Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sleeping girl, the last best photograph

For a short few days she was here, and then she was gone.

Cicadas droned in the elms. The sound of the Jeep faded as if muffled by the golden dust settling to the road. I felt the weight of my years and my failings and tried to let the tension go but it would not. After a while, Lori took my hand and led me back to the house.


I was never very good at being a father. I worked evenings and weekends, and holidays because the money was so good. God knows we needed it. Like most young couples, money was something other people had and we didn’t. My Baptist upbringing cautioned me against the love of money, but it wasn’t love at stake—it was survival. Lori took odd jobs such as selling Tupperware and babysitting so she could stay at home and raise our two boys; I grabbed every minute of overtime and drove the streets of Denver so much that they became eternally implanted in my dreams, though grown darker and more menacing, with shadows that move of their own volition and rivers viscous and black as coal. I wasn’t there for my boys’ birthdays, school events or soccer games. They grew up. I worked.

In truth, I never knew how to be a father. I can admit it now with only a minor twinge of guilt, the admission no more than another tick on a lengthy checklist of personal shortcomings. I was a better husband, which might be another way of saying I was selfish. A man receives from a wife, whereas children require constant giving. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that children also gave, or if I knew it sooner it was more an academic point than heartfelt recognition. So much of our lives is forgotten, or fades into background noise whose individual characteristics blur into a greater, indefinable whole.

Grandchildren provide recompense, or perhaps even atonement. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I’m feeling distant—not merely a term of emotional disconnect but a measurement of hundreds of miles. If being a father was a role where I always found myself on the outer margins looking in, being a grandfather only emphasized my detachment. What I initially thought would be easier has, in fact, become more difficult. Babies remain incomprehensible beings, squalling, temperamental bundles of egocentrism best studied through a camera viewfinder, where they can be safely transformed into photographic images for parents and grandmothers to babble over. Using camera as shield might not be the most endearing characteristic of a hopelessly bewildered grandfather, but we live, and die, by compromises we must make.

Sage was the first. And almost from the first found herself trapped in a No Man’s Land between two opposing armies. The battleground over custody and parental rights raged through dysfunctional courts staffed with legal half-wits, bombed-out caseworkers and delusional psychiatrists who were themselves crazier than the inmates, with tit-for-tat retaliations, all-out frontal assaults, ambuscades and flanking attacks, until at last a sort of uneasy truce was declared with all parties bloodied and weary. Though it all, Sage appeared none the worse for wear, gravitating between parents with an ease only the young can achieve.

As grandparents at a 500-mile remove, we were little more than moderators trying to keep communication open, fully believing nothing we were told. During our annual visits to Denver we saw Sage whenever possible, conscious that our very infrequency branded us strangers. Watching her grow was disjointed and abrupt in the way that unfamiliarity displaced vast swaths of time. Six inches here, six there, and the little girl we thought we knew was a young lady with a shy smile and wisdom far exceeding her nine years.

Two weeks ago, our youngest son, Ben, brought her for a visit. It was after they arrived that we learned that Sage’s mother was relocating to Florida for a new boyfriend and a new life, and that Sage was being taken. The legality of it was something the courts would decide, and would be played out far away from our idyllic prairie patch. For a brief three days she was ours to spoil, and spoil her we did. Or tried to.

Horseback riding, sweets, family reunions and introductions, star-filled nights, we showed her another side of life. But an undercurrent of violence, distrust and hate ran beneath everything like a toxic spill. Once again we were the moderators, adrift with no facts to fall back on, no truths to anchor ourselves, and, ultimately, no means to determine the proper course of action. So that when the mother claimed kidnapping and threatened legal action, we quietly acquiesced to relinquishing Sage when the mother and new boyfriend passed through on their inexplicably sudden flight to the Sunshine State.

The evening before the transfer I worked late locating every photograph of Sage in my archive. When I was through amassing a pictorial history of her from infant to young lady, I copied them to a DVD and gave it to Ben. “Just in case,” I said.

The next morning we let Sage sleep late while we adjourned to the kitchen for small talk. At one point I took the camera into the living room where she dozed on the couch and captured her there at peace, the blankets spilling onto the floor, her head lolled to the side, mouth slightly open. For perhaps the first time the camera wasn’t a shield but a means to stop time, to connect. After printing the image, I slipped it to Steph, Ben’s girlfriend, asking her to give it to him later.

And then the black Jeep pulled in and I went out alone to set guidelines for the meeting. Once Lori knew everything was okay, she brought out Sage. Sage was clearly happy to see her mother. We got their new address and said goodbye, and watched them drive away.

Life is rarely a matter of absolutes. Sometimes there are only losers and no winners. But this much I do know: it’s never too late to be the father I should have been, or the grandfather I need to be.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The invisibility of near objects

I hosed down the live trap and put it away in the shed, and closing the door behind me stood in the near-darkness breathing in the scent of the morning. Dew lay heavy on the grass, and a drone of crickets and katydids rose and fell with a lulling cadence like breakers on a far shore. In the west clouds roiled and churned, smoky and pale with an embered moon smoldering within. To the east only a faint glow to herald a distant dawn.

