Essay: The Way I Live Now

Black Dogs
I'm staying at the house where I sleep. During the years I've been here, caring for the dogs and the cat, my exhaustion surfaces and I sleep. Last July I was here for five weeks and was only awake for a couple hours at a time, walking the dogs, making a meal, running a load of laundry - one task was all I could endure and I'd find myself unable to function further, so I'd make my way to the bed, curl up with the dogs, and sleep.

It's said that dreams of houses relay messages about oneself. That I dream one of an inviting kitchen, spirited and warm but, when a corner of the flooring is removed it's clear the joists are missing, says volumes. 

While sleeping on my son's couch I dream that something is crushing me, heavy enough I find it hard to breathe. Waking up I encounter the fifty pound black retriever sprawled across me. Well no wonder.

My young friend has returned from Iraq where he served for a year as a medic. The most common but least severe ailments he treated were STDs. He found it especially hard to explain to soldiers returning from leave that monogamy is a philosophy and safe sex a practice. This most often translated into: you got it from your wife. His realization that men can be brutes wasn't gradual; an initial indication was, when riding in a Hummer, he watched his comrades piss in empty Gatorade bottles, screw on the tops, and toss them to the children running along side the road.

When he was sixteen I taught him bar chords and a minor pentatonic scale. Along with thirty pounds he's brought back with him an amazing ability to write songs. His voice and guitar drift up from the basement here where he lives down a flight of break-your-neck stairs with his mattress crammed in the only space left next to the washer and dryer. There are spiders but nothing like the Camel ones he saw in the desert that were bigger than his hand. Naturally in an environment such as that, on the border between Iraq and Iran, the captured spiders were torched with lighters. Now he vacuums them. His innate kindness is extraordinary but there are far too many to catch and release.

There's six hundred square feet but somehow we all fit. At night I occupy the couch and sometimes during the day I squeeze into the back corner of the kitchen table and read or write. Jake lives downstairs. There are computer cords everywhere and the five year old kid and the fifty pound black retriever navigate them with uncanny ease. Everyone is resigned to our situation and flare ups are rare. Somehow the hose broke off the bucket that disperses the rain from the drainpipe and now someone must remember to empty it often or else the basement will flood again. This weekend one of us will find the time to purchase a new hose.

While staying here at the house where I sleep, events occur which alter my reality. Two years ago my second grandson died. The fact that it was inevitable alleviated none of the pain. I sat with the black dogs on the back steps and watched the sky darken. They huddled close, uncharacteristically needy, sensing.

Then, a year ago while staying here, I saw a young man get hit by a car while riding his skateboard. He was flying down the sidewalk, then through the crosswalk, and a car turned without looking and hit him. By the time I ran over he was sitting up, dazed. His blue eyes matched mine and a stray blonde dreadlock had escaped his headband. When he refused my offer to call an ambulance, I drove him to the hospital and stayed with him the hours it took to make sure he was going to be okay. The cop informs me that it's not a good idea for people to stop and help at accidents. "Next time," the cop says, "don't ask if someone wants an ambulance, just call one." Next time?

I dream my older boy frantically pushes gurneys and equipment out of the way, trying to get down the hallway of the hospital to the phone. His eyes, like his baby son's, match mine. But in this dream his eyes are closed and he can't see where he's going. The sound of everything crashing about wakes me up.

Or else I'll see the skater’s body tossed in the air though I never see it fall back down. Just the impact and the flying. Occasionally, maybe ten times out of the dozens I've had this dream, I will hear my phone ringing but I can't get to it because it's across the street where I've left my car, and the boulevard, suddenly and untypically, is jammed with speeding cars.

Coming around the corner of an office I clean, I bump into a fellow who works in the shop. He's leaving the bathroom I'm intending to spruce up next. He's wearing gloves and has rags in his hand. He looks embarrassed and says, "I hate the thought of you cleaning up after us. So that's why I try and beat you to it. How bad is it?" he asks. 

In this six hundred square feet house we share there is always something going on. Currently the living room is crammed with DJ equipment; my son is in between gigs and there's nowhere else to store it. My daughter in law brushes off the crud the dog has left behind on the only couch and plops down with the intention of studying. The kid and I play outside as long as possible to avoid the crunch. My son and his wife both go to school full time and when he's not DJing he makes films while she adds and subtracts numbers for an accountant. Her brother Jake is pondering his next move which will probably be to go to nursing school on the funds due him from his service to the War Machine. I'm watching the kid and waiting around for some of the dust to clear.

This son makes horror movies. The latest is a Batman parody. Somehow, in his infinite ability to find ways to make things happen, he meets a man in the city who owns an incredibly authentic looking Bat suit. Some deal is made and I am given directions to a pawn shop in east county along with two hundred dollars to pick it up. The boots look to be at least a size thirteen, and of all the things in the living room I fret most about tripping over it is them. They're the blackest of black like black widow spiders are.

