Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Love is a Happy Place

 

They don’t have blue jeans in Russia. And the price of chocolate and cigarettes is outrageous, Mrs. Real told us. She also said, “to be mindful” of those things when writing our letters. I don’t know what that meant. To be mindful. That day we would get the names of pen pals from Lithuania and we would write a monthly letter, the first we would take to the post office on a class field trip. That is what I was excited about. Seeing the back of the post office where they put all the letters. All I knew of the place before then was the huge painting in the lobby of a field of bright yellow flowers and the large glass bowl of Dum-Dum suckers, free for kids.
 

At the time, Lithuania was still part of the USSR, which we understood as our enemy for reasons none of us really knew. “Why we writing to them if we don’t like them?” a boy asked. Because, one day, maybe we can, Mrs. Real replied. “What should we say?” squeaked a girl. Say whatever comes to mind. Talk about your life, your family, and your school. Your interests. Your pets. “What about music? Can I talk about Michael Jackson?” another boy interjected. They don’t have Michael Jackson in Russia, she answered grimly.


We looked at each other. What godforsaken place was this? No blue jeans, chocolate, or Michael Jackson. I wondered if they had Dum-Dum suckers, but I didn’t say anything. If I knew the word fuck I would have used it then. It is the only word there is for that exasperated feeling. I don’t know what I used instead of it. Maybe, gosh. I wasn't even to damn yet.
 

We huddled around the desktop globe on recess. It was snowing outside and someone lost the Sorry! game pieces so we had nothing to do besides write our letters, draw pictures, read, or look at the globe, which tilted on a plastic-gold axis that squealed as we spun it. All of us kids liked to spin it. I don’t know why, or what I thought looking at it, but I didn’t feel as though I were on it, or that it was at all possible. My young mind was blown to smithereens thinking that I was but an invisible speck the way they told us in Science that we have invisible specks all over us called germs. And that not all germs are bad. I thought, for some reason, of Russians as germs and I had to reprogram myself to think that despite Hollywood and the rhetoric of elected despots, like germs, not all Russians were bad. The ocean of that globe was blue, most of the land was green. But the USSR was a barren-shade of brown, blotched with white in all others. It looked molted.
 

Mrs. Real pulled down the vinyl map that hung on a roll in front of the chalkboard. Someone had drawn a naked woman in permanent marker on the state map some time ago, so she was mindful of which she pulled, pulling slowly and peeking as she went. The naked woman had yet to be replaced, but inevitably would be. It wasn’t much of a naked woman really, but you could definitely see all the right parts and she smiled, unlike Mrs. Real, who never smiled. Most kids called her a battle-axe, which was an elementary school precursor to bitch in those days. Kids these days just say bitch. My older brother said she ate children, but in all my 6 years of school, I had yet to meet a teacher who ate anyone, so I didn’t believe a word of it. Nonetheless, I entered the year cautiously, and didn’t say anything for about six weeks, unless prompted to speak. I’ve never been one to cause waves, or to go out of my way to be eaten.


Every day before lunch, Mrs. Real read us chapters of a novel in a multi-book series, one of which was called Dicey’s Song. Dicey was the eldest sibling and she and her younger siblings were left in a grocery store parking lot by their mom who went to a psychiatric hospital and later died. Through many travails, the kids ended up living with their grandmother. It was depressing, but a testament to the human spirit and very popular, she told us. It won an award. I wondered when they would get to her song, but they never did. I became leery of grocery store parking lots and worried of abandonment. I was introduced to human suffering and part of my innocence was lost with Mrs. Real’s caustic words, peeled from my soul paragraph by paragraph. The naked woman on the state map, crude as the image was, also looted something from inside me I’d never get back. I never wanted to grow up. I wanted to be with my mom and never leave home. Across town was a considerable distance. Lithuania seemed mythical. And to the post office was all the further I ever wanted to go.
 

When it came time to dole out names, I was last to choose because my seat was on the far right side of the room and Mrs. Real started on the left near her desk. The names were in a large heart-shaped tissue box left over from Valentine’s Day. The tissues had been used up. Boys were to choose only baby blue paper. Girls were to choose only the pink. The box made its way around slowly and apprehensively I peered down into the oval tissue hole. There was just one piece of paper left to be birthed and it was pink.
 

I am sorry, but while the boy-to-girl ratio between our classes was very comparable, it wasn’t perfect. You will have to have the name you picked because they are waiting on our letters to determine who their pen pals are, Mrs. Real informed me decisively. Perhaps, she saw the look of terror on my face in that I would be writing to a girl. A germy Russian girl. What had I to say to a Russian girl? I hadn’t even peeped but two words to an American girl up to then. I might have said excuse me once. Or thank you. I thought, at first, I would be absent the day we wrote our letters, and absent for the field trip to the post office, depriving myself the opportunity to see the back where the letters went. That was my calculated sixth grade plan. The best I could do. I looked at the name on the paper with dread. In perfect English print it read: Lana Kaminskas.  
 

When my brothers found out they were merciless, as to be expected. I confessed to my mom and she said it was a sweet thing, which made it worse. She said that writing to a girl would be much easier than writing to a boy because boys are mostly illiterate and stubborn. “Would you like your brothers for pen pals?” she asked me plainly. She always had a way of putting things as though when I was in utero she developed a subconscious understanding of me that scientific theory cannot hope to explain. They snickered because I was writing to a girl and they said I could tell her all about my Barbie dolls and my collection of My Little Ponies, and maybe we could share panties. I didn’t have either. Nor did I wear panties. They told me to sniff the letters and send plenty of Xs and Os. I was the Queer in Smear-The-Queer for a whole month straight. I didn’t know what a queer was, or how a queer was ever rationalized to be someone who liked girls, or who was forced to communicate with them by letter. But those were the eighties and I was a kid.
 

I abandoned my plan of being absent on either day. My perfect attendance pin was on the line. And more important to me than ridicule or embarrassment, was admiration in my principal’s eyes. Other boys at school didn’t seem to care I was writing a girl. They didn’t seem to care much for the letters at all and most dreaded the prospect of writing, so talking about it would only serve to remind them of their dread. I was told by one of the kids though, who seemed to like to write as much as me, that President Reagan was going to blow up Russia with a nuke. He drew a picture on notebook paper of an olive-green plane dropping a large bomb over what appeared to be St. Peter’s Cathedral. He said he was sending it to his pen pal, Sergei Petrov. I was envious. I would never be able to send war drawings or make other subliminal threats to annihilate my pen pal’s country if push came to shove.
 

We watched a documentary on the Soviet Union the next day. I liked the art, and Rasputin seemed cool, though he looked like the most villainous person I had ever seen. One of those dirty guys from the biker bar near my house, but scarier. He would haunt my dreams through junior high. I felt badly for the Czar and his family who were killed by the Bolsheviks, though I admired Lenin and the communists for wanting to give power to the people, as they said, and their furry hats. But the documentary took a decidedly dower turn when they spoke of Stalin and poverty and Siberia and the gulags and The Berlin Wall and their boycott of the 84 Summer Olympics in L.A., and most recent to then, Chernobyl. It felt like the narrator, whose voice was as buttery as Orson Wells, was trying to sell us something. It felt as though that at any minute, the Soviet Union would explode in a giant mushroom cloud. How could anyone live in such a miserable place? Do they even have pizza?
 

I wrote the first line in class, our allotted “writing day.” We were to at least write a full-page, but mercifully we were permitted to skip lines. I felt sufficient after four quick ones that I wasn’t able to stretch over the entirety of the page. I felt I had accomplished all that I needed to accomplish. It went as follows:
 

Hello, Lana,

My name is David Buss. I am 10 years old. I like to draw and read. I like to write. I like robots and football. I like tigers and Rambo.
 

