Thursday, November 29, 2007

The longest journey of Robert Glenn Bennett

The longest journey
Is the journey inwards
Of him who has chosen his destiny.
— Dag Hammarskj√∂ld
He must have walked this very path.

Just south of the bridge over Mill Creek I turn right and bounce down a hardpacked dirt road past an auto body shop where the road deteriorates into ruts and hard edges and the woods, now stripped of foliage and singing in the bitter north wind, close in as if mantling the lumps of rusted machinery, smashed cars and scattered piles of appliances and hot water heaters, the detritus of a failed civilization remitted to the forgotten places. The road curves sharply and drops into the lower fields. I park and set the brake and listen to the engine tick as it cools. The gray sky shades to a deeper gray and the woods grayer still.

He was here when the world was green and Mill Creek swollen with rainwater roared as it plunged foaming over the dam. With a bungee cord in his pocket he left the road and walked uphill on a faint trail skirting the fenceline.

He was here and I am following though where he went I cannot follow. But I can follow a little ways behind.

Once I took the same journey. I returned. He didn’t.

His name was Robert Glenn Bennett and he disappeared from Washington on August 2, 2007. He was 46 years old and married to a woman he called his dream girl. I had no part in the news or the search that went on for weeks, nor did I meet his family. I was no more connected to the case than any other reader, a spectator only and only then half-interested. Car troubled had stranded him on his way home to Alabama. When his father arrived he found the vehicle at the campground on the south edge of town with everything in it, expensive cameras, lenses, food. His dog, too. The creek was swollen with rains and the search focused on that raging current. Nothing was found. The car was towed away. The family returned home. It could have been the end of the story, or what passes for the end when there is no end. It could have been, but it wasn’t.

And all the while I crossed that selfsame creek four times a week, twice incoming, twice outgoing, and all the while Robert Glenn Bennett grew on my heart like the expression of a thought that had no words but only feeling and the feelings dark and lonesome and inexpressibly sad.

Why this was so I cannot say. People disappear all the time. Sometimes they’re taken and killed, their bodies hidden in woods or shallow graves. Sometimes they simply get on a bus and leave, start over elsewhere with a new name and a new persona. Sometimes the bodies are discovered weeks or months or years later. Sometimes nothing is ever found.

Robert Glenn Bennett was found three months later, his body beneath a tree, cord tight around his neck and no evidence of foul play. Which means that something drove him to these woods, drove him to the most desperate act imaginable, one few people can accept and fewer still comprehend.

I step from the truck and the rising wind rakes my face and stabs my eyes until they blur. My mind is a wild tangle of thoughts and emotions and I say aloud to no one, “I never asked for this,” though what I wanted to say, meant to say, was “Please remove this from me.”

I have so many questions, more questions than answers, and none to be answered in this lifetime. The odometer read a little over a mile from the campground if he walked the road but I don’t think he would have when he could have escaped attention by crossed the field or following the creek to the main road. It’s what I would have done. The bridge was the only way to ford the waters. If anyone saw him he must have been an unremarkable sight, a man walking his dog on a warm late-summer day. A man walking to his death.

Before coming here I’d looked at his photos on the Internet. Those taken of him and his wife reveal a man totally at peace with the world, totally in love, utterly content. What changed? Scrolling through brought me to a blank screen that I puzzled over, and then to an image of an incomplete circle of tiny rectangles, shaped like a string of pearls or diamonds in a necklace, smaller at the end where the clasp would be and larger at the opposite end. It said, simply, MoonOnlyWC.

At the bottom of the page is a single comment.

“Bob – I love you and I am here for you. Come home. Love you bunches. Judy.” The date is 19 Aug 2007, 19:51.

At that moment my heart stopped and only fitfully restarted thereafter. I have not stopped thinking of him since.

A man at a local business said he didn’t understand why anyone would commit suicide. “Nothing’s worth doing that,” he said. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” As if it were really that simple. And then, with a harder edge in his voice, he thumped his chest and said, “When the going gets tough, I get going.”

Sometimes when the going gets tough, the tough fall apart. They disappear into summer woods and never come out.

I understand that kind of thinking. It’s the toll depression exacts.

Visibility is fading fast and the cold burns my resolve. I take one step and another and follow him into the trees. I think that sometimes this is a road we all take, but some come back, and some, like Robert Glenn Bennett, do not. And while I know that the distance between thinking about something and doing it is a universe away, I also know that sometimes it’s the closest thing of all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What I wanted, what I did not

For years now I’ve cast covetous eyes on the topside of our lateral file cabinet. Our back office is narrow—eight feet at its widest, six at its narrowest—so space is rare and precious. I really can’t complain as the room seems customized for our computer desk and file cabinet, with setbacks perfectly sized to their dimensions. Along the back wall is another desk, a smaller cabinet, the rabbit cage and a dictionary stand that doubles as a reference library. The east wall contains a pantry and two more bookcases. It’s tight but cozy.

