Now vaguely familiar

London, near West Kensington, January '16

London, near West Kensington, January ’16

We rode the Tube to the West Kensington stop and got off to visit my old friend there, who lives across the road from her ex. We took the elevator to the top floor and when we got out she was roasting a chicken, asked if I could carve it, handed me a knife. We hadn’t seen each other since 2009, and that was the time she was living in Rome and they’d rented a Tuscan villa for the summer, and Lily almost drowned in the swimming pool, and my friend saved her life. And now that story is part of Lily’s fabric; I overheard her mentioning it the other day (“the time I almost drowned”).

Mid-January in London and it didn’t rain once the whole week, not a drop. It was cold but dry and the sky seemed constipated like it wanted to snow but it couldn’t—instead each morning we got a hard frost. And while our flat was part of a house with other apartment units we never saw the other tenants, only heard the crunch-crunch-crunch of their footsteps across the gravel going to work every morning and coming home after dark, every night.

Dawn and the kids had never seen London so we tried to do about everything, but realized by then they were totally done with castles. Leaving the city on our way to Bath for our last stop in the UK, we stopped at yet another one and they had a kind of meltdown. And all the spiels given by the castle tour guides started to sound the same, and we realized there was a pattern to things involving power, greed, and deceit.

My friend Alex and his son came down from Chester and we met at a museum, and after, walked past the Royal Albert Hall, across the road to a park, drinking in the scale of things: the kids like ants crawling on the statues and monuments, snapping pictures of them, our breath in the cold air, people-watching.

And though I’d been to London twice before I didn’t recognize much; I thought I’d kind of bump into things or places that would trigger memories but didn’t. My stepdad John had a couple friends who lived near Arnos Grove, that was the Tube stop, and I stayed with them longer than I should have, it was August so I went to the Notting Hill festival at the end of the month, met my friend Loren who was there for a music conference as a guest musician, went to a Rough Trade record store where he sold some of his CDs (CDs he’d made, with various bands/projects) and they paid him for in cash, a wad of pounds we took to a pub and spent, sucking down bitters and toasting, oblivious to how good things were at that precise moment.

And back to the south of France to where I was staying, surprised when I had to blow my nose the inside of my tissue turned black, that was from London.

Throughout our time in the UK and Europe last year we amassed a bunch of keepsakes I stowed in a trunk in our bedroom: maps, beer coasters, now a box full of stuff, a mishmash of those nine months, including our Tube passes with our photo ID I think I will always save, as it caught us in a precise moment with a flash, like old driver’s licenses we sometimes save, someone we once were, now vaguely familiar.

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Nothing perfect or terrible

Harry Potter film studio, outside of London.

Harry Potter film studio, outside of London.

We drove down to London from Stratford mid-January, found our place, parked, confirmed the length of our stay with the manager who warned the time would go by fast, which was fine by me: we’d been out of our house since June, on the road since late October, and I was beat. We brought in our things, I walked to the store and we settled in, made believe it was our home for a time.

We went to the theater three times in a week and once, as we were just getting out, Dawn had to call in for a work meeting so we arranged for a cab, and it was a good 45 minute drive with the traffic back to our place, all of us sitting in the car quiet with Dawn on her phone, watching the lights of London, crossing bridges, so vast: no idea where on earth we were.

In the mornings I’d take walks around our neighborhood, but it seemed I was going against the flow of all the others on their way to the train, to work, and I studied them, and wondered what the hell I was doing with my life. I caught myself in an off-leash dog park muttering, laughing loudly, flapping my hands, making myself out to be some character but deeply confused, emptied-out, with no work to identify with.

When we left London there was no dramatic scene backing out of our flat—a few hours later we arrived at the next place, a stone cottage in a small town outside of Bath: the kids descended upon the DVDs, found a BBC production of Pride & Prejudice with multiple discs, and between the three of them (Dawn, Lily and Charlotte), they watched the whole thing, twice.

And I took long baths, walks every morning, cooked every night, wrote every morning, finished the book Catch-22 in about five hours.

