Slow Dance

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A dance can provide an opportunity for a rare non-blurry outdoor shot.

 

This week I took some boys home from their first middle school dance.  I feel asleep before then, but luckily I had set an alarm.  One wore a leather jacket.  One wore a jean jacket.  One wore a blue suede jacket.  And one–mine–wore no jacket at all.  In fact he kept pushing up the rolled three-quarter length sleeves on his button-down shirt, trying to convert them to short sleeves.  Perhaps he plays too many sports.  Before he left I had shown him how to slow dance, wondering as I did if kids still held onto each other in the same places.  I remembered the ways the popular girls had of hooking their hands behind the boys’ necks, instead of keeping them—as I did—shyly and firmly on the boys’ shoulders, new-driver-steering-wheel-style.  It was as though those girls would rather touch their own hands than someone else.  I showed him how some couples also dance holding out their hands, just one set of hands, but I wasn’t sure on that.  Where our fingers should entwine, how far from our bodies we should hold them.  I guess with this dance style you can use your joined hands like a rudder, to steer around the dance floor, I said.  He giggled at that.  He’s good about having a mama who wonders about the things she’s supposed to be demonstrating with authority.  As we were slow dancing on the floor between the overflowing laundry hamper and the strewn soccer magazines I seemed to be shrinking.  I shrank right down to my grade six self.  Maybe you should ask some girls to dance, I said.  I mean the ones who are just your friends.  It can be sad standing out the whole night.  How strange, having a child of the opposite sex.  How strange and yet how healing.   He’s tall for almost twelve.  I know a school dance shouldn’t bring up memories of diapers but seriously, he was just  wobble walking over that very floor, with the edge of his diaper almost blinding white against his tan skin.  He was born with a tan.  Seconds after he was born he lifted his head right off the table, to look around.  I knew he’d be doing that at the dance too: standing at the side, looking all around.  When I pulled into the school parking lot that night the car was very still and dark for awhile.   And then suddenly the boys in jackets (and mine) catapulted into the car, talking over each other in loud bouncy voices, and I felt so lucky.  Because some people only get dark quiet cars.  I wanted to know if they’d slow danced but I played it cool and asked about the DJs.  Some of the songs were so old we didn’t even know them!  I smiled at that, thinking: Oh, then they played some good ones.  One of the boys tried to explain how cool the strobe lights were by talking about how light waves enters the eye and bounces off the brain or something.  I tried to grasp the science, and, failing, ventured that strobe lights can make anyone look like a good dancer.  To which there was a pause and then one of them countered: Well, a better dancer anyway.  One boy said the concession stand was a scam, that a little bag of chips at the concession stand cost three bucks and only had about ten chips in it.  Eventually they talked about who had slow danced, with snippets of color commentary.  None of the boys had asked anyone to dance, or been asked to dance.  The week before I had accidentally bet my son five dollars that someone would ask him to slow dance, so I spent a long moment trying to picture what bills and change I had in my wallet.  I thought to myself:  Being shy doesn’t mean you won’t get what you want.  But I didn’t say it aloud.  It’s just what I was hoping.  The boys were going on again about the strobe lights, and about how sick it looked to do ticking in them, and I kept taking peeks in my overhead mirror at their animated faces.  They were each of them, in their way, going to break hearts.  They were each of them, in their own way, going to get their hearts broken.  It was past my bedtime, and way past his, but I lifted my foot off the gas a little, driving as slowly as I could get away with.

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HBD Dad

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I went to take a photo of a photo of my dad today, on his birthday.   What would have been, I mean.  Birthday is a tricky word for the dead.  I was going to put him in my phone, because how crazy he never knew what an iPhone was.  He would have had one before I did.  He would have found the nautical winds app, mooring traffic alerts, the best chicken wellington recipes, Butler County weather, Tortola weather, Goodreads linked to the local library catalogue, a  global spaniel tracker.  He would have texted me brief reports of the day, misspelling short words within it so perfectly badly they looked better that way.  I was lining him all up in the little screen of my phone, making sure not to cut off his work boots–which I still have and still wear sometimes, clunking and tripping and pretending as best as I can that they fit me.  I hadn’t seen any ants around, but suddenly one crawled right into the photograph.  Even with that wiggle it sped furiously.  It was so alive.  I knew before I even clicked the photo of the photo that it would be the clearest thing in it.

Spring Break. Day Nine.

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One dinky waterslide counts as a holiday.  It has to.  They run up the steps to launch twenty times, thirty, who knows.  I only count when I’m trying to make it through.  Outside the waterslide looks very still and sturdy, gives no visual sign of bodies within twisting and crashing at breakneck speeds.   My heart thunders.  The perfect pink against perfect blue does that.  The perfect shine and perfect shadows.  The perfect silver, the perfect rust.  It’s sure exciting, when you suddenly accidentally end up right where you want to be.  A week later someone in the grocery store will ask us if we got away.   Maybe the boys will remember speeding spirals through the dark and maybe I’ll remember standing completely still in the parking lot with my neck craned but either way it won’t feel like a fib when we answer yes and yes and yes.

Velma (A Valentine)

velmarose   mebrick

Velma lived in a brick house on Haynes Street in Memphis, Tennessee.  She sat long spells on the concrete slab that was her front porch, watching the street and yard and sky for whatever happened.  Day and night she wore silk or were they polyester nightgowns in pastel shades, some with lace accents.  Whenever I was around Velma I wondered, what’s the difference between nightgowns and gowns?  Nothing really.  Velma didn’t even try and act busy.  She seemed perfectly happy to be sitting and talking, or just looking at things.  People could take this as a sign a person was dumb.  But maybe it meant the person was smart.  Velma wore a neat bun, coiled high.  Her fingernails were always painted the same true red.  Crimson rectangles look so crisp and revolutionary when prefaced by a dizzying smatter of age spots.  Once Velma asked me to do her right hand and even though it involved a foot stool pulled way too close, and even though I had only ever chewed mine,  I did.  She acted as though I was like her, open and trusting.  She acted as though I might grow up to be glamorous.  I might be someone who told people what I felt and thought, who might even feel and think in front of them.  But I just stared at people.  I was always poised to bolt outside.  I wore numbered jerseys or stripes and slept in my sneakers sometimes.  My short hair looked like I cut it myself— although I would never, as that would be time spent on grooming,  jail-time.  But in Velma’s presence I felt a softening, a loosening, a slowing.  My eyes caught on things that looked—though I wouldn’t have said the word—pretty.  Can a person being very much herself can make you more like her? Velma liked to tell stories.  From her life, or from last night’s news.  They were all about people.  Mostly what a person had done, or what a person hadn’t done.  How it changed everything.  But Velma kept interrupting the plot with questions.  What would lead her to think?  Do you suppose if he had gone back?  I ask myself, what if that child had spoken up?  But would you have done anything differently?  Would any of us?  Velma fell back in her chair under the weight of wondering.  She fell silent, leaving the story with its loose ends hanging, unraveling all ways.  You could see the way her visitors’ eyes glazed over, how their bodies twitched impatiently.  But I was mesmerized.  A grown-up wondering about the hearts of people was rarer than a grown-up crying.  It was almost too much.  I kept pretending I needed to use the bathroom.  The toilet seat at Velma’s had a knitted fuchsia cover.  I lowered down on it, the rear of my ripped Toughskin jeans settling into what felt like carpet.  When you lived alone, you could make your house look just like you.  You could turn your bathtub into a closet.  A long line of nightgowns hung on the rod where a shower curtain would go.   There was no wind in the tiny bathroom, just hot Memphis air.  I could see how it might glide in, though, and whip up the pink and green and yellow and blue strips into living things.  I could see how they might soar and dive freely, sticking together momentarily in surprising places before they fell back apart.  