At least that’s what I tell people. What I tell Lori is completely different. “Let’s knock the back wall out and extend the house twenty feet so we can actually move around in here,” is my usual refrain, and it sounds like an excellent plan until we consider the cost. At which time we’re back to thinking cozy.

The lateral file cabinet is four feet long. On top of it sits a bird cage large enough for a resplendent quetzal or a cockatoo. Buying it was a serious case of overkill considering what it was intended for—a pair of diminutive zebra finches, one gray-striped and orange-cheeked, the other snow white.

These were not our birds but belonged to our youngest son. When he was taken from us after a violent act they became, in essence, all that remained of him. They became our wards. My first act was to increase the size of their cage in order to give them more freedom to fly. I’m sure Freud would have found a deeper meaning in that, a fact which only now rises to the surface.

I’m not sure birders make good companions to captive birds. There’s that wild versus captive aspect that must be dealt with, and depending on the intensity of your birderness it can either be rationalized or insurmountable. When I was banding birds in Colorado, one of the leaders vehemently made it known that new species were not countable on our life lists because of their captive status, however temporary. This distressing bit of news came out of a comment I’d made about a dusky flycatcher we’d snared. After his vociferous fulmination on the subject I further antagonized him by claiming the flycatcher after releasing it back into the wild. He had no ground to stand on and knew it. I’m positive the humorless bastion of self-righteousness neither owned birds nor countenanced their keeping.

Some exotic birds make better companions than others. Parakeets and parrots, for example, are sociable and enjoy interacting with people. Zebra finches do not. They’re hyper and standoffish and are ideal for someone who wants as little contact as possible with a pet. Fish are no doubt similar but don’t sing which is a strike against them.

To this union a third was added. We named her Snowy on account of her plumage. At first she was a joy, curious about her new surroundings and gusty in her singing, and then after a while she was merely a third zebra finch demanding food and water.

When we moved here the finches rode with me in the front seat of the Ryder truck. By then we were back to two, the mother having passed on. Since Lori followed behind in our car the birds were my only companions for the better part of two days. We conversed as best as we could though admittedly I did most of the talking. For the most part they remained safely ensconced within their nest box with an occasional meep or grumble about a rough patch of road, and when we drug them into the hotel room the male, Greystoke, strutted out and yammered on at great length how he was going to kick everybody’s ass and give us more food and water right this instant, damn your eyes.

When we arrived at our new old home the lateral file cabinet was snugged against the south wall and the birds went on top. And there they stayed, year in, year out, singing, preening, eating, bathing, flying to and fro in that vast interior space that was only a ghost of true freedom, and otherwise ignoring us.

In May 2003 Lori asked if I’d seen Greystoke lately. I had but couldn’t say when. Her words filled me with dread. I looked in the cage and saw Snowy, but not her father. A tap on the side was usually sufficient to roust him, but there was no activity in the nest box. I reached into the cage and removed the box; inside, Greystoke lay against one wall, a desiccated fluff of gray feathers. Such was our relationship with the birds—so little notice taken that one lies dead for who knows how long before we even notice. Guilt got a lot of mileage out of that one.

As books and tech gear piled up in the back room I envied Snowy her space on the file cabinet. I envisioned all the things I could do with it, and not just once did I consider setting her free. But the cruelty of the idea sickened me and I wondered what kind of man I was becoming.

This past week Snowy collapsed in a heap and struggled to rise. I removed her from the cage and held her while she gasped for air. She weighed almost nothing, an insubstantial puff whose history inextricably linked us together and to another time and place. Within moments she stiffened and was gone.

I’m accustomed to the whir of wings, both inside and out. Sometimes it feels one and the same. The flutter of movement, a soft susurration of birdsong or birdcall, a chip, a meep, the rustle of feathers, the splash of water—these things have been an inherent part of our Kansas adventure since we moved into our century-old house on the edge of a prairie town seven-and-a-half years ago.

