I know grief. He and I are on a first name basis, his is George. We are always talking about some weird shit or the other.
"Hey, George. How you doing today?"
He always shrugs first thing. It drives me nuts. He always looks at me all serious like Jason Robards looked in All The President's Men. He shrugs, then attempts a sad ass smile that ends up looking like he just bit through the sugar coating of dog turd. He then raises his hand up sideways and shakes it twice and says, "Meh."
He stands behind me when I shave, frowning like I'm doing something wrong. He is the single most, stupid ass, lying, conniving, piece of shit, sorry excuse I know, and in this pandemic era where your willingness to lie can make you the leader of the free world, that's setting the bar pretty fucking high. But I can't ever seem to break it off our relationship because every so often he reveals the truth in ways that no-one else can.
This morning I got up and started reading Joan Didion's novel Play It as It Lays which one critic described as being a ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s. The book is about the main character's relation with her own grief. She gets up in the morning and relentlessly drives the highways around Southern California in search of things to make her forget the fact that her mother died alone in a car wreck and was partially devoured by coyotes before they discovered her body. The main character was partying with a rich boyfriend when it happened.
I've done that, not the rich boy friend partying, but the relentless driving. My father, and my wife had died and God punished my failures as a husband by giving me tinnitus, a classroom full of kids lacking self-control, and a sense of hopelessness that often resembled a tear-stained photograph of a harsh Martian landscape.
That's the thing. Grief always hangs out with these two wormy little fucks named Guilt and Self-Loathing. They always show up late and ring the door bell and wave around an empty bottle of Champagne and say let's party while they're standing there in your doorway, but the moment you let them in, they gang up on you and make you feel like shit.
One summer, I drove from Tehachapi to Merced along the eastern edge of the valley, sometimes with my mom in tow, trying to keep from thinking too much, always hoping that what I discovered on such journeys would be so new and important that it would wipe away the bloody footprints and chalk outlines of the past. The road trips never did help that much, but the demands of the unknown road ahead sometimes kept me from staring too hard at the image in the rear-view mirror.
This morning I got up feeling more than a little discouraged. I read the book I mentioned for an hour and only put it down when the insanity of the main character's outlook on her grief filled life started sounding suspiciously like my own. I went to get another book from the back seat of my car and I found a funeral announcement from a funeral I had recently attended and spoken at. I saw the date under the picture; she was barely 30 years old and was known throughout our small community as someone who had decided to fill her short life with as much love, live, and purpose as she could muster. I think of her like one of those movie characters who put way too much stuff in their suitcase, then have to sit on it to try to make it shut. Her attitude was summed up in the term Beast Mode.
I saw her smiling in the picture and got pissed off at myself for feeling down just because I pretend to have the luxury to waste my time that way. I went in the house and did a sink full of dishes, cleaned my toilet bowl, and washed and vacuumed my car, things I had been neglecting to do. It helped. Doing the things you need to do are often just as vital as love and laughter. Feeling sorry your self is not.
I read now with the same urgency like I once drove across the valley floor in an endless search of shit that I can use to blot out the memories of my shortcomings, flaws, and moral lapses. Someday, I would like to get to the point in the story where on some lost, desert highway I come face to face with a long gray haired, bearded, shabby looking stranger drinking water from a burlap covered glass jug, smoking a Salem. Someone who looks and sounds a lot like Sam Eliot.
I would pull over and park on the other side of the road, look over at my mom and tell her I needed to talk to this fella, and I would be right back. Then I would get out and slow strut to where he sat on a rock covered with a red and blue Navajo blanket, and I would say,
"What can you tell me, man? I read a lot of books and traveled miles and miles both inside and out, fought off demons, and bled real blood. I've come so far to talk to you. I wouldn't even have even known which way to come, but I saw the mark you made on that stop sign back at the four corners. I could really need use some help, Man. Not knowing is driving me crazy."
The man would look me over, take a long drag off his Salem, exhale the smoke making it form a series of concentric rings and then take a drink from his jug, and I would notice that it looked like water coming out of the bottle's mouth, but turned into a dark, red wine as it seeped out of the corners of his mouth. He would burp and mumble, "That's some good shit," and drag his sleeve over his mouth to wipe it. Then he would tell me, "You got every thing you need in that there car, son, your mama, some good books, and a tank of gas. I can only assume you got a CD player playing Kind of Blue and a good GPS app?" I would look at him like of course and on cue Mile's coolest riff from Freddie Freeloader would float out of the car's open windows.
At this point, I would get mad, It would develop slowly as I checked off all of the shortcomings of the unresolved situation, and truth be told, the anger was really being fed by a sense of frustration, the kind that comes from knowing that I was no closer to any kind of permanent understanding than I was when I first started asking why. I would stare at the stranger with great disappointment, both hands open, facing upwards and outstretched and hanging in the air, a gesture of irrational, disbelief, "That's it? After all that driving down dust, deserts roads? Swimming in rivers of ice? All the searching, the thinking, the arguments and face slaps? The saliva on the front of the shoes? After the dark thoughts, the reading, the rereading, the situational compromises? That's it? That's really all you got to offer?"
He chuckled as he pulled a strand of long white hair behind his right ear, then pointed his finger at me and smiled with a big, ass goofy grin. "One other thing; son, you gotta get rid of those three little assholes you've been hanging with a lot."
"You know, Grief and his buddies."
"But how? How do I do that?"
He reached down on the other side of the rock and pulled up a dust covered, white painted board. He blew the dust off and handed it to me, "Hang this sign over your door."
I looked at the sign; it had a big picture of the sun rising carved in the wood and colored red and yellow. And in big blue letters, it said, "No Grief Allowed Here. Get Your Sorry Ass to Stepping!"
I would look at the sign, think about it a bit, and after a while I would arrive at a unique understanding. I would suddenly realize that it was the Monday after Easter Sunday. That would be enough to send me into a short trance-like state as I tried to place the realization into some category where I could process it, and I would smile and nod at the guy, looking somewhat like a lunatic, I would look back to check the anxiety level of my mom, turn back, grab the sign with both hands, and run quickly back to the car, carrying the sign, eager to show it to my mom.