And there I stopped. Mrs. Real came around looking at my paper. She gave me the angry look that likely had earned her the reputation of a battle-axe, or an eater of children. She ordered me to write more. She told me to ask her some questions, or ask what she is interested in so she has something to say when she writes back. So, I continued.
 

Have you ever seen a Siberian tiger? Do any live near you? Have you been to Siberia? Have you been to St. Peter’s Cathedral? How tall are the ceilings? Do you like school? What is your favorite subject? Does Russia have blue jeans? Do you like Coke or Pepsi? Is Michael Jackson really not there? Do you think about nuclear war? Do you –
 

Mrs. Real came back around in time to stop me from filling the rest of the page with questions. My handwriting was large at the top, but decreased in size towards the middle when I thought I wouldn’t have room to sign my name if I didn’t. I never imagined writing on the backside. “Don’t ask too many questions,” she said. “Give her a chance to tell you a little about herself in her own words. It’s not a questionnaire, David.” I erased the last do you, but let the others stand where they were. I finished the letter as follows:
 

We watched a documentary on the U.S.S.R. It looks like a bad place. I do not think I would ever want to go there. I could not go there if they do not have pizza. Have you seen E.T.? My parents got a VCR and I watch it all the time. I might send the tape to you if you have not seen it. If you have a VCR. It is snowing here. I am watching it out the window. I like to sled ride. Do you?

Sincerest,

Davey David Buss
 

My eraser was shot by the end, so I had to cross-out. It was more appropriate to write our full name, at least in the first letter, Mrs. Real told us. I had to look up sincere in the dictionary because I couldn’t remember how to spell it. I didn’t know sincerely was a word. I blew the eraser crumbles off the page and they fell to the linoleum floor which I stomped on as I submitted my letter to Mrs. Real for quick approval.
 

She nodded and then gave me the envelope to put it in. She showed me how to fold it and stuff it inside properly. After that, I licked the adhesive and sealed it. That was everyone’s favorite part. Licking the adhesive. She nixed the other boy’s apocalyptical nuclear bomb picture. She said we weren’t trying to start WWIII. We went to the post office on Friday with our letters in hand. We got to lick stamps and put them on our letters and watch them get placed in a tote on a conveyor belt for international mail. Then they were loaded on a truck and driven to another city where, we were told, they would be loaded on an airplane. It gave me a sense of finality, that my words were spoken and were magically in flight to her ears, or eyes, however slow.
 

A month passed and I got a letter back. I cannot say that I wasn’t excited. It was my first letter from anyone. My first piece of mail. My first direct communication to another human-being in a different country on this Earth that was reciprocated in kind. It smelled of lilacs and like Monopoly money. Lana wrote that she was happy with my letter and it made her smile. She wrote beautifully in English, which made me feel stupid for I could neither read nor write in Russian. I learned later that she didn’t really speak Russian, but rather, Lithuanian, French and English. She could though, she added. She said there were Christian missionaries from Missouri in her town that had taught English to anyone who wanted to learn it. She said she was a Christian and she liked going to Church. She said she loved ballet and dance. Enclosed at the bottom was her home address and she said I could write her if I wanted to, whenever I wanted to. She said she had a few friends and a pet rabbit. She also wrote, What is this Rambo?
 

What hesitation that was inside me, what reluctance I had, completely dissolved and I was happy I had written her. Happy that when that box came to me it had but one name left in it and it was on pink paper. I was a proud queer, if that is what I was. Like my mom said, it was good that I picked a girl. Everyone read their letters in class and the boy’s letters were dull and grim. I hoped my letter to her hadn’t sounded that way and I wondered if she read my letter in her class. I tried not to smile, or read too excitedly when it was my turn. I pretended, fairly well, to loathe it. I mumbled her words at times and like a gifted actor, I pretended that she did not interest me so much so that Mrs. Real had to say, “Speak up, David!”
 

I wrote Lana a letter that night and enclosed my address. I wrote another less than a week later when I realized I had forgotten to ask her something of great importance - the name of her rabbit. A week had passed since I sent her the first letter from home and I wondered if I would hear from her again. I was heartsick when a week more passed. Worried that I said something wrong. But then, at last, another letter came. The second letter. More imaginative and more beautiful than the first. Twice as long. Two full pages. She said it was good to write because it helped her practice her English, which made me sad until she said she liked writing to me because she likes me. Her rabbit’s name, she wrote, was Anastasia.
 

Then they came more often, always one per week, sometimes two. I asked her if she had difficulty getting money for postage and offered to send her a share of my allowance because I knew things were hard in Russia. She declined and said she worked at her grandfather’s store for the money to pay for letters to her “American friend.” I raked leaves before they fell. Cut grass before it grew. Washed cars before they got dirty. And I shoveled snow like I was a human snowplow. I always bought the special stamps because she said she liked collecting them. The Elvis was her favorite.
 

I soon learned that she did not consider herself Russian, rather, she was Lithuanian and there was a difference. All I knew was the brown mass on the globe. She wasn’t interested in dolls, or Barbie’s, and she had never seen “this My Little Pony.” She said it sounded silly to her. I was educated on the history of her country week by week until I was so full of knowledge I could practically write a book. I did a report on Lithuania in social studies and got an easy A+. It was like I lived there in another life and sometimes at night, when I didn't have bad dreams about Rasputin, I dreamed of the beautiful things she wrote, but surely, they didn’t exist like I had dreamed for my dreams were bright and extravagant, and Russia was none of that, we Americans knew.
 

She wrote some lines in her native language and left me to wonder what they said. I couldn’t find anyone who knew Lithuanian in my small town. She said she was too shy to say what she wrote, but assured me they were all nice things. Very nice things. But there were enough nice things in English for me to enjoy, so I was happily placated. She liked purple more than pink, and rain more than sunshine. She had a clear umbrella with pigs on it. And pigs were her favorite animal. She was a vegetarian. She liked snow more than sun, and winter more than summer, but adored spring the most and the flowers, wild yellow Coreopsis, in particular. But anything yellow, she added. Snapdragons, yellow Irises, Dutch Hyacinth. She told me her grandfather said she was a bee in another life. Her grandfather’s shop sold flowers because she told him she loved flowers.
 

What else did they sell? Postage, pens and lots and lots of envelopes, also at my request, she replied with a smiley face. I drew her a picture of a bee. I sent her pressed flowers that I found growing wild in fields. She said her grandfather drove her to town to mail the letters when he had orders to pick up for his shop. How she enjoyed those rides, she went on. The post office was like a cathedral made of white stone and pillars too fat for her and her grandfather to get their joined arms around. And high ceilings. She wasn’t sure how high, but higher than any ceiling she had seen before. I watch for the blue mail truck endlessly, she wrote. Please don’t stop writing me.
 

Everything she wrote was so beautiful and I absorbed it all so recklessly. When you are a kid, you don’t consider the inevitable ends of life. Everything will last forever. Nothing will ever end. Childhood is eternal, a kid thinks. She told me about a place called The Hill of Crosses. For over a hundred years, she said, people have gone to this hill in a town near her and left crosses. She said it was the site of a fort that Lithuanians used who rebelled against the Russian Empire. No fort remains. Many of their bodies were never found, so people put crosses on the hill in their memory. She wrote so sorrowfully, but there was beauty even in her sorrow. She said if I were to see one thing in Lithuania, she wished it would be this. I said I wished it would be her.
 

Our weekly letters continued across three years. Never once did I begrudgingly write. I was always excited to write her a letter, seal it, stamp it, and drop it in a mailbox. The fact that a painting of yellow flowers hung in our post office wasn’t lost on me and I took a picture of it and sent it to her and she wrote back and said they were Dutch Holland Tulips, which she loved. She said that is how God speaks and I believed her. I believed everything she said.
 

