Plumbing

Even though they had holes in them, I kept wearing the same socks. I walked the back yard in my socks when it wasn’t wet. Charlotte was up at the trampoline and I went back up to apologize for what I said, but she ignored me. I made her give me her phone, I thought she’d throw it at me. I watched myself walking away and didn’t like the look.

Dawn and Lily left for Disneyland on Saturday, leaving me and Charlotte home alone for four days. We played the board game Sorry for the first time in forever, went to Starbucks three days in a row, played some badminton on the sports court, watched Bob Ross before going to bed.

In the mornings before she got up I walked to the lake with my coffee, early enough the sky was still pink and no one was out. Even though it was spring, I didn’t feel the mood boost like I hoped. I felt little joy from work and wasn’t writing like I used to, or getting any exercise. Pretty soon we were going to have to start cutting our own grass too, down to one income. All Charlotte wanted to talk about was which iPhone she’d get come September. That, and the air pods. I told her to leave it downstairs before she went to bed but found it in the morning by her side, plugged in. That was a lot of the problem with Lily we thought, not getting enough rest. Too much stimulation from the phone, and the isolating impact over time. The fact that we really need human connection and the phone just isn’t that.

On Sunday I tried to nap in the hammock but couldn’t from all the coffee, so I decided to tackle the kitchen faucet. It would need replaced. There were so many options to pick from, I really just wanted the EZ install. But then I learned I needed plumber’s putty to set the base, and had to go back. I tried using one of Charlotte’s play putty things but thought better of it. I didn’t know anything about plumber’s putty (like, could you touch it with your bare hands), but I just stuffed a bunch in and it worked, it formed a seal. And thought about the connection I had with Charlotte, and why it was important to set that in place right, too.

 

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That last Friday in April

Dawn quit her job so she could spend more time with the kids, and that meant her office was up for grabs. Dawn’s office is kind of ideal, with good morning light flanked by book shelves, and a door that locks. I tried the office for a couple days but decided to stick with mine because I like to nap between meetings, and my office is in the bedroom. I’ll work in bursts and then doze for 10-20 minutes with my phone next to me to monitor email and pop up as needed, maintaining the illusion I’m an always-on automaton.

Charlotte’s cyclic face tics have evolved into one with her eyes now, where she’ll flick them upwards repeatedly and then look disgusted or disparaging, a look that’s 100% convincing. We start family therapy this weekend.

The cat did kill the baby rabbit I tried to rescue on Easter, but left the head on. It’s on its side by the chicken coup, a scene that would have troubled me in the past but now seems normal.

The engine light came on in my car again and the whole thing kind of shakes like I’m driving on a bumpy road even when I’m not.

I built a fire and sat drinking beer as the day dropped out and the birds started up, and played Fela Kuti on my wireless speaker.

And I went back and forth on my job, feeling at times confident and others, threatened, secretly feeling fine if it all came to an end and I had the summer off, and all four of us could be together…which would be fun perhaps for about a week.

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The first death

The dog’s warm tongue on my cheek, the den by the window where the sun comes in to expose the hair on my carpet, the dust on the lamps, the dirt on my legs from the morning’s hike. Going up Cougar Mountain this Easter, I remembered that time as a kid the three of us took a blanket and a basket and ate hard-boiled eggs in the park, it was warm then too. One of my favorite memories of youth, me and my parents. That same year a friend of mine had just died, he was only in the fourth grade, and my dad came in to deliver the news…the tenderness with which he went about it. Then the look of my friend’s empty desk in the center of the classroom, the rest of the year. No one would go near it, as if it were cursed, but one time I lifted the lid to see if his marbles were still there, I’d take them if they were. Remembering his name, Michael Krausley, 30 years later. We were at a theater performance of Peter Pan, and after the play they had a treasure hunt for the kids: see what artifacts you can find from the set, displayed around the theatre. One, a replica of the desk from Wendy’s dead brother: it looked just like Michael Krausley’s desk, small and sad, scaled to the size of a boy. And I remembered back to the creek that flowed near the school, the pond that froze over, Michael’s brown hair and freckles, his almost-mustache starting, too young.

We all die twice: once, when our physical body leaves and again, the last time our name is spoken. The memory of Michael was nested inside a memory of a time with my parents that felt like one of our best. It was just a simple day: no Disneyland, no amusement park, just a walk across the road with a picnic basket and some sun. Life and death co-exist like that, each feeling more real than the other at different times in our lives. Different phases of the moon, depending on which side you see. Always circling round.

