"You know what, Dad? I don't want to talk about that shit. So, either you don't talk about it, or I'm leaving!"
The people all around us in the Mexican restaurant where we were dining turned to see what the fuss was all about. I stared back angrily at each intruding pair of eyes until they turned back and pretended to fiddle with the rice and beans on their plates. They were still listening though, their ears on the side of their head that faced us were clearly sending out little radar signals as their spouses nudged at their feet beneath the tables.
We had been having good time reminiscing about things. Then Deja told me about a conversation that her sister Casey had had with their mother before her mother passed away. Deja told me that as her mother lay dying she had made Casey a promise to contact her somewhere from the great beyond. Casey had her doubts of course and expressed them to her mother. Jennie was very close to the end, but had managed to squeeze her hand and hoarsely whisper, "I love you and your sister so much, I know that I can do it."
Casey was weeping when she told Deja about the incident, "I asked her, 'How, Mom? How you gonna do it? What if you can't write or phone me; what if they don't have phones there, or paper?"
She then said that Jenny had thought about it a while before she answered in another hoarse whisper, "The lights, honey, I'll do something with the lights."
I was thinking about the possibility of communicating across the great divide when a well-known political figure appeared on the television on the wall behind Deja's head. I absentmindedly said something derogatory about the politician. I had forgotten the one rule we had about conversing which was never talk about politics. We were both tired after coming from the hospital and visiting my mom who had fallen and broken her hip. In a matter of seconds, we went from talking and laughing amicably into a full scale political argument.
I looked at the fire burning in Deja's eyes and instinctively tried to calm her down. I got six words in, really just two, 'calm down' repeated three times, before my own fire roared to life. I stood up, pulled a hundred dollar bill out of my wallet, and slammed it down on the table.
"I'm your father. I brought your ass into this world, and it wasn't so that you can tell me in a crowded restaurant at the top of your damn voice, what I can and I cannot say. . . . Be safe going home." And just like that I was out of there but not before unleashing my ire on the fat, bald headed man staring through the colorful flowers and the green ferns that sat upon the divider wall, "Eat your Goddamn beans, asshole."
I slowed down while walking toward my car on the other side the dark parking lot hoping that she would hurry out and stop me. She didn't, so I unlocked the door and threw myself into the driver's seat. I sat there in stunned silence for a second, leaned backwards into the seat, relaxed my shoulders, and took two long centering breaths, exhaling each slowly. I started the car and looked into the mirror, still hoping to catch the image of her running toward me, or at least coming around the corner looking somewhat sad and remorseful.
I heard the tires crunching on the pebbles mixed with dirt when I put the car into drive and pulled out onto the road heading for home, a house once so full of life, but now that Jennie had left and the kids moved off often seemed as dark and forbidding as a dimly lit parking garage. I turned the stereo on; I had been listening to Boz Scaggs Loan Me Dime when I had parked a little over an hour ago; I turned the volume up to fifty and drove away, staring at the white lines in the road and at the inroads that my headlights made into the darkness while trying hard not to think about anything.
There was the part of the long guitar solo in the song where Duane Allman pleads with the all-mighty Deity to take notice of his plight down here on earth. Every time I hear that guitar plead it causes me to shudder. I knew it was coming up soon, and it would be the perfect soundtrack for where my head was at, a muddled state where I was begging for God or anybody else to loan me a fucking dime if the dime was a metaphor for some simple peace of mind. Lord knows I ain't had much of that since Jennie had left. Then one night she up and died on me, and well before I had had time to adjust to living without her. Maybe that dime that Boz Skaggs was crying about represented some kind of personal salvation, and I could use some of that shit too.
The shudder happened while I was passing under the overpass on 10th Street, and emerged on the other side with the contents of single fucking tear collecting in the corner of my right eye. I caught it just in time and pushed it gently back into place just below the rim. I don't know why I always prided myself on such stupid shit, but keeping my facial features free from moisture while the storms raging inside my head were erasing coastlines and threatening all my structures and sanctuaries, is a trait that I've always held as a high, if somewhat meaningless, priority.
