Archive for November, 2010

Slow River

It’s Monday afternoon, sometime in September, and I’m at home suffering from an allergic reaction to Amoxicillin that has caused me to break out from scalp to toe in a rash that itches like poison ivy and burns like a sunburn. I don’t spend much time in the house like this, no kids tugging on my shirt, the world muffled, just me and the sunlight.

And the rash, of course. The damn Amoxicillin rash.

To numb my skin, I pop Prednisone, Benadryl, and Hydrocodone. The meds make my head watery, and the past streams into the present, my ghosts swimming with my dreams. As I drift towards a nap, I try to pull it back—beginnings, turning points, and drama—but I can’t. I can’t remember the flowers and the hurt and the suspense as Sally and I floated from then to today. And I can’t slip into Slade’s ride from intensive care to curly-haired toddler saying “hi dah” as I walk in the door.

None of it is clear, dreams and drama-I-can’t-feel, ghosts and burning skin, this current carrying me down the slow river.

*****

Just before Sally went into labor with Eli, she dreamed of her dead mother Sissy.

“What are you doing here?” Sally asked in the dream.

“I’ve come to meet Eli,” Sissy said.

The next day Sally made up the bed and sat on the patio and watched television and heard Sissy say it again and again: “I’ve come to meet Eli.” And Sissy’s ghost became as real as rock.

Then the contractions came, and we drove to the hospital, and Eli slipped into this world, and it felt like he’d always been here, like birth isn’t a beginning.

And when Eli smiled a few weeks later, I saw Sissy, the line from there to here imprinted on the infant’s face.

*****

I dreamed about my grandfather drowning the night he slid into a coma somewhere in New Mexico and died. Even now, 20 years later, that dream floats through my thoughts, Papa’s body sinking into the black lake while I listen to NPR on the morning commute, his worn out eyes staring at me while I watch Slade splash in the kiddie pool.

Not that I’m disturbed by the dream. It’s become part of me.

And to be honest, his passing didn’t affect me much 20 years ago, either. When I learned that Papa had died, two days after it happened from a message on an answering machine, I was startled more than down, uneasy more than pissed off. I drank red wine with Sally that night and tried to feel something, but mainly I didn’t feel anything.

*****

The water that fills Lake Austin comes from the bottom of Lake Travis, and at the end of summer, pockets of that icy bottom water carry too little dissolved oxygen for the bass and the drum and the perch to breathe. Fish actually suffocate in Lake Austin then. They dip into those pockets, struggle briefly, and float upside down to the surface.

I’m swimming alone in that dead-fish lake on Saturday, which is day seven of the Amoxicillin rash. The cold water soothes my allergy-scorched skin, and as I kick and reach and kick, I count strokes, one, two, three, I breathe, four, five, six, and I lift my head to sight. Several times, my eyes scanning the horizon for a blurry instant, I glimpse a white smudge in the water, another bass or drum belly up.

But I don’t see any boats or people. I’m the only one out here this late-season afternoon.

Fifteen minutes deep, I turn around and head back towards land. I’m gliding now, and I can feel a current pushing me along, the oxygen-thin water released from the bottom of Lake Travis, invisible and powerful, helping me from there to here, from dead fish to my family picnicking on the shore.

Maybe this is the way of things, I think as I count strokes and kick and breathe. Maybe there’s a stream outside time that runs from you to me. Maybe everything flows through everything.

Or maybe there’s just me, alone in this cold lake as summer passes, swimming through my own clever shit. I count strokes. I kick. I breathe. Maybe that’s all there is.

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5:45 AM

Our toddler wakes up at 5:45 AM every morning. No matter how late he stays up or how long he naps or how much the boy waddles around the yard, at 5:45, the babbling begins.

We have, on average, five minutes, before the babbling turns to complaining and then to wailing. If it comes to that, to Slade crying so loudly that the dogs pant, we all get up. Sally will make coffee, and I’ll hand the boys bananas, and I’ll unload the dishwasher, and I’ll look around and realize, holy hell, it’s Saturday and the sun still isn’t up.

Most mornings, Sally, who leaves for work before sunrise, scoops the talking toddler up and hauls him into the bathroom with her as she puts herself together. Drifting in and out, I’ll hear “Slade, turn off the water” and “Slade, the toilet is not a toy” and “Slade, can Mommy have her scissors back please?”

This morning it was “Slade, let’s not eat the deodorant” followed by “I mean it, no deodorant” followed by “okay, that’s it” followed by Slade yelling.

