Letters and passageways (5): trial runs

This is a series of rewritten journal entries from the summer I spent in the south of France, the first entry here.

You wear it on your body, and you don’t even know what it means?

Allanah grated potatoes onto a newspaper and used the paper to gather up the peel. I told her it’s a wyvern and two sea serpents on a coronet. That’s how my step-dad John always referred to it, how I memorized it: the way you would a phone number, by the rhythm of the digits. “A wyvern and two sea serpents on a coronet.”

I don’t know about other parts of the world but in the West, the wyvern symbolizes war and the devil. Relative to the lindworm when you take off the legs. Allanah studied me from across the room and softened her tone for added effect. War and pestilence.

Allanah’s hair was coming undone and hanging in loose, gray strands around her face, above the sink. I looked down at my ring and studied the symbols: two sea serpents mirrored each other with open jaws, perched on a crown. The wyvern had its back to them, a dragon’s head with two wings and a coiled tail. Eagle’s talons for feet.

It’s John’s family crest, I said. They came from Wales and the north of France. I think it comes from Percy.

So you carry the emblem like it’s your own. Have you showed it to your real father?

I haven’t. We don’t see each other much, and I’m not sure he’d notice.

That part wasn’t true, because I had a memory of my dad asking me about the ring. I took it off and handed it to him, and he turned it at different angles to study the figures on the face.

It’s a wyvern and two sea serpents on a coronet, I said.

Dad handed it back to me and said that’s neat. After they got divorced I changed my birth name to Pearse and talked with my dad about why I was doing it and what it meant. The talk was brief though, he seemed shocked. We were at the old house in Bethlehem and I got out of there as quickly as I could.

I kept my birth-given name but moved it to the middle and only used it on government ID. I’d started going by Pearse, and John referred to me as son. I referred to him as dad. That summer in France was like a trial run for us as a family: John, my mom, and me. It’s a trial run for any kind of family; you don’t get to decide whether you’re going to stick with it or not, you get what you get.

I’ve talked about this with John before. Allanah set the grater on the counter and spoke out of the side of her mouth, gathering her hair back, holding the tie between her teeth.

He needs to have a conversation with your biological father. Have they?

I don’t know. I think John sent him a letter.

Well I think it’s sweet John feels the way he does. You have to decide how you feel about him, and if it’s worth it to you to cut off ties with your real father. You can’t have it both ways.

Gregory called from the other room, something about the TV remote. Allanah called back in the tone she reserved for him, the sound of a mother talking to a child, a bossy mom. Gregory allowed it.

On the program, a humpback whale and her calf were being hunted by a pod of killer whales. The narrator was that same, English voice. Gregory had a satellite dish put in to get English programming, the BBC. Allanah finished the potatoes and took off her apron, folded and set it on the marble countertop. She sat next to me on the sofa, Gregory on the recliner.

I’m a having a glass of wine, Allanah announced.

Gregory told her which one to open and she did, and brought back three glasses. The mother humpback whale was bigger than the Orcas, but outnumbered. There were half a dozen Orcas and they looked ominous with that white patch by their eyes.

The humpback calf was a bit bigger than the size of its mother’s head, two tons in weight. Still feeding from its mother, the milk pink in color and 50% fat, the narrator said.

Gregory, Allanah and I sat in silence sipping our wine, watching the situation escalate. The mother humpback fought the Orcas for five or six hours, but had gotten separated from the rest of her pod. At last the Orcas wear her out, and corner the calf.

After all that, and all they take is the tongue? Gregory brought up the home screen with the other program listings and refilled his wine.

Surely enough, the calf was dead and all the Orcas ate was its tongue and lower jaw. You could imagine how the mother must have felt.

Well just think about all the life at the bottom of the sea that’s going to live off that calf. Allanah came back from the kitchen with a bowl of olives and put it between me and Gregory.

Circle of life, she said. And then she circled the air with her finger and studied me, repeating herself: Circle of life.


I drove the 45 minutes to Snoqualmie Pass, the sun coming up more slowly now. John would have turned 80 this week. For the first time since he died, 11 years now, I listened to one of his CDs on the car stereo. The year is 1970, and he’s playing with Olivia Lyons and two German guys. Olivia is English, the one true love of John’s life, mom thinks.

John sounds distinctly like himself, but his voice is still a young man’s. He would have been 21. Olivia starts the set off and the recording is shrill, you can hear the musicians talking to one another on stage and to the audience. John says they’re going to play a tune but none of them know what it is yet, they’ve never played it before. Key of G. It’s a song about the after-life, what it’s going to be like on the other side. John is singing about playing a harp, in heaven.

When the CD is over it seems like it ends too soon. They spend a good amount of time tuning between songs, a convention that wouldn’t be accepted nowadays, with everyone in such a hurry. The show took place in a German village called Pforzheim, not far from where my mom and John later settled. It makes sense why John gravitated back to Germany for all the memories he had touring there.

