I am not—I think I am not—afraid of dying.
~William Maxwell, Nearing 90
. . .
Missing cat, panic, braindead, fruitflies, envy. Problems.
As a psychotherapist, I worked for years to help people solve their problems. Then I learned that, according to Buddha, we all have 83 problems. Everyone: Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, even the Dalai Lama, though he doesn’t seem to mind. And, this Buddhist parable goes on to say, if you solve one problem another will inevitably take its place. Eighty-three. If I had known this before I took up psychotherapy, I might not even have started. Or I might have understood that my job was not to help solve problems, but simply to help. In any case, when I gave up my practice after twenty-five years, I did not give up my interest in problems but I did take a new approach. Now I collect them. It’s easy. I ask, and people give them to me. One woman even wrote out in longhand her list of 83 problems and sent it to me in the mail.
A. Alopecia, apepsia, arthritis, apnea, athlete’s foot, asthma, acne. These are medical, afflictions of the body. Aspergers, Alzheimers, agoraphobia: afflictions of the mind. Alcoholism: your choice. Things which can be diagnosed* are usually accepted as problems, conferring upon their sufferers sympathy. Usually—see Alcoholism. But I have also collected ambition, angst, ankles, ants; more ambiguous problems which may engender something other than sympathy.
Once, when I was in Oms, France, and terribly homesick, I spent a sunny afternoon on a sweet little concrete patio watching cartoonishly large ants pick up chunks of salami and carry them into the heather, pausing only for antennae discussions with ants marching the other way. I was so grateful for those industrious, beautiful ants. They grounded me; they calmed my heart. In the morning, I even watched them from bed with binoculars. You could say ants saved me.
So I love ants. When my daughter, Chloe, complains about the ants in her driveway (not even in the house!) I have to fake sympathy.
*Italics denote a problem. For some readers italics are the problem. In any case, some of these problems have been collected and some have been designated by the author, my choice. But one can start to see everything as a problem; it depends on your mood. In the course of revision, I had to do some radical de-italicization. Feel free to debate, or to add italics of your own, in your mind.
B. Bicycle messengers; beauty; body.
Bush, Do-You-Miss-Me-Yet-George W.
Remember him? Randi asks. (Randi is my ex-office mate.) Do you think George Bush was actually insecure? Yes, Randi, George was insecure, I say. I am opinionated. Randi isn’t sure. I say, Oh, come on. The reflexive combativeness, the bombast, that smirk. Those minesweeping eyes vigilant for ambush. Those rolled up sleeves, those hands on hips, Randi says. (Randi calls us TOHB’S, pronounced toobs: Trained Observers of Human Behavior.) The leather bombardier jacket. Compensation, we say in unison. Ever watch him take a swing at a golf ball? How he tries to laugh it off? He didn’t experience his insecurity, so he didn’t have to suffer from it. We did. Beware the unconscious leader, Randi says.
Bullies, boredom, blahblahblah.
C. Can’t: think, cry, come. Can’t feel my toes.
Clicks, from my brother Bruce: No, listen, he says. Seriously. My car does this thing where it won’t start. I try it, click. But it’s intermittent; it starts, it starts, it starts, then for no reason, it clicks. I took it to the dealer and they couldn’t find it—if it doesn’t click for them, they can’t fix it. The next day I had to try it over twenty times, click, click, click, click, click. When it finally started I drove directly to the gas station and he said it was the battery, which he replaced, and it started fine. For a few days. Then, click. I feel like my car is the enemy, he says. I can’t sleep with it lurking in the driveway waiting to defeat me. I don’t know what to do. I tell him I can’t help him. Cars are a problem.
Cowards. Caterpillars. Cats.
D. Death. According to Buddha, Number One Problem.
We don’t even like to use the words: to die, death, dying, dead. Instead, we say croak, pass, go over, breathe your last; give up the ghost, kick the bucket, cross over Jordan, join the angels, hop the twig, meet your maker, depart this life, reach the finish line, transition to the next phase, peg out, bite it, flatline. You are done, called home, expired, released, laid to rest, no longer with us, taken by God, on the other side, pushing up daisies, six feet under, terminated, rubbed out, cashed in, snuffed. You are no more, you are singing with the angels, you are sleeping with the fishes, you are cooking for the Kennedy’s, you are gone to your reward; translated into glory, gone to the final resting place, or to the world beyond. You have bought the farm, transcended this life, found everlasting peace, crossed over into campground, shuffled off this mortal coil, left this world, left the building. The big sleep…should something happen. The race is run. May you rest in peace.
But be careful about euphemisms. Euphemism can signal denial.
If I could talk to Buddha, I would tell him that, in a complete turnaround, my mother on her deathbed became sweet, willing, generous, funny (well, she was always funny), helpful, tranquil, lovable, loving, and hopeful. Hopeful. Her turnaround, her death, changed my life; it made me a better person. Of course, it wasn’t my death.
E. Eggs: who knows how long they’ve been out there?
Eavesdropping. My husband and I were driving to the pub for our Thursday night pint and I was kvetching about a dear, difficult friend when my phone butt-dialed her. Four times. She eavesdropped. She finally called me back to tell me. I was stricken, until she mentioned that at first she wondered if I was mad at her but then she thought I must be complaining about my mother-in-law. But eavesdropping is a great way to collect, so I do it. People on cell phones give it all away: Sherry’s ridiculous torpedoes (Whole Foods); Robin’s humongous rock (Nordstrom); I love you but I’m not in love with you (Voila Bistro); Do YOU have my driver’s license? (SeaTac Airport); Fucking bullshit fascist hoops they fucking make you fucking jump through. (Medgar Evers Community Pool Women’s Locker Room); Give-it-to-me-give-it-to-me-give-it-to-me, baby. (Kinkos). This kind of eavesdropping is irresistible, and also unavoidable. But eavesdropping on your wife, your teenager, your neighbor, your co-worker, or your law-abiding citizenry, is a problem.
F. Fuck, fucking, fucked. I refer to the word, not the activity.
Don’t say fuck. Fuck is a problem because of its effect. People experience this particular word, as well as other four-letter words of Anglo-Saxon extraction, as an assault. Once you say fuck in casual conversation, never mind formal discourse, you have agitated listeners, signaled disregard for propriety, called into question your thinking as well as your judgment, sewn seeds of hostility, inserted unwelcome, perhaps unwholesome, thoughts of sexual activity, and severed sympathetic connection. Your line of reasoning will be buried in dirt. Don’t say fuck.
Except sometimes. Sometimes fuck is exactly the right word. When you’re in a tight spot, ‘we’re fucked’ lightens the load. Fuck can make you laugh. And fuck may be the only way to join with an otherwise alien culture (the 22-year-old gnarly boarder who rescues you, granny, from the precarious snow ledge you cling to after your fall from a chute you had no business skiing). The only way to provide the punch in a punch line, to give yourself a bit of naughtiness, especially if you are female and getting on in years, to express misgiving, as in wtf, or excitement, passion, despair.
One time, when I was seventeen, I slipped into my parents’ bedroom after a date and I found my mother alone in their bed, drinking. Hi, I’m home, I said. Your father is out fucking some other woman, she slurred. My mother did not swear. This word told me everything about how bad things had gotten.
G. Greed, greedy greed.
The letter g, gone from participle and gerund. Dolly Parton’s abandonment of g—Darlin’!—is adorable. Tommy Lee Jones can do it and sound smart. My beef is with those guys who drop g’s in that fake dumb way. Since you will only go the route of sounding fake dumb—folksy—if you believe you are smarter than the rest of us, dropping your g’s signals condescension. You think we don’t get it? The worst offenders? Not those previous presidents, not those sports-radio-talk-jocks, but those therapists. So I’m feelin’ a little angry that you just threw my ashtray at me. Are you willin’ to talk about that? Not only fake dumb, fake calm. I’ve heard it more in male therapists. Maybe they worry they have a little dominance*, aggression, and competitiveness to disguise.
Genius, no fake-dumb about it. According to my-father-the-rocket-scientist, everyone else was stupid. The religious were stupid—just kidding, he meant unschooled in science; the rich were stupid—just kidding, he meant lulled by money into lack of ambition; and the Democrats were stupid—just kidding, he meant stupid. Chuckle chuckle.
* Unless you are a counter like me, you probably did not notice, but we have now reached 83. And we are only part way through the letter “G.” But remember, Buddha did not say 83 problems in total, he said 83 problems per person. The total is infinite. Buddha also claimed there was an 84th problem, as universal as death. It is the only problem with which he can help: our desire to not have problems.
H. Hiccups, haste, hostility, holidays, hellfire. (I sometimes had to question the sincerity of my respondents—“hellfire” from a happy gay man at Octoberfest?)
Hobbyist. My neighbor Robert, who polishes his wife’s limos across the street from my garage/studio every day, called my artwork a beautiful hobby. Now that is the worst thing you can say to a serious artist and I bristled (covertly. I love Robert.) But then I thought about it. I thought about work and identity.
Happiness, habits, handkerchiefs, hysteria, my haircut. Head lice—it’s not funny.
I realized that, as an ex-psychotherapist, I still have a certain response to problems—other than writing them down, I mean. I help, I try to solve. I can’t help myself. And it’s great. I feel useful, and I get to stay out of the deep end. My point: now my problem-solving is more like a hobby. Hobby: “favorite pastime or avocation;” “activity that doesn’t go anywhere,” i.e., done for its own sake, for the love if it. It may be that if all your work is hobby, and beautiful, you have found a state of grace.
I. I squander my thoughts, I can’t commit to anything, I hoard.
I—meaning you, meaning me. Ego. A problem. Individual rights, entitlements, achievements, accumulation, consumption. Sharing is difficult. Getting in line, taking turns, helping out, blending in, are difficult. I becomes me me me. But the ego in the I is also humanity’s transcendence. Without it, we do not get Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Picasso’s “Guernica,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
Inertia, indecision, something icky on the toilet seat.
Invasives. When I suggested reintroducing California condors to the eastern slope of the Cascades, the biologist in the family looked long-suffering and said, I don’t think that would be compatible with the ferruginous hawks we’re trying to re-establish. I did not press my case, though California condors had lived on the Eastern slope of the Cascades until 150 years ago, until the human invasives eradicated them.
Infinite Compassion. I saw the Dalai Lama at a conference on compassion. He said love is biological (protection) and anger is biological (protection). (The compassionate psychologist panelists did not appear to appreciate the anger part.) If you take birth as a human, he said, it is good to keep love 24 hours a day and anger only occasionally. If you take birth as a turtle, you don’t need love, only anger. He thought this was very funny. He said he might come back as a turtle.
J. Jesus. Jesus is not the problem. What Jesus said, what Jesus did, what Jesus stands for, is not the problem. Ditto the Prophet Mohammad.
K. Kudzu: it ate my shed, the abandoned barn, my pasture and my wood lot. You don’t want Kudzu. You don’t want any non-indigenous plant or animal that adversely affects the habitats it invades (see invasives.). Milfoil, zebra mussels, Mediterranean snails, starlings, sea squirts, tansy ragwort, thistle, pampas grass, scotch broom, English ivy, eucalyptus Himalayan blackberry.
One time, squeezed into a little bedroom awaiting the birthday boy at a surprise birthday party, I whispered to a friend how much I loved her little eucalyptus tree. A woman pressed up against my back hissed that eucalyptuses crowd out natives, burn like dry straw, and are a blight on the face of the earth. (Tell koalas that.) She meant I should not love eucalyptuses. But how can I not love eucalyptuses? Eucalyptus means picnics in Griffith Park, bare feet on slippery leaves in sandy canyons with my brothers, sun. It is not the eucalyptus tree’s fault it thrives in California, where it was brought by entrepreneurs hoping to make a killing with this quick-growing tree. (It grew quickly all right, but too knotty and twisted to make railroad ties.They brought the wrong one.)
By the way, biologists revere natives—GOOD—and detest invasives—BAD. It is black-and-white for them. I admire biologists as much as I admire anybody, but I find their position problematic. The banana slug that overnight mows down my tender row of romaine is a native but I will have to be a much better Buddhist not to kill it. Of course, I’m not native to Seattle. I’m from California.
L. Love, lack, loss, limits, landfills. Lipstick: every time—every time—I find a color I like, they quit making it.
Liars. My personal Number One Problem.
