drainer and stabbed it three times, as the website had instructed me. To prevent the potato from exploding in the oven, gently poke it several times with a fork. “Die, die, die,” I whispered.
I set it in the oven. I dialed the oven up to four hundred degrees as directed. Do not wrap a potato in foil. Strictly speaking, this would make it a roasted potato. On it own in the oven is sufficient. The potato will bake.
I could sit on the floor and watch the thing bake. I could watch it, see it getting even softer than it had been, and a different soft, an eat-me soft. If I could sit and watch a potato bake, I would be like the Buddha, I would probably start to glow with focus and patience.
I should think about the steak, though. Think about what to do with it. I had bought three steaks for no reason. No, there was a reason. I thought, what if I go to a barbeque, and I need to bring some food? This had not happened. If I cooked one, I would have only two steaks to take to the cookout. I should have had a cookout myself. Then people would be at my house distracting me from baking this potato. I could invite Nina, or some other girl who I could meet and invite. I could have a cookout and invite both of them, Nina and this pretend girl, and Nina would flirt with me, encouraging the pretend girl to think I was very desirable, and Nina would be a good sport, go home, and this pretend girl would throw herself at me because I was so wantable.
I couldn’t sit there for an hour. I didn’t want a potato. I turned the oven off again.
I didn’t remember about the potato for weeks, until I smelled it, and I had to clean out its slimy, chunking apart self.
How long could they not see anyone?
It was three weeks. Longer than Christmas break. Not as long as summer.
Three weeks they couldn’t even hug their kids?
Why did they have to be in there?
They thought there might be space germs.
Are there space germs?
No, just space invaders.
There aren’t space germs.
What if you could get them, like, looking through a telescope?
Or if they would crawl…into your eyes… like this…!
No, Dad, stop! Stop!
Jacob and I walked to the car. He was breathing free air for the first time in a while. He was happy the clothes he had come in with still fit him. His jeans had a hole. But still. They had done the paperwork. He had his wallet back. I wondered if he said goodbye to anyone. I wondered if anyone said good luck, or break a leg, or whatever.
The clerk pushed a button, the door buzzed and popped open. He stepped out. I got up from the plastic folding chair, where I had been waiting. We hugged.
It wasn’t a great day or anything, I mean, weather-wise, it was on the humid side, but it probably seemed great to him. The streetlights, even during the day, probably looked great to him. The angled parking places and the cement dividers to keep you from pulling through probably looked great to him.
I started the car. “Well. Let’s go.”
“Huh, I don’t know how to drive a stick.”
“You’re kidding. I wouldn’t go telling people that.”
“Yeah, don’t tell ‘em I just got out of prison, and don’t mention I can’t drive a stick.” He put his seatbelt on.
“Don’t tell anyone I just declared bankruptcy, either. We’ll never get laid. Let’s get you a drink.”
“That sounds great.” I pulled out of the parking space. “That sounds just right.”
I ordered us the finest beer on tap. The bartender found nothing amusing about that.
“You know where the saddest place in the world is?”
“A Chinese restaurant that used to be a Taco Bell.”
“No, Starbucks is worse, everyone at Starbucks thinks they’re making their lives better, and none of them are.”
The bartender, off in the other corner, saluted one of the waitresses. Everywhere I looked that there might be grime hidden, there was none.
“Remember those woods behind grandma and grandpa’s where we used to try to get lost?”
“It was worth a try,” I said.
“We had to take our shoes off before we went in the house.”
“Do you think that was just kids, or did everybody have to?”
“I don’t know.”
“One year we went down there and our car had one window stuck open, so the wind was blowing in our faces the whole fucking way, and it even rained at one point, and my mom opened up an umbrella and had me hold it up to the window, which actually worked okay, but it was hot as hell in there in the meantime, summer kind of rain, so humid, you know?”
“You held it?”
“I think so. Maybe my sister wasn’t with us?”
“I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you.”
“It’s more for me. I haven’t gotten to give her a present in a long time. I’d feel better. Honestly. I want to get her something.”
“We used to, at Christmas, we had drawn names, and I had to get you a present once.”
“Really? I don’t remember. We only did that, like, a few times, when we both went to grandma’s.”
“I got you a Hot Wheels car.”
“I had a lot of Hot Wheels.”
