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.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Sparrow Thin

     When she died she died angry, to nobody's surprise, and when she left she left it with us. "Bad checks written that couldn't be cashed," as someone said somewhere about somebody else. I stayed up late reading her letters, listening to her messages, studying her photographs, and that anger continued to rise off of the page like a fire. Those were scores we couldn't even hope to settle, scores that were firmly in place before we even came along. We knew it, she knew it, but she couldn't stop it. Just knowing it was there wasn't enough. When she died we were just climbing down from one of those big fights we'd periodically have. One of those explosions followed by months-long silences, neither of us willing to put up with the other one's shit. Even after she died, especially so, I searched myself for any signs of remorse and came up mostly clean. Not entirely clean. It was another in a series of fights that made me grateful for the width and breadth of the ocean that separated us. She'd sent us all scattering. Her grandfather used to fly into homicidal rages, incoherent fits of absolute anger that would make him go blind and once landed him in a Gainesville prison. Her father, fueled by speed and evil design, fell into spells of total fury and violence that made her retreat to the relative calm of that same raging grandfather a smart move by comparison. So just knowing it wasn't enough. I look at myself now and I see it right there. I listen to myself now and I hear it. I smell myself now and I can smell the anger off me. I can taste it on my tongue. I can feel it through my uncut fingernails, through my badly shaven face. I can smell it off my skin. When she died she was tiny, sparrow-thin. You could see her heartbeat echoing through her chest. When she died she was tiny. All that anger coming out of a body so small.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Gregory Corso


    Gregory Corso used to come into the liquor store where I worked as a kid, way over in the northwestern hinterlands of Greenwich Village (I still have dreams about the place now, that wherever I am now or whatever I'm doing I have to drop everything and go back to work there, the age I am now, the family I have now. It strikes me as unfair, but inevitably I head back without complaint).

I was eighteen or nineteen years old, stoned and displaced college drop-out living from one couch to the next and had no idea who Gregory Corso even was, just that he had the self-possession of a king and otherwise looked like a cartoon hobo. Lower teeth missing, Beethoven hair, a donated white linen suit hanging off him like a filthy tent. He wore reading glasses around his neck on one of those strings librarians use and he was always talking, you could hear him through the plate-glass windows of the shop. He'd walk into the place walking, leave the place talking, all in a very specific and rapidly fading New York street whine. His purchases were completely unpredictable. So were his hours, and there was no recognizable correlation between the two. Some expensive Burgundy at ten o'clock in the morning, a pint of cheap behind-the-counter vodka just as we were closing for the night. Vermouth at noon, Navy Rum for dinner. Didn't matter.



     He used to get into the muttered fights with the owner's girlfriend Carole, who lived in the apartment upstairs from the shop with her crazy son Shane (a kid we had no sympathy for at the time, but who probably deserved more, a kid who collected military knives from his mysterious Times Square excursions which he was always eager to show us and who always claimed to see the ghost of his father where the rest of us just saw a deeply fucked-up future Army drop-out) Carole kept watch over the shop, its employees, and most of its customers from behind her well-worn spot behind the old National Cash Register with an explicit contemptuous suspicion that made us all - probably the owner himself more than any of us - tread especially careful around her. She hated the black customers who bought half-pints of Bacardi on their way home. She hated the red-faced Hudson Street Irish who drank Four Roses from mid-morning on. She was an angry and permanently short-changed snob who knew where she was supposed to have ended up and didn't, and she carried her resentment around herself like a cloud.

The only customers she really seemed to like were the older and deeply closeted gay men who lived in the apartments around Jackson Square, trim and timid and suited men in their 60's and 70's and whose tastes ran towards dry white wine that they paid for with crisp twenty dollar bills. She considered them gentlemen, and she would address them as "Mr." Mr. Haversham. Mr. Bennett. Mr. Jones. She had once been a San Diego beauty queen, at least that was the story, but even if that was true it was a long time before now. She was angry about where she was but she didn't have any way of getting out of it. She hated the store, hated all but those most reserved and wealthy customers, and the shop itself reminded her that she was just the fading-beauty queen middle-aged girlfriend of a liquor store owner, whose own interests ran towards his own Queens-Irish background of Cadillac fins, Sterling Hayden movies, and the novelty Jim Beam bottles that crowned the register area. He went to High School with James Caan, best looking guy he'd ever met. He was on Varsity wrestling at St. Ingatius. He loved Dion, and women were a permanent mystery. He loved Reagan and JFK. The shop had originally been his father's, a retired cop with two pensions, a couple of decades left to burn, and a cousin in Manhattan. Carole and her son were dependent on the place they had nowhere else to go, and so every evening she's shuffle down in her slippers and her mossy grey cardigan to check the register tape with an angry appetite that always ended in disappointment.