People lie. I know that. But I look at liars the way an ophidiophobe looks at snakes: with fear and loathing. So much fear and loathing, in fact, it is as if this creature cannot exist. It becomes exotic. It fascinates. John Ehrlichman, Oliver North, Ronald Reagan, Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, Jeffery Skilling, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales—I watched them all. Their dissembling was entirely transparent, yet their demeanor remained righteous. Apparently, lies no longer exist. Because there is no such thing as facts.
Lost keys, lost love, lost track of my life.
Not all lies are equal. Look at the language. Many words for the lie are mild, even whimsical, like humbug, twiddle-twaddle, taradiddle, flim-flam, clap-trap, cock-and-bull, lip-homage, mouth-honor, eye-wash, window dressing, moonshine, mare’s nest. Some reek with the lie’s bad faith, like perjury, forgery, mendacity, double-cross, falsehood, fraud, deceit. And some words rely on context to measure the lie, like exaggeration, equivocation, invention, guile, cajolery, flattery, fable, yarn, hypocrisy, pretense, evasion, farce, dissembling, distortion, cant, canard, subterfuge, quackery, flattery, sham, insincerity, dissimulation, bosh.
What kind of lie is the non-answer?
M. My mother. Reported by many as their Number One Problem.
Motherhood: my kids ruined my life. Then they say they were joking.
Moods, mean people, mold, masculinity.
Meat: I think cooking meat is just beyond me.
This from a man slumping into the kitchen after checking the steaks on the new gas-fired barbecue. A man whose father melted the side of the garage with his new gas-fired barbecue at the first meeting with the prospective daughter-in law, causing quite a lather in mother, father, and son, though not in the prospective daughter-in-law, who did not care about the meat, really, though she wished she weren’t such a bother. Still, that father insisted on firing up his barbecue on the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and every Sunday afternoon—with his lips compressed and his shoulders tensed—for thirty-odd years, though he never got it right. Even when the meat turned out, he suffered.
This suggests the meat problem is genetic. But there are things more important than meat, or moaning about meat. Like doing the right thing, or trying to do the right thing. Like honoring your father. I married the man.
N. No willpower, no heat, no sex, no tomatoes, no newspaper, no money, no rain, no hope.
For many people, just the word No is a problem, unless the question is, do these pants make me look fat? Except Joan. Joan said, No problems. I have a steel door, like those huge doors on gothic cathedrals with a bunch of brass rivets and heavy round handles? And I keep all my problems behind that door. I throw them over the wall or something. I don’t want them—why would I open that door?
Never lived up to my potential, nothing to devote myself to, nostalgia.
Joan reminded me of Sherry, who said her only problem was to Be Aware of God in Every Moment and Still Be in the World. I was astounded: she lived alone, could not make her rent, had no retirement, no prospects, no plan, and she was looking at sixty.
O. Outrage (theirs, mine).
Out of: ideas, clean socks, luck.
Obsession: she texted me 48 times in, like, fifteen minutes.
Occupation—another number one problem in my collection.
Overwhelmed by problems. There is something comforting about Buddha’s 83 problems, a leveling effect, as if we are all dealt the same hand. But this does not seem true. I can see that every life contains suffering. But in equal part, every life? Life is unfair seems more true. Fair or not, I am experimenting with managing my 83 problems—and limiting rumination—with a strict list. Only 10 per day. For example, today my problems are my neighbor’s morning glory, not enough time, the light fixture in the bathroom, email, the other neighbor’s vine maples, my dog’s teeth, finding a new shower curtain, returning wrong-color paint, finding the AAA statement, the downstairs closet. See, I’m not even thinking about my son’s substance abuse, his marriage, one grandchild’s anxiety, my mother-in-law, my daughter’s slide into postpartum, the pain in my fingers, the smell downstairs, how long my money will last, how I looked in the mirror this morning, a dying friendship.
P. Photographs. Some images cannot be erased.
One photograph depicted naked brown men, stacked, on a dirty cement floor, heads shrouded in black pointy hoods resembling the white hoods of the men of the Ku Klux Klan, though the men of the Ku Klux Klan were never, by their own bylaws, brown men. One photograph depicted naked brown men with naked buttocks in the air, unprotected, exposed, poised for derision, or intrusion. One photograph depicted naked brown men forced to masturbate in the faces of other naked brown men as American soldiers grinned, or took pictures, or passed by without notice. One photograph depicted a naked brown man cowering, trying to protect his legs and his genitals from three lunging, snarling German shepherd dogs, dogs eager to do their duty with the naked brown man, barely restrained by laughing American soldiers. Some were bloody. One was dead, a naked bruised body in a body bag with ice on his chest. One naked brown man was being dragged by a dog leash around his neck, dragged on hands and knees across the dirty cement floor, dragged by a grinning female American soldier, thumbs up.
If you accept that you, and everybody, has 83 problems and will always have problems, how do you keep from giving up?
What is the benefit of naming problems?
Has therapy made our problems better? Worse?
Would a person be lonesome without her problems? Bored?
If you do not think about your problems, where do they go?
Are your problems better—more valid, sad, shocking, profound—than mine?
Why does it make one feel better to hear about someone else’s problems?
How do you maintain compassion when someone’s problems seem self-made, self-sustaining, and damaging to others?
If you believe that massive world problems—flood, famine, war—will always exist, and that one person’s efforts cannot ease these world problems, what do you do?
How can the Dalai Lama giggle when asked about China?
R. Righteousness. Righteousness has led to polarization, name-calling, retaliation, stalemate, distortion, abuse of power, war. But passionate people tend to be righteous. Some of them I admire. Perhaps it is righteousness plus power plus insecurity plus no capacity for empathy that makes it deadly.
Religion. During an interview about the restoration of native prairie grass at her stunning ranch in Crawford, Texas, Laura Bush was asked, gingerly, if she ever felt guilty about having so much. Well, she said, I am grateful every day. But I also know that every single person in the world can go outside and enjoy God’s beauty just as I do. I question that.
The Dalai Lama said religion has failed us. He said its effect, at best, is limited. He snickered; he said he was just a poor monk. But we must use our common sense, he said; we must use our intelligence! We must look to science for answers to the terrible, man-made problems we now face.
Regret. This from a 66-year-old man whose life-threatening cancer is miraculously under control: I know I should be happy. But the funny thing about dying—or almost dying—is that it made me realize I’ve been an asshole all my life. How can I change all that?
S. Sentiment, hackneyed: “When I am old, I shall wear purple.” That just pisses me off (spleen).
Sorrow. My problem is not the death of my child; my problem is this terrible sorrow.
What can be done for the broken heart? In the newspaper, we read about people seeking comfort through retribution (sometimes mistaken as closure) but what kind of comfort does retribution provide? And what happens a year later? We don’t read about that. Religion tells us forgiveness provides the only true comfort; love thine enemy. People on their deathbeds exhort us, time and again, that love is all that matters. But I wonder if forgiveness for terrible injustice is one more unattainable state. And yet, without it the heart dies, as if corroded by poison. I read about a family in Eastern Washington, devout Mennonites who lost their five children in a horrific car crash. The father of those children and the driver of the pickup that crossed the center line and hit their van head-on were hospitalized in the same small hospital, and the father initiated a visit while they were both in rehabilitation. Now, five years later, the mother and father have two little children. They see the other driver regularly, and they try to help him out. They say it is hard sometimes, but they pray. Forgiveness is a practice, not a feeling.
T. Time—too much, never enough. From my oldest friend: It goes fast, doesn’t it? We did not know, could not have known, that she would die three years later, at age 70, of a sudden, devastating septicemia.
Trains. A slender fourteen-year-old stands on the shining steel track. She laughs, she flips her arm, she rakes her fingers through wavy red hair. They are not supposed to, but kids cross these tracks all the time to get down to the beach. Had she simply stopped to finish a story? When do they see it, her girlfriend, the two boys? A neighbor grilling steaks on his deck saw it. The girl’s house is almost on top of the tracks. Her mother made it to the scene as the aid cars screamed up. But didn’t she hear it? is what everyone said, stunned and bewildered. Wake up, baby. Please wake up, is what the mother said, her nose pressed into the girl’s neck. I read about this in the paper. This mother had been my client. I called and left condolences with the person screening her calls. I sent a card. Then I waited, anguished. I did not know what to do. My rulebook said that since she was no longer my client, I should let her contact me. It felt wrong, and still I waited. Seven years later she called me. When I told her how sorry I was, sorry for her loss and sorry that I didn’t do more, she waved me off. Then she said the kids had been warned a million times not to cross those tracks; it takes only four seconds for a train to hit that spot after coming around the bend. (When she threatened to sue, the county fenced it.) She told me that stuff in the paper was bullshit, it made her mad. She never said wake up baby. She resuscitated, even though she knew her daughter was dead. And she made the EMT’s resuscitate, for two hours they resuscitated, until the father could get there, until she was ready for them to stop. She said it was the least she could do.
U. Uncultivated souls, uncontrolled urges.
Unlimited choices. Research shows that a person’s number of choices is inversely correlated with happiness. More choice equals less happiness.
Underwear: I have to go to Nordstrom’s today to buy new underwear. Even thinking about it makes me tired.
This problem might sound petty. But this woman suffers from lifelong bouts of depression exacerbated by childhood sexual abuse. She hates her once-beautiful body, thickening and slumping with age, and she is married to a difficult man who uses sex—and her fear that she is unlovable—in a coercive way. Not that she uses these troubles to get sympathy. These are my observations. So I try not to judge. The underwear, the malaise of shopping at Nordstrom’s: it’s a metaphor.
V. Vermin: gulls, crows, and rats. I only give rats a problem designation because I like gulls and crows, though if I were consistent, I would call none of them a problem, because they all try to take care of garbage generated by humans. Or I would call all of them problems because of their work as disease vectors. But then they’re a curb on human overpopulation.
Victim. Drink too much? Gambling problem? I wish my Mama would have loved me, the blues artist R.L. Burnside moans.
W. Warming, global. My friend John-the-zealot declares there are no longer personal problems. None. Only GLOBAL WARMING.
Wishful thinking. Bad in a sailor. Once, on a trip across the Mediterranean, I puked for twelve miserable hours because the captain of our sailboat took the best possible interpretation—in fact, better than possible—of the projected weather forecast (25-35 knot winds and a Beaufort scale, meaning seas, of 4.5-7). He claimed they exaggerate, and after some imaginative number-crunching, showed how conditions could be perfect for a bracing, one-in-a-lifetime sail. He forgot to mention the shifting winds. Wistful wife, wimpy husband. Which caused confused seas, so that we pitched not only up-and-down but side-to-side and all around in the gale-force winds and ten-foot waves, which besides making me sick unto death, attempted to sweep the captain and my husband off the stern. Alas, that their jacklines held.
Willfully incompetent in-laws. No, only GLOBAL WARMING.
X. X -therapist, -husband, -president. It is difficult to be an ex. You have so many habits to confront, things to change. You may not know how to act in many situations. You may behave poorly.
Y. Yelling. My mother always yelled at me and now I can’t stop yelling at my kids.
Loud display, even of positive feeling, seems to be unattractive and unwelcome, especially if the person yelling is female and getting on in years.
Yes: I might have said yes to one too many Top Pot doughnuts. (Cf. uncontrolled urges.)
Yearning. Robert Olen Butler tells us there is no fiction without yearning. The character must yearn for something or, no matter how well the story is written, it will be flat. Uh oh. I thought yearning led to disappointment and envy. In fact, very early on, I stripped myself, not only of yearning, but most feeling. I became excellent at rising above, making do, not caring. Who could tolerate a steady state of dashed desire? But Robert Olen Butler is talking about fiction. And anyway, I have been padding feeling back on. I really want a new house.
Z. Zen. Not native.
Student: “Not even a thought has arisen. Is there still a sin or not?” Master: “Mount Sumeru!”
The idea, I think, is that if you tangle with nonsense, your brain will take a leap and free itself from the chains of logic. But what is the purpose of the abandonment of discursive thought? Does it lead to being in the moment? To acceptance, the solution to the 84th problem? Zen koans don’t help me; they make my stomach tighten. I wish the Dalai Lama could have helped me. The Dalai Lama laughed about his teacher’s yellow whip when he was a five-year-old Dalai Lama-in-training, saying fear helped him learn. Ah. The Dalai Lama laughed about death. Ah. (But be careful about sharing the good news that we are all going to die.) But the Dalai Lama did not say a word about zen koans. For that, we’re on our own.
