Almost three weeks into autumn and the cooling world around me feels neither young nor old—more like middle aged. The full heads of the trees are changing color, their leaves loosening one-by-one, floating to the ground; some are receding more rapidly, balding early, revealing secrets kept since the budding, sweet-candied youth of spring: empty nests.
Early in the morning; a hint of mint toothpaste on my tongue, fresh black coffee on my breath, and several vanishing summers on my mind. The long, slow, steady stride of my beat-up boots clomp out an easy rhythm like a metronome—clip-clop, clip-clop, down a concrete sidewalk—through a neighborhood that isn’t mine; a lovely place with huge Barbie Doll houses, manicured lawns, and inflatable Halloween decorations—completely flaccid at the moment—witches, ghouls, and goblins waiting for the night, when they will suddenly pump up again, playful, bouncy and tight, entertaining the children but never scaring them.
This is more than a walk; it’s a James Joyce inspired stream of consciousness: random thoughts floating on Autumn’s gentle breeze, filling my emotional sails, pushing me farther along, often surprising me, taking me somewhere special, backward or forward, to people and places almost forgotten or not yet known. This magical stream sometimes takes me mercilessly deep, questions my wavering faith, explores my fears, ponders the years, taps the hidden well of my tears, so salty whenever it overflows, stinging my eyes, trickling down my cheeks. For instance, at a ball diamond, where my father suddenly appeared, teaching me how to swing a bat. I was only ten years old and summer tanned. I ran to him with arms open wide! Then he was gone. Poof. Just like that. I stood there, motionless, for a long while; in real time, I was a forty-five-year-old adult, feeling crazy, with mosquito repellent assaulting the nostrils of my memory. I remember when he left us, without warning, how my mother wept for him, emitting a sound I’ve never heard in all my life and hope to never hear again, like all the deepest sorrows of the universe combined and placed into a single, tightened, female larynx; an atomic bomb of instantaneous, unbelievable grief, an unexpected pulse of heat so hot that it melts human flesh and bone in an instant, producing a mushroom cloud that covers and darkens the heart, leaving a disconsolate void for years and years to come; on that day, my mother sounded on my behalf: the unique noise she made was the dark blue, almost black, unrecordable whale song of my permanently broken heart. I don’t believe that most parents ever really, truly know the depth of love their children—prodigal or not—carry with them to the grave, a permanent ache in our bosom, maybe only slightly dulled by surrogates (if we’re lucky) who fall short of the real thing. Steri-Strips on a gaping wound.
Yes, sometimes the stream of consciousness is a stormy riptide, an undertow of unguarded thoughts—or a giant swallowing fish—pulling me, another Jonah, into the murkier, colder depths of my past, causing me to call out to God, begging Him for a do-over. Eventually, I’m vomited back onto the sunshiny shores of the present moment, choking and weeping like a bastard. Either I’m staring at an empty Word document on my laptop or maybe I’m just standing in a park or along a river or somewhere, a time traveler, deliciously alone. But it’s regularly necessary for me to defragment the files of my past or someone else’s and concatenate all the life-changing moments and decisions, to free up some mental space, and make some sort of sense of it all. Crafting honest sentences. Searching for the happily ever after. Which seems very possible on this crisp morning.
I remember reading something Carl Sandburg once wrote, how he was “foolish about windows.” This neighborhood is full of windows and writers are peeping Tom’s.
It’s the simple things that capture my attention. Pancakes smothered in butter, sitting in a puddle of maple syrup. Nat King Cole singing, Autumn Leaves. Dogs barking in the yard. Families waking. Children already bouncing on a trampoline. A copy of John Updike swinging on a hammock. The morning coming alive. This present moment—the NOW—is pulling me out of the quicksand of the unchangeable. Like a screen door opening and the scent of bacon reaching my nose. A man with terrible bedhead, the shadow of an incoming beard, and morning breath nods at me. “Hey, pal,” he says. Oblivious to my watching eyes, he turns, yawns, stretches, and scratches the striped thigh of his pajama pants. He bends; half his hairy crack is showing, not quite a full moon, but close enough. He groans and reaches past an impossibly huge beer belly for a daily paper that is full of words and sentences. It’s the comic section he’s after. He’s the real-life version of what causes him to laugh. What he doesn’t know is that he’s a delightful part of my morning and has made me smile. Some good deeds go unnoticed, even by the person performing them.