In the third year, we started writing a little less. I got into baseball and played in two leagues and practiced in what time I had outside of school. She told me she was in a ballet academy and hoped one day to dance professionally and internationally. I bought a music box with a porcelain ballerina dancing in it and sent it to her on our second Christmas. I bought another one and kept it for myself. And once in a while I opened it and I watched her dance.
 

I kept her letters in a shoebox under my bed. I read them often, but after a few years, I seemed to read them less. It comforted me that they were there though, that the music box was there, and eventually that was enough. She once asked me if I felt the distance was fair, and I said no, it’s not, but it is there regardless of how we feel about it, which probably sounded a little harsh. She asked if I ever would visit Lithuania. I didn’t reply. She sounded sad to read, and I knew there was nothing I could do to make her happy in a letter. I had a photograph of her and her grandfather on my bedroom mirror, but eventually with time, its corners curled, the tape lost its grip, and it fell. I never hung it back up.
 

I wondered if she kept the picture of me I had sent her. It was a baseball picture. My face was sunburnt, but I always liked how I looked with a tan and in a hat. I felt odd without either. I told her I would like to build a treehouse and pick flowers with her in the last letter I wrote. It was brief. One paragraph. She never replied to my letter and I never heard from her again. It broke my heart because I wanted to rekindle what had slowly faded. I was convinced that I could wash cars for a summer and earn enough money to visit her, but I knew I had wrecked myself then on the optimism and false hope of love. I knew my childhood was ending and that everything ends.
 

They replaced the painting of the yellow Dutch Holland Tulips in the post office with one of my small town when it was new. I asked someone what had happened to the painting, but no one I asked knew, nor did they seem to care. It hardly mattered. It wasn’t as though I could have hung it in my house. But I wanted to know. It was also then that I realized that I was too old to take a free Dum-Dum sucker from the glass dish. But I took one anyway.
 

I wrote her twice more after that last letter and received no reply. I wrote again and apologized for being so short over the past year and to explain why and to ask about her ballet academy, her grandfather’s health, and their shop. I admitted that I was upset because I felt I could never come to Lithuania because my family was poor and we could hardly afford our bills. A pizza was a luxury to us. So were new blue jeans and Michael Jackson records. The factory where my father worked closed and he took a job pouring concrete that paid much less. I got a paper route to help with groceries and there hardly ever seemed to be any time to write a letter. I never told her before then that we were poor because I was ashamed. But I promised her I would wash cars this summer and save enough money to come visit if I heard back from her. I never did.
 

Twenty-five years passed. I am 38. Age is but a kind of soup now. Life has gone from a series of never-ending days to a matter of what will end next. It has stopped giving, and has started taking. I never threw out that shoebox full of Lana’s letters. Or the music box. They have always been somewhere close to me. A jealous girlfriend once told me to throw them out, or she would dump me. So, I took the dumping. I was married and had two children, then divorced eight years later. My daughter accidentally broke the arm off the porcelain ballerina in the music box. I set it aside and told myself I would glue it when I had time.
 

I didn’t want to be divorced, but life hadn’t gone well after thirty for me. I battled with depression, which I had never admitted to. It often wouldn’t relent and my doctor said it was hereditary and a matter of brain chemicals and chemistry. I refused to take the pills he prescribed me. I stood at the pharmacy and watched the pretty lady count someone else’s pills and when it was my turn I walked away as she asked me if she could help me. I put the script in my pocket. It wasn’t the way for me. My mother died of a broken heart after my brother was killed in a car accident. He was reckless and drunk and ran off Chicken Coop Road and into an Elm Tree. Thank God he hadn’t killed anyone but himself.


But my mom’s heart was never really whole. She was a human sheet of thin ice, especially after dad left her for another woman. She was medicated most of life and never as close to God as she said she wanted to be. Her pills didn't seem to work. I realize that I know no person who is close to God and depressed, just as I know no person who is happy and distant from God. I almost got kicked out of a bar for saying so. I was further from God than I was from Lana.
 

I had a reasonably good job and built up a good amount of savings in a retirement account. But the company I worked for moved to Mexico and I was out of work temporarily. The phrase "hitting rock bottom," occurred to me. I felt like human algae. My kids are mostly grown and went on vacation with my ex-wife and her new husband. I find a bar and drink down some of my savings across a couple of days like my father had done before me when his factory closed on him. Unexpectedly, someone who I went to elementary school with, who is having dinner with his family, tells me that the old battle-axe, Mrs. Real, passed away earlier this month. He asks if I saw the obituary. No, I say. I feel bad, though I don’t know why. I was never close to her. It is one more thing life took from me. And then I realize that I am being selfish in my gloom.  
 

He was the boy who had drawn Ronald Reagan nuking St. Peter’s Cathedral. Russia is hosting the winter Olympics in Sochi, which plays on the TV above the bar. I ask him if he remembers his pen pal and he thinks about it, but says he doesn’t remember him at all, but adds he recalls having one. They traded two letters, he says. He says it was nice to see me and goes back to his family and I wonder if Lana is watching the Olympics, as a free Lithuanian since 1993. I wonder if she thinks of me at all, twenty-five years later, maybe when an American medals, or when she sees my first name in movie credits. Or when someone speaks of E.T., or Rambo. I doubt it because I doubt everything. I have no God inside me and my soul is as barren as Russia on that globe. But having no God, means there is God to be had. So, I pray, and driving home I ask Jesus Christ to come into my life as sincerely as I have ever asked for anything.


I am drunk as I dig out her letters from my closet, well after the bar closed. They are in the same shoebox buried under the few baseball cards I kept. The ones that are worth money. I sit down at my kitchen table and write her a letter. I probably wouldn’t have done so had I been sober, but drunk and religious is another matter entirely. I open the music box and tell myself to buy superglue for her arm because there isn't any in my junk drawers. But then I realize I have lost her arm over time. She still dances though, and music still plays as she does.
 

I drive to an all-night grocery that sells stamps and affix more than enough postage to get it there. The letter is simple. I had written several drafts that were elongated explanations of my feelings and circumstances, woe is me kind of stuff. But I wasn’t satisfied with any of them and didn’t want to depress her in my past personal despair. I didn’t want there to be any reflection of insecurity in my words. I wanted them to be like they were when I was 12. So, the letter reads simply, “I still think of you.”


I take it to the mailbox at the post office because I am positive it will get picked up there, rather than from the one outside of the grocery which looks exactly the same. Though never in my life had I known of a letter I mailed to be lost or stolen that I dropped in another mailbox, it seemed more assured in this one. I regret not taking it into the post office the next morning after the door on the blue metal box slams shut and the letter falls to a pile of other common  and impersonal letters that lie within its bowels. But it was done. And so, I wait.


What are the chances she has kept the same address after all these years, I consider. Regardless, when you are depressed, as I have finally admitted that I am, you develop ways to keep dreams alive that make you happy thinking about them. It is self-sustaining. A matter of survival. And optimism is fuel that burns fast. There must be some possibility for something better than your depression, for if that door closes, you are in a dangerous game facing expiry. In football terms, that letter was my Hail Mary pass.

 
A month later, I receive a postcard in the mail. The picture is of The Hill of Crosses. I flip over to the backside where the writing is and it reads in good English what follows:
 

I apologize for reading the letter addressed to my daughter but felt it might require response, at last. Lana passed away in 1990 as result of the automobile accident that took her grandfather, my father, as well. Beloved to her were letters you wrote. They were placed with her in her final resting place. A picture of you she loved that we keep in our home next to her. Please love and keep her in your memory. Please be happy, not sad. Love, Victor.
 

Three weeks later, three weeks of God every Sunday and nightly prayers, after sitting through church and seeing the Easter lilies behind the pastor all service, I sell those baseball cards and buy a ticket for Lithuania. My Mickey Mantle is drunk and doesn't mind, and Pete Rose likes my odds. Roberto Clemente thinks the idea noble. And Jackie Robinson is happy to be out of my closet and hopes to be displayed properly.