 

 

 

 

 

The O’Connor Collection

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(I always try to pay tribute to Flannery O’Connor on February 2nd.  It was, I might have dreamed I read, her favorite day.  She dated her letters at the top with the day, month and year—but the ones she wrote on this day just read “Ground Hog Day.”   Yes, as three words.  She was stylish like that.   Imagine the following as a glossy ad in some crossbreed fashion-literary magazine that doesn’t exist, with each item accompanied by 1) the story that inspired it  2) a photograph of the item looking more faded than it is, spread out on porch steps in bright, hot, bird-screaming air.)

**

Our new line of fashion gems opens with the O’Connor Collection, a tribute to the precise and original descriptive standards of one of America’s finest writers, Flannery O’Connor.  Top fashion designers and unemployed literature students have teamed up to pay tribute to O’Connor’s timeless vision in a line of singular apparel for you and your favorite readers.

To launch the O’Connor Collection, we offer a variety of carefully-assembled custom shirts for the criminal misfit and neglected child in you.  Each shirt is made of all-natural southern fibres and comes with a typewritten tag detailing washing instructions:

The Bailey.  “A yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed in it.” (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”).  For all your carefree travels on the backroads.  The fibres have been specially treated with a small dose of hydrogen peroxide, to aid in the removal of bloodstains.

The Powell Boyd.  Named for the character who wore “A sweatshirt with a faded destroyer printed on it but his chest was so hollow that the destroyer was broken in the middle and seemed on the point of going under” (“A Circle in the Fire”).  We hope your destroyer will ride full-speed ahead.  But for those well-built shoppers who insist on being true-to-text, we offer a limited number of Powell Boyds with the destroyer emblems pre-halved.   

The Norton.  “Green but so faded that the cowboy charging across the front of it was only a shadow” (“The Lame Shall Enter First”).  With ash-tray-dipped grey detailing on the cuffs.  For those nights of lonesome stargazing, or those mornings you wake up feeling vulnerable, motherless.

The Flannery.  Sure to create an unfavorable impression.  For the over-30 set, because none of us is ever too old to embarrass our mothers.   Inspired by a 1955 letter in which O’Connor revealed:  “The only embossed one [shirt] I ever had had a fierce-looking bulldog on it with the word GEORGIA over him.  I wore it all the time, it being my policy at that point in my life to create an unfavorable impression.  My urge for such has to be repressed, as my mother does not approve of making a spectacle of oneself when over thirty.”  In pumpkin, beige, and lavender.   

We’re also ironically thrilled to offer a limited-edition line of O’Connor Collection formalwear items:

The Sally Poker. For those evenings you’ve been waiting for.  “A long black crepe dinner dress with a rhinestone buckle and bolero” (“A Late Encounter With the Enemy”).  Comes with an exclusive pair of non-slip silver slippers.

The Mr. Shiftlet.  Just the hat for courting.  Made of brown felt, with the rim “turned up in the front and down in the back.” (“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”).   Perfectly suited to your moods of ‘composed dissatisfaction.’

The Star Drake.  A roomy red purse, has a ’skin-like feel to it’.  (“The Comforts of Home”).  Includes a complementary black plastic handgun.

The Be Nice To Your Mother Cap.  Identical to the one Julian observes on his own mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”  Its ample purple velvet flap has been carefully designed to stand up on one side and droop down on the other.  Green base fits saggy.  Provides warmth and style for travels across town.  Guaranteed to endear yourself to strangers of all races.

The Motorless Biker Jacket.  An undersized leather jacket, in peacock.  Artfully ripped.  Embroidered on the back with the Misfit’s motto:  “It’s no real pleasure in life.”  (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”).  

Our collection launches on Ground Hog Day.  As quantities are limited by our feeble attempts to write, you should place your order rapidly to avoid disappointment.   It is our hope you will receive this collection with the same astonishment and admiration with which you first read O’Connor’s singular stories.  And that you will wear your O’Connor Collection item with equal pride to the college seminar and to the chicken yard. 

Way to a Cassowary

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Like they sometimes will, this adventure started naturally, easily.  I simply glanced up at a youth hostel bulletin board, and my eyes fixed on a picture of a cassowary.  The advertisement for a three day trek into the rainforest said food and equipment would be provided.  Hikers would carry everything they needed on their backs.  The cassowary was rendered in ink, and I wasn’t sure those wavy lines guaranteed a sighting.  But by then even a slight chance was worth it, for I had been—almost against my will—transfixed, possibly even transformed, by the animals in Australia.  Mostly by their bravery.  The dingo who trotted off with my left boot was one thing (fast and smooth, barely veering from its course, like a speedy shopper tossing a loaf of bread into her cart).  But even the platypus who only ventured a glide across the pond at two tiny windows of invisibility (late dusk and first dawn) made that glide with certainty, barrelling from one side to the other with the inevitability of a missile. 

And the birds seemed bravest of all.  I wish I could convey how thoroughly the birds punctuated that country.  Strange birds, bright birds, loud birds, daring birds.  The tree branches offered astonishing concerts, the sky staged an ongoing circus.  Had I not travelled to Australia I would never have known that the birds back in my own country had such dismal vocal ranges.  I wouldn’t have known how shy and drab they were, how they seemed to do the same quiet and predictable things.  I would never have felt pity for them, for how their entire bird lives seemed geared towards making sure we didn’t notice them.  Once I returned home the birds I’d soaked up in Australia would fall away, one by one, until I could only recall giant dips and dashes of colour.  I could no longer hear even faint echos of their amplified warbles and shrieks and cries and bellows.  How beautifully unsettling, the way some calls would start one way and suddenly swerve another, then another.  When I tried to talk about the birds of Australia I would utter strange snippets such as: sounds, too, can turn somersaults.  I would wave my hands around and stutter lamely, like someone trying to recount a fireworks show.  I became, in attempting to activate those birds from memory, the very opposite of them.  So I stopped trying.  How could you get closer to a bird by talking about it?  You would only get further, more human. 