A booger-eyed poodle is arching her trembling back, pushing out Tootsie Roll turds onto the lawn of house #138. The Clawson’s. The red flag is up on their mailbox. Plop, plop, plop. One, two, three. The look on pup Clawson’s face is one of humiliation. I can’t imagine having to defecate on my lawn in front of everyone. Suddenly, I’m extra thankful for the luxury of toilets and human dignity. The dog scratches the grass with her hind legs. I don’t know why little dogs perform that ritual; maybe it’s their version of flushing or—maybe—she’s imitating what the master of the house will do when he gets poo on his shoe.
One last swig of coffee. I need some more. I really do.
I’m entranced by random thoughts, walking without actually seeing what’s in front of my eyes. Until I come to a silent pool covered with a black tarpaulin. Deadpool, I think. Only yesterday children splashed here. Time is a tricky mother beeper. Happiness is like a camera flash, a transient still shot. Pain and sorrow have the power to stop the clock. Reality bites like an alligator, pulling a boy from the grip of his loving parents, while Hansel and Gretel always escape a cannibal. Humans need fairy tales where evil doesn’t win (unless you’re the Gingerbread Man, poor fellow); but the writers write stories that way, to keep the readers sane. The child locked deep inside of all of us needs to feel safe at night, warm and cozy under the covers, with the conviction that Little Red Riding Hood was never in any real danger to begin with, but only always the wolf. We need happy endings.
We need God. Where is God? Isn’t He the Divine Author? A disturbing question: does heaven need hell? Does the light always need the darkness? May His all-knowing pen scratch a better story for me. May God guide us all into the way everlasting.
A cardinal, bright as my shame, is sitting on a limb. I wish I were a bird. Animals are free. But I have a soul. There’s no such thing as “free will” because every free will is in bondage to it’s own selfish desires and harmful impulses, a monster with real teeth, not the inflatable kind.
I whisper a prayer, asking forgiveness. I say it even louder the second time. “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” My heart is screaming that God doesn’t hear me anymore. I’ve sinned more than seventy-times seven. My grace tank is empty.
I wish I had some brandy; that would be dandy. I once knew a boy named Randy.
Twenty minutes later, I arrive at the city park. An old man with kyphosis and a crooked walking stick to match, is going at a snail’s pace. A female jogger wearing Lululemon passes him; the old man experiences a resurrection; he’s instantly alert as a twenty-year-old.
The sun reflects off the vibrating hood of a green tractor that is obviously in need of a tune-up; a tattooed park employee in a vinegary, sweat-stained T-shirt is cutting acres of lawn, imagining himself as a hockey star and dreaming of naked women; he won’t have to perform this task much longer, it’s the end of mowing season. But I enjoy the bleeding blades of grass. I close my eyes and inhale. The same memory. Love in a wild field. Hot skin pressed against hot skin. Honeysuckle tasty as breastmilk. Warm breath, distinctly hers, ozone before the storm. Shampooed hair. The wetness of her mouth drying on mine after we kissed goodbye; I could smell her even as I turned into the wind and walked away, love burning like hard whiskey under my sternum. Life is full of goodbyes but, the strange thing is, humans never really leave each other. We are always returning in our minds. Like elephants, we never forget the good times or the bad. I wonder how many times I’ve relived my life, watching different episodes over and over: drama, adventure, romance, comedy, horror. I don’t believe in reincarnation, so I force myself to remember everything a hundred times or more, trying to get it right this one time around.
I come to an empty bleacher. I sit on the topmost seat, brace my feet, and perform twenty thoughtful, slow, well-executed, reverse sit ups. Finally, with my abdominals on fire, I hang upside down like a bat and the world appears how it feels to me sometimes. Blood rushes to my head. I sit up straight again, dizzy, euphoric. Ready to write.