Archive for October, 2009

Your blue-eyed boy

I walk around with words repeating themselves in my head. A couple of months ago, I started typing some of them into a text file.

I really should learn to play the lute.

That’s one. I really don’t want to play the lute, of course, but that sentence somehow made its way inside, spending an afternoon cycling through my thoughts.

Some of the words in the file stand by themselves: Slag, scars, cinder.

Some gather into phrases: Blameless as rain. Deeper than any daisy. Ephemeral as a donut.

But none of the thoughts is complete, and none forms a coherent story. They’re just shards, broken pieces clinking around inside my head.

*******

It’s dawn on Monday morning. My mom is walking up the driveway with Eli to await the arrival of the school bus. I’m walking with them, the dogs at my side. My father, lagging just behind, is pushing Slade in the jogging stroller, and Snurp, the family cat, is pouncing on a leaf in the front yard, maybe showing off, probably insane. We make an odd family.

Eli leads the way to the stop, Snurp sprinting into the bushes next to us, tail up, aloof, too cool to claim his lopsided pride in front of the neighborhood cats. When the bus arrives, Eli climbs aboard, lugging his oversized backpack by the handle up the steps.

He waves from his seat as the school bus grinds away. My parents and I wave back, and the bus disappears around the corner.

This is the first time my mom has seen Eli ride the bus, and she chokes up. “He’s getting so big,” she says, and I agree, breaking a little, too, Eli transitioning from baby to boy.

That moment Monday morning is in the text file. Eli places his palm on the window of the school bus as it rumbles away, the day grey, my mother and I staring as the bus rounds the corner. That feeling I share with my mom is in there.

As we walk back to the house, the dogs sniff and trot ahead off the leash. Snurp, lying in wait, attacks Wiley, racing to bop at the unsuspecting dog’s tail and then tearing off to hide.

“That cat just isn’t right,” I volunteer, and nobody disagrees.

*******

It’s a cool Saturday last winter, and my dad and I are trimming trees on the slope leading to the creek at the back of our property. Mid-morning, we take a break and sit under an oak tree, my dad drinking a Coke, me a carbonated water.

Looking down the slope to the creek, the conversation turns to words. My old man taught literature, and following in his footsteps, I studied it in college. Words matter to us.

My dad tells me about Emily Dickinson and her dashes and how she’d lower plates of cookies from her window with poems attached. I mention to him that I chanced upon a book by E.E. Cummings a few days before, and my father recites his favorite of Cummings’, a light-hearted poem about Buffalo Bill that ends with this:

“and what I want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death”

My dad laughs, tickled by the poem’s dark twist, and we gaze towards the creek.

*******

It’s today, October the 16th, and I’m writing How do you like your blue eyed boy, Mister Death in the text file. My parents, who have been visiting the past 10 days—my mom indulging the kids, my dad building a gate and fixing everything that’s broken—are preparing to return to New Mexico.

I wonder how many times they’ll come back to Texas. My parents don’t act their 70-plus years, but as much as I try overlook it, I see them transitioning, my father’s grey eyes distant in the evening, my mother’s thin fingers shaking as she holds a cup of tea.

I don’t want to think about what’s coming, Mister Death closing in, but I can’t help myself.

*******

In high school, over 20 years ago now, my dad followed me to the car when I went out with friends. He’d look on wistfully, almost smiling, as we drove off.

I always felt guilty as he watched me leave. “I swear my dad believes this is the last time he’s going to see me,” I remember telling my friend Andy as we puttered away one Saturday in my Toyota Corolla.

“No, your dad just loves you,” Andy said. “That. . . and let’s be honest here. . . your dad is really fucking strange.”

I told Andy he might be right, that I’d found my dad that very morning writing a note, wearing just underwear and a cowboy hat, listening to my Yello CD with the volume cranked way up.

“See,” Andy said. “The man is fucking strange.”

When my parents leave this weekend, it’ll be my turn. I’ll follow them to their truck and look on as they motor towards New Mexico.

I bet I’ll stare even after my parents’ truck disappears, wishing I could convey how much I still need them, wishing I could show how much I’ve become them. And I bet I’ll know what my father felt as he watched me drive away on Saturday nights all those years ago.

Better people than you

Sally, as you probably know, teaches at a tough middle school. It’s the kind of place with pregnant tweens waddling the halls, gang graffiti decorating urinals, and the occasional 11-year-old packing a handgun. Sally’s been at her school for years now, and she sees her job as routine as any office gig.

At dinner, I’ll ask how her day went, and she’ll flatly tell me it was fine, and then she’ll pass the steamed carrots and say something like, “You remember my student, Jorge Cienfuegos?”

And I’ll say, “You mean the kid who tried to beat up the teacher and the cop last year?”

And she’ll say, “Yeah, him. He was busted with three pounds of pot in his locker today.” She’ll toss that grenade matter of factly, while I’m scooping carrots onto my plate, like it’s hardly worth mentioning, her middle school student showing up with a backpack stuffed with weed.

Earlier this week, a seasoned teacher, who fought in Vietnam, substituted at Sally’s school for the first time.

The vet held it together in the morning, but in the afternoon, with kids zipping around his classroom like howler monkeys on speed, the guy lost it. “In Vietnam,” he chided the students, “the US government paid me 412 dollars a month to kill better people than you.” He stormed out of the school that afternoon, promising never to return.

Sally, of course, found the story of the vet funny.

I, of course, found it vaguely unsettling.