Driving, I began to realize that I didn't really know when or where the cultural divide between my daughters and I began. I guessed it was probably when they were born. It seemed to me that each successive generation felt that it was their responsibility to point out the flaws in its predecessor's actions and point of view. I remember several loud arguments at my parent's kitchen table when I believed that I was right about the Vietnam conflict and was equally as certain that my father was wrong. I still don't think that we got it right. we just tired of the argument. I also remember just how wrong I was about a lot of things that I thought were true at the time. I listened to a lot of people who felt no shame about telling me lies rather than to listen to my parent's who I knew, rightly or wrongly, always had my best interests at heart.
I remember read a quote somewhere that basically said that what we lose as we age is not so much our physical strength and dexterity as it is our illusions. I witnessed this as my own parents aged. They took to going to McDonald's everyday where they sat and laughed and conversed with people from every different persuasion, people they never socialized with before. They all had differences too, mainly about religion and politics, but they had also decided to put aside the things that made them different and concentrated on the things that made them similar, and came to value each other's presence more than anything else.
I admit that I worry a lot about my daughters and their generation. On the whole, they seem to be a lot less forgiving than we were. All people are flawed, it is the nature of our being, but we also overcome our flaws as we age. This seems to be the purpose of human life. I know that there are just as many good people in every generation, and that things will most likely all work out in the end. Yet, I also think that are a damn sight more snakes crawling around in the the Garden of this modern age than there were in the days of Adam and Eve and look how that turned out.
Most people like to talk and a great many of them like to lie as much as they talk. There are those who have been tainted by the actions of their fore bearers, and and somehow that stain got written into their code. A lot of us have spent lifetimes working to erase and rewrite the code, but others, could care less, and just go with what had been written. These are also those whose ability to empathize has been broken by the time, setting, relationships, and obstacles which prevent them from achieving the desired wholeness that can only be accessed by gaining true knowledge of the self, people without hope, driven to hurt others by a pain inside that they can never seem to soothe.
I was sitting at the intersection of Arboles and Laguna waiting for the light to change, six blocks from home when I thought that all I really wanted is for everyone I know, to beware of those who will only use their goodness for their own evil ends. The snakes are out in force; they are multitudes, starting from those who thirst for political power down to neighbors or friends who are slightly jealous of the fact that you might have a better lawn than theirs.
I remembered the Sixties when we were always told not to trust anyone over thirty. It was one of the more ignorant commands ever uttered. Yet, the media trumpeted it until it echoed in the furthest corners of the world. Any causal survey of the people and the voices who repeated this phrase ad nauseam should have been more than enough to make us aware of our foolishness, but it didn't. We never even considered then that the people behind the fraud, the ones whispering the phrase into the hungry ears of the impressionable young were probably evil, mad with power and considerably over the age of thirty. I guess in a way it's only Karma that the young don't want to listen to us now. It is also sad because many people my age paid high price to overcome our gullibility, as we learned to place more trust in the words of a scarred and filthy homeless person than a shiny new penny, freshly educated, looking for a place to bellow. The main flaw of life is that it often takes so long to for us to see if new ideas truly function any better then those that came before.
I have this little mantra that I repeat over and over in troubled times. I start with the beginning of the Lord's prayer up till the part where it says that God's will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Then I add my own part where I ask for forgiveness of all the sins clogging up my heart and brain and then ending it with, "Lord, please grant peace, love happiness, and freedom from pain and suffering to all who I have sinned against." It's mandatory that I say it three times perfectly to evoke its power and then as many times as needed until most of the violent winds of the raging storm are spent. Sometimes it works, sometimes it don't. This night, I had repeated the mantra some fifty-two times before I got home and walked into my front door.
Walking straight into the kitchen, I fixed myself a Scotch and water, took it into the den, sat down in my leather recliner, kicked off my shoes, and turned on the TV. I didn't want to focus my thoughts on anything particular, and TV is the perfect tool to achieve that state. An old Pentecostal neighbor I had as a kid once told me that TV antennas were the sign of the devil, 'The Devil's Cross' he used to say. I used to laugh at the notion a lot. Nowadays, though, I'm not so sure. In these days of sorrowful thinking and searching for meaning, I sometimes worry that the process of me gaining entrance into Heaven wherever that might be, could involve taking the amount of time I've spent in front of a TV screen watching pure stupidity unfold and dividing it by the times I actually did something good. I was five minutes into watching a repeat of an episode of Two and Half Men when my mind grew hazy and stumbled upon a memory of a dog, the only animal I had ever loved, a poodle my aunt had gave us that she had named Peter after an old flame.