Nothing perfect or terrible ever lasts as long as you’d wish or fear it would. Today at work they asked if I’d be interested in another contract that would double my number of hours each week and without hesitating I agreed—and when I got home the rain was back, it dribbled down the spout and cracked like a record and it was only 2:30 but I lay down to rest and listen to it sputter, and an hour later realized I’d dozed off, and couldn’t tell if it was day or night, or where I was for a minute.

 

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A message for a Golem one morning

img_3534Clouds spun out in pillowy strands, like cotton candy. The frozen leaves on the rhododendrons collapsed in on themselves like umbrellas. They had a copy of The Corrections in the lending library on the dead end street so I nabbed it, and when I got to the lake I sat on the book on a rock watching a crow; the sound of its dung slapped the ice, and it flew off.

They’re getting bullish about the ice on the lake and some, gathered on the docks dangling off the edges, testing it with their feet. Three boys using their skateboards like hammers beating it, trying to get it to break, but the ice just stares back cross-armed, not blinking.

Remembering last Friday coming off the trail with Ginger, back to the car collapsing my poles, thinking about my job, they haven’t formed a complete impression of me yet so I could be anyone/anything: I’m like that myth of the clay Golem from way back, a formless clump of matter waiting for someone to give me a command, to breathe new life into me.

When I got ready to look for a job at the end of the summer I started by getting new clothes and shoes, thinking that would refresh my look: but I gravitated to the same style I had in my last job and stopped, and thought I needed something new.

Before, when we lived in Europe and spent last winter in the UK, I’d take whatever I wore that day and just leave it in a pile by the bed, get up the next morning and reassemble it, the same procedure in reverse, starting with the socks.

In that myth of the Golem, they thought you could make a creature out of dust or mud and then by summoning the divine, you could animate the thing by writing a note and putting it in its mouth, or through a slot in the forehead.

I thought about my job and what I’d do to keep it. And I realized I was walking the same way an old friend of mine used to in college, who died young and was troubled, and like me, wanted to write.

We traded books and tapes and spent nights on the golf course by the university dreaming, trying to figure it all out, so close, and so far away.

And I realized at the lake, all the dumb things I used to do just to make my life more interesting, to give me more to write about. I tethered my life to writing and when I didn’t write, I questioned how much I really mattered. I thought the most interesting parts of life were around the edges, and didn’t realize how much more there was in the middle.

My friend Peel walked with his head at a slant, like he was thinking about something, or slept badly on his neck. He looked like someone had stepped on him, like a bug partly broken, that’s how he looked every day.

And as I remembered Peel, getting into my car, thinking how I’d always wanted to bring him back to life in a story, I wondered if I’d breathed some part of him into me, his memory—and if I was that same, formless clump waiting for someone to put a note in my mouth, to bring back life to me, too.

 

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Running across the ice

img_6438When it was still dark I walked to the lake to see if the moon was out and reflecting on the surface now that it was frozen. Even the edges along the shore were frozen, sealed shut. It hadn’t frozen like that since 1991, someone said. It wasn’t making the queer, ice-shifting sounds anymore, it all went quiet. Now that it was frozen you could throw things on it, and I thought about running across. It was such a bad idea but it was all sealed shut and it seemed like you could. It was such a bad idea it had to be considered, it was right there.

And we drove out onto the lake when I was living near Erie, PA for college. That lake froze over so hard you could drive a bus right across it and not have to worry about a thing.

It was me and Dave and his friend Sean, who worked at the local hospital and stole pills and gave them to us in his car like we were lab rats, a few oranges, some purples…he said the names but they were hard to spell and pronounce, mysterious, like Greek names for plants.

When we drove out onto the lake I could only see a part of Sean’s face from the back seat, a swath angled down from the mirror, glowing. I didn’t like his face, I thought it looked evil. He was a ballet dancer once but now looked chunky; he had a nasally voice I didn’t like and a beard I’ll call fey.

Even though it was freezing cold we rolled the windows down and Sean turned off the headlights; we stuck out our heads and screamed, and once our eyes got used to the dark everything turned a soft blue.

