Saturday, August 29, 2009
Certain moments lodge permanently into the waves of memory that persist throughout one’s life, while others dissolve, disperse, and, upon some alchemical spill, resolve in the present to haunt and provide tremors in the senses we come to trust. I can see the “old house” now, a forlorn chinaberry bare, save for a few dried and brittle clumps of yellow pods dangling from its branches. A north wind blows and exposed limestone glows on the surface. Down the stone path toward the ranch’s entrance I recall cattle and sheep, clumps of bluestem and prickly pear as further out the horizon blurred into the twilight. My father built a fire and we sat, eating hotdogs as the darkness spread. The new moon and the old moon moved beyond view as I stretched out my arms to the sky. Milky Way. I wandered through the vastness of Orion, listening to low voices coming through a transistor. But November’s chill drove us inside, and my father put oak logs into the wood stove and lit a match. Linoleum peeled away in the corners and a layer of grey dust settled over the floor. I liked the sulfuric scent of the match, and watched the blackened stick release its last trails of smoke. An ancient bureau’s drawers held pistols and ammunition, decades of oilcloths and tin cans of metal lubricants. Much of what I recall from this period of my life revolves around the deer lease in the country, and my father’s rituals of the hunt. Up by five each morning we’d bundle up in downy vests and flannel, take our guns and go out. I’d follow his steps over the rough limestone paths for miles until, veering off, we found ourselves in denser brush. Nestled deep in the scrub would be a deer blind built of oak limbs that had been shaped and entangled roughly. My father and I would sit in the cold and wait. As dawn approached the life of the countryside began to move. Purple finches fluttered while further out flycatchers dipped toward a distant horizon, a little stretch of it I’d glimpse through the branches of some great oak furzy with mistletoe and ball moss. Squirrels and other rodents made their way throughout the trees while on the ground were insects—dark beetles—close to my boots. My father might nudge me, and looking up, I’d see one, two, perhaps three white tail deer. On this occasion I recall a doe and a younger male. Their black noses sniffed the air cautiously. My father sat motionless and I could hear the breath move through my body as I tried to imitate his stiff repose. He lifted his rifle, sighted the deer, and looked through the scope upon their grey-brown bodies. As the morning moved in that dramatic stillness the sunlight spread through the branches. Slowly, they turned, wandered off, finally going beyond view as the last bough of oak or juniper settled over the space they had occupied only moments prior. I remember asking why he had not taken a deer. They weren’t bucks, nor were they big enough, he said, though I realize now he really only liked being alone in the country. The kill wasn’t his thing. And that was cool with me. So we walked. Spent the day shooting cans. Once a rattler confronted us: my father aimed. Was there an impact? The coiled form slid under the house. Cold, icy wind blew. At dusk we set out again. Certainly these moments inform so much of my body of feeling in ways I can hardly understand. One night, after hunting, and after driving into town for hamburgers, we came back quite late. We stumbled through the dark, taking a leak on white rocks. Inside we found our bunks and spread our sleeping bags. I remember that our heads faced an eastern wall. In that dark room my eyes closed and I began drifting away when my father’s voice broke the silence. I opened my eyes. A faint blue light appeared through the front windows. Slowly it brightened, growing in intensity, until the entire room was suffused in a bright blue. I could see my father bolt upright. I turned back to the windows. What is it, I asked. Don’t know, my father said, eyes wide on his gun. Suddenly the source of the light shifted at once to the north window, and the light remained from that position illuminating the room in a weird twilight of blue and yellow and traces of red. And then it left. I remember how this event for some time lodged into family lore. I could not stop talking about it. What had it been? A U. F. O.? I spoke of this for so long and so often that it is difficult now to imagine how eventually the memory of the lights began to fade, the details trailing off as those animated colors had so suddenly vanished. The lore of this episode has now been so dislodged that, only recently, it took some time to jog my father’s memory of that moment so long ago. I like to imagine it as some kind of visitation, though a visitation of what, I’m still not sure. Perhaps they were car lights, though doubtful for such a remote location. Is it possible that the visible presence of some alien and as yet unnamed aspect of ourselves roams the sky? It perhaps descends at vulnerable moments to awaken our curiosity. Beyond that the mystery of my experience continues to challenge the meaning of such observations. I’ve yet to encounter repeats of such celestial phenomena.