Mutely to the Coast

“…quivered a chambered silence.”

My God I want to get some good music that makes me feel like I’m ten different kinds of victory and loss, trading off and making life as giant, shaky, and indefinite as insomnia. I want the kind of music that makes me look at you like a movie, that slows you down and makes me a little bit scared of all the love we can’t seem to get our fingers into. Oh, but those fingers… I want the kind of music that plays when slapping a woman is justified, you know, because sometimes you gotta hit one, if it’s a movie. And the kind of music that says yeah, she hit him too, ‘cuz hittin’ him’s what he lives to have done. Hittin him’s how he knows this love’s about a four minute screw from being over, and a four day drive from starting over.

“We can’t stay here Tommy. I can’t stay here. It’s no good.”

Tommy sips coffee. “It sure isn’t good enough,” he agrees. “We’re what, like one county over? Supposed to be leaving home, and we haven’t even driven far enough to see anything unfamiliar yet. Which way’s the ocean again?

“I don’t know. We’re in friggin’ Kansas. It’s like, literally halfway between both of them. Plus it’s the middle of the night and I’m sitting on a toilet and I can’t even tell which way is West or East or any damn thing from here.”

“I know what state we’re in, Amy, and I know the ocean’s West.”

“The other one’s East.”

“Right, like the Atlantic counts. West is California, Mexico. What’s East? Like Cape faahkin’ Caahd or something? You ever heard of a badass and his girl running off East? To New England? They probably don’t even have sharks out there.”

“They have sharks, tough guy.”

“But they don’t have the desert.”

I want some good music that makes fast forward the same as slow motion so that when we’re in this thing it’s like a window down and a mute highway and the sound of the engine is only something we think we’ve heard because the engine is us, and it’s revving towards a bed in the desert like a dog growling at a bone you’re holding a few inches from his nose. Sit. Stay. It’s a tease. The speed is a tease, all six speeds are a tease. But it’s in with the air, out with the exhaust, and a tense, mute highway. This ain’t a movie, we’re not on the run, we didn’t rob nobody but our ancestors for the cache of birthright that we’re abusing out here on the 80, West past Green River and on, knowing the Salt Lake is just another thing we’re gonna leave behind. Bonneville a heathen lure, Vegas a comma.

“We’re not special, you know?”

“What is this, now?” Tommy asked her as he reached for his wallet.

“We’re just not. We’re driving West all fast in your cool car, and we’re staying in shitty motels and smoking cigarettes – like anyone does that anymore -”

“Does what?”

“Smokes real cigarettes. Actual paper and ashes cigarettes. Everyone walks around with those ridiculous giant things that they hold like a duck caller and billow out enormous clouds of sick vanilla smoke so it’s like they’re smoking car deodorizers. I want to say thank you or give a high five or something to anyone I see smoking a good old fashioned Camel, smelling like something’s burning and like they might actually die. That’s why we’re smoking these. But it still isn’t anything special. It’s too much. Too obvious. Like bad language and obscene violence in a Tarantino film – there’s so much of it that it loses any chance of having an impact.  All we’re doing is trying too hard. We’re going to wind up in California, having tried real hard and done nothing.”

“Done nothing? We’re doing something. The thing is the thing, and we’re doing it.”
“We’re somewhere in friggin’ Nevada, eating gas station sandwiches on your Dad’s debit card.” She started rummaging through her purse.

“At least I stole the card, you gotta give me that, at least.”

“It’d be cooler if your dad had bothered to cancel it three days ago when he found out.”

Yeah, we got a ’68 Cyclone and a thin story, a goal set for the ocean and an unwhispered knowing that a little breakdown in the desert is where our literate romance wants us, but we’re still scared of anything that isn’t home. We haven’t fought anyone for real. I’ve never been stabbed. The cops never heard of us. But I still want the music that makes us both shut up for at least the space between rest areas so that I can go a half hour on the road without saying or hearing anything out loud about how spectacular the country really is – I’ll get sick if I have to hear anything that sounds like tourism. The country will get spectacular enough if we can do something better than graduate from college, and so far that’s all we got. The loudest noise we made so far is just the one when we tried to sound the same as all the rest – what if we got quiet.

“So you stole your daddy’s debit card. Good for you. I stole something, too.” She was elbow-deep in her purse.

“Oh yeah, tough girl, what’d you steal? Your mama’s lipstick? Daddy’s watch?

She opened her mouth, held it that way for a second, then closed it again. “Never mind, Tommy.”

“No, really, what did you steal? I want to know. I’m on pins and needles here.” He pulled out some bills to pay for the motel room.

“Nothing. I didn’t steal anything. I was just messing around.”

“That’s what I thought.”

What if we got quiet like a window down and a mute highway, with the tires screaming and the cabin, the windshield seals getting tested by pressure at about 85 miles per hour, right where the suspension starts to feel like it’s doing what it was made for, like it’s finally giving the chassis that bedding down that they were made to do together. The windows down and the tires on the road and so much white noise that we know we’re being told to shut up by something that man and God did together and it’s the kind of music I begged for, and that’s why at that last motel just past Battle Mountain, I finally showed you what I stole.

“I didn’t leave my home and my family” Amy’s hand stopped moving in her purse “to bounce across the country on some glorified field trip.” She pulled out a small handgun. It pointed at the floor, hanging from her arm like it would rather not have been dragged into all of this.  She looked at Tommy.