Yesterday, the deodorant-licking boy turned two. The 731 days have felt long, but the two years themselves have rifled past. That’s the way it goes, I think. You push and you push in a life that feels like a race but passes like a smooth dream. You wake up and you go hard and sometimes, driving alone or washing dishes or watching the baby sleep, you wonder where it all went.

We didn’t do much to celebrate Slade’s birthday. We gave him a couple of presents. (I have it on good authority that one, a talking Elmo toy, is soon to lose its batteries forever.) We ate cupcakes. Then we put the boys to bed and shuffled off to bed ourselves before the local news even started. We need our rest. 5:45 arrives very loud and very early.

“I haven’t taken a crap in three days”

This is Apache Shores, the neighborhood we call home:

Cord, a neighbor, day trader, and musician who made a name for himself locally in his eponymous band a few years ago, comes off as a regular enough dude. He’s kind to the kids, generous with food and liquor, relaxed, and gregarious. But the more I hang out with him, the more I realize he’s also bat-shit bonkers.

Take Easter morning. It’s well before sun up, and somehow I’ve ended up riding around with Cord in his golf cart. We’re putting campaign flyers in mailboxes for a guy, Wade, who is running for the Apache Shores board.

As I stick a flyer in a mailbox that has been dented, probably by a wasted teenager with a bat, Cord booms, “He has risen!” He yells it so loudly and without warning that that I jump a little.

“He has risen? Wait. What? I heard you were Jewish. Isn’t that true?”

Cord tells me he doesn’t know what he is, but this is Easter goddamn it, and he has lots of goddamn Easter spirit tonight and I need to show some goddamn Easter spirit, too.

“He has risen,” he bellows and again I flinch. A light turns on in a dark house as we putter away in the golf cart on the deserted street.

A couple of months pass before I run into Cord. He’s at a neighbor’s party, and he tells me he’s just returned from South Africa where he went on a safari, marvelled at the popularity of KFC, and made an American ass of himself at the World Cup. He tells me he brought back a vuvuzela.

Hours later, I leave the party, which started sedately but has turned into a thumping machine with fireworks being shot off in the driveway and garage, drunks yelling “Kill him” during a UFC pay per view, and beer bottles being smashed for sport. As I walk home, I hear Cord somewhere in the dark, blasting his vuvuzela. It’s at least 3 AM, and I wonder if anyone will complain.

No way, I decide. Not with all the noise and the broken glass. Not in Apache Shores.

********

A 3-foot tarantula appears for an hour or two on the roads in Apache Shores during the winter and spring. The tarantula looks real, and where it comes from and where it goes to, nobody seems to know.

The tarantula seems gone for good after Jamie—a friendly neighbor who adores kids and is probably some kind of social worker—spots it one night not far from her house, curses, and drives over the arachnid. Then she backs up over the spider. Then she drives over it again to make sure she’s flattened the beast.

But a few weeks later, I notice something on the road just as black and just as big. The tarantula has been resurrected. And this is Apache Shores as well.

********

On the road out of Apache Shores, there’s a handwritten sign on a telephone pole that says, “You are happy.” Just that. You are happy.

For a couple of weeks during winter, another sign replaces the happy one. “You are sad,” it proclaims.

Then the happy sign reappears.

********

This is also Apache Shores:

I’m putting food out for our cat Snurp when I hear another neighbor, Brandy—a sun-battered 40-something mom married to a conspiracy theorist whose name I can’t remember and dating another man who goes by Wolf—talking loudly.

“I haven’t taken a crap in three days,” Brandy exclaims to someone I can’t see.

Is she sharing this with her husband or with her teenage son or with Wolf, I wonder? I decide I don’t want to know. Some stories are better left incomplete.

Like the story about Brandy walking around Apache Shores wearing nothing but high heels. I’d rather not think too much about that one.

********

I’m swimming in Lake Austin on a late-summer Saturday. I swim half a mile alone in the lake, leaving from and returning to the Apache Shores lakeside park, counting strokes as I inch along, working on sighting above the water, looking for fish and snakes in the green water below.

When I climb out of the lake after my swim, I notice Sally. She’s talking with neighborhood friends who have set up camping chairs on a boat dock. I spot Eli taking turns flying through the air on a rope swing with some kids at the other end of the park. And I see Slade. He’s tolerating being lugged around by a middle school girl who loves babies.

I dry off and sit on a grassy slope in the shade, the water a few feet away, everybody accounted for and content. Opening the cooler, I pull out a Tecate. My heart thumps hard and strong, and my head is still. I can’t imagine a better place or a better time than right now. And this is Apache Shores, too.