Arabesque No. 2 in G major

At last the rain stopped, and the fog set down on the tallest trees. Their shoulders were slung low from the weight of it all, and the morning street lamps were on their last shift. But the birds sang as if for the first time, and I wished I could start each day the same way, and sing.

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Music for airports

At the far end of the couch, where the dog waits for us when we’re gone, I laid my book and my head down and looked outside at the gray and the green. We were still on east coast time, it felt much later than it was. Dawn got up around 5 to make the coffee and I dreamed about a car flying up our road, with me trying to catch the license plate, yelling slow down there’s kids out here. I went for Bloody Mary mix and cocktail onions happy to be back home, my mom with us from Germany watching the pets while we were gone for spring break. We sat in the den sipping our drinks and mom handed me a piece of mail she brought back, something official from the German Stadt, a speeding ticket with my picture on it in black and white, looking fat. Lots of exclamation points and capital letters. The ice jammed up at the end of my drink and spilled on my chest, and I felt for it like a gun wound, where I’d been hit. Done with breakfast, all we had was time before dinner, a life spent in between meals. I’d trim my beard and put on something nice, take my mom the scenic way to the Italian restaurant, take the new car. I’d go back to the Alps in August for 10 days, then take time off around Christmas. Time off every four months or so. Sometimes it was hard to tell if I was really living or just watching myself go through the motions. I felt that way looking at pictures, disturbed by how bad I looked, like there has to be more depth to me than that, but maybe not.

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Iceland spar

Friday, April 13
Allentown, PA

Between me and the homeless guy the table remained open the whole time I sat at the Starbucks. I wrote and watched him from the corner of my eye stirring his coffee. Three regulars at the same spot in the window with chairs in between them talking, taking up the whole section. And all the way down Hamilton boulevard the birch trees all colored in bone, past the blinking lights and cranes silhouetted in the morning sky. Our last day in Allentown, still on west coast time. Dad and I drove the kids down to the rock shop near Boyertown and dad bought me a chunk of pyrite crystal he said I could put on my desk at work. And for Charlotte, the Iceland spar he said the Vikings used for navigating their boats on cloudy days, how you could tilt it at the right angle and read right through it. I ordered eggs with scrapple and it was gray-colored and fried on top. We met at the oyster restaurant later, a party of nine, and Dawn and I went for drinks early and shrimp cocktail. We lowered the shade so the sun wasn’t right in our face. And on our way walking over from Sue and John’s house we saw an old woman on her knees weeding in the yard and Dawn stopped to tell her I used to know the kids who lived in that house, and it turned out they still did, four generations now. I invited one of them to connect with me on LinkedIn while we sat in the restaurant, and told Dawn a story about the time I broke my glasses trying to find our dog who’d gone missing — and he lent me a pair of frames for a job interview, but I didn’t get it.

I sat in the same spot at the Starbucks, then walked with Dawn around the block past my old apartment, that’s now a new building. I watched the people come and go expecting to see someone I remembered, but didn’t. It’s not the same as it used to be and that’s good, it’s better.

On the last day we visited my home town we’d always take the kids to a playground and dad would come meet us, and then we’d stop at my grandmother’s, eat sandwiches on paper plates, then hurry off to the airport. Dad and I would sit on a bench with mixed feelings watching them play, knowing it would be a year or more until we saw each other again.

Now the statues stand posing around the monument in center city looking air-brushed with the patina of old age, green turquoise, holding their rifles and looking down 7th street, looking in at me, at Starbucks. They start checking the meters at 8, and today it’s supposed to hit 80. It’s already 63, and it’s just past 7.

 

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Killing the Tree of Heaven

We went back to the east coast by way of Newark, and though it was spring break we made the kids wear coats, and I packed a scarf. We got a rental car and drove to my grandmother’s house in Bethlehem where my uncle Jim now lives alone, he’s getting it ready to be sold. We ate hoagies and chicken salad sandwiches and Jim taught Charlotte how to play backgammon. With no Wi-Fi or TV, no stereo, it was just the sound of the appliances and people talking in different rooms. Jim has a flip phone but he’s going off that too, about to turn 65, still has his amateur radio license (they’re good for 10 years), could use that if he really needed to reach someone. In the morning the poster board from my grandmother’s funeral still leaning in the corner where she sat, with photos of her in various stages of life — and I walked up the road toward the sun, the grass crunchy with frost, snow shovels still left out front of the homes, the roads cut up and broken from the weight of all those east coast winters, all that salt and snow.