** 

A German girl at the hostel was also interested in the trek.  Just two, but the guide said we were enough.  Are you fit?  he asked us.  We said yes.  Do you follow your instincts? There was  an awkward moment in the hostel entryway where the German girl and I just looked at each other, wondering what was the right answer.  It’s strange how I forget her name—one word!—but I still remember the way she lifted a flower brusquely and peered into it, as though to figure out where it needed repairing.  My eyes landed on our guide’s ancient boots, on his tortured eyes.  And would I just walk off into the trees with these two?  No.  Maybe.  Yes.  Travelling required so much teetering on the thresh-hold of yes.  It was the continual destination, that yes.  And arriving there wasn’t much different from opening a book to the start of a Grimms’ fairy tale.  You might die at the hands of these strangers, or live eternally cursed as a frozen object.  You might marry one of them or be made forever rich by them.  But there’s a moment when you first walk up to them—and walk out with them—when it could go any way.   

**

Once into the rainforest we veered off the trails.  We careened a long way through vegetation—straight uphill, steeply down—and then our guide suddenly stopped.  He spun around slowly.  He peered through the trees.  He gazed at the fan palms, and since their leaves spun in circles right back onto themselves I couldn’t see how that would help.  But soon enough he plowed ahead in one direction, and we followed.  The German girl asked him at one point if he carried a compass.  Our guide began to rant about our inner compasses.  How it was our duty to hear them, and to heed them.  His eyes bulged.  He was just standing apart from us on the trail, talking.  But he may as well have been gripping my shoulders, shaking them.  We walked on in silence.  Our guide began to chuckle at something.  For a preachy person he was quite easily amused. 

The canopy around us was so thick, and some creatures spent their whole lives under it, never squinting into the sun or running across open spaces.  Our guide told us that millions of years ago when the continent dried up some of the palm trees literally walked out of the dark forest, into the light.  They changed their fruit and leaves to adapt, becoming eucalyptus trees.  If I were one of those trees, I wondered, would I be brave enough to walk?  Without even knowing what full sun felt like?   I had fallen into the caboose position, where I could wonder about the forest and also wonder about the humans ahead of me—starting with their hair, their packs, their calf muscles. Within a couple hours I realized I had lied, I wasn’t fit.  The other two seemed to be running.  They had to keep waiting for me to catch up.  I blamed my bad posture, which seemed insufficiently equipped to hold up my spine even when a heavy pack wasn’t resting on it.  My legs began giving out on the downhills, so I had to sled down them on my butt.  it took longer and longer to decide to stand up.  When we finally stopped for the day to pitch our tents, I peeled off my boots and socks with disgust.  Just before dark we walked down to a water hole, and I remember sinking to the bottom and wanting to stay there.  There where I didn’t have to move, or keep up.  There where the world was so far away—just a small hole really, that you could just as easily not pop back into.     

**   

That night by the campfire our guide told us some things about the cassowary.  It was either really shy or really fierce, depending on which human was talking about it.  It could disappear in plain sight.  Though it moved along slouching over, when stretched to full height it could look down on a reasonably tall human.  The cassowary could kick backwards, leap five feet off the ground, and run forty clicks per hour.  It couldn’t fly.  The cassowary had three toes, and the second toe had a long dagger-like claw on it that could slice through human skin like butter.  It also had a strange horn-like bulge on the top of its head, called a casque.  It was ugly: nobody thought to sew fabric replicas of it onto hats, the way they do antlers and unicorn horns.  No one even knew what the casque was for.  Some people thought it helped amplify the birds’s bellows, since the cassowary had the deepest of bird calls—parts of it were too low even for the human ear to hear.  Others said the casque protected their heads like a helmet would, when the birds stood under falling fruit trees or ran head-first through the underbrush.  It might be a tool, for sweeping leaves aside to look for fallen fruit.  Or maybe the large, strange casque ensured both animals and humans kept their distance, which suited a shy animal just fine.  The cassowary lived a long time, 40 to 50 years.  But, our guide reminded us, when you talk lifespan you’re only talking about the lucky ones.  The male cassowaries incubated the eggs and raised the chicks.  Our guide said when the fathers were sitting on the nest they could go five days without eating, drinking, or emptying their bladders.   They’re good dads, our guide said. In fact, they’re good moms too.  It was something he might have punctuated with a laugh, but instead his voice broke.  I thought about the cassowary, about a thing so powerful and majestic skulking around its entire life just hiding, living off scraps of fruit.  I kept my eyes on the flames.  How great the heat felt on my face, like another sun shining.  Like a perfect sunburn.  How completely a campfire can trick you into believing tomorrow won’t come.

**

Good morning, morning!   G’day, day! 

This was what our guide sang out, first thing upon waking.  But he sang it like morning and day were real live people who were actually there at the campsite.  People who he loved.  I don’t know how he did it.  It’s been twenty years and I still don’t know.  But I hear him sometimes, when I swivel out of bed and set my feet on the floor. Good morning, morning!  G’day, day!   And as I do a mix dread and glee will wash over me, at all the lives that will be changed forever in this, a single day.   

A few hours into the second day of our trek I found what you might call a rhythm, carrying me along.  I had to wait for our guide to catch up to me, to tell me which direction to go next.  How easy it is to adore the people hiking up to meet you, when you stand on top of a hill.  Their bodies become all faces.  Faces, in this case, that broke into pleased smiles.  They were proud of me, a thrill that becomes so rare past childhood.   When we stopped for a break to eat fallen mangoes our guide laughed, shaking his head, and said I was an animal.  He said it like an animal was the best thing you could possibly be.  I guess because an animal was all instinct.  An animal looked inside herself for the right direction.  I don’t know why I could hike that way the second day, but I remember there was a point where the forest didn’t feel separate from me.  It’s not so much of a stretch, really, to think the leaves that brush across your face could become your face.  That the branches that tug your hair might wind around and just take it.  That it’s not your boots pounding on the dirt but rather the dirt determinedly pounding your boots away, stud by fibre, to get at your feet.  Probably I moved more smoothly through the forest for knowing, or rather hoping, that it would absorb me.     

**

That night at the campfire our guide told us about his daughter.  She was just an infant.  It was a winter evening, near dark, and he and his wife decided to stop for a bottle of wine on their way home.  They left their daughter in the car sleeping.  We’ll just dash in for a minute, his wife said.  He hesitated.  There are always so many labels to look at, from so many countries.  Maybe they ran into someone they knew.  Maybe there was a line at the registers.  When they got back to the car they found their daughter between the seats.   She had got her neck caught in a belt, and strangled.   

My instincts said not to leave her.   

The fire whirred and popped and fizzled and sparked between us, as fires do.  Blessed fires.  How completely their flickering light reveals us.  How easy they make it to say nothing.

