Work by day. Ride by evening. Write by night.
Posts from Matt:
It would have been nice to watch MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball in our living room. My parents had been doing pretty well, financially, in 1988. Having bought a pretty large TV to preoccupy the time my brother and I spent at home, waiting for them to get off of work.
And although my brother was five years younger, his potential, short tempered, violent outbursts forced me into my parent’s bedroom while he watched cartoons in the evening. There, above my parent’s dresser, I’d twist to the end of the dial’s spectrum, somewhere within the sea of cable channels, and wade through the 120 minutes allotted, waiting to see what Iron Maiden video would premier that week.
At this point in my life, such an anticipation was the only thing that mattered to me on television. And for that matter, one of the only things that mattered to me in my entire adolescents.
My older brother loved The Police. Their post punk and reggae fusion. Stewart Copeland’s crisp drumming.
And Adam Ant. A Lot of Adam Ant. His anomalous music, his makeup, his swagger, his ‘dandy highwayman’ aesthetic.
Coming out of the new wave scene, Iron Maiden was a much heavier, aggressive extension of that. And they lassoed my brother right in, and anything he felt important was important to me.
He gifted me with Iron Maiden, but soon after, was recruited to college up north by a soccer scholarship. I was left to my own devices, picking up on anecdotal information about the band through this special time slot. I craved it. Their sound, their connection to history, and their macabre way of telling a story through their mascot, Eddie ‘The Beast.’
Being close to my older brother, was my first connection to a tribe. Because of he and his friends, we listened to weird music, not heard on the radio, and that was my identifier.
And on the day we took him to the airport in mid summer, to see him take his first major trip out of town on his own, to actually move away, was like losing apart or myself.
Like losing my identity.
I stared out the window, onto the line of docked commercial airliners, hiding the tears streaming down my face. When it was time for him to board, I quickly hid my sorrows, turned around, and like the most formal 11 year old, apathetic young man, I shook his hand goodbye.
Left alone, I had to perpetuate that tribal identity. I immediately confiscated my older brother’s room, moving out of a shared space where my younger brother and I had two twin beds.
On the next trip to the mall, I had my grandmother buy an Iron Maiden, ‘Aces High’ tee, with a matching poster. This song was amongst a vast catalogue of their hits, and this song in particular, was mine. On getting home, the poster was strategically thumbtacked right above my bed. It was the center piece to my room: For a solid year, the only thing on any of my bedroom walls. On my side table, next to my pillow, sat a mini boom box my brother had left behind. Iron Maiden’s album ‘Somewhere in Time’ was on repeat.
My biggest fear was wearing the actual tape out from listening to it so much.
In December of 1988, after being gone for 6 months, my older brother was to return for the Christmas holidays. Like a hero’s welcoming committee, my step-dad, younger brother and I, got into our Chevy conversion van and headed to Tampa International to deliver him home. On our rendezvous, my brother looked much older, confusing for me as he had only spent a short period of time away. The college life had set in, of late nights studying, but mostly partying after playing soccer most afternoons. But there were some new, foreign attributes to his look that caught my eye. As I sat behind him in the van as he reported recent events to my step-dad, I stared at his long hair.
My brother complained about the food options in North Carolina. The lack of diversity which was never an issue in Tampa. His cravings were for Cuban fair, of pulled pork,black beans and rice, and cuban bread. Cuban bread being almost impossible to get anywhere else in the South.
Though, for some reason, we ended up at the lowest tier, most budget option in town.
Rolling into a Taco Bell, the four of us unloaded out of the van. I was left last in our our queue to order.
Fixating, again, at my brother’s long hair, I wondered if it was something that I too would have to commit to. And panning down, his shirt was now in plain sight. A white tee, and instead of something playfully macabre like the many Iron Maiden albums, Eddie the Monster as British colonial cavalryman, or Eddie as a fighter pilot of a World War Two English Spitfire, there were four, fat faced, overly humanized caricatures. The four of them smashed into the hammer of a gavel.
Inside the restaurant, my brother was at the head of our group. My step-dad, younger brother and myself listened intently to his stories covering the last six months. Of school, of soccer, of the assimilation into temperature shifts during winter that a native Floridian wasn’t prepared for. As he turned to address us in line, I saw what was on the front of his shirt: ‘Metallica’ written in some electrified font. ‘And Justice for All’ written in what looked like graffiti below it.
I was taken aback.
This was an alien aesthetic to me.
Less playful, less objective. Political.
Something that adults were much more in tune to. Something, much deeper, that I couldn’t identify with.
It hit me that my traitorous brother had sold out our unsaid, mutual pact within connected musical tastes.
He had betrayed me.
He had betrayed Iron Maiden.
And this foreign genre, thrash metal, existed for the
next couple years of my life as a cultural bogeyman, the root of all evil, lashing out with its discordance to destroy my identity.
My living room was soaked with rain water. The shitty, grey, inexpensive carpet smelled a mix between wet dog and mildew.
It was 2003, I had just moved into my first house six months prior when Hurricane Ivan dropped a seven story pecan tree across its roof. We knew it had to be rebuilt, and after the day of shock eased over, the initial step was to try to salvage as many personal belongings as possible before the house was levelled and built anew.
It was in the evening, and without electricity, the living room was getting too dark to sift through. Calling it a day, prepping my supplies in order to leave, there was a knock at the front door. On opening, my neighbor from across the street greeted me. A taller man, I would often see him working in his yard but I’d never reached out for conversation.
He asked how we were doing? If we needed any help? He then offered me a random gift–A CD to work to. It was Iron Maiden’s freshly released Dance of Death.
I wondered if this was an odd test for conversation?
Or, in hindsight, had he a telepathic inclination to our common bond?
By March of 2004, my house had been completely gutted and rebuilt. And as the structure was just over 1,000 square feet, the property it sat on was not much bigger. During the four month rebuild, the yard was ripped to shreds by contractors resurrecting the house.
Working in the yard, which consumed most of every weekend, Chris, my neighbor and new friend, would always join me in deep musings on Maiden’s history.
Although I was really into music, and at one point specifically Iron Maiden, I’d never met anyone who dedicated their life to an in-depth knowledge of such a specific microcosm.
Luckily, I retained enough from when I was young to keep up with the conversations.
He’d detail their chord progression. Which song’s themes parallelled certain events in US history. And their obsession with the World Wars. From this is where I learned about Passchendaele, one of the most brutal battles fought in Belgium with upwards of two hundred and forty thousand casualties.
In addition, I discovered that their drummer, Nicko McBrain, had a BBQ rib restaurant in South Florida.
During our time in the yard, Chris’ dog would often lurk on the outskirts. ‘Stormy’ was her name, a mid sized, all black chow mix.
She had a bright purple tongue. And she only got along with Chris.
On days when I was caught off guard by her lurking presence, when she was out, making her rounds alone, she would growl menacingly towards me. Eventually, having enough of a standoff, she’d slowly retreat back to Chris’ property.
There were no other dogs in our neighborhood. Stormy ruled the roost.
I discovered that Chris was a workaholic. I’d often find him in my yard trimming brush before he started working on his own property. This was mostly after ten to twelve grueling hours spent elsewhere in the Florida sun.
Chris never took breaks, never seemed to take any vacation either, being a landscaper by trade.
So it came as a surprise when he stopped by one morning to tell me he booked a flight on Ed Force One. The trip would only be for four days, from the US, to the UK, to Central Europe, for a single, Iron Maiden Arena show in Portugal.
Ed Force One, I discovered, was a repurposed 747, lent to Iron Maiden by Air Atlanta Icelandic. The jumbo jet was repainted each tour with the theme of their current album. Bruce Dickinson (the vocalist) serves as the pilot, and the remaining members of the band, often made guest appearances as stewardesses.
If there was a single, imperative life goal for Chris, this was it.
After revealing the news, Chris asked for help during the long weekend he was going to be out. To keep an eye on his house, to make sure his animals were fed and their litter changed. He had a surfeit of descented skunks, seven total, living in a spare bedroom all to themselves. And, lastly, there was Stormy, for which he had the strongest affinity.
That facet of the deal made me beyond nervous.
We prepped that week prior to his trip. Inviting me in, it was actually the first time I’d ever been in his shotgun house- -visiting other’s living spaces has never been something I ascribe to. Chris went over very specific feeding times, and each room of his house served a detailed purpose for the animals. In addition, each room was fully decorated with Maiden paraphernalia subject to its own theme: From Killers, to Powerslave, to Somewhere in Time.
Chris flew out on a Thursday. And by thursday afternoon, I was checking off the list for his pet maintenance. The ferrets came first, easiest to handle and closest to the front door. Each was cordoned off in its own wooden sectional, delicately taking food as I handed it down. After feeding the seven ferrets, I could feel my blood pressure increase as I turned into the living room. From there, it was a straight shot leading to the kitchen. And in the kitchen, I knew, was where Stormy took shelter.
As I walked slowly from corridor to corridor, I could hear Stormy’s guttural, and unusually extended growling. I was used to her reaction, having heard it often, but this, this had an unusual cadence.
Something was different.
Making it to the kitchen, I looked to the far corner where she tended to hide. In the shadow of the cabinetry, I saw no lump of black fur. Backing out, slowly, the growling continued. I stepped into Chris’ office, his bedroom, no sign. Then, finally into his tiny bathroom where, behind the toilet bowl, wedged between the bathroom wall and the water supply line, lay Stormy. Her head sitting flush on the floor as both of her pitch black eyes glared up at me.
Walking back into the kitchen, I scooped kibble into her bowl, and delivered it to the bathroom threshold. Placing it on the floor, I turned and walked towards the front door, locked the house, and effectively cut the tension off for the evening.
She would eat, I assured myself, trying to not let the situation stress me out.
Driving home from work the next day, I tried my hardest not to let my anxiety simmer over the hour commute. Arriving to the house at dusk, I quickly went to Chris’ to fulfill my duties. Upon unlocking and opening his front door, Stormy’s low, persistent growling resonated as if it had never stopped. I made my way through the living room and paused, again, at the threshold of the bathroom. Beside the door laid Stormy’s bowl, her food untouched. And behind the toilet, wedged in the same position as the day before, lay stormy. Her growling intensified. Her deep black eyes, focused on me as if I were the one causing her some mysterious pain.
On the verge of panic, I stepped closer to her to see if there was an ailment that was causing her to hide. Stormy raised her head off the tile, parted her lips, and gnashed her teeth.
