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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lisa

We closed on our home in the middle of August. Richard was able to transfer to a terminal about an hour from Little River. He planned on driving for another six months… then the lease would be up on his semi truck and he’d look for work closer to home.

“Won’t you be afraid to be in this big old house all alone?” he asked me the first night we were there. I laughed and told him no.

“And besides, I won’t be alone… I’ll have little Jem here with me.” We rented a trailer to haul furniture and belongings from our apartment and spent the first day there unloading and unpacking. All our furniture barely filled one corner of the enormous living room. Richard laughed and said how we would have to go around town looking for unwanted furniture sitting on curbs just to fill up the room.

We set up our bed and dresser in a bedroom on the second floor. I insisted on putting little Jem’s bed in our room too. Richard said she could have her own room now but I wanted her with us for a little longer. “At least until she’s a year old,” I told him. He said that was fine as long as she didn’t mind him ravaging her mother. She won’t mind, I assured him as I peeled off my tee shirt to show him that I wasn’t wearing a bra. He chased me around the bedroom while Jem squealed and giggled watching us. He caught me and tossed me on the mattress. I covered my breasts with my hands and told him nope… he’d have to wait until Jem’s nap. He said, “Girl, you sure are cramping my style!” as he picked her up and bounced Jem on his knee. I wished I had the camera.

I spent the days Richard was gone scrubbing floors and washing walls. The heating and air conditioning people were installing a new furnace and an electrician we hired worked at replacing the old cloth-covered wiring. The plumber said we were lucky… the well had been replaced a few years ago and most of the plumbing too. The old pipes Richard saw in the basement were no longer connected… they just hadn’t bothered taking them out. I took Jem shopping with me and on the way back I saw an old mower for sale in front of someone’s house. It was cheap so I bought it and they helped me put it in the trunk. I set Jem up on the porch in her car seat where I could keep an eye on her while I started mowing the yard. I hadn’t realized how big the yard was when I bought the mower or how tall the grass. But over the next three days I managed to knock out the front and get a start on the back. I liked sitting on the porch with Jem in the evening admiring my handiwork and smelling fresh-cut grass.

I discovered the ocean in our back yard… we knew our property was on the coast but it was so grown up with brambles and scrub brush and trees gone wild that we couldn’t see the shoreline. I took Jem with me one day exploring the outbuildings. We found some hedge trimmers and a saw to cut tree branches, so I loaded her up in her stroller and took her into the back with me where I proceeded to lay siege to the overgrown jungle growing there. By the time Richard came home I had cleared a path to the ocean. It was dark and Jem was asleep but I made him wake her up and said for them to come with me. The moonlight was pouring down and we all three sat together on a blanket holding each other for a long while watching the waves rolling in, crashing endlessly, receding, and then rolling in again. A lone light shined way out on the horizon… a passing ship… and the night sea breeze smelled of salt and of cleanliness. I thought how it was a moment worth remembering.

The police showed up at the door a few nights later. I’d gone to sleep and when the knocking started thought I was dreaming. It grew louder and more insistent. When I turned on the porch light and saw two policemen standing there I thought at first that it must have something to do with my father and mother. I don’t know why I thought that. One of them asked if I was the wife of Richard Roberts. I said yes. And I knew something was wrong. The one who seemed in charge asked, “Ma’am, could we step inside?” so I held open the door for them and said please. They took off their hats and held them blue in their hands rocking back and forth on their polished shoes ever so slightly. The one who had spoken said maybe I wanted to sit down so I did. My heart was pounding and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath and the room was spinning out of control.

He said there had been an accident. Richard’s truck had hit a train somewhere in Nebraska and he was dead. I shook my head and said, “I don’t understand. What happened?” He said how sorry he was to have to tell me this as he fumbled with his hat and kept looking at his silent partner. He gave me a business card with the name and number of the coroner in a small town in the middle of Nebraska and said I should call in the morning… that the coroner would have more information… that it was an ongoing investigation and that he didn’t know the exact details of the accident. They both said how sorry they were and did I have someone I could call to come stay with me and then they were gone. I wondered if I might be dreaming.

At the funeral I thought how I could count our days together and not reach a hundred. Richard had no family… his parents were dead and he was an only child like me. Louise Evers showed up and a few people Richard worked with. I sat by the casket for hours with little Jem in my lap. The preacher asked if anyone else was coming and I said no, I didn’t think so… to go ahead with the service.

“Our nothing in nothing, nothing be your name. Your nothing come, your nothing be done, on earth as it is in nothing. Give us this day nothing, and forgive us nothing, as we also have forgiven nothing. And lead us not into nothing, but deliver us from nothing.”