“Holy Jesus, Amy!” He took a step back and dropped the money he was going to pay the clerk.

“We’re not special, you know.”

“We don’t need to be special, Amy! Why do you keep saying that? What are you – I can’t -” He bent towards the money on the floor, searched blindly for it with a hand while he kept his eyes on the little round, black emptiness at the front of the gun. “You brought a gun? A fucking gun? I never said we were special. Why do you keep saying that?”

“Why are you paying him?”

“Why am I – what?”

Him.” She stabbed the gun in the direction of the clerk. “Why are you paying him? You should be taking his money. Isn’t that what we’re doing here? Taking risks? Breaking free? Getting some God damned separation?” She did not lower the gun.

“Separation? It’s just a fucking road trip, Amy! We go from one place to another in a car! It doesn’t mean anything else!” He was panicking, starting to cry, looking from the clerk to the gun to the money on the ground. “We’re not robbing people, and we’re sure as hell not shooting them.” His hand, palm up, waved generally towards the front desk. “We’re just driving, for chrissakes. Now please, Amy, put the gun away.”

Amy looked at Tommy a little disappointedly, a little like she pitied him. She turned her head to look at the clerk, where the gun was still pointed. Nothing moved. A radio didn’t play, a clock didn’t tick, a cat didn’t pad across the lobby. At the end of Amy’s leveled arm quivered a chambered silence bigger than the highway, bigger than the desert, bigger than the ocean. Without taking her eyes off the clerk she said “We’re not special, Tommy” and set the silence free.

And so mutely to the coast we drive.

Just a Dog

 

Less than a year before I reported for duty in South Korea, two 14-year-old school girls who were walking along the road were somehow hit and killed by a US Army bridge-launching vehicle. I say “somehow” because that machine is something which very few people will ever see in their lives. I spent eight years in the Army and never saw one. It is uncommon and such a cumbersome giant that it can do nothing suddenly. To be surprised enough to be struck by it defies explanation, yet it found two children in rural South Korea and left them dead on the side of a quiet highway. Like so many of history’s dangers, they must have heard and seen it coming for so long that they had time to stop being afraid of it. By the time it was upon them it was too late to get out of the way.

That it was an accident should not even need to be said. But with all the politics and the jarring connotations of a foreign military being responsible for the death of local children, it was not just an accident. When the ensuing legal process ended in the worst possible way – with a verdict of not guilty – it strained relations between the US and South Korea until they were at the worst point they had been in years. Still, remarkably, and perhaps because enough time had gone by, the ongoing protests I saw as I passed through Seoul were rather perfunctory and tame. I did not feel unwelcome there. If nothing else, I wanted to get out of the other side of that year feeling the same way.

When I arrived with a few other soldiers at my unit in the southern half of the country, we were given briefings about being good visitors, good guests in a foreign place. We were handed booklets that introduced us to Korean customs that we might find odd or unsettling – proper ways to say thank you, different meal habits, and the fact that Korean men would often act in ways that an American would find decidedly feminine. But the death of the school girls was still fresh enough that we were reminded of it as much as anything else. It was an event that was still a functioning part of our relationship with our hosts, and the sort of thing that could sneak up on you with startling consequences if you stopped paying attention.

I heard the warnings and scoffed at the booklets, partly because I was still young enough to believe I didn’t need to be told anything, and partly because I recall the booklets having a distinct presumption of American cultural immaturity – a dull cliché that has always made me bristle. It was also pretty clear that most of the people stationed at that post wouldn’t really need any of this information, because they wouldn’t have much contact with Korean culture, insulated as they were by the sheer concentration of American service members in the area. The post was home to about 25,000 US soldiers, airmen, and marines, so while it was in South Korea, it was foreign in geography only. But the warnings, the booklets, and the customs would become more important for me if I was to get the position I wanted – to take charge of one of the three remote detachments near the North Korean border.

Unfortunately, that position had already been taken by Staff Sergeant Lamb, who arrived a few weeks before I did. I had served with Sgt. Lamb at my last duty assignment and knew him to be genuinely unreliable and irresponsible. I could lie and say that I had the Army’s best interests in mind when I mentioned his shortcomings to my new platoon sergeant and platoon leader, but really, I only did it because I knew that I was the most likely choice to replace him. It didn’t take much. When I met with Sgt. Arnold and Lt. Kwan for introductions on the first day, I said “I heard you put Sgt. Lamb on the Det.”

LT. Kwan was short and thick, and two or three years younger than I was. Fresh out of college, he looked studious and clean in wire-rimmed glasses. He opened a drawer and removed a folder. I could see Lamb’s name on it. With just a shadow of an accent he asked, “You know him?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

He looked at Sgt. Arnold – an over-starched uniform and a mustache too neat to trust – and then looked back to me. “You like him?”

I could see by the folder and by the way he asked, that they already had their doubts, so I dove in. “He’s late for everything. Used to fall asleep in class all the time.”

It was a low move on my part, some petty brinkmanship that I could not always have gotten away with in the Army. We have all manner of creeds and codes and unwritten rules, and one of the most commonly held is the one that says you do not undermine your fellow soldiers. When I was in a combat unit, where trust is sometimes more important than honesty, this rule was among the highest of all commandments. Discrediting a fellow noncommissioned officer for my own interests probably would have been the best way to guarantee that I did not get the job. But in this military intelligence unit, more corporate than combative, it was the best way forward.