The symbols are empty, waiting for us to inhabit them with meaning, to give them life. They take on meaning and value as assigned and in a sense, so do we. We come to represent something more to one another over time.

Signet rings were used to sign letters and documents as a seal of authenticity. John offered me his name and family legacy as an expression of love, and I accepted. It didn’t matter as much what was on the ring, just that it came from him.

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Letters and passageways (4): Cathar country

This is a series of rewritten journal entries from the summer I spent in the south of France, the first entry here.

Allanah and Gregory seem to me a bit bats. It’s more Allanah with her self-taught fortune telling, Gregory’s bats by association. They’re Canadian and buy old houses along the south of France, fix them up and then flip them. They don’t have much competition as the French don’t seem like real entrepreneurs to me, even though they should be (it’s their word, entrepreneur).

My only work since I’ve been here is working for Gregory. Since I have no real construction skills I just hang around Gregory and fetch stuff, with my dust mask. Gregory demonstrates how to use a vise grip to pull out rusty nails, how to saw off carriage bolts, how to use a hammer and chisel. At the end of the day my hands are swollen but I can’t feel them because of all the wine we had with lunch. Gregory seems amused by the fact that I’m a writer, regularly saying put THAT in your book. His tone grows aggressive the more times he says it, often punctuating the ‘that’ by throwing a piece of rotten wood or using his nail gun. Put that in your book!

Allanah’s into art and history, the pathways between mysticism, the occult, ancient religions, and the Cathars: a 12th-century Christian movement that took on the corruption of the Catholic church (and lost) with related stories of hidden treasure, the Holy Grail, an infamous priest in the hills. It’s the same priest and patchwork of conspiracy theories Dan Brown later wrote about in The DaVinci Code. She has an American friend named MJ who lives in a nearby village (recently divorced) and researching cults, writing a book. Allanah’s got a lazy eye she employs in an almost comic, trance-like face she puts on when she pre-cognates: she predicts I’ll find my soul mate at a paella party in the country this weekend.

Laurent picks me up for the party at 9, it seems nothing starts here before that time. I’m eager, and wait for him out front. His car is so small it’s hard to believe he can fit inside. He smokes and shifts, never losing his cool when driving. It’s one of my first times outside of Collioure, a half an hour inland to a town called Elne. We cross an old stone bridge with Roman archways and a river below reflecting the red sky. Allanah said something about crossing large bodies of water, that it has an impact on the spirit we’re not aware of, and it takes time to recover from that. Maybe that’s my problem, and why she’s having bad dreams about me.

When we get to the party it’s finally dark, and looks like the guy has a farm with an old barn. I have trouble tying together how we know the host, it’s Laurent’s sister’s fiancée Bruno’s childhood friend, a veterinarian. They have a bonfire going and a tent with a large cauldron of paella, everyone drinking red wine mixed with Coke. I ask Laurent about the girl, and he says “I sink it would be perfect,” puts his arm around my shoulder and leads me to her, then points with the same hand he’s holding his drink, “Zat one.”

But the girl doesn’t speak English, not a lick, so we smile and just exchange phrases, sipping our drinks. In the absence of verbal language you have to rely on the non-verbal, and there is a fair amount of light touching on the arms and shoulders. Her name is Muriel, a name that sounds awful in English, but musical in French. She’s from Toulouse and writes her number in my notepad, hands it back to me, smiles…

For the days that follow, my journal details the pained planning for the follow-up call. I have three English-French dictionaries face down on the coffee table, and triangulate between all three. I have to script everything out so it will sound natural. It’s almost 10 PM, and my skin feels hot from the sun. I think of telling her that, but fear it won’t come out right (my skin feels hot). I take a cold shower, a “let’s-go-team” shower, and decide to call her just past 10. But it’s a bust. She says something I don’t understand, so I say ‘quoi?’ like I didn’t hear her, but it’s not going anywhere so I just hang up.

Put that in your book!

Allanah’s friend MJ needs a two-story wall on the outside of her house painted and offers to have me do the job: in return, she’ll show me around the region and share her research about a church in the strange town Rennes-le-Château. There’s also the medieval fortress where the Cathars were slaughtered but may have snuck something out before they were besieged (a painting or treasure, religious artifact?). MJ says the church is dedicated to Mary Magdalene and there’s a line of thinking that Mary was pregnant with a child from Jesus who went on to lead the Merovingians (and ruled most of modern day France and some of Germany, and wore their hair long). There’s a statue of the devil in the church she says, but someone sawed its head off. 