Me and my brothers quickly renamed him Petey; he was a small black, shaggy little thing, but a purebred poodle, a type of dog that was about as out of place in the shabby little neighborhood we lived in on the south side of Concord as I would be standing on the Champ de Elysees picking my nose.
My aunt had to move from one apartment to another where pets were not a part of the plan. When she dropped him off, he looked like a little sissy ass poodle with his sides all perfectly trimmed and little puffs of hair on his hips and shoulders, the top of his head, and even on his tail. My dad, a dust bowl Okie, wasn't much on spending money on what he considered unnecessary things, such as hair styling for pets. My brothers and I eyed the dog anxiously and thought to ourselves, "Damn, Petey, you going to have to get used to another style."
He did though. It was like that damn dog had read himself some Darwin. It was kind of like he knew that if he waltzed around the Southside of Concord like he did at my Aunt's fancy apartment in Bakersfield, he was going to get his ass chewed cleared off and made some required adjustments. Hell, none of them other dogs out there even knew what a poodle was, or anything about hair styling for dogs for that matter. Our previous dog for example, only had one good eye, the other had been damaged in a fight and looked like a big slimy purple marble. Other kids, while walking home from school, would often pull up to our fence and stare at Mikey the Bulldog like he was a circus freak.
Mikey didn't want to do nothing but play catch, and once you threw him that saliva covered, chewed-up, green tennis ball, you were going to have to keep throwing it until you went back in the house. He would go fetch it and drop it at your feet and wait, staring at you with that big ugly eye until you picked it up and threw it again. I used to look out from the picture window when he got back from chasing the long throw I used to buy time to scamper into the house and see him sitting in front of the door with the ball at his feet waiting for me to throw it again.
It was the first lesson that I learned in life about the importance of misplaced trust. Well, maybe not the first. We had a green and yellow parakeet once also given to us by the same aunt who had given us the poodle. We had sure had a lot of fun with that parakeet and thought that he loved being with us enough so that we could trust him to fly about the living room while we cleaned his cage and not fly out the door the first time it was opened. I've often wondered about what happened to the parakeet, but in the back of my mind, I've always realized that a brightly colored parakeet of independent thinking had about as much a chance of finding true happiness on the south side of Concord as a fancy poodle with his hair all did.
It wasn't real long though before Petey the Poodle took over the neighborhood. He was kind of like that dog Tramp in the Disney movie. Or, maybe even more like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Elvis or somebody in one of those teen movies where they would put the main character in the middle of a place where the all the other boys didn't like him at first and the girls were all curious about where he got his fancy moves and hair done. Then before long all the girls were clamoring for his body and he did something like won a game of chicken or something that wins all the boys over. Before a month was out, Petey came home with some dog buddies and the all of the girl dogs on the block started sashaying by our yard swishing their tails like they were chasing flies.
I'll tell you straight up and up front that Petey the Poodle was the only pet I've ever loved. I know this says a lot about me too. A lot of people go through many dogs in a lifetime. Not me. It was way too much of an emotional investment. It was like the idea of me remarrying. I don't think I could ever love like that again.
Petey wasn't just any dog though; he was my confidant and someone who never criticized me even once, and he was always there when I needed him. All the other people living on the block liked him too. I would come out of the door and look down the block and see him sitting outside with Mrs. Sears as she shelled peas and talked his ear off, or hear old Pancho Rios chasing him off while yelling "Pinche pendejo, Petey!" whenever he caught Petey flirting with his beloved chihuahua Rosie.