“Sure you did, big shot. I remember wrapping it, though. It was skinny, to wrap. It was like a little envelope of wrapping paper, my mom taught me to wrap a present with it, to make the flaps, to fold them in and down and to make that weird kind of origami that everyone knows how to make. Like, do you remember that? Learning that?”
“Nah. Shit, I still fuck that up.”
There was no mirror behind the bar. Every good bar has a mirror behind it, of course, so that people who should not be watching each other can watch each other.
There were no games to play, but there was one lottery ticket machine. I couldn’t figure how you would pick three or however many you were supposed to pick, and Jacob didn’t know.
Jacob wanted to go north. He didn’t have a real reason to stay in Georgia. I didn’t have a real reason not to bring him back with me. We alternated driving duty ,and country and rock on the radio.
There wasn’t a drop of rain, not all day, not all night. It was perfect driving conditions. A little cloudy, no sunglasses. We took a drive-through for lunch because neither of us wanted to stop.
Once Jacob woke up and said, “Pull over, pull over!” and I did, and he opened his door and threw up. “I’m fine,” he said. “I’m fine.”
At three AM, I parked outside a grocery store somewhere and leaned my seat back. I had never wanted to sleep in a car before, but Jacob was asleep, and I didn’t want to change anything.
We stopped at a Waffle House and forgot to play the jukebox, but ate eggs and waffles.
“We could’ve stopped at Wal-Mart,” Jacob said.
“I know, I know,” I said.
“I heard they always let people sleep there, in their cars.”
We stopped at McDonald’s where the milkshake machine was messed up and this old man kept telling us in the most pathetic way that he could fix it. “Those milkshakes taste like astroturf, anyway,” I said. “They’re terrible. Let’s go.”
“Okay,” he said. We left.
I said, “Maybe we could use a real sleep?” He knew it would be my money on the hotel, he had no money and I was about to declare bankruptcy, so my money wasn’t quite my money anymore.
I liked the look of a Red Roof Inn, so I got us a room at the Red Roof Inn.
He went to get ice with the square white ice bin. I turned on the TV and found a Batman movie. We sat on our respective beds and tried to figure out which Batman movie it was.
“It’s ‘Batman and Robin.’”
“No, that’s the one with Val Kilmer.”
“No, that’s ‘Batman Forever.’”
“I think this is the terrible one, the really terrible one.”
“It’s the Clooney one that is awful.”
“Isn’t there a terrible Michael Keaton one, too?”
“How do you like your ‘Batman,’ man? I think both of those are okay.”
“Which one has Alicia Silverstone?”
“I don’t know. Is that before she jumped off that bridge?”
“No, after, after.”
“So many Batmans.”
He fell asleep before the movie ended. I watched to the end, I turned off the TV. I couldn’t sleep although I was really tired. I walked up and down the hall a couple of times, just to move around. I started to worry women staying in the hotel were starting to worry, like I was scoping out the joint, I looked like a dangerous man. I went back into the room. I went into the bathroom and turned the water on and took a long shower.
Over and over again, I forgot to take the bag with me to the nursing home. And then I remembered. It was a morning after a night it had rained all night, and it had just stopped. The rain had put me in a nice sleep. I got up and brought water to my face in my hands, that felt good, too. I brushed my teeth for an extra ten seconds. Then I was clear enough, back in the bedroom, to remember the baggie. I put it in my pocket. It had been so long since I’d had good sleep.
It was the baggie that I had put my shampoo in in case it spilled. I had taken the shampoo bottle out and used a stick to dig out a touch of dirt where I had stuck a tent stake in, in Georgia. It was Mars red. I took it up in my fingers, put it in the bag, pinched the top zips together to seal it. Why had I brought shampoo anyway? They always had shampoo at hotels. They had shampoo at my hotel. There was still a smear of shampoo in the baggie, along with the dirt. There were three big chunks of dirt, and then a lot of crushed powder dirt.
When I rounded the corner to my dad’s room, I could smell him. He needed changing. For a place that warehoused broken and circling-the-drain people, it was nice. There was cheap kleenex in every room. It should have been fine.
I didn’t even go in his room, I turned around and went to the nurses’ station.
A fat lady standing there wore light blue scrubs and looked at a computer.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Yes, hi, can I help you?”
“Yes, hi. My dad needs, uh, cleaned up.”
