Strange Dead Heroes

 

Though I never knew you, I love how – in the old photographs – you look up into the camera lens at what always seems to be the perfect time. You look up from the dials of an antique radio, shadows falling from your eyes across your gorgeous hands. Shadows of patience, humor, vitality, stillness. You look up with a face like an open road along which poetry often travels.

 

I wish I could see how you moved, behaved, truly, outside the claustrophobic borders of photographs and video cameras. You, and all my other strange dead heroes. The subtleties of your way with driving a car, falling asleep, drinking, smoking, making love. Did you eat rice with chopsticks, a fork, or your fingers? Did you storm out, or gently go your way? Did you wipe your feet on the mat or just walk in? Were you irresistibly transcendent, or just plainly human like anyone? Or were you both things at once, and how many others are both things, and how many others could be, if they could only pull it off?

 

Seeing reflections of others in yourself, you looked up. Sidestepping with the ease of a professional dancer, you looked up. Beauty and pain in your chest, your abdomen, your arms, your spirit, your throat, you looked up. Sitting on a bench like a weather-worn rambler who drifted into the city on a fortunate wind, you looked up, and watched the pretty people, in the park, among the trees, beneath the sky. The big sky that – whether you were inside or outside – stretched above you all the days of your life.   

 

America

Walt Whitman, where are your hymns, your patriotic prayers?  Beatniks, circle back around with your feverish daydreams.  I myself ached for America.  Gave her my number but she never called.

So I quit college after a year, swapped formal education for sunburn and highway grit against my neck.  A girl painted my shoes with suns and moons, and sent me on my way.  I bopped, swung, and rag-timed through the scenery of youth, always hugging the outside edge like a good red-eyed trucker on the highway, always on my feet, my Samson feet that I thought would never break.  I balled the jack, baited the hook, and everything was jake.  Even when all heart seems lost, I thought, you find it’s pulse again in places like this one.

America, where the value of the soul’s currency is not decided by you and me.  Where we’re turned inside out and thrust into the streets with no back-up plan, dodging diesel demons with wild faces on their engine grills.  America, where we keep our eyes on the stage but are hesitant to peek behind the curtain.  America your youth was no frosted cake and I worry about your future.

And yet around your jawbone and Eastwood crow’s feet is a marksman’s cool knowing, a way of tossing skirts aside and flinging garters to the floor as the rusty joints of the bed-frame whine and the headboard thumps the wall.  America who are you fucking now, in the private suite above the floor where the paying customers go?

America the steady bow, the speeding arrow.  You want it all but might lose the hand, so place your bets and take a stand.  America I’d be lost without you, yet long to get free of you.  Call me sometime.  Go on then, outfox yourself.

What Your Apartment Said

This was written in a friend’s apartment in Pittsburgh, in the winter, first thing in the morning.  It was published in Wilderness House Literary Review last year.

WHAT YOUR APARTMENT SAID

What can we know of each other’s lives?

Sometimes little, sometimes much.

Still, the windows are not talking

and the dried lavender sits quietly.

 

What makes an elevated moment?

To unplug from the machine.

To unexpectedly become your own master.

To know the apple in the bowl is fine how it is.

 

In one direction pass fingers of light-

in the other, a rainshadow.

In all directions, the breath and the life-

in all directions, nothing.

 

Colored silks of morning fall on brick and metal,

drape themselves over glass and wood.

These winter trees are glad to see it,

and I am glad to see it.

My two entwined giraffes,

their slender necks full of secrets,

are glad to see it.

Jack Kerouac Quote

“I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged like the prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark word, and the only word I had was ‘wow’.   -On The Road

Big Bad World

It’s easy to feel grateful when things are going well.  Much harder when things are unraveling around you.   I recall trying for gratitude when I was 17, but it was tough to really feel it after losing my mom, who had basically been my best friend growing up.  I went to high school in a town comprised of a K-thru-12 school and a rundown bar, about an hour’s drive from the Oregon coast.  My mom passed away just as I was finishing my junior year, and I went to live with my dad in the city that summer.  Away from my friends (all three of them), I turned 17 and began my senior year in a school whose halls were so long I had to squint to see the opposite end.  “It sucked” would serve as a good in-depth summary.  I donned a black trench-coat and roamed the streets of Portland in the rain with my earphones cranked, a flask in my pocket, and a cigarette hanging from my teen-angst lips.