Stepping back put me in a different position, gaining a perspective over to the other side of the toilet bowl. There, wedged as well, between Stormy’s haunches and the tub, were too unmoving brownish-black orbs the size of soft balls.
In addition to hiding, Stormy had shit herself.
From what little I knew about animal behavior, these compounded events gave me a strong, unwelcomed inclination that she was dying.
Locking up, and heading back onto our dead end street, I took a breath to gather my senses. Chris was thousands of miles away with no cell service, with no access to the internet. Considering I couldn’t get to Stormy to help, I also felt devoid of power to call animal control to rescue her from that tight spot.
All I could think about was Chris’ return and his reaction to my hands off decision.
He, having always given me so much help, was returned the favor by my offering up his beloved dog, dead.
For the remaining two days, I waited, and hoped that Stormy would suffer as least as possible.
On that Sunday, Chris was to return. In a state of stressful shock, I unlocked his front door and began the regimen of my final feeding scheduled for that morning.
Walking into his house, I passed through the living room. On those walls were multiple portraits of Eddie, The Monster. On each album cover, Piece of Mind, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Eddie’s eyes seemed to follow me into the Ferret room, watching my every move, passing judgement.
On feeding the ferrets, each one–curled up into a ball in their respective corners–barely stirred. Even the ferrets knew I had done wrong.
Walking towards the bathroom, as if on cue, Stormy’s growl began to rumble from behind the threshold.
And there on the adjacent wall, a final portrait in the house’s Feng Shui: Eddie as portrayed on the cover of Iron Maiden’s most startling album, Number of the Beast.
He, lurking in the backdrop of some otherworldly maelstrom, his right, skeletal arm reaching out, puppeteering satan as he walks upon fire and brimstone.
Out of guilt, mixed with an overwhelming cocktail of fear and anxiety, I chose not to enter the bathroom.
Chris would be home that afternoon.
Locking up and heading home, I would wait there, as patiently as possible to hear the verdict, and to accept whatever blame fate dealt upon me.
Daily, at around 6pm, the inbound flight on British Airways lands at Tampa International. Chris was on that plane, and with minimal baggage from such a short trip, was quickly en route home.
Across the street, I ran through a mental list of potential ways to break the news.
Should I start from the beginning, telling him the most detailed story so all anecdotal bits of memory were thrown on the table?
Maybe from this complete mental review, something would come to light to guide a rational explanation.
There is never enough time in moments like these.
The knock came quick. Three soft knuckle blows to the door.
I got off the couch. Took a deep breath inward, and then a slow delayed exhale as I reached for the door.
Chris was there, as expected, in the threshold. His eyes wide, and his lips withholding at least an hour’s worth of details, covering quite possibly four of the best days of his life.
Of being flown over the English Channel, the western coast of France, skimming, finally, above the Bay of Biscayne and into Portugal.
Flown by Bruce Dickinson: Larger than life, his absolute hero.
Of seeing Maiden live, thousands of miles from home. Singing along to every seven minute composition in their two hour set. His voice, I’m sure, hoarse even before the encore.
Then flying thousands of miles home, in an absurd, circuitous route, simply to be able to tell such an incredible story to anyone who had the slightest connection to the monumental band.
Chris’ lips parted to allow those flood waters of reminiscence to open upon me.
Stammering, quick, I cut in, curbing his first words.
‘Chris…I think Stormy is dead…’
My wife and I began making dinner.
It had been an hour since meeting Chris at the door, then watching him quickly, silently hustle back to his house to attend to his dying (or possibly dead) dog.
The image of Stormy’s diminutive, shaggy black frame stuffed behind the toilet, and her growl, an animalistic reminder of my wrongdoing, haunted me.
Over the stove, I stared into a pot of boiling pasta, the steam rising to my face, pulling sweat from my pores in a makeshift ritual of atonement.
Overwhelmed and spaced out, I failed to hear another knock.
This time, my wife answered the door, and as it opened, the incoming light on the periphery yanked me out of the guilt trance.
Beside her, in the doorway, Chris had returned.
Mustering up nothing more than a sincere apology, I met Chris once again at our front door.
And before I could say anything, he in turn, cut me off…
…I have gifts for you…’
Unwrapping his arms from behind, he revealed two brownish-black, furry balls that completely filled up the cupping of each of his hands.
And there, I realized that what I had seen was not incontinence.
Those nebulous forms were neither piles of shit, nor biological indicators of a dog’s death spiral.
Chris, The Neighbor of the Beast, holding two tiny puppies, beat me to whatever reaction I was conjuring.
Lifting up the miniscule canine in his left hand, he addressed my wife:
‘…I’ve named this one, the girl, ‘˜Ariel’…’
‘And this one…’ reaching out his right hand to me, to reveal a wet, squeaking male puppy,
‘…this one I’ve named ‘˜Matt’.’
Three parallel, personal experiences are what have brought you here.
In late September, 2019, I received a text message really early in the morning. The gist: ‘I don’t tell friends and family often enough that I’m thinking about them.’
The message really hit home, so much so that it made me feel a sense of guilt as to where I’ve come in these almost 43 years. So afraid of boredom that I’ve enveloped myself in a bubble that I feel thrives only on structure, schedule and a general sense of uncompromising pre-occupation.
And within this introversion, I’ve long given up the art of the written letter (and within those letters, poetry) which was such an important part of my early life’s communication and those accompanying friendships.
And more recently, the convenience of a stripped down, quick phone call just to say ‘hello.’
And now, in the new age of texts and DM’s, the failure to reach out, and in most cases, simply to reach back…to you.
A couple days after reading that text message, I stumbled across a very moving personal essay by Haruki Murakami (titled ‘Abandoning a cat’) regarding his father; A man, studying to be a Buddhist priest. But due to an unfortunate clerical error, his exemption from military service was overridden, sending him to the front lines of the second Sino-Japanese war.
As anyone could imagine, he experienced the most awful of situations:
‘…His unit was constantly on the move, clashing with…troops and guerillas who put up a fierce resistance. In every way imaginable, this was the opposite of life in a peaceful temple in the Kyoto hills. He must have suffered tremendous mental confusion and spiritual turmoil. In the midst of all that, writing haiku may have been his sole consolation. Things he could have never written in his letters–expressing himself in a symbolic code, as it were–where he was able to honestly bare his true feelings…I’m no haiku expert so it’s beyond me to say how accomplished his were. Clearly, what holds the poems together is not technique but the open, honest feelings that underscore them.’
Upon finishing Murakami’s essay, I snagged a clean journal, and having never tried haiku, penned my first sequences, following its 5/7/5 syllabic pattern:
#21 To N.L.
Never crack windows
Those deserving of the prize
Will deliver first
#19 To J.C.
‘Under the city
Lies a heart made of ground, but
Humans give no love’
#36 To L.P.
The weakest link breaks
A fetid aphorism
Learn-ed from mistakes
Over an indefinite period of time, I’ll be sending postcards to my loved ones; family, friends, those many people who’ve had a positive impact on my life.
Each postcard is a personalized haiku. Of something we’ve shared together; an experience maybe, a conversation, or a simple memory that I’ll never shake.
Each haiku was written within a single day. No more. And I’ve been strict with that, allowing each of you to sit, solely in my thoughts for a solid 24 hours within the writing process.
You deserve that…it’s the least I can do to be a better friend.
-Matt Coplonread more
Walk with Me…
…while I wait in line at the SFO airport.
What do you get when you reserve a rental car from the cheapest vendor available?
We wait in line for two hours while folks with reservations haggle over rental options, and those potential clients devoid of due diligence, argue, some sob, finding out they’ve waiting in line in vain, temporarily stranded in South San Francisco.
My two hours of torture is up. At the counter, I wade through the horrors of the client agreement: The tolls, pre- paid gas where the fuel option is twice the amount of any other state.
And finally the damage waiver.
Although I’ve waited two hours to decline everything, I’m horrified by the stories of superficial damage due to parallel parking, and the fact that parking anywhere in the city is a risk. And that is on top of the wildfires that rage across the state. The current one, just north of here, the largest and most devastating in US history.
I’ve realized, within the five minute conversation, that, like any village on the cliff edge, you’re paying top dollar to walk on soon to be extinct lands.
And you’re insuring yourself and your immediate surroundings just in case you become a part of that extinction.
I do not decline the damage waiver. In fear.
My Insurance becomes double what we paid for the rental.
The Judas Goat.
‘What’s up you fucking Judas Goat?’
I weave through traffic back to the terminal to pick up Steve. As with the dozen trips before this, every pick up from luggage is initiated by some meaningless insult towards me.
‘How was the flight?’ I ask.
‘Dude, you’re in the wrong turn lane.’
I’ll spend the next six days travelling up and down the California Coast. Driving in the slow lane, missing turns, heading the wrong direction from spacing out.
This was nothing new to me in my personal, daily struggle with meandering my home commute, in addition to battling general anxiety and the high blood pressure that accompanies it.
But with Steve as navigator, this ineptitude would drive him crazy.
Driving up US-1 through San Francisco in 5’o’clock traffic entails gridlock, the inching towards each light hoping you don’t get stalled in the intersection. Once finally out beyond the city-scape, The Golden Gate Bridge, the weaving through the NorCal hills and into the desert, past the prisons positioned purposefully in solitude.
Here we head to Yuba City, inching closer to that historic fire.
This is just the beginning of our road trip.
And given the circumstances, I begin to think that maybe Steve’s whimsical jab is some sort of roundabout prophecy: A van wreck, possibly turning too wide on a mountain pass lacking a railing, running a red light, a blown out tire.
I’m in command of a group of friends, leading the charge to fun.
But my terrible driving is coming into full perspective, and I’m starting to harness the possibility that this road trip, like any, where I chauffer a posse of friends, could lead to our demise.
Maybe I really am the Judas Goat?
The waffle iron…
…is a staple at motels in towns like these. Within the selection of run down desert ‘lodges’ to hang your hoodie for the night, the option of a manual waffle iron for breakfast mostly seals the deal.
Unlike the bagel, or the combining of milk with cereal, the intimacy of the waffle iron is an indicator of a productive day. Dripping the right amount of batter. Being cognizant of the time, where too little equals too mushy, too much and you’re swallowing carcinogens. And then there is the correct amount of syrup drizzle. To each his own, depending on what and how much that person drank the night before.