     Corso, whenever he came into the shop, would needle her incessantly. He'd give her shit about the gaudy new display for this year's Beaujolais Nouveau. He'd give her shit about the screw-top difficulties of the Alexi Vodka pints. He'd walk in telling loud stories to no one in particular about taxis and high heels and French foreign pussy while some Wall Street guy was selecting a hundred dollar bottle of wine for his sleek French bride. Stories designed to throw Carole off the delicate balance she was trying to create. He'd thrown his money on the counter and demand service as was entitled to him. Carole hated him all the more for that kind of money coming out of those kinds of clothes, Carole who'd borrowed rides all the way from California, who'd made promises she had to keep with her eyes closed. She didn't know who he was any more than we did, but she knew that he was somebody, and that he shouldn't have been, and the Wall Street guy and his sleek French bride would just have to wait.

He came into the shop steaming drunk one mid-afternoon while Carole was selling an especially rare bottle of poully fuisse to one of her gentlemen callers. We could hear him before he even came up, ranting on the sidewalk on the other side of 8th Avenue. Apparently he'd been thrown out of some boutique coffee shop just down the street for insulting that shop's wide selection of pies. Fucking Fancy Pies, he was shrieking. Fucking Cocksuckers with their Fancy Pies! Cowards! Chickenshits! Bring me the Greeks! You want pies, bring me to the Greeks. Where the fuck were the Greeks?

I wasn't there when Corso got kicked out of the shop for good after calling Carole a cunt just as her boyfriend - the owner - was passing through the shop on the way out to waxing his car. The owner threw a punch which brought the poet down through a rack of merlot. Corso left, blood running down his nose and fanned out across the front of his white linen suit,  ass of his white linen suit stained purple, screaming his outraged indignity up and down 8th Avenue. The string of his reading glasses had snapped somewhere along the way, and the glasses - themselves broken - hung lopsided around his neck like some kind of injured bird. He never came back, and I never saw him again.

I stood next to Kenny and Carole two months ago in Terminal Five at JFK, Aer Lingus to Jet Blue. They were flying someplace warm and I was flying down to Georgia for reasons of my own. It had been thirty years gone but I knew them immediately. She was riding on one of those volunteer wheelchairs, pushed by a huge black guy who looked like he really wasn't expecting a tip. Kenny was standing over a selection box of donuts, a pyramid of selection boxes. He brought her one, and after she shook her head he brought it back to its place in the pile. She was stabbing with spastic fingers at the display menu of sandwiches, her lower jaw seeming to twitch in exactly the direction the opposite direction of her words.

They didn't recognize me. I followed them for a little while. Then it was time to get back to my gate, and I had to let them go.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Cold Clear Night

     He thought he could outrun it, and for a little while he could.

     He thought he could outsmart it. Thought he could outdrink it. Thought he could outwork it. Outswim it. Outwalk it. Outeat it. Outsmoke it. Outfuck it. Outdrug it. Outshout it. Outspend it. Outpace it. Thought he could outdrive it. Thought he could outread it. Thought he could outwrite it.

     He thought he could wait it out, but in the end it couldn't wait.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

