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Galaxy at the Foot of the Bed
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” ― Robert Frost
One morning when I was 7-years-old, I woke up in the old house and just knew. Crusty eyes/ streaky winter sunshine/ shafts pushing through the cracks in the shades/ bullet holes in the side of the barn/ I knew that nothing was going to remain the same. The years had hardly piled up for me yet, but I don’t think that matters. I was astute as a boy, learning from the obvious, soaking in the more subtle.
I remember laying in that bed, under the Star Wars comforter and sheets my mom and dad had got me. Well, you know… My mom had gotten me the sheets, for historical accuracy and all. Hell, my dad would not have given a damn if my sheets had Chewie and Han Solo on them or naked cowboys or syringes or PBR cans. He still wouldn’t. And that’s the thing, I guess, reaching out across so many moons and miles. That’s where love burnt up from me and where I suspect I picked up this jar of sad I’ve been toting around ever since.
Because I remember the grey bolts of that one Saturday morning, her daylight catching the airborne dust and me seeing it and floating up into it like a galaxy I had discovered hanging around at the foot of my bed. And I can still close my eyes and catch the float-by ghost of my dad’s cigarette smoke coming up from downstairs. From him standing by the kitchen sink, probably. Parliament smoke/ I can still pick it out in a crowd. It reeks of the end of the war, so to speak.
It smells like walking over all those dead bodies and knowing you won’t get shot.
Now and then, when I grow nostalgic about my ocean childhood - the wauling of gulls and the smell of salt, somebody solicitous will bundle me into a car and drive me to the nearest briny horizon. -Sylvia Plath
My dad back then: A man in his young 30’s: a damn good construction worker: an immigrant from France: a rock-n-roll drummer who married an American girl, left everything he knew: came to the Promised Land. A guy by his kitchen sink, thumping ashes down on the dirty coffee cups of the early morning: now strapped from all angles in an unrelenting custom fit of an alcoholic straight jacket. I’d seen him before in the strong clench of clarity: his eyes clear and bright: his mustached face twitching with life/ lit up by the possibility of a prank or a joke/ smoke dangling from his handsome face/ his gaze boring through me/ his oldest son/ just a little runt/ sensitive baseball boy/ I could understand in those fleeting moments that he was never going to hold me close and tell me it’s alright. That he was never going to kiss me on the top of the head and run his thick fingers through my hair/ fingers that smelled like sawdust and nicotine/ man smells/ deep masculine tinges blowing down off a mountain/ into my face/ like John Wayne spritzing his nuts with Old Spice and then looking at me with a raised eyebrow.
“Now what, son? Now what, boy?”
It occurred to me that morning, as I could hear their footsteps thudding through the house, it occurred to me, this notion that I wasn’t going to get anywhere with him. With my dad.
And I can’t say for sure why, like what might have happened the night before. I have no distinct recollection. My memories now are dreamlike, in haze. Like much of my past life, I remember scattered moments, each seemingly innocuous and mundane if you’re scripting the film of some young husky suburban kid on a life-changing Saturday morning defined by stardust and Parliament smoke, but when examined more closely: when scrutinized in my hand/ and now yours if you feel like hanging: these crumbs from the past: I can shake them around in the bowl of my palm: and they begin to resemble people down there: people standing in the world, moving through a day, holding hands and crying and hitting weak infield singles and being so proud of that and drinking to the point of passing out at the kitchen table, face down in the flounder filet, a man’s nose smooshed into the green-speckled canvas of a minor masterpiece from my mom: a parsley’d luminous slice of moon: a flounder once wild and free now doomed to lay killed and humiliated in the locomotive smoke breath of my wasted dad.
Damn it to hell.
I shake up the crumbs and that’s where I land?
I know. Sad story, buddy. Join the club. I get it. I have pushed off so much facing it in order to never face it. But now/ here and now/ staring down the bold barrel of turning 50 this weekend, I can’t help asking myself: how different are we? Me and him.