Sean stopped the car and killed the engine but it made me and Dave nervous, all the heat and weight of us sitting there but Sean argued, no—and then we heard a sound like a pop, the dry crack of a rope snapping and imagined the car shifted—and Sean fumbled for his keys, he turned on the lights, and we got right out of there.

It was the last time I rode in Sean’s car. That night, we left Dave on the sofa on the front porch of the fraternity house and it was really cold, and we worried he might die. Chris and I thought we should get him inside but there was no furniture, we moved it all out so we could slam dance but then we got tired and no one came to the party and we just sat around nodding, not saying anything.

The woman who lived on the lake looked like she was in her 60s but really fit, wearing make-up and workout clothes. She asked how long I’d been there looking at the moon, asked if I’d seen it when it was dark, showed me a picture of it on her phone. She said her husband grew up on the lake and one time in the ’70s, they drove a VW bug right across it—and I said no way, that sounds crazy, I don’t believe it.

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Why it’s hard getting rid of things we identify with

dsc_0004I couldn’t imagine getting rid of the African robes. Dawn’s on this kick now from a book where you categorically go through things to determine what brings you joy and if it doesn’t, you get rid of it. We’re putting things in piles in the middle of the room and holding judgment. I did my clothes yesterday but the African robes, however impractical, survive another day.

There was a period of a few months I house-sat for my mom and John while they were living in France. They’d go back and forth every 90 days between the place in France and their ‘home-home,’ in Pennsylvania.

I left my job at Starbucks in 1997 so I could move to a condo on the Mediterranean they still owned, one village over from their new house in France. Before that, I house-sat so I could temp and earn some spending money.

I wasn’t fit to house sit, wasn’t as responsible as I’d like to think. The house was built by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and John gave the previous owner free guitar lessons for about 10 years, waiting for the moment they’d decide to sell, and John could be there to make an offer.

It was built in the side of a hill off route 100 in Pennsylvania Dutch country: real country, with farms, and towns with names like Kuhnsville, Fogeslville, New Tripoli.

It didn’t look like much from the outside because you couldn’t really see the house until you went inside, and then it opened a story down, with two floors of glass windows facing the valley east, all forest, state game lands, sometimes the pop of a rifle in the distance, two decks overlooking it: and any time I’d have male friends over and we’d get to drinking, they’d ask if they could go out and pee off the deck and I always said yes.

I threw a couple parties there and reconnected with an old classmate Pete Snyder, who was now a musician and tied in with others from Philly he jammed with, who all turned up one weekend with their gear, their thrift store hats and eyeglass frames, and I got out the African robes, said everyone needs to change into one of these: and then a snowstorm came, the power dipped, the dogs got nervous, and a couple guys came by real late I didn’t know, one of them trying to kick heroin, visibly uncomfortable doing so: and it got so late it was already morning, the sun coming up and just me and him, awake still—and I said I should go to bed, I showed him to a room where he could stay, but when I got into bed myself I remembered it was the room where I’d hidden John’s guns, and thought about him in there unable to sleep, getting restless, wondering if he’d start looking around.

John's kachina dollsGetting rid of the robes wasn’t as much the fact they were sentimental (some I’d bought in the souk, in Marrakesh), it was the possibility I could relive those memories in the future, recreate them.

Dawn talked more about the book, the fact the things we own want to help us, they want to be honored and respected. And it made me wonder if there’s a two-way interaction with our possessions, could they take on properties we assign to them, are they porous that way? Do they hold a charge from a previous owner, and can we sense that somehow?

There’s a story often with things we love most, or identify with. And when we’re gone and someone else goes through our things, they’ve lost their meaning, they’re just things, story-less.

My mother-in-law Beth told the story of a hair extension she had that was like a wig, that cost a lot and they got it when she and Dick were dirt poor, but never wore it, and can’t get rid of it now because it’s maybe getting rid of the possibility she’ll one day use it in the future and that’s hard to reconcile, it’s always easier to put off another day.