And it worked. They pulled Sgt. Lamb back to headquarters, and I was flown to my stolen detachment by helicopter. I don’t remember how long the flight was. The Blackhawk wound low with its doors open, through heavy green valleys and over countless rice paddies and I would have been happy if we flew around up there forever. When we finally came up between two tree-covered ridges and touched down on the helipad – my helipad – we were about a 60-mile drive from the nearest US Army Garrison, nestled atop a mountain that overlooked the Yellow Sea to the West, and just a handful of miles from the river that separated us from North Korea.

Somewhere on that river and extending out into the sea, an invisible line had been drawn. You could see it clearly enough on a map, and no matter which side you were on, the bad guys were on the other. Sometimes a North Korean ship drifted too far South, always accidentally of course, and we would know because fighters from the nearby airbase would fly past us and towards whomever made the mistake. Often it was just a wayward fishing boat, but borders are borders and must be observed, even when you can’t see them.

About halfway down the winding road that accessed the mountain was a barracks and a few related buildings that housed a Republic of Korea Marine unit. We knew them as the ROK Marines, a small defense force ostensibly in place to protect us and that corner of the country from a dubious, yet oft-invoked, North Korean threat. I can only guess at a count, but between them and a handful of Korean intelligence soldiers, there were probably a couple hundred or so native military personnel on the mountain in total. There were only four Americans – myself, Private First-Class Judge, and Privates Reyes and Priest.

Along with the people, there were dogs seemingly everywhere up there. This was common all over Korea, and it was part of the reason you couldn’t eat a piece of meat in that country without someone half-joking that it was probably gaegogi, or dog. The Marines down the road had several of them, most of which were of a good-sized breed called Jindo, strong dogs that stood very upright and vaguely resembled a husky with neat white or reddish-brown fur. In that military environment they looked purposeful and not much like pets, so even though I was not given any reason to fear them, I never approached them. They belonged to the Marines, existing on the other side of the line between us and them.

That line, unlike the border with the north, was blurry and even harder to see. It was not drawn on any maps and it did not stay in one place. It was a line with no enemies on either side, but the same mandate that it be observed, lest there be consequences. Up there on that mountain, the line moved when we did, and we simply had to be careful not to move so quickly that we got ahead of it.

Which is not to say that there was any tension between us and the South Koreans. Indeed, we got along very well, joining them for small cookouts on the weekends and playing soccer with them on the large dirt field in front of their barracks. Many nights they would take two or even three of us – someone always had to remain on duty – into the town at the base of the mountain, where we would take off our shoes and be treated to a real Korean meal. Whoever was eldest at the table would pour us the first of the soju (or did the eldest get served first? I still can’t remember), and we would eat and drink and hear stories of the American soldiers who preceded us on the mountain in years past. They were accustomed to being generous hosts, and we did our part to be gracious guests.

Still, we had certain manners to observe and practice. And though we were far away from the crowding and politics of Seoul, someone always seemed to find an occasion to remind us of the girls we killed out in the country. Not as any kind of a warning or an accusation, but simply because it was still part of the fabric of their experiences, and so it would work its way into conversations without much intent. Also, arriving when I did, the one-year anniversary of the incident would have been approaching. I remember being relieved that we were out there on that island. Not only was it far from the site of the accident, but it was also far from the capital, where the bulk of the demonstrations would be concentrated, and the Americans were sure to be a little less comfortable than usual. On the island we were blameless, all of the Koreans were our friends, and the only thing that didn’t smile was the dogs.

We had a dog of our own, the mascot of the detachment. He had official orders assigning him to the post, just like a human soldier, signed by a Major or a Lieutenant Colonel. He was just a little mutt of fifteen pounds or so, scruffy and permanently dirty, probably born on the street and rescued by chance by a shopkeeper on her way home, as was often the case. His name was Frodo, given to him twelve years ago by whatever Americans were serving the mountain at the time he was brought there.

Frodo was old and ragged but still had a lot of energy, and I thought I would bond a little with my soldiers and the Korean Marines and the mountain in general by taking him on a short run down the road. A little PR tour where I could smile and wave at the local troops, showing my goodwill and fitness for the job. Frodo would serve as my liaison, a symbol of my right to be there and my willingness to get along. Private Priest and PFC Judge agreed to go with me, and the four of us went through our gate. We nodded at the skinny guard in his faded and tired-looking uniform and started jogging downhill.

I wasn’t thinking about much, other than what a beautiful day it was. It was May or June, and the early Summer view of the Yellow Sea made me pious and exultant. The road wound steeply downward. My troops were in good spirits. Frodo skittered back and forth across the road on his short legs, as happy as the rest of us to be free and moving. I felt perfect about the impression we were making on our hosts.

Whether my giddiness caused me to miss a warning sign I cannot say. There should probably have been terrible barks and growls from the brush at the side of the road, and I should have heard it coming in time to stop it. But I do not remember any of that. What I do remember is Frodo, being ripped at by the jaws of one of the ROK Marines’ stout dogs. I had brought him across some invisible line known only to the animals, drawn in scent and instinct, and the Jindo had raked him from the road and into its mouth. It heeded none of the shouts that I didn’t hear, but must have been coming from its Marine handlers. I wondered later whether the Korean dog would have understood me if I screamed at it in English.