Or, well… how similar?
Don’t answer that though.
I don’t want to know.
Who wants to know that stuff?
I don’t want to know when the cancer is coming, do I? And I don’t want to know the small window of my likely demise (all bets on 61 years old for me). And I don’t want to know if I’m like him. Or how. Or why. It would hurt too much. I already know way more than I want to. It started dawning on me, once upon a time. On that Saturday morning so long ago.
I started understanding the unknowable by the time I was 8. Now I’m turning 50. And sometimes I feel like my whole body is a closet filled with useless junk. Crammed in there like an old Steve Martin movie/ open the door and the avalanche comes.
Grace has been hard for me to come by, I guess. I’ve faked it at times, maybe same as you? I don’t know. I recognize grace when I see her in a man, along with her cousins class and honor, and I sort of melt a little in the presence of it all. There is no description available in words, of course. Even those words in our language: grace, class, honor… they let you off at the same stop you just got on at. They spin you round the block, let you back off, you’re none the wiser. Until you start fawning over it like I do to the point of carving gullies in the halls of your heart.
Carving gullies, hoping to someday fill them up with little splashes of much-needed refreshment for the few that love me, that need me, or at least pretend to. But it’s tricky, you know. It’s hard to simmer down when you are made out of angst. It’s hard to create a well for your people when you’ve never really got to drink out of your own dad’s much. And when you did: it was flat beer/ out all night on the countertop in the can/ a warm sad poem that slips across your lips as a child/ and remains in your blood forever/ like poison crumbs shooting the rapids in your dark dark veins.
A book and a note from my son Henry.
Still, I persevere and somehow carry on. I don’t blame my dad for shit/ I’m not that ridiculous. I write this stuff on this morning a few days before my 50th because I started out on this soul-searching odyssey that morning in my 7th year and I know it. I have no proof that it started then and frankly, who cares if you require it. The proof is in the crumbs in my palm so just look down at them. Or try and stare down my throat and hear the crumbs crashing round in my blood. Listen to them hollering like frightened pioneers down in there/ shitting themselves from all the grizzlies and all the warriors flinging arrows at them. Smell my breath and float a while out there in it if you need to, buddy.
Take a big drag. You can whiff it if your try.
It smells like whiskey and eggs. It smells like pine needles and dank cave. It smells like mountain lions fucking in the sage just over there. Immense and unstoppable. Drenched in a trillion years of mountain nightlife. Dripping with the marinade of a billion deadly snows. Deep inside me I smell like Lewis & Clark. Like the Donner Party. Like buffalo skinners and escaped slaves and women praying hard and fast over rattlesnake-bit toddlers under a beat-down prairie sun. I smell bad, I guess. But also Homeric. Celestial. Interstellar. Like a set of kid bones buried under a gas station parking lot somewhere in Wyoming. Turning to dust but still there.
Once I set out upon the blazing trails west; the last thing I remember is my dad’s voice.
He’s gone, he said.
But I am not gone.
I am still here.
You just aren’t listening.
You never listen.
“It does not take much to make us realize what fools we are, but the little it takes is long in coming.” -Flannery O'Connor
Sunday morning, Charlie came down the steps around 7 just like he always does. He’s a morning hoss just like me although he shows all the signs of being a frat boy on the roof with a keg on his back and drunk girls egging him on and he’s wearing a goddamn parachute and oh, Charlie. I mean, I just don’t know.
I love him so much. I love them all, of course, all five monsters of rock, but Charlie is having his day with me lately and that’s not a bad thing. 7 is a lovely age. He is a salvation for me these days/ these strange days of me facing the short side of my life in the middle of a pandemic and at the end of a pandemic and at the start of a pandemic and whatever. Charlie is, in all the ways I can tally up, the quintessential American kid. He reeks of ice cream sandwich and sunburn and dog ass. He has a gapped-tooth smile and chewy chapped-lips and this Pop-Rocks energy about him that sort of lifts me when he laughs, which he does a lot, especially at his own kiddish jokes. He strains to exist in the most peculiar form/ a disciple of his own lead/ throwing himself hard at his twisted brand of hollow calorie minimalism: apple cider, Mountain Dew, chicken ramen, and pepperoni pizza. Which, of course, only serves to remind me of why I adore him and stand in awe.
