Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Utah Avenue, 1968

Fifty years ago I was a baby sitting in my mother's lap in south Louisville, Kentucky. Fifty years ago this day in her parents' kitchen on Utah Avenue, the apartment upstairs to the left. Half a mile from the distillery, half a mile from the L&N railroad, just a couple of blocks from Churchill Downs. Yellow and green parakeet named Peety chirping relentlessly in its cage at the kitchen window, hoping from perch to perch and honing its beak against a cuttlebone. Late afternoon, my mother bouncing me on her knee at the formica table pushed up against the wall, her mother in the kitchen doing I don't know what. She didn't smoke, she didn't drink coffee, she didn't much cook. She loved grapefruit smothered in sugar, and she used to pour a small pyramid of salt into the palm of her hand before licking it off. She was sweet, but that's all she was, and when she sat she sat like layers of bread dough one on top of the next. Her feet were cracked at the heels. April sun stretching across the courtyard, across the clothes-trees outside with the neighbors yellowing underwear and graying dishtowels, across the hoods of the saddlebroke 15-year-old Buicks and Fords parked out across the way. Across the dead yellow grass.

A scream downstairs and I jump in my mother's lap. Somewhere between sexual ecstasy and gut-shot pain, and we could hear the door slam shut in the hallways downstairs. We could hear the feet pounding up the linoleum in their raggedy slippers. The woman who lived below my grandparents since my mom was a baby, hill woman from Shelby County, woman whose husband was on some kind of primitive dialysis provided by the V.A., woman whose daughter's neck and chest were horribly scarred when she reached up and pulled a pan of boiling water down off the stove, woman who used to take my teenage mother in when my grandfather would get really bad, she came running up the linoleum stairs to us. Woman whose name I wish I could remember now. Knocked on the door. Pounded on the door.

He's dead, she cried, in a voice she couldn't control. They shot him and he's dead. She was downstairs ironing when the radio told her Dr. King was dead. Had been shot on the walkway of some rinky-dink colored Memphis motel. Had stepped outside for a cigarette when the bullet caught him in his golden throat. He's dead and I'm glad he's dead. She was almost crying now. I don't care who knows it. I hope they kill every last one of them.

What do you do? What do you do in a place like that?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

True Tales of the Old West



"Remind me?"

"We were in the Plymouth your dad sold me the summer before."

"The Plymouth?"

"The Plymouth Valiant, yeah. Mustard colored Plymouth Valiant. Your dad sold it to me for three hundred bucks."

"I remember the car, all right."

"Great car. Your dad had fitted it out with bird feathers for good measure. I still had to untangle the gears manually every once in a while."

"You ended up with that car?"

"I just told you. You and I hit a cement divider going 70 miles an hour in that Valiant. And came away with a few cement shavings on the front bumper."

"We did? I don't remember that."

"Yeah, we did. Steel, cement, sparks. The whole thing. The works."

"Seems I'd remember something like that."

"We were on 17 North about two miles from the New York border. We stopped at a Hess station in Mahwah to assess the damage but there wasn't any."

"We bought that car in Chicago, right after my brother was born. Must've been 1975. We moved to Seattle in that car. Went to Little Big Horn. Went to Mt. Rushmore. We moved back East in it. That car crossed the continental divide twice. The miles we put on that thing."

"I thought we were gonna die. How do you not remember this?"

"I don't know."

"We nearly died."

"I don't know. It was a long time ago."

"The good times must've melted your brain. You gotta slow down, it's too late to die young."


Friday, March 16, 2018

Augie


Don't give me that look I know that look I'm not scared of that look anymore. The Pharisees handed it down to the Canaanites and the Canaanites handed it down to us. Your grandfather handed it down to your father on a cold Kentucky plain, stared across from the scarred maple countertop of the inherited flower shop, and he hit you smack in the middle of your frail scared young boy's chest with the butt of an axe handle, hit you like he wanted you to die. At least that was the story. I heard you cried but never had the courage to ask. He gave it to you and you gave it to her and she gave it to me. So don't give me that look. I'm not afraid of your shit anymore.