As the preacher talked, my mind wandered. I thought how the coroner told me that Richard must have fallen asleep behind the wheel and drove his truck right into the side of a freight train. There were no skid marks before the train crossing. He died providing for us. And I remembered that after my mother passed away with very little life insurance Richard had insisted on buying a policy on himself that would not only pay off the house but give me something extra to live on if something should happen. The preacher said amen. The next day we buried Richard by the ocean. He was twenty nine years old.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Allison Johns

Allison Johns drank and she was good at it. Her older brother Alex taught her how to mix drinks for him from the time she was old enough hold a glass. Dad and mom both worked upper management corporate jobs in Hollywood requiring them to travel a great deal plus when they weren’t traveling they both worked fourteen hour days. In their parents’ absence, their nanny and housekeeper, Mrs. Stewart, raised Alex and Allison to be good little clones of dad and mom, dressing them in slacks and skirts that mimicked their parents’ way of dress.

Born in southern California; Allison lived in one of the most expensive homes situated in an exclusive sea side enclave hidden just outside Malibu Hills. She was three years younger than her brother Alex, who alternately fawned over her and ignored her completely, especially when his friends came to the house to play pick-up basketball games and to watch movies and to swim in the Olympic-sized pool out back of the forty room mansion where they lived.

Watching the boys swimming in the pool from her bedroom window overlooking the back yard while sipping on a quadruple screwdriver—her first of the day but not her last—Allison felt left out… as if no one even knew she was alive. She was fourteen years old, developing quickly into the woman she’d become. She put on what she called her teeny-weeny pink bikini, covered it up with a robe, grabbed a towel, perched her sunglasses on top of her head, picked up her drink and a book, and headed downstairs to the pool.

As she walked out the sliding glass doors to make her way to the swimming pool, she saw the boys ignoring her, continuing their rough-house play in the water. But when she took off her robe and lay down on a chaise lounge pool-side, then she noticed their eyes on her. She overheard one boy asking Alex if that was his sister, pointing to Allison. Alex said, “Yes,” and he seemed perturbed as he asked her if she couldn’t sunbath somewhere else. Allison balanced on her sunglasses on the tip of her nose, set down her drink, picked up a book, lay back in the lounger, and acted as if she hadn’t heard a word.

“Where are you going, Tom?” she heard Alex yell. Looking up from her book, she saw the boy who’d asked about her swimming over to the edge of the pool and hauling himself out. She liked the way his wet skin rippled in the sunshine. He walked dripping towards Allison, sitting on the lounger next to her.

“You’re Allison, right?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” Allison answered. “And you’re Tom.”

The boy blushed. After a few moments he asked, “Are you starting high school this year?”

“Uh huh,” she said. “Do you go to Malibu Cove too?”

“No,” Tom said. “I go to Agoura High. It’s a pretty good school as far as public schools go. I’m going to be a junior this year.”

“Oh, yes, I bet it is a good school. I’d probably be going there too but our parents make us go to Malibu Cove. It’s a ritzy shitzy school… they think it’s the greatest… they like anything that costs lots of money. That’s why I’m not going to Agoura. I was kind of hoping we’d see each other. I could use a few friends. But I guess not…”

An enormous wave of water struck them both. Alex and the other two boys with him were pummeling the water with their open hands, sending it cascading over Tom and Allison. They both jumped to their feet. The splashing stopped as suddenly as it started. Allison noticed that she was the center of attention… all eyes on her chest. She looked down to see that the wet bikini fabric showed a perfect outline of her now erect nipples.

“Put your robe on, Allison,” Alex ordered. He looked stern sounding like dad but Allison noticed he couldn’t keep his eyes off her either. So instead of doing as Alex told her, she reached behind her back, undid her top, and flashed the boys her breasts. Their mouths dropped open as their eyes grew big as donuts. She grabbed her robe to cover up and fled back into the house. Breathing hard by the time she reached her bedroom, she looked out the window. The boys were still standing where she’d left them, giggling among themselves.

Later that night, Allison was in her bedroom. She had her pajamas on, a gin and tonic next to her on the night stand, and she was lying in bed reading Pride and Prejudice with four pillows behind her back propping her up. There came a knock at the door.

“Come in,” Allison said, throwing a handkerchief over her drink in case it was Mrs. Stewart. She knew mom and dad were gone.

“Hey Allison,” Alex said, poking his head around the door. “Can I come in?”

“Of course, silly,” Allison said. “Come on in.” He walked over to her, sitting down on the bed.

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry about today,” he said.

“I guess I’m the one who should be saying sorry,” Allison said. She had a good buzz on, like every night about this time.

“No, you didn’t do anything,” Alex said. “Those guys are pigs.”

“Did you like it?” Allison teased. “I saw you looking too.”

“Well, you sure are growing up,” Alex admitted.