Our cat got a baby bunny by the neck and carried it down to the patio, to finish it off. On Easter! I made her drop it, then threw her inside the house so the bunny could run off. Maybe it would recall the day it nearly died and tell the story, and I could be its savior. Or more likely, it wouldn’t remember. Maybe the first death actually happens before the body leaves, and we don’t even notice.

 

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Down stellar stream

The rain is hypnotic like the static on the black and white TV I used to fall asleep to growing up. It was my first digital-assisted relaxation, when the programming ended and the Star-Spangled Banner played, and then it all went to hissy snow. Maybe they played the Star-Spangled Banner because they really thought it would end, or it just seemed like the right thing to do, last call…

Because it’s spring, the rain feels good: it’s making flowers, turning things electric green. It’s not the toxic, soul-eating rain of the fall or winter. This rain feels wholesome, restorative.

There is so much hair on the floor from the dog’s spring shedding, it collects on my wool socks like a Jim Henson character. I cradle fetal style on the couch against a seam of hair that feels like a beard. Hair gets into my wine. You can gather it by the handfuls and throw it out, but what’s the point? The kids pull it off the dog like cotton candy.

Drops collect on the edges of the new leaves and slide off, making the leaves wag like dog ears. Everything outside is sighing or lapping in the rain. Our old clock chimes, and the last toll rings out the way a ripple might, gradually thinning until it disappears back into the same space it disturbed. It seems the rain has stopped too, and the calendar says the moon is full, but we probably won’t see it tonight.

I step outside on the stoop in my socks to smell it: moss hangs thick on the eves like cartoon eyebrows. Everything good that’s happened to me is already gone. Anything ahead is ambiguous, and unknown. I bought an Irish wool cap at a store in a town called Mauch Chunk and told the clerk I lost the last one I got in Skibberreen, have you ever heard of it? She nodded, but I think she lied. The night guard I wear in sleep makes my teeth stick out and mouth pucker up like Freddy Mercury’s, and I lie there thinking that anything’s possible if only I believed.

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Call me rapture

All those sweet, heady blooms of spring came back, and outside it was warm and had just rained, it felt clammy and moist, so I got a beer and a lawn chair and collapsed into both. Dawn accumulated three heads of cauliflower in the vegetable bin bigger than most human brains, so I cut them into florets and made the fabled curried cauliflower soup, and felt at once like my mental health had returned from a two-week stint. I sautéed an onion in olive oil with flour and curry, turmeric root, added some chicken broth, boiled it for 30 minutes and then hit it with the handheld mixer, added butter, let it cool. Even the kids liked it. I served it with croutons I made from a stale seeded baguette and tossed the rest outside for the birds. Our cat was sniffing around and so were two eagles, and I thought back to an exhibit on raptors I’d seen, how they crush the organs with their talons…and what a way to go like that, carried off to some witch’s castle, some stony nest high above the earth. We celebrated our 15-year wedding anniversary at an Italian restaurant in Redmond and pledged to do it properly when we could, next month. When I woke the next morning I was sad it was over, and remembered what I could from that time on my walk to the lake but then went back to thinking about work, got Charlotte off to school, decided this will be the day I don’t take a shower, felt good about being a contractor, found a recipe on my phone, the arugula they call rocket in the UK, wrote a post on my phone, decided I’ll call it rapture.

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Outside the frame

I made plans to see friends I hadn’t seen in about 30 years, since high school. I took a Lyft to the bar and sat in a table by the front, and sent one of them a text:

Pat fell for it, and called Steve: do you think he’s serious? It would have been better if there had been a woman by the window and you sat at the bar when we came in, he said.

Then Pat texted me our class graduation photo so we could reference people while talking about them, but the resolution was so bad, I couldn’t make any of them out when I stretched their faces. It was like my memory when I tried to zoom in, it squeezed to the sides.

We drank beer and talked about our kids. And each of us went back to high school, in different ways. How much did we have beyond that? How long could it sustain us?

They remarked that it seemed like any time they came over to my house, my dad and I were always fighting; he was yelling, or telling me to turn the music down. And I saw myself through the eyes of our daughter Charlotte, and wondered how much the command and control parenting style was working with her, how she saw me.

My counselor observed, there’s a lot of anger and disappointment when you talk about your dad. She thought I should confront him on some topics when I went back to visit, and I wanted to be a good patient, to prove I could.

I sent my dad a text that I was running early, and picked him up out front. We drove the country roads through Pennsylvania Dutch farmlands to a town called Leather Corners, a Dutch bar where they play bladder fiddles (aka ‘boom-bas’) alongside the jukebox with polka versions of songs like “Let’s Go,” by The Cars. You just beat the boom-ba on the floor and hit a cow bell with a stick, and there you go: music!

