Thursday, April 24, 2008

Not alone in waiting

All evening the wind howled and raged and tore at the house as if trying to level it, and a deep restlessness settled over me so that I paced the floor or stared sightlessly out the windows or knelt to rub Sheba, our little black angora rabbit, who in that way of familiars instinctively inferred something was amiss. I downed a beer and went to bed and lay there listening to the rhythmic slap slap slap of a loose shingle and the rattle of storm windows and felt the bed beneath me vibrate and thrum. The clock’s pale glow emphasized the emptiness of the room and nothing more. Closing my eyes brought no sleep but a view of a wooded knoll crowned with two stately pines and a sense of unfinished business down a narrow dirt road I did not want to go, and a question I was afraid to ask: what would change with her coming? 

After a while I rose and made a pot of coffee. As it brewed I sat on the floor rubbing Sheba, who curled against me like a cat, and when the coffee was ready I told her I would return around midnight or a little later. At the last minute I slipped the Glock under my shirt, though I could not say why. 

There were other questions of course, some half-formed and floating unspoken on the edge of consciousness, others that would come later. One I wanted answered was whether the dead depart or in certain circumstances are imprisoned in places where violence has occurred. Even considering it bordered on a madness that seemed all too proximate, so I tried to shunt it aside. Once raised, though, forever invoked: It clung to me like a second skin.

The night was sound and motion and a force battering at the door. Opening it unleashed a hurricane that rocked me back, and only with effort did I push back and exit the house. The plastic end table we keep by the door was missing and the trash can knocked over. The former was out by the street, legs upraised, rocking wildly in preparation for further flight. I retrieved it and stood listening to the gale roaring through the trees, a raw, elemental dissonance of mindless fury. It was easy to imagine pioneers in their ill-jointed soddies going mad from the sound. Madness I understood. It was madness to stand there beneath the creaking, groaning trees, already splintered and weakened by ice and now strained by winds funneled up from the Gulf.

I thought of a tree where a man had hanged himself and recalled the terrible emptiness I’d felt after reaching out and touching the rough bark. 

After the howling and buffeting, the interior of the truck was anti-noise, more than silence, deeper than stillness. The sudden transformation was almost unnerving, but a respite, too. Beyond the thin layer of glass the nightworld churned and danced and I was immune to its cadence, sealed within my own atmosphere and realm. 


At the end of the block a stop sign shimmered in the wind, wildly flapping back and forth as if angrily trying to free itself. Small branches skittered across the road like fleeting thoughts, briefly passing from darkness to light and back into darkness. The city looked different, a mere five hours’ time difference between my normal commute, and yet a quantum leap. Businesses normally closed were brightly illuminated and peopled, houses lit that were normally dark, vehicles traversing streets normally haunted by foxes, feral cats, and opossums. I felt like a stranger though one with a darkness in my soul and a loaded handgun sitting on the seat beside me.

It was the final disconnect. I would throw myself into work in an attempt to exorcise the wakefulness and something more, something that came to me when I left Washington earlier that afternoon. I had just crossed the bridge over Mill Creek and saw the knoll and felt a stab of loss as I sometimes do, but this time a different emotion welled up, one of breathless anticipation. But it wasn’t an anticipation coming from within—it came from the knoll, distinctly and clearly, and with it words that were not words, a statement fully formed, unsummoned and unmistakable: She’s coming

Rattled, I wondered if I were injecting my own thoughts into the moment, but as the hours passed I mulled over the experience and grew more certain at what happened. Lori was gone to work and the house empty and in that emptiness fertile ground for imagination or clarity, depending on where one believes that nebulous demarcation lies. 

She’s coming. Judy Burkett, the widow of Robert Glenn Bennett, was due to arrive in Washington for the weekend, and we were to meet at her request as friends. No news articles or interviews, merely a private act of closure privately administered, in and out, no fanfare and then the long miles back to Alabama. The newshound in me reluctantly agreed but I understood and could no more than accept her wishes. I would want the same for me.

But her coming created a storm of emotions and raised questions I found both fearsome and fascinating. And in asking those questions opened myself to a place outside the normal boundaries of existence, a place that once entered holds no escape or release. 