Allanah does my number charts, says something life-changing will happen when I turn 45, because I’m a 3 person and that’s the culmination of a life arc or major series. She accuses me of holding a latent violence though, and says this in a distrustful tone like she’s looking at X-rays and found something she can’t put a name to. She calls it an air of violence. In her dreams about me there is the girl from the paella party and MJ, other women (faceless)…all of us levitating, me trying to climb on their shoulders. I have to bite my lip from laughing when Allanah rolls her eyes back, as though she’s scanning the universe, a mental divining rod looking for a hidden stream. There’s an interference she warns, and that could be me or it could be my step-dad, John.

It was early summer but we were high enough in the mountains it was cool and I remember most days needing a jacket. MJ lived by a river you could see out back from her bathroom, the most beautiful bathroom I’d ever seen. There was a large window right by the toilet she kept open all the time, and when it blew the curtains it seemed to beckon come relax by the river…a vase of fresh-cut wild lavender on the sill…an old bath tub (no shower) and a deep, porcelain sink with knobby handles that looked like miniature hands.

I wasn’t good at painting or interested to learn, and I think MJ wound up doing more than she planned to that week. I learned the French word for scaffolding, échafaudage, and relished the sound of it. MJ was a good 20 years older than me and I realized I’d stepped into a kind of fantasy scape of hers, but didn’t feel the same. We’d share a bottle of Blanquette at the end of the day and it would go right to her head. She got me to recite a poem one night in the doorway of my bedroom with the evening breeze coming through and the sound of the river but I wasn’t feeling it; I had to say goodnight and return to the collection of horror stories I’d brought from Collioure.

On the day we drove up to the church where the priest went missing, maybe it was my imagination or the altitude, but the fillings in my teeth vibrated and I had a strange sense from the place, like something bad was buried there. Conspiracy theories played out a number of scenarios explaining how the priest came into all the money needed to renovate the old church, that he was being blackmailed by the Catholics to keep quiet about something he found.

But when I went back and researched it, I found all the history, even some of the books, took elements that were true and distorted them into fiction. Even Mary Magdalene had that done to her by a pope, who conflated her with a different Mary, a prostitute, maybe as a genuine mistake or (more likely) to debase her. Hundreds of years later now, and some people still believe that.

My own history has the same blend of fact and fiction, with conflated characters and gaps in the sequence of events that now takes on a mysterious air, a patina of age that grows more unusual from a distance. Here I am at 27 calling out from the past, dead or as in danger of dying as the same characters and people I try to remember from that time.  

I made small talk with the guy who works the produce section at the store today about the lightning storm Saturday night, and he thinks it’s because the earth is being pulled out of its axis and has nothing to do with global warming, that there’s nothing we can do about it. I go home and read about the Mayan calendar, the glyphs. The 104-year cycle when the earth, sun, and Venus all line up for one day. They calculated that, and built their calendar on the logic of two cogs in a wheel moving at different speeds, all on that premise.

I scan my purchases with a handheld gun and then lay on the couch reading old journals, kneading my hands. I research the Visigoths, the slain King of Aragon, the Merovingians. And I’m convinced that we’re all connected somehow, that we just have to find the right passageways that lead us to each other.

Blog post image from the cover of Carlos Castaneda’s novel A Separate Reality, 1971.

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Letters and passageways (3): Rob and Paul

This is a series of rewritten journal entries from the summer I spent in the south of France, the first entry here.

Rob and Paul seem like an unlikely gay couple to me, not knowing what gay couples are supposed to be like. Rob is gruff, shaped like an ape: Paul, demure. They show no signs of affection towards one another and by all accounts, are not “out.” They’re both a good 20 years older than me and not aging well. Rob has unkempt eyebrows, big features, a mustache and sagging gut. Paul is bearded with glasses, wears old hats, thrift store coats.

John, who’s become my step-dad, met Rob and Paul in London in the ’60s. They all liked Basset hounds and drinking. Other than this, and being English, I don’t see much else in common. Maybe traveling to France, but this an English tendency I learn, more of a one-way affinity. I don’t see many French vacationing to the UK.

Mike and I visit London for the first time and stay with Rob and Paul at their home in Arnos Grove, taking the Bounds Green tube stop. We meet the Bassets, Bentley and Bess. The Bassets have drooping eyes with pink folds and pendulous ears that need cleaning, a process Rob executes by holding one of the Bassets on his lap and applying drops to their ears, cupping the liquid in place, then dabbing out the yellow fluid with a hanky. The dogs look on as Rob narrates, adjusting his tone between me and Bentley/Bess, English-formal with me, stern with the Bassets. Over time I imagine that Bentley resembles Rob, and Bess, Paul.

Rob works as a pharmacist at the neighborhood apothecary and returns home the same time, stopping by the corner shop for a can of lager. He drains the beer and opens a bottle of wine, then prepares dinner. It is the same routine every night.

Paul is off to the sides tinkering with picture frames he’s staining, always a number of paintings, drawings, or projects underway. He has a naturopath shop he owns nearby, but at heart, he’s an artist. The house feels choked by his art, either tacked to the walls or leaning in the narrow hallways, stacked on desks and chairs, altering the intended function of any object or surface so it becomes instead a platform for his work.

