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January – Maisons Laffitte under snow.

February – He who jumps off bridges in Paris is in Seine.

March – Arthur leaps skyward.

April – Cinque Terre, Italy. Hiking… it’s only walking… for 7 hours. Bring proper footwear and a bottle of water.

May – Sunset over North Lake, Grand Junction, Michigan.

June – Late night lights on the expressway, Chicago.

July – Urban spelunking, Gary, Indiana.

August – Bean time, Chicago.

September – Welcome to the new bookshop, Austin, Texas.

October – Dim lights for Halloween.

November – This caused injury. Most initiations do.

December – Five days of a white Christmas. New Years Day in short sleeves.

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We had met through mutual friends.  She asked me to show him around, that he had just gotten here.  We walked around the Latin Quarter, saw Shakespeare and Company and he bought a chwarma sandwich near Notre Dame.  By the St. Michel Fountain, the young philosopher got deep. 

“I’m an American in exile,” he says to me. 

“Who kicked you out?” I ask.

“Everyone, man.  That whole country is just backwards.”

“California is still on the west coast, right?”

“Naw man.  I’m talking about the people.  No one talks anymore.  There’s no discussion.  There’s just the arguing and the defending of some idealistic vision of the world.”

“Do you ask questions?”

“I’ve given up, man.  But this is it.  This is Paris!  You know?  The river, the lights, this place moves.  People embrace life.  It isn’t like that in the States.”

“So you’ve given up and exiled yourself?”

“The way I see it, there is a difference between a traveler and a tourist,” he says to me.  “A tourist has an agenda.  I am not tourist.”

“That’s good.”

And he goes on, telling me his woes, of his one-way ticket, the Russians in the hostel.  He stares out over the river and tells me about Notre Dame at night.  “It’s just so amazing,” he says.  It is then that I notice a dog shivering on the corner of the bridge, no one near him.  The dog looks up at passersby, almost looking for eye contact with each, and each walks past the dog, as if the dog were… human, I think to myself, until finally, a teenager stops, looks at the dog, and sits next to the dog, their bodies touching.  He smiles down and the dog looks up.  He lays a hand on the dog and then slowly, the shivering stops.

“People in America just don’t take time to look anymore,” he says to me.  “You know?”

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My sister’s child, my nephew, he gets in moods for days where everything is terrible.  He says that he hates all the food you offer to him.  He hates his favorite movie.  His bed is too small, or too big.  Those windows are too open and he is too hot, or too cold.  It is impossible to convince him of the possible merit of anything.  My sister says she feels like that, now.  She tells me this on the phone.  We are five minutes away from one another and talk on the phone every night.  That part is new. 

“I simply feel restless.” I tell her.  “But it’s not the sort restlessness that causes me to buy plane tickets or throw away half my boxes in storage.  It’s not the restlessness that gets piles of years of photos sorted or CDs alphabetized.  I find myself a half hour into multiple movies, half way through multiple books.  My kitchen table is covered in enrollment papers never sent in, fully filled out, but never sent in; cooking classes, yoga, wine tasting, dog training classes, and I don’t even have a dog.”

“Oh, you’re getting a dog?” she says.  “I hear that is suppose to be therapeutic.”

“I read something like that too.”

 

I cook grand dinners for myself because it is something to do and I barely eat any, yet there is still never enough time in a day.  There is always the next five minutes that are far more important than right now, yet never quite happen.  The future tense is tough.

 

I dusted twice this week, everything in the house.

 

My sister says she wants to come over more but cannot get herself to leave the house.  “Not that I can stand it any longer inside,” she tells me.  But she never leaves.

“Not even for shopping,” she says.

“Yeah.  Retail therapy.” I say, not knowing what I mean.

 

We make lots of non-committal plans, a lot of sometime-next-weeks, but always have the phone to our ears.  I have her programmed on my speed dial, number two, after our mother’s old number that is now out of service, but I never use the speed dial.

 

The radio says that one candidate called the other a boar, or his wife, or his running mate.  I did not quite hear.  The one candidate said he did not and the other said that it is a disgrace.  I sure wish I could vote for both.  They are both just so appealing.

I wonder what the press would say if they cared when I flip out, like last night.  I went chalking words in my street, needing someone to know.  Cars drove over it all the next day rubbing it away.  It rained the day after.  First, teenage was lost, then suicide, Now, all that is left is the word stop and still now no one listens.

“There are better places than pavement to get involved,” my sister says into the phone. “Get your message heard,” she says.

“I’m thinking bumper stickers,” I say.

 

They asked me if I wanted to be there the day they announced it on the intercom at his school.  I had to wait at the front desk because of increased security, “with all the shootings and all,” the school secretary said.  After that, I did not make it to the main office in time.  I saw latecomers rushing to class when the announcement was made.  Some stopped.  Most did not.  “That sucks,” one said, “that totally sucks.”