“Do you want to see them again?” Allison asked, starting to unbutton her pajama top, one button at a time. She saw his eyes grow big, eager in anticipation.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Allison,” Alex said. But his eyes didn’t move away from her chest. She undid the last button and opened up her top, quick at first, and then hiding herself again. She giggled at the disappointment she saw in Alex’s eyes. She opened up her top again, more slowly, and kept it open this time.

“You can touch them if you want,” Allison said, arching her back a little, looking down and taking one of her breasts in her hand, cupping it for him to see.

Alex reached over and caressed one breast, and then the other. His hands felt firm yet tender and warm. He was shaking. Allison felt her nipples growing hard and something between her legs start to tingle.

“They’re so soft,” Alex said. His voice sounded funny.

“That feels good,” Allison breathed. “Squeeze them just a little bit… yes, that’s right. Pinch my nipples… a little harder. Rub them between your thumb and fingers. Oh, yes… don’t stop.” She reached a hand down inside her pajama bottoms to feel the tingling spot between her legs. She pressed it and felt something growing inside her. “Oh, don’t stop,” she moaned, as she had her very first orgasm with someone else around. Alex’s hand was gone. She lay back for a moment squeezing her breasts together and kneading her nipples with her fingertips.

“Here, take this,” Alex said. His pants were off… Allison didn’t remember him taking them off. He was pressing something hard into her hand. It was his cock. She’d seen her dad’s cock once when he came out of the shower not expecting her to be there. And she’d seen pictures in magazines and in dirty movies. But she’d never touched one before. “Doesn’t it feel warm?” he asked her.

“Yeah,” Allison agreed. She put both hands on it. “It’s soft but it is hard too. I like it.”

“Let me put it in your mouth,” Alex urged.

“Go ahead,” Allison agreed. He tasted of urine, sweat, and chlorine. “Wrap your lips around it,” he said. His hips moved back and forth, slowly at first, and then faster and faster until she felt him swelling inside her mouth. He began spurting. The spurting surprised her and she let go of his cock with her mouth and grabbed it in her hands. He continued to spurt into her hair and onto her face and chest.

“Oh, God, Allison, I’m so sorry,” Alex said. “We shouldn’t be doing this…”

“It’s okay, Alex,” she said wiping his warm stickiness from her body. “I kind of liked it. You surprised me, that’s all.” She licked some from her lips. It tasted of garlic and salt. “I’ll be ready next time.”

“We can’t tell anyone,” Alex said. “Promise? It’s our secret, right?”

“I promise,” Allison swore. Allison knew how to keep a secret. Besides, who was she going to tell?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tom Three Deer

My name is Tom Three Deer. I was born on the Pine Ridge reservation at the southern end of the Bad Lands… I am Oglala Lakota Sioux. My father had a ranch he inherited from his father who had inherited it from his… where we raised fine horses and splendid ponies and where the grasses grew thick and where we were happy. I remember the house as a big place though I was small… it was dug halfway into the ground and built from fired adobe bricks with a roof of large logs covered by dirt and grass that sloped so when the cold rains fell it stayed warm and dry inside.

Close to the house were corrals and barns and chickens wandering aimlessly pecking at the ground and sleeping cats in the sun and dogs licking themselves. Mother would go each morning to her hen house to gather eggs and three or four times a year father would butcher a fat hog and the neighbors would come from miles around to help make sausage and bring their kids. On those nights there would be a bon fire with men sitting in a circle drumming their drums and chanting while women cackled in the shadows and we kids gathered green sticks to slide the fresh hog intestines over inside out running to the creek to wash off the shit, and then roasting the chitins over the fire, eating them greedily.

We fetched our drinking water from the clear creek that ran singing back of the ranch and we bathed there as well. Mother had a rock where she slapped our clothes clean and father strung rope between the trees growing close by on which she hung out the laundry to dry flapping in the sunshine and the breeze. There was an outhouse not far from the house where we did our business and every so often I’d help my father dig a new hole, slide the john over it, and cover up the old hole. In the summer wasps made nests in the corners and spiders lurked under the seat and in the winter I recall hurrying lest I freeze to the seat itself.

I had two brothers but they both took sick and died when I was too young to much remember them. I recall they were born, squalled a lot, and one day stopped. My father wrapped them in burlap burying them on top of a hill where a lone crooked tree grew and carved their names on a flat stone apiece. There were other flat stones there too… my father’s father and mother and his grandparents too and other names who I didn’t recognize. Sometimes a storm or the snows of winter would knock down the stones and father would set them to rights again and mother planted colorful flowers on the graves. But I recollect it was still a lonesome and a sad place.

