Mock Bottom

What does the floor look like
I wonder
In a place called Rock Bottom?

Does it shine like it shone
in the barracks from the hypnotic drone
of a heavy steel machine and
one or two sleepy soldiers
who cannot but buff and wax
until their standing orders have
a suitable place for standing on?

Does it shine like it shines
at these meetings where the dank black
brew drips and cakes in brown outlines
on a floor whose sheen lacks sharpness
the way it never would if they
hired an old soldier to do the floors
here in the basement of
St. Catherine’s at night?

Is it just an unclever joke?

A place they’ve named Rock Bottom
comically
because there isn’t
a rock to break your teeth on
within an empty bottle’s throw
of anywhere you might be laying?

Is it a floor as flat and fleet and forever
as the dull map of regret
charted in the lineless low-relief
of a place with no noteworthy terrain?
A map of an inch of desert
scaled out in such vast despondence
that the little key in the corner reads
(if you can see it)
1 grain = your whole wasted life.

Or are there really rocks
in the rubble down there – jagged
but germane to the rank poetics
from a beggar’s caustic maw.

Are there really rocks down there
where they tell me time and again
over and over
that I’m in The Right Place?

I remember some rocks, sure.
But I don’t remember a bottom.

I don’t know anyone
who remembers seeing anywhere
beneath the garbage
and the softening teeth
and the shameful things done
for a bottle of any-damn-thing,
seeing anywhere beneath that rancid humiliation
anything that looked like a bottom.

I’m no expert but I think that
my Right Place –
if I have such a thing –
has much better lighting.

And this dead-humming coffee
that I swear would come
crawling up my arm
if I dangled a curious finger in there
wouldn’t make it through the door –
much less onto the floor –
of anyplace that I would call

for me

right.

Dark Halo

People like to say that you can conquer your fears, if you can just manage to face them. I disagree. The more you face your fear, the more you details you collect about what there is to be afraid of. The more certain you become. I had thirty chances – thirty-five, I always forget about jump school – to get over my fear of heights. All I got over was my interest in jumping out of airplanes. I’d do it again if I had to. If I had to.

The trained eye watches that video and sees a few fellas who are going to have a hell of a time getting their affairs in order before the ground comes up to meet them.

There’s no point in trying to avoid the ground, it’s everywhere. Still, your brain tells your body to find a way around it. Your brain screams at you to not let that meeting happen. You are told to look for the treetops and estimate your distance to the ground, but it can’t rightly be done. Like a drunk, you have no idea, really, when you’re going to hit bottom. Hopping off a chair or a platform 5 or 6 feet off the ground gives you the impression that you understand your position relative to it, but it’s not really true. It’s really just something you don’t care about, because you know you’re safe. You aren’t falling long enough to care about how fast it’s happening. From under a parachute, the closer you get to the ground the more you realize that you have no idea – no way of knowing – just how fast you are falling. They tell you it’s twenty-eight feet per second, and that’s a neat thing to say, but screaming it at the ground, in the dark, isn’t going to make things any easier. Besides, you’re only supposed to make noise out there if you are hurt.

You’ve been stuffed in this tiny airplane for the last hour, like tobacco in a cigarette, sweating. Sixty pounds on your lap, forty on your back. Your legs are woven into the legs of the man across from you, because the bird just wasn’t built for this. When it shakes, the dust of all the world’s time zones fall from the exposed wires and tubes. It has about two decades worth of flight hours, and has been doing this since Vietnam. The skin’s so thin that you think you can see right through it, all the way to home and your mom and that day when you thought you needed this, somehow. Even if she didn’t love you then, she loves you in this memory, because this memory wants you to go back. The old plane creaks and settles when it’s sitting still, and then it really lurches and lifts you into the sky.

The noise. Jesus, the noise. A little red light and the commands you echo not because you can hear the jumpmaster shout them, but because you know where and when they belong, even if you haven’t figured that out for yourself yet. Even if figuring out where and when you belong is really why you’re here. The noise, the light, the commands. And the games. You deflect and you distract. Your mind is screaming at you to not do this. To stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are tough. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are crazy. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself that you are screwed. This time your mind doesn’t rebuke.