**

On the last day of the trek we were to emerge onto a road, where someone would take us back to the hostel.  But it was a curious thing: the closer we got to the road, the slower our legs moved.  We stopped to dip our hands into the last bit of trail mix and stood very close, touching the pieces instead of each other.  The German girl told us she had given up her job to see Australia, and now that she had seen it she had no interest in her job.  Our guide smiled at this.  His eyes winced when he smiled, like—I thought I understood now—it hurt to be happy.  We shared water from a canteen, each of us in turn kissing the same steel lip.  Our imminent goodbye squeezed at me, like a cramp.  But do we ever lose anyone?  Doesn’t part of us stay forever in the scene of his or her company?  The three of us are still moving over dirt by day, stretching out on it at night.  We’re still asking leaves and water and fires which way to go.  And a father is still easing a car door closed with the palm of his hands.  He does it gently, quietly, almost like he’s come up behind a grown child and laid his hands there, on her back.  The other two hoisted their packs, and still I didn’t move.  They began to walk.  I wouldn’t say holding still in a slouch, hiding from an end, made me any braver or luckier.  I will say, though, that I was almost perfectly ready when the branches to one side of me began to snap, and shake, and jostle their shadow.

I’ve Got Zero, You’ve Got Zero

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sleuth photo by Jaime Alexis Stathis

Exactly one week before I meet Ross Gay I’m standing outside the swimming pool talking to a friend of my son, who is ten years old.  I say to her, Your earrings are so perfect.  I say, If I had my ears pierced I’d wear ones just like that every day.  She touches her ears.  She smiles. I realize if she had lighter skin I wouldn’t be able to see them at all.

About the earrings:  they are little roses, and I like so many flowers better than roses.  Snapdragons, daffodils, and buttercups, to name three.  But these earrings make roses look very simple, not fancy at all.  if roses were a circle with lines dashed around in them.  If roses didn’t try to be shiny, if they wanted to stay plain old matte.  If roses liked pink and orange and white equally and so said, make us not one or the other.  Make us all.       

I have only sons but I know, from reading parenting articles that come my way despite  trying to never ever see them, that you’re not supposed to complement girls on their looks. Or what they’re wearing.  You’re supposed to complement them on their inner traits.  I know this and yet I can’t stop looking at what they choose and saying Hey I like that, I really like that.  Is it because I have no girls in my house, so when I move out among them I am spellbound by their fashions?  Is it because I remember the clothes I chose as a child—the green Toughskins jeans, the cowboy shirt with flowers and pearl snaps—with wistful love?   It is probably weird to have an old lady—am I this? Somehow I am this—telling you she would also wear those earrings, if only she had her ears pieced.  But then too, as a kid I liked weird, wanted more weird, watched grownups desperately for signs of it.  Weird is where the story is.

**

I used to have a really weird reason I’d give for not getting my ears pierced.  I said, If everyone who has their ears pierced dies in a plague I’ll be left with….all these men!  Imagine the ratio! I was in my early 20s, and it was fun to envision a long line of suitors tromping up my driveway, which would be paved with truckloads of unworn earrings.  Studs and gem-stones and flowers and chandeliers and hoops all tossed in, beautiful and glittering, crushed together under tires.    

**

My son is very interested in fashion and wants to discuss it, which is maybe also why I comment on what kids wear.  He has gotten me used to talking about it.  In pre-school he could tell me what all the parents who came to pick up their toddlers were wearing, right down to the socks.  At age four he surprised me by slipping his thumbs into the slits of a long-sleeved shirt that previously had no thumb-holes in the cuffs.   He had scissored them in the perfect places.  He still tries to change his clothes to suit him, with paint and scissors and thread and safety pins and duct tape and sandpaper.  He possibly wants the wrong things—to live in a city and have lots of money—only for the access it would gain him to certain designer looks.  He wants to see, all day long, the cutting-edge clothes worn by fashion-savvy people.  The sweat-pants and gaudy T-shirts running rampant on kids at his island school—on the body of his little brother—can bring him to heavy sighs.

So when my son hears me complementing his friend’s earrings he perks up, and steps in closer to study them. After a long beat he says, They look like they’re made out of frosting.  And he’s exactly right.  But what a taunt that would be on your tongue, that single dot of frosting.  I turn from my son and say to the girl—it is tricky not betraying your kids of the opposite gender and also not betraying your own gender, which in this case I nod to—Watch out or he might eat your earlobes.  Is it appropriate?  Do I care?  They look amused.  They look away quickly in different directions.

**

Why does the decor in conference rooms always seem so menacing, so fancy-neutral, so devoid of nature or color?  Everything is draped, as though naked lines and textures are too distracting.  The mauve and grey curtains bury the outer edge of the views, and someone has flung this same heavy fabric over all the tables too.  Even the chairs are carpeted.   

Out of this decor steps Ross Gay, in his electric-red basketball shoes.   

His limbs and even his fingers seem so much longer and stronger than an average human’s.  One thinks of a tree.  A tree growing right up through the floor.  It has grown its way through cement and concrete and layers of densely-packed beige carpet.  It has grown past thick tablecloths and carpeted chairs and percolator coffee pots and bags  laden with notebooks and water bottles.  And past, I should say—because this conference holds many strong and shining attendees—other trees too.  It stretches and twists in the artificial backdrop, and you might feel bad for how obviously it doesn’t belong in the room.  But he, the tree of a person, is smiling comfortably in the stifling conference room.  Just like a tree would sway and bend and let the light (florescent in this case) bounce on its leaves and let the wind (air cooling system in this case) toss them around, whatever.  Some people will say trees aren’t happy or even content, that they aren’t anything.  But just look at them.  The trees I mean.     

**

On the second day of the conference, at breakfast, I work up the courage to talk to Ross Gay.  This is harder than it seems because we are supposed to talk to the faculty members, who all three—aside from being magnificent, at writing and at talking about writing—might actually help us on down-the-line in our careers.  But I’m terrible at schmoozing. I’m actually good at it when I don’t have to, when it’s someone like myself without any rank.  When it’s conversing I guess, not schmoozing.  I once tried valiantly to converse with Annie Dillard and she pretty much called for security guards.  I suppose when you’re in awe of someone’s work it hinders your ability to say a plain hello followed by a plain goodbye.  They have given you so much already—their written words have—that you feel a pressure not just to speak but to give something back in return.   And why would I be writing if I could give anything of value with my voice?

I tell Ross Gay I really like the literary sports magazine, Some Call it Ballin’, that he helps edit and publish.  I say that most people think of sports and literature as opposing, so it’s a treat to see the two combined so artfully.  I make a point not to mention—not to think of—his poems, how when I read one it feels like I’m easing out of really tight shoes.  He smiles.  Maybe I’ve set this up well, because he doesn’t ask if my writing is fiction or non-fiction (tricky) or how far along I am on my book (no clue).  The day before I just barely made it across the Canada/US border, because the security agent asked me in depth about—of all things!—my writing career, which made me twitch and sweat and stammer and finally lie.  But Ross Gay just asks: What sport do you play?