Driving around my home town trying to reconnect places with memory from a time I didn’t drive, routes more circular than linear. And my aunt describing what it was like to go into her 92-year-old uncle’s house after he died, like a horror film how it was lit, with only a pathway from room to room, trapped by the mind with so much stuff inside, he had to just sit in the driveway in his car to get some relief. All that stimulation of memory for me driving to the old apartment on Lehigh street, walking the same alleyway I did as a kid, what the sea of memory coughs up by way of the tides. It was like the end of that book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, when the author goes back to his childhood home but it’s anti-climatic, it’s no different than life: all those climaxes or revelations you expect come in everyday ways instead, and either you notice them or you don’t. Here, the people living in our old apartment were likely poor, but hanging on. All the apartments looked the same when I was a kid, but I imagined each one had different qualities. And after just 5 or 10 minutes walking through I’d seen all there was to see, and got the hell out.

I drove down to the next house where we lived, parked by the E-Z cash store, past the coin-operated laundry, a place advertising Guns & Ammo — down the side streets I played as a kid, it all looked the same, but not in a good way — it looked untouched since the early ’80s with all the peeling paint, the dug-up concrete footers and tarps and bags of trash, building materials…projects half-started, never going anywhere…hard to tell if some places were just abandoned, the garages didn’t even have doors, just random stuff inside not worth stealing. I hurried out, feeling a bit sick, wanting to take my kids there so they could be proud of how well we’re doing for ourselves…or maybe I just wanted that for myself, for my own pride.

Sue and John got their new house built, but out back many of the trees need to be taken out: they’re the awful Tree of Heaven species, the Ailanthus altissima (“foul-smelling tree,” in Chinese): cut them down and they’ll only sucker out, and get stronger. You have to hack them at the base with a hatchet and fill them full of Roundup so they suck it through the roots and die from the insides. And they attract a spotted lantern moth that kills all the neighboring trees. And the Tree of Heaven smells like rancid peanuts, used gym socks, or semen. (source: Wikipedia). It’s all that spit up on the beach by the tides of memory, of objects found there smoothed over, carried from another time and place, better handled with plastic gloves, garbage bags, Roundup and axes.

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Sonata in C major, “rites of spring”

Spring cleaning comes when I just can’t take it anymore. All the cobwebs we haven’t seen, the dust, the feeling the whole house smells. Everything needs to be taken apart and blown out.

A half pot of coffee followed by aggressive vacuuming, mopping — stopping to take apart the panel above the microwave with the plastic fins that get discolored and oily, catch animal hair, become furry.

The panel was stained the color of curry powder, a kind of yellow/green, with a tinge of orange — but the tiny screws were stuck in place by god knows what, and it took many failed revolutions of the cheap, store-bought screwdriver set to get it undone. Behind the panel, a brown stain somewhere between a liquid and solid state like syrup, demanding instant removal.

And then it was time to scrub down the range and remove every spot, which takes real focus. They don’t all come out, it’s like hubris: you have to leave a few imperfections to remind yourself you’re mortal.

I took all the objects off the bookshelves in order, from top to bottom. I removed the plants from the window sills and ganged them together in the shower, sprayed down the leaves, let them sit alone in silence.

It’s funny but whenever my mom comes to visit, Dawn threatens to clean, like it’s something she knows she should do, and by the sheer act of saying it it becomes a reality.

The annual Easter egg hunt in our back yard serves as a forcing function too, to clean up the dog poop but it’s imperfect, and always leaves me nervous the kids will track it in.

Dawn placed 96 plastic eggs about the yard for four kids to find (ages 13 – 7), and it was the 10-year-old Charlotte who claimed 48, was asked to divvy up the rest out of fairness.

In the morning Dawn asked if I was going to church (I didn’t know it was option), then sounded glad I wasn’t, so I could stay home and sign the cards, put out the baskets.

I drove to the store and bought a chicken, roamed the aisles, picked out some flowers…and it was misty-cool but decidedly spring: somehow on Easter Sunday it’s like the whole world seems to sing. Whether you go to church or not, that’s what it feels like to me.

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Crow call for April

The chicken brined and so did I, in a solution of salt, memories and music. That Easter in France with Rob and Paul roasting the lamb — then the one 30 years ago I had to work at the drug store in the morning and my girlfriend Marie dropped me off: kissing in the car, young love in the spring, looking back to wave goodbye.