“83 Problems A-Z” first appeared in the Jabberwock Review, vol. 33.2, Winter 2013.
Those ashes. I hadn’t expected to love them. The twelve-inch square box, the glossy white paper. How heavy they were. That’s the bone, they said. In the car, I shook the box, and the bone rattled.
At home, I scoop some out. The powder in my hand is dense, not dusty the way wood ash is, and it is infused with tiny slivers of bone that remind me of Stone Age needle-tools. I take another handful. The ash seems to contain something like life, but the opposite of warmth. I seal my purloined ashes in a sandwich bag and lay it flat in my desk drawer. Then I rewrap the box, tape it shut, and tuck Barby’s ashes into a canvas carry-on. I am flying south to California to meet my brothers.
On the way to the airport, I shake the box again. The bone rattles.
Barby was my mother, but I always called her Barby. Many people begin calling their parents by first names once they grow up, a rite of passage, but in my family it was Barby and Dick from the beginning. They said my big brother Bruce started it when he learned to talk and they just let it be. Everyone called her Barby, my friends, her friends, our teachers, the cleaning lady, the kids on the block; milkman, mailman, garbage men. Because she came before the doll, I never associated her with all that. Anyway, the doll spelled her name B-A-R-B-I-E, and, except for the same noteworthy breasts, that vacant-eyed airhead was nothing like my Barby. My Barby smoked cigarettes, drank martinis, and was really really smart.
Later, the grandchildren called her Barby, too, but by then she wasn’t the same person.
We are meeting at David’s place in Del Rey Oaks, near Monterey. We plan to rent a car and drive down the coast to Santa Monica to release Barby’s ashes into the ocean. No one knows whether or not this is legal, but that is the plan. We are not exactly close. This will be our first gathering since Barby’s seventy-fifth birthday, three years ago in Knoxville, Tennessee.
A quick introduction. Barby was a housewife and Dick was a rocket scientist, and they were married for twenty-six years, from 1938-1964. After five years of unfettered, young-married fun, they had four children: Bruce, me, Geoff, and David. For most of my 1950’s childhood we lived in West Los Angeles around the corner from the sprawling Douglas Aircraft plant where Dick worked on a busy street called Bundy Drive. Sprinklers, sidewalks, and stucco ramblers.
In the fall of 1963—Bruce was in college, but the rest of us were still at home; David, the “caboose,” was barely ten—things fell apart. Dick went to Huntington Beach to live with his girlfriend and Barby went crazy.
Neither of them ever came back, not really.
Black Dog backwards. Barby flung the skirt of her shirtdress over her head. She would not come out; she would not cover her exposed underwear and skinny, bruised legs, askew on the rumpled sheet. Black Dog backwards, she rasped from under the thin cotton, over and over and over. They called it “nervous breakdown.”
The sun is out in Monterey. We have come from deep winter: Bruce, a scientist at NASA, from Cleveland; Geoff, a physics professor, from Knoxville; and I, a private-practice psychotherapist and visual artist, came from Seattle. David, a math professor, is the lucky one who lives here, where you get spring in January.
We assemble in David’s bright living room on two sectionals and the sole family heirloom, a spindled mahogany rocker. It occurs to me to put my glossy white box on the coffee table, but I don’t. Dust motes jounce around in the late afternoon sunbeams. We always do this, some delicate shuffle, like dogs creeping around corners to sniff and sneak peaks. Sometimes, in the course of our get-togethers, we soften up. I know we try. I had wondered if it would different with Barby gone, but this feels the same. I feel responsible for (and incapable of) making things go well, and I prattle, brightly, into the air.
David hops to the kitchen and returns with a bottle of champagne. I watch his handsome hands, square like Dick’s but with more refined fingers like Barby’s, as he unwinds the wire. His left-hand nails are short and the right-hand’s long, for guitar and bass. He pours the cheerful, light-amber liquid and we raise our flutes. No one says Barby, but it’s to her. Then we all chat, about weather, wine, travel, nothing.
Bruce steers into our past. He complains about the derision, the neglect. His face, in any case pinkish, flushes deep rose, and his lips are stiff. I stare at Bruce’s thick wavy hair, shiny-aluminum in a sunbeam. Barby loved Bruce’s glorious hair, the wave and the widows-peak. I don’t think Dick did. Dick was bald. Bruce says there was some weird overlay of sex in our household. He says we were abused. We have talked about all this before, but I am no longer interested.
I was there when Barby died. If she had just died suddenly in her sleep, like Bruce I might have still been mad, if not about our childhood then about the long years after, thorny and stingy. And I would have been sad. I would have been relieved. But Barby didn’t die suddenly in her sleep. Barby spent her last days tucked in my house, in my bedroom, and something I could not have anticipated, or even imagined, happened. We fell in love.
You never know, Barby-the-athiest said, two days before she died. She was talking about heaven, about joining her mother there. She smiled into my eyes, a brave girl going off to her first day at kindergarten. You never know.
I cannot expect them to feel the way I do. They weren’t there. I tried to tell them over the phone last September how sweet she was at the end, but I got the feeling they found me irritating or disloyal. But if you walk off the ship, must it mean you are abandoning the other sailors?
Geoff stands up. He looks the same as always, with his deep-set brown eyes, dark beard and plain-brown country haircut—except for the eyebrows, I notice, which are darker and bushier and create a shelf so that his eyes are hidden in shadow, just glints. He brings out a fake-leather yellow suitcase with rusted locks and peeling decals secured by a heavy nylon strap. Barby’s stuff, what is left of it; in fact, her entire archive. Barby left it with him almost two years ago when, evicted from her apartment in Knoxville, she moved to Seattle to live near me.
Barby rolled her eyes and pointed at her lap. Uh, oh. The airport wheelchair appeared to be leaking. Barby sucked hard on an Old Gold. We had passed three bathrooms between the gate and baggage claim. Three times, Barby had claimed she did not need to go.
A little puddle formed on the dirty grey cement. Barby smirked, took another long drag, and gazed at passing cars with smoke leaking from her nose. The puddle trickled toward the curb.
Geoff lays the yellow suitcase on the coffee table. His hands are a slightly larger version of David’s. I look at mine. The same, Dick’s; I wish I had Barby’s. Geoff says he wants to show us how beautiful Grandma Butch (Barby’s mother) was. He takes off the strap, unlatches the rusty clasps, and lifts the lid. The smell of stale cigarette laced with mildew rises into the room like a genie wafting out of a bottle. We are silent.
Over the next hour we pluck out photos: sort, stare, show each other. We build our separate piles, from our yearly visits to Barby’s beach in the 1970’s. I think about those ashes again; they belong to all of us; they might help bring us together. But still I do not bring them out.
I grab a random snapshot of Barby standing on the lawn on Bundy Drive in the ‘50’s showing off her new, short haircut, called a ducktail. Her head is tilted. She wears a satisfied smile.
Why not? Barby would say, spiraling her right forefinger in the air in a tight circle and then swooshing it up and away. Barby was learning shorthand, a stab at practicality for this summa cum laude Phi Beta Kappa. Her simper said it was a cute trick. You knew she was never really going to be a secretary.
Finally, Geoff suggests we stop and he closes the lid. We move on to more wine and David’s lasagna. Later, Bruce, Geoff, David and his wife, Anne, settle at the dining table to play Pit and Liars’ Dice, games from our childhood, and I envision the competitive steam from our childhood. I am not a good loser, I never was, and I usually lost—and I am tired—so I retreat to my room to read.
But first I say, on impulse, “Would it be okay if I took that yellow suitcase home with me? After we’re all done?”
They look up. Anne shuffles the cards.
“Sure,” Geoff says.
Bruce shrugs and nods.
I can take the yellow suitcase home with me.
I will use that archive to investigate Barby’s life, something I know almost nothing about. I will use it, photos and papers, to write her story. And I will paint portraits of Barby, too, lots of them. But I do not know that yet. I just want the yellow suitcase.
Night night, sleep tight—I tensed—don’t let the bedbugs bite! Dick pinched my arm. He chuckled.
I liked it better when Barby patted my shoulder: night night, Patty.
We spend the next day exploring Monterey County like pilgrims in the Holy Land. You can tell David is proud, as though it’s his. Near Big Sur, we sight sea lions, sea otters, pelicans, and then a spout, and then lots of spouts, out near the horizon. In David’s scope the barnacled backs of gray whales migrating to Baja to have their babies heave into view.
Barby’s mothering may have been absentminded, but one thing all four of us got, and we got it from her, is this capacity for enchantment with nature.
Across Highway One, we take a hike up Soberanes Canyon: Redwood and manzanita in the ravines, prickly pear on the slopes, and everywhere horsetail fern, coyote bush, shooting stars, and sticky monkey flowers. Bruce doesn’t want to cross the wooden bridges over gold-flecked Soberanes Creek. I have to coax, I hold his hand. Bruce was born with a stiff, permanently contracted right arm and right leg, probably the result of a difficult forceps delivery—spastic diplegia, it was called. This is the first time I’ve realized that, because of his shriveled foot and uneven gait, he does not trust his balance.
We eat apples and trail mix on Rocky ridge with the sun warm on our backs and the Pacific below.
On the way back to town, we make a quick stop at a copse of eucalyptus in Pacific Grove, just in case. The canopy is coated—coated—with Monarch butterflies, like orange-and-black leaves that unfold and flicker sunlight with silken whispers. A peak experience, Geoff mutters. He and Barby were butterfly collectors.
Finally, we pay a visit to Ventana Vineyards, in the foothills of the Santa Lucia range, to watch the sun set while we sip sauvignon blanc. They just give you this? For free? They don’t charge for this? We find Geoff’s amazement very funny, our genius physicist bumpkin brother. Maybe Barby gave us her enchantment with wine, too. For her, it was nearly lethal.
That night, like a kid calling in the last outliers in a game of hide and seek, David sings out, rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moons, and we crowd onto the deck to take turns one more time at the scope: rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moons, in Del Rey Oaks’ clear winter skies.
Whales, wildflowers, butterflies, wine and planets. These are what bring us together, wrap us in happy wonder. And though Barby was not mentioned, she was with us all day. Barby loved California.
We set off the next morning in the rented Chevrolet, everyone soft and generous about who gets which seat. We steer onto Highway One, the old snaky coast road—eight hours to L.A., but it was the road of our childhood, and it has the gunmetal Pacific Ocean on one side, and silver, olive, and jade chaparral on new-pea foothills on the other. Red rock. Black conifers. I always feel hopeful when I see the smudge-line where ocean meets sky.
But then Geoff inserts country music, Alabama, into the tape deck and our sweet, delicate accord deteriorates: Bruce says something funny—Bruce is very funny—but it has bite, and Geoff, who has one of those faces you can’t read so you read it as arrogant, stares at him in the rear-view mirror without speaking. I am in the back seat with Bruce; I start vibrating with his prickle. I wish I were the kind of person who could tune that stuff out, but I’m not. Finally David and I generate a rule that the driver should get to pick the music and Bruce curls into a slouch, his mouth a horizontal thread. Now the silence is not tranquil.
And I was already getting tense. Geoff drives too fast. They all do.
Later, when Bruce is driving, he puts in some loud rock music. Geoff, now in back, protests. Bruce pauses the tape. Do we have a rule or don’t we? Okay then. Bruce again blares Led Zeppelin. The atmosphere in the car has become noxious, as though oxygen is in short supply, and my stomach clenches. I need something, like my own tapes, maybe the Goldberg Variations. Why didn’t I bring tapes? I think about those ashes in the trunk. I want Barby. This longing surprises me. I never believed Barby was on my side. I would have said she liked the boys better, and David best. I find out later they always thought she favored me.
But did Barby ever settle our squabbles? Did she soothe us? Four kids.
Finally, after seven-and-a-half hours, we hit L.A. County. Geoff is again at the wheel. Right at County Line beach, right where we set off Fourth of July fireworks when we were little, he inserts a new tape. Oh dear, I think, now what?