I now have the extra space I so wanted. I’d rather have the bird.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Fever dreams and the night stalker

“We are the hollow men,” T.S. Eliot wrote in a poem of the same name, but I suspect he wasn’t referring to males recuperating from the stomach flu. It’s odd that when I review this past week I see the days like railcars in a long and winding train, with several standing out with a sort of clear bubble on top like ones I’ve seen for Alaskan sightseeing excursions. Those, obviously, were days when I was under the weather, as they say. It’s peculiar that my brain would conjure such a fanciful image, but then the past week has been more fever dream than any sort of reality. I can’t explain it.

Events during that time are vague at best, the stuff of nightmares only dimly recalled. My dreams were feverish, with the same scenario endlessly repeated and me flopping in sweat-stained sheets unable to sleep or fully wake. My restless legs tormented me with an unseemly vengeance. The toilet, a squat ceramic altar of last resort, mutely received my gradually-diminishing offerings until my ribs felt staved in. I shivered, I shook, I heaved, I retched. During this spell autumn finally arrived with stunning rapidity, and frost sawed the joints of the leaves until they fell in heaps or scattered on November winds like windblown mariners. By day our house was assaulted by hordes of Japanese lady beetles swarming the air and sneaking uninvited through entrances known only to themselves. And late one night, while the stars were crisp and sharp, came our very own Grendel.

Its arrival was announced with a crunch of bones and the almost-scream of something being dismembered. A sharp thud against the wall, an inhuman growl, feet scrabbling ground that offered neither escape nor foothold. Sheba bolted for her cage. I froze at the desk, my blood congealed twice over.

Our rabbit is not the only one who believes that monsters stalk the night. In better times I might have blown this off to a bobcat or coyote, but the sickness that riddled my carcass had wiped out any sort of reasoning or logic, leaving in their place an all-encompassing nausea and exhaustion and a mind that preferred white space over thought process. In that blank state of mind, fighting back thoughts of rushing to the bathroom to give up the pittance of food I had earlier ingested, I gathered the pellet rifle, broke the barrel, inserted a heavy pellet, and snapped it shut. I slipped through the door as quietly as possible and padded around the house.

The flashlight threw a cold blue flame. Its illumination was moody and ghostly and seemed to heighten the dance of shadows. The far trees proved a slatted barricade framing the distant lights of town. Underfoot the grass was damp and spotted with soggy leaves. The yard was empty.

I was drawn to the gaping darkness of the shed. As I approached the doorway something large hurled out and skittered sideways. It scaled the fallen hackberry without hesitation and disappeared into the greater darkness as if taking flight. So brief was its appearance that I was left with nothing but motion to identify. Not a bobcat for its long tail; not a coyote nor fox nor raccoon, but something else. Inside the shed was the bloodied pelt of a rabbit, and in a corner was another.

The image my enfeebled brain evoked was of a fisher, a large furbearer of the far north. As this is patently impossible in the wilds of Kansas, I chalked it up to Grendel, the monster of Beowulf. Under a blanket of stars anything is possible.

Having one’s stomach forcefully emptied is bad enough but the real trial comes afterwards. The refilling is prolonged and fraught with setbacks. It’s actually a form of food amnesia. The stomach remembers nothing and the taste buds are whacked out and it’s never sure what will taste good, bad or even stay down. My craving for coffee and spicy foods was erased with nothing in its place to fill the gap. Compounding the healing process was the discovery of a hiatal hernia. My first try at food was oatmeal—which isn’t much of a meal but it was a start. It stayed down. That in itself was a minor victory.

Lori met the beast the following day. She walked to the shed to retrieve something when it bolted out at such speed that it caught the doorjamb and became airborne and ricocheted off her shoulder. “It’s a cat,” she said later. It was the biggest cat she’d ever seen.

I saw it there in the dusk as it left the shed, stalking out to hunt. Feral cats have been described as nature’s perfect serial killer, but beside that they also possess an almost preternatural sense of their surroundings. It knew my location and the direction of travel before I knew myself. It slipped out of rifle range with a gracefulness that left me impressed in spite of myself.

A call to the police chief netted a live trap, which I set out one evening as light bled from the sky. Opening the can of cat food for bait almost doubled me over. It’s not just the stomach that has to learn how to walk again. The flu had left me with heightened olfactory senses but they were far too squeamish to derive much pleasure from.

Each night I ate a little more. Each morning I checked the trap. I shook out the neighbor’s cat, and then another, and not for the first time wondered what goes on in our yard when we’re not looking.

I knew Grendel was trapped before I poked my head in the shed. The cat snarled and paced and threw itself against the metal grid as if by force alone it could gain its freedom. Its talons raked the air as it hissed and spat. For a long moment I stood there in the dark watching it, queasy as its fury, the very hatred it projected toward myself and all who would reign it in.