My two sisters were older than I was and they went to the reservation school miles away. The school required that they wear uniforms that made them look like little white girls. My father swore when he saw them but my mother said, “Hush.” She brushed their long black hair until it shined putting it up in braids and made them a lunch each morning before they left for the hour-long walk to school. On rainy days father might drive them and in the winter they stayed home doing their numbers on a chalk board mother kept under the Hudson’s Bay and reciting Bible verses over and over until they got them right.

In the spring we’d plant a garden and everyone helped. My father hitched the most docile horse to a plow breaking the soil so we kids could work it with hoes making it fit for planting. Mother saved seeds from last year storing them carefully wrapped in handkerchiefs and placed in jars that she kept in the fruit cellar. After father was done plowing he’d go off and smoke his pipe and watch while mother instructed us where to dig the furrows and how deep and then dropping seeds in each before covering them up again. She made us put up chicken wire fencing around the garden to keep the critters out and she shot any rabbits she saw putting them into a stew.

Most summers were spent playing and swimming in the creek fishing when we took a mind to and catching frogs and crawdads when the creek ran low and we could spot them in shallow pools. The days were hot but the house held the coolness of the nights being half below ground and the row of cottonwood trees my grandfather’s father had planted provided shade from the afternoon sunshine. My father sat on the porch all summer drinking strong parsnip wine he’d bottled the previous year sometimes laughing with friends who stopped by and my mother sighed watching them and shook her head.

In the fall we’d harvest corn and tomatoes and squash and beans and dig potatoes and onions and garlic and spend weeks putting it all up with mother boiling up her canning jars and supervising us kids picking and cutting up and peeling and dicing. We’d spend days berrying, picking blackberries, mulberries, raspberries, and gooseberries. Each autumn father would haul the old sand out of the fruit cellar bringing fresh sand from the creek bottom in wheelbarrows spreading it on the cool floor thick and deep. I was short and he was tall so it fell to me to do most of the work down there but I didn’t mind. I remember it smelled of earth and of home. What we stored down there lasted all winter and was still palatable next spring.

In the winter mother made soup sometimes with venison that my father shot and buffalo meat when we could find it but mostly with vegetables from our garden. She boiled it up in a huge stew kettle she kept hanging over an open fire that served both to warm the house and to cook our food. Sometimes cinders flew into the soup when she opened the top to stir it but no one seemed to mind. She bought bags of whole wheat at the general store grinding it herself on a milling stone that sat out back by the creek to make fry-bread and biscuits. She made jams and jellies with the berries we picked and dried the rest to flavor the desserts she concocted from sugar and cream.

My father was forced to give up his land by the War Department in 1942. They knocked down our house and barns and put an army base there and shot big guns and dropped bombs from airplanes. After a time of staying in rented apartments in town that smelled of death and decay we became homeless, living in tents or out of the back of an old pick up truck with a wooden box for sleeping. I was eight years old. My father received a small settlement check each month from the United States government as payment for the land they took from him. He promptly drank it up. He died of alcohol poisoning when I was ten years old. They found him in the gutter where he had fallen and dogs had eaten part of his face.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Lisa

So, I’m going to show you my life. Not in pictures, for I cannot paint or draw. I use words. And I hope these words will form some small image of me I long to share with you. In order to do this I think I must reach all the way back into my past to the time before I had a name or even a face, swimming free in the dim recesses of that place from which we all come and that place to which we all will one day return. But I find there is nothing to say of that.

I began in a dried up little town in the middle of the state of Kansas. It never rained for a whole year when I was ten years old and all the trees died off from thirst or beetle disease and what crops that grew withered in the fields while farmers wrung their hands looking to the sky as they prayed for rain. But God didn’t hear. I remember that town in its vibrancy before the dust settled over it and the soil cracked in great chasms which small children had to take care not to fall into lest they be lost forever.

I knew everyone and everyone knew me. A gigantic grain elevator dominated the center of town… below it small stores and houses, streets and alleys, washed out in gentle waves like they were blown there by the wind that graced the surrounding prairie. At night a quiet would settle over it all with the early hum of street lamps and sometimes a fog would creep in from the creek that stuttered through town settling low obscuring the ground making it seem as if everything in the world floated on that mist.

Mornings I’d wake to the tinkle of milk bottles and the crowing of roosters welcoming the dawn and the smell of bacon frying and coffee. My father had no land of his own. Before the drought he worked at a many thousand acres farm on the outskirts of town… sometimes in the spring he’d bundle me with him to go riding over the fields in a growling tractor pulling tillers and plows turning the prairie sod to lay baking in the sun. I’d sit proud beside my father smelling the dampness of the newly turned soil and believe in the beginnings of life.

Late afternoon my mother would ring the dinner bell that hung on the back porch. It had a distinctive sound unlike any bell I’ve heard since and we could hear it way out in the fields. My father would look at me as if to say, we’re done for today, and he’d drive the tractor back to the barn where it was kept and together we’d walk the short distance home, wondering to each other what might be for dinner tonight and laughing at each other’s belly’s growling like that old tractor.