At the rear of our house there was a single step leading out of the back door unto a large six by eight foot plain concrete slab. Petey and I used to sit there on Saturday mornings and watch the sun rise over the line of tall ash trees that dominated our neighbor's large lot. The sunrises of my youth were glorious mixtures of pinks, oranges, blues, and yellow that reminded me a lot of the vibrant colors used in cinematography of The Wizard of Oz movie with Judy Garland. We would just sit out there, just the two of us, basking in the warmth of the morning sun as contented as we could be.
On some mornings, we would flip the script and sit in the shade in the front of the house. I would put my shoes on and start to plan my day. Petey's buddies would start coming and try to get him to go do some dog things, but as long as I was there, he was cool and would just nod at them as if to tell them, "I'll catch you later. I'm hanging with Danny right now."
And when I left, he would go about his business and not wait outside like Mikey did when he would sit and wonder who was going to throw his tennis ball. That always impressed me about Peter, I mean the way that he always had his own shit to do and didn't have to depend on anybody else. He would come rolling back home about the same time that I did every evening when I returned from the playing fields of the nearby elementary school. Then we would eat and watch TV. Petey usually sat on the couch next to my mom, and sometimes between her and dad.
My parents were never very demonstrative when it came to showing their affections. At least, that's the way it seemed to me at the time when I started noticing such things. It never occurred to me that there was any history involved in the matter. I never once thought about all the roots of all things, of the painful lessons or the joys, or the wounds and the scars, or the shattered bone or the even the delights of holding someone in the dark and knowing that you were not alone in the world. It seemed to me that life was always being shaped mainly by the exigencies of the here and now and the demands that the future placed upon it. I never did learn how to be demonstrative in love.
My mom ran over Petey one night, killing him instantly while he was sleeping in a rut behind the left rear tire of the family car. My brother Cody and I got the news when we walked in the front door of the house and found my dad sitting on the sofa crying. My dad never cried. I will never hear the phrase, "There was great weeping and a gnashing of teeth," without thinking about that horrible night. Dad buried Petey in the northeast corner of our yard and placed a small concrete slab over his grave to mark the spot. The slab is still there. It has aged badly.
I learned in one swift, violent, stroke, that the things you love the most always pass away. It was such a brutal knowledge to thrust upon the shoulders of a skinny, twelve year old just beginning to come into his own. My life began in earnest that day. All the Saturday sunrise mornings disappeared, or maybe I just simply started to feel had I didn't have any time to waste on such things; I can't remember which. I do know that it's really a pretty fucking sad thing to realize that you haven't silently sat and watched the sun come up since you were twelve years old. It's kind of like not having a memory of playing catch with your dad, or having developed a fear of deep water because your best friend drowned the summer before you crossed town to attend middle school with a bunch of kids you didn't even know at the same time that you were also learning what a jockstrap was and how unruly facial blemishes behaved. Life dropped a whole shitload of stink bombs on me when I was young. Surviving adolescence was a hard and often mythic experience, a hero quest where the hero wore a mask of painted cardboard, wielded an imaginary sword, carried a dented shield made of youthful sarcasm and was driven only by a steadfast determination to get the hell out of that forest before the wolves ate him down to the bone. I had a lot friends who never stumbled out of the forest, eaten by wolves I can only assume.
I have since come to believe that that period of my life explains a lot about all of my relationships afterwards. I always held the people I loved the most at a short distance afraid that life would catch them sleeping in a rut behind the left rear tire. When Deja and her sister Casey were changing from toddlers into awkward young girls, I was inwardly confused and conflicted because even though I knew it was only a natural transition, there were such sweet parts of them being left behind in the process. They were such beautiful babies and are still very much the same beautiful people that they have always been, but life moves on much in the way of how rosebuds turn to bloom. I have to squint my eyes at times and dig down deep into the shadows of the past in order to remember for only the briefest of moments that perfect innocent beauty of the bud before it bloom. I say briefly because it hurts way too much to linger.
Things always get left behind as rivers flow to the sea, and it gets to a point where we fail to even notice what has been jettisoned upon our journey. Then later, we are told by people, the spiritual ones, the ones who act like they are above the fray, and who pretend to know that it's all just an illusion anyway and the only thing that really matters is that final commingling of waters at the end.