And then there was that voice. I hesitated to even consider it or give the idea legitimacy, but if what I’d felt crossing Mill Creek was real, it seemed I was not alone in expecting her. 

(Conclusion next week)

Thursday, April 17, 2008


The view from Roxborough State Park

Detail of building at Centennial Airport

Under the lighthouse

It rained most of the morning as we worked our way west toward Denver and a wedding, and any idea I had of making good time was quickly quashed in the grind of following slow-moving trucks whose vapor trails left no view for passing. Dawn was long past but twilight remained until early afternoon. Western Kansas, dry as ever but greening as if in defiance of the drought, surrendered to eastern Colorado and the strangulate prairie towns of Idalia, Cope, Anton and Lindon. Last of the breed was Last Chance, windows boarded, roofs collapsing, bereft now of any chances and dying a visible and public death with few to shed a tear. And on into the vacuum of the interstate, rush hour and the madness of cities. 

On the way, Lori told a friend who was catching a ride with us of the time when our younger son, Benjamin, tried to kill me. I was logy from lack of sleep and wearily focusing on driving and the passing scenery, and surprised, too, when she inched further into the sad tale with details I had tried to forget. It was not a story she shares willingly and yet here she was enumerating the methodical dismemberment of our home and the sundering instant when I opened the garage door and felt the rifle butt slam into my face. 

Nor did her story end there. Like the endless miles over the shortgrass wastelands, it continued unabated  until I cleared my throat and said, “Enough.” 

By then the sun was breaking through and the rain had stopped and traffic consisted of us alone, and it seemed enough simply to sail that empty landscape like vehiculatory mariners, putting aside all thought to lapse into an insensible reverie from the sway and thrum of motion and the slow drift of cloudshadow across those treeless troughs and swells. Such lands possess a fragile charm easily fractured by a desire for haste or a predilection for mountains, forests or the trappings of a robust civilization, all of which were in store for us a hundred or so miles away. 

I usually begin thinking of mountains about the time I hit Byers and join the masses being sucked into the vortex of the metropolitan area. Nor was this trip any different. But even as the events Lori recounted had softened and taken a gentler edge in the succeeding fifteen years, so had those snowy ramparts lost their painfully sharp emphasis. That breathless sense of anticipation would remain, forever I hoped, but the impact of their first sighting was at last moderated to a manageable ache. Time, the great equalizer, had worked its magic, and for that I was grateful. I don’t want to lose my memories, I just want to be able to live with them.

Life is a process rather than a series of events. We evolve, or devolve, from a former state but rarely remain the same. Stasis is another form of stagnation though some prefer it to the uncertainties of change. For a long time after our son was taken from us I preferred a static existence, mistaking it for equilibrium. Actually I was creating a barricade against a world I found too cutting to endure, and as such balanced a tightrope that left no room for error. Each slip left me higher or lower depending on the moment; each left me feeling stretched thin like a tendon ready to snap. It’s easy to see how a center-of-the-road approach to life was safer, but then my relationship with Lori wasn’t engineered by balance but by risk, something we inherently understand when we’re younger. But then, we have less to lose, too. 

The city kept me off-guard in a way I never predicted: courteous drivers and an absence of traffic jams. Perhaps civilizations evolve, too. We stayed the first night with our older son, Joel, and then moved to a hotel on the extreme southern flank of the city, just below the Centennial Airport tower. It seemed altogether odd to be there when our families were nearby, but we had somehow slipped through the cracks to become mere accessories. One afternoon we managed a mental health break at Roxborough State Park where scrub jays flittered through thickets of Gambel’s oak, and ravens and golden eagles patterned the skies above towering red sandstone formations. 

It was over soon enough. We returned to our motel, changed into nicer clothes and drove to the golf course where the wedding was to be held. 

Hiding behind the camera was a safe bet and I wielded it like a shield. The bride walked the aisle, vows were spoken, we all retired to the open bar and availed ourselves of strong drink. There were several men I used to work with, old enemies more than friends, and a great many strangers, so I stuck with our family and studied our sons and their daughters and in that study found a strange contentment I had all but forgotten. For the first time in many years I could look at Benjamin and not feel repulsed. Among his many tattoos was a new one in memory of his grandfather and namesake. He showed it to me and I did not flinch.

