Category Archives: Biography

2017

Arthur D. Clarke and unspecified grandchild, 1960

My grandfather comes to me in pieces; The angle of a plywood sign nailed to a tree, my worn work boots on my porch in Richmond. I never call him up deliberately. This week marked 50 years since I saw him last.

If I make it through the next few months, I will be older than he was when he died.

 

I spend the end of the year alone these days. I don’t drink; alternatives are few in the Mojave. Thoughts chase tails. My grandfather was an oak tree; a rock face. He was incomprehensibly old, wrinkles forming on his forehead, hair completely white in a stiff brush cut, work pants and calluses. He wet his thumb to turn pages. A workshop shelf; salvaged bolts and screws sorted into applesauce jars.

Winter stars struggle to be seen; a storm off the Pacific. I have his reticence and his forehead. He would recognize the impatience, the recoiling and the longing. He would think my politics insane. He would pat his lap, invite my dog to join him in the recliner. He would know how to fix the hole through which the mice get in without dismantling the water heater in front of it. New Year’s Eve rain pelts the window. I have a low table he built me out of things he had on hand. No two of its screws match.

Today the dog, off-leash, flushed the back porch rabbit from behind the washing machine. Placidly staying at my heel, she watched the rabbit regain its composure under a creosote a few yards away. Rabbit folded his left ear down to wash it with both forepaws; dog flicked her left ear in turn.

Ten years after he died, I stood at six a.m. beneath a sodden eastern hemlock. The rides had run out in Western Pennsylvania. I watched a farmhouse through the rain, shaking to the bone. A white-haired man in green work pants pried open the hood of a pickup older than me, bent over it with a trouble light. I fought the urge to go to him, certain of disappointment at a stranger’s face. How different my life might have been had I gone to hand him tools.

Blue Rodeo

I-40 Eastbound, Park Moabi Road

In 1989 you reached Barstow by driving the two-lane past worn out alfalfa fields, rotten barbed wire seining plastic bags from the desert wind, fences of decaying schoolbuses. At 45 per in the ancient veedub it was an agonizing slog. Overnight in the Boron rest area. An eternity of Hinkley. Breakfast in a Barstow bowling alley.

The old road was all there was, curling around the north end toward the dry riverbed, the derelict train depot.

Daggett by eleven, and Ludlow, past the incongruous green of the Springs of Newberry. The old split-pane windshield topped out an inch below my eyes. No gas gauge. I had to slouch to see more than a quarter mile of road.

Truck tires on asphalt gamelan, a decade-old tape deck on the passenger side seat, a tinny recording of Canadian country-rock  on endless repeat. My housemate in Berkeley had just bought the LP. An endless expanse of creosote and barrel cacti, and then gas in Needles.

Light

A block east of where I stood along this cactus-fringed road tonight, a streetlight cast a yellow inverted cone toward the dirt.

I stand well outside the light.

A few months shy of 40, before the last millennium ended, I walked a night mile through clouds of gnats backlit by a lone streetlight in Oklahoma. Obligations pulled in several directions. Checotah, on the Canadian River floodplain, was where those pulls reached equilibrium. I stood watching the streetlight aeroplankton for some hours.

At 17 it was an inverted cone of illuminated rain, six in the morning in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, no rides coming and soaked to the shivering skin. I knew no one within 250 miles.

And again in Cheyenne, five years later, sleeping in the weeds when the rides gave out. I read Bradford Angier under the Interstate’s sodium vapor aura until my eyes crossed.

So many miles, and it is all the same. All the same. Light cast down upon the earth. I stand outside it.

Oakland

At 80th and East 14th, ragged tents line the sidewalk.
Last time I was there, they weren’t.
Comfortable men talk over coffee at the Alameda Natural Grocery:
a friend flipped a 2-bedroom for 750K.
New logos have bloomed on the high-rises.
A decade since I left, almost,
and still I imagine I could walk up Oak Street
open an unseen door, and come home
to 1993.
On the ridgeline, a path I’ve walked for decades
still grows manzanita and western leatherwood.
You can twist the latter’s branches backward
until they point in the direction they grew from.
On East 14th, a man my age looks at me.
I look back at him. We are the same,
though my exile is more comfortable by far.

Orion rising

In retrospect, I must have been under for a very long time, until long after I tired of splitting my fingernails on the underside of the ice. Until I forgot what it was to have lungs that didn’t ache, forgot how it felt not to bleed warmth into the abyss.

I awoke in the desert, but that’s not news.

It’s a good indication that you might not be quite right when you find yourself taking the constellations personally. I woke yesterday far too early, took Heart out for her walk at 4:15 a.m., and as we stepped out the front door they were there: Orion, with the head of his dog Canis Major just coming up over the Wonderland of Rocks.