     My fist thumping against his empty chest. My little brother small and shaking and sick in the corner. My fist thumping against his empty chest thumping like a drum. Little brother sick on the floor, his eyes not meeting the mess, too scared to. Little brother shaking.

   I know you. I wish I didn't but I know you and you're dead and now she's dead and I'm not and so I guess I'll carry you. I still know you, I can still smell you, and you don't even know yourself. Believe me, I would drop/down/lose/leave/shoot/burn you in a heartbeat, if you were sweet baby Jesus himself I would leave you on the shoulder of the highway on a rainy afternoon and never look back, but I can't and you're not and so I still carry you around. But you're mine, because I'm still breathing. You're mine, and I'm yours. But don't try it on me. Don't try that look on me.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Sooner State

When he got back from France he swore he'd never leave Oklahoma again. He built a fence around his house, built another fence around that one, and never talked about where he'd been and what he'd done. He grew thinner than he'd already been. Paler. He'd been considered something of a catch before he went off, handsome young man sitting on a spread of land like that, but those days were gone. People could see the lights on in his house at all hours of the night, could hear strange animal noises echoing across the fields, but everybody knew well enough to leave well enough alone. He came into town once a week for tobacco, coffee, and nails. He'd pick up his mail at the hardware store, get his hair cut early before the Saturday afternoon crowds came in, sit in the barber chair never saying a word. This went on for the better part of a year, and everybody watched but nobody said a word. He'd gone off to Europe one man and had come back another, that was all there was to it. In early March the letters started arriving, first in ones and twos and then in torrents. Beautiful envelopes unlike anything anybody'd ever held before in that Oklahoma hardware store. Pink envelopes that smelled like lilacs, blue envelopes that smelled like the sea. Colored envelopes with exotic stamps and sent in from places with unpronounceable names. La Colle-sur-Loup. Finale Ligure. Cala Cap Roig. All addressed to him in lavender ink, all written in the same spidery female handwriting. He'd pick up his mail without saying a word, those envelopes mixed together with mail-order catalogs from the Southern States feed co-op and official-looking mail from the Veterans Administration, and if he ever noticed the increasingly baffled looks from the men behind the counter at the hardware store he gave no indication. A car rolled into town early one June morning that nobody knew and nobody recognized, the kind of car you saw in technicolor, a low red two-seater Alfa Romero that remained untouched by the dirt of the Oklahoma roads. Those that were awake to see it said it never made a sound, just slid past the barber shop and the bakery and the bar. There was a woman behind the wheel, hard to describe with the early morning sun glinting off her black plastic sunglasses and the wind against the scarf tied tight across her hair. Just slid through town knowing exactly what it was after. For three days that car was parked outside his house, gleaming in the noonday sun. Shining in the moonlight. No lights on in the house at all hours of the night. No animal sounds echoing across the fields. People made excuses just to drive past and see it, and after three days it was gone. Gone like it had never been there at all. Saturdays came and Saturdays went, and no sign of him. Still no lights in the middle of the night, still no animal sounds. The feed co-op catalogs piled up behind the hardware store counter, but no blue letters smelling like the sea and no man there to collect them. Rumors started floating around town. He'd been seen in Enid, drunk as a lord with a blonde on each arm. He'd been arrested just across the state line in Childress. He finally just lost his bearings completely, cracked like an egg. It was always bound to happen, everyone agreed. Just luck it happened before someone got seriously hurt. It was another month before they'd decided he was dead. It went from an idle comment in the barber shop to a stone fact in the space of an hour, and in another hour the Sheriff was standing in the middle of the man's empty house. His shirts still hung in the closet, his socks and underwear still rolled up in his chest of drawers. Milk turning sour in the fridge. But there was no body hanging from the rafters in the barn. No body bled out in the bathtub. No body on the kitchen floor with a shotgun at its feet. He was gone, and no note, nothing to indicate where he'd gone. We used to get stoned in the house, beer and weed and wheelies. Figured it was haunted.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Ongoing Cavalcade