Surely nobody could have stopped it – once the dogs got going, so the only truly useful thing to do would have been to never go out in the first place. That’s what Sgt. Lamb would have done. He would have stayed inside, sleeping every chance he got, and thinking nothing of his duty outside of those gates. He would have avoided the Koreans as much as possible, and he would not have gone running. None of this would have happened, Frodo would not have been killed, and I wouldn’t have been so confused about how something that really wasn’t my fault could feel so much like it was. But of course Sgt. Lamb wasn’t up there. I was, because I sat there in Lt. Kwan’s office and told the truth when honor should have made me lie.

None of that mattered in the least anymore. What mattered was whatever I did next, and I had no idea what that would be. The Koreans and PFC Judge were looking at me, Priest was looking at Frodo, and Frodo was looking down the road, in the direction his head fell when the dog dropped him there. I wasn’t looking at anything, because there was far too much to see. A voice inside me said do something. Now. But we had no vehicle nearby, and cell phones were not so ubiquitous at the time, so all I could do was nearly kill myself sprinting up that mountain to do something useful, even though there was nothing left to be done. When I try to think about it, my memory always rushes out somewhere in the strained breaths on that winding road up to our building, and I realize that I wasn’t running to get something done. I was running to get the hell away from there. I knew I could not stand there and look at Frodo anymore, so the one thing I managed to do in that crisis was to look like I was advancing, while actually running away.

Ultimately, I don’t remember anything else that happened after his death, after that dog raged out of the woods and tore into him right in front of me. I only remember Frodo being scooped and shaken, the fact that it was over almost immediately, and most clearly, I remember that the six of us who witnessed it were completely frozen in our places. I stood there with Priest and Judge on one side of the carnage, those three Marines on the other, and every one of us just hung there until the big dogs dropped little Frodo’s limp body into the gravel on the side of the road. I don’t think there was even any blood.

Of his body or who took care of it or where he ended up I have no idea. Knowing the Army as I do, I have to believe that the event would have generated a small pile of paperwork, a meeting or two to formalize the blame and be forgiven by someone with no right to do it, and finally a grim, silent drive into the maddening traffic of Seoul with Frodo wrapped in a towel. The Army put him out there, and the Army would want him back. But if any of that happened, I don’t know it.

And I don’t want to know, because it gives me a chance to hope that something much better happened for him. Something less administrative and cold. Something that anchored him to his home and didn’t put his fate in the hands of strangers anymore. It gives me a chance to hope that while I was running back up the mountain to do nothing of any use, the ROK Marines gathered him up gently from the road and carried him behind their gates. And that later, with their dogs watching or not, they gave him a quiet and reverent burial somewhere on his mountain.

I hope for these things because otherwise it would be too easy to say that Frodo was just a dog, and that to accidentally kill a dog does not deserve to be spoken of the way that accidentally killing a human is. But he was not just a dog, any more than it was just an accident when an American vehicle ran over two Korean school girls on another beautiful summer day the June before. They were not alone on that road, and we were not alone on that mountain, or that island, or that country, and it’s never just anything when you are not alone. In this case it was a dog and the other five sets of eyes on the road, and the ears and opinions of everyone who would hear about it, and most importantly of everyone – American and Korean – whose lives belonged to that mountain. It was all of that and all of us and those two girls who are still dying on that road out in the countryside, forever being snuck up on by something as loud and slow and huge as history.

Thanksgiving

“That’s what they are. Things. A grave. A few street signs. There’s only so close you can get.”

 

“It’s good to see you again, Darren.”

“You, too, Mr. Daly. You too.”

“Come on in and just leave your bag here. We’ll get it to your room later.”

Darren let go of the handshake and walked into the house with Mr. Daly, who was silent. The entire house was silent. Things were clean and modern enough, though for some reason Darren had assumed there would be some kind of grandmotherly feel to the place. Doilies on lemony wood, yellowing curtains, linoleum. Crocheted catchphrases on the wall like the motivational posters of another era. It felt like that, but it was not that. The house was current and without nostalgia, modern art on the walls, a leather sofa with the little brass buttons around it. And when Mrs. Daly came down the hall to meet them in living room, the sound was her shoes on dark planks of some kind of exotic hardwood. Things were nice. Warm, but somehow still kind of – he wasn’t sure what to call it – maybe paralytic. Frozen. Warm but frozen. Darren didn’t know what to say. Mr. Daly didn’t know what to say. Mrs Daly said “Happy Thanksgiving, Darren.”

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. Daly. Thank you for inviting me.”

“It’s been a long time, Darren, and you’re not a boy anymore. Please, call me Rebecca. And if Stan hasn’t said so yet, you can call him that. We appreciate you making the trip. Be sure to tell your mother that we’re sorry for stealing you this year.”

“I will, Rebecca. Thank you. Your house is beautiful. It’s a long way from the old place in Illinois. I don’t think I see anything here that you had in that house.”
“Probably not,” Stan replied. “Frankly, it was a lot easier to move without dragging a bunch of old stuff along with us. And of course by the time you and Eric joined the Army, well you know we had already lost Joshua, so the idea of just starting fresh really made sense.”

Rebecca agreed and added “We do still have a few of Eric’s old things, and the little flag setup in the hall, but we haven’t kept any kind of a shrine to him or anything like that. And being that he never lived in this house you don’t have to worry that we’re going to make you sleep in his old room.”

Stan said, “On that note, Darren, let me show you where you’re staying.”