My father would always wash up first while my mother asked how things went today and wonder if the lunch she sent with us was enough to eat or if she should send more tomorrow. My father would say, “Fine, it was fine,” and take his place at the head of the table where a bottle and a small glass greeted him. He’d fill the glass with amber liquid taking care not to spill and throwing back his head drink it down in a practiced gulp. I liked to watch the change settle over him as he downed the third and fourth of the small glasses.

If I dawdled watching, my mother would scoot me to the sink with her hands under her apron, instructing me to make sure my fingernails were clean and to take a cloth to my face. She would load the table with biscuits and beans and potatoes and fried steaks and sometimes pork chops with onions and if it were Friday fish and there would be a pitcher of cold milk for my mother and me and bottles of beer for my father.

On Sundays we’d go to church and the whole town would be there dressed in finery with bibles in hand and the light of God shining in their eyes. After the preacher told us all what to watch for lest we swim eternal in lakes of fire, we’d shuffle out row after row and I’d see the men standing in the sunshine renewing acquaintances and the women seeking out shade and catching up on the latest gossip while the children sat quietly doing their best not to muss up their Sunday shoes. I remember those as fine days.

Early in the spring of my tenth year it quit raining… like God had reached down and turned off the spigot. When I went with my father to plow the fields huge clouds of dust billowed up following us and we had to tie handkerchiefs around our mouth and nose to keep from choking on it. The wind blew dust through all the tiny cracks in the house and it settled over everything, causing my mother to fret and fuss, endlessly wiping off our plates and silverware and sweeping up small piles of dirt that accumulated in corners and on window sills.

By early summer none of the crops we’d planted had sprouted and the people my father worked for said they were sorry but they didn’t need him to come to work any longer. I remember he quit laughing so much after that and sat at the table sometimes until noon scouring the local paper in search of a job, circling hopeful-looking ads and sometimes picking up the phone to call a number. Once in a while he’d dress up and drive off somewhere in the car. But I guess all the jobs were filled. He’d always come back disappointed. I noticed our neighbors started to disappear one by one. Sometimes they’d tell us they were going but sometimes they left in the middle of the night taking only their clothes and what they could carry with them. At church each Sunday there were more empty seats.

My mother took in what laundry she could and sold eggs from her laying hens and jars of honey from her hives out back at the local grocery but that barely covered the cost of our food. As summer wore into autumn my father seemed to give up looking for work and took to sitting silent on the front porch with a brown jug under his rocking chair which he’d raise to his lips from time to time and when my mother would say something to him he’d wave her away with his hand, as if to say to some old dog, “Git.” Sometimes I’d hear her crying late at night.

One day my mother turned on the kitchen faucet and nothing came out. I remember I was sitting at the table doing my numbers and she said, “Lisa, please go to the bathroom and see if the water runs when you turn on the faucet.” So I did. And I came back and told her, “No.” She seemed to collapse in on herself, hunching over by the sink, holding onto the counter to keep from crumpling to the floor, having a hard time catching her breath as if she were gagging on the very air. I could tell she didn’t want to break down and cry in front of me.

My father came in and saw my mother and asked what was wrong. My mother couldn’t answer so I told him there was no water when we turned on the faucets and he said the well must have given out. It was happening all over town. He said maybe it was time we thought about packing up and going somewhere else. He took my mother in his arms and held her for a long time. We left the next day. I’ve never been back to that town in Kansas and I still dream sometimes that it just up and blew away.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Billy Austin

They locked him up in an asylum with metal doors and bars on the windows… they called it an institution to make it sound better than it was... and they told him he was crazy. He didn’t understand them or what they were saying about him. Crazy? He wasn’t crazy. They must have mistaken him for someone else. After enough time had passed, though, he suspected it too. He must be crazy. He could see it in everyone's eyes. He heard it in the way they talked to him. He felt it in the way they kept their distance. Like they were afraid… not of him, maybe, but of what he'd become. Or maybe it was him they were afraid of. After all, he was crazy so how would he know, how could he know, for sure, of where the madness ended and he started?

The staff asked him questions and fed him pills. Blue pills, green pills, red pills... they all went down the same so it didn't much matter. They’d say things like: Here’s a cup of water, drink, now, lift your tongue. They asked him how he felt today and if he wanted to hurt himself. “Do we want to hurt anyone today?” When the pills didn’t work, or didn’t work fast enough, the doctors suggested more aggressive therapy. They talked to him about ECT treatments but he didn’t understand what they were saying. The pills they fed to him jumbled all their voices into mishmash.

