Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where we go when we disappear

An elderly lady and her daughter come into the shop to browse one afternoon, unaware that by entering these doors the past not only beckons but lies in wait like some slavering predator.

 My mother calls to say that the city of Eastland is collecting information for a new display about Doc Scurlock, our outlaw relative and compadre of William H. Bonney, and just like that sunlight burns the bare skin on my arms, on my neck, bakes the top of my head.

 The lady picks up an old red-bordered enamel pan and tells her daughter she grew up with one just like it, and beside it a hand mixer whose bright finish has dulled to the color of ash catches her eye and she grabs it and holds it up with an awed expression on her face. A slight smile creases her lips and in her eyes the glimmer of another time and place. It’s too embarrassing to watch, the act so private and personal it’s almost holy, so I quickly busy myself with the laptop.

 But I understand her predicament: the past has abducted her.   

 As it did me when my mother called.

 My cousins are there and their daughters and my parents and aunts and uncles and the ashes of my grandparents (and my grandfather and grandmother, though dead, only slightly apart, smiling as if glad to see the family together again) and the grass is green in places and yellow in others and all around us Texas stretches away to a ruler-flat horizon and we’re merely a stone’s throw from a marble headstone beneath which lies the town’s most famous resident. At heart we are time travelers all, and never more so than when memory sweeps us off our feet and washes us out to sea.

 I can’t help but think these are winter memories summoned from the cold and ice and the starless skies and the long breathless anticipation for spring. A sort of cabin fever of the mind. But I also believe this dual-directional vision is age-induced. When we’re younger we’ve no time for looking back, caught in a current of kids, careers, homebuilding. But now that we can actually see the end, or sense its relentless approach, now that our friends are dropping away (taking a part of us with them), the past returns in unexpected patterns and with varying degrees of vivification.

 And not merely the past, but a past that never was, or was and has conjoined into a different era entirely. What’s odd about my Eastland excursion wasn’t that my grandparents were alive and with us but that in an instant my first sensation was of being on horseback, a gun belt strapped to my hips, a weathered, sweat-stained hat pulled low to block the harsh sun. Josiah “Doc” Scurlock, Regulator, range rider, partner with Billy the Kid in the Lincoln County wars, back in the saddle again.

 Is this what I have to look forward to, a constant reappraisal of my past, one foot forever in the now and the other in another time and place? Or will I inhabit the present only on the most tenuous terms, in a kind of borrowed existence where anything, no matter how insignificant, can trigger a reversal and send me cartwheeling back, as if time were just a fabrication or something we’ve created to define the empty spaces of our lives? I sometimes get unnerved by the sudden transformations from mind-numbing evenings where Lori’s in one place and I in another and life seems suspended and dead, to the summer’s warmth of her company and the life we’re making, to the unheralded and truncated snatches of the past that never leave me in one place long enough to satisfy. And I suspect it will only get worse as I get older.

 Not long ago my wife’s grandmother disappeared while camping. Her body remained at the nursing home but her mind roamed a terrain both familiar and loved, and with her were relatives long turned to dust. When Lori touched her on the shoulder she jumped and slowly focused her eyes and said, “What are you doing here?” Disoriented, stranded between then and now, it seemed a shame to bring her back. What’s here for her? Blindness, immobility, a home that is not home, strangers for neighbors, poked and prodded by medical practitioners, utterly at the mercy of others.

 While nobody is ready to call it Alzheimer’s, it nevertheless has some in the family concerned. I take comfort in it, knowing that our history, our experiences and memories, are never completely gone but are contained within us like a vast placid lake, beneath whose waters we can dip and sometimes even drown. There are worse ways to go.

 I think of our granddaughter, how she studied everything, faces, noses, eyes, expressions, the dogs, the ceiling, the couch cushions, hands, fingers, hair, the television, colors, motion, everything new and fresh and recorded within the cells of her brain. Within her memory. And I cannot help but worry about what will consume that virginal space.

 “It’s like a hard drive being formatted,” I said to Michelle, our daughter-in-law.

 And what goes into that hard drive? And what will return in the twilight of her life? Please, God, let not be vapid Hollywood drivel, not reality shows or sitcoms. Let it be butterflies, and mountains, and wildflowered prairies like endless seas. Let it be grandparents, and aunts and uncles, and places that spoke to them in their pasts, places unknown to her but that might someday resonate on levels she will never understand. Let it be people and places and sunlight on moving waters. Let it be enough to carry her. Let it be what matters.