Sipping a cup of coffee, I watch those in line inch patiently towards the iron as if taking their morning communion.
Steve and I notice a man at the head holding up the breakfast queue.
As we look over, starting from his two mismatched shoes, going up to his shorts in sub forties weather, we notice that in his back pocket is an extremely large crescent wrench. One that you’d use to tighten an oversized pipe fitting.
He stands in front of the waffle iron, and in extended detail, cooks his waffle, waiting for just the right crispness.
‘Sir, are you a guest here?’
The motel manager approaches, questioning his extended stay in line.
She’s tiny, standing as if in the shadow of this unwelcome guest.
Having been caught, he makes his way towards the lobby. On his way out, he leans over to Steve and I.
‘Morning guys…can you snag that waffle for me when
In the oasis…
…you run into folks who’ve moved here for the military. If not for their own careers, the career of a relative.
I find out that the adjacent Air Force Base was central command for the U.S.’s lineage of spy aircraft. During the beginning of the Cold War, it harbored the U-2. Later, the SR-71 Blackbird.
As a child, I was enamored with those engineering miracles, so my ears naturally perked in conversation when a local filled me in:
‘The SR-71 was made out of some sort of porous material. When it flew at incredibly high speeds, the metal would heat up, stretch, and seal the fuel tanks.
But when sitting at the airfield, fuel would leak through the gaps in the skin, leaving a puddle below it’s belly.’
The wind kicks up, here in the low desert, the temperature plummets.
And in the distance, a scorched fog slowly rolls in. Fingerlets of the wild fire.
I began to worry, just a bit.
The thought of a nearby puddle of volatile rocket fuel didn’t help.
The pause allows for our conversation to switch subjects. In our new thread, I learn that in his adolescents, out of utter boredom, he decided to learn German.
Now, he’s completely fluent.
I’m taken aback by his obscure engineering knowledge, and even more so in revealing his complete grasp of a foreign language.
Embarrassed by my own ineptitude, I hide the sentiment by asking him in this parking lot of a Korean Cafe that prepares American style hamburgers: ‘In German, how do you say ‘˜there is sauerkraut in my lederhosen’?’
Smoke envelopes the pine trees as we wait in line to collect keys for our reserved motel rooms. We’re not sure if it’s the smoke, or if the clerk is simply a fledgling at managing the hundred or so rooms occupied by a mix of weary, choked out travellers and kooks.
From beside the office, a woman appears with two leashed labrador retrievers. The chocolate one sits idle, as the tan one heads for Steve, her nose targeting his feet.
‘Oh, excuse us…’ the woman says.
Steve steps back.
‘Don’t worry, she’s friendly, and she won’t sniff crotches…
…she lifts crotches.’
Thirteen is always an unlucky number.
On this trip, I’ve left it up to everyone else to decide on where we eat.
Off of I-80, we take a break in the evening, and pull over into a shopping plaza. Stereotypic in driving across the U.S., each has a sandwich shop, a Chinese Restaurant, and one of a selection of low-budget hamburger joints.
This one is an anomaly, where, somehow in the middle of the desert, a southern BBQ joint has found itself a home. As the crew chooses, I stake out my options, which have been limited to another Tex-Mex Restaurant. A choice that is reserved for desperate times as a lifelong, strict vegetarian.
I go against my gut and order three burritos. Each, a tortilla, refried beans and no cheese. Years ago, I renamed them bean logs.
Knowing the outcome, I stubbornly refuse to learn from past mistakes when, days later, this fast food has become my default.
Thirteen total by the end of the trip.
I see less and less people in my van.
The businessman who will sit next to me on the 5 hour
flight home will pretend like he wasn’t covering his nose.
To the Lighthouse.
I had a difficult time getting through Virginia Woolf’s Novel, To the Lighthouse. It’s been twenty odd years ago.
I understood why it was monumental, her writing style, fluid and poetic.
Maybe my reservations were in the subtle theme of Flux, perspiring from each page.
I unknowingly absorbed it, yet was unaffected as I felt my life, at that point, was simply gliding through the motions, devoid of e-motion.
But as I get older, flux has transcended into the physical. I’m balding. I’ve noticed bags starting to form under my eyes. My lower back aches every morning when I wake.
Flux is something I’ve begun to truly fear.
To the Lighthouse. It stands there in our peripheral vision, erect, at the end of this ragged peninsula. We’ve come here to carve a couple wall rides, cutting through the chipped asphalt, hoping to not wash out in the fine sugar sand.
Today, I feel twenty again. And as I hit the wall, at medium speed, the result is a mediocre height.
So I try again, a little faster.
The lip throws me nose heavy, my feet slip off the pedals and I begin to fall head first over my bars. Ejections like this are so much like watching an action movie at home, where, in real time with a remote, you can switch to observational slow motion.
That gift, having done it for so many years, gave me the ability to toss both of my hands in front of me as I made contact with the cement.
Hands first, both knees follow.
A dust cloud erupts from the dried out path.
Pulling my hands up to my face and flipping them over, I’ve suffered deep gouges in each palm. Layers of skin are folded outward, as if tank steel had been penetrated by a mortar.
Blood pools. My bones ache. It takes me much longer to reset.
‘Ah shit, man…’ Steve walks up, looking at my palms. ‘It’s a double stigmata.’
…sheds light on this Redwood Grove. The city designated the area a public park where a pump track weaves through hundred year old trees. Next to it, a graveyard climbs the hill dating back to the mid 19th century.
The night before, the arborist threw us a bonfire at his place and prepared an incredibly large dinner for our caravan which has now hit a dozen bodies.
Among the fire, we talk about the old growth Redwood bead board that lines the framework of his house.
We talk about his chicken coop, and his prized blind chicken named ‘Helen.’
We talk about the hawk that preys upon them, perched above on the neighbors roof during the day.
We talk trees.
Today, at the pump track, is our trip’s farewell. The friends we’ve collected while on the road all converge here for one last session together.
Standing in the shadows of the Redwoods, the arborist and I pick up from where we left off the night before.
He points to a section of the park, home to a stand of diminutive Dawn Redwood trees. They are a smaller, deciduous cousin of the famous coastals.
He points out numerous invasive Eucalyptus brought over from Australia. A terrible, volatile tree that can reach up to 200 feet. The arborist tells a story of he and his crew having to remove a downed one recently, which took out power to a whole neighborhood–A job that took 28 hours of straight work.
We talk about Santa Cruz’s city ordinance of protection: Any tree with a 14′ DBH (diameter at breast height) is secured. Leaving most everything in this park spared.
And he tells me about the Bunya Bunya, another Australian import with a large cone that can reach almost fourteen inches wide. The arborist knew of two here in this town. Both he’s helped prune, as their shedding cones can be a mortal liability.
Connecting with folks, creating an instant, tight bond over food and mundane conversations, becomes the heart of road trips like these.
As I look around the grove, the light goes dim, early at 5pm.
And I’m incredibly thankful for these anecdotal experiences, small kernels contributing to the greater cob that provides personal meaning.
Steve passes within a couple feet of our conversation. ‘We ready to start packing up?’ I ask.
‘You guys talking about trees again? He asks.
And before I can respond with any witty rebuttal, Steve beats me to the punch:
‘You Fucking nerds…’
I keep Holding on.
Going down US-1, south out of San Francisco, the smoke from the worst wildfire in history obscures the extensive, sandy beach ending at the Pacific Ocean.
In the surf, dozens of folks on boards get pitted, it’s in the low 50’s, and their resilience extends to the poorest air quality on record in the city by the bay.
We will connect and reconnect to four major highways over the next ten miles as we head towards the airport, weaving a dodging one of the most congested cities in the state of California.
Here, in this urban maze, the events of the past six days kick in.
This is the beginning of the end. The closure of experience.
From this, now, I have to begin to formulate substance into meaning.
Although it is Wednesday, SFO is mad. The four lanes of traffic into departures are in complete gridlock. And as we’re three lanes removed from curbside, Steve decides to break for it.
Grabbing his backpack, he heads to the trunk to snatch up his large, faux-golf bag disguising his complete bike.
As he heads back, all four lanes of traffic begin to move, instantly making me the roadblock.
‘I’ll see you…’ Steve hollers through the rolled down passenger window. I watch as he lugs his bags across the lanes, where, after a second, my line of vision gets cut off by a man driving a black limousine.
He looks directly at me, furious.
I see his hand come off the steering wheel as he flicks me off, mouthing ‘asshole’ as he drives away within the commuter swarm.
On the radio, Simply Red’s song Holding back the Years starts its refrain.
‘Holding.’ ‘Holding.’ ‘Hold…’
‘…It’s all I have to say, It’s all I have today.’
Proper closure as I twist the radio knob to off.
And, like every road trip before it, these events will be filed away in memory until the time comes when you no longer can.
A postcard was all it took.
A postcard and a thirty-five cent stamp.
And an apology.
Written in any type of script of her choosing. In blue ink, in black ink, or even in red ink. All she had to do was say ‘I’m sorry for what I said.’
It had helped so many other people.
So what was the reservation in hopes of reprieve?
Her co-workers egged her on. Partially out of the comedy of the situation, but with an inkling of seriousness. What could it hurt?
This fetish, conjured from island lore dating back to the mid 19th-century. In paranormal situations like this, there always seems to be a child involved, as if between their naivety and innocence, some synapse conjures devlish trickery.
You, however, ‘‹did’‹ look at it. But just once. Out of the right side of your periphery. This made you complicit.
Behind it’s glass display case, you could see her through it. Your wife. Picking up a piece of chalk, and scrawling something on the blackboard towards the bottom left corner.
A greeting you supposed. Some child-speak. Some empty, superficial pleasantry. A way to get us off it’s hook.
She wrote six words. Each was an unreadable blob interpreted through the glass.
And as she finished, you walked back out of the museum’s brick encapsulated turret and into the Island’s sunlight.
This ‘‹was’‹ your happy place.
December 23rd, 2017.
Traveling across the state, cutting at a ninety degree angle through The Everglades, there is next to nothing of human origin.
In this sea of grass, passing Seminole and Miccosukee reservations cordoned off from tourists, you two have found a selection of rest stops and a couple vending machines offering an assortment of corn chips and soft drinks.
For a travel weary vegan, you suffer a food desert. Unless you give into that salted and tangy junk food…or cheat and indulge in some gator nuggets.