Though we have this tendency to forget, there is always the history of the roots, the knowing of the sweetness, and the memories of the suffering where great lessons are once explained, painfully learned, and then locked away into darkened places only to be summoned forth in times of our utmost despair. There are always going to be those litanies of scars and shattered bone, and prayers broken by the distractions of daily living that usually emerge in our garbled grumblings, "Our Father who art in Heaven. . . . Damn it! Use your fucking blinkers, Dumbass. ..... Lord, grant peace, love, happiness, and freedom from pain and suffering to all who I have sinned against...Get the hell out of the way motherfucker; you ain't supposed to be sightseeing on a highway."
The memory of Petey's death strangely made me think of the image of my dad kneeling down and scratching the words, "Petey Our Beloved Puppy," into the wet cement slab he had placed on the dog's grave and then just as quickly, that old memory morphed in the newer memory of my brothers and I standing at the side of my father's grave. I had thought of Petey's funeral on that day too, wondering who had etched the words into my father's headstone. It was a cold, breezy day the middle of an unusually warm Autumn. My brother Cody had selected Elvis's Peace in the Valley as the music marking the end of the ceremony.
My childhood friend Hobo, real name Larry, came up afterwards and hugged me tightly. He whispered, "Did you pick out that damn music?"
"Naw. That was Cody's idea. He loves Elvis, man. He'd sang it hisself if we'd let em."
Hobo pulled back and said earnestly, "Good fucking choice though. I always said that if'n the King can't break you down, you can't be fucking broken down."
I laughed, "Shit, fool. Don't be making me laugh. It's my dad's funeral for Christ's sake." I then thought about it a minute then said, "Hell, the song was a lot better than that damn preacher though."
"Ain't that the damn truth! Where did you guys get that mealy mouth motherfucker, out the Yellow Pages? Sound like he was trying to sell us a car."
I laughed again, "Knock it off, I said. Damn, dude. Jennie said that if we used Old Penrose she wouldn't even come. Glen came up with this dude."
Hobo pulled a package of Marlboros out of his shirt pocket, lit a one, and exhaled slowly, "Well you know what they always say. Same shit, different suit."
Hobo invited me over to his house to burn a doobie. I remembered looking over my shoulder toward where Jennie and kids were talking with her mother and sister and weighing the consequences awhile before answering, "Hell, if a man can't get a bit twisted the day he buries his dad, what the hell he good for?" To this day, I don't know if it was a valid response. And I mean that in terms of the overall moral value of the decision. All I know was that I didn't want to face a whole bunch of sad looking well-wishers telling me the same damned thing over and over.
I remember the day mainly though, not because we buried my dad, but because when I pulled up in front of my mom's house about an hour later, twelve-year-old Deja flew out of the front door followed by a tiny Casey and came running down the sidewalk yelling, "Daddy, come quick! Uncle Cody's out back fighting with the preacher!"
Sitting there watching television, a lot crazy shit ran through my mind, and in a moment of clarity, I came to an understanding that all I really wanted from life was to be living on the same side of the river as all my dearest people before I left this earthly plane and for those I love, who, still fishing in the hurried waters trying to find some deeper meaning in the gifted bread to understand that that little distance I always kept between us was more out of concern for their own safety than my own.
I finally fell asleep after midnight and went somewhere altogether different in my head. It was a strange, colorful, enchanted place full of mystery and weird people. I never knew where I was at any time. It looked a lot like the south side of Concord, but had rows of city trees and skyscrapers and the damned Thames River flowing right through the middle of it all. I remember stopping to get my bearings and to purchase an expresso at a small sidewalk cafe in front of the Eiffel Tower. Robert Mitchum was with me for some reason but not saying a whole bunch of anything when suddenly Pee Wee Herman came up on us and started acting a fool and jabbering at us in French. I was urgently looking around for something and didn't have the faintest clue as to what it might be. Then the phone rang.
"Hi, Dad. It's me Deja. I was worried about you and wanted to check on you to see if you made it home okay."
"I'm fine, Kiddo. How about you?"
"I'm good, Dad. It's funny though, ever since I've been home, my dang ceiling light's been acting up."