“Oh, thank you for letting me know. We are down one person today, so the whole process is running late, getting everyone helped, but I will get down there right away.”
“Thanks.” I put my hands in my jacket pockets, and I felt the dirt again. I went back down the hall, into his room.
It smelled. There was the plant on the windowsill, the extra fancy Kleenex with lotion in it that I had brought, right next to the cheap kleenex. His IV and everything looked good, the line looked fine, where it went in. His face was fine. Washed away. Blank.
Sometimes I forgot to talk to him like I talked to people. Maybe that wasn’t good. “Hey. Dad,” I said.
I sat in the beige chair. They would take care of it. I would wait. It smelled.
I got up and rolled him over. That wasn’t too hard. He was thin, he was light. I pulled at the sheet. Got the fitted one undone. Rolled him the other way. The smell was worse. I undid the other two corners.
I went down by his feet, his strangely clean feet, since he never used them for walking and he never sweated. He would never sweat again. His toenails were a little too long, they looked like the toenails of an alien, someone who lived in a rocket ship and never touched land, so thick, opaque. I pulled the sheet up toward the middle of him, by yanking from each side, pulling under his feet, his calves. The real problem was his diaper, and I didn’t know how to start on that.
“Oh, sir, here, here, is so difficult by one, when you don’t know, I will do,” someone said, rushing in. “I will do, sorry, very sorry, just one minute, please, you wait outside,” he said. His eyes pulled me in.
I nodded and went into the hall. I stared at a place on the wall that was blank and had no drawing by a child. I waited forever.
The man came out again and said, “All finished. Sorry, sir, so sorry.”
“These things happen, it’s all right,” I said.
I didn’t feel like thinking about the dirt, anymore. I sat back in the chair next to the bed. It looked like nothing had happened, though Dad always looked like that. The smell was just the ghost of the smell.
I took the dirt out of my pocket and set it on the side table. No. I put it in the drawer in the side table. Someone might throw it out. They wouldn’t know it was important. I stuck my finger in the dirt of the plant in the window. Dry as dust. I took the plastic hospital pitcher and went to the drinking fountain, tilted it to let it be filled, brought it back, let the unbalanced and awkward yellow pitcher pour a little too much water into the soil, just under the leaves. The plant was really doing well. It loved it there. I wasn’t even sure what kind of plant it was, I had guessed at what it was and what it needed, but it was doing well, it even had a new stem getting started, with a new heart-shaped leaf.
I opened the drawer to take out the notebook and pen I kept in there. I punched the top of a ballpoint pen, wrote the date, then “Visit, linens soiled but changed upon request. IV good. Plant watered. Next conference with Terry, Monday 4 pm. Needs shave.” I clicked the pen again, replaced pen and paper in the drawer.
“Bye, Dad,” I said, thinking I should talk to him. I kissed his forehead, which felt just a little hot. Should I have made a note of possible fever? What did that matter?
“All good?” said the fat nurse as I passed her again.
“Yeah,” I said.
In the car, I opened the baggie and poured all the dirt into my mouth.
Harry was so afraid to drive, he almost never did. He was eighteen before he got into the idea, really. I was driving his ass around before that.
All those safety check things they have you do when you are learning: check your mirrors. Walk around the car to see if anything is behind you, if anything is amiss. Adjust your seat. Turn your head to back out.
We become one-with-the-car. We never check anything again. We expect, we allow, our muscle memories anticipate, and usually we are right. We take a sip of coffee, we think of someone else and somewhere else, we get lost in the radio, drive to the great song, glance at our phones, and still, usually, we stop when we need to stop.
Different weights of turn signals. My dad’s minivan had molded plastic turn signal rods that liked to be pushed around, they had been pushed around so much. My mom’s car, which I occasionally drove, had a turn signal lever that was heavy and needed to be shoved down or up for left or right.
I remember learning the up was for right, it was like you were leaning way over to say, right, right way over there. I remember remembering that left turns were the difficult ones, right were easy, that was why we had those signs I had seen forever, right turn on red. A right turn was something you could get away with, almost anywhere, so much more easily. A left turn went against everything.
I learned to drive in my Grandma’s Cadillac. Its turn signal lever was a silver thing. My dad said the Cadillac was the best car to smash into things, I was offended, I wasn’t going to smash into anything.