Once, he didn’t know exactly when, a woman came to visit him. She was very pretty and she said that she was his wife… she asked, “Do you remember me?” He didn’t quite remember her though she seemed somehow familiar. He shook his head to clear the drug-induced cobwebs and she took that as an answer. She told him she was signing the papers so the doctors could give him proper treatment. And she told him she wanted a divorce. She left with tears streaming down her cheeks. She said she had met someone else and that he would never see her again.

Two orderlies all dressed in white came to his room one day and secured him onto a hard cold metal table with leather straps holding his arms and ankles in place and one over his forehead so that he couldn’t move at all. A nurse all in green put something in his mouth that tasted of rubber. “Bite down on this.” A man in a white uniform touched some kind of bright probes to his temple, and the world disappeared. When he woke up, two years had passed. Of course, he didn’t know that two years had passed at the time. All the bad memories were gone along with all the good memories. He could remember bits and pieces of his childhood but it seemed as if he’d fallen asleep when he was twelve years old and woke up almost thirty.

After enough time had passed he began to sense the correct answers to the doctors’ continued questionings, the answers that would set him free. Not just free to wander the grounds, but free to go... out there... into the world. “No,” he said, he didn’t want to hurt himself. “No,” he said, he didn’t want to hurt anyone. The answers didn't seem to work right away, the correct answers. But after enough time had passed, the staff didn't appear to be as afraid of him when they looked his way. A light in their eyes had replaced the fear.

He noticed now that everyone had that light in their eyes but the light wasn't always the same light... the sane light. The light that said: I’m okay. Other patients around him didn’t have that light in their eyes. They had a crazy light, an insane bluish hue that told the world all about them. Now, when he looked into a mirror, he saw that sane light in his own eyes. The sight of the light made him feel better.

A friendly man in a blue uniform that said Ned on the shirt came into his room one day to inform him that his rehabilitation was starting. The man was going to teach him how to sweep the floors and vacuum the carpets and clean the bathrooms. He followed Ned’s instructions, asking questions and learning all he could learn of this strange new world that he was now a part of. The friendly man in the blue uniform told him that no matter where he went there would be people there that needed cleaning up after. “People are slobs.” Billy would always be able to find a job.

One day an orderly came into his room. The orderly seemed happy, happier than any orderly he could remember seeing at that place. The orderly told him to follow him. He took him to an office where he’d never been before. The orderly said, “Sit here.” So he sat down on a hard cold metal bench. Someone would be with him soon. He had learned that when someone said that, he usually ended up waiting a long time. Eventually, a man appeared in a black suit with a white shirt and a black tie, a man who looked like a doctor. The man said, “Follow me, please” and they went into a nearby cubicle. The man told him that he was indeed better now... that he could get his things and go home. The doctor’s name tag read Doctor Grimes.

It'd been so long though that he no longer had a home to go to. Four years in an institution will do that. Everything was gone. Family, friends, wife, money... like he'd been to war. Doctor Grimes explained to him that his family was forced to exhaust their own resources before the government would step in and pay for his stay there. And those resources were gone. By law, they had to give him a hundred dollars and a bus ticket anywhere he wished to go. So with a hundred dollar bill in his pocket, he took the bus ticket, and he rode that dog all the way west until the sea stopped it and he could go no farther.

He rented a cheap apartment above a tavern by the ocean. The tavern was called 29 Cats Bar and Grill. The sounds of the waves and the people below lulled him to sleep at night. He got a job in the tavern below doing the only thing he knew how to do: cleaning up after others. He noticed the light in the peoples’ eyes changing as they grew drunk with liquor, changed into something meaner, uglier, and unaccountable. They made messes on purpose just to watch him clean it up. “Get over here, boy,” they’d holler. “Earn your wages.” But he never grew angry. He just did what he did and he did it with a smile on his face. It was a smile only an insane man could properly wear.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day Requiem

One constant in life, at least in my life, is loss. As a son, I've
lost a father. And as a father, I've lost a son. So for me, today is a
reminder of both what is and what could have been. In visiting my blog,
you implicitly asked for a story. Here is one just for you:

I was born in 1955 and grew up during the 60's, tumultuous times. I
was too young to be a hippie and born too late to be part of my dad's
generation. He fought the Japanese during WWII in the islands, and
came home to tell us kids many stories. Years later, my step-mother
confided that he never talked to her about the war but that he still
had nightmares about it and often awoke screaming.

My wife Yoli's family were very close, not at all like mine. When her
family wanted to convey intense emotions, they touched and hugged each
other. When my family wanted to convey intense emotions, they yelled
and struck out at each other. I wanted very much to be part of her
family.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, my dad was 17 years old. He talked his
mother into signing the papers so that he could join the Marines. My
dad was never one for education; he dropped out of high school to
fight the good fight and never went back. He believed in work, not
schooling.