Two hours into bisecting Florida’s southeastern coast–its geographic gun handle–you intersect Highway 997, and head due south. After an hour of cane fields, sub-tropical fruit stands, and roadside food trucks offering Pescado, Nopales, and Lengua, you run into South Florida’s final stop on the inland highway.
Known for two things: The Homestead-Miami Speedway, and it being the paved gateway to the Florida Keys.
It is a flyspeck on a map, a transition from here to there. And within that melting pot of South Florida, a congealing of Central and South America with accents from the myriad of Islanders, it somehow cradles a Haitian restaurant with a full vegan menu.
By happenstance, you two discovered it on this trip. A treat to start your vacation, but more importantly, a treat to end it once you leave your beloved island-scape.
You stop in, island spices mute the rot wafting from adjacent dumpsters. In a low-lit shell of a mid 20th-century strip mall, you order from the colorful menu and eat within the greyness, a perpetual vision state between light and darkness.
Rotti and curry. Savory callaloo. And festivals–those little semi-sweet Island dumplings that fit somewhere between a side and a desert. You eat one each, in celebration of the beginning of each course.
By 9pm, you’re cutting into the upper keys as Highway 997 merges into US-1. Pitch darkness in the distance, whereas moonlit mangroves shadow like a windowsill, the thousands of miles of sea reaching out onto each side.
You will return to that restaurant.
And that makes the thought of saying goodbye so much easier.
June in Florida is miserable. Though, the temperature to humidity ratio in September is much more terrible. So, the unpleasant fact that you have to wade through three summer months to get to that final point in summer makes June the absolute worst.
It could be argued that the state of Florida became truly livable in the early 1950’s. The Second World War’s economic boom made an archaic form of the home air conditioning unit affordable. And that cool, indoor living brought droves of folks into Florida’s coastal outlands, and the once uninhabitable, swampy inlands. Air conditioning allowed for the classic, 50’s style ranch home to become the new moniker for the suburb, where as the turn of the century cracker house was retrofitted with shoddy wall units, in an arcane fashion, to combat the balmy Florida summer.
The classic cracker is narrow. Each room sits almost in a sequence from front to back. A door at each end, that, when opened, allow what little conjured breeze to flow slowly through the house, offering some sort of reprieve from the unbearable elements.
Although you are a Florida native, you should have some innate sense of resilience.
But in truth, you can’t hang with that sentiment.
It ‘‹is’‹ June. The beginning of the most terrible season and you’re currently sitting here in your bedroom with no air conditioning.
Outside, two HVAC workers have piled 500 square feet of ductwork in the front yard. Laid upon the ornamental coquina shells that serve as ground cover, the duct looks like a pile of retired yellow and brown sargassum yanked from the ocean by high tide. And like beached weed, purple shit flies swarm it. For a second it feels like you’re actually on the beach. But there is no water near, only these trucked in shells hiding cat shit your feral colony has learned to dig, and bury into.
Life can be worse.
But the rage one feels from being overheated is a hard ailment to overcome.
You lay down on the cheap, laminate flooring. Shirtless. Your pasty skin sticks to its dull sheen, and your pores open to absorb any sort of coolness it can from the floor.
Is it the heat?
Is it the inconvenience?
Or more so the savings you’ve been hemorrhaging since late December, to get your spoiled lives back to normal?
Your pocket buzzes. As you pull out your phone, it’s the time of day a barrage of non-profit cold-calls make the rounds.
You’ve been avoiding them. And in every avoidance, your guilt builds.
You finally put down your three dollar coffee, answering solely to punish yourself.
‘I can’t believe this.’
Your wife’s voice is on the other end, from an unknown phone that doesn’t register a caller ID. ‘Are you OK?’ you ask.
‘Fine, fine, sorry…I just dropped my phone in the toilet.’
She never indulges. You’ve talked for weeks about upgrading her to a new phone. And in the end, the most modest version was purchased.
Here it was, now, she explained. She’d laid out a bamboo bowl of dried rice, the phone enshrouded into it like a corpse put to rest in a wooden, bare bones coffin.
There, she hoped that some techy, reverse voodoo magic might conjure even the slightest of a resurrection.
Just the basic return of the power light would void defeat.
You both agree to wait, to give it a couple days: this is your refusal to give in to the curse of The Doll.
You are in the heart of the swamp. Two hours north of your shared home. Your wife commutes here, 120 miles north of Tampa Bay. She goes from air conditioning in Tampa, to air conditioning in our car, to air conditioning in Gainesville.
The average lifespan of central heat and air averages 15 to 20 years. In Florida, due to it’s high output, 10 to 15 at most.
Servicing of the unit is just part and parcel. And, because she takes precautions, it was just done last year.
She always takes precautions.
For weeks, she and her roomate have been devoid of air conditioning. Her HVAC’s plumbing, the coolant piping laid within her home’s foundation had been compromised.
They’d been dealing with it the old fashioned way, using the mid-century method, with electric fans, several of them placed strategically throughout the house to create a cross breeze of circulation.
Because of the subtropical environ, where every household has an A/C, major servicing is weeks out.
And it’s no easy feat, and not light on your savings account.
She stays out as long as possible, coming home late just to sleep.
You wondered: What if this Doll had been stowed away, displayed in an oddities museum in New England?
For crossing it, you’d get snowed in and your heating system would fail.
Or your car wouldn’t start, you’d have to walk in the snow to work.
Or, to make the situation more convoluted, for talking heavier shit, your brakes would fail, having suffered an odd instance where a wild animal gnawed your brake lines.
Or maybe you live in San Francisco?
Your parking brake mysteriously gives out one of its near vertical hills, your house catches on fire, or a tiny earthquake rattles the land, severing off a piece of roadway into the sea that you so happen to be driving on.
But this is Florida
And The Doll’s hex is formulaic, catering to this much more uncompromising peninsula. Here, you pay physically, psychically and financially, where it pains most.
December 27th, 2017.
To leave the Keys behind each winter puts a lump in your stomach. The same feeling you got as a child, after summer break, knowing you had a full year of a new school term ahead of you. Not existential, just a sense of morose, a loss of the forward looking to experiences that makes your life much easier to navigate.
But this year, you have mid-points.
Last inhalations, to break up the abandoning calm and contentment.
At this road-side tourist trap, you dodge aggressive pelicans. Each, like a living buttress of Janus, the Greek God of beginnings, gates, transitions, and sadly, endings. Weaving through them, their heads’ cocked to strike the sardines out of your hands.
You sign a waiver to enter, in case nature allows for your digit (or two) to get removed in the feeding process.
Making it to the end of the dock, dozens of six foot tarpon wade in the artificial depths of this dredged canal. They wait, their silver dollar sized eyes peer up, motionless until your hand descends to the water’s surface. And as if there is an honor’s system in the waiting game, one single tarpon breaks away from the school and ascends slowly. Less than a foot beneath your hand, you can see its giant, chrome scales, the pure black of its eyeball, and the line along its lip that denotes the true, massive size of its mouth.
Without an indicator, the giant fish is airborne, its mouth agape, as it slides its lips around your fingers, your wrist.
Having done this hundreds, possibly thousands of times, the last bit of luck you’ll experience (for months) is bestowed upon you as it slides back into the depths, fish in gullet, your skin unscathed.
This is Florida: Its tourism revolving around the potentiality of mental and physical harm.
Of heat stroke, an alligator attack, maiming by a giant fish, of being drowned in the undertow.
The other guests to this specific tourist trap–snowbirds who have only experienced the Keys within its many antiseptic resorts.
To you, feeling a native haughtiness, this is an extension of your local ecosystem–brutal in essence, that you, sometimes pretentiously, defend as your home.
You drive another hour. Back north, through the last carpals of the Key’s island chain that connects to the mainland by one final bridge.
You cut through the mangrove forests, sandwiched between those two vast bodies of saltwater, and wind back up into Homestead.
The faded white facade of your recent find reveals itself again at the end of Highway 1.
You park out front, parallel on the side of the highway, just two parking spaces from its large windows, overlooking the main thoroughfare.
On stepping inside, this ‘‹is’‹ the beginning of the end of your trip. And once you step back out, it is over.
Placing your order, your wife forgets her cell phone charger in the car. She asks for you to wait for your food while she snags it.
‘Be back in a second…’
Those reminiscent smells welcome you back; nutmeg, accents of ginger, allspice. You knew what you wanted, you had been planning it for hours.
After you eat, there will be another 3 hours on the road, through the flat and vast visual emptiness of The Everglades. Taking a right turn on the western edge of the state, you will head due north up the I-75 corridor. You’ll pass the almost depressing endless sprawl of northern migrants taking over the high priced real estate of the dozens upon dozens of coastal towns. Finally, you will land back in Tampa Bay. The sadness finally setting in, at the end of your one, annual, coveted vacation.
After answering your phone.
‘Come outside, please…’
Your wife’s voice is collected. And in that affected control, you know from experience that there is something terribly wrong.
You walk past the six or so, tiny tables that take up the small dining room. You open the restaurant’s front door, a bell jingles, the low budget blinds shake loosely as they barely do their job muting the bright, 2pm sun.
You walk outside, into the uncompromising sunlight.
This ‘‹was’‹ your happy place.
December 24th, 2017.
The old, Civil War fort is poorly lit. The coquina shells that line both the floor, the walls, and the ceiling ooze a compounded smell of mildew. A humid salt stench as if the porous building material had been dug from the bottom of what was once a shallow sea, submerged for eons. It in fact had been.
You walk from corridor to corridor. Each room, originally selected for different utilitarian functions; an officer’s quarter, a hospital, a munitions room.
Now, each has turned into a segment covering a piece of the island’s history; wrecking, slavery, the Spanish American War, the Cuban Revolution. These small spaces are jammed with historic paraphernalia. You do your best to not knock anything over as you meander slowly through each, absorbing as much as you can, though, like in every museum, overwhelmed and processing little.
Midway through the exhibits, you reach the creme-de-la creme. The main attraction of this house of relics. Its significance has no grand bearing on the centuries’ worth of relevant people, places or things. Or of any real history for that matter.
It’s like any inanimate object. Life breathed into vicariously through human contact.
The Doll: a fetish harboring its child owner’s claustrophobia, of being stuck on this island, four miles square, and not being able to escape the unnamed trauma suffered from it.
Its legs and arms are tan, the canvas like material serving as skin, stuffed with whatever could fill that anthropomorphic void.
The eyeballs are buttons sewn to the skull.