South of Chattanooga

     Her uncle was a drunk, there's no nicer way to say it. Used to disappear all the time. Used to say he had to go "see a man" and disappear all the time. Wind up in some new ugly situation, jail or hospital sometimes, and her and her mother, your grandmother, his sister... they'd have to go get him. This was a regular thing whenever he was back in Louisville. She saw some interesting things for a girl that age, I can tell you. Anyway, like I said her uncle was a drunk but he had a car and he could drive and so whenever her father got really crazy and they needed to get away from him, get out of town and back down the road to St. Augustine, they called on him, were dependent on him. He had this Cadillac he was so proud of. How he got it is another story for another day.
     This was before the interstates, you have to remember. This is the early 1950s, back in the time of Route 66, and the drive down from Louisville was no joke. No straight shot down I-75 back then. No gas-station Starbucks/Hardees rest-stops along the way. No GPS. No satellite radio. This was two-lane piney-woods highways, a couple of closed up little towns and long stretches of nothing in-between. Farms. Woods. Creatures in those woods.
     Your grandfather, I don't have to tell you what he was like. He was crazy, and the older she got the crazier he got. I'm sure you can put it together yourself. I used to shy away from terms like "evil" - he was crazy and he was out of his mind on speed most of the time, but other people are crazy and other people are stoned and they don't do what he tried to do. He's be OK for a while, then he wouldn't be OK again and then she and your grandmother would head back down to St. Augustine, her uncle at the wheel of his dumb red Cadillac. I suppose she was probably around eight, maybe ten? This one time we're talking about? Eight or ten. Let that sink in for a minute.
     So your Mom and her mom and her uncle cleared Kentucky and were heading down to the Sunshine State. Highway X to Highway Y. Highway Y to Highway Z. Her uncle sweating behind the wheel of his car, her mother talking and talking and talking. Middle of the school year but that didn't matter. Knowing her she probably brought her books along. Her mom and her uncle in the front seat, her working out math problems in the back. This ride already familiar to her. Tedium and radio and cigarette smoke and sometime towards late afternoon she needs to pee. She lets them know, but there's no place to go, so just hold it for now. So she holds it and she waits and the wheels keep turning but she really needs to go and she tells them again. An again, no place to go just hold on. More miles pass and eventually she shad no choice. She tells them again and I imagine there was something in her voice that told her uncle that if he really loved that dumb red Cadillac he'd better pull over quick so he pulls over quick and out she pops. Practically flies out the back seat. Her mom gets out of the passenger side. Middle of nowhere, somewhere south of Chattanooga.
     It's getting dark, but not dark enough, and her mom, your grandmother, looks for somewhere to take her that isn't the side of the highway in plain view of her uncle and the rest of the world. She deserves that much. So she looks around as her uncle gets back behind the wheel of his Cadillac, lights himself another Chesterfield, and waits. He's pissed off, just sick of this shit. Sick of these debts he owed his sister and her angry little bitch of a kid, sick of these drives, sick of this nowhere Georgia heat. Just sick of this shit.
     Meanwhile her mom, your grandmother, spots a clump of trees about twenty yards up off the shoulder of the road, under the most primitive of fences, and the two of them pretty much run for it. She just about makes it. Her mom is close behind. When she's done and she's hitching up her underwear your grandmother has a go. Then they're finished, puddles running down into the dusty red Georgia dirt. Then they're finished, this girl and her mother, this mother and her girl. They stand there looking at each other and dizzy with relief, surrounded by trees somewhere deep in Gordon County.
     They hear the Cadillac's engine turn over while they're still standing there, and whatever smile your grandmother might have been smiling just drops. As they clear the trees, hurrying back towards the highway on the other side of the fence, they catch the sight of her uncle shifting the Cadillac into first. They're running now, but they can't catch up. Her mother cries wait and her uncle calls back out through the passenger-side window that he'll be back, that he can't wait any longer, that he's got to go see a man. And the Cadillac pulls off the shoulder and on down the road, leaving your mother and your grandmother behind. They watch it go until the road curves, then they watch it disappear.
     They walked about three hours south down that same highway until they found the next open town, and then they searched every bar in town until they finally found him. And that's a true story. That's what happened when your mom was a kid.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Vast Distances

Wake up. Make coffee. Stare out the window.

Quarter to five. No need for the alarm. Wake up. Make Coffee. Stare out the widow. Again.

Kids asleep. Wife's asleep.

Radio on. Local news and weather from thousands of miles away. Farm reports. Livestock auctions. Radio used to sound like vast empty distances. Now it sounds like wires. Up close. Too up close. Radio off.

Wake up. Make coffee. Stare out the window. Not waiting. Not thinking. Staring. Again. Still.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Three Witches

The Three Witches, she used to call them. When they weren't much more than kids themselves. Girls. Photo taken early on an Easter Sunday Morning. Easter Bonnets and sun bright against their cheeks, the three of them sitting on the front porch steps of the house in Irvine. Husbands off to war.

Before this one's husband died in Anzio. Before this one's marriage fell apart. Before this one started drinking a little earlier every day. Before her own daughter died in the fire. Before this one got a job in the church and this one started teaching school. Before this one moved to Tennessee. Before this one started to feel a little funny. Before this one got a cough that wouldn't go away.

The Three Witches, back when they weren't much more than kids.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hospice (In Progress)

Green haired waitress with GRL POWR tattoo on her lower inside arm brings plates of eggs and grits and sausages and toast and biscuits and bacon and pancakes to the table across from me. Six or seven suntanned ropy Georgia farmers and their soft faced sons in baseball caps. Huge black women in hospital scrubs standing closer to the register waiting for their breakfasts to-go. Solitary soldier in desert camo sitting in a both by the window, drinking his orange juice and punching something into his phone. Savannah Morning News, shooting on MLK, robbery in a Walgreens on Derenne, High School football and Anne Landers.