You turn on American car headlights with a pull-out knob. Japanese cars have their lights on another rod coming out of the steering wheel. You rotate the rod.
American cars have speakers that can take it all. Japanese cars have whiny little bitch speakers. American cars ride like magic carpets, and Japanese cars ride like they your bones could use a shaking. I could crank up my tape as loud as I wanted, in the Cadillac, nothing would buzz or fritz those speakers out.
The interior was all grey like a cloud bank, and the cigarette lighter you had to pull out yourself, it would get red hot, but it didn’t know when it was done, it didn’t pop out anymore, not that Grandma ever smoked, ever used, I don’t think she did.
Perpendicular parking requires a full ninety degree turn, which I remember was difficult as a beginning driver. I remember my dad explaining, “You have to start turning at the right moment, it’s just geometry, Jacob. Just geometry. See? That was too soon. See, that was almost right.” Once you’re in, hopefully, you can pull all the way through and be the world’s laziest person.
Angle parking is the one that makes the most room for everyone. Theoretically, right, you can’t pull through, but most of the time, you do, you lazy bastard. Angle parking is for people who don’t know if they can handle themselves.
“Come on, three more times,” my dad said during our driving lessons. He lied about how many more times. He lied about that, always. Just two more times. But then, still, two. And another two. If I had perpendicular parking, three more times. You said two! Two times ago!
The parallel parking lessons were with the spots on 63rd, they had marked yellow lines for parallel parking, but there was rarely anyone there. I was wearing gloves, which were a little slippery on the steering wheel. The Halloween decorations were up in the card shop window, all the jack o’ lantern faces, their eyes lit up. “Next to it, crank, crank the other way, pull forward.”
I looked at him.
“You just have to do it. Some things you just have to do. We’ll try it three times.”
I set the car just next to the imaginary one in the space ahead. This made no sense. I went into reverse. I cranked. I cranked the other way. I looked forward, back, forward, back. I pulled up.
“That’s the best parallel parking start I’ve ever seen.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Wow. Well done. Three more times.”
“But I just did it!”
“Beginner’s luck?” He raised his eyebrows.
I moved the car out and around again.
How long were they up there?
About a day. Like, about a whole day, in pieces, though.
Like that many hours, but they took breaks.
They took breaks?
They went back into their capsule and rested.
But they were so bouncy up there, they hardly had to move to move, why did they need to rest?
They still needed to rest. They had a lot on their minds, being on the moon.
We made it back. Jacob and Jacob, and we went to Dad’s house. On the kitchen table was a rubber snake and a clipboard with a sticker on it that said, “GOOD JOB” across a rainbow. GOOD was across the top three stripes, and JOB was on the green, blue, and purple below it. GOOD JOB. “These were my favorite things I found in the house. Isn’t it weird what sticks around?”
“Huh,” Jacob said. “All I can say is GOOD JOB. And where’s the liquor?”
I had gathered the liquor into one spot, but there was a small problem: there were two whiskey bottles with only a swallow left in each, there was a bottle of off-brand Kahlua, and then there were two party-sized bottle of Chardonnay. I hoped my dad had had a party ten years ago, and I hoped it wasn’t skunked.
“Chardonnay it is,” he said.
“Sorry,” I said.
“At least it’s a screw top.”
“I have a corkscrew, come on.”
“Bring the snake.”
We turned on the television and watched two episodes of “Law & Order.” The wine was okay. We could drink it.
“I wish you’d been at Rikers.”
“Fuck you.” He poured himself some more.
“I wish you’d gotten to meet Olivia, I mean, and I wish I had. May the best man win..”
“Right. Olivia. No. She’s quite a lady. Quite a lady.”
Halfway through the second episode, the bottle was gone. “I’m ODing on this,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s called ODing….”
“I mean this lawyer show shit. I’m gonna stretch my legs.”
“Let’s play Uno,” I said.
“Like we used to, Uno. I saw the cards the other day. The cards, hmm. Yeah, here they are. If they were a snake, they would’ve bit me.” I took them from the bookshelf. “Don’t forget the snake.”
“Okay. I need a smoke.”
The porch stone was cold, almost, it was that time when things were almost cold, and Jacob sat on the rail of the porch between two columns and he spit one time over the side.
He put a blue 4 down on my red 4.
“You wanna burn the house down?”