Later we said our goodbyes, some we meant and some we didn’t, and slipped away into the starless night. Somewhere east of there, weary and meditative, we wended through empty boulevards probed above by the sweeping beacon of the control tower. The tower was a slim white finger thrust into the sky, easily the highest structure around, and appeared to my glazed eyes as if it were a great inland lighthouse warning us of dangerous shoals. But there were no shoals to fear, no shallows on which to run aground. There were only the memories sloughing off, and something like forgiveness and the willingness to once again become vulnerable. 

Thursday, April 10, 2008

New world coming

The sun cleared the gray furze of trees bordering Juganine Creek and lifted like the vision of something we once knew and had forgotten, some blazing minor star now ascendant, and a cardinal sang and a Carolina wren, and the frost glazing the truck melted away like a bad dream. 

I was on my way to work as I am always on my way and there was little time to stop and relish the moment. Gritty-eyed, dazed from lack of sleep, I stood there for a moment lost in a mathematical puzzle. How many part-time jobs do I have—five, six? I’d been up since 3 a.m. and now off to a second job and my brain lagging behind my feet.

Dew runneled like sweat off the truck as I opened the door and set the camera bag on the front seat. A small duffel with notebooks, an iPod and a pair of binoculars went beside the driver’s seat, and a cooler on the floorboard. When the door slammed a flock of sparrows darted from the brush pile in a breathless lunge, thicket-bound. I longed to track them with the binos but didn’t have time.

And yet the moment was there, ripe for the plucking, requiring nothing more than my attention. What could I give on such a fine morning to feel human again? To feel free? Surrender was all, and for now it was too much.

If we let it, life can make us feel like a hunted beast, harried and hounded to ground. A long bitter winter only intensifies our discontent, and in that three-week twilight where frost and ice give way to rain and thunder our desperation deepens from unfulfilled anticipation. By February’s demise we are desperados all.

But there was something different in the air, a heaviness, as if the air itself were solidifying. The south breeze was redolent of moisture, and it required little imagination to sniff the salty tang of the Gulf so far away. Oddly, I remembered stepping off the ferry in Cozumel several years ago. Maybe it was the warmth of the sun, the sudden quickening after the prolonged cold, or that scent in the air that smelled of sea breezes, but for a moment I was on the jetty and the waves lapping the wooden dock splintered the sun’s reflection into a thousand dancing shards of light. A small cluster of soldiers watched us, their assault rifles incongruous in a sea of half-naked flesh. Beyond them the beach was littered with sunbathers and great-tailed grackles, and beyond the town the coastal scrub and Mayan ruins called out their siren song.

That selfsame sun now erasing the memory of frost on the rounded hills above town brought me disconcerted back to earth. I thought of how one job will soon be jettisoned and a sort of freedom regained, how these fields would soon be mine again, and a garden planted, and perhaps another Spanish lesson or two to hone my minimal skills. For next time. Across the street, the cardinal whistled and cajoled and demanded. For all creatures, spring is a time for dreams. I wished him luck, got in the truck and dreaming drove away.

By afternoon the sky turned gray. Thin pale clouds at first filtering in from the west, thickening as the afternoon wore on, and whatever warmth the sun had brought bled away even as the light bled away into a gray nothingness without texture or substance. The wind shifted to the north and grew teeth. When I arrived home birds were silent, flitting restlessly through brush piles and splintered trees, the battered victims of last December’s ice storm. I unloaded the truck and felt the increasing bite in the air. Underfoot the ground was spongy and damp but crusting already. We were on the cusp of spring and other transformations, and though the birds knew it and I knew it, it remained out of reach and our hands grasping could not grasp it yet.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Blowback, blowdown and the end of our sepia dream

Even as the sawblade bit through the last tendons and the branch drooped and splintered and hung suspended by a thread and I held my breath to see if it would whiplash around to sweep the ladder from under my feet, even then I thought of the dream. My saurian dream. The dream of the turquoise lake. 