Darren was led to a guest room in the finished basement, and when Stan left him to himself, he was surprised to see a small framed picture of the Daly’s youngest son on the dresser. His name was Joshua, and when he was seven the Dalys moved to Illinois because they had been referred to a doctor there who said he could help him. He had a rare childhood cancer, and this doctor was going to give him some kind of a new treatment. Darren was eleven at the time, and so was the Daly’s older son, Eric. They became friends and stayed that way for the next twelve years, when Eric was killed in a firefight in some little beige village in the desert.

Darren put his bag in the corner and shuffled around uncomfortably for a few minutes before going back upstairs. The Dalys were in the kitchen, casually preparing food for tomorrow’s meal. When he entered, Rebecca finished peeling a carrot and said “I hope this isn’t too uncomfortable for you, Eric.”

“No, it isn’t. I mean it is a little, but I don’t think that can be helped.”

“I don’t either,” Stan said. “When you think about it, what with all the noise and hoopla around Eric’s death – his medal, his story, all the visits from Generals and letters from guys he served with – it’s not as though we haven’t made it through the grieving process, you know? Not as though we haven’t been helped and treated well.”

“Right,” Rebecca picked up from there. “We’re good, we’re past it, as much as we can ever be. We’ve been the hero’s parents, and thankfully we were able to get through it without resenting anything too much. Without being too selfish about it, and without being worn down by the attention the way I’ve heard can happen. It’s just that we’ve never talked to anyone, I don’t know, anyone who knew him that we also knew.  Nobody mutual. Everyone had such wonderful things to say about him, and every time I go back and read the citation from his Medal, the things he did –  I mean, it’s all so incredible. So…nice, you know? But all of those people – every one of them was a stranger to us.”

“Well I hope,” Darren was a little lost, “I hope I can, I don’t know – well, look: As you know, I wasn’t there when he died. I mean, I wasn’t even in Afghanistan at the time.  I didn’t even hear about it until 3 months after it happened. I didn’t even know. I wasn’t there when it happened. I wasn’t with him. I couldn’t have done anything.”

When they were all younger and Joshua seemed to be having a new surgery every week, and his chemo treatments left him weakened and slow, the boys were occasionally tasked with playing with him, taking him with them when they went out. But he was slow and clumsy. He had a hole in his chest, a ‘port’ his parents called it, with a little nozzle like a car tire or a life raft so that he could just show up at the hospital and have a hose plugged into him without a bunch of hassle. Everything else was difficult for him and his enfeebled system, and Eric was mean to him because of it. Darren remembered wishing that they didn’t have to take Joshua with them. It made Eric embarrassingly cruel. Eric gave Joshua gifts and cards and always acted eager to visit him in the hospital. But when they were away from their parents, he called Joshua a retard and tried to show Darren how easy it was to make him fall over. It was the only time Darren didn’t like being around Eric.

On Thanksgiving day Darren came up from his room in the Daly’s basement. A small table in the hall held a picture of Eric, Private First Class Daly at the time, in his uniform, maroon beret pulled down over one ear and maybe just the tiniest suggestion of a smile on an otherwise serious face. On the wall above it was a display of several medals, a Bronze Star along with a handful of lesser ones that Darren had, too, but couldn’t remember the names of. In the center was a plaque bearing the citation for his Medal of Honor, and a triangular case displaying a folded American Flag.

Stan approached and they stood together quietly for a few moments. “They named a street after him back in our old town, before we left. ‘Eric Daly Drive.’ There was a parade, and it seemed like the phone calls and mail would never stop coming. It was exhausting.”

“I heard about the street. I wanted to be there for that, but I was still – I haven’t been able to get back there. Is that why you moved?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m no psychologist, but I suppose it was part of it. I know we never looked at each other and said we have to get out of here. But between that road and all the attention, and Joshua’s grave, I think moving away was pretty inevitable for us.”

“Don’t you –I’m sorry, I really don’t know – don’t you want to stay closer to those things? Will you ever move back?”

“Oh God, I don’t know. I don’t think so. Those things -”

“Yeah, sorry, that was a bad way to say it.”
“No, that’s ok. That’s what they are. Things. A grave. A few street signs. There’s only so close you can get. And even if we moved right back into our old house, our boys would still belong to that town more than they did to us.” They stared at the wall. Somewhere outside, a rooster crowed. From the kitchen came the smell of heat and thyme. “I almost wish we didn’t have that picture there,” Stan told him. “I know it’s old and he was a Staff Sergeant by the time he was killed. We have plenty of other pictures of him, but for some reason we put up that picture there, and now it’s the only way I can ever see him when I close my eyes and try to remember. None of the earlier times, none of the Illinois days, none of the times with Joshua. Just that posed picture there.”

“It’s a good picture, Mr. Daly.  A nice picture. A nice way to remember him.”