As I made my way back to the house, I cut between the garden and the raised bed. Something had been eating our tomatoes and melons, hollowing out the fruit much as a human would, and I wondered if a friend was correct when she suggested turtles as a possible culprit. I’d never seen a turtle in the yard and doubted one could clamber atop the hay bales where the tomatoes are planted, but stranger things have occurred. I thought of the desert tortoises in my parents’ yard and how we used to feed them tomato worms, and then I saw something dark and rounded at my feet.

I stopped and stared at it, trying to make out its shape. It was half-concealed by the broad fronds of squash and zucchini plants, partially balanced on the low rim of the raised bed. My mind’s eye traced the smooth carapace of a terrapin, the short scrambling legs, and I imagined its beak-like mouth raking out huge chunks of our precious homegrown veggies. Stooping lower, I parted a frond to confront the malefactor.

The turtle shape morphed into an enormous cudgel of dark-skinned zucchini, easily 15 inches in length.

How we missed it was anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t the first time such a monster had eluded us. Just last week Lori hauled out a prodigious zucchini that was so heavy it had carved a groove into the grass. Considering that we water every morning and often inspect the garden in late afternoon, it seemed impossible for two observant people to have overlooked them. It’s not as if they’re camouflaged or anything. Nor is our garden overly large.

Rather than pluck it then, I decided to return later to see how noticeable it was in the light of day. As it turned out, it was glaringly, ridiculously obvious.

Perception—how we see the world—is a tricky thing. Light and humidity can play games with vision, turning, as happened to me, a black-billed magpie into a yellow-billed magpie, or an indigo bunting into a lark bunting. We’ve all seen shimmering mirages rising from heat-soaked lowlands, inland oceans conjured from nothing more than refracted light. But missing a zucchini of such size seemed impossible unless we were deliberately diverting our sight. And that clearly wasn’t the case.

Sometimes we see what is not there, and sometimes what is there we do not see. Not long ago I posted a photograph on my Web site of a bluebird perched atop the handlebars of an old rusty bike. A fellow writer from the Gulf, Linda Leinen, wrote about the image on her blog, “The Task at Hand.” The bicycle reminded her of one she rode as a child, but on repeated viewing she was shocked at something she’d missed.

“As I often do with images I enjoy,” Linda wrote, “I went back to look at the photo again, and then two times more. When I returned to look at it a fourth time, I was utterly astonished. There, on top of the bicycle handlebars, was a bluebird. After a moment of disorientation – when had the bird flown in? how did I miss it? surely it wasn’t there before - I succumbed to simple amusement. Obviously Tom had added the bluebird to his bicycle with a little creative photoshopping, perhaps intending to determine who really was looking at his photos. I left a comment – an inquiry about the bird – and received a response. The bird had been there from the beginning. I simply hadn’t seen it.”

Whether from inattention, response to preconceptions, experience, memory triggers or other factors of which we might never fully understand, the fact is we are often as blind as bats.

The older I get, the more I want to blame this phenomenon on reading glasses, or the lack thereof. At an art show several years ago I spotted an Anthony Gude oil painting of a country road bordered on one side with towering cottonwoods lit by a westering sun and on the opposite side low rounded hills receding into the distance. To say the image spoke to me is to do it a disservice; it screamed, it shouted, it shrieked. In a daze I was pulled across the room until I stood before it, my eyes roving every dab of paint, every nuance of light perfectly captured in the drooping leaves, the gentle slopes, the curve of the road as it disappeared around a bend. So real was the painting that I could smell the dust rising from the road and hear a soft hum of cicadas in the trees.

I glanced at the price tag.

“I’m buying this,” I told Lori. “It’s mine.”

“Put your glasses on,” she said, in that matter-of-fact tone wives inflict on obtuse husbands.

Not a little annoyed—after all, how do you put a price on art that resonates so vividly?—I slipped on my spectacles and reread the tag. As if magicked into being, an extra zero had affixed itself to the figure.

For a long moment I said nothing. My eyes registered the additional zero but I had to wait for my brain to catch up.

“Oh,” I said.

When I showed Lori the zucchini, she just laughed and shook her head.

“They turn invisible,” she said.

It was as good an explanation as any.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The last rabbit

In the smoldering half-light of the murky, moody space between darkness and dawn, when the world hushes as if holding its breath and pale objects float out of the gloom like ships in fog, I methodically, resolutely, feed shells into the Beretta shotgun. Each shell makes a crisp snick when it slides in.

I pull the lever back and load a shell into the chamber. The sound is almost explosive in the silence. With a gesture as automatic as breathing, my index finger sets the safety.

Outside, the low chattering of a wren and the pulsatory throb of crickets. A bobwhite whistles from the thicket, a single two-tone note pendulous in the darkness, an unanswered query that lingers for a moment like an echo before dissolving into nothingness.