I thought of little else as we went to our arboreal duties on the final afternoon of clearing damaged and destroyed trees from our yard. Most of the fallen stuff had been dragged to the side of the road and piled into ungainly stacks, and now was time to remove the hanging limbs. The work would be more dangerous, something made concrete by an event two days previous.

Across the street was a fallen but still attached branch on a tall locust, victim not to the ice but to a downdraft last spring. Climbing the tree to prune the limb was out of the question, so I decided to try to simply twist the branch to tear the remaining tendrils connecting it to the main trunk. It was a large branch, as thick as my thigh and twenty feet in length, sagging to the ground in a Medusa’s head of splayed and shattered limbs. My theory was as correct as it was wrong, or wrong-headed. When the branch broke it fell against the bole and whipsawed around taking me and everything with it. I was facing west when it snapped and east when it was over and had only a dim recollection of being spun like a top. The next few minutes were spent sawing the smaller ends off the branches but something had been taken from me and I knew it. I couldn’t say where the pain radiated from other than it was deep in my bones and joints, as if I’d been pulled apart like taffy. A short nap helped my mental state but only served to stiffen me up.

A few hours later a friend sent an e-mail advising me not to do that very thing. Someone had been killed from that reverse thrust, she said, which a phone company representative described as a “powerful blowback.” I liked the term though almost immediately she distanced herself from it, saying that it was a different word altogether and one she could not remember. Blowback, she said, was usually used in politics, warfare and journalism when referring to unforeseen events caused by our own actions. I thought it fit.

It’s been many decades since I last clambered through the interlaced branches of a tree, more monkey than boy, and now I was at it again. Much less agile, to be sure, more cognizant of the intervening spaces between branch and ground and the things that could be irretrievably lost. In short, I’d lost the groundless confidence of youth. The ladder gained a few feet and my legs and arms the rest, enough at least to reach the broken limbs, mold myself to the rough bark and hew away.

From that elevated perch I remembered the house as seen from on high, empty-eyed and vacant, settled like a mushroom on an elevated reach of prairie cropped short. In that dreamlike state that haunts our nocturnal imaginings, I stepped onto the porch and tried the door handle. It swung open easily, and I entered as if invited. The rooms were devoid of furniture, heavy with dust and flakes of paint peeling from the walls but bathed in a luminous light filtering through dust-speckled windows, a light that complemented the pastel hues of the walls, cream and blue and green. A little work and it would make a perfect studio, I thought. 

The back opened out onto a broad deck, weathered wood planks extending over a short grassy drop that ended on the shore of a teardrop-shaped lake. Its waters were a stunning turquoise, placid, unruffled, surreal in the light. A great sense of peace descended. For a long time I simply leaned on the railing, staring at that motionless substance, content to absorb the rich colors, but then I noticed a faint rippling on the waters, a shimmering like a vibration. Waves lapped the shore, at followed by a wake that shot toward me from the far side. The wake separated into two vees that entwined and parted and conjoined again until just below the deck two massive reptilian heads broke the surface, teeth glittering, scales like armor, eyes emerald green and lit by secret fires. Baleful eyes that focused on me alone standing mute on the deck. 

There was no fear nor any reason for it. We studied one another and held a long silent communion, and then they slipped beneath the turquoise surface with barely a ripple. The waters grew still once more, leaving me hungering for more. 

Hugging the tree, sawdust in my eyes, my right arm in its ministrations tiring, I wondered if the dream meant anything or was merely the product of a restless brain. The saw cleared the last shred of bark and the branch fell cleanly. One thick branch was left, higher up, so I scaled the trunk and positioned myself at an awkward angle and began sawing. A stick bit into my hand and bright blood sprinkled the tree with each forward thrust.

Color. The dream was all about color, I realized. For weeks after starting a new medication my dreams had been in sepia, almost antique in appearance, but the lake and the house had been vivid and intensely colored. And as I looked down at the ground I saw the yellowed grass tinting a deeper shade, a greener hue, as new growth pushed through. All around the colors of spring were awakening. Our long sepia season was over.