His art is distinct: it spills out to John and my mom’s house, and even now, in 2019, you can still find remnants of Paul (dead several years) in our garage.

Sadly, Paul draws nudes of adolescent boys and men. It vacillates between art and pornography though, and we don’t talk about it. Rob and Paul sleep in separate rooms and one morning I catch a view of Paul in his chamber: an undersized bed frame intended for a young teen at best, so small he has to fold himself into a ball to fit inside.

The year before I move to France, Mike, Rob, Paul and I journey to Collioure from London with the Bassets. Rob and Paul own a VW camper van with a loo in the back and a stove to boil water for tea, or hard-boil eggs. There’s a small seating area where the four of us can sit when we stop for breaks. Paul peels an egg, his hands still steady, the Parkinson’s a distance away.

We take the Chunnel, Rob driving the whole way. They both sit up front while Mike and I are in the back with the Bassets, who sleep the entire length of France, which looks just like Pennsylvania and takes roughly two days to cross. When they pee it’s a small squirt, and they stare at me while squatting and then trot back into the van, their tales high and firm as a conductor’s baton.

It is my first time in the south of France, and Mike’s first visit to Europe. Though the scenery from the van isn’t much, it becomes more so as we approach Collioure: the snow-covered Pyrenees mountains, some with lookout towers and castles…large cacti starting to bloom, palm trees and aloe growing along the hillsides. We visit in April, and it feels like summer. When we arrive at the apartment, Rob and Paul sleep in the nearby parking lot in their van, while Mike and I share the foldout couch and my mom and John, the small bedroom.

Paul collects interesting pieces of driftwood along the beach, one that resembles a human figure with its legs spread. You can really see the twist of the torso and how the hips flare out, the muscles in the upper and lower legs. John displays the piece on the book shelf where the setting sun illuminates it, and Paul produces another figure to serve as its companion, then stages an argument between the two, making his voice sound funny. We are all drinking Pastis, a French aperitif you add ice and water to, that turns the drink bright yellow, the color of anti-freeze, a milky potion.

John reveals more to me about Rob and Paul in private: there’s Paul’s upsetting nudes, but Rob has this thing about cheese. It’s not an allergy, more a phobia. He can’t have anything that’s come from a refrigerator where cheese has once been, as if cheese spores have been released and affected adjacent contents of the fridge. This is awkward, because John especially likes cheese with wine, while in France. And each time we go out and Rob surveys the menu, there is the solemn exchange with the waiter over Rob’s selection, to verify there’s no cheese in his order. And then Rob’s insistence that there is in fact cheese and sending it back, and the five or six of us leaving the restaurant quiet, embarrassed, feeling not only like foreigners and tourists, but freaks.

Rob and Paul are friends with the English painter Barry Blend, the biggest local artist in Collioure, who does bright, cartoon-like oil paintings: landscapes of boats in the harbor, portraits with exaggerated hands a bit out of proportion, playful and light. John buys many of Barry’s paintings and then commissions Barry to do T-shirts featuring John’s brand of musical strings.

We are all invited to Barry’s house for dinner, meet his Dutch wife Tineke, their two small boys. Mike and I smoke cigarettes with Barry’s Dutch wife, who gives us advice on where to go in Amsterdam. Barry is grilling large sardines, the local featured cuisine, and looks like Mel Gibson: the same large, radiant eyes but with bushy graying hair. His eyes are the same color as the blue he uses in his paintings, the color of the sea. Their house is a wreck and feels like artists occupy it. Kids’ shit everywhere, fly swatters in the kitchen, painting supplies. John plays acoustic guitar and we all sit at the same table, set for 10. In the photos I still have of that night, Mike and I are making faces with the emptied out heads of large shrimp we’re holding in our mouths like cigars, like we’re smoking them. Both of us look very young, and drunk.

Paul is diagnosed with Parkinson’s and on my last visits with him, looks shaky and frail, can’t really drink now with all the medications he’s on. They buy an old farm house in the hills outside of Collioure, and Dawn and I visit briefly on a long hike that snakes through the surrounding hills. Lookouts across the valley along medieval walls where the archers aimed their bows—the sense that the past is very much a part of the present, here.

Rob boils water for tea, and Paul produces breads and pastries from the local bakery. Each time we see them, I come away with more objects and artifacts, gifts from Paul. Perhaps he’s trying to shed, I think.

My favorite is a scene of the Collioure harbor, modeled after a painting Barry Blend did of the same scene, made to look like stained glass. But Paul has painted onto the glass so it looks like individually carved panes. And put a rustic stain on the frame so it looks antique.

Rob would call my mom even after John died, most times on Christmas or New Year’s, and toward the end he sent photos of himself, injuries or physical anomalies mom would pass on to me, but I couldn’t look at. Because Rob’s last name was Bradshaw we’d joke and call him Brad Shaw, the same for Paul: “Matt Hams,” for Matthams.