To live in northwest Oregon, where I grew up, is to have an understanding of rain in your bone marrow.  But I was used to that.  Somehow I pulled through until graduation, when – eager to start my life – I rushed across the stage and collected my diploma.  How I was going to start my life, I had about as good an idea as any teenager who didn’t want to go to college – none.  I hiked part of the Oregon Coast Trail with my best friend from the sticks, and then I just bailed.  My hair was getting past my shoulders and I had my tie-dyed Moody Blues shirt.  I’d read all about hippies and had a hippie upbringing so, predictably, I found myself walking along the side of the road with my backpacking gear, a hatchet hanging from my waist, and my thumb out.  I didn’t give a damn that everyone said the days of hitchhiking were long gone – I was gonna do it anyway, and see where I ended up.

A guy named Mike, in his late twenties, slowed his VW bus to pick me up.  Mike was from Stockton, California, and had hit the road after having a nuclear meltdown with his wife.  I hopped eagerly into the clunky seat two inches from the almost-flat windshield.  He fired up a joint, handed it to me, and thus began our “bromance”.

We traveled together for three weeks or so, doing odd-jobs to make enough cash for food and gas.  We went to these amazing hot springs in the Cascades east of Eugene and helped some dude drink his home-brew…until a cop showed up.  Note to self: never drink home-brew in a hot spring for longer than ten seconds.  We crawled reeling from the spring in the dark while the cop shined his flashlight in our eyes.  I’m pretty sure I received a fine that I never paid.  Who the hell knows.

From there, we wound our way to Crater Lake, around southern Oregon and down into northern California.  We lived out of his bus for a week outside of Eureka, out on the south jetty with a bunch of other vagabonds, eating government peanut butter and listening to Crosby Stills and Nash.  Finally, he returned to his wife, and I went on to San Jose, where I spent a night behind a Denny’s up in a tree with enormous limbs.  How many trees are there in San Jose?  Sometimes I think that might have been the only one.  It sure felt like the only one at the time.

I rode the BART into San Francisco and bummed around a while, deciding I wanted to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.  A cop stopped me and took away my hatchet.  “You can’t be walking around here with that,” he scolded me.  I walked across the bridge, wind blowing against my face.  At the other side was a viewing area.  I chillaxed there for an hour or so, and wouldn’t you know two deadhead girls appeared and we started talking.  They had partied the weekend away in the city and were headed north.  A few minutes later I was riding in their back seat listening to American Beauty, on the way to Cave Junction, Oregon – their hometown.  I spent at least a night and a day with them, but then comes a hole in my memory.

The next thing I remember, I’m swollen with shame, calling my old man.  I ask him if he’ll buy me a bus ticket to come home.  It’s out of my system, I say, I’m not quite ready for the big bad world.  He buys me a ticket and I go home with my tail temporarily tucked between my legs, where I end up getting a job in a restaurant and sign up for community college on the first day of the rest of my life.

 

 

 

The Parting

Pittsburgh had given Troy an edge, but he managed to stay pretty calm.  He kept an agreeable conversational way about him, yet cut right through the bullshit, told it like it was, and with an unwavering intellect.  That was the first thing I loved about him, and it would be followed by many more.  Pausing often to roll a smoke, we had chess games for hours, days, weeks, at the local coffeehouse where our names were known.  Judging by our expressions, no one could have guessed we were actually enjoying ourselves.

Christian would come and go, handsome Christian from Chicago in his self-imposed purgatory over all the girls he’d slept with.  Confident, exuberant Christian, with his overalls and guitar and philosophy books – a modern-day Dean Moriarty living in a bus in an old hippie’s back yard.

The three of us were there at the bar, the night before I split town, with the smell of fried calamari and nachos and pints of stiff beer.  We drank late, and were high and boisterous. We all loved each other but never said anything about it – a commonly avoided social transaction among men.

Parting ways out in the empty rain-dampened streets of our small Oregon town, I said I’d be in touch, my drunken voice raised.  “You’re a beast for saying that,” they yelled back.  They were older, wiser, and perhaps knew me better than I knew myself at the time.  Christ, they were glorious friends.

Here Comes The Now

It’s time to soften.  Time to thaw.  Time to cure what once was raw.

Empty bottles, woodstove clicking.  Big old dreams, little clock ticking.

Heart gone wild, brain churning.  Ice dissolving, fortunes turning.

Digging up weeds, inspecting dead roots.  Working up courage to take off my boots.

Sink your toes in the mud, your hands in the rot.  Here comes the Now, ready or not.