It wears a little outfit.
And unlike a normal doll, it is big, the size of a small human.
Grotesque, you think.
Grotesque always draws more attention. He is the reason this museum exists. And you are now infringing on his space.
Seeing him in his glass case. Seeing your wife through that glass on the other side.
You see the Chalkboard. The selection of colored chalk. The existing salutations written upon the board.
‘Thanks for letting us visit you.’
‘We’re so glad you’re doing good.’
‘Please, please stay well.’
Those messages of thanks. Of appreciation.
But some, uncomfortably, beg forgiveness for past rebuff.
And all of this unfounded superstition, you fear, is what drives your wife mad.
You see her reach for the chalk, but that is all you bear to witness.
You take a left outside into the courtyard. The sun is on high, it dowses the foliage, the greens and purples and reds, overexposing all of it.
This is your island paradise.
You can only hope that nothing will ever ruin that.
It has been six months.
Six months since seeing The Doll.
Six months since you walked away from The Doll’s display, in fear of what your wife was about to do.
Over the Spring, your HVAC’s have gone out, and have been replaced.
It has been four months since your wife’s cell phone was submerged. It still goes haywire at random.
And, just now, you’ve finally recovered the loss of everything that was stolen out of your car in Homestead.
Back when, at 2PM in the afternoon, at your beloved restaurant, The Doll’s hex was triggered as someone shattered your car window with a spark plug and snatched your computers, tablets, toiletries, prescriptions, and a $250 dental mouthguard.
Over the past six months, your savings have been hemorrhaging just to get back to the stasis you built before leaving for the island.
All of this, because of a Doll.
Its curse somehow directed at expensive, practical objects that allow you to live in this state.
Yet, all of this could have been avoided.
You could have swayed your wife to join you in the courtyard that December day.
But instead, you walked out, in fear of bearing witness, into the sunlight, into your paradise, alone.
And when you walked back in, it was too late.
Through the glass display, past where The Doll somehow stood as if in judgement, you could see your wife’s arm scrawling something in pastel blue chalk.
And as you peered around the glass cylinder, The Doll’s beety, buttony eyes glaring into you, her fingers dotted a period after six malignant words that would initiate ill omen:
‘Dear Doll, You can suck it.’read more
Taking two steps up a pair of offset cinder blocks, I crept behind the cheap, pink, plastic shower curtain, cordoning off an open air toilet, raised, just high enough, so the shit and piss could drain into somewhere out of sight. Twenty four hours into Mexico, the only object witnessed marking manufacturing ties to the US were these glistening stools, seen both in upscale, but mostly in the down-scaled squats, screen printed ‘American Standard.’
Trying my hardest to not touch foot skin to the grimey cement, I pulled my swim trunks over my black shoes, and my black, calf high socks. Stepping back down from the DIY outhouse, I walked to the overhang where the stewards to this illegal commune, grilled skewered chicken thighs over an open fire.
‘One hundred pesos’ the man with a tightly cinched belt called out. His jeans pulled up high above his belly button, turning them into high waters. Shirtless, his skin was deep brown, leather.
‘Would you like a pair of goggles?’
At the equivalent of $5 US dollars, our dip in their cenote was all ready four times the norm. ‘No thanks’ we said, thinking the addition might jack up the price.
‘Here…you cannot go in there without these.’
The leathery gatekeeper handed us a pair of swim goggles to share.
‘I have some weed too, if you’d like to test it?’
‘No thanks,’ I responded, as politely as possible. I could tell from the deep red, the overexposed blood-shot-ness of his eyes that his self-testing had been a success. He didn’t need me to be his guinea pig.
I’d wondered how we got our apartment rental so inexpensive?
The entrance to the complex was a long and arduous paver brick road above scorched earth, winding into the jungle. As we walked, we could hear tinkering in the woods. Of foundations being laid. Rebar hammered into the ground. Of the metal innards injected into open architectural cavities. All man-made sounds, coming from deep in this Yucatanian wilderness. Until we turned a corner.
At this junction, the left side of the road opened up to avail a medley of modern, Miami style condo complexes of cinder block facades, rosewood accents, and thatched roofs. Florafauna.
Those cozy, regional names, celebrating the jungle-scape that each impending building trampled under hoof. We switched back, we switched forth, meandering through a small expat city freshly imprinted into the earth.
Aldea Zaman’‹ was the name of the neighborhood. Zaman village, our upscale Condo.
Antiseptic inside. A paradise of palms surrounding a shallow, lima bean shaped pool in the courtyard where, under the water, alternating lights mimicked the Gulf of Mexico casting hues of red, green and blue into the pumped in, chlorinated waters.
The Mayan Super greeted us.
His left eye, milky and dead with blindness. His right, avoiding direct facial contact.
Opening his left hand, he gestured us through a heavy, rosewood door. Its panels connected by medieval rivets, able to withstand a small army’s battering ram, or a impending Yucatanian, pagan jungle.
With his right, he unlatched an adjacent, unembellished passage, and stepped into his darkness.
With the grandiosity of the Mayan pyramids, the sacrifice of warriors, both of their sweat, tears and of themselves, to the Gods, to the Chieftain, to the perpetuity of the existence of their people, I wondered with what means, with what impetus, a boat load of Spaniards successfully made their way this far inland?
Those paintings at this 18th century colonial mansion, told a brindled story: Walking from frame to embellished frame, traversing beautiful, imported tiles, I gathered an interpretation of a one-sided conquest.
Near the entrance of the mansion, there was gold flake memorabilia in the diminutive case. Its reception desk, overlooking the Catholic Church at city center.
I didn’t have to look far to find my answer.
Outside the colonial home, we chose an alley and headed north.
Here, in the Yucatan, the golden hour seems perpetual, reflected within its urban interior through the choice of architectural pastels. Each house, each mechanic shop, the bodegas, all interconnected with narrow corridors radiating from city center outward and eventually into the no-mans land of the almost infinite jungle-scape.
Could it have only been a nine minute walk?
Ducking off a busy thoroughfare and underneath a stucco arch, this gate was kept by a tiny woman in a thatched hut. The scene was reminiscent of an American, old-timey lemonade stand. I gave my thirty five pesos, the equivalent to $1.50, and instead of lemons, I was granted entrance into a cave.
On the path leading into its mouth, a family of Mayan children hocked woven woolen bracelets in bright tones of orange and red, accentuated with cream fringe. Their mats littered with salvaged plastic beads, in an assortment of motley sizes. Each pieced together on a stringed necklace: perfect to help a foreign tourist remember.
We descended a switchback of stairs, opening one hundred feet below into a giant cenote. At the bottom, looking directly above us, an outcrop, which was the lip of the cave’s mouth, hosted a giant nest of bees swarming ancient roots that crept through the karst, surrounding a giant pool of ‘sweet’ blue, fresh water.
Bat guano infused the stagnant air.
In and out of shadows, hopping from stalactite cubbies created by millions of years of seeping water, a black vulture balanced precariously on the rock’s edge. It watched the swimmers below, in hopes, quite possibly, that someone might float lifeless to the top.
To the left, up high, overlooking the massive cenote, a school kid strummed a guitar. And with a bamboo flute strapped to his neck, whistled, on repeat,
And ‘It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth The minor fall, the major lift..’
He will always lord over this image in memory; my reminiscence of a true Mayan temple. He is, unbeknownst to him, the ‘baffled king on his throne composing hallelujah.’
I could see the blinded Super just shy of his threshold. Though it wasn’t he who woke me, it was the birdsong. The calls and cackles. The whistling. Of the Melodious Blackbird. Yucatan Jays. Pairs of Chacalakas, with their ornate tail fans, their unnecessarily long necks, bellowing praise for morning.
Through this fresh experience, I naively hoped the birds were calling to us.
From the roof I watched the sun rise. It cast light on the trees, black specs, rising in and out, littering each. And in the distance, the white froth of surf in a sea that connected from where I came.
Amongst it all, rising up in the Mayan jungle, several obelisks stretched no higher than four stories. They served as totems of fledgling conquests to the environment, by fresh, white conquistadors.
The higher the sun, the more pitched their frequency.
I had heard rumors this was more common near the equator. The last frontier of arable lands.
The birds weren’t inviting, they were requesting our mass exodus.
Daniel was betrothed to the jungle. From Mexico City, he moved here to the Yucatan almost twenty years ago to be better connected to a somewhat primitive landscape. He was here before the resorts, the influx of central European tourists. He was here before the squatters made him pay to enter this cenote.
ï¿¼’Ts’onot,’ from the Yucatec Maya, anglified into ‘cenote.’ Where limestone bedrock dissolves and exposes groundwater.
Ts’onot; of mystical properties, a connection to the spiritual world, what the Mayans regularly chose as a dump off for human sacrifice.
Cenote; we experienced, as middle class, white vacationers from the US, simply as a way to cool off, in this blistering, subtropical winter.
Daniel dove in, head first. The water’s clarity allowed us the view of his perfect, inverted arc underneath and across. For no less than ninety seconds he remained submerged, surfacing when he reached the other side. He ducked in again, and with much less propulsion, made it back to the other shore, where we sat, in shock of his endurance.
Daniel told us that this pool, this cenote, was the most natural that he knew of in this stretch of the Yucatan. Unlike the others, mostly cut into cave systems, this pool was strikingly different. Primitive, exposed to the elements, the acrid smell of sour salt dried up on the mangroves roots that enveloped this hiding place.
We learned from Daniel that the farther inland you go, the more ‘sweet’ the water becomes. Here, near the coast, brackish water serves home to sea creatures. Sheepshead, fiddler crabs, and the mythical ‘Sebalo.’
With multiple fins on its back, jagged scales serving as a prehistoric armor, If you’re lucky, he said, you will see it dipping in and out of calm water like a serpent.
Daniel mentioned that he had only seen the Sebalo here, in this mangrove swamp.
The sun dipped lower on the horizon, the water’s chill bit a tad harder, as I jumped in one last time. Pulling the cheap, plastic goggles over my eyes, I began doggy paddling across the pool. Underneath me, in the expansive deep, I hoped for corinthian columns, reflecting some grandiose empire, lost to grandiose cause and effect. But where the karst withered away over centuries, giant, amorphous boulders lay piled instead. As I waded, the water became colder. I could feel my skin shrinking closer to bone as I paddled my arms in circles, balancing myself in the brackish water just long enough to take a mental picture of what lay below and beyond.