His smile is….I want to say something here about wattage, but my understanding of electricity is so scant.  Should I say light on water?  A sheet on the line?  Or:  a spiral wobbling towards you from on high.  When you’ve gone long, and you’re wide open.   

**

Oh dear, this is sounding like I fall in love with Ross Gay.  But I am so old that I don’t.  By old I mean, I let things go.  I can let beauty go.  I let it roll on over me, away.  I know I will find it—beauty, light, curiosity, kinship, imagination, joy—other places, in footballs and flowers for instance.  I can find it in me.  This is a gift from getting old, from being old.  You can at last use and feel the word adore without feeling winded at the prospect of that adored thing or person disappearing.

**

I do, however, hear myself asking Ross Gay if he wants to play tennis.

I can only think I say this because he looks, standing in front of me, like he should be moving.  He has a gigantic body which he carries very easily, and ordinarily I don’t write about body but in this conference the instructors speak frequently about The Body, and how The Body is crucial to writing, and how The Body itself is political.  I try to understand but my hang-up is they don’t say whose body.  The Body leaves me with a blank picture.  The Body leaves me with windows displaying sunlight shining on mountain trails so beautifully I want to point at them and say, Can we perhaps take our The Bodies out there? (this is not a typo, though it looks like one).

As soon as I suggest tennis I notice Ross Gay’s wingspan, if you can use that word for a human.  He has an enormous wingspan.  Like, if he stretched out on his back on a twin bed you would think the bed was an ironing board.  Maybe even a balance beam.  When I later point out the unfair advantage between his wingspan and mine (more like drenched, folded wings), he will reply:  So I should play with a ping-pong paddle?

But at the moment I only barely register his shoulders, because my eyes have landed on his ears.  Blooming from each of his ear lobes is a frosting rose, of the sort I have recently proclaimed I would wear every day.  That is, if I could bear to gather any more holes than the ones I was born with—plus the figurative ones I’ve gathered.  One of his roses is very green and the other is very turquoise.  And here—at breakfast on the first full day of a writing conference that I’ve won a fellowship to—I am quite ready to quit writing altogether in order to join this rose earring manufacturing company, in whatever capacity they’ll take me.  Because every one of these earrings—the creamy pale-pink, the turquoise, the green—is the perfect color, the only color it should be.  And in fact that’s the case with real roses too: the one you’re looking at is the best one.  Probably when you’re enlightened that becomes true of people too.

**

I did play some tennis back in high school, but I sucked at it.  Even at doubles I sucked.  Some summer evenings my dad and I would go down to the community courts and play, but I always noted with apprehension—from a long way off—who was playing on the other courts.  My dad sucked too.  We both sucked.  Winning was just a matter of who sucked less on that particular night.  He wasn’t patient or parent-like and I never asked for tips or praise or condolences.  We were just two people, two bad players, who wanted to win.    

I did remember the tennis footwork though.  I knew how to pick up a ball without my hands, by scooping it between the outside of my foot and the racquet.  I knew to crouch low and hop from one foot to the other when waiting on a serve, to look like I was about to pounce on prey.  I knew the prancing and bouncing once a ball was in play.  Tennis is basically dancing, only with a racket in your hand.  And towards something.  Your shoes might squeak on the court and that is fun too, the sounds of it.  The thumps and squeals, the panting and muttered curses.  The whoosh of air through strings and ball through air. The clunk of a thrown racquet hitting the court.  I remembered the dance and I remembered the chorus, so I figured I might be alright.       

**

Outside the conference rooms and the mountains and the shining trails the political situation is dire, dire, and there’s this feeling even here—here where we revere and hone our craft—that being a writer isn’t enough.  We must be activists (But I grow still among people, wanting to hear who they are).  We must choose our words more carefully (But as it is, with this fierce internal editor, I can hardly write a thing).  We must be born into a different skin.

In a panel called “How the Personal Becomes Political,” Ross Gay suggests that hollering about what we love is radical politics.  He also repeats something his friend Patrick Rosal said to him on the phone the night before: We seem incapable of expressing the nuances of our sorrow. 

I relax, just a little bit.  Hollering love and expressing the nuances of my sorrow.  Now that is something I can do.    

**

The day of our tennis game is hot and bright.  It’s the day, too, of the 50k and 50 mile run through Sun Mountain, where I happen to be staying.    

Three years ago I was training for this very run on Sun Mountain.  My kids were home from school for a province-wide holiday called Family Day.  I was reaching for something in the garage when a coffee table slipped off a low shelf (maybe someone was climbing it), and landed on my big toe.  I heard the crack before I felt anything.  Nine curse words wanted to fly out my mouth, but for the sake of my sons I edited them to one very loud one.

The Doctor’s office was closed for Family Day, so I dragged my sons to the ER and we waited in the bucket seats playing Old Maid.  My youngest son had on the Batman costume, without the mask, and he kept proudly swishing his cape over one shoulder or the other, as one would a long pony tail.  Both boys became quiet and wide-eyed, staring shamelessly at the gathered sick in that way I can never correct, because I want them to be curious about people.  Neither of them threw down the Old Maid card in whiny defeat when they were stuck at the end with it, like they might have at home.  I decided I should come to the ER more often, for no medical reason—just to sit and play games with these polite and wide-eyed stranger-children.   

The doctor said the toe looked fractured.  She said they could x-ray it to make sure, but there was really no point, as there was nothing they could do for a broken big toe.

Well I’m training for this 50k run in May, I said.

Not anymore you’re not, she said.

I went home and deleted my screen-saver of a trail snaking through Sun Mountain.  It looked photoshopped anyway—a mountain marketed to people like me who love trails and light and a big sky.  It would look even better with some yellow, the marketer probably thought.  And blipped those wild flowers into the foreground.

**

But now here it is, Sun Mountain.   And the pictures didn’t even do it justice.  They couldn’t touch the space, the light, the peace.  Yellow wildflowers dapple entire hillsides.  Their pedals ripple in the slightest breezes, making their black centres seem darker, more still. As I walk towards the courts with Ross Gay a parade of tall, thin, sweaty people wearing hydration packs staggers by.  It is late in their race, for some a fifty miler.  I could be one of them.  And I’m so far from being one of them.  It is a curious feeling, when the longing to be who you once were meets the gladness of not being her.  Because on one hand, how far I’ve slipped.  And yet, how terrible I’d feel right now—and how shut-down my senses, on this, the sensory heaven of Sun Mountain—if I were that runner.    