The light goes from red to green, and finally your instincts are jolted by all your years and you know what to do when lights turn green. Your mind tries one more time: STOP.

There’s a dozen ways to screw this up, and your only comfort comes from knowing that almost none of them will kill you. That’s left to God, so you’d better hope He was there for pre-jump. It’s so dark and loud and your feet are shuffling and really you’re just doing what the other people are doing and all you know for sure is that if you buck this trend you will ruin the night for everyone behind you.

Then it’s silent but for the numbers in your head. Counting because they told you it was important, that if you made it to five there was something going wrong and you had better pull that reserve. But you’re not really doing the counting. They’re just shapes in your mind, a slide show with your eyelids stapled open. Just terror and symbols occupying the same ether, no causality. Somehow you always knew that if you made it to five you would probably make it all the way to nine or eleven or however many it would take before nothing else will take.

Somewhere in there came the yank. When the straps pull tight it is the only burning in the groin you will ever love. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Counting – six, seven…you can stop that now. The chute is open, the night is dead. You might or might not hear the quad props of a fifty year-old airplane trailing off somewhere. Maybe the moon is out and the varied terrain below you is somewhat visible. Varied. It’s mostly flat, and it’s all hard as trigonometry. Maybe the moon is gone and everything is black, except that matronly silk vestment above you, which is the darkest green Creation has ever seen. A perfect circle cut into the nothing overhead. You have a dark halo.

But twenty-eight feet per second isn’t interested in what’s above you.

It’s Friday!

It’s Friday! It’s Friday!
The school children shout.
It’s Friday! It’s Friday!
But they won’t let us out!

They dash us through spelling
and draw up the art.
Then they stir up the science
(our least favorite part).

The next problem is math
(which they don’t even know),
before digging up history,
and – what? We can go?

Out There

I kind of didn’t want to write about this, because in a way I see it as marking me guilty of the same kind of enemy-making that I accuse our modern social justice movements of doing. Trampling the Good in the pursuit of the Right. Also, I remind myself that what’s missing from the discourse on contemporary social issues is generosity. If I cannot employ it where others don’t, then I should keep mum (but that sounds rather ungenerous itself).

In the end I have to remember that I cannot control responses or reactions. I can control my own words, and I can know what I am on about, but I cannot, in a single sentence or paragraph or essay, sharpen the distinction between statement and judgment, knowledge and belief, or especially reason and purpose, to the extent that someone untrained to know the difference will suddenly come around. I can only write (with very intentional capitalization), and endure misunderstandings, willful or otherwise. But I promise to work with you on them.

 


 

I made it to my first class of the new quarter yesterday. Encountering Intercultural Literature. Social narratives have been built, at this point, in such a way that we all know immediately that the word “intercultural” is why we’re here. And that’s because it has become evident over time that the word “culture,” especially when appended and prefixed to “intercultural,” is one of those many weaponized words that we’ve come to employ and discharge as we engage in our own inward-looking marches towards the eschaton (which will, of course, be televised tweeted). It is evident from that word alone that this will not be a simple compare/contrast of different literary styles or themes from various cultures during a particular historical period. It doesn’t work like that anymore. “Culture” is simply not allowed to stand as an innocuous concept that can be studied dispassionately. It is a battleground, where lines are drawn and sides are taken, and every statement is weighed for valuation of virtue tariffs.

Students – young students – get excited for classes with words like “intercultural” in the title because they are smart enough to know that in that class is an environment where other Good People are, who will say The Right Things. A place of unambiguous intent, where it is easy to know what to say without any measurable worry of incredulity. What they may not be keying into immediately is that it is a place where the ostensible material is the study of cultures across geography and history, but the real material is the concrescence of the ideologies of their own current culture. The ossification of the unbelievable strictures of right think, and a carefully designed backdrop against which thoughtcrime announces itself like a claymore. That they’re really studying or creating a gossamer version of their own culture which, incidentally, they don’t believe in. When asked, yesterday, what our definition of “intercultural” was, two students stated unequivocally that intercultural study must exclude the West. High school taught them that we are either too vile and criminal a thing to be considered alongside Noble Distant Others, or we simply do not pass the sniff test to qualify for the title of “culture” at all. It is immaterial, either way.