We had so much Christmas stuff we’ve accumulated over the years, I resigned to purge the unused things before we put the others away. But before Christmas I decided the unused things need to come out anyway, a kind of trial to judge their value once and for all: I lined them up in clumps along the window sills and mantel—and one, a stuffed snowman dated 2009, took Charlotte’s interest: she picked it up and squeezed it, talked to it, named it, and I could swear when she put it back down, the snowman smiled.

That’s why they’re so hard to get rid of I think, they’ve got us in them, all that we’ve loved and hope we will again, some day.

 

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Possibility of ground collapse or fatal gases

Lost Wedding Ring on Cougar MountainI got up as the moon was going down, and back along the icy trails of Cougar Mountain we went, my dog Ginger and I. After I peed she peed in the same spot, like we were playing some game or being followed, though we were the only ones in the parking lot.

We swung out west down the Quarry Trail, dropping into a valley that was dark and cold with the morning birds singing; I lifted the flaps on my hat so I could hear them better.

And on, past the cave holes where they warned of fatal gases or ground collapse (they’d mined and logged the mountain a hundred years ago), and thought about my dad’s basement: the time I went out to see him because his dad had just died and I slept down there, and dad was more animated than normal talking about the Radon in their basement they got rid of (it was at dangerous levels), but there was nothing to worry about sleeping down there now, though I found some dead bugs along the edges that looked to have died a hard death, they were tough looking, and still had their armor on.

And then I bought a new phone and deleted all my old contacts like weeds: I went record shopping and lost track of time, and walked right into a scene from the film High Fidelity with the clerks bickering about something, with such passion they complained, and it seemed there were a dozen of them all working, filing, sitting around, reciting intricate details of the loyalty program and how it works: and I spent fifty dollars but only came out with three albums, and one of them was in the dollar bin.

The next morning I went back to the lake to see if it was still making sounds from the ice, took pictures of the moon with my new phone: it wore a halo like a floppy sun hat, like it was trying to compete with its big sister, the color of it peach-pink.

Butt-end of a tree stumpGlacial errata: 'X marks the spot'Cross-hatch cuts on boardwalk planksDecorated tree in forest

 

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Magnificent return to splendor

Black olive, cream cheese penguin appetizers, New Year's eve

Black olive, cream cheese penguin appetizers, New Year’s eve

All the grisly-bearded rooftops in the morning covered with frost, warming up the car. Realizing I’m falling into familiar work patterns, things I used to do in my last job: going out to the car a few minutes before I need to leave so I can listen to a song and just sit there.

Getting so comfortable at my new job I kind of shouted down the hallway at someone this week, I almost made small talk in the men’s room, I spread my papers out around me and my coffee now, and one day wore wrinkled pants.

And later, I walked to the lake to shake it off, to separate, and it was mostly frozen over. There were teenagers out on the dock with nice-looking cameras and lenses. I got on the side and sat: and along the shores the ice was so thin you could see it kind of bubble when a wave came under. It looked like wet paint in a tray, how it streaks and striates, and spiders out in strange patterns.

And I heard the queer sound from under the surface, like some dark spirit or creature howling, the ice splitting or cracking, a steel tension line snapping. And I sat there a while longer waiting to hear more, thinking about my friend Loren with his field recording equipment, the two of us coming out here with mics and headphones standing around looking serious, trying to not look strange.

It seemed you could hear more from across the lake, with it frozen over: what was going on in the lakeshore homes, some hammering, a shop vac—and when it stopped, the small peeps of birds, some ducks quacking.

Over lunch, I went back to the cafeteria where I go every day, didn’t really make eye contact: my normal place I sit was taken so I had to sit somewhere new, and thought after 15 minutes I should get back upstairs, back to work—like technically, if I was billing for this I shouldn’t take too long to eat—though it all slops together, the time. I’ve been really good about tracking my hours to make sure I don’t go over, but I’m not sure how much it really matters.

I was so excited to go hiking in the morning I put my shirt on the night before. It was one of those synthetic cross-training shirts meant for athletes or superheroes but I looked like neither—it was so tight, it felt like trying to fit a condom over my head but I wore it around the house anyway, went to the bottom of the driveway to view the moon, said many times to Dawn how good things are, right now.

 

 

 

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