The headlines that day in the town paper were that a train derailed, 15 dead, a storm hit the Texas coast, one million flee, and the boar comment.  “Teen taken too soon,” page 15a. 

Days before, over dinner, my brother asked me if I was depressed.

“Not depressed,” I said, “just restless.”

“Yeah.  I’m not depressed, either,” he said, “just melancholic.”

“That’s good though, I guess,” I said.

“Yeah.  I’m not depressed,” he asserted.

Realizing he wanted more, “melancholy is good,” I said.  “The questioning of one’s self and the world, searching for answers to the grander questions…”

“Smart people are dumb,” my brother said.

“Smart people are sad,” I corrected.

My brother was really smart.

 

I drank coffee every morning and now I drink none.  I do not know how to make it.  That was his job.  He made it before he went to school but never drank any, left the pot for me.

When I would wake up early enough, I took the subway with him.  He told me of how he sometimes would miss his stop.  “Slept right through it,” he would say.  I never understood that.  He would fall asleep too, when I was there with him.  I have to look at the sign at every stop to see where the train is, and then look at the map near the ceiling to see how many stops are left.  I need to repeat this at every stop, even if this is the route I take everyday.  I inherently know that there are five stops left yet I still check.  My brother, he slept through stops.  Napping was his way of living in the moment.

I saw a commercial for a motivation speaker who gives big conferences on how to enhance your life.  In the commercial, over slowly intensifying music, a man in the audience admits to wanting to commit suicide.  The speaker from the stage, with eyes blazing says, “NO.  I won’t let you.  I won’t let you be that selfish.” 

 

“Do happy people do this thing I do with laundry?” my sister asks.

“What do you do with laundry?”

“I try on outfits, the ones that don’t work, I put in a pile.  When I do laundry, If  I do laundry,” she corrects herself, “I put all the discarded outfits in with the dirty stuff.  I somehow believe in that moment that balling it all up with the rest of my shirts and pants, lugging them down the street, paying money to wash them, wait for them, dry them, wait for them and then haul them home, fold them, and put them away, all that, all that takes less energy than simply folding them and putting them away.  Do happy people do that too?”

“You’re not depressed,” I say.

“Yeah.  I know.  I’m not depressed.”

“And I do the same thing with dishes.  Like for my grand dinners, if I don’t use the fork, or the spoon, or the knife that I set, and I rarely do, I still wash all three of them.”

“Are you happy though?” she asks.

The boats on the river go slowly and I watch them from the bridge and I wonder if I would survive a jump onto the top of one of the tourist boats as it goes under me.  I realize that when I thought survive just then, I did not mean live.  I meant not break any limbs, get caught by the police, end up in the river.  Now, survival seems to mean more.

I watched a movie about 12th century knights sent to present day by a sorcerer.  They ended up in New York City and were afraid of everything and everything of them.  I wondered what my brother would do if he had a blunt ax in Times Square because I am sure he would wonder the same thing.

Would have.  He would have wondered the same thing.  The past tense is tough.

 

“The first few days of every season are my favorite season.  Why is it always sunny when seasons change?” my sister says on the phone. 

“Hot air.  Cold air.  The changing does something.  I don’t know.”  My phone is beeping, running out of batteries. 

“The change somehow makes it sunny,” she says.

“Sure,” I say.

 

My sister always said that my brother saw colors that the rest of us did not, that sight for him was just more vivid and lively.  He would get caught up in subtle sights and turned off by loud ones, like a dog who howls at police sirens, the pitch being too intense.  That is how neon lighting was for him.  She said he felt things deeper than we did and always knew when her mood would change, even from a room away. 

 

“Maybe he just needed less,” she says.

“Not more?” I say.  “Don’t they usually say that they need more?”

“Not him though,” she says.  “I think he needed less.”

 

The week before he died, I took my brother to his favorite restaurant.  He fell asleep on the subway, on my shoulder.  His hair smelled like product and his head was heavy and I almost missed the stop.  I went back to that restaurant tonight.  His favorite there was hot chocolate and it was good and I liked it too.  It is thick and dark, bitter and far from a child’s drink.  He loved it, he told me, though he could never finish it.  I always finished mine.  “It’s so good,” he told me, “I just can’t finish it.  It’s too much.”  I never understood that, nor anyone else that leaves chocolate cake left, or the last little piece of meat on their plate.  If it is so good, you finish it.

I tell my sister about this. 

“Maybe everything was like that for him,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

“Like life, maybe it was just so good, rich, for him, that he couldn’t finish it.”

“Yeah,” I say.  “Maybe.”