Lori was up when I walked inside. I took the rifle and slipped a box of pellets into my pocket. Her look was one of opprobrium.

“I take no pleasure in this,” I said, and went into the night to slay the monster.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Homesteading the realms of memory (Part 2)

Looking at their lives makes mine seem stale somehow. My life has had its ups and downs, from my childhood joys of catching lizards and hunting rabbits in the Texas outback to the pitfalls of school and bullies, the first stirrings of lust and sexual desire, the religious tenets drilled into me (causing a plethora of confusion and terror and, at times, ecstasy), and on to marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Most of that has been put to paper and remains a legacy, however trite or incomplete, for my progeny. Like Lonnie I hunch over my desk and wrestle with the past, homesteading the frontiers of memory. And now I march forward with the same fears and worries as when I was a boy, accented now with financial jitters and loss of self-confidence, my body slowly decaying, eyes weakening, my hearing shot out, my body failing where once it was strong and solid.

It neared midnight again. Lori in bed but my eyes wide awake. I sipped whiskey hoping it would dull me into sleep but I feared another night like last, when my legs twitched and the music in my head would not silence. Tomorrow was the start of the workweek and I hated the idea of it. I feel I was born for the idle life but can’t recall a single Parker who lived it.

I’d fallen under the spell of a past that was before my time. The small box of black and white photographs my mother gave me was a puzzle of nameless faces and unnamed places I needed to understand if I was to understand myself. We change over the years, generations finding their own voices and customs, but underneath it runs the same blood, refreshed with that of outsiders through marriage and love. I wanted to find that past, to fathom it fully, to get beyond this failing of mine where I cannot untangle relationships beyond the shallow umbrella of parents, grandparents, siblings. I wanted to go back.

Lonny, too, went back, jouncing down dusty oilfield roads in search of the old homestead. He doesn’t mention when, or what age he was, but the house was completely gone. He wandered alone searching for signs of his past and found little. There was a concrete stock tank, a new windmill, but that was all. He looked for a dugout he and his brothers had made but the winds and sands had erased it. I can see him there, an older man, trying to piece together the ghosts of his past, sifting through the mesquite and catclaw for something he could name and call his own. And finding nothing. With all trace of his life removed, the land a stranger and he to it, he turned back for the car when something caught his eye. In the sand at his foot glittered an ancient shell casing. He reached down and picked it up and scrubbed it clean. It was a .32-20 shell. Age had blackened it but the caliber markings were still readable.

His father had owned a lever-action rifle and a single-shot handgun in the selfsame caliber. He doesn’t say but I’d wager he rolled it in his fingers and held it up to squint at the markings and slipped it into his pocket where it rattled against a handful of coins. He had to remind himself to start breathing again. And suddenly he felt eyes upon him, presences, a host of people watching him as he glanced around, wet-eyed, wondering, a small smile slowly breaking across his weather-beaten face.

But perhaps that’s just the writer in me, romanticizing the unknown. Maybe he stood there with the shell loose in his fingers and felt a deep sadness well up, and felt the years hammering at him as they had the old house, busting it down and sweeping away all evidence that here a family had tamed a wild and desolate land with nothing but dreams and iron will. Maybe he dropped the cartridge in the sand and stepped on it and smoothed it over until it disappeared like the traces of the wooden well tower, the chicken coop and the outbuildings, the single-room house laid plumb with the North Star.

But Lonny was a writer, and he wrote, even if we have little evidence of it other than a few scattered pages rapped out while camping beside a lake in an unidentified state. Sometimes it’s not what we say that’s important but what we don’t. In the quiet post-midnight hours of another day, exhausted, my eyes gritty and bloodshot, I scrambled between the lines, between the periods and commas and line breaks, hunting the man who haunts my dreams. And the more frantic I searched, the more I found myself.

Writers look beyond the ordinary, an innate mysticism that can only be interpreted in terms of spirituality. We are called to write. And his calling was somehow passed down to me. I cannot deny it nor wholly comprehend it, and like the genetic quirks that plague me—my trick knee, my restless legs, the blood pressure that threatens to explode my heart—it’s hereditary. But it is also a gift. I might question it, and at times distrust it, but now, for the first time in my life, I can accept it. This was Lonny’s gift.

Weariness staggered me. Pushing away from the computer, I shambled toward bed and the plains of West Texas. I was seven paragraphs into tomorrow and I wasn’t finished. Hell, Lonny and I were just beginning.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Homesteading the realms of memory (Part 1)

My mind never shut down, not even to sleep, but restlessly roved a dark dreamscape backed by a soundtrack of Lyle Lovett tunes, notably The Porch, which I’ve played endlessly because it always stirs something within me. I haven’t a clue what the song means. Something about surviving tough times, of telling naysayers and other sons-of-bitches to go to hell, but the common thread in each verse is the state of Texas.