**

Ross Gay and I swing our racquets a little as we walk, spinning them in our palms to show each other how easily we handle them.  On one of these intimidation spins I almost drop mine.  I ask him about teaching, and how it feels for someone like him—who seems so curious and steadfast on wondering—to be in a position of authority.  He laughs and says, Well I tend to teach…by asking a lot of questions.  Then he asks about my writing, about the piece I read,  and I stutter, my shoulders tensing up to my ears.  Is this a ploy to weaken my game?  But no, like me he’d rather learn (collect material) than impart what he’s learned (spout material).  I can tell by how quickly he answers this or that question in order to fire one back.  I persist.  I find out he used to play college football.  Then he played basketball.  He still plays basketball, but not as seriously.  Now he grows gardens.  Now he finds the perfect words for his questions, his wonder and delight.  Now he teaches.  Now he swings kettlebells.  They even have kettlebell competitions, and I think this sounds pretty cool until he tells me they’re held indoors, usually in the poor decor of hotel lobbies.   

We reach the slope to the tennis courts and Ross Gay says, Where are the nets?

The courts look undressed, two naked slabs of lines.  I stop short, staring at them, dismayed. How will we know who wins?    

But Ross Gay doesn’t stop walking at all, not even a step.  If anything he speeds up.  He’s laughing.  He’s not most an athlete? He’s must be most a poet.

This is perfect, he says,

**

About our tennis game:  we suck.  We both suck.  He sucks a little less than me.  It’s fun.  When my hit doesn’t make it over the invisible net, Ross Gay dashes right through, over to my side, to return it.  Sometimes he dashes so far across the net he is within touching distance, and just taps the ball at me.  It’s so wrong it feels awesome.  Tennis generates a certain grace in the air, even when the players stumble around.  Ross Gay has told me he wants to win like a motherfucker, and I can tell he does, because sometimes when he misses a point he curses.  But also, he keeps laughing.  It’s a joy to play a sport you don’t play.

**

When a runner staggers up to the drinking fountain I feel pulled back momentarily, towards the sport more mine, and I call out: How many kilometres to go?  This sounds pesky but I remember what a relief it is to get outside yourself, late in the race, when you’re all twisted with the constant wavering between body awareness and tuning out your body’s pain.  I stand with a ball in one hand, a racquet in another, waiting on an answer.  But when the runner turns I notice the circle of his ear, above where the earring would go, is white plastic earphone.  He didn’t even hear me.  And so, maybe I’ve become one of those people.  I talk to people who don’t talk to me.  Or they give flat, short answers, as has happened some at this conference.  Saying nothing is considered rude, but a flat, short answer is considered okay.  When I turn back to the game I can’t tell if Ross Gay is laughing at me.  Or maybe, hopefully, he’s smiling affectionately at me– because I’m one of those people who tries to shoot the shit with strangers, even when they don’t respond.  Maybe I could own that.  Because really,  how can you complain about human rights, about the state of human politics, if you’re not going to treat the human right in front of you with interest, with kindness?   

**    

Our play improves a little when we start keeping score.  I get embarrassed when I sing out Love-Love!  What an optimistic way to say:  I’ve got zero, you’ve got zero.  I have to remind Ross Gay of how it goes, from deuce to ad-in or ad-out, then possibly back to deuce.  We each have many advantages, but we keep coming back to deuce.

We have a can of three balls, and when they go over the fence we have to look for them in the bushes.  This is part of the tennis I remember too, watching the body of your opponent bend and half-disappear into branches.  After Ross Gay wins the game (he would want me to add bold exclamation points here !!!!!) he transforms back to a poet—always shaking things up—and suggests we try a rally with two tennis balls in play at the same time.  And boy, are we good then.  We can’t miss!   We look like professional tennis players.  If professionals hit two balls back and forth at the same time, higgledy-piggledy, keeping no score.

**

That night after the conference dinner (it makes you want to go vegan or gluten free, when you see the sorbet those specialty people get) Ross Gay shuffles up to the podium in his giant sneakers.  He reads from the book he’s working on, his Book of Delights. He’s been writing a delight every day for almost a year, and at his August birthday he’ll have accumulated 365 of these essayettes (as he calls them).   What can I say about them?  They illuminate the magnificence (beauty, sorrow, absurdity) of the most ordinary things and moments.  That the essays are most particular to him and his days, and yet they read like a field guide to being human.  A lot of them are really funny.  In one of the day’s delights he is doing errands in town and needs to pee pretty badly, but at both the hardware store and at the coffee shop he finds a reason not to.  On the drive home he realizes he can’t hold it anymore.  He pees as he drives, soaking the car-seat.  He writes it so poetically, though.  So by the time he pulls up to his house, all soaked, you feel it—this human filling and emptying of the bladder, the warm car seat—is not a disaster but something worth celebrating, delighting in.    

After the reading he sits at a table signing books for people.  He makes the table look like a toddler bike.  He’s the elephant.  Every time Ross Gay signs a book for someone he leans in, asking questions.  If he and I had a curiosity contest, how we would go about it?  They would probably have to cut our heads open.  I bet I would win.  I hear him saying, Which part of Kansas?  And I think:  Alright, maybe we would tie.

**

The next day everyone in the conference scatters away, into cars.  Many of the cars are bound for airplanes.  When writers say, Promise me you’ll write—they don’t mean to each other.  I have to scatter too.  This is part of the deal.  You have to leave wherever you got to go and and not cry about it.  You have to wave goodbye with the hand that’s not holding the giant cookie, and step away as lightly as you stepped towards her and her and him days ago, when she and she and he was a stranger.  I linger, though, buying two more 25 cent tampons from the bathroom vending machine with American quarters.  They are crazy thin and won’t last the drive, but once I bleed into the seat it’ll shift quickly in my head from catastrophe to near delight.  That beautiful rose with the ragged edges, blooming on the drab grey carseat.  But now here’s the deal, you have to leave one-of-a-kind people and kindred people, you have to drive away.  You don’t have to be good at it, though.  You don’t have to be agile or athletic or speedy about it.  It’s okay to coast away like you’re just learning.  It’s fine to drift past the perfect tennis courts, down the perfect mountain, with your foot hovering clumsily above the pedals.   

Tom Petty and My Heartbreakers

tom

What if when musicians died their songs died too?  What if each song got sucked away in a storm of sound—that sound being every note of the song playing at once.  Then: complete silence.  It would be, as Tom Petty might say, a real drag.  How much harder would we mourn, if we had to lose the songs too?  It’s kind of amazing the way people grieve for musicians when they still have the music to remember them by.  Because don’t musicians go on living, more than most?  Even on the poorest sound systems, a song is so alive.  Certain guitar riffs, they enter your blood.  The way, even tight and close, they seem to spread out.  They knock down walls, floors, ceilings.  They zoom inside you and smash down whatever containing thing you cling to, the ties you’ve built to hold yourself in one piece, in one place.   When the last note sounds, you have spilled out into the past or into dreams and you’re not anywhere, really.  A finished cassette tape squeaks into the silence, quietly as a bird warbling inside a draped cage.  A record rises and falls slightly as it spins, and all that’s left of wherever you went is the symmetric static of the needle sizzling around on an empty line.    