 

Tonight, when we hang up the phone.  I try to see colors that others cannot.  I try to have the taste of hot chocolate linger on my tongue and I try to have it be too much.  I try to feel textures more with my hand, on the couch, the smoothness of a mirror, and see if candles hide the artificial extremeness of a house fully lit at night.  I try to cry at a book and not be able to watch a film because it is too violent.  I try to have the cars passing and people talking in the street below be too noisy that I cannot sleep.  I try to tune in to what we tune out.  I try to understand.  I am left with not too much but little more than a focus on the background, losing the now, not embracing it.  Time, like music passing, I try to grab the notes a measure back, two beats too late.  I grab at time, feeling each footstep of each passerby in the street below.  I see their rubber soled shoes, laces undone.  I try to understand.

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A poem for Ellen.

It was that even if we 
never took that canoe ride
and when you did I shouted
to you across the lake about dinner or
something.

And I could hear your oar in the water, breaking
it and your face looking up as I called
to you and you didn’t need to tell me about
the oar
or the sky above you and how the
clouds moved fast or the lillie pad
in bloom because I saw it all
too.

And now, with my tea too
hot and the lint in my pocket soft and
I ball it up, it’s pink and I don’t know
why.  I’d give it to you.

But can’t.

And soon,
again
there will be far less
explaining to do.

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Tonight, dinner is a stolen frozen pizza from the corner store.  Jeremy brings it home after work and leaves it on living room floor.  He slips off his jacket, the one missing a zipper, and leaves it crumpled in the corner.  He retreats into the kitchen and opens the tea cabinet.  The door falls off.

“Careful with the cabinet,” I say from the bathtub, “it’s been tricky.”

“Nice trick,” he says.

“Gets me every time.” 

I unplug the drain and, careful not to slip on the bare floor, wrap our towel around my waist.  We threw our other towel away because it started growing things, along with the shower curtain, and most of Jeremy’s winter clothes.  At first, I thought this one was wet from Jeremy’s morning shower until my nose told me that it was something else.  I shout to the kitchen, “Spraying the towel with cologne doesn’t kill the mold.”

“It’s got a high alcohol content?” 

His cologne came in a 16-oz plastic bottle.  He uses it as his miracle product; all-purpose cleaner, face wash, body moisturizer, mouthwash…etc.  I understand toilet bowel cleaner, sure, but his toothbrush wafting the scent in the morning, no.

I drip into the living room and read the instructions for a conventional oven.  “Will you preheat the oven to 350?”

“I don’t think it does that trick.”  They had turned our gas off weeks ago. 

He comes in with a sharpie, picks up the box, writes something, and places it back down.

Cooking Instructions:  LET DEFROST ON LIVING ROOM FLOOR.  THEN EAT.

I hang the towel, spray it with cologne. 

I sit cross-legged in the living room.  We say it is fung shui’d, that we are minimalists; Last year, to make rent, we sold our furniture to the new Chinese couple downstairs for $50 and a home cooked meal. 

Our furniture is now the pizza box and a zipperless coat lit by an exposed bulb that blinds.  We had a fixture on it, but it was too heavy and pulled the bulb out of the ceiling.  Now it hangs low.  On nights of too much wine, we use it to star gaze. 

“Pay day,” he sits beside me and waves his check.  “They take too much of my money.”

“…for schools and education,” I say.

“No, for smart bombs and predator drones.”

“I’ve never pegged you as a pessimist.”

“I’m not; I’m an optimist starting at a low base camp.  I’m just saying, if they are going to take my money, use it toward something… like NASA.”

“You serious?”

“I read today,” he pulls a rolled newspaper from his jacket pocket, “that NASA’s Voyager just crossed the termination shock.”

“That’s optimistic?”

“’The termination shock,’ apparently,” he begins reading, “‘is the point in the heliosphere where the solar wind slows down to subsonic speed causing compression, heating, but most importantly,’ and listen here, ‘a change in the magnetic field.  The termination shock is the boundary of the sun’s magnetic pull.’  Said differently, Voyager is the first human-made craft to leave our solar-system.”

“You are happy that a piece of metal is far away?”

“‘In case it’s encountered by extra-terrestrials,’” he continues, “’Voyager is carrying photos of life on Earth, greetings in 55 different languages and a collection of music ranging from Gregorian chant to Chuck Berry.  Included was Slow Were My Feet by Cripple Nellie Thompson, a bluester from the 20s.’”

I am watching the pizza defrost.

“Listen to this,” he tells me, “just listen. ‘Cripple Nellie Thompson lost the use of his legs at age seven when his stepfather beat him after finding his mother with another man.  He died, penniless, after surviving his house burning down.  He was unable to move without his wheel chair; He starved to death in the ruins –’”

“Optimism?”

“—But,” he says, “his music just left the solar system.”

He falls back to, gazing up at our star shine.  It seems to hang even lower than last night.  I watch his pupils contract.  I shift positions and notice my foot is asleep. 

“Pizza ready yet?”

 

  

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hawaii-167

“Did you hear about Hawaii?” my father says.