I scissor kicked, one-two.
I waved, right arm up, left arm down.
And on that downward stroke, the downward spiral of my wedding band began as it slipped off my boney finger.
Through my cheap goggles, I watched it slowly descend into the schools of sheapshead as they darted in and out of their rocky homes.
A myriad of other smaller, unidentifiable fish turned circles on the outskirts.
Panicking, I heaved myself, head first into the water.
But it was a futile, reactive thought squashed quickly by the rational mind of a poor swimmer. Raising my head above water, the sun setting to close, the shadows below gained darkness.
Tumbling through the currents below, I could only hope my wedding band would be swallowed.
By a fish, evolved from the environment, a fish that belonged here.
Or maybe even the mythic Sebalo. Gulped down through what I envisioned to be its otherworldy sized mouth.
The king of this body of water.
Until the day, inevitably, when this mangrove forest gets trampled into a sandy beach for an Eco hotel.
With its tin roof, white hurricane shutters, and dapper servants with name tags stating where in the world they came from: Estonia, South Africa, Hollywood-Florida.
They will call it ‘Sweetwater Preserve’ or ‘Playa Del Sol’ or simply, ‘The Mangrove.’
And on that beach, a tourist, from somewhere far away, will pluck that fish.
They will hand it over to the kitchen where the head and tail will be sheared off.
It will be properly de-scaled.
And when the knife begins to fillet its abdomen, the gullet will reveal an ancient, Mayan relic: that black band, a paradox, encompassing the secret marriage of a lost Yucatanian civilization and the environment that enveloped it.
Photo by Brian Adamsread more
I. Mother Brain
I sat on the edge of Craig’s bed, legs dangling off the edge.
It was a single. Narrow. Just five feet away from Alan’s. Another single, pushed against the far wall.
Craig was 12. Old enough to cruise the neighborhood at all hours on his bike.
Alan was 17. Old enough to drive. Old enough to procure a fake ID.
Their dad worked second shift at the hospital as a male nurse. So every night was a sleep over.
In my hands was the controller. The black plus. The black dashes. The two red, round, cartoonish buttons I learned to tap frantically with my thumb.
To jump mushrooms as a fat, mustachioed, stereotype of an Italian. Or, to hit golden pyramids on that little orange motorcycle. Not to land smooth by any means. But to launch as far as possible and land with crushing momentum. To tumble head over heals, a mechanized cartwheel that in reality, would instantly kill a human being.
Or, in this case, late at night, as Samus Aran. The secret female space warrior. The lone survivor of an intergalactic monopoly controlled by a giant evil brain in a glass jar.
I trudged through each level. For months. Living in a space suit. Flipping. Rolling. Shooting a pellet-like gun that propelled projectiles at mutant bats and cosmic porcupines.
Each night, Craig would remain in the sunroom while I hammered away on the controller.
There, very late at night, in that shoddily crafted addition, were when the erotic, X-rated movies were scheduled on cable. As ritual, Craig placed into the microwave a family sized, pre-cooked, frozen entree of Mac and Cheese. Sitting there on the couch, he’d fork out morsels of the processed orange goo, dripping off those stubby, curved, phallic bits of gluten.
The erotic themes were always the same. A hyper sexual successful business man banging a lonely housewife on the side. The plot was peripheral. The slow and long sex scenes were what counted.
Craig idolized Alan. His bigger, bad ass brother. The sex shows were a pre-occupation, a segue until Alan arrived home. Craig wide eyed. Always anticipating Alan’s stories of conquest. Of the club scene. Who he battled in a dance-off. Who he picked up, afterwards. Who he banged somewhere else in town, knowing, the two of us, always squatted their house after hours.
On that night, Alan’s crew rolled in close to daybreak. The House scene. Dance music. Pre-Rave. It was 1988.
The mandatory get-up: Running shoes, a tucked in colorfully embellished polo, pants hugging half way down an ass cheek cinched by a designer, twined leather belt. Although Alan’s crew were almost half female, everyone dressed the same.
III. Golden Watch
There were no drugs. The crew didn’t do drugs. And there was no alcohol.
They worked out during the day. Bench press. Dumbbells. Then danced late into the night. Craig and I knew this. But what we didn’t know at first, was that they ended, whenever opportune, robbing known dealers.
In Alan’s crew, the booty was split democratically amongst the fellow perpetrators of the perpetrators. They were the behind the scenes Robin Hood of our suburbia, but gifting only onto themselves.
On each return, the crew would divvy up the confiscated, spreading it out on Craig and Alan’s beds next to where I was playing video games, making sure to stash it away well before their dad made it home from work.
Cash. Jewelry. Gold. One night, Alan had a new gold watch on his right wrist. It had diamonds inlaid.
He was 17 years old. 5 years older than me.
For the first time, I perceived that.
The polaroid was faded. Craig handed it to me, thumb and index finger hugging it from below so as not to damage the totem.
The square photograph was as if it was left in the sun, an archeological remnant, brown and gold, watered down to one dimension.
It was point of view. An older woman on her knees, mouth slightly agape, lips curled around the dealer’s penis, committing only what we saw on paid cable.
I leaned over Craig’s shoulder to see it as if the barrier of his torso protected me from the odd guilt I felt, gawking at the victim’s intimacy.
In offense of my emotions, I went back to imbuing my closeted female superwoman. Flipping her. Rolling her. Allowing her to pull the trigger of her semi-automatic weapon.
Up, down, up down, left right, left right, start. Only to lose again. Far along within the game. Hours wasted. A feeble attempt to save what was left of the puerile idea of civilized society.
The garage door opened. The chain on the ceiling rattled, pulling upwards that flimsy corrugated aluminum door. Headlights blinded us, and once switched off, we saw Alan behind the wheel.
The garage door shut much slower than it came up, somewhat hermetically sealing a soon to be operating room. It was 3am. Alan had three hours left to accomplish somewhat of a surgical procedure.
In other games, it was less seeing the evil boss incinerated in a ball of flames. But much more, what came after. Last. The very end. Like the hyper dramatic intro to Star Wars, except here, there was minimal narrative, but rather a boring list of programmers scrolling slowly down the tiny TV screen.
Not a single one was not Japanese. Yoshi Sakamodo. Hiro Kiyota. Yoko Gunpe. Kano Mokato.
This is what I wanted. To see that list. To see dozens of names of incredibly intelligent people who I’d intellectually beaten.
I treaded on, locked up, back in the furthest bedroom. I led Samus through those purple and red stalactites. Darted between glass thresholds, opening and closing onto the untapped tunneling, the abominable underworld that was planet Zebes.
Up down. Up down. Left right. Left right. Start.
The metallic pounding reverberated from the garage, down the hallway and into the bedroom.
There, I pounded away at the controller. A synthetic muting to the felonies committed just beyond the kitchen. Alan was, by then, deep into the carapace of that champagne colored cadillac. Devoid of drugs, rather, he was stripping out the high end sound system. The speakers. The cassette player. Whatever auxiliary equipment could be plucked without compromising a get away.
I had entered mother brain’s chamber. There was her glass jar, easily cracked with one shot. It was a bone thrown by the programmers. A glimmer of hope.
Yet her minions showed little hesitation to kill. As before, so many times, I dodged those crimson, donut like fireballs rising from the molten lava below.
From above, rotating turrets sprayed celestial napalm. Down, often hitting Samus’ helmet and spacesuit.
When opportune, I somersaulted her into the gallery’s threshold, lining face to face, female to female, and let go button ‘B,’ firing missiles into the naked brain.
B–B–B. Missile after missile. Her oxygen system, the tube enveloping her with life, shuttered on each connect. The lava donuts increased. The napalm no longer sprinkled, it poured.
The electronic clock next to Craig’s bed blinked 5:45am in neon green. Its radio came on, piercing the room as an alarm.
In synchronicity, metal clashing, metal banging, amplified through the house from the garage:
A crescent wrench cracking down on an unyielding electronic box.
The Cadillac, physically beaten, voided of its electronic sinews.
There, Alan’s tools in motion and here, in the dark bedroom, mine.
Rockets fired into the hateful brain. Flipping backwards to reassess. Assuming position. Again.
The brain, beating rapidly, missile upon missile, convulsing in a cosmic death rattle until the screen faded to a pixelated and snowy white.
The royal gallery gave one last tectonic shake, and then what was once the mother of Zebes, exploded into a thousand fibrous pixels.
I heard the garage door open. I heard the ignition start. Sprinting from the room, I headed down the hallway, through the kitchen and past the family sized container, the dried remnants of Mac and Cheese.
I opened the flimsy, wooden weather worn door into the garage.
Alan was gone.
The Cadillac was gone.
The garage was cavernous, almost completely organized as Craig filed away the last of his brother’s felonious tools.
It was 6:15am. The sun was rising to the left of the garage’s ingress.
There was no reason to shut it. In this early morning, we’d fallen into ritual.
I looked at Craig, almost invisible against the shadowy void.
And the silence set in for just a minute, no words from either of our mouths as Craig and Alan’s dad rolled, slightly uphill, onto the driveway, perfectly fitting into their one-car garage.
The ignition turned off.
He opened the door, heaved out: a solid man.
His hair, always perfectly coiffed with sheen. His tan scrubs, smelling potent of cocoa-butter.
‘Mornin boys…’ He reached over to give Craig a daily, farewell hug.
‘You guys have a good day now…’
This was a repeat of the only interaction I’d ever see between them. Father and son.
Our daily, morning affirmation.
And on this day, the seemingly uneventful denouement, left behind us as we walked out of the garage, onto the sidewalk and towards the rising light.
Our bus stop was two blocks away. We were late as usual.
‘Memory believes before knowing remembers.’
The pine woods surrounded us. The thin, dark green spikes offered shade at a bare minimum.
It smelled like Christmas, partially comforting, when you didn’t whiff someone else’s acrid sweat stink. When you didn’t intermittently smell the surfactant, decomposing shit, creeping slowly into the air through the half moon cut-out of the out-house.
Rural South Carolina. No. Rural-Rural South Carolina.
Off the grid.
This is where I would live, for twenty hours in June.
William Faulkner illuminated this deep south into me before I experienced it first hand.
If it had a color, Brown.
If it had personality, Aloof, Unwelcoming.
If I could taste it, bitter acid, like Collard Greens.
So it went in his fictional, early 20th century county of Yoknapatawpha.
So it went, solidified, deep within the limbic system of my skull.