The past flickers ever so in these old photos, and I realize Rob and Paul were around the same age I am now when we met. And I sense Paul’s presence in the work he’s left behind. I wonder if our kids will inherit one of his pieces, never knowing its creator, or how our lives intersected.

I look at these things and realize I can’t part with them, because they contain memory and by extension, me. A business card from the Tandoori restaurant at King’s Cross where Rob took me and Mike our first night in London. A printout of his curry recipe I’ll likely never make, but will keep. You can boil our lives down into a storage unit of varying sizes. And if the past is truly us, and doesn’t really exist, then I wonder what that says for me now.

Still in search of a journal from that timeframe, today I found the other antique Rolex John gave me, which stopped running about five years ago. I immediately slipped it on, and after a few hours the minute hand crept a quarter inch across the face. I found a drawing I did of it a while ago, I’ll name Antique Rolex in Scorpion Pose.





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Letters and passageways (2): Shawn and Seamus

This is a series of rewritten journal entries from the summer I spent in the south of France, the first entry here.

Shawn Lee is my favorite bartender at my favorite bar, The Six Arms. He is often smiling, and looking for excuses to make you laugh. Shawn is traveling through Europe when I’m there and promises to visit, but when I finally hear from him, he says he’s picked up a traveling mate named Seamus, a Canadian, who I’m sure to like. It’s no longer just Shawn, it’s Shawn and Seamus.

The condo has one bedroom, with a foldout sofa bed in the living room. I’ve been sleeping on the sofa bed most of the time before Shawn and Seamus come because there is a problem with the bedroom: whenever I sleep there, I get the worst nightmares. They’re the kind of dreams where I’m convinced something else is in the room with me, threatening. I’ll offer up the room to Shawn and Seamus as a gesture of hospitality but in fact, it’s a test to see if the same thing happens to them.

Today the morning sky is pink at 6. It’s just inside September, but gives the impression of being cooler in the morning than it really is on account of the dark. It’s the first morning I’ve put my sweater on, and needed a blanket to write. I’ve gone through the notepads I have from my brief time in France, June through October, 1998. I read the entries leading up to my departure, then the first couple when I returned to Seattle.

Because I took my cats with me and flew through Barcelona, I actually had to get paperwork stamped at the Spanish embassy in New York. I detail the day I take the bus there and what it’s like, all those people speaking Spanish, me writing a check for $36, then turning back for the two-hour ride home. I couldn’t have had more than a thousand dollars in my checking account then. It was the time I had to worry about late fees, and dropping below the minimum monthly balance.

Shawn is traveling through Europe like me, to figure things out. He’s also single, and can’t seem to find the right girl. We have that much in common. I’ve been alone in this small town for three weeks by the time they arrive, counting down the days for company. I hunkered down for a week of bad winds, only going out to walk the dog or buy groceries. My journal entries imply a fair amount of beer drinking, failed efforts to write, getting tired of the cassettes I’ve brought already. When Shawn and Seamus come, I imagine, I’ll see the place through their eyes and feel renewed. And how sorely I miss Americans.

When we meet, Shawn and I do a bro hug but Seamus’s eyes don’t meet mine as we shake. He is wearing a baseball hat, T-shirt and shorts. He has the look of Irish stock and a strange accent I can’t pinpoint, that’s not the Canadian I’m familiar with. It’s like the gypsy Irish dialect from that Brad Pitt movie about street fighters. He kind of mumbles.

We go to the beach. There are two beaches to choose from, on either side of the condo unit. We get right to the matter of whether or not they’re nude beaches and I confirm that there have been limited sightings, and they nod. I’ve been doing push-ups every morning and sunning myself to help attract a French girl but so far, no luck. My journal entries come back to this as a recurring theme: the scene of a pretty, young woman with her dog walking the beach, trying to communicate with her in French about my dog, Chumley. She’s asking if he’s Chinese I think but in fact, she’s asking me if he’s fixed, a detail we need to pantomime. Chumley and the French dog take a liking to one another, though the French dog is on her period. Chumley is pumping the air with his hips, and she’s on her back as they mimic love-making on the sand, half-in, half-out of the water with the waves coming in. It’s laughable, with the sun going down behind them. I learn the woman is from the north, but moved here on account of her husband. The scene ends…and my writing rings of self-pity. No wonder I couldn’t find anyone.

We make plans to go into town so I can show Shawn and Seamus the bars. I don’t really go out though, as I haven’t got much money or any way to earn it. I’ve done some work for the Canadians Allanah and Gregory who flip old homes, and live in them as they’re renovating. They’re in one across the harbor from my parent’s place in Port-Vendres. The deal is, I help Gregory demolish walls or carry things (my only skills) and in return, they feed me big lunches. We drink a fair amount of wine, and the work day ends by the time we start lunch.