For a time when I was maybe thirty but probably not quite, I slept with a book under my pillow and during the day gave myself writing lessons. I have a journal with several pages where I've scrawled, "A weasel is wild." It's what I had to work with.

Last summer while staying here with the black dogs and the cat, I sat outside beneath a red umbrella. The sky was deep blue. On the table was a bowl of freshly picked peas and a yellow hair tie. It was about all I could manage: color. Now, nearly a year later, I still sleep, but without that urgency, though I measure my time here, in loss.

Once I was a nanny for a boy from the time he was nine until just before he turned fourteen. In January he was diagnosed with diabetes. Several months before he'd complained to me that he was sick of getting up in the middle of the night to pee. I told his parents. I also added my observation that he'd seemed a little less energetic than usual. They expressed concern but chided me for taking things too seriously.
When I got to the hospital that morning after he'd been admitted the night before, I acknowledged first the mother of a now-diabetic child. A nanny has a place. Then I turned to him on the hospital bed with all his tubes and such. He’s so dulled by the past hours he barely seems familiar. He says he wants to walk around and asks for help with his shoes. As I’m pushing the first one on a trace of him returns. “Whoa there Missy,” he says. “I was just testing you so now you have to smell it.”
At the hospital the skater's leg is examined and scanned from every angle. In between, while we wait, he tells me about long boarding. I’ve never heard of it but come to find out he’s quite renowned. Once the corporate sponsorship money runs out though, he lives in his car. When it's all over I help him with his shoes and even though I know he's of the generation where they're left undone, I cinch the laces up tight and tie them anyway.

At the hospital it's impossible not to note the size of the newborn boy's feet because they're really big for his tiny three pound frame. Since he's strapped down and hooked up we pay much attention to these feet and cup them in our hands and gently rub. The only other access to his sweet body is his head where blonde wisps accompany alert blue eyes. Pat his head, rub his feet; only the parents can hold him.

Boys' feet, their shoes. All those flat soles and tangled laces. I've never liked putting shoes on the feet of boys. It's something unnatural. They clench and resist and some shoving inevitably ensues.

But then it's done and they're back on their boards, in their cars, on the courts, ladders, boats, roofs, down the concrete corridors of the interstates, across the intersections of the boulevards, in formation, in free-fall, in tree forts, these particular three all blonde and blue eyed, and each with the same sort of feet.

On Saturdays I would clean the house hoping to earn myself time on Sundays to read. How many mothers say yes when asked if they'd do it over again. Look me in the eye, listen: the deck is stacked, the question loaded. In twenty years there are some 1,040 Saturdays.

Black Dogs
They've taken to eating grass now. They chew it steadily like cows do. Their owners have no idea why. When they leave the Chow tells me this: I'm sixty eight years old in dog time and what I'd really like is a bite now and then, of steak. But even though he does that trick with the one eyebrow while relaying this information I won't be swayed, though if he were mine, of course, I would.

I live out of Trader Joe's bags stored in the trunk of my car. It's organized: clothes, dirty clothes, work, work, books, library books due, shoes. In the backseat it looks as though I house a beaver; next to the booster chair lives the treasure collected during walks with the five year old: sticks, rocks, flowers, all sorts of scraps of things.

It won't stop raining, it's been months. The retriever's hooked nails shred the grass. The seed we toss lies dormant; it's too cold and dark. After all the games with balls and the walks and the bike rides the kid and the dog dig in the backyard. The holes are deep and fill with water. He tromps fearlessly up to his thighs. Huge clumps of mud are everywhere and a great deal of it ends up inside. Everyone has a turn with the broom but my daughter in law bears the brunt of it.

About the time I told the child's parents he seemed tired and was peeing a lot, I started having to pull over for emergency vehicles a few times a week. When he collapsed on the floor right after Christmas it was the first of six calls I would make to 911 in as many months. The second time was when I saw a man having a seizure at the dog park. The fourth time was in response to a neighbor's complaint that her husband was probably not manageable this time. These few times a week continued to the point where the five year old would roll his eyes and say, "Jeez, pull over wudja!" Several times a week, I mean my god. What are the odds?

I retreat to an old historic hotel in a small town northeast of the city. It's cheap and clean and again I need to sleep. Already, just this short distance away from the ocean and mountain, the land dries out, the sky widens. It's hot but the rooms have fans. I'm moving slowly anyway.

I've kin from here and on the phone my brother tells me a story I've never heard about our great grandmother. Old and blind, she still chewed tobacco and aimed toward the spittoon without missing. Once, my brother says, a rat ran up her leg and she snagged it in her fist and squeezed it to death. "Just like that?" I ask him. "Apparently so," he replies.

I'm awed by this. Not only by the grit of an ancestor so near removed but that my brother carries a story I've never heard. I consider myself the cultivator. We both remember visiting her once when we were little. My brother says he'd been through some years back, and found the place. After we hung up I realized I hadn't gotten the directions.