Made a mimosa with left over Prosecco from New Year’s, lay in bed with the windows open listening to the woodpecker. And the frogs now at night, the song of many combined down to one…the dog with a bone she’s been working, chewing the skin off, licking, wagging…we got the old wall clock fixed by the Japanese guy Aubrey, and now I sit there listening to it tic…and I’ll go out in the garage to admire my car sometimes, just stand there and look.

The lake was choppy, the color of lead, and some ducks floated by like pieces of driftwood.

The crow can’t really sing, it clicks, it does what it can with its throat but it’s always real. It makes me stop and think, I know how you feel.


Photo by Laitche, Wiki Commons: Jungle crow, Tennōji Park, Osaka

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Love and work (and when it doesn’t work out)

Crossing into April, Dawn and I were getting ready to be married. But the weather had been so nice every weekend for three weekends straight, we worried our luck wouldn’t hold out. All of us met at a lodge in the mountains, at a small town called Gold Bar. We had a cookout that Friday, then the wedding the next day. It was misty-cool in the morning with light showers, but by mid-afternoon it burned off. And that night we all stayed up around the campfire singing and drinking, then said goodbye in the morning, flew to Las Vegas, rented a car, and drove several hours to Moab, Utah.

About a week before the wedding my friend Loren wrote, he said he and his wife Christine hadn’t booked a hotel yet (despite instructions we’d sent): could they stay with us a couple nights? We had a small house then, the kind of house where you’re aware of every sound, like living in a tent. We agreed, they were kind of broke. I think they even drove up from San Francisco, but at least they brought some cheese.

We agreed, but part of me resented Loren for taking those last couple nights from us before we got married, and the stress of marriage closed in that day I went to get the rings, and we sat in the grass near Green Lake, he made me laugh, and I felt comforted by one of my oldest friends, whom I’ve known since 4th grade.

And then a few years later, my mom’s difficult, Parisian neighbor Gilles wanted to track down an old ex at Berkeley (he thought he’d just fly there and look her up on campus, but needed a place to stay) — so I put him in touch with Loren, and Loren’s wife Christine — and then I got an email from Loren saying Gilles was making Christine uncomfortable walking around their small apartment with just his bath towel on, fresh out of the shower, and I had to laugh. “It was bumming Christine out,” he said.

Ten years later we returned to Gold Bar for two nights. Some people from the group photo weren’t there anymore — Dawn’s dad, her grandma, my step-father John — and some couples weren’t together, like Brad and his girlfriend, or Loren and Christine.

Mom flew in from Germany with Eberhard, about to turn 60, recently retired from the German police force, his first trip to the States. He was like a dog with his head out the window the whole time, taking pictures of everything. The first night, we walked to the lake near our house, took roadies with beer, pictures of eagles, smoked cigarettes, burned wet wood well into the night.

But though it was our 10-year anniversary, I couldn’t enjoy myself. My job had taken a bad turn, and I worried they were going to take me off the project. I’d walk by conference rooms and see my boss with his boss, imagining them talking about me. (Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.)

In a sense we tried to recreate that weekend we got married but of course, you never can. Eberhard tended the fire, and was good with the hatchet. And he didn’t have a problem using it while wearing a Speedo, smoking a cigarette. And he’d just started growing his hair out, but it was thinning up top with a gray stub of ponytail in the back.

I was there but not there, feeling sorry for myself. I took that Monday off so Eberhard, my mom and I could see Seattle. It was a beautiful spring day; we drove to Golden Gardens, a beach near Ballard. Eberhard got his feet wet in the Pacific and I took pictures I promised I’d send, but was too distracted to remember. All they wanted to do was make fires at night and drink, or barbecue. Our neighbor complained about the smoke, she said it gave her migraines.

That summer we went back to Germany and decided we’d move there in a year, take a year off. I’ve witnessed this in other people who leave a job after working there a long time, it can become an identity thing. Maybe it’s because your work relationship is like other relationships with people you’re close to, or spend a lot of time with. Sometimes you change and they don’t, or vice versa, and you don’t fit the same.

The love for a partner expressed through marriage is a life-long commitment, a vision for a love that learns to endure itself, that gets stronger under its own weight. It’s like the tall trees around our house that get bigger year by year without you noticing.

Love the work you do, and find a place that will love you while you’re doing it. Don’t expect they’ll love you back, it’s not the same kind of commitment.


Photo by Loren Chasse: found art sculpture at Brad’s cabin, Waitts Lake, Washington.

 

 

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