So I tossed and turned and my legs jitterbugged with longing to follow my thoughts into the sunblasted scrublands near my hometown of Pyote, and twice I rose and paced the floor, peering out each window to see the neighborhood at night, the skies bright from reflected citylight, and I thought about writing to calm down but more than anything I wanted to sleep and so tried again. It did nothing to lull me. As the sun slashed across the eastern horizon and blackbirds ascended like a ragged cloak from their nightly roost along Big Dry Creek, I returned to the keyboard struggling to get this thing straight.

The source of my turmoil was a brief memoir my great-uncle Lonny Parker wrote while camped on the shores of Beaver Lake. It had arrived in a manila envelope, a gift from my mother, who said I would find it interesting—her term for any written archive from the family. She knew I kept a diary, and had for decades, but she didn’t know that I constantly struggled with the idea of writing, the need for it, as if life was not real unless first being mulled over, filtered, and then recorded.

A diary is a window into a writer’s soul, and Lonny’s was no exception. It was 1968. He must have been in his late sixties then, hair silvered, maybe a slight stoop to his walk. Hunched over a manual typewriter, rain on the camper’s roof keeping time with the hard clack of the keys, he wrote, On my trip to South Texas and West Texas which I started last February I wrote for my own satisfaction, sending you a copy of the high lights of the trip and ended it when I reached Kermit Texas, and the vicinity where I was raised and where I lived until I was 31 years old. I have now decided to continue this trip to make my file complete and to pass away some time. I made me notes of happenings after I wrote the last chapter, so am now trying out my memory, and that is what most of this chapter will be about, MEMORIES.

My mother said he always loved to write but couldn’t spell worth a damn, which was odd due to the fact that he rose to prominence in the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Enforcement in St. Louis, Missouri. That says something about talent, skill and determination more than schooling, of which his was poor. My father said it was Lonny who led him into a life outdoors, and he tried modeling his life after him. I never knew the man.

His tale begins in 1908, when they moved across West Texas to homestead and raise cattle. Texas was the frontier, still wild and unsettled. They traveled in a covered wagon, his mother taking the reins, his father leading a pack of horses. I come from a line of true cowboys.

As I cooked dinner last night I was captivated by his tale. Enough of Lovett’s Porch song will make a man hungry for a plate of steaming hot enchiladas, and so I spent an hour washing dishes and then dirtying up the kitchen again. With Lori still not home I moved onto my own porch and sat in a chair, the air crisp and turning colder, unable to read about pioneering in Texas with four walls hemming me in. I needed space. His writing moved me, the uncomplicated simplicity of it. When I came across one line my heart skipped a beat. Sometime in the first years of our stay on this ranch our grandfather Tom Wade Parker, Grand mother and Aunt Barbra settled on a place north of ours and built a little home. Seeing my name shook me. My mother always said I was named after several relatives, a smorgasbord of uncles, not after one particular person. And here I was, staring back from the print.

Each page of Lonny’s diary opened up new vistas and questions. I’m reeling from it all, so much so that I pored over the genealogical tables my mother gave us just to see where my relatives came from. They migrated ever westward, coming from Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, the Deep South. Their sympathies were southern during the War Between the States, and one, an artilleryman, was gravely wounded at Antietam. Another came from Kansas, giving me one measure, however miniscule, of inheritance to that state. Texas was their final stop.

The places Lonny lived and worked and crisscrossed on horseback are a litany of place names from my past and present. He settled around Pyote and Monahans, bought cattle and sheep in southern New Mexico, broke broncs for the Army around Terlingua and the Big Bend area, saw his family go bust during the drought years. The cattle died, sheep consumed everything in sight like wooly locusts until only dust remained, powdery, deep, blowing like ashes on the wind. He and his brothers chased roadrunners and rabbits and killed them with well-placed stones, and dressed and cooked the rabbits over mesquite coals. They went barefoot, stopping only long enough to pull mesquite thorns from their leathery soles.

His was a world in passing, the last full generation of cowboys in my family. My father recalls saddling up at three a.m. to head down to the Pecos River to gather the cattle for branding, a ride of seven or eight miles. But even that was fading, victim of a new economy and an encroaching war. My father rode horses in his youth and flew fighter planes before he was twenty, a fact that still amazes him.

(Conclusion next week)