“Okay,” I said.
“How long do you think it would take?” Draw 2.
“Fuck you, I have no idea.”
“My mom used to smoke out here.” He took a drag.
“Yeah, that was how I knew your mom was a bad person. My parents would never smoke. They were good people.”
“She’s sort of a bad person, my mom. But Aunt Carrie smoked, too, remember? Uno.”
“Yeah, and she was definitely a good person. She always sent us money for ice cream on our birthdays. I guess she’s still in Baltimore?”
“I don’t know. The birthday money was great, though. I’m sure it made up for her being a withered old maid with no life.”
I put down my yellow 7.
Jacob lay all the way back, his long back on the long railing between the pillars of the porch which were actually only wood, and could rot away, could, in fact, burn, unlike the top he was lying on, which was stone.
“I think if we just burned it down it would be good.”
“Okay,” I said.
“If we just….”
“Yeah,” I said. “You know, you should live here. It would be good for my taxes. I’ll rent it to you for, like, nothing, until you get on your feet.”
“Yeah. It would seriously be good. If the place is in my name. I need to do that.” I shuffled the cards.
“That would be great, if you really think that would be okay, I don’t want to, you know, mix things up with us, I don’t have a job yet.”
“You can fix the house up, if you want.”
“I’ve got the plumbing.”
“Yeah, it doesn’t need any plumbing.”
“Cleaning crap out, lawn mowing, you can do that.”
“I can do that, too. But, seriously, man, feel free to change your mind when you sober up. Feel free. I’m gonna figure it out. I’ll figure something out up here.”
“No, it’s good. I really don’t want to live here. You’d be helping me out, too, really. Take two months, just some fix-up days, and no rent. We’ll talk rent in two months.”
“Hopefully some pipes will burst.”
“Seriously, change your mind tomorrow if you want, no hard feelings, but thanks, man, thanks, for the thought, even. Uno.”
I didn’t want to be even sitting up anymore, so I moved from the plastic molded chair I was sitting in to lie flat on the floor of the porch. The stone was limestone from a valley about two hours away. Now I could see the ceiling of the porch, the wooden slats that ran across like the blank lines of lined paper. Turning my head, I could see the stars which were out there, I could tell some of those little dot things were probably stars and not airplanes.
I went to see my dad and they were in the middle of bathing him. I walked into his room and the bed was empty, and I could hear the water running. I hadn’t lacked for opportunities to see him naked and helpless, so I went back out to the sort of living room area and sat. There was an orange painting on the wall across from me. It seemed kind of overstimulating for people who were sick. Maybe they needed more stimulation because they had so little. Orange slices, lemon slices, a whole lime. What did I know? Maybe everyone loved it.
A woman was approaching me, pushing a walker with all deliberate speed. Scoot, step, scoot, step, step. She wore a light blue hoodie that looked like a hand-me-down from her great-grandson. She wore white tennis shoes with velcro. She wore a yellow t-shirt with a teapot on it. I don’t know why when people get old they have to start dressing them like children again. Was she a little teapot? I wasn’t going to go get my dad some t-shirts with fucking racecars on them.
She looked at me like I might be a burglar. “I have a doughnut in my backpack!” she said, as a threat..
“Oh,” I said. She did not have a backpack.
“Doughnuts aren’t good for you.”
“No,” I said.
She smiled. “Do you have a doughnut?”
“You can’t have a doughnut.”
We’ll see about that. “Okay.”
“What is your name?”
“Hi. How are you?”
“I’m fine. There are too many cars parked out there.” She gestured toward the window. Her attention had turned. She started scooting and stepping again, toward the window, toward the parking lot, toward the cars, of which there were apparently too many.
“There are too many!”
“They’re not going to fit enough out there, and then how am I going to be prepared? I have a lot to do.”
I found a hangnail to pick at.
“I’m from Tiller. Where are you from?”
“I’m from here. I’ve been to that ice cream place in Tiller, though.”
“Yes! Ice cream. Very good. I had the chocolate-chip.”
“It is good.”
“I have to get prepared, though. I don’t think I have the paperwork I need.”
“I think you do.”
She looked at me skeptically.
“I won’t have it all. If I don’t have it, it’s going to be a problem. And I’m not going to have lunch.” I saw an aide leave my dad’s room. I could go in. He would be ready, clean.