The piercing guitar and sweet harmonies of the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ Safari burst forth, loud and ringing, and instantly we are bouncing, all four of us, bouncing high in our seats; and singing, too, like on ancient family car trips. I glance at Bruce’s bobbing, grinning face and grab his hand. I look at Geoff in the rearview mirror, and at David—we are also weeping, all four of us, but weeping can’t stop us. We chant, we shout, we shriek, Help Me Rhonda, Good Vibrations, Surfin’ USA past the sere hills of Malibu, past Topanga Canyon and Sunset Boulevard and Will Rogers State beach; Wouldn’t It Be Nice past Chatauquah Boulevard and the cliffs along the Pacific Coast Highway. Together again, all the way into Santa Monica. And Barby would have sung along. She loved music, any music, including our music. She sang harmony.
That night, in a modest hotel on Ocean Avenue, I place my box of ashes on the nightstand and I stand there, palm on top, until the paper grows warm. Then I slide my bare legs between cool, pilled sheets and turn off the light. I roll the stiff pillow. I am too worn out to read, too tired to dream.
Ollie ollie oxen free free free. Robin song, eucalyptus, orange blossom and dust. Barby’s musical lilt called us in. Ollie ollie oxen free free free.
The next morning we meet in the lobby wearing shorts and sweatshirts over bathing suits. We carry identical white hotel towels, and I carry the white box. No one comments on the box. I also carry four copies of a poem, Rilke’s Ninth Duino Elegy. We amble, silent, two blocks along Ocean Avenue to a steep little alley called Pacific Terrace, down to Appian Way, then two more blocks to the Sea Castle, Barby’s last home in California. The temperature is in the sixties, the sun a pale disc behind morning marine air.
The Sea Castle is gone. My throat constricts. The pink, art deco high-rise is gone, replaced by a sleek steel and glass structure called the Sea Castle Luxury Suites. Why would they tear it down? We had loved the rent-controlled Sea Castle, with its assortment of grizzled eccentrics, mothers on welfare, and old ladies. Barby claimed Joan Baez lived in the penthouse on top, though we never saw her. We did like to watch the surf bums who lived in white vans in the parking lot—in fact, David had once lived in his white van in that parking lot. If you got there early enough, you could catch them rousting out of side doors, their ecstatic teeth and far-away eyes gleaming in bronzed faces. Beach coyotes, they would lope to the ocean with their toothbrushes. Their hair looked like the cellophane hair of dolls.
We trudge through the half-empty lot, now devoid of ratty vans, to the fresh asphalt boardwalk, now called Ocean Front Walk, and down the same old concrete steps onto cool, soft sand. Far away down the beach, two orange beach-cleaners chug toward Venice Beach.
We sit on a shelf formed by the night’s high surf and we gaze at the grey-scrimmed waves. No one speaks. Finally, I read the Elegy.
Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely
in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on the edges
of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)–:why then
have to be human—and escaping from fate,
keep longing for fate.
I tell them how I found this poem on my computer the morning after Barby died, in My Documents, and how I had not put it there, and Wayne, my husband, had not put it there, so I decided it was a message and a gift. And how I told Wayne it was proof that God was in the computer, and how Wayne said, only half joking, don’t tell anybody, and how I told everybody. How I read it at Barby’s memorial, read it to all my friends, read it to colleagues, read it every evening to myself. (David’s wife, Anne, had typed out the poem for her collection on her last visit and accidentally saved the file. Learning this later in no way diminished my miracle.)
Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?—O Earth: invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?
Transformation. Urgent command, I say again, and I hand them their copies. My breath grows shallow. My chest feels as though it is wrapped with wire.
We tell stories, the old standards: cows eat dirt, all through train go home now, ice cream tastes good with napkin. We each pitch memories into the pot, but our supply is so small. Geoff, and especially David, can’t remember much about Barby before her nervous breakdown. I want to give them something, but nothing comes.
Some sniffling, a few tears. Silence. Bruce makes us laugh, reminding us how Barby was just like Lucy on I Love Lucy. It’s time.
I pass the box of ashes to Bruce, who hefts it and rattles it. He passes it to David, who hefts, and David passes it to Geoff, to be hefted, rattled. They pass it back. I hold out my hand, but Bruce un-tapes the white paper, flips up the lid and grabs a fistful with his left hand, his good hand. He extends the box to me in the crook of his right arm.
Bruce marches to the water and stands ankle-deep, a lone figure facing the heaving, leaden ocean with his arm raised. He leans over and lays his ash on the sea. Some of the ghostly powder blows away, some rests atop the creamy foam. Bruce appears to taste his hand.
He turns around and limps back to our shelf, his mouth upside-down. Geoff wraps his arms around him and they sob. I cling to David for a moment, and then I take some ash. I walk to the water. Sprinkling her ashes through my fingers as though I am spreading grass seed, I say softly, here you go, Barby. After a minute, I turn around. Three pairs of eyes are watching me; three stripped faces.
Bruce wails, “I thought we were only going to say good stuff. But she was a terrible parent. We all had a hard time, a terrible time. And I will do better than that.” Very fierce, “I will be better.”
Geoff, who has recently had hard times of his own, says, “Well, but she is like us, we are like her. She did the best she could.” Bruce is sobbing. I don’t know what he hears.
As though he has no choice, Geoff picks up the box. Maybe in a family that falls apart too soon, marching in birth order is a way to resurrect, to concoct, tradition. Or maybe all families, fallen-apart or not, do things in order. Geoff scoops, strides to the water, and flings the ash, like a cloud, at the surf. The cloud flies apart; tiny fragments rain down. The bone. When Geoff turns around his cheeks are coated with tears.
David takes his turn. With the light steps of a cat, he jogs to the sea and lays his handful of ash on the foam with the rest.
Then we all just bawl. Together.
The first time we lost Barby, thirty-four years ago, we blew apart. We shriveled, stunned and silent, into our separate shells. We moved away, from her, from each other, and sooner or later, from L.A. Now we stay together. We hug, we look at each other. David’s round brown eyes swim, his lower lip quivers; Geoff’s face morphs into a gaping mouth and injured brow; I don’t squelch my crumple and hiccup; and Bruce, the expressive one, our Pavarotti of grief, spews saliva and snot and tears and words, though I don’t follow. I think, we’ve never cried together, but then I remember just yesterday we cried with the Beach Boys.
Later, on the drive home, David will say that we salvaged a family on that beach.
I will say we created a family.
Geoff will say we’re both right.
When our tears are spent, we just sit side-by-side, staring at the sea. The ash on the foam has not dissipated. I watch it slide toward me, and away.
But I guess we were too frugal, because when I check the box, it is still half-full. I give the boys a look. Bruce smiles, the green-glass of his eyes startling against red rims. I jerk my chin at him and say I want someone to go in so I will have to. We all stand up. I pull my sweatshirt over my head. Bruce shrugs and says something like, well, here goes. He grabs a handful of ash, dashes into the surf with his lopsided sprint, and dives under a roller. He jets up on the other side, howling.
I am right behind him. I dive—it is so cold—and the icy ocean snatches my tears, leaving me empty and clean. I shake my hair and dive again and this time I open my hand, and Barby’s ashes bloom into the salty water. I pray to the ocean gods, take her to China, she would love to see China.
Geoff, and then David, slam into the waves beside me. We all leap and scream and chortle and snort; windmill arms and whip water. We grin at each other, born-agains in the surf. We are proud to be the only people at the beach. Angelenos, they call us.
Pretty soon, I get out. I feel like a chicken. But I am too cold.
Years later, on the phone, Bruce will tell me, “I talked to her out there. I remember, I was standing in the water up to my chest—it was so cold. But she was there. I talked to her. And I told her, it’s not your fault.” He paused to snuffle and clear his throat. “It wasn’t her fault,” he cried, his voice high. “It’s like, our family was five kids and one really horrible parent.”
Of course, I thought. That’s it. Dick was the horrible parent. Barby was one of us.
We sit again on the shelf of sand wrapped in white towels, hunched-up and shivering. We aren’t ready to leave the beach. We watch the scrim of foam, now top-lit by the sun, slide toward us, and away. I pick up the box.
I have a fleeting thought that we should have used some ash to create a ritual, swiped a bit on each other’s foreheads—but no. We did what Barby did; we did the best we could. And those ashes are gone.
Honeymoon, Ontario, Canada
“She Would Love To See China” first appeared in (em) Review of Text and Image, issue one, Fall 2012.
Igor was a smart bastard. That’s what Pete the trapper said. But Igor was also an only bastard, the last free-flying California condor on earth. Condors are sociable birds; they roost and preen and feed in groups called kettles, and by the spring of 1987, Igor was a kettle of one. No doubt he was lonely. That was about to change.
. . .
Cassie was a smart little miss. That’s what her father the Colonel said. Cassie was not an only: three brothers (all older), 1500 high school classmates, 639,000 fellow citizens of Washington, D.C. (the census of humans and condors had gone precipitously in opposite directions.) But in the fall of 1982, starting a new school in a new town where she knew no one, Cassie was lonely. That was about to change.
In the dark before dawn on Easter Sunday, at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Bakersfield, Pete began to dig. Not wanting to be seen, he worked quickly. Research shows crows recognize individual humans for good and ill, and Pete knew this was true of condors as well. For five years Igor had watched the Condor Recovery Project: the bait-and-shoot, the chases into caves. When Pete wrestled the second-to-last wild condor on earth, American Condor 5 (AC5) into a Sky Kennel six months earlier, Igor was watching from the crown of a nearby oak.
But they couldn’t get him. Igor disdained the tasty bait. He was only spotted in the air, on distant ledges, or high in trees, and cannon nets tangle when shot into trees. So Pete resorted to the old Indian trick.
When the hole was big enough, Pete dragged a calf carcass within reach, laid his shovel in, and then himself. He piled dirt and straw over his body and settled a debris-covered basket over his head. Through the slits, he watched the sun travel across the sky as ravens went to work on the carcass.
Condors’ sight is average, their sense of smell poor; they often find fodder by the shrieks of other scavengers. After half a day of watching the ravens have at it, Igor lit. Head tilted, he staggered across the scree. It took forty minutes, because the condor stopped and started and stopped and started and stopped. Finally, after one last suspicious survey, Igor buried his head and began to tear at the calf.
Suddenly, with an explosion of soil and straw, Pete leapt up, launched himself onto the six-foot bird and wrapped his arms around the mammoth wings. Igor’s fleshy head flushed deep red. He thrashed with his talons; he struck with his beak. Pete hung on, his face also red. It was desperate. Finally, suffering a few last painful bites for the preservation of a species, Pete managed to cram Igor, American Condor 9, into the kennel.
. . .
After three grammar schools and two junior highs, Cassie was now the new kid at Woodrow Wilson High School. Tall, with pale features, a startled expression, and long, silver-blonde hair, Cassie ate lunch, eyes down, at the table of silent loners. She did not play field hockey or volleyball, she didn’t try out for cheerleader, and she dodged the basketball coach. An ardent, though muted, bedroom singer, she did inquire about the chorus, but then she never showed up for her audition. Oh well, she thought, maybe Mama will let me sing in church choir.
Then Cherie, the girl who had been kicked out of Catholic school, who sat next to Cassie in Latin II, invited her to go see E.T. Cassie didn’t really want to. But she wasn’t good at saying no, and Cherie seemed nice, and anyway, Mama had been urging her—gently—to make some friends, so on Friday evening Cassie climbed into Cherie’s baby blue Cabriolet to be carried off not to the Admiral Theater, as it turned out, but to a bash down in Georgetown. Cherie hadn’t wanted to walk in alone.
The living room of the brick row-house throbbed with the Sex Pistols and screaming teens in slam-dance abandon. Cherie drifted into a back bedroom with some football player called Tank. Cassie drifted into a corner.
In the kitchen, a towering, brown-eyed, second generation Italian boy called Buddy was pulling himself a brew while carrying on a conversation over his shoulder with four guys peeing off the back porch.
“C’mon, cock-hound,” they bellowed.
“Put YOU all to shame,” Buddy bellowed back. “You might want to hide those piddly little things.”
“Bullshit!” Wild cackles. “Everyone knows it’s the big bastards have the tiny dicks!”