I read the Bible on the plane drinking bourbon and ginger-ale. My heart, despite the obvious sorrow, is full and I am closer to God than I ever thought possible. What strikes me about Lithuania, was the lack of brown promised by the globe. I rent a car and drive it to Lana’s town and visit the post office where she mailed me the letters. I smile as I see the pillars she couldn’t get her arms around and the white stone and the tall ceilings. I drive to what I believe was her grandfather’s shop that still sells stationary and flowers. It is busy, so I decide to come back later.
 

Then, after some difficulty with directions, I find her house. A quaint and rustic home on a route leading out of town. I am pleased to see it is abundant with flowers. Lilacs, mostly. Daisies, Goldenrod, yellow Dutch Holland Tulips, and other late spring blooms. The Coneflowers and Susans have just begun their summer lives. There is an abundance of yellow and purple and I know that it is her work with the perennials, and kept in her memory by someone who loved her, which warms my heart. Perhaps, a husband that I am not jealous of, but envious. Maybe her children. Or her father, who sent me the card. A cobblestone walk leads to a stunning stone and wood home, two levels and narrow, under a strange but ornately beautiful roof of unrecognizable material. Ceramic, perhaps. Birds fly over the house and I knock anxiously on a strong wood door that is blood red. A black cross hangs on it and I have a while of staring at the cross before it finally opens.
 

I expected her father to be wearing a black ushanka who, after a few bourbons on the plane, I had imagined to be a tall, strong man, like Nikolai Volkoff, but a man of considerable kindness, nonetheless. He had taken the time to send me the postcard explaining Lana’s tragic death, after all. But the door opens and the man standing there is short and stout. He is balding and gray. He has a kind and care-worn face and dark, but clear eyes. He speaks a little English and tells me that he is Lana’s father and immediately that he knows who I am. He smiles. He says he recalls the “picture of me,” though he remembers “a boy wearing hat in picture,” and “a boy with darker face.” The eyes, he says, they do not lie. “They are same. As is soul.” He says this is Lana’s home and he, at first, eagerly invites me inside, but then hesitates and abruptly rescinds the invitation. He steps inside, grabs his hat and cane and says we should go somewhere. Of course, I agree because I had imposed and I imagine that he wants to take me to Lana’s grave, which is the purpose of my visit.
 

As I am driving, he tells me to go left then right, then left, then we drive down a road for a few minutes back towards the town. All the while he is on his cellphone and speaking fast in Lithuanian, I suppose, and I begin to worry that he is going to kill me. That he is paranoid and is Russian mafia and he hates Americans. The mind wonders, it does. But he laughs on the phone and pats my leg like I am an old friend and he points the directions as he continues to talk and laugh. I wish I knew what he was saying, but it hardly matters. We will get to where we are going.
 

He tells me to stop at a large hill and there are old stone steps that lead up to the top. Looking down a long stone walk, I recognize where he has taken me. It is The Hill of Crosses. Same as the picture on the postcard. Where Lana once told me to go. Where I intended to go after I saw her grave. I eagerly get out and help him because he has a pronounced limp, but he politely brushes me off with his cane and says to go. He says, “Go up. I wait. I am old man. You young.” He then tells me to “find Lana” and he smiles warmly and there is a God-like twinkle in his eyes that I admire and respect. God is with me, I know, because my soul warms.


And so, I go and make the walk and I can’t see him or the car and I wonder if I am taking too long, or if he has stolen my car, a thought that makes me laugh at myself. There is so much to see. It is overwhelming and immaculate. Thousands and thousands of crosses of varying sizes, colors, and distinctions. So many different materials and ages. Some worn. Some new. Statues of Mother Mary and Christ Jesus. In one glance, it is heartbreaking, but in another, it is heartwarming. It is everything at once and my heart and soul are suffused with a great flood of emotion.
 

I imagine that Victor meant for me to find her cross. Maybe they spread her ashes here and there is no grave. I would be remiss if I returned to him and have to say that I could not find her. There are only a few people milling about who disappear in the pathways, but I do not feel alone. I really don’t think I have felt less alone in my life. In any crowded room, or busy city street. At any concert, or bar, or baseball stadium. I turn a corner hoping to see something that reminds me of her, see her name on an engraved cross, maybe. Then I nearly run into a beautiful woman who is entering from the walk and she smiles at me through uncertain eyes. I lose my breath in recognition of her which came as easily as I recognized the hill. Somewhere in the dark of her deep brown eyes, in the waves of her chestnut-colored hair, there is a fountain of eternal optimism and the young beautiful girl in the picture I kept on my mirror for so many years. Tears well in her eyes and mine, soon to follow. A pronounced scar on her face and a limp like her father’s take nothing away from her striking gorgeousness, and that which pours profusely from her soul.
 

“My father,” she says, her feet stirring the pebbles beneath her, “set this all up. He is a fox. He called me on cellphone and told me to come. I was at shop. I tell him I can’t come because of customers, but he says I must come. I knew then, though he didn’t say. In here,” she covers her heart with her only hand. “And I come.” 
 

I couldn’t speak for a moment. I stood frozen until the words came to me. “But why did he write and tell me you passed?”
 

“I wrote. I told you I was him on my behalf. A lie. Forgive me. I have thought of you every day since school days. But also, that you done well and married and have children and happy life and forgot me. After the accident. The scars. My arm. I never danced ballet after. I have never been with anyone, and I live and run shop since my grandfather passed in the accident.” A sleeve is pinned to her shirt and I think of the superglue that I never bought and the porcelain arm I lost.
 

There is nothing missing where it matters. Nothing is out of place to me. No scar, no wound, no ailment at all, and none could take away from that which is. And feeling that she has the same feelings for me, despite all my years, I take her in my arms and swear to never let go. I tell her she has danced and she has never stopped dancing and she laughs as she cries and I hold her a while longer. Her father waits for us by the car and he is still smiling, euphoric in his clever deceit. And now he applauds. “Lovers,” he says. “Make love! Be happy now. Love is happy place.”
 

Love is a happy place. It is a Hill of Crosses. A pen pal, stationary and ink. A letter. A music box. A dream that doesn’t die. A postage stamp and an airline bourbon. It is drunk optimism. A field of yellow Coreopsis and purple lilac. It is good and bad germs. A painting in a post office. A bowl of Dum-Dums free for kids. It is Lithuania. It is a battle-axe teacher, a sad book, a naked woman in black marker. It is a pink piece of paper with a name in a Valentine’s tissue box.  It is a baseball card. A lost job and a divorce. Love is a Cold War. It is Rambo. It is a crumbled wall.
 

Life takes away, but it still gives to those that receive. We have dinner and her father invites me to stay. He likes to shake my hand a lot and pat my back as often as he is able. He tells dirty jokes and then apologizes after a good laugh for being crude. He likes American baseball, he tells me, but he invites me to teach him how it goes. We have drinks in the house and out by a fire-pit and relatives come to their beautiful home and bring food and I am introduced to everyone I should know. How long, I ask a while later, may I stay. Lana smiles beautifully and her father laughs and pats my back. Best joke yet, he says. Some questions, they needn’t answers.   

 

   

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Hibiscus Row


This is a special place, my son said to me. I told him I agree. It is a beautiful and secluded cemetery. An ample place of sepulture, they said when it was consecrated. And it has become all the more glorious with age. I wonder if the architect who planned it all out knew how beautiful it would be when the trees matured over 160 years or so. I wonder if he saw it then, with the hundreds of small saplings he buried. I wonder if he could see what others could not in an age of cholera and uncertainty. They say that is what makes people brilliant, when they can see what others cannot.