I take the guys to Les Templiers, the first bar we started going to when we came to Collioure. It’s named after the Knights Templar, a 12th-century Catholic military order. There’s an original Picasso behind the bar, from the time he stayed there and left the painting for payment. The village was a popular destination for painters because of the soft light and natural beauty. Salvador Dali’s home town is an hour away on the Spanish coast, and he’s buried at the base of a museum in another town nearby.

Shawn is listening but Seamus seems distracted, far away. I curse Shawn for bringing him. They’ll need to work out whether they share the queen-sized bed or take turns on the other sofa that’s not a pull-out, in the living room. They’re not clear about how long they’re staying either, always a bad sign. I get the impression that they’re going to stay as long as possible because it’s “free,” and the town is pretty posh. I’ve already started rehearsing how I’ll broach the topic with Shawn.

After a day or two with Seamus it’s clear that I can’t take him anywhere I’ll be recognized or associated with him, which includes introducing him to my small group of friends. He’s homophobic: problematic because I have a gay couple coming to visit me in July, and another gay couple (Rob and Paul) who helped us settle into this town. Homophobes make me nervous because I feel like they’re hiding something, or hateful. I don’t know what Seamus does for a living, why he’s in Europe, or why exactly Shawn chose to buddy up with him. Seamus the person, the character, has no distinguishable features: he is as featureless as a river rock, mere form.

Days of sleeping in, the look of men’s bare feet sprawled out on couches…dirty tube socks. Then, the straw that breaks the camel’s back: the day Seamus has something important to say, something he’s seen. He takes his cap off for the first time and runs his hand back over his head, agitated:

Guys, you won’t believe this.

Seamus has returned from the bakery, or the gas station. On his walk down the driveway to the condo he saw the most amazing thing: hundreds upon hundreds of ants coming out of the ground, everywhere. Seamus describes the scale of this, then naturally begins killing all of the ants, stomping them into oblivion. But they’re everywhere, and the task takes more time and effort than you’d imagine.

I think I got all of them, but I’ll go out again later to check.

Shawn and I look at each other and Shawn says wow, and I have nothing more to say to Seamus. I’ve been reading about heightened states of perception and awareness, collective consciousness, the notion of groupthink: I can’t even begin to explain to Seamus why this is wrong, why it makes no sense to just kill like that.

I lie and tell them both I’m leaving town and they’ll need to make plans to vacate, too. Shawn senses I’m lying and apologizes, but it’s hard to reconcile. He realizes he’s made a mistake and I let him sit with that; I’m 27 and not very evolved myself.

As a way of thanks for my hospitality, Seamus returns from the butcher with a large white bag and offers it to me, diverting his eyes but proud of his purchase. It’s horse, something he’s never seen available anywhere, so let’s try it. None of us know how to cook horse and the internet doesn’t exist yet, so Seamus, of Irish stock, finds my biggest cooking pot and boils the large brown cut until it’s gray, most surely done. We each have a portion on a plate with nothing else, just the meat, overcooked and rubbery, tough as tire.

There in my journal is Seamus’s full name spelled out with a number and country code I don’t recognize, the day they left. His handwriting is delicate and exact, and seems unreal to me now. Shawn and I saw each other one more time in Seattle and exchanged numbers, but it was never the same.




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Letters and passageways: the summer of ’98, south of France

I went back to that summer I spent in the south of France, to recall what I could from my journals, letters, and photos. They resurfaced with the news of a friend who’d died, I’d last seen there—and played on my mind hiking for several days with Brad. It had been 20 years now since I climbed Mount Rainier. Ten since I started this blog. Twenty-one since I lived in Collioure, that small condo on the beach.

The apartment was modest, but the view was not. A small deck opened to a beach below, with waves lapping at the shore. Beyond, glimpses of the small town, the old clock tower, boats in the harbor. I flew out of JFK on June 1, a one-way flight to Barcelona with my two cats. I met Laurent for the first time: he said the airport was closed, the workers had organized a protest, and young soldiers were now standing by with machine guns. Laurent offered me a cigarette and said the bad winds are coming too, and laughed.

My mom and John had bought the condo at the recommendation of John’s friends Rob and Paul, who were trying to find property there themselves. Laurent’s mom was a realtor but Laurent spoke better English than she, was my age, and became our guide to the region. John described Laurent as a French Robert DeNiro, though larger, with thick eyebrows and Catalan features. Laurent dropped me off at the apartment and helped me inside with my bags, promised he’d call soon and we’d go out. I have girls for you, he said.

I set to writing in my new space. I’d been living in Seattle for a year and they’d offered me a new job at Starbucks, where I’d been working at the corporate headquarters. But I declined because I worried that a real job would demand too much of me, and I’d never take the time to write.