Buddy guffawed, and beer streamed onto the linoleum floor. When he turned to right his cup he spotted Cassie’s gleaming hair through a doorway. He flipped the spigot and went to investigate, leaving the dicks on the back porch and his date in the den.
Cassie was reading album covers. She never saw him coming. Cassie was not exactly captured, she told Cherie, who became her first best friend, but the moment Buddy took hold of her arm some irreversible thing happened. It was as if he had cast a net.
Igor was the last one. A species faced extinction. There were a million girls like Cassie. Does “extinction” apply to an individual soul?
Since the Pleistocene Era, roughly 1.8 million years ago, California condors (Gymnogyps californianus), the largest bird in the New World, have soared over the parched steppe, gorge-and-cliff, and oak savannah of western North America from British Columbia to Baja California, as well as parts of the American southwest and Florida. In the early days they fed on decomposing mastodons.
Genetically the condor is related to the stork, another hulking, ungainly bird, but unlike storks, Condors are perfect air machines. They rise, circle and float for hours without a flap. In a dive, they roar like bi-planes. A condor can travel 140 miles in a day, and because they cannot carry a carcass, either in their snub beaks or with feet adapted for walking on land, when they find food, they gorge. The overstuffed crop, like an enormous Adams apple (laryngeal prominence) can be seen from far below.
Condors keep clean by dipping in streams and flinging water everywhere, including on themselves. For mating displays or dominance squabbles, they use their bodies—flailing, prancing, bobbing, dancing—sometimes to comic effect. (Igor turned out to be a clumsy, but irresistible, dancer.) With heightened emotion their skinheads change color and they make un-birdlike hisses, growls, and grunts. But condors do not sing. They have no voice box.
Like all New World vultures, condors form pair-bonds for life. They soar, roost, preen, sunbathe, play, and wash up with friends. They pick each other’s nits. You would think people would find condors charming. Even admirable.
But no. They are vultures.
. . .
Humans, (Homo sapiens), among the most abundant mammals on the planet, were in Africa evolving into their present form during the Pleistocene era. It was not until the Holocene, roughly ten thousand years ago, that humans appeared in the New World.
Genetically related to primates—they share almost 99% of their DNA with the chimpanzee—humans, like primates, like condors, are social animals. But humans are aggressive. To manage things, Homo sapiens developed courts of law, religious doctrine, and gossip.
Like all primates, newborn humans are helpless and require an extended childhood, so Homo sapiens also evolved a capacity for attachment. This capacity may facilitate pair-bonds and family groups—promoted through courts of law, religious doctrine and gossip—as well as gangs, book groups and rabid Cubs fans.
As emotion and intellect developed, humans concocted not only spoken language but abstract reasoning and introspection. They developed an appreciation for beauty and a desire for self-expression, inventing music (“Monster Mash” to Beethoven’s “Ninth”), art (“Velvet Elvis” to “Mona Lisa”) and literature (“Passion’s Promise” to “War and Peace.”)
With such terrific brains, you would think humans would be able to anticipate the unintended consequences of their actions.
Not really. They are humans.
People call condors buzzards, flying rats, no-good harpies, garbage-mouths, pigs with wings. Muddled up with their fodder—a strict scavenger, the condor’s only food is dead meat—condors are seen as filthy, smelly, repulsive. The smelly part is true.
Condor has never entered the popular lexicon, but the condor is a vulture, and when vulture comes into slang, we get culture vulture (an arts consumer), vulture capitalist (an opportunistic moneylender), money vulture (a greedy person), and vulture pie (a pizza so poorly constructed it is unfit for human consumption).
Since this strict scavenger kills exactly nothing in the course of doing business, maybe we should call it Gandhi.
. . .
Cassie’s Mother called her Panda—Cassie had a halo of bone-white hair as a baby—Cass-Cass, and Sugar. Her father called her Sister. Her three older brothers called her Caspar the Friendly Ghost when they were being nice and golem when they weren’t, but usually they just called her Cassie.
Buddy, one of those guys who bestows nicknames on everyone, bestowed upon Cassie M.J. and Mary Jane because of the time she smoked marijuana with Cherie, which he did not approve of and did not forgive her for, more for going behind his back than for using an illegal substance. Also Rosie, Rosalinda, Rigatoni—his Italian heritage—and Pudge. She came to understand that his “endearments,” like his “teasing,” were tiny time-release darts. Objecting would activate the poison.
Her name is Cassiopeia Rose. Her mother named her after the stars and her favorite flower. No one called her Cassiopeia Rose. In Cassie’s mind, this was because this beautiful name, like the name of Yahweh, must not be spoken. But she called herself Cassiopeia Rose, in her mind.
Maybe we should, too.
In 1890, the first official count estimated the condors’ numbers at six hundred, but over the next ninety years this number declined until, in 1982, the population had dwindled to twenty-two. Twenty-two California condors in the world.
Why? Because condors produce roughly one egg every other year, and this only after they reach six years of age. This stately rate of reproduction could not keep pace with the loss of habitat, let alone the new sources of lethality brought by the settlers of European descent.
Poison in the dead coyotes and wolves baited by ranchers was ingested by condors.
Lead bullets in dead bear, deer, squirrel, armadillo—you-name-it—shot for sport and left to rot were ingested by condors.
Power lines, tricky for a ten-foot wingspan, electrocuted condors, or broke their wings so that they died on the ground of starvation or predation.
And there was rampant pilfering of condor eggs. (A condor’s nest is often the stone floor of a cave.) Perhaps people ate the large, greenish, oblong orbs, but more likely it was just another pinecone for the mantle.
And the shotgun. Hunched, black vultures with unkempt ruffs, beady eyes, rubbery heads, and thick black beaks—like snub-nosed revolvers—do not excite appreciation in some people. Of course, people shoot eagles, too.
Because he was smart, curious, and cautious, Igor had managed to avoid the net. It was just dumb luck that he also avoided the poison, lead bullets, power lines, collectors, and shotgun to become the last, proud symbol of his clan.
. . .
Cassiopeia Rose was the youngest of four, the longed-for girl after three boys. She started out as the easiest baby anyone ever saw, a perfect little doll, but it seemed that people—strangers—felt compelled to touch that silky white baby hair, and she grew clingy. “Every time I turn around, there you are,” her mother said. “Like Mary’s little lamb.” It took her a long time to adjust to each new home.
Cassie’s father, the son of a drunk and a bible-reading Baptist from a poor homestead in northern Mississippi, had a brother who died in prison; the other was a homosexual. The Colonel was driven by the pressure of being the last hope for the Baggett clan. After washing out of Major League baseball, he took up the only other thing he was good at: doing his duty. In the Army.
His wife, from a plain, well-tended cottage on the gulf coast, was the daughter of a fifth-generation shrimper and a seamstress. She was sympathetic enough, and soft, but her little brother had died of leukemia when she was 13 and she carried a heavy load of sorrow. She just wanted to raise the kids, tend whatever garden each new post offered, sing in church choir, and take care of the Colonel. She just wanted to avoid trouble.
They had deserted their natural environment, they had abandoned their social order, and the Colonel was often gone, sometimes overseas for months. The boys grew wild. As Cassie got older they discussed her anatomy openly at the dinner table and she began to slouch. She stayed in her room.
Oblivious parents, lackadaisical guidance, the moves, three big brothers, a dreamy nature, that hair. Cassie developed the excruciating sense that someone was staring at her, and she went about with downcast eyes. She tried to avoid walking across open spaces.
Extreme efforts ensued from the panic of twenty-two condors. Through 1983 and 1984, eggs and chicks were spirited into captivity at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Biologists kept tabs on the five breeding pairs still in the wild, but in 1985, disaster struck. Six birds went missing, leaving only nine free-flying condors, and worse, only one breeding pair. Still, biologists, ornithologists, conservationists, wildlife managers, and bird lovers could not thrash out a plan. Some insisted the condor must make it on its own to truly be a wild species. Others advocated taking all necessary steps to preserve the diversity of the dwindling gene pool. As debate raged, three more adult condors were captured. One more wild bird died. By 1986 there were only five condors left in the wild. In captivity, twenty-five.
If a wild animal lives and breeds only in captivity, is it extinct?
. . .
The year after Cassie met Buddy, her family moved from Washington D.C. to Monterey, California. Cassie was bereft. Buddy had been like the plug for some perpetually empty socket, maybe in her neck. She wrote him every day on pink scented paper.
But when she began her senior year at Pacific High School things perked up. A boy in her physiology lab, a National Science Foundation honoree, took her into the oaky hills of Carmel Canyon to install antibiotic strips for the wild bees and she discovered trees pierced with scores of little holes, each holding a solitary acorn. Acorn woodpeckers.
A tenor from the chamber chorus took her hiking in Pinnacles National Monument: Turkey Vultures and Mountain Bluebirds. When a Greater Roadrunner dashed across their path, all crested-up, Cassie fell in love. With birds.
Buddy, laughing off his $800 phone bill, called her late at night. Sometimes she would jolt awake to his voice, “Hey! Rosie! Are you sleeping?” She would feel guilty.
Two girls from English Lit took her surfing in Santa Cruz. She couldn’t even get a knee up on the board, but there were black-bellied plovers, marbled godwits, willets! Cassie started a list.
Buddy wrote: “My long drink of water, I am dying of thirst.” And, “If we have a boy, let’s name him Sue.”
“Ha ha,” she wrote back. Not every day.
When Buddy declared he was coming to California, the Colonel rolled his eyes and muttered “not the big bastard.” He told his wife, “She can do better.”
“Sure, Sugar, he can stay here,” Cassie’s mother said.
But once he got to Monterey, Cassie could not do anything right. Being a freshman at UC Santa Cruz took so much time. Buddy enjoyed hiking the Santa Cruz Mountains, but stopping to peer through binoculars was annoying. What was it with the birds?
“I don’t know,” Cassie said. “They just make me happy.” She did not say, I love them more than anything.
She gave up University Chorus, she dropped a class, she skipped labs. Buddy began taking classes, he got a job at Les Schwab, he moved into an apartment. And still, something was always wrong.
One night in the fall of 1986, Buddy barged into Cassie’s room, as he often did after working a late shift, to demand his mandatory goodnight kiss. After he stalked out, Cherie, who was visiting, blurted, “You call that love? He’s not very nice to you.”
It was as if someone had turned on the light. Cassie thought, He isn’t. He isn’t very nice to me.
And she picked up the telephone and broke up with him.
Breeding season in the wild, 1986: one female and four male condors. The female, AC 8, later called the Matriarch because of her prolificacy in captivity, had lost her mate to lead poisoning, and, ignoring the biologists in the bleachers, she appeared to have a hankering for an unproven male, AC 9. Biologists shook their heads at the juvenile’s clumsy courtship; they groaned at his awkward attempts to mount. Igor, they called him. But the Matriarch took care of things, and the pair produced two eggs. When she began to brood, one egg, thin-shelled from the lingering effects of the now-banned pesticide, DDT, cracked. Deciding they could not afford a single additional loss, the biologists stole the other egg and took it to San Diego.
And condor management careened to its contentious conclusion: Bring them all in.
Condor traits allowed their capture. They bury their heads when they feed. And take-off can be cumbersome. If a flustered condor cannot get airborne he will run on the ground, a clumsy leviathan with swirling legs and intermittent, gigantic wing-flaps—not very fast. When cornered, he will “hide” by standing still in some dark place. Easy pickings, especially if you have a canon-net.
. . .
By spring, Cassie was ensconced in her own apartment with a champagne-colored miniature poodle named Madonna. She collected Audubon prints of extinct birds: Carolina Parakeets, Ivory-billed woodpeckers and Passenger pigeons. She was saving for a trip to Hawaii to see the critically endangered honeycreepers.
Cassie started dating again: Donald, a nearsighted diver from the Aquarium, and Steve, a genius from chemistry lab. She sang in a folk ensemble with her very cute guitar teacher, Gary. And then, through Cherie, who had moved north to attend Brainard Academy of the Arts, she met Arthur, a 30-year-old filmmaker, smart, interesting, handsome, rich. They rambled the Santa Cruz hills in his classic Porche convertible, they spent weekends in San Francisco, where his friends treated her like a beautiful porcelain object. He photographed her naked. One night they took mushrooms and went owling.