 

One winter back in Illinois, when they were fourteen and Joshua ten, the three of them were walking in the field behind their houses. Joshua wobbled along behind them, awkward but with an odd joy he seemed to have gained through his illness. Eric said that one of his brain surgeries ruined him in some way. Made him too stupid to be sad. They made their way towards the pond where the water froze over to a dependable thickness by December every year, and some of the neighborhood boys even played hockey on it sometimes. It was January, and by then they didn’t think twice about walking right across it. To their knowledge, nobody had ever fallen in. Darren and Eric had reached the other side. Joshua was still about 20 feet out. Eric had been cursing him all day. He scolded Joshua to get across, and started lobbing rocks towards him. Joshua looked frightened and shouted at him in a breathless little voice to stop, but there was hardly any noise, just the steam on the air. Eric kept throwing rocks, tossing them higher and higher, and using bigger and bigger rocks. Joshua was doing his best to hurry across, but his coordination had been excised by a half dozen operations, and tumbled around in too many dialysis machines, so he was stuck in what might have been, at another time, a comical flailing of scrawny limbs. Eric taunted him, shouting “COME ON, BAMBI!”

At last Eric got hold of a rock the size of his head, and with two hands and a violent grunt, sent it towards his brother. When it landed it lodged about half of itself in the ice. All three of them stopped moving and stared at it mutely for a few seconds as it paused in that hard blue layer halfway between the water and the sky. Suddenly it vanished with a meek little splash. Joshua looked up at the boys on the bank. His pale face, skeletal and wasted from the medical war that had been waged on his body, registered an oddly mature look of acceptance just before disappearing beneath the ice. Darren shouted his name and started in his direction, but Eric held him back.

“We can still help him!”

“No. We can’t.”

The two of them watched from a distance until water stopped splashing out of the hole that Joshua had made.

At the table, on Thanksgiving, over a small turkey and some wine, Rebecca made a suggestion: “I know nobody likes doing this, but why don’t the three of us take a minute to say what we’re thankful for.”

Your Papa’s Schmaltz

My Papa’s Waltz

by

Theodore Roethke

A Sober and Graceless Dramatic Interpretation by Andy Havens

Hell’s Kitchen, New York. The tiny kitchen you expect in the tiny apartment you never stop seeing in movies. A tiny table is clean and tight against the tiny wall. Two burner stove, a few open shelves stacked with dishes and pans, and a sink squarely balanced on its pipes. Enter Papa, well past supper time, dirty from work. Mother sits at the table, expectant and displeased.

 PAPA: Any whiskey in the house, m’darlin?

MOTHER: (Talking in the direction of the clock) I don’t guess you need any, the way you smell already. And listen to ya talkin!

PAPA: You know I can’t help but me and the boys stop in for a turn or two at the Old Russet after a Friday shift. It’s a long week in the shop, and Mickey lost three fingers in the die cutter today. And hey, it ain’t even yet eleven o’clock!

MOTHER: Three more fingers?

PAPA: Am I speakin’ Gaelic? Three fingers, sure as I’m standin here.

MOTHER: Poor Mickey musta been born with near two dozen, by my count. And yer barely standin’ there at all, anyway. Lean up against somethin’ already.

Enter the son, eight years old and yawning in his pajamas.

 PAPA: I’ll lean up against my boy!

SON: Hi, Papa!

PAPA: Sorry if I woke you up! Lemme just wolllltz ya back to bed! Mother, sing us a tune!

Mother most decidedly does not sing them a tune.

 PAPA: Well, then turn up that Lefty Frizzell!

MAMA: We don’t have a radio.

PAPA: We don’t need one! (Singing) “My daaaaad was a poor, hard-workin’ Saginaw fishermannnn…”

 Papa takes the boy by his hand and begins a clumsy dance around the tiny kitchen. The boy wraps his remaining three limbs around papa and hangs on like a cowboy. He might be smiling.

 PAPA: We’ll start with a box-step!

MOTHER: A what now?!

This first move sends a cast iron skillet from a shelf to the linoleum floor, and rattles a couple of tin mugs. There’s a glassy jangling of milk bottles inside the refrigerator. A large cat skulks dejectedly out to the fire escape.

 MOTHER: See now? You’ve even chased off Ulysses!

 PAPA: I’m sure he’ll just go up and get some fish guts from Joyce. Now, boy, like I taught you, the telemark!

MOTHER: (Rising a little, shouting and incredulous) THE TELE-WHO?! Where did you learn to-

PAPA: No time for talkin m’darlin, we’re coming to a tricky sp-

Papa slips a bit on the polished floor. The son makes a brief exclamation and rubs his ear, as it was scraped by Papa’s belt buckle. A neighbor pounds on his ceiling from below. Mother’s portrait of Kathleen Lynn goes a little crooked on its nail.

 PAPA: Sorry, son! We’re all jammed up here widdout any room. Can’t be helped! Now remember the next move, boy. It’s called the wing! Let’s dance you back to bed on a “wing” and a prayer! Hang on to something!

Mother is rooted to the spot.

 The son grabs two tiny fistfuls of Papa’s dirty cotton shirt and holds on for the scant six feet of movement from the kitchen to the one small bedroom they all share. Papa tucks him in.

 SON: Nice moves tonight, papa. You really like to dance.

PAPA: I have to dance, bud. We all have to. I only really like to dance when I do it here. Sweet dreams, now.

The bedroom light turns off. From the kitchen comes the sound of a burner igniting on the stove and a cast iron pan sliding from the shelf. A glassy jangling of milk bottles in the refrigerator. A large cat struts self-assuredly in from the fire escape.

Amotivational Wish

I don’t have to say it just because you want me to.

Not a typo. I wrote amotivational on purpose. That’s how this works.

College. Where I find unique challenges every day. I was able to say the same for the Army, but in the Army, motivation was either easy to come by, or all-too-readily available from any number of willing… mentors. In any case, you were simply going to do whatever was to do, and that was that. Rather parental, when parenting works.