Dad and I sat near the edge of the bar, that formed a square around the bartender. Though it was afternoon with good sun out, it was dark inside and they had Fox News on. There was no way I could confront my dad about anything, here. It seemed like my childhood, that thing we once shared, was better left in the past.

I told my counselor that when my parents divorced, it felt like all my childhood memories got deleted. When I went back to the physical places, the apartment where I grew up or the park across the street, the memories came rushing back. I wanted any excuse I could to feel something, so I could write about it. The worst was when the days went by unused or unnoticed, and didn’t feel like days I’d lived. And they were piling up.

How does a memoirist write memoir when you can’t remember much? Looking at old photos, like the one from our graduating class, didn’t help. It actually made the memories harder to apprehend. No, childhood memory is more about the feeling. And if you can get to that, there may be a story hiding in the feelings, outside the frame. Memory is in the sense, not the words: in feelings of joy, hate, and fear…rarely caught on film.

My friends and I said goodbye, and I caught a Lyft to another bar before heading home. It used to be an Irish place called JP O’Malleys or something, and the last time I was there was 1998. I couldn’t remember any of it. I was the only one there and got the sense they wanted to close. Outside, it was warm enough I could walk but wasn’t sure I knew the way, or if it was safe. Places don’t remember you, and the sentiment goes only one way. We are all just passing through. Best to be kind to everyone you meet, if that’s how you want to be remembered.

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What was left

What was left in Charlotte’s bowl wasn’t worth saving. But I ate it on principle, so it wouldn’t go to waste. And there was an analogy in that, to going back to my hometown for our annual visit, gumming the edges of my childhood. The look of the sentimental, the look of ‘wist,’ that reeks of regret, scant life. It’s the look of an empty glass, a bowl of dead roses, what’s left.

I stank bad when we got on the plane, really bad. I felt swollen and fat with bad hair, and needed a shave. My feet stank, my arm pits stank, and my breath stank from airport beer and fish tacos, Baja sauce. I felt old and flabby like I needed a wash, but nothing I could do would make me feel clean.

We touched up from Newark and looked down on the canals like earth worms below, like brain segments, intestines. Baseball fields, seaports, ribbed water, tug boats. I had no sentiment for it. Lily sat next to me reading, bouncing her legs, chewing gum, wearing a beanie and headphones, happy. I looked at the drink card trying to decide what to get. And played back the days, a hierarchy of stops hurrying from place to place, trying to make up for lost time.

My mom’s 81-year-old brother Dave, a three-hour drive smack dab in the middle of the state, possibly the hardest ride to keep awake, even during the day. Dave’s blind poodle Casper, eyes red and zombie-like: better to get them sewn shut, the doctor said. Dave microwaving hot dogs for the four of us, butterflying them down the middle, offering three choices for dessert, whipped cream. And just like he did when I was a little boy, he gave my kids a 20 on the way out.

My other uncle Jim, my dad’s brother: alone in a trailer home near the state park where he once worked. Calling Jim to confirm our arrival time, the care with which he gave directions even though I told him I’ll use the navigator. Don’t deny men in our family their right to give directions. No navigator can be as precise, or loving in detail.

Jim’s trailer is a tribute to my grandparents with the poster board of my grandmother from her funeral still featured, a set of gloves and hats on the coffee table my grandfather wore as if they’d just been used. Jim says that men are more prone to getting sentimental with age, more emotional, and we all nod in agreement, and say no more on the subject.

I find the most recent photo with our family, wearing a shirt I still have though the photo must be several years old. The queer acknowledgment of time’s toll on us, how deep it cuts. Dropping my dad off at his house, and catching him in the rear view mirror as I pulled away. Going back to the apartment where I grew up and walking across the field where we kicked the soccer ball, feeling nothing: perhaps, at last, it’s time to move on.

Lily asked if we could go to the Starbucks on our last morning, and if I could drive around so she could see more of Allentown. I said this was one of the first alternative records I ever got, when I was about your age (“Gene Loves Jezebel”). She smiles politely, and I let it go at that.

When we’re back in Seattle, the kids go right to their rooms but I stay up with a beer and a candle, playing the classical radio station. I’ve reset the clocks and turned the heat back on, checked if any of the plants need watering.

In just a week away, spring has brought the leaves on with heavy rains and longer days. Our sheets smell musty from disuse, but I imagine the house is happy to have us home. There’s the sound of bath water running in the morning, and music from one of the kids’ rooms. So much left, I remind myself. Time to make plans for the day.

 

 

 

 

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