I was raised in a rural community. My dad and step mother were
children of the Depression. They expected us boys work from an early
age. I worked alongside migrant workers from Mexico every summer:
hoeing beans, de-tasseling corn, picking strawberries and asparagus,
baling hay, anything that paid a few bucks. Most all the migrants I
worked with spoke no English at all. Listening to them talk, I
gradually picked up their language quite naturally and over the years
grew to speak it fluently.

My dad was sent to Guadalcanal, Saipan, Leyte, Tinian, and a half
dozen other islands no one ever heard of before or since. His unit was
the first one into battle. My dad's company started out with one
hundred and eighty men; only two survived the end of the war. Two! Can
you imagine? My dad was wounded three times and sent back when he
recovered sufficiently. He carried pieces of shrapnel in his body
until the day he died.

We had a secret to share. Yoli had just discovered she was going to
have our baby. She was only seventeen. I was a year older. We were
stupid kids but we were going to get married and raise out baby
together. We were going to be a family. I didn't expect the news to go
over well but I never expected it to go the way it did either.

On Saipan, my dad told us about how the Japanese held out in a
concrete block bunker with slots cut for them to shoot out of. The men
in my dad's squad took turns every day lobbing their ration of hand
grenades at those slots, hoping one would go into a slot and kill the
Japanese inside to end the holdout.

When Yoli invited me to dinner that year, I didn't want to say yes but
I couldn't say no. She'd already introduced me to her family and it
hadn't gone as well as it could have. I had worn some old blue jeans
with holes in them that day. I'd been working outdoors. But that's no
excuse. So. After introductions, the first thing her father, Pete, said was:
"Yolanda, why don't you take Daniel to your brother's room. Maybe he's
got a pair of pants he can borrow."

Every night, one of the Japanese would call out: "Roosevelt eats
shit!" And directly, one the marines would call back: "Tojo eats
shit!" The shouting went on all night long. That's how close they were
to each other... close enough not only to hurl grenades but insults as
well.

As dinner progressed it soon became clear to me that it wasn't the men
who wore the pants in this family. It appeared so at first glance, but
watching the family dynamics unfold at the table, I soon understood
how mistaken I was. The men were full of bluster and fury but when a
woman spoke, the men all turned into children, seeking only to please.

One day, a buddy of my dad, just a boy, like my dad, managed to succeed
in the task. But the bunker must have been filled with large quantities of
explosives. The grenade resulted in a gigantic explosion, hurtling enormous
chunks of concrete high into the air, raining down on any poor unfortunate
soul close by. One of those chucks hit his buddy, who was hunkered down
in a fox hole, square in the face. When my dad found him, the front of the
boy's head was completely flattened.

Dinner lasted three hours. It was fabulous, especially to a kid who
ate cold Spaghettios out of a tin can with the top still attached. We
had agreed to wait until after dinner to make the announcement. Dinner
was so good I nearly forgot. But as we finished the last of the
dessert courses and people started to stir, Yoli rose and spoke.
Everyone sat down and listened to her intently. I got up and stood
beside her.

The boy asked for a cigarette, which my dad lit and placed to his
mangled lips, holding it so the boy could draw on it. Then the boy took
a ragged breath and died. A medic happened by a few minutes later and
told my dad there was no way a man could survive a wound like that.
My dad said he didn't argue with the medic. But he knew what he knew.

Her mother seemed to know what Yoli was going to say before she said
it. She said nothing; she just sat there dabbing at the corners of her
mascara-streaked eyes with a balled up napkin. Her father came up to
me and looked me in the eyes. I thought he was going to hug me but
instead he caught me with a roundhouse kidney punch that took all the
strength out of my knees and made it hard to catch my breath for a few
moments.

On Iwo Jima, they ate grasshoppers and beetles. There wasn't any clean
water to drink. The military saw fit to invade the island with no
logistical support at all... the Japanese burrowed into caves all over
the island, fighting over every square foot of that island as if it
meant something. Fierce and fearless is how he described them. The
Americans took very few prisoners; most of the Japanese soldiers died
fighting, or killed themselves when it became apparent the battle was
lost.

Yoli was expected to marry a boy from a very well to do family who
lived in the old country. She once told me that she'd met the boy only
briefly when they were both five years old and that in her family such
marriages were the rule rather than the exception. She told me - in
the old country, and even in the here and now - such marriages were
accepted ways for families, especially very wealthy families like
hers, to consolidate their power and ensure the purity of the
bloodline.

The word came down from on high to prepare for a mainland invasion of
Japan itself. The Marines would be first in. The Marines were always
first in. They all knew that most of them would die in that invasion.
Then, one day news came of a new, terribly powerful bomb that had been
dropped on a Japanese city called Hiroshima. Not long after, a second
bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. And Japan surrendered not long after.