In addition to the condo in Collioure, my mom and John had bought a new house in a small village called Port-Vendres, one town over. They were going back and forth every 90 days between France and Pennsylvania, and had trouble finding caretakers. I offered to look after the house in Pennsylvania over the winter while they got the new house set up in France. When they came back in the spring, I’d take their place in France, and wait for them to return. They agreed, so I shipped the cats, a handful of books, my cassettes and clothes back east, and moved to the house in Pennsylvania a week before Christmas.

The problem with my writing then (one of the problems) was that I didn’t have anything to write about. I was 27, with only a handful of life experiences. The other problem was that I didn’t know how to talk about those experiences, my voice got in the way. It tried to make up for inadequacies by drawing too much attention to itself.

John worked on getting me writing gigs through his network of musician friends, the first with a Puerto Rican friend César Díaz who’d played guitar with Bob Dylan, and wanted my help writing an angry book that would expose “the real Dylan.” It would detail stories of Dylan’s ego and how he mistreated the band. While touring in Spain, César had found a bullfighter’s costume in a thrift store and worn it on stage one night. It was in the traditional, flamboyant style with gold sequins, but drew too much attention away from Dylan, who ordered César off stage and made him take it off. Dylan then found a similar costume and wore it himself, the next night.

I didn’t care to write an angry book about Bob Dylan and the project never got off the ground. In fact, all I really wanted to talk about with César was my favorite Dylan albums. The book never got written, and César died four years later.

Another of John’s friends wanted to write a book: Bill Lawrence, a German guitarist and designer who needed help with his memoir. I went to Bill’s house for a coffee (effectively the interview), and met with him and his young wife, who served us. He smoked nonstop, with two packs of cigarettes he arranged on the table and then rearranged, like playing cards. The packs of cigarettes were like our modern day fidget devices, he continued turning them at 45-, and 90-degree angles, just so.

Bill said, So you’re a writer. Tell me what the word radical means to you.

I did my best to define radical, but didn’t get it right. I’d already lost the gig.

Radical, Bill explained, comes from the Latin, “from the root.” I am a radical, he said, turning to the sky: I tear things out of the ground, from the root.

No paid gigs panned out for me, so I spent most of my time writing letters and bad poetry. I used a manual typewriter I’d bought in Seattle: would draft a poem and then rewrite the same poem on a new piece of paper, hoping I’d get the thread right so it sounded done. I could hear when something sounded wrong, but often didn’t know how to fix it. More than anything, my typing improved. That helped my perceived value from the temp agencies where I applied, when they’d test my word count per minute and remark how high it was, for a male.

Moving to France, I thought, would help my writing. Somehow, just being in a foreign country could transform me. But the typewriter got damaged between JFK and Barcelona, the carriage slightly bent, and the words trailed off when I reached the right margin. It had the look of a stroke victim’s mouth, sagging to one side ever so.

I went back to my journals to reconstruct what I could from that June. I sound hopeful, but lonely. Laurent made time for me, with the occasional night out at the discotheque, by introducing me to his small group of friends: Marie-Pierre, David Bernadas. And a similar group of friends who belonged to my mom and John. The political writer Jan Gilbourg, in exile from his native Sweden for writing damning stories about their government: now in fear of the Swedish SÄPO breaking into his Port-Vendres study, stealing his manuscripts. Hard to separate Jan’s paranoia from reality.

Or the eccentric Canadian couple Allanah and Gregory, who buy, renovate, and flip French farmhouses. Gregory, independently wealthy, part of the Fischer-Price family enterprise. Allanah, a budding mystic or psychic with a lazy eye, who flaps her hands and rolls her good eye back in its head when she’s divining, seeing.

I can’t make out the scraps I have left in my journal and I’m missing a crucial piece, a “daily planner” style notebook I used to jot down details from each day: what I ate, who I saw, where I went. The names of all those small towns. I’m going through our garage, through the closet, through all the caches of journals and notebooks I’ve kept over the years. I feel like a thief going through my own things. When I find notes from that era, it leaves me sad and disassociated from who I was then, forcing me to rethink who I am now.

I sit inside the protective halo of a tree mostly dry, outside of the rain. But after a time it rains first on my chair, then my legs, my chest. The cat sharpens her claws on the wooden hot tub cladding. The rain softens to a gentle hiss, and smells nice. Soon it stops and the frogs start in, volleying back and forth from their hiding places, the kind of sound you’d expect from new tennis shoes crossing a gymnasium floor: squeak, squeak, squeak. The dog clambers across the patio to my side, click, click, click.

We let the hours and days pass out of us this way, and so, our lives. Old letters, passageways to empty rooms, abandoned towns. The faint sound of their voice still coming through in the ink. Folded, sealed, carried “par avion,” stamped with a date. The former box of checks converted to a tiny treasure chest decorated with ornate wrapping, containing all the small keepsakes an old girlfriend saved from our time together. Movie tickets, mementos. I can’t look at its contents now but can’t throw it out, either. Perhaps it’s true, the root of all human suffering lies in our attachments.