**

When I was 11 my neighbor would play the same two Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers songs over and over, after school, as we sat on the red squiggly carpet of his room.  I didn’t get it.  Tom Petty’s voice was whiny and nasally.  The lyrics were too desperate, too forthright.  And why, for the love of English, would you spell dragging without a “G”?  My neighbor was always either in love or dealing with a broken heart.  When he was in love I knew his heart was going to break soon.  When his heart was broken I knew soon he would fall in love again.  Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, to my ears, was just more of the same.  And yet.  I liked that when we sat on the carpet, listening to records, we didn’t have to talk.  It felt like a better, easier, and maybe deeper way of being with someone, this turning your twin attention to an outside thing.  So I listened.  I pretended to be moved.  So much of life, I suspected then, was going to be about someone sharing something sloppy or shrill or surface with you, and then you pretending to be moved.

**

Much later I filled cigar boxes with letters from a guy who resembled Tom Petty, but with black hair instead of yellow.  He was from California and talked real slow and dreamy, like a space cadet.  He had a long face like Tom Petty too, essentially a skull with a layer of skin pulled tight over it.  He never knew where a letter was going to go and he never pretended he did, and therefore it soared all over, everywhere.  It hardly stayed on paper.  Still, it had the tight form, with the anchoring date and greeting and paragraphs and salutations.  But wow, the places those letters went.  You could say trippy.  You could say groovy.   You could live by such a thing.  Even if you lost the letter writer, when Tom Petty’s voice started oozing out into the car you could still take one hand off the wheel and twist up the volume.

**

The adored boys where I grew up, they never held still.  They spun and coasted and dashed and dove and glided away, and then occasionally they’d go and lean against a wall.  I remember their sneakers exactly, every one.  I remember their hair flying around, the sun playing in it.  The scarred pavement looked lavender sometimes.  The grass was electric green.  During drives to Indiana for booze or fireworks the corn fields closed in on the car.  People might think you’re creepy when you’re just being shy, I say to my sons now.  That boy.  Why would I say Hi?  It would be easier to pick up a sweatband he had dropped by the tennis court and take it home, dragging my cheek over it.  That might be what I’m doing still, during a Tom Petty song.  Some boy is disappearing through a parking lot in his black-faded-to-grey sneakers with a blue star and white soles.  He’s just walking—he doesn’t know he’s walking away from someone.  I’m always right back there, I can’t move.  But hey,  if you’re going to be stuck, then inside a Tom Petty song is a pretty good place for it.  I don’t know of a voice that better manages to simultaneously cry and comfort the crier.

**

I was once sitting in a broken plastic chair with Modelo emblazoned on it (our major life scenes, they so often happen with no staging given to the sets and props), when a boy with a guitar stepped up to the mic and cried, Well don’t it just feel like heaven right now/ Don’t it feel like something from a dream.  I had meant to disappear in the Mexican village, to starve down to nothing.  But seemingly against my will I kept falling in love with things, starting with the mule dung on the dirt trail.  Each piece glistened, and was coiled as tightly and perfectly as a cinnamon bun.  The boy from New York kept singing.  He knew lots of songs, but he interspersed them all with Tom Petty covers.  He had the right mix of ease and anguish for it.  We became friends.  Only now that I understand how damaged I was can I appreciate how he knew to move closer in a sidelong, infinitesimal way.  The modern world is amazing, he would say, waving about his cutting-edge flashlight.  Then we would sit by the sea for hours with no food or towels or engines.  If you weren’t hiding here, he said once, You could take your country by storm.   After a week he rode away on a boat to a bus to an airplane to traffic at rush hour, leaving me his mailing address and a Tom Petty cassette.  As it happened I was housesitting a palapa on the point with no furnishings except a bed, a table, a chair, candles, matches, and—miracle of miracles!—a cassette player with working batteries.  Even when I scampered across the rocks, out of earshot, I could still hear the guitar notes leaping.  They leapt like someone in socks taking three stairs at once, falling back one, bounding up five.  After awhile it could look like a natural progression, the obvious way to move up.   I used the plastic cassette case to shovel up scorpions, and if the light was right I could see, behind the venomous twitching mahogany body, a backwards image of Tom Petty looking out a sunny window.  When I fished off the point I cast out all my longing for lost boys with my line.  I was so hungry that a nibble jerking the line caused my stomach to lurch.  The boats kept coming and going, and the people on them kept shrinking to stubs.  Some I knew and some I didn’t.  Then I’d walk back to the palapa and I’d realize I could hear them, all the people coming and going, in Tom Petty’s voice.  I could hear sunshine clearing a cloud and a silver fish flipping in black depths and sails flapping and outboard engines starting and hands frantically waving hello goodbye and seagulls crying overhead.  I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t hear any of these things in his voice when I was 11.  And why didn’t I hear how Tom Petty’s voice was always on the brink of a laugh?  With you, of course, not at you.  The night before I was swept out to sea during my swim I sat beside a white candle listening to “Wildflowers” on repeat.  A kind song can be a cool song, I thought.  And during my six hour fight to shore the opening jangles kept starting up again, inside my head, at crucial intervals. You don’t feel, listening to most male musicians, that they care particularly if you live or die.  But whenever “Wildflowers” comes on the radio, whenever Tom Petty starts purring about where I belong, I’m still right back there again.  I’m dragging up onto warm sand, collapsing into it.  It starts to sink away but then holds me.  The endless sky is no longer terrifying—it’s just blue, lightly blue, near peaceful.  How surprising it is, all over again, to have lived.  How surprising it is to be so happy about it.

Go and Stand By My

rhodo

Get dressed, they’re told.  But spring is tricky, bright does not equal hot.   They choose shoes with a contrast either grossly disorienting or perfectly elegant.  They choose a circle suspended in a circle.  They choose pink upon pink.  The hole makes a poncho acceptable: it’s not a blankie, it’s just something you wear.  Why is their hair always cut short?  Because their dad wanted a son.  And how can badly-dressed girls compete, all shag and cowlicks, with a flowering rhododendron?  Their grandma has been watching the buds of the tree she calls hers explode from the picture window of a brick condominium.  She eases the strap of her camera around her wrist, and it collides into a stack of silver bangles.  She say, Girls, go and stand by my rhododendron.  The photograph takes a lot.  It takes their grandma gingerly maneuvering down the steps, which are as wide and white as slabs of cake.  It takes the sister in saddle shoes giving hugs without being told.  It takes patience and love for no reason.  It takes the oldest sister’s arms to act as harnesses, so the other two don’t drift away.  When the blossoms are open as far as they will and everyone is touching, it takes the youngest sister to close her hand into a hard fist.  Now, their grandma says, Smile.   She is always looking for them, even when she can’t see anymore.  They smile.  She crops out the sky.  She crops out the tree.