The trees were planted methodically along the carefully plotted alleyways that are newly paved and perfect asphalt. Across gentle rolling hills that were once pasture. A farmer owned the land and willed it to his eccentric daughter, who later donated it to the city in 1849, the year of a terrible cholera outbreak. No one was immune to the disease that spread rampant and bodies overfilled the churchyards, crowded marketplaces, and polluted the water supply. Every one of those deaths, remembered now only as a statistic in an epidemic in a dusty history book or on a plaque, were meaningful to someone. 

It is as though the trees host the mourners, comforting them in some natural way, offering privacy and shade. To bring peace to death as ambassadors of the 19th century romanticized theory of life being seasonal, and death simply a necessary occurrence in a cyclical rebirth. Like something from a Walt Whitman poem. I wish I could think of it that way. But all I do is get sad.


I sometimes sit on a picnic and wonder of all that these old trees have seen. All them processions that have passed under them.  I wonder about the various ways the buried died, whether it was tragic or expected, murder or disease. Unnatural or natural causes. Processions of celebrities with large crowds, and common folk with small ones. Did anyone have no one? It makes me sad to think. So I clean and weed around the most neglected and modest graves more than I do the fancy ones. It is as though the trees carry all that woe in their sloped, aged backs. And somewhere, way up there where their heads are hiding atop twisted necks, they must have some pitiful-looking faces, old and furrowed as mine, with sad tear-rutted cheeks.

Their branches are like extended arms offering an embrace that is never had, but an embrace offered, nonetheless.  And in autumn, as it is now, it as though they mourn and their leaves change color and fall like tears. That slow and beautiful fall from all the way up that is as graceful as it is somber. Pirouetting like the final and tragic fall of a ballerina to the stage which is felt by the audience as she lays there in a crumple of herself until the curtain closes. I sit and watch and the thought is not lost on me, though I am old and sometimes I feel rather tired and thoughtless. I am very incapable of abstract thought so such is foreign to me and it is as though I am possessed with ideas and thoughts that are not my own. 

Most are white sycamores, some are oaks, but I don’t pretend to know them as well as an arborist would, or as well as perhaps I should after all these years in their company. My son, though, he could tell you. If he wasn’t so shy that he only speaks to me, he would tell you of all the variations and what the genus is that drops the green balls we clear from the old graves near the East Mausoleum where they put the Jews. Chestnuts, I think. Maybe horsechestnut. Or is it sweet gum? Or sugar maple? They are all old friends, though I don’t know their names.

In the beginning, I stood here where I stand now and fast-food wrappers tumbled across my feet from a nearby highway. All that separates this sacred place from that dirty and busy thoroughfare then and now is a row of thin trees and a ratty chainlink fence that is woefully insufficient. My son looked at me and I looked back at him. There is something terrible about a littered cemetery, like graffiti on a church. There were empty beer cans and paper sacks caught up in the azaleas by the Civil War veterans’ graves and their granite monument which was consecrated in 1876. And once I noticed the first, the cigarette butts seemed to multiply and desecrate this sacred ground, trespassing in blades of grass and clover like tiny paper tombstones to themselves.

We didn’t interrupt that funeral service to pick up those wrappers then. They just blew on by. But the next day we came back as volunteers to clean in honor of those who passed because it seems you should honor those who have died more so than we as humans do for each other. It is as though we forgot. There are no more glorious monuments, or hand-crafted headstones with gothic grim reapers holding hour-glasses, or angels and demons contesting a soul. Cemeteries these days are more of a nuisance to people and there are those that think we all should be reduced to a plastic box of ashes to make room for a housing development, or a golf course. I am of the opinion that once you stop paying proper respect to the dead, you can't respect the living. How many people speed by on that highway and think nothing of this cemetery or these lives. 


My son and I have been back for 53 years, every Saturday and holiday, and random weekdays when my day job gave me vacation time. I’ve spent every day of my vacation here. Walking about. Looking for trash and talking to those that time and life forgot. Now that I am retired, I am here every day. They don’t pay me, though all the groundskeepers know me and talk to me here and there. I have a key to the utility shed. I can mow if I want to, and have before until they hired a new guy or gal. I have outlasted several of them. Dozens have been fired or quit, or retired, or died over 53 years. They have all been cordial and say it is nice to see me when they do see me. Or Merry Christmas when it comes. Or goodbye when I leave. They say they appreciate the help and men like me are rare. I don’t feel rare, or special at all. I am just doing my part. A very small part. 

Sometimes, they bring fellows from prison to clean, but they don’t do so well. Some do, but most just sit in the shade, smoking cigarettes, and talking too loudly, not knowing the difference between a prison and a graveyard. They have no reverence, as though there is nothing beneath or above them. Sometimes there are Boy Scouts, or Girl Scouts, and they make me happy because they seem to bring life. My son particularly likes them. He likes to watch them play tag when they have their work done, or run up over the hills and hide and seek behind the old tombs and monuments that are colossal to a 7-year-old. He stands and silently watches them without saying a word. But though he is smiling, there is a indelible sadness in his expression. A lonely wistful kind of gaze.

Go on, I tell him. Go play. We worked enough today. But he just stands there and doesn’t respond. I pat him on the back and rub his head. I tell him I love him for the fiftieth time today and he says he loves me, too. The Scouts are leaving and the sound of their distant laughter and voices makes his ears perk up once more. But then they disappear over the ridge and he is still there with me. I know he is lonely sometimes. I know all he wants in the world is a friend and I guess I can’t be his dad and a friend, though I wish I could. He is my only friend. The only friend I want.

On a good day, we get six or seven bags. Lesser days we get three or four. Not only trash from the highway or from disrespectful visitors, but sticks from those ancient trees, sheets of sycamore molt, dead leaves, or branches that lay like dismembered arms and fingers. We take the bag to the dumpster and toss them in, which he enjoys most. He likes to watch me flip the hatch open and heave them and to hear the soft thud they make when the dumpster is empty. But I am 83 now and too old to toss garbage bags anymore. Even light ones. So I just leave them sit there for the groundskeepers on Monday.

We once rescued a raccoon from the dumpster. I don’t know how many years ago it has been now. Thirty. Forty, maybe. He was stuck in the bottom of the dumpster and could not scale up the metal walls. He was small. Not sure what they call a young raccoon, but he was more than a baby, but much less than an adult. So we built a ladder of trash bags to help him get out and the clever little fellow took to our design in an instant and scaled with great proficiency and plopped over the side and scurried away. It amused my son and me and we often talk about that raccoon with great satisfaction when something reminds us.

I tell him goodbye, see you tomorrow, and we part ways the way we have for 53 years. I go home and get the mail and there is a letter postmarked San Diego, California, U.S.A. I stare at it for a while before opening it. It says my wife has passed away and she wished to send me a letter upon her death, which is enclosed. It doesn’t say who forwarded it to me. It isn’t signed. I wonder if the person read it before they sent it, or if they didn’t even care to. They just owed her a favor. I put the letter in my pocket and didn’t read it. Maybe I will read it with my son tomorrow. I will have to tell him his mother died, but I don’t know how I will say something like that. 

An acre of wildflowers bloom on the south lawn, which may be the most beautiful part of the cemetery. There are twenty-seven different monuments, five mausoleums, and everyone who is buried here, despite their various statuses in life, are entirely equal and happy now. There is a Supreme Court justice, three governors, two senators, a world-renowned actress, a ballerina who danced on Broadway in the twenties, dozens of doctors, lawyers, scientists, over a dozen Civil War veterans, over 115 vets in all, a notorious spy, and an escaped slave who made it as far as Ohio to fall at the gates of his eternal freedom. There is only a simple marker for him, but simplicity certainly doesn’t besmirch the character of the deceased, nor does it tell a lesser tale. His name is Sampson and I spend a lot of time with him. 