I try to remember to be a little careful in that class. Not because I look down my grisly nose at other cultures and am afraid my grade will suffer if I make it known. Rather, it is because people have utterly lost the ability to discern between understanding and support, such that if I question anyone’s understanding of the subject matter, I will be accused of supporting some Hateful Ideology. In the Academy – indeed, in the neighborhood, on the streets, on the Internet – you either say the Right Things, or you are the enemy. There is no room for general disinterest or passive acceptance. There is only the protest marcher or the cross burner, and your classmates, neighbors, and friends will not let you live between the two for long.

Yesterday, and for the next week or two, we are into Lieutenant Nun. Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. It’s a fun read in the adventurous vein of Don Quixote or Robinson Crusoe, and generally as believable as either of them (but I’m a born skeptic). Half an hour of discussion centered almost entirely on pronouns. What should we call…this person who is credited with writing the story? The consensus landed on “they,” to which I simply swallowed my objections about grammatical reality (you cannot pluralize an individual, credibly, popular usage be damned), as it’s hardly a hill worth dying on. And never mind the fact that, absent any knowledge about what the author herself preferred to be called, any modern day “consensus” is really just a small tyranny – a passive-aggressive instruction that this is the way we do things, here (there are few English phrases as pregnantly pernicious as “we have all agreed”). I only mentioned at one point that we could not continue to laud this as a piece of feminine literature if we could not agree to call the author a woman. The breathing reader will note the judgment-free logic of this. The Professor professed agreement, and nobody else commented. I sit in the front row, so I could not see if there were any looks of approval or disdain. But I speculate, because I think it is fair to do so in this case, that that simple logical clarification was enough to mark me as a Bad Person in a mind or two in that classroom. The subject matter of the discussion was transgenderism and I said something not explicitly supportive, which, if not quite the same as setting the cross ablaze, is at least as bad as walking towards it with a can of gasoline.

It would be one thing if I was sitting in that room (and this is really very much the case everywhere I go in the University, and in the city) as a true opponent to their causes. But I am not. Of course it is called Social Justice so that it can be said that you either agree completely or you don’t believe in social justice at all, a thing which is simply not true of any but the most ridiculously irrelevant wastrels of society. But the marches and the protests go on under the presumption of some powerful enemy amassed and assembled against it out there somewhere. And if you are not actively, conspicuously in the march, you are, by default, out there. They believe in the enemy far more than the enemy believes in them, because the enemy does not substantively exist. Except in the case of those wastrels, those marginal extremists (they’re called “extreme” for a reason, and it isn’t because of their teeming membership) who become synonymous with people like me by dint of the fact that I am not issuing high-fives and posterboard to the sign-makers and hat-wearers, the gender-includers and the intersectionalist line-drawers.

I would sit here and say that I am ok with things. That I will call you whatever pronoun you wish to be called, and will only object if your request begins to smell a little like antagonism. I would say that I have no ill judgments towards transgendered people or gay people or people of color or Muslims or of any protected class you can drum up. That I respect everyone equally until they demonstrate that they don’t deserve it. That I am every bit as tolerant as you, and in truth probably quite a bit more (just think of what you think of me right now, for instance). I would say a lot of things, but I am afraid they would not be worded strongly enough to pass for inclusion among the Good People who are on that ever-shrinking Right Side of History. Acceptance is no longer acceptable – it is deemed too flaccid a response to progress, and so the minimum expression of acceptance has become passionate vehemence. Neither is tolerance any longer tolerable – it is deemed too temporary and shallow a response to difference, so the minimum expression of tolerance has become celebratory self-loathing. If you doubt me on this, please come to class with me, where the students look around themselves and believe, passionately, vehemently, self-loathingly, that the only place they see a culture, is out there.