Dear Person Who I Loved, Back When I Mistook Letters for Love

lotsaletters

Berkeley, CA
June, 1997

Dear ______,

You will see by the corner of this envelope that I’ve now left the desert.  I left the bones and the flint and the yucca pods wobbling in the wind.  I left the red dirt and the giant crows and the sky that went up and on forever.   I left the empty mailbox whistling like a wiffle ball.  And I left, most of all, the one-person lacks and loneliness contest I had going there.  The winner needs nothing.  The winner needs no-one.  I was determined to win.  I almost won, by sheer starvation.  It’s strange how you can die from lack of a bite or sip.  You can die from having no warm room, or, in the summer, from no puff of cold air.  But you can’t die quickly or easily from a lack of human connection.  Does petting strangers’ dogs count as physical affection?  Does reading library books count as interaction?  Not even a coroner knows for sure.

Now I’m in a city buzzing and whizzing with people—real people, not the paper voices of people.  I watch them.  I talk to them.  I listen carefully for parts to scribble down when they turn away.  Silently, secretly, I seem to be imploring every person I encounter:  teach me to be human again.  To eat, to get full, to give, to take, to take up space.  You knew me in a summer river sheen but now the desert has marked me.  I’m dry bones with a dusty complexion.  My clothes and hair appear as afterthoughts, like they were tumbleweeds blowing by that just happened to stick.  So how  is it I’m being courted?  I’m somehow being pursued by a towering punk (punk old school, he always clarifies) guy called Chicago.  I met him while serving homeless breakfasts for the Dorothy Day House.  There’s another whole letter, lots of whole letters, on the Dorothy Day breakfasts.  Chicago, I said, when he told me his name.  I hadn’t told him mine.  Is that because you’re from there?  He smiled from inside his studded hood, a smile both shy and dazzling. Who wants to know?  He answered. 

The young punks on Telegraph Avenue follow him around, flashing their zippers and chains and pierced rings. Maybe they follow him because Chicago has fierce posture and a knife and giant muscles that appear to be carved out of black onyx.  Or maybe because he’s their dealer, I dunno.  He has a pager but no home.  He has a good fashion sense considering he finds all his clothes on sidewalks or in dumpsters.  He wanted me to know, he told me four times or more, that he quadruple washes every item he finds.  He rips the sleeves off shirts because his arms won’t fit into them.  He also wears a black leather vest with this studded hood, often up.  He has adorned his vest with silver lighter tops as fringe, and when I asked him how he got so many, and how he fastened them on there, he answered:  One at a time.   His giant left boot is patched with silver duct tape.  I like you, I really really like you, he keep saying.  He wears a spoon—the cheap cafeteria kind you can bend easily—around his wrist.  You’re so great, he insists, You’re opinionated but you’re also wide open.  He smiles and looks right at me when he says these things, too.  And because he is brave in this remarkable way—a way I’m clearly not, a way you’re clearly not—I sometimes fall down beside him, not too close, on the pavement of Telegraph Avenue.   

Chicago seems to know I’m starting over again from nothing in the business of being human, of being with humans.  Only one time he asked what I was coming from and what I wanted from this city.  But he was looking down—he was busy sewing a zipper up the side of his pants with a strand of mint dental floss.  One time he drew chalk lines and we pitched pennies at them, and he got all the points.  One time we used the second hand on the chained pocket-watch he keeps beside his pager to see how long each bird stayed on the wire.  One time he tore a strip of the silver duct tape off his boot and coiled it into a tight little ring, asking how I felt about marriage.  Mostly we just sit there, on the curb, until I have to go to work.  Last week a suited guy striding past mistook me for a panhandler and lifted his hands apologetically, palms to the sky.  What can I do?  He seemed to say.  What can I possibly do for you, when I’m me, and you’re you?

Chicago laughs by opening his mouth wide and making no sound, just little huffs of air.  It’s so much like he’s choking I told him he should never accidentally cup his hand around his neck while he’s laughing.  Once he said, Will you hold my hand?  Which was a clever way of putting it.  Not can I hold yours, but will you hold mine.  And since it was inside a fingerless leather glove I did.  Pretend it’s just a wallet, is what I told myself.  There is always traffic here to look out on when faces are too much.   After enough time had passed, two minutes maybe, I let go.  My hand wiggled around freely, saying whew.  But also it missed the soft leather, the heat.  The slight pump and give of something alive.  No wallet can do that because money is dead.  On that day Chicago said, You have no idea how many ghosts I live with.  He started to name the names of his friends and where they had been shot: in which area, in which body part.  It sounded like a poem.  But it’s his poem.  Not even the street called South Paulina is mine to use, though I will use it here for you.

Sometimes Chicago buys me what we call lunch at the 7-11, in the form of a Slushie.  The machine has four flavors.  If you layer them and stir with the straw-spoon (what an invention, that duck-bill on the end), the result is beautiful.  In a way you might call someone’s outfit beautiful, if she was wearing an airbrushed T-shirt and a clown wig.  On the speckled linoleum floor of the 7-11 today we found a letter some woman wrote to a guy she perceived as poor.  She called him that, in the letter.  It was one page of lined paper tucked into a torn envelope.  When I slid the paper out of the envelope my body gave a buck of happiness.  It thought I had mail.  I asked Chicago, Do you think the guy was, like, a loser and couldn’t love her? So she assumed he was poor in spirit? Chicago was shoving some paper napkins in his pockets for later.  He said, I think the guy had no cash.  The letter advised its recipient to pray for guidance, both to Jesus and to the Five Saints of Today, which she listed.  None of them were women.  Billy Graham was listed after Billy Clinton.  At first the letter was funny.  But then at the registers I got quiet.  I said, This letter gives letters a bad name.  Chicago pulled off his sunglasses.  He stared at my face.  He actually stooped down and leaned forward to peer into it, for what seemed like a really long time.  I dunno, maybe I was wincing.  Maybe because of your letters.  Maybe because of the ones I got.  Maybe because of the ones I didn’t get.  He just kept searching my face with his eyes.  It couldn’t have been for that long, because the one person in front of us was just buying a Sprite and a pack of filtered cigarettes.  But it was almost too much.   When we stepped out of the 7-11 Chicago slid a pink lighter out of his vest pocket and held it to a corner of the letter.  He set fire to it, right there beside the obvious choice, a grated trash can.  The paper burned from the edges in, curling up on itself.  It shrivelled to a black potato chip.  Our heads were bowed watching it, bowed I guess to the angle of people praying.  Have you ever seen a flame dancing on a sunny day?  In that bright light it seems like a secret message just for your eyes.  A coded nudge, maybe, to stretch and shine and quietly do just that, to just do that.     

Yours,