But Cassie was, by nature, simple and cautious. Arthur was sophisticated and reckless. One night when Arthur was off in L.A., she had a couple of beers—she was alone, it was late, she couldn’t sleep—and she telephoned Buddy. A stupid impulse. But Cassie’s traits made her do it. She felt sorry for Buddy; she missed him—he was one of her people. Aside from Cherie, Cassie had known Buddy longer than anyone.
She swung open the door. Buddy stood under the yellow porch light with his arms dangling, his dark hair haloed gold. He held out his hands, palms up, fingers spread, and stepped across the threshold. He closed the door. When he wrapped his long arms around her, every cell in Cassie’s body relaxed. Plug in socket.
She got pregnant.
It turns out Condors breed well in captivity.
Using thievery, keepers could often trick female Condors into laying two, or even three, eggs a cycle. (They couldn’t tell whether the female condor knew she had already laid her egg: Now where did I…? Maybe she thought ravens got it.)
With so many hatchlings, most condor chicks had to be raised by condor puppets. But condors are observant and the babies learned to associate the puppet with a human arm, and the human person behind that arm, and they lost their fear. This would later cause big trouble when they were released into the wild. Juveniles without adult mentors—like giving the kids the car keys. Silly condors tried to play with Boy Scouts and tourists; six of them took up residence in the attic of Bob Allen’s cabin and tore the place to shreds.
Condor numbers grew. By 1987, there were fifty-two living condors, every one in captivity at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the Oregon Zoo and the Los Angeles Zoo. That year the first eight juveniles were released into the wild in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. Seven survived. The next year, five more released, three killed by power lines. Every year, birds were released and monitored by passionate biologists and volunteers who staked out donated stillborn calves, chased condors off dangerous roosts, i.e., exposed to coyote predation, and hazed condors away from human menaces—campgrounds, power poles, housing developments, strip malls. They also recaptured condors when the birds sickened from lead poisoning or needed a time-out to grow up a little.
In the year 2000, one of the birds released was AC8, the Matriarch, returned to the wild after fourteen years of service.
In 2001, the first wild egg of captive-bred condors was laid. It was later found broken on the floor of the cave.
In 2002, AC9, Igor, having spread his genes, was also released.
The first wild chicks of captive-bred condors hatched. None survived. Their inexperienced parents fed them bottle caps and plastic trash along with rotting flesh and they starved.
In 2003, the bird world mourned the death of the Matriarch, the oldest living condor. A drunken hunter on a group-hunt called Pigapalooza had shot her out of a tree. How he mistook a big black bird high in an oak for a pig is hard to fathom.
But by 2005, there were 242 condors in the world, 132 in breeding programs and 110 working the remote territories of Arizona, California, and Baja.
. . .
They named the baby Mary Theresa (Emmy) after Buddy’s mother, and though Buddy had expected a boy, he loved this little thing almost as much as he loved Cassie. But romance and marriage were different. They tried to do it too soon after the baby was born and it hurt. And Cassie’s breasts now seemed to belong to Emmy.
“It’s like living in a candy store and not getting any candy,” Buddy would complain.
Two years later, they had another girl, named Cecile Louise (CeeCee) after Cassie’s mother. When CeeCee was three, Cassie went back to college. Her mama helped with the girls.
Buddy remained constant: more. Cassie thought she wanted to, but it seemed like the pressure killed that feeling. And then she caught him.
“Six months after we got married,” he told her. “I wasn’t ready to get married, you knew that.” (His brother was a hound, his friends all did it…)
“She was just this interesting girl from UCLA, home for the summer. We used to take walks in Oak Creek Park.”
“She was a lonely woman in a bar, not even a name—I wasn’t looking. I just had to get out. It’s not like you gave me any.”
She would cry. And Buddy would cry. Or get mad.
She would think, Two babies and no visible means of support.
He did not really see how it took anything away from her.
I’m finally back in school. I’d have to go to work.
It was just sex. He loved Cassie.
It would kill the girls. Cherie said dump him. But Cassie’s people mated for life. And every third day, Buddy, a firefighter, slept at the fire station and Cassie ate popcorn in bed with the girls.
Finally he promised, never again.
But did he really understand?
He took the girls to baseball games; he built a treehouse; he dug up his precious lawn and laid irrigation for a hummingbird garden.
He risked his life to pull three kids from a burning apartment in Del Rey Oaks; just doing his job. He brought home a pair of parakeets for Valentine’s Day. Birds in cages? She made him take them back.
He promised. He never wanted to hurt her again.
All over the world, bird lovers reveled in the return of condors from the brink of extinction, celebrating every release, lamenting every loss. They followed the pairings of captive-bred birds. They rooted for each new chick.
But for other bird lovers, when Igor was taken, there were no more California condors. For these bird lovers, the magnificent Pleistocene Era relics are now extinct. Monitored, carcass-fed birds with transmitters on their tails and large white tags on their wings—birds with junk—don’t count. To these people, the kettles patrolling the Kaibab Plateau, Vermillion Cliffs, Ventana Wilderness, Grand Canyon, Bitter Creek, Sespe, and Pinnacles are no better than farmed salmon. No better than a pen of pigs. California condors are gone.
. . .
On her way from Monterey to the Avian Rehabilitation Conference in L.A., Cassie took a little detour. To the Grand Canyon, to look for California condors, which she had never seen though she’d been to Pinnacles many times.
I hope it’s not too late. She leaned over the guardrail, her Vortex Razor binoculars dangling, and scanned the sky. The sinking sun lit the seams of sandstone like a dying star capable of light but not heat, and Cassie squeezed her arms in tighter. She stuffed her hands into her coat pockets, where she discovered raw Spanish peanuts. Are they already roosting?
She should not have let him come. But arguing was useless; Buddy could not tolerate her driving any distance all alone. Cassie popped a peanut into her mouth.
“Come on. It’s getting late.”
She searched systematically, east to west. The side of her face tingled. Staring at me from two feet away, she thought, continuing to survey. A few stray silvery hairs blew across her gaze. He’s probably counting how many days since we had sex. I hope he can count that high. She chuckled.
“What?” he said.
Cassie popped another peanut. Nothing. If they were here, they were roosting.
“A couple more minutes,” she said. “Why don’t you wait in the lobby of that old lodge.” Her lovely voice was smooth as uncurdled cream, heavy, thick, rich. I really could be a voice-over. I should take a class.
Buddy leaned close and wrapped his thick fingers around the steel rail, penning her in. Cassie reflexively jerked her elbows out.
“I told you it was too late,” Buddy whispered, his breath tickling her ear.
She shunted her head sideways and raised one shoulder. I can come back in the spring.
“Hey, how about we skip Flagstaff, get us a room here?”
“No,” she said. “Now get. Go on. I’m busy.”
Buddy snickered, pleased to have elicited a response. He dropped his hands, turned, and sauntered up the cement path. As he pulled open the heavy wood-and-glass door, he called, “They’re not here, babe” and then disappeared inside.
The sun was flattening as though it were softening. Cassie heard a sighing and she leaned over the rail. Beneath her, near the canyon’s rim, a huge black shape seemed to hover—big enough to climb on. Cassie’s breath caught. She reached out a hand; her eyes blurred. She watched herself hoist one leg and then the other over the rail, balance on the ledge, and then carefully straddle the waiting bird, a bird the size of a bi-plane. The tag on the wing read #243.
Hello, Number Two-forty-three, she said. Together they sailed effortlessly into the great empty space of the canyon. There was no wind, no sound at all, just pure, silver silence as they swept into the abyss. They made a lazy circle and sailed back out.
Cassie extended both hands, palms up. All she had was Spanish peanuts. The condor coasted past one more time, then disappeared with a thick susurrus. Cassiopeia Rose raised her head. The swollen sun slipped behind the far rim.
Love may travel; it may shift its shape or hide in the heart’s dark corners; it may dangle from a distant star while it waits. But love will never go extinct.
“Extinct” first appeared in Catamaran Literary Journal, vol.1, Issue 2, Spring 2013.
In the north end of the parking lot, men in hooded parkas and fat pants cluster around a black GMC, joking, gesticulating, jumping, chumming to the sub-woofers. The pulsing Yukon sparks red, green and blue, and stories float and knock, though no one listens. Loose shadows, long limbs, everything moving—Honest John’s lets them be. Men need a place to hang with their own. It’s Christmas eve.
The rest of the block is quiet: Twilight Zone boarded up, three peeling bungalows dark. Beside a ratty vacant lot, a mustard-colored cottage with a hand-painted sign proclaiming Jesus Is Alive! Pentecostal Tabernacle has its doors closed, but one dim bulb lights the porch. Now and then a crow’s raucous cry rips the sky.
A silver Honda pulls in across the street, sidewalls rasping against cement. The driver, a woman named Billie (Wilhelmina), with sallow skin and nesty salt-and pepper hair, stares through the rain-beaded window. She bows her head, removes her librarian’s glasses, and rubs her eyes. Now that she is here, Billie does not want to get out of the car. She would rather lock the doors, lower the seat and lie down. Her nerves are shot from the long trip attended by a screeching wiper-blade and the strain of looking through a smeared windshield—and she got lost, twenty minutes going the wrong way. Her heart had beaten so hard into her throat it made her cough.
The lot is backlit by a single string of blinking Christmas lights and the office window’s rectangular glare, and Billie can’t make out her son among the circling silhouettes. When a figure detaches from the pack and sprints around the corner, she wonders if that was him, if he saw her car and took off. Her forgotten turn-indicator blinks on a dirty Burger King bag, a smashed plastic coke bottle, and the Colt 45 cans in the curbside rivulet. Billie breathes deeply, trying to clear her head, which is rushing like an ocean. What if the men accost her? What if her car is stolen?
Billie has come to Honest John’s because when her neighbor Marietta stopped over that morning with a plate of Christmas cookies, Billie was struck by revelation: take the cookies to Marcus. She believed it was from God. Marcus is Billie’s youngest child by ten years, the adopted son, the black son, though Billie has never referred to him that way; she refers to him as her youngest son. Also, her troubled son. She hasn’t seen him for two years.
She worries that Marcus won’t speak to her—in fact, no longer acknowledges her as his mother—and she worries that coming here will wreck the new life she has struggled to build. She doesn’t think about what it might do to Marcus’s new life. She has not imagined Marcus as having a new life.
But she can’t just sit and stare. She slides her purse under the seat with her heel, opens the door, picks up the cookies, and rises. She pushes down the lock and slams the door. She stops herself from checking. Hoarse complaint breaks out among the crows in the willows and a skinny little tabby bounds out of the weeds to leap across the sidewalk. It slinks under a car and the crow-grumble stops. Billy surveys the dark houses; she wonders where the little tabby lives.
Feeling neon-pink, Billie makes herself stride across the street carrying the plate in front of her like an offering, or a shield. She also carries the hope that God really does want her to be here, which would mean she is doing the right thing. Dave, her Pastor, also her boyfriend, always seems to know what God wants. A tall, serious man with warm, caramel-colored eyes, Dave also seems to know what is best for Billie, and she has leaned on him, acutely grateful for his guidance. Dave would be disappointed if he found out about this Christmas Eve mission, but he is busy preparing his sermon. Still, Billie feels like an apostate, sneaking off to the south end of Tacoma without telling anyone.
The drizzle is frozen spit. Billie’s squints her eyes, which skate sideways toward the pack trying to make out faces. Too much hood, indigos and purples—they all look alike. She gestures, half head-fake, half nod, and she makes herself smile. They ignore her. No one could tell the men even see a white woman hustling across their lot in the icy spatter but of course they do: they know she doesn’t belong and they know she is not a threat. Someone lights up.
Billie steps onto the stoop and fumbles with the wet door handle. Holding the plate against her chest, she pushes into the warm, brightly lit office, and the door closes behind her with a pneumatic shush. A display of tires with huge, multi-pointed star stickers, $59.99!!! $79.99!!! $104.99!!! Signs: Oil Change, Alignment, Shocks & Struts. The wooden bench beneath the plate-glass window is stained with grease. Behind a chipped Formica counter a wiry man is tapping on a clipboard and speaking into a telephone receiver cradled on one shoulder. Not wanting to intrude, Billie stops, shifts her weight, and settles in the center of the room, holding the gay little plate in front of her with both hands. The man does not turn.