Thursday, February 21, 2008

No way but forward

The distant lights of Bennett, Colo., grow fuzzy and indistinct as if drawn behind a veil. Seconds later snow whips through the headlights in a blinding cloud. Lori scrambles to find a forecast or road report as I swear and fret and grip the wheel tightly and ask rhetorically why am I here, but I know why, it’s because of the kids and the grandkids and the places you find yourself because of them, places you never thought you’d be, or wanted to for that matter. As the road disappears behind a white wall I drop my speed and think of the 500 miles separating us from home and how her smile would melt glaciers, how her fingers were so tiny they could not fit around mine.

Her name is Hailey Madison Parker, born Dec. 9, 2007, to our firstborn, Joel Matthew, and his lovely wife Michelle. Hailey’s a little thing, with a scruff of reddish hair fine as silk, chipmunk cheeks, expressive blue eyes that take in everything and eyelashes heartbreakingly long. We met her in Colorado on one of those rapidfire trips where we were gone practically before we arrived.

If it had been up to me I would have waited to go until warmer weather. Being the impatient grandmotherly type she is, my wife insisted we go at once. Storms prevented our departure several times and the weather this time didn’t look so promising, either. I reasoned with her that the longer we waited the more there would be of Hailey to love, but Lori refused to listen. For her part, she bribed me with promises of La Loma, the second-best Mexican food restaurant in the known universe. Thirty-three years of marriage have educated me in the fine art of losing out to a wife’s persistence. We went.

Babies are something of a mystery to me. When we were dating, Lori’s friends warned that I’d be a lousy father. Such dire predictions were based not on any inside knowledge but due to my unwillingness to coo and goggle over their brats. I didn’t care one whit about their kids and made no bones about it.

My kids were different. I loved them and cared for them and when they moved on I returned my full attention to my wife. It seemed the natural order of things though at some level I suspected I was failing somehow. When our first granddaughter was born I don’t remember being there for her.

Deep down in we want to better ourselves. When we walked through Joel and Michelle’s door and Hailey looked at me there wasn’t enough air to fill my lungs.

That evening we crossed town to see our other son, Benjamin, a tattoo artist. As we drove up East Colfax I pointed out places from my past, as if anybody cared other than me. There was the strip club where the stripper took me by the hand and tried taking me down the back stairs—me terrified at her plans, and the owner suspicious too, who ordered her back to the stage for some bump and grind. It was the first strip club I’d ever been in, having been treated by coworkers for my 21st birthday.

The McDonald’s was still there and just as grungy as I remembered, and the Moroccan and Ethiopian restaurants. We passed druggies, junkies, streetwalkers and men walking hand in hand, and the alleys branching off were dark and menacing. Colfax hadn’t changed a bit. Despite a minor cosmetic facelift it was nothing that a little napalm wouldn’t improve, or a lot, considering its length. Not only is it the longest commercial street in the nation, according to urban legend, but Playboy magazine once called it “the longest, wickedest street in America.”

We turned into an alley and parked in a small fenced lot. The dim light barely contained the shadows. I hung back, studying them for movement. Perhaps I was too paranoid but this had once been my life, and now was the world our youngest son inhabits.

Hailey seemed especially entranced at the non-child-friendly posters stapled to the ceiling of the tattoo parlor. As we were talking a scruffy black man entered and began stripping off his shirt. His pants, perched precariously on his skeletal hipbones, didn’t have far to go before they fell off as well. “Oh, man, here I am taking my clothes off in front of everybody,” he said, suddenly aware of the women in the room. He wanted Ben to correct a crude jailhouse tattoo on his arm and shoulder, and also embellish his entire back. He was carrying a six-pack of Corona. I wondered if he’d share.

The next day we drove back to Capitol Hill to see our daughter-in-law, Marcee, and our other granddaughter, Sage Nicole, a vivacious seven-year-old suddenly grown into a beautiful, shy young lady. I wasn’t sure my heart could take the strain.

And then, almost without realizing it, we were gone. The road whitened and disappeared behind a blank nothingness but life never gives us a chance to turn around. There was nothing else to do but go on, unseeing, blind, hauling our memories and failed dreams and idealistic hopes for a better tomorrow, and did I mention that her smile would melt glaciers, that her fingers were so tiny they would not fit around mine.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

What kind of world

Through you I drain the pent-up rivers of myself,

In you I wrap a thousand onward years. – Walt Whitman


            How odd that just now when I consider our past what comes to mind is the night Oscar was killed and the sergeant came knocking at our door. What was his name? Roy, I think. Roy was a spoiled, obnoxious lout with a fondness for dope, an explosive temper and a beautiful wife who seemed bored with him. Few coworkers liked him and fewer trusted him, even when he bought endless rounds at Stoddard’s bar near the head of Gallinas Canyon and the booze flowed as freely as the waters foaming on the boulders below. I’d watch his pitiful attempts to buy acceptance from that armed and insular band of men, watch him with both captivation and revulsion, and each beer, each whiskey chaser, each ribald joke or bald-faced lie made the night lonelier and more complex.