The Real Story is Down the Page a Bit

The kids have story writing every Thursday. They’re given a writing prompt and some gentle help moving their work along. The Boy has said often that he doesn’t like it, but he’s a left-handed writer and I’m told that it is pretty normal for the lefties to be annoyed by the act of writing for the first few years, what with all the physical rebellions against  mechanical standards and procedures. And also the smudging.

The Girl generally says she does like it. She’s a natural speller and focuses well and has a head full of scampering whims and intentions, so she can sit down and churn out plenty without getting too bogged down. She is a bit literal and straight, though, and she moves between sentences like a bowling ball between pins. This will all be ironed out with practice and guidance. She has the unteachable knack of taking it very personally, too, so there’s a chance that writing can make her crazy eventually, meaning that she might be very, very good at it.

Yesterday’s writing prompt was “hope.” The Girl has asked me not to read hers. Too personal, too revealing. She can’t bear for me to know. Of course I’ll read it the first chance I get.

The Boy, on the other hand, said “Papa, make sure you go in tomorrow and read my story.” He is the self-promoter that I have never been. I strutted with them both through the hall this morning, cocky as all get out because I know I am a better parent than any of these people, and my kids are far more useful already than theirs. Before I entered the classroom, one parent had already told me that she loved The Boy’s story. In the classroom, both teachers said “I hope you’re here to read his story. It’s wonderful.” This was getting interesting.

I floated past the 1st grade scrawlings and pictures, passing Chloe’s and Connor’s and Vera’s and Milo’s (Meatloaf, he likes to be called, says it’s Spanish), and found The Boy’s. Atop the page is a sickly, uncomfortable red and black marker drawing of a big building that looks like a moldy hospital, but says Seattle University across it. Spelled properly, score. The first sentence said “I hope that I go to a great college.” This, it turned out, was the entirety of what all of these people thought was so exceptional. They may not have read past that line. To my eyes they looked like they were relieved, all these adults, made to feel safe by the thought that a 7 year old has already emerged from the great die-cutter, ready and eager to take his place in the procession that has produced everything that they put their faith in. And of course the most certain thing is that they all now think that, because he said he wants to go to college, he must have pretty good parents who are sitting at home and telling him the Right Things, because they are Good Persons, and no doubt on the Right Side of History.

He does. He has incredible parents, but not for those reasons. And he has an amazing sister who I already know will fight his fights for him until he is fighting hers. But that he wrote that he wants to go to college is nothing special. He sees what I am doing, and I talk about it, and like a good boy he wants to do what his dad is doing. If I was a drunk he would want to be a drunk, too. When the mother of one of his friends said “That first sentence is amazing: ‘I hope that I to go to a great college,'” I said “I just keep trying to make sure he knows he doesn’t have to.” Because he doesn’t. But if I don’t tell him that, it’s possible that nobody ever will. And if he eventually finds out that college is not his cup of Kool-aid, he’ll feel as smoked out and useless as I did when that happened to me. College isn’t everything. I’m only doing it now because it is free and I am missing some piece of self-determination that I thought going to college could help me pop the clutch on. So far it has been a raging success for me, but if I was in my twenties or a B/B- kind of student (or God help me, both), I would be miserable. Wasted for the future and needing another path. I will work hard to make sure that my kids don’t rest all their expectations on an artificially clean run through the Academy.

With his teacher standing next to me and sounding more like a proud parent than I did, I moved her attention down the page. “Here,” I said, “is the best part.” He has had a cold for a few days, was probably wiping snot with his sleeve while he wrote his story, and the sentence said “I hope this sickness runs from me soon.” He didn’t do it on purpose, of course, but it’s loaded with meaning, it’s rhythmically neat, terse and tidy, and it’s all grown up. Having built such a simple, direct sentence with a bit of anthropomorphism and the subtle flourish of metaphor, intentional or no, is a far more heartening indication of his innate potential than any sophomoric declaration of a desire for college.

We’re going on and on as we can only do. I’m starting to look at MFA programs and getting a little more serious about pushing my work around for publication. If all goes well the kids will eventually be able to see that college has worked for me because of qualities that possessed or lacked, not because of the infallible utility of the university itself.