“What about Hawaii?” I say.  I heard all about it last week, but tango on they say. 

“Your sisters are taking your old man on a trip!”

“Oh yeah?  You’re going to Hawaii with Caroline and Margaret?”  They live in New York.   Even I admit that it will be nice to see them. 

“That’s right I am.  My dear Caroline!  My lovely Margaret!  Oh, my girls.”  My dad cut a watermelon at the kitchen table covered in the same waxy plastic tablecloth as when I was a kid.  He takes large bites and spits the seeds into the sink.

“Can you believe that?” he says.  “Me!  In Hawaii!  I wish I could tell the old guys in the warehouse about this.”

“That sure is great, pops.”  My father has been retired for over a decade.

“Just think, this time next month, I’ll be dancing the hoola with some beautiful Polynesian on my arm!”

“Quite the vision, pops.”

He finishes cutting the watermelon, placing the slices onto a plate and shoves it toward me. 

“You want some of this?”  The juice dripped down his chin onto his shirt leaving a wet mark so that his nipple almost shows. 

“No thanks, pops.”

“Just think, this time next month I’ll be sipping Sangria out of a pineapple as a cup!”

“Sangria is from Spain, pops.”

“Well, make it a Piña Colada then!” he says, getting his coat on.  “I’m going to the store.  I’m going to get something special for our arrivals.”

I know exactly what he is going to get and I feel like a kid with monsters in his closet.

It is midwinter in Chicago and the cold comes hard.  My father though, leaves without his hat and the door open behind him.  The kitchen chills quickly.  I sit and the let the cold air fill the room like someone trying to prove a point to himself.  My sadness is stronger than this cold.  I shake it and close the door.

Our parents left our childhood rooms intact.  I head upstairs.  My sisters still have old baseball posters on the wall.  They would listen to the Cubs game on the radio after school, keep stats of every inning, every pitch, and recount it back to my father when he came home.  It took them hours.  And he listened to every word.  I tried to ignore it up in my room, concentrating on schoolwork surrounded by bare walls.  My father stopped helping me with my math homework when I hit third grade.

I lie in my bed and my feet come off the end.  I used to have a dream here in this bed, a nightmare even.  My father would get home with a paper bag under his arm, glowing.  He’d call us kids into the kitchen and say that he brought presents for us: three pineapples, one each.  My sisters got beautiful ripe pineapples with green tops that pointed sky high.  My pineapple was smaller, less plump, and its green top drooped and turned brown at the edges.

I had that dream every night as a kid.  It came back again when my mother died and I started coming here every weekend.  

And here I am, staring up at the ceiling again, trying to drown out the sound of my sisters’ laughter downstairs, now on a flight over, night in Chicago, pick up a third passenger and off they’ll be. 

I wonder what my goodbye will be.

I should have at least gone to the store with him.  I grab my jacket and run out the front door, closing it as it locks behind me.  I can still catch him.  I run down the steps to see my father, half-a-block away on his way back, exposed hands turning blue, extended arms, holding two pineapples up over his head, up toward the sky.

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Apartment in Bronxville.  Cory and Ellen.

Apartment. New York.

     In the past five years, my mother has had both knees replaced and thwarted two different cancers. When she comes to visit me, she does not get a room. She brings a sleeping bag. This is something I will always brag about.

     My mother likes to take me grocery shopping. In previous visits, she has insisted on filling my cupboards. She knows the grocery store is a mile-walk away for me and insists on packing as many heavy items into her car as possible. When we get to the health food store, I start rummaging through the organic juices. I pick out pomegranate and carrot ginger. She picks out orange.

     I read the ingredients on tea-tree essential oil skin therapy soap. She finds one that claims to be, “Ayurvedic Soap.” Its box is ma and pa. She opens it to smell.

     “What is that?” she says.

     “It must be the Mala Inchi, wild ginger.”

     “No, I mean Ayurveda.”

     “Traditional Indian medicine, ma.”

     “Let’s get these.”

     As she closes the small soapbox, she finds a thin sheet of paper. She hands it to me.

     “My Sanskrit is only so-so,” I say as she turns the sheet over.

     She reads the English translation, “‘Instructions for Usage: Apply the soap through out the body and the arms and the legs. When finished, wash all of it off. Try not to eat.’” She folds the sheet of paper and puts it into my breast pocket.

     “You’d better hold on to the directions,” she says, “for later.”

     After we park, she struggles with the hill up to my apartment. I insist on carrying the bags full of bottles. She resigns herself.

     “You’re not so big, you know.” She stops to catch her breath.

     “You go ahead.” “I can wait.”

     “No, go ahead. I like to check out that rump of yours.”

As I walk ahead to unlock the door, I military-press the juice bottles over my head and lift them over and again to prove that, indeed, I am so big.

     “You remember, boy,” she says, “you came from me.”

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