            The night he knocked on our door I watched him differently, watched his hands and where they were, what they held, what they reached for. I studied his eyes for intent. The slightest deviation from the norm and I would put a .45 hollowpoint through his chest.

            It was August 15, 1974, a little after one a.m. Lori and I had been married less than a month, in that initial stage where we were no longer strangers but still learning our way around one another. We were crazy in love, inseparable, young enough to believe the future held only promise, that everything we touched would turn to gold. And wrong on all accounts.

            Roy’s arrival wasn’t unexpected. His dog, Oscar, had been accidentally shot in the head by a careless police officer, and though I had no part in it—indeed, I was on patrol a hundred yards away when the report shattered the nightthere would be consequences, of that I was certain. Everything would change, if not now then shortly, in a day or two, a week, a month at most. It was already crumbling, almost two years in the making, a job that was loved now on the cusp of irremediable destruction, and the knock on the door a death knell in the night. I unholstered my .45 and told Lori to stay out of sight.

            If I was angry and upset over the shooting, it was nothing like the sergeant’s rage. He screamed and threatened and refused to hear my explanations, and flailing his arms paced back and forth like a caged beast, his eyes angry and bloodshot and yet drawn inexorably to the pistol hanging at my side. I let him rant until he was out of steam and then bid him goodnight. There would be more discussions in the next few days, he promised.

            The collapse was as sudden as a gunshot in the dark. Within days Roy was promoted to lieutenant, a new captain arrived and with him orders that I quit or be fired. Lori and I bought a Denver newspaper at the convenience store and took it home to pore over the job listings. The next day brought rain and a debilitating sense of melancholy. The following day we left town, heading north.


            Our defeats become ingrained in our DNA though time blessedly files down the burs. On that long journey into the unknown we held hands and talked of a future we could neither imagine nor conceive, and if we were more hopeful than circumstances allowed for, with a knock coming from an engine that would disintegrate on the outskirts of Denver, with little money and no jobs, we had each other, a pistol in the glove box, two plates, two forks, two spoons, two knives, two pillows, two sleeping bags and two kittens named Balin and Butterbur. At the time it seemed enough currency to buy our way into whatever future we wished.

            Thirty-three-plus years later the cutlery is gone, and the plates, the sleeping bags, the pillows, the kittens and the pistol, too. Of that time and that place, Lori alone remains.

            For the most part I’ve traded the .45 for the poetry of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and Jim Harrison, music, the natural world and its creatures large and small, sunlight warming the rounded knolls of the northern Flint Hills, the slow purl of prairie creeks and the companionship of my very best friend.

            To paraphrase Whitman, I probably deserved my enemies but never my friends, and that includes my wife. I don’t regret the enemies I’ve made, finding them an unavoidable outcome of a no-nonsense approach to life. Love was a gift.

            But sometimes I still imagine my fingers wrapped around the heavy Colt and a world where it was all I needed to feel in control. Like many other things, I was wrong on that one, too. The world has changed and me with it.

            Some things never change. Two friends die and two babies are born. Another setback, a betrayal, and I wrap my arms around her and retreat into a song she had discovered while researching autism. It was Five For Fighting’s “World,” and the lyrics took me back to a newlywed couple heading north out of Las Vegas, New Mexico, the Sangre de Christos to the west, the Great Plains to the east and a huge question dangling before them.

What kind of world do you want

think anything

let’s start at the start

let’s build a masterpiece.

            What kind of world do I want? One with her, one of her, one drained of the pent-up rivers of myself, one wrapped in a thousand thousand onward years with this beautiful woman I married, of this life we’ve shared, that we’ve built from scratch and watched crumble and rebuilt and imagined with more optimism than we had any right to expect. We’ll start at the start, I vowed. We’ll build a masterpiece. We’ll start now.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Stumbling toward a realistic future

A study conducted last year by the Department of Psychology, New York University, concluded that humans expect the future to be positive even when no evidence supports such expectations. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscientists found that the brain generates a propensity towards optimism through enhanced activation in the amygdala and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex—the very same regions that show stimulus under depression. It’s that half-full, half-empty bias, hardwired smack into our gray matter.