They’ll be able to see, most importantly, that you don’t really know anything if you only read the first sentence.

The Ugliness of Books

IMG_2543

There’s the #bookstack for the quarter. One book is still missing, an anthology of Ottoman Lyric poetry. I don’t have nearly enough history in me to say anything funny about that, though it seems ripe for ridicule, for some reason. I’d go do some quick research on the Ottomans, find a reason to presume the quality of Ottoman poetry to be somewhere between Tay Bridge and Vogon, but I think I’ll just put my feet up and relax instead (do I still have to point out the #dadjokes?). And of course that doesn’t include Arabic. We don’t even use the textbooks for Arabic, but I lug a dictionary the size of a church pew to that class every day, except the 4 days per quarter that we actually open it. Every single time I look at it in the morning and think “I can leave it at home today,” we end up using it. About 3 people will actually have it with them, and the teacher makes us feel like naughty children who have disappointed her terribly. I love her. She bought chocolates for my kids and gave them to me after our final exam last quarter (don’t tell the kids).

Sometimes I feel (bear with me here), sometimes I feel like I don’t look all that cool, when I’m wearing my cardigan. Like I’m showing my age, as they say.

Anyone whose read David Foster Wallace can probably tell at this point that I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace. I have a terrific tendency towards style creep, and while I am universally incapable of reproducing the wit or profundity of any author worth selling in a nearly Amazonned-out-of-business basement-used-bookstore, I can certainly wrestle with them (wit and profundity) in a passably similar sentence structure and pacing scheme. I can sound just like Vonnegut, given a few chapters of reading him, without worrying you over any questions of my actual talent. The proof, I was recently reminded in an Alexa-driven round of Jeopardy!, is in the pudding.

He’s going on and on, Wallace is, in this part of Infinite Jest where he finally gets to describing the physical abnormalities of one of the characters. Mario. Mario has been talked about enough that the reader knows, and if the reader is honest wants to know how much, Mario is enfeebled. Wallace does not disappoint. He is as relentlessly visual about Mario as he is about everything else, and not a single word of it is flattering or careful in any way. The book was written in what, ’96, so I would have been too stoned  to know what The Culture was doing about honesty at the time, but it strikes me that a modern audience is probably aghast at Wallace’s being so derisively clear about someone born – how would we say it in the classroom – omnilaterally bio-intersectionally disadvantaged. Take this:

“…Mario had not so much club feet as more like block feet: not only flat but perfectly square, good for kicking knob-fumbled doors open with but too short to be conventionally employed as feet: together with the lordosis in his lower spine, they force Mario to move in the sort of lurchy half-stumble of a vaudeville inebriate, body tilted way forward as if into a wind, right on the edge of pitching face-first onto the ground, which as a child he did fairly often, whether given a bit of a shove from behind by his older brother Orin or no.”

It reminds me of parts of Something Happened by Joseph Heller, in which the main character is bluntly despondent about the toll he suffers because of his son, who is a special needs child of some sort (I cannot remember the details, years removed)(Here it is)( Found it):

“It is not true that retarded (brain-damaged, idiot, feeble-minded, emotionally disturbed, autistic) children are the necessary favorites of their parents or that they are always uncommonly beautiful and lovable, for Derek, our youngest child, is not especially good-looking and we do not love him at all. (We would prefer not to think about him. We don’t want to talk about him.)”

This is the truth. This is people exhausted by the gymnastics, with nothing left for the self-immolating obsession with seeing the best, no more blood to spill. He laments the time, the effort, the drain, the stress. And he blames the boy, because it is the boy’s fault.  The modern psyche cries “SELFISH! MONSTER!” but if it’s healthy, the modern psyche takes a moment to be refreshed by the permission to feel just as handicapped, though in this case by duty.

More about Mario:

“…together with the lazy lid-action gave even Mario’s most neutral expression the character of an oddly friendly pirate’s squint.”

His brother, for Pete’s sake, yanks down on his (Mario’s) eyelid “with that smart type of downward snap that can unstick a dicky shade.”