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Somewhere heading north from Central Texas—perhaps near Glen Rose—the news of Kool-Aid suicide in Jonestown enters the cab. Dusk. Cool dry air. Windows down, Dairy Queen recedes in the mirror behind us. My father drives, says something to my mother. I listen. November 18, 1978. We had been deep in the Texas Hill Country to hunt deer. I remember a brown down vest and a John Deere tractor cap I wore then. It was part of the ritual of my father’s life to go, each autumn, five hours south of Dallas to hunt on land owned by James and David Nefendorf. Their voices surprised me as a child with German accents that were difficult to follow. They had been born in Texas, but the German community of ranchers there retained the language of an extended family reaching back to the old world. James Nefendorf lived in the family home, a nineteenth-century German structure typical of the area. It stood well within the city limit of Fredericksburg and, being made of thick limestone, remained cool throughout summer, and retained warmth in winter. He once gave me an arrow point he had found on the land he ranched far outside of the city, where sheep, goats, and some cattle grazed the scrubby brush country of oak and juniper escarpment. I remember once he arrived with other men in old pickups, speaking little. There were flea collars latched to the ankles of their work boots to protect from chiggers and ticks. An open barn made of oak and juniper shaded their fleece shearing with a low, sheet-metal roof. A few yards away stood what in my family we referred too simply as “the old house,” a turn-of-the-century wooden cottage framed on stacked limestone. It had a wood stove, a linoleum floor in the kitchen, and rooms with ancient furniture now used as bunks for hunters who leased the land each fall. An Aermotor windmill, made in Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century, drew water into a raised cistern near the house. Pipes carried water to nearby stock tanks. A Chinaberry grew up next to the back door and out further on the rolling hills stood oaks and brush that filled out for miles beyond, a few disused stone fences disintegrating back into less rigid forms, while down the gravel road a mile or so there lay extensive barbed wire fences and cedar posts, a common sight from the small farm-to-market roads that wound back through the hill country for miles, where ranchers and hunters made their way, in polite isolation, and watchful civility. After a hamburger, perhaps at the Deluxe Café, I followed my parents back into the RV and we headed outside of town in a darkness that enveloped the edges of the road. Arriving late that autumn night my father balanced the wheels of the camper so that it was level. My mother prepared the bedding for her and my brothers. My father and I spread sleeping bags on two of the bunks in the front room. A chill gripped the house but I remember a bare kitchen bulb and a transistor radio with country music scratching through a tiny speaker. Outside, pissing on limestone and flint, and next to a shed, the milkyway spread out far in ways that were impossible to experience in Dallas. I buttoned my denim and breathed in the chill. Darkness like no other darkness. New moon. I zipped my down vest. I wonder about that moment, what I can recall of it, having just relieved myself on the stones and dry soil by a barbed wire fence. It was weird news that young person would encounter on the trip back. Jonestown. Mass suicide. What do these coordinates indicate? I asked my mother the obvious: why would so many people take their lives? I recall now the rush of the highway. She was so young. They were crazy, my father said. A cult. Leo Ryan dead at the airport in a country I had never heard before. The news brought this collective otherness—this drama—from far beyond my experience. And yet, the world was rigged for destruction. Any moment, a line could be crossed. The selvages of diplomacy—of family and friendship—perhaps the very fabric of social life hinged on sudden and instantaneous death. That night, driving through the darkness toward Dallas, away from the nostalgic country calm of the old house, I thought of the little packets of Kool Aid my mother made for us, adding sugar to the pitcher, those long summer days. I liked it.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Driving once through Wichita Falls, the North Texas town crushed by an F4 tornado in April 1979, I witnessed that spring’s tremendous decay. The wreckage spread out through yards and down streets, homes exposed and gutted, with collapsed roofs and shattered windows. Panels of billboards had been blown out and everything possessed a curious patchwork of ruin, as if the something prior to disaster had left a presence only by which to punish the memory of place for those whose bodies absorbed the effaced blocks of city waste. The name of God or Jesus figured also in the city’s collapsed form, little crosses and withered Church of Christs and Pentecostal slabs lay splintered, exposed to the wrath of some greater geography. The sound of the engine’s rotation rattled through the F-150. I wanted to open the doors. Jump out into Wichita Falls. The tornado possessed my imagination of who I was or how I carried myself for others. I longed for turquoise jewelry Navajo style; a feather in my hat; brass belt buckle; lizard boots; Wranglers. Charlie Rich sang: I Know You’re Tired of Following My Elusive Dreams. But They’re Only Fleeting Things. His baritone voice crooned out into a great emptiness, and substituted for it, briefly. Crisp morning light and hot sunshine warmed the vinyl and metal dash. In images of the Wichita Falls tornado there are small signs of what's to come, as if some prescience of disaster was withheld by the landscape. The Trade Winds Motel, in one photo, stands against the black force of the tornado. The flatness of the land beyond beckons the wind, those ancient surfaces razed by centuries of invisible weight and the more visible forces of cloud and rain, of the dense funnel pressures that rearrange the scenery, uprooting cottonwoods and mequites, as closer to the flaked limestone and shale soil (Pennsylvanian and Triassic marine sediments) bluestem and cordgrass, needlegrasses and foxtail bow under the atmospheric pressures. To my mind, absorbed by the feathery cirrus bands approaching from the Panhandle, great freedom and flexibility lay in those giant formations—some pre-human and unspecified force moved parallel to the ongoing dreams and nightmares cut with cement and metal on those plains. The big sky mirrored geographic terrain, only its morphology was composed—and disintegrated—at a more rapid pace. This was a lesson too in the soul’s uneven geography, regardless of whether or not I understood so.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