Some days it rains, and some days it is clear and beautiful and the sunshine will break through the green leaves and descend like the light of heaven in a prism of stairs. The birds are pleasant and sing like I imagine the angels will, if I am so blessed. We are at peace here. There is something so tranquil about being here, I don’t ever expect to be able to describe it to anyone rightly, so I don’t even try. I am just here. Same as the trees. If there is a more perfect place, I don’t know it. Certainly, it is not San Diego.

We clean up in the fall and winter. In rain and snow. My son doesn’t ever complain, nor do I. It’s volunteer work. If I didn’t like it, I would go home. The cemetery association offered me a plaque a dozen years ago for so many years of service. But I declined it. Just as I declined their offer of pay.  The Dispatch did a story about me years ago, and I stopped cleaning long enough to have my picture took. I even smiled. They say when I pass they will give me a free plot, but I already have one. I remind them it is plot 61 on Hibiscus Row. I planted a red hibiscus bush between my plot and plot 60. It is a beautiful bush. The only thing lacking on my stone is the year it shall come. My name is there. My date of birth. And the simple inscription I requested, “Father.” They say they will erect a statue of me with my trash stick and a trash bag, wearing my Yankees hat. I told them not to forget about my son, if they do. It wasn’t just me. That’s right, they say. It wasn’t just you.

My son and I have a picnic every day after we clean. If it rains, there are shelter houses. If it is cold, there are mausoleums. I eat and he sits there looking at the trees, or the birds, and he smiles and tries to mimic the birds' whistle and laughs which makes me laugh. He doesn’t laugh as much as he giggles. He is a beautiful boy. I have a picture I show whenever someone stops to talk to me. Whenever he runs off and I can’t introduce him in person.

The traffic on the highway seems to have gotten louder over the past several years. I tell them they need to put up a better fence and they tell me that they are working on it. The company has to allocate funds and this and that. The board of trustees have to approve it. I said to hell with it and bought the lumber myself, loaded it up in my truck, and now here I am, 83-years-old, working on a 100-yard-long privacy fence. My son helps me level the posts and carry some of the wood from the truck, but mostly he just sits there and tells me about the people in the cemetery or something new that he knows. He knows more than I ever hoped to know. He is one of those brilliant types who can see things before they are. He told me how perfect the fence will be with gothic-style posts and hickory stain. I am someone who sees things only as they were.

The head groundskeeper begrudgingly tells me I need a permit for the fence due to a city ordnance and again that the board of trustees needs to approve it. But I keep on going. When they realize I am not going to stop, they must have said to hell with it, too, because two or three of their guys help me out by tearing down the old chainlink fence and putting up this new one. The head groundskeeper said the fence is very generous contribution, after all. He is half my age. He has a pretty wife that brings us lemonade and I make them laugh when I said thank you, but I wish they were beers.

You got a son, do you? Yeah, I tell him. He is here helping out. Couldn’t have done it without him. He’s shy. Probably went back to cleaning up trash. He shakes his head the way people do when they feel sorry for you because you’re old and they don’t expect you to live much longer. The way they do at the hospital or at the old folk’s home where I visit friends. When I come in and they have to tell me my friend has passed, as though “passed” is a better word for died. 

You married? he asks me. It’s a hot autumn day. Sweat drips into my eyes and they begin to sting. I pull my hat down to block the sun so I can see to nail the boards to the crossbeams. Old-fashioned hammer and nails. The bones of the fence are in place. The digging is done and the posts are all set in their concrete tombs. All that’s left is the easy work. Just a matter of putting a face on her. It’s sure a beautiful fence, he says, you a carpenter?

My wife left me because she said I cried too much and I made her sad. It was years ago. 51 years ago, if I am doing the math right. I don’t know exactly, anymore. I look around for my son. The cars pass indifferently down the highway a hundred feet away. The chainlink fence is gone and is rolled up in bundles to be picked up when they pull their truck around. The cars speed by and the wind they make blows things our way. Sometimes they get caught in a whirlwind for a while as though they are confused. I watch them paper sacks and cups blow and wonder where they’ll settle.  It’s sure a pretty fence. His wife said it would look nice with flowers along it. She offers to plant them in the spring and asks me what kind do I think would be nice and I tell her red hibiscuses. She smiles and says they are her favorite flower.

My wife sold what little bit of things she had and packed a few bags and bought a bus ticket to San Diego. There was no changing her mind then. I can’t say I blame her for leaving. I thought of leaving, too. But I had our son, and cleaning this cemetery with him every Saturday and holidays, and our picnics became too important to me to leave. I couldn’t just leave him. You understand, don’t you? Sure, the head groundskeeper says. I do.

I have outlived many of you, I tell him with a smile. There’ve been at least seven head groundskeepers, I remember. Two of them died. Three more quit or were fired. Two more retired. I got pretty friendly with them over the years. All the groundskeepers, really. Never knew a bad one. He smiles. He says something nice to me and I pretend I don’t hear him because in all my life I have never been comfortable when someone says something nice to me. Like putting on a wool suit. I stop hammering long enough to look for my son, but I don’t see him, so I go on in hopes to finish by dark and tell him goodbye before I leave. I hadn’t told him about his mother. I read her letter in my head. I have it memorized.

Dear Jim,
 

Not a day has passed that I have not thought of you. I stand and watch the waves come in and the sunrise and the sunset, up and down, and think how wonderful it would’ve been if you could’ve been here with me. Barefoot in this sand. Watching these waves. After all these years, I still think so. I expected you to come for a few years. One day, maybe when you got tired I thought a bus would pull up and there you’d be. It’s why I told you where I was going. Why I told my sister if you asked to give you my address in a not so conspicuous way. I thought you would come. I called probably a few dozen times, but you never answered and I never left a message. I thought maybe you’d come when you missed me enough to. I knew you wouldn't fly.
 

I never could rightly explain why I left all those years ago. 51 years this June 7. I left because I love you. And because you look just like him. Even now, I can’t write his name. I guess I didn’t know where one of you ended and the other one began. He has become “him” because I am too weak and sad to write his name because with a name comes a face and with a face a time in the bath, or a first word, or a supper, a birthday, or a bicycle ride.
 

Funerals are meant to bury the dead. To pass them on to eternal peace and to our Lord. They are meant for closure for those of us left behind to grieve and go on. And the only thing that should live on after them are the good memories. We had seven and a half good years with our son and there are many good memories for which I am forever grateful. I never moved on with anyone else, if that matters at all to you. Not one night. I suppose I died with him. And with you.
 

I know you go to the cemetery. Evelyn says you practically live there. She sent me the newspaper clipping. When I saw you and your smile, I cried. There was so much pain in it. These waves lap the shore like memories assail the mind. Then they go out again. But they always come back. The ebb and flow of nature and my regret. Funerals are meant to bury the dead, Jim. Please bury him. Let him go and find peace. I don’t know what is ahead for me, but I am sorry I left you. I wish I had stayed. And I am sorry you didn’t come to San Diego. A thousand of these letters I wrote and never sent. This is the last one, I am sure. Someone said to me that San Diego is Heaven on Earth. I hope to see you in either place in time. Please come.
 

Yours,
Ella




A Boy Scout troop came to help with the fence the next day. A lumber supplier gave us the rest of the lumber to finish it, at the request of the head groundskeeper’s wife. I was well short on supplies and wood stain and the head groundskeeper thought it would be a good idea to go 100 yards further while we were at it. I didn’t see my son for several days. I excused it to him being shy, but I knew he was probably watching us finish the fence from the grove of pines by the memorial garden. Or from behind a monument. Or on Hibiscus Row, where he sits Indian style sometimes. Or maybe he was off playing hide and seek, giggling with some of those boys. That is what I like to think. When I saw him again a few days later, I didn’t have the heart to tell him about his mother passing. We had our usual picnic and I said I loved him and would see him tomorrow. And he said he loves me, too. I can’t leave him alone. 