It took forever and then it hit all at once. Backache in August, day of the eclipse. Radiation in September. Hospice in October. Phone call in October. November now. Sitting on the edge of my bed in Dublin, staring down at my bare feet, phone against my ear. Hit with a speed that caught us all out.

My sister's boyfriend Ray picks me up at the airport. I'd never met him before but I recognize him immediately. Thelonious Monk beard, leather cap, sleepy eyes and skin so dark it's hard to see what he looks like. On the drive back to the house on Althea we talk about everything, his recon tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. His weekend passes in Budapest. Why he left the army and why he would have stayed. It wasn't the event but the six months on either side of the event that finally wore him down. For every year you spend in the desert, you gotta spend 6 months before getting ready and 6 months after unpacking. We talk about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and Co-Op city where he was born. We talk about Oglethorpe and the founding of Savannah. We talk about everything but the reason we're there, and I'm grateful to him for that. She's more or less gone, he says. She's pretty much gone.

Skin jaundiced and eyes marble blue and rolled back or suddenly slammed right into focus. Front cap missing and exposing the small gray baby tooth that had never grown out. Tooth that she always hid, always hated. Feet swollen, right hand swollen. Hair grown back, hair she was always so proud of. Hair grown back after the chemo stopped. Smell of dead flowers that wasn't dead flowers. Eyes slammed right back into focus and the shock of recognition throws me back against myself, then it's gone again. Fentanyl patches and liquid Xanax and mix the Hydrocodone with apple sauce and the oxygen tank sounding like a train. You have to mix it like this. It's a tiny pill, but you need to split it into quarters. Put the quarters under her tongue. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Wooden heart brought up from Mexico and on the wall above the rented hospital bed. Hospice nurse smoking in the back yard, wooden cross and face to the sun. Spanish moss on clothes line behind her. Donuts that everybody eats and apples and oranges that nobody even looks at. Halloween and pumpkins and sister dressed as Edie Beale and somewhere off in the distance the Astros beat the Dodgers. Somewhere off in the distance some guy plows a truck into some tourists in New York. Somewhere off in the distance a guy shoots up a church in Texas.

My sister exhausted. Sister dealing with this since the get-go. Sister up until morning, then locked in her room until late afternoon. Sister not sleeping at all or otherwise sleeping all the time.

I'm a mess, she tells us. No, you're not, my Dad says. They gave you a bath this morning. Remember? They washed your hair. My mom says nothing. Eyes considering. Yeah, I am, she says.

Main thing is don't argue with her. It gets bad around seven, gets better by nine. Sunsetting, they have a term for it. Animal moaning. Begging to die. Just whatever she says don't argue. Group hug. At night they're still talking. Sister can hear them talking through the wall. At night it sounds normal. She gets confused, gets scared. The red liquid is the liquid Xanax. Up to five, up to halfway up the syringe. Just don't argue with her. Just tell her you can't, don't get into it.

Nowhere to took that doesn't shout back. Photos on every wall. Chicago, 1974. Seattle, 1979. Lexington, 1968. Rome, Paris, South Carolina. Washington Square. She's everywhere in the house. Loom set up and ready to go. Winter hat still half-knitted on the mission desk and mystery three-quarters read. Dentist's appointment written down in red pen on the kitchen calendar. Uneaten okra in the fridge. None of the books she had read in the preparation of death seemed to be much use now that it was here. "The Plague" and "The Year of Magical Thinking" and "The End of the Affair" and "Mrs. Dalloway." Books by Thomas Merton and Alan Watts. "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones." Those books suddenly seemed like a living person's idea of what a dying person needed to hear, a vanity for the living. Now we were here, she was here, and there was no vanity. Now we were here and it was a whole other thing. We tried to sing to her, we played music we thought she might want to hear. Old Paint. The Girl from Ipanema. We tried to tell her to let go, some variation of go-to-the-light, but it wasn't working. It wasn't like the movies. This wasn't like the movies at all. We were lost without a map. This thing was beyond what we knew, beyond what any of us knew. Beyond what she knew, as well.

Waking up to the sound of freight trains early every morning. Waking up from a dreamless sleep. Just a black sleep.

Mastectomy scars from ten years before. Surgery scars from when her knee blew out in San Anselmo. Five rapid breaths and then no breath at all. Wait, look, wait. Inhale. Exhale. I waited for her not to breathe, found myself hoping she wouldn't. Five more rapid breaths and then no breath at all. Sat and watched as her right hand swelled to twice its size. Watched as purple bruises the size and shape of my fingertips bloomed across her forearm. I guess by the time this is over your parents won't have any mystery left at all, my father says. He's embarrassed, apologizing. If anything the mystery keeps getting bigger.