But later in the afternoon I park facing the hill that borders the town where all the houses are. If there's spirit of hers still roaming, I intend to see if I can find it.

I'm often accused of being too sensitive, of feeling too deeply. This is difficult for me to understand. After years of it I want to ask my accuser: Why don't you feel more?

At a lake I watch a mother herd her four-year-old toward the parking lot. "Hey Butt Crack," she says. "Pick up the pace moron."

"Butt Crack!" she yells. "Hurry up or you can spend the night in the woods. Hear me? All by yourself in the woods."

I don't tell anybody about this, mainly because I've already told how I saw a dead man being retrieved from beneath the overpass earlier in the week and no one in my circle wants to hear anything more. They are up to their necks in stories of mine. 

Someday, though, the odds exist that little Butt Crack will make headlines in Tucson or Oklahoma City or New York. Jonestown. And when the experts follow the trail backwards they won't ever conclude that there were too many people in young Butt Crack's life who cared too much or too deeply.

Past Lives
For some years I used the name Hobson, and as with Sophie's, Hobson's Choice aims to result in the death or destruction of that not chosen.

During my stay at the hotel I gravitate towards some Sophies. Here's one: Sophie MacDonald. In between world wars her husband and baby are killed in the car wreck but she survives. Maybe her sleeping was plagued by dreams of it. Perhaps her waking time was worse. She never recovers. She drifts to Paris where Coco plucks her up. His opium soothes her rough edges. When his use of her has ended he slits her throat and dumps her body in the river.

Sophie Zawistowska, in her pretty pink room in Brooklyn, lets the capsule containing cyanide dissolve on her lips. "Suffer the children, come unto me," the Secret Service official had told her. "You may choose which of your children gets to live."

"Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go," she said, twenty one year old Sophie Scholl. A prison guard registers her last words. Her mother, Magdalena, visiting her in her cell, offers her the candy she has with her. Sophie accepts gratefully, admitting that she's hungry because hasn't had lunch yet.

Earlier that day Sophie, her brother Hans and their friend Christopher, had been arrested, tried, and convicted of treason, and sentenced to immediate death. The judge, after making this announcement, remarked on Sophie's astonishing calm. Germany, 1942. The crime: distributing leaflets at the university urging passive resistance. Sophie died that afternoon. The official decree: Execution by beheading.

Imagine the mother, Magdalena. Summoned to the prison without warning, all she has to offer is the candy in her purse.

Imagine that, the mother.

The world is full of stories, stories of war, love, betrayal. My stories lie between layers and layers of stories told every minute of the whole entire life of this planet. Centuries of layers of stories: witches burned, drowned, elaborate embroidery on long dresses, lost children and children lost, in grassy medians, on the sides of many roads, in ditches, in camps, by guillotine.

Tens of thousands of Sophies have walked the roads, traced steps, measured the distance. Sifting, sorting, offering deals, accepting bribes. Speaking in whispers, in code, with signals and songs, the stories and ways are passed on through the telling.

"The road to salvation is as difficult to pass over as the sharp edge of a razor," the holy man said.

I wonder sometimes about myself, my own fascination with the razor's edge. Somewhere in my DNA I carry the ability to blindly snatch up something bound to hurt me or mine, and, acting on instinct, squeeze the life right out of it. 

I suppose, had I gotten off work early that night, and had I walked the short way home instead, through the field of rodents and grass snakes I believed I was afraid of, my life today would be very different than it is. I'd be locked up tight somewhere confining and small or, perhaps more likely, I wouldn't even be here at all.

Because I could slit a throat from ear to ear using cuticle scissors if that's all I had. Happening upon that: my husband hanging my son out an upstairs window by his feet. It's something best to not conjure.

It's a story that may never be told. It doesn’t belong to me. But I know this child like I know the fingers of my left hand, the ones that find the frets on my guitar and clamp down hard. Now and then, when my students complain, I offer them proof that with time their fingers, like mine, will no longer be capable of feeling much of anything. 

But I know this kid and he fought it. He was eleven. He kicked, screamed. Threw what punches he could. It was a losing battle and of course he lost it. A grown man with that sort of intent would naturally come out the victor.

When I reach the end of climbing to the top of the hill, the sky is all around me and the wind moans low with its pushing. I hunch my back against the sun. It's blinding, still, even this close to setting. It's that time of day for waiting.

But at dusk they don't arrive, the children in their worn summer clothes, always with rough bare feet. The sun drops and the quiet stays. I strain for a glimpse of a ball or a hoop, laughter, calling out, teasing. Maybe it's the wind that covers their music, the cadences, their singing in cut-time and quarter tones. This night I can't hear anything at all.

I'm reluctant but I gather myself to go. But then I do, I hear it! And I realize this is what I've been waiting for instead: the dull, blunt sound a ping of spit makes, when it expertly hits its mark. 

August, 2011
Camas, WA

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