I didn’t move. “Did you hear the rain this morning?”
“It rained this morning. It rained really hard. Really hard It was loud.”
“I didn’t hear the rain. No, I did hear the rain. Rain can be very loud. Was there a thunderstorm? Was there a big storm?”
“No, no, it was just rain. It helps you sleep. You were probably awake already.” Old people wake up early in case they die that day, right?
She nodded. “I was awake. I don’t have a walker. I don’t use a walker. This isn’t mine,” she said. “Okay.” And then she started scooting away again. Scoot, step, step. Scoot, step, step. It was going to take her the rest of her life to get back to her room. I didn’t get up.
There were two astronauts, their names were Neil and Buzz.
Buzz isn’t a real name.
Buzz said the moon had a beautiful view.
That’s not his real name.
It really is.
Who was first?
It doesn’t matter who was first.
Who was first, though?
I don’t remember. Maybe Buzz was first.
Buzz was first? No.
Okay, Neil was first.
What did he say?
He said, Tranquility base.
Tranquility base. No.
No, okay, he said, That’s one small step for a monkey.
He said, That’s one small step for man.
One giant leap for mankind. What’s mankind?
Lots of people. But I think he said, One giant leap for Buzz!
No, Dad, no! Stop it!
Tranquility base. Tranquility base.
My friend and colleague P.J.
My godmother Janet.
My Iowa Writing Festival friends, my Writing Project friends, my other readers.
The best bars in America (at one time or another): Harry’s, Charlie’s, The Bourgeois Pig, the Fox Head.
Places I wrote this: Broadway Cafe, Little Zelda, Brooklyn Writers’ Space.
It “is always ‘symbolic,’ even when it is ‘real’.”
-Marshall Sahlins, “The Ethnography of Cannibalism”
“We’ll eat you up– we love you so!”
-Wild Things to Max, Where the Wild Things Are
I’m almost done with Typee, Melville’s… hmm… dumbest novel. I think Typee is the novel I could write. I mean I could write Moby Dick, if I were given the right hallucinogens, perhaps, and a nice supportive community of people who would have dinner and wine with me every day when I was done and hold me accountable for writing, and a dictionary, and of course the internet to research whales, but let’s face it: I’m afraid of hallucinogens.
For the first time in a long time, I’m reading literature with other people who are really into reading literature and thinking about it. So sometimes I get to say things about how I’m digesting the book, out loud. It’s a big change.
Yesterday my professor noted that Melville was a proto-Ernest Hemingway in his swagger (“I’ve been around the world”), and I was like, NOOOOOOOOOOO (Darth Vader in the terrible prequel as he’s being burned and we laugh, we actually laugh out loud).
If Hemingway bought me a drink, I wouldn’t drink it.
And I’ll drink scotch bought for me by businessmen from the Cayman Islands.
The Typees, they are a tribe, and they are cannibals (maybe), which is about the deep dark secret of Christianity (spoiler: it’s about killing and eating people to make things better), about how you can never get away from yourself, not even on the other side of the world (one of the great human disappointments), how men are more beautiful than women, really (he writes like a Kinsey 4, the 2 to 4 range also encompassing “artist”), just kidding, it’s not really about that, but that amuses me. He writes like a Kinsey 6 boy asking what boobs feel like.
I still do believe much of literature is holy, just as much as “the Bible.” And that if God is real, magical spiritual things are real, you can’t get away from them. Most of the time I’ve thought I needed to seek those things out, but maybe you never do. Maybe it always finds you, Jonah-style, wherever you go.
The primary paradigm I was raised with is impossible. Lutheran theology is: God loves you, God does it all, don’t worry about it. Just say yes.
No one can believe this, which is why it was such an enduring idea.
It’s something I tell other people, though. God doesn’t need you to do anything. Not anything. Not show up, not be good, not try, not wake up and get coffee before noon, not keep your ears clean, not help your neighbor. Some of those might be good things to do, but God doesn’t need you.
I’d like God to need me, though. So I don’t believe that, either.
Cannibal rabbit hole: I have already read about the Donner Party, about the men from the Essex, fall into the guy in Germany who goes to prison for consensual cannibalism. What? (I’m frightened by most crime stuff, and horror stuff, so this is a weird area for me to snoop around in.)