Faulkner was my muse. A literary death’s head.
From him, I always prepared for the worst in these parts.
There were seventeen of us. Safety in numbers, slaloming through the cement moguls of a near miracle called ‘Whipsnake.’
To get hurt here would be serious. Miles from civilization. A helicopter might make it.
We tried not to think of that, instead, digested what ‘is:’
Imagine all the iconic 1970’s California snake runs, dropped by Gods, kneaded into a semblance of geometric genius.
2PM. The sun’s rays crashed down. And we rode.
5PM. The sun’s rays heaved hours of direct radiation on exposed skin. And we rode.
Until dusk. Until we were sick from the heat.
9PM. This was the summer solstice. The most sunlight, in one day, over the course of one single solar year.
Tent city went up directly north.
A small faction set up east.
And I, dripping sweat, stripped down to my underwear, and set up a sleep palette in the bottom of the north eastern section of the cement Snake Run:
The snake run, I reminded myself, the shining jewel that drew us here against the rationality of our five senses.
By night’s deep pitch, I lay facing upward.
Arms out. Legs slightly splayed.
A single, lime Marimekko floral printed sheet draped over by body.
A hole near my toes, snagged in transit, inviting in droves of mosquitoes, slowly, plucking prime meats.
Midnight thirty. The coals from a dead fire rusted peripheral illumination on the cusp of pine.
Staring skyward, to see the Milky Way as clear as it was, white dwarfs, red giants, black holes consuming spiral galaxies.
The white and blue streaks of astral shit.
Stars buzzing, satellites in drunken orbit, criss-crossing, fucked up in making our world go.
3AM. In the near distance Coyotes howled. Several. A pack, at least.
In the nearer distance, they called again.
In the absolute near, I heard their nails ratchet into and against the cement maze.
Movement, silence, olfactory readjustment, then movement. Again.
I stared, motionless, back up into the swirling mass of Dark Matter.
Beyond human, beyond animal, beyond the fear of Yoknapatawpha.
The Cosmos above: The true Dyer Maker.
The coyotes were here with me. For a bit. And then they were gone.
Silence, here on earth.
Comfort in being: The slight something of nothingness.
The Cut Up Truth About Sex.
I remember biting on her ear
I had the whole thing in my mouth
and what we had was a failing to communicate
because the practice of talking and not saying anything
became synonymous with the chaos and confusion of sexuality.
They tell you what you want to hear just to suck you in
and that always puts you in a precarious position
in an extraordinary lapse of memory
too busy to bother remembering details
of mainstream science and legal systems.
Someday; I will learn enough about sex to give it up,
remembering science is for the ultimate benefit of humanity
or so everyone thinks…
My grandmother had a Virginia Slim in her right hand, and a tumbler half full of whiskey in her left.
She took long drags, overlooking the spread of newspaper columns laid out on our tiny, formica dining table.
Then, she exhaled. Long trails of grey tobacco smoke finding a home on the ceiling. It coraled itself there for minutes on end. The tar, staining yellow the spackled sheet rock. Permanently. Our whole house smelled like a wet ashtray.
She had no clue that I had just lost my virginity the night before. And beyond that, she had no inkling I was self conscious about it. If she did, I would be devastated. To think of her, thinking of me as anything less than a decent grandson.
She sat in silence. Puffing. Sipping. Exhaling.
Across from her I filed through each column. The sports section, entertainment, astrology, the goings on locally here in Tampa Bay. I was writing at this point. A lot. Every experience written down, filling up pages within multiple journals.
But this experience left nothing in me. A void. An odd lapse of memory.
Therefore, nothing came out of me.
In a cloudy retrospect, there was no real pleasure in the immediate anticipation. There was minimal memory of the actual act. And the aftermath: a frightening, inhuman reaction to an experience that was supposed to be, from what many had told me, life changing.
From the front page, I snipped paragraphs. From the Op Ed page I cut lines. Randomly laying them, like Scrabble pieces, on a blank sheet of notebook paper.
One line, then two. Then a makeshift paragraph of my own. A stanza. A sequence of stanzas. Three total.
My grandmother looked down, silent still. The words, disjointed, jammed together to form a cloudy coherence only to me.
She mashed her cigarette into her orange acrylic ashtray.
The last of the smoke rose, and she walked through the kitchen and into her bedroom.
On the ruled notebook paper, placed, almost randomly, was the above sequence of cut up lines from the Tampa Tribune. A self created inkblot test, to decipher, years later, what I felt was the truth about sex.
May 24th, 2015.
It’s been almost a year since I’ve conjured an unsolicited narrative. Simply put, I just lost the inspiration to write. There was no definitive reason. Being busy, maybe?
I read enough, outside ideas flowing in and out daily. This is what I have always used as a previous catalyst.
I’ve been traveling enough. A sight. A conversation. An instance. When happening, proves insignificant. Yet later, churns in memory, propositioning the cerebrum to expand outward onto paper.
Or maybe its seasonal? It being too hot, or too cold. Forcing me inside, where I can only fight some sort of creativity for so long.
Almost a year ago, an old friend forfeited a envelope of mementos. He and I, during the summer of 1998, ended up traveling across the US for six weeks. It was a big deal leaving, for me, the first time on the road for an extended amount of time. I had just turned twenty one. An age, that, for some reason felt like a midlife crisis. Of burgeoning from childhood, into some sort of civilian, predicted adulthood that I feared deeply.
In the envelope, buried among punk zines, photos, and old show flyers, was a poetry chapbook I had put together during the Spring of that year.
In anticipation of turning twenty one, in a nervous anticipation of leaving for the whole summer, I penned fifteen poems.
If memory serves correct, I printed twenty five of these chapbooks. And I gave all twenty five away, not keeping one for myself.
This had always been a terrible habit: creating, writing, sharing, yet never keeping a record for myself.
On opening the chapbook, slowly reading each entry all the way through, doubling back, and rereading again, I was delivered back to kernels of memory, the impetus to how I felt then. And now, much later, churning into what I’ve come to feel currently: of ethics, on faith, of politics, on a life that demands making some sort of sense out of it, against the odds of a collective, living memory that, for the most part, does not give a fuck about you.
This chapbook was somehow an odd antidote for a creative paralysis, a treasure trove to fleeting instances that had much more of an effect on me than I thought.
Each entry, delving into some sort of existential issue.
Each entry, asking, subtly, for a response.
The following posts, fifteen over the course of the rest of this year, are my attempt to answer that silence.
May, 16th. 2015.
There are few trips I’ve not wanted to see come to an end. Especially long ones.
But there was something about these nine days on the road that made this one in particular much different.
The players involved? The modus operandi? The scenery? The mutual, unusual experiences shared by the lot that tightened bonds of camaraderie?
I know this is the stuff life is made of, especially in the bmx scene, but for some reason, this trip amplified that basic concept leaving an odd afterglow of motivation and inspiration.
Here are five vignettes, based on five quotes overheard on the trip.
Its the simple things, the simple concepts that shed light on our being.
‘A mix between a wild animal and an alien…’
…is what we all are when riding bikes. Working completely against human evolution, throwing survival of the fittest to the wayside.
Each morning we’d wake and tend to our ailments.
Wrap that water on the knee. Ibuprofen for sore joints. Band aids down the shin in the shape of train tracks: we’ve lost all nerve endings here; this ritual is just a prevention against infection.
But what about mental health? Riding bikes as therapy, as habit to create some sort of consistency in a world of flux, as something we can actually have control over.
Why do we do the things we do? It falls into a much deeper idea of what it means to be human.
And whatever it is, we NEED it, which is always difficult to explain to those who don’t have it.
For our own sanity, we’ll continue to pain ourselves.
Maybe Sado-masochism is the bridge between being a wild animal and an alien.
Both combined makes us human.
‘Yinz gunna’ go up the Squirrel Hill Tubes?’
I can’t remember the last time I slept outside? Or maybe, I’ve been devoid of that experience all together, simply making up a fictitious memory based on vicarious storytelling?
My shitty yoga mat was laid down under a tree. The tree sat on a slight hill, where, all night, gravity pulled me downwards and I had to constantly re-adjust.
Little did I realize that my mat lay perpendicular on a wide root, arching my back upwards, pressing my guts towards the constellations.
Below me somewhere was ‘The Squirrel Hill Tubes,’ one of many routes to get to here, where I slept. That’s ‘yinzer’ for a specific tunnel, and when pronounced, the Pittsburghese add odd accentuation to ‘hill.’
‘Yinz gunna’ go up the Squirrel HILL tubes?
Sweating in the humidity, half naked under the beyond, uncomfortable in too many ways to count, I felt solace in the simple view overlooking the city.
Yinzers abound below, their alien dialect charming our humor: ‘Squirrel HILL tubes.’
With minimal sleep, the sun beat down on my head well before 6am, cooking me inside my sleeping bag. I was forced to wake up.
In a sweaty pool, I peeled myself off my mat, and lifted my torso off that hardened tree root.
The view was still incredible. Day as in night. And oddly enough, the bizarre position the root forced me to lay in offered reprieve from years of back pain.
‘This is the way the World Ends, not with a bang but a whimper.’
How many mill towns did we see? Three maybe.
Three was enough.
Being raised in privileged sprawl, you take what you have for granted.
I’m not the ninth grader with the bright green, ceramic weed leaf belt buckle.
I’m not the landlocked surfer with a shell necklace, hitting on business women in their 40’s, looking 16, but existing at 22.
I was embarrassed by my content in stepping back, in fear of what I am not.
And it seems they were too, in this backdrop of adversity, not wanting to be the cogs who made this great valley town what it was.
That night we talked for a couple hours in the bus. I remembered a line from the poem ‘The Hollow Men’ by TS Eliot. It reminded me of that town we visited.
Its last line: ‘This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.’
We’re letting it go, I thought.
Complacent with mediocrity.
Content with dying.
There are nine of us in a bus. Filthy. The stench of sweat permeates the re-circulated air that swirls inside our living compartments. There are food crumbs everywhere and our wet pads dry in what little light passes through the opaque, spray painted windows.
The bus itself sounds like an angry prop plane from the beginning of the 20th century. Not one prop, but six.
‘A dragon’ a cop had called it once, before he cited Steve a ticket for pummeling the sound ordinance.
When we cut through tunnels, the reverberations of that diesel engine firing pistons wreak havoc on your eardrums. It hurts, but it feels good. Oddly.