I pick my brother up at the airport, standing in the same spot where Ray had stood waiting for me. My brother who had flown in from the Caucuses to JFK, then walked across Queens to La Guardia, then sat in a diner until his twelve o'clock flight. He comes walking up the arrivals ramp waving and smiling like any other family vacation. I can barely speak. He comes rolling up with his suitcase rolling up behind him.

Acorns hitting the carport roof like grapeshot. Squirrels attacking the birdfeeder. Spanish moss hanging off the clothesline. Hospice nurse heads out the screen door, lights another cigarette. Inside, oxygen tank inhales, exhales. Inhales, exhales. Whiskey and smoking. Everybody smoking. Whiskey and Camels and pot. Beer and sandwiches. Macaroni Salad. Potato Salad. Donuts and chicken cacciatore. More whiskey. More beer. No music and then too much music. Bob Dylan, somewhere. Linda Ronstadt, somewhere. Mama Tried. Heart Like a Wheel. The Weight. Willing. Coffee. Beer. Somebody's got to walk the dogs.

We need toilet paper. We need paper towels. We need milk. We need half and half. Is anybody hungry? Nobody's hungry. We need bread. Everybody's thirsty. There's money in the change bowl. Coffee, we need coffee. Dead Palmetto Bug trapped in the dirty dishes, floating belly up under a milk glass.

The urine bag runs from amber to purple to brown to black. That's the kidneys going, according to the hospice nurse. Her heart's beating like a jackhammer. Liver pretty much gone. She's waiting for something, according to the hospice nurse. God's not through with her yet, according to the hospice nurse. She's strong. Weren't for this she'd live to be a hundred and five.

I went to the grocery, came back, and that's how long it took. Deciding between soups, deciding between beers, and that's how long it took. Clothes in the dryer still drying. Hospice nurse came out to meet the car. Coffee, toilet paper, beer. Went to the grocery, came back, and that's how long it took. Brother and sister in the bedroom, brother holding sister and both of them staring, mom in the bed. Mom's face not fighting. Mom's face Mom's face again. Mom dead. Not resting, not passed. Maybe at peace. Eyes closed, oxygen tank off. Oxygen tubes out.

Two eggs over easy, hash browns and bacon. Two eggs over easy, sausage and grits. Two eggs over easy, pancakes, maple syrup. Two eggs over easy, whole wheat toast. Coffee, orange juice. Coffee, just the check. Coffee, thank you. Coffee, please.

She was gone within the hour, and that's how quick it was. Black suits, pink jowls, silver hair. Handshakes all around. Condolences. Will there be a church service? No, no service. That's fine. Has everyone had a chance to say their goodbyes? Yes, thank you. That's fine. We'll just take it from here. Not much more than a hospital gurney, and they're figuring out the angles of the hallway. My mom's body hidden but shape visible beneath the dark velvet blanket. Impossible not to think of who had been under that blanket before, who would be under than blanket the next day. Black Cadillac hearse pulling away from the curb, drove away slow from the front door and then sped up gradually as it turned out of view. Dad and Sister following the gurney down the path towards the street. Standing there together after the hearse pulls away. I'm watching through the Venetian blinds and nobody gets close because they know better.

Nothing I could think made me feel more stupid, more childish, more caught off-guard. When the time came, when the time hit, I was stupid beyond. Beyond stupid. It's the permanence of the thing. We kept marveling to ourselves, marveling to each other. It's the permanence of it. Gone. Just gone. Not coming back. Stupid, because we knew that. But just stupid. Because that's just that's how it works. Phone calls from Dublin. Phone calls from New York. Phone calls to Kentucky, California, Florida, New Jersey. She's everywhere in the house. Now that she's gone she's everywhere. Joan Didion on TV punching at the air with her tiny knotted fist talking about death and gold but I have nothing to say. Driving, nothing to say. Walking, nothing to say. Groceries, nothing to say. Laundry, nothing to say.

I go through her desk and she's saved everything. Every postcard, every letter, every photo of her kids and of my kids. I find a Polaroid picture of my wife and myself taken some thirty years before, taken in Ireland maybe. Taken when we were just kids ourselves. I pocket the picture and eventually close the drawer.

Eating microwave dinners over the kitchen sink, but made it back to the table eventually. Made it back to the table after a couple of days. Without her there to mediate we all just become more of who we already are. Sister leaves, needs to get away, needs to wash her hair, needs to sleep in her own bed in her own house on her own street again. Brother claims Mom's chair. Dad on the porch and smoking. Drive along 16 to the airport, fires along the highway. Processing plant off in the distance, fires there too. JFK, and fire out past the runway. Fire out past the runway on the runway home.