The sound of the cottonwood leaves is a dry rasp, a shuffling of papers, a field of dried corn husks, a broom’s brush. The past. The swooshing sound of the now, the coming nightfall, and falling leaves. The sense that all of this will recombine again, and again.

By my window, a golden fox just passed by. I grab my phone and run outside barefoot, but it’s nowhere to be seen. Only the sound of a leaf snapping off a tree. I will keep looking for that journal, I think. I just can’t let it go.



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Song for late summer

The kids take pictures of me napping at unflattering angles. The first colors of fall start along the highway: the pink-purple fireweed against the green, the coming yellows and browns. Those black spruces leaning in the muskeg, long patches of sphagnum across the tundra like the color palette we saw in Scotland that one November. The stark feeling in Alaska that we are far, far away. Far away, and closer still.

The busybody hummingbirds taunt our cat. Tree frogs eye me from the side. A scribble of bugs in the sunset coagulating in the shape of a question mark. Denali just lost an hour of daylight this week. An owl hoots. Maybe it’s true, that wood is life and time, the fire that feeds on it: accelerating or going idle, burning faster or slower for reasons outside of our control. That despite all the death from the burn there is new life, and the fires burn off the dead, and diseased.

The day softens with pink and gold dabbing the edges. Smells change. The birds sing first, then the frogs. Between are the bats, silent save for their flaps. The night comes slow in late summer, the mornings too.

We are what we believe we are: considerably less, considerably more, but confined to the frame that we make for ourselves.

The night drops out of the sky. New sounds emerge, geese overhead squawk their goodbyes, their good riddance. Distant traffic can always be pawned off as the tide going out. And when jets arc the sky…always the appeal of the foreign, of going away.

I sit waiting for the first pin pricks of stars on the night. August fades to pink in the west; we cut down all that’s dead in the yard then toss it on a tarp for the transfer station. The earth is starved for it, for the changing of the guard, for the routine.

Dawn’s hair is whitening on the edges of her face, there. But we are nowhere near the winter of our lives, this season: more, late summer. Tomorrow I’ll cut the grass and pack the clippings in a bag. It is the last of the 8 o’clock sunsets now, and time to gather wood.



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The wind through our windows, Anchorage

We tottered down the runway, wriggling inside the plane. Pale lead morning, 18 years since I’d flown to Alaska. That weekend before 9/11, the end of the tourist season, closing down the shops. Our kids now taking pictures outside the windows with their phones. We weren’t even married yet, that time I met Dawn in the strange town of Whittier, where her ship came to port. Playing a Black Sabbath cassette in the rental car. Spending the night in a hostel. The afternoon we rented a double kayak and paddled around the Kenai peninsula, spotting sea otters swimming beside us, splitting a bottle of wine over lunch, some island where they grow all their own vegetables, catch their own fish. Thinking this is the best day of my life, today.

9/11. Watching the plane hit the building, live. Nightmares about anthrax laced on our mail, Osama bin Laden’s face on a large spider. Thinking we should move to Alaska, quit my job, hide out in a basement there, write by candlelight every morning. Live the life I always wanted to, before it’s too late.

Charlotte eats Hawaiian, barbecue-flavored potato chips for breakfast, wraps her gum and stows it. When control is in doubt I crave it the most. I never thought I could have kids because of the unruliness of it, but when Dawn told me she was pregnant, I knew it was right. I was ready to change. You think that, but we are only capable of so much change in our lives. Charlotte gestures across the aisle, “more chips?” and I mouth, No Thanks. She nods, thumbs up. Outside the clouds are lamb coats, cotton balls. All we wanted for this time away was good memories. More of them.

Beginning our descent, the kids are slumped over their tray tables like banana peels, hollowed out. When we reach Alaska the mountains and glaciers reflect back a peach, mid-morning light. The beginning of an adventure where you enter the slot with only one way in, and one way out.

Anchorage sunrise: the wind whistles through a broken seal in our hotel window. You can see Denali today, 130 miles north. The seven-hour train ride we’ll take there leaves from a station at the bottom of E street. The old army and navy store next to the furrier, all the trading posts, tourist traps, street vendors selling reindeer hot dogs, cartoon images of bears, cannabis shops. One called Alaska Fireweed. Cheap, digital hours of operations signs. Outdated fonts. A sign advertising HOMER LAND: view lots for sale.

The wind whistles with no resolution, only constant tension. The same wind they get in the south of France that drives people to violence, and comes in threes: three, six, nine days of it.

On the TV at the hotel bar, a women’s tennis match with no sound, just captions. The Greek player is fierce and strong, but angry with herself. Too much ego. The Aussie is steady and even and I am vying for her: control. It is a psychological game, the same as any.

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