 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Cataclysmic Engine Failure



It sounds a little drastic, if you ask me. Two bells chime and the pilot comes on the overhead and declares he is doing all he can. Three stewardesses with panic in their eyes are in the aisle holding inflatable devices and oxygen masks and flailing their arms and hands about as calmly as possible. This just might save your life, I hear one shout at a dazed passenger. Looking out my window, I have a clear view of the problem. The left engine is on fire and is streaming black clouds that look like ribbons. Ribbons I don’t recall from where, but ribbons, nonetheless, that I recall. The pilot says again to stay calm, he is doing everything he can, which I know to mean we are in deep shit because he said it twice. Had he just said it once, I may have thought that everything was going to be okay.

 
There's not much he can do over the Pacific. Let’s not shit ourselves here, I say to myself. Ourselves had become another variant pronoun for myself several years ago and I converse with both in inner-dialogues regularly. There is no airport the pilot can contact, no emergency landing he can make that would result in anything but a near-certain catastrophic loss of life. 85-100%, if you were paying me to assess the risk, calculating speed and mass and the probability that the plane would explode upon impact, and a rescue crew that would not come for several hours, at the earliest, sharks, of course, malfunctioning inflatable devices, and the probability of panic-induced drowning.

 
I am an actuary, so it is my business to assess risk. If I knew why the plane was in flames, I would assess the risk in incurring the cost of recalling the model versus the possible payout of future lawsuits resulting from the risk of other planes malfunctioning similarly. Until this plane goes down, and I am smithereens, I am assessing various other risks, trying my best not to be a self-absorbed hyperventilating asshole the way people get when they don't think it is their turn to die. 


My hand is penning these words. I don’t know why I am writing. I guess because I really have no one to call, but even if I did, I wouldn’t want them to hear it this way. To be scared while it happened to me, and be tortured as the plane plummets, if they ever cared for me at all. Or maybe I don’t call because I am afraid they will not answer and I will be stuck leaving a voicemail, saying something of an I love you and a goodbye. How do you apologize to a machine for being absent? Why call now after not calling for several years? Truthfully, I don’t like the sound of my voice on voicemail and I tell myself that isn’t how I sound at all. And I am afraid that if I record something I don’t like, some proper farewell, I will not have the chance to re-record the message. Now seems like the perfect time for the truth.


It isn’t like anyone will recover this journal amongst the millions of shreds that will become of this plane and its animate and inanimate contents. Of legs and arms and heads and blood and gasoline and underwear and luggage that will be scattered all over the seabed after briefly floating there. An Easter egg hunt, of sorts, for a black box by a multinational search effort that makes everyone feel good about the future of the world. Japanese patrol boats, and U.S. Navy destroyers, and Chinese military submarines, all in one harmonious effort to find me, or him, or her. One of those search parties all over CNN with dramatic intros before and after commercial breaks for prescription medications, new cars, soap, low-fat yogurt, and house paint. One of those search parties that go out to find the remains of us as though it means something to find what’s left. What does it matter?


Long ago, it is certain, I suffered cataclysmic engine failure and I became a ginger-ale and bourbon on the redeye to Dallas, or London-Heathrow. I lost myself years ago over an ocean such as this flying to Tokyo, to Beijing, or Calcutta. In an ice-cube that dissolved in the bottom of a plastic cup and diluted what was left of the liquor. In the crumbled-up wrapper of a pack of honey-roasted peanuts, tossed away without a thought. On a cocktail napkin with a lonely ring on it. I am all that which is hardly noticed by anyone, including myself. 

It is as though I am invisible, except to those who want a tip. I stopped putting my tray-table in the upright position long ago. I never fasten my seatbelt, nor do I ever switch my cellphone to airplane mode. At some point, I stopped smiling at children, or saying excuse me and thank you to stewardesses and waiters, and I never make it as easy as I can on TSA through the gates. They have to tell me every time to take off my shoes and belt. I no longer have a name. They just call me sir. Or A27, or B16, whatever my boarding pass number happens to be on this flight or the last.


The journal was an anonymous gift that came in the mail last Christmas, which I have not used before now. I don’t know who sent it, or why, but I assume they don’t know me very well. In gold letters on the front it says, Know Thyself. Sometimes I stare at those letters and think absently of the meaning of life. I am not one to write my thoughts, but I know myself just fine. It sunk to the bottom of my carry-on where it was buried under the usual white t-shirts, a cashmere sweater, a neck pillow, deodorant, a toothbrush, and a book about vampires I have carried for two years, but have never read. It is a nice journal. Italian leather-bound with gold-trimmed pages. They said it was the kind Hemingway and Picasso used. A Moleskine, they call it. I don’t know what or who Moleskine is. They is a generalized pronoun I use so to be vague because in ambiguity and anonymity, I find peace. When you don’t personalize anything, or talk to anyone unnecessarily, no one can have you by the throat.


The pilot comes back on and says little more than that conditions haven’t changed and there is little hope of anything else. He said he is going to attempt an emergency landing. He says something about prayers and cabin pressure. The oxygen masks are down and dangling there like clear-plastic spiders on a string of web, and though people don’t need them yet, they push their faces into them as though air will save them, while I write these lines. I drink a Seagram’s ginger-ale and Wild Turkey bourbon. My third. I ask the stewardess for another and she looks at me incredulously as though I said something vulgar to her.


She says three is the limit and that it is airline policy. I ask if that maybe, since we are all going to die, they might make an exception. Just this once. She huffs and walks off to try to calm some heavyset woman who is bawling hysterically and some screaming baby three rows in front of me. What does that baby know about life and death and cataclysmic engine failure? He knows his mother is hysterical and therefore he is hysterical. Give him a drink. A gin and tonic on my cash-reward credit card.

 
It amazes me the people who crowd me to see the engine burn and stream those pretty black ribbons out my window. As though they are trying to diagnose the problem and might scale out on the wing like Bruce Willis and fix it and save themselves. They have no faith in the pilot’s honesty. Maybe he is saying it is worse than what it is, they think. It isn’t about anyone else to them. It is about themselves and their lives. What they have to do. Their work. Their house and mortgage. They give no thought of their life insurance payout to their wives, husbands, or kids at home, which is double, maybe even triple, depending upon the policy and if this is a business trip or not.


The stewardesses tell them to go back to their seats and prepare for landing. They shove their faces in those oxygen masks again so they don’t hyperventilate or drown like virgin snorkelers. Little do they know their chances of survival is next to nothing on the risk of impact alone. A few go ahead and activate their inflatable vests and it looks as though they are choking to death, which makes me laugh a little and think of Kobashi's Python Sleeper-Hold.


I stare at the old lady’s head in front of me and I think of the Enola Gay and how my fourth grade teacher told me I should be happy we dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. Then the thought evaporates. The lady’s gray perm looks like a mushroom cloud. This flight was scheduled to land in Tokyo at 8:10pm this evening. My hotel is waiting. The same room. They are all the same. even when they are different. The same cabbies are lined up in small Toyotas in the curb lane at the airport, smoking cigarettes in their cabs. I always wonder why they don’t get out and smoke. Why they just sit in there.


It is the same hotel I always stay at in Tokyo. Same bed. Same sheets and tiny white soap wrapped in thick gray paper. Same cocktails in the room refrigerator. Same TV and channels. Same Japanese amateur daredevils on TV on balance beams and rope ladders, falling on their faces, or into water until I am tired enough to go to sleep. Same Japanese restaurants at the hotel. Same waiters and waitresses and cooks who look out the corner of their eyes at you from a kitchen window as you wait to be seated. When I get drunk, I will start calling everyone Kobashi in an affectionate way, the way some people back home call others champ or buddy because Kenta Kobashi is my favorite wrestler. No one in America knows who the hell he is. It is only when I get drunk in Japanese bars that I can rave about my hero and his sundry moves that set him apart from all other wrestlers, including Tiger Mask II, or Misawi. I never met him, but I wish I could have. Too late now.