The older kids were gone into their own lives, but that was to be expected. What was not normal, what threatened to sink Billie, was her belief that her Marcus could be dead. It has been two years of checking the machine for a blinking red light every time she walks through the door; two years of checking the newspaper in the morning the way some people check baseball scores, trying to judge by age and size if Marcus has been shot. The worst two years of her life.
The older kids, Philip and Angela, had observed Marcus proceed from skipping school to staying out all night to disappearing for days at a time. They had watched his appearance devolve, his evasive eyes go red-rimmed and flat. They thought Marcus was bad, not dead.
Billie’s older sister, Tommy (Thomasa), a scientist, said what is this, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny? She called it becoming black again.
The man behind the counter lowers his voice and glances over his shoulder at the white woman standing in his waiting room, the red ski parka, the wild hair, the misted wire-rimmed glasses and the plate wrapped in saran wrap and beaded by rain. He says into the telephone, All right, I’ll get back with you.
Billie hears something like Ayeeet, awlgebaakwitchooo, and it sounds like a song she knows. It makes her happy. The man grabs a pen from his blue denim work shirt, which has Dwight stitched in red above the pocket, and scrawls something on his clipboard. Then he faces her.
“Ma’am?” he says, his expression neutral. He thinks she must be lost. He lays his clipboard on the blue Formica.
The first time Billie understood the enormity of what she’d done was when Marcus was three. He had been watching TV with Philip when he crashed into her studio, flattening his wooly curls with both hands, crying I want hair like this, I want to look like the Lone Ranger.
Kids called him names. One time only one kid showed up for his birthday party. A little cub scout told Marcus he couldn’t get his Wolf badge because he was already a monkey. Billie had no idea what else. Marcus did not tell her everything.
But they were happy, a happy family, skiing in the winter and camping in the summer. Marcus loved splitting cedar and stacking it into a teepee for the campfire, he loved cooking hot dogs with his buddy Noah and then tearing around the campsite with marshmallow torches. Billie had always thought Marcus would be okay as long as she carried his wounded heart.
She peers into the garage through a dirty yellow door held open by a wire looped around a bent nail: an empty lift, some pink rags, another greasy wooden bench, a red Coats Tire Balancer, an iron jack. She can hear the umber throb of rap, but no human voices. The cold light of the shop fluorescents makes Dwight look transcendent.
“Ma’am?” Dwight says again. He can tell this old white lady is not a walk-in. Some kind of missionary lady, maybe. Is she looking for the Tabernacle? He scratches his neck and says, “Help you with something?” He hopes she’s not a crazy.
After the divorce, Billie and Marcus had moved from a suburb east of Tacoma to Seattle, and she had enrolled him in Garfield High, his first predominantly African-American school. She thought he would love it but on the first day Marcus was beaten up. Blacks don’t skateboard, he told Billie, and he threw his beloved deck off the porch. And for a long time at Garfield, Marcus would not speak. He said he sounded white.
He said he missed his dad.
“Oh, yes. Hello,” Billie says, nodding at Dwight. “I’m looking for Marcus? Marcus Milhouser?”
Dwight’s expression does not change.“What address.”
“No, he works here.”
The white paper with the address is on Billie’s passenger seat.
“I’m sure he works here. Um, Shakir?”
The man shrugs and shakes his head. He looks at his watch. Honest John’s closes at five on Christmas Eve, and Dwight has promised Momma Vi he and Miles would be there by six. He looks at his watch again.
Just two weeks ago Letitia, Marcus’s old girlfriend, called to share her customary complaints and to see what Billie had planned for Christmas. And she wanted to give Billie the address, with this disclaimer: it was old, and she had gotten it from Tronika, who did not know shit about shit. Oh, and if you believed Tronika, Marcus had a new name, too. The name he brought with him when he was eight weeks old was Stephen. Billie and Stu named him Marcus. Now he was Shakir.
Honest John’s address had sat unused on Billie’s desk. She had made a vow that until Marcus came to her with a clear plan to mend his ways she would not pursue him, a binding vow, signed by her, signed by every member of her Parenting with Love and Limits group, signed by Pastor Dave, and, by proxy, by God.
Billie glances again at the yellow door.
“Maybe someone in there would know? I just need to talk to him, you know. For a minute,” she says. She raises the plate of cookies and lists toward the garage, her feet fixed.
Dwight stares at the lady. She could be juvy. She stares back at him with a set smile. Maybe she is crazy. He can tell she is not going to quit.
Dwight says, “Let me—” and he jerks his head sideways. He nods, sighs, glances under the counter. He glances at Billie again. He picks up the clipboard and saunters out. As he walks by, he takes a closer look at the cookies.
Billie flushes. Marietta’s gingerbread men strike her as possibly offensive—no certainly offensive, silly, white grins on brown cutout men. She has the urge to apologize; she wants to say, but I have a black son.
“Wait here, please,” Dwight says, and he steps into the garage. There is a big sign by the door: Absolutely No Customers Allowed In Bays.
Two years earlier, after Marcus flunked out in his first year at Howard University, Billie began going to her neighborhood church, where she found the Parenting with Love and Limits Group, where she met Pastor Dave.
Tommy said, isn’t it a little late for the family that prays together stays together? Then Tommy called it “black humor,” raised her eyebrows at herself, shook her head, and said, See? My God. But Billie couldn’t hold anything against Tommy, who had not only long ago lost a five-year-old daughter to meningitis, but had recently lost her son James to AIDs. James had loved Baby Marcus. They all had.
Pastor Dave had opined that they treated Marcus like a pet, and Billie didn’t go back to the group until Dave came looking for her. She had to agree that nothing she had tried had worked, and a few weeks later, script in hand, Billie informed her son she was no longer willing to provide for him in his present unproductive lifestyle.
The group said using the word lifestyle was a way to separate the person from the behavior, creating less shame, although Marcus did not evidence a capacity for shame. Billie had substituted the word unproductive for the word criminal. All she knew for certain was drinking, a reckless driving arrest, and a misdemeanor possession arrest. Maybe he was stealing. Letitia claimed he was dealing. But she didn’t know.
Billie laid out a plan for the transition and gave him a month. Marcus said, you’re kicking me out? To him, the year since coming home from Howard was nothing— he was working on things, it took time. He sat on the wooden stool, a scowling, muscular young man with tiny dreadlocks like kidney beans all over his beautiful round skull, and stared at Billie until she left the room. Then he grabbed something from the refrigerator, slammed the door, stomped down to his lair and turned up his music so loud the house trembled. The next day, having thrown Billie’s grandfather’s Adirondack chairs across the yard, he was gone. Billie was at work. She thought he must have gone to his dad’s.
You kicked him out? Stu said when she called. Stu had remarried when Marcus was in tenth grade and he and Marcus were out of touch. Where’s he going to go? What’s he going to do?
Billie asked why it was her job to shape up an almost twenty-year-old, out-of-control…black man.
Jesus, Billie, Stu had said. What are you talking about? Marcus is our son.
She tried to explain about lifestyle, how it wasn’t about race.
Billie has wondered every single day whether she did the right thing.
In the cavernous garage, beneath the throb and palaver, Dwight speaks with his boys. In the parking lot, young men pass pot, paper bags and lies. The little tabby slinks from one car to another, sticking to the shadows. Billie stares out, watching the men, watching her car. The cat dashes across the street. Bille wonders who feeds the poor thing.
After Marcus left, something would occasionally disappear while Billie was at work—a couple of hot pads, plates and towels, a saucepan. The little cast-iron waffle maker. It made Billie happy to discover these disappearances. She would grab her fat old long-haired kitty, Snowball, and try to gaze into her eyes, as if she might glimpse Marcus moving around the living room, gulping orange juice from the carton, using the phone on her desk. Then her anti-anxiety medicine disappeared and Billie changed the locks.
Marcus had picked out the kitten when he was five, the “pure white one,” and named her Snowball. Billie worried she had not been black-positive enough—or too much—until Marcus said, like the cookies, mom.
“Sorry,” Dwight says. He stares past her, as though her face has some deformity that makes her difficult to look at. “No one here by that name.”
“Not here? He’s not here?”
Dwight shrugs and saunters behind the counter.
“But this is where he works. I mean, he works here, right?”
Dwight shrugs again and purses his lips. He scratches behind his ear. “Sorry.”
“Can’t you just tell me—” her voice is rising. The rushing sound is rolling into her head again.
“Ma’am? I’m going to have to close up, you know? It’s already past time.”
Billie stands in her spot, holding her cookies, staring at Dwight, her head whishing as though someone is holding conch shells over her ears. Dwight flips through the sheets on his clipboard and rearranges them. He sets it by the telephone. He opens the cash register, removes the cash drawer and stows it in the safe behind the counter. He does not look at the woman as he carries out his duties. She might as well already be gone.
The problem with the cookie revelation, aside from the fact that Billie could not be sure it really was a revelation, was that Marietta had brought gingerbread men, shortbread swirls, tree- and bell-shaped sugar cookies, rum balls, fudge, and thumbprints, but no snowballs, so Billie had had to bake. It had been an arduous, clumsy, almost impossible task, like dancing with your legs bound. First, she had forgotten that snowballs were called Russian Teacakes and she couldn’t find a recipe; she’d had to lie down and breathe for a while before she went and found her old recipe binder in the basement. But, really, it was doubt: what if the group threw her out? What if Dave left her? And what if she did find Marcus and he wouldn’t speak to her? What if he was a crackhead?
When the confectioners’ sugar would not stick, Billie almost gave up.
A man wearing dark blue coveralls and a do-rag ambles in from the garage, stealing a look at the white woman frozen in the center of the room. For a moment Billie thinks the man is Marcus and her heart starts clattering. She steps over to the window and lowers herself onto the greasy bench. The young man says something to Dwight in a soft baritone, peeks at the woman again, and slopes back into the garage. Dwight glances at Billie. He looks at his watch. He rubs his eyes with his thumbs and goes back to his paperwork.
Billie has an urge to follow the do-rag man, but she sits, listening to the ocean, trying to breathe.
She remembers making snowballs when Marcus was three. She was in a hurry—the family was coming and Stu was out of town—and she’d brushed him away. She remembers the spidery little hand all of a sudden flitting over the counter, snatching a hunk of dough and rolling it, raw, in the powdered sugar. It made her laugh, how badly that boy wanted to touch the dough. Little hands, brown velvet, with long, sensitive fingers and delicate bones. She’d always imagined he would play the piano.
“Do you think I might talk to that man?” Billie asks abruptly. Dwight looks up. “Maybe he knows Marcus.”
“Ma’am, I spoke with my workers. No one here by that name.”
“But did you also ask about Shakir?” Billie stumbles over the name.
“Yes, ma’am. No one here by that name, either.” After a minute, he adds, “Sorry.”
What the group, what Dave, what Philip and Angela and even Tommy could never understand, was how beautiful Marcus had been. How he looked in his little bassinet at that time of night when no one in the world was awake except the baby and her, how the streetlamp made the sheet, his nightgown, and the whites of his eyes luminous, almost phosphorescent. How, half asleep, it always surprised her, for a long time it surprised her in the middle of the night that her baby was black. How she loved him. Because he was her baby. Because he was black.
The music in the garage stops; the air becomes a solid.
“Ma’am?” Dwight’s sculpted, ebony face is not unkind. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave now. I got to lock up.” He looks into the garage and back at Billie. He hopes he doesn’t have to escort her out.
Billie stares at the garage. She imagines rushing in there, but instead she stands up, turns, walks to the entrance, balances the cookies on one hand, and pulls open the heavy door, admitting a frigid draught. She slips out, but before the door closes, Billie pokes her head back in and says, “Thank you. Merry Christmas.”
She stands on the stoop looking both ways, as though about to cross a busy street. The throbbing Yukon is bouncing fuzzy reflections. The street has picked up, parishioners arriving at the Tabernacle, and the parking-lot men are also revving up, waving, weaving, calling to cars, throwing slaps and signs and empties. Laughter flutters, the bass musters, and the men’s voices are merry, but Billie doesn’t hear it. It isn’t Billie’s language, and even if it were, her head is full.
This time she thought she knew what to do, the right thing to do, the good thing to do. Billie sits down on the wet stoop. She’s not leaving. She does not care anymore that she doesn’t belong. Maybe she’ll sit here all night.