     I'm not asking for anything anymore, except to keep going. You can take it or leave it, makes no difference to me. I've seen people I started out with rise to unbelievable heights, at least by the modest standards we all started out with. I've come across their faces on magazine covers in foreign airports, watched them glide across movie screens, found their poetry in books picked up at random. I've seen people I started out with crash and burn way too soon. Heroin, gunshots, cancer and car wrecks. It's been an ongoing cavalcade of burials and praise.
     The blackbirds hop from branch to branch outside my kitchen window. There are blueberries in a bowl on the table and far off in the distance an airplane leaves a vapor trail as it makes its way from London to New York. It's January and it's cold, but here's a pen and here's some paper and I suppose that's enough for now. But believe me, I'm not asking for anything anymore. Take it or leave it, makes no difference to me.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Life So Long

I used to walk five miles just to stand outside your house, every night for a year. And you never knew. This was back when we were kids, you understand. It's not like I'm like that now, not like I'd do that now. Because I'm not, I wouldn't. Believe me, I've learned my lesson. That's all in the past. But back when we were kids I used to walk to your house after dinner, from my side of town to yours. Past the Texaco, across the river, along the train tracks, through the greenhouses. To your house, standing there.
     What I ended up seeing most of the time was your grandfather, sitting in his wheelchair in the living room. I'd watch from across the street as he'd sit there spitting out pieces of his lung into a nearby plastic pail, parked alone in front of the TV. The TV was always on in your house. He'd stare at the weathermen when the news was over. He'd stare at Johnny Carson. He'd stare at old episodes of "Gunsmoke" and "Columbo." Except for the spitting he never moved, he never said a word. Nobody there for him to speak to. He was wrapped up completely in a green plaid blanket, except for his dry little feet at the bottom and his shrunken  little apple of a head at the top. His ears stuck out. His hair was matted down. His teeth were gone and his face collapsed in around his mouth.
     He'd fall asleep in his wheelchair eventually and eventually you'd come in to wheel him away, I could never see where you took him. You always left the television running. I'd wait there across the street, waiting for you to reappear, but you never did. Just an empty room with the TV running, and after a while I'd start the walk back home. You told me once that he'd been in the First World War, that he had fought in France and was some kind of hero. You told me that he always told the same stories and that all his stories were all lies. And I couldn't imagine being that old, of willing myself to live a life so long, unless you were living it with me. And you never even knew.


Monday, December 18, 2017

Roadmaps




The uncle who married the Irish nurse in Boston. The uncle who drank himself to death after his own son died in a car. The uncle who died in the war. The uncle who took his father's job at the Feed Co-Op. The uncle who lived in Korea. The uncle the judge. The uncle the mechanic. The uncle the priest. The uncle the travel writer. The uncle the spy. The uncle who was rode out of Frankfort on a rail after flashing a negro schoolgirl. The uncle who moved to New York, got locked up in the stockades, and ended up driving a cab over on Hudson Street. The uncle who moved to New York and lasted a week. The uncle who moved to Budapest chasing a girl. The uncle who moved to Scotland chasing a girl. The uncle who moved to California chased by a girl. The uncle who still lives in Nashville with his husband. The uncle who quit drinking. The uncle who didn't. The uncle who taught you how to drive. The uncle who taught you how to shoot. The uncle who taught you how to siphon gas out from an old International Harvester. The uncle who fell off a train and died. The uncle who fell off a horse. The hands and the knuckles and the bones in the faces. The shoulders and the teeth and the blood.  Bellies and livers and lungs. The smell of coffee and cigarettes and whiskey. Trucks and the cars and pocketknives and rifles and cameras. Wristwatches. Buckshot. Birdseed and dog food. The uncle who showed you what your own father knew but couldn't show you. The uncle who shows you what his own brother can't.