You could own a person, under American slavery, but you could never eat a person. That was wrong. Slaves were people, in a certain way. You had to be there.
Jonah gets eaten, but not digested. Moby Dick eats Ahab’s leg. People as food. Books as food. There is nothing more shameful than eating people, nothing scarier (Soylent Green), but also, the primary ceremony of Christianity (arguably) is eating someone. Someone alive, though. Sort of. Sort of, you both are.
We feel God needs us to do something: kill your son. Kill these doves. Hand over your best crops. It’s so hard to sit still. Drink up.
Image: “Big Fish Eat Little Fish” by Pieter van der Heyden,” Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Beyond Typee, my most interesting researched piece here.
The town died as soon as its industry left. They abandoned a Catholic church, half built. All the Catholics left. People who stayed took their heritage seriously, preserving a Victorian-era wreath made of human hair of the dead, clocks brought from the old country, and the yokes their oxen wore.
Today it has a population of 647. However, there are two museums in Lecompton, Kansas. Its industry was being the state capital. For a bit.
I love museums. I love the great-auntie of all museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the great-uncle of all museums, the Natural History Museum of Teddy Roosevelt and Things He Killed Because He Loved Them. I also love all the tiny museums that no one cares about, anywhere people have put things in glass cases with typed labels. It is best if there is someone to mind them, and this person will happily go on forever, so I don’t have to do much reading. (It’s the only time I don’t prefer to read.)
Here’s why Lecompton has two museums:
In the 1850s, the latest place the white people want to kick Indians out of is: Kansas and Nebraska. People back east want to make their influence known out here, but rather than merely posting things on facebook, many of them actually move here to be Kansas voters. Pro-slavery people move here, too. (I would figure it’s easier, as an abolitionist, to move, because you’re probably in a job that makes you mobile. If you’re pro-slavery, and you have enough money to move, you are probably a farmer who owns slaves already, and land. Right? Don’t take my word for it. I just began researching this yesterday.)
To be a state, Kansas needs a constitution. The first constitution is written in Topeka (abolitionist), and prohibits slavery, and sweetly declares that white men, and “every civilized male Indian who has adopted the habits of the white man” can vote.
Congress, pro-slavery at the time, is like, nah.
The pro-slavery people meet in Lecompton and write their own, pro-slavery constitution.
Note: Territorial capitals moved around a lot, based on what the current governor found convenient. The territorial capital of Kansas was, at times, Shawnee Mission (near Kansas City), Fort Leavenworth, and Lecompton. (And a bunch of other places that are so far out in Kansas, and not along I-70, so I have no idea where they are.)
The Lecompton constitution’s unexpectedly redeeming quality is that the lettering is done as if a child of 1992 had suddenly received a big old box of floppy disks of fonts from Santa Claus (Best Buy) and chosen one he thinks looks “rustic.”
President Buchanan likes it. Kansas voters reject it, in spite of its cute lettering.
Congress says no, too, and decides to let Kansans vote. Kansans vote to be a free state, because mostly, they are inherently good people (of course).
After a lot more mess, they ultimately adopt a constitution that does not give women the right to vote, but does give women the right to own property, have access to their children, and vote in school board elections, which was pretty sweet, considering the times.
Then Lincoln is elected, and people have, you know, other things on their minds.
The museums in Lecompton are housed in the building that was going to be the capitol, and the building that was where the constitutional convention met. The almost-capitol has mannequins wearing old clothes, photographs of people looking serious, friendship quilts, gorgeous old furniture and gadgets.
The constitutional hall has its original cottonwood flooring. Cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas (I did learn something in Kansas State History). It isn’t necessarily great for building, but at that point, people used what they had at hand, and Kansas wasn’t exactly teeming with forests. Cottonwood was good enough, anyway, to last until today.
I ask the guy manning constitution hall why there is so much history to see here, so well-preserved.
“The people here think of their history as family history,” the guy tells me.
I have roots in Orleans, Nebraska (population 383), and Lancaster, Kansas (population 288). I guess they are a lot smaller than Lecompton, so I can’t fault them for not having history museums.
Some people stayed in Lecompton, and I guess they were really serious about staying. Their veterans’ memorial, as the man points out, has veterans from the founding of the town through the 21st century.
I feel some sense of pride or comfort, living in an abolitionist town, the sort of pride one feels from people having done things long before one was born. The sense that people believed in something that was progressive, and good, and just.