The little tabby appears beside the farthest corrugated garage door. When the door trundles open the cat springs inside. Someone sets down a plate of food. A new beat starts up, tinny tambourines accompanying high hymnal harmonies.
Fuck Dave, Billie thinks, shocking herself. Not her normal language. But it is as strong as her cookie revelation: Fuck Dave, all of them. She does not want to go to his service tonight and she does not want to pick up Angela tomorrow and take her to Tommy and Harry’s. She wants to sit in this place in the ice-cold mist. She wants Marcus to have the snowballs.
A man ducks under the raised garage door. He hesitates, and then walks toward the white woman sitting on the stoop. His rubber-soled boots make small sucking sounds on the wet cement.
Billie hears nothing. She is studying the creased mound of saran wrap, the water-beads blinking blue and red and green and then spilling. She is puzzling over whether what she is feeling would be called giving up or letting go. The mist collects in her hair and trickles onto her shoulders. She thinks she has trouble with the concept of letting go. She draws slow, conscious breaths; now that she’s sitting down, the ocean in her head is calming. Not a bad feeling at all, Billie thinks, though she senses that beneath her calm ocean could be a very bad feeling.
The man stops in front of her. The parking-lot men throw quick looks at the tableau on the stoop and look away. Not their business. Soft, fawn-colored boots swim into Billie’s focus and she raises her head. Shadow and a sheepskin bucket hat hide the man’s eyes, but his mouth and one cheek catch silver from the streetlight. Her arms become too weak to lift even a little plate of Christmas cookies. The hat slants and a hand with beautiful bones and long elegant fingers floats down. He takes the plate and holds it in front of him, like an offering. The hat rises again and inclines, a slight nod; behind him, a sheet of specks, like sifted sugar, drifts through the faint luminescence.
There is an explosion of laughter as a rumbling truck pulls into the lot. Some shadows bop over to the driver’s window and an empty rattles against the curb. Billie struggles to her feet. The man nods again, and then turns and walks back across the cement toward the garage. Billie stands beside her stoop, empty hands dangling, and watches him go, tiny dancer. His graceful gait keeps time with the Pentecostal rhythms down the street.
Honest John’s office light goes out. Dwight and the do-rag man duck out of the garage and the three men exchange Ayeets, Laters, Merry Christmases. As the garage door grinds down, the little tabby scampers out into the drizzle. Marcus nabs it with one hand and holds it to his chest, scratching behind its ears. When it starts squirming, he lets it go. He swings open the skreaking door of a beat up Oldsmobile, leans inside, lays the plate on the passenger seat, backs out, removes his heavy denim coat and sheepskin hat, and tosses them in the back. He slides behind the wheel. Her hand over her stomach, Billie watches the Oldsmobile ease onto the shining asphalt and accelerate.
The crows are quiet; Honest John’s is dark. Just throb and drone from the parking lot, laughter and chatter from the street, call and response from the Tabernacle down the way. The little cat trots across the parking lot, stops to lift a leg and lick, and then streaks onto the street, heading toward the Tabernacle. Billie thinks maybe she’ll follow. Go sing some hymns.
“Snowball” first appeared in Short Story America, vol 2, T.D. Johnston, editor.
Where was that at?
Sheeeeeeee, wasn’t no ball one, that was my sickest, most filthiest Lord Charles, man, completely unhittable pitch, kisses the corner then drops to the dirt—come on, Har-vold.
Okay okay, just ball one, suck it up, suck it up, like Head Doctor says, demeanor on the mound, no flouncin’ around flinging daggers like that freak-job Freddy…. Confidence. Arm is supercharged and look at that twink Gonzales jerkin’ his bat around like he’s trying to swat a fly. Scared, bro? You should be.
Morales’s throwin’ down two-seamer, away. You think, catcher-man? Cuz if that tick-shit Gonzales barrels up on a two-seamer it’ll be gone.
Oh, shit, Skip. Looking like a nickel at the rail—is it Skip’s call? Oh man, that’s what it is, your own Skipper don’t trust your number one pitch. Well why’d he run you out here in the rubber game then? Dude, bottom of the ninth in the goddamn one-run rubber game? Because Bobo couldn’t get it done, that’s why, two blown saves in a row and now this—two on, two out—now you are supposed to try to pull it out with Gonzales, Cedeno, and Davis coming up, Jesus H. Christ—
Wait wait wait. Head Doc says nothin’ negative. Confidence.
I will destroy that pussy Albert Gonzales.
Two seamer, away.
I got it. Right, my man, got it, love a challenge, two-seamer away it is.
But what is that? Down the right field line—is it a cloud? Frickin’ lights, can’t see nothin’, oh man, now zzzzzzzzzzzzz, like a goddamn mosquito in my ear, can’t get at it—Oh crap. Can you go to your ear? You can’t go to your mouth but what about the ear? Do they even got ears in the rule book?
Morales’s showin’ again, dude’s about to blow, okay, I can see, man: two seamer away, fine, but you do realize—
No no no no no. Confidence. Let it go, blow it out, allow your shoulders to grow warm and soft—Head Doc is such a fruitball—and now feel-up that little cowhide behind your back, sweet, small, smooth like Jamie’s little titties—not supposed to think about that, either, whoof whoof—focus.
Find your seams…come set…into the wind-up…and a rocket to the plate, strike one, yeah!
Ball two? Mister Har-vold, Umpire, sir—are you shitting me? That pitch did not even catch any of the black? Who throws meatballs down the chute, man, come on, get yourself some eyewear. Blind old Porkster with a two-inch strike zone to go with his two-inch pecker.
And Morales did not frame that pitch at all, not even close. Stupid bastard.
Wait. Do not approach, do not come out here, goddamn it Morales, do not say…
You okay, kid? And he hands you the ball.
Stone face, like you’re workin’ it in your mind.
Morales says, not the curve.
Right. Your own damn catcher don’t trust your best damn pitch either.
Morales says, Bust him in. That conyo don’t take his bat off the shoulder—bust that pinchero. He grins a wicked grin, pats butt—homo—and trots back to the plate.
Wo. Two ball count and you bust him? Morales is some serious meat. You look at Skip but he’s granite. He spits.
Okay, okay, now: mow ’em down, mo-fo.
Well, yeah, but worth it, deep-fried twinkie diving to the dirt like he was ducking monkey shit. Maybe it is time to swing the wood, Al-bert. What kind of name is Albert, anyhow?
What? What’s that, Morales-my-man? I can’t…it’s the lights, this old park is one sad sack, but I can’t see, sweat in my eyes—what’d Granny used to say, sweatin’ like a whore in church?—dust or something in my face, zzzzzzzz in both ears now, I can’t see what you’re putting down. Shouldn’t of wasted that last pitch, goddamn it, now I’m gonna walk frickin’ Gonzo and set the table for frickin’ Cedeno—Confidence. Dawg-boy, yakker-man, you are the world’s baddest—wait, you’re moving your lips.
It looks bad, bro, talking to yourself on the mound. Just grab the rosin, dab the hand…
Now Dirt-bag Gonzales holds up his hand and steps out to fuss with his gloves and now the Porkster’s sweeping, busier’n a cat covering crap on a marble floor.
Take your time, gentlemen.
Morales throws the sign.
High heat? Oh shit oh lord. High heat down the middle? Oh man, but it’s the Lord Charles they can’t hit, that 12-6 curve drops right out of sight, it is a thing of beauty, I been foolin’ batters with that pitch since I was frickin’ ten-years-old. No. Gonzales catches up with a heater he will send it to Mars, three-run dinger, all she wrote, game over, series done, we go home.
Morales shows again, no mistake, high heat, middle, and he pounds his fist in his glove.
Shit, shit-crap, okay. Gotta settle now, can’t lose this, not like last time, little prayer, chin up, little man, rosin up, grip up—sheeeeeee. I get it. Albert’s taking. Course he is; Morales knows Albert don’t swing on a three-oh count. Well okay, why didn’t you just say so, my man, no problemo, just gotta keep it simple, just rifle one over the plate, simple, simple simple, simple, and we roll.
Oh, goddamn it, Mr. Snappy, goddamn it, got away from me, I’m lucky Morales blocked it and now we got ducks on a pond, no place to put another one and Cedeno’s stepping up and oh, shit, now we got Mazzone coming at me, Captain Hook himself hiking up his saggy-ass britches. Okay, get yourself straight, little buddy, take off your hat, it’s all good, pitcher-man, Yakker-dawg, wipe your brow and do not look at the scoreboard, it’s okay, baby, just even out the dirt, kick a little rubber, …while Hook takes his sweet time from the dugout, two up in the pen now, and what is that zzzzzzzzz? and crap in the eye, goddamn it, some bug or something, shit’s everywhere, here he is, goddamn it, Mazzone, do not ask…
Whatchya got, kid?
Harvold’s squeezing me pretty good, coach.
Gotta play the hand you’re dealt, kid.
Little shrug. Toe the mound. Please please, for god’s sake, puh-leeeeze do not say…
Just throw strikes. Kid? You’ll be okay. Throw strikes.
I knew it. Like they think pitchers come out of the bullpen with a plan, no, with a god damn sacred mission to throw nothing but balls. Christ.
Throw strikes, he says again—Oh, okay, didn’t hear you the first two times, Coach, good thing you repeated yourself, right on, Captain Brilliant, sure will throw strikes, why didn’t anyone tell me that was the plan?
And he pats butt—homo—and starts back to the dugout.
…but the thing is, can I even throw a damn strike? Because when the arm’s this strong I got no control. That’s the truth. Oh mommy, but I do not want to lose this battle with myself.
Oh lordy, sweat, lights, buzzing and Cedeno leering at me, the bastard—but what the hell is this? The cloud-thing again, Jesus, it’s moving in, is it a duster? Now what’s the Pork doing? Waving his arms at something and Cedeno’s bent over slapping himself on the helmet and damn, now I can’t hardly see the plate, can’t hardly see nothin’ through this dust or whatever the hell—aaaghh, it’s bugs, in my mouth, up my nose, in my ears, and the little fuckers bite, too. Now Garcia’s headed in through the bug cloud slappin’ and jerkin’ like a kid with cooties, Sorel’s running, Gonzales is off…wait. Harvold’s waving in the field.
We’re suspending play?
Hoodoo, Mama, wishes really do come true.
All quiet in the dugout. Skip’s standing at the rail staring at the field like he’s hypnotized, Mazzone too, giant cloud swarming out there, thing reminds me of one of those magnet dealies with steel specks for hair except this one’s millions and millions of specks, all shimmery, so big it’d have to be Dolly Parton’s hair. Black shit on my towel, Morales’s wiping out his helmet, leg jumping the way he does and I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ and no one talks to me, neither, not when I’m pitching—but am I still pitching? Are we going back out?
You all ever seen anything like this? Junior says in that gentle voice to no one in particular. Of course it’s Junior breaks the silence.
Naw. Nope. Dios mio. Umm-mm. Malo. Crazy. Yo.
Gnats, Bones says. I love Mr. Bones. Bench coach, one of the best, been around baseball all his life.
Them’s gnats, he says again.
More mumbling: Gnats? Ay que la verga. No shit. Zat right?
Bunch of horny bastards, Bones says, and he snorts a fat lugie. He spits. Someone laughs and Bones says, All them’s males—it’s a mating swarm.
Moto conjero? Crazy, all over that. Wo, horn-dawgs…A mating swarm?
I can’t hardly believe that shit.
Bones says, Called a ghost. He snorts again, spits, grins like some crazy bastard and looks me right in the eye. He says, I’d call it the Holy Ghost, son, wouldn’t you?
I kinda nod. But—does he mean we’re done? Game called, we win? Or what.
Guys all stare out, not sayin’. They know. I’m the frickin’ rookie.
Way I see it, you got yourself a little breather, Bones says, watching the ghost.
So let me give you a piece of advice.
Cedeno? That hacker’ll swing at anything in his area code, boy, sucker can not lay off. So when you go back out there, just go ahead and throw—
—that nasty, nasty curveball. Just give it to him three times.
Okay. Damn straight. Throw the yakker, mow ’em down. That’s what I do.
And that is what I did.
Holy Ghost first appeared in Stymie, A Journal of Sport and Literature, Winter, 2011