We walked together again, the four of us.

I have trouble remembering the first months after he died. I was numb, a dangerous and lingering anhedonia. After a few weeks I managed some semblance of recovery. I wore it like a hermit crab would, carrying it with me so I could hide behind it. I saw friends. I got a different job. I wrote things. I remember almost none of it.

It was years before the ice began to break. It took me a while of gasping on the bank before I could stand.

Look, I am broken. We all are broken. Again, not news. My whole life a bottomless pit of imagined loss, despite decades of astonishing fortune in love, in friendship.

For his last six months? I was content. It was enough. It was a frighteningly sad time, leaden with the expectation of certain grief, and yet it was a culmination, to be needed so completely. He asked for very little, but he asked for it constantly. To be held up when he tottered. To be reassured.To be carried when he could not make the last hill.

It was my sole focus, my sole purpose: walking with Zeke. I needed nothing else, wanted nothing else. He took 15 minutes sniffing and then re-sniffing the same tortured boxwood, walking a step away and then seemingly forgetting, then sniffing the boxwood again. I was content. He stared rheumily into the distance as admirers asked the same three questions over and over again, all of them ending with the same sad prediction. It was life. I awoke each hour to look in on him, to make sure he had not fallen or soiled himself. I was terrified and happy.

One night I woke to find him splayed improbably across a cushion, unmoving, and I was sure his time had come without me noticing. I felt for a heartbeat through his still-thick fur. I listened for his breathing and did not hear it. It took an endless 30 seconds for him to open his eyes, part his lips in a smile of greeting. I was eerily calm throughout. I kissed his forehead for perhaps the 50th time that day.

I’d found the third W in the Zen aphorism about what you do before enlightenment and after: Chop Wood, carry Water, go for a Walk. It was as complete and as content a time as I have ever felt.

And then he was gone, and the universe was a wilderness of mocking constellations. Orion kept his dog. Sirius was still a bright clear eye, Canis’ ears stlll folded back as he regarded his two-legged partner. The ice beneath my feet began to crack.

Zeke started his rapid decline ten years ago next week.

When a dog is broken, she does not hide it behind layers of subterfuge and curdled resentment the way a human might. Even a terrified dog is honest. Even a shattered dog will forgive those who never hurt her, in time. It took me longer. The universe built to culminate in those six months of my walking with Zeke, and then useless, an empty and discardable husk.

And Canis still chased Orion across the winter sky.

orion

Photo by Kronerda, some rights reserved.

People will tell you it gets better. It never does. You might get better at pretending it does.

A phrase from a friend to describe her late dog: “one of your internal organs walking around on its own.” Then she laughed, and said “but you know. Look what you named yours.”

One winter night before Heart got her name, we walked out into the desert as Orion was rising. It was a few weeks after the hermit crab carapace I’d toted for years finally splintered. There was nothing between me and the constellations. The dog pulled at the other end of Zeke’s old leash, and I wondered what on earth I was thinking to consider getting back in line to ride the world’s worst rollercoaster. If all went well, I’d go through one of the worst losses in my life in my early seventies. And if it took another six years to catch my wind again?

I sat down suddenly, on the berm along a dirt road a mile and a half from the house. Sirius shone remote. Zeke panted behind me, unseen. And others, too. Gilgamesh. Kudzu. Dogs I’d never met. Shalom, Stella. Chupacabra. I knew the wrenching grief they’d left behind, though they never would have wanted it. I was not strong enough to go through that again, and I began to cry helplessly at the inevitability of betraying this sweet dog by handing her back to the rescue.

“Love isn’t worth it,” I told her. “It’s just a thing we tell ourselves we feel so we don’t have to think about how bad all of this hurts.”

She sat in front of me, sniffed a little at the wetness on my beard.

“I don’t believe you,” she said.

Habitat loss

I want to go back to this little place I know, on the east side of Route 14 in Mojave, California called Reno’s Coffee Shop. I had homemade turkey soup there once two days after Thanksgiving. The waitress apologized. It would be turkey soup for days, she said. The place closed in 1992, and when I go back I will buy the space shuttle postcard I always meant to send to my brother.

In Nipomo, surrounded on all sides by close-grazed green hills, there’s a lonely taqueria I’ll revisit. A basalt molcajete on the counter holds an incendiary salsa verde. Two carnitas tacos, the gamelan hum of truck tires on Highway 101, and a wizened side-eye from the woman behind the counter as she explains again in a language you do not quite speak that the payphone has not worked in some months. I will go back, roll away the new asphalt and the Panera and the Starbucks, find the old green hills underneath the acres of shopping center parking, and three or four layers beneath the drive-through ATMs I will find her and ask for carne al pastor.