There is a black box in the cockpit or somewhere that is being filled with words. The last words of the pilot. His communication with air traffic control, or airline executives, is being recorded to help figure out why this is happening and to hopefully successfully make a case against the plane’s manufacturer and to absolve the airline of any wrongdoing and any culpability in a surely forthcoming class-action lawsuit. Hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line. It is the kind of thing that can bankrupt an airline and make any executive lose his house in Lake Tahoe.
 
 
Of all the words the pilot ever said, these are the words they will play in court over and over. Of all his I love yous, and hellos, and goodbyes, and the beautiful things he ever said to anyone about anything, he goes out speaking grim pilot jargon and answering technical questions which he knows why they are asking him. To save their asses because it is about them and the company. I bet he talked about cataclysmic engine failure, loss of cabin pressure, emergency landings, dumping fuel to reduce the risk of explosion upon impact, and his, rather, our coordinates. The longitude and latitude of us. He probably will not say anything to his wife and kids, but maybe I’m all wrong. Maybe he is saying everything he forgot or didn’t have time to tell them.


I think of the song “Major Tom.” I name the pilot Tom, though I never met him. Tell my wife I love her very much. She knows. Ground control to Major Tom, your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong. Can you hear me, Major Tom? Can you hear me, Major Tom? I start to sing it until I see the stewardess and I ask her again about my drink. Mr. Ginger Turkey, she probably calls me to the other stewardesses. For godssake, I say. My goddamn drink. Please. She has the audacity to tell me to stay calm and I think about using one of Kobashi’s moves on her. A dragon suplex. The Burning Hammer. The Moonsault. The Brainbuster. The Black Crush. Or my favorite, The Kobashi DDT. Any one of them would learn her to refuse a man his drink. She glares at me. Now that everyone is sitting down, she has no excuse besides airline policy and I say to hell with it and to hell with her.

 
The plane loses altitude and there is a chorus of screams. He dumped the fuel. We are now just a few hundred feet above sea level and it seems as though the plane could tilt its wing and skim the ocean like a mother does a child’s bathwater to see if it is too hot or cold. And then I think how a plane carried an atomic bomb named Little Boy over Nagasaki and dropped it on women and children. And how years later, teachers would be telling confused children it was a good thing they did. It makes me incredibly sad. They desensitized me at a young age and I wonder if I ever had a chance. It’s part of the program. The sociology of education.


I wish again, for some reason, to see the American Midwest, knowing I will never get the chance. Those boring flights from CMH to LAX, or LAX to CMH, and that patchwork quilt of browns and greens spread across the bed of Earth for an eternity it seems when you’re above them. They never seem to move for hours, then suddenly they are gobbled up by the Rockies. It’s been a long time since I saw or thought of them. Or of the dirt roads and the wire-and-post fences. Of wheat and corn and combines and cattle and county fairs. 

For some reason, it would be more comforting to me if we went down there, and maybe the small town nearest the place we all died would have a fish fry, or a bingo tournament, to pay for a small monument that might sit in the middle of the cornfield where we all were scattered and scorched into the soil. And there on that monument would be the baby’s name, the stewardesses’ names, Major Tom’s name, and my name, hopefully, somewhere near the bottom. And maybe someone, sometime, would bother to read it. To come see it. To look around the cornfield and imagine something grand, like I had become the Earth.


They don’t put markers in the Pacific, and likely not even the sharks will care much for what little of me is left in a gas and debris-filled pocket of dark-blue lifeless sea. But some smaller fish will nibble my corpse and I will become them and they will become the sharks. And I think how odd it is that I wanted to be anonymous in life, but remembered in death. And I wonder if I really know myself at all. I am happy for the old couple behind me who are holding hands and praying to God for not themselves, but for their grandchildren. It isn’t everyone who gets to go out that way. Or to simply go out of this life content, happy and in love.


The pilot comes on the overhead and says prepare for the emergency landing and the stewardess, who reminded me earlier they have been called “flight attendants” since around 1985 by some official decree, pushes forward a service cart and stops at my seat. She has lost her mind, apparently, because other stewardesses follow her and implore her to go back and strap in. But she has four little bottles of Wild Turkey, two cans of Seagram’s ginger-ale, and four cups of ice with red sword stirs poking up out of them. And as they try to reason with her, she calmly opens the first can of ginger-ale and pours half a cup and then opens the bourbon and fills the rest. She gives it a good stir. Her eyes are wide-open and she smiles as she gives me the drink. I thank her and hand her a nice tip, but she says airline policy forbids her from accepting tips so I put it back in my pocket. She laughs. Deranged.


She leaves the cart there and is pulled back to the front of the cabin to strap herself in as the plane begins to gyrate and howl. I snatch the other three bottles of Turkey and put them in my suitcoat pockets just as the plane plunges and the cart rolls away on its own as though to chase after her. The mother screams and the baby cries and I can’t hear anyone else because the noise gets so deafening it is almost completely silent. The plane engine roars and hisses and the water seems to rise as the engine spits more violent flames to my left.


Then there is no sound. Everything is still and I think of those ribbons of smoke that have become streaming banners and they take me back. I help my wife lace up the back of her black dress. She is wearing black stockings and shoes. Her hair is curled and from the curls fall those black ribbons and I stare at them as she waits for me to finish lacing up her dress. She turns and smiles at me and her eyes are like the ice in the bourbon when there is more bourbon than there is ginger-ale. A short time later, we sit at the funeral and she reaches over and holds my hand and I don’t know how many years ago that was, but it is all I have left. And I say goodbye to her again, though I never really said it before.


The plane lands in Tokyo. I am sick, my legs are weak, and I am drenched in sweat. The stewardess grins at me as I leave the plane. It is a loathsome grin. One that is rife with sarcasm and indignity. I don’t know if I dreamt what I frantically wrote, or if I am dead and the airport is some sort of afterlife. God plays cruel jokes, I know well. I imagine what it must have been like for the people who survived Nagasaki to read about what the Americans had named the bombs that melted their grandparents and grandchildren to the earth. That destroyed everything they knew. I pass the pilot and he smiles as though nothing happened at all and tells me to enjoy Tokyo and to fly with them again soon. His name tag reads Tom. Of all the names under the sun. His is Tom.


The airport is as I remember it. The cabbies are having their smokes in their small Toyotas in the curb lane and waiting for tourists to spill out the way fishermen wait for nets to fill with fish. I stop and look over at the bar where I usually have a drink before I get a cab and there stands Kenta Kobashi, my hero, with only a few people around him. He is wearing black sunglasses, a black suitcoat and jeans. I want to ask him for his autograph and a picture and if I can buy him a drink, but I don’t. I just look at him the way I look at the baggage carousel. Then I puke in the airport bathroom and wash my face and neck in the sink and collect my scattered thoughts in the mirror the way they might have collected our scattered parts in the ocean. I walk out and hop in a cab that stinks of cigarettes and go to the hotel where I shower and sit at the side of my bed with the phone in my hands thinking if I should call her and tell her about my flight. I wonder if she still wears black ribbons and how she knew me so well to send me a journal.

 
There are three bottles of Wild Turkey in my suitcoat pocket which I put on the nightstand along with the phone I don't use. There is more ginger-ale and Wild Turkey in the little refrigerator and I make myself a few drinks and drink until the emotions of the flight wash away and I feel tired. Then I lay down and Kobashi does dragon suplexes on the ceiling until I fall asleep.