In college, motivation can be more elusive. You are truly on your own here, and if the material presented does nothing to move you intellectually or emotionally, it can be hell to get started on a project. I suspect this is why so many students just do what they’re told and buy whatever narrative is sent their way. It eases the difficulty. There’s no real way, from the impotence of the student’s disposition, to ensure that the wheels get greased. So the student’s best bet is to become a wheel and catch as catch can whatever lube is dripped her way.  To wit: an hour in a literature class is plenty of time to know exactly what the professor professes in public and private, and there’s a real narcotic allure to the idea of getting ideologically on board. Your assignments will conform to your conformity, and the sad coitus between two beings of diminished creative ambition will spurt along at a potentially Dean’s-list-level of coursework.

I see it, as best I can, from a distance. I call myself a writer with some confidence now, having produced some papers for school that I am perfectly proud of, as well as having one poem published and another take honors in a competition. I am a writer. There is power there, that I don’t think my fellow majors understand. I can sit in these classes, listen to these teachers, read the little post-modern litanies of a liberal arts education, take in the constantly present sense that “seriously, just do it like us, it’ll be so much easier for both of us” – and still write what I want. All it takes is evidence, and if you read regularly, you become so stocked with the stuff that you could be the 163rd CSI incarnation. I could read a piece of feminist literature and write a 5-page paper that never mentions feminism. And as long as I find the evidence for my points in the paper itself, I am in the clear. That’s the real power of liberal arts, as it is supposed to be understood. The power of being a writer with a little actual resistance in her. The power of turning post-modernism against itself and recognizing how easy it is to be right, within the framework of today’s vacated artistry and dissipated standards.

One of the first things anyone should be able to recognize from inside of the vapid collegiate gestalt is that the last thing anyone should be giving it is what it asks for. Maybe I am uniquely capable of seeing this because I am a parent: I know that you can’t raise a damn thing – child or idea or machine – by giving it what it wants. You have to give it what it needs. The university doesn’t need feminist papers or anti-feminist papers. It wants them both, though, because in either case the student is still just a wheel, safely hubbed onto the framework. What the university does need is true papers, real papers that are disinterested in social propulsion or the narrowing effects of thought-building. The university does not need to be saved by noble conservative infiltrators and their stout anti-political messaging. That’s more of the same, anyway, and absurd. It needs, like a protest needs a mute button, apolitical messaging. It needs, in short, to be made to forget about itself for a while. Again, exactly the same way that a parent knows that a child in a tantrum is best served by a distraction. The university is child to the student, and the student needs to start distracting its disobedient charge from its own illogic. You don’t do that by shouting “NO!” or by presenting oppositional logic. That just keeps the focus on the locus. Distract, distract, distract. You do it with ice cream and tickle bugs, wisdom and wit. You make it get up off the ground by showing it the sky.

But as nice as all that is to wail about for a minute, it’s only a small part of motivation. For instance, I am about to read “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” It’s a challenge that I am simply not sure that I am the master of. It’s ok, though, because again, there is a distance I can keep. A professionalism, and an artistry, even. Sometimes all it takes is is to talk to myself for a moment, and pencil up a poem to buoy me through the surf:

Every Wish has a Rider“Your wish has been granted”
said the Genie to the girl at the protest march.
She rose,
stiffened,
held her sign erect and raised
a single finger for the patriarchy
(forgetting her father)
in permanent letters
on the tip of a
long wooden shaft.
She heard herself say
“Thank you, sir.”

 

Gaudy Explosions

Getting Better at Things

I don’t think I’ve had a year of so much change since 1998, when I joined the Army. On April 4th last year I started school again for the umpteenth time, and made up lost ground in a hurry. Three quarters at South Seattle College got me an Associate’s degree, a frightening (for me) comfort with the Modern Language Association and its writing format, and frightening (for you) comfort with poetry. Recall (as I reminded you of too often) that my English Comp teacher asked to use my Voter ID paper in her future classes. My only fear – recognized after giddily saying that OF COURSE YOU CAN MY GOD – is that she’s been giving it the full Maddow ever since. Putting my calmly dispassionate support for voter ID on the screen and ripping into as prescribed therapy for post-election PTSD. But hey, she wouldn’t do that if it wasn’t good.

I love, too, that we lived through THE ELECTION. The last great tragedy that occurred in my life – the last “where were you when” event – was the Space Shuttle Challenger blowing up in 5th grade. What was her name – Krista McCullough? I think so. Wrong! Krista McCauliffe. The teachers wheeled little CRT sets on carts into our classrooms, turned the dials and adjusted the antennae until one of the 4 channels came through. I wonder, with THE ELECTION, how many classrooms had their flat-screened LCD panels drawing satellite signals of pre- and post-election coverage into classrooms. The anticipation beforehand, the buildup, and the moment of recognition that the carnage was real. I can’t imagine a condition by which anyone would have enjoyed watching the space shuttle separate into flaming debris after launch. But if you were a Trump voter watching the election unfold, seeing that gaudy, expensive, billionaire’s toy rocket to the stars come apart on its ascent on November 8th was as satisfying as hearing the words “no cancer.”