I feel comfort, also, in being somewhere people hold their history in its awkwardness. Lecompton proclaims it has been voted, “Best Small Town in Kansas.” People were also wrong, in the past. They were unrepentently wrong, and they were confused wrong, and they seemed right at the time, but were wrong.
I’m not the just the inheritor of abolitionists’ thirst for justice, but also of slaveholders’ exploitation and struggle to part with evil ideas and evil acts. There are memories of goodness and virtue, and memories of mistakes and mess. This near Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it’s healing to me to think of both.
Images: my own, from the museums in Lecompton. My research is mostly from them, as well, although this was also helpful.
I had a minor one when I decided I would run into the mall and pick up a pine-scented candle. Having a pine-scented candle is part of my Christmas celebrating.
It had already been a day of near-misses: friends I was supposed to meet I did not meet, the art gallery I tried to spend a minute in closed early, and this was my last-ditch attempt at getting things straight.
I parked, noting carefully where I was, and the minute I got in there, I realized this was a mistake. I will never conquer The Mall. I walked up to a kiosk that used to be a map, and it was just pictures progressing, pictures of people who had the money to buy things that made them very happy and secure in themselves all the time.
I took my spidey sense in hand and went upstairs. I believed the candle place to be upstairs. I walked down the mall hall, following people who were walking so slowly, I thought we were in Birmingham Alabama in July in the afternoon. I looked at the various storefronts, and realized there were many I didn’t even know what they were about. They sold clothes to teenagers? They sold… makeup? They sold… sleek bodies without faces?
I saw a familiar soaps-and-goos place, and I ducked in to see if they had candles. Just in case. If someone asked me if I needed anything, I would lose it. I hate that more than anything. DO I LOOK LIKE I NEED HELP I DO NOT. This is something I love about thrift stores, and The Dollar Store. They will never ask me if I need help. I will be free to make my own mistakes. I AM FINE.
The candles there were not cheap. I am going grocery shopping when I get paid, and feeling rich when I don’t add up what’s in the cart, I just recklessly buy a bunch of food. I felt I could get a candle cheaper than this.
I decided to go on, to the candle store.
I reached out with my feelings, and saw that indeed, the candle store was where I suspected it was. A man immediately asked if he could help me, of course I said no. I saw the pine-scented candles. There was a whole display. All sizes. Big babies, tiny babies. I turned one over. No price tag.
“Ah, so it’s… free.” I always say this to myself when merchandise lacks price tags. It’s a little joke between me and me.
I looked around for a sign that had prices. I get it, you don’t want to relabel the things over and over, especially if they go on sale. Nothing. I wandered to another display, hoping a sign might be there. No. Nothing. They COULD NOT EVEN TELL ME HOW MUCH THINGS COST.
I could… NO. FINE.
I whisked myself out of the store, down the mall halls, down the stairs, to the car, which was just where I remembered it.
A friend told me: I drove into a narrow street, and another car faced me, and we couldn’t pass, and we stayed there and yelled at each other, and yelled, and yelled, and neither one of us would move, and I was like, I have more insurance, and finally she started to move, and she took a picture of my license plate, and I was like, “I’LL TAKE A PICTURE OF YOURS!”
And I was like, ah, yes, Christmas meltdown.
You may have refused to attend a gathering, and instead sat alone at a bar, thinking, AT LEAST NO ONE IS FUCKING WITH ME HERE.
You may have stomped off in the snow, and the cold felt good because THEY CAN GO TO HELL.
You may have been at a dinner where someone sat at another table in a restaurant BECAUSE I CAN’T STAND YOUR BULLSHIT ANYMORE.
There is still time to wonder bitterly why you work and end up with not enough money to not worry about money every minute.
There is still time to curse the universe for leaving you without a soul mate, or even a companion who occasionally makes dinner.
You can still wonder why other people have perfect families, why other people aren’t having trouble getting out of bed, or knowing it’s The Last Christmas That Something Happens.
Plenty of time.
But: may you also have some moments of genuine happy-to-see-you, and real what-a-nice-gift, and relieved the-sun-is-coming-back-now.
Merry Whatever and Happy This-and-That.
Image: “Preparing for Christmas,” Francis William Edmonds, Metropolitan Museum of Art.