We can only drive 55 miles an hour, making each trip twice a long.
And in those long intervals between destinations, I looked around the bus.
All nine of us were smiling in utter contentment.
What’s so normal about that?
But I believe the pebble comes first.
In having an effect on small groups of people. Even more so, on individuals. That personal connection, taking a break from the superficial small talk and diving into the universe that is someone’s biography.
There’s the macro, and then there is the reality of our microcosm, which is a much better, more content place to inhabit.
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel with a bmx company for promotional efforts. And I view it like the punk scene, when I was fortunate enough, many years ago, to tour several summers in a punk band.
We’d get to venues where only ten kids would show up. But by the end of the set, those ten kids were infected so much by an energy, a passion for what you love, that an instant connection was made. Those connections, quite a few, still exist today (15 years later, I still keep in touch with several of those friends).
Although I’m far removed from the punk scene, and now, all encompassed by the bmx scene, the same ethics apply: empathy, a passion for what we have in common, love for our bizarre subculture.
These shared emotions will make friends for life.
It starts with one person, one connection: a pebble.
That pebble connects to other pebbles, morphing into something much bigger over time.
Throwing in the chair will come to pass on its own accord.
A little effort will go a long way.
Scene One: Winter, 2011.
It was winter. The sun was setting earlier on those days. The orange light dull, dipping west, barely illuminating the intersections.
Pedaling through downtown, we were stopped by a passing couple.
A young man. A young woman. Both no older than twenty.
The devotees seemed to travel in two’s, always a representative from each sex.
They asked about our bikes. Our pegs. Our small sprockets.
The young man was unusually in tune to the ‘extreme’ and cliched colloquialisms.
‘I used to rollerblade,’ he mentioned with a thick accent, ‘That shit is crazy, man.’
Holding us in conversation, this must have been a break from the odd route he and his followers traveled, in droves, ducking and diving out of trap doors speckling the sides of buildings.
Those buildings, transformed, maybe intentionally, reminiscent of the eastern bloc.
On his shoulder was the badge I had read about. The wreath. The bent palm trees.
He was fresh on leave from the Sea Org: from what I learned, the church’s cruise ship for their monetary elite.
This young man, his bright eyed submission under the guise of psychological despots, was one of their indentured servants.
Scene Two: Spring, 2013.
The historic, architectural tour led us into their new stronghold.
A recruitment center, commandeered from the skeleton of an old cigar factory.
For no other reason than being part of the tour group were we here.
Inside, subtle images of erupting volcanos inlaid behind lists of visual mechanisms identifying and pinpointing human whoas.
Our universal sense of debilitating ennui.
From what I gathered, the recipe for human vulnerability.
I scanned their twenty-one commandments.
Eleven more than the Christian ten. Their extension, even more rational, even more common-sensical.
It was a list of human notions jimmied to retrofit the 21st century, digital man.
Followers invested their life’s savings for guidance to comprehend.
To access some sort of magical key.
Cut into a corner of red brick, was an enclave.
A mock up, with hulking leather chair, a battleship sized desk with surrounding couture in wooden, outdated paneling.
This was the office of a omnipresent Robber Baron, having been quoted many times that ‘the way to make a million dollars is to start a religion.’
Was it right here, I wondered? This office?
The center of their universe where HE perpetually pens books. New copies belted out each year, signed with his initials, written from the grave, twenty five years after his death?
Scene Three: Winter, 2009.
He had been following us for blocks.
On bikes, a dozen of us, pedalling, searching for a handrail at a retirement home I remembered from over a decade ago. It was near the beach.
I could see it in my head: the handrail, attached to a ten story block building, painted in white and blue stripes, an architectural dinosaur from the fifties.
The rail served as walking support for those geriatric folk strolling out into the afternoon sea breeze, the warm light, resigning slowly on those oppressively hot days.
That was before they were kicked out.
Their building, in a sea of other low slung facades, all of them, slowly scooped up by the church of self help.
We zig-zagged from corner to corner, yet somehow, when paused to regain our bearings, our pursuer was just yards behind.
As he approached, I knew his motive from the color of his fatigues: dark navy pants, white button-up shirt, and golden, templar like cross shadowing an asterisks.
That symbol, almost glowing, embossed on every one of their formal name tags.
‘You guys looking for something?,’ he asked.
‘We, are actually…’ I had said, in quick retort, not ever being the first to step towards an accusatory question.
‘We’re looking for L. Ron Hubbard?’
His slight pause gave off what I perceived to be an understandable annoyance at a farcical question.
I expected, almost welcomed his agitation.
But instead, his response was hauntingly sincere:
‘He doesn’t live here.’read more
Bruce Chatwin was haunted by what was in his mother’s curio cabinet. Behind the glass was a hunk of skin, with a tuft of orange fur sprouting off like a chia head. When young, he seemed certain that is was a chunk of a monster.
Many years later, he’d discover it was actually a piece of dinosaur. Specifically, a piece of a Mylodon: a giant ground sloth that lived long enough through the eons to actually come in contact with proto-humans.
Those early hunter-gathering hominids were quite possibly the reason for their extinction.
Chatwin harvested this image, decades later, as the impetus for a solo trip down into the deep southern hemisphere. For months in the Seventies, he roamed through Argentina and Chile, in a vague geographical area called Patagonia. On his travels, he met the indigenous, farmers and cowboys for the most part, and plenty of exiles from Central Europe. Among those exiles were acquaintances of Chatwin’s second cousin who’s travels availed the piece of mylodon flesh.
Chatwin’s final destination was a cave in the far south. A hole in a mountain known as Cueva del Milodon where travellers had been migrating for years to collect the bones of this ancient creature.
After a four month trip, he finally arrived, however, upon entering, there were no bones nor any sort of remnant to take back to show for his attempt.
The memory of that mylodon totem from his childhood, that oddity of fur and pickled skin, became the preface to In Patagonia. A book authored by Chatwin that defined him as one of the best, modern English travel writers.
I loved dinosaurs. So much so when I was six, I transcribed three quarters of a dinosaur encyclopedia onto ruled notebook paper. I copied it verbatim, in my shaky child handwriting.
This was my first experience with the writing process.
It felt good to harbor knowledge, to share it on paper.
Weeks later, my grandmother found the plagiarism and threw it away as scratch paper.
Giving up writing, I decided on Paleantology. On summer afternoons, I’d go out and dig in the dirt. Forty miles inland on our peninsula, there is nothing but sand. Sand and old decaying roots often mistaken for dog turds.
There were no dinosaur bones here. It took me a whole summer to figure that out. By September, I had given up, losing hope that I would ever see anything pre-historic, in person.
In Florida, unbeknownst to me until years later, we did in fact have natural prehistory.
Cycades, or Queen Sagos.
Ferns. They’re everywhere. They lived through the past ice ages, they will live through the next.
And alligators. One of the many reasons people migrate here as a tourist.
Gators blanket the state. Hiding in every swampy crevice. Though, mysteriously, they are no where at the same time.
A Floridian can tell you where you might find one. And you might find it. But to find them in masse takes work. This phenomenon was what I sought.
We left town one weekend. I had a friend watch our house. On returning, laying there on the formica, next to an avocado and a couple tomatoes left to rot, were the keys. Attached to them was a diminutive claw. Dark brownish-green, skin like ancient bacon.
It was a baby gator foot.
This keychain would be my totem, like Chatwin’s, instilling in me the fire of travel.
Mine, less far.
A regional determination, in my own backyard.
To see gators. In numbers.
I wanted to see hundreds of them.
A couple hours north of our house lies a prairie. A prairie that had been inhabited by humans for ten thousand years. An area where, more than likely, Mylodons came into contact with humans.
In the middle of the prairie is a sink. As the weather cycles over centuries, Paynes Prairie alters from bone dry, to complete inundation: a consistent layer of water a foot deep.
The early native tribes believed the sink to be a maelstrom, an entrance into the center of the earth. Around it, buffalo and wild horses continue to roam.
Inside of it, Gators, by the thousands, call this their breeding ground, their picnic table, their beach for summer sunning.
I had to go.
It was mid July. Well past gator mating season (I would learn this to be their most aggressive time of year).
Into Payne’s Prairie is a raised isthmus of land that serves as a walking trail, twenty feet wide with swamp on each side. There is no railing, no barrier between you and the elements.
Walking along the path, the swamps occasionally open up onto vast stretches of water. These are seasonal lakes. By July, they’re filled.
Across each, we witnessed small masses floating here and there, what we would discover to be a gator highway. Two lumps protruding from the water: eyes. A sequence of lumps trailing behind: its tail, swishing back and forth slowly.
We were warned by the game warden to stay on the path.
It was mid-day, the sun brutally beating down. And as we walked, the reeds would often shake violently on each side: the sounds of gators thrashing, running for alternative cover.
They were as scared of us, as we of them.
We walked about a mile into the Prairie. At the end of the isthmus was a lookout tower. On climbing its three stories, we had a panoramic view five miles square. Just a fraction of the fifty three miles Payne’s Prairie encompasses as a whole.
Water holes spread as far as we could see. On the banks of each, gators laid, their noses touching the water as to not be disconnected from an escape route. Still, dead still. All of them under a blanket of blistering sun. Each one an unapologetic killing machine. Their ancestors dating back millions of years, surviving ice ages, global warming, asteroid extinction.
Atop the tower was an older gentleman, a senior warden, his bushy white mustache issuing a calming effect as he bulleted historical facts of both flora and fauna.
He told us a story of two bulls at the height of mating season. Each, from what he remembered, twelve feet long, clawing, rolling and snapping in a fight to the death.
A group of game wardens had to brace up, and with poles, jab at the bulls from a distance to break up the brawl.
‘It was loud,’ He said, ‘visitors were running to the entrance of the park.’
Across the swamp, mid conversation, there was slight movement. One of the thousands of gators, lumbered, hauntingly, and slipped into the tepid water.
‘After we broke it up, one of the gators left a foot there in the grass. Yep, snapped her clean off.’
He paused, sweat poured down my arm, partially from the heat, partially from anxiety. I thought about my gator foot at home, attached to metal keys.
Might it too have been found? A war wound. A digital casualty from the barbaric survival of the fittest?
Or did a redneck lop it off for an easy five dollars.
‘Food for the vultures, I guess,’ the warden said in parting, ending his monologue on a comforting note: as comfortable as it gets within Nature’s natural selection.