Two months before that, I quit drinking. It’s as if I knew how important sobriety would be on November 8th – the last thing you want to be in a riot is drunk. This is my first and last post on the subject, because no matter how you spin it there isn’t a drinker in the world who wants to hear a single word from a non-drinker about not drinking. There is no mission, no outreach, no hope that you might be getting through to someone. There’s no place for that sanctimony among friends. The problem is that most non-drinkers use that sanctimony to fuel their sobriety, as if smugness is how they quit, and more smugness is how they stay quit. That’s not mine. I will make one blanket statement, and move on: I quit because it’s better this way. Everything is. Not hyperbole. Everything important is better, and I am better at it. Would it be the same for you? Yes.

Poetry. One of the things at which I have gotten better. Much better, and still going. Thank you Michael G. Hickey and South Seattle College.  I have submitted a packet of poetry to The Iowa Review, arguably as prestigious a literary publication as there is. I’m sure nothing will be selected, but that’s not even the point. Two other times, I have been selected. The aforementioned Mike Hickey submitted two of my poems to a competition at which I won an honorable mention (and money!). Thanks, Mr. Hickey! And Fragments, the literary magazine at Seattle University, is going to publish another of my poems. But you know all this. What you may not know is what I think about it: I think I am doing things right.

And now I’m studying creative writing at Seattle University, though I haven’t taken any creative writing classes. So far it’s much more like creative reading, and that’s fine with me. I’ll write more, submit more, read more (sometimes out loud) and hopefully get published again soon.

Carry on, now. Facebook told me that I am turning zero, and that “That’s all for today.” Imma just try to live up to that.

Grades, Grays, Graze

The Human Facebook Comment

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There’s nobody in that picture. Mostly, at nine-ish on a cold weekday morning, the few people about are older couples, ambulating carefully along at a thoughtful and deliberate pace that I should adopt myself more often. There’s nobody in that picture, but there is a cool little seagull way up in the corner, like a staple, if at the entirely wrong angle. I might become paralyzed if someone handed me a stack of papers stapled that way.

Grades came in from Winter Quarter. All is well in the world, as I managed all A’s. There was some anxiety because my Brit Lit grade, while good going into finals, depended on a final paper and a final exam, so just about anything was possible there. Philosophy was a worry, too, because I went into finals with the lowest A possible at the time. My paper needed to be spot on, and I suppose it must have been. I know I had an absolute blast writing it. How could I not?

Here’s the cool thing about philosophy, too, that I wish more people would understand about life in general: Understanding something doesn’t mean agreeing with it. Believing in something doesn’t mean supporting it. I can write a fun and thorough paper on Sartre’s philosophy, absolutely sticking the landing on every point we were asked to hit, without agreeing with any of it. But we get stuck in these patterns of thinking where if I say that I understand the reasoning behind a travel restriction or a border wall, that means that I want them both to happen and think they should. We have these conversations where we view the person we’re talking to as if he were a Facebook comment, electronic, robotic, and incapable of intellectual nuance. Philosophy, done right, doesn’t make that mistake. I do think that Western people are generally raised to not do it right, and are trained to resist doing it right by schools and social media, so we are starting from a position of weakness. Everyone wants to win at something (because they weren’t allowed to as kids), but when you look around and don’t see any opponents, you have to manufacture them.

I do, incidentally, agree with a lot of Sartre. To get to the end of his ideas – to read your way through “Being and Nothingness,” for instance, is difficult and confusing. But once you get to the core of what he is saying it looks like a common sense acceptance and description of reality as it is. That table you’re looking at is a table. Seriously. Sartre doesn’t really allow for a bunch of esoteric weirdness that renders the table some imaginary construct of the mind. There’s a friggin’ table over there. Deal with it. And of course we have to deal with it, especially when someone else is looking at it, too, which is where I start to part ways with him.

Here’s a link to the paper.  It’s only 4 pages, so a 5 minute read or so. What follows is an excerpt from it:

A certain momentary me. I know that this is just a story I’ve invented, and for a few moments the internal negation between that coffee-drinking self that’s been created, and the reflecting consciousness that created it, gives me space to wonder – do I have to be that person this morning? I could just as easily be a man who starts his day with a grapefruit juice or a tea or nothing at all. Neither coffee-me nor tea-me are a me that needs to be, and I’m starting to notice that with all of these possible beginnings to my day, none of them have singular importance. Whatever me it is that gets out of this bed – if I even do that – is no better or worse a version than any other. None of them can stake a foundational claim to me or my day or my life. This is a woeful resignation on the first Saturday of Summer. My Summer. I could choose a breakfast of fish and vodka instead of coffee, because the story of me as a coffee drinker is fundamentally unmoored from facticities like time and place and body and freedom. Anything else could take its place at any time. But that smell is delicious.

I’m still rocking along on Spring break and trying to write a poem that’s probably my most “serious” effort to date. But the funny thing about art and beauty is that the accidental kind is very frequently what tends to stick. The castoffs and the rigorless productions spring up out of the past and give you a “holy shit” moment. I wrote this one a while back, just a few quick revisions and done, and I love it more every time I read it:

Un-brella Weather

In October the wind came at its worst
and the rain became confused
from knowing how to fall
just plain down
anymore.

The boy said the rain is going sideways.

His sister used one hand
to put up her hood
then casually closed her umbrella
because she knew
it wouldn’t help anymore.

The boy said hey we need that.

But his sister just put the furled umbrella
(a rainbow colored rebuttal)
under an arm
and used one hand
to help him put up his hood too.