Charlie is not so complicated yet. He is unpretentious. He is cave paintings. He doesn’t give a toss about being seen in any other light than the antiquated image of a stick figure, revealed in the fresh fire’s light: flipping the bird and eating a hot slice of pepperoni pizza with a small gorilla by his side.
Charlie’s day for knowing things have changed/ it is inevitable and I know it. Fact is, I worry about it all the time. Am I my dad to him? Does he smell me in the wrong way... like a cigarette from downstairs born up out of desperate anger? Or does he smell me like I want him to smell me: like good warm hay. Or at the very least, like some old Oregon Trail skeleton, musty on the breeze/ but still hinting at adventure and maybe even getting to California one of these days! …although the odds are kind of bleak.
Charlie’s day though, to walk out of the innocent light and into a harsher unwanted one, that day will come and I understand that now. I want to stop it for him, yet, between you and me, I probably expedite the whole evening tornado. I probably speed it all along/ me with my hard temper at times/ me with my sharp words when I can’t help myself/ when the aging man doesn’t match up with the young kid anymore and the bottom falls out and the eyes go narrow and the heart starts exploding in the proverbial dark. I reach out for a guiding hand and I find it in my wife, in these kids, but then again: it’s hard, isn’t it? It’s tough being alive, walking across all that unforgiving landscape wearing all this clanky armor. All these imperfections holding me back. Holding us back.
Charlie will wake up and know he’s not a kid like yesterday one of these days before long and when he does another part of me will begin to fade away. Back into the mist. Back into the long lost french fries and dropped Skittles in the cracks of the filthy backseat of the dying Honda I ride.
“At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.”― George Orwell
You are gonna open them bright blue eyes of yours slowly some Saturday morning and you’re gonna lay there looking at the shitty old ceiling in your room. You will breathe air into your young, soft, pink lungs… into those just born baby rats hiding in your bony chest, and you are gonna be filled with new life right then and there. In the natural way. In the beautiful way.
Walking out of one room and into the next, I hope you know that I am here for you. That I am standing down by the kitchen sink, without a smoke, and not as mad as the same scene long ago. I am humbled by your majesty, son. I am in awe of your endless springs, your boundless wilderness. I look at you and I smell what is up and it smells like changing seasons. Like woodsmoke and apple pie. Like fresh-cut graveyard grass and nightcrawler dirt in a plastic cup. Like cold pizza on some Sunday morning, moments after you come down the steps, slow and unsure, until you see me on the couch leaning forward so you can spot me.
Leaning forward so you will come to me. Leaning forward into all I’ve got. This moment. This now. This you. This them, still upstairs asleep. This us. This kid. You rolled up to me this past Sunday morning and you surprised me. I was watching a video about the Battle of South Mountain in 1862, about the soldiers who were wounded there and the makeshift hospitals in the sun-burnt barns where they ended up.
You came down the steps after we locked eyes and you said, Morning, Dad, just like you always do. And then you surprised me, man. You leaned in and kissed me on the lips. And you know what? I lost my breath there for a second, buddy. I really did. And then I almost cried, which would have been fine, I know, but I didn’t. I held fast, my eyes on your face and your head and your presence colliding with mine.
But I guess I ought to let you know that I’m crying now.
Just so you know, I’m crying now as I finish this and I’m fine with that. I’m crying because you kissed me. I’m crying because that happened, unexpectedly, like a summer storm. Like a rainbow. Or like an eagle landing in the tree above the trampoline out in the yard. It feels so good to me Charlie, even now. It feels so good in my chest.
It feels like a million buffalo racing an old train across forever.
By all means, please….
Carefully edited by Arle Bielanko
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