Yoli's mother ended up giving her permission for us to marry, after
all. She said that she wanted to see what her grandchild would look
like, and that if we ran off, she might never get to see the baby. She
said she knew how in love we were by looking into her daughter's eyes.
And she said she knew what she herself would have done for such a
love.

My dad came home from the war, married my mother, raised a family, and
told his boys stories about his trials and tribulations in the
Pacific. I always thought it a pity that he preferred the spoken word
to writing as he had such good stories, and my remembrances are but
poor substitutes. My dad never knew that I had married that first
time, nor did he ever know about the grandson that he lost when Yoli
passed away given birth to our son.

My dad and my son are buried both many years and many hundreds of
miles apart. I rarely visit either of their graves... I figure all
there is there are dead bones mouldering under the good earth. I like
to think their spirits are here with me always. But of course there is
no way to know that. It's just that, sometimes, I feel them close. Or
I feel something that I can't explain, and I suppose, maybe, that is
it.

Happy Father's Day, everyone!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Difficulty and Suffering

I was asked a few days ago if difficulty and suffering were to be considered as the same side of a coin. I've come to think of suffering as necessary for evolution, or to become a better person. Too, difficult times seem to give me grist for my stories whereas the good times are fleeting and hardly worth mentioning. If there was no suffering, there would be no need to improve one's lot in life, no need to be creative in the face of peril and danger. There would be no progress.

And make no mistake: We invent, create, and risk failure, all in the name of progress. Those who risk the most define the world as we know it... as our children and grandchildren will know it. After all, the world is given to us by those who came before us, by those who risked their lives and fortunes, often on gut instinct and intuition. We are here but a short while yet we are the art that creates the world around us. As Robert Pirsig says in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, our self is the motorcycle we are working on.

Someone once told me that life is like a hot dog; we love the final product but we don't care to be reminded what goes into it. The suffering and difficulties we encounter along life's path tend to make us better people in the long run, but it isn't something we relish, those hard times. The Buddhists claim life is suffering; often times it appears to me they are right.

I sometimes suppose that the creation of art is the meaning of my life. And it seems my best art, my best writings, arise during the darkest times, when I am full of despair, longing for a normal everyday life that I see others around me enjoying. As Willie Nelson once claimed, you can't write the blues from the back of a Cadillac.

Difficulty and suffering... are they the same? I tend to think of today's difficulty as a remix of yesterday's suffering. Facing up to suffering is what brings on the difficult times... working our way through the rejection, the hunger, the death of our dreams. If we want to get to the other side, though, there is no choice but to fight through it.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Revised Lila's Child text

I am proud to announce that I have just uploaded a revised text for the Kindle version of Lila's Child: An Inquiry Into Quality. I have cleaned up some mistakes and fixed the html so that the book shows much better on the e-reader. These days, more e-copies are being sold than traditional paper books so I wanted to provide as clear a reading experience as possible for everyone.

It has been nearly ten years since I first published Lila's Child. The main body of work seems to have stood up well over the years. Of course, there are those who disagree with some of Robert Pirsig's annotations but that is to be expected. There is still an ongoing debate in the moq.discuss group over the nature of the intellectual level of the MOQ, plus some contributors are not happy with the antropocentric nature of the MOQ. All in all though, I think the annotations lend a great deal of clarity to Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals and the MOQ in general.

I am pleased that Lila's Child has been cited in Dr. Anthony McWatt's PhD thesis on the Metaphysics of Quality as well as a new paper just published by Dr. W. Gregory Alvord. Those who are interested in all things pertaining to Robert Pirsig might also be interested in Dr. McWatt's new book, compiling his correspondence with Mr. Pirsig over a period of years.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Zen Stories

My latest collection of short stories is called Zen Stories: The Art of Caring. These stories are Westernized versions of traditional Zen stories told from a humorous or sometimes a poignant point of view. Some of my favorites are The Sign and A Butterfly Picnic.

These stories are inspired by life... by my experiences in practicing Zen over the last three decades, and by the meager reading I have done concerning Buddhism. One of the first teachers I had told me to never read anything about Buddhism. Just practice. And for the most part I have followed his advice.

These stories seem to pop into my head at the oddest of times... when I am working, walking, taking a shower... times when I am alone and my mind is still. With The Butterfly Picnic, I was sitting beside a slow-moving creek, deep in meditation, eyes half closed, looking at nothing in particular, when suddenly I was surrounded by a swarm of white butterflies with black spots on their wings dancing all around me, landing on me, caressing my face. When I got home and sat down in front of the computer, the story appeared on my screen as if on its own... a lost moment in time fleeting past.

For those who are into Robert Pirsig's work, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Value, and Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, I have just finished updating Lila's Child: An Inquiry Into Quality. It is available for purchase on Amazon.com as an e-book. The traditional paper book is still available as well.