The floorboard of the truck was covered in rough vinyl and a boy played, scooting from the seat down to the floor and back up, pushing his butt up to the edge and dropping suddenly. Outside car lights flashed in the approaching dark and out on the water of Lake Ray Hubbard red and green boat lights popped like little wet gems in the night. Some boats moored near the highway with lights still fishing through the darkness for perch or crappie or whatever it was out there. But who knows? I would remember this drive for no particular reason several years later as I traveled with my family back from Colorado in the summer heat. I looked at the blond head of that child whose face pressed against the window on the bridge hurtling over the lake into East Dallas. I don’t know why this boy survives now except that earlier this evening I found with my sons at a local vinyl record shop a Charlie Rich greatest hits album from 1972. But it wasn’t until the following year that I remember his singles on the air in my father’s white cab. What a voice! Hey, Did You Happen To See the Most Beautiful Girl in the World? The headlights aimed toward us and vanished. The black expanse of lake pulled away and orange streetlights illumined broken glass and shredded tires on the road’s edge. A strip of weed and grass median separated concrete from metal guardrail and the trash of the fields expanded beyond us to the townlets of Rowlette and Rockdale. I remember fidgeting, tired, eyes on the lake and the road. Charlie Rich’s voice promised a magic gateway to beauty—some notion of sexuality I couldn't understand as sex but felt as some mixed up and incomprehensible desire. And When We Get Behind Closed Doors arrived to my young body with an urgency of inexperience and half-knowledge, awakening a kind of darkling spirit in me. What were behind those doors? Where did they lead? To the most beautiful girl? The noise of the highway hummed against my ear when I pressed my cheek to the glass. Through the other ear came Charlie Rich’s voice from KRLD radio. Beyond the glass the twilight weightlessness of the bluestem outskirts of Dallas feathered away into a dreamy darkness that blurred out against a featureless horizon of orange haze and occasional spotlights. No One Knows What Goes On Behind Close Doors.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
In a dream I am old, walking through the small co-op grocery store, the one before the makeover into an upscale-looking food boutique. I see a young woman pushing a cart with two children. I approach them, begin to say their names and anticipate smiles and kisses. And then I look again. This is not my family, just an image projected from long ago. I am old, my children grown, my wife old, too. The grocery store erodes under broken glass—the heavy drag of time marks its mottled features. The sun whitens the surface of the parking lot. When I wake up I am back in bed with my family. A spring morning. Possible pandemic announced on the radio. The children run naked, playing monsters. The world will end, or it ended, or it won’t. There will be loss and acquisition. Their bodies move between the possum haw and plumbego. My old man future self looks back at me down a long corridor. At the other end, I am playing in a yard near my mother’s gardenia bush. The three of us hardly recognize the other. The phone rings. The children run. And it rains. Later I look again. I play in the ligustrum, the afternoon sun bright on green leaves. Many times I pretend I am someone I’m not. A cowboy. An astronaut. Once Donny Green frightened me when he told me the world would end in a firestorm. Bombs on missiles were aimed at North America. The world was rigged for destruction. The memory remains distant. It’s difficult to see Donny’s eyes, his blond hair and lanky form. His German mother survived the Second War. Married a G. I. Her English came to my ears with extraordinary weight. I was shy to speak to her. Jolly woman. She smoked in her living room. The glow on the end of her Virginia Slims cooled under the crush she gave it in the glass ashtray. I could see her belly when she laughed falling out from under her shirt. Back in the driveway the sun burned through the branches of a plum tree above a chain-link fence. The world could evaporate. The world could dissolve under the heat and pressure of vast bombs. Donny’s mom’s German voice carried across the street. He said men had hair on their penis. “On their penis,” I said, incredulous. “On,” he said. Perhaps he got the preposition wrong because of his German mother’s mutt English. I thought he must have meant “around” or “near.” I hoped he was wrong also about nuclear bombs and infernos and the end of the world. He ran home, his feet hitting the smooth pavement. Sycamore branches dropped dried pods and I’d crush them with my sneakers, or pull them apart. Watch the tiny seedlings sail away into the wind. I would take bark from the tree and crunch it in my hands while waiting for the snow cone truck. St. Augustine green grass. Grape sweet sticky syrup. I ate the snow cone by the gardenia bush. My mother carried clothes to the line. I went to her. I asked if bombs would blow up the world. She said no. But, I said, there are bombs. Yes, she said, nuclear bombs. I don’t remember what else she said. Or what I felt or said or did. How do you reconcile certain facts, like the inevitability of pubic hair, or the certainty of cold war? A cold war that could burn out the earth. When that boy looks forward to me now I think of nothing to say to him. He goes back to the sycamore. To the gardenias. He’s not looking for his mother. Not listening for the snow cone truck. Donny Green’s mother’s voice fills the street. My children walk along with me in the grocery store. They don’t know the boy I knew. They won’t hear Donny Green say “dick hair.” But let me leave that boy as he goes to the garage, retrieves a bicycle, and rides down the driveway and onto the sidewalk in front of his brick house beside the sycamore and flowers.