Window up, screen removed, I scan the yard for movement.

At the outside corner of the garden, between the raised bed with its giant squash fronds and the low concrete wall of the old foundation hemming the garden proper, a small lump of bloody fur is just barely visible. An untrained eye would skip over it without the slightest hesitation, seeing in it—if it sees it at all—a shapeless gray form in a formless gray dawn, a dead leaf or clump of grass, nothing out of the ordinary.

So. The rabbit haunch has not been touched.

Come to me, I whisper. Come die.

I imagine the gray tabby slinking across the lawn, a stealthy feline shape the color of ash. When it comes, if it comes, it arrives unheralded, cloaked in shadows at twilight or predawn, preternaturally alert for every motion, every noise.

When it comes, it kills.

Feral cats are perfect killing machines, unmatched in ferocity or cunning. Most are nocturnal, exploiting the shadowy fringes of civilization and shifting between the wild and city streets with ease. Millions of native songbirds and other creatures are slain each year by feral cats, a catastrophe reaching into every nation, every province, every city. Difficult to trap, impossible to eradicate, their numbers are exploding in part because of mankind’s penchant for releasing unwanted pets into the wild, and in part because animal lovers are loathe to distinguish between personable feline companions and four-legged butchers.

But man, I think, is a better killer.

I want to prove it. And I settle in to wait, resting the shotgun barrel on the window sill.


In the beginning there was one lone eastern cottontail. It arrived on the day we buried Sheba, emerging from the thicket to sit watching the house as if yearning for something that had no name but consisted of emotion alone. That afternoon it was joined by another. From the two, many more, until the yard and surrounding fields were dotted with rabbits of all sizes, little and big, and all, it seemed, inquisitive about the man who talked and sang to them.

As late winter turned to spring and spring to summer, several stands of poison ivy grew near Sheba’s grave. No cairn was raised, no standing stones as marker or memorial, save for four small stones placed atop the dirt mound, two from the Flint Hills, one from Florida and the last from the far shores of Ireland.

For a while I took this as laziness, a curiously apathetic response to a loss so bewildering. Questions pursued like jackals, accusations and judgments I had no defense against. Everything suggested or proclaimed was true: no cairn. I stood condemned.

But the yard was graced with rabbits, and the rabbits watched me with an intensity I found familiar. Somehow, without fully understanding the method or mechanism of loss and longing, I fell under their spell. If Sheba and Mr. Bun were not reincarnated, if they had not returned in other form to this plane, then these cousins offered a solace I was only too willing to accept. I wanted to be lost in them, to shuck my humanity like a second skin. These were not mere mammals but totems; I wanted transformation or, at the least, guidance.

And, in a way, managed just that.

Their presence each morning, throughout the day, in early evening when shadows grew long, held me together. I spoke to them and sang to them and followed them around, or watched from the porch as they watched back. I let clover grow undisturbed, and protected the rabbits as best as possible. When the gray tabby approached I shot at it with the pellet rifle, hounded it from the yard, chased it through the field at night with flashlight and rifle, and yet for all that one by one the rabbits began to disappear, until at last their numbers simply crashed. Fields and lawns were emptied of life.

So drastic, and so sudden, was this collapse that I was left bereft. Certainly the red-tailed hawk that killed the rabbit whose haunch became my impromptu trap could not be blamed for the population decline, nor, I reasoned, could the gray tabby be so ruthlessly effective. Was a human involved? If so, it would explain the spookiness of the last rabbit, how it would flee at my approach or eye me warily.

The final straw was when we watched the tabby snatch our latest faunal addition to the yard, a wild hispid cotton rat. The small mammal had showed up several weeks earlier, and though it was a rat, its curious gait and furtive movements had delighted us. So much for the rat.

And so on a dark morning serene with cricketsong I waited and watched, one finger on the Beretta’s safety, and the sun rose into the sky and shadows withdrew and the day turned hot and I went back to work, and that evening when clouds gathered in the west I again removed the window screen and waited. The circadian rhythm marched onward unabated with no resolution or finale, a redundancy of uneventfulness that was, in the end, no more than a short lull.


We were sitting down to eat supper when I spotted the tabby. It lay in the shade of a birch tree, too close to the car for a clear shot from the back window. I grabbed the shotgun and dashed out the door, angling around the cars to approach from the rear. For a second the tabby was caught between the truck and the tree. I snapped the shotgun to my shoulder but it was gone in a flash, streaking toward the safety of the thicket with the tree between us.

Later, when the last rabbit emerged from the field to eat clover, I watched it from my vantage and thought of what it would feel like to stroke its long ears back and run my hand down its spine, how the long guard hairs would be bristly to the touch, and how the beat of its heart would match that of mine. And then my eyes scanned the edges of the thicket, the borders of the deep grass, the shadowed recesses beneath the trees, endlessly, resolutely, scanning.