You’re not laughing. I mean, you are laughing, because you’ve pictured it and you’re hearing the cartoonish flapflapflap of the liberated shade, but you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re relaxing your sphincter for a moment, finally. Of course we don’t go around freely cursing every living thing that can’t be reasonably expected to go golfing or row a boat, and when you have a child or a sibling or someone very close to you who has some Serious Problem or another (here someone suitably progressive will tell me that my use of the word ‘problem’ is problematic) you do not curse his existence. You do not target him. Because if one facet of telling the truth is that it can be shit ugly and hurt worse than withdrawal, then another facet is the kind of intentional lying that shores up the holier parts of our nature. The looking at the Marios and the Dereks and saying, unbelievably, “He’s wonderful.” It may be flat-out false in all but the briefest and most accidental flashes, but so is epiphany, and thank God we have books that can say the ugly stuff out loud for us.

Shrinking

Like the house you grew up in
and the tree that you climbed.
Like the hill that you’d sled down
and the fossils you’d find.

Like the tadpoles you hunted
Like the snakes that you caught
Like the gun that your friend had
Like the birds that you shot

Like the calls from your parents
in the forts that you built.
Like the food you devoured
in the silence you killed.

Like the fists of your brother
Like the hands of your mom
Like the silence from father
Like he knew all along.

Like the speed of your heart
from your crush on that girl.
Like the dreams in your head
from the size of the world

Like the eyes of the teachers
Like the chalk on the board
Like the bell ending recess
Like the run left unscored

Like the patience of mother
let you know you were wrong.
Like the fear of your father
let you know you belonged.

Like the length of the days.
Like the depth of the night.
Like the hope and the dread.
Like the end was in sight.

Like the way looking back
is like slow-going blind.
Like the way it’s all shrinking
from the falling behind.

Mutely to the Coast

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.

Breakfast

“You and mom,” he said.

“Careful now, boy.”

“You and mom,” he said, “are at that age when”

“Eggshells, boy. Have I told you about eggshells?”

“You and mom are at that age when,” here he goes. I can’t believe he’s doing this “at that age when you start shrinking.”

“Get out.”

I used to write these little things down all the time, and am pretty crushed at this point that I’ve spent the last 4 years or so neglecting to record the interactions that I have with the kids. They made some of the best essays I’ve written. My daughter is 10 now, and too neat, so she doesn’t delve into ridiculous things like the 7 year old boy does. And when she did, it wasn’t as ridiculous as it was adorable. The boy, on the other hand, is just a friggin’ mess. To wit:

“I like being in pain. Like an adult. That’s what it all has to go through when you’re an adult. Having pain with your children.”

I don’t know about pain, but it’s telling that he interprets it that way. And his sister asked me today, point blank, “what is it like to be a parent?” How in God’s name do you answer that? They sat behind their cereal bowls, staring at me expectantly, the girl in her pajamas and morning hair, the boy, deathcamp-skinny in nothing but boxer shorts the size of a postage stamp. I don’ know how he survives, I just know that the world doesn’t seem to effect him much, externally. Anything goes.

Anyway, they asked me what it’s like to be a parent (isn’t it obvious? That’s a dad joke), and I don’t think I performed well in the moment. There was some boilerplate stuff about highs and lows, happiness and sadness, good days and bad, but I don’t guess that sounds much different to them than what it’s like to be a kid. I should have had something in there about pressure, about every moment having the terrifying weight of potential life-shaping significance, the immediacy of having someone else’s distant future on your shop table – is this a chopsaw situation, or just a little sand-and-blow? About the fact that I am, indeed coming to that age where I start shrinking, because of that pressure and that weight, but that it’s more willful acquiescence than it is attrition. As a parent you do not lose mass, ever, but you lose a little density, and the universe around you never stops expanding. You shrink just by not keeping up.

But I didn’t say any of that. Not even close. I said the dull usual stuff and said “you’re excused, go get ready for school,” and just kind of went along hoping they didn’t pick up on the fact that often, being a parent isn’t so much about shrinking as it is about failing to be big when the moment calls for it. But then again, that’s why we have kids – to fill up the moments that are too big to inhabit alone.

Like breakfast.