I suppose I’ve always been a little odd, but I never fell into that mindset. Mine was an outlook both dour and morose, partly due to conditioning (Parker luck = no luck), and partly due to upbringing and genes.

While any creativity I might claim can be traced to my mother, my temperament assuredly comes from my father, which could itself be the result of a lineage of ranchers trying to raise cattle and crops in the cruel West Texas scrublands. Once I was old enough to know what the word meant, I would accuse him of being a pessimist. He wasn’t, he would say in a slightly aggrieved tone leavened by a knowing half-smile and a gleam in his eye. “I’m a realist,” he’d declare, and that was the end of it.

If we had a dictionary in the house I wasn’t aware of it, nor was I the type to delve into its pages to seek out an unfamiliar word. But the term he used seemed simple enough, even for a young boy. Reality was difficult, mean-spirited, treacherous. It poked a stick in your eye. It tripped you on the playground and made bullies single you out of a crowd. Reality was the poker hand we were dealt, and it wasn’t a winning one.

That sort of thinking influenced my perception of reality so deeply, and so starkly, that it now subconsciously poisons my view of the future and directs my actions in ways I barely understand. I’m quite certain that on some subliminal level it launched us out of the mountainous West into the tallgrass prairies of Kansas, whose state motto, “Ad astra per aspera,” translates into “To the stars through difficulty.” The state was manifestly founded and settled not by flighty optimists or negativistic pessimists, but by clear-eyed realists. Unfortunately, the major percentage of its population have devolved from those roots and now espouse the Republican ideal, but this adopted son remains true to the founders’ intents.

To coin a phrase from my friend Max Yoho’s hilarious novel, Tales From Comanche County, we were handed more aspera and not nearly enough astra. And though in the book Uncle Jack handles the surfeit of woes with good humor, my disposition is less sanguine. I grumble and groan and whine, but at heart it’s a method of mentally cushioning myself against a diabolical reality. It is, in effect, a defense mechanism.

Recently, a customer and I discussed optimism at my wife’s shop. She confessed to being upbeat about future events—normal by human standards if the researchers were right—whereas an impending snowstorm dragged me in the opposite direction.

“It’s not going to snow,” she scoffed. We stood by the front door looking out onto a gray world.

“It’s too cold,” she said, but I detected a slight dimming in her sunshiny demeanor.

She asked if I were a half-full or half-empty type of person.

“Three-quarters empty,” I replied. I don’t think she believed me.

She wasn’t gone more than fifteen minutes when it stated snowing. I was grimly, if not perversely, satisfied.

This inclination to expect the worst serves a crucial purpose: when events don’t turn out as hoped, I’m rarely disappointed. And if by some miracle or shift in the space-time continuum they do turn out in my favor, my delight more than compensates for whatever moodiness I might have subjected myself to. It’s a win-win situation.

Notice I used the word “hope.” I remain, after all, merely human.

Take my upcoming camping trip with my codgernaut buddies. We’ll be touring Wyoming and Colorado this spring, some new country, some familiar, and I hope everything goes well. I hope the snow isn’t too deep. I hope it doesn’t rain all the time. I hope the truck doesn’t break down. I hope the irascible old farts don’t leave me stranded somewhere on the Wyoming plains. I hope for many things, but hope has no more credence than wishing on a falling star. If anything, the act of hoping instantly puts us on the defensive. It injects tension and stress into the planning process. Our amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex flare into life, and away we go.

So I hope, yes, even while recognizing the futility of it. I prefer to believe that I’ll be slowly dismembered by a starving grizzly bear, tick-bitten into a lethal case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, or frozen to death on the high plains after an unexpected spring blizzard of record proportions and ferocity. If I’m not, I’ll be unaccountably content.

For the record, I do not call that pessimism. Because those things are possible, they are therefore probable.

Pessimism is believing that the political spectrum in America will be worse after the election. Optimism is believing it will be better. Realism is knowing nothing will change.

This long hard winter has been trying on my disposition, however. I was not sorry to see the end of January, but any attempt at wishing for warmer weather was subsumed under a dark cloud of gloom. Punxsutawney predicted six more weeks of winter, furthering my anxiety. I was about done in by negativity.

One afternoon I was washing dishes when a shadow eclipsed the wan light filtering through the window. In the distance I saw a flock of geese heading my way, their cries electrifying the snow-laden air. It seemed so improbable having them flying north so early in the year. I stepped outside without a jacket and watched them until they were out of sight. Suddenly, against all realistic expectations, the cold wasn’t so cold, nor the winter so long.