I will watch the Perseids again with Matthew, lying on our backs on the side of Grant Line Road at the farthest reach of the Bay Area’s light dome in Tracy, where the still-wild Central Valley remains just beside the glare-lit outlet malls and each meteor brings jokes about the space defense system President Reagan is pushing.

All these places. All these places. The spot below Lone Tree Point where Zeke stands, his last visit to the Bay, staring out with rheumy eyes at the far shore for which he’d soon depart. The Bay rose to cover that little beach in 2045. I want to hold his trembling hips upright, tell him how good a dog he always has been.

The Ivanpah Valley, sitting down at night among the waist-high creosote again, the eleven new square miles of solar factory hell irrelevant for now.

That place on 16th and Valencia, right on the corner, with the milanesa lunch special and banda on the jukebox. I’ll order the molé pipian.

I’ll meet her, hold her hand again under the plum trees on University Avenue in Berkeley, window-shopping in stores closed for hours and now for decades, and tell her how my life has been in the more than 30 years since she died.

I’ll hike up to the ancient junipers burned dead in the 2005 Hackberry Fire, Mojave National Preserve, and sit beneath them again in a hot noon, smell the sweet oil sun-distilled from their new leaves.

These three things happened

Thing one.

My colleague Matt and I were sitting in the shade of a black locust on a Southern California Indian reservation week before last, watching some dogs. The dogs were boisterous mutts who’d found a family to watch over them after white people had abandoned them on the Rez.

They were wary when we first arrived, but soon got over it and welcomed the new human company. We’d been there a couple hours when one, a brown brindle mix, trotted up to us all proud, wanting to show off the toy she’d found.

Matt noticed something odd a split second before I did. “Is that…” he said, just as my eyes registered the rabbit ears sticking out the right side of the dog’s mouth.

I gestured to the dog, a come-hither tone to my voice. “Good dog. Can I have it?” The dog looked at me as though I had lost my mind, a polite back-sidling side-eye, and found a shady spot beneath a shrub a few yards toward the house. There commenced a sound of crunching.

Thing two.

My ex-wife and her best friend visited me in the desert few days ago. It was the first time B. had seen where I live since a short visit in 2009 to my apartment in Los Angeles. I tidied a bit, made sure to tell my sweetheart my ex- was going to visit (“best relationship practices,” I said), and then they arrived and met the dog and we went to dinner and B. was pleased at my house and beamed at the desert plants and she said she was thrilled that I had made such an appropriate life for myself.

As the taillights of her friend’s Tesla headed toward Los Angeles, I called my sweetheart to report on the evening. She was thrilled that all had gone well. She told me of her gratitude to the universe for providing me with that little bit of validation, of something like closure, and as we hung up I felt buoyed by love in its many forms, and I went to bed.

A different, more recent ex- showed up in a dream to correct my course. We argued over things I forgot as soon as I awoke. All that remained when I awoke was the feeling of worthlessness she had inspired, and that I ended the dream by walking away from her.

That afternoon I had a shrink appointment, and I told my shrink about the dream. “I feel like my brain couldn’t give me just 24 hours of feeling uplifted by people who love me and who actually want to be part of my life, so it plunged me into an argument with someone who wants nothing to do with me,” I said.

“You should write about it,” she said.

Thing three.

A few weeks ago, as part of my ongoing attempt to revegetate my life, I brought home a Dasylirion quadrangularum from my favorite local nursery. I put it in a big terra cotta pot and placed it on my front porch.

About a week ago I looked at the plant, wondering if the neatly trimmed stubs of what were once long-strappy leaves were a new thing, or if I’d just missed seeing them at the nursery when I bought it. No worries either way, I thought. Dasylirions are tough.

For about six years I had one plant, and the person I lived with resented me having even that one. It’s a wonder that plant survived the enmity, the being relegated to dark corners and locked in car trunks in the summer in Palm Springs while I wasn’t looking. It’s now many times larger than it was a couple years ago, and it has company: several Dracaenas, orchids, ferns and Tillandsias, a Coffea arabica I rescued from the hardware store’s trash cart.

The plants help me feel like myself, again, a commodity in short supply over the last decade. But they survive well only indoors. I set a Calibanus on my table outdoors to get some air, and something ate it in about 12 hours. The desert is voracious. White sage, chiltepin peppers, potato leaves full of solanine, it doesn’t matter. The mammals around here will take any source of green they can get.

This morning I surprised a rabbit in the act of snipping the last long leaf from the Dasylirion on the porch. I sighed, sat down in the shade of the house, and watched the cottontail haul the leaf beneath my car.

There commenced a sound of crunching.